Religulous (2008)

Rated: R for some language and sexual material.
Length: 101 minutes
Grade: CDJB=F
Budget: $2.5 million
Box Office: $13 million (13 U.S., 0.3 Intl., DVD)

Written by: Bill Maher (Politically Incorrect)
Directed by: Larry Charles (Executive producer for Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, The Tick, Dilbert, Mad About You, and Seinfeld; Director for Curb Your Enthusiasm and Borat)
Starring: Bill Maher

Bill Maher tries to show how dangerous religion is and how stupid Christians in particular are by interviewing a variety of B-grade (at best) religious figures.

Entertainment Value: C
Naturally, I expected to hate this movie, and I pretty much did. But I have to admit at the same time that Maher had enough content here to keep me wanting to watch it, if for no other reason than that I wanted to be aware of the totality of what he was going to do and say here. Also, though I certainly can’t endorse watching it, he does raise a handful of legitimate and (I daresay) even valuable questions.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence D, Language D, Illegality NA
This movie is surprisingly vulgar in unexpected moments. Every profanity is used, but sporadically. Maher smokes a joint in a hash bar in Amsterdam. There is one scene of nudity, a scene of gay porn, footage from a gay parade, and several sexual references plus scenes of terror violence, religious self-flagellation, and nuclear war. It’s definitely rightly rated R, although to be fair, it’s not a hard R like some movies, perhaps because it’s a neo-documentary. Nonetheless, be prepared that the coarse parts of the film will arrive unexpectedly.

Significant Content: J
Religion is evil. Doubt is the only virtuous intellectual disposition. Religious people, especially Christians, are fools and weirdos.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
From the perspective of generating discussion, this is certainly provocative and, therefore, must be given better than average art marks. At the same time, I think this movie profoundly misfires on its clear intention. The choice of interviews, the painfully obvious bias, and the pathetic alternative Maher himself embodies actually mean that only the strangest and most ignorant person would find this movie particularly compelling. But I guess if that’s who Maher thinks Christians are, then I suppose it’s at least consistently fashioned. Instead of detailing more of what I found in this movie, let me just present it all as questions, and there are obviously many.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think Maher chose to interview these particular people instead of any mainstream or well-known religious experts such as from seminaries? What percentage of the total interviews he solicited do you think people declined? What percentage of the interviews he actually conducted do you think he left out on purpose? What percentage of the interviews which he did show were actually shown? Were the selections he used representative and fair of those interviews or did they seem deliberately edited so as to make the interviewees look as stupid as possible? If Maher actually believes his own position is so strong, how would he justify the decision to be so yellow in his journalism (both in the sense of bias and cowardice)?
~Did it seem to you that Maher was picking on people who were clearly his intellectual inferiors, especially in the trucker church? What does this say about him?
~Knowing that Maher is much more interested in making punchlines than he is in making truth, do you think it was a mistake for anyone to agree to participate in this film? To what degree is it dangerous for stand-up comics to pretend to be journalists?
~Did the Christians in this movie seem like an accurate sampling of your own experience of Christians? Did you ever cringe at them? Do you think you could have done better? Do you think the editing process would have allowed you to look like you had?
~Maher clearly thinks that religion is awful, but what alternative is he offering? Based upon his own life and demeanor as shown in this movie, do his alternative seem particularly appealing? Do you envy him? Pity him? Does he seem happy?
~Assuming that Maher’s purpose here is to actually get the vast majority of religious people to listen to his concerns and question their religion, would you say this movie an example of savvy marketing or not? Is Maher more interested in reaching people or in having his say in his way? How does his own pride blind him to the flaws of his own project? Do you think that less ridiculous representatives of liberalism, atheism, or even journalism cringe at this particular effort by Maher in much the same way you cringe at it?
~Would you say that this movie actually winds up endorsing religion as opposed to what Maher intended because of all these relatively obvious problems?
~Were there any elements of this movie where you think Maher actually got it right? Did you ever react against the people he was interviewing because you know they do not represent true religion? Would it be more accurate to say this movie is a critique of cults and aberrations than it is of mainstream religion?
~To what degree does this movie prove the proverb that bad representatives of anything push people away from that thing?
~Why does Maher gets so irritated and frustrated with the anti-Israel rabbi? Why is this ironic? What insight does this give you about him and bullies in general?
~This movie claims to be pro-thinking, but given the constant barrage of ideas, does it wind up giving you time to think and process or does it actually discourage real thought? Is this a fair thing to expect a movie to be able to do?
~Maher says he is selling doubt over certainty, that doubt is his product. To what degree is he certain about his doubt? Can doubt be coherently offered as a dogma like this? If it could, by what criteria might we evaluate it as a life view in comparison with religion?
~What are Maher’s idols?
~Maher claims that doubt is humble. Does he seem humble in his doubt? If he were truly humble about his doubts, why would he feel the need to proselytize into accepting them?
~When Maher laughs about people always correcting Jonah’s whale for a fish, what is he laughing at here? Why do people do this? Which deadly sin is involved here?
~Maher seems to think that the people in his movie are hopelessly produced by their religious culture, but presumably he views himself as his own man, formed by nothing outside himself. Is this assessment correct?
~The construction and editing of this movie would seem to require enormously deep, even seething, hatred. How do you think Maher and Larry Charles would defend themselves against this criticism, especially since bigotry is one of the main things they charge religious people with? Are they bigoted against religion? How might they justify their refusal to portray any of the favorable elements of religion in this movie?
~Consider the following objections raised by Maher and how you might answer them.
~~“No one is smarter than I am, and I don’t know. Therefore you can’t know either. “
~~“Why isn’t the virgin birth in all four Gospels?”
~~“Given the similarities between Jesus and other ancient deity stories, how can you know His story is real rather than just plagiarized?”
~~“Jesus clearly criticized the rich, but many Christians these days seem to have forgotten that.”
~~“Religion holds too much power for anyone to safely be in charge of it.”
~~“If you were a member of a club associated with as much evil as religion, you’d quit in a moment. So why do you stay?”
~~“If we don’t outgrow religion, we’re going to destroy the planet.”
~~“Faith turns ignorance and not thinking into a virtue.”
~~“Nationalism is incompatible with Jesus’s teachings.”

Overall Grade: F
Nonetheless, given the length of this review, I obviously found it an interesting exercise in critical thinking. So although I can’t recommend it, I do think it could be useful for small groups of Christians to discuss.

Body of Lies (2008)

Rated: R for strong violence including some torture, and for language throughout.
Length: 128 minutes
Grade: BFBC=B
Budget: $70 million
Box Office: $115 million (39 U.S., 76 Intl.)

Written by: William Monahan (The Departed, Kingdom of Heaven) based on the novel by David Ignatius.
Directed by: Ridley Scott (Seriously? American Gangster, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, GI Jane, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Alien)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, and Golshifteh Farahani.

A CIA operative working on a major lead in the war against terror finds himself constantly at odds with his handler, befriends the chief of Jordan’s intelligence, and falls for a pretty Jordanian civilian.
Entertainment Value: B
Ridley Scott never bores. I found DiCaprio a bit hard to take seriously as the hard-driving tough-guy spook, but I suspended my disbelief long enough to enjoy the movie. Crowe, on the other hand, was fantastic. Some elements of the plot were predictable, perhaps deliberately so. Other parts were a bit far-fetched. But overall, it’s an enjoyable action spy movie.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
Some wine and cigarette use. There’s no sexuality, but one scene of severe corporal punishment has a man naked from the side. The real issues here are violence (torture, brutal assault, more torture, gun violence, bombings, etc.) and profanity (constant and extreme).

Significant Content: B
On open society can’t effectively combat terror or conduct intelligence operations. American bureaucrats are stupid in the ways of the world, but Jordanians (representing the rest of the world) are wiser. Terrorism is evil, but fighting terrorism stupidly is also (slightly less) evil. Impatience and arrogance are the tragic American character flaws. “I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn. Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.” WH Auden. The movie opens with this quote, which is pretty obviously meant to tell us what the movie will demonstrate.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
In the end this is more of an action movie than a sermon, which is nice for a change. Nonetheless, the implications aren’t particularly well-hidden. Moreover, the movie can’t seem to make up its mind. It hates stupidity, which it wants to expose, presumably so we can change it, but it seems to think that secrecy is necessary for success in the war on terror, which would keep all such errors hidden in addition to the smart strategies.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you make of the fact that this movie earned almost double the US domestic box office overseas? Do you think the protection of free speech for exported movies could ever be curtailed when it constitutes bad US foreign policy or even an undermining of it?
~What is your personal perception/impression of the CIA and its agents? Can you think of a pro-CIA movie made in recent years? How do movies and television influence how we think about people to whom we have little or no person exposure?
~Is having an open society compatible with running successful intelligence operations? Should Americans want more or less disclosure from the CIA?
~All four major characters in this movie are plagued by pride. How is this used by other people in the film?
~The film keeps saying that no one is truly innocent, but by putting these words in the mouth of Ed Hoffman, is the film trying to discredit this rationalizing point of view?
~Why are Americans so impatient with matters of warfare and terrorism?
~Do you think the makers of this film feel at all embarrassed at how well things are going in Iraq today compared to when they started this movie?
~Trust and honesty mean everything to Hani, but Hoffman will lie to get done what he needs. Who is right?
~Why does Ferris make the choice he makes in the end?
Overall Grade: B
Decent. Ridley Scott can direct good movies. Who knew?

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008)

Rated: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including teen drinking, sexuality, language and crude behavior.
Length: 90 minutes
Grade: DC-DD=D
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $33 million (31 U.S., 2 Intl., DVD)

Written by: Lorena Scafaria (First screenplay) based on the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Directed by: Peter Sollett (First major film)
Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Alexis Dziena, Aaron Yoo, Rafi Gavron, and Ari Graynor.

The brooding daughter of a famous music producer falls for a guy who’s still getting over being dumped by his hot girlfriend, and they have misadventures over the course of one night in New York City.

Entertainment Value: D
Juno meets Charlie Bartlett, only less entertaining by far than either of them. Sadly, in the end this winds up being exactly the wrong sort of movie: boring and worthless, but not quite bad enough that you ever feel fully justified in turning it off and cutting your time losses.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C-, Violence B, Language C, Illegality NA
One of the main characters is drunk throughout the movie. There are a handful of sexual scenes and discussions, with no nudity. One fight including a head butt. And enough profanity throughout to justify the upper end of PG-13. I’d probably go PG-15. Also, significant supporting characters are gay, although no actual gay behavior is shown.

Significant Content: D
The right person may not be the person you fantasize about. Musical tastes reveal your soul, thus musical compatibility is the key indicator of a soul mate. Shallow people like shallow music and aren’t cool. Being a reckless post-teen is fun. Everyone wants to be loved.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Not so much. Did I mention that this is like Juno meets Charlie Bartlett but without so much depth or entertainment value as either?

Discussion Questions:
~To what degree is musical compatibility important in both friendships and in romantic relationships? Is musical incompatibility a real barrier to either?
~How are the elusive antics of the mysterious band in this movie similar to the method that this movie uses to keep you watching it?
~Why does Nick want to be with Tris? What does she offer him that he desires?
~Why does Tris want to get Nick back when she feels Norah might be getting him?
~Why does Tris feel the need to constantly attack Norah and talk about her father even though Norah never brings him up? Does she seem to use her dad’s fame to her advantage a lot? Why does she get into all the clubs?
~Why is Tal with Norah? Why was Norah with Tal? Was she blind to his real motives or did she just accept them because she wanted companionship? Have you ever agreed to be with someone despite knowing it wasn’t right just because you were lonely? Been friends with people for the same reason?
~Why are we willing to believe a lie that makes us feel good even when we know deep down that it’s a lie? How does Norah’s comment that it’s nice to feel special sometimes fit in here?
~What's the Christian solution to our desires to find fulfillment in even bad relationships, as well as good ones?

Overall Grade: D
There are many better movies worth watching. Watch them instead.

Igor (2008)

Rated: PG for some thematic elements, scary images, action and mild language.
Length: 86 minutes
Grade: C+B-A-B=B
Budget: $30 million
Box Office: $33 million (20 U.S., 10 Intl., 4 DVD)

Written by: Chris McKenna (6 American Dad episodes) and others with no resume to speak of.
Directed by: Anthony Leondis (Lilo & Stitch 2)
Starring: The voices of John Cusack, John Cleese, Steve Buscemi, Sean Hayes, Eddie Izzard, Jennifer Coolidge, Jay Leno, and Molly Shannon.

In a land of perpetual darkness, the citizens have turned to evil as an industry and hold an annual contest for the best evil invention. Scientists invent, and Igors pull the switches. But one Igor has invented an evil creature, the only problem being that she’s actually good rather than evil, and wants to be an actress. Meanwhile, the reigning champion evil scientist schemes to plagiarize his way to another victory through all sorts of, well, evil schemes.

Entertainment Value: C+
The premise here is wonderful and quite innovative. But the execution was really disappointing, probably due to the shallow experience base of the writers and director. It’s really too scary for little kids, and a lot of the jokes are (as often is the case with modern kids movies) aimed at adults while the kids are distracted by the pretty colors and zany action. The message is actually quite good, but the presentation of it was fairly low quality, despite the star-studded cast. Nonetheless, kids raised on Sponge Bob (against my advice) will probably love it.

Superficial Content: B-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C+, Language B, Illegality B
A vamp tries to seduce people and dresses buxomly. Pills and potions are used to do a variety of magic things. There are a few mild profanities. Theft and lying are constant devices. One character is said to be immortal, and he spends the entire movie trying to kill himself in various ways, unsuccessfully. There are some moderately scary scenes and a creepy looking monster who at one point does battle with other monsters. In one sequence, mildly scary old-time television images are shown.

Significant Content: A-
You would think that this movie couldn’t score so high on substantial content only because the first 90% of the film seems to be encouraging evil. However, in the end, the movie winds up being a sound endorsement of goodness and the importance of choosing it. Malaria has a caste system which is clearly denounced. Physical beauty is shown to be a ridiculous basis for evaluating people. Loyalty is praised. And one of the main messages is that society and its leaders can have a big influence on whether a culture aims in the direction of good or evil. Society shouldn’t try to make people be something other than what they really are, which only individual can determine for themsleves. “Even Igors can do big things too.”

Artistic/Thought Value: B
One of the things that I found most interesting here, aside from the rather disappointing animation, were the two significant ways in which this is not a Christian movie. On the one hand, the end message is essentially, “Choose good because it’s better to be good than evil.” Naturally, this fails to capture any of the Gospel message, even though it fits common grace. But the other unchristian element here is a little more buried. Igor is an outcast not because he has nothing the world wants, but because they are prejudiced against seeing that he has what they want. So even though Igor shows to be a great man in the end, despite his hunch, he still satisfies the world’s conditions of giving them what they want by way of cool inventions. Similarly, Eva seems really worthless, but also becomes valued in spite of her appearance by delivering something the world wants: first power and then acting talent. But one of the real bright spots here was the demonstration of how Igor, a man marginalized by his social status and by his physical deformity, has nonetheless internalized these value systems to such a degree that he can in return marginalize someone who is even lower on both scales than he: his own ugly creation Eva. There’s some pretty deep psychology behind why the oppressed in turn oppress others here.

Discussion Questions:
~What is so objectionable about a social system that assigns people to their occupational roles? Why is the two-layer caste system between inventors and Igors so morally obnoxious? Do you ever find yourself doing things to fit into a role that other people expect of you or have imposed on you (like the way the Igors all make their voices have a certain stereotypical slurred speech)?
~If Eva hadn’t had her evil bone activated, would she have won the evil contest? If she hadn’t won the evil contest, would her real talents ever have been recognized by the Malarians? So, did she win her place in society on her own terms or on their terms? What implications for ministry and evangelism might this have? Does the Bible teach us to win by winning or to win by losing? Why?
~Eva says, “I’d rather be a good nobody than a bad somebody.” What does this mean? What is it saying about the value of moral decency? Is this a Christian motto?
~How much influence can a society have on shaping it’s citizens’ notions of what is worth doing and what is worthless? Can you think of any mechanisms for brainwashing that exist in our culture? Do you think our culture is primarily teaching us to be good or teaching us to be bad? Was this movie intended as a social commentary?
~Do you see any examples of real redemption from evil in this movie, or were the characters who wound up good in the end sort of already good inside? Does anyone evil get redeemed to goodness?
~To what degree is the mayor like Satan? What is the cloud over this world which has been used to trick us into thinking that evil is actually the way to success? Can you think of particular examples where people think they need to do bad in order to succeed? At school? In business? In politics? In relationships?
~Are you surprised that Igor, who has been judged for his ugliness, in turn judges Eva for her ugliness? Can you think of examples, perhaps at school, where you’ve seen people who aren’t popular turn around and spurn those even lower on the social ladder than they?
Overall Grade: B
Not really so much for younger kids, but I think there is enough rich discussion to be had here with older (8-13) children, even though the movie itself isn’t particularly entertaining.

Ghost Town (2008)

Rated: PG-13 for some strong language, sexual humor and drug references.
Length: 102 minutes
Grade: AC+A+A=A
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $29 million (13 U.S., 11 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written by: David Koepp (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Zathura, War of the Worlds, Secret Window, Spider-Man, Panic Room, Snake Eyes, and Mission Impossible—all of which will completely mislead you on this movie) and John Kamps (Zathura and The Borrowers)
Directed by: David Koepp (Secret Window, Stir of Echoes, and The Trigger Effect)
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, and Tea Leoni.

When an anti-social dentist dies during a routine operation and returns, he is able to see ghosts, which puts him in high demand with them. But when one ghost tries to get him to help break up the relationship between his wife and her new fiancée, the dentist finds himself actually caring about someone else for the very first time.

Entertainment Value: A
I laughed pretty constantly through this movie. Ricky Gervais (the star of the British version of The Office on which the American version is based) is hilarious. But a movie which was merely hilarious and pretty constantly so became so much more fascinating as it became something I hadn’t even been expecting: meaningful. And by the way, Tea Leoni and Greg Kinnear have marvelously redeemed themselves after a recent bout of awful movies for the both of them. I have no idea how David Koepp went from his history of action/thriller movies to fashion this precious little gem of a romantic comedy.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity B, Violence B , Language C, Illegality B
There are some moderate sexual references here, such as to a mummy’s large and preserved genitals and a naked male ghost whose condition is the source of a few visual gags, and adultery is mentioned a few times. The whole movie is about ghosts and death, several of which occur quite suddenly. There is an extended discussion of painkilling drugs and some alcohol consumption. But probably the biggest reason this is rightly rated PG-13 is the language. It’s not particularly atrocious, and when the British swear it almost doesn’t sound vulgar, but there were several of every sort of profanity here.

Significant Content: A+
Here’s where the movie really surprised me. I was just expecting something funny, but as the movie progressed, it became apparent that the makers had something much more substantial in mind. This movie is deeply about love, not merely the romantic sort, but the broader sort which shows in relationships and is the opposite of mere selfishness. Love is serving the needs of other people and making their lives, or even afterlives, better. Also, there is this tremendous inversion at the end where we learn that the real reason ghosts hang about is not because they have unfinished business but because the living have unresolved attachments to them. If there is any message here, I think it must be, “Love your neighbor as your self,” and do what you can to help him.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Perhaps because they tricked me into a great message by teasing me with a comedy or just because I thought it all progressed so winsomely to the end, I have to praise this movie for being a message wrapped gently in a candy shell rather than a sermon.

Discussion Questions:
~When Dr. Pincus first learns of his special ability and the ghosts start making requests of him, why does he blow them off? What does this reveal about his heart? If you were in his position, would it make you excited for all the unique good you could do, burdened by the size of the task, or irritated as he was?
~This is a ghost story, which is at the very least Biblically problematic, but does this bother you? ~Do you think this movie is one that Christians shouldn’t watch because of this feature?
~The Bible talks about two examples, the demanding neighbor and the demanding woman to the unrighteous judge as why we should bother people into doing the right thing. How does this relate to this movie?
~How do ghost stories fit with the idea of each person having certain particular life objectives that they are supposed to accomplish?
~Why does Frank mislead Pincus about his recurring nightmare? What does this scene say about Frank’s own development of character?
~One of the central themes in ghost stories is the difficulty of getting people to believe that you actually can see ghosts. How is Pincus’s challenge in this regard like or unlike the difficulty Christians face in persuading nonbelievers that God is real and revealed in Christ and the Bible?
~Gwen’s fiancée is a guy who really does many great Christian social things, but he seems tense and stressed out (grinding his teeth, for example). What is the difference between doing good works from a love of Christ and doing them in an effort to prove you are a good person?
~One of the key themes of the Bible is that we should give ourselves freely to benefitting those who are in no position to do anything back for us. Considering that as the central theme of the movie, how does Pincus represent the culture in the beginning and Christianity in the end?
~Pincus seems to be transformed by a combination of personal experiences, new emotional reactions, and a loving confrontation by someone else. Does this conversion get him to become good from a Christian perspective? Is it enough for a movie to demonstrate common grace, even if it doesn’t demonstrate Christian grace?
~Identify as many elements of Dr. Pincus’s personality that contribute to his selfish misery. Which, if any of them, are tendencies you suffer from?
Overall Grade: A
I particularly liked the idea of a sneeze being what happens when we walk through ghosts.

City of Ember (2008)

Rated: PG for mild peril and some thematic elements.
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: BA-?B=B+
Budget: $55 million
Box Office: $20 million (8 U.S., 10 Intl., 2 DVD)

Written by: Based on the book by Jeanne Duprau, Caroline Thompson did the screenplay (Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Addams Family, and Edward Scissorhands.)
Directed by: Gil Kenan (Monster House)
Starring: Harry Treadway, Lucinda Dryzek, Bill Murray, BJ Hogg, and Timn Robbins.

On the eve of apocalypse, the world invests their hopes for the future of the human race on a self-contained underground city where no one will know that there is anything outside. But when the city starts falling apart after 200 years, a special box designed to help them return to the surface has fallen into the hands of children rather than the mayor of Ember.

Entertainment Value: B
Walden Media, with Tom Hanks and 20th Century Fox helping out. Like almost all Walden films, this is a successful book that becomes a decent but not great movie. The best comparison I can find here is with the other recent Walden effort (with tremendous success) Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D. In a way, the films are very similar, being essentially action/sci-fi fun romps with almost no real point, but fun nonetheless. This is very imaginative, and it feels a lot like Mad Max meets Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang with some heavy input from Tim Burton (or his most commonly used screenplay writer, in his absence) plus a teaspoon or so of Logan’s Run. It’s zany, wild, moderately dark, and it feels a bit filthy…like dirty, you know, the way a college dorm room shared by three men is filthy. Seriously, there’s just ick everywhere in Ember. No neat freak could possibly feel comfortable watching this movie and the creepy, neo-squalor these people live in.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B+, Language A, Illegality A
We let the boys watch this, and there were only two parts where I covered their eyes, both involving this large slug-like monster with red tendrils that I thought could be a nightmare-generator, especially the one near the end of the movie where he is implied to kill someone. Precisely because of those two scenes, I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting them watch this alone. There are some action scenes and, as the MPAA calls it, mild peril. But otherwise it’s very clean, if you don’t count all the dirt, I mean. PG seems a bit heavy to me, actually.

Significant Content: ?
I have no idea, so I’ll punt. There doesn’t really seem to be much emphasis on thematic content here. Sure, there’s some anti-authoritarian themes, given the efforts of some people to (rightly) escape Ember to see what else might be outside as well as the ineptitude and corruption of the mayor. But really, it’s just a movie about imagination, persistence, and, possibly, the silliness of assigning people occupations by pulling job titles out of a velvet offering bag.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Turn off your plausibility detector, and you’ll have a fairly good time here. The crafting of a unique visual world here is quite good.

Discussion Questions:
~When Loris Harrow says, “There’s more to a bottle cap than keeping liquid from leaking out of a glass,” what does he mean?
~If there were ever a world-threatening event, would it be a good idea to hide people away in a city like this to spare them the knowledge of the sorrows outside? Is it possible to shelter people from pain and sadness? If they don’t know what destroyed the planet in the first place, how can learn from the mistakes of the past?
~Writers have long been fascinated by the idea of special isolated human societies. Compare famous examples like Plato’s Republic and Cave allegory, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Huxley’s Brave New World, Moore’s Utopia, and even Shyamalan’s film The Village with this movie. How does being cut off from the outside world or the past affect culture?
~One of the key ideas in trying to craft Utopian literature is that a small set of people must be in charge and know the real story, so to speak. But in this movie, it’s not clear whether any adults watched over the children or not. If not, how did they survive? If so, why didn’t they pass on knowledge of what had happened before?
~Compare this story with the story of Zion in The Matrix trilogy.
~What would be the advantages of having people select occupations by random drawing on job day? How might this make it easier for people to accept lousy jobs and limit their options among all the possibilities?
~Do the people of Ember seem to have a religion? Would you expect a society like this to have a religion? What sort?
~Why are there messengers rather than telephones and email in Ember?
~Is this movie meant as a social commentary on environmental issues and technology or not?
Overall Grade: B+
Fun, not quite as fun as Journey 3-D, but still fun. Very imaginative.

Fireproof (2008)

Rated: PG for thematic material and some peril.
Length: 122 minutes
Grade: CB+AB=B+
Budget: $500,000
Box Office: $33 million (33 U.S.)

Written and Directed by: Alex and Stephen Kendrick (Facing the Giants, Flywheel)
Starring: Kirk Cameron, Erin Bethea, Ken Bevel, and Harris Malcolm.

A firefighter and his wife are on the verge of divorce when his father challenges his son to try a forty day marriage rescue program called the Love Dare which intends not only to cultivate love in the home but a relationship with Christ as well.

Entertainment Value: C
This is the third feature length movie from Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, and it certainly feels the same as their previous release, Facing the Giants. You have to go into these movies with the understanding that the acting, the scriptwriting, and the production value are all going to be a far cry from what you’re used to from Hollywood. On the other hand, they tell compelling stories that are explicitly Evangelical. I had to basically force myself to keep watching this one for the first 40 minutes or so, but after that it started to become enjoyable enough that I wasn’t constantly rolling my eyes knowingly at my wife. Like in the first scene when Cameron tells a rookie, “You never leave your partner,” we both chuckled about how this “might” be important to the theme of the movie.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence B+, Language A, Illegality A
The MPAA issues here have to do with dangerous situations like fires and rescue operations. Also, Caleb has an ongoing problem with Internet porn, which is mentioned but not shown, and his wife is shown cultivating a relationship with another man a lot. The other thing to be aware of is that there is heavy marital discord and fighting in the beginning, which might be disturbing to younger kids in healthy homes for much the same reason that we don’t let our kids watch Super Nanny because of the bad example.

Significant Content: A
Love looks very different from selfishness. You can’t give away what you don’t possess. You never leave your partner. Whatever you invest your time, money, and effort into is what you will grow to love more and more. Only the love of Christ will give you the ability to freely love in marriage. Marriage is for better or for worse.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
If you’ve ever read Shakespeare, you know that it takes some time before you can really start to enjoy the story because in the beginning you’re sort of fighting the language before it becomes comfortable to you. It’s the same thing here, only the problem is low quality acting rather than rich prose. But the principle holds, after a while, you stop feeling like you’re watching a skit or a high school play and you can just enjoy it. The only real art complaint is that most of the themes and lessons are so out in the open that there’s not a lot to infer. On the other hand, those themes are so valuable that forcing people to contemplate them is a pretty worthwhile endeavor.

Discussion Questions:
~What reaction will people who are not Christians have to this movie?
~Do you think the low quality of acting and production keeps this from being a more effective piece of ministry?
~When men look at beautiful women on television or the Internet, it makes their own (even attractive) wives seem less satisfying. How is this similar to the effect of watching Hollywood movies and their expensive production value compared to watching homegrown movies like this one?
~Why is respect so important to Caleb? Is he like most men? Why is it so devastating to him to be admired by everyone else but his wife? How might this desire to be admired lead him into temptation?
~Why is being cherished and viewed as sufficient so important to Catherine? Is she like most women? How did her need to be cherished lead her into temptation?
~Which violation do you think is greater: Catherine not respecting and admiring her husband or Caleb not being satisfied with his wife?
~When Caleb first starts doing good things for Catherine, the situation at home and her response actually gets worse. Why is this? Have you ever gotten so accustomed to a bad situation that you got angry at someone for trying to improve it and the discomfort of change that this brought?
~Discuss the comparison between Caleb’s treatment of God and Catherine’s treatment of Caleb.
~Can you think of some times in this movie when Caleb got angry because he probably felt threatened? Is anger generally an indicator of strength or of insecurity?
~What is the point of the salt and pepper demonstration? To what degree is divorce damaging to both people and even to a community?
~Given that the primary audience for this film is people who are already Christian, would it have made more sense to show the characters as Christians already, especially ones who were struggling with their marriages in spite of their religious faith?
~Is it fair to say that this movie (or Facing the Giants for that matter) is offering a message of “Come to Jesus, and you’ll get everything you want?”
~Discuss the progression in Caleb’s motivation to do the love dare. At what stages is he doing it for his dad, to manipulate his wife, to prove himself not a quitter, and for real love? Can real love grow out of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?
Overall Grade: B+
For a Baptist church to make a movie for $500,000 and earn $33 million, that’s pretty good.