Of course 21 isn’t just about blackjack. It’s more about Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) a shy but brilliant M.I.T. student who--needing to pay Harvard medical school tuition--finds the answers in the cards so to speak. After dazzling his unorthodox math professor and stats genius Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) with some mathematical prowess Ben is quickly indoctrinated into Rosa’s group of “gifted” students who head to Las Vegas every weekend with the know-how to count cards and beat the casino at the blackjack tables. And win big they do. Ben is soon seduced by the allure of this luxurious lifestyle including his sexy teammate Jill (Kate Bosworth) but begins rebelling against the well-oiled machine Rosa has built. Apparently you don’t want to cross this particular math professor--nor the old-school casino security consultant (Laurence Fishburne) who has set his sights on Ben as a master card counter. It’s not illegal to do that but the casinos don’t much like it when they catch you doing it. Hey what happens in Vegas…oh you know the rest. The most well-rounded performance comes from the British Sturgess best known for singing Beatles’ songs in Across the Universe. His Ben starts out as a naive math whiz/nerd whose biggest thrill is designing the perfect science project for an M.I.T. contest but then becomes the smooth Vegas dude with the nice clothes and hot girlfriend and finally turns into the guy who eventually loses it all. It’s not hard to see just how much Ben is going to change once he gets involved in the moneymaking scheme but Sturgess handles the transition with aplomb. The stiff Bosworth isn’t nearly as effective as his love interest but she has her moments. Also good for comic relief is Aaron Yoo (Disturbia) as one of the blackjack players who oddly enough is also a kleptomaniac. The performance drawbacks in 21 come from the more veteran players. Spacey and Fishburne seem to be going through the motions utilizing techniques they’ve used many times before. Spacey can whither whoever it is with that look of his while Fishburne postures as he always does. It’s too bad they couldn’t have put in more effort. As with any movie in which the action is inherently stagnant (i.e. sitting at a blackjack table) the question is how to keep things visually stimulating. That’s where director Robert Luketic--who up to this point has only done broad comedies such as Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton--comes in. Luketic does a fine job maneuvering the camera around the tables creating slo-mo close-ups of the cards and incorporating a cool soundtrack. A good montage or four usually can also work well in a situation like this and Luketic fully utilizes that technique--from the kids winning to them spending their money in gloriously obscene ways. Based on the book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions 21 has the extra advantage of being a somewhat true story as well. But the script from Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb basically copies from other sources and never really distinguishes itself.
The year is 2057 and Al Gore be damned global cooling is threatening mankind: The sun is on the verge of death which would equal the death of the planet. Seven years earlier a space mission Icarus I was shot up to deliver a payload that would reignite the sun; nobody has since heard from those aboard all of whom are assumed dead. Now it’s up to Icarus II comprised of an eight-passenger crew of physicists and astronauts led by Capt. Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) and including pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne) biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) and archrivals Capa (Cillian Murphy) and Mace (Chris Evans). As the ship is floating along a blip shows up on the audible radar ostensibly coming from Icarus I. The crew is faced with a difficult crucial decision only to be compounded when a miscalculation by the navigator (Benedict Wong) takes them slightly off course. If they pursue the signal from Icarus I it could unlock key secrets as to what went wrong the first time and provide an extra payload—or it could be a fatal mistake. Either way it’s nowhere near the toughest decision they’ll be forced to make. As a heartthrob who can act Cillian Murphy is precisely the double threat Chris Evans aspires to be someday soon. Maybe that’ll happen on his next movie The Nanny Diaries because Sunshine finds him miscast—and testosterone-y when he’s supposed to be testy. Evans fresh off the more suitable Fantastic Four sequel isn’t quite cut out for the heady stuff in which he must internalize his inner action star. Murphy to be fair is no great shakes either. Clearly he’s now a Danny Boyle favorite but in their last collaboration 2002’s 28 Days Later the doomsday scenario was different and Murphy’s character would’ve been toast if he were half as sedate as his character Capa is in Sunshine. He comes alive towards the end but that’s when the movie comes undone. A possible future Boyle favorite talented Aussie actress Byrne who starred in this year’s Boyle-produced 28 Weeks Later could’ve benefited from more face time—as could have the film. In other words there’s no true female voice. Talented supporters like Yeoh (Memoirs of a Geisha) and Troy Garity (Barbershop) who stars as the second-in-command are grossly underused but Sunshine does need all the Chris Evans it can muster lest bad box office attacks. Just as his actors in Sunshine are our last great hope to save the dying sun director Danny Boyle may be our last great hope to save the sci-fi genre. Accordingly sci-fi fans will definitely love where Boyle’s head is at but the rest of us will think he’s just got a bad case of ADD. Boyle director of beloved movies Trainspotting and 28 Days Later as well as largely reviled The Beach spends most of the movie with proper pacing messages and themes—only to erase it all from our memories with a spastic final act. He takes the ending in all manner of directions and genres after sucking us in with serious quasi-topical commentary on life in general and life aboard a spaceship. It’s too bad. Ditto writer/frequent collaborator Alex Garland (The Beach 28 Days Later) who touches on some fascinating far regions of sci-fi-dom but winds up leaving them in space dust to co-indulge on the ending. The superb cinematography is on par with that of Boyle’s past work but the simpler shots are more entrancing than the complex ones: When the characters sit on an observation deck to reflect on a close-up of the burning sun it’s more profound and impressive than the frenetic special-effects-heavy camerawork at the end. Which is perhaps the best way to sum up the slow-fast dynamic of the film.
Luke (Steven Strait) and Brier (Pell James) first cross paths on a New York City subway before the doors shut on their instant attraction to one another. Of course it is immediately and abundantly clear that they will naturally meet up again before long but where and how? The answers: L.A. and well it's complicated. Each having forgotten about the other Brier a top model in NYC decides she needs a change of scenery and tells her agent (Carrie Fisher clearly in it for the paycheck) she's heading out to L.A. to pursue acting while Luke and his brother Euan (Kip Pardue) decide to move to the West Coast as well. Once there Brier befriends Clea (Ashlee Simpson) and on her first night in town takes Brier to a local dive bar where Luke works as a struggling "musician." Wow that's some coincidence. There is an instant re-connection between Luke and Brier but she refuses to get involved with musicians since her rock-star ex mistreated her. Instead she shifts her focus on generating buzz for Luke. Eventually Luke gets the big recording contract becomes the rock-star jerk he'd swore he'd never become and loses it all. But all is well when Brier decides she can no longer resist Luke's ballads and Metallica-guitarist-circa-'85 hair.
The theme of Undiscovered could apply to its cast. Each of the four leads are on the cusp of being on the cusp and certainly they hope this movie will take them one step closer. For James that might happen. She is a natural on screen and gives a breakthrough performance as the comely Brier. Strait is also a relative newcomer. After turning his debut performance in this summer's Sky High he holds his own in Undiscovered but seems to be relegated to taking his shirt off to make the teenyboppers swoon. Finally there's Simpson who is also making her major-role debut. It's awkward to see her on-screen and yes subconsciously you wait for her to make a noticeable mistake (or butcher a voice-over due to acid reflux). Of course it doesn't happen; she moves along pretty smoothly but is at times subjected to dialogue that seems beyond her especially when she has to words big words such as "banter." And certainly it's not her fault when she describes Luke--a musician best left struggling--as "a cross between Jeff Buckley and Elvis Costello." That's just someone else's words she reciting.
Prolific music-video director Meiert Avis is making his feature film directorial debut with Undiscovered--and his obvious greenness shows. At times the film is more like a music video surrounded by a weak storyline than a cohesive film. His expertise in the rather linear realm of music videos doesn't exactly qualify him for the complexities of a 90-minute film contrived and straightforward as his debut may be. Avis tries to employ every possible clichéd obstacle for the characters to overcome--which reeks of inexperience but could also be the screenwriter's fault. No doubt Avis feels at home with newcomers such as Strait and Simpson who--for all intents and purposes--sing and act but the plethora of singing scenes feel forced. That is forced into the script to showcase the soundtrack when the movie goes undiscovered at the box office.
The catastrophic battles of the Clone Wars are in their final stages as the crumbling Republic--supported by the ever-vigilant Jedi Knights--fight against the Separatist Alliance lead by a particularly nasty half-droid half-alien named General Grievous. Jedi überheroes Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to kill General Grievous and end the war but it isn't easy. Meanwhile Yoda Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and the other Jedi Council members fear for the state of the Republic under the guidance of the nebulously sinister Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). I know what you're thinking "Yeah yeah just tell us how Anakin goes bad." Poor Annie. He still has some serious anger issues which now revolve around his adoring young wife Padme (Natalie Portman) and their unborn child (or children in this case). He thinks he foresees Padme's death and will do anything to keep her safe including listening to Palpatine malevolently whisper promises of immortality and the power of the Dark Side into his ear. Not the best thing for this volatile fellow. Yes Darth Vader will soon emerge and the inevitable duel between the good and the Dark Side is at hand. Get your lightsabers ready.
Happily all the main actors--save for perhaps Natalie Portman as the ineffectual Padme--get a lot more to chew on in this final installment. Christensen is thankfully done being the whining teenager from Attack of the Clones and turns into a brooding conflicted pre-Vader who can't control his anger. Of course he overdoes it a bit with the scowling and evil cold stares but that's OK. It's what the part requires. The love story between Christensen and Portman however is still kind of painful to watch. The two actors look more than a little embarrassed professing their love for one another ("I'm so much in love with you" "No I'm so much in love with YOU!"). And besides bringing back the infamous Leia "cinnamon bun" look Portman isn't given a darn thing to do but fret and pace and rub her pregnant belly praying Anakin will be all right. You'd think after wielding a gun in The Phantom Menace she'd get to do more fighting. Oh well. On the flip side McGregor Jackson and even McDiarmid all get to kick some serious butt in Revenge of the Sith each with their own action-packed fight sequences. Jackson just seems happy to be swinging a lightsaber around. McGregor with the full beard and biting commentary does a nice job setting the stage for the elderly Ben Kenobi to come. And McDiarmid a veteran British stage thesp finally gets his chance to shine as the malicious Palpatine as we see his own transformation into the ultimate evil being he becomes.
Oh George what are you going to do now that it's all over? Of course Lucas has said he is going to redo all the six Star Wars episodes in 3-D as well as produce a TV series which follows the events after Return of the Jedi. Then there's the fourth Indiana Jones movie to look forward to. But Lucas will probably hole back up at his Skywalker Ranch in northern California and dream up even better ways to generate special effects for the big screen. That's what he does best. He truly is an amazing genius at creating visuals and Revenge of the Sith is no exception. From the battle between General Grievous and Obi-Wan to Yoda's clash with Darth Sidious to Obi-Wan's climactic duel with Anakin Sith is simply riveting. The only difficulty Lucas has ever had is with the human element. I'll admit I'm one of those die-hard fans of the original trilogy who had a problem with the lack of an emotional core in the prequels. After writing and directing the first Star Wars (or Episode IV for those counting) Lucas understood then that maybe he wasn't the best choice to write the next two handing the chores off to screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. It worked. Big time. Yet with all three prequels (that's Episodes I-III) Lucas did it all himself and his obvious shortcomings are evident. But hey does it really matter how connected you feel to the characters when you've got the Force Jedi Knights evil Darths an ass-kicking little green guy clone armies droid armies Wookiee armies (yeah that's a lot of fur) and an ultimate turn towards the Dark Side? No. But it helps.