"Tree of Life" and "Super 8"


"Tree of Life," Terrence Malick's most recent film since 2006's "The New World," stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jennifer Chastain, along with some very talented kids.  Malick is an extraordinary director with a vision no other director would dare pull off.  His films are like slowly moving fine art paintings, with little dialogue.  Once seeing "Tree" it's kind of hard to imagine him making "Badlands," which stars Sissey Spacek, Martin Sheen, and Warren Oates, about a couple of teenagers traveling however they can through the Montana Badlands killing people, including Spacek's character's parents, at random.  Still, despite the violence, there are stillnesses, reflective moments featuring Big Sky Montana's expanse, and little action.

"Tree" is a meditative film about a '50s family in small town Waco, Texas (where Malick spent some time as a child).  It begins with Penn as Pitt's grown son, Jack, who's a successful commercial architect, reflecting on his childhood while climbing around on one of his hi-rise buildings under construction. Then there's a flashback showing a young Jack, played beautifully by Hunter McCracken, and his life with a tyrannical dad (Pitt), Mr. O'Brien, and submissive mom, Mrs. O'Brien (Chastain)  and his younger brothers, R. L. (Laramie Eppler, a dead ringer if you imagine Pitt as a child) and Steve (Tye Sheriden).  The characters address each other as "Father," "Mother," and "Boy." Your heart aches for Jack for the demands his father makes on him; and for his poignant stirrings of sexual awakening.  Pitt plays the stereotypical dad of that era, which I know well, having grown up in it myself.  He is an ex-Navy man whose dreams of being a concert pianist are thwarted by having to support a family.  He plays classical music on the piano, and Tchaikovsky on the console at dinner.  He's relegated to a job as a parts salesman and experiences failure on a trip to Japan to sell a contract to a Japanese manufacturer. Chastain is the typical stay-at-home mom, protecting her boys both from harm and their Dad.   Most of the action occurs among the brothers and their friends as kids being kids, with Mother joining the fun while Father's away.  The always excellent Fiona Shaw appears as the mediating Grandmother.  Malick includes a scene that subtly illustrates the pre-civil rights prejudice against blacks.

The film hinges on the death of an unseen older brother, killed in a war (I'm guessing Korea), then explores life and death in all its ramifications, literally, from the beginning.  Through phantasmagorical light shows, Malick give us his impression of the universe and creation forming on earth from a single cell to dinosaurs, to humans.  Despite the slow-pacing, the actions of the CGI animals against a mystical, pre-historic background, is hypnotizing.  It appears Malick may have used shots of the universe taken from the Hubble telescope.   He sprinkles Biblical quotations throughout to inform subsequent actions or a character's inner thoughts; in fact, the film opens with a quote from Job.  In voice overs, the characters often narrate their prayers and philosophical thoughts referring to or questioning God.

If you are looking for a story-line, a lot of dialogue, a plot that moves from here to there; a film with a beginning, a middle, and an end, this is not your film.  Should you go out of curiosity, I suggest you simply relax, take a deep, breath, exhale, settle back in your seat and allow this truly awesome film to wash over you.  I would refrain from munching popcorn, even eating anything while watching.  Cinamatographer Emmanuel Lubeski gives us incredibly gorgeous nature shots, expansive scenes of moving water, and cloud-filled skies; or simply a light-show against a black background.  Malick used Thomas Wilfred's "Opus 161, a little-known installation piece- - colored light in a box - - to illustrate "The Beginning."  It is a small, hypnotic, pulsating flame of intense electric-blue, edged in orange, red, and yellow shown directly in the center of the vast blackness of the movie screen. The installation piece is from the collection of Eugene and Carol Epstein of Los Angeles, CA.

A stunning image occurs near the end of the film where random adults and children, including the O'Brien family, walk slowly through ankle deep water on a seashore, greeting each other lovingly.  An emotional meeting takes place between the older Jack and his dad; and it appears that those who have died return.  A long shot shows the far distant horizon melding into a milky blue sky . . .

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Riley Griffith, and Elle Fanning.

The trailer hooked me into seeing this film.  It hinted at a military coverup of an event that neither law officers nor the government were hip to.  "Super 8" is set in the cocaine snorting and polyester-shirt wearing summer of 1979.  Pre-teen admittedly dorky kids are budding film makers who are making what else? a zombie flick.  Half the fun of "Super 8" is seeing that these kids, especially the chunky director, Charles (Riley Griffiths), and screenplay writer/leading man, Martin (Gabriel Basso, in owlish glasses), are dead serious about filmmaking and have the lingo down (Steven Spielberg, the executive producer, based this movie on his own childhood movie-making experience, shooting everything with a Super 8 camera).  Joe does make-up, even carries a professional make-up case. We see rushes of Charles's earlier scenes with Cary (an enthusiastic Ryan Lee), the smallest in the group, as a very effective zombie.
As in "Tree of Life" this film also begins with a death.  The wife of Deputy Sheriff Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights"), is killed in a factory accident.  Her death hits his son Joe (Joel Courtney), a quiet, introspective tweener, hard.  Again, as in "Tree" father and son have communication problems.  Joe is friends with Charles, and Charles, being the demanding director, needs Joe's help on the film regardless of his mourning.  They have script and casting problems.  Charles feels the script calls for a love interest, but they need a girl, so Joe gets Alice (Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota and equally as talented), who also ends up being the driver.  Alice lives with her embarrassing bummer of a dad, stringy, blond-haired, Louis Dainard, played with a perfect loser chops by Ron Eldard.  Louis and Jackson have issues over the fact that Jackson's wife worked Louis's shift  at the plant when the accident happened. Besides which Jackson is tired of bringing the scumbag in for DUIs.  And he doesn't want Joe anywhere near Alice.

The young filmmakers sneak away in the dead of night to meet at an abandoned railway station.  Alice purloins her dad's pristine yellow and black Chevy Camaro for the job while he's passed out.  They are shooting the love scene between Martin and Alice when a freight train heads full-speed down the tracks.  The kids watch, Charles is stoked because it makes for great footage.  His camera is running.  But wait! what's that white pickup doing?  What follows is one of the best train-wrecks ever.  Freight cars buckling, sailing into the night sky, explosions galore, heavy metal chunks flying over the kids' heads, crashing to the ground.  Stuff is clanging, banging, and raining down everywhere.  Kids being kids, when the dust settles - - so to speak - - they wanna see what happened.  Who's in the pickup? OMG! their science teacher!   Weirdly, all over the place are these strange, silver, Rubik-cube thingies with protuberances sticking out on all sides.  Beret-wearing Special Forces unit shows up, headed by Commander Nelec (a creepy Noah Emmerich).  Joe surreptitiously pockets one of the silver cubes.  The kids jump in the miraculously unscathed Chevy and race home.  Charles returns to the site later to retrieve the camera.

From here on, "Super 8" becomes an amalgam of "E.T.", "District 9", and the latest version of "War of the Worlds."  Seems there's a rapacious monster from outer space who lives underground beneath the cemetery; it just wants to rebuild his spaceship in which he had crashed to Earth (who knows when) and go home.  After terrorizing the whole town.  One of the characters is Donny, a rĂ³le perfected by David Gallagher as a long-haired, stoner drug store clerk in a bold-print polyester shirt.  Donny will do a rush job on getting Charles's film developed if he'll put in a good word for him to Charles's hard-bitten older sister.  Charles demures until they need Donny's prized car to find Alice who went missing.  Donny relents only if he drives.  This is one of the best characters and best developed character exchanges in the film.

Finally, as in "Tree," "Super 8" ends with reconciliation; it is truly a fun film for all ages and genders.
Stay through the credits to see Charles's completed Super 8 film; his performance as an interviewed director and the shocking finale.

This film got me wondering why, in films these days, creatures from outer space - - from other planets like Mars or Venus - - have devolved from benign, human-like, wise, calm, robed figures (except maybe those in  "Star Trek") who could teach us earthlings a thing or two about advanced technology, space travel, and peace into gigantically huge, ugly, multi-limbed, slimy, drooling creatures with insect-like faces and waving antennae.  And, no, I didn't think E. T. was "cute."