The Gambler (2015) Movie Review 0 37

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The latest classic slice of ‘70s cinema to get the remake treatment is The Gambler, originally a gritty true-to-life drama starring James Caan but now a slickly presented, fast-talking one featuring an impassioned Mark Wahlberg showing that he’s more than just the action hero fodder that Michael Bay would have you believe.

Wahlberg plays Jim Bennett, a college professor and career gambler who doesn’t quite know when to walk away when he’s got the upper hand on whatever betting establishment – flashy casino or seedy underground club – he happens to find himself playing against. When he foolishly bets it all and loses, he borrows money from local gangsters – including the frightening Frank (John Goodman) and ruthless Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams) and eventually his mother (Jessica Lange) to try and dig himself out. His life is further complicated when he starts a pensive relationship with one of his students (Brie Larson).

You get a sense when watching Wahlberg’s admirably committed central performance that he’s out to prove something as an actor. His haggard and slightly gaunt appearance – not too dissimilar to the transformation made by Jake Gyllenhaal in last year’s Nightcrawler – is one thing but even apart from that it’s a role that he really sinks his teeth into, relaying grand soliloquies on leading (or rather not leading, as it were) a better or more intellectually enriched life – “the world needs plenty of electricians,” he tells his literary students – like he means it as much as his character does. It’s certainly worlds away from his recent “who the hell am I kidding?” Texan in Transformers: Age of Extinction.

This helps to combat the nagging lack of empathy for the character throughout. It’s an interesting character study of a man hell bent on self destruction – playing out like the equivalent to an alcohol or drug addiction story – and of course that’s part of the point the film is making, that it’s an endless cycle from which it’s hard to escape. But nevertheless it’s hard to feel truly sorry for him or feel invested in his plight to break out when he keeps perpetuating his lifestyle of financial self-flagellation.

For those coming at the film looking for a good old-fashioned piece of crime drama then The Gambler delivers perfectly enjoyable entertainment in that respect, with quick-witted dialogue by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) and a cavalcade of supporting performers who give the film some much needed dramatic heft. John Goodman and Michael K. Williams turn potentially generic gangster money lenders of the kind we’ve seen time and time again in this type of thing into effectively polar opposite but equally frightening antagonists for our main character, providing some of the films most entertaining interactions; an extended scene in which Goodman tells him to aim for a position of being able to say “f*** you” to others as a sign that you’ve somehow made it to the top is a film highlight. And Jessica Lange gives a scene-stealing performance as Wahlberg’s mother who’s sick to death of her son’s destructive behaviour.

Also, the actual gambling scenes themselves are impressively achieved through a sense of coiling tension every time he asks the card dealer to “hit me,” or watches that white ball bounce around the roulette table; where many gambling-themed movies skimp or gloss over those scenes, they have impact and importance here. Less effective are the scenes with Wahlberg and Larson, which in spite of the latter’s very good performance (I think it’s scientifically proven that her presence in a film automatically makes it approximately 32.1% better) feels simultaneously extraneous but also like a heavy-handed way for the film to explore the possibility that there might be something else out there for Jim, even if that means running off with one of his students. It doesn’t help that the chemistry between her and Wahlberg is sorely lacking, if not practically non-existent.

I’m not sure The Gambler works as the grand cautionary tale, cinematic self-help book it ultimately aspires to be. For all its ostentatious speeches it feels curiously superficial, especially since the original had the benefit of being directly inspired by director James Toback’s real life experiences with gambling addiction, and it sometimes can’t decide whether it’s condemning the seedy world it presents or glamourising it. But it’s ultimately worth the gamble because as a self-contained crime drama with committed performances and entertainingly elegant dialogue, it does the trick.

The Gambler is released in UK cinemas on January 23rd.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 414

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 447

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10