Friday, December 5, 2014

Film Review - The Gambler

Jim Bennett ( Mark Wahlberg) is an all or nothing guy. If you can't achieve genius at a task you should just give it up and forget it. Coming from a very well off family; his grandfather Ed (George Kennedy) started a successful and still striving Los Angles bank, Jim's goal is to get to zero and start over.

Bennett is an associate professor at a local University where he teaches English Lit 101. One of his students Amy Phillips (Brie Larson) has that potential to be genius.  Another Lamar (Anthony Kelley) a star basketball player that will go very high in the NBA draft and the rest in his estimation just filling seats for another credit on their ledger. Jim does not bring any conviction to his teaching. He sits amongst his students as he lectures when not confronting them with highly personal questions. It's this direct full on personality and desire to get to the ground that leads him to difficulty in the underground Los Angeles gambling dens.  

Directory Wyatt coming of blockbuster success with Rise of the Planet of the Apes has moved back to direct a character driven story in the vein of his 2008 film The Escapist. Wyatt presents a different L.A. in his film; private casino's up in the rolling hills, abandoned swimming pools in the pawnshop district through back entrances into Korean gambling halls and members sections in downtown steam rooms. There are no obligatory shots of Rodeo Drive, Capitol building or either of the Hollywood or Beverly Hills signs.

Writer William Monahan delivers another script full of rich expression and offbeat characters.  The film features two exceptional monologues. One by Bennett when he spells out his genius theory to his class working around the room challenging individuals until he gets to his Amy. The other by notorious money lender Frank (John Goodman) as he lays out the conditions of a potential loan and FU money philosophy to Jim when he comes looking for cash to pay off his debts.      

Cinematographer Greig Fraiser is instrumental in presenting Wyatt's grittier version of L.A. The film is shot in several dark settings. Fraiser uses outside light from a windows or other rooms to bring the figures on screen in into focus. He was also the co conspirator in Wyatt's determination to have no  palm tress in the film ofter resetting his lens to achieve the goal.

Mark Wahlberg delivers a top notch performance as Bennett leaving no grey areas in his characters soar or crash mentality. In one particular scene right after he pieces together the funds to makes it back to level he proceeds to sink slowly and steadily back into the hole $10,000 at a time is painful to watch. Wahlberg plays it well berating the dealers that look on him with sadness going out of their way to give him the option to stop.

Brie Larson does remarkably well with the supporting part of Amy. She does not have much dialogue but her facial and body expressions bring life to her role. She particularly shines in a scene where she walks across campus ear buds fixed in her own happy world listening to tunes. Her fresh young attitude plays well off of Wahlberg's  negative spiral into depression and self loathing.

The cast is rounded out with superior performances from the above mentioned Goodman plus Jessica Lange's turn as Bennett's up from the working class mother Roberta. Michael Kenneth Williams ( Omar from The Wire) as Neville one of the loan sharks that Bennett owes big and another Wire alum Domenick Lombardozzi as Frank's bodyguard.

The Gambler is a dialogue driven story that does not dishonour the 1974 James Caan version. The film has a strong cast and director Wyatt succeeds with his goal of presenting Los Angeles' dark alleys, basements, nooks and crannies. It's one of the rare studio driven character films that we only seem to get one or two of each year. It is a film that I strongly recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

The Gambler | Rupert Wyatt | U.S.A. | 2014 | 111 Minutes.

Tags; Drama, Gambling, Professor, Addiction, Loan Shark, Korea Town, English Lit, College Basketball,

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