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Nov 16 2014

AFI Fest's Gala Premieres: 'The Gambler' and 'The Homesman'

Margarethere,reporting from the LA festival beat with short takes on some would-be Oscar contenders.

The Gambler
Screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed),director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes),and star Mark Wahlberg joined forces on this remake of the 1974 James Caan movie of the same name,and the result is certainly stylish.It's well-shot,coolly assured,and smartly paced.Wahlberg leads the movie capably as Jim Bennett,a man from a rich family with a solid career who has nonetheless dug himself to rock bottom with extravagant compulsive gambling.

The film is at its best when it engages with the question of why someone whose life is granted so much privilege so systematically pisses it all away.John Goodman,typically scene-stealing as a dangerous loan shark,makes many salient points about Jim's decisions,which are either self-destructive or indefensibly stupid.To its detriment,the film ultimately succumbs to the impulse to romanticize its protagonist,asking the audience to cheer and respect him when he  finally makes his first sound decision.

The supporting cast is largely excellent;it will surprise no one that Jessica Lange wrings every ounce of personality,pathos,and curdled maternal affection from her few minutes of screentime.Even so,she makes little impact on the movie because,like the protagonist,it brushes her away.The Gamblercan claim the dubious achievement of completing the Stock Female Character hat trick: (1) a maternal figure who exists to thanklessly prop up the male lead,(2) a pretty young thing (Brie Larson) who we're told is a stone-cold genius,but is given no development arc and has inexplicable romantic interest in the lead,and (3) a passel of nameless and faceless strippers.Slow clap.

These are not deal-breakers for every moviegoer,but they're emblematic of the film's general reliance on familiar beats instead of showing us something new.

The Homesman
BREAKING NEWS: Tommy Lee Jones smiled upwards of twice when introducing his newest film at AFI Fest.He had glowing things to say about the whole cast,particularly  "the miraculous Hilary Swank",who more than earned her praise.The Homesmanis a stubbornly unromantic and prickly western,but Swank anchors it with a very fine,emotionally vivid performance.

The Homesman's portrait of life in the Nebraska Territory is bleak;life is hard,and heroism a luxury.When a town meeting is called to order the transport of three mentally ill women (Grace Gummer,Miranda Otto,and Sonja Richter) back to family in Iowa,their husbands shrink from the task.The staunchly moralistic Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) takes on the assignment,knowing it will be a miserable and dangerous enterprise,because no one else will do it and she knows it must be done.Upon acquiring a traveling companion in a self-interested claim jumper whomaybe named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones),she sets off with her dead-eyed charges.

There are many well-conceived notes in the movie.A knife fight over a disinterested captive,Mary Bee silently playing an embroidered set of piano keys for lack of a real instrument,a flashback to a passenger's slow break from sanity-- each hints at a poignancy that never feels realized in the film as a whole.The tone occasionally veers into incongruous places-- Tommy Lee Jones' introduction is oddly slapstick,and there's a vengeful sequence in the third act that would have been more at home inDjango Unchained-- and while the story doesn't conform to any expected trajectory,neither does it end as strongly as it began.

The movie didn't leave me sure exactly what story its makers wanted to tell,or at least,it never convinced me of why they were telling it.Even so,it's at times both moving and starkly beautiful,and will not be easy to forget.

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Reader Comments (9)

I hope Hilary Swank gets an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Homesman.I really felt for her character.

November 17,2014 | Unregistered CommenterNina

Agree with nearly every word about The Gambler.I have to think there was more to Brie Larson's role else why would she take it?And given that Mark Wahlberg is 43 and Brie is 25 and he was paired with Mila Kunis (29 at the time) when he was 41.Why is he getting older while his screen girls are getting younger?

In his 30s he wassometimespaired with similarly aged women (Amy Adams,Rachel Weisz) but i guess when a leading man turns 40 you have to quit that!

November 17,2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel,have you seen The Homesman?

November 17,2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Cal - i have not yet,no.

November 17,2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The Homesman was uneven,but it has stuck with me quite a bit,especially Swank's character.

Apparently,Wahlberg plays a professor in The Gambler,which has to be one of the most implausible casting decisions ever.Who can even imagine him as someone who's ever gone to university?

November 17,2014 | Unregistered CommenterJan

WHAT?!they gave The Gambler,which has one of the great existential endings,a "love conquers all"ending?!That's...awful.Just awful.My interest in this - which was already pretty low,because I'm pretty sure the world is not screaming out for a slick,Marky Mark fronted remake of the classic Toback/Reisz film) - just plummeted.

Jones,meanwhile,really impressed me with the other films he directed (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and The Sunset Limited).I'm quite looking forward to The Homesman.

November 17,2014 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I saw The Homesman and it does have problems in the 3rd,hope Nathaniel will see something in Swank's performance,i could not stop thinking about her character and feel she has a real shot just as much as Witherspoon whose film is v v quiet as is she,Pike,Jones,Blunt and the rest.

November 17,2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

Agreeing with all this praise about Swank.As a longtime self-confessed hater of hers (by way of being a super Benning fan) I think this happens to be my favorite performance of hers by very far.I think I wouldn't really be upset if she somehow ends up nominated.But of course all this might be due to the fact that Annette is not in the game this time around.And if (of course that's a huge IF) she manages to steal this one from Julianne then my opinion about the performance may drastically change.We're all human after all.

November 17,2014 | Unregistered Commenterhcu

I don't think she will win but in a weak year they may go for her,it's right in the Academy's wheel house,Jones and Swank are well liked actors and despite that she is much better than Jones and Pike.

November 18,2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

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