Skip to main content

Life’s a dream. In a dream you can make mistakes. In a dream you can be whatever you want.

To the Wonder
(2012)

(MILD SPOILERS) Terrence Malick’s latest rumination falls considerably short of post-career comeback triumphs The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. Accordingly, it has more in common with his 2005 Pocahontas tale The New World; a visually resplendent piece of work (as are all his films) but one that fails to resonate.


Maybe it’s all in the casting, despite the evidence that his actors are somewhat superfluous to his goals. The number that have ended up on his cutting room floor is legendary, although it says as much about their unabated desire to work with a legend as his capacity for pruning and reshaping his projects in the edit (with scant regards for his thespians). The Thin Red Line bears the evidence of this most heavily (star turns from the likes of Travolta and Clooney stick out like a sore thumb as they only appear for a scene or two), and more recently Sean Penn passed comment about how little of his performance remained in The Tree of Life. This time numerous actors (and therefore subplots) vanished from the finished article; there was no Rachel Weisz, or Amanda Peet, or Barry Pepper, or Jessica Chastain, or Michael Sheen. And those we are left with are unable to sufficiently define their characters. With a Ben Affleck, I doubt that all the time in the world would have made his role seem more rounded. But it’s difficult to argue that Javier Bardem has a less than irrepressible screen presence. And yet, he fails to make much impact. So maybe it’s not just about the casting.


What survives the mass slaughter of Malick’s editing process is almost wilfully oblique; it’s clear that the director has intentionally repositioned Affleck’s Neil at arm’s length, such that he is witnessed through the eyes of those with whom he has relationships (mainly Olga Kurylenko’s Marina). But the actor’s a bit of a blank at the best of times (either stoical or wooden, depending on the role). Neil is granted very little dialogue, either voiceover or spoken, and one assumes that he is impenetrable because that’s how Marina sees him. The problem is, the picture as a whole is content to occupy this space, out of reach and inert. It’s as if Malick wishes to tread as closely to a non-narrative form as possible. He hangs the loosest of threads together, daring the imponderables to stick. 


Neil is ostensibly the hub of the film, as it is around him that the relationships with Marina and Jane (Rachel McAdams) revolve. In Paris, Neil begins a relationship with the Ukranian Marina. She and her daughter move to Oklahoma with him. When their relationship begins to fall apart, Neil takes up with old friend Jane. The other significant character is Father Quintera (Bardem), a Catholic priest with great doubts over his faith; the paths of Neil and Marina cross his periodically.


I did wonder if Wonder’s tonal variation to The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life might be the key to its failure to connect. Where those films resonated through their characters’ hopes and spiritual awareness, here the director abides with those who are lost or struggling. He leaves it doubtful as to whether any relief is possible (the harsh realities of ephemeral or unrequited love, be it toward another or God). But I don’t think that’s all it is. Unwilling to engage wholly with the relationships between his characters, Malick has nothing solid to fall back on. The Thin Red Line contrasted the starkness of war with the longings of its embattled soldiers. The horror of conflict was juxtaposed with the beauty of the natural world. The Tree of Life set the birth of the universe against the microcosm of a Texan family upbringing. Here, the relationships are murky (Marina appears to be bipolar; we see her veer from prancing and dancing – to be fair she is a ballerina – to abject despair) or underdeveloped (Jane barely features, which would be fine if she was intended to contrast with a fully realised Marina, but the latter remains at a distance).


It’s possible that the “solidity” in this regard was intended for Quintera; it is his questioning relationship with God that has the clearest “structure” (we see his ministrations, but also his fear when one of his flock perceives his lack of belief). But like Jane, Quintera never registers more than tangentially. All of this might have still found form had Malick not semi-dispensed with meaningful voiceovers. In To the Wonder they have become mere fragments, the imploring searching discourses of Thin Red Line long since abandoned. What remains with Quintera is a dried up husk of hope; all he can do is persevere.


Characters’ meditations, now half-whispered commentaries, are borne mainly from confusion and lack of insight (in Marina’s case); they are as enigmatic and elliptical as the characters. When combined with the absence of dramatic incident the result is a very pretty, rather bloated experimental movie; close to an extended montage sequence than a coherent narrative. This may be the intent; as Marina’s friend Anna (Romina Mondello) says “Life’s a dream. In a dream you can make mistakes”. Characters perceptions and experiences form a diffuse mist. Factors that once suggested connection and affirmative forces now signify distance (the aforementioned voiceover, but also the ever-present natural world). Nature is less a comfort (although as beautifully shot as ever) and more a representation of characters’ isolation amidst its canopy.


There is a cumulative point too where the picture ever so slightly begins to feel like a parody of Malick movies. You can feel the director straining for meaning and import to the brink of unintentional comedy. I’m reminded of After the Fox where Peter Sellers’ (fake) film director improvises a scene with Victor Mature and Britt Ekland. In a send-up of neo-realism he instructs them to run and run, as symbolically “No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourselves!” “Ahhh! Beautiful!” replies Mature’s ham actor. In To the Wonder, Neil and Marina visit a kitchen supply store and stand amid the washing machines while she plays with a connecting hose. Neil runs from a chicken Marina is clutching (at least To the Wonder can boast the sight of Ben Affleck fleeing a fowl). Neil and Jane stand in fields of long grass. Neil, environmental inspector by day, tramps through a mire of mud at a snowy site (still looking beautiful, but in a slightly dirty way); doubtless this symbolises the state of his life, but why we are shown it Malick only knows (he won’t allow us into Neil’s head). Sunlight is constantly caught through the leaves of trees; it’s a like comedian who keeps telling the same tired joke because an audience laughed at it once.


There has been discussion of the precise fates of Neil and Marina (together or apart, in positive or negative states), but in honesty the conversation has failed to grab me. Simply because Malick’s film hasn’t moved me; I don't really care about his characters, because he hasn't given me enough to do so. The director is adept at visual poetry as ever he was, but this time he has pared away his other most fascinating quality as a filmmaker; his existential contemplations. Maybe he feels he has gone as far as he can in one direction (Malick, an Episcopalian and one-time philosophy lecturer, is inescapably stirred by spiritual deliberations); it will be interesting to see if Knight of Cups and its companion project find the director tackling his pet themes from a different storytelling position. I hope so, as I’m not sure how much time I have for further forays along this path; an approach that was once liberating has become a formal cul-de-sac.


***

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the