It seems as though only in failure is great ambition ever spoken of as a favorable trait. This isn’t surprising, as a successful project will always be discussed primarily for its success, and an acknowledgment of ambition can be a salve in defeat. But only in the rarest of cases is the architect of a project given credit for, not just the assembly of something great, but the scope and the presence of mind to approach something massive and significant. In film it’s men like Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, or even James Cameron; men whose work hinges on innovation and imagination. Terrence Malick is surely a member of this class. In the five films he’s made since 1973, he has consistently (if a bit sparsely) assembled staggeringly beautiful pictures, all with the earnest intention of showing us something true and universal. With The Tree of Life, Malick has created a film that is ambitious and successful, visceral, draining, deeply consequential and lofty enough to be just a bit pretentious. This is the opposite of a director playing it safe. This is a swing for the fences, and a man trying his damnedest to illuminate the kind of mountainous existentialisms that humanity has been mulling for millenia.
Category Archives: Five Stars
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are New York City guys, through and through. Born there, raised there, and like a couple of Gangster Woody Allens, treating the city as their muse and making their best films there. It’s with this unyielding connection in mind that I found myself struck by Taxi Driver‘s portrayal of the Apple. New York City is a hellhole, covered in sweat and grime, its streets trafficked by hookers and killers. It is a truly miserable place. This could mean a number of things from the Director’s point of view: it could be the truth of the city’s underworld in the 1970’s, or just the way the city looks to Travis Bickle, or, most probably, it is simply the way Scorsese sees the world. Dark and dirty, with the occasional intimation that people aren’t entirely hopeless.
While good films are allowed a few missteps, truly great films are about the confluence of many great things. Great films are about the serendipity of timeless talent doing their best work together. If this can’t be said for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then it can’t be said for any film. As collaborations go, Sunshine sits in the stratosphere with films like Network or Star Wars; moments of such dramatic success that it seems impossible luck wasn’t somehow involved. It’s not precisely that the individuals involved with a movie like Eternal Sunshine will never again achieve a similar success, so much as they can forever after know that they achieved what they set out to do when they decided to make films: produce something timeless, and universal, and thoroughly, unequivocally great.
There are films that you watch and there are films that you experience, and in almost every case, a Stanley Kubrick film will fall into that second category. This becomes clearer when you tell somebody that you recently watched one of his films and they ask you what it was about. Try and answer. Sure, you can give a plot summary, but trying to articulate what the film was about is like trying to describe color to a blind person. There’s simply too much there. Never is this truer than in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick’s legendary masterpiece devoted to the majesty and mystery of our universe. Kubrick himself said in a 1968 interview, “You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.” His purpose was not to tell us what to feel, but simply to make us feel something immense. If, somehow, you come out on the other side of this remarkable piece of cinema without being moved, without feeling something, then friend, you’re doing it wrong.
My latest viewing of Orson Welles‘ career-defining masterpiece was a palette cleanser, pulling me with great finality out of the quicksand of the 2011 Oscar race and refocusing my scope. Sometimes it takes a great film to do this, and through most of my career as a watcher I’ve used tent-pole titles to widen my perspective. This is a necessary joy at times, but Citizen Kane is, obviously, far more than just a refreshing film from another era. It is a complex portrait of one of this country’s most successful and monstrous businessmen, and the starting gun of a media war. It is the shining achievement of Welles’ career, as well as his undoing. It is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time.
It seems that “Based on a True Story” is a qualifier used more and more these days. This year alone contains the films 127 Hours, The Fighter, and The Social Network, which are all “based on…” to varying degrees. It’s logical that dramatic reality is more compelling than dramatic fiction, and regardless of how truthfully one’s film follows that reality, people are going to respond to it. The problem then comes when a filmmaker takes advantage of this fact and tells us a story that isn’t entirely worth telling, or a story more intriguing on paper than the screen. It’s not black and white either, with films like The Social Network telling first-rate tales but taking huge liberties in order to do so. Luckily, there are films like The King’s Speech, which don’t require any embroidery to astound us. Films that have found the perfect historical confluence of event and characters and themes. It’s the rarity of films like this that makes them so special, but in the case of The King’s Speech it’s also the quality of the yarn. It is surely one of the best stories you’ve never heard.
It’s ironic how entirely nostalgic it is viewing Toy Story for the first time in a decade. Though I suppose that nostalgia shouldn’t surprise me, as nearly any Disney title awakens vivid memories of childhood and the wonder of animated cinema. Obviously the world of Disney pre-Pixar is iconic, particularly for those of us lucky enough to grow up during their late 80s/early 90s renaissance. My particular favorite was Aladdin, but I’ve never been picky, and would gladly sit through a viewing of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. Heck, I’d even watch Pocahontas. Still, while Disney’s astounding talent for inserting themselves into childhood is something I’m grateful for, it’s only part of what makes my adult viewing of Toy Story ironic. The more relevant aspect of that irony is the reality that Toy Story is a movie about nostalgia. Or at the very least it’s a movie that recognizes the heft of it. Memories of childhood are either beautiful or awful, and rarely of the mundane; what trauma or drama is there in the tedium of childhood? Though we catch only glimpses of the story from adolescent Andy’s perspective, the one requirement for enjoying this film is to have been that age, and to have loved those toys. Perhaps one of Disney’s, Pixar’s and director John Lasseter‘s most charming notions is imagining that those toys could love you back.
The third act of Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds finds the Nazi elite mingling languidly in a quaint and gorgeous theater in Paris. They are here to witness the debut of Joseph Goebbel’s latest film, Nation’s Pride, an account of Private Frederick Zoller’s (Daniel Brühl) war heroics, wherein he killed hundreds of Americans with only a gun and his German cunning. From Bormann, to Goebbels, to Hitler himself, the Third Reich’s most distinguished members are in attendance to celebrate a mass slaughter carried out by one of their own. And he no more than a private in Hitler’s army. Zoller’s exploits feed their nationalism, their lust for victory, and as the lights in the theater dim and the film rolls, Goebbel’s film finds a ruggedly handsome Frederick Zoller killing one American after the next for an eternity. The audience is held captive in their delight, their sweaty, angry faces beaming with a rapture both large and terrifying. For you see, according to Quentin, Nazis are simply irritable nerds, and death is their porn.
The characters of Federico Fellini‘s 8½ are obsessed with age. Apart from the occasional young person who somehow finds their way into a scene and is simply too naive to know any better, or to care, the chief characters range in age from their late 30s to nearly bedridden and all of them are desperate to regain that which is lost. The men all have mistresses far younger than they, the women make themselves up literally and with feigned indifference. While this is not the point of 8½, it is significant to it. This film is about the fear of commitment, both artistic and emotional. Allowing age to run rampant in the way it does here, with barrages of the elderly ambling about in the sunlight (in a place so strongly resembling the afterlife it’s no wonder nothing gets done) and women whose usefulness runs out around the age of 55, suggests to the audience that time is fleeting and commitment is an anchor. Freedom to pursue whatever you want comes at the cost of not being tied down. To what? Your producer, your crew, your cast, your friends, your wife, your mistress, your ideas, your ideals, yourself.
Something happens in that moment when Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) steps off the Green Line bus and the soft strum of Nico’s “These Days” flutters. Light suddenly fills her space, and time drags as she comes back to Richie (Luke Wilson), the brother she hasn’t seen in years. Each step feels eternal and Richie watches unmoving, his impassive gaze telling us far more than any dialogue or exposition. It’s a towering moment, showing us a director with, among many, many other talents, the ability to construct beautiful cinema. Character, setting, light, sound, time; all just elements that Wes Anderson has blended to a moment glancing at perfection. It can take your breath away.