Tag Archives: Sean Penn

‘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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‘Slumdog Millionaire’ deserved it

A still from the film “Slumdog Millionaire,” which tonight deservedly won Best Picture and Best Director for Danny Boyle.

I’m a gay man and so I guess that I was supposed to be rooting for “Milk” for Best Picture and/or Best Director (Gus Van Sant), but the fact of the matter is that I enjoyed “Slumdog Millionaire” more than I did “Milk,” so I don’t think that “Milk” was slighted tonight by the awarding of Best Picture and Best Director to “Slumdog Millionaire” and its director, Danny Boyle.

Of course, comparing “Slumdog Millionaire” to “Milk” is comparing apples to oranges, but, it seems to me, it took a lot more creative talent and energy to invent and capture on film the enthralling and clever fictional story of “Slumdog” than it did to depict the life of the real-life Harvey Milk, which biographers and historians (and at least one documentary filmmaker) already had documented and which only needed to be re-enacted. (Indeed, at least two or three scenes in “Milk” are re-enacted television news clips.)

Sean Penn’s performance as Harvey Milk certainly deserved the Best Actor award, which (along with its award for Best Original Screenplay [“Slumdog” won for Best Adapted Screenplay]) is ample reward for “Milk.” (And don’t get me wrong; anyone who cares about equal civil and human rights for all Americans needs to see “Milk.”)

Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor award for his peformance as the Joker in “The Dark Knight” also was deserved. Some will assert that Ledger was given the award only because he died, but Ledger’s intense performance is the only thing that makes “The Dark Knight” worth watching; he did a hell of a job in that film.

Penelope Cruz, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” made that film, too, and so I’m happy with her win.

I haven’t seen “The Reader,” for which Kate Winslet won Best Actress, but I guess that I will see it now. I’ve always liked Kate Winslet, whom I did see in “Revolutionary Road.”

I didn’t watch the Oscars this year — I rarely watch TV — but this year’s awards seem mostly deserved.

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Film review: “Milk”

Sean Penn (center) and Diego Luna (far right) in Gus Van Sant’s film about slain 1970s gay-rights icon Harvey Milk, which evil, liberal Hollywood is going to award some Oscars.

I remember when I used to see containers of homogenized milk labeled as “homo milk” and jokingly thinking: Gee! They make milk just for people like me!

OK, I got that out of the way, so now I can proceed to write about Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”:

Wow. What a film.

Usually when they hype a film I’m disappointed when I see it, but “Milk” — which I saw today with my closest female friend (and lately I’ve been dragging her to so many gay-related things that I’m thinking that she and I need to go to a monster truck rally very soon in order to balance it out) — exceeded my expectations.

There’s a little bit of sappiness in “Milk,” especially at the end, but in “Milk” gay-rights-movement icon Harvey Milk is portrayed as a hard-nosed politician who even manipulated — hell, who even more or less manufactured — events for political gain more than he is portrayed as a martyred saint.

I haven’t read the late gay journalist Randy Shilts’ biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street, a copy of which I’ve had for years and years, but in “Milk,” Harvey is portrayed as having apparently betrayed his eventual assassin, fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, after they had agreed to help each other win what the other wanted on the city’s board of supervisors (which is the equivalent of a typical city council).

In “Milk” Harvey Milk is portrayed as having gotten at least a bit drunk on power (after he finally won an election), such as in the scene in which he threatens the late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone that if Moscone doesn’t do what Milk wants him to do, Moscone will lose the support of the gay community, spelling the end of Moscone’s political career. Harvey played hardball, if “Milk” is historically accurate.

Oh, hell, I’ll just come out (so to speak…) and say it: “Milk” isn’t too shy to portray the possibility that Milk contributed to his own murder by having antagonized, unnecessarily, his nemesis White.

Not that White had to resort to murder, but he was pushed, if “Milk” is historically accurate. Milk had gotten what he wanted — a gay-rights city ordinance passed — by an overwhelming vote of the board of supervisors, so there was no reason, that I can tell, that it would have harmed Milk, politically, to have stayed out of the issue of whether White should have been allowed to return to the board of supervisors after he had resigned, citing his too-low salary as the reason. 

I congratulate Van Sant’s “Milk” for portraying Harvey Milk as a flawed hero. Power corrupts even the best of us.

I found “Milk” inspiring — I probably finally will read Shilts’ biography of Milk, and I probably will volunteer at my local gay and lesbian community center on “Day Without a Gay” on Wednesday — and it moved me to tears more than once or twice during its two-hour run, and it’s not many movies that can induce me to shed a tear.

It’s too bad that “Milk,” with its rather extensive portrayal of the defeat of the odious anti-gay Proposition 6, was released after the narrow passage of the odious anti-gay Proposition 8 last month, but, I suppose, better late than never. “Milk” can only help the campaign to overturn Prop 8, and since the wingnuts, who are utterly lacking in talent and brains, can’t make a film that anyone would want to see, they have no answer. 

“Milk” is going to be to the gay community what “Brokeback Mountain” was, but while “Brokeback” only indirectly tackles the issue of gay rights, “Milk” tackles the subject head on, and does it with the star power of Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Josh Brolin as Dan White, and James Franco as Milk’s long-time love Scott Smith.

Poor Sean Penn probably will get a best-actor Oscar, and that all he had to do was kiss the gorgeous James Franco to get it. I hate Sean Penn! No, but seriously, Penn did a kick-ass job as Milk, and Franco did a great job, too; the actors’ intimate interactions are quite convincing as two men who love and who are in love with each other.

Josh Brolin turned in another of his usually reliable performances (I didn’t like “No Country for Old Men” overall, but I liked Brolin’s performance in it), playing a Dan White who seems, with his obsession over homosexuality, possibly to be a closet case and who is more of a sympathetic character in “Milk” than you would have expected him to be.

Diego Luna did a great job as Jack Lira, Milk’s spitfire Latino lover who came after Milk and Scott Smith split up. Just as the real-life Lira apparently got second billing to Smith, so, it seems, Luna’s great performance as Milk’s passionate and unstable lover Lira is getting second billing to Franco’s performance. (Just don’t do anything crazy, Diego!)

Emile Hirsch as young activist Cleve Jones is getting rave reviews, but I think that Luna worked harder. Hirsch is best in the scene in which he and Milk first meet, but Luna’s role, it seems to me, was more demanding.

Like “Brokeback Mountain” was nominated for several Oscars, expect “Milk” to be nominated for several Oscars, too — and expect the wingnut motherfuckers to bitch and moan once again about how liberal Hollywood loves to give Oscars to movies about fags.

I expect an Oscar win for Penn and for director Van Sant, whose departure from his often-eccentric cinematic style (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and “Elephant” come to mind) seems to have been done with a best-director Oscar in mind. “Milk” just might win best picture, too, which would nice after the passage of Proposition Hate — er, 8.

My grade: A

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