‘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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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+

Miracles From Heaven Review

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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