Thursday, February 26, 2015

Inherent Vice (2014)

Title: Inherent Vice (2014)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix , Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those film directors who never miss; he’s on my “pitch perfect directors” list, right next to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Stanley Kubrick. These are directors who never disappoint me, even when they’re making one of their lesser films. Boogie Nights (1997)? There Will Be Blood (2007)? Punch Drunk Love (2002)? All amazing and engrossing Paul Thomas Anderson films; interesting part is that they are all vastly different films thematically and tone wise, yet one thing brings them together: they all have strong main characters, which I think is what Anderson specializes in, making films with strong, driven characters who will leave a lasting impression on you. He distills the most amazing performances from his actors, and he’s done it yet again in Inherent Vice. Anderson has created yet another memorable character in the form of ‘Doc Larry Sportello’. Inherent Vice gives us an amazing collaboration between actor, author and filmmaker, the result is a film with the makings of a bona fide cult classic.

Now I haven’t read Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (I’ll be correcting that soon) so I literally didn't know what to expect from this film. I’d read a few reviews that said that the film has an incomprehensible story,  others said it was their least favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, others would praise it as the next Fear andLoathing in Las Vegas (1998), all these opposing views got me all fired up to see Inherent Vice. On which side would I fall on? Something told me I’d love it, it had all the indicators of awesomeness.  I was expecting a convoluted lovable mess, which is I think a good way to describe this film. So yeah, this is a polarizing film, it will divide audiences, some will love it to death (like me) some will leave the film feeling like they just smoked a doobie. While I watched it, a woman behind me said “I don’t get it”, the visceral reply in my mind was “you idiot!”, in the real world, I couldn’t help letting out an involuntary giggle. This personal anecdote best exemplifies what will surely happen in any given theater with this movie.   

I don’t blame anybody for not “getting it”, this movie can be confusing. Characters keep popping up and the story seems to twist and twist with every coming scene, which is the way it’s supposed to be. I think the best way I can describe the experience of watching this film is like reading a Chuck Palahniuk novel. Excuse me for my literary comparison, but it’s the first thing that popped into my mind while watching this movie. You see, in my experience, when I start reading a Chuck Palahniuk book (he’s the author of Fight Club and Choke) I always feel a little lost. Each chapter starts a little incomprehensible, but as you read on things get clearer and clearer, by the ending of the chapter, poof, everything makes perfect sense. This is how Inherent Vice unfolds. When the film ends you’ll feel that it really wasn't as confusing as you had thought, suddenly everything clicks! But ultimately, I guess what this film must really capture is the experience of reading Thomas Pynchon's book, which I haven't done yet. I guess Palahniuk and Pynchon come from the similar literary universe. But here’s a trick to enjoying this movie, don’t try to follow it so much, simply enjoy the crazy characters and situations, because I think that’s really what this movie is about, experiencing the crazy ass moments that unfold and the visuals, which are entertaining and beautiful to look at.

Paul Thomas Anderson drew inspiration from many places to make this film, aside from Thomas Pynchon's novel, Anderson has stated that Inherent Vice has a little bit of Gilbert Shelton’s ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ an underground comic from the 70’s and the Cheech and Chong movies. Inherent Vice can be categorized as a Stoner Film, though I wouldn't recommend watching it stoned, it will only mess with your chances of “getting it”, the movie is already trippy enough as it is! With the character of Doc Sportello, we get yet another memorable cinematic stoner, ranking right up there with Cheech and Chong, ‘The Dude’ and Jeff Spicoli. Doc Sportello is smoking weed literally throughout the entire film, and you’ll feel that haziness, you’ll feel that care free who gives a shit vibe in Inherent Vice. In many ways, this is the ultimate stoner film. But like some of the Cheech and Chong movies, cocaine use also works its way into the story. In fact, if there are two movies that Inherent Vice shares its DNA with it’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and The Big Lebowski (1998). Fear and Loathing because of its constant drug use and overall trippy vibe and The Big Lebowski because Doc Sportello feels like The Dudes long lost brother. 

A distinctive quality of Inherent Vice is how accurately Paul Thomas Anderson managed to capture that counter culture vibe from the 70’s where everyone was always high, had long hair, wore shades at all times, a time when everyone gathered around to philosophize, everyone believed in “good vibes” and in Ouija boards. I loved that whole relaxed breezy vibe the film elicits. There are scenes that take place in beach side communities filled with hippies and beautiful sunsets…loved that whole sit back and relax vibe that is a constant throughout the whole film. You will be transported to the 70’s, an era that Paul Thomas Anderson is apparently obsessed with; he also brought it to life to perfection in Boogie Nights (1997), one of Anderson’s best films. In fact, Anderson is so 70’s he even shot Inherent Vice on film! Personally, I immediately noticed the difference in look, there’s something about films shot on film. The images look so much better, the colors have richness; the definition is far superior than anything shot on digital. I am forever in love with films shot on actual film. Tarantino and Anderson are both on my good side for still doing it. 

Anderson is one of those “serious” directors, even when he’s films are funny, they are somehow disturbing. I mean, look at Punch Drunk Love (2002). There’s no doubt the film is hilarious, but it’s not slapstick, har har har slap on your knees funny, it’s dark, twisted funny. The main character is a complete anti-social nut job! The same can be said of Inherent Vice, it’s a dark sort of funny. You see this movie is about sex, drugs and hedonism. The movie will be hilarious, but only to those who enjoy black, acid comedies that are funny because of how fucked up the situations are. What type of comedy am I talking about here? Well, for example, there’s this moment in which Doc Sportello visits a spiritual retreat in which everyone's tripping out on some sort of high; a commune for spiritual trippers. At one point, someone orders a bunch of pizaas and as the camera pans back we start seeing how the scene resembles Davinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ with Sportello as Jesus, and pizzas instead of bread and wine and it's just hilarious! Again, this scene will probably be hilarious to a select few. Side note, I’m going to give this movie the award for “sexiest scene of the year” and the scene I’m referring to is a scene with the beautiful Katherine Waterston seducing Doc Sportello, holy moly, what an erotic scene. Made me shiver with antici…pation! So anyhow, final words are this movie is awesome for the many reasons stated above, the awesome cast, which peppers the film with awesome little moments acted out by great actors. Keep your eyes open for Martin Short. But again, this film is made for a select audience, it will not appeal to everyone. Which group will you fall under?

Rating: 5 out of 5 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Nightbreed: The Directors Cut (1990)

Nightbreed (1990)

Director: Clive Barker

Cast: Craig Schaffer, Anne Bobby, David Cronenberg, Doug Bradley

First time I saw Nightbreed was in theaters, way back in 1990. Back then I must’ve been thirteen or fourteen years old and while the film made a definitive impact on me, I also got the feeling that it was missing something. I mean, even the title sequence lets us know there were creatures that were filmed that never made it to the finished film, you got the feeling that more was filmed than what we ended up watching. Nightbreed had an epic feel to it, for a horror film anyways. Years later I would learn that Nightbreed was in fact a troubled production. Not from the creative side, because creatively it had energy and ideas to spare, but from the producing side. You see, the producers behind this film thought the film was ‘too weird’ and that it didn't play by the rules. Which of course was entirely true, Clive Barker meant to make a film that would turn the conventions of the traditional monster movie upside down! Sadly when a filmmaker wants to try something new, studios usually look down upon it, especially if it’s within the realm of horror and fantasy, two genres that are generally treated with disdain by producers and studios. In spite of its troubled post-production, plagued with creative differences, the studio still released the film.  How did it fare at the box office?

You might be asking yourself how can a producer read the script, greenlight the film and then not like the film that ends up getting made? My take on it is that producers probably said yes to Nightbreed because of the box office success of Barker’s previous film: Hellraiser (1987). They wanted Barker to produce another hit, they didn’t care what it was. But still, why greenlight a film only to give the filmmaker hell when they shoot the script that was approved? I mean, it was right there in black and white. Monsters, Midian, gore…why after its being filmed do they suddenly get cold feet? Did they even bother reading the script? Maybe once the shooting commenced they realized just what a strange and unorthodox film this was. Maybe then they realized that there’s no target audience to sell this movie to, it’s a blending of genres, its horror, it’s a love story, it’s a film in which the monsters are the heroes! And that last point is the one that irked producers the most; they didn’t know how to market a film in which the monsters are the “good guys”.

Another possible reason why this film was treated with such disdain by the studio had something to do with the films subversive message, the clear hatred towards authority and religious figures. I mean, this is a film in which a faithless priest ends up killing a cop! As you can see, many things lined up against Nightbreed which resulted in a shitty trailer that gave audiences the impression that this was a slasher film, even going as far as re-shooting some sequences to give it a slasher feel. And Nightbreed wasn't a slasher, it was a dark fantasy. And if there’s one thing audiences hate its being lied to. And so, the film tanked at the box office, this even though it was made with a mere 11 million dollar budget! In my opinion, a decent trailer and some faith in the filmmakers original vision would have increased Nightbreed’s chances of making a bit more money upon its release. I mean, sure it’s not a mainstream film, but it could have made more than 8 million, which is what it ended up making at the box office. 

But as if often happens, audiences discovered Nightbreed on home video and turned it into a cult classic. People love this movie so much that someone did their own cut of the film called “The Cabal Cut”  which included deleted scenes never seen on the theatrical cut! They even made special screenings to show this cut of the film. Fans have always wanted a director’s cut of this film, and well, their screams were heard because the fine gals and ghouls at Shout Factory made it possible. They gathered all the deleted scenes which were in a vault somewhere, they got the original cast to dub some new dialog and they re-edited the film which is now twenty whole minutes longer! And they got Clive Barker to oversee the whole process! How cool is all that!? Freaking sweet is what it is. But the question remained: which cut of the film is better? What are the differences between theatrical and directors cut?

The main thing with this new cut is: we get more monsters! I can’t believe they cut some of this stuff out, I guess they cut out the weirder looking monsters for whatever the reason, but there’s a ton of new monsters you never got to see before, even if just for a second, but they are finally here, which is of course cool because that’s what this whole film was always about, the monsters! This cut of the film is a bit gorier, but not by a whole lot. We get to see that Boone was a mechanic, and that Lori was a lounge singer, which is completely unnecessary for the film if you ask me. I mean, with regards to these two scenes where we see Lori and Boone during their day jobs, well, I can see why the studio thought that they could be cut out. We really didn't need to see Lori singing a whole song. But anyways, getting back to the good stuff, the biggest changes come during the ending of the film, which is all different. Scenes are switched around, and happen at an entirely different pace and order than in the original theatrical cut. We get to see extended scenes involving Baphomet, which I always wanted more of. I mean, Baphomet is the weirdest thing about the movie. What the hell is he exactly? I still don’t fully understand, but I wanted more and I got it. On this new cut certain characters have a different demise, and so we get to see them die in entirely different and violent ways. Priests turn evil (as they often do in Clive Barker films) and evil cops get their due, which is probably why these scenes were cut out, cops are depicted as evil, racist, violent bigots. There’s a lot of hatred on this film for intolerant bigots in general.  

The director's cut is a bit more violent!

And finally, the very ending of the film was changed drastically; Lori and Boone have more moments together and their relationship takes a very interesting twist that I loved. Basically, the film ends on an entirely different note, with the doors left open for a whole series of films to continue. I would have loved to see this series take off the way Barker had intended. After all, Barker wanted to make the “Star Wars of Monster Movies” and if that isn’t an enticing enough remark about Nightbreed, I don’t know what is. My only gripe with this cut is that they deleted the ending we saw in the theatrical release, the one in which Ashberry (the evil priest) puts his hands inside Decker’s chest and brings him back to life as Decker screams! When I originally saw the film, that ending had such an impact on me! I still love it, I wish it hadn’t been taken out, so you might want to hang on to your theatrical cut, because it still has that original ending which is pretty cool. But whatever, watching this directors cut is a real treat. And it’s a reason of celebration for Clive Barker fans and fans of the horror genre in general. While the film still retains its flaws, like for example it’s often times cheesy situations and dialog, Nightbreed still has a lot of heart, for underneath its monstrous exterior, this is a film about learning to accept each other for who we are. There is space in this world for all of us, isn’t there?

Rating: 4 out of 5

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tusk (2014)

Title: Tusk (2014)

Director: Kevin Smith

Cast: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Johnny Depp, Haley Joel Osment

Personally, I don’t regard Kevin Smith as a “great director”. Now don’t get me wrong, I think the guy is awesome, I love how much he loves comics, and I have enjoyed many of his Askewniverse movies like Dogma (1999) and Chasing Amy (1997). In other words, I don’t despise Kevin Smith’s films 100% because sometimes they are great, problem is that sometimes, they are terrible. I went through a Kevin Smith phase (like anyone who was a film buff during the 90’s) where I loved his films, but recently I re-watched Mallrats (1995) and realized that it was beyond painful to watch, mainly because of its unnatural dialog and situations, none of which come off as believable. The whole film sounds and looks so staged, the dialog feels as if the actors were reading it off the page, something I personally hate on any movie. This last bit has always been my main problem with Kevin Smith movies, the fake sounding dialog. It’s not the lack of vocabulary, it’s the over abundance of it. In real life, people don’t talk like they know every word in the dictionary, especially not college drop outs or pot heads. Still, when Smith is on all cylinders, he sometimes makes what I can call a “good film”. Strangely enough, it’s those films that deviate from his ‘Askewniverse’ that I find to be the best in his repertoire.

Anybody see Smith’s anti-religious horror flick, Red State (2011)? Wowzers, there’s a diamond in the rough. It stirred me like no other Smith film had. Again, Red State is a film outside of the ‘Askewniverse’ series of films and by this I mean that it’s a film that doesn’t feature Jay and Silent Bob. Another example of a good Kevin Smith film is the endearing, Jersey Girl (2004) a film that loss its audience because it featured Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck together on screen after they had released the beyond awful Gigli (2003). Gigli was a fiasco of a movie. A film so bad, that anything that Affleck and Lopez did after that was affected by it, and Jersey Girl was victim number one. A pity because Jersey Girl is actually one of Kevin Smith’s best films, truly touching if you ask me. Hopefully, more people will discover it as time passes. So here comes Tusk, yet another film in which Smith works outside of his comfort zone. Tusk is not the kind of film you’d expect from Smith, a director who commonly works the comedy genre. Here Smith attempts yet again to make a straight forward horror film, a freak out, a movie that will possibly make you very, very uncomfortable. Did he succeed?

The answer to that question my dear readers is a resounding “yes!” How uncomfortable will Tusk make you? Well, I screened this one for a couple of my friends at my house, all of them cringed during the whole film, many of them said they couldn’t believe what they were watching and I had one walk out. Literally, one person simply couldn’t take the ideas presented on Smith’s Tusk and spent the duration of the film smoking cigarettes in my balcony, so that right there let’s you see the kind of film we’re talking about here. 99% of my friends couldn’t take their eyes off of the film because of how out there it was! And 1% walked out! What’s so crazy about this movie anyway? Well, I’ll give you  the back story behind the making of the film so you know what you’re getting yourself into. How this movie came about is Kevin Smith has this podcast called ‘Smodcast’ and during said show (go here to listen to it) the topic of discussion was this ad they found in the classifieds where this guy was offering free room and board to whoever would agree to dress up as a Walrus. They found the add so nuts, that they then made up a whole story about why this person would want somebody to dress up as a Walrus, and boom, the story for the movie was born. They then told their readers to type #Walrusyes if they wanted the film to be made or #Walrusno if they thought it was a bad idea. A huge amount of listeners thought it would be a phenomenal idea, fast forward a few months later, and Tusk was made.

Same as the premise of the hypothetical story made up during the podcast, the film is about this old man who puts up an ad in which he asks somebody to come and listen to his stories because he has a lot of them and he is lonely and wouldn’t mind some company. Justin Long’s character, a podcaster looking for crazy stories for his show decides that this is a good one, so he goes to the old man to listen to his stories. And that’s about as far as I want to go here because I don’t want to spoil this movie for anybody. Simply said, this movie just might freak you the hell out. It reminded me of various films; number one was Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) because it’s that kind of story where an unsuspecting person falls into a trap, like a fly on a spider’s web. It’ll make you think twice before giving your confidence to someone you do not know. Secondly it reminded me of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), because of the visual, the monster, the big reveal. And yes my friends, Tusk, in my book is a monster movie. Like a twisted version of Frankenstein mixed with Silence of the Lambs (1991) or something. It’s that crazy, it’s that eclectic. How much crazier can this movie get? Well, it stars Johnny Depp as this crazy, cross eyed, shot gun totting, French cop. Yeah, you read that right. Also, Johnny Depp’s daughter cameos as a convenience store clerk, in a scene with Kevin Smith’s daughter. Need more to convince you? Okay, Justin Long and Michael Sparks carry this movie on their shoulders and steal the show in the process.  

Final words on Tusk is that out of all of Kevin Smith movies, this is the one that’s shocked me the most, it’s the one that stirred the biggest reaction in me and that my friends is a good thing in my book. It’s a slow burner, but trust me, it will get under your skin, it will freak you the hell out, so be prepared for that! Best thing about the whole thing? It was so well written, it has none of that fake sounding Kevin Smith dialog we are accustomed to hearing on his movies, so I’m glad he’s taken note of this and corrected it in his films. Tusk has an amazing story attached to it, who would think such an interesting story would spawn from a podcast right? Much less a fake ad! That’s right my friends, the ad that inspired this movie was a prank from one of Smith’s many fans. As you can see, the story behind this movie gets crazier the deeper you dig, yet the resulting film was amazingly effective. There are a lot of horror movies out there whose main purpose is to shock the hell out of you; I’m talking about films like Taxidermia (2006), The Human Centipede (2009) and its sequels; most recently I saw V/H/S 2 (2013) and damn, that was a real shocker as well! These are movies that take their ideas to such ludicrous heights that you won’t believe what’s transpiring before your eyes, this is the kind of film that Tusk is, and I’m astonished that Tusk  came from Kevin Smith, but then again, he’d already showed us he had the ability to shock with Red State. Best part is that he is calling Tusk the first film in his ‘Canada Trilogy’, where all three films will be centered somehow around Canada. The following one is called Yoga Hosers (2015), a film about Yoga enthusiasts who team up with a man-hunter in order to fight ‘an ancient evil presence’ and that film will be followed by another called Moose Jaws (2016), which is described simply as “Jaws, but with a Moose”. In any case, I’m happy to see Smith playing with different themes and genres, whenever it happens, it’s fun and shocking for us as an audience. Of course, this isn’t stopping him from making Clerks III, a film that Kevin Smith is scripting as I type this. So anyhow, mark Tusk, as one of Kevin Smith’s good ones!  Seriously? One of the craziest movies I’ve ever seen.

Rating: 4 out of 5 


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Director: Rene Laloux

Fantastic Planet (Le Planete Sauvage) has been my favorite animated film since forever, for many reasons, but primarily because it’s an amazing film experience in every sense of the word; it’s not only a visual feast, but also a feast for the mind. If you guys know anything about me, then you know I have a soft spot for Subversive Cinema. These are films that are about ‘the people’ fighting ‘the system’, people fighting the good fight; which is one of the many reasons why I love Fantastic Planet, it’s all about the rebels versus the oppressors. The Draags vs. the Oms, will they ever learn to live in peace?  

On Fantastic Planet we meet two races; on the one hand we have the Draags, which are these gigantic beings with blue skin and red eyes. They are the ruling class on planet Ygam. They are the elite, also known as those in power or the “high class”. Then we have the Oms, which are basically humans, but in comparison to the Draags, the Oms  are minuscule in size. Humans are like little rodents to Draags and in some instances, they function as their pets. Basically Oms are these wild, uneducated creatures that amuse the Draags, but also seem like pests to them. Yet Oms, aren’t complete idiots, they have the capacity to learn, they have potential within them. Which is probably why  the Draags would rather have them completely eradicated from the planet. The Draags fear that the Oms might one day get smart and overtake Planet Ygam. Will the Oms ever rise and rebel? Or will the Draags succeed in erradecating them from the planets surface?

Fantastic Planet comes to us from Rene Laloux, the director behind two other animated gems: Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1987). If you end up enjoying Fantastic Planet, I recommend checking out the aforementioned films as well. The best of the bunch is Fantastic Planet, but trust me; Time Masters and Gandahar are also worth the watch. But anyways, Fantastic Planet deals with themes that are familiar to all of Laloux films, the fight versus ‘the system’. Why are the people oppressed? Should they rebel? Also, it addresses classicist issues. Why do some humans consider themselves superior to others? Why must this barrier exist? To the casual viewer, this movie might just seem like a 'trippy' film (which it is) yet if we take a deeper look, we can see that Fantastic Planet is all about the fight to educate the masses, to give freedom to a population that is enslaved both physically and mentally. Interesting how this film was made more than four decades ago yet its themes are more relevant now than ever. People are still being oppressed, there are still governments that step on its people; education is still being taken away from the working class. I mean, really, most of us can’t pay a hundred thousand dollars a year to go to college. And who wants such a huge debt on their backs when they get out of college? Truth of the matter is that education is available only to those who can pay it, the high class, the rich, the rest can go to community college or get a job at McDonalds, working for the man, which is the way the man likes it. But what happens when the masses wake up?

Fantastic Planet is all about knowledge, education and the importance of acquiring it in order to thrive in the world. You see, the Oms in this film are born ignorant, wild. The ones with the education and the knowledge are the all powerful Draggs who use these rings they place on their heads to educate themselves. The interesting part of this film comes when one of the Oms called ‘Terr’ steals one of the knowledge rings from the Draggs and begins to educate himself. Soon he grows up into a knowledgeable young man, and starts educating the rest of the Oms who live in the wild. He soon begins to organize a revolution. This is the Draags biggest fear, that the Oms will organize, grow smart and revolt; which is basically the same fear that governments of the world have of their people. That they might one day grow a brain, wise up and realize that they've been taken for fools. Education in the world could be made more accessible, more affordable and it should be so much better than what it is. Young people should not be taken for granted, they should be taught to believe that they have the ability to achieve anything they want, because they can. Because anything we can think of can be achieved. But no, instead, books are banned, schools are closed, tuition prices are raised to prohibitive prices and funds for education are either stolen or diverted, or both. Educating ourselves is turned into an uphill battle. I speak of my country, but I know this holds true for other parts of the world as well.

This is why college students revolt and fight back, and that is why police officers are brought in to pacify them, because they are wising up, they are growing a brain, they know things shouldn't be this way. So there lies the conflict, and this is primarily what Fantastic Planet is all about. It goes through all the processes and situations that a rebel cause will go through and face. It demonstrates that feeling of being stepped on by those in power. This might make this movie sound boring to some of you out there, but trust me it is not. Rene Laloux and graphic designer/writer Roland Topor make sure that this film is never boring, not for a second. The planet of Ygam is an amazing place to visit. It is populated with the craziest looking creatures, the most outlandish landscapes, trust me you won’t want to take your eyes off the screen. Yes, this film can be categorized under the ‘trippy/visual films’ banner, it is after all a visual wonder. The artistry and the designs involved in this production warrant a watch, trust me, you won’t be disappointed. Fantastic Planet is an incredibly unique experience;  you haven’t seen anything like it. It still remains, after all these years, my favorite animated film of all time.  Now go watch it!

Rating: 5 out of 5    


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Zero Theorem (2013)

Title: The Zero Theorem (2013)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Christoph Waltz, Lucas Hedges, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare

I hold director Terry Gilliam in very high esteem; he has been one my favorite directors since…forever. He and I have a kinship, we are on the same channel, we see the world in the same way, a world  filled with bureaucracy, big corporations and governments trying to feverishly stomp out what’s left of our humanity, our imaginations, our dreams. It’s this particular world view that is always mirrored in his films. There’s this theory in the world of cinema that says that every director keeps making the same film over and over again until he or she dies, this theory holds true for many directors. They don’t always tell the same exact story, but they do play with the same themes over and over again. For example, Gilliam’s films usually deal with characters that escape the horrors of this world by dreaming of a better one. In Gilliam’s films, the great escape is our minds. One of Gilliam’s first films, Time Bandits (1981), is about a little boy who avoids his dismal family life by escaping to the fantastic worlds he finds in his books, in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) the Baron helps an entire town escape the horrors of war by entertaining them with his tall tales and in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Gilliam showed us how our imaginations are really a mirror of ourselves. How what he shows us in his films, is really a reflection of us, of humanity. And now we’ve got The Zero Theorem (2013), does Gilliam play with his favorite themes once again?

The man, The myth, The Legend, Director Terry Gilliam on the set of The Zero Theorem

 In The Zero Theorem we follow the life of Qohen Leth, a computer programmer, who works for a company called ManCom. The problem with Qohen is that he’s tired of the repetitive work; he hates to go out into the world, face the noise. In this way he reminded me of the man who turns into a cockroach because he doesn’t want to leave his home to go to work in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. In The Zero Theorem, Qohen believes he can be more productive working from his home, so he wants to meet with management to propose the idea to them. To his surprise, management says “yes” but on one condition, that instead of doing the usual work he does, he must instead attempt to solve “The Zero Theorem”. What exactly is the Zero Theorem and can Qohen solve it?

The original title for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) was ‘1984 ½’, this unused title referenced both George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece ‘1984’ and Federico Fellini’s  8 1/2 (1963), so from very early on in his career Gilliam had an affinity for Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece and Fellini's surreal film. In Orwell's 1984 the government has sucked the wonder out of life and people simply work to produce, to form part of the whole. In this novel, all individuality has been eradicated from society. All these Orwellian themes can be found in The Zero Theorem; for example, when Qohen talks, he refers to himself as “We” never as “I” which lets us see he is so oppressed by ‘the system’ that he has ceased to stop thinking of himself, he only thinks of the group. The Zero Theorem also echoes Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ because it’s a film whose main character is constantly dreaming in an attempt to escape the hectic demands of his life; Qohen escapes to the virtual world, the only place where he can find peace. So yes, this new film has all the usual Gilliam influences, with the added element that Gilliam now comments on the digital age we live in, in The Zero Theorem his characters don’t just escape to their dream worlds, they escape to virtual dream worlds. 

A lot of folks are referring to The Zero Theorem as the last chapter in Gilliam’s ‘satirical dystopian trilogy’ a trio of films consisting of The Zero Theorem, 12 Monkeys (1995) and Brazil (1985). The reason being that these films all share the same idea of man trying to survive in a crazy, out of control future where a totalitarian government has brought humanity to a horrible, lifeless end. For example, the main character in Brazil was Sam Lowry, an office dweller who works in a small cubicle, crunching numbers, not at all that different from Qohen, who feverishly works on his computer, without a second to blink. There’s a moment in which Qohen (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz) is trying to solve the Zero Theorem and as he is almost there, he’s face lights up in ecstasy, like he was high on some drug, not all that different from when we plug into a video game and solve it. I’m sure Gilliam was commenting on this as well, we work hours in an office only to come home and unwind in front of a television screen, trying to solve a meaningless puzzle, called a video game. Every time we pass to the next level, we get this little rush, this feeling of achievement which amounts to nothing? This reminds me of how the film constantly reminds us that 100% = 0.

The Zero Theorem also explores the idea of religion and the existence of God; yes my friends, on this film Gilliam ponders the big questions. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Is God real? You see, throughout the film Qohen is always waiting for a phone call, a mysterious phone call that will give him an answer to a question that even Qohen doesn’t fully understand, yet he’s waiting for it. Kind of like those people waiting for God to talk to them, they spend their entire lives waiting to hear that voice. In the film, it is understood that Qohen is suffering from some type of insanity because of this illusion he lives under, not unlike your typical Jesus Freak, always expecting for God to talk to them, always waiting for God to solve their lives, to tell them what to do, to answer the big questions for them. Even though the film alludes to Qohen being insane, I wouldn’t say he is. He’s simply living a lie, slowly uncovering the truth, learning that he’s been taken for a fool. The truth is ‘the call’ is a delusion. No one is going to call you. You gotta take the reins of your life. It is sad to see Qohen under such mental stress over these matters, which is probably what the filmmakers want us to notice, the unnecessary mental struggle that religion puts you through. But still, those big questions remain unanswered. Who will answer them? Will they ever get answered?  

There’s so much more to The Zero Theorem than what I’ve mentioned here, it’s the kind of film that begs to be seen more than once. I for one need to give it a re-watch, I love it when a film does that to me. It compels me to watch it again, almost immediately. Last time this happened to me was with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). So yeah, this movie is like a puzzle, it’s a brainy film. It’s made for those of us who like to get all existential and philosophical, all others will probably end up scratching their heads, asking themselves what the hell this movie is about. Is it Gilliam’s best film? Not if you ask this Terry Gilliam fan, but I don’t blame Gilliam himself. The man is working with micro budgets when compared to the gazillion dollar movies he used to make during the 80’s and 90’s. Sadly, this is an ailment that many an auteur suffers from.  Big studios won’t give directors such as Gilliam the big bucks to make the big movies they could be making because artful films are risky, and studios hate to lose money on a film. So this is why we’re getting this ‘low budget’ version of Terry Gilliam, which as it turns out, is still amazing. Because it’s not the money behind the movie, it’s the imagination and creativity behind the camera that brings a film to life. And to be honest, films like this mean a whole lot more to me then the latest, brainless Hollywood blockbuster. Terry Gilliam remains the soul of true dreamers, fantasists and artists out there, a director who makes films against all odds, my hats down to you sir. You’ve won yet another battle and have given us another soul searching film.

Rating: 4 out of 5    

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Wild (2014)

Title: Wild (2014)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who falls into heroin addiction and furthermore, becomes sexually promiscuous in order to deal with her mother’s death. After reaching an all time low by becoming a town whore and getting pregnant in the process, she decides it’s time to do something with her life in order to straighten things out.  She decides to go hiking for three months in order to ‘find herself’ and eradicate her heroin addiction. Can she survive on her own for three months in the wilderness and kick her heroin addiction? And will Reese Witherspoon win an Oscar for this role?

I did some surfing on the net, trying to scope the general reaction for this film and discovered (to my surprise) that some folks seem to be disappointed by this film because they find it “to simple of a movie”. That it’s just about Reese Witherspoon walking around remembering the events that led her to heroin and sex addiction. That it’s not worthy of a movie, that it’s an ego trip for Reese Witherspoon. I guess those folks just don’t get it. I mean, yes, they are right; this is a film about a woman walking and remembering, but to these sentiments I say, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with a film about analyzing ourselves? So obviously, Wild is not a movie for everyone, especially not those expecting special effects, action or impossible situations. No, this movie is more of an introspective tale, a spiritual journey of self discovery, so be ready for that.  

How personal is this story? Well, it’s based on Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild: From Lost to Found in the Pacific Crest Trail, which she mostly wrote as she hiked the trail herself. This is why we hear a lot of inner monologue through out the film, we here Cheryl’s thoughts as she is hiking, which made perfect sense to me. When  you hike for as long as she did, it’s just you, the road, nature and your mind. So what the director was doing here was capturing the experience of hiking on film; the loneliness, the beauty of nature, the grandness of the landscape and the inevitable tendency to get introspective, to reanalyze your life; where you've been, where you’re going, what does it all mean? We also get a glimpse at the whole hiker community, a whole different lifestyle that you've probably never gotten a glimpse at. It’s these elements that make this film unique. A good movie should capture the experience it’s trying to represent on film in a convincing manner and director Jean-Marc Vallee did just that, so kudos to him for it.

I like spiritual tales like this one. They are about people trying to connect with themselves, with the universe, trying to find the goodness in life by disconnecting from all the crap that society has to offer. Let’s face it, the world we live in offers some really crappy solutions to the sameness of it all. Once you grow tired of your repetitive life, of your problems, it’s easy to turn to drugs and alcohol to escape it all. What I liked about this movie is that it was Cheryl looking to escape from the escapes, if that makes any sense at all. She’s cuts with the world and with everyone in it in order to hear her own voice. That’s worthy of a movie for me, it’s a worthwhile story to tell. It reminded me a bit of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), though they are different films because Into the Wild was more about a man looking to completely disconnect from the modern life, completely giving his back to society and the modern world. Wild is more about escaping it all for a while, punishing your body a bit, showing it who is boss; taking a breather from the modern world in order to return to the battle and start again. But they share that idea of disconnecting, leaving all the noise of the world behind. Hiking for three months in the wild is no piece of cake; it takes a special kind of determination and will power and yes, inner strength to do it. Even more interesting is the fact that Cheryl Strayed did this without any prior experience in trail hiking!

Reese Witherspoon (left) and Cheryl Strayed (right)

Reese Witherspoon has gotten an Oscar nomination for her work in this film, but she has to go up against some stiff competition. She's going up against Julianne Moore for Still Alice, Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl, Felicity Jones for Theory of Everything and Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night. I guess we’ll see if she has what it takes to win, I thought her performance was excellent but I haven’t seen the competing films, so here’s hoping. I enjoy films like this one, they talk about life and how all of us deal with it in different ways. Some say big deal, we all got problems and they don’t make a movie about them. We all lose our mothers; we don’t all turn to promiscuous sex and drugs to deal with it; to that I say we don’t all react the same way when we lose someone close to us, some of us go on just fine, others break down. Each of our stories is different, they could make a movie about all of our lives, each one would be entirely different, each one would teach us a little something about the world we live in. This is Cheryl Strayeds story, and we can learn just as much from it as well. It’s a story about loss and redemption, told in a beautiful and sometimes poetic way, definitely worth a watch.

Rating: 5 out of 5   


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