127 Hours (2010)

Rated: R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images
Length: 94 min
Grade: C-DCC=C
Rotten Tomatoes: 93% favorable, 8.2/10 average
Budget: $18 million
Box Office: $65 million (18 U.S., 39 Intl., 8 DVD)

Written by: Danny Boyle (First Script) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Yasmin, and The Full Monty), based on the book by Aron Ralston.
Directed by: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine, Millions, 28 Days Later, A Life Less Ordinary, and Trainspotting)
Starring: James Franco
With: Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara

A loner and adventurer finds himself trapped in a hiking mishap and must eventually cut off his own arm to escape in this true story.

Entertainment Value: C-
I think this is a case of something being over-hyped to me, and so what might otherwise have been compelling was only average at best. I had seen Aron on Minute To Win It, where he told most of the major elements of the story during the course of the show. So, in spite of it being made about as well as I can imagine, I was much less engrossing than I expected. I was wanting it to be over for the middle of the film, not because it was unpleasant, but because I was bored. Also, although I am sure James Franco did a fabulous job of portraying “before-Aaron,” “after-Aron” is so much more compelling as a person that I was irritated by the character in the movie. Finally, the theater ending gave me almost no resolution for the big issues. This is one of those rare times when watching this on DVD was totally worth it because the alternate ending was tremendous to the point of almost rescuing me from an even worse grade. The stuff about his child and his mom and even his other relationship were so much better and brought meaning to the otherwise mostly just fact-telling account. I am completely baffled why they went with the bare-bones ending.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence D, Language D
The opening song has an F-word within ten seconds of starting. Then, there are a handful of F and milder profanities throughout the movie. At one point, there is a scene which seems to be leading toward masturbation, but it doesn’t happen. There is some beer drinking in flashback/imagined scenes. But the big issue here will be the overall aspect of watching him become ever-more dehydrated and the gory violence in the scenes of him severing his arm and thereafter. It’s pretty unpleasant to watch, but I think well done, given the difficulty of making the pain real without just becoming pornographic gore.

Significant Content: C
People who think they don’t need anyone else are mistaken. We all have regrets about how we’ve mistreated or neglected people, and sometimes it takes facing our own death to help us realize it. Hope is the one thing that can keep you going through impossible circumstances. It’s okay to be adventurous, just tell people where you’re going.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
One thing I found fascinating about the movie was how, even though I knew the impossibility of the situation, it took perhaps half an hour for me to overcome my mental impulse to try to “solve” the problem of how to move the rock. It just seemed so inconceivable that it could really be undoable. And so I must give the movie credit for conveying that sense of powerlessness. The other thing I hadn’t realized previously was that at a fairly early point in the events, his hand was already a complete loss. So the decision to sever it wasn’t about choosing keeping or losing the hand, but only about how to unshackle the body from the already-destroyed thing keeping him shackled to the rock.

Discussion Questions:
~Aron never prays to God in this movie, at least not that I recall. Does this seem strange to you? What would you expect from someone in this situation with respect to prayer?
~From God’s point of view, what do you think He might have intended this particular set of events to accomplish? In what ways was Aaron humbled or changed as a result of this event?
~Did you find it frustrating that there was no way for Aron to solve the problem of being stuck? Did you notice yourself continually trying to figure it out as I did? Why is that?
~One of the deleted scenes talked about “soloing,” which is doing adventures like this on your own. Why do you think soloing is so appealing? Why do you think Aaron continues to do this even now?
~In the Bible, Jesus says that it is better to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye if they cause you to sin rather than to keep them and go into hell. Do you think this story is a useful illustration of this concept?
~If you think of his arm as something that was lost, it’s easy to find this a tragedy, but if you think of his life as something that was gained, it’s easy to find this a triumph. Which is right? Is there any factual difference between those two perspectives? How are these two opposites representative of more common events in our own lives?
~Do you think “after-Aron” would have done anything different in his encounter with the girls than “before-Aron” did?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene where he avoids answering the phone and fumbles around unable to find his Swiss Army Knife.
~Locking up the bicycle on the tree. What do you make of this?
~The ongoing clash between Aaron going out into the beauty of nature but listening to this harsh, aggressive, and loud music while doing so. Does this seem strange to you? Is Aron missing or ruining something by soloing this way?
~The imaginary morning show interview. What insights about his own arrogance is Aaron dealing with at this moment?
~The final scene finding the people. Why is it so tremendously symbolic that Aaron’s first words were, “I need help?”

Overall Grade: C
A competently told version of an amazing real-life story, but both less engaging than I had hoped for and far less meaningful than it would have been with the alternate ending available on the DVD.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Rated: PG for thematic elements, some violent content, sexual humor and mild language (re-rating) (2004)
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: A,B,A,A=A
Rotten Tomatoes: 100% favorable, 9.0/10 average
Budget: $1.8 million
Box Office: $14 million (9 U.S., 5 DVD)

Written by: Terry Southern (Easy Rider, Barbarella, Casino Royale, and The Cincinnati Kid), based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George, who also helped write the movie Fail-Safe.
Written and Directed by: Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Lolita, and Spartacus—the only movie he did not at least help write.)
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Keenan Wynn.
With: Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed

A deranged Air Force base commander unilaterally sends his bombers to attack the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war, and the President must figure out a way to stave off Armageddon while keeping a warmongering general at bay.

Entertainment Value: A
This is simply one of the most brilliantly crafted scripts Kubrick ever worked with. Not only is the basic idea brilliant, but the writing is sheer genius, and the acting brings it to perfection. Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers (in all three of his roles!), and especially George C. Scott are so good that it’s impossible to overstate. Kubrick is a filmmaking treasure, and this is one of his finest.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B, Language B
Everything in this movie is very tame by today’s standards, even including a shot of a man looking at a centerfold which actually shows no more skin than any average prime-time television drama routinely does these days. There is some war violence and an off-screen suicide. It’s PG for sure.

Significant Content: A
As a colossal satire, there is one simple point to this movie: the world is being run by military-political madmen. They are either morons or genuinely insane or so ingrained with insane paradigms that the distinction makes no difference. The whole point is as if to say with 100% sarcasm, “See, there’s nothing to worry about here. Look at how competent and reliable everything and your leaders really are. You’re totally safe from nuclear war.” That’s the point of the sarcasm in the title. “I think about all these things, and I feel totally secure without a care in the world.” Obviously, this is meant to show how absurd the doctrines of nuclear mutually assured destruction really are by revealing how frighteningly vulnerable they are to human error or derangement.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
What can you say? The Doomsday Gap. General Turgidson worried that the Soviets will have a mineshaft gap even as the world is about to end. Wrestling in the War Room. If you’ve never seen this brilliant film, I almost hate to ruin any of it for you by telling you the bits and pieces. But what makes the whole thing work so well is that each piece of the puzzle is taken from real life and then just played out until it becomes absurd. That’s why the best way to understand this movie is as a fascinating political warfare chassis painted to perfection by characters who are the filmmaking equivalent of political cartoon caricatures of real people.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think the Kubrick intended to happen as a result of this film? What possible action could be taken if you were to take the messages of this film seriously?
~Given that there has not been a global nuclear war (or even a minor incident) since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, would it be fair to say that history has disproved this movie’s worries?
~To what degree do you think this movie fails to inspire action precisely because the characters are so over-the-top in their roles?
~Ripper says that Clemenceau was wrong about war being too important to be left to the generals, that now it is too important to be left to the politicians. What do you think of this idea?
~The slogan of the air base is “Peace is our profession.” What double-meaning is involved here? In what ways is this meant to be ironic?
~Do you think we were more at risk of nuclear war in the 60s or that we are more at risk of it today?
~Going through the characters, who do you think they were meant to represent? What is deranged or ridiculous about each one?
~Ripper is sexually abstinent, but Turgidson is very active with his secretary. What is this movie trying to say about the connection between male sexuality and warfare, if anything? Do you think that warfare is connected to male sexual aggression?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Ripper explaining to Mandrake about the communist plot.
~President Muffley breaking the news to the drunk Soviet Premiere.
~Slim Pickens riding cowboy and the final scene. Would it be fair to say Kubrick is saying that this would be the ultimate symphony of humankinds pursuit of warfare?

Overall Grade: A
If you haven’t, you must. Not all Stanley Kubrick films are as tame in content and as easily approachable as this masterpiece. A real treasure.

Hit List, The (2011)

Rated: R for violence and language
Perhaps 100 minutes

D,D,C,C= D

Rotten Tomatoes:
Not enough scores to report

$6 million

Box Office:
$0 million (Unable to get any information on it)

Written by: Chad & Evan Law (First major movie)
Directed by: William Kaufman (First major movie)
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr and Cole Hauser
With: Jonathan LaPaglia

A man gets beat up by a gangster, loses a major promotion to a weasel, and discovers his wife in bed with his best friend. Then he happens into a bar where he meets a professional killer who begins methodically killing the people he agreed to list on a bar napkin in what he thought was a joke.

I knew this one was a gamble going in because it didn’t screen in theaters and it came to my attention in the previews of some other movie with a bunch of clearly sub-par films. But the idea caught my interest and I took a risk on Cuba Gooding Jr. It was not a rewarding gamble. This is my most despised category of movie. It had a brilliant concept with plenty of moral significance that was written terribly and acted/directed even worse. USA Network would be embarrassed to produce something this weak, even down to the horrible rip-off of The Terminator end sequence in the police station that culminates in a ridiculous drawn-out cheap horror movie style ending. Everything here was done wrong. Wrong, wrong wrong. And the sad thing is that it had so much to say and couldn’t figure out how to say it well enough to matter. I still have no idea how Cuba Gooding Jr. wound up involved in this, but then again he hasn’t had a good movie since Radio, soooo….

Discussion Questions:
~Jonas at one point tells Allan in reference to the hit list, “Everybody has names.” What does he mean by this? Does everyone have people they sort of wish were dead?
~In what way does this movie embody the Biblical idea that hating a person in your heart is really the beginning of murdering them?
~In what way might you say that Jonas is really just the Mr. Hyde alter-ego inside of all of us embodying our sinful and hateful tendencies brought vividly to life? Do you think that seeing or imagining your inner evil worked out fully in life is enough to shock us into nipping it in the bud?
~Jonas claims to be Allan’s only real friend because he will tell him the unvarnished truth, even if it’s offensive. Do you think this is a key element of a real friend?
~If someone were methodically killing your enemies, how hard would you fight to stop him and defend them? Would you die to try to protect people you secretly sort of would like to see dead?

Overall Grade: D
This is a movie that could have been, should have been, and surely would have been so much better and fascinating if only the right hands had been entrusted with it. As it is, it’s a train wreck that nevertheless manages to still say some interesting things.

Way Back, The (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language
133 minutes


Rotten Tomatoes:
75% favorable, 6.8/10 average

$30 million

Box Office:
$20 million (3 U.S., 17 Intl.)

Written by: Peter Weir (Master and Commander, Green Card, Year of Living Dangerously, and Gallipoli) and Keith R. Clarke (First screenplay), based on the novel by Slavomir Rawicz.
Directed by: Peter Weir (Master and Commander, Truman Show, Fearless, Green Card, Dead Poets Society, Mosquito Coast, Witness, Year of Living Dangerously, and Gallipoli)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, and Jim Sturgess.
With: Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, and Saorise Ronan.

This is the true story of the daring and brutal escape of several men from a Russian Gulag in World War II.

Entertainment Value: B+
There is something about this movie which makes you want to sit and watch it all the way through, even though I would not call it “entertaining.” Compelling is the better word, and to see what these people endured and how they adapted to their hardships is captivating. Colin Farrell once again shows that he is a highly underutilized acting talent. This is really two movies, the part inside the camp and the part after they escape. Both are very good.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C, Language C
I hadn’t actually noticed the profanity, but it was perhaps in subtitles and fairly brief but F-based. We very briefly see some drawings of naked women. There is a small amount of alcohol consumption. But the real issue will be violence, which is fairly mild, including a stabbing, the general conditions in a gulag, people dying from exposure to elements, and extended scenes with people struggling against extreme physical hardships such as hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion.

Significant Content: B+
There are three main ideas here, one more obvious than the other two. The main idea is that man’s yearning for freedom knows know bounds, and he will rather risk death than to give up the chance for it. The second idea is that civilization is a matter of how you treat others under adversities that would seek to reduce you to barbarism. It is the utter privation of the escapees which only serves to prove their civility and humanity when they are in positions to be more ruthless. Kindness, rather than a weakness, is really the ultimate form of humanity. Finally, an easy-to-miss undertone of the movie is the question of who is really valuable in society. Each of the characters has a particular skill or contribution to make, and all have value: artist, comedian, priest, hunter, and cook.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Part of the art challenge in this movie is the simple fact that it’s very difficult to convey hunger through film, and yet hunger was easily the most formidable adversity the men faced. Dehydration, cold, heat, and exhaustion are all relatively easy compared to hunger. In showing what almost cannot be shown, the movie did pretty well, not great.

Discussion Questions:
~How much is freedom worth? Would the men who died in the escape over time have said that it was better to die trying to be free than to live in the gulag?
~Why do the men decide to let Irena travel with them? What does this say about them?
~Why do the men always choose to take time to bury their dead? What does this say about them? Compare it with the treatment of the dead in the gulag or mass graves?
~Kindness is clearly portrayed as a great human virtue and even source of strength. Do you think kindness is ever a weakness? Is God ever unkind?
~Mr. Smith declares early in the movie that this sort of a feat cannot be accomplished by yourself. Why does he say this? What is it about community that makes such things possible as would not be on your own?
~Why do you think so many movies have been made about World War II, and especially about Nazi Germany and the concentration camps, but so few about Communist Russia and particularly the gulags?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Passing around the village and other habitations. What do you think about the fact that they are escaping for their lives and yet other people are living their lives in relative normalcy at the same time?
~Valka’s decision at the border of Russia. Why does he do what he does? What does it show about him? Consider his chest tattoo in your answer. Does it seem incomprehensible to you that a criminal might also be patriotic?
~The very ending. Does this satisfy you? Does it seem to bring closure to everything else?

Overall Grade: B+
I don’t know of many movies about Russian gulags, in contrast with the abundance of movies about Nazi Germany, and I’m very grateful that someone finally made such a vivid one. Compared with Lawrence of Arabia or The Great Escape, of course this comes up short. But on it’s own, a fine effort from the very reliable Peter Weir.

True Grit (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images
Length: 111 minutes
Grade: A,C,A,A=A
Rotten Tomatoes: 96% favorable, 8.4/10 average
Budget: $38 million
Box Office: $249 million (171 U.S., 78 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men, Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Big Lebowski, Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crosing, Raising Arizona, and Blood Simple) based on the book by Charles Portis.
Starring: Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld
With: Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper.

A very confident and capable fourteen-year-old girl hires a gritty U.S. Marshall to find and bring to justice the man who murdered her father.

Entertainment Value: A
The Coen brothers have had some tremendous successes, and they have also had some terrible failures. This is some of the best work they have ever done, showing that the incomparable quality displayed in No Country for Old Men was no fluke at all. Simply put, this is a true western. A simple plot with just the right balance of drama and action wrapped around a solid core of fantastically impossible and over-written dialogue, the sort that drips like honey from your ears. My only complaint, and I say it as a man who wishes he didn’t have to say anything negative at all, was that both major gunfights left me baffled as to the outcome of the fourth man, who is gone from the scene but never shown killed or fleeing. It seemed to be an editing oversight, but to see the same exact error twice almost invites speculation rather than criticism. This deserved all ten of its Oscar nominations, and in fairness, the other films deserved their victories over it, with the exception of The Social Network for best adapted screenplay. My only real gripe with the Oscars was why Hailee Steinfeld was nominated only as supporting female actress and not as leading female actress, which she clearly was.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity A, Violence C, Language B
There is some occasional mild profanity, and alcohol is continuously consumed in the movie. But the clear and only substantial issue is violence, which involves lots of shootings with blood, one hanging of three men and another man found hanged later, and a scene with a man having his fingers cut off and being stabbed in the chest. PG-13 is correct. Also, given that the plot revolves around a teenage girl in what can only be described as uncertain circumstances, the absolute chastity of the movie is really a point worthy of praise.

Significant Content: A
As a movie which tells you its point before it begins, and with a Bible quote no less, it’s hard to do anything but give this an A. “The wicked flee when none pursueth.” Proverbs 28:1 The Coens are Jewish, but the oft-repeated melody in this movie is one of the most famous Christian hymns, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” The ongoing purpose of the movie is to show that determination and perseverance are two of the key characteristics of real virtue. Justice must be served, no matter the cost. That is the only thing that differentiates good and civilized men from evil. If a person can have total confidence that God and right is on her side, Mattie will bend the universe to her sternest demands for justice. This is the mountain-moving faith that drives the young woman.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
I’m not sure this is necessarily a big thinker after-the-fact. But the level of erudition in the writing and the complexity of the dialogue alone make up for that. You get your education during this film, not afterward. Moreover, the crafting of such a masterpiece as a work of western art alone justifies the A grade here.

Discussion Questions:
~What is the relationship between the quote from Proverbs and the rest of the movie?
~What is the meaning of the title? Who in this movie has True Grit?
~What makes a good man (or woman)? Who in this movie is a good man (or woman)? Why? Who is not? Why not?
~What do you think is the point of having the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” playing throughout the movie as the main theme/variations?
~The courtroom scene seems to portray Cogburn as almost a vigilante, but this is sharply contrasted with his demonstrated behavior in the rest of the movie. Is the movie trying to make a point about courts and the law as opposed to real truth and justice?
~How do you interpret the final scene, especially about Mattie’s long-term life choices? Who is she trusting to keep the final record/reckoning about men’s (or women’s) virtue?
~Mattie is clearly willing to speak her mind to anyone at any time, regardless of the consequences. Is her forthrightness always a virtue? Which virtue would you rate more highly: her composure and ability to battle with her wits in any situation or Cogburn’s composure and ability to battle with weapons?
~Does the impossibly articulate speechmaking in this movie serve to undermine its realism or raise it as a work of art in your mind? Should movies strive to duplicate reality or improve upon it?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Mattie negotiating with the merchant in town.
~Crossing the river on horseback.
~When the marshal is leaving.
~Saving her from the snakebite.

Overall Grade: A
This may not be the Coen brothers’ best film (No Country for Old Men must win this acclaim), but it certainly shows once again why it’s easy to forgive their catastrophes when they come home offering something like this as another glimpse of their filmmaking brilliance.

Green Hornet, The (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violent action, language, sensuality and drug content.
Length: 119 minutes
Grade: DCCF=D
Rotten Tomatoes: 44% favorable, 5.2 /10 average
Budget: $120 million
Box Office: $242 million (99 U.S., 129 Intl., 14 DVD)

Written by: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (Pineapple Express, Superbad), based on the classic radio series by George W. Trendle.
Directed by: Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind, The Science of Sleep,and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Starring: Seth Rogen and Jay Chou
With: Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson, Christoph Waltz, David Harbour, James Franco, and Edward James Olmos.

When his newspaper mogul father dies, Britt Reid must decide what to do with his life. Discovering that his coffee came from a secretly brilliant mechanic and kung-fu master, they decide to fight crime together as heroes masquerading as villains.

I was loving this movie in the beginning, when it was fun and uncertain. Then the vulgarity set in, and I realized that I had no desire to watch Seth Rogen try to play a bumbling, vulgar non-hero who never really grew much as a character. It became boring, then dumb, then boringly dumb and impossible to believe. For a movie with such big billing and which I anticipated enjoying, it was a complete disappointment. Even Christoph Waltz, the incomparably brilliant super-villain Nazi from Inglourious Basterds, was a disappointment, neither allowed to be truly villainous or truly hilarious in his flat role as Mr. Bad Guy. Honestly, if I had to fix it, I’d replace Rogen with almost anyone, clean up the vulgar (unnecessarily vulgar) language, and try to build something of a plot and maybe develop some character resolution since there’s clearly lots of room for it. But then, why bother when I’m sure another remake of this one will just come out in 4-5 years, since remaking the remake of something that was once worth making in the first place seems to be the quickly approaching graveyard destination for all things Hollywood.

Overall Grade: D
Disappointing, despite a somewhat promising beginning. Once you get past the double-barrelled Glock gag, there really isn’t anything else to see here. Far more vulgar than you will expect. This is R-15, with lots of violence and continuous non-F profanity.

Mechanic, The (2011)

Rated: R for strong brutal violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity.
Length: 93 minutes
Grade: DFDD=D
Rotten Tomatoes: 53% favorable, 5.6/10 average
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $60 million (29 U.S., 22 Intl., 9 DVD)

Written by: Richard Wenk (16 Blocks, Just the Ticket, and Vamp) and Lewis John Carlino (Obscure movies from the 70s including the original 1972 version of this movie)
Directed by: Simon West (TV’s The Cape and Human Target, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The General’s Daughter, and Con Air)
Starring: Jason Statham and Ben Foster
With: Tony Goldwyn and Donald Sutherland

An assassin who specializes in killing people in such a way that it looks like an accident is tasked with killing his longtime friend and mentor, afterwards befriending and training his wayward son in his craft.

I don’t think I’ve seen the original Bronson movie, but it’s daring for anyone to remake a Bronson film…daring and usually dumb. In this case, the problem is that all the opportunities to develop character and plot just get dropped by the wayside amidst bland acting and a mishmash of action sequences. It was almost the anti-movie to The American, which was also horrible for exactly the opposite reason, all character development and no action whatsoever. There’s more than enough sex and violence to justify the R rating, but just not enough of anything to make this worthy of more detailed comments.

Overall Grade: D
If you’ve seen any hitman movie, you’ve pretty much seen this one. And even the sometimes brilliant Statham or the legendary Sutherland can’t save this from itself.

Drive Angry (2011)

Rated: R for strong brutal violence throughout, grisly images, some graphic sexual content, nudity and pervasive language.
Length: 104 minutes
Grade: FHFF=F-
Rotten Tomatoes: 46% favorable, 5.3/10 average
Budget: $45-50 million
Box Office: $29 million (11 U.S., 18 Intl.)

Written by: Todd Farmer (My Bloody Valentine, The Messengers, Jason X) and Patrick Lussier (Dracula 2000)
Directed by: Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine, White noise 2, and Dracula 2000)
Starring: Nicolas Cage and Amber Heard
With: William Fichtner, Billy Burke, and David Morse.

A father escapes from hell and starts killing everyone connected with the murder of his daughter and the abduction of her baby.

First, you should know that there is a style of movie out there called “Grindhouse” which is basically gory, vulgar, and intentionally ugly, sometimes called “gritty.” They were originally extremely low production value films about lurid and perverse subject matter shown in single theaters to limited audiences that developed cult-like followings. This is meant to be in that tradition, which is another way of saying it’s a horrible, terrible, awful film. Unentertaining. Terrible acting. Just unpleasant to watch. And did I mention full of obscene material? This is literally one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a LOT of bad movies in my life. I quit watching at about 40 minutes, and my only embarrassment is that I didn’t quit around 5 minutes when I was first inclined to do so. I used to adore Nic Cage movies, and so I’d like to say he’s sunk to a new low here. But then again, he did make 8MM, which I would unsee if only it were possible. The problem is this was marketed to general audiences like any other drive fast and shoot-‘em-up movie. I can only imagine that the poor unsuspecting people (like me) who paid to see it were horrified by the content. Where Deathproof has a plot and a point and Machete is at least periodically hilarious, this is just plain terrible. And not even bad enough to be funny or entertaining for being so bad. Just bad. I’d say Expendables bad, but I’d rather watch Expendable ten times rather ever seeing even just the first 10 minutes of this again. Well, maybe five times.

Overall Grade: F-
Failure and then some. Absolutely no way anyone should ever see this movie for any reason whatsoever. It’s quite an indicator that Rotten Tomatoes reviewers felt they had to endorse it as a “genre” pic or perhaps lose their “artsy street cred.” I have no such hang-up. I tell you to warn you.

Joneses, The (2009)

Rated: R for language, some sexual content, teen drinking and drug use.
Length: 96 minutes
Grade: B,C,A,A=B+
Rotten Tomatoes: 61% favorable, 6.2/10 average
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $7 million (1.5 U.S., 5.5 Intl.)

Written by: Derrick Borte (First script) and Randy Dinzler (First script)
Directed by: Derrick Borte (First film)
Starring: David Duchovny and Demi Moore
With: Amber Heard, Ben Hollingsworth, Gary Cole, and Lauren Hutton

The Joneses are new to town, but they are immediately recognized as the super-elites that everyone wants to be like, especially because of all their amazing clothes, cars, and gadgets. What everyone doesn’t know is that the Joneses are actually a paid set of actors posing as a family to use relationships and status as a way of marketing a wide variety of high-end products to other trendsetters and wealthy people.

Entertainment Value: B
The movie is clearly not a masterpiece of directing or acting. But it’s got such an engaging plot and the script plays out so many of the intriguing angles of the concept that I enjoyed it in spite of the weak acting and production value.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence B, Language D
There is alcohol use, several sexual situations, one gay character, a suicide, and mild language. In all honesty, this would easily have been PG-13 if it weren’t for the language, which isn’t all that heavy, but has enough to certainly make it R. I’d say R-15, which is a bit of a shame since the movie raises questions teens really need to be thinking about.

Significant Content: A
Advertising is a morally dubious business, perhaps downright evil. Materialism is dangerous and a false solution to your problems. People are highly susceptible to psychological manipulation based on pride and social coercion to keep up with other people and to prove their worth by their possessions.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
The questions here are so well invited and fitting that thought value alone carries the day here. It’s great grist for discussion.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think of the ethics of this form of marketing? In what ways is it similar to and in what ways different from other kinds of advertising and “guerilla” marketing?
~Even though this is clearly a movie intending to raise deep questions about the ethics of advertising, and especially of luxury product advertising, several name brands are used in the film such as Audi, Ethan Allen, UnderArmour, and Yves-St. Laurent. Do you think they wanted to be part of this film? Do you think they paid?
~Does this film end up actually reducing the desire for luxury goods or wind up making the lifestyle they represent seem so appealing that you still want them?
~One of the key tactics used here is manufacturing dissatisfaction. Why is this immoral?
~Another tactic is the manipulation of personal relationships for material profit, without the target’s awareness. How much difference does it make if the person knows this is being done? Why does commerce change relationships?
~In what ways could you say that the Joneses are really just television brought to life? In what ways do we treat our TVs like friends of the family and allow them into our lives? Given the outrage and reaction when they are exposed, why do you think we keep TVs in our circle of friends?
~Which do you think is more weird, people being paid to market clothing to others or people not being paid to wear brand name logos on their shirts which they do voluntarily?
~Larry tries to use gifts he can’t afford to fix his struggling marriage, which leads to disastrous consequences. Discuss the ways in which he was just being a good consumer of modern advertising.
~Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) is precisely this sort of a marketing project, where personal relationships are parleyed into business partnerships or sales opportunities, albeit with more honesty than this. But many such contacts start without the disclosure, and one common tactic in such endeavors is to make friends and meet people so as to sell them things. What do you think of the ethics of this?

Overall Grade: B+
A surprisingly fascinating exploration of the ethics of advertising, almost like a science fiction experiment.

Experiment, The (2010)

Rated: R for strong disturbing violence including a rape, language, some sexual content and nudity.
96 minutes


Rotten Tomatoes:


Box Office:
N/A Intended for theaters, released straight to DVD

Written by: Paul Scheuring (Prison Break TV), based on the novel by Mario Giordano and the German film “Das Experiment” by Mario Giordano, Christoph Darnstadt, Don Bohlinger, and Oliver Hirschbiegel.
Directed by: Paul Scheuring (First film)
Starring: Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker
With: Cam Gigandet

In a movie imaginatively adapted from the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and a remake of the German film “Das Experiment,” subjects are selected for psychological characteristics and then placed into a fake prison with some as guards and others as inmates. As they take on their roles, trouble develops and things start to get out of hand, but the experiment goes on.

Entertainment Value: A
This is one of those films where I just scratch my head. The characters are fascinating. The plot is gripping, especially since it has at least some basis in reality. And the philosophical implications of the thing are beyond rich. But for whatever reason, this didn’t release at theaters and went straight to DVD. For my own part, knowing its release history, I was skeptical about how enthusiastic the promotional posters were, but I trusted Brody and Whitaker to do something at least not awful. Suffice it to say I was blown away. This is not pretty, and there are parts that are horrific in shocking ways, but it captivated me the entire time.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity D, Violence D, Language F
There is some alcohol consumption. There’s lots and lots of R rated language. There is a sexual assault, some viewing of pornographic magazines, and some nudity in the previews. The violence is all hand-to-hand, not guns, with a death and very little bloodshed, but there are a variety of taboo-breaking violations and scenes that are uncomfortable to watch even though not violent, strictly speaking. This is definitely a movie only for adults.

Significant Content: F/A
Warning. To discuss this movie, I’m going to spoil all the major plot elements. Read on only if you hope to see it and want to do so without knowing the events in advance.

Alright, this is a movie that really depends for its meaning on the interpretation one gives to it. First of all, one key to the movie is the set-up device that there are a list of specific rules that must be followed, and if they are not, the experiment will be stopped. This will cost all the participants their $10,000 fee. Although there are cameras (almost) everywhere, the only feedback from the experiment conductors is a red light which will come on only in the event that the experiment is being ended. Throughout the movie, there is constant concern that the red light will come on because it seems a line has been crossed, but it doesn’t, and this is always interpreted as permission to continue. Since as the experiment progresses, things become more and more barbaric, we soon figure out that the experiment is meant to represent this world and the light staying off represents the choice by God to let the world continue and not destroy it, intervene in it, or judge it. So it has hefty religious implications. (Although this connection is never made overtly, it would be terribly naïve to think it wasn’t intended by the writer/director.) So what’s the point? Well, the main message seems to be that God is a tyrannical evil being who, like the experimenters, continues to permit terrible evil (far worse than that which occurs in this movie) without stopping it when He could. And if this is the point, then the movie is a fairly powerful formulation of the problem of evil against the existence of a good, powerful God. Hence, an F for significant content. But wait, there’s more. What someone who isn’t paying much attention might miss is the fact that the participants were not even remotely selected at random. This is not meant to be a test of how ordinary people do under bizarre circumstances. The experimenters absolutely know they have put a very particular mix of people in their roles that will lead to brutality and oppression by the guards, the leader of which is a mama’s boy raised in a repressively religious (!) home just bursting for a chance to be in control for once. Now, not only does the experimenter’s inaction look bad for them, but we are horrified to realize they intended things to go wrong like this. Yet another “God is evil, see?” sort of commentary. But wait, there’s more.

The entire point of the experiment and creating it so that evil will occur is to deliberately create a scenario in which a man who claims to love peace and avoid fighting but who cares very deeply about justice and protecting the weak will be pushed to the limits of his pacifism to see whether or not he will resort to violence to stop extreme bullying. That’s the entire point of the experiment. Can a “good man” who will hold to his principles under the worst sort of pressure be found? And of course, Brody fails and ends up assaulting Whitaker in the most justifiable use of violence imaginable. Only then does the experiment stop. So, if anything, it winds up proving that human beings are really all the same underneath. No one is truly capable of living up to their moral proclamations. We’re all beasts underneath, and only a naïve fool would think otherwise.

But this is where the movie and my analysis of it start to really swing around. Adrian Brody is the best humanity has to offer, but under the worst of treatment, he responds with violence. In other words, even the best humanism fails. The experimenters were looking for a savior and they did not find one. But what does this immediately point to? A man who suffered far worse brutality in Himself and to those He loved, but when pushed to the edge of it all, He accepted His fate and even prayed for those who were torturing Him. So, as a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by contrast (!), one could scarcely invent a better script than this. Make what you will of the problem of evil question, but in the actual experiment being permitted by an actually Sovereign God, His response was not to simply and idly permit the experiment to go on. He came right into the middle of it, suffered the very worst of it, and is seeking every single moment to restore and reclaim as much of it as possible. That is very different from the indifferent God of Deism who simply watches atrocity from afar.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
But I would be indulging in overkill if I said any more after having already said so much.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think keeps man from committing atrocities against his fellow man? Greed? Fear? Decency?
~How might this experiment have gone differently if it had been randomly selected people? Do you think we would all tend to behave like prisoners and guards if put in the right clothes/circumstances?
~Do you think that men are more prone to embrace roles like these than women would be? How might the presence of women have changed things in the experiment?
~If the experimenters are morally wicked men for conducting and permitting this experiment to go on, does that influence how you think about God’s morality?
~Why do the guards (at least some of them) use pornography? What is being said here?
~Is man naturally a predator or naturally something better than that? What does the Bible say about man’s original and current nature?
~Murder is either normal and natural or else highly abnormal and unnatural. Which is it?
~Every civilized person abhors violence, but this movie shows that there are some things worse than mere violence, such as humiliation. Why is humiliation so devastating to people? How does a sense of powerlessness destroy people who are normally capable? What solution to this problem does Christianity offer?
~What parallels would you draw between the payday offered in this experiment and the idea of earning heaven or rewards in heaven by being obedient to God?
~At what point in the movie do you think people involved would say the money simply wasn’t worth it? Are there any people for whom money really wasn’t the motivation anyhow? Especially consider Whitaker’s character.
~Is this movie anti-Christian, neutral, or pro-Christian? What do you think the intent of it was? If this movie is terribly pessimistic about human nature, does that make it a good precursor to evangelism? Why is disgust with humanity a necessary ingredient in embracing and comprehending the Gospel?
~Is God’s non-intervention evidence of His permission or endorsement of whatever we’re doing? Why do we tend sometimes to think as if it is?
~What makes Brody seem like a morally virtuous person? Is he really?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The end of the experiment. How is the white light of the doors opening symbolic? What happens immediately and what does it make you think of? Why is the contrast between what had been going on moments before and what happens next so poignant?
~The ending of the movie. How would you have ended the movie? What do you make of the news report that the experimenters have been arrested? Are you surprised that the movie permits Brody to reunite with his lady after having failed the big test? What parallels exist here with Christ and the Church, His Bride?

Overall Grade: A
An extremely disturbing movie with vast and fascinating social, moral, and religious implications.