The Zero Theorem (2014)

The Zero TheoremReclusive computer genius Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is waiting for a phone call. He doesn’t know when the call will come or who the caller might be, but he expects it to relate somehow to the meaning of life. Unfortunately, Leth has to spend a considerable amount of time at work, where he pours over various formulas under the watchful eye of Management (Matt Damon). While at a party, he is told by supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) that Management wants to put him on a new project, and accepts when it is revealed that he can perform his new duties from home. Qohen has been tasked with solving The Zero Theorem, a mathematical extrapolation of Big Crunch theory which seems to suggest that life is purposeless. Leth needs his phone call now more than ever, but with the sudden arrival of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Bob (Lucas Hedges) in his life he keeps finding himself getting distracted from his work.

You should of course know better than to apply logic to a Terry Gilliam movie; the auteur doesn’t plot his movies in the usual sense, rather he develop his themes until they themselves assume some sort of narrative shape. Watching a Gilliam production is often akin to an episode of Doctor Who; it’s a overwhelming, alienating experience in which you have to write the contrivances and improbabilities off to something vaguely timey-wimey and just savour the experience in all of its crackpot, nonsense glory. After all, it’s not every director who could overcome the untimely death of his lead actor by recasting not once but three times, as he did with last film The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. Why? Even having watched the film the answers aren’t exactly forthcoming.

Of all Gilliam’s past films, it is perhaps 1985’s Brazil that is the most obvious forerunner to The Zero Theorem (no surprise really, as it’s being billed as the third and final part in the director’s ‘Dystopian Satire Trilogy’). It’s yet another tale of one man’s persecution by the state, only rather than the straight man being up against a force of complete and utter chaos the roles have this time been reversed. This time it’s the protagonist who babbles incoherently to the endless bewilderment of those around him; Leth is an eyebrow-deprived recluse who inhabits a fire-damaged chapel, refers to himself in the first-person plural and has turned a simple wrong number or prank call into a bona fide belief system.

There are shades of Gilliam-esque satire to the world inhabited by Leth, a culture that would invoke Dr. Seuss and Whoville if it wasn’t so technologically advanced or strangely sexualised. As a treatise on religion and the madness of blind faith The Zero Theorem is mildly successful, though in order to reach its eventual conclusions you must suffer through an awful lot of largely inconsequential silliness. Who’s to say whether Waltz — or for that matter any of the cast — are hitting their marks, for it is singularly impossible to imagine what exactly they might be aiming for. Waltz spends a lot of time acting frenzied at a computer, but to what effect it is difficult to say. Thierry and Hedges seem to hold some answers, but never enough to completely satisfy, while Tilda Swinton only adds to the insanity as a Scottish psychiatrist.

The Zero Theorem will likely appeal to those well-versed in the director’s style and sensibilities, and to anyone willing to analyse and scrutinise every utterance or incidence for hidden, if not misplaced meaning. For everyone else it is likely to prove even more obtuse, enigmatic and indecipherable than Gilliam’s other works. You have to be in the mood to watch The Zero Theorem, and it’s safe to say that I wasn’t. Honestly, the titular formula itself must have been easier to crack.

2-stars

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War Horse (2012)

Based on the hugely successful play, War Horse tells the story of Joey, an unfortunately named horse, sold into military service at the outbreak of World War One, and his adventures and relationships with numerous owners throughout the course of the war. Which is where the film’s problems start, because with the focus on a horse and with a succession of human protagonists dipping in and out of the story as Joey comes through, it often feels much more like we’re watching a succession of episodes of a TV series in the vein of Lassie or Old Yeller, rather than a coherent movie.

In fact, the comparison with dog-based TV series is somewhat unfair, because while dogs, kangaroos and even dolphins have a range of easily recognisable expressions, horses are the animal kingdom’s equivelent of Keanu Reeves. Where we’ve had equine protagonists previously, our connection has been fostered through the people with whom they interact. The lack of consistent human company in War Horse – even our ‘lead’ actor (Jeremy “Trench Foot” Irvine as Albert Narracott) is only in about half of the film – makes it almost impossible to connect with anything on screen.

To be fair to War Horse, while the movie as a whole is difficult to engage with, there are some sequences that do work quite well. In particular, a rendezvous between a British and a German soldier in No-Man’s Land is solidly entertaining, as is a sequence featuring a young French girl and her elderly grandfather, but these work because of the humour that runs through them. Something seriously lacking from the remainder of the film.

Indeed, for the most part, War Horse is so po-faced and sincere that it feels almost rude to enjoy it. As a result of this, sequences that should be thrilling, like a cavalry charge into a German camp, are simply dull – although, this does lead to the most interesting shot in the film, as riderless horses charge into the fores. Again, this isn’t helped by the lack of engagement with the characters. At the point in the film the charge occurs, we have spent so little time with the riders that their success or failure is about as important to the audience as the colour of the tiles in the cinema toilet.

Compounding the film’s problems is a terrifically clumsy script. Because every twenty minutes or so we are introduced to an entirely new set of characters, a huge proportion of the dialogue is used to explain who they are, and how they relate to one another. Admittedly it could have been far worse, but it often sucks the momentum out of the movie, and frequently causes otherwise decent performances to fall flat. Again, something not helped by the film’s forced sincerity.

In spite of all this, War Horse isn’t a terrible film. It’s not even a bad one, it’s simply forgettable. About a decade ago, Steven Spielberg created Band of Brothers. Ten years before that, Richard Curtis was responsible for one of the most entertaining and poignant depictions of trench warfare with Blackadder Goes Forth. The fact that they phoned in this waste of time is utterly disappointing.

Reviewed by @Montimer.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will open at the close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Having stopped Lord Voldermort twice now, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has attracted the attention of a new threat – a black dog which seems to be stalking him around Little Whinging. Returning to Hogwarts, Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) – the man believed to be responsible for betraying his parents to Voldermort all those years ago – has escaped Azkaban, spurring the Ministry of Magic to detach a number of Dementors to protect the wizarding school. Unusually susceptible to the creatures’ influence, Harry receives lessons from new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) in how to protect himself – using an apparently effective combination of charms and chocolate.

Seeking revenge on Black with Ron and Hermione once again in tow, Harry’s perception of the truth is drawn into doubt by the revelation that it wasn’t Sirius, but Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) – who has been hiding out as Ron’s rat, Skabbers – who gave Lily and James Potter’s names to He Who Must Not Be Named. When Sirius is captured and sentenced to suffer the Dementor’s kiss, a fate worse than death, Harry uses one of Hermione’s time-turners to relive the day and save his godfather from his horrid fate.

Now in the hands of Alfonso Cuarón, the Harry Potter franchise was finally able to establish an identity of its own, other than as a mere extension of J. K. Rowling’s literary phenomenon. Taking the executor’s axe to a series of expendable subplots – much of Black’s backstory is cut along with the exact nature of the Marauders – Prisoner of Azkaban is much more streamlined than Columbus’ films, boasting a slimmer running time despite the increased size of the third book.

The simplification of the film’s plot allowed Cuarón – hired due to his outstanding work on Y Tu Mama Tambien – to show a renewed focus on character. As such we get our first real suggestion of the burgeoning attraction between Ron and Hermione, as well as a glimpse at Harry’s darker side – epitomized here by his desire for revenge. Often considered the best book in the series, Azkaban is also viewed by some as being the best film, with a series of exquisite action set pieces, an astute handling of the last act’s horror beats and a brilliantly ambiguous performance from Gary Oldman marking this one out from its predecessors.

Considering that much of the film takes place over the same day – repeated due to the time-travelling subplot – the film builds up a truly impressive momentum as it nears its Dementor-trouncing conclusion. Unavoidably darker than the films directed under Chris Columbus – the werewolf transformation scene is delightfully Hammer Horror – the film drags our heroes into their teenage years with a greater focus on Harry, Ron and Hermione’s lives outside of school hours. A darker Hogwarts called for a darker headmaster, and with the tragic death of Richard Harris prior to the release of Chamber of Secrets, Michael Gambon inherited the half-moon spectacles in a rather inspired piece of casting that would stand the franchise in good stead for the more turbulent instalments to come.

That said, Prisoner of Azkaban belongs to Messrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and – well – not Prongs obviously, but the first three certainly. Oldman, Thewlis and Spall play beautifully off one another, their antagonism (not least with Alan Rickman’s Snape) leading to some of the most memorable and compelling scenes from the franchise to date. Holed up in the Shrieking Shack with an injured Ron, a terrified Hermione and an interrogative Harry, the surviving Marauders play off the younger cast-members to truly impressive effect. When the movie is so clearly capable of such hefty and dramatic notes, however, I can’t help but wish Cuarón hadn’t deemed it necessary to have Harry repetitively faceplant whilst on the Nightbus. Twice. What a total buzzkill.