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To the Wonder (2012)

Magnolia Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 8/6/2013

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/19/2013

People in Hollywood are usually either famous, infamous, or notable, and most are a combination of the three. Filmmaker Terrence Malick became famous for making artistic dramas in the 70s with Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). He became notable when it took him 20 years to make his next movie in 1998. Since that time, Malick hasn't necessarily been prolific, but he has picked up the pace somewhat, having made three movies thus far in the new millennium. While 2011's The Tree of Life was well-received, Malick's latest offering, To the Wonder, shows that it may be time for him to take another break.

This is the story of To the Wonder: While traveling in France, an American, Neil (Ben Affleck), meets a French woman, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who has a daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). Neil and Marina fall in love, and he takes the woman and her daughter back home to Oklahoma, where he has a job working in geology in some way. The relationship begins to dissolve when Neil won't commit to Marina. She goes home to France and Neil begins to see Jane (Rachel McAdams). However, he can't get Marina out of his mind. Meanwhile, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), a local priest, is having a crisis of faith and begins to turn his back on his parishoners.

If the above synopsis makes it sound as if the film has a clear and coherent narrative, then I apologize, as I've clearly misled you. To the Wonder follows in the footsteps of Tree of Life, offering a film which is big on visuals, but bereft of story. While I wasn't crazy about Tree of Life, this approached worked, as the film was set up as a series of flashbacks, and Malick was commenting on the fragility and unreliability of memory. Using this technique, he was able to conjure an emotional response without embracing a classical narrative approach.

This trick doesn't work with To the Wonder for two reasons. First of all, the audience is simply given too little to work with. Again, the story here could be written out as a Dick & Jane style book and it would still seem wafer thin. In the extras included on the Disc, the actors admit that there was no script, only outlines and that Malick would improvise on the spot. I'm not saying that the movie needed a dense narrative, but something other than what we get was necessary. Some would argue that a movie which openly explores the highs and lows of love doesn't need more story than that, but if it wants to hold our interest, it does. The film is especially thin when it comes to the section concerning Jane. Despite the lack of dialogue and story, we can guess why it doesn't work out between Neil and Marina, but Jane seems perfect. Was she too perfect? And the subplot with Father Quintana can be seen as a parallel to the love story, but it the two plots never gel, even when the characters interact.

The film's other problem is that Malick's much heralded visuals fail him this time, as he doesn't give us anything interesting at which to look. What we get is shot after shot of Marina walking -- around the yard, through fields, on a beach. The scenes of her walking are never ending. Sometimes, Neil is seen walking, and sometimes they walk together. When Jane is introduced, she walks through her pastures. The walking outside scenes are juxtaposed with scenes of Neil and Marina moving around in their house. We rarely see the characters actually doing anything, and when we do, it's usually very random. I suppose the Film Studies majors would argue that these repetitive scenes were meant to represent the nature of relationships, but I think that's a stretch. The only decent symbolism has to do with how Neil and Marina never decorate their house as a sign of Neil's reluctance to commit.

What we have with To the Wonder barely qualifies as a feature film, despite its 113 minute running time. Instead, this feels like the world's longest student film or perhaps the world's longest Calvin Klein commercial. Even the most hardcore hipster arthouse film fan will be bored to tears by this walkfest (which I'm convinced was secretly financed by Rockport). It seems harsh to call any film pointless, but that's what we get with To the Wonder. The sad thing is, I actually wanted to know more about the story here, and the tale of a foreigner coming to America for a relationship, only to watch it fail is an interesting one. Perhaps someone will actually make that movie.

To the Wonder wastes the talents of several good actors on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only a hint of grain at times and no defects from the source material. Due to Malick's shooting style, the image can be blurry and dark at times, but this isn't a reflection of the transfer. The colors look good and the landscape shots show a nice amount of depth. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.0 Mbps. At the outset, a note informs us to play the film at a loud volume for maximum results. Unfortunately, that plan goes awry. There is basically no dialogue in the movie, as most of the speaking comes through voiceover. For the most part, this is clear and audible, but there are times when it comes through as a whisper, especially when Jane speaks. On several occasions, the person talking will say a single word, and these are often low and hard to hear. If I'd seen this in the theater, I would have been convinced that the person next to me was saying something. The other result of turning it up is that the non-narrative sound effects and the film's score become very loud and they drown out the dialogue as well. These sounds produce nice surround and stereo effects, but it also makes an audio mess.

The To the Wonder Blu-ray Disc contains a few extras. "The Making of To the Wonder" (10 minutes) contains comments from Kurylenko, McAdams, Bardem and Affleck, as well as the producers. Here, we learn that there was no formal script, and according to McAdams, there was "nothing to look at". We hear how Malick asked the actors to read certain books and would only give them ideas about their characters. Bardem states that as there was no script, he had no idea what the characters he was interacting with had been doing in the rest of the movie. We also hear from the editors as to how the scenes are assembled. (Astute viewers will note that the film's working title was "Redbud".) "The Actor's Experience" (6 minutes) offers more comments from the cast on what it's like to work with Malick. (This contains some of the same elements are the previous feature.) "The Ballet" (6 minutes) examines the look of the film and the way in which it's shot. (Again, elements from 'The Making of' are recycled here.) The way in which locations and people from the area of Bartlesville, Oklahoma were utilized is explored in "Local Flavor" (5 minutes). The final extra is the TRAILER for the film.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.