If it’s hard for Terrence Malick to weave together an affecting story from shreds of beautifully photographed pastiche and disembodied voice over, then imagine one of his acolytes giving it a try. With that in mind, The Vessel, the feature-length directorial debut of Julio Quintana, a camera operator who worked with Malick on The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, actually comes across as quite accomplished.

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It seems first-time feature director Chloé Zhao has produced a Terrence Malick film that’s better than any of Malick’s recent films. It’s easy to note similarities in Songs My Brothers Taught Me with a film like Badlands for its location in the real Badlands of South Dakota (although Badlands was actually filmed in Colorado). Shot with an eye toward the sky by cinematographer Joshua James RichardsSongs often unfolds outdoors, against gorgeous exteriors during the magic hour of twilight. But on another level, the film also has a casual ease of story that never feels like a task to follow.

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gravity-posterMovies like Gravity are the types of films routine visitors to the multiplex live for. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film in seven years feels fresh and exciting by ironically staying as true to the image as possible. From the opening seconds, Cuarón makes an effort to show his devotion to realism by offering a title card explaining sound and temperature in space, debunking myths perpetuated by sci-fi films like Star Wars and their booming interstellar explosions. But most of all, he relies on the image. His effort to avoid editing is so extreme viewers will be hard pressed to find a splice within the film’s first 20 minutes.

His aversion to cutting images is not just a gimmick. It’s an effort to enhance the feeling of reality to what many viewers so easily resign to the “that’s so fake” world of science-fiction. Though Cuarón tries to maintain the illusion of “realism” by avoiding splices as much as possible, far be it from this evolved filmmaker to allow the images to drone on. Limber camera work consistently offers awe-inspiring vistas of the openness of space and keeps the film dynamic even without pace-dictating cuts. It’s also not long into the film when he sends a shower of space debris hurtling at the astronauts working on the Hubble Telescope. Then things get real exciting.


Cuarón’s dazzling work with uncut action sequences in his criminally underrated previous film Children of Men (2006) reaches new heights with this intimate thriller in space where two astronauts in this freak accident in space struggle to make it back to earth alive. Only two actors appear on screen: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who bring the sincerity to the dialogue, written by the director and his son Jonás Cuarón, which can feel a tad heavy-handed and sentimental when it’s not efficient and quippy. The script’s simplicity helps in maintaining the film’s brisk pace, however, and despite many solitary moments with one of these characters, it never dwells too long in monologue mode.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has almost consistently worked with Cuarón from his first feature, A Little Princess, and has gone on to work with Terrence Malick on his latest films, enhances the visuals like no one else. Shadow and light shift from ominous to becalmed in moments. There’s also something to be said about the score by Steven Price, who pushes the limits of bombast to minimalist heights of sensation when that killer space debris passes through. It’s like the theme from Jaws stripped to sensation. Speaking of the senses, the sound design also deserves mention, which, at appropriate times, feels like what life underwater might sound like. Cuarón has not forgotten any detail.


Despite the efforts of these filmmakers, distractions do arise, however. The star power of the two leads somehow overshadows their humble roles as astronauts. Bullock carries the baggage of a once-it-girl in movies like Speed and While You Were Sleeping. Hollywood’s pressure for its preference for young women shows clearly on her face (read: plastic surgery). Though Clooney has successfully escaped his “Sexiest Man Alive” aura in films like the Descendants, Syriana and even the American (my review), the script gives him little room to maneuver as anything more than the sly rogue he’s so well at playing.


Bullock is given the meatier role as a mournful woman who lost her young daughter in a freak accident. As she fights for survival in one Rube Goldberg action sequence after another, she shows a delicate sense for motion in space. She does a lot of great work snatching at the air during what amounts to one epic free-fall. But she also delivers a heartfelt performance that improves the dialogue, capturing a sort of will to live in what often feels like a hopeless situation.

Some may think the premise that starts the catastrophic domino effect in space contrived. As Gravity tries so hard to stay as true to science fact, it will in turn beg for more scrutiny. For every smart effort like floating fireballs and tear drops, a threat to break suspension of disbelief arises. Get over it and go with it. It’s a movie. Yes, this film is nothing but a painstakingly polished thrill ride at the movies, but dang it if it’s not brilliantly constructed to crush the cynic in us, from eggheads looking to pick apart the inconsistencies with real-life rules of space to the cinephiles who dare the screen to make them cling to their arm rests.

Hans Morgenstern

Gravity is rated PG-13 (it’s intense and characters react appropriately with a few f-bombs) and runs 90 minutes. You can catch it at any multiplex right now in 3-D, HD, 35mm and IMAX. Warner Bros. invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

To the Wonder posterI went into To the Wonder with hopeful expectations. I felt moved by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and its take on life and death and mourning with grace. It made for an abstract viewing experience, but it also dealt with such sublime encounters in a respectful and beguiling manner while not forgetting the humanity in its main characters. I had hoped To the Wonder would offer a similar statement about love.  Instead, it has some archaic message about marriage under God. But, even worse, the journey never feels compelling. I felt the film rush by with one redundant, brief scene after another on a path to a sloppy, hollow end that reeked of contrivance. The precarious edge Tree of Life teetered on, To the Wonder plunges over.

Before the film derails, however, the first few minutes feel promising. Grainy, saturated home video of a train trip in France featuring the two lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) is juxtaposed with wide Paris cityscapes. Speaking in French she says, in voice-over, “A spark. I fall into flame.” Brief sentences. Pregnant with impressionistic poetry. Intimacy captured in a moment when he holds her hair. She doesn’t flinch. However, problems began to arise not long into the film. There’s a distance between the camera lens and the actors. Emmanuel Lubezki has shot amazing work for many well-known directors. He has long proven himself a capable cinematographer, and he comes through in To the Wonder. There are beautiful moments of light and shadow throughout the film, beyond scenes shot during the magic hour, a light that has obsessed Malick from the start of his career as a filmmaker. However, the issue lies in the content of the shots and how Malick has contextualized them via the cutting room. Many shots of Neil focus on his back. If Marina faces the camera, it’s only to twirl away from it, her arms outstretched to the sky in one scene after another. If that’s a representation of a woman in love, I know a few women who will take offense to that, if not laugh it off.


It’s scenes like these— which are repeated, no less— instead of the powerful complexity of scenes in Tree of Life, like when the father tries to teach his son how to fight and hugs him after yelling at him “hit me!” capturing the bitter pull and tug of love and hate between son and father that seems amiss throughout To the Wonder. It feels as though Malick did a rush job in the editing room, without enough consideration to the performances. It does a disservice to the acting and character motivation.

Neil ends up moving Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) from France to his hometown in Oklahoma, which, as revealed by his first voice-over  he seems more romantically in love with than the foreigner he plants there. “Honest. Rich,” he says. However,  as his job seems to involve him testing the soil on farms, he soon learns the land he seems to revere is actually poisonous. Any sympathy for the man is diffused by his cold, distant looks to Marina’s attempts at seduction. Her daughter shares her own frustration with trying to fit in at school. “Mom, we have to leave. There’s something missing,” she says in French (she might as well also be talking about the movie). After her tourist visa expires she tells him, “We have to face the facts.” When he refuses to marry her, she is obligated to return to France. He then falls for a childhood friend, Jane, (Rachel McAdams). “She hadn’t changed. Kind,” Neil says in voiceover. Still, even in Paris, Marina pines for this man, and you wonder why. But in Oklahoma, now Jane twirls in the fields, arms outstretched to the sky.


A parallel to this story is that of a Spanish priest, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who Marina bonds with as a fellow exile. Meanwhile, his voiceover is full of doubt, as he carriers out charity work. “How long will You hide?” Statements like that are coupled with declarations like, “There is love between a husband and wife.” A wedding does eventually occur, but inside a courthouse. Men in handcuffs sign as witnesses. These abstract, loosely connected scenes are building toward something rather archaic in message while contrived in form. Worst of all, it feels too definitive and preachy for Malick.

Although the images continue to enchant, the actors feel like props, which takes out the human experience of love. The scenes feel like misshapen puzzle pieces forced to fit together, and the dramatic arc lacks the substance in performance and character development to carry you along. When the tidy ending arrives after creating such a complicating setup among people, it betrays the spirit within a person. Malick’s reach is so wide, the film really feels like he has concocted something out of nothing. If love were only about God, then fine, but anyone who has been in love knows that the sublime lies within them as well as outside.

Hans Morgenstern

To the Wonder is in English, French and Spanish with English subtitles, runs 112 minutes and is rated R. It opens at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, May 3. The film also opens in South Florida at O Cinema, beginning May 9 and the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, where it will begin its run May 10. It arrives in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso on May 24. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line preview screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

I recently spread out my blogging to Beached Miami. I had been in awe of their brave, expansive coverage of the city I have been calling home since I was but 5 years of age. I wanted in on this. So I took some of my talents to Beached, giving them my ramblings on the visionary director Terrence Malick (they trimmed it back respectfully), as the Miami Beach Cinematheque starts a retrospective of sorts tomorrow on the philosopher turned filmmaker. Here’s a direct link to the piece:

‘Early Malick’ offers low light, high vision

Those who usually expect to see my film writing here can click the link above for this latest piece previewing MBC’s ongoing Great Directors Series, which continues with “Early Malick.” You see, before the Tree of Life’s Brad Pitt, there were other hunky actors in the gorgeous frames of Malick, like Martin Sheen in Badlands (1973) and Richard Gere in Days of Heaven (1978). Of course that’s sarcasm, as Malick is less about offering up star vehicles and more about wringing out the most art possible film has to offer. While doing so, he trusts the audience to open its mind to the possibilities of a message beyond language, embedded in an aesthetic that is pure cinema and deserves to be celebrated. MBC offers its own tribute to Malick’s work in the wake of the arrival of his newest film, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

MBC will host special one-night only screenings for each of Makick’s first two films this week and next, beginning tomorrow night. Badlands screens first, Thursday, July 14, at 8 p.m. Next Thursday, July 21, also at 8 p.m, the series continues with Days of Heaven. UPDATE: Due to popular interest, Days of Heaven‘s screening (on high-def Blu-Ray, incidentally) has been extended: Friday, July 22 at 8:50 p.m., Saturday, July 23 at 5 p.m. and 8:50 p.m.

In the meantime, I plan to keep offering more exclusive Miami-oriented film and music events via Beached Miami, so check their blog out.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)