31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival Centerpiece Film: Terrence Malick’s KNIGHT OF CUPS

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“You don’t want love, you want a love experience.”

Despite the little we collectively know about Terrence Malick, it has become apparent since THE TREE OF LIFE that he has been telling us his own story through the guise of abstract filmmaking.  His new film, KNIGHT OF CUPS, was this year’s centerpiece film at the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and it is one of the best films I have ever experienced.

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Set in modern day Los Angeles, the camera follows a screenwriter, Rick (played by Christian Bale as a placeholder for the filmmaker), who hasn’t so much lost himself, because he doesn’t know who he is.  He has been wandering through his adult life, questing through money, drugs, and women.

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This cast is huge, it’s akin to THE THIN RED LINE.  Bale is the mainstay, but the abundance of recognizable actors in miniscule parts is awesome.  Malick’s producer, Sarah Green, was on the red carpet for the premiere and I asked her what it’s like casting a Malick film and what the actor’s responses are to Malick’s interest.  She told me that even though this film did not have an orthodox script, Malick has reached the point in his career where if there is interest shown in the actor, they immediately say yes.

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KNIGHT OF CUPS producer Sarah Green on the red carpet for its US premiere at the SBIFF

This film marks Green’s four collaboration with Malick, with an addition two more films pending release.  I asked her if there was something about KNIGHT OF CUPS that sets it apart from her other films with Malick, and she said that this film was set modern day (like TO THE WONDER) but was set and shot in LA.  And that this film was shot on a whim, run and gun style. 

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KNIGHT OF CUPS is a journey through Malick’s subconscious.  It is a remembering of faded memories.  Some are reconstructed, some a fantasy.  Rick is a placeholder for the camera, who rarely interacts with anyone or anything.  He watches, he broods, and most importantly he remembers.  When he does interact with others, maybe it is real, maybe it is what he thinks is real, or maybe it is what he thinks he should have done. The film chronicles life–his life, our life.  Success, fame, love, emotion, family, safety – that doesn’t even scratch the surface. 

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A Malick film is like Hemingway’s iceberg theory but reversed.  We are shown everything, yet we know nothing.  We piece it together through an overwhelming abundance of emotion captured on screen, and what’s beneath the water is Malick’s intent.  His answer, his reasoning, his life.  KNIGHT OF CUPS is a painfully beautiful and personal journey of escaping the darkness and finding the light.

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“You gave me peace.  You gave me what the world can’t give.  Mercy.  Love.  Joy.  All else is cloud.  Mist.  Be with me.  Always.”

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CHARLIE KAUFMAN AND DUKE JOHNSON’S ANOMALISA — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Anomalisa is more miserable brilliance from Charlie Kaufman. He’s got a distinctly pessimistic world view that’s not going to sit well with some people, and his latest effort, which feels birthed from the same source as his previous masterpiece Synecdoche, NY, is just as dryly hilarious and caustically introspective, if even more interested in the crushing banality of life. Co-directed by Kaufman with animation superstar Duke Johnson, all of Anomalisa is designed with stop motion animation, with digital effects used to smooth things over, and the results are positively unique and at times distractingly curious. I spent the first 15 minutes of this film just staring at the construction of the faces and bodies, not to mention becoming sort of obsessed with the cracks in the sides of the heads; there’s a beguiling sense of wonder that comes from watching this strange and unique piece of cinema, and it truly feels like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The story is classic Kaufman stuff: A man is VERY disappointed with his life, and through a series of unfortunate circumstances, has to learn that not much is going to change, and that he’s doomed to repeat his frustrations again and again. David Thewlis voices the lead character, all filled with self-doubt and existential paranoia, and totally unimpressed with the fact that he’s married and has a kid and is still obsessing over an ex-girlfriend. Then, he meets a woman, exquisitely voiced (not to mention sung) by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and he thinks that this is it – he’s found his EXACT match. But, this being a romance from the poisoned soul of Kaufman, I’m not spoiling anything by saying that by the conclusion, happiness will likely still be out of reach for everyone.

It really reminds, in lots of ways, of the Coen brothers film A Serious Man, which I think is one of the top five efforts from those acerbic artists. Like A Serious Man, Anomalisa is about temptation, regret, disappointment, and the general principle that if something bad can happen, it more than likely will, even if there are moments of levity along the way. Lots of people will be immediately turned off by this film, and that’s cool. I get it. Scenes of oral sex comprised by Claymation characters shot in stop motion probably aren’t what everyone has in mind for their Saturday afternoon. But for me, this film was a non-stop (if incredibly dark) visual and verbal treat, a further reminder that there is only ONE Charlie Kaufman, and that his collective work has formed some sort of overall treatise on the human condition. Tom Noonan’s phenomenal voice work went a long way in cementing this film’s confidence, and without spoiling it, the central conceit to the sonic nature of the film was beyond heady. Joe Passarelli’s impossible to fully understand cinematography is worthy of repeated viewings as to dissect all of the subtle and ingenious ways that ideas were visually conveyed to the viewer. To be honest, I never thought this movie was going to open in my area, and including myself and my wife, there were four people in the theater, with the other two individuals displaying ZERO outward response to the film. Very interesting. I consistently wonder if people know about the films they choose to see before buying a ticket. The film was based on a 2005 play that Kaufman wrote for a Carter Burwell produced theater series comprised of “sound plays”, and it’s the first R-rated animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

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Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones: A review by Nate Hill

Peter Jackson’s dreamlike adaptation of The Lovely Bones gets unfairly beat down way too much. While I will concede that, having never read the book myself, I’ve heard it differs considerably in story, I view the film on a standalone level. And what a film. It’s an absolute stunner, on every level, from effects and casting to acting and production design. It contains elements of the subconscious and astral planes which are a huge draw in any film for me, and are visualized here spectacularly. Saoirse Ronan plays Susie Salmon, an adolescent girl barely coming into her own when she is cut down like a flower that has jus begun to bloom. Her killer, a skin crawling creep named George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) is a neighbor and well disguises his inner nature, making the search for her murderer lead to cold dead ends. Her father (an oddly cast Mark Wahlberg makes it work) doesn’t give up for a minute, tormented by not knowing what happened to his little girl. Her mother (Rachel Weisz) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) slowly come apart at the seams from the insidious trauma that such an incident inflicts on loved ones left behind. Only her plucky sister Rose (an excellent Rose McIver) is able to find any clues which lay the blame on Harvey. She quietly scopes him out for proof of the murder, providing a scene of hair raising suspense that will leave you needing a change of pants. Meanwhile, Susie finds herself in a place beyond space and time, a dazzling purgatory filled with the sights, sounds and memories of her short life all projected through the abstract prism of the unconscious mind, and is simply the most innovative and eye opening look into the unconscious dream world of the human mind since Tarsem Singh’s The Cell. Ronan is a beacon of hope in her performance, projecting resilience frayed with the vulnerability of a young soul achingly wounded at the tragedy of her outcome, yet determind to set things right and make peace with the life she was ripped out of so soon. Tucci is flat out genius as Harvey. Gone is his usual spitfire cameraderie, giving us an empty, psychopathic shell of a human with a reptilian gaze that causes shudders all round. He’s made Harvey a truly harrowing movie villain to rank as one of the very best, and when viewed alongside other performances of his, one can scarcely comprehend his versatility, let alone believe it’s the same guy in both roles. Peter Jackson has a yearning for every project he takes on to be the longest, flashiest, most opulent vision he can conjure up, and while that sometimes causes his own masterful technique to  buckle in on itself a bit, here its employed wonderfully to make the very best version of this story that anyone probably could have. He also doesn’t shy away from showing the blunt brutality of the situation, or the undeniably ugly event, which is hard to sit through yet neccesary for the arc of the story to have full impact. In the end, elements of the story both nasty and uplifting alike combine with a set of impressive visual effects and earnest acting all across the board to create a treasure of a film.

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S MUNICH — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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I thought so after the first viewing and 10 years later my feelings are still the same – Munich is a great film, one of Steven Spielberg’s top five movies of all time (Jaws, Close Encounters, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List would be the other four, with Minority Report nipping at heels), and a reminder that when a filmmaker is passionately involved in the thematic ambition of the story they are telling, the results can be incendiary and all-consuming. The Blu-ray retains the film’s overwhelming visual beauty and sonic glory. This is a raw and angry story about the impact of violence, grief, and revenge, and the way that Spielberg and his writers, Eric Roth and Tony Kushner, explored various themes and topics within the confines of the political thriller, elevate this film from merely a rush of ruthlessly staged and exhilarating action sequences, resulting in a deeply heartfelt study of a country’s need for vengeance and emotional catharsis. Munich covers the massively upsetting and extraordinarily intense story of the various Mossad agents who were dispatched to find and kill the 11 Palestinian terrorists who made up Black September, and who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. This is a profoundly moving film experience, a piece of work that juxtaposes sex and violence in a way that’s rarely glimpsed, and the way that Spielberg designed the film stylistically with his immensely talented cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is a thing of geometric beauty. Using zooms, pans, hand-held camera, and always finding ways to cover the proceedings in a stealthy manner, the film has a rich visual style that’s endlessly engrossing and amazing to study in the fine details. The bombing sequences are handled in an ultra-tense fashion, and the raid in Beirut still stands as one of the most visceral, most unsettling displays of close-quarters AK-47 combat ever put to film. Bullets rip apart flesh in this film, with the unflinching camera never turning a blind eye to the bloody carnage all round it.

This is the harshest film of Spielberg’s career, a movie born out of the ashes of 9/11, one that simmers with burning rage and resentment. I love when Daniel Craig’s character so bluntly states “Don’t fuck with the Jews.” It’s a comment that’s meant to sort of be funny, but it’s also meant to reinforce the notion that when push comes to shove, a body of people can take their collective pain and return it to those who caused it in the first place; the cycle of violence that Munich perpetuates is both honest and frustratingly real. The ensemble is stellar across the board, with a perfectly cast Eric Bana leading the unit as the commanding agent, with terrific support coming from underrated Irish actor Ciarán Hinds as a “cleaner”, a pre-Bond Daniel Craig as the getaway driver, Geoffrey Rush in a slyly humorous performance as the group’s government contact, Mathieu Kassovitz as the group’s apprehensive resident bomb maker, Mathieu Amalric as a shadowy French informant who helps the group with tracking down their targets, and other familiar and not so familiar faces rounding out the edges. There are so many great scenes in this film it’s almost a joke to try and list them all. The film crackles with violent, propulsive energy during the numerous action scenes, there’s a truly wonderful sequence with Bana and his crew arriving in an already occupied safe-house with members of the opposition, and an Amsterdam-set interlude that finds the crew going after a drop-dead gorgeous female assassin who has taken out members of their group. And the final, haunting image of a changing-through-the-years NYC skyline pumps up the film’s ultimate message that things are never going to get any better despite how hard we try to change our societal landscape. It’s a troubling, cynical comment to make at the end of such an emotionally draining film, but just look at how things have progressed since the time of this film’s release, and tell me we’re any further along at correcting the mistakes of the past. If anything, we’re headed down an even more dangerous path.

 

Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock: An appreciation by Nate Hill

  Yesterday I went into HMV, looking for a standard Blu Ray edition of a film I’ve recently seen that has stuck with me since in a way that I can’t quite describe, Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock. The only version they had was a pricy Criterion Blu Ray/Dvd combo which also included the original novel which Weir based his film on. Now normally I’m reluctant with Criterion, as I almost always disagree with the films they pick for their releases. Also..it was expensive as shit. But then I remembered how much it affected me when I first watched it on my humble iPad, and realized that I wanted to have the snazziest output that money could buy, as this is one I’ll be revisiting probably until my years on this rock have run out.   At it’s heart it’s a mystery of the deepest primordial resonance, laced with the burgeoning sexuality of its female lead characters, and ultimately leaving an aftertaste of such yearning, mournful sadness that I had no idea movies were even capable of. Weir sets his story in 1900 Australia, with amusing attempts by the British to tame the near prehistoric nature of the land. Their prim, drawn up customs seem ludicrous and surreal in the face of a wild, abstractly formed landscape that meets their need for order and custom with unimpressed chaos. 

  A group of girls from a nearby boarding school embark on an annual picnic to Hanging Rock, an ominous geological gnarl set in a scorched, unearthly swath of land that evokes the feeling one might get from a partially recalled dream of some far off dimensional plane. For the conservative visitors and the audience alike, the surface of the moon might feel more at home. In a gust of unsettling foreshadowing, several members of their party note that their watches have mysteriously stopped at dead noon. A group of four girls venture forth to explore the upper plateau of the rock, promising their teacher Mademoiselle (radiant, elemental Helen Morse) they’ll be back before tea. Four enter the jagged, awaiting maze; two disappear and are never heard from again. It’s an enigma that shakes the foundations of the boarding school to its core. From stoic headmistress (Rachel Roberts) to a tragically abandoned orphan girl (Margaret Nelson, staggering for a girl who’d had no previous acting experience) no one is quite the same after the incident, almost as if whatever intangible forces responsible for the girl’s disappearance have reached out and deeply disturbed every form of life in its vicinity, the very madness of the continent itself driving these civilized newcomers to the brink of soul shaking distress. In spite of the film’s beauty, there are also moments of sheer horror that rival anything in your garden variety fright flick. The key scene where the girl’s are last scene is fogged over with such a feeling unshakable dread, crafted through sound and editing alone, no actual discernible violence or threat. It’s utter genius and you begin to question why you’ve got hordes of goosebumps from so ambiguous a scene, but you’re left snatching for the same answers to a feeling akin to the sensation of a quickly dissipating nightmare I mentioned above. That’s how powerful the filmmaking is… You are shaken without ever really knowing why or what’s the matter, which is really the concept of a mystery distilled to its purest form.

  What claws at your mind and lingers in the fringes of your awareness long after watching the film is its atmosphere of mounting dread, like knowing for certain the the worst possible type of end is coming for you, yet being utterly unable to articulate exactly what it is. The soundscape is thick with melancholic unease as well, evident in a knockout pan flute solo from Georghe Zamfir, providing a hazy chorus that will stand up the hairs on your arm in its beauty and terror. The scenes at Hanging Rock are lifted straight out of a subconscious place and laid down on the canvas of film with the same exquisite care of pressing flowers, which we see the girls doing early on. Film essentially does this: the painstaking preservation of beauty for countless generations to be pleased, terrified and puzzled by. There’s no better version of this film I’d rather have that with than this one. 

  

31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival Opening Night: THE LITTLE PRINCE

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Opening the 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival was the new film by Mark Osborne, THE LITTLE PRINCE.  The film completely honored Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s legendary novella. SBIFF’s director, Roger Durling, introduced the film, spoke of how much the novella means to him, and then he joyfully introduced Santa Barbara’s favorite son, donning an incredibly glorious beard, Jeff Bridges.

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Jeff Bridges attending the SBIFF premiere of THE LITTLE PRINCE

The voice cast is one of the most eclectic and brilliant voice casts ever.  Bridges headlines as the Aviator, Rachel McAdams as the Mother, Paul Rudd as Mr. Prince, Marion Cotillard as the Rose, James Franco as the Fox, Benico Del Torro as the Snake, Bud Cort as the King, Paul Giamatti as the Academy Teacher, Riley Osborne as the Little Prince, Mackenzie Foy as the Little Girl, Ricky Gervais as the Conceited Man, and Albert Brooks as the Business Man.

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The film itself has a wonderfully unique animation style that was a merger of stop motion looking animation and clean and crisp animation that was masterfully fastened together by Osborne.

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The film was as funny as it was sweet and struck the perfect balance of the importance of child’s development of daring to be yourself and adult oriented entertainment.

Episode 23: Chicago Films with Mike Krumlauf

Episode 23

We were joined by Chicago native and independent filmmaker, Mike Krumlauf.  The three of us discuss our favorite films set and/or shot in Chicago.  We had a great time chatting, and hope you guys enjoy the chat as much as we enjoyed recording it!

 

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