The Tree of Life (2011)
139 min., rated PG-13.
In a filmmaking career spanning across nearly four decades, Terrence Malick has only directed five feature films. The enigmatic filmmaker clearly takes his time in developing his next project, and his fifth, "The Tree of Life," is Malick's most long-awaited. Famously protective of his private life, Malick is so reclusive that his producers accepted the Palme d'Or on his behalf at this year's Cannes Film Festival for this film. Like any piece of art, "The Tree of Life" seems to be such a personal and deeply felt piece of work that it was made more for the filmmaker himself than for an audience. A film should be judged on subjective opinion, not always the filmmaker's intentions. But (and it's a big 'but') "The Tree of Life" is ambitious, challenging, confounding, visually alluring, and pretentious. It will polarize, it will confuse, and it will frustrate. Warts and all, Malick's cinematic tone poem is breathtakingly beautiful and poetic.
A narrative synopsis will not even scratch the surface of what "The Tree of Life" is really about. At its core is the O'Brien family living in suburban Texas during the 1950s. After a quote from the Book of Job, Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive devastating news that their 19-year-old middle son was killed. "Lord, why? Where were you?" pleads the mother as she's thrown into turmoil. In the present day, the O'Brien's eldest child, Jack (Sean Penn), is an architect living in the big city of Houston, but thinks about his brother's death every day. Malick then takes us back to the dawn of time, treating us to a formation of the universe, and back to the O'Brien couple as they give birth to Jack and, later, his two brothers. The film captures the getting-into-mischief boyhood of Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan) and their conflicting paths of grace (their mother) and nature (their father). Mrs. O'Brien doesn't really stand up to her husband when he loses his temper, but she allows freedom and only wants happiness for her three boys. Working a corporate engineering job but with a passion for music, Mr. O'Brien sees the world as corrupt, so his strict discipline is only to prepare them for their future. Jack comes to loathe his father, who has each of his sons practice punching with him. When Father goes on a business trip, Jack experiences rebellion, like strapping a frog to a small rocket and trespassing through a neighbor's house.
As the mother, Chastain is luminous and lovely, like a nurturing angel with a playful nature and a true sense of grace. Balancing her out is a commanding Pitt, who alternates between disciplinary and affectionate as the tough-love father. He's an S.O.B. who's toughest on Jack probably because he sees a bit of himself in him. McCracken makes a very strong feature debut as the younger Jack, who even admits to having a side of his father in himself, and there's a nice contrast with Eppler's R.L. who looks like a real-life product of Pitt.
As an ode to creation, death, and the meaning of life, Malick's storytelling is loose, nonlinear, and scant on dialogue (mostly whispered voice-overs) or actual story. Stunningly photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, the camera roves around the yard as the children play, in and out of the house, and down school hallways. Early on, we see the beautiful baby feet of Jack being tickled by Father, and then Mother rinsing her feet in the sprinklers. Such images evoke the first sights and sounds of one's childhood. Douglas Trumbull, hired for Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," contributed to the organic effects work. And Alexandre Desplat's grand, portentous score is a symphonic poem itself, using orchestral samplings from Bach, Mahler, and Brahms.
What is the meaning of it all? Malick leaves it up to each viewer's experience and interpretation. The languid, impressionistic visuals—birth of the cosmos, protozoa, volcanic eruptions, and dinosaurs—are visionary and awe-inspiring, but these passages never quite connect to the magnitude of the story. Neither do the bookending sequences with Penn, whose already-brief screen time was shaved in the final cut. This brings us to the ending, the brunt of Malick's pretensions but still thought-provoking. Jack sees his family as they were in the '50s, including himself as a teenager, and everyone in his own memory on a sandbar in what seems to be the afterlife.
Visually, the film is exquisite to look at, but thematically, Malick does overreach a smidge. For those that aren't afraid to think and have a celestial slideshow wash over them, "The Tree of Life" will elicit more ambivalent feelings than just a dumbfounded "Huh?" Even if it doesn't completely cohere, there are real ideas at work here and bold ambition in the filmmaking, something lacking in most Hollywood fare.
105 min., rated R.
Grade: B +
Experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs' son, writer-director Azazel Jacobs, has arrived on the feature side of film with 2008's "Momma's Men." Jacobs impressively follows it up with the indie "Terri," a quiet, slow, observant ode to adolescent loneliness. Newcomer Jacob Wysocki plays the title role of Terri Thompson, a sad, overweight 15-year-old outcast who doesn't do much to show that it bothers him.
In the absence of his parents, he takes care of his over-medicated Uncle James (Creed Bratton), he likes eating beans on toast, and his only chore at home is to set up mouse traps in the attic (which he becomes fascinated with and continues in the woods). Being the butt of his peers' jokes, wearing pajamas to school and being chronically tardy every day, Terri gets called down to the principal's office of Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), a garrulous goofball that takes notice of him. When Mr. Fitzgerald calls him one of the "good-hearted" kids and schedules a weekly morning meeting to just talk, Terri feels betrayed that he's lumped with the other social rejects (one with Down Syndrome, another in a wheelchair, etc.). Meanwhile, Terri undergoes a sexual awakening with Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), his crush who becomes a pariah after she participates in a public sexual act with the class jerk, and he saves her from expulsion. Terri and Mr. Fitzgerald gradually build a mutual respect, and he forms a friendship with another misfit, wiry, hair-pulling troublemaker Chad (Bridger Zadina). Everyone is solitary and needy in their own way, which might be a normal, universal feeling.
Writer-director Jacobs may lead you down familiar beats of a coming-of-age tale, with some comparison to 1995's "Angus," but "Terri" unfolds with compassion and a verisimilitude that's rare to find in this type of film. It's sometimes amusing too, but not in an arbitrary way; every moment comes from a human place. Wysocki, in his first feature film, is a natural as our physically lumbering, unself-conscious protagonist and never skips a truthful beat in Patrick deWitt's script that never mocks Terri. Reilly and all of the other little-known performers find nuance and an original quality in their characters. A scene, where Heather, Chad, and Terri experiment with liquor and pills and lose their inhibitions, captures clumsy teenagehood with uncomfortable honesty and tension. And we believe it.
The film might not address why Terri lives with his uncle and detail where his parents went, or delve into Mr. Fitzgerald's rocky marriage that's sketchily mentioned, but these aren't important points. Jacobs isn't worried about loose ends or much narrative momentum either; it's his observational style and the actors' naturalism that makes the film a slice-of-life. Blessedly uncommercial as it is, "Terri" is modest and wise without being a didactic lesson.
The Trip (2011)
107 min., not rated.
Grade: B -
Full of wine, scallops, and very British ribbing, "The Trip" is a trimmed-down feature film of the BBC TV series. It's largely improvised by British comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon who are playing funny and probably more talkative versions of themselves. Two sharp wits traveling, eating, and talking a lot doesn't sound like much, or the least exciting. But if two actors were to go on a road trip and keep the cameras rolling like a fly on the wall, it might as well be Coogan and Brydon. Coogan gets ready to accompany his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) on an assignment for The Observer to tour the north countryside of England, staying at cozy inns and eating at the finest, most pretentious restaurants. When she bails on him to take a break from their relationship in America, Coogan calls up colleague Brydon as his last resort when everyone else is "too busy." Brydon says goodbye to his wife and baby daughter and the pair sets off, trading impersonations, bickering, and doing a lot of eating.
Director Michael Winterbottom not only makes a travelogue, a mockumentary, and a road comedy, but a midlife-crisis drama as well. Reprising their teaming in Winterbottom's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" (2005), Coogan and Brydon are fun to watch. Their dueling impressions of Michael Caine, Al Pacino, and Sean Connery are hilarious, as is Steve's fake eulogy for Rob at Bolton Abbey and Rob's amazing "small man trapped in a box" voice. The quips just keep on coming as do the perfectly presented plates of lamb and chocolate desserts: Rob comments on his alcoholic martini tasting like a "childhood garden." The funniest bit has Steve trying, without being too rude, to walk away from an informative backpacker who's chattier than himself when it comes to the types of rocks on a cliff. Ben Stiller even makes an amusing cameo in a dream sequence, praising Steve for being wanted by all the filmmaking brothers (the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Farrellys, etc.). Once their trip is over and both men return to their respective homes, the contrast is there and it's surprisingly moving. Coogan, practically single and alone at forty-four years of age, still cavorts with women at each inn they stay and still desires to be a serious working actor (like Michael Sheen, as the two discuss). He's also constantly on the phone with his Hollywood agent and quasi-girlfriend, and in one call, his teenage son. Brydon may just have a mouth full of impressions going for him, but he's happy and content at home with his loving family.
Draggy and repetitive in places, "The Trip" might've been snappier in its thirty-minute slot for six episodes. But it's a pleasant trifle that tastes as good as the food looks, even if sometimes you want to seal the two leads' Chatty Cathy mouths shut.
Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer (2011)
91 min., rated PG.
"Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer" has to be the zany, overcaffeinated sister to last year's charming "Ramona and Beezus" or even the likable "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" flicks with ADHD. Brightly colored as a box of crayons and cotton candy machine exploding all over the set, it's too bouncy and mega-energetic to be a complete bummer. But frenetic and in need of Ritalin are not the same as being silly and fun.
Judy Moody (Jordana Beatty) has just graduated from the third grade and is all in a tizzy about having "a mega-rare, not bummer summer" vacation. Planning a summer of one-hundred thrills, she's psyched to share it with her closest friends, Rocky (Garrett Ryan) and Amy (Taylar Hender). But Judy's plans are thwarted when Rocky goes to circus camp and Amy to Borneo, leaving her with the less-cool Frank (Preston Bailey). Then she really gets into a mood when her parents inform her that they're taking a trip to California, leaving Judy and her younger brother, Stink (Parris Mosteller), alone with their father's sister, Aunt Opal (Heather Graham), whom they haven't met yet. With her aunt turning out to be a fun, creative guerilla artist, Judy thinks up the idea of earning "thrill points" in a dare race against Rocky and Amy. While her friends are tightroping and swimming with sharks, Judy and Frank dare to go on a roller coaster, surf, and endure a creature double feature.
Based on the "Judy Moody" book series by Megan McDonald, the screenplay by McDonald and Kathy Waugh has no real conflict, except the episodic throughline of Judy earning thrill points, a mystery involving teacher Mr. Todd's (Jaleel "Urkel" White) "cold" summer vacation, and a Big Foot subplot. Director John Schultz makes sure wee little kids won't be bored with cartoon sound effects of bellies rumbling and ketchup bottles squirting, subtitle sing alongs, and animated daydream interludes. In her first major feature role, Australian native Beatty is adorable and enthusiastic as Judy Moody, a free-spirited moppet with a mop of red bed head. And that's good because most would see Judy as a selfish brat when she doesn't get her way. Graham surprisingly doesn't mug her life away as Aunt Opal and gives it her all. She's wacky enough, a dippy bohemian that makes messy art projects in the living room and serves tangerine fondue with hot dogs and Fruit Loops for dessert. Opal hasn't driven in ten years either since her travels to Bali and such, so cue the irresponsible driving hijinks! And the blue Sno-Cone barf and "scat on a sandwich" gags!
With "supermegatotally thrilladelic" as its tagline, this spastic Pippi Longstocking-esque recess is clearly trying too hard but just goes splat. Like Judy herself, "Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer" is all over the place and should get its "thrill points" deducted.