Knight of Cups; The Pearl Button; Arabian Nights; The Jungle Book; Jane Got a Gun; Miles Ahead; The Get Down – review

Christian Bale plays a lost soul in Terrence Malick’s movie, while a documentary about the human rights abuses in Pinochet’s Chile is moving and assured

A new Terrence Malick film premieres at the forthcoming Venice film festival with less advance fanfare than in the days when he averaged one film an aeon. A latterday bout of relative productivity has made the famously hermetic auteur’s films seem less special, but that’s a generous excuse to make for the dispiriting vacuity of Knight of Cups (Studiocanal, 15), the most actively esoteric but least soulful of his signature tone poems.

Starring Christian Bale as a disaffected comic screenwriter – perhaps a rare glimmer of self-irony on Malick’s part – wandering LA and Vegas in search of solace/inspiration/sex, the film applies a po-faced, tarot-reading structure to his metaphysical trials and personal entanglements.

So far, so Malick; his finest work attains enough aesthetic and spiritual grace to justify its affected romanticism. In this case, the film’s awed, whispery styling and ornate water lily structure succeed only in scribbling surface complications on a protagonist with no distinct inner life. It’s like writing a symphony for someone you’ve only met on Tinder.

Melding cosmic and human concerns to more moving effect is Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button (New Wave, 12). A summary-resistant, reach-for-the-sky work, it interweaves, with improbable elegance, a naturalist’s study of the country’s shimmering waterscapes, an anthropological history of the threatened indigenous peoples who subsisted on them and a burning political screed against the human rights abuses of Pinochet’s dictatorship, many of whose victims were brutally consigned to the water. It’s a film that should seem overwhelmed with material and feeling, yet Guzmán conducts it all with quiet assurance.

Watch the trailer for The Pearl Button.

Also teeming with politics and poetry, Miguel Gomes’s astounding Arabian Nights (New Wave, 15) trilogy makes it to DVD following a streaming spell on Its collected six hours reimagine the Scheherazade storybook with stunning verve and nerve, addressing Portugal’s dense colonial history and desolate economic present via a heady stew of mythic, allegorical and comic vignettes. What sounds daunting in concept emerges as a rich, rollicking pleasure.

Here’s the paradox of Disney today: while its animators continue to surprise with wit and ingenuity, its live-action department plods on with far less inspired remakes of past animated favourites. As those go, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (Disney, PG) is one of the brighter ones. Using the 1967 cartoon as its template more than Kipling’s source tale (down to awkwardly incorporated updates of those infectious songs), the film goes all out to trump its predecessor for spectacle. Its humid, iridescently coloured CGI animal kingdom is a thing of lurid beauty, practically an animated marvel itself; its fairly perfunctory narrative and voice work go camouflaged by the foliage.

Neel Sethi as Mowgli, with Baloo, in The Jungle Book.
Neel Sethi as Mowgli, with Baloo, in The Jungle Book. Photograph: Allstar/DISNEY

A stolidly sun-baked western with a female protagonist (played with a determinedly set jaw by Natalie Portman) more commendable than she is complex, Jane Got a Gun (Lionsgate, 15) will for ever be more interesting as a cinematic what-if than a what-is. Slated to be directed by singular Scots stylist Lynne Ramsay until acrimonious preproduction disputes made her walk away, Gavin O’Connor’s proficient film little betrays its troubled upbringing. It’s hard, but intriguing, to imagine what creases Ramsay might have ironed into it. Surely not as many as director-star Don Cheadle has into his passion project Miles Ahead (Icon, 15), an unruly biopic of trumpet genius Miles Davis that replicates the frenetic rhythms of free jazz to a slavishly literal degree. As an aesthetic tribute, it’s impassioned and alive, but neglects its case for Davis himself as a human subject.

‘Lovingly florid vision of 1970s Bronx adolescence: Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down
‘Lovingly florid vision of 1970s Bronx adolescence: Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down. Photograph: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Meanwhile, I’m not sure how devoted Baz Luhrmann is to the musical movement at the heart of his new, expensively glitter-bombed Netflix series The Get Down, but the Australian showman’s hip-hop history aims to answer any queries about its cultural convictions with sheer choreographic attack. I’m an apologist for the Luhrmann school of decorative icing; Moulin Rouge!, a sincerely dizzy heartburst swathed in tinsel, is among my favourite films. So his lovingly florid vision of 1970s Bronx adolescence (never a milieu granted such generous spectacle, so hurray for that) has thus far carried me buoyantly through the series’ sketchy sociology and sometimes wobbly dramatics. The promise of the title notwithstanding, The Get Down is still floating on air.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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