FILM OF THE WEEK
The Victorian critic Walter Pater said that all art aspires to the condition of music, which communicates without requiring much in the way of conscious thought. In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick relies on images to invoke emotions, although he also leans heavily on a mostly classical soundtrack. It’s a film of few words, many of them indecipherable whisperings and murmurings.
The film has several strands. The most prominent is a recollection of family life in Texas in the baby boom 1950s. Brad Pitt plays a frustrated musician working in industry, who unloads his despair on his three sons and their loving, etherial mother, played by Jessica Chastain. The family live God-fearing lives in a small town, embedded in sky, water and lush vegetation. The oldest son, Jack, kicks back against his father. The next brother dies in childhood.
In the film’s second strand, we see Jack as an adult, played by Sean Penn. An architect, lost in world of alienating glass and concrete, he retreats into memories and visions of childhood, death and the afterlife.
Meanwhile, in what in outline sounds as naively pretentious as a school project, Malick weaves in extraordinary sequences of the formation of our solar system and the creation of life, from single-celled organisms to the dinosaurs. These were assembled by Douglas Turnbull, who did the special effects for Kubrick’s 2001.
It takes patience, but Malick’s film makes an indelible impression, thanks not only to the grandeur of its recreation of the natural world but to the grounding effect of the 1950s passages. The Tree of Life is best seen as a visual poem, or a religious meditation, on the themes set out in Chastain’s brief introductory narration: nature – including human nature – and grace. It can be seen on Sunday (18/4) at 15:20 on Sony Movies.
On Tuesday (20/4) at 00:55, Film4 has Happy as Lazzaro (2018). We showed this in 2019/20 to a mixed reception, but I think it’s a flawed masterpiece. Stephen, I recall, is not so keen. In contemporary Italy, a group of peasants are kept as virtual slaves on a tobacco estate. Then they are released into urban society and things get worse. So far, so conventional. But the film’s uniqueness lies with Lazzaro, an innocent young man who becomes a kind of divine presence after an accident.
On Wednesday (21/4) at 23:50, Film4 has Snowpiercer (2013). The first English-language film by Bong Joon-Ho, who subsequently made the all-conquering Parasite. Survivors of environmental catastrophe live aboard a fast-moving train, ruthlessly divided on class lines. With a starry cast including Chris Evans, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Jamie Bell and a ferocious Tilda Swinton, it is inventive, pacy and violent in true Korean style.
On Saturday (17/4) at 18:45, Talking Pictures has Heaven Can Wait (1943) (also on Monday at 15:00). An ageing Casanova presents himself at the gates of Hell and tells the story of his love life to prove he belongs there. Starring Don Ameche and Gene Tierney and directed by the peerless Ernst Lubitsch. Score by Randy Newman’s Uncle Alfred. At 23:40, ITV4 has Black Hawk Down (2001) (also on Tuesday at 23:25). Ridley Scott’s dynamic account of American special forces plucking a modest victory from disastrous defeat in the Battle of Mogadishu (1993).
On Sunday (18/4) at 13:50, ITV has Babe (1995). Charming anthropomorphic fare, with West Country author Dick King-Smith’s sheep-herding pig given eloquent and amusing voice. Star James Cromwell subsequently became a vegetarian. At 13:55, ITV4 has Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Robert Redford stars as a mountain man undergoing various trials deep in Injun Country. Director Sydney Pollack mortgaged his home so the film could be shot in Utah rather than on the Warner Bros backlot.
On Friday (23/4) at 13:20, Talking Pictures has Young and Innocent (1937). Pre-Hollywood Hitchcock thriller about a man on the run after being wrongly accused of murder. Its stars, Nova Pilbeam and Derrick de Marney, won’t ring many bells but the director’s characteristic blend of suspense and humour is already apparent.
Other modern films of interest
On Saturday (17/4) at 22:10, BBC2 has Burton and Taylor (2013), an absorbing biopic of the Hollywood nightmare couple, with Dominic West and Helena Bonham-Carter. The costume department toned down Liz Taylor’s clothes and jewellery for the film because they looked so over the top. At 23:45, Channel 4 has Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). Second of the rebooted simian sci-fi series. With Britain’s Andy Serkis as lead chimp.
On Sunday (18/4) at 16:35, Film4 has Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) Meticulously art-directed version of the first three of the gothic black comedy novels.
On Wednesday (21/4) at 01:50, Film4 has Leaning Into The Wind (2017), a windswept documentary with and about the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, who builds and exhibits his works in the wild.
On Thursday (22/4) at 23:55, BBC4 has A German Life: Goebbels’ Secretary Remembers (2016). Outstanding documentary built around on a long interview with Brunhilde Pomsel, then over 100, in which she recalled her years as the Nazi propoganda minister’s stenographer and the aftermath. Revealing and important.
On Saturday (17/4) at 15:55, Talking Pictures has House of Bamboo (1955) (also on Tuesday at 15:55). Unusual Sam Fuller noir, set amongst Americans in Japan and shot in spectacular DeLuxe Color and Cinemascope. Hard-boiled mob dialogue, tatami mats and romance with an unlikely geisha girl. At 21:00, the same channel has The Nanny (1965). A Hammer psychological thriller with a British-accented Bette Davis in the title role and Wendy Craig as a mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Tense and effective. At 21:00, ITV4 has Heartbreak Ridge (1986) (also on Wednesday at 22:35). Clint Eastwood directs and stars as an ancient war hero sent to sort out an inadequate Marine unit in 1983. File under M for Machismo.
On Tuesday (20/4) at 21:00, Film4 has The Abyss (1989). James Cameron, director of Aliens (1986) finds a few more, this time underwater. With Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
On Wednesday (21/4) at 21:00, Film4 has Independence Day (1996). Entertaining sci-fi nonsense with rising star Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum saving the world, or at least the parts Hollywood cares about. At 23:05, Paramount has Man of the West (1958) with Gary Cooper. Jean Luc-Godard called this Western “the most intelligent of films, and at the same time the most simple”.
On Thursday (22/4) at 06:20, Talking Pictures has Man of Aran (1934). Early pseudo-documentary portrait of the harsh life of fishermen on the Aran Islands of Ireland. Expensive and time-consuming to shoot, it marries constructed scenes with remarkable actuality footage. Acclaimed by the Irish Free State government and, weirdly, Nazi critics, for its idealisation of rural poverty. At 11:00, Film4 has Hell Is for Heroes (1962). Steve McQueen leads a tiny squad of GIs defending a stretch of the Siegfried Line during WWII. Apparently based on a real incident. The cast includes the singer Bobby Darin and the comedian Bob Newhart. At 21:00, Horror Channel has The Frighteners (1996). Five years before Lord of the Rings launched him into the stratosphere, Peter Jackson made this comedy horror with Michael J. Fox as a man who befriends a lot of ghosts until one turns nasty on him. At 23:50, Film4 has Escape from New York (1981), John Carpenter’s dystopian adventure, with Kurt Russell sent to rescue the president from Manhattan, which in the distant future (1997!) has been turned into a giant prison.
On Friday (24/4) at 01:50, Film4 has An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1982). An adaptation of the P.D.James detective novel, with Billie Whitelaw as investigator Cordelia Gray. The film Chris Petit made after the cult British road movie Radio On (1979).