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Terry Gilliam’s Latest Sci-Fi Adventure The Zero Theorem Serves Up Wild and Wonderful Images


Terry Gilliam is a gifted, ambitious filmmaker who, sadly, may now be more famous for being misunderstood and underfunded than he is for actually making movies. The Zero Theorem isn’t likely to reverse that equation. In this half-squirrely, half-torpid sci-fi adventure, Christoph Waltz, with a shaved head and a face devoid of eyebrows, plays Qohen Leth, a lonely, put-upon programmer who toils away for a megacorporation known as Mancom. Qohen is unraveling emotionally. He’s been waiting for years for a phone call, one that he’s sure will magically change his life. He’s so obsessed that he puts in a request to work from home, so he won’t miss it when it comes. After a number of humiliating medical evaluations and an encounter with Mancom’s big cheese (Matt Damon), his wish is granted — though his immediate boss, scrawny, weedy manager-type Joby (David Thewlis), essentially punishes him with a programming assignment that’s 1,000 percent impossible.

There’s lots more, if you can stand it, including a whiz-kid computer brat who also happens to be the big boss’s son (Lucas Hedges) and a Kewpie-doll vixen who’s been paid off to distract Qohen sexually (Mélanie Thierry). Tilda Swinton shows up, as Dr. Shrink-Rom (pretty much the same pinched, shrill character she did in Snowpiercer), the efficient psychiatrist in charge of assessing, though not improving, Qohen’s mental state. The story goes off in a dozen directions, with very little in the way of satisfying, or even unsatisfying, resolution. And it riffs on the same old
Gilliam-esque themes — we’re all just helpless drones in a mad, inhospitable world — without adding much that’s new. (Gilliam has said that The Zero Theorem is the final installment in a trilogy of dystopian satires, following Brazil and Twelve Monkeys.)

It’s possible, though, that at this point nobody goes to a Terry Gilliam movie for the story, and that’s probably wise. His visual inventiveness is the thing we’re all interested in, and The Zero Theorem does serve up some wild and wonderful images. Qohen’s home — he explains, at one point, that he bought it at fire-sale prices — is a former monastery that looks like a desiccated Italianate mansion, with checkerboard marble floors and grand religious paintings dotting its vast walls. And in our first glimpse of hotshot boss Damon (his character goes by the simple and highly descriptive name “Management”), he’s wearing a zebra-print suit while reclining in a zebra-print chair, an amusing example of trompe l’oeil magic. That’s the sort of bonkers visual drama at which Gilliam excels. Too bad the story tucked around all that production design is such a futuristic drag.

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The Future’s Stranger Than He Thought: An Interview with Zero Theorem Director Terry Gilliam

“I’ll always be anti-authoritarian, as long as I live,” says Terry Gilliam, the comic provocateur who’s been taking aim at the establishment for over four decades. The only thing that changes: his targets. In Life of Brian, it was religion. In Brazil, the government. And in his latest film, The Zero Theorem, it’s the biggest oppressor of all: big business. Says Gilliam, “Governments are second rate compared to corporations when it comes to power and influence on our lives.”

The Zero Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a reclusive computer drone whose life is at the mercy of his employer, MANCORP. His boss, a godlike figure named Management (Matt Damon), and his underlings dictate everything from Qohen’s therapist (Tilda Swinton) to his sexual fantasies, thanks to a virtual-reality geisha (Mélanie Thierry) they’ve hired to keep him complacent. Like Sam in Brazil, Qohen is a ticking time bomb of frustration. The difference is that Gilliam’s realized that the future he envisioned 30 years ago was wildly off base. Instead of a monochromatic dystopia that drowns people in paper, he now predicts a sensory overload of colors and pixels and bleeps. “We’re going to drown in nice clothes and workplaces that are like playrooms,” he says with a giggle. “It’s fun!

“We are creating a giant brain that is all of humanity,” says Gilliam. He admits, “That you can access the information that you need is just fantastic, it’s extraordinary.” But it’s also loud, oppressive, and isolating. On the sidewalks of Zero Theorem, ads and information tickers stalk citizens down the street. At parties, people crowd together but socialize alone, isolated by their headphones and iPads. Only Qohen, with his bald pate and black robes, stands out like a burned-out bulb. He can’t take the chaos, hastily scurrying back to the old stone church where he lives, his literal sanctuary.

See also: Terry Gilliam’s Latest Sci-Fi Adventure The Zero Theorem Serves Up Wild and Wonderful Images

Gilliam is no digital monk. Now 73, he tweets. On Facebook, he has 383,424 friends. “But I don’t actually want to talk to those people,” he admits. Still, the lo-fi creative who once invented a new cartoon language from scissors and cut-out illustrations has succumbed to internet addiction. He spends whole days before his 32-inch computer monitor. “I sit there and I’m checking the news as if I’m going to find something interesting suddenly,” says Gilliam. “I have to physically pull myself away from it, go into another room and grab a bite — anything to escape the power of my computer.”

With film budgets shrinking by the year, he’s had to use social media to self-advertise. “Despite Sony’s best efforts at non-publicity, Zero Theorem is now available in the U.K. on DVD and BluRay!!” he dashed off in a recent self-deprecating post. “My advice is to watch the film sitting as closely as possible to your home screen to experience what you might have experienced had you seen it in the cinema.”

For years, he at least forbade himself from owning a smartphone. But last year, he gave in and took one home from The Zero Theorem set. Recently, the phone broke for a few days, and he panicked. “It’s black and it looks like the monolith from 2001 and I’m the ape there worshipping it.” (Not that he’s into worship. The former Minnesota seminary student managed to ditch religion and the U.S. government by reinventing himself as a British atheist: “America’s winning the war of bureaucracy,” he sighs).

Zero Theorem was supposed to be made for $20 million, but was slashed down post-handshake to $8.5 million. “It doesn’t look like an $8.5 million movie,” says Gilliam, “and I don’t seem to get any credit for that.” His reputation as a spendthrift has yet to recover from the financial disaster of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (Maybe it will next year, when the ill-fated The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally — hopefully — starts shooting in the Canary Islands.)

He’s aware that he’s become one of the plugged-in promoters his own film rails against, though he tries to keep it in check. “It’s the me-ness that drives me crazy,” says Gilliam. “It’s almost like people aren’t individuals, they’re just saying I am here, and then once that message goes out to the world, they can relax for a few seconds before they have to say I am here again. If Descartes was alive now, it would be, ‘Je tweet, donc je suis‘ — I tweet, therefore I am.”

No wonder, then, that his out-of-step Qohen Leth insists on referring to himself with the plural “we.” And Qohen is terrified of the youth of the future, in particular a scarily efficient post-post-post-millennial who insists on calling everyone “Bob” because he refuses to waste mental space by memorizing names.

Yet Gilliam, who has raised three kids in the internet age, celebrates rudeness. At least, it’s better than the inverse — that interconnectedness and insta-gossip will pressure people to guard their online reputations by being cautious and polite. “That’s the beginning of a really nice form of fascism,” warns the unflagging firebrand. “The right to offend is important.”

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Dinesh D’Souza’s America: The Vainglorious Huckster Trembles Before Another Left-Wing Conspiracy

Here are some of the triumphant moments of recent history that make it into the climactic montage in America, the latest “America’s perfect!”/”America’s doomed!” pant load from felonious troll Dinesh D’Souza: Jackie Robinson rounding home. Elvis Presley swinging his hips. Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall. Boxed copies of Windows 95 bouncing down an assembly line. How did D’Souza resist including the first time Clippy the Office Assistant helped a patriot format a résumé?

It’s easy to pick on the ill-considered details of D’Souza’s latest, the follow-up to the quietly crazy docu-screed 2016: Obama’s America. The what-if cosplay that opens the film shows us General George Washington being gunned down by a cowardly Brit on — seriously — September 11, 1777. The uncertain way D’Souza’s shirt is tucked into his pants as he slumps thoughtfully in front of national monuments. The way D’Souza posits that it’s a left-wing conspiracy that has kept the story of hair-product entrepreneur Sarah Breedlove out of history books — as if it’s representation-minded liberals who have long fought the recognition of pioneering African-American women. The way D’Souza’s name appears six times in the opening credits, including “based on the book by” and “created and narrated by,” which I bet he was awarded only after arbitration with the Creator and Narrator Guild.

All that’s easy. The sad thing is that America‘s central thesis is risible, too. The argument is simple: Radical-minded professors like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky have, through the techniques Saul Alinsky learned from Al Capone, succeeded in making millions of black Americans, Native Americans, poor Americans, and liberal Americans ashamed of the darkest parts of American history. D’Souza marvels that Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is “required reading” in hundreds of colleges, and he tsks at a Good Will Hunting clip in which Matt Damon endorses the book. Zinn and company posit that slavery, the deaths of millions of Native Americans, income inequality, and the secret bombing of Cambodia are all bad things that should shade our understanding of American history. D’Souza, of course, considers that reactionary madness, and he gets ex-professor Ward Churchill to say on camera that, yeah, it might be morally justified to nuke this country today.

For D’Souza, Churchill stands in for all liberals the same way that one old dude with a racist sign stood in for all Sarah Palin fans to Keith Olbermann. The implication, of course, is that Churchill is saying what the president secretly believes, a point D’Souza makes by putting together one of those who’s-connected-to-whom photo collages that helps movie cops bust up crime rings. Trace it out, and Capone begets Obama — and Hillary, too.

D’Souza insists that anyone who still worries over these injustices fails to recognize that America is at heart a force of good in this world — that it’s impossible to believe that Andrew Jackson killed too many Indians and that the ideals set down in the Declaration of Independence are worth striving toward.

Being a dope, D’Souza even attempts to prove that those injustices — “the indictments of America,” in his words — really aren’t any big deal at all. Here’s the evidence he marshals in the film:

Slavery? D’Souza points out — in a vile filmed reenactment — that some black folks owned slaves, too, which means there’s no reason for anyone today to feel raw about it. Twice he argues that the United States is the only country that ever fought a war to abolish slavery, so if anything, we should be proud of that and our slave-free years afterwards. That’s kind of like arguing that nobody gives Jeffrey Dahmer credit for all the people he didn’t eat after he was arrested.

American imperialism abroad? Chomsky tells D’Souza that there are a million dead Vietnamese who don’t consider the United States a force for good. D’Souza counters with footage of American soldiers giving candy to Vietnamese kids. That’s followed by a reenactment of a fighter pilot’s torture in a Viet Cong prison camp.

Economic inequality? This one I didn’t quite follow. Rather than address any specific complaint of the Occupy movement or the Obama administration, D’Souza mounts a defense of entrepreneurial capitalism itself. He insists that the hot dog vendors in Times Square are under target from anti-capitalists every bit as much as are the CEOs of NASDAQ companies. Then, in a baffling skit, D’Souza plays the proprietor of fast food joint called Delish Dinesh, chirping “Can I help you?” at customers in an Indian accent and then explaining to us that to make a hamburger at home would cost a consumer more than it would to buy a hamburger in a restaurant. Q.E.D., mic drop, #neverforget, honk your horn and shout “U.S.A.!”

That nonsense takes up most of the film. But after demonstrating that war, racism, poverty, and the Trail of Tears have failed even to dim America’s greatness, D’Souza exposes the one historical crime this nation’s founders could never live down: radical, Alinsky-ite Barack Obama’s passing of the health care plan cooked up by Mitt Romney and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Hilariously, just minutes after reducing Occupy Wall Street to an assault on small hamburger shops, D’Souza attacks insurance companies and Wall Street executives as fellow travelers in Obamacare, this country’s one unpardonable sin.

There is other funny stuff in America, like D’Souza bragging in narration that his previous film is the second highest grossing documentary ever. Or the transition sentence “I asked Texas senator Ted Cruz what started the Mexican-American War.” Or how D’Souza admits to being guilty of campaign-finance fraud — “I made a mistake. No man is above the law” — and then immediately argues that the real crime is that the government paid attention to and prosecuted his lawbreaking.

But nothing beats the out-of-nowhere assault against Matt Damon. D’Souza aspires to be the intellectual conservative water-chummer, the contextualizing smarty-pants who arrives at Limbaugh and Hannity’s conclusions only through learned reasoning. (If you sit through this, you’ll hear lots about de Tocqueville.) But Matt Damon pisses him off. D’Souza gets huffy talking about the actor’s praise of Zinn and comments about income inequality. D’Souza attempts to prove the actor’s hypocrisy. He asks why Damon makes so much more money than the rest of us. What skill does he have?

D’Souza wonders this over clips of Damon, that magnificently physical performer, running and fighting in the Bourne movies. The questions are pretty rich, coming from a vainglorious huckster we’ve just watched waddle about D.C. like a shell-less turtle.

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In Elysium, a Weary Matt Damon Carries the Weight of the World

Movie stars shouldn’t be subject to the rules of gravity, as we mere mortals are. One of the great pleasures of watching actors is to see them move, and when yesterday’s youngsters start creaking, we feel it in our joints. That’s not to say actors can’t age gracefully, or that they should do whatever it takes to stay looking young. But the wrong role can make a still-youthful actor appear worn out through no fault of his own. Are we really ready to see Matt Damon looking as if he’s dying to plop down in the La-Z-Boy?

In Neill Blomkamp’s dystopian science-fiction fantasy Elysium, Damon’s Max is a tattooed grunt stranded on the Earth of the future, a dismal, dried-out planet filled with have-nots living short, brutish lives. The rich have long ago decamped to their own shiny, inhabitable satellite, Elysium, where plants thrive and people do, too, thanks to the amazing, free healthcare that all citizens receive courtesy of miraculous health-o-matic machines installed in every home. Following a series of unfortunate events–on this future Earth, there is no other kind–Max accepts a mission to help his fellow citizens. Among the obstacles in his way are Elysium’s super-defensive secretary-of-defense-type Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who makes her entrance in a Jetsons-worthy tailored white dress and a Tilda Swinton haircut, looking so sharp you could cut yourself on her flaring nostrils.

You don’t have to be a bloodhound to smell an allegory shaping up, particularly if you’ve seen writer-director Blomkamp’s 2009 debut feature, District 9, in which members of an extraterrestrial race who have landed on Earth are forced to live in grimy slums while humans get the cushy suburbs. That setup was a metaphor for Apartheid in South Africa, where the director was born, and it worked well enough. But District 9 was most notable for Blomkamp’s skill at creating a believable sci-fi world without spending a lot of dough. The movie felt as if, against all odds, its creator had willed it into being.

Elysium doesn’t have the same brashness. Though the plot specifics are different, thematically it looks and feels almost like a sequel, made with a lot more money though not with more ingenuity or feeling. The Earth landscape, a wasteland of decrepit tower blocks, is more elaborate than the garbage-strewn tent cities of District 9, but also far less poetic. (The star of District 9, South African actor Sharlto Copley, shows up here as well, in a smaller role as a crusty, bearded baddie.) And while Blomkamp’s message is morally stalwart, his delivery system sure is a bummer: Andrew Niccol’s similarly themed 2011 In Time was both more stylish and more effective, a serious movie that hit its mark without taking itself too seriously.

You can see why Damon would be attracted to this material, whose politics are in line with his own. He’s a thoughtful performer who only looks like he ought to be a roaring-twenties football player with a cute leather helmet and a sweater emblazoned with his team’s initials. We don’t think of him as a grand risk-taker, maybe because he’s so unassuming that he’d never present himself as such. But he’s daring in stealthy ways: In Steven Soderbergh’s character study Behind the Candelabra, he played Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson not as a dumb-dumb boy toy, but as a half dreamy, half practical kid brought down by tortured love. He’s an actor who can tease the nuances out of a stereotype.

Just maybe not this one. In Elysium, Max, the underdog martyr who’s going to save the world, spends much of the movie harnessed into a jointed metal armature that leaches him of his charm and spirit. (The scene in which his new backbone is surgically applied, unrepentant in its ookiness, is one of the few times Blomkamp shows any sense of humor.) Damon is as buff as ever, maybe even more so–it’s hard to believe he made the first of his Bourne movies nearly 10 years ago. But watching him lumber through Elysium‘s bramble of lofty ideals is no damn fun. He gets to turn on the charm in a few brief scenes with Max’s childhood sweetheart (played by Alice Braga). But mostly, he radiates a grim world-weariness that just doesn’t suit him, and it’s hard to say if the movie sags around the weight of his performance or if he’s just working inhumanly hard to hold this heavy-spirited picture aloft.

Probably the latter, and he’s not alone. As Delacourt, Foster seems to be sending up her own no-nonsense frostiness–her character’s yacht-club mannerisms border on camp, and whether that’s intentional or not, it’s at least amusing. But Damon has no such escape route. Weighed down by his steampunky apparatus, he looks sluggish even when he’s on the run. In Elysium, not even Matt Damon–cheerful, smart, principled, energetic Matt Damon–can save the world without figuratively stopping every so often to say, “Oy! My back!” No matter how hard he works, he’s a man of inaction.

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SEEING SILVERMAN

For all Sarah Silverman’s jokes about vaginas and poop — her self-proclaimed area of expertise—we love this former bedwetter because when it comes to politics, she’s got the singular ability to be serious without ever actually having to act serious at all. Her 2008 project The Great Schlep encouraged young Jews to visit their elderly grandparents in Florida (or threaten to withhold visits) in order to wring out votes for Obama, and her farewell tribute to George Bush praised all the idiotic things that Dubya didn’t do in office . . . like punch a giraffe. Much gratuitous Matt Damon–fucking and more than two decades in stand-up later, her faux-naive persona has become a staple on the comedy scene. Tonight, she revisits her stage act at the Wellmont Theatre in New Jersey.

Fri., April 26, 7 p.m., 2013

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Promised Land’s Hard Sell

Salesmen are typically depicted in screen drama as the quintessential American phonies. The exceptions—in Barry Levinson’s Avalon or Whit Stillman’s Barcelona—are buried under a mountain of films proving the rule. That one set of phonies are being dramatically indicted by actors is an irony that we will leave hanging.

When we first meet Promised Land‘s phony, played by Matt Damon, he’s preparing to sell himself, to audition. Steve Butler is interviewing for an executive position at Global, a natural gas company whose bread and butter is fracking, the controversial practice of pumping toxic chemicals 8,000 feet underground to loosen up natural gas. Steve travels from small town to small town and persuades people to sell Global leases to extract on their land, and his ace results have attracted attention. He explains that this is a matter of his common touch with locals: “I’m from Eldridge, Iowa. It might as well be Rifle, Colorado; Dish, Texas; or Lafayette, Louisiana. I know them, they know me.”

Steve says his work is inspired by a sense of duty to these dying mill towns—”I’m selling them the only way they have to get back”—though an edge in his voice belies a deeper frustration and disappointment. Whether that frustration is with these people he claims to know or actually with himself is tested on a by-the-book sales trip to a town called McKinley in Western Pennsylvania. His partner, Sue, meets him there with a suitably beat-up Ford, their prop transportation; Sue is played by Frances McDormand, keeping up her end of a testy on-the-job rapport that’s a low-key pleasure. When they go shopping for middle-American costumes, Steve chooses plaid over camouflage, though, really, it’s all camouflage.

Steve’s approach assumes that all of flyover America is essentially the same. “I can’t believe this is right outside the city; it looks like Kentucky,” says Sue, to which Steve responds, “Two hours outside any city looks like Kentucky.” And everything is routine at first—the bribe to the local politician (a nicely played scene performed with hushed, hardball contempt by Damon) and the well-oiled pitches to property owners. But a science teacher (Hal Holbrook) speaks up at a community assembly, citing reports that fracking can contaminate water supplies, which leads the assembly to set a date three weeks off to vote on allowing Global to drill. This forces Steve and Sue to stick around McKinley and gives time for an environmental-agency worker (John Krasinski) to go door to door with a story about how fracking killed his family dairy farm.

Krasinski, shading his trademark affability with a touch of cocky righteousness, has the unlikely handle Dustin Noble, the actor’s second most unfortunate character name outside of Burt Farlander in 2009’s Away We Go, written by Dave Eggers. Eggers is credited with Promised Land‘s original story, which Damon and Krasinski developed into a screenplay; Damon was originally slated to make the project his directorial debut, but it instead wound up with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant, who here is again in his deft, accessible, director-for-hire mode. Like Steve, Van Sant—who has a history in advertising—knows how to dress down and display the common touch.

With Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Van Sant has shot McKinley as an NPR-tithing audience’s dream of the idyllic small town seen in folksy music-video interludes, without an eyesore Walmart in sight. In fact, it offers little sense of the hard-times desperation that Steve’s pitch assumes—strange considering this film is the work of the director of Drugstore Cowboy, who has made a career of going down among the marginalized.

The PR war is waged through Steve and Dustin’s competition over a local schoolteacher (Rosemarie DeWitt) and in McKinley’s social centers: the diner, where Dustin gets tauntingly back-slappy with the locals, and the bar, where Sue takes the stage to sing Hank Williams’s gospel standard “I Saw the Light” to win hearts and minds. Hank Jr.’s “Family Tradition” is the true surefire crowd-pleaser, but her selection is significant; should it be doubted that environmentalism has adopted the trappings and language of religion, note that Promised Land (title courtesy Genesis 15:18-21) is essentially a conversion story, in which the cynical Steve is swayed from Global doctrine to the “delusional self-mythology” of prideful small-town independence he’s first heard scoffing at.

But though Steve knows the Global line backward and forward (“If you are against this, you’re for coal and oil. Period.”), his conviction seems to be wavering even as he delivers it. Steve’s conversion lacks dramatic heft, then, for it seems more a matter of predestination, his profound discomfort something incipient to his existence rather than the result of a slow undermining of confidence. New flecks of gray show at Damon’s temples, and foreboding of a looming existential cliff shows at once in Steve’s clumping gait, the sullen way he drinks, the ease with which Dustin gets under his skin. (Did Damon think of guiltily counting his Bourne bucks?)

Promised Land is a hard-sell movie because it doesn’t have the confidence in its audience to make any other outcome seem personally viable, to give the opposition a fighting chance or persuasive voice. Fast Food Nation gave Bruce Willis’s corporate higher-up the floor to deliver a tough, pragmatic monologue ending in “We all gotta eat a little shit from time to time”—a rogue element that gave an ideologically committed movie greater strength through tension. Ultimately, what causes the scales to fall from Steve’s eyes is his discovery that Global has been playing with a stacked deck, making sure they can’t lose. Here, Promised Land, whose ending never once seems in doubt, exemplifies in dramatic structure the same cheating its hero can’t stomach.

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The Bourne Legacy: Who’s the New Guy?

The Bourne films have more than just overstayed their welcome and outlasted the Ludlum books—they’ve been Van Halenized, with an abrupt change of frontman and a resulting dip in personality. The only big-ass popcorn franchise of the past decade to have not been spawned on computers, the series up to now has survived via Matt Damon’s beady gaze, making decisions about where the story goes, even as director Paul Greengrass’s jittery action fuzz did its best to render the set pieces of the past two entries almost unwatchable. (Doug Liman’s initial film, maybe because it eschews the safe harmlessness of CGI, still pulses with panic and still freezes the channel-surfing thumb in mid click.) Now, we have Jeremy Renner as another Treadstone mega man (there were nine, apparently), and though he is a likable enough pug-nosed action figure, the Damonlessness is sorely felt.

Renner is not stranded by himself—The Bourne Legacy is chockablock with busy character-actor casting, from Edward Norton’s nasally fed bulldog to fleeting cameos by David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney, and Joan Allen. (For the extra work of a Guardian journalist who’s killed without a line of dialogue, they even bothered to get Paddy Considine.) The film is as densely packed with officious people and global villages as Syriana and takes itself about as seriously. Mostly, though, Renner has on-the-run scientist helpmate Rachel Weisz, who is 41 going on 23 and brings a badly needed, full-throated payload of personal energy to her tagalong scenes, even though they’re just that.

Given the film’s relentless slam-blam effect, it’s rather amazing that anybody gets to act at all. (James Newton Howard’s score is abusive, with every mere establishing shot of Tokyo or Chicago getting a brontosaur’s soundtrack stomp.) But acting does happen, mostly in a two-sentence splats, just enough to kick the narrative one more foot down the highway on its way to the inevitable showdown. There’s a lot of pensive screen-watching in dark surveillance rooms.

Tony Gilroy, on his fourth Bourne and now unleashed from Ludlum’s paperbacks (the subsequent Eric Van Lustbader sequels, even the one titled The Bourne Legacy, were not consulted), overplots in the Christopher Nolan manner. But Gilroy was smart enough to make room for juicy dramatics: After the film’s lengthy centerpiece begins with a hairy workplace-shooting ordeal that Weisz survives, she heads to her crumbling fixer-upper mansion in the woods, where she’s visited by seemingly concerned feds. Antics ensue, but only after a hearty dose of old-school interpersonal tension. The story in general takes a while to hit gears, but its primary task is revealing the broader program from which Bourne arose and the pharmaceutical basis of its behavioral modifications. Renner’s Aaron Cross, first met fighting off wolves in Alaska, is a pill-
popping über-mensch who suddenly realizes, as per Norton’s bureaucratic fiat, that the program is being shut down and its progeny eliminated one by one. He’s motivated to survive the onslaught (at first, via drone) but also to score more über-dope; Weisz’s lab geek agrees to help only after realizing she’s being hunted, too.

This presents a dynamic Damon might not have enjoyed: Without his meds, the quick-minded Cross would revert back to his old learning-disabled self, like the experimental subject in Flowers for Algernon. (“I’ve got a long way to fall,” Cross says, grumbling.) You can’t blame the lug, though the notion that only a daily dose of “viral” beanies was all Damon’s Bourne needed to be Bourne is disenchanting, to say the least. The exposition supporting this chemical backstory fills the eddies in the action flow in ways the Bourne movies never required before, and the techno-gibberish flies like confetti.

Bourne, we’re told, is also still evading assassination somewhere, and perhaps Universal is hoping for a Damon/Greengrass reunion for number five, which we’ll call The Bourne Redundancy for now. Renner might just be a placeholder. Working in the trenches so he can eventually make himself another Michael Clayton, Gilroy keeps things brisk and relatively smart, but he can’t be surprised if we find the rooftop-‘n’-motorcycle chase through Manila a little rote by now, however white-knuckly and free of Greengrass camera palsy. The late-in-the-game introduction of a supervillain—a Bourne 2.0 from a “beta program” flown in from Bangkok in white skinny jeans—feels like outright pandering. But hell, it’s the fourth film, and that’s what happens when Hollywood hyperextends a simple paradigm beyond even the patience of the last cast and crew. (Greengrass just “wasn’t interested” in another Bourne, and without him, Damon bailed.) Are we expecting much more?

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Animal House: Matt Damon Needs Your Love in We Bought a Zoo

When I told someone I was off to a screening of We Bought a Zoo the other day, the response was an eye roll. The reaction is understandable: Save for two music docs—an Elton John–Leon Russell album making-of and that Pearl Jam anniversary infomercial—Cameron Crowe has been MIA since 2005’s autobiographical Elizabethtown, about the prodigal big-city son returneth to his small town to fetch his dead daddy’s ashes for a long drive to nowhere. Crowe took a tanning over that weepy wreck. Both Elizabethtown and his earlier Vanilla Sky were as disappointing as they were ambitious, which is being kind on both fronts. Crowe tried going big, and he was sent home.

So now he returns with a film he did not write, but rewrote, based on the real-life story of Benjamin Mee, a Brit newspaper columnist who picked up from his idyllic new digs in the South of France and went off to rescue an English zoo with his family, including a son, a daughter, and a dying wife. The movie changes these circumstances around a bit: The wife is six months gone before Benjamin (the quite American Matt Damon), moody 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford), and bright-‘n’-shiny seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, made for the movies) consider the move. And in the movie, they don’t relocate from the French paradise to the English countryside, but from a Los Angeles suburb to the rolling hills of Southern California, where Dad hopes to escape the ghost who haunts them all. And look who’s here to help: Scarlett Johansson.

Crowe is back to what he’s good at: small stories populated by everyday people. (He has always veered toward being a small-screen guy who worked big screen; Say Anything . . ., Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous could have been prime-time pilots.) Helping Crowe’s odds is Damon, who does a superior job of vacillating between wide-eyed (“Look! A grizzly bear!”) and misty-eyed (“I wish my dead wife weren’t dead.”) without turning Benjamin into a complete sap. We see him at the film’s beginning as an “adventure writer” for the Los Angeles Times who flies into the center of storms and asks terrorists a cutesy question to which the answer is “Toy Story 2.” But soon Dylan is expelled from school (his drawings are violent, and he’s stealing, and, oh, sorry about your dead mom) and Benjamin is about to get shuffled off to the blogs by his boss—so, time to go house-hunting. And now time to buy a dilapidated zoo on the verge of being shuttered and sold for the land alone. It’s populated with lions, tigers, and bears—and humans, too, among them Johansson as the longtime zookeeper (well, assistant, but shhh), Angus Macfadyen as a visionary enclosure designer, and Elle Fanning as an angel-faced love interest for Dylan. We didn’t just buy a zoo; we bought a new family! So Crowe.

On the surface, it all sounds so terribly mawkish, and I haven’t even mentioned the on-the-nose soundtrack that cues up Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” during a long storm. Or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More” when Dylan gets the boot from school. Or Wilco and Billy Bragg’s “Airline to Heaven” when the Mees start looking for new digs. Or Benjamin’s reluctance to let the zookeepers put down, painlessly, the ailing 17-year-old tiger aching for an adios. We get it—he has been down this awful road before.

The cynics will scoff and dismiss it all as manipulative, the heartstring-tugging machine on hyperdrive. But this movie isn’t for them; did you not see the PG? It’s a sweet, sincere, utterly affable kids’ movie about how parents are all kinds of screwed up and unable to tell their kids what they want or show them how they feel. The scene in which Benjamin and Dylan have their hallway shout-off (“Help me, damn it! Help me!”) is as wrenching as it is inevitable. And Damon has never been more lovable—the guy looks like he could use a hug.

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Matt Damon Will School You: In Praise of Educators in American Teacher

One of the right wing’s favorite punching bags—and even, increasingly, the left’s— is the teaching profession. Director Vanessa Roth, who co-produced American Teacher with Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers and scored Matt Damon to narrate, counters the teachers-are-the-problem narrative with a corrective that’s unapologetic in its teacher boosterism. What makes the film more than just a cheerleading countermove is the towering amount of research it contains: historical data tracing the profession from being the domain of men to largely that of women, and the cynical economic ploy behind the shift; terrifying figures on the rates of those fleeing the profession as well as the looming crisis of a mass retirement of elderly teachers; the sobering numbers of teachers living at the poverty level and/or holding down a second job. Putting a human face on the data are teachers of all races and backgrounds who gave Roth complete access to both their professional and personal lives, showing how the two are so deeply intertwined. What’s made powerfully clear is that we’ve reached a dire point of crisis that, while largely rooted in economics, is about so much more than dollars and cents. “Without effective teachers,” says one interviewee, “we don’t have an effective democracy.”

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Steven Soderbergh Says We’re Killing Ourselves in Contagion

Currently the fifth-to-last film on Steven Soderbergh’s ever-expanding pre-retirement slate, Contagion opens on day two of a global viral epidemic. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, an American employee for an ominously unspecific multinational corporation who returns from a business trip in Hong Kong to her wintry Midwestern home feeling like crap. Twenty-four hours after she’s written off her sickness as jet lag in a phone call to her never-seen lover, Beth starts convulsing and foaming at the mouth. She’s pronounced dead at the hospital, and before her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), can make it home to break the news to their young son, the kid follows suit. Soon jet-setters the world over are literally breaking into sweats simultaneously.

Beth is fingered as Patient Zero of a virus previously unseen on earth that kills its victims within hours of the onset of symptoms and defies cure, containment, or scientific understanding; as one researcher puts it, “It kills every cell we put it in.” Hospitals and streets fill with the zombie sick, and the social order breaks down almost instantly.

In fine Irwin “Master of Disaster” Allen style, Soderbergh deploys a cast of thousands to help sketch the epidemic as a global, class-blind, all-encompassing event. Marion Cotillard is the adorable WHO epidemiologist assigned to trace the origins of Beth’s illness by piecing together her last hours, as captured in multiple locations via apparently omnipresent surveillance cams. Laurence Fishburne is the CDC chief who sends deputy Kate Winslet to manage the crisis on the ground while he hunkers down at headquarters and tries to manage the message—a fight thwarted when conspiracy blogger Jude Law posts a video of a Japanese businessman collapsing on a city bus, which feeds a global panic that turns survivors like Mitch into hyper-paranoid shut-ins. Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Demetri Martin appear in small but crucial roles; Jennifer Ehle has a career-making part as the quietly brilliant researcher whom Soderbergh frames like an ingénue as she reels off jargon at an impossibly fast and mellifluous rate.

Speed itself is both a key Contagion theme—the virus that multiplies faster than it can be tracked, the technology that allows not only the quick transport of data and people over vast distances but also the constant tracking of that travel—and the film’s defining aesthetic characteristic. Crafting staccato montages to a coolly insistent drum, bass, and piano score, Soderbergh transitions between his interwoven stories at a rapid-fire pace, allowing a couple of seemingly major characters to disappear for long stretches and one to die with a startling lack of sentimentality. That character’s burial is presented as a matter-of-fact marker of how bad things have become: The only ceremony over the mass grave in the center of a city is a dialogue exchange between bored workers about when the local government ran out of body bags.

Contagion is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie—as self-conscious a Hollywood entertainment as his Ocean’s trilogy, and as microscopically attuned to its moment as his 2009 experimental sketch of the economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience. It is also part 1970s star-studded and story-bloated disaster movie and part 1870s satire-as-serialized-soap-opera, a pulp-pop confection with an unusually serious-minded social critique at its heart. Think The Towering Inferno, as done by Anthony Trollope.

Trollope’s 1875 doorstop novel, The Way We Live Now, is an apt point of reference not just because its title could sub for the one Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns chose—their film might take place in a bizarro-world present, but it’s all the more terrifying because of the methodic realism that makes it impossible to distinguish that bizarro world from life on earth circa now. But also, Trollope’s masterpiece turned a pop-culture craze—serialized novels that used real locomotive crashes as the starting point for ensemble soap operas—on its head. There’s no actual train crash in The Way We Live Now; instead, the “railway disaster” is perpetrated by a con artist who convinces all of London society, high on the 19th century’s ultimate symbol of “progress”—the steam engine—to invest in a railway that will never be built. Greed and hypocrisy spread, well, virally, in the wake of technological change, and before you know it, society has collapsed on itself. Soderbergh similarly takes on pop Hollywood forms specifically to make them his own, and like The Way We Live Now, Contagion exists to trace the chain reaction caused by isolated acts of selfishness, unchecked power, and a never-sated culture of newer, faster, better.

An act of promiscuity might cause the virus’s initial spread across continents, but Contagion implies that risky sex has nothing, long-term-consequences-wise, on the risky high-speed transfer of information. In a world in which grief is expressed via texted emoticon before the body is buried, and Web celebrities cause riot-panics as stocks spike with their blog hype, meme control becomes the official form of damage control. “Social distancing,” the name given to the CDC’s policy of virus containment via forced isolation of the healthy, is not just the literal opposite of “social networking,” but its potential endgame. At what point in the near future will we all stop leaving the house?

As prolific a worker as any in contemporary Hollywood, Soderbergh claims to be on the verge of packing in his own career, which gives his movie a pretty interesting subtextual twist: Work, in Contagion, is fraught with mortal peril. The first victims are business travelers, while Damon’s stay-at-home dad is spared and even turned into one of the film’s least ambiguous heroes. If Contagion truly is the first leg of Soderbergh’s retirement victory lap, this harrowing film is a potent reminder of what we stand to lose.