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Film Reviews: "Tracks" and "The Congress" 

It’s a trip!


(PG-13), Directed by John Curran

Opens Friday at The Little

Curran will do a Q&A after the 7 p.m. showings on Friday, October 3, and Saturday, October 4, at The Little.

In "Tracks," Rochester native John Curran ("The Painted Veil," "We Don't Live Here Anymore") directs the true story of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who at the age of 27 decided to walk 1,700 miles across the deserts of Australia, with only her loyal pet dog and a pack of four camels accompanying her. It's a journey that takes her nine months, starting from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and heading west to the Indian Ocean.

Adapted from Davidson's memoir by screenwriter Marion Nelson, the film never gets bogged down attempting to pin down her reasons for taking the trek in the first place. As played by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," "Stoker"), Robyn is stubbornly independent, a bit of a loner who's more at home with animals than she is among people. Her expedition seems a sort of self-assigned rite of passage that she feels compelled to complete simply to prove to herself she can; her only real explanation comes when she tells a visiting friend just prior to her departure, "I just want to be by myself."

Robyn's reluctance to ask for or accept any assistance comes into conflict with her lack of money, so when she meets an sweetly awkward photographer named Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) who suggests that she find a sponsor for her travels, she reluctantly sends a query to National Geographic asking the magazine for financial assistance. The magazine agrees, under the stipulation that Rick meet up with her at several points along the way to take pictures for a future article. From there, the film documents Davidson's odyssey in episodic detail, interspersing sketchily drawn flashbacks to her childhood in an attempt to provide a bit of extra motivation for Davidson's trip, but they're not necessary. We learn all we need to know without them, largely thanks to Wasikowska's compelling performance.

Though obviously possessing a much broader range, the actress is particularly adept at playing this sort of slightly odd, taciturn young woman, but she adds some interesting wrinkles to her performance, finding interesting ways to play Robyn's sometimes contradictory nature, as her desire for solitude doesn't necessarily preclude her desire for human interaction. She's taken in briefly by a kindly middle-aged couple and allows an Aboriginal elder named Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma) to accompany her for a portion of the journey. She's also quite good in her scenes with Driver, as Robyn and Rick's relationship shifts over time. At first seeing his chatty presence as a nuisance, but even as their friendship grows more intimate, she continues to keep him at a distance. Both actors are excellent, and aided immeasurably by the natural beauty of the desert landscapes, so lovingly photographed by cinematographer Mandy Walker.

click to enlarge Robin Wright as … and animated Robin Wright in “The Congress.” - PHOTO COURTESY DRAFTHOUSE FILMS
  • Robin Wright as … and animated Robin Wright in “The Congress.”

"The Congress"

(NR), Directed by Ari Folman

Screens Saturday at the Dryden Theatre

Filmmaker Ari Folman (the Oscar-nominated "Waltz With Bashir") directs the fascinatingly odd, "The Congress," based loosely on Stanislaw Lem's satirical sci-fi novel "The Futurological Congress." Robin Wright stars as a variation of herself, here depicted as a washed-up, middle-aged actress. She takes a meeting with the head of Miramount Studios, who makes an unusual offer: sign a contract allowing the studio to "sample" her, scanning her entire being so that the studio can use the digitized young, beautiful version of her to perform in whatever film they choose. Miramount will own her digital likeness forever, and Wright will be well compensated in exchange for agreeing to never act again.

Motivated by her son Aaron's (Kodi Smit-McPhee) deteriorating health, and at the behest of her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), she agrees, and in an extraordinary sequence, we see the actual scanning process take place. Wright stands in the middle of a giant globe, as strobing lights illuminate her, recording her entire range of emotions. Then the film abruptly jumps ahead 20 years, and things really start to get bonkers.

Her contract about to expire, Wright is invited to attend The Futurist Congress, a conference which requires its attendees to take a hallucinogen that makes everything appear to be a cartoon, and the film shifts into extended animated sequence. It seems technology has advanced to allow people to transform themselves into animated avatars of whoever they wish to be. At the conference, Wright is asked to extend her contract, which will now include a clause which allows her likeness to be made into a substance that can be ingested. Consumers can then imagine her in whatever context they want, and the studio will be paid royalties on their fantasies and daydreams.

Using an actor's digital likeness for unintended purposes has been a much debated subject since Humphrey Bogart shilled Diet Coke and Fred Astaire danced with a Dirt Devil, and Folman uses the subject to explore weightier ideas of identity and free will, melding the philosophical debate with trippy psychedelic imagery. The film's early scenes feel oddly stilted, but "The Congress" grows stronger the wackier it gets. It's also consistently stunning visually -- the animation is particularly gorgeous in an unusually cartoony way -- and at times curiously moving. Though the disparate elements of the film -- showbiz satire, sci-fi mind-bender, and existentialist drama -- never quite gel, it's always an interesting ride.

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