It takes a bit of cheek to call a film Flawless. Especially a Demi Moore film. In it, she carries that affixed chip on her shoulder into the role of the sole female executive at the London Diamond Corporation (Lon Di, for short) in the year 1960, held down in her career advancement by the proverbial glass ceiling. “Don’t give up,” she dashes off a note-to-self on a 3x5 index card. “Work harder. You will win.” Though she is expressly identified as American to cover for the faintness of her accent, that doesn’t prevent her from pronouncing “reschedule” without the “k” sound (“re-shedule”), turning herself inside out to fit in. Bravely, even a touch martyrishly, she puts on, and puts up with, a coiffure and wardrobe out of the Jackie Kennedy scrapbook — and because it’s stuffy old England, exclusively in colors suitable for a funeral — not to mention putting on and putting up with a layer of old-age makeup in the present-day framing scenes, when she pulls out a manuscript of her life story under a title lifted from Kate Chopin, minus the definite article, Awakening. Helping to sound reveille is the company’s night janitor (Michael Caine, so peculiarly cast, you keep expecting him to be unmasked as a secret agent), who sees all and knows all without being seen or known, and who pitches to her a retributive raid on the vault in the basement. He had read that aforementioned index card, and anonymously scrawled on the bottom of it, “No you won’t.” Beyond a trip to the dog track (his pleasure), neither of the co-conspirators has a life, and the suffocating narrowness of the film will not be offset by its broader awareness of feminist issues or its last-minute epiphany on healthcare. Michael Radford, the serious-minded director of 1984, Il Postino, Dancing at the Blue Iguana, among others, goes through the paces of the heist with precision, but without urgency, without tension, without excitement, without, even, clarity. In a caper film, that could be thought a sizable flaw. Social consciousness is small compensation.

21 takes off from a true story, presumably far, far off, about a team of MIT math whizzes who, drilled by a Mephistophelean mentor on the faculty, visit Vegas on weekends to beat the house at blackjack. The film is not able to make the frowned-upon practice of “card counting” comprehensible, much less cinematic (unless you consider fast-shuffle editing to be cinematic), but then it’s not really interested in mental acumen and application, only in the rewards and perks: a run-of-the-mill Sin City fantasy (dazzling montage of casino neon, top-of-the-world luxury suite, strip club, stacks and stacks of hoarded chips) in which the natural-born nerd can forget who his friends are, become somebody different, go around acting like a cross between Richard Gere in Pretty Woman and Michael Douglas in Wall Street. Director Robert Luketic, whose lightweight credits consist of Legally Blonde, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, and Monster-in-Law, permits himself to be entranced by the fantasy, serving more as press agent than reporter, greasing the wheels for a smooth ride, picking compatible pop songs for tempo. Jim Sturgess, The Other Boleyn Girl’s ill-fated brother, is Young Paul McCartney cute as the whizziest math whiz, or in other words a fantasy figure from the get-go. (If he’s so bright, why is he piling up hundreds of thousands of dollars in the ceiling of his dorm room instead of in a bank?) Kate Bosworth is a still more distorted fantasy of the Smart Girl. And Kevin Spacey, who gets all the snappiest dialogue, puts his innate repellence to good use as the manipulative mentor, the adult authority figure who, in order to complete the fantasy, must finally be overthrown. The most sympathetic figure, even when (perhaps especially when) he’s slipping rings onto his fingers for a brass-knuckle work-over, is Laurence Fishburne as an old-school casino watchdog who’s being phased out by computer software.

Run Fatboy Run, a loser’s comedy directed by David Schwimmer (his debut behind the camera), lacks a fat boy, but has a full-grown man, “not fat... just unfit,” who indeed runs and runs. First he runs from his own wedding, leaving his pregnant fiancée at the altar, and then five years later, trying to get back in the running, he decides to run against his former fiancée’s new boyfriend in a London marathon. It would appear to be no contest on the course or off: the unfit runner is a klutzy uniformed security guard at a women’s clothing store, chronically late with his rent and late for visitations with his toddling son, while his rival is a tall, tan, toned, handsome, well-heeled American financier. Simon Pegg, as the former, is certainly funny-looking (snowman’s dome, pebble eyes, carrot nose), which gives him a head start on being funny. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz give him, in addition, some rope. But this, which he co-wrote with Michael Ian Black, is as conventional, and as sentimental, as any Adam Sandler comedy. (What charity sponsors his run? National Erectile Dysfunction Awareness. Name of the former fiancée’s bake shop? Libby’s Nice Buns. That sort of thing.) Thandie Newton, as the object of desire, is flatteringly photographed, though that can’t have been too hard. Hank Azaria well acts the part of the new boyfriend, yet can never be taken seriously as a rival. Dylan Moran, as the hero’s deadbeat best friend, rather steals the spotlight with his low-pressure dryness.

Under the Same Moon, showcased in the San Diego Latino Film Festival, gives little indication of why the festival is such a moviegoing haven. But perhaps it stands to reason that the first film out of the festival to open commercially would be much, much worse than any of the dozen films I fitted into my schedule throughout the festival. Patricia Riggen’s illegal-immigrant ordeal is a virtual heart-tugging machine, tugging on it at regular and frequent intervals, so that you learn, like an experimental rat, to cringe in anticipation. The agony begins immediately. A camera-friendly single mom (Kate del Castillo) in East L.A., making her weekly payphone call to her south-of-the-border son (Adrian Alonso) on his ninth birthday, turns on the waterworks when he reminds her he hasn’t seen her in four years. At the birthday party immediately thereafter, Granny is hacking her way to an imminent grave, and a distant uncle, brother of the absent father, drops by to volunteer for guardianship, fully cognizant of the $300 per month sent home by the mother. Granny, like clockwork, fails to wake up, and the boy, wasting only a little time for waterworks, heads north on his own to track down his mother before the next weekly call. Hair-raising adventures and close shaves follow bumper to bumper, though the boy always appears to have time to comb his hair as neatly as if he were sitting for a studio portrait. A happy ending never feels in doubt. It’s only a question of how many tugs.

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Josh Board April 3, 2008 @ 12:51 a.m.

Michael Caine does too many of these types of roles. He should've quit after that nice little noir Nicholson film, I believe called "Blood and Wine".

And, did anyone see the best bank vault break in movie by a janitor, in the last 25 years? That would be the overlooked film from last year, called THE LOOKOUT, with Jeff Daniels.

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