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

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New Releases for the Week of December 26, 2014


Into the WoodsINTO THE WOODS

(Disney) Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Christine Baranski, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard. Directed by Rob Marshall

In a kingdom of myth and legend, there lies a village on the edge of the woods where a baker and his wife live. They want nothing more than to have a child, but they have been unsuccessful so far. In rolls a witch who tells them that they’ve been cursed, but tells them in order to reverse the curse they need to gather a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, slippers that glitter like gold and a cape as red as blood. Into the woods they go to find these things and there they’ll find Cinderella, Prince Charming, Rapunzel, Jack (and his beanstalk), Red Riding Hood and assorted giants, wicked stepmothers and princes. But in the woods, nothing ever goes the way it’s supposed to and the woods are indeed a dangerous place. From the Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical and the director of Chicago.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Musical
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material)

Big Eyes

(Weinstein) Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Danny Huston. Walter Keane was one of the most successful painters of the 1950s and early 60s. His figures, with oversized eyes and waif-like expressions became a cottage industry to themselves. The trouble is, that he didn’t pain any of them. Not a one. His wife Margaret did.

See the trailer, clips, a promo and premiere footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief strong language)

Force Majeure

(Magnolia) Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren. While on a family ski vacation in the Alps, a family enjoying lunch on the terrace dining room of the resort they are staying at witness an avalanche bearing down on them. As people scatter and his wife and children panic, a family patriarch will make a decision that will shake his marriage to the core and leave him struggling to regain his role in the family as well as a man.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for some language and brief nudity)

Foxcatcher

(Sony Classics) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller. The eccentric heir to an enormous fortune decides to spend some of his wealth on creating an Olympic training camp for wrestlers. Inviting a gold medal winner and his brother to the family estate where he has created that state-of-the-art camp, the increasing paranoia of the would-be coach and the unhealthy lifestyle that he has led his charges into leads to an incident that nobody expected. Carell is said to be a front runner for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance here.

See the trailer, clips and promos here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for some drug use and a scene of violence)

The Gambler

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson. An English professor who loves to take risks and has become a high-stakes gambler on the side. Owing money to Asian and African-American gangsters and a violent loan shark who warns him of the hole he’s digging in, his budding relationship with a student may end up being more collateral than he’s willing to pay. A remake of the 1974 James Caan drama.

See the trailer and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide release
Rating: R (for language throughout and for some sexuality/nudity)

The Imitation Game

(Weinstein) Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Charles Dance. Alan Turing was one of the great mathematicians of his day. His work helped break the Enigma code which was thought to be unbreakable; it helped win World War II for the allies. However, the road to breaking that code was perilous and torturous and Turing was hiding a secret that if it came out might have derailed his work altogether.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide release
Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references, mature thematic material and historical smoking)

Unbroken

(Universal) Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock. Louis Zamperini started out as a kid who constantly was getting into trouble with other kids and the law. However, the big brother he looked up to steered him towards track and field, enabling him to become an Olympic champion. After enlisting to fight in the Second World War, his plane was shot down in the ocean and he and a fellow airman endured 47 days adrift in the Pacific before being picked up by a Japanese warship and being sent to a brutal prisoner of war camp where he underwent intense physical and mental torture. His courage and will to survive remain as inspiring now as they were back them.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, featurettes, premiere footage and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language)

New Releases for the Week of February 21, 2014


PompeiiPOMPEII

(TriStar) Kit Harrington, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Paz Vega, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

A gladiator falls in love with the daughter of a patrician merchant who instead goes ahead to betroth her to a corrupt Roman senator. All this becomes less of an issue when Mt. Vesuvius blows it’s top and the residents of Pompeii must race against time to avoid becoming charcoal briquettes.

See the trailer, clips and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opened Thursday)

Genre: Swords and Sandals

Rating: PG-13 (for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content)

3 Days to Kill

(Relativity) Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen. One of the agency’s top field agents is anxious to leave his profession behind to spend more time with his estranged wife and daughter whom he’d kept at arm’s length so that he could keep them out of danger. However when he contracts a virulent fatal disease, he is forced to undertake one more mission so that he might get an experimental cure.

See the trailer, a promo and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language)

Highway

(UTV) Alia Bhatt, Randeep Hooda, Durgesh Kumar, Pradeep Nagar. A vivacious young woman, on her way to being married, is kidnapped by a group of brutal men for ransom. At first she is terrified. Her father due to his position is unwilling to pay the ransom. The leader of the gang who kidnapped her refuses to let her go. As the stalemate progresses the victim begins to develop feelings for her captor.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

In Secret

(Roadside Attractions/LD) Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac. In glittering Paris of the 1860s, a beautiful young woman – sexually repressed and trapped in a loveless marriage overseen by her domineering aunt – embarks on an affair with an exciting young man. The ramifications of her actions will lead to tragic consequences. This is the most recent remake of the classic Emile Zola novel Therese Raquin.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: R (for sexual content and brief violent images)

The Past

(Sony Classics) Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet. Returning from Tehran to Paris after a four year separation, an Iranian husband arrives to finalize the divorce from his Parisian wife. However, once there he discovers a tense situation with her teenage daughter and her impending marriage to her new boyfriend bothers him more than he thought it might. On top of all of it, a secret from their past might just tear their fragile world apart.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and brief strong language)

Starting Over Again

(Star Cinema) Toni Gonzaga, Piolo Pascual. Iza Calzado. Four years after their breakup, a couple are brought back together when her architectural firm is selected to restore an old Manila mansion to be repurposed as a restaurant and he turns out to be the new eatery’s co-owner. However her feelings that this chance encounter is fate’s way of telling her she needs to seize her second chance and run with it may be derailed when she discovers that he intends to use the restaurant as a means of proposing to his American girlfriend.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

Frances


Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

(1982) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, Bart Burns, Jonathan Banks, Jeffrey DeMunn, Zelda Rubinstein, Anjelica Huston, Pamela Gordon, Kevin Costner, Bonnie Bartlett, James Brodhead, Daniel Chodos, Nancy Foy, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, James Karen, Biff Yeager, Allan Rich, M.C. Gainey. Directed by Graeme Clifford

Waiting for Oscar

1983 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actress – Jessica Lange
Best Supporting Actress – Kim Stanley
WINS: 0

Times change. So much meaning can be packed into two little words. It can hide all manner of sins, convey all sorts of poignant meanings. It can refer to an individual, or to society. However it is meant, it is true for all of us.

Frances Farmer (Lange) was just a high school girl in Seattle when she won an essay contest the subject of which was that God was dead. She courted further controversy when she accepted an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow to observe the Moscow Art Theater. Returning home, she had been bitten by the acting bug but hard. It is also here she met Harry York (Shepard), a budding writer who liked her very much but her mind was on other things.

She tries out Hollywood for size and immediately makes a big splash. She refuses to do publicity stunts, won’t wear make-up on camera and essentially opts out of the Hollywood game, even though she’d by this time rung up a couple of legitimate hits. Clifford Odets (DeMunn), the noted playwright, convinced her that she would be better served on Broadway and the two began an affair, one which ended badly for her as Odets was already married.

Frances had her demons however and the break-up of her relationship brought them howling to the surface. She began to rely more and more on alcohol and pills and her combative nature came more and more to the fore. She was arrested for driving in a black-out zone with her headlights on during wartime and was sued by a hairdresser (Bartlett) for breaking her jaw during a studio on-set tiff. Her mother (Stanley) came down from Seattle to help but that was more or less like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Farmer would be institutionalized twice; after the first her constant battles with her mother led the elder Farmer to commit her daughter to Western States Hospital where Farmer underwent shock and insulin therapy, was repeatedly abused and raped by the male staff (who would give her to soldiers to use sexually) and finally was lobotomized. When she was released she was perhaps a more pleasant person but the fire inside her was gone forever.

One thing to remember about this movie is that it is far from a definitive biography; director Clifford says during the DVD commentary that he “didn’t want to nickel and dime the audience with facts” and obliges by sparing us many. For example, York is made up out of whole cloth, the lobotomy sequence never happened (there is no evidence that it occurred) and Farmer was married three times, making her far from the lonely woman who had no romantic relationships other than with the married Odets that the movie portrays her as.

This is Jessica Lange’s movie and in many ways it is the role that this talented actress is most remembered for. It shows a woman in a time when women were expected to be submissive and meek but was instead demanding, loud and full of fire. Watching Lange’s performance you can’t help but think that if this was anything close to how the real Frances Farmer was, there’s no doubt in that case that she had two strikes against her from the outset – the men of that era would certainly not have tolerated the kind of strident independence that Lange portrays Farmer possessing. She may well have been institutionalized for that alone.

Even though there are plenty of people who do Frances Farmer wrong in this movie, there is no single villain. Certainly Odets, the lobotomy doctor (O’Loughlin) and Farmer’s mother come off poorly but then there were other factors leading to the actress’ spectacular fall which makes the story all the more poignant. While I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t been such bastards in reality (reneging on an agreement with a writer and in general treating people badly) and that they had stuck to the facts of Farmer’s real life which were compelling in themselves, I can only go by the finished product, not by what I wish it might have been. This is a tremendous performance by Lange, one which is worth seeing all by itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Lange and Stanley. Real chemistry between Lang and Shepard.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jumps from time frame to time frame. Never really explains Frances’  breakdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly disturbing scenes and mature content as well as its share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally based on a fictionalized biography of Farmer by author William Arnold called Shadowland but in order to make the movie seem like original material, the screenwriters created the fictional character of Harry York in order to give Frances a love interest. However, things like the lobotomy which never happened in reality, came straight from Mr. Arnold’s book. He would eventually lose a lawsuit years after the film was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 30 minute featurette on the real Frances Farmer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!

Shepard and Dark


Uneasy riders.

Uneasy riders.

(2013) Documentary (Music Box) Sam Shepard, Johnny Dark, Jessica Lange, O-Lan Jones, Jesse Shepard. Directed by Treva Wurmfeld  

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The beautiful thing about documentaries is that they can get people to reveal something about themselves without them meaning to do it. The camera eye just focuses on them in the act of them being themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about some life-changing subject, although those can be informative and important. Just the focus on a long time friendship can give us insight into our own friendships.

Sam Shepard, the well-known playwright and actor, has been friends with Johnny Dark, a not so well-known author, for about 50 years when this was filmed (the two met in the Village back in1963 when Shepard was just beginning to establish his reputation). They hung out, drank a bit, smoked some weed and partied hard. Shepard eventually would marry actress O-Lan Jones; Dark would marry her mother, Scarlett.

They all lived together with O-Lan and Shepard’s son Jesse. Eventually Scarlett would have a major stroke and lose quite a bit of brain function and long-term memories. Dark would have to almost treat her like a child in many ways, with the kind of patience thee and me couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

Shepard though wasn’t really made for setting down roots and so he left his wife and son for actress Jessica Lange. Dark would have a hand in raising Sam’s son. The two began to correspond regularly and still continued to hang out when Shepard’s increasingly busy schedule allowed.

Dark was almost compulsive about archiving everything and recently when Shepard’s relationship with Lange came to an end, he was left with a lot of time (and it is hinted, a lot of bills) to reflect. When a Texas university expresses interest in archiving the correspondence between the two men with an eye to publishing a book which frankly both men could use – not only is Shepard having some financial issues but also Dark is struggling, working at a grocery deli counter in Deming, New Mexico.

The two decide to get some office space and work on this thing together. Initially their banter is very sibling like with a lot of affectionate (and maybe some not-so-affectionate) teasing. Shepard, notoriously reticent about his private life, opens up somewhat here (and certainly a lot more in his letters), admitting that he regrets some of the mistakes he’s made in the past – and is frustrated that he continue to repeat those same mistakes, even up to now.

This is not an issue kind of documentary. It is more of a relationship documentary as we watch how small little issues can turn into nearly insurmountable barriers. Both men freely admit that they are nothing alike; Shepard has a bit of wanderlust in his soul, preferring a rootless existence while Dark takes great comfort in his home, his books and his cats. Shepard navigates life pretty much by the seat of his pants; Dark is a nearly obsessive organizer.

Some might find it a bit dry given that it’s mostly about human nature. I’d generally be inclined to rate this a bit higher – these sorts of documentaries offer endless insights into my own behaviors and my own relationships but I can see where others might see this as somewhat voyeuristic. Frankly put, this isn’t for everybody but those who are willing to give this a chance will find the opportunity to learn something about human nature.

What I find really admirable is that while there is one person that is famous in this equation (and one that is not), it’s not Shepard’s celebrity that drives this film. While some attention is paid to his fame, that’s not really the focus here and thus Shepard becomes humanized here despite his best efforts to the contrary (he comes off as a bit of a prick in some of the sequences whereas Dark comes off as a bit eccentric in the same vein Hunter S. Thompson was).

It is the one commonality between all of us that we are human. It is our definition of what makes us human that in turn defines ourselves. In watching a film like Shepard and Dark I was struck by this most particularly. These are men who have lived lives I will never lead, made choices I would never make and reap consequences I can’t relate to. And yet we still have so much in common – even in our differences, we have those differences in common as well. Shepard and Dark may not necessarily offer you any great revelations when it comes to your life and friendships, but at the very least it will give you a glimpse into a life and friendship that is different than yours and if you won’t take something from that, well amigo, that’s your choice too but it’s a lost opportunity as well.

REASONS TO GO: Dark and Shepard are both interesting people. The effects of the documentary on their lives is fascinating..

REASONS TO STAY: Not everything here is fascinating to everybody.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some colorful language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winner of the Grand Jury prize at the New York Documentary Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been playing the festival circuit but was recently picked up by Music Box for a  release later on in 2013.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Betty and Coretta

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Pieta

The Vow


 

The Vow

Ghost much?

(2012) Romance (Screen Gems) Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams, Sam Neill, Jessica Lange, Scott Speedman, Jessica McNamee, Wendy Crewson, Tatiana Maslany, Lucas Bryant, Joey Klein, Joe Cobden, Jeananne Goossen, Dillon Casey, Shannon Barnett. Directed by Michael Sucsy

 

We think we know what path we’re on; we often have our lives mapped out, our expectations firmly in mind. We know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. Then, life throws us a big-ass curveball.

That’s what happened to Paige (McAdams) and Leo (Tatum), a couple of young Bohemian newlyweds living in Chicago. He owns a recording studio and she is a sculptress. They are blissfully in love – and one winter’s night a truck smashes into their car from behind, propelling her through a windshield (and let that be a lesson to those who don’t wear their seatbelts) and puts her in a medically sustained coma while the swelling of her brain heals.

When she wakes up, she has no memory of the last five years – including the four in which she met and married Leo. In her mind she’s still in Law School at Northwestern and engaged to Jeremy (Speedman). Leo is a complete stranger to her.

What Leo has to tell her is that she left Law School, matriculating at the Chicago School of Art, left Jeremy to go find herself and these decisions had estranged her from her parents, Bill (Neill) – a lawyer himself – and Rita (Lange) as well as her sister Gwen (McNamee) who is to get married herself shortly.

Leo’s task is to hope that her memory returns and to do what he can to jog her memory back but failing that, to get her to fall in love with him a second time. But does Paige really want to – and more importantly, is that really the key to her happiness?

The last question is really the most intriguing one and what lies at the crux of the movie. As Leo tries his darnedest to help Paige find her way back to him, she grows more and more unhappy and frustrated. Leo is eventually forced to face the fact that the woman he loved may well have been killed in the accident, her body filled with a completely new person. It’s a heartrending conundrum.

And the heartbreaking thing is that this is based on something that actually happened – to Kim and Krickitt Carpenter. Although the events of the film were Hollywood-ized somewhat, the basics all happened.  In their case, part of their written marriage vows are what convinced Krickitt to stay with Kim. While Paige sees her vows written on a menu of the Cafe they both frequent, you never get the sense that those vows were a deciding factor. Also, the Carpenters are both devout Christians which never shows up in this film.

All that aside it’s still a decent enough movie. Released in time for Valentine’s Day, it is most definitely Cinema of the Heart. Tatum, not the most expressive of actors, is actually not so bad here; he can definitely do earnest and gets a lot of chance to show off that particular emotion. McAdams is very pretty but hasn’t been challenged much in her film roles; she really isn’t here as her character is mostly befuddled and frustrated. Rarely does Paige really get to express what’s going on inside her head, which the movie might have benefitted from.

Neil who is doing some of the best work of his career in Fox’s “Alcatraz,” has a role that recalls elements of his first major film role as the grown-up anti-Christ in Omen III: The Final Conflict. Bill is ruthless, suspicious of a son-in-law he has no relationship with (as the movie unfolds we discover that Bill and Rita hadn’t met Leo in the flesh until visiting their stricken daughter in the hospital) and very manipulative. He’s a bit of a snake oil salesman and Neil does that kind of thing very well.

Lange is one of the best actresses America has ever produced and she gets a chance to show off her abilities in one very moving monologue that she delivers to McAdams when one of the skeletons in Bill’s closet resurfaces, explaining to both Paige and the audience the real cause behind the estrangement between Paige and her family. It is Oscar-caliber stuff, although the odds of her getting a nomination are virtually nil. I’d happily cast her in any film I was going to make, were I a Hollywood filmmaker.

There is plenty of schmaltz, certainly but the underlying conflict of doing what’s right for the person you love versus doing what’s right for yourself elevates this somewhat above most romantic films. While this isn’t what I’d call a Valentine’s Day classic, it certainly has plenty of heart and more than enough to tug at the heartstrings of women and more sensitive men. Yes, in some ways Leo is too good to be true but I think that when a man loves a woman as strongly as he does, he’ll do anything to make her happy – at his own expense if need be. And that is why love is stronger than anything else in life; because that willingness to sacrifice matters, even in the small things. It speaks highly of humans in a way little else about our existence does.

REASONS TO GO: Inspiring story. Lange magnificent in a supporting role.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as much chemistry between the leads as I would have liked.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and partial nudity. There is also an accident scene which isn’t terribly graphic or startling and a few choice words in places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cafe in which Paige works (and Leo and Paige frequently visit) is called Cafe Mnemonic; a mnemonic is a means of helping someone remember something by associating it with a word or phrase; it is a foreshadowing of Paige’s memory issues later in the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100. The reviews are pretty much poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Notebook

ART LOVERS: Paige’s sculptures are actually pretty interesting. They were in reality created by Cameron S. Brooke.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW:The Secret World of Arrietty

Bonneville


Bonneville

Three chicks on a road trip. Daughters, lock your fathers up!

(2006) Road Trip Drama (SenArt) Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Joan Allen, Tom Skerritt, Christine Baranski, Tom Amandes, Tom Wopat, Laura Park, Victor Rasuk. Directed by Christopher N. Rowley

Women of a certain age tend to be marginalized by our society, particularly if they are without husbands. That’s especially true of Hollywood, which tends to depict older women as raging sex addicts, uptight old fools or complete loons.

Arvilla Holden (Lange) has just seen her world come crashing down about her. She had married Joe, an adventurous sort who took her globe-hopping in a mad orgy of travel, but while in Borneo he died suddenly, leaving Arvilla to hold together the pieces. To make matters worse, he hadn’t updated his will legally, leaving their Idaho home in the legal possession of his daughter from his first marriage, Francine (Baranski) who really doesn’t like Arvilla.

Joe had specified to Arvilla he wanted his ashes scattered in various places around the United States but shrill Francine wants his ashes buried next to her mother at their Santa Barbara estate. Arvilla is inclined to decline but Francine presents her with an ultimatum; bring the ashes to California or be evicted from her home.

Arvilla, not wanting to be 50-something and homeless, decides to take the ashes to Santa Barbara. She engages her closest friends Margene (Bates) and Carol (Allen) as moral support. Margene is a free spirit, one with an enviable love of life quotient. Carol is more uptight, a strict Mormon. In fact, all three women belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is how they conceivably met. To the movie’s credit, this isn’t dwelled upon so much as presented as a facet of their personalities.

Originally set to fly to California, Arvilla abruptly decides to take one final road trip with Joe, which Margene heartily endorses and Carol quietly disapproves of. Along the way they visit the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, meet a truck driver (Skerritt) who becomes seriously infatuated with Margene and are rescued from a flat tire on the Bonneville Salt Flats by Bo (Rasuk), a hunky hitch-hiker who gives the ladies a chance at being sweetly ribald.

Most road movies don’t involve grandmotherly sorts, but this one is a little different. Not often do you see women of the Red Hat Society generation portrayed as road warriors, but here you have one. It doesn’t hurt that three of America’s premiere actresses are riding in that 1966 Bonneville. Lange is the centerpiece of the movie, grieving without getting overly emotional although her loneliness is palpable at times. Ditto for Bates, who hides that loneliness with exaggerated bonhomie. Allen, however, might fare the best of all of them as an uptight woman whose life is ruled by strictures that even she feels troubled by at times. She sneaks sips of coffee when she thinks nobody is looking but outwardly at least is the perfect wife and mother of her faith.

The movie can be a little bit too bland in places and other than between Francine and Arvilla, there’s almost zero conflict. We wind up just along for the ride, pleasant as it might be. I would have preferred to examine the Francine-Arvilla dynamic a little more closely; her hatred for Arvilla can only be ascribed to Joe’s temerity of re-marrying after his first wife died, but she seems hell-bent on hurting Joe after his life was over as well; her anger towards her father is never adequately explained, although it may well stem from the same source as her anger towards Arvilla. The shame of it is that Baranski is also a terrific actress and her one real scene with Lange early on in the movie is a showstopper; I would have liked to have seen more of the two together.

The movie got tepid reviews for its somewhat brief limited run, which seems a little bit harsh to me. I thought the movie was solidly entertaining, particularly the performances of Allen, Bates and Lange as well as the supporting turns of Skerritt and Baranski. While the movie never explores the unpleasant side of bereavement (being more about the friendship between the three women), it at least is inoffensive at worst. I’d elevate it slightly higher than that given the talent in front of the camera.

WHY RENT THIS: The three leads are as good as any actresses in Hollywood and watching them together is a hoot. The movie has a sweet charm at its center. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times the movie is a little vanilla, and some of the relationships (particularly Francine and Arvilla’s) aren’t explored adequately.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild cursing and a bit of sexual innuendo. This is generally safe for all but the youngest audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The car used in the film was a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville. The chrome rearview mirror was removed so as not to show the reflection of the crew filming the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a promo video for the Red Hat Society.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.3M on an unreported budget; while it’s unlikely that the theatrical release made money, chances are it wasn’t far off.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Damned United