One of the most challenging things about trying to review Christian-made films while living in China is that most of those films never find a screen in this part of the world. They are too low-budget, too lacking in big names, and too religious. Even Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe’s Noah didn’t play here because it was a biblical movie (a fact which would probably amuse the masses of religious people in American who hated the film because it was too un-biblical)!
What typically ends up happening is that I get a review out once the film has been released on DVD, which is sort of like surfing after the wave has passed. I really appreciated that the Believe Me guys broke the business model by doing a simultaneous theatrical release/digital download, which meant my review for that film went out the same weekend the movie was released. It’s to the point that I can comment on the trailer when it’s released, but not the movie, and that stinks!
But my community of Christian artist friends has been growing over the past several months, and I’m thrilled that one of my new friends, graphic artist Matthew Sample, agreed to do me the huge favor of watching the latest faith-based film to be released – Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas – and writing a review for me based on Thimblerig’s movie-watching scale (which you can read about here).
So, without further ado, I give you Matthew’s great review. Enjoy!
Thimblerig’s Review of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas
by Guest Thimblerigger Matthew Sample
Part of me wanted to run up to the ticket counter and say with my jolliest, bearded, and wonder-filled face, “I’m here for Saving Christmas.”
The rest of me goes to a church that does not celebrate Christmas.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Kirk. (Not the James, but the Cameron. Holler, someone, if you know what that’s referring to and where to find it in the film.) I dislike the secularization of our culture, and I love putting Jesus first. I’ve even grown up celebrating Christmas. But my church brings up some really good points. They will talk about the pagan past of Christmas, the commercialized shadow of the holy-day that it was… and don’t get them started about the Catholic church and the worship of images.
So I came to this film with two missions. First, to write this review for Nate, who—bless his NaNoWriMo heart—is in deep, deep novel-writing land. Second, to see if I can get my head wrapped around all this Christmas stuff.
What Kirk Got Right
When Kirk’s right, he’s right. And he’s got some spectacular goodness going on in this film.
First, he and his creative team have centered this film squarely on Jesus. He filters everything about Christmas through Christ, and we should applaud Christian creatives everywhere when they glorify Christ. I don’t think it was a marketing decision, but something that Kirk sincerely seeks to infuse in everything he does.
Second, because of his desire to glorify God, he does not go about this endeavor solely on his own, but he made this film in Christian community. We creatives should not be mavericks, and filmmaking especially demands that we collaborate extensively with others. Over the past several films, Kirk has made a point to do these films with his family. They are all over the credits. He even made a point to highlight his sister, Bridgette—not Candace who also acts in films, but the sister who didn’t make it. I think that’s cool.
He also is increasingly forging creative partnerships with a wide variety of Christians in the entertainment industry. In Mercy Rule, his last film that he made with his family, he teamed up with comedian Tim Hawkins. In this film, he’s teamed up with Darren Doane and several others. He has also promoted this film extensively by joining with high profile, family-oriented, Christian entertainers—the Robinson family, the Duggars, etc.—to get the grassroots word out. It looks like they all had a lot of fun doing it.
And he’s teamed up with Liberty University again, passing his creative knowledge to the next generation of filmmakers. We in the Christian filmmaking realm learn so much by books or by making mistakes. Mentorship is needed on every level. I’m so glad he’s maintaining this relationship with Liberty. No man is an island, and no generation is, either.
Third, the cinematographer did a great job. That’s something I can usually count on when I come to a Cameron film, but it bears emphasis. I don’t think there was an (unintentionally) ugly shot in film.
Fourth, I heard genuine laughter in the audience. And the audience was about a third to half full, which is really decent for a film not on opening weekend. Kirk’s audience showed up, and they seemed to sincerely enjoy some of the laughs. Granted, there were only about 10 genuine laugh moments and a few other moments that didn’t work as well… But this film really was about concepts, and the laughs served as oases in the milieu of holiday contemplation.
Fifth, as I think I’ve mentioned before, Kirk made this film about concepts. I like his experiments in narrative documentary; they seem more personal and authentic than his recent foray into fiction. I hope he keeps experimenting in this genre, and that the quality of concepts grows and matures as he continues.
What Kirk Got Wrong
It is the little foxes that destroy the vineyards, and the unexpected details that make or break a film. Every phase of filmmaking seeks to prevent as many of the little surprises from destroying the film. Inevitably, a few foxes remain.
The most prominent problem with the film is the overuse of slow motion. This has become a tendency with Kirk’s films, and I’m not sure if he is trying to capture a certain aesthetic, or if he ran out of material in post production… or if he is just in love with the view through a camera lens. It happens. We aesthetes can feel a certain amount of pleasure witnessing an event in all the gory detail. But it also makes the film seem tedious. The audience knows exactly what will happen, so the thrill of slow motion comes in what happens during that moment. And not much happens during those slow moments.
Honestly the film could have been a 30-45 minute film with a different edit. Not that the editor did a bad job—he did a excellent job balancing everything. It’s the sign of not having enough content. Either the concepts were not big enough to warrant an 80 minute film, or the concepts were not explored enough. I think the creative team could have developed the concepts more fully.
As an example of an undeveloped story element, the film’s antagonistic force needed more antagonism. A better antagonist would have been the actor who plays the conspiracy theorist at the party and Arius in the Saint Nicholas section. A much more dynamic villain, he would be. Christian’s character is described as a scrooge, but other than having him look glum and leave the party for the quiet of his car, the filmmakers don’t show his scroogeness. He just complains. But even his complaints are groundless: Chris hasn’t actually done any research and easily cedes Kirk’s points as Kirk makes them. He is a living straw man, crafted to grouse until he metamorphoses into the awkward and exuberant convert at the end of the film.
As an example of undeveloped content, the regulative principle of worship never comes up. My church is Reformed, which means that they view the Bible and the Church from a perspective of the Protestant Reformers and the Puritans—Christ alone, faith alone, scripture alone…. Whenever well-minded people add their good ideas to our faith, those additions tend to cause problems after people forget about the reasons. This goes for worship, too. I can hear my pastor say, “Should December 25th land on a day of worship, many who claim Christ will stay home from meeting with Christ’s church—which God commanded—to stay home and unwrap presents—which God has not commanded.” That’s an interplay of concepts I would love to have seen in the film.
Overall, the concepts of the film could probably fit on one sheet of paper. It’s a very simply structured film, with a collection of introductions, three main arguments, and then a collection of endings. The many introductions and endings indicate that the main story did not have enough content for the film, or that the creative team had a middle, but couldn’t figure out how best to begin or wrap up the content.
The Golden Groundhog Ceremony
Cue red carpet music. Turn on the spotlight. Brush up on your What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking if you need to get a refresher.
Films made by Christians should take risks. 1/2
I’m giving Kirk half a golden groundhog for this. He’s the only Christian I know in his genre, he made a film about an issue inside the church, and he portrayed jolly old St. Nick in a brawling pub fight. Credit where credit is due: he’s got his view of the world and he’s not afraid to say it. Yet he chose a relatively safe topic, one where he will get a lot of support from his base, and he’s starting to settle into a particular style.
Films made by Christians should challenge the audience. 0
Kirk’s audience is primarily Christians, and most of them are in agreement with him. I’ve gone back and forth on this point, and I can’t sincerely give Kirk a groundhog for this one. The film reinforces concepts that the audience is convinced of for the most part. Perhaps this will motivate some to think twice about their lack of joy and glorify Jesus more in December and all year round. I hope so.
Art is art, the pulpit is the pulpit. 0
Unfortunately, this genre will almost always fail on this point. I’d love to see Kirk keep perfecting this as he improves his craft—not removing the truth from his work, but crafting his presentation of that truth to make it more powerful and more poignant.
Films made by Christians should raise important questions. 1/2
How we worship God as a body of believer’s is one of the most important questions we should think about. How we glorify Him with our lives is another. Who Jesus is, what He has done for us, and how we should respond to His wonderful kindness are also excellent questions discussed in the course of the film. However, the core moral predicament of the film seems contrived.
Christian films should tell good stories. 0
The film told several stories. A scrooge’s redemption, the nativity, a vignette of Christmas tree shoppers, a retelling of the St. Nick myth, and the various quirky scenes at a Christmas party. As a filmmaker, I wish I could say that these stories moved me emotionally. Unfortunately, most of the interesting stories were unessential to the actual plot, and the creative team could have told all the stories in more engaging and creative ways.
So did this film change me profoundly? I wish it had. If you read this, Kirk, and I hope you do, here’s what would have made this film more profound to me.
First, I would use less slow motion. You don’t want to get rid of it entirely, because you have a look to maintain and it is kinda cool. But I would only focus on a few key moments when you really want to bring home a concept… and let those moments be the times that we slow down and linger.
Second, let Christian be the main character and the Arius guy be the villain. I like you, Kirk, as sage, but a sage never works very well as the protagonist. A sage is too knowledgeable and doesn’t change enough over the course of a story. In contrast Christian exhibits the most powerful character arch, but I would love to have him come face to face with the real antagonist lurking behind the scenes. Also, concepts have consequences: I would love to see his choices lead to something beyond mere hurt feelings. If the men cause harm because of their beliefs or lack thereof, or rise above the harm that they have caused, we have the makings of a more sympathetic hero and better interplay between the major concepts.
Third, I would include more concepts. I would present more of the real problems that Christians have with Christmas, and find more and better ways to deal with those problems. This would call for more time in the script stage and in preproduction. But the more time spent crafting our content before we roll film the better.
Thanks for listening to me, Kirk, and whoever else reads this. I can’t wait to see your next film. I love the way you strive to lift up Jesus. Keep serving God. I’m rooting for you.
Matthew Sample II is a digital illustrator who likes, makes, and supports Christian film. In his spare time he writes a graphic novel which he will someday share with the eager world. If you want to see some of his artwork, check out his blog or his sketch club. If you want to argue with him about movies or Christmas, feel free to connect with him via Facebook or Twitter.