April 22, 2016: The Jungle Book

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.26.48 AM

There’s a point in The Jungle Book when Mowgli, the feral-child hero, happens upon an enormous python named Kaa.  Voiced by Scarlet Johansson in her soothing growl, the serpent approaches the boy like a stranger with candy, promising her protection and hypnotizing him with her protean eyes.  Like all the animals in director Jon Favreau’s visually impressive remake of Disney’s 1967 animated film, which was based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories, Kaa is a wonder to behold.  She slithers her lithe body atop and through tree trunks and branches with the malevolent nonchalance of a canopy demoness.  As Mowgli falls prey to her allure, his attention paid fully to the transfixing visions in her shimmery gaze, she subtly wraps herself around him in what could be described as a mother’s embrace, if her intentions weren’t so clearly predatory.  I won’t spoil how (or if) he escapes, but I will say the trap — a ploy other characters pull similarly throughout The Jungle Book — befits a movie that is itself little more than a decent distraction.

The story goes that bony misfit Mowgli (Neel Sethi) must reclaim the jungle from a ferocious autocratic tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba), with help, as always, from bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) as well as the wolf pack that raised him.  The impeccable production design and visual effects make the beasts, especially Shere Khan, with his charred face and rearing fangs, at once tactile and mythological.  However, the filmmakers never balance their darker aspirations with requisite shoutouts to Disney’s good-vibes original.  Renditions of “Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are fun yet incongruous, even if Christopher Walken croons frozen-banana-cool as ape King Louis doing Brando.  Meanwhile, Sethi, the one living being in this so-called “live-action” production, grins like Dopey when what this iteration really demands from its hero is fire.  To be honest, I enjoyed The Jungle Book well enough, but by the final disposable message about respecting law and community (or whatever), I was thinking how much I need to revisit the forgotten swashbuckling 90’s version, with an adult Mowgli.  That one had some real meat on its bones.

April 15, 2016: Francofonia and Colonia

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 9.16.32 AM

In Francofonia, director Alexander Sokourov blurs the line between documentary and narrative film; and more impressively, he makes the past almost indistinguishable from the present.  His slow yet adroit film explores the Louvre museum, not only its beautiful halls and galleries, but also its place in Paris, in history, in the legacy of documentation.  The movie turns the palatial rooms into haunted mausoleums, where the ghosts of recent and distant eras can cohabit them.  By focusing mostly on the precarious period of German occupation during WWII, when the museum was threatened and then rescued by a heroic few, we can see that wars and museums share a complex relationship — that the former can destroy, or even bear, the latter.  Sukourov goes beyond the common notion of a “war museum” when he explains how the land where the Louvre sits was originally settled as a defensive citadel against the vikings, or how its many ancient treasures were actually stolen by Napoleon’s imperial armies and brought back to Paris as trophies.  To me, it evoked Hitler’s plan to build a Jewish museum to monumentalize the extinct race.  Francofonia understands that men like Napoleon and Hitler dreamt not just to conquer the world, but also to conquer the past.

If they are the villains, the Louvre’s real-life administrator, Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), and the Nazi minister of art, Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath), are the heroes.  They collaborated to protect the museum’s masterpieces, many of which were smuggled to the countryside before the Germans seized the city.  Their scenes together fall somewhere between drama and dramatization, as if Sokourov seeks to obfuscate the common modes of documentary and narrative filmmaking.  Archival footage reveals how the city around them had become a ghost town, since thousands of French citizens fled south following their government away from the onrushing army.  (The French thereby made Paris an “open city”, in a surrender bargain that ensured protection for denizens and landmarks but at the cost of its autonomy; whereas a city like St. Petersburg, in contrast, maintained its freedom and was left in ruins.) The combination of cinematographic methods places Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich at once within history and beyond it, now part of the Louvre’s spectral legacy, where they can converse with the egotist Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth) and Marianne (Johanna Korthas Altes), a symbolic peasant who intones the dreams of the French Revolution.

Like in a Werner Herzog documentary, Sokourov narrates the story himself while simultaneously attempting to articulate its philosophical meaning.  It’s not my favorite method of documentary narration, and the director even uses framing scenes where he edits the film, talks to himself (hence the voice-over), and struggles to communicate with a friend aboard a sinking freighter carrying a traveling gallery of art pieces.  The scattershot threads of narrative can make the brief ninety minutes a tad lethargic.  However, the film is magnificent when the camera studies the art itself, gazing almost obsessively with the adoring eyes of a curator God.  From the portraiture of the Late Renaissance to the mythical statuettes of Ancient Assyria, Francofonia goes behind the velvet ropes, so close to the museum’s gems that you can smell the sculpted marble and oil paints.  One shot seemed to say it all: the fingers of a sculpture hang down in close-up from the top of the frame, while human fingers rise up from the bottom and attempt to touch them; but since they are actually two separate shots superimposed, the fingers simply pass through one another.  This singular, searching film knows what anyone who ever built, protected or even visited a museum seeks to find: a way to touch history.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 9.28.24 AM

Colonia Dignidad, the subject of the political thriller Colonia, was a political prison in Chile in the 1970’s.  It was unique in that it shared its location with a religious cult, founded by an ex-Nazi named Paul Shafer (played by Michael Nyqvist in the film) who allowed the government use of the facility for interrogation and torture, while the government allowed the acolytes religious privacy and freedom.  But, as the film reveals, that religiosity was a sham and the compound a subterfuge for Shafer to indulge his pedophilia consequence free.  Colonia Dignidad is such a horrifyingly perfect symbol of the collusion between religious hypocrisy and state oppression that one almost cannot believe it’s not fictional.  Inspired by true events, the movie follows Lena (Emma Watson), a German stewardess who joins the cult in order to rescue her socialist boyfriend, Daniel (Daniel Bruhl), after he’s arrested during the military coup by General Pinochet in 1973.  There’s a metaphor somewhere here about how a totalitarian regime can turn a whole country into a nation of prisoners, but Colonia is too shallow to insightfully remark on its protagonists’ ordeal.

In the lead role, Watson is inarguably lovely as always, but she still strikes me as something of a lightweight dramatic actress.  Commanding the screen — something Jennifer Lawrence and Saoirse Ronan do in their sleep — doesn’t come so naturally to her.  Here, while she holds the center well, she makes Lena so singleminded in her mission that sometimes she seems indifferent to the suffering happening around her.  Like in the scene where Shafer makes her grovel before a room of slut-shaming men, the character exudes too much strength and courage, to the extent that we’re never really worried about her.  Bruhl, who I’ve liked since Inglorious Bastards, is good as Daniel, a man who’s survived weeks of cruel questioning, but the residual damage, to body and mind, turns out to be a ruse, a plot device.  I’ll admit, the leads do have nice chemistry, and the climax — an extended suspense sequence — is exciting in an Argo kind-of-way.  Though despite the epilogue condemning the atrocities of Pinochet’s era, I was sure I’d seen a serviceable prison-escape-movie, rather than the intended searing political drama.  Someone still needs to make that film, about the Chilean people, who for decades called that prison home and could never just escape.

 

 

April 8th, 2016: Everybody Wants Some!!

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 8.22.12 AM

Everybody Wants Some!!, writer-director Richard Linklater’s semi-sequel to Dazed And Confused, is infectiously funny and endearing, a comedy about college life that first reminds you of how much fun college was, then of how much you miss it.  Filled with great Eighties music from Blondie, Pat Benatar, Van Halen and Talking Heads, and set four years after Dazed’s “last day of school in 1976”, the new film is different from its predecessor, not just in soundtrack and period, but in style as well.  It’s not shot like a documentary, nor is it an art film disguised as a stoner movie, as Dazed was.  It focuses not on an ensemble of interconnecting cliques and rather on one very specific clique.  But the two films share DNA.  Both are about nostalgia, social initiations and coming-of-age, about identities forged from breaking the rules and having as much fun as humanly possible.  Lively and charming, Everybody Wants Some!! is a hangout comedy about partying and getting laid that also, in subtle ways, plays like a bittersweet memory.  (Only in hindsight was everyone you met in college so attractive.)  It’s a damn good time, but it also knows that the best times are those we don’t recognize until we notice them in the rearview mirror.

Freshman Jake Bradford (Blake Jenner) arrives at an unnamed Texas university three days before fall semester starts.  He moves into a dilapidated house off-campus designated for members of the school’s elite baseball team.  Jake, like Pink in Dazed or Mason in Boyhood, is one of Linklater’s confident sponge protagonists — handsome and stoic, constantly absorbing the world around him without letting it crack his sturdy sense-of-self.  His teammates are a colorful bunch who seem mean, but only because, to them, respect is something you must earn.  Finnegan (Glenn Powell) is like Van Wilder played by Brad Pitt, a schmooze artist who, whether discussing astrology, physics in baseball or hitting on chicks, seems to be seducing everybody all the time.  There’s Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), the mysterious holdover from the hippy era; the perpetually pumped Niles (Juston Street), a self-promoting ace who exemplifies why everyone thinks pitchers are weird; and tempestuous McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), the big-hitting senior for whom, unlike the others, a future career in baseball may not be a delusion.  With these winning characters, the movie is both a raucous frat burlesque (a la Animal House) and more; it’s a story of Bro Culture before it had a name, with a roughhousing cast of alphas and would-be lotharios who are really just figuring life out as it whizzes passed them like a knuckleball.

As with many Linklater films, there isn’t much traditional plot to speak of, rather a series of incidences, and the freewheeling course of events breaks up into several parties, each highlighting a specific cultural attitude vying for attention in the Eighties ethos.  The boys boogie at a club filled with silk shirts and latent disco queens, line dance with country girls at a local honky tonk, mosh with punks at a rock show, where the band plays a thrash version of the Gilligan’s Island theme (a perfect medley of pop culture ubiquity and ostensible rebellion), and even throw a kegger themselves.  Toward the end, Jake brings his bash brothers to a soiree given by drama majors, in a house scrupulously decorated in the psychedelia spirt of Alice In Wonderland.  The film reveals, in its desultory party-hopping fashion, how 1980 was a critical juncture in American culture, when the convergence of styles past and contemporary could overwhelm anyone looking to figure out where they belong.  At one point, Jake remarks that their social life is a masquerade, that playing dress-up is really the collegiate methodology of identity soul-searching.  He inelegantly articulates what we can already see with our eyes, in an example of the dialogued philosophizing that has unfortunately crept into Linklater’s work.

The movie fully won me over with its romantic side, though.  Of the copious coeds roaming campus, Jake decides early that he likes intellectual Beverley, played by Zoey Deutch with the innocuous kink of Isla Fischer and the brainy loquacity of Anna Kendrick.  When she asks him what he wants to study, she’s really asking, “What do you want to do?”  And Jake can’t answer because he can’t think passed playing baseball and having fun (imaging the future would harsh his buzz).  For all Linklater’s laid-back no-sweat storytelling, his sagas of slacker slumming, his true interest is quite deep: a person’s place in time — how age, period and memory shape the experiences we’re having right now.  The Before Trilogy had its countdown clocks and decennial rendezvous, Boyhood its growing-up-before-your-eyes conceit; but Everybody Wants Some!!, like Dazed before it, seems uniquely frozen in time, especially with The Cars lyric “Let The Good Times Roll” echoing in our ears as we exit the theater.  That’s why Linklater’s cinema, and its affinity for rock-infused in-the-moment party addiction, is so heavenly to watch; it leaves you suspended in that blissful moment when the party never needed to end.

April 1st, 2016: Remember

Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 9.52.50 AM

Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer), the protagonist of Remember, director Atom Egoyan’s compelling mystery-drama, is an 88-year-old German-American widower with dementia.  Hence, he’s the most unlikely agent of justice.  A Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, Zev is recruited by Max (Martin Landau), an invalid Nazi-hunter at his nursing home, to locate and kill the SS officer that guarded them.  Guided by Max’s memory-jogging letter of instruction, Zev travels across the country carrying a black satchel with hundred-dollar bills and a loaded Glock, seeking the murderer who’s been hiding in the American heartland under a fake name since the war.  He finds several potential culprits, all of whom are old and infirm like him.  As Zev points his weapon and begins interrogating them, his mission feels like a cruel exercise in futility.  These men are already a whisper away from God’s eternal judgement.  So why even bother?  But Remember is more than a condemnation of vengeance; it’s a powerful film about personal and collective memory, about the many people who would rather forget what happened, and the fleeting few who, to their dying breaths, never could.

Egoyan, the acclaimed Egyptian-Canadian filmmaker, has a manner at once cogent and not especially subtle.  A reminder scribbled in ink on Zev’s wrist effectively evokes the tattooed number further down his arm, while a shower-head enveloped in ghostly steam and an inquisitorial policeman with a German shepherd recall Holocaust imagery in more obvious ways.  The film makes two awkward jabs at America’s embarrassingly lax gun-control laws.  In one, a proprietor happily sells confused Zev a handgun, then writes him detailed directions on how to use it.  The most ham-fisted scene, to my mind, was Zev’s encounter with a Neo-Nazi, a not-unbelievable moment handled like a cartoon of ideological bullying.  However, Egoyan is highly skilled at withholding information until the moment of greatest impact.  There’s also a tremendous potency to his tonal control.  One shot, in particular, of Zev running his fingers through the opaque streams of a hotel lobby waterfall, expressed to me very eloquently the film’s theme of blurred recollection.  And Plummer makes Zev the embodiment of that idea, a man driven by the need to rediscover his past, to bring focus to his history.

Admittedly, there is one major flaw here: How could Max, pulling the strings from long distance, booking hotels and chauffeurs, really expect forgetful, barely-there Zev to pull off a masterplan that only grows increasingly elaborate and implausible over time?  Despite that potentially ruinous infeasibility, the film succeeds because Egoyan has bigger concerns than mere plotting.  When it comes to the legacy of the Holocaust, Remember argues that children are the key.  Among others, we find a boy chatting with Zev on a train and a girl in a hospital room reading him Max’s letter.  With their youthful faces, they visually contrast the craggy older men, and more importantly, they listen, since they’re the keepers of our most vital narratives, the true weapon of reckoning.  Late on, Max, a man whose large eyes appear to have seen it all, emerges as the film’s secret soul.  Because this fatalistic thriller of overdue justice, with its sucker-punch finale, is really a warning against cultural senility, it suggests that Max’s great payback is not killing the Nazis, but forcing the world to remember their crimes.

March 25th, 2016: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 9.34.33 AM

It’s clear early on that 10 Cloverfield Lane, the contrived yet thrilling prequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, is not the shaky-cam spectacle that its predecessor was.  Debut director Dan Trachtenberg has made a different sort of movie — small-scale and psychological, less Godzilla than Misery.  Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), after leaving her fiancé, wrecks her car on a Southern highway, tumbling down a hill into a ravine.  She awakes days later, chained up in an underground bunker by a heavy-set survivalist farmer with a glued-on grimace and dead calm demeanor.  The owner, Howard (John Goodman), is convinced some disaster has destroyed humanity, and that by keeping Michelle prisoner, ostensibly protecting her from the toxic fallout, he’s actually doing her a favor.  Regardless, he’s a control-freak loner and conspiracy nut who’s so proud that his paranoia was validated that he takes Michelle as his keepsake prize.  Much of the movie revolves around whether she’s a survivor of some mysterious holocaust or a madman’s hostage, or both.

The bunker itself is like Martha Stewart’s prison cell, complete with kitchen and TV room, board games and a shower curtain with a cute duck illustration.  Goodman, always better as a comedian than a dramatic actor (he hosted SNL eight times but never received an Oscar nomination), is good as a frustrated would-be patriarch.  Howard, a perversion of Goodman’s role on Roseanne, is searching for someone with whom to play house; he’s the spiritual brother to Annie Wilkes in the aforementioned Misery.  The actor is less convincing as an unstable maniac and apocalyptic soothsayer.  With her round girl-next-door visage, Winstead makes a solid woman-in-peril and shines particularly when Michelle is required to tacitly solve problems, sometimes on the fly.  It isn’t easy for an actor to convey that her character is thinking her way out of a predicament.

Winstead is asked to do that often, because Trachtenberg aspires to what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema”, or visual storytelling.  With little-to-no dialogue early on, the director communicates information in ways that are sometimes quite effective, as when Michelle discovers an urgent message carved into a bunker window.  (Written on the exterior, it means someone out there needs help, but on the inside, it means someone in the bunker, at some point, tried desperately to reach the outside world.)  Other times, the visuals are more cliched, like a close-up of the engagement ring Michelle leaves behind for her boyfriend, or a serendipitously placed road sign illustrating her options in a trite way.  Trachtenberg is best at mounting suspense, as when Michelle must crawl through a vent to restart the air filter.  Another time, following an escape attempt, she comes face-to-face with the potential horror lurking just outside her grudging sanctuary.

The director has a better sense for individual sequences than for holistic narrative.  He’s let down, too, by a script written by committee and heavy on contrivances.  You can bet the one miscellaneous item Michelle remembers to bring from her apartment will come in handy in the final act.  Also, she and Howard are joined in the bunker by a young man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.)  The charismatic Gallagher Jr. makes the most of the character — an amenable country kid who sought refuge in the wrong place — but he’s really playing a walking-talking plot device.  When needed, Emmet gives Michelle the scoop on Howard or on a pertinent, local criminal case.  At one point, he recounts a tale of personal woe that’ll galvanize her in a hopeless, climactic moment.  Even more, as the principle comic relief, he’s a superfluous buffer between she and Howard, someone to reassure us that things between them won’t get too icky or too banal.

The only connection to the original Cloverfield, that I could tell, was the finale, a scene that, to be honest, felt out-of-place, as if it were airlifted in from a different movie.  For the most part, though, 10 Cloverfield Lane works as a tense and claustrophobic thriller.  That said, it’s most interesting, to me, as a metaphor for domesticity.  Michelle literally wakes up trapped in a nightmare of household Hell.  Like in a Twilight Zone episode, her initial marital dilemma gets mirrored and transmogrified by the film’s subsequent unnatural events.  She’s presented with two simultaneous visions: one of regression, a return to the patriarchal womb with a domineering father-figure; and of progression, a potential future stuck with a fat old husband who’s off his rocker.  Both might be preferable to the mysterious terror waiting outside.  As bourgeois runaway then post-apocalyptic captive, Michelle embodies the universal conflict between the safe monotony of home and the exciting uncertainty of freedom.

March 18th, 2016: Midnight Special

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 10.27.58 AM

For the first twenty minutes of Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ auspicious but disappointing sci-fi drama, I was intrigued.  When it begins, two mysterious men have already abducted a Texas boy named Alton and hauled up in a motel room.  Local news stations are broadcasting a statewide Amber Alert.  The men have covered the windows with squares of cardboard, and their “captive”, quiet and calm, sits reading comic books by flashlight through thick blue shaded goggles.  At dusk, they steal into the night, destination unknown.  Meanwhile, FBI agents, investigating Alton for reasons of national security, raid a nearby ranch inhabited by a doomsday cult.  The members claim Alton is their messiah and was stolen from the compound just days before Judgement Day.  Already we wonder, who is this kid?  What’s so special about him?  Who are his kidnappers, and why does everyone want him so badly?  Midnight Special opens with several compelling questions, but as it progresses, and begins to answer them, it only reveals just how uninspired it is.

In the supernatural kid genre, and its cousin, the science fiction Christ allegory, Midnight Special is lower rung.  Its obstinately singleminded plot involves a road trip from Texas to some specific spot in Louisiana, where the magical child (Jaeden Lieberher) will be saved, or save the world… or something (the movie seems to be figuring that out along the way).  He’s escorted by his father (Michael Shannon) and a family-friend (Joel Edgarton), an ex-cop with a knack for gunplay and fixing stuff.  Eventually, they’re joined by the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), too.  Shannon, mumbly and tight-lipped, plays one note of aggressive devotion; Edgarton is tough and moral, and nothing else; and Dunst does little besides looking worried.  Their characters are written more like bland disciples than people.  The kid has some vague abilities — he can shoot blinding light from his eyes, relay euphoric visions, and connect with technology telepathically like a psychic for radios and satellites.  As with everything in Midnight Special, none of them pays off.

Nichols, who directed Take Shelter and Mud, likes a timbre of thick, incessant apprehension.  It worked in Take Shelter, for instance, because that movie was built around the feeling of paranoia.  As the characters in Midnight Special make their way across the South, pursued by authorities and zealots alike, it’s clear Nichols is spinning a different tale, a mystical fable about an otherworldly being who needs help avoiding would-be persecutors.  What Nichols has made, in essence, is a really pretentiously foreboding E.T.  The lone bright spot, certainly, is Adam Driver as Paul Sevier, an NSA agent investigating how Alton managed to intercept covert government messages.  With his gangly droll quizzicality, Driver is like young Jeff Goldblum, and he makes Paul a stooge-cum-believer, someone who sees the boy’s spiritual luminance brighter through the toxic haze of surveillance and bureaucracy that he’s helped create.  With Paul and Alton as the central pairing, Midnight Special might’ve been something a little more worthwhile.

March 4th, 2016: Knight of Cups

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.48.34 PM

Knight of Cups is maverick filmmaker Terence Malick’s whirlwind critique of the effete Hollywood lifestyle.  Working from the industry’s periphery his whole career, Malick, known for his beautiful cinematography and poetic narration, long specialized in period pieces.  His dreamily contemplative approach is well-suited for stories about the mythic grandeur of the past.  Like its predecessor, To The Wonder, Knight of Cups is set entirely in the present, and the collision of style and subject yields, for Malick, decidedly stranger results: watching it has the confounding allure of seeing something simultaneously lived and remembered.  Trained as a philosopher, the director was always interested in phenomenology (human consciousness), and his film, bursting with intriguing ideas and themes, paints an incredible freewheeling portrait of the human experience.  As a drama, however, Knight of Cups lacks the totality of vision necessary to make it a truly compelling work of art.

Christian Bale plays a listless Hollywood playboy named Rick.  Between pitch sessions and writers’ meetings, he lives in a state of quasi slumber.  Even when he’s partying he’s not completely alive to the stimuli surrounding him.  Early on, an earthquake rocks Los Angeles and literally shakes him awake.  In one-sided conversations with his addict brother (Wes Bentley) and broken-down, old dad (Brian Dennehy), we see that Rick is taciturn and impassive; he listens and observes like someone who can’t quite participate in their own life.  The film’s title comes from a tarot card — the Knight of Cups.  Its recipient is thought to be artistic, energetic and impressionable.  That same person, if the card lands upside down, is said to be fraudulent and reckless and has difficulty discerning the truth from lies. Rick is seemingly both iterations: a creative bewitched by Hollywood and a hedonist thriving in a counterfeit world, a perpetual unreality.

The film breaks down into several chapters whose chronology is unclear, with titles like “The Moon”, “The Judgement” and “The Hanged Man”.  In one episode, Rick attends a party thrown by a wealthy lothario (Antonio Banderas) at a swanky mansion, where the grounds and rooms are obscenely luxurious.  By revealing the vacuous ersatz opulence that entices and haunts Rick, Malick wants us to understand how easy it is to be seduced by the fakery of modern life.  The protagonist walks the gorgeous lobby of a talent agency and the empty backlot sets of a major studio, the places where dreams are built on blueprints for our consumption.  Through Rick, Malick reveals how that essential inauthenticity is now part of our collective unconscious.  When Rick visits Vegas, that mecca of kitsch, that chimera in the desert, the theme really flourishes, as Malick shoots the pool at Caesar’s Palace like it’s Heaven’s Gate.

The plot is something of a morality play about womanizing.  During each episode, Rick spends time with a different woman, yet no sex is explicitly shown; the characters’ playful blithe mobility only implies it, the way dancing does.  The succession of affairs gets repetitive, even if Malick wants their shallowness, spontaneity and brevity to be the point.  One girl tells Rick, “You want the experience of love rather than the thing itself”.  Each affair feels like exactly that: an experience, and nothing more.  The women include an actress (Imogen Poots), a stripper (Teresa Palmer), and a model (Frieda Pinto).  Cate Blanchett, as his ex-wife, an ER nurse, appears to be Rick’s severed tie to the real world.  Natalie Portman arrives basically from nowhere as a married woman with whom his connection is the deepest and therefore the most doomed.

The actresses have little more than cameos, since the film’s discursive style doesn’t allow them time to develop characters.  Malick is a latter-day modernist who constantly pushes the boundaries of filmic storytelling and whose films have grown increasingly impressionistic.  Here the actors don’t really have dialogue, per se; they either whisper enigmatic phrases from off-screen or improvise lines that the editors then truncate.  The director doesn’t stage scenes so much as film his characters doing things, like taking walks, swimming, dancing, frolicking, cuddling, etc.  The photography and editing are permitted similar latitude, and they less frame the action than emphasize and revisit meaningful images.  Shots from cars racing down freeways and through tunnels are juxtaposed with serene landscapes to insinuate the alarming warp-speed of modernity.  The camera lingers upon a bush in the desert, not burning — as if to suggest God’s absence, or indifference.  Water, from oceans and pools, is the most prominent motif.  The former is choppy but natural, whereas the latter is placid but artificial, chemically sanitized.  The Pacific is shown so often that it’s more of a character than Portman is.

In the prologue, an unnamed narrator recites a passage from John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which gives Rick’s odyssey a religious foundation.  However, Malick also repurposes that text into a suggested saga of the American West.  He evokes the pious settlers who headed toward the sea seeking deliverance, and he laments how, over the centuries, we built illusory houses-of-cards like Hollywood and Las Vegas on top of the land they settled.  Rick is something of a Western anti-hero, too; he’s a restless searcher, fated to wander.  Every so often, the film cuts to footage where he saunters solipsistically through the desert.  Malick is ambiguous about whether he’s actually lost, like the pilgrims who wandered there, too, before they found their way (or didn’t), or whether his waywardness is only spiritual.  Malick intimates that the film’s events could be recollections, Rick’s unconscious mind unfurled.

More challenging even than his Palm D’or winner, The Tree of Life, though not nearly as great, Knight of Cups is admirable as a filmic essay on phenomenology.  Malick demonstrates, I think, that we experience life in sharp, precise moments which together make up a frenetic collage of thoughts and feelings in our internal consciousness.  As a narrative film, however, it’s a disappointment because it lacks wholeness.  The end, for example, simply peters out, leaving everything beforehand to feel like a string of brilliant but loose ideas.  There’s a parable early on that’s meant to apply to Rick that I think also applies to Malick: a young man travels to Egypt seeking a valuable pearl but drinks an elixir that makes him sleepy and he forgets his mission.  Recently, the director seems drunk on his intellectualism; his films are now so intertextual and esoteric that you need a half-dozen humanities degrees to understand them.  Malick is probably the smartest director alive, but he’s less enjoyable as an artist because he no longer wants our connection, only our study.