In Your Queue: “To the Wonder”, “Gimme the Loot”


To The Wonder – Terrence Malick (2013)

It’s usually unfair to hold directors up to their past work, especially when that work is particularly great or terrible. Terrence Malick has almost always lived up to that kind of scrutiny, and when he hasn’t, he hasn’t missed by much. But with To the Wonder, Malick has delivered the first film that you might call routine.

The signature floating visual poem is here once again, and it guides us through the coming together and falling apart of Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), an American-French couple who leave the daydream beauty of Paris to settle in rural Oklahoma for his oil-field job. To the Wonder lacks the grand central ideas that have marked Malick’s films in the past – there is no war, no murder, no running from the law, no creation of life; it’s simply a love story with overtones of loneliness, alienation and emptiness. It works on that level, but with less natural efficiency than we’re used to. It’s a beautiful film, of course it is, but there is some assembly required to get to its aloof center.

Gimme the Loot – Adam Leon (2013)

Bomb the apple. A phrase like that sounds so sinister now, but 20 years ago, it’s all any tagger in New York wanted to do. They hoped to catch fame by getting their name on the Mets’ home-run apple. It’s been impossible ever since the idea was posed, but it seems like cake for Malcolm and Sophia (Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington), two kids from the Bronx who want to be the biggest writers in the city but can’t get past a couple of white kids from Queens who keep wrecking their pieces. Twenty years of failure isn’t going to stop them, but the $500 they need to bribe a guard to get in might.

The apple exists as both a legend and a joke in New York, encapsulating the Mets’ position as lovable losers, and that team reputation runs as a direct parallel to that of Malcolm and Sophia, lovable losers who seem like they’ll never make it when their schemes to get the money turn toward ripping off Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze), a rich white girl Malcolm has a crush on. The charm of Hickson and Washington makes the film a success, though. There is an amiable Charlie Brown-and-Peppermint Patty quality to them as they run around the city fighting and bickering. They’re so close that the worst insults they hurl at one another roll off their backs, and their likability keeps you squarely on their side throughout the film.

The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick (2011)


Of all of the filmmakers in the world, Terrence Malick makes it the hardest to form an opinion on his films after one sitting. He doesn’t really make films as much as he makes complex, dense, highly populated visual poems with cameras and actors. While the films always maintain an airy, easygoing charm, each second that the film is unreeling a new idea presented somehow. This isn’t because his films are unfocused; rather the opposite, his films are so highly focused and expect, demand so much of the viewer that to watch it once is almost a crime.

Despite resting on the bed of a relatively simple plot about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, The Tree of Life simply defies description or label in the traditional sense.  It is about life, but in the most indescribable way possible, which is something that Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) himself struggles with (and eventually mucks up) greatly throughout the film. The idea of this film is what he is trying to convey to his three sons, and to his wife (the wonderful newcomer, Jessica Chastain), and he cannot do it properly. Yes, he can teach them manners, and even how to fight — but this, this is something else. Jack (Hunter McCracken) eventually takes the wrong lessons out of the fragments that his father can give to him. It’s not his fault, no one can put these concepts into words, not even Terrence Malick. Hell, not even the Bible is of any use.

To that end, it is not actually a film about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, that’s just where most of the concepts unfold. The film spans in time from the Big Bang through to the modern day, where the eldest son of the family, a now middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn), has become lost in some sort of emotional netherworld due to a mixture of the delayed turmoil of his brother’s death (at war, one would assume, though it is never confirmed) and the subsequent distance from his family as well as the decaying blight of modern’s man effect on the planet.

Malick finds an overriding beauty in the smallest elements of life (the most beautiful shots in the film are of a simple sunflower patch), but man has scarred this beauty with skyscrapers and greed. This natural beauty is science formed, though, not God formed. Malick goes out of his way to deliver this message with a lengthy and stunning creation sequence, where trial and error, natural experiment on a planetary level and natural selection rule. Life is eventually formed and fostered formed out of the nascent planetary gases, and man comes of this. But man ruins it: he is different. He thinks. He blushes. He destroys. He creates God for order, for peace, and the Devil to blame when, inevitably, neither of these happen.

It could be viewed as possibly the greatest argument for a Godless universe, where man is the annoyance, the “thin film of life” so invisible, yet so ignorantly wrapped up in its own existence, as Carl Sagan put it. One almost gets the sense that nature is waiting us out, and it may be.

But The Tree of Life stands upright as a visual document (the creation sequence itself will be re-released later this year in IMAX), and Malick and his team have created something more stunning than The Thin Red Line. What it stands for poetically will take a little longer to put it into proper perspective, but this is doubtlessly a major work of art, and it must be seen.