Screen review: ‘Knight of Cups’

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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

REVIEWS: Operatic ‘Turandot’ vs. balletic ‘To the Wonder’

The beautiful production at Dallas Opera. Photo by Karen Almond

How unfair the opera world is: Turandot gets her name in the title, Calaf gets the big, famous aria, but Liu? She gets the tragic love story, the brutal ending and, at least in the Dallas Opera’s current production of Puccini’s last opera, the pipes. She’s the emotional focus, the true tragic hero, of this Turandot. Hei-Kyung Hong transforms the opera, wonderfully achieving emotional beauty in a powerful interpretation; she rips the rug right from under the others. That’s an accomplishment, since all the principals do excellent work.

Antonello Palombi as Calaf does well in Acts 1 and 2, but the disappointment is his “Nessun Dorma,” which for unfathomable reasons he sings mostly while sitting down, robbing his diaphragm of is strength. Aside from a technical glitch (a big one) in Act 1 of opening night, the production is a marvel of beauty and moody lighting, under Garnett Bruce’s direction an expert management of the chorus by Alexander Rom. This is your last weekend to see it, so get moving.

IMG_0631.CR2From the operatic stage to the balletic medium of film is quite a leap, but balletic is the only term to apply to Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. By my count, only four filmmakers of the past 40 years — the late Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Jacques Annaud, David Lynch and Malick — truly qualify as cinematic artists: Directors more concerned with making visionary works that serving a commercial or even accessible audience. (A fifth, Ang Lee, is well on his way to that status as well.) These are men who make movies on their terms, inventing their own idioms and grammar. They refer almost to nothing and no one. That’s what artists get to do.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

The Oscar scorecard

The-Artist

Gay folks — both actors, characters and behind the scenes — are easier to find at the Tonys and Emmys than at the Oscars; it’s one of the reasons we get so excited about Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right.

But the Oscars do occasionally have their queer appeal — one of the frontrunners this year is an elderly man who comes out as gay to his adult son’s dismay.

Here’s a scorecard for those keeping track,
including who will win and who should … and who might sneak in. Let the office pool begin!

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Picture: Who will win: The Artist, pictured. Who should win: The Help. Spoiler:
The Descendants.

Director: Who will win: Michel Hazavanicius, The Artist. Who should win: Terrence Malick,
Tree of Life. Spoiler: Martin Scorsese, Hugo.

Actor: Who will/should win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist. Spoiler: George Clooney,
The Descendants.

Actress: Who will/should win: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady. Spoiler: Viola Davis, The Help.

Supporting Actor: Who will/should win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners. Spoiler: None.

Supporting Actress: Who will/should win:
Octavia Spencer, The Help. Spoiler: None.

Original Screenplay: Who will/should win: The Artist. Spoiler: Midnight in Paris.

Adapted Screenplay: Who will/should win: The Descendants. Spoiler: Tinker Tailor Solider Spy.

Cinematography: Who will win: The Artist. Who should win/spoiler: The Tree of Life.

Film Editing: Who will win: Hugo. Who should win:  Moneyball. Spoiler: Descendants.

Art Direction: Who will/should win: Hugo.

Costume Design: Who will/should win: Anonymous. Spoiler: Hugo.

Score: Who will/should win: The Artist.

Song: Who will/should win: The Muppets.

Sound Mixing: Who will win: Hugo.

Sound Editing: Who will win: War Horse.

Visual Effects: Who will/should win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Spoiler: Real Steel.

Makeup: Who will/should win: Albert Nobbs. Spoiler: The Iron Lady.

Foreign Language Film: Who will win: In Darkness. Spoiler: A Separation.

Animated Feature Film: Who will win:
Chico and Rita. Spoiler: Rango.

Documentary Feature Film: Who will win:
Undefeated. Who should win: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Spoiler: Pina.

Live Action Short Subject: Who will/should win: Raju. Spoiler: Tuba Atlantic.

Animated Short Subject: Who will/should win: The Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Spoiler: La Luna.

Documentary Short Subject: Who will win:
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 24, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas