24 July 2014

Take One More Orwellian Ride with Terry Gilliam

Nobody does Orwell quite like Orwell, but Terry Gilliam arguably comes second. The Monty Python-alumni wields a unique ability to tackle the human imagination with a little brown bottle of adrenochrome and a six-pack of dutch angle-soaked paranoia. His films are visually stunning, inherently perplexing, and oftentimes emotionally draining. Gilliam's newest masterpiece, The Zero Theorem, is all of those and so much more, making it perhaps his best - and most important - film to date.

The final installment in Gilliam's self-named "Orwellian Triptych" is just as bleak, heavy, and darkly humorous as its predecessors, 1985's Brazil and 1995's Twelve Monkeys. But Zero aims to be more Brazil than Monkeys, and its aim is true. From the get-go we are introduced to Christoph Waltz's monkish Qohen Leth, a solitude-junkie and genius computer programmer residing in a decrepit old church. But outside of Leth's pew-filled abode buzzes a world which could only be concocted by the same twisted mind that brought us the duct-riddled, dystopian world depicted in Brazil. The world Qohen Leth despises and fears beyond the crumbling walls of his literal haven is definitely more '80s-Gilliam, but with a wicked modern twist - civilians and bystanders can be seen constantly glaring at the glowing screens of handheld tablets and smartphones, futuristic video-ads loop on the walls of nearly every building, a pair of massive red lips informs consumers of a local sale called "Occupy Mall Street." At its core it is a 1980s-inspired dystopia, but the modern satire is everywhere.

Christoph Waltz's Qohen Leth is obviously insane. Not even a half hour into the film we are informed via a virtual therapist (expertly portrayed by Tilda Swinton) of the reclusive man's agoraphobia, antisociality, haphephobia, claustrophobia, crippling neurosis, and blatant paranoia. Along with his seemingly infinite bundle of phobias, Leth is suffering from some clear albeit unclear existential crisis involving the delusional and consistent hope for a phone call that will supposedly change his life - or maybe just give meaning to it.

Despite his laundry list of fears and anxiety disorders, Qohen Leth is sort of loveable. In fact, he's actually quite relatable. Qohen Leth, like us, is human. He is filled to the brim with flaws. But while modern cinema has a big boner for quirky mentally-anguished characters, Waltz's Leth is miles from "quirky." At times he is actually frightening - frightening because it isn't difficult to see ourselves in his unfortunate position. It's a realistic sort of frightening, one which really struck a chord, at least with me.

The world around Leth is a bright but dark one. Consumerism is obviously just as rampant as it's always been, if not more so, and corporations continue to control most everything. Despite the lack of a governmental presence, much like that featured in Brazil, the recent-and-currently developing real life NSA scandal may play a huge role in The Zero Theorem, as throughout the film a mostly-unseen authority-figure aptly named "The Management" appears to control everything and, quite literally, watch over everyone (there are black-and-white security cameras placed everywhere, including within Leth's church home - sound familiar?). Matt Damon plays the Management in a role he's never quite portrayed before. Though he's rarely seen throughout the movie, his character is absolutely essential to the plot, but I won't spoil anything beyond that.

What differentiates The Zero Theorem from Brazil is, for the most part, its ending - no worries, I'm not going to give anything away. All I'll say is that while Brazil had a pretty ironclad dismal and rather terrifying conclusion, Zero's ending is a bit more... bittersweet. Where Brazil left a nasty taste in your mouth (one that did not, in any way, hinder its brilliance), The Zero Theorem will leave a lump in your throat and a quivering smile on your face, and, perhaps most importantly, a hushed uttering of "wait, what the fuck?" Yes, without a doubt, The Zero Theorem is a movie you cannot watch just once and fully comprehend. And even if you do understand the film in its entirety after the first go, you're almost guaranteed to want to re-watch it immediately. Do yourself a favor and spend just under another two hours re-watching The Zero Theorem. And then maybe even give it a third watch. You'll notice things you hadn't noticed before. You'll pick up on little details that may or may not answer previously unanswered questions. You'll gain, for sure, a better understanding of the film, and by the end of it all you might no longer feel the same pity you originally felt for our struggling hero, Qohen Leth.

Or maybe it'll just make you feel even worse.

Each view of The Zero Theorem is bound to provide a different experience than the one prior. Zero will never equal one hundred percent.

From the brilliant soundtrack (including a haunting cocktail lounge-esque cover of Radiohead's "Creep") to the absolutely spellbinding performances of the lovely and seductively lucid Mélanie Thierry, the immensely talented David Thewlis, the enigmatic Matt Damon, and of course the ever awe-inspiring Christoph Waltz, The Zero Theorem is a movie not to be forgotten. Terry Gilliam's wildly satirical and distinctly whimsical final piece to his Orwellian Triptych is a definite must-see for any fan of Gilliam, George Orwell, dystopian existentialism, or just anybody who fears for society's Facebook-ruled, privacy-stripped, and tragically soulless future.


19 July 2014

Finally, a Weird Summer

The year is 2014. Germany has just won the World Cup. A massive hole recently appeared seemingly out of nowhere in Serbia. For some reason, The Purge got a sequel.

But the world has no time for any of that during this particularly humid summer. That's because we're all too busy being swept up in Weird Al fever.

Thirty-five years ago the world was introduced to a legend with long curls, a small mustache, and an accordion. Weird Al's first parody song, My Bologna (a take on The Knack's My Sharona) was goofy, brilliant, and... weird. Since then he's released fourteen studio albums and a movie in 1989, one that went mostly unseen and remains today an underrated comedic gem.

For the time being this is about that movie, not his brand new album (which is called Mandatory Fun and you should totally buy it right now). The film in question is, of course, UHF. UHF stars our hero Weird Al Yankovic as George Newman, a day-dreaming job-drifter who thinks he's made it big once his uncle lets him work at a local UHF station, Channel 62. Newman hires a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards to be the studio's janitor, but he quickly becomes the star of Channel 62 when Newman lets him host one of the kid shows.

The movie is filled with parodies, from the opening Raiders of the Lost Ark segment, to a show called "Conan the Librarian," and about a hundred others between. These absurd parodies were more akin to those of Airplane or The Naked Gun, and not of the unwatchable atrocities spewed by modern filmmakers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. UHF existed in a time when parody films were actually, you know, funny. They were hilarious, oftentimes brilliant, and even surprisingly charming. At the risk of giving off a "le wrong generation" vibe, parody films were quite simply a hell of a lot better back then.

Unfortunately, though, UHF basically bombed. But isn't that the Cinderella story of all classic cult films? Didn't Mallrats leave critics unimpressed despite later being regarded as a total necessity to Kevin Smith's View-Askewniverse? Didn't it take the world a good decade or so to appreciate the brilliance of Office Space? The ideal catalyst for a cult classic is initial failure - and that is most definitely the case for UHF.

Watching the film 25 years later one can easily see why it didn't hit the proverbial ball out of the park. The parodies, funny as they may be, seem to be scattered almost incoherently, or not really essential to the plot at all. One can argue that disastrous parody flicks like Disaster Movie or anything by the aforementioned Friedberg and Seltzer follow a similar formula: throwing around any random parody simply for the sake of doing so. What makes UHF different from those movies is that UHF actually has likeable and consistent characters, an underlying plot that remains for the most part steady and stable, and some genuinely hilarious scenes. Yes, several jokes fall flat. Yes, one or two may even feel just a tad unnerving. And no, it isn't as good as Airplane. But overall, UHF is a movie we should be happy exists. It doesn't do anything groundbreaking, it doesn't set a certain standard for parody films, but that doesn't stop it from being an enjoyable flick starring everyone's favorite polka-man, Weird Al. And did I mention Michael Richards is in it? I did mention that. That's just one of the many reasons you should watch UHF.

When I was fourteen all I listened to was Outkast and Weird Al. An unusual mix, sure, but I was fourteen and unaware of the variety of music that existed all around me. Limewire was a thing and I brought a portable CD player with me for the bus ride to school. Every time the bus so much as hit a bump or a pothole or a pebble, the CD would skip. And when you're trying to listen to Amish Paradise or The Alternative Polka, that can get a little frustrating.

I remember how kids reacted when they asked what I was listening to and I told them, reluctantly because I already hated them, "Weird Al..." They laughed. But it wasn't a "Haha I love Weird Al, too!" so much as a "Haha you fuckin' faggot!" Actually, I think they even added that exact phrase. This is because throughout the nineties and at least the early aughties, despite his massive presence a lot of people just didn't like Weird Al. Why? Because he's different, and we're a generation that was raised to believe that being different is good so long as it's not too different. Al Yankovic was too different. Had he existed several decades prior, he would've been labeled a communist and probably lobotomized.

Last week Weird Al released his new album, which I already told you is called Mandatory Fun, and you should have already listened to while reading all that bullshit between then and now. It gives me hope and just a little bit of faith in humanity to see that many people are not only accepting the craziness of Weird Al, but embracing his wild, accordion-soaked tunes and loving every second of it. It has been thirty-five years since the man started releasing cleverly-written parody songs and his time has finally come. Sure, folks like me have loved Weird Al in the past, but this year just feels different. It doesn't feel like a triumphant return so much as a way-overdue emergence into the mainstream. A triumphant albeit delayed worldwide acceptance. This is the long-awaited and much deserved Year of the Al. The Yeird, if you will. Summer 2014 belongs to Mandatory Fun and the artist who made it possible (along with the parodied-artists who obviously made the parodies possible).

And for all of us weird kids out there, that's something to be proud of.

17 July 2014

"Room 237," or "The Shining: A Didn't-Really-Go-to-Space Odyssey"

You know that feeling you get - that sort of tickle in your throat, the chills down the back of your neck, the sudden surge of energy deep in your gut - when you've just spent an hour or two learning about a conspiracy that has managed to shake you to your very core and rip open your eyes, forcing you to see some brand new, previously-unbelieved truth? It's the sensation many of us felt while researching the JFK assassination, or the existence of extra-terrestrials. It's that feeling that crumbles the very fabric of the reality with which you've grown and thrusts you into a frightening, arousing new world filled with the temptation - and shocking validity - of conspiracy.

This movie will not give you that feeling.

What it will do, however, is show you that although recently-leaked information involving the NSA may suggest that the tin-foil-hat donning conspiracy nuts of old weren't entirely wrong after all, some of those nuts still remain critically misinformed.

The interviewees in the documentary Room 237 have their hearts set in the right direction. It's the inevitable gullibility in their tedious search for the truth that holds them back and prevents them from reaching any semblance of sensibility. Listening to them ramble on about these absurd, substance-lacking ideas behind the supposed secrets of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is not unlike watching an argument unfold between an atheist and a theist. The truth is, you can't know for certain who is right and who is wrong, but the ensuing spat is usually at least mildly entertaining. In the case of Room 237, the promise of entertainment does not disappoint.

While it's true that the interviewees throughout the film (whose faces we never actually see as the documentary consists almost entirely of footage from The Shining) spout increasingly kooky crackpot conspiracies, the passion each of them exudes is easy to get caught in. No, you won't finish this movie believing Stanley Kubrick filmed the fake moon landing. No, you won't start telling your friends that The Shining is actually about the holocaust. But Room 237 isn't about brainwashing or persuading its viewers into believing the theories laid out. Room 237 is merely a glimpse - a hotel room keyhole, if you'll pardon the cheesy metaphor - looking into the sometimes naive but always amusing minds of folks who have taken up Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as a personal religion. And like any religion worth its salt, this one teems with contradictions, unintelligible gibberish, hokey coincidences, and a big fat helping of passionate, unstirring, almost inspiring devotion.

You do not watch Room 237 in order to become a believer. You watch Room 237 because you are a lover of The Shining, or Stanley Kubrick, or Stephen King, or all of the above, and you're curious enough to listen to the admittedly screwball theories surrounding that wonderful staple of horror and general classic cinema.

So no, you probably won't hear anything worth changing your perspective over. What you will do, though, is laugh a little, do a facepalm or four, and applaud in awe at the endless world of fascination Stanley Kubrick has created.

And then you'll probably go and watch The Shining for the thousandth time.