Review: “The Congress” 11.30.14

This is yet another example of a film that caught my attention solely because of the fact that I loved Israeli-born writer/director Ari Folman’s previous effort – 2008’s Golden Globe Winner for Best Foreign Language Film “Waltz With Bashir”. I recently revisited “Waltz” for maybe about the half dozenth time or so and found it to be every bit as mesmerizing as I had remembered it from the 5 or so previous viewings of it that I had seen. Maybe even more so. Part of the reason why I revisit movies is because I feel like I look at them differently with each passing year. That and it’s always a wise choice to revisit a director’s previous work which allows someone like myself to drum up anticipation for their next film. This film in particular highlights this ethos exactly. As WWB is a brilliant film from a multitude of cinematic stand points. It brought an entirely new and fresh approach to the documentary format in that it was shot similarly to what Richard Linklater did with both “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006). It presented us with a series of interviews that the director films beforehand then has a team of animators draw over the already filmed material which gives them an almost surreal and dream-like quality. The major difference being that Forman utilized this same look but without the fictionalization of the 2 Linklater films. His was a real life account of a series of different people talking about their experiences of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Which not only gave it a sense of authenticity in terms of how it breathed new life in telling a somewhat familiar war-torn story. It gave me a newfound admiration for how animation could be used to tell a highly effective tale with a deeply emotional center. However, since then, a very seemingly long 6 years have past. And now Folman is back with his next feature that finds him, like many other foreign filmmakers, coming to the United States following an award-winning film of theirs. This plus it boasted a rather impressive cast in Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston, and Kodi-Smit McPhee in a film that like WWB, brings back this combination of animation with live action footage.

The film opens with a close up shot of Robin Wright’s character, and a close zoom out with an off-screen voice-over by her film agent played by Harvey Keitel. Keitel is debasing her about her career and the many ups and downs it has taken, more recently for the worse. He says that he has come to bring her one last opportunity to do something that might kickstart her career. A move that could give her the same fame and notoriety she received for films that she was in when she was younger. Films like “A Princess Bride” (1987) and “Forrest Gump” (1996). It is quickly brought to our attention that she is playing a fictionalized version of her real life self. Though everyone around her including her son (Smit-McPhee), head of “Marimount” Studios (Huston), and son’s doctor (Giamatti), play characters and not themselves. Wright is being told that in order to save her career, she needs to be copied, or “computerized”, so that she can maintain both her youth and success. She is very apprehensive to this as she seems to be a “technophobe” as her daughter puts it. She’s afraid that by becoming cloned or made into a chip she might lose her sense of self and identity. However, because of her growing older and in need of a career change, she decides to take the offer. She then heads to some sort of scientific division within the studio, where she undergoes said transformation. Then, at this point, we jump 30 years ahead to the year 2033. Where she is about to cross the border from real life to computer life. And after having done so, she’s transported to this world where a number of different events transpire. Most of which revolve around the studio and the societal framework known as “The Congress”. The film takes a huge shift at that point and delves into entirety new territory, as it goes on to explore themes of identity, existentialism, the self, and post-technology. Giving us an inventive glimpse into the future.

I’ll start by saying I felt very indifferent about this picture. There really was so much to like, yet at the same time a lot that I had quite a bit of hard time finding myself being able to get into. First off, as I mentioned above it boasts a pretty incredible cast. Robin Wright is perfectly cast here as the aging star who’s own real life career trajectory is important in terms of the story’s context. She’s also in just about every frame of the film, so almost all of it rests on her really pulling her weight. And she rises to the occasion here providing some very strong work. Also, the animation, which a little more than a third of the film consists of, is simply breathtaking. As was with WWB, Folman and his obviously very talented animation team provide a visual spectacle with animation that makes anything I’ve seen up to this point look outdated. It’s hallucinogenic and acid-soaked imagery is nothing short of dazzling to watch. There’s also a pretty deep emotional core to the film, as the Wright character goes on a journey of self discovery that forces her to tap into some pretty introspective places. That stuff aside, the film feels almost tedious throughout its entire duration. The shift in tones were off-putting. The first third drags and then just when it starts to get interesting, they totally shift focus in the story and we’re presented with this entirely new universe and character arch. That and the animation segment, which takes up about the second third to three-quarters of the film, is a head scratcher and utterly difficult to keep up with and follow at times. It feels overwrought and much too dense for even the hardest of genre fans. Which in the case of this film would be heady Science Fiction. It attempts to explore some really deep existential themes that at times just seemed like a tad bit too much. So for all the incredibly stunning imagery on display here, the film gets caught up in the too many themes in which it tries to explore. And even despite its great cast and voice over work by people like Jon Hamm and Tom Cruise, this is mostly a tiresome effort for director Ari Folman and a disappointing follow-up to “Waltz With Bashir”.

[C]

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Two Trips To The Movies – Review: ‘Gone Girl’ 10.3 and 10.5

There is something special about seeing a new film on opening night by one of the most celebrated directors of the past 20 years. There’s a certain feeling or excitement that goes along with it that is difficult to put into words. Take for example when Martin Scorcese released “The Departed” in 2006. I was living in Portland, Maine at the time and had been following the news on it through pre production, filming, and post production; and knew that it was filmed in/around the Boston area. Being in that Boston was 2 hours (only 2 hours) away, I knew right then and there that I would be making every effort to see it opening night in the city it was filmed in as I thought it would only add to the authenticity of the whole experience. Seeing a new Scorsese movie, one that was being hailed as a return to his “Goodfellas” and “Casino” roots, with a sold out crowd on opening night in the city it was filmed in? There really isn’t anything like it. At least for me anyway. Even if I did wind up ultimately being let down by it. It’s the waiting in line for over an hour with people who are equally as excited, to finally being let in by the usher who unhooks the rope, and then finding yourself a good seat. Only to sit back among the buzz of the audience and prepare yourself for something that you’ve waited so long to see. That exact feeling and experience is one that I’ve only felt and had maybe a half a dozen to a dozen times in my life. It’s like the rush of a drug, and one that I’m constantly trying to chase again. When I first heard about “Gone Girl” all I needed to know was that it was directed by David Fincher, and from that point forward I made a cognizant choice to close myself off from everything about it. I did however catch the initial trailer while seeing another film several months ago and remember thinking “huh, that trailer didn’t tell me anything. And I’m glad it didn’t. Because from that point forward I wanted to know absolutely nothing about it. Even going into the opening night showing I knew 4 things – that it was based on a New York Times Bestseller, that it starred Ben Affleck (who I had my doubts about) and involved a kidnapping (the only 2 things I could make out from the trailer). And, finally, that it was directed by David Fincher. Fincher is one of maybe 10 directors (Roman Polanski being another one that I mentioned in my last review) where I’ve seen just about every film he’s made. Going all the way back to his debut with the horrible 1992 “Alien 3” (I gave him a pass with that one – he was young and probably thought it would kick start his career ) to his groundbreaking “Se7en” (1995), to 1997’s smart and clever “The Game”, to 1999’s admirable but slightly overrated “Fight Club”, to 2002’s mostly forgetabble “Panic Room”, to what I still consider to be my favorite Fincher film – 2007’s “Zodiac”, to 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (a film where I’m in the minority but that I find comparable to “Forrest Gump”), to 2010’s remarkable “The Social Network”, and finally 2012’s solid and equally dark adaptation of the remake of the Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. David Fincher is one of those directors that my anticipation of seeing a new film of his is so great that I don’t even have to contemplate for a second whether or not I’ll be seeing it on opening night. That and I went to see it twice. Mostly because I owe it to Fincher in that I sometimes feel, like with other directors of his caliber, that his films often require a second viewing.

A loose synopsis of the film is that it revolves around Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who at first appears unhappy with his life and the way in which it’s heading. He owns a bar in which his sister whom he’s close with works at. He has a father in an assisted living home who he’s not so close with. Through a series of both flashbacks and flash-forwards we are shown how him and his wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) came to meet. Amy writes for a magazine in a column where she goes by “Amazing Amy”, and through a series of journal entries we are told the story of how they came to meet and fall both in and out of love. But then it flash-forwards to Nick coming home to find his wife missing and it appears as if a murder may have taken place. Did he commit it? The detectives assigned to the case certainly think he did. He’s completely solemn and well composed about the whole thing. This augmented by an interrogation where we learn that he really doesn’t know much about his wife other than that she “was really complicated”. Which might have to do with the fact that despite their having fallen madly in love with one another, they also show how their love unravels to where they wind up loathing and having nothing but the utmost disdain for one other. So much so to the point where she feels so threatened by her husband that she purchases a gun in order to protect herself. Flashing forward again all eyes are on Affleck’s character, as everyone from the police, local townspeople, to the eventual press and national media, wind up being convinced that it could have possibly only been him who did it.

The film winds up being a mixed bag. There were elements about it that I loved greatly and other elements I had some serious problems with. I really liked Fincher’s vision and take on the story (though admittedly I haven’t read the novel in which it’s based on). It’s unbelievably dark and psychological in all the best ways. He has a knack for creating a mood and tone that’s uncanny to almost any other film maker around. The way in which he shoots the film with blueish and cold color filters gives it an almost dream-like quality at times and a nightmarish one at others. That and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score really accentuates the material nicely. Similar to their work on “The Social Network” and like the electronic scores of recent years by Cliff Martinez. All three composers whose music is almost like a second character in the films they write for. I also liked the second guessing element to the whole proceeding. It’s a constant game of asking yourself questions and following the trail of bread crumbs that are effectively laid out for you. And Rosamund Pike gives a mighty fine performance here. One that I can potentially see her getting an Academy Award nomination for for Best Actress come Oscar time. Where its greatest weakness lies is in its inability to feel even remotely authentic. To me it felt incredibly sterile, transparent, stagey, and at times similar to that of a TNT movie of the week. All of the performances besides Pike’s felt awkwardly wooden. Even though I’m told it’s fitting that Affleck’s character comes across that way as it’s more faithful to the novel. But casting Tyler Perry as the lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as one of Amy’s ex’s, and Patrick Fugit as one of the detectives was a total misfire and all three of them seemed totally out of place. I thought none of these or any of the other performances stood out even in the slightest other than Pike’s. I also felt that the pacing felt a bit uneven and jarring at times. One scene would grab a hold of my attention and then the flashback or flash-forward following it would lose my interest. Lastly, there were quite a few plot holes throughout the story that the writer and director ask the viewer to take a pretty considerable leap of faith with. Still, it had a fair amount going for it. So for some of the more positive reasons I mentioned above I would definitely recommend seeing it. That and I can also see it being a really divisive film. But for people like me, it is and always will be looked at as a minor Fincher effort in his ever expanding body of work.

Grade: First time: strong B / Second time: C+ / Overall: B-