“To the Wonder” — more wispy than wistful.
Terrence Malick’s films have been trending toward the expansive for some time. In “The Thin Red Line,” a WWII movie about a group of American GIs doing battle in the South Pacific, the military action was undergirded by voiceover musings that trawled through memory, philosophy, and theology. “Who’s doing this to us?” one character asked, as the long slog of war ground on, while another meditates on Homer’s epic “The Iliad,” including a moment when he beholds a “rosy-fingered dawn.”
Cut into the action of “The Thin Red Line” were snippets of the past from one GI’s marriage —— a union that ends with a Dear John letter. The photography and light of the memory sequences seemed transcendent, a respite (however frail) from the horrors of battle.
With “The Tree of Life,” Malick took this stylistic formula even further. (Let’s ignore “The New World” for now. In fact, let’s just ignore “The New World altogether.) A story about grief and remembrance, “The Tree of Life” took an even longer, if somewhat more literal, view of the themes of life and death, delving deep into the anguish of a man whose brother has died while simultaneously beholding the history (and fate) of all life on Earth, and of the planet itself. We’re shown Earth’s formation, the rise of ancient creatures (dinosaurs!), and a glimpse of the far, far future, when the planet will be engulfed in the sun’s late-stage swelling.
With “To the Wonder,” Malick tightens his focus, but gives even freer reign to his propensity to create scenes out of images, with just enough dialogue and action to sketch out the elements of a story. Malick is increasingly comfortable with letting us put the story together for ourselves, while he concentrates on defining and composing the most striking images available to him, or charting the fluid path of a camera that roams and jogs restlessly through chance moments, rare and spontaneous moments that unfold between lovers and in the world around them.
The couple here are Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). They meet when Neil visits France, and she accompanies him back to Oklahoma along with her daughter (Tatiana Chiline).
At first, the romance is a dizzying burst of light that carries the couple along; all is laughter, lust, fun and games. But Neil is a restless sort; his job takes him tramping all over the countryside, and his life is similarly unsettled. He lives among boxes, barely unpacking what he needs. This is not a man ready to set down roots with anyone. The time comes for Marina and her daughter to return home, and Neil puts up no resistance. Instead, letting them leave, he drifts into his next relationship with an old friend named Jane (Rachel McAdams). When Marina asks to return, Neil simply drifts back to her —— and it’s in this renewal that he finally makes a choice. But do they have the kind of connection that can survive the long haul?
Marina isn’t the only foreigner struggling with a new life in heartland America. The local parish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), compares the love of a married couple to a life of service to God. The human heart of fragile and changeable; can love, even of the Divine, attain the eternal? If that love changes, are we ready to embrace (or even recognize) those changes? Weary from his endless work and expectations of bottomless compassion, Father Quintana begins to lose his way; Marina, too, begins to respond to Neil in a different, less affectionate, manner.
It’s a worthy theme to explore, but it’s not explored as thoroughly as those languid moments that characterize the film’s first part, nor as energetically as the shifts and transitions that stutter and jolt throughout the second half. The story isn’t related so much as allowed to evaporate; Malick has taken his narrative minimalism too far here, creating gorgeous images but neglecting his role as storyteller. As a result, “To the Wonder” is wispy, tenuous, and insubstantial. That would be fine, if Malick had found a way to haunt us; regrettably, he simply leaves us on the shore while he rows off, alone, to a sunlit sea.
Derek Cianfrance has just released his third feature film, but already he’s accomplished a memorable body of work. Actor Ryan Gosling puts himself under Cianfrance’s direction once more, as he did in “Blue Valentine,” to mesmerizing effect in the brooding, tense drama “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
Gosling kicks the movie off, front and center of a long shot that observes him pulling on his shirt and jacket (hello; buff midriff; hello gallery of tattoos!) and then follows him through a nighttime carnival crowd to a huge metal cage, where he and two others zip around on motorcycles like electrons whirling about a nucleus. The first time we see Gosling’s face is as he mounts his bike; a mere moment later he pulls his helmet on. This is not going to be an easy character to get to know, and Gosling plays him with a certain distance that makes him a question mark and an anchor throughout the film’s 140-minute running time.
Gosling’s character is named Luke. A year earlier, when the carnival was last in Schenectady, NY, he and a local woman named Romina (Eva Mendes) enjoyed a fling. Now he’s back in town, and Romina comes looking for him at the carnival just to say hello. When Luke returns the favor and comes calling at her home the following day, he discovers that the babe in the arms of Romina’s mother is his own infant son, Jason.
Pulled from his accustomed orbit by this revelation, Luke determines to stick around and help look after his son. The fact that Romina is now together with a man named Kofi (Mahershala Ali) doesn’t deter him; as he outlines hazy plans for the future, Romina, seeking details, asks, “What about my mother?”
“She can come,” Luke responds.
“What about Kofi?”
“He can stay.”
It’s an impossibly sticky situation, made worse when Luke is befriended by Jack (Craig Van Hook), an auto mechanic with a sideline in robbing banks. Soon, the pair are pulling off heists all around the area, and stashing bricks of cash in hiding places. One such brick finds its way to Romina, and there it stays until a group of corrupt cops come calling in the wake of a shootout that leaves Luke dead.
The hero cop who pulled the trigger on Luke is Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), whose life has been marked by a restlessness not unlike Luke’s. Avery went to law school and passed the bar before becoming a police officer; events after the shootout pull him onto a fraught new path, just as happened to Luke. It’s as though karma were somehow contagious, and the men’s glancing contact with one another transferred some lethal seed that now must germinate.
Indeed, the reverberations of the shootout reach into the next generation: Years later, Avery’s own son AJ (Emory Cohen) and Luke’s boy Jason (Dane DeHaan) are drawn to one another, first as tentative friends, then as increasingly bitter enemies.
The casting of the sons seems a strange choice at first. Cohen, who is somewhat big boned and has a slightly cool, detached air about him that’s not unlike Gosling’s, would have been a more obvious pick to play Jason. DeHaan, slight and a little flighty, bears more of a resemblance to Cooper’s Avery. Pressed by AJ to secure drugs, Jason finds himself embroiled in the kind of legal trouble that can permanently derail a young man’s life, while AJ sails above consequences thanks to his father’s position as a local politician and his influence over the same corrupt police department he once helped clean up.
Cianfrance sweeps his characters along in the style of a Greek tragedy: Events unfold slowly, but with a tidal force that catches everyone up in irresistible currents of fate. No single character serves as a definite focus here (though Luke does exert a kind of gravity even from beyond the grave), and there’s no real sense of resolution. The overall effect is a suggestion that we’re all at the mercy of forces we cannot comprehend, and that life —— rather like this movie —— is a compendium of intense scenes tied together only minimally, if at all.
If “The Place Beyond the Pines” has received mixed notices from the critics, it’s because there’s little narrative sense to be made here, and Cianfrance defiantly refuses to play by the usual rules. Like Luke roaring around on his motorcycle inside the “Globe of Death,” Cianfrance sends his characters whirling around in erratic, almost shapeless arcs that bring them into constant near-misses with catastrophe before finally, almost at random, generating sporadic collisions. This is not a story that lends itself well to a three-sentence summary, but it is one of those movies that will linger at the back of the mind for a long time to come.
Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are wasted in this tepid movie about the chase to get into Princeton.
“Admission” starts off promisingly enough, with Fey’s character Portia Nathan shown touring high schools to spread the word of the Success Gospel: If you’re the right kind of person, then Princeton is the right kind of elite Ivy League school for you. The movie gleefully mocks the flocks of glaze-eyed students who lap up Portia’s words, lingering over their look of feral need when she teases them with a promise to reveal “the secret” of gaining admission to the school.
The secret? Well, the secret is this: Applicants have to dazzle the members of the admissions office. That’s pretty much all. Throughout the film, Portia has visions of the students she’s assessing. At one point she imagines the rejects dropping through a trap door. It’s emotionally draining work at the best of times, but when a teacher from a new alternative high school named John Pressman (Rudd) phones one day to get her to include his school on her tour, things suddenly get even more complicated.
Pressman has a special student in mind for Princeton. Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) is a brilliant young man with slightly awkward social skills and a brain wired a little differently from most people. He’s an autodidact and an unconventional thinker; for some reason, Jeremiah is eager to get into Princeton, unlike his peers, who disdain Princeton as a hotbed of snobbery.
But Pressman has another reason for requesting Fey’s visit: He thinks that this young man might be the son she gave birth to and then gave up for adoption in her own college years. From here, the movie turns into a montage of absurdities, as Portia discovers her previously missing maternal side. Let’s just say that if there are indeed secrets to gaining access to the privileged realm of the Ivy Leagues, having a friend (or secret relation) in high places is one of them.
It’s also apparent from their first phone conversation that Pressman and Portia are going to be a romantic item; the film is that clichéd and obvious, which is to say, it’s a standard rom-com. (The dearth of honest laughs is no impediment here; that’s also standard rom-com fare these days.)
This movie is Town versus Gown writ large, and calls to mind cases like that of James Arthur Hogue, who lied his way into Princeton under an assumed identity, or Adam Wheeler, who similarly gained admission to Harvard under false pretenses. Hogue and Wheeler evidently had no problem with elite university life or academics once admitted; the problem was one of having deceived the gatekeepers in order to gain entrance.
Such cases are embarrassing, of course, but they also throw into question the very notion that only a very few out of the great hordes could do well in top-tier institutions of higher learning. The movie rubs this notion into our faces during an extended admissions office scene in which candidates are discussed and then rejected for various reasons that sound bogus – not enough extracurriculars, for example, or a general feeling in the room that one clearly talented applicant has got “too much to overcome” to do well at Princeton.
So what is a nice girl like Portia doing in an office filled with sharks like the co-worker who uses the standard high school mean girl bag of tricks to make herself look good at Fey’s expense? And what, for that matter, are Fey and Rudd doing in a movie that only half-heartedly tries for either comedy or drama?
Lily Tomlin makes an amusing appearance as Fey’s mother, a strident, fiercely self-reliant feminist. Rudd is appealing because, well, he’s Rudd. Wolff displays a talent for getting into the skin of an offbeat character; it would be interesting to see what he could do in a better, gutsier movie. Then again, the same applies to Fey and Rudd.
Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst are utterly wasted in this Juan Solanas feature that seems explicitly designed for two things: One, to show off some gorgeous CGI work; and two, to appeal to the tween girl movie market. Anybody else — especially anybody male or over the age of 16 — will run the risk of a cluster headache after the first half hour.
“Upside Down” is set in a universe where physics as we understand it does not apply, but absurdly exaggerated metaphors about social justice do. More specifically, the story takes place on a pair of planets that seem to hover only a few hundred meters apart from one another. The two worlds don’t do a lot of things that planets generally do in reality, like rotate or crash into each other; the explanation for at least some of this is that they each possess a unique gravitational field that only affects their own kind of matter. Human beings populate both planets, but each population is stuck, literally, on the surface of their own world. Even if they climb up to the other planet, they’re still pulled back down to their own.
That’s the objective way of looking at it. Naturally, this being a movie with a message as broad and subtle as an oar across the face, the inhabitants of one planet assume themselves to be the “superior” race, living in a realm situated “above” the other one. The mystery is why the people from “down below” – an impoverished lot who led hardscrabble lives – abide by this definition and mind their place. Perhaps it has something to do with how the “Upper” folks snatch up rifles and start shooting, killing, and burning at the slightest provocation, be it real or imagined.
Ready for more front-and-center, neon-lit metaphor? Sturgess plays a “Lower” class guy named Adam, a fellow who despite his humble origins at an orphanage has met an “Upper” class girl named “Eden.” The two enjoy a childhood friendship, then an adolescent love affair, and then – cue the Upper planet border vigilantes – Eden suffers a terrible injury that leaves her an amnesiac.
Ten years later, the clever and industrious Adam is on the verge of creating a new formula that promises to restore the youthful beauty of all the Upper world’s wealthy, aging women. He and his partners could make a fortune on their own, only Adam suddenly learns that Eden is not only still alive, she’s working for Transworld – a bi-global corporation with the literal power of life and death over the Lower planet’s inhabitants. Transworld is the enemy of the working man, but it’s also a business; as such, it allows people with exceptional talent, and profit-making potential, through its golden gates… though even once he’s arrived, Adam is expected to observe a strict policy of apartheid.
Thus does Adam face two challenges: How to court Eden under the corporation’s nose, and how to win back her heart even though she no longer remembers him. More silly twists enter the story here, with the result being that Adam, with the help of a disgruntled office friend from higher places, passes for an Upper planet citizen by using Upper planet “inverse matter,” lining his clothing with enough otherworldly metal to pin him, upside-down, to the surface of Eden’s world.
It’s amazing how naturally Adam walks, runs, and even dines and dances, considering that all the blood is rushing to his head and he’s about three ounces away from flying right off the ground… a salient plot point that ties in, at one point, with the laughable proposition that “inverse matter” spontaneously heats up to enormous temperatures simply by being in contact with anything or anyone from the Lower sphere. And you might ask how Adam fares in the men’s room while on his Upper planet sojourns? Don’t worry: The film shows you.
The hokum factor thoroughly overshadows any trace of romance and even trumps the film’s admittedly splendorous effects work. To use the movie’s own lexicon, you might feel yourself heating up with annoyance as the running time drags on and the absurdities pile higher by the minute. Indeed, there were moments when I thought I was about to levitate straight out of my chair with sheer aggravation. The final straw arrives with an improbable ending that leaps straight past any last tatters of logic and posits a happy ending. Sadly, this is not uplifting. It’s just hot air.
Gus Van Sant knows how to make movies about complicated relationships between men (“Mala Noche,” “My Own Private Idaho”), and he knows how to make movies about social issues (“Elephant,” “Milk”). He even knows how to direct Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting”). Setting him loose on “Promised Land,” which Damon and co-star John Krasinski adapted from a story by Dave Eggers, seems like an obvious fit, and in terms of sheer directorial style van Sant does a creditable job.
Where this story fails is in its narrative focus. Gas company glad-hander Steve Butler (Damon) rolls into a small, economically depressed town to tantalize the locals with exaggerated predictions of how much oil wealth may be waiting for extraction on their property. (A good salesman knows when to adopt the opposite tactics, though, and Butler does this when negotiating with a city councilman for what kind of bribe the councilman can demand.) But too many other facets crop up to muddy what ought to have been a clear-cut study of personal conflict, a struggle between ambition and doubt. There’s a romance angle (itself muddled with intimations of a romantic triangle); there’s an ecological angle (overshadowed, unfortunately, by thriller-style twists and kinks in the plot).
Butler stands at the center of this half-baked film, but doesn’t hold the film together. His skill lies in connecting with small-town folk, winning their trust through a combination of low-key charm and genuine concern, as a survivor of an economically ravaged small town himself, for their prosperity. At the same time, he knows that he’s rooking them for the benefit of his company, a tradeoff he’s willing to make given that he’s about to receive a major promotion.
What Butler seems to reject out of hand is the idea that fracking —— a process of extracting oil from shale using high-pressure chemical fluids —— could be dangerous and damaging to the environment, contaminating ground water and destroying crops and livestock. Butler regards as alarmist propaganda tales of well water so badly polluted that it can set alight straight from the tap. Local resident and retired scientist Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) warns the town’s residents of potential catastrophe, and calls for a vote on whether to allow the fracking to take place.
Stories of ecological disaster are also the stock in trade of Dustin Noble, an environmentalist who shows up to challenge Butler and warn the townspeople about fracking. Noble claims to have been raised on a dairy farm that was decimated when fracking contaminated the water table. He and Butler collide in a not-quite-violent manner, with Noble sizing Butler up and judging him to lack confidence in his own message. From there it’s a short step for Noble to put the moves on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), a local schoolteacher on whom Butler has his eye.
The locals, except for Yates, are mostly depicted as willing dupes, practically salivating at Butler’s fictions of serious wealth. Even Alice seems to lack wit and will; she’s happy enough to be squired around by either Butler or Noble, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she’s a pawn in their personal war. When the locals push back, as when a group of men confront Butler in a bar, it becomes obvious that Butler believes in the essence of his own tall tales, even though he’s conscious of how he distorts the prospects of the people to whom he’s selling. What Butler wants is a chance for “fuck you money,” serious cash that opens doors and attracts opportunity. But does he want that as much for the town’s hard-pressed families as he wants it for himself?
In contrast to his partner, Sue (Frances McDormand), for whom one small town is pretty much like any other and all the locals are human sheep to be fleeced, Butler is a beneficent visionary and an idealist. For Sue, it’s a job; for Butler, it’s a way to assuage his personal pain at having seen his hometown dry up and blow away in the wake of a factory closing.
As Noble and Butler both work to influence the town’s vote, the story drifts away from the complex, and outrageous, political issues that surround fracking and becomes mired in a series of explosive revelations that feel false and drain the film of its vitality. By the time the last move is played, the story has become obvious and the characters have lost their dimensionality. What might have been a film with a message becomes a tangle of loose ends, dead ends, and dead weight.