Review Of Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder”

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 asks to see and feel Good while … Continue reading →

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

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 next, as the play takes the film title quite literally. … Continue reading →

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

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 →

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Woody Allen, & Some Critical Perils

[Update for 11/13/2014: My book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, is now out, and can be purchased via Amazon. It includes, in full, the e-mail exchange that I describe below.]

About a week ago, I solicited Jonathan Rosenbaum for comments on my essay deriding his (and others’) interpretation of Woody Allen, which forms part of my upcoming e-book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real. I believed, of course, that the reasons were pretty clear. Rosenbaum — top critic, top film expert, top DVD commentator, top etc. etc. etc. — had a dozen or so reviews of Allen’s films, most of which, quite literally, involve a 4-5 sentence dismissal, with little to no evidence for his judgments, and even less argumentation. His essay, “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen,” fares even worse, because unlike in the context of a brief dismissal, which might simply be constrained by the demands of a newspaper, or whatever else, Rosenbaum finally had a few thousand words to put the nail in Allen’s coffin. He does not, however, and given the man’s reputation, it’s shocking how little of his essay in fact even address Woody Allen’s films, content, as it is, to merely skim along the surface of things.

So I e-mailed Rosenbaum, reiterating my points, and not really expecting a reply. To my surprise, however, it came, quite respectful and very prompt. More surprising, however, was what happened near the end of our exchange, wherein Rosenbaum made the claim that he finds “evaluation” to be an unimportant task for the critic, all things considered. Now, such things are certainly in vogue these days, and subjectivists will still insist that art cannot be ‘judged’ for a while yet. It was shocking to hear this from Rosenbaum, however, because, well, the man gained his reputation on precisely that: evaluation. Ever read his take on Taxi Driver, which helplessly careens between minor adulation and silly charges that the film is “ideologically confused”– i.e., has no consistent idea or philosophical posit? That is called, what? It is ‘evaluation’. Ever read his various “10 Best” lists, across multiple categories, whose only existence can occur if the critic, first and foremost, evaluates films for this inclusion, thus naturally excluding others as substandard? I mean, the word is “best,” as in, transcending merely ‘better,’ or ‘good,’ but in the realm of best. Not favorite, mind you, not essential, not important, but best, which is a word with a specific meaning. Or hell, what of the essay in question– “Notes Toward the De-Valuation…”, which has the word ‘evaluate’, within, and implies judgment– the very thing Rosenbaum denies the importance of, yet does in review after review, essay after essay, thus staking his own celebrity on such, but eliding it when philosophically expedient?

This line of reasoning is unoriginal, and therefore very common. Rosenbaum, however, at least attributes it to a specific source, one that he could name: Manny Farber. To Rosenbaum, Manny Farber is … Continue reading →