To the Wonder
Navel Gazing Through a Telescope
Terrence Malick’s Failed Experiment Leaves a Black Eye
Terrence Malick still hasn’t made a remarkable film since 1978. That was the year he made “Days of Heaven” — not to be confused with “Heaven Gates.” Although the “Heaven” movies do have something in common: they ruined their respective filmmakers’ careers — Michael Cimino made more of a splash because he took United Artists down with him. Malick went overboard by shooting most of the movie during the gloaming — a 25-minute period at dusk that Malick referred to as the “magic hour.” He then spent three years editing it.
“To the Wonder” is a shorthand cinematic poem told with such slightness that there is nothing for an audience to identify with beyond some vague apologia about God’s ability to put human beings through as much heartbreak as they can endure. It’s an airy cinematic sermon that mumbles for two-hours. Atheists will be bored; believers will scratch their heads. Pretentious film critics will out themselves.
Malick has made an experimental movie that fails because it’s all agenda and no substance. There’s so little character development or narrative cohesion that the viewer feels alienated through the whole experience. The filmmaker’s oh-so-deep philosophical musings, as tinged with religious inflections, are oddly apolitical. Malick’s micro-meta bubble is small and foggy. It’s a fundamental rule of screenwriting to never preach to your audience. Terrence Malick breaks that rule with impunity.
In Paris, Neil (Ben Affleck) courts Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a sensuous Ukrainian woman with a ten-year-old daughter named Tatiana. The Eiffel Tower, the gardens at Versailles, and Mont Saint-Michele make for plenty of postcard-perfect compositions via Malick’s handheld camera. Dialogue is sparse, very sparse. Malick flits between indulgent shots of streaming sunlight on suburban landscapes to fill in copious narrative blanks in his script.
The would-be family moves to Neil’s hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma to reside in a cloistered suburban housing community bereft of personality. Neil is giving Marina a relationship trial run. Is she marriage material? Tatiana certainly thinks so. However, Marina’s mood swings make her seem bi-polar in a “Betty Blue” kind of way. Languorous episodes of romantic harmony give way to ugly, if muted, outbursts of anger. A devil’s advocate vantage point could view Malick’s film as an unintended observation on the toxic effect of American suburbia on romantic relationships. But that would be a stretch.
Javier Bardem creeps around the story as Father Quintana, a priest who worries over the limits of his ability to help the impoverished and ailing Americans who live around him. During a sermon, he tells his parish, that a husband “does not find” his wife “lovely.” Rather, “he makes her lovely.”
Neil isn’t really that into Marina. Without explanation he sends she and Tatiana packing. The unreliable protagonist briefly dallies with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old romance from childhood. Like Marina, Jane is needy to a fault.
A romantic reversal occurs. Marina abandons Tatiana to her father’s family and returns to Neil in Oklahoma to start their lives together. Domestic troubles percolate and boil over around moot narrative details. I suppose, if you’re a believer, “To the Wonder” will bring you closer to God in as much as it will push you two-hours closer to your ultimate demise. Personally, I’d rather watch Malick’s “Badlands” (1973) or “Days of Heaven.” There was a time when Terrence Malick made incredible movies. Those days are gone.
Rated R. 112 mins. (D) (One Star – out of five/no halves.Tweet
After the failure of his insufferable last film “Dogtooth,” Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos refines his minimalist approach to absurdist satire. However confounding on first blush, “Alps” is a provocative think piece about the nature of loss, memory, DIY psychotherapy, and emotional fulfillment.
Inside an empty gymnasium, a group of four hands-on therapists — a nurse, a paramedic, a gymnast, and her coach — take turns practicing to act as surrogates for recently deceased people, whose personalities they will mimic during visitations with bereaved family members. The group name themselves “Alps.” They take their work very seriously. This is piecemeal method acting gone wild.
The talented ribbon gymnast (Ariane Labed) pleads with her coach (Johnny Vekris) to allow her to dance to modern music.
The stern coach snaps back, “You’re not ready for pop.” "Raise your voice at me again," he says calmly, "and I'll take a club and crack your head open. And then I'll break your arms and your legs." An uncomfortable strain of father-daughter substitution runs through their relationship. The film’s humor comes in a glass of ice-cold water.
The nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia) loses herself too much in her work. Monte Rosa — as she calls herself — starts to carry out her own freelance proxy work to satisfy an emotional void. The coach also crosses a line of emotional sharing in his encounters with clients.
“Alps” is a backhanded commentary on the ways in which people exploit chosen occupations to fulfill personal fantasies. It also refers to the fetishized aspects of relationships and their limited scope of sexual necessity. Anyone can be a surrogate.
Not Rated. 90 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
General Orders No. 9
Robert Persons's humorless depiction of the world's ruination is glimpsed through a large area of the South between Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Droning ambient organ chords sustain under Persons's meditative monologue about the "vast and wild middle South" where "deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road." William Davidson reads the repeated text like a man out of time. A fish out of water gasps on the ground for an extended period. We're left to wonder at the cruelty of a filmmaker whose belief in the Lord harbors no patience for characterless grey cities where he believes everything will end. Although he never says it, apocalypse is in on the filmmaker's mind.
A fundamentalist bent of Christianity takes hold. "The Lord loves a broken spirit." "In April you can feel that something is pushing against things." The opaque reasoning of Persons' weird old-timey logic is circular to a fault. Recurring lines hint at an obsessive compulsive disorder that alienates more than it attracts. The film fixates on a courthouse that sits as a compass touchstone for everything that Persons views as virtuous and true. It doesn't take much to see the hypocrisy in Persons's warped view of reality and disdain for modern culture.
"General Orders No. 9" is an experimental film that is more art instillation than feature film. "Peculiar Flatulence 173" would be just as apt a title—and it would add entertainment value. Pastoral vistas clash with cold visions of freeways and endless colorless corridors. Think of it as a poor relation to Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life." Its poster shows the silhouette of a rabbit smoking a pipe. He looks kind of cute. Perhaps if the filmmaker had left out the voiceover narration and included a rabbit with a tobacco fetish in his storyline, the movie wouldn't be so insufferable.
Not Rated. 72 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Goddard's vaguely accessible collage-essay on the ennui of the modern existential moment, "Socialism" is an inarticulate bestiary of bullshittery. The film's overarching theme of its repressed social condition derives from a caption that informs us "the bastards are sincere." A lot of two and three-word slogans come at regular intervals to express Goddard's cryptically coded editorial political commentary. "Palestine Access," "Love Yourself Silly," and "Napoleon Burning Moscow" are some of the ideas Goddard splinters apart with characters speaking just such stilted language. Much of the film's first-act action takes place on a mammoth gambling cruise ship. Rock poet Patti Smith shows up briefly--she's onboard with her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye. Inexplicably, Patti only shows up in a couple of brief scenes where she barely speaks. Patti's subplot is never returned to again even if her presence is the only thing that promises a soothing poetic voice to augment Goddard's revved-up barrage of international media-styled fictional situations imposed with some touch of political anarchism. An obligatory visit to the modern-day Odessa steps is intercut with a clip from Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin." "Socialism" might work as a long piece of installation art, but it doesn't hold up as a prime example of experimental cinema.
Rated R. 109 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Tree of Life
"The Tree of Life" is a bold but flailing attempt to create a transgressive experimental cinema of cosmic proportions. Terrence Malick introduces this lush but unsatisfying odyssey of '50s Americana with a biblical quote from the Book of Job. The hyperbolic text sets the abstract narrative that follows in thematic quicksand.
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?When the morning stars sang together,And all the sons of God shouted for joy?" For long stretches the film fawns over Hubble-inspired images from the vast reaches of space. Mammoth, colorful, nebulae groove in iridescent delight. Billions of stars twinkle. The Earth's sun erupts with gargantuan volcanic ferocity in extreme close-ups that put the viewer smack in the middle of boiling lava. Perhaps Malick is making an oblique case for intelligent design. If so, he plays his narrative cards too close to the vest to tell. Think of the wallpaper movie as cinematic Xanex. No amount of coffee will keep your eyes from wanting to shut. As for the inevitable comparisons critics will be tempted to make with Stanley Kubrick's "2001 A Space Odyssey," beware. No such comparison is appropriate. Inevitable, yes. But not appropriate.
Malick is clearly making a statement about the impermanent speck of astral dust that humanity represents against the infinite and expanding continuum of the cosmos. His meta-meta-micro vision does achieve the desired effect of making the audience feel small. It also makes us feel like we're being preached to by a filmmaker with not much more to express than how insignificant humanity is. If this sounds like a revelation, as it must have to Malick, you've come to the right place.