Faster (2010)

Rated: R for strong violence, some drug use and language.
Length: 98 minutes
Grade: B+,D-,B,B+=B+
Rotten Tomatoes: 41% favorable, 4.9/10 average
Budget: $24 million
Box Office: $47 million (23 U.S.,12 Intl., 12 DVD)

Written by: Tony & Joe Gayton (Salton Sea, Murder by Numbers)
Directed by: George Tillman, Jr. (Notorious, Men of Honor, Soul Food)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton
With: Tom Berenger, Carla Gugino, Mike Epps, and Xander Berkeley.

Recently released from jail for being the wheel man in a bank heist with his brother, Driver is now bent on revenge for the gang of thugs who stole their money, killed his brother, and only barely failed to kill him. Working against him is a psychologically clouded super-assassin and a pair of detectives.

Entertainment Value: B+
Generally speaking, I just assume that any movie with a poster like this is going to be fairly straightforward, and adequately entertaining. Rock tough, people die, brooding look, brooding look, brooding music…you get the point. What made this better than average was the interesting characters they introduced, such as the thug-turned-evangelist, the druggie cop trying to get his life together, and the insecure hitman. The action is over-the-top comic book stuff, but the movie curves enough in interesting ways to keep it from being boring.

Superficial Content: D-
Drugs/Alcohol D, Sex/Nudity C, Violence F, Language D
The biggest concern here is going to be violence, and there’s plenty enough of it to justify a solid R rating. Interestingly, language is really only just slightly over the PG-13 threshhold, and there’s no sexuality to speak of other than one brief scene in a strip club and another of a woman in bed, neither with any nudity. Drug use is heroin, and it’s more implied than shown.

Significant Content: B
Although you think this is going to be a straight-out revenge movie, the nuances that interfere with that are fascinating. For instance, Driver is certainly going after everyone without restraint, but in the process he always avoids harming cops and innocents, even helping them. But one sequence in particular has him pursuing one of the killers who is now a (truly) born-again Christian preacher with a family. And how he deals with this indicates some recognition of the possibility some people may be worth saving even if they deserve to die. The overall question of the movie whether revenge satisfies isn’t really answered, although probably the movie leans on the side of “yes.”

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
One of the thematic contrasts being drawn here is between Driver and Killer (yes, those are their script names). Everything here is in pairs: muscle car vs Ferrari, UFC vs Yoga, Muscle T/Leather jacket vs suit, and revolver vs automatic. These symbols help highlight the comparison between them, their motives, and their psychological health. Also, there are a variety of very interesting shot angles that show George Tillman, Jr. has an interesting future in filmmaking ahead of him. It reminded me a lot of the Jason Stathan film Revolver, although not quite as deep.

Discussion Questions:
~What do you make of the fact that none of the characters have names, only role-description labels?
~Given the opportunity and no consequences, whom would you kill? Whom would you spare, if he otherwise deserved to die? What does a person’s answer to these questions say about him?
~Why does Driver spare the preacher? Does this seem consistent for him?
~What motivates Driver to kill compared with Killer? Would you describe Driver as a secure person? Is Killer secure in who he is? What is this movie trying to say about the insecurity of high-achieving people?
~What sort of a husband do you think Killer will make? In particular, what do you learn about Killer from his final encounter with Cop?
~What does it say about the audience of a revenge movie? Does it matter whether we prefer the vengeance to be just, unjust, principled, reluctant, or eager? Why do we like to see vengeance meted out against bad men?
~Does Driver qualify as a good man? Remember that he was a bank robber to begin with.
~Does this movie seem to endorse vengeance in the end? Keep in mind the role and/or message brought by Preacher.
~Is this movie Christian because of the presence of Preacher?

Overall Grade: B+
High-action, interestingly shot, and filled with unexpectedly interesting character contrasts.

Edge of Darkness (2010)

Rated: R for strong bloody violence and language.
Length: 117 minutes
Grade: B,D,B,C=B-
Rotten Tomatoes: 55% favorable, 5.8/10 average
Budget: $80 millionBox Office: $95 million (43 U.S., 38 Intl., 14 DVD)

Written by: William Monahan (Body of Lies, The Departed, and Kingdom of heaven) and Andrew Bovell (first film), based on the BBC television series by Troy Kennedy-Martin
Directed by: Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, The Legend of Zorro, Vertical Limit, The Mask of Zorro, and GoldenEye, )
Starring: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, and Danny Huston.
With: Bojana Novakovic

Thomas Craven is a Boston detective whose brilliant daughter shows up at his house with odd health problems one night and is then shot in their doorway in what everyone presumes was a hit against him. As he investigates, he discovers a conspiracy involving a weapons company and the government that keeps getting more and more tangled.

This is basically a film noir detective story about persistence and unrelenting pursuit of the truth. Lots of the plot elements seem unlikely, but the thing is pretty entertaining overall. There isn’t really much of discussion substance here, but so what? It’s a pretty interesting cool tough guy cop story/intrigue. And why does a movie have to be more than that? In the end, the solution to all problems of injustice by tough bad guys is a good dose of violence administered by the even tougher good guys.

Overall Grade: B-
Once you wade through the strange Boston accents and the poor sound editing, this is a relatively entertaining watch-it-once political cop thriller.

Due Date (2010)

Rated: R for language, drug use and sexual content.
Length: 95 minutes
Grade: C+,F,B+,B=B-
Rotten Tomatoes: 40% favorable, 5.2/10
Budget: $65 million
Box Office: $238 million (101 U.S., 111 Intl., 26 DVD)

Written by: Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland (First movie) and Adam Sztykiel (Made of Honor)
Written and Directed by: Todd Phillips (The Hangover, School for Scoundrels, Starsky & Hutch, Old School, and Road Trip)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifanakis
With: Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx, Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride, Jon Cryer, and Charlie Sheen.

A yuppie whose wife is about to deliver a baby finds himself thrust into a very unpleasant cross-country adventure with a man whom he despises and is responsible for the messes they wind up in.

Aside from the facts that this movie is completely vulgar and not nearly as funny as it should be and that it made me want to quit watching several times long before the very end, there is something rather fascinating going on here. See, the entire point of the movie is that adventure (even adventure that involves great personal pain and frustration) is really good for us. Good because it gives us vivid memories and builds relationships with others. And even though Galifianakis is a horrid little creature, in occasional moments, Downey sees in him something either just pathetic or just valuable enough to keep going on the adventure. This of course says as much about Downey as about Galifianakis. He wants to hate him and abandon him, but he can’t. And in the end, he winds up discovering a relationship that he would never ordinarily have had because he finally came to see him as a fellow human, even with all his foibles and problems. The parallels here with parenting and with befriending the outcast from the Bible are tremendous, and I think it’s no mistake at all that Downey has this experience while he is on his way to becoming a father for the first time (!). And, in what I can only admit was a truly unexpected twist, the movie itself I think may have been intended to reinforce its own message: being unbearably bad for much of the time but turning out to have a rich thematic reward if you stick it out. It’s a lot like Planes, Trains, & Automobiles but not nearly so cute. The key artistic moment in the movie is when Galifianakis is telling Downey about his father, who was a tollbooth operator who was so popular because he would chat with the commuters and didn’t care that the lines would get long. So the point is there’s this tension between human relationships (which always take time and entail suffering) and efficiency/safety/security/ease which we all seek.

Discussion Questions
~Who in your life do you suffer for? Do you avoid people who seem likely to cost you too much? How can you decide when this is a prudent approach and when this is an unchristian approach? If Christ had thought this way about us or His disciples, what would He have done differently?
~How many of the most vivid memories you have to share with other people involved events which were catastrophic or at least very unpleasant at the time? Why does shared suffering create such a deep bond with others?

Overall Grade: B-
It’s a tremendously vulgar (Hard R) comedy-bromance that makes us ask what’s a friend, what’s a great story, and what richness of relationship we miss out on when we try only to surround ourselves with people who are easy to love.

Yogi Bear (2010)

Rated: PG for some mild rude humor.
80 minutes


Rotten Tomatoes:
13% favorable, 3.5/10 average

$80 million

Box Office:
$218 million (100 U.S., 101 Intl., 17 DVD)

Written by: Jeffrey Ventimilia & Joshua Sternin (Rio, Tooth Fairy), and Brad Copeland (Wild Hogs and TV like Arrested Development and My Name Is Earl)
Directed by: Eric Brevig (Journey to the Center of the Earth, before which he was mostly a visual effects guy)
Starring the voices of: Dan Aykroyd and Justin Timberlake
Starring: Tom Cavanagh and Anna Faris
With: TJ Miller, Nathan Corddry, and Andrew Daly

Jellystone Park is in dire straits. Yogi’s basket-stealing antics have driven people away, and the local Mayor is planning to sell the land for logging rights to solve his budget incompetence. Somehow the park must be saved and everything made right again.

Entertainment Value: B+
I think this one reviewer at Rotten Tomatoes captured my thoughts precisely: “This is the sort of film that most hard-bitten critics will refuse to like.” I really enjoyed it. It was slapstick fun, it seemed like a decent homage to the original series, and it was fun for my boys. Plus, the evil mayor was played to witty perfection by Andrew Daly.

Superficial Content: A-
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/-Nudity A, Violence A-, Language A
This is really quite clean, the only issue might be a few body-humor kind of scenes. But for the most part, this is extremely family friendly, adamantly refusing to let language and sexuality invade the production.

Significant Content: B
Be yourself, and never try to be a second best somebody else. The way we succeed in life is by building on what we do well, not by trying to do everything well. But the really big theme here is the one buried in the political aspects of the plot. The message is simple. Tough financial times encourage politicians to close parks or squander public resources for a temporary solution. But some things that have financial value (or don’t make money) have real community or cultural value. Parks don’t make a lot of money, but they do make our lives better. Also, the mayor who is evil is lampooned for being politically ambitious by trying to deceive people, even planning to buy their votes.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
There isn’t very much thought value here, but I am inclined to give them some credit for really capturing in an almost live-action movie the genuine feel of a cartoon.

Discussion Questions:
~At one point the mayor ridicules the park for being the sort of low-income place where families come to roast s’mores. Do you think parks and forests make our lives better? What are some things in life that don’t generate a lot of money but still have a lot of value? What are the limits of measuring value in terms of money? How do these questions impact your view of Arizona’s current forest/budget situation?
~Do you think that a person’s attitude toward the environment and nature is an indication of his overall character? Can a Christian advocate destroying natural beauty?
~Why does Ranger Jones succumb to the Mayor’s scheme? Why must we be so careful not to covet what others have?

Overall Grade: B+
Zany. Cute. Clever. More entertaining than the average children’s movie.

Burlesque (2010)

Rated: Rated PG-13 for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material.
Length: 119 minutes
Grade: B,C-,B,B+=B
Rotten Tomatoes: 36% favorable 4.8/10 average
Budget: $55 million
Box Office: $108 million (39 U.S., 50 Intl., 19 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Steve Antin (only previous script was for Chasing Papi)
Starring: Christina Aguilera and Cher
With: Eric Dane, Cam Gigandet, Peter Gallagher, Kristen Bell, and Stanley Tucci.

A small town girl with big dreams flees to LA and becomes a waitress in a burlesque club, hoping for her chance to be on stage. Meanwhile, the club owner is under financial pressure to sell her beloved dream to a developer. There’s a romance, too.

Entertainment Value: B
I was quite pleasantly surprised by this one, which I frankly anticipated being either raunchy or terrible or both. Yes, it’s uber-campy and fairly predictable. But I found myself enjoying it pretty much the entire time, other than the completely out-of-place slow solos by Cher and Aguilera. It’s not nearly as deliberately funny as Moulin Rouge, it’s far less brooding than Nine, and it’s more playful than Chicago. The music is cool. The dancing is entertaining without being lewd (mostly). And the acting is relatively un-awful, except for Stanley Tucci, who is fantastic and one of my favorite actors.

Superficial Content: C-
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence A, Language C-
The entire movie takes place at a night club, so alcohol is constantly present and being drunk. The language is enough to make it PG-13. There’s no violence. But the real question is sexuality. For the most part, this compares well with most dance programs on television for sexuality. However, there is one sequence involving partial nudity of a man and another with partial nudity of a woman. There’s only one sex scene, and it’s pretty tame by PG-13 standards. There is one gay character and his love life is an issue in one scene. Overall, PG-13 is the right rating, possibly R-15.

Significant Content: B
Loyalty and the distinction between the real and the fake are themes here. This shows up in people, romances, relationships, and even the choice to make art rather than profits. There is a clear distinction made between people who are selfish and people who are other-oriented and the good/bad line is clear. The club functions like a family, and Cher is the loving mother. Also, just as an aside, a girl who gets pregnant never even considers an abortion and winds up marrying the father. Not bad for a “sleazy Hollywood” film as many would probably prefer to see it.

Artistic/Thought Value: B+
Okay, I know lots of people will disagree with me about this, but here goes. Although this is clearly a movie with lots of nice-looking women dancing suggestively, I did not think the movie was particularly sexual. The key here is to understand the difference between burlesque and its often-confused-with cousin, stripping. This is not a movie about stripping. Burlesque normally involves either no or only a little loss of clothing. Rather, it’s women dancing and singing and doing so humorously rather than erotically. In fact, burlesque in my opinion is far more like ballroom dancing or gymnastics or ice skating than it is like stripping. And although I was concerned going in that this would be an arousing movie, it really wasn’t. So as a simple contrast with all the lurid sexuality present in so many movies and also as a contrast with the now socially acceptable notion of stripping, the class and performance ability of burlesque presented here is actually an improvement in morality and decency, not a degradation. To put it another way, I would never go into a strip club, but I would probably go to the burlesque show as presented in this movie. Now, all of that aside, what other values are present here?

Discussion Questions:
--What, if anything, makes burlesque as shown here different from stripping? Would you think it a good idea for a man to patronize a night club like this? If you had a daughter, would you encourage her to pursue a career in burlesque if she wanted to? What is the difference between acceptable forms of feminine entertaining and unacceptable ones? Does burlesque objectify women?
--Identify which people in this movie care about others, and which care only about themselves?
--Which sort of performance do you think is better: dancing and lip syncing to the classics, singing them live, or performing original music?
--Why does Jack struggle to complete any of his music? In what sense might you say that an incomplete person can only make incomplete art? What makes him complete?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
--Ali’s first solo.
--The end scene burlesque.

Overall Grade: B
Maybe it’s the lover of stage and dance in me, but despite having my guard up because it stars Cher and Christina Aguilera, I was entertained mostly the whole time here, and the final number is fantastic.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1 (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.
Length: 146 minutes
Grade: C,C,C,D=C-
Rotten Tomatoes: 79% favorable, 7.1/10 average
Budget: $250 million
Box Office: $1.017 Billion (295 U.S., 660 Intl., 62 DVD)

Written by: Steve Kloves (All 7 HP movies, plus Wonder Boys, Fabulous Baker Boys, and Racing with the Moon), based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
Directed by: David Yates (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint
With: Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, and Helena Bonham Carter

In this prelude to the final Harry Potter movie, there is all-out war among the wizards, with the Ministry of Magic being dominated by the forces under Voldemort’s control and a bounty on Harry Potter’s head. To turn the tide and destroy their enemy, Harry, Hermioine, and Ron try to stay alive and find the horcruxes in which Voldemort has stored the pieces of his soul.

It may not be fair for a non-reader of the book series to comment on this movie since it is so clearly a prequel to the next and final film. But I have a bone to pick with this one in particular. Even though I have never been blown away by any of the other films, always giving them B-range grades if I remember correctly, each of them has also been fairly satisfying in its own way. Not this time. First of all, the sequence of events just keeps going on and on and on without much real explanation and certainly without any sense of fulfillment. Second, precisely because this feels very much like an effort to cram eight hundred pages of rich action into just two films, it doesn’t even pretend to help the non-reader like me. And third, even with all the cramming, somehow they managed to precisely overcompensate and keep it tremendously slow nevertheless. Plus, all the business about who carries the device and its corrupting influence on them just felt so completely derivative of the Lord of the Rings.

Discussion Questions:
~The key difference between the evil wizards and the good ones seems to be their view of the justified use of their powers. The good ones view muggles (ordinary humans) as people with value and rights who should be protected and served with magic, but the evil ones view them as an impediment or a sub-species to be used or eradicated without consideration. How does this distinction fit with the proper relationship between people who have power, wealth, and privilege and those who do not in our own society? What happens when the caretakers don’t care about the ordinary people? How do these views match with the Bible’s ideas about how Christians should treat non-Christians?

Overall Grade: C-
I will watch the final movie, but it better pay off because at this point I already feel like I’m only continuing on habit rather than enthusiasm.

Skyline (2010)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some language, and brief sexual content.
Length: 94 minutes
Grade: B+,C,X,X =B
Rotten Tomatoes: 17% favorable, 3.6/10 average
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $75 million (21 U.S., 46 Intl., 8 DVD)

Written by: Joshua Cordes and Liam O’Donnell (First script for either)
Directed by: Colin & Greg Strause (Aliens vs Predator-Requiem)
Starring: Eric Balfour and Donald Faison
With: Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Crystal Reed, and David Zayas.

Two college friends now reunited for a weekend find themselves in the middle of an alien invasion of Los Angeles, in which bionic gatherers are harvesting human bodies for their brain matter.

As science fiction films go, this is not a great one. It surely could have been done better, and the plot defects came to their climax in the very end scene. Nevertheless, I found it a lot of fun. Maybe I just felt like this was the movie District 9 promised to be and never was. Maybe it’s because I have a soft spot for Donald Faison from his Scrubs days. Or maybe I was just in a weird mood. But whatever the reason, I found this to be a fairly entertaining, visually impressive film made by four guys who really have no business making movies on their own, since their only real background is in visual effects. Yes, great sci-fi is driven by plot, but once in awhile it’s alright to have nothing deeper than a funky action/sci-fi/horror movie. Also, if there is one thing I liked about this movie, it’s that it’s anything but the “we shall overcome” plot that so many other alien invasion movies inevitably follow. If space-conquering species came to earth, do you really think Wil Smith would be enough to lead us to victory? By the way, it is most definitely PG-13, probably better as R-15 for violence, language and sexuality, just so you know.

Overall Grade: B
Even though I’m sure I’m well in the minority on this one.

Gulliver's Travels (2010)

Rated: PG for brief rude humor, mild language and action.
Length: 85 minutes
Grade: C,B,C,D=C
Rotten Tomatoes: 20% favorable, 3.9/10 average
Budget: $112 million
Box Office: $234 million (43 U.S., 187 Intl., 4 DVD)

Written by: Joe Stillman (Planet 51, Shrek 1+2, and Joseph King of Dreams) and Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, Yes Man, and Fun with Dick and Jane), based on the novel by Jonathan Swift
Directed by: Rob Letterman (Monsters vs Aliens and Shark Tale)
Starring: Jack Black
With: Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, and Chris O’Dowd

A mail room clerk with no ambition and no prospects plagiarizes his way into a travel story assignment in the Bermuda Triangle, which sends him to Lilliput, the famous Swiftian land of little people. Initially imprisoned as a threat, he performs some feats of heroism and becomes the defender of the realm. Then, after befriending a man who loves the King’s daughter but is in jail because she is promised to another, he tries to help him realize true love against an arrogant general.

Entertainment Value: C
I didn’t expect very much from this movie, and that probably helped me tremendously. But in the end, I was pleasantly surprised with the fish-out-of water humor. It’s certainly not anything great or memorable, but it was fairly fun, which fits the tradition of Swift’s novel. It’s a silly story, and the Dr. Seuss fan inside of me never minds a silly story.

Superficial Content: B
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sex/Nudity B+, Violence B+, Language BThis is a frustrating movie from a ratings perspective. It’s nowhere near as crude as you would ordinarily expect from Jack Black, but there are moments that definitely justify the PG rating, and even made me cringe letting my boys (7, 4, 2) watch it. In particular, one scene uses the expression “lame-ass” four times. Another has Gulliver urinating on a palace to put out a fire (funny, but vulgar). And a romance with quoting the Prince song “Kiss” and some mild innuendo. Otherwise, it’s only some fairly tame violence. So, it seems like a movie that could easily have been a clean PG, but instead I would say PG-9.

Significant Content: C
The basic problem is that plagiarism and lying turn out to be the key to doing something magical in life, with some consequences, but everything works out eventually. The positive message seems to be about pursuing true love, being willing to take an adventure, and going for it, generally. Also, don’t think too little of yourself because you have more to offer than you realize.

Artistic/Thought Value: D
It’s not a pretty movie, nor is it all that great an adaptation of the original. Plus, there isn’t much thought value during or after.

Discussion Questions:
~Gulliver feels the need to make up stories about his exploits in a distant land to gain popularity with the Lilliputs. Was this really necessary? Why did he do it? What happens when we feel our own lives aren’t interesting enough? Have you ever felt tempted to exaggerate something you’ve done to gain approval? How does the Bible help solve this problem for us?
~Do you think a life of risk or adventure is inherently better than a life of ordinary activity? Is travel or excitement satisfying enough to meet our deepest needs?
~Gulliver achieves his opportunity by plagiarizing other people’s work. Does this seem like a good way to get something?
~Is Gulliver afraid to ask Darcy out for legitimate reasons or foolish ones? Does their friendship/romance seem plausible to you?
~Why might it take the experience of actually being special for his size for Gulliver to realize that he might be special even back in New York? What does the Bible say about our specialness?
~Although we don’t have different sized people, our society certainly makes some people large and others small (influence, money, fame, etc.) based on their abilities or other factors. Do you think the idea of big and little people is something the Bible would support?

Overall Grade: C
Silly fun without a lot of substance, but with just enough sporadic and inexplicable vulgarity to keep young kids away.