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Venice 2013: Parkland, The Sacrament, The Zero Theorem and Locke

Posted on Monday September 2, 2013, 19:50 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Venice 2013: Parkland, The Sacrament, The Zero Theorem and Locke

Venice has a bit of a thing for Kennedy dramas, having played host in 2006 to Bobby, an ensemble piece set at the hotel where JFK’s brother was assassinated. This year saw Peter Landesman’s Parkland make the trip, an equally star-studded historical piece that begins in, but is not confined to, the hospital of the same name, where JFK himself was taken after being shot in the head on a visit to Texas in 1963. Unlike Bobby, this is a quite a nuts and bolts affair, a mosaic of lesser-known details that seeks to tell a forensic story of the day rather than the subsequent conspiracy-theory industry that has since sprung up around it.

The result is not so much the anti-JFK as the un-JFK, ignoring Stone’s film completely and painting instead a portrait of a city plunged into a panic, a microcosm of the wider world. Some players are better than others, and the famous faces are a little more distracting than they were in Bobby, since this is a constantly evolving fly-on-the-wall story. Nevertheless, it’s a decent snapshot of a long-gone time, a welcome reminder, almost 50 years to the day, of how people took the news back then, in a less cynical era, unspoiled by social media.
The Sacrament is the latest from Ti West, whose House Of The Devil I rather liked, as much for its flaws as its strengths. The new film shares some of that film’s concerns, notably an interest in the past (HOTD had a great 80s vibe), this time looking to the 70s in an otherwise contemporary story. A faux intro from the Vice magazine channel (I think) sets an awkward tone, posing as a real travel piece shot by two journalists who accompany a photographer to visit his estranged sister Caroline (Upstream Colour’s Amy Seimertz), a reformed alcoholic. After a journey by helicopter to an undisclosed location, they find Caroline in an armed compound called Eden Parish, a religious commune overseen by the sinister Father, and what at first seems like a happy, altruistic hideaway begins to reveal itself as something much more sinister.
Like HOTD it takes an age to get going, which in itself is no bad thing. But Father is such a neat ringer for the late Jim Jones, the crazed pastor who persuaded his flock to sell up and move with him to Guyana in the 70s, that when the story starts to kick in, it all feels rather familiar. If you don’t know the story, or if you haven’t seen Kevin Smith’s thematically similar Red State, see the movie cold and it just might work. But truth is stranger than fiction, and aficionados of crackpot American behaviour will be better served by the superb 2006 doc Jonestown, a much more chilling depiction of psychopathy in action.
Going in to Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, I have to say I was very afraid. I’m not a great fan of the director at his most, ahem, zany, and I feared the worst from this dystopian fantasy. As it was, I merely thought it was OK but severely underwhelming, a return to Brazil’s Fellini-esque grotesquery albeit leavened with a good-humoured, melancholy tone that encroaches gingerly on Beckett’s territory, if not that of a stoned Kafka.
The Brazil comparisons are inevitable but fair, since the whole movie could be a subplot from the director’s 1985 opus. Christoph Waltz stars a Qohen Leth, a wizard “entity cruncher” who holds down a high-stress job solving problems with the aid of a Tetris-like computer interface. Qohen dreams of working from home, partly because he is a hypochondriac but mostly because he is convinced that an important telephone call is coming, one that will change his depressed existence forever.

As a starting point, it’s quite interesting, but unfortunately this is almost the entire movie. Nothing really seems to happen, and the film unfolds as a series of offbeat vignettes, many of them revolving around Qohen’s boss (David Thewlis) and his boss’s boss (Matt Damon). The appearance of a strange woman named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) brings a sexual frisson into his life, but for veteran Gilliam watchers it’s a little too close to Kim Greist’s fantasy woman for comfort. Gilliam thankfully stops short of self-parody, but self-homage is a tricky feat to pull off, and I’m not sure The Zero Theorem does it.
Finally, one of the revelations of the festival was Locke, the new film by Steven Knight, writer of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. Knight’s track record – he also helmed the Jason Statham movie Hummingbird – might suggest a genre piece, especially since the story takes place entirely in a car, with no cutaways or flashbacks. Instead, Locke takes the single-location movie genre in a wholly unexpected direction, using dialogue to enrich character rather than add layers of plot twists and exposition.
Key to the film’s success is Tom Hardy’s magnificent performance as Ivan Locke, a gentle, bearded Welshman who gets into his car after a hard day’s work in the construction business and embarks on a 90-minute road trip that will change his life forever. Using only phone calls to and from Ivan’s friends and family, Knight fashions a compelling human-interest story from the most simple elements. It would be churlish to say more, except that Knight manages to hold our attention throughout without the usual elements of drama; there is nothing extraordinary in these conversations – many of which involve lots and lots of concrete – but Locke keeps its momentum going right to the very end. It’s a modest film for sure, but it’s effective, ingenious and very, very memorable.

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