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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!).
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.
As I’ve been watching all these Disney movies a thought has struck me which I want to present to all of you. When is a movie just not made for me? What responsibility does a movie have to please a general audience verses a niche group?
On first glance it seems like there are movies that entertain every demographic. Pixar films are often brought up. However, even their movies have typically pleased some audiences more than others. For instance, Toy Story 3 was universally praised by critics and most audiences, but my nieces found the ending with the incinerator to be too upsetting. They didn’t like it at all.
So should they have taken the incinerator scene out because it upset my nieces? Well, that depends who they are making a movie for? As my nieces were a secondary audience, not the primary the scene stays and is actually a very profound, tense and exciting moment for most viewers.
This invites lots of interesting questions. In fact, my thoughts are very scattered on the topic and I’m struggling to focus them in a coherent way.
Here’s some points to consider:
Small audiences need and deserve stories for them.
Let’s face it. We live in a world where movies are the predominant storytelling device of our age. More so than books and I still think more so than TV, especially for children. So imagine how difficult is to be say 3 or 4 and hear about all the exciting movies your brothers and sisters get to see. Things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings that are not appropriate for your age group. Even most Disney movies are not made for the smallest kids.
That’s what makes it nice when movies are made for these toddler to preschool age audience. For example, the Barbie movies, Tinker Bell movies are made for girls 3-7 and for that demographic they are made very well. I haven’t seen all of them but the one’s I have were engaging and very well done. Now a 50 year old movie critic could tear them apart but they aren’t made for him, so who cares? (I’d give boy examples but I only have nieces so don’t know any). I think it is great girls have their own franchises and films to get excited about and learn from. That’s great!
An even more narrow audience for movies is the toddler age. Part of this is because 1-3 aged children can’t sit for the length of a movie. This is one reason I loved the 2011 Winnie the Pooh movie. I don’t want to give away my review but it is a rare Hollywood movie made for very small children. First of all, it is extremely short. It has simple ideas and plot but lovingly told. Even the other Winnie the Pooh movies I have seen are too scary and usually too long for toddlers. It uses repetition and is friendly and happy, which toddlers love. The music is hummable and sweet.
I can’t even think of other movies for toddlers, which are even made, and even fewer that are made well (Curious George movie was a good one that gets a lot of flack from those outside its intended audience). Most entertainment for toddlers is television (and I don’t think toddlers should spend much time in front of the TV if any but most parents need a moment or two for a break. Let’s be honest!). Should these shows worry about being entertaining to teenage boys or 2o year old college students? No. That’s not their audience!
Another example of a narrow audience is religious films . With the affordability of digital film-making, movies can be made for a smaller audience and still be profitable. This gives us movies like the evangelical films of Kirk Cameron or the Mormon films made for my faith.
Should someone making a Mormon film worry about pleasing an Evangelical or an Atheist? No, that isn’t their audience. Any movie who tried to make all religious groups happy would have a tall order. It could be done with good writing but there is something nice about having a movie made, telling a story just from my religious perspective. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.
Now is an audience an excuse to making a bad film? No. If anything you should put more effort into telling a story for your smaller audience. It should be even better than the average Hollywood schlock because you have a more narrow window of people to appeal too. That’s why I hate when people say ‘it’s for kids’ as if that somehow means it is stupid. The best kids movies inspire their creativity and imagination. The best Mormon films make me want to be a better person (and I’ll be honest I’m not the biggest fan of most of them).
It angers me when I can tell filmmakers of any genre are being lazy. Your audience, no matter how narrow, deserve a good effort. (For the record, I feel the same way about Michael Bay movies. His audiences deserve more of an effort to make a good film). I should be able to walk away from a movie and say ‘well, that didn’t work for me but I can see who they were trying to reach and how some could enjoy it’.
Another problem we can have is when a movie doesn’t understand its audience.
Hunchback of Notre Dame is a perfect example. Even its defenders usually admit it is a mature film not for small children. But the studio still wanted it to be for small children and their families so they threw in kidlike violence and humor which ruined the movie. It’s way too dark for these kids and the immature moments are off-putting for adults. It makes it a tonal mess and a frustrating experience. If they had just said ‘you know what . This movie is for adults’ like Pans Labyrinth or even the later Harry Potter films it would have been a favorite of mine. As it is I just can’t endorse it. Trying to appeal to the wrong audience, or too many audiences, ruined the film.
We can also have films who have a main and secondary audience. This is what Pixar does well. Children are the primary audience with parents being the secondary. This makes sense since both are usually at the theater watching (a lot of the age specific films I listed above are direct to DVD which is probably the best way to appeal to some audiences). What I personally hate is when the secondary audience sullies the primary, or takes over the tone and feel of the film. This was my issue with the Shrek movies . Instead of a few jokes, the innuendo is so strong the films feel vulgar to me. I honestly hate them.
So, the priority is making a good movie but in order for that to happen filmmakers must ask themselves ‘who is my audience?’ and we as filmgoers need to be willing to say ‘this just isn’t made for me’. It’s not bad for a film to be made for toddlers or any other demographic. That is very good because they can participate with us in this great storytelling device of the movies.
All audiences deserve quality and to have movies made for them to enjoy.