Nothing has been able to get me out of the house this week, away from madly watching films preparing for the Blue Mountains Film Festival. Not even a couple of my most anticipated films of the year have been able to pry me out of the house and into the cinema. Nothing would break my resolve.
Nothing that is, except that the Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive brought To The Wonder (2012) to the big screen here in Canberra. I have no real idea why Terrence Malick’s latest film was given essentially no cinematic release here in Australia. But given I consider Tree of Life (2011) one of my top 5 favourite films of all time, this was worth heading out of the house for.
There are plenty of critics of To the Wonder who would suggest that this was not time well spent. I am not amongst them. Mark me down in the minority who love this film and who believe it is an honourable entry into one of screen history’s more remarkable bodies of work. I actually think that the narrative of this film is more straightforward than most of Malick’s work. It is a love story, the peaks and troughs of love and passion. Furthermore this narrative is brought to life relatively simply, so that it is easy to follow. Don’t get me wrong, the presentation is slow (some would say laborious) and unorthodox (except for Malick), but the telling, the central thread, is simple enough. Characters played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (Neil and Marina the credits tell us, but I don’t recall that coming up in the actual film) fall in and out of love. That is it. In some ways much of the film is incredibly schmaltzy, but told in the unschmaltziest way imaginable. In the end it strikes the nuance that occurs in real life. Feelings are not just torn in two. There is not just love or just hate between two people. But the two feelings fighting and scratching against each other.
If you have ever watched and enjoyed a Terrence Malick film, you know the kind of visual splendour you are in for with this film. However here he brings some decidedly different images. It is not a simple examination of natural or rural environs. The incredible imagery covers a lot of ground – cities, towns, ranches and a focus on mining. These images are used to examine the effect that all of these aspects of society have on the environment around them. In a way, just as frightening as the snarling mining equipment is the house that Neil and Marina live in, right on the edge of the urban sprawl. A lone outpost of suburbia, the interim space between the rural and the urban. But soon to be joined by innumerable other ‘little boxes all the same’. One last note on the visual side of things, I was lucky enough that the Arc cinema has 4K digital projection and it was the sharpest I can recall a film looking. Stunning projection.
In terms of performances, it is Olga Kurylenko who carries the film. Affleck is there, and he is good. But his is a secondary role, not submissive but kept intentionally quiet and distant. Kurylenko though is very good in the difficult role of a woman struggling to find her place in a relationship, let alone the world. Thematically the film covers a lot of ground. At its heart it is about the transformative power of someone new in your life. Even if the initial jolt of change that person brings cannot be entirely sustained, it does not mean you have not been changed forever. At heart, no matter where the film goes, I think the opening reveals Malick to be a real romantic. Above all, he is a believer in the redemptive power of love. Perhaps the most ponderous aspect of the film is the role of the local priest played by Javier Bardem and that of faith more broadly. His is a character that almost exists on the fringes of the film. He visits the poorer parts of the local community, attempting to minister his good word. He does not appear very successful. It is apt that he is on the fringes of sorts, as the overwhelming sense you get from the character is that he is ultimately a very lonely one. He never entirely integrates into the narrative just as he has never fully integrated anyone else into his confidence. The role that this character plays in the film is one of the aspects of it that I will be most keen to take another look at when I next check the film out. To the Wonder is a film that you do have to actively watch, but not in a way that makes it a chore. You just have to be on guard, as oftentimes fleeting scenes and images are some of the most important or emotive of the whole film.
Like all Terrence Malick films, To the Wonder will require repeat viewings to garner all of its meaning. But the first viewing for me was an extremely enjoyable one, and like all of the great director’s films, for me it was an almost transcendent one. Malick has the power to make me deeply think like no one else working today. All the while putting some of the most awe-inspiring images that you will ever see in a cinema right there in front of me.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
- Port of Call (1948), Ingmar Bergman – This film was reviewed by Jon from The Film Brief as part of The Bergman Files here. I thought this had a cracking start with an attempted suicide. A very sharp script and yet again Bergman is honing his favoured themes – familial relationships and young love are at the fore here. The major strength of this is Bergman’s critiques of broader Swedish society, especially through an intense abortion subplot.
- Bait 3D (2012), Kimble Rendall – A poor script woefully acted. But its frickin killer sharks loose in a flooded supermarket in awesomely rendered 3D and a whole lot of fun. A really cool little Aussie high concept genre flick. Picks up where last year’s excellent The Reef and Sanctum left off.
- Catching Hell (2011), Alex Gibney – Fantastic ESPN baseball documentary. Taps into all of the mystique in the game by connecting the ’03 Cubs with the ’86 Red Sox. Also a horrible story of bullying. Really sad and sows the warped place of sport in many people’s lives.
- The Tempest (1908), Percy Stowe – This very early silent Shakespeare short is really quite visually arresting for a film of its vintage. The set design, painted backgrounds and costuming all indicate the effort that has gone in to it. And it is a genuine film, not merely a filmed play as many early efforts were. There is a really nice performance by the unknown actress who plays Ariel, and the filmmakers manage to cram a lot of Shakespeare’s tale into a short with no dialogue and minimal intertitles. Here it is for you to check out.
- Margin Call (2011), J.C. Chandor – One of the best ensemble casts of recent years and an excellent cast drives this very taut GFC film. Script has to be good to make what is essentially a bunch of people sitting around in a room talking such riveting viewing. A great window into a vile world which illustrates the disconnect between the world of high finance and the real world.
- Mirror Mirror (2012), Tarsem Singh – Like all Tarsem films, this is visually electric. The script is witty and takes off fairy tale shtick without being derivative but rather by subverting their pretentions Costumes from the late Eiko Ishioka are lavish. I really liked a lot of this, and the few instances it falls down a little are when trying to pander to too wide an audience. Lily Collins as Snow White has sass and spirit whilst Julia Roberts is excellent as a truly cruel evil queen. Tarsem is a visionary.
- Lawless (2012), John Hillcoat – Cave and Hillcoat really are quite the team. This has gotten middling reviews, but I think it features prob the script of the year so far with some nice notes of humour arriving unexpectedly. Guy Pierce’s preening villain will become a classic if there is justice, as he manages to avoid it becoming a caricature. Jessica Chastain, Tom Hardy and Mia Wasikowska also excel. A great bluegrass infused soundtrack set the tone for a tale set in one of America’s most interesting historical periods, that of prohibition.
- Argo (2012), Ben Affleck – This is a borderline classic. If you didn’t already know Affleck was the young director to watch before this, you do now. The manner in which he balances tone – tense start, borderline comedy Hollywood middle section, white knuckle ending – is masterful. Tate Donovan, Affleck himself, Alan Arkin and John Goodman all put in really good performances. Really craftily shot too, the low-res to make it look like a period piece and a smart animated intro are highlights. One not to be missed.
Not Worth Watching:
- The Five Year Engagement (2012), Nicholas Stoller – One of the very worst of the year. Jacki Weaver and Annie from Community are good in supporting roles… and that’s all the positives I got. A woeful, unbelievable, unromantic and unfunny script cripples the film as does Jason Segal’s absurd character. A miserable film populated by miserable characters.
If you only have time to watch one Argo
Avoid at all costs The Five Year Engagement
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