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Ride Along

January 19, 2014

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Kevin Hart doing a stand-up routine about the making of Ride Along would probably be funnier than the movie itself. An excitable, insecure motormouth, Hart has peppered such specials as Laugh at My Pain with high-pitched ruminations on his physical stature (he stands five foot four) and insufficient gangsta skillz. His frightened but common-sense demeanor refutes what’s expected of Scary Black Men. He’s a great talker, and some of his more amusing bits in Ride Along, I’m guessing, were improvised. Hart will say something that sounds scripted, then natter on for a couple of extra beats, and the nattering is what makes his character seem like a real person, and what gets a laugh.

Hart plays Ben Barber, a school security guard (aside: only in these times would Ben’s job be sadly plausible) who hopes to make it through the police academy and become a true cop. This, Ben also hopes, will impress stoic rogue cop James Payton (Ice Cube), whose sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) Ben wants to marry. James has been looking out for Angela since they were both foster kids, and he disdains the flighty, videogame-addicted Ben. (Ben’s videogame fixation, gamers will be happy to learn, pays off later on several levels.) Ben asks James’ blessing to ask for Angela’s hand in marriage, and James proposes a challenge: Ben must accompany James on a ride-along to show how well or poorly he takes to police work.

This could allow for some mismatched-partner laughs, and it does; Ben’s panicky attempts to look like a hard man in front of James rub up against James’ complete lack of surprise that Ben is a soft man. Ice Cube was probably funnier in a small role in 21 Jump Street, but then again he didn’t have to watch his language there as much as he does in this PG-13 movie (he does get to drop one F-bomb). Unfortunately, Ride Along is shackled to a lazy plot involving a master criminal (Laurence Fishburne) James has spent three years trying to take down. It also involves crooked cops, the time-honored police captain who exists to tell the hero he Crossed the Line, and a scene where Angela ends up at gunpoint.

Predictability is the enemy of surprise, and surprise is the essence of comedy. I’m not talking here about well-known characters on sitcoms who behave amusingly predictably; I’m talking about a plot that cancels out any possibility of freshness or invention. The movie isn’t loose enough to let Kevin Hart run wild with sustained riffs; he’s trapped inside the stodgy, stifling structure. Ride Along doesn’t offer the randomness and digressions of the similar, superior The Other Guys, and once again I find myself wondering what the film might’ve been like if Hart and Ice Cube had swapped roles and played against their personae.

What else is there to say about such a lightweight thing? Well, given that it’s directed by and mostly starring African-Americans, it’s blandly post-racial; for the most part, white guys could’ve played the roles and it would shake out roughly the same. Is that progress or homogenization (and shrewd packaging for what the money guys call “the urban audience”)? Eddie Murphy’s early cop comedies were very aware that he was a black man in a largely hostile white world; they couldn’t have played the same if he were white, or, at least, Murphy made Beverly Hills Cop (originally a Stallone vehicle, I believe) a story about a specifically black man among the gilded and ivory. But such awareness would founder here, because the movie isn’t interested in how actual, specific people of any color would behave. There’s truly nothing to James’ character other than his protectiveness towards his sister and his mission to get the big bad guy; Kevin Hart takes over by default, filling the void with abbreviated patter. Like the comparably easily-frightened, anti-macho Richard Pryor, Hart might best be optimized alone onstage, weaving absurd mind-movies at a hundred miles an hour.

The Canyons

August 2, 2013

20130802-230443.jpgOn paper, the director Paul Schrader and the writer Bret Easton Ellis seem like a match made in frozen hell. The work of both men is cold around the heart, exploring violence and neurasthenic sexual deviance. It’s possibly no coincidence that the tombstone achievements for this pair are Taxi Driver (Schrader’s script) and American Psycho (Ellis’ novel). They have now collaborated on a microbudget indie film, The Canyons, which has gained some notoriety from the off-camera antics of its star, Lindsay Lohan, and the travails she caused the production. LiLo, in truth, isn’t the movie’s problem; she often seems like the only committed, professional performer onscreen, especially next to porn star James Deen (né Bryan Sevilla), who plays her movie-producer boyfriend.

Ellis likes complicated love/sex triangles, and so the central couple, Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen), regularly engage in casual swinger sex with people they find on the internet. Both have old flames; Tara used to be in love with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a struggling wannabe actor who has a part in Christian’s upcoming horror movie shooting in New Mexico. Christian doesn’t mind if Tara has sex with someone in front of him, but if she lies to him about seeing someone behind his back, that infuriates him. He’s a control freak and also a manipulative jerk, to say the least.

Ellis usually writes this sort of thing with deadpan wit, but Schrader approaches the material in his standard dour, puritanical setting. The Canyons offers plenty of sex and nudity, filmed by Schrader in the so-cold-it’s-meant-to-be-hot mode familiar from American Gigolo, Cat People and Auto Focus. But sex for Ellis isn’t an occasion for desolation and shame; it’s all a power game. In brief, Ellis and Schrader bring out the worst in each other, and this production simply doesn’t have the money to achieve the heartless dry-ice, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-undead look it really needs. A lot of it seems to have been shot in someone’s borrowed upscale L.A. home. What violence there is unfolds elsewhere: You can film here, guys, but don’t get blood on the tiles.

There’s a great deal of spying and stalking and message-checking. People look at their phones instead of at their conversation partners whenever they can. A skipped heartbeat of dread develops when Tara gets texts from someone she doesn’t know, who offers cryptic information; Ellis got a lot of chilling mileage out of that trope in Imperial Bedrooms, his belated sequel to Less Than Zero. But the texts just lead to a character who’s treated contemptuously, as an afterthought. The Canyons packs little of the extremity and shock that mark Ellis and Schrader at their most indelible. It feels like, and in fact was, an on-the-cheap project they entered into in haste when an earlier film — the intriguing-sounding class-warfare thriller Bait — fell through. The movie was financed partly on Kickstarter, and everyone worked for peanuts. I see very little passion, though, very little animating emotion to explain why the film had to be made, why the story needed to be told.

James Deen, I think, has more screen time than Lohan does, and Schrader uses him as a found object the same way Steven Soderbergh used Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Deen has porn-star swagger and an instinct toward domination — he moves comfortably, occupies other people’s space — but when he opens his mouth it’s strictly amateur hour. He doesn’t have a trained actor’s voice; he has the sound of, well, a performer in shot-on-videotape porno, flat and artificial. The other, lesser-known actors are competent but can’t do much with Ellis’ stylized, sometimes overexplicit dialogue. Lohan, meanwhile, throws off all sorts of morose, bitter energy that keeps us riveted to her but doesn’t always seem connected to the character she’s supposed to be playing. All of this happens in an off-Hollywood milieu that’s decently appointed but a little musty, more than a little depressing. Those hoping for something wild and crazy from the bad boys Ellis and Schrader, or even a good old hearty train wreck from Lohan a la her much-derided Liz and Dick from earlier this year, will look here in vain. A cult may form around it, but it’s bound to be a very tiny and cynical cult.

Roger Ebert

April 4, 2013

C200512-A-Life-in-the-Movies-01He knew. He had to have known. His last blog entry — posted two days before he died — had the tone of a fond goodbye, though, to comfort the rest of us, he wrote a lot about the plans he had for the future, the future I’m guessing he knew he didn’t have. He would leave workaday film reviewing to others, and concentrate on things that meant more to him. His Ebertfest. The forthcoming documentary about him, which will now  have a sad period at its conclusion that none of us wanted. His “Great Movies” column. Even if he didn’t consciously know, some part of him must have. The blog entry opens with “Thank you” — he was never one for burying the lede — and ends with “I’ll see you at the movies.”

Roger Ebert, as I’ve said elsewhere, made a whole lot of us want to see and think about and write about movies with greater precision and passion. Throughout the many health demons that plagued him in his final years, one constant remained: his voice. It was robbed from him physically, but it continued in print. We could still hear it in our heads as we read him. Now the voice is gone, though we can still call it up from any of his thousands of reviews, or watch him on YouTube if we literally need to hear that avuncular, sane, midwestern sound.

You don’t need to agree with everything someone believes in order to like them, and you don’t need to agree with everything a film critic writes in order to like their reviews. The entire point of Blue Velvet seemed to go whistling over Ebert’s head and far out to sea, but his thoughts on the film are valuable just the same. He was fond of quoting Robert Warshow’s maxim “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” In recent years I grew weary of people pointing out where Ebert got this or that fact wrong in a review. So what? He was dealing with far graver things in his life than some plot point in a forgettable Hollywood entertainment. His emotional responses were still sound, and those, really, are what a critic has to work with. Give me someone who responds openly and whole-heartedly to a film over someone who gets all the details right but doesn’t rise to the film with any soul.

I never met him, and now never will, but I felt I knew him, feel I know him. That was true even before I read his memoir Life Itself. Even when his reviews contained no autobiographical element, he revealed himself, as all good writers do and must. Years before he officially declared himself a recovering alcoholic, review after review of films dealing with addiction (even the bad films, especially the bad films) spoke of firsthand understanding of and compassion for the slave to a chemical.

Ebert has two entire books devoted to negative reviews, and yet he never struck me as mean. Even at his most splenetic, he came across as a guy who’d just drunk a glass of sour milk, when all he’d wanted was a good honest normal glass of milk, and had been assured it was a great glass of milk. He wanted you to know that, no, this milk is terrible; don’t drink it; I drank it so that you don’t have to. He seldom gave the impression that he was dumping on a movie for the sadistic pleasure of it. He’d wasted hours of his ever-decreasing life on the damn thing and now he had to make something out of it. Sometimes a little bitter glee did show. He was only human.

Ebert’s first review (more exactly, “just about the first movie review I ever wrote”) was of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Not a bad way to start. The final review he posted was of The Host — not the Korean kaiju film but the shitty Hollywood one based on the shitty Stephenie Meyer book. I’m hoping there’s something else on his desk somewhere. Some final fragments of thought about, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca or even Dark City. In Ebert’s career, in his life span, you go from Fellini to teen bullshit. You don’t want to dwell on that too much.¹

No, you want to think about a man who loved what he did and did what he loved, day in and day out, for decades. You want to think about a man who did what he could while he could to add to the conversation about art. You want to think about the work he championed, the work he accomplished, the work he left us, the work we can sure try like hell to continue in his honor. We can’t be Roger Ebert but we can try to be us with as much grace and wit and honesty as he was himself.

¹As it turns out, according to Jim Emerson, the final movie Ebert reviewed was Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which seems more appropriate.

The Annual Box-Office Lament, 2011 edition

December 18, 2011

We live in a country where:

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked made more money on its first day than A Dangerous Method has made in four weeks
  • Mars Needs Moms made more money than The Tree of Life (and I’m not a Malick fan, but c’mon)
  • I Don’t Know How She Does It made more money than Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  • Conan the Barbarian made more money than The Rum Diary
  • Sherlock Holmes 2: Sherlock Holmesier, or whatever the fuck it’s called, has made more money on its opening weekend than The Descendants has made so far in 33 days
  • Even Atlas Shrugged Part I made more money than Melancholia.

Of the top ten moneymakers, eight were sequels — straight-up, the top seven were sequels. The two exceptions were based on Marvel comic books. This is the list as it stands now, though latecomers like Mission Impossible 4: Mission Impossibler might supplant a few.

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
  4. The Hangover Part II
  5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  6. Fast Five
  7. Cars 2
  8. Thor
  9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  10. Captain America: The First Avenger

Now let’s take our annual look at the top ten from twenty years ago:

  1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  3. Beauty and the Beast
  4. The Silence of the Lambs
  5. City Slickers
  6. Hook
  7. The Addams Family
  8. Sleeping with the Enemy
  9. Father of the Bride
  10. The Naked Gun 2 1/2

There’s a good deal of family/kiddie/fanboy pap on there, yes. But at #4 is the year’s eventual Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs, recognized then and now as a modern classic. Not that it matters much, but how many times since then has a top-ten-of-the-year breadwinner also been a Best Picture winner? Exactly five times: Forrest Gump, Titanic, Gladiator, Chicago, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Which means we haven’t had a top ten Best Picture winner in eight years.

Let’s flip back ten years. 2001 looks like 2011 in a lot of ways. A Harry Potter film sits at #1, just as in 2011. There’s also a Michael Bay film (Pearl Harbor), a Joe Johnston film (Jurassic Park III), and a Planet of the Apes film. The rest of the list is clotted with kiddie flicks, sequels, and movies based on previously popular properties. Then there’s Ocean’s Eleven, which itself would become a franchise (and was also a remake, though higher in tone than most). Note the lack of comic-book films: even though the previous year’s X-Men had made the top ten, and Spider-Man would dominate a year later, Marvel and DC hadn’t quite gotten Hollywood in a stranglehold yet. Since 2000, there have been only two years when no comic-book flicks appeared on the year-end top-ten list at all: 2001 and 2009. (2009 was a relatively light year for the subgenre; the double-whammy success of The Dark Knight and Iron Man in ’08 led to a new boom in superhero films being greenlighted, but they wouldn’t actually hit theaters until 2010 and thereafter.)

So what films might make the list of 2012’s top-ten grossers? The Hunger Games might be the new Twilight. The old Twilight still has one more film to go. Comic books will rule again: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Jackson is revisiting Middle-Earth, and 3D isn’t going away. And possibly a few surprises. They still happen. The Help just missed a spot on the top ten, and Bridesmaids wasn’t far behind. And even the execrable Bad Teacher cracked $100 million. That means more non-rom-coms made for females who aren’t fourteen. It won’t happen in 2012, though; you’ll start seeing the Bridesmaids wannabes in 2013. That’s if we’re still here, of course. Remember, the world’s supposed to end December 12, 2012, just like Roland Emmerich said. This means the last big-budget movie you’ll ever see is Les Miserables with Hugh Jackman on December 7. As for The Hobbit (scheduled for release December 14) and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (December 25), well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

“Geese, villain?”

May 24, 2011

I love the geese thing in Macbeth. I’m a big fan of the geese thing. What the hell am I talking about? Well, near the end of the play, Macbeth is all cocky and shit, swinging his big dick around the castle, because he knows nobody “of woman born” can hurt him. He’s basically being a TV wrestler, or Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day — “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!,” that sort of thing. Of course, we know two things about Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day: (1) King Kong does indeed have shit on him and (b) shit doesn’t end well for ol’ Denzel. Same with Macbeth, really. Dude is going insane — well, he’s already insane, but he’s going more insane trying to keep his mens from shitting their pants. Because even if the English can’t produce any test-tube-baby warriors in their ranks, that doesn’t keep everyone else from taking the pipe all around Macbeth.

In any event, either Macbeth believes all the shit he’s spouting, which is one kind of bad brain chemistry, or he’s just spouting it to make everyone feel better about their inevitable deaths, which is another kind. So Macbeth finishes up his tirade about how all y’all muthafuckas ain’t shit, and then a servant enters.

MACBETH
The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!
Where got’st thou that goose look?

SERVANT
There is ten thousand–

MACBETH
Geese, villain?

SERVANT
Soldiers, sir.

This cracked my shit up in high school. This was Shakespeare being Monty Python centuries before there was a Monty Python. At the time, I figured Macbeth was so far gone he actually thought the poor little scared dude had seen an army of ten thousand geese approaching.

But an actor could play this any number of ways. He could play up Macbeth’s rage at the servant for bringing fear into the mix just when Macbeth is trying to psych up his team. Or he could play it as a contemptuous joke, trying to make light of the servant’s fear. Or he could play it as if Macbeth actually believed the dude was about to say “ten thousand geese.”

So then Macbeth keeps verbally smacking the servant:

MACBETH
Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear,
Thou lily-liver’d boy. What soldiers, patch?
Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine
Are counsellors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?

SERVANT
The English force, so please you.

MACBETH
Take thy face hence.

Macbeth keeps making fun of the poor dude’s face — the face of fear. Probably the only honest face around. Within an hour the servant will most likely be dead, and he knows it. Which puts him one up on Macbeth, at least.

But anyway, the geese thing. It still makes me laugh, even with all the added possible interpretations.

How homeboy ends up.

What I’ve Been Reading

May 21, 2011

Some off-the-cuff ramblings on recent text that has entered my eyeballs.

Mutant Message Down Under – The familiar narrative of the white person receiving wisdom among the people of the earth. Usually the white person is female, as in this and also Lynn Andrews. It’s probably because males can be, to put it nicely, skeptical, or to put it plainly, closed-minded (not, please, the non-word “close-minded”). Women are seen in these narratives as caretakers of knowledge that would otherwise be lost (or remain within the circle of the elders). Essentially Marlo Morgan wanders about with Aborigines and learns all the ways in which modern Western thinking is fucked. I find it hard to argue. The question is, how many of the white Western people who read this when it was new and popular ever did anything with the insights they may have gained? I tend to think, not many. You dwell on how fucked we are and then you feel powerless to do much about it. Or I do, anyway. I often feel unworthy of such narratives — not that I don’t get something out of them. Maybe just the comforting awareness that not everyone gets riled up over First World problems or gives a shit about The Real Housewives of Reno or whatever the hell it is. The idea of losing yourself for a year among a people completely cut off from pop culture and the debased political dialogue and the new Pirates of the Caribbean flick has a tempting pull. Ultimately though it’s just a pipe dream. Anyway, this was a good read, if probably not a 100% accurate account of life among the Aborigines.

Losing Mum and Pup – Christopher Buckley’s memoir about becoming an orphan in his mid-fifties — first his mother, Patricia Buckley, then his father, William F. Buckley Jr. — is really more like Losing Pup (and Mum), since most of the book deals with Christopher dealing with WFB in decline. The elder’s detractors may find some schadenfreude in the depiction of WFB addled, wanting to invite long-dead friends to his party, pissing heedlessly out of a moving car. But anyone who’s watched a parent slowly fail should find themselves sobered. Christopher, a wickedly funny writer (who lost a lot of Republican goodwill in ’08 when he endorsed Obama; as with Dennis Hopper, Palin was the last straw), makes it sound both fun and somehow isolating to grow up the only son of William and Patricia. WFB comes off as an overgrown Richie Rich accustomed to getting his own way. He was filthy rich, of course, and inherited his fortune from his oil-magnate father. My empathy with WFB’s end-of-life suffering (and Christopher’s front-row seat for it) can therefore only go so far. Many thousands of people go through the same thing each year without the cushion of a family fortune. I consoled myself with the thought that WFB would not have approved of the book’s portrait of him near the end, enfeebled, finally dying alone in his garage office. The book did lead me to WFB’s amusing collection Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, which I’ve been nibbling on at work during bathroom breaks.

Django Unchained – Following up Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino seems to have anointed himself America’s grindhouse historian. Both stories are wish-fulfillment revengesploitation in which the insulted and the injured rise triumphant against their oppressors. Contrary to early belief, this script doesn’t have much at all to do with the ’60s Django film. It’s essentially a rambling buddy movie in which a German bounty hunter frees a slave and takes him under his wing. Along the way, much racist blood is spilled and the N-word is said so many times in so many contexts the film will likely be protested by one group or another, but as has been said elsewhere, the script is crudely honest about race in a way that a more polite film never could be.  In any event, a cracking good yarn, as QT’s scripts always are; can’t wait for the movie, which should be worthy of shelving alongside John Singleton’s vastly overlooked Rosewood.

Why I’m not in the Terrence Malick fan club

May 17, 2011

So the early word is out on The Tree of Life, the new gift from the firmament — uh, I mean the new Terrence Malick film. It has now played at Cannes, and the buzz is decidedly mixed. People who obviously wanted the film to be great are choking out admissions that it isn’t. Typing through a wretched prism of tears, they report that the movie is unfocused, that it is way too far up itself, that it expends vast ambition and gorgeous imagery on an utterly banal story.

To these people I must say the apparently unsayable: What, then, makes The Tree of Life so different from Malick’s previous films?

I say “apparently unsayable” because Terrence Malick, on the strength of five films he has directed over a period of 38 years, has ascended to the status of Film God in many quarters. He is a Poet, an Artist, a Sage. His Vision is Beyond Question. (Capitalization seems to suit the sort of hype that wreathes Malick.) Many people salivate over a new Malick the way they used to over a new Kubrick, Kurosawa, Bergman. I don’t mean to caricature those genuinely moved by Malickian cinema. They’re welcome to it, as I am welcome to my own David-Lynch-can-do-no-wrong thing. Anyone who cares about films has at least one director they consider flawless. It’s not that they’re in denial about the director’s turkeys. It’s that they are honestly tuned in to the director’s style and way of seeing. I’m sure there are John Landis acolytes who’ll give you 500 words on the unrecognized brilliance of The Stupids. In fact, I know there are.

So I’m not attacking the weeping masses of Malick supporters so much as the hype. I am given to wonder anew what so many perfectly credible people see in Malick. Partly it must be that we’re fast running out of American directors of true epics. (These days, of course, the closest thing we usually get to an epic is Harry Potter and the Whatever of Foo-Foo.) We do, I think, need more mad visionaries who throw caution, logic and narrative to the winds and obey nothing but whatever angel/demon resides in their hearts/minds/souls, driving them to make unclassifiable graffiti on the walls of good taste, sanity and propriety. For many people, Malick is that person, a man who cares little for monetary return, who wants only to paint his pictures about how mankind is a giant squalid bug farting flames all over resplendent, innocent nature, and also dads suck except when they don’t. In theory I should be completely in this guy’s pocket, but I have been steadfastly unengaged by the three Malick films I’ve seen (I opted out of The New World, still nauseous from the inchoate chowder that was The Thin Red Line).

In an era when Kenneth Branagh is making Thor and any film arrogant enough to tell a story about actual people is relegated to cable, Malick looks like a giant. I understand that. He is the anti-Michael Bay. That alone is almost enough to recommend him. I enjoy the idea of Malick. What I don’t understand, for starters, is the golden reputation he has among actors, especially now. An almost-literal army of actors — the green and the esteemed alike — clamored to appear in The Thin Red Line. Many of them saw their scenes whittled to shreds or thrown out entirely. After that, one would think an actor might look askance at the (slim) chance of seeing himself in a Malick flick. As it is, one hears that Sean Penn (a veteran of Malick’s World War II) is barely in The Tree of Life. Humans are but a part of the grand design in a Malick film; they don’t talk like real people and their iconicism verges on simplistic, cartoonish. Much the same, incidentally, could be said of George Lucas.

Malick’s movies are beautiful. Of course they are. Consider the list of world-class cinematographers who serve as his paintbrush: Tak Fujimoto on Badlands, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler on Days of Heaven, John Toll on Thin Red Line, Emmanuel Lubezki on The New World and The Tree of Life. These are not Joe Shmoes pointing and shooting. You or I could make dazzling films with men such as these in our corner. Ah, yes, the Malick apologist will say, but you could not duplicate the vision that animates those delicious pictures. To the apologist I must shrug and say, What vision? Malick may have a keen pictorial eye but so do many anonymous photographers who compose well and/or luck into evocative shots. The eye is only one of the organs a movie must engage. The brain is another, and from where I sit, there is not much in Malick for that organ to, so to speak, chew on.

The key Malick moment is the luscious quietude of natural Earth disturbed by the ignorant violence of its dominant life form. There are dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, Malick only knows why — I mean, God only knows why, though the other way works too. Even in early Malick, we see the problems of the central humans reduced by the grandeur of their backdrop to mere scuttling insects. I have no problem with this emphasis; it could as well describe Kubrick, or late Kurosawa. But Malick gives us nothing to hold onto aside from the hippy-dippy-trippy visuals and the motif of the innocent seeking enlightenment in the flawed false father rather than in the Mother (Earth, of course). There’s no edge to his work, no vitality.

A while ago, we could rationalize the hoopla over “the new Malick” because he emerged from his cave so seldom — The Thin Red Line was his first in twenty years. Since then he has released two films, with another reportedly in the can, a blistering pace for him. So the novelty of A New Malick isn’t quite as exciting these days. Yet the hype persists. Even allowing for welcome-back elation, I can’t imagine anyone looking at The Thin Red Line and seeing anything but a broken, incomplete film. Malick famously shoots miles of footage and then takes a year or more making sense of it in the editing bay. The waggish Erik Childress, who delights in skewering blurb whores in his Criticwatch, dared to suggest on Twitter that if Jonah Hex (a famously troubled production, similarly Frankensteined together in the editing room) were revealed to have been directed by Terrence Malick, it would magically, retroactively become a masterpiece.

Aggrieved Malickians hissed Childress for his impertinence, but the point stands. The point especially stands because Childress was hissed. What other director commands such knee-jerk loyalty? And why him? And why, for Malickians, does a distaste for or disinterest in Malick’s work speak poorly of a critic? Roger Ebert dumped on David Lynch for years; it didn’t make me stop reading Ebert. Pauline Kael savaged Kubrick for most of his and her careers; didn’t dim my admiration of Kael. Erik Childress gets mildly snarky about The Master and the weepers shriek “STOP IT! UR STOOPID!”

I dig my Tarkovsky and my Barry Lyndon and so on. Long-winded, contemplative films aren’t my Kryptonite. But I need to perceive some inner life, some drive and purpose. I don’t get that from Malick. Perhaps you do. Bon appetit. If Malick’s meandering daddy-issue tone poems are what ring your bell, The Tree of Life is said, for better or worse, to be the Malickiest Malick of them all. Dive right in. Just don’t expect me to join you, or to relish the immersion if I do jump in. We Malick skeptics are not necessarily belching vulgarians whose idea of cinematic transcendence is Transformers. Isn’t the point of art that it isn’t for everyone?

All that said, I am glad that Malick exists and that he unaccountably continues to get money to make his films (though, as my friend Kenneth Souza rightly points out, Orson Welles did not benefit from such largesse; and other filmmakers today have to scrape and bow for pennies to finance movies far less opaque and interiorized than Malick’s). In an industry dominated by mercenary crap, Malick, as I said, looks like a giant and possibly is one. But this giant seems to have fallen with The Tree of Life, which according to many reports is a spindly sapling that can’t support the weight of its ambition or its audience’s expectations. Finally, the Malickians gaze upon the Master’s canvas and see something of what I’ve seen all along.


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