18 September 2015

TV DVD Review: "7th Heaven": The Complete First Season

Rated: TV-PG (US) / G (Canada)
Starring: Stephen Collins, Catherine Hicks, Jessica Biel, and Barry Watson
Released: August 26, 1996 - May 19, 1997 (original premieres) / September 14, 2004 (DVD)
Synopsis: In this inaugural season of one of the most critically acclaimed and popular primetime shows of the '90s and 2000s, minister Eric Camden (Stephen Collins, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and his wife Annie (Catherine Hicks, Your Love Never Fails) lead their brood of five--athletic tomboy Mary (Jessica Biel), teenaged son Matt (Barry Watson), middle schooler Lucy (Beverley Mitchell, Right on Track), elementary schooler Simon (David Gallagher), and precocious preschooler Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman)--through the various perils of growing up.  Between new relationships forming, the loss of a beloved family member, and the usual tween/teen drama, Eric and Annie have their hands full...but, in their household, love and laughter abound among the heartbreak and tears.
As seen on the WB.  Features numerous guest stars, including Keri Russell and Mila Kunis.

The Good: There's a reason why this series was critically acclaimed: In a time when popular entertainment often showed teenagers swearing, doing drugs, and engaging in sexual activity without any shame, 7th Heaven shows adolescents who either do the right thing...or learn a very hard lesson.  The performances, especially from screen legend Stephen Collins, were wonderful, and each of the plots had me hooked.  The episodes deal with serious themes--racism, crime, divorce, teenage parenthood, etc.--but do so in an appropriate way.  Sexual content and profanity are kept to a minimum.  The show itself serves as a reminder of the '90s: a time before 9/11 and all this technology, when life was seemingly simpler.

The Bad: As good as this is by itself, it's almost depressing when you realize where this series ended up.  Some of you may be thinking of last year's incident with Stephen Collins, but, honestly, Plugged In said that this show veered into inappropriate, immoral territory just a few seasons in.  Maybe I shouldn't seek out the other seasons.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: Occasional banter between married couples; kissing, mostly mild, but sometimes passionate.  It is mentioned that a teenage boy became a father. 3/5
  • Nudity: Occasional midriffs and slight cleavage. 4/5
  • Language: Most episodes have nothing worse than "gosh" or "sucks", but a scant few episodes have two or three uses at most of stronger language, including h-words, "go to hell," d-words, and "bite me". 3/5
  • Violence: Nothing graphic or bloody; probably the worst of the violence is when a hit and run accident leaves a character in the hospital. 4/5
  • Drugs: Occasional consumption of alcohol. 4/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Emotional intensity is present in almost every episode.  One scene features a robbery. 1/5
Conclusion: I largely avoided this series when it was originally on because I didn't think I'd care for it; however, I do remember seeing the commercials for it when I used to watch Pok√©mon on Kids' WB.  Back then, I probably wouldn't have appreciated it, but, now, I can...and I did.  Most people who would want to check out this show probably already have; if you haven't, you should, because this first season is a treat.  With the reruns pulled from the cable networks--possibly for quite a while--you'd have to seek out the DVD, but, I'm sure eBay, Amazon, or your local library could help you get your hands on it.

Score: 4/5

14 September 2015

Movie Review: "War Room"

Rated: PG for thematic elements throughout
Starring: Priscilla Shirer, T.C. Stallings, and Karen Abercrombie
Released: August 28, 2015
Synopsis: Elizabeth "Liz" Jordan (Priscilla Shirer) is having serious marital trouble, and just can't seem to make her marriage work.  One day, she meets Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), an older lady who fully believes in the power of prayer.  Liz attends church sometimes, but, her prayer life is not all it should be...so, Miss Clara teaches her the art of spiritual warfare.  Will Liz's prayers be enough to save both her husband (T.C. Stallings) and her marriage from a terrible fate?
From the Kendrick Brothers, makers of Flywheel, Facing the Giants. Fireproof, and Courageous.

The Good: It's hard to think of something I didn't like about this movie.  The performances were excellent, especially from the little girls; the Double Dutch routines were choreographed nicely; the story is one we all need, especially with our nation and our planet the way it is; it isn't one of those "follow Jesus and everything automatically goes right" movies that we've seen far too often; the soundtrack features a nice TobyMac remix; and, all in all, it was great stuff.  There was even a reference to Flywheel; look for it when you watch this film.

The Bad: Well, maybe I do have one complaint: It did run a little long.  Then again, I don't normally watch movies in one sitting, and I saw this at the cinema.

Content Concerns: I won't do my usual assessment, since this is a Christian movie, but I will say this: The "thematic elements" the MPAA mentioned include an extramarital affair, a robbery attempt, and right much emotional intensity.  Also, quite a few girls are seen wearing short shorts; a bit too often for my tastes.

Conclusion: The Kendricks have become one of the biggest names in Christian cinema; they're right up there with David A.R. White and Kirk Cameron.  While some of their early movies were a bit rough around the edges--especially Flywheel--this is easily the most polished film they've ever done.  It'll be hard for them to top this one, but, they may surprise us again with their next flick.  Fans of Christian movies should definitely check this one out.

Score: 4.5/5

13 September 2015

Movie Review: “Where Hope Grows”

Rated: PG-13 for thematic issues involving drinking and teen sexuality, and for brief language and an accident scene
Starring: Kristopher Polaha, David DeSanctis, and McKaley Miller
Released: 2015
Synopsis: Calvin Campbell (Kristopher Polaha) was once a big-time Major League Baseball star, but one big mess-up after another has left him an unemployed single father with a serious drinking problem.  With his daughter hanging out with the wrong crowd, Calvin seems to have hit a wall…until he meets Produce (David DeSanctis), a grocery store employee with Down syndrome.  Despite his condition, Produce is wise beyond his years, and the two soon become friends…but, Calvin just can’t slay his bad habit.  Just when things take a turn for the absolute worst, hope seems to grow in the most unlikely place.
Also starring Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years) and Alan Powell (The Song).

The Good: This Christian-themed film is unlike any I’ve ever seen.  Too many “inspirational” movies have an ending that’s too pat; this one doesn’t.  Without giving away too much, I can tell you that, by the time the credits roll, you’ll see that God doesn’t always give you everything for which you ask.  The actors all did very well, and, as someone with a condition of sorts myself, I was glad to see a movie featuring a positive portrayal of someone with Down syndrome.

The Bad: While this is better than usual for a Christian film, it’s also a bit harder-edged than you might expect.  About six or so profanities creep into the dialogue, and references to sex as well as a teenaged girl nearly getting raped are also present.  Viewers who are too young or too sensitive may want to avoid this one.  Also, despite her name and picture appearing on the cover, Danica McKellar only gets a scant few minutes of screen time.  The classic television fan in me would have liked to see more of her.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: Kissing, a few references to sex between teenagers, and a near-rape; the latter two are vilified.  The montage during the closing credits has some mildly suggestive dancing. 2/5
  • Nudity: None. 5/5
  • Language: One or two uses each of the h-word and d-word; a misuse of God’s name and the acronym “B.S.” are also heard.  Name-calling is heard, but vilified. 3/5
  • Violence: One guy punches another guy; one guy hits another guy with a fire extinguisher, leaving him with an (implied) serious injury; a bloody operation scene; a car accident that eventually proves fatal. 2/5
  • Drugs: Alcoholism throughout; yes, it’s vilified. 3/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Along with the violence and near-rape, Calvin’s alcoholism leads him to act rather angrily towards Produce, which could be freaky for some kids. 1/5
Conclusion: This movie is a breath of fresh air for Christian movie fans; it’s not only different from what we’re used to, it’s better.  If you’ve grown tired of Biblical epics and way-too-squeaky-clean dramas, you should see this one; you’ll probably enjoy it.

Score: 4.5/5

Movie Review: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014)

Rated: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Starring: Megan Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, and William Fichtner
Released: August 8, 2014
Synopsis: An evil group known only as the Foot Clan is stealing valuable chemicals, and no one seems to be able to stop them…until a masked vigilante makes them run for their lives! NYC reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox) can’t believe what she sees, and, when she tries to run a news story about it, her boss (Whoopi Goldberg) fires her.  Sure that she saw exactly what she thought she saw, she investigates on her own…and finds out that the vigilante is none other than one of four mutant turtles living in the sewers! The Foot Clan’s nefarious leader, Shredder, has a dastardly plan that would put all of New York in danger…and only the Turtles can stop it! Will they be able to save everyone, or will Shredder succeed in wreaking serious havoc?

The Good: What a rush! Like many first films in a series, this movie takes a little time to heat up, but when it does…man, is it intense! Though the old TMNT cartoons from the ’80’s and ’90’s may have been cutesy and light-hearted, the original comics were quite dark, and so was the very first live-action movie.  While this one has its dark moments, the Turtles still offer plenty of wisecracks and smart remarks that had me laughing.  Better yet, the violence was bloodless and goreless, and profanity was kept to a minimum, a rarity for a “PG-13” these days.  Megan Fox was an awesome leading lady, and, as April O’Neil, definitely wasn’t a damsel in distress.

The Bad: As great as this was, I could have done without the sexual innuendos, especially the one at the end where the Turtles use a Victoria’s Secret billboard to hide.  Also, product placement was a bit heavy; who wants to see advertising in the middle of a big fight?

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: Three or four innuendos, as mentioned above. 3/5
  • Nudity: April shows cleavage and midriff occasionally; a billboard features a scantily clad model. 4/5
  • Language: One a-word, one h-word, one s-word, one misuse of God’s name, and slight name-calling, i.e., “ding-dong”. 3/5
  • Violence: As you’d expect from a movie like this, plenty of action violence is present.  The Turtles, April, other allies, the various villains, and even innocent bystanders get hit, kicked, thrown, stabbed, shot at, and otherwise pummeled countless times.  One character almost dies; another one actually does, as does a nameless Foot soldier.  An elongated vehicular chase is also present. 2/5
  • Drugs: A man is poisoned; the dastardly plan involves all of New York City being poisoned. 4/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Along with the violence, Shredder and the Foot Clan can be rather scary. 1/5
  • Other: A flatulence joke; excessive product placement. 4/5
Conclusion: For quite a while, I have been watching the old-school original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons on DVD, and the movies here and there.  I think I prefer the cartoons, but, of the films, this is definitely right up there with the old-school flicks, minus the first one, which suffered from too much profanity and dark content.  The storyline may have been changed a bit, but, it’s not like it’s the Bible; seriously, fans of the Turtles should check this one out.

Score: 4/5

Movie Review: “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb”

Rated: PG for mild action, some rude humor and brief language
Starring: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Robin Williams
Released: December 25, 2014
Synopsis: For quite a while, the displays at the New York Museum come to life at night thanks to a magical Egyptian tablet.  Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), the “night watchman,” has been putting on shows and entertaining people with the displays…but, during one showing, things go awry.  Larry soon discovers that it’s the tablet causing the problems…but he doesn’t know how to fix it.  His quest takes him to a history museum in England, to meet the Egyptian pharaoh who knows the secrets of the tablet.  To get there, though, he’ll need the help of his museum display friends, including Teddy Roosevelt (the late Robin Williams in one of his final roles), and he’ll have to get by the night watchwoman (Rebel Wilson) of the British museum.
Also features a cameo appearance by Dick Van Dyke (Diagnosis: Murder).

The Good: This last(?) entry in the beloved family film series has many cute moments.  I was completely unfamiliar with Rebel Wilson before seeing this, but, her British accent was adorable, and Teddy Roosevelt and Sacajawea made a cute couple.  The final scenes were rather endearing, and made for a fitting ending; that’s from someone who’s been with this series from the very beginning.

The Bad: As cute and innocent as this was, it was a bit edgier than I’ve come to expect from this series.  With three uses of the h-word and right many sexual references—some of which were of the homosexual variety—as well as crude humor involving bodily functions, this is not as clean as the previous films in the series.  Discerning viewers may want to take note.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: At least five or six sexual remarks, most of which imply homosexuality. 3/5
  • Nudity: A guy’s costume shows his midriff; a woman shows cleavage; another woman in a strapless top. 3/5
  • Language: Three uses of the h-word; euphemisms such as “heck” are heard occasionally. 4/5
  • Violence: Fantasy and slapstick violence is seen throughout. 2/5
  • Drugs: None. 5/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: All of the exhibits nearly meet their end; in many cases, more than once.  A man is held at swordpoint.  The ending is bittersweet. 2/5
  • Other: Gags involving bodily functions. 3/5
Conclusion: I’ve been a big fan of Robin Williams’ family-friendly works—Flubber, Mork & Mindy, etc.—for quite a while; since this was his final such film, I had high hopes for it.  Though rather cute and sweet at times, the discerning viewer in me was a bit bothered by some of the content.  Like a lot of entertainment these days, it reminds me of an iconic movie quotation: “You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.” While older viewers may not mind too much, those with kids may want to think twice about letting them watch this, despite its “PG” label.

Score: 3/5

Movie Review: "Do You Believe?"

Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, an accident sequence and some violence
Starring: Sean Astin, Alexa PenaVega, and Mira Sorvino
Released: 2015
Synopsis: A pregnant teenager. An inner city thug torn between right and wrong. An ex-Marine. A homeless single mother (Mira Sorvino) and her young daughter.  A firefighter caught in an ethical dilemma.  They don’t know it, but, their lives all intersect, and they all discover one thing: the power of Jesus.  As a traveling preacher carrying a cross around asks people, “Do you believe in the cross of Christ? If you do…what are you going to do about it?”
Starring Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings), Alexa PenaVega (Spy Kids), Madison Pettis (The GamePlan), Andrea Logan White (Revelation Road) and Cybill Shepherd.  From Pure Flix, the studio that brought you God’s Not Dead, Jerusalem Countdown, and What If…?

The Good: A different take than usual for Christian films, this one illustrates very well how to put your faith in Jesus in action.  Concepts such as laying down your life for someone (John 15:13), loving your enemies (Matthew 5:44), and remaining faithful to the point of death (Revelation 2:10) are shown very dramatically here.  You may have seen other Pure Flix films, but this one is on a much grander scale.  The message it brings is rather challenging…which is just the kind of film we need.  As Christian producer David McFadzean (Home Improvement) once said, “Only exposing ourselves to Christian books, music, and movies that coddle us can actually keep us in our own sin.”

The Bad: Though this film was edgier than usual for Christian cinema—hence the “PG-13” label—I thought it would have been a bit more realistic to have the thugs use harsher language; if the troublemakers I knew in school are any indication, real hardened criminals would never talk like that.  Also, I wish they had given Alexa PenaVega’s character a name; the closed captions merely referred to her as “Female 3”, even though the closing credits called her “Lacey”.  (Was that in a deleted scene? One wonders.)

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: A teenage pregnancy; a non-graphic childbirth scene. 4/5
  • Nudity: Occasional slight cleavage. 4/5
  • Language: Euphemisms such as “darn” and “heck” are heard a scant one or two times each. 4/5
  • Violence: A mother dies after childbirth; a man is shot dead; a guy dies as a result of an accident; a man is held at gunpoint, but is not shot at and escapes unscathed; a rather severe accident involving several cars causes injuries; a vehicle is plowed into a house and a man allegedly shot dead (implied, not seen.)  Nothing graphic, but occasionally bloody. 2/5
  • Drugs: None. 5/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: Along with the violence, emotional intensity is seen throughout.  Sensitive viewers may want to be wary. 1/5
Conclusion: When it comes to great Christian entertainment, Pure Flix usually delivers, and they definitely did with this one.  Sure, some film snobs may scoff, but this is definitely well-made and excellently produced.  If you’re a fan of “inspirational” cinema, you should go rent this one right now…and prepare to be challenged!

Score: 4.5/5

Movie Review: "Descendants"

Rated: TV-G
Starring: Dove Cameron, Kristin Chenoweth, and Cameron Boyce
Released: 2015
Synopsis: Once upon a time, King Beast and Queen Belle banished all the villains of the land—including Maleficent (Kristin Chenoweth) and the Evil Queen (Kathy Najimy)—to a secluded island and sealed it off magically.  Many years later, their son, who is about to take over as king, decides to give the children of the villains—including Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron, Liv & Maddie)—a chance to attend high school.  Maleficent and the other villains see this as the perfect chance to escape and take over; all they need is the Fairy Godmother’s super powerful wand, which will be given to the soon-to-be-crowned king at his coronation.  Mal, however, isn’t so sure that she wants to steal the wand and let the villains escape, as her wicked villain of a mother so desperately desires.  Will she give in to her mother and bring evil back into the land?
As seen on Disney Channel.  Also starring Cameron Boyce (Jessie).

The Good: Who doesn’t enjoy a Disney-style fairy tale? In the style of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, this takes the standard “happily ever after” formula and mixes it up, but in a much more light-hearted way.  Fans of old-school House of Mouse flicks will find plenty to enjoy about this story; it’s definitely a return to Disney’s roots.  Many moments are rather cute and touching, and the content is kept largely clean.

The Bad: As good as this is, I think this should have been a series instead of a Disney Channel Original Movie.  Are you listening, Mouse network executives?

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: Kissing, flirting; totally innocent romance. 4/5
  • Nudity: Shirtless guy; dresses that show a bit of leg. 4/5
  • Language: Name-calling, i.e., “stupid,” “idiot”. 4/5
  • Violence: A scene or two of fantasy violence. 4/5
  • Drugs: Potions are used to make people do things, i.e., fall in love. 4/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: A rather scary dragon in the finale. 4/5
  • Other: Usage of magic throughout. 4/5
Conclusion: As much as I am known for being a fan of Disney, their fairy tales aren’t exactly my style.  I’ve always been more drawn to their live-action productions: George of the Jungle, Flubber, Rocketman, and, of course, Lizzie McGuire.  Still, growing up on animated House of Mouse flicks helped me to understand and enjoy this movie…and, oh, boy, did I enjoy it! If the Teen Beach and High School Musical telefilms got sequels…this one should, too!

Score: 4.5/5

Movie Review: “The Divergent Series: Insurgent”

Rated: PG-13 for intense violence and action throughout, some sensuality, thematic elements, and brief language
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, and Kate Winslet
Released: 2015
Synopsis: To save the future, they must unlock the past.  This follow-up to the smash hit Divergent raises the stakes for Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley, The Secret Life of the American Teenager) as she searches for both answers and allies.  On the run and targeted by ruthless faction leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet, Titanic), Tris fights to protect the people she loves, facing one impossible challenge after another as she and Tobias “Four” Eaton (Theo James) race to unlock the truth about the past—and, ultimately, the future—of their world.
(Adapted from the back cover of the DVD)

The Good: As was the case with the first film in the series, this second installment retains much of what made its prequel great: amazing action sequences, likable heroes, a chilling villainess, and, especially, an all-too-real portrait of where our society could be headed.  The performances were outstanding, especially Ms. Woodley playing both good Tris and evil Tris in one scene.  As you’d expect from a big budget production like this, the special effects were wonderful.

The Bad: Now, I’m about to undo all that praise.  I had a serious issue with this movie: the way the heroine is objectified.  I’m a big fan of strong women, and Tris definitely holds her own here…but, two unnecessary scenes involving her—one sex scene, another with her in the shower—serve no purpose other than to appeal to lustful young males.  In a film like this, you need a strong character…but she shouldn’t be required to take off her clothes.  Of lesser note is the profanity: There’s not all that much, but, the writers felt the need to add in an f-word.  Seriously? The violence alone could have earned a “PG-13”; there’s no need to put that in the dialogue, considering how light the rest of the film is in that department.

Content Concerns:
  • Sex: Two teenagers are seen engaging in sexual intercourse; no private anatomy is shown.  The same two kids also are seen passionately kissing, when another character quips about doing such a thing “later”. 1/5
  • Nudity: During the sex scene, a girl’s bare back and shoulders are seen, and a guy’s bare chest is seen; the rest is left to the mind’s eye.  Elsewhere, both the heroine and main villainess show cleavage, and girls in midriff-baring outfits are seen three or four times. The heroine is also seen from the waist up in the shower; her arms are crossed over her chest. 2/5
  • Language: Two uses of the s-word, once combined with “bull”; one or two uses of the d-word; one use of the f-word. 3/5
  • Violence: Fights and gunplay are seen throughout; people are tackled, shot at, shot dead, punched, kicked, wrestled, etc., countless times, and it gets bloody once or twice. 2/5
  • Drugs: None. 5/5
  • Frightening/Intense Scenes: The entire movie takes place in a dystopian society, and the atmosphere is decidedly dark and brooding.  A main character is thought to be killed, but then comes alive.  Some emotional intensity is also present. 1/5
Conclusion: One of the reasons I generally avoid “young adult” entertainment is because it tends to focus on sex; I’ve seen too many books within that genre that I could tell were dirty just by the cover image.  “The Hunger Games” was an exception, and was engaging and rather well-made.  While this movie doesn’t focus on sex, it dabbles in it way too much for my tastes, and spends too much time objectifying its heroine.  You can make a female character strong, but, if you also make her take her clothes off…you’re still turning her into an object.  Will Hollywood ever learn?  After this mess and the disappointing literary experience that was “Allegiant,” I’m not going to bother with this series anymore; it did a Fonzie and jumped the shark…quite badly.

Score: 1.5/5

04 September 2015

Movie Review: "The List"

Rated: PG for thematic elements including some peril and brief incidental smoking
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Chuck Carrington, Hilarie Burton, and Will Patton
Released: 2008
Synopsis: After the death of his estranged father, lawyer Renny Jacobson (Chuck Carrington) is shocked to discover that he doesn't get any inheritance...but soon finds out that his father was part of a society known as The List.  Renny soon joins the society's meetings, but not everything is as it seems.  With everything he holds dear hanging in the balance, it's up to him to overcome the apparent evil once and for all.
Based on the book by Robert Whitlow.

The Good: The performances are great here, but that's to be expected from stars of mainstream hit shows such as JAG and One Tree Hill.  It's also great to see a "PG" film that targets adults instead of kids; too many films with that rating are a chore for anyone over the age of fifteen to sit through.  The production values were better than usual for a Christian movie; this is more like the average PureFlix production than a total mess like C Me Dance, at least in that regard.

The Bad: As good as the production values and performances were, they are ruined by the plot.  This movie is very pokey, and it seems to go on forever.  It waits until the last half to introduce supernatural elements, which should have been present from the beginning.  Even the ending doesn't resolve most of the plot threads, and some sequences don't make all that much sense.

Content Concerns: As mentioned above, this movie may be rated "PG," but the themes would go right over most kids' heads, and some moments could scare them as well.

Conclusion: Christian movies often get drubbed by critics, even ones of the faith.  I usually try to give an "inspirational" flick a chance before I give up on it...but, this one was just terrible.  It's such a shame; the wonderful production values and acting talent were completely wasted on this dreck.  Let's hope that the crew behind this film gives some thought to the story before trying their hand at the art of cinema again.

Score: 2/5