THE ZERO THEOREM (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
“Waiting for the call. What other reason is there to pick up the phone?”
– Christoph Watlz as the main character Qohen Leth
Frankly, there isn't! With the films’ technology and its candid telescopic inhuman to human interaction, there is no other reason to pick up that ominous telephone. Qohen Leth, sits patiently, hoping to finally get the phone call of a lifetime. Its very purpose is for Qohen to find out what the meaning of life is, because obviously, one finds out through a long distance astrological phone call from the creator himself. On a broader context, the above line may be delivered by Waltz, but is sublimated by Terry Gilliam’s voice denouncing the declining, interpersonal physical interaction, leading to a decaying of social equity amongst people. This is forcing Qohen, to overcome his awkwardness and interact with other people face to face instead of a grandfathered telephone amindst a new born text message world. What’s important isn’t the call itself - it’s the simple fact that Qohen wants to be interrupted from his theological meandering to even listen for the possible allegorical message on the other line for the very answer he is awaiting but will never receive.
Peculiar, delirious, dynamic, odd, warm, nonsensical, elevated, paranoid, gaudy
Strong Orwellian overarching theme
Unique visual production
Commentary/parody of decaying human interaction in the future
Demonstration of social vapidity
Uplifting performance by Melanie Thierry
Muddled presentation and plot
Incongruous set design
Not my favorite Christoph Waltz’ performance
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
Terry Gilliam’s (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) madcap science fiction epic, The Zero Theorem, stars two-time Academy Award-winner, Christoph Waltz, as Qohen Leth, an eccentric and reclusive computer genius plagued with existential angst. Living in isolation in a burnt-out church, Qohen is obsessively working on a mysterious project personally delegated to him by Management (Matt Damon), aimed at discovering the meaning of life - or complete lack of one - once and for all.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
The film is a de-facto, but not self-admitted last part of Gilliam’s “Orwellian Trilogy” starting with the fanciful Brazil, then scattershot 12 Monkeys, and now with this his latest, The Zero Theorem. Gilliam stated that initially, it was not his plan to purposefully create this movie in an obvious thematic touch as Brazil, due to the length of time the aforementioned movie was released (1984). He admitted, however, that he see the definite common presentation to where the “put upon trilogy label is befitting.” This movie holds true to its sold intent. Christoph Waltz plays the main character Qohen, who is basically trying to find the meaning of life, while mucked down in abhorrence with the world around him and to a greater extent, the theoretical world of his own existence.
The movie is a combination of a simple plot driven story and studious character development intertwined with Gilliam’s theoretical ambitions towards delivering a thought provoking small picture. Waltz plays Qohen as a man who refers to himself as two people. When responding, he say “we” or “us” and does so within a cyber-punk Forrest Gump manner. This is done because Qohen is a double-sided, gauche coin. He is everything and also nothing. He is our main character, but a drone. We examine him as he is everything, leading the audience into the film’s reality, but also anonymous in an individualistic taxpaying nobody kind of way. When you are first introduced to him, he is sitting naked, on a futuristic stool laser focused on the computer monitor in front of him. He is crunching numbers and wailing on buttons that would give a sane person carpel tunnel in the brain. There is a rhyme and reason to this action but doesn't lend itself to any coherence. He is a gerbil on a treadmill - movement is present with him; he is just not going anywhere. There is something of an exhaustive connectivity in trying to examine him, but it comes at a pass, since this is a two-time academy award winner we are viewing after all, even though he looks like a bootleg Lex Luthor with kryptonite for a personality.
Gilliam’s world is shown at wonderful, high camera angles braced in gaudy inclusiveness. In lesser hands, this is an exploitation production, but in Gilliam’s, it’s visual corny refinement. The streets and buildings look like a happy meal with Boy George face paint for the prize. It’s clown makeup mixed with Blade Runner. Gilliam layers movement throughout the film. Like Qohen’s computer driven mind, there is an embodiment of movement overarching the film. If the characters are sitting down, the screen moves between the characters which heighten their personalities to pop with dexterity. Even when Waltz is scurrying from one frame to the next, his eyes roam in active choreographed unison like temporal ping pong balls. From the opening shot, Gilliam doesn’t need to explain his world. If you are familiar with his work, then this will feel normal – if you’re not – he says too bad! What you see is what you have to accept. Nothing visually makes sense, but there is something familiar with the inhabitants and the watchful state that spies on them. Again, we deal with big brother themes, with Qohen slavishly “worker bee-ing” for a company handled by an oligarchy boss named "Management", played by Matt Damon, who is channeling his best Batman villain, Riddler-esqe, patterned zuit suit. Management sets Qohen on a quest to find out what Gilliam’s thoughts are on “religion vs. creation”. The further he looks, the more confused he becomes, burrowing in his own contempt at existence with no answers within attainable reach.
Compelled to find the truth, he finally comes across two characters, first a sweet girl named Bainsley, played by relative unknown, but engaging Melanie Thierry, and Management’s smart ass over confident teenage son, Bob. Both characters are working independently, in the role contributed to whether Qohen finds the meaning of life or not. Bainsley, is a tart, call girl, who is hired by Management to get in Qohen’s way, playfully distracting him from his task. Bob on the other hand, is there to tell Qohen, what’s real from fiction. Thierry, was a playful breath of fresh air. She is much too young for Qohen, but Thierry sell’s the character’s affection for him with a sweet-tooth like sincerity. She is well meaning, and well intentioned. She cares for him, but still has a job to do. You feel her honestly towards Qohen, finding something deeper to draw on in which there is a genuine plausibility as the fractured love interest. Waltz in reverse, treats her with only a small decibel of the reciprocation that she deserves; this is what made the chemistry work. There’s an opposites attract and then there is this. As previously stated, Qohen is everything, and he is nothing. He is a walking plural, searching for a beginning to reconcile with the end, and with Bainsley, it works because it shouldn't: they compliment not in looks, but in feelings.
Bob, for a techno-snot, has all the answers, but none of the work to show for them. He is a young 14-year-old pseudo hotshot kid that assists Qohen in focusing on what’s really important. Like any other young person, actor Lucas Hedges plays Bob, with a brash temperament, underlined with true admiration. With Qohen, Bob exclusively chides his “idiot-savantism,” making interactions for Qohen humanistically tough to relate to – but there is still friendship there quantifying in its own formulaic kind of way. In Gilliam’s future, the world is a depiction marred in social vapidity. There is a loss of personal connections penetrating the film, presented in a slick portrait of immediate accessibility at the sacrifice of substantial organic relationships. So it’s obvious Qohen needs his angel (Bob) and his devil (Bainsley) for human connections and subjective guidance. Overt cameras are placed throughout his world, watching Qohen’s every move in a complicit nature coupled with Gilliam’s masterwork of intertwining standard storytelling with high minded big brother rhetoric. And it’s a wonderful conflict that marks its visual territory throughout the film.
Thematic content pays off in a synthesis of ways that ranges from theology, mathematics, creationism and evolutionism. In lesser experienced hands it could not be pulled off, and to a lesser extent, some might feel it wasn’t - but I did. It kept my consciousness guessing, intriguing me even at times, especially when the movie was hard to digest in thought. Pieces of classic roman architecture from Qohen’s home would be ham-fisted with slipshod technological design that would lend to some off-putting incongruities with the environment. There is nothing gorgeous or smooth with the set designs of Gilliam’s choice. His wonderful camera angles off-set this, thrilling my view, and helping to coat over some of the lack of sophistication with the movie’s overall design.
Waltz, who is one of my favorite actors, was for me, the main attraction to this visually murky textured film. I wasn’t in love with the character, but understood his placement in Gilliam’s vortex. It wasn’t completely weird to connect with him because you are doing so off of Bainsley’s guilt ridden affections, and Bob’s prankish loyalty towards him. Don’t get me wrong - there is delirium on how Gilliam, and Waltz hold the movie together, while simultaneously parodying the very future Qohen finds himself in. Paranoia permeates throughout the film with real conviction. It’s handled in a way in which the characters don’t see it, but we, the viewers, do for we are far removed from the brainy, logical aspect by the end, and are able to enjoyably watch it unfold with illogical heart. Waltz treats the spyglass, like everything else – trivial, inconsequential, because it’s not as important as the promise of a phantom illicit phone call he desperately holds dear to answering.
This is where you see Bainsley’s and Qohen’s encounter after they first met. Qohen is cloaked in future monk guard but titillated, unprotected. Bainsley is sizing up Qohen and is following Management’s orders to blind Qohen to temptation – and it works, but only on a cursory level. Bainsley is artificial in costume by offering more through her presence and the interest towards Qohen, with auspicious femininity. She first busts through the door like her carefully placed chest busting cheaply through the latex nurse dress, in the end of the relationship however, she will look and leave a different person.
Gilliam’s signature is all over this movie to where it will either work for you or doesn't; however, his camera angles, strong pictorial voice, coupled with the promise of Christoph Waltz is more than enough "big bang" for your "big buck". The movie doesn't get too lost in the galaxy trying to find itself, leaving the audience scratching their collective bald heads. Yes, this is a small movie with big ambitions, but it’s also rewarding, and at times reflexive in how Gilliam coherently presents it. Furthermore, there is a combustible energy with the cast that doesn't come at the sacrifice of character development and emotions, allowing you to study the characters and their interactions to where you start to give a real damn. Qohen haphazardly, searches for the zero theorem, but along the way, in this Orwellian grounded macrocosm the “Zero” becomes the “Hero”; and Gilliam, with Waltz, should be more than proud enough to officially place this movie with Brazil and 12 Monkeys, thus completing a loony, but splendid futuristic trilogy.
3 out of 4
THE CONGRESS (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
"Does this make sense or is it just in my mind?”
- Robin Wright
It makes perfect sense Robin. And it’s not just your mind, but your body, likeness and image that is the structural glue to this thought-provoking intellectual rollercoaster of a ride. This movie is a brainy whirling dervish of a story, in which, like Wright, we ascertain whether we want to be part of where the story is leading us. With all of its allegories pertaining to the entertainment business, to Wright’s own personal attribution with her career and self mocking of the subject, The Congress makes more sense than you would expect going in. There are more normalcies here with Wright being our heroine in Ari Folman’s highly conceptual old school studio love letter that also damns the ink of the very pen it was scribed for as Hollywood lurks wearing its totalitarian mask. So, Robin, yes it does make sense because after all it’s not just your mind, the movie wants, it’s also the likeness of thoughts in it.
Ambitious, Challenging, Insightful, Out-of-the-box, Tender, Detached, Kooky, Intelligent
Very Intriguing Premise
Wonderful usage of colors as a form of expression
Robin Wright’s acting in natural space playing”herself”
Director’s usage of naturalism with film lens
Supporting cast – Harvey Keitel, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Danny Huston add legitimacy
Wonderful Animation Style
Movie’s narrative structure was a bit unfocused
Running length too long
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
More than two decades after catapulting to stardom with The Princess Bride, an aging actress (Robin Wright, playing a version of herself) decides to take her final job: preserving her digital likeness for a future Hollywood. Through a deal brokered by her loyal, longtime agent (Harvey Keitel) and the head of Miramount Studios (Danny Huston), her alias will be controlled by the studio, and will star in any film they want with no restrictions.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
Ari Folman, director behind the brilliant Academy Award nominated Waltz with Bashir, brings a high-minded film experience where the movie is based off the Science Fiction novel ‘The Futurelogical Congress’ by Stanislaw Lem. Simply put, In Lem’s book, the protagonist, is split between two realms in which the Utopia turns out to be an illusion. Here Folman delivers Wright as the subject and merges the utopian/illusion aspect of Lem’s novel substituting it with the very aspect of Wright’s being. Splitting ballistically between “delusional and real mental states,” Wright grapples with the fated decision of giving up her likeness.
This movie voice is delivered with fictionalized truth. Wright, to her credit is a wonderful leading woman to follow, as she herself is puzzling to connect with. She is warm but remote, pretty but masculine, direct but only in a passing glance sort of way. This movie lends to her contrasting, enigmatic nature perfectly. She will tell you how she feels succinctly, taciturn, but spoken with a warm tone. When she leaves a scene the question of “what’s she thinking” is always lingering thereafter. Upon initial encountering of the “Machine” that can capture her likeness, Wright sternly wonders how this can be. Harvey Keitel, doing his nicest cuddly Mr. Wolf impression, down to the black tie and matching dinner jacket, convinces her that by agreeing to do this she will no longer have to be at the mercy of the creative process of film making. Her face tightens as he goes in further depth.
It’s glaringly apparent that certain aspects of Wright’s real life filmography, and hind-sighted career moves are a catalyst for the movie’s overarching need to thrust her towards dangerous self-effacing territory. It’s also used as a parlor trick with Wright and Folman performing the stunts in planned unison. I never followed her career until recently with Netflix’s political thriller ‘House of Cards’. Personally, I knew her as Buttercup in The Princess Bride and Jenny in Forrest Gump with her calling card being mostly a ‘can’t miss” talent in her youth. I know OF Robin Wright, but I don’t know who she is besides a “deep-cut kind of role choosing actress.” I still don’t know who she is after this movie unlike the way I know Julia Roberts. Roberts has that indomitable smile coupled with a cackling lighthearted but piercing laugh. Wright says more by saying less, but nothing ever memorable, nothing ever trademarked until now. In a way, that’s what’s ironically smart about a film that wants to capture her ‘likeness’ knowing aggressively that it’s her likeness that needs to be introduced in more mainstream roles (real life criticism at play here). The film wonderfully panders on it by framing her in a sci-fi popcorn movie as a whip snapping dominatrix. And yes, it’s as egotistically self-mocking as I wanted it to be.
Folman, adds quite of bit of different genre’s within this movie that works with a masterful yet reckless speed. The interplay consists of sci-fi, to drama, to heartwarming search, to backhanded film industry reverence. His camera is filmed and pointed with a slight David Lynch-ian quality. The film’s reality (as we know it) captures subtle complacently with a specific intended detachment. Flat movement dictates pacing. Rhythm is handled with unemotional, yet purposeful staleness that supports distance between not only you and the screen, but also allowing the characters to inhabit it to a full realistic proxy. Folman absolutely captures a tonal false sense of tranquility that intends to disorient, but also slipping a subconscious thought in comprehending why someone is accustomed to living in a delusional state as normalcy. You don’t know which world the director wants you to naturally relate towards. It’s that very touch that forces you to buy into the experience unfettered. Cascading between both worlds, Folman, per the reference of the book, wants to take his vision even further on screen. The studio decides that Wright’s likeness is not enough, and therefore wants to make a vaporized gas in which its user inhales into a consciousness where they become anyone they desire. Here is when fantasy turns to debauchery. Midway through the movie, we are transported to an animation reality, where we follow Wright in the future, having to negotiate away her “property”. In the animation world we get lively colors presented in a warped art-deco stylized future, where other participants show their “true” colors: We see huffed up versions of Clint Eastwood, Liza Minelli, to even Marilyn Monroe herself glamorized in Folman’s utopia. Once settled, the movie’s juxtaposition between reality and animation punches you in the face like a huffed up Muhammed Ali.
Folman, carefully presents both realities to which you are no longer questioning the verisimilitudes. This is strengthened by his lead actress: Wright is strident, she is safe, and she is unwavering. Wright never gets in awe or ahead of herself. Regardless if she is in the film either in her real state, likeness, or delusional state, Wright handles everything with aplomb. It’s this reliability that you need in a character/personality like hers to carry you through the thrilling madness. Her character doesn’t have a career arc because she is who she is, but the story arc is ever present. Robin Wright is experimenting with realities but not personalities. And thank goodness for that. Folman puts a lot of ideology in a blender and purees the hell out it. But she is more than capable of standing up to it. To a fault sometimes Folman tries to juggle too many genres and elements at the cost of nuanced balance. It comes across as an eyesore - the narrative at times is messy, and whimsically bizarre. Never once was I bored, but that isn’t necessarily an automatic positive when credentialing this movie. I feel as if the tension of merging the source material and Folman’s own creative impulses never married harmoniously to where consistent narrative flow dominated, instead becoming overly muddled at key moments.
Lastly, Wright is driven throughout the movie to take care of her teenage, brilliantly sensitive son played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is afflicted with crumbling deafness and blindness, which is part of the reason Wright adjudicates herself in signing off her likeness - ensuring he is taking care of financially. It’s this last key point that Folman doesn’t lose focus on giving it all a purpose, a drive, harnessing Wright to decide empirically which ‘reality’ to choose and why she chose it. She does it for her son, for a fleeting chance to find him, uncover him. This is what ties everything together thematically, ideologically, metaphorically, and cinematically to where Folman’s fictionalized truth doesn’t disobey your pensive trust.
Thank you beautiful exposition. Folman decides to throw us a bone and rudimentary explains his vision. The scene evokes a light and easy tone. Notice Wright is just taking things in a relaxed manner, as Keitel’s character playfully discusses the ramifications of signing the Lucifer-laden offer, and thus betraying her craft. Folman shoots this scene to be friendly, treating the topic at hand like a lark – but it’s misleading as there is a profundity that awaits her fateful decision.
I really loved the nerve of this movie, making me want to fully examine again, what the movie intends on promising, compared to what it achieves and how it’s delivered. It’s not met with derision. It’s met with a voyeuristic curiosity. I always complain about how cinema can be stale and with little to imagination nowadays; needing IMAX or CGI to sprinkle in the creative nuances that fail as a substitute for original thought or movie ingenuity. So, when a movie like this comes to the forefront with little to no fanfare, but delivered in an outrageous yet courageous manner, then I give this movie it’s well deserved due. Wild, far-reaching, and with the right amount of visual abstract grandeur - The Congress is an rewarding experience basking in its own lazy charm that anyone who wants to elevate what movies can actually do intellectually will end up pleasantly dumbfounded.
3.5 out of 4
A TRIP TO ITALY (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
“Bit of a downer, not quite sure why?”
– Steve Coogan to his son Joe
Throughout this film, Coogan is one big stalking sourpuss. He sulks around beautiful Italy wearing a black turtle neck, lips pursed as if he sucked on the worst lemon anyone would bite on, and he’s highly confident he doesn’t want to be a on this trip. He’s coerced in going on another restaurant tour for a review in a publication with his dear friend and co-hort Rob Brydon. This is a chance anyone in their right mind would jump at, whereas Coogan only feigns at. Coogan is a British comedian with specific talents chiefly, being sarcastic but in a zany humorous subversive smart-alecky way (see: Tropic Thunder or the lunatic in Hamlet 2.) Here we only see bits and pieces of that anticipatory humor, but not enough in which you voluntarily want to leave him at the Roman coliseum. The root of his ineptitude and unhappiness manifests to a melancholy stupor, as he, on a deeper level, tortures himself since he is no longer threatening in a sexual manner to the opposite sex. Italy, after all is the country for lovers, but what if you don’t love yourself or question if someone would even want to love you? He gets in his own way with his first world emo-problems. His teenage son, Joe, shows up later on to meet up saving Coogan, by Joe fighting off his father's self-pity osmosis where the aforementioned quote shoehorns its way in. Coogan is so forlorn that it becomes insufferable cloaking in misery over everything else in the picture.
Subtle, Capricious, Melancholy, Ornery, Overbearing, Casual, Terse, Dour, Escapist
Breathtaking cinematography of Italy
Casual enjoyment in the film’s presentation
Perfect observational commentary by Coogan and Brydon at times
Smooth direction from Michael Winterbottom
Brydon’s celebrity imitations were unbearable
Film’s and Coogan’s slavish melancholy character subject
Film did not capture the spirit and soul of Italy
Irritability with leads worsen as the film progresses
Theme of mid-life crisis was over-indulged
Lack of zeal from the point of view of the characters experiences
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
From IFC Films - In this 2009 sequel ‘The Trip’ comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite for a new culinary road trip, retracing the steps of the Romantic poets' grand tour of Italy and indulging in some sparkling banter and impersonation-offs. The characters enjoy mouthwatering meals in gorgeous settings from Liguria to Capri. ‘The Trip to Italy’ effortlessly melds the brilliant comic interplay between Coogan and Brydon into quieter moments of self-reflection, letting audiences into their insightful ruminations on the nuances of friendship and the juggling of family and career. The result is a biting portrait of modern-day masculinity.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
The film is somewhat of a “Mockumentary” starring British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as fictionalized versions of themselves, having an excursion to the countryside of Italy for seven days for a food publication. Like the Fettuccine Alfredo on the plate, both heavily pepper the camera with “bits”, “shticks” and “Impressions” from unrecognizable to pretty good to just stop already while studiously riffing on ‘Alanis Morrisette’ songs to quoting the great 18th century poet-lothario, Lord Byron himself. In the backdrop of all the proper madcapping going on, Italy is wallpapered side to side in a magnificent composition of mesmerizing latitudes and breathtaking longitudes that make you cry with delighted splendor. Italy shoots itself. It’s Italy that directs you, not the other way around; even though the Director Michael Winterbottom did an admirable job working with what was given. He captures the elegance of the countryside’s relaxed subtle environment to a patient hush. The camera distills Italy to a waking superficiality where only daydreamers can feel it. We go town to town, site to site, and ruin to ruin with both leads as they come in conflict with their ever lingering middle age, summoning their inner Lord Byron for that one last attempt of the country’s intangibility only to take for granted the visual majesty.
The film sells itself quickly as a casual enjoyment. You are on a trip with these fellows - all is fun and it’s a ride. It’s guy’s night out, but that night is for a week. It’s a way to see Italy without having to see it. Only the Travel Channel could be this good. It’s clear from the immediate that Coogan isn’t having any of this and doesn’t bother even lying to the camera about it. He doesn’t really come alive until he is in the first restaurant with Rob Brydon hopping between Christian Bale and Michael Caine impressions, as each one tries to top one another - and were hilarious. But it wouldn’t last. Brydon, with his elongated face and semi-groomed wispy hair was just as annoying as Coogan. Look, in terms of talent both men ooze it in a Mel Brooks, The Producers kind of way that treads on Vaudevillian. They both play off of each other wonderfully like a “Laurel & Laurel.” However, both increasingly annoyed me as the days went on for different reasons. First, with Brydon, at the drop of every cannoli, he was doing a forced impression that someone off camera found hilarious – some were good, some were recognizable and some needed more practice. His comedic bits added up to comic chunks that made me want to hurl in the Mediterranean Sea. He is a likable little fart of a fellow, who like Coogan is still grasping for that one last attempt to be seen as young and virile. Whether it’s the woman that arranges his boat tour, or the young unsuspecting woman that shows him to his hotel room; Brydon comes across trying too hard. You don’t know, where the thin line between character and actor lays and which one was actually trying. To the film's credit, the lines are "Robin Thicke-like" blurred. Conversely, as mention above, Coogan, is frumpy in his attitude, wants nothing to do with anything remotely baroque, and for the first time, lost in his career. He carries this axiomatic personal exile of a black cloud throughout Italy to where creatively, within the movie’s intent, is supposed to serve as a counter weight to the glorious surroundings by adding pathos in each frame’s dimension. For me, it only weighed down the delight and promise the movie billed.
The only moments of true inspiration are when Coogan and Brydon’s female assistants meet them for professional lunch/visits towards the end, you know – keeping them on schedule and updating their itinerary. The movie didn’t need a change in scenery - it needed a change in attitude, and these women provide it. They stroke the leads collective egos, give Coogan a bit of self-encouragement that would make even sex panther Lord Byron proud. There is clear mix of energy once other characters come in the picture. When both are sharing screen time with others, they are free to interact without the personal contrived middle-aged philosophical bullshit. The movie sells itself as a getaway with a little bit of comedic cheek. However it comes across as two men who know they are the old guys at the club, with no one there to buy a drink for. The salt from the margarita is caked to its last rim, forcing a last call on these guys’ masculine, self-realized, David Hasselhoffian frailties to subjugate onto any female passerby. I wanted to have fun, I wanted to have fun with them, and live vicariously through this trip but as in real life, when you travel with someone, by day three - you are ready to leave them behind like a bad thought. Again, the film’s depth was ever present and greatly believable in that both men can’t overcome their peter pan tendencies to face the next chapter in their life thereby splattering their self prescribed miseries all over Italy. In that respect, the movie won. Stylistically, though, that is not that space I wanted the movie to operate in. Yes, I try not to push my expectations upon a movie good, bad or ugly, but if you are selling something that is primary and dominant in story or presentation (as in this case vacation through Italy with two presumable amiable leads), I have a firm belief that I should hold the movie accountable for that premise. This film could have been a breeze, breathing life with zestful relish; drama is always welcomed especially in a situation like this but you can’t have it both ways. You want to contemplate your existence in beautiful Rome? Sure, but whole ass that focus, don’t half ass it. You want to have the trip of lifetime but still be judgmental in your surroundings? Do it, but you can’t hold both at equal measure - and this film didn’t. In my opinion, however, it picked the wrong petulant half. When you go on vacation, it’s your time to be present in the moment, but also omnipresent in your thoughts with an accord of self-reflection to where when you go back to reality. You are somewhat a different person or at least strive to be. This movie didn’t focus on that, it focused on staying bratty without an inch of redemption until it’s too late but by then you are already packing your bags.
And I rest my case. Here, you get the movie in substantial nutshell. Both men look towards the ocean talking about the beauty that surrounds them but is only concerned with the young beauty in front of them. Both stand so close to the table to be noticed that it’s inflammatory, but no one at the adjacent table bears to glance their way as if to confirm they are as transparent as they believe. Both men are sad in trying to be noticed or reflecting back on harmless passing glances that meant the entire world to the younger versions of themselves. As Coogan wistfully says in a laconic sarcasm at the beginning of the clip…ah “la dolce vita.”
My argument with this movie is not of the choice in how the realism of both characters feelings is portrayed but over choice of the melancholy motif itself. The “characters” have concerns, hopes, joys and wisdoms that are self evident, but with that comes the emotionally proclivities to hammer down a wonderful, light breezy premise with a dark, underachieving, masked in self-pity detriment for two men that really aren’t doing too bad professionally or personally. This movie has wonderful scenes time to time, excellent cinematography, but its soul crushingly pathetic and whiny. I wanted an excursion with flippant but respectful commentary, not a trip with two average, but pretty well known stars or at least one well-known star and one who could do Al Pacino - that is a recipe even the great Lord Byron would want to bitchsmack the taste out for this faux culinary travel guide of misery.
2 out of 4
STARRED UP (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
“ 'Starred up' means you are a leader."
-Neville to his son Eric
If Eric is a leader, what exactly is he a leader of? The movie’s greatest fault is that it doesn’t clearly show how exactly this comment is applicable (while Eric can’t even look in his father’s eyes without tersely wiping the disgust for him out of the corners from his directed brow). Eric throughout the movie, does exhibit redeemable qualities if he chooses, and to a larger extent the movie follows this lead like a ball and chain. However, like the quote above towards Eric, and my disbelief in it, Eric is not interested in voluntarily uncovering a catharsis, he’s forced to resent it, his survival demands it. The quote is seen as an ill-fated attempt from his father, in my opinion, wanting to enforce a false positive into Eric because it’s really the father who at one time, was his son, foresees his progeny likely to follow his footsteps as the inherent leader of the prison like a half broken prince to the throne. Eric is just the son of the leader, an institutionalized, farm-system prospect violent killer who really is inherently too redeemable to ever kill.
Brutal, honest, hard, parental, gritty, macho, claustrophobic, unrelenting, realistic
Sincere and raw acting lead performances by Jack McConnell & Ben Mendelsohn
Authentic themes and message about upbringing and conditioning
Excellent depiction of the world and its inhabitants within the prison
Unflinchingly violent action scenes
Directed and shot like a cable drama, not shot with a theatric lens
Moments of unconvincing motives and forced character actions
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
The main character 19-year-old Eric (Jack O’ Connell) is an arrogant and ultra-violent juvenile lock up that is transferred to the same adult prison facility as his estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises). As his explosive temper quickly finds Eric enemies in both the prison authorities, fellow inmates and his already volatile relationship with his father, when he is pushed past his breaking point, Eric turns to a volunteer psychotherapist to help him handle the conflict of gang politics, his father, prison corruption and ultimately himself.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
Starred Up is a British prison drama directed by newcomer David Mackenzie and written by Jonathan Asser. The movie is based on a book of Asser’s own life experiences working as a voluntary therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth that controls some of the country’s most hardened criminals. The term “starred up” is an idiom onto prison life meaning an early transfer of a criminal, in this case, the main character Eric, from a young offender Institution to an adult prison. Furthermore, the movie is a hardened prison coming of age story of relationships for the main character Eric, as he and his father, who is also a prisoner in the same lock-up, smash heads with painful derision trying to form some sort of bizarre re-kindled father and son dynamic. It’s the relationship of Eric and his father Neville that is the heart and the engine to this charged up bull-dozer of an emotional movie. Eric, played by Jack O’ Connell, is a revelation. For the first 20 minutes of the movie, he is being escorted by crooked correctional officers. Eric: broken, bent, and mishandled as if hunters caught a wild boar, lays still but fortuitous, ticking like a time bomb ready to explode with physical expectancy. For the first twenty minutes there isn’t any dialog with none of the characters talking because the movie showcases its audibility through every thick celled slammed door, every swing of a metallic cold iron bar, and every boot heel thud echoing through the hopelessly endless yellow fainted walls.
The most brilliant part on the filmmaker is to introduce us not only to the character but also the situation, and ultimately, his nemesis the prison itself. If character and texture was currency in this movie than the prison would be the bank holding all the deposits. Chipped walls greet your eye line as you walk with Eric; Day-Glo light smatters through to give a breath of life in a place where it goes to die. Walls that tremble with fear smiting onto your eyes, blinding you with a shoddy effervescent palate of a mix of orange, yellow and shock. As we are introduced to the prison, walking with Eric, he quietly seethes with little to no body motion, just waiting for his chance: like a human switchblade with its knife tucked in ready to flick open at the right opportunity. He never says a word and doesn’t have to. O’Connell is brute strength in an energy can. One part wants me to see him weapon X berserker rage, the other wants me to get his act together so we can both get out immediately. That is the strength of this movie.
You the viewer feel punished and trapped as Eric. You feel as if you did something wrong to end up there as you can’t escape its authenticity - the authenticity makes the movie unshakably its most dangerous. Coupled with this are excellent performances, but it’s truly Ben Mendelshon that’s slippery good in his role. He’s a character actor that falls just short of Gary Oldman, but he’s not that far in the rearview mirror. He is not an actor that you initially gravitate to, but is one that creeps up on you when you least suspect him. I have yet to see him duplicate a character, mannerism or even a shade of a previous performance. He portrays a father who knows he fucked up and has no future, but doesn’t want the same for his son; Mendelsohn plays a bleeding heart criminal-lifer that wouldn’t think twice to stab you in yours, or at least break it with his suppressed angry homo-sexual gentility.
Even with the incredible acting portrayals, the movie beyond the hurried visceral action scenes, was indifferently paced with a casual malaise. Regardless of my understanding that essentially this movie is structured as watching someone living their day to day life in a prison as the equivalent of a baby-boomer retiree, the tension was always at an emotional manageable pedestrian pace. Scenes and acting were a bit forced to where my interest, at times, would wane; it's during the quieter moments the real heart of the movie is exposed, but too much the movie mundanely leaditself to a step above outright boredom. To offset this, the movie would go into comical extreme violence to get its point across, just in case you forget, that you are watching a prison movie. Much of the drama beyond Eric and his father Neville was unconvincing for the most part. The movie had forced its relationships to being truncated and hurried to unrecognizable stasis. Instead of letting Eric fully have well rounded relationships develop, the plot and script placed them forcibly on him, and it came across to the point that Eric welcomed it as long as it got him on to the next scene. There are fragmented moments where Eric is supposed to bond aggressively to his therapy group mate’s passive aggressive, in which repetition would get the better of the movie. Eric would mean mug on a group mate, they mean mug back – and then in one fell swoop, all is forgiven, with everyone ready to shoot a music video and be a dance crew. It’s not that the movie didn’t bother with its humanistic details; it just didn’t mold them fully outside of what was established between the main genuine connection of Eric and his father Neville.
The movie pushes Eric towards the psycho-therapist Oliver played by Rupert Friend (Homeland) where we get scenes that embrace Eric’s derangements towards everyone to a work in progress pace to which there is a hint of Eric responding to the sessions. He is joined by a handful of black inmates that test Eric, and then befriend him, with unconvincing nerve leaving me puzzled but ultimately unmoved. Maybe it's because the script eludes that no matter what has befallen onto Eric, he is and always be perfectly fine by himself, and there is a rudimentary aspect that he is doing all of us a favor by going through the motions of personal attachment to something or someone else without really having the fortitude to fully commit. There was slight change in him from beginning to the end, but it’s mostly insignificant, petty and voluntarily unrealized. Even Oliver can no longer stand there and intermittingly watch the fruits of his "boy crush" labor spoil rotten with an academic exhaust.
In this scene, you witness not only the brutality and harm that Jack O’ Connell can emit forcefully in his acting, but you get a real sense that this kid is a lifer in the prison system, and has thrown hands against the correctional officers before, currently and in the past. O’Connell gets prepared systematically, lustfully but also carefully as he wants to dish out as much punishment just as much as he can take it, knowing how to absorb it and then fully re-releasing it out of his body violently.
Having to bypass all of the obligatory homo-erotism, bland narrative movement and forced actions, Starred Up is a meaty, bare-knuckled study of a young person that is doomed to ever amount to anything besides a statistic. Ben Mendhelson is the true beauty of performance with his role of the father, and its his complexity that really shines through the prison bars that holds him behind. This movie’s authenticity and wonderful performances were amazing to walk through, but the forced tension, unconvincing motives and amateurish camerawork and lens holds the movie back like the prison guard’s plastic shield holding back Eric's face against the backdrop of his cell. This movie is rewarding but under the right circumstances. If you are looking for a prison movie with added realism and depth but lack of narrative movement this is for you, unfortunately - If you're going to lock me up I want something more intuitively compelling that's going to stick me in the ribs the next day like a makeshift weaponized toothbrush blade.
2 out of 4