Daybreakers (2009)

Rated: R for strong bloody violence, language and brief nudity.
Length: 98 minutes
Grade: B+FAA=A
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $61 million (30 U.S., 20 Intl., 11 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Michael and Peter Spierig (Undead, The Big Picture)
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Claudia Karvan, and Sam Neill.

In a future where most humans have been turned into vampires and the whole society is theirs, the blood supply is running out and the race faces total extinction unless a solution can be found.

Entertainment Value: B+
The first reason this is a good movie is that it falls into my favorite genre: an intriguing premise taken seriously and then played out in thoughtful detail on the screen. Just the portrayal of a normalized vampire society alone is worth seeing here. The characters and the plot are interesting, although certain obvious questions are avoided (Why does the lack of blood, not it’s presence, make vampires strong? Why aren’t there herds of animals in addition to humans? Why would such a crisis develop and climax in such a short period of time?) Nevertheless, this is interesting and a completely different take on vampire stories than the current glut of others offers. Just one example should suffice. In the background newscast of the opening sequence, one commenter mentions that vampire combustions are still the number one cause of forest fires.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C, Violence F, Language D
Although there is nudity, it is non-erotic, basically shown when humans are stored in machines as blood sources a la the Matrix. The language would merit an R rating, but it’s not awful by today’s standards (about 15 F- and S- words each). Characters smoke a lot. The main reason that no children should watch this movie is that it is extremely violent and scary. Kids-in-mind gave it a 10 for violence, and I agree. R for sure. No kids. You might say teens can see Twilight, but no way should anyone under 16 be watching this. Think 28 Days Later, Blade, or Underworld.

Significant Content: A
I have recently become more interested in the Vampire/Zombie genre of films, mostly because they seem to be so popular. This easily stands out as the most philosophically nteresting of those. The main character is a vampire who wishes he could go back to being human and thus has great misgivings about helping the vampire corporation for whom he works more efficiently harvest human blood. Without giving too much plot away, I think the parallels with humans in Eden, the fall, and then being restored to a more permanent condition of stability is brilliant. Immortality without virtue is a curse.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
First, major praise for the total embrace of concept down to the finest details. It’s a beautiful movie both in overall visual presentation and in creative application of the concept to create a believable alternate universe. But precisely because the parallels with Christianity are so pervasive, I found this movie doing something for me I never quite expected. Not only was it interesting in its own right, but it gave me all sorts of new insights about the vampire concept itself as played out in other movies. In other words, this movie actually made other movies more interesting to me. That’s impressive.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think of the reversal on traditional vampire theory so that vampires feed to remain normal and lucid but not particularly strong whereas blood deprivation makes them savages?
~Why are people so interested in vampire stories these days? If you think of the “vampire virus” as a parable for sin, what ways could you say that vampires are the perfect illustration of sinful people? How do vampires survive and what effect do they have on their victims? What would happen if vampirism (sin) actually took over the world and destroyed goodness? What happens if an entire culture is filled with parasites? Do vampires create life or only pervert it into becoming like themselves?
~In this movie, what is the solution for the vampire virus, and how does it relate (if at all) to the Biblical solution for sin? What’s blood got to do with it? Are there any parallels to be drawn from this with communion? Does this movie offer a good analogy for being born again? Given the permanence of the solution, is this movie preaching Calvinism?
~If vampires could be saved or redeemed rather than destroyed, would fighting them suddenly take on a different dimension? Why is the normal vampire as purely evil not a good metaphor for sinners?
~“What does it profit a man to gain immortality but lose his immortal soul?” Is this a good summary for the theme of this movie? Is it better to die as a man or to live as a monster?
~When Sam Neill says the goal is not a cure but repeat business, what point is the movie trying to make? Who is its target for criticism? Does Christianity offer a cure or repeat business or both? How so?
~Compare and contrast this with other vampire or zombie movies, especially I Am Legend.

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene of the child vampire.
~Dalton trying his cure on himself.
~The confrontation with his brother.
~The end scenes with the guards.

Overall Grade: A
A very gory exploration of a fascinating alternate conception of vampires which virtually screams Christian themes and belongs cinematically in the same elite science-fiction category as Equilibrium and Strange Days. There’s a very good reason Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Neill signed on to this project.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief sensuality.
Length: 106 minutes
Grade: C+CC+C=C+
Budget: $125 million
Box Office: $515 million (163 U.S., 329 Intl., 23 DVD)

Written by: Travis Beacham (Dog Days of Summer, Seconds), Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi (Aeon Flux, the Tuxedo, Bug, Crazy/Beautiful), with credits to Beverley Cross (1981 Screenplay)
Directed by: Louis Leterrier (Incredible Hulk, Transporter 1+2, Unleashed)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Gemma Arterton.

With worship from the humans waning, the gods must somehow motivate them. They choose to unleash Hades and his pet Titan upon them, but Perseus, the son of Zeus, tries to stop the Kraken by vanquishing Medusa and other adventures in this mostly remake of the 1981 classic mythology film.

Entertainment Value: C+
For the most part, this is a bigger budget version of the old movie, done with sufficient homage to prove it’s building on that foundation, but not with enough new material to justify the remake. It’s certainly no worse than the original, but as with anything that carries nostalgic attachment, the question is always, “Do we really need a new version of this?” In this case, the answer is no. That being said, $130 million does buy effects that you just couldn’t have in 1981. On the other hand, Percy Jackson and the Olympians was much better for basically the same plot.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C, Language B
One thing this movie definitely has going in its favor is that the only thing to be concerned about here is violence. Sure, there are some mild sexuality elements, mostly stemming from the way Perseus and other demigods were made. But unlike so many other action movies these days, the PG-13 is entirely for violence and they didn’t choose to dump in a bunch of other stuff once they already had that rating. I think there was one or two mild bad words. That being said, the violence is pretty extreme, but expected. Lots of people die, and massive devastation is threatened. They travel to Hades, and one key plot element is beheading Medusa.

Significant Content: C+
Here’s where things get interesting. I had originally written this off as a D because of the polytheism and the wretched character of the gods. But in reconsideration, I think there’s something here very worth noticing. Although Zeus pretends to be the vindictive god of mythology, and Hades certainly is, he turns out to look much more like the God of the Bible in the end: valuing human freedom and acting on the basis of love. Bad gods (Hades, Satan) thrive on fear and power. Good ones thrive on love. Also, in another clearly Christian flavoring of the story, Perseus is offered the chance to live a save life on Olympus but chooses to serve “in the mud” the humans.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
It’s definitely not the sort of movie that really draws you into deep reflection and self-contemplation afterwards, but given the ideas about deity and humanity, it’s not devoid of ideas either. One of the opening scenes has a man basically saying, “Why would I pray to the gods when they deliver us so much pain and suffering?” The response and ensuing discussion are admittedly brief, touching on theodicy (the idea that it must be our fault when bad things happen) and the goodness of gods.

Discussion Questions:
~The metaphysics of this story have the gods deriving their strength from human prayer. Does it seem logical that gods who create men would only get their existence from their creation? How does this theory of divine power fit or not with the Bible’s ideas about God, men, power and prayer? When non-Christians look at our religion, do you think this is what they think of God and our prayers?
~Perseus isn’t just part man and part god, he’s “the best of both.” In what ways is Perseus like Jesus? In what ways not? Consider, particularly the way Perseus “wins” and the way Jesus wins. How might you say that Perseus is actually an anti-Christ rather than a Christ-type? Consider, for instance, his insubordination against Zeus, his hatred of the gods for what they did to his earthly father (Did Joseph survive into Jesus’s adulthood?), his pride, and his embrace of violence.
~Why does Perseus want to succeed only by being human and not with his godly gifts? Why is this so important to him? What allows Perseus to change his mind? Why is it important that Jesus was constrained to live life as fully human?
~A frequent literary device in the Bible is to have characters preach Christ by contrast rather than by similarity. Do you think this movie can be used to preach Christ? If so, how would you do it?
~What do you make of the religious fanatic at The religious fanatic at Argos?
~Jealousy is one of the major character flaws of the Greek gods, but the Bible proclaims that God is a jealous God. What’s the difference between the two kinds of jealousy?
~If you’ve seen the original movie, how many homages to it can you name? (I counted four main ones)

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The extended argument Hades and Zeus have over whether fear or love is better in the governance of men. Who do you think won this argument? In what ways do the gods of Greece separate out the characteristics of God into separate people? Why do we have the urge to do that? It’s been said that it’s better for a leader to be feared than loved. What do you think?
~Charon and the boat ride.
Overall Grade: C+
A violent but otherwise mostly clean big-budget remake of the original with more interesting theology.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010)

Rated: PG for some rude humor and language.
Length: 94 minutes
Grade: FBAD=D
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $77 million (64 U.S., 1 Intl., 12 DVD)

Written by: Jackie & Jeff Filgo (TV, mostly), Gabe Sachs & Jeff Judah (TV, mostly), based on the books by Jeff Kinney ()
Directed by: Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs, Monkey Business)
Starring: Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron
With: Rachael Harris, Steve Zahn, Devon Bostick, and Chloe Moretz

Summary: A wimpy kid must attempt the most daunting challenge ever set before a teenager: survive middle school.

Entertainment Value: F
I suppose I should explain. I truly hated this movie. I had previously browsed the books at the bookstore because I was too bored to do anything better with my time, and I didn’t get them or why people seem to love them. But I thought maybe the movie would make sense of it all for me. Unfortunately, this was simultaneously unentertaining, unfunny, ridiculous, and not something kids should watch anyhow. We started off letting the kids watch it, but that only lasted about 15 minutes, because it seemed like we were subjecting them to exactly the sort of nonsense being complained about in the movie.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language BThere’s nothing here particularly awful, but a lot of mild vulgarity. A teenage band is called “Loaded Diaper” (it’s misspelled in the movie). Older or bigger boys regularly bully younger ones. There are gross moments like eating a disgusting piece of cheese. Terms like “idiot” and “moron” are used constantly. I’d say PG-10 perhaps.

Significant Content: A
Alright, there is something terribly redeeming at the core of this movie, and it’s the message. Simply put: a true friend loves his friend and even loves his friend’s weird idiosyncrasies. The problem in this movie is that the main character doesn’t really love his goofy friend, Rowley. He puts up with him, but basically has contempt for him inside, a fact which eventually comes out and challenges their friendship. True friends, instead, sacrifice for each other and don’t try to coerce each other into being something they aren’t. There’s also a basic theme that “being yourself” is intrinsically good.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Unfortunately for this movie, I’m not convinced that the message just given will outshine the crud and uninteresting goo that it’s covered with.

Discussion Questions:
~What dos it mean to be a real friend? Who demonstrates friendship in this movie?
In real life, do you think a kid like Rowley would have the sort of results he had at school? Why is that important?
~To what degree should you always try to be yourself and to what degree should you try to conform to other people’s norms and expectations?
~Is it always wrong to try to get our silly friends to fix their silly spots? Can it be loving to try to get them to conform?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Devil-worshipper woods.
~Rowley confronting Greg about being a bad friend.
Overall Grade: D
We made our kids stop watching soon after the start. I also tried to quit watching it halfway through because I was so bored. My wife made me finish it. At least now I can assure you it’s not entertaining.

Kick-Ass (2010)

Rated: R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use - some involving children.
Length: 117 minutes
Grade: AFCA=A-
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $107 million (48 U.S., 48 Intl., 11 DVD)

Written by: Jane Goldman (Stardust) & Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Layer Cake, Snatch, Mean Machine, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells), based on the comic by Mark Millar (Wanted, Ultimate Avengers)
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Layer Cake)
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Moretz, Mark Strong, and Nicholas Cage.

A wimpy avid comic reader decides to become a superhero, but discovers the reality of it to be far less than glorious. At the same time, a former cop and his daughter with real killing skills have already begun to take down a massive criminal organization while posing as superheroes.

Entertainment Value: A
This was far more entertaining than I expected, mostly because I anticipated it being just a farcical movie about ordinary people trying to be super-heroes somewhat in the vein of Mystery Men. Well, it wasn’t that. This is an amazingly well-crafted “imagine if people actually tried to be superheroes” story that really embraces its own premise and delivers a satisfying action, comedy, comic experience. You know how a band’s first album is almost always their best one because they pack so much pent up originality into it that it’s hard to duplicate the concentrated coolness of it again? Well, that’s the sort of sense I had here, although it was nobody’s first movie. Bluntly speaking, this is the one of the best action movies I’ve seen this year. Also, the Adam Westing of Nicholas Cage was hilarious.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence F, Language F
Absolutely no kids! Although this is based on a comic, it’s an adult comic for sure. The violence is extreme, including blood, cars running a man over, people being beat up, stabbed, shot, blown up, etc. Granted, it’s all comicesque, but it’s still super-violent. The language is atrocious, over 100 F-words alone. There is some drug content with criminals using cocaine, for instance. There’s only a tiny bit of actual nudity, but there are a several scenes with sexual content, including implied self-pleasuring. The only reason I tell you all this is to be absolutely clear: no kids, no kids, no kids! In the very beginning, I thought this could have been made PG if they had wanted to, but it quickly became apparent that I was wrong. Cleaning this up would have made it a completely different movie.

Significant Content: C
There is evil in the world, and someone has to fight it. That someone might as well be me. Vigilante justice is the only kind that makes sense with criminals who refuse to play by any rules. Bystanders are just as responsible for evil happening as the criminals themselves.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
It’s not so much that this is going to leave you asking a lot of deep questions as that it is such an amazing blend of genres and concepts that it has to be called excellent as art. This is especially true given the numerous examples of comic-based movies that fail to be interesting and often aren’t even worth watching. It’s a comic, a thriller, a dark comedy, a film noir, and an action vigilante movie all rolled into one.

Discussion Questions:
~Are people who observe a crime in progress and do nothing to stop it just as guilty as the criminals? What would “love your neighbor as yourself” mean in such a situation?
~Consider some of the major characters and ask yourself how their lives or choices would have been different if they had been Christians?
~Why is vigilantism so appealing? Why is it so wrong? What is the basic theological error behind vigilantism?
~Do you think reading comic books fills kids’ heads with the wrong sort of heroes? Why are comic books so appealing to so many people?
~Is a culture which loves Batman and Spiderman more or less healthy than one which loves Paris Hilton and Kanye West?
~Why do you think more people don’t try to become superheroes themselves?
~Consider Red Mist and comment on why he does the things he does.
~What implications does this movie have for social networking, media sites such as YouTube, and even news media? ~Is it trying to make a statement about tragedy as entertainment or about how we secretly want there to be awful things we can watch?
~What motivates Big Daddy? Is it more justice or revenge? What do you think he would say about how everything in this movie turned out?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene. What is this scene trying to tell us about this movie and the realities of actual vigilantism?
~The very first confrontation with the two thugs and then the follow-up.
~At the drug-dealer’s lair.
~In the basement during the live broadcast.
~The final confrontation.
Overall Grade: A-
Extremely entertaining. Extremely R rated. If you enjoy movies like Kill Bill, Sin City, and Dark Knight, you’ll love this. If not, don’t watch it. Here’s a simple tip, if the title bothers you in any way, that’s your cue to rent another movie. In other words, go ahead and judge this movie by it’s cover box.

Serious Man, A (2009)

Rated: R for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence.
Length: 106 minutes
Grade: DDCB=C
Budget: $7 million
Box Office: $34 million (9 U.S., 22 Intl., 3 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Joel and Ethan Cohen (Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother Where Art Thou, Big Lebowski, Fargo, Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, and Raising Arizona.)
Starring: Michael Stuhlbarg
With: Richard Kind, Fred Melamed, Sari Lennick, Simon Helberg, and Adam Arkin.

A Jewish physics professor trying to achieve tenure has his life thrown into turmoil when his wife announces she wants to divorce him and marry a widower and mutual acquaintance. To make matters worse, a failing student attempts to bribe him for a grade and then threatens to sue for defamation of character if he doesn’t accept it. When he consults the Rabbis, he receives little help from them.

Entertainment Value: D
You know how sometimes you are intrigued by something and you watch it intently, but then at the end you sort of wonder what you just did for an hour and a half? Well, there you go. This is a masterfully bizarre and confusing indulgence in what it means to be an American Jew, or at least that’s what it seems like to me, a goy. As you might have suspected from the summary, there’s a lot going on here, and the Cohens are masters of the odd. But in recent efforts, they’ve gone from being super-cool and odd to just being odd. A bit like the disappointing progression of M. Night Shyamalan, quite frankly. I found this a frustrating and thought it did not at all live up to its universal billing as one of the great unrecognized gems of 2009.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence C, Language D
Marijuana is bought and smoked. There is an extended scene of female nudity and sexual fantasy. People die, one quite violently in the beginning. And the language is medium to heavy. It could be R rated on any of these particular counts, so R is certainly the right overall rating.

Significant Content: C
This is a movie full of questions and completely lacking in answers. It’s really an expression of Jewish angst at being essentially baffled by the universe and by God. Schroedinger’s Cat is the pivotal analogy of the film (I think), but they never explain it. Drawn from quantum theory, the (layman’s version of the) idea is that a cat inside of a box is really neither alive nor dead (both, really, and neither) until a human observer looks at it because observation creates pathways among alternate realities. How does that influence interpreting the rest of the movie? It just tells you that this will be essentially about ambiguity and existentialism without any particular point. The movie is completely lacking in moral guidance. God is at best inscrutable, and His universe is crazy, but we mustn’t question it too closely. If that doesn’t all seem to hang together, well, I’m doing the best I can with the movie I was given. My best guess is that they tried to make a movie as inscrutable as life but just as varied and interesting. As an experiment in avant-garde filmmaking, I guess this would be a success. But despite moments of genius, the overall thing is an unenjoyable collage for me.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Which is both an upgrade from the D I originally assigned it and a downgrade from the A I felt like giving it after about a day of being unable to stop thinking about it afterward. I eventually decided that just because something forces you to ponder it doesn’t mean it really has great things worth pondering inside of it. All the critics loved this, and the reason is that its low-box-office-therefore-high-Academy-Awards-appeal reinforces their paradigm assumption that popular and artistic can never coincide.

Discussion Questions:
~What was the point of the fable from the very beginning? Do you see any connection between this and the movie?
~The recurrent musical theme of the movie is the song “Don’t you want Somebody to Love?” by Cream. Why do you think this song is so prominent?
~One rabbi says that, “Hachem (a Jewish substitute for God) doesn’t owe us an answer,” as a way of explaining the world and events. What do you think of this answer?
~Does this movie seem to be saying anything particular about women?
~What do you think of the three rabbis? Do you see them being similar to or very different from Christian pastors? What do you make of the ironic disappointment Larry feels toward these after his pressing demand to see them about his problems?
~Is this meant to be a retelling of Job in some sense?
~Why does Judith want a “get” instead of just a divorce? What do you make of her both honoring her religious duties and yet doing so in pursuit of an adulterous relationship?
~The opening quote said, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Does this help solve the movie for you at all?
~If you took this exact movie and discovered that it was actually made by non-Jews, would it be seen as anti-Semitic? What’s the difference?
~A recurrent statement in the movie is, “But I haven’t done anything.” Nevertheless, bad things often happen to those who haven’t “done” anything. What is the movie trying to say about our ability to stave off pain and the influence of other people?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening folk tale.
~The first encounter with the Korean student.
~The encounter with the Korean student’s father.
~The story of the goy’s teeth.
~Sy Ableman wanting to be civil with Larry and even hug him. Would you have hit him if you were Larry?
~The tornado at the end. Is this meant to put tragedy in perspective? Love?
Overall Grade: C
It’s a self-indulgent Jewish paradox party with many memorable scenes but ultimately nothing much holding it all together except the reputation of two masterful writer-directors in the Cohen brothers. I would love to say that this was one of the hidden gems of 2009, but then I'd have to believe it actually was one of the hidden gems of 2009, wouldn't I?

Shutter Island (2010)

Rated: R for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity.
Length: 138 minutes
Grade: CDBC=C
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $214 million (128 U.S., 167 Intl., 19 DVD)

Written by: Laeta Kalogridis (Alexander, Night Watch, and 2 episodes of The Bionic Woman), based on the book by Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River)
Directed by: Martin Scorcese (His first real film.) (Seriously, you don’t who Martin Scorcese is? Alright, I’ll bite. The Departed, Aviator, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Last Temptation of Christ, Color of Money, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and Ben Kingsley
With: Max Von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine, Patricia Clarkson, and John Carrol Lynch.

A US Marshall is called to an island prison for the criminally insane to help the warden find an escaped inmate. It turns out he has been wanting to investigate this facility due to scattered reports that they are performing inhuman experiments on the inmates. Once there, however, he must both get the information he needs to expose them and get out alive.

Entertainment Value: C
It’s decent. That’s what C means. I watched it and never really wanted to quit. And it’s quite beautifully and dramatically shot. However, I was hoping for something better in the end to justify it all. I guess everyone who sees this movie knows something surprising is going to happen, but in reality I thought the twist was too obvious. So I was hoping for a twist on the twist or something more than just, “Oh, well I sort of suspected that from the very beginning.” I guess I was also misled a bit by the ads into thinking this was going to be a horror movie when it really wasn’t, although it sort of was. I kept my wife from seeing it, and she would not have enjoyed it, but not because it was a horror movie per se.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence F, Language D
There is non-erotic male nudity in this movie. A couple of conversations have to do with sexual behavior. There is plenty of alcohol consumption and smoking cigarettes. Language would be enough to rate this R, but it’s not overwhelming. Violence and scary images are the real concern here, with lots of death, blood, bodies, and just general creepy bits. Several scenes are flashbacks to a German concentration camp and the hero’s experiences liberating it.

Significant Content: B
The good stuff here has to do with the nature of insanity and the paradox that allegedly insane people have no feasible way of proving their sanity. Everything you try to do as a normal person in such a situation only makes you look more and more insane. One ongoing theme is the question of whether insane people should be treated as broken machines needing invasive repairs or as human beings needing consideration and companionship. There are various types of insanity, some evil and other benign or even just ways of avoiding the terribleness of some unbearable truth. Another issue which emerges from one rather unexpected conversation with the prison guard is about the naturalness of violence and whether God loves violence.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Maybe it’s because I was expecting more or because the issues about insane people being incapable of disproving their diagnosis are just very familiar to me already, but I didn’t find a lot here that was innovative. The ending is thoughtful, but only enough to get this from a D to a C.

Discussion Questions:
~Does it ever worry you what might happen if someone managed to diagnose you as insane? What is the difference between the agitation, anger, and frustration a healthy person and an unhealthy one would show in response to such treatment? Once diagnosed as insane, would you say a person has to actually become insane in an extremely passive and calm sense just to get released?
~Do you worry that the power to declare people insane and have them committed is too great to give anyone? What about those cases where people genuinely do need continuous supervision?
~If you had a horrible trauma in your life for which you felt partially responsible, how do you think you would deal with it? Can you think of any set of circumstances which might be massive enough to challenge your own sanity? Is your faith capable of handling such challenges?
~Have you ever thought you might be crazy? How do you know you’re not? How might you prove that you are not? What would it take to persuade you that you are? Do crazy people ever think they are?
~What do you think of the final resolution of the movie?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Encounter in the cave.
~The conversation with the guard about violence. Does the violence of this world indicate that God loves violence? How would you respond to the guard’s soliloquy?
~The end sequence.

Overall Grade: C
Good, but not quite more than that. In fact, “not quite” is probably a good description of this movie overall. Not quite bad, not quite great. Fine. The only thing “not not quite” about this film is the acting, which is excellent by all three stars.

Green Zone (2009)

Rated: R for violence and language.
Length: 115 minutes
Grade: B+DDD=C
Budget: $100 million
Box Office: $106 million (35 U.S., 60 Intl., 11 DVD)

Written by: Brian Helgeland (Curque du Freak, Taking of Pelham 123, Man on Fire, The Order, Mystic River, Blood Work, A Knight’s Tale, Payback, The Postman, Conspiracy Theory, and LA Confidential), with background influence from the book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
Directed by: Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum and Supremacy, United 93, and Bloody Sunday)
Starring: Matt Damon
With: Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, and Amy Ryan.

An American Chief Warrant Officer in Bagdad tasked with finding WMDs begins to suspect something is wrong when each location they seize yields no weapons at all.

Entertainment Value: B+
The Bourne guys know how to make movies, and the $100 million budget really shows here. It’s fast. It’s entertaining. And the only thing likely to interfere with people liking it is the fact that it is so clearly presenting an anti-war-in-Iraq message that the otherwise excellence of it stumbles over its distastefulness. You just can’t make a movie like this during a war like this and think that loads of people in America will watch it. Matt Damon makes an anti-Iraq-war movie? No way! Still, it’s full of good and bad guys and it’s a well-crafted war thriller. Of course Damon’s character is a cartoon and his survival through the plot ludicrous, but don’t we all love a good comic book sometimes? And besides, the reason this movie will work for some people is that it simplifies, explains, and then solves for the errors surrounding the war in Iraq.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence D, Language D-
This is R, and the problem is war violence and language. Of course. But it’s a matter of volume, not of any particular awfulness. I’d say R-15.

Significant Content: D
There is quite a bit of conflict in substance here. On the good side, we want people who think and ask questions and try to discover what’s really going on, especially when they have been deceived. The truth matters and must come out. So the hero is really a hero. Also, the people in Iraq want the war to be a success even more than our military does, a great message to remind people. On the other hand, of course, this movie has the White House being deliberate liars to manufacture a war not merely on a lack of evidence but in full possession of the truth. “Someone lied, thousands died,” would be the slogan here. Where this film could have gone beautifully right would have been if they had decided somehow to cast the villains not as deliberate falsifiers but rather as bumblers who ineptly believed too much on too little evidence. That would have been more palatable as a lesson. Also, most of the military folks here are either dense, cowardly, or evil (as with the Special Forces guys). Any film which presents the military this way bothers me and most Americans, I hope.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
What I strongly disliked about this movie was that it did a terrible job of emphasizing to the audience that this is a work of pure fiction. See, the most likely outcome of the average uninformed American watching this is to wander out of the theater thinking, “Holy mackerel. Did that really happen?” (At least that’s what they’d say if people hadn’t stopped saying, “Holy mackerel” in 1964.) The makers have had to defend it by saying it’s fiction with realism and a message. But since it’s based on a book (a fact the film proclaims), I think the film owed the disclosure to its audiences that the book gave realism and details about post-invasion events rather than the core of the plot. You can’t entice people to believe such a fabulous fiction and then pretend it’s okay because everyone knows it’s fiction. This winds up duping people just as badly as it claims the government duped us.

Discussion Questions:
~In the encounters between Miller and the Special Forces guy, what do you want to see happen?
~Do you think it’s likely that someone like Miller would be able to operate with this much freedom and impunity in such a situation?
~What do you believe is the explanation for our failure to find WMDs in Iraq?
~Do you think a movie like this helps or harms the people who watch it, in general? What sort of responsibilities do filmmakers have to their society when at war? How would you compare movies made during the current wars and those of World War II?
~What sort of obligations would someone in Miller’s position have to honor the chain of command or to not act on his own? Why are such obligations important under normal circumstances? When and how can we tell when it’s necessary to circumvent such rules?
~How do you think we might learn from the intelligence failures surrounding the war in Iraq and apply those lessons to future military actions? Why should we all be good epistemologists?
~Even if something as sinister as this were true, could you still think of the Iraq war as a success? What if it were merely based on an error? Do the humanitarian justifications of the war work without WMDs?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening briefing.
~Freddy telling Miller why he helped him.
~Talking with the General.
Overall Grade: C
Absurd but fun big-budget, anti-war action propaganda. For much better Iraq war TV, watch Generation Kill.

Invictus (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Length: 134 minutes
Grade: B-CAC+=C+
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $133 million (37 U.S., 85 Intl., 11 DVD)

Written by: Anthony Peckham (Sherlock Holmes), based on the book by John Carlin (Die Hard 4)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Changeling, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby, and 30 other movies everyone must watch)
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon

Just released from prison, newly elected President of South Africa Nelson Mandela tries to unite a racially divided nation through rugby as his country hosts the World Cup.

Entertainment Value: B-
Despite strong performances (as always) from Freeman and Damon, this fell flat for me. It was not one of Eastwood’s greatest films by far. Nevertheless, the basic context and plot kept me from being too bored. Cry Freedom (with Denzel Washington, way back when) was much better as a movie about South Africa, and many other films have been much better sports dramas. I think the two biggest things bothering me here were Damon’s accent (fine, but obviously not his own) and the total lack of explanation for the gameplay of rugby. (Embarrassing admission: I originally thought this was a movie about soccer, until I saw the funny ball and the lack of pretend injuries.) Any sports movie has to finely tread the line between boring aficionados and condescending to the uninformed, but a rugby movie for Americans should lean more to the latter. This didn’t, and that left many of the rugby scenes without much impact for me. “Oh, look, a scrum.” “What’s a scrum?” “I don’t know.” “Why do they do it?” “I don’t know.” “Shouldn’t this movie be helping us out, here?” “Yes, I wish it would.” The funny part is I know rugby better than most Americans since I worked with a New Zealander who loved the Allblacks. So imagine how much worse for the completely ignorant!

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence B+, Language C-
Bare-chested men, an implied sex encounter between a man and his wife, and some beer consumption. Sports violence and the ongoing worry about political assassination. The really frustrating thing about this movie is it could EASILY have been PG except for one totally unnecessary F-word and a handful of S-words. It’s a shame, almost like a lapse in judgment, really. PG-11 is about right, but be aware of the profanity.

Significant Content: A
This is really a movie about Mandela under the pretext of being a movie about rugby, which seems to be Eastwood’s recent modus operandi (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby, etc.) In any case, the lessons about politics, compromise, offering hope and understanding to your enemies, are all good. Mandela (a Christian, possibly Methodist, in real life) extends grace, surprising people with compassion, restraint, and generosity. He leads by example in all these regards. He teaches that forgiveness removes fear and liberates the soul. Sport can lead to unity and break the cycle of fear. I don’t know whether Eastwood is a Christian, but if he isn’t, he sure preaches well what he doesn’t believe. This movie even finishes with a prayer!

Artistic/Thought Value: C+
Partially because I can’t fully endorse the sports-triumph side of this movie and partially because I think Eastwood has done such better work elsewhere. Also, I was too aware of the music at times. The Christian messages of applied grace are good, and I particularly loved the idea that the blacks now in power should extend courtesy to the whites by not taking away their rugby team’s traditional colors.

Discussion Questions:
~Mandela is challenged for expending his valuable political capital on preserving the green and gold colors for the Springboks when there are so many other significant issues to deal with. Does history vindicate this decision? What did Mandela know about sport and race that his advisors did not?
~Does Mandela do what he does in this movie purely for political reasons or is he motivated by his personal love of rugby? Do you think he got lucky or was wise?
~Compare Mandela with other historical figures who persevered and endured jail and oppression to win justice for their people.
~In what ways is sport uniting? In what ways can it be divisive? Compare the actions of Mandela in this movie with the behavior of LeBron James, for instance.
~Can you think of any lessons President Obama might take from Nelson Mandela in terms of bridging the racial divide in the United States? Are there any sports that fit the place of rugby in South Africa in this movie?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Mandela leading the assembly to preserve the Springboks.
~The first day with the multi-racial bodyguards.
~Visiting the jail.
~The final match.

Overall Grade: C+
Adequate, and I was fascinated to encounter a story I had never heard of before. I guess a billion people can watch something and a 24-year-old kid in the United States might never hear of it.