I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007)


Rated: PG-13 for sexual content and language
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: ACB+B=B+
Budget: $24 million
Box Office: $600,000

Written and Directed by: Amy Heckerling, who directed A Night at the Roxbury, Clueless, Look Who’s Talking 1 and 2, European Vacation, Johnny Dangerously, and (most famously) Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Rudd, Saoirse Ronan, Tracey Ullman, Jon Lovitz, Sarah Alexander, with appearances by Fred Willard, Stacey Dash, Twink Caplan, and Henry Winkler.

Summary:
Rosie is an aging television writer for a popular teen show and trying to raise her daughter after her divorce. Adam is a new actor with an amazing comedic talent and twenty years too young for her. But she’s the one who breaks it off even though he really loves her. Then, when the network cancels her show to feature him in one, Adam refuses to perform until they let her do the writing. Meanwhile, her secretary is constantly trying to undermine her and their relationship.

Entertainment Value: A
I think I have a man crush on Paul Rudd, who is surely my now favorite comedic actor. I find him so entertaining that he can make an entire movie worthwhile just by being in it like he did for Over Her Dead Body (though cameos don’t count, which is why he couldn’t save Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). This movie started out slow, at about a C. But it just kept getting better and better until it literally forced me to give it an A for cleverness, wit, and sheer comedy. Plus there are good things to talk about.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality C, Violence A, Language C, Illegality NA
The issues here are largely thematic rather than overt, but the movie is built around at least one sexual relationship, although nothing is really shown. There are jokes about sex and enough use of profanity to merit PG-13. I thought the beginning felt fairly vulgar. One thing that might bother some of you is that Mother Nature is portrayed as a spirit-like being who has chats with Michelle Pfeiffer and the girls put a love hex on someone later in the movie.

Significant Content: B+
There are lots of themes here. The most significant message is one that’s somewhat hidden from view. Television, like Barbie Dolls, is make-believe and, as such, is ultimately unsatisfying compared with our real needs in real life. Just as we outgrow Barbies, we should probably outgrow television. This is a pretty sophisticated message coming from the director who brought us Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Another major theme here is the absurdity of adults trying to cater to children’s tastes and adopt children’s attire and speech mannerisms. It’s very much a satire of our culture’s obsession with youth and appearance. But there’s yet a third major theme here about what is natural and unnatural, although the film doesn’t decide in the end what to do with it. Largely, however, Mother Nature is strongly critical of all the stupid, unnatural, counterproductive things Baby Boomers have done with themselves and the world. Finally, loyalty to the one who brought you (as demonstrated by Rudd and mocked via her ex-husband played by Jon Lovitz) is highly endorsed.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
What you’ve got here is genius filmmaking hidden under less-than-ideally executed film. It seemed unprocessed and almost amateurish at first, and this impression didn’t really leave over the course of the movie. Also, I thought the backstabbing secretary was just a silly and distracting plot element. However, some of the designed elements here were brilliant. Having Fred Ward adopt 13-year-olds’ speech. The use of the daughter to sing a critique of the culture by parodying Alanis Morissette’s Ironic. And especially the use of Barbie Dolls to critique television. Brilliant stuff.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think of adults who try to dress and speak like teenagers?
~What do you think of a society that caters so heavily to young people for its social norms?
~When Rosie stands up for her daughter at school, how does that impact her daughter? How important is it for kids to believe their parents are on their side? Are there any limits to this? Were teachers and parents more united in the “old days?”
~How important is loyalty to you? Have you ever had the opportunity to get ahead at something by betraying someone else or even by simply not requiring that they come along with you?
~How do you think you know when it’s true love? Is “true love” a useful concept?
~Did you outgrow playing with dolls? Why? Do you think people should eventually outgrow television and movies? Is that a realistic assessment of the point of this movie?
~Why are boomers so ill-equipped to discuss morality with their children.
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Overall Grade: B+
If you can make it more than halfway, you’ll really enjoy the rest of the movie. I know I did. It’s so rare that a mediocre movie becomes good. Usually it’s the other way round. Now let me go. I have to write my letter of adoration to Paul Rudd.

Rescue Dawn (2007)


Rated: PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture.
Length: 120 minutes
Grade: BDB+A=B
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $29 million ($5 US, $2 Intl, $22 DVD)


Written and Directed by: Werner Herzog, who has a lot of movies you've never heard of before.
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies.
Summary: This dramatization of the life of Dieter Dengler tells the story of the only American POW in Vietnam or Laos to successfully escape captivity. After being shot down on his first mission over Laos, Dengler manages to become the leader of a small group of prisoners and leads the rag-tag band in a complicated escape effort.

Entertainment Value: B
Steve Zahn is outstanding. Jeremy Davies is outstanding. And Christian Bale is outstanding. And the story itself is gripping. But the movie suffers from a small number of flaws. One is the dialogue both within the camp and certainly on the aircraft carrier before and after often seemed awkward and contrived. The other is that the scene of him flying and then getting shot down looked particularly unrealistic. Almost comically so. Otherwise, very good.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence D, Language D, Illegality B
The language is certainly strong, although it’s realistic of what one would expect both from pilots and prisoners of war. The violence is a combination of ill-treatment of prisoners, war violence including killing, and one beheading. It’s a movie about a POW camp. As such, this is pretty much what you would expect.

Significant Content: B+
This movie is essentially about the power of optimism. Dengler comes into a frayed, tense, and despair-ridden community of prisoners and manages to become their leader and unite them behind the goal of escaping. It’s about never giving up, being persistent, and doing whatever is necessary to accomplish your goal. Other strong themes here are courage, leadership, and strength.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Werner Herzog walks an incredibly difficult line in this movie because he manages to successfully do several things that seem almost impossible to do simultaneously. This movie shows the awful truth about POW camps in Vietnam, but without turning the Vietnamese into the object of our hatred. Everyone on both sides is painfully real, rather than the caricatures and kill-‘em-all enthusiasm of a Rambo movie. It’s a human interest story much more than an action flick. He also manages to show the anarchy of warfare without glorifying war and yet also not becoming even remotely an anti-war diatribe. And in the end, it’s still entertaining enough that you want to watch it. To put all those pieces successfully together in a film is really quite amazing. On a minor note, one device that I particularly appreciated here was the refusal to give subtitles for the Vietnamese and Laotians. This is essential for cultivating the sense of understanding what POWs go through.

Discussion Questions:
~If this movie had been written as a fictional script, what major plot elements would have been different?
~What lessons about life and leadership can you draw from Dieter Dengler?
~What devices does this movie use to portray the guards as real people rather than as mere objects for our hatred?
~How do you think people from Southeast Asia react when watching most American films about the war? Do you think their reaction to this movie would be the same?
~Is it possible for a movie to give an accurate vicarious experience of warfare or being a POW? Are we just deceiving ourselves when we watch any movie like this and think we understand the reality of such things?
~Would you describe Dengler as irrational? In what ways can “irrationality” be an asset in extremely unusual circumstances?
~Do you think Dengler would want to go back and fight more after this experience?
~Does this movie have any impact on your thinking about another famous POW, John McCain?

Overall Grade: B
It wasn’t what I expected, but it was certainly a story I’m glad to have watched. And again, the acting is truly excellent.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)


Rated: PG-13 for some partial nudity and innuendo
Length: 92 minutes
Grade: BBB+B=B
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $13 million ($12 US, $1 Intl, $ DVD)

Written by: David Magee, who wrote Finding Neverland, and Simon Beaufoy, whose main credit is writing The Full Monty.
Directed by: Bharat Nalluri, who’s mostly directed television episodes for obscure shows like Spooks, Hustle, and Life on Mars.
Starring: Amy Adams, Francis McDormand, Ciarin Hinds, Lee Pace, Tom Payne, and Mark Strong.

Summary:
Toward the end of the Depression just before World War II in London, an erratic nanny has difficulty keeping a job until she connives herself into becoming the “social secretary” for a society-type actress who is trying to juggle three men in an effort to achieve her own ambitions, stay provided-for, and still honor real love. Pettigrew throws herself into helping the misguided starlet and they struggle through a series of social misadventures over the course of a very exciting day.

Entertainment Value: B
My biggest complaint about this movie is that I simply had difficulty understanding what they were saying until about 15 minutes into the movie. A combination of bad sound mixing, British accents, and fast speaking just confounded me. Nonetheless, the story is fascinating, the characters truly intriguing, and the plot itself refreshing both in its originality and its depth.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality C, Violence B, Language B, Illegality B
There is plenty of alcohol shown and consumed, but never to drunkenness. Several scenes show Amy Adams in immodest clothing. I’m sorry for the vagueness, but I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s no actual nudity, and there is no sex other than implied relationships she’s having with all three men. One scene has one of her lovers in a bed, implied nude. If it were me, I’d say PG-10 or so. The violence is a fistfight.

Significant Content: B+
Although the big final themes of the entire movie are very good, Miss Pettigrew and others do less-than-ideal things along the way, especially lying. But in the end, this is a movie about conscience and doing what is right. Many of the right things to do in life are not convenient. Marriage and exclusivity are held as clear ideals over other arrangements. It’s also largely about loyalty and being willing to invest in someone with total devotion, as Pettigrew does to Delysia. In life, one must choose which is most important: money, fame, or love. And decent people who suffer hardship can find themselves in the midst of a grand moral struggle in spite of themselves. One additional, and excellent, theme here is the wisdom and sound judgment of those who are older.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
If I thought that all the things I saw in this movie were put there intentionally, I would probably give it an A. But I don’t, so I won’t. For me, this is an epic tale of the modern woman’s dilemma. “Do I believe the feminists who tell me to use my sexuality to my advantage and get my fame and money any way I can or do I trust thousands of years of culture which tell me I will only be truly happy when I go with the man I love and commit to him alone?”

Discussion Questions:
~Delysia says that Michael is her best friend and that he knows her as she really is without judging her. How important are these factors in a spouse? How important is it to be known for who you really are and loved nonetheless? Have you ever felt the need to be fake with people? How did it make you feel about those relationships?
~What do you think about Michael's demand that if she’s going to be with him, she must be with no one else at all? Why don’t the other men make this same demand? Is jealousy in a spouse a good thing? What about in God?
~When someone really loves you, do they indulge you or do they demand from you the best that you’re really capable of?
~In what ways would you say that Miss Pettigrew is Delysia’s conscience?
~Depending on which stories you know, how would you compare this movie to Pinocchio? What about Cinderella? In what ways is this a fairy tale?
~Is Miss Pettigrew a Christ figure? Would you describe her as an evangelist?
~What do you think of Miss Pettigrew's lying in small things in order to get herself into a position of trust with Delysia? Would you call this wise, unethical, or what?
~Is it true that people really know the truth in their hearts?
~At one point Pettigrew comments about the young people oohing and aahing over the military planes that “They don’t remember the last one, do they?” What does she mean, and why is her idea important? In what ways is it actually a good thing for every nation involved in a war to really suffer during that process. Do you think America is hurt by the fact that we haven’t really suffered hardship during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
~Pettigrew says that not all things in life are convenient, including really good opportunities for what matters. What do you think of this? How is Delysia’s life made complicated by the simple fact that she must choose between what she really wants and what she really wants right now?
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Overall Grade: B
Solid. Fresh. Intriguing. Even captivating. If only they had made it easier to understand what was being said.

Elizabeth, The Golden Age (2007)


Rated: PG-13 for violence, some sexuality, and nudity.
Length: 114 minutes
Grade: ACAA=A
Budget: $50-60 million
Box Office: $83 million ($16 U.S., $57 Intl., $10 DVD)


Written by: William Nicholson, who wrote Gladiator, First Knight, Shadowlands, and Nell (Don’t hold that last one against him), and Michael Hirst, who wrote the previous Elizabeth.
Directed by: Shekkar Kapur, who directed the previous Elizabeth as well as The Four Feathers.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Samantha Morton, Jordi Molla, and Rhys Ifans.

Summary:
This is the sequel to the first Elizabeth movie, which takes us from the difficulties Elizabeth had with religious division in England all the way through to the battle with the Spanish Armada. The queen must rule her people fairly, navigate the difficult issue of being unmarried, contemplate the new world, and fend off the plots of Spain to replace her with the exiled Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic.

Entertainment Value: A
Just like the first one, this is everything you could want in an Elizabethan drama. Great acting. Unbelievable costumes and sets. Brilliant writing. And a historical drama that may not adhere exactly to the facts, but comes close enough to be educational as well as entertaining.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C, Violence D, Language B, Illegality B
There are a handful of scenes involving sex and nudity, mostly back nudity. There is a lot of discussion of sex and marriage. The violence is typical warfare stuff but also a few scenes of torture of prisoners and also public executions by beheading. The language is all fairly minor, as you might expect in a period piece. There is a scene showing drinking and another showing tobacco use for the first time in England.
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Significant Content: A
This is a stark portrayal of royalty and leadership at its best: wise, savvy, regal, dignified (mostly), and yet still human and vulnerable. There are powerful themes here about religion, loyalty, nationalism, and political subversion. Religious tolerance is portrayed as a great virtue even in the face of real danger from religious radicals. And here’s my favorite part: God is a central theme as people pray and seek guidance for their actions.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
How could it not be? The movie is visually stunning, as you would expect after the first one. The drama is perfectly cultivated as several plot lines are woven together into one. Even the battle scene is wonderfully made. It’s a feast for movie lovers. Plus the importance of particular characters and also of errors in judgment are shown to be massively important in the development of history.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you think that the defeat of the Spanish Armada was a statement by God about religion and tolerance? Do you think God created the results?
~What do you think of Elizabeth’s pronouncement that she would not punish people for their beliefs, only for their deeds?
~Elizabeth wonders whether she’s ever been loved for herself because she is so powerful. What insights into God’s character might you get from this? Have you ever wondered whether people liked you for who you were as opposed to what you had to offer them? Is this distinction really valid?
~Do you think executions should be public events? What did you think of the way Mary handled her own beheading?
~Why does Elizabeth, a devout Christian, consult an astrologer?
~What leadership lessons can you draw from Elizabeth in this movie? What about from Raliegh or from King Phillip?
~In the end, what do you think of Elizabeth as a person? As a queen? As a Christian?
~Was Elizabeth’s decision not to be led by fear a wise one or reckless?
~Does your Protestantism or your Catholicism affect how you view this movie?

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Overall Grade: A
We also recently watched “The Other Boleyn Girl,” and there was simply no comparison between them.

Cleaner, The (2007)


Rated: Rated R for bloody images, some violence and language.
Length: 92 minutes
Grade: BDBC=B-
Budget: $17 million
Box Office: $0 million ($6 million DVD)

Written by: Matthew Aldrich, with his first script and some amazing actors given that fact.
Directed by: Renny Harlin, who previously made action/horror movies like The Covenant, Driven, Deep Blue See, Long Kiss Goodnight, Cliffhanger, and Die Hard. That’s how they got the actors.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, Eva Mendes, and Luis Guzman.

Summary:
A former cop who now cleans crime scenes finds himself embroiled in a murder cover-up when he unknowingly cleans a murder scene of all the evidence before the crime was even reported. At the same time, he tries to navigate his relationship with a teenage daughter who wants to know more about how her mother was murdered many years ago.

Entertainment Value: B
Look, it’s beyond me why this movie was never released to the public theaters since its stars were so big, but I don’t imagine ever seeing a movie with Ed Harris and Samuel L. Jackson that’s awful. My only disappointment here was that this movie was so good in the beginning (an elegant fascinating story) but about two thirds of the way through, it became muddled and confusing. Still, overall, quite entertaining despite its abysmal returns.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sexuality B, Violence D, Language F, Illegality D
This was far less gruesome than I expected. Sure there are several scenes of him cleaning up awful crimes, but there’s probably nothing here you wouldn’t see on CSI ( don’t watch it, so I don’t know for certain.) The language is certainly what makes this R, and it’s so constant in parts that I can’t even edit it out enough to play some of the more interesting clips. The plot is definitely mature, and R is certainly correct.

Significant Content: B
Family matters greatly, and loyalty is a hugely emphasized theme here. Being willing to admit your mistakes is the mark of a good man. We need other people in our lives, no matter how we try to create an independent life. The world is a messy place.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Again, I though the majority of the movie had a particularly well crafted tone, including everything from camera angles, scene choices, and Jackson’s demeanor. But then it sort of fell apart and didn’t hold up through the end. Also, there are some very good questions that come from this movie involving loyalty, friendship, and corruption.

Discussion Questions:
~In what ways would you describe Tom as a good father? In what ways could he be better? What about Tom as an employer? Why are some people so loyal to him?
~What do you think of his initial efforts to cover everything up and act as if nothing had happened? ~Was he foolish for doing this, or was he just being practical given what he knows about corruption in the police force?
~Do you think it’s a good idea to make movies that feature police corruption as a major plot element?
~What determines whether someone is a good friend or not? Evaluate whether Eddie is one.
~Do you think Rose’s interest in her mother’s death is her killer are natural? Healthy?

Overall Grade: B-
It’s fairly interesting, and the acting is quite good. Too bad they couldn’t get a movie with this title “cleaned” up enough to make it the outstanding police drama it could have been.

Miss Conception (2008)


Rated: Rated R for language and some sexual content.
Length: 94 minutes
Grade: D-DBD=D
Budget: No one’s willing to tell.
Box Office: $2,134 no kidding

Written by: Camilla Leslie, with her first (and possibly last) script.
Directed by: Eric Styles, who hasn’t directed anything I’ve ever heard of.
Starring: Heather Graham, Mia Kirshner, Tom Ellis, Will Mellor, and Orlando Seale.

Summary:
After discovering on a lark trip to a fertility clinic that she only has one egg left in her ovaries, Georgina and her friends craft a plan to get her impregnated before she becomes infertile forever.

Entertainment Value: D-
Okay, I know the box office was silly bad, but I had hopes for a movie about a woman trying to become pregnant starring Heather Graham, who’s great in Scrubs. Wow, were we wrong. First, the premise is idiotic. Second, the entire series of plot events including the ending are predictable from about 20 minutes into the movie. Third, I can’t for the life of me figure out how it would be difficult for Heather Graham to find a guy to have sex with her over the course of four days. I’m just saying there are more believable challenges people might face in a movie. But on top of that, it’s not funny, which is the great defect of any supposed “comedy.” I guess since Blockbuster stocked a lot of copies, I thought I should check it out. I shouldn’t have, and shame on them, too.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sexuality D, Violence A, Language D, Illegality A.
Okay, the whole movie revolves around the attempt to become pregnant with anyone, so obviously sex scenes are an issue. Although, interestingly, there’s no nudity and…I hope I’m not ruining a too obvious plot here…no sex either. There is one gay character who is prominent in the movie. Language is enough to make it R, but they could surely have kept it PG-13 if they had wanted to do so. As you’d expect, there is some use of alcohol.

Significant Content: B
For all of its flaws, and these are numerous, the one great thing about this movie is that it winds up being very pro-life in one obvious and two unexpected ways. First, naturally the plot is about a woman who doesn’t “just” want sex, but wants a baby. Second, her friend confesses that she had an abortion, and seems to feel great pain and regret about the decision. Third, it’s pro-marriage. Despite all her foolishness, Georgina wants more than anything to marry her boyfriend (whose main flaws is that he doesn’t want kids yet), and in the end winds up doing so before miraculously and inexplicably actually having a baby years after the doctor told her she’d be done. There are also substantial themes here about the role of sacrifice and submission in love here.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Sorry, lofty morality points won’t cover for terrible plot, dialogue, acting, and overall artistic impression. Even the Brazilian judges couldn’t bring themselves to give this one a passing grade.

Discussion Questions:
~Does this movie wind up being pro-traditional morality? In what ways?
~Which, if any, elements of this plot are most believable to you?
~If you had a friend in Georgina’s situation, what would you advise her to do?
~What does this movie teach you about the difficulty of really creating a funny movie?
~Why was Georgina so attached to Zak? Was she foolish for thinking that all the marriage and baby stuff would work out eventually with him? Why do so many women who want marriage and babies get into relationships with men who don’t? Should you even be dating if you don’t want to get married and have children? How long is a reasonable time limit for such relationships?
~Does marriage domesticate men? How so?
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Overall Grade: D
But it is interesting to me to see that so many film seem to be coming out recently that are fundamentally pro-life. So that’s a really encouraging sign.

Charlie Bartlett (2008)


Rated: R for language, drug content and brief nudity.
Length: 97 minutes.
Grade: BCDC=C+
Budget: $12 million
Box Office: $5 million ($4 US, $1 Intl.)


Written by: Gustin Nash, with his first script.
Directed by: Jon Poll, who’s previously been an editor on a bunch of terrible movies like Death to Smoochy, Austin Powers 2, and Scary Movie 3.
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis, Kat Dennings, and Tyler Hilton.

Summary:
After being kicked out of yet another private prep school, millionaire teenager Charlie Bartlett finds himself enrolled in public school, where he winds up trying to become popular by playing psychiatrist to the much-troubled student body and unintentionally running afoul of the principal by dating his daughter.

Entertainment Value: B
This is a strange movie that I actually liked for the most part. Like any portrayal of high school, it’s an absurd exaggeration, but at least it’s exaggerating real things, not imaginary ones. The script was original, although slightly disappointing compared to what I expected, and the acting was quite good, especially from Anton Yelchin in his first starring role.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sexuality C, Violence C-, Language D, Illegality C
Since the whole movie is about a kid faking psychiatric disorders in order to prescribe drugs for other kids with the real problems, obviously drug use is a central issue here. The violence is problematic because it includes a truly awful scene of beating someone up, suicide, and a teacher threatening a student with a gun. There is alcohol consumption, sexuality, and plenty of strong profanity. I would say it’s probably right as R, perhaps R-15, and is probably appropriate to watch with your teenagers. I wouldn’t want them watching it alone.

Significant Content: C
On the one hand, the movie is about adult incompetence at helping children and their real capacity to help each other. On the other hand, this sort of help really backfires in some serious ways, and one wonders whether it was genuine at all since the primary driving concern of Charlie’s is to be liked and popular. It’s definitely also about the proper use of influence and of power and the value and limits of teenage privacy.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
As I said, I think this movie actually could have been a lot better, although it wasn’t actually bad. I like some of the themes this raises about teenagers, adults, and drug use. There are many interesting conversations this could generate.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do kids use drugs? Is it because they want a high or is it because they realize that the world is out of whack and they’re just more sensitive to this than the rest of us who’ve grown accustomed to it?
~Is Charlie Bartlett doing good for these kids? In your perception, are prescription drugs over-used, under-used, or correctly used by your friends?
~How important is it to you to be popular? Is it bad to want to be popular? Is it okay to care about what others think of us? Are there correct and incorrect ways to pursue popularity? Assess Charlie’s efforts to be popular as compared with Murphy’s. What are the possible good and bad uses of popularity? Do kids naturally seek popularity? How is this impulse amplified or exploited by media like MTV? Why are people reluctant to admit their need to be liked or popular?
~What is this movie trying to say about bullies?
~Why are kids willing to talk to other kids but not to adults? Is this situation the fault of adults, kids, or media in your opinion?
~Is it a good idea for kids to have privacy? What do you think about a teacher-free zone? What about the decision to put cameras in there?
~Jesus tells us that our real virtue is shown by the way we treat those who cannot do anything back for us. Do you see this being demonstrated in this movie by anyone?

Overall Grade: C+
Like I said, I can see this generating some interesting discussions with your teenage kids. But otherwise, it’s probably not necessary to watch it. It’s certainly no Ferris Bueller or Heathers, but it’s not too far from Pump Up the Volume in quality.

Walk Hard, The Dewey Cox Story (2007)


Rated: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language.
Length: Too long. But in reality, only 96 minutes.
Grade: FFFF=F
Budget: $35 million
Box Office: $33 million ($18 US, $2 Intl, $13 DVD)


Written and Directed by: Jake Kasdan, whose only noteworthy other movie was the unusual TV Set with David Duchovney, and Jude Apotow, whose “highlights” include Superbad, Drillbit Taylor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Knocked Up, Talladega Nights, 40 Year Old Virgin, Kicking and Screaming, Anchorman, and the newly released Pineapple Express.
People paid to act in this film: John C. Reilly, Tim Meadows, Jenna Fischer, and Raymond Barry, with cameos by Harold Ramis, Frankie Muniz, Jack Black, Paul Rudd, Jason Schwartzman, and Justin Long.

Summary:
This is mostly a parody/mockumentary rip-off of Walk the Line, the excellent biopic of Johnny Cash.
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Comments:
If F was its grade, why did I finish it? My wife forced me to, not as punishment, but because she held out a much more na├»ve optimistic hope that it would eventually become funny. It did not. I was right for wanting to quit after 10 minutes. She was wrong. Na, na, na, na, na! Look, this movie is pure filth. It verges on being NC-17 between the sexual content, language, and drug use. And it’s not funny. In fact, laughs were so rare, that I actually kept a tally: 4. That’s right, in a 96 minute “comedy,” I laughed four times. I laugh more often frequently watching a PBS pledge drive. I’m beginning to wonder if there might be a legal remedy for atrocious films. Perhaps I could sue Jude Apotow for my time back? The one good bit of news out of all of this is that it did inspire me with a Monday discussion topic: what’s the worst film you ever saw? The only tragedy for me is that this isn’t even at the top of the list. But not for a lack of trying. John C. Reilly hasn’t been in a single movie I’ve liked since 1990’s Days of Thunder. That means he’s now on my blacklist. And if you want a mockumentary that's actually funny, re-watch Spinal Tap. It goes to eleven.

Nim’s Island (2008)


Rated: PG for mild adventure action and brief language.
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: DBCD=D
Budget: $37 million
Box Office: $87 million ($48 U.S., $39 Intl.)

Written by: Wendy Orr wrote the children’s book by the same title on which this movie is based.
Directed by: Jennifer Flacket (this is her first movie) and Mark Levin, who previously made the charming Little Manhattan.
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster, and Gerard Butler.

Summary:
Nim’s dad is a marine microbiologist who searches for new lifeforms near the volcanic desert island they call home. He gets stranded in a storm after leaving Nim alone for a few days, and she seeks the help of the author of her favorite adventure stories, who turns out to be as unadventurous as an agoraphobe can be. Also, there are Australian cruise ship/pirates trying to invade her pristine beach.

Entertainment Value: D
Chaos. Pure chaos. This movie was a constant stream of unbelievable, implausible, ridiculous nonsense. So I figure most 6 year olds were tragically bewitched by it. This wasn’t just Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang nonsense, it was bizarre, dangerous, mayhem nonsense. I’m figuring that the book was far more substantial than this movie, which I strongly disrecommend. Nonetheless, I really like Gerard Butler, who so far has suffered the plague of being cast in worthless movies like this one and P.S. I Love You.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language B+, Illegality B
There are a couple of mild language elements including yet another inexplicable character in a child’s movie saying, “What the…?” without finishing off the sentence. But the real issues here are violence, which mostly involve flirting with volcanoes, attacking beachgoers with catapulted lizards, an opening story about a mother being swallowed by a whale, one fistfight, and (the most serious) a life threatening storm that destroys Nim’s father’s boat.
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Significant Content: C
The intended theme here is fear and courage, with the idea being that if you’ll only confront your fears, everything will be okay. I also have to give the movie credit for showing a capable, responsible young girl taking care of herself. What bothered me was the idea of a dad leaving his young daughter on the island by herself and then constantly seeing his life threatened at sea. Apparently cruise lines are evil defilers of natural beauty. Otherwise, the movie seems to be fairly lesson-free. Also, why is this girl able to contact the author but they don’t have a safety/emergency system in place with other people?

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Like I’ve already said: chaos. I really didn’t like this movie pretty much the whole way through. One interesting elements here were the idea that authors may well be precisely the opposite of the characters they invent, perhaps invented specifically to make up for their own personal deficiencies. The other is that every girl reads her father into the role of hero in her novels.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you think of the father’s decision to leave his daughter on the island?
~Does it seem likely that a writer could be so completely the opposite of a best-selling adventure series? Do you think that other genres, such as romance novels, are made by people who know what they’re writing about or not?
~What does it mean to be the hero of your own life story?
~What is the difference between healthy fears and unhealthy ones?
~What is courage? What’s the difference between courage and stupidity? Which one is a better description of Foster’s trip around the world?
~Is it important for girls to view their fathers as dashing heroes?
~“Sometimes the best way to help is just to be there when someone needs you.” What do you think of this idea?
~What do you think of Nim’s reaction to the cruise crew and vacationers? Why is she entitled to the island but they aren’t?

Overall Grade: D
The real title here should have been Home Alone 4: South Pacific. This is by far Walden Media’s worst effort so far.

My Kid Could Paint That (2007)


Rated: PG-13 for language.
Length: 81 minutes
Grade: ACAA+=A
Budget: Small.
Box Office: $257,000

Written and Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev, a guy you’ve never heard of.
Starring: Anthony Brunelli, Elizabeth Cohen, Michael Kimmelman, and Mark, Laura, and Marla Olmstead.

Summary:
When the modern art of 4-year-old Marla Olmstead started selling for tens of thousands of dollars, she was a worldwide sensation. When 60 minutes exposesed her, she was a pariah. This documentary tells the story and tries to discern the truth about who really made those painting.
Entertainment Value: A It’s gripping as a human interest story alone, and the filmmaking is very personal, including the director himself feeling extremely conflicted both about the truth of the story and about the value of the movie afterward.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A, Language C, Illegality A
There is nothing in this movie to worry about except for two instances of profanity. One is an art display with the F word in neon and the other is the art critic from the New York Times using the same word to make a point about how different Marla’s art is from the chic audience-alienating art of the modern world. PG-13 is correct for that alone, and I don’t think the movie would have been the same without them both, quite frankly.
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Significant Content: A
Publicity and fame for a child is a very dangerous thing because the media need a story, any story, and the more salacious the better. One minute they’re celebrating a prodigy, and the next minute they’re muckraking a 4-year-old girl because the news monster has to be fed. Other themes include the nature of art and the decisions parents must make to best govern their children.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
In the end, this movie is perhaps the most brilliant work of modern art you could imagine because it is ultimately more about the audience than it is about the story itself. You will be frustrated that the truth of the story is unclear. But this leaves the audience to determine for itself what the meaning of the story is, which is exactly the point and the frustration of modern art. It doesn’t explain itself, or at least it doesn’t do so easily. This irritates many people who want their movies and their art to come with a simple explanation. But I thought it was brilliant, although I’m not convinced the director intended anything grander than just figure out the truth for himself.

Discussion Questions:
~Is modern art really art? Should art interpret itself? Is there skill involved in it?
~While you were watching this movie, what did you want to have happen at the end?
~Who is this movie an exposee of: the family, 60 minutes, the art world, news programs, or America in general?
~Who do you believe painted the paintings? What does your answer say about you?
~Was the 60 minutes piece an attack on Marla or on the family? Do you think that a black cloud hangs over Marla at all?
~Is it good or bad to be optimistic and innocent? What would the art world say? What does their answer say about them?
~Is this movie primarily about the art world or about the world of news media? Is there a difference? Why isn’t there a large news-criticism culture the way there is for art?
~Is the Bible more a work of modern art or a work of classic art? Consider Jesus’s parables, most of which He did not explain and which He specifically says were told to keep the truth from people.

Overall Grade: A
A truly intriguing artful documentary. I highly recommend you watch the extended interview with Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times.

Bank Job, The (2008)


Rated: R for sexual content, nudity, violence and language
Grade: B+FFA=B/F
Length: 110 minutes.
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $56 million ($30 US, $16 Int’l, $10 DVD)

Written by: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who’ve mostly done screenplays and adaptations for movies like Across the Universe, Flushed Away, and Goal.
Directed by: Roger Donaldson, who has made a bunch of excellent mystery/thrillers, including The World’s Fastest Indian, The Recruit, Thirteen Days, Species, Cocktail, and the excellent remake of No Way Out with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman.
Starring: Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows.

Summary:
This is based on the true story of The Baker Street Robbery, one of the largest bank robberies of all time. When a small time London car dealer and petty crook is propositioned by an old flame to break into a bank’s safe deposit box room, he has no idea that he is placing himself in the middle of a political war involving pornographers, brothels, drug kingpins, Members of Parliament and MI6.

Entertainment Value: B+
We almost quit watching this movie after just ten minutes because of the content issues, but what kept us watching was my suspicion (it wasn’t in the opening credits) that this had to be based on a true story. As such, I was more willing to endure all the filth. In spite of it all, this was actually quite interesting to watch. It’s always hard to tell with movies “based on a true story,” but the majority of this was believable though it wouldn’t have been so in a purely fictional account. I have now concluded after two non-martial arts Jason Statham movies that his real talent is acting, not martial arts. A pity it took him so many bad action movies to figure that out.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity H, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
Multiple graphic deviant sex scenes and nudity, constant profanity, several brutally violent scenes, and a handful of alcohol and drug references. The movie is truly atrocious on superficial content, and if that stuff bothers you, you will absolutely not enjoy watching this movie. But was it essential to telling the story? More on that in a moment.

Substantial Content: F
On the one hand, one might try to salvage a message here that the most foolish thing you can do is associate with known criminals, even if you don’t abet their crimes. And that message is present indirectly. But since they are successful in the end, it also clearly teaches that crime can pay handsomely. The government is made up of sexual deviants and corrupt intelligence services that cover up for them. Police are mostly in league with the criminals. And since there are no truly decent people in the movie, anyone you bond with is a problem, but you can’t help wanting Statham to succeed at least a little.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
The question here isn’t whether the movie is awful in superficial content, but whether the awfulness is essential to the telling of the movie. I think it probably is. Since it’s never portrayed in a particularly enticing or appealing way, the variety of evil things in this movie serves more to make plain what is going on behind the scenes without offering the audience a temptation to indulge in enjoying any of it…I hope. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s brilliant all the way through. And there are plenty of discussions that it could generate. Also, they made the time period very believable both in set construction and in film quality. It almost felt like the movie was made 30 years ago, but not in a bad way.

Discussion Questions:
~If they had known in advance how everything would turn out but not which of them would survive the experience, how many of Statham’s team would have agreed to try the job? Do you think Statham’s character is glad he did it?
~Who in this movie is happy at the end, if anyone?
~Why do you think powerful people are so prone to sexual deviance and risky behavior? Do you think they are more inclined to it than ordinary folks or do you think they just have more access to it with their money and power?
~With a robbery that was so massive, would you say it was worth it given that it led to the ouster of all the corrupt cops on the London police force?
~How would your perception of this movie have been different if they had also shown all the innocent people who had been victimized by the robbery? Why didn’t they show them?
~Does this movie wind up being an endorsement for crime or a warning against it?
~Do you think this movie could have been made without all the filthy superficial content? Was this at all essential to the movie? Compare a movie like Bonnie and Clyde for contrast.
~Would this movie have been entertaining if it hadn’t been based on a real event?
~Is it better for people to have a falsely rosy picture of their leaders and royalty or to know the grisly truth about them?
~In real life, the criminals were stunned to find many boxes containing child pornography, which they left open for the police to follow up on. How do you explain this behavior, and does it affect your view of the criminals?
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Overall Grade: B/F
I can’t recommend it, but I will say that I felt it was both an entertaining movie and a fascinating historical event. Obviously I wonder to what degree it was faithful to reality.

Definitely, Maybe (2008)


Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, including some frank dialogue, language and smoking.
Length: 105 minutes
Grade: A-C+BA=B+
Budget: $7 million
Box Office: $62 million ($32 U.S., $22 Intl., $8 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Adam Brooks, with his first major directing work, who previously wrote Bridget Jones 2, Wimbledon, and the screenplay for Beloved.
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Elizabeth Banks, And Rachel Weisz.

Summary:
Desperately wanting to understand why her parents are divorcing, Maya coerces her dad into telling her the story of how he and her mom got together. He does this by telling her the tale of the three loves of his life but without telling her in advance which one is her mother.

Entertainment Value: A-
The concept is quite clever, and the overall movie is thoroughly engaging. It’s funny. It’s painful. It’s (mostly) believable. And it’s basically a Jane Austen novel where the main character is a guy in 2008 rather than a woman in Victorian England, hence the heavy presence of Jane Eyre. It’s clever, witty, and very well-written.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence B, Language C, Illegality B
The whole movie is about a series of romances, which means some mild sex scenes and sexual discussion. The premise is a divorcing couple, so there are some adult themes here. There’s drinking and drunkenness. I’d put it on the light end of PG-13. Maybe PG-10.
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Significant Content: B
The movie winds up being essentially anti-divorce emotionally while being pro-divorce rationally. The idea of there being just one true love is mostly here, although getting the timing right between both halves of that equation is more difficult than it should be. Even sad stories can have happy endings. Even if a marriage is a mistake, the children born in that marriage are never a mistake. Hope and happiness are both very important.

Artistic/Thought Value: A-
One of my favorite little byproducts of this movie is the built in premise that children are owed an explanation for divorce. Not just them, of course, but the whole community that affirmed the marriage. I also loved to see a movie where a male lead is portrayed as something other than inept and confused. He’s surely not perfect, but it is the women in this movie who seem fundamentally flawed rather than the man.

Discussion Questions:
~Would you want to know all the sordid details of your parents’ love lives, especially prior to marriage? Is it wise for parents to tell this stuff to their children? What happens when we withhold it and then our kids find out how messy life is? Consider the transparency of the Bible when it comes to the difficulty of life and love.
~Do divorcing couples owe their children an explanation? Do they owe the pastor and witnesses at their wedding? What about their friends now?
~Do you agree with the decision in this movie to divorce? Is it on Biblical grounds?
~What do all the Jane Eyre references mean?
~Do the three different women in this movie represent three different kinds of women as symbols or just three particular women?
~Is marriage more a matter of whom or a matter of when?
~How would any of the characters in this movie been happier or behaved differently if they had been committed to Christ?
~What do you think of Will’s choice in the end? Will this be successful?
~Do you think people would date and couple differently if they thought ahead about needing to tell their own kids everything they’ve ever done?
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Overall Grade: B+
This is a very entertaining romantic comedy mystery. Don’t let Ryan Reynolds fool you. He’s actually quite good here.

Penelope (2008)


Rated: PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language.
Length: 89 minutes
Grade: CBBB=B
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $23 million ($10 US, $10.5 Intl, $2.5 DVD)

Written by: Leslie Caveny, who’s written only for TV shows before, Everybody Loves Raymond, Mad About You, and News Radio. She’s won one primetime Emmy and three nominations.
Directed by: Mark Palansky, in his first full length feature.
Starring: Christina Ricci, Reese Witherspoon, James McAvoy, Catherine O’oHara, and Peter Dinklage.

Summary:
Because she was the first girl born after a witch put a curse on her aristocratic family, Penelope Wilhern was born with a pig snout for a nose and pig ears. To protect her from the media, she is sheltered in her home until her family employs a desperate search for another blueblood who will love her and break the spell.

Warning, I have to talk about the plot in order to evaluate this movie, which will involve spoilers.

Entertainment Value: C At first I was very excited, because this felt like a blend of Pushing Daisies, Mr. Magorium, and Big Fish, all of which I adore. But it just didn’t hold up over the long haul. The plot started to boor me. The behaviors of the characters stopped making sense. In short, I was disappointed in spite of high initial expectations.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol C+, Sexuality A-, Violence B, Language A-, Illegality B+
Originally, I couldn’t figure out why this movie was PG. But the more I thought of it, there are enough things here that this makes sense. There were a few scenes with beer, including Penelope being mildly drunk. The suitors become so frightened at her appearance that they dive out of second-story glass windows, a pregnant woman is said to have killed herself in grief at the beginning, and a midget loses his eye when he gets hit in the face with a spatula. There is a moment of alluded-to infidelity. Kids-in-mind claims there was an S-word in it, but I didn’t hear it. And gambling addiction is one of the key plot elements. Also, some of you will be concerned about witches and a curse as the premise. I would have rated this PG-7.

Significant Content: B
This is essentially a reverse Princess and the Frog story, so it’s going to primarily be about appearances versus reality and about true love. People will go to extremes to look good. Sometimes parents are too protective of their children. People will love you for who you really are if you’ll be straight with them.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
There are some really interesting questions that might be generated from this film. And for a fairy tale, it does a good job of not being either too realistic or being too ridiculous.

Discussion Questions:
~In what ways was Penelope’s nose a blessing to her? Have you ever thought it might be a blessing to be ugly so that you would know whether people love your for who you really are rather than for how you look? If so, how might this insight affect the way you go about dating?
~How important to you is your own physical beauty? How important is it in the person you marry? Is it lasting? What do you think about people having plastic surgery to become more beautiful?
~What do you think of the main message of the movie? Is the key to real beauty simply loving yourself? How much should we care what other people think of us?
~Because Penelope doesn’t have any friends, she reads a lot of books and loves books. What does this do to her development as a person? Would young people be better people if they read more? Is reading useful because it’s a way of hanging out with adults?
~Have you ever had something wrong with you get cured and then missed the problem? Do you think people ever become so attached to their problems that they’d rather keep them and the sympathy they generate rather than fix them?
~Can good looks, intelligence, and family power be a burden as well as being a blessing?
~What do you think of Penelope’s mom in this movie? Is her attitude toward her daughter’s handicap healthy? What could her parents have done better so as to prevent Penelope running away from home?
~What elements of this movie indicate it is a fairy tale? Does it have a moral?
~What is the public’s reaction to Penelope when they finally meet her? Does this surprise you or seem normal to you? What does this say about the value of being a decent person? Would they have loved her so much if she had been just an ordinary decent girl without such a defect?
~Penelope’s mom says at one point, “Those aren’t friends, dear, those are fans.” What is the difference? Do you have friends or fans in your life?

Overall Grade: B
It’s fine, it’s fairly fun, and it’s probably a really useful film to watch with boys and girls on the verge of dating.