Rated: R for some violence, including torture and language. Length: 107 minutes Grade: BDBB+=B Budget: $15 million Box Office: $5 million ($2 U.S., Intl., DVD) Written and Directed by: Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Session 9, and many single episodes of TV: Fear Itself, The Wire, Shield, Fringe) with some writing help from Will Conroy, who has no credits to speak of. Starring: Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara, Eduardo Noriega, and Ben Kingsley.
For a recently married couple, a trip on the Transsiberian train turns from exotic adventure to nightmare when he is left behind at a stop and she is lured into a compromising situation with drug dealers and Russian police.
Entertainment Value: B
One thing I liked about this movie was how mostly unpredictable it was. It would give you enough to possibly come to the right answer, but also enough to mislead you pretty regularly. It’s a very well-acted and innovative thriller built around interesting characters.
Superficial Content: D Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C, Violence D, Language D, Illegal Activity F This is properly rated R for sure. However, the bulk of the rating comes from just a small number of difficult scenes including one of a fairly brutal torture, two murders, and some sexual scenes with no nudity. Language is what you’d expect.
Significant Content: B
The thing to understand about this movie is that it shows a lot of bad things being done, but in every case it also shows real horrific consequences following from what are sometimes fairly minor bad decisions to begin with. Some of the themes include lying and truth-telling, temptation, adventurous personalities and their instability, the conflicts between planning and fate, the importance of planting roots, and being careful whom you trust.
Artistic/Thought Value: B+
As a thriller, this is quite good. But as an art piece, it’s also fairly interesting, especially because it opens with this rather out-of-place scene with a church leader giving his thoughts on how the world is full of unambiguous black/white situations and no gray. Of course, the directors are telling us that this movie intends to be entirely about dubious situations and difficult-to-evaluate decisions. It certainly invites ethical analysis as well as questions about who is really to blame and what would have been better choices to make.
Discussion Questions: ~Carlos encourages Jessie in one scene by telling her that “Nobody will know.” What does this tell you about his view of the world? Is it ever true that nobody will know? Even in this situation, won’t the two of them know? Why exactly is it so wrong to keep a secret like this from your spouse? ~Why does Jessie take the trip with Carlos in the first place? How does he manipulate her and his knowledge of her? How much of the blame for what happens is his, and how much of it is hers? ~What do you make of the fact that what happens after her change of heart is much worse than what would have happened if she had gone through with her initial plan? Whom do you sympathize with in this event? What should have been done afterward? ~Is the world primarily made up of ethical decisions which are black and white or ones which are gray? What is the motive for claiming that the situations are gray? Are there ever legitimately gray situations? Why do modern filmmakers like to emphasize them so much? What does emphasizing them do in our perception of the general difficulty or ease of making the right decision? ~How do you feel about the entirety of the ending? Does it seem like justice has been done or not? ~“Life is a journey, not a destination.” What do you think of this expression? ~“Kill off all my demons, and my angels might die, too.” What does Jessie mean by this? What are her demons? What are her angels? Does it turn out to be true? Do you think that God ever allows us to continue to struggle with a sin because eliminating it would tear out other essential things in us as well? How does this relate to the parable of the wheat and the tares? ~Have you ever taken a trip outside of the United States? Did it make you feel vulnerable? ~What role does Roy’s faith seem to play in his everyday life? Why is his faith included in this movie? ~What do you make of Grinko’s notion that life under the Soviet Union was at least bearable, in spite of all the problems? Do his actions have any justification in your mind? ~The pastor in the beginning says that the way back into God’s grace is by practicing compassion. How is that concept played out in this movie? ~The Bible teaches that “He who walks with the wise will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.” How is this principle represented in this movie? Does bad company corrupt good morals? ~Do you think that Abby would have accepted all the developments in this movie in the end if she had foreseen them?
~“Fear makes you do irrational things.” Have you ever experienced this? If this is correct, how is the Gospel the only true solution to irrationality? ~“With lies you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back.” What does this mean? Is it true?
~Why does Jessie wait so long to tell the truth? What is the movie trying to tell us about her character by this reluctance? Is it possible for a person like her to just tell the truth and come clean? What do her lies cost other people? Is honesty always the best policy? Would it have been here? How might a thriving Christian faith have made things different for her in this movie? Why do you think Roy married her?
~Who in this movie is good, who is evil, and who is on bubble between them? How do the evil and the good differ in their attempts to influence the others?
~If you start from the premise that Jessie represents the Church symbolically in this movie, how does it affect your view of all the other characters here? Do you think this interpretation is intentional? What clues are given that support this interpretation? (Note: this insight bumped the art value of this movie from a B to an A for me.)
Overall Grade: B
This is a good thriller with some disturbing images and many interesting things to discuss.
Rated: R for violence, language and brief sexual material. Length: 107 minutes Grade: DFDD=D- Budget: $5 million, sadly that wasn’t low enough to keep this film from being made. Box Office: $2 million ($0.5 U.S., $0.7 Intl., $0.9 DVD) Written by: Mark Leyner (1st movie), Jeremy Pikser (Bulworth), and John Cusack (High Fidelity, Grosse Point Blank) Directed by: Joshua Seftel (1st movie) Starring: John Cusack, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, Joan Cusack, Dan Aykroyd, and Ben Kingsley.
Summary: In a future where wars are explicitly controlled by corporations, Brand Hauser is a contract assassin tasked with running a trade show in a recently conquered nation, overseeing a pop star’s marriage, and killing a local businessman to facilitate the aims of the evil military-industrial complex. Unfortunately, Hauser finds himself falling in love with a liberal reporter who threatens to expose everything.
Entertainment Value: D I love John Cusack. I love Joan Cusack. I usually enjoy Marisa Tomei. And I’m particularly fond of Ben Kinglsey. But this was awful. I keep hoping someone is going to make another Grosse Point Blank, but I guess it’s not going to happen. This is totally unveiled political commentary ladled sloppily atop a plot that is simply crazy without any meaningful dialogue to keep it all held together.
Superficial Content: F Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F It’s a movie about war, assassination, political evil, out-of-control pop stars, terrorists, and megalomaniacal secret world leaders. What do you think the rating should be. There isn’t any nudity, per se, but there’s enough of everything else to bother anyone who’s botherable.
Significant Content: D War is bad. Haliburton is evil. Dick Cheney is evil. America is the puppet of industrial concerns. On the good side, however, honesty is important, and having to do morally awful things will incapacitate you psychologically in the long run if it doesn’t destroy you. Even if you’re an assassin, you can eventually change through the power of love. Cue Huey Lewis.
Artistic/Thought Value: D Aside from all the other problems, this movie suffered the death of a hundred interesting ideas all sloppily thrown together without any real regard for the overall effect. Ad space on tanks. Godstar. Popeye’s. Hero images for the viceroy. It’s all somewhat clever, but a hundred little clevernesses don’t make a good foundation for an entire movie without a structure.
Discussion Questions: ~“Business is the uniquely human response to a moral or cosmic crisis.” What do you think of this statement? ~“The problem is you’re a moralist. War is the improvement of investment climates by other means.” What do you think of this statement? ~Cusack tells Tomei that it must be nice for her to be able to be totally honest, but she responds that it costs her influence and friends. Have you ever been tempted to lie to keep a position or people in your life? How is honesty liberating? ~Why does Hauser have his psychological difficulties? ~Is this movie articulating any significant political commentary, or is it just expressing conspiratorial and venomous frustration? . Overall Grade: D- I expect better from John Cusack and Ben Kingsley, much better.
Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and a drug reference. Length: 99 minutes Grade: B+B-BC=B+ Budget: $30 million Box Office: $83 million (60 U.S., 3 Intl., 20 DVD)
Written and Directed by: Michael McCullers, a former writer for SNL whose only other notable movie is Austin Powers in Goldmember, if you actually consider that notable, that is. Starring: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Greg Kinnear, Dax Shepard, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Martin, and Maura Tierney.
Kate is a successful but aging health food company exec who discovers that her uterus won’t allow her to have children of her own. So she decides to have her eggs implanted in a birth mother who then tries to get as much money from her even though the implantation didn’t work.
Entertainment Value: B+
Because this was such a product of SNL minds, including Amy Poehler, I did not have high expectations. But this was thoroughly entertaining, funny, moderately unpredictable, and interesting even on other levels. If you don’t mind the fact that Angie (Poehler’s character) is totally implausible (both too smart and too dumb, both too wicked and too decent, etc.) and just let it be what it’s gonna be, it works.
Superficial Content: B-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B, Language C, Illegality B
Again, I was worried that this would be rife with unsavory content, but I was pleasantly disappointed. Everything unsavory is implied rather than shown, and it isn’t even all that much. The movie is about surrogacy, so obviously sex content is present, including a variety of things that are discussed at the birthing classes. There are many mid-color jokes and enough crude language to justify the PG-13. A man’s car is vandalized by the ladies. Also, there is one scene with a lot of alcohol being consumed at a dance club. Still, I think this is on the moderate end of PG, even though this is the right rating. It’s certainly not an “almost R” PG-13.
Significant Content: B
Since the whole movie is about the desire of a woman to have a child of her own, this is definitely pro-life, which must count for a lot these days. Some other themes here include the value of honesty, the possibility of redemption after having done wrong, the need for friendship, and the eminent mockability of health food outfits and people. Time is love, not money. When women climb the corporate ladder, they often discover they’ve given up something else more valuable along the way. One thing that bothered me was that the idea of a single, professional woman trying to have a child was never even questioned in terms of the needs of the child.
Artistic/Thought Value: C
I think for most people this winds up primarily working just as a comedy and not so much as a thinker. Nonetheless, there are some really good insights to be gleaned here about maternal impulses, honesty, and the extremes our society has gone to in order to make it possible for women to have both a career and children, or at least one child.
Discussion Questions: ~Kate clearly is aware that she has traded having a family for corporate success. Do you think she regrets this? Even after she has a baby, is she going to be able to really invest in it since she already knows she’ll use a nanny? Does it seem weird that she's so interested in the right nutrition for the child's development but doesn't seem to give any thought to the post-birth environmental and relational ideals for the child? Do you think Kate will be a good mother? What about Angie? ~Do you think women can be fulfilled by professional accomplishments without children usually? What message about this is our culture sending women? ~What do you think of Chaffee Bicknell’s analogy of outsourcing for a womb and of surrogacy just being a nanny before the child is born? What unique ethical issues does surrogacy raise? Could you ever be a surrogate? Would you want to be? Could you ever use one? Should single people be trying to have children at all? ~Do the characters in this movie who lie wind up suffering for their lies? Are there consequences to their bad behavior? ~How many of your friends are like you and how many of them are very different from you? To what degree is dissimilarity with friends an indicator of healthiness in a person? How do the needs to forgive and be humble factor into making relationships with different people possible? ~Angie says that Kate is a good person and it’s not right to pair up with another good person because that would diminish the uniqueness of her contribution to the relationship. What do you think of this? Is this principle a theme of this movie? ~At the end, Steve Martin says that time is love, not money. How true is this?
Overall Grade: B+
Enjoyable and even fairly meaningful, even though it’s not likely anyone will watch it for that reason.
Rated: PG-13 for some rude humor, action violence and language. Length: 110 minutes Grade: BCCC=B Budget: $80 million Box Office: $230 million (130 U.S., 100 Intl., DVD)
Written by: Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, who worked together on Failure to Launch and some television episodes of Coach, Tracy Morgan Show, and the new Outer Limits. Matt Ember was a consulting producer for the TV show Titus. Directed by: Peter Segal, who made The Longest Yard, 50 First Dates, Anger Management, My Fellow Americans, Nutty Professor 2, Naked Gun 33 1/3, and Tommy Boy. Starring: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, with appearances by David Koechner, James Caan, Bill Murray, Patrick Warburton, and Masi Oka.
After a devastating attack on the headquarters of the super-secret spy agency Control, Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 head off to find the culprits at KAOS and prevent them from launching a major nuclear attack against the United States. At least I think that was the premise. I didn’t really notice so much. It’s not exactly a plot-driven concept.
Entertainment Value: B
I grew up watching Get Smart and loving it, and so this worried me, the way a live action remake of Underdog worried me. But I was pretty pleased with the overall effort here. It’s certainly quite funny. Carell is a comic genius. They did plenty of homage to the old show’s peculiar quirks and redundancies while also changing Max’s character significantly. I liked the way they embedded their own running jokes (such as about who got which spy gadget). It’s fun and very entertaining, which cannot be said about the ridiculously unentertaining Bruce and Lloyd spinoff.
Superficial Content: C Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language C, Illegal Activity C Some alcohol consumption and smoking. There is fairly constant PG+ language (including some F-imitations), and there are more than enough sexual references to make this PG10+ at least. The violence probably justifies the PG-13, with explosions and fights and people being killed. There are also some very hilarious slapstick violence episodes, especially on involving a miniature crossbow.
Significant Content: C
Even villains are real people, too, usually. And if you can find a way to break through to that part of them, you might turn them to your side eventually. Be careful whom you trust. The guy who seems too good to be true might be. Good is good, and evil is evil. Honor, loyalty, and strength are all valued.
Artistic/Thought Value: C
This isn’t a movie about thought value. Ironic, right?
Discussion Questions: ~What do you think about Max’s idea that people who do evil aren’t necessarily evil in their core. They may be ordinary, decent people who just work for the wrong side? How does this perspective affect how you see your opponents in war? Why do we prefer to view our enemies as evil? How does this make things easier for us? Is Max’s perspective a Christian one? ~Why are we so protective of things we have cherished in the past that get remade later? ~Many of the classic beloved television shows were campy and lovable for that fact. Why aren’t campy shows made like this today? Or are they? Are we too cynical and sophisticated to enjoy silly stuff?
Overall Grade: B
Fun, funny, and a faithful update to the classic TV show. And, no, the guy who plays Dalip is not the guy who played Jaws in Moonraker, but, yes, Ken Davitian was Borat’s sidekick, just in case you were wondering.
Rated: PG for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language and momentary smoking. Length: 98 minutes Grade: CBCC=C Budget: $8.5 million Box Office: $68 million (35 U.S., 32 Intl.) Written by: Henry Gilroy, who has written for a lot of animated kids TV stuff, such as the Clone Wars series, Bionicle, Lilo and Stitch, Batman and the Tick. Directed by: Dave Filoni, with his first movie. Starring: The voices of no one you’ve heard of except Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, and Christopher Lee.
Summary: Somewhere in time between Star Wars 2 and 3, Anakin is assigned a young female Padawan learner, who accompanies him on a mission to rescue the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hut so that the Republic can use the Hut’s outlying space routes for troop movements in their fight against the separatists.
Entertainment Value: C And I feel pretty generous at that. If you fell in love with Batman from the Dark Knight and Batman Begins and then hoped to reproduce that joy by watching the Saturday morning cartoon series, you’d be very disappointed. Same thing here. This is basically a cheap knock-off of Star Wars with the wrong voices, the wrong music, and the wrong basic content. Plus the characters are all simple and uninteresting. But George Lucas is presiding, so it’s not awful. I had it explained to me this way: imagine a 90 minute movie with 82 minutes of battle scenes and 8 minutes of dialogue and transition. Pretty much. Nonetheless, who can really dislike light sabers, Jedi, and spaceships? This is fake steak with a similar flavor but no real nutritional value. How can you start a Star Wars movie without 20th Century Fox music?
Superficial Content: B Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A, Illegal Activity A Uh, there’s animated warfare, and animated killing of droids and faceless clone stormtroopers. I think the Huts smoke. I can’t believe that made it into the rating. I have no idea what the brief language was. Perhaps, “Scum?”
Significant Content: C Good and evil are two sides and opposed to each other. Violence solves problems. If you’re reckless and headstrong, it’s okay so long as you have mad Jedi skills. Lying is bad. Teams are better than working solo. There’s surprisingly little “Star Wars stuff” like The Force and personal development here.
Artistic/Thought Value: C It’s pretty and shiny, but that’s about all. If you’re expecting a substantial full-length Star Wars film here, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting a glorified Saturday morning cartoon here, you’ll be satisfied. If you were frustrated that the epic clone wars battles never got made into movies because neither 2 nor 3 really showed them, you might find this more satisfying. I found myself annoyed that they did this in a cartoon instead of a real movie, but the lack of non-action content surely explains that decision, too. I particularly found the mashed together introduction hard to follow, besides the fact that there was no scrolling introduction like I’m used to.
Discussion Questions: ~Does Ahsoka seem to demonstrate the characteristics of a Jedi, even of a Jedi Padawan? ~If you loved the Star Wars movies, are you glad that this was made, or does it annoy you? ~If you had never known Star Wars, could you have understood this movie? Would you have liked it more or less? ~Have you ever been asked to take an apprentice or teach someone? Have you ever been an apprentice? What was it like? Would the apprentice system make more sense for the church to use than its current model of discipleship, whatever that may be? ~Which characters show humility, patience, peace? ~Have you ever been misled or deceived by someone who was trying to use you or harm you? How did you eventually find out? How did that affect your ability to trust other people? ~What is this movie trying to say about teamwork and being willing to let someone else do a task with you? . Overall Grade: C I kind of wish I could justify giving it a lower grade, but I think that a C is fair. Now go away, kid, you bother me.
Rated: G Length: 101 minutes Grade: B+AAA=A Budget: $10 million Box Office: $17.6 million (All U.S.) Written by: Ann Peacock adapted this (she did the first Narnia screenplay) from the Valerie Tripp novel. Directed by: Patricia Rozema, whose only previous notable movie was the excellent Mansfield Park. Starring: Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Wallace Shawn, Max Thieriot, Willow Smith, Glenne Headly, Zach Mills, Joan Cusack, and Stanley Tucci.
Summary: During the worst parts of the Great Depression, one family struggles to make ends meet by taking in boarders as their prospects decline. The daughter aspires to be a newspaper journalist, and she befriends some hobos at a time when hobos are blamed for a crime spree.
Entertainment Value: B+ I really liked this, but not quite to the A level. I think what hindered me was that I was watching it with my son, and I worried that some of the events might concern him, especially given the current economic woes. Also, this is the first movie I can remember where he actually lost interest and didn’t care about what happened. So I can’t grade it an A. Nonetheless, the plot, the acting, and the basic idea here all have a Little House on the Prairie meets Frank Capra feel that I did enjoy.
Superficial Content: A Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A- , Language A, Illegality A-+A guy gets hit in the head with a shovel. There is a burglary depicted, but it is clearly depicted as a bad thing. That’s it. Again, G is always G whenever it’s a live action movie.
Significant Content: A Family is more important than economic issues. Love involves sacrifice. Hard times demand difficult decisions. All people are people, and most people are pretty decent. Beware the temptation to blame problems on outsiders or the poor. Appearances can be deceiving. Perseverance is a virtue, as is honesty. It’s important not to let circumstances beat us. Don’t judge people based on their economic situation.
Artistic/Thought Value: A Simple and elegant. That’s what I loved about this. It was clearly representing a viewpoint, but by doing so in an archaic setting, it wasn’t overdone. It was a very believable scenario, and one that brought the Depression home in a way that made it seem much more real to me than any of the archive footage I’ve seen ever did.
Discussion Questions: ~Kit complains to her dad that, “We’re not okay if we’re not together” as a family. Have you ever been separated from a parent? What do you think life is like for children of people in the military? Kit keeps trying to get her articles published. What does she learn in this process about the media? What did she learn from getting rejected? Have you ever been rejected in something you were trying to do? What did you learn from that experience? ~Kit’s dad says, “Don’t let it beat you, kid.” Have you ever found yourself getting angry at a thing or a circumstance? Why is it important to not let these frustrations beat us? How can you overcome those feelings of anger? ~The hobos are portrayed as sharing with each other and donating things to each other. Does it seem to you that people are more generous when they’re poor or when they’re rich? How do pride, greed, and gratitude factor into this? ~Hobos are portrayed as the unjust scapegoats for many problems in the Depression. Who are the modern equivalent of the hobos? Can you think of other cultures or countries and how they treated outsiders in history? Have Christians ever been the scapegoats? What happens when people blame outsiders? What doesn’t happen with regards to the real sources of the problems they’re experiencing? ~The people who know Will and County can see with their own eyes that the two are hard-working, decent, and honest. What drives them to ignore this data and suspect them of a crime? Why is prejudice so powerful? ~The newspaper guys tells Kit, “Sometimes you gotta play the tune your audience wants to hear.” What does he mean? What obligations do newspapers and media have other than to simply turn a profit? . Overall Grade: A Cute. Interesting. I definitely liked it. Lots of good teaching moments. Norma Rockwell would be proud.
Rated: PG for intense adventure action and some scary moments. Length: 92 minutes Grade: AB+NGNG=A Budget: $60 million Box Office: $204 million (101 U.S., 103 Intl)
Written by: Uh, Jules Verne, of course. With some updating by Michael Weiss (Butterfly Effect 2, Death Train, and I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer), and the team of Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (Nim’s Island, Little Manhattan, and Wimbledon) Directed by: Eric Brevig, with his first major movie, but he’s done visual effects on a ton of stuff (The Island, The Village, The Day After Tomorrow, The Hunted, Pearl Harbor, Wild Wild West, Men In Black, Total Recall, Hook, The Abyss) so he knows how to make things look cool. Starring: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, and Anita Briem.
Just as his program is about to be shut down, seismologist Trevor Anderson is on the verge of a breakthrough regarding volcanic tunnels to the center of the earth. With his teenage nephew in tow, he heads to Iceland, where they eventually find themselves retracing the path of the famous Jules Verne novel, which was apparently not a work of fiction after all.
Entertainment Value: A
I was worried about what this might turn out to be, mostly because the original movie is such a classic. But in the end, it became a tremendous homage to the original and the book precisely because it essentially became a remake without having to suffer the guilt of being a remake. The action is excellent. The effects are cool. The banter is fun. And I can wholeheartedly recommend this movie for what it is: a message-free science-fiction romp. There isn’t even the slightest hint of what could have been easily and wrongly included: global warming. Bravo, movie-makers with restraint. Bravo.
Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A, Illegality A There are certainly some intense action sequences here (again, just like the original), involving people apparently being killed, volcanic activity, dinosaurs attacking people, and what the MPAA likes to call “peril.” We decided not to let Spencer watch it, but I’m sure he would love it. Call it PG-6 for keeping the kiddies from being too scared. Not only is this a fun movie, it’s a fun, CLEAN movie! What more could you want?
Significant Content: NG (No grade)
There is no significant content here. It’s a cartoon. It’s an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Seriously. No messages. Think I’m exaggerating? Then email me after you’ve seen it with what you think the messages are.
Artistic/Thought Value: NG (No grade)
Not because it’s not artistic, but because there’s nothing of thought worth mentioning here. This isn’t art. It’s entertainment. Giving it an art grade would be misleading and inappropriate. Didn’t you hear me when I said this was all about fun?
Discussion Questions: ~Do you think that young people these days have a sense of adventure? Are their heroes adventure-seekers? What role did adventure heroes play in American culture in the past? Is this position inhabited by anyone today? Compare the persona of an X-Games contestant with the Lone Ranger and Indiana Jones.
~Do men uniquely need/seek adventure? Has our culture moved away from this because we are more concerned about safety, or has our over-emphasis on safety been the result of a move away from adventure stories? ~Does this movie make you want to read science-fiction works like those by Verne or Burroughs? Do you think making movies like this encourages other kids to go read the books? ~What’s the coolest place you can think of exploring/adventuring?
Overall Grade: A
Pure and total fun. I really enjoyed it. Finally I get to give a total thumbs-up to a Walden Media movie. My only regret here was that I didn’t get to see it in 3-D. Oh, well. One can’t have everything all the time.