The Congress: A case of greatness botched

(This review contains spoilers).
The Congress begins with a tantalizing set-up. Robin Wright plays herself, or at least a once-famous actress named Robin Wright who starred in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump. She is living with her teenage daughter and younger son in a sprawling desert compound next to an airfield. She is past her acting prime, or so her agent (played with surprising compassion by a noticeably aging Harvey Keitel) tells her. She has walked out on too many contracts and made too many career-killing decisions. When he informs her a major studio (called, sneakily, Miramount) wants to digitally clone her body, her expressions, and even her personality on the condition she never acts in anything, anywhere, ever again, she understandably refuses. But her son suffers from a rare syndrome, one with dire and expensive consequences. Reluctantly, she takes the money. It’s a fascinating premise, and as directed by Ari Folman, a thoroughly mesmerizing one. Filmed with a startling grip on scraps of visual shorthand that convey setting and tone in striking, emotionally fraught imagery, you might allow yourself to think you’re watching the most compelling and brilliantly directed film of the year. But you’d be so wrong.

Rich Hill: The poeticism of poverty

There is no doubt the filmmakers behind the documentary Rich Hill clearly intended their movie to be a sympathetic portrait of three young men living life in the margins. Andrew, Appachey and Harley are all teenagers from the titular Missouri town, a less-than-bucolic and all-too familiar zone of strip malls, vacant downtown streets, grinding poverty and vanishing opportunities. The movie’s directors (and cousins), Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, have their own family roots in the area, which made it easier to engage with their subjects and move about the town’s streets, backyards and homes. The result is a lovingly made and emotionally honest picture, pretty to look at and easy to like. So why did the movie make me so uncomfortable? Why did I have the nagging feeling the filmmakers were exposing to the public the private miseries of people who perhaps didn’t understand their dysfunctions would be splashed across theater screens and streamed around the world? And I say that not because these people were ignorant, but because their burdens were simply too oppressive, too persistent, for them to give much thought to the artistic whims of a pair of documentary filmmakers.

Boyhood: Moment to moment

Time unfolds before us like a map. We can't see where the roads lead, nor can we be sure they won't bring us back to where we started, but we know only one contains a dead end. Richard Linklater’s beautiful, breathtaking Boyhood explores these roads, the creases and wrinkles of this map, and it concerns itself, at least in the material presented on screen, with the very ebullience and promise of young life. But the movie's overwhelming power and poignancy comes from the knowledge that a person’s time on the planet will most certainly end, and that our only real task is to live in those moments, in the inconsequential in-betweeness, that makes up the arc of our journey.

I Origins: Seeing may be believing

I Origins contemplates the argument for and against the concept of intelligent design by telling a story of science, love, loss and speculation. It is first set seven years in the past of an amorphous near-future, and then in this future’s present. It doesn’t look much different then our current world. In fact, it looks very much like a diaphanous, dreamily focused independent art house film, attuned to the visual shorthand of commercials but with delusions of profound significance. This isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie’s own intelligent design, which offers thoughtful and even, at times, convincing manipulation of some far-out ideas.

A Most Wanted Man: Hoffman's last movie a tepid misfire

John le Carré’s disgust with the post-9/11 regime of the Bush Administration was the basis of his 2008 novel “A Most Wanted Man”, now a film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last role before he died. Hoffman plays Gūnther Bachmann, the archetypal le Carré protagonist, an embittered loner with an aching desire to perform at least one act of compassion before a well-aimed bullet or too much drink takes him out of action. As the head of an international anti-terror spy unit based in Hamburg, Germany, where the 9/11 terrorists plotted their attack, he must contend with the reactionary tactics of both the German and American governments. Their strategy of torture and imprisonment, driven by a thirst for vengeance and a need to fill the waiting cells in Guantanamo, starkly conflicts with Bachmann’s more patient technique of surveillance and persuasion. That clash, which doesn’t end well, is infused with a relentlessly sour atmosphere of lies, distrust and the requisite soul-smashing doublecross.

Cannibal: The Clean Plate Club

In the new Spanish movie Cannibal, director Manuel Martín Cuenca's approach to his subject matter is so austere it’s almost anorexic. Where a horror film or gross-out comedy might apply blood-drenched gluttony to scenes of butchery and flesh-eating, Cuenca opts for one quiet–and quietly dazzling–sequence involving a nude woman splayed on a table, followed by the off-screen thwack of a hatchet and then a single rivulet of blood spilling into a metal pan (that sound also off-screen, an auditory suggestion of this killer’s seasoned professionalism). This less-is-more strategy continues through the film’s first fifteen minutes or so, which also involves the refrigeration, frying and consumption of body parts, and a symbolic cleansing in a car wash. We also learn our protagonist is an old-school tailor, equally skilled at manipulating a large pair of fabric scissors as he is with a meat cleaver. He and the milieu of his existence are rendered with impeccable taste, clarity and calm. For a cannibal, he is especially appealing and fastidious.

As It Is In Heaven: Why Lord?

Dieting websites state that during a 30-day water fast a person loses about one pound per day. A reasonably trim and healthy young man or woman will begin to look fairly scrawny, even gaunt, by the end of the fast, and certainly weakened by the ordeal. But the dozen or so individuals who undergo the fast in As It Is In Heaven appear to handle it quite well. The only evidence of their self-enforced starvation can be seen in the dark patches under their eyes, as if they stayed up all night cramming for a test or, as is possible with this film, they just emerged from a 24-hour prayer circle. You see, the movie is not about a fad diet, it’s about a religious cult. But very little of what happens in this film (in a film in which very little does happen) is believable. And this in turn presents a problem for a film that is all about belief.