To The Wonder
Director/Country/Time: Terrence Malick, USA, 112 min
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Rachel McAdams
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: The newer world
Noel’s Take: A lot of the early buzz on Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder has pegged it as a rushed, threadbare follow-up to his crazily ambitious The Tree Of Life, which isn’t really accurate. “Rushed” is hard to dispute—or affirm. To The Wonder is coming out quick in comparison to Malick’s past films, which have taken years; but it also features footage shot all around the world (as well as all around Oklahoma), which undoubtedly took some time. Part of the problem with the release of any new Malick film these days is that the director isn’t as mysterious as he used to be. He still doesn’t give interviews, but since The Thin Red Line, the word has gotten out about how Malick shoots fairly straightforward scripts for months and then spends a long time in the editing room (and the overdub booth) rendering his stories more abstract. So while watching To The Wonder, it might be hard for Malick fans not to think about the rumors of all the other projects he’s reportedly been shooting—pieces of which appear to have it into this film—and the actors who worked on To The Wonder but didn’t make it into the final cut. It’s also true that some elements of Malick’s shtick have begun to wear a little thin, such as the impressionistic editing, the near-absence of dialogue, the abundant shots of swaying grass, the people leaping about like little kids, and the elliptical, poetic narration. (If just once the characters thought about tacos or something, that’d go a long way to making them seem like people, and not greeting card models.)
All of those caveats aside though, To The Wonder is still a beautiful and rewarding film, and not as oblique as it may immediately seem. It’s more akin to The New World than The Tree Of Life—albeit with more focus on the second half of that story, when Pocahontas traveled to England. Here, the Pocahontas is Olga Kurylenko, a single mom who falls in love with environmental scientist Ben Affleck in Paris, and then moves to Oklahoma with her daughter to live with him. But while the new family tries to recreate the adolescent giddiness of their early romance, domestic life leaves them unsatisfied. Meanwhile, Kurylenko’s new priest Javier Bardem is feeling beaten down by the misery of his congregation (some of whom seem to be affected by the same pollution that Affleck has been monitoring) and is feeling distanced from God. This is a movie about people seeking some spiritual connection, and finding it only fleetingly, which is pushing them toward doubt and despair. And Malick captures all of this very movingly, casting his eye on the world of suburban tract homes and Sonic Drive-Ins, and finding some spark of the divine even there, for those willing to look past the thrumming powerlines and industrial waste. From moment to moment, To The Wonder can be confusing, but cumulatively it makes sense. And Malick finds so many subtle, wordless ways to convey the movie’s theme. One of the best: Affleck and Kurylenko's new home, which they live in together off and on for over a year, without ever fully unpacking or decorating—because to do would be to settle in to something that may never be as perfect as they’d hoped.
Director/Country/Time: Costa-Gavras/France/114 min.
Cast: Gad Elmaleh, Gabriel Byrne, Natacha Regnier
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: It Fails Us Now
Scott’s Take: Once upon a time, Costa-Gavras was rightly considered one of the great political filmmakers, turning his rage over real-life abuses of power into docudramas like Z, State Of Siege, and Missing. But it’s been 20 years since his last winner (Missing), and in Capital, his anger over corporate chicanery, specifically in the world of global financial services, isn’t supported by anything approaching verisimilitude. Operating without a ripped-from-the-headlines story, Costa-Gavras crafts a moral tale of greed and avarice that’s so unconvincing that it’s a twist away from satire. Gad Elmaleh stars as the new CEO for Phenix Bank in France, appointed after his boss and mentor comes down with testicular cancer. Though he gets the big salary, the corporate jet, and a show of support from the board, there’s plotting from all corners to bring him down, including a bid from an American hedge-fund shark (Gabriel Byrne) to goad him into buying a failing Japanese bank. Meanwhile, Elmaleh pursues the world’s biggest supermodel—she’s actually introduced in those terms—and she tries to play him for a fool, too. There’s drama in a hero who’s being set up to fail and a sly message in here about leftist notions of internationalism being perverted by global corporations, but none of the intrigue and lingo seems remotely credible. When all else fails, Costa-Gavras gives up and just has Elmaleh editorialize directly to the camera. Message received.
Director/Country/Time: Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini/USA/103 min.
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Darren Criss
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Mixed Nuts
Scott’s Take: Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini made their feature debut with American Splendor, a flavorful and innovative biopic about Harvey Pekar, but they’ve been whiffing ever since with duds like The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, and now Imogene, a limp pile of indie quirk. Kristen Wiig’s default mode of defeated exasperation sets the tone for Berman and Pulcini’s slow-footed comedy about an out-of-work, loveless New York playwright who’s forced to move back in with her wacky mother (Annette Bening) after a fake suicide attempt. Her mom lives with an affable boyfriend (Matt Dillon) who claims to be a government operative, a reclusive younger brother who’s built a synthetic exoskeleton modeled on mollusks, and an attractive lodger (Darren Criss) who’s in a Backstreet Boys cover band. Again: Backstreet Boys, nutty “government operative,” mollusk exoskeleton. Imogene both tries too hard to makes its characters lovably colorful and not hard enough to bring it across with some panache.
Director/Country/Time: Juan Carlos Maneglia/Tana Schémbori, Paraguay, 105 min.
Cast: Celso Franco, Lali González, Victor Sosa
Headline: Made of ticky-tacky
Noel’s Take: Roger Ebert used to complain about “the idiot plot,” which is defined as a movie story that could never happen unless everybody involved made the stupidest possible choices, for no good reason. Hollywood movies don’t resort to the idiot plot much any more, but it’s apparently alive and well in Paraguay, judging by the stylish but annoyingly dimwitted 7 Boxes, a cat-and-mouse thriller about a poor kid who agrees to cart some crates around a narrow, crowded marketplace in order to make enough money to buy a cell phone. The reason the crates need to be carted in the first place is stupid. When the cops stop the kid on the street, they don’t open the crates, for another stupid reason. The kid fails to do his job diligently, for yet another stupid reason. And most of the complications in 7 Boxes could be resolved with a single phone call, which everyone involved fails to make, because they are all stupid, stupid, stupid. A simple screw-up or two in a movie like this is fine—just part of the overall contraption. But while 7 Boxes tries to excuse some of its dopey-ness by having its hero be an aspiring filmmaker who himself loves dumb action movies, it’s not enough to redeem a movie that squanders such a great setting and set-up. Writer-director Juan Carlos Maneglia and his partnerTana Schémbori have some chops when it comes to putting together kinetic, snappy-looking action sequences. Perhaps next time they’ll work them into a worthier script.
Cast: Yuan Xiaochao, Angelababy, Tony Leung Kar-fai
Program: Special Presentations
Headline: Or is that chai tea?
Noel’s Take: The recent documentary Films Of Fury noted that when Kung Fu Panda was released a few years back, it shook up the Hong Kong movie industry a little, that such an internationally successful and high-quality martial arts movie came out of Hollywood, not China. If that’s true, it may explain why there have been so many stylish and offbeat kung fu flicks coming from the East over the past few years. The latest is Taichi Zero, starring Yuan Xiaochao as a bumbling kung fu prodigy who moves to a remote village renowned for its special “Chen-style” technique, named for a mysterious master who by law is forbidden to teach his methods to outsiders. Meanwhile, Chen’s daughter Angelababy is dealing with a romantic suitor who’s returned from the West with plans to build a railroad through Chen’s village. Storywise, Taichi Zero is classic historical kung fu epic fare, all about the development of certain schools and a culture in transition. But stylewise is where the movie makes its mark. Director Stephen Fung is making a martial arts movie for the internet age; the fight sequences have additional videogame-style graphics showing angles of attack, and rather than putting the cast’s names in the opening credits, Fung introduces them whenever they show up in the movie, and adds each actor’s best-known credit next to his or her name. It’s all very post-modern and flashy—at times to a fault. After the first half hour or so, the bells and whistles tend to distract from the action more than enhance it. But the story’s fundamentals are solid, and the battles between this village of kung fu experts and an army of 19th century technophiles are so good that the inevitable sequel (already in the works) will be welcome, as will the future martial arts movies that Taichi Zero might inspire.
What Maisie Knew
Director/Country/Time: Scott McGehee and David Siegel/USA/93 min.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Venderham, Onata Aprile
Headline: “Hidey-ho, neglectorinos!”
Scott’s Take: What Maisie Knew ostensibly concerns the devastating effects of divorce on a small child caught up in a nasty custody dispute. But what it’s actually about are the devastating effects of a small child having the two worst people in the world as parents. There are no greater villains I’ve seen on screen this year than Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan in this film, to the degree that it’s difficult to separate my hostility toward them from my misgivings about the film in general. Moore and Coogan are shown arguing loudly (and profanely) in the opening scene, and it isn’t long before Moore changes the locks and battle over their six-year-old girl (Onana Aprile, excellent) begins in earnest. Coogan makes a bid for the girl through a shotgun marriage with the nanny (Joanna Verderham); Moore counters with his own quickie marriage with a bartender (Alexander Skarsgard). Their fight over the girl is mostly territorial—neither one is much interested in the business of parenting, and pass that responsibility onto their new mates at every opportunity. (Which raises the question: Why do Verderham and Skarsgard, two impossibly attractive and sensitive young people, marry thoughtless, abusive shits roughly twice their age?) Updating Henry James’ novel, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel are unsparing in their condemnation of parents who shirk their duties, which is reportedly in the spirit of the book. (I haven’t read it.) But there’s little nuance in the ways these parents hurt their daughter—children are perceptive to tension within a marriage, but Moore and Coogan are amplifying them through a bullhorn here. And the ending involves some wrangling that’s contrived on a narrative level, absurd on a legal one.
Next: Second looks at Malick and Whedon, a Jeff Buckley biopic, a Barry Levinson horror movie, and at long last, the Zombie.