To the Wonder
BackgroundTerrence Malick's re-emergence on the film landscape in 1998, after 20 years away, was a joyful surprise for fans of his only two films at that point – Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). His return, an exploration of WWII's Guadalcanal Campaign via his own adaptation of James Jones' The Thin Red Line, saw most of Hollywood falling over themselves to work with him. Since then, Malick has returned to writing and directing with The New World (2005); his long-gestating, genuinely epic The Tree of Life (2011); and now quickly, clearly on a roll, his sixth feature – and his first set in the year it was filmed – To the Wonder.
Debuting at the Venice Film Festival in early September 2012 (and screened just a week later at the Toronto International Film Festival) To the Wonder's first commercial release anywhere in the world was StudioCanal UK's speedy February 2013 launch (a relatively small, sad handful of digital cinema screenings for a few weeks presumably to qualify for broadsheet reviews) followed by this world-first British Blu-ray four months later.
The Film“Some people had criticized Days of Heaven for not having enough of a story, but Terry would say, ‘I want to go more in that direction’. He was interested in a non-narrative style, the cinematic equivalent of how, say, Beethoven had structured his symphonies.” – Paul Ryan, second unit photographer on Days of Heaven (quoted from here)
Beautifully structured and edited film poems don't tend to lend themselves to written synopses. To the Wonder doesn't adhere much to traditional narrative filmmaking techniques – indeed, this seems to be the main cause of consternation/constipation among those unable to connect with it, but a rich source of ineffable magic for those that do.
My heart sank when I heard Ben Affleck was to be in a Terrence Malick film. The only hope, I thought, might be for Argo's cipher to enter and leave Malick's world none the wiser, and thankfully, this is what happened (Affleck admits to "gaining nothing" from reading Heidegger in the Making Of on the Blu-ray). Due to the depressing vagaries of film financing and international distribution much was obviously resting on Affleck's presence and that of the two James Bond related actors (Kurylenko and Bardem). Realising his actor's strengths, Affleck's performance is 'Malicked' to an almost wordless pensive storm-cloud named Neil – an unspecified environmental/pollution assessor – who traipses through the film with horseshoe shoulders.
Anyway, I won't attempt to provide a synopsis because I'm going to try and get you to read the reviews I've linked to at the end of the next section – they cover all that, if necessary. Bear with me.
ReceptionI've been on a bit of a journey with this film over the last eight months avidly reading reviews of all kinds (polarised beyond belief) culminating in finally seeing the film (in the form of this Blu-ray). None of the reviews spoiled anything for me. The best reviews were unusually stellar and they outnumbered the negative reviews by a fair number. It was famously the subject of Roger Ebert's final review (he liked it). All the negative reviews I've read express complete detachment: “Exquisitely empty... ...Malick has lost his understanding of how to represent the sublime.” (Nigel Floyd on BBC Radio 4). A British internet DVD review moaned that the film was “as tiresome as a feature length perfume ad”. A minority of card-carrying Malickians – usually those perturbed by what they perceive to be the excesses of The Tree of Life – have accused To the Wonder of being an exercise in self-parody, or a poem that doesn't work. Criticism of the unrelenting (gorgeous) magic hour cinematography seems as redundant as criticizing the light in J.M.W. Turner's paintings. Customer reviews that can only be described as “knuckleheaded” seem to accompany the film like a swarm of midges around the internet (but they are slowly being balanced out by a lot of 5 star pieces too).
To give a sense of how hard this beautiful film has hit some people (myself included) I must refer you to some fine pieces of writing which each contain unique appreciations. Hopefully you'll come back to hear how the Blu-ray is when you've read these: Nick Pinkerton at Sight & Sound, Max Nelson in Film Comment, Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies, David Jenkins at Little White Lies, Jon Baskin at Los Angeles Review of Books, and Bilge Ebiri at They live by night.
The Blu-rayThere's a superb interview with the film's DoP Emmanuel Lubezki here. He explains why they returned to the 2.35:1 'Scope of The New World after the 1.85:1 ratio of The Tree of Life and why they used a cheap digital camera for the film's first 100 seconds. This blown-out, pixellated opening is supposed to be footage shot by Affleck on his phone (we see his reflection in one shot) but it is also strangely horizontally stretched (1.78 to 2.35?). I like to think the only explanation for this is a subtle Malickian suggestion that Affleck's character is not aspect ratio aware! Thankfully, this stretched phone footage is replaced quickly by the film's gorgeous cinematography – a startling jolt. Lubezki states that the film was shot on 35mm, 65mm (for scenes with Affleck and McAdams, to provide “stability and a kind of hyper-reality”), a cheap Japanese digital camera supposed to emulate the look of Super-8 (ie. Affleck's phone), as well as even Red Digital Cinema cameras for night scenes in Paris with Marina. As seen on this glorious looking Blu-ray, the differences between 35mm, 65mm, and RED, are particularly subtle for a reason – complete depth of field and clarity led the filmmakers to shoot with film that is as grainless as possible. RED footage is obviously naturally grainless, so it blends rather well with the photochemical formats when used this way. Sourced from the 4K Digital Intermediate master format – which was finished to look “as clean and unfiltered as possible” – blacks aren't crushed, whites aren't clipped. The AVC-encoded Blu-ray certainly reflects Lubezki's desire for the DI to look “as clean, neutral and film-like as possible”. It's all pin-sharp thanks to gorgeous looking Master Prime lenses (according to Lubezki: “Terry prefers images that are sharper rather than softer”).
This UK Blu-ray has ingrained subtitles whenever a character speaks a language other than English. This is unfortunate but not a huge problem. It would have been preferable for the spoken French, Spanish, and Italian in the film to be subtitled optionally and for this subtitle track to play by default (I'm guessing these subtitles were embedded in the image for the purpose of DCP exhibition, to reduce DCP subtitling hassles (which are numerous). This ‘ingrained version’ was then used for the Blu-ray, for an easy life). There are optional “Hard of hearing” (SDH) English subtitles also (which display whenever English is spoken). I only have a decent 2.0 stereo set-up so I can't comment on the 5.1 or 7.1, but they are there. The sound design is phenomenally involving.
Extras are slim: a very good but short ‘Making Of’ (10:25, 1080p) with just about everyone except Terry (stars, producers, editors (there were 5 (!) on this film), even the great production designer Jack Fisk). I wish this were much longer and they'd gone a little deeper (I always do). An EPK-style interview with Olga Kurylenko (5:49, 1080p) reveals little but she loyally parrots some Malickian truths and expresses a fondness for a number of scenes that were cut – she seems to be a very nice lady. The trailer (1:49, 1080p) must be good because it made me teary all over again.
My least favourite part of the whole Blu-ray was the hassle getting to the main menu screen so I could watch the bloody thing. All menu buttons have been disabled during this painful first five minutes. The StudioCanal logo is unskippable, either via chapter skip or FF, the ‘oil rig warning’ screen too, as well as the coming soon slate. Then follows 2 trailers which are skippable with chapter skip or FF, but then, worst of all – a chuffing Maltesers advert – then trailer 3, and then finally, the main menu. Anyone might think this were a free ad-supported Spotify Blu-ray edition. Three forced waits and four chapter skips to get to the main menu. I watch very few mainstream Blu-rays, and I imagine this is the norm, but the placing of confectionery adverts on a Blu-ray is an affront to the law-abiding provider of the pretty penny this format costs. So I'm sounding the crass commercialism trumpet as loudly as possible. Let's not put up with this! It's greedy, unnecessary, and leaves a bad taste (the Maltesers ad wasn't even shot during magic hour!) – I've deducted points from the ‘extras’ score because of these grievances. Bottom line: this sort of disrespect for the paying customer encourages piracy (where trailers, unskippable slates, idents, and adverts can be stripped out, creating a better product containing just the feature, and a much smoother viewing experience).
ConclusionMalick's sixth is a miracle film. It's a real shame it's already proved to be his most divisive, but there's so much to admire if you're on its wavelength. He's making films for hundreds of years from now. The Blu-ray is as you'd expect for a brand-new film finished in 4K – stunning. Thanks to advances in technology over the last decade, making a decent Blu-ray when you're handed such golden materials is not difficult anymore. Shame about the Maltesers though.
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