Friday, 22 August 2014

The Congress


There is more than a hint of irony in the fact that Ari Folman’s The Congress should arrive at a time when the star of its central presence should be so much on the rise. In Folman’s reality, Robin Wright, playing some version of herself, is an ageing actress of dwindling status. This is the Wright of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, a one-time ingénue whose box office power has waned in line with her disastrous personal and professional choices. 

The House of Cards Wright does not exist. 

As the icily bewitching Claire Underwood in Netflix’s towering political thriller, the former Mrs Sean Penn has reinvented her recently low-key career; she has taken on a keen edge that comes with maturity. Alongside Kevin Spacey, Wright’s portrayal, so pivotal to the online giant’s groundbreaking series, earned her a Golden Globe as the drama’s watchful and hauntingly beautiful puppet-master. Relaunching herself as one of Hollywood’s finest female performers in the process, she is no longer waiting for the phone to ring.

Waltz with Bashir director Folman, however, has no regard for this resurrection. Indeed, in his latest experimental feature, Wright’s professional future is so bleak that she must surrender it to technology. 

Living with her kids in a cool converted aircraft hangar next to an airport runway, Wright spends her days looking after her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a charmingly ethereal, kite-obsessed kid who is slowly going deaf. Wright’s commitment to her children has killed her progress, as underlined in the opening minutes by Harvey Keitel’s good-natured agent, Al.  

With few prospects on the horizon, the slyly named Miramount Studios propose a deal. In exchange for a handsome sum she must allow herself to be digitally mapped. The resulting ageless clone, possessed of her face, her body and her voice will be studio property, a plaything to be utilised in any number of risible blockbusters. The real Robin Wright, her corporeal form, will simply cease to be of use. It is the only way to stay relevant, sneers studio supremo Jeff, played with standard enthusiasm by Danny Huston, a man who long ago cornered the market in smooth but threatening bigwigs.  

She eventually agrees and it is at this point that Israeli-born Folman’s singular leanings emerge. The vaguely unsettling sci-fi tone  coming from left field, admittedly  is heightened by the sight of the great strobing globe into which Wright steps for her conversion from celebrity to nobody, dressed simply in a figure-hugging suit à la Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Running Man.

In truth, the early scenes are merely a conservative lead-in to the film’s hand-drawn second half, an illusory blitzkrieg evoking the gorgeous visuals of Folman’s aforementioned documentary about his experiences in the Lebanon War. In contrast to the hyper-stylised realism of that seminal work, The Congress’s fluttering last hour is a thing of exquisitely rendered, if bewildering, dystopian darkness which signals the director’s near boundless imagination. 


Twenty years on from the original agreement, and with that contract due for renewal, Wright — the non-digital version — is summoned to Miramount’s entirely animated Futurological Congress (that being the title of Stanisław Lem’s loosely followed source novel) to publicly endorse the company’s newest invention. 

It has formulated a drug which allows anybody to live as anything in a fantasy world. What charm there is dissipates as the toxic product escapes its corporate confines to infect the wider public, generating a planet of drones, each lost in a personal nirvana.

From there, Wright, depicted as an elegant, elder iteration of her solid state, must battle to escape an increasingly pointless subconscious, a leering freak show, brilliantly realised by Folman through an intensely immediate kaleidoscope of colour and shape. With the help of her avatar’s first creator, Dylan (voiced, unmistakably, by Jon Hamm), she trains her focus on locating her son and daughter in this crazed Shangri-La.  

If it all sounds wildly unpredictable, such impressions are merited. Fusing live action and a host of animation styles is one thing but the spiralling nature of the latter represents a strangely compelling arc in itself. The trippy netherworld’s knowing peculiarities will grate with many but the scale of Folman’s curious ambition is remarkable.

If there is a consistent subtext then it is unfortunately obscured by this oppressive psychedelia. That said, the theme of familial love is discernible throughout, becoming even more pronounced as Wright attempts to stay tethered to that which is tangible. This will decide her path. 

Ultimately, the film’s strongest commentary is reserved for the movie industry’s own callous approach to feminine self-worth. Thus, in spite of the roiling verve of its later sections, The Congress excels in the sobriety of that initial real-world setting. It offers a chiding indictment of a business model that throws a woman on the metaphorical slag pile once she hits 40 and while this may be a somewhat self-serving sermon from the likes of Wright, it is, nevertheless, a message worth sending. 

Subverting any notion of unsuitability, Wright carries the perplexing mass of Folman’s vision on her shoulders. She might look like a modern-day Julie Christie but there is a wisdom to her countenance that no computer may ever replicate. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Joe


Whatever motivates Nicolas Cage to appear in terrible movies — financial considerations, bad judgement, an unwillingness to pass on a script — there is no doubting that his résumé boasts an especially large number of turkeys to go alongside his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas. Sure, he’s headlined the occasional crowd-pleasing blockbuster (Con Air, National Treasure, The Rock) but, for the most part, a series of outright disasters litter the record. 

From Bangkok Dangerous to Drive Angry, his presence above the title long ago became a helpful guide, used by casual cinemagoers deciding on what not to see. It has all been rather unseemly for this member of the Coppola clan. 

Thank goodness then for Tye Sheridan. In David Gordon Green’s Joe, this gifted young actor weaves a similarly earthy spell to the one he exhibited in 2012’s Mud. It was there that Sheridan backed up the career renaissance of the once doomed Matthew McConaughey. The latter man now boasts an Academy Award for Dallas Buyer’s Club and it is reasonable to argue that Cage, too, has been rescued from life in the filmic wilderness. Sheridan’s contribution cannot be underestimated. 

Green has swum in these dark southern waters before, courtesy of 2004’s Georgia-based thriller Undertow, and, alongside screenwriter Gary Hawkins, he returns to these quasi-indie roots following his forays into the low-brow stoner-comedy genre with Pineapple Express and Your Highness. An adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, Joe certainly exists within the same evocative tapestry as Mud: that of a rusted, dilapidated South. For Arkansas, read Texas; hot dust replaces sweltering grime. 

As Mud’s lowly denizens subsisted on the offerings of the mighty Mississippi River, the instant blue-collar occupation — what little employment there is in this bankrupt locale — comes from the vast swathes of dark forest as Joe (Cage) and his crew of good-natured labourers poison trees marked for replacement by fresh saplings. 

Into this world enters Sheridan’s Gary, the teenage son of an itinerant family. The boy is tough and stoic, willing to work and unafraid to stand up for himself. Yet, he desperately needs love and some measure of stability given the fact that his father (Gary Poulter) is a drunken brute. 

In many ways, Gary is like Mud’s Ellis, but it is to Sheridan's credit that this is no simple rehash. This time he is sturdier, more worldly, a boy who knows how dreadful life can be yet refuses to be cowed by it. They are qualities which Joe appreciates and, seeing something of himself in the youngster, perhaps, he quickly takes Gary under his wing.

The interplay between the two is subtly affecting. Not exactly father and son, they are simply friends, equals. When events conspire against his protégé, it is up to Joe to offer his protection and ensure Gary’s upward curve. 


The title role here is a fascinating creation. A man who has certainly done terrible things in the past, Joe’s restraint serves as his truest asset, despite the well of anger and pain simmering beneath his mostly controlled visage. Cage is at his best therefore when straining to keep it all in check. Grimacing and in obvious emotional turmoil, this is far from the gratuitously crazed caricature which has come to define the grizzled A-lister. 

Instead, the intermittent tics and eye-bulging rage are considered, rendering him infinitely more compelling. Joe is a seriously disturbed guy and, for all his necessary self-control, he exists in a demented world away from the steady, simple calm of his woodland realm. 

Hardly a choirboy, he veers drunkenly from one white-trash setting to another, an unspeakably seedy brothel here, a deranged kitchen-cum-abattoir there. At one point Joe sets his American bulldog on a fierce Alsatian that he has a particular dislike for, petting the animal later on as she licks blood from her own face. Furthermore, a running feud — based on a relatively minor slight — with local scumbag Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) quickly escalates to an alarmingly bloodthirsty degree. In truth, whether through accident or design, the hectic environment he uses to occupy his mind seems destined to relight the touchpaper. 

Cage leads an excellent cast with more than one non-professional lending hardbitten naturalism to their roles. Sheridan stands out as generational talent but it is Poulter as his vile paterfamilias who steals the shown, even from its leading player.

Poulter’s story is an interesting one. A homeless alcoholic with no professional acting experience, he was plucked off the streets of Austin by Green to take up the role of Wade. He oozes a terrible charisma as a degenerate of rare vintage, a work-shy, mumbling wastrel possessed of not a single positive feature. Notably, this lack of goodness fails to ring false, for history is littered with irredeemably horrible people and, in this respect, Wade is a villain like few others. 

His actions spiral from unrepentantly avaricious to brutal. His pursuit of the next drink is all that motivates him and it is his depravity that sets the bloody final events in motion, unlocking the gothic sensibilities that Green has hinted at throughout. Poulter died in February 2013 but his haggard performance represents a fine legacy and a single shining example of bottled magic. 

As powerful and authentic as it is, the film does not lack flaws. Reflecting the present style with these gritty modern noirs, the plot is somewhat fleeting. Few narrative sign posts are offered to fill in the gaps as the audience is, essentially, dropped into an ongoing tale. The opening scene is undeniably accomplished — a single take in which Gary and his father exchange words and blows beside a desolate train track — but as Wade is set upon and beaten, for reasons unknown, by a pair of faceless men, a sense of disconnect is established. It has the whiff of significance without any of the context. 

Joe is a colourful figure but there is much left unexplained about him, save for vague references to his past deeds. When he and an unnamed woman observe each other with intense familiarity at a red light, no words passing between them, one is left to wonder about the nature and identity of all those he has wounded in the past. 

Indeed, compared with the vigour of the central trio, the figures surrounding them are either poorly developed or entirely ancillary. More than one character appears from nowhere, free of any explanation as to who they are or why they are there. The ultimate effect is slightly jarring, if not wholly irritating. 

Place such matters aside, however, and this becomes a rewarding affair. In the muscularly conveyed themes of friendship and loyalty, Green and Cage relocate paths they have strayed from, each embracing the drama offered up, bending it to their will. Even as death and sexual violence flood the screen, Joe stubbornly holds its shape, a notable contrast with its own decaying landscapes. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Monday, 11 August 2014

Mood Indigo


Michel Gondry has long been considered an auteur possessed of profound skill bordering on greatness. His reputation paints him as a free-form Gallic genius in complete control of his archly artistic tendencies and a commanding director capable of uniquely accomplished work. 

Indeed, in many respects, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a romantic sci-fi released in 2004, represented an apogee of his craft. Charlie Kauffman’s incredibly clever script served as the brains; Gondry’s creative sensibilities shaped its broken heart. 

Less unsettling than Spike Jonze, yet zanier than the low-key ethereality of Wes Anderson, this one-time music video guru’s name nevertheless demands a spot in the restlessly idiosyncratic corner of the filmic landscape occupied by those fellow travellers. 

Given his heritage, it is puzzling that Gondry’s first wholly French feature should come now, at the age of 51. That being said, an adaptation of Froth on the Daydream, Boris Vian’s strange 1947 novel, appears a fitting place to start, comprised, as it is, of all the components readily associated with his eccentric, faintly sinister style. Retitled Mood Indigo in this instance — the name of a jazz composition by Duke Ellington — the book has been transferred to the screen, in various guises, on a number of occasions, in spite of the widely held notion that it is unfilmable. 

For all Gondry’s inventive efforts, the latter assumption seems especially apposite here. Mood Indigo is a luscious slice of visual cinema, that much is true, but in the areas where the medium is, perhaps, at its most affecting — storytelling and emotional resonance — it fails, fundamentally, to satisfy these rather basic demands. That Vian’s vision might be best left alone to exist within its peculiar dimension is an idea granted credence almost from the beginning. 

It would be unfair to suggest that Gondry has overseen an outright disaster, for the finished article must surely have turned out exactly as he imagined. Still, it creaks under the weight of its own shapeless pretensions. A trying, cocked-eyebrow of a film, it never rests, never lets up, a sweet plot peeping out from time to time only to be battered into submission by the relentless whimsy grabbing centre stage without even the slightest hint of regret. Mistaking its myriad quirks for charm, this is exhausting and utterly, undeniably vacuous. 

Romain Duris plays Colin, a wealthy, if earnest, wastrel who lives in an unbearably kooky (obviously) apartment high above the Parisian skyline. He enjoys jazz, aimless chit-chat and good food — courtesy of his private chef-cum-lawyer Nicolas (Omar Sy) — but is desperate, beyond everything else, to find love. When his friend, Chick, a bookish man obsessed with droning, bizarro-world existentialist ‘Jean-Sol Parte', enjoys unexpected romantic success, Colin is piqued and resolves to find himself a partner.  

Since it is all so incredibly silly, he pairs up with Audrey Tatou’s adorable Chloé that very night and their life together begins in earnest. Regrettably, what might have been a refined little romantic comedy becomes lost instead in a fog of unyielding overindulgence. 


A receptive audience may respond well to the cornucopia of largely pointless elements: a man dressed as a mouse driving a vintage Renault; more than one instance of rubber-legged dancing; an anarchic church-based box-car race; a crane-assisted flight over Paris in a plastic bubble shaped like a cloud. In fact, all of this takes place after the breathless opening scenes in which Colin shows off his cocktail-dispensing piano (no, seriously) and Sy’s jolly scoundrel prepares a bamboozling stop-motion feast of revolving trifles and jerking eels. 

Unfortunately, the knowing playfulness, distracting from the sharper flourishes, moves the story forward not a single iota. A kinetic mass typing pool signifies Colin's own narrative and Chloé’s later sickness arrives courtesy of an elegantly placed flower seed. To stave off her illness she is eventually surrounded by a blooming floral palette, yet beside the wantonly impulsive ancillary strands, these truly important details become meaningless. 

The cast is a fine one, of course, and Duris in particular — fresh from a starring role in the excellent Chinese Puzzle — embraces everything Gondry throws his way with no little brio. Tatou, also, is a worthy presence as always. Whatever their talents, however, they cannot make up for the chasm between those on either side of the fourth wall, audience and actors. When a sickly melancholy (symbolised by a subtly introduced monochrome) settles over proceedings — brought about, ironically, by the blooming of a beautiful water lily on Chloé’s lung — there is nothing upon which to build emotion or engender sympathy. 

The characters have not engaged, they have simply flitted from spontaneous desire to strange passion. Thus, their actual human problems ring hollow. If anything there is a blackness of humour running through the finale which jars, loudly, with the sincere misery Gondry seems determined to convey. 

Whether such gloominess is deliberate, or slyly misleading, remains a mystery until the credits roll though by that stage, quite honestly, one is unlikely to care either way. 

An edited version of this article was first published here