A Raging Discussion about Movies on the Topics Blog

Special Note: This will be of interest to most of you visiting this blog. Back in October, we did a Wacky Wednesday on why Christians shouldn't be actors. A Christian former actor has been posting back and forth with me on this topic, and I'd love to see some of you weigh in on it. It's about 6,000 words at last count, and very interesting. The page is here.

Meet Bill (2008)

Rated: R for language, some drug use and sex-related material.
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: DDDD=D
Budget: $5 million, amazingly
Box Office: $59,108, yep, not much.

Written by: Meilsa Wallack, with her first effort. It can only get better.
Directed by: Bernie Goldman, who has no priors worth mentioning.

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Jessica Alba, Elizabeth Banks, Logan Lerman, and Timothy Olyphant.

A guy stuck working a corporate job for his father-in-law discovers his wife is having an affair with a news reporter, and he tries to win her back with the help of a student who seeks him out for mentoring.

Every indicator that this would be a worthless movie told me that this would be a worthless movie. I ignored them all. I thought, “Hey, I like Aaron Eckhart and Jessica Alba, and Elizabeth Banks is good in Scrubs. Surely the experts are all wrong.” Nope. I was. I wrote this review for one reason. So that you don’t have to watch this movie. It is properly R rated, though probably at the lower end of that scale, honestly. But seriously, don’t be misled by the fact that Blockbuster has 100 copies. They’re hoping you won’t read any reviews of it or notice the $60 K in total box office this movie made. Sorry, Aaron Eckhart, I’ll try not to hold this against you too much.

21 (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for some violence, and sexual content including partial nudity.
Length: 123 minutes
Grade: DCDC=D+
Budget: $35 million
Box Office: $ million ($81 US, $75 Intl, $ DVD)

Written by: Ben Mezrich, based on his book “Bringing Down the House”
Directed by: Robert Luketic, who made Monster-in-Law, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, and Legally Blonde. So, it’s a bit of a departure for him.
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, and Laurence Fishburne.

Ben Campbell is a brilliant MIT mathematician on his way to Harvard Med School, which he can’t afford. Since his chances of earning a full ride are slim, he agrees when one of his MIT professors recruits him to play blackjack in Vegas with a team of other students.

Entertainment Value: D
I was frustrated throughout this movie, mostly because I expected so much more from it. I was very excited to watch it because I’ve generally enjoyed both Kevin Space movies and movies about gambling, especially Rounders, the classic. Unfortunately, this was awful. It was implausible at every turn, and nothing about the movie drew me in to make me sympathize with the characters. An average episode of Las Vegas is both shorter and more entertaining. For one thing, some guy is a super-genius MIT/Harvard whiz kid and he keeps $300,000 in his dorm room drop ceiling? Ever heard of a safe deposit box?

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sexuality C, Violence C, Language C, Illegality B
It’s a movie about Vegas, right? Strip clubs, although without nudity, a sex scene, and discussions about such things. Alcohol all over the place, including drunkenness. The violence is people getting beat up pretty badly. And the language is perfect for PG-13.

Significant Content: D
Lying is okay so long as you believe you’re right. Manipulating a system is okay so long as you want to make money. Gambling is dangerous, but if you’re smart enough you can figure it out. Pride is a very dangerous thing. Betrayal is bad. Friends are good. And Las Vegas is a great place to have all the fun that life can bring you.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
The camera work was actually quite interesting, with novel shots and angles. On the other hand, why would a movie about counting cards in Blackjack actually explain the rules of Blackjack but not really explain the concept of counting cards to its audience? If what they’re doing isn’t illegal, then why go to such lengths to do it without being caught?

Discussion Questions:
~Denial is what psychologists call it when people ignore obvious truths because they are inconvenient or incompatible with something else the person wants to believe. Can you name any examples of denial in this movie?
~Does counting cards seem immoral to you? Is it immoral because it makes the player capable of beating the game? If guaranteed results make it immoral, then would you also say that casinos are immoral because they are guaranteed to make money? Is gambling in itself immoral? Can something be immoral even if it’s legal?
~Have you ever neglected an important friendship because you started hanging around with other people? Did you ever go back and make amends?
~Anonymity is the marketing technique for Las Vegas. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” What are the pitfalls of anonymity? What do you think of the idea that “What happens in Vegas stays in God’s memory for eternity?”
Overall Grade: D+
It’s a badly made pro-Vegas movie about how you can always get ahead if only you’re smart enough.

10,000 BC (2008)

Rated: PG-13
Length: 109 minutes for sequences of intense action and violence.
Grade: C-C+C-C=C-
Budget: $105 million
Box Office: $292 million ($95 US, $174 Intl, $23 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Roland Emmerich, who made The Day After Tomorrow, The Patriot, Godzilla, Independence Day, Stargate, and (in the days before he could afford to say no) Universal Soldier.
Starring: Steven Strait, Camilla Belle, Cliff Curtis, Joel Virgel, Affif Ben Dadra, marco Khan, and narrated by Omar Sharif.

As the title indicates, this story of the human past follows a small village of hunters trying to survive with a diminishing food supply and then get attacked by a remote civilization, which takes many of their number back to work as slaves. But a prophecy says that one lucky youngster will triumph over evil and get the hot girl they kidnapped. Lucky guy.

Entertainment Value: C-
For all the budget and the effort, this movie falls flat by virtually everyone’s account. The main problem is that it continually feels fake and derivative, but it also refuses to embrace it’s inner ridiculous and become a total joke either, falling somewhere in between Apocalypto on the one hand and Conan the Barbarian on the other, and being worse than either. The weirdest choice was the one to have these barbarians with perfect skin and teeth all speak perfect English, although other tribes must be translated.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality B, Violence C, Language A, Illegality C
I guess I have to mark it down for being about pirates and forced slavery. But seriously, the violence is just right for PG-13, slightly gory tribal warfare stuff, but not nearly so awful as Apocalypto, and there are some semi-sexual scenes that amount to nothing much.

Significant Content: C-
Witchcraft and tribal voodoo stuff is real. The powerful have always tried to oppress the many through unjust means. People will do strange things for the sake of reputation and to avoid being perceived as cowardly. The one very good concept was the idea that the greatness of a man is determined by the size of the circle of his concern: self, family, nation, all mankind.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Okay, so these guys are trekking across mountain ranges in the apparently freezing cold, but they’re too stupid to make hats? Maybe their ancient dreadlocks are enough. One positive note, they chose the title 10,000 BC rather than the more fashionable in academia 10,000 BCE. Good for that.

Discussion Questions:
~This movie seems to want to place itself into a real historical situation. What do you think of that attempt?
~Does the magnificence of the manmade wonders featured in this movie justify the methods used to make them? Should we be fascinated by things that were made by such morally outrageous methods? Should we destroy them? What do you think those who were forced to make them would say?
~Did this movie feel realistic to you? Can you identify elements of it that made this the case?
~If this movie had been told from the marauder captain’s perspective, could you have been made to feel sympathy for his viewpoint?
~What rituals of manhood do we have in our society? How important are such rituals to adult male identity?
~Which races are used in this movie and why did the director chose those particular ones?
Overall Grade: C-
Although you’ll have to endure a lot more gruesome violence, Apocalypto is much, much, much, much better in this genre.

My Mom’s New Boyfriend (2008)

Rated: PG-13
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: DC-CD=D
Budget: No one knows.
Box Office: $0 million, yes, it went straight to DVD, and even there went too far.

Written and Directed by: George Gallo, who hasn’t directed anything noteworthy before, but wrote The Cleaner, Whole Ten yards, and Bad Boys I + II.
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Meg Ryan, Selma Blair, and Colin Hanks.

Formerly obese, Marty now lives her life in fling mode, hooking up with the seductive foreigner Tommy. Unfortunately for Tommy, Marty’s son and his fiancĂ©e are FBI agents who learn that Tommy is a wanted art thief. I’d say more, but why bother?
This is a movie that had a lot of real potential, especially given the actors that somehow managed to get roped into acting for it. But it just wound up being flat, and the reason is simple. Instead of really leaning into the absurd comedy that this movie could have been, and would have been wonderful at, they tried to make it both a comedy and a drama with a real plot. Had they gone the route of Undercover Blues (a must-see classic starring Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner), this could have been spectacular. The ingredients were all there. But no. It winds up feeling like a 90 minute sitcom pilot that won’t end. Funny and clever in parts, but the whole thing just doesn’t work. Besides, does anyone really believe that Selma Blair is going to marry this guy?

King of Kong, A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Rated: PG-13 for a brief sexual reference.
Length: 79 minutes
Grade: AB+AA=A
Budget: Unknown, but not much
Box Office: $678,000, but don’t let that fool you.

Directed by: Seth Gordon, who’s never made anything you’ve ever heard of.
Starring: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, and Brian Kuh

This is a documentary about the efforts of a recently unemployed former Donkey Kong player to beat the world record score held on the classic arcade game and then to play the holder in a live forum.

Entertainment Value: A
I love documentaries that bring bizarre little subcultures into the light, especially when they do so with a tender loving sort of tone rather than just for the sake of mockery. Spellbound is a fairly well-known version for spelling bees. Wordplay is another good one about crossword puzzle contests. But this is more than just a documentary. It’s legitimately gripping. The characters are fascinating, and there is real high drama involved in this particular story of competition, intrigue, manipulation, and pride. You won’t regret watching it.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality B+, Violence A, Language B, Illegality A
I was very surprised that this got a PG-13 rating because I thought it was so tame. There is one scene with some sexuality (I can’t explain it, you’d have to see it), and some mild profanity. I doubt young kids would care much to watch it, but this should not have been PG-13.
Significant Content: A This is essentially a movie about justice, fairness, and personal honor (of the good sort), and those themes are so overwhelmingly present and favored that it seems silly to mention anything else. Hypocrisy, lying, deception, pride, and manipulation are clearly shown as bad things. How can all this come out of a movie about Donkey Kong? You’ll just have to watch it to find out.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
I am blown away that they got so much raw and precious footage for this movie. I have no idea how they managed to get a lot of it, including being at the home of the official game records referee when Guinness Book of World Records called to ask him if he could submit some video game hi-scores for the next book. Amazing.

Discussion Questions:
~This movie moves you gently but powerfully toward nearly hating Billy Mitchell. Is this a healthy reaction? Is this a fair perspective on him? What do you think he thinks of himself when he watches this movie?
~Could you be close friends with both Billy and Steve, as Steve Sanders becomes? Is this ability to straddle both sides of this particular conflict a virtue or a defect? Could you say his ability to befriend enemies is Christian?
~Why do these records matter so much to Billy and Steve, and to so many other people? What is it about people, men in particular, that drives them to care so strongly about such competition over silly things?
~What do you think of Steve as a father? What if he had responded to his son pleading for help during the home game when he got the original score that beat Billy’s? What do you think of him as a husband? Do you (or your husband) have anything like Donkey Kong that drives you? Is it a defect to have this, or not?
~Video games are so addictive in part because they (deliberately) reward you with a sense of accomplishment which is often lacking in real life activities. Is the joy people can get from video games false or dangerous because of this?
~What does this movie have to say about personal integrity, trust, loyalty, and honor?
~Have you ever felt like an outsider trying to get creditability in the eyes of a tightly knit group of other people?
~Do you think Billy Mitchell ever cheated in this movie? Did he do anything skuzzy at all? Is there anything in him you admire?
Overall Grade: A
Seriously. Even my wife who has no interest in video games thought it was tremendously entertaining and compelling. See it. You won’t be sorry.

Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

Rated: PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: B+B+CB+=B+
Budget: $92 million
Box Office: $179 million ($71 US, $91 Intl, $17 DVD)

Written by: Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, authors of the very popular children’s book series on which this film is based.
Directed by: Mark Waters, who also made Just Like Heaven, Mean Girls, Freaky Friday, Head Over Heels, and House of Yes.
Starring: Freddy Highmore (as twins), Sara Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn, and the voices of Seth Rogen, Nick Nolte, and Martin Short.

When they move into the abandoned estate of their crazy great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick, three teenage children discover their house is the center of attention for hordes of invisible creatures who want to extract a book containing all the secrets of their world in it. Naturally, the kids must protect the book and save the world from the evil creatures no one else can see.

Entertainment Value: B+
Not being familiar with the books, I can only judge this movie on its own terms, and it turns out to be quite entertaining. I’m generally fond of movies that involve fantasy creatures and wild imagination, and this is certainly one of those. As usual, the invention of a fascinating world with unusual creatures and rules is what makes this so captivating.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A+, Violence C+, Language A, Illegality A
Other than violence, this is squeaky, and could easily be G. Oddly, one character goes to say, “Oh, sh…” but can’t finish the syllable, which seemed wildly out of place given the sanitary rest of the movie. The real concern is violence, and there’s a fair bit of it, much of which might really frighten younger children who are already prone to fears of monsters and such. Aside from all the creature violence (goblins and trolls, etc.) there is a scene where a boy stabs his father in the chest with a knife because it’s really a bad guy in disguise, but this is still a fairly startling scene and not healthy for young kids to see. I’d call it PG-8, although we did let Spencer see it, with our supervision of course. Those who object to sorcery and witchcraft might be bothered by some of the elements of this movie, centering on a book of knowledge which has some spells in it.

Significant Content: C
In a case which is unusual for kids movies, both adults and children in this movie are portrayed as knowing the secrets that usually only kids are privy to. The themes here are about technology and magic and the power of knowledge, especially when it falls into the wrong hands. The world is full of invisible creatures you can only see if you have been granted access to this sight. Anger can transform you from a relatively docile creature into a very aggressive and dangerous one.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
The best way I can describe this is as a Dark Crystal made with modern effects. It has a certain disturbingly realistic and gross feel to it, and the movie doesn’t shy away from making creature battle seem quite scary. You definitely believe the possibility of this imaginary world.

Discussion Questions:
~Compare Thumbletack to the Incredible Hulk. What makes him transform? What makes him calm down? When you find yourself getting overwhelmed with negative emotion, what can you do to calm yourself down?
~Why did Arthur make the book in the first place? If the book was so dangerous, why did he resist destroying it? Can you imagine people having developed really awful technologies (such as the nuclear bomb) still finding that they can’t eliminate the knowledge because they’ve experienced some exhilaration and pride in discovering it? What does the book represent to you?
~Do you believe in the existence of imaginary creatures like this? Do you think young children should hear stories and watch movies about monsters? What do monsters in these stories show us about evil? Compare the creatures of this movie with angels and demons as the Bible describes them.
~When Jared learns the contents of the book, he is said to have become a living version of the book. How does this relate to the Bible and our knowledge of it?
~Why doesn’t the mother believe her children? Have you ever felt that adults didn’t listen to you?
~How might this movie have been different if the father had been around? Would the boys have felt more comfortable going to their father? What does this say about the father’s ability to protect his family and the problems of divorce?
~Is the ability to see the creatures in this movie a metaphor for anything?

Overall Grade: B+
An entertaining, engaging movie for older grade school and up children.

Drillbit Taylor (2008)

Rated: Rated PG-13 for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity.
Length: 102 Minutes
Grade: FDBD=D
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $49 million ($32 US, $16 Intl)

Written by: Christopher Brown, who has written for Beavis and Butthead and The Tomn Green Show, and Seth Rogen, who is much better known as an actor, but ahs written Superbad, and also some episodes of Undeclared and Da Ali G Show…sadly.
Directed by: Steven Brill, who directed Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, and Without a Paddle, all of which should have told me something.
Starring: Owen Wilson, Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley, David Dorfman, Ian Roberts, David Koechner, and Beth Littleford.

On their first day of high school, two buddies become the victims of the school bully after one of them stands up for an even smaller kid. Not knowing how to handle it, they hire the homeless Owen Wilson, who pretends to be a bodyguard.

Entertainment Value: F
There was only one scene in this movie which was funny, and it was all the way at the very end when Owen Wilson loses a finger. Otherwise, this is a total bust. Owen Wilson is never an encouraging sign to us, but I heard some decent things about this movie from people, so I gave it a try. Why oh why did I give it a try?

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sexuality C, Violence C, Language F, Illegality C
This is another one of those cases where I have to admit that it’s a PG-13 movie, but it’s so regularly crude and vulgar that I give it a D, which is usually only for lighter R movies. The real concerns here are language and constant bullying, with some fighting violence and theft. Surprisingly, they also managed to throw in some sex scenes as well, although it’s all implied not shown. Oh wait, I didn’t find that surprising at all.

Significant Content: B
Here’s the good news. There are some really excellent themes here. One is the power of trust, love, and faith to have a transformative effect on a person, making him want to live up to his better self. The movie is also about personal identity and whether you will choose to be who you’ve been before (if bad) or choose to live up to a better you that you could be. Honesty is praised indirectly by dishonesty leading to problems, and the downside of putting on a “mask” personality is clearly shown. The movie seemed to be offering a chance for non-violent resistance to work or at least discover some other remedy, but in the end violence is very much a part of the solution. What goes around comes around, eventually.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Which might just be another way of saying this was an Owen Wilson movie…think You, Me, and Dupree…if you must. No, it’s not an art flick.

Discussion Questions:
~If Drillbit had been honest with the English teacher initially, would she have become his girlfriend? So does this movie endorse honesty or not?
~Why are people tempted to lie, especially about their own accomplishments? What do we do to encourage such behavior in others? Have you ever been tempted to lie to make someone like you?
~“It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” How does this phrase relate to this movie? Is it a good principle to live by?
~Have you ever felt inspired to be better because someone else believed in you?
~Do you believe anyone is a born loser?
~Why do you think no one else came to the defense of either Emmett or the boys when they were being bullied? Is bullying ever funny? What do you think is the effect of showing it in this movie: does it make people laugh at it or revolt at it?
~What should a Christian do if he sees someone being bullied? Is bullying a problem at your school? What about milder forms of bullying like just making people feel left out or excluded? Are these Christian behaviors?
~What do you think of the crude language in this movie? Does it make the teens seem more or less powerful?
~Are adults in positions of authority really this useless? Have you ever felt like you couldn’t go to adults with your problems?
Overall Grade: D
Though it has some interesting lessons and discussion material, it’s not really worth wading through the mediocrity of this movie to get to them.

Vantage Point (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense violence and action, some disturbing images and brief strong language.
Length: 90 minutes
Grade: A-CCB+=B+
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $150 million ($72 US, $78 Intl, $ DVD)

Written by: Barry Levy, with his first script.
Directed by: Pete Travis, with his first non-made-for-TV movie.
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Bruce McGill, Edgar Ramirez, Said Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer, Sigourney Weaver, and William Hurt.

The events surrounding an assassination attempt on the President of the United States at an anti-terrorism conference in Spain are shown repeatedly from the perspective of various observers and participants.

Entertainment Value: A-
I have wanted to see this movie ever since I saw the first ad for it. And then it was delayed in release, which worried me. But I was not disappointed at all. The script is amazingly tight, especially for a first-time writer. There are only a small number of unlikely-isms, but this is a well-conceived, well-completed, layer-by-layer peel-back action mystery that never gets boring.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence C-, Language C-, Illegality C
It’s a movie about terrorism, involving lost of gunplay and a shooting shown several times, many explosions, and a car chase. The language is on the heavier end of PG-13, although realistic, and the movie could have been rated R between language and violence. I’d say R-15, perhaps.

Significant Content: C
It’s a bit difficult to assess this because the movie isn’t a single movie, it’s more like 6-7 vignettes, and each vignette tends to take a slightly different moral perspective by favoring the characters it is portraying. So I’m tempted to say this movie endorses relativism, but it doesn’t really. It’s kind of a hero story. Kind of a principle story about restraint and power. And obviously an intrigue. Perhaps the main lesson here is really a good one to remember: people can perceive the same events very differently, and the real truth is hard to separate from any one person’s perspective.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
The story itself is interesting, but the way the story is told is everything here. The technique is to tell us 15 minutes from one perspective, then rewind the events back to the same starting time for the next viewpoint and tell it again. Brilliant. Also, this lets you see new information and learn more each time.

Discussion Questions:
~Relativism is the idea that morality depends on the individual. Is this movie relativistic? Is this movie implying that terrorists are people, too? Why does this movie avoid giving any backstory to what motivates the assassins?
~Are there any elements of this movie that seem unlikely to you? How does the movie work to make you accept any portions that seem less believable?
~Given that crime-fighting is often about catching the right breaks, is it unfair to apply plausibility as a standard to movies like this?
~Who in this movie is a hero? What do you think of Forrest Whitaker’s character?
~Did your shock at the initial event lessen in subsequent viewings? How did your knowledge of this film’s plot affect even your first experience?
~Do you think it’s likely that public doubles could ever be used for famous people or politicians? ~What would you think of sending such a person into a dangerous scenario?
~How much of this movie depends on the power of the iphone? Do you think Apple subsidized the movie?
~Discuss the President’s decisions about bombing a training camp in another country. What do you think of his assertion that sympathy should be honored and not ruined? How does this concept mesh with America’s current foreign policy?
~What, if anything, is this movie trying to say about news media?
~What is it saying about the nature of truth?
Overall Grade: B+
I liked it. Well worth the mere 85 minutes of film time to watch.