Thursday, December 02, 2010

I'm Still Here (Affleck, 2010)

This probably seemed like a genius idea in the planning stages. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The film is uncomfortable, but for the wrong reasons, as hardly anybody but the dimmest of pop culture leeches seems genuinely taken in by Phoenix's attempt to make a Sacha Baron Cohen film. It's clear that most of the big-time celebs with which Phoenix interacts rightly smell a (Bo)rat.

When a young, gifted actor like Phoenix has a sit-down meeting with P. Diddy in order to discuss a potential hip-hop album, it's not humorous or revelatory. It's just sad. Diddy shows professionalism and generosity in sitting through Phoenix's pitch, but rightly recognizes the whole affair as a waste of his time. David Letterman gamely plays along out of respect for Phoenix's reputation. But for a man who's played this game with the great Andy Kaufman, it's clear that this particular prank is small potatoes.

It's as if Phoenix, jealous of the legendary status of his late brother, attempted to stage his own funeral and found out that nobody really cared. Phoenix may have torpedoed his own career, but perhaps not in the way he expected. The exposé of behind-the-scenes celeb-culture superficiality is occasionally interesting, such as in a scene where we see how paparazzi goad stars into reactions. But it's not nearly enough to fully justify the indulgences of Affleck and Phoenix and their toothless bite of the hand that feeds them.


Monday, September 07, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009)

Inglourious Basterds is not only probably Tarantino's best film to date -- at this point in time, I'd say it is -- but more importantly it is a film that I never would have thought him capable of creating. Though certain stylistic flourishes remain, Tarantino drops a few of his crutches (namely the mixtape soundtrack and the barrage of pop culture fetishism) and tackles his subject matter with something his work, even the good stuff, has rarely possessed in the past -- a desire to communicate an important idea.

The film melds Tarantino's mastery of surface pleasures with a newfound commitment to layered, sophisticated thematics and the result is an exhilarating film that is not only a rewrite of history, but in some ways an actual argument in support of historical inaccuracy. Tarantino argues that we have had enough films in which we see the repeated images of strong, powerful Nazis hounding terrified Jews and executing them mercilessly. Those films have their place in telling a history, but what are the consequences of having those images barrage us every year around Oscar season?

Like the film's Nazi propagandists who realize that the cinema can be used to rally a nation and inspire pride, Tarantino audaciously suggests that a film with a band of ruthless Jewish spies who put terror into the hearts of their enemies might have real life value in the way it alters our perceptions. Instead of using cinema to kill the Jews over and over and over, why not use it to burn the idea of Nazism in effigy? Only Tarantino would be so cocky as to use the final line of his film to insinuate that he knows that the film he has created is fantastic. But I have to say that I agree with his assessment.

Inglourious Basterds is a film that is exciting not only because it is perhaps the pinnacle of Tarantino's cinema. It is exciting because it suggests that Tarantino may have reached a new stage in his career. It took him 15 years to live up to the enormous hype of Pulp Fiction. Let's hope it takes far less time for him to match this one.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Onibaba (Shindô, 1964)

The pulsing drums underneath the opening credits draw us in immediately. These are quickly followed by the distinct intensity of the two lead performers. Two women, one a young widow whose husband’s life has been claimed in the war and the other her mother-in-law, make their home in a marshy area covered in reeds that severely limit visibility for the unfortunate soldiers that stumble in. They venture in seeking a hiding place from pursuers and find themselves instead within a trap policed by merciless scavengers. Quickly and efficiently, their armor is stripped and their unclothed bodies are unceremoniously dropped into a giant hole. The pulsing drums return. Not surprisingly, it will not be the last time we hear them.

Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba is a film ahead of its time, aggressive in its sexuality and its ferocity. Within a matter of minutes, Shindo gives us a palpable sense of place, time and the central characters. We know that these women are hardened, desperate and dangerous. We know that male sexuality and dominance is sharply threatened by these women with their loose-fitting kimonos and the dark vaginal opening that is used to dispose of their corpses. We know that the hole will figure prominently in the way the plot unfolds – but who end up down there? And how? Shindo not only immerses us in the geography of his setting, guiding us with his camera through the blowing reeds, but offers us a meticulous sense of atmosphere. It’s hard to think of Onibaba without thinking of the two women, sleeping uncovered on the floor, occasionally topless. There is a pervasive sense of heat in this film – and unpleasant, oppressive kind of heat that goes beyond the earthly and suggests something downright hellish.

Despite the detail in establishing the period, the narrative that unfolds is as simple as a fairy tale. And yet, it is all the more potent in its impact due to its use of easily identifiable types. When another young man enters the picture and takes up residence a short way away from the women’s hut, it is not long before she is escaping at night to enjoy his company. As you may suspect, her wandering is not appreciated by the mother of her former husband. Do I dare reveal to those of you who have not seen the film the way in which she attempts to prevent their affair from continuing? I think I shall leave it to be discovered as I did, because it is a sheer thrill, particularly in the way it is executed. The world Shindo creates and the tale he tells are both absolute joys, filled with an honesty towards sex and warfare and a conclusion that is both provocative and chilling. It is a film that grasps us by the throat and sears itself into our memories.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Johnny Got His Gun (Trumbo, 1971)

Johnny Got His Gun is haunting, powerful stuff. A World War I soldier is hit by a mortar shell and loses his arms, his legs and most of his face, leaving him little more than a brain trapped in darkness with his memories, fears and suppositions about what might be going on around him based on what he can feel. The great thing about the film is the way the flashbacks simulate a mind in great distress due to both trauma and the effect of sedatives. The soldier remembers conversations that probably took place, but also imagines others that never could have been - with an anachronistic Christ, his dead father and also his old girlfriend. The film's subject matter is ultra-grim, but the tale never drags because the film making itself - particularly the writing - is bold and alive. Anti-war film, surrealistic nightmare, extreme absurdist consideration of the relationship between mind and body ... it's all of these things. A must see.


Up (Docter/Peterson, 2009)

I never thought Pixar would make a film worse than Cars, but a mere three years later, here we have it. Up is a gloomy, humorless, maudlin, coarsely manipulative turkey of a film. A grumpy old man teams up with an irritating boy scout and a slightly moronic dog to find a rare giant bird with an annoying shriek. Oh joy!

The film uses a montage at the beginning to set up the fact that the old man promised his wife that one day they would take an adventure to Paradise Falls. So then he straps a bunch of balloons onto his house so that they will carry him to his destination. So far, so good. Kind of like The Straight Story meet James and the Giant Peach. I can see the possibilities.

But then the film commits a fatal error by skipping right over what should be the most extraordinary part of the story. The journey. Within the film's first half hour, we are already within a couple of miles of the final destination. And while the old man's adventure will eventually become about something other than reaching the Falls, there is no excitement or emotional release to finding that this crazy plan has in fact carried him all the way to South America. It literally happens in an instant.

Instead of documenting adventures in the sky as the flying house slowly makes it way towards its destination, the writers have decided that it would be preferable to follow the old man on the ground as he walks the last part of the way tugging the floating house behind him with a garden hose, an absurd betrayal of any internal logic the film may have had. Now, before I am accused of not being able to suspend disbelief, let me explain. For the sake of a fantastic story, I am willing to believe that enough balloons can rip a house up from its foundation in good enough shape to travel a long distance. But when you tell me that an old man cannot walk up stairs on his own, yet has the strength to stop this same house on his own before it goes careening over a cliff, then you have ceased to make any coherent sense. You are lying to me in an effort to crudely manipulate my emotions. When a man is feeble when you need me to cry, strong when you need me to get swept up in the action, throws out his back when you need me to laugh, is slow or nimble whenever it suits your purposes, then you have failed to create a character that means anything at all to me.

So despite the fact that the balloons were able to rip the house out of the ground and carry it aloft, this little old man is enough to anchor essentially that same weight to the ground (give or take a few balloons that were cut away). And this same man who uses a cane is able to maneuver this bulk through trees without it somehow getting tangled up. Riiiiight.

Maybe this would be forgivable if the film was any fun. But it's not. Apart from the ever present specter of impending death, the film has little in the way of humor unless you are amused by the somewhat desperate convention of 'talking dogs'. It doesn't even have the beautiful visuals that made Cars at the very least tolerable. All in all, a supreme disappointment, a lazy effort, and to be honest, a grating disaster than I hope never to watch again.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Gits (O'Kane, 2005)

Like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, the dazzling, aggressive front-woman for the early 90s Seattle band, The Gits, died at that seemingly cursed age of 27. However, Mia Zapata, was anything but a rock and roll cliché. Unlike those more famous rock legends, there was nothing self-destructive about Mia’s early death. On the contrary, Mia’s life was violently ripped away from her in the summer of 1993 and her bloodied body left in the middle of a dark Seattle street. In such cases of tragedy, it can be tempting to romanticize the life that might have been lived, the accomplishments that might have been achieved. But those who know basic rock history and have had the opportunity to listen to Zapata’s band can certainly put two and two together and realize that Mia was in the right time and the right place to make quite a substantial impact.

How high Mia’s star would have risen is anybody’s guess. To be sure, The Gits would have benefited greatly from the Seattle explosion that was about to happen, including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and all the rest. An Atlantic Records representative appears in the film and tells us that, without a doubt, he had the intent to offer the band a major label contract. Critical response to their first indie album was enthusiastic. Throughout the first half of Kerri O’Kane’s documentary, we follow the rise of the band, as they form (taking their name from a Monty Python skit) and play shows at Antioch College in Ohio, then move west to Seattle and set up shop with like-minded friends and musicians in a Capitol Hill dwelling that eventually takes on the name, The Rathouse.

The surviving members share anecdotes about charming dive bars and living as a poor artist. Most importantly, we are given ample opportunity to listen to the band’s music through live concert footage. We note Zapata’s signature blues-punk vocals and gritty, intelligent lyrics underscored by the hard-charging, skillful musicianship of her bandmates. And we realize that this was no mere grunge band. We realize that The Gits had something to offer the music world that was all their own. Mainstream acceptance and videos on MTV might have been an iffy proposition, but this was a band that was peaking and looked to have room to grow.

The second half of the film details Mia’s tragic end at the hands of a random assailant. Without warning, Zapata was raped and murdered while walking home from a favorite bar after spending time with friends who say that she was in high spirits, optimistic about her future after playing a successful solo show. An investigation soon follows, but with no success. Mia’s murderer, it seems, has escaped justice and members of the music community begin to suspect that the criminal may be one of their own.

The strength of O’Kane’s film, beyond the dynamic subject matter, is how much of a sense we get of the love, respect and admiration Zapata inspired in those around her. We get a true feeling for the community that supported her and the family atmosphere provided by her friends, colleagues and bandmates. O’Kane understands why Zapata is an important figure, but resists the temptation to overstate the case, allowing the music and the memories of loved ones to speak for themselves. Most moving of all is the testimony of Mia’s father who naturally provides a very different perspective on her daughter before asserting that “now she belongs to you.” The story of Mia Zapata is one that deserves to be heard for many reasons and The Gits is both a fitting tribute to her life and a exhilarating celebration of her music.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Browning Version (Asquith, 1951)

Unless you are familiar with the original play or have read the synopsis carefully, there is a period of time at the beginning of The Browning Version where it is unclear just who the subject of our story will be. With the setting as one of those English schools that are frequently used in the movies as a demonstration of government's capacity for soul-crushing rigidity, you may think that you are in store for something like Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct or Lindsay Anderson's If ... in which the focus is on the students and how they manage to keep the human desire for freedom and imaginative exploration alive in the face of stern discipline. Perhaps that young boy who drops his hat and consequently arrives late to school will become the focus and we will see him struggle against authority. Or perhaps the film will be about that new teacher with the fresh young face who has arrived on the scene and how he inspires the apathetic youth to find vitality, inspiration and joy in those dusty old classics. While the themes of rigidity versus personal freedom are still present, The Browning Version tackles them from a different perspective: by making the monster into the sympathetic protagonist.

Michael Redgrave (father to Lynn and Vanessa) plays an emotionally cold, widely reviled master with the rather unfortunate name of Andrew Crocker-Harris, known to his students as 'The Crock' as well as other worse things that are whispered behind his back. In early scenes, we see that his sole admirable quality as a teacher is his ability to maintain order. He is knowledgeable about his subject matter, the early Greek play, Agamemnon; yet, he strangles the life out of it by deriding his students' attempts at translation and focusing on grammatical minutiae rather than the exhilarating story of passion and violence. In scenes outside of class, we see that he is unable to maintain such neat and tidy order in his own life. Despite his fastidious insistence on keeping the clocks running accurately, his wife is engaged in a rather indiscreet affair with the school's science teacher. And although the headmaster publicly declares the great sadness that will meet Crocker-Harris' imminent retirement, it is painfully clear that his lifetime as an educator has earned him little to no respect from the people with which he has come into contact.

In the way that it places us at a critical moment in time and asks us to look back on a man's lifetime consumed by failure, The Browning Version is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's great film, Winter Light, or even Dickens' A Christmas Carol. As his farewell date approaches, Crocker-Harris is forced to reflect upon the sum total of his life, and he finds that it really hasn't added up to all that much. In scenes that approach the naked cruelty of a Neil LaBute script, Crocker-Harris must confront his wife, his headmaster, as well as the man who has made him a cuckold. He must also suffer supreme indignity before finally facing up to the students who hold him in utter contempt. The result is a film that despite its modest focus is surprisingly captivating and emotionally harrowing. Redgrave is outstanding in the lead role, never making himself more likable than he needs to be, yet coloring the teacher with gentle sprinkles of life, helping us to envision the man who was once a highly decorated scholar. Note how he insists on the word 'gentle' during one key moment where he is translating from the Greek and you will see how Redgrave suggests the pulse beating beneath his stoic exterior.

The film builds towards a conclusion that may be on the outskirts of what might be considered realistic; however, it would difficult to deny it's cathartic power after witnessing one ordinary man put through the wringer and then find the desire to be extraordinary again. Sometimes it's nice to find yourself capable of a little sympathy for the devil.


Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)

The Dark Knight is a substantial improvement over Batman Begins, which got bogged down in tedious minutiae regarding martial arts training and assorted origin story geekery. As someone who is not especially a fan of the character, I really didn't give a rat's ass. This film, on the other hand, is ... well ... simply a lot more fun.

Is fun the right word? Yes. Much has been made of how dark the film is, how frightening its lead villain. Since the film's release, mainstream audiences have declared with their pocketbooks that they can take it. Of course they can. Setting aside for a moment the absurd notion that the film ranks among the greatest of all time (no ... it does not), the main reason, in my estimation, that The Dark Knight has achieved such overwhelming financial success is because The Joker is a dead perfect fit for our times. And his execution (I will give credit not only to Ledger, but to Nolan and company as well) is also the element that will make this film memorable.

Popping up when unexpected, carrying with him anarchic disillusionment, ready to explode into violence on a whim, The Joker perfectly encapsulates our feelings of helplessness in the face of a world going down the tubes. We look to the people who hold the world in balance (I'm not even talking about terrorists -- elected officials!) and they seem much like madmen. How many times have we thought that new news events would be absurdly comic if they weren't also of dire importance? Heath Ledger understands this connection and plays it to the hilt, never allowing the cartoonish aspects of his character to drain away his capability for danger. Even when he is away for long stretches of time, his presence looms over the film and we are held in attention anticipating his return. Let it be said: this is not a case of a star's tragic death leading to undeserved adulation. This is a supreme performance. Pure and simple.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Christian Bale's performance as the title character. His sullen, personality-free take on Bruce Wayne is tolerable, I suppose. However, his bizarre decision to play Batman as if he were squaring off against The Undertaker in Wrestlemania XII is a head scratcher. I've always thought that Bale was one of the most overpraised actors alive. But it's hard to imagine even his supporters defending his laughable vocal exertions which threaten to derail scenes that would otherwise be filled with tension. Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent runs into a similar problem, though not as extreme. When he is interacting casually, he is a perfectly capable actor. However, when later events force him into heightened levels of emotion, he just doesn't seem to have the conviction to match the moment.

As a director, Nolan is efficient, keeping the pace of this long film moving at a satisfying clip; however, there is very little art to his approach. He lacks the flair and creativity that Sam Raimi brings to the Spiderman films. I also thought that the editing felt rushed in places, as if the film was jumping to the next thought before it had finished the previous sentence. This did not feel like any sort of calculated tactic to disrupt the film's pacing. It just felt kind of sloppy.

My final criticism of the film is fairly significant, I think, and prevents me from holding the piece in higher esteem. It's simply this: the character of Batman with his armored car and his silly rubber suit and his Rex Kwan Do gets swallowed up by the enormity of the menace he faces. Perhaps he is a Super Cop, but the Gotham city police force still seems to be doing a lion's share of the work. From time to time, he is able to turn the tide with a timely gadget. But I just don't get the feeling in this battle of good and evil that the town really needs him. I don't understand his need for secrecy. I don't understand why he keeps his technology to himself. I don't understand why his vigilante status helps him to be more effective at fighting crime.

Criticisms aside, this was pretty much engaging from start to finish, with only a couple of dead spots. Thanks to Ledger and the Joker character, the film actually had some legitimate laughs this time as well, not just that dopey 'comic' banter between Bruce Wayne and his butler. The film has numerous flaws. But when it's good ... it's awfully damn good.


Sunday, April 20, 2008

Boarding Gate (Assayas, 2007)

Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate is not so much a film about plot or atmosphere. It’s a film about attitude. Early on, we are introduced to the basics of the situation involving a big time criminal who wants out of the lifestyle and a comparatively small-time drug dealer who used to be his lover. Most of this is material that you have probably seen countless times before. Pretty soon, the drug dealer will be in over her head and on the run from men who want her to disappear permanently. There are crosses and double crosses, twists and turns, many of which are predictable. So, you may be rightly wondering at this point, why should I care? You should care because the woman on the run is Asia Argento.

To say that Argento seems “at home” or “in her element” would be a cliché, but how else to describe her performance in which she lifts the film up by the scruff of the neck and carries it confidently from start to finish? At 32 years of age, Argento has the advantage of possessing over 20 years of acting experience. Making no effort to conceal her trademark tattoos, Asia is no chameleon. As in her other performances, she is rarely far from playing herself. And yet, she has just the right mixture of aggressiveness and vulnerability to make her characters entirely captivating. Even when she is trading bruising language with Michael Madsen, she never seems to be trying to achieve an effect. She uses her body with abandon, plunging headfirst into scenes where another actress might make us feel that she was being exploited. You get the sense that Argento hasn’t been cast in a role, so much as a film has been constructed around her.

Boarding Gate works, and works well, despite its uninspired plot because Assayas is able to sustain a prolonged sense of danger. You don’t know whether to envy the men Argento falls in love with or feel sorry for them. At any given moment they are seemingly at risk of being fucked or being killed, possibly both on the same night. In a supporting role, Michael Madsen is himself a combustible personality, playing the kind of man that would dare get close to Argento for any prolonged period of time. There is also fun to be had in the globe-skipping path Argento takes attempting to find safety and in seeing Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon suddenly appear on screen barking out orders in Cantonese. (Gordon unfortunately does not fare as well in English, giving a performance on the level of Lyle Lovett.)

Boarding Gate leaves us with very little thematically to ponder. The things at stake are the kinds of things that are really only important to movie characters in films such as this. Argento’s character makes a final decision that, while revealing something significant about her personality, does not offer us much in the way of a satisfying conclusion. Still, the film is fun while it lasts, artful and exciting enough to fully capture our interest and, most importantly, a worthy showcase for Argento’s charismatic bravado.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Freethinker (Watkins, 1994)

For his recent film study of iconoclast Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes employed six different actors to portray the central character, emphasizing his belief that a monolithic view of such a complex character would be inevitably problematic. When making a film biography, a director faces the challenge of staging personal moments that in most cases had no witnesses other than the direct participants. Even though viewers are aware that they are watching a film, a filmmaker can be put in the awkward position of purporting to ‘know’ in situations where knowledge is impossible. Consequently, responses to these films can get mired in discussions of whether this or that really happened while larger thematic matters get ignored.

For his four-and-a-half hour film on the troubled life of Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, Peter Watkins employs the same kind of democratic principles that he advocates for world governments in anti-authoritarian films like Punishment Park and The Journey. Watkins is, if nothing else, an untiring champion of the people. For The Freethinker, this means opening up the discussion to not only members of his cast, but also members of the public who have been invited to watch his actors rehearse and perform improvisations. There is no question that The Freethinker has the personality of a Watkins film in the way it blends documentary with historical recreation. In form, it most closely resembles Edvard Munch made some twenty years earlier. However, in this instance, Watkins goes even farther incorporating outside voices. The actors who play Strindberg and his wife occasionally address the camera in Bergmanesque close-up to share their thoughts on the characters they are playing. Peripheral characters discuss Strindberg in round table settings only to have the actors later drop character to share their own thoughts from the late 20th century. In a small black box theater, Swedish members of the public respond casually to Watkins’ actors, waxing philosophical on the internal struggle between emotions and intellect.

And yet, at the end of the day, it is Watkins who controls the film’s editing decisions. In Strindberg, he has found a character full of contradiction. Early on, a revolutionary writer and historian who argues that the history of Sweden is the history of its people rather than its rulers, Strindberg later succumbs to the pressure of his critics and turns his back on his early ideals. His behavior becomes erratic, particularly as it concerns his family and his attitude towards women sours from comparatively enlightened to straight-up misogynistic. Quotes from Strindberg’s writings are displayed on title cards and then juxtaposed with both scenes from his plays and scenework speculating on how his domestic life might have looked behind his public appearance. Most of these scenes are performed with basic costumes and sets. Some appear to be simply the actors in rehearsal. Watkins’ films have always leaned towards the academic. Here, more than ever, it seems as if Watkins is using film to compose a thesis that never arrives at its conclusion. This is, in some sense, admirable as it allows viewers to feel as if they are a part of the investigation. At times though, Watkins’ refusal to boil down his subject can prove wearisome, particularly as he meanders to his pet theme of the damaging influence of modern media

The Freethinker has admirable qualities; however, it is not likely to hold the attention of anyone but Strindberg enthusiasts and Watkins completists, two categories that do not exactly boast large populations. Watkins has made films that are more provocative, more penetrating and better looking. Most importantly, he has made Edvard Munch a more effective examination of the artist in conflict with society.


Monday, March 24, 2008

The Guernica Tree (Arrabal, 1975)

Fernando Arrabal’s take on the 1937 Nazi bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War is to film what Picasso’s Guernica is to the world of art. Both are works that draw from the horrors of war and then use evocative symbols and purposeful distortions of reality to communicate feelings of anger, sadness and disgust. The film is set, not in Guernica, but rather in a nearby village called Villa Ramiro. There, Bohemians dance in the streets in elaborate costumes and a local artist pulls shocking pranks on both government officials and church goers. Up in a tower of stone, the count coldly lords over the citizens. From the very beginning, the seeds of conflict are planted.

When a beautiful woman arrives in town, riding sidesaddle, she is chased by three Fascist thugs intent on raping her. She flees into a small deserted house. When the men find her and close in on her, she reveals a handful of vipers in her hands, which she flings at her attackers in self-defense. This incident is a metaphor for the large-scale conflict that serves as the film’s center. The woman’s name is Vandale, a survivor of the Guernica bombings who has come to Villa Ramiro to provide inspiration and leadership to the rebels who wish to overthrow their oppressors.

After the rebels topple the local government officials and desecrate the nearby church in ways that would not seem out of place in a de Sade novel, Vandale rallies the villagers and urges them to take up arms against the approaching armies intent on definitively crushing the uprising. Also involved is a local academic who preaches pacifism and believes in ideas that are transported “on the wings of a dove.” However, in the face of enemy artillery, he struggles to translate his ideals into tangible action, worrying that he has cornered himself into passivity.

Arrabal directs with equal parts creativity, rage and vulgarity. It is worth noting that his grudge against fascism was developed first-hand in his childhood when his father, a political enemy of Franco, was placed in a labor camp for life. Though it is believed that he escaped from prison in 1941, he disappeared forever. With that context, it is perhaps easier to understand the perverse glee Arrabal takes with debasing the film’s oppressors, often through sexual or scatological imagery. Holding the film together is an underlying sense of poetry and the masterful use of allegorical characters. On rare occasions, Arrabal lapses into scenes that are either insincere or obvious audience bait for moral outrage. However, for the most part, The Guernica Tree is a stirring, captivating plea for humanity and courage in the face of governmental cruelties.