The Resurrection of Gavin Stone • Thimblerig’s Review

[Note from Nate: Usually, I write the reviews for this blog. But, living in China, I’m restricted to films that have been released on DVD. However, every now and then a film will come out that I feel needs a review sooner rather than later, and so I’ll put out the word to see if someone else can watch the movie and write me a review. The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is one of those films, because a comedy for the Christian audience is such a rare bird, and screenwriter Andrea Gyertson Nasfell’s last big comedy, Mom’s Night Out, was one of my favorite Christian-made films of 2014 (you can read my interview with Andrea right here). And so, I’m pleased to present guest reviewer, Lynn Moody, who saw the film and was gracious enough to write a review for Thimblerig’s Ark. Thanks, Lynn!]

“The Resurrection of Gavin Stone” Film Review

20161019_ResurrectionOfGavinStone--5ebac77deb63d60662d560416998ac42.jpgThose of us who have been holding our breath waiting for some really good Christian films will breathe a little sigh of relief after watching Vertical Church Film’s The Resurrection of Gavin Stone. No cheesy stuff this, just solid storytelling with great performances by Brett Dalton (Agents of S.H.I.E. L.D.) as Gavin Stone and the rest of the cast.

The only scene missing the ring of truth plays in the first few minutes as washed-up child actor Gavin Stone is told by his lawyer (Nicole Astra) and agent (Kirk B.R. Woller) that he has been sentenced to two hundred hours of community service for his most recent intoxicated antics. His must serve them in his Illinois hometown, but he has a choice of where to serve: the sanitation department or the local mega church.

The film quickly slides past that rough spot into the believable reunion of Gavin and his estranged father, played by Neil Flynn (Scrubs), from whom Gavin must beg a place to stay, and on to the mega church where Gavin begins his service hours by mopping floors. Thankfully, the church is just holding auditions for their annual Easter production, for which Gavin pretends to be a Christian so he can be cast as the lead.

Christians will recognize and laugh out loud at our own modern religious trappings and foibles, especially if one has ever been part of an Easter production. Non-Christians will enjoy the truth of Gavin’s experience as an outsider who comes to understand who Jesus really is.

gavinstone.jpgAnjelah Johnson does a fine job as the grown-up PK (pastor’s kid), Kelly, who directs the Easter play, as does D.B. Sweeney as the Pastor. But the real standouts are the ex-con played by Shawn Michaels (former WWF superstar), and his two geeky companions, John Mark, played by Tim Frank, who is still in love with Kelly even though she has rejected his advances, and Anthony, played expertly by Patrick H. Gagnon, a star-struck church actor-wannabe who starts wearing his Gavin Stone fan club t-shirt everywhere.

The real drama comes when Gavin finishes his service hours three days before opening night and receives an offer for a TV-gig back in L.A. that could revive his career.

The editing by Kenneth Marsten is perfect, as the pacing of the film carries us right along to its heart-warming conclusion. With some nice cinematography by Lyn Moncrief, this smart script by Andrea Gyertson Nasfell has been expertly executed by director Dallas Jenkins and will make you remember what modern Christianity is all about.

With the recent release of some really great movies like Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Risen (2016), Little Boy (2015), and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, I’m hoping faith films have turned a serious corner.

Guest Reviewer Lynn Moody is a screenwriter, filmmaker and theater director living and working in northern Michigan. You may follow her work at PreciousLightPictures.com.

[This review has been edited to correct a name.]

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An Outsider’s View of the Variety Purpose Summit on Faith and Family Entertainment

As a reviewer and commentator of Christian media who lives in China, I’m used to being on the outside looking in. If there’s a new movie released aimed at the “faith-based” audience, then I will see it, but it will often be months later. I read about deals being made and productions being planned, but it’s always from a great distance. Even with regular communication with friends who work full-time in that industry, and even though I’m able to stay on top of news about the industry thanks to the web, I’m still on the outside, far removed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love living in China, and I’m convinced that it is exactly where God wants me to be. But I feel like – and forgive the Flash reference – my Earth 2 doppleganger moved to Hollywood, made it as a screenwriter, and was just nominated for his fourth Earth 2 Emmy.

Yeah, the Earth 2 me lives on the inside, no doubt.

But every now and then, God throws the Earth 1 me a bone to help me not feel completely cut off; a glance or a step inside this niche industry that fascinates me so much.

Header_Purpose_2016-1This time, the bone I was thrown was a press pass to the Variety Purpose Summit, held Friday at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. This was an amazing gathering in which I was able to stand in the same room as many faith-based media movers and shakers as well as studio big-wigs, and I was finally given the chance to see first hand what happens when the curtains are pulled back.

Variety did a great job assembling professionals with many years working in Hollywood on all sorts of different levels, and these industry insiders talked at length on a variety of issues. Panels dealt with issues such as “Faith and Culture in Mainstream Entertainment”, “Succeeding in Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Finance and Production”, and “Multiplatform Family Entertainment and Faith-Based Storytelling”, to name just a few.

I want to focus on a few things I learned throughout the day.

Christians are alive and well in the heart of Hollywood

Over and over, I was introduced to producers, writers, directors, and investors who are people of faith and who have a desire to make great, accessible stories for everyone, and not be boxed in by the “faith-based” label. These filmmakers are working on projects with the big film studios that are broad and non-didactic, involve A-list actors and directors, and they are attempting to make films that people both inside and outside of the church would find accessible.

And church? They need our support.

But hang tight, church… I’ll be talking to you later.

Two such filmmakers that stood out were Michael Carney and Matthew Malek, Carney is the writer, director, and producer of the upcoming Same Kind of Different as Me with Renée Zellweger, Jon Voight, and Greg Kinnear, and Malek is the producer of Martin Scorcese’s Silence, with Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver and which will be released later this year.

During their panel, both Carney and Malek emphasized over and over that films don’t have to be overtly Christian to be used by God, that art that is “good, true, and beautiful” will hit the mark (Malek). Furthermore, Carney pointed out that prior to the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, there was really no such thing as the Christian or faith-based film genre. Films that dealt with Christian themes and ideas did so organically as a part of their wider genre, and they often did so very well (Chariots of Fire, Shawshank Redemption, The Mission, for example). “Shed it!” Malek said, speaking of the faith-based category. “God’s going to do what God’s going to do!”

The Christian filmmakers in attendance received the message enthusiastically, but I’d like to suggest that they really aren’t the ones who need to be convinced. History bears that the “faith and family audience”, that coveted enormous demographic, only wants to support Christian-made films written and designed to preach to the them, and until that audience opens its mind and allows Christian filmmakers some leeway, we’ll continue just getting more of the same.

That said, it made me hopeful to see how passionate so many Christian filmmakers seemed to be about this issue.

Hollywood Still Doesn’t Get It

This trip to Hollywood was not the first filmmaking bone that God had tossed my way. The first was a month-long intensive screenwriting course I took in in Hollywood back in 2007 with Act One, a Christian organization that tries to help prepare believers to survive and thrive in Hollywood.

As well as learning about story structure, character building, and dialogue, Act One also taught students the realities of life in the business of filmmaking. We learned that 2007 was a significant time in the history of filmmaking in general and faith-based filmmaking specifically for two reasons. First, it was only three years after the release of Gibson’s Passion, a film whose success had caught Hollywood completely guard and whose success Hollywood wanted desperately to repeat, and second, the wider film industry was still in the midst of trying to figure out how the internet could be utilized as a delivery form for entertainment.

Since that time, people have started to figure out how to profit from the power of the internet (Netflix, Amazon, to name a few), but according to what we heard at Friday’s summit, most still have no idea how to reach that massive faith-based audience. After Gibson’s film, most studios quickly developed faith-focused divisions to try and recapture the lightning in the bottle, but attempts, with a few notable exceptions, have been largely unsuccessful.

IMG_6906Many of the panelists were the ones working in the trenches (DeVon Franklin, CEO of Franklin Entertainment and producer of Miracles from Heaven and The Star, an upcoming CGI faith-based film; Brian Bird, Executive Producer and showrunner of the cult favorite Hallmark show, When Calls The Heart; Steve Wegner, producer of the Dolphin Tale movies and Blind Side, to name a few), and they spoke about their experiences helping guide studios through the undiscovered country of successfully reaching a faith audience.

Several panelists also talked about the many non-traditional grassroots methods used in an attempt to mobilize believers to support the films and television programs being made for them. Methods discussed ranged from inviting pastors to early screenings of the films in an attempt to get them on board with the project, developing study materials where believers could explore the ideas raised by the films from a Christian context, and cultivating large followings on various social media platforms to help energize audiences when new films are being released.

thirty_three_ver10Sometimes these attempts have worked (Heaven Is For Real, God’s Not Dead, War Room), but just as often (maybe more often) they’ve failed, and the films haven’t lived up to their financial potential. A telling example came from Catherine Paura, the co-head of marketing for Alcon Entertainment, who spoke of her frustration when they were trying to market The 33. The film had all the right ingredients to be a hit with the faith audience: it was an inspirational true story where people in a potentially tragic situation survived at least in part because of their faith; it featured Antonio Banderes, a popular A-list actor; and it was designed to fit square in the category of a solid faith-and-family-friendly film.

“We did everything right,” Paura said, speaking of the marketing, but when the film opened the faith audience just didn’t turn up, and the film fared poorly at the box office.

Of course, one could argue that Hollywood is constantly in the business of trying to figure out the audience no matter the demographic, and the fact that they are so invested in figuring out the faith-and-family audience just means that there are enough of us to make us worthy of that investment.

The Value of Story

Throughout the day, panelist after panelist emphasized the importance of telling a compelling, well-crafted story. This is a message that all filmmakers need to hear, but especially those filmmakers and audiences (typically in the “Christian film” genre) who think that message trumps story.

Risen_2016_posterProducer Patrick Aiello shared that they took two years honing and perfecting the script for Risen before they began shopping it around.

“It’s all about content,” Matthew Malek insisted, reinforcing the idea of the power of a good story.

When moderator Jack Hafer asked his panel what the most important thing a content creator should consider when pitching, Steve Wegner said something that should surprise no one, but faith-based screenwriters should take to heart: “I have to love the story.”

Not the message, not the motivation for writing the script, but the story.

Another primary ingredient to good storytelling that was discussed across the panels was recognizing the value of being true to the characters and the situation, not being content to settle for caricatures and forced narratives. Esther Kustanowitz, a writer who also consults with filmmakers as a Jewish Community Consultant emphasized that “stories have to be authentic.”

The panelists seemed to share the idea that you influence through artistry, that you enable change by showing people their potential on the screen through story. “Government doesn’t change people, Hollywood changes people,” said Reza Aslan, CEO of BoomGen Studios. As an example, Aslan discussed Vice President Biden’s comment that America’s thoughts on homosexuality changed as a result of Will & Grace, not because of legislative influence.

Agreeing with the power of entertainment to affect change, DeVon Franklin added that people of faith need to learn to use that same instrument of well-told stories and empathetic characters to change the popular narrative that Christians are bigoted, uneducated, narrow-minded hypocrites.

What Was Unseen and Unsaid

For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed the day, and felt like my peek behind the curtain was time well spent. As I’ve been digesting my thoughts on the event, I’ve come away with two critiques of the event. These critiques don’t have anything to do with what was said, but what was unsaid, as well as who was unseen.

Unsaid

The elephant sitting in the back of the ballroom, undoubtedly noticed by everyone but not spoken about by anyone, was actually not an elephant at all, but a big red dragon named China.

Nobody, on any panel, at any time, said anything about the dragon.

This didn’t really occur to me until after lunch, when I was looking back over my notes, realizing how Ameri-centric the vast majority of the conversations had been. While there were a few references to international markets over the course of the day, the summit itself didn’t include any conversations regarding how the faith and family market can expand outside the 50 states into the international market, particularly China.

This stood out to me, partly because I live in China, but also because just the day before I’d made my way to an IMAX theater in West Hollywood to watch Star Trek: Beyond. As the producer credits were rolling at the beginning of the film, the logo for Alibaba – one of the biggest companies in China – appeared.

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Even as an outsider, I know that everyone in Hollywood is trying to crack the China nut (so to speak) and figure out how to put films on screens in what will be the world’s biggest entertainment market in just a few years. At the same time, Chinese producers and media companies are trying to figure out how to profit off of American-made properties. Variety magazine itself has published story after story about this, and yet the summit didn’t have a single discussion on the issue.

This was a glaring omission to me, but I hope that next year there will be at least some energy devoted to taking our faith-and-family projects into China and other parts of the world.

[If you are interested in this subject, I’d invite you to read an article I wrote on this blog a few months ago, addressing this very issue. Read my analysis of the situation here.]

Unseen

War-Room_300While there were definitely many heavy-hitting super-knowledgable and experienced filmmakers at the summit (both on the panel stage and in the audience) I was surprised that there wasn’t more representation by well-known faith and family filmmakers who feel called to make films that do preach to the choir.

I would like to have seen and heard from more of the people who have released films that were aimed squarely at the faith audience over the past year, such as the Kendrick brothers, Kirk Cameron, the Erwin brothers, David A.R. White, etc. But with a few notable exceptions (Franklin, Bird, Aeillo), there weren’t many filmmakers speaking from the front who are making explicitly faith-based films.

While the event definitely supported my long-held contention that Christian filmmakers need to be making broad, accessible films, it would have been nice to have had a bit more balance with some more focus on the other side of the issue, examining questions like:

What is the vision of those who are called to make films that preach directly to the choir?

How do they see their films being used outside the church?

What are their successful business models? Are they different than those making broader films?

And it would have been nice to explore this question with folks making those films: can we make films that will both preach to the choir and also be embraced by the congregation?

[edit: an insider friend sent me the following message:

“I feel like some of the people you felt were missing from the discussion have actually been guests and even sponsors in the past.”

I responded:

“That makes sense. But having not been before, it seemed like a strange omission, especially after the big movies of the past year. And maybe it seemed even stranger because there weren’t really any discussions about (contrasting) the two ways of approaching the issue.”]

Takeaway

There were so many good things said at the summit and so many years of experience represented that I was overwhelmed to be a part of the event. I was humbled to be in the same room with people who live their lives focused on making films that will benefit and encourage and give hope, and the experience made me realize how much we folks on the outside need to be praying for wisdom and guidance for our brothers and sisters on the inside.

But folks on the outside? The problem isn’t Hollywood. The problem isn’t the filmmakers. The problem has been – and continues to be – us.

Us. You and me.

The Big Christian Audience.

This has been my contention since the beginning, and hearing all of these professionals talking about their projects, their desire to see their faith lived out in good films on the screen, their desire to be artists who happen to be Christian rather than “Christian artists”, I kept coming back to the truth that the art these folks are creating will be directly impacted by what we, the audience of faith, are willing to support.

And the problem is that we, the Big Christian Audience, tend to be overwhelmingly lacking in vision, only supporting those films that fit into our narrow interpretation of the Christian life. We are largely not interested in artistry, not interested in subtlety, and apparently not interested in films that can evangelize – considering that so many of us don’t care at all about the opinions of people outside our subculture regarding the films that are made for us. We are only interested in revelling in our status as “underserved”, demanding that Hollywood continue to service us, and we only care for those films that tickle our itching ears.

Frankly, this is something that Christian filmmakers and Hollywood simply have to deal with, and dealing with it is not an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination. But, for the fortunate few who manage to hit the right beats and press the right buttons, incredible profit awaits. And so they will keep trying.

IMG_6884It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out later this month when MGM and Paramount release it’s $100 million dollar epic remake of Ben Hur, a film that has been made for a wide audience, but which has also been made with incredible sensitivity towards the faith-based audience, even going so far as to bring on Mark Burnett and Roma Downey early in the process to help shepherd the process.

Will the Big Christian Audience turn up for Ben Hur or will they stay away? One of the things that the summit clearly demonstrated to me was that investors and studios will be watching, and the movies we will see being released in the next few years will be greatly affected by the answer to that question.


A special thank you to Variety magazine for extending me the press creds, and Hollywood, it’s been a blast! I’ll see you when the next bone has been thrown!

Thimblerig out.

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Thimblerig Goes Hollywood

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I’m excited to be attending the Variety Purpose Summit on Friday this week as a member of the press, and will be reporting on the summit here on the blog as well as on Twitter, which you can follow here. This summit, sponsored by Variety magazine, looks at the state of faith-based media, especially focusing on television and movies.

Look for up-to-date information about what’s going on in the world of Christian entertainment, possible interviews with industry insiders, and reports on what it feels like to be a plebe in the middle of a conference like this.

Also, if anyone else who reads this blog will be there, I’d love to meet up for a cup of coffee and say hello! Just drop me a line.

Hollywood, get ready for Thimblerig!

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Thimblerig’s Spoilerific Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

Captain-America-Civil-War-Divided-We-Fall-Poster-Robert-Downey-Jr

One of the benefits of living in China is that every now and then, the Hollywood studios decide to roll out their big films in our corner of the world, rather than in the United States, where you’d think they’d drop first. Of course, there’s quite a bit of irony in the fact that a Captain America movie would not premiere in America, but regardless, it’s still cool for us. And considering the movie has already made $84 million internationally [update: $200.2 mill], and has yet to open in the United States or even in my host country of China, I’d say it’s been cool for a whole lot of people.

So, yesterday my kids and I hopped a ferry from Shenzhen to Hong Kong with the express purpose of eating at McDonald’s Next, and taking in a viewing of Captain America: Civil War. It was a tiring day, but was it worth it?

civil warAbsolutely, it was.

As director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) tweeted yesterday:

I agree wholeheartedly with Derrickson. This is a trilogy where nothing erodes or gets lost from episode to episode. In fact, if anything, each installment builds on and improves on the other. Even my beloved original Star Wars trilogy wasn’t able to accomplish this, with The Empire Strikes Back unarguably the high point of the trilogy.

With Captain America, the films just get better and better, and this last installment is – by far – the high point.

Before I get into my thoughts on the film, I want to discuss the biggest, most glaring lesson that I took from the film. And no, this doesn’t involve spoilers.

The Goodness of Steve Rogers

Captain-America-image-1Ever since Chris Evans and the Russo brothers first suited up, I have been constantly blown away by the unflinchingly goodness of Captain America. This is a character that lives for doing the right thing, even when the forces of the world are arrayed against him. As we saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron, he has a strong moral code, and he tries to elevate his comrades to live by that same code, even as they make fun of him. He would sacrifice everything for the sake of his friends, including friendship when need be. He has such a noble character that he could almost pick up Thor’s hammer, and if he had, we wouldn’t have been surprised.

And while most of the other superheroes we see are tortured about one thing or another, in the Captain America trilogy, Rogers is only tortured by two things: not being able to help is friends in need, and the fact that he is a man out of time, that he was ripped away from all that he knew when he was thawed out in the 21st century.

And yet, Captain America is one of the most popular superheroes to come out of modern superhero films.

chris-evans-shirtless-captain-americaYou could argue that one reason that Cap is so popular lies in the fact that Chris Evans is, as my friend Jasmine said, just so hot. (Yeah, I put that image there just for you, Jasmine. You’re welcome.)

And while that might be the draw for a certain demographic, I don’t think Evans’ hotness has anything to do with the fact that I see kids here in China running around wearing red, white, and blue Captain America t-shirts.

Then what is it? In my mind, it boils down to the truth that Cap is the hero we all wish we had in our lives: someone who will stand up for us, and who will refuse to stay down on our behalf, because it will always be the right thing to do. But not only that, thanks to the Dr. Stark’s Super Soldier Serum, he has the skills to back up the stands that he takes. He’s like the Boy Scout’s Boy Scout, All-American, apple pie, Brooklyn, and all that jazz. Cap proves time and again that in the right hands, our absolutely good characters can be portrayed as absolutely good, and it can work. They don’t always have to go through a dark night of the soul to get there. (Hear that, Zach Snyder?)

This all speaks volumes about the Russo brothers (read their thoughts on Cap here) and Joss Whedon, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and Chris Evans. They chose to handle this potentially irritating and absurdly good character with integrity and consistency. Directing, writing and acting tortured characters is not such a challenge. Directing, writing, and acting good characters that maintain their goodness throughout, and doing so in a compelling way is nearly impossible.

But these guys have pulled off the nearly impossible.

But enough Captain America pontification. If you have not seen Captain America: Civil War yet, and you are trying to steer clear of spoilers, then steer way clear of this blog post. Because here there be spoilers.

***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS***

I’m not going to take the time to summarize the events of the movie, as you can find that just about anywhere, including Wikipedia. Rather, I just want to give my thoughts.

• As anyone would know from watching the trailers, Captain America: Civil War could actually be called Avengers: Civil War. While it focuses most of the attention on Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to stuff any more Avengers into this film. And the amazing thing is that each Avenger has their moment to shine, and so the film doesn’t come close to feeling overstuffed.

captain-america-civil-war-will-change-the-mcu-even-more-than-the-winter-soldier-say-866418• I loved how both Captain America and Tony Stark are right, in their own way. It’s an interesting metaphor of how wars can really start – with a small disagreement that eventually billows out of control. And in wars, people get hurt. Civil War is no exception. And the fight at the end between the two of them feels earned, as compared to that other big superhero v. superhero film that came out earlier in the year. And I loved that the big issue between them isn’t resolved in the end. It gives us somewhere to go with the characters in the upcoming Infinity War films.

• I’m fascinated that Captain America, who has headlined three movies and been featured prominently in two others, is a character with no arc. Like James Bond or Indiana Jones, Cap changes very little, but rather demands change from those around him. Conversely, Tony Stark has been forced to go through several radical changes since he premiered in the original Iron Man, but with Captain America, this lack of substantial change works.

• The film’s humor is spot on. Considering the destruction of both property and relationships, the film has several laugh out loud moments. The strained relationship between the Falcon and Bucky being a great example, another being the expected quips of Spider-Man (more on him later). But the best example of use of humor in this film was anything that came out of the mouth of Scott Lang, aka Ant Man. If this film accomplished anything, it made me look forward to the next Ant Man film to see more of Lang, who played a decidedly BIG role in one of the best scenes of this, and just about any superhero movie that has come down the pike.

Oh, and while Stan Lee’s cameo was not so impressive, Rhodes’ (War Machine) response to it was priceless and perfect.

• Spider-Man. What can I say? Spidey has always been my favorite superhero, and while I enjoyed Tobey and Andrew’s turns in the red and blue suit, Tom Holland looks to be the perfect choice to carry the mantle. I love that he is actually the age that Spider-Man would be after just receiving his powers, and his immaturity shows. He is skilled, but not as skilled as he will be. And he is immature, just wanting to please Tony Stark, and so starstruck by his new relationship with him that he is unable to think for himself or entertain the notion that Stark might be wrong.

This film (and the end credits scene) are a nice setup to the new Spider-Man franchise, and I look forward to seeing what the filmmakers do with it (especially since we blessedly won’t have to sit through another tired Spider-Man origin story).

My one beef with Spidey in this film was that the CGI wasn’t quite as fluid as I would hope. There were moments that he looked cartoonish, which I hope that they fix when they make the standalone film.

• The trailer bait and switch. As with the trailer for The Force Awakens, the Russos did a great job making a trailer that made you think you knew what would happen, while in actuality, something else entirely was going to happen. Some examples: the almost Luke Skywalkerian Spider-Man trailers made it seem like Spider-Man would play a much smaller role in this film than he actually ended up playing. Also, the trailer made it appear that Bucky shoots down War Machine, when someone else altogether is responsible for that incident. I love when trailers do this, rather than just giving away everything, or not giving enough.

I obviously loved this film, but as I rode the ferry home writing notes, I realized that I had several questions:

  1. How did Zemo know that blowing up Vienna would help him to achieve his actual goal of tearing apart the Avengers? I know that he had studied the Avengers, and he apparently knew that Cap would go off to help Bucky after he framed him for the destruction, but how did he know that Iron Man wouldn’t support his teammate?
  2. Also, Zemo kept referring to December 16, 1991, the night that Stark’s parents were killed. How did he know that the Winter Soldier had something to do with it? Why did he even suspect it?
  3. How did Cap know that the Winter Soldier killed Stark’s parents, and when did he find it out? I didn’t take any bathroom breaks, but I don’t remember this being explained.
  4. Where did the Black Panther get his powers? I know the comic books explain this, but I felt like the film just wanted you to accept that he had them. That wasn’t quite good enough for me.
  5. How did Stark know that Spider-Man was Peter Parker?

These are minor issues, and perhaps some intrepid reader can help explain the answers to me.

So, in conclusion, this film just continues to build on the fantastic MCU that is being developed with such incredible deftness and consistent balls-out-of-the-park by Marvel. It makes me that much more interested and even excited to see what Scott Derrickson and Benedict Cumberbatch do with Dr. Strange, where Guardians 2 takes us, and what will happen with Thor and Hulk in Thor 3. Not to mention Avengers: Infinity Wars.

Let me know your thoughts!

Thimblerig’s Review • Risen

risen_posterWe’ve been living in an unusual time of cinematic history, where it has become normal to find a film or two aimed squarely at the Christian filmgoing audience in the local cinema at any given moment, often making decent box office. While the presence of so-called “Christian” films has become so much of a given that they are now even mocked by the entertainment industry, what has not been a given is the quality of the films. They typically resonate with the intended audience, but don’t typically make much of an impact outside of that demographic. And they’re usually destroyed by most critics, both secular and Christian, in the process.

Why is this? Well, the reasons have been discussed far and wide (including right here on this blog), and hopefully filmmakers and film producers are starting to listen. Perhaps they are starting to heed the call to look beyond the bubble when casting the vision for their films. Maybe the time is coming that films produced for us will stop naval gazing, that filmmakers will put the kibash on creating works of propaganda rather than works of art. We can only hope that producers will begin to see the value in (to paraphrase the late Prince) giving the audience what they need, rather than what they want.

With the exception of a few slight missteps, Risen has the potential to do all of those things. Risen is a bubble burster (is that a word?), where the filmmakers have made a Jesus movie that isn’t focused on Jesus, and in the process, they’ve made a film that is potentially accessible to a large and varied audience.

maxresdefaultIn the film, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is a Roman military tribune stationed in Jerusalem who is entrusted by Pontious Pilate (Peter Firthwith the responsibility of overseeing the execution of one Yeshua of Nazareth (Cliff Curtis). When Sunday comes, and the body has vanished from the tomb, Pilate orders Clavius to find the body and squash any trouble before the Emperor arrives to evaluate Pilate’s job as the prefect of Judaea. With the hourglass sand running, Clavius sets out to prove that Yeshua is dead.

The goal of Thimblerig’s Film Reviews is to see how well movies made by Christians (or with Christian involvement) accomplish the five challenges I set out in my article, What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking. Those challenges are:

1.  Take more risks

2.  Challenge your audience

3.  Provoke your audience by raising questions without necessarily giving the answers

4.  Recognize that art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit

5.  Tell good stories

The reviews are honest about what the filmmaker has done well, and where improvement is needed.  I humbly acknowledge that making any film is a huge achievement, worthy of respect, and I hope my reviews are read with that in mind.

So, now to Risen, with a slight spoiler warning.

1. Did Risen take risks?

Let me put it this way: I’m amazed that Risen got made.

First, when you consider the thrashing the “faith-based” audiences gave to Aronovsky’s Noah and Scott’s Exodus, one would think that no studio would have the nerve to play around with the biblical narrative again. But here’s a movie that took that narrative and flipped it on its head, examining the story of Christ from an entirely different perspective. And best of all, the filmmakers managed to do it in a way that didn’t make the audience feel disrespected.

Jesus-2Second, as I said earlier, it was a risk to make a Jesus movie and barely show Jesus, and not even say the name “Jesus,” rather opting for the Hebrew name, Yeshua. I also admire that the filmmakers went the route of casting a non-white actor in that role, acknowledging that Jesus may actually have not been blond and blue-eyed. This is something that Hollywood doesn’t even have the nerve to attempt.

Third, the filmmakers also took a bit of heat for portraying Mary Magdelene as a prostitute, something that is not supported by the biblical text, but was a risky choice that was good for the film. It made Mary Magdelene’s journey that much more powerful, seeing that she went from being “known” by the majority of the soldiers in the barracks to knowing and following Yeshua, to the point of being willing to die for him.

[As an aside, did anyone else notice what Clavius’s assistant called Mary Magdelene when Clavius said she was mad? “Perhaps she’s a witch, sir. Shall I have her stoned?” I really want to know if the filmmakers gave Tom Felton this line because he played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films…]

Finally, the film took the risk of making the disciples look, as a group, like an absolute mess. When watching the film, you can’t help but wonder that this group of bumblers would actually be largely responsible for exporting the words and message of Yeshua to the world. Bartholomew is a blithering idiot, Simon Peter is a hothead, and the rest just stumble along barely making their way. The filmmakers were critiqued for this choice, but it holds true to the biblical account, and makes it even more amazing that the Christian faith actually made it out of Judea.

Kudos to the filmmakers for taking risks with this film.

2. Does Risen Challenge the Audience?

Risen was released by Affirm Films, which is one of the top studios producing, acquiring, or marketing films to the faith based audience. Recent projects have included War Room, Miracles from Heaven, Heaven is for Real and Mom’s Night Out. Affirm also publicizes itself as “the industry leader in faith-based film.” And so it’s not a surprise that Risen would fit that mold.

So, would the faith based audience be challenged by Risen?

Yes and no.

risen-clavius-marymagdalene-1024x304I think there are aspects that might challenge a Christian. For example, looking at the Scriptures from a different angle would challenge many. Evangelical Christians (who make up the bulk of that faith-based demographic) have a way of holding onto Scripture tightly, not permitting any deviation for fear of the corrupting influence deviation can have. This is understandable when dealing with exegesis and Bible study, but creates severe limitations on artistic interpretation.

In the case of Risen, the filmmakers have walked the tightrope of being true to the biblical account, but also taking creative licence in several different areas for the sake of the narrative. And for the most part it works, and the results may challenge some believers to be willing to look at Scripture from different points of view.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the film goes far enough in challenging that core audience. There are beats in the story that feel like they were added so that the faith based audience would be happy, and I desperately want my brothers and sisters in the film industry to stop making movies just to make us happy. At least not all the time.

For example, I was so excited to see that the film was dealing with a skeptic, but was let down that the film allowed us to see Clavius make the decision to become a believer. It felt like this choice was shoehorned into an otherwise excellent script in order to hit those beats that the faith based audience would demand.

Which leads us to the next point…

3.  Provoke your audience by raising questions without necessarily giving the answers.

As I said before, the film took us on Clavius’s journey from skeptic to believer, and I don’t know about you, but I long for the Christian film that doesn’t feel the need to show the skeptic making a definite decision. In fact, if Risen had ended with some question as to whether or not Clavius had believed, it might have been more effective in provoking conversation on the question of belief from the non-faith-based audience.

1122563Christopher Nolan’s Inception did “question” wonderfully well, and people still have arguments about that maddening ending with the spinning top. Was Cobb awake, or was he still in the dream? But our Christian made films have a very hard time with the concept of the ambiguous ending. I think we’ll be demonstrating a higher level of maturity when faith based audiences begin to permit ambiguity – at least from time to time.

4.  Recognize that art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit

Risen was good art until the last ten minutes of the movie. Things I really liked:

The setup, the action scenes, the character of Clavius and his interactions with Pilate, the investigation (even though I knew the answer to Clavius’s question, I was fascinated watching him try to figure it out).

I thought the scene when Clavius finally encounters Yeshua was wonderfully mysterious, especially when Yeshua vanishes, taking everyone by surprise. In that scene, Fiennes did a great job expressing everything he was thinking through body language and facial expressions, and you could imagine what was taking place in his mind as he wrestled with the truth about what he had just witnessed.

I enjoyed the disciples and their journey across the desert, loved watching Simon Peter develop in the short amount of time we saw him, thought it was brilliant that Clavius’s skills as a soldier was put to use helping protect this fledgling group of Yeshua followers, how it demonstrated the respect he’d developed with his assistant as they were found out in the ravine.

I enjoyed the way the filmmakers interpreted the fishing trip, and the dark figure on the beach yelling instructions. I even thought the healing of the leper was nicely done.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 3.46.01 PMBut then we get to that last scene with Yeshua – The Ascension. At that point, we were taken out of the film and dropped directly into a pew. And compared to the artistry of the rest of the film, the scene seemed rushed and thoughtless, like it was there because the audience would demand it.

It was not the ending that the rest of the film deserved.

5.  Tell good stories

As the rest of my responses have insinuated, Risen did an admirable job with storytelling, much better than the typical faith-based film. The concept of the film was brilliant, and the execution was extremely well done for the first ninety minutes of the movie. If the film had found a way to wrap things up more quickly after that impressive scene with the flock of starlings, I would have said that the film was great, rather than just really good.

As it was Risen represents a huge step in the right direction for films being made and marketed to the faith-based audience. It’s a film I would gladly watch with friends who don’t share my beliefs, and I would feel no regrets or embarrassment (with the exception of the last ten minutes), which is not usually the case. It was extremely well cast and acted, the cinematography was good, the locations were authentic, the soundtrack fitting… I could go on with the things the filmmakers did well.

But the main shortcoming brings us back to where we usually find ourselves – the misguided attempt by people putting out faith-based movies to please and not challenge the faith-based audience, to give us what we say we want, and not what we need.

We’re past the baby food, y’all. We’re ready for some meat and potatoes.

By the way, Peter Chattaway at Patheos does a good job of getting information out about films that are of interest to the “faith based” audience. Here are some links to some of his stories leading up to the release of Risen.

Apparently, Risen was originally called Clavius. That seems like a good name change.

And in the original version, Clavius had a Jewish lover named Rachel. I really wish they’d kept Rachel in the final version of the film, as it seemed like Clavius would have benefited from that relationship.

Finally, Mary Magdalen was originally going to play a larger role in the film, going with the disciples to Galilee. I also wish they’d have kept this in, as MM was a well-formed character, as opposed to ten of the twelve disciples.

God’s Not Dead 2 – Thimblerig’s Trailer Over-Analysis

A few weeks ago, Disney released the trailer to Star Wars Episode VII, and it nearly melted the internet.  Over the next day, article after blog after youtube video appeared dissecting the trailer, and giving the audience the opportunity to respond with excitement and anticipation about the upcoming sure-to-be-blockbuster.

In the world of Christian-made films, we don’t have blockbusters in the traditional sense of the word, but we do have the films of the Kendricks brothers and Pureflix Studio. They are the Big Boys of Christian-made film, and they make our blockbusters, the movies that the Big Christian Audience eats up the way twelve year old boys eat up Transformers movies.

And yesterday, the internet melted for the Big Christian Audience as the trailer God’s Not Dead 2 was released. For those who many not know, this upcoming film is the sequel to 2014’s surprise megahit (over $90,000,000 made from a $2,000,000 filming budget), God’s Not Dead.

Well, the trailer only had about 9,000 views when I started writing this, so “melted” is probably not quite accurate, but “the internet blipped” just doesn’t have the same pizzazz.

Either way, this is a movie based on a successful pre-existing property, and so it’s worth noting that the first full bit of information has been released.

One thing about Christians and pop culture that you should know, we like to do things that other people do, but we do it about three years later, and we don’t do it quite as well.

And so, in that spirit, modeling the secular tradition of over-analyzing movie trailers, I give you…

gnd2-cover

Opening Scene: The movie opens with an old man in his pajamas making an important sounding statement about belief while we see a montage of Little Rock, Arkansas, the old man praying, and Martin – the Chinese student from GND (it is a sequel, isn’t it?) – reading the Bible in a church.

Pajama man says:

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 11.12.40 AM

“In this day and age, people seem to forget that the most basic human right of all is the right to believe.”

And… I’m starting the trailer feeling confused.

Someone is trying to take away someone else’s right to believe, and someone else is forgetting it? How can you take away a right to believe? Belief isn’t an action, like voting or eating anchovies, it’s something that you have inside of you. Even in the most difficult of situations and under the most intense persecution, people can still believe, even if they have no rights of religious freedom.

But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from observing American Christian culture over the past couple of years, it’s that we hate the idea of people taking away our rights, even it’s not happening as much as we like to think it is. See, what’s really going on (in a nutshell) is that the rights of other people are being strengthened in an attempt to find a balance. But when you have been on the stronger team all of your life and you find your team not holding the power that it once held, the cry goes out of PERSECUTION!

Even though it is not persecution, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just a loss of influence and power.

This reminds me of a particular person in history… a guy who had all the power in the universe and he purposefully gave it all up, emptied himself of all the power, and became nothing – for the sake of everyone else.

Hmm… I’ll have to think about that one.

So then, this is “the hook”, a purposefully provocative statement meant to rile up the Big Chrisitan Audience out the gate. It will certainly be clarified as we proceed through the trailer.

And so we continue.

Next Scene: We shift from pajama man to a long shot of a government building with a large crowd of demonstrators chanting something that took me a couple of viewings to comprehend: “Teach don’t preach!”

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 12.11.55 PMAh, and the pieces fall a bit more into place.

The angry protestors want teachers to be teaching and not preaching, so apparently someone has been preaching in the classroom.

But, wait, don’t they want a good thing? Sure, it’s nice to have preaching in schools if everyone in the school has the same belief, ala private religious schools, but what if the school is public? What about the kids who have different beliefs? What if the preaching is something from a religion that you don’t subscribe to? As a Christian, I don’t want a Buddhist teacher preaching the importance of being a Buddhist in school.

Seems like extending that same courtesy is the Christian thing to do.

But I digress from my over-analyzation.

Next Scene: This scene is a quick bit of foreshadowing as we shift to a school and Robin Givens talking on the phone. We have scenes of school buses, Melissa Joan Hart walking down a school hallway smiling at the students, and Givens reciting an ominous list of things that apparently can’t happen in the school:

“No prayers, no moments of silence, nothing!”

Sidebar: We’re starting to see where some of that massive GND profit has gone (besides the purchase of an online Christian film streaming service) – Pureflix has hired actors we actually know. We first saw this in their GND followup, Do You Believe?, a film that also had a bevy of familiar actors. Will it help GND2 be a better film than GND, which was a critical failure, even if it was a financial success?

Only April will tell, and she’s not talking.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 1.08.44 PMNext Scene: A title card, “They denied God’s existence”…

Wait. What? Who denied God’s existence? Who is this they they are talking about? I’m started to feel a little frightened… the filmmakers couldn’t be trying to frighten us, could they?

Of course not, because as Christians, we believe that God is sovereign, fear isn’t real, and anxiety is not a Fruit of the Spirit.

Right?

Next Scene: A quick two-shot montage of clean-cut students watching intently in school (it is a movie, after all), and then we find out who they are, these evil people denying God’s existence.

“Think of the other children out there, who are subjected to their repressive belief system…”

Note: you have to put a dramatic pause between “their” and “repressive”, and over-emphasize “repressive.” Like this:

“…subjected to their… REPRESSIVE belief system…”

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 12Ah, so that’s the way it’s going to be, is it? Instead of having the evil, moustache-twisting atheist professor as we had in GND, we’re going to have an evil, moustache-twisting atheist bad guy from Robocop.

Actually, I do know that this actor played Leon Nash, one of the bad guys in Robocop, I’m just not sure who he is supposed to be playing in GND2 yet.

Next Scene: Another montage, this time with a voiceover by the face of Pureflix, David A.R. White. The montage is Martin walking, Martin standing up in church as David A.R. White enters, David A.R. White praying, and David A.R. White speechifying to a group of concerned looking individuals.

“If we sit by and do nothing, the pressure that we’re feeling today will be persecution tomorrow. We’re at war!”

And there it is. Those three words are undoubtedly the theme of this film, and the place from whence (along with potential box office receipts) every idea in this film is coming.

We're_at_War

Forget all that stuff about the sovereignty of God. Just be afraid, because if we don’t do something, PERSECUTION will result.

Actually, the thought just occurred to me that it’s quite likely that persecution could come, and be the result of the attitude of antagonistic Christians in the “culture wars”, as well as a by-product of Christian-made movies like God’s Not Dead (1 & 2) that seem to revel in being insulting and belittling to people who believe differently than we do, or who don’t believe at all.

Wouldn’t that be ironic in a strange and sad way?

Next Scene: Another title card.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 3.19.53 PM

Ah, so first they denied God’s existence, and now they want to silence His message.

“They”, again, being Leon Nash from Robocop, and his evil sidekick who dared to wear a Robocop helmet.

The nerve.

Next Scene: Back to the school, where we find Melissa Joan Hart lecturing on non-violence with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr on the screen behind her. And we proceed through several different scenes, held together by dialogue.

MJH: “What makes non-violence so radical is it’s unwavering commitment to a non-violent approach.”

Student: “Isn’t that sort of like what Jesus meant when he said that we should love our enemies?”

MJH: “Yes. You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 4.24.01 PMQuick shot to a kid pulling out his cell phone and then cut to Robin Givens walking with MJH in the hallway:

RG: “One of your students sent a text to their parents. Did this happen?”

MJH: “If you’re asking if I responded to a student’s question, then yes.”

Cut to serious man in a suit in a serious looking meeting room looking all serious.

SM: “And your answer incorporated the words of Jesus.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 4.20.35 PMCut to woman with the first actual southern accent we’ve heard so far, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Little Rock, Arkansas.

Southern Accent: “What were you thinkin’, Grace?”

(Ah, Melissa Joan Hart’s name is Grace. I wonder why they chose that name?)

Next Scene: Cut to Grace sitting in a living room with ruggedly handsome lawyer, Tom Endler.

Endler: “The Thawleys are asking that you be fired, Grace, plus revocation of your teaching certificate.”

The stakes have never been higher.

But hold on one second… don’t teachers have the right under federal law to discuss their religious beliefs as long as they do so in an objective manner? In the scene they showed, Grace looked to be pretty darned objective, but of course, it was only a quick clip. Maybe she does cross the line and openly preach? If so, of course she will get in trouble. If not, I don’t understand why the school throws her under the bus, because she’s well within her rights.

But again, only April will tell.

Next Scene: Cut back to serious man, having another serious conversation with other serious people.

SM: “How do we make this go away and not get blood on our hands?”

Wait a minute. That sounds familiar. Where have I heard that sort of phrasing?

liahonlp.nfo-o-7dd

Ah, that’s right.

And the answer to the serious guy’s question, given in hushed, conspiratorial tones…

“We’ll let the ACLU do it.”

dana-carvey-snl

Next scene: Cut to Leon Nash, who has apparently quit working for Clarence and has taken up with that bastion of evil and ne’er-do-wellingness, the ACLU.

“We’re going to prove once and for all… that God is dead.”

(Okay, read that sentence again, but then hit play on the youtube video right after reading it.)

End of over-analysis part 1.

That took a LOT longer than I thought it would take, and I’m not sure if it’s worth it to take the time to write the second half of my over-analysis. I’m not paid anything to do this, and I’m trying to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, and so, I might just let it go.

However, if you’d like me to continue, then leave me a message here, and if enough people are actually interested, I’ll continue. Otherwise, you can just watch the trailer and imagine what I might have said about the rest of it.

A hint, the rest of the analysis would have answered questions like this:

What book is ruggedly handsome Tom Endler reading so intently?

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 6.18.42 AM

What is the quite original song that the trailer shows the Newsboys singing?

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 7.01.51 PM

And finally, the question on everyone’s mind…

Do the Robertsons make an appearance in GND2?

dd

 

Christian Moviegoers, Do You Even Know What You Want?

Woodlawn-PosterJon and Andrew Erwin’s Woodlawn just scored another fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the 9th positive review out of ten, giving the film a pretty solid 90% rating, although with an admittedly small sampling of reviews.

As I wrote about before, this sort of thing is unprecedented in the world of Christian-made filmmaking. Phil Vischer’s animated “Jonah: A Veggietales Movie” was the previous high-ranking film of the genre with a 65% from 55 reviews.

And yet, curiously, as of this writing, Woodlawn has only made about 5.5 million in ticket sales in 1,553 theaters. At this time in War Room‘s release, it had made over 15 million in 1,135 theaters. God’s Not Dead had made 12 million in 780 theaters.

The only conclusion I can reach is that compared to War Room and God’s Not Dead, or even the much less overtly Christian faith-based football movie, When The Game Stands Tall, the Big Christian Audience is not supporting Woodlawn.

And I just don’t get it.

Fellow Christian moviegoers, brothers and sisters who make up the casual movie-going target demographic for Christian-made films, I don’t understand you.

I really don’t!

So often I’ve heard you complain about how badly you want Hollywood to make movies that you can take your families to see, movies that reflect your values, movies that treat your faith with respect. I’ve heard you gripe that Hollywood – which you abandoned a long time ago – doesn’t get you, your wants, and your needs for entertainment.

But then, when one of your own makes just the sort of film that you’ve been clamoring for, a film that apparently rises above the standard “Christian movie”, a movie that is actually a pretty good movie, with high production values, recognizable and respected actors, and a compelling and relevant true story, what do you do?

The vast majority of you just… stay home.

55c2a97f776f726211004f8dAnd the craziest thing? Woodlawn is a film that is right in your wheelhouse. Up until now, the audience has been largely Christian, and that audience has given the film a CinemaScore of A+ (the last time a film did this? War Room, which you turned out for in droves). Woodlawn hits all the right beats for a Christian-made film, with faith-based film regular/hobbit/Goonie/Rudy – Sean Astin – sharing the gospel right at the top of the film, the film also features a sympathetic Christian protagonist struggling to be true to his faith and his life’s calling in the face of immense opposition, and it winds up with a feel-good rousing sports-related climax.

This is a film that was made for you, but for some odd reason, you aren’t there for this film.

I don’t get you, brothers and sisters. I really don’t.

The thing that I really don’t get is that with Woodlawn, this movie that was made for you, we also have a Christian-made movie that is actually being treated kindly by secular film reviewers, and this doesn’t typically happen for Christian-made movies.

War Room? 37%. God’s Not Dead? 16%. Little Boy? 20%. Do You Believe? 18%.

Woodlawn? 90%.

And you aren’t showing up to support it.

So, members of the Big Christian Audience, just so you understand what you are doing by not supporting Woodlawn: you are sending Hollywood a clear message that quality filmmaking doesn’t matter to you.

To be honest, at this stage of the game, I’m not sure what matters to you, and I’m one of you! Imagine how perplexed the suits in Hollywood must be!

And it makes me wonder – do you even know what you want?

The real irony is that Woodlawn director, Jon Erwin, defended you when Mom’s Night Out was getting high audience praise but low critical reviews. In an interview with The Blaze, Erwin said, “What you see is a group of underserved people who have not felt appreciated who now have an outlet and a voice and an ability to celebrate themselves,” Erwin said of the fans’ positive reviews. “Hollywood and the mainstream press doesn’t understand these people.”

Hollywood and the mainstream press aren’t the only ones.

Fellow movie-going Christians, thanks to the mega-mixed messages that you are sending to the filmmaking gatekeepers, thanks to the way you are being so flakey of your support of quality Christian-made films, the next few years of Christian-made filmmaking will probably be pretty interesting.

But not in a “quality Christian-made film” way. Rather, it will probably interesting in a “more of the same old, same old” kind of way.

Thanks so much for that.

And yes, that was sarcasm.

Tim Chey’s David and Goliath • Thimblerig’s Review

77f61c95b36c14adbf4e1ee31fa3b82f

2014 saw the release of some major Bible-themed movies, movies backed by serious Hollywood studios, movies involving household name actors, directors with impressive filmographies, and budgets in the hundreds of millions.

Financially, the movies did respectfully, but they failed to make any sort of connection with the elusive “faith-based” audience – the audience willing to come out in droves for movies like God’s Not Dead or the films of the Kendrick Brothers.

The cry went out from faithful filmgoers everywhere, complaints that the films were not biblically accurate, that too many liberties had been taken, that our sacred stories should never have been entrusted into the hands of nonbelievers, and that one of us needed to do a Bible story properly, to show the world just how amazing our stories can be.

Veteran director Tim Chey answered that call, purportedly raising over 50 million dollars so that he could make a movie version of the story of David and Goliath that would be true to the message found in the Scriptures, and do all the things that Hollywood had been unable to do.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out the way Chey – and Christian filmgoers rooting for that longed-for faithful rendition – might have hoped.

Rather than being a film that can stand up against the best Hollywood has to offer, David and Goliath is just a truly dreadful film. It’s bad in a way you can’t really even imagine. The cinematography is terrible, the script is a repetitive mess, the editing is bewildering, the acting is amateurish, the special effects are bizarre and make no sense, the soundtrack is forgettable and depressing, the pacing is irregular and jarring…

And yet, even with all of that, I wholeheartedly recommend that you watch this movie, because I guarantee you will never see a film like this again in your life.

In. Your. Life.

David and Goliath first appeared on my radar back in March, when someone sent me a link to the trailer for the film. This particular trailer caught my eye because it was connected with an Indiegogo campaign, where Chey announced he would be raising money to fund the theatrical release of the film. Apparently, no Hollywood studio wanted to distribute David and Goliath because Chey’s film was too biblical, too religious, and mentioned God in every scene, and Chey was determined to get the film into theaters.

Considering that we had just lived through “The Year of the Christian Film“, and Hollywood had not been able to crack open that elusive “faith-based” demographic, why wouldn’t they want to distribute David and Goliath? Especially if it was going to be “biblically correct in every way“, which would surely draw the coveted Christian audience?

Something didn’t make sense.

Before I saw the trailer, I had never heard of Tim Chey, and so I started tracking down interviews and stories about him. However, the more I learned about Chey, the more conflicted I felt. On the one hand, the filmmaker came across as well-spoken, passionate, dedicated to filmmaking, and strong in his faith. On the other hand, I was disturbed by his strongly negative attitude towards Christians who responded critically to his films.

I wrote about this back in March, and want to repeat one section of that article before I get to reviewing the film.

In one interview, Mr. Chey complained that his films were being mocked by “fellow jealous Christians… saying the acting was bad, script was horrible.”  In another interview he said that one of his personal weaknesses was “not loving those carnal Christian movie critics who continually stab Christian filmmakers in the back.”

“The mistake Christian filmmakers make repeatedly,” Mr. Chey continued, “is they give into their fears of being maligned by the carnal, world-loving Christian who drools over Hollywood product…”

“One person wrote me and said 7 people went forward to receive Christ after showing ‘Gone‘. I can just imagine these carnal Christians rolling their eyes at the horror of that. But the true horror will be on Judgment Day when Christ says to them, ‘Depart from me for I never knew you.’”

Watching David and Goliath and being critical of the viewing would make me a “carnal Christian”? Reviewing a film and writing about bad acting, directing, or screenwriting would put my soul at risk?

It’s an understatement to say that Chey’s ideas about the untouchable nature of his filmmaking are skewed. This is especially odd when you consider that Chey is an educated and accomplished individual, having studied law at Harvard, film at USC Film School, and as a filmmaker with several Christian movies under his belt.

Since I was unable to catch David and Goliath during the limited theatrical release, I decided to pass the time by watching a couple of Tim Chey’s other films (Suing the Devil and Freedom), and while I felt that both had some positive elements to promote, both also had negative elements worthy of critique. Read my review of Suing the Devil to see what I thought.

And then, I was pleased to receive this message a few weeks ago from the David and Goliath Facebook page:

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 9.39.08 PM

Yes! The moment had arrived. And so, as soon as I was able, I placed my order on iTunes, and downloaded the film. Then last Wednesday night my family became one of those 55 million homes, settling in to see how this epic story would be handled.

And trust me, it was handled. Oh, how it was handled…

David and Goliath • Thimblerig’s Review

Three things I liked about David and Goliath

1. The audacity of it.

photo from Wikipedia

(photo from Wikipedia)

There is something to be said about going all out with a passion project. The old saying, “swing hard or go home,” comes to mind.

And this is a textbook example of an audacious project! Who makes a 50 million dollar non-studio Bible film with no big name actors? Who takes the cast and crew of an independent epic-sized film all the way to North Africa to do the filming? Who starts not one, but two Indiegogo campaigns in an attempt to raise money to self-release a film of that size and scope, announcing that it’s a Bible film that no studio will touch because it’s too Bible-based?

Chey made big choices, filmed big scenes, and tried to do something big and maybe even admirable in attempting to tell the famous story of David and Goliath. Even if it seemed to overwhelm him in the end (more on that later); the attempt was bold and audacious, and part of me can’t help but admire the kind of chutzpah that would undertake a project like this willingly.

2.  Miles Sloman’s performance as David.

david

Miles Sloman, a dead ringer for Michelangelo’s David, is apparently a theater guy, having gotten his start at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and going on to take part in the Oxford School of Drama.

Sloman is a man with very impressive theater credentials who was obviously seriously invested in his role, which he infused with an innocence and earnestness that was entirely appropriate for the character of David. If you read this interview, you’ll see that he appears to be a professional who is very serious about his craft.

It must not have been an easy job to carry the lead role in a movie of this scope, especially in your first film role, so props to Sloman for doing his best with less-than-stellar material and circumstances.

morocco-desert-map-conde-nast-traveller-27feb14-andrew-macgregor3.  The location.

It was nice to see a film based on the life of David shot on location in a different part of the world than, say, the deserts outside of Los Angeles, which would have been an easier and much less expensive location for recreating Bethlehem – especially for an independent Christian film.

That being said, one can’t help but wonder if the decision to film in North Africa was at least partly based on how dramatic it would look in the press releases.

Historically, Chey has done his best to harness the power of the press release when it came to promoting himself and his movies. For example, when Suing the Devil was found on a notorious pirating website, Chey and his team contacted the pirates to request that they remove the torrent. This led to a war of words with the pirating community and ultimately to Suing the Devil being illegally downloaded over 100,000 times. Chey responded with a press release lauding the downloading attack as a “tremendous compliment,” promoting Suing the Devil as “one of the most illegally downloaded movies ever.”

This time around, in the case of David and Goliath, filming in North Africa gave Chey the chance to spice up his press releases with claims that “…the director and producers risked their lives during the filming… from angry mobs, killer bees, death threats from Islamic extremists, and the outbreak of the Ebola virus.”

Did those things really happen? I can only assume that they did in some for or fashion, which makes me think that Chey should have had a second crew making a documentary of this filmmaking attempt. Now that would have been a movie to see.

But I still must admit that the Ebola thing has me a bit confused. There weren’t any known cases of Ebola in North Africa during the recent outbreak, so how did that outbreak risk their lives, any more than any of the rest of us? Unless Chey was referencing the one case of Ebola that happened in the UK, and since David and Goliath was partly made in London, that could be what’s going on.

My Main Critique of David and Goliath

My list of problems with this movie is pretty extensive, as you could see in my opening paragraphs. However, all of those issues would have been much less problematic if the filmmakers had relaxed and just told us a good story. But David and Goliath fails miserably in this regard, and somehow takes one of the most exciting stories from the Old Testament, and turns it into an extremely tiresome and dull film.

And this, to me, is the film’s greatest problem.

If we are going to compete with the big boys with our own Bible epics, then good intentions will never be enough. While Chey may have set up to make a biblically correct counterpoint to Noah and Exodus, what he ended up making was a movie where the audience had to entertain themselves by looking for horse whinnies and computer generated snafus (more on that later). Say what you will about Hollywood’s attempts, but at least they understand the value of story. They entertain.

David and Goliath had endless repetitive scenes of David standing on a rock reciting Psalms. It had endless repetitive scenes of Goliath spewing his so-called taunts, the same taunts, over and over. It had endless repetitive scenes of David talking to people about his desire to face Goliath, and people trying to talk him out of it. It had endless repetitive scenes of King Saul or his general addressing the troops. It had endless repetitive scenes of people looking off into the distance with concerned looks on their faces. It had endless repetitive scenes of the bad guys (dressed in black, so that there was no confusion) acting like bad guys.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 10.46.47 PMAnd the big climax, when David and Goliath finally meet in battle? It was literally minutes of the two stalking each other in circles, not doing anything but talking – Goliath talking the same bizarre trash he’s been talking the whole movie (more on that later), and David reciting the Psalms. And it went on and on, for minutes. Nothing happening but this, for minutes.

DAVID_AND_GOLIATH_by_themico

A very interesting imagining of David meeting Goliath. Oh, what could have been…

And this was supposed to be the climax?

I just don’t get it. Here we have one of the most famous underdog stories in human history, a little 14 year old kid going up against a monster-sized killer, and winning, and somehow it was rendered into a boring chore, a tedious slog of a movie. Why is this? How do we mess up Bible movies so often, when they are so important to us?

Ironically enough, I believe it is because they are so important to us that we can’t do them justice. In this case, the filmmakers were so focused on being “Biblically correct” that they seemed to be paralyzed by that goal. They couldn’t find a way to make an entertaining 90 minute story, because entertaining was incidental to their desire to preach. And in their failure to do the first well, they failed to do the second.

When are we, as Christians, going to realize the God-glorifying value of letting a good story tell itself? If we believe so strongly in the sovereignty of God, shouldn’t we be able to trust Him to use a well-told story to draw people to Himself? Especially if the story is from our sacred Scriptures, it should be infinitely doable.

God’s been doing it for years through the movies of Hollywood (Chariots of Fire, Schindler’s List, The Shawshank Redemption, Unforgiven, Calvary, to name just a few), and Christian filmmakers need to realize that nothing neuters a good story faster than when your goal is to preach rather than just tell the good story, while trusting the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

My dream is that at some point, some enterprising Christian filmmaker is going to let a Bible story tell itself, and when they do, God will use it to rock the world.

To conclude, earlier in this review, I insisted that even though David and Goliath is not very good, it is a movie that people should watch. I stand behind that assertion, and it is because some of the choices made by the filmmakers were just so unusual, so random, so unexpected, that they became the most interesting reason to watch the film to the end.

And while the story as presented didn’t succeed, these things did entertain me to no end. I call this section…

Three things I liked about David and Goliath (that I wasn’t intended to like)

1.  The homage to Young Frankenstein

The first thing I liked (that I wasn’t intended to like) involved sound editing.

Specifically, horse whinnies.

Let me explain.

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite movies was Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, and one of my favorite running gags in that film was the “Frau Blucher” horse whinny bit.

David and Goliath had a similar horse whinny that repeated quite often in the film.  Over, and over, and over again, actually.

And over.  And over.

Again and again.

You’ll have to watch the film for yourself to experience this, but my children got tired of counting at 40 horse whinnies. It was so excessive, that I couldn’t stop laughing at the pure, Brooksian ridiculousness of it.

And then suddenly, fifty minutes into the film (52:52 to be exact), the whinnies just… stopped. It was as if the horses suddenly lost the will to whinny, because they had been whinnying almost nonstop up until that point. Were they afraid for David? Was it a silent protest that nobody else would help him? Whatever the horse motivation, for the last 35 minutes, they were completely silent.  No more horse whinnies.

What happened to the horses?

2.  The economic use of horses

Speaking of horses, David and Goliath used computer trickery to add people and horses to scenes. Crowd scenes were bolstered by the addition of extra people in red or black, and smaller scenes were made to look busier by the addition of people and horses crossing in front of the action. Thus, pivotal scenes looked more bustling and crowded without having to have a literal cast of thousands.

It actually reminded me of what George Lucas attempted in the re-released Star Wars trilogy, making Mos Eisley look like more of a crowded spaceport by adding in all kinds of business around Luke’s landspeeder.

And we all know how well that worked for Lucas.

But computer trickery is not what I liked. What I really liked was that David and Goliath didn’t just have several horses crossing the screen in front of the action, but the same horse, a horse I like to call Spot – the busiest acting horse in Morocco.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 8.05.54 AMSpot crossed in front of the action, over, and over, and over again. He came from the left… and from the right. He came at an slight angle, and he came right across the screen. All throughout the movie, the same horse.

But it was definitely Spot, which you can tell by looking at his backside.

Just as we had been counting horse whinnies, when we realized it was Spot each time, we had a new game of “Can you Spot Spot?” and it happened too many times to mention.

To illustrate these two points, take a look at this video clip. And keep your eyes open for Spot!

3.  Less is More, or Biblically Correct?  Really?

Sometimes in filmmaking, the filmmaker needs take big chunks of idea and boil them down to the essentials, for the sake of the film. In the case of David and Goliath, Chey took the only recorded speech of Goliath in the Bible:

Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

And in his effort to make a film that was “biblically correct in every way”, reduced those words from the Bible down to this:

goliath

Which Goliath screams very loudly at the Israelites over, and over, and over again.

goliathc

And over.

goliathd

And again.

goliathe

And over again.

And occasionally Goliath would vary his taunts by mixing in one of the following, just for fun.

I see you! Come down here!  I hate your guts! There’s no place to run!

To close, I want to reiterate that this is a truly poorly made film that should be viewed by many, many people.

First, it should be viewed by Christian film students everywhere as a cautionary tale against biting off more than you are able to chew.

Second, it should also be viewed by Christian producers as a cautionary tale against thinking that having elevated spiritual goals in filmmaking, as admirable as those goals may be, will somehow magically transform your film into something worthwhile.

Third, it should be watched as an argument that Christian filmmakers should consider focusing first on telling good stories, and then trust that God will deliver the message that He wants to deliver, rather than thinking that you have to be so on-the-nose in your storytelling. Because while that may work in preaching, being on-the-nose is death to storytelling.

So, if you fall into any of those categories, go and rent the movie today. Or, if you just enjoy watching bad movies, you might enjoy this as well. Otherwise, give it a pass, and wait and see if Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange) makes the movie based on the life of David that was rumored to be on the drawing boards a few years ago.

Now that would be a good movie.

And  I feel compelled to say a couple of things directly to the David and Goliath team, for what it’s worth:

First, please stop playing up your films as if they are more than they truly are. I don’t know if you legitimately encountered all of those dangers in North Africa, but I do know that it was somewhat disingenuous for you to advertise David and Goliath as the “#1 independent film” when it was released, especially when it was the only independent film that was released that week. And this isn’t the only time. Spinning the Suing the Devil downloads into some sort of compliment, promising top of the line special effects for David and Goliath and openings in 1,500 theaters before you have any sort of distribution deal in place, you use hyperbole quite a bit in your PR.

That may work in fooling people who don’t pay attention to see if the reality lives up to the claims, but some of us do pay attention, and it’s really irritating, and unnecessary. Just make good movies, and all of the spin won’t be necessary.

And second, please understand that being reviewed critically is a part of the filmmaking game, and it is typically not personal. You are not being persecuted when you are reviewed negatively, nor is it a sign of spiritual bankruptcy on the part of the reviewers. Trust me, Christian reviewers such as myself are just waiting for our brothers and sisters to make movies we can laud, and hold up to the world as examples of fantastic filmmaking. Truly we are! Read through my reviews and you will see that when I think a movie is well-made by Christian filmmakers, I blow my horn loudly and proudly in support of that film, because I want to see it happen more an more.

It just doesn’t happen that often when it comes to so-called “faith-based” films.

And when you think about it, that’s the biggest shame.

 

Thimblerig’s Film Review • Christian Mingle

christian-mingle-poster01Last night Mrs. Thimblerig and I sat down to watch Corbin Bernsen’s 2014 romantic comedy, Christian Mingle.  We thought it was fun, entertaining for a romcom (admittedly not my favorite genre), and good for a date night for a Christian couple.  And while it was not perfect, I turned it off thinking Christian Mingle might even be one of the few Christian-made movies that could play well with a non-Christian audience.

Movie synopsis:  Gwyneth Hayden (Lacey Chabert) is a frustrated executive at an ad agency.  She’s frustrated because she can’t find a decent man and she feels like her life is at a standstill.  Inspired by the happy looking couples on a late-night commercial for Christian dating site christianmingle.com, Gwyneth pulls a desperation move and joins the site, even though she is not really a Christian.  This forces her to begin a crash course of studying the Christianity so that she can make her “faith” appear to be believable. When her first date from the site, Paul Wood (Jonathan Patrick Moore) turns out to be a keeper, she works harder and harder to become a believable Christian so that she can keep him.  Will she ever find true love?

The goal of Thimblerig’s Film Reviews is to see how well movies made by Christians (or with Christian involvement) accomplish the five challenges I set forth in my blog post, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking.  

Let’s see how Christian Mingle did.

spoilers

1.  Take more risks

315824When I consider this category, I think in terms of the risks a film takes with the core audience, which in the case of Christian Mingle, means Christians.  And considering the film’s similarities to Sex and the City, probably more specifically Christian women.  However, the film’s protagonist is a non-Christian (or a nominal Christian at best) pretending to be a committed Christian, and so her journey isn’t necessarily risky to that target audience.

The film took more risks with Paul, by actually having a somewhat wishy-washy male lead who allows himself to be manipulated and controlled by the women in his life.  His character raises the question – do we have the personal strength and integrity to do what we think is right, even if it goes against the plans others may have for us?  Are we willing to step out and do something uncertain and even dangerous with our lives?  The best part of the film is when Gwyneth confronts Paul with the truth of his passivity.

The film is definitely risky for a non-Christian viewer.  If that viewer identified with Gwyneth at all, then they would be forced to confront their own preconceived notions and prejudices against Christians, and to take stock of their own life choices.  The problem is, I don’t know how many people who aren’t Christians would be willing to sit down and watch a movie that takes its name from a Christian dating website.

1/2 a golden groundhog

2.  Challenge your audience

Once again, this movie is primarily aimed at the faith-based audience, and as a member of that demographic, I didn’t find it very challenging.

The one big exception might be Gwyneth’s co-worker, Pam.  At the end we find out that she is also a Christian, but she never said anything.  Gwyneth even calls her on this, but she replied, “it’s not my style”.

How often do we find people in our circle who are in obvious need of spiritual guidance, but we avoid having those conversations because “It’s not my style”?

1/2 a golden groundhog

3.  Recognize that art is art and the pulpit is the pulpit

For a movie that dealt with explicitly Christian themes, including a protagonist who is wrestling with her faith, this movie was surprisingly not preachy.  While Gwyneth comes to Jesus, it’s a process, not an “aha!” moment.  Nobody lying in the streets after being hit by a car, getting served the prayer of salvation by a random passerby.

In fact, the film has some nice moments of Gwyneth wrestling with God after Paul finds out the truth about her deception.  This led to some nice un-preachy moments in a film that could have been very didactic.

1 golden groundhog

4.  Provoke your audience by raising questions without necessarily giving the answers

This is the challenge where Christian Mingle let me down.

christianmingle2Five minutes before the end of the film, I was surprised and excited that it seemed like we were going to see a resolution of Gwyneth finding contentment in her singleness.  What a completely counter-culture way that would have been to end a romantic comedy!  The girl NOT getting the boy, but getting something of much greater worth.

Imagine if Gwyneth made her way to Mexico to teach, and Paul showed up on another mission trip with Kelly and the others.  He sees Gwyneth, and we see the question in his eye about the choice that he made, and we’re left with the idea that he might just do the right thing and go with the girl he was supposed to go with.  But he doesn’t do it.

And we see that Gwyneth, while impacted by seeing her old flame, is going to be just fine.

That would have been spot on brilliant.  But instead, the film took the easy Hollywood route, and ended with the girl getting the boy after all.  Ah, what a missed opportunity!

But I suppose with a romcom, it has to happen.

0 golden groundhog 

5.  Tell good stories

Ultimately, even with the disappointedly predictable ending, this was a good story.  There aren’t many Christian romcoms out there, and Bernsen and company did a good job.  The movie had a few welcome surprises, as it played around with traditional movie structures.  For example, the protagonist’s dark night of the soul doesn’t occur when her deceit is uncovered, but when she is wrestling with God afterwards.  And while she does get the boy at the end, that is just the icing on the cake.  She’s already found true love in her very real Christian faith.

And really – how often do you see a female protagonist fighting to win a man’s love by embracing his religious beliefs?

1 golden groundhog

Final Score:  3/5 Golden Groundhogs

Final thoughts:

1.  I don’t think Mrs. Thimblerig would mind my saying that the best thing about this film was Lacey Chambert.  I wasn’t a Party of Five fan, or a Mean Girls fan, or even a Lost in Space fan, but I’m now a fan of Lacey Chambert.  She did a great job carrying this role, and was adorable to boot.

2.  I wish filmmakers would give the “…for Dummies” trope a rest.  It’s just not that funny anymore.

3.  I’m fascinated by the way former Hollywood names and recognizable faces are showing up more and more in Christian-made films.

A Review of The Jim Gaffigan Show, Episode 1

Thimblerig’s Ark blog is pleased to have a guest reviewer joining us today, Jay Stroud of Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Jay and I had a brief discussion of the first episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show, and he agreed to share his thoughts on the blog.  Much appreciation to Jay, and to Jim Gaffigan, for giving us a glimpse of his upcoming show, which will air this summer on TV Land.

share_image_showLast night, I had the opportunity to watch the first episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show. I enjoy him as a comedian as he brings out the humor in everyday life stuff without feeling the need to go for shock laughs that spring more from discomfort than actual humor. That being said, the subject matter of his first episode was certainly surprising.

In the story, Gaffigan is leaving for a comedy club and his wife asks him to stop by their church and pick up a Bible the church had given her. He picks it up on the way but it turns out to be a very large family Bible that would draw attention anywhere. After the show at the comedy club, Jim has his picture taken with a fan and because he was holding the Bible, it showed prominent in the picture. It hit social media the next morning and the entire country was convinced that he was outspoken about his faith, though it was never a statement he intended. The story follows Gaffigan trying to navigate the media circus and how the media can affect public thought about celebrities. 

It was an interesting character study on ‘the media’ and fact checking in general but also true and false perceptions of Christianity. It’s amazing how often we forget to use logical thought to challenge what the news and media put out and even more, what is perceived as common perspective, eg. “I can’t be outed as a Christian, people think Christians are stupid.” 

This episode painted a picture of the cost of identifying with Christ. It means laying down your life which could mean your career or even your physical breath in the end. In such a polarized society, cultural forces are bound to tug you one direction or another and put you in tough positions where you have to choose. It is not always expected but calls for one to think on their feet as challenges come fast and furious. Gaffigan was not prepared to answer the questions or which way he wanted to be pulled. In this moment, I think he’s found a place that millions of people can identify with. 

78250-show-65737There are ways to work as a Christ follower more shrewdly than publicly having your pic taken with a giant Bible, and though inadvertent in this episode, some call that kind of attention to themselves purposefully, not expecting somehow that they will get more attention than they can handle and generally the unproductive kind. You wouldn’t stand on a street corner in Iraq declaring Christ without expecting it to blow up in your face (literally perhaps). Christians should be ready for questions that will come and cultural tugs to be clearly who we are.

In a way, it seems that Gaffigan did exactly what he feared. He is open about being Catholic and in this episode, he was able to face down fears about that. He was able to explore right and wrong ways sharing he is a Christian in fictional character. This is a safe way to start discussion and work through worries and issues that we all think about when living out our faith publicly. In this way, Gaffigan exorcised his own demons. At the end of the episode, he had his choice, but in real life, he also makes the choice to be who he is and let the chips fall where they fall. 

Favorite line: “I can’t take the Bible in the comedy club. I might get stand-up comedy on it.”

Jay Stroud lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He occasionally tweets @jay_stroud and very occasionally posts songs and stories about life at jaystroud.net

Click here to see more about The Jim Gaffigan Show.