You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Tuesday, 12 April 2016


After deciding not to commit any more time or words, written or otherwise, to analysing and dissecting Batman V Superman, I find comparisons to Zack Snyder’s crap-ton opus cropping up in the most unlikely of places – namely the work of a (once) genuinely visionary director. 

Knight of Cups is a film you could drown in – a vast thematic ocean lapping against the distant shore of some grand, obscure vision; and apparently I don’t have any swimming trunks. As a director-philosopher (or should that be philosopher-director?), Terrence Malick has always experimented with the medium, but his latest work seems to mark the crossing of a conceptual Rubicon. 

Where 2011’s Tree of Life – a genuine masterpiece – encapsulated the brevity and preciousness of human experience by juxtaposing the private grief of an All-American family in ‘50s Texas with the origins of the universe (over almost two and a half hours no less), Knight of Cups eschews such contrivances as plot and character almost entirely.

Following an itinerant screenwriter, Rick (Christian Bale), around Los Angeles and its surrounding environs, the film is directly engaged in a search for meaning and so diligently wades through meaninglessness. Malick’s camera drifts close behind the silently watchful Rick as he makes his way through lavish parties, down skid row, across desert flats, even via the Paramount backlot; switching occasionally to Rick’s POV as if to say, “This is you, you wanderer, you pilgrim.” 

Even an earthquake and a minor home invasion can’t shake our nomadic protagonist out of his reverie – or, Heaven forbid, prompt him to pick up a pen. Rick isn’t so much character as camera; the frame through which Malick unfurls this gauzy tapestry.

Less cinema than poetry told through images, Knight of Cups is replete with literary quotations – from The Pilgrim's Progress, from the apocryphal Hymn of the Pearl – but there is nothing at the centre of Malick's quest; no pearl, no progress, no common nucleus of human experience. There’s experience aplenty – kissing, running into the sea fully clothed, luminous body paint – Spring Break as high art – but no more significance to any of it than a handful of holiday snapshots. 

Repetition should lend meaning – a man cycling along a boulevard (different man, different boulevard) –  but these images provide no key in or out. The film’s ending, when it comes, arrives abruptly and without apparent foreshadowing.

Characters pass like ships in the light – Cate Blanchett as Rick’s physician ex-wife; Teresa Palmer as the “High Priestess” stripper; Rick’s bullish father (Brian Dennehy) and volatile brother (Wes Bentley).1 It’s clear by the level of talent – no fewer than four Oscar winners are involved onscreen and off – that Malick’s vision is alluring. 

Natalie Portman, who plays ‘Death’ AKA Elizabeth2 and attended Malick’s alma mater, Harvard, must have seen something in the fragmentary pages of script that, to my eye, certainly doesn’t survive . You’d never know of Malick’s practice of “torpedoing” — unexpectedly throwing cast members into scenes to force improvisation — because no real conflict reaches the surface.

Knight of Cups could play on a loop at a modern art installation without much loss.3 The patrons could pause momentarily to glean what they can from Emmanuel Lubezki’s radiant cinematography – bright, pale, and naturally lit, of course4 – or one of Malick’s cryptic snatches of voiceover – the rows of palm trees that line the L.A boulevards tell us, for instance, that anything’s possible – before simply moving on.5 

This is perhaps the only film that I wish they’d provided SparkNotes for going in; a handy how-to guide of reference points and symbolism. After almost two hours I almost, perversely, wished it would go on longer, just in the hope that it might all come together in one revelatory burst - alas.

In his review for The New York Times, Richard Brody described Knight of Cups in terms of “the confessional, the inside-Hollywood story, the Dantesque midlife-crisis drama, the religious quest, the romantic struggle, the sexual reverie, the family melodrama” – but, while all of these undercurrents are undoubtedly present, none of them have any hold. 

The film is all in the motion, like the breaking of waves; the journey rather than any single arrival or conversation. In this it resembles a 118-minute version of Sean Penn’s present-day perambulations in Tree of Life – reverently wandering between skyscrapers and riding in lifts as though travel were somehow the essence of meaning instead of a necessary transition between point A and point B.6  The film has so little actual structure to it, regardless of what the chapter headings proclaim, that just finding a rhythm to this review has, perhaps obviously, been challenging.7

Dealing with recurring themes in Malick’s work, like the death of a brother, this feels less like cinema than indulgence, therapy even, that, like Woody Allen and his recent travelogues – which are at least entertaining – is difficult to dismiss as navel-gazing simply because the navel in question is so remarkably well composed. Those few impressions that linger – the jaws of a dog, plunging futilely into a pool to recover a lost toy – endure only as curios; detached, adrift from that work that should encompass them.

Perversely, the film Knight of Cups most reminds me of is Batman V Superman - which, despite its subtitle, did justice to nothing and no one.8 Where that was too narrative-driven, this is slight; where that was too dark, all matte and gloss, this is light; where that was categorically shit, this is, well… wank. At least the former has the decency to be bad; this is just ephemeral.9 What films like BVS and KoC10 do, though, is make you appreciate tightly structured, disciplined cinema.11 

Knight of Cups is a film for which I've seen more than one positive review use words like "indecipherable" and "imponderable". Now, I can handle a certain amount of poetic obscurity,12 but, forgive me for being old-fashioned, I like my films to make sense.

One of Rick's myriad lovers – possibly Imogen Poots13 – informs him, "You're not looking for love. You're looking for a love experience." Knight of Cups is not a film but a cinematic experience; one that'll either sweep you away or leave you marooned, as it did me. 

The only reason I can't dismiss it out of hand is the lingering sense that maybe I missed something, that I was looking too closely (or else not closely enough) and the film's self-evident transcendence somehow got slipped between my bifocals. What was for me a tedious experience might well prove a transcendent one for you. Try as I did to engage, my latch was clearly broken. 

Ponderous and imponderable, and, like its protagonist, easily led, Knight of Cups gets a 4.0 out of 10 

1 Jason Clarke appears silently in one scene, presumably a victim of Malick’s legendary editing process.

2 Knight of Cups is divided into eight chapter, all named, as the film itself is, for tarot cards. After ‘Death’, fortunately, comes ‘Freedom’ – were it ‘Rebirth’ I might have been obliged to sit through the whole thing again.

3 The film is a canvas onto which you are almost obliged to project your own feelings, your own interpretations. Unfortunately I’ve never had the opportunity to bum around the L.A. party scene with a bevy of beauties on my arm and a seemingly inexhaustible wallet; otherwise I may have found Rick’s evident satisfaction with his lot in life a bit more relatable.

4 What is it with Lubezki and films I don’t quite get on with (even if they are Best Picture winners)? I liked Gravity but didn’t adore it as much as American Hustle; Birdman was fun and superficially profound, but I didn't even end up reviewing it. As for The Revenant

5 Hanan Townshend's ethereal string score is certainly relentlessly buoying.

6 You can count the moments of actual “drama” in Knight of Cups on the fingers of one fist. At one point I think Wes Bentley actually throws something. It very nearly startled me awake.

7 Hence the footnotes you are currently reading. The main body is for you; these are more or less just to help me work through any extraneous thoughts.

8 And that’s my last word on it – I promise.

9 Tightly wound films like, say Whiplash, which I haven’t seen since October 2014 and loved so much on girst viewing that I’m afraid to open my BluRay copy in case it somehow tarnishes the memory.

10 Malick’s next film, shot back to back with Knight of Cups, is actually called Weightless, but it’s hard to imagine it can be less substantial than this.

11 Okay one more parting shot: BVS is very close to IBS and KoC is a similarlyinspired acronym.

12 Carol Morley's The Falling was one of my favourites of 2015; a film no less ambitious in its own way for its commitment to actually telling a story. 

13 It is actually Imogen Poots. She’s called Della in the film – at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me – but for all intents and purposes she’s Imogen Poots. Antonio Banderas is charming and dances. Blanchet brings both fragility and strength in a minor role whose character motivations are provided explicitly via voiceover. Bale just looks about fixedly, occasionally giving a dopy grin or knowing smirk. “Hollow” characters can be fascinating – just see Nightcrawler or Bale himself in American Psycho – but there’s not even any pretence here.

Friday, 8 April 2016


Eye in the Sky is the type of film that lends itself to descriptors like “timely” and “prescient”. It may not be the first drama to tackle the spectre of drone warfare – Ethan Hawke-starrer A Good Kill did so through the lens of a character study – but it is certainly has the weightiest cast.

The eye in question is a MQ-9 Reaper, a US-manned drone equipped with two Hellfire missiles currently positioned 20,000 feet over a terrorist safe-house in Nairobi, Kenya. Commanding the operation is the steely Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) – not from the stark, sunny Nevada air-force base where her USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is stationed, but from a bunker in early-morning Sussex; around which a whole network of checks and oversights is based.

Powell has been tracking a terrorist couple for six years – one a white British woman and clear analogue for the real-life Samantha Lewthwaite AKA the White Widow – and now, with her sights on them, is determined to bring them in. However, the mission changes when a bug operated by an undercover agent on the ground, Jama Farad (Barkhad Abdi), reveals preparations are underway for a suicide bombing that will most likely claim dozens of lives should they be permitted to leave the compound.

When the mission objective leaps from “capture” to “terminate" (or rather "prosecute"), Powell and the whole staff discover an added moral component: the presence of a young bread-selling girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), on the street outside the compound; introducing the probability of collateral damage. As politicians overseen by a Lieutenant General Benson (Alan Rickman) argue over the legality of a unilateral strike and look to cover their backs politically, all involved find themselves faced with an impossible decision.

Unlike Hood’s 2007 film Rendition – which dealt (understandably) one-sidedly with the issue of “extraordinary rendition” – Eye in the Sky approaches the situation from every angle. Powell is determined to prevent an attack, even if it means manipulating the odds. Watts and his colleague Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are hoping to avoid pulling the trigger on an innocent. Jama is committed to saving the young girl’s life, despite the immediate risk posed to his own by the militant extremists who run the community.

While playing out essentially in real-time in a series of interlinking rooms – and, of course, that one street in Nairobi – Guy Hibbert’s script makes the most of the discursive material; specifically in the contrasting approaches to the dilemma. The US Secretary of State (Michael O’Keefe) barely steps away from a game of ping pong to brusquely give his assent; his British counterpart, the green-around-the-gills Foreign Secretary (Iain Glenn) faces the crisis from atop his porcelain throne.

Hood’s direction is pacey and assured, deftly handling the different narrative strands and steadily building up the suspense as decision time approaches. Even so, Eye in the Sky does stumble; slipping into superfluous sentimentality in scenes of the Alia joyfully hula hooping or learning maths from her enlightened father, Musa (Arman Haggio). Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian’s swelling Middle Eastern score similarly telegraphs emotion where Watts’ teary desperation says enough.

Aaron Paul’s strength as a performer lies in is his ability to wordlessly convey internal conflict – he always looks like a war is raging within his skull – and, by confining him to, essentially, a state-of-the-art Portacabin, the film plays to this strength. Forced to watch and wait as a decision is made by commanders and politicians a world away, the film captures, if only in brief, the trauma of those whose only recourse is to carry out those orders when they come – whatever they might be.

Director Gavin Hood’s first film since 2013’s Ender’s Game, Eye in the Sky also marks the welcome return of Barkhad Abdi to our screens for the first time since his Oscar-nominated debut in Captain Phillips. It also signifies the last time that Alan Rickman will grace us with his presence.

Though best recognised for the lightly sardonic air he brought to all his roles – the sense of an eyebrow perpetually raised – Rickman also brought an undeniable bedrock of sincerity. Whether struggling to purchase a doll for his daughter (who one assumes must be roughly the same age as Alia) or succinctly issuing a rebuttal to Monica Dolan’s self-righteous civil servant – “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war” – Rickman is a master of reserve. More than just the sneer and the drawl popularized by his omnivorous turn in Prince of Thieves, Eye in the Sky is a stark reminder of the talent we’ve lost with his passing.

It may offer no real opinion on the War on Terror itself, but Eye in the Sky is a well-observed (excuse the pun), intellectually rigorous look at a necessary evil of the modern age – somewhat compromised by its play for mainstream appeal. Call it "An Alright Kill".


Eye in the Sky gets a 7 out of 10

Saturday, 2 April 2016


The fourth film of 37-year-old Arkansan director Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special feels like a narrative made to fit its title. Named for an old folk standard, it follows Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a goggle-wearing pre-teen gifted with supernatural abilities. As the three, including driver Lucas (Joel Edgerton), speed through Texas, heading for an unknown destination, both the Federal government — embodied by Adam Driver’s geeky NSA specialist, Paul Sevier — and  a Midwestern cult — led by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Sam Shephard — are in pursuit. 

The question of whether Alton is saviour or threat is ultimately irrelevant, though: new father Nichols’ interest lies, understandably, in father-son relationship, as seen through a distinctly Spielbergian lens. As Edgerton’s worn but well-meaning accomplice remarks they — along with Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) — “would have made a nice family”. David Wingo’s low, driving electronic score and Adam Stone’s sharp night-time cinematography evoke a variety of ‘80s sci-fi classics — as does a scene where Sarah’s mother is menacingly doorstepped by two cult members looking for “Sarah” — but Nichols’ exposition-free script focuses on character.

The exact nature of Alton’s abilities — his eyes glow with white light, he picks up encrypted government signals and brings down a satellite in a rain of fiery debris — and disabilities is left unclear — each episode leaves him physically weaker and, for reasons never explained, can only travel at night (hence, one presumes) the title. As with Nichols’ previous works, Midnight Special is all about how far we are willing to go to protect our family — albeit with a slightly different milieu from the working-class desperation that characterised his debut feature, Shotgun Stories

Shannon’s more reserved role doesn’t necessarily play to the actor’s full range — this is arguably the least remarkable of his and Nichols’ four collaborations; the most being his turn as the doomsaying family man of Give Me Shelter — but the buttoned-down intensity he brings to the role is faintly compelling. Lieberher’s Alton is, refreshingly, just an ordinary, slightly solemn kid (as opposed to, say, the kid from Mercury Rising— albeit one given to mysterious proclamations — and Dunst breathes life and nuance into an otherwise slightly thankless role. 

Despite some inconsistent mythology and a finale that takes the notion of “a better world for our children” way too literally  (think Tomorrowland meets A.I.), Midnight Special is, for the most part, a well-observed, no-frills genre/chase flick. Along with 10 Cloverfield Lane, the film makes the case that the mid-budget genre flick is alive and well and, it seems, living south of the Mason-Dixon.

Midnight Special gets a 6.5 out of 10