Tag Archives: Robin Wright

The Congress

The Congress is an undeveloped, contradictory, near-incomprehensible mess that is worth watching for just how utterly bizarre it is.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the congress 2

If absolutely nothing else, The Congress – the newest feature from Waltz With Bashir director Ari Folman – tries.  It tries.  It’s clearly got imagination and a desire to take the viewer to strange fanciful places and to angrily shout and rail against something.  Trouble is, I really don’t know what it’s supposed to be railing about.  I don’t even know what the overall point of the film is supposed to be.  I am about 48 hours removed from The Congress and I still struggle to tell you what in the blue hell actually happened in this thing.  Normally waiting to talk about a film allows it the opportunity to fully sink in.  To allow oneself the chance to wrap their head around the deeper parts of a film and make sense of that which can seem obtuse.  But it has been 48 hours and I still have no f*cking clue what The Congress was trying to do.

Word of advance notice, folks: a good majority of this review is going to consist of me recapping or relating the plot to you with bits of commentary in-between.  This is a film that is very much of distinct stages – each bit trying to do something different, each bit with its own problems – and trying to evaluate the film as a whole would simply devolve into me shouting “it’s a mess” over and over again like a housekeeper that’s been driven insane.  I am determined to try and approach this total mess with criticism that can explain why it fails, and this is the best way I can think of doing so.

So, with that in mind, The Congress follows Robin Wright playing a version of herself.  In this reality, she’s the actress who never made good on her initial promises.  After The Princess Bride and Forest Gump, she kept picking bad role after bad role, and developed a reputation for flaking on gigs minutes before shooting and being incredibly hard to work with on the roles she sticks with.  Her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), comes to her with one last offer from film studio Miramount Pictures: they want to digitise her and own the likeness, personality and identity of Robin Wright to use in whatever pictures they fancy – the caveat being that she must retire from acting.

So, for a good 40 or so minutes, Robin Wright agonises over this decision, the implications and darker side of the concept in theory are addressed and debated, and The Congress seems to be setting up to be an angry screed against the movie industry and the way it views and treats actresses.  Robin here is 42 which, in Hollywood terms, is effectively a one-way trip to the retirement home for actresses, and Al and the head of Miramount (played by Danny Huston) lecture her and frequently put her down for a career misspent in wrong roles and having the gall, the gall, to want to prioritise taking care of her two kids – her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is suffering from a disease that is robbing him of his sight and hearing and has an obsession with box kites and planes, and her daughter (Sami Gayle) whose presence in the film is completely inconsequential.

As you may have gathered, subtlety is really not The Congress’ forte and its writing is the definition of loud and clunky.  Much, and I do mean much, of those opening 45 minutes involve characters outright saying or shouting sound bites or exposition at one another – the film’s method of addressing the parallels between the owning of an actor’s identity and the current way the film industry works is to have Harvey Keitel shout about how not-different the two things are for a good minute.  Pacing is also incredibly slow, one could cut this section down by at least half without losing anything except an interminably long period of having everybody stuck in this purgatorial loop of doing the same scenes over and over again but in a different location.

This segment of the film is shot in live-action and Folman’s direction of these segments is competent if uninspired.  The film gets a couple of decent shots in there – coming primarily from scenes where Robin visits a doctor (Paul Giamatti) with her son for an update on his condition, where the shots are staged in this flat direct way that alternates between making the son and Robin the POV of the scene, and the sequence where Robin finally gets digitised – but staging is mostly very flat and dreary, and, as previously mentioned, pacing is languid.  Both of those scenes I just mentioned are the highlights of the film – the digitisation scene, in particular, gets some of the best work I’ve seen out of Harvey Keitel in years – but both go on for what feels like an eternity, long after their points have been made.

Flaws aside, though, this part of the film is alright and is clearly building towards something.  At about the 45 minute mark of this near-2 hour movie, Robin finally gets digitised and the film seems like we’re getting ready to follow what happens when movie studios abuse a star’s image and how an actor goes about life when they are supposed to stop doing the thing they’ve made a living out of.  Except that, at this point, the film immediately jumps ahead 20 years to the end of Robin’s contract with Miramount.  She is off to speak at The Futurist Congress, where she will renegotiate her contract with the studio and help promote a drug that they’ve created that enables, as the film keeps stating without ever really explaining, “free choice” – the ability to perceive and project oneself as whatever they want to be seen as.

Oh, and The Futurist Congress takes place in a “Restricted Animated Zone” where its inhabitants are legally required to take said drug that has them exclusively perceive the world in animation.  Yeah.  This, unsurprisingly, is where things go off the rails.  Question: how much of what I just typed in this and the last paragraph seems related to what the film was about for 45 minutes beforehand?  That’s my point.  The first third of this film sets up and foreshadows a tonne of stuff, ideas, scenarios and themes but then never actually does anything with them.  Robin’s career as a virtual movie star comes up very, very rarely – the studio has reinvented her as a sci-fi (the one genre she wouldn’t touch, fnar fnar) action heroine in the one film clip we actually get to see – with The Congress content to instead start over and try something completely different.

It probably doesn’t surprise you, therefore, to learn that this film is based off of a book – The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem – a book which, I have been reliably informed, contains absolutely no references to anything that happens in the first 45 minutes.  Hence why it feels like a short film has been awkwardly stitched onto the main feature, or a film that shot its first third before Folman instead decided he wanted to make a completely different film but had spent too much money to just throw away his prior hard work.

In any case, there’s still some semblance of worth and promise in The Congress at this point.  The animation is very striking, consciously evoking Max Fleischer, Disney and psychedelic animation like Yellow Submarine.  There’s a lot going on in every frame and the constant barrage of colours and shapes and images did hold my attention long after the film’s flighty plotting lost it.  Plus, everything is always off in this rather clever way.  Animation fluctuates in fluidity, dimensions shift in this unnatural manner, and characters seem uncanny in many hard-to-describe points – it works to create this slightly nightmarish dream feel that works for about 45 minutes.  After that, though, the constant barrage that had made the film interesting to look at lost my interest – there is, after all, only so long you can go full-tilt before it all becomes dull and one-note.

Narratively and thematically, the film shifts its focus but at least remains clear in some respects.  Robin is understandably freaked out and apprehensive about being used to help market drugs and is clearly being haunted by the career that she technically never had, so the film still has an eye set on its original righteous fury against celebrity and the film industry.  It just now also seems prepared to tackle decadence and privilege – the congress itself is visualised like an upper-class version of Zion from The Matrix Reloaded – too.

Then terrorists attack The Futurist Congress and The Congress proceeds to collapse spectacularly.  Robin runs into a man who has spent the last 20 years helping animate her digital self (voiced by Jon Hamm), gets trapped in the hotel basement with him and then…  I, I honestly could not tell you.  It is at this point that the film becomes an absolute mindf*ck as Robin somehow ends up trapped seeing the world in the fake animation zone and being driven mad as a result.  She is placed into a coma for 20 years in the hopes that a cure will be found and then… stuff happens.

Put simply, the second hour of The Congress is a complete and total mess.  It blunders about from one scene to another with no rhyme or reason, its thematic through line becomes hopelessly muddled, its characters become inconsistent, and its lack of an emotional centre to guide one through the mess becomes abundantly clear.  As previously mentioned, the animation, which was a welcome breath of fresh air from the dreary and lifeless live-action segment, loses its charm and the film just becomes a procession of images with nothing guiding it through besides Robin Wright’s desire to see her son again.

Except that, despite that lengthy opening segment, there really is no actual emotion in her desire to get back to her son.  The bond doesn’t feel quite real, the film’s first 45 minutes don’t pay anywhere near enough attention to it, and the son’s disappearance from the film for a good long stretch afterwards leads to the relationship feeling hollow.  Ditto Jon Hamm’s animator who, surprise surprise, is in love with Robin Wright.  So there’s no emotional centre, its narrative is a mess, and its thematic backbone ends up so convoluted and contradictory that the film ends up finishing with a sequence where Paul Giamatti all but stares directly at the camera saying “drugs are bad and you shouldn’t take them to make yourself feel better about this sh*tty world” before the film ends up undermining that message too!"The Congress"

I will tell you the point where I just gave up trying to follow The Congress, the specific point.  The specific point came during a scene in which Robin Wright flies a box kite – which resembles one her son would fly cos, y’know, symbolism – into a commercial airliner.  That airliner crash lands and explodes in an airport, which causes all of the other airliners to explode as well.  And then, in front of the giant flames of the airport, animated Jon Hamm has sex with animated Robin Wright whilst the score plays some Dream Pop song that she’s singing.

I just don’t know what this film was trying to do, folks.  If it wanted to be a pointed angry satire of Hollywood, then why the sudden yet half-assed switch to existentialism in the second hour?  If it wanted to be a trippy, psychedelic mind-screw about the nature of reality, then what is with the non-animated segments?  If it wants to be an emotional tale about a mother battling to reunite with her son, then what’s with all of this unrelated bullsh*t and why doesn’t that core feel genuine?  If it wants to be a satire, then why is it so humourless?  If it wants to be psychedelic, then why are proceedings so utterly joyless?

The Congress is a near-total failure on every single level.  That being said, I don’t hate it.  I just don’t know what it was trying to be.  I’d recommend it for the animation segments, assuming you watch them in two 30 minute chunks so that the truly bizarre imagery of the last 30 minutes is able to actually provoke a full-on reaction, and for just how committed to its total nonsensical near-incomprehensibility it is, but that’s about it.  The Congress is clearly trying – and I applaud it for that – but I just don’t know what it was trying to do.

The Congress is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday.

Callum Petch told you we’d make it on for another.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Disclosure: The reviewer received a screener copy from Emfoundation for review.

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man is an exceptionally made film, with a great Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, that did pretty much nothing for me.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

a most wanted manI do not delude myself into thinking that my reviews are gospel, or that they are even slightly useful as consumer advice.  Fact of the matter is that I don’t know you.  No offense, you’re probably really nice and are stimulating conversation, but it’s not possible for me to know every single person who reads my work, so I don’t know what you will or will not like.   It’s why I rarely use pronouns like “we” or “you” and mostly stick to “I”.  “I felt…”  “I thought…”  Because that’s what my reviews are, my own subjective opinion.  If you find thoughts and points in my reviews that you think will help you decide whether to see or skip a film, then that’s a bonus to you!  Whenever I deploy “you need to see this” or “you should stay away”, it’s typically because I selfishly want to see films I like succeed and films I dislike bomb.  I may utterly despise Sex Tape and find it relentlessly unfunny, but that doesn’t mean that you might.  You might even like it!  You’d be wrong, but I’m not you so I wouldn’t know.

I bring this up because I am perfectly aware that a lot of people like A Most Wanted Man.  I am perfectly aware that a lot of people think that it’s one of the best films released so far this year, and I can see why people like it.  I can appreciate its artistry, the way that it’s shot, its deliberate pacing, its strong performances; all the technical stuff.  But the film otherwise did nothing for me.  Look, I am sorry, I really tried to get into A Most Wanted Man.  I was there for the entire two hours desperately trying to get into it as something other than a piece of technical and artistic majesty…  but I just couldn’t.  I found the film cold, clinical, bereft of emotion; I get that that is the point, but I found it TOO cold, TOO clinical, TOO emotionless, if you catch my drift.  I couldn’t break through into the film and the world of the film, so I instead spent the entire runtime watching plot happen at a deliberate pace.  That is fine, if you like that sort of thing, and there are a lot of people that do, but it’s not really for me.  Or, at least, if a film must just be plot happening, I need it to be of a fast enough or fun enough pace that I don’t notice or care about the lack emotion powering the whole thing until it’s too late.

In any case, A Most Wanted Man’s plot follows a German espionage group, led by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final lead role), as they attempt to track down the titular Most Wanted Man, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), an illegal refugee from Chechnya who may or may not have ties to the Al Qaeda terror cell that helped plot the 9/11 attacks.  Issa himself appears to have done nothing wrong, only wishing to seek asylum in Germany and possibly access his departed father’s blood money, but he ends up being unwittingly manipulated and fought over by various intelligence agencies.  Günther wants to use him to get to Muslim philanthropist and suspected terrorist bankroller Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), planning to turn him, and pretty much anyone else even remotely connected to him and Issa, including a German banker (Willem Dafoe) and the lawyer assigned to Issa’s case (Rachel McAdams), into assets to take down the members of Al Qaeda with real power.  Günther’s higher-ups are more content to sell everyone involved down river to the Americans, who themselves would rather just take down Issa and everyone connected to him immediately, via extraordinary rendition, in order to score a PR win with the people back home.

As you can probably guess from the premise and the fact that this is a slow-moving spy drama, an adaptation of a John le Carré novel no less, the acting is the real star of the show, here.  Robin Wright, who turns up as the liaison between Günther and the Americans, manages to balance warm confidant and steely not-totally-trustworthy professionalism with aplomb, frequently in the same scene.  Dobrygin is very assured as Issa, a scared man out of his depth who never seems to quite grasp how everybody around him is manipulating him for their own ends.  Willem Dafoe makes it 2 for 1 in Great 2014 Supporting Performances (like he’s going out of his way to apologise to me for being involved in Beyond: Two Souls or something) with a great turn as the banker who is practically forced into, and can’t quite handle, Günther’s spy game.

But, as should be really obvious by his mere presence, the standout is Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a sad reminder of what a talent we lost this year.  Whereas Gary Oldman played George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as a cold, detached yet efficient master spy, Hoffman plays Günther (who I feel is cut from pretty much the same cloth as Smiley, but feel free to post giant essay length differences between the two in the comments, I have a feeling I’m wrong on this) as a man who is just completely tired of all of this shit.  Tired of the spy game, tired of the politics that hamper his work, tired of people who can’t or refuse to see the bigger picture that he can, and tired of both the fact that he has to ruin lives to get his men and of the people whose lives he has to ruin.  He tries to put up a facade of humanity, he’s still able to joke with his colleagues and feign tolerance when he has to interact with those who conspire against him, but it’s weak and barely hides his tiredness.  It’s subtle and understated, too, fitting excellently the mood of the film, and makes the one time when he does display an emotion that isn’t resignation a genuine shock.  It reminds me a lot of his performance in Truman, which I found similarly restrained and non-showy, and it’s a fitting end for his leading man career; a reminder of how he could walk into a film and steal it out from under the noses of his more obviously-trying counterparts by just being the role.

Though the acting is the star of the film, that’s not to discredit the look and feel of the film.  As you may have gathered, this is meant to be an old-fashioned spy thriller and director Anton Corbijn (previous of the excellent and similarly slow-paced Control and The American) turns out to be a perfect fit for this.  He keeps the pace slow but not glacial, accurately reflecting the extremely slow speed that Günther’s process of espionage takes but having every scene effectively build to the end goal.  The film is gorgeously shot but the world has a sexless and cold feel to it; despite the many great shots that the film throws up (one of my favourites involves a great usage of focussing during a pivotal scene), there is no beauty in the world of the film.  But it also resists the urge to take shortcuts and make the world overly grim looking, there are no extremely grimy locals, no overly muted colour-palettes, the film doesn’t spend three-quarters of its runtime in council estates or the like.  It feels very much real, like these are things that can and do happen on a frequent basis and it really helps the meditative mood, creating a world that I imagine is very easy to get lost in.

THAT BEING SAID…  I couldn’t get into the film beyond appreciating its artistry.  Again, believe me, I tried.  I tried to break through.  I tried to get invested in the characters.  I tried to see Philip Seymour Hoffman and Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams as the characters that they were playing instead of just actors doing really good performances.  But I couldn’t.  I’m sorry, I just couldn’t.  The problem with it for me, the same problem I had with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 2011, is that the film is just too cold.  When I go to see a film, I usually like to lose myself in the world, to meet new and interesting characters whose desires and fates I can be invested in in some way.  If a film isn’t aiming to do that, then I need enough spectacle or a fast-enough pace or at least a good sense of fun in order to not care too much about that.  I like to be invested emotionally, on a deeper level than admiration.

A Most Wanted Man doesn’t really do that.  It does want to be about, on at least one of its levels, the weight and toll that comes from flipping people into assets, on the both the part of the flipper and the flippee, but I found the film too emotionally guarded to let me in on that level.  I could sit there and understand that that was what it was going for, but that’s it.  I didn’t connect emotionally to anyone because the film wouldn’t let me.  Initially, I mistook the film for just being soulless, but I realised that to be patently untrue by about the halfway mark, this instead being a conscious design choice.  So, instead of fully connecting with and being invested in proceedings, I mostly sat back in my chair frustratingly watching plot pieces move into place real slow like.  I understand that this will be to many people’s taste, that they will get onto the film’s wavelength and have no such quarrel, but I like to have that deeper connection with films, not just spending the runtime standing there looking through the window whilst everyone inside throws a giant party.  (For an example of the kind of artistic majesty film that did resonate with me on a deeper level than just appreciation for its impeccable design, I point you in the direction of Under The Skin.)

I can nitpick the score, though, mind.  Whereas the rest of the film, in the way that it’s shot and plotted and paced and acted, perfectly encapsulates the slow-burning emotionally-distant spy drama that it’s going for, the score is too lively for my tastes.  Everything else is understated and reserved, but the score is a bit too open and traditional, loudly ominous and dramatic in a way that felt like a drunken frat boy turning up in the audience of a Shakespeare production filled with quiet appreciative upper-class theatre lovers and yelling out “OH, SHIT, SON!” whenever anything important happens.  Pretty sure I counted several instances of it even starting up when somebody said something dramatic, the score equivalent of said, “OH, SHIT, SON!”  I feel it could have been more understated and more trusting of the audience, especially since the rest of the film decides that the audience is smart enough to follow along without having every plot beat spelt out for them.

Between this and 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which I saw in cinemas when it came out and had basically the exact same opinion on as I do this), I get the feeling that John le Carré stories just aren’t for me.  I can appreciate them as artistic achievements but my enjoyment of them really doesn’t go any further.  I did find the last fifteen minutes of this rather tense and the ending, whilst initially giving me the same “Err, don’t we still have 15 minutes left of the film to show?” feeling that If I Stay had, has been rising in my estimations the more I let it sit, neither connected with me on the emotional level.  I was tense for the plot, to see if everything that the plot had been building towards would come crashing down at the last minute, rather than for character reasons, whether Günther gets his man or not and what would happen to everyone involved.  My connection with his works doesn’t go any further than the “these are some really well made films” level.  When I get some free time, I’ll hunt down some of his books and some more of his films and see if it’s just these films where this is a problem, or whether the books carry something that the films lack, or whether this turns out to just be my overall feelings on his various works.

For now, though, I’ll just have to concede that A Most Wanted Man just isn’t for me.  It’s a stunningly well-made film with a magnificent Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, but that’s all that it managed to connect with me on, the constructed surface level.  I concede that I am in the minority about this and that fans of John le Carré novels and adaptations will probably love it.  I also concede that people who like the idea of slow-moving yet intelligent spy dramas will probably also love it.  But I was left cold by this one, and seeing as a review consists of my personal thoughts on a movie, that’s all I can concretely tell you about it.

Callum Petch sees you through his spy glasses, baby.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!