Tag Archives: Palme D’or

CAPSULE: THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

The Tree of Life has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.  This initial review is left here for archival purposes.  Please visit the film’s official Certified Weird entry for further discussion of the film.

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Terrence Malick

FEATURING: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn

PLOT: A man recalls his childhood in suburban Waco, Texas, and his difficult relationship with

Still from The Tree of Life (2011)

his father; in the process he also seems to unlock some primal memories of the creation of the universe and the evolution of life.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Any movie that tells the story of a suburban Texas boy’s troubled relationship with his father—but uses a dramatic encounter between dinosaurs to illustrate its main point—is at least making a nod towards the bizarre.  But, although there are many strange images and ideas in the stream-of-cosmic-consciousness Tree of Life, surrealism is only used as an occasional accent here; overall, the mood is more accurately described as “poetic” rather than “weird.”

COMMENTS: A boy’s tempestuous relationship with Brad the Father is used as a metaphor for nothing less than the turmoil between man and his Maker in Terrence Malick’s moon shot of a movie.  Told mostly as a series of hazy, almost dreamlike domestic memories, the story frequently drifts from reality to fantasy: at times, the boy imagines his mother as Snow White encased in a glass coffin in the forest, or sees a mysterious tall man looming over him in an arched attic.  In one memorable shot, a child in a flooded, womb-like bedroom swims out the window as a teddy bear floats in the amniotic brine.  But what people remember and talk about most are the amazing sequences of the laying of the foundation of the earth—the formation of nebulae, the birth of stars, molten lava boiling, merging into visions of the dance of cellular mitosis as the Tree of Life begins to form.  This leads to those famous graceful dinos who enact a unlikely primal drama, before a meteor wipes them out and we jump forward to our protagonist’s birth.  The cosmic creation sequences seem to come ex nihilo, and, despite the frequent comparisons to the far-out visuals of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’re more like watching the “Best of Nova” on fast forward.  As is the rest of the narrative, the scenes of life’s gestation and birth are accompanied by the heavenly choral and symphonic sacred music of Bach, Taverner, Smetana, Mahler, and a host of others; history’s most glorious music written by man to express his wonder at creation.  It is impossible not to be awed by the splendor of the universe Malick lays out before us, and it’s impossible not to be intrigued by his brashness in recreating the cosmos for our benefit.  The middle section of the film, which details young Jack’s inability to comprehend gruff and demanding dad Brad’s harsh plan to toughen him up to face life’s challenges, will prove tough going for many due to the slow pace and lack of narrative flow, but it fits the movie’s meditative themes perfectly and gives the mind a chance to turn over the metaphor Malick molds.  The film’s finale, which may be its weakest (or at least its most divisive) feature, moves from the cosmic to the supercosmic as Sean Penn, the resentful little boy now turned into a doubtful and accusatory adult, walks through a door frame hanging in desert space onto a beach of souls.  You may not agree with Tree of Life‘s ultimate religious message, but you have to admire the sincerity and passionate intensity with which Malick delivers it.  He leaves nothing on the table.  Considering the pandering, preachy crud that passes as “inspirational” cinema these days, it’s a miracle to see a thoughtful spiritual movie that gives doubt its due and isn’t self-servingly made to elicit “hallelujahs!” from the pious choir (though they will likely praise it, too).  Based on the screening I attended, I can say that the reports of audible exhaling when the credits roll and the buzz of excited conversation outside theaters afterwards are not exaggerated.  Like it or not, or agree with the message or not, Tree of Life is a challenging and audacious work of cinema, and you’ll be better for having encountered it.

Beginning with the Charles Starkweather-inspired Badlands in 1973, the perfectionistic and reclusive Terrence Malick has only completed five feature films.  All of them are paced with unfashionable slowness, feature gorgeous natural cinematography, and wrestle with weighty themes (the Harvard-educated director was a Rhodes scholar who briefly taught philosophy at MIT before turning to film).  Now 63 years old, Malick has another project currently in the works, but The Tree of Life has the feeling of a cinematic summation and a swan song.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a beautiful, messy film: at times lyrical, intimate, and uplifting; at others, vast, inscrutable, and maddening.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

NOTE: We loved The Tree of Life but didn’t really think it was strange enough to qualify as a “weird” movie (by our elevated standards).  366 readers disagreed, and in the 2nd Reader’s Choice poll they selected The Tree of Life to be placed on the List of Candidates for the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time.  So it is done.

GUEST REVIEW: UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010)

Guest review by Kevyn Knox of The Cinematheque.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by the Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (now there are a couple of mouthfuls-and-a-half) is certainly not a film (or filmmaker) for everyone, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can appreciate this dissident director’s young, but deeply-seeded oeuvre, then you will most certainly like this latest film by the man affectionately called ‘Joe.’  Perhaps the director’s best, most fluid work yet, matching or perhaps even surpassing his esoteric treatise on love, Tropical Malady, and his most heralded work, the subtly sublime Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee (as we will shorten it from here on out) is a grand fable that not only incorporates the folktales we have come to expect from this director, but also the personal and political concerns that have also become a staple for good ole ‘Joe’.

Keeping with tradition (traditions of Thai folklore and of Apichatpong’s stream-of-consciousness works) we get the story of a dying man who is reunited with his family—both living, dead (and in-between)—and the rituals and rites that come with both living and dying (and in-between). We also get, again keeping with tradition, an otherworldly tale that involves mysterious, red-eyed Sasquatchian creatures roaming the jungles of Thailand.  The cinematic works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul can be alluded to (though by no means explained or defined) by the paraphrasing of a cherished Hollywood classic—talking monkeys and tigers and bears, oh my.  The filmmaker’s style of sociopolitical (and oft-times autobiographical) movie making, with his slow, wandering camera, lazily weaving between reality and fantasy as easily as between rural and urban or modern and classic or male and female, and his non-preachy philosophizing—a style that the auteur has captured and made his own—is in top form in Uncle Boonmee.

Still from Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)Basically (and the story is subversively basic, or primal, if you will) this is the story of the titular uncle, who finds himself dying and invites his sister-in-law and nephew to spend his final days together on his jungle farm. Shortly thereafter, the ghost of Boonmee’s dead wife shows up to help him get through his illness; shortly after that, Boonmee’s long-lost son returns, in the aforementioned Sasquatchian form (the director calls these creatures ‘Monkey Ghosts’). The film gets even weirder from here on in—wonderfully weirder, that is. It was the first appearance of these ominous monkey ghosts, shortly into the film, that sealed the proverbial deal for this critic. After all this, we join Boonmee in what may be his final moments (or may not) deep inside a cave that seems to be the darkened womb of Weerasethakul’s storytelling. A definite mythmaker, Apichatpong, with his unnatural naturalness wholly intact, has managed to deepen my already heartfelt love for his work.

In my initial look at the succulent Uncle Boonmee (written just after viewing the film at last year’s New York Film Festival), I said this of the film: “The proof in the pudding, so to speak, of the mystical quality of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cinema, is when you can introduce a talking catfish into the middle of your story (in a seemingly unrelated episode to the rest of the film) and have him ‘pleasure’ a young melancholy princess beneath a beautiful waterfall, and never once does it seem out of place or extraordinary; merely a natural extension of the director’s mythmaking style of filmmaking. When von Trier had his ravenous fox growl out “chaos reigns” in Antichrist, it was meant to be as antagonistic as the filmmaker himself. In Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong makes it seem like just a natural thing that happens all the time. A talking catfish that goes down on a princess? Sure, why the Hell not.” And I still agree all these months later—why the Hell not.

CAPSULE: THE WHITE RIBBON [DAS WEISSE BAND: EINE DEUTSCHE KINDERGESCHICHTE] (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Michael Haneke

FEATURING: Christian Friedel, Burghart Klaußner, Leonie Benesch, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf

PLOT: A doctor’s horse is tripped by a wire strung between two trees, and soon

Still from The White Ribbon (Das weiss band) (2009)

other unexplained “accidents” start happening around a German village on the eve of WWI.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  I wouldn’t have even considered covering this fairly conventional film in this sacred space devoted to weirdness, except that as I was leaving the theater, I heard an old man ask the old woman beside him, “Wasn’t that the strangest movie you ever saw?”  The old woman agreed. My initial reaction was sadness at the thought that they both had reached an advanced state of decrepitude without having ever witnessed the miracle of a truly strange film.  My second thought was, I have to get out there and nip this rumor in the bud.

COMMENTS: As a historical drama, a novelistic examination of small town immorality, The White Ribbon is superb.  It immerses us in the life of a quiet, one-bicycle German hamlet on the eve of World War I, where order is harshly enforced in public but cruelty and hypocrisy are the rule behind closed doors.  The story begins by evoking a mystery—who strung the invisible steel wire that tripped the doctor’s horse?—then moves on to explore various village subplots involving characters from every strata of society.  Among others, there’s the humane schoolteacher who romances a shy nanny; the Baron, who employs half the village and acts as if feudalism is still in fashion; a Farmer and the rebellious son who blames the Baron for his mother’s death; the Doctor, an eminent man hiding shameful secrets; the Midwife, who lives with the Doctor since his wife dies and cares for her mentally retarded son; and most significantly the Pastor, who is obsessed with enforcing purity among his children, binding his son’s arms at night to help him resist the temptation to touch himself and tying white ribbons on the elder children to remind them of innocence.  And there are the children themselves, whose eerily blank faces and frustratingly proper responses to interrogations mask unknown motives.  Led by creepy and unflappable Maria-Victoria Dragus, a gang of tykes seem to be present at the periphery of all the tragic accidents that start popping up around the village.  The question of whether the kids are just curious spectators drawn to the hubub in a quiet town, or if they have some deeper involvement in the plague of catastrophes, is the mystery that Haneke leaves unsolved.  But the real unsolved mystery may be why the director chose to structure his story as an unsolved mystery.  When the tale focuses on exploring of moral hypocrisy, exposing the domestic cruelty of upstanding pillars of the community, the film is first-rate drama; there are excellent, tense scenes where a man callously dumps his mistress and parents inflict sadistic punishments on their children for minor infractions.  Haneke apparently did not feel that this searing drama was enough to grant his film Palme d’Or-type gravitas, and so we have the ambiguous mystery arbitrarily piled on top.  Not only is the plot obscure, but the purpose of employing an obscure plot is obscure.

Perhaps it’s because Haneke’s thesis isn’t as meaty as it seems.  The reminders that these wan, detached and abused children will be the generation that grows up to embrace Nazism are not subtle.  But if Haneke’s trying to say that a morally rigid, patriarchal society set the ground for the rise of Nazism… well, that’s a small part of the puzzle.  But the same types of societies existed all over the Western world.  Change a few details—replace the feudal Baron with a capitalist robber baron—and the story could just as easily be set in small town America in the 1910s.  What’s specifically German about this story that supposedly helps to explain the rise of Nazism (as the film’s narrator suggests in his opening lines)?  If, on the other hand, Haneke isn’t blaming a particular social order for nurturing fascism, but trying to say something universal about human societies and their capacity for institutional evil, the point gets a bit lost by locating the story in such an incredibly specific historical time and place.  The movie ends up perched uncomfortably between ambiguity and a definite argument, between a universal message and a historical one.  Maybe these unresolved tensions help explain why The White Ribbon, with its impeccable acting and classic production, feels thematically awkward.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Our narrator, well into old age, tells us that he is revisiting the strange events in the village to ‘clarify things that happened in our country’ afterward.  But ‘The White Ribbon’ does the opposite, mystifying the historical phenomenon it purports to investigate… ‘The White Ribbon’ is a whodunit that offers a philosophically and aesthetically unsatisfying answer..”–A.O. Scott, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

51. BARTON FINK (1991)

“And the king, Nebuchadnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”–Daniel 2:5, the passage Barton reads when he opens his Gideon’s Bible (Note that the Coen’s actually depict it as verse 30, alter the wording slightly, and misspell “Nebuchadnezzar”).

“Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”– Gene Fowler

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Joel Coen

FEATURING: , , , Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi

PLOT: Barton Fink is a playwright whose first Broadway show, a play about the common man, is a smash success; his agent convinces him to sell while his stock is high and go to Hollywood to quickly make enough money to fund the rest of his writing career.  He arrives in Los Angeles, checks into the eerie art deco Hotel Earle, and is assigned to write a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery by the Capitol pictures studio head himself.  Suffering from writer’s block, Barton spends his days talking to the insurance salesman who lives in the room next door and seeking writing advice from alcoholic novelist W.P. Mayhew, until deadline day looms and very strange events begin to take center stage.

Still from Barton Fink (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • At the time, it was widely reported that the Coen brothers wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering from a mean case of writer’s block trying to complete the screenplay to their third feature film, Miller’s Crossing.  The Coens themselves have since said that this description is an exaggeration, saying merely that their writing progress on the script had slowed and they felt they needed to get some distance from Miller’s Crossing by working on something else for a while.
  • Barton Fink was the first and only film to win the Palme D’or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at the Cannes film festival; after this unprecedented success, Cannes initiated a rule that no film could win more than two awards.  Back home in the United States, Barton Fink was not even nominated for a Best Picture, Director or Actor Oscar. It did nab a Best Supporting Actor nom for Lerner.
  • The character of Barton Fink was inspired by real life playwright Clifford Odets.  W.P. Mayhew was based in part on William Faulkner.  Jack Lipnick shares many characteristics, including a common birthplace, with 1940s MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
  • Following a definite theme for the year, Judy Davis also played an author’s muse and lover in another surrealistic 1991 movie about a tortured writer, Naked Lunch.
  • According to the Coens, the final scene with the pelican diving into the ocean was not planned, but was a happy accident.
  • In interviews the Coens have steadfastly disavowed any intentional symbolic or allegorical reading of the final events of the film, saying”what isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that” and “the movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they [critics] may not be used to seeing.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Barton Fink is full of mysterious images that speak beyond the frame.  The most popular and iconic picture is John Goodman wreathed in flame as the hallway of the Earle burns behind him.  Our pick would probably go to the final shot of the film, where a pelican suddenly and unexpectedly plummets into the ocean while a dazed Barton watches a girl on a beach assume the exact pose of a picture on his hotel wall.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nightmarish, expressionistic, and self-satirizing evocation of the difficulty of creation, Barton Fink pokes a sharpened stick into the deepest wounds of artistic self-doubt. A pure mood piece, its amazing ending achieves the remarkable triumph of leaving us with nothing but unanswered questions, while simultaneously feeling complete and whole.

COMMENTS: The most accurate word to describe Barton Fink is “enigmatic.”  It’s a work Continue reading 51. BARTON FINK (1991)