First Impressions: The Salt of the Earth, Clouds of Sils Maria, Predestination

A time-traveling terrorist hunter. A photographer who descends into the world’s most harrowing hells. An actress desperate to defend her reputation and legacy from a reckless upstart. You never know where the movies will take you.

Well, actually, yes — you do know where movies will take you. Most of the time. I’m not interested in the routine — that’s why I’m not reporting on Avengers: Age of Ultron. You could go see that, I suppose. It might be fun and momentarily distracting. Or you could open yourself up to something unexpected… even revelatory.

I’m taking a brief coffee break from a week of seemingly impossible deadlines at the office and at school just to let you know that I’ve managed to find time for three movies in the last few weeks.

Two of them come from directors who are personal favorites of mine, and both of those gave me that rare and wonderful sense that I got more than my money’s worth at the movie theater. I watched the third one at home, via Netflix DVDs, and while I can’t say I was deeply moved, I can say that I saw what I’ll remember as one of the great performances of 2015.

Want to get my first-impressions of movies faster than you do on the blog? Follow me on Letterboxd, where I posted these rough notes right away. Hopefully I’ll have the time to expand these into full reviews soon. But until March 2016, I am all tangled up in grad-school deadlines. In the meantime, I hope these notes will help you find your way to a rewarding time at the movies.

salt_of_the_earth

The Salt of the Earth – from director Wim Wenders

After 40 days without moviegoing, I sure picked a winner for my return visit to a darkened theater.

The Salt of the Earth feels like a spiritual sequel to Wings of Desire (my favorite film, by the way), taking us on journeys around the globe to bear witness to the infernos, the purgatories, and the paradises of human experience and nature.

I wasn’t prepared for just how harrowing this big-screen exhibit of Sebastião Salgado’s photography was going to be. Emotionally, this is as involving and exhausting as Wings of Desire—but where joy and wonder win out in Wings of Desire, I’m going to remain troubled by this movie’s various descents into hell.

Wow, you just never know what you’ll get with Wenders. His 3D documentary about Pina Bausch made me wish that he would make more documentaries about great artists, and this is scratching that itch. It’s a strong and moving piece of work. Sure, a lot of that comes from Salgado’s images; this isn’t exactly an innovative work of cinema, but I suspect that anything stylistically drastic that Wenders might have done would have taken away from the images themselves. Every transition from the photographs to footage of Salgado at work felt right, dividing the film into reasonable chapters. Wenders, narrating himself and appearing on occasion, is never as imposing or as manipulative as Werner Herzog is in his films; he inspires trust and confidence.

The most daring thing Wenders does is a very effective: From time to time he brings Salgado’s face out of the darkness behind some of the images to narrate the circumstances of the photograph, as if we’re seeing him look at the images on a screen and describe the memories they bring back to him. This works because Salgado’s face is like a timeworn, weatherbeaten mountainside, and it gives us a sense of the cost of bearing witness that his words cannot convey.

I’m wrung out by the horrors and glories of this journey. If it plays in your town, you are blessed. It needs a big, big screen.

clouds_of_sils_maria_ver6Clouds of Sils Maria – from Olivier Assayas

Another ambitious film from writer/director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours), and another stellar performance from “La Binoche” (as they call her in France). These two make a great team. Since Kieslowski is no longer with us (and his death was, I suspect, an inspiration for part of this film’s script), I’m just fine if Binoche and Assayas become each others’ muses for many years to come.

But the big surprise here is that Binoche and Kristen Stewart make an excellent team. Playing a frustrated personal assistant to a legendary actress, Stewart is the most sympathetic character here, and she’s excellent. For a long time, I suspected that Stewart was far better than Twilight let on, and I feared that that franchise would end up paralyzing her career. No worries. She’s on her way to greater things.

The first 90 minutes of this film work better for me than the last 30, but there is a lot to consider and discuss here. Make time for post-viewing conversation.

It’s good to feel, for the second time in a month, that I got more than my money’s worth at a movie theater.

predestination_ver2Predestination – from Michael and Peter Spierig

Wow.

Call it Looper-er. (Looperier?)

And you know what, while Rian Johnson’s Looper is a far more accomplished film, I had more fun with Predestination.

Looper was an impressive Grandchild of Blade Runner, bringing back to the big screen a kind of dark, literary science fiction that I’ve been missing. But its overbearing tone of masculine self-loathing and its unbelievably despairing conclusion kept me in the “Admiring but Not Enjoying” camp. Predestination, on the other hand, is so over-the-top wacky and weird, so hilariously implausible, so gender-bendery bonkers, and yet so go-for-broke in its delivery, that I was blissfully caught up in it all the way through.

Ethan Hawke fans will have a blast; he’s hilarious in that he plays this as if it’s extremely serious stuff, accepting any bizarro idea that the script serves up. You’d better be ready to give up all suspension of disbelief: This is the kind of story that some aspiring sci-fi screenwriter starts pitching to you, and at first you start looking for a way to escape, because it’s so convoluted that you feel a little sorry for him, and yet eventually you’re hooked and can’t stop listening because of just how… “Mentaculus” it all is.

Looper — I can imagine that movie being somebody’s passion project, one that eventually stirs up enough supporters and enthusiasm to make it to the big screen. Predestination — um, no. What is this movie?! How does it actually exist? How did it get made? Why did Ethan Hawke sign on?

It doesn’t make a bit of sense, but I couldn’t stop watching it.

And the hype about Sarah Snook’s breakthrough performance is no joke. What a stunner! Somehow, she manages to remind me of David Bowie, Tilda Swinton, and Leonardo DiCaprio all at once. Watch out for her. This is the best DiCaprio performance ever given by either DiCaprio or somebody else.

This. Movie.

 

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