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Family, Movie Reviews

Unitards

Family / Comedy 2010 / 107 minutes Rating: 8/10 The producers bill this as "High School Musical meets Napoleon Dynamite" but I'll have to take their word for it, not having seen either. I do know it is laugh-out-loud, tears-in-your-eyes funny in parts. When the vice principal charges Lewis Grady with building up school spirit, he decides to start a guys-only dance...thing (he isn't quite sure what it is, but he knows it isn't a dance team because that's what girls do). His two quirky friends are happy to help, even if they've got some misgivings about dancing in front of the whole student body. The three buddies bribe, beg, and bargain their way through the recruitment process, ending up with a group of a dozen or more. But it's one thing to get a group together, and another to get that group dancing together, especially when the guys have more than their share of left feet. But with a little help from mom and some friends on the school's award-winning girls' dance team, they start figuring things out. Right before their first public performance, Lewis rallies the troops with an inspirational speech that is comic gold. He reminds them of the dream most every student has had, of showing up to school in nothing but your underwear. "This is that day," he tells them: "The majority of the kids out there feel like they're showing up to school half-naked every day. Today is for the nobodies, for the average, I-don't-even-matter kids." Lewis wants his group to be an inspiration to the ordinary guys and girls out there in the audience, showing them you don't have to be awesome at something to do it, you just have to be willing to ignore the peer pressure and embrace the joy. The villain of the piece is the teacher who runs the girls' dance team. She thinks the boys are making a mockery of dance, and she wants them shut down, and she's used to getting her way. While that adds some drama to the story, this is mostly just goofy dance numbers, and quirky friends, showing how fun can be had when you ignore the mockers and set out to be encouragers. Cautions The biggest caution would just be the film's name. Unitards are a one-piece garment that dancers (especially ballet) often wear, but there is also an implicit, never made explicit, reference here to "tard," short for retard, with the joke being that any boys in a dance group are sure to have that word directed their way. It's in bad taste, but that it isn't made explicit makes it easier to overlook. While the dancing is modest by worldly standards, there is a lot of it, and it isn't the formal sort you might see in a "Pride and Prejudice" film. This is more the jump and bounce and shake and wiggle type of dancing toddlers through teens do. That includes some butt-wiggling moves that are a brief part of one or two of the dance productions. It's slightly sexually suggestive, but incidentally, rather than provocatively so. And when paired with the students' generally modest dress, it is quite tame. Conclusion Director Scott Featherstone combined elements of his own school experience with what his son Sam (who plays Lewis Grady) and friends were experiencing to come up with the script. Then he held auditions at his son's school to get all the actors. That's why the acting is solid enough, even though these are not professional actors. What they are is high school students playing high school students so it's not a stretch. And because the director and scriptwriter was a parent who knew the actors, some of these kids are almost certainly playing versions of themselves. What makes this worth watching is just how sweet it is. High school can be a tough time for many, and what we have here is a prescription for how your kids can make it better for others, and maybe themselves. Lewis Grady's friends poke fun, but they don't tear down. The guys do look goofy dancing, but they're also being brave, and some of the school's girls are smart enough to appreciate and encourage that bravery. This is high school as we wish it could have been, and would still like it to be for our kids: full of challenges, yes, but not full of naysayers, mockers, and killjoys. ...

Animated, Drama, Movie Reviews

The Toy Story franchise is for adults

Animated / Drama 1995, 1999, 2010, and 2019 / 81, 92, 103, and 100 minutes Rating: 8/10 Animation is usually for kids. And a story that's all about toys would seem best suited to children too. That’s why, when I saw the original Toy Story in the theater with a group of my college-age friends, we all thought it was kids’ fare...though the sort that adults could enjoy too. When I tried watching it with my own kids 25 years later, I came to a different conclusion: that this movie franchise has always been directed first and foremost at adults. All the evidence is there: a children’s film has children in the main roles, and a film for adults stars adults. What about Toy Story? In the original, there’s Andy, the little boy who owns the toys. He’s a child, but the film isn’t really about him. It turns out Toy Story is populated almost exclusively by adults…or, rather, toys, as voiced by adults. Woody is front and center, a Western sheriff with a pull string on his back that makes him say “Reach for the sky, pardner!” He and his fellow toys are limp and lifeless when people are around, but spring to life – as every child has always suspected – the moment we leave. Some of the brilliance of Toy Story is in the toy casts’ very different personalities: we’ve got a timid Tyrannosaurus Rex, a wise-cracking Mr. Potato Head, a loyal Slinky-Dink Dog, and a flirtatious Little Bo Peep lamp. Shucks, even the Etch-a-Sketch is quite the character, trying regularly to “outdraw” Sheriff Woody. The biggest personality of them all is the newest arrival. For his birthday, Andy has gotten a Buzz Lightyear – a spaceman action figure – that replaces Woody as his favorite. Woody is jealous, but what really drives him nuts is that Buzz doesn’t even understand that he’s a toy. Buzz thinks he’s landed on an alien planet, and that the other toys are the friendly locals. Woody is normally a pretty stand-up toy, but in a bout of exasperated jealousy, he gives Buzz a shove. He meant to bump Buzz off the bureau, where he’d get stuck (and maybe forgotten for a while) in the gap between the bureau and the wall. But instead, he sends Buzz right out the second-story window into the bushes below. Woody, more concerned with what the other toys will think of him than actual concern for Buzz, tries to rescue the spaceman. But things just go from bad to worse and they end up in the next-door neighbor’s house, in the clutches of Sid, a boy whose parents don’t supervise him like they should. Why is it dangerous to be around Sid? Because he blows up his toys… and now Woody and Buzz may be next! That’d be quite the problem for a bunch of children to solve. Fortunately, all these toys are, in as far as toys can be, adults. Woody, Buzz, Little Boy Peep, and Mr. Potato Head are voiced by adult actors and have adult personas (as most toys do). Their problems are also adult problems, as becomes increasingly evident in successive films. In the first, Woody has to teach Buzz his purpose in life: to be there for their owner. In the follow-up, Woody wrestles with what it means to grow old and start to break down. In the third, the gang is wondering what they’re meant to do, now that Andy has grown up. This is ultimate-meaning-of-life, material, which is pretty heavy, even if it’s only on a toy scale. The films also feature events that, if viewed through the eyes of a child, would be downright traumatic. Adults don’t flinch when Sid blows up one of his army men. But for kids, who have watched these toys come to life, this is too close to seeing somebody getting blown up. The second film actually begins with Buzz dying – the evil emperor Zurg has gotten the best of the space ranger, hitting him with an energy beam that disintegrates Buzz’s top half, leaving only his legs still standing, but now smoking. It turns out that this is only Buzz Lightyear, the video game character, getting blown up, and the toy version is still fine. But kids don’t know that when it happens. Even more adult, in film #3 the whole gang, facing their certain incineration, are forced to come to an acceptance of death (though they are rescued at the last possible moment). Finally, in the franchise’s most recent chapter, a pretty but psychotic doll wants to rip Woody’s voice box right out of his stuffing. Finally, add in some minor innuendo throughout – when Mr. Potato Head travels down the Barbie aisle in a toy store he has to remind himself “I’m a married spud, I’m a married spud.” It’s tame, and infrequent, but not kid stuff either. Toy Story is meant for adults. Cautions If I was recommending this for children, there would be all sorts of little nits that could be picked. For example, when one toy talks about how much he trusts Woody, Mr. Potato Head takes off his lips and presses them to his butt – adults understand, though my kids missed it. A bunch of alien toys in one of those coin-operated toy dispensers view the claw that comes down as “our master” and speak of it in a worshipful manner. They’re basically a cult, and make for a weird, if fortunately brief, addition. And for kids, it'd be important to note the overall tension throughout. If you're watching any of them with children, there could be parts where you'll need to hit the fast-forward button because it'll be simply too much for the under ten crowd. (The scariest moment of all might be in the first film, when we discover that Sid, in addition to blowing up his toys, has spliced a number of different toys together. After Woody and Buzz get trapped in Sid's bedroom, they get surrounded by his freaky creations, including the creepiest toy you’ll ever see: a mute Mechano spider topped with a shaved doll’s head. We soon learn that these monstrosities are all friendly, but for a while there it's downright disturbing. I think even adults could get the kreebles in this scene.) But as far adults are concerned, the only caution would regard the company behind the franchise. Pixar films spent a couple of decades making films that were artistic, entertaining, and still generally safe – language and sexuality concerns were minimal, and violence was of the cartoonish sort. But the Pixar of the 199os and early 2000s has now transitioned into a woke company that encourages homosexuality and transsexuality. So the warning is, don't presume that what Pixar creates next will be generally safe. Conclusion Twenty-five years ago Toy Story was groundbreaking: it was the first feature film to be animated entirely by computer. Successive films continued to push animation advancements, however, Toy Story's success was never about the spectacle. What made Pixar special (before it became woke) was the attention to detail in every aspect of their storytelling. They knew their cinematic history and borrowed from the best that had gone before. So, for example, Buzz and Woody are a classic odd couple, and it doesn't matter that we all know right from the start that they're destined to become the best of friends by film's end – the joy is in the craftsmanship of the journey. Throw in some loyalty and love, daring-do, and more than a little nostalgia and wistfulness, and what's delivered are films to savor, at least in the moments when the action slows down. And while these are best appreciated by adults, I'd recommend them for as young as 12. Look below for the trailers for all four films. ...

Drama, Movie Reviews

To save a life

Drama 120 minutes; 2010 Rating: 7/10 To Save A Life is about teen suicide... and also premarital sex, abortion, underage drinking, cutting, bullying, divorce, divorce's impact on children, adultery, drug use, gossip, and Christian hypocrisy. It's a realistic look into the teen party culture, and consequently, we see some students smoking pot, a couple about to engage in sex, lots of drinking, and a lot of immodest dress. This description might make the film seem too much like today's typical teen fare - partying kids, and the fun they have. But here's the twist: To Save A Life is about being willing to stick out instead of fit in, being willing to reach out, to walk our talk, to take responsibility for our sins, to be willing to forgive, and to take God and what He says in his Word seriously. High school senior Jake Taylor is the star guard on the school's basketball team. He has what everyone wants: the looks, the friends, the prettiest girl in school. Roger Dawson is on the other end of the social spectrum. He wonders if anyone would even notice if he just disappeared. In despair, he walks into school and pulls out a gun in a crowded hallway. As he swings the gun barrel towards his own head, only one student speaks up - Jake - but it's too late. Roger kills himself. That's how the film begins, and the rest is about how Jake reacts to Roger's suicide. It haunts him because the two of them used to be friends. But Jake ditched Roger soon after they both started high school, when Jake got in with the popular kids. Roger needed a friend. Jake was too busy pursuing the "high school dream" to care. Guilt-ridden, Jake first turns to alcohol, and then to sex to try to forget. But those are only short-term diversions. Eventually, he ends up in a nearby church, attending the youth service. But here, too, he isn't finding what he hoped - the group is full of youth who aren't walking their talk. He knows many of these same church kids are smoking pot during school, or are part of the same party scene he's running from. In disgust, he shouts out a challenge to the group: "What is the use of all this if you aren't going to let it change you?" Sure, some of the kids aren't genuine, but some are, and Jake's angry challenge stirs things up. They start meeting for lunch at school and start reaching out to others on the outside to come join them. They befriend the friendless. Cautions When this was first released it was quite a controversial film in Christian circles. Not many Christian films earn a PG-13 rating. But while the film's realistic portrayal of teen depravity means this is not a film for children, this "grit" has been used with care and restraint is evident. Still, there are reasons parents might want to preview this film before watching with their teens. In addition to the intense topic matter, here are some more specific cautions to consider: Immodest dress. Some of the girls are wearing outfits that would look much nicer, and much warmer, with a coat on. One student says "dammit" and another says "hell" There may be another instance or two of such curse words, but no one takes God's name in vain. A couple, with the boy shirtless, are shown on a bed kissing, clearly about to have sex (which is not shown). One boy is shown cutting his arm (not much gore, but we do see a little blood). A boy kills himself by shooting himself in the head. We see no blood or gore, but it is an emotionally intense scene. This is a complex movie because of the sheer number of issues it takes on and because it takes on so much, it does breeze over some issues, and deals with some others in an overly simplistic way. This includes God's gospel message. Viewers might leave with the impression that God's gospel message is meant as good news for this life - that if we follow what He says, things will start going better for us here and now. This is the "Gospel as a self-help guide" error common to many Christian films and novels. It isn't explicitly stated in To Save A Life so I don't want to dwell on it. The truth is, things do often start going better for us when we follow God's will. His law can act as a fence around us; when we stay within its bounds we are safe from many things that might otherwise harm us. At the same time, serving God can come at a cost - think of the many martyrs around the world. And in the high school setting, especially in a public school but even in Christian ones, serving God can cost you friends and popularity. That's a point that To Save A Life touches on, but also glosses over. Conclusion This would have rated higher if the acting had been better – sometimes it is quite good, but the star himself is decidedly average. (It may interest some that commentator Steven Crowder, in a minor role here as best friend, does a pretty solid job.) What this is, first and foremost, is a message film, and on that front, it is powerful. How do Christians do high school differently?  As To Save A Life shows, oftentimes we don't do it differently at all - we're involved in the same drunkenness, the same rebellion, the same quest to fit in. Our peers matter to us more than our parents, and more than God. But what if we lived as lights? What if God, and what He thought, mattered more to us than what our friends thought of us? What if we did unto others as we would like them to do unto us? Then we might do high school quite differently. To Save A Life explores what that difference might look like, and while the film is gritty at times, it is a great resource for parents and their teenage children. It is an enjoyable film, but more importantly a challenging one. Parents: use it to challenge your kids. ...

Drama, Movie Reviews, Watch for free

Extraordinary

Comedy / Drama 2017 / 88 minutes Rating: 6/10 If you're looking for a quiet Hallmark-ish film to watch with your spouse, the two of you all snuggled up on the couch, this might fill the bill. Extraordinary is based on the real-life story of Liberty University professor and ultra-marathon runner David Horton. This is a fellow who runs not simply for hours, but for months, taking on challenges like a Mexico-to-Canada race (which puts a whole new meaning to "cross-country running"). While his athletic exploits have made him a legend to his students, these runs have come with a cost for Horton and his family: bleeding feet and knees, and swollen joints for him, and for the children, a dad who has been missing-in-action for their recitals and baseball games. Meanwhile, his wife Nancy has had to run their household on her own for months at a time and, when her runner returns, then she's had to nurse her utterly spent husband back to health. When Horton's doctor says he needs knee replacement surgery and it'll put an end to his competitive running career, Horton still wants to do one last race. But unbeknownst to him, his wife Nancy has been busy planning a surprise vacation for the whole family, sure that her husband's knee pain (and recent heart surgery) will keep him home with them this summer. It's not to be: in a comedic twist what Horton is still thinking about – running the TransAmerican race from California to New York in 64 days – is announced as fact to a stadium of students, and then Horton feels like has to go, to live up to their expectations. Horton is played by Leland Klassen, a gifted physical comedian, who brings a quirky charm to the role. That charm is much needed to make us care about Horton, who, if he wasn't so likable, would otherwise come off as a doofus, leaving his wife at alone for the summer. My wife and I both enjoyed it, but concluded that a problem with Extraordinary is that it attempts more than it actually delivers. This is the story of a man whose identity has been completely tied up in his running – he's done it his whole life, achieved things others can't even dream of doing, and he's even managed to make running a huge part of his daily work because as a professor he teaches running in his physical education classes. Now he's been told that a needed knee replacement surgery is going to sideline him for good. So this is a middle-aged man struggling with his sense of identity, and his own mortality – that's fodder for a great film. But because Horton is blissfully unaware of what his wife is going through, we feel more for his wife than for Horton and don't really feel for him in his struggles. What makes this still worth watching is that it is a doofus who (finally) learns his lesson. He told his wife that he thought God wanted him to use his running ability to inspire others one last time, and by movie's end he realizes that he may well have attributed to God only what he himself wanted. Horton learns that God has more than the role of runner in mind for him; father and husband should actually be taking precedence. This gets a 6 out of 10 for its somewhat contrived plot – much of the conflict comes from husband and wife just not talking to each other. While I don't normally review films that score just 6, I made an exception this time because even as this is not great art, it is nice....and you can watch it for free. I also appreciated that there's nothing objectionable here, and that includes even the theology, which isn't deep, but also isn't dabbling in the heretical as frequently happens in other Christian flicks. Overall, Extraordinary is a lightweight comedic drama about a doofus husband who takes a while to get his priorities right but who figures it out in time for a happy ending for all. That's all it is, and on some evenings that's really all we're looking for. Watch the trailer here and watch the film for free below. There's also a 4-minute bio here if you want to know a little something about the real David Horton. ...

Animated, Movie Reviews

Peppa Pig: The balloon ride

Animated / Children's 52 minutes/ 2014 Rating: 7/10 Peppa Pig is a lovable little pig, big sister to her toddling brother George, and daughter of Mommy and Daddy Pig. She's probably best known for her love of jumping in muddy puddles, which, of course, is natural behavior for pigs (and many a little boy too, especially after watching this show). Her adventures are of an ordinary kind, going on a bicycle ride with her parents, or trying to learn how to whistle. It's about as gentle and safe a show as parents could hope for, as of yet untouched by the LGBT lobby. In this collection, Peppa has a series of 12 short adventures, all about 5 minutes long, that see her take a ride in a hot air balloon, then in a new car, and even lace up a pair of ice skates. For parents, the biggest attraction might be that the short stories make this an easy one to turn on for only a brief time. Cautions During the Covid lockdowns, some US children were developing British accents and using British words like "optician" instead of "eye doctor." Teleworking parents were turning to Peppa as an electronic babysitter. We probably don't care if our kids start sounding British – it might bring a little class to our dinner table discussions – but it highlights how a little Peppa is different than a lotta Peppa. The problem here is more with TV as a babysitter than with Peppa herself. No matter how "safe" the material, our young children need their parents to help them digest the stories they ingest. They need to be taught what to swallow, and what to spit out. So, for example, in large doses, Daddy Pig's occasional cluelessness starts coming off as yet another TV bumbling father. That's not a problem with parents around to point it out, but becomes an issue if our kids unknowingly take it in. Another example: in large doses, Peppa's occasional bossiness and bad sportsmanship aren't that occasional anymore. Another caution would involve select episodes that are likely to preach a secular perspective, such as their Earth Day episode. But I don't actually know how bad or harmless it might be, because our family skipped that one. Conclusion While a lot of Peppa might be too much, a little Peppa is delightful. The target audience here is pre-school children up to Grade 1 or so. This is too child-ish to be all-ages viewing for a family movie night but will be a great choice for young kids who don't like much tension or conflict. A lot of episodes are available for free on their YouTube channel here, and you can check out the trailer for this collection below. ...

Family, Movie Reviews

Odd Squad: The movie

Children's / Family 65 minutes / 2016 Rating: 7/10 Odd Squad is an organization founded to correct the "strange, the weird, and most especially the odd" wherever they might occur around the world. The organization itself is odd in that it is run entirely by children. While there's an educational vibe, with basic math and logic used to solve most problems, this is all about the fun, and not just for the kids. In a nod to James Bond, there are agents, cartoonish villains, gadgets galore, the science types who invent them, and a leader known only by her letter, "Miss O." But, thankfully, there isn't any of Bond's violence and sex. Odd Squad, the TV show, has been in production for 8 years, which has resulted in child actors aging out of their roles. So since 2014, there have been three "seasons," each with its own set of agents. Odd Squad: The Movie involves the first and second sets teaming up for the first time (which was very exciting for our girls). So who do they have to battle? Well, it turns out, nobody. A new rival adult-based agency, the Weird Team, is also dealing with all things weird and odd, and fixing things so quickly that Odd Squad doesn't have any cases to solve. So the film begins with Odd Squad disbanding. How's that for an unexpected twist! However, Weird Team may not be quite as effective as they first seemed. Their fixes are coming unfixed... or maybe they were never really fixed in the first place! Whatever the case may be, it's clear the world still needs Odd Squad. Cautions There aren't any notable cautions for the film, so the only quibbles would be about the TV show that spawned it. In the 20 or so episodes we've watched so far (out of more than 100) one dealt with the number 13 and bad luck. The story was actually about addition – they were finding all sorts of ways that basketball players' uniforms could add up to 13 – and the bad luck was of a goofy sort. Still, we hit the pause button so we could discuss the idea of luck with our kids. In a couple of other episodes, there was passing mention made about the organization being around for millions of years, which presumes the evolutionary time scale. But, so far, that's really it. Conclusion The film is goofy and creative, and especially fun because it had the two teams working together. While the target audience is in the 6-10 age range, it'll be a great one for a family movie night. You can watch the movie trailer below, and to get a feel for Odd Squad you can watch a full episode from the show by clicking here). ...

Documentary, Movie Reviews, Watch for free

Captivated: finding freedom in a media captive culture

Documentary 107 minutes / 2011 Rating: 7/10 A highlight in Captivated is an epic rant by Professor Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans. When asked what he would say to his students caught up in the digital age,  his answer is worth the price of the film: "Do something different with yourselves. That means reading books. Know a little bit about history…. You’ll encounter people who actually faced real stakes in their lives. didn’t sit around and say, 'Oh my girlfriend dumped me. I feel so terrible; let me go talk to my friends. I’ll go change my Facebook page.' The trivia of youth are amplified by these digital tools. What is the motto of YouTube? Broadcast yourself. Well, guess what? Yourself may not be that important. That may not be such a great subject to focus so much time on. One of the most dismaying things about you guys is you get together and all you talk about is yourselves and what you do. You don’t talk about anything else. Do you know how boring you are?” Of course, the self-absorption of youth is not the film’s only target. Parents are liable to feel pretty uncomfortable when their own enslavement to digital media is highlighted. Captivated asks, how can we use media, and use these tools without becoming enslaved to them? It promotes moderation, but in what is surely the most controversial segment, suggests a one-month media fast can help families connect, and better regain balance in their lives.  One father, Erik Engstrom, notes that it can’t be “just about taking away – if all you do is take away something from your kids, and leave them with nothing, they’re in no better spot.” So the fast also has to involve feasting – feasting on family board games, on biking together, shooting hoops, conversations with mom and dad about the books that kids are reading and much more. There’s much more to this documentary, and all of it challenging and thought-provoking. It's a decade old now, so that means there's nothing on Tik Tok and more than you might expect on TV viewing, but the overall principles discussed are just as relevant as ever. It's highly recommended, and you can watch it for free below. ...

Drama, Movie Reviews

Freedom

Drama 2014 / 94 minutes Rating: 7/10 Like many a film "inspired by true events," this isn't good history but it is pretty decent cinema. Freedom is really two stories in one, the first loosely based on the life of John Newton. He's the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace" and while the film gets the broad details of his life right – he was the captain of a slave trade ship, he did have an encounter with God on his ship, and he did turn his back on the slave trade – the timeline of those events has been greatly compacted. In real life, his rejection of the slave trade was a gradual shift over years and even decades, while in the film it seems more a matter of weeks. The second story takes place 100 years later, and is a fictional account of a family of slaves fleeing Virginia via the Underground Railroad. Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as the father, Samuel. He has his wife, son, and mother with him, and while his mother trusts in God's faithfulness for everything, Samuel has no interest in God. How, he asks, can any slave think God cares about them? It's unusual for a Christian film to ask difficult questions. While Samuel does come to God before film's end, both he, and we, are left with the realization that God might not give us all the answers we are after, or at least, not on this side of Heaven. What connects these two stories is a Bible that John Newton is supposed to have given Samuel's great grandfather when he was just a boy years ago. Samuel's mother still has it, and we take the leap back in time when she tells the story of how Newton came to give a Bible to a slave. Newton's "Amazing Grace" is the musical centerpiece to the story, but there are lots of other songs too. It isn't a musical, though – in musicals people just randomly start to sing instead of talk. Here most of the songs have a natural fit: characters sing because they are comforting someone, or as part of a performance, or they sing to pass the time. But whatever the reason they are singing, the music is very good! Cautions Freedom received an R rating for the violence that's done to the slaves. While many of the blows happen just offscreen, communicated more by sound than by visuals, it can be brutal. That makes this best suited for older teens and parents. While God's name is used throughout the film it is used appropriately, to either talk about Him, or to Him. There is one use of "damn." Conclusion One secular critic called this "an overly sentimental cinematic history lesson best suited for church and school groups" and while he meant it as a criticism, I'd just say he's nailed the target audience. The slave trade was brutal, and while this is too, it is only so in parts because the filmmakers didn't want to present an unvarnished look – they weren't trying to make a Schindler's List that'd leave everyone mute and depressed afterward. By presenting only some of the horror, they allow families to view and discuss it together with their older teens. Freedom could serve as an instructive introduction to this chapter of history... at least for teens and adults. ...

Animated, Articles, Movie Reviews

Batman as a cucumber? The best of Veggietales...

The VeggieTales phenomenon began back in 1993 with the release of their first video, Where’s God When I’m Scared? which, like all that would follow, starred Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. While it was childish fare, there was a nod to parents in how this duo was patterned after the classic comedic pairings of Laurel & Hardy and Abbot & Costello. Bob was the easily exasperated straight man to Larry’s energetic innocent goof. Together they'd introduce each video by reading questions from children. The questions range from asking how to handle peer pressure, to wondering if it’s important to share toys with little brothers. They'd be answered with stories acted out by a host of other Veggies, including Junior Asparagus, Jean-Claude the French Pea, Pa Grape and Laura Carrot. Afterward Bob and Larry return to discuss what kids have learned, and then look up a relevant Bible verse on the computer Qwerty. That first video was followed by 47 more, and two television series, two feature films, innumerable books, a handful of CDs, and, of course, plush toys. And today, nearly 30 years later, the series is still going strong. But while VeggieTales at their very best, are downright brilliant, there is a danger in being silly while teaching Scriptural lessons – sometimes the goofiness extends to how they handle Scripture. So the quality of the videos runs the gamut from brilliant to bad, with the best being spoofs of cultural icons (Batman, Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes...) and the worst being their careless Bible story retellings. With the near 50 videos out there, I haven't watched them all, so here's just a selection of the best, followed by a few examples of how their biblical stories fall short. The best Larry-Boy and the Fib from Outer Space 30 minutes / 1997 Rating: 8/10 This is our first glimpse of Larry the Cucumber’s alter ego, Larry-Boy, a super-hero with suction cup ears. This Batman spoof is complete with his own Larry-mobile, Larry-cave, and butler named Alfred. In this first adventure, a tiny alien named Fibrilious Minimus (“You can call me Fib for short”) encourages Junior Asparagus to lie to get out of trouble. But one lie quickly leads to another and before he knows it Junior finds that his little friend Fib is now 20 stories tall. Can Larry-Boy stop the Fib from outer space? Actually, no. Bumblyburg’s resident superhero is completely confounded by the giant Fib. In the end only Junior can stop the Fib, by finally confessing to all his lies. In his further adventures, Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed (1999), Larry-Boy and the Bad Apple (2006), and VeggieTales: The League of Incredible Vegatables (2012) our spandex-clad cucumber consistently shows himself to be a rather ineffective super-hero. It's only with the help of his friends, that good does eventually prevail. In addition to the previous four videos, Larry-Boy also has his own 4-episode, 2-d animation series called Larryboy: the Cartoon Adventures. It's an old-school "flat" animation look, as opposed to VeggieTales' typical computer-animated, 3-d look, but it's every bit as fun. Because this is a Batman spoof, there are villains to fight, and consequently more action, and more tension than normal. So in our house, these weren't really appreciated by the pre-school crew, but that changed as they got a bit older. Madame Blueberry 37 minutes / 1998 Rating: 8/10 Madame Blueberry is a story about a very blue berry who thinks she needs more stuff to be happy. She already has quite a lot, but some of her friends have more than she does and that makes her very blue. Fortunately for Madame Blueberry a new Stuff-Mart has just been built next door and the store’s salesmen are quite eager to help her shop. Their sales pitch is far from subtle, “Happiness waits at the Stuff-Mart – all you need is more…stuff!” but it convinces Madame Blueberry. On the way to the store though, she notices a poor family celebrating their little girl’s birthday. They have hardly anything and yet they’re happy and thankful to God. But how could that be? When Madame Blueberry encounters a little boy happy to own a single red ball she finally realizes being greedy never makes you happy, but that “a thankful heart is a happy heart!" I can't find a trailer for this one, but here's a clip... Lord of the Beans 51 minutes / 2005 Rating: 8/10 This is for parents who've seen Lord of the Rings, and for kids who are too young to see it. On his 122nd birthday, Billboy Baggypants decides to leave everything behind, including his magic bean, which can give its owner anything they want. Billboy is leaving because, despite the bean's power, he is still unsatisfied. So off he goes, bequeathing the bean to his nephew Toto, who goes on a quest to find out how he should use it. Toto is accompanied by Ear-a-corn the ranger, Randalph the Wizard, Leg-o-lamb the elf, and Grumpy the dwarf who will protect him from the fearful "sporks." If you haven't seen the Lord of the Rings, or you have, and nothing in preceding paragraph strikes you as amusing, then this isn't for you. But it is a spot-on spoof, with the lesson this time being that we should find out how to use the gifts God gives us. Sheerluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler 52 minutes / 2006 Rating: 7/10 There are two stories in thi sone, the first a spoof on Don Quixote and the second, longer one a fun take on Sherlock Holmes. Holmes (Larry) relies heavily on the insights of his friend, Dr. Watson (Bob), but doesn't share any of the credit for the crimes they solve. So when one of the United Kingdom's greatest treasures is stolen – the Golden Ruler – Dr. Watson decides to let Holmes solve this one on his own...and that doesn't go so well for him. The Golden Ruler is a play off the Golden Rule, with Dr. Watson simply wanting Holmes to treat him as Holmes would want to be treated himself. It's another brilliant spoof that mom and dad will enjoy too. MacLarry & The Stinky Cheese Battle 45 minutes / 2013 Rating: 8/10 What if Rome was right next to Scotland? And what if the leaders of these two nations were former friends caught up in an epic pranking battle with one another? That's the premise, with Larry playing the son of the Barber-barian leader Chug Norious (think Chuck Norris) who just doesn't fit in. While everyone else likes pranking, he likes inventing. The lesson here is to appreciate other's gifts, even when they are so very different from your own. Veggies in Space: The Fennel Frontier 48 minutes / 2014 Rating: 8/10 This whole episode is a series of Star Trek and Star Wars reference (along with some quick 2001, Doctor Who, Planet of the Apes, and even Back to the Future references) that the kids won't really notice, but mom and dad may enjoy spotting. There are the silly/clever jokes for the parents that they'll only get, like an actual wooden bridge acting as the captain's bridge, and a crew member using a floating piece of wood to record his diary...aka his log. Such dad humor abounds! Larry and Bob are basically Kirk and Spock, and the lesson they need to learn is sharing. That's a lesson that many a kid can benefit from, so parents can appreciate the leap off this episode offers to have some good discussions on the topic. There's more action than normal, with giant robot fights, but nothing too scary. One language concern: a character's use of the phrase "holy guacamole." Tomato Sawyer & Huckleberry Larry's Big River Rescue 49 minutes / 2008 Rating: 7/10 This time Bob and Larry offer their own take on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Fin. It's another good spoof, though the moral of the story – to help others – is more than a bit heavy-handed this time. How so? Bob and Larry play America settlers who need to stay on their plot of land for 5 years to be able to claim it and as our story begins they have just a few days to go. Then an escapee prisoner, Big Jim, arrives – he's been framed for a crime he never committed and he needs their help to find his mama. And that would mean leave their land claim. Thus Bob and Larry (or rather Tom and Huck) face the dilemma of helping Big Jim or keeping the land they've been working 5 years for. But Christians don't have to casually abandon everything they are doing and working towards to help someone in need; they can work through their options and possibilities. So why, for example, couldn't they bring Jim back to their land claim and help him find his mama after they secure their land? It's not unChristian to try for a win/win situation. That said, it is just a cartoon. The "biblical" bunch Some years back Reformed commentator Gary Demar wrote a booklet called Meaty Tales: Should Talking Vegetables Be Used to Teach the Bible? His answer was an emphatic no, with his criticism focused specifically on the VeggieTale biblical adaptations. He argued these accounts were "trivializing and truncating the Bible’s message." “Talking vegetables teaching a lesson about lying by using a giant fib from outer space? That’s cute. And a dancing cucumber serenading little tikes with songs about his hairbrush and his water buffalo? How charming. But making the story of King David and Bathsheba into King George and the Ducky . . . is everyone else ok with that?” The Bible stories began with an adaptation of Daniel in the Lions' Den in their very first video, Where’s God When I’m Scared? And as Demar puts it, we could see from the start that "The VeggieTellers are way too liberal in the use of their literary license." Sometimes that "liberality" is hard to understand: the Veggie version has Daniel (played by Larry Cucumber) interpreting Darius' dream when the Bible tells us it was Nebuchadnezzar. Why this change? Other times the alteration might be understandable, though no less problematic. The Veggie version has jealous wisemen (played by green onions)  plot Daniel's doom via a song and dance number – they trick Darius into signing a decree that forbids bowing to anyone other than the king. Daniel breaks this new law by praying to God, and is thrown into the lions’ den. Afterwards, when he emerges unscathed, the wise men run away. In reality, these wise men were thrown into the den, and “before they reached the floor of the den the lions overpowered them and crushed their bones” (Dan 6:24). Not only are the wise men punished in this horrible fashion, even their wives and children were consumed by the lions. In a cartoon intended for kids it might seem sensible to make this G-rated substitution for what would otherwise be an R-rated event. But that the real events would be unsuitable for a children's cartoon isn't a reason to recast reality in a "nicer" light – it's a reason not to make a cartoon about that reality. This isn't the only time VeggieTales has felt free to insert a “nicer” endings to a biblical tale. In Esther, the Girl Who Became Queen Haman plots against the Jews but instead of trying to kill them he attempts to banish them to the "Island of Perpetual Tickling." Are nicer endings really such a problem? Well, just consider how many Christians would be shocked to read an Old Testament passage in which God demands the slaughter of women and children. In a quest to embrace the God of love many Christians prefer to forget that He also demands justice and in fact can be wrathful as well. By inserting these “nicer” ending VeggieTales actually hide the true character of God from children. And since children are likely to view these videos repeatedly, and read the corresponding Bible passages infrequently, that is real damage being done. Even when the Veggie version is fairly faithful – as happens in Dave and the Giant Pickle – it's still going to be comical – here we have a cute David, played by Junior Asparagus. How often is cute and comical going to be a good match for the tone of the biblical text? King George and the Ducky is, as Demar noted, based on King David’s sordid fling with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11&12). To pull off the G-rated version, the object of the King's covetous lust, Bathsheba, is replaced with a rubber ducky. Yup, you read that right, a rubber ducky. The king already has several hundred rubber duckies, but he wants Thomas’s rubber ducky so he sends Thomas off to the “Great Pie War.” Demar comments: "Putting aside the issue of whether it’s appropriate to turn Bible characters into vegetables, the VeggieTales rendition of the inspired Bible stories are inaccurate and hopelessly trivial. If my Bible memory serves me, Uzziah was killed when David sent him to the front lines of the war, and Bathsheba lost her baby that was conceived through her adulterous affair with David. To tell the stories in any other way is unbiblical. Children can understand the basics of unfaithfulness and murder without resorting to the use of bathtub toys." Perhaps the worst of the Veggie versions is Josh and the Big Wall, a "lesson in obedience." If you read Joshua 4-6 you’ll see this is one of the few stretches where Israel obeyed God without question. However, the Veggie version pretends the Israelites are questioning God at every opportunity. The VeggieTellers could have chosen almost any other point in Israel’s history to highlight Israel's rebellion, but instead the exception, when Israel is on its best behavior. And since there is no rebellion at this point, the writers simply make it up. They also contradict Scripture when Bob the Tomato comments that, “God never said it was going to be easy – no, the people of Jericho hit them with everything they had.” Actually, God did say it was going to be easy. All they had to do was walk around the city for seven successive days and God would knock the walls down for them – there was no need for a siege; God had given the city into their hands. In this whole story the scriptwriters don't just play fast and loose with Scripture; they shamelessly turn it on its head. Based on the producers' mishandling of other biblical tales, and the impossibility of cracking wise while still giving God's Word its reverent due, I'd suggest giving their other bible stories a miss too. They include: Noah's Ark Jonah: A VeggieTale Movie Abe and the Amazing Promise – about Abraham and Sarah The Ballad of Little Joe – about Joseph and his multi-colored coat Babysitter in Denile – about baby Moses left in the Nile Moe and the Big Exit – about Moses and the Exodus Gideon – Tuba Warrior Other lowlights Beauty and Beast has always been a creepy story, what with the father willing to leave his daughter behind to save his own skin. The Veggie version, Beauty and the Beet, improves on the original by improving the dad – this time he doesn't leave his daughter behind, but instead acts as the manager of their family band, the Veggietones. But then the story gets creepy in an entirely different way. The main song the Veggietones sing, "Show You Love," is all about ignoring friends and family's advice and dating the boy they think is no good, and attributing this foolish stubbornness to a directive from God. How did anyone think this was a good song to pitch to preteens? Overall cautions I'll mention one overall caution for the series: no one takes God's name in vain, but the Veggies do, with some regularity, say "Gee." This is not Jesus' name, but it is close enough that, like "Geez" we don't want our children saying it. And because it is close, I just wonder why Christian writers can't steer clear. Conclusion While the writers too often jump straight from reverence to irreverence, they've also crafted a collection of videos that are wonderfully and unabashedly brilliant. It's when they steer clear of Bible stories, and make use of material that doesn't demand the same reverence, that their comic genius is genius indeed....

Documentary, Movie Reviews, Watch for free

Is Genesis History?

Documentary 100 min / 2017 RATING: 8/10 We live and breathe and move in an atmosphere that is full of assumptions. We assume that what we see is how things have always been. And our friends and colleagues at work assume that scientists have disproved the Bible. And even if we know better, we hear so often that the earth is the product of millions and billions of years of slow erosion and evolution, those assumptions can impact us too – we can begin to wonder, "Is it crazy to believe that this planet is only 6,000 years old, that God made all of this in just six days?" Is Genesis History? is a film that can help to quell those voices of doubt, the voices that ask, "Did God really say?"  Like thoughtful Christian apologetics, this movie can give us confidence that it is logical and entirely defensible for a modern person to fully believe that God's Word describes historical events and real people. Narrator Del Tackett opens the documentary showing a series of beautiful rock formations and deep canyons, and wonders aloud how many years these magnificent sites took to develop. We might assume thousands or even millions. But no – he reveals that the landscape around him was formed in just a few months, after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980! This is a powerful illustration of just how our observations are colored by our preconceptions. Throughout the film, Tackett speaks with various PhD-holding scientists about their areas of expertise, and often in the midst of beautiful scenery. These passionate and articulate scholars contrast two major competing views of history: the conventional view that all we see around us developed over billions of years, and the Biblical view that points to a young earth in which God acted directly and with incredible power to create and form the world. Many of these experts point to the great Flood that covered the whole earth as an explanation for the geological formations we can observe in the Grand Canyon for example, and for the way that fossils appear intact and often in groups and herds. The massive power of the waters below, bursting forth, and the windows of heaven opening, caused enormous changes to the earth, killing most life. The flood was universal and catastrophic and awesome in its destructive power, and its effects can be seen all over the world still today – if you have eyes to see it! The format of Is Genesis History? consisting of questions and answers filmed in interesting locations, with helpful illustrations, makes it easy to understand and engaging. It probably won't keep the attention of younger children, but middle school students on up to senior citizens will enjoy and benefit from this film. I can see this movie being beneficial for our young people's societies, and the producers have made available free study and discussion material at their website www.IsGenesisHistory.com. This is a great film that encourages us to view the Bible as accurate history, and is a timely reminder that God's Word is true yesterday, today and tomorrow. And right now you can watch it for free on YouTube below: Further discussion Other reviews Tim Challies Douglas Wilson WORLD magazine Paul Nelson controversy One of the interviewees in the film, Paul Nelson, while a 6-day creationist, is also a major figure in the Intelligent Design movement. He didn't like how he came out in the film, and explains why here. Del Tackett, film narrator and producer, responds here. Todd Wood, another interviewee, also has some thoughts here. Biologos and response Biologos is a group that seeks to promote an evolutionary worldview in Christian circles. They didn't like the film, and posted a critique here. Creation Ministries responded here. This review first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue....

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A Return to Grace: Luther's life and legacy

Docudrama 2017 / 106 minutes Rating: 8/10 What makes this a must-see is its unique mix of drama and documentary. Other great Luther documentaries exist, but the most engaging of "talking heads" can't really grab the attention of a broad audience. I have seen even children enjoy one of the many dramatized accounts of his life, but drama can't go into the same depth as a documentary – an actor can show us Luther's despair or his joy, but they can't depict the greatness of God's grace, so, in this genre, it goes largely unexplored. A Return to Grace is a docudrama – half documentary and half drama, making good use of the strengths of each. There are learned theologians to give us the background and explain the Scriptural debates that occurred, and there are also elaborately set and well-acted scenes from Luther's life. I would guess it is a near 50/50 split. Pádraic Delaney's Luther is very believable (and maybe second only to Niall MacGinnis' 1953 portrayal), speaking volumes with not just his tongue, but his grimaces, smiles, and silences. I've probably watched at least a half dozen Luther films, and I've never seen the chronology of Luther's life depicted as clearly. There are also explanations offered here that are left as mysteries elsewhere. Have you ever wondered why the Pope didn't just crush this monk early on when he was still seemingly insignificant? The answer shared here is that the Pope didn't want to make an enemy of Luther's prince, Frederick III, because the prince was one of the seven electors who would choose the next Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope had no direct say in that selection, and if he hoped to have any sort of influence at all, he would need to be on the good side of the electors. God so set the scene that the Pope had to act cautiously and with restraint and couldn't just burn Luther at the stake. While I was familiar with only one of the theologians interviewed (United Reformed professor Carl Trueman), they all had some great Luther gems to share. James Korthals, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary contributed this one about Luther's view on vocation: "The  farmer out in the field pitching dung is doing a greater work for God than the monk in the monastery praying for his own salvation." This was, at the time, a revolutionary idea of vocation. Even today, many seem to think that minister and missionary are the true God-glorifying jobs, and all else is second best. In saying all jobs could be done to God's glory, Luther presented all fruitful work as being worthy of respect. This is one of the ideas highlighted in the film's alternate title: Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. The story here is first and foremost about Luther rediscovering the gracious nature of God, but it is also about Luther's influence as it impacted people far beyond the church door, and about the ripples that continue to be felt even today, and even in the secular world. Cautions I have no real cautions for the film. I was a little concerned when a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Timothy Dolan, made a few brief appearances. But he doesn't say much of anything, and even concedes that Luther's rebellion was understandable against that old corrupted Roman Catholic Church. He might be implying that today's Roman Catholic Church is different, but he isn't given the time to make that case. Conclusion Return to Grace's drama/documentary combination draws viewers in without sacrificing depth. I'll add that this still isn't one for preteens, but for adults, and teens who are on their way, this will be a fascinating presentation of the man, and what he learned about our great God. So don't save it for Reformation Day – it's free to see now (though with some commercials). ...

Documentary, Movie Reviews

Facing darkness

Documentary 99 minutes / 2017 Rating 8/10 In early 2020, when New York was hit with a surge of serious Covid-19 cases, Samaritan's Purse set up a mobile field hospital to relieve the State's overwhelmed health services. Running towards danger was nothing new for this Christian group – they'd already been busy helping with the Covid outbreak in Italy. And years earlier, when West Africa was faced with an Ebola outbreak, they led the way there too, despite the horrorific nature of that disease. Facing Darkness is a documentary about that 2014 outbreak, and Samaritan's Purse's courageous response to it. This is certainly not a film for everyone, but it might be great viewing for anyone feeling overwhelmed by our current Covid situation. Here are Christians facing risks many times greater, and while they are afraid – terrified even – it isn't a contradiction to say they were not fearful. They kept working. They kept helping, even when one, and then two, of their own staff became infected. As Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham detailed, when he got the news, it was devastating: "My phone rang...and Ken Isaac said, 'Franklin, one of our doctors, Kent Bradley has ebola.' I didn't even know how to pray. I just kept saying, 'Lord, why? We were there to save life. We are there in your name. Why?'" And, of course, they weren't the only ones impacted by the outbreak. The film begins with a young man sharing, one after another, the names of his aunts, uncles, his mother, brother, sister, nephews, and other relatives, who were all taken by Ebola. It is heartbreaking! So why should anyone see this film? Why would anyone want to? Because, at a time when the world is overwhelmed with fear, here are Christians who were certain God was with them, and trusted He would provide for them even in the face of sickness and death. These are people who live out the promise God has given, that whatever the here and now, He has treasure stored up for them in heaven. That makes this such a hope-filled film. It is wonderful! Caution With death an ongoing topic, no matter the safe visuals, this is not a film for children. Conclusion Facing Darkness tells an amazing and encouraging story – brothers and sisters in the Lord showing what it means to trust Him with our all – and that's an example that we can all benefit from. Check out the trailer below, and watch the documentary for free (with ads) at Tubi, or rent it at Amazon, Vimeo, and elsewhere. ...

Documentary, Movie Reviews

The Free Speech Apocalypse

Documentary 89 minutes / 2015 Rating: 8/10 In 2012 Pastor Douglas Wilson gave a public lecture on the contentious topic of sexuality God's way. But it wasn't simply a public lecture: his event took place on the campus of a large university and was advertised well ahead of time, giving campus LGBT groups and their supporters time to arrange protests and arrange to fill the auditorium seats. In addition, this wasn't just any university campus: it was Indiana University, home of the Kinsey Institute, where the infamous sexologist Alfred Kinsey helped launch the Sexual Revolution. For a talk on God's thoughts about sex this was as hostile a setting as could be had. His talk, and all the hysteria and hoopla that surrounded it, is the centerpiece of director Darren Doanne's new documentary The Free Speech Apocalypse. Doanne uses the event to tackle three related subjects: The intolerance of the Left – As the title suggests, free speech and tolerance are the main topics tackled. Douglas Wilson comes to Indiana to dialogue, but that's not what the Left wants. Instead activist students scream and shout: "We believe in free speech, but this is hate speech!” False allegations made about Douglas Wilson – When students chant, "Racist, Sexist, Anti-Gay; Douglas Wilson go away!" we get to see how Wilson is able to respond and rebut these accusations. The difference between Left and Right – Wilson notes, "this is the difference between the conservative mindset and the liberal mindset: The conservative thinks always in terms of tradeoffs. The liberal thinks in terms of solutions. The liberal wants solutions. And he doesn't want to think in term of tradeoffs. He doesn't think there is ever a price tag for what he is advocating." Liberals demand more and more, not thinking about how someone will have to pay for this. Conservatives are grown up enough to realize there are no perfect solutions – everything comes with a cost. Related to this last point, the American Civil War is touched on. In the US it is a near universal belief that this was a good and just war because it ended slavery. But it also resulted in 600,000 dead - that was the tradeoff that liberals don't consider. American presidential candidate Ted Cruz appears in the film for less than a minute, but his interview highlights how even conservatives and Christians can forget to consider the tradeoffs. Concerning the Civil War he says it "was absolutely a just war" but concerning abortion, "We have the ability to change this, and to change this without a war fought in the streets." So he understands that war would be an unsatisfactory tradeoff for today, but won't even consider whether that might have been true for the Civil War. Cautions The topic matter – sexuality God's way vs. the world's way, and tolerance God's way vs. the world's way – means this is a film for mature audiences only. The F-bomb is put to regular use by students, and these occurrences are not bleeped out. The one thing I found surprising was the selection, by the director, of some backing music for a ten-second segue that also included multiple f-bombs – an unnecessary, but fortunately very short, addition. There are also a few brief shots of homosexuals and others prancing about, and one line-drawn diagram shown for a few seconds that includes a depiction of a naked male butt. Conclusion This is an enormously ambitious film but because it tries to fit so much in, it might leave viewers exhausted by the time the credits role. But it is worth putting in the effort. Few Christians are both able and willing to beard the liberal lion in his den, and it is fun and encouraging to watch Wilson venture forth. Here we get to see a brave man standing up, outnumbered, but not outmaneuvered because he stands on God's Word. This film is also a must-see because it shows what is coming and what we are up against. As the Left continues to marginalize Christians, it may well be that in some circumstances no matter what we say or do we will not be able to win the debate. And not because of any weakness in our position, but rather because the other side has no interest in discussing. They'll want to meet our words with their shouts, or their claims of victimhood, or even their fists. However even then our light can shine. If our words are shouted down, our demeanor can stand in sharp contrast. In Wilson we see a joyful warrior, secure in the knowledge that God has already won. This is how we need to be. The Free Speech Apocalypse can be bought on DVD or purchased for streaming here. ...

Documentary, Movie Reviews

Logic on Fire

Documentary 2015 / 102 minutes RATING: 7/10 Even if you don’t know Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones (1899-1981) you likely do know some of the people praising him in this documentary. The list includes John MacArthur, Iain Murray, Kevin DeYoung, Sinclair Ferguson, and RC Sproul, who say of him: “I believe that Lloyd Jones was to twentieth century Britain what Charles Spurgeon was to the nineteenth century.” Like Spurgeon, this was a man God used to stir up Britain. The joy in watching this documentary is to see what God did, and how He acted through this servant. Another good quote from one of the interviewees highlighted how very different Lloyd Jones was from the pastors of his time and many of the celebrity pastors of our own. …he wasn’t at all seeker-friendly. In fact he was seeker-unfriendly, because he felt that a non-Christian ought to be deeply uncomfortable in church. Because you actually want him to be uncomfortable because you need to realize your need for the Gospel. The only caution I would offer is that while Lloyd Jones was generally Reformed, he got some notable matters wrong. For example, his views on baptism differed with those of the denomination he served – he seems to have opposed paedo-baptism, though not loudly. But that is an aside because it is his preaching, and his generally Reformed perspective, that are the focus here. Both my wife and I really enjoyed this very polished production, and it might be the most re-watched documentary in our house.  It comes comes with 2 bonus disks and a small hardback book among the extras. Logic on Fire would make a great gift for any pastor and anyone who enjoys Church history, or documentaries. It can be rented and streamed online for $6 US here. Canadians and Americans can order the DVD set via the Banner of Truth US website BannerOfTruth.org/US. ...

Drama, Movie Reviews

The Song

Drama / Musical 2014 / 116 minutes RATING: 9/10 The Song destroys all the expectations we have for Christian films. It has great acting, a great script, an even better soundtrack...and also infidelity, abortion, suicide, drugs, and more infidelity. It's far better than most any Christian film you've seen, but also much grittier. It is based on, but does not pretend to be, the story of King David and Solomon. The setting is Nashville, with Jed King an aspiring country singer who hasn't yet measured up to the status of his superstar father. But he also hasn't fallen into any of his excesses either.  When he meets Rose, the manager of a winery, Jed writes a special song for her that turns into his first major hit. From there we see him rise to spectacular heights. Like Solomon before him, he has it all. And like Solomon (and his superstar father), that's not enough – he falls to temptation, in his case involving the lead singer of his opening act. That doesn't explain how very different this film is from the typical Christian fare, so let's focus on two things that make it remarkable. The first is the outstanding pairing of story with biblical narration. All the "Solomonic texts"– Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon – are quoted regularly and impactfully. Jed is learning some hard lessons through the film, and he shares them, warning us of the ways of the adulterous women and the futility of having it all when it is all going to turn to dust in the end. Remarkable, too, is the music. It's another fantastic pairing this time of story and song: the musical performances are worth the price of admission right there! While praising it as highly as I can, I will add that this was a hard film to watch the first time, since, being familiar with both David and Solomon's story, my wife and I knew that at some point Jed's happy story was going to take a devastating, self-sabotaging turn. We actually ended up watching it in two nights, the first with all the fun romantic joking and giddiness of Jed convincing Rose to be his wife. We shut it off right before Jed was set to make his stupid devastating decisions (it wasn't hard to tell when that was going to happen). Then the next evening, we could start with that ugliness, ride it out, and then enjoy the end of the movie, where we got to see his life impacted by undeserved but gratefully received grace. CAUTIONS Even though we don't really see anything objectionable, the mature topic matter means this is not a film for children. Underscoring that point, it begins with a two-minute overview of the lowlights of David King's life. We see Jed's father singing on the Grand ol' Ole Opry and later catching his bandmate's wife swimming naked in a lake (the water obscures her), paralleling David seeing Bathsheba. While King David kills Uriah, in the film the husband, upon learning of his friend's and wife's betrayal, commits suicide. Thankfully this is all covered in a quick montage in the opening minutes. CONCLUSION Some films are gritty for the sake of being gritty. This is gritty for the sake of being true. But it is also funny, romantic, rousing, thought-provoking, and toe-tapping for the same reason: because that's what life is like too. I don't know if I gave The Song the pitch it deserves, so I'm linking to a few other reviews so you can get a second and third opinion. Plugged In – conservative Christian review Variety – a secular take If you want to dig into the film further, here's a list of some of the biblical references throughout the film. You can check out the unique trailer below, and rent the film online at Amazon and other online streaming services. ...

Drama

Alleged

Drama 93 minutes/ 2011 Rating: 7/10 The year is 1925, and Charlie Anderson's goal is to quit his job, leave his hometown of Dayton, Tennessee and work for legendary Baltimore Sun editor H.L. Mencken. When a legal battle in the town's one-room courthouse garners attention from the national media, Charlie thinks he may have just the news story he needs to grab Mencken's attention. Mencken turns out to be willing to teach Charlie how to craft an article. But close-up tutelage lets Charlie see that his mentor won't let a little something like the truth get in the way of a good story. Mencken is more than willing to make up a story if it will sell papers. Is Charlie? Setting This is a charming romance/drama, and though it is a Christian production the acting is great – most roles have been filled with actors you're likely to recognize (Colm Meaney, Star Trek: The Next Generation; Fred Thompson, Law and Order; Ashley Johnson, Growing Pains; Brian Dennehy, Rambo, etc.). But there is another level on which Alleged can be appreciated. It is fun but also medicinal. What do I mean? Well, back in 1960 another film used a court case in 1925 Dayton, Tennessee as the setting for their film. And in the decades since then Inherit the Wind has been shown in public school classrooms across the US as a "based on true events" account of what happened back then. But whereas Alleged is mostly true, Inherit the Wind was mostly propaganda. Here's what really happened. In 1925 Tennessee passed the Butler Act which forbid Tennessee public schools from teaching students that Man descended from a lower form. Dayton's John Scopes was the first to be charged with violating the law and his trial garnered national attention when some big names "star" lawyers were enlisted: for the prosecution, the Scripture-quoting, mostly Bible-believing, 3-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; and for the defense, Clarence Darrow, infamous for his defense of two indefensible child-killing clients. These big names got the attention of one more: Baltimore Sun editor H. L. Mencken whose columns largely influenced how the trial was perceived by the nation. Scopes was found guilty and was fined $100 but because Mencken portrayed this as being a battle between Science and Christian ignorance, Scopes became a noble martyr, and evolutionists decisively won the publicity battle. Thirty-five years later Inherit the Wind built on Mencken's work, but made Christians look even worse. Townspeople were shown as a lynch mob ready to kill Scopes, their minister a rabid dog, and their defender – William Jennings Bryan ­– an ignorant, boring blowhard. But it is this blatant misrepresentation of the trial that most colors how America remembers the "Scopes Monkey Trial." So it was a joy and delight to see how this same trial portrayed accurately in Alleged. We learn that John Scopes, rather than being hated by the town, was helping it – the trial had been a publicity stunt from the beginning, with Scopes a willing participant. The hordes of reporters and visitors brought in by the trial were a welcome boost to a local economy that had been hit hard by the closure of the town mine. Cautions Some cautions to consider: Charlie is drunk as a skunk in one scene, though his fiancée’s disappointment makes this an object lesson in the folly of drunkenness. Also, one character shouts "Hallelujah!" in a seemingly insincere manner during a church service. And because the film teaches about the implication of Darwinian thought, there is a subplot that deals with eugenics. This may be a disturbing topic for a younger audience that doesn't yet need to know how horrible the world can be. Conclusion Because Inherit the Wind was shown to generations of American public school children it has had a lasting impact on the way the creation/evolution debate is conducted. It can be given much of the credit for why creationist arguments are most often mocked, rather than answered. Alleged is an enjoyable counter to Inherit the Wind. It is educational, informative, and also fun, romantic, generally light, and quite well acted. Highly recommend for older teens and adults. You can check out the trailer below, but I do want to add that the film is much better than the trailer makes it out to be. Americans can watch it for free right now at Tubitv.com. Those that want to delve even deeper into the real events should check out a lecture series by Dr. Gary North called "Monkey in the Middle." It's available on DVD, and hopefully shortly online. "Inherently Wind" is another lecture worth checking out (and it's free!) in which Dr. David Menton contrasts the real events with the "Inherit the Wind" portrayal of them.  ...

Drama, Movie Reviews

Woodlawn

Drama 123 minutes / 2015 Rating 8/10 Directors of movies about sports sometimes get carried away with their art - swelling orchestral music fills the soundtrack as mud spatters over our athletic hero, who despite his talent, is an underdog against evil, cheating opponents. Sprinkle in a few losses and some team disunity that must be overcome and you've got a pretty typical Hollywood sports movie. Woodlawn does contain a few of these clichés, but surprisingly most of them are not fantasies – they're real and historic, and form an uplifting tale that seems almost too amazing to be true. As high schools become racially integrated in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1970s, tensions run high at predominantly white Woodlawn High School. Parents aren't happy with the coaching staff when black students earn starting positions on the football team. When Christian sports chaplain Hank Erwin asks permission to speak to the football team after a riot at the school, Coach Tandy Gerelds reluctantly agrees. He's stunned when each and every player on the team, black and white, respond to Erwin's altar call and dedicate or re-dedicate their lives to Christ. In time, the team decides that devoting their season to the Lord is more important than winning or losing, and – what do you know! – they find athletic success along the way. Directors Andrew and Jon Erwin (also known for the 2018 film I Can Only Imagine) wrote the movie about the work of their dad Hank, who later became a state senator, and who had a profound influence on the young men of Woodlawn High School and their cross town rivals. Most details in the movie, even the ones that seem too convenient or unlikely to have happened, are based on real events: Woodlawn is a morality tale with great lessons that just happens to be true. ...

Animated, Movie Reviews

Lost and Found

Animated / Family 24 minutes / 2013 Rating: 8/10 This short film made my girls cry and that's okay. It is a classic boy meets penguin tale, a tale of loneliness felt, and friendship found, and a beautiful tale throughout. This is what made my girls cry – the beauty of it – and that gave mom and dad an opportunity to explain to these two little misses that crying is not always linked to sadness, and that beauty can indeed by tear-inducing and then it is something, strangely enough, to be enjoyed. This lesson wasn't entirely lost on them and also not entirely understood but it was a good first exposure to this curious truth. The story itself is simple. Lost penguin arrives on boy's doorstep. Boy briefly tries to get others to help penguin, but then decides to do it himself. He builds boat and rows to the Antarctic, where he then drops off the penguin and heads back home, only to realize that the penguin wasn't lost after all, but had shown up at his house because he was lonely. Boy returns to the Antarctic, penguin hops in boat, and the two head together for what looks like the beginning of a wonderful friendship. The only caution would be that a storm scene may be a bit scary for the under 6 set. Our whole family loved it. I would recommend it for anyone 6 to 106. You can stream it – rent or buy – from Amazon (or ask your public library to pick up a DVD copy). ...

Documentary, Movie Reviews, Watch for free

FREE: Flight of the Butterflies

Documentary 2012 / 44 minutes RATING: 7/10 Equal parts detective story and nature documentary, Flight of the Butterflies tells the story of "Dana" and her offspring, beautiful monarch butterflies making their way across the United States. It also showcases the investigative work of biologist Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah, who spent their lives trying to discover where the butterflies were going on their yearly migration. The nature half is simply stunning, and deserves a widescreen TV viewing – you'd lose so much watching it on your phone. We get to follow Dana as she flutters from plant to plant, laying her more than 300 eggs, and get to tag along, too, as she flies as much as a mile up into the heavens. Then, when we eventually see one of Dana's grandchildren form her chrysalis, we get a peek inside: "Fed oxygen by hundreds of fine breathing tubes. her brain, heart and digestive track change shape and size. New powerful flight muscles develop, and compound eyes form. Long legs and steady wings complete the transformation." The caterpillar to butterfly transformation is astonishing – one creature becoming something else entirely! But it gets even crazier: while Dana didn't live all that long, and her daughter didn't either, they somehow manage to spawn a granddaughter that will look just like them, but be another sort of creature once again: Dana's granddaughter is a "super butterfly destined to live eight times longer" than either of the two previous generations! The mystery half is fun too. An actor familiar to many Canadians, Gordon Pinsent (Beachcombers, The Red Green Show) plays Fred Urquhart who recruits the help of regular folk – "citizen scientists" – all over the United States to help him tag, and then track the flight paths of monarch butterflies. After gathering this information for decades he can tell they fly south towards Texas, but where do these millions of butterflies go afterward? I won't spoil things: you'll have to watch it to find out. Caution The documentary opens with a quick nod to Darwin, with biologist Fred Urquhart declaring, "It has been said since Darwin's time that evolution has been written on the wings of a butterfly. I know my life has." Another similar sort of "nod" happens elsewhere, but the brilliant design evident in the monarch's lifecycle and remarkable migration far outshine these little mars. There is also a few mentions made of man-caused environmental issues that might impact the monarch, including a passing mention of global warming. But these are very brief, and the film is not any sort of anti-man screed. As with many a secular nature documentary perhaps the most notable caution is simply that in a film about a creature whose beauty and amazing lifecycle screams out the glory of its Creator, the film never gives God His due. But we can make up for this deficiency. Conclusion Fred and Norah Urquhart spent 50 years learning all about the monarch, and in this remarkable film we get to come along for that journey of discovery. This is a quiet film – there are no explosions to be found – so it isn't going to be to everyone's tastes. But maybe it should be – if the brilliance of the monarch butterfly doesn't fill us with awe at God's genius, maybe it's time we stopped watching so many car chases and superhero battles and sharpened up our sense of awe. Regardless, for the nature lover in your family this will be something special. You can watch the trailer below, and watch the film for free here. ...

Documentary, Movie Reviews, Watch for free

Long Shot: The Kevin Laue Story

Documentary 91 minutes / 2012 Rating: 7/10 This is the amazing story of how a one-armed young man beats the odds to make it onto a Division 1 college basketball team. His disability alone would make Kevin Laue a "long shot" but then he also lost his dad at age 10. What the film celebrates is Laue's determination, but what it also captures is the enormous hole left when a father is missing. So much of what Laue does and wants to do is an effort to make his late father proud. Laue does have a father figure in the film, a fantastic high school coach in Patrick McKnight who was willing to just invest in the young man, and "put a foot in his butt" when Laue needed it. He also has a family that loves him, including a grandmother who calls him her "chickadee" and has to be in the running for his #1 fan. Cautions Language concerns would be a couple of f-bombs dropped by players and one "gosh." We see Kevin in the shower, shot from the other side of the somewhat opaque glass door so we don't see any details, but enough flesh-color to know he is naked. While the trailer below makes this look like more of an explicitly Christian film than it is - the Laues' trust in God only comes up in spots. And that's maybe the more notable caution: while the film highlights how important a father can be for a son, God isn't portrayed as nearly as significant. That might be more a matter of the filmmaker's editing decisions than the family's convictions, but either way it is an opportunity for a great discussion question for our kids: who do you think is being portrayed as the "god" – the most important person or thing? – in this film? Is it dads or God? Conclusion This is a fascinating film about young man who is admirable in many ways, and yet not so idealized here that he becomes fake and distant. It's a film that any sports fans and both parents and teens will enjoy. Check out the trailer below, and watch it for free here. ...

Documentary, Family, Movie Reviews

A Lego brickumentary

Documentary 93 minutes / 2015 Rating: 7/10 If you have kids who are too young to watch anything with tension then that limits your viewing options. Yes, there are lots of shows they can watch, but very few that mommy or daddy will want to sit through too (I can feel my brain cells dying whenever Daniel the Tiger is turned on). But here's something different: a documentary the whole family can enjoy. The basic building blocks of the Lego story are simple. The Denmark-based company has been making these little bricks for 65+ years. They got off to a rocky start, with the first three factories getting burned down, and in the late 1990s lost their way as they started producing sets that had more and more specialized pieces and less and less actual building involved. The buying public didn't like this new direction, and sales took a plunge. But this shocked the company straight, and they returned to what made them great: selling a simple toy whose infinite combinations sparked the imagination. The film itself is a hagiography of sorts, looking at the company with the wide-open eyes of a fan. This is sure to get your kids building, but the target audience for the film is as much adults and children. In fact, the majority of the builders we're introduced to are adults, including both the "master builders" who work for the company, and the legions of AFOLs – Adult Fans Of Lego – who craft their own creations and show them off online and at Lego conventions. These creations are astonishing, including a full-size X-wing fighter (from Star Wars) and reproductions of classic artworks like the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo's David. CAUTIONS The only cautions for this G-rated film I can come up with is that there are about 10 to 20 seconds of evolutionary nonsense, accompanied by a depiction of primordial life emerging from the sea and turning into man (primordial Lego life turning into a Lego man). There is also a short 5 second clip Lego mini-figure recreation of the shower murder scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. That sounds worse than it is - in both cases my kids didn't even catch what was going on. I'll also add that while there is a role for adults to play Lego with their kids, the obsession shown by the the AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) was disconcerting. Hobbies can be fun, but God calls Christians to balance, and any hobby that takes over your life is not a healthy one. Instead of encouraging our young men to hold on to their childhood we should be preparing them to put off childish things (1 Cor. 13:11). So Mom or Dad might want to raise the issues of balance and maturity after watching this. CONCLUSION A Lego Brickumentary is a fun film for the whole family. I liked it because I could watch something entertaining and kind of educational without worry about my children being traumatized. Our kids liked it because it was inspiring and the host, a Lego mini-figure, is charming and often funny. So far we've watched it twice, and I could see us watching it again, so if you can get it for a good price, this might be a documentary worth owning. Otherwise, it makes for a great streaming rental, or might well be at your local library. ...

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