Screen review: ‘Knight of Cups’


Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life may be the first commercial movie I ever saw that I felt was truly critic-proof. Not that critics couldn’t destroy it or that audiences wouldn’t care but critic-proof in the sense that it would be impossible to disagree with anyone, no matter what their opinion of it was. Love it? I agree. Hate it? I would find it difficult to argue against you. It was experiential, a movie that washed over you in its opulent wooziness, a dreamy reverie on the meaning of life itself.

Malick has long been obsessed with nature (human nature, the natural world, life and death), which was infused in his early films — he made only two in the first 25 years of his career, both brilliant: Badlands and Days of Heaven). In more recent years, he has become increasingly stylized and not experimental. He eschews narrative, and even a script, in favor of something bordering on the spiritual. He’s less about making art than about pondering his existence.

His follow-up to Tree of Life, To the Wonder, was an opaque story of a relationship that had many of the previous elements but a more contemporary and adult perspective. Where Tree of Life glanced back at childhood, To the Wonder felt more like aging awkwardly into adulthood, the whole “through a glass darkly” shtick. It wasn’t as successful, and in many ways not even good, but it was Terry Malick, a true film legend, and, as with Willy Loman, attention must be paid.

But Malick’s latest adventure, Knight of Cups, looks to be the final tentpole in this existential trilogy, although a better analogy might be the last stake through the heart. It seems almost aggressively anxious to bore its audience into surrender. To be certain, there’s a place for such highfalutin craftiness in the tapestry of film. But this one feels less experimental then torturous. Narrative has completely escaped Malick; he lingers instead of continuously jumpy camera movements, meaningless voiceover whispered as if daring its audience to fall asleep, and unexpectedly prurient sexual frolicking and voyeurism.

The plot — or rather, the infrastructure around which the character study seems to be built — deals with and Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) whose life has been a series of meaningless sexual conquests and failed adult relationships, two of which are apparently with Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, though neither makes a modicum of sense. Basically, it’s a story as old as middle-age itself, the 40-year-old Lothario realizing his life is pointless while looking back on his relationship with his father for clues as to where he went wrong. (Fellini did it better in 8-1/2 and that was 50 years ago.) For all of its stark vistas and exquisite lighting, Knight of Cups feels unpolished and even ugly. Malick and his gifted director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki (who just won his third consecutive Oscar), seem to have captured moments of beauty on the fly, without taking time to fully compose and refine them. Scenes of Las Vegas feel less like planned-out testaments to mass consumerism and more like bad selfies taken in 70mm. It looks like a cheap perfume commercial that goes on until your butt numbs in the seat.

It’s a sad coda for the 72-year-old Malick, a muddled capstone to what is been a fascinating career from a talented film artist. Sadly, as many before him, he has allowed his own sense of confusion to become not his art but his coffin. Malick walls himself inside a boneyard of convoluted imagery, a victim of artistic senility sentenced to tread over old ground ranting to dead ears..

— Arnold Wayne Jones

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 11, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: “The Dark Knight Rises”

I’m not sure how dark of a knight Batman is, but director-writer Christopher Nolan certainly seems to be comfortable with his dark side. In Batman Begins, he posited the tragic origins that led Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to adopt a secret identity and scours the streets as a vigilante on the side of right. In that film, Batman’s mentor and later nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) saw the bleak, stylized city of Gotham as a diseased boil of humanity that needed to be erased. It was an almost Faustian dialectic, with Luciferian Ra’s in a face-off with God-like Batman, arguing with biblical vehemence over whether mankind could — should survive.

Then came The Dark Knight — a longer, crazier movie that really did explore the two sides of mankind (represented, late in the film, with the villain Two-Face). There, Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker — a character without an apparent alter ego, a raging id unleashing meaningless chaos on a city of beings he held in contempt. There was no reason, no logic behind Joker’s trail of havoc; he was torturing the citizens of Gotham (which now looked less like a comic-book fortress and more like New York City) with mind games merely to prove an obscure point about human failings. Unlike Ra’s, his mission was merely destructive.

With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan seems to be attempting to bridge these similar but unconnected attacks of Gotham into a unified principle. Once again, the villain is a demonic, Joker-like entity operating entirely on evil impulse. We learn a little about Bane (Tom Hardy), who lives his entire existence behind a mask that gives him the skull-like appearance of a tiger perpetually gnashing its fangs. Who he is seems almost irrelevant again — it’s what he represents, the lesser angels of mankind.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

‘The Fighter:’ ‘Rocky 2.0’

With all the homoeroticism (and lesbian subplot) in The Wrestler two years back, I was hoping The Fighter — with an always-buff Mark Wahlberg, above left, as an aspiring welterweight — might, Rocky III-esque, idealize the male form for gay audiences. No such luck. We have to settle, instead, for a gritty and highly watchable character study set in the world of boxing. I’ll adjust.

In many ways, The Fighter is the obverse of Black Swan: One is about a girl in the arts that lures you in with cliches about ballet films, then turns out the be something totally different; the other is about man in sports that avoids a lot of cliches until, about three-quarters through, turns out to be Rocky in disguise. (Both films also have the hand of Darren Aronofsky in them, who also directed The Wrestler.)

Such misdirection works in the film’s favor, because it allows the story to unfold with the immediacy of a family drama, and this family is full of drama. Mom (a fabulous Melissa Leo) coddles her seven useless harpy daughters while offering up her son Micky (Wahlberg, more heartfelt than ever), the only one with potential, in a series of bad bouts.

Even worse: The entire town of Lowell, Mass., idolizes Micky’s crack-addict brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a has-been who spends more time getting high than helping his little brother achieve what he couldn’t.

That may sound like a familiar plot, and it is familiar — you think of On the Waterfront, and are tempted to call it Rocky 2.0 — but the approach is cattywampus, almost disorienting. You think you know where it’s headed, but it surprises you.

With its cinema verite look and painfully authentic performances — especially by Leo and Bale, who’s gaunt and scary as a tweaked-out loser — conjure up everything that’s frightening about poisonous relationships of all kinds. It’s the season’s most unexpected crowd-pleaser.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Three stars
Now playing at the Angelika Film Center — Mockingbird Station

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens