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When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass

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Fright Night (2011)


Fright Night

Colin Farrell doesn't take kindly to Anton Yelchin putting an explosive ketchup pellet in his Gatorade.

(2011) Horror Comedy (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, Toni Collette, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Reid Ewing, Will Denton, Sandra Vergara, Emily Montague, Chris Sarandon. Directed by Craig Gillespie

In these modern times we generally don’t get to know our neighbors very well. We live in isolation, insulated by walls and fences and the Internet. Our neighbors could be the kindest, sweetest, gentlest people on earth…or the embodiment of evil.

Charlie Brewster (Yelchin) is a high school senior with a hot girlfriend, Amy (Poots). His mom Jane (Collette) is a real estate agent and lives with her son in a nice development on the edge of Las Vegas. Charlie has transformed himself from being a geek to being one of the cool crowd. In this sense, he’s leaving behind old friends like Adam (Denton) and Ed (Mintz-Plasse) whom everyone calls “evil” for unspecified reasons.

He also has a new next door neighbor, Jerry (Farrell) who works nights doing construction on the strip. As a day sleeper, he blocks his windows and gee, there’s an awful lot of construction debris and apparently nothing going on in the exterior or the yard. He is, however extremely hot as both Jane and Amy notice, not to mention flirtatious.

Evil Ed isn’t convinced. He’s been noticing that several kids have been missing from school and he believes that Jerry is at the heart of it. In fact, Ed thinks Jerry’s a vampire, which bemuses Charlie no end. However, when Ed threatens to publish some nerdy pictures of Charlie, he reluctantly agrees to join Ed to find out what happened to Adam, who’s among the missing.

Unfortunately, it turns out Ed was right and when Ed disappears, Charlie goes up to Ed’s room to see the “proof” he had of Jerry’s vampire-ness and when he does, Charlie becomes a believer. So much so that when Jerry invites a beautiful sexy blonde neighbor (Montague) who happens to be a stripper over, he calls the cops. Thus the war of cat and mouse games begins.

Charlie enlists  the aid of Peter Vincent (Tennant), a stage magician at the Hard Rock Casino who is a self-professed vampire expert. Charlie’s going to need all the help he can get against a demon that’s over 400 years old and is an expert in self-preservation. Charlie is horribly overmatched but he’s got to find a way to prevail if he wants to see his mother and girlfriend alive again.

This is based on the 1985 Tom Holland movie of the same name which had William Ragsdale and Chris Sarandon in the Charlie and Jerry roles, respectively. That one was appeared on cable regularly for years; it was actually a different kind of vampire movie with enough camp and gore to counterbalance themselves and certainly a refreshing relief from all the slasher movies that were all the rage then.

The acting is pretty solid here. Farrell is playing a role he was really born to play – a bad guy who can do horrible things with abandon, but all with a twinkle in his eyes, a drink in one hand and a woman in his arms. Come to think of it, maybe Farrell didn’t have to do a whole lot of acting.

Yelchin has yet to impress me – until now. He does a bang-up job as the heroic lead, a part he may not be used to. He did buff up a little for the role, although not to the point of ridiculousness; this is supposed to be a skinny high school kid going up against the undead, but you don’t want the fight to be unbelievable or TOO uneven. Yelchin succeeds in avoiding those pitfalls.

To me, Tennant – a former Doctor Who – is the show stealer here. He plays Vincent as a cross between Criss Angel and William Powell, liquored up and a bit of a self-important jerk and outwardly a coward but when it counts he has the heart of a lion. There’s a rock star quality to Peter that is nicely counterbalanced by his inner nerd.

Poots, Collette and Montague are all beautiful, sexy and smart in their roles. I guess it doesn’t hurt that the script was written by a woman – in this case, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Marti Noxon. She brings the same hip quotient, quip repeatability and smarts to the movie that she did to the TV show. I don’t know that Joss Whedon, busy filming The Avengers at the moment, has seen this movie but if he has I have no doubt he’s proud of his protégé.

This is a highly entertaining vampire movie that may not go over well with the kids who love sparkling brooding vampires, but it does have nods to most of the vampire classics in one form or another – even in a backhanded way to Twilight. There is a crapload of CGI which varies in quality from seamless to noticeable.

There is an amazing chase scene in which Jerry pursues the Brewsters in their SUV which contains a lovely homage to the first Fright Night and contains some of the best stunt work in the movie. It’s a scene that obviously required meticulous planning, which is something I always appreciate from a filmmaker and so rarely get.

Fright Night is dying at the box office which is a shame. Hopefully people will pick up on how good this movie is on home video. It’s actually a clever movie that deserves a better audience than it’s apparently getting. Maybe if they’d only gotten Colin Farrell to sparkle…

REASONS TO GO: Smart, well-planned out and well-written. Very sexy where it needs to be. Great mix of horror and humor.

REASONS TO STAY: The gore gets kind of mind-numbing after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of blood, gore and horror violence. These vampires don’t sparkle after all; there is also a good deal of sexuality and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sarandon, who played Jerry in the original Fright Night and its sequel (via flashback) makes a cameo as the driver of the car that rear-ends the Brewster’s car and thus is the only actor to appear in all three Fright Night movies.

HOME OR THEATER: I think this is one to watch at home on a dark and stormy night.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT WEEK: The Last Station