Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The footage Michael Bay shot for Transformers: Dark of the Moon wasn’t edited; it was songified. A symphony played in an exotic time signature, perhaps? Well. Nah. It’s really just visual babbling: a sort of hand-in-glove match for the dialogue and its delivery. Bay’s got his brain in the blender with all the proceeds he’s getting from product placement, and he decants one weird, disassociated touch after another—a kind of surreal slapstick that makes a Happy Meal out of old Richard Lester Big Macs. The initial flukiness has some spunk—and not even in a terribly base sort of way. Plus, it’s fun to witness Shia LaBoeuf’s own transformation as he becomes more and more like Screech. The first Transformers proved unwatchable for me; but Bay still had to kowtow to audience comprehension back then, so he wore baseness on his sleeve like the Transformer timepiece (a great Hasbro / Timex tie-in) that Shia sports on his wrist. (It stings him whenever he bad-mouths the bad bots.) Sliding down a glass tower looked pretty aces—like urban exploration during the Blitz—but the movie dies as a narrative before its halfway mark and is reborn as something more prosaic. It’s possible to withstand the tediousness without having it out for the city of Chicago or getting off on military hardware; but you’re better off taking a nap.

They always put the best scenes in the trailer, don’t they? (Look, if Pitchfork can do this crap, why can’t I?)

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Midnight in Paris

One of the fun things to do when playing critic is envisaging analogues—whether they end up useful to real people, or not. So with The Tree of Life still branching out through my ears, it seemed inevitable for me, in the lamplight of Midnight in Paris, to extend Malick’s branch all the way to Woody Allen’s arrondissement. Malick is a country mouse; Allen is city. Malick gestates his films for an eternity; Allen craps his out faster than he can digest them. Both tackle the meaning of life in the bluntest ways possible; but Malick’s dialogue is mystical and sparse, whereas Allen blurts out everything that comes to his mind in an idiosyncratic version of Gothamite vernacular. And yet … boats against the current, they’re both borne ceaselessly into the past.

As Anthony Lane recognized, Malick has only recently basked in the light of the present day. Allen, in his diabolically prolific career—Midnight in Paris is approximately his 41st feature since 1966; The Tree of Life is Malick’s fifth since 1973—has given us quite a few presents, a handful of pasts, and at least one Orwellian future. He was the original Marty McFly. But even during his ’70s and ’80s heyday, when Annie Hall and Zelig broke more ground than the often-atrophied Allen sometimes gets credit for, he was in thrall to the influences of his childhood: trad jazz, Cole Porter, the Marx brothers—even their cousin Karl. It seems ironic that Manhattan is now considered the filmic apotheosis of the mythic New York that hosted CBGBs, Grandmaster Flash, and Studio 54 simultaneously—just as bottom-scraped denizens of that time and place, spurred by Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, felt a fillip of wistfulness for Weimar Berlin. The past is always greener to the future eye, Allen here concludes. Happily, though, that’s a “delusion” he can’t quite part with. It’s an impulse that this art form was founded on.

Midnight in Paris isn’t a fantasy on par with The Purple Rose of Cairo, its closest relative in the writer-director’s filmography; and it doesn’t herald a fresh start in new directions, as did Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with its influx of south-of-the-border blood. But it has serenity and charm. As one friend of mine said, it has the same faults that Allen films are increasingly culpable for; hence, the present-day-Paris frame of the story, involving an aspiring author (Owen Wilson) and his unlikely in-laws—Allen in extremis—is pretty blah: shoddily framed and edited, written as on-the-nose as a pimple, and, for the most part, hollowly acted—Rachel McAdams is its most tragic casualty. It’s impossible to conceive that either her Inez or Wilson’s Gil would ever remotely consider tying one another’s knots, especially since she has the hots for that stygian classic of Allen’s stock company: the brainiacal blowhard (Michael Sheen). You want to rip the beard right off his face. Wilson, however, transcends all this. He’s the omnipresent Allen surrogate, and he’s adjusted his lope accordingly; but his slower prowl and self-effacingly flaky grin make this familiar trope gleam in a new light. A Cali light. One can imagine this successful screenwriter—what, I’d love to know, is he “selling out” with?—as West Coast Woody, surfing when not reading Schopenhauer. Gil’s cool airs makes him the perfect Cinderella / Alice for Allen to toss down the rabbit-hole—in the form of a Peugeot phaeton—that deposits him, every night as the clock tower tolls midnight, in the year 1927.

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The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s movies are often called “magical,” and that’s typically not applied in the pejorative; but his sway has elements that Lord Voldemort, his unlikely box-office competitor, might be jealous of. “He is trying to film God,” Mick LaSalle believes; he’s “attempting … to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives,” Roger Ebert opines; “The Tree of Life ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them,” says A.O. Scott; “Should the film have been titled ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Malick’?” the Movie Monster mumbles. Clearly, the film strikes a chord. But if it makes one feel as if criticizing it were child abuse, well, someone’s waving a wand behind the scenes: Voldemort—the Koch brothers perhaps. Actually, the man behind this curtain both is and isn’t Malick, obscured by his cloak of public invisibility: “Genius” is inscribed on it, the way “Diva” is sewn on sweatpants booties.

That said, I do not disbelieve claims that he is ingenuous, guileless, unpretentious, ambitious, or talented; I do not believe that The Tree of Life is a bad movie; but I also do not believe its Creator is infallible. First off, there’s a reason this film invites such anvils of praise as “confirmation that cinema can aspire to art.” His “art” is writ so large it can be seen from space: and, indeed, he chucks us at the second star to his right, and goes straight on till the first-ever morning. In case you haven’t heard, Malick follows his opening shots of grown-up Jack (Sean Penn) daydreaming in a Dallas office, during the present day, with the reactions of Jack’s parents to his brother’s death, circa the 1960s—the cause of death is undisclosed, though Malick had a younger brother who is said to have taken his own life in 1968—and then the director hops back a bit further: to the Big Bang. The ensuing light show was designed in part by Douglas Trumbull, who, as a young man, went Beyond the Infinite with Kubrick in 2001. It’s a striking montage: Like the waves breaking on themselves in Jack’s memory, there’s an ebb and flow to the cosmic matter and, later, the lava, churning out civilization’s lifeblood. It’s an illustration of time. But it doesn’t have an inch more depth than Duncan Jones’s essay on ephemerality, scrawled in editing, in Source Code. This sequence was intended for another film—one that Malick never got around to making. It shows.

What follows, for quite awhile, is equally blunt “art,” although some of the images and gestures lodge in your mind like morsels of food lodge in your teeth. Though set in Texas, where Malick grew up, it never seems very hot; for the interiors, it’s as if the curtains veiled a full moon that’s parked itself next door. The camera is a character, the buoyant head atop an invisible child’s shoulders. Essentially, The Tree of Life is a portrait of the artist as a sensitive kid; and young Jack (Hunter McCracken, fantastic) isn’t much different than other sensitive kids. The O’Brien family is mildly dysfunctional—a headache rather than a heart attack—with a childlike Earth-mother (ginger-haired Jessica Chastain), representing “grace,” and a melancholic tough-guy dad (Brad Pitt), representing “nature,” as the two poles between which Jack is torn. And though it could be said that this lengthy midsection, by way of the director’s impressionistic editing, is true to the processes of memory, it struck me as a best-of reel of every early memory Malick ever wanted to sanctify on film; and it’s sanctified, all right, by the Mahler and the Brahms that exult in the imagery. But it’s like a Hallmark card written by someone with direly serious literary ambitions: The story doesn’t live up to the style, whether you call it a story or not. (Though the story does catch up eventually.) Malick’s camera gapes at adults as if they were skyscrapers, and skyscrapers as if they were adults; this glabrous equipoise is genuinely childlike. But when exaltation is the default mode, each scene—each memory—carries the same weight as the last. The style says: Everything is beautiful. Which is to say, it says nothing.

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