To The Wonder

I’m certain Nietzche, Aquinas, Kant, and Descartes are covered in every single undergrad Philosophy curriculum in existence, but how come there isn’t a Philosophy course on the filmmaker Terrence Malick? He has made a total of six full-length features in the last forty years – ‘Badlands’, ‘Days of Heaven’, ‘The Thin Red Line’, ‘The New World’, ‘The Tree of Life’, and most recently, ‘To The Wonder’. Three of these pictures were made within the last eight years, but all six of them pose an eternal philosophical question – “What is the meaning of it all?”

I’ve been a fan of Mr.Malick’s work for a long time. Upon its initial release in 1998, I even ranked ‘The Thin Red Line’ higher than Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – my moviegoing friends consider that statement as absurd today as they did fifteen years ago when I had to present my review in a Media Studies class.

‘To The Wonder’ is Malick’s weakest picture to date. While I’m not recommending the film, I should state right up front that it does serve as an efficient travelogue for those who are unable to travel this year. ‘To The Wonder’ is a romantic melodrama about two characters falling in and out love. Like most of Malick’s work, this one follows a nonlinear structure but the love story within the film appears to contain a through line. Oklahoman boy Neil (Ben Affleck) meets Ukrainian girl Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in France. She has a ten-year old daughter named Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). We experience the first joyful stage of this relationship, with screensaver-esque backgrounds. Nothing is visually drab or ugly in this Malickian universe. With the help of his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezski, Mr.Malick has created a world that is ravishingly gorgeous. The Parisian setting presents dream-like opportunities for visual artists – the limestone buildings, the architectural aspects of a cathedral (counterforts and conical spires), and cobblestone streets. Mr.Malick has always been able to find beauty anywhere, and these early moments of the film illustrate his gift wonderfully.

Eventually, these characters end up in Oklahoma. I didn’t think there would be nearly as much for Lubezski to revel in. But there are wheat fields, and creeks; also, less flattering geographical spots such as parking structures and supermarkets. Marina dances through these golden fields in the sunlight and through supermarket aisles. She does a lot of twirling; she is a carefree spirit and she can’t contain herself – of course, a guy like Mr.Affleck could have this effect on a woman. These blissful moments eventually expire and soon enough, there are feelings of resentment and hostility between these two. This causes Marina and her daughter to return to France. Neil then reconnects with a rancher he knew in childhood, Jane (Rachel McAdams). Marina also begins a bond with Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a priest who is struggling with his faith.

We seem to be tapping into Malick’s memories and I’m convinced most of what appears on-screen is autobiographical. I found a lot of the dialogue inaudible – much of it seemed to be quiet whispers; at times, I felt like I was being brought into a conversation between two people mid-way, and was lost at sea. That is the point, I suppose – not to listen, but to feel.  The dialogue that was audible was nearly indecipherable with pseudo-poetic ideas about love – “Emotions, they come and go like clouds.” “You fear your love has died, it is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher.” 

These abstract qualities, however, made it very difficult for me to connect with the film. I admired much of what I saw, but I felt like I was being put through an academic exercise. As an example, I can’t even begin to explain the disintegration of the relationship between Neil and Marina – other than in terms of the metaphorical imagery which is often presented with muted colors. As mentioned before, Malick often poses an eternal question – “What does it all mean?” He may not have had a driving narrative in his previous work; what he did have were images which implanted provocative questions into the minds of its viewers. Never will I forget the composts and birth of the universe sequence in ‘The Tree of Life’ and wonder how this connected to a coming-of-age story (or a family in Waco, Texas). Or the first shot of ‘The Thin Red Line’ which shows a crocodile submerged in the jungle river – is nature at war with itself? Some have considered his work self-indulgent; I’ve always found it awe-inspiring. Which is exactly where my trouble with ‘To The Wonder’ lies – where is the sense of awe and wonderment? The images in this picture didn’t speak to me; Mr.Malick has made his point inaccessible and has forced me to endure this experience.

What exactly does the landscape represent? The emotions felt by its central characters? The emotions not felt by them? More importantly, how do we care about characters that appear to be theoretical constructs? I reiterate the fact that I probably wasn’t supposed to care; that I was supposed to delve into Malick’s philosophical world and derive a formula for “Higher Meaning”. But, the drama at the core of the film should support Malick’s philosophical leafage. I couldn’t make the connection. Same goes for Javier Bardem’s character – his story seems to be from another movie altogether.

Malick’s intentions are admirable, and if anything, ‘To The Wonder’ is ambitious to a fault. I don’t want to ask for a more conventional piece, but I think a little less wonder, and a little more story would have gone a long way. Marina’s daughter, Tatiana, has one of the film’s few audible lines of dialogue. This was the only universal truth I was able to leave with – “There’s something missing.” Yes, there is. QED.

The Sapphires

‘The Sapphires’ represents the kind of film that is difficult for a critic to review. Is this great cinema? Not really. But it is a great 103 minutes at the movies. ‘The Sapphires’ possesses an exuberant, innocent fun that is simply infectious.

The picture is inspired by a true story – three aboriginal sisters and their cousin escape the racism of 1960s Australia and head to Vietnam as a singing group to entertain the troops. The group is known as the Cummeragunja Songbirds prior to being rebranded as The Sapphires; and in spite of internal discord, their singing voices remain in perfect harmony (typical of musical biopics).

 ‘The Sapphires’ was directed by first-time filmmaker Wayne Blair and was written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (Tony Briggs’ mother, Beverly Briggs, is one of the real-life Sapphires). On a very strange note, I must also comment on the fact the appearance of the real-life Sapphires, who we inevitably see photos of during the end credits. This is the first movie I can think of where the real-life women in which this story is based on turn out to be significantly be more attractive than the actresses portraying them on-screen.  

Three of the four singers, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are sisters who live on a dusty Aboriginal reserve where they live with their parents, other family members and friends. Unfortunately, they’re forced to contend with the racism from the outside white population towards them. They perform at a local talent show, but they’re not welcome there. They’re greeted with racist remarks and are denied the victory they quite obviously should have earned. But, they catch the eye of David Lovelace (Chris O’ Dawd), a musical accompanist for the local signing talents. Two things appear to make his life worthwhile – booze and soul music. He reminds the girls that they are black, advises them to drop the country/western music routine, and to transition over to soul music. Of course, he sees this as an opportunity for him to become their manager and entertain the soul brothers serving in Vietnam. En route to Vietnam, the girls and their manager stop in Melbourne to pick up Sapphire #4, Kay (Shari Sebbens) – she was removed from the family as a child and sent to be raised by a white family due to her light skin color.

Kay’s story in particular gives the film some weight as she undergoes her own identity crisis. There is Gail’s resentment towards her but also the question of whether Kay thinks she has the upper hand over the other members of the group. After all, people don’t have racist feelings towards her due to her lighter skin, and she did have an advantageous upbringing relative to the other three Sapphires.

In a lesson he offers the girls, Dave states that country music dwells on failure whilst soul music embraces hope in the face of adversity. What ‘The Sapphires’ does well is take all of these elements of misfortune – racism, war, alcoholism, political unrest, family conflicts; and converts it into bubbly, nostalgic entertainment. We see footage of Muhummad Ali, JFK, Martin Luther King and we’re reminded of how significant these events were in American history. But, we’re also reminded of the days of Motown and how struggling African-American singers worked hard, very hard, to entertain the masses; and how some people chose to neglect their artistry and respond with racist taunts.

The Weinstein Company (the film’s distributor) was nice enough to supply us with a copy of the picture’s soundtrack on the way out of the screening. This could very well be Jessica Mauboy’s album – ten of the sixteen tracks are sung by her. Her (as well as the other cast members of The Sapphires) add a nice spin on 60s era classics such as ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Hunny Bunch)’, ‘I Heard It Through The Grape Vine’, and ‘What a Man’.

‘The Sapphires’ isn’t without its flaws – its tonal shifts from comedy to drama and back again to comedy are a little abrupt. The look of the picture is occasionally shoddy with some unpolished production. And, the main driving story about these girls’ rise to fame is both predictable and sentimental. But, even through all of its flaws, the film’s sincerity and charm stand out.

As I exited the theatre, I submitted a tweet-sized review which stated “’The Sapphires’ – Predictable but charmingly irresistible and filled with great performances; I think this is going to be a crowd-pleasing hit.” I might be wrong about this in the short run – the film is now playing in limited release (at the Varsity in Toronto). Will the picture get a wider release beyond that? I’m not sure; that is entirely dependent on the word-of-mouth it receives. This may happen during its theatrical run, or once it’s released on DVD/Blu-Ray/Netflix/On Demand. Regardless of the channel, I do hope ‘The Sapphires’ finds an audience, and I suspect it will. QED.