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Toronto Film Review Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time

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Toronto Film Review: Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time

Broad Green Pictures

Toronto Film Review: Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time

Resembling an expansion of the creation sequence from 2011’s The Tree of Life, Voyage of Time is arguably the fullest expression of the cosmic themes that filmmaker Terrence Malick has explored for the last decade. With the exception of occasional snippets of low-grade, full-frame digital video of contemporary urban poverty, the film follows a linear trajectory from the formation of the solar system through the eventual collapse of our sun. Traveling to the corners of the globe to collect beautiful shots of unmolested nature to stand in for the prehistoric world, Malick also employs various effects to evoke the emergence of life on a planet from the primordial soup, such as drips of paint that seem to flower into tendrils of stardust, or a digitally rendered neural network to chart a map of the human brain.

Berlinale 2014 The Better Angels

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Berlinale 2014: The Better Angels
Berlinale 2014: The Better Angels

A cursory IMDb search shows that The Better Angels’s writer-director, A.J. Edwards, worked as an editorial intern on Terrence Malick’s The New World, one of five editors on To the Wonder, and as a “key artistic consultant” on The Tree of Life. It’s not quite right to say that The Better Angels exhibits Malick’s influence; it plays more like a student film assignment in copping another filmmaker’s style from stem to stern.

Set in the Indiana backwoods where Abraham Lincoln (newcomer Braydon Denney) lived as a child, The Better Angels takes a demonstrably Malickian approach to American mythmaking, locating the core of the 16th American president’s eminent integrity in his hardscrabble upbringing. Both embraced and tested by his salt-of-the-earth father (Jason Clarke) and doted on by his loving mother (Brit Marling), young Abe is shown to learn the values that would come to define his character, at least in the American historical memory: reason, self-control, morality, empathy—those titular “better angels of our nature” that he would index in his first inaugural address. As he works the land and, eventually, goes to school, there are intimations that the young man is meant for better things.

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

As R. Kurt Osenlund pointed out yesterday, there are plenty of categories more flashily controversial this year, but none have become as big a flash point among cinephiles as the cinematography prize. No demographic is more certain that one of Oscar’s longest-running contemporary injustices is its failure to coronate Emmanuel Lubezki, whose lucidly expressive images have now earned him six nominations and a near-fanatic cult devotion. Having to cope with the losses he’s suffered his last three times at bat—with The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life respectively falling to Memoirs of a Geisha, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Hugo—are, for acolytes, like living in an alternate universe where John Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon lost to Robert L. Surtees’s The Hindenburg, or Sven Nykvist’s lensing of Cries & Whispers lost to Surtees’s The Sting, or Néstor Almendros’s Days of Heaven lost to Robert Surtees’s Same Time, Next Year. Adding insult to injury last time around was the fact that Lubezki’s richly textured analog work in The Tree of Life was chewed up and spit out by the Academy’s now-insatiable sweet tooth for CGI-heavy 3D toy boxes, a trend that’s held for the last four years running.

The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I
The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”

Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.

I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.

I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?

In the Beginning: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

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In the Beginning: Terrence Malick’s <em>The Tree of Life</em>
In the Beginning: Terrence Malick’s <em>The Tree of Life</em>

For a filmmaker so consumed with the inexorable progression of time, history, and life, the way in which we’re all complex byproducts of the past and harbingers of the future, it’s fitting that The Tree of Life finds Terrence Malick finally returning to the beginning, travelling back, back, back to the dawn of everything, even as he grapples with his own complicated childhood memories and the bewildering present. Though that eon-spanning journey doesn’t occur from the outset, its relatively early appearance colors the entirety of this bold, mystifying, hypnotic film, laying bare the director’s desire to comingle the ancient, recent, and now for a lushly poetic inquiry—at once more personal and specific than his prior work, and yet also more universal and oblique—into man’s rapport with his environment, his place in the galaxy, his heart’s simultaneous capacity for kindness and cruelty, and his contradictory relationship to God. It’s the last of these that repeatedly takes center stage during the course of Malick’s fifth magnum opus, as a title-card quote from the Book of Job intriguingly open this metaphysical investigation into suffering and forgiveness—a bibilical reference to set the stage for a drama gripped by the question of why a father, and our heavenly Father, might hurt the very ones he claims to love.

New York Film Festival 2010: Meek’s Cutoff

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Meek’s Cutoff</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Meek’s Cutoff</em>

On a formal level, Meek’s Cutoff, the fourth feature from Kelly Reichardt, is admittedly some kind of masterpiece. Rather like an extremely damped-down There Will Be Blood, Reichardt’s film—based on historical events—depicts one group’s journey through the Oregon Trail in 1845 as a trek through a hauntingly empty and alien landscape, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt exquisitely taking in the natural beauties of the settings while framing the increasingly desperate wanderers in wide shots to emphasize, in part, their ultimate smallness within the wild west. (Her choice to shoot the film in the classic 1.33:1 Academy ratio—possibly a nod to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, another film about a delusional explorer—adds to a sense of nature closing in on the characters.) Jeff Grace’s musical score heightens the There Will Be Blood comparison, its spooky cello sonorities sounding like Jonny Greenwood’s screeching atonal strings in the Paul Thomas Anderson film but with the volume level turned way down. But the low-key, naturalistic acting style is all Reichardt, familiar from her two previous films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, and as focused on between-the-lines attempts at connection and understanding as those two films were. The results often feel as vividly realistic as moments in Terrence Malick’s The New World. Meek’s Cutoff is undeniably a fascinatingly idiosyncratic, aesthetically provocative, and occasionally enthralling vision, and as such cannot be easily dismissed.

2008: Lessons and Laughs and Leaps

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2008: Lessons and Laughs and Leaps
2008: Lessons and Laughs and Leaps

2. He leapt the ford. He saw that pool open, uncovered and deep, where the spill empties, and he jumped. Now he’s wading, like always, out there, with all things shining, brimming around and within him. He tries to touch—even when he knows his hands and his eyes will fall just short, or land too brief. Like any body, his wake abates and will evaporate. But it’s the sifting forward that counts.