Mamma Mia! (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for some sex-related comments.
Length: 108 minutes
Grade: D-CDD-=D-
Budget: $52 million
Box Office: $572 million (144 U.S., 428 Intl., DVD)

Written by: Catherine Johnson (First notable script)
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd (First notable movie)
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Stellan Skarsgaard, Pierce Brosnan, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, and Julie Walters.

Based on her hippie mother’s diary and unbeknownst to her, a woman on the eve of her wedding has secretly invited all three of the men who might be her father to the island resort they manage together. When mom’s two best friends arrive, romance and Abba songs erupt.

Apparently I’m the only person in the known universe who was bored to tears by this movie. The plot was ridiculous. The singing was generally awful. And the overall effect left me wishing for the superior production value normally associated with Christian films or even America’s Funniest Home Videos. I worked on high school plays that were more professional than this. I love a good musical, and I even knew a lot of the songs, but this was a joke. My impression here was that this would be a big hit in the trailer park, if only for the fact that the entire movie can best be summarized with the word, “tasteless.” That being said, my jaw actually did hit the floor when I saw the box office numbers. Okay. I don’t get it. Plus, unless I’ve suddenly gone tone deaf in the last month, Pierce Brosnan just cannot sing, and listening to him try was easily the most painful part of this movie.
Overall Grade: D-
Although I was sorely tempted to give it an F. I think it was the campy frivolity of it all combined with a fairly interesting premise for a musical based on the music of one megaband that kept it out of the cellar in the end. But note, I actually did give it FCDF=F on my first reaction, which I only upgraded to D-CDD-=D- for reasons that I’m not sure now quite justify the decision. But keep in mind, over half a billion dollars in revenue says that I have no idea what I’m talking about, and I’m sure devoted fans will post their dismayed disagreement with my assessment.

Pineapple Express (2008)

Rated: R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and violence.
Length: 105 minutes
Grade: D+FDF=F
Budget: $27 million
Box Office: $101 million (87 U.S., 14 Intl.)

Written by: Seth Rogen (Drillbit Taylor, Superbad, Da Ali G Show), Judd Apatow (Zohan, Walk Hard, Knocked Up, Fun with Dick and Jane, 40 Year Old Virgin), and Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Da Ali G Show)
Directed by: David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, Undertow, All the Real Girls)
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Kevin Corrigan, Rosie Perez, and Ed Begley Jr.

Dale just wants to get high and serve his subpoenas, but when he witnesses a drug-related murder, he and his dealer find their lives endangered in the midst of a brutal drug war.

I suppose I could accuse Judd Apatow of making movies which promote marijuana use, but that would be like accusing Ted Kennedy of promoting liberalism or the NAACP of promoting the welfare of blacks. It’s not even an allegation, more just a statement of fact. And this is surely his most brazen version so far. Oh, I know, there’s this one scene where Rogen explains how they’re non-functional and do all the wrong things when they’re high, but that makes up for the whole movie about as much as Madonna mentioning the merits of marriage in a press conference atones for her entire career. But, as is so often the case with the movies this crowd makes, they just aren’t funny, which is a shame, since they have the capacity to be so hilarious. Unfortunately, not this time. By the way, just so you understand, Pineapple Express is a name for a certain brand of marijuana.
Overall Grade: F
Move along, there really is nothing to see here.

Max Payne (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for violence including intense shooting sequences, drug content, some sexuality and brief strong language.
Length: 100 minutes
Grade: BDCB=B
Budget: $35 million
Box Office: $86 million (41 U.S., 45 Intl.)

Written by: Beau Thorne (first screenplay), based on the video games of Sam Lake.
Directed by: John Moore (The Omen 2006, Flight of the Phoenix, and Behind Enemy Lines)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Ludacris, Chris O’Donnell, Donal Logue, and Amaury Nolasco.

Devastated by the murder of his wife and child, detective Max Payne finds himself thrust into the middle of a series of bizarre drug-related murders, and the more he looks, the more it seems everything is connected to his own loss.

Entertainment Value: B
I actually found myself enjoying this more than I had expected. Most movies based on video games fall in the C range at best because they’re always short on story, character, and art and long on violence and action. Plus, they tend to feel like they’re based on a video game, falling short of feature movie quality and requiring familiarity with the game to fully comprehend. Not here. There’s enough film noir meets supernatural thriller here to make it interesting. In the end, it does become more like the standard blow-em-all-away flick, but despite all the opportunities to make a really average movie out of this, it stays above that line.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C-, Violence D, Language D, Illegality D
I watched the unrated DVD, not the original PG-13, so my comments reflect that. There are a couple of sexual scenes at the beginning that make it PG-13, although no nudity. There is drug use throughout (albeit a fictional drug). The language is at the upper end of PG-13. But I think the things that would have made the DVD R are the violence (killing with machete, murder of a woman and a child, and lots of gun violence) and the general spookiness of the Valkyries (shadow beings that are constantly menacing the drug users).

Significant Content: C
On the surface, the themes are justice through strength, the corruption of corporations, the dangers of drug use, and the deeper significance of “cool” tattoos. But the overriding theme of this movie is vengeance, which though presented as a frustrating and idolatrous mistress also seems to satisfy Max Payne and, vicariously, the audience as well.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
The art here is quite good, something of a cross between Sin City and Constantine. But my favorite aspect of this movie is the portrayal (perhaps unintentional) of idolatry in revenge. Max Payne is willing to kill people, use self-destructive drugs, and do harm to almost anyone including himself in his effort to bring a vendetta against those who killed his family. Such an unhealthy obsession can only be described as idolatry, and the totality of its consumptive power is surely on display here. Also, though the drug use is bothersome, the fact that the drugs are the gateway to ushering in a dark world of supernatural terror isn’t all that different from reality. Plus, I must give them credit for actually presenting a couple of the scenes of shooting mayhem in the style of a first-person shooter game.

Discussion Questions:
~Consider some of the use of color in this movie, such as the red dress, the green window, and the orange embers associated with the Valkyries.
~To what degree is Max Payne’s identity completely defined by revenge? Consider how he gets out of the river, what he does to his own body, and the things he is willing to do to others in pursuit of his goal. Does he seem to derive joy from his mission? From anything else? How does his identity and personal sense of significance lead him to turn down Natasha?
~Do you think this movie accurately portrays the connection between drug use, altered states of consciousness, and demonic activity?
~What is this movie saying about tattoos? Do you think it’s right? Is this movie an endorsement of Norse mythology?
~When the Haitian gangster says that Max Payne is hunting to make something known that God wants hidden, what does he mean? Is he right? Is there true danger in trying to pry open things God wants concealed? Consider what the Bible says about sealing things up until the proper time?

Overall Grade: B
And apparently I’m the only one who thought so. Christianity Today gave it ½ star, which is the minimum among kind people. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and found some intriguing substance to boot.

Righteous Kill (2008)

Rated: R for violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
Length: 101 minutes
Grade: B-FBB=B-
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $76 million (40 U.S., 36 Intl.)

Written by: Russell Gewirtz, who wrote Inside Man.
Directed by: Jon Avnet, (88 minutes, Red Corner, Fried Green Tomatoes)
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, 50 Cent, Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg, and Brian Dennehy.

Two long-time detectives are tasked to find a serial killer who is murdering the worst criminals in the city, despite them evading traditional law enforcement. When a second team is brought in to investigate, it begins to look like a cop is the vigilante.

Entertainment Value: B-
And I feel generous in not giving it a C. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, then it’s possible I may ruin some of it for you in my review. I’ll try not to, but I can’t promise. This movie has great acting, good directing, and a fascinating set of characters. Hence, would be a pretty good cop mystery except for one thing: it’s too easy to figure it out. Now, other people I talked to said that they did not figure it out, so I guess not everyone had this problem. But given that DeNiro is shown in the very beginning confessing to all the crimes, the thing you absolutely have to start from is the premise that it’s not him, else why would they show you this? So, once it’s not him, who can it be? Granted, the why is pretty fascinating. But I thought they gave not only this clue but also the chess-playing clue so early that the endgame (sorry) was ruined within about 10 minutes. Ironically, I expected (or at least hoped) that it couldn’t be that simplistic. I was hoping for a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma where one confesses and then the other confesses to protect him and double jeopardy immunizes them both. But no. It’s just as simple (and therefore predictable) as it seemed. Sadly. Nonetheless, I still have to give it a B- for being fairly good in spite of that and for the fact that not everyone figured it out, apparently.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
This is a movie about a cop being a vigilante who goes around killing the most depraved individuals in the city. Do I really need to catalog the problems here for you? If you don’t mind hard R movies, you won’t mind this. If you do, you will. While there isn’t very much (any?) actual nudity, there’s plenty of sex talk and perverse references because of some of the people involved, as well as a woman who likes to be hurt.

Significant Content: B
Being a cop can desensitize you to the evil which you have to encounter every day. The line between justice and evil can be easily stepped across, with disastrous results. We are always influencing other people, especially with our example, good and bad. Vigilantism might seem like the logical consequence of opposing evil, but it is not.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
There are lots of interesting themes here regarding the issue of vigilantism and justice. Also, one of the main issues is the loss of faith when we see those we look to for guidance betraying our expectations of them. Other things to talk about here are the superior intellect of Pacino compared to DeNiro and others and how that plays out in the movie thematically.

Discussion Questions:
~Is Turk a “good man?” Why or why not?
~To what degree do you find yourself troubled by the vigilantism of this movie? Compare it to other wrongdoings by the police to figure out how much it offends your sense
~A common argument pattern is called the “slippery slope,” where the idea is that one step in the wrong direction can lead you to slide down a slope that’s too slippery to prevent the slide to catastrophe. In what way does this movie show this concept? Does it matter who takes the first step?
~Is there anyone in your life who has the capacity to really harm your faith or beliefs if they turn out to be corrupt or violate the expectations you have for them? What does this movie have to say about the danger of investing too much in even decent people? What does it have to say about the importance of being a good example to others?
~Are smart people more prone to pride? How are intelligence and pride factors in this movie?
When the psychiatrist says that the killer wants to be caught, what does he mean, and why? Can an artist get acclaim and appreciation without publishing his work?
~Why would someone claim that killing bad guys offered him the only real satisfaction in his life? What does this say about him?
~In the discussion when they mention Ted Williams’s .406 average, what point are they making? Is it a good one?
~Do people past their prime ever do foolish things in an effort to prove they aren’t?
~If Rooster is truly numb to the deaths of innocents, then why does he try so hard to arrest their assailants? Do you think he’s lying in this scene?
~How does feeling guilty make you act differently? Is it better for people who do something wrong to get caught rather than to get away with it?
~What do you think of the decision to plan evidence to frame a guilty guy for a different crime he didn’t commit? How is this arrogant? How does this affect the rest of the development of the movie?
~What does the aberrant sexual relationship between Turk and Karen tell you about him? What does it tell you about her? Do you think people can be honorable in one area of their lives when they behave as perverts in other areas of their lives?

Overall Grade: B-
If only they had done something more clever overall, I would have really loved it. But since they didn’t, I didn’t. Too bad because I obviously had high expectations from DeNiro and Pacino.

Burn After Reading (2008)

Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: FFFF=F
Budget: $37 million
Box Office: $142 million (60 U.S., 82 Intl.)

Written and directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother Where Art Thou, Big Lebowski, Fargo, Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, and Raising Arizona)
Starring: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, and JK Simmons.

When a retiring CIA analyst loses possession of some classified portions of his exosee memoir, he finds himself being blackmailed by two bumbling gym employees who discover they are in way over their heads. Meanwhile, embroiled (sort of) in the middle of all this is a womanizing treasury agent.

Entertainment Value: F
The Coen brothers are sort of an acquired taste, or, perhaps more accurately, they just taste bizarre and you either like it or you don’t. Well even for someone like me who has often loved their movies, this was stupid and unentertaining in the extreme. It wasn’t funny. It was vulgar. And it was totally pointless. As if to rub salt in the wound, in the extras, they obscure directors actually admit that their goal was simply to concoct a plot so that these actors could be forced to play bizarre characters and see what happens. What happened was a highly disappointing movie. If Seinfeld was a very funny show about nothing, Burn After Reading was a very unfunny movie about nothing.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity F, Violence D, Language H, Illegality D
Several sex scenes without nudity, adultery, and a theme of bizarre sex toys. There is a bloody murder. The language is outrageous right from the very beginning. Lots of alcohol, although no drunkenness that I recall.

Significant Content: F
Spy agencies are inept. Everybody is having an affair. Everyone in Washington is paranoid.

Artistic/Thought Value: F
The Coen brothers are already off-the-map for their bizarreness, but this looks very much like two guys deliberately trying to find out how bad of a movie they have to make before all the artistic types in Hollywood will actually admit that they’ve made a terrible movie. Based on the reviews, they still haven’t succeeded. This is possibly intended to be the movie version of some of the awful “I dare you to actually admit it’s not art” art in modern museums. And apparently no one dares besides me.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think actors are drawn to playing unconventional roles in unusual movies? Do you think they are trying to prove something about themselves? Why are artists so often driven to be something different than the normal culture around them? Is this rebelliousness unhealthy?
~What do you think is the point of this movie supposed to be?
~Considering each of the characters in turn, what motivates them?
Overall Grade: F
I’ll admit it. If there was something here to be “gotten,” well I certainly didn’t “get it.” But since I usually do, I’m going to go ahead and say what no one else seems willing to: This movie is an absurd piece of trash from a pair of writer/directors who are capable of real genius. Please do better next time, boys. Also, “First Look Studios” is hereby banned from the Tallman household. War, Inc., Meet Bill, Two Tickets to Paradise, Miss Conception, and now this? Ah, bye-bye.

Fly Me to the Moon (2008)

Rated: G
Length: 87 minutes
Grade: DA-CD=C
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $35 million (13 U.S., 22 Intl.)

Written by: Dominic Paris, in his first recognizable work.
Directed by: Ben Stassen, in his first recognizable work.
Starring: The voices of Tim Curry, Robert Patrick, Kelly Ripa, Nicollette Sheridan, Ed Begley Jr., Christopher Lloyd, Adrienne Barbeau, and a physical cameo by Buzz Aldrin

A trio of teenage flies get excited about the possibility of stowing away on the first moon spaceflight and, based on encouragement from their grandfather who saved Amelia Earhart’s cross-Atlantic flight, they leave home and go to the moon.

Entertainment Value: D
This is what happens when B-level or lower names in Hollywood decide that they don’t want the animated movie fad to pass them by entirely. There is virtually nothing here worth praising, and plenty that bored me or bothered me. The plot is silly. The premise of the movie is silly. And, most importantly, I still to this moment can’t explain why they decided to animate flies as little gray smurfs with wings instead of flies with human faces or something else a la Bee Movie. On top of it all, the writers decided to make childhood obesity one of their key themes as they kept criticizing the one fat fly kid throughout the movie.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity A-, Violence A-, Language A-, Illegality A
It’s G, but there are some mild issues involving beer, implied romanticism, flies trying to kill other flies, and moderate exclamations such as, “Lord of the flies!”

Significant Content: C
Being a man (or a male fly) means seeking adventure and doing something extraordinary. Women often don’t understand this. Flies are important, too. Russians are evil, deformed, malicious creatures…unless they happen to be defectors. It’s okay to run away without your parents’ consent so long as grandpa approves.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
So at the end of this ridiculous movie with flies going along on the first moon flight, the makers enlist Buzz Aldrin to come on screen and assure us that this was all fiction and there were absolutely no contaminants aboard the lunar lander. Well thank goodness he cleared that up!

Discussion Questions:
~In real life, most houseflies are lucky to live for a month. How would that fact change this movie?
~Do you think the emphasis on Scooter’s weight is appropriate? Are overweight children responsible for their condition?
~What are the differences between men and women when it comes to adventure?
~The Fifth Commandment tells us to honor our father and mother. Do the boys do this? Why is it important to get permission from our parents before we do things?
~Do you think flies care what country they happen to live in or are loyal to it in any way?
~If you were a fly, would you care about space travel?
~What does this movie do to try to get you to think negatively about the Russian flies? Is a movie like this helpful given the world’s current geo-political makeup?
Overall Grade: D
For don’t bother. Yes, your kids will find it fun. But remember these are the same kids who like to chew on rocks and are mesmerized by that little electric fishing pole game where the fish open and close their mouths.

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)

Rated: R for violence, language, and some sexuality.
Length: 100 minutes
Grade: DDDC=D
Budget: $45 million
Box Office: $39 million (15 U.S., 24 Intl.)

Written by: The Pang Brothers and Jason Richman (Swing Vote, Bad Company)
Directed by: The Pang Brothers (Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang) (Very popular Asian directors who made the original Bangkok Dangerous in 1999)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Charlie Young, and Shahkrit Yamnarm.

When a hitman finally decides to quit the profession, he opts for one final set of high-paying jobs in Bangkok. But everything starts to go another way when he befriends and mentors his disposable gofer, falls in love with a deaf local, and realizes one of the targets is a virtuous politician rather than the bad guys he normally kills.

Entertainment Value: D
So disappointing. The box office doesn’t lie on this one. This is definitely an Asian film rather than an American one, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. On the one hand, the movie doesn’t give you enough to like about Cage’s character so that you can root for him, but it also doesn’t give you a way to hate him enough to root against him. So you watch this without enjoying any of it. What do I want to happen in this movie? I have no idea, but whatever it was, it didn’t actually happen. What was a moderately plausible action movie most of the way really stank in the last twenty minutes right through to the highly unsatisfying ending. Even the alternate was lame.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D+, Violence D, Language D, Illegality F
The movie is about drugs and gang wars and assassination and strip clubs. In every category except outright illegality, it’s not as bad as many other worse examples, hence the Ds, but this is certainly R rated and rightly so.

Significant Content: D
Even hitman can have a conscience. It’s okay to kill people for money so long as you only kill bad people. Violence is a disease that eventually claims everyone who employs it, or “Live by the Glock, die by the Glock.”

Artistic/Thought Value: C
More for the style of the movie, which is consistent, dark, and un-American. I can’t remember if I’ve seen the original, but there are several scenes in this one that certainly felt like homages to a previous work, by which I mean to say that they felt out of place, awkward, and weak in the context of this effort. The only real thought value here involves the question of ethics regarding assassination targets and methods, although if you’re really looking hard, you might also ask questions about how mid-level sinners can be enticed into both greater sin and greater personal loss by a high-level sinner.

Discussion Questions:
~Why does Kong go with Joe initially, stay with him, and want to be like him?
~The takeaway is a very effective strategy which all manipulators understand. How does Joe use the takeaway to manipulate Kong? What strategies does Christ give us to avoid being manipulated by our desires and the takeaway?
~This movie seems to use nudity/sex at times when it is unexpected and then refrains from using it at other times when it would be more expected (like in the strip clubs). Why? Is there meant to be some message in this?
~What does the elephant symbolize to Joe? To the filmmakers? Is this an effective use of symbolism?
~Why does Fon initially find Joe appealing? Why does Joe find Fon appealing? Why does she leave him, and what do you think of her decision? Is she a symbol of grace in the movie?
~Why does Joe give us his rules for assassining? Is it surprising that he breaks them by the end? ~Would he have been better off following them? What should we do when rules conflict with our sense of humanity and decency?

Overall Grade: D
For disappointing. Nicholas Cage has now officially been moved from my “I usually like his stuff” list to my “sometimes yes, sometimes no” list. One question for me still lingers here: Why was it important that Cage’s character look like Gene Simmons in order to be an assassin?

Death Race (2008)

Rated: R for strong violence and language.
Length: 89 minutes
Grade: BFCB=B
Budget: $65 million
Box Office: $74 million (36 U.S., 38 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Paul WS Anderson (AVP: Alien vs. Predator, Resident Evil, Event Horizon, and Mortal Kombat)
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Ian McShane, Tyrese Gibson, and Natalie Martinez.

In a post-economic collapsed America, former racing star, Jensen Ames, is sentenced to life in a maximum security prison island after he is framed for the murder of his wife. Once there, he is given the opportunity to participate in the world famous death race as the fabled superstar Frankenstein. If he wins just one race against other convicts in armored race cars equipped with guns, he will be set free.

Entertainment Value: B
I always liked the original movie (Death Race 2000) for its sheer silly mayhem, and I wondered from the ads how they would take the concept of a cross-country killing spree and remake it effectively, especially since the original starred both David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. But they did.
Superficial Content: F Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity C, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
A man is shown nude from behind being hosed off in jail. Some women dress and act seductively. Language and violence are pretty much as F as they can possibly be. And the entire movie is about killing people with the use of guns and cars.

Significant Content: C
Police are at least as corrupt as inmates. America has an unhealthy fascination with violence. Justice will be done somehow or other. Those who stand to profit from entertainment become willing to do anything to make ratings.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
This is high-quality action film-making. It has all the elements, ridiculous mayhem, character struggle, a pouty but tough hero, and possibly some questions about the basic nature of entertainment.

Discussion Questions:
~This movie seems to be a commentary on the barbarity of modern society, but can a movie which is so flagrantly violent and designed to stimulate the action-enjoyment response be a credible source of this message? Does anyone come away from this movie thinking that such a spectacle would be totally awful?
~Does watching a movie like this corrupt your sense that life is sacred? Can a Christian cherish life and still enjoy a movie like this?
~How is the Death Race like the Roman Coliseum and the gladiators? What is this movie saying about modern entertainment? About American society? About Fox Television?
~Given that the movie is such a hard R for language and violence, why do you think they chose to not inject very much sexuality into it?
~Why is it that the characters in this movie seem surprised when the warden does unfair things to them or to the race? If a person is willing to profit from the sports murder of other people, why would anyone expect that person to be decent in other areas?
Overall Grade: B
Far more entertaining that I expected, in fact far more interesting and complex than I expected. Had it not been, I would have felt much more ashamed of enjoying a movie depicting the role playing game Car Wars I grew up playing with my friends.

Eagle Eye (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and for language.
Length: 118 minutes
Grade: BC-DC=C+
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $176 million (101 U.S., 75 Intl.)

Written by: Dan McDermott and others, none of whom have done anything you’ve ever heard of.
Directed by: DJ Caruso (Disturbia, Two for the Money, Salton Sea, and some TV)
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, and Michael Chiklis.

People are contacted by a mysterious stranger who seems to know everything and then gives them urgent and bizarre instructions to follow or else they will be killed.

Entertainment Value: B
This was decent, but not great. It wants to be the sequel (of sorts) to 1998’s outstanding Enemy of the State, but there are three problems: Shia LaBouef is no Will Smith, Billy Bob Thornton is no Gene Hackman, and DJ Caruso is certainly no Tony Scott. The plausibility factor becomes a limit here as a really intriguing plot concept starts to feel like Die Hard 18, the Most Impossiblest Die Hardestest Ever. That being said, it’s still quite good. I gave it a B, remember. One other problem, however, is that the set-up is almost so good that you can’t take the movie seriously until after you find out that there really is a viable explanation. But by then, they had already frustrated me by making the core concept seem unsolvable. You’ll want to be asking, “Why them?” and “Who has this much power?” And I can tell you that the film’s premise does work and answer both questions, even if that still leaves loads of feasibility problems. You’ll enjoy the movie better knowing this.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol B+, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence C-, Language C-, Illegality C
Three women do shots in a bar. There is some discussion of sex and STD’s in the very beginning. But the real issues here are violence, PG-13 language, and illegality including theft, destruction of property, extortion, threats to children, and resisting arrest. These issues are constant throughout. Car chases, gunfights, people do get killed, and terrorist activities are the regular fare. This is definitely at the upper end of PG-13, although mostly without the sex element.

Significant Content: D
Anyone who would sacrifice innocent people as an acceptable cost in pursuit of a tactical military objective is immoral. People will do almost anything when something precious to them is in jeopardy. The principle of the Constitution condemn our own current administration. The ends justify the means. The higher good of restoring the country to its principles justifies the lower evils of murder and lying. Don’t entrust the fate of anything significant to computers. Surveillance technology is eliminating privacy and concentrating power in an unhealthy way.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
As an action film, this clearly works quite well. As an airtight plot, well, let’s just say it’s not. Yes, as I said before, the big questions all get answered, but after that you’re left wondering why any of this movie would occur at all. For instance, if the voice can control an F-16 to make the pilot eject, why not just control the plane (or any others) to accomplish her purpose? And, given what she needs from Jerry, why put him in an impossibly tense situation in the beginning which had to allow him to get arrested? Certainly, better plans were available. Nonetheless, the movie does have some interesting things to say about ultimate values and ethics.

Discussion Questions:
~This movie is largely about the question of ultimate values and the violation of lesser values in the achievement of them. Discussing the four main characters, identify what value or values each one considers ultimate and what other values they are thus willing to violate. What does each character “worship,” so to speak? What forms of leverage are used against each of them?
~What happens when anyone is willing to make the ends justify the means absolutely?
~How is the woman like and unlike the voice of God? Consider her ability to take decisions and accommodate her plans to changing facts.
~Do you agree with the woman’s assessment of America based upon the Constitution? Is the woman any better morally than the very people she is trying to destroy? How has she become just like them in her effort to destroy them for being that way? Is this the message of the movie? That America has become its enemies by being willing to sacrifice some innocents? Is this a movie advocating moral equivalence?
~When movies address themes like this, do they encourage conversation or do they stifle it by taking such an overpowering position? Are movies that manipulate emotion to push a dogmatically anti-totalitarian message guilty of their own version of artistic totalitarianism? Is it fair to say that some filmmakers refuse to trust their audiences in much the same way that they complain authoritarian political leaders refuse to trust their citizens?
~Consider this entire movie as a con game, where the where the players have made successively more gradual investments in doing what they’re told and have begun to do more and more unacceptable things. At what point should they have quit? What would have happened if they hadn’t? Why are people to throw good money, time, and actions after bad ones once they’ve become invested?
~Obviously the technological capabilities shown in this movie are science fiction impossible right now, but many people worry that we are heading in this direction. Are you worried about this?
Overall Grade: B-/C+
I expected this to be like Michael Douglas’s The Game, but it wasn’t at all. Nonetheless, it was fine, albeit pretty silly.

Meet Dave (2008)

Rated: PG for bawdy and suggestive humor, action and some language.
Length: 90 minutes
Grade: AB+BB=A-
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $51 million (12 U.S., 39 Intl.)

Written by: Rob Greenberg and Bill Corbett (Only TV for either of them before, including Mystery Science Theater)
Directed by: Brian Robbins, who has produced a ton of movies and TV in many genres and directed Norbit, Shaggy Dog, and Varsity Blues.
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Banks, Gabrielle Union, and Austin Myers.

An alien civilization of tiny humans is running out of energy, so they have sent a device to Earth to steal our ocean salt for energy, but it isn’t operational. So they send a tiny crew in a starship built to imitate a full-sized human, which then must find the device and restart it.

Entertainment Value: A
I did not expect much from this because it’s Eddie Murphy, whose recent spate of so-called family movies have been awful at best. But we were both genuinely impressed with this. Not only was the premise clever and the script very funny, but the acting by Murphy is almost so good that you wonder how he did it. He so perfectly portrays a robot/spaceship/awkward person that it would have been creepy if it hadn’t been so hilarious. I have no idea why this did so poorly at the box office. This is the first non-animated family movie I’ve seen in a long time that I really enjoyed.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B+, Language B, Illegality B+
This is just barely PG in my opinion. Some of the concerns involve a sequence with a shootout at a police station (nobody is hurt) and another involving a foiled convenience store robbery. Dave is hit by a car and sent flying, but this happens after we already know that he’s a spaceship, so it’s not particularly disturbing. There is some mild bullying, people become inebriated on mojitos, a couple of minor profanities including a cut-off “What the,” and one character who is implied to be homosexual (he behaves in stereotypical effeminate ways with a lisp and a love for musical theater, but no actual sexuality is ever addressed).

Significant Content: B
Being human requires more than just biological features. It’s about having emotions, being different, and being yourself. Size is a misleading indicator of strength and ability. Even small people can do big stuff.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Not so much because it’s a real thinker, but more because it’s just such an enjoyable movie for what it was: a family comedy.

Discussion Questions:
~Why is it that we don’t make spaceships in the shape of ourselves? Why don’t we make planes, trains, or automobiles in our own image? Are our bodies so ill-suited to such purposes, or are our bodies simply too complicated to imitate?
~Why do you suspect this movie didn’t make very much money at the box office?
~Does Gina’s willingness to let Dave into her life and her apartment seem odd to you in New York City or in America at all in 2008? Was she being foolish or reckless? Should we be more hospitable to people than we are? Why aren’t we?
~The Nilians seem primarily transformed by embracing a more emotional sort of life. Do you think that most Americans would do well to be more, less, or about as emotional as they are right now? How important is emotion to our humanity? What is the Christian perspective on this? Does God love passion?
~Given that it seems to be jeopardizing his own planet and his mission to make the choices he does, what do you think of the Captain’s decisions?
~Disobeying rules or orders completely baffles the Nilians. How are obedience and disobedience related to being human?
Overall Grade: A-
The concept was very well-executed, and made me chuckle repeatedly. I love being able to reward a genuinely fun family comedy. However, I will note for your benefit that every review I read disagreed with me, essentially finding this a boring and not at all innovative movie. Nonetheless, they’re all wrong, and I am right.

Wanted (2008)

Rated: R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality.
Length: 108 minutes
Grade: C-FDC=C-
Budget: $75 million
Box Office: $341 million (134 U.S., 207 Intl.)

Written by: Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (3:10 to Yuma, Catch that Kid, 2 Fast 2 Furious), based on the comic book series by Mark Millar and JG Jones.
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov (Russian films, including Nightwatch and Daywatch)
Starring: James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, and Angelina Jolie.

A secret clan of assassins tries to recruit Wesley because he is one of a small handful of humans who (like them) have superhuman responses and special talents such as the ability to shoot bullets in curved paths. Their operation turns out to be based on a divine revelatory device, and his primary task is to kill the man who is trying to undo the order and assassinated his father.

Entertainment Value: C-
Eh. I think the problem here was that this felt very much like a movie made on the basis of something else, like a comic book, but not made well enough to stand on its own if you didn’t already love the source. There are much, much, much better films in this genre, such as Matrix, Equilibrium, The Jackal, or The Replacement Killers, and this one never really got there for me. I’m beginning to worry that Morgan Freeman accepts any movie that wants him and, hence, is not a reliable indicator of script quality. But, for an essentially mindless action movie, this was fine, except for the following.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity D, Violence F, Language D, Illegal Activity F
There are a couple of jarring sex scenes in the beginning. The language is constant and graphic, including dangerous driving, knife-fights, people being beaten/tortured, and lots of gun violence. Language is also constant and graphic (Kids-in-Mind counted 44 F words). The whole plot is about assassination, which is still illegal most everywhere. This is definitely R-rated. Not at all something for younger viewers.

Significant Content: D
God (whatever He is) communicates His Will obscurely through missed stitches in a tapestry machine which then code instructions for assassins to do the greater good by killing bad people. It’s sort of a Bible Code mentality. The end message is to beware people who demand unquestioning loyalty, because what looks like a useful secret society might actually be an evil cult. Power corrupts. Everyone has a destiny. The ends justify the means.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
This is a movie that could have been stylistically much different, but the director gives you a real cue as to what to expect here. This is a Russian film, not an American one, and the same high-vulgarity and garish style that you see in Day Watch are on display here. Ugly and unsubtle is what I would call it. Still, the underlying premise raises a few interesting questions potentially. One thing I found interesting is that The Fraternity primarily demands that others pay for their agenda, whereas Christianity only demands that we members sacrifice for our agenda.

Discussion Questions:
~In what ways does Christianity differ from The Fraternity, and in what ways are they similar? Consider prophecy, membership, qualifications, openness of information, and purpose?
~Is truth based on secret knowledge or openly accessible revelation?
~One idea in this movie is that everyone has a destiny and the only way to be in control is to cooperate with that plan. What do you think? Why is it so hard to discover your destiny?
~What do you think of the assertion that apostles are to only deliver, never interpret their messages?
~Do you think we should question messages we get from God? What about prophetic messages delivered by people who claim they are from God?
~What is morally objectionable about assassination? What about vigilantism?
~Do you agree with Wesley’s assessment that he has taken control of his life? What message is he trying to convey to us? Is it a good one?
~One of the key points Sloan uses to sell Wesley on The Fraternity is that it will give him an identity. Why is this such a tempting approach for people? Name as many organizations or entities as you can which offer this promise to people, both legitimate and illegitimate ones. What is the Christian perspective on this?
Overall Grade: C-
I was disappointed, probably because I was expecting something that was both better-conceived and better-executed. In the final analysis, I still for the life of me can’t understand why swinging a gun would in any way be connected with imparting a curved flightpath to the bullet. If you can make bullets curve, you can surely do it just as much with a stationary gun as with a swung one, given that both impart an equally straight vector according to Newtonian physics.