27 April 2014

Quickie Movie Review: "The Grace Card"

Rated: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Starring: Michael Joiner, Michael Higgenbottom, and Louis Gossett, Jr.
Released: February 25, 2011 (theaters) / August 16, 2011 (DVD)
After the accidental death of his son Tyler, police officer Mac (Michael Joiner) has been continually bitter, which puts a serious strain on his relationship with his wife and other son, Blake.  When he gets assigned a fellow officer known as "The Preacher" as his partner--much to his chagrin--Mac doesn't know what to think.  After another tragedy strikes, it is only by learning the true meaning of grace that Mac and his family make it.

My Review
While the production values weren't the best, the heart behind this film makes this a worthy effort.  Emotionally intense, and with a message we all need to hear, this Christian film is among the better ones I've seen.  It's not perfect, but it definitely is worth at least a rental.

Content Concerns
  • Sex: None. 5/5
  • Nudity: A young man is seen shirtless on the operating table. 4.5/5
  • Language: One usage of the euphemism "freakin'", and one near-usage of a racial slur. 4/5
  • Violence: The opening scene shows a child being killed in an accident; it's not graphic.  Guns are pointed in one scene, but no shots are taken.  A woman slaps her husband.  A teenage boy is shot, and seriously wounded; the scene is a bit bloody.  An attack's aftermath is shown, with both a woman and her baby being bloodied. 2.5/5 
  • Drugs: It is said that a character is using drugs, and is called "Doobie Brother" as a result.  Another character is seen drinking alcohol three times. 3.5/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Along with what was mentioned under "Violence," Mac's displays of anger are a bit unsettling. 2/5
  • Other: Prejudices are mentioned, and not just Mac's. 4/5
Score: 4/5

24 April 2014

Book Series Review: "Degrees of Betrayal"

Authors: Dandi Daley Mackall, Jeff Nesbit, and Melody Carlson
Published: 2004 by Thirsty
Ryun, Kenzie, and Sierra were friends...but their mistakes tore them apart.  Between an emotional affair, a car accident, and a lie that led to one of them being fired, each of them both were betrayed and betrayed each other.  Told from each of the three friends' perspectives, this series proves that there's always more than one side to the story.

My Review
This series was good, but not amazing.  I had fun with the first two novels, but, after reading the last one, it was like sitting through the exact same movie for the third time straight.  Still, fans of Christian young adult literature will find plenty to like about this series.

Content Concerns
  • Sex: An emotional affair, and a mention of a gift from Victoria's Secret. 4/5
  • Nudity: None that I recall. 5/5
  • Language: Implied profanity. 4/5
  • Violence: A car accident that leaves someone hospitalized; a sports injury that requires physical therapy. 4/5
  • Drugs: Some alcoholism.  A character is wrongly accused of using drugs. 4/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: The accident scene and other parts are emotionally intense. 3/5
  • Other: One character refers to his little sister watching a "dumb Disney show".  (Hey, I'm a Disney fan!) 4/5
Score: 3/5

DVD Season Set Review: "Doctor Who": The Complete First Series

Rated: TV-PG for language and violence (US)
Starring: Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper
Released: March 17 - June 9, 2006 (original TV premieres) / June 9, 2012 (DVD)
Rose (Billie Piper) was just a normal twenty-something: living with her mother, working at a department store, and spending time with her doting boyfriend.  All that changes when a series of weird occurrences leads to her meeting a mysterious man (Christopher Eccleston), who only calls himself "The Doctor".  Much to her mother and boyfriend's chagrin, she ventures off with the Doctor in his Tardis, a time-traveling machine that looks like an old police box.  The two of them have crazy adventures throughout time and space, ranging from millions of years in the future to the time of Dickens.

Artistic Merit

Plots: 4/5
Some of the plots did run a little long, but, for the most part, this first series held my interest.

Production Values: 5/5

Nothing to complain about in this department. The acting was wonderful; the special effects were great; the sets, the costumes, and the soundtrack were all well-done.

Moral Content

Sex: 3.5/5
A few "PG"-level sexual quips, and two or three different implied illicit affairs.  A guy kisses another guy, but it comes off as brotherly, as he does it just after kissing a lady.  The show Big Brother is referenced.

Nudity: 3.5/5
Rose, her mother, and some other women wear tops that show cleavage and/or midriff.  A guy is seen totally naked, with a camera obscuring his private area.

Language: 2.5/5
The h-word and d-word are used at least two or three times per episode; God's name is misused just as much.

Violence: 3.75/5

Though violence is present, it is never gory and rarely bloody.  Still, characters shoot at one another; people are disintegrated; both humans and alien beings are killed.

Drugs: 4/5
Alcoholism is present, but only occasionally.

Frightening/Intense Scenes: 1/5
The good news is that the scariness never goes beyond "PG" limits.  The bad news is that it's present in every episode.  Hideous aliens and other monstrosities are seen throughout this first series.  The last story arc shows humans' skeletons before they are killed.

Other: 4/5
An alien says he is God and uses Biblical language, but is eventually destroyed.

Final Score: 4/5
I've been hearing about this series for years, but finally decided to check it out recently.  I definitely liked what I saw: sci-fi escapism that doesn't go beyond "PG" limits.  Let's hope that the remaining series keep it clean.

21 April 2014

Quickie Movie Review: "I'm in Love With a Church Girl"

Rated: PG for thematic elements, a scene of violence, some suggestive content, and brief language
Starring: Jeff "Ja Rule" Atkins and Adrienne Bailon
Released: October 18, 2013 (theaters) / January 14, 2014 (video)
Miles Montego (Jeff "Ja Rule" Atkins) seemingly has it all.  Working as a concert promoter, he has an eight bedroom home and a whole ton of money.  What many people don't know is that he was formerly a drug lord, and that he still hangs out with his friends from those days.  One day, Miles randomly meets Vanessa (Adrienne Bailon, The Cheetah Girls), a single Christian young woman.  At first, Miles is hesitant to get involved with her faith; he was raised going to church, and has been avoiding it for a reason; as he pursues God, he learns the true cost of discipleship.
Based on a true story.

My Review
I had said previously that I wouldn't mention content concerns for Christian-themed entertainment unless there was something significant in that department; in this case, it was Vanessa's outfits, which could have been more modest, and--spoiler warning!--the fact that Miles never faces jail time for his crimes, even though the character he was based on reportedly did.  Aside from that, this was a relatively well-made Christian film.  I was surprised to see a mainstream rapper star in something like this, but he did quite well, as did the rest of the cast, including former Disney Channel star Adrienne Bailon.  I don't think I'll be watching this again--it was a little bit difficult to get through--but, I imagine Christian cinema fans will enjoy seeing it at least once.

Score: 3/5

19 April 2014

Quickie Movie Review: "Grace Unplugged"

Rated: PG for thematic elements and brief teen drinking
Starring: A.J. Michalka, James Denton, and Kevin Pollak
Released: October 4, 2013 (theaters) / February 11, 2014 (DVD and Blu-Ray)
Years ago, Johnny Trey (James Denton) was living the rock star life, thanks to his one hit song...but, after hitting rock bottom, he gave his life to God.  Now playing in a Christian worship band, he and his headstrong daughter Grace (A.J. Michalka of Aly & A.J./.78violet) argue nonstop.  To get away, Grace jets to L.A. to pursue a mainstream singing career.  While there, she meets Quentin (Michael Welch), a guy who found Christ through one of Grace and Johnny's performances.  Grace wants to make it big, but she is uncomfortable with the lifestyle she is supposed to live.  Will she realize her mistake before it's too late?

My Review (Warning: Spoilers!)
I'm going to do away with the usual content concerns; there are plenty of other sites that have such reviews.  All I'll say on the moral content is that the themes aren't for the VeggieTales crowd; however, the rest of this will be an artistic criticism.

Ever since I first heard about the movie Grace Unplugged, I wanted to see it.  It came and went in cinemas fairly quickly, but, thanks to the library, I was able to rent it on DVD.   It had a lot going for it: a former Disney actress as the lead, appearances by big-name Christian musicians Jamie-Grace and Chris Tomlin, and a soundtrack featuring TobyMac and Nine Lashes.  I started watching it while eating breakfast yesterday morning, and it caught my interest...but, by the midpoint of the film, which I reached just before starting my shift, I was a bit tired of it.  Still, I pressed on, and really liked how the movie was shaping up...until the final, "two years later" epilogue scene.  Before that, Grace had realized that she was running from God, causing her to abandon those who cared about her; that is, her parents and her friends.  To rectify her mistake, she moves back home and gives up on her mainstream singing career.  Well, a mere twenty-four months later, she is engaged and is touring with Chris Tomlin.

First off: Even in the Christian music world, it is not easy to become a superstar.  For all of the TobyMacs, the Relient K, and the Rebecca St. Jameses, there are plenty of Christian artists whose music continues to struggle to find an audience.   I used to have the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, and you have no idea how many groups or solo acts featured in there had only released one or two albums before fading out completely.  I bet you there are some Christian musicians I like of which many of you CCM fans have never even heard.

My biggest complaint, however, is this: Like many Christian movies--Flywheel, Facing the Giants, etc.--Grace Unplugged features a protagonist who chooses to follow God...and everything magically works out for him (okay, in this case, her.) That's not necessary; God's Not Dead and The Imposter--both of which are wonderful Christian movies--didn't use that plot device, and it was to their benefit.   People who are unsaved might see a movie such as Grace Unplugged and be led to believe that, if only they choose to follow Christ, they'll be happily married and successful within a few years.  That's not the way it works; I became a Christian over a decade ago, and I still face many of the same struggles that I did prior to that.  Did I end up engaged two years after I was baptized? Was I magically cured of my "odd" habits after coming up out of the water?  No and no; if anything, the bullying I faced from others became more brutal after I became a Christian, much like the temptation Jesus faced after his baptism.  Even those who do get married shortly after becoming Christians still do face struggles, because, from what I've heard and read, marriage isn't some fairy tale; a recent article in In Touch magazine--the Christian one, not the celebrity gossip rag--described it as the exact opposite.  If Christian movie makers want to succeed, they need to show Christian life as it really is, not what everyone wishes it would be.

Score: 1/5

12 April 2014

DVD Set Review: "Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu": Season One

Rated: TV-Y7 for fantasy violence
Starring: Vincent Tong, Jillian Michaels, and Brent Miller
Released: December 2, 2011 - March 28, 2012 (Cartoon Network premieres) / June 26, 2012 (DVD)
Kai, Cole, Jay, and Zane are four ninjas-in-training, studying under the wise Sensei Wu.  When Lloyd Garmadon, the son of the evil Lord Garmadon, unleashes the Serpentine, an evil race of snakes that were banished underground eons ago, it's up to the four ninjas, their Sensei, and Kai's sister Nya to stop them once and for all! This action-packed series is full of surprising twists and turns!
As seen on Cartoon Network.

Artistic Merit

Plots: 5/5
This may be a kids' show, but, with all these plot twists, it's likely to keep many older viewers interested.  After finishing this first season, I felt like I was coming to the end of a long journey...made more enjoyable by the characters of this show as my companions!

Animation: 5/5
This may be a TV show made by an unheard of animation studio, but the graphics in this series are outstanding! Of particular note are the textures and lighting effects; they're quite detailed and amazingly done.  Also, the characters' facial expressions are wonderfully emotive.  The studio responsible for this could easily give Pixar, Blue Sky, or DreamWorks Animation a run for their money.

Voice Work: 4/5
Most of the characters are well-voiced; however, a voice here and there verges on over the top and/or annoying.  Sensei Wu's voice was grating at first, but I eventually got used to it.

Soundtrack: 4/5
The theme song is a rockin' tune; the rest of the music is standard soundtrack fare, but still of good quality.

Moral Content

Sex: 4.5/5
One innocent kiss is as close to sex as it gets.

Nudity: 5/5

Language: 4/5
Some name-calling and usage of terms such as "butt".  Euphemisms such as "gosh" and "golly" are heard a scant few times.

Violence: 2.5/5
The "fantasy violence" mentioned in the content advisory is quite present here.  The four ninjas, their allies, and their enemies hit, kick, punch, throw, and use fantasy elemental weapons against each other left and right.  The Serpentine even use gun-like weaponry against the Ninjas.  Still, it's not only not graphic, it has the look and feel of an E-rated video game.  (Spoiler: The only character who dies is the big, scary villain at the end.)

Drugs: 5/5

Frightening/Intense Scenes: 3/5
(Spoilers!) The main villain in the final two episodes is a big, scary snake that devours everything in its path; it is eventually defeated.  Sensei Wu appears to be killed by it, but he is later seen to be okay. (End Spoilers!) Some of the other villains could be too scary for some kids.

Other: 4/5
A hint of Eastern spirituality is present.

Final Score: 5/5
What an experience! I'd never heard of this series prior to seeing it available at the library, but I sure am glad I checked it out! The animation, the story, the action...all superb! Don't let the kiddie label fool you; adults can enjoy this series just as well as children can!

06 April 2014

DVD Season Set Review: "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers": Season Two, Volume One

Rated: TV-Y7 for fantasy violence
Starring: Austin St. John, Jason David Frank, Amy Jo Johnson, Walter Jones, Thuy Trang, and David Yost
Released: July 21 - November 7, 1994 (original Fox Kids premieres) / July 12, 2012 (DVD)
Villainess Rita Repulsa is in for a big surprise: her boss Lord Zedd is tired of her incompetence, and sends her away while he attempts to take over Earth! With his new monsters, the Power Rangers' Zords aren't enough...so Zordon gives them new Thunderzords! Those aren't the only changes afoot, though; Angel Grove's resident clowns, Bulk and Skull, get saved by the Rangers, and become determined to find out their true identities.  Even worse is that Tommy loses his Green Ranger powers; will they be able to make it without him? Many "morphinomenal" surprises await them in this first half of the second season!

Artistic Merit

Plots: 3/5
Have you ever watched a sequel film and felt like it was pretty much the same thing as the original? That's how this made me feel; sure, there were new weapons, new cast members, new enemies, and a new animation sequence here and there, but it was essentially the same as the first season.

Special Effects: 2/5
Many people would expect me to give a one or even a zero in this department, but, I actually thought the visuals were a step up from the previous season.  It's still quite cheesy and obviously low-budget, but, less so than before.

Acting: 4/5
Good acting...in a show like this? You might laugh, but, honestly, when Tommy was upset in the series, I actually felt bad for him.  The other actors also did quite well.  Where it lost a point is towards the end; some of the cast members apparently left, so, they hired "soundalikes" to voice them in morphed form...but they sounded terrible.

Soundtrack: 3.5/5
Nothing special, but the background battle music was good enough, and not tiresome, even though the same songs are played in almost every episode.

Video Quality: 2.5/5
At best, the quality was that of a SP VHS tape; at worst, it was rather grainy.  It could have used some remastering, but, honestly, fans of the original show likely won't care that much.

Moral Content

Sex: 4.5/5
Mild flirting is as bad as it gets.

Nudity: 3.5/5
Trini is seen quite often in a midriff-baring top; Kimberly just as much in short shorts.

Language: 3.5/5
Though there's no actual profanity, name-calling is present at every turn; heroes, villains, and other characters call others one-word insults left and right.

Violence: 2/5
This show pretty much inspired the "TV-Y7-FV" rating, and fantasy violence is quite present here.  The Rangers, the villains, and various others hit, kick, punch, and throw others in pretty much every episode.  It's all bloodless, though one battle does leave a scratch on a villain's face.  Of lesser note, the comedic pratfalls from Bulk and Skull are still present, but not as much.

Drugs: 5/5

Frightening/Intense Scenes: 2/5
Back when the Power Rangers were insanely popular, the character of Lord Zedd was considered by many parents to be "too scary" for a kid's show; two decades later, some parents--and some kids--may feel the same way.  Though most of the monsters just look odd and/or dumb, a couple of them--particularly the Doomstone, a skeletal body whose head is a gravestone with an eye poking through it--could also be too frightening for some viewers.  A extended sequence features a baby stroller that nearly falls into a river.

Other: 4/5
Zedd uses spells; a bit of crude humor is present here.

Final Score: 3.75/5
I've already discussed my history with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, so, there's no point in rehashing it.  What I will say is that this season is around the time I got into it as a kid; there are a few moments here that I remember watching all those years ago.  Despite its numerous flaws--and there are right many--the show has an entertaining quality that kept me glued to the screen.  To me, gripping entertainment is good entertainment, regardless of the production values.  For that reason alone, I give it a relatively high overall score.