‘Out of Liberty’ REVIEW

outofliberty

A lot of my fellow cinephiles can be very dismissive of the faith-based genre, and not without some due cause. Too often these well-meaning films are too preoccupied with delivering a sermon rather than telling a worthwhile story with complex characters. However, any genre can produce good films, and Garrett Batty’s new film Out of Liberty is a good example.

I was actually excited to see Out of Liberty because I like both of Batty’s last offerings, The Saratov Approach and Freetown (which was in my top 10 of 2015). All 3 of his films have been about people of faith put in harrowing circumstances where their faith doesn’t help them very much. There are no massive miracles, no grand speeches, just simple stories of how faith can help you get through the tough times. I admire that in his storytelling.

outofliberty3

In the case of Out of Liberty Batty is putting on his history glasses and telling the story of when Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith (Brandon Ray Olive) is falsely arrested along with a number of other men, and forced to live in a dungeon-like cell accessible only by a rope while they await their trial. The conditions are brutal with limited food, light or proper sanitation. Early church leader Sidney Rigdon (Brock Rogers) struggles the most being incarcerated and his faith goes to a low spot as his health declines.

outofliberty2

All of the men struggle including the jailer Samuel Tillery (Jason Wade) who is the true lead of the film. Tillery often reminded me of a kinder version of Javert from Les Miserables. He is not a religious man, but he believes in the rule of law. He will keep the men inside the jail and the mob outside at all costs until Lady Justice has had her say. This dynamic made Out of Liberty feel more like a Western than a faith-based film and it worked for me on that level. In fact, there is really only 1 scene with Joseph I would describe as overtly religious.

This unique approach allows us to get to know the characters as human beings rather than paragons of religious virtue. Even the prophet is painted with the same ordinary-man brush as the rest of the men. At times, Out of Liberty almost felt like a play with its intimate setting and raw dialogue. I wish more faith-based films took this approach because its these more human characters that usually are the most inspirational. People with perfect faith aren’t interesting to me.

outofliberty5

The cast of Out of Liberty is all up for the challenge. I even enjoyed Corbin Allred as the controversial Porter Rockwell- a character that could have slipped into caricature easily.

As far as flaws, those with no understanding in Latter-day Saint history might be a little confused with who these men are, and what they have done to be arrested. A little bit more backstory might have helped clear that up. The angry mobs are always a bit one-note in these movies but that’s the case with almost all Westerns, so it’s not a big problem. Some of the pacing could perhaps be a little tighter in spots but overall I really enjoyed Out of Liberty.

If you are someone who enjoys historical dramas than I would say go see Out of Liberty. It’s a well written, moving character piece that is both a study of faith and a Western jailbreak survival story. It is definitely worth your time and is one of the good ones!

8.5 out of 10

smile worthy

Advertisements

‘The Fighting Preacher’ REVIEW

For many years filmmaker T.C. Christensen has made a career out of making sweet and inspirational, faith-based films for Latter-day Saint audiences. Many of these are set in the past and seek to tell part of Church history like The Cokeville Miracle or 17 Miracles. These movies are definitely not for everyone but if you like programs like When Calls the Heart or Little House on the Prairie than you will enjoy them. His latest effort, The Fighting Preacher, is a bit uneven but overall it succeeds in telling a sentimental true story about tolerance, kindness and how a Christian spirit will win over hate every time.

fighting preacher2

The film is based on the experiences of Willard Bean (David McConnell); a boxing champion who in 1905 is called by the Church to move to the town of Palmyra, New York and make a home for himself and his family in the recently purchased Joseph Smith Farm. As the name implies, the home was once owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint prophet and founder Joseph Smith. Nearby is the Hill Cumorah which is where the prophet claimed to find (by the guidance of an angel) the gold plates he translated into ‘The Book of Mormon’. Unfortunately, the Saints were eventually pushed out of Palmyra by residents who feared the new religion and the fervor of its followers and after 85 years the town had remained free from all ‘Mormons’ as they were known at the time.

One would think after such a long time away from each other, the anger against the Latter-day Saints would have dissipated in Palmyra but this proved to not be the case for the Beans. They faced opposition and challenges trying to do normal things like purchase everyday necessities, get medical care and even helping their daughter get an education.

At first Willard is tempted to use his boxing skills to retaliate against the people but eventually he learns such problems are better solved by an offering of homemade pie rather than a fist to the face (if that description sounds too saccharine, than trust me. This is not the movie for you!).

fighting preacher3

The casting goes a long way in making The Fighting Preacher work. McConnell is easy to relate to and has nice chemistry with Cassidy Hubert who plays his wife Rebecca (my only nitpick with her is she had very modern lipstick on). The little girl, Scarlett Hazen, who plays their daughter Palmyra is also adorable. She did a great job!

The rest of the cast is fine but there isn’t a huge attempt to flesh out people beyond a slamming of the door with a ‘get out of here you Mormons’ rebuke. As a former missionary, I have no doubt this was a reality, but as a movie, it comes across as forced. The script as a whole is clunky with dialogue that doesn’t feel natural or human.

For a better example of a similar plot with a much better script I recommend last year’s Jane and Emma. That film took the time to flesh out the characters and give authentic nuanced dialogue.

Even with its flaws, however, I still recommend The Fighting Preacher. It knows its audience and unlike some faith-based films, the message is very positive. It tells the viewer to accept people of all beliefs, and to be kind and loving to all men and women (even when it is not reciprocated). The performances are also strong enough to forgive a script I wish was better.

6 out of 10

smile worthy

‘The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith’ REVIEW

Those who have been reading my blog for some time know I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or known by some as The Mormons). I don’t normally don’t talk about my religion on this blog but occasionally a faith-based film comes up for review and it is only natural then to share my religious perspective. The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith is actually a sequel to a very popular entry that came out in 2001 (when I say popular it got a Disney distribution, so more than just amongst my community).

other side of heaven7

The first The Other Side of Heaven film tells the story of missionary John Groberg (Christopher Gorham) as he serves on a very small island in Tonga for 2 years as a young man. This sequel continues his story but it is a decade later. John with his wife Jean (Natalie Medlock) bring their large brood of children back to the islands to serve as a mission president. From the start they face many tests of their faith and must learn to love the Tongan people in a whole new way.

Overall if you are a fan of the first film I definitely think you will enjoy this sequel. It’s not perfect but it’s well made and Gorham is very strong and charismatic in the lead. I had the chance to interview director Mitch Davis for the Hallmarkies Podcast (see above), and I could see while watching the love and passion poured into the film by him and others.

other side of heaven3

They also did an incredible job casting Russell Dixon to play Thomas Monson who would later go on to become prophet of the LDS Church. The resemblance is uncanny both in looks and mannerisms and as someone who loved President Monson, it warmed my heart to see him portrayed so well.

I also thought the second half of the film when the whole island begins to fast and pray together was very touching. Most anyone will be inspired and moved by those moments of shared faith.

other side of heaven5

My only flaws with the film is I wish they had brought in that sense of community earlier to help balance out the portrayal of a very angry, even violent, Methodist pastor. If it hadn’t been resolved so tastefully I would have been annoyed. (It was touch and go there for a bit because his behavior is close to unredeemable. He really should be in jail not leading a congregation).

other side of heaven6

Also I didn’t love Natalie Medlock as Jean. In the promo footage she mentioned she’s not much of kid person and unfortunately it shows. There was an awkwardness in her scenes that made it hard for me to buy her as the mother of 6. (Although I did like a moment in the script when she tells John “I’m all prayed out”. It was a human moment). The performance just wasn’t my favorite.

The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith is opening on 200 screens, so if it sounds like something you’d enjoy, go out and support it. Rarely does a film like this get such a wide opening, and it’s got enough heart and a great lead performance to be worth a watch. People of faith can’t complain about the depravity of modern films and then not support inspirational, well-made offerings like this and expect their concerns to be taken seriously.

The film is rated PG-13 for some violence but it’s nothing a good chat with your kids can’t address, and I like I said, it ends on a hopeful note. Take your family and enjoy yourself at the movies!

7 out of 10

smile worthy

 

 

‘Breakthrough’ Review

As a person of faith but not a traditional Christian the faith-based film market can be an interesting experience for me. In some ways I connect with the films but in other ways I don’t. Pureflix films in particular seem to always make films that are high on the preaching and low on the nuanced character development. However, there are some exceptions to the rule like All Saints, Freetown, and I Can Only Imagine. These films tell a story of individuals with faith that are flawed and struggle in ways we can relate with. This makes their conversion or deeper commitment to God understandable and inspiring. The new film Breakthrough can be added to the list of faith-based films that get the balance of message with a good moving story right. It’s one of the good ones!

BREAKTHROUGH

Breakthrough tells the true story of Joyce Smith (Chrissy Metz) who’s son John gets caught in ice water for 45 minutes. Everything from his rescue to his Mom praying for his pulse to start again, to his near-perfect recovery seems to be a miracle. Whether it is or not is up for you and your faith to decide but the characters in the story certainly believe it is to varying degrees.

The reason why Breakthrough works is because the screenplay isn’t afraid to make their faithful characters, chief of all Joyce, flawed characters. She’s rude, bossy and the script calls her out on it. She learns and grows as a person. This makes the movie interesting if you believe in the miracle or not. Her husband Brian (Josh Lucas) struggles with his faith and doesn’t even want to enter the room with his ailing son. The screenplay allows him to feel this way without judgement. In fact, the person in the film judged the most harshly is probably the most faithful, Joyce. That’s unusual for these films and I admire that.

breakthrough3

There is also a very strong supporting cast in Breakthrough. Topher Grace is terrific as Joyce’s modern but sweet pastor. Mike Colter is quietly effective as the firefighter who saves John. And Dennis Haysbert is convincing as the doctor who oversees John’s care and can’t believe what he is witnessing. I also enjoyed seeing a bunch of Hallmark actors including Lisa Durupt (who I am interviewing this week!), Rebecca Staab, Victor Zinck Jr, and Ali Skovby.

The downsides to Breakthrough is there are a few cringe-worthy moments and those without faith might find it a little slow. Also there is an addendum where John returns to school that felt completely false (the local bully taunts him ‘hey miracle boy’, which made my eyes roll). It was not necessary and they should have just ended it with him leaving the hospital healthy or perhaps the scene of gratitude at the church.

Also they perhaps went too far at the beginning making John an annoying teen who is belligerent and bitter for no good reasons. I leaned over to my friend and said ”I can’t wait for him to get frozen”. I know teens are irritating but a little of that goes a long way. In order for us to want him to be saved he needs to be easier to root for. Luckily the movie is more about Joyce and with Chrissy Metz’s good performance she’s easy to empathize with.

In the end, if you are someone who enjoys faith-based films you should definitely see Breakthrough. If you are touch and go with them than this is one of the good ones. If you hate them than it probably won’t win you over but my friend Larry isn’t religious and he admired it more than anticipated. Give it a shot!

7.5 out of 10

smile worthy

All Saints Review

Before I start my review of the faith-based film All Saints I have a bone to pick with my Mormon/Christian readers. Frequently I will hear or read a refrain that “Hollywood is corrupt and producing nothing but garbage.” I recently was disgusted when a fellow Mormon critic, Jonathan Decker, tried to give advice on Wonder Woman. The vitriol and judgement in the comments of the article was frankly shocking and very discouraging (the comments appear to have been taken down...). Here you have someone who is trying to do a service for them and all they seemed to care about was being his judge and jury.

If I was in a room with these people I would ask them about All Saints, Freetown, We Love You Sally Carmichael, Tim Timmerman: Hope of America, or any number of squeaky clean Christian/Mormon films that have come out recently? Did they support such films? Probably not because they aren’t really interested in following the Lord’s counsel to seek after ‘anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.”  No, they want to feel morally superior to others who make such an effort and judge them for seeing films like Wonder Woman. Shame on you!

If you aren’t willing to seek out what is good then I have no interest in your opinion on what is bad.

There I said it…

So let’s get back to the movie at hand. All Saints! This is a faith-based film that is done right. It is based on a true story about a man who becomes a pastor for a small struggling church in Tennessee. He is originally supposed to prepare the church for closing but a group of Karen refugees (Southeast Asia near Burma) join his congregation. They are very needy and one night pastor Michael receives inspiration to start a farm at All Saints church. The movie then shares the experience of growing this farm which is by no means an easy thing just because it is inspired from God.

This film has a 91% on rottentomatoes which is unheard of for a Christian film (not a ton of reviews but still) and there is good reason. Not only is the acting strong across the board but it doesn’t fall into the traps of a typical faith-based film. There really isn’t preaching to the audience or atheist shaming but just an actual story involving human beings that feel real. The Karen are treated very respectfully and the relationships grow in a relatively realistic way. Never did I feel like Christians were shouting at me or that Jesus was magic like you got in movies like War Room.

In a lot of ways it reminded me of McFarland USA, which was another film about gatherers and in that case a white coach who come to understand one another and love their unique community.

A movie like All Saints is not going to change your life or be an Oscar winner but I’m certainly glad I saw it. I feel inspired and uplifted and want to try and reach out to my community after seeing it. I did not feel judged or preached to but merely I had spent 2 hours with some pretty nice people who had a thing or two to teach me.

That’s what Paul taught us to do. “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” so I would challenge you to follow this counsel and give All Saints a watch.

Overall Grade B+

Ben-Hur 1959 and 2016

Hi friends! I just wanted to quickly share with you my videos on the 1959 classic and current version of Ben-Hur. The video above has both reviews in it, but let me summarize my thoughts.

ben hur33Ben-Hur (1959)

Based on the popular novel, Ben-Hur tells the story of Jewish Judah Ben-Hur and his Roman friend Messala. The two friends become estranged when an accident occurs and Messala fails to come to the defense of his friend. Judah becomes vengeful towards Messala and his family suffers greatly under Roman rule. Eventually Judah escapes from a prisoner’s ship and races Messala in the famous chariot race. The death of Christ on the cross comes and Judah experiences the miracle of redemption and is able to let go of his hatred.

This is certainly an epic movie, perhaps the most epic ever made. It took me two days to watch it but I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. Charlton Heston is great as Judah as is the rest of the cast and I found the characters compelling enough to sustain the narrative. Each part of Judah’s journey feels important to the story. It’s in some way’s more like a miniseries more than a movie.

Because we have spent time with these characters and know them so well the more melodramatic moments work and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film. It’s definitely a classic for a reason.  Oh and the chariot race still holds up. Amazing!

Overall Grade- A

ben hur 2016

Ben-Hur (2016)

Despite what some may say this is not a total train wreck. If I was an average movie-goer who didn’t analyze films so much I would probably be entertained by the film. It’s well made and the acting is good all around.

The problem is I’m not an average moviegoer so the problems are more apparent to me especially when comparing it to the 1959 classic. My main problem is story changes they make which lessen the power of the narrative.  For example, they make Judah marry Esther, which makes her role in covering up the leprosy of his Mother and Sister non-existent. The entire plot point of the leprosy is an after-thought here when it is so moving in the original.

Also they lessen Messala’s ruthless choices. It’s complicated but in the original Messala has a choice to betray his friend and he does it because he knows betraying a friend will strike fear in hearts of the Jewish people. In here he does it because  Judah disobeys a technicality. It’s not as strong; therefore, making Judah’s desire for revenge not as strong.

Also they use a ton of shaky cam which I hated. Still, the chariot scene isn’t half bad and like I said the performances are pretty good.

Because of the weakened story elements the ending is a big problem. They have the cleansing rain like in the original but that’s enough for them. They have to make everything hunky dory and that annoyed me. It’s too bad really because it actually had potential to be a good remake.

Overall Grade- C-

Miracles From Heaven Review

miracles from heaven

I just wanted to share with you guys real quick my thoughts on the recently released faith-based film Miracles from Heaven.  I go over it in more detail on my youtube review but I’ll share a few things I really liked about it.

If you are open to faith-based films I think you should give this a watch because I felt it did a lot of things better than many in the genre.  It tells the story of the Beams family who’s little girl is taken ill with a gastrointestinal disorder.

Most of the movie revolves around Jennifer Garner’s character and how her faith is tested during this difficult time for her family.  Then a miracle happens (which they totally give away in the trailer) and that takes a new kind of faith.

The thing that impressed me about this film was how subtle it was compared to other faith-based films.  There are a lot of scenes that could have been very preachy but instead the film went with a softer more realistic approach.

For example, in one scene an anthiest father of a little girl has a conversation with Jennifer Garner about a cross necklace her daughter has given his daughter.  He explains his beliefs and asks her if she understands.  In movies such as War Room this would have gotten a big speech about belief and faith.  Instead, she said ‘I understand more than you know’.  That seemed like such a great response  for the situation.

There are a lot of moments like that within the film.  Whether the Miracles from Heaven will be attractive to non-believers I don’t know.  I guess it depends on how sensitive you are to people talking about faith and belief because it is in there.  I just thought it was handled much better than the genre typically allows.

It’s definitely a tearjerker so go with a box of tissues.  I think especially if you’ve experienced a chronic medical condition in your family you will relate to what they are going through.  I cried but I didn’t feel manipulated that much.

I’m not saying it is a perfect movie but I did enjoy it very much.  I recommend you all go and see it if you can stomach faith-based movies at all.

Overall Grade- A-

(ps.  Make sure you are subscribed to my youtube channel because I don’t necessarily post everything from that channel on to this blog and vice versa. Would love your thumbs up and feedback on the video.  Thanks!).

Race and Risen Reviews

This will be a bit of a quick review but I wanted to let you know what I thought about both Race and Risen. I feel they are both better than their RT scores might lead you to believe.

I grouped these films together because I feel they have the same strengths and weaknesses.  If you are someone who requires super original stories than Race and Risen might not be for you.  But if you can appreciate a solid genre film outing than I think there are things to like in both films.

Race-

race posterRace tells the story of Jesse Owen’s and his journey to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany.  This was the time the Nazi’s were using the Olympics as a PR stunt and the movie does a good job showing that dynamic and the debate the US Olympic Committee had in attending the games.  I also did not know about the pressure put on Jesse and other athletes to individually boycott the games.

Stephan James is great as Owens and I really liked Jason Sudeikis as his coach Larry Snyder.  It feels a little drawn out and could have started sooner to get things moving close (over 2 hours is too much for this kind of story).

That said, I thought they got the period details right and Sudeikis embodies a Clark Gable type charisma that fits the era very well.  There are too many subplots but the acting from Jeremy Irons, William Hurt and others is great.

Overall, it’s an inspiring story that’s pretty well told.  I think you would enjoy going with your family.  There wasn’t much that is offensive and it could start a good discussion about race, discrimination both in the past and in our current society.

Overall Grade- B

Risen_2016_posterRisen is a very unique and strong entry in the faith-based film genre.  It stars Joseph Fiennes as Clavius who is a Roman Tribune who is responsible for looking into the lost body of Jesus Christ.  It kind of becomes a CSI Jerusalem at a certain point!

There were a lot of refreshing choices they made in this film.  First of all, to tell the story from the perspective of a non-believer was compelling and interesting for a faith-based film.  They also take the subject seriously without much preaching.  It’s just the story without the dogma of some religious films.

It’s very well made and acted.  I liked the cinematography and overall feel of the film.  It’s actually pretty gruesome for a faith-based film; although, I don’t think anything too bad.  There were a few points that were a bit repetitive in feel but overall the 107 minutes goes by pretty briskly.  The performance by Fiennes is good and his journey feels authentic and subtle.

There are some problems.  I didn’t like the portrayal of the apostles as kind of ‘Jesus and his Merry Men’.  They were a little too silly for my taste.  I also didn’t like the portrayal of Mary Magdalene. As the only female presence in the film I felt the transformation I see in her in the scriptures should have been more accurately shown.

But overall it’s a solid entertaining film.  It doesn’t preach too much and has a good story.  I think Christian viewers will really like it and I hope it does well.  It’s certainly a step in the right direction for faith-based films.

Overall Grade- B

Here is my youtube review of Race and Risen. I’d be really grateful if you checked it out and gave it a thumbs up if you like it.

Screenwriting Interview w Melissa Leilani

Hi guys!  I had the cool experience today where I got to interview screenwriter Melissa Leilani and find out what it is like to write a script.  She was the main writer for a film I loved in 2015 called Freetown.

Freetown is a faith-based film but one that is approachable to anyone.  It tells the story of a man who must smuggle 6 missionaries out of Liberia during their brutal civil war.  Things are tense and Brother Abubakar is a man of practical faith mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism.  It makes him a very compelling character.

What I really appreciated about Freetown is that it told a compelling story and let the messsaging take care of itself.  Unlike many faith based films (that I still find some value in) I didn’t feel it was preachy or forcing a message upon me.  In fact, my friend Yusuf who is Muslim liked the film as much as I did.

Here are both of our reviews:

I think you might find it interesting to watch the film and then listen to the interview about her experience.  However, I also think it will be interesting if you are just interested in screenwriting or writing in general.  We do get off topic a few times (we have very similar movie and theater taste!).  She has a theater background so her transition from playwright to screenwriter was very interesting to me.

Anyway, this is only the 3rd interview I have done, so if you have any feedback that would be great.  I hope you enjoy it.