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This is just the (unpleasant) aftermath, definitely _not_ a blueprint for making it better
Yep, the girl we see could be termed "self-loathing" or "mad". And yep she sometimes behaves in strange ways that irritate both her on-screen friends and us viewers.
What we never see is what she was like _before_ "the trauma". What we see is that "the trauma" has permanently scarred her, so that all her attempts at rehabilitation are self-destructive, and her friends attempts at healing uniformly eventually fail.
The skewed behavior we see is definitely _not_ what's recommended. If there's an (implied) "feminist message", it's something like "our sexist culture results in some individuals that are permanently so screwed up they not only can't help the culture, they can't even help themselves very much, like this one".
What we see is the disaster resulting from "the trauma". Reading what we see as some sort of "recommendation" fundamentally misses the whole point.
Watching a thoroughly screwed up person may be "educational", but it tends to not be all that much fun. So what else does this movie deliver? The first "what else" is that quite a few little bits are very funny, for example showing up to a porn shoot wearing a tongue-in-cheek skin-colored outfit (rather than a "birthday suit" as intended) and seducing the other model into playing along with the joke.
And the second "what else" is quite a bit of truly interesting art. It's unconventional, and a lot of it is vaguely disturbing. Yet at the same time it's undeniably beautiful.
This film is squarely in the "mumblecore" tradition: low production values, tiny crew, amateur actors, about the concerns of thirty-somethings, little or no music, and very naturalistic dialog. (I personally am not a big fan of "mumblecore" in general, and my rating reflects my generic dislike more than it does anything about this film specifically.)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
oldie but goodie morality play
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" is well over half a century old. Both visuals and sound have been thoroughly restored, so that current electronic prints are quite nice.
It's a "war film" ...and it's also an "anti-war film" It's about individual characters more than the larger conflict. In both these regards it seems to me most similar to "Apocalypse Now" ...except ending with "Madness, Madness" rather than "The Horror, The Horror".
It's a ripping good yarn. Even though many individual moments and scenes seem "hokey" these days, somehow they all add up to something that will hold your attention for hours.
Although it's not an "epic", and although it's shot on standard 35mm film, there are already suggestions here of what we'd see in "Lawrence of Arabia". Even half a decade earlier, here David Lean showed that he was enamored of shooting on location, shooting huge vistas, and shooting in a very wide format.
I think one of the reasons the film still speaks to us is its considerable ambiguity. Did Nicholson fall accidentally on the plunger, or did he do it intentionally in a last cry of remorse? Did Saito intend the knife for a possible but unlikely ritual suicide, a certain ritual suicide, or to kill Nicholson once he'd fully served his purpose? Did Warden throw his weapon in a temporary fit of frustration, or as the first sign of a permanent decision to have nothing more to do with war? Did the women express revulsion at the deaths of men they were fond of, or at the realization of just how violent war was? ...and many more.
The film was adapted from a book, except with the ambiguity ramped up, a character added, and different subplots emphasized. The book in turn was _loosely_ based on some real events the French author had no first hand involvement in (and may have even wanted to portray the British in a poor light).
There are many things that one may accept in the moment, but that after a bit of reflection can't possibly be real: Temporary reassignment of a soldier to the army of a different country - A British medic running his own hospital with no supervision, having his own building, and making his own independent decisions about who could work and who could not - The Japanese not having sufficient engineering talent to design and build a permanent bridge - Prisoners often allowed to whistle a tune that was very derogatory to the Axis - Inmates in a Japanese prison camp appearing in good health, with good uniforms, and at normal weight - Inmates in a Japanese prison camp arranging their own entertainment ceremonies - Nicholson staying alive in an unventilated corrugated steel box in full sun in that torrid climate for many days - The Japanese commandant giving in to the British prisoner officer without any advance agreement on getting something in return - The very first detent between jailers and prisoners being in a lengthy joint meeting around a conference table, and with the prisoners controlling the agenda - A soldier with serious doubts about killing being selected as part of an elite commando unit - A sailor suddenly knowing how to handle a gun and how to be a commando - and more.
In fact there are so many such departures from reality I can't imagine how anyone could possibly think this film is in any way trying to pass itself off as portraying historical events. To me, it's very obviously more of an imagined morality play than a portrayal of actual events. Nevertheless there have been public questions about its historical accuracy right from the beginning. Despite its adaptation from a book, which was in turn loosely inspired by some poorly reported events, some of the characters in the film could be identified with real individuals. And some of those people were still alive. And some of them complained noisily.
Stories We Tell (2012)
the ultimate self-referential documentary
Simply put, this is one of the best and most arresting documentaries I've ever seen. I find it surprising that it's not very well-known. It's quietly enjoyable to watch, is thought-provoking, and is the kind of multi-layered deep meditation I expect critics and film schools to analyze closely. It's not like anything else I can think of. In fact my main reaction after my first viewing was WTF? What did I just watch?
This is the most "self-referential" movie I've ever watched. Yet it's done in such an understated way some could watch the whole thing and still not even be consciously aware of it. And it's not just one grand loop between two adjoining levels, but rather a whole bunch of small recursions all over the map. Once you become aware of it, it's likely that you too will find the recursion like nothing you've ever seen.
There are many different ways to read this film. Each of them is complete and self-contained, so you can enjoy the film in one (or more) ways without having to also "get" all the others. Possible readings include:
reading #1] a true story about slowly unearthing biological parentage (i.e. "is my father really my father?")
reading #2] a meditation on how we tell stories and on how different people relate the same story somewhat differently
reading #3] an experiment in just how far the "self-referencing" conceit can be pushed without the whole film collapsing
reading #4] a deconstruction of what "documentary film" means - What is "truth"? What is "accuracy"? Is it even possible?
reading #5] a film about filmmaking, in the tradition of "Day for Night" or "8 1/2"
The audio is mostly interviews and storytellers (where a "story" is a sort of one-sided extended interview). The video matches the words. Sometimes it's the speaker's face. Sometimes it's the action the speaker is describing. Sometimes it's very similar to the event the speaker is relating. Sometimes it's related science - for example when the voice talks about DNA the microscopic picture show chromosomes separating during a cell's Meiosis Anaphase. (Perhaps this was motivated by the science talks in "Mr. Nobody", which Ms. Polley was acting in about the same time she was thinking about this film.) And once in a while it shows the _opposite_ of the words, probably to let us know something isn't quite right.
Nearly half of the film is "flashbacks" on what is initially assumed to be home movie footage ...and some of it really is old home movie footage that's been found and edited in. But we start to become dubious. There's so very much of this footage, and it seems to match the needs of the modern day filmmaker eerily well, and much of it does _not_ follow the stylistic pattern that's mentioned explicitly early on. We're eventually told when the camera first appeared; then it can be carefully noted that some of the footage is from _before_ this date. It also seems odd that the camera filmed so many things that the camera operator couldn't possibly have been present for or even known about. We keep seeing fragments of a clip with Mom and a male on a footbridge - careful examination reveals the male isn't always the same person. Finally we see some really explicit clues: the nowadays director appears in one of the clips, the director is seen giving acting instructions to her Mom, some of the people in the clips are seen getting their film makeup applied, and one camera actually shows another filming one of these clips. A few minutes later it's made even clearer to those that have missed it so far: the exact same scene switches back and forth between the appearance of one of these historic clips and the appearance of the modern day film, then we see Ms. Polley herself both inside that scene and also filming at the same time, and finally realize what she's holding is an old Super 8 camera. The end credits confirm that while some of the flashback clips are authentic, many of them were recreated.
Already at the very beginning "things are not what they seem" is thrown in your face. Pictures of interviews are purposely mis-framed to give away hidden wires, mic booms, light reflectors, tripods, and so forth. Later, interviewees occasionally break the fourth wall, primp on camera, or say outrageous things. We eventually realize the entire family is deeply embedded in the Canadian show-biz world, so deeply that some of the main characters actually had careers as stage actors at one point, and many of the rest were involved in other aspects such as producing or casting. Sure enough, it eventually becomes clear that the "honest" interviews with the main characters are in fact acted. There's even a comment about somebody "falling in love" with the stage character he was playing rather than with the actor himself.
The line between "in front of the camera" and "behind the camera" is shown to be overly precious. It's not even all that well defined; what does it mean when at the same time the visual is in front of the camera, but the audio is behind the camera? At some points a character on camera gives a suggestion for how the film could be edited at that point, then that exact thing really happens. Name any "rule" of documentary filmmaking you like, or any "theory" of how documentary films should guarantee they're presenting "the truth". It's mentioned here, then gleefully flouted or debunked. This film is so clever and so thorough (in its understated, un-obvious way) that it feels like nobody else should ever again make a "self-referential documentary", because the last word has already been spoken.
Kaguyahime no monogatari (2013)
animation of the decade
The animation masterpiece of the decade. Takahata is going out on top. The fabled north American distribution deal between Disney and Studio Ghibli (apparently) applies only to the works of Myazaki; north American distribution of this is being handled by GKIDS. So the heavyweight marketing of Pixar/Disney isn't behind it. But don't be fooled by its "art-house" distribution or its relative obscurity - this is a really big deal.
It's an "epic", having taken eight years to produce and clocking in at well over two hours. I haven't seen the words "production committee" in credits since 'Akira' - that means it was too big for any one normal producer, so several companies had to form a "consortium": Studio Ghibli itself, a TV network, a foreign corporation, a movie studio, and three others. And the animation work itself was so large that parts of it were farmed out to _nine_ other studios.
There are two versions: an English dub of the soundtrack with most things written in English characters (although in general dubs suck, animation is often an exception); and a Japanese soundtrack with written English subtitles and most things (including virtually all the credits) written in Japanese characters. If the names of the voice actors you hear sound vaguely familiar, that's the English dub version. In fact, if you're viewing this in a theater, unless the theater is pretty sophisticated, you won't even have a choice - you'll see only the English dub version. And that's okay.
You get what you're used to from Studio Ghibli: powerful and independent women characters, a strong bond with the natural world, seamless switches back and forth between reality and fantasy, rootedness in tradition and folklore, and the music of Joe Hisaishi. Add to that some themes I associate specifically with Takahata: portrayals of "reality" even when it's quite sad, nostalgia, an acceptance and open portrayal of the concept of the "cycle of life", and ambivalence toward tradition and especially patriarchy (respecting and illustrating the good, while at the same time poking fun at the bad). Finally add a new twist I haven't seen in animation before: whole scenes where all the dialog, the visuals, and even the music, point to one interpretation ...only to recast the whole thing in a different light at the end to reach a totally unexpected conclusion.
The animation is 2D and very intricate, but still appears hand-drawn. Outlines vary in thickness and density, and colored areas don't always reach exactly to an outline. It could be computer-drawn (as many apparently hand-drawn animations actually are these days) only if the computer made an awful lot of "mistakes". Interestingly, the figures and the backgrounds look exactly the same (not different styles of animation as is often the case). It's all colored with pastels. The end result looks somewhat as though 'My Neighbors the Yamadas' had been used as starting sketches which were then finished.
I thought my evaluation of "hand drawn" was vindicated when a whole screenful of the end credits was occupied with the names of all the in-betweeners. But then just a bit later the whole screen was again filled with one category of names, this time all the digital ink and painters. Sometimes what you'd expect to be computer-generated is in fact clearly hand drawn, as when shadows move just a bit awkwardly between the beginning and the end of a scene. Other times the effect really seems computer-generated, as when a character is seen in a side closeup crashing through vegetation with lots and lots of branches flying much faster than anyone could draw them, or as when there's a cross-fade between scenes. I could never even guess though how it had been done when occasionally I could see what was behind a bit of translucent cloth.
Hei yan quan (2006)
a window into a different place
"I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" is stylistically very different. It's composed of very long takes with an unmoving camera, has almost no dialog, no non-diegetic music, mostly either very long shots or closeups (few medium shots or sorta-long shots), and pacing often described as "extremly slow".
Its two interwoven stories start out separate, then slowly combine. The actor Lee Kang-Sheng plays the "Homeless Guy" in one story and the "Paralyzed Guy" in the other. Although both stories start out hyper-realistic, by the end the Homeless Guy story shows noticeable gaps and even seems a bit supernatural.
The film is "about" more than just one thing. For example the English title "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" and the Asian title literally translated as something like "eyes circled in black" are completely different ...but both refer to some central theme of the film.
Much attention is paid to bodily functions -including sex. There's little in the way of bare skin or conventional love scenes; it's not reminiscent of the "soft porn" of a few art movies. The attention isn't especially lascivious; in fact it's sometimes either a bit silly or just plain funny. The emphasis is definitely there though; is it really all in service of the stories, or has it been exaggerated (maybe for shock value?)?
The marvelous last shot is so long, slow, mysterious, and moody I immediately thought of Andrei Tarkovsky. (It requires many tens of seconds just to figure out where the heck you are and what you're looking at.) It sums up the entire film in one unforgettable image.
The DVD I got from Netflix -which seems to be the only version available to English speakers in Region 1- is awkward, but adequate. The subtitles are burned in, and have even more than the usual difficulties with slang and with song lyrics. Worse (and unfortunately like _many_ DVDs), the subtitles give no hint of what language is being spoken (Malay, Chinese, Bangladeshi ...maybe even Hindi?), not even when that's central to the story. There are no "bonus" materials. And aspect ratio jumps around oddly between Academy, letter-boxed, and fullscreen widescreen.
Because the style is so different, it's easy to jump to the mis-conclusion the stories too are "just plain weird". The truth is after just a little help with cultural translation, the stories are actually rather prosaic. You should know:
1) In many Asian countries with significant Chinese minorities, their stereotype is overly concerned with money, disconnected from the local culture, and morally stunted. This negative stereotype appears in the movie many times, beginning with the scam artist's apparent direction that anyone that doesn't speak Malay should be treated as a second class citizen and beaten more severely, and the comment that "the Chinese landlady would be very upset if she knew". It continues with the callous treatment of the nurse/waitress, and the almost exclusive focus on money -downplaying even possible emotional ramifications- when selling the house. It _might_ even account for a sexual attraction of the Chinese grandmother to her own son ...or at least to someone else who looks very similar.
2) The Malaysian economy was vigorous and developing rapidly for several decades in the last century, so much so that many young males from Bangladesh arrived as foreign workers. But that economy was wrecked by the Asian financial crisis beginning in the late 90s. Buildings in progress were abandoned (hence the flooded shell). And most of the foreign workers were stranded, unable to afford the transportation to go back home. And because many of them lacked either language skills or identification/permit papers, and had a different appearance, they were unable to "assimilate".
3) Not long after, a very nasty fight between politicians who used to work together was front and center in Malaysia. The former prime minister Anwar Ibrahim faced trials on trumped-up charges of sodomy. Because of police violence, he once appeared in court with black eyes (hence the Asian title of the movie). And introduced as evidence during the trials was a mattress, supposedly stained with his semen.
4) From everything seen in the film, the relationship between the Homeless Guy and Rawang can appear to be entirely platonic. But almost certainly the opposite was intended. A homosexual relationship could be hinted at only _very_ obliquely, partly because of censorship threats in Malaysia and partly because the actors were unwilling to be more explicit.
5) Many of the songs are either entirely western, or have clear western influences. (For example the busker's song lyrics seem to have originated in the old four-and-twenty-blackbirds nursery rhyme.) It's unclear just what this really means though. Maybe it's just hyper-reality. Or maybe it's meant to show the continuing pervasive influence of western culture. Or maybe it's nothing more than a shout-out to those paying the bills - the film was "commisioned" by the New Crowned Hope festival, Vienna's celebration of Mozart.
6) Haze and wafting smoke in Kuala Lumpur (in fact in much of Southeast Asia) because of huge forest fires in Indonesia is not "symbolic" - it really did happen in summer 2006. Fortunately Tsai Ming-Liang was able to incorporate it seamlessly into his stories, as otherwise he might have had to suspend filming for months.
7) An interpretation of the structure of the film is that Paralysed Guy is real, but the stories about Homeless Guy are his dreams. This immediately makes the duplication of the lead actor meaningful. Clearly Tsai Ming-Liang really wants to tell the Homeless Guy story, as it's far too lengthy and detailed and embellished to be "just a dream". Yet the thematic connections are actually there. Even though some of the details don't fit all that well, as an overarching schema this view makes more sense than anything else.
The Homesman (2014)
still not an (anti-)Western fan
First a warning or disclaimer: I'm _not_ a good audience for this movie. My tendency is to not appreciate Westerns, so I don't see very many of them, and as a result I'm relatively unfamiliar with their conventions (and unwilling to accept most of the bits I do understand). Thus even when a movie like this one plays with -even plays against- those conventions, I often don't "get it".
I was intrigued by the story line and the possibility of character development. And I really liked one of Tommy Lee Jones previous directorial efforts: "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada". So despite my reservations I went to see this. Unfortunately it didn't work _for_me_ (your mileage may vary:-). Here are some specifics:
What first put me off was the wildly unrealistic portrayal of mentally ill people. Suddenly turned violent? Mute (and more generally uncommunicative)? Unable to maintain even their own bodily functioning? It felt like I was eavesdropping on the residents of Bedlam "acting crazy" in order to get bigger donations from their slumming visitors. Seeing some Indians portrayed as silly and even stupid felt like nothing more than the second punch from the same pattern.
There were too many shocking and sexual scenes for no particularly good reason. It felt as though the director had been given a list of required scenes (an uncompleted hanging, a completed hanging, an unromantic sex scene, a rape, a supporting actress fully nude, the starring actress fully nude, etc.) and "checked off" each one. Some were so disconnected from events I couldn't even decide whether they were flashbacks or hallucinations.
The mores felt muddled. Was this a "feminist" film or an "anti-feminist" film? Was the character Mary Bee Cuddy a stand-in for today's sensibilities, or a historical person living in a time that thought quite differently?
Many characters and scenes seemed so exaggerated they were "cartoonish". The dinner visitor felt more like a stereotype than a man: falling asleep only a couple minutes into the music after his dinner ...and moreover audibly snoring? The drifter who tries to make off on horseback with one of the women was so smarmy I wanted to punch his lights out right there. The card sharps seemed overly concerned with respect/manners/propriety for where they were. And the hotel was ridiculous. In the middle of nowhere and with no obvious clients at all, yet expecting "investors"? With a table groaning under a load of pastries and other delicacies that weren't even available around there? An owner and his posse with such poor attitudes I looked for their "bad guy" badges?
Character development was largely absent. In particular Mary Bee Cuddy's actions near the end seemed to come out of nowhere and be quite inconsistent with the character she previously displayed. I'm told it actually made a lot more sense in the book, as she herself changed quite a bit over the course of the journey, so that by the end things that would have seemed inexplicable initially flowed from her new character. Sure George Briggs had some second thoughts, a "what the heck, be a nice guy" and even an "I actually care" moment, but they were so predictable and stereotypical I couldn't take them seriously.
I wished the production values were a bit higher. Several scenes in various open wooded places supposedly hundreds of miles apart all looked too much like they were shot in the very same small patch of woods. The "day for night" scene of Mary Bee Cuddy lost by herself on horseback was a little too obvious. And most of the costumes didn't have the expected "worn" look.
an absurdist comedy masquerading as a drama
Some grownups will really like this movie, especially those with an absurdist sense of humor (or of style); kids probably won't "get it".
As you'd expect at a high end ski resort in Europe, people mix languages all the time, and when people from different countries that don't share another language want to socialize, they all comfortably use English. So the subtitles come and go every sentence, depending on whether English is being spoken.
It will keep you chuckling inside the whole time, but there will probably never be a laugh-out-loud moment. Everything's presented totally deadpan, as though the filmmaker wasn't aware of just how odd things appear (right:-). It's fairly likely you'll even see this movie advertised as a drama - true, it's not anything like a traditional comedy; and true, it has aspects of a drama; but... Over and over your reaction to the screen will be "that doesn't look quite right" or "you've got to be kidding" or maybe "it must be just me". It's a little like reading Lewis Carroll: very funny in hindsight, but you're never quite sure when to laugh (or maybe from a different viewpoint it's very serious and you shouldn't laugh at all:-).
Visually it's _very_ reminiscent of Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel". A whole lot of the same visual motifs show up: mountains, snow, things moving across the snow like some sort of demented chase scene, cable cars, fancy hotel, endless balconies, very obviously fake miniatures ...but no black and white scene. A new touch is the skillful use of the "whiteout": snow will blow, the screen will go all white, but then you'll glimpse something looming up out of the whiteness, but then it's back to all white again as though nothing happened. Something you probably haven't seen before is a long-distance cameo of what appears to be a UFO ...but for no apparent reason at all and with no subsequent references. Yet another new touch is showing actual avalanches in progress (not the gouge and the pile afterward, but the wave of snow _during_. There's more than one, and one of them is among the largest ever filmed.
There are a few huge scenes and breathtaking vistas that will make you appreciate the big screen. But my guess is all the comedy will resonate equally well on the small screen. So let your personal tastes dictate whether you see it in a theater or on disc.
The skiing scenes are quite realistic, what you'd actually see on a skiing vacation with little kids. Of course there's the obligatory slalom down a fresh face, chair lift, and back-country powder. But there's also ill-fitting helmets, quick release skis that won't release, rope tows, flags, red plastic snow fencing, the sudden need to pee half way down the slope, ill-maintained lifts and ramps that screech and groan and give jerky rides, oversleeping, spots where the chair lift is suddenly _above_ the tops of the trees, awkward and uncomfortable boots, skiing only a half day, almost getting hit in the head by the safety bar on the chair lift, piles of pizza boxes, the continual swish-swish-swish of cold dry waterproof fabrics, complaints about Internet access, even loosening all those ski clothes in order to go to the bathroom.
A trope that appears over and over is what I call "yank your chain". A scene will be inter-cut with some other visuals that -using your movie reading skills- you conclude means A happened. But then a character half hidden in the snow resolves into somebody different than you expected, suggesting B happened instead. But then an off-screen voice of somebody you thought was dead is heard, meaning C happened. But then there's what looks like a wrap-up with D happening. But then the dialog and action make it clear that something else (E) happened instead.
There's another throwaway subplot (not just the UFO one) that is never completed or resolved. (It does provide the setting for some odd philosophizing though.)
And there's a huge amount of ambiguity. The key event that everybody struggles with doesn't look like much when you see it actually happen; it's so unclear you'll wonder why some of the characters think it's so significant. The "friend" that shows up doesn't play just one role, but switches unexpectedly and rather dramatically between: old hippie, therapist, diplomat, playboy, insecure male, buddy, shaman, and faux parent. The ending has everybody walking down a road (a tip of the hat to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie"?) - their walking positions are sufficiently weird it's obvious something is being implied. But exactly what?
definitely see this one
Likely judgment by history will see it as a "near miss" rather than a "masterpiece" ...but so what: easily one of the best movies of this current season.
The physicist was actually involved in the project _before_ any of the movie people. So you needn't worry about accuracy. Some of the physics though is quite speculative - for example who knows what the edge of a black hole's event horizon really looks like. There are no obvious whoppers (although if you think hard enough about it later, there are just a few things that don't quite seem to add up).
To humanize the story -so it's not just a physics lesson- there are themes of i) romantic love, ii) parent<->child love, and iii) humanity always actively pushing the boundaries rather than ever passively accepting anything. None of the themes are presented in an overwhelming way -this is not a "message movie"- ...but they're definitely there.
I saw lots of similarities to "2001: A Space Odyssey": unseen superbeings, scenes that make little sense on the first viewing, scenes that are downright mystical, and bits of special effects that are as much "light show" as "movie".
There are a lot of different things crammed into one movie: a positive description may be something like "sprawling", and a negative description of the same thing may be something like "undigestible mass".
The director is very interested in picture quality, and has arranged a bewildering array of distribution formats so every theater can show it in whatever way is best for itself. There are so many different formats, advertising of particular formats is rare (probably because theaters are afraid of all the confusion), and so it's not always easy to find out which format a particular theater is showing. My recommendations are either the "real IMAX" format or the "4K digital" format. "Real IMAX" uses the old giant film, and is most likely found in the older IMAX theaters often attached to some sort of Museum of Science (_not_ the same as the "IMAX-lite" found in many multiplexes). The "4K digital" format is common either in theaters that were converted to digital only in the big push a couple years ago, or in theaters that have enough money to constantly upgrade their projection equipment. Most likely theaters capable of showing the "4K digital" format have either been displaying "4K digital" on their splash screen before every movie for months, or have a plaque that says "4K digital" on the wall by the theater entrance. And no question, if the theater can play it, they will almost certainly have it. ("IMAX-lite" theaters may put on a really good show too - I simply don't know.) There's quite a bit of explication, some on the more esoteric aspects of the physics and some to set up plot points. However the explication is notably brief. In fact sometimes a single sentence will appear to be just a throw-away for atmosphere, but will turn out to explain a scene that happens an hour or two later.
Be prepared to settle in, as this film is almost three hours long. That allows it to have lots of little climaxes, rather than the typical movie structure of just a couple big ones. Sometimes I was glued to the screen for tens of minutes, while other times a bathroom break seemed like a good idea. And it kept flipping back and forth. The freedom from a rigid typical structure also means the film has a separate ending for each subplot, rather than trying to tie up all the loose ends all at once.
For some people when it's over it's over. But many will find it flickering back to life in their thoughts hours later.
The special effects use CGI only occasionally (but spectacularly); many of the special effects were done some other way. There were lots of unusual camera setups, special photography, sets, and models (informally called "maxatures" rather than "miniatures" because they were so big - for example the space station model was 23 feet across). Having seen plenty of real NASA footage on TV in my youth, it was too easy for me to write off the weightlessness and space travel effects as "of course it looks like that". In fact the effects are astounding - for example I've never seen a realistic portrayal before of space travelers transitioning from weightlessness to standing as the circular space station spins up.
You won't see it in any credits or any advertising, but one of the characters is played by Matt Damon. This is described as a "cameo", which I find rather silly; the part involves more complex characterization and more screen time than some of the credited characters, which is not my conception of a "cameo". Fortunately it only matters to movie freaks anyway.
The Congress (2013)
wild and wide exploration of the psychology of modernity ...and heavily animated too
An unusual movie, but one that will be of considerable interest to some, especially those with either a philosophical bent or an interest in adult animation. Stir together the celebration of animation and the looniness of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?', the animated philosophical speculations of Richard Linklater's 'Waking Life', and the view from inside the movie industry of Altman's 'The Player'. Then turn the volume way up to more than double any of those precursors. The philosophy centers on what it means to be an actor (or more generally to make movies), especially in this age of CGI; and also provides healthy doses of speculation on the relationship between the movies and life in general, and of plain old "what's the meaning of life?" angst. It's sort of an adaptation of the story 'The Futurological Congress' by the Polish Science Fiction master Stanislaw Lem (who also wrote 'Solaris').
There are also a lot of secondary references to Naziism, including the pageantry at the Nuremberg rallies. The whole core of 'The Manchurian Candidate' is reprised, as is Slim Pickens riding an H-bomb down from the airplane in 'Dr. Strangelove'. Questions are raised about how physical disease (blindness, deafness) and oddball mental processing (merging of kites and airplanes and weather) are related, and when does a chemical "cure" for a syndrome become just "masking" the symptoms of that syndrome. And I doubt it's an accident that the analog of Toon Town looks like a fantasy in the middle of a desert, just like Las Vegas.
It's far more "out there" than even Ari Folman's previous 'Waltz with Bashir'. If you know you're prone to the "Whaaa?" reaction to unusual movies, you might plan ahead to watch this one twice.
The line between "fiction" and "reality" is thoroughly blurred. When an actor plugs a movie, is that further "acting"? The question of "what's acting?" versus "what's not acting?" is addressed over and over; perhaps the most pointed is when actress Robin Wright --whose storyline is similar to a common (mis)conception of her real life-- pauses in a hallway to gaze at an old poster of 'The Princess Bride' in which she actually played the title role of Buttercup.
It's very imaginative, but don't just relegate it to the 'trippy' category. There are enough big ideas and fertile juxtapositions and oddball sights to fill twenty normal movies. It isn't anywhere close to the usual "3-act movie structure" (in fact in sometimes it borders on inchoate), yet in its own unusual way it's engrossing and powerful. Throwaways come so fast you certainly can't keep up in the theater (and probably couldn't even freeze-framing): Was Sinatra in that queue? How did Botticelli's Venus get in this crowd? And wasn't that his Athena too, and with her Centaur? Which Picasso cubist painting is that guy from? And didn't I see Elvis? ...and on and on.
The credits list "Toon Boom" animation software. Toon Boom software is world-class, yet off-the-shelf (i.e. not "customized"), and more often used with 2D than 3D animation. So the result is consistently eye-catching and interesting and smooth and quite varied, but without being groundbreaking. My guess is the "quaint" appearance of the animation is due more to the conscious effort to work in the style of the '30s Fleischer Brothers than to the use of Toon Boom. As is common in my experience when Toon Boom is involved, the animation was done by a remote collaboration of a lot of small studios. The total number of people credited with having some sort of involvement with the animation is easily well over a hundred.
individual reactions to what it was like
I saw this last night (late summer 2014, in Salem Massachusetts) and really liked it. It comes across as impressionistic, almost as much of a "tone poem" as a documentary. There's plenty of story once you start digging a little, but that wasn't the central focus of the film itself. There's a fine line in filmmaking between "I feel it too" and "unfocussed and wandering", and we celebrate those who challenge that line and sometimes win (Aleksandr Sokurov, Terrence Malick, ...). This film comes down firmly on the right side of that line.
There's quite a variety of images and content: old photos, talking heads, very modern scenes, conversations, the act of painting, individual reminiscences, performances, cosplay, and so forth. It's fairly short, but certainly not for lack of content. It seemed to be compressed about twice as much as typical documentary films these days.
One aspect that particularly intrigued me was the frequent filling of the screen with multiple tiled images. Sometimes the wings showed a historical image while the center showed current time. Sometimes one side of the screen showed one person and the other side showed a different person acting out a very different philosophy of life. And so forth. Asked, the filmmaker said there was both a technical reason and an artistic reason for the tiled images. The technical reason was simply that most of the footage was in narrow aspect ratios but the finished film needed to use a widescreen. The artistic reason grew out of the filmmaker's experiences with a dance ensemble: he realized that audiences often quickly flipped their attention back and forth between a wide view of the whole stage and a narrow view of some central action, and thought films about the arts could profitably do the same. I agree.