Surrogates (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing images, language, sexuality and a drug-related scene.
Length: 89 minutes
Grade: C+CBB+=B
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $117 million (38 U.S., 74 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written by: Michael Ferris & John Brancato (Terminator 3 + 4, Primeval, and Catwoman), based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele
Directed by: Jonathon Mostow (Them, Terminator 3, and U-571)
Starring: Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell
With: James Cromwell, Ving Rhames, Boris Kodjoe, and Rosamund Pike.

In a future where everyone lives vicariously through robotic avatars, crime has been eliminated but some are complaining that the technology is eradicating everything it means to be human. Then, when users start being mysteriously killed by a device aimed at their surrogates, the future of the entire project depends on the efforts an aging detective himself ambivalent about the use of these devices.

Entertainment Value: C+
Despite having heard some negative reviews, I enjoyed this alright. It wasn’t great, but for a science fiction action movie with some philosophical intent, it was fine. Neither my wife nor I could understand why crime would be eliminated by these devices, but we decided to just accept that premise for the sake of the movie. At least this was far less offensive than the similarly-themed hard R movie, Gamer.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence D+, Language C
This is rightly PG-13, possibly PG-15, but not as bad as many in that genre. The sex is implied and the language is occasional medium profanity. Violence is the main concern with lots of people being killed (and shown with blood from head wounds), robots being shown with eyes burned out (it’s creepy) and car chases. Also, in one scene people’s surrogates use some sort of electronic device to get a drug sensation.

Significant Content: B
Again, in a much better way than Gamer, this movie raises serious questions about the evolving practice of using avatars to represent ourselves to others in virtual worlds. Safety and youth may not be the most important things in the world. When an entire society embraces a new technology, it’s very difficult to even raise questions about it without appearing to be an imbecile. Technology which begins as if to help those with special needs might eventually overturn our entire notion of what a society it.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
Here’s where this movie thrives because, like any good sci-fi, it doesn’t merely show you a world which extrapolates our current trends out to a shocking degree but also invites you to really consider what implications those trends have for us then and now. Also, whatever combination of makeup, cinematography, and acting they used to make the surrogates look just fake enough that we knew they weren’t real humans was excellent.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you think the development of surrogates would eliminate crime? If everyone had the ability to commit a crime through another body without personal risk, would there be fewer or more crimes like theft? If you knew that violence wasn’t actually hurting a person, would you be more or less likely to engage in it? Would the robust revulsion healthy people feel against hurting real people be undermined by not encountering them regularly?
~What sort of rules or ethics do you think God has for our behavior in virtual worlds and through computer avatars?
~What do you think of the idea that this movie is showing us what our current reality is in terms of the relationship of our souls to our bodies being like the relationship of the operators in the movie to their surrogates? What connection is there between the idea of having a deceptively attractive surrogate for a truly ugly, old, or unhealthy person and the idea that people with ugly souls often still have gorgeous bodies? If you were in charge of regulating this imaginary society, would you require all surrogates to look like their operators? Do you ever wish you could see the shape of people’s souls rather than just their bodies? What purpose do you think God might have had for hiding such knowledge from casual view?
~If you had a chance to be yourself or someone else, what would you choose? In this society, would such integrity become a sort of moral virtue?
~Do you think that the surrogate culture would eventually lead people to not care about appearance so much since anyone can have anything they want or to care about it more for the same reason? Do you think this idea would be at least initially seen as most appealing for women? What implications does this movie have for current practices such as elective cosmetic surgery? Why is this industry so heavily oriented toward women?
~How likely is it that people would only choose to use avatars with human shapes? What sort of enhancements or attachments might be useful?
~Because of the way the movie explains the history of surrogate development, is this movie also sending a warning about the dangers of something like embryonic stem cell research?
~What do you make of the people who protest against the surrogates and isolate themselves from that world? Would you choose to be with them?
~When a technology is adopted by everyone, why is it so hard to raise questions about it? Can you think of some current technologies that would be virtually impossible to raise serious questions about for precisely this reason? Which ones are you so invested in that you are unwilling to consider such critiques?
~In a world like this, would our definition of heroism and courage change? Would military personnel and police still be heroes?
~How strong of a push would there be in this society to make all surrogates have equal capabilities as a way of achieving true equality among people?
~What would you have done at the end?
Overall Grade: B
It’s basically good sci-fi with excellent things to contemplate.

Couples Retreat (2009)

Rated: PG-13 on appeal for sexual content and language. (originally Rated R for some sexual material.)
Length: 113 minutes
Grade: DDAD=D
Budget: $70 million
Box Office: $169 million (109 U.S., 60 Intl.)

Written by: Jon Favreau (Made, Swingers), Vince Vaughn (The Break-Up), and Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas, The Wedding Date)
Directed by: Peter Billingsley (First movie)
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Faizon Love, Jon Favreau, malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, and Kali Hawk
With: Jean Reno, Carlos Ponce, and Peter Serafinowicz

Four middle-aged couples in various stages of relational disrepair go to a resort island for a week of intense counseling and bonding.

Entertainment Value: D
I did laugh a few times, but this was bad. Bad plot. Bad acting. Uninteresting dialogue. A premise which is bizarre. And it’s extremely vulgar for a PG-13 movie. This shouldn’t surprise me from Vaughn and Favreau, but come on. I think the funniest line in the movie was, “My name is Stanley, with a C.” Even the usually reliable Jean Reno couldn't save this disaster.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity D, Violence B, Language D
This was R until they appealed and got it reduced to PG-13. I’d say PG-15 at the very least, but why would you want to? I have no idea why the makers of this movie even cared about lowering the rating since no one under 35 will have any interest in going to see this story about failing marriages. The only violence is one near shark-attack and lots of bickering between couples and one fistfight. There is a ton of sexual innuendo and vulgar sexuality, although without any actual nudity. The language is constant and heavy, just without any F-bombs. Seriously. This is an R-rated movie that only adults could possibly enjoy anyhow. I don’t know why they even tried to make it PG-13.

Significant Content: A
Gurus are generally idiots who may succeed in spite of themselves. All marriages can be salvaged if only you will realize that once you’ve been married for a long time (7-10 years) that person cannot be replaced by anyone else and then choose to work at making this person your beloved again. Also, relationships that seem good may not be and ones that seem frail may be quite robust.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
One could almost forgive all the negative elements here if only because the message is so positive in the end, but I’m pretty sure they funded half of this movie with money from Applebees and the makers of Guitar Hero. Seriously, there are two different scenes where the characters say “Applebees” like fifteen times in a row and an entirely ridiculous scene built around a Guitar Hero playoff. At least they picked a great Billy Squier song to compete with.

Discussion Questions:
~In each of the four couples’ cases, a different realization or stimulus serves to being them back together. What are they, and how effective do you think each of them is?
~What do you think a soul mate is? What goes into becoming a soul mate? Is time an essential ingredient? How much time? Are soul mates discovered or made?
~What mistakes or patterns of neglect can you see in each of these four couples? What advice would you give to any of them?
~Do you think every marriage be saved?
~Is there one way that all marriages are supposed to work, or does each couple define the relationship among themselves? Can you identify strong and weak marriages easily from the outside?
~One scene involves a discussion of cheating in the heart versus cheating with your body. Is it just as bad to cheat in your heart? What did Jesus teach? If it is just as bad, what reason would a lustful person have for not following through on his (or her) desires?
~Do you think that a couple who is considering divorce owes their friends an explanation and should invite their friends into that process with them as was done in this movie?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Many I do remember, but none I care to remember.
Overall Grade: D
Don’t do it. You heard it from me first. But Christianity Today gave this 1½ stars and Rotten Tomatoes rated it only 11% fresh. Please trust all of us and spare yourself the pain.

Tooth Fairy, The (2010)

Rated: PG for mild language, some rude humor and sports action.
Length: 101 minutes
Grade: D+A-B-D=C-
Budget: $48 million
Box Office: $84 million so far (50 U.S., 33 Intl.)

Written by: Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Fever Pitch, Robots, Edtv, Multiplicity, A League of Their Own, City Slickers, Parenthood, Spies Like us, and Splash), Joshua Sternin and Jeffrey Ventimilia (Mostly TV like That 70’s Show and Murphy Brown), Randi Mayem Singer (Mrs. Doubtfire and TV’s Jack & Jill and Hudson Street) and Jim Piddock (The Man)
Directed by: Michael Lembeck (Santa Clause 1,2,3 and a ton of TV)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Ashley Judd, and Stephen Merchant.
With: Julie Andrews, Seth MacFarlane, and Billy Crystal.

A once-promising hockey player has been relegated to the minor leagues and become a hit-man, notorious for knocking out other players’ teeth. When he tells his girlfriend’s daughter the tooth fairy is a myth, he is conscripted into several weeks of involuntary tooth fairy duty.

Entertainment Value: D+
I think a lot of moms and young kids may well enjoy this. It’s certainly harmless and fairly light. For my own part, I just found it mostly unfunny and simpleminded. My ultimate test, however, for kids movies is Spencer’s reaction. When I asked him if he liked it, he said, “Not so much.” Harsh critique from a 5-year-old who likes everything from Star Wars to Gumby to Bolt. This fits pretty well within the genre of innocuous family comedies such as those made in the last decade by Tim Allen and Eddie Murphy.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B+, Language A
There are some comic physical gags involving (in the opening scene) a hockey player having a tooth knocked up into the air during a game and later some fairy infighting, arguing, and inadvertent effects of black market fairy tool knock-offs. This should have been rated G. The one thing I did find weird about the movie was not being clear about the relationship between Terry and Carly at first.

Significant Content: B-
It’s important to have faith and dreams because otherwise life is mundane and unfun. It’s good for macho men to wear effeminate clothes as a way to humble them. When you’ve been assigned an unpleasant task, you should just learn to enjoy it because there may be lessons you don’t realize. Relationships require sacrifice and commitment. The highest happiness in life is service to the dreams of other people. It is nice to see that when he finally matures, Terry seeks marriage as a result of his epiphanies about life.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
The only real thought value here is the progression Terry follows from resenting his assignment to trying to “skate” through it to wanting to do well but being unable to finally being good at it and wanting to help others. As a pattern for what happens to us as we submit to God’s challenges, this is pretty good. But that’s about all there is for thought value.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you believe in the tooth fairy? What does belief in the tooth fairy mean? Is it important for kids to believe in the real existence of magic beings who aren’t real? Is faith important, or is the thing in which you have faith important?
~Which is a more important thing for kids to know: that they might be able to accomplish anything they want if they work hard enough at it or that life is full of disappointments, including the failure to achieve your dreams?
~How does Christianity offer a way for people to simultaneously strive for something without the risks of failure being so acute?
~What is the connection between Terry’s disillusionment with his own chosen profession and his scoffing at the Tooth Fairy? Why would recovering belief in fairies revitalize his optimism about his life?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Derek tripping and missing the goal when he had finally decided he was going to really work to be a star hockey player again.
~Derek telling Randy there’s no such things as dreams, and Randy smashing his guitar.
Overall Grade: C-
I was essentially bored by the whole thing, but I do think it’s a harmless movie that some kids may enjoy.

Book of Eli, The (2010)

Rated: R for some brutal violence and language.
Length: 117 minutes
Grade: AD-AA=A
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $108 million so far (88 U.S., 20 Intl.)

Written by: Gary Whitta (Only script)
Directed by: The Hughes Brothers [Albert and Allen Hughes] (From Hell, Dead Presidents, Menace II Society)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, and Mila Kunis.
With: Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits, and Malcolm McDowell.

In a post-apocalyptic America, a solitary man wanders the landscape, carving up villains and studying the last existing Bible (all the others were destroyed in or shortly after the unspecified catastrophe). He finds himself in some difficulty when a local tyrant discovers first his combat skills and then his possession of the one book he has been looking for.

Entertainment Value: A
This is an engrossing action, science-fiction, theological thriller with an acute cinematographic eye and fascinating characters. Think Mad Max meets Lone Wolf and Cub with the feel of a Western set in (mostly) black and white (or sepia and white as my wife described it). It made me happy to be a movie-goer.

Superficial Content: D-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity C, Violence F, Language D
There’s prostitution, sex slavery, and a scene implying rape (no nudity is shown). Violence is constant and graphic, including dismemberment, people being slammed into objects, and many people being killed. Cannibalism is a background element of the movie. There are about a dozen F-words and some other scattered profanity. This is certainly an R movie which no children should watch.

Significant Content: A
The calling of God is real, and God will enable you to complete your calling if you trust in Him completely. We have a tremendously good life that we take for granted right now, compared to what could be true if some calamity struck. The Bible has power, and evil men will try to use it to manipulate people. Pursuing a God-given calling with violence may be necessary, but even so has its limits and should never be enjoyed. Faith can lead you into situations where you wonder if you have made the right choices. Sometimes the religious novice can teach the religious expert about his own faith.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
There are all sorts of symbols and messages embedded in this movie and plenty (PLENTY) to talk about afterwards. In my mind, this is the best sort of artistic action film because it is entertaining enough to entice precisely those people who would benefit from considering it. Knowing that Denzel Washington is a Christian son of a preacher only amplifies the intentionality of the messages.

Discussion Questions:
~At one point, Eli says that he got so caught up with keeping his Bible safe that he forgot to live by it. Have you ever found yourself so eager to do God’s Will that you forgot to do it His way? Can you think of any Biblical characters who had this problem? Can you think of any current examples of people defending the Bible or Christianity in unbiblical ways? How are we supposed to treat our enemies, for example? Is this because they aren’t really Christians or is just that they’ve failed to fully be transformed by the power of Christ?
~Eli says that the essential message of the Bible is to do more for others than for ourselves. Do you agree that this is the central message of the Bible?
~Why do you think this film was made in sepia and white for the most part? Were there any scenes made with more (or less) color? What was the point of that?
~At one point, Carnegie asks Eli, “Where’s your protection now?” Have you ever felt like God was failing to protect or provide for you? What does the Bible have to say about these times?
~Why might someone say that one of the main themes of this movie is the importance of walking by faith rather than by sight?
~Considering the final destination Eli is trying to reach, what meaning can you derive from its name?
Since Eli has been studying the Bible for 30 years (at least), how has he become a walking Bible? How hasn’t he? Why is that difference important to this movie? Can someone memorize the Bible without embodying it?
~Why does Carnegie want the Bible for himself? Do you think his analysis of its power is correct? Why would he have such a high regard for it while still so completely misunderstanding it? How does this movie compare with, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark?
~How different is Carnegie from Eli, really? Who is making the lives of the people around him better on a consistent basis? Is Eli a hero? Can a movie with so much violence still claim to represent Biblical themes? Is there a difference between useful and useless movie violence?
~How does Carnegie try to use the Bible’s principles to persuade Eli to join him in his vision of the future? Why is this tension between God’s calling and the mere application of the Bible as a source of principles important?
~If you’ve read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, what similarities do you see with this movie and the concept of staying on the narrow path of righteousness?
~What is the metaphorical significance of a world where both water and the Bible are terribly scarce?
When Eli says that the pre-apocalypse people didn’t “realize what was precious,” is he talking about food and civilization or about Bible access and knowledge?
~Why did people burn Bibles after the event? Is it because the Bible can be so divisive and can be blamed for hostility? Given the behavior of Carnegie and Eli, is this an unreasonable view?
~If a major calamity struck, do you think it’s likely that so little recovery would be accomplished in the next 30 years?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Eli with the bait woman. Why does he treat her as he does?
~Eli turning down Solara in different ways. Why doesn’t he want her following him?
~The final series of scenes, which I won’t describe in order to not ruin them for you. Why does Eli do what he does? What do you think of his decisions her compared with earlier in the movie?
Overall Grade: A
This fully lived up to my expectations, both in style, entertainment value, and substance. I hope other Christians will see it to support this effort to meld Biblical concepts with a financially viable R movie. By the way, apparently “The Road” with Viggo Mortensen is also quite good and comes out on March 5th, I’m very eager to see it.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

Rated: PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language.
Length: 118 minutes
Grade: AC+BB=B+
Budget: $95 million
Box Office: $43 million in its opening weekend

Written by: Craig Titley (Star Wars Clone Wars, Cheaper by the Dozen 1+2, Scooby-Doo), based on the novel by Rick Riordan
Directed by: Chris Columbus (I Love You Beth Cooper, Rent, Harry Potter 1+2, Bicentennial Man, Nine Months, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone 1+2, Heartbreak Hotel, and Adventures in Babysitting.)
Starring: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, and Alexandra Daddario
With: Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson, Catherine Keener, Joe Pantoliano, and Uma Thurman.

In a world where the Greek gods are real and still in charge, Zeus has had his lightning bolt stolen and he will start a world war with Poseidon if he doesn’t get it back. Percy, the demigod son of Poseidon who doesn’t know his own identity, must learn how to use his powers, find the lightning bolt, and return it before war breaks out.

Entertainment Value: A
I was taught the Greek pantheon in junior high school and I always had a soft spot for these characters and stories, so I was loving it. Not only did they manage to stay faithful to the original identities, but they also managed to write an entirely new and interesting plot in modern times with those characters. This is a fun 21st Century update to Clash of the Titans, both in context and production value.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C, Language B
One adult character drinks beer. There is some very mild language (hell and ass). A couple of scenes have sexual allusions (Aphrodite’s daughters, Persephone’s lovers). But the most likely concern here will be violence, killing (people turned to stone, Medusa beheaded, battling a Hydra), and scary images, (A woman turning into a fury, Hades as a giant flaming demon and tortured souls on fire coming out of a fireplace). I covered the boys’ eyes once or twice, so I’d give it a PG-8, although otherwise it was fine for them. Spencer (5) loved it.

Significant Content: B
Although I think some Christians will be bothered by the polytheistic Greek pantheon, if you look a little deeper there are some pretty interesting messages. Both the offspring of Athena and Poseidon believe they have been helped by their parents (who are forbidden by Zeus from interacting with them directly) in times of trouble. The message is that “even though you didn’t see me, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t there.” Also, the absence of fathers is a clear source of trouble for all the characters, so broken families and deadbeat dads are shown as problems. Loyalty to friends is praised. Courage in the face of danger and vanquishing opponents through guile or strength is a major theme. Hollywood is the entrance to Hades, which seemed fitting. A Las Vegas casino is allegorized as the home of the Lotus-Eaters from the Odyssey, which is terribly well done. If there’s a problem message here it’s the assertion that “all lives end in misery.”

Artistic/Thought Value: B
One key thing to consider in making any movie is whether your target audience is bringing any expectations or history to the experience of this film. Since you can’t ignore this, you have to somehow honor the tradition your film fits within and also the preexisting affections of a viewer familiar with the territory you’re covering. Whereas some movies seem to really grasp this concept of homage, others seem to sound false note after false note. This was the good sort, where a fantasy world you already know is being brought to life in a whole new way. And just as so much of the Greek stories are psychologically and morally intriguing because of character flaws in humans and gods alike, this film gives those themes the honor they deserve. I actually hope to reread my Edith Hamilton before watching this again.

Discussion Questions:
~At what age do you think children should be exposed to things like Greek mythology? Do you think these stories have the capacity to confuse children who are also learning Bible stories? If you think they do, how much concern do you have for cartoons and superheroes?
~Presuming that it’s more important for people to know Biblical stories and their own country’s history, how useful is it to also have literature knowledge such as of the Greek gods? Would you prefer someone to know these stories or the movies of the last 10 years?
~Greece had their myths, Britain has its royalty, and America has celebrities. Is this a fair statement? What about comic books?
~How are Bible stories different from Greek mythology stories? What is the purpose of each?
~Does all life end in misery? Why might someone have this view of the world? If that was your view, what would it entail for the importance of achieving fame and glory now? What is the Christian view, and how is it related to the willingness to live without rewards right now?
~How are casinos similar to the lotus fields?
~What do you make of a Hollywood movie making Hollywood the entrance to Hades? How do you think Hollywood people might react to this?
~What are some ways in which the Christian concept of God is similar and different to the Greek ideas about their gods? In particular, do you think God is self-indulgent and insecure the way Zeus is? Why do so many people have this view of God? How would you answer their criticisms?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Percy interacting with Hades and Persephone. Why does Hades find his lot in life so intolerable? Why does his treatment of Persephone cause him so many troubles?
~Percy’s confrontation with Luke.
~The discovery of Olympus at the top of the Empire State Building. What does this particular choice of symbolism mean?
~Percy deriving his strength from the water. As a Christian, how might you use this to illustrate a Biblical concept?
Overall Grade: B+
I enjoyed it a lot. I’ll definitely watch it again on DVD.

Julie & Julia (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language and some sensuality.
Length: 123 minutes
Grade: CCCC=C
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $154 million (94 U.S., 24 Intl., 35 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Nora Ephron (Bewitched, Hanging Up, You’ve Got Mail, Michael, Sleepless in Seattle, My Blue Heaven, When Harry Met Sally, and Silkwood), based on the books by Julie Powell and Julia Child.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, and Chris Messina.

This is a dual biography told in parallel fashion, first of Julia Child’s experiences in France from housewife to international cooking expert and then of Julie Powell’s year-long adventure of cooking and blogging her way through Child’s masterpiece, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

Entertainment Value: C
Weirdly, I both wanted this movie to be better going in, and I wish I could grade it higher after having seen it. I WANT to like this movie, but it was really just okay. I think part of my problem was I just never could get connected with the practical issues of this neo-outcast New York socialite simultaneously barely surviving in her 900 square-foot apartment but having plenty enough money for whatever culinary delight she wanted. This disconnect was even more amplified when she and her husband have a fight and he just leaves for a couple of days later in the film. I just couldn’t comprehend that given the characters as presented or the fact that they are married. But the other problem for me (and remember I still thought it was good enough overall for a C) was Meryl Streep’s performance. Now hear me out. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, and everyone knows it, including me. And her ability to become Julia Child in this movie was truly terrific. She will likely get the Oscar for best actress, rightly so and barely enough to make up for not getting it for Doubt. But about halfway through the movie, I realized that she was exhausting me. I checked with Dani, and she concurred. It was just emotionally draining in an unfun way to watch her do this spectacularly good performance.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence A, Language C
Everybody drinks alcohol all the time, and there is a fair amount of smoking, but no drunkenness. There are a couple of fairly intense pre-sexual scenes, including between Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep. Although, and I think it’s VERY important to say this: all the sex in this movie is between married people and healthily so. The language alone would justify PG-13, although this is a case where every use of it I found fit the story line and amplified the scene rather than the contrary. The only violence to speak of in this movie is that done to various animals, including (hilariously) lobsters.

Significant Content: C
Finishing things is a very important form of self-fulfillment. Anyone can cook if they just apply themselves and get decent instruction. Even things which we enjoy can sometimes be a grind. Having a supportive spouse is very, very important. If you’re bored by your life, you’ll be happier finding something you love to do and doing it. McCarthyism was really bad.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
I was liking this movie pretty well (other than eventually feeling exhausted by Julia) until almost the very end. And then they decided to include a moment where a reporter tells Julie that the real Julia Child did not appreciate what she was doing and was against it. This was so incongruous with the happy-go-lucky lively and all-approving persona we had been seeing from Julia that I couldn’t reconcile the two. It was truly jarring. Was the real Julia just old? Had her character changed? Was I being lied to about who she had been all along? That was difficult enough to process, but then the movie did absolutely nothing to help me out. There was no resolution of this mid-movie collision. I assumed we’d find something out at least in the end credits, but I had to go check out the director commentary to find anything. And so here’s the problem. Although this is a fact in the year-long experiment, it should not have been introduced if there was not going to be some sort of continuity or resolution to it. I was really enjoying my Beef Bourguignon just fine when someone dumped a bucket of weeds and dirt on it.

Discussion Questions:
~Although both of the projects chronicled in this movie (writing the cookbook and then cooking through it) were long and arduous, neither of the women ever seemed very close to giving it up despite some people around them who thought they should. What does this say about these women? What does it say about their passion for the project?
~Do you find cooking to be a joy or a grind? How likely is it that there are tips and tricks in cooking that you don’t know you don’t know?
~Do either of these women’s lives mean more because their exploits led to fame and publishing? In the end, is Julie different from her ridiculous New York friends or just the same?
~Does sexuality in a movie mean something different when it’s between a husband and a wife rather than between just a couple?
~Is this film exalting the successful and happy housewife portrayed in 50’s era television or holding it up to ridicule against the realities of modern life?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The foreplay between Streep and Tucci. How did you react to this scene? Why does it seem so unusual to see older people make out (if it does)? What does your reaction to this very healthy marriage say about our culture and its influences on us?
~Eric leaving Julie and staying gone for a couple days. Can you imagine a married person behaving this way, especially his character?
~Julie getting the call about Julia’s dislike for her project. Do you think it was a mistake or a wise choice to include this scene, especially without any follow-up explanation?

Overall Grade: C
This is a movie which could have been and should have been great, especially to a foodie like me. Unfortunately, it failed to be great. But if you haven’t already seen it, a truly outstanding film which actually will satisfy the foodie in you, try Babette’s Feast. Magnificent!

Fame (2009)

Rated: PG for thematic material including teen drinking, a sexual situation and language.
Length: 107 minutes
Grade: D+BCC=C
Budget: $18 million
Box Office: $74 million (22 U.S., 49 Intl., 3 DVD)

Written by: Allison Burnett (Untraceable, Autumn in New York) and Christopher Gore (1980’s Fame)
Directed by: Kevin Tancharoen (Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll, and a Britney Spears performance)
Starring: Kay Panabaker, Naturi Naughton, Kherington Payne, Asher Book, Paul McGill, Paul Iacono, Collins Pennie, and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, with Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth, Debbie Allen, Charles S. Dutton, and Kelsey Grammer.

This remake of the 1980 classic-turned-TV-series is a hyper-condensed 107 minute tale of eight students’ high school experience at the prestigious New York Performing Arts academy.

Entertainment Value: D+
I watched Fame growing up, so I was really excited about this, and I assumed with Debbie Allen’s involvement, it would be excellent. It was merely okay. The characters are all interesting, and I think you get to see a lot of up-and-coming talent here, especially Naturi Naughton and Kay Panabaker. However, the film was doomed from the beginning by trying to condense such a long span of time with so many different characters. There are many potent lines, but it feels like a series of scenes and lines rather than a real interwoven movie. It wants to be a four-year television show (which it easily could be), but it only winds up being a choppy, artificial hour and a half teen neo-drama. The weird thing is how the original movie managed to make this approach work whereas this one didn’t. Maybe it was because the original Fame dealt with true inner-city stories whereas these kids (mostly) come from privilege and intact families. Also, and maybe it’s just me, but I wanted to see this be more dance and music centered rather than so much on singing. Give me the brilliant dancing of Gene Anthony Ray, not the voice-processed singing of Asher Book! However, there is one really bright spot here:

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence B, Language C+
One girl gets drunk as a filmmaking experiment. There are two sexual scenes, one with boys watching a girl dance and another with a boy trying to seduce a girl in his TV show trailer. A boy talks about losing his sister to gang violence and another boy almost tries to kill himself in the Subway. Kids-in-mind and Commonsensemedia both say there was a smattering of medium profanity, but I didn’t even notice it. I may be going tone deaf on mild profanity. I found this to be a genuinely PG movie, which really surprised me in a good way compared to what I expected, especially since the original was rightly R. Still, it’s neither something young kids should watch nor will they find it interesting. PG-10 or so is about right.

Significant Content: C
Actually, the movie doesn’t preach very much, which is interesting. It more seems to present a variety of stories and views without telling you which it supports, other than that all raw talent will benefit from honest criticism and effective coaching. Not everyone is cut out to be a star. There’s no particular correlation between moral virtue and talent. Fame is a fleeting and fickle mistress. And some people take for granted the things they have which others would metaphorically kill to have.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
This part tears me in two directions. On the one hand, I actually thought the variety of story arcs presented gives plenty to consider, especially because they really are all so different. But they are all so lightly treated that you really have to script in the missing scenes and dialogue yourself. The movie should have been three hours long to do what it was trying and be effective. If the target audience was 13-year-olds who watch American Idol, this probably worked.
Discussion Questions:
~There’s a saying that, “It’s better to be a big fish in small pond than a small fish in a big pond.” What does this mean? Do you think it’s true? To whom in this movie does it apply?
~When people are the best in their smaller environments and always praised for it, why is it so hard for them to adapt to environments with a high concentration of talent like PA or New York City or an Ivy League school? Why do talented people sometimes find it very hard to take constructive criticism?
~One of the themes in this movie is the wisdom of parents and the idea of submitting to them. Discuss the various characters’ relationships with their parents and which, if any, of them are “honoring.”
~Why is it so important to base your self-identity on Christ instead of on your popularity or your ability to make it in show business? Is the solution suggested by the school that you should work on being an excellent performer and don’t worry about the accolades a workable alternative?
Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Malik telling the story of his sister’s death and Mr. Dowd responding by challenging him to reveal himself and the impact on him. Why does he get angry? Is it because this is the first time someone has called his bluff in putting on a performance which is meant to seem bold and tender but really keeps his secret even more hidden? How is Malik wearing a mask in this scene? As a Christian, are you ever scared to reveal things about you which you haven’t conquered yet? How is revealing things that impress other people not really self-revelation at all?
~Kevin being told that he’s never going to be a professional dancer, his reaction, and his subsequent choice. Do you consider him a failure? Is it ever a failure to realign your expectations of your life to your actual potential? Does it take more courage to keep trying at something you’re not good at or to find some level of competence or endeavor where you really can shine?
~Denise being told by her father that she has no business doing anything but playing classical piano. What do you think of her subsequent decision? How can you tell when parents should be obeyed and when they shouldn’t be? ~Can it ever be honoring to a parent to disobey him?
Malik’s mother confronting him about secretly attending the school. Mallik says, “Somebody out there’s got to make it. Why not me?” Do you think it’s healthy for people to dream about show business success, fame, and money? What percentage of people do in fact wind up succeeding in this arena? Is this basically a lottery mindset? His mother says that the problem is he’s trying to do what everyone else is trying to do. What do you think of her perspective?
~Neil persuading his father to invest in his movie. Why do you think the movie didn’t dwell more on this particular plot line?
Overall Grade: C
Lots of things that you could talk about here, obviously. But as a piece of coherent storytelling, it just doesn’t really add up to much. But at least much younger kids can watch this than the original. If you have a child into performing arts, I suggest you rent the old TV show on DVD and watch those episodes.

Battle for Terra (2009)

Rated: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and some thematic elements.
Length: 85 minutes
Grade: CBFC+=F
Budget: $4-8 million
Box Office: $2.8 million (1.6 U.S., 1.2 Intl.)

Written by: Aristomeris Tsirbas (First feature film) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Nutty Professor, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, Little Mermaid 3, and Jungle Book 2)
Directed by: Aristomeris Tsirbas (First feature film)
Starring: The voices of Brian Cox, David Cross, Beverly D’Angelo, James Garner, Dany Glover, Mark Hamill, Justin Long, Amanda Peet, Ron Perlman, Dennis Quaid, Luke Wilson, and Evan Rachel Wood.

The Terrans are peaceful alien airborne seacreatures who have learned to live at peace with nature. Unfortunately for them, humans who have destroyed their own ecosystem on earth are now out to steal their planet and terraform it for themselves. A crashed pilot, however, learns the truth about the Terrans’ goodness and tries to save both peoples.

Entertainment Value: C
This is amazingly good animation for such a teeny tiny budget. I was impressed. It’s a fairly captivating story, and they do a good job of building the plot toward the end. Also, they have a lot of good voices, too many, really.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B-, Language A
At the end of the movie, there is military violence and a lot of imaginary sea creatures are in danger of dying, including the killing of a flying whale. Some space ships are shot down, and there is a lot of talk about killing and death. Otherwise, the movie is squeaky clean, on purpose, I think.

Significant Content: F
Xenophobia is bad. And having an "us or them" mindset is also bad. But here’s what you really need to know about this movie. Humans are evil, having destroyed their own planets. Sea creatures (represented by the Terrans) are good because although they once were warlike they have now forsaken almost all technology and live in peace by having reunited nature. Also, they’re polytheists, whereas the humans’ only religion appears to be Christianity, as exemplified by the super-evil general who actually references the Bible as signifying the Divine pattern of their conquest plans. So, the Terrans have to go back to their forbidden old technology to fight off the humans. There are some serious dilemmas posed here about the coexistence of two species who each require incompatible environments. If only we humans could learn a lesson from the peaceful whales and strange alien minnow-people, we could all live happily ever after together. But here’s the biggest problem with what this movie is saying. It is a celebration of 9/11 style suicide/martyr/terrorism. See, in the end, the human who has learned about the true peace-loving Terrans chooses to turn against his own general and fly his plane into the terraforming machine they are using to change the atmosphere of Terra from one the Terrans can live in to what the humans need. And this Kamikaze traitor is then celebrated with his own statue in the new smaller human-dome the two peoples build on Terra together. Meaning? A true hero who understood the goodness of sea creatures would fly his plane into whatever governmental headquarters is responsible for destroying the seas, even risking the death of all humans if need be, in an effort to save the Earth (thinly allegorized by the use of the word Terra for the alien planet). And to add emphasis to the punch of this frightening endorsement of eco-terrorism, you have to figure all these famous actors did this movie for free since the budget is so tiny. Meaning not only do they all support this message, but they support it so strongly that they’ll volunteer their time for it in making a movie which no one but a handful of impressionable young children might watch. If I could bring myself to believe that all these actors and writers somehow just didn’t realize this is what they were making, I might be less worried. But I would have to believe them all to be collectively far more dense than even my credibility can manage for me to suppose that. This is NOT a movie to let your kids watch!

Artistic/Thought Value: C
I’ve said what I need to say, an the discussion questions will raise the other points.

Discussion Questions:
~Is “us or them” thinking ever useful? How does it help or hinder our efforts to fight global terrorism? Islamic fascism? Communism? What about when it comes to Christian thinking? What does the Bible have to say about “us and them” style thinking?
~When the General mentions that the seven day process of terraforming Terra is practically Biblical, what is this movie trying to say about Christianity?
~Do you think that this movie is endorsing eco-terrorism? Suicide-bombers? Is it an adequate defense of the ending to say that the general really was evil and needed stopping? What impact does this movie have, if any, on your view of the actors who made it?
~Given that the Terrans’ decision to give up having a military eventually made them vulnerable to aggression from an outside invader, is this movie actually endorsing disarmament and peace or challenging it? Which message do you think the makers of the film intended?
~Eco-terrorists are people who destroy property or endanger people’s lives in the interests of protecting animals and the environment. Why, exactly, are their activities so wrong? What motivates them in doing these things? Biblically, how would you correct them?
~Given that God created the whole world and put us in charge of it, what sort of obligations do you think we have to the earth and plant or animal life? Should sea life be given as much consideration ethically as humans? Does the instruction to subdue the Earth grant us the license to do anything we want to our world?
~Does the robot assistant represent the voice of wisdom or God or something else?
~What is the meaning of the title? Are the filmmakers talking about some distant planet in space?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The pilot being forced to pick between killing either Mala or his brother.
~The pilot flying his plane into the terraformer and killing the evil general.
~Wounding the whale.
Overall Grade: F
Although I don’t think all children (and even all adults) will grasp what this movie is saying, I would never let my kids watch it again. The plot and the animation are engaging, but the lessons and symbolism overwhelm any other consideration for this piece of neo-terrorist propaganda.

Brothers Bloom, The (2009)

Rated: A-C-BA=A-
Length: 114 minutes
Grade: PG-13 for violence, some sensuality and brief strong language.
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $5 million (4 U.S., 1 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Rian Johnson (Brick)
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rinko Kikuchi.

Two orphaned brothers become great con men and eventually wind up trying to con a wealthy but supremely knowledgeable heiress.

Entertainment Value: A-
The characters here are completely fascinating. The acting is fabulous. There is serious content here and also whimsy that made me laugh and laugh and laugh. The use of music was stunningly appropriate. Plus the themes and thought value made this one of my recent favorite little movies. I have no explanation for its dismal box office performance.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol C+, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C-, Language D+
Language alone is PG-15 and sadly unnecessary. There is a lot of fake and some real violence. There are some sexual situations but the only nudity is one fleeting image from behind. There’s one scene of the morning after a drinking party and casual drinking with meals.

Significant Content: B
The main concern here would be the constancy of lying and deception (plus criminal fraud) portrayed as acceptable and rewarding. However, the other messages of the movie and the overall point cast significant doubt on this lesson. Lying and fraud turn out to be real problems for all of the main characters eventually. Other themes and ideas have to do with the nature of life as an adventure, love being predicated on honesty, and films as con games.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
I really enjoy con movies because they’re so psychologically interesting. In this genre, the examples of greatness abound. The Sting, Grifters, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Glengarry Glenross, Tin Men, House of Games, Usual Suspects, Heist, Oceans 11-13, Matchstick Men, Revolver, and Confidence are all quite good. Nevertheless, I must admit that this movie really captured elements of the con game psychology that I’d never seen before. The most particular distinction about this movie is the way it shows the difference between a character played by a person and the person himself, with Bloom in particular both frustrated at not being known and afraid to let himself be known for who he is. The other novel element he expresses is the unfulfilled frustration of living a life where the plot and endings are always scripted. Great stuff to think about here.

Discussion Questions:
~Is there any meaningful difference between a confidence game and a movie? Why do we get so angry at movies that we can’t “get into” very well? Is that because they are shoddy cons?
If a con works so that everyone gets what they want in the end, is it actually a con? How might someone who gets conned still be satisfied by the outcome he experiences, so long as he doesn’t realize he’s been had?
~Do you think Stephen is motivated primarily by money or by the thrill of having been victorious at a complicated task? Why might it be frustrating to someone like Stephen to be given money when he’s rather deceive someone out of it?
~What’s the difference between true love and a role you play? Is role playing (pretending to feel/be what you don’t/aren’t) ever a healthy component of a real love relationship?
~Have you ever been in a relationship where you would have to admit you were really conning the other person somehow? Was it satisfying? Why or why not?
~How difficult do you think it is for professional actors to establish their own identity apart from their roles?
~How does being deceived cultivate skepticism? Is the reason people who have been fooled before are so skeptical mere prudence or is it the pride of being unwilling to look foolish again?
~Why is it harder for con men to get conned? How might this help Christians in our efforts to elude the traps and cons the Devil sets for us?
~Would you rather have an unwritten life or a scripted one? How is the desire for scriptedness related to a belief in God’s omniscience?
~Who is really in control of Bloom’s life?
~What is it about Penelope that provokes Bloom’s conscience? Can you con a person who doesn’t idolize money?
~"There is no such thing as an unwritten life. Just a badly written one." What do you think of this idea?
~Do either of the brothers truly love each other or anyone else? What about themselves?
~What do you make of Bang-Bang? What does her relationship with Penelope say about either of them or the boys?
Overall Grade: A-
As I said, the genre is already filled with many fantastic movies. This is one more in a long line of gems.

Gamer (2009)

Rated: R for frenetic sequences of strong brutal violence throughout, sexual content, nudity and language.
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: DHBC=D
Budget: $12.5 million
Box Office: $38 million (21 U.S., 18 Intl.)

Written and Directed by: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Both made Crank 1+2, Pathology)
Starring: Gerard Butler, Amber Valletta, Michael C. Hall, Kyra Sedgwick, Logan Lerman, and Ludacris.

In the near future, neurological technology makes it possible for one human to completely control another human even while enjoying the sensations that person experiences. At first, people get paid to be avatars in a world modeled on the Sims. In the next phase, death row convicts volunteer for a shooter-style game which offers them the hope of release if they survive long enough.

Entertainment Value: D
First and foremost, you should know that this is a hard R movie and no children should be watching it at all. Period. The style of this movie is very similar to the Crank movies and some of the other recent action movies (such as Lock Stock, and Two Smoking Barrells, Rocknrolla, Shoot ‘Em Up, Domino, and especially Smokin’ Aces) that might well be described as frantic overstimulation which will only appeal to the youngest, most electronically overdosed sort of person. This means it’s very hard to follow. Once again, we see a movie which has a very interesting premise which then gets turned into an over-the-top visual assault rather than a true science-fiction movie driven by story and characters with enough inactive time for tension to develop.

Superficial Content: H
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity F, Violence H, Language F
Seriously. I don’t recommend this movie to anyone. NC-17. The violence is constant. The profanity is very heavy. And there is enough sexuality and nudity to rate an R on that alone.

Significant Content: B
All that being said, the movie is trying to send a fairly good message. I doubt it succeeds at this message because I think this is another case of wrapping a pretty strong warning in so much stimulation contrary to that warning that it doesn’t linger. Still, it’s trying to say that most modern gaming is fundamentally depraved, not because it uses real humans, but because the people who play Sims and shooter games are precisely the people who would instantly subscribe to play real human avatars if that became available. As Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter) says at one point, “You can get paid to be controlled or you can pay to control.” The theme of manipulation is strong here, including the initially outrageous but intriguing idea that there’s a certain security in giving up decision-making for your own life to someone else for a time.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
As I said, the frantic pace and R+ content really inhibits people like me from enjoying this. And I worry that they are so enjoyable to precisely the people who need to think about what this movie is saying that they’ll miss the point in their oohs and aahs over the effects and action. Also, this movie happens to fall into a genre which has already been pretty well explored in much better ways before. Running Man, Gladiator, Strange Days, and Death Race are the most obvious examples, but I also have a fond spot for the lesser known Thirteenth Floor, the first movie that ever seriously raised the question of whether virtual characters should be thought of as moral beings and whether behavior in virtual worlds has ethical content. Also, newspeople love to have something to despise, especially when they secretly find it alluring themselves.

Discussion Questions:
~What does it mean to be human? What happens to people when the consequences for their choices are suffered by others? Why do you think the players were laughing to see their avatars get hurt?
~Why is it important to have strict limits on what we allow people to do with even their own bodies? We don’t allow people to sell themselves into slavery or become prostitutes or sell their organs. Why? Can libertarians answer this question coherently? Are there any “voluntary” choices which must not be allowed? Why does money make the choice different from voluntary? Do social structures and the pressure of circumstances ever coerce people into making desperate choices?
~Are there some choices which no person would ever rationally make and therefore should never rationally be allowed to make? What things should not be allowed to be bought and sold?
~Are there any occupations which are like “Society” right now?
~What is the ethical difference between manipulating a purely digital Sim in a gaming world and manipulating a real person who has voluntarily chosen to get paid to do such work? What does it say about a person that he enjoys shooting people or creating sinful relationships in a game? Even if he never does this in real life, is that because he is actually good or because he’s merely afraid of the consequences?
~How does money flowing into illicit endeavors shift the availability of jobs away from more legitimate enterprises which might otherwise hire the people who would feel the need to seek employment at the awful places if they were allowed?
~Have you ever thought it might be appealing to have all your decisions made for you by someone else? Would that make it easier to not feel guilty for the consequences? How is this impulse realized by people who join strict religions or cults?
~In a world where people are being violated in so many different ways for fun, why do you think cheating at a game would still hold so much moral significance?
~How would you get people to really think about the ethical problems of gaming and movies like this without simultaneously reinforcing those depraved desires?
~What things in your life do you enjoy having contempt for?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Simon sitting in his futuristic electronic command center. How different is this really from the techno-bubble of most teens today?
~The Society scene where the avatars crash into each other while their operators are laughing with Bloodhound Gang’s “Discovery Channel” playing in the background. What is being said at this moment regarding our depravity and what it means to be human? Is Society merely the logical endpoint of a materialist view of humanity?
Overall Grade: D
The psychedelic frantic action style of Crank is not enjoyable to watch. However, if you know a young adult who has (unfortunately) seen this movie, discussing these questions with him may at least give you a chance to help him think more deeply about some things.