I did a brief phoner yesterday afternoon with The Babadook director-writer Jennifer Kent. We danced around and touched on the usual stuff. Friendly, convivial, not exactly profound but whaddaya want from a 13-minute chat? A brilliant, Polanski-level exercise, The Babadook (IFC Midnight, 11.28, theatrical/VOD) is currently at 90% on Metacritic and 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. “It’s one of those restrained, character-driven, less-is-much-much-more horror films that pop up once in a blue moon,” I wrote on 11.1. “A mix of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby plus Juan Antonio Bayona‘s The Orphanage. And significantly more effective than Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining in telling a story of dark spirits overtaking the mind and soul of a parent.” Again, the mp3.
Less than three hours hence the first-anywhere screening of Ava Duvernay‘s Selma begins at the Egyptian at 6 pm, and then the AFI Fest “surprise” screening of Clint Eastwood‘s American Sniper at 9 pm at the Dolby. And probably a Selma q & a in between the two. Busy venue, media urgency, will-call tables, converging of Warner Bros. and Paramount staffers. Sniper showed to trade critics earlier today on the Warner Bros. lot. Earlier announced plans for a screening of 30 minutes of Selma footage were apparently a dodge. Paramount intended all along to show the whole film but wanted it to be a surprise.
The other night Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer passed along a good Al Pacino story. It happened fairly recently although I forget where. The 74 year-old Pacino, who’s now doing press for Barry Levinson‘s The Humbling (Millennium, 1.23.15), was about to participate in some q & a appearance at a hotel or cinema, and while he waited he was sitting on a bench and reading a new script. (Or something like that.) And a couple of women came over and one said, “I’m very sorry but could you please do us a big favor?” Okay, said Pacino. “Could you please take our picture?” she said, referring to herself and her friend. Beat, beat. “Uhhm, okay!” said Pacino. He took the shot, the women thanked him and we went back to his script.
I know what this sounds like but Rupert Wyatt, William Monahan and Mark Wahlberg‘s The Gambler isn’t as interesting or eloquent as Karel Riesz, James Toback and James Caan‘s The Gambler (’74). It deals faster, flashier cards, but it misses the meditative soulful aspects of the Reisz-Toback version, which is partly to say it takes no pleasure in occasional wins and the power and glory of that. The new Gambler is almost entirely about staring into the abyss. Character-wise it delivers a relentless obstinacy and a smug-punk attitude in Mark Wahlberg‘s gambling-addicted character, and story-wise it furnishes a constant cycle of losing and doubling down and then losing a whole lot more, and then borrowing from ugly Peter to pay even-more-terrible Paul and so on. And it blows off those charming tidbits of Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s philosophy that lent a certain spiritual élan to the ’74 version.
This sounds like I’m going “oh, the older version is better because everything older is better” but it’s not that. The 40 year-old Gambler is a very fine film but it’s not perfect. My attitude going into last night’s AFI Fest screening was that the newbie might be a bump-up. All Monahan had to do, I told myself, was take what was jolting and mesmerizing about the ’74 version and then build upon it…all he had to do was reach into his soul and add a few things, and in so doing inspire Wahlberg and Wyatt and make a better film. That didn’t happen. They made another film, which is basically a smart, ultra-cynical jizz-whizz thing.
What Monahan’s screenplay and the film are basically saying is “we’re doing two things here — we’re ignoring a good part of what was sobering and haunting about the ’74 version, and at the same time we’re going to skate figure eights around it and generally kick ass with the usual stylistic flourishes that everyone wallows in these days.”
This is not to say The Gambler is a bad film. It just should have (and definitely could have) been a lot better.