Challenging the audience: Films that make you “wonder”

Here in the Bay Area in the middle of April, lovers of cinema have a wide array of film choices.  For those of us lucky enough to live near the cities that are graced with art-house theaters, there’s more at the local cineplex than the comic book adaptations, sequels and rom-coms to choose from.  Now, more than any other time, there seem to be a plethora of challenging, thought-provoking films that encourage discussion and flaunt the rules of conventional story-telling.

Welcome to “to the Wonder”, Terrence Malick’s latest divisive film.  A cinematic meditation on love, faith and commitment, Malick continues to contrast nature porn, voice-overs and characters interacting.  He chooses to drop the audience into the middle of his exploration.  Only four of the actors from the 14 or so he filmed made the cut but in truth, he seems to care more for the silent interactions between his actors and not WHO is playing the role.  No dinosaurs or images of the cosmos like “Tree of Life” but it does asks audience to sit through long stretches of silent (or unheard dialogue) and with little in the way of plot or resolution. And a distinct disregard for audience’s patience.

Another head-scratcher is the film, “Upstream Color” from a new auteur, Shane Carruth.  He also directed “Primer” and wrote, directed, shot and edited “Upsteam Color” as well as scoring and acting in the film!  Where “Primer” was told from an engineer’s point of view and deals with time travel, “Upstream Color” is romance thru the prism of of a sic-fi thriller.  With references to Walden, orchids, possession and pigs, the story unfolds with beautiful images and an emphasis on sound.  One character is even called the Sampler and is seen recording sound.  Like Malick, Carruth seems more interested in presenting ideas than a straight-forward romance.  Thankfully, he knows the importance of an audience’s attention span, especially considering the complex material and the film is 96 minutes.

Also opening this weekend is a more Hollywood-style film, the British production, “Trance”.  Danny Boyle  breaks free from the standard heist narrative with a focus on hypnosis.  “Trance” plays with perceptions and takes the who-done-it to a where?who?why? realm.  Danny Boyle wants the audience to question if a scene happened in the past, is currently taking place or is a fiction created in the character’s mind.  Lofty aspirations for a heist film and featuring some nice performances from James McAlvoy, Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel.  At 101 minutes, it loses it’s way in it’s own maze near the end but it’s  entertaining and has a great soundtrack.

Now this is not to say that the local cineplex is chock-full of art-house fare.  There’s still “G.I. Joe-Retaliation”, “Oz, The Great And Powerful”, “The Croods” and even a re-release of “Jurrassic Park” to take advantage of the 3D fad and encourage new fans for the upcoming sequel.  But it’s nice to see that there’s really something for everyone playing right now and even the mainstream fare is being directed by filmmakers that are willing to bet that not all audiences are looking for an evening of crashes, chases or cheesy rom-coms.

So I say, hooray for Terrence Malick, Shane Carruth, and Danny Boyle.  It might not be my cup of tea but I’ll take it over the same ol’ concession soda any time!

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