Thu, Apr 24, 2014

: God’s Not Dead

Though I was intrigued by the concept of this film (supposedly based on a true story of a college freshman who rebels against his Philosophy teacher who requires all of his students to sign a pledge admitting that God is dead), I was wary. “Christian message” films are often heavy-handed, ineptly written, poorly acted and directed, and worst of all, boring.

This was none of those things.

First of all, let’s explore it from a story perspective. I was a little worried that the film might consist entirely of a debate between student and teacher. While that would have interested me, a former championship debater, it probably would be tedious for most movie-goers. The producers solved that problem by letting the film revolve around a number of stories. While initially this was a little confusing, as the stories coalesced together, it proved to be a great success.

Some of the stories include:

  • a woman shopping for wine
  • an intensely passionate, overly-dedicated, and successful blog writer
  • a pastor and his missionary visitor
  • a Muslim girl whose father insists on her adopting traditional values
  • an impersonal money-driven business executive
  • an old woman with dementia

While these all seem like separate stories, we gradually begin to see connections. I won’t spoil some of the big surprises, but a few of the smaller ones include: the blogger turns out to be the girlfriend of the businessman, and his mother is the old woman. The pastor is influential to several of the other people.

The result of all these storylines, with little surprises gradually revealed, is for a delightful and entertaining film (regardless of the “controversial” subject matter). There were probably a few too many of these stories, however; it was a little confusing at times and some of the stories didn’t seem very relevant to the core story about the debate. Still, the stories are brief interludes, and one or two too many don’t weaken the overall film by that much.

Story Rating: A

The actual debate between the freshman and the teacher was incredibly well-handled. I wasn’t sure how it would be dealt with from a logistical perspective, but it made complete sense: the professor gave the young man the last 20 minutes of three class periods to “make his case for God,” and the students in the class would be the judge of how well he did.

Obviously in a film like this everything is fabricated for whatever outcome the producers want, so my biggest fears were that the arguments would be simplistic and that the negative viewpoint (the atheist professor’s) would be given short shrift. But that was decidedly not what happened.

Instead, the professor is given a plum role: he’s actually intelligent and his arguments make sense (to an extent). Nothing is spared; he pulls no punches. For example, a key topic is “Why does evil exist? A God that would allow horrible things to happen to good people isn’t a God I want to follow.”

The freshman boy is articulate, but appropriately naive and nervous. He’s pre-law, so his logical structuring of his arguments fits his personality. The debate is handled in brief segments, each focusing on one key point. (While I personally might have preferred a more extensive debate sequences, I realize that this is a drama, not a documentary, and for most audiences having debate snippets like this is the the correct approach.)

Overall the debate, which I’d assumed would be the majority of the film, is probably only about 20 minutes of the entire thing. That’s a little disappointing, and the short length keeps the debate topics on the simpler side (we don’t get too in-depth), but overall it doesn’t shy away from hard topics and really does weigh both sides of the “God is dead” argument.

Debate Rating: A-

In general the writing throughout the film was impressive. Some of the scenes were incredibly well-done. For instance, the dinner party scene where the professor subtly belittles his submissive wife in public was pure genius. Every word was charged with electricity, and the dialog was amazingly believable.

There were a few places where things weren’t as good, however. I thought the scenes between the freshman and his girlfriend were weak; her character was underwritten and too stereotyped. She was supposedly a Christian, so her pressuring her boyfriend to give into his atheist teacher seemed odd to me. Supposedly she was upset because he was going to get a bad grade, which would derail his chances of getting into law school, but she reacted far too quickly as though the writers wanted to get her character out of the movie as quickly as possible. In real life she surely would have waited until she saw he was spending way too much time on the debate and hurting his other grades before she became so critical (and ultimately dump him).

In a couple other places, things got a little cheesy or too coincidental to be believable. A key salvation scene in the ending, for instance, was over-the-top for me.

On the other hand, I loved the way tricky parts of spiritual situations were handled in other places. The pastor, for instance, had real wisdom in his advice and you could clearly see him pausing to think before he answered. He wasn’t just being glib. But at the same time, the pastor was struggling with doubts of his own, feeling that running his little church wasn’t doing enough for God. It was amazing to me that the producers would put such a thing in a film like this — usually Christian role-model characters are too perfect and phony.

Writing Rating: B

In terms of acting, I was amazed. Almost everyone in this film is top notch. There are some famous faces here, too. The most shocking is Kevin Sorbo (TV’s Hercules), who plays the arrogant professor. I’ve rarely seen Kevin in a dramatic role and would have assumed his casting here was a misplay, but he was terrific. He was completely believable as a brilliant philosophy teacher, and he did the smug, God-hating, pompous prick role to perfection. Disney kid Shane Harper was ideally cast as the freshman student and did everything flawlessly, with just the right amount of confusion and hesitation balanced by an inner strength based on his faith in God. David A.R. White was wonderful as the pastor. Also top marks to the professor’s wife and the Muslim girl.

Acting Rating: A

Overall, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. The variety of stories and the way they interlaced was interesting. There were a handful of cheesy “Christian” scenes, but they were small and not too annoying. There was humor and drama, and some really brilliant dialog in a few scenes. There were powerful moments and the Newsboys concert at the end was pretty neat (I’ve been a Newsboys fan for ages, but never actually seen the group before). The debate was intelligent and well-done for both sides.

It’s not a flawless film, but I’d give it a high B or low A overall. I find that shocking as usually these kinds of movies get a C from me — even if I like or agree with the topic, the execution is so heavy-handed that I can’t overlook the flaws (a good example was The Bible TV miniseries). This one is very impressive and I highly recommend it. It will inspire you and make you think.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Apr 10, 2014

: The Damned United

I’ve been wanting to watch this soccer film for a while, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I thought it was a documentary but it’s not: it’s a dramatization of real-life events, with some liberties taken with the facts.

The title confuses me because it doesn’t seemed to have anything to do with the movie. It’s really a story about rival managers back in the early 1970s: Don Revie was the old dog, leading Leeds United to top success, while newcomer Brian Clough was brash and outspoken and took his no-name team Derby County from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first. He was assisted by his friend Peter Taylor until the two had a falling out when he reneged on a contract to take over at his old enemy’s club Leeds. He only lasted there 44 days, as the players resented him and his attitude. Humbled, Clough eventually reconciles with Taylor and they go on to have managerial success with Nottingham Forest in the 1980s.

In terms of drama, the film’s awesome, with a fantastic performance from Martin Sheen as Clough. He’s somehow both arrogant and likable, an almost impossible combination to pull off. The film also credits Taylor with a huge amount of Clough’s success — the pair were great together, and not so successful separately.

Ultimately, this isn’t a film about soccer as much as it’s about greed, ego, rivalry, and friendship. It’s quite fascinating regardless of the sports you’re into. Recommended.

Topic: [/movie]


: Winter’s Bone

I thought the book was fantastic and I’ve been meaning to watch the movie for ages and finally got around to it during some airplane travel. It’s definitely excellent, portraying a fascinating look at Ozark life, but not quite as easy to understand as the book. (It’s a little confusing which relatives and which.) The Oscar-winning performance of Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role wasn’t undeserved, though not as dramatic as I expected. I think she gained from the movie’s unexpected success. Still, it’s a good film and worth watching, though the book is better.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Apr 03, 2014

: Planes

I missed out on this in the theaters, even though I loved the original Cars, as it felt too formulaic. It definitely hits all the right notes, like a script-by-numbers, with a plucky crop duster who’s afraid of heights wanting to be a race plane. There are all your standard airplane puns, fun sidekicks, and evil villains, but nothing’s very inspired. The ending is excellent — the whole thing is excellent — but it still never feels original despite all the hard work put into it.

(Part of that is probably because of the reliance of a racing story: those can only end one of two ways, and one of the ways is depressing. I’d love to see more stories in the Cars/Planes world showing what normal life is like in that place, away from all the drama of races.)

Despite all that it’s still an great movie, especially for kids. It’s fun, harmless, with a positive message.

Topic: [/movie]