Thursday, June 23, 2011

Playing Hooky: A Wonderful Day of Film in the City!

Oh my gosh, I almost forgot to tell you, my rabid fan(s), about my wonderful day in the city! It was Monday! I go into work after a terrific Father's Day weekend, and I see that several of my co-workers are out for the day. I check my Inbox. I have nothing pressing. There are some little things I could do to bide my time, but nothing that absolutely demanded my presence. A decision was made straight-away: I was blowing the chicken coop and heading out to see some movies. I decided not to tell my wife because she would make me feel bad about going (although I told her later because I have an incredibly wicked guilt complex due to Catholic upbringing and general neurosis). Anyway, I checked the movie times, put in the PTO request, and prepared for a day of frivolity rare in my recent experience.

The first movie, I would go see was Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Its playing time was noon at Ritz East in Philadelphia. I work approximately two miles away from the destination, so I put in for an 11:30 a.m. departure time. This gave me 30 minutes to go from 16th and Arch to 2nd and Sansom (I didn't feel like blowing additional money on a cab). This was no small chore for, if you have ever walked in Philly, you know that the working stiffs of the City of Brotherly Love walk almost exactly like zombies, only with slightly less vim and vigor. However, despite having to battle past a gaggle of Biggest Loser candidates on the way, I arrived at my destination with time to spare. After purchasing a Diet Coke and a small popcorn with no butter (yes, it was very tough not to get the gigantic box of Sour Patch Kids), I entered the theater hoping for a transformative experience.

The Tree of Life

I am not going to be able to give you a very good explanation of The Tree of Life, legendary director Terrence Malick's fifth film in 38 years. It would take too long, and I probably wouldn't even come close to what Malick was trying to get at. It focuses on a family in the 1950s, particularly how one child deals with the personalities of his strict disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt, wonderfully understated) and a loving, nurturing mother (newcomer Jessica Chastain, a terrific screen presence). When the family suffers a major loss, we see how it continues to affect them across generations. The tragedy is then put into perspetive via a look at how the world was created, showing how a death can be both shattering for a family and yet insignificant in the lengthy span of the world's history.

See. I told you my explanation would blow. Anyway, that all sounds very pretentious (and maybe it is), but it doesn't stop it from being one of the most exhilirating and visually splendid films to hit American screens in the last decade. The thing is practically a filmed poem. There is almost no conventional dialogue exchanges in the first 80 minutes. There is basically no plot to speak of. There are moments when Malick will take 15 to 20 seconds to follow a flock of birds around a city landscape just because he can. Sean Penn appears in the film, and yet as I think back, I'm not sure that he says more than 20 words in the entire thing.

Watching The Tree of Life, it becomes obvious why it takes Malick so much time to put out movies. I'm not sure if there is one frame of the film that doesn't look masterful. Furthermore, one shot features the mother standing in the street as a butterfly approaches and lands on her hand and then the camera goes in for a gorgeous close-up of the winged creature. Maybe this is CGI, but I doubt it. One gets the impression that Malick does not really go out to film a movie with script in hand and an idea of what needs to be shot that day. It is more like he just stands there with a camera in his hand, watches what his actors do and what happens around them, and just goes out and edits a movie around what happened. For his work on this film, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski should not simply win an Oscar. No, he should be covered in gold and all the other winners should be presented with an "Emmanuel Lubezski." The look of this film is simply exquisite.

The Big Bang sequence is another piece of filmmaking that I am not going to be able to describe very well, and maybe that is the point. It's a mix of experimental filmmaking, CGI, nature videography, and Lord knows what else that really doesn't have a place in a world where people are willing to pay 15 bucks to see the fifth entry in the Fast and Furious franchise. Quite frankly, it is amazing that suits are willing to give Malick money to make movies these days. It is so easy to compare the sequence to the incredible work that was done for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I entered the theater excited to see it and eager to write about how critics who cited the 1968 masterpiece were taking the easy shortcut...but it does bring 2001: A Space Odyssey to mind. The theater I attended was absolutely stone silent during this part of the film. It reduced the viewer to a feeling of awe and probably a little bit of stupification. I definitely wondered what the fick I was a good way.

What else can be said about the film? Stunning use of montage. Let's be honest: About 100 minutes of the films 138 minute running time is broken into practically wordless chapters. The beginning that focuses on their reaction to their child's death. The Big Bang sequence. The birth of the family. A sequence that shows the family's "reunion" at a beach that might be heaven or spiritual something or other. All these sequences are brilliantly rendered and extremely powerful. It should be said that the sequence that was most conventinally narrative-based was probably the weakest part of the film. This is probably because Malick treats his characters like part of the fabric. They are not fully developed entities, but rather archetypes that don't benefit from lengthy exploration.

As I take a look at this review, it seems scattershot and all over the place. Stream of consciousness almost. I am tempted to delete and start over. But then I think it is sort of like the movie itself. Rather than focus in on one aspect and stick to it, The Tree of Life seeks to tackle issues of spirit, family, religion, life, death, science, delinquency, dinosaurs and butterflies who land on hands, and it does it with ambition and an admirable tendency not to wrap any bows. The film is a wonder to behold and will be remembered for many years to come.


The Tree of Life ended around 2:25. This left 35 minutes before my next film, Woody Allen's 10,000,000th feature Midnight in Paris. I walked over to the Ritz Five and purchased my ticket. Next it was off to a bar of my choosing to wile away 30 minutes. As I passed the City Tavern, I remembered a fine dinner I had there one time. Then I saw that they had the Yards offering Alexander Hamilton Federalist Ale on tap! This sealed the deal. I had consumed their other Ales of the Revolution beers previously and they were quite delightful with strange instruments that came together in unexpected fashion. So I sauntered into the establishment and prepared for a beverage. Being not immediately able to find their bar, I asked the host, who was decked out in Revolutionary garb, if they had one. He pointed me to a room around the corner. However, I could not immediately make out an actual bar! There were some little tables that you could sit at. There were some bigger tables that did not seem appropriate for one person. But there was no BAR. Where were the taps? Where was the, like, glasses and stuff? I figured maybe I could sit down in a chair and maybe one of the waitresses would come up to me and ask me what I wanted, but what if no one came up to serve me and I just looked like some lunatic who came in to take a load off and discomfort the paying customers. I entertained the idea of, you know, asking who I would bother to get a beer. But I could only picture myself walking up to some gal in a bonnet, asking where the hell I could sit to wet my whistle, and getting back something like "Thou hath cometh to the improper inn. Idle a spell whilst thy wench inquires whetherest your thirst might be quenched." It was all too much for me to deal with. I ducked out of there, an utterly confused and thirsty servant of the realm.

Instead, I went over to Positano Coast. This seemed like it could be a great place to eat lunch. But I didn't have time so I just sat at their bar and enjoyed what is quickly becoming one of my favorite beers of the season: Victory Headwaters Pale Ale. After putting one down, I danced over the cobblestones to my next dalliance with the cinema.

Midnight in Paris

Don't worry, this section of the post will not be as long nor as ponderous as the bit I wrote on The Tree of Life. It isn't that I didn't like the film. In fact, I was quite satisfied with it. It was a nice, fun entertainment, a comedy that didn't offer any knee-slapping moments, but more than enough smile-inducing ones.

It would be tough to find two directors more different than Terrence Malick and Woody Allen. One makes a movie every five years if you're lucky. The other seems to put one out every eight months. Malick's films seek to tackle major issues in gradiose fashion. Allen's, of course, are always quite economically filmed, and usually are concerned with simple themes: love, personal fulfillment, and the struggle of dealing with pseudo-intellectuals.

Midnight in Paris is not out to break new ground, but it is charming and effective enough to stand as Allen's best work since 2005's Match Point (although Vicky Cristina Barcelona was quite good as well) . I did not know how Owen Wilson was going to fit into his role as Woody Allen's stand-in, but he was actually quite good as a nostalgiac writer who lives in the past, and gets his time-travelling wish when a mysterious coach takes him back to Paris in the 1920s (no explanation of this by Allen, which benefits the story tremendously). Along with Wilson, there is the usual star-studded cast that you would expect for one of Allen's films. Among the luminaries are Rachel McAdams as Wilson's slightly materialistic girlfriend, Michael Sheen as a stuffy professor with his eyes on McAdams, and Marion Cotillard, who makes a terrific impression per usual as a courtesan who, despite living in the time of Picasso, Hemingway, Dali et al, secretly longs to a better era in time.

The acting is chief among the film's strengths, but Allen's writing and ability to set tone deserves credit as well. While the film features some of the director's more annoying traits (an aversion to show-not-tell character development, an eagerness to display his own intellect), it ultimately wins the day due to its romantic tone and whimsical atmosphere. Of course, the sites of Paris probably have a lot to do with that. Allen, who long shot his films primarily in New York City, seems to be making his way through Europe at this point. First, he shot three in London, then he moved over to Barcelona, and now the City of Lights. With his next film set in Rome, it is perhaps fair to ask if he has been contracted by someone to enhance Europe's tourism industry. Your move, Prague!

In any event, Midnight in Paris is a worthwhile view and a great movie to check out with your significant other (unless she thinks Woody Allen is a creep; oh well).

Train Ride Home

Yes, I made it to the train. On time. If I had not, with the wife at home with Saucy Jr. while I gallivanted around town, I may not have been alive to write this piece.

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