Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking.
Length: 96 minutes
Grade: BD+CB=B-
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $101 million (23 U.S., 70 Intl., 8 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Woody Allen (Seriously?)
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz.

Summary: A smooth-talking Spanish artist tries to seduce two very different American women in Barcelona, one an emotional blonde aspiring artist and the other a judgmental planner brunette who is engaged to be married.

Entertainment Value: B
Alright, I rented this not realizing it was a Woody Allen movie. I do not rent Woody Allen movies unless somehow they rise above that particular deficit by being recommended to me by many people. That said, this was fairly interesting. The dialogue is fantastic, the cinematography is out of this world, and I like three of the four actors in this movie (Rebecca Hall is an unknown). The basic plot premise of sexual immorality winds up being somewhat of a non-factor because of the PG-13 and the way the plot develops in the end.

Superficial Content: D+
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity D+, Violence C+, Language C, Illegality NA
There’s a lot of alcohol consumption and a fair amount of mild language, although I did note with real surprise that an “approved for all audiences” trailer on the front of the disk had the F word for reasons that escape me. There is some gunplay and talk of suicide. The biggest concern here is obviously sexuality, which is either implied or shown only from the neck up. The basic scenario entails everybody sleeping with everybody, including some infidelities.

Significant Content: C
I give it a C because I’m reluctant to give it credit for what I think is the real point here: that traditional morality, even when articulated by the mouths of the least appealing characters in the movie, still makes all sorts of sense because the alternative is chaos and dysfunction. If this movie ended after 80 minutes, it would be nothing but a tract for the sexual revolution and European sensibilities. But it didn’t end there, and the resulting message is very different. I don’t know if it works as a piece of persuasion, but it isn’t worthless as it could have been if cut off early. I think showing this to an artistic type and then discussing it afterward might be fairly useful. Reality never turns out to compare with a fantasy or an ideal. Emotionally enthusiastic people are unstable and possibly incapable of enduring happiness. Fear keeps us from pursuing the things we imagine might make us happy.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
The art, architecture, and music of this movie alone are wonderful. I can’t quite give it an A, however, since there is something fake about the whole movie. I don’t know whether it’s the too-loud and artificial-sounding voice-overs by the narrator or the feeling that, aside from brilliant cinematography, I was really watching a play rather than a movie. Nevertheless, the ideas are fascinating, and the characters certainly enduring in the viewer’s memory. Penelope Cruz won best supporting actress, and rightly so. But I think the most wonderful character her is Juan Antonio, who is wonderfully guileless and self-knowing.

Discussion Questions:
~Is Maria Elena correct that only unfulfilled love can be romantic? What is it about real life that tends to undermine romance? Or is this just a false idea of what romance is?
~Is suffering an inevitable component of deep love?
~Is love a risk or is love a form of security?
~Do you think this movie winds up being an endorsement of traditional morality or a criticism of it? How would these characters’ lives have been better if they had not been willing to experiment sexually? Would any of them have been worse off? How much of the misery of this movie is from premarital sex?
~Freud thought that there are basically two mechanisms which keep our impulses in check: the practical and the moral. Both of them contain fear elements. So when Judy tells Vicky to not be deterred by fear, what would you say to her? Is fear a useful thing?
~Can life have meaning without God? Does love provide that meaning? Is love transient or enduring?
~To what degree does the presence of beauty in architecture or landscape influence how we develop as people? Is Europe a richer place to grow up, for this reason? How important are the arts to a full human life?
~Is Cristina more worried about not having great ideas to express or more worried about not having enough skill in any truly artistic medium to express them? What does her photography symbolize compared with painting and music?
~What do you think of Juan Antonio’s father, who creates beautiful art and denies it to the public because after all this time they haven’t learned to love. What does this show about his concept of love? Consider what God might think about this.
~Why does Juan Antonio require Maria Elena to speak English around Cristina?
~How important is it for spouses to believe that they are capable of inspiring each other?
~Stereotypes abound in this movie, most notably of the emotionally dull businessman versus the vividly alive artists. Are such stereotypes useful or deceptive?
~Why is Juan Antonio so open and honest about his feelings, especially for Maria Elena when around the new women? Is this an effective interpersonal strategy? Is it related to him being an artist? Why do we tend to want to hide our feelings from others when we worry they might upset them?
~Despite this movie not having any (or very little) overt nudity, do you think PG-13 is the correct rating? Is this movie enticing people to lust and to experiment sexually?
~Do you think you must “try out” a person for awhile before you can know whether you’re compatible? Is this a selfish mindset or a generous one? Which sort of marriages are more prone to falling apart: those where people tried many partners and lived together or those where they tried few or none and abstained until marriage? Why?
Overall Grade: B-
Despite being a Woody Allen film, I liked it. Sort of. The architecture alone justifies the movie. It made me want to visit Spain, quite frankly.

Watchmen, The (2009)

Rated: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language.
Length: 163 minutes
Grade: BHCA=B
Budget: $138 million
Box Office: $183 million (108 U.S., 75 Intl.)

Written by: David Hayter (X2, Scorpion King, and X-Men) and Alex Tse (No meaningful credits), based on the comic series/graphic novel by Alan Moore (Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Batman the Killing Joke, and V for Vendetta)
Directed by: Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead)
Starring: Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson.

In an alternate universe where superheroes arose in the mid-20th Century to help America fight crime and win wars, especially Vietnam, super-hero teams have been disbanded and America stands on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. But someone seems to be killing off old super-heroes, and the remaining ones want to know who and why.

Entertainment Value: B
As a comic adaptation that takes the original seriously and tries to bring it to the big screen, this is great. The visual imagery is amazing, and the characters are phenomenally well-crafted. At the same time, I found myself bored at times and not particularly interested in how these washed-up heroes were coping in a gritty, Nixonian environment. It’s somewhat fascinating to watch the idea of a post-Vietnam America 30 years ago with super-heroes. For me, this movie finally became interesting in the last 20 minutes or so when it became clear what was really going on.

Superficial Content: H
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity H, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
Alcohol and smoking, with one mention of hard drugs. Language is very strong. The violence is realistic and graphic, people being killed in a wide variety of ways with lots of blood. But the real issue here is that, as one person described it to me, this is pornography. And I can’t disagree. Dr. Manhattan is a muscular glowing blue man, and he is fully naked in several scenes. There are loads of sexual references, inferences, prostitution, an attempted rape, and plenty of nudity including one moderately graphic and a second very graphic sex scene (I actually fast-forwarded through it, if that tells you anything). This should be NC-17. It is not for children. It may not be for anyone.

Significant Content: C
The basic problem of analysis here is to decide what view the movie itself takes on the vast question of whether peace can or should be achieved at any price and through any means. As such, it’s a great presentation of the ultimate ethical conflict between deontology (rules and principles which cannot be broken regardless of the consequences) and consequentialism (all rules derive their worth from their ability to achieve good results), or what some people call Utilitarianism (which is actually a specific brand of consequentialism). I think the movie is ultimately reflecting the basic premise of much of Alan Moore’s work that doing good in an evil world requires doing some evil, and it’s far more complicated than you think to tell evil from good. The movie is certainly atheistic.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
How could it spend $138 million based on a classic graphic novel and not be? The two driving questions of this movie are “What makes life worthwhile?” and “What is the difference between an evil person and a good person?” I give this movie a lot of credit for asking good questions and then having the wisdom to refrain from answering them too obviously.

Discussion Questions:
~Rorschach claims to be a man who always acts on principle and never compromises. What are his principles? Can you articulate them in such a way that they make sense of all his violence and also of his objection to what’s going on in the end?
~Dr. Manhattan claims that there is nothing about life which makes a planet more interesting than one without it. Is his criticism of human existence valid?
~Is the Comedian a good man or an evil man? Can you think of any current personalities who seem to be like him?
~What is the significance of Rorshach’s mask?
~The backstory to this movie is Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan striving to create a world with infinite energy resources so that all men can live together in peace. Do you think this is possible? ~Do you think it would work? Is scarcity the source of our problems?
~Why does Dr. Manhattan continually hold a picture of his former self?
~Who in this movie likes rock music, and who likes classical? What does that tell y ou about them? Consider Hitler and Hannibal Lecther, both of whom were very fond of classical music. What’s the difference (if any) between the sort of evils done by people who like rock music and those done by people who love classical?
~A recurring question in the movie is, “Who watches the Watchmen?” What does this mean, and what truth is it trying to express?
~Are there any rules which you would never break? How should we balance the consequences of an action against the rules that might govern that action? Do the ends ever justify the means? Do the ends always justify the means?
~One of the key ideas in Christianity is that people are inherently sinful. Is this reflected in this movie?
~What role does God have in this movie? Do you think the existence of superheroes is compatible with the existence of God? What about a being such as Dr. Manhattan?
~Ozymandias is a poem by Shelley. Read the poem and discuss its relationship to this movie and to the character whose name comes from it. Is the Comedian right that it's sheer arrogance to think anyone can be smart enough to solve the world's problems?
~If V for Vendetta was viewed as a critique of the Bush administration, is The Watchmen a critique of Obama?
~If you knew that the plan in this movie would work, would you still oppose it? If it had already succeeded, would you reveal the truth? Would you publish Rorshach’s journal?
~Plato based his theoretical society, The Republic, on what he called a "Golden Lie,” a necessary idea for everyone to believe in order to establish the perfect state. Do you think that lies can ever be useful? Can lies ever be essential? Are Consider some of the things all Americans believe, either in general or about our country. Is it possible that any of these are actually untrue, but useful nonetheless?
~One theory about human unity is that cohesion and cooperation require a common threat or a crisis that all recognize must be fought against together. A corollary of this is that piecemeal solutions that avert such a crisis point actually do more harm than good. How does this idea fit this movie or not?
Overall Grade: B
Some dark and brooding films are described as film noir. This is noir noir. But interesting noir noir, although pornographic at times.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2008)

Rated: PG for some mild language and thematic elements.
Length: 104 minutes
Grade: D+B-BD=C-
Budget: Possibly $70 million
Box Office: $111 million (44 U.S., 57 Intl., 10 DVD)

Written by: Tim Firth (G-Force, Calendar Girls, and Blackball), Kayla Alpert (TV only), and Tracey Jackson (her first effort) based on the books by Sophie Kinsella.
Directed by: PJ Hogan (Dark Shadows, Peter Pan, and My Best Friend’s Wedding)
Starring: Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, Krysten Ritter, Joan Cusack, John Goodman, John Lithgow, and Kristin Scott Thomas.

A young girl who wants to write for a fashion magazine winds up writing articles on financial common sense for a finance magazine in spite of living a secret life as a financial fool addicted to shopping.

Entertainment Value: D+
Flakey, implausible, and not particularly funny. I like Isla Fisher, and Joan Cusack used to be my gold standard for movies that would be entertaining, but I don’t know what’s happened lately. I mostly found myself wishing this ridiculous movie would be over. The plot was beyond absurd, especially with this credit collection guy who keeps hounding her. And everyone in the movie just seems implausibly foolish. I guess I was also bothered by a movie that seemed to want to help girls not be like this wound up being so much fun that I worry it has no effect at all.

Superficial Content: B-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence A-, Language B-, Illegality BOkay, one major issue here is the prominence of lying, which is a constant throughout the movie. Also, although I think the movie is actually properly rated PG, I was very disappointed by the inclusion of several expressions that just didn’t need to be in there. Phrases like where to stick something and the B-word. Things which might even pass on network television, but seemed so unnecessary in this movie. Also, there are several scenes with alcohol and some drunkenness. PG is right, although I really disliked the language I would say maybe PG-10 if only for drunkenness and language. Why didn’t they shoot for G or at least go PG without any language issues?

Significant Content: B
Credit cards are fun in the beginning but dreadful in the fine print. Shopping does make you happy, but only for a while. Lying only pays off for awhile. Friendship is about honesty and being there for someone. Debt collectors are scoundrels. Fashion magazines cultivate unhealthy desire for things you can’t afford.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Like, it was so totally superficial. Like, I just couldn’t take any of it seriously. Like, seriously, what’s a girl to do? And besides, it’s not like she killed anyone or anything. I know, right? So, despite my enthusiasm for what I think the main message here was, the presentation of it actually undermined its impact in my opinion. And I hope I’m not ruining anything here, but precisely because everything works itself out in the end, what lesson is really learned?

Discussion Questions:
~Rebecca says in the beginning, “A man will never treat you as well as a store. You can’t return him if you’re dissatisfied, and he always smells good.” What do you think of this comparison? Do you think some women commit a sort of adultery against their husbands with shopping? Is there an emotional compulsion to shopping? Are fashion magazines like pornography? Are retail stores strip clubs?
~Does Rebecca learn the truth in the end? How do you know? Would you describe her as showing repentance?
~What do you think this movie is trying to say about fashion and shopping by having one of the greatest advocates of their world lying to people anytime she feels the need to get something she wants?
~Do you think this movie does an adequate job of deterring women from investing too much of themselves in shopping? How about warning them of the dangers of credit cards? Do you think women who have credit problems are inspired to change by this movie or reassured by the lighthearted manner of it? What about young girls who don’t yet have debt problems who see this?
~Do you think Rebecca suffers the full consequences of her choices in this movie?
~Given how she and other shopaholics react to sales, do you think it was ethically excellent of her to pay off her own debts by selling all of her possessions to other people at irresistible prices? If someone tries to declutter by having a garage sale, is that hypocritical?
~Are people who try to collect on bad debts immoral for using aggressive tactics or are they put in this position because of the delinquents who don’t pay their debts?
Is it immoral to live on debt?
~The Bible has abundant warnings about the dangers of money and loving money. Would you say Rebecca has an idolatry problem? What advice would you give her as a Christian?

Overall Grade: C-
I wasn’t very entertained, and I have serious doubts about the value of this movie, but maybe by discussing some of the issues afterward, good could come of watching it.

Knowing (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for disaster sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language.
Length: 121 minutes
Grade: BCCB=C+
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $169 million (80 U.S., 76 Intl., 13 DVD)

Written by: Ryne Douglas Pearson (Mercury Rising), Juliet Snowden (Nothing worth noting), and Stiles White (Nothing worth noting).
Directed by: Alex Proyas (I Robot, Dark City, and The Crow)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Lara Robinson, and Rose Byrne.

An astrophysicist finds himself in possession of a prophetic code from 50 years ago that seems to be accurately predicting major human disasters, and he struggles to figure out what the next event will be and how to prevent it from happening.

Entertainment Value: B
I like a good sci-fi flick that deals with the end of the world and aliens and big special effects. Unfortunately, I was right in thinking that Nicholas Cage might play a brooding, over-sensitive, reluctant hero with a marginal haircut; namely that he would play himself. I used to really like Cage before I realized that he doesn’t really have much acting range. Nonetheless, that character fits a lot of scripts, right? What I didn’t like about this was that it was far more creepy and frightening than I expected, basically indulging in some scenes which seemed to indulge in their gruesomeness. It’s certainly not a movie I would want to watch again, but I enjoyed it the first time through.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity A, Violence C-, Language B-, Illegality B
There is alcohol consumption, though not to drunkenness. There is one minor sexual comment and nothing else in that category. Language is mild, although I though it could have been entirely done without. Violence and scariness are the issues here. After a plane crash, victims are shown walking and burning alive, then being engulfed in an explosion. A girl scratches her fingers bloody in a wall. A train off the tracks hits and runs people over. I’d go PG-15, myself.

Significant Content: C
This movie falls into a very weird category for me. On the one hand, it winds up being based on the book of Ezekiel in the end, but the way it validates that book is certainly quite contrary to anything a Christian would envision. So, the idea here is that creepy, inexplicable things do in fact happen and have an explanation, although it may not be the explanation you’re expecting. The main theme involves determinism and free will, although I thought Cage’s exposition of the idea was actually quite weak from a philosophical point of view.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
I always like a movie that embraces its own presuppositions, following them through to the necessary logical conclusion. Akira is my favorite example of this. Knowing isn’t nearly as cool as that masterpiece, but the basic plot ideas being offered here are fully followed to the end as they have to be. I guess it’s only been this movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Indiana Jones, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Outlander, but it feels like a bunch of movies about aliens and apocalypse have come out recently. Wall-E and I Am Legend aren’t quite the same, but maybe that’s why it seems like more.

Discussion Questions:
~What was the purpose of making the main character in this movie be the son of a preacher?
~This movie is clearly raising the question of fate and whether our futures are predetermined. What view does the movie give? Do you think the world operates by determinism, or do we have free will, or do things happen at random? Is it possible to give life any meaning if it was not designed on purpose?
~If the things on the code could be written down, did writing them down actually change events? Why was the code written at all, given the end of the movie? What do you think of the authors of the code?
~If you were in possession of a truth that you knew everyone else would think you were insane for embracing, would you tell people about it? How is Cage’s relationship to the prophetic code like our relationship to the Gospel?
~How do we decide whether someone is sane or insane? What sort of beliefs might qualify for saying someone is insane? But what if they turned out to be true? To what degree is it important for a person advocating weird beliefs to say, “I know this sounds crazy, but…?”
~What is the very end scene with the children playing intending to say? What is this movie’s perspective on the Bible? Does this movie enhance Biblical faith or undermine it? Would you consider this a dangerous movie for new believers to watch?
~What do you think of John’s decision in the end of the movie? What about his choices in relationship to his father?
~What do you think of the end of this movie? Do you find it satisfying, dissatisfying, disturbing?
Overall Grade: C+ It’s fine. It’s creepy. That’s what a PG-15 C+ means.

Wrestler, The (2008)

Rated: R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use.
Length: 111 minutes
Grade: DFBB=C+
Budget: $6 million
Box Office: $55 million (26 U.S., 17 Intl., 12 DVD)

Written by: Robert D. Siegel (No other work worth mentioning)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, and Pi)
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood.

A formerly world-famous wrestler suffers a heart attack after a particularly extreme wrestling match, which motivates him to reconnect with his alienated daughter and try to form a more permanent relationship with his stripper friend.

Entertainment Value: D
I watched this movie only because it received such high critical acclaim, including Oscar nominations for both Tomei and Rourke. I can’t disagree with the one for Rourke, who was excellent, but the only thing Marissa Tomei did in this movie was get naked a lot. Seriously, I don’t understand her career choices. I used to really like her as an actress, but between this and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (which we quit at about 15 minutes), it seems to me like her grand desire is to prove to everyone that she really can do porn in her 40s. All that aside, this movie was not enjoyable to watch. It’s a heartbreaking story, but one that’s so saturated with disturbing content that it was not enjoyable in any sense of the word. And to top it all off, I really disliked the choice to shoot half of the movie from behind the head of the character the camera was following. I actually had the uncomfortable sense of feeling too close to the action and wanting the camera to back up for at least the first half hour of the movie. Still, keep reading, there is something interesting here.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol F, Sex/Nudity F, Violence F, Language D-, Illegality C
There are many explicit sex and nudity scenes. There is significant drug use, both steroids, alcohol, and other drugs. The language isn’t quite as bad as you might expect, but it’s still pretty heavy. All of this would be more than enough to earn this a heavy R rating, but the violence is really quite something. The wrestling matches involve glass, staples, and a variety of other bloodletting techniques. This is at the NC-17 end of the R spectrum.

Significant Content: B
This movie, in spite of all its flaws is ripe with preaching potential. The whole theme of the movie is that this world will use you for its entertainment until you are no longer young and sexy enough to satisfy it, at which point it basically throws you out. You’ll miss a lot of what this movie is trying to say unless you realize that it’s better title would have been “The Wrestler and the Stripper,” the point being that strippers and wrestlers are the same. Obviously a key message of the movie is that when you build your identity on the adoration of other people, you’ll eventually be destroyed by rejection.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
As I mentioned, many elements of this movie made me unhappy, especially the camera work, the intense violence, and the nudity/sexuality. At the same time, I think the overall effect is quite profound. It’s a case of something you definitely don’t want to look at being very useful nonetheless, which is perfectly good for art. One problem I had was simply not knowing whether there is any wrestling which is actually this violent or not, but I’m told that it is.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think the camera was so often positioned directly behind the character? Why was it handheld? Why were so many scenes shot at such close range? What was Aronofsky trying to do here?
~What motivates Randy and what motivates Cassidy? Why is their relationship tragic?
~Do you think Randy deserves the treatment he gets from his daughter? Is his desire to be forgiven by her fair? Do you feel sorry for him in the end?
~Strippers make a living by selling a fantasy. What impact does this movie have on pulling back the veil on that illusion? In what ways are wrestlers like strippers? In what ways not? Why does Randy use steroids? Why does Cassidy get tattoos and piercings? If you knew that the wrestler or the stripper was actually living like these people live, would it affect the allure such people have? Since most of us rationally know it is like this, how does enjoying such things require us to lie to ourselves?
~How are the characters in this movie representative of Rourke and Tomei themselves?
~When Randy can’t make a living in a normal occupation, what is the movie saying about him and about our society? Is he a monster? If so, who created him? Is Cassidy a monster? If so, who created her? What is the intended meaning of having him sell meat at a meat counter?
~What Biblical counsel would you give to any of the characters in this movie? How would knowing Christ have changed any of them?
~What do you think of Cassidy’s fondness for the Passion of the Christ movie? How is it ironic?
~Why does the movie not show us the ending? Is there any doubt about what happens in the end? So why not show it?
~What do you think of Randy’s final choice? Did he do something wrong or did he live on his own terms? To what degree did he have any choice in it? Is this movie saying that we really don’t have much choice in our lives?
~Can you name some other examples of careers where this same basic pattern of novelty and allure aging into either irrelevance or ridiculousness is the pattern?
~Is there a difference between strippers, wrestlers, and things that seem more legitimate like fashion models and baseball players? Is the difference one of kind or one of degree?
~What does this movie have to say about the power of hope and the danger of losing it?
~What does the pay phone in this movie symbolize?
Overall Grade: C+
A very unpleasant movie to watch, but a great movie to preach on.

Inkheart (2009)

Rated: PG for fantasy adventure action, some scary moments and brief language.
Length: 106 minutes
Grade: CBCC=C
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $62 million (17 U.S., 40 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire (Robots), based on the book by Cornelia Funke.
Directed by: Iain Softley (Skeleton Key, K-Pax, Wings of the Dove, and Hackers)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren, Sienna Guillory, Andy Serkis, and Eliza Bennett.

A man with the power to read books out loud and make the events or characters become real struggles against some of his former invocations to rescue his wife who is trapped within a novel as part of the consequence of his readings.

Entertainment Value: C
I’m beginning to think that I’m more of a curmudgeon than I like to think. In my own mind, I’m pretty easy to please but the problem is that so many movies just don’t perform. I loved the idea of this movie which is somewhat similar to the equally unspectacular Adam Sandler effort, Bedtime Stories. I guess I get annoyed when someone comes up with a really neat premise and then can’t make it into an equally cool end result. I feel like it’s even worse than a merely ordinary movie because it seems like such an opportunity squandered. In this case, the plot is really weak, the acting isn’t great, and a movie I really thought would be great for kids we stopped watching with them because it got too scary. And although I worry I’m becoming less easy to please, I note that the movie made less than 1/3 of its budget back in US box office, so apparently I’m not alone on this one.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol , Sex/Nudity A, Violence C+, Language B, Illegality B
The biggest concern here are scary scenes and violence. There are lots of scenes with armed henchmen and many characters are killed in semi-creepy ways. But there are several scenes which I just thought were scary for young children, including one fairly near the beginning which I’m glad we didn’t let the boys watch. I’d say that this is PG-8 or 9.

Significant Content: C
Here’s the problem. This movie, typical of Brendan Fraser movies, raises some interesting ideas but never does very much to help you explore them or to investigate them in the movie proper. The main idea here is that the written word spoken aloud has great power, and characters have more substance than being merely ideas in our heads.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
In the Wizard of Oz, the main henchmen of the wicked witch of the West were the flying monkeys. They were slightly scary, but really cool at the same time. The henchmen in this movie are just scary and ugly with no element of cool at all. I’m not sure I can quite explain what the problem with the style here was, but I just didn’t like it. Maybe it was the bad haircuts or the weird writing on the faces, but something here just didn’t sit well with me for most of the movie.

Discussion Questions:
~Are characters in books real or completely imaginary? Are they more real when they have been written down and read by other people? What does it mean that we love them, care about them, and even refer to them like we might to friends? Why are we so bothered when characters in subsequent books (or television shows) start behaving inconsistently with their previous nature? ~Does imagining something give it any status as a real thing? Authors sometimes create characters who then constrain their writing because they don’t “want” to behave the way the plot seems to need them to. How does this insight affect your answer?
~Why is the ability to distinguish between “reality” and “make-believe” such an important developmental step for children? Is it possible that this isn’t really such a clear distinction as we usually believe?
~We tend to want to say that characters have some level of reality because of their “knownness” by us, but that it’s less than our own. Have you ever considered the possibility that this is similar to the relationship between us and God, Who is fully real and far more so than we are? Following this line of thinking, are we imitating God when we create characters? What similarities exist between authors and God? Do you think God is responsible for our character?
~Do we have any ethical obligations to the characters we create? If you knew that characters were real, although perhaps less so than yourself, would you treat them differently? What would you think of a silvertongue killing the characters he has read into reality? Is it the same as an “ordinary” murder? Is it any different if the author simply kills a character off in a novel?
~Would you want the power of a silvertongue? If you had this power, would you read differently? How, exactly?
~The grandmother has a love of books, but does her devotion to books seem unbalanced or problematic to you? Is there something pathetic in her preference for books over real people and real adventures? What does this say about us who enjoy books? Television? What are the advantages and disadvantages of gaining knowledge through books rather than from personal experience?
~Would you want to know how your own story ends? To what degree does your belief that God already knows your whole story in advance feel like a constraint on your own freedom?

Overall Grade: C
Fanciful, but dark. Creepy dark.

Defiance (2008)

Rated: R for violence and language
Length: 137 minutes
Grade: BDBB=B
Budget: $32 million
Box Office: $56 million (28 U.S., 18 Intl., 14 DVD)

Written by: Clayton Frohman and Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai and The Siege), based on the book by Nechama Tec.
Directed by: Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, The Siege, Courage Under Fire, Legends of the Fall, Glory, and About Last Night)
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell, and Alexa Davalos.

When the Germans invade Belarussia and are killing Jews in late World War II, one family of brothers wind up protecting a growing group of refugees in a forest they know from their pre-war bootlegging operation.

Entertainment Value: B
It’s good. And I always enjoy seeing a story of courage which I was previously unaware of. On the other hand, several people had set me up to expect this movie to be great, and I didn’t think it was outstanding. Don’t get me wrong, it was good. But good isn’t great. Mostly it was long.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol B , Sex/Nudity B, Violence D, Language D, Illegality C
This is a war movie and it has its share of violence and language (often in subtitles). There is one scene of a man and a woman in bed, and several minor references to sexual activity. Drinking is fairly constant.

Significant Content: B
Heroes are people who do what is right when it must be done, regardless of whether they want to or of whether they were considered good people before. The meaningfulness of life is not defined by your circumstances, but by how you behave within them. Community and even happiness can be created in almost any situation. Family is very important. Revenge may satisfy for a moment, but it mostly corrupts us toward further violence.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Being a historical movie, the real purpose I believe is just to tell us a very interesting story. However, whether intentional or not, there is a very interesting metaphysical question which I think this movie raises. The group of refugees is living in the forest and making do in whatever ways they can, but the way they live under those conditions winds up seeming very much like life under any other. This sort of begs the question, to what degree were their dangers and inconveniences really meaningful, and how different was their little forest society any different from any other?

Discussion Questions:
~How did the scene of retribution at the house make you feel?
~What about the scene with the captured German guard?
~If someone asked you where God was in all of this misery, what would you say?
~Jews are often portrayed in World War II movies as helpless victims. What image of them is portrayed here? How is it significant that people who were previously only marginally within the Jewish community were the ones who became the leaders?
~What principles of decency and justice were established within the camp?
~What comparisons can you make between the Bielski brothers and Robin Hood? Was it morally acceptable for them to rob to get what they needed? What about the command “Thou shalt not steal?”
~Given that most of the story happens within the camp itself, who is the antagonist in this movie? Who is the protagonist? What is the most pressing danger other than the Germans and the Russians?
~Is there a difference between preferring non-violent means and requiring non-violent means of survival? Under what circumstances is violence legitimate?
~Would you describe this community as a nation?
Overall Grade: B
Good, interesting, well-acted. It’s worth watching.

Gran Torino (2008)

Rated: R for language throughout, and some violence.
Length: 116 minutes
Grade: A-DAA=A
Budget: $33 million
Box Office: $306 million (148 U.S., 115 Intl., 43 DVD)

Written by: Nick Schenk and Dave Johannson (First real work for both)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood (Changeling, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby, Blood Work, Absolute Power, Unforgiven, Pale Rider, Firefox, and The Outlaw Josey Wales)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, and Ahney Her.

After his wife dies, a Korean War veteran finds himself forced into involvement in the gang activities of some Southeast Asians in his hometown of Detroit.

Entertainment Value: A-
Clint Eastwood doesn’t miss. I was actually shocked to realize just how long he’s been directing himself in movies, going all the way back to The Outlaw Josey Wales. You may not always agree with what his movies have to say, and I don’t, but one thing is for sure: he doesn’t make bad ones. The acting here is brilliant, the plot is simultaneously simple and yet tremendously rich. And after almost having this movie ruined for me by some friends discussing it, I must say that I completely understand why they wanted to.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C-, Language F, Illegality C
Walt is constantly drinking and sometimes getting drunk. Violence includes threats with guns, beatings, a rape, and some gun violence. Language is pretty rough and continuous, including some sexual comments. However, this is one of those cases where the language is fully authentic, and it would have been a different movie without it, and an inferior one quite frankly.
Significant Content: A
I’ve got to be honest, there is a part of me that doesn’t want to comment on this movie for the simple reason that there is so much here to dig into and digest that my short summaries seem almost like an injustice to the movie. But I know you’re interested, so here goes. There is a vast difference between moral pontificating and academic study of life and the experience of having really lived one. A real man is someone who stands up to protect the weak, even at risk to himself. Don’t judge people on the basis of superficial markers. Gruffness and badness are not at all the same thing. Real family is a matter of love and shared experience, not a matter of blood relations.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
We live in a culture that is obsessed with the superficial, and the idea is that if you can get people to be fixed in the most obvious, superficial ways, then they will be good citizens. This, of course, is the essence of political correctness. People who use racial slurs are evil, and people who would never do that are good. But liberals aren’t the only ones who are stupid in this way. Conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, also have their own versions of this lunacy with things like alcohol consumption and profanity use. And yet here we have a man who is likely viewed as barbaric and disgusting by both camps who nevertheless winds up being one of the most decent and virtuous men imaginable. It’s a devastating critique of the notion that such silly, surface things are good indicators of real character. And yet this is a point which the movie makes without ever making. It’s the same with it’s other main idea. The movie is brilliant in its method of contrasting at every turn what happens with what could have happened.

Discussion Questions:
~What is this movie trying to tell us about Walt by having him swear, drink, and use racial slurs so much of the time? Would Walt have been a different character without these defects? Are they real defects?
~Would you want Walt as your neighbor? Would you want your children hanging around him?
~What lessons does Tal learn from Walt? How important is it that men learn these lessons? Can these lessons be taught by middle-aged men?
~Does it bother you that the Hmong shaman is portrayed as powerfully insightful whereas the Catholic priest is portrayed as abysmally stupid? How does the priest change over the course of the movie? What does this show about him?
~Why does the priest refuse to call Walt by his last name? What do you think about this point of conflict between them?
~Compare the priest’s efforts toward the Hmong gang and Walt’s actions? What message is this movie sending? Are some people beyond redemption?
~Sue tells Walt that his food has no flavor. What is she really saying?
~Discuss the barbershop scene toward the end of the movie. What does this tell you about men? Is this an accurate portrayal of manhood?
~Is Walt a racist? How do you know? Can a person be decent, even virtuous, and yet still be a racist? Is indecency proved by racial slurs?
~After Tal tries to steal Walt’s car, his family requires him to make amends to Walt. How important is it to make restitution to someone for your sins against them?
Is it a particularly important thing to be nice? Is being nice ever at odds with being honest? Are good people ever gruff? Are evil people ever nice?
~Consider the three groups in this movie as vying for Walt’s soul: the Hmong neighbors, the Hmong gang, and the Catholic church. Describe their evangelistic strategies. What is effective and ineffective, and why? How is persistence a factor in them? Who wins in the end? What would it have looked like for the other two to have won?
~Is this movie redemptive? Who is redeemed, if anyone, in it?
~Would you describe Walt as a vigilante? Which, if any, of his actions would you say was unacceptable? What should he have done instead, if you say so?
~What do you think of Walt’s final actions? Who, exactly, benefitted from what he did? How was this Christlike, and how was it not?
~How does Walt’s illness affect your evaluation of his actions in the end, if at all?
~What does the car in this movie symbolize? Why would a movie about a super-fast car never have the car being driven at all? How does Walt represent Detroit? Is there a connection between Detroit, Walt, and the Gran Torino in what this movie is trying to say?
~From a Christian perspective, what would you say are Walt’s problems? What advice or counsel would you give him, if given the opportunity?
~There are two shots in this movie of Walt mowing his own lawn where the camera is positioned high up in the sky looking down. Why are these scenes in the movie?
~How important is it to have a community of people who care about you? Would you describe the Hmong community as a church? What Christian ideals do they represent? What are some of the differences between how they treat Walt and how his own family treats him?
~Given his early career and movies like Dirty Harry, do you think that Clint Eastwood is offering some sort of apology these days?
Overall Grade: A
This is a tremendously rich movie that will generate plenty of thought and discussion. Be sure to watch it with people who like to talk afterwards.