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Two for the Money

Two for the Money
"Two for the Money" is a muddled melodrama about the shady and questionable though not quite illegal world of "sports advisers." Those are the guys who feed sports bettors with their picks to beat the point spread for any given game. The muddle comes from the filmmakers' fuzzy notion of what exactly is the point to their movie.

Is it a sly remake of "The Gambler" (1974), which is the obvious antecedent? Or is it a poor imitation of David Mamet in his "Glengarry Glen Ross" mode, which includes the casting of that movie's full-throttle star, Al Pacino, who co-stars here with Matthew McConaughey and Rene Russo? Or is this some misguided stab at analyzing the human "defect" that turns obsessional sports gambling into a $200 billion annual business?

Writer Dan Gilroy ("Freejack") and director D.J. Caruso ("Taking Lives") are clearly fascinated by this milieu. Yet despite characters, situations and a music score that attempts to push every scene to the extreme, they don't make their fascination our fascination. The characters become increasingly remote as their behavior thrusts viewers further and further away from the story. The odds are that this overheated but undercooked film will puzzle or annoy too many viewers, even sports obsessed males, to sustain a long theatrical run.

The movie first offers up three implausible but not wholly impossible characters. McConaughey plays a washed-up ex-jock with a bum knee who still thinks he has a shot at becoming an NFL quarterback. He supports himself between workouts as a phone operator in a Las Vegas 900-number racket, where his true talent emerges: He has an uncanny knack for picking about 80% of the winners of each weekend's football games.

This talent is spotted in faraway New York by Walter Abrams (Pacino), a recovered gambling addict who now exploits -- teases? -- his addiction as the host of a TV and telephone sports adviser for bettors. His wife, Toni (Russo), an ex-junkie, spends her days managing her off-the-wall husband and running a beauty parlor.

Walter recruits Brandon, moves him to the Big Apple and installs him downstairs in his brownstone, no less. Walter then recasts his empire around this Whiz Kid. He even shoves aside a computer geek (Jeremy Piven), whose spreadsheets actually achieve a success ratio comparable to Brandon's.

He renames his protege John Anthony, supplies him with a car and the occasional call girl and is rewarded one weekend when Brandon -- sorry, Anthony -- guesses right on every game. Ah, but the Gambling Gods are fickle, as we all know, so the fall is coming soon enough.

Predictability isn't the real problem though. Rather it's the filmmakers' inability, unlike Mamet and very few others, to make unsavory characters and raw, kitchen-sink psychology work in dramatic terms. A viewer must wonder who or what he is to root for among these symbiotic characters who prey upon each others' weaknesses.

The film's sledgehammer approach to drama is deeply wearying. When Brandon first arrives in New York and his driver pulls up in front of Walter's brownstone, the soundtrack plays Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman". Then Pacino, in a performance just south of "Scarface", is egged on by his director -- as if he needs much prodding -- to push each scene into crazed, self-destructive obsession, snapping at Brandon's heels and slapping cigarettes in his mouth despite a weakened heart and constant chest pains.

McConaughey has effective moments as a lamb led to the slaughter who is too busy admiring his wonderful, fluffy coat. He is the film's one character that had genuine potential. On the other hand, Russo's Toni is an amalgam of so many cliches you wonder how the actress got any purchase on the material.

Armand Assante turns up for a couple of scenes as a Really Bad Dude with a weakness for gambling, but the character lacks a clear focus and the physical threat he seems to represent vanishes soon enough.

The filmmakers know the world of sports betting but not sports itself. More specifically, no losing football coach at any level, much less the NFL, would instruct his team to throw a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game to beat the point spread!

Conrad W. Hall gives the film a dark, moody atmosphere amid Tom Southwell's sets all too successfully depress or alienate. The Christophe Beck score assumes a silent moment is a wasted opportunity.

TWO FOR THE MONEY

Universal Pictures

A Morgan Creek production

Credits:

Director: D.J. Caruso

Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy

Producer: James G. Robinson, Jay Cohen

Executive producers: Dan Gilroy, Rene Russo, Guy McElwaine, David C. Robinson

Director of photography: Conrad W. Hall

Production designer: Tom Southwell

Music: Christophe Beck

Co-producer: Wayne Morris

Costumes: Marie-Sylvie Deveau

Editor: Glen Scantlebury

Cast:

Walter: Al Pacino

Brandon: Matthew McConaughey

Toni: Rene Russo

Novian: Armand Assante

Jerry: Jeremy Piven

Alexandria: Jamie King

Southie: Kevin Chapman

Reggie: Ralph Garman

MPAA rating: R

Running time -- 123 minutes

Taking Lives

Taking Lives
Opens

Friday, March 19


The cities of Quebec and Montreal actually playing themselves for once is just about the best thing in the otherwise pedestrian psychological thriller "Taking Lives". Shooting largely in the old towns of both French-Canadian cities, director D.J. Caruso establishes a film-noir atmosphere that has an intriguing blend of Old and New World. Angelina Jolie plays a role that definitely feels like something she has already done, but she does add an unmistakable dash of excitement and glamour. Otherwise, it's a struggle to differentiate this cop vs. serial killer tale from many others that now crowd video shelves. Young males will give "Taking Lives" a solid opening weekend, but Jolie's Special Agent Illeana Scott is no Lara Croft.

Illeana, an FBI profiler, has a knack for tracking down serial killers

she's Sherlock Holmes with curves. Illeana can merely look at a suspect and determine he's a left-hander from Vancouver with a bad childhood -- or lie in a grave, which is where we first see her, and determine the exact method by which a victim was murdered and buried.

Illeana gets called into a case that has the Montreal police baffled. (How and why Canadian authorities would bring an American agent in on a Canadian case is never made clear.) A body has turned up at a construction site, and on almost no evidence whatsoever, Surete du Quebec director Leclair (Tcheky Karyo) decides a serial killer is at work.

The film actually opens in 1983, when a drifter (Paul Dano) impulsively kills a guy he is traveling with and assumes his identity. In present day, a distraught mother (Gena Rowlands) pleads to bored Quebec City police that she just saw her son, whom she believed dead for two decades. She cautions them that he is very dangerous.

The viewer's only quandary at this moment is whether Ethan Hawke, who claims to be Montreal art dealer James Costa, looks enough like that kid in 1983 to be him, or is he simply what he says he is -- a good Samaritan who happened along just as a prolific serial killer was finishing off another victim?

Initially, Illeana treats him as a suspect. But signs point to him being the next target of the killer, since he got a good look at the man, thus requiring police protection and Illeana's continual presence in his life. A strange attraction grows between them that may, in her words, "cloud my judgment."

Meanwhile, Illeana becomes convinced that the killer has been on the rampage for years, each time assuming the life of his victim. But her methods clash with those of her Montreal police colleagues, hotheaded Paquette (Olivier Martinez) and the more even-keel Duval (Jean-Hugues Anglade). Then Kiefer Sutherland turns up rather late in the story, playing yet another of his furtive and menacing characters.

Jon Bokenkamp's script, based on Michael Pye's novel, delivers the requisite thriller sequences -- the chase through a large crowd, a detective prowling in a dark house only to discover that she is not alone, a body that falls out of nowhere, a car that roars down the wrong way of a bridge. The movie loses considerable punch, though, with a drawn-out ending, when the culprit is revealed but doesn't receive his comeuppance until much later.

The filmmaking here -- Amir M. Mokri's moody cinematography, Tom Southwell's stylish mix of locations, Anne V. Coates' meticulous editing and Philip Glass' unusually low-key but evocative music -- is surprisingly graceful for a conventional thriller. Clearly, much care and intelligence have been lavished on discouraging, routine material.

TAKING LIVES

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. in association with Village Roadshow Pictures presents a Mark Canton production

Credits:

Director: D.J. Caruso

Screenwriter: Jon Bokenkamp

Based on a novel by: Michael Pye

Producers: Mark Canton, Bernie Goldman

Executive producers: Bruce Berman

David Heyman

Director of photography: Amir M. Mokri

Production designer: Tom Southwell

Music: Philip Glass

Costume designer: Marie-Sylvie Deveau

Editor: Anne V. Coates

Cast:

Illeana: Angelina Jolie

Costa: Ethan Hawke

Hart: Kiefer Sutherland

Mrs. Asher: Gena Rowlands

Paquette: Olivier Martinez

Duval: Jean-Hugues Anglade

Leclair: Tcheky Karyo

Running time -- 103 minutes

MPAA rating: R

Taking Lives

Taking Lives
Opens

Friday, March 19


The cities of Quebec and Montreal actually playing themselves for once is just about the best thing in the otherwise pedestrian psychological thriller "Taking Lives". Shooting largely in the old towns of both French-Canadian cities, director D.J. Caruso establishes a film-noir atmosphere that has an intriguing blend of Old and New World. Angelina Jolie plays a role that definitely feels like something she has already done, but she does add an unmistakable dash of excitement and glamour. Otherwise, it's a struggle to differentiate this cop vs. serial killer tale from many others that now crowd video shelves. Young males will give "Taking Lives" a solid opening weekend, but Jolie's Special Agent Illeana Scott is no Lara Croft.

Illeana, an FBI profiler, has a knack for tracking down serial killers

she's Sherlock Holmes with curves. Illeana can merely look at a suspect and determine he's a left-hander from Vancouver with a bad childhood -- or lie in a grave, which is where we first see her, and determine the exact method by which a victim was murdered and buried.

Illeana gets called into a case that has the Montreal police baffled. (How and why Canadian authorities would bring an American agent in on a Canadian case is never made clear.) A body has turned up at a construction site, and on almost no evidence whatsoever, Surete du Quebec director Leclair (Tcheky Karyo) decides a serial killer is at work.

The film actually opens in 1983, when a drifter (Paul Dano) impulsively kills a guy he is traveling with and assumes his identity. In present day, a distraught mother (Gena Rowlands) pleads to bored Quebec City police that she just saw her son, whom she believed dead for two decades. She cautions them that he is very dangerous.

The viewer's only quandary at this moment is whether Ethan Hawke, who claims to be Montreal art dealer James Costa, looks enough like that kid in 1983 to be him, or is he simply what he says he is -- a good Samaritan who happened along just as a prolific serial killer was finishing off another victim?

Initially, Illeana treats him as a suspect. But signs point to him being the next target of the killer, since he got a good look at the man, thus requiring police protection and Illeana's continual presence in his life. A strange attraction grows between them that may, in her words, "cloud my judgment."

Meanwhile, Illeana becomes convinced that the killer has been on the rampage for years, each time assuming the life of his victim. But her methods clash with those of her Montreal police colleagues, hotheaded Paquette (Olivier Martinez) and the more even-keel Duval (Jean-Hugues Anglade). Then Kiefer Sutherland turns up rather late in the story, playing yet another of his furtive and menacing characters.

Jon Bokenkamp's script, based on Michael Pye's novel, delivers the requisite thriller sequences -- the chase through a large crowd, a detective prowling in a dark house only to discover that she is not alone, a body that falls out of nowhere, a car that roars down the wrong way of a bridge. The movie loses considerable punch, though, with a drawn-out ending, when the culprit is revealed but doesn't receive his comeuppance until much later.

The filmmaking here -- Amir M. Mokri's moody cinematography, Tom Southwell's stylish mix of locations, Anne V. Coates' meticulous editing and Philip Glass' unusually low-key but evocative music -- is surprisingly graceful for a conventional thriller. Clearly, much care and intelligence have been lavished on discouraging, routine material.

TAKING LIVES

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. in association with Village Roadshow Pictures presents a Mark Canton production

Credits:

Director: D.J. Caruso

Screenwriter: Jon Bokenkamp

Based on a novel by: Michael Pye

Producers: Mark Canton, Bernie Goldman

Executive producers: Bruce Berman

David Heyman

Director of photography: Amir M. Mokri

Production designer: Tom Southwell

Music: Philip Glass

Costume designer: Marie-Sylvie Deveau

Editor: Anne V. Coates

Cast:

Illeana: Angelina Jolie

Costa: Ethan Hawke

Hart: Kiefer Sutherland

Mrs. Asher: Gena Rowlands

Paquette: Olivier Martinez

Duval: Jean-Hugues Anglade

Leclair: Tcheky Karyo

Running time -- 103 minutes

MPAA rating: R

See also

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