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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Malick's TO THE WONDER and doc NO PLACE ON EARTH!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…


TO THE WONDER
If I wanted to see the backs of women's heads as they twirled in fields of gold and glanced back into the camera just to get a little face time, I'll just watch director Terrence Malick's last film, THE TREE OF LIFE, a film that elegantly ties together the idea of familial bonds to the birth of the known universe. But with his latest film, TO THE WONDER, about love and how you break it, Malick's patented style is applied clumsily and doesn't mesh with the appeal of the actors he's chosen, save one. Hell, even the army of Malcik defenders/apologists admit this film is primarily a fans-only experience, and I consider myself a fan. But I couldn't get past the filmmaker's absolute refusal to allow us to connect with any of his handsome cast members in an attempt to form an emotional bond that I'd willingly allow to be trampled on by this master of the cinema.

All of that being said, TO THE WONDER isn't a terrible film at all, and there are elements and moments worth fawning over. First and foremost, there is actor Olga Kurylenko (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, and this week's OBLIVION) playing Marina, a single mother living in Paris who meets American tourist Neil (Ben Affleck), who convinces her and her daughter to move back to Oklahoma with him. Seeming to put all of the blame on Neil's inability to commit fully (i.e. marry Marina), the film tracks their relationship from passionate and new to a disintegrating mess of fights and throwing things. While we are clearly meant to see this from Marina's perspective, Malick utterly short changes Neil by making him a soulless head and shoulders, seen primarily in a series of shots that only show the back of Affleck's head.

I'm not going to sit here and debate the merits of Affleck as either a great actor or handsome man, but he has been known to do solid work in the right hands (mostly his own, in films like THE TOWN and ARGO). But in TO THE WONDER, his eyes are dead, he mood sullen, and he trounces around this film like an angry bull. Unlike Kurylenko, who is fleshed out and is given moments with her daughter to show that she's a fully formed human being who doesn't enjoy being dragged halfway around the world only to be rejected. Rightfully so, she leaves Neil for a period to head back to France.

The film features two supporting characters with odd connections to the main story. The always-compelling Javier Bardem (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, SKYFALL) appears as a priest who crosses paths with Marina, but quickly goes off on this own, unconnected side story about giving last rights to prisoners on death row and visiting the poor. Through the film's most eloquent narrations (all of the main characters get to reveal their inner thoughts in voiceover), the priest makes it clear that he's losing his faith, and it shows on his haggard face. Although the priest's story barely grazes the main love story, it was one of my favorite elements of the film.

In addition, Rachel McAdams (THE NOTEBOOK, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) plays Jane, a childhood girlfriend of Neil's, who comes back into his life at this point, and the two start a brief but passionate relationship that serves to only remind Neil how much he misses Marina. Once again, McAdams is mostly seen twirling and spinning around in front of the camera, in the same style that Jessica Chastain perfected in THE TREE OF LIFE—the difference being that Chastain's mother character was twirling as a means to entertain her kids and display a bit of instability. McAdams is doing so to make sure she gets her face on camera. She doesn't last long, and soon Neil convinces Marina to come back. Wisely, she doesn't drag her daughter with her until she figures out where she stands with this tough-to-pin-down man.

TO THE WONDER is one of the more beautifully shot films you're likely to see this year, and if the pure image is what you love more than anything, you can't go wrong with Malick. And while I know that definitions of conventions storytelling and character development don't apply in his works, and that's perfectly OK. His constructions are usually things of great style and grace that evoke pure emotion in conjunction with a simple plot. But something is sadly missing from TO THE WONDER.

Maybe Affleck is in over his head, but I think it has more to do with stripping away so much of his performance that all that's left behind is a hunky shell. It's frustrating to have to deflate such a reliable filmmaker, but this one is perhaps his weakest entry. But with two more films already coming down the chute, Malick will hopefully have more opportunities to impress us. Still, if you're a die-hard admirer of his work, you should have no trouble digesting this one and finding sections to fall for.


NO PLACE ON EARTH
There have been countless filmed accounts—both feature films and documentaries—about Jews who hid somewhere in the recesses of Europe at some point during World War II, when they were targeted for extermination. But the new doc NO PLACE ON EARTH might be one of the strangest and most fascinating accounts I've ever heard, and we may never have heard this collection of stories without a caving enthusiast named Chris Nicola who traveled to the Ukraine and found the Priest's Grotto caves in Verteba.

Nicola had been spelunking when he entered a cave that showed signs that people had been living in them recently. He set himself a mission to investigate just who these people might have been and why they had ever taken up residence in these caves. What he learned—and what we discover through interviews with survivors and reenactments of the incidents—is that 38 Ukrainian Jews hid out in the caves for an unbelievable 18 months (we're told this is the longest-running sustained underground survival in recorded history) until the Russians came in and found them.

Part of the remarkable nature of the story told in NO PLACE ON EARTH is the system the group had for retrieving food, getting supplies, and living under such conditions while trying to maintain some level of civility and humanity. Filmmaker Janet Tobias even managers to bring a few of the survivors (who were only children at the time of their cave living) back to Verteba to climb into their former cramped, dark quarters. One woman who lived there as a child said that being in the cave again calmed her completely; it was clearly an emotional experience for all involved.

I have mixed feelings about the reenactments in the film; they seem a bit on the amateurish side. However, without them, the film would have been about half its length, and they give us something to look at while the survivors tell their absolutely necessary tales of the most unbelievable endurance test these people will ever face. The story might be better than the film, but that stands to reason; this is a story that no film—documentary or feature—could ever fully capture, but NO PLACE ON EARTH makes a good run at it.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"
capone@aintitcool.com
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