House Bunny, The (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for sex-related humor, partial nudity and brief strong language.
Length: 94 minutes
Grade: DCDD=D
Budget: $25 billion
Box Office: $70 million (48 U.S., 22 Intl., DVD)

Written by: Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (She’s the Man, Ella Enchanted, Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You)
Directed by: Fred Wolf, whose only other movie is Strange Wilderness.
Starring: Anna Faris, Colin Hanks, Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Hugh Hefner, Christopher McDonald, Beverly D’Angelo, Katharine McPhee, and Sarah Wright.

When she loses her place at the Playboy Mansion, Shelly must find a way to make a living. Inadvertently, she stumbles onto Greek Row at a nearby university and winds up becoming the house mother for a group of misfit girls who are on the verge of losing their charter and house. In the process, she teaches them how to be popular and attractive.

Entertainment Value: D
This wasn’t totally awful, but it wasn’t really worth watching either. It wasn’t nearly as funny as I had expected, although it had its moments. I wanted to like it more than I actually did like it, and it really tried to salvage itself at the end, but all to no avail.

Superficial Content: D+
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C, Violence B, Language D+, Illegality B
There is no actual nudity in this film, nor sex as I recall. But the whole thing is still saturated in sexuality in terms of pornography references and women learning how to dress and act like tarts, plus a scene where a girl coerces a man by twisting his nipples. The violence is pranks, physical comedy, and one scene where being burned is made into a joke. There’s a fair amount of partying and alcohol consumption. Language is at the upper limit of PG-13. In fact, this movie is definitely aimed at a college audience, and probably shouldn’t be watched by most minors. However, I’m glad they were trying for PG-13 because, had this been rated R, I’m pretty sure they would have gone much farther with every element of concern.

Significant Content: D
If you want to be popular, use the same methods that popular people use. Fish with the bait your prey desires (For men, sex appeal; for women, acceptance). Women need and want to be adored by men (that’s actually a good theme). Men are essentially sex-crazed fools. If you’re hot, you can do anything. If you’re not hot, you can learn to be hot. If Cosmo made a movie, they’d make this. The one shining moment in the film was when the geeks became popular and started acting like the evil popular girls before catching themselves doing so.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Every standard movie trick is used here, music over scenes without dialogue, the evil enemy and her evil house mom. There’s no redemption here at all, which I would have liked to see. It’s just silly and disappointing, mostly because it’s like a worse version of every other movie like this ever made, all the way back to Revenge of the Nerds, which at least didn’t “fix” the nerds by giving them makeovers.

Discussion Questions:
~The movie says nursing homes are like an orphanage for old people. What do you think of this?
~Is it plausible that Oliver would be attracted to Shelly? Why?
~Is it likely that Natalie would really have an interest in Colby? Why?
~Is it true that men only want what other men want?
~To what degree is it healthy to work on being attractive? To what degree is it unhealthy?
~Is it possible to cultivate external (or internal beauty) without judging other people who haven’t cultivated this?
~How is beauty (or intelligence, or charm) a source of identity for people? What should their source of identity be?
~Should Playboy and the Playboy Mansion be treated as mainstream things?

~“Feeling good on the inside is all about looking good on the outside.” What do you think?
Overall Grade: D
Much less funny than I had hoped, and far more counterproductive than I wanted. Christianity Today didn’t even review this one. How lucky for them. After all, what's the real message here? The world would be better if only every sorority house were more like the Playboy Mansion?

Traitor (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for intense violent sequences, thematic material and brief language.
Length: 110 minutes
Grade: ACAA=A
Budget: $22 million
Box Office: $26 million (24 U.S., 2 Intl., DVD)

Written by: Steve Martin (Yes, that Steve Martin), who wrote Pink Panther 1+2, Shopgirl, Bowfinger, LA Story, Roxanne, Three Amigos, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Jerk, etc.)
Directed (and co-written) by: Jeffrey Nachmanoff, in essentially his first major movie.
Starring: Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Neal McDonough, Said Taghmaoui, and Jeff Daniels.

Samir is an ex-US special forces bomb expert whose father was killed by terrorists who now (as a convert to Islam) sells Semtex to terrorists. Through a series of events, he winds up in the inner circle of a major terrorist network, helping them attack the United States and also drawing the attention of two FBI agents. But will he turn out to be a true traitor or something else?

Entertainment Value: A
Although some of the particular plot elements are somewhat unlikely, the overall enjoyability of this movie is really high. Don Cheadle is always good. The other actors here are acceptable. But what really makes this movie work is two things: the underlying tension of the conflict between what we see happening and what we want to see happen and the interrelated tension between wanting the FBI to stop him but also to not interfere if he’s actually doing something good.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence D, Language C, Illegality C
PG-13 is just right. The violence includes a man being thrown in front of a train, several terrorist explosions, a police assault with many people shot, and brawling in a prison. Obviously, it’s a movie about suicide terror, so violence of the worst kind is pretty much the central plot element. The language is pretty much in synch with the violence, just clean enough to not earn an R.
Significant Content: A Okay, I don’t think I can finish this review properly without giving away some major plot elements, so if you haven’t seen it but want to, quit reading/listening now and then come back and read the rest. Now, for everyone who either has seen it or doesn’t want to, there is real genius in the significant content of this movie. Don Cheadle plays a devout Muslim who lives out the core convictions of traditional Islam and therefore winds up being a hero because he invests his own life in undoing and preventing the success of those who twist and manipulate Islam toward violent ends. Imagine a white Christian going undercover in the KKK in 1930 in order to thwart their perversion of Christianity. That’s what this is. And I love it for two reasons. One is that it so very clearly contrasts real Islam with the perversion of it. The other is that it is a decidedly pro-religion movie, where God and faith are central, even though the religion is not Christianity. This is the sort of movie that I would love to have played again and again in the Middle East, and here for that matter, because those who condemn all of Islam and those who celebrate the perversion of it would benefit from seeing this excellent example of a third (and much more valuable) perspective. But what really holds this movie together (and what also makes it so sad that this only barely survived at the box office) is the fact that Samir in the end cannot celebrate what he has done. Even though he knows he did good, he is so torn with the guilt over what he had to do (even to the bad guys) in the process, that he can only just barely live with himself. He regrets even the best (most justified) of killings because he knows he is still ending a life. In other words, though he does great good, he is devastated to have had to do it in this particular way. What happens when an man of peace and love chooses to sully himself in order to stop the greatest of evils? That’s what this movie shows. He shows just how fit a man is to live when once he’s discovered something that he’s willing to die for, a reference ironically presented as affirming terrorism, though quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
What makes this movie brilliant in part is what I mentioned above about the ongoing tension which permeates the fabric of the movie due to our uncertainty about the real story as well as our conflict even if those questions are settled. Some will likely say this movie is drawing on themes of moral equivalence and relativism, but they have missed the powerful underlying moral absolutism that is driving everything here. It’s a morally complex movie, but that is not the same as being a morally ambiguous movie. I also particularly liked that the terror plot was one that is particularly inferior to other ones that could be imagined, thus it doesn’t give good ideas to would-be terrorists. Although the thing with the email sort of does.

Discussion Questions:
~One scene shows a group of beach-going tourists being killed by a terrorist. Are they stupid for risking their lives by going on vacation in a potentially dangerous area out of the US? What is the difference between risking your life for pleasure and risking your life in a remote area for the purpose of serving the needs of impoverished people?
~One man says that terrorism is not about causing damage, but about provoking a response. In what way does terrorism succeed most not by what it destroys in the attack but by what it gets us to destroy in ourselves in our response? He also says terrorism is theater, and the entire population is the audience. What does he mean? How do we participate in his agenda when we give news coverage to deliberate acts of evil? Should terrorist attacks be covered on television?
~What image of religion is given here? Do you consider this a pro-religious or anti-religious movie? Consider Agent Clayton’s comments about his father’s church.
~Which is the greater struggle in life: to combat evil in others or to eliminate evil desires in ourselves?
~After seeing Samir’s entire plan, do you agree with it?
~One of the central notions in Christian thought is that living out true religion will make you winsome and enticing to most everyone and also give you a degree of moral authority/credibility with them when they see your example. Another is that when you know who you are in relationship to God, it gives you the peace to respond wisely and without anxiety to anything around you. How do these ideas show up in this movie between Samir and Omar, Agent Clayton, and even Carter? How are humility, peace, and conviction unsettling to people who don’t have them and also morally persuasive to them? Does it bother you to see Islam portrayed in such a virtuous manner? How do you react to Samir as a character?
~“You get a suspect to talk by pushing his buttons, not by letting him push yours.” What lessons might be drawn from this about dealing with terrorists and also about what terrorists are trying to do with us?
~There are several remarks that seem like moral equivalency or criticisms of the US in this movie. When you hear them, how do you respond?
~Compare Samir to other, more famous, American hero icons such as Chuck Norris, Rambo, Dirty Harry, Jack Bauer, John McClain, Rocky, or even Batman. Does his regret and inner conflict make him more noble or less noble than these others? In which of them do you see a similar sort of inner turmoil? Would you describe them as men of peace or men of war? What about Samir? To what degree does reluctance to take up arms correlate with true heroism? Is it enough to merely fight for the right side to be a hero? How healthy are our heroes as role models? How healthy are we for idolizing them?
~As you’re watching this movie, what do you want to see happen? How does this movie frustrate you and your expectations/desires? Are you satisfied by the ending? Does Samir’s unwillingness to celebrate it dampen your own impulse to do so?
~Chess is a constant symbol in this movie, but for what? Is chess problematic because to do well at it you must be willing to sacrifice pieces? When a chess game ends, there are usually only a small number of pieces remaining on the board. Does the end of a normal chess game look like a victory worth having?
~How fair is the comparison between modern terrorism and the colonial tactics against he British? What about the comparison between the KKK and Islamic terrorism?
~“Every religion has more than one face.” Is this the primary theme of this movie?
~Samir tells Omar that Islam has been abused and used by people without Islamic hearts for their own purposes. Why does he say this? Why is it so hard to consider the possibility that your faith has been manipulated by others in this way? Discuss Omar’s reaction to this and what Samir tries to do in this scene.
~What are some of the different things that motivate people or that they try to use to motivate others in this movie? Consider fear, punishment, money, sex, power, love, admiration, and faith.
~Because we’re a democracy, do you believe that all Americans are responsible for everything done by our government in our names? Is it true that this makes us all combatants because we elect the commander-in-chief? Are we more responsible than people who do not have democracy? Even if you voted for the losing candidate, do you think you’re still fully as responsible as those who voted for the winner merely because you participated in the process? Does abstaining from voting absolve you of the results?

Overall Grade: A
Although I will tell you that most reviewers didn’t think as highly of it as I did. Well, too bad for them.

Dark Knight, The (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.
Length: 152 minutes
Grade: ADB+A=A
Budget: $185 million
Box Office: $1.166+ billion (530 U.S., 466 Intl., 200+ DVD)

Written and Directed by: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (The Prestige, Batman Begins, and Memento)
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman.

With Batman, Detective Gordon, and the new Gotham District Attorney, Harvey Dent, on the verge of destroying the mob in town, they turn to the assistance of a lunatic assassin, the Joker. Unfortunately for them, he turns out to be bent on total anarchy rather than on their measly goal of accumulating money and power, and he begins setting up Faustian dilemmas for Gotham in order to destroy them and Batman in the process.

Entertainment Value: A
Wow! There’s a very good reason this film has grossed well over a billion dollars so far. (It’s 2nd all-time in the US, 26th when adjusted for inflation, and 4th worldwide.) The action is awesome. The plot is awesome. The acting is unbelievably awesome. And, amazingly enough, it’s really two movies for the price of one. They could easily have split this one right in half and probably made more total money. I’m so glad they didn’t. But here’s the most impressive thing about this movie. Heath Ledger gives the best performance of a villain you’ll ever see in a movie here. I wasn’t watching Heath Ledger play The Joker. I was watching The Joker, especially the one given life in the one-shot Batman graphic novel, The Killing Joke. If he doesn’t win the best actor Oscar posthumously, or at least get serious consideration, it’ll be the only proof we need that the Academy has no idea what it’s doing.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence D, Language B, Illegal Activity F
There are several cocktail party environments, there are some romantic situations, and there are mild profanity. But the real concern here is violence, mayhem, and generally disturbing manifestations of insanity. I was surprised this film was rated PG-13. Not that it’s a hard R or anything, but I would certainly go R-15.

Significant Content: B+
My analysis of this movie is a lot like my analysis of Sin City, although the picture isn’t quite so bleak. There are three sorts of paradigms in the world: immoral, moral, and Christian. Vigilante movies are usually about the conflict between the good and the bad, while the best gets no mention. In this film, however, lots of attention is given to the difference between a real hero who works through the system (Dent) and a hero who works outside the system (Batman) in fighting criminals. What Joker tries to do is destroy them both in order to prove to everyone that civilization is a fa├žade and a fraud, much the same as that implied by his own mask. If The Joker is viewed as a Satan figure, then the goal is not to destroy people, but to show people that they are all essentially corrupt and evil inside, just like he is. What this movie shows, however, is that not everyone is so evil inside since even some of the supposedly worst of them choose to do right at personal risk. Having Harvey Dent (Two-Face) also raises questions about fate, chance, and order that are reinforced by The Joker’s soliloquies.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Where to begin? Let’s just say that it’s not merely highly entertaining and horrifying, but thought-provoking as well, to say the least. I think this film has one of my all-time favorite scenes in it, the one where the Joker simply lights a fire to a massive (seriously, massive) pile of money. It’s virtually Biblical in its poignancy.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think of Batman’s mid-movie choice? Why does he make it? Why do others find it so hard to understand and forgive? What do you think of Batman’s end-of-movie choice?
~It’s been said that at least a selfish person can be bargained with, but a principled person is the most dangerous because they’ll do anything in pursuit of their vision. Who in this movie is selfish, and who is “principled” in this sense? When people completely reject the things this world has to offer, do they usually become more dangerous or more benevolent? What does Arthur mean when he says that “some men just want to watch the world burn?”In the boats scene, what did you find yourself wanting to see happen?
~A key theme of this movie is that many times in order to defeat some great evil, we become the thing we seek to conquer in the process. Is this true? Was it true of Jesus?
~“The only morality in a cruel world is chance.” Do you agree with this assessment by Two-Face?
~In what sense is The Joker a terrorist? In what sense is he really the embodiment of all terrorists everywhere? If so, what does this movie have to tell us about how we can ultimately defeat terrorism?
~In what ways is The Joker like Satan? What is The Joker’s purpose in what he does? Is he successful?
~The Joker talks a lot about rules and the mythology that rules will save people from chaos. He seems to be saying that the rules are just a veneer that everyone will violate when given the chance. Does he turn out to be right? In what sense is an attachment to rules healthy? In what sense unhealthy and limiting? What is the Gospel perspective on this? In what way might his idea that plans can't give you control be ther first part of a genuine Christian sermon? If so, how might Joker push people to see their real need for true faith in God rather than in themselves?
~Joker claims that he and Batman need each other. Rachel claims that Batman needs Gotham more than Gotham needs Batman. Batman claims that Gotham needs Harvey more than it needs him. Discuss these claims and what each of them is trying to say.
~Joker tells Batman while being beaten that Batman has no power over him because he has "nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength." Joker cares about nothing and is therefore invulnerable. In what way is this the very definition of hatred? How is this the opposite of love?
~Joker says, "I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve." He seems to be saying that he's not categorically different from anyone, just a matter of different in degree. Would a Christian agree with this or disagree with this assessment of anyone not redeemed by Christ? In what way might Joker be seen as the ultimate embodiment of what we all become when consigned to hell by our own selfishness?
~There’s much more I could mention, but I’ve already written a lot.
Overall Grade: A
Obviously. A billion dollars at the box office aren’t likely to be wrong. And I’m serious. If Heath Ledger isn’t at least nominated for best actor, I say the Academy should be put in Sheriff Arpaio’s tent city for the summer.

Priceless (Hors de Prix—French) (2006)

Rated: PG-13 for sexual content including nudity.
Length: 104 minutes
Grade: B+CB+A=A-
Budget: 11.7 million Euros ($16.7 million)
Box Office: $28 million (2 U.S., 26 Intl.)

Written by: Pierre Salvadori and Benoit Graffin
Directed by: Pierre Salvadori
Starring: Audrey Tatou, Gad Lemaleh, Vernon Dobtcheff, and Annelise Hesme.

When a beautiful golddigger mistakes a bartender for a millionaire, she falls for him and loses her current wealthy find. But she discovers the truth and now must start over finding an entirely new sugar daddy. He pursues her, and she lets him squander everything he has on her until he allows himself to be turned into a lust toy just to stay near her.

Entertainment Value: B+
I know it sounds absurd and racy, but it’s really a gem of a movie with amazingly deep Christian themes. In French with subtitles, this is a little gem of a movie with plenty of chuckle-inducing wit and plot intrigue, and without (mostly) explicit content, which is usually inferred rather than shown.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence A, Language C, Illegal Activity A
The movie is all about men and women allowing themselves to be used sexually in exchange for lavish living. There are sexual scenes, but seductive clothing is much more an issue than actual nudity, which is very brief. There is some strong language, but it’s in subtitles, which makes it less potent. Also, I’m not sure the movie could have been authentic without the content it did have. Definitely PG-13 is the right rating.

Significant Content: B+
The positive themes here are A+ themes, quite frankly, but the negative is that if you miss the real importance of the movie, all you’ve got here is another sex-filled comedy romance. So, the prevalence of disordered (non-marital) sexual behavior is the thing that keeps me from giving it an A. Okay. I’m going to try to write the rest of this without giving too much of the plot away, but I can’t promise that I’ll succeed. So, here are the good themes. Charm is more important than beauty. Love will cost you everything you need to lose. A true love will sacrifice everything, including his own dignity, in order to have just a chance of getting what he wants more than anything else.
Artistic/Thought Value: A
This is exactly what the very best sort of art strives to be: a message of profound significance hidden every-so-carefully within a story that is charming and entertaining enough to satisfy those who aren’t looking for anything deep but not so carefully that they still might not find it. They key is that the real messages here are not obvious, but enticing.

Discussion Questions:
~Why does Irene buy Jean a ticket? What does this tell us about her?
~What if the plot of this movie had ended after 45 minutes?
~What draws Irene to John to him, in spite of the dangers? How is this like what draws us to Jesus? Why is sacrifice so sexy?
~In what ways did Jean behave for Irene like Jesus behaved for us, the Church? Did Jesus allow Himself to become sullied in any way?
~Christianity is all about a bunch of people who desire what they think they need gradually learning that nothing they ever wanted really matters once they find the one thing they really do need. How is this message conveyed in this movie? Who learns it?
~Irene tells Jean that he might as well take as much as he can, otherwise what’s it for? How is this the exact opposite of love, but the logical consequence of being in a relationship for selfish reasons?
~Who in this movie is noble? Who is selfish? Who is selfish but wanting to seem noble?
~What does the watch symbolize? What do you think of his behavior with the watch?
~How does the parable of the pearl of great price (Matt 13:45-46) serve as the idea behind this movie?
~Do you think the makers of this movie intended this to be a Gospel movie?
~Is Jean rational? Is love rational? How much of the justification for his behavior depends on how the movie turns out? What if it had turned out otherwise, would it still have been worth it?
~If this had been an American film, Jean would have secretly been a millionaire when it was all over. How would this difference have ruined both the charm and also the meaning of this movie?
~“Charm is more powerful than beauty. You can resist beauty, but not charm.” What do you think of this claim?
Overall Grade: A-
Particularly because of the deep themes and Christian parallels, I really enjoyed this clever little movie, even if you have to watch it with subtitles.

Prince Caspian (2008)

Rated: PG for epic battle action and violence.
Length: 140 minutes
Grade: BBB+B=B
Budget: $200 million
Box Office: $474 million (141 U.S., 278 Intl., 55 DVD)

Written by: CS Lewis, adapted by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (You Kill Me, The Life and Death of Peter Sellars, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Directed by: Adam Adamson, (who wrote/directed Shrek 2+3, and adapted/directed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Starring: Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Peter Dinklage, and Sergio Castellitto.

It’s been one year in England since the last movie, but it’s been 1300 years in Narnia, which is in an uneasy coexistence with the humans of Telmarine. When the rightful king of Telmarine, an uncrowned youth, flees from his murderous uncle into Narnia, war erupts, and the quartet of heroes are recalled to lead Narnia once more.

Entertainment Value: B
Solid. Outstanding animation (CGI), especially on the water demon at the end. The actors are believable despite their youth. The story, of course, is gripping. Anyone who knows the book will feel like this was a fine adaptation of it. One thing that bothered me was the inconsistency of the character of General Glozelle, who seemed to be sort of good then awful then sort of good again and so on.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A, Illegal Activity A
PG is correct, but a young PG, like 5 or 6 probably. Spencer watched it, but we skipped a few parts with Ethan because they were scary. Battle sequences, people getting killed (no blood), a fairly scary scene of black magic with monsters, and the movie opens with a woman in childbirth pains. If you’d led them watch Errol Flynn…

Significant Content: B+
Certainly the familiar themes of Narnia are here. It’s important to do the right thing, even if it is personally costly or risky. Heroes are people who simply make these right choices. Trying to do things on your own power is dangerous. It’s far better to know who God is (Aslan) and rely on His power. Have faith and do not doubt what you know to be true, even if you’re the only one who believes it. Courage is not dependent upon your size. Revenge is an extremely dangerous and poisonous motivation.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Largely because it was so beautiful. Of course there are very interesting things to be drawn from the comparison of Aslan with God or Jesus. There is this wonderful scene when Lucy finally sees Aslan that he asks her why she didn’t come to him even though the other children didn’t believe her, and her response is simply to apologize, which is exactly the right response to any failure of faith.

Discussion Questions:
~Why is it possible for the four children to be good co-rulers of Narnia, but Miraz and others succumb to the greed of wanting all the power for themselves?
~Who in this movie is motivated by revenge, and how does it affect their decision-making? Who is motivated by greed? Is greed really any different from revenge?
~How is Aslan like God, and how unlike Him? What about Jesus?
~Do stories like the Narnia ones captivate children’s imaginations in a useful way or in a dangerous way? How do they stimulate creativity? How might they make the real world less interesting?
~When Lucy asks about the trees dancing, what vision of the Creation is she imagining? Do you think that heaven will look morel like Narnia when the children arrive or when they leave?
~GK Chesterton explained that fairy tales primarily remind us that the world we actually live in is a pretty stunning place. That faeries fly is no more wonderful than that grass is green, except that we’ve gotten used to it. Would you want to live in Narnia? Do you think you would eventually become accustomed to it and lose some of the sense of wonder about it?
~Why is Lucy able to see Aslan, but not the other children? Why does she apologize to him for not coming to him?
~How might the time disconnect between England and Narnia parallel the difference between God’s time and our time?
~Why are non-talking bears so surprising to Lucy? Imagine that the Apostle Paul returned to America in the year 2008 having last been on earth in the first century. In what ways might the church surprise him as the changes in Narnia had surprised the children?
~Caspian says he doesn’t know if he’s ready to be king, and Aslan says this is why he is. Is self-doubt a healthy component of a political leader? Why or why not? Do you see self-doubt in our politicians? How might it relate to their ability to follow God?
~Presumably, part of what makes the occasional loss of Narnia bearable to the children is that they have each other to reminisce with about it. How does having other people who have experienced the same things as us and believe in what we believe in make the loss of some of those things bearable? How do such commonalities also alienate us from people who haven’t had them and make us feel alone among them? How is their experience of Narnia like a Christian’s experience of Jesus?
Overall Grade: B
Solid, and based on a classic book.

WALL-E (2008)

Rated: G
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: B-AFB=D
Budget: $180 million
Box Office: $601 million (224 U.S., 265 Intl., 112 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life, wrote Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 1+2) and Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 1+2)
Starring: The voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Sigourney Weaver, and Fred Willad

When a megacorporation takes over the world and pollution piles high, the humans must flee for a few hundred years in a space cruise ship. While they’re gone, machines attempt to clean up the planet, but only one of them is still operating. When a probe shows that Earth may have become inhabitable again, this lone WALL-E unit hitches a ride back to the mother ship.

Entertainment Value: B-
The good news is that the animation is, as you expect from Pixar, outstanding. The characters are fairly interesting, and funny. I’m extremely impressed they could make a full length movie with so little dialogue (a skill that shows up in the animated shorts in the extra features on the DVDs—by the way Presto on this one is BRILLIANT!) But the problem here is that the plot is just weird and nonsensical, in addition to seeming very political and pushy. Also, I had conceptual objections here as well, like if WALL-E has been operating all these centuries, how is this the first time he’s seen a probe ship and an EVE? Also, why on Earth (yes, it’s a joke) would EVE have this massive ray blaster, and what is she doing blasting everything with it if her whole point is to find life?

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A-, Language A, Illegal Activity A
A robot uses a blaster gun to destroy things, but no one ever actually gets hurt by it. There is some mild peril.

Significant Content: F
Now this is an interesting one, because the movie’s intended overall message is different from the one you would draw merely from the plot facts themselves. What the movie primarily says is that Wall-Mart is evil (represented by Big and Large, which owns everything in the new Republic of B’n’L), humans are being turned into gluttonous slobs by technology (you gotta give them that one), and that we are turning this beautiful planet into a massive trash heap. But the funny thing is that in the end, the planet recovers in spite of it all, and if it hadn’t been for the one big company, there wouldn’t have been any Axiom ship to save humanity. But I give it an F for the impression rather than the logical meaning. One strong theme I like here is that happiness comes from fulfilling your directive.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Here’s part of the problem here. I don’t think most young kids will understand enough of this movie to really know why things are happening. I had to explain several parts to Spencer, and even so I don’t think he really followed all that was going on. Oh, don’t get me wrong. He loved it and didn’t realize he wasn’t getting it, but so much of the plot elements are really geared to older kids or adults and are specifically not explained in this virtually dialogue-free and totally narration-free movie.

Discussion Questions:
~What techniques are used in this movie to get you to think of WALL-E as a person rather than as a machine? Consider things like fear, friendship, compassion, collecting, holding hands, crying.
WALL-E seems so desperate for love that he will even continue pursuing it when it’s unrequited. Why?
~How is the Axiom ship like an average suburban house today?
~The captain talks about the difference between living and merely surviving. What does he mean?
~Is it likely for technology to ever take over from us? Why is this such a powerful theme in science fiction and movies? Can you brainstorm a list of all the movies built around this theme?
~What is the difference between the messages this movie makes you feel and the messages the movies plot facts support? Why is it important to know the difference between emotional impact and logical impact? Which is more powerful in movies?
~Do you believe this movie is targeting Wal-Mart or not? Is it hypocritical of Pixar to make such a movie after having allowed themselves to be acquired by Disney?
~How worried do you think we need to be about the problems of over-consumption and trash disposal?
~Would it be fair to say that WALL-E loves EVE? What about EVE to WALL-E? How does sacrifice prove love?
Overall Grade: D
Very disappointing. Definitely intended for adults and not children. I’ve seen Al Gore’s movie, and I love Wal-Mart. My dad said it best, “Gosh, if only they had thought to include an overt political message, that would have been good.” Still, the robots sure are cute. And the extra shorts are brilliant, especially Presto!

Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

Rated: G
Length: 88 minutes
Grade: A+AA+A+=A+
Budget: $85 million
Box Office: $297 million (155 U.S., 142 Intl.)

Written by: Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), with the book adapted to this version by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (Where is Fred?, The Santa Clause 2)
Directed by: Jimmy Hayward (Animator for Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 1+2, and A Bug’s Life) and Steve Martino (Art director for Robots and two Monty Python video games)
Starring: The voices of Charles Osgood, Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Dan Fogler, Amy Poehler, Isla Fisher, Jaime Pressly, Jonah Hill, and Carol Burnett as a brilliantly voiced June Kangaroo.

When the loveable elephant Horton one day discovers himself in the possession of a speck of dust containing an entire world full of microscopic people, he must strive to protect them from a world of people who deny the reality of anything they can’t see directly.

Entertainment Value: A+
Okay, I love this book. It’s one of my favorite Dr. Seusses, and I thought the original animated version was pretty good for its time, but I was totally blown away from the very first seconds by this version. This is some of the best animation I have ever seen. The voicing is just wonderful. And the thing I loved the best is that they kept all the essentials of the original story, honoring the rhymes of the narrator in the process, while also adding in substantial amounts of new, imaginative, and generally very funny dialogue/plot. This is two grand slams in one at-bat.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A-, Language A, Illegal Activity A
Squeaky. In fact, the scariest scene from the old version is the boiling oil and the Wickersham’s capturing Horton, but I found the versions in this film to be not scary at all. There are a couple of name-calling (idiot) moments, but this is certainly about as G as G gets.

Significant Content: A+
Keep your word. Believe in things you can’t immediately perceive. One person with the truth is stronger than the entire world who doesn’t believe it. And one of the most famous refrains in Seussdom: “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
As I raved previously, the animation here is outstanding, although I thought the Japanese anime sequence was out of place and odd. But the thought value is just wonderful, as this is one of Seuss’s most useful books for the pro-life cause, even though Seuss was pro-choice and actively opposed people using his story for this purpose.

Discussion Questions:
~What does this movie have to say about the morality of abortion?
~What does this movie have to say about the power of faith?
~What does this movie have to say about the dangers of naturalism, the view that the only reality is that which we can see and touch for ourselves directly?
~Since Geisel was upset that this story was used by pro-lifers, what do you think the purpose of the story was in his mind? Do you think that it matters more what the creator of a work of art thinks it means or what the people who consume it think it means?
~Why do you think Seuss chose to make the people tiny and powerless but the animals large and powerful?
~Compare Kangaroo’s parenting style with that of the mayor. What lessons does each learn during this movie? Should we always obey our parents?
Overall Grade: A+
Hilarious, beautiful, meaningful, and highly entertaining. And, by the way, the joke about being pouch-schooled was hilarious. Don’t be deterred by the way Carrey and Co. ruined the Grinch. He’s atoned for it here.

Space Chimps (2008)

Rated: G
Length: 81 minutes
Grade: CA-CD=C
Budget: $37 million
Box Office: $66 million (30 U.S., 32 Intl., 4 DVD)

Written by: Kirk DeMicco (Racing Stripes, Quest for Camelot) and Robert Moreland, (Happily N’Ever After, Thunder Pig)
Directed by: Kirk DeMicco (First movie)
Starring: The voices of Andy Samberg, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Daniels, Patrick Warburton, Kristin Chenowith, and Stanley Tucci.

When a US probe discovers life on a distant plane, two chimps trained as astronauts and a third, the grandson of the first chimp in space, are sent to find out if the trip can safely be made. While there, they discover that the evil Zartog has taken over the planet with the use of the first probe, and they must stop him if they can before returning to Earth.

Entertainment Value: C
The good news is that there are plenty of antics in this movie to entertain the kiddies. The bad news is that the overall plot is completely silly. The conditions on the alien planet never even remotely approach making sense, although the issues about how the chimps could do everything sort of get resolved at the end. This movie exemplifies the classic modern problem of bad kids movies: it’s just a montage of inside references and 80s music jokes for the adults stuffed into a movie that could never stand on its own. As Pixar shows, kids movies start by being good movies. The jokes and the antics are the seasoning, not the meat.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A-, Language A-, Illegal Activity A
Zartog freezes people (a la the White Witch) in this silver goo called freznar. There are some mildly scary chase scenes and one character gets eaten by a monster. Some of the jokes are race-related because one of the NASA techs is Indian. Fear can be overcome by imagining yourself overcoming it.

Significant Content: C
Living up to a legacy is difficult to do. The world needs cooperation from those with academic smarts and those with street smarts. Even chimps want to be heroes and make their lives mean something. Power corrupts bad people. Chimps are people, too.
Artistic/Thought Value: D Since the animation on the alien planet was so low quality and the thought value just isn’t really there.

Discussion Questions:
~Who in this movie shows courage? Why is courage important?
~Who in this movie shows respect to other people? Why is respect important?
~What makes Zartog different from Ham 3? Can you name some people who remind you of Zartog or of Ham 3? What about in the Bible?
~What lessons does Ham 3 learn in this movie? What lessons does Luna learn? What about Titan?
~How does Kilowatt learn to control her fear? What lessons about fear can you learn from her example?

Overall Grade: C
Fairly clean and slapstick funny, but strange and certainly lacking in real content. I’m absolutely certain that $37 million could be spent in much better ways.

Hancock (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language.
Length: 92 minutes
Grade: ADAA=A
Budget: $150 milion
Box Office: $624 million (228 U.S., 396 Intl.)

Written by: Vinceng Ngo (A couple obscure films) and Vince Gillian (primary writing credit is writing 30 X-Files episodes.)
Directed by: Peter Berg (Actor, Writer, Producer, and Director of The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights, The Rundown, and Very Bad Things)
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Jason Bateman

Hancock is a man with super-hero powers who tries to help people but winds up being hated by LA because in the process he always causes at least as much damage as he prevents. Ray Embry is a PR specialist decides to teach Hancock how to be a good hero after being saved by him, but this decision creates tension in the Embry home because his wife thinks Hancock is nothing but trouble.

Entertainment Value: A
I was engaged in this movie from start to finish. It was surprising, intriguing, visually stunning, and conceptually rich. I had been worried that this would be yet another disappointment where someone comes up with a genius premise for a movie and then botch it in the making. Not so. They didn’t just execute the great concept well, they actually had far more substance to deliver than even the starting concept would promise.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity B, Violence D, Language D, Illegal Activity C
Hancock is constantly drunk, although in fairness this shows as a clear character defect. The violence is pretty constant, including a couple of very vulgar scenes involving a hand being cut off, a man’s head being shown inserted inside another man’s rear end, and many scenes with bloodshed, gun violence, and super-hero mayhem. The other problem here is virtually constant not-quite-R language. Actually, I was a bit surprised that this didn’t get an R rating. Certainly not for young kids or even teen kids.

Significant Content: A
Reaching out to help those in need is the mark of a hero, especially if the person he is helping is a misguided hero in need of the love and guidance. Saving a life is worth far more than the destruction of property. Seeing the good in someone, especially when he doesn’t see it in himself, is noble. People resent you when you don’t solve their problems their way. A little tact goes a long way. Loneliness leads to anger and resentment when people reject what you do for them. Violence solves many problems. A hero will be miserable if he rejects his calling. There’s even a hint at God in here. In short, this film is about love, redemption, and transformation. Not too shabby for a movie that opens on a super-hero passed out drunk on a city bench.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Where to start? The visual effects here are, quite simply, amazing. But the thought value is unbelievable. I saw Christianity all over this movie, both in the main parts and especially in the end. What a wonderful exploration of the question, “What would it look like if a super-hero hated himself?”

Discussion Questions:
~Considering Hancock as the derailed powerhouse he was designed to be, what lessons or comparisons might be drawn between him and the modern Church or the modern Christian?
~Hancock destroys tons of property to save a few lives. Is this rational behavior? Could he have done the same task less destructively?
~The people of LA reject Hancock because he does the miracles they want in a way they don’t appreciate. How is this the same problem that God faces with people?
~How does Hancock’s loneliness lead to his behavior? Why does he hate himself so much? Is his self-hatred a flaw or a mark of nobility, once its source is explained? What is his definition of success, and how does he fail to meet it?
~Ray’s wife chides him, saying, “You see the good in everybody, even when it’s not there.” Is this a flaw? What would Jesus say?
~Discuss how this movie is an example of the basic Christian duty to neighbor the lost and the difficult. Would you want Hancock in your life if you were Ray? Compare this story with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
~How does the expression of love transform people in this movie?
~Does Hancock respond to Ray’s love and neighboring him? Is he redeemed in the end? Is he transformed?
~Concerning the ending, what sacrifice is Hancock making and why is he making it? What is he really giving up, and how does this represent Christ’s sacrifice for us on the Cross? Would you have made Hancock's choice?
~Discuss the concept of Hancock allowing himself to be imprisoned when he could clearly break out any time.
~Do you know anyone who is more comfortable being hated than appreciated? How does rejection lead you to forsake doing what will please others out of the fear that this is too costly a risk to take?
~What is the meaning of the all-heart concept and logo? Is this movie explicitly selling Christianity charity?
~Can a person ever be happy who rejects his true calling?
~Could this movie have been made without the vulgarity and profanity? Would it have been as entertaining or compelling? How do these elements contribute to the image of Hancock as the anti-type hero?
~If Hancock is so angry and miserable, why does he still try to do good? What does this say about him?
~What does this movie have to say about the concept of soul-mates? What about the idea that love makes us vulnerable, even mortal?

Overall Grade: A
Wonderful, and I’m so glad to see that it made gobs of money because the themes here are so glorious. If you don’t see all the deeply Christian elements of this movie after watching it, email me and I’ll gladly share them with you in more detail. I didn't want to ruin the twists.

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Rated: PG for sequences of martial arts action.
Length: 91 minutes
Grade: AB+A-A=AA
Budget: $130 million
Box Office: $708 million (215 U.S., 416 Intl., 77 DVD)
Written by: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (King of the Hill, Mat TV) and Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (Bulletproof Monk, Sleeper Cell episodes)
Directed by: Mark Osborne (SpongeBob Squarepants) and John Stevenson (Father of the Pride)
Starring: The voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and Randall Duk Kim.

The precarious balance in the Valley of Peace is disrupted when the notorious villain Tai Lung escapes from his maximum security prison, seeking revenge against his master, Shifu. Unfortunately for everyone, Master Oogway is convinced that the legendary Dragon Warrior who will defend the valley isn’t one of Shifu’s highly trained Furious Five warriors, but rather Po, the overweight, inept panda son of a noodle-maker.

Entertainment Value: A
As an animated movie for kids, this works very well. My sons both loved it. But as a martial arts movie, it’s excellent. The characters are intriguing, the animation is outstanding, the action is excellent, and the entire thing is really, really funny. Plus, this film has one of my all-time favorite martial arts battles, dumpling-style.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A, Illegal Activity A
The only issue here is violence, which is sort of to be expected given that it’s a martial arts movie. The character of Tai Lung could be scary to some children. Oh, there is one reference to Po getting punched in “his tenders,” which I thought was adorable, not vulgar.

Significant Content: A-
If you believe you are special, then you are special. The weakest candidate combined with the right insight becomes the greatest warrior. Basic nature cannot be changed, only cultivated, and the fruit will grow from the basic nature. You must honor your correct destiny, even if it’s frightening to you. Even parents can sometimes wrongly push us contrary to our destiny. Character is more important than talent. It’s good to let go of the illusion of control. When you love someone and they betray you and defile your love, it’s hard to truly love again. The one main complaint I have here thematically is that the ultimate message is that salvation (ability) is to be found within you rather than imparted to you from without (hence the Dragon Scroll’s content).

Artistic/Thought Value: A-
Okay, here’s the semi-bad news. I spent a lot of this movie feeling a bit uneasy about the seemingly obvious parallels between this and Star Wars: Obi Wan is Shifu, Yoda is Oogway, and Vader is Tai Lung. But, obviously, this semi-derivative feel is forgivable since there’s no counterpart to Po and since such relationships are extremely common in martial arts master-student films. So, putting that aside (pretty easily), I enthusiastically found loads of excellent discussion topics in this movie, including LOTS of solid Christian parallels.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you know what you are destined to do or be? How do our deepest recurring desires and passions indicate our destiny or purpose? Is aptitude a reliable indicator of destiny?
Why aren’t Christians known for their wisdom the way Buddhist monks are?
~Why was Shifu so devastated by Tai Lung’s betrayal? What impact did this have on his ability to become attached to future dependable students? Have you ever found it hard to let yourself be vulnerable because of past violations? How does Christ overcome this in us?
~Why is Shifu so upset when Oogway leaves? How is this departure similar to Christ leaving the apostles?
~Why does Po’s dad want him to follow in the family tradition of selling noodles? What insight do you get from the admission that he also used to want to go into martial arts when he was young? When someone denies their own impulses and does something else, why are they more motivated to convince others to do the same thing? What is the danger of submerging your real talents to the agenda your parents impose on you? What is the danger of resisting your parents’ advice for your life path?
~What is the meaning of the Dragon Scroll and the secret ingredient in the noodle soup? Is this a Christian message?
~Shifu finally manages to train Po to be the Dragon Warrior by finding his secret talent, even though Po seemed completely inept beforehand. How is this a Christian message?
~Is it easier to teach someone who has natural ability or high enthusiasm? Who produces more excellence in the long run?
~Does believing you are special make you special? In what way does Christianity teach you that you are special? Can self-esteem be self-generated?
~Can basic nature produce something other than what it is? Can it be changed? What is the message of the Bible?
~In what ways is Po like Jesus? In what ways not? Consider things like rejection, foolishness, and stumbling block-ness.
~Why is Tai Lung insatiable? How does this relate to his basing his identity on his martial arts skill. Do you see these impulses in any of the other characters? How is his attitude different from Oogway’s? Why was his master’s approval so important to him? Did it have anything to do with being orphaned? How did this need drive him to evil?
~Who in this movie resists Po’s destiny? Who facilitates it? Are there characters who do both at different times? What message about cooperation and relationships is being made here?
~Oogway says, “There are no accidents.” What do you think?
~Oogway says that control is an illusion, not because we have no influence over anything, but because we can’t affect the basic nature of things. What do you think? What does the Bible say?
~Oogway wants Shifu to be patient, to wait, and to act wisely. Is this always good advice? Usually?
~A lot of the jokes in this movie relate to Po being overweight. Are these jokes healthy or unhealthy for children to see? How does Po’s weight turn out to be a good thing? Is it better for overweight kids to be comfortable (like Jack Black) about their weight, or is it better for them to feel bad about it? How are jokes a source of close relationship?
Overall Grade: A
Entertaining, thought-provoking, funny all the way through, and an excellent martial arts film to boot. Well done, mostly novice film-makers. Well done. Finally, a resounding success for Dreamworks Animation.

Sukiyaki Western Django (2008)

Rated: R
Grade: FF??=F

Full review may not be worth writing.

Transsiberian (2008)

Rated: R for some violence, including torture and language.
Length: 107 minutes
Grade: BDBB+=B
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $5 million ($2 U.S., Intl., DVD)
Written and Directed by: Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9, and many single episodes of TV: Fear Itself, The Wire, Shield, Fringe) with some writing help from Will Conroy, who has no credits to speak of.
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, and Ben Kingsley.

For a recently married couple, a trip on the Transsiberian train turns from exotic adventure to nightmare when he is left behind at a stop and she is lured into a compromising situation with drug dealers and Russian police.

Entertainment Value: B
One thing I liked about this movie was how mostly unpredictable it was. It would give you enough to possibly come to the right answer, but also enough to mislead you pretty regularly. It’s a very well-acted and innovative thriller built around interesting characters.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C, Violence D, Language D, Illegal Activity F
This is properly rated R for sure. However, the bulk of the rating comes from just a small number of difficult scenes including one of a fairly brutal torture, two murders, and some sexual scenes with no nudity. Language is what you’d expect.

Significant Content: B
The thing to understand about this movie is that it shows a lot of bad things being done, but in every case it also shows real horrific consequences following from what are sometimes fairly minor bad decisions to begin with. Some of the themes include lying and truth-telling, temptation, adventurous personalities and their instability, the conflicts between planning and fate, the importance of planting roots, and being careful whom you trust.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
As a thriller, this is quite good. But as an art piece, it’s also fairly interesting, especially because it opens with this rather out-of-place scene with a church leader giving his thoughts on how the world is full of unambiguous black/white situations and no gray. Of course, the directors are telling us that this movie intends to be entirely about dubious situations and difficult-to-evaluate decisions. It certainly invites ethical analysis as well as questions about who is really to blame and what would have been better choices to make.

Discussion Questions:
~Carlos encourages Jessie in one scene by telling her that “Nobody will know.” What does this tell you about his view of the world? Is it ever true that nobody will know? Even in this situation, won’t the two of them know? Why exactly is it so wrong to keep a secret like this from your spouse?
~Why does Jessie take the trip with Carlos in the first place? How does he manipulate her and his knowledge of her? How much of the blame for what happens is his, and how much of it is hers? ~What do you make of the fact that what happens after her change of heart is much worse than what would have happened if she had gone through with her initial plan? Whom do you sympathize with in this event? What should have been done afterward?
~Is the world primarily made up of ethical decisions which are black and white or ones which are gray? What is the motive for claiming that the situations are gray? Are there ever legitimately gray situations? Why do modern filmmakers like to emphasize them so much? What does emphasizing them do in our perception of the general difficulty or ease of making the right decision?
~How do you feel about the entirety of the ending? Does it seem like justice has been done or not?
~“Life is a journey, not a destination.” What do you think of this expression?
~“Kill off all my demons, and my angels might die, too.” What does Jessie mean by this? What are her demons? What are her angels? Does it turn out to be true? Do you think that God ever allows us to continue to struggle with a sin because eliminating it would tear out other essential things in us as well? How does this relate to the parable of the wheat and the tares?
~Have you ever taken a trip outside of the United States? Did it make you feel vulnerable?
~What role does Roy’s faith seem to play in his everyday life? Why is his faith included in this movie?
~What do you make of Grinko’s notion that life under the Soviet Union was at least bearable, in spite of all the problems? Do his actions have any justification in your mind?
~The pastor in the beginning says that the way back into God’s grace is by practicing compassion. How is that concept played out in this movie?
~The Bible teaches that “He who walks with the wise will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.” How is this principle represented in this movie? Does bad company corrupt good morals?
~Do you think that Abby would have accepted all the developments in this movie in the end if she had foreseen them?
~“Fear makes you do irrational things.” Have you ever experienced this? If this is correct, how is the Gospel the only true solution to irrationality?
~“With lies you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back.” What does this mean? Is it true?
~Why does Jessie wait so long to tell the truth? What is the movie trying to tell us about her character by this reluctance? Is it possible for a person like her to just tell the truth and come clean? What do her lies cost other people? Is honesty always the best policy? Would it have been here? How might a thriving Christian faith have made things different for her in this movie? Why do you think Roy married her?
~Who in this movie is good, who is evil, and who is on bubble between them? How do the evil and the good differ in their attempts to influence the others?
~If you start from the premise that Jessie represents the Church symbolically in this movie, how does it affect your view of all the other characters here? Do you think this interpretation is intentional? What clues are given that support this interpretation? (Note: this insight bumped the art value of this movie from a B to an A for me.)

Overall Grade: B
This is a good thriller with some disturbing images and many interesting things to discuss.

War, Inc. (2008)

Rated: R for violence, language and brief sexual material.
Length: 107 minutes
Grade: DFDD=D-
Budget: $5 million, sadly that wasn’t low enough to keep this film from being made.
Box Office: $2 million ($0.5 U.S., $0.7 Intl., $0.9 DVD)

Written by: Mark Leyner (1st movie), Jeremy Pikser (Bulworth), and John Cusack (High Fidelity, Grosse Point Blank)
Directed by: Joshua Seftel (1st movie)
Starring: John Cusack, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd, and Ben Kingsley.

In a future where wars are explicitly controlled by corporations, Brand Hauser is a contract assassin tasked with running a trade show in a recently conquered nation, overseeing a pop star’s marriage, and killing a local businessman to facilitate the aims of the evil military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, Hauser finds himself falling in love with a liberal reporter who threatens to expose everything.

Entertainment Value: D
I love John Cusack. I love Joan Cusack. I usually enjoy Marisa Tomei. And I’m particularly fond of Ben Kinglsey. But this was awful. I keep hoping someone is going to make another Grosse Point Blank, but I guess it’s not going to happen. This is totally unveiled political commentary ladled sloppily atop a plot that is simply crazy without any meaningful dialogue to keep it all held together.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
It’s a movie about war, assassination, political evil, out-of-control pop stars, terrorists, and megalomaniacal secret world leaders. What do you think the rating should be. There isn’t any nudity, per se, but there’s enough of everything else to bother anyone who’s botherable.

Significant Content: D War is bad. Haliburton is evil. Dick Cheney is evil. America is the puppet of industrial concerns. On the good side, however, honesty is important, and having to do morally awful things will incapacitate you psychologically in the long run if it doesn’t destroy you. Even if you’re an assassin, you can eventually change through the power of love. Cue Huey Lewis.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Aside from all the other problems, this movie suffered the death of a hundred interesting ideas all sloppily thrown together without any real regard for the overall effect. Ad space on tanks. Godstar. Popeye’s. Hero images for the viceroy. It’s all somewhat clever, but a hundred little clevernesses don’t make a good foundation for an entire movie without a structure.

Discussion Questions:
~“Business is the uniquely human response to a moral or cosmic crisis.” What do you think of this statement?
~“The problem is you’re a moralist. War is the improvement of investment climates by other means.” What do you think of this statement?
~Cusack tells Tomei that it must be nice for her to be able to be totally honest, but she responds that it costs her influence and friends. Have you ever been tempted to lie to keep a position or people in your life? How is honesty liberating?
~Why does Hauser have his psychological difficulties?
~Is this movie articulating any significant political commentary, or is it just expressing conspiratorial and venomous frustration?
Overall Grade: D-
I expect better from John Cusack and Ben Kingsley, much better.

Baby Mama (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and a drug reference.
Length: 99 minutes
Grade: B+B-BC=B+
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $83 million (60 U.S., 3 Intl., 20 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Michael McCullers, a former writer for SNL whose only other notable movie is Austin Powers in Goldmember, if you actually consider that notable, that is.
Starring: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Greg Kinnear, Dax Shepard, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Martin, and Maura Tierney.

Kate is a successful but aging health food company exec who discovers that her uterus won’t allow her to have children of her own. So she decides to have her eggs implanted in a birth mother who then tries to get as much money from her even though the implantation didn’t work.

Entertainment Value: B+
Because this was such a product of SNL minds, including Amy Poehler, I did not have high expectations. But this was thoroughly entertaining, funny, moderately unpredictable, and interesting even on other levels. If you don’t mind the fact that Angie (Poehler’s character) is totally implausible (both too smart and too dumb, both too wicked and too decent, etc.) and just let it be what it’s gonna be, it works.

Superficial Content: B-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B, Language C, Illegality B
Again, I was worried that this would be rife with unsavory content, but I was pleasantly disappointed. Everything unsavory is implied rather than shown, and it isn’t even all that much. The movie is about surrogacy, so obviously sex content is present, including a variety of things that are discussed at the birthing classes. There are many mid-color jokes and enough crude language to justify the PG-13. A man’s car is vandalized by the ladies. Also, there is one scene with a lot of alcohol being consumed at a dance club. Still, I think this is on the moderate end of PG, even though this is the right rating. It’s certainly not an “almost R” PG-13.

Significant Content: B
Since the whole movie is about the desire of a woman to have a child of her own, this is definitely pro-life, which must count for a lot these days. Some other themes here include the value of honesty, the possibility of redemption after having done wrong, the need for friendship, and the eminent mockability of health food outfits and people. Time is love, not money. When women climb the corporate ladder, they often discover they’ve given up something else more valuable along the way. One thing that bothered me was that the idea of a single, professional woman trying to have a child was never even questioned in terms of the needs of the child.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
I think for most people this winds up primarily working just as a comedy and not so much as a thinker. Nonetheless, there are some really good insights to be gleaned here about maternal impulses, honesty, and the extremes our society has gone to in order to make it possible for women to have both a career and children, or at least one child.

Discussion Questions:
~Kate clearly is aware that she has traded having a family for corporate success. Do you think she regrets this? Even after she has a baby, is she going to be able to really invest in it since she already knows she’ll use a nanny? Does it seem weird that she's so interested in the right nutrition for the child's development but doesn't seem to give any thought to the post-birth environmental and relational ideals for the child? Do you think Kate will be a good mother? What about Angie?
~Do you think women can be fulfilled by professional accomplishments without children usually? What message about this is our culture sending women?
~What do you think of Chaffee Bicknell’s analogy of outsourcing for a womb and of surrogacy just being a nanny before the child is born? What unique ethical issues does surrogacy raise? Could you ever be a surrogate? Would you want to be? Could you ever use one? Should single people be trying to have children at all?
~Do the characters in this movie who lie wind up suffering for their lies? Are there consequences to their bad behavior?
~How many of your friends are like you and how many of them are very different from you? To what degree is dissimilarity with friends an indicator of healthiness in a person? How do the needs to forgive and be humble factor into making relationships with different people possible?
~Angie says that Kate is a good person and it’s not right to pair up with another good person because that would diminish the uniqueness of her contribution to the relationship. What do you think of this? Is this principle a theme of this movie?
~At the end, Steve Martin says that time is love, not money. How true is this?
Overall Grade: B+
Enjoyable and even fairly meaningful, even though it’s not likely anyone will watch it for that reason.

Get Smart (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for some rude humor, action violence and language.
Length: 110 minutes
Grade: BCCC=B
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $230 million (130 U.S., 100 Intl., DVD)

Written by: Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, who worked together on Failure to Launch and some television episodes of Coach, Tracy Morgan Show, and the new Outer Limits. Matt Ember was a consulting producer for the TV show Titus.
Directed by: Peter Segal, who made The Longest Yard, 50 First Dates, Anger Management, My Fellow Americans, Nutty Professor 2, Naked Gun 33 1/3, and Tommy Boy.
Starring: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, with appearances by David Koechner, James Caan, Bill Murray, Patrick Warburton, and Masi Oka.

After a devastating attack on the headquarters of the super-secret spy agency Control, Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 head off to find the culprits at KAOS and prevent them from launching a major nuclear attack against the United States. At least I think that was the premise. I didn’t really notice so much. It’s not exactly a plot-driven concept.

Entertainment Value: B
I grew up watching Get Smart and loving it, and so this worried me, the way a live action remake of Underdog worried me. But I was pretty pleased with the overall effort here. It’s certainly quite funny. Carell is a comic genius. They did plenty of homage to the old show’s peculiar quirks and redundancies while also changing Max’s character significantly. I liked the way they embedded their own running jokes (such as about who got which spy gadget). It’s fun and very entertaining, which cannot be said about the ridiculously unentertaining Bruce and Lloyd spinoff.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language C, Illegal Activity C
Some alcohol consumption and smoking. There is fairly constant PG+ language (including some F-imitations), and there are more than enough sexual references to make this PG10+ at least. The violence probably justifies the PG-13, with explosions and fights and people being killed. There are also some very hilarious slapstick violence episodes, especially on involving a miniature crossbow.

Significant Content: C
Even villains are real people, too, usually. And if you can find a way to break through to that part of them, you might turn them to your side eventually. Be careful whom you trust. The guy who seems too good to be true might be. Good is good, and evil is evil. Honor, loyalty, and strength are all valued.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
This isn’t a movie about thought value. Ironic, right?

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think about Max’s idea that people who do evil aren’t necessarily evil in their core. They may be ordinary, decent people who just work for the wrong side? How does this perspective affect how you see your opponents in war? Why do we prefer to view our enemies as evil? How does this make things easier for us? Is Max’s perspective a Christian one?
~Why are we so protective of things we have cherished in the past that get remade later?
~Many of the classic beloved television shows were campy and lovable for that fact. Why aren’t campy shows made like this today? Or are they? Are we too cynical and sophisticated to enjoy silly stuff?

Overall Grade: B
Fun, funny, and a faithful update to the classic TV show. And, no, the guy who plays Dalip is not the guy who played Jaws in Moonraker, but, yes, Ken Davitian was Borat’s sidekick, just in case you were wondering.

Star Wars: Clone Wars (2008)

Rated: PG for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language and momentary smoking.
Length: 98 minutes
Grade: CBCC=C
Budget: $8.5 million
Box Office: $68 million (35 U.S., 32 Intl.)

Written by: Henry Gilroy, who has written for a lot of animated kids TV stuff, such as the Clone Wars series, Bionicle, Lilo and Stitch, Batman and the Tick.
Directed by: Dave Filoni, with his first movie.
Starring: The voices of no one you’ve heard of except Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, and Christopher Lee.

Somewhere in time between Star Wars 2 and 3, Anakin is assigned a young female Padawan learner, who accompanies him on a mission to rescue the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hut so that the Republic can use the Hut’s outlying space routes for troop movements in their fight against the separatists.

Entertainment Value: C
And I feel pretty generous at that. If you fell in love with Batman from the Dark Knight and Batman Begins and then hoped to reproduce that joy by watching the Saturday morning cartoon series, you’d be very disappointed. Same thing here. This is basically a cheap knock-off of Star Wars with the wrong voices, the wrong music, and the wrong basic content. Plus the characters are all simple and uninteresting. But George Lucas is presiding, so it’s not awful. I had it explained to me this way: imagine a 90 minute movie with 82 minutes of battle scenes and 8 minutes of dialogue and transition. Pretty much. Nonetheless, who can really dislike light sabers, Jedi, and spaceships? This is fake steak with a similar flavor but no real nutritional value. How can you start a Star Wars movie without 20th Century Fox music?

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A, Illegal Activity A
Uh, there’s animated warfare, and animated killing of droids and faceless clone stormtroopers. I think the Huts smoke. I can’t believe that made it into the rating. I have no idea what the brief language was. Perhaps, “Scum?”

Significant Content: C
Good and evil are two sides and opposed to each other. Violence solves problems. If you’re reckless and headstrong, it’s okay so long as you have mad Jedi skills. Lying is bad. Teams are better than working solo. There’s surprisingly little “Star Wars stuff” like The Force and personal development here.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
It’s pretty and shiny, but that’s about all. If you’re expecting a substantial full-length Star Wars film here, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting a glorified Saturday morning cartoon here, you’ll be satisfied. If you were frustrated that the epic clone wars battles never got made into movies because neither 2 nor 3 really showed them, you might find this more satisfying. I found myself annoyed that they did this in a cartoon instead of a real movie, but the lack of non-action content surely explains that decision, too. I particularly found the mashed together introduction hard to follow, besides the fact that there was no scrolling introduction like I’m used to.

Discussion Questions:
~Does Ahsoka seem to demonstrate the characteristics of a Jedi, even of a Jedi Padawan?
~If you loved the Star Wars movies, are you glad that this was made, or does it annoy you?
~If you had never known Star Wars, could you have understood this movie? Would you have liked it more or less?
~Have you ever been asked to take an apprentice or teach someone? Have you ever been an apprentice? What was it like? Would the apprentice system make more sense for the church to use than its current model of discipleship, whatever that may be?
~Which characters show humility, patience, peace?
~Have you ever been misled or deceived by someone who was trying to use you or harm you? How did you eventually find out? How did that affect your ability to trust other people?

~What is this movie trying to say about teamwork and being willing to let someone else do a task with you?
Overall Grade: C
I kind of wish I could justify giving it a lower grade, but I think that a C is fair. Now go away, kid, you bother me.

War, Inc. (2008)

Rated: R
Grade: DFFD=F

Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your thoughts.

Then She Found Me (2008)

Rated: R
Grade: ACAB=B+/A-
Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your thoughts.

Baby Mama (2008)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: B+B=BB=B+

Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your thoughts.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008)

Rated: G
Length: 101 minutes
Grade: B+AAA=A
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $17.6 million (All U.S.)

Written by: Ann Peacock adapted this (she did the first Narnia screenplay) from the Valerie Tripp novel.
Directed by: Patricia Rozema, whose only previous notable movie was the excellent Mansfield Park.
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Wallace Shawn, Max Thieriot, Willow Smith, Glenne Headly, Zach Mills, Joan Cusack, and Stanley Tucci.

During the worst parts of the Great Depression, one family struggles to make ends meet by taking in boarders as their prospects decline. The daughter aspires to be a newspaper journalist, and she befriends some hobos at a time when hobos are blamed for a crime spree.

Entertainment Value: B+
I really liked this, but not quite to the A level. I think what hindered me was that I was watching it with my son, and I worried that some of the events might concern him, especially given the current economic woes. Also, this is the first movie I can remember where he actually lost interest and didn’t care about what happened. So I can’t grade it an A. Nonetheless, the plot, the acting, and the basic idea here all have a Little House on the Prairie meets Frank Capra feel that I did enjoy.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A- , Language A, Illegality A-+A guy gets hit in the head with a shovel. There is a burglary depicted, but it is clearly depicted as a bad thing. That’s it. Again, G is always G whenever it’s a live action movie.

Significant Content: A
Family is more important than economic issues. Love involves sacrifice. Hard times demand difficult decisions. All people are people, and most people are pretty decent. Beware the temptation to blame problems on outsiders or the poor. Appearances can be deceiving. Perseverance is a virtue, as is honesty. It’s important not to let circumstances beat us. Don’t judge people based on their economic situation.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Simple and elegant. That’s what I loved about this. It was clearly representing a viewpoint, but by doing so in an archaic setting, it wasn’t overdone. It was a very believable scenario, and one that brought the Depression home in a way that made it seem much more real to me than any of the archive footage I’ve seen ever did.

Discussion Questions:
~Kit complains to her dad that, “We’re not okay if we’re not together” as a family. Have you ever been separated from a parent? What do you think life is like for children of people in the military?
Kit keeps trying to get her articles published. What does she learn in this process about the media? What did she learn from getting rejected? Have you ever been rejected in something you were trying to do? What did you learn from that experience?
~Kit’s dad says, “Don’t let it beat you, kid.” Have you ever found yourself getting angry at a thing or a circumstance? Why is it important to not let these frustrations beat us? How can you overcome those feelings of anger?
~The hobos are portrayed as sharing with each other and donating things to each other. Does it seem to you that people are more generous when they’re poor or when they’re rich? How do pride, greed, and gratitude factor into this?
~Hobos are portrayed as the unjust scapegoats for many problems in the Depression. Who are the modern equivalent of the hobos? Can you think of other cultures or countries and how they treated outsiders in history? Have Christians ever been the scapegoats? What happens when people blame outsiders? What doesn’t happen with regards to the real sources of the problems they’re experiencing?

~The people who know Will and County can see with their own eyes that the two are hard-working, decent, and honest. What drives them to ignore this data and suspect them of a crime? Why is prejudice so powerful?
~The newspaper guys tells Kit, “Sometimes you gotta play the tune your audience wants to hear.” What does he mean? What obligations do newspapers and media have other than to simply turn a profit?
Overall Grade: A
Cute. Interesting. I definitely liked it. Lots of good teaching moments. Norma Rockwell would be proud.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D (2008)

Rated: PG for intense adventure action and some scary moments.
Length: 92 minutes
Grade: AB+NGNG=A
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $204 million (101 U.S., 103 Intl)

Written by: Uh, Jules Verne, of course. With some updating by Michael Weiss (Butterfly Effect 2, Death Train, and I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer), and the team of Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (Nim’s Island, Little Manhattan, and Wimbledon)
Directed by: Eric Brevig, with his first major movie, but he’s done visual effects on a ton of stuff (The Island, The Village, The Day After Tomorrow, The Hunted, Pearl Harbor, Wild Wild West, Men In Black, Total Recall, Hook, The Abyss) so he knows how to make things look cool.
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, and Anita Briem.

Just as his program is about to be shut down, seismologist Trevor Anderson is on the verge of a breakthrough regarding volcanic tunnels to the center of the earth. With his teenage nephew in tow, he heads to Iceland, where they eventually find themselves retracing the path of the famous Jules Verne novel, which was apparently not a work of fiction after all.

Entertainment Value: A
I was worried about what this might turn out to be, mostly because the original movie is such a classic. But in the end, it became a tremendous homage to the original and the book precisely because it essentially became a remake without having to suffer the guilt of being a remake. The action is excellent. The effects are cool. The banter is fun. And I can wholeheartedly recommend this movie for what it is: a message-free science-fiction romp. There isn’t even the slightest hint of what could have been easily and wrongly included: global warming. Bravo, movie-makers with restraint. Bravo.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A, Illegality A
There are certainly some intense action sequences here (again, just like the original), involving people apparently being killed, volcanic activity, dinosaurs attacking people, and what the MPAA likes to call “peril.” We decided not to let Spencer watch it, but I’m sure he would love it. Call it PG-6 for keeping the kiddies from being too scared. Not only is this a fun movie, it’s a fun, CLEAN movie! What more could you want?

Significant Content: NG (No grade)
There is no significant content here. It’s a cartoon. It’s an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Seriously. No messages. Think I’m exaggerating? Then email me after you’ve seen it with what you think the messages are.

Artistic/Thought Value: NG (No grade)
Not because it’s not artistic, but because there’s nothing of thought worth mentioning here. This isn’t art. It’s entertainment. Giving it an art grade would be misleading and inappropriate. Didn’t you hear me when I said this was all about fun?

Discussion Questions:
~Do you think that young people these days have a sense of adventure? Are their heroes adventure-seekers? What role did adventure heroes play in American culture in the past? Is this position inhabited by anyone today? Compare the persona of an X-Games contestant with the Lone Ranger and Indiana Jones.
~Do men uniquely need/seek adventure? Has our culture moved away from this because we are more concerned about safety, or has our over-emphasis on safety been the result of a move away from adventure stories?
~Does this movie make you want to read science-fiction works like those by Verne or Burroughs? Do you think making movies like this encourages other kids to go read the books?
~What’s the coolest place you can think of exploring/adventuring?
Overall Grade: A
Pure and total fun. I really enjoyed it. Finally I get to give a total thumbs-up to a Walden Media movie. My only regret here was that I didn’t get to see it in 3-D. Oh, well. One can’t have everything all the time.