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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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!
So it is time again for one of my current mini reviews wrap up! As per usual this won’t include any films I did a full review for but I only have so much time so mini reviews will have to do for some films!
Make sure you check out my podcast where me and my friends dive into all kinds of content including television like Doctor Who, monthly Talking Disney and Obscure Animation, animated news and movie previews and wrap-ups.
So let’s talk about the movies I’ve seen!
DC Super Hero Girls: Legend of Atlantis-
I’ve really enjoyed the previous 2 DCSHG films and while this wasn’t as strong it was still an enjoyable outing for our girls. This film is about a Book of Legends being stolen from Super Hero High so the girls go under water to Atlantis where they meet Mira and Siren and fight the thief. The animation is very bright and colorful. The voice work is great. It’s empowering and has a nice message. If you have kids, they will love it.
71 out of 119
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween-
I actually enjoyed the first Goosebumps film more than most (but I have no attachment to the original books) and while this was not as bad as the trailers made it look it wasn’t particularly strong. It particularly suffered from the comparison to the recent House with a Clock in Its Walls, which I greatly enjoyed. If you find it on cable it’s harmless but a little of the ventriloquist dummy Snappy goes a long way. I’d say there is about 45 minutes of the movie where Snappy is the only villain. Jack Black is hardly in the movie. It just wasn’t very creative or fun scary.
80 out of 119
Liz and the Blue Bird-
One of my favorite films of 2017 is Naoka Yamada’s A Silent Voice. It was a beautiful, emotional movie about the relationship between an ex-bully and the deaf girl he seeks forgiveness from. Naturally, I was very excited for Yamada’s next effort Liz and the Blue Bird and it’s a good movie but it didn’t wow me like I hoped it would. It’s about 2 girls who are part of a band (part of an anime series called Sound Emporium). It was a little unclear what their relationship is but there were touching moments and the fairytale (told alongside the main story) of Liz and a mystical blue bird is lovely. As I said in my longer review for rotoscopers.com “while it is not in the same league as A Silent Voice, it is as sweet and pleasant film that’s worth a watch”
55 out of 119
Now I admit I didn’t really do my homework on this movie. I knew it was an R rated film but I didn’t know what MFKZ met and I think the advertising was a little deceptive (it means something NSFW). If I had done the research I usually do I wouldn’t have seen it; however, I did, and I hated it! It’s not that the movie has adult themes. I’m fine with that. The problem is the story is complete chaos. Nothing makes sense. Everything is flying at you and assaulting your eyes (and ears). It was exhausting. I know some people think chaos is creative but it usually is just chaos to me. This year I really enjoyed a movie called The Night is Short Walk on Girlwhich is bonkers crazy but there is still enough consistency with the characters, character design and tone that it worked for me. This was just miserable.
111 out of 119
Tito and the Birds
I actually got the chance to interview the director and producer of this beautiful animated film over on rotoscopers. It is a dystopian story about a world where fear is a disease. This fear spreads quickly through the town and the children are left to try and find the antidote. The animation style has an oil painting aesthetic that is unique and beautiful. The message can get a little heavy handed at times, but I still enjoyed it. Wouldn’t be surprised if it comes up as an indie animated film nod for this year’s Oscars.
27 out of 119
I’m one of the few people who thought the trailer for Night School looked funny. I enjoy Kevin Hart on occasion and it seemed like a cute premise. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the film. Tiffany Haddish continues to not impress me (I realize I haven’t seen Girls Trip). Her character is shrill and overbearing (and worst of all not funy). It was rough!
107 out of 119
The Nutcracker and the 4 Realms-
I was really pulling for this movie for a couple of reasons. First, if it was good it might encourage Disney to make more creative films over their remakes. Second, there has never been a good Nutcracker movie and as a huge Christmas movie fan that’s a problem. Honestly the best Nutcracker movie is Barbie as Nutcracker (for real). This movie had almost no conflict and the visuals were not unique or fun enough to save it on their own. There are long segments where Clara is just watching things happening (literally on stage). Then she is told what to do in long scenes of exposition. It just couldn’t escape from the weight of its own boredom.
98 out of 119
I know the production history of this film was rocky but my love for Queen and their music still had me hopeful a serviceable biopic would come out of all that mess. Unfortunately the songs and a good lead performance are the only things to recommend this pedestrian effort. The script was terrible especially the dialogue. It reminded me of one of those music biopic movies they used to have on VH1. Some might argue they had to keep it predictable because they were dealing with true events but they didn’t even stick to the true events so that’s no excuse. I refuse to believe that an icon like Freddie Mercury was this bland and by the numbers rockstar we’ve seen a million times. I was very frustrated while watching this film. Save your money or watch A Star is Born again. It may be fictional but it reads way more real and nuanced than this film
101 out of 119
The Holiday Calendar-
You guys know I love Christmas movies and The Holiday Calendar is one of Netflix’s holiday offerings this year. It’s about a woman who gets a magical advent calendar that predicts good things happening in her life. This is very predictable, but I thought it was sweet. I particularly liked the lead guy Quincy Brown. They keep the lead girl, Kat Graham, a little too unlikable for too long, but I still overall enjoyed it.
67 out of 119
Jane and Emma-
This is a faith-based film about the relationship between Emma Smith (Prophet Joseph Smith’s wife) and a black convert named Jane Manning. It zips around all over their relationship while remaining grounded on the night before Joseph’s funeral as they were caring and protecting the body. I think non-Latter-day Saints might found some elements strange but it is written by Melissa Leilani, who I have interviewed, and she did a good job developing the characters. The acting is also solid and affecting. It’s well made and something I think all of my faith should see. Emma deserves her moment of vindication this film gives her. Many of my church have long vilified her for not going West and that’s not fair. Plus, Jane’s story is fascinating as she faces some persecution for being black from Saints who were at the same time being persecuted.
38 out of 119
So there you have it! The latest slate of mini reviews. Let me know what you think of them and my rankings. How would you rank them? Is there anything I haven’t seen which you would recommend (I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with Hallmark stuff as of late). I would love to have your recommendations!
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.