Even if card counting is legal, this gangster-style brutality plainly cannot be, yet it provides long minutes of hackneyed menace, a B-movie plot point that only underlines 21's unoriginality.


Director: Robert Luketic
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Bosworth, Liza Lapira, Aaron Yoo, Josh Gad
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2008
UK Release Date: 2008-04-11 (General release)
US Release Date: 2008-03-28 (General release)

Brainy, smug, and drearily middle-class, Ben (Jim Sturgess) is worried that he won't have the $300,000 tuition for Harvard Medical. Never mind that he's a pre-med mathlete whiz at M.I.T. He's told by a guy in a suit that he probably won't get the Robinson Scholarship he believes is his only way through and so, he also believes he has good reason to take up card counting.

It's not that such activity is illegal, as you're reminded repeatedly in the dreary caper flick 21. It's just that it's dishonest, as well as exciting and seductive, especially as presented by Jill (Kate Bosworth), Ben's sleek blond classmate and shiny prize on the card-counting team. When at first Ben demurs from joining the team, Jill shows up at the square men's clothing store where he works and puts her perfect lips close to his while trying out a tie around his neck. Ben swoons, just a bit, and soon enough forgets that he has two best friends already, nerdly Miles (Josh Gad) and Cam (Sam Golzari), with whom he's working on a big-deal science project. Though Miles understands, encourages, and lives a little vicariously through Ben's interest in Jill (he's a nerd, after all, and so too easily impressed by a shallow beauty who also happens to be a "rocket scientist"), loyalty is one of several questions confronting Ben. Though none of these questions feels especially urgent, they do provide a thematic backdrop for his bland coming of age storyline.

Per formula, Ben is also provided with a father figure, the Fagin-like Micky (Kevin Spacey, valiantly supporting his Old Vic), a professor who recruits his smart students to play cards for money. "You not only have a gifted mind," he cajoles Ben, "but you're also composed, you think logically." Though Ben frowns as if concerned about the immorality of cheating, he's soon enough convinced. His decision is hastened when Jill insists, "You should feel the thrill of making more money than you could possibly imagine." Yes, it would be nice to ease the burden on his hardworking single mom (who appears a couple of times, looking weary and proud of her son as he lies (badly) about how he's suddenly got several thousand dollars. (Mom, being saintly and trusting, not to mention dressed in her work uniform, doesn't question her baby boy.)

Based loosely on Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, the movie mostly celebrates the team's sense of entitlement and superiority is plainly instilled by Micky, who nurtures Ben's belief that he's brighter than everyone else (he's not that bright though, as he easily falls for Micky's manipulations). Jill brings another argument, reductive and attractive: "The best thing about Vegas," she purrs, "is that you can be anyone you want."

In Vegas, Ben's newbie exhilaration is reflected in a predictable series of game montages, swooping shots of Vegas neon, and flash-pans over crowded casino floors. But the movie doesn't do much with the "you can be anyone you want" idea, in part because the team members are insipidly stereotyped -- Ben and Jill are joined by goofy Choi (Aaron Yoo), slinky Kianna (Liza Lapira), and whiny Fisher (Jacob Pitts) -- and in part because any self-invention is limited to carrying the occasional alternate driver's license and wearing the occasional wig. Micky warns his team that Vegas is trying out new face recognition software, but their disguises are mostly silly, offering no chance of eluding any such software (within weeks, Ben's self-confidence is marked by valets and casino managers, who greet him buoyantly: "Hey, Mr. C!").

But even as the software apparently misses their fake mustaches and cowboy hats, the team is soon scrutinized by a pair of old-schooly Vegas "security" guards, themselves under threat of losing their jobs to the newfangled software. Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne) is especially keen to spot and punish the offenders, and come to find out he has a "history" with Micky, which passes for explanation regarding his dogged pursuit of Ben and company. Cole and his buddy Terry (Jack McGee) serve mostly as cartoonish threats, peering at surveillance monitor images while gritting their teeth and muttering how much they want to get these damn cheaters. When they do make their moves onto the floor, the guards become lumbering thugs, dragging their targets downstairs to a scary basement, tying them to chairs, and beating them bloody. Even if card counting is legal, this gangster-style brutality plainly cannot be, yet it provides long minutes of hackneyed menace, a B-movie plot point that only underlines 21's unoriginality.

As Ben must learn a lesson, the movie must demonize Micky, whose slick meanness becomes increasingly visible. Enticing Ben to take on a greater role in the scam and replace the hard-partying Fisher, he asserts, "I don't trust the girls, and Choi's... Choi," a categorization Ben doesn't doubt. He is, after all, the most sublimely privileged boy, unaware of his race-and-gender-inflected opportunities but quick to kvetch about the unfairness of the Ivy League's money systems. Though he comes to see Micky as the enemy -- and Micky makes him pay mightily for such judgment -- they are, after all, alike in ambitions and ethics.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

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Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

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There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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