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On DVD/Blu-ray: SONG TO SONG (2017) and SALT AND FIRE (2017)


(US - 2017)

After taking 20 years off between 1978's DAYS OF HEAVEN and 1998's THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick's directorial output in the 2010s is coming at a furious pace that rivals Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. Counting the 40-minute IMAX film VOYAGE OF TIME, SONG TO SONG is his sixth movie of this decade, and the final part of a loose trilogy that began with 2013's TO THE WONDER and 2016's KNIGHT OF CUPS. Shot back-to-back with KNIGHT OF CUPS way back in 2012 and endlessly tinkered with by its maker, SONG TO SONG takes the first-world ennui of CUPS' self-absorbed Los Angeles navel-gazers and moves them to the hipster mecca of Austin, TX for maximum insufferability. Any hopes of Malick turning this into his own version of NASHVILLE are dashed the moment the film begins and it's the same kind of pained, whispered, emo journal entry voiceover by a dull ensemble of ciphers played by actors who, for some reason, still want to say they were in a Malick movie. If there's a central character--none of them are referred to by name--it's Faye (Rooney Mara), a waify aspiring musician who's seen onstage with a band a couple of times and seems to be friends with Patti Smith (as herself), but we never really see her working on music or practicing with the rest of the band. Faye's involved with Cook (Michael Fassbender), who's some kind of music industry A&R asshole (I guess), and BV (Ryan Gosling), another aspiring musician who doesn't seem to do much playing or songwriting and, like everyone in this film, appears to have significant disposable income. Faye drifts between both men, and during some downtime, the psychologically abusive Cook hooks up with teacher-turned-diner waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), and even coerces Rhonda and Faye to join him in a threesome. Faye also gets involved with Parisian transplant Zoey (Berenice Marlohe) and BV with Amanda (Cate Blanchett), while almost everyone gets their turn at center stage for some of Malick's signature vacuous ruminations of the privileged and aimless.  To wit:

  • "I thought we could roll and tumble. Live from song to song. Kiss to kiss."
  • "I love the pain. It feels like life."
  • "I'm low. I'm like the mud."
  • "Foolish me. Devil." 
  • "I was once like you. To think what I once was. What I am now."
  • "I played with the flame of life." 
  • "I feel like we're so...connected. I can't really understand. It's like..."
  • "The world built a fence around you. How do you get through?  Connect?" 
  • "You burn me. Who are you?"
  • "I need to go back and start over."

Malick should've taken that last sentiment to heart. Like KNIGHT OF CUPS, SONG TO SONG shows the revered filmmaker continuing his ongoing descent into self-parody. This does not look like the work of a 73-year-old auteur who's been making movies for 45 years. If this same movie was presented by a film school student, it would be dismissed as self-indulgent, adolescent drivel. But Malick's defenders continue to give him a pass and insist that his detractors--a contingent of former acolytes that's growing with each new Malick journey up his own ass--just can't grasp the level of genius that's being gifted to them. Bullshit. Malick was poised to stake his claim as the Greatest American Filmmaker when Stanley Kubrick died, and brilliant films like 2005's THE NEW WORLD and 2011's THE TREE OF LIFE certainly made a strong case for his inheriting the title. But over the course of TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS, and now SONG TO SONG, Malick has offered enough evidence to suggest that the emperor has no clothes, and rather than the new Kubrick, he's really just the American Jean-Luc Godard, another filmmaking legend for whom any negative criticism is strictly verboten. Malick goes into these films with no clear vision, instead hoping it comes together in post with the help of eight (!) credited editors. And, as was the case with WONDER and CUPS, a ton of name actors got cut out of the film when Malick decided they weren't needed, among them Christian Bale, Benicio del Toro, Haley Bennett (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN), Boyd Holbrook (LOGAN), and Angela Bettis (MAY), along with artists Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, and Arcade Fire (when asked about this film in a 2013 interview after shooting wrapped, even Fassbender said he wasn't sure if he'd end up being in it). Iggy Pop and John Lydon turn up in SONG TO SONG, along with Smith, who gives the film one of its few legitimately worthwhile dramatic moments when she fondly speaks of her late husband, MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith. Alternating between wide-angle and fish-eye lenses and often using GoPro cameras to maximize the faux-experimental aura, Malick and renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki did some extensive shooting at the 2012 Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun fests, which gave Fassbender a chance to wrestle with Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and let Malick waste some screen time on that. For all the impact that the Austin events brought to the film, Malick may as well have shot scenes at that year's Gathering of the Juggalos. Holly Hunter turns up briefly as Rhonda's mom and Val Kilmer does a walk-through as a wildman rock star, onstage with the Black Lips at the Fun Fun Fun fest, cutting off clumps of his hair with a Bowie knife and chainsawing an amp during a live show while yelling "I got some uranium!" Malick would've had a significantly more entertaining movie if he'd just followed Kilmer around and filmed him being weird for two hours.

It's also nice to see Malick has entered his "pervy old man" phase, with lingering, leering shots of Mara and Marlohe caressing each other, Zoey kissing Faye's hand while she masturbates, and Cook in bed with two nude escorts in what looks like an outtake from the harrowing Fassbender sex addiction drama SHAME. It's easy to assume from his last few films that Malick has forgotten how people really communicate and interact and maybe doesn't get out much anymore, and from the looks of some of the more sordid scenes in SONG TO SONG, he's apparently just discovered Cinemax. It's possible that Malick is putting a stop to this myopic nonsense with his next film, the German-set WWII drama RADEGUND, due out later this year. It stars August Diehl, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz, and the late Michael Nyqvist, and by all accounts, it's actually Malick doing a commercial film with a straightforward narrative. It's about time, because SONG TO SONG is a fucking embarrassment. (R, 129 mins)

(Germany/US/Mexico/France/UK - 2017)

A companion piece of sorts to his 2016 Netflix documentary INTO THE INFERNO (which was shot second but released first), SALT AND FIRE provides further evidence that, much like his 1970s New German Cinema contemporary Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog's strengths no longer lie in narrative filmmaking.  A visionary German auteur and one of cinema's most beloved eccentric raconteurs, Herzog is a tireless workaholic whose curiosity of all subjects has led him to create some of the most captivating documentaries of the modern era, including 2005's GRIZZLY MAN, 2007's ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, and 2010's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. He once made brilliant, groundbreaking dramas like 1972's AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD and 1982's FITZCARRALDO, but after his superb 2006 Vietnam POW drama RESCUE DAWN, his gonzo 2009 reimagining of BAD LIEUTENANT, and his experimental 2010 misfire (though it has its admirers) MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE?, Herzog's most recent forays into scripted cinema have fallen flat: his Nicole Kidman-headlined historical epic QUEEN OF THE DESERT took four years to get released in the US in April 2017, the same day as the shot-in-2015 SALT AND FIRE. MY SON, MY SON was bad, but SALT AND FIRE is easily the worst Herzog film I've seen, a deadening, ponderous slog with muddled, ham-fisted admonishments about environmental issues and filled with characters who never once speak like human beings who know how to interact with one another. Much of the dialogue sounds like stuff Herzog would've written for himself to narrate in a documentary and honestly, it would play significantly better coming out of his mouth instead of a monotone, somnambulant Michael Shannon, one of the great character actors around but who's having a really off day here. Imagine the curiously soothing tone of Herzog uttering such musings as "Truth is the only daughter of time,""Here lies a monster on the verge of waking," or "The noblest place for a man to die is the place he dies the deadest," and you've got a movie. But when those same lines are mumbled by Shannon, they sound like the pretentious ramblings of the world's most depressed Bond villain.

As SALT AND FIRE opens, scientist Dr. Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres) is on a UN fact-finding mission in South America with two colleagues--horndog Italian Dr. Fabio Cavani (Gael Garcia Bernal) and stoical German Dr. Arnold Meier (Volker Zack Michalowski)--to look into an impending ecological disaster at the Diablo Blanco salt flats (played by Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni). They're left at an abandoned airport and abducted by armed, masked men and taken to an undisclosed location where Sommerfeld is granted an audience with mastermind Matt Riley (Shannon), the CEO of a mysterious corporation known as "The Consortium." While Cavani and Meier are sidelined in the shitter for the rest of the film after secretly being given a powerful laxative (one of the film's several ill-advised attempts at levity; c'mon, Herzog...you're better than poop jokes), Riley and his chief associate Krauss (theoretical physicist Jonathan Krauss as himself) take Sommerfeld into the middle of the Diablo Blanco, where Riley informs her that a lake that was there just a few decades ago is gone and that expanding Diablo Blanco threatens to reactivate a long-dormant volcano that could obliterate mankind ("It could be 20,000 years or it could be 20...but it will happen"). After confessing that it was his company's unethical, careless practices that brought this certain disaster on the world, he abandons her in the desert with two blind children, for whom she quickly adapts to the situation to be a protective mother figure while trying to ascertain the exact of Riley's actions. Ferres and Shannon aren't given characters to play but rather, talking points to recite, with Shannon's Riley coming off as particularly hectoring in a way that borders on mansplaining, considering Ferres' Sommerfeld is the top ecology expert in her field. Popular German actress Ferres delivers her lines in a stilted, halting way that sounds like she looped them in post-production, while Shannon comes off as so lifeless that you might think Herzog pulled a HEART OF GLASS on him. SALT AND FIRE is anti-entertainment of the highest order, a film that opens as a straightforward hostage drama and flirts with becoming a disaster movie before turning into an overbearing, finger-wagging lecture, and finally, an examination of a career woman finding her true inner self when, like the volcano, her long-dormant maternal instincts are reawakened (it's mentioned that Sommerfeld has a estranged daughter who's in the custody of her ex), along with signs of a budding romance with her kidnapper. It speaks to how random and disjointed SALT AND FIRE is that it's no less than three movies before it finally settles on being a fourth with a clumsy attempt to link motherhood with nurturing Mother Earth, a metaphor that's so ineptly handled by Herzog that it comes off as a passive-aggressive, context-free rebuking of the life choices of a world-renowned science professor that also has her succumbing to the charms (?) of her creepy, morose abductor. Herzog's rarely been as wrong-headed as he is here--he should've just made a documentary about the Salar de Uyuni salt flat and everything would've turned out better for everyone. (Unrated, 98 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

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