Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas • Thimblerig’s Review

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

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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.

0157411f0d7cdbe4622494a77e435247He 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.

Kirk-Cameron_Santa-Saving-Christmas

 

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.

Conclusions

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.

Golden Groundhogs Saving Christmas

166332_1723873691747_2945331_nMatthew 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.

 

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The Depressingly Low Expectations Of Christian Filmgoers

This morning Darren Doane, the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, posted the following tweet:

https://twitter.com/TheDoane/status/535594602338983937

What’s happening for Doane and Cameron’s movie at Rotten Tomatoes is similar to what you’ll find if you look at many of the recently released so-called faith-based films: extremely low critic ratings and unreasonably high audience ratings. Let’s look at some of the results of other Christian-made films:

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What exactly is going on?

Is there a secular critic bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, it will be treated differently than a movie of a different genre?

Even if the movie is brilliant, it will not get a fair shake?

Is there a faith-based audience bias out there that says if a film is released with a hint of “faith-based”, the quality of the movie will be given a free pass as long as it portrays Christians in a good light, talks positively about Jesus, or has Scripture passages used in a semi-appropriate fashion?

Even if the movie is terrible, it will be received positively if it meets the criteria?

Personally, I think there is a bit of both going on.  Yes, there are secular critics who will not approach a Christian film without adding the caveat, “…for a Christian film”.   But one hopes that a critic will be able to separate that particular bias from what they experience on the screen and write a candid review that explores the positives and the negatives of the film.

And yes, there are plenty of Christians who will gladly support anything as long as what they are seeing on the screen reinforces or promotes what they already believe.  Thus you have hundreds of positive reviews on the Left Behind website from ordinary people who make the movie sound like the best film ever made, rather than the enormous cinematic shamble that it was.

But critic bias is by far the less alarming and less surprising issue of the two on the table.  I’m much more disturbed by the way so many Christians will line up around the block to embrace any movie that builds up their worldview – regardless of the film’s quality.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that many Christians have become so needy to see their points of view on the screen that they’ve become blind to what makes for a quality film at all.  At least that seems to be the case, considering the way we rally behind so many poor filmmaking efforts, treating them like the best thing since the last poor filmmaking effort.

Yep.  Our expectations have grown depressingly low.

There has been a two-pronged effect on Christian-made films that I see as a direct result of the low expectations of the target audience.

First, the low expectations force the filmmakers to sacrifice good storytelling on the alter of hitting all the right beats to please the Christian audience.  I’ve discussed this point before, in my article What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking, so I will move on to the second point.

Second, the low expectations damage our potential to be taken seriously by people outside the church, as they see us vehemently defending films that are so badly produced.

Our films are not taken seriously.  

What did George Costanza say about Christian rock on Seinfeld?  “I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.”

If George were still around today, he might also say, “I like Christian films.  They’re positive.  They’re not like those real films…”

We did it to ourselves with a Christian music industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, we did it to ourselves with a Christian publishing industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture, and now we’re trying to do it to ourselves again by building a Christian filmmaking industry supported exclusively by the Christian sub-culture.

And it’s a huge mistake.

This “circle the wagons” mentality does little to help with building the kingdom of God, but does much for building up walls between the church and the greater culture.

In his Salon article entitled, Christian right’s vile PR sham: why their bizarre films are backfiring on them, writer Edwin Lyngar says some pretty damning things about what is happening in American culture as a result of this past year’s Christian filmmaking efforts.  Lyngar says:

The people who create and consume Christian film are neither mature nor reflective. They are at their core superstitious, afraid and tribal. They self-identify overwhelmingly Republican and shout about “moochers” while vilifying the poor. They violate the teachings and very essence of their own “savior” while deriving almost sexual pleasure from the fictional suffering of atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Hindus, and even liberal Christians. To top it all off, the stories they tell themselves are borderline psychotic.

Is this what it means to be salt and light to a dying world, that the followers of Christ come off as ‘neither mature nor reflective’?  That we’re seen as ‘superstitious, afraid and tribal’?  That our stories are viewed as ‘borderine psychotic’?  I realize that this is just one man’s opinion, but I don’t think we Christians can afford to dismiss opinions like his, because I don’t believe that his opinion is so uncommon.

And it all comes back to the depressingly low expectations that we have for the art being produced by us, for us, and in our name.

The irony is that Christians would be the first to stand up and say, “High expectations breed high results, and low expectations breed low results!” with regards to most things in life:

Education?  Aren’t Christians known for homeschooling our kids because we have high expectations for their education?

Employment?  Aren’t Christian employers known for holding employees to higher standards?

Ministry?  Aren’t we disappointed when people in positions of ministerial authority don’t live up to our high expectations?

And yet when it comes to filmmaking – as evidenced by the overwhelming support given to many of the not-so-great faith-based films that were released this past year – our expectation for quality Christian art is shockingly low.

And it just doesn’t make sense.

Meanwhile, not only was the director of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas out this morning stumping on the social media platforms for people to speak out at RT, but the man himself, Kirk Cameron, posted this on his Facebook page:

 

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I can appreciate the grass roots campaigning of Cameron and Doane, and I haven’t had the chance to see Saving Christmas yet to speak to the movie one way or the other, but what about this…

What if – instead of just flocking to a film’s Rotten Tomato page and putting up happy reviews to support the filmmakers – we showed that we have the capability to use our higher order thinking skills, and write critically honest reviews that discuss both the good and the bad about the film?

What if – instead of just flocking to the Facebook pages of filmmakers who believe the way we believe and gushing about how much we love their movies, or flaming about how much we disliked the movies, as the case may be – we do the same thing and give them constructive feedback so that they can improve the next time out?

What if Christians do the really heavy lifting and raise the bar on our expectations for films made in our name, helping our filmmakers by expecting them to make great movies that even the secular critics would have a hard time dismissing?

Folks, unless we start to adjust our expectations, unless we break the model set for us by the music and publishing industry, unless we start doing our best to pursue excellence in the films we are allowing to be produced in our name, we might very well find Mr. Lyngar’s heartbreaking prophecy coming true.

The fundamentalist community will continue to shrink until they start telling themselves—and those they hope to win over—more honest and humane stories… Christian film with its cardboard characters and heavy-handed messages will only drive an increasingly diverse and media-savvy populace away. Failing a profound change of heart, the best this community can hope for are films so bad no one will bother to watch them.