Monday, 22 December 2014

The Congress


Wow!

Yes, the record-setting pace of 2014 continues, though The Congress is actually a 2013 film (Janelle and Laurens watched it in Germany at least fourteen months ago), as are a number of my four-star films for 2014. The Congress has still not appeared in Winnipeg and is not available here in any form, but I imported a copy from the U.S., where it was released on DVD a couple of weeks ago.

The Congress is the work of Ari Folman, whose only previous feature film was Waltz With Bashir, one of my favourite films of 2008. This time, only half of his film is animated. And this time it’s a science fiction film, based on a 1971 novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem called The Futurological Congress. Lem’s writing has been most closely compared to Philip K. Dick and The Congress certainly reminded me of Dick’s works. 

It’s the very near future (though possibly could be happening today) and Robin Wright, who plays herself in the film, is offered the opportunity (by a major fictional Hollywood studio called Miramount) to have her image downloaded so that she will never have to work again. Instead, computer technicians will use her image to make her a star (and perpetually 34 years old). Given her real age (44) and that her career has been on a slide since the days of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, Wright’s agent (played wonderfully by Harvey Keitel) advises her to accept the offer. 

Meanwhile, back at home, Wright is working with Dr. Barker (Paul Giamatti) on her teenage son’s gradual loss of hearing. Barker notes that Aaron (the son) has the unique gift of creating scenes as he wants to see/hear them. This ability to live in a virtual world created out of our dreams and desires is the focus of the second half of The Congress, which is represented as an animated world. With the use of drugs, people in this world can become the actors they have always wanted to be while the ‘real’ world deteriorates. When Wright visits this world twenty years after her fateful decision, she realizes just how horrible ‘the future’ has become. 

I won’t say anymore about the plot (supposing I even had the ability to figure it all out). The Congress is a work of profound cinematic art that brilliantly, and very sharply, satirizes the Hollywood film industry, ‘celebrity’, the pharmaceutical industry and individuality/identity. The ability to use CGI to create films without live actors is already with us, as is a world in which people can live their dream identity through sophisticated video games or even Facebook. The Congress is partly a warning that we need to take very seriously.

The animation is superb, the score is perfect, and the acting by all concerned is excellent. Wright, whose career is actually on a major upswing (e.g. House of Cards), does a great job playing herself (or a form of herself). The screenplay by Folman is intelligent and provides much food for thoughtful discussion. But I will need to watch The Congress again to put all the pieces together. The animated half of the film was a little overwhelming for me, with all kinds of ideas and plot directions that didn’t seem to hang together. The ending was also like this and was not altogether satisfying.

Nevertheless, like Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, perfection is not required for a brilliant sci-fi film to rate ****. That’s what I’m giving The Congress. My mug is up.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Theory of Everything



Eddie Redmayne is one of the greatest young actors out there (loved him in Les Mis), so it is no surprise that he is able to pull off one of the great acting feats of the year, namely playing Stephen Hawking in James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything tells the story of one of the world’s most important physicists, focusing on Hawking’s college days and the early years of his marriage to Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). While there are bits and pieces of science throughout the film, highlighting Hawking’s unique achievements, The Theory of Everything, which is based on Jane’s book about her life with Stephen, is primarily a drama about the relationship between Stephen and Jane. Particularly impressive is the way the film shows the flaws in their personalities and the disintegration of their long marriage. There was also some fine supporting work from Charlie Cox (as Jonathan, their vicar) and David Thewlis (as Hawking’s mentor). 

Stephen Hawking is an amazing person and his story is riveting stuff. Redmayne is absolutely brilliant but it was Jones who really impressed me because I hadn’t seen her before. Jones had almost as challenging a role as Redmayne and she pulled it off remarkably well. The score and cinematography were also excellent, as was Anthony McCarten’s screenplay, up to a point.

The Theory of Everything is compelling biographical filmmaking, but it does sometimes feel too much like a typical family drama dealing with a medical crisis and not enough like the story of a great physicist who has changed the way we think about the universe. I think that was a mistake and that’s why The Theory of Everything gets only ***+. My mug is up.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Interstellar - one last time?



I had promised to come back to Interstellar after a few weeks, once everyone had had a chance to watch it. Since Walter has also added two reviews, I will keep this one relatively short and again refer you to my Canadian Mennonite review: http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/no-time-give-planet-earth

There are two huge flaws in this **** film (no, that’s not an expletive). The first has been referred to at length (see also the link above): the idea that we need to put far more resources into finding ways to leave planet earth someday (‘we were not meant to stay here’) instead of finding ways to make life on earth sustainable for the long haul. 

The second flaw is the science of time travel. I understand there were expert consultants involved in the making of Interstellar and do not question the way the black hole, the singularity at its centre and the theory of relativity were used in the film. However, the way time is depicted in Interstellar is, in my opinion, completely ludicrous. 

What I understand from Interstellar is that humanity will evolve to an existence in a fifth dimension which will allow gravity to be used as a way to communicate back in time. But that evolution only happens because Cooper communicates back in time thanks to that evolution having happened. In other words, evolution only happens because evolution has happened. That’s just nonsense. Without the tools to make it happen, it could not have happened in the first place in order to provide the tools to make it happen. 

There are hints in Interstellar that this nonsense only happens because of ‘love’. That’s an interesting idea if you give ‘love’ God-like powers that allow humanity to evolve in ways (for reasons) that would not be scientifically possible. Indeed, I sometimes had the feeling that the Nolan brothers were using ‘love’ as a stand-in for God. But the lines about love fly by so quickly, and in the midst of one of the wildest rides in the history of cinema, that I will need to watch this on blu-ray and discuss it with my film group before saying more.

As Walter mentioned in comparing Interstellar to 2001, one way in which Interstellar is better than 2001 is its focus on human emotions/feelings, including love and spirit. 2001, while brilliant in every other way, is, as Walter says, a very cold film (like much of Kubrick’s work).  

That Interstellar achieves a solid **** rating from me in spite of these two huge flaws is a testament to the filmmaking genius of Christopher Nolan and the wonderful audio-visual feast he has given us (with help from many others, notably Hans Zimmer). 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Citizenfour



I have said it before and I will say it again (because it cannot, in my opinion, be said too often): Investigative journalists are the prophets of our time and we can never have too many films that promote what they do. Citizenfour, the third such film I have watched in recent weeks (Kill the Messenger, Rosewater), is dedicated to those who make great sacrifices to expose injustice. That includes all the whistleblowers out there, people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden who take such incredible risks, and pay the price, to expose the criminal abuses of power. 

Citizenfour is a documentary that follows Snowden’s story live from the beginning, putting us in his Hong Kong hotel room, along with Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian and Laura Poitras, the filmmaker, as he plans and executes the release of his vital information. It’s an amazing thing to watch a great historical event unfold live in front of your eyes, especially if it feels like a film in the paranoid thriller genre (one of my favourite genres). Of course, one does know how the event unfolds and so the suspense is somewhat muted. But it’s still a marvel to see. 

Edward Snowden was a systems analyst for the NSA (National Security Agency) who exposed the truth about how the NSA (and others) were monitoring the communications and computer usage of average citizens through agreements with service providers.

While I can hardly fault Poitras for focusing on the incredible hotel room footage with Snowden, that focus is, for me, the film’s only real flaw. By spending so much time on Snowden, we miss opportunities to explore the context of the information he is releasing. And when that context becomes part of the film, it feels disjointed, without a clear trajectory. Just like the recent ‘news’ about CIA torture tactics, Snowden’s ‘news’ wasn’t news to those of us who are cynical about the abuses of American intelligence agencies. (Oops, I’m gonna get flagged again!) But to provide proof of these abuses and make that proof public for the world to see is absolutely vital for the future of  humanity. It would have been good for Citizenfour to spend more time examining the implications of Snowden’s revelations for our societies and for life in 2014 rather than just focus on live footage. It’s quite clear where Poitras’s sympathies lie, but she doesn’t seem willing to condemn the powers-that-be in the way they deserve to be condemned. 

Nevertheless, Citizenfour is a well-crafted film that encourages whistleblowers to come forward and expose the truth of what is really going on. We need far more whistleblowers to come forward, so this is a vital film. Despite its flaw, I really want to give Citizenfour ****, but how can I keep giving away **** ratings in this crazy year (one of my four-star reviews isn’t even on the blog, at least not yet)? Sigh. While I consider this, I can assure you that my mug is up.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings



Do not waste your time!

For obvious reasons (i.e. the subject matter), I felt I needed to go see Exodus in spite of the mediocre reviews it has received from the critics. But be assured I went in with the lowest of expectations. They were not low enough, even so. 

Exodus, of course, tells the very familiar story of Moses and God combining to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, focusing on the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea. With Ridley Scott at the helm and one of our best actors (Christian Bale) playing Moses, one would expect a solid Hollywood production and maybe even some intelligent controversy based on a modern take of the story. And indeed, a few of the reviews I had read pointed to precisely such a controversy, suggesting that the film might offend Jews, Christians and Muslims. That sounded promising.

But no such controversy exists (other than the casting controversy) because there is nothing new here. Exodus is entirely unoriginal and a giant bore. The Ten Commandments is ever so much more entertaining. So why on earth did Scott make this??? Don’t ask me.

Sure, God is represented by a petulant ten-year-old boy. That’s a little risky, but really the boy doesn’t say anything that God might not have said from the burning bush (Moses did see a burning bush before the boy appeared). 

The only potential controversy is the most brilliant line in the film, spoken by Ramses (Joel Edgerton) after the death of his son (the final plague). Holding his dead son out to Moses, Ramses says: “This is your God? A killer of children? What kind of fanatics worship such a God?” That is a truly excellent question, worth considerable thought and discussion. But does Exodus do anything with that question other than put it in the mouth of Ramses, who is hardly opposed to killing children himself? Nope. Nada. Moses ignores the question and leads his people across the Red Sea, where God wipes out the Egyptian army in the most (and only) spectacular scene in the film. In the process, Moses has many conversations with God but by the end seems to have decided that God knew what God was doing. And by the end God and Moses are smiling at each other. Makes you wanna cry, but not for the right reasons. 

The cinematography in Exodus is very good, as is typical of Scott, but the washed-out colors were obviously the result of making it for 3D (and NO, I certainly did not watch it in 3D). The score is nothing special. The actors are barely competent, other than Bale, who does his best with Moses, and Edgerton, who could have done worse. As I mentioned, there has been some controversy surrounding the casting of Bale, Edgerton and others. As if Hollywood has a history of casting actors from the racial group represented? Anyway, for me the casting was just bad, period, though one could have done much worse than Bale. But the biggest flaw of the film was the screenplay (by a team of writers) which gave us no real character development (other than Moses) and, one brilliant line notwithstanding, very poor dialogue.

Exodus is a huge disappointment and well deserving of the **+ which critics have given it. But I am going to take off another star just for that fact that it was made, thus wasting incredible resources and Scott’s valuable time. So Exodus gets *+. My mug is down. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Two Days, One Night



This is not an action movie. I wouldn’t even try this film unless if you have some taste for very realistic cinema. 

That being said, there is rich food for thought here for those who make the effort. Two Days, One Night is a French film that depicts the awkward journey of a young mom who needs to fight to save her job by convincing her co-workers to vote against a large bonus in order to keep her position. In that predicament we see the direct economic relationship between people faced and discussed in a way that is usually avoided. A wonderful book from a few decades ago was E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. The subtitle was Economics as if People Mattered. This movie is about people being forced to face the truth that people matter – and that self-interest comes with a real cost, even while that self-interest is portrayed without condemnation (for the most part).

Perhaps the best part of the film is its suggestion that solidarity may even matter more emotionally than economically. And this is portrayed very well in the main actors and the directing. Even the long takes of Marion Cotillard simply walking resolutely down the streets, trying against the odds (and her own expectations) to change her future, say a lot.

I have to say that along with the slow pace of the film there are some other weaknesses – a couple of scenes in particular didn’t work for me as they seemed quite unrealistic in the midst of a film geared toward realism. But I’ll give Two Days, One Night a solid *** and a mug up.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Top Five



I should have known better. I am not a Chris Rock fan; not even close. But the critics were raving about Top Five, so I thought I would give Rock a chance. I should have stuck with my intuition.

In Top Five, Rock, who also wrote and directed the film, stars as Andre Allen, a stand-up comedian who became famous as Hammy the Bear in some insane comedy/action film series but feels he isn’t funny anymore, especially now that he is sober. So Allen decides to make a serious action film about a slave rebellion in Haiti in which thousands of white people are killed. On the day his new film is set to premiere, Allen is in New York City, where he is getting married to a reality TV star named Erica Long (Gabrielle Union). Long is only interested in how the wedding will look on TV, which is making Allen nervous. On that same day, Allen is talked into doing a serious interview with Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a critic from the New York Times, which has printed nothing but scathing reviews of all his films (and of his acting in particular).

Top Five takes us through Allen’s rather traumatic day in a frenzied style that suits Rock’s own style very well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t suit me very well. The film has its moments, especially in the last half, but they are few and far between and almost entirely confined to the serious side of the screenplay. The comedy, as I suspected might be the case, didn’t work for me at all (clearly I have a different sense of humour than most critics, which has been proven many times; or maybe in this case it just helps to be American). I laughed exactly twice in the entire film and I don’t think anyone else in the audience laughed much more than that. For a film labelled only as a comedy, that doesn’t cut it. 

Dawson was the only actor in Top Five who impressed me (Rock had his moments too, but generally failed to make me believe he was anyone other than Chris Rock). Nothing else in the film impressed me much, though the overall theme of satirizing celebrity was certainly effective. All in all, though, I felt I wasted my time (when will I learn not to trust critics when it comes to comedy?). **+ for one of the most overrated films of the year. My mug is down.