Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The meaning of life: revealed. (Plus: John Lennon) - Reviews #90

Welcome (back?) to Advice to the Lovelorn, my own little corner of the internet. In this update: the only review of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life with jokes in it, a good film about John Lennon, a less good film about John Lennon and a couple of other things I had lying around. Thanks for reading - comments are always impossibly welcome below.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
- Explosions! Dinosaurs! Brad! Malick's gone all mainstream. No, of course not. On closer examination those crowd-pleasing staples turn out to be housed in a thoughtful, wriggly and sometimes overpowering 138-minute exploration of the meaning of life, as if Python hadn't already put that one to bed. Our main story sees disconnected, grunty middle-aged Sean Penn reminiscing about the death knell of his innocence, and a coming-of-age spent in the shadow of an authoritarian father (Brad Pitt), amidst the tended lawns and playful hoses of '50s America. There's something about the film - a universality, a realisation of sense-memories both gutting and exalting - that you rarely see on screen. The narrative is only really comparable to The Long Day Closes or Terence Davies' American film, The Neon Bible, but this is a more restless movie, shifting endlessly from one snapshot of joy, fury or guilt-ridden sexual awakening to the next. In many ways it's utterly extraordinary: completely nailing the complex, intense feelings of growing up, as if we'd all forgotten, and only Malick really remembers. Between jolts of ecstacy - becoming increasingly infrequent - Jack (Hunter McCracken) laments his ghostly, lovely mother (the excellent Jessica Chastain) for being weak, grows to despise his father, and nicks a nightdress from a local milf, which, shaking with fear, he buries and then throws in the river. One bittersweet scene - to which our narrator is an outsider - sees Pitt underscoring another son's guitar-playing with some gentle piano. It reminded me of perhaps my favourite sequence in all of cinema: Annie Laurie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It's only when Malick diverts from this central story early on - and again near the end - to show us the enormity of creation, the crux of the "nature vs grace" quandary and the possible insignificance of human life, that the movie risks being - what is the word? - oh yes, boring. The curious, breathy, abstract voiceover that runs through the film is actually as well done as I have ever heard it: again, Malick has a firm grasp of his themes, he's not just being a portentous dick, but after a triumphant explosion of spacy visuals, scored to some fucking awesome choral music (excuse my ignorance), he does go on a bit. There are also pacing issues, in so much as the film covers 65 million years in a matter of nanoseconds, then spends ages dealing with the mid-1950s. And the dinosaurs weren't scary at all. #jurassicfail Still, Malick has come closer to articulating the human experience from a trio of contrasting angles than most directors I know, and both Pitt and McCracken are absolutely superb. Their climactic two-hander, in which Bradders apologises for alienating his son and says that his life beyond the family amounts to nothing, is an absolute gem; as good as the comparable scene in Shaun of the Dead - and you can't get much higher praise than that. All-in-all, it's a fascinating, occasionally infuriating film. (3.5)


Two doses of John Lennon:

Backbeat (Iain Softley, 1994) - Emotionally interesting but stylistically unconvincing drama about the relationship between the fifth Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), his intense, gobby pal John Lennon (Ian Hart) and mop-topped German art student Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), whom they meet during the band's Hamburg sojourn. While Hart spews epithets effectively as the bruised, bilious Lennon, his subject's looks and vocal mannerisms are so familiar that it's hard to ever forget that this is just a film - even if the guy playing Paul really does look like Paul. Dorff, a less gifted actor than Hart, fares better simply because we don't really know the real Sutcliffe beyond the soulful eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones of those famous black-and-white portraits, while Lee is an adequate Kirchherr. The film, inexplicably included in the Guardian's "favourite films" strand (well, inexplicable aside from it being one of their journalists' favourite films), is fairly entertaining , but the production values are more in keeping with a TV movie - right down to the artificial encounters with German arty types - and the potentially fascinating story fails to ignite. We could also have done without the crap song-title jokes. (2.5)

Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Wood, 2009)
- This John Lennon flick is a portrait of the artist as a brooding, troubled adolescent, torn between the uptight, unsmiling aunt who raised him (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the redheaded free spirit of a mother who sails back into his life (Anne-Marie Duff). Aaron Johnson makes a decent fist of playing Lennon - though it's by no means a flawless turn - but the film is really worth seeing for the amazing performances by Scott Thomas and Duff, their characters negotiating the line between mirth and misery, but in very different ways. The script is strong - particularly in the guitar-buying scene, which is delightfully-done and ends with the owner grinning: "Just don't shoot me", one of those clever once-removed jokes that doesn't do the work for you - though the "Freudian mystery" aspect of the film seems unnecessary. Taylor-Wood's direction is impressive but unobtrusive, typified by that familiar opening chord, the way she recreates the famous back-of-a-lorry Quarrymen shot by opening up the whole fete with sweeping shots, and the manner in which she deals with the moment of Duff's death. There's some clunkiness in the forming-a-band subplot (though I liked Lennon's riposte to the question: "What's your band called?" - "Do you care?"), but this is still an enlightening and intelligent movie, with a couple of truly superb performances. (3)

See also: Want to read about a George Harrison documentary? Well, it beats watching one.


Upside Down: The Creation Records Story (Danny O'Connor, 2010) - Serviceable party-line biopic of the drug-fuelled label that gave us The Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, My Bloody Valentine, Primal Scream, Ride, Super Furry Animals and, yes, Oasis. Professional bullshitter Alan McGee dominates proceedings - appearing as a monochrome talking head - which are presented in a one-second-attention-span whirl of crashing visuals, in an apparent ruse to cover up an alarming paucity of footage beyond music videos and photos of magazine articles. Perhaps everyone was tripping too hard to actually film any of the bands live. Much of the music is extraordinary and there are genuine insights - Bobby Gillespie suggests that My Bloody Valentine's Loveless was the last rock record that tried to push boundaries and take us somewhere new - but this is really a whistle-stop version of modern history that tends towards hagiography and only grazes the surface of its subject. The obscure, self-congratulatory Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle-ish inserts don't help. Incidentally, has anyone noticed that (What's the Story) Morning Glory? has, at most, three good songs on it? (2.5)


The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997) - Affable Aussie comedy that hammers away at the same joke for the opening 15 minutes (narrator says something, then actor repeats it), but is ultimately quite deft, funny and quotable, as it traces the travails of a working class family fighting to save its home from an airport expansion plan. Hopeless lawyer Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora) provides the biggest laughs, though Michael Caton is also good value as the lead. A chunky Eric Bana appears in support. (2.5)

No comments:

Post a Comment