As films go, The Tree of Life is a huge thing — a movie by a man with the audacity to take as his apparent subject all of human existence. “I know something about the cosmos,” Terrence Malick seems to declare, “because I grew up with two brothers under the parentage of a gruff father and a beaming, adoring mother in sun-dappled environs of Oklahoma and Texas.” He’s not wrong. The greatest filmmakers have shown us again and again that there is no story that cannot, in the right hands and with the right gestures, be spun out to dimensions that encompass questions of love and faith, life and death, regret and longing.
UPDATE 8/29: My wife jumped on me after reading this for the suggestion that the act of taking scalps from victims was somehow endemic to the Native American people. While she agreed that’s how it’s presented in this film, she told me that the Europeans introduced the practice to indigenous Americans, and not the other way around. I was not too surprised at this, though it’s certainly contrary to the popular narrative, and promised to find a source online and add a footnote. Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the film’s most notable detractor, beat me to it. It doesn’t change my opinion of the film — Tarantino’s riffing on film history rather than real history, and Aldo Raine probably wouldn’t know the difference, Apache blood or no — but I agree that it’s well worth noting.
Among the most satisfying of exploitation subgenres, for those who swing that way, is the rape-revenge picture. The basic structure is well suited to the grindhouse feature — it offers an excuse to stage scenes of sexual violence (the “rape” portion of the formula) alongside images of even more graphic, brutal violence (the “revenge”) while packaging the exercise as both moral lesson and wish-fulfillment fantasy. The appeal of the story is fairly primal — an early prototype for this sort of thing, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, was based on The Virgin Spring, a 1960 Ingmar Bergman film that had its own roots in a centuries-old Swedish folk song. As folk tale, the rape-revenge yarn functions as a stern warning, perhaps first appealing to an imagined audience’s prurience and sadism with the story of a violation, then warning them about the civilized world’s uniform, punitive, and perhaps grisly response to such an assault. As film, the subject matter is even more charged. Given feminist ideas about the male gaze and the embedded sexism of 100 years of film history, the idea of staging a rape for movie cameras, in a film destined to reach a (presumably base and horny) grindhouse audience, has the stench of amorality (if not outright immorality) about it.
There’s a frightening symmetry to the process of aging that David Fincher, making his cruellest picture since Se7en, illustrates to eerie effect in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That the film’s titular, time-unstuck protagonist is portrayed by Brad Pitt, that blue-eyed specimen of softly chiseled macho beauty, only adds to its implicit threat that we’re all on the way to decidedly less-attractive ends. That its magical backwards-aging VFX work is accomplished through a technique so advanced that it becomes hard to know where Pitt’s physical presence leaves off and the digitally enabled simulacrum takes over adds to the film’s metaphysical chill. Coming out of the theater, not only are you three hours older than you were when you went in, but you get the sense that your too-human flesh is also that much closer to obsolete.
The old razzle-dazzle is back with the release of Ocean’s Thirteen, a third outing in the star-anchored caper franchise. It returns to the neon glow and slot-machine jangle of Las Vegas, where aptly named entrepreneur Willy Bank (Al Pacino) is bilking his erstwhile partners out of their fair share in his new hotel/casino venture, and Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and crew are scheming to take Bank down. To call the ensuing plotline “highly improbable” would be paying it an enormous compliment. It’s ludicrous, contrived, and borderline crazy. Of course, that’s almost completely irrelevant with this cast. Clooney’s great talent is putting on an air of seriousness that suggests he doesn’t know how good he looks doing it. Matt Damon selflessly casts aside movie-star ego and spends most of his screen time wearing a gigantic fake schnozz to gentle comic effect. Brad Pitt remains completely and spectacularly chilled out for the duration. Best of all, director Steven Soderbergh’s camera takes it all in with jazzy, unburdened élan, zipping easily from character to character. Don’t expect an engaging or absorbing heist yarn. But of the summer sequels released so far, it’s easily the least complicated and most entertaining—and probably the smartest.
Grubby, grimy, scary, bloody, cynical, violent, dangerously whacked-out and very, very funny, Fight Club is itself an act of provocation. It’s a blast at staples of late 20th century life — everything from the Ikea catalog and air travel to Blockbuster Video and the auto industry. It’s also a blast in the face of state-of-the-art Hollywood, putting megabucks to work supporting a study in hallucination. And it’s a challenge to the mainstream audience, which is asked to sympathize with subversion and keep up with a storyline that demands a fairly substantial leap of faith on the part of the viewer. Fight Club is a pitch-black comedy and a phantasmal psychological thriller about the end of the world as we know it, and it’s several times fresher and more exciting than anything I’ve seen this year.