Children of Huang Shi (2008)

Rated: R for some disturbing and violent content.
Length: 125 minutes
Grade: BCAA=A-
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $7 million (1 U.S., 6 Intl.)

Written by: Jane Hawksley and James MacManus (First major movie for both of them)
Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode (The 6th Day, Tomorrow Never Dies, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, Air America, Turner & Hooch, and Shoot to Kill)
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Radha Mitchell, Chow Yun-Fat, and Michelle Yeoh.

A young British reporter covering the Japanese invasion of China during World War 2 discovers himself recuperating at an orphanage where the boys are in danger of being conscripted. So he decides to try to get them out of the country to safety.

Entertainment Value: B
Based on a true story, this is very slow developing. But as a drama rather than an action movie, it’s fascinating and fairly well done, if a little dry. In fact, it felt like exactly the sort of film that the Academy would like and reward, but they didn’t for whatever reason. Instead they went ga-ga for Atonement. Go figure.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence C, Language B, Illegality A
Opium use is a minor theme in the movie. There are a couple of romantic scenes and some mild profanity. But the real (only) concern here is violence, mostly at the very beginning where war violence, including a massacre of civilians and flashbacks to that are shocking.

Significant Content: A
Pouring your life out so that others may not merely live but actually thrive is a truly noble thing to do. There is nothing more loving than making personal sacrifices for others. Life is more than just food and shelter.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
At first, Hogg is doing something noble and risky by reporting on the atrocities of the Japanese in their invasion. This sort of brave action will get wide acclaim and earn him a living back home. But eventually, he gives this up for a far less glamorous and profitable life, even one which simultaneously seems absurd and valiant at the same time. I loved to see this juxtaposition, even as I feared to ponder the implications too long.

Discussion Questions:
~If it’s acceptable to take drugs like morphine for physical pain, why is it not okay to take them for emotional pain?
~When Hogg first comes to the orphanage and is not received well, he almost leaves. Why does he come back? Why can he leave but the children cannot? How does having a better place you could go to vital in keeping hope alive during tough times? How does it encourage you to consider quitting a hard task?
~Lee tells him that one of Hogg’s biggest tasks will be giving the children a reason to live. What are some of the ways in which he makes their lives more meaningful in addition to helping them fulfill their merely bodily needs?
~Hogg finds himself torn between his visceral desire for revenge and his family’s tradition of pacifism. What provokes him to question these views?
~How are Hogg’s skills and agricultural knowledge essential to him doing what he does? Do you think the average person from a modern society would have had the skills he had?
~When Chen says that he and Hogg have the luxury of their ideas because they are from good families, what is he getting at? Does his explanation of Lee’s pain excuse her drug use? Does it help Hogg have compassion for her? Why?
~What is the symbolic meaning of the sunflowers at the orphanage? How are frivolous beautiful things related to the goodness of life?
~What role do you think Christianity played in Hogg’s motivations in real life? Would it surprise you if he turned out to be a non-Christian?
~What opportunities are there in your own life to show that you have been inspired by Hogg’s example?

Overall Grade: A-
Even though it’s slow, the endorsement of sacrificial living is well-worth the watch. The end-credits interviews with the surviving children are quite moving.

Lakeview Terrace (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for intense thematic material, violence, sexuality, language and some drug references.
Length: 110 minutes
Grade: B+CBB+=B+
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $60 million (39 U.S., 5 Intl., 16 DVD)

Written by: David Loughery (Tom and Huck, Money Train, Passenger 57, Star Trek 5, Dreamscape) and Howard Korder (first significant screenplay)
Directed by: Neil LaBute (Wicker Man, Possession, Nurse Betty)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, and Kerry Washington.

When a biracial couple moves into their new home in suburban LA, increasingly unpleasant encounters with their black LAPD neighbor begin to take a very nasty turn.

Entertainment Value: B+
Samuel Jackson rarely disappoints, and even though he always makes me feel like I’m watching Keanu Reeves’ cousin or something, Patrick Wilson was good here as well. The key to this movie is that everything develops gradually and plausibly enough with sufficient ambiguity about just who is the bad guy for sure and whether he’s reacting appropriately or overreacting that it gives you enough room to enjoy the progression. Actually, this is a case where the ads probably ruined the movie because they make you too readily expect Jackson to be the bad guy from the start.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language C, Illegality D
A husband and wife have sex in their pool. Strippers dance at a bachelor party. Language is at the very upper end of what will get PG-13. A man is shot. Police chase down a suspect, who threatens to kill himself. People are constantly drinking or getting drunk and smoking cigarettes is a theme. Police do questionable things, and a police officer is shown as a really bad guy. I’d say PG-15 is better than PG-13. This is an adult movie cleaned up just barely enough to not get rated R, although it would admittedly be on the light end of that rating.

Significant Content: B
Although I’m tempted to rank it higher. This is a movie about full-blown legalism in a police officer. People who are obsessed with rules have a tendency to destroy life and treat anyone who jeopardizes the moral order they want to create as evil and an enemy. Judgment and condemnation produce hatred. It’s very difficult to be a police and retain grace and mercy. It’s important to have good neighbors, or at least to not have bad ones.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
There is tremendous tension built here between characters who all have flaws and handle each others’ flaws poorly. In fact, in the beginning, it’s almost unclear whether Abel is even being particularly unreasonable in his reactions. Also, there’s just enough uncertainty here that you aren’t entirely sure how it’s going to end. I particularly loved how this movie showed that racism and race-based judgments can be as strong in blacks as in whites.

Discussion Questions:
~What is legalism? How is it relevant to this movie? In what ways does a difficult life encourage people to resort to strict control mechanisms in order to create and maintain a sense of order around them?
~Why is the name Abel given to Samuel Jackson’s character? What insights can you draw from the Biblical Abel here? Assuming it was intentional, what point is being made?
~Is the concept of good guys and bad guys Biblically defensible? How does Abel’s dividing of the world into good and bad guys lead him into trouble?
~Abel is obsessed with grammar. Is this a good thing or not? What are the dangers of good grammar? Of bad grammar?
~Why does Chris like to listen to rap music? Why does he smoke? What is the movie trying to tell you about him?
~Who in this movie is racist? In what ways? How many of the differences in values between Chris, Abel, and Lisa’s dad are reducible to race? Why does Abel seem bothered by Chris’s music and the fact that he married a black woman? Is it rational for a black man to want to be treated as an equal and yet also not allow whites to participate in black culture?
~Which of Abel’s choices seem reasonable and which seem irrational? To what degree are Chris and/or Lisa responsible for being bad neighbors themselves.
~At what point in this movie would it have made sense for Chris and Lisa to move? How do you respond when her father suggests exactly this course of action?
~What are Chris’s control mechanisms? Why is he so reluctant to have a baby?
~How important are neighbors in deciding where to live? Given their importance, would it make sense to interview or “date” your prospective neighbors before buying a home? What about the possibility that they will move? Why are our real estate laws designed to discourage us from considering our neighbors when we buy our homes?
~When Lisa’s dad asks Chris how he will protect his family, is that a reasonable or fair question?
~What does this movie have to say about suspicion? What is the Biblical antidote to suspicion? What do Chris's suspicion reveal about him?
~Does this movie affect your view of police officers? Should movies that disparage cops be made?
~How much of the difficulty Chris and Lisa have in handling this situation comes from them likely never having lived under oppression or in disadvantageous circumstances where they were powerless to fix the problems? How does this make them naively self-righteous? Compare their reactions to someone who refuses to avoid a collision because he has the right of way.
Overall Grade: B+
Interesting. A provocative racial cop drama mystery thriller type movie.

My Best Friend’s Girl (2008)

Rated: R for strong language and sexual content throughout, including graphic dialogue and some nudity.
Length: 101 minutes
Grade: C+GB+C=B/F
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $50 million (19 U.S., 18 Intl., 13 DVD)

Written by: Jordan Cahan (his first script)
Directed by: Howard Deutch (The Whole Ten Yards, The Replacements, Grumpier Old Men, The Great Outdoors, Some Kind of Wonderful, and Pretty in Pink)
Starring: Dane Cook, Kate Hudson, Alec Baldwin, and Jason Biggs.

Dustin is in love with Alexis, who breaks off their relationship when he blurts out his love for her. Determined to get her back, Dustin employs his best friend, Tank, who specializes in being a complete jerk to women so they will rebound back to the nice guys or lesser jerks they have left. Unfortunately, Tank falls for Alexis and finds himself being treated as a mere object by her.

Entertainment Value: C+
It is funny in parts, largely by being outrageous and vulgar. For the most part, it’s Alec Baldwin who is funny, and sometimes Dane Cook.

Superficial Content: G
Drugs/Alcohol F, Sex/Nudity F, Violence C, Language G, Illegality
This is as vulgar and crude a movie you’re likely to see, mostly through discussions of sex and sex acts. There is some nudity at a strip club and lots of implied sexuality. People are drunk a lot, and there is moderate slapstick and fistfighting violence. Trust me when I say it’s a G. The unrated DVD is a hard R at least.

Significant Content: B+
Empathy develops in the hard-hearted when they suffer the experience of being used and abused which they give to others. Even a jerk will reform when he meets the right girl. Love means doing what is really best for someone else, not merely what you want. Anyone can change, and the people aren’t necessarily what they seem to be. Objectifying people will never produce real love. You can overcome the defects of your parents.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
It’s like every other Dane Cook or Jason Biggs movie I’ve ever seen: there’s going to be a lot of extremely crude stuff (which might or might not be funny) and then at the end there’s going to be some point that resembles decency. Does the end justify the means? These movies apparently think yes. I’m still unsure, but I will say this, I’d rather have a movie like this which at least ends on a right note than one that stays decadent all the way to the credits.

Discussion Questions:
~What sort of people are likely to watch these movies? Are those people going to be moved by the “lesson” section of the movie?
~Is Tank’s “service” more of a commentary on men or on women? What would a female version of this look like? Can love for a person be built on revulsion at some more awful other person?
~Tank advises men to treat women badly and with contempt in order to get them to fall for you. Does this actually work? Why? Is it a wise thing to do? What connection is this hinting at regarding attractive women who are willing to give away sex before marriage and their self-esteem? What sort of woman wouldn’t respond to this treatment?
~George Gilder theorizes that all men are basically barbarians until they find the one woman worth changing for. Is this true? Is it ever true for women?
~Who demonstrates true love in this movie? Does Dustin really love Alexis or only what she makes him feel for her? Does Tank really love Alexis? How do you know? Is Dustin attracted to Alexis because she treats him with contempt or because she is forbidden or because she doesn’t respond to him in predictable ways?
~Why are men enticed by a challenge? Are all men?
~Why are women enticed by bad boys? Are all women?
~It has sometimes been said that strong people need strong people to marry or else they’ll just walk all over them. How does this idea relate to this film?
Overall Grade: B/F
It’s awful, and I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you’re a misogynist in need of reform, in which case maybe it’ll do you some good.