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.
Based on British mystery writer P.D. James’ rather downbeat novel Men takes place in the not-too-distant future where the world is definitely not right. In fact society is facing extinction since the human race has lost the ability to reproduce; there hasn’t been a new child born in 18 years. But as the tagline reads “…all that can change in a heartbeat.” While the rest of England is unraveling as civil unrest runs rampant a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is found miraculously pregnant and Theo (Clive Owen) a disillusioned government agent agrees to help secretly transport her to a sanctuary at sea where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of mankind. So sets in motion a race against time fraught with many horrific obstacles. Children of Men collects a first-rate cast. Leading the pack is Owen as yet another reluctant antihero. It’s a good part for the somewhat depressive actor who seems at ease when everything is going to hell around him (see Inside Man Closer etc.). Theo is initially drawn into the Kee conflict because his ex-wife a terrorist/activist--played with brief but quiet determination by Julianne Moore—asks him to. See they share their own personal tragedy so saving Kee and the baby becomes even more important to them. Newcomer Ashitey shines as Kee who really doesn’t understand at all what is happening to her but has a fair amount of spunk anyway. Other standouts include Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots) as one of Moore’s compadres with his own nefarious agenda and Michael Caine as an old friend of Theo--a throwback to a more peaceful time. Representing both old and new school Ejiofor and Caine are actors you can simply put in any film and somehow they will make them that much better. But Children of Men’s true brilliance comes from its creator. Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is simply one of the most exciting cinematic storytellers working today. No genre is out of his reach. He has done kiddie flicks (A Little Princess) sexy coming-of-age dramas (Y Tu Mama Tambien)—and even a splashy Harry Potter installment (Prisoner of Azkaban probably the best one so far). And now Men a futuristic thriller that he crafts with absolute bone-chilling effect. Cuaron’s world is not a very happy place with the skies consistently gray with pollution and violence injustice and human cruelty around every corner. When Theo and Kee are on the run you’re expecting the worst at any moment but that’s not really where Cuaron’s head is at. He wants us to have hope. As the director puts it in the film’s production notes “Humanity has an amazing talent for destruction. But also we can show solidarity and an ability to come through problems together. In the end Children of Men isn’t so much about humanity being destructive—its more about ideologies coming between people’s judgment and their actions that is at work in this story.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
As Love Actually begins we are told that perhaps the world isn't such a dire and hateful place that "love actually is all around." Around London anyway. The film explores no less than seven different romantic scenarios within the bustling British capital--all of which interconnect and eventually resolve on Christmas Eve. There's the newly elected dashing Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) who is smitten with his secretary the earthy Natalie (Martine McCutcheon); Karen (Emma Thompson) whose husband Harry (Alan Rickman) has strayed with his seductive secretary Mia (Heike Makatsch); Sarah (Laura Linney) the American wallflower who has a crush on her colleague Carl (Rodrigo Santoro); Jamie (Colin Firth) who falls for his pretty Portuguese housekeeper Aurelia (Lucia Moniz)…there are lots more but you get the gist. As love goes things may not get tied up neatly in brightly colored packages for everyone but there's still enough good cheer to spread around.
Showcasing some of Britain's finest actors Love Actually doesn't have a bad banana in the bunch. Floppy-haired Hugh Grant turns in an endearing performance and proves there isn't a romantic comedy he can't handle. He has an uncanny knack for connecting with any actress he happens to be romancing; in this case it's the adorable McCutcheon best known for the hit British TV drama EastEnders. Rickman and Thompson are quite good as the couple whose long-term marriage is beginning to crack; Thompson especially does a nice job trying to hide her pain while being a happy mom. Linney too shines as Sarah who glows with excitement when she finally gets what she so ardently wished for. Veteran stage and film actor Bill Nighy (Underworld) however steals the show as a carefree aging rock star desperate for a comeback. His Billy Mack smacks of Mick Jagger Keith Richards and Rod Stewart all rolled into one.
"I'm worried that we don't have the word 'massacre' in the title " writer/director Richard Curtis fretted to Entertainment Weekly referring to how horror-loving American audiences might not take to his new romantic comedy that is already a huge hit in Britain. True perhaps a romantic comedy starring a multitude of A-list British actors might not bring in the required masses. But who cares about the money (did I just say that)? Curtis who has written some of the best romantic comedies of the last decade including Four Weddings and a Funeral Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary steps behind the camera for the first time here and is able to give each story a unique point of view from the lovesick to the wacky. There actually may be too many stories in Love Actually but it's a small gaffe. Love Actually is a refreshing good old fashioned warm and gushy movie that takes your mind off the bad things for the holiday season and Curtis should feel confident about his directing debut.
The film begins with an unsatisfactory rendezvous between a prostitute (Vera Farmiga) and a brutish carpenter named Eddie (Domenick Lombardozzi) who is unable to perform. It then follows Eddie to the Manhattan apartment of Ellen (Jill Hennessy) a wealthy but neglected client who wants to sleep with him because she thinks her husband is cheating on her. Later that night Ellen tells her husband Robert (Malcolm Gets) "I want to sleep with other men." He answers "So do I." The story then switches its focus to Robert and the object of his desire an artist named Martin (Steve Buscemi). Martin rebukes Robert's advances at first but ultimately gives in. Then Martin becomes the pursuer when he makes advances on a beautiful art gallery receptionist Anna (Rosario Dawson) who eventually sleeps with him. She confesses the infidelity to her boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) who then turns to an older woman Joey (Carol Kane) for comfort until she frightens him off with her desperation. Alone Joey finds herself giving comfort in the form of phone sex to a suicidal Wall Street embezzler named Will (Michael Imperioli). Will then ends the night with the prostitute from the opening scene.
A film like this must be a dream scenario for actors--an ensemble piece that allows each player to be the main character for a short amount of screen time. With the possible exception of the unfortunately miscast Steve Buscemi who seems overly awkward in his love scenes with both sexes the diverse ensemble of actors assembled here are clearly up to the challenge. The nine principals are meant to represent a mixed bag of races ages classes and disciplines ranging from stage to television to independent film and the anecdotal structure gives each of them a chance to shine. Some shine a little brighter than others however. Dawson Grenier Kane and Imperioli in particular stand out in their respective roles during the latter half of the film. This is not to say that the rest are lacking. It's just that there is only so much that can be done with the material which is sluggish at times and laden with heavy dialogue that can be difficult to deliver believably. As a whole the talented cast does the best they can with what they are given.
When writer/director Peter Mattei set out to depict the vapid and money-obsessed world of the 1990's he looked to Arthur Schnitzler's classic stage play Reigen for stylistic inspiration. The play follows one character after another in a series of overlapping vignettes in which each character seeks out some sort of sexual conquest. Mattei emulates that structure in Love in the Time of Money but never manages to escape the play's theatrical roots. The film relies heavily on dialogue with little intriguing visual imagery that couldn't be done on stage. Although the digital video format is well suited to the material Mattei fails to take full advantage of the rich New York background favoring nondescript streets anonymous alleyways and common restaurants that could exist in any city. Another limitation of the multiplot design is the inability to get more than a cursory glance at any one of the nine characters. There is scarcely enough time in each story to introduce them let alone fully explore what makes them tick before the film moves on to the next person. All that is presented are the broad strokes of their desires and actions without any depth or background to give them context. It's a noble experiment but one that ultimately fails to be compelling.