The Gambler

the gambler poster

Well, I certainly can’t think of a better way to ring in 2015 than to write about some old movies from 2014. That being said, let’s take a look at the latest Mark Wahlberg vehicle, The Gambler. A remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 film of the same name, the film was at one time being optioned by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, though they both presumably declined to follow through with the production in order to make The Wolf of Wall Street instead, to the immense relief of everyone on Earth. Eventually, the film ended up in the hands of director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan, and suffered for it.

Wyatt, previously responsible for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and The Escapist (2008), helms this wholly unnecessary reiteration of a perfectly serviceable, and more to the point, superior film. Wyatt’s style might best be described as competent yet unremarkable, but the real issue, as is so often the case, stems from the poor writing. William Monahan is a peculiar figure in the film industry because, over the course of his career, he’s been responsible for some real standouts like Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), as well as some absolute shit, like Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Monahan is slated to write for the upcoming Jurassic World as well, and considering his rather checkered past, you might as well flip a coin to determine how that particular picture will turn out.

Mark Wahlberg stars as the titular gambler Jim Bennett, whose obsessive gambling addiction lands him in hot water with a collection of unsavory underworld figures as he tries to pay off his debts before they break his knees or shoot him in the head or something equally as unpleasant. Jessica Lange also makes a cameo appearance as Jim’s jaded and contemptuous mother, Roberta. Though her performance has garnered a positive critical response, I’m convinced now that Lange literally has only one role in the last ten years; that of the cantankerous fading beauty. Granted, she plays that one role passably well, but we’ve seen the same thing so many times now that it kind of fails to make much of an impact at this point. Wahlberg himself seems a little lazy in this production, and having given it a bit of consideration, I’m not sure that his natural, lovable earnestness is a good fit for the character he’s trying to play; it’s a bit like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Now let me get back to the writing that I was harping on earlier. I’m having some trouble deciding where to begin, frankly. The protagonist is a whiney, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual; the chemistry between the Bennett and his love interest fizzles out like a cigarette in a thunderstorm; the intrigue is cliché and utterly fails to engage the audience in on any level other than the purely superficial; and instead of characterization being woven and gradually revealed throughout the plot, the audience is treated to mercilessly drawn-out and almost unwatchable expository monologues in which Wahlberg explains how great his character is to an eye-rollingly exasperated audience.

If the film has one saving grace, it’s John Goodman’s cameo appearance as the shady loan shark Big Frank. It seems like Goodman is the only actor in the entire production that realized what a shit-show he was involved in, and brings across his character’s bored, contemptuous indifference with admirable aplomb.

The Gambler is a movie that has no reason to exist, and even more mind-bogglingly, Paramount was initially in favor of a limited-release, in an attempt to facilitate an Oscar-qualifying running strategy. If we’re to take anything away from that little piece of info, it’s that Paramount does not think very highly of the movie-going public, and/or that they have the self-awareness of a dead dog on the side of the road. Do yourselves a favor and skip this one.

Rating: 2 out of 5

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Monsters University Review

Monsters-University-poster_810x1200

When I first heard that Pixar’s Monsters Inc. was slated to get a sequel, I was a little taken aback. Like Finding Nemo, which I’m more than a little incensed about, Monsters Inc. was the Pixar property that needed a sequel the least. While it’s true that the original was brilliantly written and was perhaps the benchmark of computer animation for it’s time, the story that it was trying to tell was emphatically over by the film’s end. With that in mind, I was expecting nothing more than a profoundly transparent milking of the nostalgia cash cow. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when I discovered that the Monsters University would not be a sequel, but a prequel. For me, a little hope had been restored, but it remained to be seen if Pixar could make that singular brand of Monsters lightning strike twice.

Monsters University, directed by Pixar veteran Dan Scanlon, takes place before the events of Monsters Inc. and focuses on the budding relationship between the over-ambitious Mike, intent on becoming the world’s greatest “scarer”, and Sully, possessed of great potential but coasts by on his family name. Direction is overall impressive and the team at Pixar is to be commended once again for making a visually beautiful film, as  their masterful CG shines. Stars like Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi reprise their previous roles and help to bring the Monsters universe to life.

The two things that have always impressed me with Monsters are the fully realized and rich world and the dynamic and fun characters. While both of these aspects return in Monsters University, the narrative seems to be much more character focused than it’s predecessor. In many ways, this is a positive development, and each film work well within the context of the other. Monsters University gives us a glimpse into the minds of the characters and lets the audience become invested in their fates, and Monsters Inc. gives the characters some vast, incredible challenges to overcome. The issue with Monsters University, however, stems perhaps from the fact that we know how its going to end.

Sure, we can make a reasonable assumption that the protagonists will win the day- as this is a film aimed at children. What I’m referring to though, is the fact that the audience knows that the overarching goals of the characters, to become “scarers” is based on a lie, and is not nearly as vital as the narrative would have you believe. It may be the case that this relatively small plot hole eliminates any of the stakes that may have been established, but that really depends upon the individual audience member’s investment in the Monsters universe as a whole.

The comedy mostly stems from a lot of the usual tropes of a college comedy being seen through the filter of the monster world. In that sense, I believe that it not only succeeds, but also understands and hits its target audience. See, Monsters Inc. was released in 2001, when I and many other now-college students were just kids. The release of Monsters University perfectly coincided with that film’s target audience’s maturation and assimilation into college life. Indeed, there’s a lot to relate to, and a lot that your average college kid could get out of it. Kids, likewise, will get a kick out of Mike and Sully’s antics, even if this is their first experience with the Monsters franchise.

All in all, there’s a lot of things that Monsters University does right, even if it lacks a little of the Earth-shattering originality of it’s predecessor. Many of its flaws (not that there are many to begin with) can be overlooked, thanks to the brilliantly conceptualized world and clever, dynamic characters. “Solid”, is perhaps the best word to describe the film, and deserves a recommendation at the end of the day.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Argo Review

 

Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Argo is one such story, in that it’s so ludicrous it couldn’t have been made up. During that glorified dick waving competition known as the Cold War, when the U.S government instigated coups and regime changes every other day, it sometimes found itself needing to get its people out of unfriendly situations in a hurry. Argo is the story of one such exfiltration mission, and I’m glad to say that it’s a fine example of how an espionage thriller should be done.

Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, Argo owes it’s success to it’s star-studded cast which includes veterans like John Goodman as the real life makeup guru and C.I.A moonlighter John Chambers, and Alan Arkin as old-school Hollywood producer Lester Siegel. Bryan Cranston also makes an appearance as C.I.A supervisor Jack O’Donnell, who, together with Affleck as exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, creates a nice contrast between the hard nosed, no nonsense government men and the almost goofy antics of the Hollywood movie moguls they’re cooperating with. The acting is virtually beyond reproach, and is a testament to Affleck’s expert casting choices.

Also worth mentioning is the unique visual style of the film. Everything, from costumes to locations to tech, is faithfully recreated and the attention to detail is profound. It might have been my imagination, but I even thought I saw some 70’s-esque grainy quality in the picture itself. These effects weave seamlessly together to produce a visually engrossing film which keeps the audience rapt, and makes the 2 hour run time feel significantly shorter. The only visual issue I take with the film is that several shots occasionally zoomed out in order to show a sweeping landscape or massive structure, but instead of maintaining the consistent visual style, these shots were blatantly, not to mention rather poorly, computer generated and distracted me momentarily. Although admittedly small, they were substantial enough to jar me back to reality and make me realize that I was sitting in a theater watching some flashing lights on a wall; always an unfortunate occurrence when the objective of a film like Argo is to build and maintain immersion.

If I had had to select one key element that made the film was so successful, it would be the juxtaposition of the vastly different tones of the first and second acts. In the film’s opening act, it’s established that there is an issue of national security in Tehran, and that it needs to be solved quickly and quietly. The interim is filled with Mendez flying to Hollywood to assemble a team of quirky and engaging characters in order to pice together is unlikely escape plan. The dialogue was snappy and humorous and could have easily made for a successful, comical satire of the film industry as a stand alone piece. In the second act however, when Mendez travels to Iran to put his plan into action, the tone shifts gears from comical to darkly tense with an almost audible clunk. Instead of coming across as inconsistent, however, the shift serves to emphasize that the fun and games are over and that shit is definitely getting real.

The amazing thing about Argo is that it manages build suspense and make clear how much is at stake without a single bullet being fired or anyone being killed during the entire course of the film. Rather, the suspense stems from the implications of what would happen if the plan were to be discovered. The film is rife with incredible, tension building scenes, namely the bazzar and airport security sequences, which are exactly what an espionage thriller should consist of.

Argo was, above all else, a fun experience. It was well worth the price of admission, which is more than I can say for a lot of films in theaters nowadays. It is clear that Affleck has proved himself a capable director. The only pitfall in his success, however, is that all of his future works will inevitably compared to Argo. Not a bad thing in itself, but it would be a shame indeed if such a talented director were to peak so early in his career. Go see the film, and remain cautiously optimistic about Affleck’s future in the industry.

The Big Lebowski: A Foray into the Absurd

What the fuck are we doing here, man? What a delightful little question! Ask any number of people and you’ll likely get as many different responses. We’ve debated it for as long as we’ve been keeping records, and indeed, probably before that. The Big Lebowski, cult classic of the 1990’s responds, White Russian in hand, with “Fucked if I know, dude.” Within the context of modern existentialist thought, this answer is surprisingly valid.

The film is not only a hilarious and iconic comedy; it is also a relevant commentary on the absurdity of society and life as a whole. If you have not seen the film yet, you owe it to yourself to check it out immediately if not sooner. I find it important to note, however, that no special attention should be given to the intricacies of the plot as it was designed to be more twisted than the logic behind Operation Fast and Furious. For those of you who feel nonetheless compelled to refresh your memory  as far as the story is concerned, I’ve included a link to a synopsis here.

Much more important than the intentionally nonsensical plot line is the way in which the main character, Jeffrey “The Dude’ Lebowski, interacts with other characters and reacts to various situations throughout the film. Integral in all of The Dude’s actions are elements of philosophical Absurdism and, to a somewhat lesser extent, basic principles of Taoism. Allow me now to qualify my rambling…

Stripped of the minutia, philosophical Absurdism, like its close cousin Nihilism, states that life has no inherent meaning. The concept of the Absurd rises then from the conflict between the apparent meaninglessness of the universe and the insatiable human desire to find meaning in life. In the face of this conflict, there are three possible courses of action: suicide, belief in a higher power, and the acceptance of the absurd.

The acceptance of the absurd means that one accepts the hopeless condition of existence; that is to say, the impossibility of any certainty or objectivity as it pertains to the meaning of life. But wait! All is not lost! Absurdism also holds that once one has accepted the absurd, he or she is free to choose their own meaning in life. In short, freedom from living under false pretenses, in this case the notion that existence has some overarching, objective meaning leaves one free to think, and indeed to live, for one’s self!

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s apply what we’ve learned!

In The Big Lebowski, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, the living embodiment of an individual who has accepted the absurd, seems to realize that life has no objective meaning, and instead chooses to find meaning and fulfillment through spending time with his best friends, Walter and Donnie, bowling, and not taking the often oppressive nature of reality too seriously. The Dude knows that society has a way of drawing us in and forcing false meaning on us. He therefore knows to keep his distance and focus on the meaning the he has chosen for his life. On his journey, The Dude encounters characters who have either intentionally or unintentionally chosen to view the world in an objective sense of success or failure, victory or defeat, wealth or poverty, and comfort or distress.

Early in the film, we see The Dude’s famous interaction with Jeffrey “Big” Lebowski, a (seemingly) shrewd and coldhearted businessman with no other motivation than the unfeeling pursuit of profit, encapsulates the differing views between an Absurd view of existence versus an Objective view of existence. Driven solely by profit, “Big” Lebowski believes that being successful, however arbitrarily that may be defined, is the only way in which meaning can be obtained. Also, he feels as though he must compensate for the loss of his legs in the Korean War. He therefore places even more emphasis on the fact that he has achieved more than most other men even without the use of his legs. His myopic worldview has made him ironically unreasonable, incoherent, and completely intolerant to differing opinions and views. When The Dude encounters “Big” Lebowski in all of his staunch and unyielding stupidity, he knows that arguing with someone as block-headed is futile and famously remarks “eh…fuck it.”

Immediately afterwards, The Dude meets “Big” Lebowski’s wife, Bunny. Bunny Lebowski is an interesting character in that she practices a kind of popular hedonism. That is to say, she finds meaning in the pursuit of  physical pleasure but does not follow that train of logic to its inevitable conclusion; early death from excessive decadence or overindulgence. However, this does not change the fact that Bunny’s relationships with others tend to be parasitic and based solely on physicality. Because meaning, for her, is found through sexual conquest, she tends to be lustful and shallow. To facilitate her sexual appetite Bunny is cunning and knows that she is young and attractive, making her believe that she can hold any man she may encounter spellbound by her beauty. Indeed, The Dude almost succumbs to her charm, but soon realizes that the price of her company is much to dear (literally).

Soon after, The Dude meets Jesus Quintana, a flamboyant and arrogant rival bowler. A convicted sex offender, Quintana was charged with exposing himself to eight year old children and in a delicious bit of irony refers to himself as ‘The Jesus.’ Because of his questionable history, Quintana has lost everything that could have given his life meaning including his self-respect. As a result, he is utterly and completely obsessed with finding meaning in his life through victory in competition. For Quintana, the thrill of competing has been lost long ago and has been replaced by a compulsive desire to win at any cost. When The Dude encounters Quintana, he knows that bowling is just a game and quickly recognizes his arrogance and obsessive behavior for the coping mechanism that it is.

About halfway through the film, The Dude encounters a group of men who identify themselves only as Nihilists. These strange, pale men with German accents accost The Dude in an attempt to collect a fictitious sum of ransom money that they believe is in his possession. Supposedly, these men are existential (referring to the meaninglessness of life) as well as ethical (referring to the subjective nature of morals and ethics) Nihilists as evidenced by their reiteration of the line “we believe in nothing, Lebowski!” as well as their numerous threats of bodily violence against The Dude and his friends. However, it seems as though the Nihilists have only a vague understanding of their professed worldview. For instance, when the Nihilists learn that the ransom money never existed, they still demand to be compensated for their ‘trouble’ in a fair manner, prompting Walter to exclaim “Fair?! Who’re the fucking Nihilists around here, you bunch of fucking crybabies!” In addition, the Nihilists also fall victim to the Paradox of Nihilism, which according to author and philosopher Paul Hegarty holds (paraphrasing) “that the absence of meaning seems to be some kind of meaning in and of itself.” The Dude seems relatively unconcerned with these men and their apparently inconsistent views. Rather, he is more concerned with the violence that the Nihilists threaten, and undoubtedly would have brought to fruition had they been any less clueless.

If the plot line of The Big Lebowski was a person it would be stuffed into the tightest straight jacket within reach and thrown into a padded cell. Clinical insanity aside, it masks dozens of viable philosophical comparisons and compelling philosophical commentary, interesting and dynamic characters, and some the the wittiest and most genuinely entertaining dialogue that you will see, period. Indeed, many more philosophical examples exist within the context of the film, but for the sake of conciseness, I’ve only included a fraction of them here. Please, check out this film. If not for the philosophical elements, then for the pure fun that you’ll have watching it.

If you’re not into the whole brevity thing, I’ve included some links to sites that you might find interesting:

To learn more about Absurdism, click here (use the Table of Contents and click ‘The Absurd’)

To learn more about Objectivism, click here

To learn more about Nihilism, click here

To learn more about Taoism, click here (a user friendly and intuitive site; explore at your leisure!)

Take it easy, dudes!