Quick Takes – 06.26.11

The Illusionist (2010)

Grade: A- | 1st Viewing

Based on an unfilmed script by French auteur Jacques Tati, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist strikes a perfect balance between quite hilarious and truly sad. The story follows an aging magician whose sleight of hand act is constantly overshadowed by young rock stars and more modern acts in London and Paris of the 1950s. He finds success in a remote Scottish village where the locals are less exposed to technology and more enamored by the magician’s tricks. A young girl from the village stows away with him and the two form a friendship that is at times romantic and at others familial.

I am not entirely familiar with the films of Jacques Tati, so I am not able to use the most obvious comparison. However, thematically there was a number of similarities with Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid with numerous visual gags and a heartwarming central relationship. The characters never really speak to one another in any coherent language, so in that sense it is like a silent film. It is visually arresting and has an ending that is truly sad. See it as an animated alternative to Cars 2 this weekend.

Before Sunrise (1995)

Grade: A | 3rd Viewing

I wanted to watch Before Sunset because I know it is set in Paris and I wanted to reminisce on my trip, but I thought I had better re-watch Before Sunrise first as a set-up. It is always a pleasure to revisit Jesse and Celine and join their cerebral discovery of love and existentialism. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise is definitely one of the smartest romantic films made in at least the last 20 years and it offers themes so layered and complex that they are a pleasure to re-discover numerous times.

I also enjoy how the film is a love letter to Vienna, another beautiful European city. From the street poet who composes an on-the-spot sonnet to the majestic historical settings, the characters seem to discover a part of Europe in their 24-hour stay that most tourists never see. This is a movie that is not about where the characters go, but the conversations they have along the way and the individual moments that they inhabit. Moments that are a joy to rediscover time and again.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Grade: A | 1st Viewing

The beautiful thing about a movie like The Tree of Life (and why it is so difficult to review) is that it examines such profound cosmic questions that everybody will interpret it differently. I am very glad that I went back and watched all of Malick’s films before seeing The Tree of Life, because it is his least accessible effort and also represents a culmination of all the questions he has been grappling with. It is a deeply moving masterpiece – operatic in scope yet fine-tuned to the most minute detail.

One of the themes that I most identified with was its presentation of that pivotal moment in a child’s life when they stop viewing their parents as a deity. Brad Pitt represents the Old Testament God, vengeful and penitent, and Jessica Chastain represents the New Testament God, forgiving and graceful. The boy has to reject both of his parents in order to see the value in their qualities and their ability to give life. It also shows the existence of free will which is a cosmic idea that is perfectly exhibited through the individual. This theme was enriched by excellent moments like the mother giving water to an inmate and the father forcing his son to fight. It was also the theme that I felt justified the existence of Sean Penn in the movie.

There is so much to see and learn about this movie and I cannot wait to see it again.

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  • Jose

    Of Gods & Men
    1st Viewing
    One of the most depressing, beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Doubt I’ll ever see it a second time though

    Rabbit Hole
    5th Viewing
    Still think its the best movie of last year.

    Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 1
    Couldn’t get to the book this week so I ended up watching the movie. I guess that wathcing the film to many times ruined it for me becauseI was bored like halfway through it but this is still necessary viewing for the finale.

  • Still waiting for “Tree of Life” to open in wider release. Would really like to see it on the big screen if possible.

    So, you haven’t seen “Before Sunset” yet? You’re in for a serious treat. I love “Before Sunrise” as well, but the sequel is even better. Taken together, I truly believe that the two movies are the greatest film romance of all-time.

    I saw:

    “Aliens” (A): Like “Before Sunset”, this is that rare sequel to a great movie that is actually slightly better than the original. Stunning camerawork and a rapid pace make it a stunning piece of entertainment. If you want some slightly deeper thoughts, a review is up on my blog.

    “Notorious” (A-): Review of this will be up on Thursday. For now, let’s just say that I found the early sections a bit problematic but the final hour stunning.

    “This is Spinal Tap” (A-): I don’t think I’ll be reviewing this one in full, but I liked it a lot. It’s easily the best mockumentary film I’ve seen to date, mainly because unlike “Best in Show” or “A Mighty Wind” it actually goes for big laughs instead of little chuckles. I don’t think it quite ranks as a comedy classic, but it’s a very funny film nonetheless.

    I’m going to try and catch “Blue Valentine” this week, and may start watching the “Three Colors” trilogy as well.

  • @Greg – Oh, I’ve definitely seen ‘Before Sunset’. I just wanted to re-watch the first before re-watching the second. I remember liking ‘Before Sunrise’ slightly better, but we shall see when I re-visit the ‘Before Sunset’ again this week.

  • Glengarry Glen Ross: A One of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s one of those rare movies that I watched a second time on the same week that I saw it.

    In the Bedroom: B+ It’s a decent drama, but it shouldn’t have been nominated in 2001.

    Midnight in Paris: B I thought all of the Fitzgerald and Hemingway jokes were funny, but there isn’t much else beyond that.

  • “Pulp Fiction” (3rd Viewing; A-): I was about to watch “Precious”, but then I figured, I’m in the mood for something lighthearted. Tarantino nailed this intense comic feature, along with some truly intelligent dialogue. Still, that Butch segment in the middle did feel a bit too much like an afterthought, even if it did come after everything else.

    “Finding Nemo” (4+ Viewing; A): It’s easier to call this a lesser effort having gone a while without seeing it. It doesn’t matter when you finally take the time to sit down. There must be a dozen scenes that had me emotionally exhausted in the best way possible. For my money, Andrew Stanton can do no wrong. Speaking of which…

    “WALL-E” (4+ Viewing; A+): I was walking around Best Buy one day, saw this starting in the home theater, sat down for the entire film, and missed the showing of the film I was actually in town to see. Incidentally, the film I skipped out on was “Cars 2”. A worthy sacrifice, because “WALL-E” is still the most beautiful and delicate animated film of the past decade. Yes, the second half is a tad disappointing, but for some reason that doesn’t bother me so much. Certainly not enough to knock it down to just an A.

  • Asif Khan

    1. Jane Eyre (2011)- B+
    2. Amélie – 2nd watch- A
    3. Pan’s Labyrinth – 6th watch – A+
    4. The Godfather – 2nd watch – A+
    5. A Serious Man – A-
    6. Super – D+
    7. Cars – 2nd Watch – B-

  • On ‘The Tree of Life,’ I agree with your comparison of the New Testament God versus the Old Testament God, but I disagree about your suggestion that there is a loss of faith in the parents. I saw it as more of an acceptance of faults than a ceasing to view the parent as a deity. I feel like the father is shown in a greater light at the end of the film (at least from Jack’s perspective). His praise is perhaps strongest at that point despite the father’s shortcomings.

    I definately appreciate the general empathy the film generates with each scene and it impresses me how radically different each reading can be. It ties in nicely to the theme of the universal nature of existence.

    What do you think about the 2001 comparisons?

    Also, ‘Mon Oncle’ is probably The Illusionist’s closest relative. Tati, like Cocteau, had a small but nearly perfect filmography.

    The Linklater films have always fascinated me. I like ‘Before Sunrise’ a lot more than ‘Sunset’ but many critics go the other direction. I think they are films that resonate best with different age groups. I’m curious to hear how you react to ‘Before Sunset’ this viewing.

  • @Davin – I think that it is more fitting to compare ‘The Tree of Life’ to ‘Solaris’ or other Tarkovsky films than Kubrick. They have some visual similarities, but thematically they seem very different.

  • I actually thought about bringing up ‘Solaris’ and Tarkovsky in my review but opted out because I’ve always felt that that film is very sollipsistic and more about perception than universal truth.

    But the questions asked by those films are very similar and I agree that ‘Solaris’ is closer than the Kubrick film. ‘Andrei Rublev’ may be the closest relative, however, as it analyzes one individual’s life and his relationship with God from both in inward and outward perspective.

    In one specific moment Rublev and a senior painter blatantly discuss how Jesus perceived himself, how others perceived him, and the reason he was treated the way he was. Jack questioning his father (symbolizing God) immediately brought to my mind this scene. While Tarkovsky more blatantly spells out his theology in philosophical ramblings (as opposed to the visually oriented Malick), the idea and ambition is similar.

    I also found myself thinking of ‘Last Year at Marianbad.’ But again I think that was more stylistic than thematic.

    I’m glad to hear the film lived up to your expectations.

  • @Davin – I have not yet seen ‘Andrei Rublev,’ although I hope to very soon. I thought that Malick was little blatant with some of his voice-overs, and if there is one criticism I have about the film it’s that there was too much voice-over.

    However, as Matty from Filmspotting put it ‘The Tree of Life’ is an opera wrapped in a symphony viewed through a kaleidoscope and it will be a totally unique experience for everyone.

  • Jose

    I just realized something, on the plane I also saw The Adjustment Beruea, Unknown, and Just Go With It.

    The fact that I barely remembered those flicks says something about their quality.

  • @Jose – You must have flown Delta. They also showed ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ and ‘Just Go With It’ on my flights. I skipped them and chose instead to listen to ‘The Book of Mormon’ on my iPod.

  • Jose

    I did, I didn’t know they offered music though. As soon as I found them I gave up on the movies and listened to Wicked, Spring Awakening, and some other stuff that they were offering.

  • Just got around to “The Tree of Life”, and you’re certainly right about it being a vastly different experience for everyone who sees it. From what I took from it, it was analysis in insignificance. I took the two parents to be very symbolic figures of my own parents and their respective viewpoints. I’m sure there are some children out there who can relate to being caught between their parents’ conflicting ideologies.

    Even more prevalent was the idea that there is no ultimate control over anything that happens. These characters are very much set in their own ways, believing in god and his judgment beyond any logic or reason. The universe is painted as unbiased and apathetic towards those it consumes, but there’s a powerful human message beneath that. If there’s anything I’d like to take from this film, it’s that there’s the potential for compassion in everyone despite the unforgiving nature of the universe.

    The ending, unfortunately, doesn’t really hold that viewpoint in the highest respect. In fact, I feel like much of what Malick was trying to do was torn down by the ending. Maybe I’m missing the entire point, but it’s definitely a film with many interpretive meanings.

  • I see what your getting at when you mention the analysis of insignificance as evident in the scene with the dinosaurs. Shortly after that profound moment where a predator makes a choice to spare its prey we see the meteor headed towards Earth. Both of these dinosaurs are going to die anyway, but perhaps their end will come with saved souls. It’s either about the insignificance of such a choice or the vast importance of such a choice as it pertains to the human soul. I like to think the latter, but it’s completely open to interpretation.

    Malick seems to put more value on life than say Godard or Antonioni who love to show how insignificant life can be.

  • I didn’t really get the feeling of insignificance as the overall theme. To me, the depiction of the universe is intended to show that the universe operates in the same manor on a larger scale. This doesn’t belittle human life; it portrays it as part of all-encompassing nature.

    I think you are right about smaller details being depicted as insignificant though, which is reflected in the film’s lack of details about the family and setting.

    I also agree that the end departs from the idea of life in and of itself as being insignificant and that this is because of Malick’s faith in the human soul. The ending worked with the film’s general optimism and was beautiful, but it left me unsatisfied and unsure. Perhaps that is his depiction of the uncertainty of death, the great abyss.

  • Also, I watched Nashville for the first, second, and third time this week. Wow. A.

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