Reviewed today: The Armstrong Lie, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, The Epic Of Everest, Gloria, The Invisible Woman, Locke, The Zero Theorem.
Everybody loves Terry Gilliam, don't they? We must do, or else we wouldn't put up with the sort of shit he regularly pulls in his films. There's no denying he can come up with spectacular individual images, but the problem comes when he tries to assemble them into a coherent story. All too often, you end up with something like The Brothers Grimm - short bursts of inspiration, joined together with long stretches of people shouting nonsense at each other across gigantic sets. Once in a while the approach works, and you get something as splendid as Brazil: but it doesn't happen as often as it should. Nevertheless, we keep coming back for Gilliam's movies, and The Zero Theorem is playing to a sold-out house on a Friday lunchtime.
Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a man trapped in a dead-end job manipulating data on computers for the Management. He hates the time he spends at the office, because he really should be at home waiting for the phone call that will change his life. Eventually, he's offered a compromise: he can work from home, but he has to work on The Zero Theorem, a project to mathematically prove the meaninglessness of the universe. It's a project that has driven many others to the brink of insanity in the past: luckily for Qohen, that means he doesn't have far to travel.
Qohen's an office drone, trapped in a world of meaningless beauracracy, and finding solace in a fantasy world based around a woman he barely knows (Bainsley, played by Mélanie Thierry). So effectively, Terry Gilliam has remade Brazil. There are a couple of contemporary tweaks - Jonathan Pryce's fantasy was entirely in his head, whereas Waltz's is more tangible thanks to VR technology. But it's roughly the same story, and the more you think about it afterwards the more parallels you spot in the story structure.
Still, Gilliam could find worse films to rip off. And there's a surprise in store for anyone who's ever thought of him as a director who can only work on a gargantuan scale: the smallest bits of The Zero Theorem are the best ones. Much of the film takes place in one room, with Waltz talking to a single character: either Bainsley, or the son of his boss, or his online psychiatrist. When it's playing at that sort of almost theatrical level, it works just fine: the characters are enjoyable to spend time with, and some interesting philosophical questions are quietly raised.
It's when the film ventures beyond the four walls of Qohen's reconverted chapel home that it starts to lose focus. The party scenes are the sort of shouty overbusy nonsense that annoys me most about recent Gilliam, while the cityscapes steal far too much from previous dystopian sci-fi (notably Darick Robertson's designs for The City in the comic Transmetropolitan). But on the whole, The Zero Theorem is probably the most satisfying thing overall that Gilliam has made this millennium, so I guess we get to let him off. Again.
3.30pm: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me [official Facebook]
Over the past week, I've seen two documentaries about artists in the twilight of their lives: The Sarnos and Gore Vidal. In both cases, the films draw a discreet veil over the years of their declining health and jump straight to the end, and we naturally feel sad for what's been lost. This is not the way that Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me intends to roll.
Early on in Chiemi Karasawa's documentary, Elaine Stritch trawls through her old memorabilia looking for items to donate to a rehearsal room that's being dedicated to her. The posters and photos give Stritch the chance to tell a few anecdotes about her past on stage and screen, which is exactly the sort of structure you'd expect of the biography of an 87-year-old entertainer. But the main focus of this film is on the here and now, as Stritch launches into rehearsals with long-time collaborator Rob Bowman on a show of Sondheim songs. Unfortunately, this is where she starts to realise that a combination of old age and diabetes is affecting her ability to perform.
It's this aspect that makes Shoot Me utterly one of a kind. Stritch has always embodied the image of a hard-nosed broad, and she revels in the fact that at her age she can get away with sheer bloody murder, at one stage yelling at Karasawa's cameraman in an attempt to take over the direction of the film. But her performances have always had a core of vulnerability to them: and when that vulnerability becomes real rather than performed, she chooses to embrace it and make it part of her performance. It helps that she's got Rob Bowman at her back: he's not just a musical director, he's her complete support network, doing whatever he can to reassure her that the show will still go on.
Stritch is 86 years old at the start of the film. What comes across most strongly is that her punishing work ethic is what gets her to 87 by the end of it, and will potentially keep her going for several years more. The documentary ends with her contemplating retirement, but you suspect that she's one of those people who needs to be doing something or else she may as well not exist at all. Shoot Me is a portrait of a woman raging against the dying of the light, and being acerbically funny as she does it. We're lucky to have her.
6.15pm: The Epic Of Everest [trailer]
I don't do many LFF galas nowadays. With the festival being cut down from sixteen days to twelve, I want to spend that limited time seeing the more obscure films that may not get another outing, rather than the gala screenings of stuff that will certainly get a full release in the near future. Also, they're bloody expensive: anything between twenty and thirty-two pounds to watch a film in the presence of some of the people who made it, and this year we're not even getting the free chocolate and bottled water like we used to. It's an expensive business and I'm having no more of it... except for the silent movie galas. If nothing else, you get a live band with them too, so there's your value for money right there.
Three years ago, the silent gala was The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting's film of Scott's doomed 1910 South Pole expedition. The Epic Of Everest is being presented here as a kind of companion piece. Director Captain John Noel was certainly inspired by Silence, seeking camera advice from Ponting before joining Mallory and Irvine on their 1924 attempt to climb Mount Everest, the subject of this film. And like Silence, this restoration is accompanied by a live score from Simon Fisher Turner, who eschews the old silent piano cliches (no offence to Neil Brand there) for something more contemporary.
It's an approach that suits this particular film perfectly, possibly even better than it suited Silence. Herbert Ponting made a straightforward document of the Scott expedition, which was largely focussed on the people involved. Noel, on the other hand, has a genuine eye for an artistically composed shot. There are the usual cringey sequences near the start, where the Tibetan villagers encountered by Mallory and Irvine's team are patronised for our amusement (though that may be more the fault of the intertitlers). But once the team starts its ascent, Noel is running ahead of them to shoot breathtaking views of the scenery, keeping the climbers in the foreground where possible. It's an approach which tends to reduce them to indistinguishable dots, but emphasises the incredible scale of what they're trying to achieve.
There's a strong narrative thread as we watch the climbers slowly build their structure of camps and prepare for their final push, but frequently it's put on hold as Noel takes time to marvel in the landscapes, realising that he's creating the first images that most people will have ever seen of this region. There are sequences in Everest where he lets his camera roll for several minutes to watch the sunlight slowly playing over the mountaintops. When someone like Bruno Dumont does this in a modern film, you just want to punch him: but you give Noel the benefit of the doubt here because nobody had ever done this before.
Simon Fisher Turner's score, like his one for Silence, is a mixture of location recording, music and abstract soundscapes: but here, the modernity plays off brilliantly against the modern nature of Noel's photography. The use of wind effects is particularly stunning at the climax, building then suddenly dropping away to mark the downbeat conclusion that Noel's intertitles have warned us about almost from the very beginning. Taken together, the whole package is a breathtaking live experience worth £20 of anyone's money: but you can also experience it at home today for £10, as Everest is one of the titles being used to launch the BFI Player video-on-demand site this week. Try demanding it now.
9.20pm: Locke [clip]
Sorry, Vicki Zhao, you are no longer responsible for the largest red carpet event we've seen at this year's festival. One day after the frenzy at the Odeon West End for So Young, there's an even bigger one for Locke, with everyone turning out to catch a glimpse of the man who created Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Or they're here for Tom Hardy. One of the two.
Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a building site manager who should be going home on a Friday night to watch the football and have a kip before starting a really big job on Saturday morning. Except he's not. Instead, he's driving to London, refusing to explain why to either his family or his work colleagues. That's all you need to know about the plot, except for one other thing: the film will stay inside Locke's car for the full 90 minutes, and nobody will join him inside it other than by telephone.
This is a popular theme in LFF movies this year, as noted in the Q&A afterwards. Whether it's Robert Redford in a boat, Sandra Bullock in a spacesuit, or Tom Hardy in a BMW, it appears that isolated characters trapped in a restricted location is the new black. Locke gets round the restriction by being comprised entirely on phone calls made to and from Locke on his carphone. In effect, it's a filmed radio play, a series of dialogues which gradually reveal Locke's dilemma as well as his character. There is no reason on earth why it should be cinema.
But then I think about a Siegfried and Roy documentary that played the LFF 14 years ago. (Stick with me here.) The Magic Box was made in IMAX 3D a few years before it became fashionable, and director Brett Leonard was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the format. Nowadays, it's being used as a way of enveloping the viewer in larger-than-life experiences, and Leonard realised how good it would be for that. But he wondered out loud if you could take IMAX 3D in the opposite direction, using it to generate intimacy: filming a great actor performing a monologue, and having him do it apparently just a few inches away from your face.
Fourteen years later, nobody's really tried to do that in IMAX 3D. (Sandra and her spacesuit can be seen in that format, granted, but I believe it's the stuff happening around her that makes Gravity what it is.) But Locke is, on the surface, a one-man show, and part of its magic is watching Tom Hardy giving a magnificently calibrated performance while barely ever moving away from the camera. Of course, the supporting characters are a major part of his performance too, giving Hardy a variety of different people to bounce off.
You go into Locke expecting to see a technical exercise, and it turns out to be a brilliantly realised one. You don't expect it to be as funny and moving as it actually is, though. The slow reveals of the story are perfectly placed: the characters are all beautifully drawn: the fact that the whole film is tied to a single location never becomes an issue. And for that, we have to forgive writer/director Steven Knight for creating Millionaire, and focus on the fact that his screenplay is the real star of the show here. The old cliche turns out to be true: if you've got a good enough script, you can get away with anything.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Armstrong Lie [official Facebook]
The Cineaste - The bare bones of Lance Armstrong’s story are probably well-known – how he systematically took performance-enhancing drugs for many years and somehow got away with it. Having retired in 2005, after his seventh Tour de France win, he might even have got away with it for good if he’d stayed in retirement. But against the advice of many around him, he couldn’t resist the allure of the adoration of his fans (in his heyday, before the drug scandal blew up in his face, he was treated like a Hollywood movie star), and came back for another attempt in 2009. That was when Alex Gibney started recording Armstrong, on his comeback trail. And it was simply intended to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the day-to-day preparations of a supreme sportsman. However, the subsequent drugs scandal meant that the terms of reference for Gibney’s documentary shifted completely – there was a (potentially) a huge amount of investigative journalism to be done, and raking through the past 15 years or so of the sport to determine exactly where the origins of Armstrong’s doping programme began.
Armstrong was a newcomer to the sport in Europe in 1993 and 1994. He was a reasonable, but not exceptional, one-day cyclist – he could manage strong bursts of energy in the single-day races but had nowhere near enough stamina for the two- and three-week marathons of the major tours (principally those of France, Italy and Spain). Then, in 1994, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It was fairly well advanced, but treatable with a particularly ferocious course of chemotherapy. This treatment took four years out of Armstrong’s career, but was successful, and Armstrong made a return to the sport in 1998. Cycling correspondents watching him were astonished. Whereas before he had been no better than reasonable, now he was sensational. Now he could speed up mountains seemingly unhindered by gravity, and with loads of stamina he had never had before, the improvement was beyond comprehension.
David Walsh, a softly-spoken Irishman, has for many years been the chief sports correspondent of the Sunday Times. Gibney interviewed him. “There was a sharp intake of breath in the press room” [at one of Armstrong’s comeback races]. “For a cyclist with a continuous career, that amount of improvement would be very very unusual. For someone who’d undergone years of aggressive chemo, taking away most of his strength, seeing that incredible improvement, well, something very suspicious had to be going on.” And from then on, the suspicions around Armstrong never went away.
Gibney, as I say, only started filming Armstrong in 2009, so he’s had to add a lot of back-story to this documentary. He’s done a reasonable job, but I don’t think he’s done a comprehensive one. He’s mainly interested in interviewing Armstrong, and trying to understand a bit about the man himself, what provides his motivations, drives etc. And for those who deified Armstrong and wanted to believe he was innocent, his continual protestations that he was innocent are very easy to believe – a comfortable and natural talker to camera, Armstrong comes across as a very engaging, personable, likeable bloke.
So at this level Gibney’s effort is interesting. He’s put together quite a lot of interviews with Armstrong’s former team-mates, as well as the controversial Italian doctor based in Ferrara who Armstrong closely liaised with for many years. But it’s a shame he hasn’t probed deeper to get the bigger picture – how Armstrong got away with it, the suspicions now aimed at the UCI (the sport’s world governing body), who are accused of being staggeringly incompetent and/or complicit. So Gibney has put together a good and intriguing piece about the Armstrong story, but unfortunately not quite the whole one.
The Invisible Woman [official site]
The Cineaste - This is a lavish, sumptuous piece about Charles Dickens’ inamorata, Ellen (“Nelly” Ternan). The film opens with Ternan directing a school play of Frozen Deep. Dickens has long since died - Ternan and the author first met on a production of this play, and the boys’ play brings back bitter-sweet memories for her. And most of the film is played out in flashback, showing Dickens and Ternan’s developing relationship.
It is, as I say, a lavish production. It’s a luvvie film – there are some very commendable aspects about it – the acting, cinematography, the pacing of the film, are all first rate. But Fiennes ramps up the luvvie factor to the power of about 40 – so much of the acting is absurdly overblown to the point of caricature - and the film left me cold. Like a chocolate cake that’s made too rich and chocolatey, what should be delicious ends up being the opposite. Clare Stewart writes “visually striking and dramatically refined”; others might call it pretentious and boorishly self-indulgent. Give me a duplicitous, lying, cheating, bullying Texan cyclist any day.
Gloria [official Facebook]
The Cineaste - You can’t help but warm to Gloria. A happy-go-lucky personality with a friendly smile playing on her face, she’s the sort of person you wish well and feel happy sharing in her life’s triumphs. A 58-year old disco-loving regular on the singles’ social scene, 12 years after her divorce she’s still looking for a good, honest, decent bloke who’s not afraid to commit. (tchk! Middle-aged men eh? They’re just so hopeless.)
Then, one disco-night, she meets someone. Rodolfo is a retired naval officer who may be more than just an unsatisfactory one-nighter. The film engagingly develops as Gloria and Rodolfo tentatively get to know each other. But Rodolfo seems rather preoccupied with his own concerns – his various health problems (he’s very eager to tell Gloria about his assorted surgical treatments [methinks – what a great chat-up line, I must book myself in for some serious surgery]), and his two grown-up daughters (we never see them) who seem to be using him as a source of easy financial support. But most unsettlingly he has a habit of disappearing. Yes, in the middle of a social evening he’ll absent himself to the bathroom, then scarper. Later on, after one disappearance too many, Gloria’s patience gives out, and she dumps him in a gloriously dramatic manner, which prompted an outburst of applause from the audience. So maybe she’d be better off single after all.
Director Sebastian Lelio was an engaging talker in the Q & A afterwards. Prompted by some insightful questions from Maria Delgado, he expanded on the themes of solitude, ageing, being divorced amongst others. He deftly avoided the theme of being a female divorcee, and instead pointed us to the final scenes of the film. Gloria, although without a man on her arm, is amongst friends at a disco, enjoying herself hugely singing along to a song called Gloria. Amen to that.