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Laramie Movie Scope:
21

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2008) Dazzle me with a story that walks off the page, says Dr Phillips to Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) during their interview for the Robinson Scholarship, a free ride to Harvard Medical College, worth $300,000. While he has a gifted mind - the top student at MIT in his senior year - possibly a genius, Ben, being but one of 76 applicants, lacks a compelling life experience that would scream from an essay his being special above all others.

The son of a Boston widow, Ben and his best friend Miles (Josh Gad) work at J. Press Men's Wear; with their third buddy Cam, they're designing a miniature robotic car that can drive itself into winning the 2.09 Competition.

In Dr Micky Rosa's nonlinear-equations course, Ben impresses his professor by pointing out that fifty years before Sir Isaac Newton, Joseph Raphson independently was in possession of the method of solving equations numerically, a concept for which Newton has received credit; further, Ben discovered on his own a more efficient method of finding true zero than Newton's method. In a class demonstration, given a choice of three doors, Ben explains his reasoning for selecting another door from his initial choice, based on variable change (increasing his chances of picking the right door from 33?% to 66?%).

As a reward for his brilliance, Prof Rosa invites him to become a member of his secret club, five students who fly to Las Vegas on the weekends to play black jack (aka 21). At first Ben declines the invitation with its lure of riches - "You were born for this," says Dr Rosa, remarking on his student's ability to think logically without being disturbed by emotional distractions, dismissing an argument that he's obligated to help his friends in the 2.09 Competition, "Ben, let the car drive by itself" - but when Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), whom he has secretly admired, approaches him to join her, Fisher, Choi, and Kinnia - confiding that in Vegas, "You can become anyone you like" - he eventually relents. (So is he really capable of focusing on his work, ignoring emotional distractions?)

Based on Ben Mezrich's nonfiction book, Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, Robert Luketic directed this dazzling story that leaps off the page onto the silver screen.

He's only in it until he has enough for Harvard Med, he tells Jill; it's just a means to an end. Rosa's team has a system with words employed as numbers and numbers as words plus hand signals (e.g., "sweet" means 16, arms crossed behind a chair indicates a hot table); by sticking to the system of counting cards, they can beat the house, thus they're not gambling.

Using pseudonyms and disguises, Ben ("brain like a Pentium chip") and Fisher have roles as big players, because they can keep control and the count, while the other three act as spotters, recognizing when a table gets hot and watching out for the heat. Though counting when playing black jack isn't illegal, the casinos employ surveillance systems, facial-recognition software, and thugs, such as Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), to firmly "discourage" mental whizzes taking advantage of the odds. Rosa gets a 50% cut without participating other than as their mentor; the others each get equal ten-percent shares.

In Boston they keep a secret of their wild life of fun and thrills in Vegas; Ben has to deceive Miles and Cam (who suspect he's on drugs) about his whereabouts on the weekends. For Ben it's just "simple math," and as the money pours in as the monkeys (face cards) turning up so easily, he and the others upgrade their lifestyle into high-roller luxury.

However, when Fisher, caving in to his emotions, gets jealous of Ben and throws a fit, Rosa dismisses him from the team: "You know exactly what I'm capable of doing, don't you?"

At one point Ben, enjoying being the big player, is up $640,000 against the casino before the tables are turned on him. In another session of Prof Rosa's math course, Ben comments on how Cauchy (19th-century French mathematician) stole from his student Stupnitsky's brilliance for his own credit. Unlike Stupnitsky, Ben gets his revenge.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2008 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)