Tag: terrence malick

Under the Skin


Under the Skin (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Some movies are so defiantly opaque that one cannot help but marvel at the brazen display of pretension oozing through the screen. Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is that type of picture. There is absolutely an audience for movies like this, but I was not impressed.

Scarlett Johansson signs up to be objectified. The first half involves her character seducing men in Scotland and luring them into a house where, once inside, it is pitch black and the unsuspecting prey is eventually swallowed by a calm liquid. We watch Johansson stripping off her clothes until she is down to her bra and panties, all the while retaining a blank look on her face. The second half is somewhat similar although the performer soon reveals her breasts and crotch. It is all supposed to be “artistic,” I guess.

The screenplay is insistent on not answering any nagging questions and so it fails to connect to the audience beyond sensory level. Why is Johansson’s character, who seems to be an extraterrestrial being, only targeting young white men? Who is “she” exactly and what is her purpose? What are the men used for? Food? Energy? Eventually, we are allowed to observe what happens underneath that mysterious liquid. However, it serves only to showcase visual effects that is not even all that striking.

There are three good scenes surrounded by close to worthless, deathly boring, lifeless expositions. The event that unfolds at a rocky beach, for instance, commands true suspense. The raw image of people being swallowed by increasingly strong and violent waves makes us wonder at which moment we will no longer see a person struggling. Second, the young man with a deformity offers a glimmer of true emotions in an otherwise emotionally static script. Lastly, the final scene in the woods shows how good the movie could have been if the writers, Walter Campbell and Glazer, had allowed us to empathize with the protagonist more often.

It takes great talent to turn style into substance. This is why names like Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick hold value to me and the name Glazer does not. In Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while the ending sequence boggles the mind, at that point it requires that we be confused or not know how to respond exactly because the story takes a leap into the unknown. In “The Tree of Life,” the lyricism is welcoming and consistent. Although a sensory experience for the most part, we understand the core of its subjects.

“Under the Skin” is an art-house film with a small brain and even smaller ambitions. If Glazer’s intention were to create a picture for the sake of it existing, then congratulations. But let us not pretend that this is anything remotely original or, worse, attempting to set the standard for anything. It will not be remembered fondly twenty or thirty years from now. This I guarantee.

Badlands


Badlands (1973)
★★★ / ★★★★

Fifteen-year-old Holly (Sissy Spacek) lives with her father (Warren Oates) in South Dakota and the family of two lead a typical 1950s suburban existence. Kit (Martin Sheen), a garbageman, notices Holly from a distance and approaches her. Despite being ten years her senior, she welcomes the flirtation because the attention, potentially a romantic one, excites her. Spending time with Kit feels fresh and exciting because it means distance from books, boredom, and a father who does not seem to pay much attention to her. Eventually, Kit and Holly, convinced that they are in love, hit the road. As they head toward the badlands of Montana, they leave corpses in their wake.

“Badlands,” written and directed by Terrence Malick, tells the lovers’ romance not through a typical character arc but through the lands they touch and interact with. The film begins in a lively suburb with people in the streets as they converse, play, and buy groceries–typical as can be–and it ends in a barren terrain of rock and sandy dryness where not a soul can be seen for miles.

The narration is effectively executed. Since it is not shown that the couple engages in meaningful conversations other than superficial proclamations that they care for one another, Holly’s words via narration, almost in a state of daydream, make us aware that she has real thoughts about a lifestyle of constantly being uprooted because she and Kit are on the run from the law. Even though she rarely shows it, perhaps because of an unrealized fear toward her partner in crime, she feels some guilt toward the people they come across, most of which die for no good reason other than for a rush of adrenaline.

Her guilt and disapproval of Kit’s methods are expressed when she tells him that he is one of the most trigger-happy persons she has ever met. Because the story moves at a purposeful slow pace, we are given time to wonder whether Kit, when shooting his gun, imagines pointing his weapon at empty tin cans instead of something that has consciousness and feels pain. He often expresses an immediate ecstasy when the trigger is pressed and the bullet is released just as a tyro shooter would in a shooting range.

The film bestows many memorable images for those willing to look hard enough. As much as I was tickled from watching Kit stepping on a diseased, or possibly deceased, cow or the way he wraps his arms around a shotgun as he stares at the distant lonely moon amidst a refulgent sky, I adored the scenes when Kit just looks at his girl with complete contentment. His happiness may not always be congruent to his girl’s peace of mind, but we get the feeling that he will do anything to protect and provide for her.

Injecting genuine humanity in killer is a big risk and is not always done right. Here, since the writer-director is adamant about not judging his characters through hackneyed plot devices like karma or unexpected twists, almost everything works.

Inspired by the real-life murder spree committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, “Badlands” is akin to watching a poem unfold with magic embedded in small moments. It finds honesty in the tragic disillusionment of young love.

To the Wonder


To the Wonder (2012)
★ / ★★★★

As a director I admire for taking his time to really helm a picture and consistently push the boundaries of what the cinematic medium can bring to us, it is most disappointing that Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder” does not offer anything refreshing or new. It is closest to “The Tree of Life” in style but, as a whole, it comes off excruciatingly dull, almost as if the writer-director’s name is slapped onto the end credits but is actually made by an ardent but ultimately talentless impostor.

The figures on screen talk in a whispery, raspy tone to the point where it is so unnatural, clearly they are trying too hard to sound thought-provoking. Couple their bits of dialogue with would-be contemplative classical music and occasional utilization of narration to add a glimmer of context, the work ends up artificial, too controlled for what should be an enveloping experience of how it is like to be so wrapped up in being romantically involved with another. I did not feel for any of the models on screen.

Though negligible, the basic premise is this: Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) meet in Paris and move to Oklahoma. When Marina’s visa expires, she is forced to leave the country. While Marina is overseas, Neil reconnects with a woman in his past, Jane (Rachel McAdams), whose farm is on the verge of bankruptcy. To its credit, while the set-up sounds like a sort of a love triangle, it is not.

It is not the actors’ fault that the material is so dry. The screenplay is so self-indulgent, it leaves very little wiggle room for the performers to interpret their characters in meaningful ways. I wondered why they were cast in the first place. Get an unknown face to play Affleck’s role and it would not have made a significant difference.

Many images are recycled from past Malick pictures. There is a recurring theme involving water, which symbolizes life and sustenance (in this case, of a relationship), in which similar figures, including angling and duration, can be seen in “The Tree of Life” and “The New World”–characters step in the water and their sense of being is renewed. Another involves people running or walking through wheat fields and grass, summoning “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” These are symbols of freedom, an out of body experience, and being one with nature–living things that grow directly because of the sun.

In addition, the images are repetitive. How many times must we endure looking at a man and a woman kissing, caressing, and holding hands? They are shot so slowly that it borders on fetishistic. For the lack of a better term, I found the whole thing to be sickening. Since the subject of marriage is brought up, especially from the standpoint of religion, I felt as though the writer-director has created a work with an underlying message: that in the eyes of God marriage is strictly between a man and a woman.

“To the Wonder” is suffocatingly, maddeningly esoteric. It will test anyone’s patience. There are beautiful people on screen but close to nothing is communicated. Actually, what I got from this film is less than nothing. It stole two hours of my life. And that is something I would never have imagined saying about a Malick film.

Days of Heaven


Days of Heaven (1978)
★★ / ★★★★

Bill (Richard Gere), a steelworker, killed his boss during a physical altercation at work. Fearing what he had just done, he took Linda (Linda Manz), his sister, and Abby (Brooke Adams), his girlfriend, out of the city to the country where they worked for a wealthy farmer (Sam Shepard). Bill and Abby pretended to be siblings in order to evade the police. It seemed to work. But while on the ranch, Bill took notice of the farmer’s attraction to Abby so he convinced his girlfriend to marry the other man for his fortune. After all, he was terminally ill and it was only a matter of time until he died. But once the two were married, the farmer’s health seemed better than ever. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “Days of Heaven” was shot beautifully. The landscape of endless yellow wheat in contrast to the majestic blue sky and the hardworking men and women on the foreground was breathtaking. By looking at the images, it made me feel small. It was a reminder of how blind we can become to the most seemingly simple imagery that nature offers. However, the director’s focus on the images cost the picture in terms of characterization. Bill and Abby were supposed to be in love, but I didn’t feel any passion between them. What did he see in her and, more importantly, what did she see in him? It was tantamount that we felt their chemistry because the plot was driven by the push and pull between romance and survival. But since there was no great tension between the lovers, when Bill looked at Abby and the farmer enjoying themselves from a distance, he looked sad for no good reason. I felt he deserved to feel like he got the short end of the stick because it was his idea to cheat another man off his fortune. He used the girl so he could escape being poor. He was not a likable man, which was fine, but I struggled to see why it was worth following his story. I was actually more interested in the farmer and his relationship with the farm foreman (Robert J. Wilke). The foreman felt the need to protect the man he considered his son from the likes of conniving Bill and Abby. Unfortunately, he was only in from of the camera for a total of about ten minutes. He wasn’t given very much to do other than to give Bill knowing looks. As for the swarm of locusts that invaded the farm toward the end of the picture, though a sight to behold, the symbolism felt heavy-handed. When the bugs arrived, I knew exactly where the story was heading. It was only a matter of time until the farmer learned the truth and confronted Bill of his transgressions. I didn’t mind the picture’s slow pace because it had reason to be slow. Bill, Linda, and Abby were not used to living a life feeling like they had it all: the expensive wine, the nice clothes, and not having to work. They were relatively happy for a period of time and the slow pace showed how they relished that life comfortable plateau. I actually wanted the film to have a healthier running time. If such were the case, perhaps there would have been more room for us to get to know the characters beyond the surface level. “Days of Heaven” worked as a moving painting bathed in glorious natural light but not as a love triangle. The material left me with a drought of complex human drama. I actually found myself turning to Ennio Morricone’s sensitive and melancholy score because I wanted to feel something so badly.

The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.

The New World


The New World (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

English settlers landed on Louisiana in 1607. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) was to be hanged, on the grounds of mutiny, the moment they reached land. But Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) changed his orders because he knew Captain Smith was a good explorer. He just needed to be controlled. When Captain Smith met Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), daughter of an Indian leader, the two began a forbidden love affair. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The New World” moved at a deliberate slow pace in order to highlight man’s relationship with nature. It worked most of the time. I saw beauty in the way the director captured the wind caressing the grass, the way the characters leaned into the magnificent trees, and the elegant movement of the water as the ships heaved its way onto land. Pocahontas had two men in her life and the emotions were dealt with complexity. In the end, I was convinced she loved them both in different ways. When she was with Captain Smith, I noticed that they always looked into each other’s eyes. The way the camera lingered as the captain taught Pocahontas English words held a sweetness and innocence. As their bodies slowly inched closer to one another, we felt their concern that someone could be looking. There was an understated joy when they touched each other’s skin. When Pocahontas was with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), the two spent their time looking at a distance, as if transfixed at the sight of the future. But when they did look into each other’s eyes, they shared an outward passion whether it be in a hut or out in the garden. Through the men in her life, we saw the way she changed. She left her culture because she was a dreamer. But leaving didn’t mean forgetting. She was curious of the life outside of her sphere and she felt as though her sarcrifices were worth it. Like Captain Smith and John Rolfe, she was an explorer. But my favorite scene didn’t have anything to do with a shot involving a gorgeous scenery or her interactions with the two most important men in her life. It was when Pocahontas handed a homeless man a coin and gently touched his cheek. It held a great meaning for me because it was reassuring. Even though her style of clothing and the way in which she carried herself had changed, she was the same person we met in the beginning of the film. She was playful, compassionate, and connected with the Earth. It’s understandable when I hear people say that the film is just too slow for their liking. It wasn’t plot-driven. Most movies are but they don’t need to be. “The New World” was an exercise of the senses and, in my opinion, how we can relate our personal experiences with it. As an immigrant, scenes like Pocahontas smelling a book because she had never seen one before had meaning for me. I grew up in the Philippines not having a computer in my home. When I moved to America, I didn’t know how to type on the keyboard or even use the mouse to click at an icon to go to the internet. In small ways, I saw myself in Pocahontas. Sometimes small is enough.

The Thin Red Line


The Thin Red Line (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★

An AWOL soldier, Private Witt (James Caviezel), had never been good at following orders. When ordered to go left, he turned right. But when he was found in a Malaysian island by 1st Sgt. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn), Pvt. Witt, as punishment, was assigned to be a stretcher bearer in the Battle of Guadalcanal. The attack was led by Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas) and his superior Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte). The former wouldn’t obey the latter’s orders because he believed that sending his men forward was suicide. The Japanese bunkers were too far and too hidden for a typical affront. Lt. Col. Tall wasn’t convinced. Based on the autobiographical novel by James Jones and beautifully directed by Terrence Malick, “The Thin Red Line” was fascinating because it combined the horrors of war with spirituality. We were given the chance to hear a soldier’s thoughts, American and Japanese, about his place in the world, trepidation in terms of facing his mortality, and the loved ones he left behind. While the action scenes were raw and unflinching, I was most impressed with the way the soldiers played the hand they’ve been given. Some made rookie but dire mistakes out of panic (Woody Harrelson), some succumbed in fear and would rather be invisible (Adrien Brody), while others were distracted by flashbacks, wondering whether someone was still waiting for them at home (Ben Chaplin). The film highlighted that war was not as simple as two sides fighting for a cause. In a way, the battlefield was a glorious arena in which we had to fight ourselves. While good soldiers trusted their instincts, orders, too, must be obeyed. The conflict between instinct and duty could break a man. I was most interested in Pvt. Witt because he looked at his enemies with serenity. Unlike his comrades, not once did he show hatred toward the soldiers on the opposite side of the mountain. I wondered why. If I was in his position, I’m not quite sure if I could look at my enemies as if they were my equal. I would probably see them as lower animals and treat them as such. I just don’t think I can be as forgiving if I knew that my friends and comrades died because of them. Pvt. Witt mentioned that “maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces are the same man.” Malick used images to underline man’s place in nature. There were zen-like shots of soldiers just sitting around and admiring, for example, a plant. It took them out of the situation, even for just a few seconds, until the voice of their leader urged them to go on. There were several shots of birds, flying in sky or dying on the ground, which symbolized either glory or pain. “The Thin Red Line” was sensitive and intelligent. It tried to find answers in a place where answers were as transient as they were permanent.