Movie Review: Risen

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth? — Sherlock Holmes

After hearing good things about the new Christian film Risen, I finally got the chance to see it for myself this week. Offering a fresh twist on the Easter story, it walks through the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection from the perspective of a Roman tribune named Clavius. Clavius is tasked by Pilate to find Jesus’ missing corpse and quash pesky resurrection rumors, preferably before Tiberius Caesar arrives for a check-up. The result feels like a 1st century crime procedural, as Clavius examines the scene, collects witness testimony, and weighs multiple explanations of the evidence he gathers. The closer he gets to unraveling the mystery, the more uneasy he becomes.

Before diving into what I thought of Risen, I want to say a few words about Christian movies in general. As the market for Christian films has grown, my attitude towards them has run the gamut from *CRINGE* to “Hey, this is actually okay.” I am reluctant to bash the Christian film industry writ large, because I am reluctant to come off as a snide, self-important critic of Christian culture writ large. (But that’s a topic for another day. I think I’ll call it “How I Somehow Avoided Becoming a Christian Culture Snob.”) I even challenged John Mark Reynolds when he put out a scathing critique of the Kendrick Brothers’ War Room, despite the fact that I didn’t see the film and frankly still don’t have a burning desire to do so. I did it because I want to be fair, and I want to give Christian filmmakers their due.

And yet… I still love movies. And the movie-lover in me can’t deny that too many Christian films are simply not that well put together, by any objective standard of film-making.

So, it gives me great pleasure to report that Risen is not just a good Christian movie. It’s a good movie, full stop.

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Old Movies, New Eyes: The Lost Weekend

One’s too many, and a hundred’s not enough.

The Lost Weekend, one's too many still 1
Ray Milland as Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend

When The Lost Weekend first came out in 1945, nobody had predicted that it would be a hit. It was based on a novel that had sold well, but the book market was one thing. The film market was another. And Charles Jackson’s semi-autobiographical tale of an alcoholic loser who deliberately rejects love, hope and sobriety to go on a three-day bender was not exactly an easy sell.

Yet somehow, against all odds, the film swept the Oscars and the box office alike. Perhaps it was because in The Lost Weekend, people finally saw something that reflected the painful truth of alcoholism, as opposed to the Hollywood fictions that had glamorized it or laughed it off. Perhaps when they looked in the lost eyes of Don Birnam, they saw their own prodigal brothers, lovers and sons.

But I would be short-changing this film if I described it as merely a message movie about alcoholism. Don Birnam’s story is not merely the story of an alcoholic. It is the story of a sinner and the grace that pursues him even when he pushes it away. It is the story of a soul with life and death set before him, as they are set before every soul. And it stands as a haunting reminder that, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “There are only two kinds of people, in the end: those who say to God, Thy will be done, and those to whom God says, in the end, Thy will be done.”

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Old Movies, New Eyes: The Best Years of Our Lives

You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I’ve had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it’s really true. Am I really home?

Welcome to the opening of a new series! Better yet, a new series that I hope to make at least semi-regular (we’ll shoot for monthly and see how it goes). This one has been a long time coming. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved old movies. Now, I finally have the space and time to share this passion with you, my readers. For each installment, I will hand-pick a film no fewer than 40 years old that has stood the test of time, conveying a thought-provoking story in an honest and meaningful way. The selections will by and large be serious works, some better-known than others, some grappling with very weighty subjects indeed, all providing excellent food for thought to Christians who want to engage with the arts. As I revisit them from a young movie critic’s perspective, my simple goal is, in the words of author Joseph Conrad, “to make you see.” May you enjoy reading as much as I will enjoy the writing process.

It seemed fitting to begin with a classic that celebrates a round-numbered anniversary this year: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Director. Weaving together the stories of three returning World War II veterans and the women who help them heal, it remains one of the best movies about marriage and the meaning of love that I’ve ever seen. Consequently, it will double as an addition to my series Marriage in the Movies.

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Debunking The Myth of Simplistic Old Movies

It's a Wonderful Life, on the bridge still
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life

It was C. S. Lewis who first coined the phrase “chronological snobbery.” This is the belief that the ideas, writing, and art of the past are outdated or irrelevant to “the now.” Chronological snobbery takes many forms. Sadly, it can even be found in the evangelical church, particularly when it comes to old-fashioned forms of worship.

Another form it takes in popular culture is the snide dismissal of old-fashioned cinema. My generation views old movies as stuffy and phony, full of goody-two-shoes and sappy happy endings. As far as they’re concerned, old movies are for old people. Old, politically incorrect, white people, to throw in a few more modifiers.

I submit this as yet further evidence that my generation has no clue what it’s talking about when it talks about movies, art, or culture.

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A Far More Pleasing Countenance

…Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds

Or bends with the remover to remove

Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark,

That looks on tempests, and is never shaken…

— Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility

It’s been a bad year so far for 69-year-old British celebrities. David Bowie and Alan Rickman have both gone to their final reward in quick succession, prompting numerous fan tributes. For Rickman, many moviegoers love and remember him as Snape in Harry Potter. Myself, I am most partial to his turn as Colonel Brandon in the Ang Lee adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He brought such sweetness and wisdom to the part, providing a deliberate contrast to the dashing but untrustworthy Mr. Willoughby. He is almost painfully self-effacing, but as the story unfolds, he emerges as its true hero. In a culture that has long lost all conception of love and honor towards women, Jane Austen’s classic tale and Brandon’s role in it are well worth revisiting.

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My Top 5 Films of 2015

Top 5 Movies, 2015, Collage

In terms of films that had substance, were well-made and were palatable for Christian viewers, 2015 offered sadly slim pickings. Nevertheless, I have worked diligently to prepare a suitable shortlist. So, here now, I give you the most entertaining, the most thoughtful, the most emotionally satisfying, the best films of 2015.

At least, in my opinion. For what it’s worth.

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Guest Movie Review/Interview: Star Wars, The Force Awakens

Youngest sister is back! This is the third installment in our little series of movie review/interviews. We go see a movie, then I type up a loose outline of questions, hit record, and transcribe our discussion. Click here for our review of the Christian family film Beyond the Mask, and click here for our review of Pixar’s Inside Out

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Me: Okay, so, I am here with my little sister…

Little Sister: Ahem.

Me: And we are…

LS: I am NOT…

Me: We are here to discuss Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

LS: Yes, they know that.

Me: Shhhhh. And this, take note, this will be a spoiler-free discussion.

LS: I thought you said we were gonna be able to discuss spoilers because most people seeing it will have seen it already.

Me: Well actually, I don’t know about that, there are still a lot of people who still have to see it.

LS: Well then, we won’t be able to discuss much. This will be a rather short interview.

Me: No, that’s not true. There are plenty of interesting questions we can talk about.

LS: Dang it. The spoilers are most interesting!

Me: Well, I’ll tell you what. I have a lot of interesting questions still. And then I’ll sort of ask you a spoilerish question, but we’ll try to dance around it.

LS: That sounds boring. But anyway…

Me: It won’t be boring. Anyway…

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First Look at a New Hank Williams Biopic: I Saw the Light

Hank Williams is an endlessly fascinating character for fans of country/gospel music. As self-destructive as he was talented, he died at the age of 29–the Mozart of country music. Sixty years on, his body of work still stands the test of time. Bill Gaither’s son Benji co-produced a moving, loosely fictionalized account of his final days called The Last Ride, and now there’s a new film on the horizon that promises to be more of a proper biopic, called I Saw the Light. An unflinching look at the singer’s sad legacy, it will probably draw comparisons to the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Williams was a notorious philanderer, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the MPAA has slapped an “R” on it, although by the description it appears to be primarily for language.

Some controversy has surrounded the film’s casting of British actor Tom Hiddleston as Williams. I have mixed feelings about the choice. On the one hand, he’s a dead ringer for the country legend as far as looks go. On the other hand, he’s, well, British. Not even American, let alone Southern. So, among others, Williams’s own grandson has complained that the choice lacks authenticity, pointing to somebody like Matthew McConaughey as a better choice. I can see why he would feel that way, but then again, British actors have been playing American roles for quite some time now. Even iconic comic book characters like Superman and Batman have been taken over by Brits putting on a fake accent.

While I think Hiddleston is a superb actor, his American accent has been spotty in the past. And here, he not only has to speak the accent convincingly, but he has to sing Hank’s classic hit songs convincingly. But I give him credit for doing all of his own recordings, and I like the rough, unfiltered feel of the clips I’ve heard. It’s nice to be reminded of a time when country singing wasn’t as polished as pop music, a time when country songs had grit and depth of feeling to them. If they did this right, it could be a compelling piece of work. Ironic that it’s titled after Williams’s most gospel song, yet it is by no means clear that he ever saw that light for himself.

“Everybody has a little darkness in ’em. I’m talkin’ about things like anger, sorrow, shame. I show it to them. And they hear it, and they don’t have to take it home.”

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.

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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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