Like everything the acclaimed 68-year-old filmmaker does, Malick's latest — just his fifth film in 38 years — has gone through a mysterious gestation, changing release dates and distributors numerous times (it was originally slated for a Dec. 25, 2009, release), all the while simultaneously revealing little about its contents. The film finally surfaced last month at the Cannes Film Festival, where it earned cheers, boos and the coveted Palme d'Or.
Now it finds its way into U.S. theaters. The critical response has been largely rapturous (including tt stern-enzi's review here), but is there an audience out there for what is Malick's most beguiling and unconventional movie yet?
The filmmaker's previous efforts — Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005) — are among the most revered (and polarizing, especially everything after Badlands) films of the last 40 years for their immersive, poetic use of cinematic techniques and their interest in the way nature nourishes the soul in contrast to the evil that men do. Now comes The Tree of Life, the majority of which is vintage Malick: lush, dreamy cinematography (this time courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki); voice-over narration that looks at man's place in nature and, in this case, the differences between the child-nurturing habits of mothers and fathers, men and women; and a spare sound design that lends a strange, unique sort of intimacy.
Yet The Tree of Life is also a departure. Where Malick's previous films were largely contained within their physical settings and time periods, The Tree of Life is about EVERYTHING — a grand, ambitious, achingly beautiful tone poem that runs completely counter to nearly everything else in modern American cinema. While the fractured, nonlinear narrative framework is actually quite simple (and supposedly based on Malick's own childhood) — it's the 1950s in Waco, Tex., where a stern father (Brad Pitt) tries to make men of his three young sons — things get interesting when Malick interrupts what can only be described as one of the more sensitive and evocative looks at childhood/family dynamics ever brought to the screen with various Kubrick-esque, CGI-driven sections featuring everything from outer space to prehistoric dinosaurs.
That brings us to The Tree of Life's overarching religious angle (it opens with a quote from Job), which left me both beguiled and surprised — surprised that, at this late date, a visionary, wildly ambitious director was given a fairly large budget (no doubt aided by the presence of Brad Pitt, who is quite good here, and Sean Penn, who is pretty much unnecessary — or left on the cutting-room floor) to make what amounts to a theological art-house film.
BAD TEACHER — Jake Kasdan, son of accomplished filmmaker/screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and the director of such fare as Zero Effect and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, guides this comedy about a foul-mouthed female teacher (Cameron Diaz) who, after getting dumped by her “sugar daddy,” is eager to get in a new coworker's pants, which are filled by Justin Timberlake. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — tt stern-enzi (Rated R.) Grade: D
CARS 2 — While this Pixar sequel is supposed to be a second outing for the speed-racing Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his tow buddy Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), launching them on the international racing circuit, in actuality it feels more like an animated Spy Kids knockoff with the sidekick as the lead. Somehow director John Lasseter has turned into Robert Rodriguez minus the mariachi mania. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — tts (Rated G.) Grade: D
THE TOPP TWINS — This warm, engaging, entertaining and award-winning documentary concerns a New Zealand singing duo — Jools and Linda Topp — with a singularly unusual background. They are middle-aged twin sisters, lesbians and in their act mix rootsy, heartfelt Folk/Country material with the creation of comic characters. The effect is like Indigo Girls meets Ab Fab, and it has won them a large, devoted following in their native country. They even had a hit TV series. (Read full review here). (The Topp Twins is being presented by Cincinnati World Cinema 6 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Carnegie Arts Center in Covington. Visit www.cincyworldcinema.org or call 859-957-3456 for tickets and information.) — Steve Rosen (Not Rated.) Grade: B
THE TREE OF LIFE — The Tree of Life opens with a bit of Scripture (Job 38:4, 7), which asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” Where were we, indeed? That is the question that Terrence Malick’s latest dares to pose and better still seeks to answer, but neither the question nor the answer matter much in the overall scheme of things. The effort is the point and purpose of the exercise, the meaning of life itself. (Read full review here.) (Opens wide today.) — tts (Rated PG-13.) Grade: A