Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Less Than Zero

Waltz and Thierry add it up in The Zero Theorem.

«« The Zero Theorem. Written by Pat Rushin. Directed by Terry Gilliam. At selected theaters.

Full disclosure: I've never been much of a fan of Terry Gilliam's work as a director. Not his gonzo animations for Monty Python—those were terrific. I'm speaking of features like Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, his Baron Munchausen movie, which overflowed with the kind of visual flair schoolboy critics take for great profundity, but were actually pretty vacuous at their cores.

          I therefore give Gilliam some backhanded credit for the premise of his latest. For The Zero Theorem is literally a story with a vacuum at its core, about a man in search of proof that the universe is governed by nothing but a self-cancelling equation. In a year with movies about Steven Hawking (The Theory of Everything) and Alan Turing (The Imitation Game), this is another movie about math.

         It's the very near future, where London is a ringing, buzzing mess of floating animated billboards and constant surveillance. Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is some kind of cryptologist-prole whose job is to crack mathematical puzzles for a conglomerate controlled by a boss known only as "Management" (Matt Damon). Not fulfilled in his work "crunching entities", he aspires to be allowed to telecommute from home, where he can be present to receive a particularly important phone call (writer Pat Rushin apparently forgot that you don't need to be home to get a call anymore, though there are cell phones everywhere in the movie). Management finally relents, but on one condition: Qohen must attempt to crack a virtually insoluble problem called "the Zero Theorem", proving that the Universe is a purposeless accident.

          There are some fun ideas in the movie. Apparently, there will be soon be a "Church of Batman" for us to seek redemption in. There will also be an "Occupy Wall Street" department store. Mathematical innovation in the future is not an exercise in broad theorizing, but literally exercise: employees solve teeny, tiny pieces of complex puzzles by pedaling stationary bikes. As he embarks on his new project Qohen is gifted with a call girl companion (Mélanie Thierry) who seems determined to rouse him from his metaphysical funk by any means necessary, including some picturesque cock- and brain-teasing.
          But the fun is thin on the ground, and Qohen (played by Waltz with a spiritual constipation that is truly Teutonic) never becomes more than a mope. The motives of Management are muddled, with Gilliam apparently unable to afford Matt Damon's services for more than couple days of shooting. The motives of Thierry's character—the stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold" who falls in love with her john—are worse than muddled. Tell me again: how does sending in a beautiful woman in a latex nurses' uniform help a straight man concentrate on the evening's problem set?
          Sometimes it seems like Gilliam wants to get at something. Rushin's script occasionally sounds like a parodic answer to The Matrix, with Qohen as "the One" elected to challenge the evil mainframe. Other times, Gilliam seems inclined to say something about religion. But all these gestures seem abortive, dropped as if from the sheer exhaustion of crafting a consistent theme.
          "Crunching entities" turns out to be pretty dreary work.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro    

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Farewell to the Boss

James Gandolfini's final role in The Drop.

««« The Drop.  Written by Dennis Lehane, based on his short story. Directed by Michaël R. Roskum. At area theaters.

By the time James Gandolfini died in 2013, he had only begun to explore his limits as an actor. It was clearly a question that was on his mind: after playing the archetypal modern gangster on The Sopranos for eight years, only one of the roles left in the can after he died was in a straight-up mafia flick. That single exception was a supporting turn in Michaël R. Roskum's The Drop.
          The reason he chose it turns out to be straightforward. Unlike The Sopranos, The Drop has a small-time focus, centered on only a few characters in and around a minor watering hole in Brooklyn. The hero is Bob (Tom Hardy), a seemingly slow-witted barkeep with a long and mysterious connection to his cousin, "Uncle" Marv (Gandolfini). Marv's bar is one of the places the mob uses to collect its cash pay-offs in the neighborhood (thus a "drop"). The guys manage to keep their noses clean until a pair of gunmen pull an ill-advised robbery—leaving Bob and Marv on the hook for the lost money.
          The story (based on Dennis Lehane's short story "Animal Rescue") is full of unspoken history wrapped in a layer of outer-borough grit. Gandolfini's interest in it comes clear about midway through, when he complains that he was once a player, "a guy to be feared"—but no longer. It's tempting to think Gandolfini saw Uncle Marv as one version of Tony Soprano's future, after losing his family and all his power. Lonely and irrelevant, terrified he's becoming just another "jerk-off", he's a guy liable to desperate gambles.
          The Drop is a latter-day Sidney Lumet film that feels about as Brooklyn as Flatbush Avenue. This is remarkable in that virtually none of the principals are actually from Brooklyn or anyplace else in America. Hardy is Australian, Noomi Rapace is Spanish/Swedish, Matthias Schoenaerts and director Roskum are Belgian. (Gandolfini and writer Lehane are from New Jersey and Massachusetts, respectively—both about as foreign to Brooklyn as Belgium.) Would a typically Brooklyn director, say Spike Lee, have produced something equally authentic about the working-class neighborhood of Marollen in Brussels? Qui sait?
          For his part, Hardy has mastered that particularly Brooklyn tilt of the head, that way of looking a guy in the face without overtly confronting him. Though the obvious comparison is to DeNiro, there's something Brando-esque about Hardy's presence that bodes well for the future. (Hardy will play Mad Max in the upcoming Road Warrior remake.)
          When The Sopranos ended in 2012, many fans were disappointed by David Chase's decision to close with no ending at all. At least with respect to Tony Soprano, The Drop presents one version of what might have been.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro    

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sweetest Songs, Saddest Thoughts

Brydon and Coogan peruse the stones in The Trip to Italy.

««« The Trip to Italy.  Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom. At selected theaters.

If paradise is a place where all the cooks are Italian and all the comics are British, then The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom's sequel to his 2010 road comedy The Trip, is a slice of Heaven.
          It wouldn't have taken much for this writer to sign on for another culinary tour. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play characters named "Steve Coogan" and "Bob Brydon" extremely well—arguably better than anyone else could. Like on road trips taken by you and me, their by-play is a salad of idle gossip, in-jokes, movie quotes and impersonations, including a bout of "dueling Michael Caines" that, even in rehash, is bloody hilarious. Like the original, the sequel has been assembled out of episodes of the BBC's The Trip TV-series. Though director Michael Winterbottom is given script credit, much of the dialog feels (as in The Trip) deftly improvised.
          The new movie finds Coogan and Brydon going in different directions professionally. Coogan (who co-wrote and starred in the hit Philomena) has achieved serious success in America, but faces a stretch of unemployment after his TV series is cancelled. Brydon, as a somewhat better-read Rich Little, is less known but on the upswing after landing a part in a Michael Mann film. In a late summer with a decidedly "mid-life" feel to it, Coogan joins Brydon on a tour of restaurants in Italy that will (he claims) end up anthologized in a book.
          The food is, of course, only a pretext; neither Coogan nor Brydon even bother to take notes on what they've eaten, or ever so much as chat up a chef. Their real passion is literature—specifically, the Romantic poets, whom they argue over and quote as vigorously as Al Pacino movies or the music of Alanis Morrisette. Alas, these guys are more bitch-and-moan than sturm und drang. When they board a rubber dinghy to begin their tour of the Gulf of Spezia (where Percy Shelley drowned), they worry, "This isn't the actual boat, is it?"
          Much as they seem to circling around the same three subjects of poetry, women, and career, these lads have clearly gone some distance since their last trip. Last time both were hungry most of all for mainstream success. Now that Coogan's ship as come in, and Brydon's is about to, there's a whiff of letdown in the air, of questioning whether "making it" in Hollywood has landed them in a good place after all.
          There's much chatter on the web that the inevitable next chapter will be a Trip to America. But that would almost be redundant. America—and the values it represents abroad—already looms large over these movies. The poets Coogan and Brydon idolize are more than sources of fancy verse to recite and impress the chicks. The dejected Keats had a lovely, wind-swept gulf to drown in. We have an ocean of cultural mediocrity.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Friday, September 5, 2014

Special Pleading

Moss and Duplass play doubles in The One I Love.

««1/2  The One I Love.  Written by Justin Lader. Directed by Charlie McDowell . At selected theaters.

It’s been fifteen years since Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman unleashed Being John Malkovich on an unsuspecting world. While other films (including Kaufman's own Synecdoche, New York) have come close, Malkovich remains the benchmark for a kind of loopy cerebrality, for conjuring not just unsolvable puzzles but a universe where that futility doesn’t really matter. In short, though highly self-aware, it also felt fresh—no easy trick.
          Newcomers Justin Lader and Charlie McDowell almost certainly had Malkovich in mind—along with a few Twilight Zone episodes—when they made their head-scratcher, The One I Love. If a label helps explain it, it might be called a “rom-con”, with “con” being short for “conundrum”.
          Lader’s script concerns Ethan and Sophie (Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss), a couple giving their fraying relationship a last chance.  At the prompting of their therapist (Ted Danson), they retire to a certain vacation home from which many couples have come back “renewed”.  It turns out to be a nice spot indeed, but more populated than Ethan and Sophie expected: already in residence are another Ethan and another Sophie, each a slightly cooler, slightly sweeter version of their real counterparts.  Though inexplicable (and, in fact, never really explained), their idealized versions naturally have a profound appeal. Ethan ultimately gets so jealous of his doppelganger that he stalks his wife, hoping and dreading to catch her in the act with…himself.
          No question it’s a striking premise, exploited well as Lader and McDowell proceed to bid up the stakes. They’re also spot-on in their dark appraisal of human nature, which tends to be more bothered by what is being lost than what might possibly be gained. Duplass is fine, but the slyly seductive Moss (Peggy in Mad Men) continues to show why, with her air of a character actor suddenly pushed into the lead, she’s one of the more intriguing leading ladies emerging now.
          The problem with The One I Love goes back to what Malkovich did especially well—feeling fresh while also being a kind of “meta-story” about people trapped in a story. All too often Duplass delivers lines that start with “I know it sounds weird, but…”, or “I know we’re having a really weird weekend, but…” By the time he calls his situation “some real Twilight Zone shit,” we’re already kind of tired of Ethan’s (and the filmmakers’) whiny yearning to exist both on the screen and out in the audience, eating popcorn with us.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with characters that are self-aware of their predicament as characters, or—for that matter—with stories that pose questions never meant to be solved. As long as we get something else, such as laughs, it’s all good. Smart as it is, The One I Love simply lacks enough of that “something else” to earn our love.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro