Moving Beyond Swear Word Checklists When Watching Movies

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Note: Ted Kluck and I wrote this together. Actually, Ted wrote almost all of this. I just made a few snide remarks and a few profound points. My notes are all in italics.

Being that dystopian future movies are all the rage, we recently took a Netflix-flyer on a film called “Snowpiercer”, which concerned a future in which everyone on earth was frozen to death (in a global-warming experiment gone awry) except for a few hundred people who managed to get a berth on a train that (stay with me) runs forever and keeps everyone alive. Needless to say there’s a lot of willing suspension of disbelief going on in this movie.

Okay, I know Ted is going to talk about this in a little bit, but I’m that annoying kid in class who was always answering questions before they were asked. Can we talk for just a moment about why dystopian future movies are all the rage? Hunger Games. World War Z. The Walking Dead (technically a television show). Left Behind. Left Behind Remixed, starring Nicolas Cage. Why is it that everyone is so infatuated with the apocalypse? I suspect it is because the apocalypse is much easier to imagine than a utopia. I look around and I see ISIS, Ebola, and global warming, and it sort of does feel like the world is coming to an end. The simple fact is: it’s easier to be gloomy than hopeful. In the face of the onslaught of gloom and doom, Christians should be the most hopeful people alive. Yes, the Prince of Darkness does appear to be grim, but we tremble not for him. Why? His doom is sure. King Jesus will return, place his foot upon the skull of Satan, and press down firmly. Boom. Evil is over. New heavens and new earth. Dystopia destroyed.

The movie stars a very “meh” Chris Evans, an awesome-as-usual Ed Harris, a creepy John Hurt, and a making-a-career-out-of-not-being-afraid-to-be-ugly Tilda Swinton. Not surprisingly Evans, who is the only good-looking poor person on the train, leads an uprising which, after lots of fighting and bloodshed, leads him to the front of the train. It is kind of a class-struggle movie meets “Braveheart,” except that the Evans character does a lot less self-conscious bloviating than William Wallace but probably just as much killing.

(I like William Wallace’s bloviating. They may be able to take my life, but they can’t take my freedom. Take that bloviation to the bank.)

The movie was good, but that’s not the point. The point is that it made us think about how to watch movies. “I wonder why people love dystopian future movies so much?” my wife asked.

“Maybe because they all have a sense that it’s not working and it all has to come to an end at some point,” I posit (Posit? Did you go behind my back and spend thousands of dollars at a small liberal arts school to get a useless degree in philosophy?) . “But this was really a movie about man’s total depravity.”

Which led to another really good conversation that I won’t bore you with the details of. But it occurred to both of us that “Christians watching movies” should encompass more than just checking a website to see how many cigarettes are smoked (exactly two in “Snowpiercer”), how many f-bombs are dropped (a few), and how many breasts appear (zero).

Too often we simply want to go through a moral checklist rather than digging deep and getting to the heart of the matter. We resort to counting the number of curse words and amount of violence instead of digging deep into what the movie says about life, God, me, goodness. We zoom in on the minute details of a movie and then neglect to examine how the film affects our desires and dreams and passions. If we’re truly going to watch God when we watch movies, we need to establish some big picture principles before we create swear word checklists. What are some of those principles?

Here are a few simple guidelines:

  1. Cultivate a conscience and listen to it. I think watching movies as a Christian is about more than just avoiding the wrong things but…it’s still important to avoid those things which might cause us to stumble. For example, I don’t feel like I’m more likely to cleave somebody in half as a result of watching “Snowpiercer.”

It’s helpful to identify “temptation triggers”. In other words, is watching a particular show or movie going to tempt you to participate in sin? Watching Breaking Bad doesn’t tempt me to make meth. Watching Californication probably would tempt me to lust. This is a wisdom issue. Wisdom is about knowing how to make God-honoring choices in a morally gray world. Know your heart, then steer clear of the pitfalls.

  1. Surround yourself with people who care about your conscience. This one is self-explanatory, but my wife and my friends know the kinds of movies that make me uncomfortable and I’m really thankful for that.

Movies that make me uncomfortable:

  • Anything written by Nicholas Sparks.
  • Comedies starring Adam Sandler. Honestly, why do people think he is so funny?
  • Christian movies.
  • Movies starring Michael W. Smith (yes, he was in a movie).
  • Movies where the trailer contains the phrase, “Only one man…”
  1. Watch movies in light of your Christian worldview. As I watched “Snowpiercer” I couldn’t help but try to think where I would be, as a Christian, in that scenario. How would I worship? How would I struggle? Could I, in good conscience, cleave anyone in half?

Other helpful questions to ask: What does this movie say about God? What does this movie say about what constitutes the good life? What does this movie say about the culture I live in, and how does the gospel speak to that culture? Does this movie glorify something God detests? Can I give thanks to God for this movie?

  1. Don’t be a pompous windbag about movies, but don’t be dumb about them either. There’s a happy medium between “Tree of Life” and “Sextape.” At some level it’s up to us to find that medium. I try hard not to turn every movie into an academic exercise (because, let’s face it, nobody in my life wants that), but I also really like “debriefing” the movies with interesting/thoughtful people.

When it comes to “interesting” and “thoughtful”, I think we all know who you’re talking about.

Ted’s responses:

  1. My worthless liberal arts degree was in creative writing.
  2. I was talking about my wife (re: interesting and thoughtful)
  3. Sandler is funny because he can somehow pull off the “idiot with a heart of gold” thing. People like that.
  4. Mel Gibson/Wallace’s bloviating led to a lot of residual chest-thumping and bloviating by otherwise wimpy evangelical guys in the late 90s and early 2000s…all of which just struck me as a little sad/funny. Which begs a more interesting question: Why are basically wimpy people so drawn to tough/aggressive/macho people in the movies? Could be another blog post in that…

The Gospel Of “Newsies”

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If you haven’t seen the movieNewsies, it is quite possible you aren’t a Christian. Just kidding. Sort of.

Next time you go to church, ask five people if they have seen the movie. I guarantee that at least one of those people will respond by saying, “Oh my gosh! I LOVE THAT MOVIE!”. Then they will begin singing and possibly dance-fighting, becauseNewsiesis a musical. If you’re unfamiliar withNewsies, the basic plot (supposedly based on a true story) goes something like this.

The Newsies are a rag tag army of young boys who sell newspapers for a penny a pape (street lingo for paper). Jack Kelly (played by a young Christian Bale), is the defacto leader of the Newsies. Kelly is a street smart kid who is always outrunning the cops and outfighting the local bullies, all while performing spectacular dance moves and speaking in a quaint New York accent, which is pretty good, considering that Christian Bale was actually born in Wales (as we all know, those folks can’t dance or speak in New York accents).

One day, the rich and powerful Joseph Pullitzer (played by Robert Duvall) decides that he wants to make more money and become even more rich and powerful. The way he is going to make more money is by paying the Newsies less. The Newsies, who are already struggling to make enough money, are going to have work twice as hard just to put food in their stomach. It’s a classic example of the rich oppressing the poor.

But then something amazing happens. Jack Kelly, along with his shy friend David, decide that they’re not going to take it anymore. Together, they lead the Newsies to go on strike against Pullitzer. This strike is the central theme of the movie, and it creates tension that lasts until the final moments.

Why doesNewsieshave such a cult, underground following? Why do so many people (myself included) love the movie so much?

BecauseNewsiescontains all the elements of the gospel.

Any truly good story contains at least some elements of the greatest story. That’s whyLord of the Rings,The Chronicles of Narnia, andHarry Potterare all so immensely popular. Each of these stories contains elements of God’s great story. What are these elements?

A Great Enemy Who Seeks To Destroy Others

InNewsies, Joseph Pullitzer is the great enemy. He does not care about the well-being of his newspaper boys, all he cares about is making money. When I watch the movie, I feel angry at the injustices perpetrated against the newspaper boys. I want someone to rescue them, to deliver them, to break the chains of oppression which bind them. The song “Once and for All” captures the coldness and badness of Joseph Pullitzer, as well as the desire to break free from his oppression.

Joseph Pullitzer, Sauron, Saruman, the White Witch, and Voldemort are small pictures of our great enemy, Satan. Satan and sin have conspired together to ruin this world. Satan takes great delight in the sadness and wickedness and brokenness which have invaded our world. We need someone to rescue us from the Evil One. We need someone to deliver us. We need a hero.

A Leader To Stand Against Injustice and Right Every Wrong

Newsiesis interesting in that it features several semi-messianic figures. Jack and David start out as the leaders of the group. David is the brains and Jack is the brawn. Together they inform Pullitzer that they’re not going to take it anymore. They unite the Newsies together in an effort to right wrongs and conquer injustice. The song “Seize the Day” shows the Newsies following Jack and David in the fight against Pullitzer. The song even contains references to David and Goliath.

We too need someone to lead us. We need a founder and pioneer of our faith who will blaze the trail ahead of us. Jesus is that leader. He is the glorious founder of our faith who has taken all of Satan’s best shots and come out victorious in the end. Through Christ, we actually can seize each day for the glory of God.

A Redemption Story

Jack Kelly, the leader of the Newsies, is very similar to the Apostle Peter. He is loud and brash, always throwing punches and taking names. He doesn’t back down from a fight and isn’t scared of Joseph Pullitzer. But in a moment of weakness, Jack betrays the Newsies. He sells them out and deserts them. Just like Peter and just like us, Jack Kelly needs redemption. He needs someone to step in and take his place. In the movie, David becomes the one who steps in and takes Jack’s place. David succeeds where Jack failed. In real life, Christ is our redeemer. He is the one who forgives our failings and extends grace to us. He is the one who succeeds where we failed.

The Point of Every Story

Every good story should contain at least bits and pieces of the gospel story. Sometimes a story will only portray the darkness of man apart from Christ, such as the bookNo Country For Old Men. Sometimes a story will only be about a hero who rescues the weak and needy, like so many of our superhero stories.

The reasonNewsiesis such a great story is because it contains all the elements of the gospel. I think the picture and quote below, (drawn by KaraLee Reinke), captures the heart of what I’m trying to say:



Narnia in Three Dimensions

Okay, it’s time for a little Narina nerd talk. Last night Jen and I saw The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and since I know that everyone cares so much about my opinion, I thought I’d share it. So, in no particular order, here are my thoughts on the movie.

First, it was the first 3D movie that I’ve seen, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. I paid $23 dollars for us to see the movie, and for that price I was expecting a live centaur to be in the audience. Not so much. I had to wear those bulky, dorky 3D glasses over my glasses, which wasn’t especially fun, and the picture quality wasn’t all that much better. I probably won’t pay to see a 3D movie again. It just wasn’t worth it. However, if you want to pay for me, I would be glad to go.

Second, I thought Eustace was a fantastic character. Will Poulter played the role of Eustace really well. He was obnoxious, hilarious, arrogant. Overall he was pretty close to the Eustace found in the book. He was probably the highlight of the movie for me.

Third, I was really disappointed by the way the original plot was distorted in order to turn the book into a movie. The whole idea of the evil mist just seemed…well kind of lame. It changed the whole feel of the story from a rip-roaring, high-seas, exploring unknown worlds adventure, into a battle against an unknown evil mist that did unnamed bad things. The mist became the unifying element of the story, rather than exploration and discovery. The anonymity of the mist was also a weakness. The movie never identified who or what the mist really was, and by the end, I didn’t really care if they defeated the mist or not.

Fourth, as other have pointed out, the movie totally missed it when it came to Eustace becoming a dragon. In the book, the whole point of Eustace becoming a dragon is that Eustace needed Aslan to save him, NOT that Eustace had a hero inside of him. Eustace’s need for Aslan was almost entirely written out of the movie, except for one brief clip toward the end.

Finally, is it just me or is Aslan slowly getting written out of the movies? I think that Aslan was in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for a grand total of five minutes. It’s so disappointing.

Overall, I thought that Voyage of the Dawn Treader was a good movie, but bad adaptation of the book. Yes, I realize that I’m being a total Narnia dork, but that’s just who I am. As a movie, I thought it was actually pretty good, but it just wasn’t the Narnia that I know, which was disappointing.

So should you see it? Yes. Just have reasonable expectations.

What about you? What was your impression of the movie?

Avatar and Homesick for Heaven

I’m one of three people left in the world who hasn’t seen the movie Avatar. The other two are Himalayan cave dwellers and have more important things to do, like climb Mount Everest and raise llamas.

From everything I hear, the movie is incredible. The special effects are absolutely mind-blowing. People say it’s like being transported into another world. And William Shatner does an incredible job as commander of the “U.S.S. Titanic”. Or something like that.

But the movie is also having a strange effect on thousands of viewers: depression.

CNN recently released an article stating that after seeing the movie, many viewers have become seriously depressed. After seeing the beauty and stunning majesty of the world in Avatar, people feel disillusioned with this life.

After seeing the movie, one young man said:

When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning. It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.

When I read the article and saw the above quote, I couldn’t help but think of these words by Randy Alcorn:

Nothing is more often misdiagnosed than our homesickness for Heaven. We think that what we want is sex, drugs, alcohol, a new job, a raise, a doctorate, a spouse, a large-screen television, a new car, a cabin in the woods, a condo in Hawaii. What we really want is the person we were made for, Jesus, and the place we were made for, Heaven. Nothing less can satisfy.

I haven’t seen Avatar, but if I did I think it would make me homesick for Heaven.

Have you seen Avatar?

Wall*E: The Definitive Review

Several weeks ago I called upon faithful and sagacious readers to provide me with their opinion of the latest Pixar film Wall*E. The responses were mixed, some joyfully raving about the movie, others harshly criticizing it. This past Friday I decided to find out for myself. It was time for a definitive review (okay, maybe the word ‘definitive’ is a bit strong, but I’ve always wanted to say that something I did was definitive).

Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. After seeing Wall*E with my own eyes, I came away…insert long extended drum roll and 21 gun salute…distinctly DISAPPOINTED. I was disappointed for several reasons.

As a general rule of thumb, Pixar movies are a glorious combination of humorous dialog, hilarious sight gags, and a moderate dose of cuteness. Wall*E however, relied primarily on what I call ‘The Cute Factor’. For example:

  • For a significant portion of the movie there was zero dialog, focusing instead on the silly/cute antics of a robot named Wall*E. Some of it was mildly amusing, such as when Wall*E watches something on a video iPod, but not nearly as funny as the one-liners delivered by Billy Crystal in ‘Monsters Inc.’
  • Partway into the movie a ‘female’ robot named Eve arrives on the scene. Wall*E desperately wants to hold Eve’s hand – a theme that gets repeated approximately 497 times in the movie. Cute, but nothing compared to Frozone in ‘The Incredibles’.
  • Wall*E and Eve say each other’s names in cute robot voices again and again, which was kind of amusing the first fifty times, but lost a bit of ‘oomph’ after that.

I will admit, there were some humorous moments when Wall*E was aboard the space station, but these didn’t carry me through the movie.

There you have it folks, the definitive review. A cartoon movie critically reviewed by a grown man…my parents would be proud.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I’d like to hear where you agree or disagree.

Calling Movie Reviewers: Wall-E

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I haven’t yet seen the Pixar movie Wall-E but I’m hearing rumors that it’s the best movie Pixar has ever made. I’m even hearing whispers of an Academy Award for “Best Picture”.

I love Pixar movies and intend to see Wall-E, but I wanted to hear from you guys as well. Have you seen the movie? Is it really as good as everyone says? How can it possibly be better than “The Incredibles?”

Narnia Let Down

One of the great things about having a blog is that you can go on a pointless rant from time to time. So excuse me while I climb up on my soap box and rant for a moment.

Last night Jen and I went to see the latest installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian. For those of you who live under rocks or in caves, The Chronicles of Narnia is a fantasy book series written by C.S. Lewis, and is possibly the greatest series of books ever written. Needless to say, I was jazzed out my jumpsuit for this movie.

For the first ten minutes everything was fine. Then things started going south. If you haven’t seen the movie I’ll try not to spoil it for you. But here’s a few things that frustrated me –

_Aslan is in the movie for a grand total of about ten minutes, part of which is dream sequence.

_Instead of being friends like in the book, Peter and Caspian develop a junior-high power struggle

_Susan has a “Saved By The Bell”-like crush on Caspian

_Insert extended “Can we make this like Braveheart?” castle invasion scene that wasn’t in the book

_Tom Cruise plays Prince Caspian and Oprah plays Susan (just kidding)

I think because the movie was so different from the book I might have been happier if there was a lightsaber battle or a Velociraptor hunt. But hey, obviously I’m a Narnia nerd, and if you enjoyed the movie I won’t criticize you.

Give me your thoughts on the movie. Please correct me if I’m wrong here too.