POSTED ON APRIL 24, 2013:
Nightmares, Dreams and Dreamers
Two films that couldn't be more different
It was not long after the initial wave of success by the 90s metal band White Zombie that their front man, Rob Zombie, started directing the band's videos. Already possessed of a love of filmmaking (and horror flicks, in particular) Zombie eventually graduated to feature films in 2003 with House of 1000 Corpses.
And while it was a fan favorite, for those predisposed to love the idea of Zombie making the crossover with his artistic personality intact, his one-note nastiness and narrative amateurishness made for a fairly fun -- if derivative -- bit of southern trash glorification that has many betters. That he brought mostly what he knew about making music videos (instead of feature films) to the table didn't help.
His follow up, The Devil's Rejects, however, was a perfect rebound. Reining in his music video tendencies in the service of a true exploitation flick, his characters were still unlikeable assholes, but damn were they more watchable. It was clear he found a sharper balance in his tone and narrative sensibilities that succeeded where Corpses failed -- a laser focus on mean-spiritedness and genre love that's almost as unredeemable yet so much more technically adept and (for lack of a better word) fun.
Now, with two Halloween films and the animated mess El Superbeasto under his belt, Zombie returns to the big screen with The Lords of Salem, proving once again that he doesn't have to make a good movie to make an inexplicably batshit charming one. He's only made one that was both.
Heidi Hawthorne (played by wife unit, Sherri Moon Zombie) is a DJ and co-host of a local rock/comedy show with her on-and-off boyfriend Whitey, played by a Zombie look-a-like Jeff Daniel Phillips (Halloween II) and their sidekick, Herman (Ken Foree, Dawn of the Dead).
When Heidi receives a strange record from a band called "The Lords" and plays it on the air -- a droning repetition of a few notes that sounds like what you would hear on the stereo if you were getting high with Cenobites -- she suffers horrible flashbacks of the atrocities perpetrated by a witches' coven who burned alive back in the 1600s.
Their guest on the show, Francis Matthias (Brice Davison, Lost) takes a keen interest in the music and comes to find it was the riff most favored by Salem witches to summon the Dark One. Weirdly, his wife (Maria Conchita Alonso, Jacob's Ladder) seems to suffer no ill effects from actually playing it for him on a piano.
Anyway, Heidi is living in an old apartment building with a neighbor who may or may not be Satan and paying rent to a landlord who may or may not be a witch. As her flashbacks grow more severe she becomes entranced by the "empty" apartment at the end of the hall -- obeying a siren song that she could never hope to ignore.
I Mean, Come On! Olga Kurylenko consoles Ben Affleck, still pissed about not getting a Best Director nomination in To the Wonder.
The Lords of Salem is the kind of movie that is hardest to justify kind of loving. The pace is ham-fisted. Watching Heidi go through her solitary routine (day and night get mixed up) before work is not inherently a character-building use of time. You could compress the first 15 minutes into 5 and lose nothing except the sense that watching Sherri Moon Zombie make coffee is not particularly compelling.
Likewise, having her vociferously laugh at the unfunny quips she and her co-hosts banter about doesn't translate into a layered performance -- which literally everyone else, including the demon midget, comes closer to achieving. Bruce Davison is so good that he almost ejects himself from the film. Likewise, Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson and Patricia Quinn pop off the screen next to Mrs. Zombie's non-performance.
But then suddenly, the weird ideas start falling into place. Demon worm surrogacy, a Sammy Kerr-like last album that can resurrect the dead (did they have vinyl in the 17th century?) and wrist wrestling with rape vines are only a taste of the fucked up cheese plate that Zombie commits to the screen. That's why it's so hard to condemn, much less dislike. His whole-hearted commitment to his vision is unquestionable. And the inside of this dude's head is not a boring place.
The Lords of Salem never rises to the Shining-like levels of sustained tension that he clearly aspired to (it winds up being too funny). But the neon-drenched, Catholic iconography and Haxan-inspired flashbacks of Ken Russell, the macabre -- in this case absurdist -- grandiosity of Dario Argento's giallo works, and wisely adopting a somewhat-Kubrickian sense of shot composition make clear that Zombie is, if nothing else, a filmmaker who commits to making a better movie than his last.
Whether that's actually the case hardly matters, because much like every other film Rob Zombie's ever made, The Lords of Salem is possessed of elements that you'll never forget, even if you really want to.
To the Wonder
As a sister to Bartlesvillian Terrence Malick's 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life, his latest cinematic poem, To the Wonder, is a more than a tonal sibling. Where The Tree of Life asked questions of a universal and perhaps uncaring God from the perspective of men -- primordial ruminations of life and death and their meaning -- To the Wonder feels inherently feminine. The women of the film question yet control their fates while the men are meekly unmoored, ever doubting their faith in who they love: women or God--which are perhaps not entirely different entities.
Neil (Ben Affleck, The Town) finds himself in France where he meets Marina (Olga Kurylenko, Oblivion) the wayward Ukrainian mother of a 10 year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline, in her debut). Neil and Marina fall in love amongst the scenic, old-world gorgeousness of Paris and Mont St. Michel and Neil asks them both to return to his native Oklahoma.
Contrasting the depths of their idyllic, artfully haunting French surroundings, the lovers move into a house in a patchwork Bartlesville suburb. Tatiana can't make friends, owing to a language barrier, and when their visas expire, the simmering discontent doesn't amount to many reasons for Marina and Tatiana to stay. Neil fills the void with Jane (Rachel McAdams, Midnight in Paris), a childhood acquaintance who falls in love with him, only to discover that he isn't really capable of returning the favor.
When Marina finds herself miserable in Paris and sundered of Tatiana, she returns to Neil only to find that her unhappiness might not be so easily assuaged. She befriends Father Quintana (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men), a Catholic priest who is also yearning for a palpable sense of the object of his affection. Their parallel longings define personal voids that neither can truly fill.
Written and directed by Malick, To the Wonder mainly discards narrative as its driving force in lieu of a poetic acknowledgment of the life happening around its characters. Neil gets a job. You get the idea that he's generally giving people bad news as a result, but we only really understand him through the prism of the women in his life. He is an emotionally distant man who wants to create a content existence but who can't get comfortable once he has it in his grasp.
Quintana, conversely, lost his contentment of faith; though by all outward appearances, he is accessible to anyone who looks to him for answers that he no longer has. Both men are searching for solace at the expense of the ideals (or people) that they yearn unconditionally to embrace.
To the Wonder's heady themes are revealed mostly though narration -- windows into the characters' deepest and most personal thoughts -- as opposed to dialogue or many conventional scenes (though one gets the impression that being in love involves a hell of a lot of frolicking).
A visual and aural mélange, To the Wonder is a poem of tone and emotion, an artful meditation on love and faith (and faith in love) that is perhaps Malick's most personal work. His gorgeous visual sense is in full effect, granting epic Oklahoma skies and the idyllic beauty of France equal footing and thematic weight.
That Malick imparts so much from so little narrative cohesion has everything to do with the snippets he captures from his actors. While his approach to names like Affleck, McAdams and Bardem seems almost wholly unconventional to how you would utilize them, what they (and Kuryenko, turning in a wonderful performance) bring to the screen is a sort of knowing perfection. They probably didn't even know how much of what they were doing would even wind up in the finished film. That's true of many movies, but with Malick they can be assured that what winds up on screen is exactly what he wanted to see and intended for us to feel.
Is it a masterpiece? It doesn't matter. To the Wonder draws us into the singularly human moments with its hypnotizing beauty and personal vision--a cinematic and emotional dreamscape that won't be forgotten by dreamers.
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