[REVIEW] ‘The Jesus Music’ or Glory Imperfect Music to God

Today is my day to celebrate the Erwin Brothers because I just reviewed their film American Underdog and now I am talking about their documentary The Jesus Music. As I said in that review Jon and Andrew Erwin are making films in the faith-based genre that nobody else is making. They may not be perfect but they are so much better than their contemporaries and that continues into the documentary format with The Jesus Music. This is a solid chronicling of the history of Jesus music from the 1960s to its current day.

Despite not growing up as a traditional Christian I still enjoyed the Jesus music of the 80s. I’ve always been a big Amy Grant fan. In fact, she was one of the few artists my Mother and I agreed on and enjoyed listening together. I also loved Michael W Smith and he was the first concert I ever went to with a friend of mine out at the county fair. Both of them feature heavily in the documentary as well as other artists I did not know like the heavy metal band Stryper.

The Jesus Music': Movie Review | CBN.com

I don’t think you have to be a follower to enjoy this documentary. As I said I am not a traditional Christian or an evangelical but I found it fascinating. It’s not afraid to be judgemental and call out the Christian audience and it showcases a wide variety of artists not just worship music.

Plus, the music is really good! It made me want to search out new artists and learn more about others song catalog. It’s also uses Kirk Franklin and other artists to talk about the diversity problem within the genre and that they could have embraced it from the beginning more than they did.

If you love Christian music you will love The Jesus Music. If you don’t you might still love it. It’s one of the best documentaries of the year!

8/10

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[REVIEW] ‘American Underdog’ or How to Inspire Right

One of the toughest genres to make a quality film in is the faith-based film. It is very difficult to portray conversion and a spiritual life in a way that doesn’t feel forced and cloying. However, the Erwin Bros, Andrew and Jon, are doing it about as well as can be done. I first noticed them in 2018 with I Can Only Imagine, which made a non-religious friend of mine weep, it was so good. And then I Still Believe released just before the pandemic that was another solid inspirational true story about musician Jeremy Camp. Now with their latest film American Underdog they are moving to sports to tell the story of come-from-behind football star Kurt Warner and they have another win!

There are a couple key aspects that make American Underdog work. First, the story is compelling and doesn’t try to start a ministry. What Kurt Warner accomplished coming from an undrafted status to winning Super Bowls as a quarterback is remarkable. He literally did go from stocking shelves at the supermarket to an MVP in the NFL. That kind of story doesn’t happen every day and is exciting.

American Underdog (2021) - IMDb

Second, the Erwin’s got quality actors for the film. We all know Zachary Levi is charismatic and likable but so is Anna Paquin who plays Warner’s girlfriend/wife. Dennis Quaid does strong work as coach Dick Vermeil in a small role and little Hayden Zaller is wonderful as Warner’s step-son Zack. The whole cast makes for a story that’s easy to find inspiring because we like the characters and we want to cheer for them.

Finally, for this kind of movie the script is relatively gritty and honest. For example, Kurt and Brenda live together for a long time before getting married. They also meet in a bar and characters get intoxicated on occasion. It’s not like you need these elements to make a story work but it’s also nice the filmmakers didn’t shy away from them to appease their Christian audience either. It makes the victory in the end all the more enjoyable when you see where they come from and what they have overcome.

This holiday season if you are looking for something that will make you stand up and cheer check out American Underdog. It’s a rousing crowd pleaser for the whole family!

7 out of 10

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[REVIEW] TULSA or A Modern-Day Pollyanna

I’ve said it many times on this site but faith-based films are perhaps the toughest genre of films to pull off. What is a pure and powerful testimony to one may come off as cloying and preachy to another. So often the ministry gets in the way of telling a good story. It is this difficulty that makes me happy whenever there are well done Christian films on the market. The new movie Tulsa is such an example. While it isn’t perfect, it is a sweet story about the good a little girl and God’s grace can do.

The title Tulsa actually comes from our lead character a little girl named Tulsa (if they explained why I must have missed it). A child of foster care she is reunited with her father Tommy who is a struggling addict who is hiding from his broken pass. Much like Pollyanna in the Disney classic cheers up all around her, so does Tulsa but she is also a little girl of faith who knows her Bible inside and out.

For some people this will be too cloying, but I think it struck a nice balance of a redemptive message with real-world problems. Nothing felt too unbelievable or pentacostal in its presentation. It also helps that little Tulsa is played by newcomer Livi Birch and she shines in the role. If she wants to be an actress she definitely has the raw natural talent to do it. Scott Pryor does a good job as Tommy but his role is more basic. The movie lives and dies on the back of Branch’s charisma and warmth.

There are definitely moments you can feel the budget in Tulsa particularly in the supporting performances. Also a plot-point involving an angry employee at Tommy’s auto-shop feels unnecessary and distracting (pretty much anytime Birch is off screen the movie suffers but luckily those are few and far between.

There are some weightier themes of addiction, suicide and death explored so not for young children. But adults and teens of faith will enjoy Tulsa and in particular love Livi Birch’s wonderful performance. It will be available on all the streaming services 2/1/2021

Overall Score 7/10

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Is Peanuts Going to Streaming a Problem?

Everyone knows I am the Queen of Christmas. In fact, even though it is barely the first week of November I have already watched 2 dozen new Christmas movies. You can find my thoughts on all of these films over at The Hallmarkies Podcast where we cover all things Christmas!

The only problem with this podcast is I don’t have much time to watch the classic Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. There just isn’t enough time in the day to watch everything I want to.

However, one program I always make time for is the Peanuts Holiday Specials– particularly A Charlie Brown Christmas. Not only is this short animated, which gives it an edge in my book, but it’s quite possibly the perfect treatise on the value of Christmas. Poor Charlie Brown worries about the commercialization of Christmas and what changes his mind? Well, finding a little tree that only he believes in and Linus reciting Luke 2 from the Bible. It doesn’t get much better than that if you ask me.

Recently it was announced the specials would not be airing on ABC for the first time since their creation in 1965. Instead you have to see them on the streaming service Apple+. While they are offering them for free for anyone who wants to view them, I can’t help but feeling this is a loss for all of us Christmas movie fans.

Hearing Linus recite Luke 2 is one of the last remaining vestiges of faith left on network television. It was an event every year that brought us together to celebrate Christ and His birth. Now everyone will be watching in their own time and space, which is great, but particularly in 2020 I am lonesome for shared experiences of faith. If we can’t go to church surely they could have left us Linus and Luke 2?

Hopefully we can still gather with our family and friends and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas together this holiday season. It may not be a world-wide broadcast but at least it will be a gathering sharing the importance of the season. I’m up for it and I hope you will be too!

What do you think? Is the loss of the Peanuts Specials to Apple+ a loss or just a sign of the times? Let me know in the comments section

 

[REVIEW] ‘Infidel’ or Christian Taken?

When American Sniper became a huge hit in 2014/2015 Hollywood realized that the conservative market could support more edgy R rated films than the squeaky clean variety they had previously been served (along with Passion of the Christ but that was more avertly religious than American Sniper). Since then I have noticed a number of overtly Christian films that are decidedly R rated and yet it still catches me off guard. I guess it is something I just have to get used to! The latest is a film by director Cyrus Nowrasteh called Infidel. It’s a bit of a mixed bag but overall if the topic interests you I think it is worth a watch.

Infidel stars Jim Caviezel in inspired by true events of the kidnapping and imprisonment of former FBI agent Robert Levinson in Iran in 2007. His character’s name in the movie is Doug Rawlins and to start with he goes to Cairo to give a speech. While there he is kidnapped and his wife (Claudia Karvan) is left to try and rescue him.

The first part of Infidel with Doug speaking and getting over to Cairo is very clunky, and I thought for sure I was going frown-worthy on it. However, once the movie gets into full rescue mode it became a lot more palatable. If you like movies like Taken you might have fun with this film.

All the performances are good. I particularly liked Claudia Karvan as Doug’s wife. She’s not your typical upset wife waiting at home nor is she the kick butt action hero. Just a strong capable woman who gets things done. Caviezel is also good especially when he is in more prisoner vs preacher mode.

I don’t know what Christian audiences will think of Infidel? It is violent and has its share of F-bombs so I know that will turn away some people of faith. However, it is based on a true story and the action is exciting, so it has its appeal. Nevertheless, It’s a weird mixture but I was entertained enough to recommend it. It’s going to be playing in 1500-1700 theaters starting this weekend so if you get a chance to see it let me know what you think.

6 out of 10

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[SERIES REVIEW] ‘The Chosen’ or Getting to Know Christ and His Followers

One of the greatest challenges is to make an effective faith-based film. The reason is because faith and particularly conversion are intensely personal experiences. What is powerful and profound to one human may come off as cloying and false to another. This makes telling a universal story very difficult. However, it also makes the successes all the more meaningful. One such success can be found in the new series based on the early ministry of Jesus Christ called The Chosen. I highly recommend it for anyone of faith that is looking for quality storytelling.

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The Chosen is created by the company VidAngel and had the honor of being the top crowdfunding film/TV project in history. Now you can find the show on the series app/website with the first episode being free to watch on youtube and other platforms.

The series then asks you to ‘pay it forward’ by making a contribution which will allow other people to enjoy it. Indeed, when you are watching the app tells you who’s contribution helped you. It’s a pretty nifty model and hopefully one that will pay off, as the creators have lofty goals of being a spiritual version of Game of Thrones.

No matter how you watch the series, it’s the storytelling that makes it special. I’m not sure who the writers are but they deserve a ton of credit for taking a story we all know and bringing new life to it. Some may feel they take too many liberties with the Bible stories but I felt they took the known stories and told them accurately while elaborating on stories and characters we don’t know much about.

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Naturally all the apostles have important arcs but Simon Peter (Shahar Isaac) and Matthew (Paras Patel) get the most to work within the script. For example, we get to dive into what life might have been like for Peter and his wife Eden (Lara Silva) and how ostracized Matthew was because of his work as a publican for Rome.

Erick Avari also does a great job as Nicodemus giving the ruling Jewish classes a warmth and humanity not typically found in a telling of the Christ story. He is astounded by what he see’s Jesus do but struggles to give up his entire life’s work as a rabbi to follow Him and His new teachings.

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All the casting in The Chosen is strong including Jonathan Roumie as a very casual and laid back version of Jesus. They even spend an entire episode with him becoming friends with a group of children who visit his camp before his ministry begins. Some may see this episode as a waste of time as it doesn’t further the story much but I loved having the luxury of spending time with Jesus and imagining what he would be like to eat a meal with and work on chores together. It was really sweet!

As far as flaws, the pacing of the series won’t be for everyone but my main problem was with the dialogue. While I admire the storytelling and plotting of the script there are times where the conversation feels a little too modern for its setting and characters. This is particularly the case in the scenes with Matthew as the Roman characters surrounding him are too glib and American sounding. Most of the time I was able to ignore it but sometimes it did take me out of the show.

Other than that, I really enjoyed The Chosen. It humanizes the characters of Jesus’ ministry in an effective and powerful way that I really enjoyed. I hope they are able to get funding for season 2 as I am looking forward to seeing what they do next.

8 out of 10

Smile Worthy

I was paid to watch and provide feedback to the producers of The Chosen but the review was not required and the opinion is entirely my own.

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‘Out of Liberty’ REVIEW

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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‘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.

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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!).

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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

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‘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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

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