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The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick)


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#1 of 28 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted June 02 2011 - 02:30 PM

I saw Terence Malick's new film "The Tree of Life" last night - it's playing exclusively in New York and L.A. here in the States, but is supposed to be expanding soon.  I may use some spoilers in this review in case anyone would like to stay completely uninformed ahead of seeing it, although honestly, I think I could tell you every single thing that happens onscreen and not have spoiled anything. I've been mixed on Malick's previous films - I'm not sure that he's as brilliant as some make him out to be, but there is an undeniable about of raw talent there.  If I had to try to rank him, I'd probably be forced to concede that he really couldn't make any list I'd come up with for the simple reason that he hasn't put out enough work.  (Five films in 40 years makes Kubrick seem fast.)  I feel like he'd be a better filmmaker if he had taken more opportunities to practice his craft, something that one can only do while actually making movies.  I just wanted to throw that out there in a full disclosure sense.  In other words, this probably wouldn't have been a movie I'd normally rush out to see; and I might not have, were it not for a chance viewing of the trailer.  The trailer was filled with gorgeous imagery and I was curious. I'm still not sure I could tell you what the film is about: a religious allegory on the history of creation and man's place in it all?  In some ways, it did seem to be like "2001: A Space Odyssey" in reverse - some of the shots are stolen right out of that film, and Douglas Trumbull came out of semi-retirement to contribute to some of the design of the effects here.  It's a sort of tone poem, ostensibly set in the 1950s in a small Texas suburb, seen through the eyes of a young boy - that portion of the story takes up the majority of the film, and Malick interweaves all sorts of imagery throughout to connect the very specific experiences of one individual with the larger pattern of all existence.  If that sounds like a vague or contradictory description, that same definition could be applied to the film itself. Using very little dialogue and the sparest of narratives, Malick takes us back in time to the 1950s, to a scenario presumably not too different from his own upbringing.  Though I wasn't around in the 50s, I feel that if I had been (or anyone who has), the look of the film would bring back very specific memories of that time - the film captures the look and the feel of that period, not just in the look of the main characters or actors but in the entire surrounding environment; everything from the look of the children's clothes to how the father and mother (who are never given first names, as far as I can remember) speak to the attitudes they have in how they parent their children, all of it seems from a time that's passed.  And yet, because those moments are so specific, there's a certain universality in how it feels, regardless of what time its set in. With that sense of universality, Malick makes all sorts of wild cuts and observations, at one point showing us the "tough love" approach to parenting Brad Pitt's "Father" character takes on and comparing it to how a parent dinosaur would have reared its young.  (It actually plays out a little less outrageously than it sounds here.)  Some of the overall dread that always seems to lie beneath the surface in the 50s, through the threat of the Cold War and possible worldwide extermination, carries into the film and that, in a way, is contrasted to how dinosaurs became extinct, how the world was once one way and then ceased to be, and began anew as something else, and how those things might not be as disconnected as they seem.  The birth of the cosmos is interspersed with the birth of Jack, the child who is the central protagonist of the film. I don't know whether I'm recommending the film or saying to stay away; it's definitely a film that will not work for everyone.  At two hours and fifteen minutes, to me it felt to mostly fly by, but other people may feel it being the equivalent of watching paint dry.  Those waiting for a conventional story to be revealed will be disappointed, as none really does.  Instead, the film presents us with sketches of a life, sometimes the broad strokes that make up the larger whole, sometimes very specific little etchings that slow time down to a specific moment, maybe even a moment within that moment.  The editing style at times is slow and at times fast, seeming more like art-house music video than MTV-style film. At its heart, the film presents us with a boy with two loving parents who express that love in two completely different ways; the Father, difficult, hard, strict, but never a doubt that he loves his child, and the Mother, warm, compassionate, understanding, sympathetic, protecting.  A bit of narration by the child at one point mentions that both are within him, always.  The way the film is intercut suggests a questioning of which vision of God is correct, if only one is: that of an angry, Old Testament god or a more benevolent New Testament god.  As each parent represents one extreme, we can feel that neither of their lives are as full or complete as they would have liked; perhaps the answer is somewhere in the middle, that one needs both of those qualities to be whole. There's some of the film that didn't work for me, or that seemed out of place.  Sean Penn briefly graces the screen as the grown-up version of Jack in our present time, and his presence there seems superfluous; he can't have been onscreen for more than five minutes or had more than a paragraph's worth of dialogue, and while I think I understand the framing device Malick was reaching for, I'm not sure that it was either necessary or entirely successful.  The film's speculation on the beginnings of the world and life are far more absorbing than it's speculation on what comes after life - admittedly, my feeling on this may be colored by the fact that while scientists and historians can, to a certain degree, tell us what came before, no one can tell us what, if anything, comes after with definitive certainty.  Thus, the connections I felt worked at the beginning of the film didn't hold the same power at the end of the film; but I could easily see someone feeling the exact opposite of how I did there.  (Perhaps its just because the film wishes to present some kind of resolution to a scenario that seems impossible to be resolved or at least impossible to know of the resolution.)  In comparison to some of those ending notes that didn't ring true to me, the juxtaposition of the beginning of the universe as well as prehistoric life on Earth worked far better than I would have imagined had someone described the film to me ahead of time. Technically speaking, the film is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen.  The film was shot primarily using spherical lenses and 35mm film, and the entire film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.  However, different parts of the film, while keeping the same ratio, transitioned to other types of film, everything from old-fashioned 70mm to IMAX and even to high-resolution digital.  Though the version of the film I saw was digitally projected, each of these different filming formats had a unique look that carried over to the final product.  While the film is only being exhibited in tradition 35mm and digital projection (and not 70mm or IMAX), the different textures and properties of those aspects is retained in the finished film.  (One unfortunate shortcoming of the film was that the CGI used to create the dinosaurs had that sort of "weightless" or "not really there" look that CGI sometimes has; when they were still, the illusion was completely believable, but in motion, they never seemed as real as they needed to be.  This probably takes up five minutes of screen time at most, so is not a major drawback; but being that it was such a short length of time chronologically but so important thematically, I wish a better job could have been done on those effects.) All in all, while not entirely successful, The Tree Of Life was a unique experiment in filmmaking, and for the adventurous filmgoer, is well worth seeking out - particularly on the big screen, if that option is available to you.  (Though I'm sure the eventual Blu-ray will look fantastic, this film did benefit being seen on a larger canvas than most of us have at home.)  While at times I found the film to be frustrating and even unsatisfying, I kept thinking back to something I've often said: that I would much rather see a film reach for greatness and fail than to watch a film that aspired to mediocrity achieve it.  While this may not have been a truly great film, it was a truly great filmgoing experience.

#2 of 28 OFFLINE   JonZ

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Posted June 02 2011 - 02:52 PM

" that I would much rather see a film reach for greatness and fail than to watch a film that aspired to mediocrity achieve it." I agree 100 % Looking foward to seeing this.

#3 of 28 OFFLINE   Jack Briggs

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Posted June 03 2011 - 08:39 AM

Mr. Steinberg, you are on a roll (I just read your post about The General). Of all films being discussed at this specific time, Mr. Malick's The Tree of Life has me almost ready to break down and enter a commercial theater again. The man's films -- all of them -- leave a mark on my thinking, and this one has me more excited about seeing it than any of his previous efforts. Perhaps I will go tomorrow. Perhaps I might even wait for it to appear in a home-media format. But see it I will. (By the way, your honesty in this review/essay is most appreciated.)



#4 of 28 OFFLINE   Jim_C

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Posted June 03 2011 - 11:44 AM

I can't decide if I want to see this or not.  I didn't enjoy A Thin Red Line but I don't know if it was Malick's style or the movie itself that put me off.  After reading some reviews it sounds both fantastic and head scratching.  Do you think the imagery of Tree of Life is such that it must be seen on a big screen?  If not then I imagine I'd wait until it hits Netflix.
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#5 of 28 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted June 03 2011 - 04:23 PM

Jack - thanks for the kind words!    I love movies and always have, and in days past, I might not have had anyone to talk to about a film like "The Tree Of Life" - the HTF is a great place to be able to share these thoughts and feelings, and I'm so glad you appreciated it, that means a lot to me. Jim_C - I think "fantastic and head scratching" is probably a pretty good summation of everything I was trying to say.  I wasn't a big fan of Thin Red Line either - I'm not sure if that had to do with the style either; in general I'm not a fan of war movies so I'm sure that didn't help.  I do think the imagery in the film makes it a must see for the big screen if you have the opportunity to do so.  I'm not sure if you've seen/liked Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", but there's some imagery in the film that's just as stunning as the stargate sequence at the end of that film.  But even beyond those "huge" visuals, the delicacy and artfulness of the smaller things, the way the camera lingers on the small Texas town in which the film takes place, the way it captures the way wind blows through leaves, or follows the footsteps of children running barefoot through the grass... there's a real care put into creating all of the images, whether big or small, and the amount of detail in each shot was simply stunning.  It may not be your favorite movie (I'm still not sure what I think of it a couple days later), but I know as far of the look of it, and sheer power of the images and the way those images were edited together, that it was well worth seeking out on the big screen.  I was also fortunate to have seen it at a packed showing where, surprisingly, every single audience member behaved - I didn't see one cell phone being used to send texts or hear any conversation around me.  There was something about it where once it stopped, no one could look away.  I don't think I'd watch Thin Red Line again - but I'm very tempted to go back and see this in theaters one more time.

#6 of 28 OFFLINE   Cassy_w

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Posted June 07 2011 - 04:06 AM

Where to see this one? I have not really visited the theaters this one is playing at in NYC all that much, so I do not know where is best to see this film. What I want is the largest screen possible, with good sound. I really cannot stand seeing a film like this on a tiny screen. Were it at the Ziegfeld I'd know. Or at Lincoln Square, I could quickly determine which screen it was one. Sadly, it is at neither. In fact, it's not at any of the theaters I normally visit.

One problem is the theaters all have multiple prints and talking to the staff is like talking to a monkey. They are unable to answer back.


There is the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd street.


The Landmark Sunshine Cinema at 143 E Houston Street.

Clearview First & 62nd


Lincoln Plaza Cinemas


List of theaters and times in NYC...

http://www.fandango....MovieAlertsTest


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#7 of 28 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted June 07 2011 - 09:16 AM

Cassy, I saw it at the Landmark Sunshine (and got a pretty awesome pastrami sandwhich from Katz, which is a block away, beforehand).  That's where I'd recommend seeing it.  It is playing on multiple screens there, however: I've found a trick to decoding what's playing where at the Sunshine. Go to their website: http://www.landmarkt...rk_Frameset.htm  (that's the main one) https://tickets.land...x?TheatreID=256 (that's the direct ticket buying page, not sure if this will work as a direct link) and click on the different showtimes.  When the next page comes up asking you to select how many tickets, etc., under the "Date & Time" heading, it also lists which theater it's in.  Theater 1 is by far their largest; it's got a good size screen, stadium seating, and good projection quality.  (That's usually the room they do midnight screenings in as well.)  That's the screen you want if you're going there. (AMC is likely to have it on a smaller screen as they do with most of the art films there; the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, while run by people who do care about cinema and generally offer a first rate experience, does have small screens.  Can't speak to the Clearview but I haven't been impressed by the other Clearviews I've been to, so I generally avoid them these days.)

#8 of 28 OFFLINE   Jim_C

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Posted June 07 2011 - 01:17 PM

Thanks for that info, Josh.  I suspect I'll try to see it on the big screen.
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#9 of 28 OFFLINE   Josh Steinberg

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Posted June 07 2011 - 04:54 PM

If you do see it, definitely come back and share your opinion of it - this is one of those films where I'm really eager to get as many viewpoints on it as I can.

#10 of 28 OFFLINE   Chuck Mayer

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Posted June 08 2011 - 01:47 AM

I've been anticipating this film since I first heard of it.  I even started a sad little thread on that day (April 8th, 2008).


In my opinion, The New World towers over the last decade of film.  Easily my favorite film of a truly good decade for movies.  So any Malick film for me is an event.  I'm mainly a mainstream filmgoer, though my tastes have expanded to the better written and directed of mainstream films, and I certainly venture more out of them these days compared to when I first joined HTF 10 years ago.  But Malick is a very, very special filmmaker whose films absolutely click with me.


So The Tree of Life is the film I am most excited about this summer.  I will be seeing it this weekend, one way or the other.  I don't tend to review many films at HTF anymore, but I'm certain I'll share my thoughts about this film when I do.


Thanks for starting this review thread and encouraging others to see the film, Josh.  I look forward to engaging your thoughts on it and Malick, but I'd like to wait until I've seen the film.


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#11 of 28 OFFLINE   Cassy_w

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Posted June 08 2011 - 06:46 AM

Very difficult to navigate that site. Keeps erroring out but it seems Screen 1 is at 1:45 PM tomorrow, as well as 4:45. I'll head on over to the 1:45 PM showing and hope for the best. Thanks for the helpful info. I would have been lost without it. A friend of mine went to the AMC and said the screen was shockingly small. The smallest he had ever witnessed from a modern day multiplex.
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#12 of 28 OFFLINE   Cassy_w

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Posted June 10 2011 - 04:42 AM

Just reporting back that I did see the film at the Sunshine Landmark and what a terrific theater, At least screen 1, which had the best digital projection I have witnessed in NYC (outside of those LieMax screens of course). The image was wonderfully vibrant and the only time I saw a hint of pixels was during the previews when the MPAA screen appeared (that always looks digital to me). I would love to see a 2.35:1 film on that screen. The film itself was a mixed bag. Visually I found it beautiful and even haunting, but it went on forever with no direction. I feel like Malick is making the same movie again and again and I wonder why he can't do something different. There was no dialogue in this film until the twelve hour mark! I could have lived without the dinosaurs. That part felt so strangely out of place. In fact, the entire creation sequence felt out of place. How odd that much of it was amazing to watch. This film should be on Imax screens. Like some I really felt disconnected with the ending. It was as if David Lynch took over, but left his sick and twisted side back home. The credits rolled and I kind of went, whaaa? Brad Pitt leaves me hot (Legends of the Fall) or cold (Inglorious Basterds) but he was hot in this one. As in his work. He reminded me of my father and I think it is one of his best performances. Why was Sean Penn hardly in this thing? I bet much of his work was cut out. The children felt so real it was heartbreaking at times. The music was magical. And that is all I can think of at the moment.
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#13 of 28 OFFLINE   Patrick Sun

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Posted June 20 2011 - 03:12 AM

My 5 word reaction to this film was: An ode to progeny, perhaps. Malick's vision produced some haunting sequences in this film, though jarring at times, and mystifying, but there's enough "downtime" during the film for you to review what's come before, and what's happening on the screen to piece together such a fractured narrative. There's this thread running through the film on the creation of life, and the nurturing of it, and the requirements to keep the sustainment of life amongst one's progreny, to see it fullfilled and unfulfilled.  It's not always pretty and pure, there's some hardships, heart ache, and hateful times through the course of one's life to fuel the search for meaning in living and death, coming to acceptance after a long journey of emotional hurt and loss.  There's even some bits on intentional or unintentional mercy at the dawn of time sequence. It's weird to give this film a rating, as it does run a little long, but its visuals and imagery will linger in your subconsicous much longer than the run-of-the-mill movie that exist solely to entertain for a couple of hours. Brad Pitt gives a nuanced performance of a father at odds with realities of a family and his own dreams.  The 3 child actors gave solid performances as the 3 sons, and their performances felt very natural and lived-in.  Jessica Chastain, as the mother, was almost dreamy in her presence in the film at times, as I felt she was more of an ideal, than a character for Pitt's character to be a foil to in their family.  She provided more of the emotional touchstone responses through their family's journey through life. That being said, I give it 3 stars, or a grade of B.
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#14 of 28 OFFLINE   Jack Briggs

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Posted June 20 2011 - 05:52 AM

Well, Cassy, not only do you crticize Terrence Malick, but you take a shot at David Lynch, as well. Be that as it may, everyone is entitled to an opinion. Here in Los Angeles, the "in-the-know" crowd crowes about Terence Malick, while everybody else plunks down their cash for Green Lantern. Oh well.



#15 of 28 OFFLINE   Cassy_w

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Posted June 20 2011 - 06:38 AM

Jack, your post certainly comes across like an insult. I do hope that was not your intention. It's kind of sad if I am not allowed to express my opinion, especially when I did it so respectfully. You don't even mention all the aspects of the film I praised. For the record, I love much of David Lynch's work. His Twin Peaks series was exceptional. Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are all masterpieces. Some of his other films are quite good. Some are downright disturbed. I'm fairly certain that my opinion is rather accepted mainstream when it comes to Mr. Lynch. I refused to see Green Lantern, sir. I even told my son, nope. Ask your father. Any more assumptions you would like to make about me? or perhaps you are not in-the-know?
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#16 of 28 OFFLINE   Elizabeth S

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Posted June 20 2011 - 06:43 AM

Saw the film on Saturday and I'm still not sure if I would say I liked it.  It certainly has lingered in my mind and I find myself thinking of certain bits of dialogue and recurring visual images through the film. I'd only seen "Days of Heaven" long ago (and don't recall anything except my reaction that it was boring) and I loved "The New World". I understand Malick's original cut of "The Tree of Life" was 8 hours, and he's presently working on a 6-hour version (for Blu-Ray??).  This film was intriguing, frustrating, and strange enough that I would consider giving a longer cut a look.  More shots of plants blowing in the breeze and running water! 

#17 of 28 OFFLINE   Chuck Mayer

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Posted June 20 2011 - 07:11 AM

I've been mulling the film over for a week or so now.  For me, The New World was "love at first sight" and The Tree of Life was more "distant admiration and perplexity".  The theater I saw it at totally sucked, leaving a light on or a door open in the projection booth leaving a quarter of the screen lit up when it was black...which was VERY often, and the crowd was terrible, especially for a Malick film.


While previous Malick films played fairly loose with a narrative, this one skirts it almost totally.  I'm not complaining, mind you.  Just observing.  At times, it moved me immensely and I was very compelled, at others I felt disconnected and bored.  I eagerly await seeing it again, but I will do so at home, where the experience can't be bungled again.  I believe a rewatch, following some critical reading, may enable better understanding of the film itself.


Some of the compositions are extraordinary, as one expects from a Malick film.  His photographic eye is world class.


Anyways, recommended for those that have seen a Malick film, with the caveat that this one is a real challenge.  To those that haven't, I recommend an older Malick to start with.  This is the deep end.



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#18 of 28 OFFLINE   Jack Briggs

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Posted June 20 2011 - 07:13 AM

Cassy, I certainly didn't intend my post as an insult. As a result, this post is intended as an apology. Sorry about that. JB



#19 of 28 OFFLINE   Cassy_w

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Posted June 20 2011 - 09:00 AM

Thank you.  :)
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#20 of 28 OFFLINE   Patrick Sun

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Posted June 20 2011 - 01:47 PM

Is it me, or did this thread sort of approximate some of the themes from "Tree of Life"?
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