The Gambler (2014)


Mark Wahlberg's agent is dead to him after getting him this movie.

Mark Wahlberg’s agent is dead to him after getting him this movie.

(2014) Drama (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larsen, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Anthony Kelley, Alvin Ing, Andre Braugher, Domenick Lombardozzi, George Kennedy, Lauren Weedman, Leland Orser, Richard Schiff, Griffin Cleveland, Steve Park, Da’Vone McDonald, Amin Joseph, Josiah Blunt, Shakira Ja’Nai Paye, Melanie McComb. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Gambling is part of the human psyche. Not all of us our gamblers but at least once in our lives we all take a chance on something. Some, though, can’t live without the rush. The bigger the gamble, the bigger the thrill. Who doesn’t relish the thrill of hitting 21 at the blackjack table when you’ve put your entire bankroll in, or of hearing that girl whose league you’re so far out of that you’re actually playing a different sport say yes when you ask her out?

Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a gambler, a compulsive one. He goes to underground casinos and bets whatever sums of money he can get his hands on – usually borrowed. He’s a college professor by day (of English literature) and by night, he plays blackjack and roulette. He can go up by hundreds of thousands of dollars and then lose it all on one bad hand. He is a smart cookie for sure, but a self-destructive one as well.

He owes money to three very bad people; Lee (Ing) who owns the underground casinos that Jim gambles in (we can assume that most respectable casinos will have banned Bennett from their respective properties), Neville (Williams) who puts the urbane in urban as a gangster who, when the original movie that this is based on came out would have been portrayed in a Superfly hat with a ‘fro from here to waaaaaaaay out there, baby and the third is the most badass of them all – Frank (Goodman) who is fatherly and vicious at the same time. He is the loan shark with a heart of gold, trying to talk Jim out of borrowing money from him which is a little bit odd considering that Frank makes his millions from chumps like Jim borrowing money from him.

Jim’s mom (Lange) is the daughter of the founder of a bank and has wealth oozing from her every pore and dripping from her empty smile. She knows she has been enabling the beast all this time and when Jim comes to her for a loan of well over a quarter of a million dollars, her first instinct is to slap him across the face (which, I might add, he deserves). Like the enabler of any addict, she hopes that this time he will use the money wisely and take care of his debt and start a better life for himself but we know, he knows and she knows that just isn’t going to happen. Not yet. And when Jim tells her essentially to go away and not talk about his problem, she does, weeping for a moment before her mask of iron control slams down on her face and she walks away with what dignity she can muster and Jim (and we) don’t see her again.

Jim has been latched onto by one of his students, Amy (Larsen) whose talent Jim recognizes but in typical Jim fashion he attempts to tell what he conceives as the truth (and may well be – he’s a pretty smart guy) but in such a way that it alienates virtually everyone else in the class. There’s also Lamar (Kelley), a basketball star who is expected to cruise through the class so he can continue to be eligible to score lots and lots of points on his way through to the NBA. These two alone seem able to tolerate Jim who is filled with self-loathing and who time after time when confronted with the opportunity to do the right thing screws it up royally for himself and those around him.

With a deadline looming on Jim’s debt payback and his new girlfriend and his basketball-playing student who may be the only two people left who care about Jim now firmly in the crosshairs, Jim knows it’s going to be all or nothing this time and there will be no walking away if he loses. Not for him. Not for anyone around him.

This is based on a 1974 James Caan film of the same name which in turn is loosely based on a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel – also of the same name. This is a slick but soulless look at gambling, it’s hold on the psyche and how a smart man can be moved by it to do dumb things.

Jim says on two occasions that he’s not a gambler; the first time you think he’s being ironic. The second, it’s said with flat confidence which is meant to convey you see, I have it all under control and perhaps that’s what the movie means you to feel. It is near to the end of the film and supposedly, he’s getting his life back in order. I find this a disservice to the movie, particularly since throughout the movie we watch and recoil as Jim sinks deeper and deeper into the morass, and yet at the end one magical bet is supposed to be all it takes to lift him out of the pit. In real life, that’s what a lot of gambling addicts say and to a man (or woman) they can’t help but sink back into it and lose everything they’ve gained. That’s the nature of the beast.

I refuse to call the actors out on the carpet for this one – they all do a bang-up job. Wahlberg is making a fine career out of playing heroes who are flawed, as in Pain and Gain. Here he has the unenviable job of taking a smart character who does dumb things and on top of it make him virtually unlikable. Jim’s arrogant, blunt, sometimes cruel – the line between truth and cruelty can be blurry at the best of times and Jim crosses that line regularly, often on purpose. The things he does seem to be a “suicide by gangster” thing. I can’t even begin to even figure out what’s going on with him; suffice to say that few of us ever get as messed up as Jim does and those that do, God’s mercy on ya.

Ing and Williams make credible victims, with Williams getting more of a meaty character to work with; Ing mainly plays it cool and looks (if you’ll forgive the expression) inscrutable which considering he’s Asian I’m not sure is a good idea. Ing’s poker face makes his character more menacing but the filmmakers really don’t follow through on that menace. Williams though gets to and quite frankly, his character is a bit of a throwback to 70s cinema and not in a good way always.

Goodman gets to chew the scenery and few do it as well as he does. He’s a street-smart guy who understands and respects Jim’s intellect and can’t for the life of him understand why he does what he does. He’s got that southern fried Foghorn Leghorn thing going but with a touch of ticking time bomb on the side. You get the sense that Frank is nobody to mess around with, despite the fatherly demeanor which he adopts with Jim from time to time. I love watching Goodman work and he’s in top form here.

This is a movie that doesn’t know when to stop. Wahlberg carries a briefcase with him everywhere but never uses it in a piece of business that’s unnecessarily distracting. Sometimes in attempts to be artistic they have Wahlberg staring off into the sunset with an icy demeanor and sunglasses shading his eyes, switching the background in a series of jump cuts while Wahlberg stays still in exactly the same spot in the frame. It’s a little bit like a Photoshop effect on film.

Worse yet is the ending, which not only jumps the shark, it lands back in the water and gets eaten by the shark. The movie began with the sound of a roulette wheel  spinning, the ball bouncing in the middle of the wheel and landing in its slot. Near the end of the movie, Jim is spinning a roulette wheel on which he’s bet everything; win and he pays everyone off and his girlfriend is left alone. Lose and Jim is a dead man. The movie begins with the sound of a roulette wheel, it should have ended with one. The movie should have faded to black right there without us knowing the result and leaving us to speculate. We never should have found out if the gamble was successful, but we do. And then there is a scene afterwards that is nothing if not gratuitous. By that time I was already gnashing my teeth and wishing that I was getting paid for this. Anyone who sees this movie should get paid for their forbearance.

REASONS TO GO: Goodman is a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Wahlberg’s character is so self-destructive, whiny and rude that it’s very hard to get any sort of human empathy for him or from him. Suffers from a major case of “going-on-too-long-itis.”
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of swearing, some brief nudity in a strip club and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wahlberg dropped 61 pounds for this role, an amount he said he would never lose again for any film. He also sat in on a number of English literature courses at Southern California colleges to get down the mannerisms and techniques of actual professors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Premium Rush
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death

Salt


Salt

Do you get the feeling Angelina Jolie is watching an entirely different movie?

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Andre Braugher, Hunt Block, Olek Krupa, Daniel Pearce, Cassidy Hinkle, Yara Shahidi, Jordan Lage, Vladislav Koulikov, Olya Zueva. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It is somewhat emblematic of the flaccid crop of movies this summer that this movie is one of the best reviewed of the season, with some critics heaping critical praises on it that it scarcely deserves. Let’s get to the salient facts.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a spy; let’s get that straight first off. It’s not much of a spoiler, since the trailer tells you she is. She is evidently not a very good spy, because when we first meet her she’s been captured and is being tortured by the North Koreans.

She is eventually released and returns back to the CIA – or at least the petrochemical company that fronts for the CIA – and is preparing for an anniversary dinner for her arachnologist husband (Diehl), complete with intricately folded napkins. Nothing says romance more than linen folded into origami after all. However, dinner is going to have to wait; a Russian defector has walked into the CIA front building – apparently the CIA isn’t very good at hiding in plain sight either – and it is up to Evelyn to interrogate the guy since, well, nobody else in the CIA can do it, right?

Her boss Ted Winter (Schreiber) is eager to catch a plane, she wants to get to her anniversary dinner and the by-the-book agent Peabody (Ejiofor) just wants to take over because he apparently is the special agent in charge of Russian defections. Unfortunately, their plans are all thrown for a loop when Orlov (Olbrychski), the defector in question, informs them that a sleeper agent is planning to murder the Russian president on U.S. soil at the funeral of the Vice President the very next day. The name of the sleeper agent? Evelyn Salt.

All Jason Bourne breaks out right about then. Salt, knowing that her husband is going to be targeted – apparently this has happened before – decides she doesn’t have time to wait around to be interrogated and escapes. Orlov, channeling Rosa Klebb of From Russia with Love, boots himself out of an elevator. This would be the perfect time for a car chase, don’t you think?

There is certainly plenty of action here, some of it pretty nifty. Noyce, who directed the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, has a steady hand when it comes to action sequences, and while he doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, the action comes at you thick and fast, with Jolie leaping out of moving vehicles, out of helicopters and onto moving trucks and vans. She beats up everybody she can get her hands on, and a few that she can’t.

My problem with the movie isn’t so much the action but what lies between. I was never able to connect to Salt and there’s a reason for it. The whole is-she-or-isn’t-she theme of the movie only works if you aren’t sure if she is or she isn’t, and so she has to be enigmatic by definition, which makes it difficult for us to relate to her. Quite frankly, it should be fairly obvious early on whether she is or isn’t, and those who aren’t sure, look to the extraneous characters to help you figure it out. You know the ones; they only exist for a specific plot point that will become critical later in the film. These are the kinds of characters that are usually found in bad movies.

I know I’m being a bit harsh on Salt and I should temper it by saying that there are a lot of things in the positive column. Jolie, for one thing, is a terrific action hero, maybe the best female action hero not named Sigourney Weaver. Reportedly, she did a lot of her own stunts, which would make her one kickass broad, based on what I saw here. Certainly some of her parkour-like fighting moves were spectacular.

I never really was able to fall in love with the movie, and I was kind of hoping to. I am fond of action movies in general, but I felt like this was Jason Bourne with boobs channeling James Bond, only without being able to capture my rooting interest. It’s really not an awful movie, but it isn’t a great one either.

Sometimes, you can distill your feelings for a movie down to a single word. Concerning my feelings for Salt, that word would be meh.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: You never get a reason to care about any of this; they’re so busy making Salt a cipher that she never connects with the audience.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a smattering of bad language and some implied sexuality, but nothing the average videogame wouldn’t pack in.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead role was originally written for a male; when Tom Cruise was attached to the movie, it was titled The Mystery of Edwin Salt but when Cruised bowed out to do Knight and Day, Jolie stepped in and the part was substantially rewritten.

HOME OR THEATER: I will have to admit some of the action sequences would be enhanced by the theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Kids Are All Right

New Releases for the Week of July 23, 2010


Salt

Evelyn Salt looks guilty even when she's trying to look nonchalant.

SALT

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andre Braugher, Daniel Obrychski, Daniel Pearce, Hunt Block, August Diehl. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It starts off as routine, with decorated CIA agent Evelyn Salt interrogating a Russian intelligence agent who wants to defect to the United States. Then, he drops a bombshell; there is a Russian spy hidden in the very fabric of the U.S. security whose mission is to assassinate the President. That spy is named Evelyn Salt. From there a tense chase begins, with Salt’s husband the unwitting pawn and every law enforcement agency in the country after a lone woman. Is she being set up? Is she what the Russian says she is? There’s only one way to find out the truth…see the movie!

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, interviews and promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action)

Khatta Meetha

(Baba Films) Akshay Kumar, Trisha Krishnan, Makrand Deshpande, Kainaat Arora. A struggling contractor tries to navigate the corrupt and often confusing bureaucratic system in India to try and snag some lucrative government contracts and keep his business afloat. He has no money for kickbacks or bribes, so he has to use some unconventional means to get what he wants.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: NR

The Kids Are All Right

(Focus) Annette Benning, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska. The two teenage children of a lesbian couple decide to seek out their biological father and introduce him into the family equation that their two mothers built for them. This simple act creates absolute chaos as boundaries are stretched, lines are crossed and nothing remains the same – except that there is nothing more important than family.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use)

Ramona and Beezus

(20th Century Fox) Selena Gomez, Joey King, Josh Duhamel, Bridget Moynahan. Based on the beloved series of children’s books by Beverly Cleary, the movie follows the adventures of young Ramona Quimby and her big sister Beezus as the effervescent Ramona tries to save the family home, using her boundless energy and wild imagination.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: G

Passengers


Passengers

Anne Hathaway figures out that Columbia has buried her movie.

(Columbia) Anne Hathaway, Patrick Wilson, David Morse, Andre Braugher, Clea DuVall, Dianne Wiest, William B. Davis, Ryan Robbins, Don Thompson. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia

If we’re going to properly deal with life, we also must learn how to deal with death. Every so often, we experience an event in which death stares us right in the face. How we react to that can be a life-defining moment – or a life-destroying one.

Claire (Hathaway) is a grief counselor and budding psychiatrist who is assigned to work with the few survivors of a horrific commercial airline crash. Her group contains the suspicious and skeptical Shannon (DuVall), the paranoid Norman (Thompson) and the euphoric stockbroker Eric (Wilson) whose brush with death has turned him into a type “A” personality.

Soon, the passengers begin to assert that contrary to the official report (which blamed the crash on pilot error), there had been an explosion in the main cabin. Arkin (Morse), an airline executive, begins to lurk around Claire’s patients and sessions, and as the survivors begin to disappear one by one, Claire begins to suspect that a conspiracy is afoot.

When she reports her suspicions to her boss (Braugher), she is met with some skepticism but as the coincidences begin to mount, even he starts to admit there might be something to her fears. In the meantime, she has become more and more attracted to Eric who is encouraging her to cross ethical lines (or as she incorrectly puts it in the dialogue, unethical lines). Soon, Claire herself finds that she may be in danger of joining the list of victims of the crash.

This movie was shelved several times from the Sony release schedule, eventually receiving a modest and somewhat begrudging limited run with a minimum of publicity behind it. This is what is known as burying a film, and that’s just what happened to Passengers. Generally, that means the film is truly awful and the studio is only releasing it to make back a modicum of its cost; generally execs will view the buried film as a kind of tax write-off.

I was expecting the worst when I saw this and was surprised to find that it wasn’t truly bad. Hathaway is an engaging performer and even if there were a few wrong notes hit for her as a psychiatrist, she makes up for it by being sympathetic (other than the ethical violation thing) and interesting. While the subplot with her sister seemed a bit forced, still Hathaway is one of the better things in the movie.

The script definitely has a “Twilight Zone” feel to it and while I think they would have benefitted with the input of a Rod Serling or a Richard Matheson, director Garcia and writer Ronnie Christensen have managed to create a nice, unsettling atmosphere with some legitimate spine-tingling moments. Unfortunately, much of the good will is undone with the ending, which is borrowed from a recent classic and brings the movie screeching to a halt. It’s not so much the concept I had problems with but with the execution, which felt a little too close to the way the twist was revealed in the other movie I referred to.

This is one of those movies that is certainly flawed but has enough going for it to get a mild recommendation. Those who like those old TV shows like “The Outer Limits” and of course “The Twilight Zone” might get a kick out of this. Those who like Anne Hathaway will certainly enjoy this since she’s in virtually every scene. This isn’t a hidden gem so much as a hidden rhinestone; still, it is much better than I expected it to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Hathaway is becoming one of the most compelling actresses in Hollywood. Some seriously good moments in the thriller vein, especially if you’re a fan of “The Twilight Zone.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The “twist” ending has been done before and much better; savvy moviegoers will be able to suss it out pretty quickly.

FAMILY VALUES: A few decent scares and some sensuality make this suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eric tells Claire he’s a vice-president at the brokerage firm Kahane-Drake. Nathan Kahane and Joe Drake are the executive producers on the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature about the staging of the plane crash is relatively interesting, but most of the features are the usual standards.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Charlie Bartlett