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Film Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree Of life is purposefully challenging. Terrance Malick almost dares his audience to leave the cinema.

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The Tree Of Life is a polarising film. Some will adore it while others will be left scratching their head wondering what all the fuss is about. If they can stay awake.

Terrence Malick, known for The Thin Red Line has created something incredibly different with The Tree Of Life. Lightning fast edits accompany vague dialogue and seemingly irrelevant imagery within the first five minutes and don’t let up for the duration of the feature. Scenes constantly shift perspective, words are barely spoken and high profile actors are scarcely seen. As an audience member snores loudly behind me it is hard to decipher the director’s brilliant vision. Malick asks a lot of a modern audience’s short attention span. Tree of Life will be an incredibly challenging experience for some but one that is genuinely rewarding for those that stick with it.

To try and describe what The Tree Of Life is about is a daunting task. Malick ambitiously examines life and death, the universe and human evolution scattered between Jack’s (Sean Penn) childhood memories. Its scope is extraordinary and continually struggles to connect its different themes to its thin central narrative. Even still, Malick and his superb cast are able to engage their audience in a way rarely seen. In broad terms, The Tree Of Life is about evolution and growing up. Our planet’s growth, a boy’s journey into adolescence and a family’s evolution are all on show. More specifically, it’s about how our families mould us into who we are and continue to do so when we have children of our own. It is about our personal grasp of life, our longing for simpler times and our disenchantment of the world in adulthood and it’s about the insecurities we have as a child and as a parent. Everyone will take something different away from Malick’s new film and will connect with it differently.

Jack’s flashbacks and reflections on his childhood (where Jack is played by Hunter McCracken) in a 1950s American family make up the majority of the film.  It is these incredibly well done scenes that people will find the most engaging. Jack along with his two younger brothers belong to the O’Brien family; a typical 50s American family with contrasting parents. The father (Brad Pitt) is a strong, dominant disciplinarian and the mother (Jessica Chastain) is a quiet, loving and gentle example for her boys. The contrast between parents and their different approaches to life is a major element in The Tree Of Life and while at times it comes off as contrived and pretentious the distinct ideals of ‘Grace’ and ‘Nature’ are a constant guiding force in the film.

The performances of all involved are raw and deeply touching. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s Mr and Mrs O’Brien are real and engaging and will no doubt resonate with a lot of people while Hunter McCracken’s portrayal of young Jack along with Malick’s choppy editing will transport many viewers back in time and will elicit emotions long thought gone in some people.

What makes The Tree Of Life so good isn’t necessarily Malick’s vision, that does come off as pretentious at times or the profoundness of his script, which at times leaves a bad taste. It is the ability of Malick to connect and engage his audience and make us question our own beliefs and existence that makes this ambitious modern masterpiece a much watch film.

Verdict. See this.

The Tree Of life is purposefully challenging. Terrance Malick almost dares his audience to leave the cinema. There is no conventional story and there are long stretches without any dialogue or any characters for that matter. All things that will require a lot of patience, but those willing to stick it out will find a lot to like about The Tree Of Life and some will I have no doubt find it life changing.

THE TREE OF LIFE
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain. 
Running Time: 
138 minutes

Film Reviews

Film Review: Booksmart

Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood

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booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.

The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.

The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).

Billie Lourd and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).

Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.

So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.

Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.

Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.

BOOKSMART
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins
Website: Booksmart.movie

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