Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007)

Rated: G
Length: 94 Minutes
Grade: AAAA=A
Budget: Unknown
Box Office: $32 million US, $27 million Int’l, $11 million DVD

Directed by: Zach Helm, who also wrote the movie and is most well-known for writing another outstanding movie, Stranger than Fiction.
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Ted Ludzik, Zach Mills, and Jaspon Bateman.

At 243 years old, Mr. Magorium, an avid shoe wearer, has decided that it is time for him to give up being the owner of the world’s most interesting toy store and leave the earth. He invites an accountant to go over the books as he prepares to bequeath the none-too-happy store to whomever will run it lovingly enough.

Entertainment Value: A
Now, I’ll admit that this movie was much stronger in the beginning than in the end, but it was AWESOME in the beginning. I had one of those goofy, I-can’t-believe-this-movie-is-this-good smiles plastered on my face for at least the first 40 minutes of this adventure. If the end (which was still very good) had been just a bit better, I could have given this an A+.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence A, Language A, Illegality A
Seriously. Find me a cleaner movie. Unless magic hinted at will bother you (and it’s really not even fair to call it magic, I think), the only thing you could possibly worry about here is one scene where the store throws a tantrum and toys act out of control. But it’s nothing that any child with a two-year-old sibling hasn’t seen many times before. This is G-3, perfectly fine for any child who’s old enough to be watching movies.

Significant Content: A
The world is a magical place if you’re willing to look for it. There are imaginative people and “just” people, who always want to say that everything magical is “just” something ordinary. Believing in yourself is sometimes the only difference between frustrated mediocrity and greatness. It’s very important to have friends. Grown-ups are smart about a lot of things, but they’re really dumb when it comes to retaining childhood enthusiasm and faith. Every great story has to end, but the end of any one story is always the beginning of another.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
You know how some movies pack so much into the background that you want to watch again and again to see if you can spot it all? This is one of those. The stuff you see the first time around will astonish you, and I’m convinced that there’s at least 5-6 viewings worth of novelty to be observed here. One of my favorite little elements here is that when the accountant, called a counting mutant by Hoffman, comes to visit, he is able to calmly stand in one place without any interest in the thousands of wonders all around him. What a visual testimony to how dead he is inside at that time!

Discussion Questions:
~If someone told you that a place like Mr. Magorium’s really existed, would you believe it until you found out that it wasn’t true, or would you doubt it until you found out that it was true?
~What does the wood block symbolize?
~In what ways is the finishing of a good book or story like losing a friend?
~Have you ever doubted yourself and had someone else believe in you? Who turned out to be right?
~Have you ever been scared to try to make a friend? What helped you get over it?
~What do you think it says about an adult who has a hard time playing with children? What if he finds it hard to play with other adults?
Overall Grade: A
If you want an excellent book to read alongside this movie, I would recommend the Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery.

I Am Legend (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Length: 100 Minutes
Grade: ACBB+=B
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $256 million US, $327 million Int’l

Directed by: Francis Lawrence, who previously made Constantine and a bunch of music videos for Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and Green Day.
Starring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Willow Smith, and Kona and Abby as Sam the German Shepherd.

When a drug is invented that will cure cancer, it suddenly transforms into a deadly virus that kills most people and turns the rest into something like vampires. Will Smith was the colonel in charge of the response, and he is also the last man alive in New York City trying to still find a cure.

Entertainment Value: A
I was captivated throughout this movie, which, even though it’s in the zombie-flick genre, doesn’t feel like that sort of a movie to me. It’s got just the right amount of suspense, action, character development, and ming-boggling CGI scenes. A few of the plot points were either not well-explained or else implausible, such as that the one guy who’s immune also happens to be the guy in charge of handling the epidemic. But otherwise, excellent.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality B, Violence D, Language B, Illegality A
It’s a zombie/vampire movie, okay? So, obviously the main issue is going to be deformed creatures engaging in disturbing and violent behavior and scary stuff, at least some of the time. But I think PG-13 is correct. This is a film that would definitely give younger kids nightmares, and it may even do so for older kids. It sort of did for me, even. There is some profanity, and there was a scene with an infected women shown nearly naked on an examining table, but it’s certainly not an arousing scene at all.

Significant Content: B
Mankind can destroy itself with technology, and the destruction is likely to come from good intentions rather than from bad. Nonetheless, mankind can also save itself from the apocalypse, at least maybe they can. But the real gem in this movie that I certainly didn’t expect to find was that God is still working in the world and choreographing things according to a plan no matter how much it doesn’t seem to be the case. Also, Bob Marley is given high praise as demonstrating the spirit of an overcomer and living his belief in the human spirit to solve the world’s problems problems.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
I really enjoyed the scenes of New York overgrown and returning to a wild condition. The use of music and the pacing of the movie were excellent. It’s also a movie about pride in that Smith keeps telling people and himself that he is able to solve this problem himself. But some of the best thought value here is going to be the discussion about God and His timing and role in a world this devastated.

Discussion Questions:
~Smith repeatedly says that he can fix this problem. Is this confidence, arrogance, pride, or self-delusion?
~Is the idea of a plague that wipes out 90% of all people and turns the rest into vampires compatible with your ideas about who God is and what God would allow? In what ways would you say this is a pro-theistic movie, and in what ways not?
~Can you explain why Smith does what he does on the dock at night?
~Discuss Smith’s interactions with the mannequins and at the video store. How might maintaining a semblance of superficial order and normality help people in traumatic circumstances keep from losing their minds?
~Does this movie scare you? Why, exactly?
~Why are we so fascinated with movies predicated on biological experimentation and disaster?
~What is the primary motive Smith has in looking for a cure? Is it to make the world safe for humans again or is it to rescue those who might still be capable of redemption?
~In what ways is Smith a Christ-figure in this movie? What comparisons could you draw between the vampire people and sinners? Discuss the scene where Smith is shouting, “I can save you,” in particular.
~All movies in this genre hold out the possibility that there is a secret enclave of other survivors somewhere. How might this view be compared to the expectation of heaven? What does it say about someone that he does or does not believe in such a place under these circumstances? If there is such an enclave, is it their obligation to try to rescue the infected if possible? How does this compare with Christianity?
~Who should be allowed to work on viruses and genetic manipulation? What sort of controls should exist on the information they discover so that other people who aren’t screened properly can’t work on it?
~What is the meaning of the final song?

Overall Grade: B
Very entertaining and even some interesting thoughts that come out of it. It stands in a long tradition of movies from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Planet of the Apes to the Road Warrior to 28 Days Later. It does honor to that well-established genre.

Enchanted (2007)

Rated: PG
Length: 107 Minutes
Grade: C+ABC=B
Budget: $85 million
Box Office: $127 million US, $196 million Int’l

Directed by: Kevin Lima, who previously made 102 Dalmations, 1999’s animated Tarzan, and A Goofy Movie
Starring: Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, Timothy Spall, Idina Menzel, and the voice of Julie Andrews.

The wicked Queen of the animated realm, Andalasia, wants to prevent her stepson from marrying his newly found true love, so she sends the girl through a portal to the real New York City, where she winds up in the care of a single dad divorce attorney. As the prince tries to rescue her, the queen sends her minions to kill her, and along the way there is singing and many discussions about love.

Entertainment Value: C+
This was a very interesting concept that just didn’t quite manage to become the movie it could have been. The animated portions were poor by Disney standards, and the plot revolved around events that seemed purely improbable, like a guy in New York just letting this seemingly insane woman into his life. I liked the characters, and I wanted the movie to work, but it wound up being merely average.
Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence B, Language A, Illegality A
I’m torn on whether I’d recommend this be rated G or PG because there were a couple of scary scenes, including especially the final sequence. On the other hand, it’s well within the parameters of the old time Disney movies like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty and certainly the Wizard of Oz. There is one scene involving the princess taking a shower and Robert walks in on her. Plus, the movie deals with divorce, spousal abandonment, and kissing. I’d call it G-5 or G-6.

Significant Content: B
Love is a passion and it’s vital. Even though you can know that you’ve found your true love in a short amount of time, you can also be misled about this fact. If you don’t want to sing about and with the person, then you haven’t found the right one yet. Divorce is bad, and marriages can be saved if people will only refocus on what drew them to their spouses in the first place. Imagination is wonderful, and, if the practical people would only listen a little bit more to the idealistic people, the world would be a better place. Vanity, power, and selfishness make people do awful things.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
As I mentioned before, I found the animated portions disappointing. I enjoyed many of the artistic choices made in showing the hybrid life of a fairy tale princess in a real urban city, especially some of the animal stuff. As for thought value, it’s not clear that this was really meant as a thinker sort of movie.

Discussion Questions:
~Giselle indicates that Nancy is rightly unhappy with Robert for waiting so long to propose, but does his delaying turn out to be a bad thing? I’ve often said that the right length for a romantic relationship before marriage is 18-24 months. Any longer than this, and the problem isn’t that you don’t know, it’s that you do know and you aren’t willing to admit that it’s the wrong one. What do you think of this advice?
~What do you think of love at first encounter? How important is the process of getting to know the person you want to marry through dating?
~Is a solid marriage something that you discover with one perfect person or something that you create with someone who is within a range of compatibility? How important is it that you marry someone you want to sing about? Is that just a romantic notion that fits with some personality types?
~Is it better for romantic types to marry practical people or for each to marry those more like themselves?
~Is happiness contagious? If this is true, would this mean that we have a moral obligation to be as happy as we can be?
~What do you think of the concept of “happily ever after?”

Overall Grade: B-
In a word, goofy, which winds up being appropriate, given that this director made A Goofy Movie. It’s my guess that children will love it much more than adults.

Gridiron Gang (2006)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: BCAB=B+
Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your thougts.

Monster House (2006)

Rated: PG
Grade: BBCB=B
Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your thoughts.

A Good Year (2006) 118 Min.

Rated: PG-13
Grade: B+ACAA=A
Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your thoughts.

Brave One, The (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: ACBA=A
Length: 122 minutes
Budget: Unknown
Box Office: $37 million US, $33 million Int’l, $14 million DVD

Directed by: Neil Jordan, who’s made a lot of “not quite” movies, such as Michael Collins, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, and In Dreams.
Starring: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Nicky Katt, Mary Steenburgen, Ene Oloja, and Naveen Andrews.

When three street thugs beat her doctor fiancée to death and leave her for dead, Jodie Foster, a talk radio host in New York City, purchases a gun and gradually becomes a vigilante who kills those who deserve it.

Entertainment Value: A
Okay. I’m sure lots of other people didn’t find this quite an A, particularly because the highly improbable series of encounters that Foster winds up in, but I really enjoyed it. I thought the character and the developments were all very realistic, and I didn’t know for sure what was going to happen along the way or in the end for sure.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality C, Violence D, Language F, Illegality D
There is some alcohol consumption, a few prolonged scenes or flashbacks to sexuality between a man and his fiancée, and there is a lot of profanity including the F-word repeatedly. But obviously the main issue in this movie is the violence, which is really harsh, especially the beatings that begin the main plot sequence.

Significant Content: B
There are some times where a person who is willing to take matters into her own hands will do justice in a way that police just can’t. When your life is ripped away from you, it’s very difficult to get back to anything like normal. Vengeance, not forgiveness, is the path to recovery. Sometimes you can tell more about someone from their lies than from their disclosures, because lies reveal motives.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
In addition to the obvious themes about vengeance, this movie is also deeply reflective about law and justice, truth and lying, gender assumptions, and the nature of a conscience. I have a hard time imagining people watching this movie and not wanting to discuss it afterwards.

Discussion Questions:
~Erica wonders why no one stops her, but she discovers that many people support what she is doing. Do you think most people would convict or acquit her? If Erica was brought before you as a juror, would you vote to convict her of anything?
~Vigilante movies almost always paint a picture of absolute certainty about who committed the crime. How does this fact influence your thoughts about the rightness of real-world vigilante scenarios? Why is vigilantism wrong?
~What does it say about people (or God) that we are so interested in movies where justice is served?
~Could a Christian behave as Erica did? Could a Christian enjoy watching her behave this way? Is justice the highest form of good? What might grace and forgiveness looked like in this particular situation? Would it have “worked?”
~Discuss whether all of the people she killed deserved to live or die, given the situation at the time.
~A recent legal trend has been laws that do not require people to retreat from encounters. What do you think of this idea as compared with the idea that people should always leave if they can?
~Would you feel unsafe being in the same place as Erica? What if 5% of the population carried guns as she did? Would you feel more or less safe?
~In this movie, despite being a well-known radio personality, Erica only has her fiancée as a close friend. How might the presence of close friends, especially female ones, have influenced the events following her trauma?
~What do you make of the cross necklace which she wears and then gives to the girl?
~Is this movie truly pro-vigilante or not? If so, why does she stop when she does?
~Is this movie pro-gun or anti-gun ownership?
~The detective once says that only men kill like this, women only kill things they love. What do you think of this assertion?
~Why did Mercer do what he did? What do you think of his actions? Would you have done differently in his shoes? What about if you were in Erica’s position?
Overall Grade: A
As I’ve said. I enjoyed it, and I think there’s a lot to discuss in it.

Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The (2007)

Length: 160 Minutes
Rated: R
Grade: DCCB=C
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $4 million US, $11 million Int’l, $9 million DVD

Directed by: Andrew Dominik, whose only previous work of any kind was directing another true-crime drama, Chopper, which I’ve never heard of.
Starring: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Sam Sheppard, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, and Zooey Deschanel.

This is the true story of the final days of the infamous and widely admired outlaw, Jesse James, by a man who wanted at first to become him and then later took advantage of circumstances to kill him.

Entertainment Value: D
Casey Affleck was nominated for best supporting actor, and probably only failed to win it because of Javier’s Bardem’s performance in No Country for Old Men. It was also nominated for cinematography, which I admit was wonderful. Nonetheless, I wanted to cry with boredom at this movie which I wanted to enjoy but just couldn’t. Every part of it seemed so implausible to me, especially the notion that Jesse James could be so savvy but allow this squirrely new guy so much access to him. If the point was to show that all these criminals were somewhere between eccentric and totally insane, it worked. But it wasn’t a compelling portrayal, at least to me. And that’s even including the fact that Brad Pitt is one of my very favorite actors. Here’s the weird thing. I love any sort of Western, and my wife does not. She thought this was fine, while I hated it.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sexuality B, Violence D, Language C, Illegality D
Senseless violence is both shown and implied in plenty of offensive ways. Robberies are discussed and perpetrated. A scene of adultery occurs, there’s a vulgar discussion of sex, and a man’s naked body is dumped in a ditch. Language is rough, which you would expect, but not awful.

Significant Content: C
Criminals are not men to be admired, just below average minds who area willing to do some awful things. Ambition is a dangerous thing. Disillusionment with your heroes is even more dangerous. Loyalty is important, and it will often change when you least expect it. It’s possible to be a good family man and a brutal murderer. Family is a stronger bond than friendship.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
One thing I will say for the movie is that it’s beautiful, showing some amazing scenes of American landscape. Something I never did understand was the regular use of a hazy filter effect that didn’t seem to accomplish anything other than making the scene look weird. As art, it succeeds in portraying criminals very honestly and realistically.

Discussion Questions:
~Who is to be pitied more: Robert Ford for discovering that the real Jesse James wasn’t the superhero the dime novels made out or the other readers who continued to believe this fantasy?
~Is this movie meant to be a commentary on the media and accuracy? Would you consider it a success as a portrayal of evil because it refuses to glamorize the villains? Consider for contrast Denzel Washington’s character in American Gangster.
~Who in this movie thinks highly of himself, and who has a low self-image?
~Who in this movie seems sane to you?
~Have you ever been told that you aren’t capable of something you really wanted to do? How did it affect you?
~Do you think Jesse James chose to allow himself to be killed? Why would he, if he did?
Overall Grade: C
Even though I recognize the movie succeeded in several ways, I just didn’t enjoy watching it, especially at nearly 3 hours in length.

Michael Clayton (2007) 120 Min.

Rated: R
Grade: CCCC=C
Budget: $21.5 million
Box Office: $49 million US, $38 million Int’l, $10 million DVD

Directed by: Tony Gilroy, in his directorial debut, who produced and wrote Proof of Life, Bait, and The Cutting Edge, and wrote the screenplays for all three Bourne movies, Armageddon, and The Devil’s Advocate.
Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Michael O’Keefe, Sydney Pollack, and Tilda Swinton.

When the defense attorney overseeing a massive class action lawsuit against a pesticide company has a meltdown, the law firm employs their “fixer” to solve the problem and get the situation under control. Unfortunately, Michael Clayton is struggling to repay a debt on a failed restaurant, and his friendship with the guy may put him on the wrong side of some very nasty people.

Entertainment Value: C
I started with it as a B, but I realized that I’ve been giving movies more credit than they deserve. C is average, and C this is. I wish I could say it was better. I certainly expected better of it. The problem is the storytelling, which is too frantic and not revealing enough. It’s very much in the style of the Bourne movies and other Clooney and Damon work where you feel like they’re deliberately trying to tell you not quite enough that you want to know, like watching a TV that’s not quite loud enough to hear everything clearly. It’s annoying.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sexuality B, Violence C, Language D, Illegality C
The movie is rightly rated R and couldn’t have been rated anything else, but it’s mostly for language, including some pretty graphic sexual discussion. Yes, there is killing, yes there is drinking. But the real issue is the language, which describes tawdry behavior and is filled with profanity.

Significant Content: C
Corporations are evil and will do anything for money. Corporate lawyers are as corrupt as the clients they defend, and they know it. Friendship is extremely important. We all have moments of clarity, the only question is whether we honor them. It’s important to do the right thing, but figuring out what that is can be difficult. Gambling is dangerous. It’s better to be the best at your niche talent than to be average at something else.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
I was let down. It was neither crafted all that well nor all that thought-provoking, as you’ll see from the discussion questions. Mostly, I was just disappointed that this movie wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. Only the ending was even a little bit surprising, and there just for a moment.

Discussion Questions:
~Have you ever had a moment of clarity or epiphany that forced you to reevaluate everything in your life? Was your salvation experience like this? Did people think you were crazy afterward? To what degree does Arthur represent a Christ figure in this movie? John the Baptist?
~Money is a rough measure of the value we bring to other people’s lives. As such, it can entice us to be better to them than we would otherwise be, but it can also entice us to be worse. Is money generally better for humanity than harmful? What would Michael Clayton say? Arthur?
~What do you think the point of this movie is?
~What sort of conscience does Michael Clayton have? Do you think that small misdeeds accumulate on our consciences over time?

~Would it be fair to describe Michael Clayton as a prophet whose primary task is to see reality as it is and then explain that reality to others who would rather not see it clearly?
~What is the purpose of the book, “Realm and Conquest” in this movie?
~Do you think that a person can in good conscience work in defense of a corrupt corporation? Do corporations deserve their legal defense?
~How should Swinton have behaved differently at any point in the movie?
Overall Grade: C
A whole host of other law and corporation movies were better, especially Devil’s Advocate. But just because this wasn’t great, don’t think it was bad either. It was just average.

Lady in the Water (2006) 110 Min.

Rated: PG-13
Grade: DBBB=C+
Budget: $75 million
Box Office: $42 million US, $31 million Int’l, $12 million DVD

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan, who has quickly made a huge name for himself by writing and directing Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and one of my favorite movies, The Village.
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Bob Balaban, Cindy Cheung, Jeffrey Wright, Freddy Rodriguez, Sarita Choudhury, Bob Balaban, and M. Night Shyamalan.

According to an ancient Eastern bedtime story, the collaboration between the humans and the sea people has been fractured by the inland movement of the people, who have lost hope and a correct perspective on reality. But a special envoy is sent to them, if only she and her unlikely helper, the manager of a small apartment community, can figure out her mission, identify her band of assistants, and get her safely back to her people.

Entertainment Value: D
First, understand that I LOVE M. Night Shyamalan’s movies (Signs was just average to me), and, even though I had heard only bad things about this movie, I still trusted him more than the critics. But the critics were correct. The problem here was the old issue of trying to do too much and winding up doing nothing at all that you intended. It’s confusing, the archetypes taken for granted are hard to follow, and the focus winds up on the odd people rather than on the story or even on the value of storytelling, which had been the purpose. Also, there are elements here that make no sense, such as the repeated going back to the woman for the story and the inconsistency of whether Story can or cannot share what she knows.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality B, Violence B, Language B, Illegality A
PG-13 is probably correct because of a couple of scenes of scary violence, but the movie is actually fairly clean otherwise, even if it has that characteristic creepy otherworldly feel common to Shyamalan films. Howard is naked but for a mans dress shirt through much of the movie, but this isn’t so much erotic as it is strange. Several characters smoke a lot, and the language is almost squeaky, but for a few mild cases.

Significant Content: B
Everyone has a purpose, and the most difficult thing is to figure out what your real purpose is, as opposed to the one that some other arrogant person has tried to assign you to be. Bedtime stories should be allowed to be rambling, changing, and untidy. Critics neither understand anything nor contribute to anything, but they do ruin many things.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
I wanted to love this. It’s trying to do all the right things: spark imagination, remystify life, and encourage storytelling. But it just doesn’t work, and I can say this as a contrast with another movie that did exactly all of this but far more effectively: Big Fish. Despite all these defects, it’s a movie that made me want to find the deeper significance in it and want to think about it some more by rewatching it. Unfortunately, with all the other truly good movies worth seeing again, this won’t make that small category.

Discussion Questions:
~Consider all the archetypes represented in this movie: guild, healer, symbolist, judge, villain, emissary, etc. Are these elements of every good story? Are some missing?
~Clearly, a main point of the movie is that when we misidentify our roles (and those of others), everything works quite poorly and can only be fixed by properly reassigning the right people. How might this be a criticism of capitalism? Why do you think it’s so hard to figure out our own purposes? Do other people’s ideas of who we should be help or hinder us in this, or both? Have you ever tried to run away from your purpose or deny it? How is this movie comparable to the story of Jonah?
~When the story keeps changing and fleshing itself out as recounted by the Asian mother, does this represent the way a story told to your kids might change over time as you elaborate upon it? ~Should stories told to kids stay the same or evolve?
~Do film critics have a valuable role to play in the film industry and for society at large? If they are too smart for their own good, can a movie which is almost deliberately too smart for its own good prove the point? In what ways are film critics arrogant?
~A key plot point is the writing of a book that will transform consciousness. Shyamalan plays the part of this author. Why? Given the multitude of books published every year, do you think any one new book can have this effect anymore?
~Clearly, with the main character named “Story,” this movie is trying to say something about fiction and fictional art. What is it?
~Who are the men on the land and those in the water meant to represent? How would you compare this backstory with the parable of the vineyard owner who keeps sending messengers to the renters?
Overall Grade: C+
This is a movie you’ll probably be happier not watching, because other movies do sheer fantasy better and also storytelling/lit crit better (Big Fish, Stranger than Fiction, for example). But I’m sure Shyamalan’s next film will be excellent.

Into the Blue (2005)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: B+CAB=B+
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $19 million US, $26 million Int’l, $Unavailable DVD

Directed by: John Stockwell, who previously made Turistas, Blue Crush, Crazy/Beautiful, and Under Cover, but may well be most famous for his role as Cougar in Top Gun.
Starring: Paul Walker, Jessica Alba, Scott Caan, Ashley Scott, Josh Brolin, and James Frain.

A salvage diver discovers a legendary shipwreck, but lacks the necessary finances to raise it. Nearby, he also discovers a downed drug plane, filled with drugs, and his friend tries to convince him to unload the drugs to fund the salvage operation. As you might expect, this plan goes seriously awry.

Entertainment Value: B+
Alright, I know it’s Paul Walker and Jessica Alba and Scott Caan. Granted. But this was actually pretty entertaining. Sure, it’s no great work of art, but I was pleasantly surprised that this was engaging, interesting, and it even has very good themes to offer. Besides, it’s pretty clean for a PG-13.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sexuality C, Violence D, Language C, Illegality C
Drugs, obviously are a major element here, including some use of cocaine and drinking of alcohol. There are sexual inferences and semi-sexual scenes, but no nudity. The language is pretty standard for a PG-13. Violence includes shark attacks with lots of blood, killing people in creative and brutal ways, and a fistfight.

Significant Content: A
Here’s where this movie shines. This is the sort of movie I love to recommend because the message it carries needs to be heard by exactly the sort of people likely to be enticed to go see it. Love is more important than treasure, and you must be willing to give up everything for real love. Making bad choices, even if they seem like good ones at the time, will inevitably lead to problems you don’t want. Finding a good woman versus finding a bad woman makes all the difference in the world to a man’s future. Finally, bad company corrupts good character. I daresay the themes are virtually Biblical, though clearly without much reference to God.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Because the story is compelling, and the cinematography of the underwater scenes is wonderful, the themes are carried along for the ride, as they should be. I almost wrote a blurb review for this one, but I knew there was more here than a mere blurb would convey.

Discussion Questions:
~“What’s missing in your life that money will get for you?” How useful of a question is this in the movie? How useful would it be for other people to ask?
~“Winners make the rules. Losers live by them.” What do you think of this idea? Who says it, and why is that important?
~Have you ever had problems because you chose to hang around with the wrong people? Why is it so important who you choose as your friends?
~The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil. How is that theme shown in this movie? Who is free from the love of money? What other dangers besides greed are shown here?
~Have you ever been tempted to do something wrong “just this one time?” What did you do, and how did it turn out?
~In the end, does it seem like real justice is done in this movie for everyone who deserves it?
~What do you think of the notion of giving up treasure for real love? Does this sound similar to something that God teaches us we must do?

Overall Grade: B+
This is a far better movie than I was expecting to find, and it’s one that deserves a watch, especially if you know someone who has greed or crime issues.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: BCBC=C+
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $292 million US, $646 million Int’l, $214 million DVD

Directed by: David Yates, who previously made The Girl in the Café (which I loved), and is slated to do the next two Potter movies.
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Emma Watson, Brendan Gleeson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, and Alan Rickman.

The Ministry of Magic is in a serious crisis because its head refuses to acknowledge the return of Lord Voldemort, despite urgent pleading by Dumbledore and Harry Potter. In an effort to clamp down on Hogwarts, a new teacher is assigned there who brings a totalitarian system of control and magic suppression. Meanwhile, Sirius Black and the mysterious Order of the Phoenix try to thwart the plans of the evil wizard.

Entertainment Value: B
I watched this just as I watched each of the other Potter movies, enjoying it, but not particularly loving it. The characters are, as always, intriguing if a bit strange. If I have a complaint here, it’s that this plot, much like all the others, just seems strange and difficult to follow to me. Whenever I watch a Potter movie, because I haven’t read the books beforehand, I always feel a little bit foggy, like everything is 80% clear. This was true again here, but it was still pretty fun to watch.
Superficial Content: C Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence D, Language A, Illegality A Though this is the first movie where teenage romance becomes a theme, it’s so insubstantial that there are no concerns here. Language is clean but for some mild name-calling. There’s a scene with beers on the table, but that’s it. Obviously, for many people, the sorcery and witchcraft is going to be a problem, though it never bothers me. The real issue here is clearly violence and scary sequences, including people being killed, chased, captured, threatened, and tortured. Death is a constant theme, given Harry’s parents and their connection to the plot.

Significant Content: B
Evil knows no love or friendship. Knowledge is a great temptation. Beware those who are always smiling, for their shiny exterior may hide the worst sort of evil underneath. Rules may be broken for the right reasons without consequence. And all people are a mixture of good and evil, the key being to move toward the good as much as possible. Leaders must be willing to accept the truth they don’t want to hear.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Here’s what’s so difficult to assess about this movie. Because of the political themes, it’s hard to separate this movie from the current political situation in America. On the one hand, it is a critique of those who refuse to acknowledge the real danger of real evil and want to take a Pollyanna approach to it. On the other hand, it is also a critique of those who are willing to do awful things which violate basic human rights in the process of accomplishing their goals. As such, it’s impossible to pigeonhole the movie politically, which is good, since both critiques are quite valid. As I mentioned before, part of my problem with the movies in general is that I feel like they don’t keep us non-readers in the loop about what’s going on. That interferes with me enjoying the movie for its own sake and being able to look for more artistic elements. Obviously the crafting of a fantasy realm is once again quite good. One problem here is that this is the fourth director for the series (he’ll do the remaining three), and they switched screenplay writers midstream. Strange.

Discussion Questions:
~How do you go about deciding when it is okay to break the rules and when you should obey them? Should breaking the rules always have consequences, even if the rule was wrong or deserving of violation in the particular case? Consider reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and discussing it as a serious contrast to Harry’s way of breaking rules.
~What allows Miss Umbridge to take control of Hogwarts? Does this series of events seem plausible to you? What do you make of her character, especially her love of pink and tea? Is she evil, or is she inept, or what?
~From a less favorable point of view, Harry’s secret wizard club and the Order of the Phoenix might both be seen as shadow operations within a crumbling government. Do you think it’s a dangerous precedent for secret military forces to operate within a nation or country? Why is official oversight of such operations so important?
~Did it seem plausible to you that the wizard tribunal would so ignore the testimony of Harry in the beginning?
~It’s been said that the one thing that keeps good people from becoming evil is that they are aware of the times when they are tempted in that direction or actually move in it. How might this apply to Harry. Is this idea a sound one?
~Do the developments with Snape change your impression of Harry and his father?
~Is everyone a mixture of light and darkness?
~What similarities do you see between Voldemort and Satan? Consider particularly belief in each’s existence.
~What political messages do you think this movie is sending? Is it intending to do so? Consider applications to the current situation with respect to terrorism and torture. Is there a difference between using torture to gain information and using it to discipline someone?
~Harry expresses the idea that combat is exciting when you imagine it and horrible when you experience it. What do you think about this? What implications does this have for movies about action and war?
Overall Grade:” C+
Once again, I’ll say that it probably wows those who have read the books, but it tends to leave the rest of us only moderately entertained. I watch them more out of a sense of obligation than real enthusiasm.

Trade (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: ?FAA=A
Budget: $12 million (estimated)
Box Office: $214,000 US, $670,000 million Int’l, DVD N/A

Directed by: Marco Kreuzpaintner, but the real name to know for this movie is Producer Rolan Emmerich, who produced 10,000 BC, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, and Independence Day.
Starring: Kevin Kline, Cesar Ramos, Alicja Bachleda-Curus, Paulina Gaitan, Kathleen Gati, Pavel Lychnikoff, Anthony Crivello, Zack Ward, and Milla Jovovich.

While searching for his own daughter, Ray Sheridan crosses paths with Jorge, whose sister has been abducted by an international sex slave cartel and is being transported to New Jersey to be auctioned to the highest bidder. Together, they must try to rescue her along with a young Polish mother who thought she was coming to America for a job.

Entertainment Value: ?
I refuse to grade this film on this particular criteria, partially out of principle and partially out of ambivalence. I knew in advance that I didn’t want to watch this film, and yet I knew that I should do so. I was correct. Few films have made me so angry, afraid, frustrated, and depressed as this one. And yet, I would encourage everyone to see it because it vividly portrays several character stories connected around the least-discussed form of evil in America. Entertainment is not the reason you watch this movie, which is largely an indictment of the very notion that entertainment is worthwhile.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sexuality F, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
What makes the violence in this film so much worse than the violence in the vast majority of American films is that it is extremely realistic violence against women. Every element of superficial content in this move other than profanity is presented in a way that will disgust you rather than tempt you. For instance, there is no nudity that I recall (thankfully), but the sex content is nonetheless vivid and disturbing.

Significant Content: A
At first, I was conflicted how to rate this portion, because the movie is so mixed about the law, the sex-slave trade itself, and the hopelessness of these victims. But then I rethought it, and I realized that this is a movie that vividly portrays justice and injustice like a laser beam. To show evil and to show it as evil, without luster or varnish, is indeed a public service, and this movie does that. The comparison between love and hate, usually masquerading as selfishness or indifference to others, is portrayed strikingly here.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Who could grade it otherwise? I was baffled by Christianity Today’s review of this movie because I was gripped throughout not only by the plot but by the fascinating characters involved, whose behavior I found quite authentic. Although it was a film with a point, it was still clearly a film, not a documentary, and I was captivated, mostly because I was horrified all the way through.

Discussion Questions:
~The film’s makers say in the extras that they specifically wanted to tell a character story, not engage in an educational documentary about forced sex slavery in America. Why do you think this is the case? Do you think a documentary would have had more or less impact on viewers? If it’s true that facts motivate us less than fictionalized drama, would that make it educationally immoral to use mere facts? How does respect for the viewer become an issue here? What is the difference between propaganda and information, and what distinguishes good from bad propaganda? How might this line of thinking apply to other areas of life, such as evangelism?
~What is the purpose of the extra-long opening musical montage/credits? How does that facilitate (or not) the end purpose of making this as much a problem next door as possible?
~In the beginning of the film, Jorge and his friends victimize an American tourist. In what ways it that different or the same as the “big” crime he ends up trying to fight? Based on his enticement tactics in that situation, how is Jorge different from Vadim?
~Is the violence shown in this movie more or less dangerous for someone, let’s say a teenager, to watch than the violence in a movie like Rambo? Is it worse to show very real violence that revolts the viewer or very unrealistic violence that entertains the viewer? Also consider the memory effect and the losing of innocence.
~Which is a greater form of corruption: the way these girls and boys are victimized or what became of Kline’s daughter? Why so?
~Though this movie focuses primarily on the pain caused to the girls and boys themselves, do you think the evil of kidnapping and trafficking is even more offensive because of what it does to their parents and those who love them?
~What conclusion, if any, do you draw from the absurdly poor box office performance of this movie? Does this surprise you about American film audiences?
~How do you react to the various elements of religious depiction in this film?
~Which character in the film is the most Christlike? Are there any footprints of redemption anywhere in this film? How do you react to the ending? Does it make you hopeful or just as depressed and frustrated as before?
~Does the fear of having your own children abducted obsess you? How do you balance that with reason and faith?
~The film ends by giving a figure of 50,000 to 100,000 people smuggled into the United States each year, mostly for sex purposes. This number is highly debated, but a lower figure in the low teens would have been easily accurate. Why do you think the producers chose to go with such a high number that invites skepticism rather than a lower number that is still horrifying?
~“We are not finding victims in the U.S. because we’re not looking for them,” quotes a State Department publication. What do you think of this?
~Does a movie like this make you want to do something? If so, you could contact Trafficking AZ, Catholic Charities, or Protect Child
for more information.
Overall Grade: A
As I said at the beginning, you don’t want to watch this film. No one does. But I recommend you do anyway.