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TO THE WONDER

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Banal ideas presented as deep thoughts and bandied about in a self-consciously poetic style are the essence of “To the Wonder,” the latest unsuccessful effort by Terrence Malick to prove he’s the cinematic artist so many critics have claimed he is. It has some beautiful images—though frankly not as many as one might expect—but is unconscionably obvious and redundant, shedding no appreciable light on the subject it seeks to address. Though smaller in scale than Malick’s previous film, the flamboyantly artsy “The Tree of Life,” it’s similarly potent evidence of the writer-director’s descent into a profound pretentiousness of message, unhappily wed to an equally profound pretentiousness of technique. The real reason for wonderment is that many critics are likely to shower it with lavish praise.

The film begins—and closes—with the structure that’s identified as the titular “wonder”—the medieval Norman-Breton monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel, which we first see Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) visiting. In addition to investigating the interior gardens of the remarkable abbey—built on an offshore hill over 200 feet high linked to the mainland by a causeway that was once covered by the sea when the tide came in (and the most popular tourist site in France after Versailles)—the couple walk on the surrounding land as it’s slowly being covered by the water.

That ebb and flow becomes the motif of the film, which goes on to portray the on-and-off character of Neil and Marina’s relationship. The joyful moments are depicted through repetitive scenes of her gamboling about beautiful Parisian parks and then vast Oklahoma fields, where the two move (along with Marina’s 10-year old daughter Tatiana, played by Tatiana Chiline), though she even dances atop their bed in Bartlesville, where they settle (and where Neil, who’s some sort of engineer, stalks around oilfields for signs of environmental contamination). Meanwhile the episodes of romance on the rocks are represented by long, desultory shots of Neil and Marina brooding and grimacing as they prowl around their house’s hallways and large, barren yard. These sequences—which drag on interminably, accompanied by supposedly penetrating though actually vacuous narration from Marina—are apparently intended to prove that Malick is the American Antonioni. (He wishes.) And they’re interrupted by an episode in which Marina actually goes back to France—and Neil takes up briefly with an erstwhile girlfriend (Rachel McAdams)—before she returns and they resume their now-joyous, now-poisonous life together.

But there’s a second strand to the “plot,” which one can trace back to the sacred space of Mont-Saint-Michel too—a search for communion with God. That’s represented by Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), Bartlesville’s morose parish priest, who—between pedestrian sermons that he doles out to sparse congregations, marriages he performs without conviction, and sessions with Marina (at one point giving her communion privately in church)—wanders about the poorer sections of town, offering comfort to the downtrodden that proves cold indeed, both for them and him, while reciting lugubrious voice-overs about his desperate desire for a sense of personal union with Christ that he never really feels. It seems that in Malick’s universe, it’s as hard to connect with God vas it is to enjoy a relationship of continuing love with another human being.

Admirers might call all this ruminative, even somehow deep; but in reality it’s merely languid (even in the sequences of Marina’s joyful dancing, which go on forever) and shallow. Things perk up momentarily in a few scenes with Chiline as the volatile, mouthy Tatiana, and there’s a curious sequence with Romina Mondello as Anna, Marina’s fiery Italian friend, who shows up without explanation to encourage the unhappy woman to break out of her rut and declare her independence. But these more energetic interruptions don’t add much meat to the dramatically desiccated bones that make up the picture’s flabby narrative. “To the Wonder” winds up in a single shot of Mont-Saint-Michel in the distance, as if to remind us of the key metaphor the picture started with but signally failed to illuminate with any emotional impact.

One pities the cast, especially Affleck, who’s stuck with a part so vacuous that it might have been played by a handsome wooden mannequin, and Bardem, whose doleful countenance and unvaryingly pained manner make him a consummate bore from his first appearance. One senses more depth in Marina, but the character remains obstinately opaque, and Kurylenko can do little to bring her to life, though she prances about with aplomb in those repetitive dance sequences. But all three, as well as the supporting players, are props that have as much authentic humanity to them as the wheat in the Oklahoma fields that Emmanuel Lubezki has photographed, along with everything else, with poise, even in the hand-held shots. The background score makes use of classical clips—most notably from Wagner’s Parsifal prelude—interspersed with newly-composed cuts by Hanan Townshend that are fairly innocuous and unobtrusive.

As so often happens with bad movies, “To the Wonder” includes a line of dialogue that somehow seems a perfect summation. This time it comes from the exuberant Anna, who looks around at Marina’s life and says, “There’s nothing here!” Malick’s film will get predictable plaudits from many critics, but the fact is that once again, this cinematic emperor arrives very scantily attired.

EVIL DEAD

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It’s not the fault of director Fede Alvarez that his take on “Evil Dead,” which he also wrote with Rodo Sayagues, can’t hope to match the impact of Sam Raimi’s much cheaper 1981 original. The glut of horror movies that has appeared over the intervening years makes it really difficult to come up with anything new to jolt viewers from their comfort zone. But Alvarez is responsible for the fact that his picture is so tediously formulaic.

Not because it much resembles Raimi’s, though. To be sure, it shares with that cult classic the basic plot outline of a group of people who come to an isolated cabin, only to be attacked by an evil spirit, unleashed by incantations from a magic book, that takes them over and uses their bodies to slaughter one another. But while Raimi and his star Bruce Campbell brought a gonzo attitude to the proceedings, combining shock effects with wacky slapstick to create a weird hybrid that could make you laugh one minute and scream the next, Alvarez’s movie is deadly serious from beginning to end, and as such seems just another gorefest, not appreciably different from the scads of other similar dreck that floods into theatres every month nowadays. For some genre fans this—along with the occasional allusion to Raimi’s film—will be enough. But most people will find returning to the original a much more rewarding experience.

For the record, this time around the five youngsters who make their way to the cabin are Mia (Jane Levy), a drug addict who’s been brought there by her college friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and med student Olivia (Jessica Lucas) to get clean, cold-turkey style. They’re joined by her estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). But after some preliminary stuff that tries but fails to invest the quintet with a trace of personality, Eric takes up the strange book they find in a basement riddled with animal remains and begins perusing it, something that’s distinctly unwise, as a brief prologue about a father’s immolating his possessed daughter has already shown us.

No sooner does Eric find a warning against reading the book’s text aloud scribbled across its pages than he begins to intone it anyway, and before long Mia, already on edge, turns into a jabbering, homicidal creature. Naturally it’s assumed that her transformation is merely an unfortunate result of her sudden withdrawal from drugs, but that explanation seems increasingly unlikely, especially after she sets her sights on the others. But she’s just the first: as the various members of the group get assaulted, they’re possessed too, and the issue is merely who’s next.

There’s a depressing familiarity to everything in this movie. Yes, the picture does make greater use than most pictures of this type of the old “bear stuck in a trap” bit, with characters sawing off one part of their bodies or another to escape some immediate danger—in fact, they resort to it so often that it becomes a virtual motif. And if one’s an aficionado of squirm-inducing moments, the ones in which Eric has to pull a hypodermic needle from a point just under his eye, and then has to extract nails he’s been shot with from his skin, will be something you’ll appreciate. And anyone might get a laugh out of the scene where David and Eric, who’ve been on the outs for some reason, pause amidst the mayhem to embrace again. The “I’ve missed you, man” moment is so inappropriate in the circumstances that it’s hilarious, though probably not intentionally.

For the most part, though, the incessant slice and splatter of this new “Evil Dead” come across as par for the course, and while the amount of blood and gristle that splatter the screen is greater than usual, the impact isn’t. Of course, with only five characters as victims, the picture has to revivify them repeatedly so they can be dispatched—or apparently dispatched—time after time. That also adds to the feeling that you’ve seen it all before—because you did, ten minutes earlier. The acting is no better than what one ordinarily encounters in such stuff—certainly Fernandez can’t hold a candle to Campbell (one of the producers here), and technically the movie has no outstanding qualities except, of course, for the makeup and prosthetics (designed by Roger Murray).

“Evil Dead” does raise one significant question. If somebody who encountered it in the past not only realized that the infamous book was so dangerous but had plenty of time to write tons of monitory messages on its pages, why didn’t he just destroy it instead? The only answer, it would seem, is that if he did, it wouldn’t leave room for a sequel.