To the Wonder by Terrence Malick

To The Wonder by Terrence Malick

After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina (played by Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (played by Ben Affleck) come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane (played by Rachel McAdams).

To the Wonder is the most Terrence Malick-y out of all the Terrence Malick films I have seen (The Thin Red LineTree of Life thus far). The tranquil characters run around playing with each other or stare angrily at each other to give the silent treatment. Every action, expression or object is an inner feeling, trying to evoke sense memories like a glossy choppy nonsensical Prada perfume commercial. For example, a couple racing through a grass field playing tag evokes one kind of feeling, whereas the same couple embraced looking at each other grimly by a living room window evokes another. People in real life do not behave this way but it doesn’t matter. It’s the overall sum of how everything feels.

The way To the Wonder is told makes it impossible to say anything about the cast or performances. The actors are mere colors being applied on a bigger canvas. Malick’s trademark whispering voice-overs are our only true source to what these characters are feeling.

To go off a tangent for a second, the use of voice-overs is usually frowned upon in screenwriting. Screenwriters are often snotty about this, but Terrence Malick applies them well. Yes, it’s an easy device to telegraph how a character is feeling at any point in the story and that can easily be cheapened. However, god is in the details and one should access thesubtextual use of voice-over in contrast to the supertext. The actors are all taciturn and physically performing their emotions to the point that the voice-over is the dialogue. It’s that combination of choices that creates the ephemeral feeling that we’re seeing inside the character’s souls. So I don’t have a problem with that at all.

The plot summary above is pretty sums up the entire story, but that’s not the point. Malick is solely interested in the human soul, not character or plot. It is a film about how people cyclically seek love and faith, lose them and have to find faith to believe in love again. Priorities shift, desires change, and people are ever-changing. I liked that core message. Malick himself seems to place more hope on faith. I connected more to the love part than the faith part.

I stayed with To the Wonder till around the 90-minute mark out of its 112-minute running time, and then I started to tune out from fatigue of having to feel so deeply into an empty canvas. The more you want to walk into Malick’s abstract world, the more experiential the film will be. However, the audience must take that very first step. So for that, it’s more appropriate to view this at home where you can rewind in case you drift out of the film.

In context to Malick’s filmography, I would have preferred something to happen in the third act for something to lift itself to somewhere else. Comparing it to his last film Tree of Life, his directorial voice seems to growing more raw and barebones. And for that, my favorite Terrence Malick film remains The Thin Red Line. For anyone who hasn’t seen Malick’s work, perhaps they can start with that one. To the Wonder is definitely not for everybody, but I recommend it to any Malick fans. 

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Behind the Candelabra by Steven Soderbergh

Scott Thorson (played by Matt Damon), a young gay man raised in foster homes, is introduced to flamboyant entertainment giant Liberace (played by Michael Douglas) and quickly finds himself in a romantic relationship with the legendary pianist.

Michael Douglas is well-known for playing two types of roles: the victimized man in peril or the man of immense power. Douglas’ portrayal of Liberace embodies both these aspects. He is a powerful man in love with another man but ultimately a victim to his own public image. One can argue the story is about a love triangle between the real Liberace, Scott Thorson and the public Liberace. The segment where Liberace and Scott visit a plastic surgeon played by Rob Lowe was genuinely creepy.  Douglas disappears into the role, showing the inner, outer, darker and lighter sides of Liberace. Liberace can be added along with his long list of great roles; this is Oscar worthy.

As the audience avatar, Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson guides how the audience feels about Liberace. Matt Damon is a good straight man to Douglas, his performance is overshadowed but that seems to be part of the plan. It’s fun to watch them bickering and arguing like a married couple multiple times in a hot tub.

I can see how Behind the Candelabra was considered ‘too gay’ to be a studio feature.The film actually does not have a gay agenda on it’s hands. The kissing or sex scenes were not handled in a vengeful gay protest film type fashion. No, Steven Soderbergh rises above that by  concentrating on the central love story between Scott and Liberace and finds the most interesting drama therein. We are shown the reasons why they’re in love with each other and those human reasons are relatable, gay or not. I rooted for their relationship.

This is the way to do a biopic. Often biopics are uninteresting because they can’t focus onto a theme or settle on a fixed view of its subject to create a message. Not everybody’s life story is fit to be made into a film. This particular segment of Liberace’s life was more friendly to film adaptation because it was so inherently dramatic. Credit must also be given to the writers and Steven Soderbergh, who manage to suss out the drama out of the real life facts, find a firm view that sums up Liberace as a person and extrapolates a thematic message about love. The tone is well balanced; it has both serious and funny moments but it never takes itself too seriously.

As said before in my Side Effects review, I sincerely hope Steven Soderbergh doesn’t stop making movies. This is  my favorite of his films. He’s onto something.

Related Reviews
Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh
Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Ruby Sparks by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Ruby Sparks by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Calvin Weir-Fields (played by Paul Dano), a struggling novelist trying to recreate the early success of his first novel, writes about his ideal dream girl, Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan), who comes to life.

Ruby Sparks is pretty consistent with its story beats as it journeys through the sweet and the bitter parts. It certainly hits its mark of being a quirky, cute and funny indie film but ultimately it isn’t as deep as the filmmakers think it is. For me to totally indulge into the fantastic dream girl along with the Paul Dano’s Calvin, the film has to make the audience fall in love with the Kazan’s Ruby Sparks as well. I personally did not find Ruby Sparks attractive or fascinating enough in that context to entertain that notion. Having a quirky girl be the perfect girl simply isn’t enough. We don’t know anything beyond Ruby’s quirks because she is a fictitious shallow creation. The way Calvin is fascinated with her is like the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets fascinated by Zoe Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer because she likes The Smiths. For any guy who has learned the life lesson of “idealizing the perfect girl” will find nothing profound in Ruby Sparks. I saw where the story was going right from the start, and then eventually the story went exactly to that exact predicted conclusion.

The color scheme is noteworthy. I noticed how they color coordinated Calvin’s clothes and home to be more bland. The standard practice of cinematography dictates one should never shoot white walls. They meant for it to look bland for story reasons, but cinematographer Matthew Libatique does a great job with making an entire interior of white walls interesting with natural lighting.

There is an indulgent approach on the filmmakers’ part. The dream girl is being played by the screenwriter and it seems the directors got the job because they directed Little Miss Sunshine, so they’re basically here to decorate the film with quirks. This is a piece that needed more aesthetic distance from its makers. What I really wanted to see happen was Calvin to come back to reality and date a real girl. Or better yet have Calvin also see a real girl and be forced to choose between fantasy and reality. There are some half-developed themes here, one noteworthy idea about how Calvin has complete control over Ruby with his typewriter. It takes the film to a darker place, which was interesting, but it was took too long to get there and the final message of the film seems to be truncated to “don’t idealize girls” instead of “live in reality”.

It’s like the story doesn’t give its characters a big enough problem to push the story further to a more profound conclusion. It just needed something more. At the film’s final scene, it didn’t seem Calvin learned anything from the events of this movie. Subsequently, I didn’t learn anything either.