Okay, chewers, I’m testing the water here. I did something like this back when Transformers: Age of Extinction came out, and I really liked the idea of reviewing what I watched over a weekend when nothing demanded my attention in the local theaters. Should I keep these going from time to time? Let me know in the comments! Now let’s start with…
The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem may be the angriest movie of 2014. From the first moment Qohen (Christoph Waltz) opens his front door and floods our ears with the din of the future, it’s apparent that Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin seem very unhappy about the current state of western culture. Advertisements literally follow Qohen down the street on his way to work. Qohen’s job is a joke: he essentially plays videogames in his cubicle to “crunch entities”. His boss, only known as Management (Matt Damon in a wig), watches from every wall on propaganda posters. A flashing ticker sign reads “Arbeit Macht Fun!”. Later, at a party, no one speaks to one another. They all wear vapid expressions and white earbuds. They carry large smartphone-things that light up their faces. By now, it’s pretty obvious: The Zero Theorem isn’t really concerned with creating its own world. Mostly, it wants to complain about ours.
We know that all speculative fiction reflects the zeitgeist in some way, and that might be in the design, it might be in the narrative themes, or if the film is going for some laughs, it could be in the jokes. Sometimes, it’s everywhere, like a moment in The Zero Theorem that mocks young people for recording and watching things vertically. You see, computer monitors in the future are all vertically oriented, and when Qohen turns his sideways, a fifteen-year-old character balks at the idea.
Qohen Leth is one of this year’s most passive protagonists: his job basically amounts to killing time, trying to complete an impossible task while he waits for a phone call that will tell him his purpose in life. He wants to believe he is special. The film even directly addresses the ridiculous notion that Qohen would be “The One” or the subject of some stupid prophecy. It’s an attempt to address the norms of western culture in a very direct way, but the film has no big memorable set pieces or big moments. It’s a long-winded and erratic way to tell us to dive in to the black hole, because all of this is meaningless. Gilliam has never been subtle with his satire, even back when he was doing the animations for Monty Python. What makes The Zero Theorem feel so on-the-nose is that it mocks the zeitgeist so mercilessly that it is consumed by it.
This feels like something I whine about every year, but there hasn’t been a lot of good horror in 2014. Hopefully, Honeymoon is the start of a trend of strong horror films in the last few months of this year.
Leigh Janiak, in her directorial debut, makes Honeymoon a wicked and slow burn. It could essentially be a stage play: a two newlyweds go to a remote cabin in the woods, paranoia ensues. It’s not scare-a-minute, and there’s a lot of kissy-face between Rose Leslie (you know noothin’, Jon Snow) and Harry Treadaway (Attack the Block), but the eventual escalation into jaw-dropping body horror is totally worth the wait. The film itself is reserved, not overly stylized, and it may initially give the impression of mere competency, but it’s lit beautifully and never dawdles too long.
The flick is smart, too: the “big scene” in the film is a horrifying inversion/perversion of the couple’s lovemaking in the first act, and it explores domestic violence, rape, BDSM, emotional abuse, body shame, spousal mistrust, and gynophobia in a way that is both grotesque and heart-breaking. It’s powerful stuff, and it’s why I think Honeymoon will be one of the best horror films of 2014.
If you squint, Frank looks like one of those dumb indie flicks, rife with quirk for quirk’s sake. But much to my delight, it’s neither dumb nor loaded with meaningless quirk. It’s extremely funny, deeply affecting, and talks about art and pop in ways that are intelligent and accessible.
Is it quirky? At times. Lots of weird impromptu instruments are created and recorded in funny ways. Frank manages to talk a shocked German family into letting his band (Soronpfrbs) use their cabin by suddenly revealing that he’s fluent in German. An unheard conversation follows, and the German family then drives away thanking Frank for their new outlook on life. It’s played for laughs, and doesn’t present itself as hipster intellectual poppycock.
Frank works even better if you’re a musician who’s been in a band. There’s the idea of a cursed position in a band: an instrumental role that seems to chew people up and spit ‘em out. This is a thing. A band I was in went through three trombone players in three years. In Soronpfrbs, the cursed role is the keyboard player. Protagonist Jon (Domnhall Gleeson) meets Frank and his gang when their keyboardist attempts to drown himself at the beach, and Jon steps into the available slot because he can play C, F, and G. Soon enough, Jon begins to look more and more like the last guy to play keyboard. The dread of ending up like him is palpable, but not so gloomy as to ruin the jokes.
Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Scoot MacNairy deliver great performances. Fassbender’s Frank doesn’t have deep wisdom or extreme powers of charm. He’s a pleasant and funny man with a desire to lose himself in the creative process, but he’s strong and volatile, and can be controlling. Gyllenhaal’s Clara is a toxic hipster ice queen, like the evil inversion of a manic pixie dream girl. MacNairy’s role is not as fleshed out as the other two, but his character gets some of the larger emotional beats in the story. As usual, MacNairy does it right.
Frank, while utilitarian in a few respects, is incredibly funny, and if you’ve had any close experience with mental illness, it feels real and heartbreaking. It’s available for rental on iTunes (in the US) now. You know what to do!