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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We Bought A Zoo (2012)

A once-adventurous, jet-setting journalist who has since found himself grounded by the death of his wife, Benjamin Mee (Damon) decides to move house as his son Dylan (Colin Ford) is finally expelled from school and rowdy neighbours continue to keep his 7-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) from sleeping. Settling on a property miles from the nearest frat party, Benjamin is nearly talked out of buying when the house is revealed to come complete with a struggling zoo and the small staff that maintain it. Unable to tear Rosie away from the animals, he decides not only to relocate but to get the zoo up and running before the next scheduled inspection, to the delight of the zoo-keeper, Kelly Foster (Johansson), and her young cousin, Lily (Elle Fanning).

An adaptation of the real-life Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name, We Bought a Zoo marks the long-awaited return of director Cameron Crowe following the relative box office failure of his previous project, Elizabethtown. Uprooting the Mee’s from Devon’s Dartmoor Zoological Park to a Southern California-set facsimile, the film – co-written by Crowe himself – takes a little creative license with the initial acquisition of the property and adds a few innocuous love interests to try and steer audience’s attention away from the myriad endangered species and animal attractions. It is a small and necessary manipulation, perhaps, but one which does not go unnoticed.

The characters – while nicely played – lack the ring of truth required by this heartfelt drama; whether it’s the mage-like seven year-old, the relentlessly loudmouthed real-estate agent or the spunky young zookeeper who still lives with her mother. While the familial struggle and the ever-present tragedy at the story’s centre are played with dignity and poignancy, a discordantly slapstick antagonism between the oddball zoo-hands and a pantomime inspector straight out of Ace Ventura is forever threatening to undermine any carefully orchestrated good will. Throw in a sequence in which an escaped bear does anything but fatally maul its gun-wielding captors and it all becomes a little too much to, um, bear.

At the film’s centre, Matt Damon does his best with an uncanny Mark Wahlberg impression in a solid – if unremarkable – performance as the adventurer who might have finally bitten off more than he can chew. Ably backed by Thomas Hayden Church in the role of his disapproving brother, the two build up an effortlessly likeable rapport that at least attempts to examine Benjamin’s own rationale, helping to gloss over a few plot contrivances even if it is at the expense of a few too many colloquial “mans”. While not afforded the same attention, the relationship between Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning is similarly impacting.

The plot, such that it is, largely keeps to itself, never offering up a development or twist that invites any further inspection or is even particularly worthy of note. With a number of subplots in play at any one time – from the tween romance and the impending inspection to the deterioration of the park’s elder-most tiger – very few provide any surprise as the film follows a very well worn narrative path. With the inevitability of the ending all but set in stone, it is impossible not to question the film’s considerable 123 minute running time. Many of the conflicts go on a beat too long, their resolutions all too often padded out by repetitive arguments and a preoccupation with showing audiences each and every animal species in residence.

While it might not be perfect, We Bought a Zoo is nevertheless a genial and perfectly affable affair. Despite its length and proclivity for cliché, Crowe’s latest manages to tread familiar waters without inciting any ill-will whatsoever. Earnest, undemanding and ultimately very moving, a keen eye for human drama and a disarming score courtesy of Icelandic music man Jonsi manage to compensate for the occasional dud character and hokey line of dialogue. Just avoid if you’re not looking to answer difficult questions regarding the Easter Bunny.

Margaret (2011)

Lisa (Anna Paquin) is an opinionated, articulate teenager who thinks she knows it all. Brash, obstinate, and an indomitable force during class debates, she is unaffraid to tell her peers, teachers and single mother exactly what she thinks of them and the attitudes that they hold. Deciding to track down a cowboy hat in preparation for a weekend of horse-riding with her father following one such incident with an exasperated maths teacher (Matt Damon), Lisa’s shopping trip is cut short when she indirectly causes a traffic accident which kills an unsuspecting pedestrian (Allison Janney – who nobody kills without serious repercussions).

Racked with guilt over her part in the tragedy, having distracted the driver (Mark Ruffalo) and therefore caused him to drive through a red light, Lisa proceeds to make matters worse by misinterpreting a glance during questioning and subsequently lying to police in order to corroborate his story. Driven to make contact with the dead woman’s only relative by her overwhelming grief, she builds up a relationship with the deceased’s best friend and convinces herself that in order to atone for her perceived sins she must come clean to the police and remove the responsible driver from the roads.

Tell someone you are going to see Margaret at the cinema and they will invariably turn to you and ask why the hell anyone would want to watch a movie about Maggie Thatcher in the first place. While The Iron Lady has enjoyed a truly astonishing amount of publicity in the run up to its release, Margaret has received almost none. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Margaret has been in production for nearly five years, delayed due to multiple set-backs arising from Lonergan’s stubborn pursuit of the elusive perfect cut (and further exasperated by multiple ongoing law suits), concluding in a limited release orchestrated by Fox Searchlight Pictures. With only a handful of showings across the country, Margaret may be the best film you never see this year.

But there is more to Margaret than a straight-forward tale of right and wrong. As Lisa includes more and more people in her own personal dilemma – in either an attempt to form a moral consensus or satisfy some egocentric pursuit of drama – she inevitably finds herself doing more harm than good, often reacting to her feelings in unhealthy and unexpected ways. With such an under-formed and unreliable ethical grounding, Lonergan has the perfect medium to explore not only the impact of 9/11 on modern America but also such extraneous topics as puberty, family and the very nature of justice itself – whether legal, moral or arguably pathological. Who is at fault? What is grief? How, when the case is supposedly closed, is it possible to achieve absolution?

At the very centre of this sprawling meditation on responsibility is Lisa herself. For Anna Paquin, it is the performance of a career. She doesn’t play a character, Lonerman’s film is not populated by impersonations, but inhabited by people – beautiful, flawed, well-meaning people. As infuriating as she is inescapably compelling, Paquin’s Lisa is one of the most well-rounded and complex protagonists ever committed to film. She commits entirely, as do the rest of the cast, and the end result is nothing short of revelatory. With characters drifting in and out of her life with little thought for traditional drama, the narrative follows no laws other than those set by Lisa herself.

The movie Margaret most reminded me of was Southland Tales. While Lonergan’s movie might be superior in almost every sense, it is one of those over-reaching movies that is held together not by convention and cliché but by the director’s sheer force of will alone. The five year production has taken its toll on every frame of the finished movie – even at 150 minutes, Margaret is a shadow of its former self – but Lonergan’s determination and resolve has resulted in a movie which nevertheless survives as one of the finest films of the year. Audacious, ridiculous and utterly compelling, Margaret is a frustratingly naturalistic movie which will leave you almost as confounded as the inhabitants of its own universe.

This is unlikely the last review of Margaret I will ever write – like the film itself, my own understanding of it is a bit of a work in progress – but one week on from my first viewing I am still as yet unable to stop thinking about it. If you only see one Margaret this month, make it this one.

Contagion (2011)

Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) has the lurgy, and in returning home she has passed it on to her young child, putting both of their lives in danger while immune husband Mitch (Matt Damon) watches on in hopeless horror. As clusters of cases spring up around the world, experts Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) set about trying to determine the source of the outbreak, leaving World Health Organisation epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) to travel to Hong Kong, where Beth originally contracted the illness. While the world powers search for an effective vaccine, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) spreads lies and hysteria through his assertions of government conspiracies.

It is definitely a striking image – having relaunched her career post-baby with a role in Iron Man, a part in Glee and an awards-season duet with Gnarls Barkley – to watch Gwyneth Paltrow’s foaming corpse have its scalp folded over her once beautiful face. Almost like the opening gambit in Wes Craven’s original Scream, this surprisingly explicit sequence sends a very clear message to audience that nobody is safe. Not even Mrs. Coldplay.

This all adds up to director Steven Soderbergh’s crowning achievement with Contagion, the consistently oppressive atmosphere and sense that you might actually be watching the first truly plausible apocalypse; like The Day After Tomorrow, but without the bit where Jake Gyllenhaal outruns frost. Meticulously researched, Contagion paints an all-too-real picture of pandemic, which is haunting not only for its images of celebrity death and disease-induced ugliness, but also for the fact that it leaves you staring at the toilet door handle in absolute terror, awaiting word of the apparently inevitable outbreak.

Beyond scare-mongering, however, there is little regarding Contagion to get excited about. While the disease itself smacks of well-informed realism, the humans it untimately impacts prove much less believable. Juggling a considerable ensemble, each character is aforded the most rudimentary of arcs, allowing them to make one small mistake and spending the rest of their screentime attempting to atone for it; Lawrence Fishbourne has compromised his government, Kate Winslet has wasted her entire life faking a ridiculous American accent and  Matt Damon has seriously hindered his daughters dating prospects.

Worse than the last-minute character development are the strands Soderbergh simply abandons. Diseases are not dramatically fulfilling, and with an absence of zombies to villainise, the characters doomed to death are shaken from their mortal coil with little fuss; the survivors, meanwhile, are simply left to get on with it, as the narrative abruptly cuts out, leaving a pair of teenagers dancing and Marion Cotillard apparently walking the length of China in the middle of a pandemic (quick, hide!). It really is as anti-climactic as it sounds.

The only character worthy of note is Jude Law’s Australian blogger, a novelty in itself. The accent aside (it sounded fine to me, but what do I know – I only grew up in the country), Alan Krumwiede is the only player with any trace of bona-fide ambiguity. His motives are obtuse, his means questionable and his interactions with other characters – while occasionally hateful – at least rouse some semblance of emotional response – much more than can be said for one character who dies trying to give a cold stranger their coat. How sickeningly very nice of them.

Effective for its realism and fetishisation of germ-ridden surfaces, Contagion is otherwise about as contagious as ass-cramp it ultimately inflicts. Overcrowded, and showing an unfortunate reluctance to finish its own story, the film falls somewhat short of the success it clearly thinks it is.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

For Matt Damon, 2011 appears to be the year of the paranormal. Having first fought to live a normal life in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, Damon is now fighting to live a normal life in The Adjustment Bureau, both movies throwing the heavens in his path. His bitten tongue apparently healed after True Grit, the Bourne actor is firmly back playing the everyman who resembles the no man. After falling in love at first sight with Emily Blunt – life sized this time – David Norris (Damon) finds his attempts at wooing the quirky Elise (Blunt) blocked by a Bureau determined to keep the two apart so that it might not interfere with The Chairman’s plan.

Advertised Bourne meets Inception, the poster blurbs appear to promise a gritty, action packed meditation on philosophy that, like, looks really cool and stuff. Prepare to be disappointed, then, as The Adjustment Bureau is nothing more than a half-baked science fiction premise that fails to fuel a feature film, better suited to the short story that it is loosely based on. According to the movie’s mythology, there is a team of behatted creatures whose job it is to keep the instance of chance to a minimum by discretely nudging their human charges back onto the paths laid out on them by God The Chairman. Gifted with magic hats, the angels Bureau are able to cross the city instantaneously using a series of enchanted doors, their powers hindered only by water. It really is as stupid as it sounds.

It really doesn’t help that Emily Blunt’s character remains completely unsuspecting throughout most of the movie as David Norris staves lobotomisation at the hands of The Bureau by keeping his knowledge of them to himself. Spaced across four years, the movie requires us to believe that their mere hours of interaction are enough to keep themselves invested in a relationship that by all means shouldn’t exist.  They are likeable enough, Blunt in particular, but their romance has a contrived feel that no amount of cutesy flirting can compensate for. Had this been a generic rom-com, it would have enjoyed more chemistry than the entirety of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey’s back catalogue’s combined; as an existential rom-sci-fi, however, it fails to bring the humanity to a film universe with precious few human characters.

The Bureau is a fun creation, their naivity even humorous in small doses. Embued, as they are, with such omnipotence, however, it is difficult to see how there is enough conflict to carry an entire narrative. Contradiction after contradiction deprive the film of any real physicality, as Norris’ presumed importance to the plan is consistently undermined by talk of alternative futures and Bureaucratic leniency. When Norris has been let go with a warning for the umpteenth time, any real threat is frittered away, leaving the last minute chase scene to flounder, particularly when compared to the undeniably similar scene from Monsters Inc.

The Adjustment Bureau is not Bourne meets Inception. Instead, it is a tedious actioner which is too ridiculous have any real dramatic effect. A solid array of likeable turns from its principle cast are sadly not enough to save this uneven blend of genres from a cripplingly embarassing laughability. And you thought Hereafter was bad.

The True Nitty Gritty. Yeehaw!

So, my old pal Wikipedia informs me that True Grit, released this month in the UK, is in fact merely the freshest reincarnation of a story which was published in 1968. This period in time is otherwise known as When Dinosaurs Roamed The Earth, and is so long ago that any little morsel brought forth for a re-vamp is usually so long forgotten that it’s practically a new idea.

Matt Damon (Maaaatt Daaaaamon. Ah, Team America. Still making me chuckle seven years on…) recently described True Grit in an interview. Somewhat incoherently, may I add:

“At first the idea is that, uh, it’s Rooster [Cogburn, U.S. Marshall] has true grit, and then she [Mattie Ross] says to me that, y’know, ‘I picked the wrong man’ and she sees that I’m the one who has true grit. But in reality, it’s the little girl that has the, y’know, the true grit.” [SIC]

Yeah. I see what you’re saying, Mr Damon. Kind of.

But it’s not him we have to worry about misunderstanding during the course of the film. He manages to cope with the English language much better whilst under the influence of a script. It’s Jeff Bridges, Captain Dude of the Coen universe, who needs subtitles. He sort of, erm, growls his words. Under his breath.

I know his character drinks a lot, but can’t we get that with a hint more of the actual words he says being audible? Don’t get me wrong – I love The Dude. Bridges is a total hero. Even in Tron Legacy, which was really just the product of some thirty-something computer geek masturbating with CGI software for an hour and a half, whilst listening to French electro music.

Anyway, enough of the criticism. The girl who plays Mattie Ross, Hailee Steinfeld, is brilliant. I’d love to see her take on a completely different role next. Having pulled off such a role as this at fourteen, though, who really cares if she is just a one trick pony? She brings such maturity to the character, delivering lines with clarity, understanding and purpose. And she has a fragility, the sort which only someone who really is a young teen can naturally embody.

Visually, the film is great. The costumes are wonderful in detail, and perfectly tuned to each character. The sets and locations are something special too, but what else could we expect really? It is a Coen brothers film after all.

The film has humorous moments (Damon’s LaBoeuf leaning back in his chair and declaring “That’s right… I’m a Texas Ranger” was definitely one of them.) as well as plenty of action and that classic American habit of gratuitous gun-shooting. After all, why fire one bullet when you can shoot a whole round off?

I also enjoyed the fact that, despite only having one eye, Rooster Cogburn still appears to have full depth perception.

Overall, I liked the film. Aside from the snake pit scene. Though, that’s just because I feel that ever since Disney released their animated film The Jungle Book, snakes have been kind of misrepresented as evil lurkers who love to slither all over people for kicks. And so really, it is not the fear of actual snakes which makes the scene scary, it’s the fear of what snakes do in films.

It’s the dolphins you have to worry about. Far too many teeth. But that’s a different story.

True Grit (2011)

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) is a blunt little girl who, at the not-so-tender age of 14, witnesses her father’s murder at the hands of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Robbed of her parent and two of his ‘gold pieces’, Ross decides to seek vengeance on her father’s killer by hiring the merciless Rooster Cogburn’s (Jeff Bridges) gun over Texas Ranger LaBoeuf’s (Matt Damon) lawful badge. Pacts and disagreement’s follow, as a series of contrived clues keep our heroes firmly on Chaney’s tail.

I saw True Grit three days ago now and I’m only just getting around to recording my thoughts now, though, for the little I actually have to say, I could have happily waited much longer. A generic remake of a stereotypic John Wayne western, True Grit is being hailed with such enthusiasm that it is even up for several Oscars, including Best Film. Although it was undeniably serviceable, and the direction and performances perfectly adequate, there was little to set True Grit apart from the hundreds of other movies released this past year; it simply does not belong in the same breath as The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, Black Swan or…well, maybe The Fighter.

Where I appear to differ from the accepted consensus is in my refusal to chalk a film down as exceptionally cool simply because it was directed by the Coen brothers and starred Jeff Bridges. While I will save my issues with the directorial siblings for my next encounter with No Country For Old Men, my problem with Jeff Bridges has been simmering for some time now. Awarded the Best Actor accolade last year for Crazy Heart, Bridges all but robbed George Clooney (Up In The Air) and Colin Firth (A Single Man) of the Oscar for a distinctly unremarkable performance that in no way summed up his alright career.

Then there was Tron: Legacy, a truly uninspired assault on my precious awake-time which continued a tendency of filmmakers which goes like this: if I cast Jeff Bridges in my movie it will be intrinsically cool and I will no longer have to try. As a result, Tron: Legacy positively hanged itself on its laurels, as boredom set in and even precious Jeff Bridges drawl couldn’t save the day.

True Grit shoulders this moral and runs with it. As Jeff Bridges sits astride his horse, all eye patchy and sporting an incomprehensible cowboy accent, you can virtually hear the Coens applauding themselves on their casting prowess. Hailee Steinfield’s performance smacks of Daniel Radcliffe in mid-franchise Potter, while Matt Damon makes the most of a novelty swollen tongue, leaving Bridges with most of the bona-fide acting, a challenge to which he doesn’t so much rise as mounts drunkenly in the most Jeff Bridges way possible. Not so easily pleased, I sat in wait of goods that inevitably went undelivered – his lead character too gruff and charicatured to hold my attention.

After all the mumbling and the faux brusqueness, True Grit serves the final insult by doing what can only be described as “a Buried“. Said offence involves the needless inclusion of a bolt-on reptile which serves no purpose but to pad a lack of plot and break the organic flow of the narrative. Another intrusive snake later, and True Grit is suddenly racing a hobbit to Rivendell in search of a healer. The plot point is so unnecessary, so jarring, that it perfectly illustrates the sole argument for remakes, reimagining and reboots, to edit out the rubbish bits and expertly ignores it, instead opting to retread the original’s disengaging lack of plot.

True Grit was OK, it was mildly entertaining and boasted some nice props and costumes. It was not in any way remarkable, however, and is almost as one dimensional as Rooster Cogburn’s optic array.