Category Archives: Movies

Movie Review: Grace Unplugged

This film drew quite a bit of Christian buzz when it came out last year, and it focuses on the music industry, so I thought I’d check it out and review it for you guys. Here’s the premise: Johnny Trey, a one-time one-hit rock star, has left the Hollywood life behind him, kicked drugs, and settled down in a small town to raise a family. Now he serves as a worship pastor at his church. His daughter, 18-year-old Grace, shows musical promise but chafes under her father’s strict regulations for the band. When daddy’s old manager offers him a new record deal after a cover of his classic sugar-stick goes viral, he smiles and declines easily. But Grace decides to do her own cover of the newly popular hit and e-mails it to “Mossy.” Mossy likes what he hears, and after yet another fight with dear old Dad, you can guess what happens next: Yep, little miss evangelical-teen-with-daddy-issues packs her bags and heads for Hollywood! Just write the rest of the script yourself from there and you probably won’t be far off from the real one.

Okay, so I’m being a bit snarky. I did genuinely like some things about this film, so let’s list some Pros before we get into the Cons:

Pros

* The character of the father. I really, really liked this character—both the way he was written and the way he was acted. In fact, I liked him so much that I found it hard to sympathize with Grace’s whining, and I kind of wanted to pull some of her pretty, pretty hair out when she bad-mouthed him behind his back. Maybe I just don’t “get” whiny teenagers, but I was always rooting for Team Dad in their arguments. When Grace skips youth group for a movie, and worse, she lies about it to her mother, Dad is NOT happy about “that little song and dance you gave your mother.” Actor James Denton believably conveys deep love, anger and hurt as Trey’s little girl grows up and rejects him. Unlike some of the other characters, he actually seemed like a real person, with real emotional layers.

* I appreciated the unflattering, but  probably 90% accurate portrayal of how the pop music business actually works (except that Grace hops on a tour bus before she’s chosen and recorded more than one song, which simply doesn’t make sense). Her fashion designer is also kind of over the top (we get it, in American movies a British Accent alwaysalways = Bad). But when Dad shakes his head sadly and says, “Oh, you are not ready for this,” he’s more right than she can imagine. Continue reading

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My Top 5 Films of 2013

It’s awards season in Hollywood, that seemingly endless cycle of self-congratulation that mercifully does end with the distribution of little gold men for what is supposedly the best film-making of the year. And it’s my pleasure as a Christian who also loves movies to report that some of the films being recognized this season actually deserve it.

I think I’m going to call 2013 “the year of human exceptionalism” for movie-making. Some of its finest films offered powerful portraits of a single person who must rise above great challenges for freedom, dignity or life itself. It was a throwback to the right kind of humanism. I sometimes think that if our society could back-track even just to the point where man was still seen as uniquely valuable, it would be a vast improvement over the post-modern rot that has set in today. Though I have no hope that a handful of stellar films will do the trick, or even convince their own makers of the deeper truths behind them, I can at least praise good work when I see it.

In this post I will sketch out the premise of each film (spoiler-free!) and try to explain concisely why it deserves a place in my Top 5. Although not all of these movies were nominated for awards, I will also throw in an “Oscar bait” category for those that were, with asterisks for win predictions. Finally, I will clearly indicate any content concerns, as I am not one of “those” Christian movie-watchers who scorn content advisories. While I do believe discerning Christian viewers can take something of value from all of these films, your mileage may vary. Be heartily encouraged to use your own judgement.

But before I jump into the list, I want to pause and say a few words about one film that I agonized and agonized over, even placing number one at one point, before finally choosing to drop it from the top five altogether upon re-watching and reflection. It’s a hot contender for all the major awards, including Best Picture. Yet even though by some measures it may be the best film of 2013, topping secular and Christian film critics’ lists alike, it wasn’t my favorite film.  Continue reading

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When Jim Caviezel Met Jimmy Stewart

I just… can’t… take… the awesomeness!

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Movie Review: The Last Ride

The Last Ride is the debut of Bill Gaither’s son Benjy as a film producer. Though he neither directed the movie nor wrote the script for it, he is credited as “executive producer, producer” on IMDB and wrote all the original music for the film, including several new songs. The movie is a fictionalized look at the last days of country music superstar Hank Williams, who died tragically at age 29 from substance abuse and health issues related to the birth defect of spina bifida. After becoming a country music legend in an amazingly short time, Williams let both his personal life and his career disintegrate. In 1952, he attempted to stage two back-to-back comeback shows scheduled over New Years’ in West Virginia and Ohio. A heavy ice storm ruled out flight, so Williams hired a college student to drive him. This also failed because of the ice storm. While some details of Williams’ road trip remain a mystery, we know that he died some time on News Years’ Day, 1953.

This film imaginatively fleshes out those details, but viewers should be aware that much of it is simply made up, and unfortunately some of the fiction collides with the fact we do know. Nevertheless, I was moved by this film and would recommend it to viewers looking for a compelling human story. Here is my full review. Continue reading

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My Top Five… Family Movies

I’m starting a new “top 5″ series for movies. Eventually I hope to do so for songs as well. In both cases, I’ll break it down by genre.

Finding good movies can be difficult. I’m here to offer some of the best picks from my own experience as a passionate cinephile who’s also not ashamed to suggest that there are some movies no Christian should watch, at the risk of being called a fundamentalist. To start off, here are my top five family movies.

Criteria

A great family movie must…

1. Have only negligible content issues, if any.

2. Be well-made (of course this applies to all, but family movies certainly aren’t exempt!)

3. Be fun.

4. Be something even small kids could appreciate (this is why I chose to leave off movies like The Princess Bride, because a 3-year-old won’t really “get” a lot of the fun in the movie).

5. Have a happy ending.

So without further ado, I present….

The List Continue reading

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My Favorite Movie of 2012

The Impossible--mother and sonOscars night has come and gone, and the nominees for Best Picture were, from a family perspective, relatively slim pickings. Most of them ranged from spiritually muddled at best (Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild) to profane, violent and/or morally offensive at worst (roughly half the nominees). The picture which came out on top in the end, historical hostage thriller Argo, was actually one of the better choices. I agree with Focus on the Family’s Plugged In (whose Oscar roundtable podcast you can check out here), that it was a fun, exciting, well-made film which could easily have been appropriate for young teens on up were it not for its bad language. A candidate for ClearPlay, perhaps.

However, my favorite film of the year wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. In fact, my favorite film of the year was barely nominated for anything and came home empty-handed. Continue reading

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Movie Musical Review: Les Miserables (2012)

Jean Valjean and Cosette (Les Miserables 2012)

To love another person is to see the face of God. — Victor Hugo

If there were ever a story that’s stood the test of time, it’s Les Miserables. It’s the story of how one act of mercy can change a soul forever. It’s the story of love’s power to redeem, reclaim and restore. It’s the story of one man, and it is the story of every man who has found this grace, this mercy, this love.  Perhaps that is why it has endured for so long. For the journey of Jean Valjean is our journey as well.

The novel was an instant popular success when it was first published in the 1830s. The 20th century saw it go through multiple adaptations, on the screen and on the stage. I was first exposed to the story through Focus on the Family’s outstanding radio drama. (It is still, in my opinion, the best adaptation out there. Pick up your own copy here and I think you’ll agree.) However, the most popular adaptation is unquestionably the 1985 musical. Originally an unsuccessful French language production, its libretto was translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer, and the new production launched a global phenomenon. It went on to become the second-longest-running musical of all time. But 2012 marked the first year that it was brought to the big screen.

Before seeing the film, I had never heard the musical before, aside from a couple of its most famous selections. I knew it was sung-through, like an opera, so I wasn’t sure how well I would like it going in. I came away more impressed than I had expected to be, but still preferring that radio drama. I think the musical format is a mixed blessing, hence its status as a Pro-Con in this review. Since seeing the film, I got the chance to see the musical on stage and enjoyed comparing the two. In my opinion, the screen adaptation is quite good (with a couple important caveats that are to some extent intertwined with the original musical, to be detailed in the “Cons” section). It left me more than a little misty-eyed more than once.  But I confess that I almost enjoyed the behind-the-scenes featurettes about its production even more. I think anyone interested in music, singing, or sound mixing will be fascinated by these details, particularly the ground-breaking decision to sing live. I will link to the best of these clips in the course of this review. Continue reading

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Movie Review: The Hobbit—An Unexpected Journey (Part II)

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEYClick here if you missed yesterday’s Part I, in which I discuss clear pros and cons of the film,  Today we’re exploring pro-cons, important elements of the film that are worth talking about and not altogether good or bad. I’ll also offer some closing comments and look ahead to what we can expect in film two, The Desolation of Smaug. Enjoy, and if you still haven’t read the book, we’ll wait right here. It’s okay.

Pro-Cons

1. The Necromancer thread

Here I must confess that I misjudged Peter Jackson. I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with Tolkien’s appendices and hence didn’t realize that there is some key behind-the-scenes action involving the Necromancer, the White Council, and Dol Guldur. Clearly I needed to do a little homework. Continue reading

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Movie Review: The Hobbit—An Unexpected Journey (Part I)

Martin Freeman Bilbo small sizeSo I went to see The Hobbit the other day. Be honest now, you’re going to see it too (if you haven’t already). I mean who isn’t, if only just to see the glorious, sprawling landscape of Middle Earth on the big screen one more time? And if you’re a homeschooler, or used to be homeschooled… well then.

Okay, so we already knew it would look fantastic. The question is, what about, y’know, the movie? Is it any good?

I was curious, so I went to see for myself. I’m pleased to say that while it definitely has its drawbacks, the answer is… yes. So without further eloquence, here is the scoop in the form of Pros, Cons, and Pro-Cons (a movie’s bigger than a music album, so sometimes you need a category for things you’re ambivalent on). In the spirit of the new movies, it seemed fitting to split what maybe could have been a one-post review into two posts (ahem). The pro-cons and final thoughts in particular ended up a bit long. So here is Part One. Come back tomorrow for Part Two. Today we’ll discuss pros and cons, tomorrow the pro-cons and final thoughts. Enjoy, and please do feel free to chime in with your own thoughts if you’ve got them. Comments are nice, precious.

[Note: On the off-chance that you're reading this and have NOT read the book... go read it before reading another word of this post.]

Right, so let’s start with…

Pros:

1. Martin Freeman as Bilbo

2. Martin Freeman as Bilbo

3. Martin Freeman as Bilbo

4. But seriously… MARTIN FREEMAN AS BILBO!

All right, I’ll explain. Continue reading

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The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Franchise Phenomenon

LOTR Pez

This weekend, Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Hobbit is opening in theaters worldwide. It’s sure to be a huge box-office draw. Truth be told, I’ll probably be going to see it myself. I respect what Jackson did with the LOTR trilogy even though it had some significant flaws, and I expect some good performances from Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Richard Armitage as Thorin, and of course the returning Ian McKellan and Andy Serkis (Gandalf and Gollum).

Having said that, I’ve been thinking about what’s happened to Middle-Earth as its stories have become, essentially, a franchise through these movies. If you look at a Nerd Pinterest you’re sure to see funny LOTR posters and pics rubbing shoulders with Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and all the comic book franchises. The characters as portrayed in the LOTR  movies have inspired numerous fan fics. Frodo and Sam’s friendship has become just another “epic bromance” (please don’t get me started on the ugliness of that word, even though I think it’s supposed to refer to a non-sexual male friendship). And of course, there are the video games, and the hobbit slippers, and the Halloween costumes, and the Pez candies, and…

At a certain point I want to just stop and say “Is this what these stories were meant for?” Continue reading

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