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.

The Silver Bullet ~ All That Jazz (1979)

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Synopsis: Director/choreographer Bob Fosse tells his own life story as he details the sordid life of Joe Gideon, a womanizing, drug-using choreographer.

Release Date:  December 20, 1979

Thoughts: It took me a few viewings to truly “get” Bob Fosse’s non-traditional musical drama that’s really a barely veiled re-telling of his own rise to fame and glory first as a Broadway choreographer and then as an Oscar winning director.  Fosse won his Oscar six years prior for Cabaret and was nominated again two years later for Lenny.  He nabbed his third and final nomination for All That Jazz and had Kramer vs. Kramer not been such a major force of nature that year, Fosse and the film both would have taken the prize (sorry, Apocalypse Now, it was never going to happen).  As good as Best Actor winner Dustin Hoffman was in Kramer vs. Kramer, Roy Scheider (JAWS) delivers a performance without peer as Fosse’s screen alter ego that literally dances himself to death.  Though the overall message may be more Grim Reaper than Happy Jazz Hands, it miraculously steers clear of the morbidity it inches ever closer toward.  Ending with arguably one of the best finales in any motion picture ever, the film gets better each time I watch it.  My Criterion BluRay is arriving any day now and I can’t wait to watch Fosse’s masterpiece again…and again…and again.

Movie Review ~ In Secret (Thérèse)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in the lower echelons of 1860s Paris, a sexually repressed young woman is trapped into a loveless marriage to her sickly cousin by her domineering aunt. After meeting her husband’s alluring friend she embarks on an illicit affair that leads to tragic consequences.

Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Felton, Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac, Shirley Henderson, John Kavanagh, Mackenzie Crook, Matt Lucas

Director: Charlie Stratton

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

ReviewIn Secret is one of the small films that would be quite easy to miss at a better time of year.  These being the waning winter months before the Oscars are announced and the push for the summer blockbusters begins, however, the field is a bit more open with much less to recommend than movie studios would wish.  That’s why In Secret is such an interesting find, a dark drama chock full of shadows and struggles which grew on me more than I thought it ever would.

Based on Émile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin that no doubt inspired countless modern films about unhappy wives that get rid of their husbands with the help of a well-coiffed lover, In Secret boasts superior production values and performances from the top down.  Writer/director Charlie Stratton labored for years to get his vision on screen and the wait was worth it.

Having starred in the similarly themed steamy erotic thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jessica Lange (Cape Fear) graduates from femme fatale to grand dame as a smother mother who takes in her young niece and raises her alongside (and in servitude to) her only son, the sickly Camille (Tom Felton, The Apparition).  From early on we can see that Therese (a stilted but better than usual Elizabeth Olsen, Oldboy) longs for something better and is pretty sure she deserves it too.  She’s not your typical schemer but seizes opportunities when they are presented to her…an opportunist.

Moving with her aunt and cousin turned husband from the slow pace countryside to a dingy street in Paris where Lange opens a shop, Therese sees her chance for freedom in Camille’s friend Laurent (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis).  A temperature rising seduction begins between the two, leading to a day on the lake for Therese, Camille, and Laurent that turns tragic.

What happens next could have been the same fodder as any number of tangled thrillers, but Stratton wisely keeps the event off screen, leaving the audience to be as in the dark to what actually happened as certain central characters are.  That gives him room to explore the aftermath it has on everyone and how the lust that turned to love quickly morphs into something darker and more frightening.

What helps In Secret along are not only the strong performances of Lange (especially after she’s rendered mute) and Isaac but in Stratton’s fleshing out of a small group of Parisians that Lange and family called friends.  An oddball mix of rude mechanical-like figures, they inject a dose of wry humor (not comedy) into the latter half of the movie that saves it from trolling the bottom of the Seine.

Playing in limited release, more people will (unfortunately) probably see Pompeii on its first day than will see this in its entire run…but it’s worth considering over any number of films that are landing in the Top 10 the next few weekends.