DVD Tuesday: ’21’ & ‘Awake’

by W. Andrew Powell


Jim Sturgess in 21

Arriving on DVD this week, Jim Sturgess stars in 21 as a brainiac math whiz who turns his mind to counting cards on weekends, while in Awake, Hayden Christensen goes under the knife for heart surgery but suffers from a rare condition that means he is paralyzed, but fully aware.

Based on a true story. It is an often used line which when dropped into any film description instantly suggests that while the filmmakers took every duty in studying the “true” part of the story, it’s unlikely that much of it will appear in the film you are about to see.

Nevertheless, 21 is the often charming, perhaps even cautionary tale of Ben Campbell, played by Jim Sturgess, a math genius conned into joining his professor’s extracurricular gambling club that counts cards in Las Vegas on the weekends. Kevin Spacey stars as morally vacuous MIT professor Micky Rosa, a little man playing a big game, who recognizes Ben’s clever brain as a boon to his little team of money-crazed gamblers.

The foil of the story is that Ben is actually a good kid, trying to raise enough money to start his graduate degree, who gets sidetracked by the fun, freewheeling lifestyle his new pastime has afforded him. On top of that, Ben has a thing for his teammate Jill, played by Kate Bosworth, and initially gets dragged into the whole mess because she turns on the charm.

On the bright side of this ridiculous tale is Sturgess and his life sized performance in a film populated by miniatures. Sturgess brings both wit and heart to the character, and he ultimately carries the film when the script falls apart with frequently cheesy plot turns. Laurence Fishburn, who plays security chief Cole Williams, likewise gives a fun turn as Ben’s shadow, but hardly has any real meat to chew on in this simple role. Meanwhile Spacey renders his usual mish-mash of canned dialogue and lame banter, often to ridiculous effect, although he is somehow still a lot of fun in this role.

While I could talk about the failures of the film in terms of acting and direction, the real problem is the script, and all of the elements which feel massaged and twisted to suite a true Hollywood film. The basic concept of 21 might be taken from a true story, there’s no missing that grain of truth, but it gets lost inside a rather fluffy plot, riddled with cheap theatrics, and a moral compass that gets twisted around a lot before it straightens out. Given the right tweaking, director Robert Luketic‘s film might have been a lot more enjoyable, but as it stands it’s an obvious Vegas drama that can only fake a winning hand.

Also debuting this week with another botched concept storyline is writer and director Joby Harold‘s thriller Awake, a story about a young man who finds himself fully aware even though he has been put under anaesthesia. The real-life condition means that even though the person has been drugged and can’t move, they aren’t actually asleep.

Hayden Christensen plays Clayton Beresford Jr., the unfortunate man who goes under the knife to cure a heart condition, but not only feels everything the doctor is doing to him, but can also hear the unfolding drama involving his wife and best friend.

Co-starring Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, and Lena Olin, the film has some critical supporters who enjoyed the tense elements as Clayton fights for consciousness, but overall reviewers were not kind. As Bruce Demara of the Toronto Star quipped in his review, “The plot has more holes in it than a tea bag and the film should come with a warning label: don’t go see with anyone with even a modicum of medical knowledge, because they’ll surely spend the film huffing and rolling their eyes skyward.”

Emotional Arithmetic
Launched during the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, Emotional Arithmetic is a thoughtful drama told through two points in time, and starring Chrisopher Plummer, Gabriel Byrne, Roy Dupuis, and Max von Sydow.

The first part of the story takes place during World War II when a group of people imprisoned by the Nazis fight to survive the harsh conditions of the internment camp. Leaping ahead, the second part of the story is set during the group’s waning years as they deal with all of the pent-up emotions held throughout the years.

While the film reaped a lot of publicity from its placement at the film festival, reviewers had a number of issues with the film. “There’s a dense compression here that’s meant to be elliptical and allusive, but has just the opposite effect,” Rick Groen wrote in his review for the Globe and Mail. “Rather than resonate, the compression suffocates the life out of the picture and every actor in it.

New television arriving this week…

Robot Chicken: Star Wars
Robot Chicken is one of the funniest, oddest animated shows on television, so it seems only fitting that they should take on the hallowed nerdy ground of Star Wars. Much like the regular episodes, the show is a series of quick segments, featuring all sorts of spoofs on the Star Wars universe.

A whiny Darth Vader calls Emperor Palpatine to apologize for losing the Death Star, we see orientation day on the Death Star, Boba Fett gets hot and bothered for the carbonite Han Solo, and we meet the Jedi George Bush, just to name a few.

Definitely a must for Star Wars fans who have somehow missed this show, but it is more than clever enough that you don’t need to be a fan to get the gags, it just helps a lot.

Spaced: The Complete Series
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star in this goofy British comedy about a group of twenty-somethings living in London, but the best part of the series is the constant pop-culture references and Hollywood spoofery. The series eventually led to Pegg, Frost and director Edgar Wright teaming up to create the hit horror/comedy, Shaun of the Dead.

LA Ink: Season 1
Following the success of Miami Ink, TLC launched this spin-off series starring Kat Von D, and her group of tattoo artists who set up shop in Los Angeles. While the focus of the show is obviously on the business and the art, like many other reality shows it is primarily about the battle of personalities within the shop, especially with the now infamous Kat Von D.

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