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DreamWorks' Latest Tries to Do Too Much, and Ends Up Doing Too Little

maxresdefaultIt’s been years since DreamWorks dazzled audiences with the clever animated comedy “Shrek.” Now it seems that creating art or telling a story isn’t as important as squeezing every penny out of an idea by producing sequel after sequel. Therefore, I was so relieved to see a DreamWorks production without a number in the title that my hopes for “Home” were high. But the predictable storyline made the 94 minutes watching it feel like an eternity. (Is “Home 2” already in the works? I wouldn’t be surprised.)

Based on “The True Meaning of Smekday” by the New York Times bestselling author Adam Rex, the story was adapted by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (“Epic”), under the direction of Tim Johnson (“Antz,” “Over the Hedge”). Whatever merited the book’s rave reviews wasn’t captured in the movie, unfortunately.
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Finding the Faith Connection in a Controversial Practice

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“Be still and know that I am God.”
Psalm 46:10

I’ve been sincerely warned by Christian friends not to practice yoga. “Well,” they often add, “the stretching part is okay, but not the rest of it.” Christian leaders such as the Rev. Al Mohler echo their concerns.

On the other hand, at least two other Christian friends have shared that yoga has been life-changing for them, offering them relief from physical and emotional ailments that nothing else had alleviated.

So what exactly is the story of the Christian ambivalence toward this ancient practice, and how should followers of Jesus Christ view what is one of today’s most popular fitness trends?
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The Quirky, Unsettling World of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

ralph-fiennes-in-GRAND-BUDAPEST-HOTELThe Grand Budapest Hotel,” the multiple Oscar-winner from acclaimed director Wes Anderson, is an innovative and quirky retrospective on a tumultuous time in European history, focusing on an opulent establishment in a fictional republic. Populated by an eccentric cast of colorful personages, the film is part fable and part carnival, grotesque and absurd.

In a way, despite its contemporary narrative frame, there is a vintage and timeless quality about its pastels and its strange camera angles as the intertwined lives of guests and employees at the lush hotel are catapulted into art theft, murder mystery, and war.
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'Insurgent' Throws Away Its Chance to Take a Closer Look at Forgiveness

02It’s been a long time coming, but we have finally reached the point where post-apocalyptic movies about young adults have to hinge on more than just the drama of fighting authority or saving a love interest. In fact, “Insurgent,” the sequel to last year’s “Divergent” (based on the novels by Veronica Roth), hinges on the question of whether the main character can forgive herself. This is not a small debate—but unfortunately, the movie ultimately treats it like one.

In the first movie, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) abandoned her family, learned to fight after being raised by pacifists, killed a friend in self-defense, and watched her parents die to protect her. Any of those incidents could be a gold mine of character guilt. Plus, now Tris is on the run but tortured by doubts that challenging the rules of her society—which she does by her very existence—is worth the violence and death she sees as her fault.

Those are deep themes that a better movie could have explored thoroughly. This movie, written by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback and directed by Robert Schwentke (all new to the franchise), is not that movie.
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'Cinderella' Is a Welcome Return to Disney's Roots

CinderellaOnce upon a time there was a film studio with a back catalogue full of some of the world's most beloved fairytale films. There came a time when the people at that studio decided they needed to start making new, live-action versions of the old animated films. So they carefully studied the zeitgeist, and they made villains into misunderstood but well-intentioned victims of the patriarchy; they made princes either evil or useless; they made romance either stifling or dangerous; and they made families into hotbeds of deceit and betrayal.

And then, one fortunate day, someone at that film studio smacked his forehead and cried, "Wait a minute! What are we DOING!?"
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'CHAPPiE' Wastes the Opportunity to Explore Important Themes

Chappie-1I watched “CHAPPiE” last weekend, and I enjoyed the experience. I spent the rest of the weekend trying to figure out why.

I liked the South African setting, complete with beautiful and authentic South African accents. But there were other things about the language that were not so likable; "CHAPPiE" very much earned its R rating for language. I like stories about Artificial Intelligence, and there were moments when I thought this had the potential to be a thought-provoking one, but there were a lot more moments when I knew it was never going to begin to realize its philosophical potential. I even enjoy some action, but there was one moment where I had to close my eyes and cover my ears because something terribly gory was about to happen (and if I read the audience reactions that filtered in correctly, it did not occur offscreen).
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A Review of Matthew Avery Sutton’s 'American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism'

AAIn 2001, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) named the “most influential American Evangelical of the last twenty-five years.” Although their candidates must have included more obvious choices, such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, the ISAE ultimately went with a different winner: Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the apocalyptic Left Behind series.

LaHaye’s 16 novels (which he co-wrote with Jerry Jenkins) have spawned graphic novels, a video game, movies, and Left Behind books adapted for targeted audiences like youth and the armed forces. In his new book, “American Apocalypse” (Harvard, 2014), historian Matthew Avery Sutton argues that the end-times fascination embodied in the Left Behind series is not a sideshow in the history of 20th-century American evangelicalism; instead, it is the main act.
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Some Thoughts for the Christian Moviegoer

ID-10012002I love people-watching. I also love literary and artistic criticism. So I really love to combine these things into watching people react to arts and literature of various sorts (usually movies and television) online. Sometimes the people-watching is in aid of the criticism: As soon as I'd finished staring open-mouthed at my computer after first watching "A Scandal in Belgravia," and wondered "Did a secular show just say what I think it did?" I trolled the Internet and discovered that all the right people were having conniptions, so the answer was yes. Other times the criticism factors into the people-watching.

When I've been people-watching on Christian sites (or very occasionally having a normal human conversation with an actual Christian person), I've noticed two trends in reactions to media: One is an overly high standard, and the other is an overly high expectation.
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'McFarland, USA' Offers a Story of Hope and Determination That's Family-Appropriate

635500985690760008-XXX-MCFARLAND-USA-MOV-JY-3690-68240686Lately, it’s become harder and harder to find movies appropriate for the whole family. But I can, without reservation, recommend “McFarland, USA” as a great experience for parents and kids alike. (It might even be ideal for youth group viewing and discussion.) Based on the real-life experiences of Coach Jim White and his indefatigable track team, the movie wisely keeps the focus on the dedication of the town’s primarily Latino teen population and their willingness to overcome almost insurmountable odds.

The film opens with White (Kevin Costner) forced to leave a high school after losing his temper with the football team he has been coaching. With his wife and two daughters, he seems to have found the only position available to him in a small California town. There, teaching life sciences by day, he hopes to create a football team with the over-worked teenagers he sees straggling in from the fields to attend class before returning to the jobs that support their families.
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'The Last Five Years' Is Entertaining, but Darkened by Fatalism

the-last-five-years-is-refreshingly-honest-a-heartbreaking-story-of-young-love-and-beautifully-adapted-from-the-off-broadway-musical-2b9f0680-b860-4d49-9e5c-dd8c9ff481f9The new film "The Last Five Years," a musical that tells the story of a romantic relationship, begins just as that relationship is ending. We see Cathy, the wife (Anna Kendrick), sitting alone in a darkened apartment and reading her husband's farewell letter, as she sings, "Jamie is over and Jamie is gone/Jamie's decided it's time to move on/Jamie has new dreams he's building upon/And I'm still hurting. . . ."

Which creates a jolt when suddenly it's a bright, sunny day, and a younger Cathy is fervently making out with Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) on the stoop.

"The Last Five Years," based on Jason Robert Brown's Off-Broadway musical of the same name, has an unconventional structure that keeps taking us abruptly back and forth in time. In Cathy's part of the story, we travel from the end of the relationship back to the beginning; when Jamie is the focus, we're moving forward from the beginning to the end.
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Three Visions of Romance and What They Tell Us about Real Love

Don_QuixoteI’ve been thinking a lot about romance lately. Ever since I saw a Stratford, Ontario, production of “Man of La Mancha,” the great musical based on “Don Quixote,” this past summer, I haven’t been able to keep it from tugging at my heartstrings and funneling through my brain. For it was during this production that I realized how closely the story paralleled Christ’s pursuit of our hearts in the most pure and chivalrous way possible. This story emblemizes, for me, the passionate pursuit of our Creator, the greatest Romance of all.

The term “romance,” in fact, has historical connotations far from our conceptualizations of candy hearts, chick-flicks, and a dozen roses. But we use it in strange ways sometimes. Currently, in Hollywood, the term is being applied to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a film based on the massive bestseller and opening on this Valentine’s Day weekend. Women will go in droves to watch a susceptible, weak-willed girl suppressed and bound by the supposedly attractive BDSM behavior of a dominant male. They will be attracted to the themes of submission and bondage, to what they feel is an irresistible example of passion and the eventual taming of Christian, the noncommittal rogue.
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The Wachowskis' New Film Is Little More than a Recipe for Confusion

Jupiter-AscendingI am still trying to decide what it says about a movie when I have absolutely no idea what most of the characters are named while I am watching, and any names I do pick up on I forget afterwards. If it says something negative about the film and not just my memory, then that is my first criticism of "Jupiter Ascending," the latest movie from the Wachowskis (best known for the "Matrix" series).

"Jupiter Ascending" is about a girl (Mila Kunis) who is definitely not a Mary Sue. You can tell because her name is Jupiter and she seems totally normal, but learns that she is, in fact, the beautiful genetic reoccurrence of a really rich almost queen-type person from another planet who owned the Earth before being mysteriously murdered. And now everyone -- and I mean everyone -- is trying to capture, kill, and/or marry Jupiter, in order to get Earth from her, since she apparently has inherited it due to this aforementioned genetic reoccurrence phenomenon.

Nope, no Mary Sues here.

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Despite Missteps, 'Still Alice' Shows Some Truths about Human Worth

still-alice1Two of my favorite films of all time—"The Elephant Man" and "Awakenings"—deal with the issue of human dignity in face of apparent loss of humanity. Both portray individuals unable to communicate with those around them, who are thus assumed to be inhuman, and are treated as such until a doctor breaks through and realizes that there is a human there. They are among my favorite films because they portray friendship and the dignity of human life, even when it does not appear to be dignified.

The new film "Still Alice" interested me because it’s thematically similar to these movies, but as it portrays Alice’s condition from her perspective, it shows the dignity of human life in a more direct way.

Julianne Moore portrays Alice Howland, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. Alice raised three children while pursuing groundbreaking research and teaching. She is as personally and professionally successful as a person could be. And yet some things are off. She occasionally forgets words that she should not forget, or loses track of the conversation. After she forgets where she is while running through the Columbia campus, she goes to a neurologist, who informs her that she has early-onset Alzheimer's.
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Where Are the Missionaries?

fetus-300x300Most evangelicals, consciously or unconsciously, gauge the spiritual health of a given church or ministry at least to some extent by its emphasis on missions, which is to say, on reaching the unreached with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And rightly so. As Oswald J. Smith judiciously opined, “No one has the right to hear the gospel twice while there remains someone who has not heard it once.” Compassionate justice for all is a fundamental Christian instinct and the natural companion to evangelistic zeal.

Yet there is a people group—the largest by far on the planet—that is altogether neglected by virtually every church and mission-sending agency in the world. So large is it that in 2008 alone, almost 44 million people in this worldwide demographic slipped into eternity without hearing about Christ.
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'Black or White' Relies on the Very Stereotypes It Wants to Debunk

hqdefault_1Sometimes the intended message of a film is stronger than the film itself. And sometimes the unintended message is even stronger than that. “Black or White” is one such case, one film that more than fails to live up to its potential.

The film opens with Elliot (Kevin Costner) at the hospital, having just learned that his wife (Jennifer Ehle) has perished in a sudden car accident. Elliot returns home and drinks himself into a fog, rising only when approached by his biracial granddaughter, Eloise (Jillian Estell), the product of his deceased daughter and her ne’er-do-well ex-boyfriend, Reggie (Andre Holland).
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