Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: "To The Wonder"

“Life’s a Dream.  In a dream you can’t make mistakes.  In a dream you can be whatever you want.”
            -Anna, To The Wonder

Neil and Marina (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) take a train and then hop into a convertible on their way to see Mont St. Michel (the “Wonder” of the West as it is sometimes referred to), a beautiful monastery atop a lonely island off the coast of France. The star-crossed lovers explore the area; the architecture, the gardens, the surrounding beaches. Their passion for each other is plainly evident, and the dreary and cold atmosphere around them somehow heightens the contrasting warmth of the romance.  They speak almost nothing but they are connected, alive, and experiencing each other.  It feels like my dreams.
My love of Terrence Malick films have been well-documented in this blog, with The Tree of Life and The New World being two of my favorite films of this century so far.  With his latest, To The Wonder, he departs from his prior five films in a number of ways; the first of those being that it is set in present day, and a second being that it is by far his most scaled-back, intimate work to date. 
The general outline of the story is based on Malick’s own life: after making his first two films in the 1970’s, he disappeared in Europe and didn’t return to filmmaking until 1997, with his Oscar-nominated The Thin Red Line, and it was during this time that he met his first wife, as Neil does in this film.  
Neil brings Marina and her 10-year old daughter back to the states with him, and they settle in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, or more specifically, a nameless suburb thereof, and only Terrence Malick could possibly frame the location to make it seem so beautiful.  The transition isn’t easy for any of the involved parties, and after some unsaid period of time, their relationship becomes strained, and they begin to drift away from each other as Neil begins a romance with Jane (Rachel McAdams), a ranch-owner and horse breeder from the area.  The two love interests represented are dichotomous: Marina is a free-spirited, fiery and passionate European (and apparently a failed ballet dancer), while Jane resembles a more reserved southern belle, who seeks the security Neil can bring her.  I don’t know if the dichotomy was supposed to be based on Malick’s own history, or rather if it was meant to be more of a philosophical portrayal of the internal struggle of men wanting both kinds of women, but either way, it works as a piece of storytelling here.  
The film has a third storyline, that of Father Quintana of the local Catholic church (Javier Bardem, who gives the best performance in the film), a priest who is experiencing his own relationship struggle between himself and God.  A sermon he preaches near the beginning of the film is centered on the idea of love: “Love is a duty...if you feel your love has died, it is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher.” We learn later on that he is possibly trying to convince himself of his own sermon as much as his congregation.  The comparison between the relationship we have with our loved ones and the one we may have with God is something I’m used to hearing in church, but it is refreshing to have this struggle dealt with bravely in a secular feature film.  A simply harrowing scene portrays Quintana cowering and hiding in his house, while a needy parishioner knocks on his door to no avail, and perhaps this is a bit of a sarcastic take on Jesus’s admonishment in the Sermon on the Mount to “knock, and the door shall be opened unto you.”  

While The Tree of Life was largely about Malick’s ambition to study the events of his childhood and to contextualize it into a larger cosmic conflict, To the Wonder is more about reconciling the regret and pain of his own personal life with the story he wished would have existed.  Therefore, when the film feels like a dream, that’s because it partly is one.  It is a beautiful collage of a combination of memories and longings for a future that will never exist in reality.  So while some will be put off by fanciful scenes of Marina dancing or frolicking through a wheat field, or a few too many shots of Neil passionately touching Marina, running his fingers down her unclothed back, to me it was beautiful and heartbreaking, as though Malick is preserving the way he remembers this woman in his dreams.  In a dream you can be whatever you want.  In a dream you can’t make mistakes. In a dream you can be free.
For all of my rambling thoughts thus far, it is simple: like no other director past or present, Malick speaks a language of film that I hear with an unparallelled level of clarity.  I respect that not everyone feels this way, and a quick look at the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score (42%) certainly reveals that to be the case.  But I know that it moved me enough to spend several hours writing a love letter to my wife, expressing a number of thoughts I hadn't quite discovered until seeing it on screen that day.  I wrote about my desire to experience the deeper intimacy that Malick contemplates in the film, along with my inability, similar to Neil’s, of being vulnerable enough to allow it to happen.  Because I don’t want to look back at my life and be left with a mixture of fleeting memories and unfulfilled dreams.  Love, in any form, demands that we live life in the present.  

One parting shot hearkens back to Neil and Marina’s journey at the beginning of the film to Mont. St. Michel, traveling down the road toward the beautiful monastery in the distance.  Without spoiling the end, we are left with a bit of an uncertain future; but the “Wonder” we see in the distance reminds us that the uncertainty and struggle of life is still guided by hope, or by God; that somewhere on the horizon, a very real place exists for us where we can let go of our past, our pain, and where we can be wondrously free. Nothing hinders us from reaching towards it.  

(One final note: To The Wonder was concurrently released in theaters and on video-on-demand platforms, so if you don't have time to go out to the theater, you should at least check it out in the comfort of your own home).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Top 10 Movies I'm Embarrassed I Haven't Seen

It’s easy to get a little movied-out in late winter/early spring time, since I spend most of November-February trying to keep up with all the awards season films, and because it’s a frustratingly long lull between the end of awards season and summer blockbusters. Every spring, Hollywood seems to basically take a dump in a bucket of warm water, splatter it across all of our faces while laughing maniacally and expecting us to give them money for it, but what are you going to do. 

Anyway, this April, instead of bemoaning the lack of anything good to write about (beyond Mad Men season 6, that is), I thought it would be a great time to point out some major, gaping, and downright embarrassing holes in my list of films I’ve seen.  In coming up with and ranking this list, I’ve considered many factors and come up with a scientific formula, consisting of the following, in order of importance:

  • Ranking on the AFI Top 100 List
  • Ranking on the IMDB Top 250 List
  • Prominence of the Director
  • Severity of people's reactions when I admit I haven't seen the film

Actually, when I was trying to create this list, there are really only three or four that I’m truly embarrassed to not have seen, so I guess that says something pretty good.  In sifting through the AFI Top 100 List, or IMDB’s Top 250 List, there were only 12 and 32 films I hadn’t seen on each list, respectively.  So that’s not so bad. 

Hopefully by the middle-end of May, I will have completed watching this list, and will be able to report back my thoughts.  Until then, I will just leave my list here sans comment, and let each of you decide just how embarrassed I should be about my having never seen the following films:

10. "Aliens" (1986, dir. James Cameron)

9.  "It Happened One Night" (1934, Frank Capra)

8.  "Some Like it Hot"  (1959, dir. Billy Wilder)

7.  "Jaws" (1975, dir. Steven Spielberg)

6.  "All About Eve" (1950, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

5. "8 ½" (1963, dir. Federico Fellini)

4. "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" (1966, dir. Sergio Leone)

3.  "City Lights" (1931, dir. Charlie Chaplin)

2.  "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962, dir. David Lean)

1.  "Raging Bull" (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese)