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]

A Trip To The Movies: ‘A Most Wanted Man’ 9.26.14

It’s perhaps by a miracle that I happened to stumble upon this film. These days I’m mostly out of the loop when it comes to what’s current (a rather intentional move on my part). I don’t check Rotten Tomatoes for their latest aggregate score, I rarely look at what other reviewers are giving movies, nor do I visit movie news websites (sorry The Playlist, our long-lasting relationship is over). I do this precisely because I want to know very little about a film. No grades, no stills; and with the exception of a few, no trailers. I also do this because I want to have a complete blank slate other than maybe knowing the genre of the film, its cast; and most importantly, the director. I was looking at this week’s showtimes and was interested in checking out an afternoon matinée on my day off and I saw a title that jumped out at me called “A Most Wanted Man”. I saw that it had a star next to it (our local paper’s way of stating whether they liked a film or not). Pretty simple like Siskel and Ebert’s “thumbs up/down”. So I clicked on it and remembered that it was one of 3 final Philip Seymour Hoffman films I had heard about that he filmed before he passed away. Then I saw that it was under the genre of ” political crime thriller”. I almost decided on it right then and there and just happened to notice that it said directed by Anton Corbijn. I thought to myself “wait…Anton Corbijn?!?!” He has a new film out? How on earth didn’t I know about it? I guess my sheltering myself from what’s current and new had finally gone and backfired on me. We’re talking about the much celebrated director of both the incredible Ian Curtis/Joy Division film “Control” (2007) and the also amazing and incredibly misunderstood “The American” (2010). Once I found out that it was a crime film by this director featuring one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films; that fit into the this specific genre that I loved, I was sold. Then it was just a matter of waiting out the few remaining days I had left in anticipation of seeing it.

The film opens and introduces us straight off the bat to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character. Who appears to be some sort of spy. We soon learn that he’s part of a counterintelligence group. One that’s based out of Hamburg, Germany. His particular outfit investigates suspected terrorists. Or so we’re lead to believe. The team he heads is following a Muslim for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Except we get the impression this person is important. We soon after meet Robin Wright who heads up the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. She proposes to him that the two of them team up as they too are watching this suspected terrorist. Not long after we meet Rachel McAdams (another actress who comes around every so often to remind you of how good she really is). McAdams plays a lawyer; one who understands the true reasons behind why both of these agencies are interested in this man, and goes on to represent him. We also meet the head of a bank. Played in great, slimy fashion by the great character actor Willem Dafoe. He’s the last remaining piece to the puzzle and holds the key to something instrumental that can help out the Muslim man considerably. From this point on it’s a series of scenes involving allegiances with everybody wanting something from the other. Everyone is constantly being trailed by the other and anyone could be under surveillance. Each entity is on their own and no one is safe. Who is protecting who? What is each’s motivations? Why is everyone being trailed by the other? These are questions that you will be asking yourself from the first 5 minutes until the last scene of the film. It’s a never-ending thrill ride where the chase is constant.

I personally cannot say enough good things about this film. Anton Corbijn does an absolutely amazing job at holding the audience’s attention without letting go throughout the entirety of the film. It’s shot like an old European spy thriller. Films like Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949) or more recently; the 2011 remake of the 1979 film “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. Films shot in big cities using muted dark colors like grey’s and blues which give them a certain iciness quality which lends itself well to the material. The surveillance scenes are also incredibly well shot. They allow the viewer in and give it an almost voyeuristic feel. The way in which Corbijn seems to be in complete control of the very complicated yet accessible story line really needs to be seen to be believed. In fact, it might be the most dense film I’ve seen that manages to not get itself muddled or disjointed in as far back as I can remember. Its intricate plot lines matched something like that of Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana” (2005). The surveillance scenes and counterintelligence evoked a sense of dread and paranoia that was reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning 1974 film “The Conversation” (one of my top 10-20 favorite films of all time). It keeps the audience second guessing and at the edge of their seats biting their lips. This is all this topped off with an ending that totally took me by surprise and that I didn’t seem coming from a mile away. And finally, what I’m predicting is going to be a posthumous award nomination for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Who was and always will be one of the truly greatest actors of our time. Even in his not so good films he was always the best part about them. It’s almost as if a bad Philip Seymour Hoffman performance didn’t exist. And like in so many other films in this he is nothing short of breathtaking. I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am that this film was my final swan song with him and not his appearances in the supposedly not so good “God’s Pocket” as well as the upcoming entry in the “Hunger Games” series. Thank you Anton Corbijn and thank you Philip Seymour Hoffman. For every time I reflect back on this great actor’s career I’ll remember that my last dance with him was with this film. This is one that’s already earned itself a spot on my top 10 list (so far) of the greatest films I’ve seen this year. And one that’s recommended with a high stamp of approval.

Grade: B+/A-