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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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Why We Need to Rethink Our Ideas of 'Nice' and 'Mean'

abortions_are_mean“Abortion Is Mean.” So read the bumper sticker on my pastor’s car some years ago. Moral arguments kept falling short, so, he said, the tactics were switched. People understand “mean” and want to be “nice.”

The result, he went on, is that we have a whole generation of nice young people who are passionately pro-life in order to avoid being mean. They are also passionately in favor of issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in order, once again, to avoid being “mean.” After all, isn’t being nice the goal?
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Aniston's Star Vehicle Tells a Grim Story of Being Trapped by Pain

jennifer-aniston-cakeDirected by Daniel Barnz (“Won’t Back Down,” “Beastly”), and written by Patrick Tobin, the new movie “Cake” seemed promising, but there were missing ingredients. Like a cake made with artificial sweetener, it wasn’t as great as I hoped.

The film revolves around Claire (Jennifer Aniston), a middle-aged woman suffering from chronic pain. She abuses drugs, suffers from hallucinations, and flirts with suicide. Prickly and self-absorbed, she doesn’t have any friends. Her husband no longer lives with her. No one comes to visit.

When Claire is ostracized by her support group after making insensitive comments about a group member’s recent suicide, her circle of acquaintances shrinks, and she endeavors to befriend the husband of the deceased. Her other “friends” include the gardener she occasionally hooks up with, her physical therapist, and her hired help, Silvana (Adriana Barraza). At first it appears that her pain is purely physical, but slowly the emotional scars that lay hidden come to light, and it’s clear that her emotional pain is more excruciating than her physical pain.
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A Response to TIME Magazine

thumbs_549936_10150705352574866_136686074865_9299155_2137447199_n(For today's BreakPoint Radio commentary with John Stonestreet, click here.)

A recent TIME article by Elizabeth Dias, "How Evangelicals Are Changing Their Mind on Gay Marriage," claims that widespread evangelical acceptance of same-sex marriage is inevitable. I've asked a number of Christian thinkers and leaders to respond. Specifically, I posed two questions: Does embracing same-sex marriage and homosexual conduct mean one ought no longer be considered evangelical? Does the shift within the evangelical community on these issues point to larger problems within the historic movement known as evangelicalism?

You can read their thoughts on those questions, and on the issue in general, below.
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'American Sniper' Challenges Our Easy Answers about War and Warriors

AS-TRL-86797(Note: This article contains major spoilers.)

Everyone is describing the same scene: The theater is completely silent. No applause, no talking. Moviegoers file out quietly and respectfully as the credits roll and images from the 2013 funeral of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle flash across the screen.

I shared this experience last weekend after seeing Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper.” At the time I had little idea it would break so many records for a January release, racking up over $90 million in the space of three days and garnering six Academy Award nominations. What was clear to me as I exited the theater, surrounded by a quietly shuffling crowd, was that this film does more than tell the story of the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. It prompts questions about the nature of war and its cost for those on the front lines and on the home front. And perhaps more importantly, it prompts conservatives, especially those who claim the name of Jesus, to come to grips with some of our fantasies about the military, America, and the God in whom we trust.
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Why Same-Sex Marriage Can and Does Affect You

download_3“How does it hurt you for two men or two women to marry one another?”

It's the ever-present challenge Christians face from proponents of redefining marriage. And in our live-and-let-live culture, it has a ring of moral uprightness to it. After all, what harm does it do Christians for the government to award marriage licenses to any two people who fall in love, no matter their sexes? Why do Christians feel they have the right to “impose their morality” on everyone else?

It's a potent question, as long as you ignore how divorced it is from reality.
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'Selma' Brings Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Inspiring Life

Selma-MovieSelma, the first theatrically released biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is based on the events surrounding the civil rights movement in 1965, specifically the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The primary focus of “Selma” is on the political atmosphere and the contrasting dynamics of the civil rights movement that led to the march down Route 80 to the state capital in Montgomery. While originally scripted as a White House-focused political drama, after several changes in directors it became a look at the grassroots efforts that occurred within Selma, Alabama, as a result of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) activism.

“Selma” begins in 1964 when Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), are in Oslo, Norway, where Dr. King is to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The atmosphere of the movie immediately changes from one of celebration to frustration about the situation with voting rights in the South. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) attempts to register to vote but is harassed by the registrar and forced to answer questions most white voters would be unable to answer. As a result of the building tensions, King meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in an attempt to get his public support for the Voting Rights movement and push the civil rights agenda to a new height.
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The Mechanistic Worldview of 'The Imitation Game'

Morton-Tyldum-The-Imitation-GameThe Imitation Game” tells the story of Alan Turing, inventor of the Turing Machine, which (as I learned from one of my Isaac Asimov books many moons ago) was vital technology in the development of the modern computer. He is remembered today mainly for two things: inventing the machine to crack Enigma, a Nazi encryption machine that could make messages nearly impossible to decrypt; and for being convicted of gross indecency in 1952 for homosexual acts. He took cyanide and died just two years later. He was brought back into the public eye in 2013 when the Queen of England posthumously pardoned him.

This new biopic tells Turing’s story through three episodes in his life: his breaking of the Enigma Code, his first friendship, and his arrest and the fallout from it. Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Alan Turing, and he uses his greatest strength—his protean voice—to become a completely different character in every film. As Turing he is once again typecast as the genius, but Turing is no Sherlock or Khan Noonien Singh. Rather, he is posh, stuttering, and insecure. Kiera Knightley brings complexity to Joan Clarke, a brilliant codebreaker with struggles of her own: She doesn’t want to accept society’s limitations for women, but doesn’t feel ready to be a rebel. The rest of the cast, including Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear, Mark Strong, and Charles Dance, have much smaller roles, but play them equally convincingly.

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How the Superhero Culture Conquered Hollywood

1371809295_Captain-America-The-First-AvengerA giant hole has appeared in the bright skies over Hollywood, opening a passage from the world of the comic book superhero into the film and TV studios. Though the wormhole was rather small when it first appeared years ago, it has expanded to encompass much of the American film industry and will shape much of what film and television audiences will see for at least the next six years. Superheroes are not just part of the program for at least two major studios, they are THE plan for most of the foreseeable future.

How did the capes and cowls so successfully conquer the executive suites of Tinseltown? And why do audiences so happily flock to these films?
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