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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

The Congress (Folman, 2013)

March 16th 2015 04:47

The live-action opening 40 minutes of Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013) are marvellous. His latest, and follow up to the brilliant animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (2008), takes a speculative peek into the future in much the same way Andrew Niccol’s S1M0NE (2002) did, imagining a world in which flesh-and-blood actors have become obsolete. Instead, they sign over their identities to be infinitely scanned and manipulated inside a computer, thus eliminating the ‘lousy choices’ that Robin Wright, playing a version of herself, has made, derailing her career and effectively removing her from the A-list. Her beaten-down agent Al (Harvey Keitel) implores her to go with the flow, to live out her life in luxury whilst allowing her computer simulated self to prosper in the roles she never dared contemplate, whilst smarmy studio chief Jeff Green (Danny Huston) pares scenarios back to their basics in his hard sell of what the future holds for her kind. All three performers are excellent but Folman brings these early scenes to life with his eye for unique design details, the striking backdrops all brilliantly lit with a mix of natural and artificial white lights. Inside Wright’s home – an old hangar for what used to be an airport - a balanced palette of flags and meticulously coloured shapes provide a vibe somehow imbuing the scenes with both sterility and warmth.

Niccol’s film, as entertaining as it was, got bogged down ultimately in the need to service the story with very conventional notions of identity, corruption and abuse of power. Folman on the other hand, simply won’t be corralled by such orthodoxy. There’s not a whiff of a formulaic counterpoint that might hamper the spontaneous freefall of his vision. Once it leaps forward 20 years and sends Wright into the heart of a 'restricted animated zone', the bedlam begins. Ostensibly she’s to be a guest at Miramount’s Futurist Conference whilst re-negotiating her next contract, but this is a meagre set-up from which will sprout an uncontainable plot, spilling free of the borderlines of any rational imagination. After a full-scale rebellion is launched on the Abrahama Hotel, you’ll have just as much fun spotting, in the background of many scenes, famous figures from pop culture past and present as sorting through the ramifications of Folman’s shape-shifting, mind-expanding extrapolations of his lightly referenced source material, Stanislaw Lem’s novel.

Occasionally the weight of Folman’s ideas sees them crumbling in upon themselves - a natural by-product of letting your imaginings run unchecked - but the level of his artistry combined with a free-spirited audaciousness means that The Congress grows in stature the more you submerge yourself in its notions of sanity and madness sharing borderlines, in the scale of its outlandish imagery, and just go with the flow. With Max Richter’s eclectic, emotionally enriching score working reflexively to musically elucidate the chaos, Folman searches for a humane core on which to hang Robin’s quest to find her son, lost on the other side of the mirror, as it were, between the real and animated spheres. The Congress will confuse, expand your mind, confound - in the best possible way - and astonish. It’s a minor masterpiece of sorts that may only give us a glimpse at its real depths with repeat viewings.

The Congress is now out on DVD through Madman Entertainment.


As with any Jean-Pierre Jeunet project, it’s the tidal sensory perception of extraordinary colours that remains burned in your memory. A fantasist’s domain drenched in green landscapes and yellow complexions, his worlds leap off the screen with a vividness often imitated but never replicated with the same extraordinary artistry. Of course, every other hue on the colour spectrum is also utilised by the director of Amelie (2001), and even if the meticulous attention to detail in art direction and production design threaten to overshadow narrative substance, there’s enough crammed into every frame to keep your attention.

His latest film, adapted from a whimsical novel by Reif Larsen, tells the story of T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett), a talented 10 year-old inventor from rural Montana, who lives with his older brother Layton (Jacob Davies), sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson), toaster-murdering mother Dr. Clair (Helena Bonham Carter), and cowboy father (Callum Keith Rennie). When T.S. invents an electric wheel that might be the key to the creation of a perpetual motion machine he’s offered a prestigious award by the Smithsonian in Washington. Running away from home he heads cross country to collect his award. Much of his travels are aboard a motor home on the back of a freight train before a kindly trucker (Julian Richings) offers a final assist to his ultimate destination.

Despite initial fears of Jeunet being ill-suited by the transplantation to the States and away from his comfort zone, he survives with his artistic credibility intact. Even though, it must be said, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2014) is only a shadow of his best work including Amelie and his pair of brilliant early, eccentric collaborations with Marc Caro, Delicatessen (1991), and The City of Lost Children (1995). With the bucolic, catchy melodicism of first-time composer Denis Sanacore’s excellent guitar-strumming score providing an authentic feel for the locale, and an engaging debut by Catlett in the lead, the film is spirited and inventive if not particularly riveting.

Occasionally the regularly doled out quirkiness feels forced; with animated asides and fleeting anecdotal flashbacks, it almost begs to be laughed at and for a long time there’s intrigue in T.S’s cross-country quest but little heart to stoke its fire. Finally, as the end nears, the film finds its soul as the blackest day in the boy’s life – the death of his brother Layton - glossed over as another erroneous detail in the roundabout telling of his tale, is probed for its veiled, darker emotional context. Judy Davis as the Smithsonian representative is used unsatisfyingly as a tool for mild satire, her G.H. Jibsen’s initial amazement as the inventor’s identity replaced by darker motivations. Too readily she becomes heavily focused on greedy manipulation of the boy’s unique dimensions and gifts. The comedy in her scenes feels out of whack, both broadly played and predictable - the only damp spot, in fact, on what is an otherwise strong and subtly poignant final act.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is now out on DVD from Madman Entertainment.


From its opening toothpaste commercial and maddeningly catchy jingle, Sion Sono’s most recent masterpiece again reveals his unique ability to engross, entertain and supply audiences with an electric charge of out-there, crazy humour. In Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (2014) we’re soon introduced to a series of characters whose lives will intersect with that of the commercial’s young star Mitsuko. Foremost amongst them is a trio of wannabe filmmakers who call themselves The F**k Bombers - Hirata, their director; Miki, “the king of dolly shots”, and Tanisawa, “the queen of hand-held shots”. Together they trawl the streets in search of action to turn into high art. When they encounter a young gang leader, Sasaki, about to take part in a rumble with a rival gang, Hirata is convinced they’ve found a potential action star, perhaps the next Bruce Lee. They also cross paths with a bloodied gang leader, Ikegami (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), fleeing the aftermath of a massacre in which Mitsuko’s mother took vengeance against members from a Yakuza in competition with that of her husband Muto (Jun Kunimura). Ikegami subsequently takes over the Kitagawa Yakuza and plots revenge against Muto and his men.

Fast forward a decade and little has changed: the two Yakuza groups are still in opposition but headed for an ultimate showdown, whilst the F**k Bomber quartet has remained static, with the resolutely cheerful Hirata (Hiroki Hasagawa), their erstwhile leader, still supremely optimistic that the all powerful, overseeing Movie God will, sooner or later, bequeath him that fateful opportunity to make his one masterpiece, and “a hell of a movie” at that. Sasaki (Tak Sakaguchi) is the brooder of the group, retreating into bitterness at their stasis, waiting stupidly for a moment and time he's assumed will now never arrive. It’s not long after he blows his top and bails out, that the fateful moment arrives when the helpless sap, Koji (Gen Hoshino), abducted by Mitsuko (Fumi Nikaido) after she abandons her latest film mid-shoot, comes upon the group's plea to the Movie God, and calls for their assistance. Having an irate Muto - who has now captured the pair and only spares Koji's life because he's fooled into thinking he's a director - breathing down his neck, puts him in a precarious state. Thus, the moment of truth for F**k Bombers has arrived.

Sono’s film proceeds at a kinetic speed, with regular bursts of stylised violence, use of different film stock, rapid-fire editing and off-kilter angles. The film is uproariously funny, with a very Japanese take on of getting up close and personal in a verbal slanging match just one of countless hilariously interwoven elements of Sono’s blazingly nutty screenplay that tickles my funny bone again and again. Wildly uneven? Certainly, but that's part of Sono's MO, reaching for extremes whilst blowing narrative borderlines to smithereens. Unpredictable, unconventional and gleefully offensive are qualities rarely indicative of genius but they most certainly are when applied to this most idiosyncratic of modern Japanese filmmakers. Like compatriot Takashi Miike, Sono is absurdly prolific, latching on to 2 or 3 projects a year, but he’s well on the way to surpassing Miike in terms of quality. He’s come a long way in 15 years from his porn-film beginnings! His actors here are all astonishing, attacking the material with a reckless abandon, throwing themselves into the fray like a troop of dive-bombing kamikaze pilots.

What bleeds through – quite literally - beyond Sono’s blissfully twisted, playful sense of humour, is a love for cinema as a blessed, revered, subjective art form. Though he plays with genres like ingredients to be wilfully tossed into a blender, it’s this underlying passion that immerses us in his blown out worlds, with visceral assaults and gut-wrenching excess so audaciously conceived that they send a shiver of giddy excitement down your spine. The film’s full-throttle climax is a marvellous case-in-point, a set-piece that has to be seen to be believed. To give too much away would just be cruel. But What Sono’s film boils down to is a crimson-soaked, skewed poetical ode to cinema, to the outrageous passion of filmmakers so determined to achieve the nirvana of a perfect shot that they would die for their art and with a stupid grin etched on their faces as they did so. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is delicious, deliriously good fun, in its own twisted way a very unique kind of masterpiece. In fact, it's even better than that: goddamnit, this is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

You must own Why Don't You Play in Hell?, out now on DVD from Madman Entertainment.


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