Saturday, June 6, 2015

Movie Reviews: Supremacy, The Gambler

directed by Deon Taylor
This movie was supposedly based in part on a real life story. So then I can't get too upset if it dragged at times because that could very well be how it all went down. Still there are some directorial techniques which might have been put to better use in order to keep the film moving. Watching this film I also got the distinct impression that there was more than usual in terms of scenes or writing that was cut from this theatrical release. Some character motivations and frustrations are severely lacking. Perhaps another ten minutes or so would have been worthwhile adding? Or perhaps ten minutes trimmed from other scenes to let you know why some people were so upset could have been useful. I don't know. I just watch movies. I don't make them. Still this film features Danny Glover (it is difficult for me to watch the actor who famously groused in the Lethal Weapon series that he was getting too old for this s*** actually become someone who is old) so I was positively inclined to watching it. Glover carries the movie despite the fact that he must act and look every bit of his 68 years on this planet. Although Glover stands a commanding 6'4", his role in this film mostly requires him to downplay his height, physicality and baritone. Here he's an old and often bitter man who, armed with nothing more besides reason and words, must try to protect his family. Nevertheless Glover gives the film gravitas though the frantic energy is brought to the table by the other lead actor. As do most movies of this kind this film made me think twice about people from times past, whether they found themselves on a plantation in Mississippi or a death camp in Poland, who did what they had to do in order to survive. It's all very easy to look back and talk big about what you would have done or how you wouldn't have stood for this or that. Bottom line if someone has a gun to your head or to that of a loved one, you may decide that death before dishonor is not really a code to live by. Not everyone is ready to die right this minute, though we obviously remember and cherish those who are.
After a number of years in prison for armed robbery and assault one Tully (Joe Anderson) is finally released. Tully is, to put it mildly, a white supremacist. He's covered in racist tattoos. He will not speak three sentences without a reference to how much he hates black people. Tully is a man of some importance in the Aryan Brotherhood. He has big plans for his after prison life, serious plans. He expects to be treated with respect and awe by Brotherhood members on the outside. So he's more than a little peeved when he's picked up from prison not by an honor guard of his Aryan brothers but by Doreen (Dawn Oliveri) a hardbitten woman of easy virtue and definite drug habits with a thang for Aryan Brotherhood members. In fact Tully is so upset that he can't or won't even do the obvious with the initially deferential and horny Doreen. He claims a race warrior such as himself must remain pure for the cause and not sully himself with someone like Doreen. Insulted, Doreen wonders aloud if Mr. Big Bad Race Warrior liked prison so much that he now prefers the company of men. And their fragile relationship such as it is deteriorates from there. It's only Doreen's close links to higher ranking Aryan Brotherhood members that keeps Tully from ditching her or worse.
Well criminals commit crime, right? It's what they do. So no one should be surprised when Tully as much for racial reasons as economic ones, robs a convenience store (he's irritated by the presence of a clerk with apparent South Asian ancestry). And shortly afterwards when Doreen and Tully are stopped by a black police officer who may or may not be responding to the store robbery, Tully decides to add cop-killing to the night's misdeeds. Fleeing the ensuing manhunt the depraved duo force their way into the first home they find off the beaten path, which just happens to be owned by Mr. Walker (Glover) and his wife (Lela Rochon). Some of their children and grandchildren are also with them. Although the movie makes a desultory attempt at making you wonder if any of the adults in the home will try to physically resist the armed white racists, the film's meat is Walker's insight into what makes Tully tick. He will try to use that to protect his family. Walker claims to be an ex-con himself. Walker's family has its own fault lines which will become apparent as the hostage situation continues. I could accept that a man of Walker's age is probably not going to try to physically resist intruders but there were some scenes where I wondered if someone shouldn't have made a move. Again though unless and until you're ready to die it's hard to say what you'd do. The film thinks it knows why racists are the way they are but its answer was too pat for me. I did like the film's easy acceptance of the idea that racism isn't specific to men alone. Doreen is just as dangerous as Tully, more so in some ways because she, unlike Tully, can almost effectively fake empathy. Still, this film drags a bit in the middle. The tension dissipates somewhat. So it's not a must see movie. It's an okay film, just not a great one. Derek Luke has a small role as Walker's estranged/absent son. Anson Mount brings it as the imprisoned Aryan Brotherhood leader. Supremacy uses flashback to tell a lot of its story, a technique which I thought it relied upon once too often. TRAILER

The Gambler
directed by Rupert Wyatt
This is an excellent example of why they call it acting. Mark Wahlberg shed a great deal of weight and muscle as well as most of his usual trademark character cockiness to play the role of Jim Bennett, a depressed and gaunt college literature professor and writer, who when he's not ranting at his students about the meaningless of everything and their general mediocrity, can be found throwing away thousands of dollars gambling at both legal and illegal casinos and card games. Although this film was not directed by Scorsese, it was produced by long time Scorsese associate Irwin Winkler. So it may not be an accident that this film has a lot of the lush look and meaningful soundtrack that you might otherwise identify with Scorsese. There is actually some evidence that beyond a surprisingly low amount of household income that happiness doesn't increase all that much with more money. Other studies dispute that figure or to be more precise claim that the measurement is not really capturing happiness over time. I can't call it. More income and wealth would definitely make me happier but on the other hand the things I require most in life are not things money can grant.That might be a subject of a future post but the reason I brought it up here is that Bennett is a walking example of how material goods can't bring happiness. They really can't. Can they? How much joy does money bring into your life? Is it the making of the money that you like or the things you can do with money?
Jim Bennett is the scion of an extremely wealthy old money banking family. Although his grandfather has just passed away Bennett's mother (Jessica Lange in a taut performance) now controls the family fortune. The mother-son relationship is not super strong. And although Bennett is not exactly a best selling author or a household name, he is published and apparently tenured. So money is not what drives him. He doesn't need to waste his time or money (well a lot of it is Mama's money) playing blackjack, roulette or other games of chance.  Because he's a compulsive gambler who takes dumb chances Bennett finds himself in deep debt to both casino owner Lee (Alvin Ing) and entrepreneurial loan shark Neville (Michael K. Williams). Each of these men have very well deserved reputations as exactly the sort of people to whom you do not want to owe money. Though Lee is quiet and Neville is affable, both of them have put people in the ground. They will have no problem doing the same to Bennett. Their problem however is that it's not really clear that Bennett cares about living or dying any more. How do you intimidate someone who doesn't give a flying Fibber McGee about anything or at least pretends that he doesn't. One thing that Bennett might care about though is his relationship with three of his students, a rich tennis player who is about to go pro, a bored basketball player who is on the verge of making the same decision and Amy (Brie Larson), an attractive young woman who just happens to work in the same illegal casino where Bennett plays. Bennett thinks that virtually alone among his students Amy has real writing skill, interest in literature and the ability to do more with her talent. He's angry that she won't engage intellectually in class more.  Amy might be interested in engaging parts of Bennett besides his brain. When things get a little rougher than Bennett can handle he has to go to his mother and to another loan shark, Frank (John Goodman). I liked Goodman in this role. He's avuncular and downright engaging. But if you don't pay him back he will, like any other man in his position, hurt you very very badly. I actually bought the menace that Frank represented though it's mostly unspoken. Goodman had some very good dialogue in this film, which rose above the cliched thanks almost entirely to his convincing delivery and world weariness.

Ultimately the problem with the film is that you're never quite able to penetrate Wahlberg's excellent acting job to understand why it is that he is so self-loathing. There are plenty of people who have it all and throw it away but in order for me to care about them it would be useful to get some insight into their character or their life story to see what went wrong and why they just don't care anymore. Bennett's classroom rants hint at the reasons behind his alienation but on the whole they seem to be more symptom than explanation. So this movie is a good film to see Wahlberg step away from his normal type characters but I didn't find the writing strong enough to put this movie over the top. This is a remake of a 1974 film of the same name which starred another famous cinematic tough guy, James Caan. Wahlberg and Caan are friends. They discussed the lead role. Perhaps, as with Caan, the idea of playing a character that was defined by moral /physical weakness and acuity appealed to Wahlberg, who usually gets tough guy roles.

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