The Zero Theorem

Posted August 23, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, satire, science fiction

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The sickly neon lighting, the relentless Dutch angles, the grab-bag mix of futuristic and steampunk design, the theme of escape from bureaucratic control through fantasy: these are all excellent indicators that you’re watching a Terry Gilliam film, and his new one, The Zero Theorem, is the Terry Gilliamest piece in his portfolio in quite a while. I wish I could say that I mean that as a compliment, but Gilliam’s flaws may be inseparable from his strengths: when he’s on, he’s brilliant, but when he whiffs, the bleak swooshing sound is deafening, and The Zero Theorem, despite my fervent desire to claim otherwise, is one whiff after another. The surprise here is that most of the ground Gilliam covers here, he already trod devilishly well in Brazil, and after a while I wondered why he didn’t know that. He’s said he considers this film the third in a dystopian trilogy begun by Brazil and continued in 12 Monkeys, but it plays like a Gilliam imitator’s crude remix of the two.

Christoph Waltz, bald and charmless, is the obsessive computer geek Qohen Leth, who toils in a cubicle for the Management, personified by a white-haired eminence (Matt Damon, seemingly doing a Philip Seymour Hoffman turn). Qohen is given the Zero Theorem assignment — he has to prove that everything in the universe adds up to nothing. “Zero must equal 100%,” we’re told by machines again and again. This nihilist math/philosophy problem has broken many other thinkers, and Qohen, who refers to himself as “we” and has the prerequisite collection of genius quirks, finds himself dangerously distracted by blonde femme fatale Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who may have been sent by Management to test his resolve or sabotage his efforts.

Pat Rushin’s script plays as if Rushin fell asleep during a Gilliam marathon, woke up, and cobbled together a screenplay from what he dimly remembered. What’s missing is any emotional charge, any urgency — what William Goldman once called “the pregnant moment,” the reason the story is being told now. Qohen is a passive character obsessed with a phone call he once missed, a phone call he thinks could have revealed his purpose in life. Aside from that, he works on the theorem and he dallies in virtual reality with Bainsley. Much of The Zero Theorem is a two-character play, spiced up by Gilliam’s Dutch angles and colors that snap, crackle and pop. One dialogue scene, between Qohen and Bainsley in the cluttered former monastery he calls home, dribbles on and on; Gilliam seems to have forgotten that editing is part of the art of cinema, the thing that moves the images and the story.

Tedium sets in fast. Gilliam makes the surroundings as candied as he can, with Satire 101 messages running across digital billboards. The Management controls everything, but except for a Mutt and Jeff team of a heavy and his dwarf companion (ah, Gilliam and his dwarves), the Management doesn’t have much of a menacing presence, or a presence at all, really. Qohen stays inside for months grinding away on the theorem, occasionally resisting cybertherapy from Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and sharing irascible dialogue with the Management’s son (Lucas Hedges), a prodigious hacker who calls everyone Bob. Little of this has any dramatic interest; it’s full of bits of sour whimsy, which we’re meant to take as a hip, cynical vision of bland, hellish tomorrow (and tomorrow in this sort of dystopian satire is always today with futuristic trimmings).

One wants to root for Gilliam and his stubbornly uncommercial work, especially if we’ve enjoyed his earlier movies. I get no pleasure from swatting a new Gilliam film — there aren’t going to be very many more of them, he’s not getting any younger, and he has a hell of a time getting these oddball things financed as it is. A salute, then, to Gilliam for staying true to himself, not even knowing how to sell out. But the irony of The Zero Theorem is that it’s a parable about finding meaning in life, but it doesn’t mean much itself. It’s a doodle, a riff on Gilliam’s pet themes, but emotionally and dramatically it’s an inverse of the theorem: 100% of it equals zero.

Let’s Be Cops

Posted August 16, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, one of the year's worst

media_lets_be_cops_cbGiven what’s unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri as I write this, a comedy called Let’s Be Cops seems hideously ill-timed, at least if you go by the advertising. The premise put forth in the ads is simple: a couple of schmoes pass themselves off as policemen, get off on the privilege and power of their new position, and get into all kinds of slapstick debauchery. The actual movie, though, gets all of that stuff — which, if the script went into it deeply and sharply enough, could actually threaten to be subversive satire — out of the way fairly early, clearing the way for an idiotic and dull farce pitting our faux heroes (Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr.) against mobsters of possibly Russian, or vaguely Slavic, origin. See, they pretend to be cops and then have to step up and actually do what cops are supposed to do! Get it?

I can’t adequately express how soul-sucking the crime subplot is here. The crime subplot has derailed many a promising comedy; I wished, for instance, when sitting through Date Night that the movie would forget about its mobster storyline and just let Steve Carell and Tina Fey riff and improvise. By the same token, Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. are amusing enough when simply roaming Los Angeles in their fake cruiser, so why not let them? The desperately tired plot, which also involves a corrupt detective (Andy Garcia, in and out in about three scenes), just leads to uninspired shoot-outs so routine that they might as well be abstract color and movement for all the emotional impact they pack.

Wayans’ character works at a videogame company, and his big idea for a game puts the player in the shoes of a purportedly realistic patrolman having supposedly realistic adventures. The game actually looks like every other escapist first-person-shooter game, and so does the police action in the movie. Let’s Be Cops would have some point, some satirical juice, if it set up its two idiot protagonists as wannabe-cops based on what they imagine police work is from all the movies they’ve seen, and then harshly showed them what actual police work entails — going into scenes of very human despair and squalor. But that wouldn’t make for a rowdy Saturday-night farce — not that the movie ends up being one anyway, since it pulls its punches while remaining squarely sexist, racist and homophobic, and not even in transgressive ways that might be cleansing and redemptive, just lazily status-quo.

It’s something, I guess, for the black guy to take up with a white girl (Nina Dobrev, not allowed to show a fraction of what Vampire Diaries fans know she can do) and have it be no big deal. Some things are changing. And I liked how she’s allowed to contribute to the heroics by plying her trade — she’s an aspiring make-up artist — to make Wayans look like one of the mobsters’ scary couriers. (The courier he’s made up to look like is played, with welcome idiosyncrasy and improvisational flavor, by Keegan-Michael Key.) We don’t have to look at the head mobster (James D’Arcy) holding a gun to Dobrev’s head until one fake cop or the other mans up and shoots him. That job — the manning up, that is, not the Dobrev-menacing — is left to actual cop Rob Riggle, most likely doomed to play military, cops, or other alpha-male stereotypes until some imaginative director rescues him.

That director certainly isn’t Luke Greenfield, who acquits himself here with the same blandness and unfailing ability to miss the point (and the laugh) with which he directed The Girl Next Door ten years ago. The Girl Next Door was an R-rated movie about a porn star in which we never saw the porn star naked — not that I’m pining for nudity, but a movie with raunchy subject matter would do best not to chicken out of it — and Let’s Be Cops never hits the delirious highs or revolting lows that a truly daring cop comedy could go for. No, it sticks to its witless, anti-comedy gangster plot, involving a generic Slavic community that Nina Dobrev’s character doesn’t seem to be a part of, even though the actress is Bulgarian and speaks the language fluently. But then this would have to be a movie that showed the slightest affinity for being culturally astute or for giving its actors something interesting to do.

About Alex

Posted August 11, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's worst

large_aboutalex_web_3About Alex isn’t actually about Alex (Jason Ritter), a lonely twentysomething leaving the hospital after a suicide attempt. It’s mainly about his annoying friends from college, who have all drifted into disappointing lives since graduation. When they get the news about their troubled classmate, they converge on Alex’s cabin in the woods, where monsters and demons kill them — wait, no, I’m remembering more entertaining movies. At the cabin, the twentysomethings argue and bare their souls and dance to old music and pass a joint around and more or less re-enact The Big Chill.

Every other review of About Alex has mentioned The Big Chill, and so I was going to do my best not to, but I’m not strong enough. If you hated the yuppie self-absorption of The Big Chill, you will melt into a radioactive heap of rage and loathing in the presence of About Alex. If you liked The Big Chill, well, you’ve already seen it once, right? About Alex was written and directed by Jesse Zwick, whose father Ed Zwick created the sensitively irritating ’80s TV show thirtysomething (a.k.a. The Big Chill: The Series) along with Marshall Herskovitz; both men also produced this film, so we must assume their appetite for whiny entitled twats wasn’t sated two decades ago.

The movie does improve on its ancestors in that it isn’t lily-white. Of the young cast, Nate Parker is African-American, Max Minghella is part Chinese, and Aubrey Plaza has Puerto Rican ancestry. It doesn’t matter a whole lot, though, because none of the characters are written as anything specific. For a minute, I thought Alex would turn out to be a bisexual with a crush on Nate Parker’s aspiring novelist character, but no, there are zero non-heteros in this group.

We watch as the talented cast try and fail to breathe life into overwritten clichés. The most overtly annoying of the group, a womanizer played by Max Greenfield, actually comes off as one of the most interesting, since he gets some much-needed tension going. But he’s also that time-honored theatrical group-dynamic boogeyman the Truthteller — the one who digs out what everyone else is too repressed to say out loud — and in case we didn’t get it, he straight-up tells us: “I’m a Truthteller.”

Nice to meet you, Truthteller. Meet your fellow stereotypes the Neurotic, the Frustrated Artist and His Maybe-Pregnant Girlfriend, the Yuppie Scum and His Too-Young Girlfriend, and Alex, who gets scarcely any traits at all, clichéd or otherwise. Alex is merely a void around which the other characters can circle the drain of timeworn drama. One gets the impression that Alex has been kept alive — unlike the suicide, also named Alex, whose death brought the Big Chill group together — so that About Alex wouldn’t be considered a flat-out unofficial remake of The Big Chill. He certainly serves no other purpose. And even though we get a lame college-flashback bit near the end, we have little sense of why Alex was friends with any of these douchebags, or why they were friends with each other. They’re just thrown together to be even more annoying as a group than they are individually.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Posted August 2, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, comedy, comic-book, overrated

maxresdefaultIf you take a piece of white bread and stick weird things into it, what you have isn’t anything bold or dazzling; it’s just white bread with weird things stuck into it. Guardians of the Galaxy is that white bread: ornamentally eye-catching but fundamentally bland. The movie is set in the same universe as Iron Man and The Avengers and the other interconnected Marvel-comics films, but it’s set somewhere in the cosmic margins, away from Earth, off to the side. It’s a milieu we sort of have to agree to accept as alien, though many of its inhabitants pretty much look human, only with fresh coats of blue or green paint. It’s not futuristic; it’s happening in 2014, except that its main Earth character, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), has been off-planet since 1988, so his references to terran culture end then.

Peter has an Awesome Mix Tape filled with his dear dead mom’s favorite tunes, which tend towards classic rock from the ’70s. The presence of this music in what’s supposed to be a planet-hopping adventure occasionally lends it the aura of a midnight movie, albeit a midnight movie that cost $170 million. Guardians has been written (by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) with a good portion of snark, though none of the verbal barbs turn around and aim at the movie itself, or at Marvel (or Disney). It feels like a parody that isn’t parodying anything; a movie that costs that kind of money can’t be expected to have sharp teeth, and it doesn’t. It’s just smug, engaging in lightly inane badinage and lumbering into any number of cluttered action set-pieces. The jokiness commands you not to take the proceedings too seriously, as if you would anyway.

Peter, who calls himself Starlord, finds himself aligned with several other outlaws — assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), bruiser Drax (Dave Bautista), sentient walking tree Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), and talking raccoon Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) — against the usual dull villain who wants to destroy everything. This good-vs.-evil plot unfolds inside the usual meaninglessly convoluted web of allegiances, various people who don’t like the Guardians, as well as tensions between the Kree and the Xandarians (ah, yes, that old conflict). Guardians would like us to find it hip and quirky, but at heart it’s like every other obscenely expensive summer movie about heroes trying to stop bad guys from doing bad things. The bad guys want to do bad things for reasons we barely comprehend — they do bad things because they’re bad guys, I take it. And they have to be stopped. This requires extremely pricey, poorly edited chase scenes, things blowing up, people shooting at or punching other people, and other greatest hits.

Gunn is clever, and I’m not immune to his nudging; I chuckled a few times (mostly at bits of business involving Groot or Rocket). But anyone expecting the perversities of Gunn’s Troma-meets-Cronenberg horror-comedy Slither (2006) or his previous film, 2010’s Super, had better keep waiting. I much prefer Super, which had the sting of human frailty, and which, perhaps not coincidentally, cost 68 times less than Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn has already made his superhero movie; this new one doesn’t really feel like his. It feels like a corporate jest, of the sort that Marvel used to indulge in briefly in the ’80s, when they would launch stunts like Assistant Editors’ Month — titles like Spider-Man or Daredevil would be turned over to less serious writers for tongue-in-cheek meta-stories that happened more or less out of continuity. Guardians is like an Assistant Editors’ Month issue writ large. But readers were expected to pay the full sixty cents for those issues back in 1984, and audiences are expected to pay full ticket prices for it now.

Lucy

Posted July 27, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, science fiction

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What are the movies trying to tell us about Scarlett Johansson? Of late, she’s been seen (or, in one case, merely heard) in three idiosyncratic sci-fi films directed by people with more on their minds than simple escapism. Spike Jonze’s Her wedded Johansson’s purr to a super-advanced operating system; Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin offered her as an alien harvesting men; and now, in Luc Besson’s Lucy (Luc with a y?), Johansson plays an unwilling drug mule whose cargo of experimental blue powder, leaking into her bloodstream, allows her access to more and more of her brain. In the Besson-verse, this means Johansson becomes the ultimate badass, able to bend matter to her will, until eventually, like Samantha in Her, Lucy slips the bonds of the material world.

What matters to the sane viewer is not whether Lucy is scientifically plausible — it isn’t — but whether it’s an entertaining riff on its hefty themes (like, what is human, man?) — and it mostly is. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have many questions about it. Lucy starts out an ordinary young woman with understandably intense emotional responses to her plight — in a nice nod to realism, Besson has her barf at the sight of gangster bloodshed — but as her brain grows, as in so many of these parables, her heart seems to shrink. Johansson becomes dead-eyed and rather spooky, rattling off complex dialogue in a flat affect. She comes across as more inhuman than she was as actual nonhumans in Her and Under the Skin. Reason trumps feeling, I guess — though another nice touch finds Lucy phoning her mom and tearfully sharing infant memories she can now access — but a main character without fear makes for a movie without emotional stakes.

Lucy is probably easy to parody, what with its nods to landmarks of furrowed-brow cinema — at one point, Lucy touches fingers with a curious pre-evolved monkey; finally, Scarlett Johansson as the Monolith! — sometimes playing like Limitless remixed by Godfrey Reggio. It comes complete with a thesis statement, spoken by Johansson in sullen voiceover: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” The peak of human endeavor, apparently, being the ability to take out a hallway full of Korean thugs with a lordly wave of the hand. For extra gravitas, Besson brings in Morgan Freeman, filling the same role he did in the recent and thematically similar Transcendence. Where Johnny Depp sought to crown himself the world’s benevolent cyber-king, though, Lucy just wants to survive, to pass along information as a cell does. Is this the difference between a deus ex machina and a dea ex machina?

Ultimately, Lucy is more interesting as the final panel of the 2013-14 Scarlett Johansson “what is human?” triptych than it is in and of itself. It has its giddy moments, though. When Lucy teams up with a cop (Amr Waked) and takes him on a leadfoot tour of Parisian streets, or when she achieves oneness with every electronic device in Freeman’s lab, Besson shows a muscular imaginative glee that’s hard to fend off. The director of La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element has never been a thinker; despite Lucy‘s feints towards philosophy, it’s really about the cool visual, the dispassionate masklike beauty of a young woman serving up a bit of ultraviolence. Lucy was not based on a comic book, but it might as well be; essentially, Luc Besson is in the comic-book business.

The Purge: Anarchy

Posted July 21, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, science fiction, sequel, thriller

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The disappointing thing about the Purge movies is that the marketing makes them look spookier and more radical than they turn out to be. The first one, from last year, used a promising if unoriginal premise — every year in futuristic America, there’s a 12-hour window of officially ignored criminality — as the backdrop for a standard home-invasion thriller. Now The Purge: Anarchy employs the same concept as wallpaper for an action-thriller that swipes alternately from The Warriors and Escape from New York but lacks the style of either.

As the annual Purge is about to kick off, we meet a variety of civilians preparing for the long night. The mother-daughter duo Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) plan to hole up in their apartment. The troubled young couple Shane (Zach Gifford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to her sister’s house. A mystery man (Frank Grillo) arms himself and goes out into the chaos. Eventually all these people wind up under the protection of Mystery Man, whose name, Wikipedia informs me, is Leo, even though I don’t think I heard it mentioned in the film.

Somewhere in there is a revolutionary faction opposed to the Purge, but aside from serving as a deus ex machina (both Purge movies are full of last-minute rescues) they don’t amount to much. More is made here of the Purge essentially being an elitist culling of the 99%, with the rich paying to kidnap or hunt the poor for fun. But the politics of this is callow compared to two other recent dystopian thrillers, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The action, on the rare occasions that you can make out what’s happening, is uninspired; the putatively ghastly sight of prowling killers in ironically innocent masks is muted when we find out what they’re really up to. Random cruelty, to me, is scarier than conspiracy theories, which arise from the human need to impose order where there is none. There’s certainly order in the universe of The Purge, which makes the conflict comprehensible and dull and politically questionable even if you’re on the side of the 99%.

By virtue of getting out and about, and having a more varied cast than Ethan Hawke and his family, The Purge: Anarchy packs marginally more entertainment value than its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it’s boring to watch and to think about, and sadly, these movies are meant to be thought about. But they’re overtly political in a way that reminds me of a high-school kid who’s just discovered radicalism. The writer/director of both films is James DeMonaco, who may for all I know have a shelf full of Noam Chomsky, but one of the executive producers is Transformers perpetrator Michael Bay, whose low-budget horror-flick shingle Platinum Dunes is behind the films. Bay is decidedly a one-percenter, and I would reflexively distrust anything supposedly radical with his name on it. These movies are like something that would be shown to the poor folks of Panem in The Hunger Games to pacify them, keep them from actually doing anything.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted July 13, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, one of the year's best, science fiction, sequel

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-5At the end of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, most of us were killed off by a man-made virus, while the simians of the world, led by the super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), took to the trees and set about enjoying life without humans. Now, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s around a decade later; Caesar has set up an enormous community of primates near an abandoned dam in San Francisco. Caesar has taught sign language to his subjects, and some, like him, can even speak (I agreed to forget that apes can’t physically speak no matter how smart they are). But there are, it turns out, some humans nearby, and they want to reactivate the dam to get the power back on.

It’s a simple conflict of interests, but the characters on either side are written with an appealing depth. We can see and empathize with all viewpoints. The humans’ leader (Gary Oldman), for instance, who wants to decimate the apes if they won’t allow access to the dam, is not a mustache-twirling sadist but simply a frightened and grieving man charged with protecting his small pocket of humanity. On the other side, the intelligent and peaceable Caesar has a scarred and badass adviser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who hates humans because they tortured him in the lab. There’s a chilling moment when Caesar refers to “human work” in the dam, and an enraged Koba points to each of his scars, grunting “Human…work! Human…work! HUMAN…WORK!” in a rising line of disgust, and we think, Well…yeah…hard to argue with that.

Caesar is heroic and noble and, as a result, sort of dull next to Koba, who becomes the movie’s anti-hero. He’s sardonic, even satirical — he dupes a couple of idiotic gun-toting humans by engaging in what I can only call simian minstrelsy — and remorselessly vicious. He scares us, and yet the sight of him on horseback wielding two machine guns is inescapably exciting. We’re seeing primal fury, pain, revenge. Koba does evil things in the name of eradicating what he sees as the key threat to his, well, people. In outline it’s the same MLK/Malcolm X conflict we saw between Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men films, but it feels more real here, the guilt more intimate, because in the real world there are no superpowered mutants but there certainly are monkeys who continue to be experimented on and subjected to agony in our labs. The new Apes films show the chickens coming home to roost: how long can humans deal stinging blows to nature before nature bites back?

So Dawn becomes something of a war movie, or a pre-war movie, because we’re told that the humans have succeeded in contacting the military, and the next Apes will no doubt be the big throwdown. But here, at least, we’ve sown the seeds for Caesar’s making good on his earlier promise, “Apes do not want war. But we will fight if we must.” Caesar is quite the speechmaker, to the point where he can hold a decent conversation with the kinder-hearted of the humans, such as Jason Clarke as a more temperate leader (he’s Oldman’s right-hand man, in an inversion of the Caesar-Koba dynamic) and Keri Russell as a doctor who tends to sick or wounded apes. Caesar knows there are good humans, and doesn’t have a problem using the language of the enemy, since he doesn’t see them as such. Koba uses English sneeringly, or when he needs to be heard above the din of battle; he has a screechy, ugly speaking voice that suggests English tastes bad in his mouth.

Dawn is confidently directed by Matt Reeves, who made Cloverfield better than it had to be and Let Me In better than I’d expected a remake of Let the Right One In to be. Here he makes a Planet of the Apes sequel way better than it has any right to be, slowing down to capture moments between human and human, between ape and ape, between ape and human — these moments are the spine of the action. When the apes, led by the shrieking Koba, go to battle with the humans, it’s both electrifying and saddening. We’re there for what the poster — ape on horseback waving a gun — promises, but what leads to that visual is a nauseating tangle of grief and pain and mutual distrust. Dawn will be put to work as a stand-in for any current intractable conflict — I’ve already seen the ape/human conflict compared to the Palestinian/Israeli mess. But it feels more elemental than that. Humans, by accident of evolution, became the alphas on Earth, the apex predators, with every other species reduced to the insulted and the injured. Those who rush to find real-world political analogues are perhaps willfully ignoring what Koba so simply and eloquently refers to as human work.


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