The Gambler

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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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2 Guns: Rampant Cinemania Episode 14

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This Week: Albert Cantu, Andrew King, Gabriel Vogel, Joe Holley

Show Notes:

Fruitvale Station: 0:47 – 4:24

Kagemusha: 4:27 – 7:36

The Gateway Meat: 7:36 – 11:58

Shut Up Little Man: 11:58 – 16:09

Frankenstein’s Army: 16:09 – 19:39

2 Gunz Review: 20:14 – 43:03

Rate and review us on iTunes!

Audible link: http://www.audibletrial.com/simplyfilm

2 Guns Review

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As the lackluster summer of 2013 limps to a close, and studios decide to release abominations like Smurfs 2 as fillers until Oscar season kicks off, movies like 2 Guns fill a perfect niche in a last ditch effort to see who can grab the most cash. Based on a graphic novel of the same name, 2 Guns proves to be yet another buddy cop movie in a summer already dominated by buddy cop movies, including R.I.P.D and The Heat, as recent examples. That being said, 2 Guns will have it’s work cut out for it as it attempts to stand out amid a year of homogenous action-comedies.

Coming to us from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, the film generally adheres to standard conventions of the genre without too much in the way of world-shattering innovation. More interestingly, however, is the screenplay, written by Blake Masters. Masters, whose resumé consists of television series like Brotherhood and Law and Order: LA, seems to have created a screenplay that would be better suited to an episodic format with lots of intrigue and plot twists that the audience could get invested in over time, rather than enjoy within the constraints of a single film. This proves to be one of the film’s major flaws, but more on that in a moment.

Starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg playing essentially extensions of themselves, 2 Guns is able to bring some really impressive chemistry to the table. The leads play off of each other in the best of ways, with Washington covering the aging cynic who’s ‘getting to old for this shit’, and Wahlberg owning his role as the earnest, lovable rouge who’s in just a little too deep. I’m a big fan of both of these actors, and frankly it was a joy to see Mark Wahlberg do some actual acting for once in his life. Ever since Boogie Nights, I’ve tried to keep an eye out for him because he’s proved over and over again that he’s capable of some thoroughly impressive work.

My experience with 2 Guns went as follows: I was in love with this movie for the first 30 or 40 minutes,  but my excitement quickly turned to puzzlement and then to resigned apathy as the plot became incoherently complex and more and more obnoxious antagonists were introduced. Without exaggeration, I think there were four main antagonists throughout the plot of this movie. As I mentioned before, I think the multiple antagonists would have worked better in a more episodic format as multiple ongoing story lines could have been explored without the audience becoming hopelessly confused.

2 Guns is an excellent example of a film that failed due to over ambition. With a more narrow focus and a greater emphasis on a single, well-developed antagonist, as well as a plot that didn’t senselessly yank the viewer around every few minutes, I am confident that the film would have been much more successful. I get the feeling that, for whatever reason, the film wan’t sure that it could stand on the ability of its leads alone (it totally could), and instead thought that a huge, expansive story would make up for any perceived shortcomings. In reality, however, it’s precisely that over blown story that proves to be its downfall.

Depending on your taste, Washington and Wahlberg’s talent and charisma may be able to carry the movie for you, and despite all of it’s flaws, I found the experience to be a satisfying one. While you may find the plot a little disappointing as things proceed, there’s enough wisecracks, explosions, and car chases to keep you occupied throughout. Now I suppose all that’s left is to wait for the inevitable 2 Guns 2 in summer 2014.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Pain and Gain Review

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Every now and then you’ll see a movie that will alter how you view a certain actor or director. Sometimes it’s for the best, while at other times you may consider driving to Hollywood to throw eggs at the offender’s car. In an unprecedented turn of events, I might now be able to excuse Michael Bay for some of his more obtuse faults after having seen Pain and Gain. Mind blowing, right? Well, while you’re busy scraping up your skull fragments, I’ll tell you why.

Michael Bay’s opinion of the general public seems to be that they’ll lapse into a coma if they’re not stimulated by explosions and the promise of tits every ten minutes, a mindset that certainly remains strong throughout Pain and Gain, but this time, there seems to be an underlying theme of self-parody and irony involved. Anyone already familiar with Bay’s work will quickly spot his fingerprints. His characteristic action sequences and fight scenes return, and he seizes every opportunity to explode something on-screen with rather worrying enthusiasm. Alas, this is Bay we’re talking about after all, so I would be more surprised if that kind of thing were absent.

These last few have been very busy years for my beloved Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and I am very happy to report that he’s finally hitting his stride. After having muddled his way through action flick after action flick, some much worse than others, Johnson as oblivious bodybuilder Paul Doyle is his best performance to date. Due in part to the fact that The Rock is a roided-up slab of meat in real life, he likely had a clear understanding of who the character was and where he was supposed to go with it. It was a riot to see him transition from a ex-con holy roller to a barely functioning coke fiend, and his antics provided hugely comedic payoffs. Mark Wahlberg as ringleader Dany Lugo likewise gives a great performance, though he too is likely playing a character similar to his own personality. By that, I mean he seems to be the perfect fit for that peculiar ‘bro’ archetype, which in all likelihood isn’t that far off from his real life persona. Golden Globe winner Tony Shalhoub (Monk) also makes an appearance as the phenomenally sleazy Victor Kershaw. Shalhoub holds nothing back in his depiction of Kershaw, and by the end of the film, he becomes a character that we love to hate and are almost glad that he gets what’s coming to him.

At it’s core, Pain and Gain is a comedy, not an action film. In this particular case, however, irony is the name of the game. Every aspect of the film has been calculated to achieve the height of it’s ironic effect. The score, for instance, is heavily dramatic which clashes with the moronic antics of the goofballs on-screen. The alleged role models of the protagonist are all a 12 year old’s worldview, ignorantly filled with hyper-masculine meatheads, not to mention the fact that they’re all fictional characters. The mantra of the protagonist- his combined motivation and justification for committing such terrible crimes- is taken straight from a self help informercial. The list goes on, but the main point to remember is that if you’re headed into Pain and Gain for the mega macho action, you’re in for a wonderful surprise.

In a departure from Bay’s usual work, Pain and Gain is a much more character driven story, and it does a surprisingly good job of making sure that the audience is invested in the stories of each of the three protagonist. In another unprecedented departure from Bay’s usual work, Pain and Gain is also quite good. The wonderfully successful comedy is balanced with Bay’s signature action in all the right places, which is in turn balanced by some definitely not unwelcome character building where it counts. In the end, Pain and Gain hugely fun and entertaining film and makes for a great time at the movies. Bay is by no means forgiven for making Transformers, but perhaps now I can consider him karmically neutral.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Broken City Review

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The social atmosphere in which Broken City finds itself upon release is one marked by a general antipathy towards the political sphere with the presidential elections in the US having recently concluded. The raw animosity and bitterness among politicians is, in some respects, infectious, especially after having been subjected to nearly an entire year of campaigning. It seems only natural that a film which centers around political conflict may wish to capitalize on American sensibilities during such a time. The denunciation of the whole “it’s legal if you don’t get caught” attitude of politicians is, although painfully safe, a sentiment that the vast majority of moviegoers can get behind.

Rejoining the cinematic fray after 3 years of inactivity is Book of Eli director Alan Hughes. Direction is, for the most part, solid, though nothing to write home about, with tight action sequences worthy of Taken or one of the Bourne movies. Worthy of note, however, is that Hughes and company seem to focusing much more on the “drama” aspect of this crime-drama, to the point where it becomes more reminiscent a courtroom thriller on television than the cinematic crime-dramas, usually bursting at the seams with action, that we’ve been accustomed to.

Starring, Mark Wahlberg, in the same role he’s been type cast for since day one, as the rough around the edges but ultimately lovable everyman Billy Taggart, as well as Russell Crowe portraying deliciously punchable baddie, Mayor Hostetler. Thankfully, Crowe proves that he can still act after his role in Le Mis, (which many took issue with, but I found to be perfectly serviceable) and steal every scene he’s in, even compared to Wahlberg’s own adequate but frankly bland performance. It is blandness, in many ways, that kills this otherwise quality production and which holds the power to make a potentially decent film bad and a potentially great film pretentious. But yes, I still think Joaquin Phoenix should win best actor.

Historically, Hughes has struggled enormously with the concept of incorporating subtlety into his films. In Book of Eli, for instance, the Macguffin purported to have the power to save civilization from the brink of collapse amid the post-apocalyptic ruin turns out to be a literal copy of the Bible. Any particular message you were trying to drive home there, sir? Likewise, the two-party election which serves as the backdrop for most of the conflict in the film is so heavy handed that we’re beaten mercilessly about the head and shoulders over what side we’re supposed to be on. Now, this isn’t such a bad thing in itself, but when the only other positive thing the film has going for it is Crowe’s Koch-esque, villainous swagger, I start to worry. Additionally, the plot point that eventually contributed to the film’s downfall is Taggart’s motivation for not getting the hell out of Dodge when he had the chance. As the situation gradually worsens, Taggart is left with literally no reason to stay in the city as he no longer has relationship obligations nor financial interests aside from professional curiosity, which can only take you so far when people are shooting at you. Are we supposed to simply chalk it up to sheer obstinate stupidity? When the protagonist can just as easily make himself scarce without any real loss, something has gone wrong.

I understand what Hughes was trying to do by shaking up the contemporary view of a crime drama, it’s just that it was a general failure. For all the things that the film does right, mainly with casting, I can’t invest myself in the the struggle onscreen when character motivation, which would have realistically added the necessarily crucial drama, are so muddled and incomprehensible. In the end, my faith in Crowe and Wahlberg remains justified, though my faith in Hughes’ team does not.

Ted Review

Seth MacFarlane’s particular brand of irreverent humor translates well to the big screen in this raucous summer flick. Fans of MacFarlane’s monolith comedy series Family Guy, American Dad, or The Cleveland Show will find the world of Ted just as filled with off-color topical references and random cutaway gags as any of his other works. The fairly predictable plot focuses on late-twenties burnout John (Mark Wahlberg), as he tries to balance his relationships with girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), the teddy bear he wished to life as a child.

For a movie that could have relied heavily on teddy-bear sex humor and immature comedy, Ted has a surprisingly acerbic wit that makes the occasional use of such humor a little more forgivable. The film’s best moments often come from the fanatical friendship between John and his best friend, and some cameos from Sam Jones (Flash Gordon) and Ryan Reynolds had me laughing out loud. Wahlberg seems to have been typecast a bit for this role, but his delightful turn in Ted more than justifies it.

MacFarlane has stated that he wanted to take the CGI effects mastered by James Cameron and Ridley Scott and implement them to make a live-action comedy, and the results here are superb. Wahlberg’s performance meshes extremely well with Ted’s animations, as evidenced by an uproariously funny hotel room fight scene. In fact, it’s surprising at points how well MacFarlane’s humor translates from animation to live-action.

With any luck, other live-action comedies will look to Ted as an example of how to use animation effectively: not as a means for easily overblown humor, but as a way to add depth to a story by creating characters that are genuinely funny. MacFarlane’s obvious mastery of this concept is likely what has endeared his work to television fanatics all over the world, and its use in Ted is refreshing and welcome.

Anyone who’s familiar with MacFarlane’s other work and enjoyed it will love Ted. A strong showing from the cast, combined with a smart and witty script, make this film  worth an evening out.

Rating: 4 out of 5