Friday, May 03, 2013

Malick, Gondry, Nichols

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
Though To the Wonder is very much a companion piece to Malick's previous film, The Tree of Life, in style, structure, and subject matter, it marks a couple unique firsts for the director. Excepting a few scenes of Sean Penn gazing pensively out of a Houston high-rise window in The Tree of Life, this is Malick's first film set in the present. Even more shockingly, To the Wonder arrived in theaters less than two years after The Tree of Life. This is unprecedented for a guy who took twenty years to follow up his second film and whose shortest previous gap between releases was five years. Malick, who is currently making two (possibly three) films simultaneously, is entering a prolific phase, though I'm not sure that's a good thing. I greatly admired The Tree of Life, and I like To the Wonder more than I dislike it, but I have some major reservations. If Malick continues in this vein, I'm worried the formal techniques he's grown fond of in his last three films will become crutches. He's coming dangerously close to self-parody, and though I admire anyone honest enough to get that close to ridiculousness, I can feel my tolerance for self-consciously poetic voice-over, Christian mysticism, ethereally floating camera movement, sunlight peeking through trees, and childlike women twirling their skirts stretching to the breaking point. Every Malick film has used poetic, impressionistic voice-over and placed even the strongest characters in a natural, beautiful landscape that puts the smallness of their individual egos and existences into perspective, and has used major Hollywood stars deeply against type as figures in a landscape instead of as bright, shining, charisma machines who are more special than their audiences. However, Malick's style changed beginning with 2005's The New World, though there were some hints of this direction in 1998's The Thin Red Line. His camera started floating above and below his actors and around the frame like a hovering spirit, the narrative became far more abstract, impressionistic, and plotless (shapeless and formless, if you're a detractor), and the voice-over became much more self-consciously poetic, philosophical, and overtly Christian (or pretentious and sometimes silly if this approach is not in your wheelhouse). Gone was the humor, strange improvisatory non-sequiturs, and matter-of-fact observation of mundane details in the voice-over work of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands and Linda Manz in Days of Heaven. I miss that Malick.
To the Wonder is Malick's most minimal and abstract narrative. Ben Affleck is billed as the lead, but he barely speaks and is almost always shown in side profile. I admire this unconventional use of a Hollywood star, though it drove the middle-aged women seated behind me crazy. (Their loud take on the film after it ended: "To the Wonder, huh? Well, I wonder what that was about." They then spent a few minutes loudly trying to piece together a plot like it was a generic Hollywood film.) Instead, the film is really about two women who try to maintain relationships with him (Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams) and a depressed priest (Javier Bardem) trying to work through a crisis of faith. Bardem loves God but feels God is inaccessible and unavailable to his suffering followers, while Kurylenko and McAdams try to maintain their love for the emotionally distant Affleck. There are beautiful images throughout, and lots to chew over afterwards, but Kurylenko is frustratingly childish, constantly twirling, twirling, twirling her skirt, dancing, jumping on the bed, lying on the ground, rubbing her face on flowers, leaves, and rocks. No grown woman acts like this. Still, there's too much of value here to dismiss it for its substantial flaws. A frustrating, rewarding film.

The We and the I (Michel Gondry)
Far better, though far harder to see, is Michel Gondry's latest, which screened only one time in Austin. Gondry, inspired by a Paris bus ride that saw a group of teenagers board after the school day ended, wrote a brief scenario and approached several New York City schools about making a film with their students. The schools passed for insurance reasons, but an after-school program in the Bronx said yes. Gondry taught a workshop for the teenagers to create the characters and give them some acting experience, and enlisted two screenwriters, Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch, to help him turn the workshop and story idea into a feature. The film takes place on the last day of school, almost entirely on a city bus (though Gondry punctuates the narrative with comedic fantasy sequences and a documentary-style flashback to a traumatic event in one student's life). The students board, and we follow their shifting relationships, conversations, cruelties, kindnesses, and alliances as the number grows smaller at each stop. The kids are amazing, gifted, natural actors, the emotions are earned, not forced, and Gondry's camera catches it all. It's a funny, sad, sweet, tough, honest movie, and the fact that the film is not playing widely in every theater in the country is just one more sad indictment of our bullshit mainstream culture.

Mud (Jeff Nichols)
Mud is very good and is actually playing to wide audiences, but it stars Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, so the odds are in its favor for adequate distribution. With Mud, Nichols continues the hot streak he began with his first two films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He builds unusual films from classic situations, is excellent with actors and landscapes, and creates movies that have the feel of a great Southern novel. Mud is more accessible and conventional than Nichols' first two films without sacrificing any of his strengths and could set him up for a long, successful career. A Huck Finn boys' adventure story married to a Southern noir crime thriller, Mud is primarily about the difficulties and joys of love and friendship. Nichols is a skilled storyteller with an innate understanding of character and pacing, and he pulls great performances out of the two child leads, The Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, the big movie stars, and the sharp assemblage of character actors rounding out the cast, including his go-to guy Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Paul Sparks, and Joe Don Baker. The McConaughey redemption continues! At this point, I'm just going to pretend he made Dazed and Confused and Lone Star and then retired for twenty years before coming back to movies last year. Fair enough?
P.S. Mud has my favorite line of dialogue of the year. Sheridan goes to the trailer of Lofland and his uncle (Michael Shannon). Lofland is sitting on the steps outside while the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" blares from within. Lofland: "Hold on. We can't go inside yet. He's doin' it. That's his doin' it song."

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