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Knight of Cups

May 22, 2016

Knight of Cups (2016)
Director: Terrence Malick
Actors: Christian Bale, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley

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Synopsis: Rick (Christian Bale) is an LA screenwriter going through some form of spiritual crisis.

Review: I could hear everything, together with the hum of my hotel neon. I never felt sadder in my life. LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities. 

These words from Jack Kerouac could easily be the foreword to Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups: a deeply sensual and mesmeric evocation of the alienating effect of Tinseltown as refracted through our ghostly conduit, Rick – an LA screenwriter (’embodied’ as much as ‘played’ by Christian Bale). As is evident through the trajectory of Malick’s career from The Tree of Life to To the Wonder, his impressionistic, experiential aesthetic is even denser and more abstract in Knight of Cups – there’s barely any ‘story’ at all, and those small shards of narrative we are given appear in sudden, non-linear bursts. Then there’s the main character, Rick – as mentioned earlier, he’s more our guide, our witness, as the pageant of Angelino life plays around him (incidentally, note how many times Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera frames Rick from behind – his stoic, hulking shoulders implying a stunned soul trying desperately to process and make sense of the world around him.)

As in To the Wonder, Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is as much the ‘inscriber’ of this film as Terrence Malick. Whether we’re privy to a boundless view of the horizon from Santa Monica or Malibu beaches, a primal piece of desert to the east of LA, a decadent Hollywood Hills party, or a sojourn into the neon lure of Las Vegas, Lubezki’s cinematography transcends the narrative and politics of the people in the frame to conjure a sense of the transcendent and ‘holy’ – casting no pejorative rhetoric between his images of nature and the metropolis. Particularly mesmeric is Lubezki’s phantomisation of his camera: the way each cut opens on a subtle and gentle glide of camera – somehow personifying (like in To the Wonder) a more divine perspective.

Knight of Cups is so rich – the interpretive possibilities are almost endless (a pleasing by-product of the rejection of the tyranny of dramaturgy), but Malick’s water imagery is especially to the fore here – in fact, it’s a film that finds perhaps the greatest import in it since the films of that master of elemental symbolism: Andrei Tarkovsky. There are obviously the clear religious connotations of the cleansing and baptismal properties of water (note Rick’s very profound submerging of his ubiquitous, pristine ‘suited’ persona in the final act), but most of all there are the glossy, gilded swimming pools of the many mansions of LA which function as the apex of Malick’s treatise on Los Angeles being a place where man has to work hardest to recover his sense of sanctity. (May 2016)

Love

May 20, 2016

Love (2015)
Director: Gaspar Noé
Actors: Karl Glusman, Aomi Muyock, Klara Kristin

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Synopsis: Murphy (Karl Glusman) is an expat American living in Paris. One morning, he wakes up with his now partner, Omi (Klara Kristin) and their young son, yet his conscience is troubled by memories of his passionate ex-lover, Electra (Aomi Muyock).

Review: We feel like we know where we’re at when Love opens up on the striking image of a man and woman explicitly pleasuring each other. It’s the seemingly provocative emblem of what would be Gaspar Noé’s latest ‘long day’s journey into the night’ of human experience; yet interestingly, the tenor of the scene softens into something much more tender and sensitive, moving further away from those initial connotations of smut.

As a whole, this opening sequence functions as apt microcosm for the workings and sensibility of the film. As we’ve come to expect with Noé, it’s a formally very proficient and immersive work: especially effective in its framing and the mesmeric cuts through which Murphy remembers his various sexual escapades across time (although it’s usually between the present of his drab, domestic life and the past of his passionate, epochal relationship with Electra.) Noé also indulges his penchant for the tracking shot, and watching this technique for the umpteenth time, I was reminded these marvels of camerawork and logistics are as much commentaries on time as they are on space – there’s something quite gripping about the ‘real time’ sense of something unfolding as Murphy wakes up into a nauseous fog and begins to unpick the banality and trauma of his present circumstances.

Where perhaps Love is of less substance than its propulsive predecessors Irréversible and Enter the Void is that where those films had an in-built seriousness and logic of technique merging into their stories, here the ‘extremism’ of form and content lacks any real depth. The references certainly seem blithe (the autobiographical and psychological lameness of having characters called Electra and Gaspar, and the gauche referencing of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a famous Robert Frost poem) – although there is a certain level of gallows humour underpinning much of the film.

The increasing shallowness of Noé’s storytelling in Love is betrayed by him falling back on his old trope of reversing time to (in this case) the poignant and seminal first meeting of Murphy and Electra – and juxtaposing that with Murphy’s present, tortured state. The problem is that this shift doesn’t elicit as much meaning as Irréversible‘s relentless stampede back through time, and feels more a ragged attempt to extract pathos from a snapshot of the primal infancy of love. (May 2016)

The Jungle Book

May 16, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)
Director: Jon Favreau
Actors: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Idris Elba

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Synopsis: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a human who has grown up as a “man cub” in the jungle. There comes a time when he has to start thinking about a life with humans again, although evil tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), is out to get him first…

Review: Disney’s revamp of its near fifty year-old family classic, “The Jungle Book”, is as visually proficient as a calculating, multi-million pound live action studio offering should be (especially when – presumably – no expense has been spared in recruiting the industry’s best technicians to craft it), and yet, the end result is strangely tentative and – dare I say it – a bit soulless…

At the centre of the some of the problems is Neel Sethi’s bland, affectless performance as Mowgli (replete with suspiciously proto-international ‘American’ accent). Then there are the strangely neutered and timid turns of Bill Murray as Baloo and Christopher Walken as King Louis; it’s almost as if the producers thought the cult residue of casting these ‘cool’ names alone would be enough. There’s also almost a sheepishness about the rolling out the two famous songs (“Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You”) from the original Jungle Book film. And it’s that comparison to the previous film which nicely summarises the underlying issue with this version. Yes, the old one may look technically inferior with its ‘dated’ 2D animation, but it had an exuberance and sure-footedness about its purpose and audience that this box-ticking, corporate exercise in ‘reaching’ as many demographics as possible has completely overlooked. (May 2016)

Romper Stomper

May 14, 2016

Romper Stomper (1992)
Director: Geoffrey Wright
Actors: Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie

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Synopsis: A group of reckless, neo-Nazi skinheads in Melbourne find themselves running out of options as their violent actions begin to catch up with them…

Review: This raw and vibrant Australian film from the early-Nineties is now mostly remembered as a key footnote in the career of Russell Crowe, and with hindsight, one can see why Crowe’s star sky-rocketed from this point on. His performance is intense and compelling, revealing a genuine, steely-eyed menace that necessarily outshines the mere thuggish posturing of the film’s lesser skinheads.

Beyond the curiosity of a pre-frame Crowe is there anything else to commend the film? Well, yes and no….Yes, because if nothing else, its visceral fervour in documenting the violent rage of the skinheads is an interesting characterisation of an overlooked factor in extremist behaviour: namely the sheer anger, levels of testosterone and disaffection, and raging identity issues that afflict many young men. One of the clear downsides to the film is that it now looks a touch dated – its action scenes are hammy and unrealistic – and in the film’s relentless will to document the demented thuggery of the skinheads, it creates very little sense of interest or empathy in their actions – they’re for the most part just a bunch of brutish ciphers bound to get their just desserts. (May 2016)

Smart People

May 13, 2016

Smart People (2008)
Director: Noam Murro
Actors: Dennis Quaid, Thomas Haden Church, Sarah Jessica Parker

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Synopsis: Conceited lecturer and widower, Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid), has his conscience pricked over a number of months when two people enter the orbit of his life: his slacker adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church), and new girlfriend, Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker).

Review: Very much a poor man’s Wonder BoysSmart People is pretty much a complete non-entity due to its utter prototypicality and extremely transparent attempts to force its folksy, screwball tone.

Everything about the scenario feels overfamiliar (which in itself needn’t be a criticism), but the film’s genuine conceit at what it presents as being witty and original is what grates: from the clichéd portrayal of Dennis Quaid’s shambolic professor (replete with ‘method’ potbelly, ‘hilarious’ limp and messy private life), to slapstick comedy (Quaid’s professor parks his car at weird angles and has a bizarre early accident in a parking lot), plus there’s the box-ticking biographical fact (Quaid’s professor is a recently bereaved widower – designed to lend a bit of easy pathos to proceedings.)

To add to the hackneyed status, there are the predictably-cast support players (Thomas Haden Church essaying a version of his Sideways slacker, Ellen Page in preternaturally articulate Juno-mode, and Sarah Jessica Parker as romantic support), plus there’s quite simply the most ubiquitous and demonstrative folk/easy-listening soundtrack I’ve heard in a film for a long time. For a film about ‘Smart People’, it’s not an especially ‘smart’ exposition of original filmmaking or storytelling. (May 2016)

Noah

May 13, 2016

Noah (2014)
Director: Darren Aronofosky
Actors: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson

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Synopsis: After receiving visions from the ‘Creator’ about an impending apocalyptic flood, Noah (Russell Crowe) starts building an ark to preserve all the different species of the world….

Review: Absolutely barmy – but equally enjoyable and entertaining – Darren Aronofsky’s take on the biblical story of “Noah’s Ark” intuitively imagines the whole saga within the grammar of a more familiar fantasy-action, Lord of the Rings-style universe.

The film’s first few moments reveal this tactic: from the regular trope of a seminal father slaying creating an echoing theme of “parental angst”, to the scorched, quasi-apocalyptic setting (à la The Road, I Am Legend etc.) to the strange imagining of Noah’s ‘guardian angels’ (aka the “Watchers”) as CGI rock-people that look like they came straight off the Peter Jackson factory or from one of the Transformers films.

Playing the story of Noah as a proto-genre flick does bring its unintentional chuckles – Ray Winstone’s cockney intonations as the villainous descendent of Cain are comic gold-dust – but in a way, the hammy treatment accorded the story is strangely in keeping with an Old Testament fable; after all, the Old Testament is perhaps the most preposterous, grandiose and tyrannical of texts ever written. (May 2016)

Rear Window

May 9, 2016

Rear Window (1954)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Actors: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr

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Synopsis: “Jeff” (James Stewart) is an invalided photographer holed up in his New York apartment. Over the course of a number of days, he becomes increasingly engrossed in the suspicious goings-on in an apartment across from him….

Review: Although perhaps just shy of the near perfect mastery of apparatus and psychology that was Vertigo and PsychoRear Window is on the very next tier of Alfred Hitchock films; taking something that in terms of pure material is reasonably generic and hokum, and elevating it through consummate exposition of the technical and theatrical possibilities of his medium.

In fact, very few filmmakers have ‘got’ the medium more than Hitchcock, and as is commonplace in many of his best films, there’s a very wry tension between the seeming talky, plotty, classical Hollywood feel, and their very acute, psychoanalytical wanderings. It almost takes a few viewings of Rear Window to digest just how subtly differentiated the dialogue-heavy scenes between James Stewart’s Jeff and Grace Kelly’s Lisa are from moments when Hitchcock’s gaze will uncannily shift from their politicking to strange happenings around the courtyard of apartments. Talking about Grace Kelly, it’s surely one of her most iconic film performances: her entry is simply immemorial, appearing almost goddess-like as Jeff wakes from a dream.

Rear Window is also a strong case for Hitchock’s comedic sensibility. The floating, ‘peeping tom’ camerawork allows for some sly running jokes about the curious little inner-worlds most of Jeff’s neighbours inhabit. Arguably the funniest is the growing exhaustion and apathy shown by a newlywed husband who goes from an avowed ‘romantic’ carrying his wife across the threshold, to a hen-pecked man, wearily sneaking a cigarette and some much needed respite from his now-demanding wife! It’s a lovely visual gag in a lovely visual delight of a film. (May 2016)

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