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Drama, Movie Reviews

I can only imagine

Drama 2018 / 110 minutes Rating: 8/10 This is the life story of MercyMe singer Bart Millard, or, more specifically, it's the story of what drove him to write what might be the most popular Christian song of the modern era, I Can Only Imagine. It begins with 12-year-old Bart in 1985, listening to ELO tunes on his Sony Walkman, and crafting a cardboard Star Wars fighter helmet. He's a creative dreamer, but his home life is a nightmare. When he gets home that evening his father burns his helmet, and when Bart heads to bed early his Walkman only partially drowns out his parents' yelling. So is this a story about a man succeeding despite a difficult childhood? It's more than that. The focus isn't as much on Bart's transformation from troubled kid to successful singer, as it is about God transforming his abusive father. As Bart tells Amy Grant: "My dad was a monster. I mean that's the only word for it. And I saw God transform him from a man I hated into the man I wanted to become. Into my best friend....I guess I didn't realize God could do that. And so I wrote this song." That's the central story, and added in the mix is the sweet but certainly not simple story of Bart and his childhood sweetheart. Cautions Millard's father is abusive, both physically, which we mostly don't see, and verbally, which we do. While the violence takes place primarily off-screen there are a few brief moments that are scary because the viewer has no reason to presume they are going to be just brief. One example: Millard's father breaks a plate over his head. It's shocking; however, it doesn't escalate. There's nothing here that would scare an adult, but these early scenes of Millard's family life are one reason this film, despite its PG rating, is not appropriate for children. Another reason? Not only is Millard's father abusive, his mother abandons him. Abuse and abandonment aren't thoughts we want our children worrying about. Conclusion This is a remarkable film and a good part of it is J. Michael Finley, a good actor, and an absolutely fantastic singer whose version of I Can Only Imagine got me looking for the film's soundtrack. But every movie has a message, and it's the moral of this story that makes it so special. In Romans 8 the apostle Paul tells us that God works all things out for the good of those who love Him. But so often we have to take that on faith. When a loved one gets cancer, or we lose our job, we're left wondering, "How is God going to turn this to good?" In Millard's story we get a glimpse, almost a look behind the scenes, to see how God can do it and is doing it. We still don't know how He's going to work it all out in our own lives, but this glimpse helps us imagine. While the film is quite true to Millard's story, some dramatic license has been taken in the climactic singing scene. If, after watching the film, you want to know how it really happened, click here and here. Jon Dykstra also blogs on movies at ReelConservative.com. ...

Drama, Movie Reviews

Unbroken: Path to Redemption

Drama / Christian 98 minutes / 2018 RATING: 8/10 Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's 2010best-selling biography of Louis Zamperini was so good two movies have been based on it. The 2014 adaptation was a major motion picture that made more than $100 million. It was titled, simply, Unbroken. It focused on Zamperini's World War II heroics, and his career as an Olympian. That film shared how he survived getting shot down, and how he spent 47 days on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean only to be rescued by the Japanese. They then imprisoned him in a camp staffed by sadistic guards who tortured him for the rest of the war. What was missing from this Hollywood production was Zamperini's conversion, which gets only a passing mention right as the credits roll. Director Angelina Jolie didn't see it as a significant part of his life. But for Christians who've read his biography, Zamperini's conversion is the obvious climax to his story. The Hollywood production was only half the story, with the best part still untold. In Unbroken: Path to Redemption we get that second half. While this is a sequel of sorts, picking up where the other left off, it stands up well on its own too. The focus here is on what happened after the war when Zamperini returned home, got married, and had to wrestle with nightmares, despair, unemployment, marital troubles, and alcohol addiction. Maybe this is why the first film stopped where it did: Hollywood didn't know what to do with an unbreakable man who gets shattered. But this Christian production does. While the special effects aren't at the level of a major motion picture, the acting is very good. And what makes this the superior adaptation is that it gives God his due. How was Louis able to survive it all? Only because God was there, every step of the way, protecting, pursuing, and forgiving. Some Christian critics have noted Path to Redemption doesn't go far enough into Zamperini's brokenness and as a result, mutes some of what God does for him. That's a fair critique, and I think some of my appreciation for this film is because, having read the book, I was already fully aware of that aspect. So this might be a better film when viewed as a follow-up to the book, rather than as a replacement for it. CAUTIONS There are a few cautions to share. First, Louis has some nightmares about his Japanese torturer. While these scenes aren't gory, they are intense and would scare children under 10 (and maybe some over 10). During another nightmare, Louis imagines that in his sleep he's mistaken his wife for a prison guard and has been choking her. It's all just a dream, but we get a glimpse of it. Also, one scene takes place on the beach with everyone in beach attire, but these are 1940s era bathing suits, so it isn't risqué. Finally, if you're watching this with teens, you might want to mention that this is not a how-to on dating, as it shows a good Christian lass letting herself be unequally yoked to the lapsed Catholic Louis. CONCLUSION This is the film we wanted to see in the first place, telling the full story of the broken man made whole. If you enjoyed the book you'll love this film. And if you saw the Hollywood production then you really need to watch Path to Redemption to get the rest of the story. Jon Dykstra also blogs on movies at ReelConservative.com. ...

Drama, Movie Reviews

Gosnell: the trial of America's biggest serial killer

Drama 2018 / 93 minutes RATING: 8/10 "Are you going to be the first prosecutor in American history to charge an abortion doctor with murder?" **** There are some great lines in Gosnell. But it was a film I almost didn't watch. I knew it was the true-life story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist who in 2013 was convicted of killing three babies after they were born. I'd thought it an important story to get out into the public eye, so a few years ago I'd been one of the 30,000 who'd contributed more than $2 million to its Indiegogo campaign. But now, with the DVD in hand, I found myself thinking, "I'm already pro-life so do I really need to sit through a 90-minute film detailing the horrors of abortion?" I'm glad I did, for two reasons. First, the film wasn't the unrelentingly depressing drama I had expected. This felt more like a Law and Order episode, with a mystery that needs solving, and dedicated men and women trying to deliver whatever justice they can. There were some talented people involved in the production, from director Nick Pearcey, who also stars as the defense attorney, to the Daily Wire's Andrew Klaven who had a hand in writing the script. There's no clear star in this ensemble cast, but it might be Dean Cain (Lois and Clark) who is his regular personable self in the role of Detective James Wood, the man who first uncovered what was going on behind the closed doors of Gosnell's clinic. Second, the film is a much better pro-life tool than I ever expected. Gosnell killed thousands so this could have been as hard to watch as Schindler's List (Schindler is in everyone's top 100 list, but has anyone watched it twice?). But by hiding almost all of the gore, and by keeping a quick pace, not lingering in the clinic too long, audiences aren't confronted with the full horror of what Dr. Gosnell did. That makes this a film that can be shared with the undecided; if they can handle network TV, then there's nothing here that'll be too graphic for them. Now, there is a method behind the muted visuals. A gory film would have undecideds walking out or staying away. But the producers didn't intend to pull any punches – they've just been clever enough to lay out their argument in a way that'll be the most likely to reach and sway their intended audience. When Gosnell was being tried, both the prosecutor and the mainstream media emphasized that the case wasn’t about abortion – this was about the murder of already born babies. But in his defense, Gosnell’s attorney shows that what Gosnell did to these babies after birth was not significantly different from what other abortionists were – with the law’s blessing – doing to babies before birth. His reasoning was sound, even if it wasn't enough to get his client off. And seeing an abortion defender make the case that killing an unborn baby differs not a whit from killing a newborn baby is an argument that is sure to hit viewers right between the eyes. Jon Dykstra also blogs on movies at ReelConservative.com....

Drama, Family, Movie Reviews

The Spirit of St. Louis

Family / Biography 1957 / 135 minutes RATING: 7/10 Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight wasn't the first to cross the North Atlantic. That was accomplished 8 years earlier, in May of 1919, by a crew of United States Navy aviators flying in a biplane equipped with floats. The floats were so it could land on the water, which it did a number of times to give the crew time for repairs and rest. Their flight, from New York State to Lisbon, Portugal took 19 days. That flight has largely been forgotten because it was eclipsed, just two weeks later, by a pair of British aviators, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, teaming up to make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. They took a far shorter route, flying from Newfoundland, to Ireland. Their biplane managed the journey in just under 16 hours, crash-landing in a bog the pilots mistook for a suitable landing field. Both men were unharmed. So why is Charles Lindbergh's crossing the one best remembered? One reason was the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first successful non-stop flight from New York to Paris. It had been offered since 1919, but despite a number of efforts over the next 8 years, no one had yet managed to claim it. Another reason was that Lindbergh's flight was the first solo flight across the Atlantic. And the third reason is related to the first – by flying between two major international cities, New York and Paris, Lindbergh's flight showed the world that commercial aviation was a real possibility. Just a dozen years later the first commercial transatlantic flights began. But enough history, how was the film? Well, if you like Jimmy Stewart, or appreciate biographical films, or enjoy learning even as you're entertained, or have wanted to know more about Charles Lindbergh, or wanted a nice family film, then you're sure to enjoy The Spirit of St. Louis. The film is named after Lindbergh's plane, and the story begins on the night before his journey begins. Even as "Slim" is tossing and turning, trying to catch some sleep before he begins what could be a 40-hour flight, he starts remembering what led him to this point. We see, in these flashbacks, and others that take place during the flight, how Lindbergh first bought his first plane, how he handled his job as a mail aviator in terrible weather conditions, how he convinced a group of St. Louis businessman to back his transatlantic attempt, and how the Spirit of St. Louis was designed and built. Some of these recollections are told to a stowaway – a fly who comes along for the first part of the flight. It's a charming device, which our kids really enjoyed - Lindbergh points out to the fly where they are on the map and how long they've been flying. I was even a little disappointed when the fly decides he'd prefer to stay on this side of the Atlantic, and takes his leave out the open cockpit window. For some kids and adults, used to more frenetic action, the pacing might strike them as a bit slow. The film is also long, at more than two hours, and I suspect it might have lost our kids' attention if we hadn't watched it in two separate chunks. But broken up that way, it kept the attention of our whole family from 4 to 46. Cautions The topic matter of the film raises a few issues that could be worth talking about with the kids. The first is hero-worship. Lindbergh had drive, skill, and charisma – we can't help but root for him. But what the film doesn't get into is his failings – he had several affairs. Of course, our kids don't need to know all about that, but it is good to remember that our heroes have feet of clay, so we should not put them on a pedestal. Another topic worth a discussion is, what sort of risk is appropriate? Lindbergh was probably not a Christian and likely an agnostic, so he wasn't assessing risk from a Christian perspective. But we can. And in light of the other pilots who had died earlier trying this same flight, was it a good and worthy thing for Lindbergh to attempt? Or was he treating carelessly the life that God had entrusted to his stewardship? Questions worth discussing. Finally, Lindbergh's religious views do come up, briefly in the film. Lindbergh was a private man, so his religious views seem hard to nail down, but he wasn't an orthodox Christian. However it's said he flew combat missions in World War II with a New Testament, and later spoke of the importance of Jesus' ethics. In the film his muddled thinking about God comes up in a few brief scenes. First, Lindbergh notes that when he flies he doesn't ask God for help. A Roman Catholic priest tries to set him right, and later on a friend superstitiously sneaks a St. Christopher's Medal on the flight for good luck (the medal is thought, by Catholics, to ask the saint to bless a traveler's journey). Finally, as he is at the end of his flight, sleep-deprived and unsure he can land it, he tries to recall one of the priest's prayers, and ends up simply crying out to God for help. This confusion about God might be surprising to very young viewers, and worth a discussion. Conclusion The 49-years-old Jimmy Stewart was playing a man 24 years his junior, and if Lindbergh seems a little older than 25, Stewart still pulls it off. This is an interesting bit of history, charmingly acted. Another good one for the whole family. ...

Drama, Movie Reviews

The Case for Christ

Drama 112 minutes / 2017 RATING: 7/10 On a Saturday morning in May, I found myself in an unusual place: seated in the Hoyts cinema, awaiting the start of a film Now I must say I never bought into the argument that movies could not be compatible with Christian life. It seemed to me that it depended on what sort of film was being screened. Having said that, I am thankful that, when it came to movies and theaters, I grew up with a sense of restraint. After all, wholesome cinematic presentations are few and far between, and the movie industry has been responsible for much social change that just doesn’t accord with God’s Word and God’s law. That’s why when it came to my own children I told them: “Don’t decide to go to the cinema and then see what’s on offer. Rather, if there’s something that you are confident about that it is wholesome, then make the decision to see it.” I reflected on those discussions – ones with my own children, and others with my parents when I was a youth – as I quietly waited for The Case for Christ to begin. A reluctant convert The Case for Christ is based on a book by the same name, telling the true story of a man, Lee Strobel, his wife and family, who lived and worked in the city of Chicago in the 1980s. The Strobels were a happy family, consisting of a Dad, a Mum, a daughter, and in the course of the film, a son was born to them. Early in the story whilst out at dinner, the daughter almost chokes to death on a large sweet; it’s the resolute intervention of a black Christian woman that saves the child’s life. Lee’s wife, Leslie, maintains contact with the lady who saved her child’s life and is inspired by the woman’s faith in Jesus Christ. In time Leslie, too, becomes a Christian, much to the chagrin of her atheist husband. As a journalist committed to the ideal of exposing the truth, Lee decides that the only way to convince his wife that she is throwing her life away is to disprove the fundamental tenets of Christianity. A colleague at work puts him on the right track and astutely suggests that he start by researching the resurrection of Christ. Armed with this information, Lee sets out to disprove this central teaching of Christianity. He consults colleagues and friends first, then he turns to theologians and historians, psychologists, and eventually a medical doctor. The more he looks, and the deeper he goes, the more he finds to support the resurrection of Christ, rather than disprove it. The frustration that accompanies this voyage of discovery is interesting and instructive to behold. In the end Lee admits, “OK God, you win!” and it is this that turns him to God in true repentance for his obstinate refusal to accept what was staring him in the face for so long. Authentic because it is true I couldn’t help but enjoy the story. It was honest, it was real, it was moving and it was genuine, maybe because it had really happened. It was wholesome too. I appreciated the search revolving around the resurrection of Christ. It resonated beautifully with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:13-14: But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. I was impressed by the truth uncovered by the research, and by the excellent profound insights afforded by the different characters in the film. These days it’s hard to find movies where the language is not marred by blasphemy and where there is not some sexual overtone; it was wonderful to watch something where this did not – at least not that I noticed – feature. I also enjoyed the literary qualities of the film. The characters were real and the story was compelling. A second, parallel story, running through the film – Lee’s investigation into the shooting of a cop – provides some excellent symbolism in relation to Lee’s spiritual journey. When Lee stands at the side of the hospital bed of the innocent victim of a miscarriage of justice and apologizes for not seeing what should have been obvious, the man mutters in response, “You didn’t see it because you didn’t want to see.” That was a poignant moment. Some nits that could be picked A Reformed critic might argue that the expression used in the film about “inviting Jesus into your life” is an Arminian sentiment, and I would be hard pressed to argue against that. Unless, of course, we see it as an expression of the believer’s response to the work of the Holy Spirit, causing and working faith in Jesus Christ. It can also be argued that faith shouldn’t be dependent on outside proofs (doesn’t God’s Word testify to its own authenticity?) and that the way to faith Lee Strobel pursues seems to elevate the authority of archeology and experts above the Bible. There’s truth in that criticism too. But from what we can learn about Lee Strobel, subsequent to the events in the film, it is clear that however his faith began, it has grown to a deep and caring connection with his God. This is a true story, so even if the producers intend it as an account of what we should do, we can choose instead to enjoy it as a record of what God did do. Still, I couldn’t help but appreciate that in an age where evidence and reason are so central, the facts of the Bible will stand up to rigorous scrutiny; even the rationalist, who might shrink back from a way of faith, is left without excuse. Summing up about the Case for Christ, I feel comfortable recommending it. With us in the theatre were families with younger children, some teenage youth and a smattering of older people, and it really had appeal for all. Two cynics I’m not sure why, but my mind couldn’t help but compare Strobel’s story to another that I had read about, some years before, one that filled me with deep sorrow and wonder. In an interview with Nederlands Dagblad, the ninety year old Harry Kuitert, emeritus professor of systematic theology from the Free University of Amsterdam, stated: I have sought God, but I have not found him. Harry Kuitert’s story sees him seeking the evidence that God is real, that God gives sense and meaning to life, and that there is life after death, but slowly and surely he comes to the conclusion that none of it stacks up and none of it is true. Nederlands Dagblad quotes Kuitert in the interview as saying: You cannot conclude that there is a God. … He exists only in your head, he is the product of your thoughts, and outside of your head he doesn’t exist. … Every believer makes his own religion. That’s doesn’t make it true. You believe because you choose to, maybe because you need to or because you are afraid, or lonely. If you read the different biographies of Harry Kuitert, you can’t help but stand amazed that a man who started out as being a minister of the Word and later a professor in theology slowly but surely lets go of the foundational tenets of the Christian faith. Throughout his life he reveled in different aspects of theology, but his book titles tell the story of a diminishing faith. In 1989 he wrote a book titled, The Universally Doubted Christian Faith, a title that served as a parody to what we often confess in church in relation to the Apostles’ Creed, “our undoubted Christian faith.” In 2000 he wrote a book called About Religion, about which Nederlands Dagblad said: Till now, for Kuitert God had still been the force or the person behind people’s searching and speaking. In this book, however, God has become the product of man’s imagination. Unabashed Kuitert writes: “I am finished with God as a person, as a being that exists in himself and for himself and that can be invoked through prayer.” And then, in 2014, he wrote The Church, a Construction Mistake, about which he stated: “Why doesn’t it honestly proclaim that it’s all made up?” Speaking about Kuitert, Nederlands Dagblad reported: In the Christian part of the Netherlands Kuitert became a phenomenon: Harry Kuitert, who peeled away the layers of faith, one after the other, until there was nothing left. Here then is the tale of two cynics (with apologies to Charles Dickens), one who started out refusing to believe but who was confounded by the evidence, and the other who believed and lost his faith because he couldn’t find the evidence that it could be true. You have to wonder how come. Is this just the outworking of God’s election? No doubt that’s part of the story, but it just won’t do to stop there. For mixed in with God’s election is also our human responsibility and ownership of the truth. What else got in the way of Kuitert? Was it intellectual arrogance, was it human pride – maybe even unwittingly – getting in the way of truth? I wished he could meet the liberated and innocent convict in the hospital who muttered to Strobel, “You didn’t see it because you didn’t want to see it.” May God’s Spirit as yet rip away the self-imposed spiritual blindfold that leaves him an empty and lonely cynic. ***** EDITOR'S NOTE: If The Case for Christ film inspires you to track down more by Lee Strobel, it’s important to understand that Strobel is not Reformed. That doesn’t come up much in The Case for Christ, because the topic is one all Christians believe – Calvinists and Arminians agree that Christ rose. But in The Case for Faith Strobel turns his investigative skills to the topic of faith, and the result is a book that could have been called The Arminian Case for Faith. In it he repeatedly rejects the Reformed understanding and presents a specifically Arminian answer to questions. So while the film could be a nice evening’s entertainment for you and your family, Strobel shouldn’t be a go-to resource for matters of faith and doctrine. ...