Knight of Cups (2015)

By now we surely all know what to expect from a Malick film, and if you’ve seen To the Wonder or any of his output of the last 10 years or so, Knight of Cups won’t present any new narrative challenges. But for those who haven’t been keeping up and look at the cast list thinking this could be good should bear in mind that there is no plot to speak of; rather one could say there’s a series of questions that we as viewers and Christian Bale as the screenwriter protagonist Rick, seek answers to. The title and the film’s structure is taken from the Tarot deck, and we are in a sense led through a reading for Rick’s title character. The film is dominated by Bale; all the other actors are very much in the background, glimpsed in passing, as fragments of the conversation Rick is having with himself, into which Malick’s camera seems to inveigle itself. As ever, the camera floats around, lingering behind Bale’s shoulder or viewing him and those he interacts with from a low-angle, bound to the earth, looking up at the sky. There’s no dialogue to speak of: if we see two characters interacting, their words are faded out, to be replaced by an interior monologue, whether of one of the other characters or of Rick — this aspect of Malick’s filmmaking has been in place since almost his beginnings. So, narratively it’s dense and it’s opaque and it’s difficult to get drawn into, but it does allow for some moments of beauty and fascination. Yet the associative editing (two years in post-production, we’ll recall) leads the film out on obscure tangents. At this point terms like ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘pretentious’ seem entirely unequal to what Malick is doing, though they’ll no doubt be trumpeted by plenty of critics. For myself, I don’t find this work as successful as his earlier To the Wonder, largely because Bale’s Rick seems so empty a character, not unlike the protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). Yet, after all, the issues that Rick is grappling with are fundamental ones: how to re-connect with others after the death of his brother and the havoc this event, only elliptically alluded to, has wrought on his remaining family (other brother Barry, Wes Bentley, and father Joseph, Brian Dennehy) and his relationship with ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).

Knight of Cups film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Sunday 6 December 2015.

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

From its very title, with those weirdly-placed parentheses, you know that this New York-set film about actors and egos has a precious, slightly fragile and very much self-indulgent quality. This becomes even clearer as the film begins to unfold in what appears to be a long unbroken take (albeit one spliced together digitally). But if it’s self-indulgent as a film, it’s also about hugely self-indulgent characters, specifically Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), once famous for his portrayal of a winged superhero in a series of big budget Hollywood hits (hmm). Fallen on something like hard times, Riggan has written, directed and is starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories, set to open imminently on Broadway, as a ploy to resurrect his reputation. He has conflicts with his actors (most notably Edward Norton as a mercurial stage talent with a disregard for film actors) and with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone, who hangs around the set doing odd jobs), but really it’s his ego with whom he’s most at war. Aside from the formal strategies, there’s also a mildly magical realist sense of a world of his imagination/paranoia/whatever that extends into his everyday life, as he is taunted by the growling voice of his Birdman alter ego. I can hardly fault any of the performances, and both Norton and Keaton are particularly excellent as different sides of the same rampaging egomania, with which those around them can only barely cope. So yes it’s brittle, and indulgent and just-so, but it’s all of a piece with its neurotic theatrical setting, and it all somehow works.

Birdman film posterCREDITS
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu; Writers Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr and Armando Bo; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 29 December 2014.

Gravity (2013)

I can’t help but wonder if I’m maybe going through a bit of a fallow period with my film writing. There’s only so many reviews you can bang out in a week (and I’ve been posting every weekday for the last few months, pretty much) without it all feeling a bit same-y. Perhaps I’m unenthused by what’s on offer at the cinemas right now, or maybe it’s just an autumnal thing of feeling like getting out and doing more exercise. In any case, when I think about Gravity — and more specifically, when I think about all the hype around it, about all the reviews of it that I’ve read over the last couple of months (for it was on release around the rest of the world before it came to the UK) — I don’t really feel I have a whole lot new to add. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it: that might actually be a new angle on it. No, it was great in several respects. You’ve probably seen it, and you may well agree. If you haven’t, it’s a disaster movie set in space and it focuses on two astronauts, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney).

Of course, there’s already a backlash but that’s to be expected. A lot of the criticism seems to focus on the science, and not being a scientist I cannot contribute to such arguments, save that if you’re obsessing about these things and then writing off the film as a result, you probably don’t understand much about art. The film certainly works as an immersive experience. It’s the first film I’ve seen in the IMAX format, and it impressed me. Even the 3D impressed me, and that’s a gimmick I tend not to have much time for. I suspect it may have been the fact that Gravity builds far more deliberately and quietly than most 3D films, with slower, more fluid camera movements reducing the ocular strain that usually accompanies the format (given that big budget movies tend more towards speedy, fast-cutting action). As a film, it has more confidence in its script and its images to create tension than in artificially engineering such feelings through throwing things at you, and I welcome that.

More persuasive are criticisms regarding the screenplay and characterisations. Not so much about the way it builds from a quiet opening through to the first act disaster that threatens the crew of a space mission working on the Hubble telescope — that much is done superbly well — as the actual dialogue which at times shades towards the mawkish. Then again, by the time we get to the worst of it (when Ryan encounters Matt in the space station’s landing craft), it feels like this has been somewhat earned by the film: Bullock’s character has, to say the least, had to deal with a lot of stress by this point. It also points to the way the film is a generation away from those films of the 1950s and 60s that expressed a wonder at the vastness of creation; the key take-home feeling of this film, via Bullock’s character, is relief at being spared the terror of this final frontier.

Then there are the characters. Clooney’s in particular seems a bit thin — he’s basically playing his usual ‘type’, bantering on with an easy charm and totally unflappable — though in a sense his calmness is like a decoy to the terror that hangs over the mission from the outset (there are more astronauts initially involved than just Ryan and Matt, but they don’t get any screen time). After all, from the pre-credits title informing us that nothing can live in space, to the precarious work they’re doing and the news of approaching debris from a satellite accident, the film frontloads the suspense. Added to this is the sound of Ed Harris’s recognisable voice from mission control, which for the movie-savvy amongst us is rarely a portent of good news.

The next paragraph may be classified as containing spoilers, although I’ve tried to be as oblique as possible. Skip to the final paragraph if you’re concerned.

Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr Ryan Stone, is possibly more problematic, as she’s loaded down with a sentimental backstory of the type that doesn’t trouble Matt’s experienced (male) astronaut. She too is basically a ‘type’, a mother-figure (after a fashion), tethered to the Earth by her experiences and her innate nature. If there’s some mythological heft to it, then it’s a mythology that trades on age-old tropes of woman-as-life-giver-and-nurturer. That said, the film problematises these links a little bit. If there’s a feeling at times that being in space is like being a defenceless baby in a womb (and maybe part of that is just my own flashbacks to the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, another formative space-set event film), space is instead clearly presented here as deadly and hostile, and Ryan is frequently untethered and terrifyingly afloat. And in recounting her backstory, her own status as mother has, it turns out, been undercut by gravity, the very force which is denying her safety in space. Her survival then is never assured, and the ambiguity even extends to the film’s final sequence, which seems to rehearse the ‘ascent of man’ and suggests a rebirth, or perhaps a new set of challenges to her survival.

Whatever the deeper meaning that one takes from it, the film is nevertheless assured at the visual level. The special effects and the cinematography is transporting and rather demands the immersion of the cinema; whether it will work in quite the same way at home on smaller screens remains to be seen. In that sense, this is a return to proper ‘event cinema’ status. It may eschew a lot of the extraneous noise of your standard big-budget big-screen spectacular, but it still trades on many of these ideas, aided by canny marketing and hype. However, it boasts an excellent performance by Bullock (far stronger than her recent work in The Heat to my mind), a clipped running time (all blockbuster films should be this concise) and those incredible space-set special effects sequences. The possibility of space travel may seem further than ever from our current generation, but if this film has any effect then it’s to make us rather more comfortable with that reality; the only terrors that await us are in the darkened auditorium of a cinema. I’m not sure whether that’s depressing, or a great thing. But for 90 minutes it tends a bit more towards the latter.

Gravity film posterCREDITS
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writers Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield [IMAX 3D], London, Monday 18 November 2013.

To the Wonder (2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Terrence Malick | Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki | Starring Olga Kurylenko, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams | Length 112 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 February 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Magnolia Pictures

I think it’s fairly well understood that Malick’s films are an acquired taste, especially the more recent ones. After The Tree of Life (2011) — which on balance I was not a huge fan of — comes this new film, and both of them (more than previous Malick films) eschew traditional scenes of dialogue, often cutting away before someone speaks or cutting to them just after it seems as if they’ve spoken. On the rare occasions when characters are shown speaking, the sound is generally faded out before they finish, let alone any response is given. Swift editing imbricates flashes of future and past time, an impressionistic bricolage of images. Which all goes to make it a film of fleeting experiences, of connections made at a level other than speech. Of course, there’s still the poetic voiceover, this time primarily in French (also Spanish and Italian, and very little English), which perhaps makes the tone of it less intrusive to English-speaking audiences than it can seem in such films as The Thin Red Line (1999, my personal favourite of Malick’s films). But you wouldn’t expect a Malickian voiceover to explain anything: it remains at the level of laconic, gnomic utterances.

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