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.
Summary:
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.

Summary:
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?
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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.

Summary:
The life and times of George W. Bush, or something like that.
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Comments:
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.

Summary:
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.
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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?
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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.

Proposal, The (2009)


Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, nudity and language.
Length: 108 minutes
Grade: DC-D+D=D
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $296 million (164 U.S., 132 Intl.)

Written by: Peter Chiarelli (First script)
Directed by: Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, Step Up)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Malin Ackerman, and Denis O’Hare.

Summary:
Facing deportation for overstaying her visa, a Canadian senior editor of a huge New York publishing firm coerces her assistant to fake a marriage to obtain citizenship. Evading a skeptical immigration agent takes the couple to the guy’s family in Alaska, where she rediscovers her humanity.

Entertainment Value: D
I will admit I laughed, even a few times. The problem here was how seam-ful the whole movie was. Every element of it was absurd and hackneyed, from the ridiculous small-town tubby male stripper to the weird scene with Betty White and Sandra Bullock shaking their booty to the Earth goddess in the woods to an on-screen romance so indigestible to the emotional attachments the movie had previously created that I couldn’t even begin to believe it. I didn’t care about any these characters, all of which seemed remarkably shallow and stereotypical. I was prepared to give it a C until the ending which ruined what was otherwise a merely mediocre movie. I cried with sadness but not surprise to see this movie made $300 million.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity D+, Violence B, Language C+
There’s some drinking and a scene at a bar. Language is PG-13, but relatively light for that rating, although they could easily have made this movie without any at all. Violence is slapstick, except for a heart attack. The real issue here is sexuality. Therre are plenty of sexual innuendo and sexual reference jokes. Sandra Bullock is naked but for her hands covering her during an extended scene which just seemed strange. An overweight male stripper dances absurdly for several minutes in a sexual way. PG-13 is right.

Significant Content: D+
Even though you might think you can treat marriage trivially, it’s harder to do so when you really come to doing it. Professional success can make a woman into a horrible person. Small towns are generally healthy and wonderful, if a bit eccentric. Lawbreaking is okay if it makes sense to you. Celibacy is mostly involuntary and lamentable. Children must pursue what matters to them, not let their parents’ control their destiny. Nonetheless, family is really important, and experiencing what real love looks like will make us care about other people.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
The key to working an audience is staying true to the characters even as they grow and change. In this case, you have to jettison everything you learn about Margaret in the first 90 minutes in order to make the final 15 minutes make any sense. But the change is more of a kidnapping rather than a metamorphoses, and it completely failed to bring me along. Also, why do mid-40s established actresses like Sandra Bullock and Marissa Tomei feel the need to get naked when they make films? I just don’t get it. And although I like Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson, what I want to know is whether either of them can play any part besides the role they always play. As I mentioned before, the hackneyed feel here kept me very much at a distance from the movie.

Discussion Questions:
~Our culture takes for granted that dads who impose their goals on their children are evil, and children must be allowed to pursue their own plans. What do you think? What perspective does the 5th Commandment have to offer here? Is this movie encouraging people to be disrespectful to their fathers?
~Discuss Joe’s actions with regards to the immigration agent. Did he do the right thing? Considering how things turned out, what do you say?
~What do you make of the scene with the male stripper? Is he being ridiculed, lusted after, celebrated, or what? Is he a symbol for small towns compared with a place like New York? Is that a metaphor small towns would embrace?
~Do the revelations about her life make you see Margaret in a significantly different light?
~Did Andrew do the right thing by moving away to New York? Are his criticisms of his father fair?
~Why would a fake marriage be so hard on a family? Could you deceive your family that way?
~What motivates Margaret to do what she does in the end? What does this say about the power of witnessing love? Is she basically good inside? Are all people basically good inside? What does this movie seem to be saying about that?
~This movie clearly shows the evils of Margaret’s careerism, but what do you think about the behavior and debasement which Andrew engages in to get the career he wants? To which of these characters is their career more of an idol?
~Does the entire premise of the movie being predicated on fraudulently breaking the law bother you here? Does it matter that this was averted by a moral epiphany rather than a new realization about the importance of honoring the law?
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Overall Grade: D
The Devil Wears Prada meets Green Card on the set of Northern Exposure, with very little of what made both of those movies and that wonderful television show so entertaining. Allow me to note, however, that apparently a lot of other people really loved this movie. Well, Two and a Half Men is a highly successful comedy in the ratings, isn’t it?

Observe and Report (2009)


Rated: R for pervasive language, graphic nudity, drug use, sexual content and violence.
Length: 86 minutes
Grade: DNF—F
Budget: $18 million
Box Office: $31 million (24 U.S., 1 Intl., 6 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Jody Hill (Foot Fist Way)
Starring: Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta, Michael Pena, and Anna Faris.
Summary: A flasher is terrorizing a mall, and a dysfunctional mall cop and a detective vie for the affection of a blonde make-up girl who was a victim.

Comments:
20 minutes. And I’ve got to be honest, that was 17 minutes longer than I should have watched it. I was really looking forward to this movie, mostly because Seth Rogen is usually so entertaining, even in his vulgar roles like Knocked Up. In this case, and I don’t remember this ever happening before, I actually considered quitting during the opening credits. It just gave me a sense that this would be an unfunny, uncharitable look at mall life and mall cops. I had been hoping this might be a funny version of Paul Blart, not funnier, but funny at all. I was wrong. It was equally unfunny, but a hundred times more vulgar.
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Overall Grade: F No, no, no, no, no!

Hannah Montana (2009)


Rated: G
Length: 102 minutes
Grade: C+ABB=B
Budget: $35 million
Box Office: $197 million (80 U.S., 75 Intl., 42 DVD)

Written by: Dan Berendson (Cheetah Girls and a bunch of Teen-oriented TV, including Sabrina The Teenage Witch), based on characters created by Michael Poryes, Richard Correll, and Barry O’Brien
Directed by: Peter Chelsom (Shall We Dance, Serendipity, and The Mighty)
Starring: Miley Cyrus, Billy Ray Cyris, Lucas Till, Jason Earles, Emily Osment, Margo Martindale, Barry Bostwick, and Vanessa Williams.

Summary:
In the double life of international pop star Hannah Montana and private teen from the country Miley Cyrus, Hannah is starting to take over, turning Miley into a self-absorbed diva. So her father kidnaps her back to her home town, where she rediscovers her roots as she fends off efforts to reveal her secret identity.

Entertainment Value: C+
This is a hard one to judge for me. I was bored out of my mind by the story here. However, I know that I’m just not a twelve year old girl. And since that is the primary target audience here, I have to defer slightly to the overwhelming box office success and grant that the target audience likely loves this. Adults, on the other hand, will feel comfortable sleeping through it.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A, Language A
Hannah and Tyra Banks fight over a pair of shoes. It’s G, and rightly so. That’s all I have to say.

Significant Content: B
Although I’m tempted to give it an A. It’s clearly a morality play, and one that neither deserves nor needs to be cleverly hidden. Fame, popularity, power, money, and materialism are all both bad and corrupting. Celebrity can make you into a horribly self-centered person, and it takes real dedication and the help of a network of people who knew you before you were famous to keep it from changing you into that person. Country and small town values are good, Hollywood is bad. People who love you will tell you the truth you need to hear. Performers often feel a conflict between being loved for their performance persona and being loved for who they really are. Friends and family are more valuable than anything else. Telling the truth solves a lot of problems. However, and here’s the reason I didn’t give it an A, if you’re cute and sing well, you can probably work everything out in the end. In other words, you can solve all your problems by your own abilities.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
There are plenty of things to talk about here with the kids, which makes me a bit torn on art value. It’s too obvious for me to give it high marks, but considering again the age of the target audience, this is quite good. The main theme of idolatry is one well worth talking about with them. Also, just as an aside, coming from a guy who grew up reading lots of comic books, I think it’s fascinating that Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana is basically a superhero secret identity played out for girls where the hero sings and is a star rather than fighting crime. Once you see this connection, it’s easier to forgive the ridiculous inability of anyone to figure out the dual-identity.

Discussion Questions:
~Miley at one point says, “You can’t take her away. Hanna means everything to me.” Why is this such an unhealthy thing for her to admit? What is a Christian perspective on this?
~Sarcasm is usually someone only saying about half of the rebellious or mean thing and sort of implying the rest. When Ruby calls Miley on her snide comments at the store, why does she back down and apologize?
~Compare Hannah Montana with typical secret identity types like Batman and Superman. What does it say about boys that they like a hero who stops villains? What does it say about girls that they want a hero who has massive fame and performance ability? Do you think this is a healthy gender role for them to fantasize over? Would Hannah Montana as a hero appealed to young girls fifty years ago?
~In the scene with Tyra, Miley fights over a pair of shoes. Even if you haven’t ever actually gotten into a fight over it, has there ever been something you wanted that you either lost or risked losing that made you angry at someone else? What does the Bible say about our need to be content without material possessions? What does the 10th Commandment say? (Deut 5:21, Ex 20:17)
~Again considering comic heroes, do these figures ever experience crises of conscience where they have to completely rethink whether they’ve been doing the right thing? Or are their moments of doubt a byproduct of knowing what’s good but just not being sure how to get there?
~To whom does Miley lie in this movie? How do those lies work out for her?
~To whom does Miley break promises in this movie? How does that work out?
~In the beginning, Miley is very disrespectful to her father. Is this primarily his fault or her fault? For whose benefit is the 5th Commandment given? (Deut 5:16, Ex 20:12)
~At one point, Miley unloads a cart of produce to make a mean journalist fall. Does this seem like a good thing, either from the standpoint of hurting people or destroying property?
~How much of Miley’s ability to solve the problems she has behaved herself into comes from her own singing ability or charm?
~In what ways does Miley seem like a Christian, and in what ways not?
~Is it possible to raise good kids in big cities? Is it harder than in small towns? Is it an admission of weakness for Christians to think they need to shelter their kids in order to raise them properly?
~In your own life, what aspects of Hollywood versus small country town are there? If you were to give up TV, texting, cell phone, Internet, and video games for awhile, would it likely make you a better person?
~Have you ever struggled with being grateful for the things that you have that lots of other people clearly don’t have? Where does this discontentment come from?
~Miley Cyrus has made millions of dollars by putting on the act of being both a pop star and an ordinary girl. Does it seem contradictory for her to make such a profit off of portraying herself as the private girl Miley Cyrus?
~One of the themes here is the conflict between individual and community needs. How important is it for a healthy person to have a community they belong to which they view as more important than themselves? To what degree is this a big problem in America?
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Overall Grade: B
Clean. Boring. But good to discuss with kids.

Year One (2009)


Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence. (edited; originally Rated R for some sexual content and language.)
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: FDFF=F
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $58 million (43 U.S., 15 Intl.)

Written by: Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters, Bedazzled, Groundhog Day, Stripes, Caddyshack, and Animal House), Gene Stupnitsky (TV’s The Office), and Lee Eisenberg (TV’s The Office)
Directed by: Harold Ramis (Analyze That, Multiplicity, Bedazzled, Groundhog Day, Vacation, and Caddyshack)
Starring: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde, and June Diane Raphael.

Summary:
In this send-up of the Old Testament, two primitive hunter-gatherers cross a variety of other civilizations as they encounter several of the stories from Genesis after eating the forbidden fruit.

Entertainment Value: F
So here’s the natural question: Why didn’t we stop watching this? I asked my wife one time whether we should stop. I asked her in another twenty minutes. And finally, about an hour in, I asked, “Don’t we want to be able to tell people we quit watching this movie?” Well, my final solution was to simply go to sleep for the last half hour. Trust me when I say I know I didn’t miss anything. This is classic Jack Black, by which I mean that it is not funny. Michael Cera has a couple of funny lines, but this is no movie you want to watch.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol C , Sex/Nudity D, Violence D, Language D+
This was originally rated R and then downgraded to PG-13 on appeal, but I agree with the original rating. This is saturated with innuendo. Seriously, saturated. And there are a couple of longer scenes that are sexual without nudity but disturbing for their length, such as a prostitute eating a banana and a young man rubbing oil on a priest’s hairy chest. One scene is an orgy in the background with no nudity. There are jokes about incest, homosexuality, bestiality, castration, circumcision, you name it. Violence involves sacrificing virgins, fratricide, a spear being thrown into another man in the back, circumcision implied during screams, and eating excrement. Profanity is as much as can be without getting an R rating, under today’s standards, sadly. There are some references to marijuana and some alcohol consumption. This is definitely PG-15, and I would say R, but the fact that it’s just a terrible movie should keep all rational humans away from watching it.

Significant Content: F
The Bible is unbelievable. Religious people are stupid. Sexual morality is whatever you want it to be, but promiscuity is encouraged. The worst thing is to die a virgin. Primitive mythologies and authoritarian regimes should be overthrown.

Artistic/Thought Value: F
They mash up the stories of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the sacrifice of Isaac, circumcision, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Tabernacle in a way that is both not clever and inaccurate. The intent is clearly both to present these stories in a satirical way which makes all the Biblical ideas and people stupid or worse. For instance, Abraham is stopped from killing Isaac by Zed and Oh, not God. Abraham then revels in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, rather than begging God to have mercy if there are any righteous inhabitants there. See, the key to good satire is to first get the facts straight and then present something within those boundaries which pokes fun. To call this straw man satire is almost too generous, which is surprising because Ramis was raised Jewish (he’s non-religious now). His grasp of these stories is clearly superficial and not at all based in anything resembling Biblical knowledge. I’ll be honest, I’m not a screenplay writer, but I could have made this script much funnier and have done so within the bounds of accuracy. The basic ideas for humor are here, but the execution is just terrible.
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Discussion Questions:
~Given the patently strange idea of circumcision, how can you explain both Abraham’s willingness to accept it and the other people of his household as well?
~Zed and Oh find the descriptions of Sodom and Gomorrah appealing. Why? Do you find the idea of permissive sexual norms appealing? Is this a result of normal human impulses or a result of our sinful natures? Discuss the ways sex is used to persuade you to buy things these days.
~Can you name all the ways in which this movie deviates from the way things are described in the Bible? Does this seem like the satire of someone who loves the Scriptures, hates the Scriptures, or doesn’t know the Scriptures?
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Overall Grade: F
Don’t do it. Let me repeat. Don’t do it. You’ll be sorry. And if you disregard my warnings, at least have the decency to shoot me an email and admit that you ran right through my stop sign and got thrown out at home.

State of Play (2009)


Rated: PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content.
Length: 127 minutes.
Grade: BC-BB=B
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $98 million (37 U.S., 51 Intl., 10 DVD)

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan(Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom), Tony Gilroy(Michael Clayton, Duplicity, Bourne Trilogy, Proof of Life, Armageddon, Devil’s Advocate), and Billy Ray (Breach, Flightplan, Hart’s War).
Directed by: Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jeff Daniels, and Jason Bateman.

Summary:
In this movie adapted from a British miniseries set in Parliament, a veteran reporter becomes drawn into a major Washington conspiracy when his best friend, a Congressman, has a staffer murdered. It turns out they were having an affair and she was also the lead researcher for him on his investigation of a mercenary contractor based thinly on Blackwater.

Entertainment Value: B
While watching this, I had the same, although exact opposite problem as I had with Eagle Eye. In that movie, I disconnected early on because it seemed impossible to explain what was happening, even though a somewhat plausible explanation was eventually given. In this movie, I disconnected because it seemed they had given so much of the plot away so early that there was no reason for the remaining 90 minutes, even though there were some mildly interesting twists in the end. All that said, a movie about media and corruption in power is always going to be fairly interesting to me, and (although I’m sure I’ll catch flak for it) I like Russell Crowe. Despite his truly strange off-stage life, his acting always makes movies better than they would be. This felt very much like another sequel in the recent line of political-war-corruption movies that the makers’ credits reveal, but it’s probably one of the better ones. Don’t give up on it like I almost did. It does get (somewhat) better, even though the very end scene makes no sense whatsoever.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C-, Language D
Everyone drinks. Affairs are the subplot. People are killed by gunshots and by being pushed in front of a subway train. And there is fairly constant medium profanity, including some F language. PG-13 is just right, except for the language.

Significant Content: B
Journalism is a very complicated process, shaped by the news cycle, money, access to information, personal relationships, ego, fame, perseverance, and other people trying to manipulate the process for their own reasons. The truth must come out, no matter what the consequences, but people are still held accountable for what they publish. Politicians are corrupt, even the good ones. Private military contractors are a massive danger to the freedom and security of the United States.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
In a way, just like the other movies these guys have made, this is so complex and story-oriented that it’s not likely to generate a ton of discussion. Some movies lead to analysis, others almost seem to make analysis a little trite or silly.

Discussion Questions:
~The characters in this movie seem slower to grasp the likely conspiracy than the audience is. Does that seem plausible to you? Once they do grasp it, they are still frustrated by trying to prove it enough to go to press. If you had to guess, how much that news journalists know about the world doesn’t get published only because it can’t be reliably confirmed?
~The standard of evidence for conviction is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What standard exists for journalism? Do you think that a person’s reputation should be vulnerable to such a lowered standard of responsibility? How do you balance concern for slander against the importance of people knowing the truth and free speech?
~One scene in this movie deals with the choice whether to reveal a character flaw that would discredit someone who people need to believe in order to accept the entire big picture of what’s going on. How responsible are news people for releasing stories in such a way that the truth is going to be heard rather than ignored or dismissed?
~How much responsibility does a fictional story like this have for the implications and allegations it seems to be making about a real-life agency or people? Are you worried about companies like Blackwater?
~On a scale of 1-10, how corrupt do you think the average politician is? What about journalists? What inclines you to distrust politicians and trust journalists, presuming that you do?
~Rep. Collins complains at one point that all his legislative work will be forgotten in the wake of his affair and the murder. Is he right? Is that unfair?
~This movie seems to be saying that print journalism is both less profitable and also more reliable than blogging. What do you believe is true when comparing these two news delivery platforms?

Overall Grade: B
It’s above average, but not great. If you liked The Kingdom and Breach, you’ll like this. If not, well, you still might anyhow, but no promises.

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)


Rated: PG for sci-fi action, some crude humor and mild language.
Length: 94 minutes.
Grade: CBCD=C
Budget: $175 million
Box Office: $380 million (198 U.S., 182 Intl.

Written by: Maya Forbes (The Rocker), Wallace Wolodarsky (The Rocker), Rob Letterman (Shark Tale), Jonathan Aibel (Kung Fu Panda), and Glenn Berger (Kung Fu Panda).
Directed by: Rob Letterman (Shark Tale) and Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2).
Starring: The voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Paul Rudd, Renee Zellweger, Amy Poehler, and John Krasinski.

Summary:
When an alien megalomaniac threatens to destroy the earth, the American military deploys the monsters it has been hiding from the public for 50 years to fight him. This includes the 50-foot-woman who was only days before about to get married when she got hit by the meteor the alien is seeking.

Entertainment Value: C
There are two problems here. Problem one: too many cooks, and half of them collaborated on The Rocker. Sometimes less is more, and in this case, less would have likely been much more. Problem two: Dreamworks Animation does not make good kids movies. Certainly not good to the standards set by Walt Disney in the old days or Pixar (now a part of Disney) today. Yes, Kung-Fu Panda was awesome! But everything else they do has the same basic problem: too chaotic, too looney, and far too adult-oriented to be good for kids. The plot here involves a massively advanced alien civilization that loses to the flimsiest of super-hero talents in the campiest of plots. And along the way, it’s full of crude jokes and implausible characters. Steak is good. Asparagus is good. Watermelon is good. Salsa is good. And root beer is good. But I don’t want them all together in the same goulash. That’s just nasty.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C+, Language A
The biggest problem here (as a kids movie) is with the unending parade of crude jokes, such as requiring a butt-print for entry into the war room, a guy seeming to hold his own boobs, giving a nerd a wedgie, and “setting the terror level at code brown, cuz I need to change my pants.” There is a lot of war shooting and conflict between the aliens and the army and the monsters. In one scene, people on the Golden Gate Bridge nearly die when the bridge is attacked. It’s rightly rated PG, but I don’t love it for younger kids. Call it PG-7.

Significant Content: C
If you believe in yourself (and happen to get made into an indestructible force by a meteor that doesn’t kill you) you can do anything. Teamwork is important. Friends are people who accept you for who you are no matter what. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to show you the truth about people. Megalomaniacs are always brought down by their arrogance.
Artistic/Thought Value: D As always, the animation is fantastic. Seriously, outstanding. For $175 million, it ought to be. But that’s where the art excellence ends. There just isn’t much to talk about here after you’ve seen the movie.

Discussion Questions:
~Susan feels that Derek is selfish and not really interested in being a true partner with her. Have you ever felt like someone else only wanted to be in control in a relationship?
~This movie seems to want to tell us that we should value everyone, no matter how strange they are. But in the movie, each of the characters earns his place on the team and in the triumph by his abilities. So, is it telling us to value those who don’t have value or to just keep an open mind until the valuable ones can prove themselves to us? Does the movie lose credibility on it’s message of inclusiveness when it celebrates the mistreatment of the nerdy guy?
~How likely is it that the President of the United States would be this much of a dunce? Do you think it’s good for the President to be portrayed this way?
~How many other movies or movie genres can you find referenced or mocked in this movie?
~The clones of Gallaxhar get killed several times in this movie. Why does that bother us less than anyone else getting killed? Should it?

Overall Grade: C
Dreamworks produces another mediocre animated film just barely inoffensive enough for kids to watch. Watch Monsters Inc., Dr. Strangelove, Men in Black, Close Encounters, or any of the black and white Godzilla movies for much better entertainment. Seth Rogen is hilarious as BOB, but that’s about as much praise as I can give it.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)


Rated: PG-13 for sexual content throughout, some language and a drug reference.
Length: 100 minutes
Grade: B+C-B+B+=B+
Budget: Estimated $40-60 million
Box Office: $97 million (55 U.S., 42 Intl.)


Written by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (The Hangover, Four Christmases)
Directed by: Mark Waters (Spiderwick Chronicles, Just Like Heaven, Mean Girls, Freaky Friday, Head Over Heels, and House of Yes)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Noureen DeWoulf, Emma Stone, Michael Douglas, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster, and Anne Archer.


Summary:
In this reworking of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, a successful photographer and inveterate womanizer is forced to confront his own relationship failures on the eve of his brother’s wedding as he is led through various times by ghost girlfriends.

Entertainment Value: B+
Okay, I know this is going to come as a shock for some of you, but in this movie, Matthew McConaughey plays, get this, an alcoholic womanizer! I know. I know. He’s really showing his range here. Obviously, there’s nothing in either the plot or the casting that’s stunning or surprising. Nevertheless, I was entertained the whole way through, perhaps precisely by the fact that they didn’t try to be unpredictable. They just had fun taking a predictable plot and funnying it up for us.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol C-, Sex/Nudity C-, Violence B, Language C-
This is one of those PG-13 movies that probably should be R for all the sexual innuendo and alcohol consumption and mild profanity. Nevertheless, I have to admit that this is right in the PG-13 normal range these days. And, in a way, if it helps for a teenage boy to see this and actually get the point, perhaps it’s good. I doubt there’s anything here that any teenager hasn’t seen before many times. Lots of drinking. Lots of scantily clad women, bed scenes, and sex talk. Lots of minor profanity. What can I say? C- says it all. This is glossy semi-porn, like Maxim magazine or FHM.


Significant Content: B+

Life spent in pursuit of hedonistic pleasure it temporarily satisfying, but lonely and disappointing in the long run. Also, people who tend towards hedonism are often people who have been hurt deeply and never want to experience that again. One of the most valuable things in life is to have someone who sees the good in you, even if no one else does. Love means investing yourself and taking a risk. Second chances are a wonderful thing. Marriage is the relational ideal.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
It’s shiny and cute and funny, which means that most normal people will enjoy it. Also, since it’s a date movie, I think a lot of guys will be exposed to it who might benefit from it. In spite of this and the B+, there are three real serious problems here. First, the fun and pretty version of hedonism portrayed here is not the normal experience for hedonists, who often find themselves knocking people up, contracting diseases, or just being lonely a lot of the time. The movie is condemning hedonistic sexual self-indulgence, but it has to sell you on the fun of hedonistic sexual self-indulgence in the beginning to do this. We have to LIKE Connor before we can learn from him, and perhaps we like him a bit too much. Second, although those in dating or serious relationships who would prefer to be like Connor will likely find themselves dragged to the theater to see this, those guys are already either in steady relationships or likely want to be. The real womanizer is far less likely to ever see this movie, and hence I doubt he would be much affected by its release. Third, and most problematic of all, this movie completely ignores the fact that Connor is only ever one half of these relationships. The movie is clearly implying that all these idiotic, misguided women are perfectly fine and normal and all the problems in the relationship world could
be fixed if all the Connors out there just got their acts together. But look, drug dealers still need drug users for there to be a market. And the diagnosis here is far too one-sided to be of use to the women who need to learn the lesson at least as much as the men. It’s the sexually restrictive Jenny who both draws the real love of Connor and also eventually gets him for herself, but I doubt very many women will leave the theater even thinking they need to emulate her as they drive home with their cohabiting boyfriends of four years. Yes, men in our society need to stop worshipping the Connors and trying to be like them, but women in our society need to stop reading Cosmo, watching Sex and the City, and thinking they can find happiness being number 50 in the endless stream of sex partners. All that said, I still give it B+ for Art and Substance.


Discussion Questions:
~If this movie is selling a story about lostness and salvation, what is the cause of the need for repentance and what is the process for salvation? Is this movie selling self-improvement or something else?
`Even though his experiences get Connor to be better, isn’t this merely selling him on the value of long-term self-gratification rather than the value of short-term self-gratification? In the end, has he really learned what love looks like?
~Do you think that men already are like Connor will be impacted by this movie? Do you think that men who want to be like Connor will?
~Who in our society does the Uncle Wayne character represent? Can you name some of the people or outlets that supply his mythology to our culture? Who are some of the people or outlets supplying the sexually empowered woman myth in our culture?
~Connor’s emotional pain is ultimately the source of his embrace of the Pick-up Artist mindset of Uncle Wayne. Do you think that hedonists are all damaged in this way and just trying to avoid being hurt again? Have you ever known someone like this? The movie seems to be saying that such people already are unhappy deep down inside. Is this true in your experience?
~Compare this movie with A Christmas Carol. How are Scrooge and Connor the same and different? How are they perceived by others? Would you imagine there were financial fling participants in Scrooge’s life to match the women in Connor’s life? What about the differences between Marley and Wayne? How does Bob Cratchit compare with his assistant, Melanie?
~Connor is portrayed as a selfish, superficial womanizer taking advantage of otherwise decent, loving women. But are the women who are attracted to him more virtuous than he is? Are they really in love with him or are they merely in love with how he makes them feel when they’re with him? If that’s the case, then aren’t they mutually using each other rather than him using them? ~When women are upset about being dumped by Connor, do they actually hate him or just hate the fact that she can’t have him? How do you think they’d respond if another guy like him came along? How do you think they’d respond if he wanted them back?
~Who is to blame for the relational disasters between Connor and other women? How much of it is Connor? Is he honest about his intentions and his lack of willingness to commit? How much of it is the women? Are they na├»ve? Are they too eager to give him their bodies? How much of it is the society which has made such behavior acceptable, even normative? Would you blame contraceptive manufacturers for dispensing the technology to “liberate” women from enduring relationships? How much responsibility do you attribute to his uncle for teaching him both that this practice is good and also how to be good at it?
~Is being charming a kind of power that entails moral obligations?
~Jenny at one point says that wooing a woman is not for the woman’s benefit. What does she mean, and is she right?
~One theory about men is that they are essentially barbarians until they find the one woman worthy enough in their eyes to get them to reform. Do you think this is true? What does it say about all the other women? What happens if that woman doesn’t demand that he reform?
~Is marriage an institution for the weak or for the strong? Is the desire and ability to remain independent a mark of strength or weakness? How are hedonism and atheism alike, in this sense of being marketed as virtuous alternatives for those who are strong enough to embrace them?
~Uncle Wayne says that the person who cares the least about the relationship has all the power. Is this true? Is it the best truth? Does Connor adequately refute this in his best man speech? Can the idea of weakness, sacrifice, and covenant ever be fully expressed or comprehended without reference to the Gospel?

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Overall Grade: B+
Well worth the watch, even if nothing here surprises you. I thought the bed as time-travel vehicle was a cute touch.