Friday, April 12, 2013
WHAT: Let's just say this is the first time a single viewing of a Terence Malick film hasn't blown me away.
I absolutely loved The Thin Red Line. When it came out I saw it three times in the theatre. When I went back to look at Malick's earlier films Badlands and Days of Heaven I loved those too. When The New World arrived I though it was tremendous, perhaps his best yet. It felt like a privilege to see it in theatres. And though I had quibbles with The Tree of Life (surfacing whenever Sean Penn, who I normally like, showed up on screen) they were overshadowed to the point of being almost invisible in the grand scheme of the work, which felt like another sprint forward for a filmmaker who could have kept running in place and still lapped most of his fellow directors.
There's definitely a sense of the treadmill to To the Wonder however. Don't get me wrong. It's beautiful, and I wish I'd loved watching it as thoroughly as Nick Pinkerton and Bilge Ebiri and Richard Brody clearly did. Times like these, I wish I had the generosity of Roger Ebert, who in his final published review before his death admitted to having been put off at first by the film's opacity, yet was able to find enough to like to write an honest three-and-a-half (out of four) star assessment. I don't generally tinker with assigning star ratings to films, but my first instinct is that this is a two-and-a-half star film for me, with room for at least half a star of movement in either direction. Not so bad, really. If a lesser director (say, Jason Reitman) had made a film this good, it would be his best one yet. But Malick's other five features are all easily four-star masterpieces. I hope to revisit this one soon, in the hopes of something 'clicking' for me that helps me realize what I wasn't seeing (beyond the gorgeous visuals) the first time around.
I realize I've been terribly vague up to now, so here's what I think is the crux of my problem with To the Wonder: Ben Affleck. It's not his performance that's a problem, but his casting is, I think, a big one. The role that is essentially that of an unknowable cypher, representing as much a part of the American strangeness that the film's central Frenchwoman character (played marvelously by Olga Kurylenko) cannot overcome, as the romantic impetus for her decision to come here in the first place. But Affleck's star persona automatically fills in the blank spaces Malick has left in his drawing of the character. Kurylenko might as well be in love with Jim Young, the ruthlessly cocksure capitalist from Boiler Room or A.J. Frost, the none-too-bright oil driller from Armageddon or even Ben Affleck, the self-serious film director who talks about the "poet's truth" on Fresh Air. None of these personalities compute as someone who would attract a French single mother to live with him in Oklahoma, and since this love affair and resultant uprooting are the central concerns of the film, everything in the film threatens to crumble into uninvolving banality. Sometimes it really feels like it has.
WHERE/WHEN: Multiple daily showtimes all week at the Embarcadero and the California in Berkeley. If you attend the latter, try to catch one of the shows in the downstairs, handicap accessible theatre, which seems likely to be the biggest Frisco Bay screen to show this.
WHY: Despite my rather sour experience watching this the first time around, I definitely think anyone who has enjoyed previous Terence Malick films, particularly The New World and The Tree of Life, its closet thematic and stylistic cousins, respectively, should see it. As I noted above, there are plenty of intelligent and passionate cinephiles and critics who have found more merit in it than I did, and reading their eloquent arguments has convinced me to have at least one more go of it. I'm not sure that this time I'll like it better than the spate of recent Malick-indebted releases I've seen recently. I'm thinking of Upstream Color (which opens for a commercial run at the Roxie today and is to my mind a far more surprising and satisfying feature) or Beasts of the Southern Wild (you might call Javier Bardem's character in To The Wonder a "Priest of the Southern Wild") or even Spring Breakers (which for me benefitted from featuring stars mostly of a generation I'm wholly unfamiliar with.) At the very least I'll be able to bask in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski's images on a big screen once more.
HOW: So far all Frisco Bay screenings of To The Wonder are expected to be digital. I've been told that there are at least one or two 35mm exhibition prints of this film struck, and hope we Frisco Bay audiences get a chance to see one at some point. Perhaps at the Castro sometime?