To the Wonder (US - BD RA)
Jonathan watches some really pretty footage of people walking around...
Written and directed by Terrence Malick, To the Wonder is a romantic drama about men and women grappling with love and its many phases and seasons - passion, sympathy, obligation, sorrow and indecision - and the way these forces merge together and drift apart, transforming, destroying and reinventing the lives they touch. (From the Magnolia synopsis)
Oh no. It has finally happened. I've seen a Terrence Malick film that I do not like. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that before now Malick's films were all spread out. I used to have to wait half a decade for his next project, and when it finally came out it would feel like I was being treated to the latest vision from a masterful filmmaker. Now, just one year after Tree of Life, he has completed another film that feels like a spiritual successor. It looks the same, and for the most part it plays out the same. So why do I really like The Tree of Life but find To the Wonder exhausting?
The first thing that comes to mind is that The Tree of Life had a strong spiritual message in it that felt explored throughout every scene. It also had some dialogue here and there and a narrative (however thin) to hold everything together. The characters felt like characters. To the Wonder feels closer to a student filmmaker's attempt at making a Malick film. It has his visual style, but his camera focuses an awful lot on people wandering around and standing around and sitting around, and you get the idea. Sure there are some talented actors doing it, but none of them ever have established personalities. They just walk around together. And maybe later in the movie one of them will be walking around with a different person.
Malick has always been known to shoot an excessive amount of footage (I think I personally know three different people who were cut out of The Tree of Life), but this is the first time the final product has seriously felt like Malick shot a bunch of pretty footage and then tried to make a story out of it later. Dialogue is kept to a near minimum and many scenes feature dialogue that is deliberately muffled or not kept in the sound mix. There is narration but it's just a contemplative moment here and there. The human beings really feel like empty shells, and that makes the ups and downs of their relationships difficult to care about. Javier Bardem plays a priest in the film and he gets to explain the meaning of the film in a small sermon.
The lightness and beauty of the images perfectly complimented the spiritual tone and natural wonder explored in The Tree of Life. To the Wonder still manages to be an absolutely gorgeous movie, but the images here are all in service of a flimsy screenplay and a weak thematic focus. If pretty images are enough for you, then Malick has got 113 minutes of eye candy for you. Personally I found the repetitious shots of people walking around in fields and the sun shining through leaves (another thing that made sense in The Tree of Life) to be tedious. There are some stand out moments though. One scene shows Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams standing on top of a car in a field of full of buffalo. It looks awesome and majestic, but like all the other pretty images in this film.. that's all it is.
There's no shortage of beautiful images in To the Wonder, which feels very much like a visual companion to The Tree of Life. It also had the same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. This 1080p transfer from Magnolia is a great representation of the glorious images, showcasing a strong dynamic range and a level of detail befitting of an HD transfer. According to IMDb the film was shot on 35mm film using the Arricam LT and the Arriflex 235, both of which were also used for (surprise!) The Tree of Life. The resulting look has a soft grainy appearance to it that remains consistent and pleasing to the eye throughout. Detail is strong, though digital compression does make itself known from time to time in murkier areas of the picture. If you're looking for it, you can spot some banding and blocking every now and then. This could've possibly been avoided if the transfer was given a higher bitrate, but here it sits on a BD-25 along with the extras. The good news is that these artefacts are infrequent and you'd probably have to be looking for them to really notice it. This is a really pretty movie and this transfer does a fine job of bringing the visual splendor to your home system.
Accompanying the lovely visuals is an aurally pleasing DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. This isn't your usual sound mix. Dialogue is scarce and often mumbled, intentionally. This unorthodox approach makes it difficult to judge the volume levels, but once I found a comfortable level for the music I never had to adjust for the track being too loud or too quiet. The occasional narrated bits are very clear and fill the front of the room appropriately. Most of the sounds in the film come from the environment, and they never really cease. There is constant ambient noise coming from every channel and you can always here background sounds that fit what is on screen, be it distant construction or something as simple as a breeze. Every environment feels lively. The score from Hanan Townshend (who also did some music for The Tree of Life) is especially pleasing to listen to, even if its not quite as rousing or memorable as the soundtrack for Malick's previous film. The lush visuals and carefully assembled sound mix make for an experience that is totally pleasing to the senses. Just remember that if you can't hear a line of dialogue, it is probably because you weren't supposed to.
The first special feature is The Making of To the Wonder (HD, 10:26). As expected Malick does not take part in any interviews, but there is plenty of footage here from producers, editors, and the actors in the film as they talk about working with Terry and how different it was from shooting a normal film. The actors reveal that Malick had them read novels in preparation for their characters. Next up is The Actors' Experience (HD, 05:54), which draws from the same footage that was used in the making of featurette. There's a little variation but most of this footage is repeated. It's fluff. The Ballet (HD, 05:59) follows suit. It's more of the same stuff, this time focused on how Terry feels out the story in his films. Again, most of this was already covered, but there is some variation. Things finally change up with Local Flavor (HD, 04:56). Some of this footage is still from the making of, but the majority of it is new. This featurette explores some of the Oklahoma locals that were used in the film, including some homeless people and inmates.
As a long time fan, disliking a Malick film hurts. I love to champion his beautiful visuals and meditations on the human spirit. I even like how loose and unconventional his narratives are, but To the Wonder is just too bare for me to recommend to anyone outside of devoted Malick fans. If you already didn't like Malick's films, you can safely avoid this one. His visuals are still a treat, but here they feel repetitive and they exist in a vacuum with no real characters or a strong thematic foundation. If pretty images are enough for you, this Blu-ray release from Magnolia has a transfer worthy of the lovely visuals and a nice audio mix to accompany it. Extras have repeating material and feel like fluff.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 6th August 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: The Making of 'To the Wonder', The Actors' Experience, The Ballet, Local Flavor, Theatrical Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams
Genre: Drama and Romance
Length: 113 minutes
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