21

Posted on July 22, 2008 at 8:00 am

The real-life story of a group of MIT math whiz kids who won millions playing blackjack gets the glossy Hollywood treatment here — a poor but worthy son of a single mother who needs money for med school tuition makes a better movie than a bunch of smart alecks who just want to make some big money. 21%20sturgess.jpg
The result may not be real, but it is solidly entertaining. If it were a hand at blackjack, call it an 18. Jim Sturgess (“The Other Boleyn Girl,” “Across the Universe”) is enormously appealing as Ben, the honest, shy, hard-working kid with the brain of a supercomputer who finds himself a high roller in one of the world’s most glamorous settings. Kevin Spacey, who also produced the film, is the charismatic but enigmatic professor with the system. Blackjack is the only game in Las Vegas that can be reliably beaten. The trick is card-counting, which requires memorizing both every single card that is played by any player and doing constant calculations according to a meticulous formula. The group improved their chances by working together, which required the use of various signals and disguises. But casino owners do not like card counters, and since they have the authority to ban any individual from playing, the real gamble for the MIT hotshots was winning enough to make it worthwhile but keeping a low enough profile to be able to come back.

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Based on a book Inspired by a true story

The Great Debaters

Posted on May 12, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Great%20Debaters.jpg In 1935, the debate team from a tiny all-black college took on the top white team in the country and they won. This is that story, Oprah-fied to be sure (Winfrey’s company produced the film), but powerfully told by director Denzel Washington, who also stars as the team’s coach, distinguished poet Melvin B. Tolson.

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Drama Genre , Themes, and Features Inspired by a true story Reviews

Arranged

Posted on March 17, 2008 at 8:00 am

B
Date Released to DVD: March 11, 2008
Amazon.com ASIN: B00116VG3M

This quiet little independent film is the story of the friendship between two New York City schoolteachers, an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim, who transcend the assumptions of those around them. They quickly realize that they have more in common with each other than they do with the very secular teachers at the school, who see them as relics from a past best forgotten.

The two young women recognize the historic and modern-day conflicts between their groups. One of the sweetest moments in the film is when they use their students’ assumption that they must hate each other for a learning opportunity about tolerance. The two women are respectful of each other’s traditions and supportive of each other’s devotion to faith and family. But they share their fears and frustrations with one element of tradition that makes both of them uncomfortable — the highly parent-directed courtship system that most contemporary young women would consider hopelessly anachronistic.arranged.jpeg

What makes this movie especially endearing is its own respect for the choices made by the women to honor but find their own way within the traditions and observances of their religious faiths. Lovely performances by Zoe Lister Jones and Francis Benhamou and the quiet intimacy of low-budget film-making bring us inside the story so deeply that the beautiful final image fills our hearts with a resonance that lasts for days.

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Inspired by a true story Romance Spiritual films

Isn’t She Great

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Hard to imagine myself saying this, but it would have been better if Jacqueline Susann had written this movie. It would have been dumb and unbelievable and even grotesque, but it would not have been boring.

The tag line for the movie is “Talent isn’t everything” and indeed, that is its theme. Bette Midler plays Jacqueline Susann, sensationally untalent-ed but best-selling author of the very sensational “Valley of the Dolls.”

Susann has just one goal in life — to be famous. She wants “mass love.” And that’s the problem with the movie. It has clever dialogue and bright direction, but it wants us to love Jackie as much as her adoring husband does (the title is taken from his favorite comment about her). We can feel sympathy for her. She has an autistic child and becomes very ill with breast cancer. It’s fun to see her triumph over her stuffy editor’s urgings on grammar, consistency, and taste. And it is always nice to see someone’s dream come true.

But this dream is so selfish, so trashy, so empty that we just don’t like or believe her. The movie’s point of view seems to be that a fantasy of fabulousness wrapped up in Gucci pantsuits and manicured poodles is enough to engage us. Jackie herself would never have created a character so shallow — not a female character, anyway.

Parents should know that in addition to a sour moral vaccuousness, this movie includes explicit sexual references.

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Biography Drama Family Issues Inspired by a true story

My Dog Skip

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

This is a good, old-fashioned boy and his dog movie, based on the memoir of Willie Morris, who grew up in 1940’s Mississippi, a small, sleepy town of “ten thousand souls and nothing to do.” It is lyrical and very touching, with many important issues for family discussion.

Willie (“Malcolm in the Middle’s” Frankie Muniz) feels like an outsider, bookish and unathletic. He does not have a single friend to invite to his 9th birthday party. But one of his birthday presents is a friend, a puppy he names Skip.

Willie’s “lively and talkative” mother (Diane Lane. luminous as always) gives him Skip over the objections of his “stern and overbearing” father (Kevin Bacon). One of the most interesting scenes in the movie for older kids is the parents’ debate. Willie’s mother says, “He is a responsible boy who needs a friend.” His father says that pets are “just a heartbreak waiting to happen.” Having lost his leg — and much of his sense of hope about life — in a war, he wants to protect Willie from loss as long as he can. But Mrs. Morris knows that loss is the price we pay for caring, and that what we gain from caring — and from loss — is well worth it.

Skip and Willie find “unconditional love on both our parts.” Skip is a good listener and a loyal companion. Together, the boy and dog explore an ever-widening world. Skip helps Willie develop confidence and make friends with other boys and with the prettiest girl in school. Willie grows up in the segregated South, but Skip makes friends without regard for color, and takes Willie along.

Some of the adventures Willie and Skip share are scary (like an all-night stay in a cemetery that turns into an encounter with moonshiners) or sad (Willie’s hero, a local sports star, returns from combat in WWII very bitter and humiliated). Willie learns about the world with Skip. He learns about himself, too. Angry and embarrassed at his poor performance in a baseball game, he hits Skip, who runs away, devastating Willie. Taking responsibility for his behavior and facing the consequences start him on the road to his adult self.

Families who see this movie will have a lot to talk about. Parents should give kids some background to help them understand WWII-era America, with ration books and scrap drives. Be sure to point out the evidence of segregation, including separate ticket booths and seating areas at the movie theater and an adult black man calling a white boy “sir.”

Talk about what makes bullies behave the way they do and how the skills that make a child successful are very different from the skills that make an adult successful. This is shown by Willie and by his althetic friend Dink, who went to war filled with bravado and returned badly shaken. Discuss the way Willie and his friends respond to Dink’s return, especially in connection with Willie’s comment as an adult that “loyalty and love are the best things of all, and surely the most lasting.” Ask kids what they think of the way Willie’s parents disagree about whether he should have Skip, and how parents want to protect their kids, sometimes maybe too much so.

The movie tells us that even as a grown-up, Willie thought of Skip every day. Ask kids what there is in their lives right now that helps them grow up, and what it is that they will think of when their “memories of the spirit linger on and sweeten long after memories of the brain have faded.”

Warning: spoilers ahead. Parents should know that there are a couple of strong words in the script, a deer is killed by hunters, a child tells a scary story, menacing bad guys threaten Willie and Skip, and Skip is badly injured. When Skip finally dies (of old age) it is still very sad. A four-year-old boy sitting near me was inconsolable and kept repeating, “Skip died?” all the way to the car.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Family Issues For all ages For the Whole Family Inspired by a true story
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