To the Wonder


Whispers on the mournful prairie.

Whispers on the mournful prairie.

(2012) Drama (Magnolia) Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Tatiana Chilline, Romina Mondello, Tony O’Gans, Charles Baker, Marshall Bell, Casey Williams, Jack Hines, Paris Always, Samaria Folks, Francis Gardner, Jamie Conner, Gregg Elliott, Michael Bumpus, Lois Boston, Danyell Inman, Wigl-Black, Ashley Clark, Tamar Baruch. Directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is a true original and like most true originals, his work isn’t for everybody. His movies are visually arresting, epic and intimate at the same time. However, he tends not to tell his stories in the way that moviegoers are used to.

Neil (Affleck), an environmental engineer from Oklahoma, meets Marina (Kurylenko), a Ukrainian single mom ex-pat in Paris and the two fall deeply in love. So much so that Neil invites Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Chilline) to live with him in Oklahoma.

At first, everything is lovely but as reality sets in, Tatiana begins to miss her friends and Marina is disturbed by Neil’s unwillingness to commit although Marina wants very much to be married. She begins to get counsel from Father Quintana (Bardem), a priest who is having a crisis of faith of his own. Neil’s refusal to marry Marina leads to her visa expiring and her forced deportation back to France where Tatiana goes to live with her father in the Ukraine.

Neil begins a relationship with Jane (McAdams), a high school sweetheart of his who is recently divorced and having financial problems keeping her ranch afloat. When Neil’s commitment phobia submarines that relationship as well, he decides to bring Marina back with consequences that might just doom that relationship for good.

Like all of Malick’s films, this is simply exquisite from a visual aspect. Windswept prairie, picturesque small town downtown, suburban neighborhood, Parisian landmarks – all look epic and timeless under the watchful eye of Malick and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Even a common supermarket looks amazing and wonderful the way it is shot here.

There is no dialogue to speak of; almost everything that the characters say is done in a voice over in short bursts almost like poetry as their thoughts are what we hear rather than what they actually say. In a sense, it’s more honest than dialogue.

However, in an attempt to make cinematic poetry, the lines that the characters speak are often pretentious non-sequiturs that  have really sound much more thoughtful than they are. It goes through the whole film so really your tolerance for this sort of thing is going to determine how much you like the movie.

The actors are more or less props here. None of the lead performances are particularly memorable; they are made to convey moods and feelings so there are a lot of soulful expressions and child-like grins. Affleck has almost no dialogue; the voice-overs belong to both of the women in his life and Father Quintana and are done in three languages – Marina in French, Jane in English and Quintana in Spanish.

I get the sense that this is Malick’s take on a Bergman film; everyone in it is miserable and the stunning vistas reminded me of The Seventh Seal and other classics by the Swedish master. This is also in many ways one of Malick’s most spiritual films; much of the movie revolves around the loss of faith in something bigger than oneself whether that be God or love or the world. Nearly all of the characters undergo a crisis of faith in one form or another and the movie’s final shot of Mount Saint Michel in France may be as outright spiritual a shot as you’re likely to see in an American movie that isn’t faith-based to begin with.

Mention must be made of the score which is scintillating. Compose Hanan Townshend (who is apparently not related to the Who guitarist Pete Townshend) utilizes many classical works of the 19th and 20th century, particularly to the Prelude from Wagner’s Parsifal which is beautiful enough that you don’t get tired of its regular use. Also in the Oklahoma scenes, the sound of the wind blowing mournfully through the wheat fields is used to excellent effect. The Blu-Ray advises you to turn your sound up and I would concur with that; the sound is as important a part of the film as the visuals and picking up on the nuances will only add to the enhancement of the movie.

I get the sense that Malick is out to make the perfect film. He gets a little closer with each try but at the end of the day I think he ends up believing the next one will be the one. He isn’t very prolific except for lately; he made a movie two years ago, this one last year and another one is due out sometime this year or early the next. Considering that output would about triple what he had made in the previous dozen years before that and equal his output since 1978 (!) might give you an idea of how amazing his recent creative spurt has been.

As I said earlier, this isn’t for everybody. While the storytelling is linear, that is about all moviegoers will recognize about it. This is a series of images, some with thoughts attached to it, essentially like a memory of the events from years in the future. Not all about it is easy to digest and requires some thought. You can also just let the images wash over you and bask in their beauty, and that is a worthwhile endeavor also.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most beautiful visual cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the most frustrating cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Malick to be set entirely in the present day. It also has the distinction of being the last movie to be reviewed by Roger Ebert; the review was published posthumously.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.8M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: No-No: A Dockumentary

Tokyo!


Tokyo!

Something emerges from the sewers of Tokyo.

(2008) Drama-Comedy (Liberation) Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Ayumi Ito, Denis Lavant, Jean-Francois Balmer, Renji Ishibashi, Julie Dreyfus, Yu Aoi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Naoto Takenaka. Directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong

From time to time, a producer will corral highly-regarded directors to make short films about a specific subject. Like any anthology, there will be both high points and low, but the question becomes will there be enough high points to make it worth enduring the low.

The subject of this anthology is…well, Tokyo. The sole link between the three tales here is that they are set in this, the most cosmopolitan of cities. Do we get some kind of insight into the glittering enigma that is Tokyo? Yes indeed, we do which is where the segments seem to hit their stride. There are also portions of each movie that could easily be set anywhere and that’s where the movie is at its weakest.

The first segment is “Interior Design” and is directed by French auteur Gondry (who lately resides in New York), and it is in a kind of a Kafka-esque vein. A would-be director Hiroko (Fujitani) and his mousy girlfriend Akira (Kase) move into the cramped apartment of Akira’s friend Akemi (Ito). The claustrophobic conditions only serve to exacerbate certain truths about their relationship; Hiroko is an overbearing untalented self-centered douchebag.

They look for affordable housing in the city, but like most mega-cities around the world, property values are sky high and affordable housing is at a premium. In overcrowded Tokyo, space is a luxury and some of the “properties” they visit are little more than closets with portholes. The stress and alienation begin to take their toll on Akira who undergoes a remarkable transformation to escape her reality, one that surprisingly brings her the serenity she craves.

The second segment is from avant garde French director Carax, who hasn’t made a film in ten years. In it, a strange, twisted creature (Lavant) emerges from the sewers of Tokyo to wreak havoc. Looking like a deranged leprechaun on a bender, he steals money, flowers and sandwiches from the hands of shocked onlookers and stuffs them all into his mouth with equal enthusiasm (Carax playfully sets much of this scene to the iconic musical score of Godzilla). He is loathsome, disgusting and vile and Tokyo recoils but the news media have a field day.

However, the story goes from curiosity to catastrophe as the creature finds a box of old grenades in his subterranean world and decides to lob them indiscriminately. Dozens are killed, maimed or wounded and the authorities tend to take a dim view of that. The creature is arrested and a dignified Japanese magistrate (Ishibashi) intends to prosecute, but the creature speaks a language that none can understand. How can a proper trial be held if someone speaks a completely unknown language. Fortunately, an ambitious French lawyer (Balmer) claims he can speak the language of the creature and a trial goes on in which everything is translated from gibberish to French to Japanese, which brings the segment to a crashing halt. However, there is a bit of a twist ending that will either leave you giggling or scratching your head.

The final segment is from Korean director Bong (who previously helmed The Host) and is in my opinion the best of the three. In “Shaking Tokyo” a man (Kagawa) lives as a hikikomori, which is the rough equivalent of a shut-in or a hermit, someone who chooses to remain in their apartment/home. With an inheritance from his parents enough to keep his bills paid, he orders pizza and stacks the boxes neatly against a wall. Agoraphobic to a nearly paralyzing degree, his house is meticulously well-ordered to the point it is debatable whether an actual human being lives there.

When a comely pizza delivery girl (Aoi) is there during an earthquake and faints, the man is unsure what to do. He eventually revives her by tapping a tattooed “button” on her arm. Her experience with him causes her to quit her job and live the same way. When another earthquake hits, a more serious one, the man, concerned about her welfare, takes to the streets of Tokyo for the first time in ten years. What he finds there is not what he left behind precisely.

All three segments have something going for them from the twisted metamorphosis in “Interior Design” to the senseless rampage in “Merde” (yes the segment title is a naughty French word) to the sweet underlying emotion in “Shaking Tokyo.” They all have an outsider’s insight into the megalopolis that is Tokyo, from the alienation that big city dwellers often feel in Gondry’s tale, to the sins of a people erupting from beneath the surface when they’ve been repressed to long in “Merde” to the isolationism that drives people to self-exile in “Shaking Tokyo.”

All three of the directors are world class, and they exhibit why they are so highly regarded here. I was particularly impressed with Bong’s piece, which seems to have much more of the soul of Tokyo than either of the first two segments. Gondry is an impressive visual director with a wild imagination; his realistic magic is on display here but as he sometimes is prone to doing, he gets a little too out-there for my own personal taste.

Carax’s segment is a little harder to peg. While the initial scene of the man-creature emerging from the sewers is fun and compelling, when he turns the piece into a courtroom drama it all falls apart. Having two sets of interpreters for the same dialogue may be all right for short periods, but it’s nearly 20 minutes of it; sorry gang, a bit too much.

I’m not sure that this will reveal enough about the soul of Tokyo to really make it worth your while, but there are some insights as I said. I’m just not sure that they aren’t general to any city rather than specific to Tokyo, and if not, why not set this anywhere?

WHY RENT THIS: There are some really compelling moments in each of the three episodes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As with any anthology, you take the not so good with the good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief male nudity as well as some subtitled foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Gondry sequence is based on a graphic novel, “Cecil and Jordan in New York” by Gabrielle Bell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Each of the segments gets their own making-of featurette, in some cases longer than the actual segment itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Faster