Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast • Episode 5

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In the fifth episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast, we look at 2016’s Wildflower. Directed by Nicholas DiBella, and starring Nathalia Ramos and Cory Longo (among others), Wildflower is an unusual film in that it’s a Christian-made thriller that doesn’t have anything to do with the Rapture. I was especially excited to have a nice long conversation via Skype with Mr. Dibella and his partner, producer Jim Pavone.

The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast is a part of the More Than One Lesson podcasting family. Check out this and other episodes as well as other great podcasts at morethanonelesson.com.

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The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast Is Here!

thimblerig-ark-1024x994I’m pleased to announce that the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast is up and running. The podcast has come about as a result of conversations with Tyler Smith of Battleship Pretension and More Than One Lesson, and will be hosted on the More Than One Lesson website.

If you are interested in the world of Christian media, specifically Christian filmmaking, this is the podcast for you. We will be examining Christian-made films thematically and artistically, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the budding Christian film industry.

Follow this link to iTunes to subscribe! And if you do, and if you enjoy it, please rate and review the podcast to help give it more exposure.

Click this link to enjoy the first full episode, which is an examination of the mega-hit, God’s Not Dead.

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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.]

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

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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.