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

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REVIEW: Out of the Furnace

11 09 2015

Out of the FurnaceThe small town, blue-collar workers in Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” are disappearing both from America and from the silver screen.  They deserve better than what they get here, a gritty realism riddled with clichéd storytelling conventions.

Cooper covers a lot of that up with a great cast that turns in predictably solid, if not dazzling, performances.  The explosiveness of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck in one movie alone is a sight to see no matter what. But it should be a powder keg, not a few sparks flying.

The film should receive some credit for being one of few to tackle the home-front experiences of Iraq War veterans like Affleck’s Rodney Baze.  He’s completely volatile, a pugnacious time bomb who will detonate if he cannot pulverize someone with his fists.  But everyone else in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt town in “Out of the Furnace” who tries to either defuse him or encourage him just fails to light up the screen in any way, shape, or form.

For a film whose title refers to an object capable of generating high temperatures, “Out of the Furnace” packs remarkably little heat.  C / 2stars





REVIEW: Terminator Salvation

23 06 2015

To get one thing straight, I adore the James Cameron “Terminator” films.  I have written a full essay on Sarah Connor’s femininity for class (if you’re interested in reading it, leave your email in the comments) and will gladly stop on whatever cable channel happens to exhibit the morphing metal men on any given weekend afternoon.

Yet as different directors, writers, and creative teams have dragged out the franchise, the movies lose what makes them special.  Sure, the time travel proves fascinating, but the human characters grappling with fate, agency, and responsibility set the series apart.  Fixating on the minutiae of revisionist timelines does little to capture the appeal of the original two films; this proves the primary sin of McG’s “Terminator Salvation.”

John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script toys around with two pivotal characters in the mythology of the series: resistance leader John Connor (Christian Bale) and his father from the future, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).  John must continue to wage the war against the sentient Skynet system that aims to destroy humanity, although he must also ensure that Reese survives until the point when he goes back in time to inseminate Sarah Connor.  The mysterious arrival of cyborg Marcus (Sam Worthington) in the presence of Reese throws a wrinkle in everything and essentially constitutes the entire conflict of “Terminator Salvation.”

If you think this sounds like a movie made for only the most hardcore fanboys, you are correct.  Seemingly, the only aim of “Terminator Salvation” is to add even more wrinkles and potential plot holes to the scrambled clock of the series’ narrative.  If Cameron’s films were mind-involving blockbusters, McG’s movie is just a head-scratcher that cannot even fall back on visuals or performances to save it.  Bale and Worthington, the films dueling leads, each turn in work about as dull as McG’s color palette of muted gray.  They grow the franchise longer, sure, but not deeper or better.  C2stars





REVIEW: Exodus: Gods and Kings

20 12 2014

Usually, when writers proclaim a story has biblical connotations, implications, or overtones, they suggest a certain primordial grandiosity of themes and conflicts.  Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is quite literally biblical, however, and does not even come close to achieving that standard.  It takes far more cues from an interminable “Hobbit” film than it does from its source material that inspires billions.

The action on screen plays out like a final walk-through for a real movie.  The blocking of actors looks clumsy and without purpose.  Lines come across as recited rather than deeply felt.  And when the whole film plays out against a CGI-heavy background that can never overcome an overwhelming sensation of artificiality, “Exodus” feels like it could be capable of inspiring its own exodus of audiences fleeing the film itself.

The job of writing a compelling movie about the conflict between Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) seems simple enough.  The clash of a pharaoh with a legitimate threat to his empire from a powerful deity is gripping in concept alone.  Then add in that the revolution is being spearheaded by his estranged stepbrother, and it becomes the kind of drama that ought to have writers drooling over their keyboards.

Yet most of the film’s problems seem to originate at the level of the script, which likely underwent quite a few drafts given that four writers are given credit.  The film certainly does not deserve to bear the name of great scripter Steven Zaillian (screenwriter of stellar work from “Schindler’s List” to “Moneyball“).  “Exodus” feels skeletal, the sketch of what a true screenplay should resemble.  The general progression of events is in place, but no one has affixed any supplemental scenes to give it depth of character or emotion.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 17, 2014)

17 01 2014

You’ve seen biopics of complex figures, but director Todd Haynes isn’t interested in presenting his portrait of musician and cultural icon Bob Dylan like anything else ever made.  His “I’m Not There” is a bold experiment, manifesting the fragmentation of Dylan’s persona by literally splitting him into six characters.  This iconoclasm pays off in a rewarding and challenging experience, leading me to name the movie my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

It’s not necessary to know Bob Dylan or his music really well to admire “I’m Not There.”  Rather, all it takes is a willingness to see the connection between the six pseudo-Dylans … or perhaps their incongruity.  The Dylans take many different shapes, including a young African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin), an older man (Richard Gere), a born-again folk singer (Christian Bale), and an actor attempting to get inside of him (Heath Ledger).  We float through each of their lives and struggles in bits and spurts.  Just when we think we get a grip on Dylan, he slips away.

Oddly enough, the one who looks the most like the Bob Dylan we know … is played by a woman.  Cate Blanchett is Jude, a raspy-voiced chain smoking folk musician.  Not unlike her work in “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett disappears inside her character and makes us forget that aura of regality she so often conveys.

She captures all the frustration of misunderstood artistry along with all the pains of drug addiction.  Blanchett brilliantly fulfills the most frequently recognized Dylan iconography yet also breathes something deeply human into her character, something no amount of cameras or reporters could ever really capture.   She’s at once vulnerable and inaccessible.

Much like Jude, “I’m Not There” floats between all these contradictory lives of Dylan, back and forth with well-orchestrated indirection.  It never settles, never aims for some sort of absolute truth.  It’s like a fictionalization of the concepts brought up in a documentary like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.”  We are many different things to many different people, and there is no fixed point from which to observe reality or memory.  Perhaps we just exist as the sum total of the masks we wear.





REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

29 07 2012

I don’t force every domestic drama I see to stand up to “American Beauty.”  Nor do I weigh every romantic comedy against “Annie Hall.”  So in a sense, why should I make a superhero movie stand up to “The Dark Knight?”  I consider it every bit as paradigmatic as the two previously mentioned Best Picture winners, so an apples-to-apples comparison is hardly even possible.  It’s more like apples-to-Garden of Eden fruit.

Indeed, a number of directors have tried to make their genre films a little more in the mold of Christopher Nolan’s iconic tale of the Caped Crusader, such as Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” to little success.  Yet even “The Dark Knight Rises,” the sequel to the revolutionary film itself, can’t recreate its magic nor cast a comparable spell.  Perhaps its time to declare those heights unattainable to avoid further disappointments.  If Christopher Nolan himself can’t reach them, surely it is time for Hollywood to find its next golden goose.

“The Dark Knight Rises” also has the added disadvantage of being scrutinized as a Nolan film, not merely a post-“Dark Knight” facsimile.  Coming off an incredible decade of filmmaking (five supremely acclaimed films: “Memento,”  “Batman Begins,”  “The Prestige,”  “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception“), it is hardly premature to call him the Millenial equivalent of Steven Spielberg.  His movies are so good that they have merited many a repeat viewing, allowing dedicated fans to really analyze what makes his work so exceptional.  Now, it’s immediately recognizable when his films are not up to the sky-high standard he has set for himself.  For instance, in the opening scene of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 4, 2011)

4 02 2011

Surely I can’t be the only one who’s a little shocked that Christian Bale is just receiving his first Oscar nomination, and if there’s any justice in the world, his incredible performance in “The Fighter” will earn him a statue on his first time to the big dance.  Bale is one heck of an actor who really can do it all: headline blockbusters like “The Dark Knight” and “Terminator: Salvation” but also step into unconventional leading man roles in independent movies such as “Rescue Dawn,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Bale plays real-life Dieter Dengler, a U.S. military pilot shot down over Laos in the early years of the nation’s involvement with Vietnam.  He survives the crash and attempts to run to safety, but he gets caught by hostile militant forces who take him to a P.O.W. camp.  There, Dieter meets other prisoners, including Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), all gaunt from their extended stays.

Dieter won’t be held back or held in and almost instantaneously begins plans for escape.  After getting the lay of the land, it takes him a while to find the perfect way and the perfect time.  He and Duane manage to get away unscathed, but that leaves the two of them with very little food in the middle of the jungles of Laos.  Lost and desperate, the two embark on a journey for survival that is both harrowing and inspiring.

Sure, Bale makes another one of his trademark physical transformations to make the role believable; however, this is not what makes “Rescue Dawn” such a fantastic watch.  It’s his emotional transformation that’s so gripping. Bale’s stripping away of all acting instincts to portray the most primal instincts with such raw power is nothing short of astonishing.  (And on a lesser note, will someone give Steve Zahn his own movie?  The guy kills every supporting role has gets – it’s time for him to move up to the big leagues.)