Friday, April 24, 2015

The Gambler (DVD REVIEW)



The Gambler
DVD Review by Kam Williams
 

Wahlberg Remake of Mob Saga Arrives on DVD

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 lose.
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 casino tables.
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)
Rated R for sexuality, nudity, and pervasive profanity   
Running time: 110 minutes
Distributor: Paramount Home Media Distribution
To 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.

To see a trailer for The Gambler, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiiaoUnkMvQ

To order The Gambler on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack, visit: 

Top Ten DVD Releases for 4-28-15



This Week’s DVD Releases
by Kam Williams


Top Ten DVD List for April 28, 2015                      

Paddington

American Interior


The Wedding Ringer

Last Days in Vietnam

The Gambler

The Mentalist: The Complete Series [Box Set]

The Mystery of Lord Lucan

New Tricks: Season Eleven

Boy Meets Girl

The Almighty Johnsons: Seasons One-Three


Honorable Mention

Masterpiece: Wolf Hall


The Physics of Light

Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M.

The Comedian

Wallykazam!

The Marine 4: Moving Target

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

Twice Born: Stories from the Special Delivery Unit

Mia & Me: Discover Centopia

Inherent Vice

The Barber

The Boy Next Door

50 to 1

Drink Me: The Vampire Next Door

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Inherent Vice (DVD REVIEW)



Inherent Vice
DVD Review by Kam Williams

Private Eye Takes Missing Persons Case in Surreal Hippie-Era Whodunit

            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).
An unstructured, atmospheric affair ostensibly designed to appeal to folks nostalgic for the hedonistic hippie era.

Good (2 stars)
Rated R for profanity, violence, sexuality and graphic nudity
In English and Japanese with subtitles
Running time: 148 minutes
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack Extras: Los Paranoias; Shasta Fay; The Golden Fang; and Everything in This Dream.

To see a trailer for Inherent Vice, visit:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZfs22E7JmI

To order a copy of Inherent Vice on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack, visit: 

The Wedding Ringer (DVD REVIEW)



The Wedding Ringer
DVD Review by Kam Williams

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 days.
            He’s been 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 long-lost friends?
That is the preposterous point of departure of The Wedding Ringer, an unlikely-buddies comedy marking the directorial debut of Yale University graduate 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, politically-incorrect misadventure. 

Very Good (3 stars)
Rated R for crude humor, pervasive profanity, coarse sexuality and brief graphic nudity
Running time: 101 minutes
Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray/DVD 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.

To see a trailer for The Wedding Ringer, visit:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3TeI9jPPuA

To order a copy of The Wedding Ringer on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack, visit:
 

Blackbird (FILM REVIEW)



Blackbird
Film Review by Kam Williams

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 telling.
            Perhaps 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 City.

Good (2 stars)
Rated R for teen sexuality, profanity and drug use
Running time: 99 minutes
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment

To see a trailer for Blackbird, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3KEVWeHPg8

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Kam's Movie Kapsules for 5-1-15



OPENING THIS WEEK
Kam's Kapsules:      
Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun         
by Kam Williams
For movies opening May 1, 2015


BIG BUDGET FILMS   

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 Cardellini.        

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 French)

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 Conley.    

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.

More Than a Score (BOOK REVIEW)



More Than a Score
The New Uprising against High-Stakes Testing
Foreword by Diane Ravitch
Edited by Jesse Hagopian
Introduction by Alfie Kohn
Afterword by Wayne Au
Haymarket Books
Paperback, $16.00
336 pages, Illustrated
ISBN: 978-1-60846-392-3

Book Review by Kam Williams

“As 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 philanthropists.
The 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.
Reformers 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.”
Excerpted 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.
More recently, 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.
The capitalist 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 education.
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 testing.
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.

To order a copy of More Than a Score, visit: