Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast Episode 6 • The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

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In the sixth episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast, we look at 2017’s The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, directed by Dallas Jenkins (What If?), written by Andrea Gyertson Nasfell, and starring Brett Dalton (Agents of SHIELD), Anjelah Johnson-Reyes (Bon Qui Qui), Neil Flynn (Scrubs), D.B. Sweeney (Taken 2), and former WWF celebrity Shawn Michaels.

The Resurrection of Gavin Stone is a comedy about a washed-up former child star who is forced to do community service at a local megachurch, and pretends to be a Christian to land the part of Jesus in their annual Passion Play, only to discover that the most important role of his life is far from Hollywood.

In this episode, we review the film (how many golden groundhogs did it get?) as well as look at the state of comedy in faith based filmmaking. Also, we uncover a brilliant metaphor for the state of faith based filmmaking hidden in the scenes of Gavin Stone. 

You can listen to this episode as well as other great podcasts by visiting the More Than One Lesson website.

And oh! You can also read an interview I conducted with screenwriter Andrea Gyertson Nasfall after her last big comedy, Mom’s Night Out by clicking here.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In. Your. Life.

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

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

Something didn’t make sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David and Goliath • Thimblerig’s Review

Three things I liked about David and Goliath

1. The audacity of it.

photo from Wikipedia

(photo from Wikipedia)

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

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

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

2.  Miles Sloman’s performance as David.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Main Critique of David and Goliath

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this was supposed to be the climax?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  The homage to Young Frankenstein

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

Specifically, horse whinnies.

Let me explain.

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

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

And over.  And over.

Again and again.

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

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

What happened to the horses?

2.  The economic use of horses

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

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

And we all know how well that worked for Lucas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And over.

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And again.

goliathe

And over again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that would be a good movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christian Responses to Secular Film Reviews • What NOT To Do

War-Room_300Specifically, War Room.

Mostly unedited comments from alleged Christians to a critical review of War Room. Follow the link above to read the review and see the comments in all of their glory.

“This review is laughable in it’s hatred of Christians and by the numbers, people are fed up with anti-Christian bigotry.”

“If you are unable to set aside your own beliefs and base the movie off of its own merrits, you should not be reviewing movies.”

“I never listen to reviews like this for a valid opinion about a film. Do you know why? Because any film review that talks about the evangelical agenda has an agenda of its own which is anti-faith and anti-God.”

“I hope [the reviewer] has the courage to challenge the God he will not follow to see how He responds to an honest, open-minded and humble seeker”

“The Godless in Hollywood hate that anything that pushes back on their statist agenda is more than welcomed by the general American public.”

“I am not surprised by your Hollywood critique of War Room.”

To the reviewer: “…all you’ve got is name-calling, slander, maligning, gossip, trash-talking and other sins of your tongue, which is the only obviously remaining weapon of a godless, atheistic lost sinner with no real weapons.”

“I only logged on to this to see what the guy had to say. He is a non-believer. What do you expect? … As for the reviewer . . . throw a rock into a pack of dogs. Who yelps?”

“To a spiritually dead, hollow progressive this film is an affront to the pathetic lackluster purposeless life that their 5star reviews cater to.”

“The lost in our midst need to see this movie.”

“This Critic… is a moron.”

“What part of “made $11 million the first weekend with a $3 million
budget” did you miss?”

“Predictable bigoted review. Try some Preparation H for your butt-hurt…”

“Don’t hide behind your silly claim that you are some kind of movie critic. If you don’t like such movies, don’t go. Your loss. I wonder if you go to church regularly (not too busy are you?)”

“It’s disgusting how the blogosphere conspires to bash Christian movies. You don’t want to see a faith-based movie? Don’t buy a ticket for one.”

“The entire problem with Hollywood is that they are accepting on everything EXCEPT faith based films. If they would have an open mind and actually watch the film for what it is & do away with all of the vulgarrities & sexual story lines, there would be a major change in Americas society!”

Some random thoughts after wading through the morass of that comment page.

1) Christian commenters, you complain about a Hollywood anti-Christian bias, and then you go and act like this? Are you familiar with the term, “self-fulfilling prophesy”?

Internet Christian Living 101:  The comments you make on websites like this will either draw people closer to Christ or push them away. The truth of the matter is that if I wasn’t a Christian, most of the comments on the page I referenced would make me glad that I wasn’t, and would push me further away.

Christians, remember James 3:7-12, and replace “tongue” with “keyboard”, and you’ll get the idea.

2) Yes, a Christian-made film has made it to the #1 place in the box office, and if that makes you proud, then you also have to be prepared for that film to be disliked and even trashed by secular critics. That’s a part of the game. This is even more relevant for reviews written about movies aimed at the evangelical Christian audience, and not necessarily because of a religious bias (although that certainly exists).

Rather, I contend that the negative reviews are written because our films generally don’t hold up to the best of Hollywood standards. They just don’t. You can deny that, or you can encourage filmmakers to up their game, but until the quality of our films change, they will continue to be critically reviewed.

And it will continue to not be pretty.

4cfdefdc-5bc2-4281-9d00-7b9135a2cd40-Inez-Harrell3) The comment, “It’s a film made for Christians, so what did the reviewer expect?” holds absolutely no water. War Room is a Sony Pictures production, not a Sherwood Baptist production. It was released by a secular film studio into a thousand secular theaters, marketed for release by a secular marketing company, advertised on secular television, websites, and newspapers.

We didn’t seem to have a problem with any of that, but for some reason, when a secular reviewer gives a negative review of the film, we have fits of righteous indignation?

Brothers and sisters, if we’re going to run with the big dogs, we have to be willing to suffer a nip here and there. And if we can’t handle the idea that our films might be critically reviewed by secular critics, then we should consider pulling out of the secular film business altogether and only show our movies in churches and summer camps.

4) I am more concerned that an apparetly non-Christian reviewer would have such a visceral negative reaction to our films than I am that they write about that visceral negative reaction. What happened to being a “pleasing aroma”?

5) Along those lines, if you are one of the people who is impressed by the box office returns of War Room, imagine the box office if the Kendrick brothers weren’t satisfied to only make message movies aimed at the evangelical audience. Imagine if they intentionally made movies that attracted people outside the Christian subculture, and didn’t simply see them only as collateral damage. Imagine the box office, and not only that – imagine the potential eternal gains.

It kind of blows the mind.

Next movie, maybe?

#5) Finally, brother and sister Christian, don’t attack critics. Just don’t. You have no idea how stupid it makes all of us look, and how unappealing it makes the Christian faith appear to be. Engage critics in friendly discourse, argue points of good filmmaking, permit them their own opinion, but stop using the review’s comment section to question the critic’s eternal destination or to preach Scripture at them.

Just stop, I beg you.

Christians, we need to grow up and do better. Believe it or not, the world is watching.

Incidentally, the same reviewer also gave Fifty Shades of Grey an abysmal review. You don’t find the comment section of that review filled with angry messages from BDSM fans, or even fans of the books.

maxresdefaultThings that make you go “hmmm”…

Update:

It made me sad to watch this video with the guys at Collider.com, and especially to hear John Campea’s reasoning for not reviewing faith-based films – at least partially because he didn’t want to open himself to the kind of negativity he saw on the Cinemablend review.

And if any of those original commenters on that original review of War Room happen to read this, I hope that you feel plenty ashamed for blackening the name of Christ in the way you responded. Do you realize that people outside the church are talking about your misbehavior, and it’s not in a way that is bringing glory to God in any way, shape, or form?

I think it’s time you go into your War Room and repent, brothers and sisters. And I don’t mean any of that ironically.

A Ragamuffin’s Review of Ragamuffin

I finally had the opportunity to watch Ragamuffin, David Leo Schultz’s Rich Mullins biopic, over the weekend.  As any regular reader of this blog should know, I’ve been a self-proclaimed ragamuffin for many years now, and so I’ve been highly anticipating this film for months.  This is going to be a very honest and open critique, because I personally appreciate when a review of Thimblerig’s Ark is honest and critical in a positive way.  I am going to do the same for Ragamuffin, in the off chance that the review might make its way back to the filmmakers, in hopes that it might encourage them, and be a benefit in their next cinematic outing.

My review of Ragamuffin can’t begin without my mentioning the enormous amount of respect I have for David Leo Schultz, for the vision, passion, and endurance he brought to this project.  It’s appropriate that Schultz’s film company is called The Color Green, not only because of the Mullins reference, but also because this was a grass roots project from the get-go.  It is inspiring to see what he and his team accomplished, starting from an inspired idea, bringing it to fruition in a very professionally made, beautifully shot film.   You can read a great interview with David here, that gives more depth to the choices he made with this film.

RichRagamuffin chronicles the life of Rich Mullins, the outspoken singer/songwriter who worked (reluctantly) in the Christian music industry for several years in the 80’s and 90’s until his untimely death in a jeep accident on September 19, 1997.  With his open and authentic personality, his propensity to speak truth to power, and his bare footed concerts, Mullins made a huge impact on young Christians at that time.  You can read about an encounter I had with Mullins on a previous post here, but suffice it to say that he was a huge influence on my life as well.

I’d rather not take the time to summarize the events of the film, as I’m figuring most people who have read this far have actually seen Ragamuffin.  I’d rather just go ahead and speak specifically to the things that I thought were done well with this film, and the things I think could have done better.  But I want to preface this with the confession that it would have been nearly impossible for me to approach a biopic about Rich Mullins with no preconceptions, and without seeing it as a creative myself, imagining what I would have kept, and what I would have done differently, if I had been making this film.

That being said, let me start with the things I enjoyed about Ragamuffin.

1)  The passion of David Leo Schultz. 

I’ve mentioned this already, but I don’t think I can say enough how much admire that Schultz successfully took his vision from his imagination to the screen, against all odds.  He had to convince Rich’s family, his friends, raise the funds, put together the cast and crew, and then he took it out – church by church, just like Rich used to do.  I hope that everything else I say in this review will be seen through that lens of respect and admiration.

Screenshot from Ragamuffin

Screenshot from Ragamuffin

2)  The cinematography of Ryan Bodie. 

When I think of Rich and his music, one thing I think of is wide open spaces, and this film had no shortage of beautiful shots of windswept wheat fields, dusty plains, and stunning desert vistas.  Another great image is the swinging light bulb which we see first when young Rich has messed up his father’s tractor, and which comes to represent the broken relationship between Rich and his father.   For some reason, this technique made me think of the video for one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs, Hold Me, Jesus.

3)  The Evolution of Awesome God.  

I like the way we were teased with the development of this, by far the most well-known of Rich’s songs.  It was a good reminder that as talented a songwriter may be, songs take time, and often will sit at the edge of inspiration, just waiting for the right spark to be pushed over the edge.

4)  The choice of the father/son relationship as the anchor of the film.  

You can see threads of this relationship woven through many of Rich’s songs, and considering David Mullin’s involvement in the film (Rich’s brother), I have to presume that the portrayal was fairly accurate, if not perhaps heightened for dramatic effect.  Either way, Rich loved his father, admired his father, longed for his father’s acceptance, but didn’t feel it.  The film handles this nicely, and the resolution of the issue is what enables the film to end with Rich at peace.

5)  The unapologetically real portrayal of a famous Christian man who had very real struggles.  

The movie effectively hit three of the points I made in my article, What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking.  In that article, I said Christians should be freed to make movies that are not safe, movies that challenge the audience, and movies that ask difficult questions.  Ragamuffin certainly did these things in spades, and David Leo Schultz couldn’t have made an authentic movie about Rich Mullins without them.  I didn’t like seeing Rich smoking and getting drunk, but those struggles were a part of his life and needed to shown or the film wouldn’t have been authentically Rich’s life.  I think this was mostly effective because the filmmakers didn’t  glorify the struggles, and I doubt that anyone walked out of Ragamuffin thinking that they wanted to emulate those parts of Rich’s life.  I’ve struggled with addictions myself, and I found strength and comfort while watching Rich’s struggle.

6.  Rich making it rain in a concert.

I was so glad to see this included.  This was one of my best memories from seeing Rich in a big concert.  And, in the film, it was one of the rare times when Rich actually looked like he was having a blast.  Very, very cool that it was included.

Thus ends the part of the review when I discussed the things I liked.  Now to the things I wished had been different…

1)  Michael Koch as Rich Mullins.  

Koch did fine with the acting, and progressively well with the singing and playing, but I just couldn’t buy him as Mullins, as much as I wanted to, until the last thirty minutes.  I didn’t – by any stretch of the imagination – expect Schulz to seek out a Mullins doppleganger, but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the actor playing Rich being this big, buff, handsome man.  On the outside, Rich was incredibly average, which made the deep power of his words and his songs and his story that much more powerful.  Every time I saw Koch’s broad shoulders squeezed into that white t-shirt, I thought he was much better suited to play Superman, not the everyman who was Rich Mullins.

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.45.05 PM

2)  The nearly complete lack of joy.  

This was also something I had couldn’t overcome.  My limited experience with Rich Mullins was that he was a man who had his struggles, yes, but he was also a wickedly funny man with an often surprisingly sharp sense of humor.  This was part of the reason why he had young men like myself willing to drop everything to be around him!  Yes, he was wise and deep in his understanding of God.  Yes, he struggled with his personal demons.  But this is also the man who wrote a song referring to God as the maker of noses; who wondered if the little girls giggled when the young Jesus walked past; who considered the story of Rachel and Leah an awfully dirty trick.  This is the man who put the cup game on stage long before Anna Kendrick did it in Pitch Perfect.  The real irony for me in this is that director David Leo Schultz got his start as a comedian, and he somehow made Rich Mullins seem like he was only a tortured soul.  That is perhaps the biggest pity of all to me.

3)  The egocentricity of Rich Mullins.

I want to be careful about how I write this section, because the truth is I didn’t know Rich past the one time I met him with several other guys, but it really bothered me that Rich was so Rich-centric in the film, which made him pretty unlikable.  For example, did Rich really use the occasion of singing in a church to make the public decision that he was going to go to Nashville?  While Rich may have come to Morris’s Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.51.45 PMfuneral drunk, did he really come back into the room later to talk to the son of the man who died and use the occasion to only talk about himself?  Did Rich really insist that the young men who toured with him inform him on every little move that they made?  The answer to all of these questions might just be an unreserved “YES!  He did all of those things!”  But I have a real difficult time aligning the Rich Mullins of Ragamuffin with the Rich Mullins I came to know through music, interviews, and my one meeting over cake and Koolaid.

4)  Miscellaneous nit-picky things.  

These are smaller items, but they did detract from the film for me.  First, I didn’t buy the way the father cussed.  It seemed forced.  Second, Rich’s hair changed in illogical ways throughout the course of the film.  I do know that Rich had several different looks, but this came across more as an issue of when certain scenes were filmed rather than an attempt to convey different looks.  Third, I’m not a fan of narration in film, and I think the film would have been tighter if it had just been straight up narrative.

In Conclusion…

While I am genuinely happy that this film was made, while I know that it has touched many people in profound ways, and while I think that it was a giant leap forward in many ways for films made by Christians, it just wasn’t the film that I had hoped it would be.

Like I said at the top of this review, I approached this film with so many of my own thoughts about the life of Rich Mullins that David Leo Schultz had a pretty tall order to not disappoint me.  In many ways, this reminds me of when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out, and people had nearly twenty years of anticipation built up.  How could Lucas not disappoint?

And so Ragamuffin receives three very solid golden groundhogs for being a risky film that challenges its audience and asks some hard questions. But it loses two golden groundhogs because it is so obviously made for the church that I don’t think it would play well out of the Christian subculture, and – in my opinion – while Rich Mullins’ story is compelling, Ragamuffin could have benefitted from a bit more script doctoring to make the story tighter, especially in the second act, which seemed to drag.

Golden Groundhogs