Voyage of Time (2016)

voyageSometimes we can be such loyal fools, enthralled by past glories and ever hopeful of their return. I keep watching each new Ridley Scott film with such anticipation, and for decades was just the same with each new Prince album, or John Carpenter movie. Terrence Malick has made such genuinely great films, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line are amongst my all-time favourites and I really do like The Tree of Life: there is something endlessly fascinating about it, if only because it aims so high and just falls short. The idea of a section of that film, which depicted the formation of the universe/Solar System and the beginnings of life on Earth, including the Dinosaurs and the cataclysm that wiped them out, being turned into a full-length documentary film was just so enticing. But…sadly I must say it should have all just remained within that film. Sometimes less is more: funnily enough, that’s possibly very true for much of Malick’s output. 

Its taken me a few years to catch up with Voyage of Time, finally importing a German Blu-ray relatively cheap, but alas, I possibly shouldn’t have bothered. Even as a fan and frequent apologist for Malick, I have to admit, this is a pretty poor effort. Pretty and vacuous, its terribly inferior to Godfrey Reggio’s magnificent Koyannisqatsi when it could/should have certainly been equal to it, with something new to say (instead, I have to report that Koyannisqatsi possibly shares so much of Voyage of Time‘s ‘message’ and sentiment but got there decades before and said it much better).

I’m not really even sure what Malick was thinking; we have an irritating, typical-of-Malick-horribly-obtuse Cate Blanchett narration that says nothing, for no reason at all other than, presumably, to have her name on the credits to ‘sell’ the film. Any narrative flow for this voyage through the ages of the universe and Earth is repeatedly derailed by dropped-in sequences of present-day humanity that serve no purpose at all: one moment we are in the present, then back in the past, then back in the present. At least in Reggio’s film the scenes of humanity unwittingly lost in urban cages and horrible jobs etc served some purpose, some commentary on life out of balance.

As one would expect, the film looks very pretty but little more impressive than what we’ve already seen in BBC wildlife documentaries on television, and while the visual effects are quite astonishing at times, without a clear ‘voice’ or narrative to give them purpose, what’s really the point of them at all? There’s nothing here that Kubrick’s 2001 didn’t say much more succinctly and effectively. Maybe Malick finally found he had too much to say, or nothing at all to say. Again, like so many of his recent films.

I had expected to see an expansion of that Tree of Life sequence, showing the Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the wild primeval life of Earth, perhaps a glimpse of mankind and its glories in art and history and then the long slow decline of the universe back to darkness, some kind of cosmological model and perhaps a sense of our small insignificant place within it. I didn’t expect to see a poor man’s Koyannisqatsi. At least that film had meaning; instead Malick’s Voyage has no meaning at all.    

A Hidden Life Revealed

hiddenTerrence Malick’s  latest work, A Hidden Life, is a beautiful-looking film, but of course that is the norm for films from Malick, and it is also very long, again, the norm for Malick. Its musical score is utterly sublime in how it matches those striking images; sometimes original score (this time by new collaborator James Newton Howard) and often classical pieces, all, again, the norm for Malick. It also has monologues usually in breathy voiceovers accompanying that captivating imagery – again, the norm for Malick, but here, notably, they are fewer, sparser, less intrusive than in some of his films of late.

It is, without doubt, his best film since The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line, having slipped into self-indulgence of late with recent films, succumbing to his own worst excesses. A Hidden Life may not be his best, but its certainly a return to form. Its certainly got a lot to do with the fact that this is his first film in many years to have a traditional, linear narrative. I’m sure critics will point out, possibly quite rightly, that the film would be just as good minus a third of its running time- I’m a fan of his work (both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life are among my favourite films) and even I would appreciate some keener editing,  but hey, if its the price we pay for getting films such as this (essentially extended Directors Cuts minus the usually obligatory truncated theatrical cuts most directors are mandated to initially sanction) then so be it.

A curious note regards the title; A Hidden Life is true of the film itself- as is becoming increasingly so with Malick’s films, no doubt due to financing and distribution deals, the film has been awfully hard to see over here in the UK, not getting much of a theatrical release and only a belated release on digital platforms, forgoing any physical release on disc at all, as far as I can see, which is why I have had to wait until now, with it eventually airing on Sky Cinema. There is something clearly wrong with this world when Malick’s beautiful movies do not automatically get released on 4K UHD; some of his films could sell the format but remain utterly absent (I’d noted a digital 4K release on Amazon but, well, I’m old-fashioned and stubborn enough in my preference for physical releases to vote with my wallet).

My only issue with the film, really, is one the film can hardly be condemned for, as it more concerns the real events that it is based upon: the film is the story of  Franz Jägerstatter (August Diehl) who was an Austrian conscientious objector during the Second World War who, refusing to take the Hitler oath as a Wehrmacht conscript, was executed in 1943. His stand as a conscientious objector to Hitler’s rule was condemned in his own village, his family vilified, and his name forgotten until a researcher stumbled upon his story in the 1960s. Its a noble and uplifting story and I feel guilty complaining about it- its just that, for me, the film didn’t really get me ‘into’  Jägerstatter’s head, so to speak- a devout Catholic, it was primarily his religious convictions that formed the backbone of his defiance, which I couldn’t really accept. I was just frustrated that he could make his stand and risk the endangerment and safety of his wife and three daughters (indeed their suffering continued long after his was over) and I could never reconcile his ability to do that to his family in the name of his moral stand, no matter how righteous its may be deemed to be.

That is, clearly, more of an issue with my own point of view than the film itself and its true that the films narrative does raise the issue of his family’s trials back home while he was in prison; its perhaps my own religious conviction being rather more suspect, my own sense of moral code proving dubious.

Its a point made by a painter during the film, who is painting religious iconography and murals within a church, the artist casting doubt on how beatific it is compared to the likely realities behind them, and how churchgoers themselves may have acted in the events: “I help people look up from those pews and dream,” he says. “They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did.” Perhaps what Malick is doing is asking what we would do in Jägerstatter’s position: to me the truth is that there were no absolutes, and that I would have thought more of my family than my moral convictions and would certainly have signed on that dotted line that would have spared him. In all likelihood, the Catholic church is well on the way to making Jägerstatter a Saint someday soon, but some viewers might see him as something of a stubborn fool who abandoned his wife and children. Malick should perhaps be commended for keeping such ambiguities, if so intended, but it does leave the film, for me at least, one with a frustrating core.

Malick’s 2001: A Sense of Perspective

tree3Don’t know how much time I have right now, lets see how far I get before I get called away-

The similarities between Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:  Space Odyssey might be fairly well-known, but I thought I’d mention them here, as the more I think about it, the more I find it surprising and illuminating in how they oddly complement each other.

2001 is one of the most epic films ever made, in its sense of the passage of time and where it places mankind in the cosmos. It begins with the Dawn of Man sequence, in which man-apes gain intelligence enough to use bones as tools -typically for humanity, these tools are weapons- and sets us on the path to orbiting nuclear weapons in one of the most famous jump-cuts in film history. This intelligence is ‘gifted’ by the Monolith, which is either an alien tool of communication or an alien itself. Increasingly marginalised first by the huge desert vistas of prehistoric Africa and then by the vast voids between Earth/Space Station/Moon and finally Jupiter, mankind’s unimportance seems self-assured until Bowman enters the Stargate and begins another step in evolution.

The Tree of Life reinforces this perspective of humanity in the cosmos, by actually outdoing Kubrick- Malick shows us the very beginning of the universe, the formation of the first stars, our galaxy, our sun and the Earth, and then the beginnings of life. We witness dinosaurs prior to them being wiped out by a cosmic whim of fate/gravity and a falling asteroid, and later we are thrown forwards to the death of all life on Earth as it becomes consumed by the death-throes of our sun. In this great cosmic scale of things, it’s like we never existed, our actual existence something of cosmic chance, any sign we ever existed lost as our planet is blasted to a cinder in the dark.

But Malick is also telling us something else here- that however insignificant we seem in this cosmic arena, we do matter, each and everyone of us. He shows us a family in 1950s America, childhood and adulthood, and the town in which they live. We see their relationships and how they care for each other, their laughter and their tears, their triumphs and frustrations and the joy of nature and being alive and the pain of grief and loss.

Kubrick’s film is rather colder- intellectual progress distances mankind from the natural world (we see people existing in sterile, created environments of space capsules and stations),  and also distances from each other (personal relationships decidedly cool and awkward, dialogue clipped and inane, formalities such as birthdays just perfunctory nods to old habits). The characters are, frustratingly, hardly alive, and pale in comparison to HAL, the AI that somehow seems more human than those it serves.

The world of 2001 at least appears to be quite Godless, as if humanity in creating its technological worlds has done away with God entirely and in so doing lost its soul, although it can also be ‘seen’ that 2001 is ironically quite a religious film, certainly if one takes the view that the Alien intelligence that guides humanity is God and the Monoliths are its Angels, and Bowman’s death a moment of resurrection as he becomes the Starchild. The Tree of Life meanwhile is more traditional and overtly religious in its repeated callings by various narrators to God, its use of religious imagery and rites and religious music. God is not a part of the machine/Monolith, here God is a part of nature and the film even depicts Heaven, a shoreline where our characters all meet again, even seeing themselves as different people of different ages- adult Jack meeting his child self and even his own mother, back when she was possibly younger than he appears  to be in the undefined ‘now.’ This later moment, when adult Jack witnesses his parents in the wake of his younger brothers death decades before, suggests that he is not reliving his own life as much as the life of someone else, but his perspective is one of almost Godlike omnipresence, of stepping through Time.

But the thing that both films clearly share is this sense of the Big Questions; what are we in this impossibly unfathomable universe, in which are utterly lost and insignificant in this immense incalculable span of time? What is our purpose, and are we alone? What is the meaning of life? is there something ‘More’?

In essence, 2001 burns cold and logical while The Tree of Life burns warm and emotional.  Both films share bold use of Classical music and methodology of Pure Cinema, a cinema of images and sound  rather than narrative. Both films have little dialogue, and little of this dialogue actually drives either film- rather it is the interplay of images and music that progress the films from beginning to end. Neither film holds the viewers hand and explains anything- both films demand audience’s attention and the effort to construct meaning from the events portrayed. It struck me whilst rewatching The Tree of Life the other night just how alike the two films are, and how masterful Malick’s film is- even to the point that it possibly surpasses Kubrick’s film.

I wonder what Kubrick would have thought of The Tree of Life, and indeed, what Malick (media-shy and private as he is) thinks of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Tree of Life may seem an unlikely example of what Malick would consider a science fiction epic but its connections and similarities to 2001 seem inescapable. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Oh well, it’s certainly something, if nothing else, when contemporary cinema can raise such musings.

Alas, the clock has turned and my time is up. Must go!

All Things Shining

all thingsI’ve been reading a book about Terrence Malick- well, to be more precise, its a book about Malick’s films, as he is so media-shy and prefers to maintain some privacy, and it consists of interviews culled over the decades from his associates, freinds and people who have worked with him on his films, and therefore offering glimpses of how Malick works. The book is All Things Shining: An Oral History of the films of Terrence Malick, by Paul Maher Jr. – I bought the kindle edition as it was only £2.30 compared to something like £16 for the paperback (there is another book  that treats Malick’s work in a similar way, Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected, which I also have my eye on).

Its a very interesting and revealing read. One passage caught my attention in particular, during the chapter about The Tree of Life. The film’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had this to say about the film, commenting on audiences walking out during performances (something I myself experienced when I saw the film at the cinema): “This reminds me of all the movies that I loved (in the ’70s) where we left the theatre and discussed and disagreed. We carried the experience out into the open. Things were not over explained and you went out with your freinds after and tried to make sense of something…” 

It made me think about how much films have changed from the 1970s to now- I’m not necessarily defending Malick’s obtuseness here as he has rather run astray with his way of making movies since then, so that even for a fan they can be infuriating (The Tree of Life is more a tone poem than a narrative but is clearly Malick’s strongest film post- Thin Red Line.) His films do, however, demand some attention and active work from his audience, whereas the standard way of making films now is to make them simple, make them loud. Back in the 1970s, films often had conflicted characters, genuine twists and some unfulfilling endings. We see less of that now. Indeed, when discussing contemporary films at work or with freinds, there may be some debate on whether a film is good or not but we seldom have arguments about what a film meant or what the director was trying to say. One of the things I love about BR2049 is all the layers of  subtext and threads of meaning in the film. I have previously mentioned here on this blog the anecdote of a frustrated forum post written by an American viewer who, at the end of the film where Deckard asks K why he did what he did, and who Deckard was to him, was left aghast and horrified when K just shrugs and after a silence changes the subject. We don’t need the film to spell that out- well, we shouldn’t, but modern audiences prefer to be told, not left to flounder at interpreting complex ambiguities of a film. It ruined the film for this forum writer, which struck me as typical and oddly funny.

Actor John Dee smith had this to say about The Thin Red Line as it approached its premiere and Malick was ordered to cut the film further to ensure it came in under three hours: “(Terry) doesn’t think this mainstream formula clustering bullshit audience he’s dealing with would benefit from it. He wasn’t just telling a story, he was fleshing out the human psyche. I don’t think America is ready for his work, and he probably doesn’t think so either.”

For some odd reason it had me thinking about the comparisons between Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Back when Interstellar came out, there were all sorts of ridiculous allusions made to the film being equal to or the successor to 2001, and it got me into quite a few arguments at the time. 2001 has something to say and a brave way to say it, and while Interstellar is a film worthy of some admiration, it doesn’t really have much to say and confuses much of what it does say. Contemporary audiences however seem to think that the film is very clever and challenging but they haven’t seen 2001 at all so really have no way of qualifying that judgement in my mind. However, I hesitate to recommend they actually watch 2001 because I really don’t think they’d manage it- would they even get through the Dawn of Man sequence? Kubrick’s film was odd back in 1968 and while it eventually found its audience I think it’s doubly odd compared to modern films, its pacing and ambiguity the absolute anathema of today’s audiences. Well, the majority, anyway, I guess you have to be wary of absolutes.

I think we have lost something though, the way most films are now. Clearly they are chiefly entertainment and intended to be popular and therefore financially successful, and being simple and undemanding seems to go hand in hand with keeping the majority of viewers happy. Perhaps the biggest culprit is the high budgets and the need to be hugely popular (rather than mildly popular) to recoup such huge investments – just witness the problems BR2049 had. I think if we could get more financial restraint more risk or openly ambiguous/complex films might have more chance of success. Conversely, I think it’s such a shame that you simply cannot make an intelligent big-budget film like BR2049 and still get an audience, and for this you have to blame either the audience itself, or society in general, or Hollywood’s slow decline into crass stupidity in its blockbuster school of film-making that makes popcorn movies really popcorn for the mind.

Or do we just blame George Lucas and Star Wars? I don’t think that’s fair (and there’s also an argument that Star Wars actually saved Hollywood and ended a steady decline in cinema audiences etc) but there is some validity to the view that Lucas began a trend of making entertainment via escapism and less of a tie to reality and issues beyond the auditorium. The problem is that escapism can slide into crassness, dumbness and stupidity, particularly if you make the package so loud and spectacular that audiences get carried away by the experience and not having to think- and films these days are so very loud and spectacular.

I rather suspect that future of serious and challenging cinema lies away from the multiplex and perhaps in the domain of Netflix and Amazon Prime, if they get enough time, and don’t get pulled into competing with all the fireworks of cinema offerings. A Terrence Malick film for Netflix might be something to see, I think.

Knight of Cups (2015)

knight12016.17: Knight of Cups (Blu-ray)

I’m a big fan of Terrence Malick’s films- The Thin Red Line is one of my very favourite films, I love Days of Heaven (if only someone would release Criterion’s Blu-ray on Region B) and The Tree of Life. However, anybody who recalls my review of To The Wonder a few years back will remember my growing doubts about Malick and his ever-increasingly poetic, free-of-narrative style of movie making. His films have always been lyrical and gorgeous to look at and listen to, feasts for the senses that are beautifully lensed and accompanied by wonderful soundtracks. Increasingly extraordinary films that you walk away from not entirely sure what the films were even about. Tree of Life was a fascinating film with amazing sequences fashioned from jaw-dropping visuals and music – a History Of The World section with Douglas Trumbull effects was worth the price of admission alone, but what the rest of the film was actually about (growing up in a dysfunctional family, father and son relationships, life and death, the loss of innocence, humanity versus the randomness of Nature) was open to some debate. What you get out of a Malick film is always proportionate to what you are willing to put into it- these aren’t passive experiences. But with To The Wonder Malick was pushing it too far, the narrative-free form feeling too random, the vagueness slipping into tedium, the directionless acting irritating. I’ve only seen it once.

So I approached Knight of Cups with some caution. I have to say, I needn’t have worried, it’s a beautiful, brilliant movie (I’ll add the cautionary disclaimer ‘if you like Malick’, as if you dislike his films his Knight of Cups will only reinforce that view). As soon as this film ended I could have sat down and watched it again. I didn’t connect at all with To The Wonder, but Knight of Cups touched me, it spoke to me- I ‘got’ it. It’s brilliant.

It doesn’t, of course, have a plot.  Rick (Christian Bale) is a Hollywood screenwriter and the toast of Hollywood (the irony of the protagonist being the one thing a Malick film doesn’t need isn’t lost on me). He’s the typical guy who has got it all and wonders why he bothered, what its all for- he’s feeling old before his time. He represents an extreme example of all of us struggling to find meaning in their lives; he has beautiful women, gets invited to parties full of the rich and famous… but he’s increasingly lost and feeling empty inside, a tortured soul. The brighter his life, the duller it seems.

knight3In a series of unscripted vignettes we see him at parties, nightclubs, in luxurious hotels and nightclubs, surrounded by hangers-on and superstars. We see his relationships with women. His ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchette) debates with him why their marriage failed, whilst holding back from him her sadness that he was the love of her life. There’s flings with Helen (Frieda Pinto), Della (Imogen Poots) and Karen (Teresa Palmer), followed by a serious but ill-fated relationship with a married woman (Natalie Portman). His difficult relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and mentally unravelling father (Brian Dennehy) run throughout all of them. Rick is lost in the wilderness, a wilderness of rocky canyons and gleaming hotel rooms and neon-drenched cities and luxury mansions and sun-drenched beaches. Sometimes its like looking at life on another planet. Its broken people in a broken world.

knight2

Naturally Knight of Cups follows the traditions of Malick film-making. Beautiful imagery that may or may not have meaning, internal monologues voiced by the characters we see and other speeches that are from sources unknown that may or not be commenting on what we are seeing. There is no resolution, other than whatever the viewer takes away from it. We seem to leave Rick as lost and forlorn as ever. But maybe there is hope; who knows? You may sympathise with him or you may hate him. Is he genuinely a tortured soul on an existential journey through modern California or just a needy yank suffering from depression?

The imagery, lensed by frequent Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, is always beautiful, often breathtaking in framing and execution. You could turn down the soundtrack and just watch the images as a modern-day update of Koyaanisqatsi, but the soundtrack itself, another collection of classical pieces and original score typical of Malick’s films, is a marvel in itself. As a whole I think it works extraordinarily well. Anyone who enjoyed The Tree of Life should give this film a chance. Watch it on the biggest screen you can as loud as you can.

I imported the German Blu-ray which is UK-friendly with English menus etc. I guess the theatrical release here in May will be very limited which is why I reluctantly went the import route, our own disc release no doubt still months away. You never know, maybe a cinema near me will screen the film; after To The Wonder I wouldn’t have risked it but having now seen Knight of Cups, I’d be keen to see it on a big screen if given the opportunity. God only knows how films like this get financed and made but thank God they do. I loved it.

What next, Mr Malick?

 

Interstellar (2014)

inter2I’m not quite sure what to make of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. On the one hand its a bold, intelligent and epic movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe, and on the other hand, its an incredibly flawed, dumbed-down and infuriating movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe. How can it be both things at once? I saw the film in Imax (if you see the film, it HAS to be in Imax) last Tuesday and have refrained from writing this post, preferring instead to consider the film for awhile, discussing the film with colleagues at work who I saw the film with. Over the past few days I’ve started to reflect more on what the film does well than its flaws, but I’m still worried this post will swiftly degenerate into a confusing morass of conflicting thoughts…. its that kind of movie.

Its certainly no masterpiece though. Its a good film in many ways, but anyone going to see this expecting something as important and profound as 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to be disappointed.  Sets your sights more towards 2010: The Year We Make Contact or perhaps even Sunshine and you’ll be happier with it. If that sounds like a damning comment then there it is. The one thing I will say in its favour is that they simply don’t make many films with space exploration  as a serious subject so we should cherish Interstellar for all its flaws- we simply are not going to see another science fiction film like this again for some years to come. That makes its flaws all the more frustrating, obviously…

What annoyed me most about Interstellar? For all its touted vision, all the huge effects and scope and acting talent, what this film lacks is a commentary, a voice of its own. Its bloodless. For me one of the most interesting parts of the film is its first act, on the blighted near-future Earth and a humanity that is facing a long, slow extinction. Text-books are rewriting history (the Apollo landings were faked, claimed to be a successful ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union), farming is the only thing that matters, there are no armies, no space programmes… but nowhere does the film state a reason for this End of the World scenario. Climate change? Global Warming? Rampant population growth? Is the film so afraid to be outspoken, afraid to alienate viewers by being political? With a premise like this , the film should be pissing people off, if only the current political establishments of this planet. Maybe it should be pissing all of us off, blaming us and our way of life for the blight. Have we killed the Earth? If so, do we even deserve to survive? The question isn’t even asked, as if believing that humanity is some innocent victim itself. There is an extinction event going on, God knows how many species already wiped out by the time the film begins, but no explanation offered, no reason or blame for it. We are meant to just accept it somehow. Its the reason for the odyssey that follows, and that’s all. The central premise of the film is stated as ‘Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here‘. It doesn’t ask why. Why are we not meant to die here, considering its us that fucked it up? The film should be asking do we deserve to survive, and the rest of the film demonstrating the answer.

inter3Doubly troubling is that everything is American-centric, a throwback to films decades past. There’s an irony that if its the free-capitalism and mass-consumption of the Western way of life that has destroyed the planet, its only the Americans that can save it. There’s no Big Picture here, despite the films huge subject. Beyond the rural land of Cooper’s farm, or the rather ridiculous subterranean hide-out of NASA, the big world picture is ignored. Bear in mind that as I write this in 2014, America and NASA cannot even get a man into orbit any more, in light of which the basic premise of the film (forget the Rest Of The World, America Can Save Everything) is insulting, frankly, in something that’s supposed to be so intelligent. Its more Armageddon than Contact, something I found quite surprising.

Some sequences are indeed jaw-dropping pure cinema, as one would expect of a director of Nolan’s credentials. When Cooper finally leaves home to pilot the mission to the stars, he leaves behind his young daughter begging him to stay. The music swells up powerfully, he drives off into the horizon, and as the music lifts up even more the picture cuts to the launch of the rocket, the magnificently bombastic Zimmer score propelling, simply willing the rocket into orbit. Its huge, exhilarating stuff, worth the price of admission alone. Indeed this may well be Zimmer’s finest score in years (it’s up there with The Thin Red Line in my eyes). But goodness is it loud. It drowns out so much of the dialogue some of these plot-points I’m moaning about may indeed have been addressed in the film, I perhaps simply missed it in all the noise. The sound design of this movie is problematic to say the least. It seems to be by design, but if so then I’m not sure it worked to the film-maker’s intentions.

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So once we get into space, and all the promised spectacle of a blockbuster movie, its surprising how mundane it all seems. Have we lost our propensity for awe? Its troubling that Interstellar lacks the sense of wonder or spectacle that the Birth of the Solar System sequence of The Tree Of Life had, or so much of Gravity had (indeed, much of the film looks spectacular but Gravity remains visually superior, and it must really irk Nolan that it beat him to it). Going further back, Kubrick’s 2001 had such a grace in its scale, a sense of the vastness of space, our place in it: the Discovery a dot in the vast blackness of the 70mm frame, and then the humans in turn dwarfed by the construct carrying them. Nolan deliberately avoids hero-shots of the ships, perhaps to maintain an intimacy, or docudrama approach, but this hurts the films sense of scale and majesty. Originally Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct this film, if he had, I don’t think the film would have suffered this particular failing.

Nolan seems so distracted by time dilation and the years separating Cooper and his family back on Earth that the sheer physicality of space travel, the distances and the zero-gravity, food and air supplies, don’t seem to interest him. Even a film as derided as Sunshine had a greenhouse on its ship and a concious concern with supplies and survival. Interstellar is in such a rush to get to the wormhole it treats the odyssey to reach it (the wormhole orbits way out at Saturn)  as something ordinary, like a regular outing. We don’t have time, funnily enough in a three-hour movie, to really get a sense of the ship they are travelling in, establish its internal and external spaces, its functions. The crew leave Earth orbit, jump into cryosleep and wake up at Saturn minutes later. Sure, it moves the film forward but it loses so much grandeur and sense of awe, and once through the wormhole and we reach the Other Side, this sense of the ordinary continues, the prospective planets all (apparently) fairly close to each other, the astronauts tripping between them like in some kind of Star Wars movie. It’s necessary to keep the running time down, but it really diminishes the scale, which is odd, because this film is close on three hours long, and if that’s not long enough to maintain a proper sense of scale in a space movie, then are you doing it wrong? If sub-plots are forcing your hand condensing it all into three-hours, should it even be there?

Its as if they shot two three-hour movies and cut it down to one. Sort of like making a Peter Jackson movie in reverse.

I have endeavoured to keep as much of this spoiler-free as I can. People who have seen the film will have noted that I haven’t even raised certain elements of the film up. Derisive as I may already seem, I haven’t yet brought up a number of elements of the film that are really contentious. Bookcases and coordinates and surprise actors, rather problematic robot designs…  I’ll leave that for another day, perhaps when the Blu-ray comes out.

Suffice to say that while people still argue about what 2001 means, there’s no such argument regards Interstellar– its love conquers all. Yes, I’m afraid its about as high-concept as that. Which is not to say that its a bad movie, its just a frustrating one. Not quite worthy of all its ambitions. This post makes it seem as if I hated the film. I really quite liked it. I look forward to seeing it again. It just isn’t what we had hoped it would be, what it really should have been- a really great space movie. Nearly there, I guess.

Well, we’ll always have 2001...

 

To the Wonder (2012)

2thewondrWith To the Wonder, Terrence Malick pushes everything to the limit- frankly, he seems hell-bent on testing the faith of his sincerest admirers/fans, threatening to make even the most faithful of us bored to tears. It’s all the best and very worst of him wrapped up into one strange, beautiful, but rather detached, even boring film. Its a further experiment in his cinematic  tone poems, in which he edits several hours of footage into two hours of ambient, fragmentary passages with carefully selected (mostly classical) music.

The plot – well, the marketing people will have you believe there is a plot, and furthermore that it’s a love story: Neil (a horribly wasted Ben Affleck) after a romance in Europe, returns to America with single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko, who is radiant throughout) and her child. Marina has to return to Europe as the relationship fractures, Neil finding a new romance with an old flame of his youth, Jane (Rachel McAdams).  To be honest, there isn’t much of a story at all, and much of what I have just said can hardly be gleaned from just watching the movie. It’s mostly what the marketing people are telling us happens, because, quite frankly, the film itself hardly bothers to tell the viewer even that.  Marin leaves, Jane turns up. Marina returns, Jane disappears. Neil is passive throughout, as if unsure what he or the director wants. None of it is really explained, there is hardly any dialogue or exposition at all. Apparently random, albeit artistic, vignettes pass before us, of characters staring at each other, or away from each other. Walking towards each other, or walking away from each other. Embracing, fighting. Shopping. They hardly speak. Voice-overs and mutterings  litter the sound-scape so quietly I’m not even sure we are meant to hear them, but its mostly not in English anyway, so subtitles often help us out. I guess that’s the point; like in all Malick’s work, everything is subjective, it’s up to the viewer to decide what has happened. The film is almost like a mirror, shouting at us what do you see? What is going on?

Which is all very well and good when there is a story being told at the same time, from which we can glean/decide subjective meaning, however arbitrary,  from the events portrayed. We knew The Thin Red Line was a war movie, even though subjectively we know its really about nature, our place in it, how we bring arbitrary values of  good and evil to it. We knew that Tree of Life was telling the story of a family, of small human transient lives put into perspective against the grandest panorama of Creation, of The Beginning and The End.  So while that film has meanings we ourselves give it, it was still telling a story.  To the Wonder doesn’t really have that, its all rather aimless and irritating, as aimless as Javier Bardem’s pointless Father Quintana sullenly moping around his congregation muttering vaguely about love and Christ. Surely Malick has pushed his beautiful cinematic tone-poems as far as they can go.