Summer Movies

Amid the sequels and the franchise builders, Terrence Malick delivers The Tree of Life, a summer movie worth thinking about all year long
TIME TRAVELER: Brad Pitt goes back in time in search of his lost brother and his lost innocence in ÔThe Tree of Life."

WILL THE live-action film of The Smurfs (July 29) resolve at long last the burning question: Are the Smurfs live-bearing or egg-laying creatures? The little blue buggers are essential to 2011's load of familiar franchise builders, sequels and comic-book adaptations. Luckily, there is one masterpiece this summer.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (mid-June) is already causing some nice scrapping on the Internet, since its long-awaited debut at Cannes, where it won the top prize even though we've heard that some audience members booed the film, but no one can explain why that really matters.

The Tree of Life is too big not to stir up some rich red hate. I've noticed that no one has described it yet as the baby-boomer version of the Suicide Parlor movie that screens in Soylent Green. In its raptures, The Tree of Life is the perfect movie to show as the hostess settles the departing ones on the couch and prepares their IV: goodbye, demographic overlords, navel gazers, lotus eaters—farewell, baby boomers.

See, I'm trying to be as generous as this matchless film. I understand that viewers who share Eric Cartman's opinion of transcendentalism will reject The Tree of Life utterly. The pedants who worry what the hell a dinosaur and the Horsehead Nebula are doing together in a story of a family of Texans can have their fun—as long as they pretend they didn't listen to the film's narration.

This profoundly spiritual, yet remarkably pagan film speaks of the desire to have the Eye of the Eternal. It longs to witness the doors of perception open all the way, to see time and space. What is cinema, if not that chance to unlock those doors?

The Tree of Life is about a person of today (Sean Penn, imprisoned in steel and glass) drawn back into his childhood, in hopes of rescuing his brother's spirit. The easy way to re-create the past is to tap into the electronic bubble of TV and radio. Every hack does it. Malick (Badlands, The New World) refuses this path. Instead, he contemplates classical music or listening to the sounds of another green world, the world of the 1950s.

He captures a small-town past through the way it looks: the softness of the evenings, the quietness and wideness of the streets, the vastness of the trees, the whip-fast betrayals and changes of emotions in a child. Throughout, this lost world is suffused with a sense of complete safety that no child of 2011 will ever know.

The tension in the film comes from the opposition between the parents. The father is rigid with strictness and seething disappointment. The mother (Jessica Chastain) has the kind of limpid gentleness you rarely see outside of a silent movie. Malick uses the word "Grace" to describe what this mother has, and that word sums Chastain's performance. These two parents pull the children between them, gently but with tidal force. It's a war indicated not through loud argument but through looks and signs and quiet capitulation. This impressionist director remembers the terrible respect those raging fathers of the last century demanded. And as one such father, Brad Pitt gives the performance of his life.

Nostalgia is an enemy of human progress. Even Woody Allen's nicely appointed but essentially lame new chrononaut comedy, Midnight in Paris (May 27), finds the director confronting his own career-long worship of the past. And good for him. (I like the way the hypochondriac director's latest glove puppet, Owen Wilson, explains how he isn't sure he could live in the 1920s, before the invention of antibiotics.)

I loved Tree of Life like I haven't loved any film in a long time, but it's not because I want to go back to the Ike years. One of the ideas from the film is how harsh it is for a child to learn the lesson "You must share." It's very bitter, that lesson; you never really get over it.

So if older people look backward, it's to a world that didn't have to be shared with the several billion souls that came around since 1950. My fondness for the past is merely a fondness for a time when there weren't always 25 people standing between me and my lunch. It's really just that simple and just that greedy.

x-men 'X-Men: First Class,' staring James McAvoy opens June 3. Photograph by Murray Close

I'm expecting those milling crowds in my way for the summer's sequels. Well, well, X-Men: First Class (June 3) turns out to be more '60s nostalgia, this time with the ever-fascinating Magneto/professor Xavier conflict carried out at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bring it on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2 (July 15) wraps up the series, which was percolating before some of its youngest fans were born. And one always wants to see what Pixar does, even if it's the follow-up to the studio's least-interesting movie by far: Cars 2 (June 24).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Aug. 5) explains how super-intelligent apes from San Francisco prepare to take over the world: bio-tech monkeyshines. This premise is perhaps more satisfying than the way it was explained in the 1970s, an explanation which went like so: "Two future apes came in a space ship through a time warp, and they were carrying a virus that killed all the dogs and cats, and as a result everyone needed something to cuddle, so the whole world got pet chimps, and when the chimps were too ugly to squeeze, the citizens of the future decided to brutally enslaved them, and things went south from there." This condensation of the plots of a few of the Planet of the Apes movies may have holes in it; perhaps so did the films. Andy Serkis, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, plays the liberationist chimp Caesar.

As for Hesher (May 27): You loved the "healing ethnic"; observe now the "healing wastrel." Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the best actors around, is the weasel of the title who helps himself to a family's garage. Oddly, he also helps his newly widowed host (Rainn Wilson) to regain the sweetness of life.

The Spielberg/J.J. Abrams sci-fi film Super 8 (June 10) is under wraps, but it seems to involve a fiery train wreck—and whatever it was that was on-board the train that gets loose—captured Zapruder-style by a trio of Ohio kids of 1979 with a Super 8 camera I was happier before I saw what "Clover" from Cloverfield looked like, so I can wait for more details.

Ryan Reynolds stars as the Emerald Warrior of the D.C. Comics in Green Lantern (June 17). Better than arguing over whether Smurfs are oviparous or not is whether the Lantern was indeed the most potentially powerful of all of the Justice League of America—the one who could wish anything he wanted into form.

In the World War II of Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22), an undersized weakling is mutated to become a super-soldier: his mission to find the ultra-Nazi the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, in a seriously impressive mask). Director Joe Johnston is an underrated member of the Lucas/Spielberg axis, whose Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids have held up nicely, and the looseness and wit of the recent Marvels, in addition to the brio of the previews, make this one look promising.

Larry Crowne (July 1) brings us Tom Hanks' return to gumpdom as a broke and laid-off Joe Average who takes a public-speaking class at community college and finds himself charmed by the depressed teacher (Julia Roberts), who drinks her lunch.

Let's suspect that Bad Teacher (June 24) will be a little less warm and fuzzy, keeping up the fine cinematic tradition of Bad Lieutenant and Bad Santa. Jake Kasdan's first film since the uproarious Walk Hard stars Cameron Diaz; she plays a poisonous pedagogue looking for the money for a breast job.

Good news: Bad Teacher co-stars Lucy Punch, very fine at playing vacant blondes, who practically performed mouth-to-mouth on Woody Allen's suffocating You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

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