The Tree of Life (R)

5 Stars

I hate melancholy.

Floating in existential whispery sadness doesn’t warm the cockles.

I can’t believe The Tree of Life was nominated for best picture. Sure there’s good stuff in there, but it’s been a long time since I wanted a movie to end so badly.

Let me start out strong with my best argument.

The hushed tone head-hopping voiceover. It’s artistic, and perhaps it works well with this particular plot.

But I doubt it.

Terrence Malick used the exact same effect in his film The Thin Red Line from 1998. Thirteen years later, it’s still just as distracting and uninformative.

I watched Thin Red Line with my Dad a week ago. He seemed to enjoy it more, because I didn’t love it.

In fact, I found TTRL dull, preachy and heartless. More ‘technically’ good, rather than ‘unquestionably’ good. Throw enough dollars into the visual layout, build a bunch of tension and you’ve got a thumbs-up.

Folks toss around the word, ‘boring’ too much. ‘Boring’ is mostly for whiners. It should only be used to describe something that’s extremely dull.

The Tree of Life is boring.

It’s not better than The Thin Red Line, despite a similar visual format.

What is with the gospel music? Was the plot not dull enough?

The cast is excellent. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn are all very good.

With all the stylish editing, the movie’s very difficult to follow.

Half of The Tree of Life is nature imagery, and features footage from cosmic to microscopic, from water molecules to supernovae. I’m open to a more whimsical form of storytelling, but eventually it gets tiresome.

I disliked this movie because I think Terrence is saying a lot less than he lets on.

As a period piece and a study of a family living in Waco, Texas in 1956, I’m fine with it. But do we need all of this existential stuff, the intergalactic imagery or the vague timeframe?

It seems the puzzle pieces don’t fit together in any coherent fashion.

There are a couple things I’m confused about.

When the velociraptor removes its foot from the wounded dinosaur’s head, is that supposed to be the moment in Earth’s history when humans began evolving? That our greatest redeeming quality is the capacity for compassion?

Well, if so, then great! What’s it teach us about Brad Pitt’s family in 1956?

I’m not convinced the dinosaurs belong in the movie.

The Oedipus complex is also something I never connect with. Perhaps Terrence is trying to show how it manifests itself even in recent history.

I don’t know, and I guess I just don’t care.

The Tree of Life has a few good moments, however.

Young men will appreciate much of the father-son interactions between Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken.

Whenever Jessica Chastain’s on-screen is generally enjoyable.

At one point, she’s bouncing and twirling in zero gravity beside the tree and it’s enchanting.

If Terry cut out some babbling brooks and tossed in a bit more of Jessica dancing on air, The Tree of Life may have been great.

Under the Skin (R)

9 Stars

‘Alien’ is a misnomer.

More accurately Laura, played by Scarlett Johansson, is an ‘extraterrestrial organism.’

A being who exists beyond our frame of reference. Seems puzzling, no?

Well it’s certainly elaborate, but not needlessly confusing.

Under the Skin is smart and mandates a brief personal yarn.

During movie viewings, my buddy and I rarely talk or utilize the pause feature.

We pressed the freeze button thrice while watching Under the Skin in order to clear up confusion.

Our choice to abandon the usual procedure proved beneficial, because UTS is a lot easier to follow when combining noggins.

Rotten Tomatoes’s summarization explains, “Its message may prove elusive for some, but with absorbing imagery and a mesmerizing performance from Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin is a haunting viewing experience.”

That little lady’s on quite a streak. She’s been in six huge movies since The Avengers in 2012. Her last eleven are Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!

A topless Scarlett may be the sole draw for certain viewers, but I suspect they’re the same folks who’ll find its message elusive.

Under the Skin is a great movie that hasn’t received the credit it deserves. It’s a mixture of sci-fi, fantasy and horror and if you dig this cinematic breed I highly recommend the rental.

It’s currently available for instant streaming via iTunes and Amazon as an HD rental ($4.99) or purchase ($9.99).

According to Box Office Mojo, it cost $13.3M to produce Under the Skin, and so far it’s just shy of a $5.4M gross worldwide. Which is a bummer because passion and effort should be rewarded.

Jonathan Glazer did an excellent job directing this movie. A massive chunk of thought went into each scene. The workload’s palpable.

The audio and visuals are simply stunning. Everything feels ‘intergalactic.’

The plot’s creepy and unnerving. Certain details seem like red herrings, but the film’s so polished their exclusion must be purposeful.

Under the Skin is wildly thought provoking and hits the spot.

If you seek uplifting content, search elsewhere, chum. Several moments are on the warmer side, but the majority’s unsettling and quizzical.

Follow my example and catch this flick with a loved one.

Let’s hope Laura runs across Lucy (from Lucy) and Samantha (from Her) and finds solace in their company somewhere in the metaphysical ether.

Lucy (R)

6 Stars

Six stars is rare.

Categorically, it’s ‘just barely worthwhile’; a timid thumbs-up.

Anything less I can’t recommend.

This particular rating syncs up with the Rotten Tomatoes score at 60%. Which is, coincidentally, the lowest possible for the ‘certifiably fresh’ stamp.

So the question becomes: What’s the value of a review teetering on indifference? Let me explain.

The main problem involves the trailer. Almost all of the good moments are spoiled.

It’s been mentioned before, but I’m sick and tired of seeing previews that ruin the movie. This day marks the official beginning to a lifelong campaign against misleading trailers.

If you saw the preview and hopes are high, don’t catch this one in the theater. Give it a few months or a couple years before tackling Lucy. Try to let your memory of the footage fade before renting it.

After all, it’s only ninety minutes. You’re not losing much; even if you hate it.

If you’re planning on a future rental or catching it on the big screen anyway, you may wish to stop reading now. There are potential spoilers below.

The trailer isn’t the only problem.

An expectation is The Bourne Limitless with a female protagonist. The story doesn’t allow Scarlett Johansson to develop a particularly memorable character. Her acting is strong as always, but it doesn’t fit the tone of such weak storytelling.

The premise is similar to the Bourne films in terms of being an international action-thriller. A similar plot device to Lucy’s CP4 is utilized in 2011’s Limitless. The main character, played by Bradley Cooper, takes a drug that allows him to unlock a higher percentage of brain capacity.

But the viewer never feels ‘swept up’ like one associates with watching those comparable works.

Unfortunately, Lucy attempts to accomplish similar goals, but ends up falling short.

For example, all of the combat is spoiled in the trailer. There are no elaborate fight sequences. There’s a solid car chase, in which Lucy drives against traffic. As effectively shot, choreographed and edited as it is, it’s still illogical.

The editing is disjointed and the story is riddled with plot holes. Lucy leans further toward fantasy, rather than science fiction.

Style abounds throughout, but not in a positive way. Much like the ticking digital clock in the TV show 24, title cards with percentages are utilized as dramatic transitions. All in all, they add nothing to the story and serve as only a further distraction.

Quite a bit of wildlife footage is interspersed, presumably to build tension and create a more elaborate experience. But it just comes off as cheesy.

I truly wonder why such a prolific writer/director as Luc Besson would include the cheetah chasing down the gazelle as Lucy’s captured. This is a pinnacle of heavy-handed metaphor. The enormity of the cliché seems almost purposeful.

The montages of various wild animals engaging in intercourse and giving birth are hollow moments devoid of value.

Besson’s use of time lapse and montage is clunky and distracting; not to mention it feels cheap. Montages, time lapses and original animated interstitials are in vogue. Such films as Noah and 22 Jump Street make productive use of them.

Lucy does not.

The animation of the CP4 molecules spreading throughout her nervous system is momentarily interesting, but eventually drags on. The footage is later revisited, much to the viewer’s misfortune.

The narrative voice is unfocused. It opens with Johansson speaking her thoughts through voiceover. They’re not real-time thoughts, more like generalized notions about the beginning of mankind. This transitions sharply into Lucy snapping out of a daydream.

This disparity is heightened by the introduction of Morgan Freeman’s voiceover regarding the evolution of the brain and human potential. Later it transitions back to Lucy’s real-time thoughts, so the nature of the narrative voice remains unclear.

During the film’s introduction, the missing link is featured on-screen. The part’s played by an actor in discomforting make-up and is featured several times throughout the movie.

Its too bad Besson didn’t speak to Andy Serkis, who crafted a simian army using stop motion technology for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Serkis could probably create one missing link without removing his bathrobe.

Besson is hit-or-miss. His early career hits include Leon: The Professional, The Transporter and The Fifth Element, and more recently Taken. These are all great movies, each in their own way.

There’s a through line to his pictures, though. They aggressively toe the boundary between fantasy and reality, asking a lot from the viewer in order to suspend disbelief.

Take Leon: The Professional for example. Gary Oldman plays Stansfield one of the greatest villains in cinematic history. His drug of choice is less potent than CP4, but it’s still a ‘fantasy intoxicant.’

The point being: Lucy would be a lot easier to accept if I was still a teenager.

All things considered, it’s a good movie that isn’t great.

It’s ironic Lucy went out the same way as ‘Samantha’ (from Her).

Hopefully they’ve successfully avoided Skynet (from The Terminator) now governed by Arnim Zola (from Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and joined the torch-bearing digital people (from Tron: Legacy) in the cyberspace community.

Unfortunately I’m one of the few people who haven’t seen Transcendence, so I can’t include Johnny Depp’s character in that reference.