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

Mary and Max (2009)

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The 2009 stop motion animation indie drama Mary and Max is somewhat of a strange case. It’s ranked among the highest-rated titles of all time on IMDb, but it’s not a particularly well-known film. That disparity is readily recognizable in the film’s box office numbers, which posits it as a financial flop that only managed to earn back $1.7 million of its $8.2 million budget, despite near-universal critical acclaim. Perhaps the divide between its critical & financial accomplishments is a question of tone. The sole feature film credit of stop motion animator Adam Elliot, Mary and Max adopts the visual format & storybook narration of a children’s film, but it’s, at heart, an emotionally merciless drama that touches upon, among other things: mental illness, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancy, atheism, war crimes, repressed homosexuality, obesity, and the endless cycle of poverty. It’s likely that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office because it’s difficult to market an animated feature about heartbreaking loneliness, depression, despair, and the search for human connection among the disenfranchised. I’m getting choked up right now just mulling over the film’s themes, so easy to see why it might’ve been a difficult sell as a comedy (however black) & a fun night at the movies. All that being said, Mary and Max is a masterful work in the stop motion medium, easily one of the best examples of the format I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame it couldn’t have turned that achievement into financial success, though, or we might’ve had a few more Adam Elliot features in the six years since its release.

Detailing the strictly-epistolary friendship between two total strangers, a young Australian girl & a middle aged man in New York City, Mary and Max relies heavily on storybook-style narration to move its story along between its back & forth letter reading. This narrative structure doesn’t allow much room for complicated plot maneuvering or a fast-paced momentum. Mary and Max, as its title suggests, is more of a two-handed character study than a whirlwind of action & consequence. Mary is a young girl with an alcoholic mother & an emotionally reclusive father. Initially described as looking like mud & poo, Mary is somewhat of an outcast, self-conscious of her appearance, bored, and alone. Max is a lonely, atheist man of Jewish descent who has difficulty navigating the modern world due to his struggles with Asperger’s Syndrome. It seems at first like they might have very little in common besides the drab greys & browns that define their respective worlds & their shared love of a children’s show called The Noblets. As their friendship deepens & is challenged by decades of hard-fought battles with mental illness & life at large, though, a remarkably rewarding swell of emotion begins to elevate the film miles above the basic precociousness & impressive handmade craft stop motion automatically commands as a medium.

For a film loaded with fart jokes & gags involving bird anuses, Mary and Max is a remarkable achievement in emotional provocation. Toni Collette (who I’ve recently been binge-watching in United States of Tara) does an excellent job voicing the adult Mary & Phillip Seymour Hoffman (who, of course, everyone has been inadvertently binge-watching in quality work for the last two decades & mourning in more recent years) is even more of a treasure as the deeply-complicated Max, although neither personality is especially essential to the film’s charm. The real crux to Mary & Max‘s perfection as a small stakes drama/black comedy is in director Adam Elliot’s nuanced characterization of his titular leads & in the finely detailed visual world he made by hand (with help, I’m sure) in a painstakingly meticulous method/dying art. I like to imagine a world where Mary and Max was a wild financial success that allowed Elliot to immediately produce a long string of other feature films, the same way the success of Coraline, released the same year, launched Laika Studios. As is, I’m happy that this pitch black gem was ever produced in the first place. It’s not often that an animated feature about the importance of “real friendship” is this well constructed & this reluctant to play by the rules of its medium/genre. Just writing about the film’s emotional severity is making me tear up in the retrospection, which is a clear sign that Elliot got something significantly right here, even if that something was a difficult commodity to monetize.

Side Note: You can go ahead & include Mary and Max as yet another indication that no place in time has ever loved ABBA quite as much as 1970s Australia. The ABBA poster in Mary’s bedroom feels more significant than a mere callback to Toni Collette’s starring role in Muriel’s Wedding. It’s part of a larger Australia Loves ABBA narrative that I swear is A Thing. It makes more sense every day that ABBA: The Movie was set in Australia. It’s the band’s home away from Sweden.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts I & II (2014, 2015)

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I’ve enjoyed following the Hunger Games saga, both as a series of YA novels & and as a series of dystopian sci-fi film. It’s a pretty grim franchise for something a lot of people consider “kids’ stuff”, one that takes its forcing-to-children-to-fight-to-the-death-for-entertainment premise very seriously. Its haves-vs-have-nots dystopian world-building is nothing particularly new and can especially be seen telegraphed in properties like Battle Royale & The Running Man, but I think it’s a pretty great sci-fi intro for teens, especially refreshing for its strong female protagonist Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the films, duh) & in the way its potentially-corrosive love triangle conflict is handled. One strange aspect for me has been how the film versions of the Hunger Games trilogy have resisted the law of diminishing returns. I felt that Suzanne Collins’ novels started at their strongest point, doing a great job of establishing an in-the-moment intensity in its abysmal future-world by dragging the audience along closely with Katniss’ experience navigating the Hunger Games. The quality dropped off a bit for me in the sequels, though, as the pacing seemed to get away from Collins and large swaths of summarizing overtook the focused intimacy of early scenes. The first movie was pretty great as well, doing a good job of capturing Katniss’ in-the-moment POV, but the film series subsequently seemed to improve from there, knowing exactly what to show & what to ignore in Collins’ sprawling narrative for maximum effect.

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Mockingjay – Part I might just be the pinnacle of the Hunger Games movies for me. General consensus has the franchise peaking with the second film, Catching Fire, but I’d say it’s at the very least a close call. the film’s themes of PTSD, regret, powerlessness, and the pressures of being the face of a revolution all hit me pretty hard. I’ve heard friends & family describe the film as boring, saying nothing happened, which is pretty surprising for a film with such a high bodycount & grandscale warfare, but I had a genuinely emotional reaction to its horrors, getting teary-eyed at the film’s hospital bombings, mass graves, and three-fingered solutes. Its murderers’ row of talented actors certainly didn’t hurt: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Dormer, and Donald Sutehrland are all at the top of their game here, which is really saying something. I also appreciated scenes of Jennifer Lawrence, who is an incredibly gifted actor, pretending to be an incredibly inept actor as Katniss fails miserably to produce convincing propaganda clips to rally support for a revolution. Mockingjay – Part I‘s riots, uprisings, strikes, and rescue missions were all a lot more satisfying to me than expected & Lawrence deserves a lot of credit for anchoring the film’s emotional resonance.

Mockingjay – Part II unfortunately didn’t hold up quite as well for me. I think the issue is that Collins’ summarizing had gotten out of control by the final book, so that the film version struggles to make individual scenes count for much as it chases an exponential momentum of a plot trying to wrap up a widespread political revolution, a small family’s struggle to remain a unit, and a strained, increasingly bitter love triangle in just two hours time. There were a few small moments to enjoy in the chaos — my favorite was when Katniss is called out for the “tacky romance drama” & cliché  “the one” specialness of her mythology at a wedding — but for the most part the films struggles to let its Big Moments properly breathe. Mocking Jay – Part II‘s killer C.H.U.D.s & third act Major Character Death both failed to land with full impact thanks to the runaway momentum of Collins’ plot & pacing. And because director Francis Lawrence did such a great job with Catching Fire & Mockingjay – Part I, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt & suppose that the rushed nature of Mockingjay – Part II was far from his fault. Considering all of the ground that the novel covers (I’m struggling not to go long here just touching on it), Francis Lawrence  could’ve stretched Mockingjay into its own separate trilogy & given each underserved scene its own proper moment to shine.

I can’t imagine impatient fans, who groused about splitting the finale into two parts in the first place, would’ve been receptive to a Mockingjay – Part III,  though. If you consider that Francis Lawrence had no choice but to split the finale into two parts, I think he did a great job of adapting a difficult work of fiction for the screen. Mockingjay – Part I carries the emotional weight the film series as earned over the last few years & Mockingjay – Part II does the necessary work of bringing the whole thing to a close. The two halves function well together as a single, four-hour feature. One picks up exactly where the other leaves off & together they do a satisfactory job of carrying a work that’s spread pretty thin to a convincing conclusion. Although I’d contend that Part I is the far superior picture, they average out to something pretty great in the end, which fairly unusual for the third film in a sci-fi trilogy.

Bonus points: I’d like to take this opportunity to give kudos to the Hunger Games series for being the only action franchise I can think of where fashion as an artform plays a deeply integral part to the films’ central themes. I particularly liked a moment in Mockingjay where Katniss is told she’ll be “the best dressed rebel in history” & it’s a sentiment that actually means something significant. It’s a cool, distinguishing detail, if nothing else.

– Brandon Ledet