Astro Boy (2009)

Rated: PG for some action and peril, and brief mild language.
Length: 94 minutes
Grade: CBCC=C+
Budget: $65 million
Box Office: $38 million (19 U.S., 19 Intl.)

Written by: Timothy Harris (Space Jam, Pure Luck, Kindergarten Cop, Twins, Brewster’s Millions, and Trading Places), based on the series by Osamu Tezuka.
Co-Written and Directed by: David Bowers (Flushed Away)
Starring the voices of: Freddie Highmore, Nicholas Cage, and Kristin Bell
With the voices of: Samuel L. Jackson, Charlize Theron, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy, and Ryan Stiles.

In a future with two kind of beings (humans and robots) and two societies (the floating paradise of Metro City and the junk heap of Earth), a militaristic President sees a new energy source as the key to his political victory. Unfortunately for him, his lead scientist has used it to reincarnate his deceased son as a totally awesome robot boy whom he now regrets building.

Entertainment Value: C
The boys loved this. It’s fun. It’s action-packed. And the plot, though absurd in parts, is entertaining enough to not drive adults crazy. I wasn’t a fan of the voice work of Cage, who brings brooding and odd to a whole new level here. Also, the themes they wanted to incorporate are either off key or else now well-developed enough. So, overall, it’s average. Fine and fun in the manga tradition.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A
The opening sequence leads to a young boy being killed by a violent robot. Otherwise, the violent fights between Astro Boy and the military or between Astro Boy and robots are the only ongoing issues. A whole group of orphan lives as scavengers on the junk-covered surface of Earth under the semi-benevolent leadership of a robot genius. Astro Boy turns out to have butt-guns and some robots expel oil as if bodily fluds. PG is easily the right rating, and both of our boys had no problems here.

Significant Content: C
Politicians are evil. Scientists, though sometimes virtuous, have serious flaws as well. If someone (or something, as a robot) acts like a human, it should be treated with dignity and respect. Self-sacrifice and mercy are the most truly human traits. People in grief do things they may later regret. Weapons in the hands of bad people are bad but in the hands of good people are good.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
There are many interesting themes here, however, I think the presentation of them is pretty poor. For instance, a lot of things in this movie take for granted the Three Laws of Robotics as formulated by Isaac Asimov. But just at one point when they’re about to be expressed, they aren’t. This leaves most of the audience out of the insight loop for the implications. Another thing is that even though the overall question of whether robots should be treated as humans or as slaves is a key idea in the movie, it never really gets any direct attention. Why, exactly is it wrong to treat Astro Boy as a mere machine, but it isn’t wrong to do this to Zog or even the bevy of Astro Boy’s opponents? This movie sort of makes me wonder whether some people don’t believe that slavery hasn’t ended yet. I mean it’s sort of meant to be a movie about racism and the mistreatment of non-group-members (perhaps about illegal immigrants or the servant classes) but what is the proposed solution? If they behave well and are as smart as we are, we owe them? That solves racism by replacing skin color (or robotic nature) with ability. It doesn’t seem to me as a Christian that an ontology built on performance is much more helpful than an ontology based on group membership or genetics. The trick isn’t getting us to extend our moral consideration to other beings like us in behavior, but to beings who are very unlike us in behavior and capacity such as the fetus, the elderly, the incompetent, and the disabled.

Discussion Questions:
~Ultimately, who is more human: Astro Boy or Hamegg? What are the key defining attributes of being human? Is human a matter of what you are or of what you do? How does a Christian answer that question?
~Is Dr. Tenma any different from President Stone or from Hamegg? In what sense are they all tyrants who want what they want and then don’t care about something once it is no longer doing their will? How are they good illustrations of the false notions people have about God? Is Dr. Elfun a better illustration of God’s real nature? Is Astro Boy a Christ figure? If so, between what groups or to which people does he bring reconciliation?
~Robots in this movie are treated as slaves or even mere material for destruction at the whim of humans. What do you think the rules for treating robots ought to be? Should they get more consideration the more human they seem to be? What about people? Are people sometimes more and sometimes less human and therefore deserving of varying degrees of moral consideration based on their abilities or contribution to society? Are there any machines currently in existence which we should treat with any level of moral consideration? Do you think there ever will be?
~Is there a difference between real freedom or character and simply being programmed to behave a certain way? What are the implications for parenting if there is?If Astro Boy had told the kids on Earth the truth from the very start, would they have accepted him and given him a chance to prove his real nature?
~What is the purpose of showing a future Earth which is a junk heap of old robots?
~Do you believe the universe is made up of two different motivational energies, like the blue and red power sources here? What is different between them? Is this a Biblical concept?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Toby being killed in the opening scenes.
~Hamegg turning Astro Boy into a fighting robot for the arena.
~Dr. Tenma changing his mind in the beginning and again in the end about Toby/Astro Boy. Was he motivated by actual love of his son or his own selfish desires in recreating him?
~Astro Boy defeating the Peacekeeper.

Overall Grade: C
There are some interesting things to talk about here and some entertaining moments (like the Robot Revolutionary Front), and it has enough action to please the kids. It’s definitely a boy movie, but not a great one. Good, but not great.

Princess and the Frog (2009)

Rated: G (Unbelievably!)
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: FDDF=F
Budget: $105 million
Box Office: $266 million (104 U.S., 162 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker (Treasure Planet,Hercules, Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Great Mouse Detective, and Black Cauldron)
Starring the voices of: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, and Keith David
With the voices of: Terrence Howard, John Goodman, and Oprah Winfrey

After a disinherited prince and his valet are tricked by a voodoo charlatan into serving the forces of evil, the valet becomes the prince and the prince becomes a frog. He must get a princess to kiss him to be freed, but instead when Tiana an aspiring restauranteur does so, she becomes a frog, too. They have adventures in the bayou and try to get back to New Orleans to make everything right.

Entertainment Value: F
I am apparently the only person in America who thinks this, but I hated this movie in its entirety. The animation was terrible, almost disturbing to me in the way it portrayed people, despite obviously being all hand-drawn. I was horrified at the saturation with voodoo and scary underworld stuff for kids. And the plot was insane when it wasn’t boring. I actually fell asleep for about twenty minutes in the middle, which seemed like a good alternative to having to watch it. I know a lot of black people have been thrilled to finally have a Disney movie primarily with black characters, and I am, too. I only wish they had chosen a movie worth making to do it with.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language A
So how can I give this movie a D rating when none of the categories are worse than a C? Simple. This is a movie for kids, and the whole thing is dripping with demonic images and themes. I know Disney has a history of getting criticism from conservative Christians for its magic/witchcraft and single-parent depictions, but this is well beyond anything I’ve seen before from them. Think Ursula from The Little Mermaid combined with the Queen of Snow White and Jafar from Aladdin, only make it worse than any of them by having him serve evil spirits and perform voodoo spells with blood and Tarot cards. On top of this, there’s a “good voodoo witch” Mama Odie. It’s got plenty of Mardi Gras type partying, sensual undertones and playboy sentiments for the prince and his various female companions. Seriously, we watched this on our own for no particular reason, assuming we could let the kids watch it on their own later. Wow, am I glad we didn’t star this with them! My wife and I kept looking at each other in horrified disbelief that Disney would make this movie AND the MPAA would give it a G rating. The very first thing she did when it finished was email her mom friends to warn them about the content of this movie. I would rate this PG-13 at least, just for the occult content, but I can’t imagine any kids old enough to watch it safely actually wanting to do so.

Significant Content: D
I have to start with the good stuff. I think some people who have already decided to love this movie and want a way to discount what I’ve been saying so far will point out that black magic ends badly for the bad guy (but not for Mama Odie, notice). In addition, although greed and lust and sensuality are all big themes here, they’re all depicted as flaws which true love can push away. Money, for instance, is sought by Dr. Facilier because once he owns the city, he will have access to the souls of the people. It’s a pretty accurate depiction of idolatry, but the solution isn’t through the power of Christ. Rather, after all the voodoo and the deception, you wind up getting the final lesson of the movie: work hard and dig a little deeper into yourself to get what you want.

Artistic/Thought Value: F
Again, the art was horrific to me, and because the movie is so grotesque, I just don’t find much here worth thinking about. Also, this movie seemed so full of black stereotypes that I couldn’t help wondering whether it was usefully appealing to black audiences or just plain racist.

Discussion Questions:
~What is the difference between having disturbing content in a children’s movie and a teenager’s movie and an adult movie? Why might things be acceptable (for a purpose) in a movie for adults but not in a movie for kids?
~Dr. Facilier ultimately is torn apart by the very demons he has made his bargain with. Does this mean the movie is teaching the dangers of playing with black magic? Do you think someone would be more or less interested in voodoo as a result of watching this movie?
~Tiana keeps saying that the key to success is hard work? Is it? What might a Christian say?
~Once she finds true love, Tiana seems willing to give up all her other hopes and dreams to be with her man. Has she been delivered from the idolatry of her restaurant, or has she just replaced one idol with another?
~Was this movie honoring to black people and black culture or was it racist in perpetuating black stereotypes?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Dr. Facilier dealing the Tarot cards and making the demonic bargain.
~Dr. Facilier being dragged down to hell.
~Ray going to be with Eudora.
Overall Grade: F
No, no, no, no. Absolutely not for kids. A tragically bad movie that is the first Disney film to feature a black heroine and a primarily black cast. However, do keep in mind that my wife and I are apparently the only people in America who think this. Rotten Tomatoes rates it an overwhelming 85% fresh. Go figure!

Time Traveler’s Wife, The (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, brief disturbing images, nudity and sexuality.
Length: 107 minutes
Grade: ACAA=A
Budget: $39 million
Box Office: $115 million (63 U.S., 37 Intl., 15 DVD)

Written by: Bruce Joel Rubin (Last Mimzy, Stuart Little 2, Deep Impact, My Life, Jacob’s Ladder, Ghost, and Brainstorm) and Audrey Niffenegger (First film)
Directed by: Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, Tattoo)
Starring: Eric Bana, Rachel Mcadams
With: Stephen Tobolowsky

A man has the ability to travel through time, but he cannot control either his departure or destination in time, and this movie shows his life as it intertwines with the woman he marries.
Entertainment Value: A I was fascinated and captivated from the very beginning. The plot and the writing are wonderful. The acting is perfect. And once I realized what this movie wasn’t trying to do (be a mystery, teach a lesson, change the world), I could relax and enjoy it for what is was: a simply beautiful story about a very strange person.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B , Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language B
There’s one extended scene of a man being shot and dying with blood, and there is a scene involving childbirth. There are some sexual scenes, but involving a married (or eventually married) couple. A man is shown naked from behind (he loses his clothes when he travels through time) and implied to be naked in a few scenes for the same reason. Some petty crimes are committed when he needs to find clothes in his destinations. Language is mild PG. Some alcohol. PG-13 is just right.

Significant Content: A
Real love means falling in love with the whole person, past, present, and future. Life is a hunt.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
And I think it epitomizes at least one aspect of science-fiction, the idea of simply telling a story about some strange premise without doing anything to explain the oddity or even draw lessons from it. This is elegant in its simplicity and, quite frankly, in its restraint. It tries to be nothing more and nothing less than a really touching romantic story about a very strange man. Basically, it just asks the question, “If time travel were an involuntary effect like this, almost a curse rather than a blessing, what would it be like?” In a sense, then, it’s the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” wanted to be but wasn’t, simply because it couldn’t restrain itself from trying to be something else or more. By the way, Brad Pitt was one of the executive producers here.

Discussion Questions:
~If you had the ability to travel through time, what would you try to do with it?
~Would you want to have Henry’s ability? Do you consider his condition a blessing or a curse? In what ways would his life be differently better or differently worse? Which is worse: not being able to go back or going back without any power to change things?
~Do you think it would be possible to keep this condition a secret from most people? Do you think it would be possible to have friends who know this about you but don’t reveal it to others?
~Would it be fair of such a person to get married?
~What do you think of his decision regarding having children? What about hers?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The final scene of the film.
~The wedding ceremony and the meadow.
Overall Grade: A
Wonderful, sad, precious, and moving. A simple movie with elegant emotional poignancy. Everything Benjamin Button wanted to be but couldn’t restrain itself enough to be.

Planet 51 (2009)

Rated: PG for mild sci-fi action and some suggestive humor.
Length: 91 minutes
Grade: DNF
Budget: $70 million
Box Office: $104 million (42 U.S., 62 Intl.)

Written by: Joe Stillman (Shrek 1+2, Joseph King of Dreams)
Directed by: Jorge Blanco & Javier Abad & Marcos Martinez (All co-directing their first film)
Starring: The voices of Dwayne “I’ll act in any movie you tell me to” Johnson, Jessica Biel, and Justin Long
With: Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, and John Cleese

Planet 51 is an alien world full of antennae-headed green men who live in a society essentially the same as 1950’s America. Then, an Earth astronaut lands there, unaware that it’s already inhabited. He partners with a local kid to escape the military and try to get back to his ship. There’s a cute dog-like robot.

DNF in this case was because I fell asleep for about twenty minutes, and when I woke up to watch the rest, I sort of wished I had just stayed asleep. When it comes to kids movies, I always have my own take on things, but then I double check with Spencer and Ethan to see what they thought. They pretty much like everything, and especially movies about space and aliens and the military. So, the fact that they didn’t even like this is pretty compelling evidence that it’s not good. The basic premise is quite good and the animation is excellent, but they should have put similar effort into creating a plausible plot and worthwhile dialogue and jokes. For instance, there is never an explanation of why this alien society looks exactly like us in the 50’s, especially since all the incoming stuff from Earth has been quarantined. Even Rotten Tomatoes gave it only 22%. There are many, many better kids films, even about space.

Up in the Air (2009)

Rated: R for language and some sexual content.
Length: 108 minutes
Grade: ADA+A+=A
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $159 million (84 U.S., 75 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Jason Reitman (Juno and Thank You for Smoking)
Also Written by: Sheldon Turner (Longest Yard, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), based on the novel by Walter Kirn (Thumbsucker)
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick
With: Jason “I’m suddenly in every movie that gets made” Bateman, JK Simmons, and Sam Elliott

Ryan Bingham is an expert at terminating employment for companies who choose to downsize, and he spends virtually all of his life flying around the country. Rather than hating this, he actually prefers a life unburdened by either permanent relationships or possessions. But when his own lifestyle is put in jeopardy by teleconferencing and a new romance, he begins to question whether his life has been lived the right way.

Entertainment Value: A
The only thing I don’t like about Jason Reitman is the fact that he hasn’t written and directed more movies yet. I was actually excited to see on IMDB that he had films prior to Thank You for Smoking, but then I discovered they were all shorts, and I was extra bummed for having had my hopes raised before being dashed. The characters are fantastic. The dialogue is amazing. The plot and the acting are of course superb. But what Reitman manages to do is to almost effortlessly bring something to life, present it as charming, and then proceed to completely deconstruct it in the most lovingly brutal way possible.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence A, Language D
This is definitely not a movie for kids. The language is very F-heavy and the themes are clearly adult. One scene has a woman shown naked from behind and there is some sexual discussion, and several sexual references throughout. There is some casual drinking and one scene of people partying and getting drunk. R is the right rating here, but it’s a non-vulgar R, if that makes any sense. Older teenagers will be fine with it, and it might even be useful to watch with them…keep reading.

Significant Content: A+
Families and being invested in and attached to something meaningful are tremendously important things, truly human things. Individualism and aloof cynicism make a great façade, but the most tragic thing of all would be to see someone who has actually made a life out of really believing in the ideas which the college existentialists eventually outgrow. Everybody needs a copilot.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
I suspect (worry) that a lot of people who watch this movie will completely miss the point of it. They will think that it is subversive of traditional values and the importance of people by seeming to hold up Bingham as a virtuous and happy man. That’s why I imagine some hearing my description of the significant content who have seen the movie may be stunned by how much it seems I’ve directly inverted the lessons of the movie. But like any great work of art, the movie is doing exactly the opposite of what a superficial viewing might think. This is a tragedy of Greek proportions as everything in his life turns out to be fool’s gold and yet he has no way out of the hole because he’s invested in digging it for too long. So, this movie is really taking the nihilistic individualism of our current culture and dissecting it down to its hollow core. It’s brilliantly cynical, which is why I worry some people won’t get the point. And I must say that this is precisely the sort of movie I want to say so much about but at the same time, I want to refrain for those of you who haven’t seen it yet. I’ll say that if you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to skip the questions until after you do so.

Discussion Questions:
~Although Bingham is often presented as the protagonist in this movie, is it possible that he is actually the enemy? If so, who is the real protagonist? Can a concept about life be the protagonist? Can a false life-concept be the villain? Is Bingham a victim here or the villain?
~The most obvious unasked question in this movie is, “What sort of person could do what Bingham does for a living?” Do you think he really believes he is helping people, or does he realize that he is soullessly manipulating them? Is he a liar? What is the movie telling us about him by assigning him this particular occupation as opposed to, say, a traditional sales position?
~Disillusionment is what happens when something we formerly cherished no longer seems appealing. Tragic disillusionment is when we find ourselves committed to such a thing. At the end of the movie, would you say Bingham is disillusioned? Tragically so? In what sense does he discover that he actually is in the most awful kind of committed relationship, married to a lifestyle so to speak? Would you say this movie represents poetic justice?
~Discuss some of the icons and metaphors Bingham uses to explain his lifestyle such as sharks and empty backpacks.
~Our society seems to be moving more and more toward depersonalized interaction (phone, teleconference, texting, email, etc.). What does this movie have to say about this trend? Consider some of the things communicated via text or the phone that would otherwise be considered intimate and needing of direct contact.
~To what degree would you say this movie is an endorsement of “flyover country?”
~A brilliant article about the group of people who obsess about their frequent-flier miles in Conde Nast Traveller magazine said, “Up in the Air is a cautionary tale about mistaking virtual contact for intimacy and loneliness for freedom.” Discuss this comment. Is he isolated or surrounded? Does he actually know people or does he merely have the illusion of community? Consider, for instance, that the counter agents are told by a machine to treat him in such a friendly but artificially particular way.
~Are possessions encumbering or meaningful? Are relationships encumbering or meaningful? What would a Christian have to say in response to the backpack speech?
~In what sense is Bingham’s pursuit of 10 million miles a project of pure idolatry?
~Would you say that Bingham is a pervert? Is his life a complete perversion of the entire purpose of being human?
~If Bingham represents one sort of grievous error, what do you think is being said by Natalie when she lists off her fantasy idealized notion of the perfect husband and family? Can family and relationships also be idols? What is the Christian solution to this problem?
~Someone might wonder whether Bingham is merely a byproduct of the corporation and corporate thinking. What if, instead, Binghman actually IS the corporation, put in a body and shown off as a contrast to real humanity? If so, is this movie an indictment of the idea of corporations as people? With the documentary “The Corporation” in mind, would you describe Bingham as a sociopath?
~A miser is someone who hoards for the purpose of hoarding with no ability to use the thing being hoarded. In what sense is Bingham a miser? Is he a miser of miles or of freedom or both?
~Do any of his actions at the end of the movie indicate he has been redeemed? Would you say he has repented? How might his ordinary activities from this point forward change?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Going to Alex’s house for the first time. When Alex realizes that Bingham actually has nothing outside of his travel and work, that he isn’t hiding a secret family somewhere, do you think she pities him? Why would this discovery render him truly pathetic to her?
~The confrontation on the pier.
~Meeting the chief pilot of the airlines.
~Finally getting the huge opportunity to deliver his backpack speech and then finding that he can’t say it anymore.
Overall Grade: A
A fantastic movie with lots and lots and lots of things to discuss about it. Six Academy Award nominations, all fully deserved.

Law-Abiding Citizen (2009)

Rated: R for strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language.
Length: 118 minutes
Grade: B+HBC=B
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $109 million (73 U.S., 36 Intl.)

Written by: Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet, The Recruit, Equilibrium, Thomas Crown Affair, and Sphere) Allow me to take a moment here for the vast majority of you who have never heard of the movie Equilibrium, if you like Sci-Fi or Action at all, go rent that immediately. You will not be disappointed. One of the most unrecognized movie gems I can name.
Directed by: F. Gary Gray (Be Cool, The Italian Job, The Negotiator, and a bunch of rap videos)
Starring: Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler
With: Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, and Regina Hall

After unexpectedly surviving a home invasion in which his wife and daughter were brutally killed, Clyde Shelton is victimized all over again by a justice system which cuts a deal with the worst bad guy. Shelton then decides to take matters into his own hands first against the murderer and then against the entire corrupt system of deal-makers and politicians.

Entertainment Value: B+
This is a very compelling movie. However, you have to endure the first twenty minutes in order to get there. And trust me, we almost didn’t, since there are three atrociously violent and disturbing scenes at the start. It was only other people who had seen it which persuaded me to continue after we had decided to quit. I still don’t think the movie justifies the opening scenes’ brutality, but that’s more because they could have been done differently, not because the movie isn’t worth seeing. It’s a case where the movie could have been much more appealing without what wasn’t really necessary. But, once you get past that, it’s not that the movie becomes cleaner but that the plot becomes much more interesting.

Superficial Content: H
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence H, Language F
There is one scene with a man using cocaine and a woman partially naked nearby. Language is about as heavy as it can be. But the real concern here is violence, and trust me it is brutal, gruesome, ongoing violence. You’ll notice that I gave it an H on an A-F scale. This is NC-17 stuff, in my opinion and should absolutely not be watched by anyone who isn’t an adult. In fact, I don’t even want to describe the particulars because they are so awful. Gerard Butler seems to have a thing for hyper-violent movies, at least if Gamer is any indication. Just trust me that if you have an aversion to disturbing violence like torture or rape or children being harmed, this movie is not for you.

Significant Content: B
Justice is a non-negotiable requirement, and it is fundamentally unjust to settle for what you can get rather than forcing people to take responsibility for their actions. A justice system which doesn’t understand this must be reformed. Lessons learned in blood are the most memorable.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Here is another instance where I really have to grade it up and down. There’s so much to think about and discuss here, that it really deserves a better grade. But in being made so violent, it’s really impeded it’s own chances as a film to have a wider impact on people who should be asking the sort of questions this movie asks. It couldn’t have been made any less than R rated, but it didn’t need to be as awful as it was in order to do what it wanted to do.

Discussion Questions:
~What is Clyde’s definition of justice? Discuss some of the things he does to people in the name of justice. Which of them would you agree with or disagree with? Do you think the problem with our justice system is that it is too nice to criminals?
~Is there a difference in responsibility from the person who commits the crime and the people who then make it so that he is not properly punished for that crime (such as his attorney or the judge)?
~How essential is it that we have a trial system where the defendant always gets an advocate (called the adversarial system)? What about a system where all legal experts were obligated to try to bring out the truth (inquisitorial system)?
~In the context of this movie, what would repentance mean? Describe some of the changes that would have to be made for real repentance to take place in the justice system?
~When you’re watching this movie, who do you want to win? Do your sentiments ever change over the course of the movie? How do you feel about the final scene?
~The judicial oath is taken on a Bible and to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” How much does this oath also imply an obligation to seek a pure goal of perfect justice rather than the inferior goal of simple deterrence or incapacitation in a trial?
~Clyde accuses Nick of doing his job just well enough to look good to the public, which means completely wrong in terms of justice. What do you think of this allegation?
~Clyde says that he doesn’t have to worry about what his wife and daughter would think of his actions since only the living matter. (“My wife and daughter don’t feel anything.”) How is his personal view of morality shaped by his implied belief that there is no eternal life or God watching over us? Why would someone say that the only reason we can stand to live with injustice in this world is by believing that God will ultimately achieve perfect justice in the next? How would Clyde have benefitted from the knowledge of Jesus Christ?
~In what ways would you say that Clyde behaves as if he is God? To what degree is his representation of God accurate? How is it limited? What is the main difference for a Christian between God and Clyde?
~Given that this movie raises serious objections against our justice system, would you say that it’s a good movie for the ordinary public to watch? How important is it for people to have naïve (even misplaced) faith in their court system?
~English jurist William Blackstone famously said that it’s better for ten guilty persons to go free than for one innocent person to be punished. Benjamin Franklin increased this ratio to 100 to 1. What do you think?
~At least one commentator alleged that this movie is essentially a defense of terrorism. What do you think? If the key definition of terrorism is targeting people unrelated to the cause of the conflict, is Clyde a terrorist or not? In what way, if any, would you say that this movie is a vigilante movie where the real perpetrator is the system itself rather than a particular evildoer? Is there a distinction between vigilante movies, terrorist movies, and this one?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene. Was this necessary? Movies show rather than telling, but are there some things which are better off told rather than shown precisely because they are too powerful to show?
~The bail hearing in the court. Are Clyde’s criticisms fair or exaggerated?
~The end discussion in the cell.
~The execution scene in the beginning. What do you make of the side-by-side imagery of the cello performance with it?
Overall Grade: B
An extremely brutal movie which is clever, well-acted, and very thought-provoking. This could have been an A if only they had decided to make it that way.

Box, The (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images.
Length: 115 minutes
Grade: DD+DD(B)=D
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $27 million (15 U.S., 12 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, Donnie Darko), based on a short story by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere in Time, and lots of Sci-Fi/Horror TV)
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella

A young NASA scientist and his teacher wife are offered a deal by a mysterious man that if they will simply press a button on an odd device, a total stranger will die and they will be paid 1 million dollars. Things become significantly more complicated after they decide to do so.

Entertainment Value: D is for Donnie Darko.
The director of that cult classic (not in my opinion at all) has struck again with a movie that can only satisfy those who like to be dissatisfied and draw enjoyment from their frustration. Sadly, my wife actually tried to talk me out of this for exactly the fact of him as the director. “No, no,” I said, “This has Cameron Diaz and Frank Langella and it’s a really cool plot concept. It won’t be that bad.” In truth, Andrew should trust his wife more. The basic problem here is that the movie never delivers anything you hope it might, even at the very end. This is a short story (perfect for an episode of the Outer Limits or the Twilight Zone) without enough depth to make a whole movie, and especially after you strip off all the extraneous weirdness, there’s very little actual plot here. What makes this all the more tragic is that the basic idea of the movie is brilliant, and given the dearth of great ideas in Hollywood (witness the abundance of disappointing remakes and sequels), the only thing I despise more than a bad movie is a bad movie which ruined an idea that could so easily have been made into a great movie. I mourn here for what could have been, much like watching Click, for instance.

Superficial Content: D+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence D, Language C+
There are a few scenes of moderate alcohol consumption and casual smoking. There is virtually no sexuality. Language is fairly light. The movie would easily be PG except for violence and overall creepiness. Several people are killed, including a man shooting his own wife. A child is depicted as having been made blind and deaf. People bleed from the nose from some sort of mind control device. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the general tone here. I wouldn’t let young kids watch this, but teenagers are probably fine, although I can’t say there’s much point in letting them watch it. PG-13 is probably right, but R-15 seems a bit safer.

Significant Content: D
There are some semi-decent themes here, such as that all actions have consequences and that the basic question of morality is whether you will deny your own personal benefit for the sake of other people to whom you have no attachment. But even all of that isn’t enough in my mind to eliminate the overall worldview being presented here. Not only is there no God or opportunity to pray to Him for guidance, but the place of God is occupied by mysterious forces (probably Martians) who are carefully orchestrating every part of our lives for their moral evaluation tests. This means that ultimately, salvation is up to us, even though it’s on their terms. As such, this is mostly just a stranger version of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Artistic/Thought Value: D(B)
The split grade here is because, while I think the premise of this movie is quite brilliant and therefore stimulates plenty of discussion, the actual execution of that idea into the movie doesn’t deserve anything like a high mark. I actually started writing down all the strange events in an effort to keep them all in mind toward the end when I expected the resolution. But later, when I started to suspect no such payoff was coming, I just gave up. At least I saved that effort. The one part of the movie which had the most potential was the use of No Exit as a theme springboard, but the whole basis of that play was the direct interactions with other people, not the distant impact our choices have on them. So as overt as that use was, I felt it was a serious misfire here.

Discussion Questions:
~In what sense do our lives always depend on other people not being willing to kill us? Is it fair to say that this is constant altruism, or is it just fear of the consequences on their part? If you believed your neighbors believed they could make a million dollars by killing you, how secure would you feel about your safety?
~Was it reasonable or naïve for Norma and Arthur to really believe that they could kill another person with no personal consequences to themselves?
~Would you say the consequences in this movie to them were just?
~Is Arlington Steward at all responsible for their actions, or is he just the man who gave them a motive and the illusion of no personal risk? What if he hadn’t been behind all the other circumstances which made them more desperate just before he gave them the box? What role did the $100 bill have in influencing them?
~How many people do you think would take this deal? How much would willingness be affected by having to actually see the victim or do something you believe is causally connected to their death? Are there any relevant similarities between their choice and the actions of executives of companies who disregard safety concerns about their products?
~How hard is it to talk yourself into staying content with circumstances you were willing to accept prior to some new opportunity which entices you? Consider some other scenarios like this, such as turning down an affair when the adulterous person approached you or a sudden discovery of a way to steal from your company. What do you make of the fact that we all find it easier to say no to things we aren’t really in a position to take anyhow? Why do we tend to believe we would do the right thing in a moral test? Why is such moral self-deception so dangerous?
~Do you think Norma’s deformity had anything to do with her being selected for the experiment? Is it possible the doctor who damaged her foot was actually part of it all from the beginning?
~The play No Exit is clearly intended as a thematic source for this movie, and the point of that play (simplistically) is that hell is the presence of other sinful people. Is that the point of this movie? Is there a point in this movie? Is this movie about Purgatory, as one character later asks?
~When Norma talks about loving Arlington because of her own experience of deformity, do you believe her? Why does this empathy seem to count for nothing with the experimenters?
~The quote from Arthur C. Clarke was that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What does that mean? What things in your life should you describe as magical from your own knowledge perspective? What does this quote have to do with the movie?
~If you were in the kitchen with Norma and Arthur, what advice would you offer them?
~Did you want to see them push the button or not? What does this say about you? Would you have wanted to see them push the button if it had been a real event?
~What theological significance is there to the fact that the button can’t be unpushed?
~What do you make of the stylistic contrast between the box and boxiness of the human world and the fluidity (water) of the experimenters’ world and technology?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The decision to push the button.
~The dilemma with their child.
~Various creepy scenes like at the library or the motel.
Overall Grade: D
A great idea for a movie given to exactly the wrong director. However, those who loved Darko or Southland Tales will likely love this. Probably the same people who enjoy Lost, I suspect. As a side note, I think there should be a general rule against trying to convince an audience that Cameron Diaz speaks with a Southern drawl. She doesn’t, and no one can plausibly believe her character when she does.

Invention of Lying, The (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for language including some sexual material and a drug reference.
Length: 99 minutes
Grade: AC?A+=A-
Budget: $18.5 million
Box Office: $35 million (18 U.S., 14 Intl., 3 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Ricky Gervais (First movie, lots of TV) and Matthew Robinson (First script/film)
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, and Rob Lowe
With: Jonah Hill, Jeffrey Tambor, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, and Michael Caine.

In a world otherwise identical to ours, no one has the ability to lie or even to keep their honest opinions to themselves. In this world where everyone is 100% gullible, one man inadvertently develops the ability to lie, which gives him a chance with a beautiful woman and also leads him to invent religion.

Entertainment Value: A
This is a brilliant concept for a movie, which is executed at every turn with wit and insight. The implications are wonderful, and the exploration a delight. I’m a big fan of Ricky Gervais, and this doesn’t disappoint. I must have laughed out loud dozens of times.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C, Violence B, Language C
There are several conversations that involve sex, and a scene where sex is about to happen but doesn’t. Casual alcohol consumption is present throughout. The language is right in the middle of PG-13. Suicide is discussed by one person. PG-13 is just right here. Also, I’m not sure younger kids would really grasp this movie anyhow.

Significant Content: ?
In the end, this movie is simultaneously incredibly offensive to religious people and to secularists. See, even though Mark invents Judaism basically, the group of people who want to know more ask him all the most difficult and obvious theological questions that plague theologians such as free will and Divine responsibility and what are the entrance requirements for heaven. On the other hand, (and I worry a lot of religious people might not see this without me mentioning it), the basic fact of how eager everyone is to learn about and believe in this religious mythology derives from the fact of how barbaric and horrid life in a purely secular world is. The movie is quite stinging in its satire of a world that would actually take genetic selection seriously, for instance. So, I think significant content question is going to depend heavily on the viewer. Even the obvious theme of lying is not presented with any clear assessment as to its worth or danger, other than to notice the power lying has.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
I can’t assume that all people will love this movie as much as I did, but this is a philosopher’s dream of a movie because it so effectively explores the nature of lying by isolating it within a world where it doesn’t happen. In the process, it forces us to consider just how pervasive lying, politeness, and withholding of honesty are in our everyday lives. Brilliant! And funny.

Discussion Questions:
~In this movie, Mark invents a religion which looks to many like Christianity but which is all about doing good works rather than accepting the sacrifice of Christ. If someone were going to invent a religion, would it be works-oriented or would it be Christianity? What it is about Christianity which is so counter-intuitive and unlikely to be invented? What does this say about the likely validity of Christianity?
~In The Republic, Plato discusses the Noble Lie, which makes life in his utopian nation possible. Others have often said that even if religion isn’t true, it’s a very useful myth. Why do you think that people who offer this idea seem incapable of internalizing it strongly enough to simply stop saying that they think religion is false? In what sense would the religion of this movie be useful for people? If you knew that your religious beliefs were false, would you still advocate them for the benefit of others? What does the Bible have to say about the consequences if Christianity is false (like if the resurrection didn’t happen)?
~Does there seem to be any morality in this world? What implications are there for the connection between morality and religion?
~Do you think that refraining from saying something you honestly believe is a form of lying? In all cases or only with respect to people you are close to? Have you ever tried to do this? Do we owe all people the honor of total self-disclosure? Does God so brazenly disclose Himself to all people? What are the benefits of people not saying everything they think? The people in this world seem rather robotic. Is this because they have no capacity to nuance or control their self-disclosures? Or are they miserable because no one is ever allowed to believe anything about themselves or the world other than the most abrasive truth?
~The people in this world are perfectly gullible but also quite clever. When they use their cleverness to make sense of the lies they are told, you might say they are being perfectly charitable in their credulity. How is this useful? How does lying and the skepticism it breeds in us keep us from seeing unlikely or counterintuitive truths?
~This movie seems to not make any distinction between lies and errors, as though people not only always tell the truth but also always get their assertions right. Do you think people in a world without lying might still have the ability to not believe someone based on inaccuracy?
~It’s been sometimes said that the things a culture most takes for granted are things it doesn’t even realize and may not even have words for. How is this idea shown in this movie? What concepts do you think you may not even have the ability to question?
~Do you think Coke or Pepsi contributed money to this movie?
~Why is lying wrong? Are some lies loving? If you think they are, then what do you think about the idea of God lying to us, since He says He does not and yet perfectly loves? Does love depend on lying? Can you think of any cases where telling the truth would be immoral? Where lying would be virtuous?
~What sort of burdens would it put on you if you knew that everyone else would always believe you? Would it make you more or less likely to lie?
~Do you think this movie is pro-religion or anti-religion? Is this view of religion the writers’ view or were they just playing out the concept of the premise? Do you interpret the immediate thirst these people have for any sort of spiritual revelation as support for the idea that it’s deeply embedded in human nature to yearn for the eternal and the divine?
~Some of the ideas represented here are fairly harsh, such as with respect to nursing homes. Are those ideas really the truth or just the fashionably harshest versions of the possible spectrum of truth on the subject?
This is the first movie I have noticed with the following disclaimer: “No person or entity associated with this film received payment or anything of value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of tobacco products.” What do you think of such a statement?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The first date and the conversations with the waiter, the mother, and each other.
~Mark talking with his dying mother.
~The television ad for coke and the bus ad for Pepsi: When they don’t have coke.
~The revelation of the two pizza boxes.
~Sitting in the bar trying to explain the concept of lying to his friends.
~The running theme of what television would be in a world like this. Do you think television would even exist in such a world?

Overall Grade: A-
I highly recommend it. Very entertaining and very thought-provoking.

Informant!, The (2009)

Rated: R for language.
Length: 108 minutes
Grade: BDCD=C
Budget: $22 million
Box Office: $40 million (33 U.S., 7 Intl.)

Written by: Scott Z. Burns (What We Take From Each Other, Bourne Ultimatum), based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh (Che, Ocean’s 11-13, Good German, Solaris, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight, and Sex Lies and Videotape)
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, and Melanie Lynskey.

A senior ADM biochemist blows the whistle on global price fixing to the FBI in an effort to advance his own career within the company even as his own compulsive lying and fraud spirals out of control in this movie based on a true story.

Entertainment Value: B
The interesting thing about this movie is the way you begin watching it expecting one set of developments and then as everything unfolds the movie transforms itself into an entirely different sort of thing. What seems like a movie about a semi-likeable but somewhat bumblesome whistle-blower and corporate corruption becomes a fairly compelling show-and-tell about bipolar disorder and compulsive lying. Damon is brilliant. That much is obvious. My own irritation with this movie was that I’m from Illinois, and I immediately realized that although the film is set in the 90s, they’re using current Illinois license plates rather than the old sky blue, dark blue, and white ones which lasted until 2001. For a movie which seems to do so much to cultivate period authenticity, I’m left wondering whether this was a deliberate error.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence A, Language D
There’s some casual alcohol consumption and one indirect reference to drug use. The only sex issue is one discussion about a woman ruining her figure with children and another about Japanese businessmen buying girl’s underwear out of a vending machine in the airport. The reason this is R is purely language, with plenty enough F and S profanity to justify the rating. I guess they were trying to write realistically, but this surely could have been just PG with a little restraint.

Significant Content: C
The FBI is incompetent. Corporate executives the world over are only interested in profit rather than the law. Even people who blow the whistle may be doing it for their own interests in profit. You can fool an awful lot of people with clever lies for awhile, but it probably won’t last forever.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
When it was all over, my wife and I both looked at each other with the same basic question on our minds, “What did we just watch?” It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t all that fun. I felt intrigued by it but ultimately let down wondering what had just happened to me over the last 100 minutes.

Discussion Questions:
~Who seems more mentally disturbed in this marriage: Mark or his wife who either doesn’t seem to grasp his problem or chooses to ignore it?
~Why does Mark so obsessively rearrange events so as to paint himself as a hero both to others and in his own mind? Is this something normal people also do?
~What is the purpose of his lying? Does it have a purpose? Discuss his repeated use of his own personal history. ~Can you think of any core explanation that helps make sense of Mark’s life, especially the way he reveals information to people who shouldn’t have it?
~What is the point of the running series of odd observations and internal narratives? Do they paint him as an insightful person or as being mentally cluttered? By the end of the movie, Mark’s compulsive lying makes you wonder which if any of these observations are even factually accurate (for instance, the thing about polar bears is a total myth). How would you know, and what lesson do you draw from this about believable myths and urban legends? ~One theory about urban legends is that we tend to believe the ones which reinforce negative stereotypes we already have about people. Which of the stories in this movie fit that pattern?
~Good liars know that the most believable of lies are both outrageous and also use enough specific detail that no one even bothers to question them. Do you think modern news media contributed to our inability tell truth from fiction through common sense?
~What does the theme of the “white hat guy” mean in this movie? Do you think most people have this same sense about themselves no matter what they do? Why do you think people have trouble accepting the Christian notion that they are basically evil and sinful?
~What do you think of the ending and of what eventually happened to Mark and the ADM executives?
~As people start to realize how disturbed Mark is, they stop being angry at him and start treating him as an object of pity. Is this related to their beliefs about whether he can or cannot control himself? How do we react differently to people who choose evil and people who seem unable to stop themselves from doing bad things?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The final confrontation with Mark, Ginger, and Brian Sheppard.
~Mark showing his friend the briefcase.

Overall Grade: C
There are moments of real humor, but it’s hard to tell who would really appreciate this movie other than someone who likes unusual movies for the sake of them being unusual. In the end, of course, I can’t really know whether I’ve seen a relatively accurate account or not. So, as I said before, “What did I just watch?”