Wednesday, May 8, 2013

To the Pretentious Pits of Cinematic Hell

Forgive me for my rather unfriendly retitling of Terrence Malick's latest, To the Wonder; I really had no choice.  Coming less than two years after his last film, The Tree of Life in all its Palme D'Or, thrice Oscar-nominated art house success glory, it's at first jarring just to settle into this new found prolific era for the famously reclusive filmmaker who used to enchant and startle the cinematic culture with a film once every decade or so.  Whatever is the impetus for his unexpected productivity (he's got a few more projects on the ways as well), To the Wonder feels nothing more than a highly stylized and mighty pointy middle finger to...well I'm not sure to whom exactly, but it's pointed for sure.  A love story between two aimless archetypal figures played by glamorous movie stars is the focal point for To the Wonder, but the mostly montage of a film plays like a gorgeously lit Instagram profile recapping the joys and sorrows of a summertime fling.  That may appear harsh considering the high minded frame from which Malick is coming from and his impossibly idyllic imagery, but the drama, the backbone, the pulse, the spark of To the Wonder is so elusive that Mr. Malick, either consciously or not, refuses to share it with the audience.

We start in Paris as Olga Kurylenko, a former Bond girl and last year one of the Seven Psychopaths, plays girl and lover to Ben Affleck, former matinee idol turned awards-bait golden boy.  They are in harmonic bliss as blandly nondescript narration whispers greeting card displays of affection along with foreshadowing of future unhappiness.  Forget all that-- they're in love.  Kurylenko, in a performance or pantomime of exhausting physicality, dances and prances and skips and jumps on beds and scampers about in fits of joy and sadness.  She has a young daughter who is equally in awe of her mother's new American friend and a similarly balletic composure.  Affleck is stoic, cool and reserved, delivering his six or so lines of dialogue with a plain, simple disposition as he paces and broods and makes googly eyes at his pretty lover.

The action (as well as the prancing) moves to Kansas as Affleck takes the two lovely French ladies back home, and for a stretch To the Wonder plays like lost scenes of idealized Americana left over from the finished cut of The Tree of Life.  Nothing much happens, or matters, incidentally, but the camera moves so swiftly and gingerly, seemingly as in awe with the possibilities of burgeoning love as the two movie stars appear to be.  Instead of drama, To the Wonder offers circumstance, as the lovely French ladies are sent back to Paris as their visas are about to expire...and the American brooder takes up a fling with another beautiful woman-- a rancher played by Rachel McAdams.  There's a reconciliation, of course (along with more prancing), but that's when the nagging asides of To the Wonder pitter-patter to a continual stench of nothingness.  It's important to note the glamor of the movie stars as they appear in so perfectly coiffed and remarkably beautiful in contrast to the regular (and one assumes, non-professional) supporting passerbys.  Kurylenko, Affleck and McAdams are magazine chic.

Meanwhile, Javier Bardem plays a local priest who pops by occasionally to offer sullen and disillusioning takes on society as a whole.  This may be the literal interpretation that Malick has ever expressed in his continual takes on faith and the divine, but more importantly, the only small nugget of substance that seemingly can be gathered in To the Wonder is the conceit that the longing and suffering of its characters comes from a disbelief or lack of faith in the almighty himself.  While as an exploratory means of art that may be all well and good, but Malick drags his heels in the mud in the final stretch of To the Wonder which plays more so as a preachy advertisement than a thread of dramatic stitching.

It goes almost without saying that the camera work is astonishing.  To the Wonder reconnects Malick with his go-to lenser Emmanuel Lubezki, whose visceral setups and expert frame work are art gallery-worthy, or at the least, screen savor worthy.  However, even despite the beauty To the Wonder manages to film, there's a hollow, shallow emptiness to the entire movie.  There's nothing to cling to, either by way of nostalgia or novelty, and for the first time in his career, Malick seems to have, perhaps, been swayed by the decades of being heralded a filmmaking genius, and offers little more than post card ready snapshots shot to the ether ready to raved and lavished upon.  F

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