Remember when I updated this blog a couple of years ago, said I was going to start updating again, then didn’t? Good times.

I think I’m going to start updating this blog again (seriously this time). But first, here are the movies from The List that I happened to watch over the last two years.

Directed by: Otto Preminger
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman
First Viewing
A kind of bland film noir about a guy who gets tangled up with a woman who may or may not be trying to murder her parents. Though the film was decently made by Otto Preminger (whose no-frills direction almost completely eschews the stylistic tropes film noir is known for), it’s just never all that compelling, and it definitely overstays its welcome a bit.

Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien
First Viewing
Now here’s a film noir I can get behind. About an ex-boxer who winds up getting murdered a few years after a payroll robbery gone bad, this was really well made. The film actually has a similar structure to Citizen Kane — the main character dies shortly after the film begins, and an investigator talks to those who knew him to piece together what led to his death. The movie features an absolutely electrifying opening in which two hitmen terrorize the inhabitants of a diner; though the rest of the movie is pretty great, it can’t help but feel a little anti-climactic after that amazing scene. The film is really well directed by Robert Siodmak, who embraces all of noir’s stylistic tropes with gusto; there’s a memorably impressive long take here that reminded me of the opening of Touch of Evil, albiet less elaborate (I wonder if Welles took some inspiration from this film). It was also very well acted — the main character could have come off as a generic tough guy, but Burt Lancaster brings a lot of depth to the role. Ava Gardner also made for a memorable femme fatale.

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams
Sixth or Seventh Viewing
Wes Anderson is easily one of my favourite directors, and this is probably his best film; suffice it to say, I love this movie. Yep — this is just as amazing as I remembered, and clearly one of Wes Anderson’s best films. It’s also funnier than I remembered it being, with quite a few big laughs. Everything here is pretty great: the memorable cast of characters (centred by Jason Schwartzman’s indelible Max Fischer), the direction, the cinematography, Anderson’s perfect use of music along with Mark Mothersbaugh’s pitch-perfect score… it’s pretty amazing.


Directed by: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh
First Viewing
Every director who wants to make an action movie should be forced to watch John Woo’s pre-America films. They should be required viewing. The plot, involving a hitman with a heart of gold, a girl who he accidentally blinds and then falls in love with, and the cop trying to take him down, was completely by-the-numbers. It was entertaining enough, with a charismatic, badass lead performance from Chow Yun-Fat — but it’s the exquisite action that makes this the modern classic that it is. Though it’s not quite on the level of the insane awesomeness of the later Hard-Boiled (which is inexplicably not on The List), the shootouts here are visceral action poetry. It’s clear that there’s pretty much no one else who can direct people shooting at each other with the style, excitement, and downright awesomeness of John Woo. The smaller-scale shootouts in the first half are pretty amazing, but then Woo cranks it up to eleven for a couple of amazingly over-the-top shootouts in which Chow Yun-Fat and one other guy take on an army of Triad assassins (who in one scene, awesomely, are all wearing white jumpsuits. White jumpsuits + hundreds of squibs = 100% pure badassery).

Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent
First Viewing
I hated this movie. Seriously hated it. About a naive young writer who falls in love with a showgirl, it was more of an extended music video than actual movie. Featuring the barest bones of a plot — basically just enough to get from one musical number to the next — and characters who are almost absurdly flat and one-dimensional, the film felt like a hollow excuse for Baz Luhrmann to exercise his wildly overblown sense of style. Dear lord, this film was so aggressively, absurdly hyper-stylized that watching it was basically just an unpleasant visual assault. Of course there’s an exclamation mark in the title; the whole movie is an exclamation mark.


Directed by: George A. Romero
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
First Viewing
Pretty much the granddaddy of all zombie films, this was actually a surprisingly entertaining movie about a group of people who find themselves all holed up in the same house during a zombie uprising. The movie is just as much about the people in the house trying (and mostly failing) to work together as it is about the zombies, and all that stuff is quite effective. None of the performances are particularly great, but they’re passable. And the zombies, when we do see them, are creepy and menacing (it’s easy enough to see why they became a standby of the horror genre, as George A. Romero does a pretty great job of setting them up as compelling, memorable antagonists).

DEAD MAN (1995)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Johnny Depp, Crispen Glover, Robert Mitchum
First Viewing
An interesting but not exactly entertaining western about a young man who travels across the country for a job, only for things to very quickly go wrong. I think I admired this film more than I actually enjoyed it; it’s well directed, and has a quirky, almost aggressively esoteric sensibility that is oddly compelling in stretches. But it’s very meandering without much momentum (mostly by design) and feels like a bit of a slog at times. I feel like it’s the kind of movie that you would absolutely love if you connect with its very specific sensibility; I never quite did.

Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy MacDowall, Kim Hunter
Second Viewing
A really well made film about a group of astronauts who find themselves on a strange planet where apes are the dominant species and where humans basically act like apes (and if course, it turns out to be Earth all along). Though it’s a bit heavy-handed with its science versus religion allegory, it’s the type of interesting, thought-provoking sci-fi that we get so little of these days. It’s also really well made and quite compelling throughout.

Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve been a bit busy. Plus, I’m lazy. Okay, it’s mostly the lazy thing.

I think it’s time for me to revisit the Essentials Project. But before I get started in earnest, here’s a quick round-up of the movies from The List that I just so happened to have watched over the last few months.

Mad Max (1979)
Directed by: George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne
First Viewing

It’s kind of odd watching Mad Max for the first time, because it was obviously shot on an exceptionally low budget, and actually has very little of what you’d expect from a Mad Max film (the monstrous, souped-up cars, the outlandish costumes, etc.). In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to describe the setting as post-apocalyptic at all, which is odd considering that this film is considered to be of the essential films in that genre. I think that everything that Mad Max has become known for, aesthetically speaking, actually comes from the sequels — I also watched Mad Max 2, and it’s all there: the desolate wasteland and the memorable cars and costumes. But what about the film at hand? It wasn’t bad. It drags a bit, but it definitely has its moments.

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte
First Viewing

Thus far, my experience with the films of Terrence Malick has been one of admiration, but little more. I liked Badlands and I liked Days of Heaven, but aside from the gorgeous visuals, they weren’t films that stuck with me for very long after the credits rolled. Imagine my surprise, then, that between this, Badlands and Days of Heaven, this was my favourite film by far, despite the fact that it is probably the least regarded of the three. It feels like this material is pretty much a perfect compliment for Malick’s style, which is not necessarily something I’d say about Badlands or Days of Heaven (it’s been ages since I’ve seen Badlands, so another viewing is probably in order, but in Heaven, it’s pretty clear that the fairly routine love triangle is the least interesting thing about that film). Malick isn’t particularly interested in telling straight-forward stories; in his first two films he tried to do that, and in this one he didn’t bother. I think this film is better off because of it. It’s completely plotless, and yet it is absolutely compelling throughout, thanks to Malick’s poetic, oddly hypnotic direction. The same can be said for Malick’s recent The Tree of Life, of which I am also a pretty big fan.


The Red Shoes (1948)
Directed by: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring
First Viewing

An exceptionally well directed film. Though it’s a little slow in parts, seeing the inner workings of the ballet company is kind of fascinating, and directors Powell and Pressburger do a really good job of developing the characters and making them compelling — even side characters we don’t necessarily spend much time with. All of the performances are quite good, though special mention must go to Anton Walbrook as the leader of the company; he’s pretty mesmerizing in the role. The film also looks very, very good, with top-notch direction and glorious Technicolor cinematography (the pristine Criterion Blu-ray probably helps in this regard). Highlights include a hypnotic dance sequence in the middle of the film, and a supremely memorable ending, which has to rank up there as one of the best endings ever.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace
Second or Third Viewing

What can I say about this movie? It’s a classic, obviously. Many consider it to be Spielberg’s best film, and obviously the man does not have a shortage of great films to choose from. To me, Raiders of the Lost Ark is — and will always be — Spielberg’s best movie, but E.T. is definitely a strong contender. It’s funny, exciting, touching, and downright entertaining; it’s pretty much everything you want out of a movie like this. It also features top-notch direction from Spielberg, and some really great cinematography from Allen Daviau.

The Thing (1982)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley
Second Viewing

This is a stunningly good movie. I remembered this being very good; it’s even better than I remembered. Featuring perfect direction from John Carpenter (this is definitely among his best films), the film always looks good and does a pretty astounding job of building and maintaining tension. It’s also really well acted, and the dynamic between all the characters is always really well done (both before and after shit gets real, and everybody starts questioning who’s still human). Ennio Morricone’s score also suits the material perfectly. Honestly, I’m having a hard time thinking of any flaws in this movie.

Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold
Picture credit: Precious Bodily Fluids
First Viewing

Synopsis: A year in the life of a group of kids at a California high school.

So… what happened to Judge Reinhold? He may not be the most versatile actor ever, but he’s got a fairly unique screen presence, he’s likable, and he tends to give pretty solid performances. And yet his career petered out and all but died after the ’80s, though he has been working consistently since then (mostly in straight-to-video and TV stuff). It’s too bad.

It goes without saying, then, that I liked Reinhold in this movie. I liked Jennifer Jason Leigh, and I liked Sean Penn (who has a fairly small part, but steals every scene he’s in). I liked pretty much all of the actors in this movie, which is good because this is a movie that really requires that you like its characters. It’s pretty light on plot, and is content to just let us spend a year or so with these high school kids and see what they’re up to. It works, mostly because of the strength of Cameron Crowe’s script (his first) and the memorable characters, who do not feel artificial like movie teenagers tend to be, but like real people.

The movie actually reminds me a lot of American Graffiti — both films plotlessly follow a group of high schoolers over a certain amount of time (one night for Graffiti, one year for Ridgemont High), and both films feature feature a pervasive use of rock music on the soundtrack. And yet Ridgemont High works so much better; the characters are more fully realized, and ultimately much more compelling. I enjoyed spending time with this group of people, whereas spending time with the kids from Grafitti had the tendency to get tedious.

(Addendum — This is a complete aside and only vaguely related to the film at hand, but I was looking at the picture above and it reminded me of a pet peeve of mine in movies: I find it pretty distracting when the characters in a movie are eating what is purportedly a fresh pizza, and it’s clear by looking at it that it has been sitting out for hours. A pizza that isn’t fresh has a fairly unmistakable look to it. I understand the logistical difficulties in trying to bake a fresh pizza for every take, but… well, it bugs me. That is all.)

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Sunday April 24, 2011 15:51

Movie #0046 – Scream (1996)

Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Neve Campbell, Jamie Kennedy, Skeet Ulrich
Third or Fourth Viewing

Synopsis: A masked killer stalks teenagers in a small town, focusing his energy on one girl in particular.

When Scream came out in the mid-’90s, it was a shot in the arm to the then-troubled horror genre. Its sly deconstruction of slasher films, with characters who are actually aware of horror movie tropes and outright reference films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, was unlike anything people had seen up to that point. Of course, there were imitators (the Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer franchises spring to mind). For a few years after Scream came out, it seemed that every mainstream horror film was some variation on teenagers being killed by a masked villain. But Scream can hardly be blamed for unleashing a wave of inferior imitators.

Of course, Scream 4 was recently released (which is officially, and ridiculously, called Scre4m — I don’t think a single film has managed to do the numbers-in-the-title thing without looking ridiculous since Se7en), which is why I decided to revisit the original. I have since also rewatched the sequels, as well as heading out to the theatre to see part four. My quick thoughts — part two wasn’t as good as the first one, but it was actually pretty close. Three was vaguely watchable but pretty mediocre and the worst of the series by far. Four was definitely a step up from three, but not as good as one or two.

I think one of the reasons that Scream is remembered so fondly is that it opens so damn well. Even having seen it a couple of times, I was struck by just how effective, suspenseful and downright compelling the opening to the film is. Wes Craven’s direction and Kevin Williamson’s crackling dialogue are pretty much perfect, and make for a scene that I think even detractors of the film would have to admit is quite memorable.

The rest of the movie is good of course, though it does have a hard time living up to that opening (and it never really does). It’s entertaining, suspenseful in parts, and the aforementioned self-aware dialogue definitely sets the movie apart and makes it more than just another generic slasher film. It’s also fairly well acted — in particular, Jamie Kennedy steals every scene he’s in as the film-loving Randy. I remember first watching Scream and thinking “this guy is going to be big!” Sadly, that didn’t quite work out — Kennedy was never able to find another role that fit him quite as well as Randy (which is actually true for much of the cast of this film).

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Saturday April 16, 2011 11:16

Movie #0045 – Network (1976)

Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden
Picture credit: DVD Beaver
First Viewing

Synopsis: In this satire of the TV news industry, an aging anchorman on his way out has a very public breakdown, only to find himself more popular than ever.

Sidney Lumet passed away last week. Tragic, certainly, though it’s hard to deny that the man lead a full life — he was 86 when he died, and directed scads of classic films, including (among many others) 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and of course, this movie.

This is a film that came out more than thirty years ago, and yet has hardly aged at all: desperate TV execs ready to do anything for a top-rated TV show, the decline of network news, the rise of exploitative reality TV — aside from some of the outdated technology (and a scene in which Robert Duvall wears a tux with a shirt that looks an awful lot like the puffy shirt from Seinfeld), this is a movie that could have come out yesterday.

There are also some eerily close parallels to the current Charlie Sheen fiasco. It’s very hard to see the Peter Finch character — who has a public breakdown and starts spouting off his own off-kilter world view in a very public forum — and not think of Sheen. When Finch (in a really amazing performance) says stuff like “I’m imbued with some special spirit. It’s not a religious feeling. It’s a shocking eruption of great electrical energy,” it’s very hard not to think of Charlie Sheen. All Finch is missing are references to tiger blood and winning.

This is also a surprisingly funny film. I didn’t realize going in, but there are some pretty memorable moments of dark comedy in this movie. I’m thinking, for example, of a great scene in which a group of revolutionary Marxists attempt to renegotiate their contracts with a bevy of lawyers and TV execs.

There’s definitely a lot to like here, including Lumet’s solid direction, the great performances, and a memorable scene with Ned Beatty that’s downright electrifying. Even if the rest of the movie were terrible, I still think it would probably be worth recommending if only for that one scene alone.

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Monday March 28, 2011 14:07

Movie #0044 – Mildred Pierce (1945)

Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Ann Blyth
Picture credit: True Classics
First Viewing

Synopsis: After getting divorced, a woman builds herself up from nothing, with her spoiled daughter always looming large in her thoughts.

With the HBO miniseries by Todd Haynes starting to air, I figured it was probably a good time to finally watch this film. And I’m definitely glad that I did. I’ll be checking out the Haynes version, but there’s little doubt that it has quite a lot to live up to.

The film starts with a literal bang as we see a character get shot; it’s a pretty great way to start the movie, and a guarantee that it has your attention right from the get-go. From there, Mildred Pierce’s story unfolds in flashback — and there is a fair amount of story to be told. I can see how a six part miniseries was made from this material, as quite a lot happens in this movie (and I can only imagine that quite a bit more had to be cut from James M. Cain’s novel). That’s not to say that the film feels rushed or disjointed; it definitely doesn’t.

The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who was prolific, putting it mildly, with a stunning 173 films to his credit (according to his IMDb page, at least). He also directed another film that I’ve already watched for this blog, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I’m sure I’ll be talking about at least a couple more (including Casablanca, a film widely regarded as one of the best of all time). Curtiz was never known as a flashy director, but he was no visual slouch, either. Pierce is frequently classified as a film noir, which seems like a bit of an odd categorization (aside from the murder-mystery framing device, the film has little in common with typical film noir), though there are definitely some noirish stylistic flourishes here. It’s a good looking film. The movie also moves at a really fast pace — sometimes it’s a little too easy to get distracted when you’re watching a movie at home, but this one had my undivided attention from the memorable opening right to its closing moments.

Mildred Pierce is quite melodramatic — and that’s not a bad thing. Melodrama is frequently derided as being a lesser form of storytelling: mere soap opera, not worthy of serious consideration. And certainly, bad melodrama is painful to watch. But if done right (as it is here), the heightened emotions of melodrama can be quite compelling.

And of course, I have to mention the performances, particularly Joan Crawford — Crawford deservedly won an Oscar for this film, which revitalized her flagging career. This is a role that could have easily been overplayed, but Crawford really nails it. There’s a great depth to her character, and I think a lot of the credit for how well the film works must go to Crawford.

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Thursday March 3, 2011 00:27

Movie #0043 – The Thin Man (1934)

Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan
Picture credit: Only the Cinema
Second Viewing

Synopsis: A retired detective finds himself in the middle of a murder case while on vacation with his wife.

It’s kind of amusing to watch this film so soon after The Lost Weekend, given their vastly different takes on alcohol consumption. Weekend, of course, offers a sobering (no pun intended) look at what alcoholism can do to a person. The Thin Man, on the other hand, has its two protagonists (especially William Powell’s Nick Charles) drinking constantly throughout the film, with the alcohol having no affect on their witty repartee or their ability to solve crimes.

I liked this film, though there really isn’t any particular reason to remember it other than for William Powell and Myrna Loy’s memorable performances and their remarkable chemistry (which is enough, certainly — though it would have been nice if the movie that surrounded them were a bit better). All the scenes in which they are just talking, just exchanging jabs and one-liners, are pretty great and certainly worth the price of admission alone. Nick and Nora Charles are obviously a supremely memorable couple, and just plain fun to watch. Powell especially gives an amazing performance, and his seemingly effortless charm makes already funny dialogue even funnier.

The problem here, however, is that quite a lot of screen time is dedicated to the convoluted and, frankly, fairly uninteresting mystery (the characters surrounding the mystery are equally forgettable). The plot involves a missing man and a series of murders, and there are so many side-characters and suspects that, by the time Powell’s character had assembled them all for a dinner party at the end of the film, I was having a hard time remembering who was who (or caring, for that matter).

It’s a testament to how good Powell and Loy are that, despite these not-insignificant problems, the film still comes off quite well; I’d recommend it without hesitation. Clearly, there is a reason why they made so many sequels.

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Sunday February 6, 2011 10:25

Movie #0042 – The Lost Weekend (1945)

Directed by: Billy Wilder
Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry
Picture credit: Max 256 Blog
First Viewing

Synopsis: After his brother leaves him alone for the weekend, an alcoholic writer goes on an alcohol-fueled bender.

This is pretty much entirely unrelated to The Lost Weekend, but I wanted to start this post by mentioning how much I love Turner Classic Movies. What’s not to love? Classic movies all day long, uncut, commercial free and always presented in their proper aspect ratios. Good times. And in case you hadn’t guessed, I just watched this film on TCM, so bringing it up wasn’t completely random.

I really liked this film. It takes what seems like a fairly limited premise and turns it into something pretty special. Kudos must go to star Ray Milland for his nuanced performance. When he tries to rationalize his addiction near the beginning of the film, he’s so charming that you almost believe him.

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that this is a man who is completely ruled by his nearly crippling addiction. Milland does a great job of really selling everything that his character goes through, from his near-exuberance at the start of the movie to his increasing desperation to satisfy his cravings (he has limited funds, and spends all his time either drinking or figuring out where his next drink is coming from).

There’s something grimly compelling about watching Milland’s inexorable descent and his complete powerlessness to his own addiction. Every time you think “surely, this is rock bottom,” things manage to get even worse. The whole thing might have come off as over-the-top or even preachy under a lesser director, but Billy Wilder directs the film with a sure hand, and never allows it to be overtaken by melodrama.

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Sunday January 30, 2011 14:12

Movie #0041 – Down by Law (1986)

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni
First Viewing

Synopsis: Three men form a tenuous bond after meeting in jail as cellmates.

I’ve watched (and re-watched) a lot of great movies for this blog. This was not one of them. I won’t say that I hated this movie, but I will say that I derived very little enjoyment from it. I was pretty bored, in fact.

This was only the second film that I’ve seen from director Jim Jarmusch; the first was the above average Broken Flowers, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Based on my enjoyment of that movie, and the fact that Down by Law is probably Jarmusch’s most highly-regarded film, my expectations were fairly high. Perhaps too high? But even with no expectations I wouldn’t have particularly enjoyed this movie.

I have a few issues with Down by Law. My main issue is that the two main characters, played by Tom Waits (in a fairly mediocre performance) and John Lurie (in a performance that isn’t exactly great, but which looks pretty good next to Waits) are not very compelling. Neither is particularly likable or interesting, so spending 107 minutes with them becomes a bit of a chore. This is exacerbated by the total absence of a plot, which makes the shoddiness of the characters all the more apparent. Then there’s the boisterous Roberto Benigni, who seems to be playing a variation on himself (complete with the name Roberto). He’s a much more interesting figure than the other two, though he does kind of seem out of place, like he randomly wandered onto the set and was inserted into the movie on a whim.

The movie also really takes its time, with long stretches in which not all that much happens. I checked the book, which says that the film “epitomizes [Jarmusch's] counter-hegemonic interest and style and unwinds inside a hermetically sealed creative universe divorced from the demands of box-office receipts or the requirements of immediate audience gratification.” Which is basically film critic speak for “it’s boring.” I think this type of leisurely storytelling can work, but it doesn’t here.

I did like Robby Müller’s black and white cinematography. Aside from that? The film wasn’t terrible, I suppose. I’ve certainly seen worse. But considering its stature as an American independent classic, I was disappointed.

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Sunday January 23, 2011 11:26

Movie #0040 – Days of Heaven (1978)

Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard
First Viewing

Synopsis: A man and his girlfriend take the opportunity to con a rich farmer who they believe is dying.

After being blown away by the amazing, downright beautiful recent trailer for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (seriously, it’s my favourite trailer of the last little while and probably one of my favourite trailers ever), I decided that it was probably time to check out some of the man’s work. I saw Badlands several years ago (and barely remember it), but aside from that I am a Malick neophyte. Of course, it’s not too difficult to get caught up with Malick’s movies — he has only made four feature films up to this point.

Terrence Malick is best known for making some seriously beautiful looking movies, and on that level Days of Heaven does not disappoint. Seemingly filmed entirely at either dawn or dusk, the film has a strikingly ethereal look, with almost every frame suitable to be enlarged and framed on your wall. It is a very good looking movie.

As for the straightforward plot; it’s fine. It gets the job done, but it’s fairly clear that had this film been directed by a middle-of-the-road director with no flair for visuals, it would have been immediately forgotten. There’s really nothing about the story or about the characters that particularly stays with you for very long after the credits have rolled. It’s really more the mood and tone that Malick manages to sustain that gives this film its power.

I liked this movie, but I can’t help but think that I would have absolutely loved it had the story been even close to being on the same level as the direction/cinematography.

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