REVIEW: “To the Wonder”

TO WONDER POSTER

Terrence Malick is a filmmaker that marches to the beat of his own drum. To be honest, that’s one of the things I like the most about him. We say this often but here it unquestionably applies – you know a Terrence Malick movie when you see one. Malick has a distinct style of lyrical and visual storytelling and you either respond to it or you don’t. Personally I love it. Now sometimes his style is more impressive than his finished products, but for the most part Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers. In fact, his last film “The Tree of Life” was my clear favorite film of 2011.

Malick is a director who takes his time and only makes a film when he’s ready. This is evident by the fact that he has only six movies on his directing resume. His latest, surprisingly only two years after “The Tree of Life”, is another exercise in lyrical and contemplative style. It’s one of my most anticipated films of 2013. It’s called “To the Wonder” and for me it’s another soul-stirring gem that throws the textbook on conventional moviemaking out the window. Instead Malick is making another deeply personal film, possibly his most personal movie to date. It’s also his most romantic, most spiritual, and most tragic film all at the same time.

The movie follows a young couple as they navigate the unquenchable joys and the devastating heartbreaks associated with love. We first meet Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris, France. The two are madly in love and Malick expresses it through a rhythmic series of romantic and absorbing scenes in such beautiful Parisian settings such as the Luxembourg Gardens and the banks of the Seine River. There’s also a majestic sequence with the two outside of town at the gorgeous Mont Saint-Michel. Neil and Marina can’t seem to be able to control their affection for the other. There’s a strong focus on touch in these scenes whether it’s holding hands or running a hand across the shoulder blades. The romance between Neil and Marina is sublime and beautiful and I never doubted its authenticity.

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Marina, a Paris native and single mother, decides to move with her daughter to the States in order to be close to Neil. They land in midwestern Oklahoma where Neil works as an environmental safety inspector. The contrast between the energetic and vibrant Paris and their sparse and sometimes empty Oklahoma community almost serves as a metaphor for their relationship. The two who were as passionate as the French city they consumed now battle creeping bouts of emptiness and an emotional wedge that we watch grow and grow. It becomes painfully obvious that their relationship is hurting but neither seems to know what to do.

Then there’s the story of Quintana (Javier Bardem), the local priest in Neil and Marina’s area. Quintana is a troubled man. He has a deep love for the Lord but he feels disconnected. He’s dying to have the intimacy with God that he once had. He visits the sick, the poor, and the needy. He shepherds his flock. Yet there’s still a void in his soul that he desperately wants to fill. But he’s also a lonely man bound by the shackles of the priesthood an its strict rules. Watching Bardem’s solemn face and lonely, tired eyes really drew me to this character. It did surprise me how little he had to do with what seemed like the main focus of the film but Malick shows some moving similarities between his struggles and those of Neil and Marina.

Their stories do begin to connect and we watch as everything plays out. But don’t expect a tight narrative with a fully disclosed ending. Malick is more interested in having us observe and experience than being baby fed an entire story. He wants us to feel, to sympathize, to grow angry, and to meditate. Our time is spent observing and Malick lays his canvas before us. On it he explores inner conflicts, poor and costly decisions, and revived hope. It’s presented through an artistic machine that utilizes everything including the stunning score, the beauty of nature, a graceful camera, and the natural ambiance of the world surrounding his characters.

Affleck and Kurylenko are transcendent. The film features little to no dialogue with the exception of voice-over narrations therefore the two lead actors basically perform off of each other or in scenes alone. Neither ever seem aware of the camera and both get lost in their performances. Affleck was a great surprise. He’s quiet, sincere, and a stout and strong contrast to Kurylenko’s subtle elegance and grace. And speaking of Kurylenko, I think she gives an awards worthy performance. But while the performances are key, a Terrence Malick film is usually made in the editing room. Don’t believe me? Just ask Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain. Both shot scenes for the film but all of them ended up on the cutting room floor. Regardless the editing is sensational and the film moves like a page of good music with the exceptions of a few patches of repetition in the second half of the film.

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As with his other movies, Malick uses his visuals to draw us in and also tell the bulk of his story. His sensational command of his camera and his artist’s eye for capturing beautiful shots are essential to his success. His camera is constantly moving and it always seems perfectly positioned. I was absorbed in what I was seeing and his fluid and poetic transitions from shot to shot kept me that way. Even for those who don’t respond to the film as a whole, they’ll be hard pressed to not be fascinated with Malick’s visual artistry.

There will be plenty of people who can’t latch onto “To the Wonder”. It will be perceived as slow, confounding, and lifeless. I couldn’t disagree more. I loved the film and while it’s certainly not as challenging as “The Tree of Life”, it’s still a captivating piece of cinema. It doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t adhere to a conventional storytelling formula. It asks the audience to think and to feel. If you’re not open to that you’re probably not going to respond well to this film.

In his final review before his unfortunate passing, the late Roger Ebert said this about “To the Wonder” : “(Many will) be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply.” I think he’s right and some early reviews have shown that to be true. But I believe Malick has given us another standout picture that takes a real (sometimes uncomfortably so) look at relationships, faith, and the quest for love in both. Yet it’s all told through an artist’s lens with entrancing metaphoric imagery and a steady grace that could only come from a Terrence Malick film. I know many are going to struggle with this movie but for me it’s the first great film of 2013.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

WORLD WAR 2 MOVIES: Blogger Buddies Speak…

 
 
All week I have been looking at movies based on World War 2. I’ve already shared reviews and a Phenomenal 5. So I thought it would be cool to hear the thoughts of some of my movie blogging buddies. There are literally hundreds of World War 2 pictures and so many of them are great movies. But there are also a handful that stand out as true classics as you will see by the picks below. I asked some of my movie-loving friends to share their favorite World War 2 movie with a brief explanation of why they love it so. I got some great choices and great defenses and I appreciate everyone who chimed in.
 
 
From my buddy Mark over at Marked Movies:
 
“THE THIN RED LINE”
 

“The brutality of war is ethereally and philosophically handled by Terrence Malick. Beautifully shot with an endless cast of familiar faces. War, captured as a meditation and a surprisingly poetic baptism that was based on the novel by James Jones.”

Adam from one of my favs3 Guys 1 Movieagreed:

“THE THIN RED LINE”

Without a doubt my favorite WW2 film of all time is Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line. This film was released in 1998 and was overshadowed by another small WW2 film also released that year, Saving Private Ryan. While both films are deserving of great praise, for me the Thin Red Line is a far superior film.

I would describe this film as, a thinking man’s war film. Malick presents us with a war movie from the perspective of an Emersonian philosopher. He also allows us a look inside the heads of several of the main characters, so you can see their thoughts and motivations for their actions.

This is a beautifully shot film, with the Eden like beauty of the tropical islands juxtaposed with the brutal horror of war. If you are looking for a war film that will leave you with more questions than answers, about the nature of man and his place in the world, this might be a film you would enjoy.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the amazing performances in this film by Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and John Cusack to name a few. It’s a star-studded film with lots powerful performances and small cameo appearances. If you get a chance to check out The Thin Red Line I urge you to give it a watch, after all, it’s my favorite WW2 film.

Pete from the always funI Love That Film” :

“SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”

“Saving Private Ryan” feels more like an experience than a film. Never has a battle scene been more immersive than the opening assault on Omaha Beach. The rest of the film pales in comparison but still delivers some heart breaking characters and perfect cinematography.

However it is the opening thirty minutes that grabs the viewer; putting them in the terrified faces of puking, trembling soldiers before showing them being ripped apart and torn to shreds by enemy gunfire. The handheld point-of-view style camera puts us right there on the beach and changed war films forever. It is a scene you can never forget; a terrifying experience.

Overall, it may not have a complex narrative or be overly ponderous and thoughtful about the life of a soldier, but it does leave viewers with a brutal sense of the horror and the heroics of World War 2.”

Sharing the same view is my friend Kristin from the wonderfulAll Eyes on Screen“:

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

Well, I’m going to be cliché, or boring, or predictable, and say that my favorite WWII film is Saving Private Ryan. Partly because I haven’t seen a ton of war films, but the reason I primarily chose it is that I love the film. The story is moving, and there isn’t a hint of realism–the film is rooted in realistic combat, dialogue, and action. Tom Hanks leads a strong cast in a film that as many have said–and many more will say–was cheated at the Oscars. I did watch Shakespeare in Love in order to see what was so good about it that it was able to beat out Saving Private Ryan, and in my humble opinion, Shakespeare in Love didn’t come close.”

Marc fromLove Your Moviesadded cool twist:

“THE READER

With a different slant on a WWII film, The Reader tells the story of a woman and former prison guard for the Nazi party. An illiterate woman who was just trying to serve her country and make a living is later put on trial for crimes against humanity along with the other women guards she worked with. They soon conspire to have her take the fall for them all and with her ailment she is unable to refute the accusations.

Having had an unusual relationship with a young high school student whom she lost touch with over the years, he soon discovers her again when she is on trial and he is a young law student. After he is grown he begins to search her out in prison and helps her unknowingly learn how to read and write. Knowing she was innocent of the certain charges and that she is genuinely a good person he can’t lose touch with her.
 
With career changing performances from Kate Winslet and Ralph Finnes, it is an emotional powerhouse of a film that shows a side of one time Nazi’s that hasn’t been shown before. Quite a few soldiers and others involved were just trying to make a living and thought they were doing the right thing for their country as do most servants of their countries. While it’s not considered a traditional WWII film it is still a necessary story none the less.”
 
Great choices and great comments.

5 PHENOMENAL WORLD WAR 2 FILMS

How on earth do you narrow a list of top World War 2 movies down to just five? Since the war itself, there have been so many high quality films from across the globe that focused on this troubled time in our world’s history. When trying to narrow down this list, I wanted to make sure that the war was a key character in the story and not simply the backdrop. Several classic films such as “Casablanca” are set in wartime but the war isn’t central to the picture. But I didn’t want to restrict the list to only combat centered movies. So while the war is a key ingredient in the films I chose, combat doesn’t have to be the main focus. These five films are war pictures that not only show the action of the battlefield but the horrible effects and atrocities of World War 2. As always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these World War 2 films are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE PIANIST” (2002)

The Pianist” is a painful yet moving film about a Jewish-Polish pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman. The movie covers the Nazi invasion and eventual occupation of Warsaw, Poland as well as the subsequent Warsaw Uprising by the Polish resistance. We follow Szpilman and his family as the Nazi’s invade. We see them confined to the horrible conditions of the Jewish Ghetto. We even see the Nazis begin shipping out Jews to the nearby death camps. Szpilman’s struggle to survive isn’t always easy to watch. There are some genuinely heart-wrenching and disturbing scenes that still stick to me to this day. But the entire film is done responsibly and it packs such an emotional punch that you’ll never want to forget this dark time in our worlds history. Adrien Brody won the Best Actor for his portrayal of Szpilman and it was well-deserved. It won numerous other awards and remains one of the most powerful World War 2 films out there.

#4 – “SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”  (1998)

A World War 2 movie from 1998, “Saving Private Ryan” was Steven Spielberg’s hugely popular film that also received several Oscar nominations. Spielberg’s movie has been praised for its intensely realistic portrayal of combat during the war. The intensity of the battle sequences mixed with the enormous attention to detail gives the movie a heightened realism that’s hard to forget. The story captures the extraordinary emotions which are fueled by both the camaraderie and the loss of soldiers in battle. We see it’s effects on the men and we see the effects on their family. A sensational cast led by the always diverse Tom Hanks lay the story out for us with honesty and grit. And the opening 30 minutes which features the Omaha Beach landing on D-Day will go down as one of the most piercing and powerful scenes in movie history. “Saving Private Ryan” is a movie that calls us to remember a war we should never forget and Spielberg’s accomplishment should never be forgotten as well.

#3 – “THE LONGEST DAY” (1962)

“The Longest Day” may have the greatest ensemble cast in the history of movies. John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Wagner, Eddie Albert, Roddy McDowall, Sal Mineo, Rod Steiger, and so many more star in this large-scale depiction of D-Day and the invasion of Normandy. The movie looks at D-Day from all sides, the Americans, the British, the French Resistance, and even the Germans. The attention and effort put in “The Longest Day” is evident. The movie was influenced by contributors from all sides of the war including those who fought on June 6, 1944. At almost 3 hours, the movie goes to great lengths to look at all that went into the planning and execution of that gutsy and dangerous invasion. Great performances and several classic scenes help make “The Longest Day” one of my favorite war films of all time.

#2 – “SCHINDLER’S LIST” (1993)

Steven Spielberg’s brilliant film “Schindler’s List” is one of the most devastating movies you’ll see. But it’s also an example of filmmaking at it’s best and, much like “The Pianist”, it looks back at a horrific time in our world’s history that we should never forget. The film revolves around the true life story of Oskar Schindler, a money-hungry German businessman who arrives in Krakow after the Nazi invasion in hopes of making tons of money exploiting the war. Instead we see a remarkable personal transformation. But the film should be most remembered for it’s realistic portrayal of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Spielberg’s use of black and white instead of color and his filming technique gives the movie an almost documentary feel. Also his careful attention to detail and honest depictions of the horrors that took place make the film even more potent. “Schindler’s List” is a monumental achievement even though it’s one of the most difficult movies to watch.

#1 – “FLAME AND CITRON” (2008)

I can see where it would surprise some to see a more recent Danish picture at the top of my list of World War 2 movies. “Flame and Citron” is a movie many have probably never heard of but everyone should see. It’s an enthralling film about two Danish resistance fighters who carry out hits on Nazi officers , key Nazi targets, and Nazi sympathizers during the German occupation of Denmark. It’s loosely based on true events and is told from a unique perspective that really grabbed me. Thure Lindhardt and the wonderful Mads Mikkelsen are brilliant as the secret assassins and Christian Madsen’s direction is top-notch. “Flame and Citron” is a gritty and unashamed look at the war through the eyes of a persecuted people who were willing to fight back. It’s a movie that’s flawlessly executed (no pun intended) and that reveals a side of the war that was completely new to me. It’s an incredible movie and one that I can’t recommend enough especially to those who love war films.

See something on my list you disagree with? Did I leave your favorite World War 2 movie off? Please take time to share your comments or post your list of the best World War 2 movies. The more comments, the better the discussion.

REVIEW: “The Tree of Life”

It’s hard to deny that “The Tree of Life”, Terrence Malick’s first film since 2005′s “The New World”, is destined to be a polarizing movie. I’ve seen it called pretentious, self-indulgent, and a muddled exercise in tedium. But I had a much different reaction. I found it to be cinematic poetry. A profound and deeply moving picture that’s cryptic yet bold and thought-provoking. It’s a challenging meditation on life, family, and God. It’s a film that doesn’t revolve around a tight, concentrated narrative. Instead it feels more like an observation of everything from the creation of the world according to Malick to the life struggles of an ordinary family in 1950′s Texas. It moves at a stylish but deliberate pace and this is sure to drive some people crazy. But I feel it rewards the patient viewer and I found myself drawn in by the artistry and emotion of the film.

In the first few minutes of the movie we see Mrs. O’Brien, (Jessica Chastain) as she is receiving a letter stating her 19 year old son is dead. She calls Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) at work to let him know the tragic news. The film then moves to present day as we are introduced to Jack (Sean Penn) the oldest of the O’Brien’s three sons. Jack comes across as an emotional wreck and we find out that he is still devastated by the loss of his younger brother. He notices a tree being planted in a small construction area which triggers an extended flashback to his childhood.

Jack’s childhood revolves around something said at the first of the film. “There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow”. Jack’s dad is a man of nature. He’s a short-tempered and strict father whose hypocrisies don’t go unnoticed by his children. He has a cynical and hardened view of the world and recognizes success as beating the world at it’s own game. Jack’s mom is a woman of grace. She sees the world as a beautiful place and her faith fuels her loving and trusting nature. She’s quiet and gentle and her love of life is unquestioned even through life’s struggles. The question is which path will young Jack follow?

As we watch Jack and his brothers grow up in 1950′s Waco, Texas, Malick gives us some of the most grounded and natural portrayals of early adolescence that you will find on film. Young Jack, played by the fantastic Hunter McCracken,  has a great relationship with his brothers but always finds himself falling short in his father’s eyes. There are several painfully potent scenes that convey this and over time it leads to some disturbing changes in Jack. It’s heart-wrenching enough to watch this young boy flirt with self-destruction but witnessing his inner struggles with his actions is even more despairing. We hear him in voiceover ask ”What have I done?” He painfully states ”What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate.” It’s pretty weighty material and Malick doesn’t treat it halfheartedly.

Malick takes the O’Briens through trials and tragedies but he uses them to explore forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. He’s not afraid to ask tough questions or address things such as existence, spirituality, and the afterlife. But this gets at another thing that makes this film special. It can speak to different people in so many different ways. Whether it be the spiritual subtext or the strained family dynamic, Malick takes something that is obviously deeply personal and touches the audience in a wide variety of ways.

“The Tree of Life” is a technical masterpiece and it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning it. Emmanuel Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography should garner instant Oscar consideration. In many ways ”The Tree of Life” is more lyrical than dramatic therefore many scenes find their strength in imagery and camera work other than any form of dialogue. Many of Lubezki’s gorgeous shots carry more dramatic and emotional weight than almost any acted sequence I’ve seen all year. Alexandre Desplat’s brilliant score hits at just the right times during the film, weaving itself between Malick’s signature scenes featuring nature’s ambiance.

This is a unique film which calls for a unique approach by the actors. With the absence of a more precise narrative, the performances are structured around Malick’s vision. Pitt is fantastic in a conservative and more restrained performance. Chastain is graceful and has a subtle elegance. But it’s McCracken who steals the show with his authentic and measured performance. He sells every seen he’s in and Malick uses him perfectly.

“The Tree of Life” requires the audience to accept it for what it is. It’s bold and unwavering and while it could be misconstrued as a vanity project, it’s a film that’s clearly close to Malick’s heart. It most certainly isn’t for everyone, but I found myself immediately drawn in and unable to take my eyes off the visual splendor and mesmerizing meditation. It’s easy to be put off by things such as length and the lack of a focused story. But I implore audiences to judge “The Tree of Life” for what’s it’s meant to be. It touched me in many ways and it’s a film that with stick with me for a long time.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M