Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Zero Theorem


Panned by critics, The Zero Theorem barely made it to the cinema at all (and not at all in Winnipeg). No surprise that Terry Gilliam is misunderstood. Brazil, my third-favourite film of all time, was largely ignored by critics and the masses when it was released in 1985, but now the critics love it and it’s a cult classic.


The Zero Theorem is clearly a Brazil for the 21st century, focusing on consumerism, our computer age and corporate capitalism instead of totalitarian governments, and adding theology and philosophy into the mix, which obviously isn’t going to discourage me. I knew zip about this film before I watched it - not even that the critics had panned it. All I knew was that it was a sci-fi directed by Gilliam. That’s all I needed to know. 


I’ve wanted to watch The Zero Theorem since the day it was released on DVD (July 22), but it’s been a busy summer, so I let two months pass. I would be more upset by this if it were not for the fact that I ended up watching it, alone, on precisely the day when its subject would impact me the most. In my theology, God does this kind of thing all the time; when it happens, I can only sigh in grateful awe (even when I just missed a chance to watch it with Walter).


If you want to know no more (though I won’t spoil too much), stop reading this and watch The Zero Theorem (unless, of course, you don’t like Brazil, or other Gilliam films; me, I’ve always been a big Gilliam fan and most of his films have been profound experiences for me). 

Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, a lonely man living in an abandoned church in a near future which features The Church of Batman the Redeemer. Qohen is some kind of computer genius who is given the assignment (from Management, played by Matt Damon) of proving that everything is for nothing in the end (i.e. there is zero meaning to existence). The trouble is he has been waiting for years for the CALL ( a call he is convinced he missed) from (and here I speculate) God (Waiting for Godot anyone?) to tell him what the meaning is to his life. This makes Qohen’s task rather ironic (and impossible). But a strange woman named Bainsley (played by Melanie Thierry) and Management’s son (Bob, played by Lucas Hedges) are around to help him. And then there’s Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and Qohen’s supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), whose help may not be wanted. It’s all quite chaotic (like Brazil), right up to and including the ending which I can’t tell you about.

Every performance is spot-on, Waltz deserves an Oscar and the cinematography is glorious, as are the sets. The Zero Theorem is written by Pat Rushin, a rookie (which is amazing). He has written a screenplay which is mysterious, funny, tragic and, above all, thought-provoking in its depiction of where we are headed and its questions about the meaning of life. You knew what kind of rating I was going to give it from the opening word - ****. My mug is way up for another Gilliam masterpiece. This best of all years for independent films just keeps getting better! Waiting for the odd great film has never been this rewarding.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

At 78, Woody Allen is still churning out a new film every year, and I continue to enjoy just about everything he makes. Magic in the Moonlight is no exception, despite unfavourable reviews from most critics.

Magic in the Moonlight stars Colin Firth as Stanley, a famous magician in the 1920’s who is frequently called upon to expose fraudulent spiritualists. That’s what happens here as Stanley’s friend Howard (Simon McBurney) invites Stanley to southern France to expose a young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone). Stanley, who is engaged to be married, finds himself strangely drawn to Sophie. Various complications and twists ensue in this rather lighthearted romantic drama.

It’s all quite predictable and the characters and plot are not at all believable (thus the unfavourable reviews), but Magic in the Moonlight is still a lot of fun to watch. That’s because Firth and Stone do an excellent job with their poorly-developed characters, the score is wonderful, the cinematography gorgeous and, always a draw for me, the dialogue is very intelligent in that witty Allen way (and there’s lots of dialogue, as one would expect in an Allen film).

So Magic in the Moonlight gets a solid ***. My mug is up. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

Putting Guardians behind me as quickly as possible, let’s look at something completely different: The Hundred-Foot Journey, directed by Lasse Hallstrom. The critics actually liked Guardians a lot more than Journey, which just leaves me utterly dumfounded. The Hundred-Foot Journey is no masterpiece, or even one of Hallstrom’s better films (e.g. Chocolat, My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Nor is the screenplay one of Steven Knight’s better efforts (e.g. Locke, Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises). But compared to Guardians, Journey is a priceless work of art. I’m left wondering whether what I look for in a film is not only very different from what the masses are looking for – it’s also very different from what the critics are looking for.

However, an interesting thing to note is that I watched The Hundred-Foot Journey at a theatre in Winnipeg a month after its release and the theatre was almost sold-out on a Tuesday evening. I suspect Journey will still be playing here long after Guardians has disappeared. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (admittedly a better film than Journey) played in Winnipeg for more than six months. There’s a core group of Winnipeg film fans with a deep appreciation for these kinds of films (and films like The Way, which also played here for a number of months).

But I digress. The Hundred-Foot Journey tells the tale of Hassan Kadam (played by Manish Dayal), a young cook whose mother was killed during an act of political violence in India. Fleeing to Europe, Hassan’s father (played by Om Puri) decides to open an Indian restaurant in a small French village, right across the street from a high-class French restaurant owned and operated by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Madame Mallory is not impressed. While she goes to war with Hassan’s father, Hassan falls in love with her sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte le Bon), who teaches him how to cook French-style. The war heats up, the romance cools down, and Hassan’s life takes some predictable, and also unbelievable, turns.

The Hundred-Foot Journey moves at a slow quiet pace, inviting viewers to digest the meal properly and enjoy the stunning cinematography, the beautiful score and the acting of Mirren and Puri. Even so, the romance feels rushed (with the acting of the young actors not matching that of the veterans) and the story doesn’t always seem to know which pieces of the drama it should focus on (I preferred the story of Madame Mallory and Papa Kadam, and the village dynamics, more than the story of Hassan, which seemed to be the focus). Nevertheless, I found the scattering of profound observations about conflict, loneliness and life’s priorities more than sufficient to provide, in combination with the film’s other attributes, a thoroughly entertaining film-watching experience.

The Hundred-Foot Journey gets ***+. My mug is up.

Guardians of the Galaxy

If you are a friend or relative who enjoyed watching Guardians of the Galaxy, please read no further; I value my relationship with you too much to upset you with my rant.

When I watched the trailer for Guardians, I said to myself: “This looks like one incredibly stupid movie, which I will be happy to miss.” But the critics really liked it and the masses downright loved it, making it easily the biggest blockbuster of the year so far. So I figured I’d better watch it before I condemned it. Big mistake! I went in with low expectations, but they were nowhere near low enough for this unbelievably stupid mess of a film.

Let me be clear that while the abundant amount of action and redemptive violence alone would be enough to limit my appreciation of the film, these are not at issue here. What is at issue is the critical acclaim for the film’s humour, acting and characters. I do believe I have a sense of humour (I think Airplane is hilarious), but apparently my sense of humour is immune to most comedies made this century. Not only did I not laugh even once during Guardians, I never even smiled. And I thought Zoe Saldana’s acting was okay, making her the best actor in the film. 

But I have rarely in my life seen such an inept screenplay get such acclaim (I guess The Hangover films would come close). The dialogue was awful from word one until almost the very end of the film. Did the slightly redeeming dialogue and character development at the very end of the film cause viewers/critics to forget the inane mess that had gone before? I guess it’s possible. But the story of five enemies who become friends and are willing to sacrifice their lives to save the universe, while promising in principle, didn’t work for me even a little bit (I’d go into details about how the bad acting, dialogue and characters insulted me in scene after scene, but I have wasted enough time on this film already). 

I also found nothing to like in the cinematography, special effects and score. Guardians of the Galaxy was, for me, an incredible infuriating bore. Time and again I almost walked out, wondering how much of this nonsense I could take. I’m glad I stayed, because there were a few almost-worthwhile moments at the end, but they were much too little much too late. I might have given Guardians a star for those moments if it wasn’t for the acclaim and popularity, which deserve to be redressed. The big zero for one of the worst films I have watched in a very long time. My mug is down!

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Giver

The Giver is another dystopian future film, this one set in an isolated community where emotions/passions are forbidden because they may lead to violence and where conformity is required for the same reason. Knowledge of the past has been erased, except in the case of one man: The Giver (played by Jeff Bridges). The young Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) has just been assigned to his official role as The Receiver of Memory (to learn from The Giver), but the very qualities which got him the assignment make him a dangerous choice and unforeseen consequences for the community are the inevitable result.

Unlike previous dystopian future films aimed at a young audience, The Giver, directed by Phillip Noyce, has not become a blockbuster. Indeed, it is doing only a small fraction of the box office of its predecessors. The Giver has also been generally panned by the major critics.

Some of this failure is unfair, because The Giver is being punished for waiting too long to be made into a film. Written in 1993, long before the boom in young adult dystopian fiction (which is highlighted by The Hunger Games and Divergent series), The Giver only got filmed after the success of similar films. Unfortunately, viewers now see The Giver as just copying the others instead being an original story.

Some of The Giver’s failure is, however, deserved, especially because the ending gets completely out of hand, highlighting the implausibility and inconsistencies which can be found throughout the film. Examples abound, but I will mention just a few: 1) The role of the community elder (played by Meryl Streep) is very confusing, because she knows some things that no one else does, but not others, and because she orders a violent act but then allows the victim of that violence inexplicable and dangerous freedoms. 2) Every part of the community is monitored, but no one is watching. It is only afterwards that the tapes are consulted. These are signs, for me, of a poorly-written screenplay.

Nevertheless, I found many things to like in The Giver. While the acting is never exceptional, it is quite solid, with Bridges as the stand-out. The score, while often overwhelming and manipulative, is very good and sometimes well-used. The cinematography is excellent. Most importantly, The Giver, despite being nowhere near as fleshed out as the novel (so I’m told), gives us lots to think about (e.g. the role of differences and emotions in a society, the role of war and starvation, the horrors of legalism, quotes like: “People cannot be allowed to make choices, because they are weak and greedy and so every choice they make is wrong.”). I also appreciated the similarities to one of my favourite films, Pleasantville.

The bottom line is that I am a sucker for entertaining dystopian films and I found enough to like to give The Giver a solid ***. My mug is up.