The Shepherd – The Must-See Christmas Movie of the Year (and it’s less than 30 minutes!)

I love Christmas movies.

home aloneOn the Friday after Thanksgiving, I start pulling them out, and I watch the gamut with my kids. We always start with Home Alone, and then Elf, and then everything else from Arthur Christmas to The Santa Clause.  Yes, we even watch and enjoy Home Alone 3 (although it stops there… Home Alone 4 and 5 are dead to me).

The movies we watch celebrate the Christmas season by telling stories about presents, Santa, magic, trains to the North Pole, Red Ryder BB guns, and ghosts of various time periods. None of them (with the exception of Charlie Brown) even consider the importance of the birth of Jesus or the idea that Christmas has any holy or sacred aspect at all. Thinking about this even led me to argue that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is more of a Christmas movie than most Christmas movies a couple of years ago.

But this year, I happened upon a gem of a little movie: a Christmas movie about the birth of Jesus that is powerful, fresh, well-made, and worth every moment of your time to watch.

The film – less than thirty minutes in length – is called The Shepherd, and it was made by Dallas Jenkins (The Resurrection of Gavin Stone). This is apparently the pilot of The Chosen, a series Jenkins is hoping to make about the witnesses of Jesus’ life, and if the quality of The Shepherd is any indication, we need to make sure The Chosen gets made. Watch the end of the video for a pitch from Jenkins about how you can be involved in this endeavor.

Shepherd-SocialThe Shepherd tells the story of the birth of Jesus from the point of view of one of the shepherds, and while the “eye-witness” conceit may not be original in and of itself, in this case the execution is. The Shepherd succeeds where so many faith-based and Bible films fail – showing and not telling, using the visuals and music to sell the story (and yes, even the message), and making an otherwise oft-told story seem fresh and real.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I don’t give Christian-made films an easy pass, and that if I gush about something, it’s truly gushable. In this case, The Shepherd is absolutely gushable, and if you watch it, it’s liable to become mandatory yuletide viewing in your home as well.

Here’s the film:

So, here’s the link to find out more about The Chosen. Check it out, and you’ll see what I mean. Then come back here to the comment section and let me know what you thought, and then we can argue about Interstellar.

Heck, you can even give me your arguments for Die Hard as the ultimate Christmas movie. I’ll disagree with you, but you can make your arguments.

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The Star – Faithful Biblical Adaptation… Where’s the Faith-based Audience?

The year is 2014.

Hollywood wide-releases two films based on biblical accounts: Noah, and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

noah poster

The Big Christian Audience responds by complaining:

“Why does Hollywood hate us so much? Why can’t they make something that is safe for my whole family? Why can’t they respect the Bible as much as I respect the Bible?”

(See here, here, here, and here.)

 

 

Fast forward to 2017.

starDevon Franklin and the folks at Sony Animation wide release the animated nativity movie The Star on nearly 3,000 screens. When asked about the film, Franklin says:

“We really looked at the scriptures that everyone is familiar with, looked at all the gospels in order to pull the right information about the birth so that when we did the film, those moments would feel authentic…we really tried to honor scripture and that was the number one priority.”

And does the Big Christian Audience respond by running out on opening weekend to support this – a big Hollywood movie put out by a major studio working together with a bunch of Christians – a project that the filmmakers have gone out of their way to “honor scripture” in the making?

Nope.

The Star only made $10,000,000, giving it the dubious distinction as the worst opening on a Sony Animation film ever, and with a budget of around $20,000,000, I doubt that there were many uncorked bottles of champagne in the Sony offices.

People who study this sort of thing think that The Star will ultimately make money, as it could conceivably play up until Christmas (why didn’t they didn’t take advantage of the Christmas season and release it later, I’ll never know), and it will also make a lot of money in DVD sales, streaming, and other post-theater revenue areas. But, this less-than-stellar (see what I did there?) opening will probably not encourage the big studios to try this again any time soon.

The argument could be made that the Big Christian Audience is just fatigued. After all, The Star was released at the end of a trio of faith-based films (Same Kind of Different as Me, Let There Be Light), and that’s a lot of movies to support. Who’s got the time or money to see so many Christian movies? But this argument does not shine very bright. After all, neither of the other two films performed very well, especially when compared to 2015’s mega smash, War Room. It’s not like the Big Christian Audience emptied out its collective pockets to support Pureflix and Kevin Sorbo, so they got nothing left for the poor animated donkey.

They’re just not showing up.

Even when Hollywood tries to cater specifically to the wants of the Big Christian Audience by making a family movie in which the filmmakers go out of their way to be “largely faithful to the biblical narrative”, the Big Christian Audience just stays at home, apparently stewing over the secret agenda of Starbucks cups. Again. Didn’t we already have that hissy-fit?

That’s good and well. After all, the Big Christian Audience is under no obligation to support Christian-made films, any more than they’re under any obligation to support CCM artists, Christian radio, Christian politicians, or anything else labeled “Christian”, and if that were the end of it, there would be no reason to write this article.

But here’s the thing. In a few years, some big Hollywood studio will put out their own retelling of a biblical story. They’ll hire a non-Christian to direct it, and the story will be given a non-traditional treatment that won’t jive with the sensibilities of the Big Christian Audience.

And the BCA will immediately jump on their smart phones and share negative articles about the director’s controversial take on the subject. They’ll take to the social media airwaves to complain about it. They’ll threaten boycotts and cry “persecution” and play the victim, because this is what the BCA does.

They’ll lament, “Why does Hollywood hate us so much? Why can’t they make something that is safe for my whole family? Why can’t they respect the Bible as much as I respect the Bible?”

And a simple, animated donkey will trot into the picture and bray…

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A Response to Kevin Sorbo and “Let There Be Light”

Today, Kevin Sorbo made the following post to his Facebook page, in anticipation of his upcoming film, “Let There Be Light” which bows this weekend.

And although it’s doubtful that Mr. Sorbo will ever see this, I’d like to respond to some of the points that he made in his attempt to put bottoms in seats during those crucial opening days.

Mr. Sorbo writes:
“Hollywood used to make wonderful morally-steeped films, but those days are gone. Today, they seem to go out of their way specifically to show people of faith in a very negative light. The villain is often the priest, the cardinal, the pastor.”

There are two arguments here. One, that Hollywood doesn’t make “morally-steeped” films any more, and two, that Hollywood goes out of their way to show people of faith in a negative light.

I disagree with both arguments.

First, Hollywood’s movies are still often steeped in morals, which is why people are able to make lists like this http://www.imdb.com/list/ls003913565/ and this https://www.thetoptens.com/most-inspirational-movies/ and this https://afineparent.com/building-character/best-family-movies.html. Yes, Hollywood produces some pictures that you might qualify as amoral, but a glance at the box office results for last year will show you that movies that are fundamentally amoral just aren’t as profitable as stories with a moral bent. And Hollywood – in general – follows where the money leads.

Which brings us to Mr. Sorbo’s second argument. In his post, Mr. Sorbo writes that “the villain is often the priest, the cardinal, the pastor”? Granted, that does happen from time to time, and when it does, it stings. But I would argue that you can also find plenty of movies where clergy are shown in a positive light (Signs, Les Miserables, Calvary, Silence, to name just a few). Conversely, you can find many more movies where non-Christians (or people of no spoken faith) are the antagonists or the unsavory characters.

This idea that Christians in general are unfairly singled out for mocking by Hollywood just doesn’t hold water, at least not in film and television. Maybe at Hollywood cocktail parties, but not so much onscreen.

ltblMr. Sorbo wrote:
“But Hollywood forgets that the majority of Americans believe, and the great success of faith-based films is proof that people yearn for stories that give them an honest spiritual environment, that make them feel at home.”

Which is it? Has Hollywood forgotten that the majority of Americans believe, or – since The Passion of the Christ – have they been going out of their way to try and service that demographic, to a varying degree of success? It seems that this “great success” of faith based films is at least partly because Hollywood has been helping the films get made and/or distributed.

Remember? The studios follow the money.

In a strange twist, this statement also seems to indicate that faith-based films often aren’t really as evangelistic as folks would have you believe, even though filmmakers and marketers often promote them as such. After all, if faith-based films are really made for the people who want to be made to feel at home (i.e, “the choir”) – how does that reach people outside the sanctuary?

This is fine, of course. Why shouldn’t Christian audiences have movies made for them, just like any other demographic? But the people selling these films need to just be honest when talking about the film’s goals.

Now, hold the phone. Am I saying that the filmmakers don’t want their films to be effective outside the Christian subculture? No, of course not. I’m sure that many filmmakers (including the Sorbos) desperately want their films to be tools to help share the Gospel with people who haven’t heard. But the nature of the beast is that faith-based films are made and marketed with the pre-saved audience in mind. Any post-saved individuals who happen to see these films and be impacted are more like some kind of evangelical collateral damage.

Mr. Sorbo says:
“If Let There Be Light is a success, more independent financiers will be greatly encouraged to follow this path and we can have a true impact on a new wave of original faith-based stories coming to the screen. Wholesome entertainment we can all enjoy!”

Sure. If “Let There Be Light” does well, it’ll mean more potential resources for other similar movies in the future. “A rising tide raises all ships”, after all.

But this comment raises a different question for me.

Which is it – wholesome entertainment or faith-based entertaiment? Why does it have to be both? As has been said ad nauseum among people who talk about Christian filmmaking, the Bible is often not very wholesome. It’s full of murder and deceit and lust and jealousy and all kinds of human mistakes. Truly authentic movie versions of most Old Testament stories would be only viewed after the kids were put to bed.

It’s time we separate these concepts, and allow faith-based films be true-to-real-life stories that aren’t necessarily constrained by the “family friendly” label. I’m not advocating gratuitous films, but films that honestly explore the human condition in order to honestly explore our spiritual condition.

Heck, even “Let There Be Light” isn’t “wholesome entertainment we can all enjoy”… it’s rated PG-13!

Mr. Sorbo writes:
Please help us to make this film a great success. Tell all your family, bring your friends, come see this film and make a statement that you stand against the tidal wave of darkness, and films that substitute intelligence with brutality, wherein dehumanizing negativity gets glorified.

See, I don’t get this. Sure, Hollywood makes brutal, dehumanizing films. They also make beautiful, life-affirming films. How will supporting “Let There Be Light” stand against the former? It’s not like the audience for “Let There Be Light” would go see the latest slasher film otherwise.

Go see the film because you want to see the film. Go see the film because you like Kevin Sorbo and want to support his work. Go see the film because you want to see more faith-based films being made. But don’t go see the movie because you think you’re taking some sort of a stand by doing so. It’s as useless as changing your profile picture to reflect your support of the victims of the latest tragedy and even more useless than writing that your “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims.

Mr. Sorbo writes:
Hollywood wants to shut out movies like “Let There Be Light,” because it does not fit their message. Help us deliver a message to them that there is another way!

This will be a short response. Hollywood doesn’t care about message, they care about box office and bottom lines. They follow the money, remember?

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/24/business/media/hollywood-movies-christian-outreach.html

Mr. Sorbo writes:
The story told in our movie touches people so profoundly because everyone at some point says goodbye to a loved one. The eternal question this film answers is: Is it a farewell forever or just a good night, I will see you in the morning?

Now see? This is the first thing written in this entire post that comes close to making me want to see this movie. This is the heart and soul of this film and should be the entire selling point of this Facebook post, not all the us vs. them, ‘Hollywood hates us and doesn’t make anything good’ jazz that came before.

Mr. Sorbo, as you’re talking about this film, give us the heart and soul of your movie as the reason to see it. Let us see your passion for the story, for the characters, for the themes you explore. Motivate us to stand in line to see your artistic vision onscreen, and stop trying to pressure us into standing in line to support some sort of culture war cause.

If you do this, maybe more of us will turn up.

After all, lots of us loved Hercules.

 17-seinfeld-quotes-to-inspire-your-marketing-strategy-16-638

Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast Episode 9 • PureFlix’s original sitcom, “Hitting the Breaks”

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 11.07.49 AMIn the ninth episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast, I give my thoughts on Pureflix’s first attempt at an original sitcom. The show, which is exclusively available on Pureflix’s streaming service, follows the Wilcox family as they relocate to rural Colorado from Atlanta. It’s a strange throwback to the sitcoms of the 1980’s and 90’s, almost a time-travel show in some ways. Does it work?

Follow this link to listen to the podcast, and then let me know what you think!

The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast is a part of the More Than One Lesson family of podcasts, and you can listen to it as well as other great film podcasts by visiting More Than One Lesson.

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“All Saints” Movie Review

(Guest review by K.B. Snodgrass)

All Saints is based on the true story of a dying church in Smyrna Tennessee and the unexpected events that surround Pastor Michael Spurlock, who is spending his first call as an Anglican minister, pastoring the remaining twelve members through the shut-down.

In the opening scenes, we meet the remaining older members of the church with their quirky personalities, and see how their little community has suffered loss as a bigger, more modern church has taken prominence in the community. We can see Michael’s heart, wanting to soften the hard blow his parishioners are preparing for. We realize that Michael and his family are not planning to put stakes in the ground in Smyrna. It is a simple stepping stone for a more prestigious call.

But when a group of Karen refugees from Burma show up one of their last Sundays, Pastor Spurlock becomes interested in their plight. “I’m a pastor,” he claims, “And they’re members of my church.” Even with the plans for selling the building to developers in the works, Pastor Spurlock begins to do what he can for this refugee community, eventually entreating the general council to keep the doors of the church open long enough to attempt a farming venture that he hopes will provide for the immigrants as well as pay the overdue mortgage on the church building and allow it to remain open. The idea for the venture comes as Michael seeks direction and wisdom from God. God answers in a rain shower, which Michael reveals in a conversation with his wife. (No cheesy, wordy prayers spoken by this pastor. They all take place in his heart, or at least the audience can assume that was what happened in his quiet reflective moments).

It sounds like a predictable feel-good movie, but along the way there are many unexpected twists and we are drawn into the story of the refugees, who fought in the jungle wars of Burma before ending up at a refugee camp in Thailand and coming to America. Their endeavors are not without difficulty. They struggle with the same things all farmers do: the need for rain, the cost of seeds, finding buyers for their crops. As the farm takes shape, Pastor Michael’s character is tested, as are his relationships.

The strength of this movie is its plot and script, a story which has already told itself in a way that only God can write. The dialogue is believable, although at times poorly delivered, and the only preaching was where preaching was supposed to be. It is a story about a pastor, after all. Those scenes were kept short but poignant, leaving the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The themes are buried in a well-constructed script that subtly brings out things we all struggle with. Questions of our duty to the poor and lost, God’s call for our own lives, the way a marriage struggles and redefines itself through trials, and what to do when God allows for a not-perfect ending to your story. Michael clearly struggled with man’s plan versus God’s plans, and is often called out on that question by others. The answer to that struggle is addressed at the end of the film.

Overall, the plot and the script keep the audience engaged enough to put up with what occasionally poorly delivered lines. It took a few scenes for the actors to get their cadence, and admittedly some of the actors feel low-budget. But experienced actor John Corbett raises the bar for everyone and carries the story quite well himself.  After the opening scenes, which include an appearance of Christian comedian Chonda Pierce, the acting falls into a better rhythm. Using the refugees from the actual All-Saints church as actors created an authentic feel.  It was hard to tell that they were acting, as they perfectly played perfectly their roles of strangers in a strange land.

There is humor scattered throughout the film, but unfortunately a lot of the lines that were meant to be funny fall flat due to acting, or perhaps directing. The better humor was in a subtle irony that came out in various ways as characters’ lives intersected, such as the grumpy widower farmer who finds a comradery with Ye Win, the leader of the Karens.

Cinematography was my biggest complaint. In various shots, the framing was such that it almost felt like the camera was being held at an angle. The church itself is a beautiful building, and I wanted the camera to capitalize on the architecture and stained glass windows, but instead it was almost ignored, and at times we saw half of a banner or a strangely framed wooden beam that didn’t fit. At one point a harvest moon made an appearance, but it was mostly a missed opportunity for the artistic glimpse it could have been. There’s also an awkward end of scene shot in which the camera zooms in on a headlight in a rainstorm for several long seconds, taking away from the power of the scene that we’d just watched. Speaking of lights, there were several scenes where the lighting felt artificial, mostly in attempts to make it look dark inside. Perhaps those are personal preferences, but it seemed that the artistic eye of the technicians and cameraman needed a little honing.

I liked the movie. As far as faith-based films go, it was probably the best one I’ve seen since “The Song”. Not just for the story and the realistic portrayal of realistic people who have doubts and failures, but for the gentle reminder it gives of the way God works in every circumstance of our lives. Through lost jobs, marital strife, self-doubt and suffering, All Saints gives viewers a glimpse of the hope we have in Christ. There was no watered down theology to complain about. When the question is raised by Pastor Spurlock’s son Atticus why God would let something fail, Pastor Michael simply answers with a broken, “I don’t know.” But despite the struggles, Pastor Spurlock and Ye Win show us how God uses everyday people and every day situations to accomplish his purposes through faith. The movie doesn’t sugar coat things, but it does leave us hopeful. And who doesn’t want a little hope these days?

K.D. Snodgrass is a freelance writer, an aspiring crime fighter, a wife, and a mother of four. She enjoys spending time outside, reading, and of course, going to the movies. You can contact her at batlancer@gmail.com or visit her blog, The Rough Draft.  

Free Names for Future Faith-Based Movies

Grace Has A Prayer
Are you a faith-based film producer or writer? Please feel free to use these suggested faith-based film titles at no cost. Just mention Thimblerig’s Ark in the credits.

Grace Has A Prayer
Redemption Corner
Once Saved
Faith’s Secret Grace
Heavenly Faith
Grace Resurrected
Amazing Faith
Saving Faithfully
Grace Away
Making Heaven
A Father’s Faith
Cherishing Grace
Faith’s Redemption

Any other suggestions?

 

 

 

Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast Episode 8 • The Faith-Based Film Label Controversy

Film Label Controversy

In the eighth episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast, I give my thoughts on the recent controversy that has been swirling since producer Mark Joseph discussed the need to get rid of the “faith-based” film label in an interview with Fox News. Joseph’s comments created quite a stir, and prompted a response from a few different people in the faith-based film business, most notably filmmaker Dallas Jenkins (“The Resurrection of Gavin Stone”), who disagreed with Joseph’s arguments.

Follow this link to listen to the podcast, and then let me know what you think!

The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast is a part of the More Than One Lesson family of podcasts, and you can listen to it as well as other great film podcasts by visiting More Than One Lesson.

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And just a head’s up… Thimblerig’s Ark 2: The Ark Heist will be coming out in just a couple of months. Keep your eye out for the sequel to Thimblerig’s Ark!