Jacqueline KIm stars in ADVANTAGEOUS.

Advantageous

United States. Directed by Jennifer Phang, 2015. Starring Jacqueline Kim, Samantha Kim, James Urbaniak, Jennifer Ehle, Ken Jeong. 90 minutes.

Co-screenwriters Jennifer Phang (who also directs) and Jacqueline Kim (who also stars) examine a broad range of issues in Advantageous, their dystopian near-future science-fiction drama. Kim stars as Gwen Koh, a single mother who loses her job as “head” of the Center for Advanced Health and Living. I put the word “head” in ironi-quotes because even though that seems to have been Gwen’s official title, and she seems to have the scientific knowledge to back such a title up, in terms of her actual duties she seems more like a glorified spokesperson. And since her superiors (represented by James Urbaniak and Jennifer Ehle) have decided that since they want to pursue a younger demographic, the middle-aged Gwen has to go.

This is an especially bad time for Gwen to be out of a job, as her thirteen-year-old daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) stands at a crucial juncture in her school career. If Gwen can’t cough up the exorbitant tuition fees for a prestigious private school (private schools seem to have been abolished), Jules’s promising future goes down the tubes. But since unemployment currently stands at 45%, Gwen’s chances of finding a job that pays her what she needs to make are grim.

That’s just a modest slice of the social commentary Advantageous offers: it also examines terrorism, surveillance, the media, and economic privilege–and that’s all before we meet her estranged cousin and her husband (Jennifer Ikeda and Ken Jeong), not to mention the plot’s real turning point, where we learn the true nature of the Center for Advanced Health and Living’s flagship product. On paper, the film looks well-meaning but stuffed to overflowing with ideas, threatening to burst at any moment.

It doesn’t, although by the end I did see a few dangling threads, leaving me to wonder exactly what they had to do with anything else and why they were there. They serve the world-building well, and one certainly can’t define the limits of the real world within ninety minutes. But I have to admit I would have liked slightly tighter plotting.

However, the script keeps everything under control by putting the focus squarely on Gwen and her relationships. The film’s economic reality isn’t too far removed from our own, and the Koh’s comparative affluence doesn’t detract from Gwen’s relatability. Similarly, while it would be easy to define the supporting characters in only one or two dimensions–Jules’s friends could be snooty Stepford Children; the Center’s leadership, bottom-line-obsessed Randian sociopaths–Phang and Kim wisely develop them as real(ish) people. Jennifer Ehle’s character, for example, might be the closest thing Advantageous has to an actual antagonist, but one gets the sense that she genuinely sympathizes with Gwen’s plight.

A film this focused on character needs a cast that can keep up with it, and the ensemble here is excellent, with Jacqueline Kim providing a solid emotional anchor, and impressive supporting performances, especially from Urbaniak and Samantha Kim. Jeong proves to be the film’s MVP, delivering a performance wholly removed from the bombast that defines his signature role (Community’s Señor Chang).

Advantageous might be a bit too ambitious for its means, but that doesn’t keep it from being an excellent science-fiction drama. Highly recommended for those who prefer their SF thoughtful and cerebral.

ADVANTAGEOUS poster

Jesse Eisenberg and Jesse Eisenberg star in THE DOUBLE.

The Double

United Kingdom. Directed by Richard Ayoade, 2013. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn. 93 minutes.

About half an hour into the film, a long-haired, elderly gent wearing a tuxedo leans into a microphone and starts to croon. “I was born in east Virginia,” he sings, “North Carolina I did roam.” But the singer’s accent makes it clear that, wherever he’s from, it isn’t anywhere near Virginia. (He is, in fact, the Finnish rock star Ilkka Johannes “Danny” Lipsanen, of Danny and the Islanders.) The sequence is The Double in microcosm: it’s a film obsessed with artifice and content, whose words tell one story and its accent another.

Loosely adapted by director/co-writer Richard Ayoade from a Dostoyevsky novella, The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a sad sack who lives and works in pretty much the same world that Brazil took place in. He lives across the street from his pretty co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), spying on her with a telescope. One evening, Hannah’s upstairs neighbor commits suicide. Soon afterward, a gentleman named James Simon takes a job with Simon’s employer and moves into the newly-vacated apartment. James, also played by Eisenberg, is Simon’s exact physical double, but is confident and charming while Simon is meek and forgettable. Can Simon stop James from rudely ejecting him from his own life?

It doesn’t take a Media Studies major to work out that much of this story works on a metaphorical level, and I think that’s part of my problem with it. The Double is clever, yes–one expects nothing less of Ayoade, who, although better known as an actor (The IT Crowd), is also a co-creator of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and is part of a clique whose members are responsible for The Mighty BooshSnuff Box, and Sightseers. But too often “clever” becomes “too clever for its own good.”

I desperately wanted to engage with the film because, of course, I see a lot of myself in Simon James. I expect much of the audience will share that, and I’m dead certain Ayoade knows it. Yet he keeps us at a constant remove from the story and the characters, through the characters’ sheer unlikeability (even Hannah turns out to be a twit), through the obvious falseness of the world-building, and…

Here I must admit a personal prejudice, something that I just can’t get past. Brazil–a film I have worked very hard not to compare The Double to, and mostly succeeded–largely works for me because I can see a sort of Everyman in Jonathan Pryce’s performance, despite Sam Lowry’s creepier tendencies and mommy issues. Pryce can disappear into the role. Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t disappear into roles; you’re never not aware you’re watching him. (Yes, even in The Social Network, which largely works not by turning Eisenberg into Mark Zuckerberg, but turning Zuckerberg into Eisenberg.)

This especially applies to his performance as James: by barely modulating Simon’s personality and mannerisms, he turns into someone everyone adores, while the audience doesn’t see that much of a difference. The audience is not going to buy Eisenberg (or at least this particular version of Eisenberg) as a charismatic womanizer. And once again, I feel myself drawn to qualify that criticism with “…but that’s probably by design.”

So I do have to conclude by saying that while I didn’t particularly enjoy The Double–it didn’t work for me as entertainment, and it didn’t work for me as a piece of art to engage with–I do admire Richard Ayoade for creating something that made me think and giving me one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever had to write (this piece is almost three weeks overdue). In a world where the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” is starting to look less like fiction and more like a documentary, that’s a victory in and of itself.

The Double

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell star in SNOWPIERCER.

Snowpiercer

South Korea. Directed by Joon-ho Bong, 2013. Starring Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Tilda Swinton. 126 minutes.

Of all the possible ways the tattered remnants of humanity could survive a global Hoth-pocalypse, “on a train” doesn’t seem like a particularly likely option. But that’s the option Joon-ho Bong chose to explore in Snowpiercer, a very loose adaptation of an early-’80s French graphic novel.

Seventeen years after a botched attempt to counteract global climate change causes a world-wide ice age that kills almost every living thing on the planet, the last few living humans travel round the world on the Snowpiercer, a massive train powered by a perpetual-motion locomotive. Society has degenerated to become a literal dystopia-in-a-box (well, series of boxes): a highly regimented class system with a place for everything and everything in its place. The poor live in squalor in the tail cars; the well-to-do dwell in the lap of luxury towards the front; and in the engine car, Wilford, the Great Engineer, rules over them all. The posh Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) periodically visits the train’s slums to dispense justice and tell the urchins who live there how lucky they are that they get to live here at all.

But rebellion is in the air, led by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and his protege Curtis (Chris Evans). They plan to abduct Namgoong “Nam” Minsu (Kang-ho Song), the drug-addled tech who designed the train’s security systems, and use his knowledge to force their way to the front of the train and finally depose Wilford.

Cinematic history, I’d like to introduce you to Snowpiercer, the film that will be remembered as its generation’s equivalent of The Matrix if there’s any justice in the universe.

One of the axes you’ve probably seen me grind on this site in the past (and believe me, I plan to grind it even more in the future) is how Nobody Makes Science Fiction Movies Like They Used to Anymore. Science fiction was once known as “the literature of ideas.” Now it’s just a flimsy excuse for whatever hunk is fashionable this week to pop his shirt off and kick ass. Not that there’s anything wrong with action and eye-candy; I liked Godzilla and Pacific Rim and The Avengers just fine.

Snowpiercer looks similar on the surface. There’s plenty of effects work and gunfire and explosions and Chris Evans punching people. But this time those things serve the ideas and story instead of the other way round. Bong and screenwriting partner Kelly Masterson have actually put thought into the setting, how a society like this would sustain itself and what its leaders would need to do to keep the structure they’d imposed on it in place. The allegory is obvious, but it works because we can see ourselves responding to these situations in these ways. The answers it poses to its questions have a libertarian slant–part-and-parcel of the modern dystopia–but small touches keep the ideology at bay (Swinton’s performance, for example, which I’ll get to in a bit) and understands the price a revolution would have to pay for “liberation.”

Great ideas and a thoughtful plot are wonderful things to have, but audiences really like to have them married to good characterization and acting, and Snowpiercer offers us these as well. Both standout performances are supporting roles. Swinton’s Mason is a self-important, self-righteous latter-day aristo: try imagining a Tea Party caricature with a North of England Accent, or a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Pauline from The League of Gentlemen. Song is perfect as the unhinged Nam, a rogue who clearly knows more than he’s letting on.

Curtis is a bit of a cliché, the grim Byronic hero, but both the dialogue and Evans’s performance succeed in making the character engaging where so many other attempts have failed. It’s been said that Hurt has played the same damn character in most of his last ten movies and his Doctor Who episode, but here he demonstrates how he became the go-to man for this type of character. Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and a gloriously goofy Ewan Bremner–there simply isn’t a bad performance in this film.

Bong’s masterful direction pulls it all together. Snowpiercer feels like an impossible environment, a place that shouldn’t work in as little space as it has, but he makes it work by starting off in an oppressively claustrophobic mode and gradually opening space up as he goes along. The editing and pacing are similarly effective, and the film benefits by cutting its dark tone with a healthy dose of satire.

If I have any complaints, it’s with the massive fight sequence that comes about halfway through the film–it does its job well enough, but it feels more “awesome” than credible and at any rate it’s not the sort of thing I’m much into. Your mileage may vary.

Every so often a movie comes along and somehow, against all odds, manages to get everything right. Strong plot, thought-provoking story, memorable characters, terrific performances, exhilarating action, beautiful design and effects…a movie that is, in short, all things to all people. Snowpiercer is one of those movies. Treasure it.

Snowpiercer poster

Christoph Waltz stars in THE ZERO THEOREM.

The Zero Theorem

United Kingdom. Directed by Terry Gilliam, 2013. Starring Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges. 107 minutes.

An eccentric loner struggling against a suffocating bureaucracy. A dystopian nightmare hiding beneath a colorful candy shell. Advertisements that follow you around and can’t properly determine your sex. Entertainment media that panders to the lowest common denominator. A populace so starved for spiritual sustenance that it’s willing to accept Batman as its lord and savior.

That can only mean one thing: Terry Gilliam must have a new film out.

The Zero Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as a hairless, hypochondriacal, pantophobic anhedoniac named Qohen Leth. Employed as an “entity-cruncher” (entities are like numbers, only more complex) by Mancom, he seeks permission work form home full-time–partially because he believes he’s dying, partially because his co-workers are a distraction, but mostly because he fears if he leaves the dilapidated church he bought at auction and now calls come, he’ll miss the phone call which he’s certain will give his life meaning.

Mancom’s reclusive Management (a hilariously towheaded Matt Damon) instructs Qohen’s supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to grant the cruncher his request–but with one condition. Qohen is reassigned to “T-Zip,” an ambitious Mancom project to solve the Zero Theorem–a mathematical formula that will prove, once and for all, that the sum total of everything is nothing. Along the way, he gains two unlikely allies. Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) is a virtual-reality sex worker who comes to feel a measure of affection for the isolated Qohen, and Bob (Lucas Hedges) is a rebellious, teenaged hardware specialist who provides tech support for both Leth’s computer and soul.

The thing about Terry Gilliam that makes his body of work so fascinating and compelling, and which allows him to remain relevant as an artist after the entertainment industry has chewed up and spat out so many other visionary filmmakers of his generation, is the fact that he seems almost incapable of producing work that isn’t personal to an almost blinkered degree. The essential Gilliam-ness of a Gilliam film automatically makes it worth watching, even if it’s an ambitious failure (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) or he’s gone completely round the bend (the imperfect but criminally overlooked Tideland). That’s why the only true dud in his C.V. is The Brothers Grimm, which is the one that feels like he only did it for the money.

It’s a bit of a disappointment, then, that while The Zero Theorem comes from the mind of a filmmaker whose imagination is singular to the point of madness, and yet feels recycled from so many other things. It manages to be the second film I’ve seen about a reclusive, eccentric and unbalanced computer wiz named Qohen, whose goal is to mathematically prove the mystical underpinnings of the universe: the first would, of course, be Darren Aronofsky’s π. Other bits seem cribbed from Idiocracy, particularly the “DuMBC” television network, the Church of Batman the Redeemer, and Occupy Mall Street (offering savings of up to 100%).

Yet the most obvious cannibalism comes from Gilliam’s own body of work: his masterpiece Brazil. The requisite bureaucratic oppression is here, as is the scathing indictment of consumer culture. So is the retrofitted fantastic technology: just as Sam Lowry’s world was the ’50s gone wrong, Qohen Leth’s is the ’90s on Miracle-Gro. (Note the fascination with VR.)

It’s hard not to come away from The Zero Theorem without drawing the conclusion that Gilliam has started generating his own fanfic, and so much of the film feels like he’s trying too hard to make Brazil 2014. (Bainsley’s custom-made virtual beach, for example, or a psychiatric app named SHRINK-ROM and played to its eccentric hilt by Tilda Swinton.) Yet when it works–when Qohen logs onto Bainsley’s website while a husky-voiced lounge act sings the opening lines of “Creep,” when he has a heart-to-heart with Bob in front of an improbable array of DO NOT signs, and during the film’s brilliant, heart-breaking finale–you get that unique frisson that only a Terry Gilliam film can give you.

Crucial to this is Christoph Waltz’s performance, a bastion of sanity in a world where everybody’s trying to be stranger than the next person. The Zero Theorem is the sort of film that’s so bizarre that Ben Whishaw actually manages to distract from Peter Stormare being Peter Stormare, and the audience needs a sort of anchor of normality, even if said anchor professes a fear “of everything” and habitually refers to himself in the first-person plural. Waltz is that anchor, holding his own against Thewlis’s Eric Idle impression, Thierry’s sex-kitten antics, and whatever the hell it is Swinton thinks she’s doing.

Has Terry Gilliam run out of things to say? Time will tell, and it doesn’t really matter in this case. The Zero Theorem doesn’t show Gilliam at his best or worst, but it does show him at his Gilliam-est, and for that alone it’s worth the price of admission.

The Zero Theorem