REVIEW: Knight of Cups

22 03 2016

Knight of CupsWith “Knight of Cups,” wunderkind Terrence Malick frees himself even further from a plot-based cinema than he had in art-house darling “The Tree of Life” and head-scratcher “To the Wonder.” In many ways, it is refreshing to see him further embrace the kind of elliptical, free-floating style that he seems to dabble in more and more with each film. At last, he has devised something from his footage that feels fully and truly avant-garde, where the motif is the basic building block of understanding rather than events in the story.

If “The Tree of Life” was Malick’s version of the Gospel, then “Knight of Cups” is his most vividly realized visual Psalm. Everyone consistently seems to acknowledge or call upon the divine, a presence they can sense but onto whom they never fully latch. This anguished yearning even changes Malick’s most recognizable visual device – the close-up of the hand running through some sort of greenery. In “Knight of Cups,” characters stretch out their hands yet reach for air as if to make it palpable to no avail. Rather than connect with God through the earth, as plenty an ethereal Malick character has done, these empty Hollywood types grasp at straws.

Beyond some of the blatant religious symbolism, it’s hard to tell where purposeful planning ends and happy accidents captured by the lithe camera of Emmanuel Lubezki begin. A shot of three men arguing on a roof that is interrupted by both a plane and a helicopter flying overhead – which the camera tilts up to capture – cannot be pre-visualized, right? As beautiful as his floating mobile shots can be, they often capture levels of acting on par with a commercial for a local car dealership. (This is especially prevalent in the film’s big house party scene, which improbably features Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio and Nick Kroll among the more high-minded likes of Antonio Banderas and Jason Clarke.)

There are plenty of mixed Biblical metaphors, too. Malick seems to dance around between Cain & Abel, Sodom & Gomorrah and more along with plenty of other admonishments of licentious behavior. The false angel presiding over the simulacra known as Las Vegas pretty much says it all. But ultimately, the “what” feels less important than the “how,” the form and experience more relevant than the content or comprehension.

Why on earth Christian Bale’s movie mogul lothario needs six different women to reach a point of self-actualization and reckoning with his family tragedy seems beside the point. So long as one can place themselves in the right frame of mind, the abstract delve into his world proves quite immersive, immediate and impactful. B+3stars





REVIEW: Haywire

4 12 2012

There was a decent chunk at the beginning of “Haywire” when I was totally drawn in not by anything in the script or the story … but by Steven Soderbergh’s unique visual sensibilities.  And all of a sudden, it actually begin to sink in that the director actually intends to retire from the craft of cinema and what a loss that could be to the film community.

Soderbergh’s canon of films ranges from the heist films of the “Oceans” series to the zany genre-bending intrigue tale of “The Informant!” to immensely moving biopics like “Erin Brockovich” to hyperlink cinema like “Traffic” to tense thrillers like “Contagion” and even into strange experimentation with whatever the heck “The Girlfriend Experience” was supposed to be.  (Oh, and he also oversaw some movie about magic where Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey showed their butts.)

In just this one sequence where the protagonist of “Haywire,” played to dull effect by MMA fighter  non-actress Gina Carano,” escapes from her captors, there are flashes of almost all of his different movies.  They share a similar rhythm and vibe, achieved in a perfect harmony of cinematography, editing, and sound.  It’s truly remarkable that across so many genres and types of filmmaking, something feels like it’s coming from a single mind.

Now just because he has unified conventions doesn’t mean that they always work or redeem an otherwise poor movie.  Such is the case for “Haywire,” an action thriller that does some clever presentation and narrative organizing to brush up a conventional narrative.  Perhaps the medium is the message for Soderbergh, and his mere repackaging of familiar elements is the point in and of itself.  But the film just always feels like an all-too familiar experience.

Soderbergh does succeed in making it slick (for the ladies, he did get the eye candy of Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum for brief scenes) and subversively political, though.  Yet these victories seem small while watching and seem even smaller in retrospect.  Watch some of Soderbergh’s elegant sequences that have the grace of a ballerina on YouTube some day and skip “Haywire.”  It doesn’t go fully, well, haywire … but there’s got to be some new cinematic voice or story you can use your 90 minutes to hear and see.  C+





REVIEW: Ruby Sparks

3 08 2012

My second review on this site was for a movie I was quite high on three years ago, “(500) Days of Summer,” and remain a big fan of to this day.  Back then, it was the little indie that could, a summer sleeper that provided a smile and welcome relief to canned romantic comedies like “The Ugly Truth,” and a nice reminder of the acting prowess of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.  Then, it went mainstream, said the slightly bitter pseudo-hipster with a sigh.

Never could I have imagined that Marc Webb’s film could have been so influential.  Beyond just elevating Joseph Gordon-Levitt into major leading man status and turning Zooey Deschanel into the modern ideal of the “manic pixie dream girl,” the film made quirky a cool and acceptable facet for the genre.  “Ruby Sparks,” the sophomore film from the people that gave us the middling “Little Miss Sunshine,” attempts to dovetail the success of “(500) Days of Summer” by virtually replicating its emotional ride.

To be fair, “Ruby Sparks,” written by its star Zoe Kazan, is probably quite a bit smarter than its rom-com relative.  However, the film’s charms are far too easy to resist, namely because Kazan is a poor man’s Zooey Deschanel and Paul Dano is just a poor excuse for an actor in general.  They can sell the film on an intellectual level, but neither is particularly good at making us care.  Had it been Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel in the highly-strung emotional climax, I’m convinced I would have been riveted and moved.  Instead, I just sat there pursing my lips like Miranda Priestly.

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REVIEW: The Skin I Live In

28 03 2012

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, “The Skin I Live In,” is quite possibly the most bizarre, disturbing, unnerving, and twisted movie I’ve ever seen.  And naturally, I loved every minute of it.

Almodóvar is one of the best, if not the best, working writer and director dealing with the theme of obsession, particularly in his recent works “Talk to Her” and “Broken Embraces.”  While this doesn’t quite reach the thematic and intellectual brilliance of the former, “The Skin I Live In” provides a great deal more in-the-moment thrills that will have your jaw on the floor.  I often think of myself as desensitized to shocking, lurid movies, and boy, was I wrong as this had me agape from the entirety of the last act.

So it should go without saying that if you don’t have a high tolerance for rape, sexuality, and plastic surgery, this is not the movie for you.  But if you think you can handle it, then by all means, dive into Almodóvar’s weird world of revenge fantasy.  “The Skin I Live In” first masquerades as a modern “Pygmalion” with Antonio Banderas’ Robert Ledgard, a scientist, researcher, and surgeon, developing a dangerously close relationship with a specimen to whom he has endowed perfect skin.  However, Almodóvar shifts the narrative back a few years, opens the blinds, and makes us realize that nothing is as it seemed.

Creative and original to an almost deranged point, “The Skin I Live In” makes for quite a tumultuous watching experience for those with the stomach to stick with it to the end.  Amidst the uncomfortable nudity, the unsettling sexual assaults, and the stunning twists, there are ethical questions aplenty raised.  How far is too far, the movie consistently asks – and Almodóvar is willing to go to the moon and beyond to make his film one you won’t stop thinking about.  A-





REVIEW: Puss in Boots

7 03 2012

We’re all allowed some major guilty pleasures, aren’t we?

So sorry that I’m not sorry about loving “Puss in Boots.”  I’m well aware that it’s a shadow of DreamWorks Animation’s heyday of “Shrek” and “Shrek 2” (which introduced the titular character).  And it’s still no Pixar.  But the day that there’s something wrong with having a good laugh at clever wordplay and situations is a day I don’t want to see.

I was busting a gut throughout the movie, and it wasn’t even in spite of myself.  It’s delirious fun through and through, reclaiming a shrewd wit that seems to have eluded this studio’s movies for the past few years.  I’ll admit that I had my doubts about a spin-off, even if it was based on one of my favorite “Shrek” characters.  Yet once the movie began, all my doubts were put at bay and I was enjoying the movie like I was five years old again.

Antonio Banderas’ thick Spanish accent once again brings that sucker punch of spirit to the character of Puss in Boots, no longer a marginalized sideshow (can anyone say Mike Myers’ Shrek was their favorite character in the series?) but headlining a prequel to the action.  I must say, he makes a good case that DreamWorks should have spent ten years and four movies focused on him.  Trotting from pun to pun and one twisted-off fairy tale character to the next, he brings a laugh and a wide-faced grin with him wherever he goes.

Whether it’s romancing Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), a perfect romantic foil, through dance battles or attempting to decode the mysterious motivations of Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis in some truly inspired vocal casting), his adventures are a blast as he pursues the golden eggs at the top of Jack’s magic beanstalk.  The story never feels like something we’ve seen before, a remarkable feat for a franchise entry.  “Puss in Boots” really is just rollicking good fun for some reason.  I could spend more time trying to figure out what exactly that reason is, but I’d rather just let its silliness be and accept the mystery.  B+ 





REVIEW: You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

11 06 2011

With Woody Allen and his latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” very much the toast of the town, I figured now would be as good a time as ever to burst his balloon because the input of one 18-year-old blogger can really induce a neurotic panic attack in the famed director. I’m sorry to say that Woody doesn’t always make them like that; in fact, they usually turn out much more like “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger,” a redundant statement of the director’s worldview that lacks the pop and charisma of his earlier work.

Allen’s annual entry into his cinematic canon, circa 2010, features a vintage cynicism and defeatism that stifles the possibility of any charm his impressive ensemble could endow the movie.  It shapes its grim worldview around this little Shakespearean nugget of wisdom: “[Life] … is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  That really puts you in a jaunty, comedic mood, doesn’t it?

The movie takes shape around a group of interconnected Londoners dealing with issues of love and faith in transitory phases of life, all of which begins with the divorce of Alfie and Helena, played respectively by Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones.  She can’t get over it and begins seeing a fortune teller in distress while he quickly hits the scene and gets engaged to a prostitute, portrayed beautifully by the very funny Lucy Punch.  This puts an added strain on the marriage of their art-dealing daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her failed author of a husband Roy (Josh Brolin), tempting them to begin affairs with exotic people they see on a regular basis.  For her, it’s her boss Greg (Antonio Banderas).  For him, it’s the new Indian beauty (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame) that moved in across the street … who just happens to be engaged.

But remember, it all signifies nothing, right?  There is no point!  It’s all just a meaningless charade and a stupid exercise of emotions before we inevitably meet our mortal doom?  If you answered yes to both of those questions, perhaps you are better off saving the 90 minutes of your life that would be spent watching “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” and using them to find the beauty in life.  Because it does exist, just not in this movie.  C / 





REVIEW: Shrek Forever After

20 05 2010

DreamWorks really struck it big with the “Shrek” franchise.  The original won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Film.  The sequel was the third highest grossing movie of the decade.  Then, out of nowhere, the magic makers forgot what made their previous two installments so successful and churned out a third installment void of joy, laughter, and fun.  I prayed that “Shrek Forever After,” the supposed final entry in the series, would provide closure while still providing the entertainment of the first films.

My wish was their command.  This “Shrek” is a jubilant celebration of the series that will serve as a perfect bookend of the series.  It will have you howling from beginning to end, surpassing the total laugh count of “Shrek the Third” in mere minutes.  Everything you love about “Shrek” is present here – all the adult humor, pop culture references, send-ups of your favorite fairy tales, and the characters we’ve come to adore.

But at the same time, it doesn’t rely on your lingering nostalgia from 2001 and 2004.  “Shrek Forever After” has plenty to give us that is new and exciting, from the introduction of the maniacal Rumpelstiltskin to an engaging plotline that twists Frank Capra.

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