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what i watched last week

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011). Roger Ebert wrote that this “is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.” It may turn out that future generations will say that Malick’s greatest skill was to get intelligent critics to say stuff like that on his behalf. I’m reminded of Benjamin Franklin listing humility as a virtue one should aspire to, describing it as imitating Jesus and Socrates. At least Franklin seemed to appreciate the irony of thinking the imitation of Jesus would reflect on one’s humility. Malick lets his mouthpieces say it for him.

The Tree of Life is indeed ambitious. It is also beautiful, as Malick’s films always are. And it is as personal a vision as you’ll see in a mainstream film. It is perhaps the latter that is the biggest problem, for the film is mostly impenetrable … the only person who knows what it means is Malick, and he’s not telling. A work of art can challenge its audience, and there is no need for every movie to do all the work for us, allowing for a passive reception to what is on the screen. But I’m not a fan of willful obscurity; in fact, I’ve never figured out why I should care about art so insular it closes me out.

Malick doesn’t leave much room for his actors in The Tree of Life. Brad Pitt does what he can, and he is arguably the best thing about the movie. But Malick doesn’t seem that interested in actors. Sean Penn famously said after the film’s release, “Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” Jessica Chastain fares no better, through no fault of her own. There isn’t much to her character; Malick seems more interested in the dinosaurs.

Writing about The New World, I said “Malick deserves credit for being true to his vision of filmmaking. He doesn’t care that I’m bored, and he shouldn’t care.” I still believe that, but I was as bored with The Tree of Life as I was with any of his films. I care about that, and I should. 5/10.

My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936). Effortless in so many ways. It is breezy in the style of screwball comedies, it feels improvised even when it’s not, and the social message slides right in. Actually, that message isn’t particularly clear; the film shows the surface differences between rich and poor, but the solution isn’t to distribute the wealth more equitably, but rather to encourage the rich to be more charitable. Given that, it makes sense that the “forgotten man” of the film’s title is actually a refugee from a rich family, himself. The acting is great across the board, which is to be expected when the leads are Carole Lombard and William Powell and the supporting cast is filled with the likes of Alice Brady and Mischa Auer. 9/10.

Vengeance (Johnnie To, 2009). I always think I like Johnnie To’s movies, but looking back at some of them, I seem to have been less impressed than I remember. This one is different. I really did like this one, quite a lot. The plot is remarkable in its twists and turns, and yes, I can see why some would think it incoherent or just plain silly. But I bought into it. The action scenes (i.e. violence with lots of shooting) are top-notch, and a couple of HK veterans, Anthony Wong and Simon Tam, are good as ever. But it’s French pop star Johnny Hallyday who steals the movie as an aging Frenchman seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter’s family. Side note: this is the first movie I watched on my Kindle Fire. 8/10.