Sarah’s Key (2010) Review

Directed By: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Written By: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Starring:  Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance

Cinematography By: Pascal Ridao

 

Sarah’s Key, the adaption of Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel, is a film of both gripping emotion and stagnant boredom. Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film tells the story of the round up of 13,000 Parisian Jews by French police in 1942. When police come to the Starzinki family apartment in the Marais district, the bold 10 year old Sarah seeks to protect the life of her younger brother by locking him in the cupboard and telling him to remain there until she returns. Sarah is then deported along with her mother and father to camps in the countryside before she is separated from her parents who are presumably sent to Nazi death camps. Sarah manages to to escape from her prison camp in a desperate attempt to return to her apartment and be reunited with her brother.

However this is only half of the film’s narrative. As the moments of tension heighten as the film follows Sarah’s heart breaking story, the scene cuts to modern day Paris 60 years on where an American journalist, Julia (Kristen Scott Thomas) begins to uncover the disturbing history behind the Marais district apartment her husband’s family acquired six decades ago. Julia begins to investigate the history of her families apartment and slowly uncovers Sarah’s story. As Sarah’s dramatic attempt to return to her brother unravels in a tempest of emotion and intensity, Julia’s quest to uncover the truth of the past drags on in what feels like a completely separate film.

I initially liked the idea of a dual narrative film. This unique approach distinguished Sarah’s Key from the countless other Nazi era films that have emerged over the years. It raises the questions of one’s past and whether we are indeed products of our past. However, whilst the French spoken sequences of Sarah’s life are vivid and intensely emotive, the modern day sequences performed in English fail to convey the same emotion or excitement. One finds them-self enduring the dull of modern day Paris narrative in anticipation to return to the excitement. The story doesn’t end as quickly as I was expecting, but rather unravels allowing for all the loose ends to be tied up. Too often in the blockbusters does the film end with various loose ends left about. Whilst this made Sarah’s Key feel slightly long at times, it also created a sense of satisfaction and resolution for the viewer.

The performances are varied which is expected in light of the overall film. 10 year old Sarah is played by a terrific Mélusine Mayance who characterizes the brave and defiant young hero with such charm and delight. As the heroin she carries the role of the incredibly mature and responsible young child, whilst not losing the distinct notion of childhood innocence and naivety, which gives her character a sense of believability. Kristen Scott Thomas does the best job in the contemporary sequences, although she is let down by those around her – especially her work colleagues who appear stifled and obviously scripted.

The cinematography is also split along the lines of the film. Cinematography is one of those things that one doesn’t necessarily take note of unless it’s amazing. Rarely is it ever terrible, unless it’s been stylized in a certain manner for effect, which may be unpopular with viewers. The handheld feel of the 1942 sequences created an authentic and lively feel full of emotion and action. My favourite scene is of Sarah and her fellow camp inmate running through the fields moments after their escape. However the 21st century scenes felt static and added nothing to the emotion, leaving half the film dull and dry.

Despite half the film feeling painstakingly slow and uninteresting, the emotive story and compelling performances of the historic period carry the audience right to the end. Sarah’s Key is an intense film that captures the audience’s emotions and leaves one feeling shaken and moved.

Plot/Development 7/10

Performance & Characters 7/10

Cinematography 7/10

 

Quality Rating: 7/10

Entertainment Rating 7/10

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The Damned United (2009) Review

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Screenplay by: Peter Morgan

Cinematography: Ben Smithard

The Damned United is a light and enjoyable British film which tells the story of Brian Clough’s short-lived reign as Leeds United manager in 1974. Adapted from David Pearce’s original novel, Tom Hooper (director of Kings Speech) delivers a film that is both fresh and entertaining. The film tells the story of Brian Clough who along with his longtime friend and colleague Peter Taylor, took flailing football club Derby County from the bottom of the second division to winning the first division in England. Clough then signs as manager for longtime rival club Leeds United but lasts no longer than 44 days before being sacked. I was under the impression the film would focus predominantly on Clough’s tenure as Leeds manager, however that seemed to take only a portion of the brisk 90 odd minute film. Instead the narrative jumps between Clough’s days as Derby manager and his arrival and demise and Leeds. This format of telling the story as well as conveying the context and backstory concurrently was, I thought particularly clever. However it did result in me feeling that I watched Clough’s reign as Derby manager with a little stint as Leeds rather than the 44 days at Leeds with a little bit of context as Derby manager. Having said this, it did not detract from the entertainment value of the film.

Two things throughout the film stood out for me as being very good; the first being the performances and the characters.

Michael Sheen (The Queen and Frost/Nixon) delivered a truly memorable performance as the arrogant and chirpy manager, Brian Clough. Clough started out as the eager and ambitious Derby manager, who in the space of 45 minutes became the arrogant and brazen manager who ranked himself, “within the top 1” managers in the country. As the audience I found myself supporting and sympathising with Clough. However as his attitude became ever more brazen and overly confident, I found myself feeling betrayed as a viewer. I had invested into him as a character yet his arrogance had led to me feeling a lack of sympathy for him after his sacking. This, I believe is a testimony to the performance of Sheen. Despite his somewhat screen-friendly charm, he managed to convey the overwhelming insolence of his character which was critical for this film to be believable and have any merit beyond some Saturday night fun.

The second thing I found enjoyable was the somewhat distinct ‘look’ of the film. The combination of the cinematography and the treatment of the film gave it a somewhat distinct approach that I’ve come to appreciate with British films. Hollywood tends to produce films that all look vaguely similar in some way. However with the Damned United there was a unique feel to visuals which added a quirkiness to the film.

Interestingly there was very little on field football action. The film focused on the drama that surrounded the games and the interaction between Clough and his team’s boardroom. I would have preferred some more on field action as well as more weight given to the players characters. They seemed to look largely unhappy and generally mute. Greater interaction with Clough would have added another dynamic that I’d like to have seen unfold.

The Damned United is an understated and enjoyable film. Some great performances and great cinematography bring this film to life. Unfortunately the story rambles along without much of a climax. There could have been a bit more football shown and bit more of surprise but nonetheless, its worth a watch.

 

Plot Development 6.5/10

Characters/Performances 8/10

Cinematography 7.5/10

 

Quality Rating 73%

Entertainment Value 7.5/10

The Love Bombs Festival Review

 

This week saw the Love Bombs film festival being held here in Cape Town. The festival is three short films ranging from 17 to 35 minutes created and produced by a local church, Joshua Generation and made entirely by volunteers. Three up and coming local directors co-wrote and directed each short entirely in their own capacity and spare time. If nothing else, the LoveBombs festival has shown that nothing is beyond the capabilities of the willing and dedicated. Each film in their own right was a work of art.

To critique a film that is made on a zero budget, by non-professionals and entirely by volunteers to the same standards as one would a Hollywood feature would be unfair. Thus this review will not hold the shorts up against mainstream films but rather assess each on their own merit.

The Second Day is the shortest of the three, written and directed by Howard Fyvie. Set in the (science) fictional Salem Prison (presumably representing Hell) it tells the story of inmates having to fight in a gladiator styled event in order to earn their freedom. One inmate challenges the resident gladiator to a fight to the death – something presumably no one has done before and lived to tell the tale.

The film was made incredibly well. The makeup, costumes and work that went into creating a ‘hell’ environment was top notch, leagues above the zero budget category the film finds itself in. The performances of the main character (2nd Adam) and the prison guards were chilling, something straight out of a Lord of the Rings film. If anything, the film let me down in that it ended too soon. I wanted to watch more. I felt the buildup was executed brilliantly but then we reached the climax and the end within what felt like 30 seconds. If anything I would have appreciated more of a reaction and conclusion, but otherwise the film truly was a indie filmmaking masterpiece.

iBalaclava directed by Nevil Sandama and the longest of the three was a complete surprise. From watching the trailer it was the one I was least anticipating but after the evening it wast the one which impressed me the most. It was for me by far the best written piece. There was a real sense of narrative unfolding throughout and it benefitted from the extra 15 minutes over the other two. The performances of Zolani and Bongani in particular were stellar. Believable, engaging and heart wrenching all at the same time. The pacing of the film was particularly well done with a solid 3 act structure which led to a climax that was seriously hard hitting. In some regard I would have preferred a slightly softer and subtle look to the film in favour of the harsh contrast it had as well as more use of a soundtrack in the tender moments, which would have elevated the emotional impact, but despite these minor preferences the film was brilliant.

The final of the three, The Prodigal was what I was most looking forward to. Written and Directed by MJ Phillip it tells the story of a teenage boy thrust into turmoil over his sexuality and the rejection of those closest to him. The Prodigal was more of an exploration in the medium of film than a narrative. The direction was handled delicately and with subtlety which is what I appreciated most about this short. Whilst it didn’t have the strongest narrative, it was also written very well. The performances by Kyle SJ Peter and Howard Fyvie were extremely good, especially considering they are not professional actors. I loved the use of a dual narrative which served as a metaphor for the inner workings of the main character’s life. If anything I think this film would have benefitted from a slightly more spectacular climax, raising the intensity and stakes of the narrative.

If I had to, I would describe the Love Bombs festival as three films that stand on their own two feet, each boasting very impressive aspects in their own right. Very enjoyable and brilliantly made they are a great indication of the talent that surrounds us.

Skyfall Trailer

Below is the trailer for the new 007, Skyfall set for release later this year.

It looks epic….until halfway. The villain isn’t convincing. Bond needs more Bourne and less, Bond. Make it believable and plausible. The action does look great but sadly I fear the story will disappoint.

 

 

Batman Begins (2005) Review: The weakest in a strong trilogy

Directed By: Christopher Nolan 

Written By: David S. Goyer

Cinematography: Wally Pfister

Starring: Christian BaleMichael CaineKatie Holmes

I’m always nervous when a comic book is launched as a blockbuster. I cringe at the potential of it to being nothing more than somewhat impressive visual effects, cheesy dialogue, insincere characters and a hollow storyline. I’m thinking of Superman Returns, the original Spiderman series and the string of horrible Marvel films such as Thor, The Hulk and Iron Man (Iron Man was the only one vaguely worth watching). So when Batman Begins came out in 2005 I wasn’t interested. It was only in more recent years after discovering the genius of Christopher Nolan (Memento and Inception) that I decided to go back and give Batman Begins a go.

The story of Bruce Wayne is handled tastefully, interspersed along the contemporary narrative as Bruce finds himself in a Tibetan type monastery with the League of Shadows. To be honest, the League of Shadows was a little unbelievable. Thankfully Liam Neeson didn’t completely ruin the film for me (as he does in every one of his other films), but the idea of a group of ‘ninja assassins’ just sounds too immature to be believable. The idea that the League of Shadows wants to eliminate the city of Gotham through dispersing water vapor laced with toxins reminded me that I was watching a comic book film. I would have preferred a more realistic scenario (albeit not another nuclear armageddon story please). Having said this, the motif of fear added to the entire story, starting with a young Bruce and culminating as the weapon for destroying Gotham. It seems that Nolan was doing something more than just blowing millions on creating a blockbuster but there was a clear message to be told. I appreciate that.

The performances and characters are central to the success of the Batman franchies. Christian Bale is a stellar performer of the damaged yet resolute Bruce Wayne. He’s appropriately arrogant when he needs to be which turned me away from him, but he was then tough as nails as Batman. This is also an ode of praise to Nolan’s directing. Michael Caine seems to have been made for the role of supportive and witty Alfred and Morgan Freeman did an excellent job as Fox to Batman as Q was to James Bond. I particularly enjoyed Cillian Murphy’s character, The Scarecrow. He was dark and edgy and Nolan’s treatment of him as a villain was truly engaging and harrowing.

The direction and handling of the Batman character was superb by Nolan. Batman was made to be a plausibile character. Granted he was funded by billions, but at the heart of who he was, he was sincere and believable. In addition the great handling of the characters and plot, the overall filmmaking was class. Hans Zimmer brought the film to life with the soundtrack and the cinematography of Wally Pfister was breathtaking at moments. The writing and dialogue had the right balance of witty yet realistic. Alred in particular had some great lines that brought his character to life.

Something tells me that Batman Begins will be the weakest in the trilogy, much like Bourne Identity. It serves the purpose of setting the scene and establishing the characters but failed to have the Oscar winning magic that The Dark Knight had with the Joker. Despite all this, Batman begins was a highly enjoyable film and one that handled the story and characters in a sincere and intentional manner which came through strongly.

Plot/Plot Development: 7/10

Performances: 8/10

Direction 8/10

Entertainment Value: 8/10

Quality Value: 76%

Warrior (2011) A storytelling masterpiece

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor 

Written by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman

Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Jennifer Morrison  and Nick Nolte.

*Spoiler alert*

David O’Connor’s Warrior tells the story of two estranged brothers, Tommy and Brendon Conlon who enter into MMA’s (Mixed martial arts) highest stakes contest. The brothers’ father, Paddy (Nick Nolte) acts as a loose go-between the brothers, however his relationship has both been strained from years of alcoholism and abuse. Inevitably, the two brothers will face eachother in the final round for the chance to win $5,000,000 but the beauty of this film is not in its plot but in its masterful delivery.

There was a good chance that I was not going to enjoy this film upon watching it. The only reason I did choose to watch it was I had watched the final sequence of the film – inevitably the final fight – and thus had found out who won. Despite knowing how it all came together I was very quickly pulled into the story of this dysfunctional and struggling family, my mind moving at the pace of the film and not jumping ahead to the conclusion.

Sports drama’s are inevitably going to be predictable. Act one and two tend will create a backstory and a buildup to the final showdown between the protagonist and antagonist. We don’t watch these films to find out who wins, thats pretty much a forgone conclusion, instead we watch to experience the drama and emotion of the journey to that final and ultimate result.  Warrior, whilst fairly predictable does offer a margin for surprise. It’s not quite clear which of the brothers is the protagonist or antagonist and even then, there is room within the plot for an upset. This uncertainty literally brought me to the edge of my seat whilst watching and that is something any director can be proud of.

Tommy  (tom Hardy) is a troubled and disgruntled prodigal son returning home from deserting his unit in Iraq. His return is not prompted by lost relationship as much as returning to his former wrestling coach. Tommy asks his dad to take him under his wing and train him to fight again. Their relationship is somewhat of a cage fight itself. Tommy is incredibly harsh and unforgiving towards his father, who has made a turn around in his life, coming up on 1000 days of sobriety and wants to try and rebuild some of the burn bridges in their relationship. Despite Tommy’s rather unlikeable nature, there is a ray of light in his character. It emerges that he is somewhat of a war hero for saving the lives of fellow drowning soldiers. He’s wanted by the military for deserting his unit, but his at the same time loved by the public and comrades for his heroics.

Across the state, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a high school physics teacher and is loved by his wife Tess and students alike. His family have troubles of their own. Medical bills have meant they are struggling to save their home from foreclosure, placing enormous strain on him as a father and provider. Like his brother he has a history of fighting and in his new family suburban life will secretly enter into amateur cage fights to earn some extra cash.

Ultimately both Tommy and Brendan begin training for SPARTA – the high stakes MMA contest for the chance to win five million dollars. Both brothers have their reasons for the money. Brendan needs it to keep his family from falling into bankruptcy and Tommy wants to support the widow and family of his fellow soldier killed Iraq.

The direction and performances brilliant. Personally I found Tommy to be a bit more believable than Brendan. Tommy’s back story seems fitting whilst I could never quite picture brendan as a cage fighter. Perhaps that simply adds to the drama of the underdog story. Nick Nolte gives a superb performance throughout the film. If anything, he was slightly too like-able. I would have liked to have seen a flair of aggression, hinting back to the old days. A result of this however is that I felt genuinely aggravated towards Tommy who wouldn’t give his dad a break. Tommy quickly established himself as the antagonist as opposed to his brother Brendan who is a loving and devoted father struggling to keep his finances together and pushed literally to the limit as he puts his body on the line for them.

The true genius of the storytelling and directing is revealed at the final fight. Tommy has destroyed every opponent he’s faced to make it to the final whilst Brendan has barely survived each round to miraculously win each fight as a the true underdog hero. The combination of the backstory, the emotion on Tess and Paddy’s faces and the soundtrack of The National’s ‘About Today’ left me in tears. What was truly brilliant is that in the final scene the viewer finds themselves feeling truly compassionate for Tommy as he fights on in vain. Brendan finishes him off before repeatedly telling him he loves him. As the audience you are left feeling elated for Brendan who can now pay off his debts but broken for Tommy who was only ever interested in helping another family.

Warrior is a great film. The story resonates with working class America today, struggling to stay afloat in these financial strenuous times and dealing with the effects of two long and bloody wars. The performances are seriously impressive and the ability for O’Connor to flip the viewer from disliking Tommy to feeling genuine compassion for him a single scene is incredible.

Plot/Development 7.5/10

Performances 8.5/10

Cinematography 8/10

Directing 8.5/10

Quality Rating 81%

Entertainment Rating 90%

Master and Commander Review

Master and Commander (2003) 

Screenplay and Directed By: Peter Weir

Cinematography by: Russell Boyd

Starring: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany 

Russel Crowe has a made a habit of finding himself in some very good films and pulling off a remarkable performance each time. In Peter Weir’s Master and Commande Crowe plays Captain Jack Aubrey as he engages in a high sea pursuit of Napolean Bonapartes phantom ship – the Achelon. Each time I’ve watched this film since its 2003 release I’ve been held to attention and excitement from beginning to end. There is simply so much to enjoy about this film, whilst retaining the qualities of a well produced and well directed film.

I found the storyline to be engaging from the very beginning if not entirely original. Interestingly enough 90% of the film is set on the ship itself with only a few moments unfolding on the Galapagos islands. Yet despite the lack of diversity in scenarios and locations the performance and plot keeps one captivated throughout. The plot is developed in a measured manner. There are no major twists and surprises, just the linear tale of the adventures of Captain Aubrey’s ship. The story beckons the childhood adventurer in the viewer as the almost fantastical tale of high sea battles between mighty ships unfolds.

For me the most impressive and entertaining aspect of the film were the performances and characters. Yes, on reflection the whole thing is quite Hollywood and feels like a fairy tale with its charm and its comical wit, but I found that this added to rather that subtracted from the film. Without the great scriptwriting and performances by Russel Crowe and Paul Bettany, the film would have been lost in a sea of dull and boring historical retelling. The tale of friendship between Aubrey and the doctor is elegantly told  and revisited throughout the film. The interaction between Crowe and Bettany is central to this telling as well as the overall elegance of the film itself.

Whilst it’s not the best film ever made but it definitely is entertaining with a fresh perspective, something I really appreciated.

 

Plot/ Plot Development 8/10

Characters/Performances 8.510

Production: 8/10

Entertainment 8.5/10

The Bang Bang Club (2010)

Directed and Screenplay by: Steven Silver 

Cinematography by: Miroslaw Baszak

Starring: Ryan Philippe, Taylor Kitsch

The Bang Bang Club had all the potential to be an epic story-telling of the fascinating and insightful group of combat photographers during the dying days of Apartheid. It is this potential which deals the film its heaviest blow. The film is not the worst produced film to come out of South Africa – or Hollywood for that matter – but the very nature of the story is made to look cheapened and short changed by overall poor writing and directing.

Unfortunately for Steven Silver, he has no-one to blame but himself. The writer director failed to bring the most out of the story of the four courageous combat photographers who would stop at nothing to tell the story of the violence between the ANC and Inkhata Freedom fighters. To begin with, the performances were average at best. Ryan Philippe did the better of the two North American actors with his accent being bearable. The same can’t be said for Taylor Kitsch however who was simply woeful. He was brilliant as Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights but in this film I felt as though he was the same troubled and intoxicated teenager.  His accent was on another level of atrocious. Forced and without subtlety  it was excruciating to listen to. This leads me to one of my biggest issues with the film. Why on earth did Steven Silver allow every one of his male actors to say the word, “china” or “bru” after every sentence, regardless of whom they are speaking to? This baffled me to the point of anger. You don’t have to spend more than a day in this country to realize that we don’t say ‘my chinas’ and ‘Ja, howzit bru’ to everyone we encounter. The worst part of it all is you can’t forgive Steven Silver for being a foreigner – he’s a flippin local!

The major flaw with this film is the flow of the narrative. There isn’t an overall story that is resolved at the end. One moment you’re in what feels like the middle of the story (which hasn’t developed, only progressed) and the next moment the whole thing is wrapping up. The first half is exciting but then you start to realize it’s not going anywhere other than following the events of lives of the photographers. This story was crying out for so much more; four friends caught amidst the violence and turbulence of a dying regime, capturing the crimes of humanity before their very eyes, and yet it just fizzles out with very little resolve.

Another gripe I had whilst watching was with the wardrobe department. Someone needs to find a new job. Who thought to put Kevin Carter in skinny jeans for the entire length of the film. It’s 1994 people! Furthermore, Robin Compley’s outfit looked as if it came off someone’s Pinterest board,  skinny jeans, flowing tops and braided hair. What a disaster.

Having said all this, there was something which blew me away, the cinematography. Miroslaw Baszak did a tremendous job. The shots were beautiful and the colouring magical. From start to finish, the film ‘looked’ great. The perspectives were interesting and the addition of ‘point-of-view’ type shots added to the tension, especially during the initial foot chase through the Sowetan hostel.

Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to lift the film from the ashes. Overall I was entertained, which I guess is something to give the film credit for, but this story needed a Scorsese or Soderbergh in the directors chair and a Aaron Sorkin to really bring it to life.

Plot development: 6/10

Performances 5/10

Cinematography 8/10

Quality Rating: 63%

Entertainment Rating: 70%

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The Wind that shakes the Barley (2006)

Directed by: Ken Loach

Written by: Paul Laverty 

In choosing a movie to watch for this week’s review, there was one deciding factor on the cover of The Wing that Shakes the Barley, which caught my eye– the badge of the Palm d’Or award from Cannes. Having watched fellow trophy recipient The Tree of Life (2011) last week I felt a sense of excitement and anticipation well up within me for this feature. However after two hours of watching Ken Loach’s award winning piece I was left rather bemused as to why this film picked up top honours at Cannes. It left me overall unmoved and unspired, despite a few moments worth remembering.

The story is that of two brothers, Damien and Teddy who join the Irish Republican Army in the 1920’s struggle against the imperial ‘Black and Tans’ of England. Damien and Teddy conduct a series of ambushes against the English forces, until eventually a truce is declared and a decision must be made between joining the Republicans and serve under the authority of the throne of Britain or continue to fight for complete freedom and independence. Teddy feels their victory is significant enough and joins the Republicans whilst Damien believes their socialist ideals are yet to be fully realised. Thus civil war erupts, with the brothers now finding themselves on either side of the battle lines. Ken Loach paints a very sordid picture of the English imperial forces with harrowingly realistic scenes of troops beating and murdering Irish civilians. His depiction of the English immediately establishes them as the ‘evil forces’ whilst the band of IRA fighters are depicted as ordinary civilians concerned and passionate for the freedom of their land and countrymen. Having said this, the sheer cold-blooded murders of the British at the hands of the IRA are chilling to watch. Clearly no side was blameless in this struggle. Loach portrays the IRA’s violence with a somewhat nonchalant attitude, which comes across as a necessary evil and therefore justified.

The performances weren’t stellar by any stretch. Cillian Murphy (Damien) probably did the best job of all and his interaction with his brother Teddy was central to the storyline, yet it wasn’t inspiring nor ground-breaking. There needed to be more drawn out from the two of them. Plot wise the film failed to deliver anything beyond average. A major problem for me is that 80% of the film is dedicated to the struggle against the British with only a fraction of the film set during the civil war struggles. This detracted from the film, as there wasn’t enough time to highlight and develop the tension and strain on the brothers’ relationship. This was where Loach needed to expound more and draw out more emotion from their newfound allegiances. The cinematography itself was fairly lackluster as well. It didn’t do much to add to the emotion or narrative. Yes there are some nice scenes of Ireland and the tones of the interiors and costumes correspond well to each other, but to be honest you have to try pretty hard to make Ireland look bland.

This feature seems to be caught in no man’s land. It is not a an overly entertaining action drama that one may expect from Hollywood, but it is neither an inspiring or thought provoking drama that masterfully explores the relationship and tensions between two brothers and the ideals they believe in. If anything it leans to the latter but doesn’t do a great job of that. Thankfully it did have plenty of raw fighting scenes to keep one fairly entertained otherwise it would be a tremendously bland movie indeed.

Plot/Development: 6.5/10

Performances: 6/10

Cinematography 6/10

Quality Rating: 61%

Entertainment Rating: 6/10

Tree of Life (2011)


Directed by: Terrence Malick

Written by:Terrence Malick

Cinematography by: Emmanuel Lubezki

Starring: Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain

At first glance The Tree of Life (2011) has the all markings of a brilliant film. The DVD cover is stamped with the Palm d’Or award from Cannes and the cast includes the legendary likes of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. However if you watch the film of Life expecting a typical Hollywood popcorn entertainer, you’ll be left sorely disappointed and probably very confused. The latest work by director Terrance Malick is an artist’s masterpiece in the medium of film more than anything else. The fact that Malick is the man behind the work should give some indication to what kind of experience you’re in for – think Thin Red Line and Badlands. There’s no popcorn Hollywood here.

The Tree of Life is an exploration more than a storytelling. It explores the relationship and interaction of nature versus grace, survival versus nurture and the fundamental questions regarding the beginning of the universe – a fairly ambitious task. The film juxtaposes images of nature in its purest form (volcanoes, dinosaurs, landscapes) and the galaxies with the microcosm of a small town Texan family set in the 1950’s. Brad Pitt plays the role of Mr O’Brien, the authoritarian father of three boys in their preteen years while the gentile Jessica Chastain plays their graceful and quiet souled mother. Sean Penn plays, Jack, the oldest of the three boys, in the midst of a midlife crisis in modern day America. The narrative cuts between scenes of Jack as a young boy growing up with his brothers and Jack as midlife architect vividly remembering his childhood.

Pitt outdoes himself as a loving yet overbearing father and husband. One gets the sense he genuinely loves his boys but his outbursts of anger are harrowing and fearful. Jack grows up resenting his father and seeking mercy in the arms of his loving mother. Sean Penn hardly utters a word in any of his sequences but his expressions and body language express his torment and inner strife superbly.

Malick does an excellent job of bringing out the best in all his characters, allowing the filming process to be as natural as possible. Pitt explains in the commentary that the fight scene between Mr and Mrs O’Brien was a completely natural and un-choreographed sequence. The boys interaction seems completely natural and unscripted. A great piece of directing indeed.

The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is breathtaking. From the epic shots of the raw and wild earth to the sequences of stars and planets, virtually every shot is a beautiful frame in itself. Even the sequences around the home and garden of the O’Brien’s are fluid and beautiful. Natural lighting is used in the home, giving the colors a soft and pastel feel whilst the outside scenes are full of warm glows and lens flares. Tree of Life is visual storytelling in its purest form. The narrative isn’t carried by the dialogue but rather the by beautiful, raw and juxtaposed visuals of nature and the family.

The film is not for everyone. What it does do is show that film-making can be so much more than a temporary blip of entertainment in our lives. The Tree of Life is a work of fine art in amongst a collection of graffiti. Unfortunately industry is more interested in creating graffiti as that’s what makes the money. Thankfully directors like Malick exist who are willing and able to create something beautifully different.

Plot/Development: 7/10 (I struggled to follow it without the aid of the commentary)

Cinematography: 9/10

Performances 9/10

Entertainment Rating: 8/10

Quality Rating : 83%

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