31 August 2013

Quickie Series Review: "The Brick Bible"

It's no secret that Legos are insanely popular. They have gone beyond mere building blocks and have inspired a theme park, movies and television shows, and multiple computer and video games, many of which also tie in with other popular franchises, such as Star Wars or DC Comics. In these two books, Brendan Powell Smith illustrates stories from God's Word using those popular blocks. Though his work here is admirable, he left out some very important stories, especially in the old Testament. Job and Esther could have had some dramatic images, but they are completely left out. Even the Sunday school favorite Jonah is missing.

As if that wasn't bad enough, despite kid-friendly appearances, this book isn't for children. Circumcision, rape, insect, and murder are depicted or implied. Most if not all of the Lego computer/video games were rated E10+ at worst, but, if this were a video game, it would get T, not only because of the violence, but also because of the themes. Granted, those go with the Bible stories being told, but young children don't need to hear about Laban's daughters having sexual relations with their own father, or what circumcision even is. It's less graphic than what you're likely to see in the average "R" film, but it still was too mich for me, and many others are likely to feel the same way. The scary visuals in some scenes would also be unsettling to younger readers as well. This series had potential, and I have no doubt that Lego fanatics would love it...but I didn't.

Score: 2.25/5

24 August 2013

Book Review: "The Hobbit"

Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Published: 1937 (original edition) / 1987 (fiftieth anniversary edition)
Synopsis: Before Harry Potter...before Star Wars...there were the fantasy works of J. R. R. Tolkien, the best-loved of which are the three Lord of the Rings books.  The Hobbit, a prequel to that everlasting trilogy, introduces the character of Bilbo Baggins, who inadvertently gets sent on a quest that changes his life forever.  This special edition contains Mr. Tolkien's artwork, along with a foreword that has reproductions of his original (hand-written!) draft of the infamous novel.
(Okay, so that synopsis didn't tell you too much, but, seriously, if you don't know the plot, either you don't care about fantasy novels, or you just came back from Mars.)

Artistic Merit

Plot: 4.5/5
The late Mr. Tolkien is still heralded as a master of fantasy, and this book proves why.  His story was definitely engrossing and quite fun to read.  That said, since Hollywood is making a trilogy of movies based on this one book, I was expecting a bit thicker of a plot; I think that's Tinseltown's fault, because this book should have been made into a standalone movie! (Do you fantasy fans agree?)

Writing: 5/5
Though not exactly plain, Mr. Tolkien's prose flows very well.  I had a basic understanding of the story before I read it, but actually reading it is much more engrossing than just hearing/seeing a quick summary.  There's a reason this book has stood the test of time.

Special Features: 4/5
The illustrations, foreword, gold cover, and such make this like a deluxe DVD.  Granted, I'm sure that there have been even better versions of this book published--I only found this thanks to my local library--but, for what it is, it's great.

Moral Content

Positive Elements: 4/5
Characters show courage and look out for one another.  The good guys and bad guys are clearly defined.

Sexual Content: 5/5

Violence: 3.5/5
Though fantasy isn't fantasy without some sort of action/violence, I didn't notice anything particularly gruesome or graphic in this book.

Language: 5/5
None that I recall.

Drugs: 4.5/5
Tobacco gets mentioned.

Other: 4/5
Some people may have problems with the usage of magic and wizardry; if you do, though, why are you reading this review?

Conclusion: Me and the works of J. R. R. Tolkien have an interesting history.  In sixth grade, we had a shortened version--that is, a stage play adaptation--of The Hobbit in our literature book, and our teacher allowed us to read it on days when we had nothing better to do.  After that, I tried more than once to read both The Fellowship of the Ring and the original Hobbit, and never got anywhere.  On Christmas Day 2001, I tried watching the first LOTR movie, and found it to be too long and drawn-out.  (Looking back, I think seeing it in the theater was a mistake; I should have watched it in multiple sittings.) For years, I wanted nothing to do with the series...but, more recently, I decided to give it a second chance.  Now that I have done so, I have to say I was missing out; however, I don't think I would have appreciated this book when I was younger like I did while reading it this week.  As I said: Fantasy fans, if you haven't read it...go do so!

Score: 4.75/5

Movie Review: "The Mark"

Rated: Not Rated (awarded Dove "Faith-Based" seal with caution for violence)
Starring: Craig Sheffer, Eric Roberts, and Sonia Couling
Released: October 16, 2012 (DVD)
Synopsis: War veteran Chad Turner (Craig Sheffer) was guarding a top secret project involving a microchip that is inserted into and powered by the human body...when, out of nowhere, he gets the chip injected into himself! Cooper (veteran actor Eric Roberts, In the Blink of an Eye) visits him in the hospital and informs him that they must immediately fly to Berlin for the G20 Summit to introduce the new chip. Though Chad immediately makes friends with airline stewardess Dao (Sonia Couling) and journalist Jodi upon boarding the flight, it seems that there are terrorists aboard who will stop at nothing to get their hands on that new microchip! Chad remembers what his brother, who was a Christian, told him: Every life has a purpose. The soldier knows what it is, and what he must do...but it's easier said than done when not only do you have terrorists after you, but you're thousands of feet in the air!
Produced by Pure Flix, makers of What If...?, The Imposter, and Jerusalem Countdown.

Artistic Merit

Plot: 4/5
"End times" movies usually seem to have weird plots that make me wonder whether or not the end will happen anywhere close to the way they say it will, but this one seems a bit more grounded in reality.  Though the film is a bit slow for the first third, after that, things really pick up! It's as intense as an old-school movie serial, no question! However, the cliffhanger ending will make you want to get the sequel ASAP, which might prove hard unless you already have it.

Production Values: 4.25/5
Other than one set that looked like something from a high school play, and the fact that the SDHs (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing) have a couple of typos and don't even appear during a crucial part of the movie--though, thankfully, they don't lag anymore! Yay!--the movie is quite well-produced, and is not the kind of schlock-fest that C Me Dance was.  The action sequences and acting were especially impressive.

Moral Content

Positive Elements: 4.5/5
The main moral of this story is that every life has a purpose (Psalm 139:14), which is an important lesson regardless of your beliefs about the "end times".  Also, as you'd expect, faith in God is respected (Psalm 14:1; John 14:6), and at least one character who didn't believe at the start of the film finds salvation by the time the credits roll (James 5:19-20).  A flashback shows someone giving up his own life for that of his sibling (John 15:13).

Sex: 5/5

Nudity: 4.5/5
A unnamed, non-speaking female character appears briefly in a somewhat short skirt with slits on the sides that reveal even more.

Language: 4.5/5
One usage of the British profanity "b-----ks".

Violence: 1.25/5
When the Dove Foundation can't even give it their approval for ages twelve and up, you know you're dealing with a rather violent film.  Though there is absolutely zero gore, several people get killed--including some innocent ones--and blood stains are quite prevalent.  We see quite a few fisticuffs, guns blaze more than once, and someone's dead body is even sent down a chute.  I can't see how the MPAA would not have rated this "PG-13"; the only reason they didn't was because the studio never submitted it for a rating.

Drugs: 4/5
Alcoholic beverages are consumed by the villains, and you can see what appears to be wine bottles in the background in one or two scenes.

Frightening/Intense Scenes: 0.5/5
Along with what I described under "Violence," even the opening title sequence, which describes stock markets plummeting and other worldly perils, are a bit scary.  Later in the film, it is reported that natural disasters are hitting the entire planet, and the movie ends with a scene implying a city is on fire.  Even the fact that the whole movie revolves around a plane being hijacked may be too reminiscent of 9/11 for some folks.  This is definitely not for the VeggieTales crowd.

Conclusion: What a riveting movie.  If you think Christian movies are all dry Biblical epics or boring family dramas, you should definitely check this out; it's better-produced than usual for a Christian film.  However, I would think twice before renting this for a family movie night or an elementary school lock-in; the themes, intensity, violence, and all-around dark tone makes this inappropriate for the younger set.  It may not sound right for a Christian movie to be "for mature audiences only," but even the Bible isn't all kid stuff.  Based on what I've said above, you should know whether this if for you/your kid(s) or not.

Score: 4/5

23 August 2013

Movie Review: "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story"

Rated: Not Rated (US) / PG (Canada)
Starring: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Kimberly Elise, and Jaishon Fisher
Released: February 7, 2009 (TNT premiere) / September 8, 2009 (DVD)
Synopsis: Dr. Ben Carson, neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University, has just been presented with a daunting medical case: newborn twins conjoined at the head. The infants' parents don't want to lose either of their new babies, and Dr. Carson doesn't want it to come to that either. However, what's even more remarkable is how Dr. Carson came to be one of the world's "top docs". From his rough childhood to his teenage rebellion to attending Yale on a scholarship…all of those experiences made him who he is today. Based on a true story.

Artistic Merit 

Plot: 5/5
I don't usually do biopics, but this one has an excellent narrative. I almost watched the entire movie in one sitting, and I rarely do that with films of any length. If you watch this movie, don't make any plans for the next ninety minutes, because you will likely be glued to the screen.

Production Values: 5/5
This telefilm was distributed by Sony Pictures and backed/sponsored by Johnson and Johnson, and it shows. All of the actors and actresses, especially Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the main character, did extremely well. The sets and everything were great, too; in the scenes from Dr. Carson's childhood, I really felt like I was back during that time, especially when they showed now-vintage television programs on an old-school TV set. Nothing to complain about in this department.

Moral Content 

Positive Elements: 5/5
Most of the movie is quite positive. Dr. Carson shows a faith in God throughout his life, and so do his family members. Literacy is praised, as Dr. Carson and his brother become avid readers as children, and their illiterate mother also willingly learns to read. Dr. Carson's love for books also helps him succeed in school. His mother, despite her issues, is a voice of reason, and encourages both of her sons to believe in themselves. The power of a loving family, and how far doing well in school can get you, is also shown.

Sex: 4.5/5
It is mentioned that Dr. Carson's father had another wife and kids while being married to Dr. Carson's mother.

Nudity: 5/5

Language: 4.25/5
A bit of name-calling and insults among kids at school, including a few "mama jokes". Someone says "go to hell."

Violence: 1.75/5
As Dr. Carson is a surgeon, some of his operations are shown, and in rather lurid detail. Some viewers may not mind, but those who are squeamish might not want to see a bare heart beating or blood coming from a wound. Yes, I realize that this isn't a horror movie that has gore and such just for giggles; still, it was wince-inducing even for me. Also of note: Part of Dr. Carson's troubled childhood involves him getting into fights; once with a lock in his hand, the other with a pocket knife. Though neither are graphically shown, in the former case, it is mentioned that the victim "had to get five stitches."

Drugs: 4.5/5
A young man from the wrong side of the tracks is shown with a cigarette behind his ear.  

Frightening/Intense Scenes: 1.5/5
See the first paragraph under "Violence". Also of note: A traumatic incident or two causes some emotional intensity.

Conclusion: Inspiring and gruesome. Those words don't usually go together, but that's how this biopic of Dr. Carson ended up being. Though I knew of his checkered past, I didn't expect the operations to be shown in such detail, and there was no MPAA advisory to warn me, either. If you can watch someone being operated on in detail without even blinking, then you should be fine with Gifted Hands. However, those who can't take it should stick to other true-story flicks.

Score: 3.75/5

Book Review: "The Judas Gospel"

Author: Bill Myers
Publisher: Howard Books
Publication Date: June 14, 2011
Synopsis: Judas Iscariot, the Benedict Arnold of the Bible, has been given a second chance. This time, he is in modern-day America, marketing the prophetess/celebrity Rachel Delacroix. When audiences worldwide see her healing the sick and injured, she becomes a hit! However, Rachel has a very checkered past, and there are some evil beings who will stop at nothing to see her fail...
From Bill Myers, author of Eli, the Fire of Heaven trilogy, and The God Hater.

Artistic Merit 

Plot: 5/5
Bill Myers knows how not only how to tell a story, but also to come up with one! This book made for quite riveting reading, especially the last half! Of course, to his fans, that should be no surprise...right?

Writing: 5/5
Equally amazing in this department. Easy to read, easy to follow, and it flows well...what's not to like?

Special Features: 4.5/5
At the back of the book is a discussion guide and an interview with Mr. Myers himself. Also, the book references classical artwork, and each painting mentioned has a URL in the footnotes to view it. Though I tried one of the Web addresses, and it worked, with the nature of the Internet, they could end up being defunct, even while the book is still around.

Moral Content 

Positive Elements: 5/5
The whole book is a criticism of the commercialization of Christianity. Money-grubbing evangelists are vilified for being "charlatans" (Hebrews 13:5). Spiritual warfare is shown as being not only real, but a big deal (Ephesians 4:12). Christians are criticized for being more upset over usage of profanity than about starving, dying children.

Sex: 4/5
Homosexuality gets mentioned a few times. A sexual crime is also referenced. 

Violence: 3.5/5
It is mentioned that a child was permanently injured as a result of abuse. Someone attempts suicide, but is later seen unhurt. A helicopter crashes into a building.

Language: 4/5
The d-word and "j-----s" are each used once.

Frightening/Intense Scenes: 2/5
There's little within the book that isn't frightening or intense. The scenes with the demons are appropriately creepy; Rachel has scary visions/dreams about a horrible house fire; and, a terrorist attack that may be too reminiscent of 9/11 for some occurs. Some readers may not be able to take it.  

Conclusion: Bill Myers is among one of my top authors; I like almost everything of his I have ever read. He and fellow personal favorite Ted Dekker aren't afraid to write hard-hitting, intense, edgy novels that illustrate spiritual principles. The Judas Gospel has to be one of the most riveting novels I've read in a while. That said, if Mr. Dekker's The Bride Collector or BoneMan's Daughters were too much for you to take, you should avoid this and stick to reading Karen Kingsbury. I myself like the edgy stuff; you may feel otherwise.

Score: 4.5/5

19 August 2013

Movie Review: "The Encounter"

Rated: Not Rated (Dove approved for ages twelve and up)
Starring: Bruce Marchiano, Jaci Velasquez, and Steve "Sting" Borden
Released: May 3, 2011 (DVD/Blu-Ray)
Synopsis: Nick (former wrestler Steve "Sting" Borden) is a football-player-turned-restauranteur who is worth millions.  Catherine (Danah Davis) and Hank (Jamie Nieto) are a married couple on the verge of divorce.  Melissa (CCM singer Jaci Velasquez) is traveling thousands of miles to see her boyfriend, in hopes that he will propose to her.  Kayla (Madison Gibney) is running away from her home and her drug-addicted, alcoholic parents.  One dark and stormy night, they happen upon a restaurant called the Last Chance Diner.  Upon entering, they are greeted by a guy (Bruce Marchiano, The Visual Bible: Matthew, Apostle Peter and the Last Supper) who calls himself Jesus, and who knows them and everything about them.  Is this guy some actor? Is he a charlatan? Or is he the same Jesus that you can read about in the Bible? Before the night is over, those five are going to be in for a big surprise...

Artistic Merit

Plot: 4.5/5
Five people stuck in a diner with no means to escape sounds more like a horror flick than a redeeming Christian film, but this movie's plot works quite well.  It even helped me to learn to trust God more, which is a lesson we all need to learn at times.

Acting: 5/5
Other than Mr. Marchiano, Mr. Borden, and Ms. Velasquez, I don't think any of these stars are very experienced actors and actresses, but they do very well.  Mr. Marchiano gets major kudos for once again masterfully portraying Jesus Christ, which is a hard role to do.

Other Production Values: 5/5
The sets and such were all great; nothing really to complain about here.

Moral Content

Positive Elements: 5/5
Along with affirming belief in Jesus, positive themes in this movie include: staying with and not divorcing your spouse, regardless of marital issues; not resorting to suicide when things get tough; waiting to find the right spouse; accepting Jesus into your heart before it is too late; and not falling for the devil's schemes.

Sex: 4.5/5
Sexual sin is mentioned and vilified.

Nudity: 5/5

Language: 4.5/5
Some slight name-calling.

Violence: 4/5
A character grabs Jesus by the collar, but doesn't hurt Him.  A car accident leads to someone's death (implied).  Someone holds a gun to his/her own head in a flashback, but the gun ends up being empty, and he/she is not hurt.

Drugs: 4.5/5
It is mentioned that Kayla's parents and stepfather were drug/alcohol addicts, but their usage of such substances is vilified.

Frightening/Intense Scenes: 4/5
See "Violence".

Other: 4/5
Young children may have trouble understanding this movie.

Conclusion: For Christian cinema, this movie is better than usual.  The production values are quite high, and the movie was successful enough to warrant a sequel, which I will be reviewing at some point.  Anyone who has enjoyed previous Pure Flix films should definitely check this one out.

Score: 4.5/5

10 August 2013

TV DVD Review: "Power Rangers Ninja Storm: Prelude to a Storm"

Rated: TV-Y7 for fantasy violence
Starring: Pua Magasiva, Sally Martin, and Glenn McMillan
Released: June 3, 2003 (VHS/DVD)
Synopsis: Shane, Tori, and Dustin are three athletic teenagers who are also friends...and studying to be ninjas! When their Ninja Academy gets destroyed by the evil Lothor, their Sensei gives them morphers, which helps them become...Power Rangers!  However, those three were not exactly the best students.  Will they be able to overcome their fallacies to save our planet from utter destruction? Their adventures start here!

Artistic Merit

Plots: 4/5
The whole "zero to hero" thing has been done a thousand times before, but the three episodes do it quite well.  The cliffhanger ending of the last episode in the set left me wanting more.  However, there's one problem, which happens to be my biggest issue with the series: Tori, the only female Ranger, is annoying.  At first, I just thought it was whoever was doing her voice in the (supposedly) dubbed action sequences; however, by the last episode, she really began to grate on my nerves, masked or unmasked.  It's funny: Since Disney owned Saban at the time this was made, Tori the Blue Ranger--and, the actress who played her, Sally Martin--are Disney ladies...but I don't really like them.

Special Effects: 3.5/5
They're better quality than in the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but the effects are still a bit cheesy.  Still, those who would be the most likely to enjoy a show like this either wouldn't notice or wouldn't care.

Acting: 5/5
No problems here; though Tori was annoying, I have to hand it to Sally Martin for playing an evil version of the Blue Ranger quite well.

Moral Content

Positive Elements: 4/5
The usual "look out for one another" dynamic that you see in group-superhero series is present once again here.  The "Sensei" gives good advice, too, much like Alpha 5 and Zordon did in the original show.  Characters learn the cost of disobeying authority, the value of their friends, etc.

Sexual Content: 4.75/5
Tori, the only female Ranger, wants to be seen as a girl instead of "one of the guys," but that is kept innocent.

Nudity: 4.25/5
In two of the episodes and the opening sequence, Tori is seen in a swimsuit top and board shorts.

Language: 5/5

Violence: 3.5/5
Right from the get-go, viewers see all sorts of "fantasy violence".  A building gets obliterated; kids get captured and imprisoned; villains and heroes attack each other with fantastical weapons.  As one would expect, there's no blood or gore.

Drugs: 5/5

Other: 4/5
Some of the monsters could be a bit frightening to young children.

Conclusion: I'm a longtime fan of Disney.  As a little kid, I watched old Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons; when I was nine, I became addicted to reruns of Growing Pains on the Mouse Network, and my favorite movies were Flubber and George of the Jungle; in high school, I adored pretty much every live-action sitcom on the Disney Channel, and I still like the ones they have on there today.  So, I was naturally curious to see what the House of Mouse could do with Saban's Power Rangers.  They actually did really well; if only Tori hadn't been so annoying, the series could have been better.  Other volumes in the series are going to prove hard to find, but I still plan to check them out at some point; seeing this makes me excited to see what Disney will do with Star Wars.  (Hopefully, Princess Leia and/or Mara Jade won't be Sally, Version 2.0!)

Score: 4/5

TV DVD Review: "Life with Derek: Let the Games Begin!"

Rated: TV-G
Starring: Ashley Leggat, Michael Seater, and Jordan Todosey
Released: February 19, 2009 (DVD)
Synopsis: Casey (Ashley Leggat) was perfectly happy living with her mom and younger sister...but her life was in for a big change when her mother got married! To make things even more complicated, her new stepfather has a son, Derek (Michael Seater), who is as used to being in charge as she is.  Battles of wills ensue, as well as plenty of pranks and disputes.  With a family like this, though, there's plenty of hilarity in store! As seen on the Canadian Family Channel and the Disney Channel.

Artistic Merit

Plots: 4/5
Sure, longtime TV watchers have seen this stuff before, but it still works pretty well and proves to be entertaining nonetheless.  I finished the entire disc in two days.

Acting: 5/5
I didn't notice any poor acting.

Moral Content

Positive Elements: 3.5/5
Casey speaks out against sexism, and Derek's objectification of women is vilified.  Casey also makes a self-sacrifice to help out her parents.  It is shown that playing games of chance--aka gambling--is not a good thing, and Derek is shown as a jerk for cheating at them.

Sexual Content: 3.25/5
The "Babe Raider" episode starts with Derek playing a game called Babe Raider--a nod to Tomb Raider--and Casey speaks out against it.  It is mentioned that the game has a "topless" level.  The parents of this blended family are seen "making out".

Nudity: 3.75/5
Casey wears a bare-midriff outfit in both the opening title sequence and one scene in one episode.  She is also seen only wearing a towel.  Derek has posters of scantily clad women in his bedroom.

Violence: 4/5
Slapstick violence, including pranks--aka practical jokes--is the rule here.

Drugs: 5/5
No usage of drugs or alcohol.

Language: 4.5/5
A misuse of God's name and the euphemism "flippin'" are as bad as it gets.

Other: 3.5/5
Casey pulls a prank on her school's principal to get Derek in trouble; though she is able to keep him from being punished, she never gets punished.  She also tells her mother to divorce her stepfather.  Some of the humor involves bodily functions.

Conclusion: In Canada, the shows we call "Disney" appear on the Family Channel, not to be confused with the name-betraying ABC Family network we have in the US.  It makes sense, then, that the two channels in neighboring countries would try their hand at co-producing a show.  Unfortunately, just within this four-episode set alone, I found the content to be more bawdy than what one would expect from the Mouse network or even their main competitor, Nickelodeon.  From my online research, it would appear that the content is even worse in the rest of the series: more/harsher profanities and additional sexual content.  Though season sets are available on DVD, discerning families might want to stick to Austin & Ally or Shake It Up.  As fun as this DVD was by itself, kids might want more than just these four episodes, and you might not feel right giving it to them; therefore, this disc, as good as it is, might be best avoided.

Score: 3.75/5

Movie Review: "2010: The Year We Make Contact"

Rated: PG for reasons unspecified by the MPAA (US) / PG (Canada)
Starring: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, and Helen Mirren
Released: December 7, 1984 (theaters)
Synopsis: In 2001, Dave Bowman went on a spaceflight...and never came back.  Nine years later, the world is in turmoil because a planet-wide war has erupted, and the situation just won't stop escalating.  Heywood Floyd strikes up a deal with the Russians to go on another space voyage, not only to find out what happened to Bowman's ship, the Discovery, but also to investigate the strange space object known as the Monolith.  What--and who--they find will surprise not only them, but all the denizens of our planet as well.  Based on the book by Arthur C. Clarke

Artistic Merit

Plot: 2.5/5
This movie was actually quite pokey for a sci-fi flick, but, for some reason, I felt compelled to see it through to the end.  Those expecting a Lucasfilm-style adventure should look elsewhere.  Still, it works.

Special Effects: 4/5
As this movie was released in 1984, it's not going to be on par with Harry Potter or the Star Wars prequels in this department.  However, what's here looks real enough; it's not the kind of dreck one would see on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Acting: 5/5
I have no complaints in this department; everyone in the cast did quite well.

Soundtrack: 3/5
Films from the decade of excess are known for their cheesy music, and this one is no exception.  It can be a little annoying at times, but it mostly works moderately well.

Moral Content

Positive Elements: 2.5/5
Heywood Floyd is a family man, and dictates messages to his family while in space.  It is implied that the Americans and Russians are enemies, but the astronauts from both countries work together regardless.

Sex: 3.5/5
A husband and wife are seen starting to have sexual relations, but the camera cuts away before anything more can be seen.

Nudity: 5/5

Violence: 4/5
The few moments of action in this movie end without anyone dying or even any bloodshed.

Language: 2/5
Was this movie made before the PG-13 rating existed? I don't know, but the language alone makes it deserve that rating.  Floyd is pretty much the only one who swears, but, since he is the main character, he has most of the dialogue, and he hardly utters a sentence without adding a profanity or two.  Both God and Jesus' names are misused, and h-words, d-words, and other expletives are more common than most discerning viewers would be comfortable with.

Drugs: 3.5/5
Alcohol is mentioned and/or consumed more than once.

Other: 3.5/5
Evolution gets mentioned, but that's to be expected from an Arthur C. Clarke work.  HAL is only a computer, but is treated like a human being, which may be bothersome to some.

Conclusion: I usually enjoy science fiction or fantasy stories, but this one is a dud.  I watched it in between episodes of TV shows--some of which are ones I just posted reviews of--and felt the need to finish it; however, the best thing I can say about it is that I got more in trade-in credit from MovieStop than I paid for it.  (I got it for a buck at a library sale.)  Other than the language, the content is clean, but I still didn't like it very well.  Maybe Arthur C. Clarke devotees might feel differently; everyone else, though, should look elsewhere.

Score: 1.75/5

08 August 2013

TV DVD Review: "Austin & Ally: All the Write Moves!"

Rated: TV-G (US) / G (Canada)
Starring: Ross Lynch, Laura Marano, Calum Worthy, and Raini Rodriguez
Released: June 18, 2013 (DVD)
Synopsis: Austin Moon (Ross Lynch, Teen Beach Movie) wants to make it in the music business, but can't write a song to save his life.  Ally Dawson (Laura Marano, Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?) loves to write tunes, but has a severe case of stage fright.  When they have a chance meeting that leads to Austin inadvertently performing Ally's song in a music video, they form a partnership: She writes; he rocks.  Together with Austin's crazy video producer, Dez (Calum Worthy, R. L. Stine's The Haunting Hour) and Austin's manager/Ally's BFF Trish (Raini Rodriguez), they're ready to take on the music world! Whether they're celebrating Trish's quinceñera, trying to catch a mall thief, or hunting down Ally's precious songbook, laughs, insanity, and plenty of music are sure to ensue! As seen on Disney Channel.

Artistic Merit

Plots: 4.5/5
Sure, they're a bit silly, but that's typical for situation comedies, even ones outside of the Disney Channel.  Unlike VICTORiOUS, where the storyline is sacrificed for the sake of the performances at times, every episode is enthralling, amusing, and hilariously zany.

Soundtrack: 5/5
Between the catchy, danceable theme song and Austin's various performances, the music is outstanding.  Even the interludes during scene changes sound great and aren't annoyingly repetitive.

Acting: 4.75/5
An old friend once told me that on the Disney Channel, "you have to be silly and overact."  To a degree, that's true, but it seems like the adult actors are the sillier ones here.  Both Ross Lynch and Laura Marano do quite well here, as do Raini Rodriguez and Calum Worthy.

Moral Content

Positive Elements: 5/5
Disney Channel is the one network where you can almost count on their series' and movies' characters to either do the right thing, or get vilified for their inappropriate actions.  That is exactly the case here.  Though some characters wrong each other, they apologize and are forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15).  Overcoming fears (Isaiah 41:10) is also a theme here.

Sexual Content: 4.5/5

As bad as it gets is Ally saying, "Is that guy really wearing a thong?", when she is asked to imagine a beach.

Nudity: 4/5
Ally wears some skirts that are a bit short, and she is also seen in an off-the-shoulder dress.  Austin is seen shirtless in one episode.  A grown woman wears a low-cut outfit in one scene.  The scene transitions show the Miami Beach, complete with people--both men and women--in rather skimpy swimsuits, though they are only seen at a distance.

Violence: 4/5
Comedic violence is the rule here.  Falls, accidents, and the typical physical/slapstick comedy is mostly all you get.  There is a scene where Austin, as part of a movie, stabs a "lobster" with an umbrella and gets splattered.

Drugs: 5/5
No way! This is Disney Channel, people!

Language: 4.25/5
Usage of slang words such as "butt" is present.  Probably the worst part in this department is, after Austin, Trish, and Dez complain about not being able to read Ally's handwriting, she writes something we don't see on a note and says to Dez, "Can you read that?", to which he replies, "Yes, and that is not a nice word!"

Other: 4/5
Some viewers may not like the near-lack of parental presence.  Also, Trish bounces from job to job due to irresponsibility, which is played for laughs.

Conclusion: Though many viewers may be watching this for Ross Lynch, I'm actually a big fan of this show because of Laura Marano.  Ever since I first saw her as part of the "class" on Jeff Foxworthy's Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?--see picture to the right--I knew she was destined for big things.  Imagine my surprise this past December when I watched Austin & Ally for the first time; my first thought was, "I don't believe my eyes! It's Laura Marano from Fifth Grader!" (As a side note, A.N.T. Farm's Sierra McCormick was also one of the "students" on that game show.)  This show is amazing; the only problem I have with this set is that it's just seven random episodes instead of a full season set.  The Mouse House executives need to realize that the fans want the whole series.  Will we ever get it? It's hard to say, but, if you really want it, there's always iTunes.

Score: 4.75/5

DVD Set Review: "Fantastic Four": The Complete 1994-95 Animated Television Series

Rated: TV-Y7 for fantasy violence (US) / G (Canada)
Starring: Beau Weaver, Lori Alan, and Chuck McCann
Released: 1994-1996 (original TV premieres) / July 5, 2005 (DVD)
Synopsis: Sue Richards, her husband Reed, her brother Johnny, and their friend Ben were just four normal, everyday people...until an experiment led to them being exposed to extraterrestrial radiation, which gave them new superpowers.  Ben became the Thing, an incredibly strong rock-man; Sue became the Invisible Woman, who can not only make herself and others fade from sight, but also can produce force fields; Reed, aka Mr. Fantastic, can stretch and mold himself into various shapes; Johnny is now the Human Torch, who can light himself on fire and fly like a bird.  Together, they are the Fantastic Four...and, with villains such as Dr. Doom and Galactus insistent on mass destruction, our planet needs them now more than ever!

WARNING! The sections below may contain spoilers!

Artistic Merit

Plots: 3.5/5
The series starts off interestingly enough, with the Four appearing on a telethon telling the story of how they became Fantastic.  It's quite fun until the second season, which tends to rely too much on the same villains we saw in the first season, as well as other Marvel heroes.  Where it really falls flat is the "Hopelessly Impossible" episode, which is little more than a retrospective of past episodes; that makes for a waste of twenty-two minutes.

Animation: 5/5
Nothing to complain about here.  The character designs, backgrounds, superpower effects, and everything else are well-done.  Though it was made in the nineties, this series has the feel of an old-school Hanna-Barbera cartoon, which isn't a bad thing.

Voice Work: 4.25/5
Most of the voices are at least moderately good, though some of them could have been better.  The main characters are all well-voiced.  Dick Clark and Stan Lee appear, voicing themselves.

Moral Content

Positive Elements: 4.5/5
As friends/family, the Four constantly look out for each other and their fellow man.  When one of the Four wants to kill a villain, Mr. Fantastic tells him, "We're not murderers!" Elsewhere, the "difference between justice and vengeance" is discussed, and the "Inhumans" story arc is very anti-racism.  Each of the couples within the series--Mr. and Mrs. Reed Richards, Ben/"The Thing" and blind lady Alicia, Johnny/"Torch" and the "Inhuman" Crystal--show serious dedication to each other.  Reed, who is quite the genius, uses advanced scientific language throughout the series.

Sexual Content: 4.5/5
About as bad as it gets is when Sue remarks that her being in a bikini won't even distract her husband Reed from his scientific pursuits.

Nudity: 4/5
Some random women show cleavage, and, as mentioned above, Sue is seen in a bikini.  Probably the worst of it is when another woman accidentally burns her clothes off after Johnny inadvertently gives her his powers, though critical areas are obscured.  Though the Thing only wears something that looks like underwear, because of his character design, it does not feel sexual.

Violence: 2.5/5
Though there is "fantasy violence" throughout the series, it really intensifies during the second season.  Alongside the hits, kicks, explosions, and such, one character gets killed after an alien attaches a bomb to his body as bait for the Four.  Some of the characters' backstories also involve implied murders.  As usual for Saturday morning cartoons, though, it is not the least bit bloody or graphic.

Language: 3.75/5
God's name is misused infrequently, as is "Jeez".  The expression "Holy...!" is left unfinished.  The Thing often resorts to name-calling and trash-talking his enemies, but it remains G-rated the whole time. 

Drugs: 4/5
It is implied that alcohol is consumed.  A transforming alien briefly imitates a character who smokes.

Frightening/Intense Scenes: 3.5/5
Some of the monsters can be scary, and there are a few rather emotional moments.

Other: 4/5
There's a bit of crude/bathroom humor.

Conclusion: I didn't watch television a lot or really care very much about superheroes--other than those Mighty Morphin Power Rangers!--as a kid, so, I missed out on this series when it was originally on TV.  Thanks to Disney, Marvel, and my local MovieStop, I am able to experience it on DVD.  Though well-made, it pales a bit in comparison to some other series, notably the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons and Disney XD's Avengers.  Still, those who were disappointed in the sexual content and profanity in the two Fantastic Four movies will probably find this series to be an improvement.

Score: 3.75/5

05 August 2013

DVD Set Review: "Castle": The Complete First Season

Rated: TV-PG for off-color dialogue, language, sexual scenes, and violence (US) / PG: "Not Recommended for Young Children, Violence" (Canada)
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Stana Katic, and Molly Quinn
Released: March 9, 2009 - May 11, 2009 (ABC premieres) / September 22, 2009 (DVD)
Synopsis: Richard "Ricky" Castle (Nathan Fillion) is a best-selling mystery writer who just killed off his most-loved character, Derrick Storm.  When NYPD detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) asks for his help on a real-life case, they end up forging a partnership of sorts.  Castle and Beckett, despite getting on each other's nerves incessantly, get assigned to cases ranging from a child abduction to the murder of a nanny to an apparent mob killing of a plastic surgeon.  They will have to work together to solve every one...but, between the smart-yet-immature NYPD guys, as well as Castle's swinging single mother (Susan Sullivan) and wise-beyond-her-years daughter Alexis (Molly Quinn), not to mention the tenuous relationship between the author and the lady detective, things are going to get crazy!

Artistic Merit: One would expect a show from a major network to be well-produced...and this one is just that.  The acting, the sets, the music, the action sequences...what's not to like in this department?  Though the whole mystery/detective thing has been done countless times before--Murder, She Wrote? Perry Mason? Monk?--it's something that doesn't really lose its appeal. (5/5)

Positive Elements: As usual for a show of this genre, murder is vilified for the sin that it is (Exodus 20:13).  Castle and Detective Beckett regularly put aside their differences to work together for the greater good.  Alexis, Castle's daughter, is the wisest character in the whole show, and even reprimands Castle for some of his own immature behaviors.  When he offers her an alcoholic beverage at a party, she declines, knowing that taking it would be illegal, since she is only fifteen years old.  Castle also risks his own life in almost a daredevil sort of way to apprehend murderers and other perpetrators.  (4/5)

Sexual Content: The TV advisory warns of off-color dialogue and sexual scenes, but we get much more of the former than the latter.  Most of the episodes have a bit of banter between Castle and Beckett, and it does veer into "PG-13" territory at times.  Still, the "Nanny McDead" episode features a case where sex is the primary reason behind the murder, and such dialogue is present throughout; also, the premiere episode features Castle autographing women's chests.  Where the "S" (for sexual scenes, that is) comes from is a scene at the opening of an episode where Castle and his ex-wife are seen having sexual relations.  That, for me, was easily the most uncomfortable moment of the entire set.  (1.75/5)

Nudity: Everyone knows that you can't show explicit nudity on a major network, right? Well, this show doesn't even test the boundaries in that department; the closest it comes to that is seeing random women--as well as Detective Beckett and Alexis once each--in low-cut and/or off-the-shoulder dresses.  (4.5/5)

Violence: It's a murder mystery show, so, one should expect violence, right? Well, Castle keeps it relatively clean in this department; though at least one person gets killed in pretty much every episode, the scenes are only slightly bloody and never gruesome or graphic.  Most of the actual violent acts are only discussed and/or implied, though one episode involves a shootout where glass breaks all around the characters.  (3.5/5)

Drugs: Alcohol is consumed throughout; as mentioned above, Castle offers his underage daughter such a beverage, which, to her credit, she refuses.  One person tries to use a drug to kill someone else, and drug testing is mentioned in most of the episodes.  (3/5)

Language: No s-words or f-words, as this was aired on a major network.  Still, h-words, a-words, d-words, and other similar terms ("friggin'") appear about two or three times per episode. (3.5/5)

Frightening/Intense Sequences: The show is meant for adults rather than kids; therefore, the aftermaths of the murders may be a bit too much for young children. (3.5/5)

Other Negative Elements: Castle plays poker--that is, to gamble--in more than one episode.  Bodily functions get referenced a few times.  The titular author also is a bit of a playboy, though Detective Beckett is able to tame him...to a degree.  (3.75/5)

Conclusion: I grew up around mysteries, so, it's no surprise that I would check out something like Castle.  Since this show originally appeared as a mid-season replacement, it would appear that its popularity is surprising to a lot of people.  It's well-made, and it doesn't resort to the kind of gruesome violence that permeates films, video games, and other TV shows these days.  Still, the sexual content makes me a bit wary about checking out the later seasons; maybe it gets toned down as the show goes on.

Score: 3.25/5

01 August 2013

Quickie Movie Reviews for July 2013

Rated: PG-13 for martial arts violence
Starring: Ted Jan Roberts, Karen Valentine, and John O'Hurley
Released: October 24, 1995 (VHS)
The Power Within: Though largely inoffensive for a PG-13 film, The Power Within feels like it should have been a video game instead of a movie.  When hearing the fantastical history of the rings, and watching the action sequences, I couldn't help but think of the old-school "beat 'em up" games, such as Double Dragon or Street Fighter.  The cheesiness of it all makes it seem like a product of the "decade of excess" instead of a 1995 release.  Martial arts fans will probably enjoy this, but others should find something else to watch.

Content Concerns: Even though the film wasn't very good, as noted above, its quotient of offensive content is low for a PG-13 movie.  There are less than ten profanities (that I heard, anyway).  The "martial arts action violence" noted by the MPAA is neither bloody nor graphic; however, two intense scenes--a guy gets hit by a car, and it isn't fatal; another guy gets stabbed, and it appears to be deadly--might be a bit much for some folks.  Sexual content is limited to hearing of two high school kids renting a hotel room; it's never said that they actually do, though.  At the beginning, one buxom woman is seen in a low-cut outfit, and two others are briefly seen in bikinis.  Two main female characters tend to wear skirts that are a little on the short side.  All that is small potatoes compared to the "R-lite" movies that are called PG-13 today.

Score: 2/5

Rated: Not Rated (US) / PG (Canadian Home Video Rating) (Dove approved for ages twelve and up)
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Louise Lombard, and Jurgen Prochnow
Released: March 2, 2010 (DVD)
Esther (The Bible Stories): This movie is based on the only book in the Bible that does not mention God by name, but it does the story justice.  Though not perfect, it makes for quite enthralling viewing, and might be good for a middle school, high school, or adult Bible class after a study of the Biblical book.  (It would not be appropriate for younger kids, though; see the Content Concerns below for why.)  Anyone who has watched and enjoyed other well-made flicks based on God's Word, such as The Gospel of John or In the Beginning..., will find plenty to like about Esther.

Content Concerns: Though largely true to the Biblical account, some of this movie is not for little children.  Most notable are the scenes where Esther and the King consummate their relationship; though handled with more decorum than you're likely to see on pretty much any network sitcom these days, it still would be a bit much for the very young.  Violence includes a character being hung--do you know who?--though that is mostly implied.  Some of the emotionally intense scenes could freak some folks out.

Score: 4.25/5

Quickie Book Reviews for July 2013

Star Wars: Darksaber by Kevin J. Anderson: Despite all the critical drubbing he seems to get, I usually enjoy the writings of Kevin J. Anderson.  Whether it was his Jedi Academy trilogy, or his DC-Comics-based works (The Last Days of Krypton, Enemies and Allies), I almost always thought they were better than others did.  However, as much as I hate to say it, this one was yet another disappointment from the Star Wars expanded universe.  Only somewhat interesting, a bit hard to follow, lacking in action...that's not what I want from a space opera novel.

Content Concerns: Two or three profanities, and some slight violence.

Score: 2.25/5
Colorado (Celebrate the States) by Eleanor H. Ayer: When I was in third grade, my teacher had a display of posters about foreign countries, alongside the words, "If you can't go...read about it!" Almost a decade and a half later, I am taking her advice by reading books about places that I have yet to go, this being the first one. Full of facts about everything from the history of the state to famous folks from Colorado, it's everything one might want to know about the state, all in one convenient package.

Content Concerns: Homosexuality and gambling get mentioned briefly.

Score: 4/5
Halflings (Halflings, No. 1) by Heather Burch: I was a big-time Nintendo fan when I was younger, and one of my favorite franchises of the Big N's was Pokémon. Though I liked all of the games--at least, the ones I played--what I didn't like was how other two-bit game companies were trying to ride off of the success of Ash, Pikachu, and friends. There were so many rip-offs for the Game Boy systems alone--Robopon, Dokapon, Dragon Warrior Monsters, etc.--that Nintendo Power even said, "Just about every Game Boy [game] with a three-syllable title ending in 'on' is some sort of Pokémon clone."

I mention that because the Halflings series feels like nothing more than a big rip-off of Twilight. I've never read any of Stephenie Meyer's books or even seen any of the movies, but, from what I know about the series, it seems like many of the details are the same. Love between a human girl and a non-human male? A love triangle? Action and suspense? Come on, Christian authors; don't you have any original ideas? (Ted Dekker, Melody Carlson, and Bill Myers' works prove that the answer is "yes".)

Content Concerns: So, you still want to read this mess? Okay, then: Supernatural violence is present, including the killing of an animal by a demonic being. A character risks eternal damnation for romantic love. (This is supposed to be a Christian book!)

Score: 1.25/5
Back Home Again (Tales from Grace Chapel Inn, No. 1) by Melody Carlson: The start of a expansive multi-author series, Back Home Again made for an easy, quick, and enjoyable read.  Like the series premiere of a TV show, the book sets up characters and relationships for later in the series.  Fans of other small-town, Christian series such as Jan Karon's Mitford will definitely enjoy this.

Content Concerns: Nothing in this department; it was completely innocent.

Score: 4/5
On a Whim (Katie Weldon, No. 2) by Robin Jones Gunn: Continuing the seemingly never-ending life and times of Christy Miller, Katie Weldon, and friends, this book features Katie continuing to deal with the stresses of everything from her relationship with Rick Doyle, to her car breaking down, to her strained interactions with her mother. Anyone who has enjoyed the books leading up to this one should find plenty to love about it. It also makes a good point: Even when interactions with the opposite gender seemingly stay friendly, they can lead to problems! (Katie definitely learns that lesson here.)

Score: 4/5
Supernova (Star Power, No. 1) by Catherine Hapka: Star Calloway is just that--a star--at only fourteen years old. Along with the normal teenage drama, she has to deal with stop-at-nothing paparazzi and jealous fellow celebrities. Though nothing special, it will likely appeal to young fans of music-themed kiddie shows and movies such as High School Musical, VICTORiOUS, or Austin & Ally.

Content Concerns: Nothing worse than two girls referring to a male celebrity as "yummy" and a use of the euphemism "freakin'". Definitely as innocent as the average DCOM or G-rated film.

Score: 3.5/5
Timefall (Timefall, No. 1) by James Kahn: James Kahn, author of the original Return of the Jedi novelization, weaves his own sci-fi fantasy tale in Timefall, a book which combines elements of Lucasfilm's Indiana Jones and Christopher Nolan's Inception. The story definitely enraptured me; compared to the other books I've been reading lately, the writing and flow of the plot is amazing. Fans of time-travel stories and/or mind-bending tales should definitely seek this out, although it may prove hard to find, as it appears to be out of print.

Content Concerns: Roughly ten profanities, including a single use of an unfit-for-network TV expression. The violence isn't graphic, but there is a lot of intensity, and at least one character appears to die. A few sexual references are present, though there's nothing graphic, save for one almost-sex scene. Not for young children.

Score: 3.75/5
Eight is Enough (Holly's Heart, No. 13) by Beverly Lewis: In this penultimate volume of Holly-Heart's life, her mom and stepdad/uncle have big news: they're expecting a baby! Holly is not too thrilled with the news, and upsets her parents with her reaction. Will Holly realize the error of her ways before it is too late? Pretty much more of the same for this series!

Content Concerns: Though completely innocent, Holly acts in a improper way throughout the book. (Spoiler: She repents of it by the book's end.)

Score: 3.75/5
It's a Girl Thing (Holly's Heart, No. 14) by Beverly Lewis: This literary series finale features more drama than any of the prior Holly's Heart books, but that's a good thing. If you've read Holly-Heart's adventures up to this point, you should definitely finish it off with this final volume.

Content Concerns: Mention of a cesarean section might confuse some young kids.

Score: 3.75/5
Fearless (Fearless, No. 1) by Francine Pascal: Gaia was born without the fear gene, and happens to not only be quite tough, but also insanely brilliant. When a female classmate ends up hospitalized because Gaia, out of disdain, failed to warn her about impending danger, things get very dicey for Miss Fearless. Things are only going to get crazier for her, though.
What could have been a great action/adventure story was ruined by content--see below--and magazine-esque formatting that took up a lot of space, made the novel choppy, and seemed just weird. It's no surprise that the series is apparently sponsored by Alloy, a magazine for teenage girls; I'd expect that teen monthly would read just the same. The core story was actually passable, but everything else made it a struggle to finish.

Content Concerns: Profanity abounds; the s-word and b-word are used at least three or four times each, and other expletives (the d-word, the h-word, the euphemisms "freakin'" and "jeez") all appear once or twice, if not more. God's and Jesus' names are also misused multiple times. Violence includes a young woman being stabbed--as mentioned above--and others being attacked or engaging in melees. Some sexual allusions are made, including Gaia bemoaning the fact that she is a virgin and alluding to her private anatomy. Spoiler: The final scene includes both sex and violence among teens, and a young man ends up dead as a result.

Score: 1.75/5
Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire by Steve Perry: Shadows of the Empire was probably the biggest non-movie Star Wars event up to that point. Though no film was made, a CD soundtrack was released, and there was a video/computer game for the Nintendo 64 and PC based on the book. However, even all that promotion doesn't take away from the actual novel's lackluster feel. Though not terrible, it's merely mediocre, and the Expanded Universe has much better fare to offer than this. Only read this if you love absolutely everything related to Lucas' space opera, or have an insatiable curiosity about this much-promoted book.

Content Concerns: As usual, there is violence, though none of it is bloody or graphic. More notable is the sexual content, where new villain Xizor attempts to seduce Princess Leia. Additionally, gambling gets a few mentions, and profanity is implied.

Score: 2.75/5
The Atonement Child by Francine Rivers: Abortion has never affected me personally, but, as an emotionally sensitive person, this novel still moved me nonetheless. Dynah's struggle about what to do with her unborn child, and her desire to do the right thing without knowing what it is, made for very gripping reading. Though it wasn't perfect--that's why I didn't give it a perfect score--the overwhelming emotional themes make up for any complaints I could come up with.

Content Concerns: Themes of abortion, rape, and sex outside of marriage, as well as emotional intensity, are all through this book. Anyone who is unable to understand or deal with such material should probably stay away.

Score: 4.5/5
Vision of the Future (Star Wars: Hand of Thrawn, No. 2) by Timothy Zahn: Though George Lucas space opera is made up of many parts--romance, tragedy, triumph, humor, etc.--the main attractor of Star Wars for most fans is the action. Unfortunately, this last volume of a tie-in duology proved to be a bit light in that department. It still made for somewhat enjoyable reading, but it's not the lightsaber-dueling, interstellar dogfighting adventure that we got on the big screen.

Content Concerns: There isn't all that much violence, but one scene does feature a few stabbings. "Shavit," which obviously sounds and looks like an English profanity, is said fully once and left unfinished another time, the latter seemingly indicating the Earth vulgarity.

Score: 2.75/5