21 (2008) Loosely adapted from Ben Mezrich's fact-based bestseller Bringing Down the House, 21 is an entertaining and fast-paced film that occasionally manages to make the act of counting cards seem as exciting as any given Super Bowl – and as perilous as climbing Mount Everest with both eyes closed. Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays Ben Campbell, a brilliant MIT student who needs some serious dough in order to be able to afford a stint at Harvard. He catches the eye of Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a shrewd professor whose extracurricular activity is training a hand-picked group of students in the art of counting cards at the blackjack table. Micky welcomes Ben to a gang that already includes two guys (Aaron Yoo and Jacob Pitts) and two girls (Kate Bosworth and Liza Lapira), and together they set off on weekly excursions to Las Vegas to clean up. Yet although they believe they're operating under the wire, their winning ways – not to mention squabbles from within – catch the eye of an old-school casino enforcer (Laurence Fishburne) whose MO is taking cheaters to a back room and beating them to a pulp. 21 works best during its first act, when the fascinating con game is explained to Ben (and to us), and during its second act, when Ben feels his life spiraling out of control. Scripters Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb only lose their grip during the third act, when an important plot point too lumpy to swallow leads to a series of increasingly unbelievable developments. Yet even during this convoluted section, director Robert Luketic and a perfectly cast Spacey insure that this stylish film maintains a winning hand.
Extras in the two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by Luketic and producers Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, a 25-minute making-of featurette, a piece explaining the game of blackjack, and a look at the movie's luxurious setting. The edition also includes a digital copy for playing on a PC or PSP.
IN BRUGES (2008). Two hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason) are sent to Bruges, Belgium, to await further instructions from their short-tempered boss (Ralph Fiennes). One (Gleason) enjoys playing the role of tourist while the other, tormented by a recent tragedy, can't wait to leave the place; unfortunately for both of them, their boss has an unpleasant surprise in store. Yes, it's yet one more violent, hipper-than-thou crime flick in love with its own dialogue, yet for once I'm not complaining, since writer-director Martin McDonagh and his three excellent stars all keep up their end of the bargain by delivering a smart movie full of dark humor and finely honed twists.
DVD extras include 18 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, a making-of featurette, a scenic boat trip around the city, and a 96-second piece comprised solely of the film's ample employment of foul language.
ROBOT CHICKEN: STAR WARS (2007). The creators of the cult cable show set their sights on George Lucas' baby with decidedly mixed results. Running 23 minutes, the special consists of a series of skits united only in their determination to stick it to the Force in a tongue-in-cheek manner. As expected, the skits run hot-and-cold, with a few gems (including an Empire Strikes Back-inspired standoff between Dubya and daughter Jenna) as well as a handful of duds (a creepy segment involving Boba Fett and the frozen Han Solo). It's worth a look, although the Star Wars-inspired Family Guy episode (Blue Harvest) is funnier.
DVD extras include deleted scenes, interviews with the creators, a panel discussion, and network promos.
TRAFIC (1971). Well, I suppose even comic geniuses are allowed to miss a beat or two. French writer-director-actor Jacques Tati's 1958 Mon Oncle and 1967's Play Time are both acknowledged masterpieces – and 1953's Mr. Hulot's Holiday is right behind them – but Trafic, his final theatrical release, falls far short of such distinction. All four pictures feature his celebrated character Monsieur Hulot, the silent, lanky gentleman rarely spotted without his pipe, hat, overcoat and umbrella, and all four imaginatively stress sound effects over dialogue. In Trafic, Hulot's a car designer who must transport his latest creation to an auto show in Amsterdam, but naturally, mishaps occur every step of the way. There are some choice bits, to be sure, and Tati's familiar theme concerning the bewildering nature of technology is still present, but too much of it lacks any memorable wit or bite.
Extras in the two-disc set include the two-part, 102-minute documentary In the Footsteps of M. Hulot (1989), a 1973 TV interview with Tati, and a 1971 TV interview with the cast of Trafic.