THE GAMBLER. Popular opinion holds that The Gambler, a remake of a 40-year-old James Caan vehicle with the same title, is Wahlberg's all-in (pardon the pun, I can't promise it'll be the last) bet on Oscar gold. On paper it looks like a ballsy, odds-against bet (see?). In the plus column, there's a tuned-up script credited to William Monahan. Monahan is the weird genius who won an Academy Award in 2007 for adapting the screenplay for The Departed. In the "could go either way" column is director Rupert Wyatt, best known for the popular, surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). And then there's Wahlberg, who's got his hands so all over this thing that it's hard to read. Not only does he star, he's in every scene and nearly every frame. He also produced, so it's easy to accuse him of having a vanity card up his sleeve (I will make every effort to cut this out, going forward).
Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) published a borderline-brilliant novel in 2007. Though much acclaimed, it didn't pay. He's taken a position teaching English literature at a big, nameless university. He drives a snazzy little BMW M135i coupe and turns impressive verbal somersaults in front of the mostly-bored students in his modern novel course. He also indulges perilously self-destructive tendencies while struggling with his identity. That identity is at least partly defined by his family, including a much-beloved, unimaginably wealthy late grandfather (George Kennedy, whom it's nice to see is still alive) who left Jim nothing in his will and an almost-as-wealthy mother on the verge of writing him off forever (Jessica Lange).
His outlet for all this existential frustration? High stakes gambling, specifically illegal high stakes gambling. More specifically, games hosted and frequented by people who will happily allow one to lose/borrow/lose until one is approximately $250,000 in debt.
This, of course, is where we find Jim at the beginning of the movie. Already leveraged well beyond his means to murderous, avuncular Mister Lee (Alvin Ing), he borrows another $50,000 from more murderous, not at all avuncular Neville Baraka (Michael Kenneth Williams). This loan he blows in a matter of minutes, at which point he goes begging, first to scary but sensible Frank (John Goodman), then back to Mom. It's a hideously plausible spiral of bad decisions, made even more uncomfortable by the presence of his precocious student/paramour Amy (Brie Larson).
In defense of The Gambler, it is well-written, stylishly photographed and well-paced. The supporting cast gives interestingly interpreted performances, even if it sometimes feels like the characters are held at arm's length. Goodman, in particular, exudes practical menace, but delivers it with his unique comic flair. And Larson does quiet reactions as well as anybody.
The sticking point here is Wahlberg, who is likeable, especially when a director can coax comedy from him. There's a little of that here, and his performance is pretty good. But there are moments when he's really swinging for the fences. Supposedly he shed 60 pounds of beef preparing for this role, which is a pretty actor-y thing to do. But more than that, it's the fact that he's dressed in a black suit, spouting florid soliloquies about talent and futility that just don't sound right coming out of his mouth. It's not a bad performance; he does compelling work throughout, but he seems miscast.
From start to finish The Gambler is much more enjoyable than expected. But we've seen Wahlberg in too many movies, and he is not chameleon enough to disappear into a role like this. He can be great at what he does well, and while this is a laudable effort, it's not the right fit. R. 111m.
INTO THE WOODS. Musicals are inherently stagy, and thus ill-suited to the movies. Too often, they dispel all their effective atmosphere when characters break into song, songs that are so literal it hurts.
It's fine — everyone go have fun, it just isn't for some of us. At the same time, who doesn't love a fairytale's ability to enchant and transport. On that score, credit goes to Into the Woods director Rob Marshall and his whole art direction and production design team. The movie is lushly atmospheric, and between songs it captures some old-school Hollywood magic.
A couple cursed by a witch (Meryl Streep) head for the forest to break the spell. They cross paths (repeatedly and for way too long) with a bevy of fairytale characters with their own problems, including Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and a wolfish Johnny Depp. It's a sort of mash-up of many of the canonical fairytales, complete with all the death and loss of the source material.
As far as performances, it once seemed Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt could do no wrong, but while Into the Woods doesn't destroy that belief, it shakes it a little. Meryl Streep may well get an Academy Award nomination because that's what she does. Chris Pine infuses more humor into his part than anybody else, but is underserved by the storyline. As soon as the singing starts, interest wanes. Some of that is down to personal taste, but there's a problem when such a strong cast can bore in an otherwise compelling scenario. PG. 124m.
THE IMITATION GAME. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in a biopic about the mathletes and cryptologists trying to crack the German code in World War II. PG13. 114m.
INHERENT VICE. Thomas Pynchon's kidnapping tale is a little Lebowski, a little Fear and Loathing and a lot of Pynchon. With Joaquin Phoenix as a greasy detective. R. 148m.
SELMA. A drama about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and the pivotal civil rights march. PG13. 128m.
TAKEN 3. Liam Neeson is back stalking, shooting and growling into phones. Whoever killed his wife and framed him, he's going to hunt them down and (spoiler!) kill them. PG13. 109m.
ANNIE. Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis charm and entertain in this harmless update of the musical. PG13. 118m.
BIG EYES. The story of the creepy husband who took credit for Margaret Keane's creepy paintings of anime-eyed girls. Directed by creepy Tim Burton. PG. 105m.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. Oakenshield's beard, that's a lot of swordplay. Peter Jackson wraps up the Tolkien saga(s) with drawn-out battles and less zip than the previous installment. PG13. 144m.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1. Fancy production and action can't salvage the puffed up script and yawning monologues. One more to go. PG13. 116m.
THE INTERVIEW. The North Korean assassination satire, despite its weirdly politicized release, is an original, well-executed action comedy. With Seth Rogen and James Franco. R 112m.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB. Ben Stiller is back on duty as a museum guard with more antiquities, more problems. Try not to tear up when you see Robin Williams. PG. 98m.
PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR. The flightless foursome gets its own animated spin-off. They're spies on the trail of a villainous cephalopod. PG. 97m.
UNBROKEN. Angelina Jolie directs this biopic about Olympiad and World War II POW Louis Zamperini's survival. Should make you feel terrible for complaining about your relatives over the holidays. PG13. 137m.
WILD. As author Cheryl Strayed, Reese Witherspoon narrowly escapes Eat Pray Hike territory to honestly explore self-reliance, love and loss on the Pacific Crest Trail. R. 115m.
WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH. The sequel picks up 40 years later with the ghost haunting World War II evacuee children. PG13. 98m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill