About Last Night (2014)

About Last NightBernie (Kevin Hart) and Joan (Regina Hall) have just had sex, and we know this because they have each described the previous night’s encounter to their respective friends in excruciating detail. Having arranged to meet again, the pair bring those friends along for support. While Bernie and Regina excuse themselves for a quicky in the toilets, Danny (Michael Ealy) and Debbie (Joy Bryant) hit it off unexpectedly and decide to leave early. As Bernie and Regina tire of one another, eventually developing a mutual hatred of the other, Danny and Debbie fall in love, with the former eventually asking the latter to live with him. It’s no happily ever after, however, and they too soon start to grow apart.

Romantic comedies are sooo last century. You might have noticed that since the noughties cinema has entered a new phase that could accurately be described as the filthies, with a spate of 21st Century sex comedies designed to cast an ultraviolet light on human relationships. No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits were mere foreplay, with That Awkward Moment finally taking things to fourth base, behind the bike shed or wherever the kids are doing it these days. That Awkward Moment, you may remember, was irredeemably awful.

Enter About Last Night, a spiritual successor to That Awkward Moment from the director of Hot Tub Time Machine and starring Brenda from the Scary Movie franchise. Yes, it really is as bad as it sounds. Steve Pink’s About Last Night – a remake of the 1986 film of the same name – is the story of two couples, neither one of which it is possible to care for. It all starts with Hart (the pain in the stomach and the ass from Ride Along) and Hall (of Brenda fame), both of whom provoke the sort of reaction usually reserved for crying babies on aeroplanes. As characters, Bernie and Joan are completely insufferable, each ostensibly intended as comic relief but really just there to outdo the other with acts of the utmost misogyny and loutishness.

The scenes between Ealy and Bryant aren’t nearly as painful to watch, and credit where credit’s due, they do attempt to portray a semi-realistic romance, where trivial disagreements fester and ferment until they seem too entrenched and pervasive to be ever truly resolved. Such films are by no means unfamiliar with falling-outs, but they are usually saved until the end of the second act for the greatest dramatic impact. And there’s a reason for that: nobody wants to watch two people fall out of love for an hour and a half. When you’re not being repulsed by Bernie and Joan, you’re being bored senseless by Danny and Debbie. The film, also based on David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, aims for insight and candour, but instead comes across as simply crass and immature.

Romantic and sexual comedies really aren’t so different. Love will always triumph, it’s just that you might not always care that it does. About Last Night — split handily into sections so that you’re all too aware of how many months of prolonged misery you have left to endure — is a horrible movie. One decent gag aside (in which a Korean beautician rightfully reprimands Brenda from Scary Movie for being a racist wretch) it is a joyless, witless and unlikeable ordeal that is every bit as detestable as That Awkward Moment.

1.5-Stars

Labor Day (2014)

Labor DayIt’s 1987, and Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) is conducting the monthly shop with her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) at the local supermarket. Adele is a borderline agoraphobe, and since her husband (Clark Gregg) left her for another woman she has become increasingly awkward and anxious, preferring to keep outdoor excursions to an absolute minimum. Her fears prove somewhat justified when her son is approached by an escaped convict — a murderer called Frank (Josh Brolin) — who demands to be taken home so that he can lay low for a few days. Despite the circumstances, and against all probability, they fall in love.

Jason Reitman has made a name for himself directing sardonic dramas covering complex subject matters such as teenage pregnancy and mental illness. His films have to date been sharp, witty and full of vigor, often but not always lent added energy by screenwriter Diablo Cody. Labor Day marks something of a departure for Reitman; an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel of the same name, Labor Day is earnest where his previous films were aloof, naturalistic where his other movies have been idiosyncratic, and superficial where the rest have been satirical. It’s also nowhere near as good.

Much has been made of the film’s weaknesses, and in particular it’s bonkers preoccupation with food. It’s true, the dialogue is often laughably mundane and plums are discussed at needless length, but neither issue really gets to the heart of the core problem; it’s the film’s sluggishness that makes it such a bore. A heat-wave mentioned fleetingly in news reports explains why the actors are doused in sweat and apparently too tired to do anything but pant their lines, but it’s no excuse for such lethargy behind the camera. Reitman’s direction is as limp as his actors’ delivery, and the film’s yawning scenes — like all other signs of fatigue — are incredibly contagious.

It would be unfair to dismiss the film for being dull, however, and there are elements in it that are of undeniable interest. The film looks stunning, and cinematographer Eric Steelberg captures the cloying, inescapable summer heat beautifully. In its feverishness, the film gropes for themes not usually associated with traditional romantic dramas. There is an Oedipal thread running through Labor Day that is particularly unusual, with Adele explaining sexual love to her son, and Henry showing an unhealthy interest in the bedroom antics of his mother. Early in the film he explains that he wants to be a husband to her, and even goes as far as to create a book of coupons entitling her to acts of husbandry such as chores and maintenance. It’s bizarre, uncanny and just a little bit perverse.

Labor Day is an unconvincing romance between a depressed divorcee and a misunderstood murder that lacks both Reitman’s usual style and subversive substance. The film is too uncomfortable to be truly unengaging, however, and there is a strange fetor about it that prevents it from being completely unremarkable.

2-stars

Under The Skin (2014)

Under The SkinLaura (Scarlett Johansson) is on the prowl. She’s driving through the streets of Glasgow in search of single men, ostensibly asking them for directions but in reality trying to lure them back to her apartment, which sits atop a block of flats that seem to be forever shrouded in fog. It is not sex she’s after, however, but life itself. Andrew (Paul Brannigan) discovers this for himself after meeting Laura in a nightclub, as later that evening he is submerged in a strange fluid and left to dissolve among the remains of her previous victims. He has been abducted by aliens, and he will not be the last.

Shot using a combination of professional actors (most notably Scarlett Johansson) and incidental encounters with members of the public, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is a film of unexpectedly harmonious contradictions. It’s a very naturalistic piece, following Johansson around Glasgow as she asks directions from passers-by (“Do you know where Asda is?”, one man replies), and yet is the story of an extra-terrestrial being abducting vulnerable humans for unexplained reasons. It’s terrifying, yet isn’t intentionally scary. And though shot on occasion by candid camera the cinematography is never anything less than breath-taking. Scarlett Johansson convinces entirely in the leading role, and there is something so inherently alien about watching the Hollywood actress stalk through the Buchannan Street shopping centre that the illusion is somehow complete.

It starts with Johansson vocalising off-screen, warming up for what appears to be her first day on the job, in a scene that could have just as easily preceded her ‘appearance’ in Her. Following a brief introduction to another off-worlder — posing as a male motorcyclist — who seems to monitor her, the film cuts to a room awash with bright white light, as Johansson, in silhouette, strips a dead woman of her clothes. It’s a powerful opening salvo, and one that sets a high standard beneath which the film never slips. Most films can lay claim to a handful of iconic scenes or memorably images by which they can be readily identified, but Under The Skin has such a strong sense of its own identity that audiences could likely recognise it from a single frame taken from anywhere in the movie. An adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, Glazer’s film – only his third feature – is astonishingly original.

Just take the scene in which Johansson tries chocolate cake for what is presumably the very first time, only to cough it back up again and spit into the remains. It’s the sort of segment that could have featured in Borat or Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, as the hidden camera scans the room for the suspicious glances and appalled expressions of the other, oblivious patrons, and yet it’s unnerving rather than simply uncomfortable. It’s an unease that ties the whole thing together, so that the film maintains some sort of consistency even as it veers from scenes of such improvised mundaneness as someone falling in the street to the wildly surreal and fundamentally science fiction abductions themselves, in which hapless victims are digested in full view of their hastily discarded clothes. Noteworthy too are some of the edits and overlays, where Johansson’s face or body appears to be drawn first from space and then from the very earth she now inhabits.

While Glazer and Johansson continue to confound, her character moving to the highlands when she begins to sympathise with her human prey, composer Ilona Sekacz ramps up the tension with a score that keeps finding new ways to put her audience on edge. The shrill notes and pulsating tones of the soundtrack recall Hans Zimmer’s work on The Ring (only accompanied by imagery that even Samara would run from), and though loosely carnal it is distorted, contorted and perverted into something that’s more unsettling than arousing; something disorientating and otherworldly. It all comes together for perhaps the film’s most horrifying set piece, in which Johansson witnesses an accident at a nameless shingle beach somewhere in Scotland. It’s completely random, utterly ruthless and very, very creepy.

Under The Skin, then, is aptly named. Not only does it explore what it means to be human (twice in the film skin plays an important, if ambiguous role) but it worms its way so expertly and pervasively under the skin of its own audience that, not only will you be thinking about it for days to come, you’ll be physically reacting to it, too.

5-Stars

The Zero Theorem (2014)

The Zero TheoremReclusive computer genius Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is waiting for a phone call. He doesn’t know when the call will come or who the caller might be, but he expects it to relate somehow to the meaning of life. Unfortunately, Leth has to spend a considerable amount of time at work, where he pours over various formulas under the watchful eye of Management (Matt Damon). While at a party, he is told by supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) that Management wants to put him on a new project, and accepts when it is revealed that he can perform his new duties from home. Qohen has been tasked with solving The Zero Theorem, a mathematical extrapolation of Big Crunch theory which seems to suggest that life is purposeless. Leth needs his phone call now more than ever, but with the sudden arrival of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Bob (Lucas Hedges) in his life he keeps finding himself getting distracted from his work.

You should of course know better than to apply logic to a Terry Gilliam movie; the auteur doesn’t plot his movies in the usual sense, rather he develop his themes until they themselves assume some sort of narrative shape. Watching a Gilliam production is often akin to an episode of Doctor Who; it’s a overwhelming, alienating experience in which you have to write the contrivances and improbabilities off to something vaguely timey-wimey and just savour the experience in all of its crackpot, nonsense glory. After all, it’s not every director who could overcome the untimely death of his lead actor by recasting not once but three times, as he did with last film The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. Why? Even having watched the film the answers aren’t exactly forthcoming.

Of all Gilliam’s past films, it is perhaps 1985′s Brazil that is the most obvious forerunner to The Zero Theorem (no surprise really, as it’s being billed as the third and final part in the director’s ‘Dystopian Satire Trilogy’). It’s yet another tale of one man’s persecution by the state, only rather than the straight man being up against a force of complete and utter chaos the roles have this time been reversed. This time it’s the protagonist who babbles incoherently to the endless bewilderment of those around him; Leth is an eyebrow-deprived recluse who inhabits a fire-damaged chapel, refers to himself in the first-person plural and has turned a simple wrong number or prank call into a bona fide belief system.

There are shades of Gilliam-esque satire to the world inhabited by Leth, a culture that would invoke Dr. Seuss and Whoville if it wasn’t so technologically advanced or strangely sexualised. As a treatise on religion and the madness of blind faith The Zero Theorem is mildly successful, though in order to reach its eventual conclusions you must suffer through an awful lot of largely inconsequential silliness. Who’s to say whether Waltz — or for that matter any of the cast — are hitting their marks, for it is singularly impossible to imagine what exactly they might be aiming for. Waltz spends a lot of time acting frenzied at a computer, but to what effect it is difficult to say. Thierry and Hedges seem to hold some answers, but never enough to completely satisfy, while Tilda Swinton only adds to the insanity as a Scottish psychiatrist.

The Zero Theorem will likely appeal to those well-versed in the director’s style and sensibilities, and to anyone willing to analyse and scrutinise every utterance or incidence for hidden, if not misplaced meaning. For everyone else it is likely to prove even more obtuse, enigmatic and indecipherable than Gilliam’s other works. You have to be in the mood to watch The Zero Theorem, and it’s safe to say that I wasn’t. Honestly, the titular formula itself must have been easier to crack.

2-stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest HotelA young girl (Léa Seydoux) is seen clutching a memoir written by an author (Tom Wilkinson; Jude Law) who visited The Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1960s, where he spoke with Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), a retired page boy and then the hotel’s reclusive owner. Zero relates the story of M. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), who, along with a young Zero (Tony Revolori), was once implicated in the murder of an elderly guest named Madame D (Tilda Swinton). Her heirs, spurned by their mother’s decision to leave Boy With Apple to Gustave H, seek revenge on The Grand Budapest Hotel. With his employer in prison, Zero must plan an escape with the help of baker and girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).

Fans rejoice and detractors dispair, for Wes Anderson has made another movie. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and co. are all back for yet another glorified encore, as audiences are served the director’s latest succession of colourful characters, symmetrical scenery and contrived coincidences. Taking centre stage this time are Tony Revolori, Ralph Fiennes and Saoirse Ronan; though new to the director’s style each has received a Wes Anderson make-over and been suitably indoctrinated into learning the stage directions to a level of proficiency usually saved for the script alone.

Anderson doesn’t make films, he makes frames; as such, watching the latest Wes Anderson movie is akin to watching someone else’s holiday slideshow, narrated with all the extraneous detail and self-satisfied in jokes of someone completely unwilling to let the images speak for themselves. Every screenshot seems to demand study, appreciation and its own standing ovation, so that by the time the credits finally roll you are fed up and exhausted. As narrative voice is passed from one pointless character to another, title cards announce chapter headings ever more preposterous than the last and the plot takes endless detours (he even messes with the aspect ratio), it becomes increasingly difficult to invest in anything taking place on screen.

You begin to wonder why Andreson even bothers to film in live-action, but then you remember Fantastic Mr Fox and are suddenly relieved that he doesn’t indulge in animation more often. It doesn’t even seem to be about perfection — as fastidiously placed and positioned as every set, costume and actor might be (you imagine the director patrols the set with a spirit measure and iron) — as, in true Anderson tradition, the performances are anything but. There is a distracting air of amateurishness about The Grand Budapest Hotel, as characters race through the halls of the pristine set as though late for their cue, stomping loudly up the stairs and delivering lines as though they’ve never before experienced human conversation in the wild. It’s supposed to be slapstick, but comes across more like organised fun.

It would be insincere to write The Grand Budapest Hotel off completely; there is a humour to its whimsy that stands it apart from the tedious melancholy of much of Anderson’s other work. That said, the artifice and emotional distance created by the auteur’s absurd attention to detail and complete and utter disregard for logic and reality remains, and it remains as inaccessible, implausible and infuriating as ever.

2-stars

Starred Up (2014)

Starred UpWhen troubled and temperamental teen Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is transferred to an adult prison, he finds himself detained with the father who abandoned him as a child. Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) has been inside for years, and has made something of a name for himself on the ward, having allied himself with top dog Spencer (Peter Ferdinando) and exploited with the weak links among the prison staff. He attempts to mentor Eric, enrolling him in counselling sessions with Oliver (Rupert Friend) in the hope of shortening his prison sentence — or, failing that, teaching his son the tools to necessary survive and flourish in an adult prison environment.

Any successful set piece — be it a song and dance number, an action sequence or a special effects extravaganza — doesn’t aim simply to dazzle or amaze in isolation, but to drive the story forward and develop the characters involved. In the case of Starred Up, these set pieces take the shape of aggressive displays, not of glorified fight scenes but of often pathetic posturing and provocations. Importantly, and unusually, they speak volumes about the relationships that comprise David MacKenzie’s film.

O’Connell’s Eric is a magnetic presence, as vulnerable as he is volatile. The Skins actor has made a career out of playing bullies and delinquents, each more unlikeable than the last, but here he portrays Eric with just enough heart and humanity to make him sympathetic. It’s an incredible performance, and one that sees him stripped bare both physically and emotionally. Even in the opening scene, in which the camera follows Eric from behind through the various stages of induction, you can feel something brewing. The counselling sessions in particular are a compelling watch, as O’Connell sparks off of David Ajala, Antony Welch and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr., making slow but striking progress with the help of Rupert Friend’s Oliver.

It obviously helps that the screenplay was written by someone with prior experience working for the rehabilitation of offenders. Jonathan Asser is a 50-year-old psychotherapist who practiced Shame/Violence Intervention (SVI) at Wandsworth Prison. His studied and shrewd observations make all the difference, and Starred Up benefits immeasurably from an attention to detail and psychological complexity that most films on the subject of criminality lack. Asser comments on everything from masculinity and valour to the effects of imprisonment on a person’s identity — whether racial, spiritual or sexual. These aren’t “daddy issues” in the usual Hollywood sense, but recogniseable and relatable crises of character.

That is not to suggest that Starred Up is not a gritty and at times grueling prison drama, because it is; there is, however, an emotional as well as practical realism to MacKenzie’s film, Asser’s script and O’Connell’s performance that makes it a very human drama as well.

4-Stars

Need For Speed (2014)

Need For SpeedHaving been forced into partnership with Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) in order to save his family’s garage business, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) finds himself framed for a manslaughter he didn’t commit. When he is released from prison two years later, Marshall gathers his old team — including Joe (Ramon Rodriguez), Benny (Scott Mescudi) and Finn (Rami Malek) — and sets off to exact his revenge. The plan is to use the car that started it all (a 900hp Shelby Mustang worked on by Tobey and sold by Dino to a Brit by the name of Madden) to best Brewster in the De Leon, a high-stakes street race where the winner really does take all — all the other cars, that is. First, however, they must convince host Monarch that they are worthy of a place in the competition, a task that is made increasingly difficult by Brewster, who has offered millions of dollars to anyone who can stop Marshall from reaching San Francisco, and Madden’s own daughter, Julia (Imogen Poots), who insists on coming along for the ride.

Here’s a No Brainer worthy of EE frontman Kevin Bacon: based on the most successful racing game in the world, with blockbusting competitors Fast And Furious out of the race and in a landscape where Top Gear is one of the most-watched shows on television, Need For Speed had the odds stacked overwhelmingly in its favour. It’s unfortunate, then, that director Scott Waugh and writers George and John Gatins have squandered such an incredible opportunity with a film that — for want of a better analogy — underperforms in the extreme. Surprisingly for a film based on a video game with no discernible plot and very little in the way of characters, there is an awful lot of backstory to get through as motives and relationships are established and the plot set in motion. This, you might point out, is surely no bad thing, but here twenty minutes of exposition amounts to little more than “he likes her but she likes him, and they all love cars”.

Aaron Paul, who apparently warrants something of a cult following through his involvement in Breaking Bad, is of very little impact here as Tobey Marshall. Continuing the trend for boy-racers with old-man names (let’s not forget that the bad-ass stars of Fast And Furious go by the names of Dominic and Brian), Tobey sleepwalks from practical effect to practical effect — and if you’ve watched any interview with Paul you’ll be well aware that the film uses practical effects over VFX – waxing lyrical about always going back for other racers, usually having just overtaken a few dozen burning wrecks in the race before. Cooper isn’t any more memorable as Dino, largely because he isn’t given much more to do than wear black and look contemptible. The only actors that make any sort of impression — good or bad – are Malek, who as usual seems to have been beamed down from not just another movie, but another planet; Poots, the electric-eyed and British-accented broker-turned-law-breaker; and Michael Keaton, who clearly used all of his good ideas on a similar character in RoboCop.

It’s a shame to keep comparing Need For Speed to Fast And Furious, but it is arguably inevitable. Whereas the Fast films earned their stripes as racing films before segueing almost seemlessly into more traditional action-adventure territory, Need For Speed grinds its gears — and skips a few more — in its hurry to make up ground. From their relatively humble beginnings, competing in small-town drag races and struggling to make ends meet at the garage, our heroes are suddenly being chased through the desert by professional racers, police helicopters and bounty hunters. The collateral damage is insane, and when Benny shows up in an Apache helicopter to save them from gun-totting hillbillies it really doesn’t matter whether the effects are practical or computer generated, the events they depict just aren’t believable. Speaking of the effects, and in particular the races themselves, the stunt-work is decidedly unremarkable. The De Leon is like a cut-price podrace, complete with cringe-worthy commentary, colourful crashes and incredibly confusing stakes but wholly absent of vision or excitement.

Need For Speed lacks the simple joys of the gaming franchise it’s based on, the silly spectacle of Fast Five and the petrol-headed tomfoolery of Top Gear. It may have the horse-power, but what Waugh’s film was really in need of were compelling characters, an interesting story and dialogue you didn’t wish they’d drowned out in post-production. Then it might — just might – have been a No Brainer after all.

2-stars

300: Rise Of An Empire (2014)

300 Rise Of An EmpireWhen her husband is slain during the Battle of Marathon in 490BC, Artemisia (Eva Green), hell-bent on revenge, uses magic to turn Persian ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) into the god-King. The man responsible, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), a naval commander, travels to Sparta in an attempt to unite Greece in their fight against the invading forces of Persia. He gets a cold reception from Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), whose husband — on advice from an oracle — has already left with three hundred Spartan soldiers to fight Xerxes’ forces. When Leonidas (Gerard Butler, in recycled footage from the first movie) falls and his army is slain, however, Gorgo has a change of heart and agrees to help. At the Battle of Artemisium, as Athens burns in the distance, Themistocles — with help from Scyllias (Callum Mulvey), his son Calisto (Jack O’Connell), and Aesyklos (Hans Matheson) — battlesto the last for the future of the Greek Empire.

Or something like that. It’s not always entirely clear what’s going on in 300: Rise Of An Empire; it’s almost impossible to get to grips with the characters’ archaic names, let alone untangle the indistinguishable fight scenes and identical armaments that make it difficult to tell what battle you’re watching or who’s actually fighting in it. In fact, unless you’re au fait with Grecian history (or have watched the first film on repeat since its release) it may even take the first act just to work out who you’re supposed to be rooting for. The first film kept things relatively simple: Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender vs. the massive bald guy; but here there are innumerable villains, as Artemisia dispenses a seemingly never-ending array of generals to fight an equally never-ending series of naval battles.

A pseudo-sequel of sorts, dealing with the events before, during and after the Battle of Thermopylae from 300 (but no later than the first film’s epilogue, confusingly), the stage was set for 300: Rise Of An Empire to disappoint all who didn’t know better. After all, Butler had declined to return, the novelty of historical fantasy had long since worn off and Rise Of An Empire‘s release had already been delayed for six months — it doesn’t take an oracle to predict disaster. Surprisingly – not least considering the incoherentness of the film’s plot — new director Noam Murro has put together a film that is bigger, undoubtedly, but also arguably better than Zack Snyder’s original. If anything, there’s even more slow-motion, gore and nudity than before, and yet Murro’s commitment to making the most preposterous movie he can results in a film that is strangely pure and even admirable.

He’s not the only one who seems determined to giving the film their all. Eva Green seems drunk on testosterone as Artemisia, punctuating every line with a massacre and indulging in one of the strangest, most impassioned and downright alarming sex scenes of recent memory. Lena Headey is another woman on a mission, getting to utter the franchise’s “this is Sparta” tagline and ultimately save the day as Queen Gorgo. The male cast look a little lost by comparison — perhaps they’re all still constipated from their last brick of protein — but they still impress in their ability to loose limbs with little more than a light swing of their swords and ride horses across a navy in the heat of battle. Santoro had to shoot most of his scenes in isolation because of the effects work needed to make him a giant, and one of the film’s biggest joys is watching his character try to interact with others. The only greater enjoyment comes from listening to O’Connell struggle with an accent that isn’t “chav”.

The dialogue seems as though its been directly lifted from the graphic novel, to the extent that your brain almost tricks you into seeing the speech bubbles floating above the action, and yet it is delivered with such gravity and solidarity that not only do you not mind, but you might actually be roused by it. Morro throws everything at the screen — blood, baby oil, a dead body — as if to see what might stick, then throws it all again for good measure. At one point Xerxes stands on a platform to overlook his kingdom, a scene composition that works rather well in 3D, only to then do it again and again throughout the movie. It’s incredible to watch; the sort of movie that seems designed not for a cinema but for a theme park, where in addition to stereoscopy customers can also enjoy D-Box, Aromascope and jets of ambiguous liquid to the face. I can only imagine it would smell as ripe as it sounds.

Though it might get few points for originality, then (in fact, original subtitle Battle of Artemisium was dropped for sounding “too exotic”), 300: Rise Of An Empire certainly gets points for effort. Run at normal speed Murro’s film might only be eleven minutes long, but they’re likely to be eleven of the loudest, dumbest and most gloriously over-the-top minutes you’ve spent in the cinema this year.

3-Stars

The Congress (GFF 2014)

The CongressRobin Wright (playing herself) is a star on the wane; the once in-demand actress – famed for the likes of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump – hasn’t made a film in years, and her chequered history with Miramount Studios has left her with few friends in the Hollywood system. She still needs to provide for her disabled son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), however, and is advised by her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), to sign a one-off contract that will give the studios the rights to use her image for the next twenty years. Technology has advanced to the stage that an actor can be scanned by computers, and their performances thereafter rendered digitally without their involvement, or even permission. In the future, she is summoned to a congress with Miramount manager Jeff (Danny Huston) to discuss the next stage in her career.

Having been voted the European Animated Film of the Year at the European Film Awards back in 2013 (the committee clearly hadn’t caught up with Disney’s Frozen at that point), it will likely come as something of a surprise when half an hour into The Congress you are still watching Robin Wright in live-action. Though disorientating, however, this section of the film is incredibly strong. A beautifully shot and somewhat scathing satire of the American film industry, The Congress posits a not-too-distant future in which actors are taken out of the acting process. The film comments on everything from Wright’s own filmography to the impact of aging on a performer’s career. Even once the film has switched to animation, this thread of the narrative proves just as fruitful, with further exploration of the actor as a brand and of the very future of film itself.

Wright is terrific in quite a difficult role, convincing as a credible version of herself while also giving what is quite clearly (particularly later on in the film) a performance, too. An actress with an aversion to science fiction movies (among a great many other things, it seems) in what is very much a science fiction movie, she could have been a very different character to pull off. It’s almost a shame that she has to become a cartoon at all, so effective are her earlier scenes both at home and at work. The sequence in which she is actually scanned is one of the film’s best, as Keitel’s character is forced to run Wright through the whole gamut of emotions for the studio’s computers. The whole cast is great, in fact, though only Huston’s presence truly carries over to the animated segments, thanks in large part to his already caricatured features.

At first, the animation when it comes is a surreal delight, as Wright drives along undulating rainbow roads flanked by leaping whales, assorted ships and fluid, florescent scenery, arriving at the titular congress to find guests drinking polyjuice potions that result in a whole host of celebrity cameos. The idea that you might one day consume movies orally is an interesting one, and ties beautifully into the film’s themes of freedom, choice and identity. With this change of direction already happening so late in the narrative, however, there is little to no time to establish any rules or logical flow, and what started out as a sober satire soon descends into almost meaningless surrealism. At least, it appears meaningless to anyone unwilling to do the legwork for themselves; there are probably tens of interpretations or insights to draw from The Congress if you have the time or inclination to analyse it after the fact (I’ve since heard one reading of the film which invokes the Palestine conflict), but during the movie it’s hard not to get lost in the fast-flowing torrent of consciousness that Waltz With Bashir director Ari Folman seems to have unleashed, apparently indiscriminately.

It doesn’t stop there, however, for having apparently lost interest in his first thesis (that would be the one involving the future of actors and acting) Folman returns to the relationship between Wright and her son in a spectacularly grinding gear-change. Suddenly back in the real world, God knows how many years in the future — and remember, we’d already jumped twenty years before it even went animated for the first time — Wright is confronted by Zeppelins and apocalyptic ruin as she goes in search of her now adult son. At the beginning of the movie Aaron Wright is seen playing with kites, and the imagery is carried over here as his mother rides a familiar kite-like contraption up to one of the blimps floating overhead. You sense that her search is supposed to be fraught with urgency and emotion, but everything is so confused by this point that you’re still too busy trying to figure out what the invasion at the congress fifteen minutes ago was all about. Imagine The Matrix or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, only described to you by an excited child with an overactive imagination.

The Congress starts out as a five-star satire, a refreshingly ruthless assault on stardom and celebrity, but systematically undermines itself with flights of fancy too unfathomable to really qualify as a coherent argument. It seems unsatisfied to have merely broken the fourth wall, and continues to break down boundaries faster than it can actually set them up. It’s overcrowded and undercooked, resulting in a final act that is neither intellectually stimulating or emotionally satisfying. It outlasted its welcome to such an degree that I’m not even sure I can be bothered tracking down Stanislow Lem’s source novel in pursuit of answers.

3-Stars

Mr Morgan’s Last Love (GFF 2014)

Mr Morgans Last LoveMatthew Morgan (Michael Caine), a philosophy professor originally from Princeton who moved to Paris with his wife (Jane Alexander) before she died, is struggling to cope with his loss. He doesn’t speak any French, instead tutoring a friend in English at weekly sessions at a nearby café. He appears to find a new lease of life, however, when he meets Pauline (Clémence Poésy), a local dance instructor who offers to take him home after a fall. He’s estranged from his own children, while she has always lacked a father figure, and they become quick friends. When Karen (Gillian Anderson) and Miles (Justin Kirk) arrive in Paris following their father’s botched suicide attempt, however, strain is put on Matthew and Pauline’s relationship as questions are asked about each of their true motivations.

When attending a film festival such as Glasgow and faced with more films than you could ever hope to see in the space of ten days, there are generally two methods of narrowing down your selection: you can make your choice based on the movies with the most buzz and risk missing out on something new and exciting, or you can base your decisions on a film’s cast and risk being let down by an actor or actress with an otherwise consistent track record. I went down the second avenue with Mr Morgan’s Last Love, and with a cast including Caine, Anderson, Poésy (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; In Bruges) and Kirk (TV’s Weeds) it was difficult to imagine how Mr Morgan’s Last Love could be anything other than at least watchable.

Directed by Sandra Nettelbeck – who also adapted Francoise Dorner’s original novel, La Douceur Assassine – Mr Morgan’s Last Love really is a mess of a movie. Why anyone would hire Caine only to have him attempt an American accent is beyond comprehension, even more so as it becomes clearer and clearer that it is a feat of which the actor is completely incapable. Poésy’s American accent is much, much better, which is itself distracting because she’s supposed to be French. The inflections aren’t all that fails to convince, however, as everything from their initial meeting (on a Parisian bus, by accident at first but then by design) to their ongoing friendship (he is clearly stalking her throughout) lacks the ring of truth.

The structure, too, is cause for concern, as it’s never entirely clear how much time has elapsed between scenes. Almost every allusion to time is jarring, as the script casually informs viewers that weeks or months have passed despite little evidence of it on screen — there’s little sign, for example, that Mr Morgan’s dancing has improved at all. It’s only with the arrival of Anderson and Kirk that the film seems to gather any momentum, though this proves short-lived as Anderson departs almost as soon as she has arrives, taking her wry asides with her, leaving the film to slow once more to a crawl. Things continue as before, only this time with Kirk shoehorned into an already strained partnership. As the action is split between Paris and the Morgans’ summer home, with characters whizzing back and forth willy nilly, the film finally falls apart completely.

While the novel may have had more room to establish the relationships and reflect on the themes of love and loss, Nettlebeck’s film struggles even to sell the set-up, even with nearly two hours at her disposal. Poésy is believable enough as a dance instructor, and Caine (at least normal, Cockney Caine) should have been more than able to do the role of philosophy teacher in his sleep, but together they are nothing but contrived. Mr Morgan’s Last Love is tedious, plodding and awkward, and it’s now painstakingly clear why it was preceded by so little buzz.

1.5-Stars

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