Wild Card (2015)


Never get Jason Statham's drink order wrong.

Never get Jason Statham’s drink order wrong.

(2015) Action (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Michael Angarano, Milo Ventimiglia, Hope Davis, Dominik Garcia-Londo, Max Casella, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander, Sofia Vergara, Anne Heche, Francois Vincentelli, Chris Browning, Matthew Willig, Davenia McFadden, Michael Papajohn, Jean Claude Leuyer, Grace Santo, Lara Grice, Shanna Forrestall. Directed by Simon West

Life is a bit of a gamble when you think about it. We can control things to a certain extent but circumstance and luck have quite a bit to do with it as well. All of our best laid plans can be irrevocably changed in an instant.

Nick Wild (Statham) is a bit of a Las Vegas fixture. He is one of those guys that if you need a favor, he’s the one you see. Some of these favors he charges for – for example, he takes a beating from a guy so that he can impress his girlfriend (Vergara) for $500. He works out of the office of lawyer Pinky (Alexander) where he is introduced to tech billionaire Cyrus Kinnick (Angarano) who wants a bodyguard and, as it turns out, something more.

Then there are the favors he does for free. When his ex-lover Holly (Garcia-Londo) is beaten up and raped, he uses his connections with mob boss Baby (Tucci) to find out who done the deed and discovers it’s Danny DeMarco (Ventimiglia), the sadistic scumbag son of a highly placed East Coast mob boss. Using his impressive fighting skills, which were honed in a British special forces division, he subdues DeMarco’s bodyguards and allows Holly to take her revenge, after which she flees Vegas, taking with her money from DeMarco’s desk, some of which she gives to Nick for his fee.

Nick realizes that he won’t be welcome in Vegas much longer and needs to get out. DeMarco will be gunning for him and if he wants to make his dream of retiring to Corsica, he’d better get hopping. However, there is the thing that has been keeping him in Vegas so long – his gambling addiction. And on a night when so much is riding on it, he can’t afford for Lady Luck to be fickle.

Considering that this is essentially a Direct-to-VOD production, the talent before and behind the camera is pretty impressive but if you look at the budget below, you immediately understand that this was never meant for that sort of release. Why Lionsgate gave up on this project is beyond me; it’s actually surprisingly good for the genre and even though it is certainly flawed it deserved better for an unpublicized excuse me theatrical release.

For one thing, you get Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman supplying the script based on his own novel. Goldman excels in character development and each role here is definable and has at least some sort of personality to it. Given the stellar nature of the cast and that some of them only have a scene or two here, it’s no wonder that they were attracted to these parts which are more than stunt cameos.

West, who has such genre fare as Con-Air and The Expendables 2 on his resume, is usually pretty dependable for films in the action genre and surprisingly (yes, I’m using that word a lot here) this is pretty light on the action as action films go, but that’s a good thing in this case. Rather than going from one fight scene to the next, there’s actual dialogue, some of it pretty damn good. There’s also exposition and a genuine story. For film critics used to seeing action films which are just an excuse for people to shoot lots of big guns, chase around in cars and generally give people the opportunity to watch big men beat the hell out of one another, that’s like rolling ten sevens in a row.

I’ve always thought Statham was more than just a tight-lipped martial arts action hero. He actually can be quite soulful and when given the opportunity to act, has done so particularly well. Mostly though he seems content to accept roles in which he is given little to do beyond beating people up. Don’t get me wrong, he’s very good at it and usually his movies are entertaining but they are little more than that.

Here he gets an opportunity to do more and he takes advantage of it. Definitely this is a reminder of how good Statham can be in the right role, and given that he has a high-profile villain role in the upcoming Furious 7 gives me even more reason to look forward to that movie. He has nice chemistry with Hope Davis as a heart-of-gold blackjack dealer, as well as Angarano as a rich guy who believes himself a coward.

The oddball thing here is that the action sequences are the weakest aspect of this movie. That’s surprising (there’s that word again) given West’s action pedigree. Had a little more time and care been devoted to them I think this would have been released into theaters and maybe would have been the same kind of action hit that John Wick was last year.

Instead we end up with a movie that had enormous potential and remains an entertaining diversion but doesn’t do anything that pushes the envelope which is a shame. I think the movie’s slow start – things really don’t pick up until about 40 minutes in – also doesn’t do it any favors.

While the blackjack sequences are realistic and Davis (or her body double) gets the moves and attitude of a blackjack dealer just right, we also lose something in the fight choreography which is business as usual with the exception of the final fight in which Statham takes out a bunch of baddies with a butter knife and a spoon, not to mention slicing open a bad guy with a credit card. I also like that we get kind of a local’s point of view to Vegas. Still, with just a little more imagination when it came to the fight sequences this might have been something special.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining but not groundbreaking. Realistic on the blackjack sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly. Fight sequences are just adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most Jason Statham movies, plenty of violence and cursing, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William Goldman wrote the script based on his novel, which was filmed once before as Heat starring Burt Reynolds back in 1987. This is Goldman’s first script in eleven years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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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

21


When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass

Last Vegas


What happens in Vegas...

What happens in Vegas…

(2013) Comedy (CBS) Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Joanna Gleeson, Michael Ealy, Bre Blair, April Billingsley, Stephen Scott Scarpula, Andrea Moore, Noah Harden, RJ Fattori, Aaron Bantum, Phillip Wampler, Olivia Stuck, Ashley Spillers, Karen Ceesay, 50 Cent. Directed by Jon Turteltaub

When I was a kid, 30 sounded pretty old to me. When I was a teen, 40 was over the hill. In my 20s, I thought that decrepitude started at 60. Now half a century on in my life, I realize that age is just a number, but aging is inevitable for all of us.

How we age largely depends on how we feel about aging. Some of us continue to be active and do things, get out of the house and live full bore as much as they did in their 30s. Others give in to their aches and pains, hunker down where they live and wait for the end of life to claim them. We do have a choice in the matter, although sometimes we are dealt some pretty nasty hands.

Friends since their boyhoods in Brooklyn, the Flatbush Four have gone their separate ways but the kind of friendship they had 60 years earlier has endured for the most part. Billy (Douglas) is the ladies man and the confirmed bachelor of the bunch. He’s a big successful Hollywood type and at last has met someone that he is willing to marry, although his proposal is  a bit unorthodox. Never mind that he’s in his 70s and his fiancée is just barely 30. Love happens when it does.

He can’t wait to share it with his friends and immediately calls Archie (Freeman), recovering from a minor stroke in the home of his overprotective son Ezra (Ealy) and Sam (Kline), who is suffering from depression and can’t seem to get motivated to be happy about anything. Everyone agrees that an epic bachelor party in Vegas, thrown the way only the Flatbush Four can, is in order.

The fourth member however, Paddy (De Niro) is conspicuously missing. That’s because there’s a great deal of bad blood between him and Billy that has caused a gigantic rift between them in the past year. Paddy is also mourning the death of his lovely wife Sophie, the unofficial fifth member of their childhood group and basically stays at home in his bathrobe much of the day, other than to receive a regular dosing of really bad soup from his well-meaning neighbor. Getting him to Sin City is going to take some doing.

However all of them manage to make it there one way or another. Sam arrives with a blue pill and a condom that was given to him by his epically understanding wife who tells him “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” She misses the fun-loving guy she married and hopes that a fling in Vegas will bring that guy back.

Things are still awkward between Paddy and Billy but they manage to get around it as they find ways to party on. They also meet a sexy sixtyish chanteuse named Diana (Steenburgen) who has reinvented herself from being a tax lawyer. All four of the men are immediately drawn to her including the prospective groom.

Their VIP host at the Aria, Lonnie (Malco), helps them put together the kind of party that even the most jaded Vegas performers will remember forever, with a female impersonator (Bart) with a surprising secret, as well as Cirque du Soleil performers, a bachelorette party and even a cameo appearance from Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. They even have their own personal gopher (Ferrara, with a completely different kind of Entourage). But history is threatening to repeat itself. Can their friendship withstand Las Vegas and more to the point, will Las Vegas survive the Flatbush Four?

There’s no need to tell you that this is an impressive cast. Any one of the four male leads would make this a movie I’d be eager to see. Even though I had reservations about the plot and the script, I still wanted to see this just to see Douglas, De Niro, Kline and Freeman all perform. This isn’t the best work of any one of them – nor did I expect it would be. Still, they’re all pros (as is Steenburgen) and they all give performances that won’t disappoint anybody beyond the most jaded and cold-hearted of critics.

The script is as you might have guessed from the trailer not particularly scintillating. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here nor do they have to. While I could wish they would have pumped up the funny a little bit, the personality of the leads more than makes up for it. While there are some off-putting moments (a male crotch gyrating in De Niro’s face during a bikini contest), for the most part there is nothing terribly sinful going on.

What surprised me was how touching the script was. These aren’t geriatric actors doing the standard old man gags. You know the sort – the kind that are like “Tee hee hee. Oh look at the adorable old man, he’s so horny, he’s using drugs, he doesn’t know how to use a computer tee hee hee.” Something tells me if the Flatbush Four had been anything like that, they wouldn’t have gotten actors of the caliber that they did. These are men dealing with the sorts of things the those entering old age actually deal with – grief, loneliness, a loss of virility/sexuality, being treated like an imbecile and/or porcelain doll by the well-meaning.

While the comedy might appeal to those who don’t see a lot of movies, it’s that charm of treating the aging with respect that won me over. Yeah, watching Freeman bust a move after drinking a Red Bull and Vodka in a Vegas nightclub might have been a bit patronizing but for the most part, it is the friendship between the Four that endures and makes this movie worth seeking out. It isn’t the greatest movie you’ll see this year, but it will be better than you’d expect – unless you fall under the jaded and cold-hearted category.

REASONS TO GO: Five veteran pros (the four leads and Steenburgen). Surprisingly heartwarming.

REASONS TO STAY: Fairly cliché and the humor is a bit low-key for modern comedies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Brooklyn were actually filmed in Atlanta.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

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