Guest Writing Roundup: The Stream, More Than One Lesson

I may have lapsed in updating this little space, but if you follow me on FaceBook, you know I have not been idle in writing. Here is a quick run-down of what I’ve been up to.

First, I shared some thoughts in the aftermath of Phyllis Schlafly’s death for The Stream, which you can read here. In particular, I fondly recall getting to meet her in person at the age of 10.

Secondly, Tyler Smith’s podcast More Than One Lesson is one of my favorite places to soak up good film criticism with a Christian slant. Not all his tastes correspond with mine, but I frequently glean interesting insights from him on the films I do like. Recently, he approached me and asked if I’d be interested in throwing my hat in the contributors’ ring for the More Than One Lesson website. My first piece debuted a new film editing project I worked on over the summer, combining a beautiful song called “One Thing of Beauty” with the film The Soloist. In the piece, I reflect on the significance of beauty and how both the song and the film reflect mankind’s search for it. Die-hard readers may recognize echoes of some thoughts I jotted down here a while back.

Finally, last week Tyler posted another piece of mine about a stunning new documentary film called A German Life, about the woman who served as the personal stenographer for Nazi war criminal Joseph Goebbels. It looks like a gripping work, and I can’t wait to see the whole thing myself. In this piece, I take a sober look at what we can learn from this woman’s actions and how we can show mercy towards her. Here’s the trailer:

That’s all for the moment! I hope to check in here from time to time despite yet another demanding year of coursework for my graduate degree. While I’ve been blessed with a lot of freelancing opportunities this year and will keep you posted on those, I’m sure I will continue to have many thoughts that don’t fit neatly anywhere else but here, in this little space where it all started.

Seven Things I Hate About the New Ben-Hur Movie

[Note: If you were genuinely moved by the new Ben-Hur movie, chances are good you’ll be offended by this post. I wish to offend no man needlessly, so if you fit this description, you’ve been warned.]

“Why do they need to re-make Ben-Hur?” My sister asked this question the other day. It’s a good question. I’ll let you decide the answer.

Me, I wasn’t even going to bother seeing if it was as bad as I’d heard. But then, I got this idea that I could sell a free-lance piece including some discussion of the Jesus scenes, which had been very hyped up in the movie’s marketing. Supposedly, this re-make was going to improve on the Heston classic by giving Jesus top billing. That seemed interesting, but then early reviews started coming in. If they were to be trusted, Ben-Hur 2016 Jesus was about as deep as Joel Osteen’s Twitter feed. But, understandably, I couldn’t get paid to write anything about it unless I could say I’d seen the movie.

So, I saw it, only to discover that this new and improved, ostensibly beefed-up Jesus was so over-hyped, every single scene of his had already been put on YouTube or mentioned in the two reviews I saw. There was literally nothing else there. Fortune-cookie Joel Osteen Jesus was it.

But hey, I thought, at least I can have a little fun panning the whole thing for my blog, and that will make me feel like my $6.50 wasn’t entirely wasted. So, herewith, seven things I hated about the new Ben-Hur movie.

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Old Movies, New Eyes: In the Heat of the Night

They call me Mister Tibbs.

In light of the last couple weeks of turmoil, what better way to revive this flagging column of mine than by looking back at a film where a white cop and a black detective are forced to get along? Winning multiple awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Rod Steiger), and Adapted Screenplay, it became a defining film for Sidney Poitier and marked a shift in Hollywood’s portrayal of black characters. As a fan of crime drama and Rod Steiger, I had this film on my to-watch list for a while before I got around to seeing it. Knowing it was a 60s movie and that it was considered significant in the political landscape of the Civil Rights movement, I was worried that it might be heavy-handed or on-the-nose. Were all the white characters going to be idiots? Was it going to be a bait-and-switch affair that purports to be a crime flick but is really About Race in a super pompous, 60s way?

Thank goodness, no! I mean okay yes, it is about race, and yes, we’ll talk about That Scene where Poitier has a slap-off with a plantation owner. And yes, the mystery is ultimately a little flimsy and takes a back seat to the character drama. But really, it’s not so much About Race as it is About Male Bonding. In fact, an alternate title was considered—Machismo: The Movie.

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Guest Movie Review/Interview: Finding Dory

Little Sister returns, and today we’re here to review Pixar’s latest smash hit, Finding Dory! We got to see what all the fuss was about last week and are pleased to bring you our thoughts on the film’s treatment of adoption and disability, Pixar’s slump into “sequelitis,” and more. And yes, I realize I say “Okay, so…” way too much. Also, #spoilers. You’ve been warned.

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VidAngel is Being Sued, But It’s Probably Just as Well

In recent months, you may have noticed ads for a relatively new movie filtering service called VidAngel. Based in Utah (probably owned by a bunch of Mormons), it operates on a buyback model, where moviegoers can buy a movie, stream it through VidAngel’s content filters, then sell it back to VidAngel within 24 hours for a net loss of only $1. Well, sort of. Technically, if you read the fine print, you were paid back in VidAngel credit, so that you’d get a discount on the next movie you rented with them. See what they did there?

Anyway, it didn’t take long for Disney, Fox, Lucasfilm inter alia to notice the company in a legal way. You can read all about the team they’re assembling for the defense, posted last week on their blog.  They seem confident about their chances, believing they’ve discovered a loophole that will allow them to continue operating. The comments on this article provide good summaries of the state of the law and theories about how good their case actually is. Not being a legal expert, I’ll let others make those predictions. At any rate, this kind of legal battle is merely the latest in a long string of Hollywood vs. Mormon Video Editing Outfit battles. I’ll let you figure out who typically comes out on top, although in fairness, the most recent one was decided in the Mormon company’s favor, using the same legal team VidAngel is now hiring.

To be honest, I find it difficult to care who wins or loses this case. In fact, given the way this particular site has compiled and marketed its content, I can think of a couple reasons why it might be just as well if it went away.

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5 Films Every Christian Should See (Summit cross-post)

As you might have noticed, I haven’t even tried to keep up with the latest crop of Christian films, the most recent being God’s Not Dead 2. (Alas, if you were waiting with bated breath for my review of that one, y’all are on your own.) But it has gotten me to thinking: If I were to create a list of five films every Christian should see, what would it look like? Apparently, Summit Ministries was interested to know what it would look like as well, and you can read what I came up with here. The list I finally narrowed it down to was

It’s a Wonderful Life

Fiddler On the Roof

A Man For All Seasons

On the Waterfront

Chariots of Fire

This wasn’t planned, but I noticed that there’s a nice balance of film eras represented here. Each movie on the list represents a different decade. Also, all of them either won or were nominated for Oscars, including Best Picture: proof positive that there are natural, artistically excellent ways to meld faith and film-making.

Naturally, there are many other films I could have put on the shortlist that would also be well worthwhile for the Christian viewer. However, I wanted to keep it restricted to films that I knew would not pose any kind of problem for viewers with tight standards for language, violence and the like. (Hence the “every” in “every Christian.”) This includes films like Schindler’s List, which are certainly powerful but difficult for some people to watch. Far it be from me to guilt-trip anyone for not forcing themselves to see something they feel a check about. However, I can confidently say that all five of the films that did make the cut will reward the patience and interest of any Christian viewer. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts on them over at Summit. So, what would your list look like?

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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