Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Harriet (2019)

As is traditional at this time of year, distributors are dumping a lot of their awards contenders into cinemas, along with other uncategorisable films as counter-programming perhaps or just because being winter, a lot of people are going to the cinema and taking more chances. As such, there’s no shortage of things I want to watch coming out this week. One is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, though I’ve done horror films and I’ve done Australian films as themes already, so instead I’m going to focus on films set in the 19th century, starting with Harriet which is the release I was building up to last week with my biopic-themed week of reviews.


This is a curious film, made by the same director who did Eve’s Bayou (1997) but in an altogether different register, a by-the-numbers biopic replete with crescendoes of music to guide our way through the drama, and beautiful shots of the American countryside (around Virginia, I gather), the rising sun casting its glow over Cynthia Erivo-as-Harriet’s newly-freed face. Indeed, there is a constant suggestion throughout that the Divine presence is shining on Tubman, and she is seen frequently falling into reveries that suggest — like a modern Joan of Arc (who is even referenced at one point) — that God is talking to her, as she is inspired to lead slaves out of the South to freedom, avoiding slave-catchers and bounty-hunters along the way. That, though, may be the most interesting twist to the story (suggesting, after all, the director of the gloriously uncategorisable Black Nativity). It feels at times like this needed an even larger canvas, a multi-part structure perhaps, to tell its tale, as it rushes through Tubman’s Civil War exploits towards the end in just a couple of scenes. And though I can’t fault Erivo’s performance, she is curiously single-note as a character — and perhaps that’s the trouble with being an icon (or a saint) — while some of the supporting players don’t feel very much more substantial. Still, there are these gorgeous old-fashioned photos of the cast over the end credits that suggest an evident love for the characters and the period. Perhaps the film will have a valuable educational purpose, but at times it feels just a little inert.

Harriet film posterCREDITS
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Gregory Allen Howard and Lemmons; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Clarke Peters; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 22 November 2019.

It’s Complicated (2009)

It’s very easy for critics to be sniffy about the oeuvre of Nancy Meyers: gentle, sometimes sentimental, romantic comedies about people later in life dealing with messy relationships and families. But I don’t know, I think her films have more going on than her detractors might allow. After all, it takes some skill to make actors like Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin into blandly appealing, even likeable leads when so much of their screen personae are based around being acerbic, dominating alpha males — to such an extent in fact, that star Meryl Streep (as divorcee Jane) almost gets the film stolen from her by this duo of her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin) and new flame, architect Adam (Martin). Sure it’s all very comfortable (and white) middle-class suburbia, people living in just-so houses doing delightful things like baking and architecture, but that’s these characters’ lives and it’s all put across expertly by Meyers and her actors. Within this world of existing jobs and familial obligations, the central relationship entanglement in which Jane finds herself almost doesn’t register, but it’s handled sensibly, in a mature way that most comedies can’t manage (especially those flirting with slapstick, as this does at times). It’s a pity that Lake Bell, a woman with plenty of comic talents both in front of and behind the camera, has such a thankless role as Jake’s vain new wife Agness, but that aside this is a likeable, warm-hearted film that works well when one is laying up ill on a sofa.

It's Complicated film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 29 October 2015.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

2020 UPDATE: I’ve since rewatched this a number of times, and have revised my rating upwards. I believe it is a modern science-fiction masterpiece of sorts, and while it has a ragged quality to some of its wilder reaches, and can get a bit too frenetic at times, it makes a case for cinematic vision.


The Wachowskis are filmmakers with a strong directorial vision, who’ve put some pretty good films together (also, admittedly, some bad ones; I do not intend to make a case for any of the Matrix sequels), so when you see the kind of critical mauling that Jupiter Ascending has been getting from some quarters, well I think that’s as good a recommendation as any to get oneself along to the film in question. Sure, it’s a big confusing mess, but there’s nothing in it that seems to invite the derision it’s been getting, though this may in fact be down to a lot of similar factors to Inherent Vice‘s reception — that the plot is so elaborate that it’s turned some viewers off. But, weirdly, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, this is a much an exercise in evoking the fabric of a lost world (or, here, an imagined universe), which should always be something worth celebrating. It’s no mean feat to try and visualise the textures of such a vast system of planets (think Star Wars) and power factions (think Dune), so if there’s a bit of recycling involved, well that’s to be expected — in fact, one sequence has such an indebtedness to Brazil that Terry Gilliam himself turns up. There’s plenty enough that’s unfamiliar — new experiences and imagery, created jargon for new technology — that as a viewer you feel sympathy for Mila Kunis’s titular heroine Jupiter when, like Vice‘s Doc, she is called on to continually express confusion at what’s happening. It’s refreshing too to see a woman playing the central character for such a big film — she is a lowly Russian cleaner who turns out to be (via some method) the owner of Earth — though Channing Tatum (with quite the silliest facial hair of the season) provides plenty of valuable support as the ‘spliced’ mercenary (think Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps) who has her back. The acting star here though is Eddie Redmayne, who chews up the scenery with such a hammy performance that it goes through badness to being sheer genius, and perfectly matches the tone of the film. Other performers can be uneven, and taken as a whole it doesn’t always hold together perfectly, but as an experience it’s every bit the equal in imagination and scope as any other big budget blockbuster, and as a “space opera” it’s more interesting than any nonsense from 1977.


Jupiter Ascending film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Vue Croydon Grant’s, London, Saturday 14 February 2015.

Iron Man Three (2013)

I have rather pedantically used the fully written-out title as it appears at the start of the credits sequence, though the posters stick with the number.


As far as I’m concerned, when watching a superhero action film such as this one, the key question is whether you feel immersed in the mythology and are swept along by the story sufficiently to put out of your mind quite what the villain’s motivations are, or how conveniently elements of the action setpieces come together. For surely those would be caveats if it weren’t for the fact that I enjoyed the whole enterprise enough to not really worry about them. Along the way there were also enough purely comedy moments which made me laugh (mostly thanks to Ben Kingsley’s character) that I consider this a good film, and certainly an excellent sequel.

The central characters are well enough established from the previous two films and the ensemble piece The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble, 2012), but for the sake of getting up to speed — which is done in this film via an opening sequence set in 1999 — they are Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), massively wealthy playboy and inventor of the title’s robotic iron suits (which of course he wears to fight crime, foil plots, et al.), and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), initially his business partner, but by this third film far more his life partner. They now live together by the Californian coast, but Stark is dealing with fallout from the previous film, unable to sleep and suffering from periodic panic attacks whenever the life-threatening events in New York are mentioned (which they are, by several characters, such is his media profile). His character is ever more wisecracking, mumbling and bumbling along to fulfil some version of the eccentric inventor stereotype, while still being a supercilious dandy (on which point, my friend Mark over on Freaky Trigger has provided a handy guide to the Marvel universe’s male characters). Paltrow has less to do, as ever, though looks suitably alarmed/threatened/threatening as the film’s plot requires, and at the very least has a far more active role in several of the sequences.

The antagonist for this film is another character seemingly hewed from the ‘mad scientist’ mould, Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce). In the opening sequence, he is a stooped, lank-haired presence consumed by delusions and labouring under some kind of unstated disability, for which it is implied that the shadowy Extremis project of Dr Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) promises a cure; thirteen years later he returns, rejuvenated and apparently well-adjusted. Undoubtedly there will in future be theses written about the Extremis programme of genetic mutation to ‘cure’ disabilities and the resulting strain of fire-breathing superhumans, but for the film’s purposes it’s a convenient way to get Stark to refocus his energies on saving America and defeating the public face of the enemy, Ben Kingsley’s Bin Laden-like ‘Mandarin’.

The heart of the film is the tensions between Stark, Killian and the shadowy ‘Mandarin’ figure, and how these develop. There’s a constant jokey comedic undertow which leavens the slightly stultifying action scenes, and as ever Downey is the actor who really carries the film through. He is assisted in this in a few memorable sequences by a 10-year-old Tennessee kid (Ty Simpkins) and less memorably by an under-utilised Don Cheadle. In the end, that lightness of touch to the characterisations carried me through action sequences that at times threatened to be deadeningly thudding displays of mechanised destruction, and I left largely satisfied. Plus, the post-credits sequence also reminded me how much I enjoyed Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner character. To see the two of them together again properly would be a treat.


CREDITS
Director Shane Black; Writers Drew Pearce and Black (based on the comic book Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay (2D), London, Tuesday 7 May 2013.