Sherlock Holmes (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material.
Length: 128 minutes
Grade: BD+DD=C
Budget: $90 million
Box Office: $546 million (209 U.S., 307 Intl., 30 DVD)

Written by: Michael Robert Johnson (First script), Anthony Peckham (Invictus), Simon Kindberg (Jumper, X-Men 3, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), and Lionel Wigram (August Rush, Harry Potter 5+6), based in name only on the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Directed by: Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla, Revolver, Snatch, and Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Strong

Watson is leaving Holmes and getting married, but when a ferocious villain he had pronounced dead has returned from the grave to threaten to destroy Parliament, the duo are back on the case.

Entertainment Value: B
If I judge this movie entirely on its own merits, it’s not too bad. Certainly it’s not great, but it’s at least fine. This is difficult to do, however, because once again I feel like something cherished in my youth has been defiled in bringing it to the 2010 screen just like James Bond, GI Joe, The Transformers, Scooby Doo, and even the Dukes of Hazzard. This just isn’t Sherlock Holmes, other than in name, and it’s truly sad that Hollywood is so incapable of inventing its own characters that instead it just twists the classic ones into a modern mold. Holmes is a reprobate with a gifted mind rather than a distinguished gentleman any parent could affirm to his children. The fact that they picked Downey to play the part tells you everything you need to know (he’s an excellent actor, by the way, but he’s not Sherlock Holmes). If Sherlock Holmes was a 2010 American martial arts expert living a hundred twenty years ago in England with a British accent, this is what you’d get.

Superficial Content: D+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence D, Language B+
There are a couple of sexually suggestive scenes and implied nudity. The language is the mildest of profanity, which is nice. People are constantly drinking and smoking. There’s some gambling in the plot. The real issue here will be violence and what the MPAA rightly calls startling images. The movie opens with a woman about to be murdered as a human sacrifice and soon after has a man bursting into flames and dying. There are plenty of fighting scenes (to be expected in a Guy Ritchie film) that are glorified. A woman is in danger of being sawn in half in a slaughterhouse. I would give this an R-15 rather than a PG-13.

Significant Content: D
If you are massively clever and keenly observant, you can solve any problem. Also, none of your character flaws will matter because people who need your services will ultimately forgive you for your reprobate nature. Things that seem supernatural ultimately have physical explanations. Don’t judge the case before you actually have enough of the facts to be sure.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Here is where I will punish the movie for trampling on the memory of my beloved Basil Rathbone. If you wanted Batman, make another Batman movie. If you wanted a James Bond, make another Bond flick. But why must you try to turn Sherlock Holmes into a martial artist? At least having Steven Seagal play him would have been honest about the betrayal of the character. I can’t blame Guy Ritchie because he ultimately only makes such films. I also can’t blame him in part because this is a more faithful interpretation of the stories, which did have fighting skills in them. But movies always exist in a tradition, and the tradition for Holmes was firmly set over 50 years ago. I must blame the producers for letting him and the writers do this in the first place. At the same time, I must give some credit for the truly fascinating character in this movie: Dr. Watson. More on that in a moment.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think the makers of this film chose to make Sherlock Holmes their lead character rather than just inventing an entirely new character with a new name? Do you feel like this is faithful to the tradition of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters?
~Do Holmes’s skills as a crime-solver compensate for him being an arrogant jerk? Does character work like that, where we can make up for our defects by having valuable skills? Can you name some other arenas of life where we see this same problem occurring? Why is it so dangerous to offer someone like that as a role model in movies?
~Holmes says that it’s the little details which matter the most in discerning the truth. Do you agree? If you thought this, would it lead you to keen observation or to skepticism or even paranoia?
~By far the most interesting character in this movie is Dr. Watson. Can you explain why he stays with Holmes? Is it related to Holmes’s accusation of a morbid curiosity and desire for adventure? Would you say he has a tragic flaw of being drawn to the bad boy in Holmes, just as Holmes is drawn to the bad girl in Adler? In what sense do all of these characters represent an inability to enjoy the ordinary? What does it say about us as moviegoers who enjoy the odd, bizarre, and macabre apparently just as much as they do?
~In the film, “Dangerous Liasons,” Glenn Close famously asks John Malkovitch why we only chase the ones who run away. He answers, “Immaturity.” How does this assessment fit with this movie?
~At one point Holmes says that we shouldn’t form a theory until we really have the facts, but he also seems prone to making wild speculations on a few details, so which do you think is generally the better approach in our thinking: quick or slow judgments? What does the Bible say?
~Have you ever discovered yourself having made an error and twisted subsequent data to fit your conclusion? How were you persuaded in the end? How can this be best avoided?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Evaluating the fiancée at dinner.
Overall Grade: C
I could have told you this would be massively successful at the box office, but I can also tell you that this predictable reality saddens me. At one point we had some morally decent and primarily smart heroes. Now they’re all degenerates with black belts. Once again, I find myself encouraging you to see Equilibrium instead, especially if you like the idea of predictive martial arts. That’s not so much a sleuth movie, but it’s tons of cool fun.

Avatar (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.
Length: 160 minutes
Grade: ACBB=A
Budget: $237 million
Box Office: $2.721 BILLION (746 U.S., 1,975 Intl., likely over 100 DVD)

Written and Directed by: James Cameron (Terminator 1-3, Rambo, Aliens, Abyss, and Titanic)
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver
With: Stephen Lang, Joel Moore, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michelle Rodriguez.

Earthlings want to mine a lush planet with a rare mineral resource, but the indigenous species aren’t having it. So while the military prepares an assault, a team of scientists try to persuade them to leave the area peacefully by remote operation of bodies like theirs.

Entertainment Value: A
Well, you don’t just up and ear 2.7 billion for a movie by making it bad. If your goal in seeing a movie is to forget this reality by entering an imaginary world constructed for you with sight and sound, there simply is no better example than this. You’ll watch it, engrossed, for over 2½ hours and then still want it to go on and on. I didn’t go to see this in 3-D at the theaters, but I can only imagine how much more intense a visual experience this was for those who did. The plot is nowhere near as strong as the presentation, and especially if you’re familiar with Cameron’s other work (such as Aliens and The Abyss, specifically), this will feel a bit borrowed. But if you borrow from yourself, is that a defect? Also, I couldn’t stop thinking about Return of the Jedi and the Ewoks battling the Stormtroopers at the end of this movie. Nevertheless, this is spectacular, and I feel a bit sorry for the folks who complain about the content of this movie because I think it probably prevented them from simply enjoying a tremendous filmmaking experience.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence D+, Language C+
PG-13 is just right here, and it’s on the light end of that I think. Language is moderate but rightly PG-13. The natives run around partially naked, but I don’t think there is any actual nudity for the blue people, and it’s unlikely to generate lust anyhow. There’s one romantic scene. Characters smoke occasionally. Violence is the big concern for younger kids, with a lot of intense sequences with people being killed.

Significant Content: B
Quite frankly, I think a lot of people misanalyzed this movie. Yes, it’s highly environmentalist. Yes, it’s anti-industrialist and anti-corporatist. Yes, it’s anti-militaristic. Nevertheless, in the context of the alien world created here, everything it’s saying is true. The real question is whether that alien circumstance translates in any meaningful way to our reality here on earth. If it does, then the implications are massive, but if it doesn’t then there really are no implications whatsoever. So, in protesting this movie, critics are actually inadvertently granting that Earth and Pandora are relevantly similar, which is exactly wrong. But the basic idea that an oppressive human being might learn a thing or two about harmony with nature by being forced into experiencing communal life as the Na’vi do is perfectly digestible. Lots of consciousness-improving stories depend on empathy or immersion experiences for the paradigm-shifting to happen.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
On the one hand this is extraordinarily beautiful in a way that can only be experienced. On the other hand, the plot problems and derivative feel of it detracts from this being truly great art. And since the lessons are so overtly presented without much invitation to discuss them, I can’t give it more than a C. But the real defect here, much to the chagrin of those who contributed the $2.7 billion is the ending. Oh, I know it was spectacular. I know it made the movie. And I know that James Cameron virtually had to write it this way both because of Aliens and just the necessity for the Pandorans to win. But the real flaw in the ending is that the Na’vi decide to adopt the human paradigm of fight and destroy rather than finding some brilliant way to co-opt or persuade them by their own methods. In other words, the chance to write his so that the humans are redeemed rather than merely vanquished in the end was a tremendous opportunity squandered, both thematically and artistically.

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think the mineral being sought on Pandora is called Unobtanium? What is meant by that name choice?
~Why do you think the planet itself is named Pandora? Given the implicit reference to Pandora of Greek mythology and her infamous box, what connections do you see?
~Is this movie trying to say that the Na’vi are in fact the ideal alternative of what humans ought to be? What implications does this idea have for Native Americans as opposed to Europeans?
~How do you think American military personnel react to this movie? Do you think it’s fair to claim that the military simply does the bidding of evil corporations?
~In one scene, a soldier decides to disobey an unlawful order to do something which appears evil. How many soldiers are capable of disobeying an immoral order? Do you want soldiers to have that sort of conscience? Would you consider Jake a traitor? Do you think there is any danger of Americans being persuaded to fight against their own country because of this movie?
~Do you think this movie is dangerously environmentalistic? Or is it appropriately so given the particular circumstances of Pandora’s imaginary reality?
~Compare this movie to Aliens, if you are familiar with it. Why are the Aliens so evil and it so right to destroy them whereas the Na’vi are so good and it so wrong to destroy them?
~What do you think of the expression “I see you” in this movie? What does it mean? Why is it important? What does Jake mean about being in a place they eye cannot see when the community has rejected him?
~When Jake talks about the Na’vi’s idea of two births, how would you compare that with Christianity? When the Bible talks about its communitarian ethics and preference of other Christians over family, for instance, do you think it’s talking about something similar to what the Na’vis enjoy? Why would group membership for both be so meaningful and so precious to lose?
~When Neytiri’s mother says she wants to see whether Jake (and the humans) can be cured of their insanity, what insanity is she talking about? Is her assessment accurate?
~If you could have the symbiotic attachment capabilities of the Na’vi through their hair, would you want it? How would the ability to connect so viscerally with animals or other people change your understanding of reality?
~This movie is clearly presenting a sort of pagan new age religious view. Does that bother you as a Christian?
~If a world like Pandora actually existed, do you think we would have the ability to recognize something of that scope as a living organism?
~Who in this movie is portrayed as superficially savage? Who as substantially savage?
~Why do you think Cameron wrote the ending as he did? Do you think if he were a Christian who knew the Gospel he might have written it in a completely different way?
~Do any of the plot problems bother you? Consider the gravity applying and not applying on the mountains, the necessity and not of breathing masks, the failure to incorporate any of the other avatars like from the basketball scene, the unlikelihood that humans would leave and not return, the weird time issues of spending 6 years to get people to Pandora but attacking HomeTree in the next 3 months, and the motivation for the Na’vi to bother fighting after their first big loss.

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The first encounter with Pandora.
~The tree battle.
~The floating mountains.
~Jake rejected by Neytiri.

Overall Grade: A
By far the highest grossing movie of all time, and for some very good reasons. There are lots of flaws here, but what sort of a curmudgeon would actually dare to care about them?

G-Force (2009)

Rated: PG for some mild action and rude humor.
Length: 88 minutes
Grade: DBDF=D
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: $234 million (119 U.S., 173 Intl., 42 DVD)

Written by: Marianne and Cormac Wibberley (National Treasure 1+2, Bad Boys 2, Charlie’s Angels 2, I Spy, and 6th Day)
Directed by: Hoyt Yeatman (First movie, but he has a massive pedigree in visual effects including Underdog, Sky High, Mission to Mars, Mighty Joe Young, Crimson Tide, The Rock, The Abyss, Blade Runner, Star Trek, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but the thing you want to know is that Jerry Bruckheimer is the producer here (Big action movies like Black Hawk Down, Enemy of the State, Bad Boys 1+2, Top Gun, The Rock, etc.)
Starring: Zach Galifianakis and the voices of Jon Favreau, Nicolas Cage, Tracy Morgan, Penelope Cruz, and Steve Buscemi.
With: Will Arnett, Bill Nighy, and Kelli Garner.

An experimental commando team of guinea pigs must prove their own worth after having their program shut down by thwarting a global plot by an appliance mogul.

Entertainment Value: D
What happens when you mix clever voices, CGI guinea pigs, a massive budget, and the Black Eyed Peas under the supervision of America’s most successful action film producer? Well, a very profitable but thoroughly mediocre kids movie with a bagillion stolen references from adult movies.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C+, Language B+
Guinea pigs flirt with each other. There are some very mild words. The real concerns here are adult references like “Yippie Kiyay, Coffee Maker” and “guinea pigs gone wild,” the promotion of Black Eyed Peas music, all of which in real life has profanity, and violence. Appliances become blade-wielding Decepticons menacing humans and guinea pigs alike, and there is a lot of fighting, crashing, and slapstick violence. Farting is a key theme.

Significant Content: D
Government agents are stupid. Guinea pigs are people, too. Everyone needs a family they can belong to. The belief that you can do special things is enough to make you capable of actually doing them. Evil is often the result of revenge for past oppression. If you disagree with the rules, just do what you think is right and it’ll all be okay.

Artistic/Thought Value: F
There really isn’t any here. It’s a chaotic, ridiculous, implausible action movie made for kids of an unknown age.

Discussion Questions:
~Given that the Black Eyed Peas only make music with profanity in it, do you think it’s a good idea to use them for the soundtrack here?
~Is the key ingredient in success merely believing you can do something? Do people ever believe in themselves and fail? Consider, for instance, how many people audition for American Idol. How important is actual talent and training?
~If guinea pigs could talk, what do you think they would say? Would they be smarter than mice and hamsters?
~What sort of things do you expect from a children’s movie? Which of them does this movie have or fail to have?
~Do you think women play games with men the way Juarez does? Is this wise, necessary, mean, or something else?
~Does it bother you for a kids movie to make references to adult movies or concepts but with changes in the wording?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The mole and the garbage truck? Otherwise, not really.
Overall Grade: D
Easily the most implausible kids movie I’ve seen recently. Nevertheless, if you don’t mind filling their heads with empty fun, this is okay. I do mind that, so we didn’t let our kids see this a second time. Bolt was much, much, much, much better. But then again, Pixar crushes everyone at making kids movies. Chalk up a lot of the profits here to the 3-D experience at theaters. Then again, Tracey Morgan is hilarious no matter what he’s doing.

Blind Side, The (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references.
Length: 129 minutes
Grade: A-C+AB+=A-
Budget: $29 million
Box Office: $360 million (256 U.S., 42 Intl., 62 DVD)

Written and Directed by: John Lee Hancock (The Alamo, The Rookie), based on the book by Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Next)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, and Quinton Aaron.
With: Kathy Bates, Lou holtz, Nick Saban, and Tommy Tuberville.

When a large but backward-seeming and homeless black boy enrolls at a Christian high school, a local family decides to take him in and teach him football, which leads ultimately to him having an NFL career.

Entertainment Value: A-
I’m sure there are lots of people wondering why I wouldn’t give this obviously outstanding movie a simple A. Well, there were just things that irked me in an otherwise fantastic film. It all started with the quote over the archway entrance to the Christian school being a direct misquote of the Bible. Instead of the accurate, “With men this is impossible, with God all things are possible,” (Matthew 19:26) the inscription read, “With men this is possible, with God all things are possible.” It just kept bothering me, especially when I saw it again later in the film. How does such a massive change go unnoticed by anyone? Second, one of the key plot elements was Michael scoring 98% on “protective instincts” on some personality test. Such a thing may really exist, but it sounded totally contrived and silly to me. Third, and this one came afterward for me, there is some subtle but significant discrepancy between the real story and the movie. Most notably, Oher was already a highly touted football player before (not after) the Tuohy’s took him into their home. This of course changes the big dynamic of the movie and also makes the NCAA inquisition look far less spurious. It was just disappointing to feel like the movie misled me on such a major factual element. All of these concerns aside, (and I know at this point it may be hard to tell) this is a great movie. The acting is great (although both Streep and Sidibe merited best actress over Bullock), and the tone of the whole thing is wonderful. Plus, the Christian (and anti-Christian) themes are so enjoyable to see in a “real” movie.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C+, Language C
Almost all of this movie is perfectly PG, with just a few language issues and one car crash with no serious injuries. However, there is one scene toward the end which shows a drug dealer with his gang and prostitutes and there is a fight and some threats of violence plus heavier language. The movie needed that scene, and it couldn’t have been done any differently, but this is a case where PG-13 is all of about three minutes toward the end. Otherwise PG.

Significant Content: A
The beauty of this movie is that it shows Christian charity in practice as a well-to-do family takes in and eventually adopts a boy whose mother was an addict and who shuffled around the foster system for years until they found him. (By all accounts, this is the actual reason they took him in, by the way. It just didn’t match up chronologically with the film). It also very honestly shows the anti-Christian attitudes of several other people who claim to be Christian, either who say it’s reckless to spend time with him or who won’t associate with him because of his background or else don’t think it’s worth their time to try to reach him educationally.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
As I mentioned before, some of the discrepancies bugged me, but the overall thought value here is quite good. Stereotypes of both wealthy and poor people are both represented and challenged. Christian charity is shown in action, which is simply marvelous in any modern film. And it’s chock full of tender, loveable moments that nevertheless avoid being mere sentimentality by seeming far too honest to be only that.

Discussion Questions:
~At one point Michael asks Leigh Ann whether she did the things she did for him or for her own purposes. What is he getting at? How is this question at the heart of what distinguishes real love from self-serving prudence?
~When she second-guesses her own motives, what does that reveal about her character? Why does Christianity uniquely allow you to be willing to see potential ugliness in yourself? Why is a legalist/moralist unwilling to even consider this?
~Shortly thereafter, she asks her husband whether she’s a good person. What does this reveal about her character? Does a Christian ask this question of herself?
~Would you describe the Tuohys as a Christian family? Why so or why not? Do they ever lead Michael to Christ? Does this matter in the context of how they live?
~The Gospel message is that Jesus died for even the most worthless people. Given that Michael has both tremendous athletic potential and also is such a clear sweetheart, is the Tuohy’s love for him as pure as Jesus’s love for really wretched people? How much would this movie have changed if Michael had shown himself to be dangerous or unstable?
~Is your emotional attitude toward Michael pity or compassion? What’s the difference? What was the Tuohy’s attitude?
~Imagine that the Tuohys actually did do all of this in order to recruit Michael to Ole Miss. Although it clearly wouldn’t be as wonderful as if they were doing it merely for charity, would it be so bad? What could the consequences of allowing this be? Would it be better for troubled athletes?
~Although race is certainly an element of this movie, do you think that race is really a part of what’s going on here? How might any of this movie been different if all the races had been different?
~Do the factual discrepancies bother you in this movie? Why or why not?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The tea party with the ladies. Why were they so surprised that she had already been thinking seriously about adoption? Why does she say, “Shame on you,” to her friends for suggesting he might be dangerous? How does her defense of Michael against her wealthy friends remind you of Jesus’s attitude towards us?
~Leigh Ann meeting Michael’s mother in her public housing apartment.
~Lily choosing to sit with Michael in the library rather than with her friends.
~The truck crash. How would you have reacted to this event if you had been the Tuohys? How does their reaction demonstrate abundant grace rather than just "trial period" grace?
~The scene at the gang leaders apartment.
Overall Grade: A-
Excellent. See it if you haven’t.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, The (2009)

Rated: PG for action, smoking and slang humor.
Length: 87 minutes
Grade: AB+CB=A-
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $48 million (21 U.S., 22 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Wes Anderson (Darjeeling Limited, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, and Bottle Rocket), based on the novel by Roald Dahl (children’s books such as The Gremlins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The BFG, and George’s Marvelous Medicine.)
Starring the voices of: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, and Eric Chase Anderson.
With the voices of: Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem DaFoe, Adrien Brody, and Owen Wilson.

Mr. Fox used to steal chickens, but has now settled down with a wife and a regular job as a newspaperman. Unfortunately for everyone, he decides to buy a treehouse overlooking three farms with the intent to pull off one last master caper which endangers his family because he underestimates how nasty these three farmers really are.

Entertainment Value: A
I don’t really understand how this film did what it did. A guy who has only made truly odd movies managed to take a beloved children’s book by an incredibly successful author and turn it into a clever, entertaining, visually fascinating movie about human nature that both adults and children adore. Personally, I loved every moment of it, especially for the understated humor, but my concern was whether the boys would get enough of it to also enjoy it. They watched it pretty much every day for two weeks. So, yeah, apparently they did. I was very sad to see how poorly it did at the box office only because that means lots of people and kids have missed out on this gem.

Superficial Content: B+
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A*
One of the farmers makes and drinks hard cider, which is mentioned several times and there is some wine drinking and cigarette smoking. There are some scenes of fighting and several scenes with explosives and gunfire aimed at animals. Stealing seems to be promoted as an acceptable practice which, although comes with risks, does not end up costing the thieves fully. The asterisk on the language is because one of the running gags of the whole movie is that although it uses no swear words at all, it uses swearing phrases where the word “cuss” replaces the actual “cuss word.” So, they say, “What the cuss?” and “Are you cussing me?” and similar sentences. I found this delightful (and meaningful, as I’ll get to soon), but I can see how some parents might find this bothersome. Also, I found it very odd that two adult movies were promoted in the previews: Whip It and Date Night.

Significant Content: C
Every creature has a basic nature, and although you might temporarily suppress it, that nature will eventually rear up in undesirable ways. You just can’t really civilize wild animals not matter how many gimmicks you try, and men in particular are wild animals. Stealing is dangerous but not so bad if you’re good at it.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Okay, it would be unfair to claim that this was primarily a big, deep art movie. Nevertheless, it has to get high marks for being the coolest stop-motion animation movie I’ve ever seen. But the thing that I didn’t expect was that after having seen or over-seen (while doing other things my kids were watching it) this movie about 7-8 times, I finally got it. Perhaps I’m just slow, but I never realized that the movie wasn’t about animals at all but about people, human nature, and tragic flaws. Although the foxes in this movie are at least trying to be like humans, the humans are behaving like animals. And whereas animals make choices, the humans seem unable to even realize they have alternatives to revenge. Of course, the veneer of civilization for the animals is consistently portrayed as shallow (cussing with non-cuss words, working at a newspaper rather than thieving chickens, and preparing food on plates which is then eaten wildly). This means that the difference between good people and bad people is still pretty thin, which is a pretty depressing commentary on human nature. However, the Bible agrees that we either are savages or else savages under restraint, except for those few born again who can be truly delivered from their barbarism (not a point mentioned in the movie, of course).

Discussion Questions:
~What indicators of savage nature just barely covered over with civility does this movie use?
~What is Mr. Fox’s tragic flaw? Why does he fail to keep his promise to his wife? Who was more naïve about Mr. Fox’s savage nature: him in thinking he could keep his promise to reform or his wife for thinking so?
~Is this movie trying to say that all men are savages who cannot really be reformed even by a powerful institution like marriage? What did Mr. Fox think he needed to have to be happy? What if Mr. Fox had heard the Gospel?
~Why does Ash have such trouble with Kristofferson? Is Kristofferson really his problem, or does Kristofferson only force him to confront his own identity struggles? What happens when his strategy for self-esteem encounters challenges from someone better than we are? What did Ash think he needed to have in order to be happy? Have you ever had a negative reaction to someone who you thought made you look bad by being really good at something? How did Mr. Fox contribute to this problem? What can parents do to make their children feel secure in their identity without needing to perform to earn their approval?
~What is it about swearing that’s problematic? If the specific words used are not forbidden, are expressions like the ones in this movie acceptable or not?
Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Mr. Fox discussing his own nature with the opossum atop his tree.
~The end scene with the wolf. What do you make of Mr. Fox’s relationship with wolves?
~Mr. Fox’s decision to buy the tree house.
~The ongoing compulsion by the farmers to get Mr. Fox.
Overall Grade: A-
A brilliant stop-motion, film noir allegory made in the style of a classic Western with the occasional Billy Jack reference and an almost Napoleon Dynamite tone that adults and kids alike will love. An unheard of 93% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (2009)

Rated: R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language.
Length: 109 minutes
Grade: BHBA=B+
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $78 million (48 U.S., 13 Intl., 17 DVD)

Written by: Geoffrey Fletcher (First movie), based on the novel by Sapphire (First novel)
Directed by: Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer)
Starring: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, and Paula Patton
With: Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, and Lenny Kravitz

Written by a former school teacher, this is a fictional story intended to reveal both the brutal and tragic realities of inner city black life and the possibility for individuals to escape their circumstances through education.

Entertainment Value: B
It’s almost not even a fair question to ask whether this movie is entertaining. Somehow, entertainment value just seems like the wrong term, almost too trivial to bother asking. This is a moving, painful, and very meaningful movie. And yet, at the same time, it’s a horror story far more terrifying and troubling than anything with boogey men and supernatural events. This is a portrayal of evil in its most human form and decency undestroyed by it. The reason I give it a B instead of an A is that it just hurts too much for it to be truly entertaining. It’s great without being enjoyable. It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards and won 2 of them (including a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique). The only think I can’t figure out is how the Academy gave Sandra Bullock the win for Best Actress over the performance here by Sidibe or that of Meryl Streep in Julia & Julia.

Superficial Content: H (on an A-F scale)
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity H, Violence H, Language F
The least problematic stuff here is drug use, which is mostly in the background, though present. Profanity alone is certainly as heavy as you would expect from a movie set in this situation. But the things that make this movie absolutely unsuitable for any non-adults are sexual and violent. The story of this movie revolves around rape, incest, and parental brutality, and these things are portrayed in a way that is far more disturbing than I can describe. Please trust me that this is a very awful movie which nevertheless is very worth seeing.

Significant Content: B
The key ingredient in escaping tragic circumstances is the creativity to imagine an alternate reality and aim for it. Evil has a generational effect of ruining the next wave of children so they become every bit as deformed as the parents, but it is possible to overcome this effect through love and education.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
If feel-good movies about teachers making a difference in the inner city like “Stand and Deliver” and “Music of the Heart” are the whitewashed versions of reality, this is the raw, unfiltered alternative. What makes this such an excellent piece of art is that it tells the teacher-hero story as a triumph for the student rather than for the teacher. Whereas all the other movies seem to make the student hopelessly dependent on the right teacher, this one seems to be telling the kids that although they need a good teacher, the success is really theirs. The thing about this movie which is most difficult is that most of us who watch it simply are at a loss for how to respond. It made me feel terribly uncomfortable because I didn’t know what to do or what to think in the end, and yet I also felt like I was on the other side of being told this terrible secret about inner-city reality in the sense that I just had no way to process what I was being told but to cry about it. The makers describe this as an uplifting movie for people who are in these situations, and I can imagine it being so, but I was too overwhelmed with the sudden and unexpected pain of experiencing their situation that I couldn’t enjoy the hopefulness of its intent. What previously seemed like a difficult problem now seems like an impossible one, quite frankly. If this is really what life is like for the next generation of poor black kids, what can be done?

Discussion Questions:
~What is your reaction to this movie? Does it inspire you, pain you, make you want to cry, make you want to do something, etc.? Taking stock of your reaction, do you think this is a movie that should have been made? Why do you think Tyler Perry and Oprah thought this was so important to make?
~What future do you imagine for Precious based on everything you know about her at the end of the movie?
~Why do you think the makers decided to title this movie as they did, with the part “Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire?” Logically, this should serve to tell you that it is a fictional account (by telling you it’s a novel), but does it have that effect or the opposite one? Why does knowing the author’s name is “Sapphire” tend to lend the story credibility, if it does?
~In the interviews with the director and writer, they discuss the feeling that the events depicted in this movie reveal painful truths about life among poor black people in America which are so widespread that it feels like telling a family secret. How typical do you think such situations end events are in America? Are you more inclined to believe this is rare or common? What do the writer/director’s comments indicate about the commonness of such stories in reality compared with the awareness of them by most white or middle-class Americans?
~What do you make of the fantasy scenes? Do they seem like unhealthy mental escapes, necessary mental refuges, or evidence of an indomitable spirit?
~What changes do you notice in Precious’s language use over the course of the movie? Why is this important?
~Tyler Perry indicates he was concerned about supporting a movie with so much awful content, but can you imagine why he did so ultimately? Could this movie have been made honestly without everything that was in it?
~In what ways would you say this is a Christian movie? To whom can Precious credit her survival? In what ways does this movie tell us that Precious is a good person already when we encounter her? Is she more “precious” because of her diligence, obedience, creativity, or education? What about her kindness?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Precious being brutalized by her father with her mother watching in the background.
~Mary knocking Precious unconscious for a minor error in getting her lottery tickets.
~The whole sequence with Precious returning home with the new baby.
~Mary putting on her performance for the social worker to get her welfare check.
~Precious breaking down in the classroom and talking about how love never did anything for her.
~The various fantasy scenes and the alternate reality Precious keeps taking shelter in.
~Precious staying temporarily with her teacher and her lover. What do you make of the things Precious thinks in this moment?
Overall Grade: B+
I think you already know everything I think about this movie, so I won’t bother repeating it again. See it if you dare.

Men Who Stare at Goats, The (2009)

Rated: R for language, some drug content and brief nudity.
Length: 94 minutes
Grade: DDDC=D
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $68 million (32 U.S., 33 Intl., 3 DVD)

Written by: Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People), based on the book by Jon Ronson (First major project)
Directed by: Grant Heslov (First movie, but he wrote Good Night and Good Luck)
Starring: Ewan McGregor and George Clooney
With: Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick, and Stephen Root.

In this loose adaptation of the real life military efforts to develop psychic powers for soldiers, a minor league reporter trying to get into the Iraq war finds himself suffering misadventures when he inadvertently meets a former “Jedi” soldier.
Entertainment Value: D
I think I’ve finally figured George Clooney out. He either plays himself (and this usually means the movie is quite good) or else he actually acts (in which case the movie usually stinks). Not because he can’t act, but for other reasons I still haven’t discerned yet. In any case, he’s not a reliable bet, and you have to look elsewhere to figure out what to expect from a movie. In this case, the screenplay writer is the key because this is every bit as awful as “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.” The problem is that all these excellent actors play their parts right, but the substance of the thing is just plain strange and mediocre. It’s caught between trying to be two movies. It doesn’t fit as a simple documentary tell-all, nor does it truly work as a sardonically funny portrayal of exaggeration and oddity. If you like queer movies, then you may actually enjoy this. I did not. I guess it just wasn’t my sort of queer.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language D
One sequence of scenes about the new age movement shows people in hot tubs with some nudity. There is one extended scene with a group of people shown after unintentionally taking LSD. There is some violence, but mostly either slapstick (a man running into a wall) or against animals (implying they have been made to die by mind powers). The profanity alone would certainly make this R rated, which is moderately F-heavy.

Significant Content: D
The military is basically composed of weirdos and buffoons. There may be strange things in reality (then again there may not be), depending on your willingness to interpret the data a particular way.
Artistic/Thought Value: C The real question this movie raises and refuses to answer is whether the powers the military tried to develop actually occurred or not. And just when you think you’ve seen convincing evidence (shown to you anyhow), then something else the same person asserts looks extremely doubtful or even moronic. For instance, you have Clooney killing a goat with his mind (apparently) and then believing in a death touch that kills you either instantly or else decades later. Also, some credit must be given just for casting McGregor as the outsider learning about Jedi powers and the “Dark Side” of mental powers.

Discussion Questions:
~Based only on the things portrayed in this movie, do you believe the government program succeeded in producing special powers or did it only succeed in being credible to those who already believed in them? In terms of credibility, why is it important to not be too flaky when you are presenting an idea well outside of people’s conceptual comfort zone? How is this a useful piece of advice for Christians?
~In science, a hypothesis which can’t be disproved because its predictions are so vague they can be confirmed by any imaginable evidence is considered an empty or illegitimate theory. Why is it important for theories to be disprovable? Consider specifically the death-touch concept.
~How can we preserve our ability to be open-minded when it comes to ideas that may deserve serious attention while not simultaneously becoming gullible? How can you be properly critical in your thinking without also becoming merely skeptical?
~Do you believe in the possibility of psychic powers? If you do, are they natural aptitudes that some or all people might have or are they special gifts from God that can be used for His purposes like prophecy or against them by evil men? Consider, for instance, the magicians in Pharaoh’s court as opposed to Aaron and Moses.
~Many people have claimed that hallucinogenic drugs give them access to perceptions of reality unavailable through other means and even some extraordinary powers. Do you think it’s more likely that they are right or that the use of such substances merely distorts your ability to know the truth?
~On the one hand, America is more naturalistic than ever (disbelieving anything supernatural), and on the other hand more supernaturalist than ever (believing in spirit guides, psychics, and energy fields). What do you make of this? Which error is healthier in terms of being more conducive to bringing someone to faith in Christ?
~One of the ideas represented here is that the military often invests in things just to avoid being passed up by enemies (the psychic gap, for instance). Do you think in this case that the investment made sense at the time? Even if the development program had discovered nothing, do you think it was still worth investigating?
Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The scene with Clooney and the goat.
~Clooney cloudbursting.
~Spacey giving Clooney the death touch.
Overall Grade: D
If you want an infinitely better version of military satire particularly on the idea of gap strategy, go back to Kubrick’s classic “Dr. Strangelove.” And if for some reason you haven’t seen that, consider it your first piece of filmmaking homework from me. This is a case where making a mere documentary probably would have been far more interesting.

Twilight Saga, The: New Moon (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for some violence and action.
Length: 130 min
Grade: CC+CC=C
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $835 million (297 U.S., 413 Intl., 125 DVD)

Written by: Melissa Rosenberg (All three Twilight films, and lots of TV like Dexter, The OC, and Ally McBeal.), based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer.
Directed by: Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy)
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner, and Robert Pattinson
With: Billy Burke, Ashley Greene, Anna Kentrick, and Peter Facinelli.

After the Cullens leave town because the desire for Bella’s human blood proves too much for one of the brothers, she is heartbroken and starts doing dangerous things to reconnect with Edward. Meanwhile, she starts developing a relationship with a the werewolf boy who has had a crush on her since the first movie. When Edward mistakenly thinks she has committed suicide, he tries to follow her into oblivion by crossing a very powerful group of vampires, and Bella and Alice must try to rescue him.

Entertainment Value: C
It’s pretty, very pretty, but the pace of this movie and the bizarre plot threw me off. Plus, and maybe I’m one of the few men in the world asking this question, what in the world is so great about Bella as played by Kristen Stewart? All the beautiful (though undead) boys seem to want her, but why? Then, after spending the first movie establishing this eternal love of “the one,” now all of a sudden Edward just leaves her because of his brother’s bloodlust? Totally implausible. I found the plot device of not revealing Jacob as a werewolf until halfway through the movie weird since it has been obvious all along. But all these plot complaints aside, this is still an epic chick flick. It didn’t make $800 million because it’s awful.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity C+, Violence C, Language A
There’s a lot of sexualized teens in this movie, but no actual sex. The language is very clean, just name-calling. The violence is probably the main concern, with vampires and werewolves killing people and the issue of blood being constant. PG-13 is just right.

Significant Content: C
True love conquers all, but losing such true love causes a pain worse than death. It’s bad to be a human, it’s worse to be a vampire, but it’s the worst of all to be a human who loves a vampire or a vampire who loves a human. A real man protects his woman from every threat, even if it’s him. The best men don’t need sex because they are satisfied with your intoxicating companionship. However, this movie avoids being a D by the way it ends, which I won’t ruin for you.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
The Twilight movies are much more immersion experiences than they are epic thought provokers. As such, there is a haunting beauty about them and the pace and cinematography they use, although I much preferred Hardwicke directing the first movie. And I think that basic sentiment is overwhelmingly true for every aspect of this far inferior sequel.

Discussion Questions:
~When Edward leaves, it sends Bella into such misery that she almost wants to die. Do you think this is evidence of a healthy love or an unhealthy obsession? Is it idolatry? What advice might a Christian give Bella?
~When Edward thinks Bella has died, he actually does try to kill himself through a convoluted plot. If she was so vital to him, why did he leave her in the first place? Is his orientation toward her love or idolatry? What advice might a Christian give Edward?
~Why does Edward not want to turn Bella into a vampire? What do you think of his reluctance?
~What do you think of Edward’s decision to choose his community (family) over his romantic interest in Bella? Given the need for this community to help keep him sober (on human blood), is he just being wise?
~In what ways as a vampire’s bloodlust a good metaphor for sin? In what ways not? Can this condition ever be reversed?
~If ordinary pornography feeds and reinforces unhealthy versions of male sexual desire, do you think it’s fair to call the Twilight movies female pornography? Why, exactly, are these movies so appealing to teenage girls?
~In what ways is Edward the ideal man? In what ways is he not?
~Does this movie have anything useful to tell Christians about the perils of dating non-Christians?
Overall Grade: C
I liked the first one much better. It’s a bit like going from the original Star Wars trilogy to the three later prequels. Only someone who loved the originals would really love the followups. I hope the next one is better.

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for some sexual references and momentary violence.
Length: 103 minutes
Grade: C+C+B+C=C+
Budget: $58 million
Box Office: $85 million (30 U.S., 50 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Marc Lawrence (Music and Lyrics and Two Weeks Notice. He also wrote Miss Congeniality 1 & 2, The Out-of-Towners, and 31 episodes of Family Ties)
Starring: Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker.
With: Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, and Wilford Brimley

A professionally successful but martially separated New York couple must enter Witness Protection and relocate to a small Wyoming town when they become witnesses to a murder. Hating it at first, they eventually grow to recognize the values of their temporary home and even recover their own marriage in the process.

Entertainment Value: C+
Despite starring Sarah Jessica Parker (for whom I have a pathological dislike, which I’m sure many of you would also admit about Hugh Grant), this was charming and fun. Imbecilic at times, of course, as are all comedy romances these days, but charming and fun nonetheless. If you go into it knowing that the actual machinery of getting them to Wyoming and then wrapping up the murder are going to be the absurd but necessary pretext for the rest of the movie, you won’t mind them so much. It forced me to reconsider my general disdain for predictability in movies if only for the super-obvious fact that if a particular and predictable plot line works in many different movies, it may be one that people desire and even need. And this one surely is. Steenburgen and Elliot are, of course, wonderful as the gun-toting older couple wizened by their years of rugged living and faithful devotion.

Superficial Content: C+
Drugs/Alcohol B+, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C+, Language C+
There are some mild sexual discussions and implied sex (but between married people). The plot involves past infidelity. Language is mild for a PG-13, thankfully, S a couple of times. Violence involves a man falling off a balcony after having been stabbed and a man being shot, plus some gunplay and slapstick violence involving bears and bulls. This is a fairly light PG-13.

Significant Content: B+
Unlike so many com-roms, this one is unabashedly pro-marriage and anti-adultery. Adultery is the source of their problems, and reconciliation is the clear objective of the movie. Forgiveness becomes a major theme, and the basic idea is that “We can work it out,” as sung by Stevie Wonder for emphasis over the credits. There are things to love about New York, but there are also things to love about small-town Western life as well.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Okay, I know it’s not great art by any stretch of the definition, but there are plenty of things to talk about here. More and more, this is the question that guides me in my Art/Thought grading. Obviously, it’s a fish-out-of-water story, but that is part of what this movie wants people to ask themselves: how much of what I think I need in my life is stuff I really need and how much is just what I’m accustomed to? Is it possible that a very different lifestyle would be equally rewarding and fulfilling?

Discussion Questions:
~Why do you think comedy/romance movies are so predictable? Is this a defect, or is it a virtue? If lots of movies follow a pattern, could that be because it is satisfying to many people to see that pattern followed? Is there any pathology in needing to have everything be surprising and unexpected?
~Do you find yourself biased in favor of large cities or small towns in your thinking? What are the advantages of each? ~Does this movie take sides in that debate? Where should Christians who want to reach the culture prefer to live and do ministry? Where did Paul go in the New Testament? Will the New Jerusalem be a small town or a bustling metropolis?
~How important is it for a couple to share a lot of similarities in small things like activities, humor, and food? How do those things show up in this movie as relationship-strengtheners?
~When Paul is forced to open up to Meryl and admit his flaws, this seems to finally rescue their marriage. Why do people resist becoming vulnerable to their spouses?
~What was so foolish about Meryl’s choice to have a big conversation with Paul at the square dance? How should she have done it?
~Two competing philosophies emerge here: being merely realistic about what you expect from a spouse and expecting everything from them. Which one does the movie endorse? Is either of these the Christian perspective?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The discussion in the FBI office about needing to leave New York. Can you understand why the choice between risking death by staying in New York or staying alive by leaving the city was difficult for Meryl? Can you comprehend how much the identity of New Yorkers is bound up in the fact that they are New Yorkers? Does this seem like idolatry? Do her reasons for not wanting to leave seem silly? Are her reasons for wanting to stay at all like the reasons people are reluctant to choose Christ over the enticements of this world?
~The end scene overlooking Central Park.
Overall Grade: C+
Decent, predictable, clever enough to be worth watching, especially since it’s about marriage being worth doing and yet not being easy.