The Zero Theorem doesn’t add up to much

C+ Dystopian satire

  • Written by Pat Rushin
  • Directed by Terry Gilliam

In the 1980s, Terry Gilliam made three sci-fi/fantasy comedies that stood with the best films of that decade. But his best work is now far behind him. His latest movie, The Zero Theorem, although visually exciting and occasionally provocative, doesn’t really go anywhere.

Quentin Tarantino’s favorite German, Christoph Waltz, stars as a brilliant but reclusive mathematician and computer programmer  sinking into some form of depression. He works mostly at home–trying to solve an impossible problem–while his corporate overlords track him closely and watch everything he does. That home appears to be an abandoned cathedral

This is one messed-up dude. He refers to himself in the plural ("we" instead of "I"), as if he were the King of England. He insists that he’s dying, even though there’s no reason to believe it’s so. He also believes that someday he’ll receive a phone call which will explain the meaning of his life.

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Despite his best efforts to stay alone, other people barge into his life. There’s his boss (David Thewlis), as well as a brilliant teenager assigned to help him (Lucas Hedges). Matt Damon plays the corporation’s ultimate boss. Tilda Swinton does another of her brilliant, chameleon, comic roles as a virtual psychiatrist program.

The very sexy Mélanie Thierry plays the most insistent want-to-be companion. She flirts with him constantly, saves his life once, and seems very eager to have virtual (but not real) sex with him. To what extent she’s acting out of her own desire, and to what extent she’s being paid for the job, is an open question.

The Zero Theorem feels in many ways like a less-effective retreat of Gilliam’s brilliant Brazil. Like that far superior film, it’s set in a dystopian society that may be in the future, but in some strange ways feels like the past. Technology–ugly and unreliable–runs everything. One huge bureaucracy rules every aspect of everybody’s life. Only this time, the overwhelming bureaucracy is corporate, not government. The corporation is menacingly named Mancom.

Gilliam fills the picture with imaginative, dazzling, and satiric visuals. In an early scene, a video commercial follows Waltz as he walks through the city. When another man passes him, the commercial changes direction to follow the new target. A party is filled with earbud-wearing guests dancing with their eyes glued to their tablets and smartphones. Every time someone discards a piece of food, a rat comes out of hiding to grab it.

But for all of these visuals, and for all of the fun play with actors like Thewlis, Swinton, and Thierry, The Zero Theorem doesn’t really go anywhere. Unlike Brazil’s protagonist, who’s caught between an evil government and its literally tortured victims, Theorem’s protagonist has little to complain about. His emotional problems aren’t dealt with deeply enough to be meaningful–or dramatic. And we really can’t care if he solves a mathematical problem that we scarcely understand.

With nowhere to go, the climax and ending disappoint in obvious ways.

To be a Gay Japanese-American Sci-Fi Actor and the Subject of To Be Takei

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot

Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered on NBC, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. But why not. He has a warm, upbeat personality and a great sense of humor. He’s been a political activist for decades, but always came off as a nice activist. He’s a master of social media. And by publically coming out late in life, he’s provided his story with a happy ending of triumph over bigotry.

Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about an extraordinary man. It’s a typical collection of interviews, video of Takei and his husband Brad Altman going about their daily business (except that this time there’s a camera on them), and old movie and TV clips. But it works because Takei is such an interesting and likeable personality, with has a great life story to tell.

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The bigotry started early. As a young boy living in Los Angeles, he and his family were rounded up by the army and sent to an internment camp for the sin of being Americans of Japanese decent. After spending three years of his childhood behind barbed wire, he returned to a civilian America that had been taught to despise all "Japs."

As a young, struggling actor, he found that his race limited his roles to dubbing Godzilla movies and playing comic stereotypes.

And then there was his sexual orientation. To publically come out was professional suicide, and remained so long after the gay rights movement really got going in the ’70s. So he lived a lie, hiding his long-term relationship with Altman, until he publically came out at the age of 67. But instead of destroying his career, it rejuvenated it.

Kroot’s techniques don’t always work. In one sequence, she cuts between different venues where Takei gives the same speech about the internment camps. Rather than providing visual variety or showing his commitment, the cutting emphasizes that he’s repeating a memorized and rehearsed speech.

Another problem: Although Takei is funny and charismatic, Altman is none of those things, and we see almost as much of him as we see of Takei. It takes a while to warm up to the practical, pessimistic Altman (who now uses the last name Takei). He comes off as a decent person, and obviously the right man for George, but too normal to be a major player in a documentary.

But Takei is interesting, as are the other Star Trek veterans interviewed. (Yes, Takei and William Shatner really do dislike each other.) The film and TV clips are fun. We get a brief section about the gay-porn aspect of Star Trek fan fiction (which concentrates on Kirk and Spock). And it’s rare to see a documentary with such a sense of triumph.

To Be Takei really does feel like a happy ending.

Book vs. Film: Red River

When someone turns a mediocre book into a great film, people forget that it ever was a book. Such is the case with Borden Chase’s decent but unexceptional novel, Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, and the cinematic masterpiece that Howard Hawks made out of it, Red River.

imageAs I mentioned in my Red River Blu-ray review, Criterion includes a paperback copy of Chase’s novel in the package. At the time I wrote that review, I had not yet read the book. I have now.

But be warned: This article contains spoilers. You should see the film before you read any further. And if you’re really a fanatic about spoilers
–even spoilers for long-forgotten books that aren’t that good to begin with–maybe you should read the novel first, too.

No one ever agreed on what to call this novel. When it first appeared serially in the Saturday Evening Post, it was simply The Chisholm Trail. By the time it came out in hardcover, the title had grown to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail. The film’s opening credits refer to it cryptically as "the Saturday Evening Post story." The movie’s commercial success gave the paperback edition the  title Red River. Criterion, in republishing the book as a DVD/Blu-ray extra, returned to Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail, probably because it sounds so appropriately cheesy.

Now that I’ve read it, I’m not surprised that Howard Hawks was attracted to this story. It’s about men who work a dangerous job for a living, have the professional skills needed for that job, and define their masculinity by their profession. It has one important female character, who is smart and strong and knows how to take care of herself in a man’s world. That pretty much describes half of Hawk’s work.

Hawks’ film closely follows Chase’s story, but not too closely (Chase wrote the first draft of the screenplay). Many of the characters changed from page to screen. Both Cherry Valance and Tess Millay are far less likeable and sympathetic in the book. The book’s Cherry–self-centered and cold-blooded–is probably a more realistic view of a hired gun than the one John Ireland played. But I missed the evolving, arguably homo-erotic friendship between Cherry and Matt that helps make the film so interesting.

The book’s Tess is quite willing (and skilled) at getting one man to kill another for her benefit. Cherry kills a man for her. Then, when Dunston and Cherry make their deadly confrontation, she takes steps to make sure that Dunston is the survivor.

In the novel, Groot is merely the cook; we only meet him on the cattle drive. We never get to know him. In the film, he’s Dunson’s sidekick from the start and becomes a major character. That makes his decision to join the mutineers all the more dramatic and meaningful.

Also in the book, Dunson–that paragon of western strength and reckless violence who could only have been played by John Wayne–is English. That’s right; he comes from the land of teatime and the stiff upper lip, although he never behaves like such a person. When I read his dialog on the page, I didn’t hear a British accent in my head; I heard John Wayne.

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Both the book and the film try for an epic feel, but only the film succeeds. Chase attempts a mythic style through purple prose ("A score of years–mad, cruel, bitter years of conflict in which a nation trembled on the rim of ruin") and by inflating the story’s stakes. Matt, and Chase, keep reminding us that this cattle drive isn’t about saving Dunson’s ranch; it’s about saving Texas.

Hawks, on the other hand, created a true epic feel through Russell Harlan’s Fordian black-and-white photography, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent score. Only Tiomkin could make "Git Along, Little Doggies" sound important and dramatic.

Borden Chase hated Hawks’ happy ending, which undercuts the epic feel of the story. We’ve been set up for a fight to the death between Dunson and Matt–the surrogate father and son heroes who must inevitably become enemies. But their fight turns into reconciliation, and everyone smiles at the end.

The book sort of ends as epic tragedy. Dunson–fatally wounded from his confrontation with Cherry–is too weak to fight. Matt and Tess take him south, so that he can die in his beloved Texas.

But for real epic tragedy, Matt would have had to kill Dunson. After all, the story is really Mutiny on the Bounty seen through the lens of Oedipus Rex.

There’s something else about Hawk’s ending that’s always bothered me: Cherry’s fate. His brief confrontation with Dunson leaves the older man with a flesh wound, but Cherry falls to the ground. Men come running to help him. All this happens in the background, far from the camera. A major character, one whom we’ve grown to like, who fell trying to save the film’s most likeable hero, ends up either seriously wounded or dead. We don’t know which. The film doesn’t seem to care about him any more.

And everyone smiles at the end.

Despite these flaws, Red River is still a great movie–one of the best westerns ever made, and a study in ways to be a man. And it’s based on an entertaining but unexceptional novel.

Boyhood: As Real as Fiction Gets

A Long-form drama

  • Written and directed by Richard Linklater

I’m a sucker for long films that take place over the course of several years. But I’ve never seen one as real as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. This isn’t a story of an extraordinary person, or of a normal person going through an extraordinary experience. But it does something even more special. It follows the experiences of a relatively normal boy growing up, from elementary school until his arrival at college. With few exceptions, most of his experiences are pretty common.

The result is an exceptional motion picture. Running nearly three hours, without conventional setups and manufactured disasters, it never lags. This just may be the best new film of the year.

You probably already know Boyhood‘s gimmick–it was shot off and on over a period of 12 years. Thus, we get to watch young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up for real. And we see his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) move into middle age.

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But this time, the gimmick works–beautifully. In most films set over a long period of time, we’re aware of the moment when the child actor is replaced by an adult. Or we notice the changing makeup as the characters age. Not here. Aside from occasional hairstyle changes, people in one scene look pretty much as they did in the last. But not quite. You can see those subtle, barely noticeable changes that happen to everyone year by year. The 18-year-old Mason looks very different from the six-year-old, but since we see the whole transition, as we do in life.

This technique has another benefit. The film begins in 2002, with the attitudes, fads, and technologies of the time, and slowly works up to 2013. Yet the early scenes never feel like period pieces, because they weren’t shot as period pieces. The scenes set in 2002 were shot in 2002, by people who didn’t know about smartphones or Barak Obama.

Now then, on to the story:

Mason’s life isn’t all that easy. His parents are divorced, and neither of them have much money. He and his sister live with their mom, who became a mother way too soon and has a history of making poor romantic choices. Their father loves them, but needs to grow up himself.

For the most part, Boyhood avoids the sort of dramatic and disastrous situations that drive most narrative films. Several times, I thought that a horrible accident was eminent, or that Linklater was setting up a conflict for a subplot, but I was almost always wrong. For instance, a scene involving middle school bullies lacks the obvious follow-up.

A lifetime of movie going had taught me to expect these plot points. But when they didn’t materialize, I felt relieved, not disappointed.

Which isn’t to say that everything goes smoothly for Mason and his family. There are the usual problems of childhood and adolescence, but there are also some very scary scenes that go beyond normal childhood experiences. Like I said, their mom makes some poor romantic choices.

Fifty years from now, if civilization survives, people will still be watching Boyhood, both as a document of the early 21st century, and because it so perfectly reflects life as we all know it. It’s a remarkable work.

A Life Itself at the Movies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Steve James

The first thing you have to understand about Life Itself, Steve James’ biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, is that James is hardly a dispassionate observer. He was not a close friend to Ebert, but he owed a lot to the famous film critic. It was Ebert, and his partner Gene Siskel, who championed James’ first feature, Hoop Dreams, and made him an important filmmaker.

The next thing you need to know is that Life Itself is no rehash of Ebert’s autobiography. The book, like all autobiographies, is told from one point of view–Ebert’s. The film shows Ebert’s life from many points of view. Friends, family, co-workers, filmmakers, and other critics–some of whom didn’t care much for Ebert–get their chance to discuss the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. And one of the best.

Siskel and Ebert in the early days

Overall, the film gives us a far more positive view of Ebert than modesty would have allowed him to say about himself. But others can gush about Ebert’s fast yet concise writing style, his advocacy for rare and wonderful films that might never have had a chance without him, and his enthusiastic lust for life. And, of course, his courage in the face of cancer and the botched operations that robbed him of the ability to eat, drink, or talk.

James started working on the film just before Ebert went into the hospital once again, in what they didn’t know at the time was the beginning of the end. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end for Ebert. The film cuts between two timelines–the physical deterioration of his last months and his entire life. Obviously, the two stories come together in the end.

Be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. Well, he sort of has a jaw–a u-shaped piece of flesh–sans bones and muscles–hanging below his gaping mouth. And when you look into that mouth, you see his neck or, depending on the camera angle, what’s behind him. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but his upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust.

We hear a lot of Ebert’s words in Life Itself. Sometimes, they’re from old recordings. Sometimes they’re his computer voice. Other times it’s an actor–one who sounds very much like him.

The film has another hero: his wife (and now widow), Chaz. Ebert didn’t marry until he was 50–to a woman who already had grown children. It’s clear that she has been his rock through the tribulations of his final decade. It’s a touching romance, and like all near-perfect love stories, it has to end in death.

And yes, there’s a lot about movies here. We see clips from films as we hear his reviews. Many of those movies are now classics and readily available. But the film’s real nostalgia comes from clips of the TV shows, with Siskel and Ebert agreeing or arguing about one film or another. (Richard Roeper, who became Ebert’s on-screen partner after Siskel died, isn’t even mentioned. I’m not complaining.)

Steve James has given us a completely biased look at Ebert’s life. But it’s also an entertaining and informative work about a man who joyfully embraced both the pleasures of cinema, and of life itself.

Palo Alto: More Dazed and Completely Confused

B+

  • Written and directed by Gia Coppola
  • From the book Palo Alto Stores by James Franco

High school kids lead rough lives. They’re under great pressure to get into a good university. They desperately want to break free of their parents. They have to deal with an immense peer pressure. They’re trying to work out their own, often bizarre philosophies. Their hormones are raging, and even the sexually experienced among them don’t really understand what to do about it (and not to do about it). Booze and pot don’t help.

In Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, based on a collection of short stories by James Franco, many of the teenagers are reaching an emotional boiling point. Disaster seems right around the corner. Coppola (Francis’ granddaughter) weaves their stories into a slick yet compassionate drama.

The central characters, April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), sort of like each other, but neither of them seem to know how to approach the other. Although they’re both upper-middle-class white kids growing up in the same town, they seem to have little in common. (Judging from this film, almost everyone in Palo Alto is white.)

We get no indication that April drives drunk, has sex with people she barely knows, or commits acts of random vandalism. I suppose that makes her a “good girl.” But she has a major crush on her soccer coach (James Franco), and she sees a lot of him since she babysits his son. The real problem: The soccer coach, who’s a single dad, has a pretty strong crush on April, as well.

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Teddy, on the other hand, is definitely a bad boy. He’s almost constantly stoned, drives recklessly, and appears to care little about anything. But there’s a soft spot in his soul that suggests he can be better.

Unfortunately, he’s fallen in with Fred (Nat Wolff), another heavy drinker and pot smoker who also gets his kicks from danger and destruction. A complete sociopath, Freddy can act the perfect gentleman while trying to bed a girl, then treat her like dirt as soon as he succeeds. Much of the film involves Teddy’s emotional tightrope walk between Fred’s dangerous excitement and his own better half.

If April is the good girl, than Emily (Zoe Levin) is the “bad” one. She gives blowjobs to just about any boy who smiles at her. Afterwards, she doesn’t understand why she’s unsatisfied.

Coppola clearly doesn’t approve of heavy pot and booze use among teenagers, but she seems to accept a more deadly drug without question. Judging from this film, every teenager in Palo Alto smokes cigarettes, and no one seems to think there’s anything wrong about it. There’s even talk about getting a wish when you smoke the last cigarette in the pack.

Despite the title, Palo Alto could have taken place in any affluent town. There’s no real sense of Palo Alto as a unique place. Neither Stanford University nor Silicon Valley are ever mentioned. The film wasn’t even shot in Palo Alto.

Wherever it’s set and shot, Palo Alto is a clear-eyed look at teenagers on the brink. It’s worth catching.

Bad film turns good: My review of Young & Beautiful

B drama

  • Written and directed by François Ozon

As François Ozon’s drama about a 17-year-old prostitute nears its mid-point, you might find yourself wondering why you’re sitting through such an awful piece of junk. Then, beyond all expectations, the film gets interesting. The once-cardboard characters become intriguing and worth caring about. A bad film has suddenly turned into a good one.

Ozon’s script follows the young Isabelle (Marine Vacth) over the course of nearly a year. The four seasons provide formal act breaks. The intertitles “Summer,” “Autumn,” “Winter,” and “Spring” tell us that time has passed and that the story is about to fundamentally change.

In the first act, Summer, Isabelle turns 17 and loses her virginity . She seems like a typical, upper middle-class teenage girl, dependent on her parents and mildly resentful of them. Her first sexual experience (and the first of many sex scenes in the film) isn’t particularly wonderful or horrible; just uncomfortable and embarrassing. In other words, it’s pretty typical for a first time.

In this part of the story, another character seems far more interesting than Isabelle: her voyeuristic kid brother (Fantin Ravat). The film’s first shot is his point of view–through binoculars. He wants to know everything about her sex life and asks her bluntly. He helps her sneak out of the house for a tryst in exchange for her telling him what happened. The brother’s importance as a character drops considerably after Summer–just one of Young & Beautiful’s many disappointments.

An intertitle soon tells us it’s Autumn, and the movie plunks us into an entirely different world. Isabelle is now a prostitute. Nothing shows or explains the transition. She’s not doing it for the money–her family has plenty. She doesn’t seem to enjoy sex with older men who have to pay for it. She goes to great lengths to hide her double life from her family and friends, yet she hides her significant bundles of cash very badly.

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It’s in this second act that Young & Beautiful really becomes dull and nearly unbearable. I’m no prude. I actually like nudity and explicit sex in movies. But for these to work, the sex has to move the story or tell us something about the characters. Or, at the very least, it needs to be erotic. The many sex scenes concentrated into this one act fail on all of those counts.

Then, against all odds, an excellent film emerges in in the third act, Winter. Isabelle’s mother (Géraldine Pailhas) finds out what’s been going on. Suddenly, we’ve got a family in crisis, trying to come to terms with their daughter’s inexplicable behavior. We finally learn anything meaningful about the characters. Ozon shows us the mother’s temper, the bumbling stepfather trying to make everything right, and the difficulties Isabella has reaching out to other people in a meaningful way.

As she navigates her notorious way through the shocked family, she can be inappropriately flirtatious, truly sorry, or play the victim. She knows a secret about her mother that she can use if need be.

I don’t want to go into too many details about the second half of the film. I will say that it’s a fine reward for sitting through the first half. Besides, the great Charlotte Rampling turns up in Act 4 (Spring), in a small but pivotal role.

The first half of Young & Beautiful is about a physically attractive but otherwise uninteresting woman having a lot of sex. The second half puts everything in perspective and helps you understand the protagonist’s bizarre behavior.

It’s a close call, but I’d say that getting to the second half of this film is worth sitting through the first.

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