Saturday, October 18, 2014

Love and Death: THE BOOK OF LIFE

Inspired by Mexican legend, The Book of Life is a computer-animated film that gives itself the freedom to make its own distinct visual style. Where other CG family films are content with plasticine cartoony versions or finely detailed approximations of our world, this energetic creation unfolds as a constant and consistent visual marvel all its own. Director Jorge R. Gutierrez and his team of artists invent a world of the imagination, a 19th century Mexican village populated by archetypes and passions sitting atop a fantasy realm. The character designs look like carved wooden puppets, hinges for joints, clothes and facial features painted on. It’s a unique look, a blend of 2D and 3D that places computerized bounce and expressiveness over ancient techniques. This tension in the style helps animate a story explicitly about history, about remembering, about myth and fate.

The screenplay by Gutierrez and co-writer Douglas Langdale is a set of nested episodic stories. We start with a museum guide (Christina Applegate) leading a tour group of silly kids through a display of Mexican history, preparing to tell them an old story about a special Day of the Dead, the November holiday for remembering those who have passed on. And so back we go into a mythic, exaggerated past Mexico where, in a small village, two little boys are in love with the same girl. One of them might just marry her. The rulers of the underworld, a calavera-faced doll with a candle-topped sombrero for a queen (Kate del Castillo), the other a snaky, bearded, winged sorcerer king (Ron Perlman), make a bet on which boy will get that chance. The film then plays out on two planes of existence, a mortal realm where the trio grows into young adults turning friendship into potential romance, and a supernatural realm populated with spirits, ghosts, and magical beings.

Warm voice performances flesh out the central romantic triangle, with a conflicted bullfighter who’d rather be a singer (Diego Luna) and a town hero with a magic medal (Channing Tatum) vying for the attention of the kindhearted mayor’s daughter (Zoe Saldana). In a refreshing change of pace, the jealousies aren’t too fraught and the girl makes clear she’s not even sure if she needs a man in her life, and certainly not one who’d hold her back. Eventually, fate steps in and traps a character in the afterlife, forcing a scramble through phantasmagoric imagery alluring, morbid, and madcap to resolve plot threads in a way that can bring living and dead together to make things right. Imagery includes skeletons, deities, flames, buffets, floating walkways, waterfalls, flickering candles, a rolling labyrinth, and a sentient book, to name a few.

Told in typical family animation style, the movie has fast paced romance and daring do, zippy throwaway gags, musical numbers, and lessons about believing in yourself and loving your kith and kin. But under Gutierrez’s direction, the film is more eccentric than the usual CG family friendly fare. The musical numbers are a collection of sweet new ditties and preexisting tracks from a bizarrely diverse group including Biz Markie, Radiohead, Elvis, and Mumford & Sons. But it’s really the copious cultural specificity that sells it, from those songs played in a fun mariachi influenced style, to the thick accents, luchadores, bullfighting, and authentic Mexican touches in every corner of the design. It’s worth seeing just to marvel at the sights, appreciate the attention to detail, and to hear an endless parade of wonderful Spanish and Latin American voices (Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Placido Domingo, Gabriel Iglesias, Cheech Marin, and more).

But it’s not just a delight to see and hear. The story has genuine weight and wonder, ultimately moving in its portrayal of familial and cultural history and the restorative power they can bring. The love story is broadly appealing and sturdily constructed, and the trapped-in-the-underworld plotline has mythic resonance while being a great excuse for beautifully imagined fantasy. I was invested in these little CG wooden puppet people’s lives and wanted to see them work their way to a happy ending as brightly colored, briskly paced, and vividly fantasized as their trials and tribulations.

Best of all is the tenderness with which the subject of death is treated. It treads lightly and compassionately in creating a fantasy about life and death that respects old traditions and meets its target audience on their level. It’s an exuberant and gentle macabre tone that’s entertaining and weirdly comforting. Death is natural, it says, but the lessons and love left behind by the dead can provide you the strength and courage to keep on living. Their stories can help you write your own. That The Book of Life can do that and be fast, funny, and stylishly involving as well makes it feel all the more welcome.

Friday, October 17, 2014

They Were Expendable: FURY

Set in and around an American tank in Nazi Germany during the final weeks of World War II, David Ayer’s Fury makes effective use of its small scope and limited perspective. It’s a war picture that’s down in the muck with a handful of soldiers. It hunkers down with them as they grimly follow orders from one place to the next, the tank’s treads trundling along, danger around every corner and across every field. There’s no rah-rah patriotism or righteous killing here, no “good war” pabulum. It says war is brutal, bloody, dirty, hell. And then it goes and proves it. This is hardly a new sentiment, but this movie goes about making you feel it all over again.

Ayer’s previous films, from his screenplay for cop thriller Training Day to his minor directorial efforts like End of Watch and Sabotage, feature ensembles of tough professionals, but the men of Fury are his best, most fully realized group. They’re men beaten down by war. They’re depressed, mournful, battle-hardened, and shell-shocked. Their gruff, scarred, paternal leader (Brad Pitt) bites off his words, reminiscing about starting out killing Germans in Africa, then France. Now they’re moving towards Berlin, taking one town at a time. A typical demographic cross-section WWII squad, there’s a devout Christian (Shia LaBeouf), a Latino (Michael Peña), and an itchy trigger finger (Jon Bernthal). But they transcend their types by not making a big deal about them. They blend as a team, brotherly, on-edge, and ready to kill.

It’s fine ensemble work, presenting a group of men who know one another from spending time in close quarters building relationships forged in battle. They’re trapped in a tank, taking and returning enemy fire for brief moments, but mostly sitting, anxious, ready for anything for long stretches of time. Camaraderie is as tangible as their pain. The film opens on a quiet battlefield littered with carnage. The tank is broken. One of their gunners is dead. Slowly the tank roars to life, moving across the smoking ruins of so many men and machines. The battle was won, but their friend was lost. Back at camp, they’re assigned a new team member, a fresh-faced recent recruit pulled out of the typing pool (Logan Lerman). They don’t quite know what to do with him. He’s inexperienced, and has clear distaste for violence.

The new kid is instantly sympathetic, and not just because the frightened, bookish, idealistic young solider is always the character I’m most certain I would be in these types of movies. He’s hesitant to shoot at suspected threats. He is intimidated by the tough guys around him. Yes, they’re worn out, violent, grey, and grimy, but they also have a mumbly, closed-off rapport that seems difficult for a newcomer to penetrate. They have their routines, their procedures, their shorthand. Lerman’s character arc is familiar, but compelling. The movie follows his discovery of war and his new brothers in arms as their tank moves to another skirmish, then into a small German town for some urban warfare, then on to another mission. All the while, they seem so worn out, exhausted by the war’s violent ending. They don’t know the war’s final conclusion is around the corner, but the sense of finality is pervasive.

Free of most typical heroics associated with World War II features, Ayer creates a movie rooted firmly in the tangible dirtiness of it all. It’s gory, bullets ripping flesh and explosions sending torn fragments of body and cloth through the air. The men are constantly covered in mud and grime, dried blood and sweat. They have cuts and scrapes, haunted looks in their eyes, and weights on their shoulders. The immediacy of the detail and sense of place is accentuated by Roman Vasyanov’s striking, often hauntingly gorgeous cinematography that alternates tight close-ups inside the tank with wide shots of foggy forests and fields. And the guys look like they’ve been cooped up for years, smelly, claustrophobic, and tense. One brief moment allows the group a dinner table, around which we see reflected in their behaviors who among them retains kindness, and who is lost in the brutality of war.

It’s undoubtedly a cynical movie, in which death comes unpredictably, where people lay down their lives and become just another corpse to be piled up, dumped off, or left to rot. Of course our team navigates the conflict in typical war film ways, but the sense of loss is palpable throughout. Even as the battle sequences are shot and edited in steady, propulsive action filmmaking, they’re as mournful and scary as they are exciting. The climax, especially, is gripping and thrilling, but is also the ultimate expression of the film’s obvious war-is-hell thesis. It’s a last stand at night, the only light from a raging fire, as smoke mingles with gunfire and blood splatter. It’s hellish, and the closest Ayer comes to the brutal poetry of a nihilistic Hemingway or grindhouse gravitas. Sorrow and fear are welcome notes in this masculine genre, creating a film that’s both hard-edged and ambivalent, painful either way.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Family Law: THE JUDGE

The Judge is the sort of glossy adult-driven Hollywood melodrama we tell ourselves they don’t make any more. Perhaps this perceived shortage led the filmmakers to stuff several dependable formulas into one picture. It’s a father/son reunion story, a courthouse drama, a big town lawyer reconnecting with his small town roots parable, and a workaholic learning to slow down and appreciate the people in his life fable. That’s a lot going on, then add in a handful of medical problems, tragic backstories, mental illness, an old ex-girlfriend, and a tornado warning. It’s overstuffed with reasons to be sentimental, manipulative, and formulaic, turning up reveals and developments at a predictable pace. This is exactly the kind of movie easy to dismiss as too calculatingly sincere and sloppily emotional. And it is. But it’s also the kind of handsome, sturdily square drama that can get in your guts and pull on the heartstrings anyway.

Robert Downey Jr. plays a snarky Chicago lawyer called back to his small Indiana hometown after the death of his mother. There, he clashes anew with his estranged father (Robert Duvall), the picturesque community’s respected judge. He’s boarding the flight home when his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) call with terrible news. Their dad has been arrested after blood on his car matched a corpse found on the side of the road, the victim of a hit and run. The old man’s weak of body, but obstinate of spirit. And now he’s charged with manslaughter, a charge increased when the victim is discovered to be a murderer he regretted giving a lenient sentence to years earlier. So it’s up to the hotshot lawyer son to defend his small-town judge father, a tall order given the importance of the case and the history he has with his town and family.

The cast sells it. Downey can do the character arc from cocky pro to humbled man in his sleep. He gives it his usual rascally charm, weaving in some appealing notes of wistful regret as he spars with his old man, catches up with his brothers, and considers rekindling his relationship with his high school girlfriend (Vera Farmiga, glowing with warm charm), who happens to have a daughter (Leighton Meester) as old as they’ve been apart, give or take nine months. Holding down the other half of the drama is Duvall who, at the age of 83, remains an actor incapable of a dishonest moment. He imbues his character with a righteous stubbornness, mourning his wife while bottling up love and pride for his son over resentments that have festered in his two decade absence, and holding back fear for his reputation. The father-son relationship works well, as the plot machinery creaks through its paces.

It’s the craftsmanship that elevates the material. It could’ve been a dopey TV movie without such a strong cast (including a fine supporting turn by Billy Bob Thornton as a sharp-tongued prosecutor who makes a perfect dry foil for Downey’s persona) and a wonderfully expensive look, bathed in light by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It’s a movie with perfect Main Street Americana, and where every drive down a country road looks like a car commercial. But there’s real manufactured heart in this glossy professionalism.  Screenwriters Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque generate a series of scenarios that allow talented actors to breathe some life into cliché. And this is easily director David Dobkin’s best movie, after years of dreck like Fred Claus and the execrable The Change-Up. He directs with slick button-pushing competence. It’s transparent in how it’s going about getting its effects, but, hey, it worked on me.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a classic picture book funny and smart in capturing the feel of a bad day from the point of view of a little boy. It cleverly portrays how a series of quotidian bummers – not getting the seat you like, or a prize in your cereal, or the dinner you’d hoped for – can snowball, making you grumpier by the minute until by bedtime you’re entirely wrung out. But the book’s only 32 pages, so in making a feature length live action adaptation screenwriter Rob Lieber has expanded a slim and simple idea into a widescreen sitcom plot, giving Alexander’s whole family a horrible, no good, etcetera, day, the better to make it through with a smile because of their love for each other.

It’s a nice message. The movie is a bright, sunny, largely inoffensive kids comedy that’s short – 81 minutes, including credits – sweet, and never particularly funny but at least agreeable in the way better live action Disney comedies can be. It’s broad, cute, and nice enough, idealized squeaky clean family foibles and slightly sharper frustrations around the edges. I suspect kids will enjoy the main character, who has been turned into a Wimpy Kid knockoff. Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, with awkward hair and a face stuck at the exact midpoint between child and teen) is a 12-year-old kid who is perpetually frazzled, scuffed, mussed, scattered. He’s well-intentioned but clumsy and easily frustrated with his lot in life. Things just don’t go his way. It’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days for him. And he’s sympathetic because of it.

The target audience is unlikely to read any reviews, let alone this one. And they certainly won’t care that it’s directed by Miguel Arteta who, with work on relationship semi-comedies like Cedar Rapids, Youth in Revolt, Chuck & Buck, and HBO’s gone-too-soon Enlightened, knows a thing or two about quickly and charmingly sketching relationships and histories between characters. He does his unassuming, pleasant thing here, quickly filling out the ranks of the family so that we feel we’re joining a fairly normal, busy, loving, upper-middle-class life in progress. There’s the stay-at-home dad (Steve Carell), children’s book editor mom (Jennifer Garner), cocky older brother (Dylan Minnette), drama queen sister (Kerris Dorsey), and infant brother (Elise and Zoey Vargas). We get the dynamics immediately. The way the family operates is clear, and, though they mean well, it’s easy to see how Alexander’s struggles can get lost in the shuffle.

He always seems to be having a bad day. Popular kids pick on him. He feels stupid next to his crush. His family members have successes to share around the dinner table while he just mopes and complains. He wishes they knew what it was like to have everything go wrong. Well, they soon do. Car troubles, job crises, medical emergencies, school issues, romantic confusion, scheduling difficulties, wild animals, and a variety of scatological concerns plague the family as the movie clunks through their day from one snag to the next. It’s never zany or farcical, just one fairly ordinary stumbling block after the next played up a notch and a half past normal. The escalating series of events is almost what you'd expect out of a bad day, but a bit more juvenile and movie-ish. The family gets to share the bad day feeling, and only grow closer together because of it.

I kept waiting for the movie to kick into a higher gear, generate a sustained funny sequence or string a few clever lines together. Nope. It’s at a modest even keel beginning to end. The cast is likable and makes a cute family unit. Every once in a while they’re joined by a funny actor (Megan Mullally, Jennifer Coolidge, Dick Van Dyke) who can deliver a half dozen so-so lines in a way that makes them mildly humorous. That’s nice, too. I mean, the whole thing’s sweet enough with only a few spiky moments of borderline off-color humor pinned in by the PG rating. (At one point Carell sighs, "Daddy wishes he could swear right now.") There’s genuine love and camaraderie in this family, and it’s the rare kids movie that acknowledges grown-up feelings and concerns, even if the movie’s too slight and minor to do anything with Carell and Garner's warm, comfortable performances. So it’s not a great comedy, but it has plenty of smiles and good vibes and will fit in perfectly between Dog with a Blog reruns some future weekend on the Disney Channel.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Do audiences really enjoy seeing movies about famous characters in which little of what makes said characters famous appears? We’ve been living with the glum and ponderous self-serious “gritty reboot” for at least decade now. We’ve had a mortal Hercules, a non-journalist Man of Steel, a Robin Hood without his Merry Men, and a King Arthur without a roundtable or a wizard. That it works marginally well about half the time is probably why they keep coming. Now we can add Dracula to the pile of iconic figures stripped of some iconic ideas.

We have Luke Evans, previously a Musketeer for Paul W.S. Anderson and a Middle-Earthling for Peter Jackson, playing the famous vampire in Dracula Untold, except he’s not a vampire and would rather not drink blood, thank you very much. He’s really Vlad the Impaler, so named for impaling his enemies and leaving them stuck in the battlefield on spears, the better to intimidate his enemies. We see this sight a few times, but silhouetted and shrouded in fog, the better to maintain a PG-13. Vlad was a real historical figure, and the movie tries for some token amount of Dark Age verisimilitude. It looks muddy, people are poor, and Vlad’s head weighs heavy with worry that Turks will bother his Transylvanian kingdom so peaceful he doesn’t even bother having a standing army.

But, sure enough, Turks, led by their villainous king (Dominic Cooper), show up demanding 1,000 boys for their army. When Vlad refuses, the Turks demand 1,000 and one more, his son (Art Parkinson). Vlad kills the messengers and prepares for battle, promising his wife (Sarah Gadon) he’ll do anything to protect their family and citizens. Anything, in this case, involves climbing an impassably craggy cliff to a cave where a vampire (Charles Dance) lives. Here the pale, fanged beast – more Nosferatu than Lee or Lugosi – offers Vlad a deal. Drink some vampire blood and have the powers of one for three days. If he makes it to a third sunrise without succumbing to the desire for human blood, he’ll return to normal. Drink, and he’ll be a vampire forever. He makes the deal.

At first this is all rather deftly handled, historical portent and creepy legend freely mixing in a dumb fun sort of way. It seems poised to be something like David Lean epic meets Hammer horror. Instead, it ends up closer to a Peter Jackson knockoff with long shots of characters wandering over hills and CGI armies marching across fields, the better to pad out the runtime I suppose. Characters are barely fleshed out, worldbuilding is half-hearted at best, and the production design is cramped and dark, the better to keep costs down I suppose. All the while, vampirism is exploited for effects shots and atmosphere, but is served up as a choose-your-own-metaphor. Sacrifice, temptation, grief, power, take your pick. It’s a painfully thin script telling a simple story with woefully underdevolped motivations and undercooked characterizations. Gadon and Dance, especially, are wasted in one-note roles that start intriguing and go nowhere fast.

And yet, there’s potential here, and it’s the actors and art directors who get close to finding it with the sturdy competence of first-time director Gary Shore and no help from screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless. Evans’ Vlad is a sad dad who’s just protecting his family, and we can see the pain of the responsibility in his eyes, as well as the exhilaration of vampiric powers that allow him to take on the entire Turkish army single-handedly. He can heal from his wounds – save sunlight, or a stake in the heart – and see in the dark, control creatures of the night, and turn into a swarm of bats if he moves really fast. He’s intimidating his enemies but he’s scaring his people and, hoo boy, does he vant to suck some blood. There’s a dollop of tension there, sitting beneath Evans eyes as he poses like a fantasy illustration in armor and flowing read cape. It’s impractical, but looks pretty cool, like most of the action and effects, which swirl around somewhat confusingly, but look striking from time to time.

There are plenty of reasons not to see this movie. But if you go hoping to see an impossibly large flock of bats slam into a massive army like a fist, or a vampire get staked in the heart so forcefully all his skin falls off, or a villain look across a CGI landscape full of ominous storm clouds and lightning and intone, “It’s the prince. He is coming,” you won’t be disappointed. If you get on the right flimsy B-movie fantasy wavelength, it’s not too terrible a way to pass 95 minutes, even better if you leave before the wholly unnecessary tease for a sequel that may or may not ever exist. Dracula Untold barely has enough to it to support itself, let alone a franchise.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Going...Going...GONE GIRL

Gone Girl is a sick dispatch from the dark center of a poisoned culture. It’s a missing person thriller imbued with the tick-tock urgency of a well-wrought procedural. But for all his precise surface sheen, David Fincher is a director interested in implications far more troubling and upsetting than any given episode of any given crime drama. Just look at how he turned the true crime Zodiac into a masterful investigation of obsession and unknowablity. With Gone Girl, the screenplay by Gillian Flynn, from her novel, obliges his impulses, creating a world that snaps into revealing action when a woman in a small Missouri town vanishes from the home she shares with her husband of five years. In doing so, it exposes a culture that’s selfish, prejudiced, misogynistic, easily misled, and eagerly superficial. And in the middle are characters who exploit these flaws.

At first, we know the drill. And because Fincher is a director who loves process and information, we appear to be on solid genre ground. The front door is open. The glass coffee table is smashed. There’s a bit of blood on the kitchen cabinet. And Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is nowhere to be found. Her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) calls the cops. Officers (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) show up to collect samples and rope off the suspected crime scene. He’s interviewed, then released to stay with his twin sister (Carrie Coon) while his wife’s parents (Lisa Banes and David Clennon) race to town. Search parties are gathered. A tip line is established. The media flocks, from local station vans getting all Ace in the Hole on lawns and sidewalks, to the tabloid media sharks (Missi Pyle and Sela Ward) ripping their teeth into the story’s details from the desks of their cable news channels.

This is how these things always go, whether in Law & Order or in real life. The husband is a source of suspicion. The wife is valorized. Fear and excitement creep through the community, media whips the nation into a frenzy of judgment, and the police chase down clues with professionalism. It's dryly funny, a mixture of unease, bewilderment and practicality. This is the least showily directed of Fincher's work, but he still ably deploys Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography – clean, simple images, clear shadows and soft colors – to keep the vice grip of tension screwing tighter. Sinister steady shots glide together with propulsive, clever editing – like a cute, creepy cut from a flashback to the couple’s first kiss to his mouth being swabbed by forensics – to bring considerable menace and dread to the procedural beats as the story grows more complex.

As the investigation moves forward, Amy narrates past scenes from their marriage, happy days and growing ominous inklings alike. In the present, clues begin to add up to an unpleasant picture for Nick. The police grow more skeptical of his story. They and we see uglier sides of his personality. What begins as a wrong-man thriller starts to gather a nauseous nagging weight. But that’s not the end of the story, and it doesn’t end up where you’d think from that set up. The film takes loop-de-loops with audience identification, recontextualizing characters, shifting sympathies with each new piece of information.

The cast expands. We meet a high-powered defense attorney (Tyler Perry), a mistress (Emily Ratajkowski), a chatty neighbor (Casey Wilson), a wronged ex (Scoot McNairy), a stalker (Neil Patrick Harris). But, with confident and nuanced performances across the board, none are as they seem. Dangerous people end up victims. The sleazy end up noble. The helpful are dupes. The clueless are shrewd. It’s important to consider not only what we know, but from what perspective we learned it, what we’ve seen and what we’ve only heard. Fincher deftly navigates the script’s developing mysteries and twists with a dread as steady as his eye for accumulating detail, even if some of the plot devices come across as only that.

In the center remain the couple, the husband left behind and the wife who is missing. They’re each playing a role in this case, exposing their lives to the world and leaving it up to the media’s interpretation. They weren’t perfect. They weren’t happy. They left New York crushed by the recession to take root in the Midwest, and found their seemingly perfect lives crack under the pressure. Selfish motives filled the cracks and pulled them apart. And now this. Now what?

Affleck and Pike play complicated roles that develop from stock types into richly complicated contradictions. They are both convincing as normal people trapped in a marriage that’s nearing a turning point, and heightened genre constructs heading towards a startling conclusion. Fincher gets them playing the easily digestible surfaces and the roiling ugliness underneath, hanging everything out for us to see them fully. The better to twist the plot in directions that are as surprising as they are sickening. The resulting gender politics are queasy, either sloppy or too clever and more than a little troubling in the ways it plays into a sexist’s worst nightmare assumptions. But the performances carry the film over anyway. It’s worth puzzling over because of how ice cold complicated the actors manage to be, by steering into the ugliest aspects of their characters.

Our culture values easy surface details and convenient narratives. They let us avoid the need to look further, think more deeply. In Gone Girl, there are those exploiting this for their own benefit. And I’m not just talking about the villain(s). (I’m being purposely vague there.) The cops make assumptions. The media finds easy targets. It’s easy to frame people, mislead the public, and obscure the obvious. Public relations becomes a way to win a case, or at least wriggle out of suspicion. Even Amy’s parents turned her childhood into a series of idealized kids’ books, then enjoyed conflating the character and their daughter for financial gain.

So it’s not merely a story of lurid violence and voyeuristic chills with fear mongering, although that’s certainly exploited here. (The film’s closer to De Palma than Hitchcock, if you catch my drift.) It’s also a movie about psychological damage of many kinds, drawing upsetting conclusions about the lengths people will go to appear good, to appear innocent, to get what they want and look right in others’ eyes. Why else would a do-gooder snap a selfie at a vigil, then get offended when asked to delete? She wants proof of appearances for her own use, no matter how unsettled or difficult it leaves those in her wake. It’s a film full of such troubling details.

Being so detail-oriented, Fincher makes films with impeccable craftsmanship of the highest order. Handsomely photographed and hermetically sealed, Gone Girl looks and moves like hard-edged blockbuster pulp, confident, prurient, and expensive. And yet it’s a wholly pessimistic and scathingly misanthropic Hollywood thriller, an eerily beautiful and darkly funny poison pill swallowed straight into the heart of our chaotic frivolousness. It resolves thematically with a chilling snap, leaving its implications dangling, lingering, and staining. What’s going on inside the minds of others? You can think you know someone, but once you learn the truth, there’s no unknowing.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fear and Supposing: THE ZERO THEOREM

Terry Gilliam has a touch of the madman about him. It’s in the cursed behind-the-scenes strife that follows him from production to production, making it something of a miracle that he’s made as many movies as he has, let alone so many good and distinctive ones. It’s in his love of crowded set dressing and baroque effects that fill the frame with cacophonous visual stimulation, from the historical phantasmagoria of Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the sci-fi landscapes of 12 Monkeys and cracked “real world” of Fisher King and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s in his deep love and appreciation for characters too oddball and individualistic to fit in the society around them, no matter how desperately the world wants to crush them, even and especially if said crushing actually happens.

His latest film is The Zero Theorem, set in a dystopian future crowded with an exaggerated overstimulation that feels like a close cousin to his Brazil’s obsession with consumption, bureaucracy, and vents. Scripted by Pat Rushin and brought to vivid life by Gilliam and his team, this sci-fi world is like our own but worse, filled with screens everywhere you look, blaring advertisements and propaganda, some deviously personalized to float alongside you wherever you go. It’s part of a web of surveillance and work terminals, designed to make people nothing more than inputs, data to be crunched. At the center of this stimuli overdose is Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). He’s reacted to his world by slipping into a waking coma of existential crisis.

It’s understandable. He just wonders what the point of it all is. Every day his boss (David Thewlis) informs him Mancom’s CEO (a white-haired Matt Damon) is demanding more data. A slogan on the wall: “Don’t Ask. Multitask.” Qohen would rather be reassigned to work from home, without having to commute a few blocks – past the billboards, warning signs, screens, and The Church of Batman the Redeemer – just to sit blankly in front of his screen. And so Qohen is given the thankless, impossible task of crunching numbers to solve The Zero Theorem. Everyone who has attempted it has failed, leaving their brains a scrambled mess. Qohen’s the last best hope, mostly because his brain’s already broken in.

There’s palpable madness to this world, as Qohen moves videogame cubes around and the insane world moves with a nonchalant logical illogic. Gilliam’s expert with madness, but at worst his films can get sick on that sensation. And so it is here. Waltz is quite good at selling the mood of a man in the process of shutting down. He thinks he’s due a phone call that’ll tell him his life’s purpose. It’s a quixotic hope, but it’s all he clings to. Meanwhile, The Zero Theorem is nothing less than an attempt to prove that “everything adds up to nothing,” as mindlessly hopeless as anything. The movie is one of fear and neurosis, as psychologically cramped as the mise-en-scène.

Here and there, though, it opens up by allowing more agreeably weird characters into the mix. Thewlis and Damon are charmers in a handful of scenes, but the movie really comes to life when Waltz is paired with a smart aleck teen intern (Lucas Hedges), who has a looseness and an externalized pushiness that pairs well with his co-star’s interiority. There’s also room for a sensual maybe-dream-girl (Mélanie Thierry) and a computerized shrink (Tilda Swinton, who at one point dons a bald cap and oversized sunglasses while rapping). And Gilliam’s design is always impressive, with droll visual bits of funny business. I especially liked the wall of prohibited activities behind a public bench, including a ban on smiling.

In the end, it’s a film I liked in theory more than in practice. It’s tediously overflowing with free-floating anxiety, generalized paranoid fear and sentimental confidence in man’s ability to float above society’s ills, no matter the delusion necessary to achieve said transcendence. But it’s trapped in a beautiful box of its own making. It looks great, but it is stuck without much of a narrative drive, little in the way of interesting character progression, and a world that starts to fall apart before it manages to get anywhere. I liked looking at it for a while, and enjoyed individual moments, but too often I felt myself straining to get on its wavelength. I felt like Qohen when asked if he’s having a good time. With visible discomfort, he answers, “Approximately.”
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