Monday, April 15, 2013

To the Wonder

"To the Wonder" is the new film by Terrance Malick, the director of "The Tree of Life", a movie I, in all seriousness, once called "the worst movie I've ever seen".  In the last two years, I've decided to take back that claim, "The Tree of Life" is completely unwatchable, a muddling, horribly pretentious piece of work, which is really just a collection of pretty images with a very vague storyline and hilariously vapid philosophy thrown around it.  But it is very pretty, and I can tell Terry Malice has an artist's soul - not for filmmaking or storytelling, but for camera work.  Actually, I've since decided that the true worst I've ever seen is actually the Michael Bay "Transformers" movie (either one of the three, they're all equally awful).  But that's just haggling, it still means that "The Tree of Life" is a movie I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemies, it is a miserable experience.  If you enjoy Malice's films, don't let me take away from you, if you're finding meaning in it, God Bless.  Some people find meaning in "Final Fantasy VIII", I don't want to take that away from them either.  But these are truly, awful awful movies, and I'll explain why more as we get further into this post.

I could only watch fifty-five minutes of "To the Wonder" until finally natural boredom and complete disconnect to the movie, the character, and the plotline simply sapped all of my ability to keep watching.  Normally, I wouldn't dare review a movie when I had only seen half of it, but I know enough about Mr. Malick at this point that I can generally predict what the second half of "To the Wonder" is - exactly like the first half.  Maybe even less coherent.  These movies don't have plots, so its not like I'm missing much.  They don't have characters either, they have vague symbolic shades of people played by big name actors being paid millions of dollars to not recite dialog or really perform, just to act like models for a photoshoot.  "Photoshoot" is a good way to describe Terry Malice's work, because other than his very first film "Badlands", which I saw recently as research for this review, I wouldn't dare actually consider anything else he's made to be "movies".  There might be miles of intrinsically-layered symbolism and philosophy and hidden messages all throughout every frame of "To the Wonder", but I'm not going to dedicate my life to uncover what Terry is trying to say here.  I couldn't even make it through the whole film!

So is "To the Wonder" a good movie?  Well, Terrence Malick isn't concerned with making entertainment or telling stories, so its not concerned with being objectively good or bad.  The concern here seems to be whether its meaningful or important as art, though its hard to really decide that when the movie is simply unwatchable.  I know this is a terribly pretty movie, but after ten minutes of gorgeous imagery, you realize this is all there is.  You have nothing to look forward to but this same character-less and plot-less photography adventure for another 105 minutes.  "To the Wonder" seems to be less pretentious than "The Tree of Life", avoiding the pointless hour spent showing the creation of the universe and I didn't see laughably simplistic philosophy like the "way of nature, way of faith" crap.  But somehow without that weirdness, Terry has made something even less interesting, even less watchable, and more self-indulgent than before.

I should point out that "To the Wonder" suffered from Terrence Malick's typically bizarre production strategy, in which the film was made with a script, which was then thrown out, and then the film was cut to pieces and turned into a collage of something or other.  Usually Malick's films wind up looking like they were originally described, and often actors will find their roles massively reduced or cut out entirely.  For example, Adrian Brody thought he was the star of "The Thin Red Line" right up until the premiere, when he discovered he had been turned into a mere supporting role.  Or Sean Penn who was horrified to learn that his role in "The Tree of Life" was limited to just him standing on a beach looking confused for about twenty minutes.  Hilariously, even notable gentleman, Christopher Plummer, has publicly mentioned that he would never work with Malick again after his experience making "The New World".  Remember, Christopher Plummer once played the Emperor of Space in an Italian Star Wars rip-off called "Starcrash", and its Terry Malice that he seems to be most annoyed by.  Anyway, "To the Wonder" was originally going to star Christian Bale but he dropped out* to be replaced by Ben Affleck.  Names no less grand than Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Michael Sheen all filmed footage for Malick, and all of their roles were cut.

Curiously though, somehow Javier Bardem's footage managed to remain intact, even though his role feels completely extraneous to the rest of the film.  He's a priest that wanders around a poor Oklahoma town, awkwardly stands on porches, and whispers to God in Spanish about his lost faith.  He does work at the church that the other characters attend, but as far as I could see, his story (if I can call it that) never connects with the others.  Not that the rest of the story really feels all that substantial either.

The movie opens with Ben Affleck and the gorgeous Olga Kurylenko (neither are given names) wandering around France deeply in love with each other.  This is shown entirely through imagery, and there is no dialog of any kind for about five minutes.  I will say that at the very least this opening is more obvious than that of "The Tree of Life" which mainly showed Sean Penn looking really morose before turning into about one hundred years of Creation.  There are at least two characters, make that three, when Olga's daughter joins them as they all move to Oklahoma.  Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko are still in love with each other twenty minutes later, as Olga keeps on dancing, Affleck is playing with her, they run in a field, they go the pool, etc. etc.  Then very suddenly, the daughter decides she hates America and wants to go home, and Olga leaves.  Now, already, I have no idea why these characters love each other than being symbols of some vague universal romantic theme, so I have no idea why they are together in the first place, but I'm even more confused as to why they split up.  Whatever connection or disconnection they had is not explained at all, and this is all Malick's fault.  So right there, "To the Wonder" simply fails, but I suppose I can keep examining it further.

Later Affleck finds a new love in Rachel McAdams, a girl he knew at some point.  She had a daughter, but she died, I don't know if that's important.  Then the montage of attractive people being vaguely happy returns, only with Olga Kurylenko replaced with Rachel McAdams.  I know Terrence Malick is supposed to be some kind of grand master of modern filmmaking, but the way he frames these sequences is terribly familiar to me.  And actually, it will be familiar to anybody who has watched television in the last ten years.  This looks like a drug commercial.  Be it erectile dysfunction, some kind of feminine product, depression pills, you name it, they are all shot just like this:  attractive people being vaguely happy.  I was expecting Affleck and one of the women to bath in two outdoor tubs watching the sunset, or go rollerblading with a poodle, or whatever else vaguely happy people do.  Most of the narration is all mildly poetic musings about love which could easily fit in any jewelry ad or a Hallmark card.  "Love makes two one".  Luckily the narration is in French or Spanish for the most part, and given subtitles, so unlike "The Tree of Life"'s English whispering, I could actually understand what they were trying to say.

Curiously, even when so little of this movie is explained, Malick has no better method of telling the audience Olga Kurylenko's situation once she returns to Paris then to have her simply narrate everything that's happened to her over an answering machine.  All of sudden we've gone from the movie being too vague and impossible to follow to now smashing exposition in in the least organic way, just telling over showing.  Olga looks slightly lonely as she walks around Europe, but its hardly good filmmaking.  Actually, Malick was guilty of this same problem in "Badlands", which was otherwise was a rather decent film, if not for long segments of the story that were read to us instead of being scenes.  This is just inexcusable.  You can say Malice here isn't making a traditional film, rather its a visual poem about... God only knows, but then he completely fails to use his medium at all in some places.

I said before that "To the Wonder" is a movie that shouldn't be judged in terms of good or bad, since that's not what its intentions were.  But that's really the duality that I'm limited to in a review.  Is it a good movie?  No.  It is horribly boring, but its worse than that.  Its too vague, its too long, its not even all that unique or impressive.  There are fantastically gorgeous shots, such as the English Channel flowing into a gray French beach at the very beginning.  Malick can even make a Walmart look pretty.  But he can't make a movie.  His works should be no longer than twenty minutes, little experimental art sequences.  Because its impossible to stand this kind of thing for any longer.  Even the Cannes Crowd that saw this movie last year laughed openly at it and booed in the conclusion.

Ultimately the meaning of art is whether it speaks to you.  I have a piece here that is completely silent to me.  And would I consider this piece at all worthy of being shared with another human being?  No.  I would only force this movie on terrorists as a torture method**.  There are hundreds of movies I consider important and true pieces of art:  "Secret of Kells", "Once Upon a Time in the West", the recent art film, "Spring Breakers", even "Starcrash" gives me more film artistry and wonder.  "To the Wonder" is nothing to me.

* I suspect because Christian Bale is something of a notorious egotist, and he really would be pissed to his part cut out like Sean Penn, who didn't take his placement in "The Tree of Life" very kindly.  Not that I blame either of them.

** As I write this, CNN is currently reporting the Boston bombings, so I have terrorism on the mind.  I may feel pretty sore about this awful movie, but I feel a lot angrier at the bastards who did this, whether they're Jihadists, or domestic right-wing crazies, or another idiot who thinks he's the Joker.


  1. The lack of silly CGI dinosaurs automatically makes this movie worse than the Tree of Life.

    1. To be fair to Terrance Malick, the special effects in "Tree of Life" were not CG, they were all practical effects. Or I might be misreading the wikipedia article, since I am pretty sure the dinosaur was CG.

  2. This was the last movie Roger Ebert filed a review for. Better than the last being The Host, at least.