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Film Offers Simplistic Answers to Complex Questions of Faith

Little-Boy-Father-Oliver(Note: This review contains major spoilers.)

A movie that promised to move mountains failed to move tickets last weekend. Directed by Alejandro Monteverde (“Bella”) and written by Monteverde and Pepe Portillo, “Little Boy” is just one of the many movies in the parade of faith-friendly films that trumpet vague, warm and fuzzy platitudes like “if you believe you can achieve,” and “live fully and embrace every moment.” Promotional material attests that this movie “stirs your emotions,” but the outright disgust I felt was probably not the emotion they had in mind.

Seen through the eyes of eight-year-old Pepper Flynt Busbee (Jacob Salvati), the story takes place on the West Coast during World War II, after the Japanese have been released from their internment camps. Pepper’s older brother London (David Henrie) eagerly enlists to fight “the Japs,” but soon discovers he’s classified as 4-F. Pepper’s father James Busbee (Michael Rapaport) enlists to serve in London’s place, leaving his heartbroken family behind.
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Practical Advice for Christians on Judging Film Adaptations

ID-10012001Last week I promised to tell you about my two rules of thumb for watching film adaptations. The first is practical. If you have yet to read the book (or familiarize yourself with the biblical story), I suggest seeing the film first. When held up against the original—whether in plot points, attention to detail, or character and thematic development—nearly every film will fall short. Screen and print are two different storytelling formats with completely different strengths, and film has both time and sensory constraints that books know nothing of.

If you read a book before you see the movie, you will, no matter how unintentionally, be thinking about what’s been changed, what’s been cut, and who’s been taken out, focusing on the story that’s not being told instead of the one that is. However, if you see the movie first, you’re more likely to enjoy the story you’re viewing because it’s your only frame of reference. Then, if and when you read the book, you’ll better appreciate both versions for what each is able to do that the other cannot. Viewed this way, the two tend to enhance each other instead of compete.
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March 30, 2012

(Delivered at the Breaking the Spiral of Silence Conference hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview)

I’m delighted to be on the platform with close colleagues and with Eric [Metaxas], for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration. The job he’s done with two biographies, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, are extraordinary. [They are] having a huge impact. The Bonhoeffer book, if you haven’t read it, as I told the crowd this afternoon, go buy it. I’ve told people to buy that book every place I’ve gone because it’s a gripping, riveting read. What Bonhoeffer went through is nothing like any of us are going to go through, but it’s still inspiring to see how he dealt with it. It’s also instructive to see the kind of issues he had to face. He was facing not only the Nazis, but the liberals in his own church. So he was fighting a battle on two fronts as many of us do here in America.
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Understanding the Purpose and Design of Biblical Adaptations

d5c6a8f0-5011-11e4-bc62-59ace697a417_lifetime-Red-Tent-First-Look-copy1I recently found myself hovering over my local Redbox, covered in a cold sweat, as I debated whether or not to rent “The Red Tent,” a three-hour, made-for TV movie starring Minnie Driver. It's based on the novel by Anita Diamant, which in turn is based on Genesis 34, the brief yet bleak story of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t covered in a cold sweat. But I think many Christians would agree: While deciding whether or not to see a movie isn’t a task fraught with peril, it can certainly feel like one—especially when it comes to biblical adaptations.
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'Woman in Gold' Presents an Unusual Perspective on What Justice Means

woman-in-goldThe film “Woman in Gold” is an interesting counterpoint to most World War II films I’ve seen. There are no concentration camps. There is very little onscreen violence. A wealthy and artistic Jewish family is put under house arrest, and their vast collection of art stolen from them and distributed to various supporters of Hitler, but most of them escape Austria before the Nazi party comes to power. The only deaths in the family that we hear of are apparently from natural causes.

And yet, I found their experience compelling.

“Woman in Gold” tells the story of Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren in the present and Tatiana Maslany in flashbacks), who fought a legal battle with the Austrian government in the early 2000s to win back five Klimt paintings that had been stolen from her family by the Nazis and housed in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. The most famous of these paintings was “Woman in Gold,” a painting of her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer. Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and a struggling lawyer, agrees to help her win her case, and finds himself drawn from interest in a case that could win him millions (the portrait of Adele alone was valued at over $100,000,000) into interest in justice for a woman who suffered under the Nazis.
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'A.D.' Brings to Life the Turmoil Faced by the Disciples

28_NUP_166059_0129From "Game of Thrones" to "House of Cards" to the BBC production of "Wolf Hall" now airing on PBS, our society is fixated on shows with heavy political undercurrents, punctuated by the threat of complete social overhaul. Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, the successful team behind the popular miniseries “The Bible,” have produced a look at the early Christians and the movement that swept the world following Jesus’ ascension. There is violence; there is political intrigue; there is a fascinating realization of history, and a sense that the world will never be the same.

Capitalizing on exceptional British talent (the Sanhedrin speak with Shakespearian gravitas worthy of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and using thrilling graphics, “A.D.: The Bible Continues” recognizes the firebrand potential of this true story that rivals “House of Cards” for political tension. “A.D.” is accessible, engaging, and likely to appeal to viewers even without a faith background. The fact that Downey and Burnett have been able to place such an overtly Christian production in such a coveted primetime spot is astounding, wonderful, and maybe, like the Bible itself, divinely inspired.
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'While We're Young' Is an Entertaining Film with an Unsatisfying Worldview

stiller“When everyone’s Super,” Syndrome says near the end of Disney Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” “no one will be.” Syndrome is a normal person who wants to be a superhero, so his ultimate plan is to erase what is outstanding from the world. Syndrome is the villain of “The Incredibles.”

By contrast, the new film “While We’re Young”—a comedy loosely based on Henrik Ibsen’s tragedy “The Master Builder”—is a film where the hero is a normal person who wants to be incredible. Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentarian, who has been working on one particular documentary for years. He has had limited success in the past—his work showed potential at least—but this is to be his magnum opus.
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'It Follows' Builds on Tradition to Share a Sobering Truth

Screen-Shot-2015-02-13-at-9.17.41-AM-620x400It has been encouraging for me, as a horror fan, to see a new crop of young film directors who have their eyes set on reinvigorating a genre that, I would argue, hasn’t seen a significant renaissance since the late Seventies/early Eighties with the dawn of the slasher flick. It makes sense then—if my estimation is correct—that many of these new horror film directors are taking their cues from the man who almost singlehandedly popularized the slasher flick: John Carpenter.

So when I first saw the trailer for “It Follows,” the new indie horror darling by David Robert Mitchell, I was intrigued because it featured a heavily retro visual feel (even its title font!); it felt like it belonged back in the early Eighties amongst the multitudes of slashers released then. However, the score had a strong atmospheric tension that recalled only one slasher film in particular: Carpenter’s 1978 classic, “Halloween.” Disasterpeace, the genius behind the score for “It Follows,” borrowed much of the simplicity, minor tonalities, and building crescendos that made Carpenter’s “Halloween” score so compelling and memorable, but with modern musical sensibilities.

Needless to say, this was the first horror film of 2015 that I was actually excited to see.
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How the Church Unwittingly Blesses Abortion

ID-100193171It is generally held by both Protestant and Catholic scholars that those dying in infancy—including those whose lives are ended by abortion—are graciously, if mysteriously, covered by the blood of Christ and received into heaven.

But what is often construed as the corollary to this noble belief—even by pastors, according to Randy Alcorn—is something profoundly disturbing: namely, that since aborted children go straight to heaven, abortion isn't such a bad thing. After all, the reasoning goes, those who are born sometimes grow up to reject Christ and perish. Abortion ensures their salvation.

One might assume such bizarre thinking is rare. But evidence suggests it is far more prevalent than commonly acknowledged.
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‘Small Talk’ Reminds Parents of God’s Presence in the Hard, Ordinary, Everyday Moments

9780310339366As a parent of two children, I often wondered during the days of nurturing infants, toddlers, and young children what was being accomplished in my own life. It is hard to fathom that one is learning anything while wrestling, yet again, a kicking, screaming, angry baby in order to change his or her poopy diaper. Yet during one of these wrestling matches, I had an epiphany. “I do this to you, Father, don’t I? I kick and scream and am angry at you while you are simply cleaning me up.”

I remembered those days while reading Amy Julia Becker’s new book, “Small Talk: Learning from My Children about What Matters Most.” The book caused me to remember how good things can emerge from the hard but ordinary everyday moments.
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DreamWorks' Latest Tries to Do Too Much, and Ends Up Doing Too Little

maxresdefaultIt’s been years since DreamWorks dazzled audiences with the clever animated comedy “Shrek.” Now it seems that creating art or telling a story isn’t as important as squeezing every penny out of an idea by producing sequel after sequel. Therefore, I was so relieved to see a DreamWorks production without a number in the title that my hopes for “Home” were high. But the predictable storyline made the 94 minutes watching it feel like an eternity. (Is “Home 2” already in the works? I wouldn’t be surprised.)

Based on “The True Meaning of Smekday” by the New York Times bestselling author Adam Rex, the story was adapted by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (“Epic”), under the direction of Tim Johnson (“Antz,” “Over the Hedge”). Whatever merited the book’s rave reviews wasn’t captured in the movie, unfortunately.
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Finding the Faith Connection in a Controversial Practice

ID-100258273
“Be still and know that I am God.”
Psalm 46:10

I’ve been sincerely warned by Christian friends not to practice yoga. “Well,” they often add, “the stretching part is okay, but not the rest of it.” Christian leaders such as the Rev. Al Mohler echo their concerns.

On the other hand, at least two other Christian friends have shared that yoga has been life-changing for them, offering them relief from physical and emotional ailments that nothing else had alleviated.

So what exactly is the story of the Christian ambivalence toward this ancient practice, and how should followers of Jesus Christ view what is one of today’s most popular fitness trends?
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The Quirky, Unsettling World of 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

ralph-fiennes-in-GRAND-BUDAPEST-HOTELThe Grand Budapest Hotel,” the multiple Oscar-winner from acclaimed director Wes Anderson, is an innovative and quirky retrospective on a tumultuous time in European history, focusing on an opulent establishment in a fictional republic. Populated by an eccentric cast of colorful personages, the film is part fable and part carnival, grotesque and absurd.

In a way, despite its contemporary narrative frame, there is a vintage and timeless quality about its pastels and its strange camera angles as the intertwined lives of guests and employees at the lush hotel are catapulted into art theft, murder mystery, and war.
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'Insurgent' Throws Away Its Chance to Take a Closer Look at Forgiveness

02It’s been a long time coming, but we have finally reached the point where post-apocalyptic movies about young adults have to hinge on more than just the drama of fighting authority or saving a love interest. In fact, “Insurgent,” the sequel to last year’s “Divergent” (based on the novels by Veronica Roth), hinges on the question of whether the main character can forgive herself. This is not a small debate—but unfortunately, the movie ultimately treats it like one.

In the first movie, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) abandoned her family, learned to fight after being raised by pacifists, killed a friend in self-defense, and watched her parents die to protect her. Any of those incidents could be a gold mine of character guilt. Plus, now Tris is on the run but tortured by doubts that challenging the rules of her society—which she does by her very existence—is worth the violence and death she sees as her fault.

Those are deep themes that a better movie could have explored thoroughly. This movie, written by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, and Mark Bomback and directed by Robert Schwentke (all new to the franchise), is not that movie.
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'Cinderella' Is a Welcome Return to Disney's Roots

CinderellaOnce upon a time there was a film studio with a back catalogue full of some of the world's most beloved fairytale films. There came a time when the people at that studio decided they needed to start making new, live-action versions of the old animated films. So they carefully studied the zeitgeist, and they made villains into misunderstood but well-intentioned victims of the patriarchy; they made princes either evil or useless; they made romance either stifling or dangerous; and they made families into hotbeds of deceit and betrayal.

And then, one fortunate day, someone at that film studio smacked his forehead and cried, "Wait a minute! What are we DOING!?"
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