(mini) Film Ruminations: The Tree of Life (2011), Super 8 (2011), A Serious Man (2010), etc.

I do not write reviews for the majority of films I watch.  My reasons are somewhat nebulous considering it’s the summer and I certainly have time.  I see my blog more as a way to re-examine and bring to the forefront sci-fi books and films generally more esoteric and infrequently reviewed.  But certain winds shift direction for brief windows of time.  So here we go, a rundown of the more popular films I’ve seen in theater or re-watched recently.

The Tree of Life (2011), dir. Terrence Malick, rating 7.75/10 (Good)

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Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) juxtaposes extensive sequences of cosmic expanses, creation (the big bang?), and evolution with a “narrative” that takes place in a small Texas town. (Large portions of the movie was filmed in Austin and various other towns in Texas).

The narrative is a family drama about a domineering father (Brad Pitt) who intersperses affection with drastic attempts to form his son into the man he never was, the relationship between his three sons, and their mother who tries to shield them from the outside world (there’s a beautiful sequence where she places her hands over over the eyes of one of her songs preventing him from seeing a man having a seizure in the yard) yet allows her husband to impose his will.

This is my favorite Malick film I’ve seen so far.  Brad Pitt is a remarkable actor.  However, a second story line with Sean Penn as  the eldest son looking back at his childhood felt tertiary at best.  Likewise, long afterlife sequences and occasionally ham-fisted voiceovers belabor a fine effort.  The Tree of Life is a stunningly beautiful, well-acted film with an unconventional delivery (space, friendly dinosaurs, nebulae) which will frustrated many viewers.  Be prepared!

Super 8 (2011), dir. J. J. Abrams, rating 6/10 (Average)

I don’t get the hype.  Ok, I ran away screaming after the first few minutes of Spielberg’s E.T. when I was a child (why would anyone want to lure that poor alien!!) and never saw The Goonies so that might explain the lack of any nostalgic value for Spielberg (film/story) homages.  That said, Super 8 is also a film about children making monster films — these sequences are without question the most compelling and emotionally engaging.  The children actors (especially Elle Fanning) are superb — the relationship between the intense Charles (Riley Griffifths) and the more distant/conflicted Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is believable and relatable.

However, Super 8 quickly devolves into a rather silly monster movie.  Remember people, we felt for E.T., Super 8 attempts to make us feel sorry for the alien tortured by humans but… fell… I wanted this alien to die.   The alien looks like a gooey spider (terrible CGI) — is it supposed to be scary?  Argh — and the ending almost ruins the entire experience. J. J. Abrams desperately attempts to evoke emotion which comes off as an empty posture.  As a film about making movies and genuine relationships between children Super 8 succeeds but somewhere along the line Abram’s loses sight of this powerful vision.

Cassablanca (1942), dir. Michael Curtiz, rating 9/10 (Masterpiece)

Countless words of praise have been poured on this film so I’ll keep mine to the minimum.  I saw Casablanca (1942) for the very first time on the big screen at the Paramount Theater in Austin, TX.  It was delightful, I laughed, it was emotionally engaging, well-acted…  A classic which is all that it’s cracked up to be.  If there’s a flaw it’s the rather un-involving somewhat ordinary cinematography.

A Serious Man (2010), dir. Coen Brothers, dir. 8.5/10 (Very Good)

I re-watched the Coen brother’s brilliant A Serious Man (2010) a few days ago (the first was on an airplane to Italy) and I remain impressed.  A Serious Man is a very literary and personal work that feels like a minimalist short story or novel with moments of delightful dead-pan humor interspersed throughout.  I’m somewhat confused by many reviewers who point out the supposed necessity to be a Jew to ascertain the film’s “meaning.”  That’s patently false.

Delicatessen (1991), dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, rating 9/10 (Masterpiece)

One of my all-time favorite films from the director of Amelie — a dark comedy contained within a singe house (the action takes place on the roof, inside, in the basement, and underground).  In an unexplained (post-apocalyptical?) future a landlord kills his tenants to feed his tenants.  Vegetables and grains are no longer considered food…  An oblivious clown whose chimpanzee has recently been killed and eaten falls in love the daughter of the landlord..  Not to be missed!  Jean-Pierre Jeunet co-directed works with Marc Caro are superior to his later endeavors.

The Third Man (1949), dir. Carol Reed, rating 9.5/10 (Masterpiece)

Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is a chilling vision of post-War Vienna where an American (Orson Welles) takes advantage of the destruction to make a personal fortune selling counterfeit medication.  The cinematography is awe inspiring — filled with unorthodox angles, deep shadows… Contains one of the most visually stunning sequences ever to grace the silver screen — a conversation on a ferris wheel overlooking Vienna.  The only flaw is an annoying score…

And because my fingers have tired, a simple list of others…

The Shining (1980), dir. Stanley Kubrick, rating 7/10 (Good)

The Thin Red Line (1998), dir. Terrence Malick, rating 6.75/10 (Average)

A Clockwork Orange (1971), dir. Stanley Kubrick, rating 9/10 (Masterpiece)

Twin Peaks (TV 1990-1991), creators David Lynch, Mark Frost, rating 9/10 (Masterpiece)

The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir, rating 8/10 (Very Good)

Ratcatcher (1999), dir. Lynne Ramsay, rating 6.75/10 (Average)

This is Spinal Tap (1984), dir. Bob Reiner, rating 7.5/10 (Good)

Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq (2006), dir. Pitof, rating 2/10 (Drivel)

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34 thoughts on “(mini) Film Ruminations: The Tree of Life (2011), Super 8 (2011), A Serious Man (2010), etc.”

  1. Too bad about not falling in love with The Tree of Life. Seeing it Friday myself and kind of expect it to be a masterpiece. :) Of course, Malick is my favorite and the voiceovers he incorporates usually take my breath away.

    1. I’m not falling in love with Malick in general — sadly — I thought I would. I couldn’t tolerate The Thin Red Line, I thought it had been done, better, elsewhere, even by more mainstream films…. I feel terrible for not really liking him. The Tree of Life IS a great experimental film, I’m just not sure it’s my cup of tea — and I do like experimental films…

      1. The New World, which is actually my favorite movie. :) The Thin Red Line is my second favorite. I’m interested to hear what other films you think do a better job of what The Thin Red Line did. Beach Red is the only one that comes to mind, though I prefer the Malick’s more polished version.

      2. I may have judged The Thin Red Line unfairly considering I didn’t finish the film :( I’ve heard good things about The New World — despite its premise.

  2. Oh Boaz, I love you so…

    A Serious Man was a pleasant surprise, and I liked the tenebrous ending. The pacing plodded at times, but I think the linkages worked.

    All movies I’ve seen with you btw! :)

  3. Miles — it’s absolutely criminal that you give Casablanca or Delicatessen higher ratings than The Thin Red Line.

  4. Very interesting stuff. I have been curious about your reasons for not reviewing more mainstream films. I at least share your reservations about The Tree of Life. (In particular the afterlife scenes.) I enjoyed the brief discussion of The Thin Red Line, but I have yet to see it.

    1. I have a problem writing about what other people have written about 300xs — hehe. Hence my generally esoteric sci-fi reviews (some don’t have a single word written about them on the internet). As a result I concentrate my film reviews only on the lesser seen (and thus written about) ones…

  5. I certainly understand the sentiment. What can be said for a massively reviewed film/book that has not been said already? (I certainly feel this way about almost every Kubrick film.) Very interesting about some of those books having no reviews. I assumed they were obscure, but I did not know how obscure. That is excellent that books and to some degree films, that receive little attention are getting some on your blog.

    I see my blog a bit differently. Mine is an attempt to catalog my thoughts on the films I see. Partially as a way to get me thinking more critically about the films I see and to improve my writing, and partially so that I can look back on the films and wrestle with my logic at a later date or look back with nostalgia. However, I find your approach very intriguing and admirable.

    1. Just as thousands of scholars discuss/reinterpret Beowulf over and over again the act of writing about any film (even Kubrick’s) at the very least inspires the writer to write/think/process/apply — so there’s no harm — I just see my blog differently.

      Yes, but, you catalog your thoughts on the films to see TO discuss them — the act of making an entry public entails as much…

  6. It is true that I catalog my thoughts to discuss films, whether popular or obscure. I certainly value that discussion. I was more suggesting that my blog exists primarily for my own benefit, which includes any debate and discussion between myself and others that may result from its publication, regardless of the relative popularity of a film. The point is articulation of thoughts, not originality.

    Your blog is more altruistic. You see yourself as providing some service to the literature you engage with, by providing them with exposure and awareness. Thus, the more rare a book is, the more valuable your blog is to it. I think that is pretty interesting and while I will still write about any film I see that I have not already written about, I may need to make a more concerted effort to seek out films that are not widely known.

    1. Then it begs the question — why make them public? You could keep the files on your computer…. I dunno, when I reviewed films (I still plan to at least occasionally) I did make a concerted effort to seek the not widely known works — I found it very rewarding! For example, some of Raoul Ruiz’s works (he just died recently) — Three Crowns of the Sailor.

      Or Zurlini’s virtually unknown masterpiece — The Desert of the Tartars

      And Resnais’ lesser known works — for example, La Guerre est Finie

      Or Dassin’s unjustly forgotten masterpiece (of sorts) — He WHo Must Die

  7. The point of making posts public is to provide an incentive for myself to be a clearer, more effective writer and more importantly, to benefit from the input I receive from people that happen to read my blog and post comments.(On a practical note, WordPress provides an easy to use format, which lets me put posts into categories and keep information about the films I have seen. In this way it is superior to writing privately on Microsoft Word.) Nothing helps me clarify my thoughts better than having to explain them to someone else and having a constructive disagreement with another person. (For example, the brief discussion we had about Fellini and Eight and a Half forced me to explain myself more clearly and effectively, as well as think about the comments you made about the film.)

    I rarely seek out popular, current films. When I see them, it is usually the result of hanging out with friends or my girlfriend. The films I do see tend to be on the fringes of films mainstream audiences are aware of, though admittedly for film “buffs”, most of the films on my blog are pretty well known. I tend to seek out films that have a strong critical reception, regardless of their age, genre, or country of origin, although at some point soon, I plan on working on the filmography of directors, such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Errol Morris.

    The problem I have with really obscure films is deciding which ones to watch. There are countless low-budget films throughout the world. A great many of them are uninteresting. How does one make a determination which film to see without relying on suggestions from others? For example, how did you hear about Raul Ruiz, Zurlini, Resnais, and Dassin? I suspect it has something to do with being a medieval historian :)

    1. Yup — so, in short, it’s more than a catalogue of your reactions — you desire other people’s reactions as well — conversation… See that makes sense.

      I enjoy both Errol Morris (I love Gates of Heaven) and Melville ((Le Cercle Rouge is a darn good film).

      Hmmm, Raoul Ruiz (Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, Marcel Proust’s Time Regained, Three lives and Only One Death), Zurlini (Girl With A Suitcase, Violent Summer), Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad), and Jules Dassin (Rififi, Thieve’s Highway, etc) are all famous film directors! That’s how I’ve heard of them…. imdb, wikipedia, books, etc…

      If you haven’t seen any Dassin or Resnais films you must if you call yourself a film buff ;) Criterion Collection has picked up a bunch of them. tehehe… The others are rather more esoteric.

  8. Oh, I definitely want conversation. I tried to say that in an earlier post, but I do not think it was very clear. I certainly would not dare to call myself a film buff. I have a long way to go before that term is remotely applicable.

    That was more or less my point about films. We hear about them from some other source, whether through IMDB, Wikipedia, or otherwise. If that is the case, how obscure can a film be? Nevertheless, films can still be pretty obscure, and I agree it is exciting to discover a great film/book that is little seen/read.

    Gates of Heaven is one of my all-time favorites films. You’ve given me some films to check out. :)

    1. I’d stay away from most of Zurlini’s stuff besides Desert of the Tartars which is quite good — the rest were random examples I could come up with on the spot.

      But yes, Resnais and Dassin need to be watched — hehe.

      You’d be surprised how “unknown” some of them actually are — the Dassin film I mentioned before which I reviewed — He Who Must Die — has under 300 votes on imdb yet it’s a Dassin film!

      Or, for example Margarethe von Trotta’s pretty good “Sisters or the Balance of Happiness” which has 86 votes — all of her filmography is barely seen and deserves to be (I’d suggest “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum” which she co-directed with her husband/famous German director Volker Schlöndorff and her best solo effort “Rosa Luxemburg”).

      In short, there are many great films out there which people don’t see — you just have to search compulsively for them like me :)

      Or any of Guy Maddin’s crazy films…. “Brand Upon the Brain!”, or “My Winnipeg”, or “Cowards Bend the Knee or The Blue Hands”…

  9. Hi, just stumbled on this (a little late). I like the score on The Third Man – it adds a quirky element to go along with the cool cinematography. I can’t think of another film with a similar score. I’m also enjoying your various sci-fi ruminations. :)

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I found that the cinematography/plot and the score didn’t mesh very well. But, it’s by far my favorite film-noir and deserves to be called a classic!

  10. Joachim, Interesting thoughts. I find a lot of dislike/hate for Tree of Life but I find it to be that rare film made in the last decade that energizes as opposed to enervates. I recently watched it with two adults with very different movie interests and an 11-year-old and all were bowled over by different elements of it. As I age I find myself impressed with audacious commercial filmmaking like this, while things like Inception and The Dark Knight bore me to the point where I don`t want to watch a movie for days…….Guy Madden`s short and earlier films were awesome, so it pained me to shut off Saddest Music in the World–maybe I need to be in the right mood…..Recently bought the Criterion Last Year in Marienbad and still can`t get through it, as magnificent as it looks–my favorite Resnais is still Providence…As a Kubrick megafan am even lonelier than as a Tree fan, as I find Clockwork a bunch of bullshit….Third Man`s score bring it from an A-picture to a classic work…

    1. The Saddest Music is probably his most mainstream — but in a perfectly watchable way. Every one of his films I’ve seen “reads” like a short story. They are literary, comic, visually intriguing…. Few movies do that for me — Kusturica’s Arizona Dream (1992) is one….

  11. I was enjoying A Serious Man but was puzzled by its rambling structure [the lady neighbor was a great slice of reality/oddness] until I realized it`s a retelling/rebooting of the Job story, then I loved it….E.T. sucks.

  12. True, but ever since Conan began with a quote from Nietzche I`ve tried to treat those with some skepticism. :P [wiseass] ;).. …Arizona Dream has been in my Amazon cart half a dozen times and for some reason I never pull the trigger! A friend who loves Johnny Depp [dislike him except for Fear and Loathing, a great adaptation of the one Hunter S. I still like long after I stopped being a teenager] liked it but I seem to recall her talking about Jerry Lewis and trampolines or something and it scares me off….

    1. Ah, but it’s a very very very young Johnny Depp. Yes, a strange role but perfectly suited for him. I also loved him in the Tim Burton (whom I normally despise) film, Ed Wood.

      Emir Kusturica has been my favorite director for a long time — Underground (1995) is my favorite film. Bombastic Eastern Europe meets magical realism… He’s perhaps the best director of magical realism out there.

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114787/

  13. I agree with the Madden assessment as short stories, especially Cowards–Gimli feels more like one of the Kafka stories like Penal Colony that feels long-ish, but when it is over I feel I`ve been STRETCHED as I moved through it and wondered why this or that effect was belabored. I have yet to see the other two of his you reviewed by they sound wonderful. Maya Deren may be a little tame for you but her stuff I find so enjoyable, like short poems. Much of the imagery has been co-opted so frequently it may seem like you`re watching a college film class final project but I find her stuff bracing……It is so refreshing to find so many films and filmmakers I`ve never experienced being reviewed here. You are living up to your goal of celebrating lesser-known work to me, anyway. [I have that Joanna Russ book on order, too.] For myself the nonfiction I`ve publishedwas primarily for my benefit–putting my thoughts in order organized my feelings and bits of unfinished conclusions. Thanks for sharing your finds.

  14. Can you help me with this traffic thing on my blog since you already have a well lit following on yours and fair amount of hits too. How can i increase the traffic, the followers and the hits on my blog ?

    1. Find other bloggers with similar interests and talk to them… Develop a community. I’ve also been picked up by io9 and been feature on wordpress freshly pressed 4 times which helps as well. I also do not review films predominately (that was years ago) and concentrate on my a particular niche — 40s-70s print SF and SF art. So, perhaps you need to find a niche in the film world — something that would set your blog apart from the 500 million other film review sites.

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