Monday, April 7, 2008

'21' falls short of winning hand

** out of ****

"21's" winning slogan, "winner, winner, chicken dinner," is quoted quite often, but the movie is more of a turkey. The newest card playing movie since last year's Drew Barrymore-Eric Bana flop "Lucky You," "21" is definitely more entertaining, but still goes bust.

From across the pond, "Across the Universe" and "The Other Boleyn Girl" star Jim Sturgess puts on his best American accent as the film's lead, Ben Campbell. Ben is an Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who can do math faster than a calculator. He's in desperate need of a scholarship or $300,000 to achieve his dream of attending Harvard Medical School. Opportunity knocks on his door when his math professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) offers him a place on the school's secret card counting team, the "MIT Blackjack Club."

Ben reluctantly takes Rosa up on his offer, realizing his financial woes and the persuasion from seductive Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), his campus crush. The condition that he imposes upon himself is playing only until he can win enough money for Harvard -- "a means to an end."

Jetting back and forth from chilly Boston to glossy Las Vegas on the weekends, the team counts their cards and then their chips, raking in the dough.

As they change their names and wear disguises to masquerade their identities, their days become numbered with increasing security technology. The day arrives sooner than expected as the casinos see that their profits are slipping and vigilant security pro Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) starts to unearth Micky's elaborate system.

For blackjack novices, don't fear, the movie gives a brief tutorial on how the game works, as well as the intriguing team's hand gestures, body movements and word signals to indicate if a table is "hot," "cold" and other player codes.

"21" has exciting blackjack table scenes, though away from Las Vegas' glitter the film is stale. "21" does manage to be rousing enough to follow through, even at its most tedious points. Screenwriters Peter Steinfeld ("Be Cool," "Analyze That") and Allan Loeb ("Things We Lost in the Fire") capture the excitement of the game, but provide a failing hand with the rest of the story.

The ending is a slight disappointment. As the film progresses, the story becomes too unrealistic, which is funny, since the movie is loosely based on the true story of the real MIT Blackjack Team and adapted from the book "Bringing Down the House," written by Ben Mezrich.

Director Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde," "Monster-in-Law") certainly has some style with fascinating aerial shots of Vegas and the fast-editing on the casino floors, but it's Something we've seen already in the superior "Ocean's 11."

Jim Sturgess does a fair job as Ben, but seems somewhat miscast. Kevin Spacey tries his best with the role, but gives up along the way becoming over-the-top without much depth. The same goes for Fishburne. The average Bosworth surprisingly works well in the role of Ben's love interest. Aaron Yoo ("Disturbia") and Liza Lapira ("Cloverfield") are affable as fellow teammates Choi and Kianna.

With a great concept, "21" folds on quality story telling. Not worth the gamble to see in the theaters, "21's" good enough to ante up $3 for a rental.

'Shutter' should click with horror fans

**1/2 out of ****

Does the thought of another foreign horror remake make you shudder? Well, fortunately there is "Shutter," one of the best in recent memory. The profitable Asian horror-remake phenomenon took off in 2002 with the wildly successful "The Ring" and "The Grudge," but has since crashed with this year's "One Missed Call" and "The Eye."

"Shutter" manages to standout with a complete, sensible and suspenseful storyline, which makes up for the lack of scares. What's the common everyday technology we should fear this time around? A camera. Produced by the makers of "The Ring" and "The Grudge," Rachael Taylor from "Transformers" plays the role of Jane Shaw, taking the place of Naomi Watts and Sarah Michelle Gellar as our blonde leading lady. The movie starts on Jane's wedding day as she and her husband, professional photographer Benjamin (Joshua Jackson) prepare for a quick move to Tokyo, where he is renewing his career with a company he worked at two years ago.

After developing his first photo-shoot assignment, all of the pictures appear ruined by orbs of an unknown light source. The same quirk materializes on pictures from their honeymoon and tourism shots. While Benjamin thinks it is a camera problem, Jane believes it's a supernatural event after seeing a ghostly young Japanese woman (Megumi Okina) suddenly appear and disappear throughout her day. As Ben becomes immersed in his work, Jane tries to figure out why she is having ghostly hallucinations. The photos are "spirit photos" according to Ben's assistant, Seiko (Maya Hazen), knowing this because her ex-boyfriend, Ritsuo (James Kyson Lee), coincidentally operates a magazine featuring "spirit photos." This is one of the big plot-turning coincidences that occur in "Shutter."Learning from Ritsuo that the photos are trying to communicate, Jane tries to figure out what that message is before it is too late. Benjamin begins to see the woman, and his friends Adam (John Henley) and Bruno (David Denman) also detect her, with knowledge of who she might be.

As the mysterious light in the photos becomes a clearer image and the sightings turn into violent physical attacks, the newlyweds must find a way to end the manifestations before death do they part.

"Shutter" has a solid story with fairly reasonable explanations. Still, why the photo ghost can also appear physically outside of the pictures is a head-scratcher.

The young actors play their parts with intrigue -- though "Dawson's Creek" star Joshua Jackson seems absent and uninvolved in most of his scenes. Taylor does an effective job for the majority of the film but is static at times. The supporting cast holds up the film but does nothing spectacular to improve upon it.

Staying true to scary Asian remakes, writer Luke Dawson keeps the same imagery of the original 2004 Thailand version, but tones the plot down. Masayuki Ochiai directs the film with style but forgets how to leave the audience spooked. Even at the feature-length run-time of 85 minutes, it seems to drag a bit.

"Shutter" certainly works as a thriller, but not as a horror flick mainly because the camera shies away from gory parts and scenes that are too frightening to maintain a PG-13 rating.

For thrills without shrills, "Shutter" will definitely click for you.