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.

8/10

 

 

Sources: ew.com, biddytarot.com, keen.com

From the Archives: Review – Thor: The Dark World

Previously posted to Future Apparatus Laboratories, November 16th, 2013.

 

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Thor: The Dark World now holds the esteemed honor of being the worst theater-going experience I have had to date. I saw the film at 8 p.m. on opening night, when a hundred crazed fans, many of them teenage girls, would burst into gratingly childish laughter at least once for every scene. And I do mean every scene; any time something only casually humorous happened, any time Loki appeared onscreen, and really any time something onscreen moved at all, the room was overwhelmed with a lot of stupid, irritating laughter from a lot of sheltered, sexless apes who would just as easily bust a gut if the theater owner had entered and jingled his car keys around in front of the screen. Had these people seen a movie before? Were they unfamiliar with the concept of passingly amusing moments designed to elicit mere chuckles? I stormed out of the theater the second the credits rolled, skipping even the customary post-credits teaser for the next Marvel movie, vowing to never again see a movie of this kind opening night.

Now, I open with this not to blame The Dark World for its audience’s idiocy, but to illuminate a growing problem I have with Marvel Studios’ yearly comic book adaptations. The company seems to be confusing film stock for the disposable pulp it prints its monthly comic books on, treating its movies like product to be churned out on a schedule regardless of quality. The Dark World is a movie designed to play purely for a blockbuster audience, and if my aforementioned experience is any indication, a rather dumb one at that.

The God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth, still perfect in the role) has returned to Earth, this time to protect Jane (Natalie Portman) from an ancient red force called the Aether. This Aether is sought after by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who plans to use it to merge and rule the nine realms. It’s too bad that Malekith is neither memorable nor interesting as a villain, with Eccleston’s makeup doing most of the acting for him. After Jane is infected with the Aether, Thor brings her to Asgard for a meet-and-greet session with the Fam, but not before Malekith wages all-out war on Asgard for the Aether. This means lots of fight scenes of guys in silly costumes battling alien creatures, which look less like Jack Kirby creations and more like mediocre DeviantArt creations. This also means Thor gets to smash stuff with his hammer. Hammer not working against Malekith? It’s okay Thor, just smash stuff even harder and somehow it’ll all work itself out in the third act. Soon, Thor calls upon his imprisoned brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for help in defeating Malekith. Meanwhile, some hi-larious shenanigans on Earth ensue when Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) goes crazy after having Loki in his brain during the events of The Avengers, leaving interns Darcy (Kat Dennings in full Jar-Jar mode) and Ian (Jonathan Howard) to lend a hand.

Marvel’s hired gun this time around is director Alan Taylor, who seems to be executing a long list of studio mandates for the film. More Loki? Check. Jane visiting Asgard? Check. More action with the Warriors Three? Check. A few deaths to make the film darker, because sequels are always darker? Check. It’s no wonder Marvel hired a series of TV directors (Taylor directed several episodes of Game of Thrones) to helm their latest blockbusters – the company wants quick-and-dirty episodic material, not big, bold, operatic visions like these characters deserve. Perhaps producers would do well to wait until they have a good enough idea before tossing another movie onto the assembly line; there is not a single memorable shot in The Dark World, which also lacks any kind of pathos in its proceedings.

Perhaps the film was destined to be unimpressive from the outset. Director Kenneth Branagh, who brought Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s C-list hero to life in the 2011 original, bowed out of contention for this sequel. That saw Marvel turn to Monster director Patty Jenkins, a bold choice, and one which was reportedly championed by Natalie Portman. When director and studio parted ways over creative differences, the competent, yet compliant Taylor took Jenkins’ place. Portman’s disappointment over the change is readily visible; she looks bored throughout The Dark World, and is often given nothing more to do than wistfully stare at Thor from a distance until he comes to her rescue.

In fact, the film takes advantage of none of the opportunities its characters present. Here is a perfect time to flesh out Thor and Jane’s flimsy excuse for a relationship in the first movie. Instead, we see Jane still somehow completely head-over-heels for Thor a full two years after leaving her at the end of the first film, and The Dark World leaves them in the exact same place as before. There is also a brief shot of Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander), who’s sweet on Thor, tossing back a jealous look at Jane when she arrives in Asgard, but nothing comes of the would-be subplot. It’s a tease, a mere trailer shot, only present to get fans talking, not because it serves any real purpose to the story.

I mentioned the humorous moments of the film, which South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone might call “derp” comedy. These moments get old quickly, even more so when surrounded by uncontrolled guffawing. I longed for the genuinely funny fish-out-of-water humor of Branagh’s film (“This drink, I like it. ANOTHER!”). The Dark World could’ve had some equally funny moments exploring the role-reversal of Jane in Asgard, paralleling Thor’s own misunderstandings of Earth culture. Those moments never come, replaced by the “derp” jokes of substance-less First Avenger writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who rewrote the film’s script. Where writer Don Payne injected the first film with Shakespearean prose, Markus and McFeely litter the second with clunky sarcasm, unfunny one-liners, and faux-poeticism that’s neither coherent nor quotable. You can just sense their douchebag mentality of, “Isn’t Thor totally AWESOME? Watch him smash shit with his hammer. Fucking cool.”

Dr. Selvig has now been regulated to comedic relief duty, where we get the pleasure of watching him streaking around Stonehenge and in another scene excitedly running around the room without any pants on, further moments which the audience nearly burst into collective tears over. “I should put on some pants,” deadpans the doctor, after which the severely retarded crowd around me began to lose its shit, each of them hell-bent on dying with big, grotesque smiles across their faces after the showing.

The Dark World’s best qualities are in its remnants of Branagh’s superior production – costumes, set design, overall mythology, and pitch-perfect casting all represent some truly visionary work. But it’s Marvel’s quick-and-dirty production, with obvious green screen and cheaper CGI, that reeks of laziness. The film isn’t without its share of fun moments, but with less of everything that made the first movie so solid, it’s hard to justify even its mere existence.

I grow ever more fatigued with Marvel Studios, who have put out three movies featuring Thor characters in the past three years. That kind of rushed timetable doesn’t exactly lend itself to the kind of deliberate plotting and thoughtful design of both Thor and The Avengers, leaving The Dark World as the safe, ordinary, purely entertaining, collective shrug of the bunch. It seems to me that when you’re building a mythology across multiple films in rapid succession, taking risks is the only way to maintain people’s interest. I would gladly suffer through another Ang Lee Hulk if it means I can watch something I’m actually passionate enough to write about. And it would save me another run-in with the sheer insanity of the audience for The Dark World, whom I can only hope have all collectively perished in a tragic theater fire during a screening of The Starving Games.

6/10

Ryan’s Most Anticipated of 2014

So excited was I for 2014’s potential slate of films that I’d actually had a draft of this list written up back in July. Several release date changes, new additions, and comprehensive rewrites later, and here we are at my final list of eagerly-awaiteds. And I haven’t settled for just ten.

15. Exodus

exodus-christian-baleAs an atheist, formerly a COFC (Child of Forced Christianity), biblical films have often rubbed me the wrong way. In part, it’s people’s cultish fanaticism, the outdated lies the church feeds to gullible geriatrics, and the sick way it lends its “seal of approval” to certain films dealing in its scripture. It’s also why I’ll likely be skipping Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – the director spoon-fed me enough Christian tripe in The Fountain to last a lifetime.

Yes, I am an atheist. Happily, so is Ridley Scott.

So it seems Exodus is aiming for something a bit deeper than propaganda. The smartest religion-based films all have a sense of spirituality about them, not in a pandering sense, but to appeal to the similarities we share as a species. Our fears, our hopes, our desires, these emotions transcend organized religion and speak to each of us on a personal level. Scott, who handled even the most heavy-handed Christian themes in last year’s Prometheus admirably, should be able to strike that cord with a more universal tone. On top of that, Christian Bale will almost certainly prove a fantastic casting choice as Moses.

14. Maps to the Stars

file_177163_1_map-of-the-stars1I prefer director David Cronenberg when he’s making hard-edged mystery movies like A History of Violence over winking, meta works like eXistenZ, but the director’s latest film dealing with, according to star Julianne Moore, “the pursuit of fame at any cost,” has me intrigued. And already the signs of Cronenberg’s trademark meta-ness are there – this is the first film the 70-year old Canadian filmmaker has ever shot in Los Angeles, a film being produced by the very people he’ll be criticizing.

Maps to the Stars began as a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, who turned it into the novel “Dead Stars” after the project fell through, then re-adapted it into a screenplay when it was picked up again. The New York Times described Wagner’s novel as, “Stomach-turning, sick-making, rancid, repugnant, repellent, squalid, odious, fetid, disgusting.” Sounds right up Cronenberg’s alley.

13. 22 Jump Street

16-22-jump-streetI’d forgotten just how much I loved last year’s 21 Jump Street until I bought and re-watched the film on a whim during Black Friday. It is a truly hilarious movie, one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with its self-aware sending-up of the action genre. The film also did some really clever stuff portraying the generational gap between this and last decade’s high schoolers, which spoke to my funny bone more than even the passing years ever could.

Its sequel presents a similar premise, with Schmidt and Jenko (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) heading to college to find and bust up a new drug ring. I love the fact that the film unabashedly revels in the absurdity of its new title, being named as such simply because the cops now occupy the church across the street. My only concern is that the original screenwriters aren’t present, but luckily its directors are, so hopefully 22 Jump Street won’t fall victim to the typical comedy sequel pitfall of, you know, completely tarnishing the original film (ahem, Hangover).

12. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Andy-Serkis-as-Caesar-in-Dawn-of-the-Planet-of-the-Apes2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was easily the best Apes film since the 1968 original, effectively relaunching the dormant franchise by going back and telling the backstory behind the simians’ takeover of Earth. It was smart about paying homage to the series’ legacy, while doing enough of its own thing to justify its own existence. One of the best surprises of the year was hearing the familiar, “Get your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” followed by Caesar’s bellow of, “NO!” All I remember thinking was, “oh shit!”

Now it’s four years later, and the hyper-intelligent apes have been training and populating the forest where James Franco left them. The humans are now contemplating war against the apes to take back their land. How will the apes continue developing their speech? Will they start using obscenities? Have they perfected their British accents yet? Either way, with some likely incredible effects work from WETA and a motion-captured Andy Cerkis, let’s hope newbie Apes director Matt Reeves can keep this fire stoked.

11. The Expendables 3

expendables-2-logoTo call the Expendables films a guilty pleasure would imply some sort of guilt. I am completely, totally, unabashedly in support of Stallone’s biennial teaming of the best and boldest action stars for one big, fun ass-kicking session. And this time around the roster additions are even more impressive: Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and Antonio Banderas round out an already outstanding ensemble of action veterans.

Behind the camera is Red Hill director Patrick Hughes, an interesting choice, one which matches Stallone’s desire to inflict the series with new blood. Let’s just hope the casting of several pretty-boy nobodies won’t take the focus off the more established actors who better deserve the pat on the back. Let’s also hope this isn’t the last we see of Stallone’s franchise; with stars like Nicolas Cage (sought out for this installment, eventually replaced by Kelsey Grammar due to scheduling issues), Kurt Russell, and several other action greats who’ve still yet to enter the fray, it’d be a damn shame for Stallone to retire the team without giving them their time to shine.

10. A Million Ways to Die in the West

amwtditw2Last year’s Ted proved Seth McFarlane wasn’t just a capable showrunner, but a capable film director as well, seamlessly translating his self-referential, gross-out, 80s-referencing, gut-bustingly funny brand of humor to the silver screen. I can’t wait to see what he does with his latest, a parody of the western genre featuring a mess of celebrities in either major roles or cameos (Liam Neeson!). It’ll be a true test of McFarlane’s abilities, seeing if he can’t handle the bigger budget and star-studded cast. But with the way he gracefully took it on the chin during his  unfairly reviled Oscar hosting gig, I have no doubt McFarlane can pull it off. And hey, it can’t be any worse than the current state of his familiar animated cartoon show, which has long outstayed its welcome.

9. Maleficent

maleficent-watch-first-trailer-movie-angelina-jolieWith Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland pushed back to 2015, I’ve turned to another film for my classic Disney fix – this retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of its antagonist, starring Angelina Jolie in a role she is absolutely perfect for.

The film should prove an intriguing re-invention of the timeless Disney mythology. The spindle, the thicket forest, it’s all there thanks to production designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg, who also worked on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a film which certainly can’t be faulted for its design. There’s also Beauty and the Beast scribe Linda Woolverton and DC Animated writer Paul Dini on scripting duties, both of whom are sure to bring something special to the film.

On top of that, the character herself was the stuff of my childhood nightmares. There’s just something  innately terrifying about her appearance on a very primal level, and the film’s trailer already showcases a doozy of an exchange between her and Aurora:

“Don’t be afraid!”

“I am not afraid.”

“Then come out!”

“Then you will be afraid.”

*shivers*

8. Gone Girl

gone-girlLately I feel as though I’d been unfair to the subject of my first full blog-based review, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I should’ve better appreciated the film’s atmosphere, its slick mystery plot and unique character portrayal. I very much hope to be better singing Fincher’s praises on his next novel adaptation.

Fincher, whose talents are probably better suited here than on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake, will direct the story of a man searching for his lost bride from a script by the novel’s original author Gillian Flynn. I haven’t read the novel, but the promise of neo-noir-like themes of deception and paranoia between the couple intrigues me. It’ll prove interesting to see how Flynn chooses to adapt her novel’s way of revealing plot points entirely from the perspective of its leads (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike). And on a side note, Affleck himself has been making some very smart career choices lately (Runner Runner excluded), so I have to give him credit for really growing up in a big way. This is definitely a film I’m watching out for.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past

xmdofpIt wasn’t until very recently that I began to truly appreciate what director Bryan Singer had done on X-Men. Yes, I’d reasoned, the 2000 film rejuvenated the comic book movie. Yes, it spurred studios to begin taking pulp properties seriously. Yes, it balanced an effective ensemble. It also spawned a series that still hasn’t quite mined the heart of its source material, a series filled with blaringly obvious metaphors and thinly-drawn characters (read: walking sets of powers) in its earliest installments.

Now, I see and appreciate what Singer was doing. His films aren’t about the script or the characters. They’re about the staging, the gravity he lends to the proceedings, the real-world application he brings to the pulp, and the spot-on casting of these actors. With that in mind, I’m even more excited for Days of Future Past, which will not only unite the cast of Singer’s films with their younger, equally brilliant counterparts from First Class, but also boast a script that’s been toiled over by First Class’ Matthew Vaughn and Simon Kinberg. It all feels like one big culmination of everything the series has been building up to.

A dystopian future spurs Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to travel back in time to fix the past and save the present; I like this idea that out of ultimate despair, out of complete hopelessness, comes hope for the future. I also like the idea of Professor X meeting himself at a very different time in his life (as in the above image), comparing and contrasting the two Xs. Days of Future Past’s trailer provides a dark gravity the series hasn’t seen since X2, and could easily wind up being the best of the series.

6. A Walk Among the Tombstones

liam-neeson-filming-a-walk-among-the-tombstones-3Two Liam Neeson-starrers will grace the silver screen in 2014. The first is February’s airplane heist thriller Non-Stop from Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra, which looks to be along the same silly, fun lines as the first Taken. The other is this, the long-gestating adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 10th Matthew Scudder detective novel about a retired cop investigating the rape and murder of a drug dealer’s wife. And while Taken sold me on the prospect of more action-centric Neeson vehicles (which even he doesn’t take seriously), it’s great to see such a talented dramatic actor bringing his considerable gravitas to something a bit more…well, serious.

The adaptation, to be helmed by writer/director Scott Frank (The Lookout) has been heavily praised by Block himself, who wrote, “I couldn’t be happier about either the star or the writer/director, both of them genuine artists and brilliant professionals. My book’s in good hands.” You rarely hear such a ringing endorsement from the author of an adapted novel these days, so I fully expect to enjoy my walk this Fall.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

capwsThe second Captain America faces an uphill battle. It must make up for time lost after the all-too-humble characterization seen in The First Avenger, better expanding on Cap’s authoritative voice as written in The Avengers. It must balance the blockbuster thrills of team-based conflict involving newcomers Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), while still depicting the more intimate inner turmoil of Rogers (Chris Evans), a man out of time who has lost both a lover and a best friend, forced to face a world he no longer recognizes. It must take audiences through the tragic arc of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), another sorely underdeveloped character in First Avenger. Most importantly, it must convince audiences that good-guy Rogers is as interesting a character as Batman or Iron Man. Indeed he is, in the comics anyway, which is why I’m happy to see the excellent Ed Brubaker-written Winter Soldier arc being translated to the silver screen. With “Community” directors Anthony and Joe Russo taking over for the safe, mechanical direction of Joe Johnston, Winter Soldier looks to be the smarter, edgier political/spy thriller to better tap into the heart of what Cap is all about. And finally, a suit that looks great and lets Cap’s ears breathe.

4. Interstellar

interstellar_lead-449006It’s a former Spielberg project back on track thanks to the Nolan brothers, and it’s just as shrouded in mystery as when it was last buzzing about. A 2008 draft of the script by Jonah Nolan suggests ties to black holes and alternate planes of existence, a fascinating prospect which should prove to be smart sci-fi material for director Christopher’s first venture into the genre.

I like Nolan as a filmmaker, but despite what Batman fanboys hailing him as god’s gift to cinema will tell you, he really isn’t at his best directing action. It’s the suspense, the intrigue, the sheer storytelling ability showcased in Memento and The Prestige that make Nolan special. Those abilities seem to have suffered a bit after the overwritten Inception and the underwritten Dark Knight Rises, both of which experienced overblown hype that may very well have gone to the director’s head. Still, with admitted influences in sci-fi greats Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, Nolan’s own space odyssey has potential to be something truly special.

3. The Hobbit: There and Back Again

the-hobbit-there-and-back-again-postponed-until-december-2014-129368-a-1362124090-470-75There’s not much praise I haven’t already heaped on Peter Jackson and his team for their outstanding work bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to life. The third and final installment of the trilogy will be their last-ever outing to Middle-Earth, making for all the more reason to be excited for the epic, bittersweet conclusion to Bilbo and the Dwarves’ saga.

As such, the storied Battle of Five Armies of the novel is sure to be the most epic of Jackson’s entire Middle-Earth saga. It’s a lofty expectation, given that these Hobbit films haven’t quite taken the world by storm in the same way the Lord of the Rings trilogy did. But they are a nice throwback to those films, showcasing a great mythology worthy of praise for WETA’s brilliant design work alone. Something tells me Jackson’s Tintin sequel and whatever other New Zealand-based projects the director has planned after ending his tenure with Tolkien just won’t compare.

2. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

josh-brolin-sin-city-a-dame-to-kill-forDéjà vu…Robert Rodriguez’s highly-anticipated follow-up to 2005’s Sin City teased us with an official 2013 release date before the director revealed it was all a ruse to hold that date for Machete Kills. The film, which will take another year for its effects to be completed, will now see release in August, yet the delay has done little to dampen my enthusiasm for the sequel to one of my all-time favorite films. Everything I said in last year’s Most Anticipated post still applies, so there’s little I have to add to what will hopefully jump-start Sin City into a full-blown franchise. And I can’t be the only one who’s praying for Clive Owen to make a surprise reprisal of post-face-operation Dwight for the climax of the film’s title segment.

1. Knight of Cups

knight-of-cups-stillIt’s rare these days for any one film to completely blow me away, but what Terrence Malick achieved in To the Wonder was nothing short of spellbinding. I’m expecting equally big things from his next, a story of Hollywood excess starring two of my favorite working actors, Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, among a cast of equally impressive players.

As is sadly the standard with Malick’s work, the question of whether or not these actors will actually make the final cut is another matter entirely. Malick is notorious for shooting hundreds of hours of footage and constantly changing the focus of the final cut during his films’ lengthy post-production period.

Malick shot Cups simultaneously with his next, an as-yet untitled film about the music industry which starred, among others, Michael Fassbender, who recently expressed doubt he would make it into the final cut. Yet to read Fassbender talk of what a privilege it was to work with Malick regardless is telling enough. Truly, Malick’s meticulousness is the work of a master director, one who has spawned some of the most profound, intensely detailed, meticulously crafted films of the past half-century. As far as I’m concerned, he can take all the time he needs.

Happy New Year all! Expect my 2013 Top Ten list very soon.

Mythological Marvel: Analyzing “Thor”

thor-poster-970520506In anticipation of The Avengers, I took time out a few weeks ago to re-watch Marvel Studios’ Thor with audio commentary from director Kenneth Branagh. Branagh’s deliberations spurred me to take a deeper look inside a film already brimming with mythological depth and visual beauty. Since its release back in 2011, I’ve come to consider it one of my favorite comic book films of all time, and while I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the comics, Branagh’s film is admirably passionate towards its source material, constructing perhaps a more meaningful film than many give it credit for.

Thor begins in the inter-dimensional realm of Asgard, introducing us to legendary figures of Norse mythology – Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the all-powerful father, and his sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the god of thunder, and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief. Thor is blinded by arrogance; a brash, impudent soul, he ignores his father’s wishes and, when mysterious enemies of Asgard called the Frost Giants interrupt his ceremonial crowning, takes the battle to the icy realms of Jotunheim with Loki and his comrades. After a short but tolling battle, Odin rescues the troupe and banishes Thor to Earth to live among the humans as punishment for igniting a new war.

It is there that Thor meets astrophysicists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and Darcy (Kat Dennings), who acquaint him with earth culture and try to decipher where it is he really came from. Meanwhile, Loki discovers his true origins as a Frost Giant and confronts his father, who falls into shock following the confrontation. As Thor learns humility on Earth, Loki usurps the throne in his brother’s absence. Thor is faced with finding a way home before Loki reigns terror upon all of Asgard.

Thor’s tale is one heavily rooted in classical mythology. It’s a great example of the archetypical hero’s journey of death and rebirth, but also a story of redemption, of a fish-out-of-water, and, as Branagh puts it, of fathers and sons. Capturing an age-old, yet fresh and original magic in its execution, Branagh discusses finding a balance between  the realism of sci-fi and otherworldliness of mythology that compelled him to tackle the project.

THORBranagh truly was an inspired choice to take the reins of Thor. The director’s experience in Shakespearean theatre lends the film an old-fashioned sensibility sorely lacking in other films of the subgenre. Throughout his commentary, Branagh is constantly relating elements of Thor to biblical, mythological (Norse and monomyth), and historical details, on top of film and Marvel references as well. He’s a very intelligent filmmaker, and one certainly more deserving of widespread acclaim.

When I first wrote a review of Thor last year, I mentioned that Branagh directs the film as fearlessly and reverently as one of his Shakespeare adaptations. Indeed, much of the Thor universe of the comics is rather goofy and admittedly a bit alienating, yet Branagh retains small things about it that make his film unique, like Thor twirling his hammer at great speeds to fly. In context, Branagh treats it seriously and it works. We believe it. He makes the ridiculousness of the concept more relatable, more human, and more real, taking the best of the comic mythology and unabashedly translating it to the screen. It’s faithful, yet better than the sum of its parts.

One thing I found interesting throughout Branagh’s commentary was the director constantly downplaying the idea that Thor was at least partially influenced by Shakespeare, claiming that he never really looked to the playwright’s works for inspiration. But really, how can one not draw such comparisons? Branagh’s direction is so deeply rooted in classical theatre, his eye so encompassed by Shakespearean lore in his past works. It’s hard not to see some of Shakespeare in any of Branagh’s works, let alone Thor, which so heavily deals with Shakespearean themes of warring peoples, familial betrayal, and young, inexperienced royalty, on top of the overall mythological background. Hell, even the Thor comic books give Thor and his Asgardian brethren a faux-Shakespearean dialect, though Branagh wisely excises this for a more accessible, less pretentious regal-speak.

The film’s plot is crammed, or as Branagh puts it, “compacted” into under two hours, keeping each and every shot packed with detail. The sheer volume of material in the film gets to be rather overwhelming, even more so for those unfamiliar with the mythology. There’s just so much going on, so much story tightly packed together here, that the film easily leaves one exhausted by the time the credits roll. Still, the craft behind such volume really shines through amidst its rushed presentation.

In typical Marvel comic book tradition, Thor ends on a cliffhanger, with Thor destroying the Bifrost Bridge and being separated from his newfound fling Jane Foster. It works well – the film poses several questions about their future together, as well as what lies ahead for how Asgardians will be able to travel between the two realms. Like the comics before it, it’s a clever way of keeping the audience coming back for more the next time Thor spins his hammer on the big screen.

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Visually, Thor is incredibly sophisticated, working within its Hollywood boundaries (obvious product placement, anyone?) to nonetheless create a stunningly beautiful atmosphere. Adhering to the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic, Thor is mindful of both its pulp roots and its Norse origins alike, both of which are brimming from the film in its design.

Branagh’s theatrical background makes him an expert at staging, even in the many digitized realms of Thor. The director clearly loves sprawling throne room scenes like the one above, as evidenced by Henry V, Hamlet, and others of his films. He truly knows how to capture the silent majesty and depth of a grand throne room, and Thor may be the best-looking one of his films yet.

Perhaps most visually apparent is Branagh’s use of primarily Dutch angles in the film’s cinematography. They’re typically used to convey disorientation; in this case, Thor is disoriented at the brand new world he’s landed on, and we the audience are disoriented at this alien world of Asgard we’re seeing for the first time. Or so I’d originally theorized. Branagh reveals that he used them simply because “that’s the way [he] remember[s] comic book frames”, and to convey “dynamism” in each of the shots, using wide-angle lenses to convey depth. On either level, the film’s tilted perspective works well. And unlike, say, the entirely thoughtless use of Dutch angles in Batman & Robin, Thor poses several legitimate reasons for utilizing the angle.

When discussing the film’s additional converted 3D release, Branagh audibly drops his tone, a hint of restrained disdain for the format in his voice. He describes being hesitant to the idea of 3D at first, concerned more with his actors, but that he eventually warmed up to the format and kept it in mind during the shoot. His voice, however, tells the real story – 3D did not do this movie a hint of justice. I haven’t seen Thor in 3D, but I’ve heard nothing but bad things about it, so perhaps it’s best the film be remembered in its native 2D format.

Another interesting tidbit from Branagh’s commentary, detailed in greater depth in the featurettes of the Thor Blu-Ray, explains that the small-town New Mexico setting specifically built for the film was designed to visually parallel Asgard. Branagh talks about keeping both worlds isolated from other societies, keeping their color schemes similar, and on top of that, having the infrastructure of the buildings resemble the Asgardian architecture of Thor’s native realm. This kind of thing is a common trope of setting transitions between panels in comic books, and it’s yet another layer of thoughtful design proving just how in-tune Branagh and co. are with this universe.

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I would of course be remiss not to mention Thor’s two fantastic, perfectly-cast lead performances. Much of the film’s success can be credited to Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who, as Branagh puts it, is a natural, convincing screen presence. Thor could’ve easily turned out to be an unlikable douche if played by a lesser actor, but in Hemsworth, we root for him the whole way through. I’d go so far as to say the actor does for Thor what Christopher Reeve did for Superman, an impressive feat to say the least.

Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is equally outstanding. As a stage actor, Hiddleston is particularly skilled at conveying the inner turmoil behind Loki. This is not just some cackling, goofy trickster like in the comics; here, Loki is far more vulnerable, a tortured soul in conflict with himself just as much as he is with his brother. Hiddleston brought the character to even greater heights in The Avengers, but his Loki in Thor will still be remembered as one of the best villains in a Marvel movie.

Finally, worth noting is Thor’s fitting relationship to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Clearly a lot of thought was put into getting the films to coexist, which Thor succeeds at with flying colors. The two films have very different styles, so much so that they can easily stand apart, yet they can easily sit beside one another through their shared characters and overall approach. Again, it’s the unlikely pairing of sci-fi and mythology here that really drives Thor, and it makes for a great companion piece to Iron Man in that respect. Also interesting is both Favreau and Branagh’s background as actors as well as directors. Both bring out some very memorable, charismatic performances from Hemsworth and Downey Jr., crafting more meaningful character-driven experiences than any other Marvel solo films to date.

It’s far too early to see what Thor’s long-term influence on the industry will prove to be, but the seeds are already present. The film has definitely played a part in getting even the most obscure comic books into the scripting stage for potential film adaptations. It’s also been vital to the success of The Avengers – the film would’ve almost certainly avoided focusing on Loki as the centerpiece villain with an inferior actor in the role.

In short, the sheer level of craft behind Thor is nothing short of spectacular. It’s a sophisticated blockbuster experience, visually stunning, expertly directed, steeped in mythological lore, and all-around heartfelt in its execution. I’m disappointed Branagh isn’t returning for the sequel next year, but I’m still thoroughly pleased with this, his profound mark on Marvel’s ever-growing legacy of films. And hey, the man definitely knows how to make for a damn good commentary track.

Thor is available on DVD and Blu-Ray here.