Monday, January 12, 2015

Snow Screen 2015: The Gambler, Into the Woods & A Most Violent Year

Did you see a movie over the Christmas through New Years Day period?  Something like 7 major motion pictures opened up on Thursday, December 25th.  You could see Mark Wahlberg in a remake of The Gambler, Disney's musical Into the Woods, Angelina Jolie's World War II prisoner of war tale Unbroken and stoner buddy comedy/American symbol The Interview amongst others.  The Golden Globes are tonight so every movie vying for award consideration has already been released to get that chatter going into the Oscarss in February.

One flick that got no love was Paramount's The Gambler, the tale of well off literature professor Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) who has a problem with blackjack and roulette.  Playing in high end and seedy secret parties as well as crappy casinos alike, we watch as the self hating and compulsive Bennett turns $10 grand into $80 in an instant then lose it just as quickly.  Written by The Departed's William Monohan based on James Toback's 1974 film of the same name starring James Caan, The Gambler was an enjoyable and well crafted low watt drama that contains a surprisingly effective performance from Wahlberg and an even more note worthy one by John Goodman as a local loan shark.  Wahlberg, the former model turned rapper turned prolific leading man and producer adds another eclectic character to his filmography that already includes a sweet yet dim hearted porn star, lots of cops and tough guys, a slacker with a talking stuffed animal, a motivated yet dumb bodybuilder and an inventor who hangs out with giant robots in disguise.  Hiding behind a mane of shaggy hair and a dark suit, Wahlberg dropped 60 pounds of his signature beef to play the educated but self loathing professor trying to reach rock bottom so he can start his climb back to the top.  Monohan's modern manifesto is equal parts all in or nothing and getting to the point in life where you can answer any question with, Fuck You.  In deep to two different sets of gangsters, Bennett has a week to come up with nearly a quarter of a million bucks before every bone in his body is broken or he's flat out deaded.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes' Rupert Wyatt does a fine job of directing the talky drama around Los Angeles with fine support from the likes of Jessica Lange as his estranged mother and Brie Larson as his student.  Simon Rhee from Best of the Best shows up as a Korean bruiser and George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, The Delta Force) shows up for a quick minute as a family patriarch.  I didn't even know the guy was still alive!  Great to see you, George!  A massive and bald headed John Goodman gets to drop some of the film's greatest dialog in a pair of scenes as he questions how a successful, good looking smart guy like Bennett could destroy his life with such idiotic abandonment.  With a little CGI muscle, Goodman should play The Kingpin whenever the villain shows up on Daredevil.  Wahlberg is handed some very provocative and near poetic lines throughout, especially during an early scene in the classroom where he moves around the space, questioning and belittling his students in what was a more exciting class than I ever had in 4 years.  Some actors can't handle a lot of dialog but Wahlberg takes it all on with surprisingly ease and aplomb.  While I'm not too surprised The Gambler hasn't garnered any major award attention, I do feel it got lost in the Holiday shuffle and deserves more credit than it's being given.

I won't bore you with too many thoughts on Into the Woods, it wasn't for me and I just didn't dig it.  Beautifully shot yet a bit boring to watch.  Maybe if you're into musicals.  Next up was A Most Violent Year, a flick I had no opinion on and hadn't even seen a full trailer.  From the title, cast and look of the picture, I figured it was about mobsters in New York.  Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, who gave us the fascinating Margin Call in 2011, a look at the inner workings of an investment bank during the first part of the financial crisis followed up by the lauded but overrated "man on a boat VS nature" All Is Lost starring Bobby Redford in 2013.  A Most Violent Year stars up and comer Oscar Isaac (Drive) as Abel Morales, a mostly by the book immigrant businessman who owns a heating oil business in New York during 1981, one of the most violent years on record.  Abel has vast ambition to expand his company but his trucks keep getting hijacked and his product sold to various mystery buyers.  He must tread lightly as the local District Attorney is about to begin investigating his business while wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) keeps pushing him to man up and protect his empire and family.

Chandor's script is a slow burning yet interesting affair focusing on a man trying to do right but the world just doesn't want to let him.  I thought it was based on a true story as it all plays very real from the harrowing truck thefts to Abel's calm and intelligent rejection of arming his drivers and the conflict it creates at home with the wife and kids.  Chastain picked up a Best Supporting Actress nod from the Globes which reinforces their long standing award show trying to throw a star studded party motif rather than rewarding merit as she really doesn't do much in the film and her Brooklyn accent comes and goes.  Then again the Oscars are a bunch of 70 year old white guys who tend to select boring but true to life tales to celebrate like The King's Speech and The Artist so I'm not even sure why I bring them up. Awards are bullshit, man...

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