Love and death come to venice, the former care of Terence Malick, the latter in the hands of 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano.
It’s been 15 months since The Tree of Life took the Palme d’Or in Cannes, but given that Terrence Malick’s total career output over 40 plus years amounts to just six features, it's no surprise that so much attention is being paid to the director’s newfound sense of industry. Indeed, Malick currently has two more projects on the go – Knight of Cups and an as-yet-untitled Ryan Gosling vehicle – as well as a Brad Pitt narrated drama about the birth and death of the universe.
But should To the Wonder’s relative close proximity to The Tree of Life be taken as cause for concern or celebration? Can you ever have too much of a good thing? Well, on the face of this sensual and symphonic ode to love, longing and separation, which was met (somewhat predictably) by shifting ripples of applause and catcalls after its Venice premiere, the answer is an emphatic shrug.
Malick has made a film that is so close to Tree in both style and tone that it’s impossible to view it as anything less than a companion piece. The familiar whispery voiceover and trademark shots of swaying long grass feature heavily, and there’s the usual nature doc nonsense with shots of sea turtles and bison interspersed throughout for poetic effect. But Wonder is a much more, dare we say it, conventional film than Tree. It’s linear for starters, but also much simpler and more grounded.
Like Tree, Wonder unfolds in the sun-blanched hayfields of the great American Midwest, rural Oklahoma to be precise. It’s here local boy Neil (Ben Affleck) and his frolicsome French beau Marina (Olga Kurylenko) have decided to settle with Marina’s 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), following a whirlwind romance in Paris.
As is often the way in life, things don’t go to plan. When Marina’s visa runs out she decides to return to Paris, taking Tatiana with her. By this time Neil has already managed to reacquaint himself with an old flame who's at something of a crossroads in her own life, played by an alluring Rachel McAdams. That doesn’t exactly work out either, and eventually Neil and Marina’s paths cross once more.
Far more interesting than all this dreary relationship drama is Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana, who goes around offering solace to the town’s most troubled residents while inwardly facing a crisis of faith, a niggling insecurity about the strength of his connection to God. Bardem is a commanding presence, and it’s a shame to see him used so sparingly.
Interestingly Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Michael Sheen and Jessica Chastain each filmed scenes only to wind up on the cutting room floor. In truth Malick could have done with being even more frugal – specifically with regards to a motel rendezvous between Marina and a squirrely neighbourhood admirer and a bizarrely frivolous moment with Marina and her Italian pal Anna (Romina Mondello).
To the Wonder is likely to be as divisive as Tree and certainly won’t help to convert any Malick detractors. And maybe that's fair. For its unbridled passion and vitality, however, Wonder deserves to be admired, if not unconditionally adored.
The first Sunday at Venice had been shaping up into a veritable slush fest – with To the Wonder and Susanne Bier’s cute limoncello-flavoured rom-com Love is All You Need leaving audiences feeling all wistful and gooey – before Takeshi Kitano brought the Competition back down to earth with sobering aplomb.
Picking up where 2010's Outrage left off, Outrage Beyond dives headlong into the yakuza underworld, where full-blown gang warfare is being waged, somewhat puzzlingly, by a detective from the Organised Crime division. After facilitating the release of former yakuza top brass Otomo (played by Kitano himself, though credited with his nom de plume Beat Takeshi), Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata) sees to it that previously buried grudges are brought back to the surface.
In turning two of the most powerful yakuza families, the Sannos and the Hanabishis, against one another, Kataoka is playing a dangerous game, and you sense that he will surely have his comeuppance. Before then, however, there’s barely a pause for breath as Otomo and his brother (whose horrific facial scarring alludes to the vicious sibling spat that landed the elder in jail) set about taking out their rivals.
For the most part the killings are quick and clean – like watching a lethal one-sided game of peek-a-boo (or should that be peek-a-boom?) – but occasional flashes of fantastically inventive Old Testament butchery prompted horrified groans and nervous laughter from the audience, namely in a gruesome death-by-batting-cage scene.
As its title suggests, Outrage Beyond is bigger, slicker and shoutier than its predecessor, with a body count to satisfy the most voracious action fan and an ending that’s executed to absolute perfection.