Monthly Archives: June 2011

87: Midnight in Paris (2011)

One of my friends likes to say, when he’s particularly enamored with a play or a movie, “I want to live in that.”  What I love about Midnight in Paris is that in telling the story of a man who desperately wants to lose himself in another time and place, it gives us a world we want to lose ourselves in as well.

Owen Wilson plays affable writer Gill, who travels to the City of Lights with his shrill harpy fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her stodgy parents.  While everyone else complains about the rich food and the confusing streets, Gill falls in love with Paris and starts fantasizing about staying there instead of going back to his screenwriterly life in LA.  But it turns out the boundary between past and present is more permeable than anyone imagined when an antique Bentley pulls up alongside him at the stroke of midnight and offers him a ride back to the Paris of the Roaring Twenties.  This is the sort of movie that rewards you for having paid attention in your college lit classes (and I’m assuming you all did) — I won’t spoil any of the jokes because the surprise is half the fun, but I will tell you that my favorite one almost slides under the radar during a party scene, and it made me glad I audited that Women in Literature class senior year.

Everyone’s falling over themselves to praise this little gem, and deservedly so — it’s completely charming without ever resorting to cuteness, and I loved that.  Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard are both cast so expertly that neither one seems to be acting at all.  Corey Stoll as Hemingway gets some of the best dialogue in the movie and he doesn’t waste a single word — his intensity is somehow funny and melancholy at the same time.  I actually think Rachel McAdams does an admirable job reaching back into her Mean Girls reserves and pulling out the cattiest, brattiest bitch she can summon up, but I wish she hadn’t been given such a thankless role.  At no point in the movie is there even a hint of whatever spark initially drew these characters together — she’s never even nice to him, for god’s sake.  Not that I haven’t seen couples in real life treat each other this way, but I think the movie would’ve been more poignant if she had a single redeeming quality that might make Gill conflicted about whether or not to stay in Paris without her.

Is it weird for me to call this a romantic movie you should see alone?  At any rate, I was glad I could lose myself in it without distractions.  Oh, who am I kidding — go see it with your loved one and be glad their parents have never shown up at your hotel door in their bathrobes.

86: The Tree of Life (2011)

Could I have picked a more daunting movie with which to revive my blog?  I should’ve just gone with Enter the Void and been done with it.

It really is as difficult to summarize as you’ve heard, not because there’s no story, but because there’s no narrative (I trust y’all to appreciate the difference).  In theory, the concept is simple: this one particular family is a microcosm for the entire history of time and space.  But it would do this movie a disservice to tack such a tidy explanation onto it and tie it up with a bow.  So rather than make any pretense of having actually gotten a handle on this picture, I wanted to talk about a few of the specific things that made an impression on me.

First, the questions.  This movie uses a lot of voiceover, but instead of giving us backstory or tying the plot together, here it’s used almost exclusively to ask questions.  These are mostly voiced by Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, though I don’t know if they’re all meant to be her character’s thoughts.  What I liked about this device was that the narrator asks all these huge questions — they don’t really get any bigger than “Where did we come from?” and “Why did this happen to me?” — and then none of them get answered (no spoilers there).  I love the idea that this movie really is meant to be “about” everything, but without offering explanations for anything.  Movies, like every other art form, are an attempt to find meaning, and the best works of art are ones that can mean lots of different things; but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a movie that set itself this task so clearly and then expanded out beyond its own boundaries instead of narrowing or defining or answering.

On a more specific note, I was really taken with the portrayal of the oldest son’s experience of going through puberty.  I’ve never seen that feeling of being trapped within your town, your home, your family and your own body captured so vividly before, and with only minimal dialogue.  I know I keep using the word “experience” because that’s what this movie is: something that you experience and something that evokes your own experiences, with sometimes painful clarity.  I’d be interested to know if there’s anyone who didn’t find something to latch onto during the sections with the three brothers growing up; it’s specific to a time and place, but it felt universal to me in a way I think most movies aim for but not very many achieve.  The key here is that Malick finds a way to make you feel what the characters are feeling without telling you much of anything — you fill in the gaps yourself without even realizing you’re doing it.

Did I do justice to The Tree of Life?  I doubt anyone can.  But I take comfort in knowing that’s not really the point.  You go and you give yourself over to it, and afterward, hopefully you give yourself over to life just a little more.