Review: Knight of Cups (2016)

king-of-knights-cup Contains mild spoilers.

Remember the story I used to tell you when you were a boy? About a young prince, a knight, sent by his father the King of the East, west into Egypt, to find a pearl, a pearl from the depths of the sea. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king, forgot about the pearl, and fell into a deep sleep. The king didn’t forget his son, he continued to send word, messengers, guides…but the prince slept on.

The above is a direct quote from the opening voiceover of director Terrence Malick’s latest work, and heavily symbolic of the narrative to follow. Rick (Christian Bale) is a thirty-something screenwriter in Los Angeles, living in a beautiful apartment, regularly attending lavish parties, and always draped in an expensive black suit. But he does not feel. His inner turmoil consumes him. By most accounts, he is dead inside, trapped in a realm of meaningless, material boundaries.

This is no purgatory. Malick is known for his awe-inspiring photography of nature (credit also cinematographer/longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki), but he shoots Knight of Cups’ California backdrop, the skyscrapers, the highways, the man-made creations, in bland, neutral greys, rendering them unsettlingly lifeless. No, this is Terrence Malick’s Hell on Earth, and Rick its fallen angel, gazing upward, striving to return to the beaches, the water, the sky, the heavens.

Knight of Cups examines the existential crisis as mythological struggle. Rick searches, wanders from person to person, soul to soul, experience to experience, longing for meaning, for feeling. The film separates these segments by title cards, “The High Priestess,” “Death,” etc. Rick sees his immature brother (Wes Bentley) kicking skateboards around his lackluster apartment and goading Rick into fights. Rick’s father (Brian Dennehy) rambles about giving up his life for his children, and in voiceover, continually reminds Rick to “remember the pearl.” A fellow womanizer (Antonio Banderas) speaks of his surroundings with a playboy’s disdain – “The world’s a swamp. We have to fly above it, so it’s just a speck.” Then there are the women – Rick’s ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a nurse who hates how he moved her out to California, an exotic dancer (Teresa Palmer) who talks of Rick’s potential to be anything he wants to be, and a married woman (Natalie Portman) Rick falls in love with.

If you’re unfamiliar with Malick’s style, one might best describe it as visual poetry, a hypnotic, complementary combination of sights and sounds that seem to capture the spontaneity and spirituality of life itself. Every shot an essay and every word a double meaning, Malick’s films are the kind film students will be analyzing shot-by-shot for years to come. And for good reason – Malick challenges you to pay attention to the little details, trusting your intelligence as a viewer to be able to make connections and piece together the story from bits of voiceover and dialogue. There is a scene in which Rick passes by a sleeping homeless man – in one shot, the camera lies on the ground with the man, and in the next, Rick is bending over to examine him, a look of sympathy in his eyes. Just two shots contain a novel’s worth of commentary, and evoke such simple meaning, such basic human sympathy. It is truly amazing how much Malick can say with so little.

We can also infer a good deal about Rick’s character with only minimal background. In tarot reading, the Knight of Cups signifies a charming and romantic knight in shining armor bearing a cup to the world, but the reverse can be a sign of moodiness, of life failing to sync with expectations. Much can be made of Rick’s relationship with water as well – after a wild party, he is seen immersing himself in a pool, walking along the bottom, arms outstretched like an angel. In other sequences, Rick is often seen walking barefoot along the beach, to feel something perhaps? Is he waiting to be whisked away by a passing ship, like a castaway on an island? Another party he attends plays a song in which the lyrics celebratorily decree, “never gonna take me out to sea.” But Rick is tormented by them, wandering around, knowing no one.

For another, Rick’s screenwriting career isn’t very impactful towards his existence. We never see him actually writing, only big businessmen meeting with him and offering him great opportunities leading to fame and fortune. It isn’t a stretch to imagine Malick himself being a part of such meetings with major Hollywood executives pitching projects of little interest to him. In fact, much of Knight of Cups feels autobiographical; for one, there are mentions of another of Rick’s brothers that committed suicide, paralleling the death of Malick’s own brother Emil.

Knight of Cups is a bit colder than Malick’s last, the 2012 love odyssey To the Wonder. Perhaps that’s because Cups’ bleak portrayal of Hollywood excess comes across as alien to most of us; we are meant to be repulsed, yet I wanted to know more. In the end, the film leaves us with few answers to Rick’s struggle. We’re led to believe the film is building up to some great truth that never really materializes. But maybe that’s the point – Malick allows us to write our own ending. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths that we are left to navigate and overcome on our own. Malick is always overreaching with elements like this, but that’s what makes Malick Malick.

Above all, Knight of Cups is a breath of fresh air after a year so lacking in true art. As with any Malick film, its spirituality and existentialism open our minds, inspire us, and remind us to live in the moment, to feel at one with the world. It’s hard for someone like me not to want to interview Malick extensively on his technique, but such is near impossible given how notoriously reclusive the director is. Still, I hope to one day encounter him, perhaps on a beach somewhere, staring out at the water. I would probably just smile and nod at him. I like to think he’d smile back.






Review: The Visit

the-visitYou’ve gotta give M. Night Shyamalan credit – here is a director who is bombarded with criticism over any movie in his filmography of the past fifteen years, and yet he still manages to keep his chin up and keep working in spite of it. And yet, after his unfairly reviled 2013 studio effort After Earth, I think Mr. Shyamalan must’ve resigned himself to critical estrangement. It’s the only explanation for his latest thriller The Visit, the cinematic equivalent of a once-promising director throwing up his arms and snapping, “You know what? Fuck it.”

The Visit opens with Loreta (Kathryn Hahn), a mother prepping to drop her two kids off to meet their grandparents for the first time. After conceiving them with an older man and moving out, Loreta has not spoken with her parents in 15 years. So rather than accompanying her children to make sure everything’s cool with the fam like a good mother would, she sends them off and goes on a beach cruise with the hubby. Hooray for modern parenting!

Her children are 15-year-old Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), who speaks as if she’s been studying a little too hard for a film school exam, and the 8-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a wannabe freestyle rapper. No, you are not reading that wrong, and yes, he is white. Painfully, agonizingly white. After the kids are picked up by their Nana and Poppa (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie respectively), who of course live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, they decide to document their voyage to have something to bring back to mom. We watch the entire film shot in this faux-documentary style popularized by The Blair Witch Project, a great model to emulate if you want to suck the suspense right out of your horror movie.

Things take a turn for the weird when the kids find their grandparents exhibiting bizarre behavior around the house. Papa is found with a shotgun in his mouth, and Nana scrapes at the walls while naked and bounds around on all fours with her hair in her face like something out of a better, scarier horror movie. Poppa calls it “sundowning,” a form of dementia that only occurs at nighttime. He advises the kids to lock their door after 9:30 p.m. But is there more to the kids’ grandparents than just an onset of old age?

One thing’s for sure: there is nothing more to this movie than its director’s stylistic suicide.

Since 2002’s Signs, director Shyamalan’s quiet, minimalist approach, often eliciting odd line delivery from his actors, has been a breeding ground for unintentional comedy. For The Visit, Shyamalan has thrown subtlety to the wind and embraced every bit of awkward humor he can derive from this concept, even going out of his way to push a few painfully unfunny gags. One such recurring bit sees Tyler try to improve his rapping by replacing curse words with the names of female pop singers, “Oh, Shania Twain!” he spats after dropping his camera. Ha!

Then there are the grandparents, who do things that grandparents wouldn’t normally do, and this somehow constitutes as either comedy or horror. “Would you mind getting inside the oven, to clean it?” Nana awkwardly intones in a memorable line from the trailer. But by that point, even the film’s shock value is depleted; crazy people doing crazy things can only be surprising for so long. The same can be said of the scares, which are cheap and jump-y in place of real horror. One sequence sees Nana literally leaping into the frame and screaming into the lens, for no real cinematic purpose other than to startle us. You can practically hear M. Night and his new buddy in Insidious producer Jason Blum snickering in the back of the theater as the moment happens, and passes, with little consequence.

There’s of lot of elements like that in The Visit, including an underdeveloped subplot where the kids are suddenly revealed to harbor some repressed anger over their father’s leaving them to move to California, providing ample fodder for a canned message at the end that has no bearing on the film’s actual contents.

So to recap, we have a movie about crazy old people doing crazy old people shit that is neither funny nor scary. It’s just uncomfortable, and amounting to what is essentially an exploitation film about dementia in the elderly.


Balancing comedy and horror is tricky. Few filmmakers can pull it off. Edgar Wright and Drew Goddard elicited laughs and scares aplenty with Shaun of the Dead and Cabin in the Woods, respectively. But The Visit has no such vision, banking on its filmmaker’s failings, rather than his strengths, to serve its dual genres.

Somehow that didn’t stop the audience at my screening from yukking and screaming it up (caught quite a few “oh hell no!”’s at the oven line). But I think history will favor my take on Shyamalan’s big middle-finger to critics: “what the fuck happened to the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable?”

At least The Visit isn’t Tusk. But it’s close. Damn close.


Review: Dying of the Light

bfde9ccb6-1Paul Schrader is one of those big names in filmmaking I really want to cheer for. The man helped create some of the greatest American cinema has to offer, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and American Gigolo. I want to stand up on a chair and champion him as one of the industry’s most underrated filmmakers, constantly mistreated by ignorant, bloated studio executives. And when his latest thriller Dying of the Light came under scrutiny for being recut without Schrader’s sign-off, I wanted to join the protest in support of a filmmaker’s vision over mass-appeal studio tactics.

But if this Lionsgate-approved cut of Dying is any indication, Schrader’s work doesn’t really warrant the argument.

Dying follows CIA man Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage), survivor of ruthless torture at the hands of known terrorist Muhammad Benir (Alexander Karim). Benir is thought to be deceased, killed by the operatives that broke Lake loose. But years later, Lake receives intel from right-hand man Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin) that Benir may still be alive. The CIA questions Lake’s conclusions – the aging official is suffering from dementia, and when Lake refuses to back down, he is terminated. Driven as ever, Lake and Schultz go rogue to track down and kill Benir.

At this point in Dying, I began to think the film would be a mind-bending thriller a la Shutter Island or Total Recall, where an unreliable protagonist puts everything the audience is seeing into question. Is Benir’s resurgence real or imagined? The film’s plot of a secret agent gone rogue, rekindling old romance, with lots of violence, adventure, and excitement, like Total Recall, are conventions too clichéd to believe. Are they all in his head?

That’s what I get for thinking ahead. Dying, or at least the Dying Lionsgate has chosen to present, is merely a straightforward, unremarkable tale of revenge with a deceptively clever title and a protagonist who has headaches, forgets things, and occasionally wanders off. Thrilling.

That’s not to discredit Cage, giving his all to the performance, or Schrader, who lends an otherwise lackluster film some compelling lighting and direction. But there’s simply not enough ambiguity to Dying, its chopped-down, brisk 90-minute runtime leaving little impact and few memorable moments. And when the ending comes, it’s more expected than satisfying.

Perhaps something was lost in the editing room. Schrader’s cut was reportedly heavier on “stylistic flourishes” surrounding Lake’s condition. I’m imagining something akin to the style of an earlier Cage/Schrader collaboration, Martin Scorsese’s underrated Bringing Out the Dead. That visual flair might’ve at least lent the film some compelling imagery.

Still, it’s hard to deny that the politics behind the film remain far more interesting than the film itself. In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Lake sits face-to-face with his torturer and asks him if he thinks what he did mattered. Benir throws the question right back at Lake, to which Lake responds with silence. Perhaps that’s the real tragedy of Dying of the Light; for all the rabble-rousing of who disrespected who, whose cut is superior, ultimately the film doesn’t matter enough to demand even having the discussion. Which is a shame, because Schrader and Cage are big talents that deserve better.


Review: Tusk

TUSK-TRAILER Review contains mild spoilers.

Imagine, if you will, sitting next to your friend idly as he’s scrolling through his phone. He turns to you and grins, “Hey, check out this video of an anteater eating out this guy’s asshole.”


He insists, “just watch.” Call it boredom, call it morbid curiosity, or maybe just call it an inexplicable desire to witness something wild, but for whatever reason, you lean in and watch. Unsurprisingly, the video is exactly as described – an anteater eating out some guy’s asshole.

Your friend guffaws at your reaction. “Ugh! That’s sick! Why would you show me that?!” Then you pause and realize, were you wrong to expect anything other than that anteater eating out that man’s asshole?

And that’s kind of what it’s like to watch Tusk. Or more specifically, what it’s like to watch beloved geek filmmaker Kevin Smith talk excitedly about making Tusk, before actually sitting down and watching the lurid, unpleasant thing unfold before you.

The conceit of Tusk is based on an episode of Smith’s weekly podcast, wherein  Smith and his co-host found a joke posting on Craigslist by a man claiming to offer free room and board to any interested tenant, provided he/she is willing to dress up in a walrus costume and entertain him for a few hours every day. Inspired, or rather high off his ass, Smith excitedly began to wax about crafting the post into a horror film, wherein the tenant in question is sewn into the walrus suit and forced to perform for the old man. The director then took to Twitter to ask fans to tweet either “WalrusYes” or “WalrusNo” in regards to whether or not he should write and direct the movie. In a reaction entirely unsurprising for the internet, “WalrusYes” overwhelmingly won out. Tusk was born. Or rather, spawned.

The film follows Wallace (Justin Long) a podcaster with a silly porn mustache who gets his jollies making fun of humiliating viral videos of others. An attempt at meeting and interviewing one of these others leaves him stuck in Canada without a show. Wallace soon discovers a man (Michael Parks) advertising free room and board to anyone willing to hear stories of his many adventures, among them a story of how he was once saved by a lone walrus while lost at sea. Shortly after Wallace arrives, the old man drugs him, cuts off his legs, cuts out his tongue, and sews him into a makeshift walrus costume, so the old man might relive the glory days with his old walrus companion.

And yeah, that’s about it. There’s really not much else to say about Tusk other than it is exactly as Smith himself advertised, with one small exception. He has described the film to be in a similar vein to the old Hammer horror pictures of the 50s and 60s, yet Tusk plays more like a stoner’s riff on Hitchcock’s Psycho, deliriously stumbling along the line between serious and ironic while succeeding at neither approach. It isn’t funny, it isn’t scary, the performances are earnest in all the wrong places, and the characters are all awful, awful people. Picture a bad episode of South Park, then remove all self-awareness, social commentary, and humor, and you’ve just about got Tusk.

Like Psycho, Tusk sees Wallace’s allies, in this case his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) and co-host (Haley Joel Osment), fly to Canada in search of the missing Wallace. They are met by French-Canadian Inspector Guy Lapointe, played by a lazy-eyed, prosthetic-nosed Johnny Depp in an insufferable performance that seems to stretch the already paper-thin premise into an obnoxious bore. Depp, meandering from line to line in search of a chuckle, reminds us all just how far from grace the actor has fallen in recent years. Meanwhile, the image of a howling, screeching Justin Long in a plastic-y walrus costume is painfully brandished into my memory.

The truth is, Tusk should not be a movie. It really has no right to exist as anything more than a joke on the podcast it was birthed on. It is cruel, unfunny, depraved, and all-around useless as a film. And I guess that’s how the once-proud voice of a generation of independent filmmakers regards his career these days. Just a joke on a phone to be shown to a friend for a laugh.


Review: The Wolverine (unpublished)

gal_03_flWolverine – he’s the best at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. Which may or may not have proven true for the character’s four previous film appearances over the last thirteen years – despite playing center field from 2000’s X-Men to 2006’s X-Men: the Last Stand, Wolvie was still never portrayed quite as deep a character as fans were hoping. 2009’s laughably bad corporate bile X-Men Origins: Wolverine fared even worse, taking a huge nosedive in quality and featuring a script plagued with clichés, plot holes, inconsistencies, and an ensemble of trivial mutant cameos distracting from the title character. Now, fans finally have a good reason to be excited – The Wolverine is the first real attempt to let the character shine on his own, a feat which the film is largely successful at.

The Wolverine opens with the clawed mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) several years after the events of Last Stand, wherein he was forced to kill his great love Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) after she’d been possessed by the destructive Phoenix entity. Logan is now grizzled and bearded, a drifter roaming the forests of Canada, every night being jolted awake, claws extended, by nightmares of his loss. In his travels he is found by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a lady warrior who escorts him to her employer, the wealthy tycoon Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whom Logan once saved during the Nagasaki bombing of World War II. Yashida offers to remove and take on Logan’s healing abilities himself, allowing Logan to live a mortal life and Yashida to go on living. But when Logan is thrown into a plot to kidnap Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), he must face his deadliest demons yet, among them the mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and discover what it truly means to carry the burden of being the Wolverine.

Based on the excellent 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic book miniseries, The Wolverine is the first real character-driven film of the series, standing Logan firmly in the spotlight and asking the hard questions of his immortality. What is it like to be forced to kill the one you love? How can you live knowing that everyone you ever meet will die before you? Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) approaches the material like a Clint Eastwood western or James Bond film – a straightforward plot and setting intended as a backdrop for its protagonist’s character. Indeed, from the opening shots of Wolverine trapped in a World War II prison hole, we see only his squinting eyes peering out into the bright of day; one could mistake Hugh Jackman here for a young Eastwood himself.

Trouble is, the Claremont Wolverine series was strictly a character piece with very little plot, setting Logan in Japan to contrast his animalistic fighting style with the honor-bound, swift samurai culture of his surroundings. Mangold doesn’t do enough to play up that contrast, choosing instead to follow the film’s ordinary, linear narrative to its unsurprising conclusions, and use the Japan setting as more of a place where things happen than a true test for its protagonist. Mirroring the flaws of his aforementioned inspirations, even Mangold’s side characters only seem to be granted as much personality as the plot demands, lending things an unmistakably run-of-the-mill feel. And where the film should be exploring Logan’s bestial intuition, it is instead focusing on the loss of Jean Gray, a far less interesting, far more Hollywood-friendly machination.

There’s more power, I think, to be had in this narrative. Mangold himself first read and returned his copy of the script after scribbling the phrase, “Everyone I love will die” on the back, so clearly he had a mind to play up the weight of Logan’s immortality. And yet, the film is only satisfactory at exploring that conflict, falling victim to the classic 20th Century Fox pitfall of being too action-driven, too blockbuster-y, too safe to venture deeper beneath the surface. Shame, as I’ve skimmed Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie’s draft of The Wolverine, first intended for director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), and it is far  more character-driven than the onscreen result, the latter featuring studio-commissioned rewrites from Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. With just enough subtlety lost along the way, it’s a bit disappointing to think that Wolverine in its original form might’ve been a defining film of the superhero subgenre.

What nonetheless gives life to Wolverine is Hugh Jackman, who lends his performance as much dedication and raw energy as he would the artsier Les Mis. It’s the Australian music man’s best turn in the adamantium claws yet; not only is he the spitting image of Frank Miller’s Wolverine, but his physique for the film is nothing short of incredible. Jackman, 44, has gotten himself into outstanding shape for his (or any) age, aiming to give the character a more “animalistic” look, and handling the film’s many elaborate stunts and demanding physicality like a pro.

It’s nice to see Fox finally getting serious with their Marvel properties; The Wolverine is one of the best films of the franchise thus far. After hitting a surprising high note in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, the studio is counting on The Wolverine to keep the momentum going for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (stay after Wolverine’s credits for a brief teaser) and rejuvenate their brand in the face of competition from Marvel’s own Avengers films. Even if The Wolverine isn’t as remarkable as it could’ve been, considering the lows this franchise has dipped to, it’s nice to see the claws a bit sharper this time around.



This article was intended for publish on the ERIE READER website.