Ex-soldier returns for a secret mission with a small group of new teammates who get picked off one-by-one… sounds like the usual, but it’s got some neat twists that make it play more like a prequel to Under the Skin. Natalie Portman is a scientist (unsubtly reading the Henrietta Lacks book in flashback) who volunteers to go into the “shimmer,” an alien-comet-infected zone of lifeform transformation and combination, searching for whatever has freaked-out and half-killed her soldier husband Oscar Isaac.

“Very few of us commit suicide, but we all self-destruct” – musings on life and death and states in between, as they pass beautifully mutated flora and flee from horrific bear-creatures that imitate human screams. The second half of the film has the trailer music, themes played on a sampling keyboard programmed with the Inception Sound, but the first half is surprisingly full of acoustic guitar, as the team struggles to make a plan when some want to turn back and their sense of time and direction is disoriented. The white girl with the weakest distinguishing characteristics (Tuva Novotny) dies first, fortunately. Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) gets paranoid and ties up the others before her face is ripped off by a screaming bear. A very young-looking Tessa Thompson gives herself up to the transformative space and becomes a tree. Team leader Jennifer Jason Leigh and Portman carry on, and Portman discovers a shimmery humanoid that learns how to imitate her before the real Portman dies from a fire grenade, same as her late husband, and the Alien Portman joins the Alien Husband outside the zone.

A definite step up from Knight of Cups, and it’s the first Malick I’ve been able to see in theaters since Tree of Life, so I was thrillingly overwhelmed with all the big-screen majesty. It’s also less distracted from story and character than usual – the camera sticks with our four leads instead of wandering into the woods looking for sunlight behind leaves.

Carrying on in the shoes of world-weary architect Sean Penn, brooding broken-family-man Ben Affleck, and tortured screenwriter Christian Bale, we’ve got up-and-coming musicians Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara. They’d make a cute couple, but get caught up with wickedly charismatic, morally corrosive industry man Michael Fassbender, end up going on their own journeys around the edges of music festivals, while Fassbender latches onto innocent waitress Natalie Portman, spoils and destroys her.

It’s another universal soul-searching story, not about the music business any more than Knight of Cups was about filmmaking or To The Wonder was about environmental inspection, much to the disappointment of music bloggers who watched it at SXSW hoping for the ultimate music-festival film but getting only brief scenes of Iggy Pop and John Lydon, glimpses of Rooney Mara onstage with a guitar, and a recurring, philosophizing Patti Smith.

Sicinski didn’t love it:

Here we see Malick’s cultural conservatism once again in play, where music is a mere conduit for parsing out Manichean divisions of Good (Ryan Gosling, “creation”) and Evil (Fassbender, “the business”). Mara is presented as the Lost One, who has to go through various stages of Pensive Narration (and some awfully random lesbianism) to find her way to the Good. Her initial desire, to “live from song to song,” must be replaced by broader, more complex (narrative) thinking, a love that moves toward a telos. This is incredibly condescending; we know that Malick has a Woman Problem, and Song to Song pretty much rolls it out for all to see.

Right in between the fade-out of Cannes Month into my Crime & Punishment Marathon, and the kicking-off of Criterion Month, a bunch of last year’s acclaimed auteur art masterpieces became available, so I watched the new Malick, Cosmos, Francofonia and Anomalisa all in the same week. It’s a lot to take in, so I’m thinking it would be wise to watch all four of them again, but I’m probably not gonna do that right now.

Very mixed reviews from my regular critics. It’s telling that the most positive (3.5 stars) review on Letterboxd comes from David Ehrlich comparing it to the Entourage movie. Mixed reviews from me as well. Especially for the first hour, the minute-to-minute thrill of watching a Malick movie is all there, the expressive camerawork and experimental editing. But in the past we’ve had stories to hang these effects upon, and Malick is getting less narrative with every movie. I wasn’t sure that a soul-searching screenwriter played by an expressionless Christian Bale would be the greatest Malick avatar, and I was right. And I had to watch the ending a second time a week later just to make sure I’d even seen it the first time, thinking maybe I’d fallen asleep, but no, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like an end. After Bale is done talking with his father Brian Dennehy he flashes again on his lost loves Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman (even less fleshed-out than the lost loves of To The Wonder), says “begin,” then two shots of cars rushing down highways. Either you just need to be receptive enough to mood and character to properly feel the thing, or I need a long, enthusiastic, well-researched article explaining what I was supposed to get out of it.

Cate at the beach:

Natalie at the beach:

These feel more like symbols, or apparitions, than characters. But then again, so does Rick: As Bale plays him, he alternates between hedonistic abandon and forlorn wandering; we get little insight into his specific needs or worries.

B. Ebiri’s article is helpful, pointing out connections and influences but ultimately saying the surface-level dreamlike seduction of the thing is the whole point. “You don’t reason your way through a film like this.”

Premiered in Berlin over a year ago, with a bunch of interesting looking movies that never played here but are beginning to come out on video, like Queen of the Desert, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, The Club, Victoria, Endless Night and The Pearl Button.

I can’t pretend we watched this for any reason other than to prep for the much-more-highly-anticipated Avengers movie. We haven’t yet stooped to renting Captain America, though. Totally entertaining, an overall better flick than Iron Man 2.

Scandinavian god-prince Thor (Chris Hemsworth of Cabin in the Woods) with his four friends (including Tadanobu Asano, the crazy slit-mouthed star of Ichi the Killer) and prankster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston of The Deep Blue Sea) piss off the ice creatures from another world, so Thor’s dad Sir Anthony Hopkins tells Idris Elba to banish Thor to Earth without his powers or hammer. Sam Jackson’s SHIELD quarantines the hammer while Thor proves irresistible (initially loutish, but learns earth-manners quickly) to storm-chaser Natalie Portman. She hangs out with comic-relief Kat Dennings (Norah of the Infinite Playlist) and science-buddy Stellan Skarsgard, who is fortunately Scandinavian and so knows what Thor is about. When Loki turns traitor, Thor manages to revive the hammer and save his homeland, leaving Portman lonely back on earth until the sequel (since I don’t think she’s in Avengers).

Romantic comedy. Ashton Kutcher is perfect in every way, and Natalie Portman is perfect except for very minor psychological issues. Each has a promising career, a close family and a few supportive friends. Together they form a perfect couple, having excellent sex (hooray for the R-rating) and fall in love. Will she overcome her minor psychological issues in time, or will she lose Kutcher between a valentine’s day fight and her sister’s wedding? I’m not telling!

Embarrassingly it’s the third Ashton Kutcher movie I’ve seen in theaters, but not the worst. In fact, after the first twenty minutes of sex comedy was followed by a half hour of unexciting relationship discussions I started paying attention to my nerdy film details instead of the dialogue, and found it to be a pretty well-made movie. No horribly looped dialogue (until the penultimate line), no jaunty music or ever-gliding camera turning it into a glossy music video.

Reitman cast his ol’ Dave costar Kevin Kline as Kutcher’s dad, trying to stay young by taking the latest drugs and sleeping with his son’s latest girlfriends. Can’t remember a disguised Cary Elwes having any lines at all, and I’m not sure whish one was Greta Gerwig of Baghead and LOL.