Good Luck, Chuck (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: CFCD=F
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $34 million US, $21 million int’l, DVD N/A

Directed by: Mark Helfrich, making his first movie, although he edited X-Men: The Last Stand, Red Dragon, Honey, Rush Hour, Showgirls, Predator, and Rambo 2.
Starring: Dane Cook, Dan Fogler, and Jessica Alba.

Because of his reluctance to fool around with a scary girl in junior high, Charlie gets hexed by her. This causes him to be never capable of loving anyone, although ever girl he sleeps with marries the next man she dates. Women line up to get the benefit of his curse, but then he meets a woman he’s terrified to lose, the danger-prone penguin-keeper Jessica Alba.

Entertainment Value: C
I should have known better with Dane Cook (Employee of the Month, Mr. 3000, Stuck on You, and Torque), but for whatever reason I always have high expectations from Jessica Alba. Maybe it goes back to loving Dark Angel so much. There are two problems here. One is that this movie is totally vulgar, more on that in a moment. The other is that it’s just not funny, or not funny enough. And I should have sensed all of this with the very opening scene around a basement game of spin-the-bottle with a teenage goth-girl undressing and coming on to a boy. Ick. That being said, it did have some funny moments and I think there’s enough interesting philosophy here to make it only a C.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sexuality J, Violence C, Language F, Illegality A.
The language is atrocious, particularly from Dan Fogler, and the characters use marijuana or talk about it regularly. The violence is one fistfight and a lot of comic accidents, including scalpels being thrown into someone’s back. But the real, and I mean real issue here is sexuality and nudity. It’s a J, and though we watched the unrated version on DVD, I honestly don’t know how this movie could have even been an R. Whole sequences involving shown sex and nudity would have to be removed to get it down from an NC-17 in my opinion. Aside from the core elements of the plot, Dan Fogler plays a plastic surgeon for women and molests himself several times. I hate to tell you, but I want to warn you, too.

Significant Content: C
Sex without love is meaningless and eventually unsatisfying. When you love something, you surround yourself with things that remind you of that person or value. When you find someone you really love, you become willing to do anything to keep them, even help them find happiness with someone else. It’s the flaws in another person that we really fall for. Sex outside of marriage is fine and has no real consequences. Plastic surgery for sexual attractiveness is normal.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Any time the vulgar content interferes with the story, I’m bothered by it. To call this art is really a mistake. However, it does raise some very good questions about relationships. My favorite is the idea that Charlie is really doing women a service, if his curse is real. Making it possible to give many other people real love even at the possible expense of ever finding it for himself is interesting. Also, the overtone of the whole movie that sex ruins premarital relationships rather than helping them is nice to see.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you think it’s correct to say that we fall for someone’s flaws? Does this change after we get married?
~Would you forsake having true love for yourself if you knew that you could help give it to many other people in the transaction?
~What do you think the overall impact of this movie on a viewer’s sexual morality?
~What does this movie have to say about gender and attitudes toward marriage? If a real man had this “power,” do you think women would flock to him to receive the benefits? What if a woman had it? Would men seek her out in the same way? Are women (or men) these days truly frustrated about not being able to find a spouse? How might current sex ethics be responsible?
~Do you think hexes are real?
~What things does Charlie do that demonstrate his true love for Cam? When the willingness to wait until marriage for sex is removed, what ways to demonstrate true love are left?

Overall Grade: F
Not worth watching and certainly not for anyone under 18 to watch, although it has some interesting ideas if you’ve made the mistake of already having done so.

Dragon Wars (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: DNF
Budget: $32 million
Box Office: $11 million US, $60 million int’l, $4 million DVD

Directed by: Hyung Rae-Shim, in his American directorial debut.
Starring: Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Robert Forster, and Aimee Garcia.

Every 500 years, something weird happens with good dragons and bad dragons and eternal life and massive armies of clone warriors or something.

I have a new rule. My new rule is to see how much money a film made in the theaters because apparently Blockbuster has a policy of buying a bunch of DVD copies of movies that completely flopped at the theaters. They call them Blockbuster Exclusives, but there’s a reason. The only one we’ve watched that was really good was Miss Potter. Granted, this one wasn’t quite that bad of a flop dollar wise, but I’ve already saved myself the pain of renting Suburban Girl, Blonde Ambition, September Dawn, and The Hunting Party just based on the fact that they all totally failed to make money. Had I done the same here, I might have been spared the pain. It’s sort of like a 2007 Princess Bride for kids only campier, not funny, and far too violent for any 8 year-old to watch. Instead of the Never-Ending Story, this is the never-interesting story. We actually watched the first 40 minutes and then adopted a scan-and-see approach on the DVD. And I discovered something interesting. The final main sequence from minute 60 to 82 is actually fairly good action stuff and cool just for the all-out dragons fighting Apaches. But seriously, there’s no plot here, and it’s far too scary for younger kids plus all the strange Eastern mysticism concepts like reincarnation, heavenly omens, and fate. This is a sad pass, because who doesn’t like a good dragon movie? Dragonheart and Reign of Fire are much, much, much better. I guess I only have myself to blame, given that the opening title was "Dragon Wars: D-War!"

Simpsons Movie, The (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: ACCB—B
Budget: $73 million
Box Office: $183 million US, $343 million int’l, $73 million DVD

Directed by: David Silverman, who has made 23 Simpsons episodes as well as Monsters, Inc. and The Road to El Dorado. The key, however, is that it’s written by Matt Groening and James L. Brooks.
Starring: The voices of Dan Castallaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, with guest voices including Albert Brooks, Joe Mantegna, and Tom Hanks.

Lake Springfield is dangerously polluted, and the EPA cordons it off. Homer dumps a pile of Spider-Pig’s feces (don’t ask) in it and brings the wrath of the EPA down on the town with a giant glass dome isolating them from the world. When things go bad, the town seeks to lynch Homer, but they escape to Alaska and then must decide whether to return when the EPA further decides to destroy the entire town. Oh, yeah, and Flanders pseudo-adopts Bart.
Entertainment Value: A Hilarious. We don’t normally watch The Simpsons, but this almost makes me want to take it up again. And it wasn’t just funny, but it was quotable funny as well. Not having watched the cartoon in several years, I had forgotten just how clever Groening and Brooks can be. However, here’s the rule you should use on everything in this review: judge your expectations of this movie by the TV show. If you’ve never watched it, well, I wouldn’t start doing so with this movie now.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sexuality C, Violence D, Language B, Illegality B
Just for instance: Bart skateboards through town nude but covered until the very last moment. Woodland creatures help Homer and Marge prepare for a night of marital bliss. Two cops kiss and go into a room together. Bart gets strangled a lot. A lynch mob threatens to kill the Simpsons. Springfield degenerates into chaos. Itchy and Scratchy do their violent thing. People say moderate swears a lot. Like I said, it’s 90 minutes of the TV show.

Significant Content: C

You can’t really have what you want in life until you help other people. Women are smart, men are blundering ignoramuses…except for Flanders. Christians are ready to help and have a positive example to give. I know that it’s hard to see this as a Simpson’s message, but it really is the lesson you’d draw from this movie in isolation from the show. The EPA is a modern-day Gestapo, and Austrian-born governors wouldn’t make competent Presidents. Wisdom is listening to women and doing what they say. Women feel loved by being listened to.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
For what it is, the Simpsons is fantastic art. By poking fun at things that deserve being poked, it’s much more significant as a social commentary than shows which merely crack jokes as most sit-coms and knock-off adult cartoons do. There’s a reason the Simpsons have been on the air for 19 years (only 60 Minutes has been in prime time longer).

Discussion Questions:
~Although the movie clearly is mocking the environmental movement, Homer actually does great damage by his pollution and Lisa (the social conscience of The Simpsons) is an environmentalist. Which “side” do you think this movie is on when it comes to the environment?
~Because it is a chaotic comedy-driven satire, The Simpsons doesn’t actually have to represent a coherent set of ideas. In terms of significant content, then, how would you evaluate something like this? What do you think of the assertion that the primary value in our media culture is to be funny and the only sin is to be boring? What does this do for rigor of thought? Can you think of any other shows that might fit this description? What of the idea that the references and satire are actually mentally stimulating? If H.L. Mencken were writing today, would he produce editorials or adult cartoons?
~What do you think of Bart’s interactions with Flanders? Why do you think this movie portrayed Flanders so positively? Which father would Bart choose if he were given the choice? What advantages and drawbacks are there to each man as a father? Given that no one who watches this show wants to emulate Homer, is The Simpsons useful as a warning to mediocre dads? Compare that with the impact of Bart as an icon to grade-school aged boys.
~Discuss how fairly Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa represent their demographic in American society at large. What conclusions can you draw about the acceptability of criticizing men as opposed to women?
~Evaluate the idea that men need women to stabilize them and give them a reason to be their better selves. How does it fit this movie?
Overall Grade: B As I said at the beginning, it was very entertaining and exceeded my expectations since we haven’t been watching the show for several years now. If the TV show offends you, this will, too.

Underdog (2007)

Rated: PG
Grade: CACC=C
Budget: Unavailable
Box Office: $44 million US, $16 million int’l, $22 million DVD

Directed by: Frederik Du Chau, and here’s the only thing you need to know about him. His only major prior work was writing and directing the highly disappointing Racing Stripes.
Starring: Peter Dinklage, James Belushi (Presumably the same guy we all know as Jim Belushi), Patrick Warburton, Alex Neuberger, and the voices of Jason Lee and Amy Adams.

An evil scientist creates a pill that turns a failed police Beagle into the super-powered but slightly inept dog hero of our youth who was the cartoon animal version of Maxwell Smart. In the process, his laboratory is destroyed, and he must try to recapture the dog, who is now part of a single-dad ex-cop’s family, so that he may take over the world, or the city, or whatever mad scientists take over.

Entertainment Value: C
I loved Underdog as a kid, hence I was skeptical about this, yet another, remake of my childhood cartoons into live action films. In the end, rather than being a faithful remake, it was basically just like any other Disney live action film that just happened to be about Underdog. If they would have called it Superdog, they would likely have been freed from feeling the need to honor the original at all, and they probably would have made a better movie, although they wouldn’t have been able to profit on the collective warm fuzzies we all feel about the real Underdog. He doesn’t even rhyme his communications!

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence B, Language A, Illegality A
I was really surprised by the PG rating, both before and after I watched the movie. Before because I was stunned that anyone would make Underdog PG. After because I thought the movie should have been rated G. Spencer watched it, and, though a couple of the scenes with Barsinister’s scars were creepy, we never covered his eyes or anything. They say it was for crude jokes and action, but I didn’t see anything PG here, unless you just can’t have a kid’s action movie get a G anymore.
Significant Content: C I know that the themes here are supposed to be things like talk to your parents, do good deeds, and the best heroes are the reluctant ones, but I just found myself not caring about much the movie had to say. It was a bit like eating cotton candy, no nutritional value at all and it doesn’t even taste quite as good.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
The CGI was pretty good in terms of getting the dog to look like a talking superhero. Otherwise, I once again had an overwhelming sense of blah about this movie. They stole scenes from other movies, particularly Superman and Spider-Man, but they weren’t really homages so much as plagiarisms. I didn’t like the fact that Polly is relegated to a subplot of a subplot of a character rather than being the focus, but I guess some sacrifices had to be made once the decision was made to focus on Underdog having a human owner and focusing on that story more.

Discussion Questions:
~When Underdog initially rescues Polly, he prevents the theft of a digital camera, but in the process he destroys perhaps a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of office space and cars. Similar scenes occur throughout the movie. Should such recklessness be celebrated as heroism?
~Does Jack’s father seem like a good father to you?
~In what sense is Underdog really an underdog? In order to be one, you have to overcome disadvantages and difficulties in the face of superior opponents. Does this fit his name?
~Is the movie serious about its own message that it doesn’t take super powers to be a hero? If so, why does Underdog need to regain his abilities to vanquish Barsinister?

Overall Grade: C
There’s probably not a decision that was made in creating this film I wouldn’t have made otherwise, including letting Jason “My Name Is Earl” Lee voice Underdog (I always get him confused with Ryan Reynolds), but it wasn’t awful in the end. My recommendation would be to rent the now available Underdog episodes on DVD.

War (2007)

Rated: R (Properly)
Grade: BDDB=C
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $22 million US, $18 million int’l, $10 million DVD
Directed by: Philip G. Atwell, who made a Shield episode and, not surprisingly, music video’s for 50 Cent, NWA, Xzibit, and Eminem.
Starring: Jason Statham, Jet Li, John Lone, Devon Aoki, Luiz Guzman, Saul Rubinek, Sung Kang, Ryo Ishibashi, and Nadine Velazquez.

Look. It’s a Japanese underworld, cops and Yakuza, shoot-‘em up action movie starring today’s two premiere martial arts stars made by a rap video director. So what do you think it’ll be like? A hip, violent, venceance-is-mine-saith-the-lead-character 90 minute music video with lots of blood and occasional sexuality. A Charlie Chan mystery it most certainly is not. I will say this. I’ve been very disappointed with Jason Statham films, but the closest one to being decent was The One, which of course also starred Jet Li, whose American movies I generally liked best when they also starred Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. I can’t really recommend it, but I will say that it is one of the better of the plague of bad action movies I’ve seen recently. At least there is a moderately intriguing plot that might generate discussions about justice and police powers.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: ADB+A=A
Budget: $55 million
Box Office: $56 million US, $6 million int’l

Directed by: James Mangold, who previously made Walk the Line, Identity, Kate & Leopold, Girl Interrupted, Cop Land, and the very odd Heavy.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, and Luce Rains.

A down-on-his-luck rancher has a chance to earn enough to save his ranch and survive by helping transport notorious fugitive Ben Wade to Contention, Arizona for the 3:10 prison train to Yuma. Unfortunately for him, Wade’s gang of ruthless killers is bent on stopping him and rescuing their leader.

Entertainment Value: A
This is the consummate modern Western, starring two men who seem like they were born to play these roles. The plot has a thousand maneuvers, many of which are highly implausible, but you find yourself not caring because the movie is so engaging and unpredictable. As each piece unfolds, what previously seemed unlikely choices start to make sense. The Western this most reminded me of was Unforgiven.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sexuality B, Violence D, Language C, Illegality F
Alcohol is everywhere in this movie, although, oddly, there is very little drunkenness shown. There is only one scene of sexuality, which is implied and not so much shown. The characters use profanity sufficient to earn an R, but it’s not excessive. Crime is shown as a profitable way of life for the outlaws. But violence is surely the main concern here, with men being burned alive, tortured, and operated on and, of course, lots of gun murders. It should be an R, but it’s at the milder end of the R spectrum.

Significant Content: B+
I’m tempted to give it an A because of my own take on the whole movie, but there are enough reasons not to. Bankers, rail men, and sheriffs are shown as cowardly and exploitative profiteers. The only heroes are common men, and cowardice is a principal virtue. The story people tell about themselves is vitally important to them. Nothing can substitute for grit and perseverance. Knowing the Bible won’t make you a good person. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Don’t talk to the Devil.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Of all the artistic choices here, the only one I really disliked was the use of modern-day profanity, which seemed unnecessary and out-of-place. The old Westerns never required it, and I don’t know why they felt it was necessary here. But aside from that, the characters and actions here generate plenty of interesting discussion fodder. I’ll tell you my three tentative conclusions about the movie. (Warning: potential spoilers here.) One possibility (70%) is to show us that all the things we think are so meaningful in life are really just a charade in the end. Another possibility (85%) is that Russell Crowe represents the Devil, and the lesson is that no matter which side you fight on, if you use the Devil’s methods you’ll be destroyed in the end anyway. My final possibility (95%) is that Evans comes to represent the life Wade wishes he would have chosen and, for all the evil that he has done, enabling Evans comes to represent a kind of displaced personal redemption for Wade. Hence the ending.

Discussion Questions:
~Compare the evil of Wade’s gang with that of the “businessman” Hollander. Why do you react so adversely to the Evans barn being burned but not to the money being stolen from the armored coach?
~What do you make of the use of Bible quotes by Wade? Does His Bible knowledge influence him in any way? Does Evans live a more faithful life? Consider the story about Wade’s mother. What do you make of the comment by the Pinkerton that there’s no need to read any book other than the Bible. Has he really adopted a Biblical life in spite of his lip service?
~Wade seems like he would be truly happy with the bartender. What do you think keeps him from settling down with her?
~William Evans admires Wade because he’s a take-action sort of guy, but Wade admires Dan Evans for more complex reasons. What do you make of this? What does this say about the life of violence’s appeal and reality? Could this relationship be the primary interpretive key to the movie? How might Christians learn from this?
~The self-identity narrative each character tells others and himself seems to be very important, even if there are untrue parts in it. Why is the story we tell of ourselves so important? What are the important parts of your own personal story?
~How might the theme of avoiding conversation with the Devil be seen as a major element of this movie? Who influences whom in this movie? Do you think Wade and Evans could have been friends under other circumstances? In what ways might you say they actually are friends in this movie?
~What do you think of Evans’s decision to finish the mission even when he didn’t have to? Was this necessary principled courage or was this a foolish choice to put his family at risk of losing him?
~A jaded observer might say that Evans and Wade were both willing to kill for money. Is this a fair assessment? Is all killing the same?
~What are some of the cowardly things done in this movie? Does cowardice work out for anyone who chooses it? Are there worse things than being a coward?
~~Why does Wade treat Evans so differently from the other characters? Does he have an operating morality? Can you figure out what it is? Was it consistent throughout the movie? Why do you think Wade makes the decisions he makes toward the end? Was the ending the total breakdown of Wade’s character or the ultimate and necessary consequence of it?
~What do you make of Wade’s artistic endeavors? What is this meant to say about him? Does he swear in the movie? What does this say about him?
~What do you think of Wade’s statement to William that there is nothing good in him or else he couldn’t have led his own men? Was there really any good in him?
~Can the Devil be fought with force? What does the Bible say about this?
~It’s been said that Star Wars is really just a Western. If you’re so inclined, compare Wade with Darth Vader and the relationship between Wade and Evans with that between Luke and Vader. Consider the two sides of the force theme as well.

Overall Grade: A
As I said, it’s highly intriguing, and there’s plenty to talk about as well.

Kingdom, The (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: AFA/FA=A
Budget: $73 million
Box Office: $48 million US, $38 million int’l, $14 million DVD

Directed by: Peter Berg, who previously made Friday Night Lights (both the movie and several episodes) and The Rundown with Dwayne Johnson, otherwise better known as the one-raised-eyebrow wonder: The Rock.
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Ali Suliman, Jeremy Piven, Richard Jenkins, Tim McGraw, and Ashraf Barhom.

Summary: When terrorists launch a multi-stage attack on American civilians in the Aramco compound in Saudi Arabia, FBI investigators persuade the Saudis to let them investigate. They discover that doing so will be a lot more difficult than merely getting permission to visit the kingdom where oil, fanaticism, sharia, and freedom collide.

Entertainment Value: A
I watched three action movies over the weekend, one per day. This was the only one worth the effort, and thankfully I watched it last. From start to finish, this movie will captivate you because you want to know how it will go and you’ll be fascinated by the process of getting there. I will complain that the second half of the movie depends on a plot implausibility involving the motorcade, but it’s so good you don’t much mind.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence F, Language F, Illegality D
It’s a movie about terrorism and the gun-slinging response to it. This means that there is more than enough bloodshed and body parts to justify an R rating. Likewise, the language is regularly foul because tensions are quite high. The nice thing, so much as it is, is that the movie is sexuality free, other than a weird scene with Jeremy Piven telling Jennifer Garner to cover up while wearing a khaki t-shirt.

Significant Content: A/F
The main problem with this movie is that there is just enough of a hint of reproach and condemnation in it to ruin the rest of the movie. It’s like an outstanding meatloaf that someone added peppermint to and ruined. Since the director acted in Lions for Lambs and Chris Cooper is one of the stars, I’m suspicious. Nonetheless, if you ignore the hints at moral equivalence and take it for what it should have been, it’s a clear anti-terrorist movie, showing the utter evil of Islamo-fascist terrorism and also showing that the only, repeat only, response to it is the use of ruthless force. You simply cannot coexist with people who use children’s jacks and marbles as the shrapnel for IEDs, and our best partners in this war are the Muslims who also hate the evil in their midst. There are also themes about political cowardice and the importance of doing what is right with the time you have been given.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
The opening scene will bother you, and rightly so. They bring real terrorism to life and you will be outraged by the calculating evil of it. In fact, what I find so interesting about this movie is that, even though I have my questions about the makers’ motives, it serves the ultimate purpose of helping Americans. It’s simple. We need movies where terrorists are evil and where terrorists die, and this one fits that bill almost as successfully as the outstanding Denzel Washington masterpiece, The Siege. Also, the brief history lesson via a timeline in the opening and DVD extras is excellent.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think the producers of this film intended for it to say? How do you interpret the final juxtaposition of the two opposite parties promising to “kill them all?”
~Can we coexist in any way with people who shoot up softball games and make bombs with jacks and marbles?
~Is it ever acceptable to hate? Is a movie like this which encourages us to hate our enemies in the war on terror a healthy thing for American Christians to watch?
~In the near-to-final scene, the Americans have the opportunity to kill the entire family of the terrorists. Would this have been a good thing to do? Did you find yourself wanting them to do so? ~Given the terrorists denial of the distinction between combatants and civilians, should we consider their family members as legitimate targets? What sort of perspective on the command to kill all the inhabitants of Canaan by God to Joshua and the Israelites does this give you?
~What do you think about our partnership with Saudi Arabia? Given that the extremist Wahabi Islam was involved at the outset of the country, is it realistic for us to envision a democratic Saudi? ~Evaluate Jeremy Piven’s character. Is he intended here as a symbolic representative of the entire U.S. State Department?
Overall Grade: A It’s just about everything you could expect from such a movie.

Eastern Promises (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: CFCB=D
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $17 million US, $30 million int’l, $5 million DVD

Directed by: David Cronenberg, who made A History of Violence, Naked Lunch, and a bunch of old school horror flicks like The Dead Zone, Videodrome, Scanners, The Brood, and The Fly.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassell, and Armin Mueller-Stahl.

An obstetrician holds the key to taking down a Russian mobster because the teenage Jane Doe who died delivering his daughter left a diary depicting her life as a forced prostitute. Meanwhile, Viggo Mortensen is an up-and-coming tough guy trying to make it big time despite being the driver for the unbalanced son of the boss.

Entertainment Value: C I should have known better, since I also forced myself to sit through A History of Violence (also starring Viggo) and I could have checked his pedigree. If you like dark, violent crime dramas, you’d like this. I usually don’t. That being said, I found the plot intriguing and some of the turns and the tension to be fairly interesting. At the very least, the characters are terribly fascinating. Hence, a C.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol F, Sexuality F, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
So, it’s unanimous, see? Everyone drinks a lot, and there is heroin use referred to. Almost everyone gets naked at some point. It’s the Russian mafia, so language and illegality are pretty constant. However, of all the elements, the violence is probably the worst, including torture elements, an extremely brutal knife fight in a bath house, and an opening scene a la the Sweeney Todd. I’d call it NC-17 if it were up to me.

Significant Content: C
When people become objects, anything can happen to them. Crime is bad. Crime puts ordinary people in danger. Heroism can come in all sorts of packages.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
For sheer atmosphere, the movie is rich. Apparently Viggo studied Russian gangs visually for weeks without a translator in order to put himself in the frame of mind necessary. His character here is fascinating, and the burgeoning romance between him and Naomi Watts is chillingly enticing, as are the various forms of pride portrayed here.

Discussion Questions:
~What are the characteristics of a monster? Which character in this movie scares you the most? Why are we tempted to think of monsters in hyperbolic terms? How does this keep us from seeing monstrosity around us in everyday life? If you’ve seen A History of Violence, would you say ~Viggo’s character there is like his here or more like that of Semyon?
~What do you think of the notion of tattoos as identity and history? Why are tattoos so popular today? If you’ve seen it, how would you compare the role of tattoos in this movie with that of those in Memento? Are the tattoos in this movie a character in themselves?
~Do you feel pity for any of these characters?
~Can a human being do the sort of things Viggo does in this movie and still remain unaffected or unpolluted by it? How about watching him do them as a viewer?
~To what degree is violence necessary in dealing with those who feel no compunction about using it?
~What do we lose because we do not have folk songs and rituals which cross generations? How has the generational separation in culture (movies, song, attire) affected the United States?
~What do you think of the uncle spitting on Viggo? Was that brave or stupid?
~If you were to view this entire movie as a commentary on the sin of pride, how might you assess the characters and the elements?
~What do you think of the ending?

Overall Grade: D
It’s a brutal gangster movie. More Scarface than The Godfather, which almost seems like a Disney movie by contrast.

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: FFDF=F

Budget: $39 million
Box Office: $13 million US, $12 million int’l, $ million DVD

Directed by: Michael Davis, who previously made Monster Man, Girl Fever, 100 Girls, and the strange and semi-charming Eight Days a Week.
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Belucci, Greg Byrk, and Stephen McHattie.

This is the R-rated hitman-with-guns-and-blood-instead-of-kung-fu version of a Jackie Chan movie. Campy bad guys…no, wait..super-campy bad guys thrown in with a terrible plot and a ton of sexuality and bullets. No, it’s not quite as insane as Smokin’ Aces, but the difference is a matter of degree, not of kind. There’s been a trend lately toward movies which are huge on effects and visual imagery and extremely shallow on plot and character development. My one word of advice to all would-be action film writers is this. If it doesn’t work on paper, no amount of amped-up FX will make it work on film. If it works on paper, excellent FX will make it unforgettable. My only grudging compliment is for the absurdly brilliant opening sequence where Clive Owen is delivering the baby and shooting bad guys all at the same time. A pro-life hitman? As a satire, it indulges too much in itself to work. Besides, I doubt the average admirer of it can spell irony.

Waitress (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: CCCC=C

Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your comments.

Bella (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: ABA+A+=A

Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your comments.

Memento (2001)

Rated: R
Grade: A+DBA+=A

Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your comments.

Zodiac (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: ADBA=A-
Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your comments.

Balls of Fury (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: DCDF=D-
Budget: $23 million
Box Office: $33 million US, $2 million int’l, $7 million DVD

Directed by: Robert Ben Garant, whose primary pedigree is Reno 911, which should have told me everything I needed to know about this film.
Starring: Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken, George Lopez, Maggie Q, and James Hong, with a bunch of cameos.

Gay sex slaves, kicking people in the crotch, and a ping-pong tournament of champions where all the losers get killed by poisoned blowdarts. Yes, I hoped beyond hope that Christopher Walken might make this film funny. He did not, and it was not. My best suggestion for you is that if you enjoy Reno 911, perhaps you’ll like this. I hated the 28 seconds of Reno 911 I’ve experienced in my life, and I wish I had avoided this movie. Simple.

Even Money (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: DDAB=B+/D
Budget: Unknown, but not high.
Box Office: $65 thousand (yes, not million)

Directed by: Mark Rydell, who hasn’t made much in the last two decades. Previously, he did The River, For the Boys, and On Golden Pond.
Starring: Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Kelsey Grammer, Nick Cannon, Ray Liotta, forest Whitaker, Jay Mohr, and Tim Roth.

A struggling writer conceals her gambling addiction from her husband by claiming to be working on her next book as she befriends a con-man/magician with big dreams. On the other side of town, a local basketball star must decide whether he will shave points on games to help his heavily indebted brother. The third set of characters are bookies and corrupt cops. It’s a vignette piece, okay?

Entertainment Value: D
This is a film noir public service announcement about the dangers of gambling. I couldn’t find the production budget, but I’m figuring that all the big names did this virtually pro bono in an effort to produce something of use to addicted gamblers. Sadly, despite all the big talent, the movie really drags on and is not enticing enough to really keep our attention. It is, however, realistic and honest in its portrayal of problem gambling.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sexuality B, Violence D, Language D, Illegality F
This is the graphic underside of legal and illegal gambling with people being beaten up, lying to spouses, drinking too much, corrupt police, and murder/suicide. It’s definitely an R, which is fine, since only those people who are living this way should be watching it anyhow.

Significant Content: A
You cannot gamble your way out of gambling problems, and if you let gambling take control, the only end to it all is personal tragedy.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Although I didn’t enjoy the film, and I doubt anyone would describe it as “enjoyable,” at least it’s willing to finish what it starts without very much flinching. They take it all the way to the end with every character, and my only gripe was that they sort of let Kim Basinger off the hook.

Discussion Questions:
~One of the main rationalizations used by Whitaker and Basinger is that everyone is imperfect, but are all forms of imperfection equal? Is missing a shot in a basketball game the same as gambling too much or stealing your family’s savings?
~Does a person have to live a perfect life in order to point out the serious immoralities of other people? Are the standards true regardless of whether people hit them consistently themselves?
~Have you ever felt the thrill of winning at gambling? Why do you think people gamble or gamble excessively? Is it more like a disease or more like a choice?
~Can a virtuous person run a gambling operation, legal or illegal?
~Why is Basinger impressed by DeVito’s magic? Are we always impressed by those things we just can’t do ourselves?
~Can you think of some other marital catastrophes which start off with minor deception and concealment besides gambling?
Overall Grade: B/D
The point of this movie is simple: watch it with anyone who you know has a gambling problem or who is involved in illegal betting. It’s a crutch for gambling interventions. For everyone else, not so much value.

Nanny Diaries (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: DCCD=D
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $26 million US, $15 million int’l, $5 million DVD
Directed by: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, whose only notable previous work (and not much at that) was on American Splendor.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Donna Murphy, Alicia Keys, Chris Evans, Nicholas Art, Laura Linney, and Paul Giamatti.
Newly graduated from college with an anthropology degree, Annie Braddock backs into discovering herself when she agrees to become a nanny and studies the tribe of the Upper East Side.

Entertainment Value: D
I thought it would be a cute little romantic babysitter comedy. It’s not. Who is this movie made for? Not for parents. Not for nannies. Certainly not for kids, and certainly not funny. Most of the characters were unbelievable to me, perhaps because I don’t know people like this, and I kept being unable to match this movie up to anything I had experienced in real life. However, the DVD extras showed the writers and they seem to think these people are pretty realistic. The closest thing to entertaining was the semi-anthropological commentary on the different kinds of Manhattanites, but even here it’s far less clever than the much lower-budget but funnier Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C , Sexuality B, Violence B, Language C, Illegality
Most of the characters are alcohol users or abusers, with scenes at bars. There is adultery implied and not quite shown as well as some semi-suggestive scenes. There are plenty of marital arguments with yelling. The language is PG-13. This is a case where the movie itself is distressing rather than any particular objectionable element.

Significant Content: C
This is really a heartbreaking movie, but the problem is that it never gives you a better way. The way these parents treat their kids is truly abusive, although no one could arrest them for it. But the Nanny is just as much a part of the problem because she allows it to happen to her and to them.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
I know the golden rule of anthropology is to study and not intervene, so in a way, this movie might serve as useful anthropology. But it just doesn’t work. Homage is paid to Mary Poppins, but so what? I guess in the sense that it portrays evil as evil, it works, but gosh! Are the wealthy really this stupid and selfish? And if they are, will they grasp this movie anyhow? It’s not much of an expose if they laugh it off as ridiculous hyperbole.

Discussion Questions:
~Who do you think is to blame for the way Grayer gets treated? Identify the ways in which various characters could have done better.
~There are two types of trauma people can suffer: A and B. A traumas are direct harms, B traumas are necessary things being withheld or deprived. Which is worse? Do B traumas constitute child abuse? Should this sort of white collar child neglect be illegal?
~Evaluate the nanny’s character. Consider that she lied to her mom and the Xes.
~If Mrs. X stood up to Mr. X, what would happen? If the nanny stood up to Mrs. X? Why do you think the nanny and Mrs. X never do so? What is codependence?
~We are well aware of many exotic evils such as terrorism and murderous monsters and disease. How does the fixation on these sorts of extreme cases blind us to the ordinary evil all around us every day?
Overall Grade: D
If you’re going to make me miserable in watching your stupid movie, at least tell me that in advance. Don’t try to seduce me into watching it by making me think it’s going to be a lighthearted comedy.