While the Lady Gaga superbowl party raged downstairs, I was upstairs watching one of the most emotionally upsetting war films ever made…

Americans in the Vietnam war get into a battle while De Palma lowers his camera into the tunnels where someone is creeping up on Michael J. Fox, who has fallen partway through before being rescued. So the movie opens with Fox not being a huge help to his squad, and his reputation only gets worse. The men survive, but a few (movie) minutes later, Fox rescuer Erik King gets shot at a supposedly friendly village. Back at camp, Fox’s teammates (leader Sean Penn, Sean’s violent buddy Don Harvey, John C. Reilly and timid new replacement John Leguizamo) are frustrated that the whorehouse is off limits, so on the way out to their next assignment they kidnap a village girl (Thuy Thu Le) as a sex slave. After she’s raped and tortured for a couple days, they stab and shoot her during a battle atop a train trestle (during which, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a friendly-fire disaster down below) and toss her body off a cliff.

Fox has never gone along with this, trying to free the girl and once standing up armed against his men. Later as he’s recovering from a head injury back at base, he’s told “what happens in the field stays in the field” but reports his men’s actions to Lt. Ving Rhames, who says he’ll break the men into new squads and that Fox should forget it. Fox persists and finds sympathetic Sgt. Dale Dye (a Vietnam vet and the film’s technical advisor) who helps him take the men to military court, but not before Clark attempts to assassinate Fox with a latrine grenade (with some impressive first-person camera) and Fox strikes back with a shovel. The investigators find the girl’s body, each soldier is sentenced to at least eight years in prison, then back to Framing Story Fox, who still has nightmare/daydreams.

While Fox is distracted:

Such an intense and brutal movie. De Palma seems to borrow some of the obvious war stuff from Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, but the acting and filmmaking are on point, and the bitter fury comes through loud and clear. It’s not so much an anti-war movie, more about extremes of human nature, but obviously Redacted is a companion piece. Michael (not Paul) Verhoeven shot a 1970 feature called O.K. covering the same story, which caused outrage at its Berlin Film Festival premiere.

De Palma (2015, Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)

After finally catching up with Casualties (glad I waited for blu-ray) I watched the recent career-summary documentary, finding it amusing that the guy who directed the swearingest movie of the 1980’s looks like Uncle Toad and keeps saying “holy mackerel.” He’s proud that his generation of buddy filmmakers (Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola) were able to do great work inside the studio system “before the businessmen took over again.”

On Carrie remakes: “It’s wonderful to see what happens when somebody takes a piece of material and makes all the mistakes that you avoided.” He wrote the spy kid in Dressed To Kill as himself. “I used to follow my father around when he was cheating on my mother.” I finally got to see the alternate tidal-wave ending in Snake Eyes, and as suspected it’s cooler than the real ending.

B. Ebiri:

Paltrow and Baumbach don’t get fancy with the filmmaking. They’re smart enough to let De Palma’s own resonant images — his gorgeous compositions, his smooth camera moves — do much of the work. (After all, if you can’t make an awesome clip reel out of Brian De Palma films, then what good are you?)

Directing Dancing in the Dark:

A. Nayman, who does a good job discussing the doc itself, instead of using it as an excuse to talk about De Palma’s career:

De Palma’s pride at taking a potentially ordinary, corporately backed genre exercise and hotwiring it into a slick and enjoyable piece of craftsmanship seems tied to the fact that Mission: Impossible made a lot of money. Whatever their technical or artistic merits, the successes of Carrie, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible differentiates them within a body of work that’s typically been more notable — and in some corners, largely validated — on the grounds of failing to connect with audiences. For all the glee De Palma says he takes in making viewers uncomfortable, he seems to get off even more on getting big crowds into the theater in the first place.

Me, I’m using it as an excuse to talk about De Palma’s career. It’s time to rewatch them all, but I’m in the middle of a hundred other things so it’ll probably have to wait. The ones I most need to watch are Hi, Mom! and Wise Guys. And to rewatch, in order:

The Untouchables
Carlito’s Way
Mission: Impossible
Body Double
Femme Fatale
Blow Out
Raising Cain (the new edit)
Mission to Mars
Phantom of the Paradise

This completely lived up to expectations. I’ve been a big Malick fan since The Thin Red Line, and this movie showed plenty of his current style (whispered voiceovers about pained relationships as the camera pans up through the trees) while forging a whole new one, had the boldness to turn a man’s memories and inner life into a visual montage of the history of the planet Earth. It shows small moments, real and imagined, and becomes almost completely untethered to plot. It’s almost unbelievably gorgeous in the way it looks and moves through time. But all this is what I expected, from reading vague reports of the film’s genesis as Malick’s intended follow-up to Days of Heaven, to its winning the top prize at Cannes last month, to the rapturous critical acclaim it’s been receiving upon release. I expected the best, most ambitious movie of the year, by a long shot, and that’s pretty much what I got, so I’m gonna have to process it for a while.

Jack and his brothers live in a quiet Texas town with proud, hardass father Brad Pitt (representing Nature in the film’s mythology) and pure, uncritical mother Jessica Chastain (representing Grace), both of them loving in their own way. Years later, Jack is Sean Penn working at a giant, modern architecture firm, looking world-weary. He chats with dad on the phone (we don’t get to see Brad pull out the Ben Buttons old-age makeup), but Katy guesses that mom has died, maybe recently. Oh, also there’s the history of the universe and of life on earth, with CG dinosaurs. The movie scatters its narrative for so long, it’s like a two-hour trailer for a life-length feature (or perhaps just the rumored six-hour cut). It’s like nothing else, ever, not 2001: A Space Odyssey or Malick’s earlier movies or anything else it’s being compared to.

Production design by “man in the planet” Jack Fisk (all five Malick features, four by Lynch plus There Will Be Blood and Phantom of the Paradise), shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World, Sleepy Hollow, all the Alfonso Cuarón movies), music (very good, sometimes too large and overpowering) by Alexandre Desplat (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Birth) and edited by a bunch of guys (including, counterintuitively, Jarmusch’s buddy Jay Rabinowitz).

It’s not hard to find people walking about Tree of Life, but it’s surprisingly hard to find film critics as unhesitatingly impressed by it as I was. Suppose they’re doing their job, hesitating to fully recommend the most narratively unhinged major film of the year. I haven’t been recommending it around much myself. P. Bradshaw in The Guardian calls it “a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy.” The movie has no built-in defense against people who snicker at the cartoon dinosaurs and the whispered voiceovers and the biblical metaphors. It takes itself very seriously and demands that you do the same, or the whole thing could fall apart.

EDIT 2021: I watched this again – the extended version – and the only notes I took were:

– I don’t remember the abusive mustache neighbor
– too much high-pantsed brad pitt looking disappointed in this version

But at the time of viewing, I felt the full glory and splendor of the Malick, which is what I needed. I’ll revisit this post again when I get to the blu extras.

Anthology film, with segments listed in decreasing order of greatness.

A schoolteacher, an Afghan refugee in Iran with no equipment or facilities, tries to convey the 9/11 attacks to children whose world doesn’t extend far beyond the local well. By Samira Makhmalbaf (At Five in the Afternoon)

“Bin Laden, come back, please. We all need you here.” Idrissa Ouedraogo, director of Tilai, turns in an unlikely comedy. A kid has to drop out of school to support his mother, thinks he spots Osama Bin Laden, so he and his friends set out to capture him for the reward money. Osama gets away, the kids pleading for him to return so they can get paid. Kind of hilarious and awesome.

Mira Nair, following up Monsoon Wedding (and working with the same writer), recounts a based-on-true story of a woman whose son goes missing on Sept 11, is accused by the authorities of being a terrorist before he’s discovered to have been trying to help. The mother (Tanvi Azmi, I think) is excellent in this. When first questioned by the FBI, she points to her son’s posters, saying he’s American, he loves Star Wars, but she doesn’t say it defensively, just as a mother delightedly telling someone about her son. The final shot in this segment is my favorite of the whole anthology.

Ken Loach, between Sweet Sixteen and Tickets, takes a completely anti-sympathetic approach, choosing to discuss the American-backed Sept. 11, 1973 coup that killed Salvador Allende, including footage from The Battle of Chile. There was probably a time I would’ve considered this tacky, but now I’m thinking “good for you, Ken Loach.”

Sean Penn, recently off The Pledge (and I Am Sam, shhh), shoots an Ernest Borgnine one-man show in a grubby apartment in the shadow of the towers. Ernest putters around, laying out clothes for his absent wife, talking constantly, in his own crazy world, tending to a pot of dead flowers. Tower 1 goes down and sunlight flows through Ernie’s window for the first time in decades, bringing the flowers magically to life but waking him up to the reality that his wife is gone. Weird, sad one… I liked it better than Katy did.

The final film of Shohei Imamura (The Eel, Vengeance Is Mine), with writer Daisuke Tengan (Audition, The Most Terrible Time In My Life), and if Shohei were alive he’d have some explaining to do. A man returns from the holy war (WWII) a spaced-out wreck, thinking he’s a snake (Katy did not appreciate the scene in which he swallowed a rat). Closes with the line “There is no such thing as a holy war.” Very odd way to end the anthology… still not sure what I think of it, though Mr. Grunes has named it one of his ten faves of the decade.

Claude Lelouch (Roman de gare) directs an offbeat story of a French tour guide for the deaf in NYC. His girlfriend is writing him a note saying she’ll leave him unless there’s a miracle, then he comes home covered in dust. I liked it better the second time through.

In 2002 director Danis Tanovic was high off his oscar-win for No Man’s Land. Since then, he’s adapted a Kieslowski script (Hell) and made one with Colin Farrell and Christopher Lee that played in Toronto. Women are going out for their weekly protest of something (local war/genocide) when 9/11 hits. They don’t know what to do, go protest anyway. Lightweight.

None of my Amos Gitai experiences have been happy ones. Starts with a guy disarming or examining a bomb after another explosion has already killed a few people, then the news team covering the event is told they’re not on the air because of coverage of 9/11. Gitai could be saying local problems feel humble compared to the scope of the 9/11 attacks, or maybe that America is hogging the spotlight away from his country’s problems, or possibly that it’s all Palestine’s fault.

Youssef Chahine seems like a humorless Elia Suleiman, not that I know more about either of them than their Chacun son cinema segments. Here, Chahine pulls the same trick as in that anthology, a piece where I think he’s full of himself, then I think maybe he’s joking and it’s modesty in disguise, but no, he is just full of himself. Someone said “Youssef, write a September 11th movie” and he scribbled down every thought that came to mind then filmed them in that order.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, between the great Amores Perros and the not-great 21 Grams, shot ten minutes of black punctuated occasionally by shots of people falling from the towers and closing with this quote.

So I’m with you here… Cassavetes was a great man who made great films. This doc is so convincing, in fact, that I want to give two movies I disliked some years ago (Chinese Bookie and Shadows) another shot. And there’s good footage: film clips, interviews with cast and crew, and behind-the-scenes stuff. And I understand if you’ve got that much good stuff you want to use it. But three and a half hours of pure Cassavetes love is an awful lot to take!

Good to see the actors from Faces thirty years later. Good to see Peter Falk… every story he tells is golden. And of course, good to see my favorite actress Gena Rowlands.


“In this country, people die at 21. They die emotionally at 21, maybe even younger now. For those of us who are lucky not to die at 20, we keep on going, and my responsibility as an artist is to help people get over 21. The films are a roadmap through emotional and intellectual terrains that provide a solution to how one can save pain. As people, we know that we are petty, vicious, violent and horrible, but my films make an effort to contain the depression within us and to limit the depression to those areas that we can actually solve. The resolution of the films is the assertion of a human spirit.”

Very enticing trailers have been advertising this film “from the director of Good Will Hunting,” and I have been anxiously looking forward to it and hoping that’s not true. The visionary director of Paranoid Park or My Own Private Idaho would be ideal, but as long as we didn’t get the bored, paycheck-cashing director of Finding Forrester, I was willing to settle for the director of Good Will Hunting, a movie with good story and acting but no artistic merit that I can recall. Fortunately, he injects more ambition into the mix for Milk, enough to make it a pretty damned good movie… for a bio-pic.

Dustin Black, staff writer on Katy’s Big Love, does a good job, don’t get me wrong, but everyone seems pretty well simplified. There’s only time to hit all the major points of Milk’s political career – his decision to take charge of his life, his camera shop, first boyfriend, bunch of failed campaigns, main collaborators, community-building, exercise of political power, second boyfriend, election as supervisor, passing of anti-discrimination bill, boyfriend’s suicide, assassination. That’s a lot to cover in two hours. Movie covers it all well, neatly packages Milk’s life into an oscar-ready event.

J. Rosenbaum, out of context: “Milk addresses a mindset I would associate with campaign agitprop mode, a mindset that forsakes nuanced and complex analysis for the sake of immediate uplift.” But oh, the uplift! D. Ehrenstein examines the uplift: “As someone who has spent the better part of his life involved in gay activism, to say that I found Milk moving is an understatement. Genuinely political Hollywood films are rare; gay-activist Hollywood films are nonexistent. Milk is both. It’s also a film whose emotions and ideas speak directly to every audience, regardless of political commitment or sexual orientation.” Moving is right – I felt moved. Movie moved Katy in another direction, unaccountably making her depressed. So she wasn’t as pleased as I was, but I didn’t love Slumlord Millionaire as much as she, so now we’re even.

– Mr. Milk: Sean Penn, a favorite target of Bloom County in the 80’s, first I’ve seen of his acting since Mystic River, justifiably acclaimed.
– Enthusiastic campaign kid: Emile Hirsch of Into The Wild. He was mostly alone in that one so I didn’t realize he’s the size of a hobbit.
– Milk’s low-key first boyfriend: Spider-Man bad-guy James Franco
– High-drama Boyfriend #2: Diego Luna, star of Criminal and Y Tu Mama Tambien, also appeared with Penn in another gay biopic, Before Night Falls.
– Milk’s Christian coworker and eventual killer: Josh Brolin of No Country.
– The Mayor of Town: Victor Garber (whatshername’s dad in Alias).
– The Only Woman In The Movie: campaign manager Alison Pill was in Dan In Real Life (which I keep thinking I’ve seen, but no, that was Lars and the Real Girl)

Music by Danny Elfman doesn’t draw attention to itself. Cinematography by Harris Savides (Zodiac, Elephant) does – it’s lovely.

Dude who looks an awful lot like Leo Dicaprio and will soon star in Speed Racer plays Chris, who abandons his rich dysfunctional family (Marcia Gay Harden: Tim Robbins’ wife in Mystic River, William Hurt: the killer brother in A History of Violence, Jena Malone: Donnie Darko‘s girlfriend) and heads into the wild. Along the way he makes himself a new family, two hippie parents (some dude and Catherine Keener), grandfather Hal Holbrook (star of Creepshow: The Crate), and a sister (the girl from Panic Room). Then he lets them all down by failing to eat properly out in the Alaskan wilderness.

An emotional movie, full of warmth and humanity, but not enough of either for our main character who leaves it all behind to pursue his Alaskan dream. According to the movie/diary he hoped/intended to return before he was sidelined by an impassible river and some poisonous veggies.

Movie walks the line between putting Chris forth as a hero, a role model, a visionary who got a few details wrong vs. a deluded kid whose family drove him to self-destruction, maybe slanted towards the latter. Some quick editing, lots of askew close-ups, foreground in a corner of the frame with something blurry happening in the large looming distance. A strange, interesting look to the movie with artistic intentions to be sure. An ambitious picture, almost all successful. I liked it a lot, but I have to say Grizzly Man still has the edge.

ADDENDUM: thanks to the Golden Globe award nominations, I am now remembering to mention that the Eddie Vedder songs were distracting.

My new hero Nathan Lee of Slate on this movie:

I immediately and powerfully sympathized with the questing hero — I, too, am a privileged young man undergoing an existential crisis! — but as his quest went on (and on and on and on and on), I found myself less and less invested. The trajectory of the movie proved emotionally frustrating but ethically acute: My gradual alienation from the “hero,” our ostensible audience surrogate, was replaced by empathy with all those marvelous supporting characters he encounters on his journey, a set of alternative families he briefly joins then abandons. Into the Wild is a conventional treatment of the same theme contemplated through kaleidoscope in I’m Not There. Both movies celebrate the thrill of personal reinvention while simultaneously attending to the spiritual toll of perpetual escape. Neither film is hagiographic; neither odyssey ends up feeling very heroic. If I’m Not There packed the greater wallop for me, it’s probably because I connect on a deeper intellectual and emotional level to Haynes’ mega-meta technique than Penn’s nostalgic naturalism.