REVIEW: “To the Wonder”

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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

5 PHENOMENAL ACTRESSES TO WATCH OUT FOR

Movies have always been blessed with an assortment of wonderful actresses and it’s no different now. Amazing acting talents are springing up and making names for themselves. I thought it would be fun to consider 5 Phenomenal actresses that you should keep your eye on. These ladies aren’t exactly “seasoned” in the traditional sense but they have enough on their resume to prove that they are remarkable performers. Now I didn’t want this to be an up-and-coming list. Instead I’m wanting to give props to five ladies who I think have huge careers ahead of them. Now as always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. But there’s no denying that these 5 actresses to watch out for are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – MIA WASIKOWSKA

At only 22 years of age, Mia Wasikowska has already tackled a variety of great roles. She’s shared the screen with big names such as Johnny Depp, Michael Fassbender, Glenn Close, and Daniel Craig and she’s more than held her own. She’s made some great film choices and the future looks promising. She’s already lined up to be in “Lawless”, a film where she will co-star with big names such as Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, and Guy Pearce.  Wasikowska is never overpowered by the material and her ability to handle challenging roles at such a young age is very impressive. Expect to see a lot from this phenomenal young talent.

#4 – EMILY BLUNT

Emily Blunt as an example of a very talented actress who is still looking for that one big role. She starred in several films that I’ve enjoyed and several that I haven’t but yet she’s always delivered a strong and steady performance. She’s clearly comfortable with comedy or drama and her assortment of films show that to be true. She was in several smaller but entertaining films before really drawing attention for her work in “Young Victoria”. From there she has starred in everything from family films, quirky British comedies, sci-fi thrillers, and romantic comedies. Through them all she has shown an amazing range and an ability to handle any material she has given. She’s a magnetic actress who will be around for a long time.

#3 – SAOIRSE RONAN

An even younger but equally talented actress is Saoirse Ronan. At 18 years of age she has steered clear of some of the movie traps that many young performers fall into. She first gained major attention for her wonderful work in “Atonement”, a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination at the age of 13. She was also very good in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones”, a film that doesn’t hold up well despite her fantastic performance. I was really impressed with her work in “The Way Back”, a very underappreciated film. And in 2011 she showed what kind of range she has by playing a trained assassin in “Hanna”. Ronan has a wonderful screen presence and has grown with each performance. She’s certainly one to watch.

#2- JENNIFER LAWRENCE

While her resume may not be as plump as the other actresses on this list, Jennifer Lawrence has blown me away by her work so far. Lawrence has never been to acting school or taken an acting class yet she has what seems to be a natural ability. It was her starring role in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone” that immediately caught the attention of the movie world. She gives a tough and gritty performance that earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. It was a performance that still amazes me today. She had a great role in “The Beaver” and she was also very good in “X-Men: First Class”. Most recently she’s been seen starring in a little movie you may have heard of, “The Hunger Games”. The movie has catapulted her into the more mainstream spotlight. And while the film isn’t perfect, there’s no denying that Lawrence is brilliant in the lead role. She has several projects in the works and, of course, more Hunger Games sequels. Expect to hear Jennifer Lawrence’s name for a while.

#1 – JESSICA CHASTAIN

2011 can officially be called a break-out year for Jessica Chastain. After a small career in television, Chastain made her feature film debut in 2008. But it was last year that she truly made her mark on the film industry with some amazing work. She was really good in “The Help” and received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance. But that wasn’t even her best work of the year. She was mesmerizing in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”. She was even better alongside Michael Shannon in the underappreciated film “Take Shelter” and it’s there that she gives what I felt was the best supporting work of the year. She was also fantastic with Ralph Fiennes in “Coriolanus” and this year she will be in the above mentioned “Lawless”. Chastain has a grounded and almost natural grace about her and it translates so well on screen. With all of the attention she’s getting for her recent work, you can count on good director’s wanting to work with her even more.

And there they are. Do you agree or disagree with my list? Do you know of someone I missed? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Oscar – The morning after…

Well it has come and gone. The 2012 Oscars seemed to get here in a hurry and be done just as quick. As usual for the more recent Oscars, there were few surprises. Most of the “Big 6” went as I predicted and the only real surprises were with the technical awards. But overall it was a fun night. Here’s a few thoughts…

Billy Crystal hosted the 2012 show after the Eddie Murphy debacle (or should I say the Brett Ratner debacle) and he did a solid job. Unlike last year’s odd and sometimes uncomfortable hosting from James Franco and Anne Hathaway, this was more grounded but still quite funny. Crystal used several tried-and-true antics such as the song detailing the Best Picture Nominees and the “What they’re thinking” segment. I found them and several of Crystal’s adaptive one-liners to be very funny. Several of the presenters provided some good laughs including Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Chris Rock (I was surprised, too), and of course Robert Downey, Jr. Oh, and c’mon Academy! Am I the only one who thinks that Downey, Jr. would be the funniest Oscars host of all time? Sign him up.

“Hugo” ended the night with five Oscars. It was awarded for its technical achievements and it’s hard for me to argue with that. “A Seperation” won for Best Foreign Language film which was followed by a rather unusual acceptance speech from director Asghar Farhadi. “The Descendants” won Best Adapted Screenplay and I was thrilled that “Midnight in Paris” won for Best Original Screenplay. Of course Woody Allen wasn’t there but did we ever expect him to be?

The supporting categories went exactly as expected. Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Christopher Plummer (Beginners) had already been christened the winners well before the ceremony began and that’s exactly how things played out. Spencer gave one of the most genuine and emotional acceptance speeches of the night and Plummer became the oldest Oscar winner ever. It was good seeing Nick Nolte recognized with a nomination even though I’m not sure he knew where he was last night.

Meryl Streep won Best Actress for her performance in “The Iron Lady”. That category had turned into a two person race and I really felt that Viola Davis had a good chance to win. But Streep was awarded for a performance that certainly outweighed the rather mundane and mixed reviewed movie. The Oscar media had tried their best to sell the whole Clooney (“The Descendants”) versus Pitt (“Moneyball”) Best Actor race. But as I expected (and hoped), Jean Dujardin won the Oscar for his wonderful performance in “The Artist”. Working with several more handicaps than the other nominees, Dujardin nailed his performance and deserved the award. His acceptance speech and subsequent dance showed his enthusiasm and I found myself applauding from my recliner.

The night only got better for “The Artist”. Michael Hazanavicius won the Best Director Oscar which is almost always a sign of which film will win Best Picture. Last night was no different. Hazanavicius’ gutsy project won Best Picture and I have no problem with it. While I was personally rooting for “The Tree of Life”, this was a case where the Academy got it right. “The Artist” was a nostalgic but touching film that felt plucked right out of the silent movie era. I loved seeing it win.

So while it was a fairly predictable night, it was a good night. The stars played dress-up and movie fans witnessed new films and new performances added to that Valhalla of motion picture history. I went 5 for 6 in the “Big 6” categories so that speaks to the shows lack of suspense. But there were some genuinely funny moments and some good movies received their due.

TOP 10 MOVIES of 2011

Keith & the Movies: The Top 10 Movies of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for movies at the theaters but there were several films that certainly left a lasting impression. As always, here is my Top 10 list of the year’s best films:

#10. “MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL” – The latest installment in the Mission Impossible series is also one of the biggest surprises of the movie year. Straightfoward and unashamed, “Ghost Protocol” moves at a lightning fast pace and features it’s most polished cast yet. Tom Cruise is perfectly comfortable with his character and the addition of Jeremy Renner gives the movie more weight. But “Ghost Protocol” doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a fun, pedal-to-the-floor, action picture. It succeeds and it does so without the usual pretenses of most of the action films generated out of Hollywood.

#9. “MONEYBALL” – A baseball movie based more on sabermetrics that world championships doesn’t sound like a winning formula. But thanks to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s masterful screenplay and one of the best performances of Brad Pitt’s career, “Moneyball” turns the story of Billy Bean and the 2002 Oakland Athletics into one of the better films of 2011. The movie stays away from the normal sports movie cliches and deals more with the unique personalities and even more unique approach to team building by Bean. It never lulls or misses a beat. “Moneyball” isn’t just a film for sports fans, it’s a film for movie fans.

#8. “CONTAGION” – Steven Soderbergh’s clinical, viral outbreak thriller is one of the only movies that made me squirm in my comfy theater seat (and I mean in a good way). Fast-paced and exceptionally written, “Contagion” never feels forced or fake. The film features a wonderful cast and it’s not afraid to turn any of them into one of the many viral casualties. It draws you in and will have you doubling your supply of hand sanitizer. Soderbergh’s direction is top-notch and this is one of the best thrillers to hit theaters this year.

#7. “CERTIFIED COPY” – Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” is small in scope but huge on substance. Led by two pitch perfect performances from Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, “Certified Copy” had me questioning everything about these two fascinating lead characters. It’s ambiguity may turn off some but the razor sharp script, tight direction, and impeccable performances help make this one of the best films of 2011.

#6. “WARRIOR” – I’m no fan of mixed martial arts but “Warrior” nicely uses it as a backdrop to a riveting story of a shattered family. Both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton are fantastic but it’s Nick Nolte who delivers the best supporting performance of the year. While it does end up using several common sports movies cliches, “Warrior” is still a stirring family drama about consequences and reconciliation. There’s plenty of testosterone but there’s also plenty of heart and “Warrior” is a film I can watch over and over again.

#5. “HUGO” – Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema is also one of the best films of the year. Whether it’s the beautiful story of Georges Melies or the tender story of young Hugo Cabret, “Hugo” delivers two heartfelt stories and brings them together for a wonderful motion picture experience. “Hugo” is one of the few movies to make great use of 3-D and Scorsese’s visual style is present in every scene. “Hugo” reminds us of the artistry and power of cinema and once again puts the talents of a movie making master on display.

#4. “MIDNIGHT IN PARIS” – Few movies have grabbed me and pulled me in like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”. It incorporates the perfect amount of romance, humor, and magic while showing just how wonderful a romantic comedy can be. Allen beautifully captures Paris, makes it the main character, and causes us to fall in love with it. Sure, it’s a tad predictable, but I didn’t want it to end and it’s easily one of the year’s best pictures.

#3. “TAKE SHELTER” –  Jeff Nichols’ near flawless examination of mental illness is both devastating and heart-wrenching. Michael Shannon delivers the very best performance of the year and Jessica Chastain is magnetic. But it’s the genuineness and relatability of these fantastic characters that drive the film. While the ending has been a subject of much debate, it does nothing to undermine this griping movie.  Micheal Shannon is brilliant and so is “Take Shelter”.

#2. “THE ARTIST” – Part moving love story and part celebration of the joy of cinema, “The Artist” is a glorious piece of motion picture entertainment. This gorgeous French film, written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, captures all of the glory of the black and white silent picture era while offering genius storytelling at it’s finest. Jean Dujardin gives one of the year’s best performances and it’s impossible not to be drawn in by his charm and overall command of the screen. This is a brilliant film and a monumental accomplishment.

 #1. “THE TREE OF LIFE” – This deeply personal picture from director Terrence Malick is both beautiful and crushing and provided one of the most mesmerizing movie experience I had in 2011. The film is filled with tender family moments and emotional gut-punches. From the gorgeous cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki to the best performance of Brad Pitt’s career, everything clicks in this stunning piece of cinematic poetry. While ”The Tree of Life” requires thought and patience, the end result is an emotionally satisfying picture regardless of your interpretation. This was my favorite film of the year.