Category Archives: Movies

God’s Not Dead, The Apostle, and Deathbed Conversion Scenes

It’s a classic trope of any story targeted to a Christian audience: the conversion scene. Most commonly, the film saves it for the climax, when the hardened atheist or the back-slidden Christian relents and turns his life over to Christ. Recently, the movie God’s Not Dead took this trope one further and made it a deathbed conversion scene. When the atheist villain is hit by a car, a conveniently on-hand pastor prays with him to accept Christ.  In my review of the film, this scene was one of the things I criticized about it. Sure, it could have been worse, but it still felt forced and rushed. This is a common problem with this type of scene (made worse in this particular case by bad editing).

However, it doesn’t always have to be that way. Through the years, a handful of authors and screenwriters have found ways to craft conversion scenes that are technically well executed, unforced and authentically moving.

One example comes from The Apostle, actor Robert Duvall’s passion project. While Duvall is certainly no Christian saint, his film engages Christian culture in an insightful, respectful way and is a true artistic tour de force, made all the more impressive since he wrote and directed it himself. Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher named Sonny, who has his share of besetting character flaws but appears sincere in his drive to serve God. Early in the film, he encounters a young couple in a rural car accident—the girl probably dead, the boy barely alive. Somehow, he manages to slip inside the perimeter unnoticed and deliver an impassioned prayer over them. If Sonny’s behavior elsewhere in the film justly raises some eyebrows, it’s still worth noting that he couldn’t have anything but pure motives in this scene. Think about it: What does this dying couple have to offer him? Absolutely nothing. A charlatan wouldn’t waste any time praying over them, because they would be of no use to him. (But I digress. I do highly recommend the film as a whole, which provides much food for thought to the discerning viewer.)

Both of these scenes are on Youtube, so I’d like to put them side by side here and make a few comments about why the scene from The Apostle works, and the scene from God’s Not Dead needs work. First, the God’s Not Dead scene:

First of all, notice the exaggerated slow-motion effect coupled with a bird’s-eye view at the moment the professor is hit. This sort of cheesy, attention-grabbing device takes the viewer out of the film, rather than drawing him in. Having it begin to rain at the instant before the professor starts to cross the street is another example of a dramatic crutch. If your scene is dramatic enough to stand on its own, it doesn’t need the help of the weather.

Another problem here is that the writing is very wordy. Both the pastor and the professor are talking too much. In particular, speaking is so painful for the professor that he should realistically be doing a lot less of it. The dialogue feels like an excuse to squeeze in as many sermon illustrations as possible.

Not shown in this clip is one of my main problems with the scene’s construction, and that’s the cringeworthy editing on its buildup and immediate aftermath. Both are very distractingly intercut with a Newsboys concert, which gives the audience whiplash and fails to establish or maintain the proper tone. And in a moment from that aftermath, the pastor’s African missionary friend smiles and even gives a hearty laugh when he receives his “God’s not dead” text. Yes, I get his explanation that the atheist’s conversion is a cause for rejoicing in heaven, but psychologically, it just rings false for someone to bounce back so quickly from the shock of witnessing such a grim scene.

Now, watch the scene from The Apostle:

I’d like to touch on just a few of the ways this scene sidesteps common “conversion scene” cliches. First of all, what do you notice about the music in the background? That’s right… there isn’t any! Well, except for the car radio at the very beginning, which is a very chilling and effective touch. Of course, the boy would have no strength to turn it off. Notice how this arises naturally from the moment and immediately puts the viewer in the scene, by contrast with God’s Not Dead‘s puzzling, heavy-handed inter-cutting of the Newsboys concert. Notice too that the weather is beautifully clear and still. This creates contrast, which is far more interesting than forcing the weather to match the mood.

Also, while you could argue that a college professor would have more to think and say than a highschool kid under these circumstances, the boy’s whispered, one-word responses certainly seem more like what I would expect from someone on the brink of death. This adds to the scene’s realism. And while Sonny is full of calm conviction, at no point does his attitude seem to trivialize the gravity of the moment, either here or as he is walking away from the scene.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the verse Sonny quotes at the very beginning as he raises his hands over the car. It’s a powerfully applicable verse, but it’s one you hardly ever hear, from the book of Ezekiel: “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.” But Sonny knows his Bible forward and back. Obscure Old Testament verses leap to his mind like breathing in and breathing out. Think about how much less effective it would have been for him to quote John 3:16, as great as that verse is.

Of course, the elephant in the room here is Robert Duvall’s acting and Sonny’s lyrical, Pentecostal speaking style. For sheer dramatic power, the combination pretty much blows anything away by comparison. This, in fairness, I cannot fault God’s Not Dead for, since their pastor obviously comes from a very different preaching background and realistically can’t be expected to sound as impressive as Sonny. I also can’t blame actor David A. R. White for not being Robert Duvall, because nobody is Robert Duvall. (Like, duh.) However, I suppose one general takeaway is that evangelical film-makers seem stuck in a very particular cultural rut. It would bring color and variety to the genre if they expanded their horizons to different denominations of Christianity and the characters that can be found there. (The Kendrick brothers gave a taste of what this might look like with the character of Miss Clara in their latest film War Room.)

Those who’ve seen the film may wonder why I didn’t instead look at the conversion of The Apostle‘s big villain, also a well-done scene. Maybe somebody else could make that comparison in the comments. I think I chose this one because even though it involves a character who’s a nobody relative to the rest of the film, the setup and delivery are more directly parallel, making for an easier comparison. (Also, The Apostle‘s villain doesn’t convert from his deathbed.) If anything, I find it even more powerful to focus so much attention on a character who only shows up in one scene. It reminds you that sometimes God shows up unplanned, unexpected, and unserenaded by Newsboys music. (Oooh. That last bit was harsh, but I’m not sorry.)

I doubt anybody from Pure Flix will read this bit of analysis, but I hope that it’s given you, the Christian viewer, an idea of what to look for as you seek excellence in the art you engage with. On the one hand, I hope it’s shown how even something that aligns perfectly with our views can be fairly critiqued and improved. But on the other hand, I hope it’s shown you that the Christian message of a scene need not dilute the power of its art.


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Do War Room and Sherwood Pictures Present a False Gospel?

Many of you are probably familiar with the Christian movie productions of Sherwood Pictures. They’ve had great success with limited budgets on films like Facing the GiantsFireproof, and Courageous. Each of their films covers a particular theme, like faith, marriage, or fatherhood. The other week, they released a new project entitled War Room, focused on prayer. It was a box office smash, vying with hot Hollywood releases like Straight Outta Compton. However, like the church’s other projects, it’s come under criticism for being poor quality and perhaps even presenting a distorted view of Christianity.

These criticisms are sometimes coming from other Christians, not just jaded mainstream reviewers. I recently read one article by John Mark Reynolds that was particularly unsparing. He called it “Genie Jesus and the War Room Problem.” He argues that all the Kendricks’ movies have the same theological flaw: They give Christians the impression that any problem a Christian has can be solved by the appropriate amount of faith and prayer. In other words, he’s accusing them of presenting a prosperity gospel. He points out that for many people, living out the Christian faith will involve unanswered prayers, suffering, and sad endings.  In War Room, a wife is urged to remain in a bad marriage and pray for her nasty, philandering husband, who ultimately repents. Reynolds cites the examples of many women like her who will pray fervently and see no change.

Okay, so we know happy endings aren’t universal, but is it fair to accuse Sherwood’s films of generally presenting a false gospel? Do they really preach a “genie Jesus”? Will Christians walk away with a false idea of what faith, prayer and provision really mean? I think a more careful look reveals that while Reynolds raises interesting concerns, he’s being disproportionately harsh. (Full disclosure though: I haven’t seen War Room yet, just previous Sherwood movies.)

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My Top Five Robin Williams Movies, Part II (cross-post)

Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings

Robert De Niro (L) and Robin Williams (R) in Awakenings

Here’s the link to the second half of my Robin Williams top five retrospective, guest-posted at Paul Asay’s blog Watching God.  We’re going backwards, so Part II discusses my top two choices. If you missed Part I, click here. I also close out Part II with a video tribute I edited together last year. (Those of you who haven’t seen it already can watch directly on YouTube here.)

In arranging this shortlist, I focused on the films that I thought were best as films, not just Robin Williams performances. To be clear, I don’t recommend all of them for all audiences, and I’m honest about where I think some of them are flawed. Use your own discretion and don’t take this as an unequivocal endorsement of every movie on this list. Still, I chose them because I think they’re all well-made, they all say something true, and they all feature Williams at his best. The final standings, in order, were:

  1. Awakenings
  2. Insomnia
  3. The Fisher King
  4. Good Will Hunting
  5. Dead Poets Society

By chance, both of my top picks feature Williams in supporting roles beside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, two great Hollywood legends. Performances like these prove that Robin Williams the actor was not merely a gimmicky extension of Robin Williams the comic, but a serious talent who could hold his own next to American cinema’s finest.

Paul told me that these would actually be his personal top five as well, but he would rank them this way (though he was then seized with sudden worry about where to put Hook, a worry I confess I didn’t share):

  1. The Fisher King
  2. Dead Poets Society
  3. Insomnia
  4. Good Will Hunting
  5. Awakenings

I’m pleased to say my review of the detective thriller Insomnia impressed him so much that he bumped it up a full notch after previously having it in 4th place. Sadly, I can’t convince him to dislodge Dead Poets Society from second place, but all was made clear when I learned that he was a college literature major when it first came out. Figures. (Just giving you a hard time, Paul!) I also convinced him to give Awakenings another watch, and I hope I can convince you to do the same, because it is a truly great film which is sadly underrated in the Williams canon. Williams gives perhaps his most poignant, self-effacing performance here, in a true story that makes a powerful statement about the human condition and the sanctity of life. The film is devastating and sad, but as I say in my review, it will change you. It changed me. To learn more about the work of Oliver Sacks, who wrote the book on which it’s based, watch this 7 minute video. Be warned: It’s not easy watching, but it is unbearably beautiful:

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My Top Five Robin Williams Movies, Part I (cross-post)

31 Mar 2011, New York City, New York State, USA --- Robin Williams attending the Broadway Opening Night After Party for 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' at espace in New York City --- Image by © Walter McBride/Corbis

Image by © Walter McBride/Corbis

Focus on the Family’s Paul Asay has once again very kindly lent me his personal blogspot for some reflections on the best films of Robin Williams, who committed suicide a year ago this week. I asked Paul if he’d be interested in hosting a top five list, and he was. Anyone who’s interested can read Part I here right now. Paul and I will publish Part II next week. Please note that these are not comprehensive reviews, although I do try to note some content concerns in a few of my picks. Some of my favorite Williams films are sadder, darker, and aimed at a more mature audience than popular favorites like Aladdin or Hook. However, all five of my picks do have something in common: They all grapple with life’s toughest questions. What is our purpose? What is integrity? What is truth? How do we deal with loss? How do we deal with ourselves? How do we love the unlovable? Where do we look for love? For redemption? And all of them have endings that, while sometimes bittersweet, leave the viewer with the sense that at least some of these questions have been answered in a satisfying way.

As I explain at the beginning of my piece, I personally was not a Williams fan until last year, so unlike Paul, I took little notice of his death. I eventually came to appreciate his work not because of celebrity infatuation, but because I thought that much of it was actually worth something. The mark of any good film is that it speaks to something true about human nature beyond the confines of individual characters and plots. I hope I have brought that out successfully. And whatever your own level of Williams fan-hood, I hope that you, too, will gain something from my insights on these films.

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Marriage in the Movies: Regarding Henry

Now that I’ve spent two weeks talking about the discouraging realities of homosexual “marriage,” I think it’s time for something uplifting about real marriage. What better way to provide that than by reviving a series my readers have probably forgotten about? As a quick (re)-introduction, this series looks at various Hollywood films and judges how well they handle the topic of marriage. I eased in with a Christian film (Fireproof), and have since tackled the Robin Williams classic Mrs. Doubtfire and the modern documentary-style film Boyhood. I was planning to add a lot more entries, but it just never happened. I’m hoping to start freshening it up a bit more regularly, because I think it’s a very timely topic to explore.

My featured film for today is a little 90s picture called Regarding Henry. And yes, if you’re looking at the promo shot on the right and thinking, “Is that… Han Solo?” you get a cookie. Indeed, many critics (myself included) rank this film among Harrison Ford’s strongest performances. But it’s not just Ford’s work that makes it memorable for me. It’s the movie’s surprisingly insightful treatment of marriage and the family. In fact, if the script threw in some references to God or church, it might even pass as a Christian movie (except with much better acting and writing). I like it so much that I was even inspired to put together a little music video for it, which you’ll get to watch if you read to the end of this article. (Unless you cheat and skip there, of course.) Spoiler alert, as usual.

Here’s the premise: Henry Turner (Ford) is a hotshot, cutthroat lawyer, a workaholic who maintains a cool relationship with his wife and daughter. One night, he steps out to buy cigarettes and happens to blunder into a hold-up. The trigger-happy registry robber fires two shots, and in a few seconds, Henry’s life is changed forever. His wife is shattered with the news that even if he recovers speaking and motor skills, most of his memories have been erased. He is forced to start fresh. But as the movie shows us, that may not be such a bad thing. (And for those who think that premise is just too implausible, Harrison Ford has said that while preparing for the role, he actually met and interviewed an actual lawyer who experienced this very process.)

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Todd Suttles Movie Sighting: The Second Chance

Recently, I re-watched a small Christian movie called The Second Chance (2006), directed by Steve Taylor and starring Michael W. Smith as a yuppie music pastor who spends some time serving in an inner-city church. Naturally, the film uses Smith’s musical talents for more than one set piece. Guess who I spotted in the choir on a couple of them? Todd Suttles, now singing baritone/bass for the Gaither Vocal Band. Here’s my favorite number, “Follow Me.” Michael’s character has wandered into a church choir practice, and the lady director enthusiastically encourages him to sit down and play something with them. You can see Todd in the orange shirt on the far right. He has a step-out around 2:10.

You might be wondering if the movie itself is any good, and the answer is that parts of it are very good, but it’s a mixed bag. Michael W. does a surprisingly good acting job, and the black pastor he works with is even more impressive. The writers are clearly very familiar with inner city church ministry in Nashville and fill the story with memorable small moments and characters. A subplot involving a pregnant prostitute is particularly sad and powerful. My main problem with the film is its excessive wallowing in white guilt. Granted, it could have been even worse, and it tries to present an equal array of black and white antagonists (including a corrupt black city official and a cruel black gangster). It also acknowledges that the black pastor is prideful and cynical, and he needs to give Michael W.’s wide-eyed character a fair chance. But in my opinion, it doesn’t come down hard enough on some of his spewing, and the closing scene has him getting choked up at a Malcolm X quote. Yes, both pastors are presented as having lessons to learn, but it seems like in the end, the white guy has learned more.

Then again, it seemed pretty mild compared to what I found when I looked up the actor who plays the black pastor, Jeff Obafemi Carr. The guy is a total nutcase. He’s a black liberation activist with his own cult down in Nashville that, if I have this right, combines Pentecostalism with African tribal paganism with Freemasonry. Nope, not making this up. But hey, he can act. Soooo, ANYway. Enjoy the music!


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Guest Movie Review/Interview: Inside Out

“[It’s about] growing up, and about inner conflict, and about dealing with yourself, and all that stuff.” — Littlest Sister on Inside Out


Littlest Sister and I had another adventure in the theater recently. Since our interview/review format worked so well for the faith-based movie Beyond the Mask, I decided to use her precociously articulate charm for my own ends once again and get her take on Pixar’s latest smash hit, Inside Out. The simple premise is that a little girl’s emotions are personified, and we get to go on a journey with them inside her own mind, as she deals with a tough family move and the pressures of growing up.

As before, the format for this interview was record, conversate, transcribe and publish. No splicing and dicing! We realize we’re about a month late to this party, so as a result, there will be a few spoilers (albeit understated spoilers, considering the unique nature of the story). If you’ve already seen the film or don’t mind having it mildly spoiled for you, we hope you enjoy our joint insights on it! It certainly had both of us wishing we had brought tissues.

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Christians in Entertainment: Denzel Washington

‘Tis the season for pretentious, overly long commencement speeches. But one commencement speech has been getting particular attention in the media recently: Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington’s address to the graduates of Dillard University. Dillard is a small, private school for black students in New Orleans. When Washington stepped to the podium, he announced that he was going to “keep it short,” unlike his commencement speaker, who “went on forever, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” (Yes, this is pretty much spot-on. I speak from experience.)

Here is the short, simple message Washington wanted to convey: “Number one: Put. God. First. In everything you do, put God first. Put God first in everything you do. Everything you think you see in me, everything I’ve accomplished, everything you think I have (and I have a few things), everything that I have is by the grace of God.”

The speech has gone viral. There’s some unfortunate prosperity gospel business towards the end, but on the whole it’s pretty great, and you can read more quotes here, or watch it in full here if you don’t mind handheld video. The passion and conviction of Washington’s delivery is disarming, considering his stature in Hollywood. But then, Washington has never been one to shy away from talking about what he believes.

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Christian Movie Madness (or Is There Such a Thing as a Great Christian Movie?)

Recently, released the results of a month-long movie poll pitting various Christian films against each other. Paralleling basketball’s “March Madness,” the tournament entered 64 films that were eliminated or advanced in a knockout format as Christian viewers voted. Naturally, movies with an aggressive social media campaign behind them had an edge, which might explain why the 2014 release God’s Not Dead was ultimately crowned (in Christian Cinema’s words) the “Best. Movie. Ever.” Because nobody’s ever made good films outside the evangelical Christian film-making bubble, so best Christian movie, best movie, same different right?

I did my own review of God’s Not Dead when it first came out. I gave it 2.5 stars out of 5, which in hindsight actually seems too generous. I don’t have to explain why it’s not the best movie ever, but it’s a far cry even from being the best Christian movie ever. It beat out obviously superior movies like Passion of the Christ and The Blind Side on its way to victory in this particular poll, which isn’t even including every good Christian movie ever made.

The selection process for the 64 films that were included was interesting and somewhat baffling to track. It prompted me to think about what even counts as a Christian movie. It also made me think about what it takes to make a movie that’s simultaneously great and Christian.

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Special Guest Movie Review: Beyond the Mask

This week, I took my youngest sister to the theater for a screening of a new family adventure movie called Beyond the Mask. It was produced by cousins Chad and Aaron Burns, homeschool alumni who are now working to make Christian films together. Set at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, it boasts some scenery-chewing star power with John Rhys-Davies as the villain (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings) and contains more special effects shots than blockbusters like Inception and Pirates of the Caribbean. (When I showed her the trailer, her reaction was, and I quote, “Ooooh, sword fights and stuff on fire. I want to see this!”) The premise is that a former British spy migrates to America and becomes a masked vigilante for the cause of liberty, hoping to redeem himself from his shady past. Along the way, he discovers true love, strong hate, harsh revenge, and all that fun stuff.

Our theater captain was the effects coordinator for the film, as well as the 2nd assistant director. The town showed up in force, and Littlest Sister and I had a high old time together, though we did note some things that could have been improved. Among other things, we discussed the film’s historical accuracy, and our conclusions may surprise you! So instead of having me write a typical review, I thought it would be fun to change it up and interview her instead. I simply hit record and transcribed our entire conversation, with very entertaining results.  As you’ll see, the family resemblance is quite strong. Enjoy this special guest appearance. (My questions are in bold, and her answers are in normal type.)

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