Saturday, June 11, 2011

Film Reviews: The Tree of Life, The Hangover Part II, and X-Men: First Class

The Tree of Life

Wow, where to begin with this one? I have the strong suspicion that over the next few months and years many critics much more insightful and articulate than I will be writing about this film, and I feel almost presumptuous talking about it. And yet, here I go.

The closest cinematic comparison I can come up with for this movie is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both movies are much more about esoteric meaning and a sort of visual poetry than story, and it makes summarizing the story something of a tilt at a windmill. The primary branch of The Tree of Life tells the tale of the O’Briens, a family in Waco, Texas during the 1950s. The film follows the oldest of three sons, Jack, and his childhood, spending a good chunk of time when Jack is right on the cusp of manhood, at around twelve years of age. Again, there isn’t really much of a plot; the movie chronicles the dynamics of family (Mr. O’Brien played by Brad Pitt, his wife by Jessica Chastain) and the experiences of growing up.

Of course, this is a Terrence Malick movie so there is a lot more going on than that. For one, the movie intercuts short segments of Jack as an adult (played by Sean Penn), working as a very successful architect. But even more notably, Malick connects the story of life in 50’s Waco to the story of life on a more universal scale. A substantial portion of the movie is devoted to the origin of life in the universe—and of the universe itself—including (and I swear I’m not making this up) a few minutes with dinosaurs. It actually reminded me a little of the Rite of Spring segment (my favorite) in Fantasia. The Tree of Life uses the entire universe, past and present, as its canvas. To call it ambitious would be an understatement. But does it work?

Well, The Tree of Life will not, I suspect, be universally embraced. It isn’t exactly easy to access or digest. But that said, I absolutely loved this movie. I freely admit I’m a sucker for broadly painted examinations of life in movies—movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2001, Forrest Gump, and arguably even The Shawshank Redemption all fall into this little niche, and they are all some of my favorite films. Throw in the astronomy angle and it would have taken quite a bit to totally lose me. And sure enough, I thought it was fantastic. But I think I won’t be alone.

For one, The Tree of Life is incredibly unique—look over the description above and try to think of anything even remotely similar. I can’t. The movie is layered with meaning so deeply that no two people are likely to come away with the same interpretation of what exactly it all means. Malick lays out none of it explicitly—indeed, the exposition in this movie is virtually nil; even basic facts like the time period (much less the deeper questions) must mostly be inferred. There are themes of spirituality and nature, of life and death and what they all mean in the context of each other. The Tree of Life raises all sorts of existential questions, and whether or not you think Malick answers them—or if they even can be answered—will depend entirely on the viewer.

Malice’s use of visual imagery is similarly illusive. Relatively pedestrian scenes of children playing might be intercut with shots of a wave, or a lingering shot of trees. But although the meaning the images may be up for interpretation, the skill involved in shooting and putting them together is not. Malick manages to turn even the most low-key and pedestrian scene into something visually interesting, and when he ventures further afield the results can be absolutely breathtaking. He also uses his score masterfully, mixing soaring operatic pieces and long periods of total silence to impressive effect. The movie apparently took some three years to shoot, edit, and score, and this dedication shines through just about every frame. Watching this movie on the big screen is simply stunning.

One complaint though, and the one thing that makes me hesitate just a moment before declaring this to be a all-time great film. Although in general the portion of the film that follows Jack and his family is as engrossing as anything else in the film, Malick probably spent a little too long on the section. Adolescent Jack (his exact age, and how much time passes during the segment, are both not completely known) and his family present a rich and interesting story, and the section isn’t too long in and of itself; I was never even close to bored, even though there was little narrative advancement and dialogue was scarce (Malick prefers to let his characters interact with each other and the world through sight and action rather than words, when possible). But the film—which clocks in at just under 140 minutes—casts too wide a net in the universe to spend the time it does (I’d guess something on the order of 70-80 minutes) in Waco. It undercuts the movie’s scope—not by much, but enough to just barely preventing me from completely falling in love with this movie.

Even so, this is a transcendent movie, and an early and maybe prohibitive favorite to dominate next year’s I’m Right awards. But we’ll see.

9/10 Great

The Hangover Part II

The Hangover franchise is not one to lend itself to sober discussions of artistic merit. Just like the first, Part II will be judged entirely on how funny it is—and I suppose that’s really all anyone can expect, though its not 100% accurate. I could probably end this review in about one sentence, but I think I can be a little more long-winded than that.

The Hangover Part II has been widely derided by critics for its thorough resemblance to its predecessor, and not without some cause. The plot is suspiciously similar to the first, only transported to Bangkok instead of Las Vegas. And I should note when I say plot I mean the whole darn thing; it isn’t just the premise (guys trying to figure out what happened during a blackout) that’s the same. Other beats of the story are very, very similar.

This time it isn’t Doug (Jason Bartha) who’s getting married. Stu has apparently gotten over stripper Jade from the first movie, and is now about to tie the knot with the improbably attractive—and, as we’ll see later, understanding—Lauren (Jamie Chung). The ceremony is to take place in a resort not far from Bangkok. Of course, Stu’s desire for a bachelor party in the morning at IHOP with friends Doug, Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Allen (Zach Galifianakis) doesn’t exactly work out as planned, and Phil, Doug, and Stu wake up in a seedy Bangkok hotel with no memory of how they got there from the resort, how Stu got a Mike Tyson tattoo on his face, and most importantly where Lauren’s teenage brother is. The rest you can probably figure out from there.

To say that the plot is completely inconsequential for this movie is not entirely accurate—after all, the conceit of the franchise is that at its core the hangover is a sort of mystery. And while the larger plot points are indeed probably a little too similar to the first movie, there’s enough variety (most of it provided by the setting) that I was never bored, nor could I tell exactly where the mystery was going. It also helped that the director Todd Phillips decided to make the film even more outrageous than the first in some ways—Stu again has an encounter with a stripper, for example, but the details of what happened are substantially raunchier. They also dial Allen’s craziness up a notch, as unbelievable as that sounds. While he's still quite funny for the most part, the extra exaggeration makes his character even more wildly implausible than he was in the first movie.

But at the end of the day, all of this is really only important on the margins. Was The Hangover Part II funny? Yes, it was, although a marked step down from the first movie. Granted it was a hard act to follow, but I was still a little disappointed with how far the drop-off was. Still, I easily laughed more than enough for the movie to be worth my time.

6/10 Decent

X-Men: First Class

For someone who has never bought a comic book in his life, I’m about as big a fan of the x-men as they come. They were always my favorite super-heroes growing up, and the fantastic animated series that aired in the mid-90s was one of the few shows that I’d wake up early on a Saturday to watch. Furthermore, the first live-action X-Men movie (the aptly-named X-Men, released in 2000) is the film that launched the wave of superhero movies that we’ve experienced over the last decade. The second movie (X-2) is not only one of my favorite superhero movies of all time (I place it behind only The Dark Knight), but one of my favorite movies of any sort. Of course, movies three and four (The Last Stand and Wolverine) were atrocious. So I was very interested to see how the fifth installment—a sort of “pre-boot”, some combination of prequel and reboot—would shake up.

X-Men: First Class purports to show the origins of the X-Men, in the early 1960s. As mentioned above, it serves as a sort of prequel for the earlier movie, with a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) before they became Professor X and Magneto as the main characters. But the film plays very fast and loose with the continuity established in the first four films, so it’s also something of a reboot as well.

The film opens with a very similar sequence to the first movie, with a very young Eric Lensherr in a Nazi concentration camp. However, the sequence is longer than the previous version, introducing a Nazi scientist named Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) who quickly sees Eric’s potential and is quite willing to use any method available to draw it out. We next meet Eric several decades later, as he is trying to track down Schmidt—now known as Sebastian Shaw, head of the Hellfire Club of mutants—in order exact revenge for what happened to him in the concentration camp. In the course of his search he encounters English aristocrat and newly minted PhD in genetics Charles Xavier and Charles’ adopted sister Raven Darkholme (the nascent Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence) and CIA operative Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne). The group decides to band together and recruit other young mutants in order combat Shaw and his allies—which include Emma Frost (January Jones)—and their plans, which have something to do with the Cuban Missile crisis.

I mentioned in my review of Centurion (which coincidentally also starred Michael Fassbender) that it was a the sort of movie that did everything well but nothing great. Well, this movie is something of the opposite: it has some aspects that were very strong and some that were very, very weak. As an origin story the movie is effective*, and it’s interesting (and somewhat heartbreaking, knowing what is to come) to see the friendship between Raven, Eric, and Charles. The plot is evocative of some of the 60s spy movies we’ve seen so much of over the years, only with telepaths instead of James Bond.

*With the exception of the final few minutes, which attempt to cram in about two movies worth of plot and character development into ten minutes.

But while the plot is decent enough (probably the second-best of the five), the movie has some real tonal issues. Parts are deadly serious—after all, the movie begins with a scene set during the holocaust and the story involves trying to prevent a nuclear war that will kill billions. And the gay rights allegory is as obvious as it has been in the first few movies; there’s even a line that unsubtly evokes Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But other segments of the movie seem like something taken from Goldfinger, or even goofier. It was very poorly conceived*.

*This is just one of many clues in the movie that leads me to believe that the screenwriters were not given enough time. First Class just has a rushed, messy feel to it, and some of the other problems I’m about to get to seem eminently solvable if the screenwriters would have taken a couple more months to polish their work

The choice of Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw was also strange. Bacon is a good actor in many contexts, but playing an affable, charismatic psychopath is not one of them (and his comically awful 60s hair doesn’t help). And he was one of several miscastings in the movie. Another was January Jones, which everyone really should have seen coming—she’s gorgeous, but just not a very good actress. Emma Frost is one of the more interesting characters from the comics, but here she’s incredibly flat (well, her personality is anyways. Ahem). Jones might as well be a pretty set of drapes.

Jennifer Lawrence is also surprisingly mediocre as Mystique—not bad, but not as good as the very talented (and Academy Award-nominated) actress should have been. I blame the writing, which didn’t serve a very intriguing character well. Specifically, the script tried to shoehorn a couple of romantic subplots (first with Beast, then Magneto) for her, neither of which works at all. Even worse, they give only perfunctory attention at the very beginning of the movie to a (probably platonic) relationship that had all sorts of potential—her friendship with her adopted brother Xavier. Even so, Lawrence’s performance isn’t all that energetic. Raven is certainly more fleshed out then she was when Rebecca Romijn played her, but I almost think Romijn did a better job, relative to what she was asked to do.

The other performances are mostly good if unmemorable, with the exception of Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Fassbender is an exceptionally charismatic and talented actor (which I noted in my Centurion review), and he really owns Eric in a way that none of the other actors in the film can say. He doesn’t quite match Ian McKellan in the role, but the fact that I can actually make the comparison (McKellan is one of my favorite actors in the worlds, and I loved him in the role) says a lot about Fassbender. Whenever he’s on screen, the movie gains an energy and sense of purpose that it otherwise lacks. Some of the best scenes of the movie involve his lonely quest for revenge against Shaw. Hell, I think Magneto: Nazi Hunter would have been at least as good a movie as this one. Michael Fassbender is easily the best part of this film*.

*I should also mention that the directing is quite good too. It isn’t quite up to Brian Singer, but Matthew Vaughn shows an imagination and grasp of action that Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood totally lacked. Vaughn’s use of special effects is also very good; he uses them when he needs to (and they’re pretty cool) but doesn’t go overboard, something both of his immediate predecessors were also guilty of.

Before I go, I have to mention two somewhat unfortunate choices the screenwriters* made. First is the issue of how they handled the female characters. While I’ve seen much worse in terms of overall objectification, I think its notable that there are four female parts with more than a line or two and all four—4/4—have scenes that feature them scantily clad. Only once, in the case of Mystique, is it at all justified in character. I’m usually of the opinion that this sort of complaint is overblown (and I really shouldn’t complain. January Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rose Byrne, and Jennifer Lawrence are all very easy on the eyes), but even to me it seemed egregious in this movie. Emma Frost’s costumes--when they weren’t the lingerie-inspired duds from the comics--reminded me of something from Austin Powers.

*Who I’ll call out. Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, and Matthew Vaughn: Y’all need to do better.

The other is the fact that the movie has an unfortunate case of black-guy-dies-first-itis. The movie features only one African-American character (unless you count Zoe Kravitz as Angel Salvatore), which is already problematic for a civil-rights allegory set in the 1960s. But then that character (Darwin) dies mere minutes after being introduced, and is one of only three named characters to die in the whole movie. Even worse, his power is “reactionary evolution”, which is essentially the ability not to die. It was an awkward choice, to say the least.

And that is my exceptionally long take on the most recent X-Men movie, one that did some things very right (the plot, the directing, and especially Michael Fassbender) and some things very wrong (Bacon and Jones, the tone, and political correctness). Still, although I do have some serious criticisms of the film, I did like it and think that there’s a lot of potential for the inevitable sequel. But god do I hope the writers take a little more time.

6.5/10 Decent/Good.

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