Thursday, June 23, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016) and 45 YEARS (2015)

(US - 2016)

Terrence Malick makes movies for no one other than Terrence Malick, and by this point, you're either onboard with his improvisational, self-indulgent, stream-of-consciousness journeys up his own ass or you're not. So if you've been open to his increasingly prolific output in recent years or found him stretching well beyond the point of myopic self-parody, KNIGHT OF CUPS isn't going to do a thing to change your opinion. Similar to 2013's ponderous misfire TO THE WONDER--notable for being the first instance of some of his most devoted acolytes finally having the stones to admit he kinda lost them with this one--Malick continues to move away from the concept of narrative altogether in his presentation of Hollywood screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale, who worked with Malick on 2005's significantly better THE NEW WORLD), a man hopelessly lost in a suffocating malaise of L.A. ennui. No, KNIGHT OF CUPS isn't one of those bile-spewing insider takedowns of Hollywood but that might've actually been preferable. There's lots of scenes of Rick walking and driving around various obligatory recognizable locations (other than Bale, the most screen time goes to the 405 and some Death Valley wind turbines, and yes, at one point, he engages in some thousand-yard staring at the nearly bone-dry concrete of the L.A. River, whose appearance in a Los Angeles-set film is apparently required by law) and replaying the bad decisions and lost loves in his life. It's all accompanied by the expected ponderous, insufferable, pained-whisper narration by various characters that's become Malick's trademark (note: these make even less sense in context):
  •  "Fragments...pieces of a man...where did I go wrong?" 
  •  "I want you. Hold you. Have you. Mine."
  •  "All those years...living the life of someone I didn't even know."
  •  "You gave me peace. You gave me what the world can't give. Mercy. Love. Joy. All else is cloud. Be with me. Always."
  •  "We find me."
  •  "Oh. Life."
  •  "Begin."

Many familiar faces drift in and out throughout, some playing characters (Cate Blanchett as Rick's ex-wife; Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto, and Teresa Palmer as various lovers; Wes Bentley as Rick's brother, who commited suicide; Brian Dennehy as their dad; barely visible bits by Nick Offerman, Jason Clarke, Clifton Collins Jr., Joel Kinnaman, Dane DeHaan, Shea Whigham, and Kevin Corrigan as Rick's buddies or colleagues) and others playing themselves in what amounts to an arthouse ZOOLANDER 2 (Ryan O'Neal, Fabio, Joe LoTruglio, Joe Manganiello, Thomas Lennon, and Antonio Banderas, who offers this bit of sage relationship advice to Rick: "It's like flavors...sometimes you want raspberry and after a while, you get tired and want strawberry," in a way that sounds like Antonio Banderas imitating Chris Kattan imitating Antonio Banderas on SNL). TO THE WONDER was terrible, but at least it captured the beauty in the bland sameness of middle America in a vividly Antonioni-esque, RED DESERT fashion. With KNIGHT OF CUPS, shot way back in 2012 and endlessly tinkered with by its dawdling maker, Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki don't even find a unique visual perspective of Los Angeles, mainly because we've seen all of these places in 50,000 other movies and Malick, currently American cinema's top auteur who doesn't seem to get out much, has no new perspective to offer. Sure, Malick injects some personal pain into the story--his own brother committed suicide--but does it matter when his writing has regressed to the level of an angsty teenager who's just had his heart broken for the first time? Do we need another movie about depressed and loathsome L.A. dickbags and their first-world problems? The Malick of old could bring a singularly original perspective to this tired and played-out concept, but all the Malick of today has to offer are sleepy, enigmatic voiceovers and more California cliches than a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. Look, film snobs. Let's just cut the shit. Stop giving Malick a pass simply because of your fond memories of what he once was. (R, 118 mins)

(UK/Germany - 2015)

A quiet and low-key character piece that subtly grows more tense and uncomfortable as it goes along, 45 YEARS is also a showcase for a pair of late-career triumphs for stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Rampling received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher in a small, rural British town. The film follows Kate and husband Geoff (Courtenay) over the week leading up to a swanky party with all of their friends--the Mercers never had children--celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary (a party was planned for their 40th, but Geoff's heart attack and bypass surgery led to its cancellation). On Monday of that week, Geoff receives a letter from Germany informing him that the still-preserved body of Katya, his German girlfriend who died over 50 years ago, was found in a melting glacier where she fell into a crevasse while they were mountain climbing in Switzerland. Memories from a half-century ago come back to haunt Geoff, and while Kate is initially supportive of the wave of grief overcoming her husband, she grows increasingly concerned over the week as long-buried details of his relationship with Katya come to the surface. He was contacted because the initial report listed him as her next-of-kin, which leads Kate to think Geoff and Katya were married. He insists they weren't, only that they pretended to be since it was a much more conservative era. After a failed attempt at sex due to Geoff's mind being elsewhere, she catches him rummaging around in the attic in the middle of the night, looking for pictures of Katya. Geoff starts smoking again, tries to back out of a lunch with some old work buddies, and even their friends remark that he seems distant, agitated, and preoccupied. He starts reading up on global warming and Kate finds out he's been talking to a travel agent about booking a trip to Switzerland. While Geoff is out one afternoon, Kate goes through his old photos and notebooks in some boxes stashed away in the attic and finds something that makes her question everything about their 45-year marriage.

Based on David Constantine's short story "In Another Country" and written and directed by Andrew Haigh, who cut his teeth working on the editing team of several Ridley Scott films (GLADIATOR, BLACK HAWK DOWN, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN), 45 YEARS is a fascinating, unsettling, and often deeply moving meditation on marriage, trust, love, and the disturbing realization that no matter how long or how well you've known someone, you'll never know everything about them. Kate was aware of Katya's death when she met Geoff, but it never occurred to her just how much of a presence the memory of Katya was in her marriage to Geoff, or the ways in which Katya has been the driving force in many of Geoff's--and by association, Kate's--decisions over the years. Haigh doesn't ask the audience to pick sides--indeed, there are times when Kate seems insensitive to Geoff's grief, but Geoff doesn't make it easy, yammering on about "my Katya" in ways that sometimes seem like an inadvertent slap in Kate's face. There's no doubt that Geoff loves Kate dearly, but it's just as clear that Katya has always been on his mind. In their best roles in years (probably decades for Courtenay, who's been nominated for two Oscars and was big in the mid '60s but seemed to consciously avoid the commercial pursuits of his British "angry young man" contemporaries like Richard Burton, Albert Finney, and Peter O'Toole), the two living legend stars are just superb, their body language and mannerisms expertly conveying decades of lived-in familiarity and shorthand communication, culminating a long, static shot near the end that up-ends all of that in a devastating portrait of ambiguity and uncertainty. (R, 95 mins)

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