Plugged In

  • A Patriotic Pop Quiz

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     Chiseled monuments. Stars and stripes. Amber waves of grain. They're just a few of the iconic images that come to mind as we celebrate America's 237th birthday. You're probably thinking, "Funny, the Old Girl doesn't look a day over 220." That's kind of you to say, but she's been experiencing a touch of dementia in recent decades, often forgetting who she is and where she came from. Nevertheless, we love the U.S.A. and hope this birthday sparks star-spangled memories of what made her great.

    Speaking of memories, we thought it might be fun—amid the traditional cookouts and fireworks—to see how well you can recall examples of patriotic entertainment. So we whipped up 20 trivia questions to help light the fuse on your Independence Day festivities (look for the answers in tomorrow's blog). Enjoy! And God bless America!

    1. Which of Heath Ledger's early films stars Mel Gibson as a peaceful farmer driven to violence during the American Revolution?

    2. Which 1990s television series featured the exploits of Zap, Siren, Nitro, Ice and Turbo?

    3. With more than 15 million copies sold in the U.S. alone, which Bruce Springsteen album remains his most commercially successful?

    4. What comic book superhero resurfaced in theaters in 2011, and was billed as "The First Avenger"?

    5. In the 1986 animated feature An American Tail, what was the name of the Russian mouse separated from his family after immigrating to the United States?

    6. Who wore Old Glory while performing "Firework" at last year's Macy's 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular on NBC?

    7. What movie about American ingenuity and perseverance in the face of astronomical odds includes the famous line, "Failure is not an option"?

    8. Which country singer, despite seven No. 1 singles, is best known for his patriotic anthem "God Bless the U.S.A."?

    9. A bald eagle is just one national symbol used by which political humorist, whose late-night TV show airs on Comedy Central?

    10. What 1942 film stars James Cagney as composer George M. Cohan, the man responsible for classic songs such as "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag"?

    11. What singer's Super Bowl rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" became a Top-20 pop hit in 1991?

    12. Which Academy Award-winning film's most iconic image is actor George C. Scott standing in front of an enormous American flag?

    13. The nation's loss of innocence between the idealistic 1950s and turbulent 1960s is chronicled in what 8:33 folk rock tune by Don McLean?

    14. Which free, downloadable video game introduced on July 4, 2002 continues to serve as an online recruitment tool for the U.S. military?

    15. What film features James Brown singing "Living in America," a song from the soundtrack that became a Top-5 pop hit?

    16. Following a roundtable discussion of patriotic movies, this week's Official Plugged In Podcast (#209) concludes with a clip from what classic film?

    17. Following the onscreen destruction of the White House, which cocky action star spent Independence Day turning back an alien invasion in 1996?

    18. Who had a Top-10 single containing the lyric, "On the boats and on the planes, they're coming to America/Never looking back again, they're coming to America"?

    19. What Steven Spielberg epic honoring U.S. soldiers' courage under fire lost the 1998 Best Picture race to Shakespeare in Love?

    20. Which U.S. city hosted the winter Olympics the year Team U.S.A. beat the Soviet Union in men's ice hockey—a thrilling upset chronicled in the Disney film Miracle?

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  • From Film Star to Faithful Servant

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     Dolores Hicks never wanted to be a nun.

    From the time she was 7, Dolores had Hollywood in her sights. She wanted to become a big-time film actress and—unlike so many of her star-struck contemporaries—that's exactly what she became. In the 1950s and '60s, Hicks (changing her name to Dolores Hart) appeared in such movies as Where the Boys Are and Francis of Assisi and starred alongside Elvis Presley in Loving You and King Creole. She won a Tony Award (for Best Featured Actress in The Pleasure of His Company) and was nominated for a Golden Globe (for The Inspector). By 1963, she was near the height of her popularity and engaged to architect Don Robinson.

    But along with her success, she began to feel a different sort of calling—one which would eventually lead to the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, where she would become a nun. She broke off her engagement and took up a new, very different life in the abbey. And 50 years later, Dolores—now Mother Dolores—is still there, functioning as the Abbey's Prioress.

    I had a chance to talk with Mother Dolores last week, when she was in Colorado promoting her book, Ear of the Heart: An Actress' Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows. We had an opportunity to talk about her life in Hollywood, her sometimes trying transition into the abbey—and why she has such a strong appreciation for the abbey's bell these days.

    Paul: What was your life like growing up? Did you have a good childhood?

    Mother Dolores: Well, you know, my mother and father were very young when I was born [both were 17]. And my father was taken very quickly by a talent scout [to Hollywood] because he looked like Clark Gable. It was 1939. My mom followed along to keep him, she said. And my grandmother kept me because she didn't think that was a good place for me to grow up. So I spent my summers with my mother and my father, before they divorced, and my winters in Chicago with my grandparents. My grandparents were wonderful people and great fun; my grandfather was a motion picture operator, and he took me to the theater all the time with him, and I learned to look for my daddy on the screen.

    P: Did you grow up in a fairly religious environment?

    M: My grandparents, my grandmother came from central Illinois, where religion was the golden rule. But my grandfather, he had fallen away from the church at a very young age. He didn't think that any religion worked, so I didn't have much help from them. But my grandmother did send me to a Catholic school so I wouldn't have to cross the streetcar tracks. So at the school … I noticed that some of the kids had sweetrolls. And so after Mass, I told the sister I wanted bread. She thought I meant the real bread of life. The way to do it was to take the religion classes, she said. So I asked my grandmother, she said, 'Look, I told you before, whatever you want to do in life is fine. Whatever floats your boat.'

    P: So you became a Christian, and eventually you were "discovered" and went to Hollywood yourself. Was it difficult to be a Christian in Hollywood at the time?

    M: Well, it was, but I was very fortunate because I did fall into the hands of very good people. One of my very best friends was Maria Cooper, who was the daughter of Gary Cooper. And Maria was a very faithful Catholic. And she never stopped advising me. 'Don't go to this party,' 'Don't do that,' or 'Do do this,' because she'd been there and done that. And she knew where the pitfalls were. So I think it was a combination of friends and God's very great mercy that kept me [safe].

    P: Your emotional and spiritual journey to the convent was a little bit awkward, I suppose, given all the circumstances. And from what I understand, you didn't want to join the convent at first.

    M: No, I was not interested, at least not consciously. I had thought about it early on in my life. But what was happening to me in my career was so amazing. I was talking with the Mother Superior at Regina Loudes one day, and I asked her, 'Do you think I belong here?' And she said, 'No, no, you go do your Hollywood thing. That's what you're really meant to do.' I was so happy I could've kissed her. I just wasn't prepared or released yet. But the seed was there. That was the thing.

    And so I did five more films, and those films really put me into the heart of the human struggle for redemption. One film (The Inspector, aka Lisa) was about a Jewish woman who had been in Auschwitz. Before then, I didn't know anything about what happened in the Second World War. I was just born in 1939. When I found out what people could do to other people … I couldn't imagine that we would fight people who we loved.

    P: So in a way, in some of the roles you were playing, they almost helped sort of form a bridge to that contemplative life. Would that be fair to say?

    M: I think that's a wonderful analogy.

    P: I know you were engaged at the time when you decided to go to the abbey. It must have been a terrifying and difficult struggle for you. What did that look like at the time? Were you scared? Did you debate over the choice?

    M: I was very, very sure that I was called, but I did not know how I was going to tell Don, who I was engaged to. What was I going to say to him? When I told him, he got very angry at first, but then he said to me, 'You know, all love relationships do not end at the altar. I'm going to stay with you in this.' And I said, 'How in the world can you do that, Don? You find someone, find someone who you really care about.' And he said, 'I care about you. And I'm going to stay with you.' And you know, Don never married. He came to the abbey at least twice a year. He got me a phone so I could call him. Up until 18 months ago, when he died, he was an absolutely stalwart friend.

     P: Going into the convent must've been a trial at first. What was the toughest thing about transitioning to the abbey?

    M: I think, if I'm really honest about it, it was having to be obedient. Having to do exactly what the bell said. When the bell rang, you were to do this or that.

    I was in the carpentry shop, running a board through the saw one day, and the bell rang. And I said, 'Oh, I can just finish this job.' And then I thought better of it. 'No, I better stop.' and when I stopped and turned away, the saw on the blade started to jiggle and flew off—right onto the place I had been standing. And I thought to myself, 'You better listen to that bell, honey.'

    P: In the 50 years you've been at the abbey, how has your faith changed? How has it grown? How are you different from when you first stepped in?

    M: I think when I first went in, I think I expected to find the Lord in a puff of smoke somewhere. Or in some manifestation. And I really understood, gradually, that the Lord is in the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is the gift of all of the body of Christ. That you find the Lord in every person you meet. Each person will tell you something different. Or show you something. Or give you another sense of who this person of Christ is meant to be. So it's a much more deep and pervasive understanding. But at the same time, it made a lot of sense to me.

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  • Movie Monday: Monsters Win (But Feel the Heat)

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     It was a tag-team battle royale this weekend at the box office, with odd couples in every corner. But when the defending champs are a pair of Pixar monsters, chances of getting tossed out of the ring are pretty high.

    Mike and Sulley pushed Monsters University to an estimated $46.2 million for its second box office victory in a row. The haul was enough to hold off The Heat, the R-rated buddy-cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. But don't weep for the two funny ladies. (No, really, please don't.) The Heat's $40 million opening was the highest ever for either of them and could well spawn The Heat 2. Would that be Reheated?

    The week's other new odd couple (Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx), discovered that the operative word in their movie title (White House Down) was Down. Though some prognosticators expected it to challenge for the top spot this weekend, it collected a disappointing $25.7 million to finish fourth—behind the still twitching zombie movie holdover World War Z ($29.8 mil). For the folks over at Sony who greenlighted the Washington, D.C., caper, that's gotta be something of a White House downer.

    The venerable Man of Steel took a tumble into fifth place. But its $20.8 million tally lifted Supes' three-week take to $248.7 million. Not that Superman has need for that kind of cash, what with his regular paycheck from The Daily Planet and all. Still, it does make Man of Steel the year's second-highest grossing movie—right behind another costumed do-gooder in Iron Man 3.

    Tony Stark may have the upper hand at the box office this year. But methinks that if Iron Man and Superman faced off in a wrestling ring, I'd bet on the guy with the cape.

    Final figures update: 1. Monsters University, $45.6 million; 2. The Heat, $39.1 million; 3. World War Z, $29.8 million; 4. White House Down, $24.9 million; 5. Man of Steel, $20.7 million.

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  • $50 Movie Tickets?

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     Would you pay $50 for a movie ticket?

    Wait, before you answer, consider that you'd be able to see the film in theaters two days early and receive a digital copy once it reaches home video. You'd also get a movie poster, 3-D glasses and a small popcorn (sorry, no refillable buckets here). And if you're the type to get thirsty, well, that's on you. Is that worth fifty bucks?

    Paramount and Regal Cinemas think so, and actually floated the concept in a handful of major markets last week by introducing the World War Z "Mega Ticket." No telling how many fans jumped at the chance, but one online poll found that 86% of its readers wanted no part of this "premium entertainment experience." Count me among them. Frankly, I find that most films aren't worth the price we're already paying. But some industry insiders are predicting that the future of cinema could indeed be a $50 ticket … or worse.

    Earlier this month, mega-directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke on a panel at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. They agreed that the motion picture industry, already battling to draw cinemaphiles away from their boffo home-entertainment systems and cheap snacks, is headed for an "implosion" that demands rethinking how they do business.

    "What you're going to end up with is fewer theaters and bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost $50, maybe $100, maybe $150," Lucas said. "The movies will sit in theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does, and that's going to be what we call the movie business."

    If you find those prognostications a little scary, relax. This is the same guy who bet his future on Howard the Duck. With all due respect to Mr. Lucas, movies won't sit in theaters for a year because, unlike live theater, the product never changes. It's static. And over the past two decades, films have actually spent less time on the big screen. In this era of short attention spans and a restless media machine that needs constant feeding, the public has been conditioned to create big opening weekends, then move on to the next big thing. And if the next big thing isn't coming from Hollywood, count on Netflix or Hulu to fill the void.

    As for the fate of ticket prices, that's entirely up to us. What if Hollywood released a $200 million tent-pole movie, charged $50 a head, and nobody came? The man with the big cigar might decide that filling more seats at $10 a ticket wasn't such a bad idea after all. The movie-going public needs patience and resolve. If we take the bait, they'll set the hook.

    How will they do it? In addition to the World War Z mega-ticket bundle, Tinseltown is abuzz with revenue strategies. Among them is "tiered" ticket prices. As Spielberg suggested to the crowd at USC, soon we could pay $7 to see a movie like Lincoln, whereas a more in-demand seat for an Avengers sequel could cost $25.

    Meanwhile, Worldwide Motion Picture Group CEO Vincent Bruzzese told Entertainment Weekly, "You can value tickets differently in terms of [charging] more for an opening-weekend ticket than for a second-weekend or third-weekend or fourth-weekend ticket."

    Would you take the bait? In the end, what are you willing to pay for a movie ticket? And if Hollywood changes its strategies, how will you change yours?

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  • Will China Change Movies' Messages?

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     What does the Chinese movie market have to do with the content of movies made in America? Until fairly recently, the answer might have been, "Not much."

    But last year, China moved past Japan as the second biggest movie market in the world—second only to the United States. And industry experts believe the Chinese box office will eclipse America's within the next five to seven years. Given such economic realities, it's no surprise that American moviemakers are increasingly being forced to think through the calculus of marketing their wares in that country, which may mean adding, subtracting or changing content in an effort to appeal to Chinese movie fans … as well as the Chinese government.

    Iron Man 3, for instance, included four extra minutes of scenes featuring Chinese actors in the version released there. And while moviegoers there largely reacted negatively to the clumsily bolted-on scene, it demonstrates how seriously Hollywood is trying to take the Chinese market these days.

    In a similar vein, last year's remake of Red Dawn initially featured Chinese invaders. But it was deemed that casting Chinese as an evil, invading enemy would be an insult to the country's moviegoers. In postproduction, the villains (and their insignia) were changed to reflect North Korean aggressors instead of Chinese.

    With additions and changes like these happening more and more frequently, some are also concerned that movies with explicitly Christian themes may require censoring to meet China's stringent requirements for distribution. Entertainment litigation attorney Dariush Adli told Fox News:

    "As much as American filmmakers want their freedom of expression, it comes down to money. The film industry is a business, and with China set to be the number one in the film market in the near future, Hollywood needs to look out for themselves. Films will continue to be censored according to Chinese guidelines and even created according to these rules. All foreign films, dealing with anything from religion to gambling, have to be screened and pass the test of China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). This means that many studio productions are modified or refused completely. Until rules and regulations are changed on SARFT's end, Christian films will always have a hard time passing Chinese censorship."

    Entertainment attorney Mathew Alderson, who's based in Beijing, agrees. "Christianity in China has long has been associated with Western imperialism and the authorities regard U.S. evangelism, in particular, with some suspicion," he told Fox News. "Religious matters are handled by the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the involvement of that authority would be likely if a film were to touch on religious matters."

    That said, along with Christianity's quietly growing influence in China have come reports of a growing demand for Christian-themed films. And Alderson believes there may eventually be a bigger space for such content if those themes are dealt with sensitively. "According to Niall Ferguson, the author of Six Killer Apps, Christianity is growing faster in China than in any other country and there are now more Bibles being printed in China than anywhere else in world," he said. "Thus an emerging Christian influence in Chinese filmmaking is possible, although it is likely to be subtle and indirect."

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  • A Rock Star Talks Faith, Family and Philanthropy with Focus

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     My first real exposure to U2 was when I was about 15. The band had just released The Unforgettable Fire, and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" became the first U2 single to land on the United States' Top 40. Not that I knew that in Colorado Springs; I didn't get MTV, our Top 40 stations concentrated more on the Top 15, and no one in school was really talking about this odd band from Ireland. Remember, this was the age of Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Duran Duran. U2 was, I think, ahead of its time—at least for those of us in the Colorado foothills.

    But late at night, I'd sometimes flip on the TV and watch, of all things, a Christian music video program. And more often than not, they'd play a video from U2: Bono, mullet in full bloom, belting out a song that didn't sound Christian at all, but raw and powerful and sincere, punctuated by The Edge's staccato, soaring guitar.

    "This is Christian?" I thought to myself the first time I heard them.

    It was amazing. Not just the music, which speaks for itself, but it got me thinking in a way that I'd not thought before.

    In those insecure days of late junior high and early high school, I knew you could be a Christian and survive—if you took on just enough of the culture and stayed pretty quiet. I knew that you could have friends and keep your values, too. Some of my Christian friends made it look cool, even.

    But U2 wasn't quiet. The band wasn't following culture, it was leading it—in a way that I could barely grasp then.

    Bono didn't make Christianity cool. Bono was Christian—and the cool was beside the point. He didn't seem like he was trying to fit in. He wasn't trying to spread a veneer of '80s hip to an age-old faith. He seemed absolutely, supremely himself—singing of faith and love and huge issues without seeming to worry at all what people might think or say.

    I've been a fan of U2 ever since.

    Today, Focus on the Family is airing a conversation between U2's Bono and Focus president Jim Daly. And while some Christians may quibble with a few of Bono's actions or even question his faith, he still sounds in the interview like that idealistic, charismatic, other-focused man that I saw on a late-night video show oh so many years ago.

    Bono has become one of the 21st century's most generous, charismatic philanthropists—and he talks quite a bit about the heart and faith behind it (you can download the broadcast here). Bono's philanthropic drive fits really well with Daly's emphasis on "orthopraxy" at Focus—show people God's love, don't just tell them about it.

    In the embedded clip, Bono says that a pastor once advised him to "Stop asking God to bless what you're doing … find out what God is doing, 'cause it's already blessed."

    That's something I could stand to heed a bit more myself. After nearly 30 years, Bono's still teaching me a thing or two.

    photo credit: Morgana Wingard

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  • Movie Monday: Monsters University

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     A horde of zombies may have invaded theaters across the country this weekend. But when it comes to scaring up money, those running dead can't hold a decayed finger to a few well-animated monsters.

    Monsters University, Pixar's prequel to Monsters, Inc., made its alma mater proud this weekend, collecting an estimated $82 million en route to a box office victory. Why, you could almost send someone to actual college for a semester or two for $82 million (if you cut a few corners here and there).

    Brad Pitt's frenetic zombie epic World War Z tried to scramble over the box office wall built by Monsters U, but eventually even those seemingly endless waves of undead flesh couldn't surmount it. Eventually, they all just shambled off, dragging $66 million behind them for a second-place finish.

    After a really nifty opening, Man of Steel came down to earth a bit in its second week of release. Superman lost nearly 65% of its audience, but he still managed to fly to a third-place finish. Man of Steel flew by the rest of the field, including the apocalyptic comedy This is the End (which earned $13 million for fourth place) and the illusionist caper Now You See Me ($7.9 million, fifth).

    Over in Indieville, a couple of smaller flicks made some waves big enough to mention. The Bling Ring expanded into 650 theaters this weekend and bagged $2 million—enough for the well-reviewed (but R-rated) cautionary tale to move to 11th on the weeks' box office charts. Meanwhile, Joss Whedon's black-and-white Shakespearian tale, Much Ado About Nothing, expanded to 206 theaters end earned $762,000 for 15th place.

    Final figures update: 1, Monsters University, $82.4 million; 2. World War Z, $66.4 million; 3. Man of Steel, $41.3 million; 4. This is the End, $13.3 million; 5. Now You See Me, $7.9 million.

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  • Facebook Spurs Organ Donation

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     Facebook boasts some 1.1 billion users around the world. But the juggernaut social networking site has also inspired some less than flattering headlines the last few years as well. Articles with titles like "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely" and, "How is Facebook Addiction Affecting Our Minds?" So it's nice every now and then to stumble upon a story that shows how Facebook is also making a positive difference in people's lives.

    I came across just such a story earlier this week. In a nutshell, it seems as if Facebook is spurring many more people than normal to sign up for organ donation.

    On May 1, 2012, Facebook added a feature that enabled people to show their organ donation status on their profile's timeline. Nearly 60,000 people did so on that day alone. In addition, 13,012 folks in 44 states signed up for the first time to be organ donors. That's compared to 616 people who typically do so on a normal day— a 2,100% jump. That spiked dropped a bit in the weeks following the announcement, but still stayed above the baseline, according to a recently published report in the American Journal of Transplantation.

    Dr. Andrew MacGregor Cameron, surgical director of liver transplants at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the study, told NBC News, "To me, it was a promissory note on the power of social media." In a separate interview with Slate, Cameron added, "If you poll the public, as Gallup did in 2005, you will get 95% of Americans saying they support donations. Yet only about 45% have signed up. There's some obstacle, some barrier, that prevents people from doing it. Having it be on Facebook makes it easier for people—it allows them to do the right thing."

    Social media in particular and entertainment media in general regularly get linked to troubling outcomes in society. But mixed in amid those stories are moments like this one, moments in which we're prompted to remember that these deeply influential media can prompt people to "do the right thing" too.

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  • Just One More Selfie For the Record

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     With the digital age upon us, it appears that everything is in flux. Even the venerable old photograph—an art form that was birthed way back in the 1830s and has remained pretty constant ever since—is changing in some pretty dramatic ways nowadays.

    Cameras. Film. Photo albums. Gathering friends and family for some commemorative shots. Those elements and practices all used to be part and parcel of the typical snap-a-photo experience. But according to a new poll commissioned by Samsung in the United Kingdom, that isn't the case anymore. Smartphones and "selfies" are taking over.

    The study found that among the upcoming generation of 18- to 24-year-olds, a whopping 30% of all photographs are taken by someone holding a cell phone at arm's length from their own smiling solo mug. Sure, they might deign to squeeze a friend in at the edge of the frame every once in a while, but most of the time it's just the subject, her camera and the appropriate toothy smile or flirty pursed duck lips. Although, surprisingly, the poll suggested that men in that age group take more self pics than women (minus the pursed puckers, I'd guess).

    And the old photo album? Please. Don't make me roll my eyes in a perfectly photogenic way while I tilt my iPhone just so. The poll found that one in five of those self-shot-pic-lovers take photos with the intention of posting them on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram—with 10% of those saying their snaps were uploaded onto a website in less than 60 seconds after they had been shot on their phone. In fact, only 13% of those teens and twentysomethings polled had ever even thought of sticking pictures in something as antiquated as a photo album.

    Just in case you're thinking, "Well, that's must be because nobody's really taking pictures much anymore," uh, you would be wrong. National Geographic looked at the swelling numbers of digital phone-snapped photos in the US and concluded that in 2011 we took around 80 billion digital snapshots. And they estimate that by 2015 we Americans will be reaching for the phone picture button somewhere in the neighborhood of 105 billion times a year.

    Mama, that's a whole lotta duck lips.

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  • Finding Walter While Flying Around the App Store

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    Maybe you're among the 4 million folks who've viewed the YouTube clip of the one-year-old girl trying to pinch and swipe her way to new visuals by touching pictures in a magazine.

    Judging by comments posted below this popular video, you'd be convinced that quite a few consider it poor parenting to let a toddler touch an iPad. ("This video is everything that's wrong with the future generation," says one.) I don't see it that way. For me, it's about balance, moderation and age-appropriateness. As for the latter, it's important to note that the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to restrict screen time until the age of two.

    Yes, the girl in the video is violating AAP guidelines. I get that. But she's not that far away from a time in her life in which letting her learn to read with the help of an iPad is probably a good thing, providing that her parents use it sparingly.

    When my wife and I were raising our two children, I never envisioned a day in which kids would be able to interact with their "books." Oh, we had pretty cool early-readers back then, in my opinion. Pop-up books. Books that played music when you opened them due to some cheap Chinese-made gizmo that was activated by turning a page. And plenty of "A is for aardvark" teaching volumes, too.

    But at no time was I thinking that touchscreens, voice-activated commands and a world of more than a billion apps would someday dawn. Perhaps, Steve Jobs was imagining this brave new reading world, but I couldn't see past Green Eggs and Ham.

     Which leads me this: I recently discovered an animated, interactive "book" app called Walter's Flying Bus that has impressed me on a number of levels. I can guarantee you I would have regularly "read" to my kids the story of Walter had this app been in existence back in the early '90s. I found out about Walter's Flying Bus by accident, working on another blog (forthcoming) about the ambitious King David film project Day of War that is set to begin production later this year by veteran filmmaker David Cunningham. While emailing David and a staff member for more information about his King David film, I received a link for the WFB app. Curious, I downloaded it to my iPad (it's now available for $6.99 there, or $4.99 on the iPhone) and became enamored quite quickly.

    Walter's Flying Bus features the art and dreams of real-life Walter in Uganda who was badly burned on his face. In the story, the fictional Walter and his friends fix up an abandoned bus, and then use it to gather other special needs children while unique African animals join in the adventure. I love the music, the artwork (most of it inspired by Ugandan children's original drawings) and the story itself. The message is simple: All children are valuable—even those who must use a wheelchair for mobility or cannot speak.

    I might add that the app was recently awarded a Silver Medal in the Educational Tools for Parents and Children by the National Parents Publications Awards (NAPPA). Okay, I'm not sure what this award really means, but it sounds cool.

    Award or no award, Walter's Flying Bus deserves recognition. Here's a top-rated app that also channels 100% of the profits back into helping special needs children get adopted. In fact, the app is meant to be a celebratory entry point for families to learn about adoption and special needs. (Learn more by watching this video.)

    Whether or not you choose to use electronic devices to help your toddlers learn to read is an individual decision. But if you do go that route, consider Walter's Flying Bus … and support a great cause in the process.

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  • Guess What? There's Some Inspirational TV Too!

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     Last week, Steven Isaac lamented the disappointing coarsening of television, particularly broadcast television. Then Bob Hoose poked fun at reality TV (though I'd definitely tune into watch the version of Knitting Wars crafted by our intrepid commenters).

    But what if I told you that television can be (gasp) inspiring? And reality television especially so?

    Yeah, this is about the time when you start writing to my co-workers and asking them to check my vitals. It's hard to believe, perhaps, that reality TV—the same genre that gave us such shows as Jersey Shore, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Amish Mafia might be the source of anything remotely worth your remote. But it's true. Really.

    I just finished reviewing Family Addition With Leigh Anne Tuohy (who you might remember from The Blind Side as Sandra Bullock) on the UP channel. In the show, Leigh Anne and "Team Tuohy" help families become—well, families. Sometimes that means giving them support as they try to adopt a child. At others, they might just help redesign a room for a new family member. But every episode of Family Addition is geared toward crafting a space called "home," in every sense of the word.

    Then there's The Moment on USA featuring Kurt Warner (the first season ended in May, but casting is already underway for next year). Inspired by Warner's own improbable and well-documented rise from grocery bagger to NFL quarterback, the show gives other folks the same sort of opportunity—not to be a pro athlete, necessarily, but to realize long-lost dreams of becoming a photographer or gourmet chef. But the "contestants" are only given the chance—not the job itself. To move into what may well be their dream career, they must earn it.

    Over on GSN, of course, you've got The American Bible Challenge (which wrapped up its second season this May). Yeah, granted, a Christian review site is bound to like any show that blatantly and unironically uses the word Bible in its name. But there's more going on than just Good Book trivia. The contestants here compete for money, but not for themselves: They're playing to earn money for some worthwhile charities, the backstories of which we in the television audience learn about as they progress through the show. Not only is American Bible Challenge surprisingly entertaining, but it can convict viewers to maybe dig into their pockets and donate to these or other worthwhile causes themselves. That in itself is worth some props, I think.

    There are other reality programs that offer a bit of inspiration with their entertainment. Undercover Boss on CBS is reliably heartwarming. The Amazing Race can feature some positive relationships and moments of tenderness. Many game-based reality programs bank on their contestants' inspirational backstories to drive viewership. And the list goes on.

    Many of these shows have a bit of a Christian subtext to them, of course—even though there's very little preaching (even in American Bible Challenge) going on in any of them. Kurt Warner and Leigh Anne Tuohy are well-known Christians. Family Addition airs on the inspirationally oriented UP network, formerly GMC. Reality shows like Undercover Boss, Amazing Race and others sometimes acknowledge the role that faith plays in the lives of those featured—making them rare avenues with which religion can be taken seriously and soberly discussed.

    Now, these shows aren't for everyone. In addition to content issues that can arise (swearing can be a bugaboo, particularly in broadcast network reality shows). Some can be hokey. A few can feel a little contrived.

    But for those who say that "there's nothing good on TV anymore"—with the word good meaning stuff that actually gives you a better view of human nature, rather than a worse one—that's not really true. For those looking for a little inspiration on the dial, it's there if you look.

    You just sometimes have to look a little harder, that's all.

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  • Movie Monday: Man of Steel

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     Leave it to Superman to carry the box office up, up and away.

    Man of Steel, the latest retelling of ol' Supes' origin story, hit $100 million faster than a speeding bullet, earning an estimated $113.1 million over the weekend—a record for a June opening. Add in some Thursday group screenings, and Man of Steel is already up to $125.1 million. Pretty good for an unassuming alien adoptee from Kansas.

    How mighty was the Man of Steel? Its weekend take was larger than the rest of the box office combined—and by a pretty healthy margin. The other 42 films tallied by boxofficemojo.com added up to around $84 million, or nearly $20 million less than Clark Kent and company earned. You don't need X-ray vision to know that's complete and utter box office domination.

    Not that it was the end of the world for the other movies. Oh, no wait. For one of 'em, it kind of was.

    This Is the End, the week's other wide release, parlayed a truly apocalyptic party into a $20.5 million weekend. It elbowed past a bevy of holdovers for second place.

    Now You See Me, the surprisingly durable illusionist thriller, finished third in the box office derby, collecting $10.3 million en route. Its nifty sleight of hand allowed the flick to materialize in front of Fast & Furious 6, which still managed to earn $9.4 million. The Purge, just one week removed from a box office victory, purged three-fourths of its audience and tumbled all the way to fifth, gathering up $8.2 million.

    Final figures update: 1. Man of Steel, $116.6 million; 2. This Is the End, $20.7 million; 3. Now You See Me, $11 million; 4. Fast & Furious 6, $9.6 million; 5. The Purge, $8.3 million.

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  • Man of Steel: A Tale of Two Fathers

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    You may not believe this, but I do more than just review movies and write eccentric "Movie Monday" blogs. No, I'm also a father and, as such, I blog for Focus on the Family's Dad Matters blog fairly regularly. And sometimes, my friend and fellow Dad Matters blogger Sam Hoover get to talk about movies from a father's point of view. Below is our conversation regarding Man of Steel, the new Superman movie.

     Sam: I don't even know where to begin so maybe if I dip my cape into the water, we can follow the ripples to some meaningful place. Let's start with Superman's dad. I haven't followed Superman mythology to know names, but I think I deciphered that his name is Jarrell. We learn to care about him in the opening scenes where Russell Crowe's character plays midwife to his son's birth. Should we just stop right there and give this guy Dad of the Year accolades? This guy not only conceals the birth of the first naturally conceived child in a few centuries, he doesn't even let any other humans in the room. Are we supposed to give this guy mad props for "being there" or is he just mad?

    Paul: Oh, Sam, you of little geekiness. Superman's biological father is named Jor-El—incidentally a name that, according to the Internet (and we know how reliable that is) loosely translates into "God will uplift" in Hebrew. I'm not really up on my Hebrew, so I can't verify this to be absolutely true. But I do think that El is a Hebrew word for God, and that the Superman mythos is just littered with little religiousy tidbits, so I'd not be surprised.

    But despite his cool name, I think Jor-El's fathering skills are a little suspect. Yes, he actually helps deliver his own baby. But, as my wife often reminds me, his wife did most of the real work. And then, without so much as taking a picture of the kid for Facebook, Jor-El slaps the little one into a spacepod, downloads a whole bunch of sensitive info into his genes like he's a biological flash drive and blasts him into outer space‑‑and to a planet plagued by traffic congestion, fast food and reality television. Talk about your uninvolved father.

    OK, granted, Jor-El's home planet was going to blow up. As a dad, that doesn't leave you with a lot of choices. And he does reconnect posthumously via computer interface a little later. But when it comes to fathers, I'm way more impressed with the Man o' Steel's adoptive father—who looks startlingly like that guy from Field of Dreams.

    Sam: See, I was picking up on the guy who dances with wolves.

    Man of Steel could really be retitled to My Two Dads. Each dad gives Superman a gift: strength from Jor-El and compassion from Jonathan Kent. And each dad imparts these gifts to Superman without a moment to spare as both of his dads are taken away from their son, sacrificing themselves for the benefit of others.

    For me, this brings up the question of prioritizing life lessons for my kids. Should I be taken from my kids before I can complete their life education, what do I want them to know? What good parts of my life do I want them to have for themselves? Since my DNA aligns more closely than that of Greg Heffley, I can't rely on my kids genetics to get them halfway to success out of the gate. I have to choose what lessons to teach, when to teach them and then discern they've mastered that lesson before I move onto the next.

    Paul: Thankfully, I'm going to live to be 150 and plan to still give my children advice (lucky them) when they're both in nursing homes. By that time, of course, it'll be mainly tips on what foods taste best when put through a blender.

    But for other people, your thoughts on what lessons are important to pass on is a good one to ponder. People always argue what's more important: The "nature" side of being a parent (what genes your kids get) and the "nurture" side. As we see in Superman, both are incredibly important … but it's the "nurturing" side—the character lessons that Jonathan Kent obviously taught his boy "Clark"—that really made the guy a superhero. Sure, Jor-El and his home planet of Krypton was the source of Superman's physical gifts. But that could've made Supes more of a monster than a hero had Jonathan not given Clark such a great moral underpinning. We don't see how Jonathan taught these lessons to Clark, maybe in part because he conveyed them each and every day. I think so many lessons are taught to our kids just in the way we carry ourselves, don't you think? Our kids watch us more closely than we think (and more closely than maybe we'd like). They see when our deeds match up with the "lessons" we teach. And if they're inconsistent, they'll sniff it out.

    When it comes to prioritizing lessons, I think that Jonathan's priorities are right on. First, he tells Clark that it's not the gifts that we're given that makes us special; it's what we do with them. And second, those gifts were given to us for a reason. It behooves us to try to find out what that reason is.

    (By the way, don't get the Greg Heffley reference …)

    Sam: Now who is the one of little geekiness?!

    So one of conflicts of Man of Steel is the revelation of Superman's true identity. Until the evil General Zod puts Earth into his nefarious crosshairs, Superman has only been a very conflicted Clark — one who knows he is special but one who cannot keep his uniqueness hidden. He's overwhelmed by his super senses as a grade schooler. He saves children on a bus that's plunged into a river. He's picked on and bullied by his classmates but remains a pacifist. Even as an adult, Clark is resigned to keeping his identity a secret as he rescues a team on a burning oil rig. He leaves "signs and wonders" everywhere he goes but without people knowing who he really is.

     As a parent in a hyper-connected culture with the Internet, social media and a 24/7 hour news cycle, we're constantly under pressure to not only prepare our kids adequately for their future, but to push them out the door so they can contribute to society.

    One has to wonder was it fair for Superman to hide these abilities as long as he did. Didn't the world need him every single day before it was at risk of annihilation? Didn't Superman owe it to the planet to be using his strengths all along? When do we, as parents, know it's time to send our little superheroes out into the big bad world to fight for truth, justice and the American Way?

    Paul: According to the movie, Jonathan wants Clark to keep his powers under a bushel because the wider world wasn't ready for it. As a storytelling device, it makes sense, given Superman's quest for identity and all. As a spiritual analogy, it makes sense: Jesus kept his identity pretty secret for a good long while, too. But I agree with you, Sam. Even a 14-year-old Superman would've been a nice guy for the world to have around (assuming, of course, he didn't abuse his superpowers through super teenage angst or something).

    As dads of our own super kids, it's an interesting concept to unpack, isn't it? Like Kal-El/Superman, our kids are blessed with certain gifts and abilities, many of which reveal themselves early on. (My own 3-year-old son, for instance, could peg a goose with a piece of bread from 20 feet away. We were expecting some serious football scholarships.) Alas, none of our children (as far as I know) have been blessed with the gift of indestructability. They can be hurt—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And so because of that, we've got to be pretty watchful. It's so cliché, but I do think we assume the role of gardener—watering and weeding and chasing away metaphorical rabbits to give our kids every opportunity to grow and blossom.

    Jonathan's challenge as a gardener is a little different than ours, given his little boy is the equivalent of a titanium dandelion. But still, there's some work to be done. He sees Clark's gifts early on, but he knows his inherent abilities won't be enough to make him a "super" guy. So he gives his own set of gifts to his son and, as we've said, that's fantastic. But I don't think it'd be good for us to embrace everything Jonathan does with his kid. I think that, for us as parents, we shouldn't unveil our children to the world in one massive, cinematic moment: It's about us revealing the world to our children, gradually and courageously.

    Just as we help them to walk and run and ride a bike and drive, we try to help our children make sense of the world—and how they can make a place for themselves within it. We encourage them to explore (within reason). We encourage them to take chances (within reason). We should, I think, tell them to do their best all the time (something Jonathan really didn't do, and maybe couldn't do, with Clark) and reassure them that, if they mess up or make a mistake along the way, we'll still love 'em. That they're always super in our eyes.

    Editor's Note: It's not just small-f fatherhood that's worth exploring when it comes to Superman, it's also capital-f Fatherhood. Link to "Man of Steel: Longing for Superman" to read more of Paul's personal thoughts about that spiritual subject. And, of course, jump over to our movie review of Man of Steel for all the nitty-gritty about the film itself.

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  • '1984' Sales Surge After NSA Storm

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     In 1949, English writer George Orwell's dystopian take on a futuristic, totalitarian, always-watching government in 1984 ushered the phrase Big Brother into the popular lexicon. Since then, Big Brother has come to mean any virtually unwanted snooping and surveillance via technology—especially when the government is involved.

    Orwell's vision of a grim totalitarian future has always served as a literary touchstone for those concerned with the erosion of civil rights, privacy and the possibility that governmental agencies are keeping tabs on us. And in the wake of news that our nation's National Security Agency has been conducting extensive data collection operations—sifting through both phone records and Internet usage logs looking for links to terrorists activities—Orwell's name has been invoked frequently.

    It seems the watching and listening public has noticed those references, resulting in what could be seen as an ironic surge of interest in Orwell's cautionary tale about governmental overreach. Sales of the 64-year-old novel surged more than 6,000% after the NSA story broke, pushing 1984 from a rank of No. 7,636 at online retailer Amazon to No. 123 in just 24 hours, with the story climbing as high as No. 4 on Amazon's "Movers and Shakers" list in the process.

    Here at Plugged In, we often talk about how what happens in the realm of entertainment can potentially influence the real-world choices people make. (For a more in-depth look at the connections between entertainment and culture, check out Steve Isaac's blog "A 'Plugged In' Contagion Alert!?" and my article, "See the Show, Be the Show").

    Sometimes, though, these correlations actually work in reverse, with a real-world event inspiring interest in an a fictional story. That certainly seems to be case here. As Orwell's name has been repeatedly linked to this sensational story, it seems more than a few folks have been inspired to revisit the English's author's take on a Big Brother.

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  • Unreal Reality Television (Courtesy PBS)

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     If you happen to think that reality TV has pushed things to ridiculous extremes, you're not alone. I'm certainly with you. And, guess what? So is PBS.

    Like us, a New York Public Broadcasting Service affiliate was obviously tired of all the crazy drunken-teen- swamp-faring-crock-hunting-mom shows that seem to populate nearly every network's lineup. And so they championed the philosophy of "If you can't beat 'em, mock 'em!"—creating a series of mock reality TV ads as something of a protest.

    The posters, pasted up in New York's subways, publicized almost-believable shows such as Married to a Mime, Bayou Eskimos, and Knitting Wars, including full color images and specific info about the new shows' airtimes and channels. You can check out all the posters here.

    Next to each attractive ad there's a blank page which says, "The fact that you thought this was a real show says a lot about the state of TV." And ain't that the truth.

    Now, this PBS affiliate put out its parodies, of course, in hopes of pointing viewers to its brand of "quality programming." But, hey, who's going to slight them for a little humorous marketing that illustrates a sorely needed truth? It's about time somebody said, "C'mon already!"

    Of course, if you think a weekly show about Bad Bad Bag Boys sounds like a great idea, well … thanks for stopping in.

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  • I (Broken Heart) TV

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     I like TV.

    As a medium, I think it has quite a bit to offer that movies don't, in fact. Movies, after all, have to wrap everything up in a couple of hours. TV can take its time with plots and threads and character development, over months, even years of weekly installments. Movies, it's said, are about people and things changing. TV is about them staying the same … which is a lot more like real life, if you ask me.

    So when a TV show is well-conceived, creatively scripted and dramatically assembled, it can be quite a nice ride. Something to look forward to. Something to share with your family and your friends, to talk about at work the next day.

    Which is why it makes me so sad (mad) that as TV is getting exponentially better at telling stories, it's also getting exponentially crasser and gorier and sexier … to the point that it's almost impossible to watch anymore. And I'm not even talking about HBO or FX shows this time around. I'm talking about programs on the so-called broadcast channels.

    Here's just one example, extracted from our weekly Culture Clips yesterday:

    Blurred and pixelated nudity is increasing on broadcast television, even in programs that are rated TV-PG. Specifically, a new analysis of primetime network programming by the Parents Television Council found that 16 shows contained blurred or pixelated nudity in the first four months of 2013, compared to 22 in the entire 2011-12 television season. Moreover, 70% of these programs received a lenient TV-PG rating. Said PTC president Tim Winter, "If this kind of nudity continues to increase—as we believe it will—and the FCC's proposal to essentially stop enforcing the broadcast indecency law goes into effect, then it's certain that the networks will continue to push the limits of decency even further."

    I joke sometimes that way back when TV was young and mostly clean, Christians would avoid it on principle. It was just too worldly. Now that TV is old and dirty, Christians wouldn't avoid it if you paid them to. But every time I hear those thoughts come out of my mouth, they sound less and less funny. What's changed more? TV or us?

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  • Movie Monday: The Purge

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     The crew from the Fast & Furious franchise have some pretty nifty wheels, no question. But no amount of nitro-fueled, turbo-charged, high-octane horsepower could help Vin Diesel and company outrace The Purge.

    The budget-minded horror/sci-fi film made (ahem) a killing at the box office, parlaying a compelling premise and some virtual marketing magic into an estimated $34.6-million weekend. That's a record for a non-sequel, R-rated flick, and way more than was needed to pump two-week champ Fast & Furious 6 off the road.

    Granted, gunk is bound to collect in almost any movie's virtual carburetor after a few weeks in the multiplex.This week, it banked just $19.8 million. Still, no question that F&F has had a dandy run thus far. The movie just vroomed past the $200 million mark for the year (warping past Star Trek Into Darkness en route) and now trails just Iron Man 3 ($394.3 million) and Oz the Great and Powerful ($233.7 million) for 2013's bragging rights.

    Now You See Me, the magically-inclined caper flick, still had a few tricks up its sleeve, pulling another $19.5 million out of its hat for a third-place bow. It was enough to spoil Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's early summer Internship. The comedy collected just $18.1 million in its first week—way more than your typical intern earns, of course, but not much by Hollywood standards.

    Epic, Blue Sky's animated movie, rounds out the Top 5 with a $12.1-million weekend.

    As impressive a weekend as it was for The Purge, methinks the horror film should not get too comfortable. The top spot will likely be subject to a purge itself when a certain flyboy in blue tights lands in theaters.

    Final figures update: 1. The Purge, $34.1 million; 2. Fast & Furious 6, $19.6 million; 3. Now You See Me, $19 million; 4. The Internship, $17.3 million; 5. Epic, $17.3 million.

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  • When Young Stars Go Off the Rails

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     Miley Cyrus is back in the news this week, promoting her controversial new song "We Can't Stop." You can read my review here. Suffice it to say that the three years between her last musical effort and this one haven't, it would seem, contributed to a growing sense of maturity or wisdom.

    Lest you think I'm being too hard on her, the song glorifies going to parties, girls dancing like strippers, getting drunk, hooking up with people casually, snorting cocaine in the bathroom and taking Ecstasy. (Meanwhile, a promotional photo of her accompanying the track barely covers significant portions of her physique.)

    As if anticipating that those activities might generate some criticism of the young woman who once talked about being a role model, Miley sings to the haters, "This is our house/This is our rules/ … It's our party we can do what we want/It's our party we can say what we want." Los Angeles Times music critic Randall Roberts summarizes, "The song … seems as if it were written by an ninth-grader imagining her rebellious college sister's lifestyle."

    Once upon a time, Miley talked about Jesus. She talked about being a role model. And when Plugged In began to cover her skyrocketing ascent to superstardom at the outset of her Hannah Montana years, we found ourselves applauding her conviction …

    … and holding our breath.

    Because, we feared, it was only a matter of time before fame's excess exerted a corrupting influence. And so it seemingly has. Like so many other child stars before her, Miley's story, at this point at least, isn't a pretty one as the now 20-year-old singer and actress increasingly seems to be trading role-model status for what looks like a complete repudiation of the values and convictions she seemed to embrace when she was younger.

    Miley's trajectory is hardly unique. I worry that Justin Bieber is in many ways on a similar path as of late, not so much in his music but in his increasingly erratic and profane run-ins with the paparazzi. And then there's the seriously bizarre behavior of former child star Amanda Bynes, some of which recently landed her in jail. And those are only the up-to-the-minute examples. Combing back through the ranks of former teen celebs, it's hard to find many who have deviated much from that template.

    That said, however, there are a few. One of those is Mara Wilson, who in the 1990s starred as a child in Mrs. Doubtfire, Matilda and Miracle on 34th Street. Wilson recently wrote an article for cracked.com (of all things!) titled "7 Reasons Child Stars Go Crazy (An Insider's Perspective)."

    I found Wilson's assessment of why young stars tend to rebel particularly germane to the stories of Miley and Justin. Wilson writes:

    "Having to live up to your fan base is a little like having to deal with a million strict parents who don't actually love you. They reward you for your cuteness and cleverness, but are quick to judge and punish. And they do not want you ever to grow up. How do you react? The way any sullen teenager does: You get resentful, and as soon as you have the freedom, you act out."

    I can't know for sure, but those kinds of dynamics could certainly be in play for someone like Miley or Justin. And the fact that both have at one time or another accepted their status as role models for young fans only creates more of that pressure to conform.

    On top of that, there's also the need to please those who are shaping and supporting your career. In a 2010 interview with Fox News, '80s teen phenom Debbie Gibson (who topped the charts with her hits "Foolish Beat" and "Lost in Your Eyes") said:

    "Growing up, there's this weird thing when you start as a child actor or teen star that you're constantly getting praised for being poised and together so you can tend to mask a lot of emotional stuff and at some point, the lid's going to blow off the pot. I went through all that. Luckily, I didn't go through by way of drugs, alcohol or public meltdowns. … I had my meltdowns in private, in a therapist's office."

    She also added,

    "The industry people will work you to death, and they have a short-term vision for you. They're like, 'This is our teen star of the moment and we're going to use you up and throw you out and on to the next,' and they do not care if you are a whole, happy, sane human being at the end of that trip."

    Elsewhere in her cracked.com article, Wilson also talks about the disposable nature of the teen star. "Years of adulation and money and things quickly become normal, and then, just as they get used to it all, they hit puberty—which is a serious job hazard when your job is being cute. It's basically a real-life version of Logan's Run. A child actor who is no longer cute is no longer monetarily viable and is discarded."

    All in all, it adds up to a lot for young stars to cope with.

    That doesn't make Miley and Justin any less responsible for some of the poor choices that they're making or the ways that they may very well be influencing younger fans in problematic directions. But it does mean that we'd do well to remember the peculiar stresses they live with as young stars, and perhaps to say a prayer that they might someday be able to find their way out the other side, as, in the words of Debbie Gibson, a "sane human being at the end of that trip."

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  • Desperately Seeking Stone Presidents

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     You wouldn't think Mount Rushmore would be that hard to find. First, it's a mountain. By definition, they tend to stick up out of the ground. Second, it's got people carved into it—familiar people, people we see every time we fish in our wallets for cash to pay the McDonald's drive-thru guy.

    But it's not as easy as you might think. Not when Siri's feeling whimsical.

    Siri, as you may know, is the kindly, professional digital personality of more recent iPhones, including my iPhone 5. I admittedly don't talk with Siri much, and perhaps she was feeling neglected. Most of our conversations—almost all of which take place when I'm using the iPhone's mapping function—are fairly one-way monologues. I type in an address, and Siri leads me, turn by turn, to my destination. And she's typically very considerate.

    But during our family vacation to South Dakota last week, Siri wanted to take us off the beaten path. Or, perhaps off the road and to a beaten path that might eventually lead to a cave full of direwolves.

    The fam and I were staying in Rapid City, S.D., and were ready to make our obligatory pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore. But we didn't know how to get there and, oddly, I didn't have a map of the area with us. As the family's official vacation architect, this was unusual: I do not like to be without a map. But in this case I wasn't too worried about it. After all, I had my iPhone! An iPhone with a cool mapping feature! Paper maps, it would seem, are so 20th century.

    So I handed my phone to my wife and she, presumably, asked Siri to direct us to Mount Rushmore.

    I was not at all worried when Siri had us speed past a street that had several signs which said, "Mount Rushmore This Way!" and "Mount Rushmore Dead Ahead!" "These phones are great!" I said aloud. "It must know a shortcut!"

    Granted, I was beginning to wonder just how "short" this shortcut was when we began winding our way through Rapid City suburbs and, eventually, into rugged sheep-herding areas. "Well, at least we're seeing the area," my daughter said.

    But I had faith in modern technology. Sure, I had heard that some folks had had problems with the iPhone map app, particularly overseas—sometimes directing users not to the nearest Starbucks, but to the nearest alligator swamp. But all those bugs had been fixed, right? And, hey, we're talking about Mount Rushmore! Again, mountain with people carved in it. Major tourist attraction. On all South Dakota license plates. Not hard to find.

    After we bumped along a dirt road for a mile, which then dead-ended in the middle of a forest, I figured we might have a little problem. I grabbed the iPhone, looked at the map and found that it was happily telling us that we needed to walk the next 20 miles to our destination.

     Admittedly, our problems might not have been Siri's fault. Maybe we entered a typo into the search or accidentally picked the wrong set of directions. In fact, we used another iPhone—my son's—eventually to get back on track. And, as you can see from the picture (that's my family in front of the rather pale guys in the background), we did eventually get to where we hoped to get to … about two hours later than we'd originally planned.

    But it was, from a Plugged In perspective, an interesting lesson.

    We talk all the time here about how we need to be cautious when it comes to technology. All the doodads we have at our disposal can be nifty and fun and incredibly useful. And yet, they come with their own set of problems, too. They need not be moral or ethical problems. Sometimes, we can simply become a little over-reliant on technology to help us along. I've read that in the wake of ubiquitous GPS systems and hardly-ever-fail mapping apps, we're losing our ability to read maps and remember directions. Why use precious brain cells on navigation when we've got apps that do the work for us?

    But sometimes, even we Plugged In types need a little reminder.

    Now, I'm not dumping my phone or deleting its map app. For the most part, it's served me well. But this vacation, I learned a valuable lesson: As helpful and chipper as Siri often is, it's never a bad idea to throw a real map into the glove compartment. Just in case.

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  • Fake News: Much More Funny Than Real News

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     This is your life on news:

    "Jennifer Love Hewitt is pregnant!" "Late-night mocks Douglas sex story." "It's 'all awesome' for 'Pacific Rim' writer." "Kim Kardashian finalizes divorce." "Bachelorette guys rap the 'right reasons.'" "Who won the year's top fashion awards?" "Tonys Tuesday: 'Cinderella' stars."

    Those were all headlines from the main "Life" section page on USA Today when I moseyed over there yesterday afternoon. All of them extremely relevant to your lives, I know! Even me, sitting snugly in the confines of the Plugged In offices (cubicles of a particularly glorious gray hue), obsessed and concerned with all things entertainment as I am, couldn't care less about a single story. Except, of course, that main, big-print/big-picture centerpiece in the middle of the webpage: "Ron Burgundy's jazz flute headed to museum."

    What!? My attention was now undivided.

    Here's what the story says, in part:

    The Newseum, the Washington, D.C., museum dedicated to the news media and the first amendment, will host an exhibit featuring one of the media's greatest champions of freedom — Ron Burgundy. The exhibit will also feature the whip used by rival anchorman Arturo Mendes (Ben Stiller) during the gang fight scene between rival news teams and a re-creation of the KVWN-TV anchor desk and news set. The exhibit opens Nov. 14, which just happens to coincide with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, opening on Dec. 20.

    I must now, it appears, amend any and all cynicism that has taken root in my mind about the kinds of inane things we read every day on the Internet. This was an important development. This story had weight and depth. It meant something.

    It meant that even museums are so starved for attention that one devoted to real news was spending time and money and devoting space to a fake newsman.

    Now, I know this isn't anything new. Museums and other culture institutions have been co-opting pop culture for decades. But it says something about us, I think, that they have to. We're so enamored with our entertainment that we can't be pulled away from it for long, even for a fun, educational museum visit.

    The USA Today story went on to record this explanation for the museum's embrace of the raunchy Will Ferrell comedy, in the form of a press release from Cathy Trost, vice president of exhibits and programs at the Newseum:

    The exhibit explores the reality behind the humor of Anchorman and tracks the rise of personality-driven news formats in the 1970s.

    Call me convinced?

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  • The All-in-One Matrix

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     The Xbox One is a-comin'.

    This latest-gen gaming console is scheduled to officially hit the store shelves sometime this fall. And now that the media dust has settled, some of you have probably heard at least something about it. If you're a gamer, hey, you've probably been searching out little clues and hints about the system for months now. But whether you've been obsessed, intrigued, interested, or completely blasé about the topic, there's one thing for certain: This little black box is aiming to change everything when it comes to media consumption. And there's a whole lot of people hoping it does just that.

    In case you're still wondering what the fuss is about, let me fill you in. The new XOne appears to be what all the game console makers, TV manufactures and techy sorts have been trying to come up with for a while: an honest-to-goodness, easy-to-use hub device for all your game, TV, music, DVR, Blu-ray and internet-streaming media consumption. In fact, before the late Steve Jobs—the former CEO of Apple—passed away, he talked about his dream of creating a TV with a media interface sorta like this one. The only difference is … this gadget carries a Microsoft label.

    How does it work? Well, first of all, it gets rid of all the many remotes that you likely have stacking up on your couch or entertainment unit. By expanding the Xbox 360's movement- and voice-sensing Kinect technology to hyper-sensitive levels, and then connecting it to all the current TV, Wi-Fi and stereo equipment inputs in your entertainment system, it gives you control of everything with a simple verbal command or wave of your hand.

    You want to watch the news? Just call out, "Watch ABC"( or CNN, or Fox or any other favorite) and poof! You're on that channel. A simple, "Xbox, game" instantly flips things to the videogame vibe. And while you're playing, watching the football game or enjoying a NetFlix movie, you can also command Xbox to open a second PIP screen through which you can, say, check your fantasy team numbers, see Twitter or Facebook posts or maybe give Mom a quick Skype call. And it's all, it would seem, intuitive and instantaneous.

    Of course, there are issues.

    That impression of flawless functionality is, after all, based on Microsoft's launch event demo. Will it actually work like that in your living room? Well, that's yet to be seen. The gamer in me is also a little irked that the One reportedly won't be backward-compatible with Xbox 360 games. The new system's unique processing architecture means gamers will have to keep their old system around or rebuy that Xbox library in the new format. (Arrgh!)

    Even more concerning than that, though, is the fact that this new super-sensitive Kinect system—which is a live camera/microphone link that's constantly measuring everything from your facial expressions to your heartbeat—could potentially raise privacy questions. Will that always-on online connection be used in ways we don't expect? Is there a way hackers can secretly break into your living room electronics just like they can worm their way into your computer?

    Then there's the Plugged In guy in me who wonders how all this instant, voice-command, wave-your-hand stuff will incorporate sensible parental controls and/or differentiate between someone who's 18 or 8.

    I don't know. I guess we'll have to wait and see if this is indeed The One.

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  • Movie Monday: Fast Wins Again (Making Rivals Furious)

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     They say that the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered. Someday we'll all toodle around in one-seat, 50-pound cars that run solely on happy thoughts. Someday we'll all look back at the age of high-octane muscle cars as days of wasteful excess and unimaginable engine noise.

    But that "someday" isn't here yet. This is America—land of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and tricked-out 1967 Chevy Camaros. You can pry our fuel injectors out of our cold, dead hands.

    Want proof? The ongoing popularity of Fast & Furious 6 will serve for starters.

    After peeling out of the gate last week with a turbocharged $97.4 million open, Fast throttled back a bit this weekend, losing nearly 65% of its audience and collecting an estimated $34.5 million. Still, that was enough to take the checkered flag, holding off two would-be challengers in Now You See Me and After Earth. I'm assuming that the folks who run the show at Universal Studios are quaffing a celebratory glass of milk right about now.

    But it wasn't just gasoline that powered the weekend's box office: It was adrenaline. You won't see any deep dramas or light romcoms in the Top 5—not in the heart of the summer movie season. The multiplex this week was all about action, action, action.

    Now You See Me, an uneven but inventive caper starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mark Ruffalo, conjured up a surprise second-place finish and $28.1 million, narrowly edging Will and Jaden Smith's sci-fi offering of After Earth for runner-up honors.

    After Earth's own future looked positively dystopian in light of its $27 million, third-place finish. Some prognosticators felt that After Earth was Fast's most formidable challenger. Now, people are talking about it in the same breath as colossal bombs like John Carter. Not too promising.

    Star Trek: Into Darkness and the animated adventure Epic are, as far as the week's early estimates go, neck-and-neck for a fourth-place finish. Each is estimated to have pocketed $16.4 million, so we'll just have to wait later on this afternoon, after the accountants finish tabulating nickles, to see which one has the most juice: the Enterprise or those cute little hummingbirds.

    Final figures update: 1. Fast & Furious 6, $35.2 million; 2. Now You See Me, $29.3 million; 3. After Earth, $27.5 million; 4. Star Trek: Into Darkness, $16.8 million; 5. Epic, $16.6 million.

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  • We Admit It. And Furthermore, We're OK With It

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    It's the cover-up that's the problem, right?

    You do something wrong or even just embarrassing, maybe culturally contrary, and you instinctively search for a way to smooth it over, make it better, cover it up. And that's often when the lying starts. The stuff you do or say to provide cover ends up being worse than the stuff you did to begin with.

    That's the way it worked with President Nixon and the whole Watergate deal. And that's what everybody talked about a couple of decades later when President Clinton was in office too. And it's not just presidents. The list is nearly (Lance Armstrong) endless when it comes to folks who (Tiger Woods) have gone to great lengths (David Petraeus) to shroud their sins in secrecy.

    So shouldn't it be refreshing when somebody just accepts the "blame" right out of the gate? Fesses up? Takes ownership?

    Maybe.

    Notice, if you will, the quote marks around the word blame a couple of lines ago. Because sometimes when we push away from one extreme (sweeping everything under the carpet), we flip ourselves all the way over to the other extreme (not seeing anything wrong with it in the first place).

    Consider these recent examples:

    Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries has said some pretty bold things about "owning" the brand's distaste for uncool (read: fat) consumers. Fronting a retailer that doesn't bother to stock XL or XXL sizes in women's clothing, he told Salon, "In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."

    Next up. While speaking on a panel at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London, Esquire editor Alex Bilmes readily admitted his magazine tends to display pictures of "ornamental" women "in the same way we provide pictures of cool cars." According to The Guardian, he went on to claim that, rather than being anti-women, that entrenched practice at his men's mag was actually far "more honest" than many women's magazines. He stated it was the women's mag industry that was actually guilty of perpetuating stereotyped and negative images of women: "We are more ethnically diverse, more shape diverse … In fashion magazines women are much thinner. We have older women, not really old, in their 40s."

    One more. Some of the new literature aimed at young adults is getting steamier and more frank about sexuality. But Abbi Glines, author of the Sea Breeze series, responds to critics of her books with, according to Express, "Yes, there is sex, but these aren't porn books for children. These are books about the excitement of first love and the first sexual encounters. Yes, I could cut the sex out, but that wouldn't be realistic."

    See. Nobody's covering anything up here. They're not trying to make it all go away. They're manning up to their "misdeeds." And yet somehow I don't feel any better about it. In fact, I might feel worse. Because when we decide to change the definitions of what's right and wrong rather than "merely" try to weasel out of the wrongs we've done, we're actually doing a whole lot more damage to our hearts and to our worldviews.

    In its simplest terms, this is the difference between two reactions a 4-year-old might have when caught with his hand stuck in the cookie jar. Dad expects him to try to get out of it by blaming his sister or saying he was merely putting a cookie in the jar rather than taking one out. And parents will punish appropriately to gradually change his mind about what he currently sees as the "benefits" of disobeying. But it's quite a different deal if this kid calmly explains that it is his inalienable right to eat as many cookies as he wishes to, and that it was Mom's instructions to the contrary that are in error, not his actions.

    Now extrapolate to a whole host of moral and ethical issues encompassing but not limited to sexuality, exploitation, prejudice, dishonesty, outright crime and even profanity. The implications are dizzying, but of course this isn't suddenly a new problem we're facing in the Internet age. Isaiah called out the issue in chapter five of his prophetical book:

    What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever. (NLT)

    More sorrow than for those who evade and maneuver? I think maybe so.

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  • How Not to Abuse Your Children (With Movies)

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     One of the most baffling things to me about parenting in this day and age is the fact that many moms and dads who would take a bullet for their children don't think twice about "abusing" their kids when it comes to entertainment. I put "abusing" in quotes because culturally we don't consider it child cruelty. But I do. More specifically, I'm talking about parents who take their young children to movies that could cause some serious emotional and spiritual damage, and influence their children in untold negative ways.

    At a recent screening of a film that I knew was going to push the envelope, I actually asked the mom next to me something along these lines, "Since you haven't seen this film, do you worry that the content will be detrimental to your child?"

    Her response was telling. Instead of saying, "Oh, yes, I'm very concerned about how the messages and visuals in film might affect my child; I'm just pretty sure this isn't one of those types of films," what I got was something very different. The mother motioned with her hand in a sweeping gesture and said, "Look at all the children here at this movie." In other words, her justification had nothing to do with the welfare of her child, but simply the fact that she wasn't alone in her decision.

    My wife and I were super-conscious of what constituted acceptable entertainment for our children (we leaned this way even before I became the director of Plugged In). Perhaps the most difficult time regarding film choices were those years when our kids were outgrowing VeggieTales videos, but weren't ready for the (mostly) family-friendly yet more mature-leaning films such as The Truman Show. We got through those years, but how I wish we would have had more help from Hollywood.

    Well, back in March I blogged about Walmart, Procter & Gamble, and Walden Media teaming up with the Hallmark Channel to carve out a family movie slot on Fridays at 8 p.m. ET. (Link to "A Phoenix Rises: Walden Family Theater.") They're committed to the end of the year at least, and hopefully beyond. Most of their films have been acquired for this purpose, but a half-dozen are original. And so tomorrow night the second original Walden Family Theater movie debuts on Hallmark. It's a film titled Space Warriors, and I've screened it in advance.

    I'll put it this way: This is exactly the type of film my wife and I were looking for during those years between Adventures in Odyssey and Runaway Bride. While it's certainly no Oscar threat, it is all but guaranteed to keep a 10-year-old engaged. More important, it's a film with several positive takeaways. For instance, a main character declares, "The single most important thing to learn is humility." Wow! You sure won't find that line in Fast & Furious 6. So if you have children in that hard-to-find-suitable-entertainment age group, check out the trailer for Space Warriors on YouTube.

    By the way, not every character in this film displays virtuous character. On the contrary, there's deception, lying and bullying. But by the time the credits roll, these less-than-stellar behaviors have been dealt with. Abusive? Hardly. Consider movies like Space Warriors the antithesis of something that might prove harmful to children!

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  • From Heart to Selena: Pop Music Reflects Changing Values

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     As Plugged In's main music reviewer, I spend a lot of time thinking about popular music—specifically, observing what artists are saying as well as focusing upon the values and worldviews that their lyrics reflect and reinforce. Along with my fellow Plugged In reviewers, I strive to carefully interpret what I'm hearing from a Christian perspective. So I'm always encouraged when I find something that helps me pursue that task with greater precision and clarity.

    I came across exactly such a resource last week in the form of a blog by Christian youth culture expert Walt Mueller. His organization, the Center for Parent Youth Understanding (cpyu.org) does a terrific job of thinking about how our culture influences young people, as well as pondering what it takes to pass the baton of Christian faith on to those growing up today.

    Mueller's blog, titled "How Music Has Changed … And What It Says About Us" contrasts two very different artists from different times and reflects upon what their lyrics say about our culture and its values. Mueller said he was prompted to write the blog after watching two live musical performances in quick succession: first the band Heart during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, then Selena Gomez's performance a day later at this year's Billboard Music Awards.

    Mueller offered a keen analysis of these two very different performers' lyrics, which I'll get to in a minute. Perhaps what I appreciated most, however, was his description of how to think about popular culture from a Christian perspective. Mueller writes:

    When I teach skills in media evaluation and cultural exegesis, I always tell students to listen and look for spiritual hunger cries. There is always some cry for redemption. There is always some indicator of humanity's universal hunger for heaven that is rooted in our brokenness and lostness. There are also clear indicators of where people are traveling in their quest to find redemption. Like Paul in Athens (Acts 17), we need to find the "unknown God."

    Mueller's starting point for cultural interpretation, then, is identifying what someone's artistic expression says about their hurts and what they think will provide some relief from those hurts.

    In this particular case study, Mueller compared Heart's performance of its 1976 hit "Crazy on You" to Selena Gomez's current hit "Come and Get It." He observes:

    I've been pondering this as I think about what I saw and heard from Heart and Selena Gomez last weekend. When Nancy Wilson hits those guitar chords and sister Ann's voice soars in "Crazy On You," there's a unmistakable sense that they clearly know that they and the world are broken and that we all need some kind of relief. The song is rooted in the tumultuous and tenuous years of the 1970s. They sing, "If we still have time, we might still get by/Every time I think about it, I wanna cry/With bombs and the devil, and the kids keep comin'/No way to breathe easy, no time to be young… Wild man's world is cryin' in pain/What you gonna do when everybody's insane." While Heart's redemption is sought in the wrong place (a night of escape into passion), there's at least the conscious sense that things are horribly broken and in need of repair. But if Selena's song is an indication of how we've changed as a culture, we don't ponder the brokenness anymore. We simply skip right to seduction, as if that is the chief end of humanity.

    Then he adds, "So, while brokenness was in the music back in the 70s and it's still here now, we've spiraled down more than we know. We don't think. We don't ponder. …We simply flood the market with musical and lyrical fluff that is fed to thoughtless minds who as a result of their thoughtlessness, are even more easily influenced that ever before."

    I think Walt Mueller's right on the money here in his comparative assessment of what these musicians from different eras say about our culture through their songs. Even more than that, however, I appreciate how he's given us a helpful grid for thinking deeply and critically about pop culture from a Christian point of view—not only about what a given entertainer is saying, but why she might be saying it and how her images, ideas and ideals might be shaping the fans who are influenced by them.

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