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Review: The Tree of Life, Fire in Babylon, The Bang Bang Club, Jane Eyre, Steam of Life, The Change-Up

By September 19, 2011No Comments

The Tree of Life posterIt’s the fifth anniversary of my first column for this paper – my, how time flies. Five years of search­ing – usu­ally in vain – for some tran­scend­ence among the many flick­er­ing images in dozens of darkened rooms. And then, as if by magic, tran­scend­ence appears.

It has taken a few weeks – and a second view­ing – to prop­erly pro­cess Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Often baff­ling, frus­trat­ing, unhelp­ful, yet emo­tion­al and evoc­at­ive in ways I couldn’t put my fin­ger on, I wrestled with it through­out the two and a half hour run­ning time – search­ing for answers and mean­ing among the beau­ti­ful images, float­ing, soar­ing camer­work and weird diver­sions into cos­mo­logy and vulcanology.

Near the end I real­ised that I was doing it wrong. The Tree of Life isn’t a puzzle to be worked out – it’s a deeply per­son­al hymn to the uni­verse and to our unique place with­in it. It took a second view­ing – one where I allowed myself to feel rather than think my way through it – before I could truly appre­ci­ate the won­der of Malick’s vis­ion: grace and nature, the sac­red and pro­fane, the glor­i­ous and the banal are all equally cos­mic and all equally pre­cious. The Tree of Life will reward you more the less effort you put in.

Fire in Babylon posterFriends will know that I occa­sion­ally com­pare Test crick­et to Shakespeare (in this ana­logy One-day crick­et is Chekov and T20 is more like Everybody Loves Raymond, but I digress). If I’m right then that peri­od dur­ing the late 70s and early 80s – when the West Indies used their pun­ish­ing bat­tery of fast bowl­ers to force the rest of the game into a feeble sub­mis­sion – must have been Titus Andronicus. Talk about blood, boy!

The doc­u­ment­ary Fire in Babylon, fresh from the Festival, makes an expli­cit and fas­cin­at­ing link between the explo­sion of West Indian power on the crick­et field and the exchange of colo­ni­al­ism for inde­pend­ence. With the assist­ance of a reg­gae soundtrack – the oth­er great example of Caribbean pride – and a com­bin­a­tion of vivid still pho­to­graphy and as-it-happened tele­vi­sion cov­er­age, Fire in Babylon argues its case extremely well. All too often sports doc­u­ment­ar­ies are dreary things – end­less talk­ing heads remin­is­cing about how much bet­ter things were in the good old days. FiB has its share of those but some­thing else as well – a fire in its belly.

The Bang Bang Club posterThe Bang Bang Club is the lightly fic­tion­al­ised story of a group of South African pho­to­journ­al­ists whose taste for danger and eye for trouble got them into the heart of the town­ships just as the coun­try was under­go­ing its own fiery rebirth. The prob­lem with the film is that it seems to focus on the wrong char­ac­ters. The late Kevin Carter has already had an Academy Award nom­in­ated film made about his life but is a sec­ond­ary char­ac­ter here. João Silva, who co-wrote the mem­oir the film is based on, has gone on to even more extraordin­ary exploits, los­ing both legs in Afghanistan in 2010 but was still back shoot­ing for the New York Times this year.

Jane Eyre posterCary Fukunaga’s adapata­tion of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is far from the first to be made, but the first to cross my path. I’m sure those that have a long stand­ing love for the nov­el will have more prob­lems than I with Fukunaga’s vis­ion of ill-starred love between lowly passive-aggressive gov­erness Jane (Mia Wasikowska) and her boss, the mys­ter­i­ous and hand­some Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Well, I didn’t mind it at all. In fact, I thought the whole thing was splen­did, often quite grip­ping and, yes, ter­ribly romantic.

Steam of Life posterSteam of Life could eas­ily have been titled Naked Overweight Finns Talk About Their Lives. The sauna is an integ­ral com­pon­ent to Nordic cul­tures – long peri­ods spent sweat­ing out the tox­ins of every­day life revital­ise and revive tired bod­ies and tired minds. Documentary makers Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen have used that set­ting to coax a bunch of Finnish men to let their guards down a bit and reveal more than just their bod­ies. And many of the stor­ies are des­per­ately sad, it must be said, the sweat of the sauna prov­ing to be a help­ful mask for the men’s tears as they talk about lost par­ents, wives and children.

The Change-Up posterThe ugly cul­tur­al devel­op­ment of 2011 has been the increas­ing will­ing­ness of A‑list act­ors to get involved in R‑rated com­ed­ies that in pre­vi­ous years would have been beneath them. Earlier this year Natalie Portman cel­eb­rated her Academy Award for Black Swan by run­ning around Your Highness wearn­ing not very many clothes with a giant black penis hung around her neck. Just a couple of weeks ago Jennifer Aniston’s career sank to a new low as she played a dent­ist sexu­ally har­rass­ing her hygien­ist in Horrible Bosses.

Actually, maybe it’s not the cast­ing that’s the trend – maybe it’s the race to the gross-out bot­tom that’s offend­ing me as we have a new nadir to con­tend with this week: The Change-Up star­ring that nice Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman. They play two best buds who swap bod­ies after wish­ing they had each other’s lives while pee­ing in a magic foun­tain. Immature ladies man Reynolds dis­cov­ers the joys of par­ent­ing tod­dlers and a high-powered leg­al career while buttoned-down safe-pair-of-hands Bateman learns to loosen up and love his fam­ily again.

The good-hearted core of the mater­i­al – and the rela­tion­ship between the chaps – occa­sion­ally shows through but is over­whelmed by the repuls­ive non-humour, most of which is based around bod­ily func­tions. The more money these films make the more depressed I get about the future – but then I think about The Tree of Life again and hope that some­thing pro­found will come along to bright­en up the next five years.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 14 September, 2011.