Monday, March 31, 2008

"21" Plays it By the Numbers


directed by Robert Luketic
starring Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne

Movies about high-stakes gambling should be the easiest sell in the world. By their very nature they carry a patina of risk and suspense, and offer a showcase for all types of personalities. How, then, do so many of them end up being so dramatically...inert? For every standout like “The Sting” or “Casino Royale,” there’s a watchable but quickly forgettable piece of disposable entertainment like “Rounders,” “Lucky You,” and, most recently, “21.” The basic problem is that gambling-centered flicks, like any other genre, tend to follow a standard formula that packs few real surprises and little character development. “21," unfortunately, is no exception.

Based on Ben Mezrich’s bestseller Bringing Down the House, “21” puts a Hollywood spin on the true story of a group of M.I.T. students who “took Vegas for millions” at the blackjack tables through a carefully orchestrated scheme of coordinated card counting. Not exactly a scam and certainly not illegal, the idea was that certain members of the team would play the table minimum while keeping count and give a signal when the table was hot, at which point the “big player” would swoop in for the kill. This method made it harder for the casinos to detect that counting was going on – but not always and not forever. And when they did find out, at least according to the movie, there was almost quite literally hell to pay.

That’s the raw material, plot-wise. Then there’s the spin, which packages this concept into more attractive bait for teen and young adult moviegoers. First step in the spin? Make the (originally Asian American) lead character, Ben, as white as the driven snow, and cast an up-and-coming young British heartthrob (Jim Sturgess, last seen serenading Evan Rachel Wood in “Across the Universe”) in the role.

Second step? Cast a bland blond as lead female – one whom most young adult males will recognize and think is hot, but who won’t break the budget. Kate Bosworth? Perfect!

Third step? To quiet any swelling murmur of protests at the whitewashing of the main character(s), cast not one but *two* Asian American actors as other members of the crack card counting squad, but make it clear they’re not as cool as the white characters, and don’t give them anything to do. (To reinforce the point, make Ben’s “big player” predecessor another white dude.) Oh, and be sure to make the Asian girl (Liza Lapira) cute and the Asian guy (Aaron Yoo) goofy.

Fourth step? Cast a big-but-not-too-big name who can pass the laugh test of believability as an M.I.T. math professor and the Wonder Kids’ coach. Smart-seeming, unctuous, potentially treacherous? Give Kevin Spacey a call. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s see if we can’t get another “name” actor to anchor the cast and possibly draw in viewers over the age of 30. Someone plausible as a thug or “heavy." Hmm, how about Laurence Fishburne?

Fifth step? Throw all of the above into the blender marked “Vegas as it appears in the movies,” and set on high for quick cuts. Don’t forget to place a “_____ (insert game of choice) for Dummies“ lesson near the beginning, and go crazy with the obligatory montages of tense hands, low-cut dresses, ridiculous hotel suites, strip clubs, five-figure shopping sprees, and the Bellagio fountains. (Actually, I don’t even remember if the Bellagio fountains make an appearance in this movie. But it wouldn’t much matter whether they did or not.)

I don’t really mean to be too hard on “21”’s commercial packaging. For one thing, the movie is (intentionally) far too lightweight to merit any serious criticism. For another, none of the “sell” devices I make fun of are nearly as objectionable as the plodding, utterly predictable plot. I speak from the perspective of pure entertainment, not artistic, value. The first 20 or so minutes of setup—wherein we meet Ben, our protagonist, and learn Why He’s So Special (yawn) and Why He Needs a Lot of Money (double yawn)—are particularly tedious, the only redeeming feature (for me, anyway) being the nostalgia-inducing shots of the People’s Republic of Cambridge, MA, in winter.

Things pick up a little once Ben actually joins the team and starts making weekend trips to Vegas to try out his new talent. But even then, every step of his rise and fall is so prefab and so clearly telegraphed it’s impossible not to see each one coming at least half an hour in advance. (Spoilers ahead if you’ve never seen a movie before.) Shy Guy Gradually Comes Out of His Shell – check. Shy Guy Rises to Top – check. Shy Guy Becomes Less Shy, Gets Girl – check. No Longer Shy Guy Gets All Hubristic, Turns His Back on Old Life, and Sets Himself Up for a Fall – check. Hero Falls/Gets Screwed, Loses Girl – check. Hero Admits Hubris, Reembraces Old Life – check. Hero Turns Tables, Gets Reward, Girl, and Last Word – check.

There’s only one potentially shocking “twist” that the viewer might not anticipate – though I called it, at least partly – and its cleverness is balanced, if not outweighed, by some extremely clumsy plotting elsewhere. (Pet peeve: why does Ben insist on stashing his winnings in his dorm room rather than depositing it in a bank? Hint: For the sake of a later plot development!) Even the story’s framing device – involving Ben and an admissions officer at Harvard Medical School – is so transparent that the would-be-clever ending is no surprise, either, though it seems to be set up as one.

All that said, “21” isn’t devoid of entertainment value. Thanks largely to its cast of fresh faces, it manages to convey some of the infectious giddiness of lifelong model students being let loose to play hooky and live out their wildest fantasies. Ben isn’t a compelling or even a particularly sympathetic hero, but Sturgess is surprisingly credible as the onetime retiring geek who learns to swagger with the best of the high-rollers. Yoo and Lapira are appealing, particularly given what ciphers their characters are. Bosworth adds more shading and intelligence to the part of Ben’s dream girl than her previous roles would lead one to suspect. Spacey, alas, adds exactly the opposite: he’s by turns so flat and so hammy that when he turns up late in the movie in an outlandish disguise, he’s actually more convincing than he was playing it straight - sort of - as Ben’s coach and mentor.

In many ways, Fishburne’s casino security “consultant” and chief nemesis of the M.I.T. group is the most intriguing figure in the movie, partly because he comes across as genuinely enigmatic: what you see is not necessarily what you get. He also introduces a potentially interesting side story about the phasing out of his business (recognizing and ejecting cheaters and card counters) by new high-tech facial recognition software: it's the classic story of an analog guy in an increasingly digital age. But “21” doesn’t really go anywhere with this storyline, for obvious reasons: it’s a movie about pretty young things gambling to play the system and win it all, not an aging casino protector who’s gradually realizing he’s about to lose it all because the system has rendered him obsolete. The irony is that the latter would probably make for a far more absorbing and effective movie.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's official: I am now a David Cookhead

Yes, I watch "American Idol."

I've never felt any real need to defend this habit, since "Idol"'s never been anything more to me than a reliable - and disposable - form of weekly entertainment. I like hearing good singers, I like seeing them try to stretch their range, and yes, I have grown rather fond of the Randy-Paula-Simon dog and pony show. That's it. I have never voted for or bought an album by any AI contestant (though I have downloaded a couple of Kelly Clarkson's singles from iTunes). And while I have had my favorites every year, I've never been so invested in one that I've bothered to find out anything about him or her that I couldn't learn in the span of an "Idol" episode.

Until now. Ladies and gentlemen, my name is lylee and I'm a David Cookaholic. I got it bad...and that ain't good.

It began so innocuously. I don't watch the audition process for "Idol" - personally, I get no pleasure from bad performers suffering & making us suffer their delusions of grandeur - and I usually don't get serious about watching regularly until the top 12. Still, I managed to catch a couple of the girls' nights after the top 24 were selected. Wasn't too impressed, frankly: thought they were all decent but rather boring. I kept missing boys' night. Then one Tuesday night I happened to catch it. I'd heard a lot about the wunderkund David Archuleta; other than that I knew no names. I had the show on more or less in the background as I flitted back & forth tidying up and making a quick dinner. I barely registered David Cook when he came on, and was in fact in the kitchen when he began his rock-reimagination of Lionel Richie's cheesy-pop "Hello". Within a few bars, my ears perked up ("who is *that*?"), and within a few more I was drawn back to the living room for the rest. I was impressed. I marked his name in my memory. No one else that night came close - not even golden-voiced Archuleta - though everyone but me seemed enamored of a pretty boy with dreads and a weak voice, who I learned was called Jason Castro.

Still, at that point the DC bug hadn't fully bitten me yet - or maybe it was still in incubation period. I still saw him as a pasty-faced, stringy-haired white dude who looked like a cross between Jack Black and a lizard, and just happened to have a terrific voice and impressive musical talent. I was of course glad he made the top 12, and interested to see what he - and the others - would make of Beatles week (which turned into two weeks). While I was pleased that DC's "Eleanor Rigby" was well received, I personally didn't care for his interpretation - it veered too far away from the essence of the lyrics, even though the song isn't one of of my favs to begin with. However, I liked his "Daytripper" a lot better (apart from his gimmicky use of a voicebox, or talkbox, or whatever those things are called), and it was at about this time that I realized I was starting to find him kind of least on stage. I started to look up his earlier performances on youtube. I came across his take on Free's "All Right Now"...and that did it. It was sizzlin'...and I developed a full-on case of raging Cook fever. I began searching for as much information as I could find online about him (a lot of it is summarized in Wikipedia, and on his fansite), and wasting time wondering what he'd sing this week and whether he'd ever be able to top "Hello."

Well, it seemed impossible, but I just think he may have done that tonight, with his inspired alt-rock rendition of Michael Jackon's "Billie Jean" (yes, that one), which pretty much brought down the house. Yes, I'm aware it was a cover of a cover, as performed and arranged by Chris Cornell, formerly of Soundgarden and Audioslave. I also don't think it matters a damn - what is "AI" if not a glorified cover contest? - since Cornell WAS acknowledged by Seacrest (admittedly in passing and in competition with the anticipatory shrieks of the girls in the audience). True, the judges gave DC a tad more credit than he deserved for the originality of the arrangement, but it's their fault, not his, if they weren't familiar with it themselves. It certainly wasn't Cook's place to flag their ignorance, especially after already getting shot down in the past for (what IMO was unfairly perceived as) sassing Simon. And anyway the judges were still right to recognize DC for taking risks that no one else in the competition has taken - even if it's been done before, it was a tricky reinvention of a pop classic that not everyone could have pulled off. Cook deserves mad props for trying and succeeding, rather than going with something conventionally and safely rock-ish.

But whatevs. DC always seems to get flak for doing that on "AI" - that is, picking and adapting interesting, unexpected arrangements of old chestnuts and giving them an absolutely mesmerizing delivery. He also seems to get flak for being supposedly smug, cocky, and/or a wannabe Chris Daughtry. Dunno about the Daughtry comparison, as I missed season 5 of "Idol" (that was an insanely busy spring for me), but as for the cockiness - well, maybe there's a bit of that on stage, it's part of his appeal, but off it he's quite self-deprecating in a very endearing way. He's a smart cookie, as his interviews and musical choices reflect, and I really think he's too intelligent and has had too much experience to get high on himself. He's done the road circuit; he knows firsthand how tough it is to make it in the music business. He clearly also knows how to connect with an audience. He's a pro among (mostly) amateurs.

His experience, and that of some of the other contestants, may strike some as unfair and not in the "Star Search"-ish spirit of "AI." But I like to think DC represents the many, many gifted, struggling musicians out there who have never and may never hit the big time - the ones you hear in small clubs and bars across the country, the ones who have small and/or local followings that never quite translate into national recognition or signing by a major label. Does David Cook deserve fame more than these, his peers? Perhaps not. His solo album, Analog Heart, released a couple of years ago, is what it is - shows some decent skills without studio polish, but contains only one or two truly memorable tracks (then again, the boy was only 22 or 23 at most when he recorded it). But the fact that he got lucky is no reason to bear a grudge against him. There's no denying he's got talent; it remains to be seen whether he develops into an artist worth our continued attention beyond "Idol." For now, he's far & away the most intriguing and consistently excellent performer of this year's "Idol," and that's good enough for me.

As for the rest of the Top 10, my quick reactions to their performances tonight (the theme was "songs from your birth year"):

MICHAEL JOHNS was the other standout of the evening, who after several lackluster weeks (though I seem to be one of the few who actually liked his perf of "Across the Universe") finally got his mojo back with a mashup of Queen's "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions." He rocked it, and looked fiiiine doing conventional standards he's far the hottest of the male contestants. But he didn't hit the big notes like my David C.

KRISTY LEE COOK made what may have seemed to some viewers like a cheap ploy to get red-state voters to call in for her by singing Lee Greenberg's "Proud to be an American." (Vote for the pretty patriotic blond!) And, as Simon rather backhandedly acknowledged, it probably worked. But I must say I've always had a soft spot for this song, ever since I sang it with my grade-school choir, and I also have a soft spot for Kristy Lee, who I think gets an overly bad rap from "Idol" watchers. She seems like a genuinely nice person, and to my ears has a pleasant, if not particularly remarkable, voice, easy on the ears. True, she almost destroyed the Beatles' "8 Days a Week" for me, but that was the fault of a horrible arrangement rather than her vocals. She did a pretty good job tonight, though I agree with Randy that she got a little pitchy in the middle.

SYESHA MERCADO gave a solid performance of "If I Was Your Woman," a song I must confess I've never heard before. Syesha is probably one of the two best female voices in the competition - Carly being the other one - and I actually prefer Syesha's vocal style. She's also attractive as hell. The problem? She looks and sounds too much like previous "Idol" contestants - ones who haven't won.

CARLY SMITHSON chose "Total Eclipse of the Heart," a song that she could and should have knocked out of the park. Instead, she seemed to be holding back a little, something the judges were getting at in their comments. Of course even Carly holding back a little can sing circles around most of the others. Still, once again I find she leaves me cold, for reasons I can't really explain. Even on her best days, there's something a little too Celine Dion-y about her voice for my taste.

BROOKE WHITE has never been a big fave of mine, though she should be, considering I tend to prefer soulful female singer-songwriters in my own listening collection. I think she's a good musician; I just find her a little...dull, and her vocal range a little limited. The only perf of hers I've really liked was "Let it Be." Her quiet, piano-driven version of the Police's "Every Breath You Take," on the other hand, to borrow a Randy phrase, was just aight for me.

DAVID ARCHULETA's choice of song was indeed a head-scratcher, but his vocals were for the most part good enough to get him through. He does have a naturally beautiful voice, and is, of course, cute as a puppy. I still think he has the edge on winning this thing, though if DC keeps raising the bar, there may yet be an upset.

CHIKEZIE is such a sweet guy (and was a freaking ADORABLE baby), I feel bad confessing that his take on Luther Vandross, while smooth and not unpleasant, bored me silly. I'm with Randy again - it was too old-school, though maybe I'm biased because I'm just not a big R&B fan. It also sounded to me like he was off-pitch on some notes. I think he may be in danger this week, even though he's not the one who should go.

JASON CASTRO, who was also an adorable baby (he does have the most amazing blue eyes, and I don't generally like blue eyes), didn't impress me much, either, with Sting's "Fragile." I don't really get Jason's popularity - I mean, yes, he's a cutie (though I still think he looks like a girl) and there's something rather soothing about his whispery style...but let's face it, folks, he just doesn't have a particularly good voice. He has an even more limited range than Brooke's, and he sounds like he belongs in a coffeehouse. And when he speaks, he sounds like he's permanently stoned. But I think he'll be around for a while because he has so many fans who are in love with him.

RAMIELE MALUBAY gave by far the weakest performance of this week, though she seems to have a very strong fan base who may keep her in the running a while yet. Amazingly, Simon was more charitable than Randy, though all the judges I think went relatively easy on her because she was sick. But the song (Heart's "Alone") was simply too much for her. Even if she were in perfect health, I don't think she's mature enough to make it work. It also doesn't help that the song's been done before, and much better, by Carly and previous Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

PREDICTIONS FOR BOTTOM 3: Chikezie, Ramiele, Carly or possibly Syesha, though who the hell knows.

WHO'S LEAVING: Probably Chikezie. Though it should be Ramiele.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Odds and ends

R.I.P. Anthony Minghella and Arthur C. Clarke. I can't really offer a proper tribute to either since I've seen only three of Minghella's films ("The English Patient", "The Talented Mr. Ripley," and "Cold Mountain") and read only a couple of Clarke's stories. But that's enough for me to affirm that the former was a filmmaker of exquisite taste and discernment who somehow managed to meld both elegance and passion in his work, while the latter would be justly remembered for 2001: A Space Odyssey alone, though it was far from his only major contribution to science fiction.

In other movie-related news, I've been in such cinema-withdrawal lately that I agreed to pay full Arclight price to see "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," a film that barely sparked my interest, because one of my friends wanted to see it. It proved to be an agreeable trifle with an occasional minor chord and a couple of delightful performances (oddly, not from the two lead actors) that saved it from being completely forgettable. Review to follow soon, though it may be rather abbreviated.

Finally, an update on my spring movie preview, specifically with respect to the upcoming "21": I had no idea, but apparently *all* of the students at the center of Bringing Down the House, the book on which the movie is based, were Asian American, whereas the movie makes whiter-than-white Jim Sturgess the lead card shark, with equally-white Kate Bosworth as his romantic interest. This news annoys but hardly surprises me. It won't necessarily keep me from seeing the movie - bad reviews are a much more likely deterrent. Still, it's a fresh and stinging reminder that Asian Americans still have a long way to go in the entertainment world. In many ways I feel like they've made greater progress recently in television than in the movies: on TV, at least you've got fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional, principal characters played by actors of Asian descent in powerhouse shows like "Lost," "Heroes," and "Grey's Anatomy," as well as evanescent but high-profile froth like "Cashmere Mafia" and "Lipstick Jungle." Whereas, on the silver screen, American studios still haven't figured out how to present Asians and Asian Americans other than as martial artists, exotic geishas, pidgin-speaking FOBs, nerds, and/or comic sidekicks - the subversions of "Harold and Kumar," "Better Luck Tomorrow" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" notwithstanding.

Oh well...someday a major studio will have the guts to cast an Asian American actor as a lead character who also happens to be an everyday human being, without a funny accent or flying fists of fury...In the meantime, I'll have to seek solace in such springs of Asian American creativity as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (currently ongoing and being aptly covered by our favorite Frisco film correspondent) and up-and-coming directors like this one, whom I met briefly the other day at a friend's wedding. Haven't seen his movie yet, but plan to eventually.

Peace on out, and happy post-St. Pat's-hangover day to all.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spring Movies: Slim Pickin's

For a season that's supposed to represent new life and rebirth, spring is a pretty barren and dismal time of year for the typical movie lover - at least the kind of movie lover who still likes to go see movies in, you know, actual theaters. (We still exist, albeit in diminishing numbers.) Thus the first four months of the year are typically the time I catch up on my Netflix queue, and this year is no exception...though lately I've been queuing up television series (such as the excellent "Friday Night Lights," which is giving "Veronica Mars" and "Mad Men" a run for their money as the best-written and acted TV dramas I've seen recently) rather than movies.

A few foreign films from late last year have been trickling into U.S. theaters over the past couple of months, such as the much-acclaimed Romanian abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days," the Israeli dramedy-with-political-subtext "The Band's Visit," and Foreign Language Film Oscar winner (admittedly a title of dubious distinction, especially this year) "The Counterfeiters." These I will try to catch. And I will confess to a sneaking desire to ogle hunky Eric Bana and wallow in the costume pageantry of the widely-panned "The Other Boleyn Girl," and to check out the ferocious prehistoric chickens of "10,000 B.C." - though I wouldn't see either movie without getting well tanked up first. As for the rest, there's frankly not much that's likely to draw me to a cinema between now and mid-May - but there are a few bright spots that gleam all the brighter for the vast stretches of empty darkness that surround them.

In order of release date:

STOP-LOSS (March 28)

Directed by Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), starring Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish. The first Iraq war-themed movie that looks like it has an actual spark of life. And I *don't* just mean the eye candy.

21 (March 28)

Directed by Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde," but also, urgh, "Monster-in-Law"), starring Jim Sturgess ("Across the Universe"), Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne. Based on the bestseller BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, the true story of the MIT whiz kids who took their card-counting skills to Vegas to scam millions at the blackjack tables. Not sure I buy Kate Bosworth as a math whiz, but then I don't really buy Kate Bosworth as anything. A good story, though gambling is hard to make cinematic (see, e.g., the decent-but-not-great "Rounders" and "Lucky You").


English-language debut of Wong Kar-Wai and acting debut of Norah Jones; also starring Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, and David Strathairn. Got a lukewarm reception at Cannes, but if you dig WKW's dreamy, meditative, ultra-cinematic style, this is still must-see viewing.

LEATHERHEADS (April 4 - will be a good weekend, the oasis in the cinematic wasteland of spring)

Directed by and starring George Clooney; co-starring John Krasinski ("The Office") and Renee Zellweger. Period screwball comedy about the early days of football? Starring Clooney? I'll take it for those silly leather helmets alone. Plus Clooney has been on a roll lately. The man chooses his scripts well, that's for sure.


Directed by Marcel Langenegger, starring Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams. Jackman plays Mephistopheles to McGregor's naif by offering him an entree into the steamiest (or seamiest) sex clubs of NY. Someone disappears and the naif gets into a whole lotta trouble. The fact that this movie seems to have 3 different titles in circulation doesn't bode well; but hey, as long as we get to see Ewan and/or "Huge Ackman" in a state of undress, you've still got my attention. And we all know what a penchant Ewan has for showing his McGregor, if you know what I mean...

And those are all the titles fit to print, as far as I'm concerned. Perhaps I'm overlooking some gems...

On second thought, probably not. Enjoy what you can, and let's keep on waiting for INDIANA JONES 4!