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A Woman, a Part mixes passion and ambivalence to create a work whose ambiguities seem earned, and lived in

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Did Sean Penn really pee on The Tree of Life?

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You've probably read that Sean Penn, in an interview with Le Figaro, said this about working with Terrence Malick on "The Tree of Life": "I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read. 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."

What you probably didn't read was what else he said, which was translated and posted as a comment by Guy Lodge in response to an article at InContention.com headlined "Sean Penn bitch-slaps 'Tree of Life'": "But it's a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It's up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved." (InContention.com followed up with "Penn on Malick, part deux.")

Back in May, the great production designer Jack Fisk, who has known Malick for many years, told Dennis Lim in the New York Times: "I was shocked by how personal the story was when I first read it. But when I watched the film I just think how universal it is." Or, as Richard Brody, who writes "The Front Row" for The New Yorker, aptly quotes Fritz Lang in Godard's "Contempt": "In the script it is written, and on the screen it's pictures."

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Our Father: The Tree of Life

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Let's start with the big picture: As near as I can divine, Terrence Malick's movie "The Tree of Life" is about itself, and that statement probably sounds as confounding and imposing as viewers will find the experience (as a whole or in part) of watching it. What I mean (if I can take another flying leap at it) is that the movie expresses the drive behind its creation, somewhat like the way that "Days of Heaven" embodies the peeling and unfurling process of its own making... but, OK, not exactly. This is a movie about (and by) a guy who wants to create the universe around his own existence in an attempt to locate and/or stake out his place within it.

In other words, it's not a modest motion picture. The ambition on display here is Tarkovskian¹ or Kubrickian in scale: think "Solaris," "Stalker," "The Sacrifice," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Barry Lyndon" -- journeys to the far reaches of space and time that are also explorations of worlds within: memories, desires, fantasies, the exercise of will and intelligence. What it comes down to, then, is that "The Tree of Life" is the story of one family (and one filmmaker) projected infinitely outward in all dimensions. (3D is so trifling, comparatively.)

The multiple narrators whispering in our ears are sometimes (but not always) identifiable as members of the O'Brien family, with the strongest voice being that of Jack (Hunter McCracken), eldest of three sons of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). Jack is also played as an adult by Sean Penn. The family's story isn't told chronologically, but covers umpteen billion years, give or take, from the origin of the universe to the dissolution of our solar system, with most of the action taking place in Waco, Texas, in 1956 or thereabouts, when Jack is around 11. (I got some of those factoids from the press notes, some from other published material about the film. Consider them guideposts. They may or may not be literally true, and Malick isn't particularly interested in nailing down these kinds of specifics within the film itself -- including the names of all the O'Briens, some of which can be found only in the end credits. But it helps to have a few solid points of reference on hand when discussing the movie.)

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LAFCA: There Will Be... more 2007 critics awards

Dillon Freasier (great!) and Daniel Day Lewis (... BIG!) in "There Will Be Blood."

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (my former homies) have announced their collective choices for best achievements of 2007 and... well, for now, I'll just say that I doubt most of them would even be on my short list of runners-up for this year. (I haven't seen "Sweeney Todd" or "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" yet, though.) I'm glad that some honorees are getting recognition: Milestone Films, Sarah Polley, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (from "Once": music as dialog/acting), Jack Fisk (to whom I will always be grateful for, among other things, the prom in "Carrie," the house in "Days of Heaven," and pulling the lever in "Eraserhead" -- yes, that was him), "Persepolis" and "Ratatouille" (tied for best animated feature), Vlad Ivanov (for negotiating the trickiest of roles) and a few others. But I know how misleading these group-ballot things can be. LAFCA's list does leave the impression that they felt "Blood" (and, perhaps, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") tower the rest of the year's releases. I wonder if that's really the overwhelming majority opinion, or if it's another case of second- or third-choice consensus carrying the day. Too many of these seem like Academy-style picks to me (Most Noticeable Acting, Most Obvious/Intrusive Score, etc.). More about that later on in the month...

UPDATE (12/10/07): LAFCA member Robert Koelher writes to Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere: "I've cited to both Anne Thompson and David Poland the various fictions they've written about re. LAFCA's awards, namely that our pick for 'TWBB' had to do with going against National Board of Review (Anne) or the Academy (David). And now you say we were generally flying the contrarian flag. [...]

"By a wide margin, LAFCA felt... that 'There Will Be Blood' was the best American film of the year. That's all. No chess work, no calculations, no triangulation -- nothing but a matter of taste based on seeing more movies over the year than anybody else.

"And Jeff, the group judgement was based -- with perhaps no exceptions, since there was simply no time for most or all of us to view it more than once -- on a single viewing of 'TWBB.' It's a great movie on the first viewing."

[NOTE: In my post I did not surmise that LAFCA was intentionally striking any groupthink contrarian pose. I know from experience that it doesn't really work that way -- and, besides, LAFCA is the first crix group to vote, so what's to react against? But I wondered about the margin of victory, a legitimate question regarding the results of any balloting or committee decision-making procedure -- including the Oscars. Koehler's letter helps clarify that. I'm glad to know I disagree with some genuine majority sentiments rather than some statistical flukes. I disagreed with some choices when I was a member of the group, too -- and I don't know anyone who didn't, from time to time. It's a group of critics, you know....]

The LAFCA 2007 awards:

PICTURE: "There Will Be Blood" RUNNER-UP: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood" RUNNER-UP: Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood" RUNNER-UP: Frank Langella, "Starting Out in the Evening"

ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en rose" RUNNER-UP: Anamaria Marinca, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Vlad Ivanov, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" RUNNER-UP: Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone" and "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead" RUNNER-UP: Cate Blanchett, "I’m Not There"

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