Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Tree of Life

I rented this movie to watch on my latest cross country plane trip, mainly because it received the 2011 Palme d'Or at Cannes. I hadn't read any reviews, was in a rush to get to the airport, so I threw it on my iPhone and called a cab. In retrospect, I probably should have taken 5 minutes to read a synopsis of why it won.

The cinematography is breathtaking (even on a 3.5" screen). As the story goes, director Terrence Malick doesn't like the look of CGI so he recruited special effects people Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner) and Dan Glass (Batman Begins, The Matrix Reloaded) to create a variety of stunning effect sequences for this film using chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography. The musical score is equally moving, featuring everything from classic guitar to choral groups to enormous pipe organ.

This is one of those stories that begins at the end, but quickly rewinds to the beginning. The movie opens with the arrival of a letter and a mother in tears. One of her sons is dead. The scene then switches to an airport tarmac where a troubled looking man holding a telephone receiver is trying to hear the voice on the other end. The news he receives isn't good. However, when I say "rewind" to the beginning, I mean to the beginning of time.

During the first quarter of the film, we bear witness to the birth of the universe, take a tour of our solar system, and watch the volcanic cooling of planet earth. I felt as if I was sitting in a planetarium and the voice of Carl Sagan might, at any moment, comment on the "billions and billions" of stars above us. When single celled organisms and jellyfish came on screen, I began wondering if the monkeys and monolith weren't far behind. Fortunately, we skip the whole evolution of man, which is probably a good choice given that god's existence is already in question and Darwin's buddies might be hard to explain. We are treated to hammerhead sharks, dinosaurs kicking one another, and what appears to be a worldwide tsunami after the impact of a rather large meteor. Oh, and don't let me forget the Loch Ness Monster waddling out of the sea.

After about 30-40 minutes, the people story begins. The setting is 1950's Texas and Mr. and Mr.s O'Brien (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are raising a family of three boys. None of the film's dialog seems for the benefit of the audience. What we glean about these people comes from the short snippets of their daily lives that we're allowed to observe. The audience is occasionally privy to the characters' thoughts, giving us more insight into mother, father and eldest son's inner philosophies. The Tree of Life is more like a collection of memories and feelings than a conversation.

The father believes that you can't be all-good and succeed in this world. Bad things happen to good people, life is not fair or just. Which brings up the question: "Where is god? Why does he let bad things happen? Why doesn't he care?" The father teaches the boys to fight at a young age, and rules his household with an iron fist. Mr. O'Brien may have invented the phrase "children should be seen and not heard". Mom is a bit more forgiving, telling her children to love everyone. Without love, your life will pass you by in the blink of an eye. And the kids, they're probably just confused as hell.

But, I have some lingering questions:
  • What's up with that wavering light in the darkness that keeps popping up between scenes?
  • Why does Jack (the eldest son) raid his mom's lingerie drawer, then float one of her slips down the river?
  • Why was Sean Penn cast for a tiny role as the grown-up version of Jack?
  • Why didn't I think to watch this movie on the laptop underneath my seat rather than my iPhone (D'oh!)
See this film on a big screen with a good sound system if at all possible.

- Ron Shaker

Venue: iPhone
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Rating: 4/5

Semi-official Site
IMDB

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Margin Call

The summer of 2008 seems like a long time ago. The "new normal" of falling housing prices and 9% unemployment and a Republican congress hellbent on making the situation worse had not yet come to pass. As I recall, it was a time of hope and excitement about an electrifying young politician on his way to the White House. But in the span of a few days during that otherwise heady summer, the bottom fell out of the economy. Margin Call is an attempt to capture the kind of story that lies at the root of why the 99% are occupying Wall Street and cities around the country.

The basic plot is straightforward. A Wall Street firm goes through a brutal round of layoffs, and one of the victims (Stanley Tucci), hands over a program he’s been working on to a young analyst (Zachary Quinto) who has managed to survive the cuts. The analyst decides to take a look, finishes the work his former boss had started, and realizes that the firm is overleveraged to a disastrous degree. It’s late in the evening, but he alerts his boss, who in turn calls in his boss, who in turn calls in his boss ... all the way up the chain to the company’s CEO (Jeremy Irons). Before work begins the following morning, they’ve established a plan to purge the problem from their books and save the firm at the expense of practically every other person in the country.

The characters struggle with the ethics of their decision and come to terms with the fallout of their plans, and while watching the movie, you’re drawn into the complexity of characters who could easily be black and white caricatures of the Wall Street set. And sure, they are: there’s the young associate obsessed with how much each of his betters at the firm makes in a year, and his boss with the $200K sports car who spends more a year on hookers than most American families make. But there is also a manager grieving for his dying dog and the earnest discussion about whether the plan they’ve hatched is the right thing to do.

This is what makes the movie really good. It’s not just that the characters have complexity, but that they have just enough humanity that you can empathize with them to the point where you have to keep reminding yourself that, human and frail as they are, in the final analysis these are not good people.

The opening scene is probably easy to dismiss, but it sets the tone for the whole of the story going forward. As each employee is laid off, he’s brought into a windowed conference room so that all of his colleagues can watch his humiliation at being fired, treated like a criminal, and given an offensively ungenerous severance package. The heartlessness with which the employees are treated by the firm is established as the driving force in each of the survivors, even as they come across a likeable and fully realized. Everyone realizes that what they are doing is terrible, but the money they are going to make from it eventually overcomes any moral pangs they might have. The speech Jeremy Irons gives Kevin Spacey about the necessity of their plan sounds reasonable, until you realize that it is essentially a more elegant version of Wall Street’s “greed is good” rant. The employees that have to execute on the margin call are made aware of the plan and its implications, but they’re complicity is bought with the promise of millions of dollars in bonuses for successfully toppling the economy.

The story is fast. Everything takes place within the span of 24 hours, and the intensity builds from the first moments to the very end. It’s gripping. But it’s also an excellent way of understanding why the occupiers are so mad, and why there needs to be an accounting of those who did this to the country.

- Paulette McKay

Venue: AMC Pacific Place 11, Seattle, WA
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, thriller
Rating: 4/5

Official Site
IMDB