‘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.

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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

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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.

Rankin/Bass 8: Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey

nestor2One thing you have to give Rankin/Bass credit for is their creativity.  Maybe it’s partly running out of Christmas stories to tell but even their Rudolph special (that review is coming on Christmas Day if you were wondering) they were very creative having plot points like an elf that wants to be a dentist. You can certainly see such creativity on display with their short Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. I mean have you ever seen a film about a long-eared donkey?  I haven’t until this one!

No doubt taking cues from Dumbo, Nestor is a donkey during the time of the Romans with abnormally large ears that go down to the ground.  For some reason they decided to give this story a folksy narrator donkey named Spieltoe voiced by Roger Miller.  It never quite fits with the feel of the short.

As if having long ears isn’t trial enough things go from bad to worse for poor Nestor.  The opening scenes soldiers come and take all the donkeys except Nestor including his mother.  Then Nestor is thrown out by the farmer and he and all the animals are really mean.

nestorNestor and his mother are caught in a blizzard and the next morning his mother has died. (It really is quite a grim film for a Christmas special!).

nestor7Then Nestor meets an angel who tells him to travel to Bethlehem because “your ears can do wondrous things no other ears can do”.  Then he and the angel travel across desert and have quite the journey.

nestor4When they arrive near Bethlehem Nestor is seen as unneeded so the owner sells him to Mary and Joseph for cheap so she can get to Bethlehem.  It is a perilous journey but “he follows the voices of the angels” and Nestor helps them find the stable to have he Christ-child.

nestor5I expected the film to end with Nestor staying at the nativity stable but in an odd turn he goes back to the original stable where they were so mean to him and he is treated like a hero.  This is strange because how would they know what he had done in Bethlehem and why would he want to go back there?

I give them huge points for creativity on this one and  it’s harmless enough.  The animation is quite good as it is one of their later films (1977).  And I’m always up for stories about characters who fight bullies and come out on top.

However, the film is so gloomy for a Christmas picture.  Almost nothing but death, rejection and persecution happens to Nestor until the very end.  Also the ending didn’t really make sense to me.  I also found he music, while pleasant to not really fit the tone and characters very well.

So over all I’d say see this as a curiosity and to see their creativity but it is not a favorite of mine.

Woodlawn Review

woodlawn3Reviewing the new Christian film Woodlawn is tough.  I was thoroughly entertained by it but it definitely has problems.  It is also a marked improvement over many other Christian films such as the recent hit War Room (which I saw some value in).  I went back and forth on what grade to give the film (how much to weigh the flaws vs strengths and my overall entertainment…).  Finally, I decided I’m just going to present the strengths and weaknesses and you can decide if it sounds like something you’d enjoy. woodlawn2

Woodlawn is directed by the Erwin Brothers who had previously done October Baby (haven’t seen) and Mom’s Night Out, which I actually thought was funny despite the terrible reviews.  The overall production values of Woodlawn is a large step in the right direction for Christian films.  The football scenes in particular I thought were really well shot and staged.  The acting was also a step up across the board.  It isn’t nearly as compelling as Freetown from earlier this year but it is a solid effort.

woodlawn5In the film we get the story of Tony Nathan played by Caleb Castille who was one of first African American NFL players to come out of Birmingham Alabama and be a big name.  It chronicles his junior and senior year at Woodlawn High School just after forced integration in both the football team and school.  The team is led by Coach Gerelds played by Nic Bishop, who is a practical, sensible nice guy.

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When racial tensions erupt at the school Coach Gerelds lets a sports chaplain named Hank played by Sean Astin (that’s right Rudy in a football movie!) encourage the kids.  He delivers a sermon about how the love of Jesus can overcome all the hate they are seeing and help them play as a team.  The team is moved by his words and they convert.  A little later on Coach Gerelds also has a conversion and decides to be baptized.

woodlawnThey end up battling for 2 seasons becoming better and Tony becoming more of a star player until even Sports Illustrated is profiling him.  It all culminates in a huge game that has to be in a giant stadium with their rivals from another high school.

Like I said, overall I was entertained by Woodlawn.  I thought the acting was pretty good with Bishop and Castille being the standouts.  I thought it looked good and had an inspirational story with a more toned down Christian dogma than some other Christian films.  I don’t think it is a movie that non-Christians will enjoy but I think it is less objectionable than other entries if that makes sense.

woodlawn4That said, there are problems.  It is one of those films that should have been 30 minutes shorter and yet certain subplots like a relationship between Tony and his girlfriend Johnnie.  There were also characters and plot points brought up that we never hear from again such as a more militant black student at the high school who tries to intimidate Tony and yet we don’t hear from him again. Woodlawn has a ‘villain of the week’ problem where I felt like every 10 minutes a new character was being presented as the villain, then they’d convert and we’d get a new one.    There is also a separation of church and state subplot that I felt was underdeveloped.

The music was also way over the top.  For example, at the beginning of the film Tony and his Dad are driving and by the music you would think it was the climax of the film.  When that happens you don’t really have anywhere to go with it making the climatic music in the actual climax underwhelming.

Certain character transformations I also didn’t buy like when Coach Gerelds converts seemingly out of nowhere and when the entire rival team also converts including their coach who had been previously presented as an antagonist.

woodlanw6But all that said I was entertained by Woodlawn.  If Christian audiences want quality films they should support this film.  It really is so much better than War Room that I’m a little sad to see it not doing as well although certainly respectable audience turnout. This is a movie not an inspirational Sunday School lesson.  Both have value for me but I would much rather watch films like Woodlawn and I hope the Christian film community continues to up their game.

So what do you think of Woodlawn?  Does it sound like something you’d like?   If so, go see it and let me know what you think.

Here is my youtube review.  Would love if you gave it a watch and thumbs up!

War Room and Walk in the Woods Reviews

So my sister is in town so a little tight on time.  Just doing 2 video reviews this week instead of written and video.  I promise this will be the exception rather than the rule.  This week I saw the Christian film War Room and the old people buddy movie Walk in the Woods.

Basically War Room is only for believers.  I liked it didn’t atheist shame and until the end kept the issues small, every day problems.  I also liked the concept of the War Room and am already thinking about applying it in my life.  That said, aside from the lead performance the acting was weak particularly the child actors who I think were only gotten for their jump roping skills.  It is also way too long and it kind of treats faith and prayer like a super power which I had issues with.  Still, I’m glad I saw it.

Walk in the Woods is based on the Bill Bryson memoir, which I have read.  It keeps the saucy nature of the book and I think that will turn off some viewers who are expecting a pure feel-good film.  It also has a lot of sitcomy moments some won’t like but I enjoyed it.  It’s the kind of charming movie about friendship and pushing yourself I’m a pushover for.

I did forget to mention in the review that Emma Thompson is great in her scenes but Mary Steenburgen is completely wasted in a part that did not need an Oscar winning actress to fill.  But the movie looks beautiful and I liked the 2 leads.  Like I said, in the end I was charmed by it.