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

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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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Skyfall Blu-ray Review (Kirk Haviland)

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Skyfall Blu-ray (2013)

Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Bérénice Marlohe, Ben Whishaw with Albert Finney and Judi Dench

Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan based on characters created by Ian Fleming

Directed by Sam Mendes

Now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Fox Home Entertainment is the latest entry in the James Bond saga, Skyfall. Ian Fleming’s iconic creation celebrates its 50th year in film with this new entry. Starring the enigmatic and some argue best bond of the series, Daniel Craig, Skyfall doesn’t just serve to continue the series as much as reboot the franchise around Craig in order to establish Bond for another 50 year run, or so Fox and MGM studios hope.

In Skyfall, James Bond’s (Craig) loyalty to M (Dench) is tested as her past returns to haunt her. We open in the middle of an important lifesaving operation that goes drastically wrong. As a result, MI6 is compromised from both inside and out, leaving M to turn to the only ally she can trust, Bond. After emerging back in England 007, aided only by field agent Eve (Harris) and against the wishes of new supervisor Gareth Mallory (Fiennes), immediately starts on the trail of the mysterious Silva (Bardem). But the closer to Silva Bond gets the more Bond realizes Silva has been one step ahead the whole time and his lethal and hidden motives could end up destroying not only MI6, but M herself.

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Skyfall, when it was released in theaters in November 2012, quickly became the most financially successful Bond of all time. The film proved Mendes could direct an action film and infuse it with the dramatic sensibilities he has been lauded for ever since his feature debut with American Beauty. The script is written with homage and reverence to the past while keeping a steady and focused eye on ramping up Bond for the future. Skyfall may actually have the most nods to prior Bond films that we have seen in one Bond outing, while completely dismantling and rebooting every aspect of the story at the same time. Talking cues from JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, Skyfall allows for Craig and company to take Bond in a new yet familiar way.

Craig is excellent as the ‘old dog’ Bond here, allowing Bond to be vulnerable at parts while not losing the swagger that is always inherit with the world’s coolest spy. Dench does most of the heavy dramatic lifting here and as usual she is more than up to the challenge. Her M takes on more complexities and gravitas than in any other of her Bond outings as the story features a “sins of the mother” style payout that drags all of M’s decisions into the harsh light of day. Naomie Harris is a pleasant addition to the cast and her playful banter with Bond is sparkling due to an obvious chemistry between her and Craig. Ralph Fiennes seems almost giddy under the gruff exterior of Mallory, clearly excited to be a part of Bond history. And Bardem shines as one of the strongest bond villains in years.

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Of course there has to be action and the film delivers there as well. The opening chase is a nail bitter and really kick-starts the film in the right way. Bond’s pursuit of Bardem’s Silva through the underground of London finishes with an impressive bang and the finale on the moors of Scotland delivers as well. Overall it certainly isn’t the action that lets the film down in any way.

Of the disappointments with the film comes the weakest “Bond Girl” in recent history with Bérénice Marlohe’s Severine. Though the role is small and by the end another character emerges as the true “Bond Girl” of the film, her performance is lacking any impact and in fact her departure is handled as unceremoniously her introduction is. Her almost wooden performance could be overlooked if it wasn’t front and center in the weakest segment of the film that takes place in an ‘exotic’ gambling house complete with killer komodo dragons.

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The Blu-ray comes with over 3 hours of special features including an excellent comprehensive segmented production diary “Shooting Bond”. The documentary covers all the aspects of the production from the Intro to the fallout of the film through to the future of Bond. Also included is footage from the Red Carpet premiere and two separate audio commentaries featuring director Mendes and the producers.

For Bond fans this should be a no-brainer, Skyfall is the best of the Daniel Craig led Bond films and the best Bond film since Sean Connery held the mantle. For non-Bond aficionados the film works as well. The homages and some context may be lost to the uninitiated, but the smart script and excellently paced story will drag them in none the less. Skyfall on Blu-ray is a solid buy.

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Skyfall Review (Dustin SanVido)

Skyfall (2012)

Starring Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomi Harris, Ben Winshaw, Albert Finney and Bernice Marlohe

Written by Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, and Ian Fleming

Directed by Sam Mendes

A familiar character, who we’ve surely all missed, is back with his latest adventure. We all know who he is, his story, and what to expect based on his adventures over the last five decades. Could the familiarity of the same characters and narrative beats still be as effective as they were throughout the past 23 films? Has our favorite spy lost a step at the hands of the evil bungling studio executives who kept his latest movie in limbo for years while they settled the death and resurrection of a broken studio, not unlike said titular spy? Does he still possess the qualities which caused onscreen women to blatantly throw themselves at him which were lost in the seriousness of the new series? Could the latest 007 recoup the swagger, fun, and allure of previous entries after the blandness of “Quantum of Solace”? I assure you the answer is a resounding and capital YES! YES IT CAN AND YES IT HAS! Bond is back and better than ever. And it makes me so happy to say that Skyfall is without any doubt or debate the best bond film this side of Goldeneye, and may very well be the greatest bond ever.

Skyfall begins with a pulse pounding and richly satisfying opening sequence in Istanbul, Turkey involving the theft of a top secret list containing the identities of undercover NATO agents throughout the world that sets up the new rules and stakes of the game. 007 has aged, matured, and is quite vulnerable, these traits echoed in the ruthlessness of the agency he is employed by, traits that have never been realized so organically and emotionally as they are in this new Bond. Any person who has seen a trailer or has the smallest snippet of common sense knows things don’t work out so well for Agent 007 at first and this leads to a chase across the city by jeep, motorcycle, and train ending with an emotional punch to the windpipe. I will admit I’m neutral with Adele’s theme song but don’t think it’s as good as prior entries (can’t a man get some serious love for Tina Turner and Duran Duran in the Bond Cannon in terms of theme songs?) but is supported by another masterwork of artistic design and effects.

We spend the rest of the film following Bond as he traverses the globe by way of Scotland, London, and Shanghai among a few other places, seeking out the list, finding those responsible for the attack on international security, dealing with the repercussions and influences of bureaucracy in modern times as well as the sins of the past, and an ingenious albeit predictable passing of the torch to a fresh but familiar cannon of supporting characters using a minimal and focused narrative in the final act.

Skyfall works in so many different ways and on so many different levels. It oozes the need to be revisited again so that the many riches found within can be properly digested. The film pays homage to many Bonds of the past while reinvigorating the franchie for future installments with the small, once fleeting moments that made the older bonds so memorable. Skyfall is still well aware that it’s a James Bond story, and wisely returns to a certain level of comedy found in wonderful moments sprinkled throughout the story which were sorely missed in past Craig films. It is worth noting I chose to watch skyfall in the Imax format and unbeknownst to me there is a conversion to the Imax format that compounds the image onscreen to take full advantage of the format. Even though it’s obvious for the majority of Skyfall that it was not framed and shot with IMAX in mind, many scenes in the film benefit greatly from the larger screen that adds size, scope, and depth to the film.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the fantastic performances found within this espionage juggernaut, mainly the performance of 007 and his latest nemesis. Daniel Craig has TRIED to portray an effective and worthy James bond for two films prior to this, but in Skyfall Daniel Craig IS James bond. The emotional journey Bond travels in Skyfall reveals a wounded and vulnerable man at a crossroads in his life and Craig sells this so well his mental struggles over arch the narrative and really pull you into the drama unlike any performance I have seen in the series and, frankly, in Craig’s varied career. His Bond is burned out, out of shape and weakened by the sense of disillusionment after the full realization of his circumstance in something he lost during his exodus. His aim is untrue. He’s on his way to the bottom in a way only Tony Stark may appreciate, and yet, he is still BOND.

Javier Bardem is terrific as the main baddie who would make Alec Trevelyen (Sean Bean), Owen Davien (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the Joker quite proud as a “moving Rubik’s cube” of menace and villainy that reveals more of himself and his relationship with MI6 as the film rolls along, peeling away layers and machinations that create a classic Bond-villain feel in the best way. And he does all this while not appearing until the second half of the film. His turn as Silva, a super-hacker terrorist with a connection to M is a mirror image of Bond, in that Bond can see this is a path his life could lead to under similar circumstances. Judi Dench once again returns to the roll she has owned for quite some time and continues a wonderfully and emotionally subtle relationship with 007 that reaches its pinnacle in Skyfall, this is also where the film is most dramatically effective. Her quieter scenes with Bond are the fully realized intentions of the writer’s concept of M being a motherly figure to Craig’s Bond. Not wanting to reveal any more than I have, I felt the solid additions of Ralph Fiennes, Ben Winshaw and Naomi Harris provide the groundwork for new supporting characters that will surely continue in the films to come, each making their presence felt mano-a-mano alongside 007 and impacting the story in their own unique but familiar way.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned the women of Skyfall. Aside from Harris’s Eve, who offers far more rewards to fans of the series who show a little patience in the story, the Bond girls do little else than bring 007 from point A to B. And while one is given an emotional backstory that is a testament to Bond’s ability to read people, they’re throwaway characters that each provide a test to Bond’s fractured psyche. And pass he does folks, in a very artful and tasteful manner for a PG release. Also to note, the latest women to grace the series are stunningly gorgeous, but I prefer the first part!

In direction, Sam Mendes was simply a terrific choice to continue the series. In fact all the directors for the Craig bonds were fantastic choices in my opinion; I’m still of the belief that Marc Forster realized that his great script on paper didn’t translate to an interesting or entertaining story onscreen halfway through the process and had to turn something in to the studio. That something was Quantum of Solace, and we all thank him for his effort. But Sam Mendes is a theatrically trained stage director and his understanding of emotional resonance and the power it can give to any sudden moment of the story from scene to scene is superb. Other directors would never have the nerve or stones to make Bond anything weaker than a superhuman, not to mention the savvy, action hero type with very simple flaws and the most basic of emotions. Mendes and the writing team’s decisions to strip away the mystique of Bond’s world and let us in on a little familial history has rewarded the viewers with the ability to emotionally connect with the character in ways we have never before. Oh, and he’s also delivered some brilliant jaw-dropping action sequences, standing on the shoulders of past giants.

Mendes’s long-time collaborator Thomas Newman and cinematographer of all things Coen Bros. Roger Deakins have again proven themselves to stand alongside Mendes and continue their illustrious collaborations as a similar triumvirate not unlike Zimmer, Physter, and Nolan. The threads found in similar scores Newman has provided are all here, which makes the score that much better. He also knows just the right time to inject that classic overture and uses it to utter perfection. Deakins and Co. have finally taken the series into the digital age, and although I’m not a big fan of anything digital, I enjoyed the ability it granted Deakins to stage so much of the Skyfall using darks and silhouettes. At 2 hours and 22 minutes the film moves very quickly and proficiently. The few times the narrative slows you are so enthralled with the tension and suspense it feels like the highest note of a classic symphony being held for as long it can.

It’s weird to say with only one film dividing the initial reboot of the character, but Skyfall also feels like a restart to the series, in the best possible way. A film unlike any bond before it, there is emotional impact after nearly every scene that effectively ratchets up the suspense throughout, not unlike a certain favorite of mine. It wears its influences on its sleeve proudly, the most obvious inspirations on the surface being The Dark Knight, Home Alone, actually every Nolan film, and Goldeneye, but underneath there are many influences far more subtle if you care to revisit Skyfall sooner rather than later. Point emphasized, when was the last time James Bond had a western feel to it? In fact, much of the script is so clearly inspired by the work of Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathon, not to mention the many, many visual cues, that you’d think there may be a special thanks to the brothers somewhere near the end of the credits. In closing, if this is the path for which Bond is set to follow, it’s safe to say we’ll all be there with him waiting to see what direction the many, many, many, many, many bullets will be coming from.

Rest easy James, you’re in great hands now.

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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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