By day, Jim Bennett (Mark
Wahlberg) is an English Literature professor whose questionable teaching method
involves berating his blasé students by suggesting that none of them will ever
amount to anything. He reserves all his praise for the only person in the class
exhibiting any promise as a writer, the brilliant and beautiful, but modest,
Amy Phillips (Brie Larson).
Amy also works part-time at
a gambling casino that her teacher just happens to frequent, since Jim is a
high-roller sorely in need of Gambler’s Anonymous. After all, the odds are
stacked way in favor of the house where, the longer you play, the more you
But Professor Bennett must
have flunked statistics, since he foolishly pushes his luck at Black Jack and
Roulette and proceeds to fritter away more than he could ever afford. Consequently,
he eventually finds himself in hock to the tune of a quarter-million dollars to
Mr. Lee (Alvin Ing), the exploitative casino owner who’d gladly extended a long
line of credit to the hopelessly compulsive gambler.
Given seven days to pay off
the I.O.U. before having his proverbial kneecaps broken by Lee’s goons, the
desperate debtor approaches everyone from his mom (Jessica Lange) to a ghetto
loan shark (Michael Kenneth Williams) to a well-heeled mobster (John Goodman)
for an emergency loan. Trouble is, rather than clearing his tab with the cash
he collects, Jim’s so controlled by his habit that he heads right back to the
Thus unfolds The Gambler, a
riveting remake loosely based on the 1974 classic starring James Caan. Trim and
impassioned, Mark Wahlberg handles the title role in this witty, gritty
overhaul of the original relying upon a well-crafted screenplay by Oscar-winner
William Monahan (for The Departed).
The cautionary tale
basically chronicles the gradual glide into depravity of an unrepentant loser
in denial. During that frightening tailspin, Jim is enabled by several of his
students, including flattered love interest Amy, basketball All-American Lamar
(Anthony Kelley) and promising tennis prodigy Dexter (Emory Cohen). The only
question is whether the pathetic prof will be able to pull out of the spiral
before crashing and burning.
This searing character
study unfolds against a variety of visually-captivating L.A. locales ranging from the seamy to the
posh, and is underscored by an appropriately-gritty soundtrack. Director Rupert
Wyatt’s (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) job was ostensibly made that much
easier by the A-list supporting cast featuring Oscar-winners George Kennedy
(for Cool Hand Luke) and Jessica Lange (for Tootsie and Blue Sky), as well as
veteran thespians John Goodman, Leland Orser and Michael Kenneth Williams.
If only the
self-destructive protagonist were a sympathetic soul instead of a real lout
you’d rather root against than for.
Very Good (3 stars)
R for sexuality, nudity, and pervasive profanity
time: 110 minutes
Paramount Home Media Distribution
order The Gambler on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack Extras: Mr. Self Destruct: Inside
the Gambler; Dark before Dawn: The Descent of The Gambler; Changing the Game:
Adaptation; in the City: Locations; Dressing the Players: Costume Design; deleted
scenes; and extended scenes.
Private Eye Takes Missing Persons Case in Surreal Hippie-Era
Dateline: Los Angeles, 1970, which is where we find Private Eye
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) living in a beach house with a view in
a fictional, seacoast enclave called Gordita
Beach. He’s totally
wasted, but that doesn’t stop Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine
Waterston) from approaching her ex-boyfriend for help with a personal problem.
Seems that the fetching femme fatale is currently the mistress of real
estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and she has reason to believe
that the philandering billionaire is about to be
involuntarily committed to a mental institution by his vindictive wife, Sloane
(Serena Scott Thomas), and her lover, Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson).
Against his better judgment, Doc takes the
case, and soon finds himself swept into a seamy underworld filled with colorful
characters ranging from a recently-paroled black radical (Michael Kenneth
Williams) to an avowed white supremacist (Christopher Allen Nelson) to the
proverbial prostitute with the heart of gold (Hong Chau). After being conked on
the head, Doc comes around in a police station where he learns that he’s the
prime suspect not only in the disappearance of both Mickey and Shasta Fay, but
in a murder to boot.
So unfolds Inherent Vice,
a surreal whodunit far more concerned with recreating the feel of the
post-Sixties’ daze of free-flowing drugs than with crafting a compelling crime
thriller. Unfortunately, the absence of a credible plotline means the premise
soon dissolves into a rudderless, meandering mess, reducing the viewing
experience to enjoying the retro décor, fashions and slang of the period.
The picture was directed by five-time
Oscar-nominee Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and
Magnolia), who also adapted the script from the Thomas Pynchon best-seller of
the same name.
The film does feature a few standout
performances, most notably, Joaquin Phoenix in the starring role, and Josh
Brolin as a hard-nosed LAPD officer. Otherwise the production makes precious
little use of the services of its cluttered, A-list cast which includes Academy
Award-winners Reese Witherspoon (for Walk the Line) and Benicio del Toro (for
Traffic), and Oscar-nominees Eric Roberts (for Runaway Train) and Owen Wilson
(for The Royal Tenenbaums).
unstructured, atmospheric affair ostensibly designed to appeal to folks
nostalgic for the hedonistic hippie era.
Good (2 stars)
R for profanity, violence, sexuality and graphic nudity
English and Japanese with subtitles
time: 148 minutes
Warner Home Video
Combo Pack Extras: Los Paranoias; Shasta Fay; The Golden Fang; and Everything
in This Dream.
Kevin Hart Poses as Best Man in Irreverent Romp Arriving on DVD
Doug Harris (Josh
Gad) and Gretchen Palmer (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) are putting
the finishing touches on their impending wedding. Trouble is the socially-challenged
groom has yet to find a best man and they’re set to exchange vows in just ten
rejected by every acquaintance he’s approached, receiving rude responses
ranging from “I thought you died” to “I didn’t even invite you to my wedding.”
So, Doug decides to hide his awkward predicament from his fiancée, since he’s
too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t have any friends.
Instead, he hires a
professional best man, Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart), along with seven strangers
to serve as his groomsmen. Can these guys get to know Doug well enough in a
week to convince Gretchen and members of the wedding party that they’re
That is the preposterous
point of departure of The Wedding Ringer, an unlikely-buddies comedy marking the
directorial debut of Yale
Jeremy Garelick. Provided you are not offended by and are willing to suspend
disbelief about the farfetched setup, you’ll actually be richly rewarded by the
hilarious, bad boy hijinks about to ensue.
Most of the laughs emanate from the
attempt by that motley assortment of unsavory characters to impersonate
refined, white-collar types ranging from a podiatrist, to a principal, to a
lawyer, to a professor. The sham of a best man adopts the alias “Bic Mitchum”
and passes himself off as a priest.
And although he proves convincing at
faking bromance, he warns Doug not to develop feelings because, “You’re not
buying a new friend. You’re hiring a best man.” But despite this strictly
business understanding, coldhearted Jimmy gradually warms to the goofy groom
and the two somehow bond anyway.
That unexpected development is what
ultimately redeems The Wedding Ringer’s otherwise pretty repugnant premise.
After all, how much hope could there really be for a marriage, if a groom would
opt to stage such an elaborate scheme rather than simply explain the situation
to his bride-to-be?
Put your brain on pause, and
motor-mouthed Kevin Hart, surrounded by a talented cast of seasoned comedians,
will keep you in stitches for the duration of a decidedly-lowbrow,
Very Good (3 stars)
R for crude humor, pervasive profanity, coarse sexuality and brief graphic
time: 101 minutes
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Combo Pack Extras: 15 deleted scenes; 5 outtakes; Line-o-Rama (collections of
alternate shots of jokes on set); Aloe Blacc’s “Can You Do This” music video;
Going to the Chapel featurette; and select scenes commentary with director
Jeremy Garelick and co-star Josh Gad.
Repressed Teen Vents His Carnal Urges in Homoerotic, Coming-of-Age Dramedy
Randy Rousseau (Julian Walker)
claims to be straight, even though everybody thinks he’s gay basically because
he’s effeminate, sings in the church choir, and is a member of Christian High’s
drama club. The repressed 17 year-old has even confessed to his BFFs, Effie
(Gary Leroi Gray) and Crystal (Nikki Jane), to waking up “soaked in sin” after nightly
wet dreams in which he makes love to other guys.
Nevertheless, he’s so deep in denial,
that he’s willing to take Crystal’s
virginity to prove his masculinity. But that brief experimentation with
heterosexuality is only momentary, while his choosing to co-star in Romeo and
Julian, a gay-themed, school production of Romeo and Juliet, proves a tad more
Randy’s reticence to come out of the closet has to do with his horrible relationship
with his parents, between an absentee dad (Isaiah Washington) he can barely recognize (“Who the eff are
you?”), and a Bible-thumping mother (Mo’Nique) who calls him an “effing punk”.
In addition, she blames her son for the mysterious disappearance of her
daughter (Hannah Moye), and has faith that God will send her back home once
Randy is purged of his gender-bending demons once and for all.
Directed and co-written by Patrik-Ian Polk, Blackbird is a
coming-of-age musical adventure which walks the fine line between drama and
comedy. That failure to commit is an unfortunate flaw which serves to undercut
any serious message the picture intends to deliver about tolerance.
Another problem is that the overplotted production has too many sidebars
distracting our attention away from the compelling question of Randy’s sexual
orientation. There’s the return of his Prodigal sister, his mama proselytizing
in the supermarket, a pal infected with an STD, a married man cruising at a gay
Lover’s Lane, the suicide of a preacher’s (Tirell Tilford) daughter (D. Woods),
and an exorcism.
Despite its failings, I’m still willing to give Blackbird a little
credit for tackling a subject that remains taboo in the black community. A
gospel-driven cross of Precious and Rent, only set in a sleepy Southern town
that time forgot instead of New York
Good (2 stars)
for teen sexuality, profanity and drug use
Avengers: Age of Ultron (PG-13 for suggestive comments and
intense violence, action and scenes of destruction) Eleventh installment in the
Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise finds Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris
Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow
(Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) joining forces to prevent a
diabolical villain with a God complex (James Spader) from wiping humanity off
the face of the planet. With Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, Idris Elba,
Hayley Atwell, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie and Linda
Far from the Madding Crowd (PG-13 for violence and some
sexuality) Third screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, set in
Victorian England, revolving around a trio of suitors, a shepherd (Matthias
Schoenaerts), a sergeant (Tom Sturridge) and a wealthy bachelor (Michael
Sheen), vying for the affections of a fetching, headstrong farmer (Carey
Mulligan). With Juno
Temple, Jessica Barden
and Eloise Oliver.
INDEPENDENT & FOREIGN FILMS
The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and
Disappeared (R for profanity and violence) Screen adaptation of Jonas
Jonasson’s novel of the same name about a frisky geezer (Robert Gustafsson) who
celebrates his 100th birthday by making a break from his retirement
home to embark on a daring adventure of a lifetime. With Iwar Wiklander, Mia
Skaringer and David Wiberg. (In Swedish, Spanish, Russian German, English and
Any Day (Unrated) Romance drama about a just-paroled
murderer (Sean Bean) in search of redemption who moves in with his sister (Kate
Walsh), gets a job at a pizzeria and starts dating a woman (Eva Longoria) he
meets in a grocery store.Cast includes
Tom Arnold, Shane Black and Sonya Eddy.
Cas & Dylan (Unrated) Unlikely-buddies dramedy about a
suicidal, senior citizen with a brain tumor (Richard Dreyfuss) who embarks on a
cross-country road trip with the free-spirited, 22 year-old girlfriend (Tatiana
Maslany) of a guy (Christopher Cordell) he
accidentally ran over. With Aaron Poole, Jayne Eastwood and Corinne
Gerontophilia (Unrated) Romantic comedy about love which
blossoms between a teenaged summer intern (Pier-Gabriel Lajoie) and one of the
residents (Walter Borden) in the old folks home where he works as an orderly.
Featuring Katie Boland, Yardly Kavanagh and Shawn Campbell. (In English and
French with subtitles)
Marie’s Story (Unrated) Fact-based biopic, set in 19th
Century France, about a neglected, deaf and blind girl (Ariana Rivoire) who
realized her potential with the help of the Catholic nun (Isabelle Carre) who started
teaching her how to communicate for the first time at the age of 14. With
Gilles Treton, Brigitte Catillon and Noemie Churlet. (In French and sign
language with subtitles)
Maya the Bee Movie (G) Animated adventure about a lowly
drone with a big heart (Coco Jack Gillies) who leads the search party after the
Queen bee’s (Miriam Margolyes) royal jelly is stolen. Voice cast includes Jacki
Weaver, Noah Taylor and Nina Hagen.
Ride (R for profanity and drug use) Helen Hunt wrote,
directed and stars in this California dreaming
dramedy as a concerned mom who quits her job as an editor at the New Yorker to
be with her son (Brenton Thwaites) in L.A.
after he drops out of college to surf while finding himself. Supporting cast
includes Luke Wilson, Richard Kind and Robert Knepper.
Welcome to Me (R for sexuality, profanity, graphic nudity
and brief drug use) Quirky character study about a lottery winner suffering
from Borderline Personality Disorder (Kristen Wiig) who stops taking her meds
and starts hosting her own TV talk show. With Linda Cardellini, James Marsden,
Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
the essays in this book make clear, public education is under attack. So is the
teaching profession… Those who are leading the charge are very wealthy
individuals, hedge fund managers, corporate executives, and venture
attack on public schools and the teaching profession is fueled by a zealous
belief in test scores… Reformers treat standardized tests as both a measure of
quality and the goal of schooling. They don’t care that their fetishizing of
tests has perverse consequences, that it leads to narrowing of the curriculum,
cheating, teaching to the test, and gaming the system.
don’t care that their focus on scores as the be-all and end-all of schooling
has warped education, particularly in districts where children have the highest
needs and the lowest scores. Test-prep is all-important; it leaves no time for
projects, activities, and deep learning.”
from the Foreword (pages xi-xii)
The size of America’s Prison-Industrial
Complex increased exponentially towards the end of the 20th Century,
when big business successfully lobbied politicians to privatize correctional
facilities all across the country. Unfortunately, while Wall St. benefited immeasurably from the
conversions, minority youth were the primary victims of the subsequent rush to
fill all the new jails via the kindergarten to prison pipeline.
investors started setting their sights on the nation’s public schools, again
with the idea of profiting at the expense of the poor. President George W.
Bush’s much-ballyhooed “No Child Left Behind” policy was ostensibly little more
than a thinly-veiled attempt by entrepreneurs to wrest control of public education
from the federal government.
reformers’ basic argument was that failing schools could be turned around if
they were run more like streamlined businesses than academic institutions, and
that the best way to gauge how well one was doing was by looking at students’
scores on standardized tests. To the extent that bureaucrats swallowed that
sales pitch, teachers and principals found their jobs in jeopardy as they
attempted to adjust to the altered curricula.
The fallout has
already been shocking in cities like Atlanta, where numerous staff members are headed
to prison for falsifying grades to protect their salaries as well as bonuses
tied to test results. Elsewhere, we find faculty and pupils pushing back
against the pressure to focus so narrowly on standardized tests and against the
suggestion that scores are the most reliable way of assessing the quality of an
All of the above is
the subject of More Than a Score, a collection of thought-provoking essays
edited by high school history teacher Jesse Hagopian. The book includes
articles not only by Jesse and fellow educators, but also by students, parents
and administrators invariably questioning the wisdom of widespread standardized
A clarion call by an
army of passionate child advocates coming to the defense of kids caught in the
crosshairs of the corporate-promoted practice of teaching to the test.
The Sly Fox Film Reviews publishes the content of film critic Kam Williams. Voted Most Outstanding Journalist of the Decade by the Disilgold Soul Literary Review in 2008, Kam Williams is a syndicated film and book critic who writes for 100+ publications around the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada and the Caribbean. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the NAACP Image Awards Nominating Committee and Rotten Tomatoes.
In addition to a BA in Black Studies from Cornell, he has an MA in English from Brown, an MBA from The Wharton School, and a JD from Boston University. Kam lives in Princeton, NJ with his wife and son.