KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 

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THE REVENANT (2015)

December 28, 2015

the revenant Greetings again from the darkness. “Keep breathing.” A flashback in the opening sequence has Hugh Glass whispering the phrase as advice to his young son Hawk, the product of Glass and his beloved Pawnee bride. The phrase has a recurring role throughout the film … possibly serving as a courtesy reminder from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to the moviegoers mesmerized (and nearly traumatized) by the incredible brutality of what is on screen.

It’s a master class in filmmaking by those at the top of their game. Inarritu is the reigning Oscar winning director for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and he has re-teamed with the reigning Oscar winning cinematographer from that movie, Emmanuel Lubezki. Two of the finest actors of their generation, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, strip away any semblance of pampered movie stardom to deliver ultra-realistic performances in a story “based in part” on the true to life novel by Michael Punke.

An early action sequence is startling in its ferocity as Arikara surround and attack a group of hunters and trappers, and the whoosh of arrows – many of which find their mark – abruptly drag us into a world that we are unfamiliar with and certainly unprepared for. It’s early 19th century U.S. frontier, and just about everyone and everything can kill you.  Providing just enough time for us to pry our fingers off the armrests, Inarritu stuns us with what is undoubtedly the most fantastic grizzly bear attack on a movie star ever filmed. In what appears to be a single take (which also happens to be the number of breaths I took), Mama Grizzly treats Leonardo the way a young puppy treats its first chew toy.  Scratched, chewed, tossed and stomped.  This scene is savage and brutal, and sets the stage for the true, yet still unbelievable odyssey of survival by frontiersman Hugh Glass.

Tom Hardy excels as the calmly psychotic villain Fitzgerald, though some of his early hillbilly-tinged dialogue is difficult to catch. His hulking presence fits with our imagined look of the frontiersman of the era … tough and unforgiving nearly beyond belief. His bullying of youngster Jim Bridger (played by Will Poulter) and power struggles with Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) are at frightening levels of intensity. Fans of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds will smile as they recognize the name of mountain man Jim Bridger … though that’s one of the few smiles offered by this 156 minute gut-wrenching ordeal. It would not be surprising if DiCaprio’s mantel sports an Oscar in a few months. He is that superb in a role that has nothing to do with good looks or charm.

A tale of survival. A quest for revenge.  It’s both of those, as well as a reminder that nature can be both beautiful and brutal. Some of the photography is almost poetic, and often reminds of the work of director Terrence Malick.  And in the blink of an eye, that moment is shattered by the torrential force of river rapids carrying Glass over the waterfall, or his taking a horseback ride off a steep cliff (one of the most dramatic shots of the film). The journey of Glass is unknown in distance or time in the movie, but there is no question as to the numerous struggles with the elements and the raw physicality required to persevere. If you can avoid diverting your eyes, there are visuals here that will be sincerely appreciated – even as you squirm, cringe and moan throughout.

From a technical standpoint, the film was shot on location in Canada and Argentina using only natural lighting, and emphasizing aspects of nature that often are overlooked. The sound of arrows, bears, and even DiCaprio’s breathing are profound and crucial to the overall effect, as are the animal skin garments and other costumes. It’s impossible to tell where CGI meets reality, but the visceral experience will be quite unique for most viewers … and not soon forgotten.

watch the trailer:

 


BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

October 28, 2014

birdman Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood versus Broadway. Screen versus Stage. It’s always been a bit Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The basic argument comes down to celebrity versus artistic merit. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu blurs the lines with his most creative and daring project to date. It’s also his funniest, but that’s not really saying much since his resume includes Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros.

The basic story involves a former Hollywood actor well known for playing a superhero (Birdman) many years ago. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you might recall garnered fame playing Batman many years ago. While the parallels are obvious, it’s quickly forgotten thanks to a majestic performance from Mr. Keaton. Riggan is trying to prove something to himself and the world by writing, directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Riggan’s quest runs into every imaginable obstacle, not the least of which is his own internal struggle with his ego … voiced by his former Birdman character. This could have been a more detailed exploratory view of the creative ego, but we also have money issues, casting issues, personal issues, professional issues and family issues.

Zach Galifianakis plays Riggan’s best friend-agent-lawyer, and is the film’s most grounded character. Yes, you can read the sentence again. A slimmed down Zach perfectly captures the highs and lows of the guy charged with juggling the creative egos and the business requirements of the production. Naomi Watts plays the exceedingly nervous and emotional film star making her stage debut, while her boyfriend and co-star is played by Edward Norton who, well, basically plays Edward Norton … a critically respected method actor who is known to be a royal pain in the keister. Riggan’s current squeeze, who is also an actress in the play, is played by Andrea Riseborough who gleefully blindsides him with an announcement that is unwelcome and untimely. Riggan also receives visits from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and is employing his fresh-from-rehab daughter (Emma Stone) in an assistant role. As if all of this wasn’t enough, a tipsy Riggan botches a pub interaction with an all-powerful stage critic (Lindsay Duncan), and the two trade incisive insults regarding each other’s vocation. So all of these characters and worlds collide as the production nears the always stress-inducing opening night.

After all of that, it’s pretty easy to state that the script is somehow the weakest part of the film. Instead, the directing, cinematography, editing and acting make for one of the most unique movie experiences of all time. Director Inarritu and famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing team, deliver what appears to be a single take for mostly the entire run of the film. Of course we know it can’t possibly be a single take, but it’s so seamless that the breaks are never obvious to us as viewers. We have seen a similar approach by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1948 film Rope, but this time it’s a frenetic pace, and the maze-like setting in the bowels of NYC’s St James Theatre that makes this one a spectacular technical achievement.

Lubezki won an Oscar for his camera work on Gravity, and he has also worked on multiple Terrence Malick films, but this is the pinnacle of his career to date. It’s impossible to even comprehend the coordination required for the camera work, the actor’s lines and marks, the on que jazz percussion score from Antonio Sanchez, and the fluidity of movement through the narrow halls and doorways of backstage. It’s truly a work of art … whether a stage critic thinks so or not! Most every cinephile will see this one multiple times, but mainstream appeal will certainly not grab ahold. Reality, fantasy, insanity, and morbidity all play a role here and frequently occupy a character simultaneously. These aren’t likable people, and the film’s crucial scene forces Mr Keaton to speed-walk through Times Square in only his tighty-whities, leaving his character in the proverbial “naked on stage” situation. It’s rare to see such unflattering looks at both the stage and screen worlds, and it’s also rare to see such fine performances. Three standouts are Keaton, Norton and Stone. If the industry can avoid presenting awards to itself for “cartoons and pornography“, these three should all capture Oscar nominations.

Beyond that, director Inarritu, cinematographer Lubezki, and composer Sanchez deserve special recognition for their incredibly complex technical achievements. For those who complain that Hollywoood only produces re-treads, sequels and superhero movies, take a walk on the wild side and give this one a shot. You may not love it, but you’ll likely admire it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s creative filmmaking you seek OR you want to see a tour de force performance from Michael Keaton OR you seek the challenge of identifying the scene cuts (good luck)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hear enough voices in your own head and prefer not to take on those from Birdman

watch the trailer:

 


GRAVITY (2013)

October 9, 2013

gravity1 Greetings again from the darkness. Gravity is a visually stunning film that creates a you-are-there-in-space feeling unlike any other.  That said, hopefully you aren’t expecting yet another in the seemingly endless stream of unadulterated praise fests for Alfonso Cuaron’s critically beloved and audience pleasing film. While the mass appeal is certainly understandable, I’ve never been one to sit back and accept the surface value.

There are two elements for discussion here: the visually stunning and technical marvel from a filmmaking perspective, and the emotionally-manipulating and somewhat emptiness of the narrative story-telling and characters. On the technical front, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a more impressive film. It is simply breath-taking, gravity2especially when seen in the format it should be seen … 3D IMAX. Rarely, if ever, has space seemed more real, more beautiful and more ominous. From the extended opening take (Cuaron is known for his long takes), to the numerous shots of Planet Earth (from dominating the screen, to reflections in helmet shields), we are drawn in to the space walking and perils of Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).  Even Carl Sagan and his “pale blue dot” musings would admire these space-based visuals of our home planet.

From an entertainment viewpoint, the film works as a high-stress, thrilling space mission gone bad and ultimate survival story. What left me feeling a bit distracted and hence, quite annoyed, was the often eye-rolling dialogue seemingly designed to force our connection with the Clooney and, especially, Bullock characters. I prefer to experience my own emotions in both real life and in movies … obvious cues and manipulating tugs through weak character development drives me away from, rather than towards the desired connectivity. My issues with the film are not related to the numerous scientific issues identified by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. This is all explained away by Mr. Cuaron’s statement that the film is “not a documentary“. If we can be cool with Forrest Gump creating the smiley face, we can accept that Sandra Bullock can navigate her way between space stations with a fire extinguisher.  What I can’t be cool with are cheap writing ploys that tell me I must feel a specific emotion at a particular time for a certain character.

gravity3 Despite this, it’s tough to argue against the technical marvel and thrilling (computer generated) experience created here. The 3D adds depth of field and adds a touch of realism, rather than the gimmicky tricks we often see with the format. With only a couple of jarring exceptions, Steven Price’s score is minimal and complimentary to the quietness of space. Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men) re-teams with Cuaron for the extraordinary look (with probably numerous technical Oscars on the way). Some of the symbolism was a bit overdone – recurring umbilical imagery for the re-birth, but it’s done to ensure no viewer misses the point. Finally, I got a kick out of Ed Harris’ voice coming from Mission Control (think back to The Right Stuff and Apollo 13).

I would encourage you to seek out the largest screen with the best sound … 3D IMAX is greatly preferred.  Yes, it will cost you more than you should pay for a movie ticket, but the payoff is significant.  This one won’t be the same on your ipad or even your home theater system. It’s the first step forward in movie technology since Avatar.  If you can sit back and let the movie guide you, perhaps you will avoid the frustrations I experienced.

**NOTE: Although many critics have already proclaimed this the best picture of the year and are saying Sandra Bullock is a shoe-in for Best Actress, I will not be onboard with either.  I found it fascinating and would even label it a “must see”, but truly great movies have characters and stories that draw me to them.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have access to a theater with a huge screen and great sound system – preferably 3D IMAX

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you miss its theatrical run … watching it on your laptop or ipad 6 months from now will be time wasted

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgGPTa7-vlE

 


TO THE WONDER (2013)

May 3, 2013

to the wonder1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Terrence Malick makes films that typically fall into the “love it or hate it” genre. He has a very loyal group of fans (of which I am one) who appreciate the unique mental and emotional ride that his projects provide. To say that his films are not accessible to mainstream movie-goers is understandable. His objective is to challenge you to access your own beliefs and thoughts, rather connect with the characters in his movies … they are simply the tools he uses.

Less than two years ago, I was struggling to put thoughts into words after watching Malick’s The Tree of Life. Now, in record time for him, he releases another film that is even more impressionistic … actually abstract is not too strong a description. It could fairly be called a companion piece to The Tree of Life. The usual to the wonder2Malick elements are present – nature, uncomfortable relationships, minimal dialogue, breathtaking photography, and powerful music. Where The Tree of Life focused on Creation and Family, To The Wonder takes on Love and Faith.

Water imagery is a frequent key as we see the personal relationship mimic the changing of the seasons. Neil (Ben Affleck), an American visiting Paris, meets and falls for Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a free-spirited local filled with light and energy. Their love affair moves to the stunning Mont Saint-Michel before settling in the drab plains of Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

to the wonder4 It’s not surprising that the relationship suffers as the newness wears thin. The interesting part is how Malick presents it. We mostly witness bits and pieces … he shows us moments, not events. We easily see that Neil’s aloofness and sullen moods don’t jibe with Marina’s effervescence. When she returns to Paris, Neil easily falls in with an old flame played by Rachel McAdams. When she later accuses him of making what they had “nothing”, we all understand what she means … and why.

While Neil is proving what a lost soul he is, we also meet Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). He has lost the light of his faith and is in full crisis mode, even as he attempts to console and guide Marina. There is no secret that much of this film is autobiographical and that Malick is working through wounds he still carries these many years later. As a movie-goer, there is little to be gained from Alleck’s disconnected character or from Kurylenko dancing in the to the wonder3rain. The real prize is awakening the thoughts and feelings many of us probably buried over the years to hide emotional pain. Malick seems to be saying that it’s OK to acknowledge your foundation, regardless of your ability to deal with these feelings in a socially acceptable manner.

If you prefer not to dig so deep emotionally, this is a beautiful film to look at – thanks to Director of Photograpy Emmanuel Lubezki (a frequent Malick collaborator), and listen to – a blended soundtrack with many notable pieces from various composers. While this will be remembered as Roger Ebert’s final movie review (he liked it very much), it will likely have very little appeal to the average movie watcher – and I’m confident that Terrence Malick is fine with that.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjVDnwGsAF4