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 →

On Brueghel The Younger’s “Crucifixion” (1617)

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Brueghel's "Crucifixion" (1617)

Brueghel’s “Crucifixion” (1617)

In some ways, Brueghel the Younger was a lesser imitator of his father (Bruegel, sans the ‘h’) who was responsible for classic paintings like “The Fall Of Icarus” — an early landscape that subverted what the term meant — and “Two Monkeys.” He’d take his father’s trademarks of symbolism, disfigurement, and religious cynicism and pat them down into a formula, until everything that was good and fresh about the paintings had been cooked down, bottled, and shelved away into something more serviceable than technically innovative, or ideationally deep. Yet, as “Crucifixion” shows, even a formula repeated often enough can lead to something of value, if only by accident.

Yes, the conceit is clearly his father’s. There is Jesus, on the cross, almost made anonymous by three other figures crucified around him, and a huge crowd below that wishes to swallow up the action of the painting. It doesn’t, for Christ is in the center of the painting, and, more importantly, seems to be the center of the action, too, despite the fact that he takes up so little space. Yet there are some original additions, as well. The buildings are grayed-out, as if they’d been destroyed — or would be destroyed in the future — in some cataclysm, and are now covered by wind and clouds. An odd streak of reddish-brown runs across the sky, following the horizontal portion of the cross, as if something ‘resists’ Christ’s death, while the other men are still in the midst of being hoisted up with ladders and ropes.

Christ, then, is the only dignitary here, an effect achieved practically by not magnifying him, not giving him much movement or verve, while kindling all the rest. At the same time, one can’t help wonder whether the effect is demeaning or honorary, for one does not see the suffering, nor the holiness – only a dead man, or soon to be dead, barely dressed with only the smallest hint of divinity, occluded by the other crucified men.

It’s an interesting painting because much of the technique is so rudimentary, yet it nonetheless works. The figures are reminiscent of medieval “art,” which was often little more than an excuse for chronology or religious comment, and don’t have the startling detail of a Caravaggio or even a Bosch. Yet it still does much with very little: the placement of the figures, the streak of red, the mere discoloration of landscape. In many ways, art is not about being “pretty” or ham-fisted, but is about the organization of things like color, figure, perspective, ugliness, prettiness, and the like, to a higher purpose. “Crucifixion” accomplishes this, at turns commenting on its own subject, even as the painting seems to turn away from the conventional representations of such. This is in fact a good thing, for one does not merely ‘get’ Brueghel’s viewpoint — whatever it may be — but re-creates and otherwise rote and typical scene anew, with just a few alterations.

A … 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 →

Recipe: Swordfish, Pasta, & Carrot Cake

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Swordfish pasta

Swordfish on whole wheat spaghetti, with a red sauce.

Carrot cake sounds moist.

Carrot cake sounds moist.

Last week, my wife and I had our grandparents over, and so I spent much of the day cooking. Recently, we went to one of those ‘junk-food’ Italian places, wherein the menu is primarily lasagna, fried/breaded cutlets, thick sauces, and lots of salt. Can’t say that it was bad — it was junk, after all — but I’ve slowly, mechanically, been improving my pasta dishes for a number of years, now, usually cooking them once a week or so, trying to polish them every time. It’s taken a lot of forms: pasta and broccoli in a red sauce (which was my mainstay for a while), experiments with pasta and potato (sucked!), the use and mis-use of various greens, tomato varieties, oils, and, of course, different pasta brands.

Since I strictly eat whole grains, it is hard to find a whole wheat pasta that is firm, dry, and not too overpowering. Supermarket brands are no good, so I’ve experimented both with cheap and artisan pastas. Bionaturae is good, but not worth the cost. Garofalo is hands down the best, and better than most white pastas, but too expensive for anything but special occasions. Yet the lowly Trader Joe’s brand pasta is just a little over $1, rivals Bionaturae in taste, and — if cooked right — indistinguishable from white.

For my grandmothers’ visit, it was best to keep things simple. They’re old, and have a bland palate, while I’ve settled, over time, on a recipe that calls for thin shiitake mushrooms (as opposed to the meaty ones in Chinatown and Flushing), a pound or two of tomatoes, a pound of turkey sausage, half a pound of mixed green leaves (chard, spinach, and kale), half a pound of fresh basil, a large onion, a few heads of garlic, two or three tri-color peppers, parmesan/romano, raw butter, olive oil, black pepper, pink Himalayan salt, and half a jar of Trader Joe’s basil marinara. The shiitake, in particular, imparts an MSG or ‘umami’ flavor to the dish that mixes nicely with the rest, but not for THIS little dinner party. So, I just dumped a jar of the basil marinara into a pan, added 20-30 chopped garlic cloves, some lemon, butter, cheese, basil, mixed leaves, and olive oil, mixed the result with the spaghetti, then apportioned the remaining sauce on 4 grilled swordfish steaks. Grandmas love mushrooms, so I grilled that on the side.  The recipe is as follows. Serves 4:

Pasta & Swordfish Recipe (Serves 4):

  • 1 box of Trader Joe’s whole wheat spaghetti
  • 1 jar of Trader Joe’s Tomato Basil Marinara
  • 1 bag of Trader Joe’s “Power Greens” (baby spinach, kale, and chard)
  • 4 swordfish fillets
  • 1 bunch of fresh basil, chopped
  • 3-4 heads of garlic (20-30 cloves), chopped
  • 2-3 tablespoons of rice brain oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2-3 oz of grated parm/romano
  • 3 lemons; 2 squeezed into sauce, 1 squeezed over fish
  • salt,
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 →