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Five ways 'Tree of Life' can go

May 31, 2011 |  5:13 pm

Few were surprised when crowds packed into theaters in New York and Los Angeles this past weekend to see "The Tree of Life." Terrence Malick's movie about morality and mortality had an insanely high level of buzz coming in, and culture-vultures were invariably going to rush out on opening weekend.  As my colleague Amy Kaufman reports, they did --about 35,000 of them, according to our informal calculation.

But successful niche openings can spell disappointment as much as it can spell mainstream success.  In the coming weeks, the Brad Pitt-Jessica Chastain drama will roll out to hundreds of theaters, and in places with far less of a cinema-going tradition than the country's two largest cities. How will it fare? Here are five movies the "Tree" release could emulate, and the likelihood that it will follow a difficult or a hospitable path (or, yes, the way of nature and the way of grace).

"Black Swan": A film that defies categorization goes on to become a cultural phenomenon, spoofed on late-night television and discussed at seemingly every cocktail party. The film also improbably  tops $100 million at the U.S. box office.
Likelihood: The Natalie Portman ballet drama had sexiness and horror elements. "Tree"? Not so much.

"127 Hours:" Strong performances and striking natural imagery  generate a lot of ink and awards talk. But after the hard-core film fans turn up, the mainstream is daunted by it, and the movie never really breaks out of the art-house ghetto.
Likelihood: "Tree" seems to stand on this precipice; a few shots in the film even evoke "127." But
for all the goodwill Danny Boyle generates, Malick exists on a different plane with many filmgoers, which should help.

"Midnight in Paris:" Woody Allen's recent hits ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "Match Point') have taken between $20 and $25 million -- a number that lies somewhere between art-house specificity and mainstream commerciality. His new one seems to be heading in that direction. Could "Tree" too?
Likelihood: It's curious that two films so different -- one a whimsical entertainment and the other a heavy meditation -- are becoming the two independent hits of the season. In fact, so far their per-theater averages are almost identical. "Tree" could yet be seen as the more serious piece of art and lap "Midnight" -- or be seen as the darker of the two and fall short.

"Elephant:" A movie from an acclaimed American auteur with an impressionistic vibe wins the Palme d'Or and has the press breathless, but goes on to attract only the most hard-core cinemagoers.
Likelihood: The big limited-opening suggests that "Tree" is at least over this hump. (It's reached nearly half of the "Elephant" box-office total already.)

"The Thin Red Line": Malick's most successful release to date generated scads of Oscar nominations and a very solid $36 million in domestic box office.
Likelihood: "Tree" is garnering stronger reviews and is arguably more of a conversation piece -- but a film combining midcentury angst and the beginning of earthly life is not quite as digestible a genre as a World War II movie.


'Tree of Life' and 'Midnight in Paris' are independent hits

'The Tree of Life' is no easy sell

What Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is actually about

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight 

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Because of Brad Pitt, the excellent reviews it's gotten, and its sure awards seasons nominations, I'd say this movie is headed for '127 Hours' territory -- not quite 'Black Swan' though.

I saw this movie over the weekend. I had to be talked into it cuz the last Malick movie I saw in the theater was The Thin Red Line and I spent most of that counting the hairs on my head. All I really remember is Clooney in fatigues and lots of shots of trees blowing in the wind (during which I did my Nell impression for my date… horrible impression, but much more entertaining than that movie).
So, for the first 20 minutes, I was like “uch, what am I doing here?” Then came all the footage of the creation of the universe and the Earth. While that footage was actually kinda awesome, I started to wonder if they had accidentally spliced in a reel from an IMAX movie cuz at the time, it had nothing to do with what was going on.
After those 20 minutes cuz the hour or so with the family stuff. And I have to say this was fantastic. The kid that played the eldest son was great – and he has the unfortunate last name of McCracken. Anyway, the only kinda problem I had was Brad Pitt. Nothing against Mr. Pitt at all, but everyone else in it was so unknown, it made me feel like I was watching someone’s home movies or, dare I say, a reality show of their life. But then, there was Brad Pitt with that shining “MOVIE STAR” sign following him around and it kinda took me out of it. I know this was a pet project for him and he was a producer, but it would’ve served the film more if he got a relative unknown to play the father.
What I loved about this whole section was that it brought me back to another time when life seemed so simpler. I grew up long before the internet was created and I remember just hanging out with kids in the neighborhood, walking around. I remember being outside and climbing trees (wow, trees in a Mallick movie!) and throwing a stick around and it was the greatest amusement. Don’t get me wrong… I love the internet, I love my iPhone, but I still long for those times when you had to be creative on your own and not rely on a screen for social interaction. This whole section of the movie is quite enjoyable.
And then… now, I love me some Sean Penn. But for the life of me, i don’t know what the heck he was doing in this movie. The whole last half hour with him and the “afterlife” or whatever it was and meeting the kid he once was… uch, if I hadn’t started shaving my head, I would’ve spent the time re-counting the hairs on my head to see how many have vacated the scalp. For me, the movie was over when they were driving away from the house.
I still don’t see why it was boo’d at Cannes (yet it then went on to win one of the top honors). But I can understand why people didn’t like it or found it boring and pointless. However, i do plan to buy the blu-ray when it comes out so i can relive the whole middle section. And it’s all gorgeously shot and all, but you can be artsy without being pretentiously boring.

It looks and feels intriguing. The ambiguity also makes it an unknown draw. If there exists the possibility that this film brings something unique to the cinema going public and word of mouth hits it like The Sixth Sense, there is a chance.



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