Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)

Rated: PG for mild action and brief language
Length: 105 minutes
Grade: CB+CC=C
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $452 million (177 U.S., 235 Intl., 50-est-DVD)

Written by: Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Co-Writers of Reno 911, Balls of Fury, Night at the Museum, The Pacifier, and Taxi)
Directed by: Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen, Just Married, and Big Fat Liar)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, and Robin Williams, with Christopher Guest, Jonah Hill, and Ricky Gervais.

The magical comes-to-life museum from the first movie has come alive again, only this time a resurrected Pharaoh and his egomaniacal Axis of Evil (Al Capone, Ivan the Terrible, and Napoleon Bonaparte) want to conquer the world with the dark arts of the Tablet of Ahkmenrah. Thankfully, Larry-the-guard-turned-inventor-slash-infomercial-king is there to fight them off with the help of Ameila Earhart and his old friends.

Entertainment Value: C
This movie had moments of hilarity, mostly in the dialogue between Stiller and Jonah Hill or in Hank Azariah’s monologues (surely written by Lennon). But the rest of it was yet another example of patchwork plot with lots of expensive effects thrown on top in an effort to hide the mystery meat under enough gravy that kids will be entertained into enjoying it multiple times. This did not work. In what is perhaps the most devastating commentary possible: my boys were bored by it. But who am I to argue with the $400+ million box office? I’m Andrew Tallman, that’s who!

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence B+, Language B+
There were a couple of semi-scary scenes, but “semi-“scary is the important bit. At best, this is slapstick humor and fun action, like in the Air and Space Museum. I think there were two D-words in the movie, although I should warn you the previews actually have two donkey A-synonyms. But mostly it’s almost a G movie. As I said, our kids (3 and 5) watched it.

Significant Content: C
It’s important to do something you love rather than something that makes you money. History is fun, and “comes to life” with a little imagination rather than with a little modern technology. Dictators are dumb. Friendships really matter. And technology is bad because it makes people love the next big distraction rather than a less heavily marketed past good thing.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
The trick to writing comedy is to make jokes you don’t have to explain and to then trust that they don’t need explaining. In this movie, the jokes were either bad because they needed explaining or they were good ones ruined with clumsy added explanations. Plot first. Plot first. Plot first. Then add big effects. How many times do I have to repeat this message?

Discussion Questions:
~This movie portrays various historical tyrants as being buffoons and semi-intelligent. How likely is it that Napoleon or Ivan the Terrible were such dimwits? What about General Custer?
~Are cell phones really as annoying as this movie makes out? How are cell phones used in this movie as a symbol of modern society?
~Are people losing their imagination and their patience with old-fashioned things like museum displays? Is a movie with all these effects and such a poor plot really a good vehicle for making that argument?
Is it true that the only valid reason to do something is because you love it? Why do you think this idea is so fashionable today? Larry has made millions by selling people seemingly trivial inventions, but if millions of people are paying him for those, are they really not making lives better off? Is the “do what you love rather than what you can make money at” idea anti-capitalist? Is it disrespectful to the people who would pay money for something?
~If you could change anything about our society so as to improve children’s imagination, what would you do?
Overall Grade: C
I really don’t have any good ideas about how to make this better, but my wife and my kids and I were all basically bored by it.

Terminator 4: Salvation (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and language.
Length: 115 minutes
Grade: CCCD=C
Budget: $200 million
Box Office: $407 million (125 U.S., 247 Intl., 35-est-DVD)

Written by: John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Co-writers of Primeval, Catwoman, Terminator 3, The Game, and The Net).
Directed by: McG (We Are Marshall, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Charlie’s Angels)
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, and Michael Ironside.

John Connor is an officer in the resistance against the machines, who must try to find and save his father, Kyle Reese, and decide what to do with a cyborg who believes he’s actually human.

Entertainment Value: C
Begin by understanding just how much I love the Terminator universe. I’ve read the book. I’ve seen all the movies and the TV series. I even own most of the comic book adaptations of Terminator. So, needless to say, I was excited to see this movie. But all that expectant joy turned to despair as a virtually plot-free movie based on a silly hypothesis took the future world I love and reduced it to incoherent and mind-numbingly senseless big action sequences. John Connor survives two helicopter crashes, one (possibly two) nuclear blasts, and is in the fight of his life with a rifle currently in existence (the HK416) instead of a plasma rifle against machines more advanced than the CSM-101 just barely being developed at the end of the movie? Can I buy one ounce of consistency? I spent the whole movie trying to figure out the rules and the place of this movie in the Terminator universe. And I never got a good answer.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence C, Language C
This movie is full of violence and action. It’s rightly PG-13 for that alone. Language was a handful of medium profanities, and one barely-audible F-word, also just right with PG-13 these days. A CGI Arnold is shown partially naked at the end. Am I the only one who thinks it’s weird for a whole franchise to opt for going from R to PG-13 ratings?

Significant Content: C
Machines we create to serve us can become dangerous if we allow them to become self-aware. Whenever we are engaged in a fight to preserve either humanity or civilization, we must fight in such a way that we don’t lose either in the process of defending them. The only fate we have is what we make for ourselves. Real humanity is in how you behave, not in what you’re made of.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Here’s the basic problem. McG doesn’t understand the nature of science fiction. The idea and the story come first and are the basis of everything. Then, creating a coherent world around the novel premises of the story gives you a place to insert special effects, which are completely secondary to everything else. McG suffers from Michael Bay syndrome: “If you spend money, you’ll make a big, exciting movie.” No. You’ll make a mediocre action-fest that disappoints those who love the tradition which bore it. I sure hope when James Cameron returns for T5, all this is remedied. But all that being said, I suspect that if this had simply been a free-standing movie without being in the Terminator series, it might have been okay. It also shows the difference between someone making a sequel with his own signature because he loves the originals (like Star Trek) and someone remaking it in his own image while pandering to loyal fans with the insertion of a few hackneyed homages.

Discussion Questions:
~Sarah counsels her son to be careful in fighting Skynet because the machines will use his own humanity against him. Is being human a weakness? In this movie, what things differentiate the humans and the machines?
~John tells his followers that they must refuse to fight like machines because the way we fight makes all the difference to whether we should bother fighting in the first place. How are the rules of warfare important? Is this movie meant to be a commentary on the current conflict with terrorists?
~One of the themes in this movie is trust. How do you decide whom to trust?
~John Connor says there’s no fate but what we make. Do you agree?
~There is an old concept called a Turing Test, in which a person engages with a person and a machine in a conversation, and if he cannot tell which one is which, then the machine is intelligent. How does that idea play out in this movie? What aspects of Marcus’s behavior would you cite to show that he is a human? What aspects that he is not? Is the movie right that the capacity for self-sacrifice is the key identifier of humanity? What about free choice? Does Marcus have freedom, or is he just following his programming? What do you think of his notion of a “second chance?”
~One of the most recurrent themes in science fiction is the danger of beings we create taking over for us (The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, I Robot, Blade Runner, 2001 A Space Odyssey are modern examples, but the theme goes back to Frankenstein, Modern Times, and Metropolis). Why do we find this theme so appealing to explore? Do you think this could actually happen? Do we seem to be heeding the warnings?
Overall Grade: C
Even though it’s opening day for Avatar, I already don’t like it because that project kept James Cameron from making this movie, as he should have.

Swing Vote (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for language.
Length: 120 minutes
Grade: DD-DC=D
Budget: $21 million
Box Office: $24 million (16 U.S., 1 Intl., 7 DVD)

Written by: Jason Richman (Bangkok Dangerous and Bad Company) and Joshua Michael Stern (Nothing noteworthy).
Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern (Nothing noteworthy).
Starring: Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Lane, with George Lopez, Judge Reinhold, Mare Winningham, Willie Nelson, and talking heads like Ariana Huffington, Larry King, Bill Maher, James Carville, Tucker Carlson, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Chris Matthews.

The daughter of a drunk tries to vote for her father, but a power outage causes the ballot to get stuck. This turns out to be the decisive vote in the Presidential election, and chaos comes to town as the candidates try to persuade him to vote for them.

Entertainment Value: D
This is an example of a movie that could-have-been. Could have been funny. Could have been moving. Could have been persuasive. Could have been entertaining. It’s a total mishmash of ethical questions and a vision of the average American as incompetent that just winds up falling under the weight of it’s own self-importance. Sort of like liberal radio made for the big screen. It saddens me because it really could have been something quite good. It wasn’t.

Superficial Content: D-
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language D
I would have given this an R rating for just the language alone. But apparently the rule is: one F-word and any amount of other profanity is acceptable. Seriously. I don’t normally count, but I had to in this case just to keep it interesting. No less than 15 S-words and about 10-15 other medium profanity. Why? For no reason whatsoever. Also, the main character is continually drinking or drunk and the mother is a former drug-user with mental problems. Adult themes are pretty strong in this movie, which I’m surprised isn’t mentioned in the ratings.

Significant Content: D
Okay, excuse my language in advance, but the only way to describe the message of this movie is as follows. Americans are ignorant rubes, journalists are corpse-feeing vultures, and politicians are whores. And when the electorate are idiots, democracy just can’t work because the leaders will either cater to their lunatic demands or simply lie to them, both of which are bad. America should be embarrassed of itself. Oh, yeah, and one vote matters…just be sure you vote with your heart.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
The beautiful irony of this movie is that while it intends on the one hand to portray the greedy slime-ball characteristics of journalists and politicians, it has sold product placements every ten seconds within the movie itself. Budweiser and Bass Pro Shops are primary sponsors, but Ritz crackers, Old Spice, and Dodge get honorable mentions as well. Aside from this irony, the problem here is a lot the same as the problem with last year’s An American Carol (also with Kelsey Grammer). The trick in movies (and art in general) is to make your point in a way that the audience enjoys seeing you make it and feels like you’ve done so in an innovative and meaningful way. Instead, this movie just seeks to portray every aspect of America as crashing. In short, the root of this movie is contempt for rather than love and respect for American politics. That’s why all the talking heads were liberals (with a squishy Tucker Carlson). There’s just anger and frustration here, without the necessary humility which makes space for humor and self-mockery. I will say this, the best moment in the film is seeing the candidates reverse their long-standing positions, culminating in Dennis Hopper (a pro-choice Democrat) doing an ad which entails children on a playground exploding out of existence to represent the evil of abortion.

Discussion Questions:
~On a 1-10 scale, where a 10 views current politicians as they are portrayed in this movie and a 1 as if they are all virtuous truth-tellers, where do you generally think politicians are? Can you imagine anything worse than the situation this movie portrays? What about dictators?
~Do you think politicians exploit the issues voters care about by promising to work on them but then blaming their opponents for the inability to get things changed? Do you think politicians change their positions merely for electoral gains? How would you verify such suspicions?
~It’s long been held that the precondition of any Republic (representative democracy) lasting is educated, concerned, decent people. What happens when the people fail to be this? Are Americans as bad as this movie portrays?
~This movie is highly critical of journalists who choose money, ratings, and getting the scoop over honor and decency. How much faith do you have in modern journalists?
~Given that the entire premise of this movie is a felony (voter fraud) and then covering that felony up (conspiracy and abetting after the fact), what do you think of the decision to not tell the truth?
~Molly desperately wants a father she can be proud of and respect. What things does she do to try to make this happen? How should she have reacted to having such a louse s a father? What is the Biblical instruction here? Have you ever been disappointed in your parents? How did you handle it? Have you ever felt like you needed to be the parent in your relationship with them? What sort of effects would that have on someone?
~Looking at Molly’s parents, does her character seem a very likely outcome of their relationship?
~The movie clearly wants Americans to be embarrassed of our political ignorance and to reform our ways. Do you think it is effective at persuading us to repent in this way?
~The final moments of the film include a question asking, essentially, “If America is so great, why can’t we afford to live here?” How would you answer such a question?
~If you were making this movie with these themes and purposes, how would you have made it differently?
It’s been said that if you aren’t a liberal before you’re 30, you have no heart, but if you’re still a liberal after that, you have no mind. What do you think?
~Do you believe that every vote counts? Do you think it’s arrogant to say, “I won’t vote because my vote won’t be the decisive one?”
~If you had your preference, would someone like Bud be allowed to vote? If you could have your way, what would you do to improve the quality of the American voter?
Overall Grade: D
A movie that could-have-been about how politics and journalism should-have-been. It’s nice to see naïve optimism and civic responsibility win in the end, but calling this heavy-handed and unproductively depressing would be an understatement.

Funny People (2008)

Rated: R for Judd Apatow. Or, to be more specific, for language and crude sexual humor throughout, and some sexuality.
Length: 146 long, long minutes.
Grade: DHDD=F
Budget: $75 million
Box Office: $62 million (52 U.S., 10 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, 40 Year-Old Virgin) (He also wrote Pineapple Express, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Walk Hard, and Fun with Dick and Jane; and he produced Year One, Step Brothers, Drillbit Taylor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad, Talladega Nights, Kicking & Screaming, Anchorman.)
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill, and (rather tellingly) Maude and Iris Apatow.

A famous comedian thinks he’s going to die, hires a struggling comic as a joke-writing assistant, changes his life, entices his remarried ex-wife to sleep with him, and then reverts to who he was before.

Entertainment Value: D
There are some moments of comedy in the movie. But I have created a new rule: If any movie has Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler in it or has been touched in any way by Judd Apatow, I will not watch it. Simply put, even the ones that verge on being funny aren’t worth the vulgarity, and most of them aren’t funny. I know this means I’ll miss the occasional Knocked Up or Talladega Nights, but it also means I won’t have to endure all the rest of the trash he produces. You know it’s gotta be pretty awful when even Andrew Tallman can’t stomach watching it anymore.

Superficial Content: H
Drugs/Alcohol F, Sex/Nudity F, Violence C, Language H
I don’t really need to explain this, do I? It’s atrocious, and it should definitely be rated NC-17, if not X. What’s the real point of saying 17 with an adult, 17 only, and 18? This rating system is ridiculous. In what can only be described as a stunning triumph of vulgarity, this movie actually had more F-words per minute than Notorious (151 according to Kidz-in-Mind. And that’s not even counting over 100 other FCC violations. Seriously. As one caller recently encouraged me to say: Just don’t watch this. It’s horrible.

Significant Content: D
I’m not going to bother reviewing it any longer.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
I’m not going to bother reviewing it any longer.

Discussion Questions:
~Seriously…I’m not going to bother reviewing it any longer.
Overall Grade: F
Under no circumstances should you see this movie. Nor should you ever watch another Judd Apatow movie. He’s the Larry Flynt of comedy films. Just consider what sort of person you have to be to allow your own wife and daughters (8 and 11) to star in a movie like this (and also Knocked Up when they were 6 and 9). Now is that the guy whose movies you want to watch? No longer for me.

Henry Poole Is Here (2008)

Rated: PG for thematic elements and some language.
Length: 99 minutes
Grade: BB+AA=A-
Budget: Unknown, maybe $15-20 million
Box Office: $2 million (2 U.S.)

Written by: Albert Torres (First script)
Directed by: Mark Pellington (Mothman Prophecies, Arlington Road)
Starring: Luke Wilson, Radha Mitchell, Adriana Barraza, George Lopez, and Morgan Lily.
Summary: A mysterious and private man buys a house in the neighborhood of his youth and then suffers the indignity of his Catholic neighbor believing the face of Christ is appearing on his exterior wall, which leads to much undue attention.

Entertainment Value: B
This is slow, almost painfully slow, and if I hadn’t had it recommended highly to me by a good friend, I might not even have watched the whole thing. But the movie itself is wonderful, although I totally understand why it only m ade 2 million. It didn’t have a lot of comic moments, it’s about some very serious subjects, and (this is the most important part) the Christian community never knew this film existed so as to support it as they should have.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A, Language B
Henry is an alcoholic, which is a theme in the movie. Otherwise, the only issues here ware with some cursing, particularly religious cursing. PG is clearly the right rating for this movie with adult themes, but this is about as light a PG as you can get. Kids will neither enjoy nor understand this, so it’s more for older audiences anyhow. But there’s no one who’s old enough to benefit from this movie who shouldn’t be allowed to see it.

Significant Content: A (almost an A+)
Okay, here’s the thing, this is a movie about skepticism versus faith wrapped around a plot which is profoundly based on the Gospel. And, as you will suspect, faith wins in the end, not by persuading skepticism of the truth, but by overwhelming skepticism with true Christian redemption and healing. I hesitate to tell you more, only because I want you to see it for yourselves.

Artistic/Thought Value: A (almost an A+)
The only thing keeping this from an A+ was the slightly low entertainment value, meaning that it’s just a bit too difficult to approach and endure all the way until the payoff. If they had found a way to entice us a bit more, I’d give it an A+. Even so, this is a brilliantly crafted movie which slowly develops and reveals even its own premise. And the clash between good-neighbor-atheist and intrusive-but-lovable-Catholic is brilliantly played out.

Discussion Questions:
~Everything Henry does seems to scream that he wants to be left alone. How is he representative of people in our modern culture? What is Christ’s answer to such people?
~Why does Millie tape record conversations? What symbolism is this being used to represent? How is her pain a reinforcement of the condition of our culture?
~What image of clergy is represented here? What does this movie seem to be saying about Catholicism? If Henry is reluctant to believe this seemingly miraculous event, how do you think Protestants who believe in miracles but are otherwise anti-Catholic (Pentecostals, e.g.) will receive this movie?
~What aspects of Henry’s strange behavior eventually make sense to you? Why doesn’t he negotiate the house price? Why doesn’t he want it fixed up? Why do we keep seeing his car with the unrepaired broken windows?
~Why is Henry so motivated to not believe in the miracle? Why is Esperanza so willing to believe in it? What is the driving force behind his skepticism?
~Can you identify some events in your life that you choose to interpret as evidence of God’s activity but which could be interpreted by someone else differently? Are there any which you have refused to acknowledge as coming from God?
~Esperanza is presented as nosy, gossipy, and moderately obnoxious but still very loving and wise. Which sort of neighbors would you rather have, ones like her or ones like Henry? Which sort of neighbor does our culture seem to hold up as an ideal? Would it be unfair to call him a libertarian?
~In how many ways can you compare the final sequence of events with the actual Gospel of Jesus Christ? Is this a Calvinistic movie? What are the effects on people and society which this incursion of Christ effects?
~At one point, Henry tells Esperanza that the only reason she wants him to believe is because that would tend to reduce her own deeply hidden fears that her faith isn’t actually right. He finds her professions to be a power play and a desperate effort to suppress her own doubts. What do you think of these comments? What is the difference between a person who is actually sure of his faiths and someone who wants to believe but has some real doubts?
~If God is really behind the miracle, what is His plan? Are you saddened by the seemingly temporary nature of His activity?
~One of the questions the movie asks is whether hope can save you. What does the movie seem to be saying? What do you say?
~What is the function of the title? Why do people create graffiti? Is there any way to establish our permanence as beings outside of a relationship with God?
~Why do you think the director refuses to give us (the audience) a clear shot of the image? What other elements of frustration from lack of explanations or access to information are used in this movie? What is their purpose?
~Does it affect your view of this movie to know that the director lost his wife in a sudden tragedy and had to care for his toddler girl by himself?

Overall Grade: A-
Just as my friend said, this is a wonderful movie. If you watch it and don’t quite see why I’d say so, feel free to email me. I’ve avoided giving away some insights in this review specifically because I didn’t want to spoil the plot of the movie for you.

Four Christmases (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for some sexual humor and language.
Length: 88 minutes
Grade: A-C-AA=A-
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $164 million (120 U.S., 44 Intl.)

Written by: Matt Allen and Caleb Wilson (First script for both) and Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (co-writers of The Hangover and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past)
Directed by: Seth Gordon (Some comedy TV and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters)
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Jon Favreau, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Kristin Chenowith, and Tim McGraw. (Perhaps that absurdly high 80 million went to some of these folks?)

Planning to lie to their families and visit Fiji for the holidays, the poster-couple for modernity (no marriage, no children) must confront their own relational stupidities when they are forced to spend Christmas with their four divorce-created families.

Entertainment Value: A-
I had medium expectations for this movie because both of the stars have been unreliable in recent years. But this was funny. Really funny. Even the parts that were included an homage to the Meet The Parents style of stress comedy which I can’t stand were fairly funny. I wish they could have toned down the language, but I’m not sure this film should or could be PG anyhow. Far more entertaining than I expected, despite the plot and the message being obvious from the beginning (perhaps because I knew the end message was going to be so good).

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language C
This movie opens in a bar with a man insulting a woman and then having sex with her in a bathroom stall. If you can stomach that, you can probably handle this movie. Drinking is common. Sexual comments and comedic situations based on sex are common. Slapstick violence is common. And language is at the very upper end of PG-13. I might go R-15 for this one. Absolutely not a kids movie. You should also know that church and religious people are essentially portrayed as idiotic.

Significant Content: A
Families, no matter how dysfunctional, are still valuable to us, if for no other reason than that they reveal the real us. When selfish people get their desires, they are only cheating themselves of the greater growth opportunities they connive their way out of. People can deceive themselves into believing anything…for a while. The modern myths about relationships are ultimately empty and unfulfilling. Divorce poisons children against marriage. Even exotic things become boring eventually.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
This movie falls smack into my favorite genre of modern movie: morality plays which truly appeal to the people who most need to watch them. Whatever else you might want to say about Hollywood and film stars in general, they do seem to be grasping for traditional morality more frequently with films like this. Granted, they still make all the other stuff, but when I see something like this, it gives me a glimmer of hope for our country. This film takes the worst possible familial background (double-divorce) and plays that into the archetypal post-modern couple who seems to have it all: success, happiness, and love. And then it uses those horrible families and backgrounds to deconstruct the entire modern relationship edifice a la Sex and the City or Oprah. It’s brilliant, and you could literally preach a half dozen sermons off this movie. Nevertheless, this film does the single most important thing any morality play can do: it refuses to preach those sermons itself. Thus, they’re reached by the audience and easily discussed afterwards. Bravo to such an inexperienced team of creators. I eagerly await more like this.

Discussion Questions:
~Just before they start visiting the families, Kate asks Brad to promise her that no matter what happens, he’ll stay with her in the end. He says, “Of course.” Why does she ask for that promise? Why does he give it? How is that promise related to marriage vows?
~When they are planning their Fiji trip, Kate remarks to Brad that this trip seems like all of their other trips, and he tries to convince her that scuba in Fiji will be different from other scuba. What idea is she getting at? What is it about always getting the best of everything that makes you eventually not enjoy it so much? Why are movies that always turn out well so bland, and especially so if there’s no real conflict in them? How do vacations like they normally take compare with family interactions? In what ways would you say Brad and Kate’s relationship is just like these vacations? How is marriage more like the family holiday? Which one is more pleasurable? Which one is better for us?
~Discuss some of the ways in which being around their families actually benefitted both Brad and Kate? How useful were their families for revealing their true selves to the other person? Why is it important to meet and know people’s families early in a relationship?
~Dishonesty by omission (hiding uncomfortable or embarrassing truths about ourselves) is a big theme in this movie. How does that allow Brad and Kate to have the relationship they have at the beginning. How does it prevent real love from having a chance to develop between them? What is the relationship between such deception and performance anxiety in a relationship? How is honesty related to unconditional love?
~When the truth about each of them comes out, it seems likely to ruin the relationship, but it turns out that only Kate’s changing desire for permanence does so. How do you think the exposure of their flaws and the love which comes from this was related to Brad’s ultimate decision to accept Kate on her more permanent terms? If he had neither known and accepted her flaws nor had her do the same to him before that division occurred, would he have been more or less likely to have come back?
~What lessons does this movie have to teach us about divorce and its impact on people?
~Why would these two lie to their families? What do they want to keep by making the lie that they feel they would be risking if they told them the truth about their vacation plans? What does this reveal about them? Why are they willing to tell total strangers what’s going on?
~To what degree is Brad’s monologue about avoiding kids and avoiding marriage representative of this modern culture’s attitude toward families? Would you say he’s at least consistent that no kids means no marriage? Would you say he’s being wiser than the people who get married intending to not have kids or to delay them significantly?
~Even though this movie presents both their parents and religion as dysfunctional, would you say that it ultimately says they are good and useful nevertheless? How is the typical approach of trying to show that church and family have no flaws both less honest and less effective?
~Families are involuntary relationships, and the holidays are often times when we’re required to be with them. How are both of these aspects of families beneficial to us?
Overall Grade: A-
As I said, this certainly entertained me, it has great lessons to teach, and it actually gives me hope that in and among the vulgarity of modern filmmaking, some people are really doing their part to make a difference in the right direction for our ailing society.

Star Trek (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content.
Length: 127 minutes
Grade: A+B-AA=A
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $425 million (257 U.S., 127 Intl., ?40 DVD)

Written by: Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Both did Transformers 1-2, Mission Impossible 3, The Island, The Legend of Zorro, and Alias and Fringe on TV) along with Gene Roddenberry (Shame on you if you don’t know who he is)
Directed by: J.J. Abrams (Mission Impossible 3, and the creative force behind Cloverfield and TV’s Lost, Alias, and Fringe)
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Winona Ryder, and Leonard Nimoy.

In this reboot to the entire Star Trek universe, we get to meet the original Star Trek cast under completely new circumstances as they crew the Entertprise in an alternate universe time path created by Romulans from the future who have come back to the time of Captain Kirk’s birth seeking revenge for the destruction of their home planet.

Entertainment Value: A+
When the movie was over and I had been given a few minutes to recover, my wife looked over at me and asked, “So what did you think.” Forming my hands into the hang-ten extended thumb and pinkie shape, I eagerly moved them back and forth saying, “Four thumbs up!” Look, I had heard this was really good, but that did nothing to prepare me for how much I was going to enjoy this movie. Having recently seen big budget action flicks like Transformers 2 and GI Joe: Rise of Cobra, I had already experienced the dizzying action and effects possible in big budget blockbusters. But the real difference is that, unlike either of those movies, the plot here is tight, super-tight even, and the dialogue is wonderful. Combine all that with doing an homage-based recrafting of a universe I have loved since childhood while still being highly faithful to that universe, and I was overwhelmed. At the risk of hyperbole, this is the single best sequel/remake I’ve ever seen. It’s so good that it almost makes up for the sluggishness of the Star Wars sequels (Phantom Menace, Clone Wars, Revenge of the Sith). For those who don’t know the Star Trek universe all that well (particularly the original TV show and movies 2 and 4), this will be just excellent. For the rest of us, look out! And in case I haven’t already overinflated your expectations, it is possibly also the best time-travel movie ever made, and that’s territory well-populated by the excellent efforts like The Terminator franchise, Timecop, Frequency, 12 Monkeys, The Final Countdown, Groundhog Day, The Butterfly Effect, Time Bandits, and (although I’m reluctant to include it in an otherwise truly sci-fi list) Back to the Future.

Superficial Content: B-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B-, Language B-
Let me start by saying that I’m baffled about this one being PG-13. In a rare case where they didn’t just try to filthy-up a sequel of a kids series, I think they stayed quite faithful to the level of superficial content you would expect from any of the Star Trek series or movies. The profanity is mild and occasional, although they could have done without the S-word twice. Bones, of course, uses his trademark D-profanity. Sexuality includes one scene of Kirk in the bed of a green underwear-wearing space cadet. There is a bar scene in the beginning. The only really obvious concern here would be violence, which includes lots of space violence and people being killed (one by impaling heard but not seen) and general action peril. The opening scene has a young boy stealing and driving a car recklessly. I wouldn’t let Spencer watch this yet, but it’s PG-11 at worst and probably more like PG-8. In the days before PG-13, this would certainly have been PG (as were Top Gun, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and five of the six Star Wars movies), and given the awfulness of most PG-13 movies (like Transformers 2), I think that rating is misleading.

Significant Content: A
Vengeance is an overpowering motivation, which will lead you only to inflict misery on others for no redemptive purpose whatsoever. A diversity of talents all working together form a powerful team. Being logical is not necessarily evidence of no emotion, but often the best coping mechanism for profound emotions. The undauntable belief that success is possible is often the only reason that success occurs. Sometimes rules need to be broken. Authority can coexist with disagreement so long as everyone agrees who is responsible for the ultimate decision and that decision is honored by all. Also, such an open process yields better decisions and better sense of participation by the members.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
The sheer art of taking an entire established universe and undoing it by keeping all the best original elements and sending them off in a completely new direction is brilliant enough on its own to justify an A. But Trekkies will particularly enjoy the loving incorporation of various elements from both the series and the movies (like the Kobayashi Maru, the modified Khanian earwigs, one man sacrificing himself for the greater good of a whole ship, and even the trick of going into the past to give people a technological insight like clear aluminum or transwarp transportation). Pardon me, I’m still giddy.

Discussion Questions:
~Although Nero begins his time quest by trying to save his home planet, this leads him to do so much evil that eventually when that goal is impossible, he is still willing to kill billions just out of revenge. Have you ever talked yourself into doing something evil for a seemingly noble reason? How do you feel about that decision now? Can you think of any particular examples in history, such as the bombing of Hiroshima? What is the difference between justifiable evil done to accomplish good and evil that goes too far? Why does doing evil tend to corrupt us so that we can’t judge rightly about such things after awhile? What is the Biblical answer to all of this?
~The classic Star Trek tension was between the emotional Bones, the logical Spock, and the bold Kirk. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these dispositions? In what ways might you say that the Enterprise Crew represents the ideal healthy human mind? What parts might be missing? Considering the cosmopolitan composition of the crew, what ideal of human society is being offered here? Compare this with the homogeneity of other ships’ crews. How does the common devotion to the principles of the Star Fleet bring them together in unity? Compare this with the erosion of class and race barriers which occurs in truly Gospel communities?
~What do you think of the portrayal of discussions on the bridge, where everyone is allowed to argue with the commander? Does this produce better decisions? Does it undermine the command structure? Compare this with what you know about how decisions are made in the military, for instance on board an Aircraft Carrier.
~Spock’s nature as half-human, half-Vulcan is a constant theme in this movie. Why is this so important in the movie? Have you ever felt alienated from a group? How did eventual membership in a group change your outlook? ~What do you think about the idea that logic is a control mechanism for properly channeling strong emotions? Was his response to the childhood bullies logical? How should one respond to bullies?
~What do you think of the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru exercise? What do you think of Kirk’s solution?
~In what sense might it be fair to say that Spock adheres too much to rules (like a legalist) whereas Kirk knows when they need to be broken because the purpose for which they were written would actually be undermined by following them (like Christ)?
Overall Grade: A
I’m happy. So very happy. Just knowing such a movie can be made restores my long-decayed hope in the possibility of sequels and remakes. Thank you, J.J. Abrams.

Up (2009)

Rated: PG for some peril and action.
Length: 96 minutes
Grade: CB+BC=B-
Budget: $175 million
Box Office: $595 million (293 U.S., 214 Intl., 88 DVD)

Written by: Pete Docter (WALL-E, Monster’s Inc., Toy Story 1+2), Bob Peterson (Ratatouille, Finding Nemo), and Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent).
Directed by: Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Bob Peterson (First Movie)
Starring the voices of: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger, and David Kaye.

After a lifelong delay in fulfilling their dreams of adventure, an elderly man decides to fly his house to South America via helium balloons in honor of his recently deceased wife. Along the way, he encounters a portly wilderness explorer, an overly needy dog, a strange mythical bird, and many adventures.

Entertainment Value: C
First the good stuff. This is Pixar, and Pixar never fails completely. The animation is amazing, the voice work is outstanding, and the comic timing is impeccable, especially their new trademark of comedy without dialogue like from WALL-E. My kids of course love it, which means I’ve seen it many times already in bits and pieces myself. But in this case, the characters, animation, and comedy (even when added to the heart-strings they yank on in the excellent opening sequence) aren’t enough to cover over a crazy plot built around an absurd premise: a balloon flying house. I could have overlooked this as the admission price to the plot, but they just kept shoving the impossibility of the physics in my face again and again. I know this seems like a petty thing to fixate on, and I’m sure it didn’t bother everyone. But since it was the pretext for half the events in the movie, I had trouble over and over with it. For instance, how didn’t the house lift-off as soon as the balloons were filled rather than at the desired moment? How did he keep a balloon cluster twenty times the volume of his house hidden either inside or right behind his house? How does one fly to South America via balloon house overnight? How does an elderly man get enough grip on the ground to hold that house from dragging him over a ledge? Why, oh why, didn’t he keep a few canisters of compressed air to reinflate more balloons later? Still, for those who can ignore such issues (like all children, I suspect), I’m sure it’s great fun.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A
There are a couple of difficult moments in the very beginning where a woman is implied to have been discovered infertile and possibly having lost a baby and she later dies. A man falls to his death (out of sight), and several scenes of what the MPAA calls “peril” occur. But for the most part, this is just barely not a G movie. Both of our young boys watched it, and Ethan was only slightly bothered by the dogs being scary and now loves the movie.
Significant Content: B Always be sure you’re pursuing the most important objectives. Heroes don’t always turn out to be noble people. Corporations and land developers are evil. Society really takes advantage of the elderly in the name of helping them. When you invest your life in fame and reputation, you’ll do anything to get it back if you feel it’s been unjustly taken from you. Being an explorer is fun, but not usually what it seems like in books and movies. Adventure is good, but ordinary life is also good.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Obviously the animation is outstanding. Also, you have to give Pixar tremendous credit for having mastered the art of non-dialogue storytelling and comedy. But I don’t think there’s a ton worth talking about here. So thought value is a little scarce.

Discussion Questions:
~This movie seems to want us to believe that the most significant thing in Mr. Fredricksen’s life was the big adventure he took to Paradise Falls. Looking over the story about his life and marriage to Ellie, do you believe this is true? If he had died when she did, would his life really have been left unfulfilled? Do you think this emphasis on the extraordinary and exotic as opposed to the regular and calm is healthy? Is it a common idea in our society?
~Russell talks about sharing the boring moments with his dad and that those are actually the most important. What “boring” parts of life are important to you or to your kids?
~The difference between adventure as we imagine it and exploring in real life becomes somewhat clear in this movie. Do you think it’s good or bad for kids to dream of adventure? Does real life usually live up to that, even when that real life includes actual exploring?
~Russell is trying to get a merit badge for helping the elderly, but he winds up imposing on Mr. Fredricksen to get it. How often are our efforts to help other people really impositions upon them? Did Fredericksen need help? By the end of the movie, would you say Russell actually helped him in any way?
~Muntz seems to want the bird as a bit of proof to earn back his reputation, Russell just loves the bird as his friend. What do these different motivations tell us about their characters? What is the difference between a desire, a dream, and an idol? In what ways does Fredericksen’s goal start out as an idol to him? How does this change?
~This movie portrays developers as evil capitalists and elderly people as noble (though crotchety) obstacles to progress. How fair are either of these stereotypes?
~Even if Muntz wasn’t believed about the bird, can you think of any reason he wouldn’t have returned to civilization to show them the genius of his talking dog collar? What do you think dogs would say if they had such a collar?
~If you are an adult who has engaged in the longstanding cultural practice of sending newbies snipe hunting, what do you think of the exposure of this tradition in a movie like this? Do you feel betrayed by the people at Pixar, or do you feel this was an appropriate exploitation of a well-known cultural ritual?
~Were you impeded in enjoying this movie by any of the plausibility problems with the balloons or with the age of Muntz compared to Fredricksen? What does it say about people who are bothered by those things? What about those who are not?

Overall Grade: B-
Kids will love it. I can’t predict parental reaction. I only know that I fell asleep for 20 minutes during the first time through and even almost did so again when I diligently tried to rewatch the part I had missed. Some parts, especially the opening, are brilliant. After that, only the sometimes quite funny jokes make it worthwhile.

The rental DVD (from Blockbuster at least) does not have the main menu and access to special features standard in Pixar DVDs. Instead, it plays in a continuous loop. If you intend to watch it more than once or want the extras, this is one case where buying the DVD makes good sense. Also, this seems to be part of Disney’s practice of encouraging purchases by discouraging rentals as much as possible. That’s why your video store seems to always be out of such a popular movie. Disney won’t release more copies for rental, knowing this irritation will drive up purchases.

The Rocker (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for drug and sexual references, nudity and language.
Length: 102 minutes
Grade: BDBD=B-
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $15 million (6 U.S., 2 Intl., 6 DVD)

Written by: Maya Forbes (Monsters vs Aliens), Wallace Wolodarsky (Monsters vs Aliens), and Ryan Jaffe (First movie)
Directed by: Peter Cattaneo (Opal Dream, Lucky Break, Full Monty)
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Christian Applegate, Teddy Geiger, Josh Gad, and Emma Stone, with appearances by Will Arnett, Jason Sudeikis, Bradley Cooper, Jane Krakowski, Jeff Garlin, Jane Lynch, Demetri Martin, and Lonny Ross.

When their drummer is expelled prior to the prom gig, the teen trio of ADD look to the keyboardist’s uncle (Fish), a washed up former rock drummer booted from mega-super-band “Vesuvius” just before their big break in this comedic mockumentary ever so loosely based on the tragic life of former Beatle Pete Best. Even though prom is a disaster, a viral video of Fish drumming in the nude propels the band on a nationwide tour.

Entertainment Value: B
I didn’t actually expect very much of this movie, but as you can tell from the huge number of comedic actors involved in it, the thing really was pretty funny. Hilarious in some parts, clunky and cumbersome in others, and certainly not anything like a great story. Think of this as Spinal Tap meets Saturday Night Live.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence C, Language D
This isn’t the most vulgar PG-13 movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly in the running. It’s full of drinking, drunkenness, partying, comic violence, vomiting, sexual references, and extended scenes of partial or back nudity. Language is heavy for PG-13. I’d say PG-15 at least is appropriate here.

Significant Content: B
The world is full of people who obey the rules and behave and also those who are full of life and live accordingly. Rock and Roll needs and breeds the latter type, who are obnoxious and yet endearing for their childish enthusiasm. Growing up and settling down aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. Holding onto grudges will poison you forever. Follow your dreams, and eventually you’ll get what you deserve. Live your life with no regrets. Success can change you for the worse if you aren’t careful. Agents are evil…shock.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
The best way I can think to describe this movie is as funny but ugly. It’s just a big old mess, artistically speaking, but that’s probably on purpose, and the jokes are what keep it from being terrible.

Discussion Questions:
~Who changes the most in this movie as a result of achieving success? What keeps them from going totally bad?
~Would you want a friend like Fish? Do you think he would be good for you?
~If you had been in Fish’s situation with Vesuvius (or Pete Best’s with the Beatles), how hard do you think it would have been to accept? What part of what you had missed out on would be most difficult to let go?
~Are drum machines and synthesizers good for music?
~What is the downside of living you life with the only goal being to have no regrets for not trying something?
If teenagers want to start a band, would you generally encourage them or discourage them?
~Do you think the real life implications of hard partying are as innocent and inconsequential as this movie seems to portray?

Overall Grade: B-
I must have clipped at least fifteen hilarious one- or two-liners, but the vast majority of them I can’t play on the air. That should tell you everything you need to know about this movie.

Taking of Pelham 123

Rated: R for violence and pervasive language.
Length: 106 minutes
Grade: C-FCD=D+
Budget: $100 million
Box Office: $150 million (65 U.S., 85 Intl.)

Written by: Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire, The Order, Mystic River, A Knight’s Tale, Payback, The Postman, Conspiracy Theory, L.A. Confidential, ), based on the 1974 novel by John Godey.
Directed by: Tony Scott (Déjà vu, Domino, Man on Fire, Beat the Devil, Spy Game, Enemy of the State, The Fan, Crimson Tide, Last Boy Scout, Days of Thunder, Beverly Hills Cop 1-2, Top Gun, and one of the best unheard-of action films ever: True Romance)
Starring: John Travolta and Denzel Washington, with Luiz Guzman, John Turturo, and James Gnadolfini.

A terrorist hijacks a subway train, and the authorities must decide how best to rescue the hostages in this remake of a 1974 Walter Matthau film.

Entertainment Value: C-
Tony Scott has made some of my favorite movies, and he is a fantastic action film director. Obviously Denzel Washington is nearly flawless as an actor. John Travolta has been a little less reliable, but with supporters like Gandolfini and Turturo (we’ll ignore Luiz Guzman for the moment), this movie should have been outstanding. It was not outstanding, except in the negative sense, given this talent pool. The problems were plausibility (especially when the criminals were all vulnerable to snipers several times) and a terribly weak ending. I wanted to love this movie, but I really couldn’t. Plus, the bipolar character Travolta was playing didn’t match a criminal mastermind so much as an out-of-control abuser. All those negatives aside, it wasn’t awful, just nowhere near what you would expect from Scott and Washington, et al.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B+-, Violence F, Language F
One scene has a girl taking off her shirt online for her boyfriend, and there’s some talk of affairs. No drugs or alcohol to mention. Several people are killed by guns in realistic fashion, and the entire movie is about holding hostages. The language is horrendous, and certainly either this or the violence alone would justify an easy R here.

Significant Content: C
Greedy people are prone to doing anything to get the money they think they deserve. Money can entice you to do things you justify as being okay even though you really know they aren’t. Power corrupts, even petty positions of power. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to atone for your mistakes. Sometimes the most liberating thing of all is to be forced into a confession.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
For yet a second time this week, I have to observe that there really isn’t much to talk about here, other than greed.

Discussion Questions:
~Does Ryder’s revealed occupation surprise you? Who do you think is responsible for Ryder’s progression toward murderer and terrorist? Who would he blame?
~What do you think of Walter’s actions in Japan? Is it bribery even if you do the thing you were going to do anyhow? Why?
~Ryder coerces Walter into a public confession during their conversations. Do you think this was actually a blessing in disguise for Walter?
~What aspects of this movie seem implausible to you?
~Why do you think Ryder made the choice at the end that he did?
~Greed is clearly a theme in this movie. Can you identify some examples of it and how it influenced people? Would you say that Walter and Ryder are only different in degree, or does something else separate them?
~How does Walter’s reputation (and being seen as possibly involved in this caper) suffer from his other errors in judgment?
~Are movies like this helpful to our society or harmful?
~Discuss Ryder’s religiosity. Is it helpful for semi-theological ideas to be presented by a terrorist in a movie?
Overall Grade: D+
This is one of those cases where there isn’t enough good in this movie to persuade me to ignore its superficial content in overall grade. Whereas Swordfish was excellent, this is (in the end) mediocre.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for strong sequences of action violence and mayhem throughout.
Length: 118 minutes
Grade: BC-CD=C+
Budget: $175 million
Box Office: $342 million (150 U.S., 151 Intl., 41 DVD)

Written by: Stuart Beattie (Autstralia, 30 Days of Night, Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3, and Collateral), David Elliot (Catacombs, Four Brothers), Paul Lovett (Four Brothers), Michael Gordon (300), and Stephen Sommers (All 6 Scorpion King and Mumy movies, and Van Helsing).
Directed by: Stephen Sommers (3 of the 6 Mummy movies, and Van Helsing)
Starring: Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Rachel Nichols, Sienna Miller, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Dennis Quaid.

An ancient arms dealing family is involved in a plot to steal the “nanomite” weaponry they have manufactured for NATO. In the process, a secret super-team of high-tech military heroes comes out to do battle against the equally secret super-team of villains led by the arms dealer himself.

Entertainment Value: B
If you want a nice tight plot for a big-budget action movie, shop elsewhere. But if you want an intensely modern excuse to relive the campy cartoons you loved as a teenager, well, “Yoooo, Joe!” The acting is basically weak and campy, and it’s really quite silly to even discuss the plot or it’s subplots (such as they are). But the effects and the action are over-the-top fantastic, which is really all you need to know since knowing is half the battle.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B, Violence D+, Language C
No substance use at all. Sex is some kissing, a few implied romantic comments, and the busty women in tight outfits one would expect from a good cartoon adaptation. Language was the surprise here, being not that heavy, but including several S-words that just didn’t need to be in there. Violence, as you would expect, is the main concern, and they opted for the more gruesome end of what they needed to show here. A couple of people suffer Raiders of the Lost Ark style demises and there are lots of killings, including blood and some beheadings. The sad part is this movie could easily have been made PG after the style of the original cartoon, and it would have been find for even younger kids. As it is, I’d say PG-13 is probably right. It’s not nearly as bad as Transformers in content, just for comparisons.

Significant Content: C
Science is powerful, but maybe we shouldn’t trust it completely or rely on what it values unquestioningly. Arms manufacturers can’t be trusted. The military is full of good people. Loyalty is important, betrayal is really bad. And true love is powerful enough to overcome technology.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
It’s what you’re expecting, and what you’re not expecting is art and thinking. If you want to have some fun, you could try to identify the absurdities in the movie, such as only the women not wearing facemasks (and letting their hair flow around during combat), who would have built these massive and secret military bases, why would McCullen have needed to NATO’s money for research if he had enough money to fund COBRA and it’s secret underwater base?

Discussion Questions:
~Do you think kids cartoons from the past should be remade into big-budget PG-13 action films today? Have you ever gone back to watch something you loved in the past? What was your reaction?
~In what ways would you say the nanomites are a good metaphor for sin? When thinking of how they influenced Ana’s behaviors, did they create her bitterness at Duke or just enhance it as a way to totally take her over?
~Do you believe that romantic love (like that between Ana and Duke) can conquer everything?
~In what ways did The Doctor make science and knowledge his idol? How did serving and pursuing them lead him to do evil? Do you see this being an issue in our society?
~In what ways did Storm Shadow make martial arts skill and parental approval his idol? How did he let his failure to get his father’s approval warp him? How important is parental approval to you? What is the Christian perspective on and solution for this problem of disapproving parents?
~Comparing this movie with Transformers, do you think there’s a significant difference in impact when people see machines get killed/destroyed rather than human beings?
Overall Grade: C+
My biggest disappointment with this movie was that at the end of the credits, they failed to give me a public service announcement with the actors in the style of the old cartoon. Yes, Quaid gives lipservice to some of the old liners, but they really could have done more with that. Still, $175 million buys some sweet effects. Just don’t let the young kids watch this.

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Rated: PG for some language.
Length: 112 minutes
Grade: BBBB=B
Budget: $8 million
Box Office: $19 million (19 U.S.)

Written and Directed by: Doug Atchison (Spinning Into Butter, an excellent play that flopped as a movie this year)
Starring: Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, and JR Villarreal

A young inner-city girl discovers she has an aptitude for spelling, but conflicts with her mother and a difficult coach cause her stress while the community encourages her in successive spelling triumphs.

Entertainment Value: B
Dead Poet’s Society, Man Without a Face, Stand and Deliver, Mr. Holland’s Opus, The Emperor’s Club, Searching for Bobby Fisher, and even Spellbound. Educational triumph movies are a well-travelled genre with many outstanding members. Judged against that backdrop, this is merely good, not great. I expected a bit more from Larry (excuse me, Laurence) Fishburne, but this is certainly a solid film that brings home the tensions of life for the less privileged. The kids make it worth watching.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A, Language B
The only concern here, ironically, is with vulgar language. There are plenty enough of all the mild swear words. On the one hand, this makes sense given the setting, but it’s a little odd in a PG movie about kids in spelling bees. I get why they wrote it this way, but I wouldn’t recommend this for younger kids. PG-8 or 10 maybe.

Significant Content: B
If you have a talent, you should pursue it. Parents need to be honored, even if they’re wrong. Losing someone you love can be a serious blow to your ability to function in the world. People in chaotic situations are usually desperate to create a sense of order and control. The fear of failing can cause you to fail, but our greatest fear is to succeed. A community of support makes a huge difference in your success.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
I particularly liked some of the implied ideas about how life is like the English language and spelling. There are rules, there are exceptions, and there is a certain (though limited) amount of predictability to it. Also, there are two different characters who both suffer from the same formula. Trauma leads to fear, which leads to the desire for security and order, which leads people to shun unpredictable situations. Parents of high achievers often put too much pressure on them to succeed.

Discussion Questions:
~The 5th Commandment says to honor our parents. Who in this movie honors or dishonors parental authority? Why does Akeelah’s mom want her to stop spelling?
~Have you ever done something that made you scared or put you under pressure? How did you handle it?
~How did Akeelah’s spelling bring unity to her community? Compare this with the sort fo unity that comes from a common devotion to Christ.
~How is the ability to handle unpredictable situations important in a healthy life? Why do Dr. Larabee and Akeelah’s mom both struggle with this?
~How important do you think it is for kids to learn how to spell well and to participate in spelling competitions? How much emphasis does our society place on academic competition compared with athletics? What do you think about this?
~Why might someone in Akeelah’s situation try to hide her intelligence at school? How might this be connected to the problems of black students in America? Compare the attitudes and expectations of the black, Hispanic, and Asian parents in this movie.
~A big theme in this movie is the idea that we are more scared of success than failure. Have you ever experienced this? Which is more terrifying: insignificance or great achievement? Why?
Overall Grade: B
It’s good. It’s not great. If you like mentor movies, you’ll enjoy this.

Flash of Genius (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Length: 119 minutes.
Grade: CCBB=C+
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $5 million (4.5 U.S., 0.5 Intl., DVD)
Written by: Philip Railsback (First movie)
Directed by: Marc Abraham (First movie, but he’s produced a ton, including Children of Men, Dawn of the Dead, Bring It On, Rundown, Emperor’s Club, Spy Game, Thirteen Days, Family Man, and Air Force One)
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Dermot Mulroney, Lauren Graham, and Alan Alda

This is the true story of the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper and then spend years of his life trying to reclaim damages from Ford for stealing it from him.

Entertainment Value: C
This movie was very frustrating, mostly because it’s not anything you want it to be. You want it to be a story of triumph and victory against all odds, but it’s not. You want it to be uplifting and inspirational, but it’s not. You want to see a man exercise wisdom and perspective in the conduct of his life, but he doesn’t. You want to see the greedy corporation admit fault and be humbled, but they aren’t. It’s just irritating. And to top it all off, you can’t possibly like the main character the way you can love Jeff Bridges in Tucker. But, then again, that’s the nature of true stories, and this is a great example of a true story that’s so unpleasant to watch that you have to wonder whether it’s worth telling. Still, kudos for being willing to honestly tell such an unenchanting tale.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B+, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B+, Language C
There is some social drinking, some depiction of cadavers, and the language you have come to expect from a PG-13 movie these days. There’s just one word between this and straight PG.

Significant Content: B
Corporations can’t be trusted, except that they can be trusted to behave badly. A man is successful by pursuing a dream and making sure he gets credit for it. There’s a hefty price to pay for demanding your rights. Engineering is one of the most important areas for ethics. Greed, whether financial or for reputation, is a powerful force. Annoyance is the mother of invention.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
As I’ve already mentioned, I have to say this is art in the sense of being a faithful depiction of what can only be called a tragic life. I applaud the determination to tell this story without making it into an “underdog triumphs” whitewash, even though I enjoyed it much less because of that fact. It’s useful, even if it isn’t fun. And the anguish of the characters is beautifully portrayed.

Discussion Questions:
~Why is ethics so important in the field of engineering? Would these same concerns apply to science? Why is it so difficult to get men who work on “how to” do something to stop and seriously ponder “whether” they should be doing it in the first place?
~Should our system of justice provide some other way of punishing corporate crimes besides mere monetary penalties? Should companies be subject to losing their business charters or incorporation status temporarily or permanently just as citizens can go to jail? Should corporate officers have to pay these penalties themselves?
~Who in this movie is using someone else for his (or her) own purposes? Is anyone in this movie not using other people?
~Discuss the role of greed in this movie, both for money and also for recognition. Did Kearns turn recognition into an idol? Consider how his pursuit of his notion of justice led him to neglect and destroy other areas of his life.
~Who betrayed the marital vows: Bob or Phyllis? Who betrayed the marriage?
~Given Ford’s history of ethical lapses such as this case, the Pinto, and the Explorer rollovers, should their company be disbanded?
~How important is it to you that you get credit for the things you’ve done? Is your desire for recognition Biblical?
~From God’s perspective, does it matter whether Kearns gets paid by Ford or not? Would a more Christian Kearns be satisfied merely to know that millions of people were living less aggravated lives because of his invention, even without being paid for it? Why is Bob so emphatic about demanding compensation?
~To what degree would you say Kearns’s bullheadedness is irrational? Why does he want to manufacture the part in the first place? Is his obstinacy sinful? Is it a noble crusade?
~Is Kearns a success? Is his victory Pyrrhic? Do you think what he gained was worth what he lost?
~Kearns’s lawyer tries to convince him that a large settlement with no admission of wrongdoing is the essence of victory in the legal arena. What do you think of this?
Overall Grade: C+
Tucker was inspiring, despite suffering defeat. Flash of Genius is depressing, despite achieving victory.

Notorious (2008)

Rated: R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue, nudity, and for drug content.
Length: 122 minutes
Grade: BFDA=D
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $61 million (37 U.S., 4 Intl., 20 DVD)

Written by: Reggie Rock Bythewood (Biker Boyz, Get on the Bus) and Cheo HOdari Coker (No mentionable credits)
Directed by: George Tillman Jr. (Men of Honor, Soul Food)
Starring: Jamal Woolard, Derek Luke, Angela Bassett, Naturi Naughton, Anthony Mackie, and Antonique Smith.
This is the mostly biographical story of the rise to fame and murder of Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, the rapper normally known as Notorious B.I.G. It shows the early careers and life of Tupac Shakur, L’il Kim, and Puff Daddy.

Entertainment Value: B
My wife and I had the exact same reaction to this: this was very interesting to watch, but we didn’t exactly know why. My best guess is that it felt like watching an anthropology film about some foreign culture, since that’s pretty much what this film was depicting to us. The acting was believable, even if the actions of the characters mostly were not. The implausibility of it all, of course, is best accounted for by the feeling that we were watching people we just don’t understand. A gang war over rap music that leads to killing? Seriously? Cheating on one woman who has your baby and then on another woman and then on your wife with more children? Seriously? Yes. Seriously. I finally have some sense of what people used to mean when they talked about “that whole east coast, west coast thing.”

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol F, Sex/Nudity F, Violence C, Language F
This is a case where going into details does more to make you think of things you shouldn’t than help you know whether to watch the film. This is vulgar in every sense of the word, but keep in mind that it’s meant to be a fairly realistic depiction of the rap star life. As such, I was willing to endure it as an essential part of an honest account. But, seriously, this is a very hard R in terms of sex, drugs, and language. If the F-word bothers you, well Kids-in-mind counted 126 for a 122 minute film. No math needed.

Significant Content: D
On the one hand, this is a sobering look at street life and the dead-end of hustling drugs. However, between the long depictions of bad behavior and then the showing of behind-the-scenes of the rap world, it’s hard to believe it’s really condemning any of the awful things its showing. If there is a redemptive message, it seems to be built around self-redemption.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
As a portrait of rap culture and black street life, this seemed quite good. The editing is awful in places where things are not in the right place from shot to shot. But if what you want is a somewhat less romanticized than the typical rap-related movie, well, this is somewhat less romanticized.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you think this movie is encouraging its audience to celebrate the thug lifestyle or to reject it? Does it want you to disapprove of behaviors like drug use, infidelity, and profanity, or does it seem to revel in them?
~When BIG says that he feels like God gave him a clean slate, do you perceive this as being a true statement?
~When his mother is talking about the influence that he has had on people being a very good thing, do you agree?
~What do you think would explain BIG’s repeated infidelities?
~If you haven’t had very much personal exposure to the rap culture, what effect does this movie have on your view of black people or of the inner cities in this country?
~Can you imagine someone watching this movie more than once? Why might they, and would that worry you about that person?

Overall Grade: D
If you want a picture of a particular part of American culture, go ahead. But I can’t recommend it, particularly for superficial content reasons.

Transformers: Rise of the Fallen (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, language, some crude and sexual material, and brief drug material.
Length: 150 minutes
Grade: BDBD=C
Budget: $200 million
Box Office: $1.004 BILLION (402 U.S., 431 Intl., 171 DVD)

Written by: Ehren Kruger (Brothers Grimm, Skeleton Key, Ring 1+2, Reindeer Games, Scream 3, Arlington Road), Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek, Mission Impossible 3, and Legend of Zorro)
Directed by: Michael Bay (Transformers, Island, Bad Boys 1+2, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, The Rock)
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, and the voices of Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Tom Kenney, and Michael York.

Just when Sam thinks he can be normal in college, the Decepticons launch a worldwide assault in search of a lost device which will give them tremendous power by destroying our sun. Humans and Autobots must cooperate to fight them off.

Entertainment Value: B...
...with real words of caution. First, no kids should be watching this, as you’ll see shortly. Second, you have to watch this movie as if it’s really two different movies. Movie 1 is the science fiction over-the-top action movie with huge effects that everyone expects from Michael Bay. This movie is very entertaining despite having a tremendously weak plot. And, unlike the first Transformers, I found it much easier to tell what was going on in the robot fight sequences in this version. Movie 2 is the completely silly and often offensively stupid human stories thrown in along with Movie 1 for reasons that pass understanding. Movie 2 involves gangbanger-sounding Autobots, a crazy mother, an irritating roommate, and a completely implausible Presidential advisor. Try to imagine if someone made Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace again, only this time there were five more characters in an effort to multiply the Jar-Jar Binks contribution.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity D, Violence D, Language D
This is clearly pushing the limits of the PG-13 rating. Teens are drinking at a college party, and a woman gets high on a marijuana brownie unintentionally. There are abundant sexual scenes, although no nudity, and one scene with a massive Decepticon depicted with wrecking balls as dangling genitals. I wish the worst of these were the human ones, but there are several with dogs as well that were simply disturbing. The violence is nonstop, although it’s mostly involving machines and doesn’t show people getting killed, though it’s implied. The language might be the worst part, with constant F, B, S, and A-based profanity. Seriously. Constant. This is PG-15 at the very least. And the worst part is that it could easily have been PG-13 for violence only, making it probably okay for even 10-year-olds or younger if they had just left all the nonsense out of it.

Significant Content: B
Sacrificing yourself for the greater good or for someone else is the definition of nobility. Destiny is never convenient. Humans are warlike and can’t be trusted with destructive weapons. Sex is fine as long as it’s your girlfriend. Parents are flakes. Politicians are stupid. A good girlfriend will continue to look like a supermodel after evading alien robots by running in slow motion for three minutes straight.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
There really isn’t any thought value here or great art, other than some wicked, cool effects. “Look what 200 million dollars can buy, mom.” The plot is so weak that it doesn’t even seem like they tried to come up with a good one. The one thing worth discussing here is probably the issue of racism and whether Skids and Mudflap were a racist inclusion.

Discussion Questions:
~Was there anything in this movie that offended you or you wished hadn’t been there?
~At one point, someone asks, “If God made us in His image, so who made [Optimus Prime]?” What is the implication of this question? Would the existence of aliens or alien robots affect your ideas about God?
~Why does Sam try so hard to resurrect Optimus Prime? Is it because Prime will save the planet or because he loves him?
~In the Transformers universe, Decepticons are always bad and Autobots are always good. Why do we so badly desire people to fall into such simple categories? Why do you think God allows a world where human nature is so much more complex than this?
~One of the key beliefs for Optimus is that humans’ free will must be respected, whereas the Decepticons clearly are willing to do anything to humans they want. In what ways are the Autobots like angels and the Decepticons like demons?
~Does Sam have faith? What is his faith in? Are things true simply because we believe strongly in them?
~How did you react to Skids and Mudflap? Would you say this movie is racist? Is it always racist to depict racial stereotypes? What if they are depicted negatively? Do you think black people would be offended by this movie? Are white people overprotective of black people and overly concerned about them being offended?
Overall Grade: C
I liked it as an action movie, but I certainly can’t recommend it for the kids, which is sad. If you don’t mind all the vulgarity and you can ignore the unentertaining elements of Movie 2, this is good fun. I would never call it good, clean fun. I did love the opening Dreamworks sequence.

W. (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for language including sexual references, some alcohol abuse, smoking and brief disturbing war images.
Length: 129 minutes
Grade: DNF
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $38 million (26 U.S., 4 Intl., 8 DVD)

Written by: Stanley Weiser (Wall Street, Project X)
Directed by: Oliver Stone (World Trade Center, Alexander, Any Given Sunday, Nixon, Natural Born Killers, JFK, The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July, Talk Radio, Wall Stret, Platoon)
Starring: Josh Brolin, Colin Hanks, Toby Jones, Dennis Boutsikaris, Jeffrewy Wright, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Richard Dreyfuss, Bruce McGill, and James Cromwell.

The life and times of George W. Bush, or something like that.
What would you get if you took a Saturday Night Live sketch with terrible make-up, removed all the comedy from it, used actors to play real people they clearly hated, and made it last two hours? W. Seriously, at the beginning, both my wife and I thought this was a joke that surely could not have been the basis of a movie by Oliver Stone. But, no. The joke didn’t stop (or have a punchline). But for twenty minutes, we endured this movie before realizing that it was never going to get any better. The contrast between this failure and a stunning success like Frost/Nixon couldn’t be clearer. Actors should never play characters they can’t respect or love, and the hatred of these liberal actors for their conservative roles was seething. Also the goal of having people who superficially look like the people being impersonated here was an idiotic gimmick that should have been jettisoned for getting better actors or at least ones who could actually play the roles. In short, I did not like this. Was that not clear yet?

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Rated: R for some language.
Length: 122 minutes
Grade: BCBA=B+
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $34 million (19 U.S., 9 Intl., 6 DVD)

Written by: Peter Morgan (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen, and The Last King of Scotland)
Directed by: Ron Howard (DaVinci Code, Cinderella Man, The Missing, A Beuatufil Mind, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Edtv, Ransom, Apollo 13, Backdraft, Parenthood, Willow, Cocoon, and Splash)
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, and Oliver Platt.

This is a dramatization of the famous interviews between British entertainment show host Robert Frost and former President Richard Nixon, dwelling on Frost’s difficulties in producing the interview and the gamesmanship between the two men.

Entertainment Value: B
But I almost feel inclined to go higher. The reason this isn’t an A is because I found the presentation of Frost as a playboy nincompoop (Little Lord Fauntleroy is the expression in the film) to be inaccurate compared to the real David Frost’s history. The real man was the only guy to interview every British Prime Minister and American President over several decades. Also, the film was so disappointing in the way it portrayed the relationship between Frost and Cushing both the historically inaccurate abruptness of its beginning and the unexplained abruptness of its ending. All of that aside, if there is any one reason to watch this movie, it is because Frank Langella’s portrayal of Richard Nixon is easily one of the greatest acting achievements in recent history. The film was nominated for 5 Oscars, and Langella only lost because he was competing against Sean Penn in Milk. Not that Penn was better, but I can’t imagine the Academy giving an award, even indirectly, to Richard Nixon, especially in a year when the competition included Mickey Rourke’s Wreslter and Penn’s gay rights martyr. This is clearly one of those great times when the box office sorely misrepresents the quality of this film.
Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B-, Violence B, Language CThere is some footage of war scenes shown. The characters often smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, but never to drunkenness. There are some sexual references and a scene of a couple in bed with brief partial nudity. The language includes about 5 f-bombs, but is relatively light other than that. In spite of that, I’d actually rate this movie PG-13 for its historicity simply because I don’t think a teenager needs to be protected from this movie. This may be that rare case where the MPAA rated a movie too harshly and for the wrong reasons. Giving this an R is a bit like giving the Sistine Chapel an R for nudity, very misguided.

Significant Content: B
Television distorts and reduces both lives and accomplishments to a single emotionally vivid moment as a memory. That is its power and also its evil. People need to hear a leader who fails admit that he failed. Confessions are hard but liberating. Pride will drive people to almost any lengths, as will the feeling of being an outsider constantly struggling to prove your value. Success in New York is unlike success anywhere else, and if success is your idol, you’ll do anything to recapture it.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
There is one simple reason that Frank Langella was able to do such a fantastic job of portraying Nixon: he chose to fall in love with the character. The thing that completely distinguishes this performance from, say, Josh Brolin’s abysmal failure as George W. Bush was that simple fact. The contrast between these two movies couldn’t be stronger. In that one, the people playing Bush’s circle hated their characters. In this one, Langella at least found a way to be Nixon, which clearly required having a sense of admiration for him. I don’t know whether he had it naturally (I suspect not), but he definitely had it in the portrayal.

Discussion Questions:
~Nixon famously said that when the President does something, it’s not illegal. What’s so problematic about that viewpoint?
~Discuss some of the ways that television has changed politics and culture in America. Do you agree with this movie that TV reduces complex and lengthy things into sound bytes and quick images? If you could ban television in America, would you? Does television make our political system better?
~How many instances in this movie can you find which indicate maneuvering to win a battle by either Frost or Nixon?
~Why was it so important for the American people to hear Richard Nixon say he was wrong? Do you think apologies are useful for the victims of wrongdoing? Do you think they are cathartic for the wrongdoers? What is the Biblical perspective on apologies and repentance? Does Richard Nixon seem repentant here? Was this more of a confession or a conviction? Did Frost do Nixon a favor? Did he set out to do him a favor?
~Why do you think this movie tried to make Frost look so much less competent than he was in real life? Why did it make the early sessions seem like failures, even though that’s not historically quite accurate?
~Frost at one point talks about the biggest goal of his life being success in New York City. Would you describe his passion for that unique level of achievement as idolatry? How did that passion motivate him to do irrational things?
~The subtext of Nixon’s speeches and behavior is clearly pride and the desire to be known for his great achievements. Was this his idol? How did that interfere with him being willing to see himself and the consequences of his actions clearly?
~The late-night phone call demonstrates remarkable candor from the President about his own motivations and foibles. Why do you think he placed this call? Have you ever felt like an outsider trying to establish your worth to an elite or desirable group of people? What is the Christian message to outsiders?
Overall Grade: B+
This is very good, and especially for those of us too young to remember the real interviews, it’s a fascinating exposure to President Nixon himself.