Instant Gratification: “To the Wonder” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix Instant

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Pick of the week: “To The Wonder“: Terrence Malick’s latest film (which UW-Cinematheque premiered in Madison) is an ethereal and elliptical take on lost love and found faith that turned off some of Malick’s usual supporters. For me, it is a little overwrought in places, but the visuals and the rapturous tone swept me up.

Woody of the week: “The Purple Rose of Cairo”: A movie hero walks off the screen and into the life of a lonely housewife in Woody Allen’s wistful fantasy, whose last shot is the most devastating take on cinephilia I can remember.

Indie of the week: “The New Year“: Filmmaker Brett Haley brought his lovely slice-of-life indie to the Wisconsin Film Festival a couple of years ago, an insightful tale of recent college graduate slumming it at her family’s bowling alley, waiting for life to begin.

Sci-fi movie of the week: “The Core”: Heaven help me, I really enjoy this 2003 riff on ’50s sci-fi films, in which a team of scientists head down to the center of the earth to jumpstart the earth’s core. Ridiculous, but pretty fun, with a great cast (Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, and a hilarious Stanley Tucci) selling it far more than they needed to.

Comedy of the week: “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”: I almost hate to recommmend this, since it begat “Scary Movie,” “A Haunted House” and all the other lame movie parodies from the Wayans clan. But Keenan Ivory Wayans loving spoof of blaxploitation movies is a genuine hoot.

“To the Wonder”: Looking for poetry in a Walmart parking lot

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To the Wonder” has its free Madison premiere on Saturday, July 13 at 7 p.m. at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1308 W. Dayton St., as part of the UW-Cinematheque’s tribute to Roger Ebert. R, 1:52, three and a half stars out of four.

Can you find poetry in a Sonic drive-thru? In 2011″s “Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick presented a rapturous portrait of childhood lost, every image of a 1950s boyhood in Texas so beautiful that you hated to see them fade.

Malick now gives a contemporary love story the same treatment in “To the Wonder,” a love story again told in visual poetry and half-heard whispers. I loved “Tree of Life,” but this time around, I was a harder sell. Does this romance deserve this kind of epic treatment, I wondered, or are we in the hands of a filmmaker so used to reaching for beauty that he sometimes can’t touch the humanity that’s right in front of him?

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) are new lovers in Paris, rapt with each other and with the idea of each other. We see them cavorting in the park with Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) and visit a Benedictine abbey built on sand. The sight of the tide coming in and sluicing through the tiny ripples in the sand is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on a movie screen.

But rapture can’t last. Neil invites Marina to come live with him back in suburban Oklahoma, a land of Wal-Marts and homes that look they were just taken out of the box, the empty landscape divided into high-fenced yards. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki searches for poetry in this new world, just as Marina does, and they both occasionally find it. But Neil grows taciturn, perhaps worried that his twirling, girlish French lover doesn’t fit into the neatly-arranged boxes of his home life. Marina grows restless, passions cool, and Marina eventually takes her daughter back to France.

Back home, Neil connects with an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a rancher who seems to fit in perfectly in Neil’s life. But then Marina returns, seeking another chance, and a classic, tragic love triangle is played out against the empty, pitiless vista of an Oklahoma sky.

Faith has been a powerful theme running through Malick’s films, and here it takes the form of a Spanish priest (Javier Bardem), an expatriate like Marina, who tends his diminishing flock and privately nurses doubts about his faith. Parallels are drawn, between the imperfect love we feel for others and the mysterious love we feel from God. Can we make a necessary leap of faith in both our carnal and spiritual lives?

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I will confess that I found myself watching “To The Wonder” on two parallel tracks. One was a state of snarky cynicism, that Malick’s attempts to take an ordinary relationship and inflate it to awe-inspiring heights was pretentious and almost laughable. As I said on Twitter, the one thing I learned from the film is that puddle-splashing and pasture-twirling are not a solid foundation on which to build a relationship.

But on the other track, I was buying in. The film’s flowing imagery and minimal dialogue induce a kind of meditative state, much like in “Tree of Life,” and when those images rhyme with the emotions beneath them, it was quite powerful. The shot of the doubting priest hiding in his house, as an impoverished parishioner pounds on his frosted-glass door, was a haunting image of shame, as unforgettable in its own way as those tide pools in France. So I found my higher and lower selves having different, simultaneous reactions to the film — and I couldn’t tell you for sure which was my higher self and which was the lower.

In the end, transcendence won out. “To the Wonder” is an imperfect film that perhaps reaches too high and too far, but I admire the effort, and am grateful for those moments when Malick does connect, and the film suddenly becomes glorious.

UW Cinematheque’s summer series to honor the late Roger Ebert


Usually, the UW-Cinematheque on-campus film program schedules series around the work of a particular filmmaker, or from a certain country, or even a particular genre of film.

But this summer, the Cinematheque is building its main series around something different — a film critic.

That critic is, of course, the great Roger Ebert, who passed away in April. In addition to being the most famous writer about film on Earth, Ebert was a good friend to Madison, coming up for several Wisconsin Film Festivals; on his last visit, in 2006, he and film professor David Bordwell presented the film “Laura” in the UW-Cinematheque screening room at 4070 Vilas Hall.

So it’s fitting that the free summer Cinematheque series, which kicks off July 11, will feature “Roger Ebert: Great Movies, Overlooked Films and Guilty Pleasures.” Ebert loved movies, all kinds of movies, and the series gives audiences a taste of that, mixing established classics like “The Third Man” with lesser-known gems like Tarsem’s visually ravishing “The Fall” (July 26) and the sci-fi kung fu movie “Infra-Man.” (July 19). The series also includes Akira Kurosawa’s epic “Ran” (Aug. 2) and Russ Meyer’s less-than-epic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (Aug. 9), which Ebert wrote the screenplay for.

And, in a major coup for the campus series, the Cinematheque will present the only Madison screening of the much-anticipated new film from Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life”). “To the Wonder,” starring Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, was the last movie that Ebert filed a review for before he passed away.

All the screenings are free and open to the public, and seating is first-come, first-serve. The Ebert series will be much longer than Cinematheque summer seasons of past years, stretching through the rest of the summer. In addition, Cinematheque programmer Jim Healy is showing many of the Ebert selections in the larger Marquee Theatre in Union South. The Ebert screenings will run Friday nights, with a special showing of “To the Wonder” on Saturday, July 13.

On Thursday nights, Cinematheque will show the films of French comic filmmaker Pierre Etaix, whose work is largely unknown outside France but very influential on the works of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Robert Bresson, among other filmmakers. Those films, all new 35mm prints, will all screen in the Cinematheque’s usual home at 4070 Vilas Hall.

The opening weekend shapes up like this:

Thursday, July 11, “Le Grand Amour” (UW Cinematheque) — Pierre Etaix’s 1969 comedy follows a married businessman tempted to stray by his beautiful young secretary.

Friday, July 12, “The Third Man” (Marquee Theater) — Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles star in this classic tale of intrigue and betrayal in post-World War II Vienna.

Saturday, July 13, “To the Wonder” (Marquee Theater) — Terrence Malick uses rapturous imagery to tell the tale of a French woman (Kurylenko) who comes to live with her new lover (Affleck) back home in Oklahoma.

Visit for the full schedule.