Month: November 2014

Movie Review: THE CONGRESS

Movie Review: THE CONGRESS

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At one point early in THE CONGRESS, the agent (Harvey Kietel) for the lead character tells a studio head “No science fiction films. They’re all stupid and my client doesn’t do stupid stuff.” We laugh knowingly because at its very best, science fiction is the most intelligent and provocative of genres, and THE CONGRESS is a noble attempt to make a science fiction film that appeals to art-house audiences, something that has become more popular as of late (see also UPSTREAM COLOR and I ORIGINS). There are, in fact, two potentially very good science fiction films lying at its heart, but it seems torn over deciding which one it should be.

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Written and directed by Ari Folman (WALTZ WITH BASHEAR), THE CONGRESS is ostensibly adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem, who notoriously disliked every film adaptation of his work for not being exactly like the original stories. It’s a safe bet he wouldn’t have approved of this one as well. Robin Wright, the talented and well-respected actress best known for such movies as FORREST GUMP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE but who has been less visible than she should be as of late, plays Robin Wright, a talented and well-respected actress best-known for such movies as FORREST GUMP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE, but who has been less visible than she should be as of late. To pay for the medical bills of her son, who is gradually losing both his sight and hearing, she agrees to a unique deal from Miramount Studios (gee, now there’s an original name!): they will digitally scan her likeness and voice into a computer-generated likeness that the studio will be able insert as they wish into any movie or advertisement of their choice. So far, so good. It’s a well-worn premise that has been used in such films as Michael Crichton’s LOOKER and Andrew Niccol’s S1M0NE, as well as Connie Willis’ novel Remake and the unproduced Rene Daalder-Rem Koolhass script HOLLYWOOD TOWER (intended for Russ Meyer!), but the film shows signs of going in a fresh new direction. Instead, it goes straight off the beaten path as we jump twenty years later, with Wright slated to attend The Futurist Congress of the title, and science fictional focus is itself redirected towards a new designer drug that can affect external as well as internal reality. That premise was used repeatedly by Philip K. Dick in such novels as Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, so it’s appropriate that the film shift to the rotoscoped animation that Richard Linklater also used in his adaptation of Dick’s A SCANNER DARKLY. Although striking, the animation is unfortunately also unimaginative and unappealing, resembling a garish cross between Max Fleischer and Peter Bagge, and the story during this segment is largely left to endless talk between Wright and another inhabitant of The Congress (boringly voiced by Jon Hamm) that tries to explain what is going on and pound away the film’s themes.

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Can I recommend THE CONGRESS? Not really, especially if I was to judge it on how the audience I attended with reacted: at least two people walked out and the woman behind me growled that she hated it as the lights went up. Most critics, on the other hand, seem to have enjoyed it while admitting confusion. From my own personal perspective, I admired what the film was trying to do, and that the two main science fiction “hooks” of the film are used in an attempt to do what the genre does best, examining how innovations in technology affect both societies and personal lives. On the other hand, it seems to me that writer-director Folman is juggling with too many balls in the air; good science fiction sticks with a premise and extrapolates it to the end, or tries to find a way to successfully make connections between them, and this hasn’t happened here. In the end, we are just left with familiar bromides about fantasy-vs.-reality, and how the media and celebrity culture sell illusions, none of which are particularly profound or original.

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One very good reason to watch THE CONGRESS is for the performance by Robin Wright, one of our most consummate professionals as well as an extremely fine actress. Some may wonder what the big deal is about an actress “playing herself,” but as with BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, the lead performer is not really playing herself, but a character in a world parallel to our own that happens to share some strong similarities, and it’s a much more challenging and difficult part than one might think. Wright, as always, is up to the task. We again laugh when the studio head berates Wright for her bad choices, as the real-life actress is well known for having made excellent decisions with both her parts and how she has played them. This time, it’s the movie that’s indecisive.

Movie Review: Zombeavers

Movie Review: Zombeavers

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ZOMBEAVERS follows a direct line of descent from such 1950s films as THE KILLER SHREWS and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, although I doubt that the makers of this movie have seen them unless they are also fans of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Instead, it’s more likely that they were inspired by the tributes to such films made by those who grew up with them, such as Ron Underwood’s TREMORS, Fred Dekker’s NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and especially, Joe Dante’s oeuvre, particularly PIRANHA, THE HOWLING and the GREMLINS films, which affectionately satirized low budget science fiction and horror films of an earlier era while at the same time working effectively in their own right. Unfortunately, the end result is much more like ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES: instead of a good-bad movie, what we have here is simply a bad movie that is nowhere nearly as entertaining as its progenitors and predecessors.

I can summarize the plot in probably less time than it will take you to read it. Some stupid truckers somewhere in upstate New York accidentally dump some barrels of toxic waste into a nearby river into a nearby river that float into a beaver lodge. Some stupid teen girls show up to vacation in a cabin nearby (with only a few stupid redneck neighbors living around them), go for a swim, and notice that the beaver dam has green marks on it. Beaver urine must be green, think stupid girls. Stupid boyfriends of stupid girls then make their entrance with some stupid false scares. And then…BEAVER ATTACK! Stupid characters behave in a stupid fashion to send-up stupidity of entire genre! And did you know if you’re stupid enough to get bitten by a zombie beaver, you turn into a really stupid-looking werebeaver? Oh, the stupidity!

I’ll admit that I enjoyed the opening credits sequence to the film, but for the most part, ZOMBEAVERS is on the level of one of Troma’s better productions, which is not very good at all. As you can imagine by the title, a lot of time in ZOMBEAVERS is spent on smutty sex jokes and uncomfortably leering shots of the young actresses (although only one appears nude or topless). When not doing so, it indulges in other sophomoric forms of humor instead of the genuine wit that has been the basis of the best genre parodies, which isn’t surprising considering all the characters have pond silt for brains. Sure, it’s all tongue in cheek, but when a major plot point is that one of the girls can’t tell it’s her own best friend cheating with her boyfriend in an Instagram picture, it doesn’t help to generate sympathy for anyone involved. All the performances are overly broad, and except for a decent shot making use of the multiplane effect, the direction lacks energy and imagination and frequently seem to be at odds with the script, not knowing whether to play it straight or to go for all-out laughs. For instance, there’s plenty of great humor potential in one scene where the beavers start popping out of the floor and the “heroes” starting smacking them in a grotesque game of Whack-a-Mole, but the staging totally botches any comic effect. Halfway through, the movie seems to forget it’s a comedy, as if it expects the absurdity of its premise to carry it. Instead, it just winds up being….well…stupid. Even though it’s all a put-on, I nonetheless felt ripped-off by the crude special effects. Fanboys who go on and on about how practical effects are always better than CGI should watch this, if only to be properly shamed into silence.

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While watching ZOMBEAVERS, I found myself reflecting more on both THE KILLER SHREWS and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, and found myself respecting both those movies and the people who made them more than ever. No, they weren’t great films, but they were sincerely made, with a degree of effort to make something reasonably entertaining and competently done, and they do genuinely work in their own small way. ZOMBEAVERS is the type of film made with the intention of counting the money made from it and seeing if there’s enough to make a good movie next time.