Thursday, December 4, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE CONGRESS (2014) and GUTSHOT STRAIGHT (2014)

(Israel/Germany/Poland/Luxembourg/Belgium/France/India - 2013

2014 US release)

Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008) was a unique, gut-wrenching animated documentary with Folman addressing traumatic, long-suppressed memories of his time serving in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1982 Lebanon War. It was powerful enough to be banned in Lebanon, and Folman immediately began conceiving his next film, THE CONGRESS. Shot in 2011 and loosely based on Solaris author Stanislaw Lem's 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, THE CONGRESS is split just about evenly between live-action and animation, a hard sci-fi mindbender headlined by Robin Wright as a fictionalized, alternate-universe version of herself. A single mother of two--snarky daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and mildly autistic son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who suffers from a rare disease that's slowly robbing him of his hearing and vision--who lives in a refurbished hangar next to an airport, Wright has been out of the Hollywood scene for some time and has a reputation as an unreliable, temperamental diva with an abundance of burned bridges in her wake. Her concerned, fatherly longtime agent Al (Harvey Keitel) laments the squandered potential after THE PRINCESS BRIDE and comes to her with an offer from Miramount Pictures: sell her digital likeness for a massive, one-time lump sum payment and have that likeness function as an undetectable CGI "Robin Wright" for 20 years worth of acting while she's free to live her life and never worry about working again ("Keanu Reeves and Michelle Williams just did it!" Al insists). Miramount head Jeff Green (Danny Huston, clearly basing his performance on what we imagine Harvey Weinstein to be) lays it on the line for Wright: she's got a bad reputation, she's not getting any younger, and her son has some serious health issues that will require her attention.  "You gotta be what, 45? 48?  You can be 34 forever!" he promises. Wright agrees to have her body and the gamut of her emotional responses scanned and captured and then Folman jumps ahead 20 years. An aged Wright is venturing to an event known as "The Congress," which takes place in a world where one must morph into animated form to visit. Six other "Robin Wright"'s are at The Congress, and she learns that the digital manifestations of herself that have been used in movies also "exist" in this animated realm. She finds she's been the star of a blockbuster sci-fi franchise called REBEL ROBOT ROBIN, and that the powers-that-be at Miramount have another plan for "Robin Wright."  Movies are done, she's told by the animated recreation of Green. Miramount has gotten out of the movie business to become a pharmaceutical empire. Celebrity is a substance to be consumed. "Robin Wright" will now be available to her fans in liquid form.

There's some heady themes running throughout THE CONGRESS, a trippy and wildly ambitious film that unfortunately gets lost up its own ass time and again. The idea of "experiencing" your favorite celebrity recalls--and predates, considering it was conceived before--Brandon Cronenberg's ANTIVIRAL, but it's not really explored by Folman, and the notion of the digital actress is straight out of Andrew Niccol's underrated and virtually forgotten Al Pacino bomb S1M0NE, while the ability to traverse real and animated worlds owes a bit to Ralph Bakshi's COOL WORLD. As Wright enters the world of The Congress, the film incorporates numerous animation styles that alternately channel Bakshi, Rene Laloux (FANTASTIC PLANET, LIGHT YEARS), the 1981 cult classic HEAVY METAL, and the work of PINK FLOYD: THE WALL animator Gerald Scarfe. Folman is aiming at so many targets that THE CONGRESS eventually collapses in on itself and becomes a ponderous, patience-testing slog. He has some pointed observations about the banality of modern pop culture, the struggle of aging actresses in an industry that worships youth, and a sense of societal disconnect in the way that the world of The Congress is ultimately shown to be the product of Wright's subconscious. There is no reality--only what people construct in their mind after taking a pill available to everyone in the dystopia of 2033--everyone literally lives in their own world. The film looks superb--the production design of the live-action sequences is eye-catching and the animated sections have some surreal, midnight-movie appeal--but Folman has a pronounced lack of discipline and focus here and can't really decide what his film is about. Genuinely emotional moments are scattered here and there, and there's a good performance by Paul Giamatti as Aaron's sympathetic doctor, but a second-half subplot with animated Wright falling in love with activist Dylan Truliner (voiced by Jon Hamm), and joining him in a rebellion to break out of the animated world goes nowhere, and while Wright is fine, her casting makes no sense. Do we know all that much about the real Robin Wright?  The idea of presenting herself as this horrible Hollywood asshole who closed every door that was opened for her seems pointless without comedic motivation, like seeing Ted Danson or Michael J. Fox playing boorish versions of themselves for laughs on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Usually, in those instances, the whole reason is to play off and have fun with a celebrity's image (like, say, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH). What's the point of Wright playing this scripted, dramatic version of Robin Wright, unlikable and with a fading career, if it says nothing about the real Robin Wright?  Has anyone ever read a negative Robin Wright story in a tabloid? She may as well be playing a faded actress named "Jane Smith." This is the kind of meta role that could've used an 45-or-older actress with a history of being difficult on a movie set, like a Sharon Stone or a Madonna, or maybe an actress like Catherine Keener, by all accounts a nice woman who's great at portraying cold, brittle bitches and it could've made a statement about the pitfalls of typecasting. As it is, THE CONGRESS is a stylish and extremely well-made film but in terms of story, it's just blowing a lot of hot air and it's ultimately a long, slow road to tedium. A major disappointment after Folman's triumphant WALTZ WITH BASHIR. (Unrated, 123 mins)

(US - 2014)

There's enough intriguing, quirky touches and flashes of a legitimately interesting film in GUTSHOT STRAIGHT to make you wish it was something more. Its biggest fault is that there really just isn't much of a story, and what's there has been done countless times in the past. But director Justin Steele commendably avoids going for yet another belated Tarantino knockoff and does a really nice job of capturing the seedy side of Vegas that you don't see much of in movies anymore. He catches a lot of location footage on the fly, as evidenced by tourists looking at the camera in a welcome throwback to the old-school guerrilla tactics on the mean streets of Times Square in the '70s and '80s, and he has scenes take place not in the flashy, tourist-friendly establishments, but in the aging and past-their-prime Vegas casinos that have seen much better days. The film stars CSI's George Eads (also one of 30 credited producers) as Jack, a perpetual Vegas small-timer in a porkpie hat who tries to pass himself off as a high-roller but always loses big. He's $10,000 in the hole to loan shark Paulie Trunks (a surprisingly well-cast Steven Seagal) and sees no way out until a chance meeting with rich gambler Duffy (Stephen Lang). Duffy presents Jack with a business opportunity that happens to be worth $10,000: "I want you to fuck my wife," Duffy says, adding "$20,000 if you let me watch." Understandably skeeved out by the proposition, though he's tempted once he sees Duffy's wife May (AnnaLynne McCord), Jack declines and when he rejects $50,000, a scuffle ensues and Jack ends up killing Duffy in self-defense. May takes charge of the situation, telling Jack that Duffy was abusive, that she was a prisoner, and she'll deal with disposing of the body. Jack goes about his business until he realizes he left his wallet at Duffy's house, and when he tries to sneak back in the next night, he encounters the outwardly gregarious but incredulously sinister Lewis (Ted Levine), who wants to know where his brother Duffy has gone.

GUTSHOT STRAIGHT is the sort of indie-noir that filled the new release shelves of video stores 20 years ago in the wake of sleepers like RED ROCK WEST and THE LAST SEDUCTION. There's bits of HARD EIGHT mixed with BODY HEAT and INDECENT PROPOSAL and the cast is populated with colorful character actors and recognizable faces (there's also Vinnie Jones, doing his patented "fookin' 'ell, mate!" shtick as a Paulie Trunks strongarm, and a useless one-scene bit by WAYNE'S WORLD's Tia Carrere), but there's just not much here and Jerry Rapp's script is lacking. The climax doesn't make much sense, Jack is too arrogantly full of himself and too stupid for the audience to really get on his side, and it's painfully obvious from the start that May is your standard-issue femme fatale. The film plays out as if the actors are working from a checklist rather than a script, which may explain why it never feels like Jack is in serious danger, and that overwhelming, crushing feeling of there being no way out is essential for a film like this to really work. There are worthwhile elements to GUTSHOT STRAIGHT--where most films today hold off any credits until the end, this has got one of the best opening credits sequences of the year, a total homage to the fun and catchy opening credits of the 007 franchise. I'm not sure why it's in this movie, but it works beautifully. Levine and Lang are always effective at playing creeps, and Seagal, in rare character actor mode, steals the few scenes he's in, breaking out a not-bad Vito Corleone voice as the feared mob figure with an inexplicable soft spot for the hapless Jack. If you watch enough of Seagal's recent starring vehicles, then you know it's a small victory if you can get him to simply show up for work awake, let alone turn in an actual performance. According to Eads in the DVD's making-of segment, Seagal was only on the set for one day, so maybe he was excited about not having to stick around, but he's very good here. He gets a terrific monologue about why he's called "Paulie Trunks" and has a few genuinely funny, possibly ad-libbed lines and though his screen time is limited, he makes every moment count. GUTSHOT STRAIGHT has a lot of positives in its favor, and there's much here for Steele to build upon, but it just needed a stronger foundation than the weak script provides. (R, 89 mins)

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