Terrence Malick has made five films in thirty-eight years. All of his films are recognized critically as masterpieces. Keeping with that tradition, his most recent film The Tree of Life won top honors at the Cannes film festival last month. Speaking about the film, head of the Cannes jury Robert DeNiro said, “It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” DeNiro’s offhand comment is invaluable to deciphering how this film has steadily risen, without much apparent consideration, to a respectable position within the pantheon of contemporary American filmmaking.
The movie is basically the story of Malick’s Texan youth in the 1950s, intercut with glossy meditations on the history of life on Earth. Sean Penn, playing the older version of the young boy we see constantly intimidated by his father (Brad Pitt), wanders awed and aimlessly through a gleaming present-day metropolis. There is a quiet voiceover, often whispered, presumably because only serious things are whispered. As with any of Malick’s films, bizarre moments are captured with a grace that makes them undeniably appealing. In one scene a band of young, directionless boys destructively wander the hinterlands of their hometown; a father intensely urges his son to hit him as the camera floats gently before their faces; children frolic in clouds of hazardous DDT.
What sets these sequences apart from the rest of the film is their total honesty. They don’t defer to clichéd images that stink of Planet Earth—they instead capture the weirdness of being young, the inanities of fatherhood, strange moments that are genuinely past. Even if these aren’t real memories, they’re still something known, something felt, something represented.
However, the elements of the film that haves garnered most praise, confusion, and appreciation are the sequences concerning the origins of life. (more…)
J.J. Abrams Super 8 is a movie banking on the nostalgia of the Spielberg era of innocent American filmmaking. It seeks to appeal, I gather, not necessarily to kids and teens looking to cool off and get some thrills, but instead to their parents, who remember with fondness ET and The Goonies. What makes Super 8 more successful than other recent kidcentric adventure movies, though, is not its relationship to Spielberg’s action-comedies and science fiction dramas—unless that relationship is understood primarily in terms of historical setting. The movie’s 1979 setting is not an accident, nor is it pure homage. Instead, it’s the only way J.J. Abrams could possibly make a movie that doesn’t involve little kids interacting with computers, cellular phones, and the other assorted technical artifacts that keep kids from actually doing interesting things on screen. (more…)