Adventureland (2009)

Rated: R
Grade: D-FCF=D

Note: Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your comments.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and some partial nudity.
Length: 107 minutes
Grade: ACBB+=A-
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $413 million (179 U.S., 184 Intl., probably 50+ DVD)

Written by: David Benioff (Kite Runner, Troy) and Skip Woods (Hitman, Swordfish)
Directed by: Gavin Hood (Rendition, Tsotsi)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Will i Am, Lynn Collins, Kevin Durand, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, Daniel Henney, and Ryan Reynolds.

This tells the origin story of Wolverine, easily the most famous and widely loved of all the X-Men characters. Wolverine (Logan) and Sabretooth (Victor Creed) are semi-immortal brothers, alive and fighting in wars together since the middle 1800s. They finally have a falling out, becoming enemies, and Victor kills Logan’s woman, sending Logan to Colonel Stryker to have his skeleton laced with adamantium in order to defeat his stronger, more bestial older brother. Their feud then involves a wide array of other mutants, most notably Cyclops, Gambit, and Deadpool.

Entertainment Value: A
I grew up reading the X-Men, and the only thing I found disappointing here was making Sabretooth Wolverine’s brother rather than his father. Otherwise, I was very impressed with this movie, both action and story. I could have sworn that several people had told me it was confusing, but I have no idea what they were talking about. Even my wife who has never read a comic book in her life said that there was nothing overly complicated about this. Wolverine is all out comic-style action, and it ends up giving a plausible back-story to the mysterious beginnings of the Logan psyche that help explain a lot about him. Also, I think we can all agree that Liev Schreiber’s Sabretooth is simultaneously more believable and more terrifying than Tyler Mane’s in the first movie. I loved this, all the way through to the end, particularly the portrayal of Team X. Lots of other people apparently found it mediocre, but they’re wrong, and I’m right…as always.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C+, Violence C-, Language C+
There’s a fair amount of alcohol and bar scenes. Logan chews but doesn’t smoke a cigar. Two characters are implied to have had sex, there is an attempted rape, and a man is seen naked from behind. The language is relatively light for PG-13, which is normal for Marvel movies. Violence is the biggest concern here, with plenty of fight sequences, people getting killed, and explosions.

Significant Content: B
Loyalty and love are very important. If we yield to our most beastly nature, we become beasts. Violence corrupts us, and vengeance never really works out the way we plan. It’s very important to have rules to constrain our dangerous impulses. Evil people can manipulate good people by using their goodness against them through deception. Soldiers must always take care to make sure they are being used in the right fight for the right reasons the right way.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
Again, as someone who loves the Wolverine character, I thought they did a remarkably plausible job rendering the backstory here. I didn’t love him being semi-immortal, but it’s not impossible given that this mutant power is healing. There isn’t a whole lot of thought value here, but that’s not so surprising, is it?

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think of Logan’s decision to abandon the military team when he doesn’t like what’s going on? Should he have stayed and tried to get it back on the right track? How do you decide whether to leave a troubled organization or to stay and work to reform it?
~Is Logan neglecting the gift he’s been given by trying to just live a quiet life of seclusion? Does he have an obligation to use his powers for a greater purpose? What about after having fought in all those wars?
~Does it seem like Logan and Victor fight in those wars because it’s the right thing to do or because they like violence and killing people? Why is it important for soldiers to wish they didn’t have to kill people?
~If Logan had been a Christian at any point in this movie, how might that have affected his decisions? What advice might you have given him at pivotal plot moments?
~If you had Wolverine’s abilities, how would you use them?
~Some of the key elements of this movie hinge on characters (and us) believing the very worst about certain people. Has hatred ever led you to do anything foolish?
~Do you think the ability to live a very long time would be something worth having or more trouble than it’s worth?
~Is revenge ever right? What if the people being punished are genuinely dangerous to others? How should we balance the need to stop evil with the Biblical idea that vengeance belongs to God?
Overall Grade: A-
Any movie that has Daniel Negreanu as an extra in a New Orleans poker game with Gambit has to score high in my opinion. I know I’m virtually alone among critics in loving this, but if my wife likes an action movie based on comic characters, I feel pretty safe saying it’s a good movie. Besides, don’t you sort of have to love a movie that sutures Ryan Reynolds’s mouth shut because he talks too much?

Changeling (2008)

Rated: R for some violent and disturbing content, and language.
Length: 140 minutes
Grade: AFAA=A
Budget: $55 million
Box Office: $128 million (38 U.S., 77 Intl., 13 DVD)

Written by: J. Michael Straczynski (Lots of TV including Babylon 5, Jeremiah, Murder She Wrote, New Twilight Zone, Captain Power, She-Ra, and He-Man)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, 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: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, and Gattlin Griffith.

When a single mother in 1928 claims that the boy the LA police department has returned to her is not actually her kidnapped son, they refuse to believe her and they have her committed to a mental hospital for being a troublemaker. Luckily for her, a local pastor who has been fighting LA corruption for year on his radio broadcast helps bring her story out and eventually helps her sue them for their crimes.

Entertainment Value: A
Clint Eastwood = A. Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich almost always = A. This is fantastic, but it is fantastically painful to watch. It’s a true story with only very minor changes from reality, and trying to imagine living with the various evils in this movie is almost too much to bear. I was constantly frustrated by the events of this movie that happened in our own country just 80 years ago. To imagine how any of the major elements of this story could easily have turned out differently is baffling.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B, Violence F, Language D
There’s smoking, but I don’t grade down for that. One character is a prostitute, circumcision is discussed, and a woman is shown partially naked being sprayed with a hose upon being committed. Language is just over the edge of R, barely. But the thing that makes this movie certainly R rated is the violence. The other half of this dual-plot story is the historic Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, in which 20 or so young boys were kidnapped and brutally murdered, the scenes depicting this are truly horrible to watch. Even though everything is implied rather than shown, it’s still far too gruesome for any child to watch. Also, a hanging is shown in its entirety, women are hooked up to electric shock machines and tortured, and some men are executed at gunpoint.

Significant Content: A
Women must be treated with respect. The worst form of corruption is police and government corruption. Mental wards are frightening, especially when used to incarcerate sane people. Evil comes in a variety of forms. Religious people are capable of tremendous good and also tremendous evil. Authority figures and experts must always be carefully watched for bias and agenda-drivenness.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
As a rendering of these historical events, this once again shows Clint Eastwood to be one of the premiere filmmakers of this country. There were only two major discrepancies between reality and this movie (other than some likely elements of dramatic effect), and neither of them really changes anything substantial about the events. As art, this works far too well to arouse some very deep fears many of us have about our children, the police, and the mental health system in this country.

Discussion Questions:
~When you first see Reverend Briegleb preaching against the LAPD from the pulpit, what is your reaction? What do you think of his subsequent actions in this movie? Is there anyone in the big cities with his level of respect and influence?
~Comparing primarily Briegleb and Northcott, what do you think is the net impression this movie gives about religion?
~There are a variety of evils depicted in this movie. Which of them bother you the most? Specifically, who frightens you more: Northcott, Captain Jones, or Doctor Steele? What punishment do you think would have been appropriate for these three individuals?
~Each of the major evil people in this movie had accomplices who were surely in a position to do something to make things better. What do you think of their complicity? Specifically, what about the female nurses and female police doctor?
~How much of your infuriation with this movie comes from your belief that it is impossible to imagine things like this happening today in America? Do you think that anyone in this country perceives its institutions the way they are portrayed in this movie? Consider black residents of gang areas, illegal immigrants, and people who are mentally ill for starters.
~Some of this movie deals with epistemology, how we know what we know. Why do you think so many people were willing to doubt a mother’s assertion that this was not her boy? How might that have been related to a view of women as frail, inept, inferior beings?
~Are you generally trusting of the police and that justice will prevail or are you scared of them?
~Are you generally trusting of the mental health system in this country or are you scared of it?
~If someone accused you of being insane, how would you disprove them? If a sane person was locked up against her will, would it be normal or abnormal to react violently to this treatment?
~A key event in this movie was the massive public protest of the LAPD’s treatment of Christine Collins. What if they hadn’t turned out? Would you have joined them? What sort of injustice would be required for you to take off work to participate in a protest at city hall? Should the Christian be more or less willing to participate in such things?
~Why do you think this movie made twice as much money overseas as here in the US, where these events actually took place?

Overall Grade: A
Painful, more painful, and then terrifying to watch. But definitely worth it, if only because it reminds us how much better things are today…for the most part. Three Academy nominations, including Jolie for best lead actress, which she should have beaten Kate Winslet for The Reader, although both should have been beaten by Meryl Streep in Doubt.

Fermat’s Room (2007)

Rated: Unrated, perhaps PG-13, although the previews are R.
Length: 88 minutes
Grade: A-B-AA=A-
Budget: Unknown
Box Office: Unknown—Blockbuster Exclusive

Written and Directed by: Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena
Starring: Lluis Homar, Alejo Sauras, Elena Ballesteros, Santi Millan, and Federico Luppi.

When four mathematicians are mysteriously summoned to a secret meeting to solve a new enigma, they discover their lives threatened by a room that closes in on them when they fail to solve logic puzzles quickly enough.

Entertainment Value: A-
Okay, this is a foreign film in Spanish, and that is going to dissuade a lot of you from the beginning. But, for those of you who at least sometimes watch foreign films, this was really quite good. Perhaps it’s because I’m a philosopher and have an unnatural affection for the mind puzzles they were solving in this movie, but this was a fascinating blend of intriguing characters, mental activity, and a plot that just kept getting more and more complicated and intriguing. This had been on my “to-watch” list for awhile, and all I can say is that it was well worth the time.

Superficial Content: B-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence B, Language C
Characters drink casually. There is no real sexuality, but there is a reference to “unspeakable” things at one point. The violence is both the overall premise, some fighting, and descriptions of a car crash harming a small girl. Language is medium, made milder by being in the subtitles, obviously.

Significant Content: A
High intelligence almost always breeds overblown egos, and the thrill of solving-problems is a form of idolatry. Yet many of the things highly intelligent people invest their lives in solving amount to nothing of any consequence in the end.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
There is some interesting thought value to the overall movie, obviously, but a lot of the thought value comes from the individual problems contained in the movie. That’s why this is a film that should only be watched on DVD and never at a theater, and you should pause to try to solve the problems, other than the second one with all the 1s and 0s, which you can’t solve at home.

The puzzles:
Since Wikipedia did me the favor of already listing them, I’ll repeat them here for your pleasure. They’re all famous logic puzzles.
0. A shepherd has a wolf, a sheep, and a cabbage, and he needs to get all three objects across a river in his boat, but he can only take one other object at a time with him. Obviously, he can’t leave the sheep with the wolf or the cabbage with the sheep on either side ever, or something will get eaten. How can he perform this task successfully?
1. A candy merchant receives 3 opaque boxes. One box contains mint candies, another contains anise candies, and the last box contains a mixture of mint and anise. The boxes are labeled Mint, Anise, and Mixed. All of the boxes are labeled incorrectly. What is the minimum number of candies the merchant will have to sample to correctly label each box?
2. You can’t do this one anyhow.
3. The third enigma describes a sealed room containing one light bulb. Outside of the room there are three switches, only one of which operates the bulb. The puzzle solver begins outside the room, able to operate the switches in any way he sees fit, but when the door is opened for the first time, he must determine which switch operates the light. The enigma is to determine how this is to be done.
4. The fourth enigma is to describe how one can use a four-minute hourglass and a seven-minute hourglass to measure a period of nine minutes.
5. The fifth enigma is stated as follows: "A student asks his teacher, 'How old are your three daughters?' The teacher replies, 'If you multiply their ages you get 36. If you add their ages you get my house number.' 'I am missing a detail,' protests the student. 'Oh yes,' says the teacher, 'the older one plays piano.' How old are the 3 daughters?"
6. The sixth enigma is a Knights and Knaves puzzle. Two doors are guarded by two men, one of whom always lies and one of whom always tells the truth; however, the puzzle solver does not know which man is which. One of the doors leads to freedom and one to captivity. The enigma is to determine a single question that, if asked of one of the guards, would reveal the door to freedom with certainty.
7. The seventh enigma is an elementary algebra problem with a twist. A mother is 21 years older than her son. In 6 years, the son will be one-fifth his mother's age. The enigma asks what the father is currently doing.

Discussion Questions:
~Given all the mysterious conditions surrounding the meeting, did you find it surprising that the invitees entered the castle and then the room itself at all? Were you surprised that they complied with the condition to not bring cell phones? How much did the fact that no one else seemed reluctant factor into this? Would “less intelligent” people have even entered the room?
~One character says, “I’m sick of people saying I’m right simply because of who I am.” What did he mean by this? Why did he find this frustrating?
~When the characters discuss a preference for invisibility or flying, one says, The only reason to be invisible is to do bad things. When we do good things, we want to be seen.” What do you think of this assertion? What good things could be done while invisible?
~Mathematics and the central problem of this movie (Goldbach’s Conjecture that all even numbers are the sum of two prime numbers) revolve around proving things to be true, above and beyond merely believing that they probably are. Can you know something is true without actually having a proof for it? Do you believe Goldbach’s Conjecture is true even though it hasn’t been proved?
~What do you think of the final decision regarding the paperwork? What does this action demonstrate about the importance of mathematics of this sort?
~Even if something like a mathematical puzzle or proof has no practical application, does that mean it’s worthless to work on it? Can things be beautiful without being useful? Is usefulness the only justification for an endeavor?
~What elements of idolatry do you see in this movie?
~What is the connection between intelligence and immorality in this movie? Do you believe that intelligent people are generally more or less likely to be immoral?
~Deception plays a substantial role in this movie, both explicit lies and also errors or assumptions allowed to go on uncorrected. Which of these deceptions seem wrong to you?
~What does it say about Americans that we often do not like to watch foreign movies? Is it a style issue or is it the extra effort involved in reading the subtitles? Do you tend to look down on people who don’t watch foreign films?
Overall Grade: A-
Interesting, thoughtful, and certainly a great mystery-thriller, even if you have to read the dialogue.

Soloist, The (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some drug use and language.
Length: 117 minutes
Grade: C+C-AA=B+
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $30 million (31 U.S., 1 Intl., 8 DVD)

Written by: Susannah Grant (Charlotte’s Web, Catch and Release, Erin Brockovich, 28 Days, Ever After, and Pocohontas), based on the book by Steve Lopez.
Directed by: Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., and Catherine Keener.

Summary: An LA columnist writes a column about his encounter with a mentally ill, homeless former Juliard student playing his violin on the street one day and then gradually becomes more and more invested in this man’s life. Based on a true story.

Entertainment Value: C+
Let me start by saying that Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. are two of the very best actors of their generation, and both perform brilliantly in this movie. I think the best way I can describe this film is by saying that it’s valuable without being enjoyable. It’s at times frustrating, visually annoying (the light sequence during the private concerto really bothered both me and my wife), and somewhere around the halfway mark I started to distrust that this movie would deliver an ending that would justify the movie itself. It reminded me a lot of Reign Over Me, which had the same sort of “almost, but not quite” feel that I found in both of Joe Wright’s other movies, especially Atonement. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth watching. This is why I distinguish between entertainment value and other aspects of a movie.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language D
There is constant drinking in the movie. There is no sex to speak of at all. Violence is two fistfights, a man being hospitalized after falling off his bike, and a scene of police rousting homeless people after a murder. Profanity is pretty heavy, even for a PG-13. PG-13 is probably right, but mostly for the language.

Significant Content: A
In a way, this is an American counterpart to the hugely successful and (clearly) much better Indian movie, Slumdog Millionaire. That movie was a fascinating story which served as a pretext for exposing audiences to the slums of India, and this movie is a less fascinating story which serves as a way of exposing Americans to homelessness and mental illness here at home. Clearly it’s also a movie about the importance and power of music. The saddest element of this movie is not the condition of Nathaniel, but the portrayal by an LA Times columnist of a self-righteous and truly foolish Christian cellist who makes all Christians look like incompetent buffoons. In contrast, the divorced, foul-mouthed alcoholic columnist winds up looking like a real Christian in the end. It’s also a story about exploitation, which Steve is forced to confront in himself. But the real message of this movie, and the one which easily overshadows everything else I’ve said, is that friendship means investing in people and being there for them regardless of their prospects for ever becoming better (more healthy) people. In other words, it’s about unconditional love.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Despite not particularly enjoying this movie, especially the portrayal of the stupid Christian character, it’s easily excellent as an art piece. It raises questions about how our society values some people and not others, what role the arts have and should have in a civilized society, and what is really motivating us in acts of seeming charity. I was particularly moved when I found out that one of the preconditions of the film’s makers was that they would use real members from the homeless shelter that is so central to the movie as actors.

Discussion Questions:
~What makes Steve Lopez become interested in Nathaniel in the beginning? If he hadn’t been a columnist in need of a story, would he have given Nathaniel much thought? Would you describe his treatment of Nathaniel in the beginning exploitative? Is there a point in the movie where you would no longer describe their relationship this way? At what point, and why? Does writing columns about people generally benefit them? Did this column benefit Nathaniel? Did Steve write it for Nathaniel’s benefit? If you were Nathaniel, would you want this movie made about you?
~A major theme in this movie is the tension between Steve trying to do for Nathaniel what he thinks is in Nathaniel’s best interest versus what Nathaniel wants. Which of these efforts would you say were truly noble and right and which of them were presumptuous and arrogant?
~What motivated Steve in this movie? Was it a genuine love of Nathaniel or some sort of guilty conscience? When Steve gets frustrated at Nathaniel, is it because he hates to see Nathaniel suffer or is it because Nathaniel’s resistance is depriving Steve of the pleasure he anticipates for successfully helping him? Is it fair to say that Steve thought he could “save” Nathaniel, and that this immediately appealed to him as a way to “save” or redeem himself? Consider the scene where he talks about lying to get Nathaniel on medication. How does that look like idolatry? Have you ever gotten angry at someone because they deprived you of the feeling that you did a good deed for them in this way? Is that love or selfishness? How might we overcome that problem?
~Why do people value Nathaniel but not any of the other people at the shelter? If Nathaniel hadn’t been a Juliard dropout, would he have been good material for a column? What makes Steve persist in this movie? To what degree does Nathaniel’s talent cause Steve to endure more from him than he would from any of those other people? Is there anything essentially wrong about valuing Nathaniel more than those others? Does the Bible encourage us to distinguish between people this way?
~Does this movie motivate you to want to do something for the homeless and mentally ill? Does it motivate you to actually befriend someone like this? If it does, would you call that a Biblical impact?
~Why does Nathaniel’s sister love him even though he’s so frustrating and sometimes hostile to her? What is the importance of involuntary relationships for difficult people? How is her love reflective of God’s love for us?
~Discuss the Christian cellist. What good lessons for us can his bad example give? Was this a fair portrayal of him? Were you more uncomfortable at the presence of this character or at the homeless conditions around the shelter? Who in this movie most closely represents the spirit of Jesus?
~Buddy movies are often about a strong person who has something to offer a weaker person, but the weaker person wants the relationship and the stronger one does not. In this movie, both strength and desire are on Steve Lopez’s side. If so, how does Steve represent God and God’s love?
Overall Grade: B+
Obviously, there’s plenty to think about and discuss here, and even if it’s not very enjoyable, both the themes and the simple, unromanticized depiction of homelessness and mental illness is well worth the time.

Visitor, The (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Length: 104 minutes
Grade: BB+AB+=B+
Budget: $4 million
Box Office: $17 million (9 U.S., 8 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Thomas McCarthy (Mostly an actor, who wrote and directed The Station Agent and helped write Up)
Starring: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass.

When a stiff, white economics professor inadvertently discovers two illegal immigrants living in his city apartment, he befriends them and learns to play music from the man. He then learns what life is like for illegal aliens when his new friend is mistakenly arrested for a minor offense and threatened with deportation and separation from his life and family.

Entertainment Value: B
Richard Jenkins was nominated for best actor for his performance here, and rightly so, although Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Frank Langella, and Brad Pitt were certainly stiff competition in 2008. The story is plausible, although it leaves me wondering just how typical such events are. Most of all, the characters are truly endearing, which of course is the purpose of this movie.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence A-, Language C
There are some relational moments with hinted-at sexuality. Violence is almost non-existent, just the arrest of a man for apparently jumping a subway turnstile. The language justifies the PG-13, although it is neither gratuitous nor heavy. PG-13 is probably right, and no kids would care to watch this movie anyhow because of the pace and the adult themes involved. This could almost be rated PG in spite of the language.

Significant Content: A
In part, this is trying to show the inhumanity of our immigration rules and enforcement. But in part, it’s also showing the tremendous benefits of encountering people from cultures drastically different from our own. Aliens are people too, and if we would just get to know them, our views might very well change. Music and a vibrant love of life can transform another person, especially if he feels his life is meaningless.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
This is a movie that people with strong anti-illegal immigrant views won’t want to watch precisely because it forces you to look at the particular details of real life for aliens in the US. In the end, what it primarily invites you to consider is what it would be like if you had your life ripped from you by these rules. And it does this in a very endearing and painful way. This is not a pleasant film to watch, bittersweet at best, but it definitely humanizes a debate which all too often looks at numbers and abstract principles rather than concrete human circumstances.

Discussion Questions:
~What were your views about immigration issues in this country before you watched this movie? Have they shifted at all as a result of this story? Did you ever find yourself resisting what this movie wanted to make you feel because you knew it would create tension with your political views? Do you think it’s unfair to ask people to encounter emotions like this about such a controversial issue? ~What makes emotional persuasion so powerful? How do you refute something like this? What if a movie were made of equal quality portraying the life of a victim of some horrible crime committed by an illegal alien in this country?
~How typical do you think Tarek’s story is? To what degree would you say that his circumstances are his fault or the fault of a system he happens to be in? If you were put in charge of his case, what would you do?
~What is this movie trying to tell us in the way it portrays the changes in Tarek from the time he is put in the detention center to his later demeanor? Does our immigration system tend to make people into the sort of people it claims it needs to protect us from?
~Have you ever known an illegal alien? Would you feel obligated to report someone to the authorities if you thought he was one? Would you want to get to know him as a person?
~Showing hospitality to strangers and foreigners is a major theme in the Bible and in Mediterranean culture. Do American immigration laws take this perspective seriously enough? Do Americans?
~Is Walter angry about the injustice of Tarek’s treatment because he hates to see his country do such things that violate his sense of rightness, or is he more affected because he is threatened with losing a friend who has been so beneficial to him coming back to life after the loss of his wife? Is he selfish in his concerns or loving in them?
~Is it fair to say that Walter takes his freedoms for granted, whereas the others do not? What does the Statue of Liberty have to do with that idea? What freedoms of yours are you not grateful enough for?
~Why does this movie choose a participant in a globalization conference as the guy who discovers aliens living in his apartment?
~What does music in this movie symbolize? How does it change Walter? Could Walter have gained all the perspective he gained about life in this movie without the people happening to be illegal aliens?
~What do you think life would be like in this country if you were someone like Tarek or Zainab?
Does this movie make you upset that the immigration system seems so heartless or do you feel like it is being inaccurately portrayed?
~Discuss some of the ways in which Walter shows love to others in this movie. If you did not know his religious beliefs, would you presume him to be a Christian?

Overall Grade: B+
It’s not a movie you will necessarily enjoy, but it is a movie well worth your attention. It’s frustrating, and that’s the gift it’s trying to give you.

Obsessed (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for sexual material including some suggestive dialogue, some violence and thematic content.
Length: 105 minutes
Grade: DCBC=C-
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $87 million (68 U.S., 5 Intl., 14 DVD)

Written by: David Loughery (Lakeview Terrace, Money Train, Three Musketeers, Passenger 57, Star Trek V, and one of my old favorites Dreamscape)
Directed by: Steve Shill (His first movie, previously lots of TV episodes for shows like Law and Order Criminal Intent and SVU, Dexter, Knight Rider, Kill Point, Rome, Tudors, ER, West Wing, Big Love, Sopranos, and Deadwood.)
Starring: Idris Elba, Beyonce Knowles, and Ali Larter, with Jerry O’Connell and Bruce McGill.

A successful and happily married black businessman must decide how to handle a sexy white temp who stalks him and threatens to undo everything he’s worked so hard for.

Entertainment Value: D
Here’s the right question to ask: Has Jerry O’Connell ever been in a movie worth watching? If you don’t know who Jerry O’Connell is, then you also have your answer. Everything about this movie screams B-grade, which on my scale is D-grade. It’s campy, predictable, and it feels more like a long TV episode rather than a feature-length movie, which made perfect sense after I saw who directed it. But here’s the part that may not have been obvious from the ads: this is Fatal Attraction for black people with the major difference that the man in this case is faithful, unlike Michael Douglas. But take me seriously when I say this is a movie intended primarily for a black audience. By that I mean that watching this movie at home with my wife and dad was entertaining for being so bad, but watching this in a theater with a largely black audience would have been genuinely fun. Back in St. Louis, we used to sometimes go to the dollar show at such a theater, and all I can tell you is that if you’re white and you’ve never watched a movie like this with a lot of black people, you just don’t know what you’re missing. The difference is a lot like the difference between white churches and black churches. You never have to tell a black congregation to make noise, and you never have to tell a white audience to settle down. Having experienced this a few times, I could just about audibly hear the audience reacting to the events, especially the end sequence. So, although I found it campy, I also know that when it comes to movies meant for a black audience, a typical black viewer will usually enjoy them more than I will.
Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language C
For a PG-13, this is actually pretty tame, although I think the subject matter definitely makes that rating right. In fact, given that this movie surely could have been made in R fashion, I must applaud the creators for opting to keep it as clean as they did. I actually think this could air on TV without any editing other than a couple of words. The language is mild for PG-13. There is no nudity, and only a handful of scenes with scantily clad women, and just two or three scenes of implied sex. The subject of infidelity and sex is pretty constant. There is one extended fight sequence where a woman falls to her death, an attempted suicide, and a young child is kidnapped briefly. Also, there’s a fair amount of drinking with some moderate intoxication.

Significant Content: B
Here’s where this movie shines. It is an extended lesson in the distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. Although Derek never cheats on his wife and even actively avoids opportunities to do so, he also fails at several key moments to disclose what’s going on to his wife and coworkers because he doesn’t think it’s necessary or because he wants to be nice. Also, because Beyoncee so overreacts when she finally finds out what’s been going on, this movie winds up being an outstanding tutorial about the ways a wife can mishandle the information she gets because she isn’t trusting enough. Overall, I found this to be a great lesson for handling opposite-sex issues in the workplace. And just for fun, did you notice that the gay guy is stupid enough to unintentionally assist psycho girl Lisa in the end?

Artistic/Thought Value: C
My wife and I have this new habit. We’ve seen so many movies that we have learned to spot whenever a movie shows us something in the beginning or along the way that is going to be a key element of some part of the plot later. Our phrase to each other is, “This will be important later,” which we say to each other as a little game to outwit the movies. In this case, we were two for two, both with the dangerous attic from the opening scene and the alarm functioning later. Such predictability does not impress me much. In contrast, one of the key scenes of this movie has Ali Larter drug and seduce Idris Elba, an event which is pretty major in the plot since he had never actually cheated on his wife. But the totally weird thing was that this scene never came back into play in any fashion after the fact for reasons I just can’t comprehend. So was this great art? No. Nevertheless, precisely because this movie presents both the image of a faithful black husband and also allows for some excellent practical moral discussions, I can’t give it less than a C for art/thought value combined. D for art, B for thought value.

Discussion Questions:
~Lots of movies these days portray sex between people who aren’t married. In this movie, the only consensual sex is between a husband and his wife. Would you grade a movie the same for sexual content regardless of whether it’s showing legitimate married behavior or illicit extra- or non-marital behavior?
~Should Derek have agreed to go to the Christmas party in the first place, knowing his history? What do you think of a company having such a Christmas party but not allowing spouses to come? Would you want your spouse going to one?
~List some of the warning signs that Derek ignored along the way about Lisa.
~See how many examples you can find of Derek simply not saying as much as he should say to someone or hiding information by omission. In each case, why do you think he fails to disclose everything? Have you ever had a problem that you just thought would go away or solve itself? Have you ever naively interpreted evidence in this way yourself?
~Think of some moments in this movie where you might have given Derek advice if given the chance. How were the problems in this film a result of him being surrounded by morally weak or foolish friends?
~What is this movie trying to tell us by having Derek always reading the Wall Street Journal?
~How plausible is it in your opinion that a girl like Lisa would be single?
~When Sharon found out about what’s been going on, do you think she overreacted? Was her reaction understandable, nevertheless? Do you think she was right for prolonging Derek’s expulsion from the house?
~What racial stereotypes or expectations does this movie want to disprove? What ones do characters in this movie seem to believe? Consider, in particular, the white female cop.
~Given that situations along these lines (although surely less extreme) happen all the time, what principle or rules do you think married people should try to follow in the workplace? Do you think that mixed gender workplaces are inherently dangerous to moral decency? Do you generally think that people in America are overworried about problems like this in the workplace or underworried about them?
~Why is it useful for a society like ours to have movies like this? Consider some of the other ones in this genre, such as Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, Basic Instinct (Why is Michael Douglas always in these movies?), Unfaithful, Match Point, and Revolutionary Road.
~Given Lisa’s clear mental derangement, what would have been the ideal way of handling her? ~What do you think of the ending of this movie? Does it satisfy you or sadden you?
~What elements of this movie indicate to you that it was intended primarily for a black audience? How might it have been done differently if it had been directed for whites instead?
~How important is it for this movie to portray a strong black husband being both successful in his career and also being enduringly faithful to his wife?
Overall Grade: C-
So, this is not great cinema, but I feel certain that it is a very useful movie nevertheless. And I expect that black viewers will enjoy it more than I did as entertainment. I wish I could have seen it at that theater back in St. Louis. That would have been a lot of fun!

Good Year, A (2006)

Rated: PG-13 for language and some sexual content.
Length: 118 minutes
Grade: A-C-AA=A
Budget: $35 million
Box Office: $49 million (7 U.S., 35 Intl., 7 DVD)

Written by: Marc Klein (Serendipity, Suburban Girl), Based on the novel by Peter Mayle
Directed by: Ridley Scott (Body of Lies, American Gangster, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, GI Jane, Thelma and Louise, Black Rain, Legend, Alien, and possibly the greatest science fiction movie of all time, Blade Runner)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Marion Cotillard, Albert Finney, Abbie Cornish, Tom Hollander, and Freddie Highmore.

When a high-powered British investment banker’s favorite uncle dies and leaves him his entire French vineyard, he must decide whether to sell it and return to the world of high finance or stay there and embrace the lifestyle he so loved as a child.

Entertainment Value: A-
As a contrast with Duplicity, this is wonderful. Max Skinner is Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko, only he’s been blessed with an upbringing to turn back to when he realizes how far off the right path he’s gone. Every character in this movie is fascinating and compelling, even the ones you don’t like. Crowe, in particular is wonderful, and this movie falls squarely into my very favorite category of film: philosophical character transformation stories.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol C+, Sex/Nudity C-, Violence A-, Language C-
The whole movie revolves around wine, which is often consumed. There are a couple of sexual situations, and some incidental brief nudity as well as sheer clothing. Language is at the upper end of the PG-13 range, but not quite an R. PG-15 might be right.

Significant Content: A
The pace of life is a major factor in being an ethical person. Slowness makes you better, quickness makes you worse. In addition, character and happiness go hand in hand. Vacations are essential. Vineyards and wine are important elements of a good life. People can change, if only they can experience the benefits of the better thing long enough to have a real comparison available to them.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
This is a movie which artfully exposes you both to the idea that a slower pace is good and also asks you to occasionally experience it during the movie. Unlike movies that are based on books and try to criticize the long term effects of replacing books with movies, this movie actually does what it tries to get you to value.

Discussion Questions:
~Max is given a second chance to consider staying with the vineyard because of a series of unfortunate events in the beginning of the movie. Have you ever had a misfortune become a blessing to you in this way?
~To what degree are the character defects we see in Max at the beginning of the movie a byproduct of the fast-paced world in which he lives? Would you say it’s generally true that high-stress, high-pace living makes us worse people? Are people who live in rural environments made better by the simple slowness of their existence? How would you connect modern technology such as television, email, texting, and Twitter with this problem? How would an evolutionist describe this problem? How would a Creationist describe it?
~Pace of life is an important concept in this movie. What implications does this have for both our regular lives and also for our vacations from the regular?
~Which do you think is better for children in their upbringing: an urban setting or a rural setting?
~Proverbs tells us that if we train up a child in the way he should go, when he’s old he won’t depart from it. How is this relevant to this movie?
~Have you in your life learned more from your successes and victories or from your failures and losses?
~“Where there’s land, there’s war.” What do you think of this assertion?
~What makes us like Max? Is it our hope that he will become the better man he can be? What does it say about God and human nature that we want to see people become good?
~Do you think this movie would be persuasive to high-powered executives, or would they scoff at it?
~Do the “commoners” in this movie seem to be happy in what they’re doing? What does that say about the objection one might raise that only the wealthy can have enough luxury to enjoy something like a vineyard? How much of their happiness comes from being able to tangibly see the result of their efforts, unlike so many occupations in the modern world?
~Is the premise of this movie realistic? Does that matter? Would it be fair to describe this as a fairy tale? What is the value of idealistic movies?

Overall Grade: A
I really enjoyed this. A fine effort from Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott.

Duplicity (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for language and some sexual content.
Length: 125 minutes.
Grade: AC+B+-A=A
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $79 million (41 U.S., 38 Intl)

Written and Directed by: Tony Gilroy (Writer and director for Michael Clayton, Writer for State of Play, all three Bourne movies, Proof of Life, Bait, Armageddon, and The Devil’s Advocate)
Starring: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, and Paul Giamatti.

Two former intelligence officers become involved in an intricate web of corporate espionage driven by the deep rivalry between two mega-corporations.

Entertainment Value: A
I almost rated this an A+. It was fantastic from start to finish. In fact, I actually got worried about halfway through that they couldn’t possibly keep up the high quality all the way through, and I mused to my wife that I hoped the second half didn’t drop off, even though I could forgive them if it had. This feels like the Ocean’s franchise, and the veteran writing of Tony Gilroy is obvious. All the acting is excellent, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paul Giamatti up for an Oscar. Tom Wilkinson deserves one, too, but he won’t get it because his part is too small in the overall movie. My only sadness about this movie is that it didn’t make more money as a reward for such excellent entertainment.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C+, Violence B, Language C
PG-13 is right here, and I only wish that all PG-13 movies were basically like this. There’s a fair amount of mild profanity. There is one scene of fighting and another scene with a man struggling against handcuffs with his eyes and mouth taped over. And there are a couple of scenes of sexuality, but no nudity. As I say, PG-13 is just right.

Significant Content: B+
Okay, at this point, I have to warn you that spoilers may come out, even though I’ll try not to let them. Although this movie will seem like a send-up of the corporate world and possibly of the spy world, I think in the end it’s really about a con-game and smart people. And the real message is that smart people are the easiest to con because they’re convinced that they’re too smart to be conned. So the key to a good con is finding someone arrogant and smart enough to believe this, and then you just continue to let them believe they’re smarter than you. I don’t think the movie is meant to be about atheists and our skeptic culture, but it can certainly be taken that way if you want to. More on the surface, it’s saying that spies are extremely clever, but not nearly clever enough. And at whatever level you take it, the clear message is that habitual doubt and deceit make you incapable of ever trusting people. There are also some pretty devastating messages about corporations and the egomania it takes to lead them to greatness.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
This is both one of the best spy movies and also one of the best con movies I’ve ever seen. I’m reluctant to say anything other than this, but it is a masterful use of flashback and gradually peeling back the layers until we see the truth of a situation. I will say that there were a couple of times in this movie where I caught the film giving me a scene for my benefit that would never have happened in real life, but I forgave them because I understood why they were doing it. Also, I just loved the use of scene fades with the boxes. Very effective at setting the tone.

Discussion Questions:
~As you’re watching this movie, at various points you can stop and ask yourself who you want to win or succeed at that point. What does the movie do to make you have that desire? Does it ever bother you that you want certain people to succeed here?
~Deception and misdirection are constant elements of behavior here. What impact does this have on the happiness of the individuals involved? What impact does it have on their ability to ever trust? Even though they’re total skeptics, what things do they still wind up taking without criticism?
~Both CEOs talk about the importance of being first and being best as a means of acquiring significance. Is this also true of Ray and Claire? Is there anyone in this movies who isn’t dominated by ego? Discuss some ways in which ego is used to manipulate people in this movie? ~Is it fair to say that true self-mastery comes when you can afford to let other people think you are less capable than you really are? How does our relationship with God help us overcome the need to impress other people?
~Our culture has a fair number of people who are skeptical in general, and particularly skeptical about God. How does ego factor into their skepticism? How important is it to skeptics to not be embarrassed again by believing something false? How important is it to them to seem more clever than everyone else?
~Have you ever had doubts about whether you could trust someone else? What did you do? How do our choices under such uncertainty reflect on us? Are there any things you believe because you choose to rather than because the evidence compels you?
~If you had to choose between being fooled by people sometimes because you are too trusting and being safe from people because you’re too suspicious, which would you choose? What’s the upside of being overly trusting? What’s the downside of being overly suspicious?
~Talk about the methods used by people in this movie to deceive each other. Does this movie itself use any of these methods to deceive us, the audience? Does it make a difference whether someone wants to be deceived in evaluating the ethics of deception? How is successful deception of the audience a key component of spy/con movies?
~How common do you believe it is for companies to try to steal each other’s ideas and products? How likely is it that companies have this sophisticated of a counter-intelligence apparatus?
~One character talks about the corporation being the latest development in human evolution, becoming a sort of mega-organism that thrives or declines over time. What do you think of this metaphor?
Overall Grade: A
Highly entertaining. Thoughtful. Clever. This movie was smarter than I was, but in a way I totally enjoyed.