Posts Tagged ‘Terrence Malick’

“LOTAWANA” My rating: B (VOD on AppleTV, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Vudu)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

How best to describe “Lotawana,” Trevor Hawkins’ low-budget, locally-made feature shot mostly in the Kansas City ‘burb of Lake Lotawana?

Maybe “Malick-lite.”

In myriad ways the film comes off as an homage to the idiosyncratic works of Terrence Malick, both in its offhand approach to narrative (like Malick, Hawkins seems to have shot lots of footage and then found his story in the editing room, almost as an afterthought) and in its cosmic/transcendental appreciation of the natural world around us.

The plot — to the extent that “Lotawana” has one — follows the relationship between Forrest (Todd Blubaugh, looking uncannily like folkie Eric Andersen as a young man) and Everly (Nicola Collie), two societal dropouts who find each other and fall in love.

Forrest lives on a sailboat on a Midwestern lake, going ashore mostly to ride his motorcycle at breakneck speed and to hike/camp in the Missouri woods. How this modern-day Thoreau can afford a boat and a bike with no employment is never explained (well-to-do parents?).

Everly’s past is just as vague. She mentions not getting along with her mother and she talks with a hard-to-pin-down accent (Maybe she’s a Brit. Or Australian).

Not much happens in the first half hour. Then Everly announces she’s pregnant. The couple argue, reconcile, plan for a baby with what meager resources they can muster, and undergo a tragedy that almost drives them apart.

In the film’s latter stages we find Everly coping with the emotional turmoil by burgling lakeside vacation homes. The closer she gets to being discovered, the more exciting it is for her. Forrest isn’t so sure. (There are echoes here of the young lover-criminals in Malick’s “Badlands.”)

But then conventional plotting isn’t on Hawkins’ agenda. Scenes don’t so much play in real time as fragment into film snippets; the dialogue is mostly small talk (certainly there are no big quotable speeches).

Serving as his own cinematographer Hawkins concentrates on natural moments — birds, insects, sunsets, fluttering leaves. Forrest and Everly seem to view themselves as unspoiled, semi-civilized inhabitants of this idyllic world.

Happily the movie doesn’t swallow that story without a bit of chewing. Hawkins clearly recognizes the delusional nature of his characters. Why else would he name Forrest’s boat Lorelei after the mythological siren who lures sailors to their doom?

And then there’s the fact that Forrest and Everly, despite their naive ambition to achieve absolute freedom, are bobbing in a relatively small body of water from which they cannot escape.

Some viewers will be seduced by the film’s poetic evocations; others will conclude that the ship is awash with pretentions.

I found myself torn between those two extremes, simultaneously fascinated by Hawkins’ atypical storytelling and visual panache and mildly irritated by the film’s refusal to give us any sort of backstory that would tell us how our protagonists came to be the people they are.

Hawkins — who has nearly 30 shorts under his belt, many of them in the travel/nature genre — shot the film with a crew of only a dozen (most of them friends and family members) and financed the production by mortgaging his house on Lake Lotawana. And he simultaneously produced “At the Helm, the Making of Lotawana,” a documentary about the struggle to complete the film.

| Robert W. Butler


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August Diehl, Valerie Pachner

“A HIDDEN LIFE” My rating: B+

173 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Spirituality is not something the movies do particularly well.  After all, it’s a visual medium; the inner workings of the heart are not easily captured by the camera.

Leave it to Terrence Malick, the most idiosyncratic American filmmaker ever, to find a way to put a human soul on the movie screen.

In “A Hidden Life” Malick explores the true story of Franz Jaggerstatter, an Austrian farmer who at the height of World War II decided he could not take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler and so spent the rest of his days in a series of grim Nazi prisons.

Jaggerstatter’s story is, unlike most recent Malick films (the magnificent “Tree of Life” and the irritating “To the Wonder”) a fairly linear one.  But the Texas-based auteur brings to the table his trademark eye-of-God perspective, so that while “A Hidden Life” unfolds in more or less chronological order, it’s filled with visual and aural digressions.

The results are heartbreaking, moving and inspiring.

Malick opens his film with footage of Adolf Hitler from Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda documentary “Triumph of the Will.”

We then meet Franz (sublimely underplayed by August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) swinging scythes in a blindingly green field overseen by rugged alpine crags.  A towering church steeple is always in the background, a reminder not only that Franz is a volunteer sexton (he’s the village bell ringer) but that he takes his religion very seriously.

In a series of interlocking scenes, some only seconds long and dealt like cards from a Tarot deck, we get a sense of life in this tyrolean paradise, Franz and Fani’s courtship, and the life they have built together on a drop-dead beautiful mountainside with three daughters.

It’s a world centered on home, family, farm and village. And it’s almost too beautiful and peaceful for words.

But there are intimations of things going on in the larger world. Fani freezes as an unseen plane passes overhead. Franz has furtive conversations with fellow villagers who share his anti-Nazi sentiments. The mayor (Karl Markovics) when in his cups lets fly with rants about inferior races.

Franz takes his concerns to the local priest (Tobias Moratti), who is sympathetic but advises him to shut up and do what’s asked of him: “You’ll almost surely be shot. Your sacrifice will benefit no one.”

Not even a session with the area bishop (Michael Nyqvist) provides a satisfactory answer to Franz’ heartfelt query: “If our leaders are not good, if they’re evil, what does one do?”


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Christian Bale, Natalie Portman

Christian Bale, Natalie Portman

“KNIGHT OF CUPS”  My rating: C-

118 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There lurks in “Knight of Cups” the makings of a pretty good travelogue.

But on most other counts the latest feature  from the increasingly irritating Terrence Malick shows him firmly stuck in the same prison of self parody that doomed his last outing, the unromantic romance “To the Wonder.”

Malick, of course, is the low-profile cinematic genius who back in the ’70s gave us “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” then moved on to offbeat period pieces (“The Thin Red Line,” “The New World”) before delivering his ultimate statement, 2011’s memorable (for all the right reasons) “The Tree of Life.”

“Knight of Cups” is ostensibly a Hollywood insider tale, a sort of “La Dolce Vida” look at feckless, amoral living among the beautiful people.

In fractured, impressionistic style it follows a screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale), as he engages in romantic wanderings, professional and family issues, and hedonistic pastimes.

That description makes the film sound coherent. It isn’t.

Malick eschews conventional narrative construction and character development in favor of sweeping, swooning handheld cinematography of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the desert by frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki (“Gravity,” “Birdman,” “The Revenant”). His characters almost never actually speak lines, except in the form of vacuous party chatter. Instead we hear their innermost thoughts, whispered in voiceover.

As for the story…what story?

Rick goes through a series of lovers, all of them willowy beauties whose personalities are best summed up by their pre-Raphaelite tresses. Presumably he has sex, although there’s nothing remotely romantic or erotic going on here (Malick has never done sexy).


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Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

“AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS” My rating: C+ (Opening August 30 at the Tivoli and the Rio)

96 minutes| MPAA rating: R

Like its title, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” tries too damn hard.

The difference between effectiveness and affectation is often a matter of degree, and for my money David Lowery’s Sundance hit  always lays things on just a little too thick.

Or perhaps not thick enough.

In this norish crime drama/romance Lowery apparently is trying to channel Terernce Malick, particularly the early Malick of “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” both of which took the form of dreamlike folk ballads. 

Like virtually all Malick movies, “Ain’t Them Bodies…” relies on voiceover narration by one of the characters (in this case a prison escapee played by Casey Affleck).  And the film unfolds in a classic small American town so frozen in time (old trucks, flower print dresses, denim work shirts, cowboy boots) that I was taken aback late in the story when one character produced a cell phone. Like a Malick effort, the movie has been photographed (by Bradford Young) so as to discover the beauty in human faces,  brown Texas landscapes, and even old buildings losing their peeling paint. (more…)

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Ben Affleck, Olga Kuylenko...falling in love in France

Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko…falling in love in France

“TO THE WONDER” My rating: C (Opens May 3 at the Tivoli)

112 minutes | MPAA rating: R

There’s a temptation to write off “To the Wonder” as a dead-on satiric parody of a Terrence Malick film.

Except that it is a Terrence Malick film.

And since I don’t think Malick is making fun of himself, we are left to struggle with just what  this admittedly talented but hugely exasperating filmmaker is up to.

Hell, maybe he’s just perverse.

“To the Wonder” embraces all the elements that irritated people with his previous film, “The Tree of Life” (which I count as one of the great movies of the last decade) and jettisons all the good stuff.

The film may be the ultimate statement in Malick’s war on narrative. It’s visually poetic, yeah — like an artsy fartsy TV commercial where you can never figure out what they’re selling — but also emotionally empty. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie is throwing a hearty “fuck you” into our faces.

I’m going to assume Malick is not just giving us the finger here, that he has attempted to make a real piece of art, and that he has failed.

Happens to everyone. Now how about a plot next time?

Here’s what we can say with certainty. “To the Wonder” is about an American man (Ben Affleck) who on a trip to France falls in love with a young woman (Olga Kurylenko) and brings her and her young daughter back to live with him in the U.S.

Except that he resides in a treeless, flat, irony-free tract-home subdivision outside Bartlesville, OK. It’s a neighborhood hemmed in on one side by high-tension power lines and on the other by an Interstate. There’s an oil well in the back yard.

Hmmmm…let’s see.  Paris…or Oklahoma?  Gosh, it’s such a tough call.

It’s enough to make you think this woman hasn’t got a brain in her head. (more…)

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“THE TREE OF LIFE”  My rating: A-

138 minutes | MPAA rating:  PG-134

“The Tree of Life” is a sublime, transcendent movie experience.

“The Tree of Life” is like watching your car rust.

That both of the above statements are true only goes to show the uniqueness of the latest effort from the reclusive Terrence Malick.


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