Skip to main content

We're not leading the lives we are meant for... we're meant for something else.

Knight of Cups
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Even a Terrence Malick apologist has to draw a line somewhere, and it seems the director has finally succumbed to inglorious self-parody. The warning signs were there with To the Wonder, but it’s the repetition of the same brush strokes and signatures to the point of banality that sadly seals the deal in Knight of Cups.


It doesn’t help that Christian Bale is an essentially unsympathetic protagonist. He’s a natural for a meaty part, but emphatically not favoured by wistful contemplation and half-murmured regrets. Malick’s fractured constructions are ever-intentional, but they reach breaking point here, as Bale’s Hollywood writer Rick charts a course of reflection based on a misspent life of profligate relationships.


There’s a loose structure based on a tarot reading (Rick’s significator is the Knight of Cups), but seemingly little actual rigour to the passage through titled sequences based on The Hanged Man, The Hermit, Judgement etc. So too, his array of Hollywood lovelies (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots) pass by with little impact. We meet Rick’s brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy; suggestive of the daddy issues in The Tree of Life), but here likewise the whole is so lightweight, so set on the meditative feathery pillow, that it blows away.


Maybe that’s Malick’s intent, but it translates as pure parody. Knowing that there was no script only adds to this; you can virtually see the director telling Bale “Emote against that tree, will you, Christian, and we’ll add some vague musing on the voiceover later”. Stir and repeat. Whatever Malick’s grand designs (Ben Kingsley’s narrator introduces the film, quoting Pilgrim’s Progress, and telling of the prince who forgot who he was; Rick spent “all those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know”), unfurling protracted tone poems of the restless soul, the wilful lack of form fails to pass muster this time, in what becomes a two-hour slog. It isn’t transportive, merely laboured.


The snatches of pseud-poetic rambling are hit-and-miss (“Because I stumble down this road like a drunk, that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one”; “You think when you reach a certain age, things will start to make sense. Then you find you’re just as lost as you were before”; “I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never come together”; “So much love inside us, that never gets out”), cumulatively leaving one convinced that, if you attempt to wax lyrical long enough, something vaguely coherent will come out amid the dross.


There are a few high points, however. The use of Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus as the main theme very nearly forgives the picture its profuse transgressions, lending the internal fumblings occasional weight and emotional substance they otherwise lack; mournful melancholy at a wasted life.


The imagery, courtesy of the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki (three Oscars on the trot can’t be wrong, can they?), is extraordinarily beautiful, if you can get past Malick’s penchant for low angle, handheld, fish-eyed haziness. At one point there’s even a glimmer of something enticing as writer Peter Matthiessen (At Play in the Fields of the Lord) offers some nuggets of zen (“If you’re in a cave eating nettles, it’s not so difficult to keep your life simple”); it struck me that spending 90 minutes with this guy, rather than 90 seconds, and whatever he had to say, would be far more rewarding than anything Malick could come up with, something that might tend towards My Dinner with Andre levels of inspired rumination.


As ever, throngs of performers line up to appear in a Malick joint, most of whom barely register. Antonio Banderas comes on like the compere of a Fellini movie, introducing Rick to a party full of young beauties (“There are no principles, just circumstances”) and you may spy the likes of Jason Clarke, Joel Kinnaman, Dane DeHaan, Ryan O’Neal, Joe Manganiello, and Michael Wincott. Or you may not.


Fellini’s an appropriate reference point, as more than once I was put in mind of Peter Sellers’ parody of the director in After the Fox: “What are we running from?” asks Victor Mature’s Tony Powell. Sellers’ master criminal the Fox, masquerading as a movie director, replies ‘From yourselves. Uh, you get the symbolic meaning? Aah! No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourselves!’ ‘Aah! Beautiful!’ exclaims buffoonish Tony. Doubtless Bale made similar exclamations regarding the weight and wisdom of Malick during the course of Knight of Cups (and their next, Weightless, a title just itching for brickbats).



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!

Blake's 7 4.13: Blake

The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blakefollows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

Blake's 7 4.12: Warlord

The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation. 

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.