At the Movies

March 27, 2008 9:35:36 AM PDT
Capsule reviews of films opening this week:

"21" - The MIT brainiacs of this gambling romp are smart enough to count cards and make a fortune at the blackjack table yet so dumb they fall into greedy, grubby plot holes a C-minus Statistics 101 student would have seen coming a mile to the Nth power away. The movie's a morality play preaching sophomoric ethics - avarice bad, clean living and hard work good. Yet the only interesting thing it holds up to the light is the gluttony the movie eventually decries - money, booze, fast living, the sheer intemperance of making a killing, Vegas-style. Based on the real story of MIT students who card-counted their way to a fortune in Vegas, the movie stars Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth as math whizzes recruited by a professor (Kevin Spacey) to join his team of blackjack weekend warriors. Laurence Fishburne co-stars as a Vegas enforcer whose job is to run card counters out of town. MIT students turning the tables on big casinos is a fresh concept, yet the story plays out predictably like something we've seen in the cards a hundred times before. PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity. 118 min. Two stars out of four.

"Chapter 27" - Jared Leto put on some 60 pounds to play John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman, a feat that some have likened to Robert De Niro's transformative weight gain for "Raging Bull." Well, there's nothing raging about this feature debut from writer-director Jarrett Schaefer, a lethargic, ponderous slog that feels much longer than its brief running time. Schaefer relies too heavily on voiceover to convey Chapman's inner state, but he provides little insight. We know Chapman was obsessed with J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," and even went so far as to believe he was the book's protagonist, Holden Caulfield. But over the three days in December 1980 when Chapman stands outside the Dakota apartment building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, waiting for Lennon to emerge so he can shoot him, he thinks clunky, literal thoughts about the fact that - you guessed it! - he believes he's Holden Caulfield and wants to kill John Lennon. Thanks for Leto does resemble Chapman with his black hair, double chin and oversized glasses. But mimicry alone isn't exactly acting, and the raspy whisper-scream he uses for his interior monologues is annoyingly gimmicky. Lindsay Lohan appears in a few scenes as a Lennon fan named - wait for it - Jude, who also stands outside the Dakota all day and inexplicably can't figure out that Chapman is one odd dude. R for language and some sexual content. 83 min. One star out of four.

"Run, Fat Boy, Run": The most immediate and glaring problem with "Run, Fat Boy, Run" is that it's lacking a "fat boy." It might be very American to think so, but Simon Pegg, the British comedian of "Hot Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead," is not portly by any means, but merely - as he asserts himself in the film - "unfit." A sense of mismatched talent pervades the comedy, directed by David Schwimmer ("Friends") and co-written by Michael Ian Black ("Wet Hot American Summer"). The film contains neither the madcap absurdity of Black, the easy farce of Pegg nor Schwimmer's knack for tender humor. Pegg is Dennis, a slovenly security guard who five years ago made the unfathomable decision to walk out on Libby, his pregnant girlfriend (Thandie Newton). Fast forward five years later and lo and behold, Dennis is regretting his decision. What follows is the shopworn story of a schlub trying to fix his life by proving himself in a single, meaningless event - in this case, a marathon. One feels any initial originality in Black's draft - transplanted from New York to London - was snuffed out in adapting it to Pegg's style. The only one who successfully carves out his own voice is Dylan Moran, who plays Dennis' best friend with a vacant deadpan that Bill Murray would approve of. PG-13 for some rude and sexual humor, nudity, language and smoking. 97 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

"Stop-Loss" - For her first film since 1999's "Boys Don't Cry," the raw drama that earned Hilary Swank her first best-actress Oscar, Kimberly Peirce initially wanted to make a documentary about soldiers who'd fought in the Iraq war. Inspired by her younger brother, who enlisted in the Army after Sept. 11, 2001, she wanted to let them tell their stories of discontentment, of questioning the war, of going AWOL. Then she learned that one of her brother's friends had been stop-lossed - sent back for another tour of duty even though he'd fulfilled his contract - and decided to make a feature instead. Certainly there has been no shortage of nonfiction films about the war, but considering the frustrating unevenness of "Stop-Loss," Peirce's intentions at least make one curious about what her documentary might have been like. As director and co-writer, she tells the story of Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), who returns to his small Texas town with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a welcome-home parade - and orders to return to Iraq, even though he thought he was done and was looking forward to civilian life. Instead, he flips out and goes AWOL, taking a road trip with the girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) of his childhood best friend and fellow soldier (Channing Tatum). Peirce shows some sensitivity to the trauma these men endure as they struggle to resume their former lives. But she also vacillates between earnestness and superficiality, making "Stop-Loss" feel like eye candy with a message. R for graphic violence and pervasive language. 112 min. Two stars out of four.