My week in film: To the Wonder

After a week in which I didn’t manage to see any non-submission films (due to leaving the house, actually) the prospect of Terrence Malick’s second film in 18 months was enough to fuel my sense of urgency. Following 2011’s The Tree of Life (2011) which saw Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain struggle to find harmony whilst raising three boys in 1950’s Texas; intercut with gloriously bonkers visuals musing on the origin of life, To the Wonder also tackles grand themes via an ostensibly domestic, romantic narrative.  to_the_wonder_7 Neil and Marina (Ben Affleck and Olga Kuylenko) are first seen enjoying the bliss of new love, living in France. Deciding to relocate to the US, they move, along with Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) to a new build housing estate in Oklahoma. When Neil is reluctant to marry Marina, she returns to Paris leaving Neil alone, and for a while he becomes involved with a childhood friend, Jane (Rachel McAdams). When Neil and Jane break-up due to his emotional unavailability, he marries Marina who returns to the US without Tatiana; but the same anxieties persist for them both. Parallel to this, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) – whom Marina confides in – also experiences a crisis of faith despite his ties to the local community. To-The-Wonder-Trailer8This synopsis might suggest that between the characters, complex feelings and concerns are expressed – and indeed they are – but Malick eschews a reliance of expression through verbal communication, instead allowing only fractions of dialogue to be audible, as though the audience is eavesdropping on intimacy. In fact, Neil is almost never heard speaking, aside from a few French phrases and snatches of reserved sentiment offered to the two women in his life. Instead the oral offering comes in the form of voice-overs from Marina and Jane who describe their feelings for Neil and inner longings. This mainly non-verbal, more gestural depiction of human relationships might sound like an antidote (whether welcome or not) to the kind of fast-paced riffing seen in Silver Linings Playbook, or even the schizophrenic Friends with Benefits – if the Hollywood rom-com is your kind of thing – but Malick’s almost total lack of subtlety in employing such an artistic choice results in almost non-characters; unreachable ciphers standing in for man and woman. The distancing effect can also be attributed to repetitive scenes in which Neil follows Marina or Jane through fields and across beaches or gardens – and I couldn’t help thinking of these as analogous to the experience of the viewer; chasing Malick’s plot and his characters endlessly and never getting anywhere. To_the_Wonder_Terrence_Malick_81This is not to say that there aren’t things to enjoy about the film. Its beautifully shot by Malick’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (since The New World in 2005), which in scenes involving Father Quintana visiting his flock – reveal beauty and experience in the faces of the Oklahoma residents. As a Malick fan however I couldn’t help feeling that with The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, the director is working through ideas in a rush, that perhaps needed another five or twenty years of distillation before making their way to the screen.

If you’re interested in a more positive take on To the Wonder, Guy Lodge loves it and describes why quite elegantly, here.

My week in film: The Master, Silver Linings Playbook and two films by Ben Wheatley

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most talked about and highly praised films of the year, making it very hard to approach without preconceptions. Nevertheless, this was my attempted approach. A tale of two halves – two astonishing performances – from Joaquin Phoenix as psychologically damaged Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the man who thinks he can fix him, Lancaster Dodd. Anderson loosely based Dodd and his movement, The Cause on the emerging teachings of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology in post WWII America and certain aspects, such as ‘processing’ of patients (which Freddie undergoes) are akin to auditing in Dianetics.the master_water

Rather than a straight biographical exercise, The Master is so much more, becoming a portrait of emotional unrest and struggle of power, the narrative of which unravels and sprawls and happily doesn’t provide a neat conclusion. There’s something unreachable about the characters, perhaps because Anderson doesn’t ever suggest that their actions will have the kind of consequences we might expect from a conventional narrative. We see Dodd take Freddie under his wing and the latter’s steadfast loyalty would suggest that his susceptibility might allow him to change, but what kind of change can be expected from such aggressive methods?THE MASTER

The two leads aside, Amy Adams is compelling as Dodd’s wife Peggy: a woman who appears to follow her husband’s lead only to reveal her true power in the final act. Peggy is perhaps the true Master, able to control her ‘base’ urges more convincingly than Dodd, whose outbursts when confronted only show his similarity with Freddie. I can’t say that The Master had the same emotionally confrontational effect on me that Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) or Magnolia (1999) did  – despite all three films having in common central, powerhouse, male performances – but its certainly a thought provoking, beautiful, more challenging film than the average. Perhaps a second viewing (in Anderson’s preferred format, 70mm) will enrich my appreciation.

Down-TerraceAhead of the release of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers I caught up with all the enthusiasts of his previous films and watched Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). The formers’ blue grey palette, naturalistic performances and documentary style camera work make for a fresh and unnerving viewing experience. Centred around a crime family – mother Maggie (Julia Deakin), father Bill (Robert Hill), and son Karl (Robin Hill) and beginning with the release of the latter two from jail, the plot concerns the unravelling of the family’s trust in their network of associates and friends as they suspect each of informing on them to the police. Set mostly in the interior of the family home, much of the black comedy comes from the incongruity of combining British home life with the ‘necessary violence’ enacted to maintain the family’s code of retaliation.

Kill-List-007Kill List also uses a family dynamic to contrast domestic banality with psychological torment and horrific cruelty – this time carried out by Jay (Neil Maskell) alongside friend and fellow hit man Gal (Michael Smiley, also in Down Terrace) as they set about a three-kill job. Leaving wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) with their son Sam (Harry Simpson), in their well-furnished home whilst he undertakes the job that will solve their money trouble, Jay and Gal begin to question the nature of the task in hand, resulting in an altogether more dense and unsettling – even scary – trail of murder and revenge. Original music by Jim Williams is uncompromisingly uncomfortable, constantly maintaining the tension of an unexpected threat. This, combined with some deft framing and editing, not to mention brilliant performances make for an impressive viewing experience and a film that lingers after the credits have rolled. I’ve no reason to doubt that Sightseers will live up to its positive acclaim.

silver-linings-playbook-trailerOn current release is the charming and engaging Silver Linings Playbook directed by David O. Russell, who – it could be argued – has rejuvenated the romantic comedy here in the same way he added edge to the boxing drama with 2011’s The Fighter. Actually Silver Linings Playbook has more in common with the director’s screwball, existential crisis comedy, I Heart Huckabees (2004) as Bradley Cooper plays recently diagnosed bi-polar, Pat, attempting to improve his mental and physical health after a spell in a psychiatric hospital. Agreeing to partner the also troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in a dance contest, in exchange for her help in contacting his estranged wife, Pat shares a determination and single-mindedness much like Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) in Huckabees. The relationship between widowed, raw, Tiffany and initially oblivious Pat, and all their Psychiatric-jargon infused exchanges is similar to that of Tommy’s ‘other’ Albert (Jason Schwartzman), as each must benefit from their interactions: Tiffany wants to break her habit of generosity without reciprocation.

In this way, Silver Linings Playbook is better considered as a compassionate comedy about the human condition, even if this does belie the inevitability of its romantic comedy conventions. Oh, and Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are brilliant as Pat’s parents.

the-world-of-apuThis week saw my completion of The Apu Trilogy with Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu (1959). The previous films Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956) concern Apu’s childhood years living in relative poverty (a state that he never really manages to escape) with his family, and following this, his entry into education and discovery of science. It would be foolish to attempt to summarise the myriad moments of excellence in these three films, suffice to say if you like Ozu or Renoir, Ray’s most famous trilogy is essential viewing, demonstrating him as a filmmaker of true humanity and skill.

Foregoing exhaustive reviews of every film seen this week, but sticking to the journal format, a small list of the others – which demonstrate a soft spot for schmaltz – should suffice:

Men in Black 3, Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012

The Mighty Ducks, Stephen Herek, 1992

D2: The Mighty Ducks, Sam Weisman, 1994

WAL·E, Andrew Stanton, 2008