Still Alice (GFF 2015)

Still AliceAt the age of fifty, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is struggling to remember the occasional word — as an esteemed linguistics professor at Columbia University she is presumably aware of tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, which becomes more prevalent with age — but when she forgets where she is while running a well-trodden route she begins to worry that something else might be behind her forgetfulness. Alice is diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s, a rare form of early-onset dementia with devastating implications for her offspring. Having confided in her husband prior to diagnosis, Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin) helps her break the news to their three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

Few diagnoses can carry quite the same weight as Alzheimer’s Disease, surely a fate worse than death that leaves your body intact while ravaging your mind one memory at a time. It impacts different people in different ways but always to the same end — ultimately robbing the sufferer of their achievements, relationships and their very sense of self as they forget more and more of their lives. And yet, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name seems to suggest that for Dr. Alice Howland the diagnosis is especially tragic. As an independent, intelligent, successful linguist her inability to remember the word “lexicon” is Alzheimer’s Disease at its cruelest.

It’s hard, however, to take issue with Moore’s performance. Having researched the subject and interviewed a number of sufferers she is certainly convincing in her portrayal of a demented and tormented soul. At first simply absent-minded, misconstruing a conversation or misplacing trinkets, she soon begins to feel the full effects of the disease. Although she attempts to conceal and even counteract the progressive symptoms with memory games and messages to herself, episodes of unintentional rudeness, moments of crippling confusion and a movement towards compulsive behaviours begin to take an impact on her family too. In many ways Bosworth’s Anna takes the brunt of it onscreen, but for audiences its Baldwin and Stewart whose pain will be most keenly felt. A third-act scene between the two of them, in which Stewart returns home to help look after her mother, it truly heartbreaking.

And yet, as moving as the movie is it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it’s also a being a little patronising, too. The Howland’s affluent lifestyle is such that they never need to worry about the financial repercussions of losing half of their income, even though they have recently put two children through university and are now in the process of subsidising their third’s acting career — all while employing a cleaner-cum-carer. Alice may worry for her children’s futures but her concern seems unwarranted. Given how many people Moore is reported to have spoken to in preparation for the role it’s disappointing to see the Alzheimer’s community all but ignored within the film — Westmoreland and Glatzer largely limit their discussion of the disease to doctors and lecturers, conceding only so that Alice can speechify to a crowd. As a scene its supposed to be rousing — Alice loses her place on the page, but finds it again without help — but it just comes across as condescending.

An incongruously noble portrait of a fundamentally ignoble affliction, Still Alice only ever brings Alzheimer’s Disease into soft focus, when ideally it should be spotlighting an underrepresented form of dementia. It seems preoccupied with articulating the indescribable when the real horror should surely be purely experiential. That the film is unsatisfying it inevitable — Alzheimer’s and narrative don’t exactly go hand in hand — but it’s unfortunate that it should also be unmemorable.

3-Stars

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It Follows (GFF 2015)

It FollowsLeaving the apparent safety of suburbia and travelling into the city to meet a man, Jess (Maika Monroe) encounters a strange and sinister force that soon follows her home, to the house she shares with her mother and her younger sibling, Kelly (Lili Sepe). A creature that stalks its prey, always on foot and rarely in the same form twice, it always catches up with her eventually, wherever she tries to hide. With the help of her sister’s friends, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto), Jess and Kelly set out in search of answers — by trying to track down Jess’ recently disappeared boyfriend (Jake Weary) — before seeking refuge at Greg’s familial holiday home miles out of town.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the scariest. What if there was someone following you, wherever you go, with malicious intent? Unstoppable monsters are nothing new in horror, but there’s something about the antagonist of It Follows that stands it apart from the typical boogeyman and the usual forces of darkness. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows feels more akin to J-Horror than its Western relation, only instead of a cursed videotape or cornea it posits a cursed seed, to be passed on through intercourse. But what is “It” a manifestation of? Scripted references to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Tomb” would seem to suggest the slow march of time, and the inevitability of death and decay, but the premise speaks to a sexual dimension too. Whether it’s a spin on Original Sin or the AIDs epidemic,”It” seems to be the personification of a stigma you just can’t shake. After all, the fact that only the cursed can see their assailant leaves them ostracised from society and facing down death alone.

Only Mitchell’s second feature, It Follows is an astounding achievement. While not exactly innovative, it feels remarkably fresh and remains incredibly frightening. The sight of lumbering strangers is a familiar one, as fans of zombies, slashers and even The Borg can attest, but “It” redefines the implications of this slow-motion chase. Yes you can run, drive, sail away, but however far, fast and frequently you travel you will have to stop eventually — otherwise what is the point in escaping death if not to reclaim some sort of life? Even if you are successful in passing the curse on, however, you can never truly rest in the knowledge that “It” has left you alone, for a mistake further down the chain will leave you the target once again. It’s easy to appreciate what this means for the characters because the audience is forced to be equally ever-vigilant, and even the most innocuous scenes and encounters are mired in dread as viewers search the screen for that tell-tale shuffle. Whereas most horrors these days depend on intermittent jump-scares to stimulate their audiences, It Follows builds and maintains an oppressive atmosphere of tension that seems determined to stress you out.

Maika Monroe is exceptional as Jay, building on her recent success in The Guest (which — coincidentally — also featured a heavily synthesised score) to very encouraging effect. More than just a simple scream queen, though she can undoubtedly shriek with the best of them, Jay is a complicated character who is called upon to make some incredibly difficult decisions. Usually love triangles hold precious little interest, but forced to choose which of the men in her life to curse forever Jay’s dilemma becomes suddenly intriguing. Her relationship with Paul, her younger sister’s friend, proves particularly fruitful, positioned as he is as the film’s ingenue. Smitten — and a little obsessed — with Jay, he spends much of the movie pining after her, repeatedly offering to place himself in mortal peril for her own peace of mind — if only she would have sex with him. It might have felt predatory, or at least pathetic, but there’s an innocence to Keir Gilchrist’s portrayal that prevents Paul from coming across like a total loser. The film is just as interested in its characters’ lives as their deaths, and unlike more conservative horror films, It Follows isn’t looking to punish promiscuity, more often than not using sex as a means of salvation.

It’s not often these days that you get to pronounce a horror movie genuinely horrifying, but It Follows really is as scary as everyone is saying. Like The Babadook, like The Descent, like Ringu, Mitchell’s film is your new nightmare. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the cinema.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.4-Stars

February 2015 – That’s such a Boromir thing to say

The InterviewAlthough much of this month has been spent preparing for, commuting to and writing about the Glasgow Film Festival, I did have time to catch up on February’s wide releases before getting stuck into the programme.

February started strongly with Selma, Ava DuVernay’s rousing account of Martin Luther King’s march to Montgomery, and The Interview, perhaps the funniest satirical action-comedy since South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Either might have made my film of the month, but as moving as Selma might be I doubt it didn’t have quite the same impact as the movie that nearly broke freedom of speech and almost ruined Sony in the process.

Things tapered off a bit after that, with the disappointing Shaun The Sheep Movie, the vanilla Fifty Shades of Grey and the inconsistent Project Almanac. Only Jupiter Ascending really made an impression, though that was as much for its inanity as for its intelligence.

Glasgow Film Festival also started strongly, with Noah Baumbach’s unexpectedly crowd-pleasing comedy drama While We’re Young. Over the first weekend I also watched the excellent Theeb, the surreal Wild Tales, the moody Monsters: Dark Continent, the cantankerous Grump and the tender Short Skin, reviewing most for HeyUGuys and covering the left-overs for this blog here.

I ended the month with another marathon, rounding off my experience of GFF 15 with Fright Fest films The Samurai, Clown, It Follows and The Woods, a documentary about the making of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. At the time of writing it had been an unusually consistent year, setting the bar astoundingly high for Edinburgh International Film Festival in the summer.

Film of the month: The Interview

Wild Tales (GFF 2015)

Wild TalesOn a crowded flight two neighbouring passengers (María Marull; Darío Grandinetti) realise that they both have an acquaintance in common. At a late-night diner a young waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) recognises an old tormentor (César Bordón), but refuses the cook’s (Rita Cortese) offer to plot long-overdue revenge. Having reprimanded another driver (Walter Donado) for slowing him down, a businessman (Leonardo Sbaraglia) soon finds himself regretting his actions when a breakdown leaves him stranded and vulnerable. His car unfairly impounded, a demolitions expert (Ricardo Darín) spends his daughter’s birthday refuting the fine. After a hit-and-run perpetrated by his son, a wealthy father (Oscar Martínez) bribes his caretaker into taking the blame. A wedding party is rocked when the bride (Érica Rivas) learns of her groom’s (Diego Gentile) infidelity.

These six standalone segments comprise Wild Tales, television and film writer-director Damián Szifrón’s darkly comic anthology film and his native Argentina’s shortlisted entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. The collection opens confidently with Pasternak, an assured if not slightly absurd tale of revenge at twenty thousand feet that effectively and efficiently sets the scene for what is to come. Each short is self-contained, stylishly shot and conspicuously Spanish (or Argentine-Spanish, to be precisely) — making for an altogether more cinematic sextet than those traditionally televised at home on British TV. Think Crackanory or Inside No. 9, only with five times the budget and a tongue in each cheek instead of just one and you’re almost there.

Pasternak is followed by The Rats, an atmospheric and very amusing story of aiding and abetting. Both, however, are eclipsed by The Strongest, a superb little short that pits tailgater against road-hog in a story so simple yet so perceptive that it might have been written by Stephen King. It’s the closest Wild Tales comes to being genuinely unsettling, combining as it does both a primal fear with a relatively plausible setting; even as the violence escalates (and the verisimilitude deteriorates), Mario — the road-hog — continues to intimidate. The Stranger is so good, however, that it cannot possibly be outmatched, and though entertaining the successive instalments do suffer by comparison. Little Bomb and The Proposal have their moments, but neither has quite the same impact.

At just over two hours in length, Wild Tales is too long, particularly for a series of shorts without cross-over or even a defining theme. Front-loaded as it is, the obvious answer would be to sacrifice a story from the film’s back half in the name of brevity. Though Little Bomb and The Proposal might lack the same surrealism, they are satirical enough to compensate; instead, it’s the final short — Until Death Do Us Part — that feels like the weakest link. The performances are strong enough — Rivas in particular is a deranged delight — and it’s perfectly well staged — the filmmakers make great use of the venue — but the premise feels a little staid and ordinary when you consider what insanity came before. Perhaps if Szifrón had saved the best until last, however, it wouldn’t feel like such an anti-climax.

That said, even in its weaker moments Wild Tales remains deliriously good fun, with more than its fair share of stand-out moments. Inconsistency is to be expected, but what is truly impressive is just how comprehensive the collection ultimately feels. No wonder it was nominated for an Oscar.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.4-Stars

 

Monsters: Dark Continent (GFF 2015)

Dark ContinentTen years have passed since Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) limped across the US-Mexico border to find that extraterrestrial MTRs had broken quarantine and spread into the States. In that time the creatures have made it as far as the Middle East, exacerbating the war on terror as American troops work to neutralise both local insurgency and the wider alien invasion. New recruits Michael (Sam Keeley), Frankie (Joe Dempsie), Shaun (Parker Sawyers) and Inkelaar (Kyle Soller) — lead by Sgt. Frater (Johnny Harris) — are deployed on a rescue mission after four American soldiers are deemed missing in action.

There was a time when every science fiction series seemed to be switching genres with each new instalment, usually starting life as a horror only to be reformatted into an action movie before finally descending into parody. (Except Terminator, anyway, which made the transition into action-comedy with relative success.) Essentially a romantic drama, however, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters seemed to buck the trend, focusing on the developing attraction between two survivors while keeping the aliens themselves confined to the background. Tradition has now been restored by Tom Green — a British television writer best known for E4’s Misfits — who has directed a war movie for a sequel.

At first, it seems as though Monsters: Dark Continent couldn’t be more different from its predecessor, to the extent that you begin to wonder whether it was developed explicitly as a sequel to the 2010 movie or simply tagged Monsters to bank on whatever brand recognition the title might be presumed to hold. Where Monsters was quiet and contemplative Monsters: Dark Continent is brash and unabashed; where the first teased its MTRs the second flaunts them; where McNairy and Able humanised the drama Michael Parkes and company soon have you rooting for the enemy. Given the manner in which Monsters analogised Mexico-American relations you might expect the sequel to satirise the Iraq war (it is a prolonged invasion after all), but for the first hour at least it’s more American Sniper than Starship Troopers.

Just as Green helped audiences sympathise with juvenile delinquents in Misfits, however, he eventually manages to redeem Parkes, who as the regiment’s situation deteriorates is stripped of both his bravado and brothers-in-arms. It’s a strong, surprisingly sensitive performance on Keeley’s part, and Parkes’ non-traditional hero’s journey from alpha male to whimpering mess is a counter-intuitive but compelling one. These days anything — including Evans’ original — with a big creature in it is reflexively labeled Lovecraftian by lazy commentators, but Dark Continent truly justifies the comparisons, seeing as it does a mortal man unmade by his experience of the supernatural. Keeley is equalled only by Harris, whose own struggles as Sgt Frater — a serial tourer — successfully undermines the first act’s apparent propaganda.

It all comes together at a terrorist compound where the surviving soldiers are being held captive. Given that the monsters were previously shown to seek out light sources their migration to the desert seems a strange one, but their arrival at the facility — attracted by the security lighting — re-establishes the characteristic. Parkes and Harris escape on motorbikes, finding themselves at a burnt-out school bus filled with the smoldering corpses of small children and flanked by the remains of a young MTR. It’s a shocking sequence, but leads to a scene of almost absurd beauty — similar to the petrol station set-piece from the first film — in which simultaneous funeral rites are performed by Persian women and an adult alien — both overlooked by Parkes. Green never quite reconciles his parallel between terrorists and extra terrestrials, but the general theme seems to be that there are no monsters, only misunderstand motivations.

Monsters: Dark Continent won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and even fans of the original might struggle to re-connect with the mythology. (Unlike Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, there are unlikely to be many who view the sequel as superior.) That said, for all of its differences Green’s film at least feels like a spiritual successor to Evans’, and providing you make it through the first half — warning: it’s a long one — there is still plenty to admire.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.3-Stars

 

While We’re Young (GFF 2015)

While We're YoungChildless couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are feeling out of touch. Their friends — almost all of them parents — are changed people, while the generation below always seem one step ahead. They realise that they haven’t embraced technology but inherited it, only to find that the youth which they desperately yearn to emulate have eschewed smartphones and social media in favour of a more authentic, experiential and experimental existence: namely board games, record collections and homemade ice cream. When they meet Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) after one of Josh’s lectures, they are immediately seduced by the younger pair’s vigour and vitality, together agreeing to help Jamie with his documentary film while living vicariously — and later viscerally — through their adventures.

While We’re Young is, unsurprisingly, preoccupied with age. Josh’s attempts to edit his decades-in-the-making documentary are scuppered by his subject’s his ever-changing appearance; Cornelia’s body clock is standing in the way of her having children; while their friends are being slowly infantilised by their own offspring. Jamie and Darby, meanwhile, seem almost ignorant of it, living an strangely timeless existence that is almost too hipsterish for words. (Or, as Watts’ character puts it, “It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it”.) Together they go on organised walks through the subway, attend urban dance classes and experiment with hallucinogens, much to the bemusement of their stay-at-home peers.

Ben Stiller has rarely been more likeable, or sympathetic, as Josh. His professional concerns might be rather more esoteric but it’s easy to relate to his personal conflict, particularly his ongoing attempts to reconcile his mental and physical ages. On the one hand he’s still a lost boy trying to make sense of the world and earn the respect of his father-in-law, while on the other he’s an old man in a hat who has just been diagnosed with arthritis in his knee. He has terrific chemistry with Driver, who impresses without really surprising as another fast-talking, bohemian polymath, but it’s his relationship with Watts that really delights. She plays a producer, though not a partner on her husband’s own film project, who can’t decide whether she wants children or not. As a role it’s slightly underwritten, but Watts — quickly redeeming herself after a string of critical disasters — works wonders with it.

The true revelation, however, is director Noah Baumbach, a Wes Anderson alumnus who — following a co-writer credit on the superb Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted — seems to have finally found mainstream success. The starrier cast goes some way towards solving The Gerwig Problem (with Seyfried allegedly replacing the divisive Frances Ha actress), instead drawing more flattering comparisons with last year’s Say When, and despite an early flirtation with pretension in the form of a lengthy quotation from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” (nothing to do with The LEGO Movie, apparently) it constitutes his most accessible and affecting work to date. Rather than pass judgement on either generation Baumbach instead lets his characters speak for themselves, and through the prism of authenticity in documentary filmmaking seems to conclude that there is no right answer.

While We’re Young is the perfect opening film, kick-starting Glasgow Film Festival 2015 with just the right combination of credibility and commercial viability. Funny, touching and intelligent, it showcases the talents of everyone involved.

For my full coverage of GFF 15, visit HeyUGuys.4-Stars

The Green Inferno (EIFF 2014)

The Green InfernoJustine (Lorenza Izzo) is a young idealist studying in New York City when she becomes involved with student activists campaigning for conservation in the Amazon. Together with Alejandro (Ariel Levy), Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) and Daniel (Nicolás Martinez), she departs for Peru, where they stage a successful demonstration against contractors cutting down acres of trees. On their way back, however, the plane they are travelling in malfunctions, crashing in territory belonging to the tribe they were trying to save. Unbeknownst to them, the tribe practices cannibalistic rituals.

Having attended last year’s Glasgow Film Festival on behalf of Nicolás López’ Aftershock, in which he starred, Eli Roth is back on the Scottish festival circuit with The Green Inferno, his first directorial effort since Hostel: Part II in 2007. Shot on location in the Peruvian rain forest, and featuring genuine tribes people from the local area (though their cannibalistic tendencies are purely fictitious), the film is rather different from his other efforts. It’s beautiful, for one thing, and unexpectedly funny, for another.

It is not fear that Roth evokes with his panning shots of the jungle, but wanderlust. Bulldozers are tearing down trees long before cannibals get to tear into human flesh, and when the activists set out to protest deforestation you are right behind them. Even when things go awry, the arrival of multicoloured tribesmen is just as likely to bring to mind vivid Xperia adverts than your deepest, darkest nightmares. It adds to the heightened sense of absurdity, and while it may undermine the atmosphere of suspense it does little to diminish the inevitable gruesomeness.

As for the humour, that follows from the absurdity. Roth pokes fun at student activism, questioning the effectiveness of hunger strikes and ridiculing many of their chosen causes. Once Justine and co. arrive in the Amazon things only get more surreal, with the activists boarding rickshaws named after celebrities such as Madonna and Brad Pitt and fine dining while they wait for their plane into the jungle. The strongest juxtaposition is between the horrific nature of the cannibals’ actions and the mundane manner with which the treat them. Unexpectedly, the film isn’t judging their customs, but the students for not doing their research.

There are scenes in The Green Inferno that are just as squirm-inducing as the shaving sequence from Cabin Fever and the bit with the Achilles tendon in Hostel, but there is much more to this one that simple schlock. A clever film with a dedicated turn from up-and-coming scream-queen Izzo, The Green Inferno is quite possibly Roth’s best film yet.

3-Stars

Calvary (2014)

CalvaryWhile holding confession, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is sentenced to death by an unseen man seeking revenge for past injustices at the hands of the church. Lavelle has been given a week to live, but rather than give the man’s name — which, importantly, he knows — to the police or flee the country — though the thought does occur to him — he simply goes about his religious duties as usual. His parishioners/the chief suspects include a shady butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a shady doctor (Aidan Gillen), a shady squire (Dylan Moran) and a kind-hearted cannibal (Domhnall Gleeson).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Calvary — the not-so-surprise movie at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival — is an Irish black-comedy, with elements of both tragedy and drama. It’s from John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh, and is cut from the same cloth as both In Bruges and The Guard. Whereas those films centred on hitmen and police officers respectively, Calvary concerns itself with the priesthood: specifically Brendan Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle.

Though perhaps similar in disposition (it’s still Gleeson, after all), Lavelle is almost the polar opposite of his character in The Guard. He’s essentially a good man, though undoubtedly conflicted and naturally wracked with Catholic guilt. Gleeson is once again terrific, and here treads the fine line between cynicism and scepticism with surprising ease; he’s a man of faith, but is quite happy to be flippant about it. This ties into another key difference between McDonagh’s films: whereas The Guard was a drama undercut by humour, Calvary is essentially a dark comedy run through with real human hurt (the opening line, for example, shocks you into laughing, but really isn’t very funny at all).

Calvary is sensitive and occasionally even stirring, but it is just sardonic enough to steer it clear of mawkishness. Lavelle’s relationship with his estranged daughter — even his friendship with his dog —  makes a real impression, and his inevitable confrontation with his would-be killer is genuinely emotional. The satire is just as effective, with the film commenting on everything from the country’s economic downturn to cover-ups and corruption within the Catholic church. It’s a story of sin, sacrifice and redemption, but one that is strikingly short on miracles. If only McDonagh had been more careful with his casting, it might have been a decent mystery too.

Calvary isn’t as entertaining as The Guard or In Bruges, but then it isn’t trying to be. This is a much more meditative movie, and is ultimately sharper and more scathing than either of its predecessors for its lack of a disarming punchline  — its message will stay with you long after the jokes have faded from memory.

4-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