The Gambler (2015)

The Gambler 2015By day a literature professor and by night a gambling addict, Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is in even more debt than his students. Despite owing $260,000 to an underground gambling ringleader and another $50,000 to a loan shark, Jim is determined to keep on betting; first borrowing money from his mother, Roberta (Jessica Lange), and, when that’s soon squandered, turning to gangster Frank (John Goodman) for a top-up, the latter of whom threatens to have Jim murdered if he can’t pay up. His two worlds begin to collide when he is spotted at a casino by a promising young student who works there after school, and later when one of his debtors takes an interest in an aspiring basketball player who just happens to take his class.

It says a lot that in a cinematic landscape populated by talking raccoons and robot dinosaurs it is still a stretch to imagine Mark Wahlberg as a university lecturer. And this isn’t even the first time he’s played an academic — who could ever forget his turn as a high-school science teacher in M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening? And yet, the suspension of disbelief necessary to accept Max Payne himself lecturing an enraptured audience on artistic integrity is too great to make. Jim Bennett just doesn’t make any sense as a character. How does he have a job? Why that job? What even is his job? It certainly doesn’t seem to involve any sort of transfer of knowledge; he doesn’t seem to teach his students anything at all. He just endangers them.

Even then, however, The Gambler struggles to establish sufficient stakes. Beyond the fact that one can write and the other can throw a ball nothing is really done to develop Brie Larson’s Amy or Anthony Kelley’s Lamar into sympathetic or even believable supporting characters. Nobody in The Gambler seems to care much about anything, be it literature or self-preservation, least of all Jim. There is no conflict of any kind — either internal or external — just meaningless money changing hands without any thought for what those sums might in fact represent: be it a bad investment or a dead family member. At no point do you believe that Jim’s life is in danger; instead, it’s just a case of waiting until William Monohan has finished writing the same scenes over and over and finally decided to (literally) write off his protagonist’s debts — Jim Bennett having apparently learned absolutely nothing along the way.

Amazingly, The Gambler isn’t completely without merit. Director Rupert Wyatt does the best he can, and in spite of a largely unremarkable cast and a repetitive script he manages to keep things at least watchable. John Goodman and Emory Cohen are similarly on fine (as in: acceptable) form, with the former stripping half-naked for one of the more bizarre business transactions of the year so far. The only fully clothed person to really make an impression is Jessica Lange, who, applying all the tricks she has learnt over the seasons at FX’s American Horror Story, adds another scene-stealing matriarch to her collection. Sadly, however, Jim’s mother is all but forgotten after only her second appearance, and disappears from the narrative mid-way through the second act, having bailed her son out for the very last time. Tellingly, you spend the rest of the film wondering whatever happened to her.

Self-destructive behaviour is never much fun to watch, but coupled with uninspiring seminars and interminable poker sessions Jim Bennett’s downward spiral is particularly tedious. Wahlberg has been worse, but sadly that’s not saying an awful lot.



Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Having watched his father succumb to the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Will Rodman (James Franco) has spent the last five years of his life working on a cure. Observing the increased cognitive functions of a chimpanzee subjected to ALZ112, the next stage in testing – the all important human trials – are undermined by a display of violence. Ordered to put down the animal test subjects, Rodman’s assistant stops short when an infant is discovered. Taking it home, Rodman grows attached to the chimp, who quickly displays heightened intelligence suggesting the serum’s effects have been passed down by the mother. Convinced of the drugs effectiveness, Rodman ignores protocol and tests it on his ailing father.

Charles Rodman’s (John Lithgow) speedy recovery is maintained over the next five years as Caeser (Andy Serkis), the adopted chimpanzee, grows up, quickly outperforming many of his human peers at a series of cognitive tasks. When Charles’ immune system begins to fight back against AL112, however, Will returns to the lab in pursuit of a more aggressive strain of the drug. When Caeser displays aggression in protecting a confused Charles, he is deemed dangerous and forced into captivity. Brutalised by his captors, Caeser plans an escape that will not only liberate his fellow apes, but subject them to the same drug that gave his mother such increased intelligence in the first place.

Arrogant scientist, check; cure for Alzheimer’s disease, check; super-intelligent animals, check; so far so Deep Blue Sea. What separates Rise of the Planet of the Apes from its shark-toothed predecessor is its superior balance between set-up and set-piece. For the majority of the movie evolution takes precedence over revolution, Caeser’s growth and development providing an in for audiences that somehow manages to nurture genuine affection for a CGI chimpanzee. Before Caeser is even born, however, we see how the whole programme came into fruition, thanks to the desperate and overraught motivations of one man; a scientist tirelessly trying to help his sick father.

Franco gives an incredibly nuanced performance as Will, one that swings organically from autocratic to sympathetic with very few beats in between. Will’s relief when his father shows signs of recovery is understated but incredibly moving; the relationship he fosters with Freida Pinto’s concerned veterinary surgeon is unnecessary but touching; his parenting of a infant chimpanzee is far-fetched but resoundingly real. Whatever is to be said of the effects and peripheral filmmaking, and there is much to be said, it is Will’s relationship with his father (John Lithgow is quite simply sublime) as much as anything else that makes this film such an unexpected success.

Unexpected? Yes, I believe it is. Prequels don’t have the most assuring track record, and following Tim Burton’s revision of the original movie, neither does the franchise itself. This only serves to make director Rupert Wyatt’s success all the more triumphant. Having previously directed Brian Cox in 2008’s The Escapist, Wyatt reunites with the one time Hannibal for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, adding to an already impressive ensemble which helps to flesh out even the most stock of characters. Tom Felton’s Dodge is pure pantomime villain, but the actor brings the most fleeting trace of humanity to the character, rendering him all the more real.

Let there be no mistake, however, this is Serkis’ movie. Like Lord of the Rings and King Kong before it – heck even without the aid of special effects he managed to steal The Cottage right from under a beautifully profane Jennifer Ellison – Serkis breathes such life into his character that it is utterly impossible to look away. Not least does this allow audiences to emote to what is ultimately a ludicrous combination of a man covered in plastic balls and a few million dollars worth of pixels, but it enables viewers to suspend disbelief even further than they might have been able otherwise. The scene in which Caeser vocalises for the first time, for example, is exceedingly well done. It is nevertheless the scene which, in less able hands, might have easily derailed the entire movie. Deep Blue Sea wouldn’t even have dared.

A combination of outstanding performances, superlative effects work and unparalleled direction ensure that Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t disappoint. Better than it should have been, better than it’s paragraph of a name suggests, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a moving, heartfelt tribute to a cult classic. Telling a small story which is given the freedom to escalate, Wyatt has followed up J. J. Abrams’ Super 8 with a movie of equal power and affection. It looks like summer was a little late this year. Thank goodness it was worth the wait.