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In Defence of The Sixth Sense

January 17, 2017

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A strange phenomenon is upon us this weekend: the release of an M. Night Shyamalan movie – in this case, Split – which has actually received rather positive early word-of-mouth. It presents film commentators with a challenging brief: Shyamalan’s consistency of awfulness has been such an inevitability that reviewers won’t be able to reprise the usual condescensions about his execrable storytelling skills and the spectacular descent of his career since the heady days of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). Now that condescension may very well be deserved – anyone who has tried sitting through Shyamalan’s 2006 nadir of The Lady in the Water can attest to that – but the shame is that this bandwagon of ridicule has threatened to sully the legacy of The Sixth Sense: a film which really does deserve its reputation as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished genre films of the last 20 years.

The film’s grand conceit – the startling late twist – now seems to be almost the sole focus of debate when people recall The Sixth Sense (and not always in a complimentary way) but it deserves to be remembered for so much more than its narrative coup de grace. What Shyamalan managed so well, and what so few modern Hollywood directors have been able to pull off since, is the creation of something genuinely cinematic. The Sixth Sense was a bona fide storytelling and cultural event which honoured the medium’s origin as a form of spectacle and visceral experience, yet it still managed to be a masterful exercise in controlled, intimate genre narration as well.

Another thing that people forget about Shyamalan is that although his taste in storytelling has quite rightly come into question over the last decade or so, what shouldn’t be overlooked is just how skilled a director he actually is. The Sixth Sense really is an exposition of top-notch psychological filmmaking – Alfred Hitchcock would undoubtedly have approved. It’s hard to recall any recent Hollywood film where the entire properties of the medium, though especially cinematography and sound, are engaged in such a relentlessly inventive way. Some might say this was an impositional necessity due to the work’s centring around one huge structural about-turn, but The Sixth Sense is a textbook example of impeccable film grammar.

Take, for example, the seemingly insignificant opening scene of Anna Crowe (Olivia Williams) down in the wine cellar searching for a suitably impressive bottle of claret to celebrate the recent professional success of husband, Malcolm (Bruce Willis). Shyamalan is able to endow this sequence with a malingering air of unease by the unusual way he frames Anna, and in subtly subjectifying the perspective (something an audience wouldn’t perceive but would be affected by). This ingenuity of storytelling is also evidenced in Shyamalan’s effective sensory use of a tape recorder turned up to its maximum – both within and outside of the diegesis. This crystallises the moment where Malcolm begins to conscience the true significance of the afflictions besetting his young “client”, Cole (Haley Joel Osment). Even the seemingly utilitarian trope of fading between scenes is thoughtfully considered by Shyamalan. He conceives of incredibly slow fades to black; this imprints the sense of the unreality of time in the narrative, which, in turn, links in so cleverly to the ultimate destination and truth about Malcolm’s journey through the film.

It would of course be hugely remiss not to comment on the film’s colossal twist which is the pièce de résistance of Shyamalan’s construct (don’t worry – no huge spoilers ahead for The Sixth Sense virgins). It has become something of a badge of honour for people now to boast about how they “figured out” the film’s grand conceit, although that has always struck me as being either a case of false braggadocio, someone not admitting to having heard about in on the grapevine or through a web forum, or perhaps – if they genuinely did work it out – they must have spent the whole film fixated on the parlour game of “guessing the trick” rather than luxuriating in the story. To put it another way, if you came into The Sixth Sense unaware it had a climactic twist, it is highly unlikely you would be able to perceive the conceit other than just sensing that something was awry or unusual about the way the narrative is being presented. Without giving too much away, on closer scrutiny, it is also evident that Shyamalan smartly asked his actors to take a fraction of a second’s glance at Malcolm at the beginning of each scene – a subtle way to imprint the legitimacy of his character’s presence and to throw the audience off the scent of The Sixth Sense’s ultimate about-turn.

Talking about Bruce Willis, another of Shyamalan’s great triumphs with The Sixth Sense was how brilliantly he handled the performances of his cast. It’s one of those rare films where it really feels like all the actors got the film’s core spirit, and attacked their roles with a concentricity of purpose. Olivia Williams continued her Hollywood breakout of 1999 (think Wes Anderson’s brilliant Rushmore) with a necessarily restrained and lugubrious turn; Haley Joel Osment was self-possession personified in his disarmingly controlled performance as the boy at the centre of the mystery; and Toni Collette had empathy in spades as Osment’s exasperated mother. Willis was perhaps the pick of the bunch though. It’s one of those performances that only a generous genre actor could give. An earnest luvvie or method performer would have gone to town on the conceit, but Willis plays it watchfully and very compassionately. In fact, Willis’ performance reminded me of a remark the great Roger Ebert made about another of the underrated, mainstream Hollwood pros – Michael Douglas – when reviewing The Game (1997): “he is subtle enough that he never arrives at an emotional plateau before the film does, and never overplays the process of his inner change.”

In a film of near linear perfection, Shyamalan’s only obvious faux pas is the inclusion of the car crash coda involving Cole and his mother. It’s the one scene that doesn’t need to exist; it contradicts the otherwise exacting and chaste management of sentiment in the rest of the film, and betrays a need to over-explain the themes of the story and to overdose on schmaltz which was to become a recurring bad habit in Shyamalan’s subsequent work.

That minor foible aside, The Sixth Sense is an exemplary little Hollywood spooker. And next time, before you line up to join the all-too-familiar anti-Shyamalan bandwagon, remember his only crime is in the law of diminishing returns, and almost trying too hard to carry off the desperately difficult balancing act of genre and exquisite sensibility that was The Sixth Sense(January 2017)

Top 10 Films of Martin Scorsese

January 14, 2017

Inspired by the release of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, I’ve compiled my top ten list of his films. As you’ll see at the bottom, there are some misnomers (I haven’t seen all his films, and some of them I’ve not included because I saw them too far back). It’s a subjective mish-mash of “best” and “favourite”….

10. Gangs of New York (2002)


It’s one of the few Scorsese films I can recall where you get the feint whiff that this could have been made by any director. Don’t get me wrong, this is still superior, epic genre fare – but it is a bit bloated, industrial and, at times, impersonal. It’s only in the rigour of condensing this rich story of mid-19th Century New York social history into a piece of cinema that you gain a sense of Scorsese (as much Scorsese ‘the academic and film historian’ than the filmmaker). Full review: Gangs of New York

9. The Age of Innocence (1993)

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In adapting Edith Wharton’s source novel, Scorsese really went to town on outing the novel’s subtext of a repressive and stultifying 1870s New York social circle through a meticulous approach to the design of the film. He went all “Merchant Ivory” on us with one of the richest expositions of mise en scène yet seen on the big screen, yet if anything, Scorsese’s focus on the novel’s subtlety almost smacked of unsubtlety. Terence Davies’ beautiful The House of Mirth (2000) was a much better, more poised attempt at adapting Wharton for the cinema.

8. The Departed (2006)

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This one has grown on me. Being a huge advocate of Hong Kong actioner, Infernal Affairs (2002), upon which this was based, I think I had an intrinsic loyalty to that film, and perhaps hadn’t perceived that Scorsese was hell bent on reinventing rather than simply relocating the story’s raw materials to an American location. There are some parts that are overrated (the Baldwin/Wahlberg braggadocio scenes feel far too scripted), but the bit of the film that received most criticism (Jack Nicholson’s supposedly “hammy” performance) was, to me, it’s greatest strength, and most commentators missed the whole point of his character as an FBI informant amid the cris-crossing of moles. Full review:

7. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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An absolute thrill ride that characterises – but never condones – its main player, Jordan Belfort (incidentally, a phenomenal tour de force of a performance by Leonardo Di Caprio). It’s such a densely packed narrative, full of story, character, spectacle, a huge, complex timeframe, plus massive changes in tone – and Scorsese carries it all off with the gusto of a filmmaker half his age. Full review:

6. Shutter Island (2010)

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It received good reviews but is never spoken of in the upper echelon of Scorsese’s work – perhaps because it’s essentially only a genre film without any pretensions toward social commentary. But what a genre film and thriller it is! It showed just what an expert storyteller Scorsese can be, and he does indulge his inner-cinephile by making it a sly ode to noir and old B-movies. Full review:

5. Bringing out the Dead (1999)

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It was almost like an older, gallows, life-weary retort to the youthful, angst-ridden perspective of Taxi Driver. Instead of a young, tortured Vietnam vet riding a cab round the mean streets of NYC, here we had a middle-aged ambulance driver – desperately looking for some succour, respite and humanity amid an increasingly crazy (and comic) cavalcade of characters and incidents on his rides. Scorsese found the perfect vehicle (pun intended) for the toxic energy of Nicolas Cage too.

4. The King of Comedy (1982)

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A genuinely weird and unsettling piece of work by Scorsese: again – like with Bringing out the Dead – it is some form of companion piece to Taxi Driver. In particular, Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin here make for an interesting character comparison. Their journeys are actually very similar (they are both fantasists and solipsists) but with a different genre – this is ostensibly a “comedy” – the results are subtly different…. Full review:

3. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

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Scorsese transplanted his masculine, freewheeling, moralistic aesthetic from the New York movies (Mean StreetsTaxi Driver) to the story of Jesus – and by and large it was an organic process. Scorsese honours, but also offers a more contemporary commentary, on the existential journey of Jesus, redeeming it from reverent, neutered depictions, while not demeaning the story in the process. Full review:

2. Mean Streets (1973)

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This was like Scorsese’s own little nouvelle vague number: an inspired, ragged ditty about a bunch of small-time hoods and bar owners in Little Italy who spend half their time idling around waiting for the next scam or hustle. It features some great use of soundtrack, cinematography and voiceover – all tropes that were to become a familiar part of the Scorsese landscape for decades to come. Full review: Mean Streets

1. Taxi Driver (1976)

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An act of cinematic alchemy. It’s one of those rare, rare productions with that special synergy because everything (from performances, to script, to cinematography, to editing, to the soundtrack, to the whole canvas of New York at that particular moment in time) combined to create this gripping and hugely intuitive take on solipsism and mental disintegration. A truly staggering film. Full review: Taxi Driver

Missing out: The Aviator

Haven’t seen: Who’s That Knocking at My Door?; Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; New York, New York; After Hours; Kundun; Hugo; Silence.

Haven’t seen recently enough: Raging Bull (though I do recall feeling underwhelmed by this on first viewing); The Color of Money; GoodFellas; Cape Fear; Casino.

Mean Streets

January 14, 2017

 Mean Streets (1973)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Richard Romanus

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Synopsis: Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a small-time hood in Little Italy, going round the community collecting takings for his mafia uncle. On the side, Charlie hangs out with his pals in a late-night bar, and is also looking out for his volatile friend, Jonny Boy (Robert De Niro), who owes money to countless loan sharks.

Review: Mean Streets is right up there as one of the best films Martin Scorsese ever made: an utterly electric, jazzy, freewheeling saunter through the lives of a motley crew of young men on the “mean streets” of Little Italy in Manhattan.

Among numerous stellar features, Mean Streets is one of the great cinematic expositions of voiceover: allowing us into the torn mindset of struggling Catholic, Charlie, as he tries to hold onto some sense of sanctity and morality amid the wild, seedy canvas around him, while the technique conjures a feeling of fluidity and poetry in its own right (it’s as much an assault on the senses as the quite brilliant use of Rolling Stones tracks “Tell Me” and “Jumping Jack Flash” to intoxicate the scenes in Tony’s Bar).

Mean Street‘s opening best exemplifies all that is admirable about Scorsese’s rawness both of style and emotion. Charlie wakes up, opining against a – as yet – black background that you “don’t make up for your sins in the street, you do it on the streets, you do it at home, the rest is bullshit and you know it”, before looking at himself enquiringly in the mirror, laying himself back to bed with a Godardian jump cut, before the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” kicks in to an utterly authentic Super 8 reverie (long before this technique became clichéd) which sketches in all that is at stake for Charlie.

Other immemorial facets to Mean Streets are Robert De Niro’s wildfire bar room entry with two girls he’s picked up in Greenwich Village, a chaotic pool hall brawl because of the slur of a “mook”, and an incredible piece of further, intuitive voiceover from Charlie which symbolises his intoxication and that he is almost an aesthete for the lure of the red-lit ambience of his lifestyle when he submits himself to the attractiveness of one of the strippers, “You know something? She is really good-lookin’. I gotta say that again. She is really good-lookin’.”

Also great is that Scorsese saw no need to over-determine his narrative. The movie ambles amiably around its array of characters, building to some form of nominal crescendo regarding Jonny Boy’s loan shark debts, but even then, Scorsese’s decision to move the camera away at the climax reveals his complete command of his story – how this is an ongoing snapshot of a intertwined milieu that will endure way past the transient politics of those particular players. (January 2017)

The Hateful Eight

January 1, 2017

The Hateful Eight (2016)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins

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Synopsis: A group of men with murky agendas hole up in Minnie’s Haberdashery while a fierce blizzard rages outside.

Review: Invariably with the films of Quentin Tarantino, there are moments of sheer cinematographic and storytelling inspiration. Much like with his most recent effort (Django Unchained) however, this latest work – The Hateful Eight – is a tad ragged. Those inspired touches become the exception rather than the norm, and though there’s a lot to admire in the work’s ambitious cocktail of ingenious cine-theatrical conceit and some sly racial and gender politicking, the film’s baggy length and approach to telling its story draws attention to some of its flaws.

The shift into postmodern mode in the film’s final act (chronological retreads, scenes replayed from different perspectives, and a third-person narration by Tarantino himself) is too expository. It feels like a belated attempt to inflect a bit of spice to an intelligent if rather dry drama, and also hearkens back unflatteringly to the sheer genius of Tarantino’s employment of the very same tropes in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction(January 2017)


January 1, 2017

Paddington (2014)
Director: Paul King
Actors: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins

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Synopsis: A cute bear from “deepest darkest Peru” migrates to the UK on the lookout for an old explorer he met.

Review: Paddington owes a huge dept to Wes Anderson’s earlier (and superior) Fantastic Mr Fox: from the whimsical imagining of its main animal character, the overall wry sense of humour, and the one or two ingenious, encyclopedic “doll’s house” views of the Brown’s family home.

Although Paddington is much more mainstream and calibrated in its thrills than Fantastic Mr Fox, it feel churlish to be overly critical when it’s so well made and thoroughly entertaining. And in spite of that slickness, there’s something so appealingly ‘British’ in the production that aids it amiability and honours the source material: it’s very genteel, and the ingenious skits of Paddington and the Brown family celebrate the essential inventiveness and eccentricity that is at the heart of the British sensibility. (January 2017)


January 1, 2017

Frozen (2013)
Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Actors: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff

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Synopsis: Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) inherits the throne of Arendelle when her parents die, all this despite possessing the inconvenient ability of turning things to ice with her merest touch. On her coronation day, she alienates her citizens – including her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell) – by accidentally using those powers once more. Elsa is excommunicated to an isolated mountaintop nearby, so Anna takes it upon herself to convince her sister to return to Arendelle.

Review: Having finally acquainted myself with the staggering phenomenon that is Frozen, I am puzzled as to not only the film’s massive popularity but also its high critical esteem (although I appreciate I may not be the best judge, and I’m certainly not the film’s target audience!)

Frozen is an exemplar of all that’s wrong with contemporary animation: subsumed in fetishising an industrial feel with all those clean edges that modern technology gorges on; stuck in the parlour game of having to anthropomorphise inanimate objects; and mired in the bizarre practise of using large “expressive” eyeballs for its characters (emblem for the essential unsubtlety of much of what passes as modern animation, as well as creating the strange effect of characters looking cross-eyed when they’re supposed to be thinking – there’s a lesson in there somewhere….)

Dramatically the film has its obscurities too. The opening coda about Elsa “shutting people out” because of her cryokinetic powers isn’t introduced coherently enough (even by fairytale standards), and the early songs have no dramatic context and sound prototypically “Broadway”.

Some of the colouring is unquestionably beautiful (Elsa’s green-purple gown for example – like an exotic Wimbledon ballgirl!), but the colour epiphany at the end of the film feels unearned – a long way away from the similar coup de grace of that other, infinitely superior, childhood classic and Christmas staple – The Wizard of Oz (1939). Frozen is, to put it simply, all technique and iconography in desperate search for a story and its own viable mythology. (January 2017)

My Top 20 Films of 2016

December 23, 2016

In reverse order…

20. Son of Saul (László Nemes)

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Perhaps the most purely impressive and steadfast piece of filmmaking I saw all year: Nemes’s camera perpetually hugs the careworn shoulders of death camp sonderkommando Saul as the horrendous canvas of Auschwitz’s concentration camp passes before his eyes.

Full review:

19. Spotlight (Todd McCarthy)

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A meaty, Hollywoodised slab of journo method acting is on the menu here – but it’s unquestionably well carried off and an important story to tell.

18. Notes on Blindness (Peter Middleton, James Spinney)

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The sentimental and ethical offshoots of blindness are mined in this – at times ingenious, other times twee – documentary.

17. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

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This may be an Apichatpong Weerasethakul (aka “Joe”) work in minor key, but it’s still an amazing sensory experience. It’s almost as if the diegetic sleeping sickness is metaphor for Weerasethakul’s own mandate to recalibrate and soothe the modern harried sensibility.

16. Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (Stig Björkman)

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One of the great film actresses and icons gets a fittingly lustrous and compelling cine-portrait, narrated in part by Sweden’s latest screen queen, Alicia Vikander.

15. Creed (Ryan Coogler)

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A lesson in classy genre storytelling: the Rocky legend is both honoured and slyly updated through shifting the focus to the son of his former rival, Apollo Creed.

14. Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)

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Such a rich and compelling balance of social commentary and genre storytelling – only marginally undone by an odd lurch into phoney final act ‘thrills’.

13. Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)

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A series of lurid ‘adult fairytales’, all carried off with typical skill and panache by Matteo Garrone.

12. Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra)

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A hypnotic and sensory treatise on colonialism. The sequence in the Catholic mission features some of the most dementedly enthralling stuff I’ve seen all year.

11. Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater)

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This deceptively simple story showcases once again Linklater’s uncanny ability to make concrete those fleeting and ephemeral phases of our lives.

10. Anomalisa (Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman)

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Charlie Kaufman is at it again: this time crafting one of the classiest and most rhetorically justified animated films I can recall seeing.

9. Ma Ma (Julio Medem)

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A neo-weepie (if there is a such a thing?) It passed under the radar during the summer, but Julio Medem took an unfashionable genre and made it moving and authentic, helped in no small part by a great performance by Penélope Cruz.

8. Weiner (Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)

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Serendipitous documentary filmmaking of the highest order: a seemingly regulation political campaign doc becomes one man’s journey into personal and career oblivion as Anthony Weiner’s NYC mayoral campaign disintegrates amid a slew of revelations about his ‘sexting’ history!

7. Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)

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It appeared to be a case of “after the Lord Mayor’s show” with Youth seemingly not living up to Paolo Sorrentino’s previous, rapturously received work, The Great Beauty. There’s a lot to admire in Youth though: the gallows humour, the stately visuals, and Sorrentino’s ability to infuse a perpetual undertow of melancholy.

6. The Nice Guys (Shane Black)

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Hands down the best Hollywood film of the year. If you enjoyed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, you’ll love this. It’s smart, laugh out loud funny, a great homage to LA noirs of yesteryear, and features a pair of cracking comedy performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe.

5. 13TH (Ava DuVernay)

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A dignified, hugely eloquent deconstruction of the corrosive legacy of oppression which still affects many African-American citizens in the US today.

4. Disorder (Alice Winocour)

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A real curio that hasn’t got the fanfare it deserved. It’s that rarest of beasts: a European actioner directed by a woman. And it’s actually really good – taking the main character’s psychological state for an interior, gripping treatise on themes of paranoia and security.

3. Further Beyond (Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy)

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A phenomenally creative and insightful documentary which toys expertly with its nominal conceit of a planned biopic of famed Irish explorer, Ambrose (Ambrosio) O’Higgins. It’s a risky strategy brilliantly executed by directors Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor where they succeed in making their potentially abstract premise both lucid and highly emotional.

2. Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda)

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Is there currently a more accomplished and proficient auteur in world cinema than Hirokazu Koreeda? This is a simply gorgeous hymn to the gentle bonds of family that somehow navigates the sentimentality trap to unearth universal truths about sibling relations and the human condition in general.

1.Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)

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Malick’s submission to the sensory ephemera of his stories (he’s given up even trying to mask the fact he couldn’t give two hoots about conventional dramaturgy) is complete with this near pitch-perfect ode to one man’s attempt to recover his sense of sanctity in that most lapsed of places: LA. Anyone able to fuse the canvas of Vegas with the music of Bach without implying any condescension between the two automatically gets my attention, and Knight of Cups is full of such moments of inspiration.