I Am Number Four (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for language
Length: 109 minutes
Grade: C-CCD=C-
Rotten Tomatoes: 30% favorable, 4.7/10 average
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $155 million (55 U.S., 89 Intl., 11 DVD)

Written by: Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (The Mummy, Herbie Fully Loaded, and Spider-Man 2) and Marti Noxon (TV such as Mad Men, Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), based on the novel by Jobie Hughes & James Frey
Directed by: DJ Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia, Two for the Money, and The Salton Sea)
Starring: Alex Pettyfer and Teresa Palmer
With: Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, and Callan McAuliffe.

The only surviving super-powered teens of an alien culture are hiding on Earth from the deranged predators who killed their civilization and are now bent on killing them.

Entertainment Value: C-
And I think that’s pretty generous. This is a thoroughly silly movie that feels like a third-best version of everything you might compare it to. It feels like a slightly updated Power Rangers, with the creepy/silly enemies. It’s got Michael Bay’s fingerprints all over it, and it just winds up being a hackneyed plot with poor writing and uncompelling characters who fit every stereotype. Still, it’s sort of fun, but when I’m laughing at (not with) an action/sci-fi movie, that’s not a good sign. I’m sure it makes more sense if you know the book, at least I hope that’s true.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence C, Language C
This movie can’t decide whether it wants to be standard light teen fare or a serious and fairly gruesome action film. It’s mostly harmless in the beginning, with some bullying, but then the latter half has some fairly unsettling moments of implied torture and gore. I’d say PG-15. The language is no worse than the violence, no F-variants, and it’s almost squeaky on sex and nudity.

Significant Content: C
Home is where you make it, and it depends more on the people than on the location. Aliens who look like humans are good. Aliens who eat frozen turkeys are bad.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Not so much.

Discussion Questions:
~If I could think of any, I’d ask them.

Overall Grade: C-
A hackneyed action sci-fi Michael Bay exercise in silliness that must only be cool if you know the book it’s based on. Cheap frivolous fun. I mean who doesn’t at least somewhat appreciate a super-powered shootout with lasers and alien beasts of prey on the campus of a high school?

Unknown (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and action, and brief sexual content
Length: 113 minutes
Grade: B-,C+,C,C=C+
Rotten Tomatoes: 56% favorable, 5.8/10 average
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $135 million (64 U.S., 67 Intl., 4 DVD)

Written by: Oliver Butcher (First major script) and Stephen Cornwell (First major script), based on the novel by Didiear Van Cauwelaert
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax, Goal 2)

Starring: Liam Neeson
With: Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, and Frank Langella

After he is injured in a terrible car accident, a biochemist at an international conference in Munich suddenly finds his wife and his life stolen by a total stranger pretending to be him.

Entertainment Value: B-
Most of the ingredients in this movie are good, and certainly Langella brings a wonderful hint of the sinister to it. It’s a decent enough action thriller, with the usual plausibility issues. See, there’s a point when all action movies become preposterous, and you must either stop enjoying the film or else suspend disbelief to continue watching with any pleasure at all. In this movie, it’s the car chase scene at 62 minutes. And the problem is that they way too long to give us the twist explanation whch then would have made the scene at least plausible. Plus, the twist explanation doesn’t seem to quite cover all of the territory once you know it, and it certainly doesn’t explain the slew of murders or attempted murders. Seems like a lot of wasted resources to me. Also, given the twist, you’re sort of left in a no man’s land as far as what you want to see happen even so. Still, B- means above average, and it is that.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity B-, Violence C, Language B
The big issue in this movie is going to be violence, which involves several semi-bloody killings, bombings, and car crashes. Sexuality is a few flashback scenes of lovemaking with no nudity. But the nice thing I can report is that unlike a lot of PG-13 movies, this one has only a minor amount of swearing in it. 2 S-words, I believe, and a few other mild profanities. It’s PG-13, but it’s not one of those almost R PG-13s by any stretch.

Significant Content: C
The truth is out there if you look for the details carefully enough. Some people are trying to do real good in the world and some are out for themselves or profit. Personal identity is a very complicated matter, but you are ultimately who you choose to be.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Some interesting questions are raised, but sadly they are relegated to the background of the movie rather than really dealt with. For instance, there is absolutely no treatment of Harris’s identity or background before all of this, which would really have raised some nice complexities for his character and his future.

Discussion Questions:
~“If you ask enough questions, the man who is telling a lie will eventually change his story, but the man who is telling the truth cannot change his story.” Do you think this is true? Does this sort of an approach solve to distinguish between a man who is telling the truth and a man who has believed a lie?
~What is the difference between sanity and insanity? If someone challenged you on your own account of your identity or your life, what would it take to make you doubt yourself?
~Discuss Harris’s motivations at various points in the movie. Why does he do what he does?
~In the end, do you think the explanation of everything adds up with the facts as you experience them? What areas seem like they don’t fit? Consider perhaps the photo and the effort to deactivate the bomb.
~What is the point of having the investigator be former Stazi? In his soliloquoy about Germany first forgetting Nazism and Communism, what is the movie trying to say? What comparison is the movie trying to draw between Harris and Germany? What would you do with either of them if you were a prosecutor?
~How much does it matter whether your memories are real or false in terms of how much they shape your notions of who you are?
~What is the meaning of the title?

Overall Grade: C+
A fairly interesting thriller which only hints at some interesting questions instead of being diligent enough to really explore them.

Black Swan (2010)

Rated: R for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use.
Length: 108 minutes
Grade: D,F,D,C=D
Rotten Tomatoes: 88% favorable, 8.2/10 average
Budget: $13 million
Box Office: $345 million (107 U.S., 220 Intl., 18 DVD)

Written by: Mark Heyman (First script), Andres Heinz (First script), and John J. McLaughlin (Man of the House)
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, and Pi)
Starring: Natlie Portman
With: Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder, and Barbara Hershey.

A very devoted ballerina is challenged by the demand that she play both swans in Swan Lake, the pressure of which sends her over the edge of sanity and sexuality as she tries to become perfection in uniting two incompatible characters.

Despite wanting to quit this disturbing, unpleasant horror story of a ballet film no less than four times, I finished watching it for two reasons. First, knowing that it had received so much critical acclaim, I kept secretly hoping that something in the ending would atone for and validate everything I had to endure in getting there. Second, if this did not turn out to be the case, I wanted to with full confidence be able to assure any of you who might be tempted to watch it but have not yet done so that you do not need to for any reason. I’m beginning to think that most film critics are masochists. The more uncomfortable and ugly and horrific a movie is, the more they like it. I am not afflicted with this particular perversion. So for me, this movie was simply torture. Even if it hadn’t had several very disturbing sexual scenes, the main plot and the development of the themes are so frustrating that I neither care about the characters nor enjoy watching them behave in such deranged ways. I really don’t need to watch a bulimic infantilized ballerina pluck a feather out of her back to believe that some people in this world are troubled. Yes, I recognize that Aronofsky has turned the plot of the movie into the plot of the ballet. Der. Yes, I realize that he loves to deal with tortured characters who devote themselves tragically to whatever they consider greatness. Of course. But it just doesn’t always work, even if you score by Oscars (5 nominations, with 1 win). The Wrestler made a point despite its vulgar roadmap. Black Swan just puts the audience out of our misery by finally ending. I was absolutely stunned that Christianity Today’s Brent McCracken summarized it as “A beautiful and engrossing ballet thriller, though slightly over-the-top.” Slightly? What would truly over-the-top be?

Discussion Questions:
~Would you accept insanity if that were the price of greatness?
~Do you think that sexual repression is a key ingredient for madness or greatness?
~Do you think Nina wound up happy or satisfied with herself? What about her mother?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~I’d rather not, actually.

Overall Grade: D
A disturbing, gross, uncomfortable, and NC-17 movie highly overrated because, apparently, modern art critics think film-watching should hurt. That’s how you know it’s good. No, that’s just how you know it hurts.

Adjustment Bureau, The (2011)

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.
Length: 106 minutes
Grade: A,C+,B,A+=A
Rotten Tomatoes: 72 favorable, 6.6/10 average
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $120 million (62 U.S., 58 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: George Nolfi (His first film, although he wrote Bourne Ultimatum, Sentinel, Ocean’s Twelve, and Timeline.), based on a short story by the amazing science fiction author Phillip K. Dick, whose stories or novels inspired the movies Blade Runner, Minority Report, Next, Total Recall, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Screamers, and Impostor.
Starring: Matt Damon and Emily Blunt
With: Anthony Mackie, Michael Kelly, John Slattery, and Terrence Stamp, with cameos by Jon Stewart, Chuck Scarborough, James Carville, Mary Matalin, and Michael Bloomberg.

An aspiring politician discovers that both his career and his love life are of interest to a mysterious agency of super-powered men who intervene in the affairs of humanity, striving to keep events on track according to their plan.

Entertainment Value: A
If you tell me a movie is being made off of a Phillip K. Dick story, I’m in. They aren’t all perfect, but they’re all interesting, and some wind up as the best science fiction movies made. In this film, we have a brilliant idea, well-executed and even emotionally compelling from the very beginning. As good science fiction should, it asks a lot of fascinating questions and it gives us an alternate universe to contemplate our intuitions which jibes neither too well nor too poorly with the real one we live in.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B, Language C+
The only real issue in this movie is profanity, which is consistent throughout the movie with all the minor and middle swears. There is one very brief, almost flippant F-variant, however, which probably pushed it up to PG-13 singlehandedly. There is one sexual scene with no nudity and a couple of minor violent scenes. This is a movie that isn’t right for younger children, but is fine for teens. PG-13 is probably right, which is too bad, because this could easily have been PG without the profanity.

Significant Content: B
The world is guided by an organization of benevolent totalitarians who work hard to remain hidden from view and prefer persuasion to coercion. The comparisons to God and Angels here are so obvious that the movie even acknowledges them, preferring to let us form our own opinions about the implications, however. The only reasons for not giving it an A are the ways in which God and the bureau so clearly diverge and also the movie’s truly troublesome contention that in romantic love we can be fully satisfied whereas Christians know that romantic love is a genuine good with equally genuine potential to be the most horrible of idols.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
Like all good science-fiction, the real value to a movie like this isn’t the plot or the “lessons” so much as the provocation to thought and discussion. And as you’ll see below, there’s no lack of things to mull over here. In style, this is really quite a light-hearted movie, certainly not the sinister and brooding feel of Dark City or even Blade runner, for instance. But it’s still a film-noir lite, at least judging by the 1930’s vintage suits and hats worn by bureau members, even though nobody smokes.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you believe the bureau would actually erase his brain if he revealed their existence?
~What would be the point of keeping their existence a secret? Why is the illusion of free will so important to preserve? If you were “The Chairman,” would you want to keep your activities secret or make them more open?
~The hint is obviously dropped that these are the “real” explanation behind what people think of as angels or God. If that’s so, then what does it mean about the super-secrecy that they seem so bent on maintaining? Why do you think God and angels aren’t more open about their existence?
~Why aren’t there any evil bureau members or demons in this movie?
~In what ways are the bureau members like the angels of the Bible? In what ways is The Chairman like God? What do you make of the idea that the bureau only has limited manpower to control things? Does it seem weird that they have perfect predictive power but only limited influence? Does omniscience entail omnipotence?
~What devices does this movie employ to make us believe that the adjusters are sinister and that whatever they are doing is wrong? How does the movie get us to so powerfully sympathize with Norris?
~What is it about a secret or a cover-up or a conspiracy that infuriates us so much? Is this need to know a healthy or a dangerous compulsion?
~If you knew that your life was in fact being guided back “on plan” continuously by such beings, would it make you feel better or worse about reality?
~Soft determinism is the term people sometimes use for the idea that the “big events” in your life are fixed or fated but the “small events” are more open to shifting. A contrasting view is “hard determinism” where everything is fixed. Which view do you find more appealing, if at all? One ordinary component of hard determinism is the “butterfly effect” which postulates that everything has to be fixed because even the tiniest deviation can have potentially monumental significance. Which view do you think is correct? Do small events matter? Do they matter to God? What does the Bible tell us?
~One of the key doctrines of Christianity is the idea that God is Sovereign (King) over everything. Which view of human free will and determinism do you think is most Biblical?
~In what ways is “The Chairman” of a corporation a useful metaphor for God? A bad one? Consider in particular the disinterest in being worshipped or known which shows in the effort to remain a secret.
~Which sort of meaning or significance in life really matters: our devotion to other people in romantic love or our pursuit of achievement and fame such as through politics or dance excellence? Is romantic love just another form of self-gratification? What about devotion to the other person and their possibilities?
~What do you think about David’s decisions throughout the movie regarding Elise? Which of them do you think are virtuous? Which selfish? What is the “greater good?” How does the movie answer this question?
~Harry tells David that the reason they want to keep him and Elise apart is because she will so satisfy and fulfill him that he won’t need to pursue significance through acclaim and power. Is this movie right that romantic love can fully satisfy us in this way? What does the Bible teach us about this notion? Is the movie making romantic love into an idol? Is it a better idol than power or professional accomplishment?
~What would it mean about your identity and significance if you could not take or be held responsible for your choices because you did not actually make them?
~There is a dual theme in this movie that David and Elise are both driven together by fate and also by choice. Which is more significant? Do you believe people are fated to be together? Are they miserable when they don’t obey? What role does choice play in relationships? How important is the belief that spouses are fated to be together as opposed to “merely” chosen in making marriages work?
~Have you ever felt either thwarted by the universe or enabled by it beyond the bounds of what seems normal? How do you explain such things?
~What is the purpose of the grand plan of the Chairman and his bureau in this movie? Would you describe them as good or evil? Are they exploiting humanity or bringing out the best potential of mankind? How does the fact that they seem so reluctant to kill people or even to ruin their minds affect your judgment of them?
~In this movie, there are apparently different versions of “the plan” over time. Does that seem compatible with determinism to you? Does that seem to be compatible with the Bible to you?
~Why do you think Harry decides to help David? In what ways are their characters and dilemmas similar to each other?
~Because all movies are made within a cultural context, it is unavoidable that they might be seen as hinting at contemporary issues, even if they otherwise wouldn’t be understood this way. Do you think that the scene where David talks about not understanding why “they don’t want us to be together” except that it’s not part of “the plan” or doesn’t fit with “their book” are references to Christians opposing gay marriage?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The first encounter with Elise.
~At the dance recital.
~At the statue of liberty.
~Atop the bureau building.

Overall Grade: A-
A wonderful film-noir-lite sci-fi action drama with all the religion, authority, and free will themes that dominate movies drawn from Phillip K. Dick fiction. Well worth watching and discussing.