Inception (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout.
Length: 148 minutes
Grade: ACBA+=A
Budget: $160 million
Box Office: $853 million (293 U.S., 533 Intl., 27 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight, Prestige, Batman Begins, and Memento)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Ellen Page
With: Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Tom Berenger

Striving to clear his name and return to see his children, a dream infiltrator takes on an impossibly difficult job of corporate espionage.

Entertainment Value: A
I’m not even sure I need to explain this one for anyone who’s seen it. As a simple action movie, this is fantastic. As a psychological exploration or a cinematic construction or an enigma, it’s brilliant. For me, Christopher Nolan is the top of the food chain in modern filmmaking after this and Dark Knight. And the thing that puts this ahead of Avatar is that long, long, long after the movie, you’re still thinking about it and the plot rather than complaining about how weak the plot underneath all the imagery really was.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity A, Violence C-, Language B
There’s mild profanity and the plot revolves around the use of sedatives/drugs to achieve stable dream states. There’s no sexuality at all. Violence will be the main concern, with lots of action, including action sequences with gunfire and people being killed. PG-13 is just right.

Significant Content: B
This is a VERY difficult one to assign, and the reason for it is that fishing the meaning out of this movie is a bit like trying to remove an elusive bit of eggshell from the white. But the obvious messages about guilt and repression and the way ideas can have restorative/therapeutic value is good. Also, dreams are notoriously difficult to separate from reality.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
If you’ve read many of my reviews, you may have noticed there are several ways a movie can get a high art score. It can be a really cleverly constructed film, it can have high educational/illustrative value, or it can be truly beautiful. In addition to these, this is a film which, unlike any other I’ve seen, will compel you to think about it again and again and again because you want to solve it. For ongoing argument/discussion value, there just isn’t another film comparable to this. Witness some of the online forums I have listed below. But don’t read them unless you’ve seen the movie already. This movie deserves an A for sheer intricacy, a fact attested to by Nolan’s waiting to do this for nine years until he’d mastered filmmaking better with the two Batman movies. Also, the skill necessary to create the last 45 minutes or so and keep all the levels going in our awareness is its own masterpiece of filmmaking.

Discussion Questions:
~What does it mean?
~Have you ever had trouble telling a dream from reality?
~Has a dream ever had a lingering effect even after you woke up?
If this reality were a dream, how would you know?
~Have you ever thought of this life as a kind of dream from which we all wake up when we die? What does the Bible have to say about this notion?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
Unlike most movies, now that I’ve watched this 2+ times, I have to admit that you could select almost any of it for poignancy value. Certainly the elevator sequence and Mol’s invitation to Dom to join her would qualify. But so many others are worth listing that it’s hard to pick any, really.
Overall Grade: A
As a mere action movie, this is outstanding. As a puzzle to be solved with psychological/philosophical themes, it’s a treasure trove. I didn’t love it fully after the first viewing because I couldn’t solve it, but this made me go back and back which has drawn me into the abyss, happily. Dark City, The Matrix, and now Inception.
Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!
Below, I have some theories, etc. for those who have seen the movie and want to “figure it out.”
2. Odd things to consider for any theory.
~Saito’s “miracle rescue” in Mombasa.
~Why doesn’t Fischer recognize Saito, who is supposedly a massively powerful competitor of his father’s company?
~Ariadne’s amazing initial adeptness at dreamworld manipulation.
~Saito interrupting Dom’s totem test after his trial with the new sedative and his vision of Mol out the window thereafter.
~Saito so easily and quickly just buying an entire airline.
~The brass top being Mol’s secret, Dom’s Totem, and in Saito’s possession at the beginning.
~The children have neither aged nor wear different clothes in the end scene compared with the scene when he leaves them after Mol’s death.
~Where is Dom’s mother, who is supposedly watching the kids?
~Why does Saito have the power to fix all of Dom’s problems with one phone call?
~What do the various looks at Dom during the airport scene represent?
~Who, really, are the thugs chasing Dom in Mombasa, and why are they unable to hit him with so many bullets? Whose subconscious is fighting back, if at all?
~The impact of Mol’s claimed threat letter to the police and the three psychiatrists certifying her as sane.
~The fact that the audience is not given a totem of our own to be able to verify what’s “real” in the movie and what’s a dream level. See “Dissecting,” above.
~Ariadne being a name from Greek Mythology who helped Theseus return from the Minotaur’s maze with a ball of red thread after slaying him.
~According to Nolan’s rules, any scene with an abrupt, inexplicable start is a dream.

3. My theory
Having read all the above websites and pondered the movie a lot (my wife would say too much), I have my own theory which none of the others seem to have seen. There’s a probable version and a totally wacked version.

My tame version:
The entire movie is an inception by Michael Caine in real life against Dom (his son) to get him to release the guilt he feels about the death of Mol when the two of them were first experimenting with Caine’s real world dream exploration techniques. The other players are all confederates acting to pull a con on Dom, including Fischer. This ploy ultimately works and Dom is freed from his guilt to love his children again. Caine is the dreamer, which is why he doesn’t ever go to any of the lower levels. In addition to how this answers the above issues, it also explains Michael Caine’s very odd line to Dom at the Paris lecture hall, “Dom, come back to reality,” his presence at the end and the top not dropping, and his (actual in real life) revelation to the media that he invented the dream, listed on Wikpedia.

My crazy version:
Everything is mostly as I just said, except there’s one major twist: Mol isn’t dead in real life. When she killed herself, it was actually still dreamworld and HE wouldn’t believe it. So the real problem keeping Dom from waking up is that he has all this guilt and he has become convinced that dreamworld is reality (like the Indian group-dreamers, whom we are told are experiencing a reality just as real as the “real” one by the cryptic old man). This would explain Mol’s ability to show up in the dreams basically at will (and why she moves down to limbo when shot in the snow level, perhaps). So Mol and Cain in real life are trying to get Dom to come back to reality together.

Final thoughts:
If the solution isn’t either of these, then the whole movie is itself a dream or else the thing has no “solution,” which are sort of the same, actually. I don’t dismiss these possibilities, I just hope this isn’t it. I’d be disappointed. Tom Brown is convinced that Inception 2 will answer our questions about Inception 1. I doubt there will be an Inception 2, personally. One frustration with this movie is that no one solution ever quite seems fully satisfying, and you have to watch the entire 150 minutes again after any tweaking to be sure that everything fits. I love the movie, but I don’t have the College-era time to do this enough to satisfy my curiosity. Plus, I’d be a bit heartbroken if I couldn’t solve it, which is why I’d almost rather believe I have without wanting to find out I haven’t (either by watching it again or by Nolan telling “the truth” about it). So in reality, I’m less concerned about the reality of Inception since I’m comfortable with my take on it, or my dream about it, if you prefer. =)

Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

Rated: PG for fantasy action violence, some mild rude humor and brief language.
Length: 109 minutes
Grade: B+B+BB+=B+
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $225 million (63 U.S., 152 Intl., 10 DVD)

Written by: Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal (Flicka, Mona Lisa Smile, Planet of the Apes, Mighty Joe Young, Mercury Rising, Beverly Hillbillies, Star Trek VI, and Superman IV), Matt Lopez (Race to Witch Mountain, Bedtime Stories, and The Wild), Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard (Prince of Persia Sands of Time, The Uninvited)
Directed by: Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure 1+2, The Kid, Phenomenon, While You Were Sleeping, and Cool Runnings)
Starring: Nicholas Cage and Jay Baruchel
With: Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Toby Kebbell, and Monica Bellucci.

In 740 AD, when Merlin was betrayed and killed, one of his students imprisoned herself and Merlin’s arch-enemy Morgana le Fay inside a nesting doll. Now, the long-lost descendant of Merlin, the “Prime Merlinian,” must learn magic from Balthazar Blake (another of Merlin’s students) to save the world from the betrayer who wants to release Morgan and subjugate all humanity. Unfortunately for him, he’s just a nerdy physics student.

Entertainment Value: B+
This was fun. There’s nothing “great” about this movie, but it’s plenty of good, mostly clean wizards and witches action frivolity with some PG romance and sarcastic humor. My boys have been watching it almost every day since we saw it over a week ago, which means it has that classic Disney appeal to younger kids. Having grown up a mythology and Middle Ages fan (yes I played Dungeons & Dragons), I thought it was thoroughly entertaining. I will say one thing I wonder about. In The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, Monica Bellucci plays the wife of the Merovingian. In Sorcerer’s Apprentice, she waits for her lover Balthasar to discover the Prime Merlinian. Are all Monica Bellucci films destined to have a long-named character that starts with M and ends with –ian? Yeah, it was probably funnier inside my head.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A
Isn’t it great for a kids movie to be safe enough for kids to watch? At least for this one, you know there’s only one thing to be concerned about: violence. There are some killings and plenty of sorcery/witchcraft magic and action peril (car chases, giant dragons, fireballs and plasma blasts, etc.). Now, I come from a tradition which thinks that fantasy fighting and violence is perfectly normal for kids, so I had no problem letting my boys (6 and 4) watch this. However, Common Sense Media says PG-9. So, I think it’s fine, but at least now you know what to be aware of.

Significant Content: B
Physics is really just the precursor of magic, which adds mental powers to natural science. Nevertheless, magic (or physics) without love will be empty and unbeautiful. Evil people refuse to submit to others and only serve themselves. Good masters serve the student but evil masters use up the student for their own purposes. Evil must be dealt with, it cannot be ignored. Everyone wants to be normal and have a relaxing life, but the burden of great talents is great responsibility.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
It’s not so much for thought value as it is for artistic rendering. This film has all sorts of homages in all the right places, most notably the design of the studio and the wonderful mop scene. There’s also the Star Wars reference, but my personal favorite was the adaptation of the scene from Sword in the Stone where Merlin and Mim are dueling back and forth by upgrading what monster they become just like the car chase scene here.

Discussion Questions:
~In the opening scene, Merlin tells Morgana that they are but servants of the magic, but she replies that she is no one’s servant. Does his view represent the idea of stewardship? What does her response show about her?
~When Dave challenges Balthasar for not being a good mentor, he makes a distinction between a mentor and a master. What’s the difference, and why is it important? What does our culture think of the idea of having a master? How is this relevant to Christianity? Do you tend to think of Jesus as your mentor or as your master?
~What are the differences between being one of the Morganians and one of the Merlinians?
~Do you believe that people are capable of doing magic or any sort of psychic powers if they learned to use more of their minds/brains?
~Given the Bible’s stern warnings against witchcraft, do you believe that myths and fables (or comic books) with characters doing spells are always a problem for Christians?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Dragon fighting
~Tesla tower serenade.
~The mops.
~The end battle.
Overall Grade: B+
This is fun and entertaining for adults and kids. Mine have been watching it over and over since we got it.

Eat Pray Love (2010)

Rated: PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity.
Length: 133 minutes
Grade: DCDB=C
Budget: $60 million
Box Office: $215 million (81 U.S., 121 Intl., 13 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Ryan Murphy (Running with Scissors and TV like Glee, Nip/Tuck, and Popular), based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Starring: Julia Roberts.
With: Billy Crudup, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, and Javier Bardem.

A journalist goes through a midlife crisis when she realizes that the life she’s chosen for herself doesn’t even seem to have her in it. She divorces her husband and goes on a bodily, spiritual, relational journey to Italy, India, and Bali.

Entertainment Value: D
This was soooo disappointing. And the weird thing is that I wanted to like it and even found in going back over the sound clips that there’s actually quite a lot of interesting material in the movie. For starters, it’s way overwritten and feels terribly fake and contrived as a result. But more than this, it’s just tragically boring, inspite of having so many interesting scenes and insights. She is told by her Balinese mentor to smile with her liver (or kidney, I can’t remember which), but the movie itself doesn’t have much smile to it at all. And no, contrary to what you might anticipate, it wasn’t the silly Eastern religious stuff that threw me off the scent on this one. I actually thought it had one of the most touching moments when she first prayed to God.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C+, Sex/Nudity C, Violence A-, Language C
PG-13 is right. The stuff that might bother you is language, which is never awful, but sort of regularly medium bad. There are several sexual scenes, mostly implied, and only some rear male nudity. There’s a fair amount of alcohol, including some drunkenness. There’s one conversation about something awful almost happening.

Significant Content: D
This is a hard one to grade because, as I hinted at above, although there are plenty of interesting things to comment or ponder, the overall message of the movie is profoundly dumb. Here’s the short version. When you’re immature, don’t make romance your idol or else you’ll be sucked in and annihilated by it. But the goal is to accomplish personal culinary, emotional, spiritual, and relational maturity so that you can go back to romance as an idol and it will finally satisfy you. Another way to say it: having a variety of ways of having happiness means that you’re pleasure portfolio is diversified enough to handle the risk of adding romance to your life.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
There’s actually quite a bit to talk about here, and I think the best way to do that is to give the main ideas of the movie in the discussion questions.

Discussion Questions:
~For each of the following messages from this movie, discuss whether you think they are correct or not and how they might apply to your life:
~~~All suffering is relational suffering. We can endure anything else, but relationships have a special way of devastating us.
~~~Romantic relationships are very much like any addictive drug, especially when we are seeking our identity and approval from someone else.
~~~Sometimes, for love, you have to lose your balance in life in order to preserve it.
~~~If you set out to find joy in life, learn to treat everything that happens as part of the universe’s effort to give it to you.
~~~God dwells in you, as you, not as some fantasy ideal of human behavior.
~~~Ruin is the road to transformation.
~~~Having a child is like getting a face tattoo: you kind of want to be committed.

~Given the realities of most people’s lives, does the adventure shown in this movie seem plausible for others who might be experiencing alienation or angst?
~If Liz had been who she was at the end of this movie back in the beginning, could her marriage have worked? Why couldn’t she go on this journey with him instead of leaving him?
~How might your view of this movie have been different if Liz had pursued a Christian religious experience rather than the ones she does? What advice would you give her as a Christian? Do we have to become solid, mature people before we can safely fall in love with Jesus?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening story about the Cambodian refugees needing relationship advice.
~Muffin top pizza
~Praying to God about her marriage.
~Richard Jenkins telling her his own story. How does your view of him shift after this scene?

Overall Grade: C
A mostly disappointing (and very long) Oprah’s book club effort to show women how to have meaning in their lives again through food, spirituality, and romance.

Babies (2010)

Rated: PG for cultural and maternal nudity throughout.
Length: 79 minutes
Grade: C+BCD=C
Budget: Unknown, perhaps $500,000
Box Office: $11 million (7 U.S., 2 Intl., 2 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Thomas Balmes and Alain Chabat
Starring: Four mothers, four babies, and some walk-ons.

This is a documentary, much like any nature film, showing a year in the life of four babies in San Francisco, Tokyo, Namibia, and Mongolia.

Entertainment Value: C+
Okay, who doesn’t like babies, right? Our boys loved parts of it. It was very human, and part of the point is that you catch yourself thinking, “Oh, gosh, that isn’t good for a baby.” At the same time, the problem with this movie is primarily one of missed opportunity. Instead of just four babies, they should have done maybe six or eight. Also, the only babies that were really interesting were the Namibian and Mongolian ones. Tokyo and San Francisco are boringly similar and are ones I’m already familiar with. I would have loved to see babies from Mexico, Peru, Cuba, India, Iran, or Indonesia. The other missed opportunity is that even as they were showing us too many Western (Tokyo essentially counts as this) practices, they chose to show both too much and too little of the others. For one thing, the African baby (and the Mongolian, as I remember) had no diapers. So, how does this work with a baby? The one scene they did show was frustratingly brief. As a parent, I’m curious. The one wonderful choice they made was to forego a narrator and just show. I liked that.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence A, Language A
The only thing you’ll want to know is that there’s lots of female nudity in this movie, but I’ll be honest to tell you that there’s absolutely nothing lurid or erotic about it. There’s also some baby part nudity, but clearly this is normal and expected.

Significant Content: C
If there’s a message here, and I want to stress that I don’t really think there is, the message is that babies all over the world are raised in all sorts of different ways, but they all turn out okay. Even though the environment of a baby looks horrendous to you, it works for them.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
The reasons I can’t grant this a high art grade I’ve already stated above. Plus, it raised but didn’t answer questions I was interested in, such as where are the fathers in Africa and Mongolia?

Discussion Questions:
~Did any parts of this movie make you feel uncomfortable? Which ones? Do you think your discomfort is legitimate or merely cultural? If these mothers aren’t worried about their kids, is it intrusive of you to be?
~How much does this movie shift your attitudes about what is necessary for raising a healthy child?
~Were you glad this movie had no narration, or do you think it would have helped?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The obvious abundance of books in the San Francisco house compared with elsewhere.
~Flies all over the people in Africa.
~Dragging the cat by the collar.
~Shaving the baby’s head with a knife.
~Roaming dogs coming up to the baby.
~Girl frustrated with the stackable toy
~Cleaning the face with milk.
Overall Grade: C
I was really eager to see this, and you wouldn’t believe how much effort I invested to get a copy. In the end, I was mostly disappointed, especially because of how much more interesting this film could easily have been. If only they had chosen more and/or better cultures to feature.

Knight and Day (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of action violence throughout, and brief strong language.
Length: 109 minutes
Grade: ACBD=A-
Budget: $117 million
Box Office: $260 million (76 U.S., 184 Intl.)

Written by: Patrick O’Neill (First Script)
Directed by: James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, Identity, Kate & Leopold, Girl Interrupted, Cop Land, Heavy)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz
With: Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, and Paul Dano.

June Havens is an ordinary citizen who gets dragged into the dangerous and action-packed world of espionage by being on the wrong plane.

Entertainment Value: A
We were more than pleasantly surprised by this. The action and plot of the movie were actually the least compelling thing here. What really makes this movie work is the combination of charm and humor by Cruise and the deliberate choice to simultaneously mock action movies while being an over-the-top ridiculous action movie. For instance, at vital moments in the plot where you can’t see how it could possibly turn out, they don’t even bother to show you and just move to the next scene somehow. Every time, I laughed.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence C-, Language C-
There’s a lot of action and killing, although not a ton of blood. There are only mild hints at sexuality. The language is, sadly, one F and a couple S, but totally unnecessary. A couple of times, someone is drugged, usually for their own good. PG-13 is right, although I wouldn’t quibble with someone who said R-15.

Significant Content: B
What I loved about this movie was the presentation of a man as competent, witty, reliable, devoted, skilled, kind, and charming. I felt like I was watching a very modernized Robin Hood type character. For all the negative portrayals of men in movies and on TV, seeing something like this was truly refreshing, a throwback to bygone days of debonair and dashing leading men. And, in a way, there’s almost a depiction of Christ and the Christian here, albeit I’m probably the only one who sees it. At first, she doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into and doesn’t want him. But at every step, he’s protecting her. And eventually, she learns to love the adventure and trust him so much that she puts herself in jeopardy to entice him back out to her.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
I don’t think anyone is going to offer this as a keen source of philosophical insights. It’s just absurd, light fun.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think leading men in movies are not like this most of the time anymore? Were we a healthier society when this sort of man was consistently shown as the ideal?
~One of the key moments in this movie involves a sort of crisis of faith. How do you make decisions about whom to trust when you aren’t sure? Who in your life will you give the benefit of the doubt to when the evidence is against them? How much evidence? In what ways was June dilemma similar to our own with respect to Christ?
~In what ways is this movie a good Christian allegory? In what ways not?
~What do you think of all the killing that happens in this movie?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The plane sequence.
~Lunch with Rodney.
~On the deserted island.
~In the hotel in Salzburg. When Cruise says, “That hurt more than I thought it would,” what is happening?
Overall Grade: A-
Take the premise of Killers, wrap it with the action of Mission Impossible, and flavor the whole thing with the debonair and sardonic humor of The Adventures of Robin Hood or Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

Last Airbender, The (2010)

Rated: PG for fantasy action violence.
Length: 103 minutes
Grade: CB+B-C=C
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $ million (131 U.S., 187 Intl., 13 DVD)

Written and Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan (Devil, The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Village, Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense)
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, and Nicola Peltz

Reborn into his current form as a young boy, the Avatar is the only one who can successfully communicate with the spirit world and manipulate all of the elements (air, earth, water, and fire), but he’s never been trained how. Now, the overgrown and evil Fire Nation has set out to take over the land, and an unlikely band of rebels must help the Avatar become his destiny and stop them.

Entertainment Value: C
M. Night Shyamalan’s career has really faltered. His early movies (Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Village) were masterpieces. Since then, nothing but awful, frustrating movies. (Although I’ve heard good things about Devil.) This is a movie which was a big hit with our 6 and 4-year-old, but that’s mostly because of the cool effects and action sequences. They like shiny, I require shiny AND solid. It was painfully poor writing and acting in many parts, the sort of hackneyed result of trying to turn one thing (a successful three-year animated TV series) into another (a big-budget movie with live characters made by a different creative team). It also suffers from Shyamalan not being sure whether he’s making a war film, a relationship film, a martial arts film, or a religious drama. So he winds up making about one fourth of each of them, which amounts to cinematic gruel in the end. Nevertheless, the reason I’ve given it a C is because it is fairly fun, the kids will like it, and it’s either harmless or virtuous thematically.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B+, Language A
In one scene, people drink what may or may not be alcoholic. Language and sex are squeaky clean, which is very refreshing to see. The violence is the only issue, and it’s mostly pretty banal. There are only two deaths, one a self-sacrifice handled quite gently, and the other a battle barely shown. This is properly rated PG.

Significant Content: B-
This is going to go against the grain of what I would expect from most Christian reviewers, but that’s never stopped me before, has it? The overt aspects of this movie look bad: telekinetic powers, psychic communication with dragon spirits, and generally Buddhist-seeming philosophy. All true. Nevertheless, the true major themes here have to do with the dangers, arrogance, and power of technology (fire nation), the importance of humility, the necessity of restraint in using of power, and the ultimate goal of wielding power to redeem one’s enemies rather than merely vanquish them. There is a strong non-violence theme running through the movie, and one character even sacrifices her own life to give life back to another (albeit to a god-fish). Finally, there is a strong message about the dangers of pride and honor, which motivates one character to do very bad things to restore his name and reclaim the approval of his father. Also, mentors matter greatly, as they can turn good people toward evil or evil people toward good.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Again, there’s plenty you could talk about here with kids, who are the only ones who will really enjoy this. Reviewers have really trashed it. (Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 6 out of 100!) The one scene with Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh is brilliant, where Zuko explains that he doesn’t care about girls because he’s so consumed with restoring his name.

Discussion Questions:
~The Avatar is continually reborn into new bodies. What does the Bible have to say about reincarnation?
~Why did Prince Zuko lose favor with his father? How does the desire to have it back twist his entire life around?
~Uncle Iroh chastises Commander Zhao for acting on his own. Why is it so important to cultivate a strong network of friends?
~Identify the mentors in this movie and discuss the influence they have on their tutees.
~Who in this movie has power and uses it in an evil way? Who in a good or loving way? Many movies have portrayed the users of technology as dangerous to evil. What do you think has been the moral influence of technology on the world?
Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Prince Zuko explaining his disgrace.
~Self-sacrifice at the pond.
~The end battle final resolution.
Overall Grade: C
In a world that never knew Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or the Narnia movies, this might have seemed effective. But those all do better what this does poorly. Nevertheless, clean and several good messages make it acceptable for kids despite the Eastern religious tone.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references.
Length: 112 minutes
Grade: B+CCB+=B
Budget: $85 million ($60 after tax rebates)
Box Office: $52 million (31 U.S., 16 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written by: Michael Bacall (First major movie), based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Directed by: Edgar Wright (First major movie)
Starring: Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead
With: Ellen Wong, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, and Jason Schwartzman

Scott Pilgrim, a graduate dating a high school girl and playing bass in a Toronto band, falls in love with an exotic new girl but discovers that he must defeat her seven evil exes in mortal combat to earn the right to date her.

Entertainment Value: B+
This was far more fun than I anticipated, almost an A in terms of comedy, unexpected plot, and just plain oddness. Based on a series of graphic novels, you know that the minds making such a movie will be inventive and unorthodox, and this shows heavily in the end result, which feels remarkably fresh, almost like something from the early Wachowski brothers (or Speed Racer, perhaps).

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol B-, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language C
This is a perfect straddler of the PG-13/R category, with all the minor swear words and even the major ones bleeped out for humorous effect, lots of stylized violence such as you might seen in martial arts video games, and more than enough sexuality (but no nudity) including a highly promiscuous gay character. It’s a great example of R-15, if only it existed.

Significant Content: C
On the one hand, the entire movie is justifying vulgarity by its very nature, including (older) teenage sex and homosexuality. But there are some fairly sophisticated themes here as well, including the idea that when we sleep with someone and the relationship ends, we turn them into “evil exes” who will be plagued by us and plague us for the rest of our lives. The other themes come in the final sequence when a profession of true love gains Scott his “Heart Sword” and a painful confession and subsequent resolution earns him the “Self-Respect Sword.” This isn’t a big message movie. It’s mostly campy fun.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
Not for thought value, but for being highly innovative and for successfully distilling massive amounts of current teen culture into a single movie. Also, this is a weird hybrid: big budget made to look like an indie movie.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do the evil exes want to stop Scott from dating Ramona? How do you feel about your exes dating others? How do they feel about you doing so? What point is being made about sexual relationships other than marriage?
~What is Ramona trying to say by changing her hair color so often? What is the movie trying to say, if anything?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Vegan police.
~The end fight.
Overall Grade: B+
If you enjoy campy though vulgar fun targeted to modern teens and post-teens, you’ll enjoy this. Think Zombieland with more Mario Brothers and less undead people.

Oceans (2010)

Rated: G
Length: 103 minutes
Grade: CACC=C
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $84 million (19 U.S., 63 Intl., 2 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (First notable film for both)
Narrated by: Pierce Brosnan

This is Disney’s effort to recapture the glory days of Disney nature films following their release of Earth and The Crimson Wing. It’s a presentation of amazing underwater footage from Earth’s five oceans with some light narration about what’s going on and how man has been harming aquatic life.

Entertainment Value: C
This is periodically breathtaking, but otherwise actually profoundly dull. I walked away feeling like I had seen a lot of pretty things but had learned virtually nothing. It’s really a case of opportunity lost in terms of explaining what might have been going on or educating me about things in the ocean that were mysterious. That being said, the cinematography really is amazing. I just felt a bit bored by it toward the end.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A, Language A
Seriously? It’s G.

Significant Content: C
On the one hand, this will be seen by some as a bit heavy-handed on the eco-harms of mankind. But I thought the perspective was pretty light compared to other similar kinds of presentations. And fair, quite frankly. Some will be bothered by the evolutionary hints, but even these seemed light compared to other films. In reality, the narration is there just to add a British accent, I suppose. The main point of this film is to just see it, and that’s all. The real missed opportunity, however, is that all this overwhelming glorious creation was not credited to the God Who made it. Sad, but perhaps the creative genius behind all these stunning creatures speaks of itself even when the narrator forgets that bit.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
As I said, they sort of managed to just miss being a variety of things they could have been in an effort, I hope, to mostly just be amazing video footage.

Discussion Questions:
~Is mankind harming the oceans as much as this movie seems to believe? Do you tend to believe the oceans are strong and resilient or weak and fragile? Which view does this film endorse?
~What insights about God did you draw from what you saw in this movie?
~Is God’s creation entirely for man’s benefit or for it’s own sake and pleasure of entertaining God?
~Is it important to preserve the ocean and ocean life? Who is responsible for this task? Do you think God will be angry with us if we fail to do so?
Overall Grade: C+
I wish I could have liked this more, and I’m sure many people did. It’s worth seeing once. Our kids enjoyed the wild creatures they saw.

Everybody’s Fine (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language.
Length: 99 minutes
Grade: DCCD=D+
Budget: $21 million
Box Office: $20 million (9 U.S., 5 Intl., 6 DVD)

Written by: Massimo DeRita, Tonino Guerra, and Giuseppe Tornatore (All three prolific Italian screenwriters, but nothing you’d recognize)
Also Written and Directed by: Kirk Jones (Nanny McPhee and Waking Ned Devine)
Starring: Robert De Niro
With: Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell.

After the death of his wife, a retired telephone wire manufacturer in ill health feels like he’s losing touch with his children. So he decides to take a cross-country bus and train ride to pay each of them a surprise visit. Little does he know that they have all been deceiving him about their lives in one way or another.

Entertainment Value: D
This was depressing to watch, both in content and in tone/pace. It’s dealing with extremely important subject matter, but it’s just plain dull in dealing with it.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B-, Violence B-, Language C-
One plot involves someone using drugs, but we never see it. One character turns out to be lesbian, and there is some discussion of infidelity. There is a mugging, a scene of a panic attack/heart attack and some concerns about death. Weirdly, the thing that got this a PG-13 rating instead of a PG was one completely superfluous scene with several profanities. I have no idea why they wrote that in or why they chose that one thing to cost them the lower rating over. PG-13 is right.

Significant Content: C
It’s important for families to be honest with each other about both their successes and their struggles because the whole idea of family is that you’re there for each other no matter what. A parent who pushes his children to succeed often unintentionally conveys to them the message that they are only pleasing to him if they are doing well. It’s important for parents to affirm their children, so long as their children are doing what makes them happy.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
The one neatest device used in the film was almost so overused that it became obnoxious, which was having him meet each of the kids and see them as their young child selves. Otherwise, I actually suspect that the writers here didn’t even recognize their own failure to grasp the point of their movie. See, we encounter Frank as a sad old man trying to reconnect with his family. We eventually learn that he has made family achievement into an idol which has led him to treat his children with some neglect and conditional love, so that they all want to lie to him so they’ll get his approval. Eventually he discovers the truth and decides to just love them for who they are. Fine, except that he’s only substituted his achievement idol for a family idol. The implied “and they all lived happily ever after having learned this lesson” just doesn’t seem likely. And if, instead, they move back to semi-neglecting him, he’ll find himself no better off than he was with his success-idol. But this is very symptomatic of our society which is always trying to talk people first into idols like achievement and success and then to replace those with others like family or entertainment when they don’t hold up.

Discussion Questions:
~Who in this movie strikes you as more pathetic: the children or Frank?
~Would you describe Frank as a good or a bad father, based on what this movie shows? How responsible do you think he is for any of the various problems in his or his children’s lives?
~How important is it to you to please your parents or fulfill their desires for your life? How much have your parents pushed you in this regard? ~Which of his children seem truly happy? By the end, are any more of them happy?
~What do you think is the reason to raise a family? What did Frank think the reason for raising a family was?
~How might Frank’s life have been different if he had learned to gain his significance and identity from Jesus instead of from other things?
~What’s the meaning of the title? Is it meant to be ironic? Prophetic? Is being “fine” a byproduct of circumstances or of relational acceptance?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The mugging. Why is that scene such a brilliant encapsulation of Frank’s entire life strategy? Whom does the mugger represent, symbolically?
~Connecting with his symphony conductor son.
~Around the picnic table with the rain.
Getting the unreleased painting by his son.
Overall Grade: D+
A boring and sad movie about a boring and sad family which tries to send a useful message, but mostly just winds up making us bored and sad by watching it.

Stoning of Soraya M., The (2009)

Rated: R for a disturbing sequence of cruel and brutal violence, and brief strong language.
Length: 114 minutes
Grade: CDBC=C+
Budget: Perhaps $2 million?
Box Office: $1 million (637,000 U.S., 449,000 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh (First major movie), cowritten by Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh (First script), based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam
Starring: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Mozran Marno, and Jim Caviezel
With: Navid Negahban, Ali Pourtash, and David Diaan.

A French journalist travelling in Iran is stranded in a remote village by his car breaking down. While there, a woman tells him the story of Saroya M., a young mother who just the previous day was falsely charged with adultery and stoned to death.

Entertainment Value: C
It’s difficult to assess this movie as entertainment, because as such it really isn’t. It’s very unpleasant to watch and the fact that the ending is known in advance removes any of the dramatic tension you might normally have. The story itself is based on a real account which a French-Iranian journalist published in 1998 in an effort to reveal the life of Iranians since the fall of the Shah, particularly with regards to the oppression of women. The script, acting, and direction are all good. I just can’t describe it as entertaining.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence D-, Language C
Almost all of the movie is in subtitles, so the language, such as it is, is read not heard. The subject matter is allegations of adultery, but there is no sex or nudity at all. In fact, you hardly see anything but women’s faces or hair. The real issue is violence, which involves a woman showing bruises, being slapped, and ultimately an extended scene of her being stoned to death. This scene will remind you of the imagery in Passion of the Christ, which isn’t a big surprise with Caviezel’s presence and one of the Producers having produced that movie as well. It’s hard for me to tell you what age this is appropriate for, since it depends on whether you think children should be shown injustices such as the Holocaust. But the violence and occasional strong language certainly justify the R rating.

Significant Content: B
The entire point of the movie is to show what injustice looks like and how it happens in corrupt societies. In a world where women have no standing and men are subject to being manipulated and deceived, especially where the justice system is not transparent, grave evils can be done in the name of moral purity. The other lesson is about the importance of being loyal to both the truth and to decent people who are threatened by evil. Unholy men pretending to work under the authority of God (Allah) do unspeakable things.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
From the point of view of producing a horrified reaction, this is good art. But in the “what can I do with this” point of view, there’s really no answer anywhere on the horizon. “Just know it happens,” doesn’t seem to be a very useful response. Perhaps we can put ourselves in the various shoes of this movie and ask how we might behave differently, but the setting is so remote that it’s hard to make that cognitive leap.

Discussion Questions:
~What features of American society do you take for granted that in this movie are missing? What features of our justice system might have averted this end result?
~Does this movie seem more to be saying how awful repressive regimes are or how capable of evil ordinary people are? How much of the injustice of this movie is attributable to Iran’s Islamic status and how much to mere individual evil and manipulation?
~What messages does this movie have about gender oppression and the importance of men not having sole authority over women?
~Adultery is a capital offense in the Old Testament. Do you think adultery should be punishable at all today? What sort of issues about such crimes does this movie raise?
~Looking at each of the characters in this movie, if you had advice to give them, what would you say? How would you behave differently? How might being a Christian have changed any of them?
~The mayor seems at two different times to be on the verge of interceding because of possible signs from God. Have you ever failed to heed that sort of a warning from Him?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene, when Ebrahim doesn’t want to work on the car because he’s tired. How does Caviezel pressing money into his hands strike you in retrospect?
~The stoning, especially with the boys.
Overall Grade: C+
I don’t think I can really recommend this movie, but I will say that if you want to get a behind-the-scenes sense of frustration and injustice in an Islamic state, especially concerning the mistreatment of women, this will do.

To Save a Life (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving teen suicide, teen drinking, some drug content, disturbing images and sexuality.
Length: 120 minutes
Grade: BCAC=B+
Budget: $500,000
Box Office: $3.7 million

Written by: Jim Britts (First Script)
Directed by: Brian Baugh (First movie, but he directed the photography on The Ultimate Gift and An American Carol.)
Starring: Randy Wayne, Deja Kreutzberg, and Joshua Weigel

An all-star basketball player feels remorse when his boyhood best friend kills himself in school. Dealing with this, he comes in contact with a youth pastor, starts taking Christianity seriously, and befriends outcasts at the expense of his jock buddies and cheerleader girlfriend.

Entertainment Value: B
First things first, any movie you make for half a million dollars isn’t likely to have super-high production value. Nevertheless, lots of the contributors here volunteered their time once they saw the script, and the production value for a church-made movie is pretty good. Yes, the characters are drawn a bit thin, but there’s still a sense of real people being represented by these semi-stereotypes. This is an unabashedly Christian movie, however, unlike Facing the Giants or Fireproof, there is no explicit presentation of the Gospel or even Jesus Christ particularly. It’s a movie critics will hate (whether for being Christian or for feeling at times like an after-school special), but ordinary people and particularly Christians will like or love. As confirmation of this fact, Rotten Tomatoes has it at 33% favorable for the critics, but the audiences give it 82%.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C-, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language C
This is definitely a content-heavy movie and not for younger kids. However, the makers always shied away from indulging in any of it, and it’s obvious that the bad things are portrayed as bad things. Nevertheless, there is alcohol and drunkenness at some teenage parties, marijuana use, teenage sex, teen pregnancy, a number of semi-provocatively dressed young girls, suicide, and cutting. This is definitely PG-13, but I think teenagers not just can but probably should see this. And it’s PG-13 precisely because of what it wants to help people understand and solve, not because of the lurid things it wants to tempt them with.

Significant Content: A
The essence of Christ’s message is to befriend people who don’t deserve it, to positively do something to help instead of hiding behind the idea that it’s not your responsibility, and to have patience with people no matter how bad they are. Love is shown by personal sacrifice for someone else’s benefit. And it’s something that will be emulated by some and mocked by others. But don’t give up, even some of the scoffers may come around eventually.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
As I mentioned before, it would be easy to dislike this movie because of the feel and tone of it all. Nevertheless, just when it seems like a movie that falls over into the category of “crummy Christian art,” either the plot or the actors themselves seem to prevent that from happening. Also, one thing I appreciated was the refusal to portray the youth group or the church itself as a pure and wonderful collection of good people. That the most evil person in the movie was the pastor’s kid is a wonderful reminder of how incongruous the real world often is.

Discussion Questions:
~In this movie, who are you prone to despise? Why is it so important to the Gospel that we should want to see them redeemed every bit as much as the outsiders and unpopular kids?
~What are some of the characteristics that distinguish Jake after his conversion from Jake prior to that?
~One of the crisis moments for Jake comes when he talks with Chris about how his life has gotten significantly worse since becoming a Christian. What perspective does Chris give him. Have you ever felt like it was unfair that your life wasn’t roses and lollipops when you felt like you were doing everything you were supposed to do? What is the Christian perspective on this error?
~Negative responsibility is the idea that I am only responsible for making things worse. Positive responsibility is the idea that anything I could have made better is something I’m responsible for if I didn’t. Which one of these is Biblical? Which one does Jake internalize? What sort of society do you want to live in: one where others believe only in negative responsibility, or one in which they also believe in positive responsibility?
~There are many moments in Chris’s relationship with Jake where Chris could have felt the need to do or say more than he did. What gave him the patience to have such restraint and calm? What is the theological error at the heart of our sense of aggressive urgency with other people and their growth?
~Idoltary is what the Bible calls it when we put any goal or source of identity or satisfaction ahead of God or His way of doing things. Considering each of the characters, can you identify their idols and how overcoming them was a major transition for them?
~Is it enough for a movie to tell people to treat others better without really explaining why Christians are so intensely motivated to do this? Would this movie have been more effective if it had left out some of the issues but instead brought in a presentation of the Gospel and connected it with what motivates us to love difficult people?
~Given that this is a PG-13 movie, would you want to show it to a teenage youth group? How does the Bible deal with difficult topics and content?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Jake betraying Roger for a night out with Amy.
~Leaving the beer pong game.
~Jake confronting the youth group.
~Starting the lunchtime get together spot.
~Jake pondering his future at Louisville.
Overall Grade: B+
The sort of movie I’m really glad exists and would be excellent discussion material for a youth group. It’s not great art, but it is an excellent vehicle for showing the basic social implications of the Christian Gospel even without much talk of Jesus or His atonement.

World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

Rated: R for language, crude and sexual content, some drug use and disturbing images.
Length: 99 minutes
Grade: F/BFBB=D
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $223,000

Written and directed by: Bobcat Goldthwaite (Sleeping Dogs Lie)
Starring: Robin Williams
With: Daryl Sabara, Morgan Murphy, Evan Martin, and Henry Simmons

Lance Clayton aspires to be a novelist, but instead he teaches a dwindling high school poetry class, has a relationship with another teacher who’s too ashamed of him to be seen in public together, and his son is a consummate jerk. When Kyle (his son) dies perversely, Lance pretends it was suicide and fakes a note and journal. This leads to a cult of Kyle with Lance as the beneficiary on all fronts.

Entertainment Value: F/B
The first half of this film is unwatchably bad. I actually quit about 45 minutes into it, but Rotten Tomatoes said 88%, so I forced myself to continue. Oddly, the second half is brilliant. Funny, poignant, insightful. Then the almost ending is horrible again and the final ending awesome. It’s such a schizophrenic movie. I can’t tell you to watch it. It’s not really worth enduring the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. But having watched it, I will say that the second half is genius satire on death cults and modern fame. Even the ending is wonderful, except for naked Robin Williams in the swimming pool. That was imbecilic.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity F, Violence C, Language F
This is a for-adults-only film, if at all. There’s a death and a fistfight, but that’s the least of the concerns. Language is very heavy. Characters get high on marijuana and drink alcohol. Several sex scenes, and lots (lots!) of filthy discussion or behavior. This is absolutely not for kids!

Significant Content: B
Be careful what you wish for. You may get it and hate yourself for it. People don’t care about those they idolize, they only care about the satisfaction it gives them to idolize them. People read themselves into other people to worship this projection. Your true friends are the ones who love you for exactly who you really are, not for who you pretend to be. When you succeed on a lie, the success is more burden than any amount of genuine failure could possibly be. The worst thing in life isn’t being all alone, but being with people who make you feel all alone. Modern media is absurd, as are modern people.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
In some sense, this is a fascinating exploration of the Noble Lie concept of Plato. When, if ever, is it useful to lie? But it’s also a fantastic expose on the absurdity of public opinion compared to merit.

Discussion Questions:
~If you could fabricate a story that made everyone’s lives better but it was premised on a complete lie, would you tell it? If you had already told it, would you take it and its benefits away by admitting the truth? What is generosity? What is selfish? These are the sort of questions raised here. What do you think of each of Lance’s decisions in this movie?
~Have you ever had the chance to experience acceptance and praise for a lie and rejection for a truth? Which is more satisfying? Why does love when it is based on dishonesty actually hurt more than rejection?
~Which matters more: who a person really is or who people think that person is, even after his death?
~Kyle’s friend, Andrew, has a peculiar relationship with Lance throughout the movie. Would you say that Andrew represents God in this film?
~What does Murphy (the girlfriend) represent? Is she supposed to be fame and popularity?
~What’s sadder: the loss of actual Kyle or the possibility of the loss of his fake meaning to the school?
~Why does it seem to make such a difference whether the writings came from a misunderstood suicidal boy or from the talented parent of a worthless jerk?
~If you had to summarize the point(s) of this movie, what are they?
~Which is worse, to be all alone or to be surrounded by people who don’t know or love the real you? Why do you think famous people suffer so much? Are people who, for instance, publish anonymously smarter than the rest?
~What’s the title supposed to mean?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~When the suicide note is being read all around the school in the paper.
~The Oprah-like interview.
~The very ending. Who are Lance’s real friends? Why? What is the symbolic significance of putting Kyle’s photo back up? What did it mean during the movie?

Overall Grade: D
I would never encourage someone to endure the first half (disturbing and vulgar) or the penultimate scene (vulgar enough) to get what’s valuable in the rest. Nevertheless, the remainder is both brilliant satire and even moderately inspirational, if understood properly.

Big Fan (2009)

Rated: R for language and some sexuality.
Length: 88 minutes
Grade: AFAA+=A
Budget: $250,000
Box Office: $234,000

Written and Directed by: Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler, The Onion Movie)
Starring: Patton Oswalt
With: Kevin Corrigan and Michael Rapaport

Paul is a middle-aged, single, parking lot attendant who lives with his mother and whose entire life is defined by his love of the Giants and his ability to be a regular caller to a sports talk show in New York. Aside from that, Paul has nothing in life, but the kicker is that he doesn’t WANT anything else. Though his family keeps pressing him to get a good job or a wife, he just finds their suggestions offensive. He and his friend (who worships his ability to call the radio show) are completely happy despite their seemingly pathetic and ridiculous lives which revolve around football and sports radio. Then, they have the best night of their lives as they follow their hero to a strip club and sit nervously watching him from across the room. When they finally get up the courage to meet him, he beats Paul within an inch of his life. This gets him suspended and threatens to ruin the Giants’ season. So Paul decides to not press charges in the hopes his team can return to their former selves and a run at the playoffs. I know I don’t normally tell you so much about the plot of a movie, but I doubt very many of you have seen or even will see this movie. And since I wanted to talk about this movie so much, I have to tell you the plot so you’ll understand the analysis.

Entertainment Value: A
This is one of my favorite movies in recent months, and the saddest thing about it is that so few people ever have or ever will see it. Also, I have to admit that I doubt most people would even enjoy it so much, so I really have to give it an A for me but a C or D for most other people. Nevertheless, this script from the writer of The Wrestler proves that brilliant insights about people and life can make profound movies. The script, the characters, the acting, and even all the little details like home or road jerseys are perfect here. It’s also, by the way, a wonderfully unexpected thriller.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity D, Violence C, Language F
There is one scene where Paul gets badly beaten in the beginning and one scene of strong violence in the end. An entire scene takes place in a strip club, although nudity is minimal, and there are several implied masturbations. There is constant F profanity throughout. This is definitely an R film and not for an kids. Maybe older teens could watch it.

Significant Content: A
Everyone serves an ultimate value of some sort, but not everyone is made genuinely happy by that devotion. But everyone will try to push their idol on someone else who doesn’t seem to want to participate in that system of achieving significance. Happiness comes when everything in your life is submitted to your ultimate value, especially by making significant personal sacrifices. A true friend is someone who loves you, loves what you love, and serves your love alongside you.

Artistic/Thought Value: A+
This is a film about devotion and idolatry. And it’s absolutely brilliant. Paul’s religion is the Giants. His sacrament is watching them. And his sermon is scribbling down comments to perform on the radio. The only problem is that no one around him understands the simple fact that this actually makes him happy. Really happy. He doesn’t want a wife or a career or even to live on his own. He only wants to be a Giants fan. Now, you’d think that the movie sets out to show how pathetic this is, but that’s exactly the opposite of the point. Instead, the prejudice the movie depends on is that all of us will start by viewing him just as his family does so that our own idols can be shown as no more absurd than his and maybe even more absurd since they don’t even make us happy like his does. And the variety of ways this movie accomplishes this are amazing. For instance, they follow Quantrell Bishop (their hero) to a strip club, and they sit there completely ignoring the naked women while they stare at him from across the room. When he wakes up from a coma, his first question to anyone is to ask his friend how the game Sunday went. It’s just brilliant. Plus, with regular cutaways to religious icons (rosary on the rear-view, e.g.) the idea of religious devotion, but not to God, is clearly on the director’s mind. This is an incredibly sticky movie for me, I just can’t stop thinking about all the amazing elements to it. Very reminiscent of The Wrestler with the end decision to put his life at risk to re-enter the one domain that gives him significance.

Discussion Questions:
~Identify some of the ways this movie builds the character of Paul and shows his devotion to the Giants. Name as many scenes as you can where his devotion violates what you expect from a “normal” person in his situation.
~Are Paul and Sal pathetic or beautiful? What about noble? What features of their lives would you call beautiful? What parts pathetic? Would you call any parts noble?
~Kierkegaard said that purity of the heart is to will just one thing. Would you say Paul and Sal have purity of heart? What is the one thing they want? When this purity is threatened by the lawsuit and the suspension, how do they feel? When it’s restored, how do they react? Do you have anything in your life that you are as devoted to as Paul and Sal are?
~Going through each of the other characters in the film (the sister, the brother, the mother, and the detective) identify what they idolize. When Paul refuses to sacrifice his highest good for theirs, how do they react to him? Would it be fair to say that they only want to convert him to their religion? Are their religions of any more worth than his?
~When we finally meet Philadelphia Phil, what is different between him and Paul in terms of their level of devotion? Does this make him and his behavior seem better or worse to you?
~When his brother sues on his behalf, is the brother really serving Paul or only his own goals? Can we truly be said to be acting in someone else’s best interests when that person hates what we’re doing because it violates his highest values?
~Is Sal a true friend? Why? What would a wife bring to Paul that he doesn’t already have in Sal?
~Why does this movie continually show images of Catholic religion in and around Paul’s family? What is it saying? Is this just anti-Christian bias or something else?
~In sports (and elsewhere) they say that a good player is someone who knows how to “take one for the team” when necessary. Is Paul a good player or part of the team?
~Why do you think the NFL allowed this film to be made using Giants/Jets paraphernalia? Do you think they understood the message?
~Many people will likely think this movie is a critique of being a sports fan. What do you think? Could you make the case that Paul and Sal are the only real sports fans in the movie, including everyone at the games?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The encounter with the detective at the diner and the end result. What do you observe about Paul immediately after this? What about on his first phone call to the radio station afterward?
~The on-air press conference late at night. What happens and why is it so devastating? Would you call his mother’s behavior here evil? What did she take away from him? Which is more awful, her unwillingness to understand her own son or her celebratory and oblivious destruction of what he holds most dear?
~The bar scene at the end. What do you expect to happen? Why are you so willing to expect that outcome?
Overall Grade: A
Honestly. I know I’m pretty much gushing about this film. Dani found it average at best, but I thought it was amazing. I may even try to get Robert Siegel on the show just because his grasp of devotion/idolatry is profound. A tiny little movie with massively important things to say. By the way, despite the terrible box office, Rotten Tomatoes has this at 88% favorable. So at least I’m not alone in loving this one.

A Perfect Getaway (2009)

Rated: R for graphic violence, language including sexual references and some drug use.
Length: 98 minutes
Grade: B+FCC=B
Budget: $14 million
Box Office: $27 million (16 U.S., 7 Intl., 4 DVD)

Written and Directed by: David Twohy (The Chronicles of Riddick, Pitch Black, The Arrival, and Timescape. Also wrote GI Jane, Waterworld, and The Fugitive)
Starring: Steve Zahn, Timothy Olyphant, Milla Jovovich, and Kiele Sanchez.
With: Marley Shelton and Chris Hemsworth.

A newlywed couple on their honeymoon in Kauai run into trouble on a remote hike when it seems they are either being stalked by or actually accompanied by a newlywed-murdering couple.

Entertainment Value: B+
The one thing I can say about this movie is it was very fun. I found is much more interesting than I expected. In fact, I think I got this because it was available and I hadn’t seen it yet when nothing else fit that category. It’s a suspense thriller with interesting characters and enough mystery to make it interesting. Call it a much less psychedelic version of Natural Born Killers. I can’t really explain why this did so poorly at the theaters. It really has all the right elements for a successful thriller. Even Rotten Tomatoes gives it 61% favorable.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C, Violence F, Language F
One scene involves Crystal Meth. There is sporadic sexuality, some almost-nudity, and a couple of sexual remarks. Language is 20+ F words and about the same for medium profanity, enough on its own to easily earn the R rating. Violence is fairly strong, including murders, violent fights, and enough blood to also justify the R rating. Definitely not for kids!

Significant Content: C
Envy is very dangerous. Psychopaths learn to be very good at lying. Be careful whom you trust. Sometimes our first impressions of people can be very mistaken. Even paranoid people have real enemies.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
I think my favorite concept in this movie is the brief line where Tim Olyphant says to Steve Zahn that the key to a good movie is having a good story. Say whatever else you might about this movie, the story is excellent. This means the writer (David Twohy, with plenty of credits) believes his own advice.

Discussion Questions:
~As the movie unfolds, which characters do you bond with? Which ones do you want to see succeed, and why?
What are your initial impressions of each character? How do your prejudices bias you for or against them? How many of your initial impressions turn out to be right? Wrong?
~It’s been said that a good movie is really just a con game (Brothers Bloom is a good example of this taken seriously). How is this movie a con? Who in this movie is conning whom?
~People who themselves have boring lives often envy people who have “lived” more fully. How is this a factor in your own life? Have you ever wished you could be someone else? Have you ever embellished on your own life to seem more interesting than you really are?
~Would you say this movie is an extended morality play about the dangers of envy? How does this movie manipulate our own sense of envy and resentment to accomplish its purposes?
~Solipsism is the philosophical theory that only I exist and everything and everyone else is just a figment of my imagination. Who in this movie is a solipsist? What artistic device does this movie use to portray the reality of a solipsist? How is selfishness just the beginning stage of solipsism?
~Why do you think we aren’t more worried about our safety when out in the wilderness away from society? Should we be? Do movies like this help?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~At the top of the waterfall.
~On the beach, frozen in time.
~Gina telling about her past.
Overall Grade: B
A far more entertaining film than the box office would indicate. Nevertheless, it’s definitely R and don’t watch it if language or violence bothers you.

Get Him to the Greek (2010)

Rated: R for strong sexual content and drug use throughout, and pervasive language.
Length: 109 minutes
Grade: DNF
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $105 million (61 U.S., 30 Intl., 14 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Nicholas Stoller (Yes Man, Fun with Dick and Jane, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), with additional writing by Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall)
Starring: Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, and Rose Byrne.
With: Mario Lopez, Pink, Kurd Loder, Christina Aguilera, Sean “P Diddy” Combs, and Elisabeth Moss.

A mid-level flunkie at a record company must transport a debauched rock star from London to a special anniversary concert.

No, no, no, no. I know, you already thought that a movie by the people who made Forgetting Sarah Marshall and starring Russell Brand and Jonah Hill was likely to be unfunny and horribly vulgar. Well, you’re 2 for 2. I think we managed to endure about 17 minutes of this, mostly on the absurdly irrational hope that somewhere underneath all the filth there might be a brilliant satire a la Spinal Tap. Alas, although there were hints of self-loathing from music industry big-names, there was certainly not enough entertainment value here to justify watching it even if it hadn’t been so deep into the R-rated category. But since it was, this was an easy abandon.

Overall Grade: DNF
As in Do Not Flush your money down the drain by renting this movie.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Rated: PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.
Length: 98 minutes
Grade: AA-/B+A+A=A
Budget: $165 million
Box Office: $494 million (218 U.S., 276 Intl.)

Written by: William Davies (Flushed Away, Twins), based on the children’s books by Cressida Cowell
Also Written & Directed by: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, and writers for Mulan)
Starring the voices of: Jay Baruchel
With the voices of: Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hil, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig

On a fiercely independent Viking island, the disappointing son of the uber-manly chief wants nothing more than to kill a dragon. However, after he wounds the most dangerous type of dragon there is, he can’t do the deed and winds up secretly befriending the monster. This leads him to know more about dragons than anyone ever has but it causes conflict with the village and his father when the truth comes out.

Entertainment Value: A
Dreamworks Animation may finally have found a winning formula, whether by making an already-popular book series or by using former Disney writer/directors. But in any case, this is the second big success for them after Kung-Fu Panda, not in the sense that they make money (since Shreks and Madagascar did that), but in the sense that these are their only two movies to rival Pixar in quality. Excellent characters, plot, writing, and animation. Our kids absolutely loved this, and it has an unbelievable 98% favorable rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Superficial Content: A-/B+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B+, Language A-
One of the funnier moments in the movie has to do with a joke about women’s attire, and there is some very mild language. The only real concern here is violence, which I have to rate fairly at a B because there’s so much “peril” and combat in the movie. That being said, there actually isn’t much killing (although there are enough big action moments to possibly bother a younger child), but the ending has a rather unexpected element to it that might bother some but I thought was brilliant. Our kids (4, 6) loved it, so I’d say PG-5.

Significant Content: A+
There are three kinds of movies. Movies that encourage us to be sinners, movies encourage us to overcome sinners, and movies that teach us to redeem sinners. This is as close to category three as you can get without actually being a movie about sin and justice. But it’s certainly a movie about compassionate mercy and the possibility of bridging differences based on a shift in paradigm about our enemies. Yes, this movie has the rather common theme of kids knowing better than parents, so parents must be careful to listen to their kids. But the big message is that making war is easier and more obvious than making peace. It’s ultimately about a culture of war learning that its identity as warriors is part of the problem. The underlying premise is that we start to move toward peace when we finally realize that we have more in common with our enemies than whatever divides us.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
The animation and the story are brilliant, obviously. But the thing I loved most here was the way the plot all worked itself out, including the final development. The books were written starting in 2000 and then 2003+, so it’s hard to know motives for sure. But I think at least some people are going to see this movie as a vivid parallel with our current global conflict with radical Islam. As such, much of the movie might seem like a kind of relativism regarding the terrorists (dragons). But the ultimate point is that most dragons are relatively decent but rigidly terrified of a fearsome over-dragon who coerces them into evil a la Stalin, Hitler, or bin Laden. Thus, if we can overcome our own prejudice, eliminate the corruptive leadership, and find common ground with our enemy, we can really make a much better society. As I said, I doubt this is the point of the movie, but it’s an unfortunate fact about all art that it gets made at a particular historical moment and therefore can’t be completely disentangled from the times. Even the Adventures of Robin Hood had clear cultural significance.

Discussion Questions:
~When two groups are in conflict with each other, why is it usually the children who are most likely to find a way to bond with each other rather than the adults? Consider Romeo & Juliet, for instance.
~Every culture wants its kids to grow up and reproduce its values. But how should parents and children balance the demands of conformity with the importance of each individual being whoever God made him to be?
~Why do children have such a deep need for their parents’ approval? Is it a form of abuse or neglect when parents don’t give this?
~To what degree do you think Americans are like the Vikings on this island?
~How does being warlike or prone to violence prevent you from seeing other solutions to a conflict or problem?
~How important to making peace with enemies is it to view them as fellow humans who are very much like us? How important is it to making war with them to view them as evil, subhuman or worthless?
~If this movie is taken as a parable about our current global conflict, what lessons do you draw? What does the end scene have to say or show us about soldiers returning home? How did you react to that scene? Why might someone say that scene was a truly exceptional way to end this movie? Why is it important for movies to acknowledge that military victories have a cost?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Hiccup’s moment of mercy.
~Befriending Toothless.
~Toothless coming to the rescue.
~Hiccup feeling like his entire self is a disappointment to his father.
~The end after the big fight.
Overall Grade: A
Very impressive, and much more entertaining than I even expected. It’s a movie with lots of meat, even if kids might never think much about it.

Karate Kid, The (2010)

Rated: PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language.
Length: 140 minutes
Grade: B-BB+C=B
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $358 million (177 U.S., 181 Intl.)

Written by: Christopher Murphy (First movie) and Robert Mark Kamen (Transporter 1-3, Kiss of the Dragon, Fifth Element, original Karate Kid 1-4, and Taps )
Directed by: Harold Zwart (Pink Panther 2, Agent Cody Banks, and One Night at McCool’s)
Starring: Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan
With: Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, and Zhenwei Wang.

When his mother is transferred to China, a Detroit boy finds himself in love with a local girl but in trouble with a gang of thugs. Desperate, he turns to the maintenance man for kung-fu training in this remake of the Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita classic.

Entertainment Value: B-
I don’t know why, but remakes are always an impossible difficult thing. If they honor the original too much, they’re just being parasites. If they deviate from it, they’re defiling the thing I love. In this case, it’s a true remake, from the broad plot strokes even down to several of the specific lines. Although this happens all the time with plays, it just always seems wrong when done with movies. I have to admit, I wanted to dislike this film. Nevertheless, I found myself enjoying it at least moderately well. The problem here, of course, is that in the parts where the original is brilliant, this is only decent. And in the parts where the original was weak, well they’re just part of the charm of a “classic,” right? For instance, I can watch the tournament sequence in the original and get goosebumps every single time. The tournament here did nothing for me. Also, there seemed to be something missing in the menace of the gang if only because they’re so much younger here, but when your hero is the 84 pound Jaden Smith, I guess the bad guys need to be smaller, too. All that being said, it’s good and if it brings this wonderful story to a new generation of kids, I can live with it.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol B+, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A-
There is one scene of drunkenness. There is no sexuality other than young people dating. I think there was one mild profanity. The bullying and fighting are the only real concern, and they’re more tame here than in the original. PG is just right. We didn’t let our kids watch it only because they already fight enough and we didn’t want to encourage kicking “to boot.”

Significant Content: B+
Fighting is not just a specialized set of motions but an integrated part of an overall life philosophy. We must learn to have patience inside ourselves and to create peace around us through balance. When life or people knock you down, you can still choose to be brave and get back up to try again. Confronting fear is the only way to conquer it. Respecting others is an essential element of personal self-worth. If you behave with dignity and valor, even your enemies may come to admire you. Weak people are shaped by their environment, strong people shape their environment.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
I’ve tried three different times to figure out what to write in this section, and I can’t find the heart to say much of anything. The original is brilliant. Everything here seems like a muted and slightly “less” version of that. Besides, with the nearly verbatim reproduction, I feel like I can’t comment on this one beyond what I figure we all know of the original. It’s a morality play about bullies, underdogs, and peace-seeking violence.

Discussion Questions:
~In this movie, the “good guys” are ultimately the strongest and therefore they win and earn respect. How would this have gone differently if that had not been the case. In real life, the bad guys are often actually stronger. How should we deal with bad people when they cannot be beaten at their own game? Consider how Mr. Han might have dealt with the evil teacher differently if he didn’t believe his own kung-fu was strong.
~Was Meiying’s father right or wrong to forbid his daughter from seeing Dre? Do you think he is a good or a bad influence on her? What does his final solution show about him?
~How difficult do you think it is to raise a child by yourself as a working mother? In what ways could our society do better at helping single mothers? How might the church meet needs in this area?
~One of the repeated ideas is that we have to “play the spaces or pauses” properly. What does this mean?
~Do you think it’s better to completely remake a great original movie almost verbatim or to try to tell a new story with the old characters? Why do we tend to think so differently about plays being performed by different people as opposed to movies being remade?
~Are there any ways in which Dre was responsible for or contributed to the conflicts he had with Cheng? Can you think of any ways he could have handled the situation differently?
~Does this movie offer a real solution to the problem of bullying? Have you ever been the victim of bullying? Have you ever been the bully?
~Dre eventually becomes frustrated with Mr. Han because it seems he isn’t teaching him Kung-Fu at all, when of course he is. Has God ever taught you something even though it didn’t seem like He was doing anything productive in your life?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Watching the cobra lady.
~The anniversary of the car crash.
~The tournament.

Overall Grade: B
A decent if unnecessary remake of the now-dated but brilliant original, but why didn't they call it "The Kung-Fu Kid?"