No Reservations (2007)

Rated: PG
Grade: DB+CD=D
Budget: $28 million
Box Office: $43 million US, $49 million Int’l, $11 million DVD

Directed by: Scott Hicks, who previously made Hearts in Atlantis, Snow Falling on Cedars, and Shine as well as a video for the 2004 “I’m Only Looking, The Best of INXS” retrospective.
Starring: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, and Eric Silver.

When a successful and neurotic New York chef’s sister dies, she must learn how to be a parent to the young girl and also navigate a new sous-chef who seems to be sincere and not a threat to her kitchen fiefdom.

Entertainment Value: D
Yawn. Everything about this movie screamed potential, but everything in the movie itself failed. I didn’t care about the characters, except for Aaron Eckhart, who I mostly wanted to find a better woman than Kate. The story is predictable, uncharming, and annoying, primarily because it was such a disappointment compared to what I expected. At a PG rating, this had so much potential. Oh, well.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality B, Violence A, Language B, Illegality A.
No drugs, but plenty of alcohol, if that’s an issue for you. A babysitter is implied to have been a chain smoker. There is sex implied, but only kissing is ever shown. There are a few arguments and some mild profanity. Since the plot is built around a daughter losing her mother, the death elements are the thematic content the MPAA was worried about. This is a solid PG movie.

Significant Content: C
If you act impetuously, it will all work out fine in the end just as long as you are talented enough at what you do. It’s okay to be disloyal to your boss and your coworkers. Making your own recipes (in the kitchen and in life) is the best way. One thing I will say for this movie is that at least (and it’s no small thing) the man is the solid one in it. He’s flaky, but at least he knows what’s right and he is the one with integrity. That alone moved this up from a D to a C.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
It’s been three minutes, let’s have another generic scene of Kate ordering the restaurant workers around. No, wait, this is the part where we’re supposed to play generic music. Uh, does anyone know why a chef in New York City drives a Dodge Ram? Advertising revenue, perhaps? The real problem with this movie is that all the best elements were done before, whether in Green Card with Gerard Depardieu or Raising Helen or even in Ratatouille. What could have been interesting didn’t pan out, and what was trite and unfunny, well, it sure didn’t get cut out.

Discussion Questions:
~Have you known anyone who lost a parent or both parents at a young age?
~Which is a better education for Zoe, going to school or helping out in a restaurant?
~Why do you think Nick was interested in Kate?
~Kate claims that her mother was a better cook than even her famous mentor. Does this seem plausible to you? What point about mothers and education is she trying to make in this movie?
~Is it likely that even the socially inept Kate would have left Zoe with the grunge-teenager babysitter?
~Does Nick’s character seem plausible to you?
~How important is it for a young girl to have both a female and a male role model? Why, specifically?
~What do you think of Kate’s actions toward the end at the restaurant?
~Is it ever okay to let your emotions get the better of you? Is this a good thing to allow on a regular basis?
Overall Grade: D
If you were hoping for the next great Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romantic comedy, well, keep hoping.

American Gangster (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: AFAA=A
Budget: $100 million
Box Office: $130 million US, $131 million Int’l, DVD N/A

Directed by: Ridley Scott, who’s made…seriously? Well, just in case and in deference, Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Blackhawk Down, GI Jane, Black Rain, Legend, Blade Runner, and Alien.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Cuba Gooding Jr., Armand Assante, John Ortiz, and Ted Levine.

This is the true story of the early beginnings of the DEA with one honest cop in New York who sets about fighting corruption within the police force and taking down the heroin kingpin, Harlem mob lord Frank Lucas.

Entertainment Value: A
The characters are fascinating, the acting, of course, is excellent. Surely everyone expects that Ridley Scott knows how to make a great movie. Even though you can probably guess what is going to happen in the end, you don’t really know, and you surely wonder how we’ll get from here to there.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol F, Sexuality F, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
Yep, this is R rated, and properly so. What can I tell you? Nudity, killing, swearing, people using heroin, and the movie centers on corrupt cops and drug dealing. If superficial content is your concern, this is not your movie.

Significant Content: A
One man with passionate dedication and unimpeachable honor can really make a difference in the world. Many cops are dirty, but many are also decent. The most dangerous criminals are not the flashy ones that grab the headlines, but the ones you never hear about because they keep a low profile, even towards the cops. Drugs are evil.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Again, Ridley Scott is a genius of a filmmaker, one of my favorites, going all the way back to Blade Runner and Alien. Like any good movie, this provokes not only your emotional reactions, but also it makes you want to ask questions. Unfortunately, in this case, the historical inaccuracies of the film undermine some of the artistic punch. Nonetheless, as a work of art, this is top notch. And given all the bad films about gangs and drugs, seeing one where right wins in the end is very satisfying.

Discussion Questions:
~Why are corrupt police so much more offensive to our sensibilities than even the criminals they are charged with stopping? Do you think that we pay police enough to reasonably expect to keep them honest?
~Why does the movie so repeatedly emphasize the return of the million dollars by Ritchie?
~Does the good you do in one area make up for the bad you do in other areas?
~Is Ritchie a good man? Which requires more courage: to turn in the money or to be a good husband and father?
~Why does this movie have so much of the Vietnam War in the plot? Is it just for setting the stage or is there some sort of commentary being made comparing Nixon with someone in this movie?
~What’s the danger in having a job that depends on illicit behavior, even if it is intended to combat that behavior? How can we make sure that it’s worthwhile to people to end the behavior that supports their jobs?
~Does Frank really believe that he is amorally running a business? Capone?
~What does the fur coat symbolize? Why does he choose to wear it? Why does Frank do what he does with it? Is real power quiet? How might this apply to international relations?
~It’s been said that the most wicked people are often absurdly zealous about one or a few points of principle that they think makes up for whatever else they do. Is this true of rank? Is this true of Ritchie? Is it true generally? How might we say that pride is still the issue in both the virtue and the vice of such people?
~“Quitting while you’re ahead is not the same as quitting.” What do you think?
~Have you ever been proud of a solid decision you made but still wondered whether you’d have the fortitude to make the same choice again?
~Is interdiction and prosecution a useful strategy for fighting drugs? What does this movie teach?
~Why do you think Frank’s wife decided to marry him? Was she deceived? What about his family?
~How did Frank, and Bumpy before him, make people in Harlem love them? Was this a rational response to those who dealt the drugs that also killed locals and spurred crime? How might their PR tactics be compared to an organization like, say Hezbollah? Do you see any of these same tactics being used in American politics?
~Frank Lucas is successful because he applies basic business principles to crime. What other areas of knowledge can you think of where the principles discovered can be used regardless of the morality of the purpose for which they are used? Do you think there is any accountability for those who teach such principles that they be sure those they are teaching will use them beneficially? Is it reckless to simply publish information for anyone to read that gives them power through success?
~The judge who presided over this case says that the movie is 99% fictional and that the real Frank Lucas was an illiterate and vicious thug, everything Denzel Washington was not. Why do you think the makers of the film chose to recast Lucas this way? Would Denzel have played this part if they hadn’t?
~Why do movies based on real events feel the need to twist and exaggerate the facts for dramatic effect? Several former DEA agents have filed suit against Universal for defamation of character because of this film. What does that tell you about its authenticity?

Overall Grade: A
It reminded me a lot of The Untouchables in parts, and surely liking one would entail liking the other.

Perfect Stranger (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: CDBC=C

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

Hoax, The (2006)

Rated: R
Grade: CCCC=C

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

Holiday, The (2006)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: BBBB=B

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

Flushed Away (2006)

Rated: PG
Grade: AAAA=A
Budget: $149 million
Box Office: $65 million US, $111 million Int’l, $70 million DVD

Directed by: David Bowers, who previously worked on Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, and Prince of Egypt, and Sam Fell, who’s done nothing I recognized.
Starring: The voices of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Andy Serkis, and Bill Nighy.

A privileged but lonely suburban rat winds up being flushed down to the sewers of London, where he must find his way back home while trying to foil a dastardly plot by the Toad-underlord to destroy Ratadilly Circus and navigate a burdeoning romance with the sewer-savvy Rita.

Entertainment Value: A
This is (other than Wallace and Gromit) one of the few Dreamworks Animation films which I thoroughly enjoyed. For one thing, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of inside references and jokes that are hilarious and generally not vulgar. But what I loved about these comic points is that they will sail well over the heads of children without thereby neglecting to include tons of fun stuff that the kids will grasp. This is the first of their movies that I thought successfully accomplished the dual-demographic goal that has become formulaic in modern kids’ movies. Even in watching it again to grab audio clips, I discovered new gags in the artwork and dialogue. Massive amounts of creativity went into this movie, and it shows in the $149 million budget.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence B, Language A, Illegality A
I sound like a broken record. I sound like a broken record. What does the MPAA have against giving movies a G rating? I have no problem letting my not-quite-four-year-old son watch this movie, which he loved. There are scenes of peril, including the danger of freezing rats alive like the former enemies of the Toad-villain, and in one hilarious scene a grandmother apparently throws her panties at a singer who she mistakenly thinks is Tom Jones. In one scene, Roddy falls repeatedly onto objects between his legs. Oh, yeah, and an albino rat makes a joke about the biological effects of eating curry by referencing the Japanese Flag, which I though was hilarious. I’m beginning to think that Looney Toons might have to be PG-13, according to the MPAA.

Significant Content: A
This is where the movie really shined. Flushed Away is clearly an endorsement of large families over small ones, and it presses the case precisely where middle-class Americans are most foolish: the notion that a few kids with wealth is better than a lot of kids with vastly reduced means. Stealing is bad, dastardly plans are bad, French ninja frogs are bad (get it, French frogs?), and you need some difficult experiences to grow up and become a real man…er…rat.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
For whatever reason, I loved the throwback style of animation being done here because it’s modern highly-computerized but meant to look like old school claymation. My only quibble artistically was with the fact that the rats looked so little like rats. This was, by no means, Ratatouille.

Discussion Questions:
~Who has a richer life in this movie: Roddy or Rita? Do you think this movie is trying to say something about family size? Is it trying to send this message to people who choose to have only one or two children?
~What is the significance of the ruby that turns out to be fake? When Rita says she and her dad had been working their whole life to find that fake ruby, does this reinforce the message about not making money an idol over people?
~The Toad and Roddy both lose their positions in posh circumstance and both attempt to recapture them. So what makes them different?
~Does the parody of the Ratadilly doomsday prophet bother you? Do people like that strike you as authentically Christian or deranged?

Overall Grade: A
If only for the slugs singing, this movie is worth watching. I had avoided it because it seemed far less neat than Ratatouille, but I’m glad I overcame my instincts here. Both are very good.

Martian Child (2007)

Rated: PG
Grade: BAAB=A-
Budget: $27 million
Box Office: $7.5 million US, $0.5 million Int’l

Directed by: Menno Meyjes, who also made Manolete last year and worked with John Cusack previously on the unusual Max. He also wrote for The Siege, Ricochet, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Empire of the Sun, and the Color Purple.
Starring: John Cusack, Bobby Coleman, Joan Cusack, Amanda Peet, Sophie Okonendo, Oliver Platt, Richard Schiff, and a cameo by Angelica Houston.

A science fiction writer and widower struggles with self-doubts as tries to adopt an introverted child whose parents abandoned him and now believes himself to be a Martian visiting Earth on an information-gathering mission. This is a semi-autobiographical account of the experiences of David Gerrold, who wrote the classic Star Trek episode, The Trouble with Tribbles.

Entertainment Value: B
I think it’s cool that John and Joan Cusack make movies together, and some of my favorites have come from them: Say Anything and Grosse Pointe Blank notably. This isn’t their greatest and the chemistry seems strange here, but the movie is wonderful. You begin to wonder whether Dennis might not actually be from Mars, as he says. The casting is excellent all around and I was engaged throughout, never quite knowing for sure what might happen next in this charming little movie.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence A, Language B+, Illegality A
Yet again I am baffled by the MPAA here. Mild language and thematic material are their reasons, but I don’t get it. Kidz-in-mind claims there was one profanity, but I don’t remember it, and there were some religious exclamations. The “thematic material” has to do with isolation, being made fun of a little bit, parental abandonment, a couple of angry moments, and death, but I still don’t see why this wouldn’t be G.

Significant Content: A
People who have experienced isolation are best able to understand others who feel isolated. When we experience trauma, we all deal with it in different ways. It’s okay to be different, but it’s also good to know when to fit in. Real relationships are based on honesty and being willing to understand each other’s world. Love is what makes us unique and precious. Children are like little alien beings learning how to be human. Parents need to find out where a child is before they start blasting away with their idea of what he should be.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
To me, the hook that kept this movie intriguing throughout is that they give you just enough latitude to consider the possibility that Dennis might actually be from Mars. Through a variety of devices, this movie explores one of the great themes of growing up: the difficulty of crafting and preserving your own identity while you assimilate with broader society. I can definitely see the value of this movie as a springboard for discussion with children who might be having trouble fitting in, which probably includes all of them.

Discussion Questions:
~Is it a good idea for children to have imaginary friends?
~Are fantasy worlds the sign of a healthy imagination or a dangerous denial of reality?
Why does our scientific culture (represented by the oversight board) seem so intent on denying fantasy and imagination? What is the value of these things?
~Have you ever felt like an alien in a strange land? Do you think that most other people have also felt this way?
~When is it wise to conform, and when is it better not to? To what degree does conformity represent love for other people? To what degree does non-conformity represent a demand that other people love us? What would you have said when Angelica Houston asked, "Why can't you just be what we want you to be?" Who do you feel has exerted more pressure on you to conform: your friends or your parents?
~Why do you think Dennis believes he is from Mars? What does this personal narrative accomplish for him? Is there anything in your own personal narrative that is weird but you cherish?
~Should John Cusack have made more of an effort to really believe Dennis about his Martianity or not?
~How would this relationship have been different if Dennis had been Cusack’s real son? Would he have been as likely to be indulgent of his ideas then? Would he have felt even more freedom to do so because he wasn’t worried about someone having to approve his adoption?
~What do you think of Cusack as a parent in this particular case?
~How important is it to believe that someone else is really on your side in life? What indications does Cusack give that he is on Dennis’s side, such as explaining to the teacher that he was having gravity issues his first day of class.
~What does the weight belt symbolize? Have you ever felt like you were giving gravity issues? What is the purpose of the Polaroid photos? If these two items were characters in this movie, what role would they be playing?
~Why does Dennis steal stuff?
~Did Cusack do the right thing in what he wrote? How is authenticity the key to really impacting people? What happens when you commercialize authentic art? In what ways does money entice us to be or do something other than what we really have in our hearts?
~What is this movie trying to say about the publishing world? The film world? Professional psychology? How realistic are its portrayals here?
~Is self-doubt a healthy check against errro and arrogance, especially for parents? Is self-doubt ever unhealthy or dangerous?
Overall Grade: A-
It’s a more plausible and far less offensive version of Little Miss Sunshine. One you could actually watch with your kids and discuss with them.

Mistress of Spices (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: CCCB=C
Budget: No one seems to know
Box Office: No one seems willing to say.

Directed by: Paul Mayeda Berges, whose main prior work was with co-writer Gurinda Chadha on Bend It Like Beckham, the movie that clearly paved the way for this one to get made.
Starring: Aishwarya Rai, Dylan McDermott, and some other people.

A young devotee of the ancient Indian art of spice-mixing finds herself conflicted by the rules of her order as she tries to practice her arts in San Francisco. Her spices demand that she stays within the shop and remain celibate, but when a charming young man tempts her to break her vows, terrible things begin to happen to her customers.

Entertainment Value: C
Okay, this was another one of those “Blockbuster Exclusives,” (read: it didn’t make enough money to merit any other video store picking it up), and so far the only great one has been Miss Potter. And, no, this is no masterpiece, unless you’re really into Bollywood (Indian cinema), which I figure most of you aren’t. In truth, I would probably only have given it a blurb review except that it had a lot of fascinating discussion possibilities when interpreted through a theological lens. Also, my wife and I now have the inside joke of repeatedly saying, “Oh, spices.”

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality C, Violence D, Language B, Illegality A.
There is some sexuality, including a not-quite-shown sex scene, a woman wearing a shirt clearly with no bra, and an overall tone of sensuality. The language is clean. But there are two things that will bother people. One is the violence, which is unexpected, abrupt, brutal, and disturbing because it’s so realistic. It all happens as this woman keeps “seeing” glimpses of people get hurt if she does not do what she should. The other is the overall plot which is predicated on spice-working as a sort of magic power which makes Tilo like a benevolent witch.

Significant Content: C
Love cannot be wrong. Follow your heart. Premarital sex is no big deal. Whatever supernatural beings there are, they are fickle, jealous, and punitive. Everyone has his own spice, and spices sort of control the universe. On the good side, genuinely seeking to bless other people is a very satisfying thing, and it starts with understanding where they are and meeting their deepest real needs, and whatever gifts we have are given to us for the benefit of other people, not for ourselves.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
And not because there is anything particularly well-done here, but because I think this movie offers lots of rich opportunity for discussion. Although on its own merits, I would say that this is rather clumsy as art, it’s the unintended stuff that I found fascinating.

Discussion Questions:
~Is Tilo a witch? How does she fit or not fit the typical picture of a witch which we have in our minds? Would you say she looks much more like modern versions of witches (psychics, astrologers, crystalists, etc.) than the stereotype of a witch? Would you say that this movie is a dangerous illustration of witchcraft? Should Christians watch it? Do you think that the premise of the movie about spices being so powerful and individual is plausible at all?
~Are Tilo’s spices her gods? Consider some of the implications here. If they were a god, what sort of characteristics would you describe that god as having? In what ways do the spices as a god compare with the God of the Bible? Do you think that anyone has a view of God that is similar to the spices in this movie? Why is that dangerous? Do you think this movie would be a good springboard for talking about God with someone who had such a view of Him?
~Would Tilo qualify as a pastor? Is she a good one? Would it be fair to call her customers her congregation? Do you think that they perceive her powers to be as much as she knows them to be?
~One of the key ideas here is that our gifts are for the benefit of others, not for ourselves. Does this fit with the Bible? Some people have described prophecy as being this way, becoming very unreliable when used to guide yourself.
~In what ways would you say Tilo is a good person? Are there any ways in which you would say she is not?
~Can you think of a situation where it would be good to follow your heart and also one where it would not be?
~Can love ever be wrong? What is it about Dylan McDermott that attracts Tilo to him? What about her for him? Would you describe their relationship as a deep one?
~Do you think Tilo will be a better spice dispenser in the end or not?
What does this movie have to say about Catholic priestly celibacy, if anything?

Overall Grade: C
I certainly wouldn’t call it great art or great entertainment, but I do think it could generate some interesting discussions, particularly with people who might have a punitive, vindictive view of God.

Mr. Woodcock (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: BCB+C=B
Budget: $22 million
Box Office: $26 million US, $6 million int’l, $7 million DVD

Directed by: Craig Gillespie, whose only other movie was Lars and the Real Girl, but he was making television commercials for 16 years.
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, Ethan Suplee, and Melissa Sagemiller.

After being humiliated and psychologically scarred by his phys ed teacher early in life, John Farley overcomes his past and becomes a successful self-help author. When he is suddenly offered a coveted hometown honor, he returns home to discover to his great frustration that his sadistic tormentor is not only marrying his mother but is receiving a teacher of the year award.

Entertainment Value: B
I particularly disliked the first ¾ of this movie, and I think I suggested to my wife that we quit watching it at least twice. She said that we should keep watching it, and I’m (moderately) glad we did because the ending made up for the rest of it. It’s moderately funny, but it’s the sort of humor in vogue these days from Meet the Parents or Will Farrell: stressful situation comedy based on stupidity of one or more people.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality C, Violence B, Language C, Illegality C
It’s crude. There are lots of sexual references and frank discussions here, although nothing is ever shown, but there is one particularly vulgar (and funny) scene of a man underneath a bed while people have sex on it, hitting him in the face with the mattress. There are a lot of mild profanities, plus a few stronger ones, and several examples of slapstick violence. PG-13 is right, maybe even PG-15 would be better.

Significant Content: B+
Self-help authors only practice what they preach until things get really rough. The publishing industry is cutthroat and aggressive. Perceptions of people can be distorted. You should be sure you’re right before you make accusations. Tough love is still love. Loneliness is hard to bear. Sometimes it takes a good fight to achieve reconciliation.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Warning: Plot spoilers. As I indicated above, surely no one is likely to be calling this great art. But I was pretty impressed that it did the one thing I didn’t want it to do and yet somehow knew it was going to do: make the really bad guy wind up looking pretty good. I’m generally not a fan of movies predicated on people just unwilling to directly confront their problems and tell the truth, but this one winds up teaching the downside of that, so I favor it.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think of Mr. Woodcock’s teaching style? Is this abuse or just what young men need?
~Who in this movie is selfish? Who is generous?
~What are the dangers in hating someone? Does hate have a tendency to distort our memories and also how we interpret subsequent behavior by them?
~Is there anyone in your life who you think treated you badly?
~Do you think our current ways of disciplining (or not disciplining) boys is helping or hurting men in our country?
~Is it plausible to you that the mother would both not have done anything about Mr. Woodcock’s treatment of her son and also not remember it years later?
~Do you know anyone who is at all like Mr. Woodcock? What age is he?
~Why does Mr. Woodcock think apologizing is unacceptable? Do we apologize too quickly these days?
~What sort of obligations do single parents have to their children (adult or not) in selecting another spouse? Should people remarry after a spouse dies?
~Is it more healthy to try to forget something painful in your past or to try to integrate it into who you are by understanding it properly? What influences you more: things that happened in your childhood or things that you did as an adult?

Overall Grade: B
This doesn’t quite clear Billy Bob Thornton for School for Scoundrels, and it certainly doesn’t atone for Bad News Bears, but on it’s own, this is pretty good.

Invasion, The (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: BCBC=B
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $15 million US, $25 million Int'l

Directed by: Oliver Hirschbiegel, who’s made a handful of German movies, but nothing you’d recognize. An uncredited assistant director was James McTeigue, who has worked on the Matrix movies, Star Wars 2, and Dark City. Joel Silver also had a hand in this.
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jackson Bond, and Jeffrey Wright.

It’s yet another remake of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Space Shuttle crashes, bringing with it an alien microbe that infects people via bodily fluids and then takes them over when they enter REM sleep, turning them into emotionless members of a hive rather than independent human beings.

Entertainment Value: B
It’s hard to go too wrong remaking such a classic that’s been remade before. This isn’t quite as good as either of the two previous, of course, but it’s still pretty engaging, if implausible. I will say this in the interests of spoiling the plot, there’s just not supposed to be such a thing as a zombie movie where everything works out alright in the end. It never did in the other movies, but here pretty everyone returns to normal. I guess that’s American filmmaking in the year 2007.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sexuality B, Violence C, Language C, Illegality C
Nicole Kidman appears in semi-transparent clothing in a few early scenes, there’s plenty of vulgarity deriving from the transmission mechanism of vomiting contaminants on people, and there’s a fair amount of violence, including killings, beatings, and a hypodermic injected into someone’s heart. The language is about average for PG-13.

Significant Content: C
This movie is really asking one simple question and then giving the answer rather obviously: would humans be better off without free will and all the problems that come from it? No. A much lesser importance theme is the power of science to deliver us from almost anything, even the problems caused by science. Everything else is so minor compared to this overall point that there’s not much need to mention it.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Good art lets you draw the conclusions out of it or else tells them to you in so obvious a way that you understand it’s meant for kids. This is some weird blend of both, being intended for adults but carrying too many cliffs notes for themes to be interesting as art. It’s just a little too aware of its own message in a way that the originals were not. They surely gave you things to think about, but they didn’t tell you to think about them. Also, I didn’t like the way the story was told out of order but only enough to be confusing, not enough to be a part of the artwork.

Discussion Questions:
~What does it mean to be civilized? What are some of the compromises we make in the interests of being civilized? How would you know if the efforts to civilize people went too far? Would you be willing to give up emotion to eliminate all crime? What else would be lost in the process?
~Why do you think God made mankind, even though we are capable of so much evil? If you were God, would you prefer to make men just as they are or as they are under the alien infection? What are the advantages and defects of each alternative? Is it fair to say that when people try to eliminate problems by eliminating the freedom that leads to them that they are saying God made a mistake in giving us freedom? How important is sin to human nature?
~What’s the difference between choosing to be good and being incapable of choosing anything else? Do we get moral credit for doing what we had no inclination to not do?
~Some people criticize Christianity as being a religion that makes people into something like the alien infection here. How might this criticism have validity, and how might it be mistaken? Is this perception our fault or their fault? Does becoming Christian make people less human or more human?
~How do mood controlling drugs prescribed for adults and children differ from the alien invasion?
~In this movie, the “real” humans win and feel triumphant. What if the “alien” humans had won. Would your opinion of this movie have been different if it had been told from the point of view of the aliens?
~Have you ever wished you could turn off painful emotions?
~How rational is too rational? How scientific is too scientific?
~How might this movie be used as an argument for enhanced arts and poetry education?
~It’s been said that humans are the only creature with no natural predators. Given the existence of infectious disease, would you agree with this? Why did God allow infectious diseases?
~If you had to behave emotionlessly in order to survive in such a situation, do you think you could do so? If real life actors could portray the emotionless people in the movie, why was it so unthinkable that Kidman couldn’t blend in as a character in the movie?
~Is it good for children to ever see movies that depict undesirable things happening to them when they go to sleep?
Overall Grade: B
It’s surely not the original, the ending action sequence is just silly, and it’s got more content issues than I’d prefer. But given all that, it’s not terrible.

Game Plan, The (2007)

Rated: PG
Grade: B+AAB=B+
Budget: $22 million
Box Office: $90 million US, $21 million int’l, $20 million DVD

Directed by: Andy Fickman, whose previous work has been steadily moving from awful toward slightly bad, starting with Who’s Your Daddy, Reefer Madness the Musical, and, most recently, She’s the Man. Don’t hold any of that against him. It doesn’t show here.
Starring: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Maddison Pettis, Kyra Sedgwick, Roselyn Sanchez, and Morris Chestnut.

On the eve of the playoffs, local hero and playboy quarterback Joe Kingman discovers that he has a daughter when she shows up on his doorstep wanting to be part of his life. He must navigate the new demands of fatherhood, try to win a football championship, and possibly find love all at the same time.

Entertainment Value: B+
I can’t quite give it an A only because it was a movie clearly made for kids to enjoy, and there isn’t quite enough here for adults. Nonetheless, this is the first movie in a long time that is both live action for kids and also outstanding for kids to watch. I can’t remember the last time I felt so good about recommending a non-cartoon kids movie. It’s funny, charming, and meaningful. The only other real defect here is that Kyra Sydgewick is a painfully bad miscast.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence A, Language A, Illegality A
The closest things to problematic are some of the slapstick elements, which are very mild, a few party scenes, a girl having a strong allergic reaction to nuts, and the fact that The Rock bounces his pects and later dances with a ballet instructor. Finally, zero profanity. Allow me to repeat. Zero profanity. A Quaker wouldn’t object to this movie, and I have no idea why the MPAA didn’t give it a G rating. The only thing, and this is now my firm hypothesis, is that they just aren’t willing to give G ratings to live action movies. The only three I can even remember in the last 10 years are The Straight Story, The Winslow Boy, and Charlotte’s Web (all excellent, by the way). This should be G for sure.

Significant Content: A
This movie hits on precisely the most important gender theme of all: having children makes boys into men by transforming them from barbarian party animals into responsible loving invested fathers. Also, it is this potential in boys that attracts women to them for the purpose of cultivating it out of them. Fatherhood also causes changes in other areas of life as real relationships, teamwork rather than self-glory, and compassion. The movie is clearly pro-father, saying they are essential. Life is unpredictable, and sometimes you have to call an audible. Money can’t buy anyone love. Crying wolf can hurt you when real dangers come along. When you find something of real value, all the things you used to think were important just fade away. The only problem is that the daughter does some fairly risky things for which she doesn’t get punished.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Though this isn’t exactly a dramatic masterpiece, it’s certainly rich enough to generate plenty of discussions with kids. It’s the sort of movie that, watched 5 or 6 times, can easily become a reference point for illustrating things in ordinary life for your kids. I do this with Cars because it’s a movie Spencer knows so well. One other thing I liked about it is that the good advice in this movie comes from many different sources, male and female.

Discussion Questions:
~Which do you think is a more demanding sport: ballet or football?
If you had to choose between all the things you own or time with your parents, which would you keep? Why don’t parents seem to always grasp this concept?
~Can you think of things Peyton did in this movie that she did not get punished for but should have?
~Does it seem realistic to you that a professional quarterback would be able to fit a daughter into his life during the playoffs?
~What is a “man card,” and why do people joke about losing it? Are the things that get used as reasons to forfeit it unmanly or truly manly? What’s the difference between macho and manly? Is a man really a man unless he is willing to be embarrassed on behalf of his loved ones? How is pride an indicator of immaturity? How about humbleness of maturity?
~Can you think of some of the differences between being raised by a mother and by a father? What do you think of the ending for the movie?
Overall Grade: B+
I really thought this was a good movie, and one which I can eagerly recommend to you on a family movie night.

Stardust (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: A+CAA=A
Budget: $70 million
Box Office: $39 million US, $96 million Int’l, $16 million DVD

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn, whose previous work was directing Layer Cake and producing Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, none of which tells you what you want to know about this movie.
Starring: Claire Danes, Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, Jason Flemyng, Mark Strong, Rupert Everett, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro, Peter O’Toole, and narrated by Ian McKellan.

There’s a secret magical land within England hidden behind a wall with one breach. As humans cross over and return, all sorts of amazing adventures ensue including magic, war with witches, dying kings, and of course romance. I’d love to describe it, but I’d rather just let you watch it.

Entertainment Value: A+
I found this to be fabulously entertaining. At the risk of overstating the case, if the Wizard of Oz had never existed, this would have been the movie that occupied that position, although it’s not a musical and it’s PG-13. This is based on a novel by the comic book genius Neil Gaiman, and it has vivid characters, excellent acting, amazing effects, and a wonderful richness about it as well as what I thought were Oscar caliber performances by DeNiro and Pfeiffer. Think Princess Bride meets Time Bandits with a little Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark thrown in. I know this sounds over-the-top, but I REALLY enjoyed this movie that I almost didn’t watch, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality C, Violence C, Language A, Illegality A
I think PG-13 is a bit harsh, but I also understand why it’s there. The concern here is with violence, including people being killed in a variety of ways, sometimes bloodily, witches wielding very scary knives, spell-casting, pirates, ghosts, fratricide, and, well you get the picture. All that said, I think this fits well within the fairy tale genre and isn’t unacceptable for most children. Remember, the Wizard of Oz has houses killing people, melting witches, and some pretty scary moments too. No, this isn’t quite as clean, but it’s not in a different category either. Many of you will be bothered by the magic, which is constant. And one extra note, the plot is predicated upon a one night stand, and there are sexual elements to it, including Robert DeNiro playing a cross-dressing pirate.
Significant Content: A Real love is something that is given freely, not earned. There is real evil in the world, and people do not always appear as dangerous as they are. Power corrupts, and the temptation to perpetuate power corrupts absolutely. Nobility and virtue are matters of the heart, and they can overcome evil with a little supernatural help. You don’t know what you love until you’d risk everything for it. The purpose of romances is to get married. Your secrets aren’t usually as secret as you think they are.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
I felt like this film did something quite extraordinary. It managed to bring a fantasy world to life in a tremendously unique and authentic-feeling way while still paying homage to some of the great movies in the genre without actually ripping any of them off. It’s the kind of movie that makes you thrilled that movies get made by reminding me of what they’re capable of. The last movie like this for me was Big Fish. There was only one minor plot discrepancy having to do with whether thing could or could not retain their magical qualities outside the wall when returned behind it.

Discussion Questions:
~Which side of the wall would you rather live on?
~What is the symbolism of the wall with just a single broken-down area in it? Why doesn’t this ever get repaired? Are there any Christian interpretations of this wall?
~If you had a Babylon candle, what would you use it for?
~In this movie, the stars are always watching us, how might this fit with a Biblical worldview?
~What do you make of the ghosts of the deceased princes? Does this portrayal of the dead bother you? Do they seem to be heading for any sort of eternal judgment?
~Do you think watching this movie cultivate any unhealthy interest in magic?
~What do you make of the relationship between DeNiro and his pirate crew?
~What symbols and metaphors can you discern in this movie? Consider the chain, the flower, the ship, and the candle, for starters.
~Does anyone in this movie represent the Devil? What restrains that character’s power? Does anyone in this movie represent Christ? Do you see any elements of redemption here?
~One theme of the movie is that being a boy who works in a shop is not the same as being a shop boy. What do you think of this concept?
~Was Tristan’s love for Victoria real? What does Yvain teach him about real love? What if he had not met Yvain? Could he have been happy with Victoria?
~Does the opening romantic event seem plausible to you? Why doesn’t Dunstan stay in Stormhold?
~What’s wrong with wanting to hold onto your youth forever? Is this a problem for Americans?
Overall Grade: A
For whatever reason, my enthusiasm has not been shared by most American audiences, judging by the box office, and Jeff Overstreet thought it was only 2 ½ stars, but I think this was marvelous, as should be obvious by now.

Sydney White (and the Seven Dorks) (2007)

Rated: PG-13
Grade: C+BCC=C+
Budget: $12 million (unconfirmed)
Box Office: $12 million US, $0.5 million Int’l

Directed by: Joe Nussbaum, who previously made American Pie: Naked Mile, Sleepover, and George Lucas in Love.
Starring: Amanda Bynes, Sara Paxton, Matt Long, jack Carpenter, Jeremy Howard, Crystal Hunt, Adam hendershott, Danny Strong, Samm Levine, and John Schneider (yes, John “Bo Duke” Schneider).

In this updated adaptation of Snow White, A down-to-earth girl raised by her dad and his carpenters goes off to school to pledge her mothers sorority, which turns out to be run by a narcissistic ice queen who kicks her out. She moves in with seven outcast dorks and leads them to social victory against the Greeks who want to tear down their little cottage on dorm row, all while building a romance with the prince of the best fraternity.

Entertainment Value: C+
No one is going to claim that this is the next great anything, even though the idea and a couple of the adaptations were clever, but I found it generally entertaining, if predictable. The idea of making a “who’s hot” website the modern equivalent of the queen’s magic mirror seemed neat until they kept over-doing it’s prominence in the movie. Then they sort of ruined it by turning it into Revenge of the Nerds in the end only without the awesome-wicked-cool rock concert scene. Plus, I just have trouble believing Amanda Bynes would be voted the hottest girl on any campus like this. Also, who on earth stores valuable comic books in a suitcase?

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sexuality C, Violence B, Language B, Illegality A. It’s a college.
There is a party scene with people doing keg stands, dancing, and getting drunk. There are several references to the desire to have sex and sexual innuendo as well as several people implied to be naked in public. The language is relatively mild, and I generally thought this was perhaps PG-11 rather than PG-13 because it’s portrayal of college is so sanitary compared with every other example I can think of. Then again, there’s enough to maybe wait until Junior High for watching this at least.

Significant Content: C
If you’re hot, you can have power, friends, and the right guys or girls in this world. If you’re a dork, it’s okay because maybe some hottie will champion your cause. Character wins in the end. Everybody has something good about them, if you just take the time to find it. We’re all dorks who are just trying to act like we’re not. Personal vanity is a waste of time, and being mean is mean.
Artistic/Thought Value: C One thing I noticed an abundance of was scenes set to music instead of dialogue. Occasionally, this can be a useful storytelling device. Too much of it and you begin to wonder if the writers went on strike early or there just wasn’t quite enough material to make a whole movie out of.

Discussion Questions:
~Can you think of all the stereotypes reinforced by this movie? What about the ones that are broken?
~Is there a price to being cool? What is it? Is cool an illusion or a real thing? Do you think cool people are really secretly geeks or not?
~It’s all fine and well to show the story of the “losers” winning in the end, but do you think that substantial people usually wind up winning on college in real life or not?
~Did you think it plausible that a girl would take a suitcase of comic books with her to college?
~Can you identify all the connections between the Snow White story and this movie?
~If all the girls in the sorority ate the way Sydney encourages them to do, would they stay thin and beautiful for very long?
~If you had to counsel a girl to focus either on becoming smart or on becoming pretty, which would benefit her more? What amount of your time is it appropriate to spend on self-beautification if you’re a girl?
~How important is it to have both parents around? Do you know anyone who has lost a parent? How has it affected them?
~Have you ever done something to connect with a person through their past, like visiting a place or people that were important to them?
~Is the desire to belong to a group an indicator of something inadequate about a person or such a common trait in humans that missing it is a defect?
Overall Grade: C+
Cute, harmless, you know, like Amanda Bynes and generally all of her films.