Review Of Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder”

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Terrence Malick's To The Wonder (2012)

Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder (2012)

After watching To The Wonder, I must come to the melancholy view that — with nearly four decades of film-making behind him — this is Terrence Malick’s first film without some argument for greatness. Yes, Badlands was not especially deep, and Tree Of Life had a number of abysmal and overwrought moments, but these films were wonderfully constructed, even if the latter could have used some pruning. That said, To The Wonder is not the near-masterpiece Roger Ebert thought it was, nor is it the “meandering,” “incomprehensible” mess others claim. In fact, it’s a good film with a handful of great moments and a lucid narrative, bogged down by some large problems that keep it out of better company.

Before I show what those problems are, however, I’d like to get the primary misconception out of the way. Yes, the film has narrative, even if it’s not rich on plot, for the two are not the same thing. Plot refers to what happens, on the superficial level, as far as simple action is concerned. Narrative integrates action, character, emotion, musings, symbols, sound, image, and pretty much anything else conceivable in film, into a coherent whole. Does the film have this? Well, let’s see. It opens with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) describing love as being newly born and opening one’s eyes. The camera looks blurry and overwhelmed, evoking this very thing. As the voice-over continues, you get Neil (Ben Affleck) in different love scenes with Marina, including a few magnificent shots of the two on a beach, where the water and the sand seem to unify in both color and behavior, furthering the narrative with symbol. Neil is good to Marina’s daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), even as he declines to marry Marina, and is aloof in general. This disconnect becomes especially obvious when the family moves from Paris to Oklahoma, and Tatiana — in another wonderful scene — asks Neil to marry her mother, relating, with typical childishness, what this might look like, as he looks on with shock and discomfort, emotions that are lucidly communicated by mere facial expression and body language. Going further, we see the family playing with each other, which is both well-crafted and realistic, as Marina confesses her own loneliness to a neighbor, while barely even speaking, and ostensibly about her own daughter, at that. Yet the viewer knows she is talking (or rather, emoting) about herself, for it’s visible on her face and her expressions, even as it tries to be “about” something else entirely.

So far, the narrative (and its techniques) is clear, but is complicated by the appearance of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who plays the cliched role of the self-torn priest, yet does it well in a handful of interesting scenes that, unfortunately, have little to add to the rest of the film, including a brief attempt to “catch” the warmth of the light against a stained-glass window. In his own voice-overs, he … Continue reading →

Review Of “Scenes From A Marriage,” via The New York Theatre Workshop

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Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage (1972). (c) Criterion

Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage (1972). (c) Criterion

Yesterday afternoon, I was at the New York Theatre Workshop’s performance of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage (trans. Emily Mann), which boasts a run-time similar to the original film’s. This makes sense, as Scenes is a film that naturally lends itself to theater: it mostly takes place in simple interiors, focuses on long, involved scenes — often involving just 2 characters — and draws much of its power from the gestures, expressions, body language, and intonations that, alongside the great writing, really drives the narrative forward. No, it is not superficially dependent upon its visuals (like many purportedly ‘visual’ films are), but there was as much in Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson’s expressiveness as in, say, an Antonioni landscape, that gave Scenes From A Marriage a depth that lesser actors would have merely occluded.

Ivo van Hove‘s play, however, is not the film, and judging the play for what it’s NOT would be a critical faux pas from which there is simply no return. So, what is it, exactly, and what is its relationship with Bergman? Well, it takes many of the film’s key scenes — the discovery of Johan’s infidelity, the dinner with Peter and Katarina, Marianne’s pregnancy, and a few others — and splits them out of order, into an arbitrary sequence played by a revolving door of actors. For the first 2 hours, these scenes play out simultaneously to smaller groups, which are separated by a couple of thin walls through which the music, shouting, and action of earlier/later scenes is still audible. The viewers witness whichever scene they happened to have sat down to, and move every 30-40 minutes to a new scene while the others re-play for new audience members. This goes on until the intermission, after which all the lead actors come together, as 3 Johan/Marianne duos, to act out the next part simultaneously, first taking turns with lines before climaxing into a rumble (as per the film’s divorce scene) that has everyone merely shouting at one another in an odd, anomic scene that left at least a few audience members frustrated and aghast.

Some of this works because, instead of merely aping Bergman, it clarifies, in its own way, a central posit of the original film: that Johan and Marianne are not merely a unique couple going through unique problems, but despite being very real and ‘particular,’ themselves, are representative of many similar relationships, which thrive and die according to the same patterns — details be damned! The play does this by using different actors and actresses for each scene, making the viewer viscerally feel that these are ALL different couples, with the verbiage and action coming from next door almost like similar fights that might be going on elsewhere, and perpetually. The scenes, too, are split in a way that — despite the re-use of the leads’ fictive names — there is little real continuity from one scene to the … Continue reading →

Review: Charles Feldman’s “Casino Royale” (1967), via BlogCritics.

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Charles Feldman Casino Royale

Casino Royale (1967), a cult classic that started…something.

The 1967 James Bond spoof, Casino Royale, has been on my mind ever since a discussion with Dan Schneider a few weeks ago, wherein he pointed out some of the film’s positives. I wouldn’t exactly call it a good film, for a number of reasons. Suffice to say that, for a comedy, it’s often short on jokes, and (even when they do appear) they are marred by poor timing, or convoluted scenes that can absolutely KILL comedic writing far quicker than they might action, as James Bond films are.

Yet despite these issues, it does many things that the Bond films would have never been able to imagine in the 1960s, given how limited they were by their own genre and reflexivity. I mean, what did they REALLY have to point to — more action, and the same old tropes, within? By contrast, Casino Royale tried more, even if, overall, it was successful at less. For instance, the film frequently uses anti-symbols instead of symbols, there are visual sequences — such as with Evelyn’s hallucinations, Evelyn’s first time in Vesper Lynd’s apartment, the odd yet really effective opening with the singing children — that point to deeper aims, as well as filmic techniques (especially its meta-fiction) that add layers to the work. No, it doesn’t mean that the film sums up to anything great, but at the very least, it is ambitious, and a good prototype for the sort of postmodern styles in film that came in vogue in the 1990s.

Too often, Casino Royale has merely been condemned, but while I partly agree with these judgments, it’s almost become a cliche to call it “messy” and “convoluted,” for it’s so obviously those things. So, I’ve decided to focus on things beyond evaluation because it’s not only interesting culturally, but presages — for good or ill! — the sort of high-budget, small-payoff, multi-actor films that would eventually become so popular.

It is also one of Woody’s first ‘major’ acting gigs — despite the fact that he appears for a few minutes, tops, and given his own much more disciplined work ethic, absolutely hated the time spent on it, and has not, to my knowledge, ever seen it.

You can find my in-depth review here, via Blogcritics.… Continue reading →

Transcript: Dan Schneider Video Interview (Part 2) from 9/30/2014.

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PART 2

*Interview can be found here
*Part 1 can be found here
Dan Schneider Video Interview Series YouTube Channel
Dan Schneider’s website, Cosmoetica

Woody Allen does his banana thing. (c) CatholicVote.org

Woody Allen does his banana thing, as Dan Schneider & Alex Sheremet explain why. (c) CatholicVote.org

Dan Schneider: Now, the book ends with the last couple of decades of Woody’s cinematic output. You have it divided into a last two eras. What are the two eras? Give me a film, pro or con, that you think is the most representative, the best, the most interesting, what critics… whichever one jumps right out at you. So what are the last two Woody eras that you tackle?

Alex Sheremet: The last two eras are 1993 until 2004, so that’s the films between Bullets Over Broadway…No, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Melinda and Melinda. And then I go from Match Point in 2005, up until 2013’s Blue Jasmine. Looking at the first time period, that film that I want to talk about most is Celebrity. This is because this is a film that’s been pretty much ignored, it’s been neglected, and in many ways it’s been much more panned, even, than Stardust Memories, or Another Woman, or similar films. It has not necessarily had this kind of revitalization like some other films might have, and it’s… I wouldn’t call it a great film. It’s not up to par with his best work, but at the very least, I would argue that it is an excellent film. It’s an excellent film for the very reasons that people deride it for. For example, you have the character of Simon, through Kenneth Branagh, and he’s been derided as this really poor Woody Allen stand-in, that he’s merely doing the Woody Allen shtick in a way that Woody Allen wouldn’t be able to do.

But this is kind of the point. If you look at his appearance, he is clearly more handsome than Woody Allen, he looks more manly than Woody Allen, and he’s somebody that would much more easily fit into this kind of celebrity life than Woody Allen would. If you see, for example, the flirt scenes that he has with various women, if you see him going around with different models… these are not things that Woody Allen would be able to pull off, himself, because if he were to do it, it would look like mere comedy. And it would look like mere comedy because here’s this nebbish that has these glasses and just looks so awkward and just acts so awkward. There is no sense of genuine romance, there is no sense that this is a realistic move for this kind of human being to make. But with Woody Allen’s stand-in, as he’s being called, he does a very good job. He’s very realistic in that role, and these are all pluses. This is not the negative that it’s been made out to be. A close viewing of the film without allowing Woody Allen … Continue reading →

Transcript: Dan Schneider Video Interview (Part 1), via Cosmoetica.

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PART 1

 

*Interview can be found here
The Dan Schneider Interview Series YouTube channel
Dan Schneider’s website, Cosmoetica

Woody Allen & Stardust Memories. (c) MGM

Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. (c) MGM

Dan Schneider: This is Dan Schneider, and this is the first Dan Schneider Video Interview. My guest is Alex Sheremet, a writer, poet, and film critic. We will be discussing his latest book on the film career of Woody Allen. Before we get into that, I just want to give a little word on the nature of the Dan Schneider interviews. Those familiar with Cosmoetica know that I’d done several dozen interviews in a written format. One of the things that I’ve found out in this day and age is that a lot of people don’t have the time, and a lot of people simply are not good enough with words to do interviews. So I’m trying now to put Cosmoetica and the interview series online on YouTube and this is the first of those interviews.

Anyone who has ever saw the old television show Open End by David Susskind in the 1960s, this will sort of follow that format. Some interviews might be 40 or 45 minutes, others are an hour and a half, and others might run 2 or 3 hours depending on the subject matter and the interviewee. If you’ve ever watched the interviews at the Archive Of American Television, with television stars, we’ll follow that format. Basically, I’ll ask questions of the interviewee, who you will see on your screen before you. This is, again, Alex Sheremet, and this is being recorded on September 27th, a Saturday, 2014.

Alex is a poet, a writer, and a film critic. He has a new book coming out from a new press, and is about the filmic career of Woody Allen. Alex, what is the name of the book, and what is the name of the press?

Alex Sheremet: The book is Woody Allen: Reel To Real, and the press is Take2 Publishing.

DS: The book Woody Allen: Reel To Real…that suggests you may be doing more than just talking about the man’s filmic life. What is general thrust of the book, in just a few minutes?

AS: I think what you originally said was right. You first said the life and career of Woody Allen, and then you corrected yourself and said the filmic career of Woody Allen. And this is really what it is. I cover every single film that Woody Allen has ever appeared in, or otherwise written or directed. It covers every film in minute detail specifically addressing the art. So, if you want to talk about the thrust of the book, the thrust is really an evaluation. I go from film to film, evaluating each film as a work of art, because one thing I noticed when I would read a couple of dozen or so books on Woody Allen, there’s so much written about him online, there’s … Continue reading →