Easy A (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic elements involving teen sexuality, language and some drug material.
Length: 92 minutes
Grade: AC-BA=A
Budget: $8 million
Box Office: $90 million (58 U.S., 16 Intl., 16 DVD)

Written by: Bert V. Royal (Only movie)
Directed by: Will Gluck (Friends with Benefits, Fired Up!)
Starring: Emma Stone
With: Penn Badgley, Thomas Hayden Church, Amanda Bynes, Dan Byrd, Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, and Stanley Tucci.

A responsible high school girl discovers there is power and peril in lying about her own sexual exploits.

Entertainment Value: A
This is entertaining on every level. It’s hilarious (Emma Stone is one of my favorite young actresses) in the most sardonic of ways. It’s filled with fascinating plot twists and literary/cultural references. And it preaches by contrast both what genuine Christianity should look like and what imposter Christianity so often is.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C-, Violence B+, Language C
Ironically, for a movie all about sex, there isn’t any actually in it, although there’s LOTS of sex talk, and one prominently gay character. Language is the other concern, which is certainly enough to justify the PG-13. You should know that the original version of the film had extensive profanity(many scenes were shot with both levels of dialogue), but the PG-13 version was the one ultimately released, thankfully. Yet another example of the usefulness of R-15, if only it existed.

Significant Content: B
First, the bad news. There are Christians in the movie, but they are the worst, most wicked kind of self-righteous judgmental Christians you can imagine. I really kept hoping that a decent Christian would show up because it could easily have been an intentional device to set the stage for the contrast, but one never did. So I have to knock it for that. On the other hand, the portrayal of Christians is so grotesque that there’s hardly a chance anyone thinks that’s what real Christianity looks like, and it’s highly useful to see the ugliness of this tragically common deviant form of religion which self-describes as Christianity. Rumors travel at the speed of texting among teens. People will believe salacious things over boring things any day. Community standards can be a powerful force for oppression and alienation, and the way to fight back against them is to embrace the outsider status they confer.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
As a work of art, this is brilliant. In fact, the writing here is incredibly strong (always the backbone of a great movie, a lesson I wish other filmmakers would really take to heart). It’s only Will Gluck’s second script, but based on the total hilarity of Fired Up! and this one, I’m eager to see what else he produces. What’s going to be painful for a lot of very misguided Christians is the skewering they receive throughout the movie, whether in the behavior of Amanda Bynes’s group or protesting the devil mascot or the treatment of people perceived to fail to live up to the groups moral standards. But the big key artistically to this movie is the way Olive decides to celebrate her false sexually liberated status through clothing and even the red A a la Hawthorne. She helps outcasts by taking shame upon herself for their reputation’s benefit in a plot that winds up screaming Christianity without even realizing it. That’s the real tragedy here. If someone could show this film’s creators the real Gospel, they’d be Christians, but all they know is the stupid, false versions of it they see all around them.

Discussion Questions:
~What is the meaning of the scarlet A in Hawthorne’s book? What is the meaning of it in this movie? Why does Olive wear it? Why might someone who is actually morally pure choose to allow her reputation to be so sullied? In what ways is this behavior reminiscent of Jesus’s?
~Describe some of the sacrifices Olive tries to make for other people. Are any of them misguided? Do the people who use her in this way really care about her or only about what they can get from using her? How is this reminiscent of the way people treat God and God’s favors? Does Olive genuinely care about her customers?
~How much would Olive’s character have been different if she had actually been a Christian? Considering her as a good example of genuine Christianity, describe some of the contrasts between her and Marianne’s clique.
~In the Bible, Jesus almost always seeks out and cherishes the outcasts while having the most scathing critiques for religious leaders who have no love of God or man at all. In what ways do you see this dynamic played out here? What similarities exist between the Pharisees and Marianne’s clique?
~Describe the parenting style of Olive’s parents. What are the virtues of it? Are there any real defects in it? What are the key aspects of a healthy parent-child relationship for a near-adult like Olive? If their parenting style bothers you, would it change your opinion at all that someone like me thinks they were a truly beautiful example of an extremely healthy family?
~If social status is a worldly commodity, what should a Christian’s attitude toward it be? What happens in an enclosed community (like high school) when everyone is scrambling greedily to acquire as much as it as possible?
~Would you ever be willing to let “virtuous” people believe that you had done something awful (that you hadn’t) if it offered you access to or common ground with socially marginalized people? What did Jesus do in this regard? How is the appearance of virtue (especially if deserved) such a dangerous form of idolatry?
~Why does the personal slur against the other girl work so well? Do you think this word choice was inappropriate or inaccurate? Are insults ever right? Did Jesus ever insult anyone?
~How should a Christian high school be different from a secular one? How should Christians in a secular high school be different from their secular peers? If personal holiness means not indulging in anything offensive to God, can it be said that relational holiness means precisely befriending people who are personally unholy?
~“Only the truly competent feel secure enough to allow others to think they are incompetent.” What do you think of this idea, not explicitly in the movie, but implied by several characters?
~How many ‘80s movie references can you note in this film?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The first staged sexual encounter.
~Olive’s parents jesting with her and her brother.
~Marianne’s clique portrayals.
Overall Grade: A
This is exactly the sort of movie I dislike writing a review about, only because it makes me really want to go back and watch it two or three more times. Fantastic, illustrative, and entertaining. I could preach from this movie for weeks.

Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of crude and sexual content, some partial nudity and language.
Length: 114 minutes
Grade: FCBF=F+
Budget: $69 million
Box Office: $97 million (73 U.S., 13 Intl., 11 DVD)

Written by: David Guion & Michael Handelman (The Ex), based on the French film by Francis Veber.
Directed by: Jay Roach (Meet the Parents series and the Austin Powers series. )
Starring: Steve Carell and Paul Rudd
With: Zach Galifianakis, Stephanie Szostak, Ron Livnigston, and Bruce Greenwood.

An aspiring financial manager needs to find an odd person to bring to his boss’s annual dinner for losers.

Entertainment Value: F
The problems here were three-fold. First, it’s not funny. That’s the main problem. Second, they don’t actually get to the dinner until ¾ of the way through the movie, and that part was somewhat funny, although my wife theorized that by that point in the movie we were so starved for humor that anything even close to funny would have gotten us to laugh. Third, Paul Rudd, one of the funniest actors around, was written into a script with no jokes for him at all.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity C-, Violence C, Language C-
Mostly everything here to object about is sexual discussion, some sexual scenes for humor, and language. Definitely PG-13.

Significant Content: B
The irritating thing about this movie is that in spite of its unfunniness, it is at least trying to sell a decent message, even if that message is obvious from the beginning. People (even obnoxious, stupid, ridiculous people) are still people and deserve to be treated with dignity. The most beautiful person outside (money, power, intelligence, social savvy) is a monster if he doesn’t treat the people with the ugliest outsides decently. Loyalty, kindness, honor, and honesty are the premiere virtues. You’ve heard of a good movie ruined by a terrible ending? This is a good ending ruined by a terrible movie.

Artistic/Thought Value: F
Overall Grade: F+
If ever there was a movie with dinner in its title and yet less about a dinner than this, I’ve never heard of it. Oh, and in case I wasn’t lucidly clear: not funny.

Grown-Ups (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for crude material including suggestive references, language and some male rear nudity.
Length: 102 minutes
Grade: B-CBD=B-
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $312 million (162 U.S., 109 Intl., 41 DVD)

Written by: Adam Sandler (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Little Nicky, Big Daddy, Waterboy, Happy Gilmore, and Billy Madison) and Fred Wolf (Strange Wilderness, Without a Paddle, Joe Dirt, Dirty Work, and Black Sheep)
Directed by: Dennis Dugan (You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Benchwarmers, National Security, Saving Silverman, Big Daddy, and Happy Gilmore)
Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade, and Rob Schneider
With: Salma Hayek, Maria Bello, and Maya Rudolph.

Five former best friend basketball teammates reconnect and rediscover their roots when their championship coach dies.

Entertainment Value: B-
Despite the vulgarity (something which I mention only because it bothers a lot of you), this was pretty funny. Adam Sandler has taken to making comedies with a point, and this certainly has that. But, and this is always the key, it has to be funny before it can earn my interest in its message. And in this case (unlike Dinner for Schmucks, for example), it certainly is. Yes, most of the dialogue is a bit fake, like five comedians writing a script in which five comedians try to have clever dialogue. But despite the stilted feel of it all, it’s still funny enough. The gags (mostly) work, and the lines are (mostly) funny.

Superficial Content: C
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence B, Language C
This is definitely PG-13, with plenty of deviant sexual references, PG-13 language, and comic violence (like people getting shot in the feet with arrows). If there were a PG-15 rating, this would probably be PG-15 just for overall crudeness.

Significant Content: B
I don’t know whether Adam Sandler was going for something self-revelatory here or just useful, but the dominant message here is that driven people turning their children into techno-brats can save their family by returning to nature and/or the pace of life of the past. Video games and texting nannies may be today, but Chutes & Ladders and rope swings are what make life great. I did, however, love the kind little twist on the ending of giving the resentful losers from long ago something to feel proud of as an act of kindness.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
Somehow, having five talented comedians do a movie like this should have come out feeling less awkward. Also, there just isn’t much here to think about after it’s all over unless you’re a mega-rich success and your kids are becoming brats.
Overall Grade: B-
Entertaining enough, but not fantastic by any measure.

Expendables, The (2010)

Rated: R for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language.
Length: 103 minutes
Grade: DD-DD=D-
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $315 million (103 U.S., 171 Intl., 41 DVD)

Written by: David Callaham (First major script) and Sylvester Stallone (Rambo series, Rocky series, Driven, Cliffhanger, Cobra, Over the Top, and Staying Alive)
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone (Rambo, and the Rocky movies)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, and Eric Roberts
With: Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, Terry Crewes, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Giselle Itie.

Summary: A group of very old mercenaries decide to go back to an island dictatorship to help liberate it from the grips of a rogue CIA agent and a brutal dictator. Plus they might save the pretty girl.

There’s really good cheese, there’s good cheese, there’s cheesy cheese, and there’s bad cheese. This is really bad cheesy cheese. The problem was, well, that’s not quite the right way to approach this. Saying there was a problem would be to imply there was some basic good starting background goodness to all this. There wasn’t. A movie chock-full of washed-up, greasy, sinewy old action stars has the chance to really be entertaining, especially if they would lean in the direction of their best terrible puns and joke lines. They don’t. If somehow they could poke fun at their own genre, that could work. They don’t. If instead they write an impossible action mash-up strung on the weakest possible plots, it’s just plain really bad cheesy cheese. Everything was there to do a dark satire, the corrupt general, the schemey CIA operative and his number-one thug, the vulnerable but tough crusader princess, and the reluctant warrior who draws his friends into his mess by their loyalty. But deadpan dry humor is just plain bad content if the author performer never winks sardonically at the camera. No winks here, just one mindless scene after another. Too bad. I was hopeful for this one.

Overall Grade: D-
Really bad cheesy cheese. If I ever have to see another oily, veiny, leather-skinned former action star, it’ll be too soon. My biggest frustration? The Expendables II (2012).

Lottery Ticket, The (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, language including a drug reference, some violence and brief underage drinking.
Length: 99 minutes
Grade: CC-BC-=C
Budget: $17 million
Box Office: $34 million (25 U.S., 9 DVD)

Written by: Abdul Williams and Erik White (First Script for both).
Directed by: Erik White (A couple of music videos)
Starring: Bow Wow, Brandon T. Jackson, and Naturi Naughton
With: Loretta Devine, Ice Cube, Keith David, Terry Crews, Mike Epps, Charles Q. Murphy, and Bill Bellamy.

When a hard-working resident of the projects wins the mega-lottery but can’t collect his winnings until after the holiday weekend, all sorts of dangerous and conniving people come after him and his money.

Entertainment Value: C
I was really looking forward to seeing this movie because I thought the premise was so good and at least some of the actors would help it stay on the rails. In the end, it wound up being so-so mostly because that’s where movies always start for me. They have to earn a different grade, and this didn’t.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol B, Sex/Nudity C, Violence C, Language D+
There’s several semi-sexual scenes, occasional alcohol consumption, and several fights, bullying, and even gun threats. Aside from all this, language is really heavy. I’d go PG-15, which seems to be the new norm for PG-13, unless it’s just me developing quaint sensibilities, which I doubt.

Significant Content: B
When you’re broke, you know who your real friends are. When you’re rich (or sexy or powerful), you don’t. Most people who escape the projects do nothing to help their community, but they should. The right girl is your best friend, not the one with the best booty. Playing the lottery is just a trick to keep people bad at math from getting ahead. (Seriously, that’s a paraphrased line from the movie.) Unfortunately, the guy who says it wins the lottery. So, something of a mixed message, you might say.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
This one’s a bit hard for me to grade as a middle-class white guy. I found the portrayal of the projects to be so chock full of clich├ęs that it bothered me, but I don’t know whether that’s self-imposed racial political correctness or just genuinely weak writing. Seriously, the whole cast is a never-ending stream of stereotypes. It left me either feeling really bad about all the silliness these folks have to endure (especially the “preacher) or else feeling bad that the makers of this movie thought so little of their audience that they could pass off these stereotypes as entertainment so easily. But maybe that’s just a good pretext for the message. Like I said, since all I know of the ghetto is what I see on television, who am I to tell?

Overall Grade: C
Semi-funny, semi-intriguing, and mostly yet another in a long line of mediocre films primarily targeted to the black community. I wonder sometimes whether blacks in America get as tired of bad “black” movies as Christians do about bad Christian films.

Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)

Rated: PG for some sequences of scary action.
Length: 97 minutes
Grade: B-BB+B=B
Budget: $80 million
Box Office: $152 million (56 U.S., 84 Intl., 12 DVD)

Written by: John Orloff (A Mighty Heart, Band of Brothers) and Emil Stern (Tenderness, The Life Before Her Eyes), based on the novels of Kathryn Lasky.
Directed by: Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 30, Dawn of the Dead)
Starring the voices of: Jim Sturgess, Ryan Kwanten, and Emilie Barclay
With the voices of: Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia, and David Wenham.

When they are kidnapped by the totalitarian owl nation led by the evil Metalbeak, one young brother owl falls under the spell of the “pure ones” and stays to be a good wingsoldier while the other brother owl escapes to seek the rescuing help of the legendary owls of Ga’Hoole.

Entertainment Value: B-
My boys loved this and have been watching it as much as they can since we first saw it about a week ago. I thought the animation (of the feathers, in particular) was excellent, but I had a hard time following the plot since distinguishing the various birds wasn’t easy for me. The basic idea of the movie is in some ways largely derivative of Watership Down, the classic novel/movie by Richard Adams or perhaps Animal Farm by Orwell. But the one thing I was very surprised about was my initial and ongoing sense that this was by no means a fluffy little kids movie about cute owls. It deals with dark and sinister subject matter in a very unchildlike way (much like Watership Down). It’s still good, I just want you to know it isn’t what you may be expecting, and that might explain its unspectacular box office performance.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence B, Language A
Some PG kids movies make me angry at the MPAA because they should really be G. This is not one of those movies. This is rightly PG, precisely because of the very serious subject matter of political oppression, betrayal, and violence. There were several creepy and/or concerning scenes, but nothing bad enough that we stopped the movie. But our boys watch a lot of movies that other parents would wait until their kids are older to expose them to. I’d say PG-8 for most people. Birds are abducted from their families, used in slave-like roles, subjugated with fear, brainwashed (moon-binked), and there is fighting and killing of humanized owls.

Significant Content: B+
As a presentation of totalitarianism (a la WW II Germany and the Hitler Youth) versus democracy, this is pretty good. However, I wasn’t quite sure whether younger kids would really pick up on the contrast being portrayed. They’ll know the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, but that’s because of sinister behavior rather than political philosophy. We know Mufasa is good and Scar is evil, but is that because Scar is deformed and has a lisp while Mufasa is strong and handsome or is it because of the character of their notions of leadership? The good guys here do clearly care for the weak and love freedom, while the bad guys use the weak and live by strictly enforced obedience. Also, my favorite element was that a famous war hero gives a brief statement about the ingloriousness of warfare, even though it’s necessary, a refreshing (but all too brief) antidote to the legend-repeating frivolity of kids’ version of military victories. There’s also some early themes about the importance of stories and pursuing your dreams, but these are dropped by the second major scene and never heard again. And a recurring theme is the importance of following your gizzard (heart) even against what your head tells you.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
There’s plenty to think about and discuss here, plus the animation, as I mentioned, is very good. The use of slow-motion in the fights really helped both dramatize them and make them easier to follow. If there’s a flaw, it’s the derivative nature of the thing (there’s even a Rafiki-like bumbling prophet in this movie). Nevertheless, you can do much worse than create a newer Lion King and Watership Down (or even Transformers/Decepticons) for the next generation of kids to know.

Discussion Questions:
~When movie villains are shown as deformed or obviously mean, does this set up children to look for precisely the wrong markers when trying to decide whom they should trust or follow?
~When characters are leveraged into serving the evil owls, things always turn out worse for them than they were told. How is this a useful illustration of sin and serving Satan?
~In what ways, precisely, do the tree owls and the pure ones differ? Consider how they identify skills in new recruits, how much central planning they employ, and the ability to elect leaders. Are the tree owls better described as a democracy or as an aristocracy?
~What do you think of the Guardian Oath to mend the broken, make strong the weak, and vanquish evil?
~What cues are kids given in this movie that they should dislike the pure ones? Consider the Nazi imagery used in the speech by Metalbeak.
~What sort of tactics do the pure ones employ to keep their troops in line, other than fear? Why does this work so well on Kludd?
~Why is it that the pragmatic character in movies these days almost never turns out to be the good guy, while the dreamer almost always is?
~Is it always a good idea to “go with your gizzard?” How can we know when to trust our hearts and when to trust our minds? What does the Bible say about this?
~How does the story of Kludd and Soren compare with the story of Cain and Abel?
~Compare the way Jesus won over Satan with the way the good owls vanquish the pure ones in this movie?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Soren meeting his hero. What do you learn about military conflict and war legends from this encounter?
~Moon-binking the smaller owls, especially Eglantine.
~The final battle.

Overall Grade: B
This is a useful movie about political philosophies and justice for slightly older kids that deals honestly with some fairly sinister material. I wouldn’t have thought an owl movie could be so fierce and frightening. Then again, Watership Down was about furry little rabbits, wasn’t it? And don’t worry, you’ll get used to the Aussie accents about halfway through the movie.

Predators (2010)

Rated: R for strong creature violence and gore, and pervasive language.
Length: 107 minutes.
Grade: AFAB=A
Budget: $40 million
Box Office: $147 million (52 U.S., 75 Intl., 20 DVD)

Written by: Alex Litvak and Michael Finch (First script), based on characters/concepts created by Jim and John Thomas.
Directed by: Nimrod Antal (Armored, Vacancy, and Hungarian titles), but the real name to know here is that Robert Rodriguez was the major producer.
Starring: Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, and Alice Braga
With: Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Trejo, Louis Ozawa Changchien, and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali.

Eight unusually talented strangers find themselves inexplicably stranded on a distant planet, which turns out to be a game preserve for alien predators.

Entertainment Value: A
Alright, here’s what you need to know about this movie. Predator was one of the great, cult-popular cheesy action movies of the 1980’s. People my age grew up watching Stallone and Schwarzenegger define the action movie genre, and Predators is a classic. Fun, innovative, clever, funny, and just plain fantastic. Then the horrible thing happened: sequels. Horrible, awful, disappointing sequels. Until a guy named Robert Rodriguez came along and helped produce Predators. And the best way I can describe this is as the only and proper Predators 2, following faithfully and entertainingly right in the bootprints of the original as if the rest of the junk just didn’t even exist. Great action, sardonic humor, and homage after homage to the original made this far, far more entertaining than I had expected or hoped for. And the clue that this would be the case comes right in the title: Predators, almost obviously paralleling the title of another brilliant (and the only brilliant) sequel to an original classic, Aliens. It’s exhausting and discouraging to have good movies turned into bad sequels, but when the once-in-awhile masterpiece fulfills the secret hopes of my inner 16-year-old, it makes me smile. I was a bit concerned about Adrien Brody sequeling Ahnold, but this turned out to be no issue at all.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity A, Violence F, Language F
This is definitely a hard R movie. There is abundant violence, carnage, and gore and way more than enough F-language to keep all young adults out of the theater. But at least it’s squeaky clean on sex and drugs. HOWEVER, the ads on the DVD are themselves quite R rated, with sexual elements in particular. So, if that’s an issue (like with a teen boy, just skip to the movie).

Significant Content: A
Here’s where this movie really surprised me. The themes about human nature here are fascinating, most notably the idea that the one fate worse than death is what you become in the process of doing whatever it takes to stay alive. People who engage in warlike endeavors do so because it’s highly thrilling and rewarding (see The Hurt Locker, e.g.). Real predators (alien or human) depend on the human qualities of honor, love, and loyalty to create weak spots for predation, but these things are exactly what make us not monsters like them. Even the people who kill are not all morally equal. Some have honor and principle, but others do not.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
For homage and style, mostly. I about fell of the couch when they started playing “Long Tall Sally!” And despite the carnage and likely primary appeal to teens and the inner teens of people like me, it’s nice to see some real substance here.

Discussion Questions:
~“There’s no hunting like hunting a man.” Why do you think this is so? How does this explain why people might re-enlist in the military or join other neo-military organizations and/or the police? Why are we reluctant to think of such endeavors as intrinsically interesting and even stimulating rather than as noble devotions to principle? Does the fact that a detective, say, enjoys his game of catching criminals make him any less a hero?
~“There’s a fate worse than death, what you become to stay alive.” Do you agree that self-preservation isn’t the most important thing? What’s the Christian perspective on this? What things would you be willing to die rather than do? ~What things would you be willing to die to protect? Which takes more courage: to die for something or to kill for something?
~Do values like love and loyalty make us weak and vulnerable to predators? Are they worth the risk? Why might someone say that the person who exploits others because of such traits is really betraying his own humanity (or the idea of being human) in addition to harming people? How does your answer hear relate to Lawrence Fishburne’s character?
~Who in this movie would you classify as a sociopath? Why or why not for anyone else? What tactics and biases do these characters use to their advantage?
~If sociopaths are only loyal to themselves, ordinary people are loyal to those they like or value, and decent people are loyal to strangers, to whom are Christians loyal?
~How many homages to the first Predator can you identify here? My own list is below the Overall Grade, if you’re interested.

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~Discussing why they were all selected.
~The dilemma of whom to help/save.

Overall Grade: A
Surprisingly thoughtful, thoroughly satisfying sequel to the original Predator, as if (wish, wish) all the other junk had never been made at all.

Homages to Predator:
~Predators learning language and using it to spoof people.
~“I’m here. Do it,” goading of the Predator into a trap/away from someone else.
~Protected by mud.
~The gatling gun for Nikolia/Jesse the Body.
~They refer to the 1987 movie directly as a team that encountered something in the jungle.
~Billy/Henzo’s last stand.
~Long Tall Sally music from the inbound helicopter ride.
~The end credits style.
~Alan Silvestri’s score, slightly modernized.