August Rush (2007)

Rated: PG for some thematic elements, mild violence and language.
Length: 114 minutes
Grade: A+B+AA+=A
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $76 million ($32 US, $27 Intl, $17 DVD)

Written by: Paul Castro (Nothing), Nick Castle (Escape from LA), Hook, Escape from New York, and Tag: The Assassination Game, which I only mention because at least 25 of you know you saw it and won’t admit it), and James V. Hart (Last Mimzy, Sahara, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Tuck Everlasting, Contact, Dracula, and Hook)
Directed by: Kristen Sheridan with her first movie in 6 years, and the others aren’t worth mentioning.
Starring: Freddy Highmore, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Terrence Howward, and Robin Williams.

After a one-night tryst between concert cellist, Lyla Novcaek, and an Irish rocker, Louis Connelly, Lyla has an accident and her father tells her she lost the baby though he secretly gave him up to an orphanage. Years later, Evan Taylor leaves on a quest to find his parents, who he knows he will be reunited with through the power of music.

Entertainment Value: A+
Can I just start by saying that Freddy Highmore really gets around. He has been in a host of outstanding kids movies (Arthur and the Invisibles, Golden Compass, A Good Year, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland, and both twin brothers in Spiderwick Chronicles). And he’s 16 if you can believe it! (2/14/1992) Okay, I got that out of my system. This is a fabulous movie, certainly in good company with the other outsdanding pro-life movies from last year, Bella, Juno, and Waitress (also starring Keri Russell). The music, the plot, the message, all of it was wonderful. Wonderful, I say. Was it plausible? I’ll discuss that below.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality B, Violence B+, Language B+, Illegality B+
PG is correct, certainly. But that’s only because of the choice to use some mild language, by the kids no less, and for a small number of semi-scary scenes, including a car accident. And yes, the opening scene with sex clearly implied and an ensuing pregnancy.

Significant Content: A
First, it’s a pro-life movie because her dad tries to talk her into an abortion, and even after he lies to her about the baby living, she regrets the loss. Also, it asserts a deep connection between people who are related, even if they’ve never or only briefly met. Music is a fundamental language of the universe.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
Okay, my wife didn’t particularly love this movie. But the reason was that so many of the events were impossibly unlikely. To which I said, “Who cares.” No one looks at a Van Gogh or a Picasso and complains that it’s not realistic enough. The whole point of great art is to reveal or express something deep or meaningful, and if it requires a lack of realism to do that, so what? You must suspend your disbelief over many elements of this movie in order to enjoy it, but if you can bring yourself to do this, you’ll really discover something beautiful waiting for you.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you believer in fate? Is this a movie about fate or about the universe being willing to cooperate with us in accomplishing our deepest desires if we decide to act toward them?
~Why does Evan decide to go with Wizard instead of the teachers? Have you ever had an irrational fear paralyze you or make you do something foolish?
~Do you believe that music connects us with other people? Have you ever felt the power of such a musical connection? If so, then what do you make of our modern culture, which is so divided over musical issues both inside and outside of the church?
~Is it fair to say that films are more reliable than God? Consider how we react to movies when they fail to give us the endings we desire in contrast with the way life so regularly doesn’t give us what we desire. Does this mean that movies are a form of idolatry because they create a world that is so different than God’s?
~What do you think of the relationship between Wizard and the kids? Is he exploiting them or helping them?
~In what ways does this movie perform like a musical symphony?
~Do you think it’s possible for someone who has never played an instrument to so quickly become a musical prodigy? Does it matter whether this is plausible?
~What’s the difference between a gift from God or natural talent and an ability you learn through instruction?
Overall Grade: A
I cried, more than once. I clapped when it was over. My wife looked at me like I was out of my mind.

Bucket List (2007)

Rated: PG-13 for language, including a sexual reference.
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: B+BAB=B+
Budget: $45 million
Box Office: $193 million ($93 US, $81Intl, $20 DVD)

Written by: Justin Zackham, whose previous work shall remain nameless.
Directed by: Rob Reiner, whose other movies include A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, and the cult classic Spinal Tap, which goes to eleven.
Starring: Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, with Sean Hayes and Beverly Todd.

When the materialistic owner of a whole chain of nursing homes is forced by his own policies to stay in a semi-private room, he develops a friendship with a man whose life has represented faith and family. Together they set out to really enjoy their last few months of life rather than simply dying in a hospital.

Entertainment Value: B+
Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman directed by Rob Reiner. How likely is this to be a miss? I don’t know whether it was my own proximity to these issues with my grandmother, but it was also a fairly somber movie in spite of the comedy. You automatically love Chambers, but you learn to practice his redemptive love for Cole, who you also come to love.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol B+, Sexuality B, Violence A, Language C+, Illegality A
This is properly PG-13 for language, which is right at the PG-13 limit, but the movie is otherwise fairly clean. A woman leaves a room implying sex occurred, another woman is implied to be a call girl propositioning someone, and there are some scenes of mild sex discussion. Had they decided to tone down the language, this could easily have been PG.

Significant Content: A
This is essentially a movie about what is valuable in life and what is not. But it is also a movie about the redemption of teaching these things to someone who doesn’t have them. So it is about friendship, the value of family, the nature of love and patience, and even faith comes in for a pretty good mention. The opening sequence says it all. The measure of a man is really how many other men measure themselves by him. Finding joy in your life and bringing it to others are the primary things God cares about. Knowledge is good, but real experience makes knowledge substantial.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
My general definition of good art in a movie is that it makes you want to think and talk about the issues the movie raises without the movie seeming to force you into the discussion. By that standard, this is quite good. On the other hand, some of the scenes were so obviously fake (I mean with bad green-screening, for instance) and other scenarios were so manifestly implausible that I have trouble giving it an A. But still pretty strong.

Discussion Questions:
~What does it mean to live well? How would you describe and/or measure the goodness of someone’s life?
~What if Cole hadn’t been wealthy? Would the failure to see all the beautiful sights have lessened the significance of Carter's life? Do you think that the things they did together really made their lives richer? If so, what does this say about the prospects for people without such means to have really outstanding lives? To what degree does money (or the lack thereof) contribute to (or hinder) the good life?
~To what degree would you describe this movie as hedonistic? What messages does it contain about work, daily life, and retirement?
~What do you think of the test Cole gave Carter? In what ways was it a gift to Carter? In what ways are the tests God gives us good for us? Is temptation good because it allows us to confront our fears of our own moral deficiencies?
~Is this movie redemptive? Who is redeemed in it?
~In what ways is Carter like Jesus? Would you describe his behaviors as evangelical in any way?
~What do you think of Carter’s two questions about joy and helping others to have joy? How compatible is this with the Bible’s teaching about what God’s expectations for us?
~Have you ever made a bucket list? What sort of things are on it? What do you think of Carter’s assertion that young men and old men have different dreams? How important are dreams in your life?
~If you only had a short time to live, would you live differently? What does this imply about the way you’re living right now?
~Does Cole love his assistant, Thomas? How do you know? Why does Thomas stay with him? Do you know anyone who shows love in a way that seems like he’s being a prickly cactus?
~What implications does this movie have for nursing homes and end-of-life processes as they exist in the U.S.?
~Is it true that the measure of a man is how many other men measure themselves by him? What does the Bible say?
~What do you think of Carter’s decision to go with Cole and leave his wife and family for so long? Why didn’t he take her with him?

~How does belief in God shape our ability to appreciate beauty and cultivate a sense of wonder?
~What is the lesson to be learned from the story of Cole’s exotic coffee?

Overall Grade: B+
Solid, funny, sweet, and meaningful. Not bad for an hour and a half.

Fool’s Gold (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for action violence, some sexual material, brief nudity and language
Length: 110 minutes
Grade: B-CCC=B
Budget: $70 million
Box Office: $110 million ($70 US, $40 Intl)

Written by: John Claflin and Daniel Zelman, whose only other “work” was Anacondas 2: The Hunt for Blood Orchid. Even in Hollywood, somebody has to be the busboy, right?
Directed by: Andy Tennant, who’s made a handful of good romantic comedies, including Sweet Home Alabama, Anna and the King, Fools Rush In, Ever After, and the outstanding Hitch.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, Donald Sutherland, Alexis Dziena, Ray Winstone, and Malcolm Jamal-Warner.

On the eve of being divorced by the love of his life, perpetual screw-up and treasure hunter Benjamin Finnegan might finally have discovered a significant find. Unfortunately for him, he’s gotten entangled with gangsters, sunk his boat, and needs his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s help to find out if he really has.

If you thought you had accidentally rented Into the Blue again, you could be forgiven since the plot, casting, and just about everything else feels so familiar to that other (2005) movie. For me, this was a classic example of how a movie that you don’t expect much from can end up being entertaining because you had such low expectations. Everyone told me this was somewhere between average and not so much. I think the Blockbuster clerk said, “It’s entertaining enough,” which was a rave review compared to others. But we both liked it. Matthew McConnaughey is usually quite funny, although he can only really play one character, and the timing with Kate Hudson was excellent. The backstory to the sunken treasure story is fascinating, if a bit too complicated. It’s cute, funny, and charming. My biggest complaint about this movie is that they could easily have made it PG if they’d just been a little more self-restrained about truly unnecessary items. This could have been a great family movie had they intended to do so, but they didn’t. If you liked it, I’d recommend Into the Blue, which was comparable and had much more significant content value in the end.

Onion Movie, The (2008)

Rated: R for everything.
Length: 80 minutes, which is about 73 minutes too long.
Grade: DHFF=F
Budget: Perhaps a hundred and fifty bucks?
Box Office: $0 million (Directly released to DVD)

Written by: Todd Hanson and Robert D. Siegel, which so far is the zenith of both their careers.
Directed by: Tom Kuntz and Mike Maguire, which sadly means they have yet to direct a real movie.
Starring: Len Carious, with a few appearances by Steven Seagal.

Originally shelved due to poor focus group testing in 2003, this attempt at adapting the famously irreverent and sarcastic newspaper to the big screen with a series of fake news stories meant to poke fun at American life.

Out of 35 or so vignettes, three or four are funny. The thing just doesn’t work, mostly because it’s not really clever. It would have made an excellent four-minute stand-up routine or even SNL sketch, but over the course of an hour and 20 minutes? Mind-numbing. Oddly, several of the unfunny bits were funnier if you watched the extended versions which didn’t make the final cut. One interview I read said that the producers just couldn’t see how to make the thing work, which was why it was shelved for 5 years. And, had I been a little luckier, would have been lost on that shelf or behind the microwave, even better. Don’t test me on this one, and don’t watch this movie.

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for some sexual references.
Grade: C+A-AA=A-
Full review not yet written. Feel free to post your thoughts.

Jumper (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some language and brief sexuality.
Length: 90 minutes
Grade: BCCC=C+
Budget: $85 million
Box Office: $222 million ($80 US, $142 Intl)

Written by: David Groyer, who wrote the Blade Series, Batman Begins and Dark Knitht, and Dark City and Jim Uhls, who wrote fight Club.
Directed by: Doug Liman, who directed Mr. and Mrs. Smith and all three Bourne movies.
Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Diane Lane, Jamie Bell, Rachel Bilson, and Michael Rooker.

A moderate social outcast teenager discovers that he can teleport himself anywhere in the world, and he leaves his unpleasant life behind for a life of adventure. He later returns to his home to woo the girl he’s always had a crush on. Unfortunately for him, there is also a group of people who don’t believe anyone but God should have such power, are they’re out to kill all the “jumpers.”

Entertainment Value: B
You know, I’ve never seen a Hayden Christensen movie that I thought was made better by him being in it, although Shattered Glass wasn’t so bad. But people apparently think he’s a good actor. This movie is really fun and it comes from a really, really good idea. Unfortunately, what could have been outstanding was only pretty good. They didn’t answer a million questions you naturally ask, and they didn’t do enough to explain who the characters were and why they were behaving as they did. It was a good 90 minute movie that could have been an outstanding 120 minute movie.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality B, Violence C, Language C, Illegality CPeople drink beer a few times, the language is precisely PG-13, there is one sex scene with no nudity, plenty of action sequences involving fighting and destruction of property, a stabbing, and bank robbing is a central plot element.

Significant Content: C
There’s not a lot of significant content here, frankly. The closest you get is that the agency hunting the jumpers is called a group of religious zealots dating back to the middle ages’ fight against witches. Otherwise, honesty is sort of endorsed.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Which really pains me because this movie had so much potential, given the concept, the writers, the director, and Samuel L. Jackson. In the end, I though many of the effects were fascinating, but too many questions arise to keep it fully enjoyable, such as why jumping sometimes damages surroundings and sometimes not, where the Paladins get their information from, and whether jumps can or cannot be made to places never seen before. Nonetheless, I seem to have liked it better than most people, frankly.

Discussion Questions:
~If you had this power, how would you use it? Do you think that if most people had this power, they would use it to break the law? Can you think of any way to use this power to make money without stealing and without revealing the power to anyone else?
~Would people with this sort of power be a menace to society? Should they be killed for merely having it or only for misusing it? Can you think of some ways in which society would have to be different if a lot of people had this ability?
~What do you think of the idea that people shouldn’t have the powers of God? Does God ever give people the ability to do special things in the Bible? What about the notion that modern science is constantly doing precisely this? Why are the Paladins willing to use God-like technology to stop people from using God-like powers?
~Is this movie trying to make any sort of political statement by calling jumping an abomination and making the Paladins a religious group?

Overall Grade: C+
Sadly, because it could have been so much more.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

Rated: R for some war violence and language.
Length: 88 minutes, and not a moment more.
Grade: BDBB=B
Budget: $35 million
Box Office: $70 million ($15 US, $48 Intl, $7 DVD)

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also wrote The Kingdom.
Directed by: Robert Redford, who obviously had a stellar acting career, and has previously directed The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Horse Whisperer, Quiz Show, A River Runs Through It, and the obscure Milagro Beanfield War.
Starring: Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Michael Pena, Derek Luke, and Andrew Garfield.

This is a simultaneous story told from three perspectives. A veteran reporter is invited to the Senate for an exclusive interview about a new strategy in the war. Meanwhile, two soldiers involved in executing that strategy are in trouble in enemy territory, and the professor who encouraged them to do something with their lives is counseling another bright young student during office hours.

Entertainment Value: B
Despite all the panning from politically minded critics and my own expectation that this would smell like left-wing propaganda, I enjoyed it and found it a fairly interesting film which raised good issues. Also, I thought the overall concept for the structure of the thing was quite well-conceived.

Superficial Content: D+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence C, Language D, Illegality A
R is correct here. There are a couple of scenes of war violence, including brutal death, and there is a lot of language, including F-words.

Significant Content: B
This one’s a bit harder to figure out because, given the participants, I know for sure that their intent was to make a movie critical of the administration and critical of the war. But I don’t think they succeeded. In fact, the overall message of the movie is that there are an awful lot of noble people in the world trying to make it a much better place, even if they don’t succeed. And there’s a pretty accurate and robust critique of both the media and an excellent portrayal of the impact teachers can have as well.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Again, I thought the concept was quite intriguing, if implausible. Even though it’s a movie that feels like it was trying to be propagandistic, it actually came across much more evenly than it wanted to. Even though the movie wants us to be horrified at the ending, I wasn’t. Also, there’s really no moral equivalence in play here, either. The US soldiers are good, and the enemy are blips on a screen who are fighting on the wrong side.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think of the choice of Rodriguez and Finch decision to enlist? Do you think Malley was happy with their decision? What do you think of their decision at the end? Would they have enlisted had they known? Do you think of them as heroes?
~Do you think their idea for a year of public service of some kind in the junior year of High School would be a good one?
~Does Irving seem like a schemer or a man legitimately interested in doing what is best for the country? Who seems to win the argument between him and Roth about the war?
~Which is more important, focus on the mistakes made before and blame associated with them or on the future and what we should do now?
~“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” How is this phrase embodied in this movie?
~Should college be thought of as for everyone or should it be geared toward discovering and cultivating those rare particular exceptional people?
~Is Malley a good teacher? Is Roth a good reporter? Is Irving a good Senator? Is Hayes a good student?
~Is the decision to try to do something significant in life only validated by success?
~What do you think of Malley’s assertion that the people who are treated the worst by the United States are always the first to volunteer to defend her?
Overall Grade: B
A heavily criticized but still very interesting film to watch.

Over Her Dead Body (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for sexual content and language.
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: BCCD=C
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $22 million ($8 US, $10 Intl, $4 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Jeff Lowell, who wrote John Tucker Must Die, and television episodes of Just Shoot Me, Spin City, and the Drew Carey Show. .
Starring: Eva Longoria Parker, Paul Rudd, Lake Bell, Jason Biggs, and Lindsay Sloane.

After Eva Longoria dies on her wedding day, her ghost cannot accept the idea of any other woman being in her fiancee’s life, so she tries to thwart his burgeoning romance with a psychic, who he ironically consulted to talk with her in the first place.

Entertainment Value: B
As a movie, this was just a C. It wasn’t particularly funny. But Paul Rudd, is funny enough all on his own to move the movie up a full letter grade. This in spite of it containing Jason Biggs and the very miscast Lake Bell in a comedic role. Also, the biggest plot problem here was that I never could really buy the idea of Kate and Henry’s original relationship. Nonetheless, Paul Rudd is hilarious.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality C, Violence B, Language C, Illegality A
PG-13 might actually be a little bit high for this one, perhaps PG-10, especially given what’s on television these days. The real issues are sexuality, with several sexual scenes and discussions, and language, which is not clean, but still fairly mild for a PG-13. One of the supporting characters is gay, and there is some slapstick violence. The other issue for many people is the idea of ghosts, psychics, and consulting with the dead. More on that in a moment.

Significant Content: C
Although the premise of the movie is ghosts and psychics, the irony is that the psychic in the movie is freaked out when she encounters a real spiritual presence, so though the supernatural is validated, psychicism is not. Other themes involve love and selfishness versus real caring about someone else’s happiness. Honesty is always better than deception, which backfires. One of my dislikes of this movie was that the only reason there’s a plot is that the new girl won’t simply tell Rudd the truth about what’s going on.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
It’s not great art, and it was clearly not made with a lot of money. An average episode of Psych is generally more thoughtful.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you make of the scene where Ashley calls the priest in to perform his exorcism?
~Are there any interesting parallels to be drawn between the events of this movie and the relationship issues involved in a divorce?
~Who in this movie is acting in a loving manner, and who in a selfish manner? How essential is the notion of self-sacrifice to real love?
~Do you think it’s likely that Kate and Henry would have been in love with each other?
~Given how negative the Bible is towards ghosts and psychics (witches), do you think it’s a good idea to include them in movies? Is this movie favorable or not toward psychics?
~How long is a reasonable amount of time to allow to recover from the loss of a loved one like this? Is it reasonable to expect people to ever truly “move on” and become romantically involved again?
~What do you think of Ashley’s response to Dan’s revelation?
~How does the image of the afterlife portrayed here fit or not with the Bible?

Overall Grade: B-
I enjoyed it, moderately, but mostly because I think Paul Rudd is hilarious.

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (2007)

Rated: PG for some violence and action.
Length: 124 minutes
Grade: CCCC=C
Budget: $130 million
Box Office: $457 million ($220 US, $237 Intl.)

Directed by: Jon Turteltaub, who previously made National Treasure, Instinct, Phenomenon, While You Were Sleeping, Cool Runnings, and the outstanding Disney film The Kid.
Written by: Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, who wrote Shaggy Dog, National Treasure, Bad Boys 2, Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle, I Spy, and 6th Day.
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Helen Mirren, Ed Harris, Harvey Keitel, and Bruce Greenwood.

When the Gates family reputation is impugned by a page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth, the family of historian/conspiracy theorist/adventurers go on a crazy adventure to clear their name by showing that their ancestor was actually protecting the union from the confederacy discovering a massive gold repository.

Entertainment Value: C
For fun, I give it a B. For plausibility, I give it a D-. For being possible to follow what’s going on, a D+. This movie is even more hare-brained than the first one, but the thing that always kept it from being very good was that it didn’t seem to care whether I understood what was happening or not. In fact, I think this was a deliberate effort to keep us so engrossed in the action that we don’t ask too many questions about why things are happening as they are. And then after I saw the new Indiana Jones movie, I was even less impressed by the comparison.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence C, Language A, Illegality D
The main issue here is the violence, which includes car chase scenes, shootings, a murder of a man in front of his son, and, most disturbingly, a drowning. But I also grade it down for illegality because the entire plot is about a main character doing seriously illegal things such as breaking into the Library of Congress, kidnapping the President, and evading the police. You know, your average hero-stuff. PG is probably correct.

Significant Content: C
On the good side, history matters and is cool to study. Intelligence, cleverness, and wit are virtues. Family is very important, including reputation for what was done in the past. And loyalty is a good thing. On the bad side, the world is full of secret conspiracies that go as high as the Presidency, and it’s okay to break the law as long as you’re right.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
And I feel I’m being generous with that. I love a good action movie, and I’m willing to cut them a lot of slack as long as it ties up in the end, but this didn’t. Endless questions surround the plot. Why was the name on that diary page? If they knew about the city of gold before, why not use it? Were the President’s aware enough to create the book, but not enough to uncover the city? And, most importantly, how likely is it that by sheer coincidence two major archaeology adventure movies come out within six months of each other where the central plot is about a lost city of gold? Answer: zero. Explanation: somebody stole something, and I have a hard time imagining it was Spielberg, especially since the latest scripting for that portion of Indy began in 2002, whereas the authorization for a sequel to National Treasure didn’t happen until after the first movie, in 2005. Shame on you, script thieves. Shame on you.

Discussion Questions:
~Would you call Ben Gates a vigilante? Why so or why not? Consider some of his illegal actions. Were they justified? What if they had turned out badly? Do you like the idea of people, even supposedly good guys, being so cavalier about breaking laws?
~How important is your ancestry to you? Would it bother you to know that you were descended from someone involved in violence or illegality such as an assassination plot? How far back would it matter to you? How important is it to people to be descended from historically notable people? Is this compatible with the Christian idea that we get our identity from Christ?
~What motivates Wilkinson to do what he does? Compare his motives with those of the Gates family. Are their methods significantly different? Have you ever felt ashamed of your family or yourself? Did this tempt you to do something dangerous or wrong to make up for it? How is this related to pride?
~Is it useful to want history to remember us favorably? Does this bias us in favor of certain endeavors rather than others? Should a Christian be concerned about this?
~Do you believe in the existence of conspiracies? Do you think it’s healthy for people to believe in them?
~Does this movie have educational value about history? Does this movie succeed at making history seem important and exciting?
~Which elements of this film seem the most implausible to you? Do any seem realistic?

Overall Grade: C
I thought it was fine until I watched Indy 4. Now, I’m frowning.

Great Debaters, The (2007)

Rated: PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.
Length: 123 minutes
Grade: BCAA=A-
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $40 million ($30 US, $10 DVD)

Directed by: Denzel Washington, well known as an actor but whose only previous movie was Antwone Fisher.
Written by: Robert Eisele, who hasn’t written anything worth mentioning, mostly stuff for television.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Forest Whitaker, John Heard, Kimberly Elise, and Devyn Tyler.

In this true story from 1935 Marshall Texas, a place where lynchings are common, an extremely talented debate teacher tries to break racial barriers by getting his undefeated students to debate against a white college while he also secretly struggles to help establish a local sharecroppers union.

Entertainment Value: B
Anything Denzel Washington does is likely to be at least above average, and this is certainly just that. As a former debater and debate judge, I found some of the technical elements of the movie to be strange, but not really problematic, and I understood the need for some unnatural dialogue that would explain debating to a general audience. The characters are interesting, and the scenes are fairly powerful.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sexuality C, Violence C, Language B, Illegality NA
There are a few realistically scary scenes of white racism toward blacks, including a lynching shown after-the-fact, and other examples of minor violence. There is a lot of alcohol use and several sexual plot elements and some shown sexuality. PG-13 is just right.

Significant Content: A
This is a movie that shows two competing cultures for blacks to choose from: that of the mind, refined, powerful, and dignified or that of the backwoods bar with loud music, dancing, sexuality, and alcohol use. But it also shows courage as an important character trait, especially against the odds, and religion is heavily present as well since one of the characters’ fathers is a minister. Also, the movie clearly shows the domesticating effects the right woman can have on a wayward single male. Plus, it’s nice to see a movie that presents debate as a valuable endeavor.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
If good art draws you in and has something interesting for you to chew on once you’re inside, this is great art. Aside from all the wonderful, rich discussions alluded to in the debates over such issues like educational integration and civil disobedience, there is this brilliant demonstration of the tension and conflict between the two worlds available to young black American males as it shows up in the life of the main character, Henry Lowe. It’s also fascinating to see blacks discussing civil disobedience thirty years before MLK, when their only influences were Gandhi and Thoreau.

Discussion Questions:
~Why does Henry find it so difficult to lead a respectable life and give up his partying? Should he have to? What eventually makes him willing to do so? What parallels would you draw between his struggle and the tensions in the Christian church between emphasis the intellectual and the emotional/experiential? Should church be more of a party or a seminar?
~What do you think of the practice of the debate coach writing arguments for the debaters?
~Should Tolson have kept his political beliefs to himself in the various situations when he was confronted about them?
~Who is right about civil disobedience? Is it possible to honor the principle of obedience to the law by breaking the law when it is wrong?
~How useful is it for people to be reminded of the true ugliness of historical racism?
~Does racism come in degrees? How might someone who doesn’t like seeing blacks move into his neighborhood react to the lynching and racism in this movie?
~Are words capable of being weapons? Should they be used this way? What are the limits of such use? Did Jesus use words as weapons?
Overall Grade: A-
Very good, and in parts extremely disturbing in a useful way.

Rambo (2008)

Rated: R for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language.
Length: 93 minutes
Grade: B+GFB+=C
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $110 million (43 U.S., 67 Intl., DVD)

Written and Directed by: Sylvester Stallone, who wrote or co-wrote all the Rocky films, Cobra, Driven, and all the Rambo films and directed Rocky 2-5.
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, and Matthew Marsden.

After a group of Christian missionary workers convince him to take them upriver into war torn Burma, they go missing, and Rambo is tasked with taking a mercenary team in to rescue them from the vicious and sadistic local army.

Entertainment Value: B+
As a Rambo movie, this is excellent, if a bit short. The plot is simple, the standard elements are all present, and the ending is satisfying, if predictable. Stallone is fully capable of playing the reluctant super-tough guy ex-green beret to perfection.
Superficial Content: G
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence G, Language F, Illegality F
There is plenty of F profanity and a few scenes of sexual assault and near-nudity if not actual nudity. But the major objection someone would have to this movie is the brutal and grisly war violence. It’s way over-the-top, and it includes all sorts of awful violations of people’s bodies with every caliber of gun and even machetes. This is by far the bloodiest (and that’s saying something) Rambo movie yet, a far, far cry from the nearly blood-free original masterpiece, First Blood.

Significant Content: F
This is a movie which could have been merely average in promoting the themes of good and evil, necessary violence against evil, and justice. But it decides to dabble heavily in the realm of Christian ethics, with a clash between those who want to help through humanitarian means and those who solve problems by bullets. Since the missionaries need rescuing by the mercenaries, and this works in the end, the message is very much anti-redemptive. Christian outreach is na├»ve and only requires blood to be spilt to rescue the fools from their quixotic mission. Nothing really changes, and almost everyone dies anyhow. Still, the messages about making a commitment and sticking with it and the admonition by Rambo that “we can live for nothing or die for something are good.” Also, duty is presented as important. But the dominant theme pushes all the others to the side.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
Not because I agree with it, but because I think it quite poignantly forces the discussion about real world application of Christian principles in the presence of evil.

Discussion Questions:
~Did the missionaries change anything? Who wound up being correct about the likelihood of the world changing? Rambo asks them if they have brought guns and implies that this is the only way to make change. Does he turn out to be right or wrong?
~Would you describe the missionaries as noble? What did their nobility cost in the end?
~Which is more powerful armies or faith? According to this movie?
~Are there ever times when you should rethink a commitment you made to something which now appears foolish?
~After the scene with the pirates, should the missionaries have pressed on?
~Discuss the reaction of the team leader to the pirate incident with his involvement in the final scene. What is this meant to say about Christianity or about humanitarianism?
~Discuss the fact that the person who hired the mercenaries was the pastor of the church which sent the team.
~Is it better to die for something than to live for nothing? Did the missionaries who died die for anything? What of the mercenaries?
~Would you describe this movie as propaganda in the sense that it seems to be trying to convert people from humanitarian aid to the use of force to settle problems?
~Do Christians who advocate pacifism understand killing and war enough to be qualified to oppose it?
~A major theme of this movie is a person’s inescapable identity and purpose. Rambo’s seems to be bloodshed. Are people made to be warriors? By God?
~The mercenary leader says they are sending in the Devil to do God’s work. What does he mean? Can you think of some other areas of church life where this same criticism might be leveled?
~Would the villagers have been better off if the missionaries hadn’t come at all?
~What does this movie do to make you hate the Burmese soldiers? Is it healthy to hate people that much?
~Why does this movie choose to have so much brutal, grisly bloodshed? Is it meant to entertain? Did you find it entertaining?
~Why is Rambo so reluctant to fight? Is this consistent with his character in other movies? Does his reluctance make him more noble? Why? Would it be fair to describe him as an angel?
~Does this movie have a useful educational value for helping people understand what goes on in Burma?
~Does this movie make you more or less interested in becoming an overseas missionary?
Overall Grade: C
This isn’t just a Rambo movie which advocates against evil and for the use of force. It actively opposes Christian love and humanitarian outreach as well. But if you want action, Rambo make action.