I attended a promotional screening of Courageous with my wife and parents. As we were walking into the theater lobby following the screening, my 74-year-old mom gushed, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen!” When I followed up with a couple of rather surprised questions, she allowed that it was merely the best movie she’d seen in a long, long time. But still: this is the woman who dragged my siblings and me to see Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Fiddler on the Roof, The Ten Commandments, West Side Story, The Sting, Patton, Tora Tora Tora!, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins—even William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. So it’s not like her tastes run to the lowbrow. Take that endorsement as you will.
More Than an Emotional Appeal
The emphasis in the documentary 58: Movie is not on how unfortunate much of the world’s population is, nor on how selfish and decadent much of the West is. While the bulk of the film is spent with a single mother of four in Ethiopia, an Indian family in debt bondage, and on the streets of Nairobi, the appeal is not primarily emotional. It’s rational, based both on a sound analysis of the issues that Jesus stands squarely for in Scripture and hard facts about trends in infant mortality rates and poverty levels. In fact, when the film features Dr. Scott Todd of Compassion International summarizing both the challenge and the potential for success, the film crosses completely out of the realm of the emotional and into the matter-of-fact.
Grinches Need Not Apply
“Dolphin Tale is polished, inspiring, and moving. It seems there’s almost always room in our world for cynicism, but this film just about squeezes it all out.” That’s the post-screening blurb I fed the publicists who shepherded me and a dozen or so other journalists through the press junket for Dolphin Tale in Clearwater Florida, the home of Winter—the disabled dolphin who is the subject of the film. And I can tell you precisely the moment it won me over, completely. I won’t, though, as it might spoil that magical sequence for you. But go see the film, and I bet you a fin you can pick out that scene in a heartbeat. It’s an inspired, thrilling bit of filmmaking that invokes Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion.
A Talk With Charles Martin Smith
“Ultimately what moves us is people,” says Charles Martin Smith, the director of Dolphin Tale. “Having grown up with an artist as a father, I was always fascinated by the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists—and the difference between the ones who concentrated on landscapes, and the ones who felt like there was nothing worth painting except humans. You know, the people who did portraits: Toulouse Lautrec’s studies, and Degas: how they would study people, and what they were like, as opposed to the others who were doing landscapes, largely. Which is more valid? I don’t know; they’re both valid, I suppose. But it’s the connection between the two that I find the most interesting.”
Courageous Director Goes All Out
“In this movie, Courageous,” says director, co-writer, and star Alex Kendrick, “there are five fathers who all take the same pledge, and not all of them turn out well. At the end of the movie, some turn out terrible. Some are in transition, and some make horrible decisions and have to face the consequences of their decisions. So I don’t think anyone will say of this movie, ‘Everything’s tied up in a nice, neat bow.’ But with God, all things are still going to be possible. He’s going to be able to do miraculous things, even if they’re in the heart. You’ve got to find that balance.”
Don't Miss It
The beauty with which Landon’s camera captures Hickory Hollow and its people is so loving as to be a very, very weak indictment of Amish faith and values. Sure, Katie may look hip tripping down a city street in designer-store clothes to a pop-rock soundtrack—but does anyone actually think that the city is a more attractive place to live? Landon’s film, at the very least, doesn’t seem to find much beauty there. I’ll go out on a limb here and postulate that the team assembled by the film’s producers yielded a unique chemistry—which in turn sparked a compelling and remarkable film. I wouldn’t say it moved me—but it held me. And you know I’m not exactly the film’s target demographic.
In the Rough
While Skellenger successfully assembles a completed film with his low-budget cast and sets—which is by no means an insignificant accomplishment, by the way—the end product never really develops a personality or rhythm. When the work on the pre-production end is unpolished, the product will likely be unpolished, too. Anyone remember the original version of Flywheel, for instance? Still, More Than Diamonds doesn’t demonstrate the same kind thematic potential that Flywheel did. In part, that’s because Skellenger is aiming for a light, quasi-comedic tone for this family film while the folks at Sherwood were aiming for profundity. Diamonds, by comparison, is a simple story about a family finding its way through the wake of tragedy… and about kids having fun with a mystery.
You can understand the appeal of the film’s story and script, as Isaiah Washington plays a priest with a suspect past… and has been reassigned to a boarding school with what we can only assumed is a history of pedophilia. The best part is that, without even having screened the film, you know it’s going to take seriously the problem of sexual abuse in the Church. And the film lives up to that expectation. Where the film missteps, though, is that it’s made primarily from an evangelical point of view while being set in a Catholic boarding school—which makes it kind of a case of the pot trying to be all serious and stuff about the kettle’s problems, if you know what I mean.
God in the Headlights
I can’t imagine Bartlett being satisfied with a $4 million or $12 million version of this film. The style and subject matter are ideally matched to its budget… and this is a film that Bartlett’s idols would, I think, admire—for its trueness to life, its passion, its resolute artiness, its humanity, and its understanding of emotion and the artistic impulse. This is a ultimately a cosmic love story—not only about “the lost and lonely, and their late-night ways,” as Nick Lowe put it, but about how love works its way out in a divine and mysterious fashion. It’s easy to think that God has it out for us, and that Free Will is a sham, when there really is a grand design behind it all.
Plants Its Feet Firmly
Why is it that the Church must leave it to a relatively secular film like Higher Ground to make theologically sound points so beautifully, so reverently, so movingly? Christian-market films insistently, and even stridently and disingenuously, shout, “Come to us! Jesus is the answer—and he’s ours! You can’t have him otherwise!” when the real message should be: “We can help get you started on the path; but you’d best be prepared for a rocky and challenging journey outside these walls—because that’s where Jesus wants to lead you.” While the letter to the Hebrews calls believers outside the walls, it also counsels them not to forsake gathering together, and to be submissive to their leaders. Vera Farmiga’s film understands that paradox.
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