A-Team, The (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence throughout, language and smoking.
Length: 117 minutes
Grade: ACCB=B+
Budget: $110 million
Box Office: $199 million (77 U.S., 100 Intl., 22 DVD)

Written by: Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces 1+2, Pride and Glory), Brian Bloom (The actor who played Pike, no other writing credits) and Skip Woods (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hitman, and Swordfish), based on the series created by Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannell
Directed by: Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton Jackson, and Sharlto Copley
With: Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, and Brian Bloom.

The most elite team of commandos is sent on a covert mission in Bagdad at the end of the Iraq war, but then framed for the murder of their commander and the theft when it goes wrong. Desperately wanting to clear their names, they must escape from prison, find those responsible, and bring the truth to light, mostly by being clever and shooting people.

Entertainment Value: A
Oh, man, oh man! For a kid who grew up watching the A-Team, this was a real treat. Some recent remakes have been atrocious, and some have been acceptable. But a few of them (like Star Trek or Predators) have kept so well to the tradition and honored it that real fans can’t be anything but satisfied. This keeps the personalities of the original team so well-preserved that they even kept the same haircuts. The van, the same guns (in the initial scenes), the kitschy lines. Even the completely absurd action plot and crazy plans working. It’s all there, man. I enjoyed this from beginning to end. The only thing more I could hope for is a re-launch of the series with this mix or, failing that, a solid sequel.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity B, Violence C-, Language C
Hannibal smokes cigars, and there’s some alcohol. Several scenes imply sexuality, but it’s much tamer than anything even on TV these days. Language, however, wouldn’t pass on TV, and easily earns the PG-13. Violence is likely the big concern, with lots and lots of battle scenes and people being killed on or off-screen, but all usually in a bloodless PG-13 sort of way.

Significant Content: C
The craftier you are, the more powerful you are. Violence and force are good when used by the good guys and bad in the hands of bad guys. Having a name and keeping it clear is very important.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
The credit here isn’t primarily because of great philosophical insights or lengthy post-viewing discussions. It’s just for the fidelity of this remake to all the bits of the original, as I mentioned before. Liam Neeson had been my biggest concern going in, but he passed with flying colors for George Peppard’s Hannibal. Maybe just a tad on the serious side, but that’s true for all of them compared to the original.

Discussion Questions:
~BA struggles with the role and legitimacy of violence in his life. Would it be fair to say that he was addicted to violence before and that his Gandhi-inspired pacifism was an overreaction to that excess? What do you make of his conversation with Hannibal about this? Is he guilty of cowardice by rejecting violence? It’s far more difficult to do a thing properly than it is to simply abstain from the thing altogether. Is BA being a coward in not trying to use force responsibly?
~The original show was mostly about the team helping victims right wrongs in their life while (sort of, long term) working to clear their own name. This movie seems to be more about revenge or, at least, just personal vindication. Which seems more noble to you?
~In the original series, much effort was taken to avoid killing, but in this movie the characters seem willing, even eager, to kill the bad guys. What do you make of that shift?
~What is the Christian perspective on the use of violence? Would the Bible condone the semi-vigilante violence of the A-Team? If you allow someone else to be harmed by your refusal to use force in order to maintain your vision of personal purity, is that virtuous? Is it Christian?
~The main evolution from the 80s until now with action heroes has been a loss of cavalier wit and more of a seriousness. Which country is healthier in your opinion, the one that likes joviality about violence or the one that likes dark brooding about it?
~Do you think movies that remake things people grew up watching should be made to satisfy the now-adult tastes of those fans, or should they be made so that those adults can now enjoy sharing them with their own children?

Overall Grade: B+
Fans of the original series will love this. Roger Ebert, who hated the original, hated this. Go figure! The only real dings would be for language and actual killing, both of which the original series avoided because it was on TV.

Despicable Me (2010)

Rated: PG for rude humor and mild action.
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: AA-AB=A
Budget: $69 million
Box Office: $648 million (252 U.S., 290 Intl., 106 DVD)

Written by: Ken Daurio & Cinco Paul (College Road Trip, Horton Hears a Who!, and The Santa Clause 2) and Sergio Pablos (First script, an animator for Tarzan, Treasure Planet, Hurcules, and Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Directed by: Pierre Coffin (First major film) and Chris Renaud (First major film, worked on Ice Ages, Horton Hears a Who!, and Robots)
Starring the voice of: Steve Carell
With the voices of: Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, and Elsie Fisher.

Someone has stolen the pyramids, and the former world’s nastiest super-villain, Gru, is pretty peeved that it wasn’t him. So, in an effort to reclaim his name as worst bad-guy, he plans to steal the moon. But first he needs a super-top-secret shrink ray, funding from the bank of villainy (formerly Lehman Brothers), and the help of three little orphan girls whom he adopts as part of his plan.
Entertainment Value: A
First of all, I’m impressed this was made for only $69 million. that’s about half what such movies are budgeting these days. Second, I’m impressed that it was the result of two first-time directors. Third, I’m amazed that having Jason Segel, Russell Brand, and Kristen Wiig in a kids movie wasn’t an utter disaster, given the vulgarity of their live-action movies. This was everything I had hoped it might be and more. Not only is it funny, really funny, no seriously, really, really funny, but it’s a fun plot with interesting characters and some pretty decent substance under it all at the end. The critics all seem irritated that this emulates Pixar and Disney, but to me that’s just being smart. Really. It’s an 81% at Rotten Tomatoes, and if it had actually been a Pixar or Disney, I’m sure it would have been in the 90’s.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A
All the violence here is so over-the-top silly and/or slapstick that I can’t see any issue with it. And this is coming from parents who still haven’t let our kids watch Tom and Jerry or Looney Toons. There is one moment where it seems like a little girl was killed after having climbed into an Iron Maiden (the torture device, not the metal band) and a red liquid comes out, but it quickly turns out to have been her juice box.

Significant Content: A
There’s only one theme here, and it’s wonderful. Love, affection, and approval can transform a monster into a good person, and this is precisely the domesticating on effect on unattached males of becoming a parent. Raised without approval, Gru becomes an arch-criminal vainly trying to fill the abyss of his missing mommy-approval, but when three little girls tenderly trust him, he reforms.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
It’s not a particularly complicated movie, but what it does, it does extremely well. Presenting a touching and needed message through a hilarious comedy with a wide variety of incisive social satire thrown in. Well done.

Discussion Questions:
~How many targets of ridicule can you spot in this movie? Start with the name of the bank for evil plots and the suburban setting of Gru’s home.
~On the one hand, Gru is a thieving villain of the worst sort. But on the other hand, when a little girl is cheated at a carnival game, his justice side takes over. Why is this dichotomy so believable? What does it show about the difference between caring for those you love an caring for strangers?
~Comparing Gru before the girls to Gru after, why such a transformation? How many men do you know who are changed by having children? Why are men, notoriously pride and status oriented before kids, so often willing to endure so much humiliation (strollers, baby-carriers, diapers, etc.) once they have their own children?
~Gru’s mother is emotionally restricted and un-nurturing. How does this shape him? Why do kids naturally crave the approval of their parents? Which is more dangerous to a child: withholding approval or giving it too easily? How does God give approval to us?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Gru remembering what it was like growing up with his mother.
~Reading the three little kittens book to the girls.
~At the carnival.
~The recital.
Overall Grade: A
Very satisfying and funny. A movie which lived up to everything it promised in the advertisements. I have at least one friend who names this as her new favorite movie.

Social Network, The (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language.
Length: 120 minutes
Grade: B+C-BC=B-
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $203 million (95 U.S., 108 Intl.)

Written by: Aaron Sorkin (Charlie Wilson’s War, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The West Wing, The American President, Malice, and A Few Good Men), based on the book by Ben Mezrich (also wrote Bringing Down the House, made into the movie 21).
Directed by: David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Panic Room, Fight Club, The Game, Se7en, and Alien 3)
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg
With: Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rashida Jones, and Arnie Hammer (who played both of the Winklevoss twins)

This is a very, very, very loose interpretation of the story behind the creation and early years of the massively successful social networking website, Facebook.

Entertainment Value: B+
First, let me say that I genuinely adore Aaron Sorkin’s ability to write. If there were any justice in the world of television, Aaron Sorkin would have a lifetime contract to write at least one hour of prime time programming on each network. His writing is so much better than real life that I don’t even care it’s so impossibly unrealistic. That being said, in typical Sorkin style, the quick-pace dialogue often suffers from terribly lousy sound editing, in this case even though the audio department seems to have been Fincher’s rather than Sorkin’s. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating story with intriguing characters told in a clever way. And extra kudos for using Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) to make the soundtrack.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C, Violence B+, Language C
There’s no single thing making this movie awful, but it’s definitely PG-13 or more. It has more than enough mild sexuality, both in dialogue and implied or shown. There are several alcohol scenes and even a handful of drug scenes, including cocaine, and the language is right on the line between PG-13 and R. I would rate it R-15, personally.

Significant Content: B
The modern online techno-culture is shallow to the point of cultural ruination, where cool is everything, speed is king, and popularity waxes and wanes far too quickly because a bunch of computer-savant-social-misfits are running things.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
Sorkin himself has admitted (bragged about, actually) this movie being not a historically accurate presentation of the story but rather a deliberate shot back from the non-online-networking culture (read, older people) against FaAcebook, Napster, Twitter, MySpace, etc. and everything they represent. His goal was to portray them as shallow, vapid, psychologically unhealthy people consumed with their own arrogance and power ripping apart a world of real relationships by supplanting it with relationship porn. As such, it’s pretty interesting. But I have real trouble with a movie supposedly about the founding of a major real company/social force told with no cooperation from any of the principal players in that company other than the one who was forced out and made to look like the only decent one by the portrayal. This is very close to libel, and Sorkin is way too talented an artist to sully himself this way.

Discussion Questions:
~Based on this presentation, do you think Mark Zuckerberg was guilty of stealing anything substantial from the Winkelvoss’s? Was the size of their idea significant enough to justify them getting a share of the massive profits of what Zuckerberg actually did with their idea? What about the similarly small contribution of Eduardo Saverin? Why did Zuckerberg go to him for such a small amount of money and give him such a large share in the company? Even though he was maneuvered out, do you think in the end he was truly cheated or treated unfairly?
~Zuckerberg has an impeccable sense of what works online, particularly in grasping that being cool and letting something develop on its own is more valuable than taking out potential profits by running ads or risking catastrophe by being offline even for a day. Such ability to understand and manipulate new forms of cultural production has always been the leverage point for shifting power and money. Can you think of some other similar past examples?
~Why is Sean Parker so appealing to Zuckerberg? Have you ever known anyone like Parker in real life? Considering both of them, is there a legitimate concern that people with such social problems would be in positions of such power today?
~Given Aaron Sorkin’s power to make a movie like this about a very young man and shape how people view him, do you think his use of that filmmaking skill was virtuous in this case?
~Sorkin said, "I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?" When do you think an artist has an obligation to tell the facts and when do you think an artist is free to abuse the facts to try to tell what he believes to be the truth?
~Dustin Moskobitz has said that the actual story would have been terribly boring because they just sat around for unending days writing code and eating pizza. Does this make you change your opinion of this?
~Presuming they are mostly exaggerated or false, are the character attacks of this film unjust or are they just a dose of Zuckerberg’s own medicine given the social bullying that is made ever-so-possible by his own website?
~What do you think of the historically true irony of the biggest force in new culture having been spawned at the biggest force in old culture (Harvard)?
~Part of the original idea of Facebook was to make it possible to have the college experience online over a distance. Does Facebook serve this function in your opinion today? Compare, for instance, late night conversations in the dorms with FB threads and the ease/difficulty of meeting new people and having genuine conversations with them.
~Do you think new online media is making the country and relationships better or richer or do you think it’s doing something bad to us?
~In the movie, we are given the implied dilemma of whether it is better to have one true real friend or the online friendship of millions. What do you think? Why do you think God seems to have made us with the ability to only have one or two really close friends at a time?
~One of the classic difficulties with relationships is judging just where you stand with people. In modern social media, there is a high value placed on immediate, quantifiable feedback and status indicators. Do you think this is an improvement? In what way is this a form of technology serving people who are not adept at reading such cues the old-fashioned way and eliminating the advantage they used to have? Have you ever felt like modern social media was dangerously different from the experience of human socializing for known history?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene in the bar. What does this tell us about Zuckerberg?
~The subsequent scene creating FaceMash. During this process, are you being taught to admire his skills or to despise his judgment?
~The final scene with the lawyer and the laptop. What is this intended to tell us about the nature of social networking online?

Overall Grade: B
I admit it’s a film well worth watching and thinking about. But in spite of my love for Sorkin’s writing (the real key to any good movie), I’m very disappointed with all the heavy-handed fictionalizing. It left a sour taste in my mouth, for sure, to read about how distorted and biased this was.

American, The (2010)

Rated: R for violence, sexual content and nudity.
Length: 105 minutes
Grade: DFFF=D
Budget: $20 million
Box Office: $71 million (36 U.S., 30 Intl., 5 DVD)

Written by: Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later), based on the novel by Martin Booth.
Directed by: Anton Corbijn (First major movie, mostly music videos for Depeche Mode)
Starring: George Clooney
With: Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, and Paolo Bonacelli

After someone tries to kill him, an expert assassin holes up in a remote Italian town, befriends a priest, and falls in love with a prostitute while waiting for his next job and wondering whom to trust.

This is exactly not what I had been expecting. It’s a non-action action movie with a little porn thrown in for what measure I still haven’t figured out. Told at the pace of the Ghost Writer (read, slow) and with the action content of The Limits of Control (read, none whatsoever), this is just plain awful. I supposed some critic is going to say that this is probably a good approximation of what the sad, slow, mundane life of an actual assassin would be like. But I don’t watch movies for reality, do I? And I certainly don’t watch action/intrigue/spy type movies for that purpose. The best thing I could say here is that it seems to show the unpleasant reality of such a life as opposed to the glamorization of it usually found in action movies. And I suppose there’s salvation themes here through the priest and the prostitute, both. But even with my interest in good movies, I couldn’t endure this enough to care about those messages. Besides, George Clooney very well knows you can make a good message through illustrating a terrible life without making a terrible movie, as Up in the Air demonstrated. If you want what you’re expecting here, try The Jackal or Day of the Jackal or Grosse Point Blank or Collateral or Replacement Killers or In the Line of Fire or Desperado or La Femme Nikita or Mr. & Mrs. Smith or Knight and Day or The Professional or the Bourne movies or even The Manchurian Candidate. In other words, there’s just no shortage of very good movies in a category this movie fails to honor by its presence.

Overall Grade: D
for disappointing. Plus, there’s one quite long sex scene and enough nudity to make it not worth watching only on that score. I think my wife’s comment was, “Hey, look, another boring movie from Focus Features with a little porn thrown in.”

Salt (2009)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.
Length: 100 minutes
Grade: BC-CC=B
Budget: $110 million
Box Office: $303 million (118 U.S., 175 Intl., 10 DVD)

Written by: Kurt Wimmer (Bone Collector, The Saint, Clear and Present Danger, Sliver, Patriot Games)
Directed by: Phillip Noyce (Law Abiding Citizen, Ultraviolet, The Recruit, Equilibrium, Thomas Crown Affair, and Sphere)
Starring: Angelina Jolie
With: Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Daniel Olbrychski

Thirty years ago, a secret Russian project trained sleeper agents to be Americans in every way until they received their special targeting instructions. Now, the man who claims to have done this shows up at the CIA and tells Evelyn Salt in front of everyone that she is one and must kill the Russian President when he comes to speak at the Vice President’s funeral.

Entertainment Value: B
I was soooo looking forward to this, especially after Mr. & Mrs. Smith. However, I should have noticed the flop of Wanted as a better preparation. No doubt it’s fun and intricate and ridiculously action-packed. But a great action movie finds a way to be believably fun, and now realizing it was written by Phillip Noyce (the mastermind behind Equilibrium and the very good Recruit), I’m even more disappointed. Keep in mind, I’m still giving it a B, it’s just one of those movies you wish could have been better or more plausible. I hoped to give this an A, is all I mean.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence D+, Language C+
Drugs and sex aren’t an issue here, nicely. Language is right in the PG-13 range, you know, right on the edge of not quite R. Violence is the main concern, with lots and lots of killing, and the movie opens with a sequence involving torture. This is definitely PG-13, perhaps R-15.

Significant Content: C
You never can know who’s really a good guy and who’s a bad guy. True love will change you to your core if you find it. Russians and Americans can be really bad guys. Women can be every bit as dangerous as men, even more so.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Like I said before, it’s an action movie, not a thinker. It’s fairly intricate, but somehow I found it a bit too predictable. Then again, I’ve seen a LOT of movies, so I’m probably not a good barometer for most people’s ability to enjoy this.

Discussion Questions:
~Do you believe there are sleeper agents like this in the world? Why do you think so many movies have found this concept so intriguing?
~If you were a sleeper agent here in America, do you believe that our culture would be capable of winning you over or not?
~Do you think it’s healthy for a society to have female leads in action movies? Is it good to see them be fought by men? Is it good to see them besting men in fights? Is violence a feminine trait?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene and her trade.
~The story told by Orlov.
~Meeting her old comrades at the secret hideout.

Overall Grade: B
A passable action movie with the nutritional value of cotton candy. If you like this genre, the classic Telefon is a must-see, but No Way Out and The Manchurian Candidate (the original, preferably) are also fantastic.

Tangled (2010)

Rated: PG for brief mild violence.
Length: 100 minutes
Grade: C+ABC+=C+
Budget: $260 million
Box Office (so far): $318 million (171 U.S., 147 Intl.)

Written by: Dan Fogelman (Bolt, Fred Claus, and Cars), based on the fairy tale Rapunzel by the Brothers Gimm.
Directed by: Nathan Greno (First feature film, writer for Meet the Robinsons and Brother Bear)and Byron Howard (Bolt)
Starring the voices of: Mandy Moore and Chuck’s Zachary Levi
With the voices of: Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, Brad Garrett, and Jeffrey Tambor

A wicked old woman who wants to remain forever young by the power of a princess’s uncut hair kidnaps her and keeps her imprisoned by telling her the outside world is evil and will abuse her powers. Not realizing she is the princess, Rapunzel ventures out to see the special balloons which fly every year on her birthday with a thief who discovered her, an adventure which might just reveal to her the truth about everything.

Entertainment Value: C
This is the second most expensive film ever made (Pirates 3--$300m, Spider-Man $258m, Harry Potter 5 $250m, Avatar $237m) and the most expensive animated film ever (Toy Story 3 $200m, WALL-E $180m, Monsters vs. Aliens $175m, Up $175m, How to Train Your Dragon $165m, Shrek 3 160m) No doubt the animation is amazing, especially the hair. But when you spend so much money on effects, sometimes you forget that the core of a good story is story and writing. This has its clever moments of humor, especially with the pet chameleon, but I regularly found myself bored by the plot. And the odd thing is that the themes being played out are fantastic, fully of deception and twists (or tangles, if you prefer). But the overall result just doesn’t work all that well, or at least not as well as I had hoped.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A-, Language A
I was very surprised to see this get a PG rating. This should have been G. There’s a handful of minor peril-type scenes, and the only real objection someone could have is to the death of one character, but even that is pretty mild.

Significant Content: B
The tragic thing here is that the very issue which makes this movie potentially quite valuable winds up being the reason it’s dangerous for kids. The wicked mother is a fantastic portrayal of deception and manipulation, almost a pitch perfect Devil-substitute. The problem is that she’s the mother. Now on the theological level, I LOVED the idea that the evil, sinister parent you think is acting on your behalf (Gothel/Satan) is really a thief and liar who has stolen you away from your real parents (King&Queen/God) who love you dearly and want nothing more than to be reunited with you. The disanalogy, of course, is that they didn’t come to rescue her (as Jesus does), but she winds up rescuing herself, sort of. But the more superficial and obvious lesson is that parents are wicked (or untrustworthy) and kids should break the rules to do what makes sense to them. Obviously in this situation it works out quite well, but so many kids movies undermine the 5th Commandment in their most superficial themery that my wife and I agree you have to be very careful how much of this you let kids watch. Unfortunately, it’s so ubiquitous that preventing this particular flavor of poison might well mean no kids movies for your kids. However, this flaw is overwhelmed by the end message about sacrificial love and true love choosing the person rather than the reward/benefit that person might bring. Also, I appreciate the “men are barbarians who will give up their anti-social behavior and become domesticated by loving a woman” theme which is certainly true.

Artistic/Thought Value: C+
Spend a quarter billion and get a pretty movie, sure. Is it likely to inspire a lot of discussion? I doubt it. Although seeing the theology behind the fairy tale at least makes it possible.

Discussion Questions:
~Many relationships involve people using us for their own purposes rather than serving us for who we are. How can you know the difference? Have you ever had this happen to you? Have you ever realized you were doing this? How can you avoid being the sort of person who uses others rather than serving them?
~Do you think marriage domesticates men? Does living together have the same effect? Why is this process so important for society?
~Does everyone have a dream that is worthy for them to attempt? How can you tell the difference between plausible dreams and impossible ones? How can you know when to give up on a dream?
~Does the 6th Commandment mean we must always obey our parents? Can we honor them, even if they are bad ones? Are movies that show kids being right and adults being wrong or wicked healthy or unhealthy for our society? How can we know when to disobey them?
~How important is it to remain beautiful and young looking? In our culture, what absurd things do women (especially) and men (at least sometimes) do to preserve their youth our youth-like ways?
~Gothel once tells Rapunzel, "The world is dark and cruel. If it finds even the smallest ray of light, it destroys it." Is this wise advice? How might fear of harm keep us from venturing out into that world to find the wonders in it and even redeem it? If Jesus had had this idea, would He have come here?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Watching Flynn give the tiara to his friends.
~Rapunzel’s inner conflict over betraying her mother. How did this make you feel?
~The ongoing portrayal of manipulation by Gothel.
~The final scene and sacrifices it showed. How can you know when love is true? How do sacrifices prove love?

Overall Grade: C+
If only it could have been more entertaining and less anti-parent on the surface, I would have loved it. As it was, it’s a really expensive semi-disappointment. My scariest moment was the first song, when I feared I had found a musical. But this was only a temporary scare.