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.
Think Mean Girls meets High School Musical meets whatever other high school teen scenario you can think of. Here four teenage girls make up the Bratz contingency each come from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds—just like the dolls they are based on. There’s Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos) a quiet Latina beauty with a great voice; Sasha (Logan Browning) the outgoing black cheerleader who loves to dance; Jade (Janel Parrish) a lovely Asian fashionista who also a wiz in chemistry; and Cloe (Skyler Shayne) the tall Caucasian blonde who despite being a klutz is a star on the soccer field. They’ve been best friends forever (or BFF as they lovingly refer to it) but once they hit high school they drift apart and into respective cliques organized by the narcissistic class president Meredith (Cheslea Staub). Still these BFF’s—who live for clothes make-up and hair products—won’t be pushed down. They’re gonna shake things up and prove it’s always best to just be yourself and stick together. You can’t really blame the unknown girls—each very cute in their own way—for wanting to bring the Bratz dolls to life. It’s a big deal! They get to sing and dance and wear all these cool clothes! They get to throw food in a cafeteria lunch fight! They get to serve sweets at Meredith’s Sweet 16 party dressed as clowns and still look fabulous! All the young girls in the audience will idolize them and wish they were a Brat too (perhaps to their parents’ chagrin). No it’s the adults in the movie you have to scratch your head about and ask “Do they really need the money that bad?” Character actors such as Lainie Kazan who plays Yasmin’s wise grandmother and Jon Voight as the inept high school principal and Meredith’s father just embarrass themselves over and over again—especially Voight who along with his mediocre appearance in Transformers has become the go-to guy to star in movies based on toys. And what’s with this latest trend to make live-action flicks based on toys? You can understand Transformers because they already had their own cartoon show and you know the movie would at least be action-packed full of cool visual effects. But a Bratz movie is a little too much. Even though it tries really hard to send positive messages there’s really nothing redeeming about turning little dolls—who frankly dress a little on the trashy side—into flesh-and-blood teenagers obsessed with how they look and dealing with high school politics. Bratz really only distinguishes itself from other Mean Girls-type movies because of the toy franchise. It would have been easier to take had it aired on the Disney Channel.
Pretty people just don’t understand—you’re not safe anywhere and all the sadists are after YOU! As the two geniuses in The Hitcher Grace (Sophia Bush) and her boyfriend Jim (Zachary Knighton) learn real quickly a cross-country trek to New Mexico in a beat-up car is especially risky. During their first night out on the open road it’s raining cats and dogs when they almost run over a man (Sean Bean) who’s standing aimlessly in the middle of the street his car apparently broken down. The young couple decides against lending him a helping hand with it pouring down rain and all. Bad move. When they stop for gas later Jim and Grace cross paths with the man who goes by the name of John Ryder. He asks the couple if he might hitch a short ride with them to a local motel. This time they oblige. Bad move. One aspect the studio must’ve loved about The Hitcher: Being shot primarily in a car the cast cannot feasibly be more than three deep—four tops. That also means that said cast must wear the tension well if the camera is to be on them throughout. Bush (TV’s One Tree Hill) the movie’s biggest asset as far as its target audience is concerned shrieks well and most importantly is smokin'. And when it comes time to fight back she doesn’t look so bad doing it even if there’s scant giggling in the theater at the now clichéd image of a weapon-wielding hot chick. As the hugely sadistic villain Bean (GoldenEye the LOTR movies et al) is more than adequately creepy. There’s something to be said with most of The Hitcher’s viewers’ inability to recognize him because an A-list movie star just wouldn’t work in this role. Obscurity aside Bean his face lurking around every corner will simply creep the crap out of the young audience. As for Knighton he seems and looks like the garden-variety up-and-comer and try as I might there’s nothing wrong with his biggest role to date—except a scene of um tug-of-war that is tough to watch or look away from. Veteran actor Neal McDonough also pops in with a brief role as a sheriff caught in the proverbial crosshairs. These days it’s tough to come up with anything new in a horror film—so directors just don’t bother. Save for neo-horror maestro Eli Roth there’s no originality to be seen especially when seemingly 99 percent of horror movies are remakes and when they’re not remakes they’re Primeval or Turistas. The Hitcher is much better than those two but director Dave Meyers truly eliminates most of the psychological aspect of the original 1986 Hitcher in exchange for a polished contemporary feel. Of course Meyers is one the most renowned music video directors of the past several years so it's no surprise when he mistakes volume for thrills; in fact the decibels will be the chief reason for almost all of the audience’s screaming. Not that there aren’t scary moments however. The writers Jake Wade Wall (When a Stranger Calls) and Eric Bernt (Romeo Must Die) actually get the film off to a brisk smooth start but they ultimately turn John Ryder into more of a Terminator-like character and ask for too many leaps of faith and suspensions of disbelief—again not that their intended audience won’t indulge them. At least the studio had the guts to retain the intended 'R' rating!
On the one hand it’s a comedy. We meet Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) a thirtysomething knee deep in a pre-midlife crisis with a way too patient fiancé (Mark Ruffalo) and a nowhere job. Her anxiety is only exacerbated when she visits her picture perfect family in Pasadena CA a place she’s never felt like she belonged especially after her mother died. But then it gets weirder when Sarah finds out her family was the inspiration for The Graduate. It seems Sarah’s grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) was the Mrs. Robinson and that her mother ran off with the same guy briefly right before she got married to Sarah’s dad. Sarah becomes obsessed with finding this “other” guy Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) believing he might be the key. He’s a key all right--to a night of drunken lust. But none of this is going to solve Sarah’s problems now is it? She’s got to find her own answers in her heart. Excuse me while I go throw up. Maybe Jennifer Aniston should just write this year off. Not only did she lose a husband to another woman she also hasn’t made very smart choices in her career. Derailed completely missed the track and now this comedy is no better suited to her talents. Aniston is much better playing sweet and quirky rather than messy and neurotic and honestly shines brighter when co-starring with strong comedic talents such as Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly) or Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty). (That’s why we’re holding our breath for her next film The Break Up with [real-life boyfriend?] Vince Vaughn.) Shirley MacLaine making a habit out of being the best thing in an otherwise dull movie (In Her Shoes anyone?) is a hoot as grandma. Costner doesn’t look anything like Dustin Hoffman thank goodness but has zero chemistry with Aniston. And who knows what the hell Ruffalo is doing wasting his talents doing this romantic comedy crap. Just say no Mark. As a director Rob Reiner hasn’t had much luck lately either. This is the first movie he’s directed since 2003’s Alex & Emma--and we all remember what a success that was. To be fair Reiner apparently took over the reins from screenwriter Ted Griffin (Matchstick Men) who was making his feature film debut ten days into production and changed things quite a bit. That’s not surprising because Rumor quite simply lacks direction. It wants desperately to be a comedy with a hint of relationship drama but somehow misses the mark on both. Now the idea of a Graduate update is somewhat intriguing. Reminds me of Robert Altman’s The Player in which The Graduate’s original screenwriter Buck Henry pitches a sequel of sorts to a studio development exec. It’s meant to be a joke of course but somewhere in the spoof there might’ve been a sliver of mad brilliance. Too bad Rumor ruins it.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) a bleeding heart poet and staunch environmentalist is convinced a series of unexplained coincidences involving a tall African doorman somehow mean something leading him to married metaphysicians Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin)--otherwise known as the Existential Detectives. Instead of looking for other people this pair tirelessly investigates the mysteries of their clients' secret innermost lives--their "Beings " so to speak--to help them answer their questions. Immediately digging in Bernard and Vivian find out that Albert has a deep-seated hatred for Brad Stand (Jude Law) a golden-boy sales executive at the popular retail superstore chain Huckabees who at first sponsors Albert's Open Spaces Coalition to save a nearby marsh from commercial construction but who ends up taking over the coalition. The Existential Detectives believe Brad may be the key to cracking Albert's case but get sidetracked when Brad hires them for himself--leading them to explore Brad's ambitions hang-ups and his superficial relationship with Huckabees' hot blonde spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert becomes disenfranchised with Bernard and Vivian and pairs up with another of the duo's clients--firefighter tough guy and uncompromising soul searcher Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Together they join forces with the Jaffes' arch nemesis sexy French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) whose life teachings revolve around "cruelty manipulation and meaninglessness." Now as Being intermixes with Nothingness Albert Tommy Brad Dawn Bernard Vivian and Caterine get all tangled up in one another as their wild romp through life's biggest questions brings them to some startling truths. Whew!
With such a clever script to back them up it isn't hard to see why the Huckabees wannabes turn in some cracking good performances. Schwartzman once again plays a nebbish sullen but lovable geek (similar to his side-splitting turn in Rushmore) bringing out the film's heart and soul especially with his environmental poetry ("You ROCK rock!"). Veterans Hoffman and Tomlin who are dead-on as the happily married Existential Detectives and Huppert as the deadpan French philosopher complement the proceedings beautifully. For the first time in a long time Hoffman doesn't overplay his part instead letting his quiet inner "Being" out taking his character's philosophies to heart ("Everything you ever desired or wanted to be you already have and are"). But who knew more serious actors--Mark Wahlberg Jude Law and Naomi Watts--could be so excruciatingly funny? Wahlberg's freethinking obstinate firefighter would rather ride a bike to a fire than get into a gas-guzzling fire truck while Watts' Dawn decides she doesn't need to be pretty and is fearless with overalls a bonnet and Oreo cookies stuck in her teeth. As the straight man Law actually has the most difficult part playing the handsome cad who thinks he doesn't believe in all that existential bullcrap but ever so slightly gets slammed with the reality of it anyway.
Writer/director David O. Russell is one fascinating guy. With a body of work including the really weird and wild Spanking the Monkey the hilarious slapsticky Flirting With Disaster and the intense Three Kings it's obvious he is capable of handling a wide variety of subjects. With Huckabees Russell gets into some serious deep thinking. He says he became "intrigued with the idea of a detective following someone around not for any criminal or personal intrigue but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself " drawing concepts from several different strains of existentialism--from the non-dual interconnectedness theories of Eastern philosophy (Bernard and Vivian's take) to the Sartrean notions of a more meaningless universe that demands a profound individualism (Caterine's point of view). Huh? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it too much. Russell's bone-crushing sense of humor comes shining through--as does his unique vision as the camera is used in new and different ways (especially creative when Albert is trying to find his "Being")--to piece together a wondrous coherent albeit thought-provoking little gem. Oscar gold awaits.