SONG TO SONG
(US - 2017)
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."
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)
SALT AND FIRE
(Germany/US/Mexico/France/UK - 2017)
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)