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The Reel Deal

THE TREE OF LIFE, THE TRIP & CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP

Quick Takes on Three Films

Film Insight by Tyler Malone

July 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE:


Reel Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ve been puzzling over what to say about The Tree of Life for a while now; it is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen, and because of that, and a few other reasons, it has been difficult for me to navigate my own thoughts on the film. I’ve said of other movies, usually in complimenting art films, that they feel like visual poems rather than “merely” moving pictures, but here The Tree of Life isn’t “merely” a visual poem, but a visual prayer. The agnostic (leaning towards atheist) in me initially didn’t really know what to make of its unflinching spiritualism, and a part of me at first admittedly cringed at the film’s undeniable religiosity since I don’t have a spiritual or religious bone in my body, but once I got past my impulse of recoil, I grew to appreciate its artistic, intellectual and philosophical approach to the ideas of god, of science, of faith, of hope, of grace, of compassion, of loss, of love, and, most importantly, of existence in general. In its poetics, it reeks of a prayer, not a sermon. Unlike most religious films, often sermonic in nature, this film doesn’t give you answers (perhaps because it has a scientific and philosophical underpinning). That is the thing about religion that disturbs me most, its disregard for knowledge as accumulated through scientific method, and its purporting to have all the answers (an obvious fallacy), but The Tree of Life merely poses questions, ponders ideas and leaves us in that perpetual state of wonder. It is a wonderful film in that way, full of the wonder that every person must feel when looking at the world, whether they believe in a higher power or not: how can one not be in awe of the order/chaos (however you see it) of the world? Visually the film is unparalleled–unquestionably one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. Terrence Malick’s films are all gorgeous, but here he succeeds even in incorporating the Big Bang and dinosaurs (by way of special effects) into his magnificent vision (while still keeping consistent with his trademark breathtakingly beautiful, poetic visual aesthetic). Because the film has been out for a bit, I made the mistake of reading a few other reviews, many of which compare it to a prayer. The best description I found of the film though came from a piece by Steve Rose in The Guardian in which Rose explains the film’s visual style: “In terms of movie language, it’s as if Malick is speaking in tongues.” I wholeheartedly agree. So let it be known: The Tree of Life is definitely not a movie for all, as its non-linear, barely-there narrative may frustrate people who don’t like when story takes a backseat to style, structure and theme. But that is what makes it so like a prayer. As in a poem, the narrative aspect of a prayer isn’t what makes it moving, it is the meditative poesy of it: how it says what it says, and what it is saying underneath what it says (i.e. style, structure and theme). And for any out there hesitant in the other extreme (that know they would have no problem with its artiness, but fear its religiosity): don’t fear, as I’ve often said in religious discussions, “I can’t fault a prayer, but I can fault a sermon.” This is certainly no sermon.

THE TRIP:


Reel Rating: 5 out of 5

A film about two guys on a roadtrip through the English countryside, where pretty much nothing of import happens, has absolutely no right to be this good. And, more importantly, it has no right to be the funniest film so far this year either (and–can you believe it?–the year is already half over). Though there isn’t a tremendous amount of plot in this road movie, there is quite a bit of character. The two protagonists, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, fictionalized versions of the actors who play them, are not only hilarious, fully-realized characters, but also belie the lack of a real plot because so much ‘story’ seems to be bubbling just below the surface of these two clowns. If you ever had any doubt, these are two supremely talented actors. Just because they are playing “themselves” doesn’t diminish the virtuoso acting. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are really a perfect comedic duo, and the laughs just keep coming, but more surprising is the emotion and pathos they both manage to relay with seemingly so little to work with (as far as narrative goes). I say “surprising,” but I am not the least bit surprised–they have worked wonders together before: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, for one, was one of my favorite films of the last decade. That film and this film–this is actually technically a semi-sequel to that film–were both directed by the great Michael Winterbottom. I hope Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon keep making films together, because they never disappoint when they’re together (they also all made the critically-acclaimed 24 Hour Party People).

CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP:


Reel Rating: 3 out of 5

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an interesting glimpse into the life of Conan O’Brien in the aftermath of the Tonight Show debacle that ended with Jay Leno disappointingly back at the helm of that franchise (yes, I say disappointingly because I have no problem letting you know where my sympathies lie: I was Team CoCo from day one). Who the hell finds Jay Leno funny anyways? I want to meet these people and box their ears (or something similarly ridiculous). While Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is implicitly about O’Brien losing The Tonight Show and then taking his show on the road, it doesn’t spend that much time on the whole late night calamity. Conan talks about the anger he felt (and continues to feel), but his only mention of Leno is one small joke midway through the film where he imagines Jay writing him a letter asking him: “How does it feel to have a soul?” That was the moment that got the biggest laugh out of me. The film is quite good, and becomes a kind of meditation on Conan’s–and by proxy, many stars’–need to have an audience. For people who have that addiction, performing is something that is hard to stop. I was reminded more than once of that scene in Madonna’s Truth or Dare movie where Warren Beatty accuses her of not having anything to say when the camera is not on because “she doesn’t want to live off-camera.” There’s a neediness there. We see in this film, as is apparent in the title, that Conan O’Brien (similarly) Can’t Stop. While the film is funny and insightful, what I feel was perhaps missing was a full portrait of everything that was going on at this time (instead of just a look at his tour). By this I mean I wish we had at least a glimpse into the talks going on between Conan’s people and the various TV networks (which we know was happening concurrently with what is being filmed), and I also wish Conan let the anger fly a bit more (at the NBC suits and Leno rather than the people in his entourage who let too many people back stage for a meet-and-greet). I don’t need him to bash Leno and the suits endlessly for an hour and a half, but I wouldn’t have minded a few more jabs. You know he was making the jokes, but I think they were purposefully cut from the film so as not to make him seem too bitter. Either way though, this is a decent documentary which I’m sure will please anyone at least moderately interested in the subject matter.

The Tree of Life is a film written and directed by Terrence Mallick. It stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. The story centers around a family with three boys in the 1950s. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence.

The Trip is a film directed by Michael Winterbottom. It stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Steve Coogan has been asked by The Observer to tour the country’s finest restaurants, but after his girlfriend backs out on him he must take his best friend and source of eternal aggravation, Rob Brydon.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a film directed by Rodman Flender. It is a documentary on Conan O’Brien’s comedy tour of the U.S. and Canada after leaving his post at The Tonight Show and severing his relationship with NBC.

LINKS:

IMDB: The Tree of Life

IMDB: The Trip

IMDB: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Reel Deal Quick Takes Written by Tyler Malone

Picture Courtesy of Fox Searchlight and Allmoviephoto.com

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