To The Wonder Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

To The Wonder

Starring Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem

Written and directed by Terrence Malick


The debate-engendering reception of Terrence Malick’s films continues with his new movie To The Wonder. The festival crowd like the ones in TIFF (including Dustin) and Vencie hated it, Roger Ebert loved it. I see both sides. Since there are more detractors against this new movie than fans, it’s tempting to play the devil’s advocate.

To The Wonder makes for an interesting companion piece to Malick’s earlier work in The Tree of Life. The latter coherently shows the conflict between nature and grace. The former works like an opened door. The characters dizzyingly pirouette into the endless possibilities of nature and its duplicitous, volatile and corruptible qualities. We get the title from the words of our protagonist Marina, a happy Russian-born Parisian. She embraces nature and new experiences, falling in love in Mont St. Michel with a journalist named Neil (Ben Affleck), eventually deciding to move to Oklahoma and bring her young daughter with her. But Malick eventually sledgehammers her optimism.

Marina could have easily ended up as a madwoman trapped in an alienating relationship and country. Neil is equally powerless, endlessly investigating environmental pollution caused by exurban infrastructure, and it doesn’t help that half of the people he’s interviewing are uncooperative and afraid of scandal and change. His on-and-off lover Jane (Rachel McAdams, unfortunately playing the least developed character of the four) might have to sell her ranch to pay for its debts. Their parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) is distant, unable to find God’s transcendent love in the helpless faces of his community’s welfare class. They might be as normal and practically nameless as Malick’s other characters but here he approaches these on such a personal focus.

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If anything, what Malick does best here is finding a new way to capture loneliness. And not the cuddly kind where we watch someone express his brooding pathos through mundane tasks. The depictions of these characters are devoid of intimacy, an approach that could have been so exhausting had it not felt as daring.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography help engender this tone. Malick’s subjects feel like boulders captured through low or high angles, panning like the camera was a bumblebee. His close-ups are invasive, his long shots occasionally blocked by nature or man-made fortresses. The characters turn their backs to the camera, they converse in places that are surprisingly not easy from which to eavesdrop. There’s also an epistolary method to the script. The characters speak more clearly to themselves or to their lost God than they do to each other, their alienation clouding their attempts towards interpersonal contact.

Malick toes the line between depicting frustration and offering a frustrating product itself. And as strange as this might sound, even in times that the movie makes me hate myself, I respected how Malick can deliver such raw and genuine emotions.

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Argo Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

Argo (2012)

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Taylor Schilling, Clea Duvall, Tate Donovan, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishe, Scoot McNairy, Victor Garber, Sheila Vand, Kyle Chandler, and Philip Baker Hall

Directed by Ben Affleck

Instead of shooting an expensive montage, Argo efficiently uses a prologue of storyboards to contextualize Iranian anger. And even in this business-like decision or omission, the movie still captures the shades that make Americans and Iranians more alike than they think they are. It shows a young Iranian woman spewing the Revolution’s ideologies, even if an American character (most likely Arkin’s) looks at her on television with a cynical distance. It also shows, as I should have expected, that not all Iranians are frothing at the mouth with anti-Americanism. Some want to emigrate to the US, despite possibly being caught by revolutionary guards as traitors. They also risk facing racism, as the movie shows news footage of Americans mobbing on one Iranian in the States. There’s also a maid in the ambassador’s house named Sahar (Vand) who has to decide what to do to her new and suspicious guests. But that’s because her suspicions are right – that the guests are six American workers (including Donovan, Denham and Bishe) trying to hide from the guards instead of being hostages at the embassy.

Argo also renders the Americans with variation. As noticed by other reviewers, the prologue shows American culpability in the Iranian Revolution. The fact that it’s showing the hoorah-ers in a derisive way is evidence to its own healthy national self-deprecation. Those ‘Mericans are the opposite of the upper brass in Washington (including Cranston, Chandler and Baker Hall) who are more balanced, and concerned about the hostages. In fact Argo shows the characters in Washington hating each other more, their infighting and oversights inadvertently letting the Crisis drag on longer than it should have. And besides, while the six Americans in hiding are having dinner with their host, Cora Lijek (Duvall) tells everyone in the table that she agrees with the revolution’s demand to put the Shah on trial.

Thankfully Cora doesn’t have to deal with tense conversations and tense everything. That’s because across the Atlantic, CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) plans to get her and her coworkers out with the best dumb idea ever – for Tony, Cora and the other five to pose as a film crew. Speaking of which, the transitions from sombre political drama to snappy heist movie is as delicate as watching someone walk on water. The people Tony enlists in California (including Goodman) make repetitive jokes but Goodman and Arkin’s delivery of those jokes are subtle enough that they don’t make their side too distasteful nor oppositional in tone compared to the other.

Yes, Argo emotionally manipulates us in telling a story in which we know the ending. Affleck is the perfect person to direct this movie because his earlier ones feature characters with malleable sympathies and can mold from one polarized group to its total opposite. There’s a scene where (spoiler) one of the six Americans, Mark Stafford (McNairy), convincingly argues that a half-naked woman drawn in a storyboard is relate-able to a Revolutionary Guard. His movies also tie sinewy knots instead of bows, refusing to give us perfectly happy endings. I say this particularly because of Sahar’s ending which, and I’m projecting here, makes me worry about her. There’s a part of me that, because of the movie’s endings, thinks Affleck is a sadist but we can argue that he’s also a realist. The brutal honesty in his films is a refreshing feeling even if it gives us equal bouts of discomfort.

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TIFF 2012 – To The Wonder Review (Dustin SanVido)

To The Wonder (2012)

Starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, and Rachel McAdams

Written and Directed by Terrence Malick

Films that dare to transcend the laws of conventional narrative and structure to become much more a piece of art are somewhat of a mixed bag for me. I applaud filmmakers who aspire to create a cinematic poem, love letter, or reflection/meditation and who are willing to sacrifice traditional story techniques to try something different. Terrance Malick is just such a filmmaker as his latest film is certainly much more a love letter or poem than anything else. The Tree of Life certainly fit that bill, and although I enjoyed that film for its ideas and subtext, I could not say the same for his latest.

To The Wonder is billed as a drama involving an American man finding love and marriage in Europe, who then to the USA and reconnects with a past romance while his marriage deteriorates. I have just summarized nearly everything that the narrative has to offer, there isn’t much else to it in terms of plot. Throw in a side-plot involving a priest and his loss of faith and you’ve learned the entire plot in two sentences.

Also there is little to zero dialogue between characters in the film. Instead the majority of the script is spoken by the actors as voice-over, and more frustrating is Malick’s decision to write these thoughts as if they were poems rather than expository dialogue. This decision proves costly as the four main characters of the story just aren’t very interesting to begin with, and too many times the actors are frolicking around the camera in open fields, empty houses and supermarkets with little to do. And at a runtime of one hour and fifty minutes, believe me, you really start to feel that runtime about 25 minutes in.

It’s difficult to comment on the acting as I never really felt the actors were asked to do anything besides emoting, staring, and again frolicking. This is not a slight on the acting at all; I believe this is exactly what Malick asked of his actors, and they seem to adhere to that respectfully. So it’s not really fair for me to go one way or the other as far as performances. I will say that no one was distracting to the story, but no one stood out either. It’s worth noting that for a film that features Rachel McAdams character in the poster as well as sharing top-billing, I expected to see much more of her as she couldn’t have been in the film for more than fifteen to twenty minutes, and that’s stretching it.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to enjoy in the film as Malick has again proven himself a true visual auteur. If he ever decided to hang up his directing hat permanently, he could slide into photography and be just as successful, if not more. That being said, To the Wonder is a visually gorgeous film, what with the majority of the film set in front of a backdrop of beautiful natural landscapes, sunrises and sunsets. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki should be praised for finding subtle beauty in the strangest places including boxes squared off in an empty house and a simple shopping cart ride through a department store.

In short, as is the case with much of his work for me, I was only interested during To the Wonder with what visuals the director would reveal next and little else. I believe Malick’s films are often exercises in patience and time and one must be willing to possess a great deal of these in order to wholly appreciate his work and discover the many cinematic riches that lie beneath. While I acknowledge his mastery of the cinematic landscape, especially in his prior work, I was simply unengaged for the majority of his latest. And it doesn’t help that I learned right before the screening that Rachel Weisz’s performance, an actress I adore, had been completely edited from the film. I’ve come to learn that like so many other lost performances in his prior work, this is something that Malick likes to do in all his films. And just like Gary Oldman’s performance that was removed from The Thin Red Line, To the Wonder leaves me with a feeling of what might’ve been had the director bucked his own trend of directing choices and nuances.

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