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Article updated: 4/18/2013 7:38 AM

'To the Wonder' is visual, if not prosaic, poetry

By Dann Gire

Reel Life review: "To the Wonder"
Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder" will go down in the history books as the final movie officially reviewed by the late Chicago critic Roger Ebert. Well, better that than "Evil Dead," for sure.

"To the Wonder" continues Malick's appreciation (obsession?) with flowing, impressionist, dialogue-stingy sequences so lyrically staged and burnished by music -- accented by silences -- that the images evolve into sheer poetry, occasionally crossing the line into pretentious, art-movie parody.

Malick has utilized this personal style better, certainly in his bolder, stronger 2011 release "Tree of Life," with its audacious arc from prehistoric times up to the 1950s.

"To the Wonder" marks Malick's first all-contemporary movie. It stars Oscar-winner Ben Affleck and "Quantum of Solace" co-star Olga Kurylenko as Neil, an American, and Marina, who meet and fall in love in her hometown in France.

Emmanuel Lubezki's lens captures their blossoming romance in woozy, swoozy tracking shots accompanied by the lovers' interior monologues containing cloying sentences such as, "If you love me there's nothing else I need!"

Malick (undoubtedly channeling experience from his 13-year marriage to a French woman) whisks the couple to Neil's Oklahoma home where the realities of a day-to-day relationship turn sweet romance into acidic resentment.

Early on, Neil re-connects with an old flame (Rachel McAdams) for a dalliance as his local priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with his faltering day-to-day faith that presumably had once been infused with the same passion the couple felt in the early stages of new romance.

Faces carry the emotional luggage in "To the Wonder," and, not to be indelicate, Affleck may not have been the best choice for Neil.

Affleck possesses a fairly stoic countenance, and his inability to float emotions on its surface limits our ability to read Neil's character and empathize with him.

Perhaps Malick wanted Affleck's distanced expression to reflect Neil's inability to be intimate outside of the romantic French countryside.

After all, any movie that treats slow-grazing bison with the same importance as the actors next to them clearly isn't pandering to audience expectations.

"To the Wonder" opens at the Century Centre in Chicago. Rated R for nudity and sexual situations. 113 minutes. ★ ★

A (Rob) Zombie fan
I am violating my rule not to interview actors from movies I haven't seen. But since Jeff Phillips is from Des Plaines and he's starring in Rob Zombie's new movie "Lords of Salem," I pitched him a few questions:

Q. Did playing the Geico Insurance caveman in those crazy TV commercials help get you an audition for "Lords of Salem"?

A. Rob wrote my role in "Lords" with me in mind after working together in "Halloween 2." He never knew of my Caveman history until after hiring me but has confessed to digging the spots.

Q. How would you describe this movie to a genre fan?

A. It's a psychological horror film with a European horror vibe, like Polanski, Ken Russell, even Kubrick. It's a brave move for Rob Zombie to switch it up from what he's known for. It's still a dark disturbing ride without the body count and slasher antics.

Q. What was your biggest challenge on the set?

A. My biggest challenge was delivering a performance that helps ground the story's human element, an element surrounded by utter debauchery and surreal chaos of this dark witch tale.

Q. What character do you play?

A. I'm sort of like the traditional loyal wife or companion -- but with a very big beard.

"Lords of Salem" opens this weekend without a press screening for critics. And we all know what that means, don't we? Sure we do.

CFCA fest highlights!
I am so proud and relieved. Our first Chicago Critics Film Festival went off with the precision of an atomic clock.

The festival -- a partnership between the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Muvico Rosemont 18 theaters -- offered many premieres, plus appearances by filmmakers who answered questions from viewers. Here are some personal highlights:

• Filmmaker William Friedkin, a native Chicagoan, offered a moving tribute to late CFCA board member Roger Ebert, a friend, by quoting a poem by Dylan Thomas, "Death Shall Have No Dominion." You can see it at bit.ly/13hwk1B.

• Friedkin revealed that Sunday night's showing of "Sorcerer" would be the last time his 1977 thriller would ever be seen projected in 35 mm. "Film is dead," he told the viewers in Muvico's No. 13 auditorium. The good news? Friedkin's working on a digitally restored version of "Sorcerer" due out this summer. Stay tuned.

• Friedkin had only one demand for his visit to the festival: Giordano's pizza. "I have it shipped from Chicago to my home," the director said. I told Friedkin I had to go with Lou Malnati's pizza as the hometown favorite.

"Malnati's is good, too!" Friedkin said. "So's Pizza Uno." So, there you have the final word on Chicago pizza from the director of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist."

• Director/star Sarah Polley hosted the Chicago premiere of her movie "Stories We Tell," a wondrous work that redefines cinematic narrative. It's the story of her own family and life, told through a prism of multiple perspectives. Polley said that she was so painfully open in her film because she didn't think anyone would actually see it.

"I didn't think it was the kind of movie that anyone would care about," she said. "If I had known it would be traveling to Chicago, I would have been more guarded."

• Elk Grove Village native Erik Childress, on the CFCA's board of directors, read portions of Roger Ebert's review of Polley's stirring Alzheimer's drama "Away From Here," which included the observation: "Polley emerges here as a director who is in calm command of almost impossible material. The movie says as much for her strength of character as for her skills."

"I read that review about 30 times!" Polley said.

• Several indie filmmakers showed up to talk about their movies, among them Cris Macht, a Westmont native and graduate of Westmont High School who now lives in Gilberts. His documentary, "The Force Within Us," makes the case that the "Star Wars" films have brought families together and solidified generational ties between parents and children.

"It's just like how baseball works in some families," Macht said. "Only it's movies instead of sports."

• The last sentence uttered at the film festival came from Roger Ebert, paired with Gene Siskel on a clip from their TV series "At the Movies." The two discussed movies overlooked by the public (among them Friedkin's "Sorcerer"). Ebert's sign-off: "Read the critics!"

• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!

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