Movies: One good, one bad

Here are mini-reviews of two movies I’ve seen this week.  One is unknown, and very good; the other is quite well known and abysmal. Both won prizes at Cannes, but only one deserves it.  SPOILER ALERT: Elements of the plot will be described in each review.

First, the good one.

Certified Copy (Copie Conforme), released in 2010, is a product of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami; although he’s well known to aficionados of international (i.e., non-American!) movies, this is the first film he’s shot outside of Iran. (It’s also his first film that I’ve seen, so perhaps readers who have seen the others can comment.)  It’s a tour de force that wasn’t on my radar screen.  The plot is simple but tortuous.  A British author, James Miller (played wonderfully by the handsome William Shimell, an opera singer in his first movie role), is touring in Tuscany to promote his book, Certified Copy, about the difference between original works of art and copies.  There he meets an unnamed French woman played by Juliette Binoche (a fantastic actress and a gorgeous woman; she garnered an Oscar for The English Patient).  Binoche (I’ll use her real name), seems to be divorced, has a tense relationship with her young son, and runs a shop that sells artworks.  For an unknown reason she takes James on a one-day tour of Tuscany, and things get complicated.

While having coffee in a small town, Miller steps outside to take a call on his cellphone, and Binoche falls into conversation with the cafe’s female proprietor, who assumes that Binoche and Miller are married.  Binoche plays along, and the two have a conversation about Miller’s qualities as a husband and the nature of marriage in general. Binoche tells the woman about the difficulties of the marriage; the proprietor tries to reassure her that Miller seems like a good man.  When he comes back inside, Binoche tells him of the ruse, and he responds that they “obviously make a good couple,” since the proprietor assumed they were married.  The ruse then elides into reality: they gradually slip into the roles of man and wife, have disagreements, moments of tenderness, and act out a possibly fictitious past in which they didn’t get along because of his absence.  The dialogue is wonderful, and Binoche really shines in a difficult role (the performance got her a Best Actress award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival).

As the couple walk around the village, things become more ambiguous.  Their pretense is so minutely described, so full of authentic memories, that you begin to wonder if the two really were married and produced a son.  Or are they only acting?  And if they’re acting, are they beginning to fall for each other, or do they dislike each other?  The day passes, full of difficulties and disagreements: a dialogue conducted in French, Italian, and English.  The movie ends with the situation ambiguous and unresolved: is it a real marriage or a certified copy? The beauty of this movie is in the intriguing plot and the fantastic acting, especially by Binoche; the movie is a wonderful meditation on the nature of marriage and relationships.  I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up.  See it!

Here’s the UK trailer:

And Binoche talks about the movie and the director:

The whole movie appears to be on YouTube in 16 parts; part 1 is here, but I recommend seeing it in the theater.  Rotten Tomatoes (my favorite movie review site) gives it a very good rating of 88%.

Next is a dreadful and overrated movie, which I don’t recommend:

Tree of Life.  This is only Terrence Malick’s fifth movie in 38 years of directing.  I absolutely loved his 1978 movie Days of Heaven, starring Richard Gere, Sam Shepherd, and Brooke Adams, which I regard as the most beautifully photographed movie ever made. (It gets a 93 on Rotten Tomatoes.) I haven’t seen his later films (if you have, weigh in), but Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken, is far from outstanding. In fact, I regret the 139 minutes I spent seeing it.

The movie is about a family in 1950s Waco Texas, with Pitt playing a stern—even abusive—father of three sons, and Chastain as his ethereal and long-suffering wife. Much of the movie is seen through the eyes of young Jack (McCracken); tellingly, the parents’ first names are never given.  One of Jack’s brothers dies at 19 of unknown causes, and Jack grows up into Sean Penn, who is seen only briefly in the role of an architect who appears deeply wounded by his upbringing and his brother’s death.

If the movie were only about the plot above, it would be pretty good: the cinematography is wonderful, and the narrative given only in impressionistic snippets which nevertheless add up to a moving portrayal of a young life.  But Malick wasn’t content with that: he had to give the whole thing an overblown cosmic significance by making it not just the tragic tale of a family, but the story of the whole creation.  Accordingly, about ten minutes into the movie, there is a 45-minute interlude of “creation,” including shots of the cosmos and of galaxies, volcanoes and lava flows, and then EVOLUTION: bacteria, animated dinosaurs in a river (truly a colossal but lolzy mistake on the director’s part), the asteroid hitting Earth 65 million years ago, and then a developing human baby (obviously Jack about to arrive).

There are also ponderous voice-overs by the actors and pictures of a pulsating flame, meant, I think, to represent the divine.  The whole movie is suffused with God and religion, and not in a good way, for Malick seems to think that the reality of the divine is what gives his movie significance.  The last bit of the movie is truly dreadful: all the characters, including both old and young Jack and his parents and brothers, are walking around barefoot on a beautiful beach, touching each other and reuniting.  It’s obviously meant to represent Heaven. In the last scene, Chastain raises her hands to the sun (God is always indicated by the sun or a shot of the sky) and whispers, “I give my son to you,” denoting acceptance at last of his death.

For the life of me I can’t understand either what was in Malick’s head when he made this, or why the critics have tied themselves into knots of rapture about this movie. It received the coveted Palme d’Or (best feature film) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and critical reception has been almost uniformly good.  Even Anthony Lane, one of my favorite movie critics, gave it an enthusiastic review in The New Yorker.  It also got a respectable 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though only 63% of the audience liked it.

This could have been a very good movie had Malick dialed back on the religion and creation stuff, and done a bit more with the family and plot. As it is, his attempt to place an unhappy childhood into a frame of creation and evolution of life as a whole has produced a bloated, unsatisfying, and pretentious film.  I agree with what one of the stars himself, Sean Penn, said about Tree of Life in a Figaro interview (reported in the Guardian):

“The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read but I couldn’t find that same emotion on screen. . . A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”

Two opposable thumbs down for this enormous but failed effort.

The official trailer, which downplays the cosmic stuff that is literally half of the movie):


  1. sponge bob
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    I had high hopes for this movie but had trouble staying awake.

  2. ellen
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I’d given some thought to seeing this, but frankly was kept off by the presence of Pitt, whom I truly can’t stand–I think he’s always been a horrible actor and am really getting tired of all these ‘serious’ films he’s being cast in which seem more like desperately ‘artsy’ attempts to rehabilitate his reputation from that bare fact (i.e. “Benjamin Button”, et al.)–but you’ve just given me another, and even more persuasive reason to skip it. Thanks!

  3. Dan
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    The wife and I went to see Tree of Life and were pretty excited about it. We were both completely disappointed by it, and felt that it was one of the most self-indulgent pieces of film we’d ever seen, and basically tried to cloak some fairly mundane spirituality in enough layers of noise and obfuscation to make it seem deep.

    Although I’m an atheist, I’m way less offended by religion than many who read and post to this blog. I’m deeply offended by awful and pretentious movies, though, and on that level Tree of Life is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. At its core it was about as profound as the newest Harold and Kumar movie, while being about as well-considered and coherent as Hausu.

  4. Posted November 6, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Even more repulsive considering Pitt is, supposedly, one who disavows the “divine.” Penn is a much better actor, but it sounds like his cameo won’t save anything this time.

    Waiting patiently for “Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy.”

  5. Posted November 6, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Ok, I have not seen the movie, and probably won’t for a long time, but if I may ask:

    1) Spoiler request: what was LOLzy about the dinosaur scene, so I don’t have to see it to laugh; and
    2) what is your reaction to hearing that there is a six-hour long director’s cut coming out?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      1. The dinosaurs are just incongruous: it’s like interposing a scene from a Spielberg movie into a film that’s taking itself very seriously. If you see it, you’ll see how marring that scene is.

      2. Sheer horror and a determination to avoid it completely.

      Malick missed on this one.

  6. Chris
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    I saw The Thin Red Line when it came out and thought it was so pretentious, with Sean Penn intoning Deep Thoughts like ‘War is hell’ (he actually says that) over shots of sunlight through leaves, rain falling, etc. The cinematography was beautiful, but I couldn’t stand the overall film.

  7. Sigmund
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Mark Kermode, the BBC film reviewer described ‘The Tree of Life’ as being based on “theistic evolution”!
    The dinosaur scene is particulary funny because it is meant to signify the evolution of compassion (for those who haven’t seen the movie, the scene contains a carnivore and a herbivore – you can guess what happens!)

  8. Dave J L
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Oh I do like coming across opinions I agree with about films I particularly despised. The Tree of Life was just spectacularly awful, which is odd considering there are a lot of good things to say about it – it is beautifully shot, generally well acted (especially from the child actors) and could’ve worked if it had focused solely on the 1950s story, but the universe stuff just ruins it. I don’t even mind the idea of juxtaposing the cosmic images or the use of religion in a film, I just hated the pretentious, incoherent way they were used: Malick seemed to think a pot-pourri of classical music, slow-motion shots (including, lamentably, a crashing wave!) and irritating inner monologues whispering to God would somehow add up to something profound and moving, when they are cringe-worthy and put one in mind of arty aftershave adverts.

    There is an annoying tendency amongst defenders of the film to accuse those of us who hated it of being somehow soulless/emotionless/idiots ‘who should go and watched Transformers 3’, as opposed to people open to this sort of film, but just straightforwardly critical of the poor way it was done. I recently saw Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which would undoubtedly turn some off too, but I found it beautiful and affecting in precisely the ways The Tree of Life wasn’t – it too has lots of cosmic imagery and uses classical music (Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, used appropriately and carefully to great effect) but is more like Kubrick/Bergman’s cooler, quasi-atheistic sensibility in its approach. I recommend it.

    • Penman
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      I think it’s useful to compare these two movies, but I couldn’t disagree more. But that’s art. 🙂

      For me, it doesn’t get much more pretentious than Melancholia, which subsumes a planetary collision and the looming end of the world to the main characters’ depression. (The planet is even called Melancholia! Get it?)

      I admire but don’t much like von Trier’s movies, and this one, aside from its brilliant super-slo-mo opening montage, was a cliched rehash of northern European ennui porn, where everything that happens is a metaphor for the characters’ mental state.

      For an actual depiction of what the end of the world might really do to humans’ emotional states, see Last Night, a low-budget but gripping look at how people might really behave if they knew the end of the world were coming.

  9. Dr. I. Needtob Athe
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    ‘Accordingly, about ten minutes into the movie, there is a 45-minute interlude of “creation,”…’

    Was it really 45 minutes or was that a typo? 45 minutes would be nearly half of the movie.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      No, not a typo. I didn’t time it, but I think it was about that long. I looked at my watch when the movie’s real plot started again, and it was about an hour in. There was about ten minutes of plot at the beginning, too.

      I may be a bit inaccurate but I think the interlude was pretty close to that.

  10. Penman
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    I’m a big fat atheist fan of The Tree of Life. Watch how I do it. 🙂

    The emotional spine of the film is the Sean Penn character (Jack) working out the final stages of grieving over his dead brother, including his grief over what it did to his parents.

    Before we even get to the “heaven” sequences (which aren’t heaven, as you’ll see), there are a number of surreal moments that can only represent Jack’s imagination: The adult Jack watches his parents in their home when they’ve just heard the news of the son’s death 10+ years before; Jack sees his mother floating in air, defying gravity. The film–at least the non-creation parts–is thus surely through Jack’s point-of-view, including the surreal, hallucinatory moments.

    The film shows Jack being raised religiously, complete with his mother’s nature/grace dichotomy, so it would make sense that his understanding of life, and specifically his brother’s death and the consequent grieving, would be filtered through that prism.

    So, “heaven”: It’s not the *film* saying “Look, all these characters are in heaven now,” it’s *Jack* imagining a realm of reunification and forgiveness, moving through the final stage of grieving his brother’s death and parents’ pain. Note who’s there and what ages they are and what happens there. Yes, it’s suffused with religious tropes (“I give him back to you now”), but it makes sense that Jack would try to understand the final stage of grief that way, given his religious upbringing and his Mother’s metaphysics.

    More generally: I appreciate the scope and scale of what Malick is aiming for, which is even deeper–and more science-based–than Kubrick’s 2001. For instance: In 2001, humans’ evolutionary leaps are accomplished through the black monolith, placed here by some super-intelligence as both teaching machine and calling card. In Tree of Life, Malick shows us one moment–the first?–of mercy, when the dinosaur doesn’t kill the wounded one laying in the stream. (This is later driven home by the obvious parallel when Jack doesn’t kill his father by removing the Jack on the car that his dad is working under).

    I do agree that the film seems to endorse the mother’s nature/grace dichotomy, and I don’t agree with it.

    But this is a movie of wonders, and just like we atheists can appreciate all the Jesus-inspired music of Bach, the Christian-soaked gothic cathedrals, and the Bible-scene depictions of Renaissance painters’ amazing works, we can also appreciate an ambitious, if flawed, masterwork that The Tree of Life is, as it at least attempts to connect our experiences with the stream of all life. How many films even attempt that?

    • OK GO
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      I had the same take on it. It wasn’t Malick telling viewers how the world is; it was a glimpse inside the mind of Jack as he worked through his grief. I actually thought the creation story was deliberately simplistic and overwrought. Jacks’s journey included growing past childhood theology – but then, facing the challenge of making sense of his brother’s death, he first is drawn to teh simplistic theological narrative of his youth, then imagines a far future where it will finally all make sense and have meaning. It’s funny, I actually interpreted it as rejecting naive but emotionally satisfying answers.

  11. Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I thought the creation/universe interlude was the best part of the film. I didn’t care for the family stuff at all.

    Also: the man who worked on the special effects in the creation interlude was Douglas Trumbull, most known for his work on 2001; this was his first movie *since* 2001 too. Wikipedia has some more details:

    Sadly, Malick wanted to avoid CGI but decided to include that awful dinosaur in the sequence anyway.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      This not Trumbull’s first film since 2001. His Wikipedia bio lists a number of high-profile films he worked on since then, including The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, Close Encounters, and Blade Runner.

  12. Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with Jerry here.

    My family watched this two nights ago. All I knew going into it was that a lot of people liked it, and a lot of people thought it was boring and over-hyped.

    Needless to say, people were falling asleep from the very beginning. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any more and left.

    Jerry is spot on with his criticisms. The movie would’ve been much better without any of the “cosmic significance” bullshit was was added in. And this is coming from someone who loves science documentaries!

    The cosmic bullshit sequences are nothing like 2001. At least the ones in that movie were relevant and flowed nicely.

  13. Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    A few years ago I was waiting on the platform at New Street Station, [Birmingham, UK] for my then beloved to arrive for the weekend. Just as the train hove into view my mobile beeped a ‘Dear John’ text from her [!!]

    Rather than head straight home to an empty house I dived into the cinema & had my first meeting with La Binoche :- Chocolat

    [first lines]
    Storyteller: “Once upon a time, there was a quiet little village in the French countryside, whose people believed in Tranquilité – Tranquility. If you lived in this village, you understood what was expected of you. You knew your place in the scheme of things. And if you happened to forget, someone would help remind you. In this village, if you saw something you weren’t supposed to see, you learned to look the other way. If perchance your hopes had been disappointed, you learned never to ask for more. So through good times and bad, famine and feast, the villagers held fast to their traditions. Until, one winter day, a sly wind blew in from the North…”

    She has a luminous quality ~ the camera loves her & I will always remember that she (& the film) helped greatly to cure my ills. A great actor with a certain classic quality about her ~ Très chic, très hip, très sexy!

    • Posted November 7, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink

      Yes, Jerry’s review immediately brought to mind her role in Chocolat.

  14. Ray
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Boy, you’re my film critic from now on! Your opinion jibed with mine to something like 98%. During the cosmic stuff I recall putting my head down and saying, “Oh God, not the Horsehead Nebula, please!” and in the very next shot, there it was, cliche of cliches about the cosmos.
    I missed Certified Copy, largely because the Iranian movies I have seen bored me senseless, but I may catch up with it on DVD.


    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      I thought the same thing about the Horsehead Nebula. . . “OMG They’re totally going to show that now!”

      That montage had every cliché in the book, including Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, a place where I used to do field work and, of course, the subject of a dreadful movie by Antonioni!

  15. salon_1928
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I’m a Malick apologist so I have to give Tree of Life a shot. I remember being unimpressed by The Thin Red Line when it first came out – now I think it’s a superb film. That said, when I saw the trailer a few months back I groaned a bit. I remember thinking – how many times is Terrance going to go to the well? He’s capable of making a stylistically different film. I mean, he did make Bad Lands once…

    I’m really curious about Certified Copy and will watch for it. I actually have a copy of another film (Close-up) by Kiarostami on my shelf. I haven’t watched it yet but now I think I’m going to have to pick it off this week.

    If you’re looking for a make-up film for Tree of Life, I saw an outstanding Swedish film last night – My Life as a Dog by Lasse Hallstrom. With out giving too much away, two brothers are split up and sent to live with different relatives when their sick mother can no longer cope with their constant fighting. The story, which takes place in the 50’s, focuses on the experiences of the younger brother. It’s a coming of age story with the younger boy having to come to terms with a lot of changes: a new community, new friendships, mortality, sex, etc. It’s not groundbreaking stuff but it’s beautifully told and shot. The boy that plays the main character Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius) is spot-on in the role.

    • nick bobick
      Posted November 6, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      1985’s My Life as a Dog is brilliant and I’ll have to find it and watch it again. I highly recommend The Secret in Their Eyes for anyone who hasn’t seen it. It is the only film of the last several years I can imagine watching multiple times.

  16. Ray
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    As a sidelight on my last comment, Tree of Life was the only movie in my recollection to have walkouts, and a week later the cineplex where it showed had a notice about refunds on walkouts. It also garnered derisive comments from a crowd that very much skewed WASP and boomer.

  17. Carl
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Me and wife went to see The Tree of Life at the theatre thinking it would be good but it was boring and way too long and had way too many religious overtones. When the beach scene came on we walked out. Two thumbs down.

  18. bhoytony
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I usually like Malick’s films, but not this one. Like all his stuff it’s beautiful to look at, but it just doesn’t work as an all-round piece of art.
    If you want to see a film which is truly beautiful, thought-provoking and inspiring try Werner Hertzog’s Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.
    I recently saw it and it’s great. Although it’s a documentary, it much more poetic than Tree Of Life. Filmed mainly in the Chauvet Caves in southern France containing the oldest known paintings on earth, some are 32,000 years old. Loads of pictures of horses, lions, rhinos etc. but only one of a human. They look like they were painted yesterday. There is one panel featuring a group of horses which seems to be a single work, but adjacent animals were actually painted 5,000 years apart.
    It’s filmed in 3-D, but I saw the normal version.

  19. ginger
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, pleeze 2 avoid teh phrase “man and wife.” It is sexist. Wuld u say “woman and husband”? Just sayin.

  20. bigjohn756
    Posted November 6, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    I went to YouTube to look at “Certified Copy”, but it was in such low resolution(240p) that I checked on the site suggested there. I could indeed watch it HD if i were willing to join the site for a large sum.
    By then I ad seen enough of Juliette that I wanted to see more so I had some Chocolat Binoche. I think that’s an excellent movie.

  21. John D
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Tree of Life. Worst movie I have seen in years. Holy crap… ghosts united on a beach so they can all hug! Great photography though… I guess it would be good to lull you to sleep (except for the abusive parents).

  22. Ilya
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t disagree more on the Tree of Life, Jerry. It seems your atheism leads you to outright rejection of a film with some religious undertones. I think it was pure genius to tie up a 50’s family drama with a meditation on the story of creation and our place in the universe wrapped up in beautiful photography. It was one of the very few films lately I’d be willing to go and see again in a cinema. Yes, the dinosaur scene was out of place but otherwise it was a meticulously executed vision that makes people think.

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