Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Way Things Work

Animated / TV series / Family
2001 / 300+ minutes (26 episodes)
RATING 8/10

This educational series takes place on a small island in which everything appears quite modern...except for the wooly mammoths everywhere.

On Mammoth Island everything is mammoth powered. Your house is cold? A mammoth in the living room will keep things toasty warm. Need hot water for your shower? Tickle the trunk of a sleeping mammoth in just the right spot and he'll provide a warm spray. Need to deliver the mail, or coconuts, or pizzas? Mammoths are there to help!

Except, as the residents keep discovering, mammoth power has a definite downside. Mammoth pizza delivery? Too slow. Mammoth-powered house heating? Too risky - if it wakes up you may end up with a mammoth-sized hole in your living room wall.

The way each 15-minute episode works is that after a particular deficiency in mammoth power is shown, then a new resident to the Island, known as the Inventor, works with a 14-year-old island resident, Olive, to see if they can come up with something better. And that something better involves the use of machines, both simple and more complex.

For example, in the first episode they explore how inclined planes can make it easier to lift heavy loads – it's easer for the mammoths to roll boulders up a gradual slope rather than just heave them straight up. A few of the other machines and devices that get invented (or rather, re-invented) include:
  • Levers
  • Wheels and axles
  • Belts and gears
  • Pulleys
  • Springs
  • Screws
  • Engines
  • Pumps
  • Steam power
The series is aimed for Grades 3-6, but my girls, who are all Grade 1 and under, really enjoyed it. I did too. There are so many kids shows that are absolutely brainless, and I can't sit through them. But this one was a pleasure to watch - there was lots for me to learn too.

I'd guess that even my oldest girl only understood about half of the explanations - it really is intended for at least Grade 3 – but it did spark her imagination. Every show includes an invention, and she was inspired to try to make her own creative creations.

Cautions

There is only one mild caution to note: one character, Brenda, is a negative nag. She is the nay-sayer who always says the invention isn't going to work. In small doses, that's no big thing. But if you watch this series over the course of a couple weeks, like we did, it does get a bit tiresome. And, particularly with younger audiences, it might then be good to note that Brenda is not being a team-player or a good example.

I was wondering, because of all the mammoths, whether the series would bring up evolution. However, that topic is never raised. There are mammoths on this island, but no reason is ever offered as to why.

Conclusion

This is a great series for the whole family to enjoy - younger kids will love the humor, and older children and even teens and adults, can learn a little something from it. Also, the short 15-minute episodes make it a nice way to watch a moderate amount of TV - the family can watch an episode or two without running through the whole afternoon.

The series takes it's inspiration from author/illustrator David Macaulay's The Way Things Work children's book, and while I've only skimmed through it, it looks interesting too (and mammoths also have a starring role).

I should note that while The Way Things Work is a fantastic television series it is definitely not one to buy. Here in North America this 26-episode series goes for more than $500 and his marketed only to schools and libraries. That's where we got it - from our local library, where all the episodes were available, with no waiting. I've checked a few other libraries across Canada, and it's in many of them too. So check it out - our family highly recommends it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

More Buddy Davis' Amazing Adventures!

Swamp Man!
45 min / 2012
RATING: 7/10

Our family really enjoyed the first two in this series of "Buddy Davis' Amazing Adventures" (see the reviews here and here) so when another two popped up at our local library we had to check them out.

Once again Buddy is our guide as we go out and explore God's great outdoors from an explicitly Christian perspective. In Swamp Man! Buddy takes us to the Florida Everglades where he gets up close and personal with alligators, lizards, dolphins, turtles, manatees, and snakes – lots of snakes!

This is fast paced, cutting from one animal to the next every minute or two, and in between Buddy has us zooming around on a airboat, a mudboat, a motorboat and an ATV. So there's lots of action to keep kids' attention, and mom and dad are sure to learn something too. I think I enjoyed this one almost as much as my daughters – very good family viewing!

Now anyone with a snake phobia will want to give this one a miss - of all the animals we meet, these are by far the feature creature. That's why this isn't a video I'd show my pre-school kids right before they go to sleep. It's not all that scary, particularly mid-day...but alligators, bears, and snakes at bedtime don't seem a good combo.

That aside, this is great family treat - one that mom and dad and kids anywhere from 2 and up will enjoy.

Alaska!
25 min / 2015
RATING: 6/10

This time we head way up north, to Alaska! Bears are the big focus this time, as Buddy teaches us about the different species, and even shows us the damage a bear can do to a cabin (fortunately it happened while they were away!).

There is a bit of an evangelism focus in these videos, which comes out in this one when Buddy talks about his love of fishing and segues to what the Bible says about becoming "fishers of men."

Alaska! is a short adventure, at just 25 minutes, and while my kids loved it, and my wife appreciated it too, I found this one a little lacking in content and slower-paced. If your family has liked the other Buddy Davis adventures this will be worth checking out too – Buddy is a charming man – but this might not be the best one to start with.

You can buy all of these "Amazing Adventures" at www.answersingenesis.org/store/ (just search for "buddy davis amazing").



Related reviews: other Buddy Davis adventures

Davis and a robotic dinosaur assistant tackle the Flood in A Jurassic Ark Mystery
Buddy heads deep, deep underground: Extreme Caving
This is a man who looooves dinosaurs: I Dig Dinosaurs! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos

Documentary
78 min /
RATING: 7/10

I enjoyed this documentary, but I'm really glad I gave it a quick preview before trying to share it with the kids.

There was a hint on the back cover of the DVD that this might include more than stunning visuals of flamingos. There were plenty of flamingo pictures, but there was also one hyena! So was this going to be a nature film where the good guys get eaten? Yup, I know that happens in the world, but I don't know if my kids have to be exposed to that quite yet. So I gave it a fast forward viewing and found newly and not yet hatched flamingo chicks getting eaten by Matabou storks (30 minutes in), mongeese (53 min), and Hyenas (62 min). Oh, and at about the 40 minute mark we get to watch a struggling, crippled chick how is left behind to die.

So I will not be sharing this with my 6-year-old and under crew.

Who would like it? The visuals are indeed stunning – the opening shots of a sea of bobbing flamingos are exotic, strange, otherworldly.

But in addition to the shots of "nature, read in tooth and claw" the film will discourage some viewers with its slow pacing. The birds are the stars here, and flamingos, it turns out, do a lot of standing around. So action is minimal, and the camera tends to linger long over each shot. But one man's slow pacing is another's calm close-ups and patient panoramic views. A bird lover will find much to love!

Cautions

When it comes to cautions, other than the scenes where feathers are flying (and these only add up to a total of maybe 3 or 4 minutes) the only nit I can pick are a few moments in the narration of a vague mystic non-Christian spirituality. So, for example, at one point we're told:
"The story of the bird is a promise to us - Nature's affirmation. In winter or in death, in times of desolation. the rain will arrive, the call of the birds will be heard and everything, everything, can begin again"
Nothing all that disturbing. I mean, we weren't expecting anything Christian from Disney, right?

Conclusion

So who should see The Crimson Wing? This is an intriguing, visual feast best suited for documentary-loving older children or adults who already love these birds and would love to learn more.




Related reviews: on flying creatures

A fantastic Intelligent Design documentary: Flight: the Genius of Birds

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Martin Luther

Drama
105 minutes, 1953
Rating 7/10

What sort of film is Martin Luther? The sort that gets produced by a church, and yet gets nominated for an Oscar – solid theology and high production values paired together. How often has that ever happened?

It does get off to a slow start; the first couple of minutes are more documentary than drama. But when we get introduced to Niall MacGinnis as Luther, his brilliant portrayal sweeps us into the story. We follow along, starting with his tormented time in the monastery, and continue all the way through to his marriage to an ex-nun. MacGinnis captures all the contradictions of the man – even as the Reformer stands before the Diet of Worms strong and defiant he is distraught and trembling.

That's is certainly among the best Christian films ever made.

CAUTION

Though there is nothing in the film that is graphic, some scenes are psychologically intense. On the one hand, I think that would just go over the heads of most children, but for some young sensitive sorts, Luther's emotional turmoil might be too much.

GOOD SOUND IS KEY

This is a black and white film, which is a mark against it in many minds. But if you're considering showing this to your class or to your family, here's the secret to helping them get into it: make the sound your priority! In a dialogue-driven film it's the sound, much more than the visuals, that really matters.

I still remember watching this with my Grade 6 class, years ago. The screen was small - minuscule by today's standards - but this big box TV had great speakers. There was no fuzziness, no straining to understand what was being said - we could all follow it. And after 30 minutes or so, we were all hooked.

HOW IT COMPARES TO OTHER LUTHER FILMS

There are quite a number of films about Martin Luther, with at least a half dozen dramas, and more than a dozen documentaries. The best known is probably the 2003 Luther that played in major theaters, and starred Joseph Fiennes (of Shakespeare in Love fame). It is a wonderful film (and in color!) but marred by an instance or two where God's name is taken in vain. As well, it focuses a little more on Luther's external struggles with the powers that be, and a little less on his own internal struggles. That makes for more action, but less of a theological focus. So the 1953 Martin Luther is the better educational film 

There is also a 1974 Luther that is again marred by an instance or two  of God's name being taken in vain (why do Christian films do that?) and which portrays Luther's action as being motivated more by arrogance than devotion. So, again, the 1953 version is superior.

CONCLUSION

This would make a great film for a dad and mom to share with the family this Reformation Day. I've seen kids as young as 7 enjoy it, though with younger children you're going to want to break it into a few "chunks" so it spread out over two or three nights. But for those 12 an up, so long as they are "forced" to give it a half hour ("No, you can't check your smartphone while watching this") it will grab them.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

And check out the trailer below.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Narnia Code

The Narnia Code
59 minutes/ 2009
RATING: 8/10

The Da Vinci Code and The Bible Code had me close to swearing off anything with the word “code” in the title, but this documentary made me glad I held off. It is based on a book of the same name that argues C.S. Lewis modeled the seven books of his Narnia series on the seven planets of the medieval cosmology.

It is an argument that has intrigued and convinced many Lewis scholars. There seems good reason to believe the Lewis did add this extra layer of meaning and artistry to the books, and that, in a bit of patient playfulness, he was content to never make mention of it, leaving it for someone – as it turned out, a certain Michael Ward – to discover 50 years later.

For a detailed look at the theory itself, viewers will need to go to the Bonus section of the DVD. The main feature focuses more on the discovery of the planetary connection, the excitement it caused, and why so many people today still get excited by what this man wrote.

This is, admittedly, a documentary that will excite only a very particular audience: Narnia lovers who are equally fascinated by the tales' author. But for them, well, this brilliantly executed BBC production will have these folk scurrying off excitedly to their bookshelves and paging, once again, through these old favorites!

You can see the trailer below and learn more about the book and documentary at www.NarniaCode.com.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Swiss Family Robinson

Drama/Adventure/Family
126 min/ 1960
RAITING: 8/10

Based on the classic 1812 Johann Wyss book, Swiss Family Robinson tells the tale of a family of five that gets shipwrecked on a tropical island after being pursued by pirates.

Life on a tropical island can be fun, with ostrich and elephant races, but work is involved too. The family has to struggle together to build a treehouse that will keep them safe from the island's tiger.

But what will keep them safe from the pirates, who are still looking for them?

CAUTIONS

The big concern in this film would be violence. While most of it is softened (a tiger, rather than maul its victims, sends them flying high into the air) there are intense scenes near the end of the film as the pirates attack that would scare young children.

There is also a snake attack that may have parents rolling their eyes (the actors seem to be grabbing the boa constrictor, rather than the constrictor grabbing them) but it had my daughters eyes bugging out. We played some of these scenes with the volume down low, so the dramatic music wouldn't have the same effect. That seemed enough to make the scenes palatable for even our four year old.

CONCLUSION

This is a good old-fashioned classic with lots of gallantry on display - it's a great film to teach boys to look out for girls. It's also a good one to get your kids appreciating older films. Some of the acting is a little wooden, but as a family film that's fine – this was never going to win an Oscar, but there is a reason it's still being watched 50 years later. So all in all a great film.



Thursday, September 15, 2016

Biology 101

Curriculum / Documentary
2012 / 277 minutes
RATING: 9/10

Solid high school science curriculum resources that aren't tainted by evolutionary assumptions are hard to come by. That's why it was so wonderful to find filmmaker Wes Olson's Biology 101 DVD series.

It proceeds from a young-earth 6-day-creation perspective, but this isn't so much a specifically creationist resource as a solidly biblical one. Olson isn't always talking about creationism and evolution, but is instead in awe of what God has done. That awe shows up in all he says.

Now there are time when matters of creation do come up. For example, in talking about genetics he throws in the quick comment that there are only three people who have not come about by the combination of their parents' DNA: Adam, made from the earth, Eve, made from Adam, and Jesus, made from Mary's DNA and the Holy Spirit. The creationist perspective also comes out in how this look into earth's various lifeforms is broken up. Olson has ordered the segments by what day in the creation week that the organism was made. So, we start with plants on the third day, then look at aquatic and avian creatures which were made on the fifth day, and so on.

It looks good

Production values are solid throughout. There are piles of pictures and film clips of the creatures being discusses, and Olson, as narrator, has a delightfully dry wit. This is evidenced in the many short extra bits of information he includes, such as this:
"Ostriches are the largest birds, standing over eight feet talk, and the fastest two legged runner, sprinting nearly 45 miles per hour. Roadrunners, on the other hand, have a top speed of only 17 mils per hour, chasing lizards and snakes. Coyotes have a top speed of nearly 30 miles per hour, almost twice the speed of a road runner. Just in case you were wondering."
And sometimes it is the extra bits of trivia that serve to make his points more memorable. In talking about recessive and dominant genes he noted how dark hair was dominant over light, and,
"...incredibly the gene for having 6 fingers on one hand is dominant over the gene for having only five fingers on one hand, but practically everybody carries two copies of the five-fingered gene, which is why you almost never see someone who has six fingers on one hand."
Six fingers is dominant? I'm going to remember that. And in remembering it, I'm going to remember the difference between recessive and dominant genes.

Contents

This is meant as a high school biology course. However, it is only 4 and a half hours long, and while it comes with a 118 page textbook (on pdf, stored on one of the DVDs) it is less comprehensive than a high school biology course would need to be. So this would make a wonderful foundation for a course, but other materials would be needed to supplement it. The 9 episodes vary in length from as short as 15 minutes to as long as 44 minutes.

DISK 1
1. Introduction: Defining life and an explanation of organism classification systems
2. Plants

DISK 2
3. Aquatic creatures
4 Avian creatures

DISK 3
5. Land animals
6. More land animials
7. Mankind
8. More on Mankind

DISK 4
9. A brief history of the study of biology, the origins of genetics, and the moral questions involved in remaking our own genome

Audience

The course material is for ages 15 and up, but the content is appropriate for all ages. This focus on all-ages appropriateness does mean the discussion of our reproduction system is done in the broadest of strokes. We learn about how children are a combination of their mom's and dad's genes but no mention is made of exactly how those genes get mixed.

I'd highly recommend this to any Christian high school science teacher – whether they use it in whole or part, there's sure to be lots of it they will want to show their classes. It would also be an excellent supplement for any Christian child attending a secular high school; this is the perspective they'd be missing.

Families with an interest in this subject matter might also find this worth buying. I should note that while I gave this an 9 rating, that was for how it rates as an an educational resource – I can't think of any better. But from a solely entertainment focus, this would only score a 7. If you want to learn biology, this a wonderful method. If you want to be entertained, there are many more entertaining films out there.

You can find out more at the Biology 101 site and check out the 14 minute first segment and introduction down below. The 4-DVD Biology 101 set is $70 US on the website, but seems to be cheaper at Christianbooks.com and Amazon.com.

Chemistry 101 is even better

Wes Olson has also produced a Physics 101 series and a Chemistry 101 series. I haven't seen the Physics 101, but have had a chance to look at the Chemistry 101 series. I thought it was even better. Olson's approach to teaching chemistry is to lay it out as it was discovered – we go through it historically, learning about one discovery after another. I was rather surprised about how much of our knowledge of chemistry has only been discovered in the last 150 years.

This historical approach is brilliant and fascinating. I watched this one simply because I couldn't stop. But at 11 hours long it is a little over twice the material of the Biology 101 series....so I'm not done it yet.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Jungle Beat - fun for the kids that will have the adults laughing too

Family / Animated
65 min
RATING: 10/10 

I'm always on the hunt for films or shows my kids will enjoy that I'll enjoy too. There aren't many that fit that bill, but Jungle Beat sure does. This is comic genius at its best!

The videos are all 5 minute stand alone pieces featuring one jungle creature. Our favorite is probably the giraffe, or the turtle, but the bee, monkey and hedgehog are popular too.

While the videos do have sound, they remind me of the very best silent film comedies from Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin, because they are entirely dialogue-free (after all, animals don't talk, right?) so all the humor is physical. Let me give you an idea of some of the scenarios:
  • What's a poor turtle to do when it gets an itch, but its shell won't let it scratch? Maybe it should just slip off its shell? But like a pair of tight pants, his shell comes off easily, but doesn't go back on nearly so quickly. This leads to some hi-speed hijinks when the turtle has to surf on his shell to evade an eagle that wants to eat the now-exposed turtle.
  • What's a poor firefly to do when it wants to catch some sleep, but its own light is keeping it awake?
  • What's a poor giraffe to do when he accidentally head-butts the moon and knocks it to the ground, where it breaks to pieces?
Each of the stories has a creative set-up, and all come with a happy ending. I don't know if Jungle Beat's creators are Christian, but I suspect so, because they've gone to great lengths to make sure this is family-friendly. So far there are more than two dozen short videos in total, which amounts to more than two hours of viewing, so gather round the family - you are in for a treat!

SEASON ONE

The producers have collected all 13 Season One episodes into one 65-minute video that they've made available for free on YouTube (and which you can watch below). From our two-year-old on up to mom and dad we all love them. We just wished there were more...



SEASON TWO

...and now there are! A second season, of another 13 episodes has been produced, and also made available as a 65-minute compilation, here below.




SEASON THREE

A third season is also available, but not on YouTube yet. So far as I can tell, only Americans can access it online at Amazon.com by clicking here, where the season (mislabeled as Season One) can be purchased for $8.99 (or watched for free if you have Amazon Prime).

You can also check out some screen saver downloads, and a trailer for a very fun-looking Jungle Beat game app (I haven't played it, but think we might buy this one - it's just $2.99) at their website: www.junglebeat.tv

I can't say enough good things about this series. It is so very clever, and other than a few moments of peril, which might have our two-year-old a little nervous, it is entirely safe. Two thumbs very enthusiastically up – I give this a 10 out of 10!

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Peanuts Movie

Animated/Family /Children
2015 / 88 minutes
RATING: 8/10

This is the happy ending we were all waiting for.

Peanuts was always a little hit and miss for me. I liked Linus and Snoopy and PigPen and Marcie, but found it downright depressing when once again Lucy would get good ol' Charlie Brown to fall for her disappearing football trick.

That's why this film is better than comic. It has the strip's funniest bits (we even find out how the Red Baron first became Snoopy's nemesis) minus the melancholy. Sure, Charlie Brown still has more than his share of misfortunes, but he also has good friends – including a far more loyal version of Snoopy – to help pick him back up and push him to keep on trying.

The storyline revolves around a new kid who has just moved across the street. She has red-hair and very good judgment, and from the moment Charlie Brown sets eyes on her he wants to figure out a way to go talk to her. That proves to be a very difficult, largely due to the difficulties Charlie Brown sets up for himself. But with some help from Linus, Snoopy, Marcie and others, our hapless hero learns how to bravely go where Charlie Brown has never gone before.

Cautions

Our family isn't up for anything all that scary, so I was wondering how the girls would react to the scenes where Snoopy finds the Red Baron. It turned out that the comic setting made it very clear to our little ones that this was not at all real, so they weren't phased at all.

The only cautions I can come up with would be of the most minor sort. Charlie Brown falls in love at first sight and continues to obsess about a girl he has never even talked to. But of course, he's also 6, and kids do dumb things sometimes.

Also, near the end of the film Charles, frustrated by how circumstances were conspiring against him. seems to say a little prayer: "I'm just asking for a little help once in my life." Afterwards he gets what would seem some Divine intervention – he gets tangled up in a kite which pulls him up and over the crowd that was blocking his way. Now God is never specifically mentioned, so Charlie Brown might just be talking to "the Fates" but considering the many (but muddled) references to God in the original strip, it would seem more logical to conclude Charlie Brown is actually talking to God here. If so, his "Don't I deserve a break?" plea shows that Charles is not a Calvinist. At the same time, it doesn't get anywhere near being blasphemous.

Highlights

While Charlie Brown has always been a man of persistence, here his many positive qualities are finally recognized. (SPOILER ALERT) One of the key scenes in the film has Charlie Brown having to choose between being honest and being popular, and the really refreshing take here is that our good ol' Charles doesn't even hesitate before doing the right thing. There's lots of material here that would make good fodder for discussions about caring for our siblings,  standing up to peer pressure, and also recognizing our own gifts.

Conclusion

The producers have made a wonderful homage to Schulz's work, and, in fact, actually improved on it. A Charlie Brown who doesn't have to wait 50 years for a little happiness is a wonderful step up on the original!

Friday, July 15, 2016

City of Ember

Post-apocalyptic/Family
95 minutes / 2008
ENTERTAINMENT RATING: 7/10

The world is ending and we don’t know why. In Ember’s opening scenes we learned for humanity to survive they have to hide underground for 200 years. That’s why a group of engineers and scientists – the Builders – have crafted a city, the City of Ember, and buried it deep underground so the residents can survive the apocalypse that is presumably killing everyone who remains above.

But now, after 200 years have passed, no one alive remembers there is another world out there – they only know of Ember, and the only light they see is provided by light bulbs powered by their mighty generator. However the generator – their whole city – was never meant to last forever, and now everything is starting to break down, and they’re running out of food too. The biggest problem? No one will admit what’s happening.

So to the rescue comes Doon Harrow, a teen with a knack for fixing things who wants to have a go at working on the generator. But to get at it he has to break rules and venture where he’s not supposed to go. When Doon’s friend Lina uncovers some long-lost and only partially intact instructions from the Builders the two of them have to piece together all the clues to figure out how they can save their family and friends before all of Ember’s lights go dark.

CAUTIONS

The film has no language or sexuality concerns at all.

However, there are a couple scenes involving a gigantic mole, roughly the size of a Volkswagon Beetle (the original, not the modern version) chasing Lina and Doon. This mole can tunnel through floors and walls, and seems intent on eating them. One moment in particular gave my movie-watching companion the shivers when the Lina reaches for a box just out of reach at the very same time as the mole’s slimy pink tentacle-like feelers also reach out for the box. This could be a bit too creepy for any kids under 10, or just anyone who has an aversion to icky things (spiders, octopuses, rats, etc.). While Lina and Doon escape the mole does seem to eat someone else, though this isn’t shown onscreen.

There are also a scuffles and such, but nothing graphic gory or all that violent.

The more notable caution would be the religious aspect of the film. God is never mentioned, and His absence in a movie about a coming end to the world is glaring. Instead of Christianity the citizens of Ember have oaths of loyalty to the city, and a quasi-cult that holds the original Builders in high esteem, expecting them to come back when they are needed to set everything right.

One more note: one of the villains has a club foot, and while it is common movie shorthand to have disabled or misshapen people as villains – Jack Elam's wandering eye got him typecast as the bad guy in every Western he was ever in – it’s important to point out to our kids what’s going on here, lest they unknowingly accept as true something that just isn't so. The moviemakers are showing us a villain's inner deformity by giving him an outer one - that's the movie shorthand. But they are making a connection that just isn't so. That's why this needs to be a point in the film where we hit the pause button, and help our kids spot the lie being told.

CONCLUSION

This is another film by Walden Media, the folks behind the Narnia films, and the owner of the company, Philip Anschutz is a professing Christian who has stated the intent of the company’s films is “to be entertaining, but also life affirming and to carry a moral message.”

Some of this Christian influence is evidence in the complete lack of language and sexuality concerns. This is so rare as to be astonishing.

But a post-apocalyptic tale is not your typical family fare. And a story in which the kids get something the adults are too dumb to understand promotes an all too common and entirely unbiblical disrespect for elders.

So this is an entertaining movie, and one with no sex or language concerns, and only a moment or two of violence/creepiness. But it is also a movie that shouldn’t simply be swallowed whole as simple entertainment – it needs to be discussed.

Friday, July 1, 2016

CITIZENFOUR

Documentary
113 minutes / 2014
RATING 7/10

In 2013 Edward Snowden let the world know that their emails, phone calls, text messages, and everything they were doing online, was being tracked by the US government and, often times, with the help of their local government. This was the surveillance of private citizens who had committed no crime, and for whom no search warrant had been granted.

And even as this surveillance was being done, the leadership of the National Security Agency (NSA) told the US Congress that no, they were not spying on Americans.

Were they lying? Well, it all depends on what they meant by "not spying."

As the documentary recounts, in May of 2013, Snowden fled to Hong Kong with a computer full of classified NSA documents that proved this surveillance was going on. He showed some of them to journalist Glenn Greenwald and to the director of this documentary, Laura Poitras. It was only after they helped the story go public that the NSA then admitted they were recording and collecting all sorts of data on US citizens. But they insisted that while they had it, they weren't actually looking through it.

The NSA said they were collecting and storing citizens' information so that it would be available should they ever want to take a peek at it, which, they assured the public, would only happen after they got permission from a judge. In other words, collecting everyone's data wasn't spying on them because, according to the NSA, they weren't looking at it...yet.

Snowden was celebrated by many as a whistleblower – that's how he thinks of himself – but condemned by others as a traitor. This film has some amazing strengths, the biggest being that Poitras was right there in his Hong Kong hotel room to capture Snowden's determination and anxiety as he became front-page news the world over.

But it has a notable weakness: you have to be a detective to figure out, from what's shown, why anyone would think Snowden a traitor. One key scene that gives a hint as to why occurs in a newspaper office where an editor and reporters are debating what of the information Snowden gave them is safe to release to the public. In other words, Snowden gave out classified materials that were dangerous to US interests, and he left it up to a bunch of journalists to decide what was and wasn't safe to release to the public. That's crazy!

But whatever we think of Snowden, it's clear we should be upset with the US government. Now, it is hard to find a clear biblical basis for a right to privacy, so on that front it may be hard to condemn what they have been doing. But it takes no effort at all to find a warning about government intrusion (1 Samuel 8:10-19). We also know men are not angels, and so it is best not to entrust them with tools that can only be used properly by angels. It's naive to think the very same government group that lied in the first place about collecting our information can be trusted not to look through this information without a warrant. Even if they do go the legal route, Snowden noted that whenever the NSA goes to a judge to ask to look through someone's data the judge always grants approval. So that is no check on abuse at all.

One of the more common Christian responses to the government surveillance states is to wonder why, if we've done nothing wrong, we should make a fuss about the government watching everything we say and do? That's a question best answered with another: have you ever done anything that might, if seen in the wrong light, seem wrong? Harvey Silverglate makes the case that the average ordinary American citizen arguably commits Three Felonies A Day inadvertently, due simply to the sheer tonnage of laws on the books. So we're already in a situation in which the government can, if it wishes, convict any one of us. Do we really want to entrust them with a permanent record of all our activities?

And if they insist that this is no big thing, then Pastor Douglas Wilson has a proposal predicated on the biblical notion that the government should only subject others to what they would gladly subject themselves (Matt. 7:12): 
I have a proposal. We need a law that says that there will be no surveillance of the American people that has not first been test-driven for five years at the Capitol building and its environs. You tell us the drink is not poisoned, so you drink it. Sweeps of phone records, busting into emails, targeted review of IRS records, tracking of movements through security gates, and surveillance drones overhead. All such records gathered will be open to Freedom of Information Requests, and will be provided to primary challengers free of charge, and with no names redacted. Why do I want to do such a thing? National security, ma’am.
CAUTIONS

CitizenFour is rated R for language, and that is primarily for the use of the f-word which pops up a dozen or so times. But there are two instances of God's name being used in vain.

I don't normally recommend films that take God's name in vain. In fact I earnestly avoid doing so – this website exists largely to recommend excellent films that don't misuse God's holy name.

As Christians we're also worried about the violence and sexual content in a film, but we know that in both those cases there are depictions that fall "in bounds" – we aren't concerned with couples hugging or with heroes punching out villains. But there is seldom any excuse for taking God's name in vain. You want viewers to know your character stubbed his toe? Have him say "Ouch!" Does the protagonist need to express frustration? Then have him say something with some volume. But there is no need to use God's name as an expletive.

So why the exception in this case? Because this is not entertainment.

While this documentary would be better if it didn't include these two instances, the information found here is information we need to know. That makes it very different from a film we watch only for entertainment. When our viewing is simply for entertainment's sake then there is no need to tolerate blasphemy. But when we are watching something for education's sake, then we may have good reasons to sit through some sinful depictions, including those of blasphemy and violence.

We don't watch footage of violent protests and war carnage to be entertained, but rather to be informed. So too, in this case as well. We need to understand what our government is up to, and there is really nothing comparable to this film as far as giving insight and clarity. So, for the sake of being informed, this is still worth watching. (In very rare instances there is even a reason for some people to endure sinful depictions of sex – for example, a vice cop who needs to watch illegal porn videos to rescue victims and find perpetrators.)

One last caution: a brief kiss is shown between reporter Glenn Greenwald and his homosexual partner.

CONCLUSION

At movie's end Snowden and Glenn Greenwald are in the same room, sitting side by side, but making use of a pad of paper to carry on parts of their discussion.  Why? Because it's the only way they can be sure the government isn't listening.

This is a film everyone should see to learn about our governments' surveillance capabilities – as citizens the only way we can rein in government abuses is if we understand what they are. This is also a move to be shared and discussed. To help you carry on that discussion I've included a couple links to helpful articles that look at Snowden and the NSA from a Christian perspective.

http://blog.acton.org/archives/55830-can-whistleblowing-be-biblically-justified.html
https://dougwils.com/books/to-a-chair-in-the-basement.html

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Condorman

Family
90 minutes / 1981
RATING: 7/10

When comic book creator Woody Wilkins gets the chance to help out the CIA he jumps at it. But he gets a little too into the role, telling his Russian contact – his beautiful Russian contact – that he is a long-time secret agent with the code name "Condorman." When some toughs try to grab the Russian, Woody makes use of his quick wits and astonishing luck to fight them all off. That so impresses the Russian agent that when she later decides to defect she tells the CIA she'll only go if they send their "top agent" Condorman to come pick her up.

Woody is willing to help again...but with a few conditions. He'll go, so long as the CIA agree to give him a few special tools he's dreamed up that come straight out of his superhero comics!

Condorman came out in 1981 and got some horrible reviews. But those were from people who misunderstood what sort of film this really was. As the film's tagline reads, this is "an action adventure romantic comedy spy story" and to that you could add, "Cold War, superhero parody!" If you take it seriously, yes, this is dreadful. But you aren't supposed to take it seriously. As a parody it is hokey, cheesy, goofy, slapstick fun – the sort of film any ten-year-old boy would love, with lots of gadgets, explosions and cardboard cutout villains.

CAUTIONS

This is a kinder gentler superhero film than most anything you can find being made nowadays. The only cautions are of a minor sort.

The beautiful Russian agent wears a rather clingy dress on the poster above, but that is more risqué than anything in the film. In one scene she changes clothes behind a dressing screen and is shown naked from the shoulders up.

There are a lot of fist fights, car chases, boat chases, and explosions. All of it is of the comic variety, with no blood seen. Ten-year-olds wouldn't be impacted but younger children, particularly those under 6, may find it too much.

CONCLUSION

One reviewer, John Corry of The New York Times called Condorman "painless and chaste" and for adults that's exactly what it is – painless. But for kids, particularly preteen boys, this is one rousing action adventure.

You can check out the trailer and rent it online at Amazon.com by clicking here or buy the DVD here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Jurassic Ark Mystery

Family / Children
45 min / 2001
RATING 7/10

The Creation Adventure Team is out to discover when the dinosaurs died, how they lived, and whether there were any on the Ark. This video features non-stop action, impressive special effects, a number of clever spoofs, and a robot dinosaur sidekick named Proto. Renown dinosaur sculptor Buddy Davis, his teenage friend Ivan, and of course Proto, explore a dinosaur museum and show how these “terrible lizards” did indeed fit on the ark.

A Jurassic Ark Mystery is put out by the Answers in Genesis group and is one of the most entertaining creationism videos available for children. The only video that might be better is the sequel: Six Short Days, One Big Adventurer where the crew helps a student give a presentation to her public school classmates about how God created everything.

The videos come with a pile of extras. We spent at least half an hour afterwards looking through them all, with our favorite being the features on how they brought the robot Proto to "life."

Caution

The only one I can think of is that, as is pretty typical for a Buddy Davis production, the action here is a little on the frantic side of things. Davis is clearly focused on keeping the kids engaged, but I've heard a parent or two complain about just how hyper this all seems.

Conclusion

This is a video that would be fantastic for a school or church library – it is informative and entertaining! But for parents who can't deal with too much hyperactivity on the big screen, you'll want to steer clear.

They say this is for ages 7-12, but our 5-year-old really liked it too, and even our 3-year-old was content enough to stick around for the whole show.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here. But Answers in Genesis has also made it available for free online viewing (though it is broken up into 6 separate chapters) here. The sequel, Six Short Days, One Big Adventure can be watched at this link.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Maccabees: The Story of Hanukkah (Animated Hero Classics)

Animated/ Children
28 minutes / 2005
RATING: 6/10

This is a quick, simple depiction of an Intertestamental tale that most Christians don't know

The way the story is most often told, in the second century BC a Greek king by the name of Antiochus ruled over the Seleucid Empire, and that included Judea and Samaria. Jews were being pressured to adopt Greek culture. Antiochus went so far as to outlaw Judaism, and ban circumcision. Then in 167 BC he ordered that a statue of Zeus be erected in the Jewish Temple and pigs be sacrificed on the Temple's altar.

His desecration of the temple so outraged the Jews that they rebelled. In this animated account the rebellion is depicted as being led by "Judah the Hammer" but that is an abridgment of the traditional tale. The rebellions was led by Judah's father, Mattathias, along with all five of Mattathias' sons, including Judah. Judah would become the leader only later, after his father died.

Two years after the rebellion began victory was won! The statue of Zeus was quickly destroyed and then the Temple was rededicated. The Temple menorah was relit, but, according to the Talmud, only enough oil for one day's worth of burning could be found, and yet the menorah remained lit for eight days until new oil could be brought in.

Caution

There is some minimal violence, as you might expect in a story of armed insurrection. But it is basically bloodless. And children of school age would likely be able to handle this.

How much of the story is true and how much is legend we can't quite be sure. The miracle of the eight day oil supply is found only in the Talmud, where it was written down about 600 years after the event. However the Maccabee rebellion itself is described in 1 and 2 Maccabees and in the works of historian Josephus, giving us good reason to think the core of the story is true. A eight day festival of lights, also called Hanukkah, commemorating the rededication of the temple, is still celebrated by Jews today.

Conclusion

This is a good but not great video  – 28 minutes simply doesn't leave enough time to do this story justice. But for children, and parents too, who have never heard about Hanukkah's origins, this will grab their interest.

The depiction of the Greeks' persecution of the Jews is clearly meant to parallel the action of the Nazis – particularly when Greeks soldiers are going house to house, busting down doors, looking for orthodox Jews. So another reason to watch would be as a gentler way to introduce students to the sad reality of Anti-Semitism than could be done with anything Holocaust-related.

You can buy your own copy of Maccabees: The Story of Hanukkah at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Buddy Davis' Amazing Adventures: EXTREME CAVING

Family/ Kids
58 minutes / 2013
RATING: 7/10

While Buddy Davis and the Tennessee Caveman Robbie Black are the hosts of this episode, the real stars of the show are the Cumberland Caverns themselves. This is one of the longest cave systems in the world, running at least 30 miles. If you've ever wondered what it's like to hike and climb and descend through caves that are hundreds of feet below the ground, you're going to love this!

Davis, and his professional camera crew, takes us through passages and caverns that vary in height from dozens of meters to tight squeezes that are just a matter of inches. We get to see flowers made of gypsum, popcorn made of calcite, and translucent "cave bacon." We go stoop-walking and belly-crawling, pit-crossing, butt-sliding and even scuba diving into parts of the caverns that people don't normally go. We go so deep down that for a while even our guide loses his bearings!

While Davis is normally an energetic, even hyper, host – all in an effort at keeping kids' attention – the physical demands of this episode mellowed him out some. That might be why I liked this one a little bit more. It's still a show for children, but the more restrained Davis is a little easier for adults to enjoy in an adult way. There is still lots of fun for the kids though, with animated scene transitions, a fun song about a skunk, lots of peppy bouncy music, and a close look at a cute furry fruit bat.

This is one of four videos in the "Buddy Davis' Amazing Adventures series" and is produced by the creationist group Answers in Genesis and their creationist worldview is evident throughout. For example, in one short interlude we learn about how many caves may have been formed by the Flood.

Cautions

The only caution I can come up with is that at least a couple of the Scriptural references Davis shares are on the random side, not particularly relevant to what he is trying to relate them to. But this is only a minor quibble in this remarkable video.

Conclusion

As far as children's productions go, this is a longer video at just about an hour long – if you have young children you might want to watch this in two parts. What I most appreciated about it is it is something the whole family can enjoy, with lots of fun for the kids, and lots of amazing sights to see for the adults. Shucks, this has me think of checking out the Cumberland Caverns for myself!

You can buy this at www.answersingenesis.org/store/ (just search for "buddy davis amazing").


Friday, April 15, 2016

The Wright Brothers (Animated Hero Classics)

Animated
27 minutes / 1996
RATING: 7/10

As an educational tool, this is amazing. In just the first 15 minutes we get to see the history of aviation develop from disastrous first attempts at gliding to the Wright brothers' first successful powered flight.

But it doesn't stop there. In the second half we see aviation take its first faltering steps - the Wrights continue to refine their design, but others are flying now too. And because the Wrights are content to do their work in private, their achievement is disputed. Even the American press doesn't believe they've flown. And when the Brazilian-born Alberto Santos-Dumont gets his own plane up in the air, he claims the title "first man to fly." It seems as if the Wrights "have lost their place in history." 

It's all here: tension, amazing inventions, and loads of historical detail packed tightly into just a half hour package. 

On top of all that, this is entertaining too. Our whole family loved it, though for different reasons. My wife and I were fascinated by the history, and our children, from 2 to 6, were swept along by the story. This would be an unmatched resource for schools, and it's also good fun for the whole family. 

The Wright Brothers is good enough to send parents and teachers looking for others in this "Animated Hero Classics" series so I wanted to add a warning. Not every film in the series is good: other gems can be found, but stinkers too (we were all quite bored by the one on Leonardo da Vinci). So don't buy others without doing your research (especially since they are quite expensive). 

If you want to get your own copy of The Wright Brothers you can find it at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Giver

Drama / Family
97 minutes / 2014
RATING: 8/10

My brother Jeff wrote a review of the book this film is based on that hits all the high points of the film too. So with his permission I've included it below with slight modification.
The Giver is a brilliant dystopia – a vision of the future where things have gone horribly wrong. What makes it so brilliant is that in the brief space of a couple hours, we're shown, as dystopian story always do, that the desire to make a utopia always leads to disaster. 
The original Utopia (which literally means "no-place"), by Thomas More (an English Catholic writing around the time of the Reformation), is a vision  of an ideal, perfectly regulated society, where people live their lives with leisure and work balanced, and the wealth is fairly shared among all. All these features are appealing, but given human nature, any attempt to build society through regulation will result in the stomping out of individuality and the oppressive power of whatever authority we trust to organize everything. Basically, there is a kind of idolatry of human systems and power. Of course, we know that idols always disappoint, and idols always demand horrible sacrifices. 
That's what's going on in The Giver. The story begins with what looks like an ideal, well-organized society where everyone has his or her specific role set by 18 years old (in the book this all happens by 12). All the angst of adolescence in our society has been taken care of through this selection of each person's career by the community, as well as by the suppression of the disruptive disturbance of teenage hormones. The result is a village in which there is no significant crime; in which each person is given a specific role and, in return, has all his or her needs are met from cradle to grave by the community; and in which both the physical storms and emotional storms have been subdued by technology. 
This "sameness" has been maintained for generations. Even the memory of the relative chaos of our own society has been wiped out, but the elders of the village have ensured that the past is not entirely lost, so that in the event of crisis, the elders can learn from it. This is where the main character, Jonas, comes in. At eighteen years old, he is given the unique role of the Receiver of the community. What does he receive? The memories of the village before the "sameness" - from the Giver. 
Jonas's unique knowledge enables him to see what a terrible place our own world is – with war and other suffering – but also what emotional ties like family and romantic love were lost with the oncoming of the "sameness." His own crisis comes when he sees what sacrifices his seemingly utopian village demands to keep its stability. 
Why would Christians want to watch this? The Giver shows us both the beauty and the cost of human emotion and desire, but also the foolishness of playing God in trying to wipe both out by human power. What we need is not liberation from our own humanness, but liberation from the sin which has corrupted our humanness – by the death of Christ - and the redirection of our emotions and desire – by the work of the Spirit. Neither the book nor the film explicitly put us before God's throne, but both do a fine job of knocking down one of the idols that serve as a stumbling block blocking our view of His glory.
The film does differ from the book in some ways, but author Lois Lowry was quite pleased about how her book was translated to the big screen. According to her, yes, this is a different medium, but very much the same story.

Cautions

There are no language and sexual concerns, but some for violence. As the Giver shares his memories with Jonas, one of them is an image of "war" - it's a brief look, but includes a man getting shot in the chest and bleeding, and another man getting shot repeatedly.

The most disturbing scene in the film is one of a baby being euthanized by injection - we don't see the actual injection...but we almost do. So no blood, but quite horrifying. I suspect it is this single scene that boosted this from a PG to PG-13 rating, and quite rightly.

One other concern would be the way God is portrayed. For the most part, He simply isn't, but among the memories Jonas receives are ones showing the various religions of the world at worship. These are only brief glimpses, and not much is made of them, but neither is Christianity distinguished from any of the others - all religions are treated as equivalent.

Conclusion

This is a fantastic film, that hasn't been rated all that highly by the critics. I think that's because they are assessing it simply as entertainment. But this is meant to be a thought-provoking film, one to be discussed and not simply watched. And as such, it rates much higher. I'd recommend it as family viewing so long as the youngest viewers are at least in their teens.

You can buy the dvd here or rent it online here at Amazon.com

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Wild Brothers: Paradise Lost

Reality / Documentary
28 min / 2015
Rating: 7/10

Our girls were very excited to when the third installment of the Wild Brothers series arrived at the library. The Wilds are a missionary couple and their four boys who live in the deep jungles of Papua, Indonesia. They are very boyish boys, who play with bugs, and even eat the odd one now and again...at least when they are properly cooked!

This time around the family is on vacation with another missionary couple, the Browns, and their three girls. My own girls love this series, even though it is all about boys, but I think they appreciated how the girl to boy ratio was upped for this adventure. The two families head from the inland missions to on the coast of a beautiful island. From this home base they head out each day to explore reefs and bays and check out sea turtles, manta rays, and sea snakes and so many gorgeous fish!

Some misadventures also occur, some painful, like mom getting stung by a jellyfish, and some hilarious, like the boys contending with a large snake (8-12 feet long) that decided to take up residence in their cabin roof.

As they have in each episode, the boys bring a solid Christian perspective to their exploration: when they come across an old bone deposit – a burial grounds where skulls are haphazardly stacked by each other – they take the opportunity to talk about how despite the beauty of this world, it is still fallen, and waiting for restoration.

No cautions to note, other than that some human skulls are seen at one point, and the snake episode (found in the extra features) was just a tiny bit scary for my little ones. That said, my girls, 2 though 6 enjoyed this immensely – they weren't that scared!

We’ve also watched the first two entries in this series, which we review here. The series can be purchased at AnswerInGenesis.org or Christianbooks.com.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Alone Yet Not Alone

Christian / Drama
103 minutes / 2013
RATING 6/10

Based on a true story, Alone Yet Not Along is set in 1755, in colonial America, where the British and French are battling for supremacy, and the Natives have tired of being pawns of the British. When the French offer money for English scalps one hostile tribe goes on a rampage, killing farmers and homesteaders, and taking the women and children captive.

Among the captives are two newly arrived immigrant girls from the Leninger family. The Natives kill their father and march the girls 300 miles inland, far from anyone who could save them. When they arrive in the Native village their hair is dyed black and they are told to live as Natives. When they get older they will be expected to marry into the tribe.

So who can they look to for help in such fearful circumstances? They know, because they have been taught by their father, that their God in Heaven will never forsake them. They may be alone, but they are not alone.

One big plus: no theological weirdness. In many a Christian film miracles abound, even though that is not how God commonly interacts with us. But here, though God never abandons his people, a lady still ends up getting cruelly killed by the Indians. Because this account is rooted in history, the theological underpinnings of the film are grounded in reality.

Cautions

There are a few warnings to offer:

1) This is a typical Christian film in that it lacks subtlety. For example, one dirty but still healthy-looking girl complains that she is soooooo hungry because she hasn't eaten for three days. It would have been nice if they could have shown us that, rather than tell us. The acting is generally solid, but it's also evident there are a lot of first-time actors (including Brett Harris, author of Do Hard Things) with some awkward accents. And the foreshadowing is not very "fore"; immediately after the older sister promises to never leave the younger the two are torn apart and sent to different villages.

2) Regarding historical accuracy, I have only a limited familiarity with this time period, but I think some of the events have been oversimplified to the point of caricature. One example: the British General Edward Braddock is portrayed as deliberately antagonizing his Indian allies, listening to no one's advice, and just generally having no tact and no common sense. Could he really have been this stupid?

3) With Natives and British and French fighting each other, as you might expect, there is some blood shown. But overall the violence is of a "1940s cinema" sort, with a good deal of it happening just off screen. Still too much for young children, but probably not a big deal for any teens.

Conclusion

This is a good but not great film, with some flaws that'll warrant it a "6." I don't rate many films that are less than a solid 7, preferring to focus on the better films. So why the exception this time around? Because while there are better films out there, Alone Yet Not Alone is not only decent but safe for almost the whole family (certainly teens and up). The violence is tempered, no one takes God's name in vain, there's some action, and the whole thing has a nice happy ending. It's a movie no one is going to rave about, but also one that most in your family will be able to find something to enjoy.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Hobbit: the film trilogy

An Unexpected Journey (2012)
169 min (also a 182 minute version)
RATING: 8/10

The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
161 min (also a 186 min version)
RATING: 8/10

The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
144 min (also a 164 min version)
RATING: 7/10



Bilbo Baggins was quite content puttering around his garden, sitting in his armchair, and reading his books – he wasn’t looking for adventure. But then a tall wizard and a dozen mid-sized dwarves asked this small hobbit to come help them battle a huge dragon. It was the sort of offer any respectable hobbit would refuse...and Bilbo did.
“An adventure?.... Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner….We do not want any adventures here, thank you!”
But something was stirring inside this quiet soul…might he be an adventurous sort after all?

The next day Bilbo surprises even himself by taking the dwarves up on their offer. So off he goes, on a long journey to the Lonely Mountain where the fearsome dragon Smaug guards his stolen horde of treasure. On the way the company meets trolls, giants, horse-sized spiders, orcs – lots and lots of orcs! – and a kingdom’s worth of elves.

But why did they want this little hobbit to come with? The dwarves don’t know; they agreed because the wizard, Gandalf, insisted. And Gandalf isn’t entirely sure himself. The is the best explanation he can offer:
“I don't know. Saruman [another wizard] believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I've found it is the small things; everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay... simple acts of kindness, and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid... and he gives me courage.”
Book to film

This is the second time that director Peter Jackson has adapted a J.R.R. Tolkien story to film. The first, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the few movie adaptions to live up to their source material: three exceptional books became three of the best movies ever made, even as they remained quite loyal to the original story.

This time around a great book has been transformed into three films, and while the films are very good, they hardly resemble the book. Oh yes, all the major plot elements are still there, but because Peter Jackson has to stretch the book to fit three films he had to add lots of extra bits. A few of those bits are sweet – a love story between elf and dwarf – but most are violent: two enormous battles have been added and numerous skirmishes.

The Hobbit was a children’s tale, a sort of kinder, gentler version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings adventure. But there is nothing kinder or gentler about this film version – in fact no child should see it.

So anyone loyal to the book will have good reason not to like the films. But if we look at them simply as adventure movies, then these are rollicking tales!

Cautions

The biggest caution concerns the violence, because there is lots of it. It is mostly of a bloodless sort, which is why, despite the films’ enormous death toll, they still manage a PG-13 rating. But there is just so much of it!

Very little of it is realistic – it struck me as being video game-ish – but some of it is played for comic effect, and that’s the most disturbing aspect. When the company fights because it must, that is brave, even heroic, and we can cheer. But what are we to think when Gandalf slices through an orc’s neck so cleanly his head remains in place? We get a quick look at the orc’s confused, distressed facial expression before Gandalf gives his head a tap to send it rolling off. This is meant to get a laugh, but it just gave me the creebles. Death as comedy?

I should also note that while I haven’t watched the extended versions, I have heard that the violence in the extended version of the last film, The Battle of the Five Armies, would be enough to get it an R-rating.

I could add some cautions about the occasional bit of juvenile humor (there are a couple snot jokes, etc.) but since no children should be watching this anyway, and teens and adults aren’t going to be impacted, that will suffice.

One of the reasons why this is not a film for small children!
The only other caution concerns the magic that pops up throughout the film. Some of it is of the dark sort. The villain behind the scenes, causing many of the company’s problems, is the Necromancer, who had nine undead soldiers doing his bidding. He is nasty, and even demonic looking. Now God condemns witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, Leviticus 19:26, 20:6) and the casting of spells, so it’s not a big deal to show a villain making use of magic – they are supposed to be bad! More problematic is when the heroes do it too, and a lot of them do, with Bilbo Baggins even dabbling in what seems to be dark magic after he finds a magic ring that turns him invisible but which also seems to talk at times. Once the ring even tries to convince Bilbo to murder someone!

So what should we think of heroes who use magic? That would be a discussion worth having with your kids. Bilbo's use of the ring highlights the dangers of dark magic - in The Hobbit we get only a glimpse of the sort of temptation this ring will pose in the later Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it's enough to know this ring is not some cute play toy but more an ever present and enticing temptation. So the overall presentation of magic here doesn’t worry me overmuch, particularly because the magic is so very clearly not the sort of sorcery that occurs in our own world. If its presentation is flawed, at least the magic shown is not of the sort that is liable to tempt any watcher to imitate it. So, on this issue these films don't present a danger to viewers.

Conclusion

There is also a lot to love here: the company is courageous, and Bilbo Baggins grows in bravery through the film. Our heroes are quite heroic! Many of the themes are admirable, and even biblical, like:
  • money can corrupt
  • a man has no greater love than that he is willing to lay down his life for another
  • loyalty doesn’t meaning blindly following
  • love can require us to confront a friend
  • vengeance can blind us
  • bravery doesn’t mean not being afraid
  • A small weak fellow putting bigger stronger sorts to shame (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
It wouldn’t be hard to find many others. So overall I’d rate this as an above average action adventure that isn’t suitable for children, but might be enjoyed and discussed with older teens.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Lost and Found

Animated / Family
24 minutes / 2013
RATING: 8/10

This film made my girls cry and that's alright.

Lost and Found is a classic boy meets penguin tale, a tale of loneliness felt and friendship found...and a beautiful tale throughout. That's what made my girls cry – the beauty of it. Their tears gave mom and dad an opportunity to explain to these two little misses that crying is not always linked to sadness, that beauty can indeed be tear-inducing, and then it is something, strangely enough, to be enjoyed. This lesson wasn't entirely lost on them, and also not entirely understood either, but it was a good first exposure to this curious truth.

The story itself is simple. Lost penguin arrives on boy's doorstep. Boy briefly tries to get others to help penguin, but then decides to do it himself. He builds a boat and rows to the Antarctic, where he drops off the penguin and heads back home only to realize that the penguin wasn't lost after all but had shown up at his house because he was lonely. Boy returns to Antarctic, penguin hops in boat, and the two head off together for what looks like the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

Adding to the charm is the minimal narration and complete lack of dialogue - this is almost a silent film, with only the character's body language and facial expressions to guide us.

Cautions

While rowing to the Antarctic boy and penguin encounter a huge storm, and the scene lasts for nearly 5 minutes, which put my 6 and under set on the edge of their seats. It was a bit much for them, but because I had previewed the film I could tell them it all worked out. That was just what they needed to make it through a scene that otherwise would have been too scary...especially when the giant scary-looking but friendly octopus arrives.

The only other caution would be about the size - this is sometimes advertised as a 50+ minute film, but that's only so if you include the special features. The film itself is just 24 minutes.

Conclusion

Our whole family loved it. I would recommend it for anyone 4 to 104. You can buy it on DVD as Amazon.com by clicking here.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Lord of the Rings animated "trilogy"

Peter Jackson wasn't the first to put J.R.R. Tolkien's books on film. Two decades before the first of Jackson's live-action/CGI films hit theaters, three animated films were crafted in the space of three years, and by two different animators. The first two are well worth checking out but the third is not.

The Hobbit
ANIMATED
77 minutes / 1977
RATING: 7/10


The Hobbit was the first Tolkien book to be filmed, in 1977. Director Authur Rankin chose a particularly cartoonish style of drawing that made it clear from the start that this was intended as a children's film. But his work had some humor to it – just as the source material does – which makes it pleasant enough viewing for adults too.

Our hero Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit, creatures that look much like humans, though they are half as tall and have far hairier feet. Normally Hobbits like nothing better than to stay close to home, but when the wizard Gandalf brings 12 treasure-seeking Dwarves to his doorstep Bilbo signs up for the adventure. And with the help of a magic "ring of power" Bilbo finds, he helps his new friends fight Orcs, Elves, and even a dragon.

At 77 minutes long, readers of the book may be disappointed as to just how much the film condenses the story. However, as children’s films go it is quite a nice one, and a good introduction to Middle Earth.

For a children's film there are some fairly scary bits, including attacks from Orcs, giant spiders and a "Gollum" so this isn't suitable for the very young. You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

The Lord of the Rings
ANIMATED
133 minutes / 1978
RATING: 7/10

A year after The Hobbit was released another animator, Ralph Bakshi, decided to try his hand at The Lord of the Rings. 

The story begins with an aging Biblo Baggins passing on his magic ring to his nephew Frodo. Shortly after the wizard Gandalf shows up to warn Frodo of the ring's danger. It turns out this ring is so powerful that whoever holds it could use it to rule the world. This is why the evil Sauron wants it, and why the good Gandalf knows that it must be destroyed – this all encompassing power is too much of a temptation for even the best of men to contend against. It is up to Frodo, who as a little Hobbit is far less tempted by the pull of power, to take the ring deep into the enemy's lands to destroy it in the lava of the mountain where it was first forged. And on the journey he has the company of hobbits, men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard to help him.

Animator Ralph Bakshi used a style of animation that involved filming scenes with real actors and then tracing over each frame of film to create a line drawing picture of it. This "rotoscoping" allowed Bakshi to incorporate the endless possibilities of animation with the realism of live action. The realism also meant that this is a scarier film than The Hobbit. The lurching Ringwraiths (see the picture) are freaky, and some of the combat scenes, especially at the very end, are quite bloody. Though this is animated, it is not for children.

There is one major flaw with the film: it is only the half of the story! The director planned it as the first part of a two-film treatment, but the second film was never made. So things wrap up abruptly, in mid-story. But while it lacks a proper ending, the story it does tell is intriguing.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here

The Return of the King
ANIMATED
97 minutes / 1979
RATING: 4/10

This is sometimes treated as a sequel to Ralph Bakshi's film, but it isn't.

Arthur Rankin directed, and he returned to the cartoonish animation style of The Hobbit. And while the events in this story do, loosely, follow after the events of the Bakshi film, Rankin seems to have been envisioning this as a sequel to The Hobbit, so he begins with an overview of everything that took place between it and The Return of the King. Or, in other words, it begins with a quick summary of two 500-page books – as you might expect this overview doesn't do justice to the contents of these enormous books, and the continuity of the story is lost. If a viewer isn't already familiar with the books he'll have no idea what's going on.

Things don't get any better once the overview is complete - there is no flow to the story. Huge plot elements are skipped over, and random bits of scenes are stitched to other scenes with stilted narration and cheesy ballads. In addition, Frodo Baggins twice calls on God to help him. Some might argue this could be an appropriate use of God's name, but in the context of a fantasy world in which God is never otherwise mentioned, this seems a misuse.

The Return of the King is, in short, a dreadful film that is not worth anyone's time.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Lego Brickumentary

Documentary
93 minutes / 2015
RATING: 7/10

If you have kids who are too young to watch anything with tension then that limits your viewing options. Yes, there are lots of shows they can watch, but very few that mommy or daddy will want to sit through too (I can feel my brain cells dying whenever Daniel the Tiger is turned on). But here's something different: a documentary the whole family can enjoy.

The basic building blocks of the Lego story are simple. The Denmark-based company has been making these little bricks for 65+ years. They got off to a rocky start, with the first three factories getting burned down, and in the late 1990s lost their way as they started producing sets that had more and more specialized pieces and less and less actual building involved. The buying public didn't like this new direction, and sales took a plunge. But this shocked the company straight, and they returned to what made them great: selling a simple toy whose infinite combinations sparked the imagination.

The film itself is a hagiography of sorts, looking at the company with the wide-open eyes of a fan. This is sure to get your kids building, but the target audience for the film is as much adults and children. In fact, the majority of the builders we're introduced to are adults, including both the "master builders" who work for the company, and the legions of AFOLs – Adult Fans Of Lego – who craft their own creations and show them off online and at Lego conventions. These creations are astonishing, including a full-size X-wing fighter (from Star Wars) and reproductions of classic artworks like the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo's David.

CAUTIONS

The only cautions for this G-rated film I can come up with is that there are about 10 to 20 seconds of evolutionary nonsense, accompanied by a depiction of primordial life emerging from the sea and turning into man (primordial Lego life turning into a Lego man). There is also a short 5 second clip Lego mini-figure recreation of the shower murder scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. That sounds worse than it is - in both cases my kids didn't even catch what was going on.

I'll also add that while there is a role for adults to play Lego with their kids, the obsession shown by the the AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) was disconcerting. Hobbies can be fun, but God calls Christians to balance, and any hobby that takes over your life is not a healthy one. Instead of encouraging our young men to hold on to their childhood we should be preparing them to put off childish things (1 Cor. 13:11). So Mom or Dad might want to raise the issues of balance and maturity after watching this.

CONCLUSION

A Lego Brickumentary is a fun film for the whole family. I liked it because I could watch something entertaining and kind of educational without worry about my children being traumatized. Our kids liked it because it was inspiring and the host, a Lego mini-figure, is charming and often funny. So far we've watched it twice, and I could see us watching it again, so if you can get it for a good price, this might be a documentary worth owning.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here, and you can watch the trailer below.