Sunday, April 14, 2013

To The Wonder

Terrence Malick is the rare artist who knows exactly what he wants to say, and is able to take all of the time he needs to say it. Never one for being bound to someone else's ideas of what he should do, he's marched to the beat of his own drum almost from the get-go. Unfortunately for us, that means he's only released 6 feature films in 43 years.

So, when word got out that his next film was releasing only 1 year after 2011's The Tree of Life, one of the most stunning films of recent years (and, in the eyes of this critic, the best of that year if not of the young century), we rejoiced.

To The Wonder tells the story of 4 people. A Midwesterner (Ben Affleck) and a Parisian (Olga Kurylenko) fall in love, and their relationship turns turbulent when they move back to the United States. When they decide to spend time apart, he begins a relationship with a local woman (Rachel McAdams). All the while, the local priest (Javier Bardem), tries to serve the community while dealing with a crisis of faith.

My expectations were high, particularly given the film's two spellbinding trailers (found here and here). With his last two films, Malick's gotten to a point that his trailers would be Academy Award winning short films if they were released as such.

Unfortunately, To The Wonder suffers from a lack of narrative cohesion. I think that a lot of it has to do with Malick's reliance on voiceover. I'm a big fan of the technique when it's incorporated well, but it's used to excess here. There's very little actual dialogue present, and that hurts the film. When Affleck and Kurylenko are arguing, I'd really like to hear what they're arguing about instead of listening to ambient music and her voice speaking softly about how much he completes her.

It's frustrating, because you get to a point where you just want the characters to stop talking about what's happening and start telling you what's happening. I found myself asking a few fundamental questions that additional dialogue would have aided immensely. Why do these women fall for Affleck's character? He's moody, not terribly supportive, and even abusive. Why would anyone treat Kurylenko's character badly?  She's vivacious, sweet, and so wholly devoted to him that it boggles the mind that he wouldn't move heaven and earth to keep her near. Instead of expository dialogue, what we get is whole lot of brooding, glowering, staring, and slow turns around one another like some kind of extremely subdued flamenco.
There are certain aspects of the film that are first-rate. The photography is fantastic. If they continue their collaboration, Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki might go down as one of the all-time great director/cinematographer combos. There are individual shots here that will take one's proverbial breath away. In particular, there's one particular shot of dancing light reflected off of a chandelier that literally made me sit up and stare at the screen in wonderment.

The performances by Kurylenko and McAdams deserve praise, particularly given how thin the plot seems to be. In particular, Kurylenko's performance is extremely solid. In the absence of dialogue, her face communicates a wealth of emotion. 

I also really liked Bardem's character. In a time when Catholic priests certainly haven't been regarded in the most positive light, his character is a fundamentally good man who cares deeply about serving his community. While I liked the bits about his crisis of belief, I found myself surprised at how heavily the film comes to communicate a heavily Christian message toward the end. From what little I know of him, I believe that Malick is a Christian himself, but I found such a pointed message to be a bit of a strange choice, particularly given how universal the spiritual themes were in The Tree of Life.

Additionally, there are individual sequences that highlight Malick's abundant gifts as a filmmaker. In particular, the film's closing sequence is beautiful. It involves a woman walking, walking, walking before finally turning to see something. At that point, I felt as though I were in a place that I knew. I only wish that the rest of the film had seen that kind of cohesion.

Malick's come to a place where he's not terribly interested in conventional notions of plot and story structure. I understand (and applaud!) that. The problem arises when he doesn't leave enough bread crumbs for the viewer to be able to put the pieces together in any kind of a meaningful way. Here, as in The Tree of Life, Malick employs a kind of omnipotent perspective. While it mostly seems to move forward in one fairly consistent timeline, To The Wonder does skip around in a way that confuses things, particularly toward the end. In the face of many seemingly needless contradictions, my friend and I were abundantly confused about what the state of Affleck and Kurylenko's relationship was when the film ended. 

I certainly don't regret seeing the film, but while a film from Terrence Malick is always worth the effort, To The Wonder seems to me to be a big missed opportunity. That said, I look forward to further reading and discussion in the hope I'll be able to find further illumination.

2 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert (1943-2013)

How do you encompass your feelings about someone who meant so much to you? I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’ve got to try. Roger Ebert was the only film critic I ever really loved. I’ve got a bunch that I respect, still more that I enjoy reading/listening to, but Roger was the only one that I loved. To read his work was to drink deeply at the well with someone who knew a lot about what he was talking about and had the grace to want to share it with you in a way that you could understand.

I knew that I loved movies from a young age, and was fairly excited to learn that I could turn that love into a Bachelor’s Degree. I took a strange path to that degree, caused in some ways by my own timidity coupled with some stubbornness and a desire to avoid a heavy workload. There is some debate about exactly what the word “heavy” means in this context. Anyhow, I found a way to graduate while avoiding the classes that would force me to watch a ton of movies every week, having seen fellow students struggle to keep up and not wanting to be pushed into watching films that I didn’t want to.

I’d been a fan of “Siskel and Ebert” and later “Ebert and Roeper,” and had read Roger’s work for years, but something changed around the time I graduated from college. In reading more of his work, I wanted to start watching the movies that he was talking about. He didn’t just talk about movies from the last year or two and he didn’t just talk about American films. He talked about all kinds of films from all over the world and, if he loved the movie he was talking about, he passed that enthusiasm along. He was looking at films in a larger context than anyone else I was familiar with at the time. It wasn’t important what language was used, how much money was made, or how famous the filmmakers were. It only mattered if the film was good or not, and if that film had something of value to say about the human experience.

So, armed with Roger’s Great Movies list, a Netflix account, and an open mind, I started making my way through the films that he thought were important. It’s safe to say that I might not have encountered Kieslowski, Antonioni, Godard, Herzog, Bunuel, Truffaut, the Dardennes, or Ozu if not for Roger. It’s possible that I might have found them through some other avenue, but I wouldn’t have experienced them in the same way.

Roger had become my teacher. Many is the time I’ve watched a film from his list, found myself either bewildered or unconvinced, and turned to his writing to provide illumination. I will not say that my mind has been changed each time, but I almost always felt that I understood the film better after reading what he had to say.

I think his real gift as a critic came from the way that he thought about characters. In his mind, they were supposed to be real people, and that formed a large part of the foundation for his appreciation or aversion to a particular film. He would find ways to contextualize a character’s actions in such a way as to make you realize not only what was happening but also the magnitude of something that might have slipped right past you.

He fought against cancer for eleven years. He was a lucky man to have been able to hold it off for so long. If he was great before that, he became something different altogether after the surgeries that robbed him of his ability to speak. Left with no other recourse, he wrote and wrote and wrote, and it wasn’t only about the movies anymore. His blog was a thing of beauty, a mind in full flight, unfettered by limitation and filled to the brim. The first time I ever got to go to a Steak N Shake (years ago around 1 AM somewhere in Kentucky), I only had any idea of its existence because of the many times that Roger had gone into depth of his love for the place.

I never met him, but had the chance to speak with him once a few years ago through the web. He’d written a blog entry about Bergman (I think), I commented, and Roger responded. I’d read his blog since the beginning, but this was the first time that he’d ever responded to one of my comments. It meant a lot. Roger read and vetted every single comment on his blog, but only responded to a few. That one of mine got a response is something that I’ll always treasure.

As a film critic, I don’t think that you can do any better than Roger. More than that though, I think that he was a thoroughly decent person, and my heart goes out to his wife and family tonight.

Death is never easy, but part of what makes this so strange was the tone of last blog post, "A Leave of Presence." Even as talked about the recurrence of cancer in his body, he seemed to be so full of life and, more than anything, hope for the future. I had no idea that he was so close to the end. Maybe he didn't either. 

I know that he didn’t fear death, and I think that that must have been a great comfort. There is a certain kind of tranquility that comes from a man who knows that he has done enough in life to be satisfied. There are many things about Roger’s work that I admire and hope to be able to emulate in my own way, but I think that’s the quality of his that I most admire, along with his fundamental decency as a human being.  I hope that, when I face the end, I can look back as he did, know that I have done what I wanted to do, and be thankful for all that I have been given.

Roger taught me a lot. I am grateful for that. I miss him now, and I will miss him always.


"‘Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."

From Go Gentle Into That Good Night, posted on 5/2/2009.