Inside Job (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for some drug and sex-related material
Length: 120 minutes
Grade: A,A,A,A=A
Rotten Tomatoes: 97% favorable, 8.2/10 average|
Budget: $2 million
Box Office: $8 million (4 U.S., 4 Intl.)

Written by: Chad Beck (First Script) and Adam Bolt (First Script)
Directed by: Charles Ferguson (No End in Sight)
Narrated by: Matt Damon
Featuring: William Ackman, Daniel Alpert, Jonathan Alpert, Ben Bernanke, Eliot Spitzer, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Paul Volker.

This is a documentary intended to both explain the reasons behind the economic events of the last five years and to disturb you by showing how much of the problem’s real sources not only haven’t changed but were somewhere between incompetent and sinister.

This movie will probably infuriate you, at least if you understand what it’s saying. And you’ll want to disagree with it if you’re a conservative because it’s going to feel like an assault on the free-market practices and deregulation of Reagan and Bush that you’ve come to admire. But rest assured that the point of the movie is that it doesn’t really matter who’s in office since the real problem is the revolving door between the moneygrubbers of high finance and the oversight and administrative positions in the US government. At least, that’s one real problem. The other problem is that there are not only far too few checking mechanisms to inhibit the kind of risky and deceptive practices which caused the collapse, but the culture of aggressive risk-taking is itself so thoroughly endemic to the banking/finance industry that there isn’t much hope of real change. Oh yeah, and it’s way more profitable to buy influence through lobbyists than to conduct the sort of practices that would be required if serving the citizens and the economy at large were the primary purpose of federal investment regulations.

Discussion Questions:
~What happens in the banking/finance industry when the biggest incentives are based on short-term results rather than long-term economic stability?
~Do you think it’s defensible to pay investment house CEOs $100 million or more in a single year for any reason whatsoever? Should this be possible even in years when their decisions were catastrophically bad?
~A basic rule of insurance is that you can only buy insurance on things in which you have a personal investment stake. Why does this rule exist? Why was the abandonment of this rule so important in creating the environment of the collapse?
~Why were derivatives and other such innovative products (like CDO and CDS markets) unregulated?
~What do you think of the analysis that the academic economists being sought for advice on economic policy have not properly disclosed their own financial incentives?
~What do you think of the practice of producing financial products which were rated AAA but were internally known to be far less reliable and were actively bet against with contrary derivatives?
~How are cocaine, call girls, and risk-taking in finance related? What do you think of the analysis that Elliot Spitzer was brought down but the same information which could have been used to pursue others was not used?
~Given that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was so vocal against the finance industry in this country and our government in this movie from just a year ago, does there seem to be a sinister coincidence in regards to his arrest recently? Who would stand to gain from him being removed from the World Bank? Does the fact that the movie didn’t have this information make the issue with his case (and by inference that of Spitzer) seem more sinister?
~What is your opinion of Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama after watching this movie?
~What is your opinion of Henry Paulson, Alan Greenspan, and Ben Bernanke now?
~If you could do anything at all to fix any or all of these problems so they don’t happen again, what would you do? What do you think the makers of this movie want to see happen?

Overall Grade: A
The sort of movie every American ought to watch but that leaves more despair than hope in its wake, if only because the problem isn’t that the problems aren’t known. The problem is that the sources of the problem have so much vested in perpetuating this system that they have literally invested everything in keeping the system just the way that it is.

Rango (2011)

Rated: PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking
Length: 107 minutes
Grade: C,B,C,D=C
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% favorable, 7.6/10 average
Budget: $135 million
Box Office: $262 million (123 U.S., 119 Intl., 20 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Gore Verbinksi (Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3, The Ring, The Weather Man, The Mexican, and Mousehunt)
Also Written by: John Logan (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator, The Last Samurai, Star Trek Nemesis, The Time Machine, Gladiator, and Any Given Sunday) and James Ward Byrkit (First script)
Starring the voice of: Johnny Depp
With the voices of: Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone, and Bill Nighy.

A domestic lizard finds himself embroiled in a film noir western as he tries to survive, prove his mettle, and save the day for a desert town of unusual and oppressed animals.

We had heard this was quite good, and I will at least say that it was quite different. It certainly had its moments, and there was something admirable merely in the fact that it was so continually willing to be unlike any other animated movie. That being said, sometimes it’s worth asking why something has never been done before. If Pixar is asking, it’s because no one has thought of it or had the skill to do it right. If anyone else is asking, it’s because it was a bad idea that someone else knew as such before investing tens of millions of dollars to prove the fact. As a piece of creativity, this is quite good, and although not nearly as dark as Tim Burton’s universe, something of that feel is what you get for originally here. But as entertainment or something coherent, it just doesn’t really add up. It’s queer. Really queer. And not just because Johnny Depp voiced the main character. And when we got all done, my wife and I just looked at each other with a mutually quizzical expression that asked, “Did you get that?” And no, we didn’t. Also, it’s got more than its fair share of strong language for a kids movie, particularly damn and hell, and some pretty creepy images for younger kids including hangings and an arrow stuck in one character’s eye. PG-10 I’d say.

Overall Grade: C
Despite it’s ridiculously high Rotten Tomatoes rating, this is a movie that is likely to appeal mostly only to film critics who are most satisfied with something unusual. But almost by definition, unusual is precisely what the majority of people don’t love.

Just Go WIth It (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for frequent crude and sexual content, partial nudity, brief drug references and language
Length: 117 minutes
Grade: A,B-,C,D=B+
Rotten Tomatoes: 18% favorable, 3.7/10 average
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $228 million (103 U.S., 112 Intl., 13 DVD)

Written by: Allan Loeb (The Dilemma, The Switch, 21, and Things We Lost in the Fire) and Timothy Downing (Role Models)
Directed by: Dennis Dugan (Grown Ups, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Benchwarmers, National Security, Saving Silverman, Big Daddy, and Beverly Hills Ninja.)
Starring: Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston
With: Nicole Kidman, Nick Swarsdon, Brooklyn Decker, Bailee Madison, Griffin Gluck, Dave Matthews, and Kevin Nealon.

A plastic surgeon has perfect the art of pretending to be badly married as a way of picking up women winds up falling for a girl without the ruse who then thinks he is actually married. He decides to lie to her, pretending to be on the verge of divorce, but this lie leads to countless others and a spiral of comedic deception

Adam Sandler isn’t always a hit for comedy, and Aniston has an even more splotchy record recently, but this is spot-on as a comedy romance. We laughed pretty continuously throughout this film, despite the ultimate plot trajectory being relatively predictable. A good comedy romance isn’t necessarily one that’s terribly innovative. Rather it’s one whose adherence to convention you don’t mind so much because it’s funny enough for you to not begrudge its lack of great surprises. And in this case, not only are there plenty of good jokes, but the semi-cameos by Nicole Kidman, for instance, are outstanding.

Discussion Questions:
~At what point in this movie would you have preferred to see Sandler tell the truth? Would that have been as entertaining?
~Do you think a marriage is better off beginning as something passionate and physical or beginning as a deep other-knowing friendship?
~What characteristics of Aniston would make her a good wife for Sandler? Is the role of office assistant a Biblical paradigm for a good wife?

Overall Grade: B+
It’s funny, which is better than most “comedies” these days, and it’s only just barely PG-13 for a very few profanities and ongoing innuendo. We really enjoyed this.

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

Rated: G
Length: 84 minutes
Grade: D+,A-,B-,D=C-
Rotten Tomatoes: 55% favorable, 5.6/10 average
Budget: $36 million
Box Office: $209 million (100 U.S., 90 Intl., 19 DVD)

Written by: 9 different people.
Directed by: Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2 and Spirit)
Starring the voices of: James McAvoy and Emily Blunt
With the voices of: Ashley Jansen, Michael Caine, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Merchant, Hulk Hogan, and Ozzy Osbourne.

Romeo and Juliet in the context of two warring gnome yards in England set to the music of Elton John without all the tragedy.

Entertainment Value: D+
The first four minutes are hilarious and I felt like I was about to see a movie that really fulfilled everything its basic concept promised to be. Unfortunately, the rest was about as flat as flat gets, almost like they hired one set of writers to do the opening but couldn’t afford to keep them, so they replaced them with some mediocre team that did their best, but their best really wasn’t all that good. The ongoing Shakespeare references are a bit fun, but mostly this is just a plot that makes little sense built around the absurdity of a $20,000 lawn mower (9,998 pounds) and concrete sculptures come to life with repeatedly silly consequences. Some movies are so chock full of content you have to watch them intently. Some you can watch casually. Some you can watch while reading a magazine. And some you can watch while cooking dinner in the other room. I made pork and beans for my boys.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A-, Language A-
This certainly deserves the G rating. No one gets really hurt (by the end), and the only issue of concern would be some minor nod-to-the-parents type not-quite-vulgar jokes such as “Let’s go kick some grass.”

Significant Content: B
Revenge and feuds only wind up destroying everything. Sometimes catastrophic loss is the only thing to motivate us to avoid a self-destructive pattern. Love is colorblind.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
There were two weird parts of this movie’s overall composition. The first was the overuse of music (especially Elton John songs, who is one executive producer), which was noticeable only for it’s noticeability. The other was the very strange and uncomfortable sequence showing the disintegration of a family (the household of the pink flamingo) without words. It was almost like someone tried to imitate the brilliant opening sequence from Up, only it wound up being sad without being touching.

Discussion Questions:
~Romeo and Juliet (like most Shakespearean plays) is a tragedy whose power derives specifically from the awful poignancy of the final scene. Do you think it’s appropriate for someone to retell this story without honoring the power of that ending? What does it say about modern movies that we cannot endure a tragic ending? Do tragic endings teach us better by contrast than happy ones? What does it say about our artistic tastes that we want our stories to end well rather than being satisfied with bad literary endings motivating us to have our lives end well by learning from the lesson?
~Is revenge ever a legitimate motive for anything? What about retribution for a crime committed? Have you ever done anything in revenge and regretted it?

Overall Grade: C-
I kept wanting it to be much better than it was, a hope which the opening scenes only raised to be dashed by the mediocrity of most everything thereafter.

I Am Number Four (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for language
Length: 109 minutes
Grade: C-CCD=C-
Rotten Tomatoes: 30% favorable, 4.7/10 average
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $155 million (55 U.S., 89 Intl., 11 DVD)

Written by: Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (The Mummy, Herbie Fully Loaded, and Spider-Man 2) and Marti Noxon (TV such as Mad Men, Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), based on the novel by Jobie Hughes & James Frey
Directed by: DJ Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia, Two for the Money, and The Salton Sea)
Starring: Alex Pettyfer and Teresa Palmer
With: Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, and Callan McAuliffe.

The only surviving super-powered teens of an alien culture are hiding on Earth from the deranged predators who killed their civilization and are now bent on killing them.

Entertainment Value: C-
And I think that’s pretty generous. This is a thoroughly silly movie that feels like a third-best version of everything you might compare it to. It feels like a slightly updated Power Rangers, with the creepy/silly enemies. It’s got Michael Bay’s fingerprints all over it, and it just winds up being a hackneyed plot with poor writing and uncompelling characters who fit every stereotype. Still, it’s sort of fun, but when I’m laughing at (not with) an action/sci-fi movie, that’s not a good sign. I’m sure it makes more sense if you know the book, at least I hope that’s true.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence C, Language C
This movie can’t decide whether it wants to be standard light teen fare or a serious and fairly gruesome action film. It’s mostly harmless in the beginning, with some bullying, but then the latter half has some fairly unsettling moments of implied torture and gore. I’d say PG-15. The language is no worse than the violence, no F-variants, and it’s almost squeaky on sex and nudity.

Significant Content: C
Home is where you make it, and it depends more on the people than on the location. Aliens who look like humans are good. Aliens who eat frozen turkeys are bad.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Not so much.

Discussion Questions:
~If I could think of any, I’d ask them.

Overall Grade: C-
A hackneyed action sci-fi Michael Bay exercise in silliness that must only be cool if you know the book it’s based on. Cheap frivolous fun. I mean who doesn’t at least somewhat appreciate a super-powered shootout with lasers and alien beasts of prey on the campus of a high school?

Unknown (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content
Length: 113 minutes
Grade: B-,C+,C,C=C+
Rotten Tomatoes: 56% favorable, 5.8/10 average
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $135 million (64 U.S., 67 Intl., 4 DVD)

Written by: Oliver Butcher (First major script) and Stephen Cornwell (First major script), based on the novel by Didiear Van Cauwelaert
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax, Goal 2)

Starring: Liam Neeson
With: Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, and Frank Langella

After he is injured in a terrible car accident, a biochemist at an international conference in Munich suddenly finds his wife and his life stolen by a total stranger pretending to be him.

Entertainment Value: B-
Most of the ingredients in this movie are good, and certainly Langella brings a wonderful hint of the sinister to it. It’s a decent enough action thriller, with the usual plausibility issues. See, there’s a point when all action movies become preposterous, and you must either stop enjoying the film or else suspend disbelief to continue watching with any pleasure at all. In this movie, it’s the car chase scene at 62 minutes. And the problem is that they way too long to give us the twist explanation whch then would have made the scene at least plausible. Plus, the twist explanation doesn’t seem to quite cover all of the territory once you know it, and it certainly doesn’t explain the slew of murders or attempted murders. Seems like a lot of wasted resources to me. Also, given the twist, you’re sort of left in a no man’s land as far as what you want to see happen even so. Still, B- means above average, and it is that.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity B-, Violence C, Language B
The big issue in this movie is going to be violence, which involves several semi-bloody killings, bombings, and car crashes. Sexuality is a few flashback scenes of lovemaking with no nudity. But the nice thing I can report is that unlike a lot of PG-13 movies, this one has only a minor amount of swearing in it. 2 S-words, I believe, and a few other mild profanities. It’s PG-13, but it’s not one of those almost R PG-13s by any stretch.

Significant Content: C
The truth is out there if you look for the details carefully enough. Some people are trying to do real good in the world and some are out for themselves or profit. Personal identity is a very complicated matter, but you are ultimately who you choose to be.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Some interesting questions are raised, but sadly they are relegated to the background of the movie rather than really dealt with. For instance, there is absolutely no treatment of Harris’s identity or background before all of this, which would really have raised some nice complexities for his character and his future.

Discussion Questions:
~“If you ask enough questions, the man who is telling a lie will eventually change his story, but the man who is telling the truth cannot change his story.” Do you think this is true? Does this sort of an approach solve to distinguish between a man who is telling the truth and a man who has believed a lie?
~What is the difference between sanity and insanity? If someone challenged you on your own account of your identity or your life, what would it take to make you doubt yourself?
~Discuss Harris’s motivations at various points in the movie. Why does he do what he does?
~In the end, do you think the explanation of everything adds up with the facts as you experience them? What areas seem like they don’t fit? Consider perhaps the photo and the effort to deactivate the bomb.
~What is the point of having the investigator be former Stazi? In his soliloquoy about Germany first forgetting Nazism and Communism, what is the movie trying to say? What comparison is the movie trying to draw between Harris and Germany? What would you do with either of them if you were a prosecutor?
~How much does it matter whether your memories are real or false in terms of how much they shape your notions of who you are?
~What is the meaning of the title?

Overall Grade: C+
A fairly interesting thriller which only hints at some interesting questions instead of being diligent enough to really explore them.

Black Swan (2010)

Rated: R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
Length: 108 minutes
Grade: D,F,D,C=D
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% favorable, 8.2/10 average
Budget: $13 million
Box Office: $345 million (107 U.S., 220 Intl., 18 DVD)

Written by: Mark Heyman (First script), Andres Heinz (First script), and John J. McLaughlin (Man of the House)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, and Pi)
Starring: Natlie Portman
With: Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, and Barbara Hershey.

A very devoted ballerina is challenged by the demand that she play both swans in Swan Lake, the pressure of which sends her over the edge of sanity and sexuality as she tries to become perfection in uniting two incompatible characters.

Despite wanting to quit this disturbing, unpleasant horror story of a ballet film no less than four times, I finished watching it for two reasons. First, knowing that it had received so much critical acclaim, I kept secretly hoping that something in the ending would atone for and validate everything I had to endure in getting there. Second, if this did not turn out to be the case, I wanted to with full confidence be able to assure any of you who might be tempted to watch it but have not yet done so that you do not need to for any reason. I’m beginning to think that most film critics are masochists. The more uncomfortable and ugly and horrific a movie is, the more they like it. I am not afflicted with this particular perversion. So for me, this movie was simply torture. Even if it hadn’t had several very disturbing sexual scenes, the main plot and the development of the themes are so frustrating that I neither care about the characters nor enjoy watching them behave in such deranged ways. I really don’t need to watch a bulimic infantilized ballerina pluck a feather out of her back to believe that some people in this world are troubled. Yes, I recognize that Aronofsky has turned the plot of the movie into the plot of the ballet. Der. Yes, I realize that he loves to deal with tortured characters who devote themselves tragically to whatever they consider greatness. Of course. But it just doesn’t always work, even if you score by Oscars (5 nominations, with 1 win). The Wrestler made a point despite its vulgar roadmap. Black Swan just puts the audience out of our misery by finally ending. I was absolutely stunned that Christianity Today’s Brent McCracken summarized it as “A beautiful and engrossing ballet thriller, though slightly over-the-top.” Slightly? What would truly over-the-top be?

Discussion Questions:
~Would you accept insanity if that were the price of greatness?
~Do you think that sexual repression is a key ingredient for madness or greatness?
~Do you think Nina wound up happy or satisfied with herself? What about her mother?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~I’d rather not, actually.

Overall Grade: D
A disturbing, gross, uncomfortable, and NC-17 movie highly overrated because, apparently, modern art critics think film-watching should hurt. That’s how you know it’s good. No, that’s just how you know it hurts.

Adjustment Bureau, The (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.
Length: 106 minutes
Grade: A,C+,B,A+=A
Rotten Tomatoes: 72 favorable, 6.6/10 average
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $120 million (62 U.S., 58 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: George Nolfi (His first film, although he wrote Bourne Ultimatum, Sentinel, Ocean’s Twelve, and Timeline.), based on a short story by the amazing science fiction author Phillip K. Dick, whose stories or novels inspired the movies Blade Runner, Minority Report, Next, Total Recall, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Screamers, and Impostor.
Starring: Matt Damon and Emily Blunt
With: Anthony Mackie, Michael Kelly, John Slattery, and Terrence Stamp, with cameos by Jon Stewart, Chuck Scarborough, James Carville, Mary Matalin, and Michael Bloomberg.

An aspiring politician discovers that both his career and his love life are of interest to a mysterious agency of super-powered men who intervene in the affairs of humanity, striving to keep events on track according to their plan.

Entertainment Value: A
If you tell me a movie is being made off of a Phillip K. Dick story, I’m in. They aren’t all perfect, but they’re all interesting, and some wind up as the best science fiction movies made. In this film, we have a brilliant idea, well-executed and even emotionally compelling from the very beginning. As good science fiction should, it asks a lot of fascinating questions and it gives us an alternate universe to contemplate our intuitions which jibes neither too well nor too poorly with the real one we live in.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B, Language C+
The only real issue in this movie is profanity, which is consistent throughout the movie with all the minor and middle swears. There is one very brief, almost flippant F-variant, however, which probably pushed it up to PG-13 singlehandedly. There is one sexual scene with no nudity and a couple of minor violent scenes. This is a movie that isn’t right for younger children, but is fine for teens. PG-13 is probably right, which is too bad, because this could easily have been PG without the profanity.

Significant Content: B
The world is guided by an organization of benevolent totalitarians who work hard to remain hidden from view and prefer persuasion to coercion. The comparisons to God and Angels here are so obvious that the movie even acknowledges them, preferring to let us form our own opinions about the implications, however. The only reasons for not giving it an A are the ways in which God and the bureau so clearly diverge and also the movie’s truly troublesome contention that in romantic love we can be fully satisfied whereas Christians know that romantic love is a genuine good with equally genuine potential to be the most horrible of idols.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
Like all good science-fiction, the real value to a movie like this isn’t the plot or the “lessons” so much as the provocation to thought and discussion. And as you’ll see below, there’s no lack of things to mull over here. In style, this is really quite a light-hearted movie, certainly not the sinister and brooding feel of Dark City or even Blade runner, for instance. But it’s still a film-noir lite, at least judging by the 1930’s vintage suits and hats worn by bureau members, even though nobody smokes.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you believe the bureau would actually erase his brain if he revealed their existence?
~What would be the point of keeping their existence a secret? Why is the illusion of free will so important to preserve? If you were “The Chairman,” would you want to keep your activities secret or make them more open?
~The hint is obviously dropped that these are the “real” explanation behind what people think of as angels or God. If that’s so, then what does it mean about the super-secrecy that they seem so bent on maintaining? Why do you think God and angels aren’t more open about their existence?
~Why aren’t there any evil bureau members or demons in this movie?
~In what ways are the bureau members like the angels of the Bible? In what ways is The Chairman like God? What do you make of the idea that the bureau only has limited manpower to control things? Does it seem weird that they have perfect predictive power but only limited influence? Does omniscience entail omnipotence?
~What devices does this movie employ to make us believe that the adjusters are sinister and that whatever they are doing is wrong? How does the movie get us to so powerfully sympathize with Norris?
~What is it about a secret or a cover-up or a conspiracy that infuriates us so much? Is this need to know a healthy or a dangerous compulsion?
~If you knew that your life was in fact being guided back “on plan” continuously by such beings, would it make you feel better or worse about reality?
~Soft determinism is the term people sometimes use for the idea that the “big events” in your life are fixed or fated but the “small events” are more open to shifting. A contrasting view is “hard determinism” where everything is fixed. Which view do you find more appealing, if at all? One ordinary component of hard determinism is the “butterfly effect” which postulates that everything has to be fixed because even the tiniest deviation can have potentially monumental significance. Which view do you think is correct? Do small events matter? Do they matter to God? What does the Bible tell us?
~One of the key doctrines of Christianity is the idea that God is Sovereign (King) over everything. Which view of human free will and determinism do you think is most Biblical?
~In what ways is “The Chairman” of a corporation a useful metaphor for God? A bad one? Consider in particular the disinterest in being worshipped or known which shows in the effort to remain a secret.
~Which sort of meaning or significance in life really matters: our devotion to other people in romantic love or our pursuit of achievement and fame such as through politics or dance excellence? Is romantic love just another form of self-gratification? What about devotion to the other person and their possibilities?
~What do you think about David’s decisions throughout the movie regarding Elise? Which of them do you think are virtuous? Which selfish? What is the “greater good?” How does the movie answer this question?
~Harry tells David that the reason they want to keep him and Elise apart is because she will so satisfy and fulfill him that he won’t need to pursue significance through acclaim and power. Is this movie right that romantic love can fully satisfy us in this way? What does the Bible teach us about this notion? Is the movie making romantic love into an idol? Is it a better idol than power or professional accomplishment?
~What would it mean about your identity and significance if you could not take or be held responsible for your choices because you did not actually make them?
~There is a dual theme in this movie that David and Elise are both driven together by fate and also by choice. Which is more significant? Do you believe people are fated to be together? Are they miserable when they don’t obey? What role does choice play in relationships? How important is the belief that spouses are fated to be together as opposed to “merely” chosen in making marriages work?
~Have you ever felt either thwarted by the universe or enabled by it beyond the bounds of what seems normal? How do you explain such things?
~What is the purpose of the grand plan of the Chairman and his bureau in this movie? Would you describe them as good or evil? Are they exploiting humanity or bringing out the best potential of mankind? How does the fact that they seem so reluctant to kill people or even to ruin their minds affect your judgment of them?
~In this movie, there are apparently different versions of “the plan” over time. Does that seem compatible with determinism to you? Does that seem to be compatible with the Bible to you?
~Why do you think Harry decides to help David? In what ways are their characters and dilemmas similar to each other?
~Because all movies are made within a cultural context, it is unavoidable that they might be seen as hinting at contemporary issues, even if they otherwise wouldn’t be understood this way. Do you think that the scene where David talks about not understanding why “they don’t want us to be together” except that it’s not part of “the plan” or doesn’t fit with “their book” are references to Christians opposing gay marriage?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The first encounter with Elise.
~At the dance recital.
~At the statue of liberty.
~Atop the bureau building.

Overall Grade: A-
A wonderful film-noir-lite sci-fi action drama with all the religion, authority, and free will themes that dominate movies drawn from Phillip K. Dick fiction. Well worth watching and discussing.

127 Hours (2010)

Rated: R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images
Length: 94 min
Grade: C-DCC=C
Rotten Tomatoes: 93% favorable, 8.2/10 average
Budget: $18 million
Box Office: $65 million (18 U.S., 39 Intl., 8 DVD)

Written by: Danny Boyle (First Script) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Yasmin, and The Full Monty), based on the book by Aron Ralston.
Directed by: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine, Millions, 28 Days Later, A Life Less Ordinary, and Trainspotting)
Starring: James Franco
With: Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara

A loner and adventurer finds himself trapped in a hiking mishap and must eventually cut off his own arm to escape in this true story.

Entertainment Value: C-
I think this is a case of something being over-hyped to me, and so what might otherwise have been compelling was only average at best. I had seen Aron on Minute To Win It, where he told most of the major elements of the story during the course of the show. So, in spite of it being made about as well as I can imagine, I was much less engrossing than I expected. I was wanting it to be over for the middle of the film, not because it was unpleasant, but because I was bored. Also, although I am sure James Franco did a fabulous job of portraying “before-Aaron,” “after-Aron” is so much more compelling as a person that I was irritated by the character in the movie. Finally, the theater ending gave me almost no resolution for the big issues. This is one of those rare times when watching this on DVD was totally worth it because the alternate ending was tremendous to the point of almost rescuing me from an even worse grade. The stuff about his child and his mom and even his other relationship were so much better and brought meaning to the otherwise mostly just fact-telling account. I am completely baffled why they went with the bare-bones ending.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence D, Language D
The opening song has an F-word within ten seconds of starting. Then, there are a handful of F and milder profanities throughout the movie. At one point, there is a scene which seems to be leading toward masturbation, but it doesn’t happen. There is some beer drinking in flashback/imagined scenes. But the big issue here will be the overall aspect of watching him become ever-more dehydrated and the gory violence in the scenes of him severing his arm and thereafter. It’s pretty unpleasant to watch, but I think well done, given the difficulty of making the pain real without just becoming pornographic gore.

Significant Content: C
People who think they don’t need anyone else are mistaken. We all have regrets about how we’ve mistreated or neglected people, and sometimes it takes facing our own death to help us realize it. Hope is the one thing that can keep you going through impossible circumstances. It’s okay to be adventurous, just tell people where you’re going.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
One thing I found fascinating about the movie was how, even though I knew the impossibility of the situation, it took perhaps half an hour for me to overcome my mental impulse to try to “solve” the problem of how to move the rock. It just seemed so inconceivable that it could really be undoable. And so I must give the movie credit for conveying that sense of powerlessness. The other thing I hadn’t realized previously was that at a fairly early point in the events, his hand was already a complete loss. So the decision to sever it wasn’t about choosing keeping or losing the hand, but only about how to unshackle the body from the already-destroyed thing keeping him shackled to the rock.

Discussion Questions:
~Aron never prays to God in this movie, at least not that I recall. Does this seem strange to you? What would you expect from someone in this situation with respect to prayer?
~From God’s point of view, what do you think He might have intended this particular set of events to accomplish? In what ways was Aaron humbled or changed as a result of this event?
~Did you find it frustrating that there was no way for Aron to solve the problem of being stuck? Did you notice yourself continually trying to figure it out as I did? Why is that?
~One of the deleted scenes talked about “soloing,” which is doing adventures like this on your own. Why do you think soloing is so appealing? Why do you think Aaron continues to do this even now?
~In the Bible, Jesus says that it is better to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye if they cause you to sin rather than to keep them and go into hell. Do you think this story is a useful illustration of this concept?
~If you think of his arm as something that was lost, it’s easy to find this a tragedy, but if you think of his life as something that was gained, it’s easy to find this a triumph. Which is right? Is there any factual difference between those two perspectives? How are these two opposites representative of more common events in our own lives?
~Do you think “after-Aron” would have done anything different in his encounter with the girls than “before-Aron” did?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene where he avoids answering the phone and fumbles around unable to find his Swiss Army Knife.
~Locking up the bicycle on the tree. What do you make of this?
~The ongoing clash between Aaron going out into the beauty of nature but listening to this harsh, aggressive, and loud music while doing so. Does this seem strange to you? Is Aron missing or ruining something by soloing this way?
~The imaginary morning show interview. What insights about his own arrogance is Aaron dealing with at this moment?
~The final scene finding the people. Why is it so tremendously symbolic that Aaron’s first words were, “I need help?”

Overall Grade: C
A competently told version of an amazing real-life story, but both less engaging than I had hoped for and far less meaningful than it would have been with the alternate ending available on the DVD.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Rated: PG for thematic elements, some violent content, sexual humor and mild language (re-rating) (2004)
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: A,B,A,A=A
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% favorable, 9.0/10 average
Budget: $1.8 million
Box Office: $14 million (9 U.S., 5 DVD)

Written by: Terry Southern (Easy Rider, Barbarella, Casino Royale, and The Cincinnati Kid), based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, who also helped write the movie Fail-Safe.
Written and Directed by: Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Lolita, and Spartacus—the only movie he did not at least help write.)
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Keenan Wynn.
With: Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed

A deranged Air Force base commander unilaterally sends his bombers to attack the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war, and the President must figure out a way to stave off Armageddon while keeping a warmongering general at bay.

Entertainment Value: A
This is simply one of the most brilliantly crafted scripts Kubrick ever worked with. Not only is the basic idea brilliant, but the writing is sheer genius, and the acting brings it to perfection. Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers (in all three of his roles!), and especially George C. Scott are so good that it’s impossible to overstate. Kubrick is a filmmaking treasure, and this is one of his finest.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B, Language B
Everything in this movie is very tame by today’s standards, even including a shot of a man looking at a centerfold which actually shows no more skin than any average prime-time television drama routinely does these days. There is some war violence and an off-screen suicide. It’s PG for sure.

Significant Content: A
As a colossal satire, there is one simple point to this movie: the world is being run by military-political madmen. They are either morons or genuinely insane or so ingrained with insane paradigms that the distinction makes no difference. The whole point is as if to say with 100% sarcasm, “See, there’s nothing to worry about here. Look at how competent and reliable everything and your leaders really are. You’re totally safe from nuclear war.” That’s the point of the sarcasm in the title. “I think about all these things, and I feel totally secure without a care in the world.” Obviously, this is meant to show how absurd the doctrines of nuclear mutually assured destruction really are by revealing how frighteningly vulnerable they are to human error or derangement.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
What can you say? The Doomsday Gap. General Turgidson worried that the Soviets will have a mineshaft gap even as the world is about to end. Wrestling in the War Room. If you’ve never seen this brilliant film, I almost hate to ruin any of it for you by telling you the bits and pieces. But what makes the whole thing work so well is that each piece of the puzzle is taken from real life and then just played out until it becomes absurd. That’s why the best way to understand this movie is as a fascinating political warfare chassis painted to perfection by characters who are the filmmaking equivalent of political cartoon caricatures of real people.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think the Kubrick intended to happen as a result of this film? What possible action could be taken if you were to take the messages of this film seriously?
~Given that there has not been a global nuclear war (or even a minor incident) since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, would it be fair to say that history has disproved this movie’s worries?
~To what degree do you think this movie fails to inspire action precisely because the characters are so over-the-top in their roles?
~Ripper says that Clemenceau was wrong about war being too important to be left to the generals, that now it is too important to be left to the politicians. What do you think of this idea?
~The slogan of the air base is “Peace is our profession.” What double-meaning is involved here? In what ways is this meant to be ironic?
~Do you think we were more at risk of nuclear war in the 60s or that we are more at risk of it today?
~Going through the characters, who do you think they were meant to represent? What is deranged or ridiculous about each one?
~Ripper is sexually abstinent, but Turgidson is very active with his secretary. What is this movie trying to say about the connection between male sexuality and warfare, if anything? Do you think that warfare is connected to male sexual aggression?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Ripper explaining to Mandrake about the communist plot.
~President Muffley breaking the news to the drunk Soviet Premiere.
~Slim Pickens riding cowboy and the final scene. Would it be fair to say Kubrick is saying that this would be the ultimate symphony of humankinds pursuit of warfare?

Overall Grade: A
If you haven’t, you must. Not all Stanley Kubrick films are as tame in content and as easily approachable as this masterpiece. A real treasure.