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.

Freetown Review

freetownAs most of my readership is not Mormon you probably haven’t heard of the film Freetown which opens this week.  It is the story of missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormons) in Liberia in 1990.  At the time there was a brutal Civil War and a group called the krahn was systematically eliminated by the rebel forces.

This of course makes for a tense situation for the missionaries some of whom are krahn and it is determined by local leadership they must be taken to Freetown in Sierra Leone where the mission president is and things are safer.  There are 6 missionaries and a member named Brother Abubakar played by Henry Adofo.

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Abubakar is a man you don’t see often in faith based films. He has a strong faith but he is also extremely practical which makes him less optimistic than some of the naive young elders. Adofo is so good playing a well rounded man who is strong, scared, brave and weak all at the same time.  On one hand it seems like he resents having to deal with the elders and put his life at risk but on the other  you can tell it is a great honor and burden which he fears he might not succeed in.  I really related to his character and can imagine that most members would feel exactly as Brother Abubakar does in such a scary time.

Nevertheless, he crams all 6 of the elders into his small car and they face one challenge after another.  Whether its rebel base stops or running out of fuel I was completely engrossed in the journey.

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The entire cast is native African actors and they are all fine.  Some of the missionaries you can tell are new at acting but it fit their fairly innocent personas and didn’t bother me. As someone who was a missionary I thought they got the little details just right.  It might seem hard to believe Elders would pass out pamphlets to people waiting for a fairy after such a trek and in such a tense situation but they totally would.  The exuberance and faith in miracles they showed was just what such elders would do in the situation.  I loved one of the elders when they are finally free the greatest joy is they can teach after 6 months! That long not teaching as a missionary would feel like an eternity.

freetown6

Not to say that the elders were simplistic because they weren’t.  They face a lot of tough questions of when to lie, when to be brave, when to expect miracles and when to use your head. It felt like the way missionaries would actually behave and there were soft moments especially with the krahn elders that were very touching.

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I was surprised how gritty it got.  It is not a movie for small children.  Far too scary for them.  The rebels are pretty terrifying and will shoot women, even old women without giving it much thought. I flinched more than once and had to look away (I’m a violence wimp in movies!).    The missionaries come very close to being shot on several occasions and it is very tense.

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It also can be a very hopeful picture with moments of joy. The missionaries are still 19 year old boys and the cast has a good chemistry together.  It felt like an authentic group racing to get to safety while still maintaining their individual personalities and struggles.

Freetown is directed and written by Garrett Batty who did Saints and Soldiers and Saratov Approach and he does an excellent job crafting a story that should inspire anyone of any faith.  The preaching and Mormon dogma is at a minimum. I really think the average moviegoer would find it a touching, gripping story.

It also looks great with wonderful cinematography by Jeremy Prusso where we get the grandness of Africa contrasting with the tightness of the compact car.  I loved the music too.

I really loved everything about Freetown. It is a moving depiction of normal people of faith facing an extremely difficult situation in a real and honest way. If you can go see it!

Overall Grade A+  Content Grade C+

Here’s my youtube review if you want to check it out. Give it a thumbs up that would be awesome.

Do You Believe?

do you believeI debated about doing a review of the current Christian film from Pure Flix called Do You Believe because I honestly don’t want to spoil the rawness of the experience I was able to have.  I normally don’t care about spoilers but I think in this case my not knowing much about the film really helped me to respond and be inspired by it. I hadn’t even seen the trailer but I liked Pure Flix last film God’s Not Dead so I went out to see it and left very inspired.

Enjoyment of this film goes back to my post entitled Consider the Audience. Currently Do You Believe has a low Rotten Tomatoes score with most critics calling it preachy and overbearing.  My response to such critics would be ‘it simply wasn’t made for you”.  There are some movies made for toddlers, some for teens, others for Mormons and some for Christians. Does that give movies made for a target audience a complete pass to be horrible?  No of course not but it also means if you aren’t in that audience you will probably have a hard time relating to the movie just like adults have a hard time enjoying Barney or Dora the Explorer  It isn’t made for you.

Basically Do You Believe takes the Crash approach telling 12 stories of faith with a strong cast including Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin, Ted McGinley, Cybill Shepherd and Lee Majors.

do you belive5

McGinley plays a pastor who is inspired by the question ‘do you believe and if so what are you going to do about it?’ and that kind of gets the story going for his congregation.

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Alexa Vega is very good as a troubled girl who bonds with a returning marine.

do you believe4

Brian Bosworth is a man who sacrifices his own comfort to help those around him.

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Mira Sorvino is a mother to an adorable little girl who is dealing with poor health and homelessness and Shepherd and Majors are a couple whose only daughter died tragically and they are unable to move on.

do you believe8 do you believe5I particularly liked the story of Bobby played by Liam Matthews who talks about Jesus to a dying man as an EMT and is asked to apologize or lose his job.  I thought that was very true to life and very moving.  It asks the question ‘if you were put on trial as a Christian is there enough evidence to convict you?’.

do you believe3The only storyline which didn’t work for me involved the African American characters who were very cliched street thugs with names like Nefarious and Kriminal.  The performances aren’t bad but the writing could have been better for these characters.

do you believe7I don’t really want to go into any more of the plot but it does get intense and could be upsetting for small children.  I would recommend adults, older children and teens see it first and then decide if it is something appropriate for your younger children.

In some ways films about faith and romance have the same challenges.  The true authentic experience of falling in love or being converted when not happening to you can seem trite, silly, one-dimensional etc.  That’s why movies like Do You Believe get such bad reviews.  I’m not trying to say it is perfect because it isn’t but the experiences of the 12 characters for the most part felt real and authentic to what it is like to be converted and face various challenges to faith.

I don’t know if there is much these films could do in order to not come off as preachy and simplistic to those who have not undergone a conversion experience.  I guess you could have movies like Noah which I liked but most Christians disliked that tries to bridge the gap between believer and nonbeliever but it services the nonbeliever audience more.  As far as a movie of faith and particularly conversion that resonates with all viewers it is tough.  Chariots of Fire? The Mission? Do You Believe is certainly not on that level but it tells a satisfying, inspiring story of Christian life for its intended audience.

As far as comparing it to God’s Not Dead it is tough.  Its 12 characters are much better than the side characters of God’s Not Dead.  Sean Astin is an especially big improvement from Dean Cain.  However, the core focus of the professor and the student in God’s Not Dead drew me in more than any of the 12 stories of Do You Believe.  Part of that is because I had a similar experience in college and really related to what the student was going through.   Do You Believe is way more of a Christian film where God’s Not Dead had themes anyone of faith could relate too as faith shaming happens whether you are Mormon, Evangelical, Jewish or Muslim.  So, the appeal is more narrow but the overall movie is probably better in Do You Believe.

So if you are Christian and want to see something inspiring that could be a part of your family scripture study go see Do You Believe.  I was really moved by it and despite what the critics say found it thought provoking and inspiring.  If you are not Christian it is a definite pass.  But again I don’t think that is a knock against the movie.  It is made for a particular audience and that audience will enjoy it.

Hope I kept that spoiler free enough. If any of you do see it let me know what you think.

Overall Grade- B   Content Grade- B