Friday, 1 December 2017

Movie Review: Song To Song (2017)



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This… was a mistake. As I’ve said in reviews past, I don’t particularly like Terrence Malick. Like, not even a little bit. I think he’s undeniably talented and I’m not setting out to ruin his works for the people who do connect with them, but I was never one of them. I started with The Tree Of Life, a film I have seen crop up a lot in Internet and even general critical circles as one of the greatest films ever made. I watched it and I couldn’t even begin to see what those people saw in it. Even after having watched analyses of the film since watching it, I still don’t get how people could like something this absolutely dull. I mentioned in my review for Vacation as one of the worst films I’ve sat through, and even considering its visual chops, I stand by that. I then checked out To The Wonder, which I don’t have nearly as much against but still consider to be a weak feature. When a film contains dialogue like “What is this love that loves us?” or “Where are we when we’re there?”, it’s not just difficult to take seriously; it’s impossible.

So, why is looking at his latest feature today a mistake? Because having sat through it, I am struggling to put how this film affects me into words. Mainly because it didn’t really affect me that much overall, but also because I feel like I’ve already watched this movie twice before. I seriously doubt that I will be able to come up with anything worth reading to say about it, but ‘tis the season to make the effort so I’m going to try anyway. Wish me luck: This is Song To Song.

The plot: Faye (Rooney Mara) is a guitarist wanting her big break. She starts a relationship with producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) while also beginning a relationship with BV (Ryan Gosling), a fellow musician she met through Cook. They go to concerts, talk with musicians and generally occupy space on screen. This is seriously as close as I can get to describing the plot because this film barely even has one.

Gosling gets to polish off his musical skills again, but outside of his interactions with Mara, he doesn’t leave much of an impact. Thankfully, that feeling is reserved only for him because the rest of the cast leave a very definite impression. Mara does really well with the little she’s given, really taking hold of how self-destructive her character is and even her voice-over narration, while littered with junk writing, is effective. Fassbender is basically playing the villain of the film, right down to a scene of him playing squash which only bad guys seem to play in movies. Whether it’s pretending to be a monkey or engaging in his rather hedonistic lifestyle, Fassbender is quite memorable here. Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Bérénice Marlohe all play additional love interests and, aside from a couple of jarring moments, it’s hard to distinguish their scenes from the ones just containing Gosling, Mara and Fassbender. On top of that, we also have a slew of cameos from famous musicians, including Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, The Black Lips and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They are acting as much as they are acting when meeting with fans at concerts; aside from recognition, I'm still unclear as to why they're even here.

I said that Terrence Malick is talented and, thankfully, I don’t have to immediately back down from that because this film is rather pretty. Reconnecting with his frequent DOP Emmanuel Lubezki, the film carries the same gliding, almost drifting style of photography that pretty much guarantees good framing when done right. However, that Lubezki touch really doesn’t feel right for this kind of story. In a film like The Revenant, which Lubezki also worked on, that style worked as it added to the film’s sense of realism, making how long the camera lingered on the actors or the length of certain shots have purpose. Then again, that was capturing events set in the Wild Frontier; here, where it’s used to show people at concerts and generally horsing around, it feels less like it has thematic relevance and more that it’s being used just to keep the audience’s attention through visuals alone. But even that justification is flimsy because the thing that ties the visuals together, the editing, is extremely choppy. This film spent over three years in post-production due to the initial cut of the film lasting for eight hours, with three editors on hand to cut it down. This meant that footage containing Christian Bale, Benicio Del Toro, indie music darlings Arcade Fire and a whole slew of others being left on the cutting room floor. As thankful as I am that the full version didn’t make it over here, this film being whittled down from a larger product is very clear in how abrupt the editing is. To make all of that worse, most of the scene-by-scene cutting ends up interfering with the soundtrack and cutting it off abruptly, meaning that a rather crucial part of the thematic experience is hindered by the filmmakers.

This is where I would normally get into story detail and thematic analysis. However, before we get into that, I want to try something first. Listed below are a series of quotes I pulled from the film itself. Read these over, and I promise you that these are accurate:

“Any experience is better than no experience.”

“I love the pain. It feels like life.”

“What does it feel like to be a girl?” “Like I have special powers.”

[Referring to jar of honey] “I have tried it. It is dipped in God.”

“I never knew I had a soul. The word embarrassed me.”

“Save me from my bad heart.”

“I took sex. A gift. I played with it. I played with the flame of life.”

There’s all of one word that comes to mind when I first heard all these phrases being spoken on-screen: Pretentious. I will refrain from using that word again, though, because it seems like every time it gets used in relation to Terrence Malick, the calls of “Oh, you just don’t get it!” or “I hate it when people just call movies they don’t like pretentious” start to ring out. The headaches involved in explaining why the big P word applies to everything I’ve seen from Malick thus far aren’t worth the effort. So instead, I’ll leave it at this: ALL of the dialogue is written in this style. This is a two-hour film where this is the quality of writing to expect, and no, context in no way helps these statements have any kind of poignancy. That’s bad enough already but, when combined with the floating and aimless visuals, it results in a film that seems to want to talk about certain things but doesn’t have the means to express them. There’s notions of toxic relationships, creative drive and even mental illness (mainly relegated to two scenes involving suicidal imagery that are both jarring in their own unique ways) but nothing tying them together. Visual storytelling can’t even pick up the slack for this one since, aside from looking nice, there’s nothing to cling to to help make pretty much any of what is being shown make sense in context. Or that it even has a context to make sense in in the first place.

All in all… okay, I intentionally skipped over Knight Of Cups in 2015 and will likely skip over whatever else Malick releases next for one simple reason: This shit is not for me. And what’s more, because so much of the upper echelon of film criticism, and even critics I follow closely, love this guy’s work to death, I feel bad even saying that I don’t like this. And before someone brings up that the critics didn’t care that much for this specific film either, there’s not a whole lot here that differs greatly from Tree Of Life or To The Wonder, far as I’m concerned. The acting is actually pretty good and there’s some definite ideas floating around, but when all is said and done, it is insanely dull and didn’t make me feel like any of the time I invested in watching it was worth it. It ranks higher than A Dog’s Purpose, as the acting here gives the film some energy whereas the best that film could offer was surprisingly vile audience manipulation. However, while basically on the same intellectual wavelength as this, Before I Fall at least reached hilarity at times with how trite it was. I might have fun reciting some of the aforementioned lines of dialogue to others, but I don’t get anything out of them myself.

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