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  • Hungry for Hunger Games?

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    We've made our way through Harry Potter's magickings and Bella's Twilight vampire kisses. And here we are at the cusp of yet another young adult novel being transformed into what its makers hope will be cinematic gold. The Hunger Games will hit the theaters March 23, and fans are holding their bated breath.

    hunger games movie.JPGIf this is the first you've heard of it, brace yourself: The fact is, this is one of those stories read by huge numbers of teens and adults. (And in many cases, read twice.) I myself picked up the first two books of the Suzanne Collins trilogy as part of a teen lit article I wrote a couple years back, when Katniss fever was first coming to a boil.

    So, while even though most of you are probably already nodding your heads and wearing a knowledgeable grin, let me give those not in the know a quick breakdown of the tale.

    The Hunger Games presents a world of struggling, half-starved city/districts dominated by the high-tech Capitol and its dictatorial government. To keep the citizenry in line, the Capitol stages an annual Reaping: Two kids are chosen in a lottery from each of the oppressed districts and sent off to participate in a televised death game. Twenty-four adolescents go in and only one bruised and battered contestant comes out, awarded with accolades and food bonuses for his or her home district. It's brutal and barbaric, but it's the way things work in this dystopian world. So when the story's heroine, 16-year-old Katniss, selflessly steps up to take her younger sister's place in the Reaping, she knows she's likely signing her own death sentence.

    Action. Adventure. Innocence lost. Good vs. evil. And even a dash of romance. It's got it all. And that's what makes this franchise so popular. It's also the stuff, however, that has made the story a bit controversial. It is, after all, a tale predominantly focused on the bloody killing of youths. The New York Times went so far as to label it "war stories for kids." And many parents have worried that, as the adventure's popularity has grown, the audience has skewed from teens to tweens to, well, tykes.

    hunger games cover.JPGSome schools, for instance, have even been putting the popular books on their reading lists for adolescent students. And that prompted a New Hampshire mom not long ago to petition her school district to pull the book from her daughter's middle school reading list.

    "Twenty-four children are pitted in a life-or-death struggle with each other. The reason? Entertainment. That's sick," Tracy LaSalle was reported to have said by her local Goffstown News. "You guys don't want Columbine, but you're putting forth material that will totally desensitize the children to murdering other children."

    LaSalle's book-pulling attempt went nowhere, but she wasn't the only one who tossed a few grenades. The Huffington Post reported that last year there were 348 efforts to have the Hunger Games books banned or removed from school curriculums, putting the titles on the American Library Association's list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2010.

    So the question then becomes, is that fair? Fans say no way. "She obviously didn't read the book," one blogger opined about LaSalle's efforts on the myhungergames.com fan site. "The purpose of the book is to show how horrific those things are and to question the morals of the people in charge of committing such horrific acts." A like-minded supporter added, "I think there's a lot to be learned from The Hunger Games—it's a cautionary tale about the power of empire, the cult of personality we live in, and the very thing this woman is concerned about—becoming desensitized to violence." Of course, there are others who disagree, even if only by a degree or two. "It is young adult, meant for teen-agers and should NOT be in a middle-school class," a concerned mom posted.

    Personally, I think that last comment is indeed a key element to focus on. One of our editors told me a brief story of taking his young daughter to a 6th grade girl's birthday party that featured a Hunger Games-themed cake that was iced with the thematic motif—sporting green jungle leaves with a red icing trail of bloody drizzle. Hmmm. Not exactly your typical pretty ponies and purple bows. But obviously the party planning mom knew what was on her daughter's mind.

    It'll be the same thing on the minds of many a fan come March 23. (Our review will be published the night before.)

  • Plugged In Movie Awards: Best Christian Movie (Nominees)

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    It's our third day of announcing our nominees for the first-ever Plugged In Movie Awards. On Tuesday we rolled out our picks for Best Movie for Kids. Yesterday it was Best Movie for Teens. Today we're looking at the category of Best Christian Movie released in 2012.

    This is our effort to recognize some of the work being done in the Christian film industry. As it grows, gaining momentum in terms of both box office clout and artistic merit, we're seeing more things every year that are worth taking a second look at. Or, as the case may be, handing out accolades to.

    Vote for your favorite on our FACEBOOK PAGE or right here on our blog. Note that you're more than welcome to vote and speak your mind anonymously, but if you want it to count, you'll have to JOIN our blog community and use your forum name. We'll announce our winning picks right alongside yours on Feb. 14 during that day's Official Plugged In Podcast. The following day we'll publish the details on this blog.

    Remember, our nominees aren't perfect films. There is no such thing. But they're all movies that have merit—capable (we think) of inspiring you and/or making you think. So please read our linked reviews carefully before watching any of them.

     BEST CHRISTIAN MOVIE

    Blue Like Jazz (PG-13): Let's be honest: Fireproof this film is not. A very loose retelling of Donald Miller's best-selling book of the same name, it's prone to proffering scenes that flirt with sexual subjects, drugs and foul language. It shows us quite a lot of bad behavior. And it's often sharply critical of evangelical Christianity, and evangelical Christians (including those at Plugged In) have often been critical right back. But when this story is winnowed down to its core— Don's shaky, halting, imperfect walk toward faith—we find a valuable nugget here. While Blue Like Jazz has both theological and content problems, it does eloquently give voice to Christianity's central premise: a perfect God, reaching down to a very imperfect people and rescuing us from our own personal porta-potties.

     Monumental: In Search of America's National Treasure (PG): Have you ever said (or merely thought) that the United States of America—while still a great country—is just not as great as it once was? This documentary builds on this perception, then examines how America could slow what the filmmakers believe to be its downward spiral and become truly great once again. With Growing Pains and Fireproof star Kirk Cameron as host, the movie asks viewers to metaphorically pack their bags and travel to various locales in search of answers. We visit an English expert on the Pilgrims, asking what lessons can be gleaned from knowing why these devout Christian men and women headed to America in 1620. Then it's on to Plymouth and a visit to a little-known monument to liberty, paid for by Congress 130 years ago. Could this remembrance hold the keys to rebuilding America? With each new stop it becomes increasingly clear that Cameron and his experts may be on to something.

     October Baby (PG-13): Hannah Lawson has battled debilitating health problems most of her life. And now the college freshman has reached a breaking point. She knows something isn't right. "Something is missing," she writes in her journal. "Why, God, do I feel so unwanted?" Those questions are answered, at least in part, when her parents reveal the hard truth about her birth: She survived a "botched" abortion, after which she was adopted. The news awakens new questions in Hannah's heart. Who was her birth mother, and why did she try to have an abortion? Those inquiries result in a poignant, powerful journey of self-discovery for Hannah—one that winds its way, eventually, to forgiveness, freedom and a new sense of identity. (But not before she's forced to confront some even harder revelations along the way.)

     Rogue Saints (NR): Nick and Dylan are just boys when they overhear what they call the "Old Lady Wright legend." As the story goes, wealthy Mrs. Wright had one of the world's largest diamonds encased in the concrete support system that holds up the baptistery at her church—ready for Jesus to claim when He returns. Fast-forward to today. Nick and Dylan are all grown up, and neither has forgotten the story they heard as boys. What's more, both are facing their own unique set of financial difficulties. So they decide to go after the diamond. But doing so won't be easy. That's because they'll have to blend in with the congregation at Wright's church, and that'll take some good acting by these non-Christians. They believe that by using the proper Christianese, attending services and volunteering, they might just fool everyone and pull off this major heist. What they aren't counting on is ending up with an entirely different sort of fortune.

     Unconditional (PG-13): It can sometimes feel like the things of life are stacked against you. And in this film, four people struggle with their own particular miseries. One of them, though, grits out a soft plea that God's hand might somehow move and deliver help. And It does, by bringing them all into each other's lives. Led by a pair of talented young actors (Lynn Collins and Michael Ealy), Unconditional is an involving film with a little violence but a deft message of consistent grace and loving service. At one point a character shares her philosophy that "there truly is enough love to go around … all you have to do is share it." And this well-made pic gives that simple idea an appealing and pleasing coat of cinematic paint.

    Explore our other Plugged In Movie Awards nominees in these categories:

    Best Movie for Kids
    Best Movie for Teens 
    Diamond in the Rough


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  • Movie Monday: The Hunger (and the Ratings) Games

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    TheHungerGamesMovieMonday.jpgWe all saw this coming.

    The Hunger Games, one of the most hotly anticipated movies of 2012, screamed to an estimated $155 million opening weekend take, obliterating the rest of the field (21 Jump Street finished a distant second with $21.3 million) and setting all sorts of records in the process. It was the third highest opening of all time (just behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Dark Knight) and the highest debut ever for a non-sequel.

    But let’s step back for just a moment and ask something: What, exactly, does that sky-high number mean? It doesn’t tell us whether The Hunger Games is a great movie. It doesn’t tell us whether people liked the film. It doesn’t tell us even how many tickets were sold—just how much was spent. Sure, it’s helpful. Sure, it tells us something about where The Hunger Games fits into our culture. But at the end of the day, it tells only a sliver of the story.

    Which brings us to another number: 3.5.

    The 3.5 figure is the “family friendliness” rating (out of 5) that Plugged In gave The Hunger Games for our audio, video and mobile reviews. And in the last few days, a handful of Plugged In readers and listeners have contacted us, questioning our rating. A 3.5? Some have asked. Really?

    “I'm curious how a film like the Hunger Games, where teens brutally hack and kill each other in violent ways, could receive a 3 1/2 stars family friendliness rating on your site?,” wrote one reader. “It got a higher rating than Big Miracle, a true story about saving whales. Makes no sense.”

    I hear where our reader is coming from. Entertainment should inspire discussion, and the fact that folks are really weighing what’s out there—whether it honors God, whether it’s edifying, whether it’s appropriate—is quite encouraging. After all, that’s really part of our mission here: to get people thinking about what they’re watching and listening to.

    But The Hunger Games also gives us a chance to ask another important question: What’s in a number?

    The Plugged In ratings were created, in part, to serve as something akin to critical shorthand. On the radio, Plugged In spokesman Bob Waliszewski doesn’t have 10 minutes to give a comprehensive review of a film: He has one or two. And we understand that, when you’re perusing Plugged In on your smartphone while waiting for a light to change, you may not be in a great position to read several paragraphs about, say, the sexual content of 21 Jump Street.

    But just as you can’t get the full impact of the book of Psalms through SparkNotes, the numerical rating inherently tells just part of the story. And as much time and effort as we put into giving a film an accurate rating, they can be (through no fault of their own) misleading without proper context. Even with that context, we can’t—and would never assume to—tell you what’s appropriate for your family. Though we gave The Passion of the Christ a 5 for “family friendliness,” we did so with the understanding that parents would be the final authority on whether or not to let their children see the film.

    In short, our family friendliness ratings are a tool—one of many tools we’d encourage you to use when deciding what entertainment is appropriate for you and your family. We never intended it as a verdict.

    Which brings us back to The Hunger Games—a tricky film to quantify under any circumstances. It’s a film that cogently, creatively speaks about a number of growing societal evils. It steers reasonably clear of problematic sexual and language content. It shows us hints of humanity in the midst of an inhumane game. It models sacrifice and even, at times, kindness.

    And it also ladles out loads and loads of violence: Kids killing kids in very brutal ways.

    Bob Hoose and Steven Isaac’s online review tackles the film from any number of different angles, and I know how much they worked on getting the tone of the review just right. I also know how much the team considered what sort of rating The Hunger Games should garner: After much discussion, the team involved decided on 3.5.

    The rating, again, is a guide—not a verdict or judgment. We’re not out to condemn Hollywood for making “bad” movies. The fact that most movies have bad stuff in them is a given; few folks make films with God in mind. What we want to do is give you as much help as we can to discern what might be appropriate for you and your family. Our ratings system on the radio and our app is part of that effort.

    What you do with our ratings and our reviews, our podcasts and blogs … well, that’s up to you. We’re just here with you, praying with you and for you, offering input when you ask for it and walking beside you, step for step.

  • 2014 Plugged In Movie Awards: Best Christian Movie

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     To voice your thoughts and vote for your favorite nominee, post a comment on this blog or on our Facebook page. To read our Plugged In Movie Awards introduction, link here.

    BEST CHRISTIAN MOVIE (NOMINEES)

    Black Nativity (PG-13):  This is not, at least by some measures, a "Christian" movie. It wasn't made by a church or sponsored by a ministry. Its director, Kasi Lemmons, last helmed the R-rated Talk to Me, and it features some of the most prominent performers in the biz (including Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker). But make no mistake: Black Nativity has as distinct a Christian message as any movie in this category. It's about a wayward teen at a crossroads. In one direction lies ruin, the other redemption—and the promise of a better life for all. The story is rougher than some, with occasionally foul language, troubled characters and allusions to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But its real focus is on a child in need of a shining, saving light, and almost against his wishes he finds it—in the embodiment of the Light of the World.

    The Christmas Candle (PG):  What's the purpose and place of miracles in a Christian's life? That's the central question in The Christmas Candle, an adaptation of Max Lucado's book of the same name. It's set in the impoverished English hamlet of Gladbury in 1890. There, every 25 years, an angel visits the town's candlemaker, blessing one special candle and imbuing it with miraculous power to answer the prayer of a needy townsperson. For 200 years, the good people of Gladbury have placed their hope in the blessed candle. But when a young preacher who's struggling with God's lack of answers to his own prayers arrives, he's determined to help them see that raw faith—not clinging to a silly legend—is what matters most. Both the preacher and the townspeople have significant lessons to learn about how their heavenly Father answers prayer … in mundane ways and miraculous.

    Grace Unplugged (PG):  Johnny Trey is a one-hit wonder who gave up his chase for fortune and fame to become a worship minister. Grace is his beautiful teen daughter—a headstrong girl with barrels of talent and a dream of stardom herself. What unfolds is a predictable but powerful father-daughter story: Grace learns that musical success is sometimes fool's gold, while Johnny learns that his little girl is the real treasure. And throughout it all, we see the subtle, saving power of God. Anchored by the multitalented actress/singer AJ Michalka, Grace Unplugged might pull a few tears from the eyes of some of the fathers who watch it.

    Home Run (PG-13):  When an arrogant, alcoholic pro baseball player accidentally elbows a young fan in the middle of a dugout rant, it proves to be just the catalyst Cory Brand needs to take an honest look at his out-of-control life. That rant is followed by a rehab stint back in his hometown of Okmulgee, Okla. Away from the bright lights of big-city ballparks, the All-Star slugger battles relapses and inner demons related to his alcoholic father as he slowly reconnects with the family and friends his boorish behavior has alienated for years. Along the way, Home Run delivers an unvarnished glimpse at the power of addiction … and the possibility of deliverance for those who are willing to humble themselves and ask for God's help to change their destructive ways.

    Not Today (PG-13):  Caden Welles lives large in a huge California home with a swimming pool. One evening while partying, he and some buddies agree to the wacky plan of traveling to whatever city they happen to hit with a dart thrown at a world map. Turns out the metal tip lands on a city in India, so he and his friends head there for some merrymaking. But something else happens there. Caden refuses to help a starving man who comes across their path, and when he attempts to right his wrong, he discovers the man has sold his only daughter. With his eyes now open to a thriving human trafficking trade, Caden and this father forge an unlikely friendship in an attempt to track down this little girl. The subject matter is obviously harsh, but Not Today creatively tackles one of the most important, most tragic issues of our day.

    Films in this category are made by Christian film companies and/or feature strong Christian themes. They target both Christians and non-Christians.

    (All movie summaries are written by Plugged In reviewers Paul Asay, Adam Holz, Bob Hoose and Bob Waliszewski.)

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  • Plugged In Movie Awards: Best Movie for Teens (Nominees)

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    Yesterday we launched our first-ever Plugged In Movie Awards with nominees in the Best Movie for Kids category. Today we present five nominees in the Best Movie for Teens category.

    Vote for your favorite on our FACEBOOK PAGE or right here on our blog. Note that you're more than welcome to vote and speak your mind anonymously, but if you want it to count, you'll have to JOIN our blog community and use your forum name. We'll announce our winning picks right alongside yours on Feb. 14 during that day's Official Plugged In Podcast. The following day we'll publish the details on this blog.

    Remember, our nominees aren't perfect films. There is no such thing. But they're all movies that have merit—capable (we think) of inspiring you and/or making you think. So please read our linked reviews carefully before watching any of them.

     BEST MOVIE FOR TEENS

    The Avengers (PG-13): The year's biggest moneymaker is also one of its most inspiring as a collection of squabbling superheroes team up to save the world. These do-gooders aren't completely good, mind you. Viewers can expect to hear a bit of cursing and see loads of superhero violence. But the themes here—that we're stronger together than we are apart, that even if we're flawed we  can be a force for good—are as strong as the Hulk's mighty right hook. These heroes risk their lives for the sake of others and overcome their differences to fight for a common cause. In an age when we could sure use a hero or two, these Avengers (at least on the big screen) fit the bill.

     Chasing Mavericks (PG): Surfer Jay Moriarity has one dream: to ride the biggest, most dangerous wave in the world. But to do so, he'll have to juggle work, school, his semi-flaky mom, his sometimes jealous friends and, oh yeah, talk a grizzled beach bum named Frosty into training him. Based on a real story, Chasing Mavericks illustrates the importance of family (even if it's a little untraditional), the value of hard work and the beauty of harboring dreams as big as the sea itself. While not everything here is worth emulating, the relationship between this hotshot teen and his surfing sensei help viewers see what it means to be a good father, son and friend.

     The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (PG-13): It's been nearly a decade since director Peter Jackson wrapped up his much-loved big-screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now he's returned to Middle-earth to tell the story before that story (or, the first third of it, anyway)—an adventure-drenched tale of how a hobbit named Bilbo, a wizard named Gandalf and a dozen dwarves with names that (mostly) rhyme set off to slay a dwarf-killing dragon named Smaug. Orcs and trolls, giants and goblins lurk around every bend. And then there's a certain ring that turns up too … as well as its "precious" keeper. It's a terrific, heroic tale for teens (understanding that its battle scenes are pretty intense).

     Mirror Mirror (PG): Tired of grim fairy tales? This whimsical, colorful spin on the Snow White legend stars Julia Roberts as the vain, scheming queen eager to get rid of the lovely young princess destined to supplant her. And while our heroine may be innocent, Snow's not helpless or passive—a strong role model for teen girls. Powerful themes include bravery, benevolence and the importance of inner beauty. Most of all, it's good-hearted fun. By not taking itself too seriously, the film exudes a self-aware charm. And since everyone onscreen seems to be having a blast, so do we.

     The Odd Life of Timothy Green (PG): This gentle story of a boy who magically sprouted from a backyard garden might look like an odd fit here. It may seems to some to be more of a kids' movie. But while Timothy (the garden-boy in question) has lots of great things to say from a kids'-eye view about individuality, charity and love, The movie's themes go deeper and skew older—sometimes even speaking directly to Mom and Dad. It's hard to be a parent, it reassures us, and we won't always be perfect. Sometimes we might even make a mess of things. But through love and forgiveness—not just forgiving our kids, but ourselves—the glorious messes we make can turn a family into a thing of wonder. There's a gorgeous sadness at the core of this story, twined with themes of loss and death. This movie, for all its quirky, fairy tale vibe, goes surprisingly deep.

    Explore our other Plugged In Movie Awards nominees in these categories:

    Best Movie for Kids
    Best Christian Movie
    Diamond in the Rough


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  • Plugged In Movie Awards: Best Movie for Kids (Nominees)

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    On Feb. 24, Daniel Day-Lewis and some other people will smile, strut onstage at Hollywood's Dolby Theatre, collect gleaming statuettes and tell the world how much they love their agents.

    The Academy Awards is, by far, the biggest awards show in what has become known as awards season—when everything from Grammys to BAFTAs to Razzies are doled out with much fanfare and press attention. It's a big deal, these awards. Ask anyone who's won one and they'll tell you.

    This year, looking back at all the movies released in 2012, Plugged In adds its voice to the cacophony—not to confuse the matter further by merely adding more movie titles to the already large pile, of course, but to give a family-sensitive alternative to Oscar's love for the likes of Django Unchained.

    We're calling them the Plugged In Movie Awards.

    And, oh, by the way, they're not just our awards. They're yours, too. We want you to be a part of this.

    Here's how it'll work:

    Over four days this week on this blog we'll be unveiling our five nominees in four categories: Best Movie for Kids, Best Movie for Teens, Best Christian Movie and our stab at identifying the year's most valuable Diamond in the Rough. Each nominee will come with a brief description written by the Plugged In reviewers. Our nominees aren't necessarily perfect films, and that is especially true for the Diamonds in the Rough. So please read our linked reviews carefully before watching any of them. But they're all movies that have merit—capable (we think) of inspiring you and/or making you think.

    Then we want to hear from you: Which one of each category's nominees do you like best? And why? We'll tally your votes, and when we announce our final winners, we'll also announce yours! You can lodge your opinions in one of two forums: on our FACEBOOK PAGE or right here on our blog at the end of the four nominee posts. Note that you're more than welcome to vote and speak your mind anonymously, but if you want it to count, you'll have to JOIN our blog community and use your forum name. That helps us guard against one anonymous commenter voting over and over again … and we also want to use this opportunity to encourage you to grab your own screen name! It just helps with that feeling of community when folks have names.

    We'll officially announce all winners on Feb. 14 during that day's Official Plugged In Podcast. (It won't be televised, but we'll all be wearing tuxedos, I assure you.) The following day we'll follow up with a blog post here with all the details.

    So let's kick things off with …

    BEST MOVIE FOR KIDS*

    *Since the word kids is a pretty broad descriptor, we'll give some context here: Generally speaking, we're looking at middle school- and elementary-age children, but we're also aware that different kids have different sensitivities. Read our reviews before deciding whether a film here is suitable for your family.

    Brave (PG): Growing up is never easy. Doubly so for Disney princesses, who have a persistent habit of conflict with their mothers. That's definitely the case in Pixar/Disney's latest, the story of a sassy Scottish princess, named Merida, who's more interested in horseback riding and archery than she is her mother's ideas about becoming a lady. So tense is their  relationship that Merida wishes she didn't have to deal with her nagging mom at all … a wish that's granted by a "helpful" witch, though not quite the way Merida expected. Merida learns lessons about how self-absorbed she's been and how much her mother loves her. It's a tender story, but families should know that before they reconcile, Merida and her mom will traverse some dark (and sometimes spiritually dim) moments together and face a fierce bear who's got it in for them. Scottish-themed toilet humor creeps in, too. It's never enough, however, to completely derail this redemptive tale.

     Chimpanzee (G): It's a jungle out there, quite literally for poor Oscar. Only the strong survive, and an orphaned chimp like Oscar—barring a miracle—doesn't stand much of a chance. But in this nature film from Disney, that miracle happens. Freddy, a powerful alpha chimpanzee who's never shown a whit of interest in Oscar (or any other baby chimp) before, takes the tyke under his wing and shows him how to survive: how to eat, how to groom, how to stay safe. It's the year's most improbable love story, and perhaps its most touching. Through the eyes of Oscar and Freddy kids of all ages can learn about the value of charity, compassion and, most especially, family.

     Ice Age: Continental Drift (PG): Manny the mammoth, Diego the saber-toothed tiger and Sid the sloth are set afloat on an iceberg and must battle a pirate ape to get back home. This fourth animated Ice Age has a bit of lowball regurgitating humor and just a dash of floating-on-a-slab-of-ice peril, but nothing too odorous or scary for your average young sloth. On the other hand, the longing and love for family and the growing pains between teens and adults are positive topics well explored amidst the joking, seafaring and swashbuckling.

     Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (PG): Inspired by the classic novels of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, this live-action adventure from Walden Media thrilled moviegoing kids in 3-D. There's nothing like a perilous quest to unite sparring family members. This one bonds a teenager, his grandfather and his stepdad as our heroes outrun giant lizards and insects on a lush island that's as dangerous as it is beautiful. Impressive effects. Wild and crazy action scenes. Better yet, the story packs great messages about absentee dads and the selfless love required to grow a healthy family.

     Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (PG): The homesick menagerie of zoo animals are finally heading back to their Central Park home—via Monte Carlo, Rome and London. Things start off on the French Riviera where Alex the Lion and his furry pals get chased out of town by a psychotic animal-control chief named Capitaine DuBois. She wants a few more stuffed trophies for her wall. So, of course, there's only one thing for the animal pals to do … join the circus. This animated migration tale has a few off-color giggles and some cartoony thumping under its big top. But it's a warmhearted, fun romp that encourages kids to overcome their fears and make the most of the unexpected things in life.

    Explore our other Plugged In Movie Awards nominees in these categories:

    Best Movie for Teens
    Best Christian Movie 
    Diamond in the Rough 

     

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  • My, What Gory Tales They Read

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    hunger games.JPGAre You There God? It's Me, Margaret. The Catcher in the Rye. Bridge to Terabithia. Such were the scandalous teen fiction titles in the late 20th century. Though I read all of them as an adolescent in the 1980s, it wasn't without firm counsel and concerned follow-up from adults. Later, when I took a college-level children's literature course, the darkest book we read was I Am the Cheese, which deals with a teenage boy's psychiatric visits, amnesia and abusive past.

    Obviously, these books can have some tough themes in them. Teens would grapple with issues such as anger, angst, sexual maturity, depression, obsession and death within their pages. By today's standards, though, these stories seem like kid's stuff.

    In the 21st century, the macabre seems to rule much young adult fiction. It's as if authors have taken these issues (and many more) and put them on narrative steroids.

    Today's titles include the futuristic, apocalyptic Hunger Games series (in which teens are forced to fight one another to the death), Wintergirls (about the physical and psychological horrors of eating disorders), and Right Behind You (in which a boy sets a 7-year-old neighbor on fire and spends years in a facility for the criminally insane). Graphic, sometimes otherworldly descriptions of pain, torture, hallucinations and delusions, cutting, sex and sexual abuse are now routine reading. And when I read passages of such stories or hear friends who teach high school comment on them, I'm always a little taken aback by how morbid young adult fiction is today. I'm not the only one.

    Wall Street Journal columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon says in her recent article Darkness Too Visible:

    How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

    Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

    If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

    Believe it or not, many of these books do have redemptive value. Many are insightful, well-written page-turners. Many can help to lead teens through their own dark years—if they don't become mired in the plot and they have a wise adult to guide them through snarling themes. And, as Gurdon astutely notes, "Reading about homicide doesn't turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won't make a kid break the honor code."

    Still, I can't help wondering how much any of us—teen, middle-aged or elderly—should consume such stories. How does reading grotesque descriptions of gang rape, drug abuse, cutting and assault in profanity-laden prose help anyone to dwell on what is true, noble, lovely and admirable? How are these accounts truly excellent and praiseworthy, even if many do end on a hopeful note despite the horrors they portray? While even the Bible contains images of brutality and sex, the biblical narrative is as much about what's left out of the comparatively spare descriptions as what's left in. Most young adult literature today doesn't show that restraint (and don't even get me started on mainstream fiction). I just wonder how many impressionable minds are being negatively affected in the name of literary entertainment.

  • An Unsung Media Hero

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     When you think of Christian filmmakers impacting the culture, who comes to mind? Is it the Kendrick brothers creating evangelistic indies out of their church in Albany, Ga.? Or maybe it's a Hollywood power couple like Mark Burnett and Roma Downey producing The Bibleas a miniseries for the History Channel? Both are great examples. But behind the scenes, and without much fanfare, many more Christian artists are shaping mainstream entertainment in subtle ways every day.

    On a recent episode of The Official Plugged In Podcast, I spoke with former Disney animator Tony Bancroft about his first directing gig, the 1998 hit Mulan, which is based on a Chinese folktale. I asked Tony if he found it difficult, as a Christian, grappling with the story's cultural origins and Eastern religion. He said, "I was very blessed and fortunate that my co-director, Barry Cook, was also a believer. It was something I didn't know about him when I joined the film, but one of the first conversations we had was about our faith. We kind of made a pact up front about how far we would go with certain content and certain elements."

    Of course, it wouldn't have been appropriate for these men to turn a $100 million Disney feature into a personal soapbox for their Christian faith with baptisms in the Yangtze. No four-point sermons. Rather, their calling involved softening some of the Eastern spirituality.

    "Of course, Buddhism and ancestor worship was a big part of that original story, and very culturally relevant in that historical time period," Tony explained, "so Barry and I really struggled with how to represent that and be true to Mulan's story without becoming preachy about it. Because it wasn't something we believed in. It wasn't something we wanted to put out there in a big way, in a preachy way."

     Some Christians might argue that these artists shouldn't have been putting it out there at all. They'd argue that believers have no business devoting time and creativity to a project steeped in spiritual counterfeits. It's a no-win situation best left to others, they might say. But Tony and Barry realized that, left to others, the result could've been a Disney smash that, for generations, would proselytize children as much as entertain them. So they did what they could.

    "We found different ways of handling tone. One of them was that the ancestors are kind of a raucous group [in] a crazy family reunion. So when the ghosts rise up out of the bays, it's a comic sequence. It's not reverential. That was one of the things we felt strongly about that we infused in there."

    Subtle, but significant. You won't find encouraging stories like that among Mulan's newly released blu-ray bonus features. Yet it says a lot, and is probably more representative of Christians' impact on entertainment than we realize.

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  • No Flesh, Please, We're the Grammys

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     The Grammy Awards are supposed to be about music.

    But this year, that focus got somewhat pre-emptively derailed by a leaked CBS memo that spelled out, in precise anatomical detail, exactly how anyone who might end up on camera—presenters, award winners, even those sitting in the audience—was supposed to dress.

    I'll republish the memo here, but be warned, it's very, very specific when it comes to the body parts that ought to stay covered:

    CBS Program Practices advises that all talent appearing on camera please adhere to Network policy concerning wardrobe. Please be sure that buttocks and female breasts are adequately covered. Thong type costumes are problematic. Please avoid exposing bare fleshy under curves of the buttocks and buttock crack. Bare sides or under curvature of the breasts is also problematic. Please avoid sheer see-through clothing that could possibly expose female breast nipples. Please be sure the genital region is adequately covered so that there is no visible "puffy" bare skin exposure. Please avoid commercial identification of actual brand name products on T-shirts. Foreign language on wardrobe will need to be cleared. OBSCENITY OR PARTIALLY SEEN OBSCENITY ON WARDROBE IS UNACCEPTABLE FOR BROADCAST. This as well, pertains to audience members that appear on camera. Finally, The Network requests that any organized cause visibly spelled out on talent's wardrobe be avoided. This would include lapel pins or any other form of accessory.

    Upon first reading this story, it seemed to me that CBS was admirably trying, in the wake of all those infamous wardrobe malfunctions during past awards shows and sports broadcasts, to take responsibility for anything that might raise the culture's collective eyebrows. Just two weeks before, after all, CBS had come under fire for broadcasting an uncensored f-word from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco after his team's Super Bowl victory. It wasn't hard for me to imagine a frustrated CBS manager saying, "Look, we can't have any more of this kind of stuff getting accidentally aired; we've got to make sure it doesn't happen again."

    When I talked it over with my editor, however, he quickly suggested that the memo was more likely motivated by the need to have a legal defense handy if anyone did misbehave than an indication of corporate responsibility. He also mused over the possibility that they've sent out similar memos in the past, but that they just never made their way into the news cycle before.

    Turns out he was on to something. USA Today reports that the memo does indeed resemble others that had been sent out for previous Grammy telecasts.

    The question, then, became how much attention participants would pay to the specific instructions.

    Not much.

    Rihanna was arguably the most flagrant offender, with many observers commenting on how her sheer dress did little to hide the singer's nipple rings. Katy Perry sported acres of cleavage. Jennifer Lopez, a serial wardrobe offender in past years, wore a dress that, while technically following the rules, revealed nearly all of her right leg. "As you can see, I read the memo," Lopez joked onstage. "They didn't say anything about leg!" she told E! correspondent Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet. Other artists flaunting more flesh than CBS was officially asking for included Kelly Rowland, Kimbra, Ashanti, Skylar Grey and D'Manti.

    Meanwhile, DJ Joel Zimmerman, better known by his stage name Deadmau5, arrived wearing a hat saying, "Your S‑‑‑ Bums Me Out"—a profane message that was soon censored by a strategically placed piece of tape.

    Whether CBS is developing a corporate conscience or just covering itself legally when artists insist upon uncovering themselves, we may never know for sure. What we can say with some certainty, however, is that hoping nonconformist, boundary-pushing artists will suddenly conform to a network's (or a culture's) boundaries is an exercise in wishful thinking.

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  • Olympics Fever: Catch It or Wash Your Hands?

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    london logo.JPGMy family's been in the throes of Olympics fever the last few nights. We saw that weird baby rise up during the opening ceremonies, watched poor Jordyn Wieber break down after failing to qualify for the women's gymnastics all-around, cheered my home state hero Missy Franklin (she goes to high school in Aurora!) splash to a gold medal in the women's 100-meter backstroke. For us, it's been great fun.

    See, my kids are older now: They flit in and out of the house as frequently as a London train flits through the Piccadilly tube stop. And with my wife and I busy with our own little duties, it can be hard to corral us all into one spot.

    But the Olympics, they give us a ready-made excuse to spend a little time with each other (and with Bob Costas!). We talk about the athletes, joke about the events, maybe even cheer a little. We don't just watch James Bond jump out of a helicopter: We bond with each other. And that feels pretty cool.

    For me, it's events like the Olympics that bring out the best in television—in that it can foster community. Just as families generations ago used to gather 'round the hearth to hear stories or the piano to sing songs, NBC's grand spectacle encourages more modern-day families to hear and see (often in high def) new stories—stories filled with determination and endurance and heartbreak and celebration. It feels, at times, practically old-fashioned.

    But am I an outlier? Do the Olympics really retain that sweet nostalgic sheen I credit them with?

    There's no question that the Olympics are far different games than what I first saw when I was 7, watching Nadia Comaneci rip out perfect 10s with my grandparents. Professional athletes compete beside the amateurs these days—and sometimes, they seem to participate almost grudgingly. The specter of performance-enhancing drugs hangs over almost every sport. I've heard many Christians fret about the degradation in Olympic sportsmanship (trash-talking tweets are as common as gold medals this year) or turn off certain events because of the increasingly racy outfits. (Are women tuning in partly to see Michael Phelps in his skintight suit? Are men hanging around the tube waiting to see what Misty May-Treanor's wearing this go-round?)

    And in truth, the way we watch the games—or the way many would like to watch them—has changed, too. I personally like my prime-time Olympic fix, but I've heard many folks complain about NBC's habit of tape-delaying the events for the sake of sky-high evening ratings. And in this age of perpetual multitasking and interconnectivity, is it even possible to set aside the smartphones and tablets to just watch the Olympics? I admit that even I, the techno-dweeb that I am, tweeted a couple of times during the opening ceremonies.

    I get all that. And perhaps I'm not the best person to judge the Olympics, given that my kids are old enough now—21 and 18—where I'd feel a little silly covering their eyes during beach volleyball. So with that in mind, I'd love to hear what you think: If you were handing out medals to the Olympics themselves, would you give them a gold? A bronze? Or would you tell 'em to ship out, clean up their act and only show up in Rio if they can have a new attitude?

  • They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

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     Last Wednesday, a 93-year-old Kansas City man was arrested for murdering his 95-year-old wife. According to the account I read (CBS St. Louis/AP), Harry Irwin and his wife Grace had been married 70 years. Despite the longevity, Harry is quoted as saying he "couldn't take it anymore" because Grace, who had health issues, had been "arguing and screaming at him all night."

    So here's a couple that weathered life's trials and difficulties together for seven decades with seemingly just a small amount of time till death do them part. I don't know about you, but to me this story is beyond tragic. However, some in Hollywood, I believe, would like us to view Harry differently than I (and most people) do—not as a cold-hearted killer, but as a misunderstood, courageous hero.

    Sure, she argued and screamed and got on his nerves. But don't forget, she was in poor health!

    Here's what I mean: If Harry was an actor whose homicidal actions had taken the life of his onscreen wife (let's just say Harry in this fictitious movie I'm envisioning had smothered Grace with a pillow), it is quite possible we might even be nominating this film for Best Picture of the year. We might even nominate it for five Academy Awards.

    Spoiler warning: By now, if you've read our online review of the Oscar nominated film Amour, you know what I'm getting to. In Amour, Georges, a man in his mid-80s, gently cares for his wife, Anne, who has experienced a stroke, partial paralysis and shows signs of dementia. We watch as he tenderly lifts her off the toilet and learns how to apply a diaper. We nod affectionately as he helps her walk—almost as if they're dancing at times—around their apartment. We smile as he tells Anne a childhood story while softly stroking her hand. And then we stare in horror (or at least I did) as Georges grabs his wife's pillow and smothers her with it, all the while watching her legs thrust repeatedly as she struggles for the oxygen that never comes.

    And then we walk out of the theater with a "new" view of "mercy killing," or at least I believe that's what director/writer Michael Haneke wants us to do. Doesn't it make total sense, we're supposed to ask ourselves, to put someone out of their misery if the quality of life is so diminished, especially if they're facing sickness and possible mental decline? I mean, c'mon, we euthanize old and sickly dogs and cats. Race horses get put down when they stumble on the track and break a leg. Certainly it makes sense to do the same to people, doesn't it?

    We saw a somewhat similar theme play out in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, a film that in 2004 won an Oscar for Best Picture. Rarely was a word then uttered in cultural disapproval. So, naturally, we're getting another film with the "put-her-out-of-her-misery" message.

    Amour further accelerates what I believe is already a very slippery slope toward openness about accepting euthanasia. If you doubt that the media wields such power, just consider one aspect of how TV and film quickly shaped how society viewed something once considered morally wrong: Until the early 1990s, same-sex kissing was taboo on U.S. primetime television. In 1991 the first lesbian kiss came to the small screen on L.A. Law, followed by another in 1993 on Picket Fences. But a seismic shift really jolted American culture in 1994, when Roseanne Barr kissed Mariel Hemingway during an episode of the popular sitcom Roseanne. When the resulting firestorm of controversy died down, a door had been opened—and has never been shut.

    Million Dollar Baby, Amour and other films like them are likewise pushing a door open. A door that will be impossible to shut.

    Harry was wrong, very wrong when he murdered his wife Grace (assuming the charges are proved true). But so was Georges when he murdered Anne onscreen. And unless we culturally call a spade a spade, we'll wake up one day to find that the Harrys of the world are no longer arrested, but instead are awarded medals of valor.

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  • Don't Watch. But If You Do ...

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    projector.JPGThe Bible never comes right out and says what to do with movies. Moses didn't bring back a commandment that said, "Thou shalt not watch any R-rated film (unless thine film be titled Passion of the Christ)." Jesus never explicitly spoke about Hollywood. We know the Bible has as much to say to modern-day believers as it did to those 2,000 years ago, but let's be honest: Reading the Scriptures isn't a science. If God's will was always obvious, we'd probably have a lot fewer denominations.

    Over the last couple of weeks, you have reminded me of that truth. When I read the robust dialogue (here and on our Facebook page) inspired by The Hunger Games or the discussion for Adam Holz's "Titanic and Sexting" post, it's pretty obvious that Christians—Christians of good faith—can look at movies quite differently.

    I love reading what you have to say—even if it's sometimes critical of what we do here. Take, for instance, what puzzled told us:

    "… honestly, I can't understand why your website would even consider reviewing almost any rated R movies at all. I thought this was by christians for christians."

    Other readers answered puzzled. As kate wrote, "Christians watch R-rated movies (believe it or not), and that's why PluggedIn reviews them."

    That's very true. Christians do watch R-rated movies. And that is why we review them. But a wider question lingers: Should Christians watch them? Is it "un-Christian" to watch them?

    Blacks and whites on a color spectrum or 1's and 5's on a rating scale can't nail the lid down on this one, so let me share how we wrestle with the issue here in the Plugged In offices, er, I mean, cubicles.

    Plugged In has two primary directives: One is to give you, the reader, as much information as we can to help you decide whether a bit of entertainment is suitable for you or your family to consume. We don't often flat-out tell you whether to go or not, but regular readers know how to read between the lines. And they know that we're fairly cautionary in our approach. That's why so many of you come to us in the first place. So let's take a torture-porn movie like Saw IV as an example. I reviewed that one, so I can speak to it directly. Clearly, from my review, you'd gather enough clues to know I'd just as soon you not go see it. But would going be a sin? That I can't answer. Would it be unhealthy? You bet. Might it cause you to stumble in your Christian walk? Easily.

    The other directive is even trickier. If a reader does see a film we'd consider unhealthy, how can we help him or her think about and process what they've seen?

    For instance: It'd probably be fair to say that I took a rather dim view, content-wise, of the this weekend's R-rated Cabin in the Woods. If you called me up and asked, "Is this a good movie for a typical Christian to see?" I'd say no.

    But we know that some of our readers—some of our Christian readers—will see Cabin in the Woods. And if they do, they'll be not just confronted with bare breasts and vats of blood, but with a strangely paradoxical message: Hyper-violent movies (like Cabin in the Woods) are problematic.

    It's a message Plugged In can get behind told in a film that Plugged In cannot.

    How can we, in our reviews, or you, in your personal life, engage with that message—and others that can be found in problematic movies—without seeming to embrace the film, without giving in to its other elements? And how can we help those who see it process those unhealthier aspects?

    It's a tough thing to do, but we're gonna try to do it here.

    For the next few Fridays, this blog will look at how to engage with problematic films. We'll give you tips from our own experience—how we gear up for particularly foul films, how we process their problems, how we drill down to weigh the messages. This doesn't mean that we think it's suddenly OK to see all the "bad" movies you want, you know, to practice or something. We're still as cautionary as ever. But if we're going to review R-rated fare, it's only fair for us to talk about how we deal with it.

    This post is the first in a series. Feel free to click on these related posts:

    Sorting Out the Good, the Bad and the Excellent

    How Come They Get to Watch Bad Movies and I Don't?

    Getting to the Very Art of the Matter

    It Didn't Really Bother Me at All

    The Series Is Dead: Long Live the Series!

  • Plugged In Movie Awards: Diamond in the Rough (Nominees)

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    This is our last category for the Plugged In Movie Awards. It should be—and not just because it's the last thing some of our readers might think Plugged In would do! It is the category that stretches us the most, and will make you think the hardest. It's our Diamond in the Rough category.

    Clichéd as it is, we chose the name for this category with quite a bit of forethought. We wanted it to do most of the heavy lifting when it came to explaining why Plugged In was applauding movies that had sometimes serious content concerns. We wanted it to instantly resonate with a word picture most people would understand. To instantly communicate that if some ragged edges had been smoothed off these films before they were released, then the jewel inside would have sparkled with even more brilliance. But that even with the scuffs and gouges, it still managed to carry quite a bit of light with it.

    Vote for your favorite on our FACEBOOK PAGE or right here on our blog. Note that you're more than welcome to vote and speak your mind anonymously, but if you want it to count, you'll have to JOIN our blog community and use your forum name. We'll announce our winning picks right alongside yours on Feb. 14 during that day's Official Plugged In Podcast. The following day we'll publish the details on this blog.

    Remember, in this category in particular, our nominees aren't perfect films. But they're all movies that have merit—capable (we think) of inspiring you and/or making you think. So please read our linked reviews carefully before watching any of them.

     DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

    The Impossible (PG-13): The members of the Bennett family—Henry, his wife Maria and their three boys—are all set to enjoy their holiday at an ocean-side Thailand resort during Christmas. It's all sun, surf and seasonal cheer … until a 90-foot wave roars in and obliterates everything. Based on a real family's struggles during the devastating tsunami of 2004, this is a well-acted and often emotionally wrenching story. The realistic scenes of death and devastation, and brief glimpses of  torn, naked flesh are difficult images to see, making this a rough ride both visually and emotionally. But through all the horror, The Impossible speaks powerfully of self-sacrifice, the anguish of loss and the strength of familial love.

     Les Misérables (PG-13): Based on Victor Hugo's novel and the blockbuster musical of the same name, this is the epic opus tale of Jean Valjean, a beaten-down man who spent 19 years of his life in prison for simply stealing a loaf of bread. Once released, though, his life is changed forever by one small act of mercy and his heartfelt recognition of God's forgiveness. This musical film powerfully depicts the struggle between law and grace in a fallen, heartless world. And the all-star cast often makes that redemption tale soar with raw emotion and beautiful song. But director Tom Hooper's realistic and gritty Paris of the early 1800s is also a filthy land of squalor, befouled humanity and sore sensuality.

     Life of Pi (PG): This gently gorgeous movie is perhaps the most problematic of this list's unpolished gems. While most films are scuffed with language or sex or violence, this one suffers in its soul. Pi, the multi-religious protagonist, suggests that faith can be a patchwork thing: It doesn't matter what you worship as long as you worship it; faith is "real" as long as it helps you. These themes are incompatible with true Christianity, which is both literally true and quite exclusive. But Pi's spiritual squishiness doesn't automatically preclude spiritually mature audiences from being elevated by his stunning, and moving, journey—a journey that serves as a riveting rumination on grace, submission and the incomparable beauty of faith. "God," Pi says, "I give myself to you. I am your vessel. Whatever comes, I want to know. Show me." And in the end, God—even if Pi doesn't truly understand Him—shows him mercy and wonders beyond belief.

     Lincoln (PG-13): Nobody's perfect—not even the United States' greatest president. In this Oscar-nominated tour de force, we see Lincoln as a more complex personality than most of our history books show. This homespun secular saint was also a masterful, even conniving politician, as liable to persuade opponents through the twist of an arm or an under-the-table bribe as a shake of the hand. But can we forgive his techniques, considering his aim was nothing short of freeing millions of people from slavery? It's that lingering question that makes this film a true diamond and, at the same time, leaves it in the rough. It might launch a thousand fantastic discussions, but its "end justifies the means" ethos (along with some bad language and harrowing war imagery) make it a sometimes troubling—but reasonably true and gratifyingly inspiring—history lesson.

     Trouble With the Curve (PG-13): Gus Lobel and his daughter Mickey haven't exactly been in sync as of late. She's an up-and-coming lawyer, and he's an isolated old codger of a baseball scout. But when it comes out that Gus is losing his eyesight—and if he's not careful his job—there's only one person who can help him. Like father like daughter, Mickey knows baseball like Gus knows baseball. And maybe that will be enough to see them through. Baseball, romance, a dad/daughter reconciliation, loads of scratch-and-spit humor and a grumbling, gruff old Clint Eastwood. What more could you ask for in a movie? Well, maybe just one little thing: fewer foul language curve balls.

    Explore our other Plugged In Movie Awards nominees in these categories:

    Best Movie for Kids
    Best Movie for Teens 
    Best Christian Movie


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  • Stinky Christian Films

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    thumbsupthumbsdown.jpgSeveral months ago, I talked with a man on the phone who ended our conversation like this: "Bob, my giving for 2012 and 2013 is pretty much set in stone. But beginning in 2014 my wife and I want to take a closer look at funding a Christian film—in the neighborhood of a million, perhaps 2 million dollars. Let me know if you run across a film that really needs to get made."

    It's not every day that I talk to someone who wants to give away a couple million dollars. Interestingly, this man was not trying to impress me. He just thought I might have access to scripts and story ideas that he wouldn't.

    But this man is hardly alone in his farsightedness. In the past  several years, a number of philanthropic-minded believers have realized that one very significant way to share the Gospel and help change the culture is to "tell stories" by way of the big screen. As I've scanned the landscape of today's media, this surge in Christian film has been one of the highlights of all things entertainment related. But just having a vision (and the money to back it up) doesn't always translate into a great Christian film.

    While there are a lot of great Christian movies out there (Courageous, The Chronicles of Narnia films, Not Today, Soul Surfer, Amish Grace, to name just a few), and the quality continues to get better every year, there are still a number of films that miss the mark so terribly that I have to wonder to myself, "Isn't there anyone in that director's life who can shoot straight with him/her about the film?" By the time I get a screener DVD in the mail or an invitation to attend a film screening, it's entirely too late to give my critique on plot, acting, special effects, dialogue, etc. What's needed is feedback earlier in the process.

    Now before I go any further, I need to also point out that this problem occurs on the secular side of films as well, as anyone who's seen Penelope or The Tooth Fairy can attest. That's not my issue: That's something for Hollywood to deal with. My main concern is that well-meaning, generous people of faith have been investing in (Read: wasting their money on!) "stinkers" that either fail to warmly invite nonbelievers to the faith or do so with plots so disingenuous, acting so subpar or storylines so fake as to make me cringe while watching.

    This is probably on my heart right now because just last week I screened an upcoming film that made me want to gag. As a Christian, I want to like it. Because the Gospel is presented in the film, I want to glowingly advocate this movie. But I just can't. I don't question the director's motives, and I certainly don't fault the investors. But it just wasn't a good movie, and I couldn't say that it was.

    Similarly, a few weeks earlier, I saw another dud due out later this year. The family bankrolling this one is currently digging deeper into its bank account to fund the distribution—sending good money after bad! It breaks my heart because this film will not even come close to breaking even because hardly anyone will show up. And those who do will turn up their noses. Once again, the people behind this film are wonderful, wonderful folks with super-big hearts. But the end product was, sadly, pretty weak.

    Near my computer I have a DVD promoting another potential faith-based film. Most likely, the DVD was produced to garner funding. From a friend close to the project, I found out that the film has already incurred several millions in expenses and all anyone has to show for it is an elaborate set that's been in a state of atrophy the last few years. Even if this film eventually gets made, just rebuilding the set will be costly. Never mind that millions of "faith" dollars have been flushed down the toilet.

    Personally, I'd like to stop the bleeding. What I would like to propose is that one of those generous philanthropists fund an independent Christian screenplay evaluation agency. As I see it, scriptwriters and movie directors would (for a fee) submit their movie script to a panel of gifted writers/critics (at least four) to get unbiased feedback about its potential. Does the script have potential? Does it need a rewrite? Does it just need some minor editing? Is it unsalvageable? Is it well written but tells a story that will be forgotten minutes after viewing? As I foresee it, this independent panel would give scripts a thumbs-up or -down, and directors would essentially agree to not make any film whose script didn't receive unanimous approval. (Even if they didn't agree, investors could use the board's recommendations when deciding where to funnel money.) And while it might cost some investment dollars to fund such an agency for four or five years, the money saved by not continuing down the route we currently use for funding and distributing Christian films would far and away pay for it—particularly as far as Kingdom dollars go.

    The man I spoke to back in March wants me to keep my eyes open for a great script. I plan to. But honestly, I could count on one hand how many scripts have come my way in the 21 years I've been here at Plugged In. But if something like what I'm proposing were to come to be, I think this man could find his script there. Furthermore, I think it would be a win-win situation for the Church. Talented believers would have a means of getting their work into the hands of producers and directors. And well-meaning, generous people of means could begin to fund exclusively worthy projects without worry that their money would be squandered. And the embarrassing films that shouldn't have been made would no longer see the light of day, er, dark of a movie theater.

  • Titanic and Sexting

    • 47 Comments
    titanic2.JPGI have a confession to make. There are a couple of pretty big movies that I've never seen (at least not in their entirety in one sitting): The Wizard of Oz (the monkeys and the witch terrified me as a kid), The Sound of Music (I could sing all the songs, but I don't think I've ever sat through the film end to end), and, weirdly, Back to the Future (not sure how I managed to miss that one, child of the '80s as I am).

    Until last week, there was another heftily titanic film on that list too: Titanic. When it came out in 1997, I intentionally stayed away for two reasons. One, everyone was seeing it and gushing about it … and it just turned me off. In a fit of oppositional defiance, I decided to personally boycott it. After all, I knew how the story was going to end, right?

    But there was another reason. Much had been made of Kate Winslet's nude scene in the film and, frankly, I decided I didn't need to see that.

    Fast-forward 15 years, and James Cameron has reissued Titanic in 3-D. Plugged In reviewer Bob Hoose wrote an updated review of Cameron's box office smash, and I was assigned to see the 3-D version in the theater to make some notes about how adding another dimension impacted and influenced the Titanic experience. My editor also felt it was important for me to see the film, given its cultural impact.

    I have to admit, Titanic is a moving story on multiple levels, and I could see how it garnered so much praise from fans and critics alike. As for the content, however, I thought that the combination of some visceral violence, profanity and, of course, Winslet's nude scene arguably could have merited an R rating—a rating that likely would have kept many teens from seeing the film when it came out 15 years ago … and today, for that matter.

    Speaking of that last scene, I also couldn't help but wonder how it might unintentionally reinforce a social trend today that didn't exist in 1997: sexting.

    Sexting is the practice of sending sexually explicit text messages and/or photos of yourself to someone else. Depending on what research you draw from, sexting rates among adolescents may be as low as 2.5% and as high as 30%. Regardless of the actual percentage, however, experts in youth culture and law enforcement agree that it's a growing problem—a problem aided and abetted by technology and teens' lack of understanding about how such images could hurt them.

    So what does this have to do with Titanic? In the film, Winslet's character, Rose, volunteers to be sketched nude. She's motivated in part by her growing attraction to Jack (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and by her rebellion against the strict upper-class mores and expectations she's been subject to her entire life.

    Here's my question: When Rose poses without clothes for someone she's attracted to—someone she's known for little more than a day—what message does that send to the teen boys and girls who may just be seeing this film for the first time? I don't think it's a good one.

    I worry that this scene may reinforce the unhealthy, dangerous idea that shedding your clothes for someone you've just met and are interested in is normal behavior. And for young men, I wonder if it solidifies the idea that asking a young woman do what Rose did is a perfectly acceptable request.

    After all, it seemed so romantic in the movie, right?

  • Am I One in a Billion? Or Just Not Cool Enough for the Crowd?

    • 43 Comments

     I don't have a Facebook page.

    And I'm starting to feel pretty bad about that. After all, out of the 2.5 billion or so folks who have Internet access on our planet, 1 billion of them now apparently have a Facebook page. Or maybe it's only 900 million, if you whack off 100 mil or so for all those fake or spammy or duplicate or dog-devoted pages that clutter things up. But big whoop, right? So there are only 900 million instead of 1 billion! That's small compensation for a guy left out in the digital cold.

    Am I the weird duck? The last grumpy holdout? The anti-tech zealot trying to make a personal point about the way digital communication is ruining our culture? Except, um, I'm an editor for an online publication. I spend countless hours working with code and content-management systems, interfacing with our IT department to make sure you can read what you need to read on this website. I might know more about how your Facebook page works than you do. I've been tirelessly tinkering with Plugged In's Facebook page for years now, entering links and lists and questions right alongside my colleague Paul. I've set up my wife's personal page and her business page. (And I've come up with a whole slew of reasons not to set up my daughter's page.)

    So maybe that's why I don't have a personal page. It feels a little too much like work. A little too much like I ought to be getting paid for posting all those little pictures of myself on my vacation. Or something like that.

    Maybe I'm too old, at 39-plus-4, to take to this new way of conversing. After all, new Facebook users aren't aging a bit. In fact, they're getting younger. (Never mind what you might have heard about teens ditching the social network 'cause their parents all have pages now.) The median age of new users today is 22, compared to 23 in 2010 and 26 in 2008.

    Or maybe I just don't have enough friends. The newest stats indicate that the average Facebooker has about 600 "friends." I'm not sure I even know 600 people. But I guess the real reason I don't have a Facebook page is because I live in the United States. You see, the vast majority of Facebook's users—81%!—live outside the U.S. and Canada. Crazy thought, that, isn't it?

    No, no, that's still not the reason, is it?

    But must I have a reason? Must I feel like a loser for not having a Facebook page? Is it such an integral part of the fabric of our lives that to not have one is now the same as not having a cellphone? (A subject I might need to tackle in a later post!) Must I have a respectable presence on Facebook just to keep suspicion at bay? Just to keep my job? (Or get another one?) Read what Forbes contributor Kashmir Hill recently had to say about that:

    Anecdotally, I've heard both job seekers and employers wonder aloud about what it means if a job candidate doesn't have a Facebook account. Does it mean they deactivated it because it was full of red flags? Are they hiding something? The idea that a Facebook resister is a potential mass murderer, flaky employee, and/or person who struggles with fidelity is obviously flawed. There are people who choose not to be Facebookers for myriad non-psychopathic reasons: because they find it too addictive, or because they hold their privacy dear, or because they don't actually want to know what their old high school buddies are up to. My own boyfriend isn't on Facebook and I don't hold it against him (too much). But it does seem that increasingly, it's expected that everyone is on Facebook in some capacity, and that a negative assumption is starting to arise about those who reject the Big Blue Giant's siren call. Continuing to navigate life without having this digital form of identification may be like trying to get into a bar without a driver's license.

    See what I mean? So help me out here. All of you who've personally avoided Facebook for lo these many years (since 2005!), give me a shout-out here. Tell me why you've stayed away. And then maybe I can figure out why I'm staying away.

  • Why Mess Up a Great Film?

    • 41 Comments

     Because I wear a "film critic" hat here at Plugged In, last year I watched 147 movies. In 2011, I caught 151; in 2010 it was 137. Walking out of a film screening can, at times, be as interesting as the film itself. As you know, people like to talk about the flicks they've seen—especially as they exit a theater. But one conversation I've never overheard is this one: "Y'know, this would have really been a great film if only it had had more f-bombs." Or this: "I enjoyed it to a point, but I really wish the actors would have misused Jesus' name more."

    I mention this because Hollywood writers and directors seem to operate as if this discussion happens every single day. However, I tend to believe that most of the American film-going public is not pushing for profanities, vulgarities, sexual crassness, blasphemous exclamations and the like. So, why then does nearly every film PG-13 and above contain 'em (and a lot of PGs)? I think it occurs because it occurs. In other words, most Hollywood writers feel that's just how people talk. And so that sort of language is just expected in their movies.

    The reason I'm writing this blog is because the movie Identity Thief is on my mind. Last week, the film was No. 1 at the box office with $34.6 million. This week, it nearly was No. 1 again with another $27.5 million (A Good Day to Die Hard barely beat it). And unlike a lot of R-rated films, this one has a lot going for it. It's got a warm heart and a feel-good ending and several people to root for. It underscores the importance of family and the ability of people to change for the better. The film encourages us to love the unlovely, even making a subtle statement that some folks face major challenges in life, at least in part, because of abandonment issues from their childhood. In other words, the film was very Focus on the Family…at its core.

    But the director took a film that could have easily been written and directed to receive a PG rating and just added lots and lots and lots of eech! Thief contains more than 40 f-bombs, a half dozen misuses of Jesus' name, a very sleazy sex scene and plenty of risqué dialogue. It's a hard-R movie and didn't have to be at all.

    I'm totally aware that most Hollywood execs would view me as "narrow minded." They'd wonder why I even care about such things. So, setting aside the fact that these movie moguls are ignoring a lot of research, such as a recent study showing that film influences sexual behaviors (see our Culture Clip of it here), let's discuss something briefly that Hollywood does care about: money.

    If you look at the list of Top 10 grossing films for each year in the past decade, you'll notice something quite interesting: R-rated films are scarce, even non-existent some years (and one is The Passion of the Christ). I don't pretend to understand what goes on in the minds of Hollywood writers and directors, but, historically, it just doesn't make sense—even financial sense—to insist on going after the R rating.

    So, if scaling back on the sleaze and language has historically proven to be better for Hollywood's pocketbook, I have to wonder if Identity Thief wouldn't have made $50 million if the director had gone after a PG-13 or PG. While there's no way to know for sure, again I have to look at what's worked in the past. And it's films with PG-13, PG and G ratings. Why not throw out the welcome mat for families?

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  • Tom Cruise and the Postmodern Spirit

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    tom cruise.JPGTom Cruise recently gave a well-publicized interview in Playboy, quotes from which made the rounds in all sorts of other news outlets. The 49-year-old actor held forth on a variety of subjects, but the comments I found most interesting had to do with his religious beliefs. He basically said that regardless of what he says about his faith, Scientology, someone finds fault:

    "If I don't talk about my religion, if I say I'm not discussing it or different humanitarian things I'm working on, they're like, 'He's avoiding it.' If I do talk about it, it becomes, 'Oh, he's proselytizing.' … I have respect for what other people believe. What I believe in my own life is that it's a search for how I can do things better, whether it's being a better man or a better father or finding ways for myself to improve. Individuals have to decide what is true and real for them."

    At the risk of sounding like one of those haters Tom denounces, I want to think critically (though not, hopefully, crankily) about something he's said here, something I think is profoundly representative of the postmodern spirit of our age.

    One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is the denial of any overarching truth that applies to all of us. Instead, there is only individual, subjective "truth," i.e., "what's true for you." In this way of thinking, every individual is a sovereign agent, crafting his or her own version of reality as it suits that person's unique purposes.

    Now, let's set aside, for a moment, how ludicrous this perspective is when it's examined for more than a moment. (Nobody gets to decide, for instance, that they don't think, say, gravity is true.) Philosophically untenable though this stance may be, Tom Cruise has boiled this mindset down to its purest essence when he says, "Individuals have to decide what is real and true for them."

    Every individual does have decisions to make about what they believe to be real and true—and there are plenty of competing claims out there in the world vying for our attention.

    Where Cruise embodies the distilled essence of postmodernism, however, is in the way he tags the two little words "for them" onto the end of that sentiment. In doing so, Cruise affirms and reinforces the prevailing and cherished cultural idea that truth is something we construct individually, subject only to our own shaping will and attitudes, values and perspective.

    It's an alluring idea, a lie that goes all the way back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden trying to convince Eve that God didn't really mean what He had said about the consequences of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. "'You will surely not die,' the serpent said to the woman. 'For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'" (Genesis 2:4-5).

    Even though postmodernism is a relatively recent philosophical development, then, the fundamental deception at its core goes all the way back to the dawn of creation. Tom Cruise is just the latest in a long list of people who've fallen for the seductive, self-centered idea that we, not God, get to decide what is true and what isn't.

  • Plugged In Movie Awards: The Golden Magnifier Goes To …

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    Announcing the winners of the first ever Plugged In Movie Awards!


    BEST MOVIE FOR KIDS

    Nominees: Brave, Chimpanzee, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

     Plugged In's Pick: Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
    We do love our Pixar movies. WALL-E. Up. Toy Story 3. They're all instant classics that embody so many of the things we like to embrace here at Plugged In. And they prove again and again that you don't have to pile on problematic content to tell a world-class story. But while Brave still gave us a strong, heartwarming tale, it came with a bit more questionable content (much of it spiritual in nature) than Pixar films past. Madagascar 3, meanwhile, proved to be a delightful surprise—the best in the franchise so far—offering us an inspiring story and steering clear(er) of some of the bathroom humor we've seen in the earlier movies featuring those now-famous zoo animals on safari.

    Readers' Pick: Brave
    We may have spurned Pixar's latest movie, but you sure didn't. Brave won far more reader votes than Madagascar 3. Interestingly, it might have had more of a fight on its hands if we had included Wreck-It-Ralph in our nominees list. Lots of you asked why we skipped it. Our answer? Hey, it's a movie about a video game. What's there to like about that!? No, no, actually it was the bathroom humor that turned into a bit of a fender bender for us.

    BEST MOVIE FOR TEENS

    Nominees: The Avengers, Chasing Mavericks, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Mirror Mirror, The Odd Life of Timothy Green

     Plugged In's Pick: Chasing Mavericks
    Based on the true story of surfer Jay Moriarity, Chasing Mavericks wasn't seen by many people. It made just $6 million Stateside in 2012—about $216 million less than the first Hobbit flick and an whopping $617 million less than Marvel's The Avengers. But despite its disappointing ticket sales, this little movie that could road a pretty big wave in our view. It has a teen protagonist we can all root for, and a heartwarming story that hits its high notes in the area of mentoring.

    Readers' Pick: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
    Votes came in for The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games even though neither made our nominees' list. But neither movie came close to joining the titanic showdown between The Avengers and The Hobbit. In the end, the golden ring was tossed to Tolkien-lovers.

    BEST CHRISTIAN MOVIE

    Nominees: Blue Like Jazz, Monumental: In Search of America's National Treasure, October Baby, Rogue Saints, Unconditional

     Plugged In's Pick: October Baby
    This category came down to the wire for us, with October Baby and Unconditional vying for the final nod. We love Unconditional for presenting a strong, well-told story with acres of heart—and in a way that may raise the bar for Christian filmmaking. But October Baby's vital pro-life message propelled it over the finish line first.

    Readers' Pick: Monumental: In Search of America's National Treasure
    Fans of Christian movies swarmed our Facebook page, driving up vote tallies for almost every movie under consideration. But much of the time it seemed almost like a rowdy vocal battle from two sides of a sports arena: One side would shout "Rogue Saints!" The other would holler "Monumental!" At the buzzer, Kirk Cameron's politically tinged but spiritually driven documentary edged out the direct-to-DVD Rogue Saints. More important than who won this friendly fight, though, is the reality that Christian filmmaking continues to get better and more diverse all the time. The category's collection of eclectic nominees simply couldn't be ignored.

    DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

    Nominees: The Impossible, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Trouble With the Curve

     Plugged In's Pick: Les Misérables
    Studies show that America is growing more secular all the time, but you wouldn't know it from 2012's crop of nominees in this category, three of which are also Academy Awards Best Picture contenders: Lincoln, Life of Pi and Les Misérables spend significant screen time talking about God, spirituality and divine purpose. But no mainstream movie was as overtly Christian—nor, perhaps, as emotionally (and musically) moving—as Les Mis.

    Readers' Pick: Les Misérables
    In exactly the same way Les Mis sang to our souls here at Plugged In, so it sings to you. Indeed, when we tallied votes for the other four nominees together, this movie musical still wins.

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  • What's the Best Animated Movie Ever?

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    pinocchio.JPGI'm a sucker for lists. I'm a big fan of animated movies. So when Time came out with a list of its Top 25 animated movies, I was as happy as if someone had given me a year-long membership to the Bacon Club. So many movies! So many opinions with which to quibble!

    And that's really the beauty of lists: You're bound to disagree with what someone thinks is the best (fill in the blank) ever. And when it came to this powerhouse ranking compiled by Time critic Richard Corliss, there were more than a few entrants that left me scratching my head.

    Pinocchio, at No. 1, made all the sense in the world. The 1940 Disney classic is a work of art (though with all the kidnapping puppeteers and angry whales and boys turning into donkeys, it's pretty scary, too). WALL-E, at No. 2, is a far gentler movie—even though its message is probably more tuned to adults than kids.

    But I think Richard Corliss cheats a little in putting 1979's The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie at No. 3. Hey, I love those Warner Brothers shorts, too, but throwing a collection of old shorts together and shipping it to theaters does not a movie make.

    South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut at No. 6? Happy Feet at No. 16? Fantastic Mr. Fox, an incredibly charming (if fairly adult) stop-motion animated tale, only managed to hit No. 24 … behind Kung Fu Panda? Craziness. And where are The Incredibles—ranked by some as Pixar's best film? Where's Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture? Where's The Emporer's New Groove?

    OK, not too surprised about that last one.

    Overall, Corliss slotted eight Disney pics into his list (not counting Pixar's output), from its earliest (1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at No. 13) to its most recent (2010's Tangled at No. 19). Pixar notched five films, all of which made the Top 12. And, supporting my point that we're in a new golden age of animation, 13 of the Top 25 films were made since 2000—and seven in the last four years (even though they omitted DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon! The Horror!). But fans of old-school animation may just dismiss that as our culture's fascination with anything new and shiny.

    But enough from me: Here's Time's list in all its wholesome goodness. Take a look and tell us what you think.

    1. Pinocchio (1940)

    2. WALL-E (2008)

    3. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979)

    4. Dumbo (1941)

    5. Spirited Away (2001)

    6. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

    7. Up (2009)

    8. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

    9. Finding Nemo (2003)

    10. The Little Mermaid (1989)

    11. Toy Story 3 (2010)

    12. Toy Story (1995)

    13. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

    14. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

    15. Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

    16. Happy Feet (2006)

    17. Akira (1988)

    18. The Lion King (1994)

    19. Tangled (2010)

    20. Paprika (2007)

    21. Kung Fu Panda (2008)

    22. Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

    23. Yellow Submarine (1968)

    24. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

    25. Lady and the Tramp (1955)

  • How Come They Get to Watch Bad Movies and I Don't?

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    Shortly after we started this series of blog posts on how to engage with problematic films, I came across a comment from Josh, one of our readers, essentially calling us out in the best possible way. Here's what he wrote:

    The thing that get's me in this particular post is the idea of movies being "unhealthy", and causing people to "stumble." You're the reviewer, you get to throw out the ideas you have about whether a movie is good for Christians to watch, or not. But you're exposing yourself to this entertainment as well. So, does the unhealthiness apply to you? Do you even watch the movies, or read other reviews? And, if you watch the movies, why is it ok for you to watch un-Christian kinds of things? Is it for the pure reason of critiquing things to be sure others don't see it? I find this dichotomy kind of strange. Why not just let [people] watch, as you're doing, and decide for themselves, as you're doing? 

    It's a fantastic question—one I'd be asking myself if I was in the audience. What gives you the right to do what you do and then say what you say? Are we being hypocritical—like a fat-and-happy medieval taster with no assassins in sight? ("The filet mignon tastes a little funny, king … I'll polish it off just to make sure it's OK.") Or, worse, are we risking our own spiritual health to do this job? I mean, if we're right in saying that A) movies can be unhealthy and B) affect everyone, and then C) watch a lot of them, we'll naturally feel some ill effects, right? And if so, why do it?

    projector 3.JPGThe answer is both simple and complex—and I hope that, when we finish, you'll have some tools to help in your own movie-watching. So let's start simple:

    We do this job because we feel that someone should. Some of us call it a calling. Others a desire. I've even heard the word compulsion thrown around once or twice. But all of us have made a decision to put ourselves in a particular place to do a job that we think God wants us to do.

    We've already talked about the fact that Christians, whether they should watch problematic movies or not, often do. And since they do, we want to give them as much information as we can. Some compare us to watchers on the wall—a comparison with which, frankly, I've never been wholly at ease. I mean, I review movies for a living: Whatever risks I take aren't comparable to those taken by soldiers or policemen or society's real watchers.

    But there is, I think, a bit of metaphorical truth there. See, we really do believe films can harm us—not like an arrow to the knee would, but more like mold in the basement. So maybe we should be thought of as a little like home inspectors: We tromp around and look for problems. And if we find 'em, we tell you. And we think of it as a pretty important job (if not all that glamorous).

    Like pockets of mold, movies aren't particularly picky about who they attack/annoy. No home inspector is (as far as I'm aware) born with mold-proof lungs. Neither are Plugged In reviewers blessed with Teflon-coated minds from which negative content simply slides off. We're affected by films just like everyone else is. And perhaps one of the reasons we believe that movies do influence us is that we've seen that influence in our own lives—both in our experience before we took this job … and after.

    But just as a home inspector might slap on a mask or respirator when checking out a suspicious basement, we have tools at our disposal, too. By sharing them here, we hope they might help you navigate your own problematic movies.

    1. We pray. Working at a Christian ministry, prayer is a pretty regular part of our workday. We're always asking for God's help and blessing in what we do, and when we're assigned a particularly problematic movie we ask for extra protection. I think it helps—both because God hears our prayers, and because the act of praying helps us focus on the task at hand: It reminds us that we're not watching the film for our own benefit, but for yours and (hopefully) His. We can't afford to let y'all down.

    I kinda think that whenever we pray, it helps remind us that we Christians are a little different: We're God's, not the world's, and we're not supposed to be too terribly comfortable around here. We serve up a reminder whenever we serve a meal and say Grace. And if it's natural for us to pray before we consume a plateful of food, it also seems entirely appropriate that we would do so before consuming a two-hour movie. Prayer not only welcomes God into our presence, it reminds us that He's there already.

    2. We take notes. Sure, we take notes primarily so we can write accurate reviews. But there's more at work here. We reviewers wage a two-front conflict regarding the movies we see: On one side, we risk being overwhelmed by the content (growing ever more miserable). On the other, we risk becoming desensitized (growing ever more cynical). The act of note-taking allows us to distance ourselves a bit from what we see. (It's hard to get too emotionally involved with a disembowelment when you're physically, clinically writing, "horrifying disembowelment.") And it reminds us that the content we're documenting is, well, problematic. If it wasn't we wouldn't be writing it down, and that keeps us from excusing the issues we see.

    And even if you forget your pen in the car (as some of us have from time to time), you can take mental notes of what you see: Concentrate on (as I wrote last Friday) whatever seems to be worthwhile in the film, but don't let the language or violence just wash over you either. See it not as something to forget or to obsess over, but for what it is: a problem.

    3. We outwardly process what we see. For me, this is the silver cross worn to ward off cinematic vampires, if you will. The process of pounding out a review allows me to really grapple with what I've seen—the good and the bad. That helps me both enjoy and appreciate a given film more. But it also helps me sift through whatever might've bothered me, too. Or what should've bothered me. It's like therapy.

    There's a reason why, when you go to a therapist, you spend most of your time talking. Just the act of regurgitating what's rolling around in our brains helps us deal with our lives and experiences. And make no mistake, we all "experience" movies. When you go to one, try not to go alone if you can help it—and set aside time to talk about what you've seen. Grab a coffee or dinner and delve into the movie's messages. Recount the funny lines. Pick apart the plot a little. It's fun and helpful. And if you can't talk with someone about what you've seen, I'd encourage you to actually put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and write about it. Whatever you do, don't let the movie just sit in your noggin like a curio: Pick it up. Squeeze it. Dissect it.

    4. We regroup … and if need be, reject. One of the most insidious ways films affect us is by pushing us toward a new sense of "normal." See enough sexual promiscuity onscreen, and there's a chance you might think that casual sex is quite normal after all—and you start wondering whether your promise ring makes you freakish. Hear loads of f-words in films, and eventually those same words start to slip into your conversations if not counteracted. It's just common sense: We're influenced by those we spend time with. And most of us spend lots of time with movies. (TV, music and video games are part of this picture, too, of course.)

    So how do we keep the undesirable elements we see in those films from eventually looking normal or desirable to us? We  hang out with people who push back on those elements. At Plugged In, obviously, I spend much of my workday with folks who share my values, and we talk about those values all the time. If I ever started thinking, "Wow, all that casual sexuality I saw in The Five-Year Engagement felt so right!" I'd have a whole bevy of influencers who'd beg to differ.

    As influential as movies can be, our friends and family can be far, far more influential. People move us more than pictures.

    This post is the third in a series. Feel free to click on these related posts:

    Don't Watch. But If You Do ...

    Sorting Out the Good, the Bad and the Excellent

    Getting to the Very Art of the Matter

    It Didn't Really Bother Me at All

    The Series Is Dead: Long Live the Series!

  • 2014 Plugged In Movie Awards: Best Movie for Teens

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     To voice your thoughts and vote for your favorite nominee, post a comment on this blog or on our Facebook page. To read our Plugged In Movie Awards introduction, link here.

    BEST MOVIE FOR TEENS (NOMINEES)

    42 (PG-13):  42 tells the inspirational story of Major League Baseball's first black player: Jackie Robinson. Many folks, of course, know that Robinson was a superstar player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. What you may not know is the battle against racism he faced off the field—a battle that might well have picked him off at second base were it not for the advocacy of Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. This sports drama/biopic doesn't hold back when it comes to racial slurs hurled at Robinson with the same force fastballs were hurled at his head. Along the way, however, this unflinching depiction of Robinson's trailblazing example offers a glimpse at what overcoming the virulent racism of the era required: courage and determination, self-control and faith. As Rickey told Robinson, "Like our Savior, you've got to have the guts to turn the other cheek."

    Ender's Game (PG-13):  Earth is eying its end. Decades earlier, a race of giant insect-like invaders were beaten back while trying to colonize our planet. But all the years since have been spent living in abject fear of the big bugs' return. But Colonel Graff has an idea that he hopes will save the planet from these massive creepy-crawlies: Seems to him that humanity doesn't need another super-soldier, but rather someone who can attack the enemy with video game-like precision. We need someone like Andrew Ender Wiggin―a skinny teen who just happens to be the best military mind any junior high has ever produced. This Young Adult fiction-based sci-fi pic transforms kids into world-savers. The action is intense and there's some bullying shown, but there's no bloody warfare. Instead, we're given video game space battles and questions about the morality and politics of war.

    The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13):  Katniss Everdeen thought she'd never have to go back to those awful Hunger Games. But after she and Peeta tricked the government into letting them both live last time around, President Snow wants to get rid of them both, once and for all—and in front of the whole of Panem. The only way they can survive is through a little help from their … adversaries? Yes, the movie is violent. That's well established by this point in the series. Yes, the subject matter can be uncomfortable. But this dark story gives a platform to some luminous acts of heroism and sacrifice while presenting some seriously deep thoughts about the intersection of persecution and entertainment. Ultimately, this movie isn't about how long you can live, but how much you can give—and give for a cause more important than any one person.

    Man of Steel (PG-13):  It's a bird! It's a plane! It's another Superman movie! The latest reboot by director Zach Snyder focuses on ol' Supes' willingness to sacrifice himself, if necessary, to stop General Zod from devastating Metropolis. Of course, despite Superman's efforts, Zod still uncorks plenty of apocalyptic mayhem. That and a few profanities are the primary content issues here. Amid the smoldering ruins of leveled skyscrapers, however, Snyder focuses on what he dubs Superman's "inherent goodness." "If you really think about it," he said in one interview, "you still want him to be right and to make the right choices and to do the right thing. I think that we all hope for that in ourselves, and I think that's what always has made him a very interesting character. He's a Christ-like figure. There's no two ways about it."

    Oz the Great and Powerful (PG):  Oscar Diggs may be merely a small-time magician/con man with a traveling circus, but when his hot air balloon is accidentally swept up and plopped down in a faraway land called Oz, well, his fortunes start to change. There are beautiful witches living in this colorful place, and talking China dolls, even flying monkeys. And they all seem to think he's a predestined wizard sent to save the land. There's a royal throne and a trove of riches waiting just for him, it seems. All he has to do is rid Oz of its one wicked witch. You know, the one who lives in the West. This version of the story of Oz is brighter and bears far more CGI sparkle than the classic 1939 version. Its ghosts and fireball-hurling magicky things are a little scarier, too. But in amongst its emerald flowers and shadowy talking trees can be found some solid lessons on faithful friendship and choosing selflessness over selfishness. In Oz we learn that leaving behind a life of lies always trumps empty dreams of fame-filled greatness.

    Films in this category are targeting teens between the ages of 13 and 18. This year all of them are rated PG-13, and some come with their share of content concerns. They can be violent. They might have flurries of foul language. But all our nominees offer strong messages that, while they certainly don't offset all of our concerns, at least make them worthwhile movies to consider.

    (All movie summaries are written by Plugged In reviewers Paul Asay, Adam Holz, Bob Hoose and Bob Waliszewski.)

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  • Are Kids' Films Going to the ... Adults?

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    siamese.JPGI recently had the pleasure of seeing Winnie the Pooh on the big screen. But even as a Pooh-o-phile, I'll admit that such a tame, slowly paced, lightly plotted film's charm isn't for everyone. For some adults, in fact, it might feel like torture—and that's probably one reason Disney chose to keep it short (it runs a scant 60 minutes).

    But as I experienced Pooh's innocence anew, I mentally contrasted it with the likes of "family friendly" films such as Rango, Coraline, Shark Tale and Hop. And the massive difference in tone and approach was a reminder to me of just how far down the slippery slope our movie culture has slid. While kids' films of days gone by (some of my favorites were The Aristocats, Cinderella, Robin Hood and Lady and the Tramp), were mostly aboveboard with regard to negative age-inappropriate content, nowadays Hollywood has different standards. [Thanks to Kaitlin McDuffie, for reminding me that Lady and the Tramp wasn't quite so innocent as I remembered.] It seems Tinseltown wants to engage the adults who are taking their children to the theater just as much as they want to delight the kiddies.

    Honestly, sometimes this isn't such a bad idea. Just look to films like Up as examples of how wit, emotion and humor can be woven together to touch kids from 5 to 95. It's not impossible to appeal to all kinds of viewers. But that said, let's not ignore the fact that children have completely different emotional/intellectual needs, find different things funny and have far shorter attention spans than their parents (hopefully, at least). And often, movie-makers try to keep adults in their audience entertained with some truly "adult" content. It isn't necessary to pepper a "family friendly" film with sexual innuendo.

    So when I read Hollie McKay's article on the subject last week, it made me question the appropriateness with even more fervor.

    … are filmmakers trying so hard to entertain adults that the youngsters are now the ones left in the cold?

    "It takes a deft hand not to take the adult-oriented bits too far. If the balance is not handled properly the kids might be the ones glazing over," said Hollywood entertainment and pop culture expert Scott Huver. "Too much adult-centric content might leave children feeling puzzled and left out, and possibly even prompt some questions their parents would rather not answer just yet. Yet too little material to engage adults may leave parents feeling a film is too tame, simplistic and 'uncool' for their kids. But as the pressure for big box office performance and cool cred increases for the often highly lucrative family fare, it's likely some filmmakers may end up trying too hard to make both the kid and grownup audiences happy and wind up missing the mark for either of them."

    I'm not a parent, but I know a lot of them and I love their kids. I even feel their frustration as even "family friendly" entertainment options become bigger and bigger obstacle courses of inappropriate content they must discuss with their children. And I think it's a sign of how much lower Hollywood has sunk when How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris is proud of the more mature content his upcoming film, Smurfs, contains.

    Really?

  • Having the Courage to Be Preached To

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    If you've tuned in to any kind of Christian media in the last week or so, you probably already know that the latest movie from Sherwood Pictures, Courageous, opens today. I saw the film myself a couple of weeks ago to review it for Plugged In. And when I was done watching it, my overriding sense was that this was a movie people need to see—especially fathers.

    I'm not going to write too much about the film itself here, other than to say it tells the dramatic story of five dads who rethink their commitment to their families in the wake of a terrible tragedy. (Read my review for the rest of the details.)

    What I want to say now actually has more to do with the film's audience than it does with the film itself:

    Sherwood Pictures' previous efforts, Fireproof, Facing the Giants and Flywheel, have won more than a few fans since brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick released their first movie back in 2003. Each film they've crafted has taken in more at the box office than the last, gradually proving to Hollywood that Christians will head to the multiplex to see stories that resonate with their values and beliefs.

    A few Christians I've talked to, however, have been a bit cool to Sherwood's approach to integrating faith into film. If you've seen any of these movies, you know that they all include prayer, Scripture reading and conversion stories as characters respond to the gospel message. But for the folks I'm talking about, that approach has seemed a bit too sermon-esque. A bit too much like church, actually. And those aren't the kind of films they're interested in.

    It's an issue that the Kendrick brothers are definitely aware of. In a 2008 interview with Plugged In, Alex talked about Sherwood's approach to making movies, specifically whether having such a strong spiritual agenda might come across as too preachy. "There are two views," Alex said. "One is that you should let the art speak for itself and let people infer from it what God wants to say. The other view involves using the art to present the gospel in no uncertain terms so that people won't miss it. There's a place for both. God has called us to a certain style of filmmaking, and we're going to stay true to that. Our goal is for it to be natural but clear. We want to have a solid gospel message so intertwined in the plot that it never feels like we're pausing the movie to preach to the audience. We want it to come through in natural conversations, lived out in everyday ways. People are so influenced by movies, television and the Internet. We're just thrilled to create entertainment that glorifies the Lord and points people to Him."

    "Natural but clear." Courageous was exactly that for me, for a couple of reasons, the first of which centers on what doesn't happen onscreen: A father's prayer isn't answered the way he wants it to be answered. And his faith is subsequently tested as he tries to make sense of why God allowed a terrible loss to happen to his family.

    So in that sense, Courageous illustrates that really bad things sometimes happen to faithful Christians—a challenging but inescapable reality. That may seem to you like a really weird reason to like a movie. But for me, this film had a degree of realism that felt really authentic—something even well-crafted secular movies (especially sports dramas!) sometimes struggle with.

    But that's not the only reason Courageous worked for me. The second big reason is more personal, namely that it hit me right where I live. As a father of three kiddos under the age of 5, I sometimes feel pretty overwhelmed with all the responsibility that comes with the job. Life's complicated and stressful, and that can leave me feeling grumpy and unappreciated. I don't think I'm doing a bad job as a dad, but I have this nagging sense that I probably could do it a bit better too.

    Just as the Promise Keepers movement did 15 years or so ago for so many husbands and fathers, Courageous powerfully reminded me of how hugely important my role as a dad really is. And it challenged me to let go of the petty ways I become self-absorbed. In other words, this is a movie that exhorts fathers to man up. And I really need that kind of encouragement from time to time.

    I don't always like being preached to. But sometimes a good sermon—whether in church or on the big screen—is exactly what I need. And I suspect that there are a lot of dads out there just like me, who could use a renewed dose of courage in their calling to be the fathers God wants them to be.

  • Christian Film: Beautiful or Banal?

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    film reel.JPGWorking for Plugged In has its perks. Take today, for instance.

    We had the chance to listen and talk with screenwriter/professor/Christian Barbara Nicolosi, perhaps one of Christianity's most eloquent, most provocative voices when it comes to faith and film. Adam Holz had a chance to interview Nicolosi for an upcoming story and podcast, so I won't go into great detail here. But I just had to share a couple of her thoughts.

    She argues that, rather than bemoaning all the filth that the secular film industry churns out, we should rather marvel at how good it often is—and how it's getting better. She says (and I agree) that we're in a golden age of children's films, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Pixar. A new generation of filmmakers is replacing the industry's baby boomers, and many of this new guard reject the selfish hedonism that the boomers helped usher into society.

    But she also wonders why Christians are so obsessed with making nice, inoffensive and (in her words) inartistic films when, we, as Christians, should be able to speak in more truth, and with more beauty, than anyone. While the secular film industry tells its lies with powerful works of art (she'd argue), we too often speak truth with trite banality. "In my world, the barbarians are coming over the walls," she says. "I don't think 'Precious Moments' are going to fix it."

    So, with that in mind, let me ask you, point blank. What sorts of films should Christian filmmakers be making? Do you watch Christian film now? If so, why? And if not, why not?