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‘12 Years a Slave’ is a grueling antidote to the comparatively toothless ‘Lincoln’

Film review

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is “counseled” at knife point by cotton-plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in director Steve McQueen’s grueling film “12 Years a Slave.”

I finally got around to watching “12 Years a Slave,” and while it perhaps has been a little over-hyped — I hate it when a good film is diminished because it can’t possibly be as great as so many claim that it is — it’s going to win a bunch of Oscars, and I consider it to be an antidote to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” of which I noted at the time that it came out (a year ago) that “the evil of slavery itself is barely portrayed in ‘Lincoln’ … and blacks are only supporting (and mostly subservient) characters in ‘Lincoln,’ which gives the viewer … the unfortunate impression that perhaps the film is asserting that slavery was more of a burden for liberal whites than it was for the actual slaves.”

Indeed, in “12 Years a Slave” the “saviors” still are white men, but, given the fact that at the time white men held virtually all of the political power, what other “savior” could a black person have had at that time? The best that most black Americans, especially enslaved black Americans, could hope for at that time, it seems to me, was to have the fortune to have the mercy of white men who had power to make their lives less miserable.*

Indeed, in “12 Years a Slave” we see at least two grown black men run to their white-male protectors and embrace them as a child would embrace his parent. But, given the circumstances, one could hardly blame them.

I wrote of “Lincoln” that “The Southerners (and their sympathizers) in ‘Lincoln’ aren’t portrayed flatteringly, which probably will mean that the film won’t appeal to the ‘tea-party’ dipshits, since the slavery- and treason-loving Southerners depicted in ‘Lincoln’ are their true founding fathers.”

Ditto for “12 Years a Slave” (and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django,” too, of course).

Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano couldn’t have done a much better job of portraying what probably was the typical Southern white male of the era, and Brad Pitt, perhaps because he was one of the producers, got what to me is the plum role of the liberal, abolitionist Canadian whose action finally frees our hero.

Our hero, of course, is the real-life historical figure Solomon Northup, who in 1841 was a free man (well, “free” as in “not a slave,” “not someone’s property”) who was lured from his home in New York state to Washington, D.C., where he was promised well-paying work but instead was kidnapped and forced into slavery in Louisiana for a dozen years.

And the star of “12 Years a Slave” is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who no doubt will be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his harrowing portrayal of Solomon Northup.

The other star of “12 Years” is Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the slave Patsey, and who also very most likely will be nominated for an acting Oscar.

“12 Years a Slave,” based upon Northup’s autobiography of the same name and penned by American screenwriter John Ridley, is, first and foremost, the story of the slaves, and its portrayal of their trials and tribulations by comparison makes “Lincoln” look like it portrays slavery as a mere inconvenience to black Americans.

“12 Years,” among other things, portrays free blacks in the North being abducted and sold into slavery, slaves stripped nude and bathed for auction like livestock, a mother being separated permanently from her two children at auction, and the character of Patsey being serially raped by the cotton-plantation owner Edwin Epps (played by Fassbender) and, to add injury to injury, being hated by and thus violently attacked by the plantation owner’s wife (Sarah Paulson) because her husband is sexually predating upon her. We also witness one of our protagonists being quasi-lynched and the other one being brutally whipped.

“12 Years a Slave” does as probably a good job as a film could do to bring us into Solomon Northup’s world. You’re supposed to feel Northup’s struggle and large degree of helplessness, given how utterly disempowered he is. His spirit not only is violated repeatedly by the wrongs that are done to him, but also by the multitude of wrongs that he has to witness done to others, probably especially to Patsey.

“12 Years a Slave” is directed by Steve McQueen, a writer-director who, I surmise, because he is black and British, wasn’t overly worried about not offending white Americans in his portrayal of Southern slavery. (Of course, Quentin Tarantino wasn’t worried about that, either, with “Django,” but bad boy Tarantino can make just about any film that he wishes. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” by contrast, suffers because the “upright” and apparently uptight Spielberg apparently didn’t want to offend white Americans too much.)

I wasn’t impressed with McQueen’s over-hyped 2011 “Shame,” which also starred Michael Fassbender, but after “12 Years,” which draws you into Solomon Northup’s grueling world so well that when he finally is reunited with his family you will, if you have any empathy at all, have tears in your eyes, I look forward to more projects by McQueen, and after having watched “12 Years” I’ll probably catch McQueen’s other project starring Fassbender, 2008’s “Hunger.”

My grade: A

*Indeed, we are told at the end of “12 Years a Slave,” as Wikipedia puts it:

Northup sued the slave traders in Washington, D.C., [who had kidnapped him and sold him into slavery], but [Northup] lost in the local court. District of Columbia law prohibited him, as a black man, from testifying against whites, and, without his testimony, he was unable to sue for civil damages. The two men were charged with the crime of kidnapping and remanded into custody on $5,000 bail, but without Northup’s testimony, a conviction could not be secured and [so] the men were released.

So, even in the North, which in Northup’s day was quite progressive compared to the South, Northup, as a “free” man, because he was a black man, did not have equal rights, and white men still could commit grievous crimes against black Americans with impunity.

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‘World War Z’ needs braaains!

Film review

In this publicity photo released by Paramount Pictures, the infected scale the Israeli walls in "World War Z," from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions in association with Hemisphere Media Capital and GK Films. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Jaap Buitendijk)

The Cool Catastrophes of 'World War Z'

This publicity image released by Paramount Pictures shows a scene from "World War Z." The zombies in “World War Z” move with Carl Lewis speed and a swarm-like mentality inspired in part by rabid dogs, furthering the eternal fan debate over whether the walking dead should actually run. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures)

Zombies leap and pile atop each other like angry armies of ants in “World War Z,” produced by and starring Brad Pitt, but despite these impressive visual effects and a plot that has Pitt’s character jetting around the globe, “WWZ” overall is a fairly tepid entry into the zombie genre.

I walked into “World War Z” yesterday with one reviewer having stated that the film does nothing new with the zombie genre but with other reviewers (the majority of them) having stated that it’s an engaging, thrilling summer action movie.

Sadly, in a nutshell, my verdict is that “WWZ,” while watchable enough, does nothing significantly novel with the zombie genre.

I wanted to like “WWZ” more than I did. The zombie genre, done right, can be decent entertainment, and Brad Pitt usually doesn’t do shit. But “WWZ” won’t go down as one of Pitt’s best films or as one of the zombie genre’s best entries.

“WWZ” has some compelling special effects, such as its hordes of fast-moving zombies leaping and piling atop each other like angry armies of ants, but methinks that the proof that’s in the blood pudding is how the individual zombie is portrayed, and “WWZ’s” individual zombies aren’t very frightening, and “WWZ’s” lackluster zombie makeup effects break no new ground in the zombie genre.

Not that gore alone makes for a successful zombie movie, but perhaps one of “WWZ’s” chief errors, I suspect, is its producers’ decision to make a PG-13-rated instead of an R-rated zombie film. I mean, a G-rated zombie film would be considered something for kids, and so not very scary at all, so why would a PG-13-rated zombie flick be all that much scarier?

Indeed, far from being all that scary, most of “WWZ’s” individual zombies are (from what I can tell) unintentionally fairly funny. (My mate, who sat next to me, laughed throughout the movie, and laughed at scenes that very apparently weren’t intended to be comedic.) The tooth-chattering zombie, the zombie that Pitt’s character interacts with the most, I found to be creepy, but not scary, and zombies are supposed to be scary, especially in a movie that bills itself as a seriously scary zombie movie.

Further speaking of which, from what I can tell, the zombies in “WWZ” have no interest whatsoever in consuming human flesh — no, not even human braaains! — but have interest only in biting non-infected humans in order to spread the zombie virus. Perhaps that’s the best that you can do with a PG-13 rating, but yaaawn!

And while the whole concept of the zombie — a human being that is without a beating heart and thus without circulating blood and thus without any other functioning organs yet somehow nonetheless magically is animated — of course is entirely fantastical and not remotely scientific, it would be nice if “WWZ,” since it presents itself as interested in science and medicine, had strived for more medical and scientific accuracy in its portrayal of the viral-infection process.* (Spoiler alert: The material at the asterisk below is a mild spoiler.)

No virus, for instance, is capable of taking over the entire human body within a matter of seconds, and no virus can replicate without a living host, so of course a zombie, without even a beating heart, could not be a virus factory.

Didn’t early zombie movies just rely on voodoo or some other kind of magic or hocus-pocus as the explanation for zombification? When and why did viral infection become the new, unworkable rationale in the zombie genre?

OK, sure, I suppose, perhaps the fear of a Plague still lingers within the human psyche — large swaths of people have been offed in plagues during the past (and the plague of AIDS is still with us, and new plagues, such as bird and swine flus, have the power to scare us at least a bit today) — but even before “WWZ” we didn’t need another entry in the virally caused zombie genre.

And the “solution” that the heroes in “WWZ” find to deal with the zombies is less than credible and less than thrilling. (It’s so not thrilling that I won’t even bother to go into any detail about it; it would be a “spoiler” not even worth “spoiling.”)

With Brad Pitt’s involvement, you would have thought that “WWZ” would have turned out to be a smarter zombie movie. Instead, “WWZ” screams out for braaains!

That said, “WWZ,” regarded as typically mindless summer action-movie fare, is not entirely unwatchable. It’s just disappointing if you expected something more and something better.

I can forgive Pitt for this lapse — as long as he does not involve himself in a sequel.

My grade: B-

P.S. I found BBC America’s “In the Flesh” to be a fairly fresh take on the zombie genre, in case you are interested in feasting on such a fresher take — a take with brains (literally and figuratively).

*Indeed, the movie disappointingly kills off its most scientifically minded character quite early. Are we to take that symbolically as well — that without the scientist further in the movie there will be no further scientific orientation in the movie?

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Golden Globes gets it mostly wrong

Director Martin Scorsese poses backstage with the award for Best Director of a Motion Picture for the film "Hugo" during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

George Clooney poses with his award for best actor in a motion picture - drama for "The Descendants," backstage in Beverly Hills

Associated Press and Reuters photos

Martin Scorsese poses with his undeserved Golden Globe for best director for his overhyped “Hugo” in Los Angeles last night, and George Clooney poses with his undeserved Golden Globe for best actor in a drama for his role in the overrated “The Descendants,” which also unfortunately undeservedly took the Golden Globe’s award for best dramatic film. The Golden Globes snubbed Steven Spielberg, but at least gave the film “The Artist” the props that it deserves, naming it the best musical or comedic film and naming Jean Dujardin as the best actor in a musical or comedy for his leading performance in the film. (Below are pictured Dujardin, left; the director of “The Artist,” Michel Hazanavicius, middle; actress Berenice Bejo, far right; and Uggie the dog, far left.)

Dujardin, Hazanavicius and Bejo of "The Artist" pose backstage at the 69th annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills

Reuters photo

I haven’t written a movie review for a while, although I see a lot of movies, perhaps especially at the end of the year, when the Oscar bait is trotted out to the theaters.

Since I haven’t reviewed most of this year’s contenders for the big awards — but have seen most of them — I’ll comment on last night’s Golden Globe winners for film.

First up is the movie that got the Globes’ award for best drama, Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.”

Yikes.

Payne has done so much better than “The Descendants,” such as “Sideways,” “Election,” and even “About Schmidt” and “Citizen Ruth.” That “The Descendants” stars Hollywood golden boy George Clooney and that its director has made better films doesn’t mean that “The Descendants” is worthy of being on anyone’s best-picture list, because it isn’t.

“The Descendants” has some nice visuals — it takes place in Hawaii — and I found the character of Sid to be adorable, but otherwise, “The Descendants” is overlong as it meanders and dawdles, with a plot that is mediocre at best and that never arrives anywhere, leaving its audience waiting for a point that never arrives. I give the film a “B-” at best. (Probably it deserves a “C” or “C+”, since I have little to no interest in viewing it ever again.)

“The Descendants'” competitors for the Golden Globes’ best drama were “The Help,” “Hugo,” “The Ides of March,” “Moneyball” and “War Horse.”

I didn’t see “The Help” because of its shitty reviews, and I have no interest in catching it on DVD.

“The Ides of March,” another George Clooney vehicle, while watchable, also doesn’t belong on anyone’s best-picture list. Clooney, Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman give decent performances in “Ides,” but the script is mediocre and nothing novel, just a rehash of political movies that we’ve seen before. I give “The Ides of March” a “B-” or “C+” also. This wasn’t actually George Clooney’s year.

“Hugo” I found to be fairly entertaining but overrated. Even the wildly talented Sacha Baron Cohen as a quasi-villain couldn’t really save Martin Scorsese’s self-indulgent flick that turns out to be more about the French director Georges Melies (played by Ben Kingsley) than about our young protagonist Hugo. I found the whole automaton thing rather senseless and strange and uncaptivating, and films about filmmaking often are about as good as are novels about writing novels, it seems to me. (“The Artist” is an exception; more on that shortly.)

“Hugo’s” 3-D effects were decent, and the film overall is entertaining, although a bit too long, and overall “Hugo” was just overhyped. Martin Scorsese, contrary to apparent popular opinion, does not shit gold. I give “Hugo” a “B.”

I wanted to see “Moneyball” but never did, so I’ll have to catch it on DVD, but I did catch Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” which is far superior to “The Descendants.” My guess is that even if I’d seen “The Help” and “Moneyball,” “War Horse” still would be my pick for best drama from the list of the Golden Globes’ six nominees.

“War Horse,” which garners a solid “A”, is reminiscent of the films of yore (we’ve had plenty of films about World War I and films starring horses or dogs as our protagonists), perhaps especially with its ending scene, which (fairly) has been compared to “Gone with the Wind,” but “War Horse” works quite well nonetheless. I found myself teary-eyed at the end of the film, and that’s fairly rare. And despite the film’s length, my interest in it never waned, which I cannot say for “Hugo” or “The Descendants.” Steven Spielberg still has it.

The Globes unusually has a second category for best picture, best musical or comedy. I have seen three out of four of the nominees in that category. (Not bad, right?)

The nominees were “50/50,” “The Artist,” “Bridesmaids,” “Midnight in Paris” and “My Week with Marilyn.” “Bridesmaids” is the only one that I didn’t see, due to its lackluster reviews.

“The Artist” won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy, and I can’t complain about that. I saw the film this past weekend and it’s best-picture material, a solid “A” (maybe a rare “A+”). A film that mostly is silent and in black and white but can keep the audience’s attention nonetheless is an accomplishment. The protagonist’s heroic dog is a bit too reminiscent of the heroic dog Snowy of Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin,” which I saw before “The Artist,” but “The Artist” is a solid film with good performances and a captivating, clever script.

“The Artist’s” protagonist George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), a silent-movie star, at first is an annoying, spotlight-hogging ham but becomes more and more likeable as the film progresses, and protagonist Peppy Miller (played by Berenice Bejo), also a movie star, is mesmerizing, although I don’t know that most starlets of the 1920s and 1930s looked like Bejo does; I’m not an expert on the films of the 1920s and 1930s, but she does look a little out of place. However, Bejo’s charisma more than makes up for that.

“50/50,” which stars Joseph Gordon Levitt, one of my favorite actors, also earns a solid “A,” but its material — a young man diagnosed with cancer — apparently wasn’t novel enough for it to win in its category. Still, “50/50” has some great lines and Seth Rogen does a great job as protagonist Gordon Levitt’s supportive-as-he-can-be best friend. (Unfortunately, in “50/50” Bryce Dallas Howard pretty much plays the same role that she played in the lacking Clint Eastwood vehicle “Hereafter.”)

“My Week with Marilyn,” which I can give only a “B” at best, isn’t a comedy or a musical, so why it landed in this category escapes me. Michelle Williams does as good a job as Marilyn Monroe as she can, but the film isn’t as compelling as it should be, and it’s not very believable that Marilyn Monroe essentially was a drugged-out bimbo who had enough occasional flashes of acting brilliance that an entire film could be cobbled together from these apparently brief and accidental episodes of talent.

“Marilyn” also suffers, I think, from being too self-referential. Again, the number of films about filmmaking that we’re seeing as of late seems to indicate that the filmmakers have run out of ideas, and so they’re now turning the camera on themselves.

“Midnight in Paris” would have won, I suspect, were it not for “The Artist.” Unfortunately, we’re used to good work from Woody Allen (although he’s made some lackluster films, too), and so he often unfairly is overlooked. “Midnight in Paris,” while not a complete departure from Allen’s past films, is a solid film that earns an “A.”

The Globes’ nominees for best director were Woody Allen (for “Midnight in Paris”), George Clooney (for “The Ides of March”), Michel Hazanavicius for “The Artist,” Alexander Payne for “The Descendants” and Martin Scorsese for “Hugo.”

As I did see all of these films, I can say that I find Scorsese’s win for best director to be disappointing. He apparently was awarded for his past work, because “Hugo” doesn’t deserve best director.

We can cross Clooney, Payne and Scorsese off of the best-director list right off, which would leave us with Allen and Hazanavicius. I probably would have given the best-director award to Hazanavicius, as much as I love most of Allen’s work. “The Artist” is quite an accomplishment and doesn’t deserve less only because Hazanavicius is new to us Americans.

The Globes gave best actor in a drama to George Clooney for his work in “The Descendants,” another mistake. Clooney is popular — I get that — and he is a solid actor, but there is nothing very remarkable about “The Descendants,” which, next to “Hugo,” might be the most overrated film of the year.

Unfortunately, I have yet to see Michael Fassbender in “Shame” (it comes to my city later this month, and I like Fassbender, so I’m there), and, as I noted, I have yet to see “Moneyball,” so I am not sure if I would have picked Brad Pitt or Fassbender, who, along with Pitt, also was nominated for the Globes’ best-actor award. Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for his performance in “J. Edgar,” but that film (which I rather generously gave a “B”) is so flawed that it probably sank his chances, and I don’t feel that DiCaprio was screwed, not really. Ryan Gosling was nominated for his role in “The Ides of March,” but again, there is nothing special about that film, either.

I’m really fucked where it comes to the Globes’ nominees for best actress in a drama, as I haven’t seen any of the nominated perfomances, Glenn Close’s for “Albert Nobbs” (also arrives at my city later this month, and I’ll probably go see it, even though it seems “Yentl”-ish to me), Viola Davis’ for “The Help,” Rooney Mara’s for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Meryl Streep’s for “The Iron Lady” (which is getting lackluster reviews and which I’ll probably wait for on DVD), and Tilda Swinton’s for “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (which seems to be an awful lot like her role in “The Deep End,” but I love Tilda).

My guess is that Streep, who won the Golden Globe, will end up getting the best-actress Oscar again — only because she more or less looks like Margaret Thatcher. “Saturday Night Live” achieves lookalikes all the time, so really, so what? Word is that “The Iron Lady” fairly sucks, with Roger Ebert giving it only two of four stars.

The Globes’ best actor in a comedy or musical went to Jean Dujardin of “The Artist,” which I confidently assert was a deserved win, even though I didn’t see Brendan Gleeson in “The Guard” or the good-enough-but-overrated Ryan Gosling in “Crazy Stupid Love.” (Really, are Ryan Gosling and George Clooney the only two actors that we have left?) Joseph Gordon Levitt was quite good in “50/50,” and Owen Wilson also was quite good in “Midnight in Paris,” but neither of them, nor the two other nominees, had a snowball’s chance against Dujardin’s performance.

The Globes’ award for best actress in a comedy or musical went to Michelle Williams for “My Week with Marilyn,” although, again, “My Week with Marilyn” is neither a fucking comedy nor a fucking musical, and it was no super-human feat to doll up Michelle Williams to resemble Marilyn Monroe any more than it was to make Meryl Streep look like Margaret Thatcher, for fuck’s sake. It’s too bad that Williams wasn’t given a better script to work with.

I’ve yet to see “Carnage,” which garnered both Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet nominations for best actress in a comedy or musical. I am there when “Carnage” comes to my city, however; the previews look compelling. (I love movies that give us insight into dysfunctional relationships, which is perhaps why I like Woody Allen’s work so much, and I liked Winslet in “Revolutionary Road.”)

I also have yet to see Kristen Wiig’s performance in “Bridesmaids,” but I like Wiig, so I might catch her peformance, which also was nominated for the Globes’ best actress in a comedy or musical, on DVD. Ditto for “Young Adult,” which garnered Charlize Theron a nomination in the category.

The Globes’ best supporting actor went to Christopher Plummer for his role as a gay man who comes out of the closet late in life in “Beginners.” I give “Beginners” a “B+”, but I have to wonder if Plummer was given the award more for his past work than for his role in “Beginners.” I could argue that Kenneth Branagh, who also was nominated for best supporting actor for his role in “My Week with Marilyn,” was more deserving of the award.

The Globes’ best supporting actress award went to Octavia Spencer, whoever that is, for her role in “The Help.” I can’t imagine that Spencer was better than Berenice Bejo, who also nominated for best supporting actress, was in “The Artist,” however, and it escapes me as to why Bejo wasn’t nominated for best actress, since her role in “The Artist” is equal to the male protagonist’s. (I remember when Heath Ledger was nominated for an Oscar for best actor for “Brokeback Mountain” but Jake Gyllenhaal inexplicably was nominated only for best supporting actor, even though his role was equal to Ledger’s.)

The Golden Globes’ winner for best screenplay went to Woody Allen for “Midnight in Paris.” It seems that the Globes wanted to recognized Allen’s film in some way and so gave it best screenplay, but arguably “The Artist,” which also was nominated for best screenplay, should have won. Why “The Ides of March” and “The Descendants” were nominated at all for best screenplay eludes me, as neither is a remarkable film in any way, and George Clooney doesn’t shit gold, either. Again, I’ve yet to see the also-nominated-for-best-screenplay “Moneyball,” but I can live with Allen’s win in the category.

The Globes’ best animated feature went to Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin,” the only film in the category that I’ve seen (the others were “Arthur Christmas,” “Cars 2,” “Puss in Boots” and “Rango.”) “Tintin” is a solid, entertaining film (I give it an “A” or “A-“), perhaps a little overlong but quite watchable, although, in my book, not as good as Spielberg’s “War Horse” (“A” or “A+”). Still, with “Tintin” it’s apparent that Spielberg hasn’t lost his talents, and I have to wonder if the dearth of nominations for Spielberg in the Golden Globes means that he’s going to be given short shrift with the Oscars, too.

Spielberg should have been nominated for, and perhaps won, the Globes’ best director, in my book.

I have plenty of films to catch up on between now and the Oscars, but thus far my picks are “War Horse” or “The Artist” for best picture and Steven Spielberg (for “War Horse,” not for “Tintin”) or Michel Hazanavicius for best director.

At least the Golden Globes ignored the sanctimonious-as-Scorsese Terrence Malick’s God-awful “Tree of Life” (which I gave a rare “F”), and hopefully the Oscars will, too, but the Globes overlooked Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” (which I give an “A” or “A-“, and which unfairly has been compared to “Tree of Life”) — a mistake that, hopefully, the Oscars won’t make.

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‘Tree of Life’: For critics or for viewers?

Film review

“The Tree of Life” (which contains all of the images above, among many, many, many others): Great art or the self-indulgent, inaccessible pretensions of a baby boomer growing ever closer to death?

It is telling that (as I type this sentence, anyway) Yahoo! Movies shows American director Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as having garnered an “A-” from film critics — and only a “C+” from the common folk.

The question then becomes, I think, whether the film is flawed or whether the film is just above the audience’s head.

“The Tree of Life” spectacularly peculiarly alternates between the very apple-pie story of a white middle-class family in the suburbs of Texas in the 1950s, patronized by Brad Pitt — and “2001: A Space Odyssey”-like grand views of the cosmos, views of dramatic geological events here at home (lots o’ lava, that is), and micro-views, such as that of a developing embryo (which we also saw in “2001,” and the same guy who did the special effects for “2001” [which was released the year that I was born] was involved with the special effects for “The Tree of Life,” and thus the deja vu). And throw in a lot of surrealism involving our real-life characters, such as an apparent family reunion in the afterlife on an ephemeral beach. Oh, and dinosaurs, too.

In “Tree of Life” Sean Penn plays the grown-up eldest son of Pitt’s character — and Penn apparently is the stand-in for Malick, kind of like one of Woody Allen’s stand-ins for himself — but Penn actually isn’t in the film all that much. It’s mostly Pitt, but Pitt does a great job, as he usually does, and the child actors also impress with their very natural acting.

The main problem with “The Tree of Life,” I think, is that the previews make it look like a Pitt-and-Penn vehicle with a little bit of artsy-fartsy stuff thrown in there, but the actual film is two hours and 15 minutes of an awful lot of artsy-fartsy stuff thrown in there. American audiences, at least, aren’t, I surmise, ready to go back and forth among watching Brad Pitt playing a family man in 1950s suburbia and Sean Penn playing his reminiscing grown-up son and watching Carl-Saganesque grand cosmic events and more down-to-Earth lava flows and even dinosaur politics.

(The French, however, have loved “The Tree of Life,” which they awarded the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival…)

Don’t get me wrong. The dinosaurs in “The Tree of Life” are quite well done, perhaps the best technically done dinosaurs to hit the silver screen thus far in cinematic history. I’d love to see a feature-length film about dinosaurs made by Malick — even if the dinosaurs aren’t anthropomorphized, even if there is no plot, so to speak, even if it’s just the dinosaurs hanging out and being dinosaurs. (Actually, I don’t like it when critters are inappropriately anthropomorphized, such as in Disney’s “documentary” “African Cats,” even though its target audience is children.)

And the story of the humans in “The Tree of Life” probably would have made a much better stand-alone film, stripped of the “2001”-like surrealism of cosmic vomiting and universal diarrhea, in which creation often rather violently explodes all over the place.

Indeed, not long into “Tree of Life” it occurred to me that just as they hand you your 3-D glasses before you view a 3-D movie, they should give you a joint to inhale (or maybe a bong would be less cleanup afterward) before you view the surreal “Tree of Life.” Then you’ll love it.

I suppose that there are two general camps when it comes to art. One camp maintains that art is whatever the artist wants it to be. Therefore, highly personal art is perfectly acceptable, probably even more preferable to art meant for the masses, to this camp. The more inaccessible, the better — the more artistic/“artistic” — some if not most of those in this camp seem to believe.

The other camp, which I favor, believes that art should be accessible, that art should communicate, or at least touch those who experience it, and that if the artist does not touch his audience, then the artist has failed.

It probably isn’t an over-generalization to state that we might call the camp of artistic/“artistic” inaccessibility the French Camp and the camp of accessibility the American Camp. Those in the American Camp often view those in the French Camp as pretentious. Those in the French Camp don’t really understand the incomprehensible art that they claim to understand, those in the American Camp believe (and thus the charge of pretension), and I tend to agree.

But art doesn’t have to be comprehensible, doesn’t have to be logical and rational and linear. As I stated, as long as the art touches you, in my book, then the artist has succeeded.

It is true that with American audiences, Malick had an uphill battle making such an impressionist film that would be well received (if he really even cared at all how it would be received by American audiences, indeed). Americans aren’t used to impressionism in their movies. American audiences are used to realism, to literalism, to fairly clear, point-A-to-point-Z plots.

“The Tree of Life” has elements that succeed, but in my eyes with the film Malick fails as an artist because his film goes on for so long, and becomes so ponderous and so difficult to experience, that he loses his (at-least-American) audience. In the audience that I was in, I think that most if not all of us were ready for the film to be over at least a half-hour before it actually ended, and at the end of the film we felt only the type of satisfaction that a long-suffering cancer patient might feel during the last few moments of euthanasia.

I’m down with the dinosaurs, and I am open-minded enough to be able to give a chance to a film that tries to capture Life, the Universe and Everything, but in my book when the viewer just wants it all to be over already, please please please God just make it end!, the artist probably has done something wrong.

I get the impression with “The Tree of Life” that the 67-year-old Malick had two films inside of him trying to claw their way out of his chest cavity like identical twin aliens a la “Alien,” but that he was concerned that if he didn’t put them into one film, he might not live long enough to get both films made, so he put both of the films into a blender.

Again, either of these two films probably would have been or at least could have been great, Malick’s ode to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (and to “Jurassic Park”) or Malick’s very personal (perhaps too personal) recap of his own childhood as an American baby boomer having grown up in Texas.

Malick’s fellow baby boomer Roger Ebert ate up* “The Tree of Life,” which, while apparently is accessible to white American baby boomers who grew up in families that were at least middle class, isn’t as accessible to the rest of us. (I, as a member of Generation X “raised” by and surrounded by baby boomers, had quite a different experience growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Yeah, my memories of childhood are not so fucking idyllic.)

So we come back to the question as to whether a film succeeds even if it loses most of its viewers (here in the United States, anyway, since I am an American writing this review primarily for my fellow Americans). I say that it does not. (Again, the French, apparently, say that it does [indeed, a good number of them apparently believe that if a film is comprehensible, then it is shit].)

So, while I appreciate Malick’s technical achievements — again, love those dinosaurs, and he directed his child actors masterfully — I cannot ignore the fact that as patient as I am, “The Tree of Life” wore out its welcome, wore out my patience, and apparently wore out my fellow audience members’ patience even more so and even more quickly than it wore out mine. A good film, it seems to me, makes you regretful, not relieved, at having to leave the movie theater at film’s end.

And again, unlike Roger Ebert, I cannot ignore what doesn’t work in “The Tree of Life” — such as the apparently uber-pretentious scene, among many apparently pretentious scenes, that has Sean Penn walking through a door frame that is erected in the middle of nowhere — and focus on how great it is to take a stroll down Baby-Boomer Memory Lane, because I think that I can relate to the lives of the dinosaurs a lot more than I can relate to the reportedly idyllic childhoods of the baby boomers, who made my childhood much less idyllic than theirs.

“The Tree of Life,” as a whole, fails (at least here in the United States of America) because it loses its (American) audience.

And the grade for failure is an “F.”

My grade: F

(I surmise that Yahoo!’s commoners give the film an average grade of “C+” only because some people will give a movie a decent grade if there are at least some scenes that they liked and because there are plenty of pretentious, “artistic” people who will claim to have appreciated and understood an incomprehensible film.)

*Ebert swoons:

I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this.

Yeah, like I said, I had a different life experience…

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‘Inglourious Basterds’ rather inglorious for a film by Quentin Tarantino

In this film publicity image released by The Weinstein Co., ...

Lead Nazi slayer Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, addresses his merry band of Nazi slayers in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” one of Tarantino’s less gory — and lesser — endeavors (which at least came to us in just one part…).

As I have noted before, I think that they make way too Holocaust-themed movies. No, I’m not anti-Semitic, and no, I’m not a Holocaust denier, and it’s sad that I have to state that up front.

It’s that the Holocaust has been done.

But I’m a Quentin Tarantino fan, and so I saw “Inglourious Basterds” on its opening weekend.

I love ya, Quentin, but I can give “Basterds” only a “B.”

“Basterds” starts out promisingly. The opening scene, in which Nazis search for Jews being hidden at a French farmhouse, at first seems overlong, but then you realize that Tarantino got it just right.

And then it looks like the entire movie, or most of it, anyway, is going to be about Brad Pitt, who plays an American named Lt. Aldo Raine with a hick accent who is something like Robin Hood leading a band of merry men, only this Robin Hood and these merry men (who call themselves the “Inglourious Basterds”) don’t steal from the rich and give to the poor, but they hunt, kill and scalp — yes, scalp — Nazis in Nazi-occupied France. And most of these Nazi slayers are Jews.

But after teasing us with this novel slant on the whole Holocaust-movie thing, “Basterds” then goes into a much-less-interesting and less novel direction involving a young Jewish woman named Shosanna (well-played by Melanie Laurent) who survived the Nazis’ slaughter of her family and who plots her revenge when the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film is slated to be shown in the movie theater that she owns and operates in France.

Pitt and his band of merry Nazi killers come back into the movie, but only after we’ve been fairly bored by the whole movie-theater subplot.

Pitt does a kick-ass job in “Basterds,” as does Christoph Waltz as Nazi Col. Hans Landa, the “Jew hunter,” whose Oscar-worthy role runs throughout the entire film. It is largely on the strength of the performances that I can give “Basterds” a “B.”

Also doing a great job are Eli Roth as the “Bear Jew,” who takes a baseball bat to Nazis’ craniums, and Til Schweiger as former Nazi Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, who for some reason decided to turn on his fellow Nazi officers and start terminating them (whether he opposed their “cause” or whether he is just psychopathic is not clear to me) before he was taken in by the Basterds. I wanted to see much more of these two characters and I was disappointed to see one of them terminated too early and too ingloriously.

Also interesting about “Basterds” is Tarantino’s reinterpretation of Adolf Hitler (played by Martin Wuttke) as a perpetually fuming and sputtering tyrant hilariously (darkly so) replete with a red monarch’s cape. (Tarantino also reinterprets the history of Hitler in an interesting way that I can’t tell you about, because it would give away the ending of the movie…)

Mike Myers (yes, the “Austin Powers” Mike Myers) makes an appearance as a British general that is supposed to be quirky, I think, but is more throwaway than quirky.

Tarantino’s re-envisioned Hitler and his twisted version of Robin Hood and his band of merry men alone make “Basterds” worth seeing — and I must admit that it’s hard not to feel some amount of glee to witness Nazis being exterminated like the cockroaches that they were — but “Basterds” has too much that isn’t that interesting and doesn’t measure up to what we’re used to getting from Tarantino, so it misses an “A” for me.

Maybe the uninteresting portions of “Basterds” were Tarantino’s attempt to be a more “serious” director? If so, well, he should have stuck to what he does best. There is no shortage of “serious,” “respectable” movies about the Nazis and the Holocaust out there.

“Kill Bill,” to me, still remains Tarantino’s best work to date.

My grade: B

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