Saturday, 30 April 2016

Knight of Cups

I watched this with Deanna in Edmonton in early April, under less-than-ideal conditions (noxious fumes permeating the theatre), so my review isn’t trustworthy until I watch it again.

Like To the Wonder (Terence Malick’s last film), Knight of Cups has been poorly received by critics. Partly this is due simply to the fact that it’s a very typical Malick film, with frequent meditative voiceovers and dream-like sequences; it’s more poetry than narrative and many critics think this is getting old. I don’t agree. I think the film industry hugely benefits from filmmakers like Malick who masterfully take film in new directions.

Having said that, I don’t think Knight of Cups is Malick’s strongest film. Perhaps because of the fumes, I found that Knight of Cups had fewer profound ideas and insights than Malick’s previous films, something that is essential for my enjoyment of a film like this (under better viewing conditions, I might have just let the gorgeous images and enigmatic dialogue in Knight of Cups wash over me like the waves in the film, but …)

In what appears to be another autobiographical film (the third in a row, beginning with Tree of Life), Malick is represented by Rick (played by Christian Bale), a young man struggling to find meaning in life in Los Angeles, where he is working as a screenwriter.

The film is divided into chapters named after tarot cards, with each chapter focusing on a failed relationship with a different woman (including his ex-wife, played by Cate Blanchett). Rick, it seems, is quite the womanizer. Woven among these failed relationships is Rick’s also failed relationship with his father (brilliantly played by Brian Dennehy, the only actor whose talents weren’t under-utilized in this film) and brother (Wes Bentley). 

But, as already said, Knight of Cups doesn’t have a plot. It’s about life, meaning, lost opportunities, relationships, and celebrity, all suffused with religious overtones which make the film that much more fascinating for me. With the world’s greatest cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) on hand to give us a new look at L.A., we are invited to see and experience life through Malick’s unique vision. That’s good enough for me. Once I see Knight of Cups without the fumes, I will likely award it ***+, but for now I will only commit to somewhere between *** and ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

A Hologram for the King

I have a special bond with German filmmaker Tom Tykwer. I say this not because I have enjoyed every film he has made (though I have) or because three of his films are in my all-time top 100 (each of those was my favourite film of the year); I say this because three of my favourite Tykwer films (including two of those referred to above) were panned by most film critics. So the fact that Tykwer’s new film, A Hologram for the King, has received mostly mediocre reviews hardly served to scare me off or even lower my expectations. And while A Hologram for the King, which is based on the novel by Dave Eggers, won’t be my favourite film of 2016, it did not disappoint. 

Tom Hanks stars as Alan Clay, an American IT salesman who flies to Saudi Arabia in 2010 to try to sell a new holographic teleconferencing system to the king. In the brilliant opening scene, we learn that Alan has lost his house, his wife and his car. His work isn’t going well either and his life feels like a rollercoaster. Alan’s pain and depression (midlife crisis?) are real, but he is not to be compared to Job (or Nikolay in Leviathan). This is, after all, a comedy, the kind of film (and role) Hanks does as well as any actor ever has. Alan’s losses are the result of a messy divorce, his wife being tired of Alan’s inability to see the big picture. But Alan does have a college-age daughter (Tracey Fairaway) who loves him and tries to assure him that she doesn’t blame him for the fact that she can’t afford college.

Alan’s high hopes for Saudi Arabia are dashed quickly when his driver (Yousef, played wonderfully by Alexander Black) laughs at the prospect of the king’s new city, where Alan hopes to make the sale. When he arrives at a handful of buildings in the middle of the desert and finds his team in a large tent, wondering when to expect wi-fi (a requirement for the system) and food, he begins to despair, especially when he hears that the king hasn’t visited his new city in the past eighteen months and no one can guarantee when he might show up for the demonstration Alan and his team are preparing. 

A large bump that has recently appeared on his upper back adds to Alan’s worries. After a particularly bad night, Yousef takes Alan to the hospital, where he is cared for by Dr. Zahra Hakem (Sarita Choudhury), one of the few female doctors in SA. Does Alan have cancer on top of all his other problems? Is his stress overwhelming his body or is he spending too much time with Hanne (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the Danish woman in the office who is trying to be a little too helpful?

All of the characters in A Hologram for the King are unique and memorable. The presence of two strong older women as romantic leads is refreshing. The cinematography is excellent, the score (Tykwer wrote much of it himself) is very good and there are some interesting ideas lying just beneath the surface that I’m still trying to interpret.

A Hologram for the King is a gentle, quiet, sad and funny film, with some thoughtful comments on life, and I was delighted by almost every minute of it. Comedy-drama is not my favourite genre, but this one works for me. I recommend it to almost everyone (not to those who yawn at the mention of a gentle quiet film). A solid ***+. My mug is up and a place in my top ten of the year is not out of the question.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Embrace of the Serpent


Gareth was in town a couple of weeks ago and we got to watch one of his favourite films of the decade at Cinematheque. It will surely make my top ten of the year as well.

Reminding me of Fitzcarraldo, The Mission and Apocalypse Now, Embrace of the Serpent is nevertheless a wholly original and utterly spellbinding work of art. It tells the story of Karamakate, an indigenous Amazonian shaman, at two points in his life (1909 and 1940) when he is asked to guide a white man upriver in search of a sacred healing plant called yakruna. 

Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), possibly the last survivor of his tribe, is still young, living by himself in the heart of the Amazonian jungle (in Colombia), when Theo (Jan Bijvoet), who is near death, arrives in 1909, needing yakruna to heal him. In 1940, it is Evan (Brionne Davis), an American botanist, who, having read Theo’s diaries, wants the older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) to help him find the plant. 

The two trips up the Amazon reveal the horrors of colonialism, including the enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples by the Colombian rubber barons. One stop along the river, in both time periods, is particularly haunting, not least because it’s a Catholic mission and shows the way religion can be part of the horror.

My first response to watching Embrace of the Serpent was: “Wow. In the midst of superhero and special effects madness, some people are still making old-fashioned masterpieces.” Full of wonder, mystery and magic (as well as horror), Cio Guerra’s film is a breath of fresh air. While I kept wondering how green the locations really were, the black and white cinematography is gorgeous and adds to the mystery and the feeling that you are watching history unfold (by way of an old documentary). 

The highlight of the film, however, is the character of Karamakate and the incredible performance of the two actors (or non-actors) who play him. A wise man who constantly makes us wonder who is the wiser and more civilized (the enlightened supposedly-advanced white people or the indigenous peoples being wiped off the earth), Karamakate reveals the oppression without, as Gareth points out, demonizing the oppressor. Remarkable. 

Embrace of the Serpent gets an easy **** and is not to be missed. My mug is up. 

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Midnight Special

As it should be, I knew absolutely nothing about Midnight Special before going into the theatre (apart from the names of some of the key players involved). This is the only way, in my opinion, to get the fullest enjoyment out of watching this film, even if (or precisely because) Midnight Special is a very enigmatic film (i.e. one never learns what is really going on at the beginning of the film or what really happens at the end). 

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose previous two films (Mud, Take Shelter) were among my favourites in their respective years (2012, 2011), Midnight Special stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver (among others) in what I will only describe for you as an ‘adventure’ film (I do this on the off chance that you have not yet been informed of its actual genre or genres, thus potentially increasing your enjoyment of the film). 

While this ‘adventure’ film contains a number of action scenes, those viewers looking for an action film will go away disappointed, as Midnight Special is a slow-moving thoughtful film which focuses on characters, relationships, tension and mystery rather than action (even though the ‘action’ drives the film’s narrative). Even so, my only complaint about Midnight Special is that there was too much action (i.e. more than was necessary, including some violent scenes which, while remarkably restrained, were nevertheless not absolutely required). 

One of the many joys of watching Midnight Special is its obvious (and, I assume, intentional) similarity to one of my favourite films of all time (a film made in the seventies, which I won’t identify lest it give too much away). It isn’t in any way a remake of that film, but it felt like I was watching another version of the story, one with strong undercurrents of one of my all-time favourite writers (a Canadian writer by the name of Robert Charles Wilson, whose specialty is ‘mystery’, though not of the Agatha Christie variety). 

There is a lot of mystery in Midnight Special, especially, as I have indicated, at the beginning and end of the film. But I found both the beginning (which drops us into the middle of the story) and the end to be absolutely brilliant. It was only the ‘action’ in between that occasionally failed to satisfy. 

The acting was excellent, with Shannon standing out as a man suffering from all kinds of doubts and anxieties as he tries to … oops, almost gave you too much information. Add a perfect score and handheld cinematography that felt right for this kind of film (which felt so much like an indie film that it’s hard to believe it was made by a studio) and you have another winner from Jeff Nichols, one of the best new directors out there. For the second review in a row, I have to give Midnight Special ***+ verging on ****. My mug is up. 

Update: Having just watched Midnight Special for the second time, I was blown away by the fact that, despite being a surprise-twist kind of film, I actually liked it more the second time, with the violence still bothering me but not near as much as I had expected. So I am now awarding this film a solid **** and a place in my top ten films of 2016.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Eye in the Sky

Alan Rickman's final screen performance is one of his best, and the film he stars is in one of the best films of the year so far. My full review can be found at Third Way Cafe:

One thing I forgot to mention in that review is the effort the filmmakers made to humanize the terrorists. I had noted that (as I watched) with great appreciation, but forgot about it until I read Gareth's review (after I had sent my review in). A very solid ***+, verging on ****. My mug is up for Eye in the Sky, a thoughtful, thought-provoking and brilliantly-acted film.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Divergent: Allegiant

The decline of the Divergent series continues with this third instalment. Since the second film received only **+ from me, this is a very sad thing indeed.

So I’ll make this brief: Jeff Daniels joins a cast that includes Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer along with the usual Divergent regulars. To say it’s a step down for them is an understatement. All of the acting takes a huge step down in this third film, with not a single performance worth mentioning. A number of scenes were downright embarrassing (including one featuring Daniels). But actors can only do so much with a bad screenplay, and what we have in Divergent: Allegiant is a bad screenplay. 

With a little imagination, heart and a lot more thought, it could have been a good film, as we watch the group of young leaders from a dystopian Chicago finally discover what lies beyond the wall. For me, it wasn’t that the plot was too convoluted. I generally understood what was happening throughout the film. What I couldn’t understand was WHY it was happening. The story is messy and boring, with lots of holes and inconsistencies, like the fact that (minor spoiler alert) an organization with unimaginably high-tech surveillance capabilities has no idea what’s going on right under its nose (the CIA and Mossad do much better with much less). 

But the worst part of the screenplay (for me) was its poor opinion of people in general and of people’s readiness (often eagerness) to use violence for the tiniest of excuses in particular. This leads to far too much violence and a lot of stupidity. 

As in the first two films of the series, there are some thought-provoking ideas in Divergent: Allegiant, like a discussion of what happens when the character traits of any faction become too dominant (e.g. too much emphasis on intelligence in Erudite leads to a lack of compassion; too much emphasis on pacifism in Amity leads to becoming passive, etc.). But these ideas are completely wasted in this film. 

So unless you’re a huge Divergent fan or just can’t resist dystopian films (that’s me), you’ll want to give Divergent: Allegiant a miss. ** My mug is down.