What a Difference: Snitch & A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)


Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V 6-; L -6; S/N -1. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught 3by the noise of the enemy,
because of the clamour of the wicked.
For they bring* trouble upon me,
and in anger they cherish enmity against me.
Psalm 55:1-3

So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
Luke 15:3-6

What a Difference: Snitch & A Good Day to Die Hard

Because it stars action hero Dwayne Johnson I was surprised at how good this film turned out to be (well, fairly good). Perhaps be cause it was “inspired by true events,” the heroics are much more believable, the climactic chase scene involving Mexican drug cartel gangsters and Johnson’s character driving an 18-wheel truck. This is as exciting as anything in the Die Hard movies.

Johnson plays John Matthews, an ordinary guy running a truck transport company who springs to the aid of the son he feels guilty of neglecting in his former marriage. When the high schooler is wrongfully accused of drug dealing and threatened with a ten year prison sentence, John makes a deal with the US attorney (Susan Sarandon) to help locate and catch the criminals selling drugs in the area.

The new drug laws not only include a long mandatory prison sentence for even the first offence, but also offer the prisoner a chance to reduce his sentence if he snitches on another dealer. This is what had happened to Jason (Rafi Gavron), the boy foolishly accepting deliverance of the package of illicit pills sent by his supposed best friend. As soon as he removes the bag of pills he sees the flashing red light of the tracking device implanted by the DEA. He tries to run away but the agents banging at his front door chase him down. US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) says she cannot help when John first approaches her, especially since Jason refuses to lie about any of his friends dealing in drugs. Admiring the boy for his integrity, John studies the law and discovers that if he aides in apprehending local drug trackers, this might get his son a reduced sentence. Reluctant at first because she doubts his ability to carry off such a venture, she is finally convinced, reluctantly accepting his offer.

There are no bone-crunching fights, just some suspenseful close call scenes hen he almost browbeats an ex-con employee trying to go straight to hook him up with a local distributor. The wild chase at the end makes this a good action tale, but it is more of a moving father-son tale—perhaps for some a parable similar to the one that Jesus told about the lost sheep, in that this is a father going to great, and dangerous, lengths for the sake of his son.

A Good Day to Die Hard

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V 6-; L -6; S/N -1. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.

Repay them according to their work, and according to the evil of their deeds; repay them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward.
Psalm 28:4

Now we come to the film that is even less believable than Bullet to the Head, the umpteenth, or so it seems, addi tion to the Die Hard franchise starring, of course, Bruce Willis as former cop John McClane. The Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, designed to show how a film rates with the critics and with audiences, reports that their group of over 50 critics gave it a 16% favorable rating, and the audiences’ 82%. Each new film in the Die Hard franchise (as well as Mission Impossible, etc.) requires the filmmakers to come up with more unbelievable stunts and CGI-aided action than the previous film. This time the heroes and villains are in Moscow where, in three different monster trucks, they smash their way through the crowded streets of Moscow, destroying cars that must add up to at least a week’s output of the auto factory lucky enough to have been chosen by the filmmakers.

The plot has Bruce’s estranged on-screen son Jack (Jai Courtney), a CIA agent, and a Russian prisoner named Konarov (Sebastian Koch) that Jack has been sent to rescue, eventually winds up in Chernobyl. If you like big orange explosions, you’ll appreciate the fiery climax involving a large RV dangling out the back of an attack helicopter and our hero falling a half dozen stories through a factory window—and suffering just a few bruises. And yes, the goons, all armed with assault weapons, can’t hit anyone—and they always aim high, so that our heroes crouching behind a bar are unscathed. (And I didn’t even mention the gunner in the helicopter who has some very BIG guns ablazing! (But even he has to obey the laws of the genre.)

Trance (2013)

Rated R. Our ratings: V -3; L -5; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
Jeremiah 17.9

2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

Danny Boyle’s film noir leaves the audience with even more ambiguous feelings than usual. This genre features characters whose intentions are so devious and evil that we are conflicted about them. Used to rooting for the main character in a story, we want to do so, but this is in opposition to our code of right and wrong, the characters planning on robbery, embezzlement, or murder. In Trance, there are not two, but three main characters— Simon (James McAvoy), an assistant art auctioneer; Frank (Vincent Cassel), head of the gang of thieves; and hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), and we are not sure which to focus upon until near the end.

Boyle plays on our minds and emotions almost as Dr. Elizabeth Lamb does on the hapless Simon and would-be thief Franck. During the attempted heist of a Goya painting that was being auctioned for over $20 million, Simon loses his memory when hit on the head in the scuffle over the painting. Unable to tell his captor Franck where he hid the work during the few moments he had been alone with the painting, even under excruciating torture, Simon is sent to hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb in the hope that she can revive his memory. Do not let her last name deceive you, for in true film noire fashion she is a femme fatale who might be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A fascinating tale that offers new revelation as the story unfolds, this amoral tale will appeal to fans of the genre—and certainly illustrates the Hebrew prophet’s observation. Church folk will find it difficult because of the graphic torture scene, and possibly even more, by the total nudity in the brief love scenes.

For Reflection/Discussion

There are several possible spoilers from the beginning to the end, so if you have not seen this film, wait before going further.

1. Describe the three main characters. What surprised you about Simon along the way? What is it that motivates him? Did you find yourself shifting in whom you rooted for? Why?

2. What did you think of Dr. Lamb when at first? Hardly a victim, and yet what was her past that shapes what she does later in the film?

4. What did you think of the resolution at the end of the film? How does all this bear out Jeremiah’s observation?

The Purge (2013)

Rated R. Our ratings: V -8; L -7; S/N -.2 Running time: 1 hour 25 min.

They sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding-places they murder the innocent.
Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.
Psalm 10:8-9

James Sandin is about to confront a murderous intruder in this tale of a dystopian future USA.
2013 Universal Pictures

Writer/director James DeMonaco’s latest work is a dystopian film set in 2022 when it appears that the NRA no longer just buys its Congressmen but has taken over the whole government. Crime is way down to 1% of the population ever since the national government established a once a year 12-hour period called “The Purge.” During this period all crimes, even murder, are ignored, with police and fire departments refusing to respond to calls for help, and even hospital emergency rooms shutting their doors.

This is the setting for what happens to the Sandin family during the Purge of 2022, the story beginning with wife Mary (Lena Headey) returning from the market to prepare for supper. They live well in a gated community because husband James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has been very successful at selling home security systems. Virtually everyone in the neighborhood has been one of his customers—which might not be a good thing. The Sandins have two teenagers, Charlie and the somewhat older Zoe (Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane). I won’t go into all the details, except to say that when Charlie goes against his father’s orders and allows a black man identified only as the Bloody Stranger ((Edwin Hodge)) to seek sanctuary in their house, all hell breaks loose, and the family find that Dad’s home security units are far from being impregnable. A pack of human wolves demand that the man they have wounded be turned over to them—or else. Dad intends to comply, but…The writer of Psalm 10 could be describing the situation in a 12 hour Purge, set in a time when no one shares the Psalmist’s belief in a God who opposes such violence.

This is a film that pushes Aristotle’s famous teaching about catharsis as far as possible. The premise would seem to me to be more acceptable had the time been further into the future. Like most science fiction works (though this barely can be called that, only because it is in the future), the presence of the church in our culture is totally ignored. There is no way that any, even the ultra-conservative ones that tend to accept violence against gays or abortionists, would sit still for such a federal law.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. What do you think about the plausibility of a Purge being enacted into law within less than ten years? Has our accepted violence so much? In what places do you see such an acceptance, sometimes even with enthusiasm—in sports; in entertainment; in opposition to other groups; in religion?

2. What do you think of Aristotle’s theory of catharsis? Have you experienced a benefit from getting anger or violence out of your system? (I can remember several times as a child smashing a model airplane because parts would not stay glued or fit together according to the instructions—but I seem to recall feeling more regret—over the loss of money spent on a ruined project—than a feeling of being purged.)

3. Who in the Sandin family seems to have a remnant of conscience that calls into question the Purge? What effect does this eventually have?

4. What do you think of the absence of any church or reference to God in the film? How is this typical of many science fiction works? Although the church is open to question when it emphasizes doctrine and rules so much, what do its unbelieving detractors fail to see in the church that has through the ages proved those pronouncing its doom wrong?

5. How is this prophetic side of the church, called by Paul Tillich the “Protestant Principle, essential to its survival. What are some of the movements that have renewed, beginning with that of Francis of Assisi on to the present day?

The Internship (2013)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-1; L-3; S/N-5. Running time: 1 hour 59 min.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

There may be a partial spoiler in the very last sentence.Vince Vaughn, who co-wrote the script with Jared Stern, joins again with Owen Wilson in a screw ball comedy that some critics consider one long product placement ad for Goggle. They are Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson), two hotshot luxury watch salesmen let go by their boss (John Goodman) because of obsolescence. In the era of the iPhone, who uses watches any more? As they search for job openings, using the technology that has undone them, one of them discovers that Google is offering summer internships, at the end of which one team will be hired.

After an improbable interview via Skype, the Google recruiting team almost decides not to admit them. However, Lyle (Josh Brener) argues that despite their age and obvious technical incompetence, there is something about them that is just the kind of quirkiness that might make a good match for Google. They represent “a new kind of diversity,” which is a plus, he argues. Thus, though most of the other recruiters expect them to fail, the pair is admitted to the program.

Thus this buddy film becomes a fish out of water tale. Both friends are in their forties, considered ancient by the hundred or more recent college grads gathered on the colorful campus, one filled with workers on scooters or lounging on nap pods or ordering food—the guys can hardly believe that the meals are free. When the chief recruiter Mr. Chetty (Assif Mandvi) tells the Nooglers, as the interns are called, to form themselves into teams, everyone avoids our guys, so he teams Billy and Nick with the other loners to form what everyone will come to regard as the hopeless team.

Their opinion would seem to be well grounded, all of the members having problems relating to anything other than a small screen. But Billy and Nick bring perseverance and optimism sorely needed by the others, and most of all, life experience. In a Quiddich game that is part of the program of competitive games (Nick calls it “techie Hunger Games” ), the team is slaughtered in the first half, so Billy gives one of those sports movies pep talks about teamwork, and the members begin playing together for the first time, scoring several times against their obviously superior opponents. They almost win, afterwards it being obvious that Chetty has noticed Billy’s persuasive ability as an unofficial coach. How the guys form a relationship with the diverse members (one of which is a girl) and bond together is a process enjoyable to watch. Along the way Billy even forms a relationship with the reluctant senior manager Dana (Rose Byrne), bringing to the workaholic woman a realization that there is a life worth pursuing outside the Google campus. The “date from hell” he promises her is one of the funniest dinner scenes you will see this year.

This would be a wonderful film on the importance of perseverance, teamwork, and friendship, great for a young adult church group, but for the scene in the upper class strip club in which the various misfits learn to “let go” and enjoy themselves. This fifteen-minute or so vulgar sequence once would have given the film an R rating, but then those were times of a stricter view toward masturbation and public drunkenness. The inclusion of this sequence is too bad, as otherwise this could be a fun family film.

The view of Google as a workers’ paradise is probably over optimistic, but it provides at least a brief glimpse of the company most of use many times a day. And as far as the values of other-concern and cooperation, this silly film delivers its message amidst lots of laughter. And just a hint for the wise: take a good look at the bearded guy lost in whatever he is listening to on his headphones.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. How is the film a good example of what advancing technology does to workers?

2. What qualities do Billy and Nick possess that prove transferable?

3. How are they like fish out of water on the Google campus?

4. What do you think of the many perks that Google staff receives? How can this enhance the creativity of the staff? How does this compare with your work environment?

5. What do you think of Lyle and Chetty? How do they show that they are perceptive in dealing with people?

6. How are the various team members helped by Billy and Nick?

7. In the late scene in the pizza parlor how do the pair show that good salesman is not so much about the sale as it is about knowing and caring for the client and convincing him that the deal is in both of their best interests?

8. What do you think of the way in which Billy related to the incommunicative bearded man? Did anyone else notice or speak with him? How is Billy similar to Jesus and his relationship with the neglected/rejected? What do you think of the results of this?

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -3; L -5; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.
It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor
than to divide the spoil with the proud.
Proverbs 16:18-19

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 18:2-3

Two friends since childhood Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are world- class magicians in Las Vegas until street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) best known through his cablecast act threatens their popularity. They also have not changed their act so that it is becoming stale, and Burt’s giant-sized ego has eaten away at their friendship so much that they break up their act.

Burt continues the Las Vegas, but his days are numbered unless he can regain the wonder that first led him into magic as a boy—and also to reconcile with Anton. Steve Gray’s magic moves beyond sleight-of-hand tricks to the masochistic. He modifies the old disappearing card trick to have it reappear beneath his skin: he has to slice through it to retrieve the card. (Thus beware of taking a child to this film.) In another trick he has pepper spray streamed into his eyes. These kinds of antics cause a surge in his popularity, people eager to see what bizarre trick he will do next. By comparison Burt’s one-man show looks lame and lifeless to the dwindling number of people who attend his show, so that his boss decides to hold a contest between the two, with the winner taking over the stage of his casino/hotel.

Best part of the talented cast is Alan Arkin as the now aged magician who first inspired Burt to take up magic. There is a subplot dealing with Burt’s male chauvinist treatment of their assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde), who has bigger dreams than he realizes. However, this is not given much screen time. The ultimate illusion that Burt stages, involving the knocking out by a drug of the entire audience and transporting them to a remote location, is very hard to swallow, given the time that would be involved, yet it is a funny sequence. Many of the critics have panned the film, but it is mildly funny, with a good sequence of Burt’s transformation into a human being again and reconciliation with Anton and Jane.

For Reflection/Discussion

1.What is the boy Burt’s situation at school and among his classmates? In what does he find solace from his loneliness? Did you ever try a magic trick when you were a child? What about it is so fascinating to us?

2. Compare Burt with Anton and Jane. And with Steve Gray.

3. Especially compare the two approaches to magic of Burt and Steve. Which is based on innocent wonder—and what is the other based on? How is the latter akin to the fascination that draws so many people to blood and gore films?

4. How is the adult Burt’s need similar to what Jesus says to his overly ambitious disciples?

The Croods (2013)

Rated PG. Our ratings: V -3; L -5; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:6

I love it when a film far exceeds my low expectations, as does this animated tale of a prehistoric family living in fear in a cave. The Croods could be neighbors of the Flintstones, with papa Grug about as bright as old Fred. His biggest problem, other than the dangerous hunt for food, is keeping his rebellious daughter Eep from being victimized by her curiosity. He keeps telling her when she sneaks out of the cave to explore their surroundings, “Fear keeps us alive, Eep. Never not be afraid.” But she wants to see what is beyond their cave, even though her father says, “New? New is always bad!” However, when seismic changes shake the mountains and destroy their cave, it is the new that the family has to confront—or die. Fortunately Eep meets an outsider named Guy, who has good news and bad news—he introduces them to the mysterious substance called “Fire,” and he tells them that their world as they know it is about to come to an end amidst gigantic earthquakes. They must leave their devastated area and seek a new home.

The film’s theme “follow the light” lends itself to discussion by church groups—or as the subject of a children’s sermon. The film also becomes a character transformation one when, after surviving so many dangers, the hulky Grug grabs and hugs his daughter and, puzzled, she says, “This is good… what do you call this?” He replies, “I call it… a hug. Because it rhymes with Grug; but you can always change it if you don’t like it.” “No, I like it,” she answers. Indeed, by this time Grug has even changed his mind about the one whom he has considered the bane of his life, his elderly mother-in-law.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Describe the main characters, especially the contrast between Eep and her other family members.

2. How can curiosity be deadly (as Grug fears), as well as important for growth?

3. How is Grug’s enslavement to fear typical of much of human history? Indeed, how have Christian leaders too often used fear? (As I have recalled before, I remember years ago passing by every day a sign which read, “Quit playing with your soul! Repent to Jesus, or you’ll burn in Hell!” )

4. How is the fire that Guy brings more than just a means of keeping warm? What all can it symbolize?

4. How do we see that a community, such as the Crood family, is important for our growth and survival?

5. What do you think of the depiction of the old conflict between rule-followers and innovators in the exchange between father and daughter, “We have to follow the rules” and “The rules don’t work anymore!” I think it is Eep who later replies to her mother’s remark about something being “too risky” with, “No, we changed the rules.” Hw was this important in the Gospel accounts of Jesus and the Jerusalem religious leaders.

6. The film brings in the old traditional mother-in-law jokes: how might this be considered sexist? Or, at least revealing of Grug’s sexism, as his attitude does change. How is the development of Eep’s character an antidote to such sexism (after all, it is she, and not her brother who is curious and ready to welcome change)?

7. Reflect upon what could be considered the film’s main theme, summed up the end comment, “No more dark. No more cave. From now on we’ll stay out here where we can follow the light.” 8. If discussing this film in a group, have the members, equipped with Bible concordances or laptops, look up the word “light” to see how many times and how it is used in the Bible.

TEMPTATION: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (2013)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V -3; L -5; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.

“…and lead us not into temptation…”

Matthew 6:13a

Tyler Perry is writer and director of still another morality tale, but this one proves to be embarrassingly unsubtle. It reminds me of the ostensibly Biblical films of Cecil B. DeMille in that it mixes a large dose of sex with a pinch of Biblical morality, the latter making you feel good while at the same time enjoying the former. (A few years ago the film’s rating would have been R! The poster certainly is.) Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is married to her childhood sweetheart Brice (Lance Gross), but the passion has gone out of their marriage, especially after Brice forgets her birthday for the second year in a row. He is a pharmacist whose dream is to own his own drug store, whereas she is an ambitios therapist working at a Washington DC matchmaking agency, but eager to start her own clinic.

Thus Judith is ripe and open to the charms of Harley (Robbie Jones), who takes more than a professional interest in her. An extremely wealthy social-media entrepreneur, he is in town negotiating a deal with her boss boss Janice (Vanessa Williams). Also at the office is Judith’s catty colleague Ava (Kim Kardashian), hwo never lets a moment slip by without criticizing Judith’s plain wardrobe and make up. She is more than willing, once Judith is ready to bite into the Genesis apple, to prepare her friend for the fall that will take place when Judith agrees to travel to New Orleans with Harley in his private jet.

The depiction of the breakdown of her marriage is well done, as it was in Perry’s previous film Good Deeds, but the characters are so black and white, especially Harley, who of course, turns out to be an abusive cad, that the film is fatally weakened. Her mother Sara (Ella Joyce) serves as the conscience/prophet. Warning her daughter of the consequences of her actions. Brice is so broken up when Judith abandons him that we come to believe that he will take up with the troubled young woman he has hired, Melinda (Brandy Norwood), but given the opportunity she pulls back, comforting him while making it clear that is he extent of their relationship. The violent last act seems as if it is part of a different movie, making this one of the least successful of Tyler Perry’s films. I almost wished that his Medea would show up to pound some sense into Judith’s head.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. What in the movie might make you think that Perry is going after two markets—the church audience and fans of steamy romances?

2. What does the apple shown in the opening credits (I believe) make you think of?

3. How does the story show the danger of a spouse taking the other for granted?

4. How do the characters and their vocational goals show the potential for future trouble? That is, Brice’s dream of owning a drug store and Jusith’s ambition to head her own clinic?

5. What do you think of the way that the character of Harley is written and depicted? Too much of “the snake in the garden” ?

6. What do you think of the ending? Believable, or playing to the audience’s desires?