Who wouldn’t love a new movie that shows Tom Cruise behind the controls of an aircraft during a dogfight? That the dogfight happens in the future against robot drones on an Earth that’s been ravaged by a war with aliens should make it all the more exciting. Top Gun 2.0. But alas the new movie, Oblivion is filled with these ultimately disappointing moments that are more likely to elicit a detached “oh..that’s cool” rather than “wow!”. That response can’t be what the filmmakers were hoping for.
What the makers actually hoped for is not hard to glean. It wants to be EPIC and wastes no time clobbering your senses. In literally the second sequence of the film, we are introduced to a shameless bombastic score by M83 that would make anything by John Williams seem whispering by contrast. You’re left feeling slightly embarassed. It’s as if you meet someone at a party and they immediately start doing a gymnastics routine to prove how flexible they are.
There is certainly a lot to admire in this film. It’s beautifully rendered and every detail (costumes, f/x) helps create this gorgeous dystopic world that has tremendous dramatic potential. That artistry is not surprising when you consider that the director, Jerry Kosinski, was a former architect. But you know, if you’re talking about the costumes…
The problem is the script itself. Without giving away spoilers, I felt that the movie never really found its footing. Is it a love story? Is it an existential parable? Is it an action thriller? Its inability to commit to any one genuine feeling (not counting it’s EPICNESS!) I found myself wondering, “Is Top Cruise really about to enter his fourth decade of box office dominance? Should we be dealing with this?” With story elements that echo Wall-E, Solaris, Moon, and anything by Phillip K. Dick, the movie left me wishing I was watching those movies instead.
Look, I’m all for movies that are epic in scope. Lawerence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, on and on through Braveheart, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings. We’re truly due for an epic space film. But this is not it. Because of the absence of small engaging moments in Oblivion, its sound and fury signifies nothing.
Terrence Malick’s latest film, To The Wonder, picks up where his previous film, the Palm D’Or winning The Tree of Life, left off and, like virtually all of Malick’s filmography, eschews dialogue and continuity in favor of emotional tones and, well, vibes. You’re meant to discern the feel of the scene without knowing the exact thoughts or motivations of the movie’s characters.
Malick achieves this by letting the camera float around the actors like a spirit and playing classical music of various intensities in the background. The actors are asked to do little more than pantomime their character’s emotional states, a process which has left a wake of big name disgruntled actors whose best work (according to them) was left on the cutting room floor. The lovers in To The Wonder are held together and pushed apart by the magnetic energy of romance and possibility. Their heads lean in to each other when they’re happy and they reject each other’s hand when they’re not. There are also plenty of Malick’s signature shots of nature and animals (love among the buffaloes!) which are meant to convey our unique isolation within the natural world. I think.
Whatever scenes do not feature Ben Affleck and his two lovers (played by Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams) dancing around each other involve Javier Bardem as a priest who is losing his faith. He spends most of the movie talking to an absent god in voiceover while carrying out his priestly duties among the downtrodden of an unnamed southern town. Here Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki get really interesting because they turn their floating camera style to less photogenic parts of humanity. It’s fun to watch ethereal scenes of lovers running through a field, but what does that same technique mean when we’re floating through a dilapidated house whose filth and despair you can practically smell coming off the screen? Alas, the promise of such scenes is quickly dashed when we routinely check back in with Affleck and whoever he’s sleeping with next.
The connection between the two seemingly disconneted storylines is embedded in Bardem’s voiceover. As he calls out to god, whom he alternately thirsts and hungers for, I was reminded not of someone who was looking for his faith, but looking for his love. Bardem’s lines could easily be interpreted as a forgotten lover’s lament. Where did you go? I long for you. Please return. Faith, it turns out, is the greatest act of love. It’s one which, by definition, must remain unrequited. But faith, like a love that never comes together, is made worthwile not by its outcome but by the feelings it generates. The search for connection with the other is an almost-narcotic, one that can potentially ravage a person forever or lead to grace within.
Malick’s films are lightening rods in cinema. The cult around him, fueled by his early prodigious output that sometimes took decades between releases, can at times be insufferable and his detractors have plenty to pick at. But what I love about his movies is his attempt at a language of cinema without language. Much of what we consider “great” movies are movies with great scripts. Since Tarantino got hot by making dialogue the centerpiece of his early films, we’ve been giving undeserved praise to clever and talkative movies that spell everything out for us. Before any movie hits the theater, it’s been tested and focus grouped to death in order that nothing be ambiguous or confusing to the audience. But great cinema is meant to confuse and confound and exalt all at once. Two people can look at the same thing and come up with completely different conclusions. Filmmakers that make such films should be encouraged, not weeded out of the system. The talkies are all talked out and it’s time we look at other ways to feel films, including subconscious ones.
If nothing else To The Wonder serves primarily to answer the great cinematic challenge of our time that other lesser filmmakers have until now been too cowardly to even attempt. Namely, can you film a scene of utter heartbreak at a Sonic? One minute you’ve got tater tots and cherry limeade with the one you love. The next minute all your notions of good and evil in the universe have been upended. The genius of placing operatic tragedy at one of the most joyous places on Earth confirm Malick as one of the titans of cinema. Ya feel me?
With a historic storm bearing down the northeast, I thought I’d share some fun snow movies that are sure to entertain you while you’re trapped inside.
A docu-drama that tells the incredible true story of two climbers who are separated by an avalanche and their impossible climb off the mountain that has entombed them. The book on which its based is a classic and the ending is unbelievable. Me, you, and everyone we know would be toast in a similar situation.
Another true story, this time from Germany. Two climbers attempt to become the first to scale the monolithic Swiss Eiger but nature has other ideas. Some people will do anything to get away from Hitler.
Speaking of Germans, did you know that it was a German who basically invented the romantic comedy? His name is Ernst Lubitsch and his early masterpieces (like Trouble in Paradise) created the vocabulary that persists in every romantic comedy to this day. In this classic (later remade into the far inferior You’ve Got Mail) Jimmy Stewart is falling in love with a pen pal who in reality is someone he knows…and hates. It’s a lovely film with lovely scenes; perfect for schnugglin’.
Funny, nasty, and Canadian. The best hockey movie since Slap Shot (sorry, D2) finds Seann William Scott as a fierce bouncer that’s hired to destroy people on the ice for a minor league hockey team. His romance with Alison Pill is just as brutal. Add a hilarious turn by Liev Schreiber as a mullet-clad king bruiser villain and you have an instant cult classic.
Anyone who’s been around me the last few weeks knows how obsessed I am about this movie. It’s a haunting meditation on life and what lies beyond tucked into a genre movie. Despite the fact that wolves are hunting down Liam Neeson and his gang (including ascending star Frank Grillo), the movie shares more in common with the lost patrol movies of the fifties (like Anthony Mann’s Men in War, Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, and…well…John Ford’s The Lost Patrol). Seriously, the wolves are largely irrelevent. They’re a metaphor for…just see this movie. It’s incredible.
As before, this is not a best-of list. That would be pedantic and silly. Why would you want to see the best of any art, if such a thing even existed? Art should be edifying, tragic, provocative, humorous, trashy, and thought-provoking. These films did this and more and I am thankful for them and their creators.
10) Cloud Atlas
I’m still not sure what this movie was about. Reincarnation? Individualism? Who cares? With this career high from both Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, I can once again be excited about the next movie from these filmmakers.
9) The Sessions
Proof that you don’t need fancy effects for a great movie. All you need is a good script and two solid actors. And any script that promotes sex as the portal to your humanity is a great thing.
8) Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Don’t mess with an artist and his smartphone. Weiwei puts the Chinese government through the necessary growing pains of dealing with a modern citizenry and technology. The winner in that battle, however, remains to be seen.
7) Shut Up and Play the Hits!
Another fun hagiographic doc (like Never Sorry) that has concert footage from LCD Soundsystem’s last show at Madison Square Garden. I wanted to dance in the movie theater.
6) Seven Pyschopaths
Sharp, mean, and hilarious, Martin McDonagh’s second film is the kind of stuff we used to see regularly in the post-Tarantino 90s. The difference this time is the galaxy of stellar performances headed by the legendary Christopher Walken. A future cult classic that will be remembered as Walken’s finest.
5) Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Food porn of the highest order. The master’s unwavering respect for his craft is unsettling and breathtaking. Do not see this on an empty stomach.
A boy sees dead people in a stop-motion instant classic that fans of all ages will love. The climax of the film is terrifying and reminiscent of every bad drug you ingested in college. You’ve been warned.
3) Electrick Children
Far and away my favorite film of the 2012 AFI Fest. A young Utah girl raised on a fundamentalist commune is convinced that a cassette tape has impregnated her and goes in search of the father who sings on the tape. Where the movie could have veered in the direction of hard-core violent drama or quirky indie road movie, it does neither. It surprises you with its simplicity and earnest performances. Please see this movie.
My favorite drama of the year will be all but forgotten during awards season because it came out two months ago. But Robert Zemeckis’s first R-rated feature since Car Wash is damn near perfect. Denzel Washington shows us once again why he is one of the biggest (and best) stars in the world by completely inhabiting Whip Whitaker, the lifelong alcoholic pilot who pulls off a miracle crash landing with coke and booze in his system. Now if someone had just had the good sense to tell Zemeckis to lay off the too-on-the-nose Forrest Gump redux pop music, I would put this at number one. But…
1) Django Unchained
Forget comic book movies and tween novel adaptations. Real adults should be real happy that Quentin Tarantino continues to keep it real. Visceral, irreverent, and fun; this is what movie-going should be like every time you go. Does it take slavery lightly? Nope. Is it too bloody? Nope again. Will anyone involved with this get an Oscar? No, but they should. From Robert Richardson’s incredible cinematography to Leo’s best performance in years(!), the movie screams respect for the institutions of history, cinema, and the history of cinema. Don’t like it? Make your own damn slavery movie! But for now, Quentin’s id unchained is reason to rejoice for the future of American cinema.
Blind Spots: Lincoln, Rust & Bone, Les Miserables, Holy Motors, Amour, Middle of Nowhere