“The Tree of Life” (2011)
How Does It Dazzle? All of the films of Terrence Malick are obsessed with the beauty and inner nature of life, the human spirit, and are sublime and bewitching to look at. Yet, up until recently, Malick had never used the same cinematographer. Three DPs shot “Badlands,” Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler shot the sun dappled “Days Of Heaven” and John Toll shot the shimmering ‘Thin Red Line.’ It wasn’t until 2005 that Malick found a regular DP in Emmanuel Lubezki who shot “The New World” and has lensed everyone of his films since. Lubezki also shot, “The Tree of Life,” Malick’s Palme d’Or winning spiritual paean to family, fathers, mothers, siblings and our great struggle when loved ones have passed. It’s also about the meaning of life and the creation of the universe… or something. So how does it dazzle? In two distinctive ways: through the immersive and gliding cameras (that also became a talking point in “To The Wonder”) which captures all the deeply felt confusion, pain and angst of all the main characters and then the celestial visual effects that VFX master Douglas Trumbull contributed to. Both are splendid, but the visual effects of the cosmos, space and beyond are glorious and something to behold.
Style, Substance, Or Both? Malick’s “The Tree of Life” left a lot of people scratching their heads or wanting something more. And admittedly, up until then, it’s perhaps his most uneven film, not quite blending these too universes as profoundly as he usually does. But to say “The Tree of Life” doesn’t have substance would be criminally wrongheaded. It’s style doesn’t get in its way as much as its ambition. Inside Malick’s movie is a poignant examination of our loved ones, how we can and cannot live without them. How we adore and yet resent them and how those spiritual, physical and blood ties are connected to the metaphysical nature of everything. Deeply felt, “The Tree of Life” may not be Malick’s most wholeheartedly successful movie, but it may be his most personal and as close to divinity as he’s ever come.
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
How Does It Dazzle? Terry Gilliam has always been one of cinema's premiere fantasists, it's just that often his productions are plagued by problems (as documented in the thoughtful documentary "Lost in La Mancha," which detailed the way his "Man from La Mancha" film broke down) or hit the screen in some creatively compromised way (everything from big studio movies like "The Brother Grimm" to the muddy, borderline unwatchable indie "Tideland"). Disaster struck "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" when Heath Ledger, one of the movie's costars, died tragically during production. But this setback actually added to the movie's visual dazzle, which takes the form of an alternate universe opened up by the titular character (played by Christopher Plummer), a kind of traveling circus performer whose Faustian bargain has gained him access to fantastical realms. The most jaw-dropping scenario involves giant, jellyfish-type creatures who rocket through a pastel landscape. After Ledger's death, three other actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law) stepped in to essay the character, which adds an even greater degree of surrealism to the already outrageous scenario. If only Gilliam had worked out a more tangible narrative to connect all of this weirdness together; instead, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" sometimes feels like a really lovely, ornate, jewel-encrusted box, with nothing inside.
Style, Substance, or Both? "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" is all style, with little else going on, but even the "style" part seems tenuous – sometimes whole sequences have the feeling of an early-'90s music video or a tired screensaver. The director who once conjured forth such amazing, intricate worlds in everything from "Brazil" to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," seems slack and uninvolved. Your eyes won't pop out of your head. In fact, they'll barely bulge.
"Speed Racer" (The Wachowskis, 2008)
How Does It Dazzle? After the critically derided "Matrix" sequels, the Wachowskis, instead of retreating into some safe, "easy" project, decided to go full throttle into madness with their candy-colored, eye-popping, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink adaptation of beloved '60s Japanese cartoon series "Speed Racer." They were unwilling to rest on their laurels and so attempted to do the unthinkable – the response from both critics and audiences was a befuddled "huh?" To explain: in order to appropriate the look of the anime, the Wachowskis shot each actor and element separately and then edited them together so that everything would appear "flat," like a two-dimensional cartoon. Editorial flourishes from the cartoon like the use of giant heads, blurry backgrounds and extreme wipes were also employed. The Wachowskis pushed things even further, with multiple races happening in both present day and in flashback at the same time. Additionally, the cars would "fight" each other on the racetrack, something the Wachowskis described as "car-fu," the results of which come across like "Wacky Racers" meets "Mario Kart" (not that that is a bad thing). "Speed Racer" was genuinely unlike anything you'd ever seen before, not that anybody cared all that much. The most amazing sequence isn't the final race, but a cross-country road rally that takes place during the middle of the movie and features a number of atmospheres and environments; it's truly breathtaking stuff.
Style, Substance, or Both? There's no real defense for the overabundance of visual excess. As in the case with "The Great Gatsby," you could have probably made an adaptation of the material that didn't induce seizures in unknowing viewers. But, that said, what The Wachowskis did here was big, bold, and oftentimes brilliant – almost five years later and there still hasn't been a movie that's come close to achieving the same sustained stylization. Watching it is an absolute blast and what sabotages the movie more than its goopy visual effects are the kiddy subplots and tonal wonkiness. It seems a movie ripe for reappraisal and genuinely ahead of its time.
"Tron: Legacy" (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)
How Does It Dazzle? The original "Tron," released nearly thirty years before the sequel/reboot/spin-off/whats-it, was hugely influential on a visual level – its sleek, neon-lined designs and chilly computer-world aesthetic would be mimicked and poorly replicated for years to come. But the movie itself was kind of forgotten, a slow and plodding adventure that couldn't hope to eclipse (or even match) its processed visual majesty. "Tron: Legacy" is similar in that it's both visually awe-inspiring and, on a narrative level, wholly inert. Joseph Kosinski is an architect and protégé of David Fincher's, whose cleanly composed lines and set-pieces are pretty phenomenal; he imagines the computer landscape as being rougher and bleaker, with everything (including rain jackets and banisters) with neon-lit piping. After a while, things become more abstract, and the sleek dreaminess of the images starts to mesmerize to the point of hypnosis. That's when "Tron: Legacy" becomes less a movie than a $200 million video art installation (amplified amiably by the pulsating Daft Punk soundtrack that's so prog-rock arty that you can practically picture the smoke from the fog machine swirling around your ankles). We also really love Jeff Bridges' apartment.
Style, Substance, or Both? This is all style. If the creative team had put as much emphasis into making the script even slightly coherent as they had into making sure the light cycle chase was as dynamic as it ended up being, then it would be an entirely different story. As it stands, "Tron: Legacy" is all sizzle, no steak. Still, if this thing was projected on the wall of a museum or art gallery, it would rightfully be applauded for being an anti-narrative, something in which the images don't tell a story as much as they actively defy one.
How Does It Dazzle? Danny Boyle’s restless nature makes for hopped-up, kinetic picture with a style and energy that’s often criticized for resembling a music video. It’s not a completely invalid criticism, but Boyle’s predilections mostly hew closer to the rhythms of music, editing and capturing a visceral moment rather than putting a premium on capturing beautiful images. There are exceptions throughout his career obviously, but the most obvious one is his 2007 science-fiction thriller, “Sunshine,” which is set 50 years from now and follows a team of scientists and astronauts who are sent to re-ignite the dying sun. So with the brightest star in the galaxy at the epicenter of this story, you can guess that the movie -- tellingly not shot by Boyle’s regular, more low-tech DP Anthony Dod Mantle (instead it’s Alwin H. Küchler who shot “Code 46,” and “Movern Callar”) -- looks utterly radiant and breathtaking.
Style, Substance, Or Both? This is up for debate in some circles, but visually, the film is completely apropos. It’s not Boyle’s favorite of his films because he had a tough time making it, and where its quality is concerned, many feel the movie is compromised by its silly third act that gets a little less “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more “Event Horizon” or some Hollywood space thriller. We won’t argue that point so much, but the celestial look of “Sunshine” is never gratuitous and fits the material like a glove. The utterly incandescent glow of the movie is luminous and to be honest, its shining brilliance may have blinded you from some of the film’s problems as that first experience in the theater was perhaps the dictionary definition of “dazzling.”