Late August is a rough time at the movie theater. It’s not really summer, and it’s not really fall. The blockbuster season is over but the awards season hasn’t really ramped up yet. The same kind of thing happens in early spring. Sometimes surprisingly good movies appear during these bumper times of the year, i.e. “The Matrix” back in 1999, but generally it’s a lot of movies like the ones out right now - “The Expendables 3,” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” etc., etc. I thought it might be fun, rather than subjecting myself to a bunch of lowest common denominator action, to seek out some new films being released simultaneously on video and in theaters. These films, often high-concept indies, would have, at one time, gone either straight to video or never have been made at all, but with money to be made from instant streaming rentals, commercially risky fare is now given a much wider audience. That’s the good part. The bad is that every new thing that keeps people home watching movies instead of going out to the theater is one more nail in the coffin of traditional movie-going. And here I am contributing to the problem. It can’t be helped, I guess. The upside, however, is that by going this route, I’m guaranteed to see a good movie, though, right? Well, not so fast.
The first film I tried was “The Zero Theorem” by celebrated cinematic outsider Terry Gilliam. Gilliam is nearly as famous for his disasters as he is for his successes, but his films are always at least visually interesting, so I knew there was at least a good chance I’d enjoy it. “Zero” stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth as an agoraphobic office drone in a futuristic London. Leth doesn’t exactly hate his job as much as he hates coming to work and so petitions Management, played by a zen-like Matt Damon, to allow him to work from home. Our hero wants to work from home so that he won’t miss a mysterious phone call that he believes will reveal to him the meaning of life in the universe. In the meantime, Management has decided to put him on a new project, proving the Zero Theorem, thus rendering all of time and space meaningless. That is the understandable part of the film. There’s also a love interest, a quirky teen-age kid, and some kind of alternate reality on a Hawaiian beach.
Gilliam does provide a visually interesting film, his nightmare candy-colored city a nice counter-point to his bleak Orwellian environment in “Brazil,” but unlike that dystopian comic masterpiece, “Zero” is hamstrung by oblique, impenetrable concepts that never come together in any coherent sense. Christoph Waltz does a very nice job as Leth, but it’s not enough to justify ever working on “The Zero Theorem” again. Grade: C-
After my disappointment with “The Zero Theorem,” I hit upon a brand new film, not even in theaters yet, called “The Congress.” The concept sounded brilliant. Playing a thinly veiled portrait of herself, Robin Wright, star of “The Princess Bride” has, in the latter half of her career, stalled out. In order to provide security for her ailing son, Wright agrees to a bizarre contract with her studio, Miramount. They will scan her completely, creating a digital version of the actress, one that they can insert into any movie they wish, use as they wish, and never have to negotiate with. In return for undisclosed riches, Wright agrees never to act again and to disappear into anonymity. This sounded really interesting, especially with all the motion capture going on in movies today, and the enormous power computer graphics technicians have in controlling the look and personality of actors. A critique and examination of what is real and not real, what is a performance, and how is the performer treated by the movie making machine, of which they are a small part.
There was a little of this, to be sure - about twenty-five minutes. The criticism was very pointed - Robin’s agent, played by Harvey Keitel, and the studio head, played by Danny Huston, heaped scorn and insult on the actress, who sat placidly and took it. It was interesting, if a little too on the nose. But then the movie cartwheels into a bizarre future where, twenty years after signing the contract, Robin Wright returns to the studio, ostensibly to renegotiate, but instead falls into a weird animated fever dream. If I got the gist, most of the populace now regularly ingests a hallucinogenic drug that thrusts them into a cartoon wonderland of hedonistic delights and freaky characters. There’s a revolution of some kind, and a love affair with an animated Jon Hamm, and possibly a psychotic break with reality. Actually, I think the whole thing was a psychotic break. I know there were some big ideas floating out there, but I had no idea what the hell was going on. I actually turned it off and came back to it later, hoping that would help, but to no avail. Robin Wright is very good in moments, but so much of what is happening is incomprehensible that I can’t even wholeheartedly recommend her performance. Grade: C-
The moral of the story is, I suppose, that poor movies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are too dumb to go see, with inept writing and poor performances. Others, unfortunately, are too smart for their own good, drowning in grandiose concepts - forgetting how to actually communicate those concepts to the audience. If no one can figure out what you’re talking about, I guess it doesn’t matter how big your ideas are.
“The Zero Theorem” is rated R for language, sexuality, nudity.
“The Congress” is apparently unrated, but contains explicit language, sexuality, nudity, and violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.