To the Wonder of Roger Ebert

To The Wonder - poster

Sometimes I believe in fate.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball on To the Wonder being the last review of Roger Ebert, published two days after his death.

That it was this film, and not something more banal — say Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles VI, or The Avengers Chapter XVI: Cataclysm of the Abominable Silver Snow-Surfer — that it was this film must be seen as more than coincidence.  Yes, fate.

And it happens I agree entirely with Ebert, who bestowed 3 1/2 of 4 stars on To the Wonder.  So I will defer to him.  But first my two bits: To the Wonder is quite unique.  I was trying to peg it as something like an Iñárritu-made cross between The Loneliest Planet and Blue Valentine, but that doesn’t quite work.  The narrative style — as Ebert wrote:

Although it uses dialogue, it’s dreamy and half-heard, and essentially this could be a silent film — silent, except for its mostly melancholy music.

— this style I’ve never quite seen before — never used throughout an entire film.  It’s a style that turned a lot of audiences and critics away.  Storytelling many found too oblique.  I mused on this, and feel that more conventional dialogue-driven To the Wonder - text blockaction could have told the story in a stronger way — but that would be an entirely different film, and not necessarily for the better.

That’s because To the Wonder is full of lyrical beauty, with a strong yet ambiguous story at its heart.  It’s open to interpretation, and that’s not a bad thing in movies.  Ebert’s final review so aptly — for this movie and his life — concludes:

Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren’t many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren’t many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn’t that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?

There will be many who find “To the Wonder” elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.

7/10

Availability: Netflix

Roger Ebert - Walk of Fame

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Losing with Netflix

I am generally a fan of Netflix, but it was disheartening to see what movies were disappearing from the service come August, especially upon reviewing what would arrive in their stead.  A number of good movies, including Face/Off, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and The Fifth Element, will be leaving.  Replacing them?  Highlights include Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Season 2.  Yes, that’s sarcasm — and sadly, truth.  Point being, the additions amount to basically a big pile of garbage compared to what’s leaving.

The complete list of arrivals and departures is here.  Expect more and more good content — especially movies — to vacate Netflix.

On The Double

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The Double, an adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novella, earns lots of style points, with its bleak, Eraserhead-conjuring industrial world.  The writer-director Richard Ayoade certainly has an idea.  But this movie is fairly pointless, and worse, not entertaining.

With Synecdoche, New York, BirdmanFight Club, Secret Window, The Machinist and Moon, and the granddaddy of all, Mulholland Dr., there is little reason to watch this rather weak take on the doppelgänger sub-genre.  4/10

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Docu Log: Hot Girls Wanted

Hot Girls Wanted - posterHot Girls Wanted documents the “amateur porn” industry by following a few girls who are chewed up and spit out by it.  Though the subject matter is powerful stuff, the filmmaking is fairly mundane, like reality television gone explicit.  As the situation steadily devolves for the ‘actors,’ the movie becomes more compelling in its intimate portraits, enough so that I was tending toward a marginal recommendation.

Then the following night I watched the Frontline episode on solitary confinement within US prisons (see next post) and was reminded of what good documentary filmmaking is like.  It helps to have a good narrator instead of just throwing text on the screen.

I will credit Hot Girls Wanted for sparking this thought: how twisted is it that prostitution is illegal, yet porn — which can be much worse — is perfectly legal?  5/10

Indie Log: We Are What We Are

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Ever-rising star Julia Garner fits well in cultish settings: Electrick Children, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and now We Are What We Are, whose Rotten Tomatoes consensus reads:

A compelling story cleverly told, We Are What We Are quenches horror buffs’ thirst for gore while serving up serious-minded filmmaking and solid acting.

Indeed.  Among the generally top-notch moviemaking is a bit of awkwardness and a pacing problem — the movie does not feel like it is moving slowly per se, but neither does it stir itself along the way one could expect given the underlying plot, especially in the first half.  We Are What We Are is no Martha Marcy May Marlene, but it’s still worthwhile.  Available via Netflix and iTunes rental.  And look for Kelly McGillis — she’s a long way off from Top Gun and Witness.  7/10

VOD Log: Big Fish

Big Fish - poster smallBig Fish is sweet, and charming, and lovely.  And dull.  Given the open-ended framework, there should have been much more.  Most major critics were no more impressed than I; Richard Corliss, Time:

Big Fish makes a big push for transcendence, but the strain shows. It’s like trying to push a daydream uphill.

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A.O. Scott (with whom I usually disagree), the Times:

But the most curious thing about this magical-realist fable… is how thin and soft it is, how unpersuasive and ultimately forgettable even its most strenuous inventions turn out to be.

Roger Ebert didn’t care for it either.  Big Fish attempts to cast a magical glow in the way that Forrest Gump or The Princess Bride did, but both the story and its ability to awe fall short.  5/10

Comparison Notes: True Stories, Forrest Gump, The Princess Bride

Indie Log: Compliance

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Amy Biancolli, sfgate.com:

Some films are harder to watch than others – not because they’re bad, which makes for a different sort of painful viewing, but because they touch on areas of such profound moral discomfort that the mere act of watching makes us feel complicit. We feel like gutless witnesses to a crime.

What’s happening here should be transparent to anyone watching almost from the start, but the point is that it’s anything but obvious to the people involved.  You might be struck with an air of incredulity, but the events depicted Compliance - text blockhappened almost exactly as shown.  And though we may know what’s going on here, we don’t have any idea how far it will go.

While watching, the scope of Compliance seems to ride too much a singular note — but that note is persistent, unrelenting, and very creepy.  It’s a small movie, but boy it got under my skin.  If you want to get to some very disturbing places, this movie is for you.   7/10

Availability: Netflix & iTunes.