“The Tree of Life” review.

“The Tree of Life” is the first film in my reviewing career where when people asked me the simplest of questions about it; like ‘What’s it about?’ or ‘Is it any good?’, I have actually found myself stammering for words each and every time. When a film is not meant to present a linear narrative but instead delve into thematic exploration, how do you summarize that?

It’s directed by Terrence Malick, a man who in his 40 years of directing experience arrives here only at his fifth feature film. He’s a director notorious for his perfectionism and visual beauty; in fact, the footage for “Tree” was shot well over three years ago, but has been in the editing room ever since. This reflects not that the film is a poor one, simply that Malick finds his message and rhythm when piecing the footage together, as opposed to from the script.

Malick carries a famously slow, contemplative pace. It’s not just this that often infuriates the majority of moviegoers, but the fact that Malick has never once just given a straight-up, plain-and-simple story. He uses film in different ways and for different ends — to communicate some kind of sentiment about life, war, nature, et cetera. It varies from film to film, and here in “Tree of Life”, Malick turns his attention to two very differing concepts.

One is the American Dream of the ’50s; an idyllic, subdued family life. Brad Pitt is the stern head of the O’Brien family, ruling over his wife and three kids with a loving if overtly disciplinary eye. So intent is Mr. O’Brien on “making a man” out of his three boys, in fact, that it causes really heavy psychological issues for his eldest son, Jack, forty years down the line. Sean Penn plays Jack in the modern-day, who wanders aimlessly through desolate terrain, questioning himself, the events that made him who he is, and the universe at large.

This is balanced and intercut with, of all things, the creation of the universe, and the gradual expansion of life. In a 25-minute sequence, the centerpiece of the film in all regards, (emotional, thematic, and most especially technical!) the pieces that form our planet converge, the organisms that become life begin to come alive, and it culminates with, of all things, a scene in which dinosaurs spring into existence. This sequence as a whole is composed almost like a symphony; complete with its own rhythm, sense of motion, tone. It’s some of the most assured, awe-inspiring filmmaking I think that I’ve ever seen.

Performances are of the subdued type. Sean Penn’s role as the adult Jack is unexpectedly minor. Mind you, he rivets whenever he’s on-screen; so convincing is the heartbreak contorted on his face. Jessica Chastain as his mother 40 years prior carries a level of wisdom and grace unseen for actresses her age.

But I don’t believe anyone will contest the claim that Brad Pitt’s work in the film is the greatest performance. He’s come a long way since playing a goofy stoner in 1993’s “True Romance”, and no clearer is this than seeing him effortlessly adapting to the role of a 1950’s alpha-male-type. He manages the look of the era impeccably. Has Brad Pitt ever really had a problem in the looks department? Yet as the film progresses and his character’s failures come more into light, he becomes quite a tragic figure. As far as his body of work goes, it’s on-par with his “Benjamin Button” character.

But what exactly is “The Tree of Life” trying to convey, what’s the purpose Malick’s trying to send? “Tree of Life” is a total Rorschach test in the sense that no two people will look at it and get the same thing out of it. Personally, I think Malick cutting between two vastly different portions of the film is him trying to give a good deal of perspective to the importance that humanity holds to itself. Kind of like him telling us to take a step back and try and assess how large our problems really are when juxtaposed against the massive scale of the universe. Malick believes that we, as a planet, can only be really in touch with ourselves once we’re in touch with nature. If not, he suggests we may live an aimless existence; providing Brad Pitt and Sean Penn’s characters as examples of people who lose their way because of their lack of perspective and lack of action.

These words of mine may make the film seem daunting. Believe me. It is. But for all of the intellectual heavy-lifting that might be required to appreciate the film, it’s a pure sensory overload. The images in this film will made me audibly gasp in sheer amazement. The music will stir you, but the silence will haunt you. Malick, if nothing else, has crafted a stunning series of images; gorgeous to rival the likes of professionally-filmed nature documentaries.

But that’s what’s all the more remarkable about “Tree of Life”. All his long, sporadically productive career, Malick’s married the stimulation of the senses with that of the mind. And in his true masterpieces, ’78’s “Days of Heaven” and ’98’s “The Thin Red Line”, even the heart. That’s exactly what he’s accomplished with “The Tree of Life”, a film so massive in its scope and broad in its execution. Time no doubt will regard this as Malick’s finest technical accomplishment, but speaking for myself, it just may be his most emotionally devastating, accessible, and ultimately rewarding work. The dinosaur doesn’t hurt, either. A

“Cars 2″ review.

It took 12 movies, 16 years, $1.24 billion spent and $6.6 billion earned. But alas, Pixar Animation Studios has finally produced a misfire. It was only a matter of time, given the hyperbolic critical reaction each and every time they drop a film. But as long as they’ve been cranking out feature-length films, they’ve always displayed a meticulous, workmanlike technical skill yet paid deep attention to character depth, compelling dialogue and a strong, beating heart. They were stories for every filmgoer, from every walk of life and every persuasion or taste.

The spectacle of every Pixar remains here, to be sure. “Cars 2″ is their most action-packed effort this side of “The Incredibles”, with a near-endless barrage of races, chases, and shoot-outs. (It was only when I was walking out of the theater that the ludicrousness of cars shooting each other dawned upon me.) The animation remains as polished as ever, with a wide array of locales such as the neon-lit Tokyo and the rustic Radiator Springs providing lots of eye candy. If you come to Pixar movies for the pretty pictures you’ll emerge from this one satisfied.

But “Cars 2″ is the first product of theirs that feels more narrow in its goals and short-minded in ambition. It’s less bent on depth and more bent on…..well, I’m not entirely sure. Selling merchandise?

They certainly didn’t revisit the franchise for the sake of the characters, seeing as they’re developed as essentially caricatures or running jokes. Pixar even makes the egregious mistake of making hillbilly truck Tow Mater the central figure in the film — probably the most grating, repetitive major character in their entire canon. And they certainly didn’t revisit the franchise to create a universal, all-ages story, as “Cars 2″ is watered-down for consumption by little tykes and few others.

The characters are around to forward the plot, not to have any kind of moving arc of their own. This is what’s so jarring about watching “Cars 2″, in that Pixar essentially discards what’s long been the most important element of their films – emotion, dynamics between characters, depth. What have you. They go hand in hand, and they’re gone.

In a world populated by living, talking cars, Lightning McQueen is a celebrity; a hot-shot race-car whose detour into small-town Americana was the subject of the first “Cars”, a charming if admittedly minor work. Here, he’s competing in the World Grand Prix, a world-wide race to determine whether or not he remains on top as a racer.

Accompanying McQueen is his polar-opposite and best-friend, the Larry the Cable Guy-voiced Tow Mater. Mater, however, accidentally stumbles into a gig as a secret agent, working with slick British spy car Finn (voiced by [who else?] Michael Caine) to topple a conspiracy to rig the race and sabotage a prominent clean fuel. It’s a pretty fun set-up, that leads to an admittedly hilarious riff off of old spy movies; think “James Bond”.

I sat in “Cars 2″ and never felt anything particularly negative, but that’s not what disturbed me. What disturbed me is that I sat in “Cars 2″ never really feeling anything at all; no attachment to the characters, no real awe or excitement, no sadness. Just faint amusement at parts, and a pervading sadness that one of the titans of American filmmaking has lost its way. 11 for 12, Pixar. Your move. C-

“Green Lantern” review.

Ryan Reynolds deserves a good superhero movie. I mean, take a good look at the guy. His broad physique, square jaw, good looks and ample charisma suggest someone who, given the right material, could be on the path to action-star legend….think Steve McQueen or Bruce Willis.

“Green Lantern” is not that movie. It’s a premise that offers near-endless creative possibilities — a talented pilot encounters a ring that turns thought into reality. But with this power comes membership of the Green Lanterns – an intergalactic peace-keeping force, with hundreds of members from various galaxies. That pilot-turned-Lantern is Reynolds as Hal Jordan, who despite his boundless ego isn’t quite sure he’s up to snuff as a Lantern (being the first human member and all). He’s up against the threat of Parallax – essentially a big, evil cloud that swallows all in its path, growing stronger as it goes.

Director Martin Campbell does solidly what was probably the biggest challenge of the film — condensing a massive mythology into a short yet fulfilling runtime, all the while preventing the admittedly goofy material from devolving into laughable camp. That said, it all feels far too mechanical, too contrived; a film that feels more like it’s moving down a checklist of necessary occurrences (action here, character development and romantic beat there, et cetera) than organically expanding and occurring.

Because of this, I couldn’t ever get fully caught up in “Green Lantern”. It’s sad, given the degree of talent that’s employed here. But when one feels like they’re watching a product motivated more by contracts and merchandising opportunity than a real desire to make a great film, a degree of distance and rejection is only natural.

I could admire from a distance some of the better aspects of the film. Ryan Reynolds is as Ryan Reynolds does – which is to say, as charismatic and enjoyable to watch as ever. He’s what keeps this film chugging along — or perhaps more appropriately, dragging along. Peter Sarsgaard as a mad-scientist type reaches lofty heights of creepiness, and is the only true wild-card of the film. Also, the visual effects are quite impressive. This film carries a greater task than most of its genre; where most superhero movies need only digitally create some characters and action sequences, “Green Lantern” must create a full-fledged universe. It does this believably and admirably enough, though never to the point of awe that it was clearly shooting for.

Another thing preventing me from ever getting into “Lantern” was the weak dialogue. Scripted by four different writers, watching it feels like a bunch of different guys fighting to get their ideas on the screen; all of them making it but never quite as fleshed out as was no doubt desired.

Reynolds and Sarsgaard aside, that dialogue is delivered flatly and without much panache. I point you to Blake Lively, playing a rival pilot and romantic pursuit of Jordan’s. I also point to you Mark Strong – playing probably his seventh consecutive villain in a film, as well as Tim Robbins’ blank turn as a senator that’s the father of Sarsgaard’s character.

It’s a mostly blank, thankless cast, appropriate for a blank, listless film. C-

“Midnight in Paris” review.

Some filmmakers never quite venture out of their comfort zone; always operating within similar thematic and technical parameters. Not to say this is a bad thing, in fact, a near-perfect example to the contrary is the writer-comic-actor-director-intellectual Woody Allen. Ever since the early 1970s, he has steadily cranked out features on an annual basis; principally dealing with neurosis, contemporary romance and society, and the endless, comedic, endlessly comedic ways in which these things can clash.

Allen’s features have been rather taken with Europe these past several years (“Match Point”, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), but with “Midnight in Paris”, his new film, Allen crafts a love letter to Paris; depicting the bizarre ways in which a city can profoundly impact and inspire one’s artistry. That one guy is Owen Wilson playing Gil Pender, a self-described Hollywood hack screenwriter, whose trip to the City of Lights has driven him to take many a midnight stroll to both get creative inspiration for his work-in-progress novel, and to get away from his uptight fiancee and her hostile parents.

There is a secret that “Midnight in Paris” holds; a certain concept that’s key to both Pender’s creative inspiration, and where Woody Allen himself was inspired to make this film. Let it be known that it’s what sets “Midnight in Paris” considerably apart from standard cineplex fare, even standard Woody Allen fare.

Regardless of who is in the lead role, Allen tends to model the lead closely to his personality, and Owen Wilson’s Gil could easily have been played by a younger Allen. Wilson kills it here though, putting a very friendly, charming stamp on the various neuroses of the Allen archetype.

But where “Midnight in Paris” really shines is its supporting cast, an eclectic blend of character actors, Oscar-winners, and others. Rachel McAdams as Wilson’s fiancee has a solid rapport with both Wilson and Michael Sheen, in a hilarious bit role as a family friend whose snobbish, pedantic mannerisms serve as a recurring joke in the film. Other actors whose roles greatly stand out, but whose exact parts I must hold back for spoilers’ purposes include Tom Hiddleston (fresh off a villainous stint in “Thor”), Alison Pill, Adrien Brody, whose final line is one of the funniest things all year, and the exquisite Marion Cotillard as something of a love interest.

The surprises “Midnight in Paris” has to offer are a great many, making it a film that you’re never once positive what’s coming next but you’re constantly anxious to find out. Allen’s writing is in top form here, being one of his stronger and certainly most fanciful scripts in a decade or two.

“Paris” achieves a certain poignancy, an evocation of an era whose byproducts are worshipped to this day. It’s a film whose problems are few — perhaps some characters serve more as caricatures, although a good deal of that is probably intentional on Allen’s part. It’s thoroughly charming, stirring work. A-

“Super 8″ review.

There’s a moment towards the beginning of “Super 8″ that’s my very favorite in the film. On set of their little movie, nearly-pubescent Joe tells Alice to close her eyes whilst he applies make-up. He gives her this little glance of genuine longing and yet at the same time, discovery. Longing because he’s pined for her as long as he can remember. And discovery because he’s in the midst of discovering the pure joy of movie-making. Director J.J. Abrams wanted to communicate that joy to us as an audience with “Super 8″; and in doing this crafted a superb example of pure blockbuster filmmaking. It’s a big-budget spectacle that thrills, that rivets, but never forgets to feel.

In all honesty however, I probably connected with this better than most will. I mean, put aside the fact that it’s directed by one of the most talented storytellers working today — J.J. Abrams, of the television show “Lost” and the “Star Trek” reboot. Put aside the fact that the film is very openly and directly inspired by the works of Steven Spielberg (I direct your attention to “E.T.” and “The Goonies”, in particular); whose films imbued and fueled my love from film at a very young age, catapulting me to a much larger, much deeper understanding of film and its mechanics.

It’s simply because the film is a deeply felt, moving tale of childhood angst and mourning — that just so happens to have a  mysterious, giant monster thrown into the mix. It’s a tribute to the ways in which a particular passion can invigorate and in some ways motivate people from a very young age — in this case, filmmaking.

A bunch of teenage kids have snuck out into the night, shooting a vital scene for a film they intend on submitting to a local festival. On location at a train station, however, a passing secretive-government-train explodes, nearly killing the kids and freeing….well, something. That “something” causes a very strange chain of events around the town; with young Joe, son of the local sheriff and one of the kids present when the train crashed, caught in the middle of it all.

The crash is presented in a masterful five-minute sequence. Masterful not just for its craft and technical skill (which it has and proudly displays), but masterful in the sense that very high stakes are established at a very early point. These kids are fighting for their lives in this scene, and if one doesn’t develop some degree of affection for them, they’re probably snoozing. Or texting, God forbid.

The child actors all develop a genuine dynamic and rapport between one another — Abrams gets all the little bickering and fights between them right, but also never fails to present them as a lovable, tight-knit group of kids just coming into their own.

The film works incredibly effectively as both a genuine mystery and a coming-of-age story, but it’s the moments in which these elements come together that “Super 8″ loses its footing. The film has a bit of an awkward balancing act to handle, and doesn’t always pull it off. No matter though – the film moves at a brisk enough pace that one can almost forget it all. Abrams mounts tension and mystery, to be sure, but never forgets the quieter, subtler moments — the little arguments friends get into over meals, the awkward silences between father and son. The resolution of the father-son conflict had me almost bawling by the film’s end.

There is a pervasive feeling throughout “Super 8″ that I feel goes above and beyond what most summer fare offers. Do you know what that feeling is? Love. Love of and between its characters. Love of a time when gas was 86 cents a gallon and the so-called ‘anti-social’ types donned cassette players, not iPods. Love of the man whose films directly inspired it, Steven Spielberg. Love of the feeling of childhood. Love of those little moments of defiance that always stick out for you, like taking your fathers car and taking a couple of friends out at midnight. And a pure love of the medium on which it’s presented: Film. A-

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” review.

How many filmmakers can you say have threatened to kill their lead actor on set? How many filmmakers have been shot during an interview, yet continued on with it only making the quip, “It is not an important bullet”? How many filmmakers have publicly honored a bet to boil and eat their own shoe, the footage of which is readily available on YouTube?

Werner Herzog is one of those filmmakers.

A tempestuous man, he has racked up so much cult-icon status that it’s hard at times to remember he’s made some of cinema’s finest works. (“Aguirre: The Wrath of God”, “Fitzcarraldo”, etc…) For my money, he’s one of the most fascinating people on the planet. Alternating between off-kilter narratives and fascinating documentaries these days, Herzog delivers on the latter category with his new work, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”.

In “Dreams”, Herzog personally takes a four-man crew into the Chauvet cave. In Chauvet lies the first-ever cave paintings by man — some dating back as far as 32,000 years. Herzog often explores the significance of Chauvet not just as a beautiful place where rare rocks and stalagmites dwell — but where in a very primal, simplistic form, art was essentially born. He gives us an in-depth look at the interior of the cave — something he had to run by the French minister of culture to do.

But what really differentiates “Cave” from being just another nature documentary, aside from the fascinating force behind it, is the fact that Herzog shot it using 3-D cameras. Because of this, we as an audience receive a thoroughly immersive, visually stunning glimpse at Chauvet, a near-universe unto itself. The 3-D allows cave textures and intricacies to pop out, in a way that could never have been displayed in standard two-dimensional projection. Of course, it ensures that the film can at times be a visually foggy affair, (adding the 3-D dimming effect atop the already dark environment of the cave) but that’s a small price to pay for the level of immersion the audience receives.

Herzog is unquestionably front-and-center here, as he seems to love doing in his documentaries. Not that this is a bad thing in any-way, quite the contrary actually. He’s a well-informed if informal guide through the mysteries and wonders that Chauvet has to offer.

Whether one enjoys “Cave” is entirely dependent on either their penchant for nature documentaries, Werner Herzog, or simply letting go and being given a glimpse of a place that otherwise, they’d never lay eyes on in their life. Clearly, I don’t mind any of those things, and so for 95 minutes I was totally swept away. B

“Kung Fu Panda 2″ review.

“Kung Fu Panda 2″ is far from a failure in what it sets out to do; the problem with that being that it’s not trying to do anything particularly exciting. It goes through all the paces that a film of its sort is expected to do, fitting damn-near perfectly into the supposed ‘plot-triangle’ with all the requisite motions (rising action, climax, et cetera…). Where action is required, action takes place. Where displays of emotion are required, they are “emoted”. When it behooves the director [first-timer Jennifer Nelson] to drop comic relief, she executes it with impeccable efficiency. And this is really how “Kung Fu Panda 2″ left me cold.

It’s TOO efficient, too workmanlike. It’s TOO neatly constructed. It’s a creation that feels thoroughly constructed top-to-bottom, frame-to-frame, kick-to-face.

It’s the second in a franchise with humbler beginnings than most studio fare. The original was a surprise in all regards, or at least the ones that matter most (financially & critically). What other film could squeeze Jack Black & Dustin Hoffman into the same frame? The film, set in ancient China, was essentially about a lot of furry animals running around and doing kung fu on each other, the main character being the underdog wanna-be panda, Po. But given the dramatic gravitas and weight it was handled with though, it was convincing, entertaining, even uplifting.

Po’s back for “2″, as is his back-up squad, “The Furious Five”, a colorfully animated and celebrity-voice-populated clan. Voices include Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan. Characters with more than five lines of dialogue include none. The objective of the group this time around? To destroy an evil leader, who is developing a weapon that threatens the future and relevance of kung-fu itself. (I was excited to see what creative ‘weapon’ the filmmakers would come up with, only to find that its a simple cannon.)

Along the way, Po experiences flashbacks to a childhood in which his parents abandoned him. A sub-plot is about him harnessing these painful memories to find “inner peace”. Read above comments on arbitrariness of emotion in this film.

The film is superbly animated, as I’ve come to expect from animation-house DreamWorks. The gorgeous, often fantastical landscapes of China are vividly captured. It’s the combination of these and the combat sequences that really engaged me, most of the time. And what combat!

One element where they totally stepped up their game is indeed, the action in the film. It feels like the kind of large-scale badassery that live-action CGI, for all of its tricks and tools, can’t quite conjure. It’s certainly where the creative juice of the film was mostly used up. A sequence where the protagonists, propelling themselves by throwing the others upward, dart up a collapsing tower is brilliant. It’s these sequences that, should the series continue its current downward trajectory, will keep me coming back for more. C+