Thoughts on The Congress (2014) and the Question of What, Exactly Modern Celebrities are Selling

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One of the most wildly imaginative sci-fi films in recent memory, for my money, was the often-overlooked, “technophobic” film industry satire The Congress. In the film, Princess Bride actress Robin Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself facing an exponentially shrinking list of potential career options thanks to an industry that has a long history of underserving women as they age past their 20s & 30s. Wright’s agent uses this professional crisis to pressure her into allowing a major movie studio to digitally capture (or, in the movie’s lingo, “hermetically scan”) her very essence, essentially selling her tangible soul to a media conglomerate. This leads to a psychedelic existential crisis involving an animated wonderland of dystopian terror that makes The Congress one of the most visually bizarre films I can remember from the last couple of years.

As eccentric as The Congress‘s visual pallet can be, it isn’t exactly what’s been keeping the film fresh in my mind since I first reviewed it last year. There’s been a recent string of news stories reminiscent of the ways The Congress depicts movie studios owning actors’ likeness that feel oddly off-putting in a way the film seemed to forewarn, keeping it fresh in my mind. For example, during the press tour for the recent Zack Snyder debacle Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, eccentric Lex Luthor actor Jesse Eisenberg went into great detail about the fake Michael Shannon body double used in the film. Shannon, who played the villainous Emperor Zod in Snyder’s Man of Steel, didn’t fully reprise his role in the sequel as Zod’s corpse (who could blame him?), but instead allowed the studio to include him via lifeless dummy created based off his headcast. Where it gets really creepy is in Eisenberg’s description of the fake Michael Shannon, which appears in the film completely nude. According to Eisenberg, the Shannon doll was entirely, unnecessarily anatomically correct to the point where the detail was a little disturbing (long story short, he had a penis).

There are, of course, even more direct comparison points to Robin Wright’s fictional plight in the way celebrity actors are being represented & altered digitally. Actors appearing posthumously in commercials for beer, junk food, vacuum cleaners, etc. is crass enough of a concept in itself and has been around long enough to likely have influenced some of The Congress‘s digitizing paranoia. Things have snowballed even since the film’s production, however, including two high profile instances of actors being digitally inserted into feature-length works they didn’t live to see completed (Paul Walker in Furious 7 & Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mockingjay Pt II). Even actors who did film their role to completion are being subjected to digital alterations in post-production. Sometimes this can be as simple as removing a pimple or a blemish or the effects of aging with computer magic (Paul Rubens in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a recent example) or as horrifying as the very recent reports of Paramount & DreamWorks allegedly testing a digital technique to make white actors appear “more Asian” in post-production for the already-controversial live action Ghost in the Shell adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson. Whether or not you agree with the actors’ decision to accept those roles/paychecks in the first place, you have to admit it’s super shady that the studio attempted to dress them in digital yellowface after the fact (presumably without their knowledge or consent).

The question at large here is what, exactly are celebrities selling to movie studios when they sign a contract for a big budget role? In the past (and, indeed, in smaller current productions) actors were strictly selling a performance, a record of work delivered. Modern celebrities, however, seem to be selling much more than that. They’re not selling a record of their work so much as the rights to their personalities & essence. This current era of digital recreation & the ownership of celebrity likeness is on much shakier, creepier ground and it’s difficult not to think of The Congress‘s sci-fi celebrity culture dystopia as each of these news stories crop up. The film didn’t do so well critically or financially upon initial release, but I find that its pointed satire about Hollywood’s future gets more eerily relevant on almost a daily basis. It’s difficult to say for certain exactly why The Congress failed to strike a chord with a larger audience. I’ll admit that it plays a little off-balance & unsure in moments, but if nothing else I greatly respect the film’s tendency to swing for the fences even when what it delivers lands way off target. I also am continuously taken aback by just how much the film has to say about modern celebrity culture, especially when I see modern celebrity culture talking back.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Devils (1971) & Seven Decades of Batman Cinema

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Welcome to Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fourth episode, James & Brandon discuss all ten actors who’ve played Batman on the silver screen since the 1940s with illustrator Jon Marquez. Also, James makes Brandon watch the sacrilegious Ken Russell epic The Devils (1971) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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I’ll start out saying this: I didn’t hate Batman v Superman … as much as I thought I was going to. I certainly didn’t hate it as much as I hated Man of Steel, for starters. Further, despite the fact that I found co-writer David S. Goyer’s script for the final Christopher Nolan Batman flick to be patronizing and transparent in its privileged take on income inequality, this film wasn’t quite so morally bankrupt in its presuppositions about audience attitudes. I even had a few positive takeaways from the flick, although some of those things were probably in spite of the filmmaker’s goals and not because of them.

I’m not a Zack “The Hack” Snyder hater, either. I know that hating on him is popular and easy, and he certainly deserves some of the criticism that is leveled at him. I’ve heard mixed things about Sucker Punch (although never anything that enticed me into watching the whole thing), and I find that the director’s cut of Watchmen is a decent adaptation of the source material. The problem with Snyder is that he knows and understands that film has a language, but he doesn’t know how to make that language work for him. Snyder just doesn’t grasp how to handle pacing and tension, so, instead of having rising action that grows at a steady rate up to a film’s denouement, everything is metaphorically cranked up to eleven at all times. Snyder knows how to make things look “epic,” but he uses that same technique in every shot; as a result, every action has the same dramatic weight, be it people fleeing in terror from collapsing buildings, potential warnings from the future, nuclear deployment, or uneventful board meetings.

Not all of this is Snyder’s fault, really; it’s the audience’s. The general public took 300, a film that revels in its consistently over-the-top nature and (arguably) succeeds as a narrative within that paradigm, and made it Snyder’s first real mainstream success. We taught Snyder the unfortunate lesson that this style was laudable and commercially viable when it’s actually exhausting. He’s like that classmate of yours who misunderstood the definition of a word from context clues and then proceeded to use it incorrectly all the time because it sounds good to their ear. It’s not that Snyder doesn’t have experience; he’s got several films under his belt now, each one more popular (or at least profitable) than the last. Snyder is simply living proof that sometimes a person can create a worthwhile piece of media without grasping the reason that it works. He understands that using a particular visual rhetorical strategy is something that filmmakers do to elicit a response, but he doesn’t seem to know why they do it. As a result, you can’t really say that there are any “quiet moments” here in Batman v Superman, just scenes and sequences that would be treated with some deftness and gravitas in another, more sensitive movie, a film in the hands of a more mature filmmaker.

Ironically, the audience is expected to assume that the immature Superman of the previous film has grown into a true-blue hero after a short montage of him rescuing people in scenes that appropriate the images of real-life disasters. Just as Man of Steel relied heavily on 9/11 imagery, so too does this film co-opt the images we have seen of the victims of Hurricane Katrina waiting for rescue on their rooftops. What’s more, it seems that the criticism of the previous film’s inappropriate use of this visual rhetoric resulted in an increase in it this time around, which is horrible. The audience is supposed to believe that Superman has learned his lesson about accountability and the value of life despite the fact that, metatextually, Snyder certainly didn’t. Further, he couldn’t figure out how to communicate that idea visually; you know, like making Metropolis a warmer looking place, or subtly lightening the blue of the Superman outfit in order to make him stand out as a beacon of hope in contrast to Batman’s more fear-mongering approach.

Of course, just because their names are in the title doesn’t necessarily mean that either Batman or Superman is really the main character in this film; Lex Luthor is. I wasn’t keeping track of the exact number of lines that each says in the film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesse Eisenberg’s character had as many as Henry Cavill’s and Ben Affleck’s combined. Luthor’s actions kick off the plot, Luthor is behind the false flag operation in Nairomi (which provides the final catalyst for Bruce Wayne to come out of retirement), Luthor kidnaps Ma Kent in order to force Superman’s hand, Luthor creates Doomsday, etc. Luthor even collates the data about potential powered individuals for Bruce to later stumble upon. Every other character is reacting to Luthor’s manipulations, but Eisenberg’s performance doesn’t have the requisite gravitas to make the character work. Eisenberg has been in a few things that I’ve enjoyed and a fair few others that I have not. He’s not necessarily a bad actor, but he is one with a fairly limited range, and, in fairness to him, I don’t know that any performer could have played this role and pulled it off. Luthor is framed as some kind of wunderkind, but any menace that he could possibly embody is undercut by the character’s shrill, foppish affectations. I don’t know if that was a character choice made by Eisenberg or on his behalf, but it’s distracting and obnoxious. Overall, Luthor ends up as a non-threatening villain despite the heinousness of his actions.

Clocking in at just under three hours, Dawn of Justice seems interminable at times, and the above-cited problem with a lack of variation in intensity is only one factor. There are abundant issues with pacing as well. Something like 10% of the film’s 166 minutes, including the very first scene, is taken up with dream sequences (and dream sequences within dream sequences, and imagined conversations with dead relatives). I don’t want to go into too many details in case any of you reading this want to maintain some surprise when/if you get around to seeing it, but there’s a prolonged scene that occurs near the film’s climax which interrupts the preparation for battle to focus on a character watching a series of video files. This sequence exists solely for the purpose of planting the seeds for DC’s attempt to create a Marvel-style interconnected film franchise, and its placement  in the film is utterly baffling. There’s a basic misunderstanding of narrative at play here with DC’s embarrassing attempt to play catch up with the House of Ideas. I can’t tell if it’s a blatant attempt to differentiate their business model from Marvel’s or a stubborn unwillingness to take the time and effort to give individual characters the needed breathing room for an audience to get to know them before forcing an Avengers style team-up with the upcoming Justice League (Part I… ugh). Either way, Batman v Superman doesn’t work as a cornerstone for the building of this larger universe or as a notable film in its own right.

There are occasional hints of a better narrative throughout (for instance, having Lex act as both a corrupt businessman and a bit of a mad scientist, as he has been portrayed as both in the past/comics, was a good idea that was poorly executed). I would even go so far as to say that the first half of the film works surprisingly well, especially with Holly Hunter acting circles around every other person onscreen in her performance as Senator June Finch. It’s really all downhill once she’s no longer present, with the second half feeling like a completely different movie. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane spends most of the climax struggling to retrieve a kryptonite spear from an underwater location that she herself threw it into in an earlier scene; that’s a first draft plot problem if I ever saw one. In one particularly noteworthy scripting problem, Lois’s Senator informant tells the President that the monster Bats and Superman are fighting only gets stronger each time that they attack it. This occurs after they attack Doomsday only once; sure, the knowledge that Doomsday gets stronger with every defeat is something that certain parts of the audience will know because of a familiarity with the source material, but why does this character have this knowledge?

I am sure that defenders of this film will find ways to justify the problems with the narrative, just as there were many who bent over backwards to make excuses for Man of Steel and its poor choices. We live in a world where there are people who will look you in the eye and defend the Star Wars prequels, so there’s no possibility that I could ever again be caught off guard by individual tastes and perceptions, no matter how alien they seem to be to me. This is an objectively bad movie, but I’m certainly not here to judge (I’m writing this next to a DVD shelf that contains both Dead Heat and Astro Zombies, after all). I will say, however, that I cannot fathom getting sufficient enjoyment from this movie to merit dealing with the long swathes in which there is nothing that could offer the smallest amount of filmic pleasure.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should cite the film’s good elements. I mentioned Holly Hunter’s strong performance above, but Gal Gadot does good work here with the limited screen time they give her, and there really is nothing quite like finally seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen for the first time (not counting The Lego Movie), and I gave the movie an extra half star for her appearance alone. The guitar-heavy track that serves as WW’s leitmotif is strange, but it does effectively differentiate her musical arrangement from Clark’s and Bruce’s even if it is an unusual choice. I also appreciated that the film trusts the audience to infer that Bruce was once the Batman and has since retired, even though Snyder apparently felt the need to show the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley for approximately the millionth time, complete with falling pearls, as if this wasn’t the most well-known origin story on the planet other than the birth of Christ. There’s a fun cameo from a Major Ferris (i.e. Carol Ferris from the Green Lantern comics) as well as some other Easter Eggs, and I’m always happy to see Lauren Cohan (Mrs. Wayne) getting work.

If you were already planning to see this movie (or not), one more negative review on top of all the others that are floating around isn’t going to make much of a difference to you. Still, even if you (like me) are enticed solely by the prospect of Wonder Woman, don’t waste your money trying to catch this flick in theaters. Like the Luthor character, Dawn of Justice is less interested in being clever than it is in investing time in making itself seem more clever than it really is, and ultimately ends up being incoherent for all its effort.

Random Remaining Questions (spoilers for both this film and Man of Steel):

● In the trailer for the film, we see Bruce getting a piece of hate mail that says “You let your family die,” and we see this same scene in the film. In context, this makes no sense, as no members of the Wayne family were killed during the showdown that ended Man of Steel, just Wayne Enterprises employees. So what was the point of that, other than to mislead people with the trailer?

● At the end of the film, Lois is hanging out in a bedroom in the Kent farmhouse. From the look of it, it seems like it’s supposed to be Clark’s room from before he left for college. So did Ma Kent really have the house recreated so exactly after its destruction in the first film that they duplicated this room, right down to its rural teen aesthetic?

● When will TV and films realize that an atmospheric detonation of a nuclear weapon is exponentially worse than one that occurs on the ground? Heroes got called out for doing this same thing ten years ago at the end of their first season; was no one listening?

● This one was pointed out to me after the fact by my friend who saw the film with me: was Luthor intercepting Wally’s mail for eighteen months before he used him to infiltrate the senate subcommittee? My reading of the situation was that Wally was returning his checks to Wayne Enterprises for all that time and then came to Luthor’s attention following his public arrest for vandalism of that hideous Superman statue, at which point Luthor approached Wally to help him. But later Luthor seems to admit that he sent the final piece of mail to Bruce personally, implying that he was behind the returning of checks this whole time. So which is it?

● I know that the locations of Metropolis and Gotham City are not fixed and as such they sometimes are close to each other and sometimes further apart, but putting them across the bay from each other really bothers me for reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on. I guess I feel that you shouldn’t be able to see one city from the other? Like, if any random person in Metropolis could look toward the waterfront and see the Bat-Signal in Gotham City, it really strains credibility that these two characters would have never interacted previously.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond