Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Reel Review: SONG TO SONG

When director Terrence Malick returned from his self-imposed 20-year hiatus, he brought with him the most unconventional, yet earnest style of filmmaking. Elemental things like scripts, dialogue, or point-to-point narrative structure were discarded in favor of an abstract style involving random images and meandering narration which never directly tells us what the movie is really about, leaving most of the work to the audience. Malick is an experimenter, and in SONG TO SONG pushes the limits more than ever.

Set in the modern-day Austin, Texas music festival scene, Faye (Rooney Mara), a struggling bass-player, gets stuck in a love triangle between BV (Ryan Gosling), an up-and-coming songwriter, and Cook (Michael Fassbender), a rich and successful musician and producer. When the triangle falls apart, the three go from lover-to-lover; Faye experiments with another woman, while BV has an affair with an older woman (Cate Blanchett), and Cook with a waitress (Natalie Portman).

From a storytelling perspective, SONG TO SONG has more of a shape than Malick’s past few films. The film follows the beginnings of the love triangle, and once that is broken, splits off into three stories following the characters as they go their separate ways…which eventually cross paths again. There are several sub-plots at work as well; ranging from Faye’s struggles as a musician, Cook’s vast wealth getting the best of him, RV’s mother (Linda Emond) managing to control who he dates, and a battle between RV and Cook over royalties. These are troubled characters who wander from one mess to another, with most of the messes of their own making.

Wandering around randomly sums up the style of the presentation. The film is assembled of casual visuals of characters dancing around or goofing around on beaches, empty apartments, backstage of a concert, or in a bedroom. Dialogue is at an absolute minimum, and there are only a handful of scenes with actual back-and-forth between actors. Most of the spoken words come by way of narration, in which characters wax philosophical about what they’re feeling or asking questions that have no answers. It’s Malick’s usual style, and requires a ton of patience and thought to plow through and dissect…but that’s assuming there actually is meaning behind the thick fog that he has built. Things get really confusing towards the back end, when the film either jumps ahead or back in time (good luck figuring out what direction), which is jarring and confusing with no hint to help us along. It’s as maddening as it is confounding.

On the technical side of things, SONG TO SONG is packed with some bizarre editing choices. The little dialogue that exists is barely audible and we find ourselves leaning forward in our chairs trying to hear what the hell characters are saying. Maybe Malick is going for feelings, but as the film plays out it’s an annoyance. There are also random cuts to black which happen at the oddest times which makes us think the projector bulb just went out, and a wacko black-and-white vintage film sequence is a head-shaker. Scenes bounce around to random locations without explanation or setup (there must be 50 empty apartments we visit), and the overall cutting is dizzying. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is gorgeous.

It's tough to judge the acting as no one really acts and instead flop around every location. Rooney Mara gets the most screentime and probably the most spoken words, while Michael Fassbender acts like an eccentric weirdo for most of the time. Fans of heartthrob Ryan Gosling will likely be disappointed in what they get (or don’t get) from him, and Natalie Portman gets the most heavy-lifting as the most emotionally unstable of the cast. Cate Blanchett doesn’t seem to speak more than six words. Other random (there’s that word again) cameos include Val Kilmer, Patti Smith, Holly Hunter, Iggy Pop, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a large assortment of musicians for three seconds at a time. Scenes were filmed with Christian Bale, Haley Bennett, and Benicio del Toro but were completely cut.

There’s not much that really happens in SONG TO SONG, and the unhurried pacing makes the 129-minute runtime feel like 600; don’t be surprised if the film picks up the nickname of SLOG TO SLOG. On top of everything else, followers of Malick will (and should) realize that this film flies very close, if not exactly the same flight pattern as his own KNIGHT OF CUPS (2015)…and it’s not much of a stretch to say he made the same movie again with a different setting. Malick gets points here for ambition and his refusal to blend in with mainstream Hollywood, but loses more for being confusing and distant. This is experimental film at its oddest, yet earnest.


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