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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Review: The Congress

The Congress (2013): Written and directed by Ari Fulman.  Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, Kodi Smitt-McPhee, Danny Huston.  Running Time: 122 minutes.  Based on The Futurological Congress, by Stanislaw Lem. 

Rating: 3/4

            Be neither disheartened nor encouraged by the fraction you see above.  The Congress, the first film by Israeli director Ari Fulman since his 2008 masterpiece Waltz With Bashir, is a strange and enigmatic work that defies easy reviewing or explanation, and thus renders a numerical valuation of its cinematic merit even more futile than such a gesture normally is.  I’m honestly not sure whether or not I should begin this review with a spoiler warning.  I can’t delve into the themes of the movie without revealing critical moments in the little semblance of plot that it has.  On the other hand, even if I were to lay out, in detail, all that happens over the course of the film, I highly doubt it would provide a satisfactory answer to the ever-dangerous question, “What is this film about?”  Chronicling the story hardly captures the strange power The Congress has on the viewer- its bleak mutterings about the future of humanity, its arresting animation, the jarring shifts in atmosphere and setting, the haunting tones of the soundtrack (composed by Max Richter, who also scored Bashir).  Nonetheless, I shall make my most valiant of efforts. 

            Robin Wright is, well, Robin Wright, an aging former star who, according to her agent and her contact at “Miramount” (a completely unhidden play on Paramount), made “a lot of bad decisions,” effectively ruining her standing in the industry.  Now, living at the edge of an airfield with her daughter and son, Robin is offered one last chance- allow Miramount to completely “scan” her, allowing them to graphically insert her image into any and all movies they want to, guaranteeing it as a form of immorality for her.  She doesn’t have to show up on set to act- the company merely decides what movies “she” will be in, and when the time comes, an animator will insert her image into the film.  She, in the meantime, is banned for life from any stage appearances whatsoever, so that people don’t confuse her with the scanned Robin Wright (we learn, in a bit of meta-humor, that Keanu Reeves has already been scanned).  Years after she accepts their terms, she is invited to a congress of sorts, to celebrate the birth of a new chemical drug that allows people to enter into a shared animated universe.  Once in this shared universe, people can take further chemicals (obtained at “parties”) to change their “physical appearance” for a brief period of time- Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe, Buddha, Zeus, Jesus, and even Robin Wright are among the forms people in the background spontaneously change into from time to time.  We soon learn, however, that some are adamantly and violently opposed to what this new technology could mean for humanity. 

            The technological and “chemical” capabilities that allow both the scanning and the shared animated world are completely unexplained, and rightfully so, since any attempt to justify the world of The Congress would immediately ruin the entire affair.  This is not a film meant to be logical, to have a strict progression of cause to effect, to be “understood” in the way we “understand” most movies.  It deliberately throws all it has at you, never stopping to explain itself, and never even bothers to care.  It’s less of a story movie and more of an allegorical warning, or at least it tries to be, at times.  There are snippets of dialogue that explain the journey Robin experiences in the chemical world (or do they?  That, too, is open-ended), buried beneath a veneer of aggressively vibrant visuals that look like the spirit world in Spirited Away and a Dali painting mated, and the resulting offspring went incurably insane. 

            So I suppose the question that should be asked about The Congress is not so much “What is it about” or even “What should it all mean,” but rather, “Does the film, as an experience, work?”  Does it leave you with something unforgettable, interesting, and engaging?  Here, too, I suspect any answer I give will be hopelessly inadequate.  Whether or not the experience of the film “works” depends entirely so on each individual and their tastes and expectations (more so than with most films).  This is one of those movies that will most likely confuse or bore a great many people, and more than a few will probably hate it.  Many who see it may walk away determined to get it out of their head as quickly as possible.  Others will adore it.  Some will call it a masterpiece.  It will probably develop a cult following amongst avid psychedelic drug users (the first images of the animated world look like a purged 60’s fever dream- keep an eye out for Titanic and Moby Dick shout-outs). 

            My apologies, I realize I’m prevaricating.  The only really important question for me to answer, as the reviewer describing this movie to you, is, “Did I like it?”  And yes, on the whole, I believe I did.  The acting in the real-world bits has moments of genuine power.  Robin herself is diminished somewhat by the animated sections, where her cartoon face is able to show very little emotion, making her seem way too passive and calm in the face of a (literally) decades-long acid-trip.  Max Richter’s soundtrack is as effective as it was in Bashir, a rippling undercurrent that whispers of sadness, and loss.  The movie’s strongest moments are where the animation stops moving so quickly and the script lets up on the heavy-handed messaging, and the viewer simply drifts through a series of images, impressions, and ideas, moments reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s quasi-spiritual cinematography in Tree of Life, New World, and To The Wonder.  I don’t know if the movie will stick with me the way Bashir does.  I doubt it.  There are so many threads flying around that a great many of them are simply forgotten.  But I do appreciate The Congress, as I must appreciate anything that causes me to pause, and reflect. 

-Noah Franc


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013):  Written and directed by Woody Allen.  Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Canavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, and a very, very Serious Man.  Running Time: 98 minutes.  Based (largely) off of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            I have never made a secret out of the fact that I strongly dislike Tennessee Williams’ ubiquitous “American Classic” A Streetcar Named Desire.  Perhaps that says less about the play itself and more about the stage of life I was in when I first read it.  Either way, something about its disparaging and aggressively bleak tone just didn’t appeal to me, and still doesn’t (not that that excuses the romantic liberties taken by the 1951 film).  That said, I do understand why it’s a classic, and why people still read it, perform it, watch it, and discuss it- be it fact or fiction, few things are as compulsively watchable as the tale of the fallen diva, the uppity jerk who’s self-centeredness brings about their own downfall.  Be it healthy or no, it’s our continuing cultural addiction to such stories that, in my personal opinion, is the primary reason why Streetcar still exerts such a powerful influence on American theater and film

            I begin by discussing Streetcar because it was clearly one of the springboards for the plot of Blue Jasmine, the latest effort by actor/director Woody Allen.  Although it’s not listed as a direct influence on the movie’s story, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine (or is it Jeanette?) bears a noticeably strong resemblance to Blanche Dubois.  Like Blanche, Jasmine enters the film with assured swagger, projecting an aristocratic image of a woman confident in herself, her wealth, and her place in society.  And also like with Blanche, we almost immediately realize that this projection is merely that, and that not only is Jasmine no longer the woman of means she used to be, she’s also mentally unstable. 

            Part of her mental instability could be attributed to the fact that the life of vast excess she and her husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) enjoyed was built almost entirely on lies- Hal lied to his clients and partners (including Jasmine’s sister and her ex-husband) about the security of his business, lied to the government about its legitimacy, and lied to Jasmine about his fidelity.  Jasmine, in turn, lied to herself about her husband’s affairs, and lied to others about knowing how big a crook he was- she spends the entire film claiming ignorance of his deeds, but a telling moment in one scene suggests this is less than true.  Now that all the lies have fallen away and she has nothing left but debts (and her Louis Vuitton luggage, and a first-class plane ticket to San Fran), she appears to be both physically and mentally incapable of dealing with it and moving on.  However, in one of the movie’s many brilliant subtleties, it’s left open-ended how much of her mental state resulted from the breakup of her marriage, and how much of it had always been there, lurking beneath her veneer of first-class contentment. 

            The full story of her marriage with Hal (and its many, many disastrous consequences) is given to us piecemeal, in brief flashbacks scattered throughout the “main” story- after Hal goes to jail and hangs himself, Jasmine leaves New York behind and moves in with her sister Ginger in San Francisco.  The extreme normalcy of Ginger’s life and of her working-class, boxing-loving boyfriend Chili quickly start to offend Jasmine’s sense of what a “better life” should look like- her initial reaction to Ginger’s small, compact apartment is a sarcastic, “It looks so…homey!” 

            Jasmine’s horror at having to live below her perceived station and at what she sees as Chili’s shortcomings quickly starts to create rifts between herself and her sister, and even between her sister and Chili before too long.  Ginger (played by Sally Hawkins) perfectly captures the dilemma of someone trapped between the demands of both her family and her partner- she’s still angry and hurt about how she and her ex were cheated by Hal, but when Chili angrily demands to know why she’s still trying to help Jasmine (whose arrival in San Francisco has delayed his moving in with Ginger), she helplessly responds, “Because she’s my sister!” 

            In another marked parallel to Streetcar, Jasmine does make some tottering steps towards giving her life a new direction- she takes up a job as a dentist’s secretary (an affair that eventually goes horribly wrong) in order to pay for classes in computers and interior design.  She even manages to find a well-off, single guy in Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard), the proverbial Mitch who could offer her a way to come to terms with the past, but once again, her immense capacity for lies and self-delusion rears its ugly head, and starts to douse the bridge with oil before it’s even been fully built. 

            The acting in the movie is across-the-board excellent, easily the film’s greatest asset, and the highlight is Cate Blanchett’s multi-tiered performance as Jasmine, which (I believe) should guarantee her an early spot on the list of Oscar nominees.  Jasmine barely registers as sympathetic- an encounter with her wayward son, who disappeared after Hal’s crimes were unmasked, goes about as well for her as most would expect- but the indefagitable Blanchett still gets across that, sometimes, Jasmine isn’t quite so blind to how much she hurts both herself and others.  She’s not the only one to get a spotlight moment though- Bobby Canavale’s Chili gets not one, but two great scenes when he learns that Ginger (partially because of Jasmine’s urging) has started an affair with a guy she met at a party. 

            One of the movie’s recurring motifs is the song “Blue Moon”- as Jasmine explains to literally everyone, whether or not they’re listening, it was the song playing when she first met Hal at a party.  Its constant reintroduction in the background is almost like a personal Siren for her, calling her back into remembrance of and obsession over the past, a lost time she would love nothing more than to have back.  That, of course, is where her character’s greatest tragedy lies- she can’t have her former life back, and to some extent she realizes that.  Desire for a dream, however, can often prove far more alluring than acceptance of a "lesser" reality.  

            If there is one problem with Blue Jasmine, it’s the screenplay.  Woody Allen is known for sharp, funny, and often brutally dark dialogue, but while this movie has its moments of wit and humor, it also tends towards being overly repetitive and expositional.  I got tired hearing of about Hal being a crook, his affairs, the FBI investigation, his suicide, and Jasmine’s subsequent (and very public) mental breakdown by about the 5th time it was hashed out in a given scene, so the next 5 times it was discussed were just plain tiresome.  Thankfully, although it is a distraction, it’s never long or sustained enough to completely break the film, and as I said before, its saving grace is that no one in the cast is dead weight.  Blue Jasmine is one of the best English-language films of the year thus far, and has a better chance than The Butler of being on the shortlist for Oscar nominations.  Definitely see this one while it’s in theaters if you get the chance. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Summer Blockbusters: The 2013 Report Card

           2013 had the misfortune of being the post-Avengers/Dark Knight Rises year, meaning that 1) few of the movies of this year benefited from the flood of eager anticipation that awaited those two titans, and 2) pretty much all of them were doomed to suffer from the “That’s-nice-but-other-movies-have-done-it-too” syndrome that plagues many an action franchise.  Personally, I thought it was an okay year for big-budget superhero movies.  There were a few I enjoyed, a few that set my teeth on edge, one that had me calling for more, and a few that I just could not care enough about to see.  Which ones fall into which categories?  I guess you’ll just have to keep reading to find out.  This is my personal report card for this year’s lineup of superhero/action flicks (no, I’m not waiting for Thor 2 to do this, the idea will get stale by then). 

            The following grades were determined using a variety of factors, including (but not limited to): level of contrivance/cliché/stealing in the story or plot, quality of lead acting, creativity in the action department, amount of shaky-cam, and which level of AWESOME each film succeeded in achieving (also known as the F*** YEAH test). 

            Oh yeah, and spoilers.  Just in case.  Each grade is followed by a link to my full review of the movie. 

Pacific Rim: A   (see full review)

            Yep, this is still the best action film of the year by far, and although I am genuinely excited about seeing Thor, Loki, and the Doctor square off against each other, I highly doubt it will top this loud, in-your-face, blessing of a monster flick.  I’ve never been a fan of the monster movie franchise, but if there was ever a film to get me into it, this would be it.  Creative set-up, interesting world that isn’t overly explained, simple but solid characters/relationships/conflicts, and fantastic action- I can’t ask more than that.  I was particularly glad that nearly all the fight scenes were shot at nighttime- the fact that we rarely completely see the monsters gave the Kaiju an extra level of mystery.  Del Toro has not ruled out a sequel, but I would be perfectly happy if they let this film be a great film and end it at that.  I’ve rarely cheered so loudly in a theater before. 

Elysium: B   (see full review)

        Honestly, the biggest thing that held this one back for me was the blessed shaky cam.  If Blomkamp had succeeded better in delivering top-notch, R-rated sci-fi smackdowns, I would be much more willing to forgive Elysium it’s various other flaws; the rushed character developments and conflicts, how little of Earth and Elysium we actually see, Jodie Foster completely phoning in her performance as the right-wing conspiracy theorist, those bizarre-ass cherry trees in the final fight scene (really?  Cherry trees in the middle of a warehouse?  And they just happen to be blooming NOW?), etc.  Sadly, even when the fight scenes do come around, aside from a few excellent bits involving guns that I want right now, it’s nearly all shaky and stirry and completely indecipherable until after the final blows have landed.  Better luck next time Niell. 

Ironman 3: B-   (see full review)

            I’m being very charitable with this one.  I enjoy Downey’s Tony-Stark-a-thon as much as anybody, but this is the movie where he finally stretches the persona to its douchebaggy breaking point (or that could have been the writers.  Who knows).  Plus, I’m really, really sick of seeing Pepper Pots (thus far the ONLY interesting female character in the entire Avengers franchise) get pushed to the side in increasingly insulting ways (yeah, I said it, the ONLY one.  Come at me bro).  I’ll give the film credit for bending over backwards to make up for that by literally having her save the day in place of Tony, but even that is almost immediately ruined by her horrible follow-up line- “Oh my God!  That was really dangerous!  Come Tony, protect me with your big, strong man arms!” 

            That said, the action was creative, especially the bits where Tony fights with only half his suit on, the finale does deliver on the ‘ol razzle-and-dazzle, the banter is as crackly as ever, and I personally enjoyed the slower second act, where Tony befriends a young admirer of his while in hiding.  And then there’s Ben Kingsley.  Who was perfection in a beer can.  So on the whole, I’ll give it a pass.     

            Oh yeah, and War Machine exists.  Not that anyone can really tell.  Ahem. 

Wolverine: N/A

            Didn’t see it.  Do not care.  See also Riddick, Furious 6, After Earth, The Lone Ranger, and Kickass 2

Star Trek Into Darkness: C   (see full review)

            Into Darkness has the dubious distinction of being, as far as I can remember, the first time I was actually glad I’d had the ending spoiled for me before going to the theater, because if I’d gone into it cold, it could very well have killed the entire film for me.  Not that the terrible, terrible ending was the only problem with the movie- screen time between the characters is horribly imbalanced, Kirk is never forced to actually take responsibility for his actions, and the f***ing lens flares all over the damn screen were big distractions, to name just a few.  I also heard later than Abrams had criticized the original Star Trek for being “too smart.”  I hope that’s not true, because if it is, I will need to find him and punch him.  Hard.  Despite all that, though, I still maintain it’s far from the worst Star Trek movie- the franchise has suffered plenty of sad excuses for films, and it will survive this one.  At least the actors are still bringing it- if it hadn’t been for the KHAAAAAN shout, Uhura’s and Scotty’s performances during Kirk’s death might have saved the scene from itself.  And the music is great. 

Man of Steel: D+   (see full review)

        I don’t hate this movie.  Really, I don’t- I’m not invested enough in any of the superhero franchises to be “hurt” by a particularly bad or problematic one.  However, this still gets the worst grade of the summer in my book because it’s the only action movie of the year that I honestly don’t ever want to see again (yes, I’d even rewatch Into Darkness, if only to laugh at it).  Some of the action is good, Shannon’s Zod is a blast to watch, and Cavill himself is a pretty decent Superman, but boy, did this movie need to lighten up.  A lot.  And it also really, really needed to drop the Lois Lane and the Daily Planet entirely.  I very much want to see a movie that turns me into a Superman fan.  Man of Steel came close, once- the scene where Clark finally pushes himself to fly was the only moment of pure magic the film had, and it was gone all too quickly.  

            And those are my grades for the only action movies of the year I could be bothered to see (and could afford to).  Will I ever watch any of the others, given the chance?  Possibly.  Except Lone Ranger.  And Furious 6.  Or Kickass 2.  Or Riddick.  So, probably none of them.

            Up next, my review of Blue Jasmine!  Finally, the great English-language films of the year are coming out.

-Noah Franc