Sunday, November 9, 2014

Terernce Malick disciple A.J. Edwards makes pretty film debut with THE BETTER ANGELS

Confession time: when I first read the press release for THE BETTER ANGELS, because the release led off with the name Terrence Malick, I assumed this was the newest work from this lately-given-to-undue-rapture filmmaker (I try not to read much of a press release prior to viewing the movie, due to sometimes learning a little more than I would like to know about the film). So, there I sat during the entire screening, thinking to myself, "Well, so he's finally working in black-and-white, and doing a beautiful job of it, too!" "Hmmmm... He's still afraid of too much dialog, so consequently gives us too little." "But at least his lead character isn't dancing around like someone whose next stop is the loony bin!"

I only drifted off to dreamland a few times during the procession of beautiful images that kept passing my view. And when the end credits finally rolled (there were no opening credits, other than the title of the film), I suddenly learned that this was not a Terrence Malick movie at all, but a film by someone named A.J. Edwards, shown at right, who is on the face of what I'd just seen, clearly a Malick disciple (Mr. Malick was one of several of the film's producers, however, so the marketing department clearly knew what famous name to bandy about.)

The movie initially takes us to, as the title card tells us, Indiana 1817, where, in gorgeous, wide-screen, black-and-white images, we look in on Abraham Lincoln as a mere boy (Braydon Denney, shown above and at bottom) somewhere around the age of eight. Gosh, who knew that Abe was such a beautiful child? Or so short?

Before we can say, "Well that's movies for you!" we get those Malickian images of nature in all her glory -- particularly trees. I believe I have seen more trees in this one single film than I may have over the remainder of my entire life. We meet Abe's mom (Brit Marling, below) and dad (Jason Clarke, above), though mom soon makes a major departure. All we really learn about her is that "She knew so much of what she believed was yonder. Always yonder." Or, to put it more bluntly: She had religious faith in what she couldn't know, or see, or understand, and this was more important to her than anything in the here and now.

Still, this event does give Mr. Edwards the opportunity to do some nice visuals as though mom's spirit were present. Soon, young Abe gets a stepmother (Diane Kruger, below) to which he, his dad, and the film seem much more devoted. (One of the movie's better scenes involves Abe and a vision of his two moms.) Given Edwards' love of lingering shots of most everything and everyone (Wes Bentley, two photos below, plays a bearded, taciturn schoolmaster who spots Abe's possibilities and tries to point these out to the kid's dad), a certain stodgy pace begins to set in.

And speaking of taciturn, everyone is this film is about as verbally uncommunicative as possible, which may have fit the time period to some extent (people maybe didn't have that much to say to each other?) but unfortunately makes for a very slow-paced and finally enervating movie. I certainly understand a movie-maker's wanting to show rather than tell, but this does not necessarily mean "no talking."

So, even though The Better Angels runs only 94 minutes, these are awfully slow ones. If lovely b/w photography or anything Lincolnesque are your thing, however, you might just want to view the film, which makes use of some nice Anton Bruckner music along the way, and at the end suddenly jumps ahead to Easter, 1865 -- without ever answering the big question: When did our hero get his growth spurt?

From Amplify Releasing, the film opened this past Friday, November 7, in New York at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and in Los Angeles at Landmark's NuArt. Overt the coming weeks it will open throughout the country. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down.

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