Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week • September 10, 2016

We’re bringing back an old feature of the blog, Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week, where we link to stories from the past few days that Thimblerig finds to be of interest. We hope that you will find them interesting, too!

1. Q&A with Corbin Bernsen and his producing partner as Regent’s movie premieres

ily-webRegent University is premiering its first feature-length film, the faith-based romantic comedy “In-Lawfully Yours”, featuring Corbin Bernsen and written by Act One faculty member Sean Gaffney and Robert Kirbyson, and directed by Kirbyson [edited – thanks, Guy]. This is an interesting project, because it’s a low-budget indie film that is forgoing the theatrical route that so many faith-based films attempt, and releasing initially on Netflix.

It’s fascinating to see the variety of methods low-budget faith-based filmmakers are taking to get eyes on their films. For instance, Lifeway films recently bowed its film, The Insanity of God, on 550 screens for one day, and it was briefly the #1 film in per-theater average. In fact, it did well enough that it will have an encore showing on September 19. 

Other faith-based films have attemped the wide-release route, and with the exception of a couple of break-out hits (War Room, Miracles from Heaven), most have failed to make back their budgets.

The choice to have In-Lawfully Yours only on Netflix is an interesting one, and is quite possibly demonstrating the wave of the future for the faith-based genre of film.

Meanwhile, reading Bernsen’s thoughts on the subject is pretty interesting, so click on over and read what he has to say.

2. Pure Flix brings new titles to TIFF

I’ve been really interested to watch the growth of Pure Flix after the success of God’s Not Dead back in 2014. Previously a middling little independent faith-based film company, they suddenly found themselves sitting on a mound of box office gold when the film wound up pulling in over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales. Since that time, the company has expanded in numerous ways: the Pure Flix home streaming service; the Pure Flix U.S. distribution company (by far the most successful faith-based distributor on the market); and the lesser known Quality Flix, the International Sales and Distribution wing of the company.

The second interesting thing that Thimblerig found this week was a story detailing Pure Flix’s efforts to introduce four films at the Toronto International Film Festival, which could potentially lead to international distribution deals for these four films. The two big pictures Pure Flix is pushing includes the upcoming Hillsong concert documentary, Let Hope Rise, and the drama I’m Not Ashamed, which tells the story of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the victims of the Columbine massacre.

cet6ylnw8aepkn8This story interested Thimblerig because it’s a story about Pure Flix, a faith-based film company, on Screendaily.com, a secular film website. And the story is examining Pure Flix’s distribution efforts as if it were any other film company, and not one that is Christian-owned and operated. The story doesn’t contain any belittling, or any disrespect, or any winks or nudges or “know-what-I-means” – it’s business as usual.

But I thought we were at war?

3. Columbine martyr film seeks bold youth revival

The third interesting thing that Thimblerig found this past week was a story detailing that upcoming Pure Flix film, I’m Not Ashamed.

The film is apparently being released along with some pretty serious ministry efforts, including Pure Flix’s partnership with See You At The Pole and First Priority, all to help mobilize young people to see the film, with the hope of begining a “national movement of youth across the country propelled by the movie.”

This is the truly fascinating part of this faith-based movie push that has been going on for the past couple of years – this mixture of marketing and ministry. Christianity and capitalism.

It works this way: a company like Pure Flix makes a faith-based film and encourages everyone to bring vans full of church and youth groups, which will enable the message of the movie to be seen by thousands, but will also mean thousands of seats sold. The company develops curriculum and ministry resources to help underscore the message of the movie with those thousands, and then sells the curriculum for premium prices (with a few notable exceptions: Captive, 90 Minutes in Heaven, Ben-Hur being three).

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-48-19-pmThis is what continues to flummox me: a faith-based company like Pure Flix has huge financial success, and yet they continue to sell their ministry resources. The Kendrick brothers sell all their resources, too, even if their last movie made over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales.

As an American, I have no problem with this. It’s an example of capitalism at its finest. But as a Christian, it makes me pause. Imagine if Paul had charged the church at Ephesus for his letter? Or if Jesus had charged entry to the Sermon on the Mount? Since when did we become okay with ministry being about profit over being prophetic? Isn’t that at least part of the reason why the Reformation began?

Join Thimblerig next week, when we’ll be back with three new interesting things.

 

 

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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.

Suing the Devil • Thimblerig’s Review • Part 2

For some background, and to see part one of this review, click here.

In anticipation of Tim Chey’s upcoming biblically correct film, David and Goliath, I went in search of a film also made by the filmmaker, hoping to get a sense of his style and personality.  That search led me to Suing the Devil, starring Malcolm McDowell as old Scratch himself.

suing_the_devil_xlg“In the film, Luke O’Brien (Bart Bronsen), a washed-up janitor turned night law student, decides to sue Satan (Malcolm McDowell) for $8 trillion dollars. On the last day before Luke files a default judgment, Satan appears to defend himself. On Satan’s legal team are 10 of the country’s best trial lawyers (Dennis Cole, Jeff Gannon, Annie Lee). The entire world watches Legal TV (Corbin Bernsen, Tom Sizemore, Rebecca St. James) to see who will win the Trial of the Century.”

As I usually do with my film reviews, I will start with what I liked about Suing the Devil, then where I think the filmmakers could have improved, and then I’ll rate the movie according to the Thimblerig Scale, which you can read about here.

But before I do that, here’s the trailer.

What I liked:

1)  The cinematography

I’m happy that this is becoming a fairly constant positive when it comes to my reviews of Christian made films.  Suing the Devil looked quite good, with some interesting camera work, and it was obvious that the filmmakers intended for the film to have a feature film quality feel to it.  For the most part, they succeeded.

2)  The humor

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 5.53.13 PMThe film often had a lightness that the subject matter demanded, keeping it from falling into a completely dark place.  Most of the humor was found in the responses of the Legal TV broadcast, with Corbin Bernsen, Rebecca St. James, and Tom Sizemore reacting to the events of the courtroom, but Satan was given some pretty good lines, too – such as his encounter with the zealous Kiss fan in the trailer.

3)  The earnestness

I’m slowly coming around to appreciate the earnestness of Christian-made films.  Unfortunately, earnestness alone doesn’t help make a film a good film, but as a Christian, I can respect a fellow Christian filmmaker wanting to use his or her opportunity on screen to share the faith.  Suing the Devil, as with most Christian-made films, would have benefited from a healthy dose of subtlety and artistry to make the film more accessible for the non-Christian audience, but the sincerity of the filmmakers wanting to share The Message was evident in this film from start to finish.

4)  Malcolm McDowell

suing-the-devil-09This movie rose and fell on Malcolm McDowell, and he earned whatever sum of money he was paid.  He camped it up where it needed to be camped, and he was suitably intimidating when he needed to intimidate.  I especially thought the monologue about the creation of noise to be especially poignant.

“You know what I created, do you?  I created noise!  And like the dumb idiots you are, you worshipped it!  Humans love the noise I create.  Car alarms, motorcycles, leaf blowers, nightclubs, gangsta rap, techno music, everything that creates noise, I invented.  Noise drowns out any thoughts of God.  (noise erupts in the courtroom)  What’s the matter?  Don’t you love the music of hell?”

I shudder to think how these lines would have been, coming from a lesser actor.

Which brings me to what I didn’t like about Suing the Devil.

1)  The rest of the actors

I’m sorry to say, but it seems like Mr. Chey spent the bulk of his budget on getting Mr. McDowell, Mr. Bernstein, Ms. St. James, and Mr. Sizemore.  While a few of Satan’s lawyers were pretty good, most of the other actors performed on the typical Christian film level, meaning disappointingly.

This actually has me concerned for what we’re going to see from David and Goliath, a film that reportedly has a huge budget of $50 million dollars, but with no known actors in any of the roles.  In fact, looking through the actors’ IMDB pages, most have few acting credits.  Unfortunately, Suing the Devil seems to demonstrate that directing green actors may not be Mr. Chey’s strong suit.

2)  The script

Warning: this paragraph contains a big spoiler.

As disappointed as I was by the acting, my bigger problem with the film was the uneven script, which confused me as to what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish.  Were they trying to make a goofball comedy?  A courtroom drama?  A supernatural horror?  An inspirational evangelistic film?  The different styles were thrown together with such lack of subtlety that it turned out being more jarring than effective cinema.

Much of the script seemed cobbled together from old courtroom drama movies, as if they went through the tropes for courtroom dramas and ticked off the boxes.

angry-judgeAmoral attorney?  Check.

Army of Lawyers?  Check.

Chewbacca defense?  Check.

Crusading Lawyer?  Check.

Evil Lawyer Joke?  Check.

Frivolous Lawsuit?  Check.

Hello, Attorney?  Check.

Hollywood Law?  Check.

Insanity Defense?  Check.

The Judge?  Check.

Occult Law Firm?  Check.

Omnidisciplinary Lawyer?  Check.

Penultimate Outburst?  Check.

Stock Legal Phrases?  Check.

Tort reform?  Check.

And then there were the manufactured moments of triumph that just didn’t make sense (everyone erupting into applause when Luke tells Satan he’s going to hell), the on-the-nose sermonizing in the form of dialogue (Satan: “Do you remember the Garden of Gethsemane?  All the disciples were asleep, and he had no one to turn to.  And he still went through with it!  Unbelievable!”  Luke:  “Yeah, what a great guy.  That’s why I owe him, big.”), the cliche’ lines and expressions (Satan actually cries out, “You can’t handle the truth!” on the stand after a particularly strong bit of questioning.  Since they were filming in Australia, I was surprised that they also didn’t have Satan say, “That’s not a knife.  That is a knife.”)

And then there was the biggest disappointment of all.

The ending.

After winning the court case, defeating Satan by trusting God, Luke wakes up to find that it was all a dream.  He’d fallen asleep in the first minute of the film, and then wakes up at the very end, like George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, transformed because of the events of his dream.

This worked with It’s A Wonderful Life for at least a couple of reasons.  One, Frank Capra spent time setting up why George Bailey needed to be transformed.  When he comes back in the end, we’re relieved, because we were rooting for him.  In Devil, we don’t know anything about Luke, so why should we care if he’s changed?  Two, It’s A Wonderful Life had the nerve to suggest that supernatural powers were at work to teach George Bailey his value.  For some reason, with Suing the Devil, a movie that spent quite a bit of time preaching about the supernatural and God, it all turned out to be a random nightmare.  The film could have benefited from actual supernatural involvement.

Ironically, the filmmakers promoted the film saying, “At a time when only 60% of Christians believe that the devil exists, the film is exposing the devil’s greatest tactic: that he doesn’t exist.”  But that idea is completely destroyed when the entire film turns out to have been a dream.  After all, the film’s Satan was all a product of the main character’s subconscious, speaking to him from a dream.  So, nothing exposed, nothing gained.  Which was a pity.

Would I recommend Suing the Devil?  Sure, why not?  Especially if you are interested to see the really paradoxical image of Malcolm McDowell hamming it up in a Christian-made film.  You might not love the movie, but you may enjoy Mr. McDowell.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for:  The Golden Groundhog Movie Scale, inspired by a blog post I wrote a year ago, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking.  In that blog post, I said that Christian filmmakers needed to do five things so that our filmmaking could have an impact outside the Christian bubble.

Those five things included:

1.  Our films need to take more risks.

On paper, Suing the Devil seems like a risky movie.  The slightly psychotic poster, the idea of a person having the audacity to sue Satan, hiring Malcolm McDowell in the role of Beelzebub, in fact the idea of the movie was enough to get the film listed in Wired Magazine’s 2011 list of 28 Summer Movies That Could Rock Your Summer.

But even with all of that, at it’s heart, the movie is just another safe evangelical film, for the Christian audience.

However, for effort, Thimblerig awards 1/2 a Golden Groundhog.

2.  Our films need to challenge our audience.

Considering that the audience for this film was evangelical Christians, I can’t imagine that they were challenged very much.  An argument could be made that the film challenged lukewarm Christians to consider the reality of Satan being at work in our lives, but the fact that it all turned out to be a dream negated that lesson, in large part.  Even the little whisper from Satan at the end wasn’t enough to recover the challenge.

No Golden Groundhogs.

3.  The pulpit is the pulpit, and art is art, and we need to let them be the two different things that they are – in other words, consider delivering the message subtly rather than having preachy, didactic films.

This film was made for the pulpit.  It’s the kind of movie that would play very well in churches and with youth groups.  The film had two clergymen espouse doctrine from the witness stands, the protagonist and Satan himself quoted Bible verses to prove their arguments, and Hillsong worship songs played in the background.

You can’t get much more “pulpity” than that.

No Golden Groundhogs.

4.  Our films shouldn’t give all the answers.

Suing the Devil did not leave any question unanswered, because all the questions were negated when it all turned out to be a dream.  If it hadn’t been a dream, there could have been some questions to be answered – what happened with Luke’s strangely southern-accented cancer-stricken wife?  How did the devil handle his defeat?

But thanks to that whole dream conceit, no Golden Groundhogs.

5.  We are beholden to tell good stories.

Again, this film had the potential to be a good story, but pulled apart at the seams with each passing minute.  However, for having the nerve to try and tell such an audacious story, I would award it half a golden groundhog.

1/2 a Golden Groundhog.

Final tally:  1 out of 5 Golden Groundhogs.

In conclusion, while I admire Tim Chey’s ability to raise large sums of money for his productions, while he seems to be the kind of person I would enjoy spending time with in real life, and while I appreciate that he has managed to produce, write, and/or direct multiple films, Suing the Devil did not make me a fan of his directing, for the reasons listed above.

Where does this leave me, as far as David and Goliath is concerned?   For what it’s worth, the good news for the filmmakers is that I’ve got nowhere to go but up, with regards to my expectations.  As is usually the case when it comes to the Christian-made films, I have the highest hopes that the film will surprise me, but realistic expectations that it will not.

Finally, I hope the fact that I wrote this review doesn’t make me come across as a jealous or carnal Christian (see part 1 of this review to see why I say this).  If it does, however, then I’ll just rest in the satisfaction that my salvation doesn’t rest in whether or not I like Tim Chey’s films, but in the redemptive and finished work of my Savior on the cross.

This post is a part of my 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media Challenge, where I’m doing my best to consume nothing but Christian media.  This has led me to make some good Christian media discoveries, as well as some real clunkers.

Day 17 down.

Some trivia about Suing the Devil:

Shortly before the film was released on DVD, there was a mad rush on pirated downloads of the film, with over 100,000 illegal downloads of Suing the Devil happening over the course of two days.  When the producers of the film contacted Piratebay and asked them to remove the film from their servers, Piratebay refused, and then their IMDB page was hit by a rush of negative reviews, apparently in retaliation.  Of course, this also gave the filmmakers some bragging rights, that their movie had been illegally downloaded that many times, to the point that they released a press releases telling the story.  No such thing as bad press, right?

Second bit of trivia about Suing the Devil:

In an example of life imitating art, Tim Chey sued Netflix for $10 million dollars for not making Suing the Devil available on www.netflix.com.  Mr. Chey claimed that Netflix had committed “the most egregious act ever committed by a film distributor.”  Unfortunately, the story didn’t end happily for Mr. Chey, as the suit was dismissed by the U.S. district court judge overseeing the case.