Zero Theorem Is Interesting, But Does Not Cover New Ground For Gilliam

The_Zero_Theorem_posterI hesitate to make easy comparisons between Terry Gilliam’s latest, Zero Theorem, and 1985’s Brazil, but luckily the link has been made for me – Gilliam himself has referred to the film as the last of his dystopian trilogy, the middle being 95’s Twelve Monkeys. I must confess that while I have seen Brazil, it has been a while and I do no remember (or, perhaps, understand) the film to the extent I should. Gilliam’s films have always hinted towards greater meaning, without them quite penetrating to me. I cannot decide whether that is because they actually lack anything to penetrate beyond what is on the screen. Granted, there is always plenty happening on the screen in his films, but at face value, both Brazil and Zero Theorem are not overly complex as critiques/satires of modern society. There is little ground broken on that front that was not already covered in the countless other dystopic fiction. What remains, then, is to ask what, if anything, the films have to say aside from that.

Qohen Leth (whose name is commonly mispronounced or misremembered by other characters, perhaps hinting at lack or loss of identity), played by Christoph Waltz, certainly hints at deeper meanings. Having felt earnestly a lack of it for most of his life, working obsessively and compulsively in a job he does not enjoy, Qohen awaits a phone call that would change everything. The film does not hide that this is not a rational expectation, and even if it were he takes it to a sociopathic extreme. He avoids any distractions that would prevent him receiving the call, such as interpersonal relationships or going outside. Given a new assignment by Management, amusingly portrayed by Matt Damon, he shuts himself away to prove the eponymous Zero Theorem, the precise meaning of which I will not spoil to any who would choose to find out for themselves. Suffice it to say that the question of whether or not there is a greater purpose behind things is very much engaged front and center in the film.

To expect a clear answer either way would, of course, be silly. The long-standing mystery over what, precisely, Qohen is expecting or trying to achieve, however, also serves to conceal drama in the picture. There is certainly nothing resembling urgency in the picture, even if certain characters do possess it on the surface. Terry Gilliam attempts to satirize numerous aspects of modern society, and is spot on in taking certain aspects to their logical extremes – such as advertisements amusingly following passers-by. For the first time in the aforementioned dystopian trilogy, internet is a major player in our lives. While publicly condemning its influence while speaking about the film, the film itself does not make clear why a connection made over the internet is less valid than any other. It seems that Gilliam is so convinced it is less than genuine, and expects us all to agree to such an extent, that he does not even try to illustrate why he feels that way. The film seems to engage in a distraction towards the center of the film, in the form of an alluring seductress, Bainsley, played by Mélanie Thierry, with whom Qohen becomes increasingly infatuated. If the film is from his perspective, this can be forgiven, as she herself is something of a distraction (perhaps even a purposeful one) in his life. That being said, their relationship does seem to illustrate some lack of focus. If the filmmaker was striving for her to represent some greater sense of meaning, this was not made adequately clear.

Gilliam’s strength has, of course, always been visual, and Zero Theorem is no exception. There is always plenty happening on screen, in garish color and flamboyant design. The charm of the picture is it’s absolute refusal for any affectation of being cool. It is, in fact, the opposite of cool, which normally expresses itself in cool detachment, coyness or attempts at subtlety. Even the most garish action movies accomplish “coolness” by, in fact, turning some of the color and detail down, while accentuating certain things for effect. Gilliam’s world is by far the busiest we would ever see. Color is everywhere, sets overflowing with hand-crafted detail. These elements are, as always, enjoyable due to their complete lack of affectation. The artist puts on the screen precisely what he finds exciting. And while the film ultimately adds up to very little other than the question of whether or not there is any meaning to life, it is certainly never boring.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (Photo credit: sdfbss)

 

When I went into the movie theater in my Quentin Tarantino t-shirt and anti-nazi jacket, I was putting together an apology for writing a non-perfect review for a film by a man whom I consider to be one of the absolute masters of modern cinema. Because, it goes without saying that a movie with mixed reviews from Cannes like this cannot be perfect.

How absolutely stunned and delighted I was to find that both I, and several other film critics, had been wrong. The opening titles were typical of a Tarantino film, with a distinct 70s feel so prominent in his previous work. The title of the first chapter of the opus, “Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France”, brought a knowledgeable laugh from some of the more film-savvy members of the audience, which was perhaps not fitting with the general mood of the opening scene. After this, however, the ride was a flawless one.

Right off the bat, we have an extended dialogue scene, one in which seemingly inane small-talk is spoken by masterfully picked, and very genuine actors. While in Pulp Fiction, however, such a scene merely lead up to a more threatening one, this extended dialogue was merely concealing an artfully intense undercurrent, as we are revealed the true intent of the characters, and their positions. The play with various languages used by the characters does not come off as gimmicky. Instead, international misunderstanding is masterfully used as a source of tension throughout the film, as a way of keeping characters without knowledge of the language painfully in the dark until a climactic moment.

Overall, the eponymous basterds are not given nearly the screen time one would think. This may come as a surprise when one considers how synonymous Tarantino’s name had become with Americana. This, however, is a stroke of absolute brilliance, managing to bring a War World II movie into a modern context, one in which Americans are no longer viewed solely as saviors of Europe. Indeed, the basterds’ role in the final act is near redundant, and their attempts at foreign language are hilarious. This, however, does not detract from the undeniable swagger of the characters. Regardless what else one might say about him, Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine is an absolute master of one-liners. One could say that he is a sort of import into this very European film, along with his tribe of nazi-hunters. The true residents of the Tarantino-verse being dropped behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France to wreak havoc, which is something they are good at no matter how bad they may be at Italian. Eli Roth’s character of ‘the bear Jew” is executed with a chilling amount of pleasure, which is both undeniably fitting for the character, and not very surprising when it comes from the director of the infamous Hostel. Probably the most common hypothetical use for a time machine is gunning down Hitler, and this man does it in the blazing glory of fury that the Jewish character – scratch that, the entire world – deserves.

The surprising self-denial of Americana is also understandable considering that the films that have inspired Tarantino’s often exaggerated estimations of American life come from European masters of cinema, such as Sergio Leone. In this light, Lt. Raine’s bumbling attempts at Italian are revealing, particularly when one considers the fact that his character often acts directly as a voice for Tarantino himself.

The German and French characters, however, provide a level of sophistication unparalleled in other Tarantino films. The performance by Christoph Waltz is absolutely breathtaking. The intellectual SS officer nicknamed Jew Hunter is almost an appealing character, despite also being only one of two nazis with any in-depth character development. While being an absolute credit to the writing, it could not have been pulled off by just any actor by a long shot. <SPOILERS>  His final decision, therefore, to change sides is not a surprising one, despite my initial reaction of disbelief and discontent at the twist. Besides the obvious Nazi factor, the most dislikable, quality of the character is the incessant inclination towards theatricality, which inspires in him both the cruelty to brutally murder a family a Jews, and gallantly allow their daughter to escape. His final faith, therefore, reveals a somewhat weak man – one whose entire manner depends on a position of power. </SPOILERS>

The other nazi with any true depth is Fredrick Zoller, played by Daniel Brühl. This war hero, starring in a film about his own war escapades, is torn between his successful career as a nazi, and his humanity. The conflict comes to the head in a climax between him and a Jewish woman whom he desperately loves, and who only shows the slightest hint of affection for him after his demise.

This finally brings us to probably the truest protagonist of the film – Shosanna Dreyfus, “the face of Jewish vengeance”, played masterfully by Melanie Laurent. A strong female lead in a Tarantino film obviously does not surprise anyone, but her absolute determination in both staying alive and all-consuming vengeance, as well as her stunning beauty far surpasses the samurai-sword wielding assassin from the Kill Bill movies. The actress superbly performs scenes in which she has to pretend to appear calm, when the audience knows the character is anything but – such as when she has to converse calmly with the killer of her family. Her final message to the nazis is that of gleeful victory by one victim over the forces which have swept Europe up in a blazing storm of fire, and so does she end it in a similar way. The scene in which she readies herself for the finale and applies her feminine war paint is awe-inspiring.

This is also true of other camerawork in the film. It reveals an incredible sentimentality, while not being silly or probing for a few cheap tears. The soundtrack, similarly, while being borrowed from film classics (there are a few very recognizable Ennio Morricone pieces), is not a gimmicky. It works perfectly to create a mood in a way that may have been impossible with a modern composer.

The last line of the film is “This may be my masterpiece.” Mr. Tarantino, you ain’t lyin.

Django Unchained

At it’s heart, Django Unchained is a rather naïve film. Not that any of Tarantino’s earlier films have specialized in emotional sophistication, but this is really the only film he’s ever made that is, at its heart, a romantic fairytale about a hero on a semi-mystical quest to save his damsel in distress. Of course, anyone that’s seen the world’s most famous homage artist’s previous work will recognize that’s too simplistic for Tarantino – this particular film is a Germanic legend, wrapped in a 70s spaghetti western, wrapped in social justice served up with a side of bad-ass.

From the first line of the movie “Who’s that stumbling around in the night,” we are in a fairytale, in the middle of a deep, dark wood, with a couple of bad, bad slaver wolves leading a group of slaves through a cold night in 1858. Suddenly, a magically eloquent, knowledgable Dr. Shultz (Christoph Waltz), who seems at first glance to be a dentist, but in actual fact is a bounty hunter, appears. He’s looking for a trio of villains, whom Django (Jamie Foxx) is in a unique position to point out. As the slavers are less than enthusiastic about parting with their newly acquired stock, they are quickly and effortlessly dispatched. The good doctor releases the slaves, and promises Django his freedom upon the dispatching of the no-good Brittle brothers.

This, of course, is merely the inciting incident. The pair quickly become a duo of successful bounty hunters, and after a number of adventures together, set out to find and rescue Django’s young wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is apparently, at the moment, owned by the not-a-little disgusting Monsieur Candy, played to a fault by Leonardo DiCaprio – the one time teenage heartthrob playing a villain that would put Darth Vader to shame. He is unlikeable to a fault, cruel, vain, and frankly not very intelligent.

Along the way to the rescue, Django has a series of hallucinations of his wife watching him, a happy smile across her lips. These visions seem to drive the bounty hunter ever further into the surreally racist territory of Candyland. The evil of the place is palpable enough for a viewer to believe that bringing down that onerous establishment would contribute substantially to the betterment of African Americans in slavery everywhere, terrible though their conditions are throughout the rest of the South the film explores.

Jamie Foxx’s performance as the eponymous Django is characterized by enormous poise and swagger, he becoming the epitome of cool towards the end as he exacts vengeance on the wrong-doers. The last man he punishes in the film is, paradoxically, a black man as well, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who portrays a house slave that bends over backwards to please his master. He seems to lead a rather comfortable live among his owners, at the price of brutally ruling over the other slaves on the plantation.

The major aspect that makes this movie memorable beyond an average spaghetti western is, of course, the exploration of the practice of slavery in the American South. There is no question that in that regard, Tarantino is exaggerating for effect. He takes a practice that is already despised by every decent person, and piles additional half-truths on top of it. To some viewers, this is likely to be off-putting. It isn’t unreasonable to, when watching two men fight to the death for other’s amusement, for example, to ask oneself, “why would I watch this? Why, indeed, would anyone?” Particularly when this isn’t, in actual fact, a historically accurate practice. The answer, of course, is revenge. We watch a film that is in many ways about cruelty so that we may watch those we despise be destroyed in a spectacularly dramatic fashion, so we may experience justice for an event for which we no longer have anyone but our ancestors to blame. This retroactive justice was already explored by Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, and it is as bloody satisfying in Django.