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.
When infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) gets captured in late 19th century Arizona the plan is to transport him to a train en route to Yuma prison(leaving at 3:10 of course). But in the 1800s bringing someone to justice is as arduous as it sounds especially since horses are the only mode of transportation and their carriages the only place to house a prisoner. Across “town ” rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is struggling mightily to support his wife (Gretchen Mol) and kids (Logan Lerman and Benjamin Petry) following a drought and needs to build a well for his family. So when he receives a nominal financial offer to help transport the notorious felon he jumps at it dutifully and desperately. While on the trail that leads to the train station no amount of physical or verbal threat is too much for Wade to break free of with ease. But when it comes to the law-abiding rancher for whom Wade has a certain respect his escape becomes much more complicated than getting out of handcuffs. 3:10 to Yuma’s pairing of Batman and Cinderella Man is perfect in concept and execution and watching the two stars is more than a sight to behold—it is transfixing like watching any two longtime professionals make something difficult look easy. It’s the first of two such powerhouse pairings for Crowe this fall—he co-stars with Denzel Washington in November’s American Gangster—and if this small sample size is any indication big-name costars bring out the best in him. Crowe evokes the kind of real humanistic villain that could only exist in a Western and by playing Wade with equal parts amiability and evil the Oscar winner turns in what is probably his most purely charismatic performance to date. Bale’s character on the other hand—and per usual—is loath to crack a smile a quality the actor has mastered. The Yoda of dialect Welsh-born Bale also has no difficulty switching over to Ol’ West speak but it’s the way he conveys the rancher’s stoicism and will that makes him even more credible. Among the supporting turns Ben Foster (Alpha Dog) stands out as a cranked-up trigger-happy member of Wade’s gang and stalwart Peter Fonda is perfectly cast as a tough ‘n’ gruff bounty hunter. When director James Mangold turned Johnny Cash’s life story into Walk the Line it was the romantic version of a much darker tale. For 3:10 to Yuma a remake of the beloved 1957 Glenn Ford-starrer Mangold gives the Western the same treatment. In attempting to reel in today’s action-happy audience Mangold waters down the drama and speeds up the pace. Minor tweaks for this modern update equal a bit of a departure from true Western style with the dialogue for example as snappy as one of today’s action comedies. But it’s all in good fun. The Old West looks completely authentic and the unforgettable ending is perhaps made possible by the director’s innocuous first two acts. Even so his efforts and those of the screenwriters (Derek Haas Michael Brandt and Halstead Wells who wrote the original) aren’t enough to perform CPR on the Western—not that it’s fair to rest the fate of entire dying genre in their hands.
In the vein of Field of Dreams Astronaut Farmer is about building the seemingly impossible. Thankfully in this case it’s simply a rocket in the barn not a ballpark in a cornfield where ghosts of baseball heroes past can play the game. That is a bit far-fetched. Instead we meet Charles Farmer (Thornton) a man who was once on track to be an astronaut but was forced to leave NASA to save his family farm. He still wants to go into space however and so sets out to build a rocket inside his barn. By the time the movie starts the rocket is pretty much put together so we aren’t burdened with how he gets his supplies. All Charles needs now is 10 000 pounds of fuel which shoots up a big red flag with the government--a government that now considers Charles a threat--while the media look at him as a big story. But no matter the odds nothing can deter Charles from his dream to break through the atmosphere and orbit the earth. It’s refreshing to see Thornton as a loving father who wants to inspire his kids rather than make them go get him another beer. Of course Charles Farmer isn’t all sweetness and light—he’s an obvious eccentric whose obsession to launch into space effects the entire family—and it’s definitely a role right up Thornton’s alley. Virginia Madsen does an admirable job as the loving and supportive wife who nonetheless puts her foot down when things get out of hand while Bruce Dern plays the grizzled but equally supportive father-in-law. There’s also a supportive lawyer played by Tim Blake Nelson. In fact besides the big evil NASA chief (J.K. Simmons) and two bungling FBI agents (Mark Polish and Jon Gries) everyone supports Charles in his crazy dream. How could he fail? From the writing-directing team of Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork) Astronaut Farmer is pure old-school—an unassuming throwback to those feel-good movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In fact Thornton told Hollywood.com he considers this his “Jimmy Stewart” movie. While the Polish brothers based Charles Farmer on their own eccentric father and obviously harbor their own boyhood dreams of being an astronaut the guys still follow a nice and simple formula finding some good actors to carry it out and adding cool visual effects when they can. Yes the more cynical moviegoer may look at Astronaut Farmer as completely improbable and trite. But those willing to be taken back to a simpler time--when movies were about walking out triumphant--should find watching Astronaut Farmer a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Based on the best-selling book of the same name Fast Food Nation has three intertwined stories revolving around the fast food industry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a corporate marketing guy assigned to put a positive spin on the bad news that fecal traces has been found in the meat. He goes to the meat factory to investigate and doesn’t like what he sees but no one offers him a viable solution. Then there’s Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) Mexican immigrants who cross the border illegally. The only job they can get is in the meat factory. She bears with demeaning sexual advances while he faces the unhealthy and dangerous conditions to try for the American Dream. Finally we meet Amber (Ashley Johnson) who works in a local franchise. She’s just a high school girl trying to pay for her car insurance. This isn’t her future but it dominates her present. The corporate story is a comedy about ineffective management and media spin. The immigrants’ story is a hard drama about a bad life. Amber’s story straddles both lines--a slacker teen comedy but also introspective about what the job is doing to her soul. It may be no secret these days but it’s still fascinating. There is plenty of juicy dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into (pun intended). Kinnear plays the corporate suit as lovably as possible. He’s the put-upon business cog similar to his characters in The Matador and Little Miss Sunshine but funnier because it’s the system that’s futile not his own dreams. Valderrama has a smaller part just supporting his wife going through a horrible life with noble determination. Moreno is as heartbreaking as she was in her Oscar-nominated performance in Maria Full of Grace. You sense so much potential in her and she’s stuck in the factory demeaned by sexual harassment and unable to save her sister from succumbing to it. She adds new colors of despair to the immigrant experience. Johnson is careful not to make her character too wise beyond her years. She really is just a normal kid. High school sucks so do counter jobs. It’s not about being unique just relatable. Cameos stand out too. Ethan Hawke plays the coolest uncle ever. He comes to town for two scenes spouts off his cool-uncle advice and then leaves. Even though he’s a self-confessed loser he’s convincing. And he buys her beer. Bruce Willis gives a speech on the meat industry with his David Addison smirk while chomping into a burger. We’re sold. Director Richard Linklater does a good job keeping the comedy and drama balanced. He cuts back and forth between stories at sensible intervals. Towards the end Greg Kinnear disappears for a long time but Ashley Johnson’s story beefs up to compensate. Showing the inner workings of the meat factory is pretty powerful. Cow guts falling out and bodies mangled by machinery are not fun things to watch but they are important to remember. It’s all up there on the screen but not gratuitous—and doesn’t have to ruin meat forever. Just think how all foods have processes that we don’t see and still taste good. There are plenty of scenes in which the characters are talking a real Linklater specialty (Before Sunset Before Sunrise for example). Whether they’re talking about meat or minimum wage jobs or life ambitions the conversations have a catchy flow. The satire of corporate America and slacker lifestyles juxtaposed against the drama of immigrant life makes Fast Food Nation both ridiculously funny and appropriately uncomfortable.
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.
Based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane Mystic River is full of characters wrought with heavy emotions--and burdens. Yet it is also a fairly simplistic murder mystery. Three 13-year old boys Jimmy Sean and Dave are playing on a street in a tough Boston neighborhood when two pedophiles pretending to be cops grab Dave and take him away. In that moment all three lives are irrevocably changed. Jimmy (Sean Penn) grew up as tough as his neighborhood doing time for robbery but finally settling into a comfortable family life with his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean (Kevin Bacon) went on to become a cop but his personal life is in a shambles and he is estranged from his wife. Dave (Tim Robbins) has never been able to face his demons despite being a loving father and husband to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). Now 25 years later tragedy brings them together once again. Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found murdered and while Sean is assigned to the case with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) Jimmy seeks his own vigilante investigation with the local hoods--and Dave emerges as a prime suspect. As the mystery is unraveled all are pulled closer toward an abyss that will force them to face their true selves--and will mark them as irrevocably as the past itself has tainted their lives.
This is one of those dream scripts serious actors simply go gaga over--and the high-quality ensemble in Mystic River does their jobs superbly. To pinpoint the best performance of the bunch however is virtually impossible--and the Academy may have a tough time making the same distinction as there is surely going to be a nomination or two coming from this film. Penn as the emotionally charged Jimmy stands out a little ahead of the rest with his fury resonating throughout the film. Robbins' ultra-vulnerable Dave is also a remarkable study of a soul completely wounded by the horrors he has experienced. Linney and Harden too are excellent as the spouses; Linney as Annabeth is a strong defiant mother whose only impetus is to protect those she loves while Harden in contrast is meek and unsure as Celeste faced with the dilemma of showing faith and loyalty to her husband while at the same time being convinced he committed the murder. All the performances will quite literally blow your socks off.
With all its excellent acting Mystic River has the added benefit of being helmed by director Clint Eastwood who has enormous talent behind the camera. He likes his films to simmer; his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Oscar-winning Unforgiven are two examples. Mystic River is beautifully put together with lingering shots of Boston neighborhoods and the people who live in them. He doesn't move the camera much keeps things steady but knows when to pull in or pull out as the drama escalates (an aerial shot of an anguished Jimmy being held back by several policeman after he discovers his daughter's body shakes you to the core). Still there are some problems with this slow-burn technique in that sometimes things should move along rather than stand still. Eastwood seems also to have had trouble finding the ending. After a pivotal powerful climactic scene with Jimmy and Sean discussing Dave's kidnapping 25 years ago and its effect on all their lives Eastwood tacks on a few more final scenes of the men tying up loose ends resolving feelings with each other and their wives--and then going to watch a parade. It's a minor point compared to the quality of the rest of the film but it still leaves things on an anti-climactic note.