I Have a Lot To Talk About, pt 1

Once again, I’ve been neglecting this blog. It’s not from a lack of desire to write. I’ve just been writing other places and spreading myself thin. I took this week as vacation with the goal that I would rectify this situation. It’s Saturday and I’m just sitting down to do this. Okay, enough…I have a lot to get to. It’s been some time since I did an honest to goodness movie post, and I’ve seen quite a few films since that I, of course, have some thoughts on.

Let’s start with The Green Lantern. What can I say that hasn’t already been said by now? While I do feel that, for the most part, it was a lot of fun, I also think it was so much less than it could have been.

The Green Lantern, who has been around since the 1940’s in one form or another, could still actually be considered a second tier superhero. He doesn’t have the same brand recognition as a Superman or a Batman, except to a loyal core of comic book geeks. The wide world of web engulfed the making of this film in so much hype from the outset. As with other recent web phenomena like Scott Pilgrim vs The World, if you only read web movie sites, you’d think ot was in the bag and the movie would have been a huge hit from day one. But JMHO, the Scott Pilgrim example proves just how small and insular the film community on the web actually is. That film struggled to find an audience and had the promoters backtracking with statements like, "we knew it was a cult film all along." The challenge was always for Warner Bros. and DC comics to expand the movie’s appeal beyond just the fanboys who were salivating for it. The publicity machine went into overdrive to do just that. Millions were spent on promoting it with tv spots, trailers and product tie-ins.

The problem is, the movie they were throwing all of that promo power behind was weak. Critics almost universally panned the film. JMHO, it was more often than not just ticking boxes for variations of a set-list from other denizens of the Marvel and DC worlds. The best thing about it, is that there is enough humor to make us believe they aren’t taking themselves too seriously, something their star Ryan Reynolds is famous for. He always looks as if it’s taking a lot out of him to keep from winking at the camera. But basically, the movie is just more of the same in terms of the genre it represents.
The special effects should have been, in a word, special. Even more so since the filmmakers, while on the publicity tour, all pointed out that the technology had to catch up to be able to bring The Green Lantern to the screen. His exploits most often take place in outer space as opposed to the earthly pursuits of Batman or Spiderman, for example. There had been reports of  ‘techno’ troubles in post-production for months, probably stemming from the fact that the film was retro-fitted for 3D and not filmed that way. The funny thing about that, is that reportedly most filmgoers preferred to see it in 2D.

Back to Reynolds. He wasn’t ‘bad’. He was as believable a superhero as anyone else has ever been, I suppose. And he did look good in his CGI suit. It will probably surprise no one that the performance I had the most trouble with was Blake Lively’s as Carol Ferris. Yeah, she’s pretty. Big deal. I still don’t see how she keeps getting major film roles. Her role in The Town probably got her this gig and my thoughts on that performance are on record. I just never believe a thing that comes out of her mouth. Although in this film, she does get the best line of the movie, “You think I don’t recognize you because I can’t see your cheekbones?” This is the film’s best self-deprecating moment and a definite poke in the ribs to Superman et al. Lois doesn’t know Clark is Supe because he wears glasses? Really? I’ve never understood that.

Peter Sarsgaard must have had a mortgage payment or something. Don’t get me wrong, he was very amusing as nerdy scientist Hector Hammond. I’m just always mystified by what motivates an actor to take a role. My usual rationale is that what they read in the script, get excited about and sign on for is very often not what we see on screen. This film was full of really good actors in teeny, tiny parts, like Tim Robbins and Jon Tenney (What? Yeah, I know. Blink and you’ll miss him.) Temeura Morrison is a good actor, not only that, but he has a distinctive look and voice. I don’t understand why actors with such traits are hired for roles that require them to be completely unrecognizable. The same could be said of Clancy Brown’s Parallax, although I guess the case could be made for them as well as the inclusion of Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan, which I have less of a problem with, that they’re all just voicing cartoons. But seriously, wtf was up with Angela Bassett’s David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust hair? Having never read the comics I don’t know, but does that scientist really run around in sky-high Louboutins?

Of course, Mark Strong’s Sinestro was the best part. Much has been made of the fact that Sinestro gets little screen time and Mark Strong is underutilized (which is said of just about every film he appears in. There’s never enough. I’m still incensed over The Eagle), but even I, as a big MS fan, realize that they are missing the point. This Green Lantern is an origins story and it spends a great deal of time on exposition. Its purpose was to get the ball rolling for what is to come and it sets up Sinestro for the next film. We now know who and what he is and where’s he’s “been” so we know where he’s going.

If the next film gets made, and from recent reports Warner Brothers is going ahead with it despite softer than anticipated box office receipts (although I suspect it will make piles via the home market), Sinestro will have a much bigger role. So much will have already been established that the film will be able to focus on the tug-of-war between Hal Jordan and Sinestro as he goes to the dark side (or yellow side as it were.)

Okay, that was far more space than I intended to devote to this subject, but as per usual, once I get rolling…all bets are off. Bottom line: I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. It was a good excuse to sit in the dark and eat popcorn and that is very often the only barometer I need (provided I’ve only paid for a matinee.) That and I don’t immediately wish for those two hours of my life back. So overall, this was a win.

Swinging wildly in another direction is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. I’m not even sure where to begin to discuss this one. I can’t recall a film that has those who’ve seen it so firmly entrenched in one of two camps. They either love it, thinking it’s one of the best films ever made, certainly of this year, or they hate it as a contrived, two and a half hour piece of self-conscious claptrap that belongs on a year-end “worst” list. This film was both loudly ‘booed’ at it’s first screening, and then ultimately awarded the highest honor, the Palme d’Or, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I think it all depends on what you’re looking for.

Having said all that, I lean toward the former camp, but I’m not a zealot. The film is incredibly ambitious, but then that’s pretty much Malick’s stock in trade. He’s a filmmaker for whom the word meticulous was invented. Between 1973 and 2011, he’s directed five films. Five. All of them have inspired strong opinions if not outright controversy. Tree of Life is probably the most extreme example.  Visually it’s absolutely stunning and if you are going to see it, then I highly recommend that you do so at the cinema. Unless you’ve got one of those massive home theater setups with 14 speakers and an 82” screen, this will definitely lose something in the translation to dvd. For me, while I was watching the exquisitely beautiful images of natural phenomena, all gorgeously captured by Academy Award nominated cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (I think he can safely expect a fifth nomination for Tree of Life), my mind kept turning to Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 film (that I saw in college and I cannot guarantee that I was not without chemical enhancement of some kind when I did) that is really just a series of images set to the haunting music of Phillip Glass . While there is, by design, no plot in the traditional sense, there is a definite scenario about all life on this planet. The film’s title means ‘life out of balance’. The meaning of the images is meant to be interpreted by the viewer.

I think to some extent, this is what Malick intended here. Bookended by the choreographed images of natural events like volcanoes and rock formations or a fertilized egg slowly traveling to embed itself in the wall of the womb, which are set to one of the most transcendent scores I have ever heard, (Alexandre Desplat utilizing Bach, Berlioz, Couperin, Mozart, Mahler, Smetana, Gorecki, Respighi, and Holst among others,) there is little in the way of straightforward narrative, but it’s very heavy on philosophy and whispered appeals to a higher power. At its core however, the film is a personal reflection by Malick on the relationships of fathers and sons that then expands to include the larger questions of the nature of man’s existence.

With reference to the ‘story’, I can tell you there is very little dialogue. It concerns a family: Father, Mother and three sons. We see them from the birth of the oldest until he is about twelve or thirteen, focusing primarily on the last summer spent in the house (in 1950’s Waco, Texas) that he was born into. The tone is set with the voice over by young Jack (the oldest of the 3 and played beautifully by Hunter McCracken as a boy and in what amounts to a cameo, by Sean Penn as a middle aged man) who tells us that there are "two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace," the former represented by Father, the latter by Mother. "Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way." Grace, on the other hand, "is smiling through all things," instilling in us the idea that "the only way to be happy is to love." Yin and Yang reduced to its most basic message. The actors are essentially asked to react to and interact almost silently with the world around them. There are a lot of close-ups of fingertips as they feel blades of tall grass rustling in the breeze of a late afternoon or cool water splashing over bare feet in a yard. I think very deliberately Malick is asking a viewer to “feel” in a far more visceral way than one would by listening to dialogue. I had never seen Jessica Chastain on screen before, but she is one of the reasons I wanted to see this film. She is, in a word, luminous. This is a word I have long associated with Vanessa Redgrave and I cannot wait to see them together in Coriolanus. I can only imagine, if she brings that same quality to that film, how incandescent the two of them could be.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that Brad Pitt has never been better. Even the New York Times described his performance as “graceful”, but this part of the film belongs to Hunter McCracken. None of it ‘works’ in the traditional sense unless we’re able to see the world through his eyes and in his skin.

The narrative concludes with a final mournful voiceover, "Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me. Always you will" before showing us all of the loved ones of a person’s life, in this case Jack, gathered on a beach with what I can only assume are angels. Cut to black.

JMHO, but this is not a film that can be easily digested with one viewing. Basically I just sat there in awe and let the movie swirl around me.

So since once again I have gotten rather long winded, this is

 to be continued…

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