Movie Review ~ The Gambler (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Both an English professor and a high-stakes gambler, Jim Bennett bets it all when he borrows from a gangster and offers his own life as collateral.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: If you must remake a movie, you should at least aim higher than the film you’re giving a new shine to.  That’s sage words of advice for any filmmaker but a message those behind The Gambler didn’t pay much attention to.  The original 1974 film was no classic but it’s leagues better than this sluggish rethinking that never antes up to the table though it has several aces up its sleeve.

Considering the script from Oscar winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) was based on James Toback’s original I was surprised how very different the two movies are.  In fact, it may be wrong to call the movie a remake at all because although the structure follows the original in a very rough sense, many other changes have been made that don’t do any favors for anyone involved.

I’m a person that rarely goes to a casino and if I do, if I find myself even $10 up I’m ready to cash out and head home.  So it’s particularly frustrating me to watch films like The Gambler where characters can’t resist making that one last bet that obliterates their winnings.  It’s a scenario that happens over and over again here and it makes for exhausting viewing.

Mark Wahlberg (Transformers: Age of Extinction) is a floppy haired spoiled rich kid cum failed writer that teaches at a local college and has a nasty gambling habit.  Losing a nice chunk of change and borrowing from a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams, RoboCop) to cover his losses, it isn’t long before he finds himself caught in the middle of the people he owes and having to figure out how to pay them back while keeping all of his appendages intact.

In Monahan’s script, all the women in Wahlberg’s life are either ice queens (Jessica Lange, Cape Fear, drastically underused and over Botox-ed as his chilly mother), moon-faced admirers (Brie Larson, The Spectacular Now), or strippers/prostitutes with little redeeming value.  At least in Toback’s original script the women represented some quality he was lacking.  Here they have virtually no purpose but to be roadblocks or doormats.

Especially troubling is the storyline that puts a star pupil (Larson) in position to be a love interest for Wahlberg.  Possessing no chemistry, the actors go through the embarrassing motions of courtship that culminates in an out of nowhere kiss that had one audience member at my screening exclaim “Are you KIDDING me?”

Between long soliloquies in the classroom setting that show how well Wahlberg can recite dialogue that makes him appear as if he could be a lit scholar and too many visits with a just this side of deadly loan shark (John Goodman, Argo) the film is less than two hours but feels 40 minutes longer than that.  Capping off with an eye-roll of a coda, this Gambler doesn’t even deserve a place at your cinematic table.  Skip it.

Movie Review ~ Unbroken

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp

Stars: Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Miyavi

Director: Angelina Jolie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’m still kicking myself for not finishing Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling novel about the life of Louis Zamperini but time just got away from me.  Unlike most films based on books that I’ve seen before reading the source material, the film treatment of Unbroken actually makes me want to go back and read the book.

The story of Zamperini’s fight for survival first on his 47 days on a raft in the ocean and then as a POW in WWII is the stuff that should have made for a movie with more impact than the one presented here on screen.  With a script from Joel and Ethan Cohen (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) in the director’s chair I really expected this to be more of a winner than it winds up being.

It’s a strange occurrence, really, because Jolie has herself a strong leading man (Jack O’Connell) handling the life-changing moments of Zamperini with a believable air of resilience and an unbelievable true-life story with a seemingly endless supply of emotional twists.

All through the film I kept waiting for a time when I was moved to feel something beyond what was being presented in the current scene.  Several weeks after screening the film I’m still struggling to find where the film missed the mark or, perhaps, where I missed that moment.

Maybe it’s because aside from (and in addition to) O’Connell the rest of Jolie’s cast is filled with GQ-ready soldiers that look as if they were picked from an MTV casting session.  With their chiseled jaw-bones, washboard abs, and hair that stays perfectly coiffed even after two months exposed to the elements, Jolie’s soldiers felt like play-actors rather than true face of WWII soldiers.

The central villain of the piece also fares poorly on screen with Miyavi (a rock star in Japan) playing his devious Japanese guard more like a Bond villain than the unyielding tyrant Zamperini encountered.  Actually, Miyavi’s performance reminded me more of Jolie herself in Maleficent with his lines delivered in a soft purr that I’m guessing were intended to convey more of a sense of terror than they do.

On the production side, Unbroken’s atmosphere hits a bulls-eye.  From the striking costumes of Louise Frogley (Flight) to the production design of the various camps Zamperini encounters to Roger Deakins (Skyfall) sumptuous cinematography to Alexandre Desplat’s (Godzilla) unobtrusive score the effect really makes you feel like you’re watching a film of that time and era.  Even some muddled special effects somehow are forgivable.

Though I feel the film is missing a chunk of time to connect a few dots, it’s when we see the real Zamperini near the end when I felt that lump in my throat I’d been missing the last 120 minutes.  Perhaps Unbroken would have been better served going the documentary treatment rather than a dramatized one.  While it lacks overall impact and doesn’t exactly signal Jolie’s arrival as a significant director, it’s a story worth taking in. Reading the book may be a better option, though.

Movie Review ~ Into the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tammy Blanchard, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If there’s one take-away from the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s Into the Woods it would be that director Rob Marshall proves once again that it’s possible to transition a stage-bound work quite nicely to the silver screen.  As he did with his Oscar-winning Chicago (which, to be fair, was a far trickier beast to wrangle), Marshall brings a sense of wonderful theatricality to the proceedings that helps keep a saggy second act afloat.

Arriving on the heels of the disappointing remake/reboot of Annie, the first 75 minutes or so of Into the Woods is a gleefully wry take on the fairy tales we all grew up with.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) spunky as all get-out, even when faced with a zoot-suited Wolf (Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger) intent on making her his next meal.  Depp is, pardon the pun, howlingly bad in his brief cameo and you’ll be glad to know that his total screen time amounts to about 5 minutes…which still feels too long.

We also get Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) fresh-faced and clarion voiced even under a pile of soot.  Kendrick has true musical theater chops and Marshall gives her a wonderful moment to shine in a delightfully reimagined “On the Steps of the Palace” which takes place in a bit of suspended time as Cinderella ponders her next move.

Then there’s the Baker (James Corden, One Chance) and his wife (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) so desperate for a child they agree to fetch items for a next-door Witch (Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) who promises in return to have the ‘curse reversed’.  Venturing into the woods (a-ha!) to find the items they run into Little Red, Cinderella, as well as a pre-Beanstalk Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and a variety of other storybook figures.

It’s within the first half of the film that the best scene arrives featuring two puff-chested Princes (Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Broadway newcomer Billy Magnussen) hysterically belaboring their romantic entanglements (one with Cinderella, one with Rapunzel) while traipsing around a waterfall.  It’s the crown jewel of a film sparkles quite a lot.

Then something happens…and if we were in a theater I would say it was Intermission.

You see, it’s in the second half of the film that I found the same sort of problems I have with the stage show.  I know that the whole point of the second act of Into the Woods is to show what happens “after happily ever after” and that’s all well and good but where the stage show becomes somewhat intriguingly heavy handed the screen musical loses its spark and never fully recovers.

That’s due in some small part to the ‘Disney-fication’ of the film.  With the House of Mouse forking over the dough for funding certain adjustments were necessitated and that includes softening of more than a few rough edges that helped define the stage musical.  Now, certain tragedies that helped drive the musical to a conclusion onstage are rather toothless here…with some changes downright confusing from a narrative point of view.  Even die-hard fans of the show may be left scratching their heads wondering what just happened.

Were the performances not so strong, this type of late in the game mishap may have spelled certain doom for Marshall and company but he’s assembled a frothy cast with several unexpected delights.  Streep is, of course, right on the money with her hag witch popping up (and in and out) at just the right moments.  She eschews the delivery of any previous Witch and makes the part wholly her own.  I question the decision in the second half to give her a peculiar set of buck-tooth veneers that have a worrisome impact on her speech but otherwise she looks and sounds exactly how you’d imagine.

The roly-poly Corden and ethereal Blunt make a nice pair and the two play off of each other quite nicely.  Both have pleasant voices with Blunt the real surprise as she tackles the difficult passages Sondheim created.  Crawford, Mauzy, and Magnussen acquit themselves nicely but as the film progressed I found that Pine’s bo-hunk royal, with his affected upper-crust accent, didn’t work for me.  Pine takes the cartoon-y nature of his character a bit too far and Marshall should have reined him in a bit.

With a gorgeous production design (the majority of the film was shot in a man-made forest) and Colleen Atwood’s trusty duds the film looks like a fairy tale come to life.  Even with a slower second half the film doesn’t feel long and breezes by as fast as Sondheim’s score.  Worth a trip into the theater.