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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Blu-ray: To the Wonder

Ben Affleck and Rachel Adams

Terrence Malick’s latest film premiered last Autumn to largely mixed reviews but whilst it is the most extreme film he has made in his trademark style, it has a refreshing boldness to it along with some beautiful sequences.

Malick’s work has frequently eschewed conventional notions of filmmaking with their sparse dialogue, dreamy visuals and obsession with nature.

This has been amplified since his return to Hollywood in 1998 after a self-imposed 20 year exile, where films such as The Thin Red Line (2005), The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011) have gone even further than his earlier work Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).

He has never been afraid to tackle big themes such as love, death, nature or even the creation of life itself.

In doing so he has also established certain stylistic flourishes: hushed interior monologues; shots of plants; and use of classical music.

With To the Wonder he has taken his trademark elements and turned them up to the nth degree, but whilst the end result falls short of his best films, it is by no means the unintentional work of self-parody that some have suggested.

The story centres on a man (Ben Affleck) torn between two women: Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a European he has met in Paris who comes back to the United States with him, and Jane (Rachel McAdams), the old lover he reconnects with from his hometown in Oklahoma.

In addition, there is a priest (Javier Bardem) struggling with his faith and lack of hope in the world.

They are the basic building blocks of the story but Malick does something much more radical with the narrative, stitching together what appears to be highly improvised sequences in which characters say little or no conventional dialogue.

If this was any other director then we could be in serious trouble, but with Malick he somehow manages to keep things interesting as the characters thoughts and actions wash over us in a kind of cinematic reverie.

It helps that he is one of the great visual stylists in the history of cinema and aided by his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts some remarkable imagery on-screen.

As the characters walk around, often tracked by a seemingly ever-present Steadicam, we get to see them engage in a loose and fluid way that not only suits the narrative approach but after a while becomes hypnotic, seeming imitating the pace of everyday existence.

There is also Malick’s trademark use of magic hour, stunning use of natural light and interesting use of locations, which include Paris, Normandy and Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Plenty of viewers will balk at the methods of To the Wonder but the sheer audacity of the execution is something to behold.

> Official site
> Buy the Blu-ray or DVD at Amazon UK
> Reviews of To the Wonder at Metacritic

Categories
Interesting News

Terrence Malick and Christian Bale filming in Austin

Video has surfaced online of Terrence Malick and Christian Bale shooting their latest film in Austin, Texas.

Malick was seen in his hometown at the Austin City Limits music festival over the weekend along with a film crew and Christian Bale.

The festival was streamed live on YouTube as acts like Iron and Wine, TV on the Radio and Coldplay performed.

However, Bale and Malick were also caught on camera in the crowd by Twitvid user Johnny Garcia:

The production crew were obviously aware that they would be shooting amongst a crowd and that photos and video were likely to be taken.

Perhaps that was the vibe Malick was going for, even though any film fans there may have been startled to see one of the legends of cinema and a leading A-list actor in the crowd of a music festival.

At one point Bale shoots a knowing glance to the (users) camera and then a woman called Sarah gives Malick a beer to give to Bale (both seemed very appreciative).

The Film Stage have also posted photos of the filming along with some Twitter reaction.

The big question is what film is this for?

His next project – which some think may be called The Burial – is scheduled for release next year and the IMDb list it simply as the Untitled Terrence Malick Project (2012).

It might be tempting to assume this is another movie altogether but I have a suspicion that it could be part of the film out next year.

Last September, Malick was spotted at another music festival (called Indian Summer) in Bartlesville, Oklahoma filming with actress Olga Kurylenko.

Rockville Music Magazine said at the time:

Festival goers took note of the Redbud Pictures LLC signs throughout the grounds alerting the public of filming. Redbud Pictures was incorporated in Oklahoma and Texas in the spring of 2010. A representative in the Texas Secretary of State’s office confirmed Terrence Malick is the manager of Redbud Pictures. Actress Olga Kurylenko was filmed interlacing with the Indian Summer crowd and was also filmed twirling with a local girl, who’s parents were taken aside to sign a release. Locals were content to watch Hollywood unfold before them and remained respectful of Malick’s film crew while they moved freely, without security, throughout the Indian Summer crowd.

Note the similarities between the two different shoots – both involve crowds at a festival and the production company happens to have been based in Bartlesville and Austin.

Could it be that Bale was being filmed for The Burial?

> Untitled Terrence Malick project at the IMDb
> Possible first image for the new Malick film
> Rockville Music magazine on the September 2010 filming in Oklahoma

Categories
Interviews

Stanley Kubrick and The Tree of Life

Is a Stanley Kubrick quote from 1968 the best description of The Tree of Life?

There are more than a few interesting parallels between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrence Malick’s latest film.

In their different ways, both ask questions about the origins of human existence, contain astounding visuals courtesy of Douglas Trumbull, use a lot of classical music and have attracted rave reviews.

Both have also been incorrectly labelled as difficult, divisive films – 2001 was a major critical and financial success but because four prominent New York critics disliked it, was labelled as getting a ‘mixed’ response.

Malick’s latest film currently has outstanding critical scores on review aggregation sites like Metacritic (85), Rotten Tomatoes (85) and a very respectable IMDb rating of 7.9, despite some critics recycling the words ‘pretentious’ and ‘perfume ad’.

But after seeing Malick’s film I was immediately reminded of something Stanley Kubrick once said in a Playboy interview around the release of his sci-fi epic:

Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel its worth living?

Kubrick: Yes, for those who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning.

Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre (a keen enjoyment of living), their idealism – and their assumption of immortality.

As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan (enthusiastic and assured vigour and liveliness).

Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

Stanley Kubrick in interview for Playboy, Stanley Kubrick Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2001, p.73

Is this not a near-perfect summary of The Tree of Life?

> My review of The Tree of Life
> Kubrick interview at Google Books
> The Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey at the IMDb

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Tree of Life

UK cinemagoers can now finally see Terrence Malick’s latest film but how does it hold up after all the buzz and anticipation?

Ever since his debut Badlands (1973) screened to acclaim at the New York Film Festival nearly 40 years ago, a Terrence Malick film has become something of an event.

One of the most audacious directorial debuts in US cinema was followed five years later with Days of Heaven (1978), a troubled production which fortunately yielded one of the most visually remarkable films of the 1970s.

Then there followed a twenty year period where Malick didn’t make any movies, a time which stoked his legend and made people revisit the extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship of his work and cemented his place in the canon of American cinema.

Just when it seemed he would become the J.D. Salinger of US cinema, in the mid-90s it emerged that he was actually returning with an adaptation of the World War II novel The Thin Red Line (1998), which has the distinction of being one of the greatest and most unusual war films ever released by a major studio.

Six years later he made The New World (2005), a retelling of the Pocahontas story which contained the same slow-burn ecstasy as his previous work along with some breathtaking use of imagery and music.

Malick remains an enigma as his refusal to do any publicity or play by conventional Hollywood practice is matched by an extensive network of admirers and supporters throughout the very system he flouts.

Up to this point his forty year career has been highly singular.

Not since Stanley Kubrick has a filmmaker achieved such creative control nor inspired such reverential awe amongst his peers and true cineastes.

Financing for this film was presumably a bit trickier than his last two, but River Road Entertainment and producer Bill Pohlad managed to raise the reported $32 million budget and followed the recent Malick formula of casting a big star alongside talented newcomers.

The production was three years in the making, with the bulk of photography taking place in 2008 and various other elements stretched out until it eventually premièred at Cannes back in May.

One of the most hotly anticipated festival screenings in years, it seemed to divide initial reaction at the festival (it was both booed and cheered at the press screening in the morning), but with high praise from experienced trade critics, the film was rapturously received at the evening premiere and went on to win the Palme d’Or.

Malick was actually spotted at the festival, but the producers accepted the award on his behalf and there was a wonderful symmetry to The Tree of Life winning a trophy of golden leaves.

Over the last few weeks Fox Searchlight have given it a platform release and amongst discerning film goers it has become one of the must-see events of the summer.

After all, this is a work by one of America’s most revered directors featuring one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.

But exactly is The Tree of Life all about?

It charts the memories of an architect (Sean Penn) as he remembers his childhood growing up in 1950s Texas, with two contrasting parents: his stern father (Brad Pitt), loving mother (Jessica Chastain) and two brothers.

At the same time, there is an extended sequence which explores the beginnings of creation and the development of life.

But the surprising aspect of the film is how these seemingly disparate strands do actually mesh.

Whilst it may divide opinion, there is nothing here that should perturb anyone with a genuinely open mind.

It is difficult to discuss specific story points without spoilers, but this is not some kind of art house indulgence but an inspired meditation on human existence and memory.

The signature Malick motifs are here: internal monologue voiceover, magic hour visuals and elliptical editing, and it follows themes he has previously explored, such as life, death and the nature of man.

Here Malick explores how life began but also asks the more pressing question of how death affects how we live our lives: should we embrace the selfish instinct to merely survive or a more compassionate approach to appreciate the present?

These two ways are embodied in the characters of the father and mother but also relate to any living thing in the history of the world, which is why the inclusion of Malick staples such as creatures and plants is not only appropriate but significant.

That the film relates these to the story of Penn’s character and his memories of childhood is part of its particular wonder: it is almost as if Malick was born to make this.

Parallels have been drawn to the director’s own life story and there is no doubt that this is an acutely personal film which I suspect has been brewing inside of him for a very long time.

Some viewers of a particular experience may find certain sequences hit home with an almost unbearable emotional intensity.

But the lasting power of The Tree of Life is how manages to find the universal within the particular.

Viewers may be jolted by the juxtaposition of the cosmic with the domestic, but aren’t experiences of childhood and our later memories filled with such existential questions?

Is there a creator? Why are we born in order to die? What happens in the afterlife?

These are pretty big questions and the fact that Malick tackles them head on with an admirable lack of detachment is actually amazing in this day and age of recycled narratives and endless sequels.

Cinema is a medium wonderfully suited to getting inside people’s thoughts and feelings and Malick is a past master at capturing both the internal and external landscapes of the human experience.

That he does so again here with his impeccable artistry is to be richly savoured as the technical achievements of The Tree of Life are extraordinary.

For the Texas sections, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates stunning images with a fluid intimacy that captures both the wonder of growing up and the internal emotions and memories of the major characters.

He used natural light and Steadicam to amazing effect in The New World (2005) and here he repeats the ecstatic brilliance of that film with photography that is appropriately transcendent.

The actors respond with considerable distinction: Pitt captures the simmering frustration and deep love of a stern but loving father; Chastain is magnetic as the ethereal mother; whilst the child actors – Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan and Laramie Eppler – fully convince. (Incidentally, Eppler looks uncannily like Pitt, although they aren’t related).

Pitt is cursed with a celebrity that often overshadows his acting work, but his performance here is quietly brilliant: his changing moods and inner conflicts are powerful to watch and this is his best work since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Penn has a much smaller role but he is a key presence and powerfully depicts a haunted, introspective man reflecting on his life. His role is brief in terms of screen time, but he is an important lynchpin for what happens.

Malick fans may like to note that Penn’s sequences are the only one Malick has ever set in the present – all of his previous films have been period pieces and there is a weird jolt at seeing mobile phones and skyscrapers here.

Past vs. Present
The Tree of Life at MOVIECLIPS.com

As for the scenes involving the rather large subject of the creation of mankind, they not only convince but provide something of a master class in the visual effects work of the last forty years.

Supervised by Dan Glass, they are genuinely awesome blend of high-resolution optical photography, modern CGI and unspecified trippy stuff which looks like nothing I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen.

The presence of VFX pioneer Douglas Trumbull on the effects team is obviously going to invite comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but I suspect his own film Brainstorm (1983) may have also been an influence in hiring him (although a forgotten sci-fi thriller it has sequences which visualise similar themes).

There is a grand sweep to the creation sequences which involves spectacular footage of natural phenomena, both in space and on earth: planets, meteors, volcanic eruptions, waterfalls, microscopic cells, jellyfish and even dinosaurs are all used.

Careful viewers may actually notice how they link to the Texas story, as there appear to be subtle visual and thematic clues between the creation of life and the individual lives depicted on screen.

Some stunning sound work throughout the film also helps anchor two seemingly disparate worlds, as the rumblings of nature and space are contrasted with the carefully constructed scenes of the family at home. (Malick aficionados might want to listen carefully for a particular recurring sound that also appears in the The Thin Red Line).

Although Alexandre Desplat worked on a score, Malick has opted to go for a score filled with classical composers, such as Bach, Berlioz, Smetena, Mahler, Holst, Górecki and John Tavener.

Again there may be comparisons to Kubrick, but Malick has his own style and edits to music like no other filmmaker working today, including some exhilarating sequences as the young boys grow up.

The period feel of 1950s small-town Texas is expertly captured by production designer Jack Fisk and the costumes by Jacqueline West give it a vivid period feel, which neatly evokes the power of childhood memories.

The Tree of Life is not a film that will be embraced by everyone and I suspect some may resent the fact that this is pure, distilled Malick with no compromise to conventional Hollywood storytelling clichés.

It is unashamedly ambitious and emotional, which are two qualities that put some audiences immediately on the back foot.

But there is a compelling story here, which is clearer than one might initially think – it just happens to be told in an unconventional way.

Malick has always made films built to last, even if recurring themes and motifs have vexed some viewers of his most recent work.

But the mere existence of this film in 2011 is almost as miraculous as the mysteries depicted within it.

A sublime work in the truest sense of the word, its beauty, vastness and grandeur make it quite something to behold.

It will probably be debated and thought about for a long time, which is entirely appropriate as it both reflects the questions and feelings of life itself.

> Official site and Tumblr blog
> Reviews of The Tree of Life at Metacritic
> Find out more about Terrence Malick at Wikipedia

Categories
Interesting

Letters to Projectionists

Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Michael Bay form an unlikely quartet of directors who have written letters to cinema projectionists.

This year has seen some interesting correspondence surface between filmmakers and projectionists about showing their film correctly.

Recently Glenn Kenny published a letter given to him by former Time critic Jay Cocks found a letter Stanley Kubrick wrote in December 1975 about the correct way to screen Barry Lyndon:

That also triggered a debate about the aspect ratio of the recent Blu-ray release from Warner Bros.

Recently, Ray Pride published a 2001 memo David Lynch wrote to cinema ‘projection departments’ in order to remind them of the aspect ratio, sound (‘3db hotter than normal’) and slight tweaks to the ‘headroom’ for screenings of Mulholland Drive.

(By the way, Lynch has also announced plans to open a themed nightclub in Paris, inspired by the film).

Last month the San Diego Reader reported that Terrence Malick penned a ‘fraternal salute’ to projectionists showing his latest film The Tree of Life in which he asked them to:

  1. Project the film in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
  2. The correct fader setting on Dolby and DTS systems is 7. Malick asks that faders be kept at 7.5 or even 7.7, system permitting.
  3. The film has no opening credits, and the booth operator is asked to make sure the “lights down cue is well before the opening frame of reel 1.”
  4. With all the recent talk of “darkier, lousier” images, operators are asked that lamps are at “proper standard (5400 Kelvin)” and that the “foot Lambert level is at Standard 14.”

At the other end of the directing spectrum, the Facebook page of American Cinematographer has posted a letter from Michael Bay in which he outlines to projectionists how to screen the ‘Platinum 6’ version of Transformers: Dark of the Moon for the ‘ultimate 3D experience’.

Interestingly Paramount, who are releasing the film, are the only major studio not to embrace the controversial pay-per-view plans which caused such a stink with theater owners back at Cinema Con in April.

After some high profile disappointments (3D versions of Pirates of the Carribbean 4 and Green Lantern grossed less than expected) this tentpole release will be keenly watched by Hollywood.

One recent complaint has been that US cinemas are not changing the 3D lenses for 2D screenings, which dims the brightness levels on the latter.

The letters are also timely as projection in multiplexes is often poor, with multiplex chains skimping on bulbs and often showing a movie with the incorrect aspect ratio.

With the advent of digital projection systems these problems were supposed to be addressed, but it seems that some cinemas are still cutting corners and shortchanging audiences and filmmakers.

This video demonstrates how modern cinema projectors work:

Back in 1998, Paul Thomas Anderson spoke to Mike Figgis about the old saying that the ‘projectionist has final cut’ and how he witnessed a bad Fuji print of Boogie Nights at an LA cinema (relevant part starts at 6.24):

To some this may seem like technical trivia but if cinema is to survive in an era of digital downloads and shortening windows, then projection standards must remain high.

> More on Movie Projectors at Wikipedia
> Wired on how modern 3D projectors work
> Guardian article on the life and work of a cinema projectionist
> How Stuff Works on movie projectors

Categories
Interesting

Christopher Nolan and David Fincher on Terrence Malick

Fox Searchlight have released a video of directors Christopher Nolan and David Fincher talking about Terrence Malick.

Used as a way to promote The Tree of Life ahead of its wider US release on July 8th, it makes for interesting viewing.

Nolan has often cited Malick as one of his favourite directors, whilst Fincher has listed Days of Heaven (1978) amongst his all-time favourite films.

It is a smart way of marketing The Tree of Life to audiences concerned by the unusual nature of the film and perhaps says to geekier audiences that there is more to cinema than just comic book adaptations and Hollywood conventions.

The Tree of Life is in limited release in the US and opens wide on July 8th, the same day as the UK release.

> Watch the featurette in HD at Apple
> Official site
> Malick spotted in Cannes
> Reviews of The Tree of Life at Metacritic (currently has a score of 87)
> Find out more about Terrence Malick at Wikipedia and MUBi

Categories
Images

Terrence Malick in Cannes

The elusive Terrence Malick was actually seen last week at the Cannes film festival.

The famously reclusive director may have been absent from the official press conference, the red carpet and even the official ceremony where his film won the Palme d’Or.

But he did actually make a brief appearence inside the Grand Theatre Lumiere after the premiere of his latest film.

USA Today report:

After the film ended and the premiere audience engaged in a hearty ovation for his latest magnum opus, a moving odyssey through time and memory, the iconoclastic Malick slipped in quietly, having avoided the red carpet and somehow arranging for TV cameras to point away. In the midst of the extended ovation in side the Palais’ Grand Theatre Lumiere, Malick surreptitously entered and was suddenly in the actors’ midst.

They quote actress Jessica Chastain as saying:

“Brad [Pitt] and I are standing there and everyone’s applauding, I looked over and in walked Terry. I don’t think people realized it. The festival of course knew, but it was a last minute thing. And the camera kind of turned to the ground even though the premiere was being televised. There was nothing for like a minute on the screen and that’s because Terry came in. He stood there and everyone was clapping. The festival director was going ‘Yes!’ and throwing his arms up and trying to get everyone to recognize who Terry is. I came over and hugged Terry and Brad hugged Terry and Terry hugged his wife and it was a beautiful moment. It lasted like a minute and then he was gone.”

This photo on Flickr would appear to confirm that Malick did indeed sneak in to the cinema to celebrate the moment with his actors:

Terrence Malick

If we zoom in a little bit we can see the director and his actors a little more clearly:

Click here for the full larger version.

[Hat tip to @Awardsdaily, @LePuu and colonelchi]

> Cannes reactions to The Tree of Life
> More on Terrence Malick at Wikipedia

Categories
Awards Season Festivals

The Tree of Life wins the Palme d’Or

Will the Cannes win for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life boost its box office and awards season chances?

Despite being the most eagerly awaited film at this year’s festival, it divided critical opinion after screening last Monday and tonight’s win was, for some pundits, something of a surprise.

Can a film as bold and out there as Malick’s film is reported to be, really click with modern upscale audiences?

Some might pour cold water on the idea of this film being an Oscar contender and an arthouse hit, as it seems to take the usual ingredients of Malick’s films and takes them to new levels of sheer Malickness.

Take this paragraph from Todd McCarthy’s review of the film for the Hollywood Reporter:

“Brandishing an ambition it’s likely no film, including this one, could entirely fulfil, The Tree of Life is nonetheless a singular work, an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amid its narrative imprecisions. This fifth feature in Terrence Malick’s eccentric four-decade career is a beauteous creation that ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection”

Somehow I don’t think this quote is going on the poster.

Let’s also not forget the very existence of this film in 2011 is something of a miracle.

Malick apparently approached Bill Pohlad, the head of production company River Road, several years ago with the basic idea for the project.

Filming began in 2008 and over the course of three years Malick shot and refined the film which features an extended sequence showing the birth of human existence (!); a family in 1950s Texas (starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain); and present day scenes of a man (Sean Penn) reflecting on his childhood.

Over the course of the last four years, the distribution company set up by Pohlad and Bob Berney (the now ironically named Apparition) came and went, whilst the film’s release was delayed from 2009 until 2010, when some expected it to play at that year’s Cannes festival.

A few months after that didn’t happen, Fox Searchlight eventually stepped in as US distributor, there were rumoured grumblings from exhibition folk that the film was too esoteric, and UK distributor Icon got in to a fight with international sales agent Summit over the release date (which means the UK opening is currently in limbo).

When the film was finally unveiled at Cannes last week, the divided responses were perhaps predictable, but the feverish anticipation before it screened and the added kick of a Palme d’Or win might actually say something powerful about the state of cinema in 2011.

In the same weekend that a movie based on a fairground ride dominates the global box office, could there be actually be an upscale hunger for a maverick auteur like Terrence Malick?

Fox Searchlight are past masters at releasing awards season bait (even if they only have one Best Picture win) but

At the moment, it seems like Win Win and The Descendants would be their most likely shots at Oscar glory.

Could it be that this upscale movie breaks out of the die-hard cineaste realm to become a respectable arthouse success?

Not only is there the unusualness of the project (I can’t think of anything remotely similar in recent memory), but also the selling point of its reclusive, poet-genius director.

I’m sure he has sincere reasons for doing zero press, but whether intentional or not, it just stokes the aura surrounding his already legendary status to levels that must leave PR professionals gasping in awe.

Could it be possible that the unusual and ‘uncommercial’ qualities of The Tree of Life and its director become a strength rather than a weakness?

> Official site and Tumblr
> Terrence Malick at Wikipedia
> Reviews of The Tree of Life from Cannes 2011

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray

Blu-ray: The Thin Red Line

The release of Terrence Malick’s 1998 World War II drama on Blu-ray is a major event for cinephiles and is easily one the best HD transfers I’ve ever seen.

Coming out in the UK in the very same week that his latest film The Tree of Life premiered at Cannes, this version looks essentially the same as the Blu-ray Criterion released in the US last September (though with slightly less extras).

Possibly one of the most singular movies ever released by a major Hollywood studio, it is a startling and impeccably crafted film which looks magnificent on Blu-ray and repays repeated viewings.

Adapted from the James Jones novel, which was a fictional account drawing on the author’s direct experiences of the Battle of Mount Austen during the Guadalcanal campaign.

The sprawling narrative depicts the experiences of various troops during the campaign which sees the troops land on the island, struggle to take a crucial hill defended by the Japanese and then capture an airfield crucial to US victory in the Pacific.

Different characters intersect, but the principals include: Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) who comes in to conflict his cynical Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn); Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), who daydreams about his wife back home (Miranda Otto) and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), who comes in to conflict with his aggressive superior, Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte).

Around these are various supporting characters, including Captain John Gaff (John Cusack), Pfc. Doll (Dash Mihok), General Quintard (John Travolta), Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody), Sgt. Storm (John C. Reilly) and Capt. Charles Bosche (George Clooney).

When first released back in 1998, it was hotly anticipated as Malick’s first film in 20 years and the extraordinary cast was testament to how many actors were willing to work with the director.

The way the film boldly jettisons the spurious modern ‘rules’ of movie-making (e.g. three-act structure, a central character) is not only refreshing but helps create a special mood, which Malick embellishes with his masterful control of mood and atmosphere.

In short, this is a film lover’s dream, an enriching drama which explores deep themes of war and nature in a bold, poetic way.

Although it received mostly positive reviews and seven Oscar nominations, the 3-hour length and meditative tone prevented it from overshadowing the other big World War II epic of that year, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

There are many fascinating comparisons and contrasts between the two, but Malick’s has aged better and certainly bears comparison with some of the great films of the 1990s.

Many things could be written about the film, but I’m going to focus on the different elements that struck me whilst watching all the elements on the disc.

IMAGE QUALITY

It is difficult to accurately describe how good this film actually looks on Blu-ray.

Part of that is down the outstanding technical craft of the original film, especially the production design from Jack Fisk and the stunning cinematography by John Toll, which help augment Malick’s obsessive desire for poetic cinema.

This new high-definition digital transfer was supervised and approved by Malick and Toll, and was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from the original 35mm camera negative in 4K resolution.

It looks immaculate and is among the best HD transfers I’ve ever seen, easily comparing with previous standout Blu-rays like Baraka (1992) and The New World (2005).

The shots of nature have an amazing amount of depth, the colours of the jungle and combat sequences are rendered beautifully and the faces of the soldiers are filled with detail.

Look out too for the how the transfer highlights the depth of field that Malick used in the film, as characters can be clearly seen in the background of certain sequences.

If you ever want a reference disc to show off the HD format then this is one of the films I’d recommend.

 

SOUND

The amazing visuals are complemented by a marvellous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix.

Remastered at 24-bit from the original 6-track magnetic audio, various noises were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and a lot of work has gone in to this mix.

The highlights are perhaps the battle sequences as the rifles and bombs really pop, but look out to for the more subtle sounds of nature (water, fire and wind) so beloved Malick in all of his films.

The various voiceovers that pepper the film from different actors are also given a new level of clarity, which helps figure out who they are if you happened to be confused before.

Hans Zimmer’s astonishing score also sounds as good as it ever has.

EXTRAS

The extras don’t contain any lengthy documentary material but a highly informative audio commentary, some intriguing deleted scenes and two featurettes (on the editing and music) give us some valuable insight into how it was made.

It doesn’t seem to have all the extras that were on the US Criterion disc but there is still enough here for those interested in the film.

  • Audio Commentary: The audio commentary from producer Grant Hill, production designer Jack Fisk and cinematographer John Toll is a nice mixture of technical details and anecdotes about the production. Among the interesting facts they discuss are:
    • The opening shot was filmed on a crocodile farm.
    • Malick spent time persuading the Jones family about the film as they were reluctant that the novel be filmed again (a previous version had been shot in 1964)
    • The complex shots in the hill sequence were filmed with a very long, extended Akela crane as using a dolly or Steadicam in that location was very difficult.
    • No lights were used in the exterior day sequences and very little in the interiors for the most naturalistic look possible
    • Depth of field was used a lot and there was some small use of VFX used to augment the sky and background ships in certain scenes.
    • John Toll’s wife worked on Saving Private Ryan as a makeup artist (which also shot in the summer of 1997) and Malick sent Steven Spielberg a Japanese flag. He returned the favour by sending him a Saving Private Ryan crew jacket.
    • Grant Hill agreed with Malick to keep a schedule which allowed room for change and improvisation but the movie was shot on time
    • The river sequence in the jungle was shot at the “limits of photographic exposure”
    • Fox executive Bill Mechanic and Laura Ziskin were always supportive of the project which originated at Phoenix Pictures with Mike Medavoy (Malick’s old agent and long-time friend)
    • Malick has never taken a credit ‘A film by Terrence Malick’
    • Toll says Malick makes half the film in the editing room as he ‘discovers’ it there when the sounds and images connect
  • Actors Perspective (22 min): The featurette sees the actors Elias Koteas, Jim Caviezel, Thomas Jane, Dash Mihok and Kirk Acevedo all talk about their experiences with Malick on the film (for some reason it omits certain actors who feature on the Criterion disc). All seem incredibly loyal and describe some anecdotes on set:
    • Koteas recalls that Malick didn’t want rehearsals as ‘life’ was the real rehearsal
    • Caviezel says acting under Malick was like a collage; many dialogue scenes were cut and many were written the night before shooting
    • Jane describes how Malick just kept shooting no matter the weather or light, so he could have 3 versions of scenes he could drop into the edit. Although at times improvisatory, he had a method to his madness.
    • Mihok says he was hired to make a war movie but the film is actually a poem about the ‘beauty of life’.
  • Deleted Scenes (13 mins): Given Malick’s propensity to shoot as much footage as possible, there was at one point a 5 hour cut of the movie that the editors had to whittle down to just under three hours. These deleted scenes, totalling around 12 minutes, therefore have greater interest than the usual material that stays in the cutting room, even though they don’t reveal a huge amount. Of the most interest are:
    • A scene featuring Mickey Rourke (whose character didn’t make the final cut), who plays a sniper Witt comes across. Witt also reveals he is from Breathitt County, Kentucky.
    • Scenes where GI’s debate whether to kill Japanese POWs after taking the all-important ridge.
    • George Clooney only had one scene towards the end of the film, but here is an extra one in which he talks to Bell (Chaplin) about his wife’s divorce request and how he can help him out.
    • Adrien Brody was a major character in an earlier cut of the film and he has an extra scene at an army hospital where the doctor approves his evacuation.
  • Editing Of The Thin Red Line (24 mins): Editors Billy Weber, Lesley Jones and Saar Klein describe what it is like to edit a Terrence Malick film and their insights on to this particular project are fascinating. They talk about:
    • Weber says they had to force Malick to watch the first 5 hour cut and that he works more like a sculptor, discovering the film in post-production.
    • The director was listening to a Green Day CD during the edit (!)
    • Klein says Malick is ‘wild and radical’ and that he was brought on at a later stage to cut the hill battle, which included ‘hours of footage’.
    • Malick is very selective about cutaways and how they are assembled (especially his trademark shots of nature and animals) and is incredibly specific about music and sounds.
    • The film took 18 months to cut – around a million feet of footage.
  • Hans Zimmer (16 mins): The score to the film is perhaps the finest of Hans Zimmer’s career and this 16 minute featurette is a real treat, which sees the German composer talk about how he came across Malick through a friend and got hired for the film. Among other things, he mentions that:
    • Malick had the notion that the score should ‘ask questions’ and Zimmer wanted his music to have a slight vagueness, which encourages the audiences to ‘fill in the blanks’
    • The epic ‘Journey to the Line’ cue was trying to capture time passing and how it flows like a river.
    • Malick and Zimmer are great procrastinators and talked a lot about other composers, some of whose music ended up in the film Arvo Paart (crocodile opening), Charles Ives and Gustav Faure.
  • Guadalcanal in Newsreels (10 mins): Archive newsreels from United News show the battle for the Solomon Islands. The black and white newsreel footage is an interesting counterpoint to the lush colours of Malick’s film. Notice the use of the word ‘Japs’ and the ‘little men of Nippon’, which gives a flavour of wartime propaganda.

 

To sum up, this is one of the major Blu-ray releases of the year and an essential addition to true film fan’s library.

An extraordinary film, which has been given a worthy HD release.

> Buy the Blu-ray from Amazon UK or Amazon US
> More on Terrence Malick at MUBi and Wikipedia
> Reviews of The Thin Red Line at Metacritic

Categories
Cannes Festivals

Tree of Life Cannes Reactions

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life finally premiered in Cannes today, but how was it received by the world’s critics?

The basic deal seems to be that the film is Malick turned up to 11 (heavy themes treated with a stunning visual sense) and that it’s going to divide people.

A new Malick film with Brad Pitt is already a must see for cinephiles around the globe and the positive trade reviews from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter perhaps indicate that however crazy it gets, discerning audiences are going to have a lot to absorb and discuss.

Whether it can crossover into the glare of the awards season remains a big question but this is already an event that has gone down in recent Cannes lore and Malick’s usual refusal to do any publicity has just stoked the must-see vibes around this film.

Here’s some brief snapshots of reactions from various critics:

POSITIVE

MIXED

NEGATIVE

Here are some of the reactions in image form.

> Check out more reviews on The Tree of Life from Cannes at MUBi
> Watch the trailer

Categories
News

Malick Montage

The Museum of the Moving Image in New York are running a season of Terrence Malick films this month and Matt Zoller Seitz has edited this neat trailer for the occasion.

His latest The Tree of Life premières at Cannes on May 16th, before opening in the US on May 27th (the UK release is more complicated).

 

If you are in the Big Apple this month any chance to catch a Malick film on the big screen is well worth it.

The screenings at MOMI in New York are as follows:

> Terrence Malick at MUBi
> Museum of the Moving Image in New York
> Matt Zoller Seitz at Slant and Twitter

Categories
Images Thoughts

Tree of Life Dinosaurs

A closer look at the stills for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life reveals two dinosaurs.

As the new film from one of cinema’s most enigmatic directors draws nearer, there has been much talk about the trailer, if it will screen in the UK before Cannes and the whole business about the dinosaurs.

According to the film’s sales agent Summit, the barebones story is:

“the tale of a Texas boy’s journey from the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as a ‘lost soul in the modern world’, and his quest to regain meaning in life”.

Whatever, the finished result the anticipation of a Malick film starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn with Emmanuel Lubezki as DP has cineastes rightly excited.

But what is the sequence involving dinosaurs all about?

When VFX Supervisor Dan Glass gave a fairly detailed interview to Little White Lies about his work on the film, it was promptly taken down (presumably at the request of the producers and distributors) as he may have violated a non-disclosure agreement.

But traces of it remain online and he essentially confirmed that there would be dinosaurs in the film and that Malick had incorporated notes and negatives he’s been working on since the 1970s (!).

As for other details, the effects shots used “extraordinary source imagery from actual probes and telescopes”, some of the film was shot in IMAX, the VFX work was done to a “very high resolution” and the music and sound are reportedly “tremendous”.

Speaking of high resolution, Fox Searchlight recently released some hi-res stills from the film on their official Tumblr blog, including a shot of the dinosaur.

But look closer here and you will find another one in the frame.

In addition to all this is the stand off between UK distributor Icon and US sales agent Summit over the release date.

Icon are still insisting that they will have a press screening of the film on May 3rd, before opening on May 4th.

Obviously this would wreck the carefully laid plans of the world premiere at Cannes and the subsequent US release by Fox Searchlight.

As I write this there is still nothing about the film on their official website and it has been reported that there is some behind-the-scenes wrangling over the release with sales agent Summit saying:

“‘The information regarding the May 4th U.K. release is incorrect. Icon Film Distribution Ltd. does not have the right to distribute The Tree of Life in the U.K, as it is in default of its agreement. The matter is pending before an arbitration tribunal in Los Angeles.’

But according to another report Icon are still adamant that they are going to release it on May 4th.

The Tree of Life may (or may not) open in the UK on May 4th and will screen at the Cannes Film Festival on May 16th before opening in the US on May 27th

> Official site and Tumblr blog
> More on Terrence Malick at Wikipedia
> David Thomson profiles Malick at The Guardian

Categories
Cannes News Posters

Poster: The Tree of Life

The latest poster for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has appeared and is a patchwork affair with various characters and scenes from the film.

Look at little closer and you’ll see the dinosaur that is rumoured to make an appearance in the film.

The official website has been unveiled at www.twowaysthroughlife.com and intriguingly they also have a Tumblr site at twowaysthroughlife.tumblr.com

In other news, Empire dropped the bombshell earlier today that the film will be getting a UK release on May 4th, a full week ahead of its expected première at the Cannes Film Festival, which starts on May 11th.

There hasn’t been any official word yet from UK distributor Icon about their release plans, but it seems staggering that it would open at UK cinemas and completely scupper the possibility of what would be one of the most anticipated Cannes screenings in years.

The idea that a high profile festival premiere, featuring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn on the red carpet alongside Malick, would be sacrificed so UK audiences and critics could see the film a week earlier is fairly mind boggling.

It has already been announced that the film will screen there, but whether it will show in competition won’t be officially confirmed until April 14th when Thierry Fremaux announces the full lineup.

As I speak it isn’t listed on the official FDA release schedule, nor is there any word on Icon’s UK website.

According to Hollywood Elsewhere and Thompson on Hollywood, sources at US distributor Fox Searchlight are claiming that the Empire story is incorrect.

> The Tree of Life trailer
> More on the film at Wikipedia

Categories
Trailers

Trailer: The Tree of Life

The trailer for Terrence Malick’s latest film The Tree of Life has surfaced online.

Set in the 1950s, it is the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Jack (Hunter McCracken) growing up in the Midwest with his father (Brad Pitt) and mother (Jessica Chastain), and his life as an older man (Sean Penn).

It opens in the US on May 27th 2011.

> Tree of Life at the IMDb
> More on Tree of Life at Wikipedia