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.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.