Reviews: The Tree, Cowboys & Aliens, The Guard, Another Earth

The Tree's vast roots and branches threaten the ramshackle home, yet provide coolness and refuge.
  • The Tree's vast roots and branches threaten the ramshackle home, yet provide coolness and refuge.


The Tree

Sometimes a “small” film eclipses a big one that wins the limelight. As a life statement, The Tree of Life implodes from its cosmic Texan gas. Far more modestly, The Tree sends out shoots of life and is never sappy.

The second film from France’s Julie Bertuccelli stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, still youthful at 40 (as of July 21). This movie is her (and our) compensation for 2009’s excruciating Antichrist, a Big Statement bore like The Tree of Life. In The Tree, Gainsbourg plays Dawn, whose husband dies near the huge Moreton Bay fig tree near their house outside Brisbane, Australia.

The grand growth should seem morbidly hexed, but the only daughter, Simone, eight, feels that her father is still living in it. Talk about psychic transfer and childish projection all you want, but Bertuccelli and cinematographer Nigel Bluck make that tree the center of a film and a world. Its vast roots and branches threaten the ramshackle home, yet they also provide a canopy of coolness and a refuge to hide and dream in.

Simone’s brothers are skeptical, and the story is essentially a feminist poem. Bugs and bats and a storm add to the fluent, often whispery moods that filter from the grand tree through the people, mostly the girl and woman. There is an aura of Aussie pantheism, in what must be the most richly Australian film made by an outsider since Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout in 1971 (or even Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners in 1960).

There is sensual magic, not just tree-hugger whimsy, in this adaptation of Judy Pascoe’s novel Our Father Who Art in a Tree. The fig tree and the old house are characters, and the excellent Gainsbourg and Morgana Davies (Simone) send tendrils of emotion into the tree, the sky, the landscape, and our fascination. (Opens August 12 at the Ken Cinema.)

★★★★


Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys and Aliens is less a Western than a double funeral, for both the Western and sci-fi genres.

Cowboys and Aliens is less a Western than a double funeral, for both the Western and sci-fi genres.

Seven or eight writers scribbled Cowboys & Aliens, and director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Elf) sank to their pitiful level. At one point, he cuts away from a man squatting to defecate into a river to a shot of a man in jail finishing a pee. Such summer showmanship required the executive oversight of producers Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg.

As Jake, a bold desperado in the 1870s, Daniel Craig makes a strong Westerner. He is like a buff, Bond-ish merger of Richard Widmark and Clint Eastwood. But this is less a Western than a double funeral, for both the Western and the sci-fi invasion genre. They fall into the same hole, dying for shame.

That writing committee relied on frequent bursts of grim violence as Jake leads Old West citizens, Apaches, and outlaws against space creatures who “don’t see well in daylight” but came billions of miles for (of course!) gold. By the miracle of such plotting, Jake has an alien ray-gun as his equalizer, strapped to his wrist. It is like the world’s most phallic bracelet.

Jake is backed by a mysterious beauty, Ella (Olivia Wilde). Slain by the alien (very Alien) monsters, Ella returns to life, emerging naked from a blazing campfire before the gawking rubes (someone, please, suture this digitally to the fabled bean-farting scene in Blazing Saddles). She advises Jake, “You have to stop thinking.” That must have been the writers’ mantra when they scripted a sacrificial preacher, a comically inept Mexican, a boy and his dog, a hummingbird who inspires Jake’s erotic flashback, a wry storekeeper (Sam Rockwell), a sneering weasel (Paul Dano), a generic sheriff (Keith Carradine), and a pompous cattle baron (Harrison Ford).

Ah, Ford — the smoking brand on this cow butt. So grizzled and gnarly that he makes Jeff Bridges in True Grit seem a demure debutante, Ford gargles dialogue as if trying to swallow his dentures. In a tender moment, he informs the boy that he learned to “be a man” by slitting a guy’s throat. And then, with a crazy-coot glint, he gives the kid his knife. Ford also has the story’s sanest line: “Well, that’s just ridiculous.”


The Guard

Hiring infallible actors is a virtue, especially if they are Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle. Let them soak their thespian bread in the gravy of a sharp, funny script called The Guard. Use the west coast of Ireland for Gaelic flavoring. And reveal a rustic but hip addiction to American films, TV, and music. A tough little squirt talks about major American crimes, and a cop’s showdown with a psycho grooves to a Chet Baker recording.

The cop is Sergeant Gerry Boyle, rural but no hick. Gleeson’s tastiest job of scene-stealing since The General (1998), this brash slob enjoys whores, runs guns for cash, beats up correct procedure on a daily basis, and is vaguely bothered by Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.” Facing a black FBI agent (Cheadle), he cheerfully admits that “racism is part of me culture.” The offended American soon understands that Boyle is his best hope to nag some drug hoodlums, although the plot, marinating in its locations and characters, receives a Mitchum-esque shrug of blithe disposal.

The Guard was directed by writer John Michael McDonagh, whose brother Martin created the cultish In Bruges about tough guys stuck in deep, exotic Belgium. That weird-out has tighter netting and wilder surprises (also Gleeson). But this film is more consistently entertaining. Its sporty lineage runs back through the Coen brothers and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to vintage jokers like Gumshoe and Beat the Devil and The Big Steal. It could also be a very bright TV pilot. Though derivative, it delivers.

★★★


Another Earth

Two planets and two genres intersect in Another Earth. The planets are Earth and its mirror sibling, Earth Two, a deep-space voyager that comes close enough to dwarf the moon (the physics of this is, well, not Newtonian). The genres are the tragic soaper and the emotionally conceived sci-fi film, and holding them together is young star Brit Marling.

Marling cowrote with Mike Cahill, who directed, produced, edited, and photographed on a very trim budget. The result is like a film that M. Night Shyamalan let slip away in a fit of doubt. Marling’s Rhoda is bright and ripe for M.I.T., but a moment of star-gazing leads to a crash, leaving a man in a coma. The best therapy (after time in prison) is guilty Rhoda. Her house-cleaning chores become a metaphor for rehabilitation, as the strange twin planet keeps coming closer.

Beautifully designed by Darsi Monaco, the movie seems caught up in something mysteriously grander than personal problems. Some tonal washes of yellow or ashen-blue texture the ripening overlap of Rhoda and the recovering man (William Mapother). The actors bask in a mutual twilight zone and carry the story past its small conceptual holes, into a delicate and surreal intimacy.

★★★


Newsreel: He was one of the past century’s best showmen, yet few knew it. Bruce Trinz came back from the Second World War, entered his family’s theater-chain business, and turned Chicago’s Clark Theater into a movie Mecca. Showing two pictures of all sorts on a bill that changed daily, the Clark was open 22 hours a day and became a cross-sectional profile of the city. I ushered there, and when the Clark’s glory ended in 1969, Trinz became a film booker in New York and Philadelphia.

I never had a better boss than Bruce Trinz, who died at 93 on July 7. His memoir remained unfinished, maybe because his movie love was so unpretentious. The Trinz grin was terrific, and his sly humor pervaded a monthly program for which he wrote, on each movie, a rhymed couplet. Maybe you can guess which movie inspired this one: A grim human bomb/ Who worshipped his Mom! (Yep, Cagney’s White Heat.) Here is mine for Bruce: He made art such fun/ And had a great run!

Reviewed in the listings: The Change-Up; Life, Above All; Life in a Day; and The Smurfs.

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