Tag Archives: independent cinema

What Is the Meaning of Life?

The Zero Theorem

By Christie Robb

Director Terry Gilliam questions the meaning of life in The Zero Theorem, but instead of exploring the idea via Monty Python antics, Gilliam approaches the topic in a more Brazil-like satire.

Imagine Times Square having a three-way with CNN’s scrolling text and Facebook ads– a colorful chaos of noise, both aural and visual.

This is the world inhabited by Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a monkish data cruncher who speaks in the royal we. Qohen longs to escape the life of a cubical drone and work from home. He doesn’t want to miss a call-back. Years ago, someone cold called him dangling his personal reason for being. But Qohen dropped the receiver and the line disconnected.

Management, embodied by Matt Damon, grants his request, putting him on a notorious burnout project, the Zero Theorem, its goal to prove that everything adds up to nothing. If Qohen’s project succeeds, Management will help him get his call.

Sidetracked by Management’s constant, unrealistic deadlines, his former supervisor-turned-computer-repairman (David Thewlis), a company-provided AI shrink (Tilda Swinton), Management’s teenage hacker son Bob (Lucas Hedges), and a manic pixie call girl (Mélanie Thierry), Qohen is wooed back toward the little pleasures he’d abandoned.

Zero Theorem is an often beautiful, somewhat heavy-handed film that explores the extremes of hedonism and asceticism, the consequences of living among scads of information and the distractions of virtual reality. Studded with allegory and stuffed with zany Gilliam details that can only be fully explored in subsequent viewings (including a delightful ad for the Church of Batman the Redeemer), it derails a bit in the last act, but fans of Gilliam’s dystopian flicks will find much to enjoy.


Let’s Get Quantumphysical


by Hope Madden

As a writer, James Ward Byrkit has made a name in family films (Rango, Pirates of the Caribbean), but he saved his savviest and most adult work for his debut as a director. Coherence is a lean, intimate SciFi mindbender.

Coherence combines a bit of Inception with the underseen dark comedy It’s a Disaster! A group of friends meets for a low maintenance dinner party, which turns out to be a little more fraught with drama than expected – and that’s before the comet flying overhead knocks out power.

Confused that this outage also affects their cell phones and internet,  the group decides to visit the one house on the block with power, only to find a dinner party for 8 shockingly familiar faces.

The nimble (mostly improvised) story remains fresh and surprisingly coherent, even as partygoers delve into theories, cross theories, and hair-brained theoretical musings on multiple realities. Byrkit allows us to grapple with our own disbelief by focusing on his befuddled guests’ incredulity as they attempt to puzzle out the reality (or realities?) of their situation.

And by keeping the focus close – zeroing in more and more on one guest’s evolving perception of events and potential actions – Byrkit develops a sense of intimacy that provides a solid foundation for all the astrophysical nuttiness.

As the dinner guests, the impressive cast portrays the kind of familiarity that breeds drama. Their pre-comet situation feels so familiar and honest that dread settles in even before the lights go out. From there, Byrkit ratchets up tensions with little more than his own ingenuity and the commitment of his cast.

The film is as economical as they come: limited sets, no real FX, no action sequences to speak of. It joins the likes of Under the Skin, Primer and Safety Not Guaranteed in the world impeccable no-frills SciFi.

It isn’t quite at that level, and yet, it’s among the more effective SciFi thrillers to come out this summer. Yes, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are more likely to wow you, but the internal logic, fascinating choices and chilling conclusion to Coherence will leave you with just as much to think about.




Write it Down, Nic Cage Acts


by Hope Madden

After seven years of exploring the big budget, big star world of Hollywood, filmmaker David Gordon Green revisits his ultra indie roots. He hasn’t returned alone, though. For his newest effort, Joe, he brought with him Hollywood staple and Internet joke Nicolas Cage. And God bless him for it.

As the eponymous Joe, Cage reminds us that he picked up that Oscar for a reason. He dials down the bug-eyed mania of many recent efforts in favor of a textured performance that emphasizes his natural chemistry with other actors, his vulnerability and barely caged rage, and his weirdly charming sense of humor.

Joe’s a good-hearted guy with a lot of issues, a volcano that’s never fully dormant. It’s part and parcel for a sun dappled, visually lovely film absolutely saturated in violence. While Joe bursts into less outright carnage than many films, the pervasive dread that violence could erupt at any second is the very air the film breathes.

In the middle of this modern Wild West atmosphere, Joe befriends a boy in need of a mentor. Gary is played by the increasingly impressive Tye Sheridan. With just three roles under his belt – Tree of Life, Mud, and Joe – Sheridan has proven to be an amazing natural talent. In his hands, Gary’s youthful exuberance is equal parts darling and tragic, given his circumstances. Sheridan’s performance is amazing, and his repartee with Cage is perfect.

Both are helped by an excellent ensemble, many of them nonprofessional actors. One particular stand out is a sinister Ronnie Gene Blevins as the oily Willie. But no one in the film can outshine street performer turned actor Gary Poulter. His turn as Gary’s drunken father offers more layers than anything a seasoned actor has offered yet this year, each one as believable as it is shocking. His performance is stunning, and it elevates the film immeasurably.

The film is not without its faults. Several characters are severely underdeveloped given their ultimate place in the story, and there are times when Cage cannot match the naturalism of the performers around him. The film also suffers from its resemblance to Mud, Sheridan’s 2012 cinematic of coming-of-age poetry.

But Green’s once-trademark touches – meandering storyline, poetic score, bruised masculinity – are in full bloom as he reworks Larry Brown’s novel into his own unique vision of low income Americans’ melancholy struggle. In doing so, he’s reestablished not only his own artistic authority, but Cage’s as well.



ScarJo’s Haunting, Hypnotic Drive

Under the Skin

by Hope Madden

Jonathan Glazer is a filmmaker worth watching. While you’d hardly call him prolific – he’s directed just three films in his 14 year career – each effort is an enigmatic gem worthy of repeated viewings. His latest, Under the Skin, offers a challenging, low key SciFi adventure that keeps you guessing and demands your attention.

Scarlett Johansson turns in her third back to back stellar indie performance as the nameless lead, a mysterious beauty looking for unattached men in Scotland.

Light on dialogue and devoid of exposition, Under the Skin requires your patience and your attention, but what it delivers is a unique and mesmerizing journey, a science fiction film quite unlike anything else out there.

It’s excellent to see Johansson finding her stride again because she’s a versatile, talented performer. While her stunning looks make it almost impossible for her to sidestep all eye candy roles, her work in Her, Don Jon and this film let her flex some artistic muscle.

That musculature is important here, as the film relies almost solely on Johansson’s performance to get its points across. Her character is a unique vehicle, providing little of the traditional foundation normally available for building an emotional evolution. Johansson excels at articulating her character’s development with barely a word.

It’s an impressive feat, not only because of the tools she has to use to deliver the performance, but because she manages to keep the character in our sympathies regardless of her actions or of Glazer’s regular reminders of her guilt. To Johansson’s great credit, we’ve already forgiven her.

Besides a stellar lead, Glazer has one or two other tricks up his sleeve. The film is refreshingly light on FX, and when he does pull that out, the impact is phenomenal, a fitting turn for the atmospheric mystery he’s building.

Early elements call to mind Kubrick’s 2001, and once the film falls into its pace it conjures last year’s brilliant Upstream Color, but Glazer’s effort is certainly its own artistic achievement. Though an almost relentless series of similar incidents, somehow he punctuates this weird monotony with a fascinating balance of perplexity and humanity, and slowly, themes, character and plot emerge.

The effort may try some viewers’ patience, but for those with the attention span for it, Under the Skin pays a remarkable artistic reward.


Because “Sex Addict” Loses a Little of the Magic

Nymphomaniac, Volume I

by Hope Madden

Nymphomaniac, Volume I, is a difficult film to review, and not, surprisingly enough, because of its subject matter. The fact is that filmmaker provocateur Lars von Trier’s latest affront is, indeed, an unfinished piece. As engaging as Volume I is, it is not a standalone film, and without knowing precisely where LvT is going, it’s hard to say how well he’s getting there.

What we have so far is a not-so-simple dialogue. Old bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds a battered young woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in an alley. She won’t see a doctor, so he nurses her at his home and, in return, she tells him the story of her life.  Well, the first part, anyway.

For the next couple of hours, it’s as if LvT’s morose side (Gainsbourg, as Joe) argues with his impish side (Skarsgard), while Stacy Martin (playing the young Joe) has a lot of sex. The film is as much a story about storytelling as it is anything.

Joe sometimes rests in her confession to allow a little editorial from the helpful and artfully non-judgy Seligman. (Could he be named for the famed American psychologist Martin Seligman, founder of “positive psychology” and the theory of learned helplessness?) Seligman not only points out that she’s being too hard on herself, but offers different allegories from nature and science to enliven her narrative, sometimes even questioning the veracity of her tale based on contrivance and coincidence he’s finding.

Again, it’s as if LvT is arguing with himself over narrative devices and the strength of his own storytelling. It offers the film a playfulness rarely found in the Dane’s work, and the humor works wonders in keeping attention and distancing the film from a label of pornography.

Von Trier draws attention to the artifice he’s created. Even the title suggests a literary, romantic (as opposed to realistic) approach – in that the term used for the last several decades is sex addiction, which hardly conjures the same image.

His cast is game. A brief, supporting turn from Uma Thurman, in particular, is wickedly funny. But the star here is the filmmaker. Expect the von Trier trademarks: a visually magnificent display populated with shame, gender politics, sexuality, religion, all led by a wounded female who cannot fit in this world.

He’s exploring the same territory. Maybe he’s trying to distract us from that fact with all the sex? Or maybe he’s playing with us. While Volume II promises to be a more punishing effort, LvT’s first episode is surprisingly enjoyable.





Cleveland Film Fest Spotlights Family Fare

Amka and the Three Golden Rules

by Hope Madden

Opening March 22 at the Cleveland International Film Festival is an unusual, family-oriented film set in Mongolia. Writer/director Babar Ahmed’s allegorical Amka and the Three Golden Rules follows an orphaned boy devoted to his little sister and to earning enough money collecting bottles to keep his small family afloat – until materialism rears its ugly head.

According to Ahmed, the effort is the result of a years-long interest in producing a film about Mongolia. Though he’d originally considered producing a documentary on the nation, he says, “A documentary was a great idea and could be very impactful. But I felt that with my background as a feature filmmaker, I could bring more value to a fictional story.”

It was Mongolia’s unique culture and the recent pull of more capitalistic, global cultures that piqued Ahmed’s creative interest.

“Mongolia has recently discovered a lot of natural resources like coal, gold, copper and uranium,” he says. “This means that Mongolia has the potential to become very rich. So now everyone wants a piece of Mongolia. Everyone wants a piece of the “gold”. A relatively isolated country is becoming a destination for many international companies. You can visibly see how a traditional and unique culture is at times resisting, at times accepting, and at times being engulfed by the norms and traditions of the rest of the world.”

The conflict inspired Ahmed to write the story of a child pulled by commercial desires.

“I came up with the idea of a young boy discovering a gold coin, and this plotline was intended to be an allegory to the country discovering natural resources.”

Ahmed, who handled his own cinematography, lenses a stunning location shoot that captures a weather-beaten beauty that suits the outing. His young cast charms with thoroughly naturalistic performances, and though the story’s moral is treated with a heavy hand, Amka is the kind of poetic family adventure rarely seen in the US.

Says the director, the core storyline – a boy whose greatest desire is a new soccer ball, and an uncle whose wish is for a return of “olden times” – is emblematic.

“I feel that this struggle of Amka is precisely the challenge that the new generation of Mongolians are facing today. And in some ways maybe it is also a universal challenge for children growing up in today’s world.”

To do the struggle justice, Ahmed has crafted a wholesome film that, like his protagonists, seems of another era entirely.

For ticket information: http://www.clevelandfilm.org/films/2014/amka-and-the-three-golden-rules


Pederasts and Innocent Men for Your Queue


If you’re looking for something intense and fascinating this week, check out The Hunt, available today. Powerful, understated and devastating, the film looks with startling authenticity at the one accusation that can never truly be shaken. Writer/director Thomas Vinterberg‘s slyly observational approach offers his lead, a magnificent Mads Mikkelson, the opportunity to show his breathtaking range as an actor. It’s a haunting film, one that takes the less-trod approach to the topic and mines it for all it has.

Pair it with something a little different. Director Todd Field followed up his devastating In the Bedroom with a complex, brilliant work about two unfaithful lovers, selfish thirtysomethings and sketchy parents, Little Children. It was the best film of 2006, and among its countless successes is the Oscar nominated performance by Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie McGorvey, town sex offender. Field’s playful approach to the film gives it a pleasantly off kilter feel, as if keeping the action at arm’s length, but the immediacy and intimacy of Haley’s performance packs a wallop. The scene between him and Jane Adams is brutal perfection.

A Cup of Nog for Your Queue. Maybe Two.


Just in time for holiday imbibing, Drinking Buddies releases to the home market today. Easy to mistake for a rom-com, the film – boasting Olivia Wilde’s best performance – is a meandering observation on slacker generation relationships. It’s clever, assured, and forever surprising.

For a bleaker set of drinking buddies, check out the 1987 gem Barfly. This Charles Bukowski penned, Barbet Schroeder directed tale of ne’er do well Henry Chinaski is classic skid row glory (so, classic Bukowski). Mickey Rourke was never better (though his cadence takes some getting used to), and his screen chemistry with Faye Dunaway makes this the most faithful rendition of Chinaski to be found onscreen. Too bad you can’t get the movie from Netflix. Guess you’ll have to watch the whole thing here.

Before the Howl

Kill Your Darlings

by Hope Madden

There are countless, fascinating stories surrounding the earliest Beat Generation writers – likely because they were sort of endlessly fascinating themselves. That, plus they kept writing about their adventures, so legends are born.

Any film about the Beats is a dream and a nightmare for writers and cast alike. What writer wouldn’t want to take a shot at a conversation between Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs? And yet, what writer would dare?

The same can be said for any actor hoping to capture these literary characters we know so well from their own pages. But Kill Your Darlings aims to do justice to all of it – the movement, the participants, the socio-political climate, and the true crime story few recall.

Kill Your Darlings revisits that burgeoning circle of geniuses to spin a more somber origins story than those we usually hear. Rather than emphasizing the madcap, mind-altering, conformity-be-damned journeys of Ginsburg, Burroughs or Kerouac we’ve grown accustomed to, the film is based on the murder that splintered the group.

It’s Columbia University of the mid 1940s. As World War II rages, young New Jerseyan Allen Ginsburg (Daniel Radcliffe) begins his life as a college freshman. He quickly falls in with the wrong sort. Thank God!

The film shadows Ginsburg along his journey toward self-expression by way of an infatuation with schoolmate Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).

Carr introduces him to elder statesman/criminal element William H. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and later, to football playing senior and part time merchant marine Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston – of those Hustons). Together they alter their minds and begin a framework for a new world order for writers.

Carr also introduces Ginsburg to David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whom Carr would later murder.

Though first time feature director John Krokidas has trouble deciding whether his is a coming of age tale or a murder mystery, and though he’s never able to clearly define the events’ connection to the actual writing that would eventually flood from these poets and scoundrels, he pulls together a competently crafted tale buoyed by well defined and tenderly animated characters.

Radcliffe’s growth as an actor continues to impress, as does his somewhat fearless choice of projects, but it’s DeHaan who steals the film. Damaged, vulnerable and seductive, he’s exactly the cauldron of conflict that inspires an artistic revolution.

Hall, Huston and Foster also impress as Krokidas throws light on some fascinating (if one-sided, fairly fictionalized, perfectly lurid) details of the spark that burst into the Beat Generation. They can’t quite transcend the limitations of a novice director and an under-focused screenplay, but they will compel your attention while they have you.