Tag Archives: Terrence Malick

A Ghost Story (2017)

With very few words and an austere tone, A Ghost Story is going to immediately turn off some viewers. This isn’t a film with an explicit narrative, nor is it a fast one. Where others use special effects to create representations of the dead, the ghost here is almost comical in appearance. Like a lazy Halloween costume, it’s just a figure under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. But this simplicity is intentional. Director David Lowery reteams with Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea) and Rooney Mara (Carol) to create a film that begins with a young couple, but focuses on a ghost left behind. Coming off Lowery’s last film, a larger-budgeted Disney-produced remake, this feels like a cleansing exercise and a return to his independent roots. Although it was well-received at this year’s Sundance Film festival, to some, it felt like an unnecessary student film experiment.

Even at a slim 90 minutes, the film may be too long. The slow, deliberate style is appropriate for the story and tone, but, despite the big ideas at play here, the film would have been improved at 60-75 minutes. The early scenes with Affleck and Mara and their gentle intimacy are compelling and the final time-spanning sequence is incredible, but, in between, the film lags. We spend too much time with the various new inhabitants of the house without progressing the story. The worst of these segments features a ham-fisted monologue from an inebriated hipster about the meaning of life in an infinite universe. This is clearly Lowery’s message to the audience, but the blunt delivery is at odds with the film’s subtle style and can be repulsive in its direct proselytizing.

Even with its simple appearance, the ghost becomes an expressive character.

Lowery is known for his lyrical style of storytelling. His first film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was his version of an early Terrence Malick film. Heavy on voiceovers and light on narration, it used its natural light cinematography to create a sense of nostalgia which has proved to be Lowery’s primary interest.  While that film was soaked in sepia tones, A Ghost Story exists in the haze of fuzzy memory. The sets have a light fog that clouds each scene casting the entire film as something of the distant past. At one point, we meet another ghost in an unintentionally funny conversation. The other ghost is also waiting for someone, but can’t remember whom. As these ghosts wander through the lives of whomever moves into their houses, waiting for their special someone or someones to return, the film unveils itself as a look at our own emotional baggage and the legacy we leave behind. This recalls an intertitle from In the Mood for Love. “He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” The ghosts misguidedly search for a feeling that they may never have again and as Lowery delves deeper into this futile search, the film expands beyond its seemingly limited scope. It becomes a film not just about one couple, but about the passing of time, memory, and the inherent history that every location carries, but rarely shows.

4/5 stars.

Song to Song (2017)

Continuing his rapid pace of releasing movies, Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) sets his newest film in the music scene. It features a star-studded cast with Michael Fassbender (Shame) as a music producer, Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Rooney Mara (Lion) as performers, and Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) as other women who get wrapped up in their series of short-lived affairs.

The film’s “plot” is barely present and the few discernable aspects are disappointing. Supposedly, Song to Song is a romance, but there is nothing remotely romantic shown. Malick is known for not using traditional scripts. He relies on actors to improvise scenes based on only the setup and never have the pitfalls of this approach been more apparent than the scenes of what I can only assume was intended to be romantic chemistry. The actors have big smiles on their faces as they attempt to have authentic, playful interactions. Instead, they come off as annoying or severely cringe-inducing, best exemplified in a scene where Fassbender hops around a beach screeching and scratching like a monkey. As painful as these scenes are to watch, I can only feel sorry for the actors that had to perform them.

There is also a worrying trend regarding the treatment of women. Malick has been known for infantilizing his female characters. They are often young, innocent girls or adult women who display a pure naivete, but this previously appeared to come from a good place. It seemed like a celebration of innocence rather than a restriction on what women could do, but his new films have revealed some disturbing ideas. As in his last film, the women here are treated as sexual objects to be used, cast off, then reused when needed. They may have their own motivations but Malick’s portrayal shows them as little more than ways for his hedonistic male characters to satisfy their own desires.

The upscale parties and general opulence offer little reason to feel for the characters.

Visuals have always been Malick’s strong suit, but even that seems to be deteriorating. Using his regular cinematographer, the incredibly talented Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), he is again able to create some stunning natural-light footage. Yet, there are a few confusing choices that mar his normally perfect images. Several scenes were shot on location at the music festival Austin City Limits and some use GoPro-like cameras. This was likely done to get closer to the action of the mosh pits, but the lower-resolution fish-eye shots do not mesh with the rest of the film. Their low-quality is a glaring fault. There is also a strange overuse of oblique angles. Many scenes are off-kilter close-ups of an actor’s face. Perhaps this was done to convey the subjectivity of the character’s thoughts, but instead it is only distracting. These unfortunate choices detract what would otherwise be the film’s greatest strength.

One of the few changes to Malick’s style is his use of music. His usual ethereal, orchestral score is still present, but, due to the setting, more modern music is also included. These songs offer some desperately needed energy to the film. Their use helps add variety to the soundtrack and breaks up the overused strings. It was perhaps the only modernizing of Malick’s approach throughout the film.

Song to Song is almost a repeat of Knight of Cups but set in the music world instead of the film industry. Like that movie, there are people living in exorbitant wealth while pursuing their dreams that are inexplicably mopey. Characters go after their desires in selfish ways and, when the obvious consequences occur, Malick expects the audience to sympathize with them. But, why would we? He, like his characters, appears to be living in a bubble. There are no sympathetic or relatable characters here, only sketches of vague emotions. The frequent voiceovers are filled with pretentious, pseudo-philosophical thoughts that are often unrelated to anything onscreen and read like midnight scrawlings from the director’s bedside notebook. His narrative films after the flawed, but magnificent The Tree of Life, if you can call them narrative films, have been a continual letdown. Malick’s work has sunk further into incessant navel-gazing and his visual style is no longer enough to make up for it. Song to Song is another exercise in Malick’s recent string of insufferable self-indulgence.

1/5 stars.

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (2016)

[BS Note: There are two versions of Voyage of Time: a 40 minute documentary and a 90 minute feature length version. This review covers the former.]

Almost 40 years ago Terrence Malick had a dream. He wanted to make a movie that explored the origins of life. The movie, then tentatively titled Q, was going to be backed by Paramount until Malick left and went on his famous 20 year separation from Hollywood. Apparently, he never stopped working on the idea. Parts of the project were used in the origins sequence of The Tree of Life and since then an effects team has been at work on what is now Voyage of Time. Clearly intended for IMAX screens, Malick has created a documentary unlike any other.

His goals are less didactic than philosophical. Malick, who graduated with a degree in philosophy from Harvard, has never been interested in literal facts. Instead, he uses voiceovers by Brad Pitt to ponder the meaning of life. While existential quandaries are par for the course in anything Malick has done recently, the thoughts here are much more broad than usual. These are questions that apply to life in general rather than the particular experience of a character. Many will view this narration as pretentious and navel-gazing and they would be mostly correct. The opening epigraph addresses the audience with “Dear Child”, making the spiritual tone apparent from the beginning. There are moments of profundity scattered within the voiceovers, but they lack the impact they had in The Tree of Life. If anything, this film proves that Malick’s brand of exposition requires a human story. It grounds his thoughts and provides a context for the audience to connect with.

The special effects create the feeling of traveling through space.
The special effects create a palpable feeling of traveling through space.

Regardless of their varying quality, the voiceovers are largely forgotten. The visuals overwhelm and envelop all expository aspects of the film. The footage was shot with the format in mind and watching it on a 90 foot screen is nothing short of awe inspiring. The visuals swallow the audience whole. Combined with the sound effects, namely the rushing of water and classical music, they form a gestalt that renders any attempts at exposition inconsequential.

It’s unclear how much time and money was spent creating the special effects, but whatever the cost was the final product is worth it. The scenes depicting the formation of the universe and showing celestial bodies are particularly enthralling. They use chemicals, coloring agents, and models to create practical effects that are timeless. Seven years ago audiences were amazed by the visuals in Avatar, but computer generated models always show their age. Soon, the effects in Avatar will look dated but in another 50 years, the cosmic scenes here will still be stunning. The only complaint is that there are not enough of these universe creation scenes.

The film’s narrative is mostly empty. Pitt’s voiceovers aside, the only real story available is knowing that each scene moves forward in time. Some may not find this enough to carry a film, but at 40 minutes the lack of story is not an issue. After the creation sequence, Malick interweaves scenes of nature with footage of a young child playing in the grass asking the question (literally) “How did we get to who we are?” The question is never answered, but rather discussed. While coming to a Terrence Malick movie expecting anything to be explicit is a mistake, many will still find the lack of resolution, and therefore the film itself, pointless.  For those wiling to embrace Malick’s elliptical style, Voyage of Time presents the divine beauty of life with standard-setting visual effects.

4/5 stars.

The Light Between Oceans (2016)

Despite its similar naming structure, The Light Between Oceans, shares few similarities to its predecessor The Place Beyond the Pines. Set in Australia shortly after WWI, the film stars Michael Fassbender (Shame) as Tom Sherbourne, a veteran hired as a lightkeeper for a remote island. Soon, he meets and falls in love with Isabel (Alicia Vikander; Ex Machina). After their marriage, they have two miscarriages within three years leaving Isabel despondent until a rowboat washes ashore. Inside they find a dead man and the baby girl that will forever change their lives. Tom attempts to report the incident, but buckles under Isabel’s desire to have a child.

Once the little girl, Lucy, enters the picture, Tom and Isabel’s lives are filled with joy. They play with their new daughter and show her off to their family and friends. The hapiness lasts until her christening where Tom spots a tearful woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz; The Deep Blue Sea), praying in front of a grave for her husband and infant daughter who were lost at sea the same day he found Lucy. Racked with guilt and unable to persuade Isabel to confess their sins, Tom leaves a note for Hannah letting her know her baby is safe, but her husband is dead. What soon follows is a messy situation. Lucy taken from the parents she knows to the rightful mother she wants nothing to do with as Tom and Isabel face repercussions of their actions.

In its early parts, The Light Between Oceans resembles a Nicholas Sparks movie. The leads only require one picnic before Isabel brings up the idea of marriage so they can spend the next 10 minutes handwriting cliche-ridden professions of love a la Dear John. “I never knew I could talk about the way I feel”, writes Tom. Cianfrance’s films are known for their raw intensity of character interactions. He’s been called an “actor’s director” because he is able to create an original intimacy even in predictable situations, like the relationship in Blue Valentine. This makes the overly simplistic beginning to the central romance especially disappointing. Fassbender and Vikander are a real life couple, but their early scenes of courtship (or rather the single scene) feel forced. It’s like the director looked at the actors and said “Be perfect for each other” and started rolling. Isabel’s optimism doesn’t match with Tom’s taciturn demeanor and it’s unclear why either has developed affection. Fortunately, the romance becomes more believable as the two grow closer during the hardships they face.

The gorgeous scenery monopolizes the early parts of the film. Excessive, but beautiful.
The gorgeous scenery monopolizes the early parts of the film. Excessive, but beautiful.

The Sparks comparison extends to the setting and cinematography. The film is set by the ocean with an overabundance of landscape shots. Granted, the visuals are breathtaking. Ocean waves crashing against the shore and lonely sunsets dominate the first half of the movie. While aesthetically stunning, the focus on the backdrops unnecessarily slows down the film’s pace and has the unintended effect of distancing the viewer from the central conflict. The fading light of the sun seems to carry equal importance to Tom and Isabel’s relationship early on, but Cianfrance lacks the ability to imbue meaning into the natural imagery. He is not Terrence Malick.

In the final act the film, Cianfrance finally delivers on the emotional resonance he is known for. Actions have consequences, and the depth of Tom and Isabel’s relationship is shown, not told, as they take steps to protect each other. Here, the professions of love are earned. In some ways, The Light Between Oceans is Cianfrance’s version of a Merchant Ivory film. Romantic, but deliberately old-fashioned with his natural inclinations muted until the end. Still, not many filmmakers working today can match Cianfrance’s ability to draw out an emotional response. The feelings come like waves hitting the rocks of the island, overwhelming and powerful. While the The Light Between Oceans starts out slow, the scenery is enough to carry the film to its piercing final third.

4/5 stars.

Mo’ Malick Mo’ Problems

The recent release of another movie by Terrence Malick has had me thinking about his career progression. Let me preface all of this by saying that I am a huge fan and have tremendous respect for both his technical and emotional film-making talents. Soon after Malick graduated film school he made Badlands and followed it up five years later with Days of Heaven. Both of these films showcased his signature style, but were relatively disciplined compared to his later work. They featured the trademark narration and natural light cinematography, but had actual plotlines. After this period, he went off to Paris and escaped the public eye. It was 20 years later in 1998 that his next movie, The Thin Red Line, was released.

The 20 year gap had a profound impact on the films he would later produce. Because of the incredible critical success and originality of his first two films, he developed a cult-like following and because of his absence he became not only an auteur, but also a recluse. This only compounded his respect in the film world, so when he did finally return it was like a second coming. The great elusive filmmaker Terrence Malick came back to Hollywood to save cinema. Malick had access to a significantly larger budget and any actor he could ask for. He probably cut out more A-list actors than most films are able to cast.

While this would be a great boon to any director, it also came with an increased level of freedom. It’s easy to think that more freedom to a creative like Malick would lead to a better film, but it is my belief that great works are the result of creative tension. I don’t believe in the unfettered auteur, that if only people (studios, producers, actors, etc.) would just listen and do exactly what a director says, the film would turn out great. No, instead, it is the dissenting opinions that prevent originality from becoming excess and stylistic flair from becoming indulgence.

Fortunately, the real world events that inspired his first three films after the gap kept Malick on solid ground. The Thin Red LineThe New World, and The Tree of Life were all his interpretations of historical events namely the Battle of Mount Austen during WWII, the story of John Smith and Pocahantas, and Malick’s own childhood, respectively. There were stil some excesses as runtimes increased and actors became less and less important compared the natural imagery. Yet, the plotlines from these historical events focused the existentialism imparted by the characters. This is particularly true of The Tree of Life where the deeply personal story made the abstract structure more approachable.

“Can we get these people out of here so we can shoot those trees?”

However, starting with To the Wonder, Malick broke away from any sort of reality. Working again with same team as his previous film, he was given even more autonomy over the production and it shows. Neither To the Wonder nor Knight of Cups has a clear plot or theme. In The Tree of Life, the plot jumped from present day to the beginning of time to 1950’s Texas to the end of the world, but it was able to do so because these leaps had a purpose. They were all a part of the core emotion of the film: coping with the loss of a loved one – a very relatable and immediately sympathetic situation. What emotion was either of his past two films supposed to explore? Therein lies the problem. There was no main theme or contained set of emotions that they discussed. Instead they were collections of disparate, often fleeting feelings strung together.

Without something connecting these thoughts, his films have become meandering and ultimately meaningless. This is clearly evidenced by the staff needed to complete post-production. Both Badlands and Days of Heaven were edited by a single person, but his later films needed several editors (3, 4, 5, 5, and 3, respectively) to produce something releasable. He is allowed to continue shooting ungodly amounts of video and likely has to because he doesn’t have a plan for where his film is headed and doesn’t know what shots he actually needs. Then, he and his team of editors attempt to construct something out of the countless hours of footage, sometimes spending years doing so.

What this means is Malick needs to be reined in. He needs to take more time and find collaborators, not just co-workers. Being true collaborators means working both with and, equally importantly, against each other – regardless of any previous critical acclaim. A producer, writer, actor, or at least one out of his army of editors needs to set boundaries for Malick to force him to create some sort of structure or cohesive vision for his films. With the upcoming Weightless and Voyage of Time, Malick will likely release more films in this decade than the previous four. In the meantime, I hope that he and his team can be honest and critical of their recent releases to improve the quality of their next films. Terrence Malick will always be an amazing director, let’s just hope he can return to making amazing movies.

Knight of Cups (2016)

“My life is like a Call of Duty campaign on easy. I just go around and fuck shit up.” Yes. That’s a real quote.

Terrence Malick’s newest film continues the downward trend started by 2012’s To The Wonder. The film follows Christian Bale playing a character that may or may not have been given a name. In fact, I can’t name a single character in the movie despite having just seen it as none are memorable or remotely developed. Bale appears to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter that gets sucked into the excesses of Tinseltown while dealing with some inner turmoil. What exactly is that turmoil? It seems to have to do with the loss of a younger brother and conflict with an authoritative father. If that sounds familiar, it is. This was the main thrust behind the significantly superior The Tree of Life (one of my favorite films) and there are glimpses, however brief, of the emotional intimacy found in that work. Unfortunately, these instances are too few and infrequent to carry the film.

Knight of Cups does break into new territory with its subject matter though. Malick’s films are always told using a childlike sense of wonder and imagination with many of the main characters being children. This style continues but is now applied to adult emotions, namely lust and hedonism, as well as seedier environments. Bale’s character moves through strip clubs, exorbitantly wealthy parties, and numerous partners in his descent and while this provides an intriguing contrast, it is never fully utilized. Any potential is squandered through the meandering of the narrative.

“See the palm trees? They tell you anything’s possible.” Also a real quote.

At its worst, Knight of Cups plays almost like self-parody. Every Malick trope is here. Vaguely spiritual whispered voice-overs? Scenes of frolicking on a beach? Majority of the film takes place at dusk with the sun behind the character’s head? Check, check, and check. All of these aspects have been successful at times in his previous movies, but the difference here is that there is no cohesion between the scenes. These films are becoming increasingly like grab bags of thoughts taken randomly from Terry’s bedside notebook and spoken by talented actors over beautiful imagery. Unfortunately, the stunning visuals and vague hints at depth are no longer enough to carry a film this unfocused. There are only so many scenes of a character reaching out of the window of a moving car to do hand jives while a pastor philosophizes that an audience can take.

2/5 stars.