The Claim takes shape from two sources. The plot is from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, a great and beautiful novel that seems reasonably available for adaptation to the frozen California Gold Rush era. The style is taken from Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, that gorgeous 1971 revisionist western shot in the Northwest rain and snow.
I recently watched two art films, one set in Hollywood, the other in Thailand, that take on meaning-of-life matters in strikingly different styles and stories. Terrence Malick’s KnightofCups and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s CemeteryofSplendor both take the form of pilgrimage by sleepwalkers and dreamers, drifting rather than driven toward unexpected or desired revelations: Knight tracks the progress of Christian Bale’s pilgrim (call him the sick soul of Southern California) whose privileged life sucks when it comes to meaning or purpose. In Cemetery, we wander through a numinous Thai landscape in the company of a serene soul (Jenjira Pongpas) whose world is slowly permeated and perhaps shattered by revelations.
Weerasethakul’s unforced, visually mesmerizing excursion into metaphysics makes KnightofCups look all the more pretentious, an airless exercise in aesthetic solipsism. Malick overloads Bale’s dream-quest with Portentous Signifiers, from allusions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’sProgress, that 17th-century best-seller about the journey of an Everyman in search of his soul, to the Tarot card that features a knight-errant who symbolizes new opportunities and change, unless he’s upside down; then all positive bets are off. Then there’s a solemn prologue, all about a prince who went off on a quest for a legendary pearl, only to fall into a deep sleep along the way. His father the king—Malick the director?–continues to send out signs and guides to provoke epiphany. Malick means to cast his hero’s journey in a strong mythic light, but all this philosophical footnoting fails to provide illumination in Knight of Cups.
One of the many beautiful women in the screenwriter’s life turns to him and says, “It’s time for you to tell me something interesting.” I suppose this line in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is included as a measure of the screenwriter’s empty world, his material success in Hollywood having come at the cost of spiritual blankness. But for a moment, the viewer might quicken to the possibility that something is going to happen in this movie—that the hero might say something definitive, or begin a story, or blurt out a need to visit the men’s room. But he will not, and the moment passes, as all the moments in the film pass—like sands through the hourglass, or tears in rain, or whatever other greeting-card profundity you want to offer.
Beyond the valley of black comedy is a place where laughter and horror mingle freely. Here roams the original British version of The Office and the amazing Scorsese/De Niro King of Comedy (still one of Scorsese’s best, despite its low profile). It clicks only intermittently, but Welcome to Me is an attempt to inhabit this territory. I didn’t actually laugh much during this cringe-inducing film, but I was often impressed by its willingness to be awkward.
That it succeeds as often as it does is largely due to Kristen Wiig, whose ability to slip from broad humor to quietly devastating insight is already well documented.
Interstellar (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD) – Christopher Nolan used his clout as the director of the hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy and cerebral caper film Inception to get this big-budget science fiction epic made on a scale that otherwise would be out of reach. It’s set in a near future where overpopulation and global climate change has been catastrophic for the food supply and the culture has become hostile to science, as if it’s the cause of the problems rather than the only hope to solve them.
Matthew McConaughey is a widower father and former astronaut turned Midwest farmer who is essentially drafted into a covert project to send a ship across the galaxy to find a planet suitable for human habitation. That means abandoning his children, one of whom grows up into a physics genius (played by Jessica Chastain) who holds onto her grudge for decades. This is a film where complex concepts of quantum physics and powerful human emotions are inextricably intertwined and the ghost that haunts the farmhouse has both a scientific explanation and a sense of supernatural power.
Everybody in Interstellar keeps talking about Gargantua, a massive black hole that must be delicately negotiated during space travel. Christopher Nolan’s movie is similarly scaled: This 168-minute epic contains vast sights and wild images, and exerts a heavy gravitational pull. At its center are some basic, reliable sci-fi ideas. They’re just intriguing enough to justify the film’s poky sequences, but in Nolan’s universe this one falls shy of the ingenious spectacle of The Dark Knight and Inception.
The very slow opening reels introduce us to Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut now involved in Earth’s last-ditch effort to grow crops. The future is starving to death, but Coop has a shot at saving the day when he’s called back into astro-service for a do-or-die mission.