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Film and Media

New Life

New Life is having a limited Australian release in early December 2018 (it was produced in the USA in 2016). It is promoted through Movies Change People (Heritage Films). New Life is not a Christian film in the defined US tradition, but a film in the ‘Hallmark’ style tradition of stories about life, family and love. It raises questions about life and being in the context of the friendship and love of two childhood friends, and links into other more well-known commercial love story films. New Life is a sweet film for today, and while not overly dynamic, it has some moving moments and is certainly a film you would feel comfortable inviting people to view and discussing the themes of life, death and living.

While I don’t want to outline the ending, I found it quite intriguing for this day and age and have wondered what people’s reactions to this will be. 

Actor Drew Waters directs the film, and the main female character Ava Kennedy is played by Erin Bethea, who will be recognisable to many Christian film watchers, particularly as the lead in the 2008 faith-based film Fireproof.

I leave you with the defining narrating comment from the film, by John Patrick Moore, an Australian actor who plays the main male character Ben Morton:

There are mountain top experiences in our journey through this world. Those rare and lucid moments when everything seems right, and anything is possible. There are those ordinary days when we may not be thrillingly aware of what lies in the future, but we know it's still out there. There are also those strange times when things do not add up or make sense, when we seem to be forgotten, when heavens are brass, but it's all the moments, good and bad that make up life, and the most important thing to do with life is to live it. 

Peter Bentley

I’m in Love with a Church Girl

I’m in Love with a Church Girl (PG, 2013)

I admit I was intrigued to see this film (available on Netflix) mainly because of the title. It is a professionally produced new style of Christian film in that it is aimed at a broader audience than the typical church group, namely the wider US nominal Christian audience.

Miles Montego is a former drug dealer, and now wealthy investor and event organiser, though still with strong ‘street’ connections. At a party held by his stockbroker and the stockbroker’s wife, he meets a group from the wife’s bible study, including Vanessa Leon. Miles is interested in Vanessa and soon they are seeing each other as friends and this leads to questions about where the relationship is heading. Vanessa clearly outlines the importance of having a husband who has a relationship with God. Miles is so keen on Vanessa he starts to attend church, read the bible and talk with other Christians. He meets Vanessa’s parents, and there are some strong scenes with her mother who is clearly not as keen on Miles.

Stephen Baldwin plays a DEA agent who has been trying to catch Miles out, but is also intrigued at the change in lifestyle and then his connection with the church. The film is based on the director’s own story (Galley Molina), who actually wrote the material as a book in prison. Molina was keen to also have well-known American Christians like Adrienne Bailon (who plays Vanessa) and Stephen Baldwin to bring a strong sense of authenticity to the Christian roles.

While there may be a few ‘twee’ moments, this is an encouraging and faithful story, and illustrates how someone’s life can be transformed by the gospel, and the role that ordinary people play in sharing the gospel.

Peter Bentley

 

Come Sunday: Film Review

Come Sunday (M, 2018) is a fascinating and well-made film about the challenging and sobering story of Bishop Carlton Pearson (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor - the lead in 12 Years a Slave). Pearson established and grew a large church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was one of the leading African-American preachers in the ‘fundamentalist’ tradition established by Oral Roberts, having been mentored by Roberts during his ministry training. Oral Roberts is convincingly played by Martin Sheen.

The film follows the basic story of Pearson’s ministry and influence and the dramatic (almost overnight) change of belief where Pearson basically explained to his congregation one Sunday that he had had an ‘epiphany’ and woken up no longer believing he could reconcile judgment with a loving God. Leaders and members of the church tried to explain, rationalise and wrestle with his thoughts, but it was soon evident he was promoting a form of universalist reconciliation, and soon there was a large exit of members. Pearson was declared a heretic by his colleagues in the Joint College of Africa-American Pentecostal Bishops in 2004, and moved onto different churches and arrangements, including Unitarianism and New Thought faiths.

The film is in need of some editing for length and repetition, especially as it is a bit didactic in the sense that the director is trying to make Carlton Pearson into more of a martyr for the liberal cause than he patently deserves. I leave you with some of Pearson’s words.

“I’m an atheist who is a theist,” he chuckles. “I still believe in God but not ‘a’ God or ‘the’ God. Just God.”

Peter Bentley

Soldiers of the Cross

At the start of the twentieth century the Christian religion dominated the religious statistics in the census returns. In 1901, about 97% of the population identified with a Christian denomination or Christian cause. The new century ushered in a new parliament and a new identity and saw the consolidation/and or coming together of the established denominations and traditions and the continued development of newer religious bodies. One of the newer groups was the Salvation Army and while Australia had a Christian heritage and high nominal Christian identification, the Salvation Army viewed the country as a mission field and they embarked on new ways of reaching people with the Gospel.

Salvation Army work started in Australia in 1880, fifteen years after the movement had begun in England under the leadership of William and Catherine Booth.

Since it was a new mission focussed organisation it was perhaps, more open to experimenting with new forms of technology. Before film, the Army used the medium of magic lanterns, which projected images on glass slides, including optical special effects. These productions were often used with music and lectures or sermons to provide a sense of cohesion and illustrate the message that was presented. The Salvation Army viewed these new technologies as a gift from God, and the step from magic lanterns to film was a natural one for the Salvation Army.

The leading person behind the Army's venture into film production was Major Joseph Perry, an Englishman, who came to Australia from New Zealand in 1885. Perry was an early user of photography and magic lanterns and was a logical choice to take charge of the Limelight Department in 1892. The Limelight name came from the light source in the projectors - gas-heated lime blocks. Perry was encouraged in his cinematography work by the new Australasian Commandant Herbert Booth.

At first the Department projected films made by other organisations, but Booth and Perry saw a need to expand the range of subjects and show the work of the Salvation Army, and consequently the Department moved into its own production work.

Their early success of short scenery-based films soon prompted plans for a large-scale epic production that would establish the Army's reputation and focus people's attention not only on individual salvation, but the work they believed that Christians needed to do to save the world. This epic, written and presented by Herbert Booth was Soldiers of the Cross, premiering at Melbourne Town Hall on 13 September 1900.

Soldiers of the Cross is sometimes referred to as the first Australian feature film, though it was more an early form of PowerPoint, being a dramatic lecture, combining stills and illustrations, film, music and commentary. The production concentrated on the heroic stories of Christian martyrdom, including the deaths of Stephen and Peter, and countless other Christians who would rather face an earthly death than recant their faith or worship a false God. One purpose of the film was as a recruitment tool for the Salvation Army. I wonder how a new film version of Soldiers of the Cross would fare in Australia today?

Peter Bentley is the National Director of the ACC

 

Erring on the side of Better? CPX Documentary 2018

For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse than you Ever Imagined is the new film from the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX). The documentary has been several years in the making and involved considerable travel by members of the CPX team, including Dr John Dickson, Justine Toh and Simon Smart and many interviews with leading scholars and figures throughout the western world. The director Allan Dowthwaite would be known to many Christian viewers in Australia through his work on earlier series with John Dickson, The Christ Files and The Life Of Jesus.

The ‘main’ For the Love of God film is a 90 minute ‘cinema cut’ and released for viewing in selected areas through the FanForce arrangement from May, and then there will be extended material available in a series of episodes on-line. For more information click

For the Love of God is a cerebrally stimulating film, and clearly aimed at a thinking section of society (not just people attending church) and can be seen as a modern form of apologetic. It is quite accessible overall as the presenters are engaging and clear and the questions answered by the range of expert commentators are well-thought out and helpful. The style is non-linear, and ranges over history, ending in Australia. 

Areas of consideration include the crusades (I don’t think I have to say which category this fits into): Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church (and the worse - the German church in general), Father Damien of Molokai, Christians caring in Roman times (how different they were to the culture of the day especially in the care of new-born babies), ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, the treatment of women, including perceptions of witchcraft, and the Myall Creek Massacre in NSW and the treatment and perception of Aboriginal people. There is challenging and sobering material to reflect on, and a film that will stimulate many conversations about God and faith, helping us to reflect again on the centre of our faith Jesus Christ, who we are called to truly follow, rather than our own agendas.

The website has a quote from Nick Spencer that I think sums up the whole idea of the project (Nick Spencer is a Christian writer and commentator based in England with Theos. His recent book is worth reading: The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values)

“It hasn’t always been used on the side of the political or cultural angels - but to think you can understand our idea of right, democracy, human dignity, the scientific revolution, even the welfare state without understanding Christianity … you’re making a big mistake.” Nick Spencer

Review by Peter Bentley, National Director for the ACC

Paul - Apostle of Christ

Paul, Apostle of Christ (M, 2018)

My twitter summary of this would be ‘Biblical epic without the spectacle’. This time Jim Caviezel (Jesus in The Passion of the Christ) plays Luke, and the context is the writing of the story of the acts of the apostles, so the film is literally peppered with biblical lines and references. The film is not the long-expected sequel to The Passion of the Christ, but part of a new series and is directed by Andrew Hyatt. There was a limited cinema release in Australia. 

English actor James Faulker does an excellent job as the Apostle Paul. Paul is mainly seen in prison during this period, though the wider context is the increasing persecution of the people following Christ. There are several other well-known English actors in supporting roles, playing early (biblically referenced) Christians within this wider context. Yes, there are some Hollywood scenes, including the interaction with the gaoler, but the film is faithful to the Christian context. Overall, the film is certainly worth seeing and will be available later in the year on DVD or to download/stream.

Peter Bentley

National Director of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations

The Sweetest Country?

Sweet Country (2017, MA - for language, violence and adult themes)

I reviewed Warwick Thornton’s first film Samson and Delilah in June 2009. Sweet Country is his second film as Director and was released in January this year. Warwick is an indigenous man from Alice Springs.

Sweet Country is a rough film (particularly in the language aimed at Aboriginal people), though it is also a film of surprising beauty. Among the violence and also vile treatment of the Aboriginal people, there are scenes deliberately and slowly arranged that are reminiscent of Albert Namatjira paintings - the natural beauty of the country is breathtaking.  Warwick Thornton has also used ideas from the traditional western to convey this beauty and the story. John Ford films set in Monument Valley come to mind in this Australian western.

The story is set in 1929 and follows the shooting of Harry March, a white settler by an Aboriginal farmhand Sam Kelly (played by Hamilton Morris), who then goes on the run with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). A small posse is formed to bring Sam back for a trial, but Sam eventually gives himself up to help his pregnant wife and the trial ensues.

The ‘sweet country’ that Bryan Brown’s character Sergeant Fletcher talks about, is the sweet land that he believes is just right for raising cattle and living a good life, but there is also an irony to the title as the characters question whether it can ever be really a sweet experience for any of them.

I want to quote a section of my review of Samson and Delilah as it is evident that Sweet Country has central Christian content as well.

“It would appear from this film that Warwick Thornton is also considering how the contemporary Aboriginal experience cannot be understood without reference to Christianity. The cross is a central symbol, from the simple cross in the tin shed chapel in the Aboriginal community to which Delilah takes her Nana to worship in silence, to the placing of a cross in the family home at the end of the film, where Delilah reclaims her place in her country. While no answers are given, the elements of Christian symbolism and consideration of Aboriginal art and dreaming must be related to the influential experience that Warwick Thornton had at Salvado College at the Catholic Monastery in New Norcia (in WA). His mother sent him there as a 13 year old, seemingly to have him straightened out, and he learnt to appreciate the regulated and yet simple lifestyle.”

The Christian faith is quite central again, with Sam Neil’s character Fred Smith a gentle Christian man who sees the Aboriginal workers on his farm differently from his neighbours. “We're all equal here. We're all equal in the eyes of the Lord.” There is a moving scene as they all join hands to give thanks for their food. In another scene, as part of the posse to track Sam (to make sure he comes back alive), one of the men bemoans that they don’t even sing around the campfire. Fred then starts singing ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so’, much to the amusement of the other men.

The town itself has no church, but that will change as one of the future images shows that what is raised up is not what the viewer is led to expect, but a church.

The clearest religious context is near the end, and while I do not want to give too much away, it is the positioning of the rainbow while hope is questioned that provides the answer. There will always be love and hope if people truly follow God.

The second part of the film concerns the trial. Matt Day is Judge Taylor and in this town, the courtroom is the travelling cinema. The travelling cinema man had been screening The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), a choice that is not incidental to the director’s theme. It was intriguing though to see people in the same deck chairs, but now as the courtroom ‘audience’, perhaps a nod to contemporary reality TV shows?

There is undeniably a focus and comment on the rule of law (from our British heritage) during the trial, and I leave it to the viewer to ponder this aspect.  

Thornton closes out his second film with a song, this time a Johnny Cash version of Peace in the Valley; yes an irony, though it links well with the final scene that raises the continuing question about the relationship of the people of the land with the contemporary time they are in.

Peter Bentley is the National Director for the ACC

 

Battle of the Sexes - updated for the 21st century

Battle of the Sexes (2017, PG)

I thought it would be helpful to provide a comment on this film, though I caution potential viewers as there is active portrayal of (same) sex practice. It is a sign of the times that this film received a PG rating. For those who are unfamiliar, it is mainly a dramatic re-telling of the off-court competition between tennis champions Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (a No. 1 player in the 1940s) and then their actual match.  I was interested in this film because of the Margaret Court connection. Australian actress Jessica McNamee plays Margaret Court. The most intriguing aspect is the secondary story that involves Margaret Court, as she played the first ‘battle of the sexes’, the match in May 1973 that Bobby Riggs won 6-2, 6-1. Margaret continues as a character, but is primarily a foil for Billie Jean King.

Riggs continually taunted Billie Jean King with the idea of a major telecast deal, and a match was eventually arranged and held in September 1973. It was telecast with an estimated audience of 90 million, a very large number for the day. Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billie Jean are simply amazing in their roles.

The film is certainly well made and a fascinating biopic of the 1970s and male and female dynamics and relationships, but the obvious, though not unexpected aspect is that it is also a promotional film for same-sex relationships, and thus a revisionist interpretation that essentially mocks people in the era for being so narrow-minded. This is nowhere more evident in that the actual role Margaret Court is assigned in the film is that of ‘lesbian spotter’, and her prime target depicted is Billie Jean King. Battle of the Sexes is certainly a topical film given that Billie Jean King weighed in on the Margaret Court controversy over Margaret’s comments on same-sex marriage this year.

Peter Bentley is the ACC’s National Director

A New Era of Viewing

Many Australians have now embraced the new viewing era with comprehension. Gone are the days when most of Australia tuned in at a certain time to watch a certain program and then would discuss, critique or bemoan the program the next day.

Now with all TV stations offering catch-up service (streaming), even the 6 pm or 7 pm nightly news is on the way to becoming a rare event for any family or couple to watch together.

Paid streaming services like Netflix, Stan and Foxtel Now, allow immediate access to a wide variety of material, and increasingly are making their name with their own TV shows.

Netflix is one of the most widely used. It is likely that at least one member of your family has Netflix and now can binge-watch TV series after TV series, let alone movie after movie. One of the intriguing aspects is that like Foxtel, these new services provide a range of films –  a type of broadcast smorgasbord, with offerings for everyone. I have listed below some of the Biblical and Christian films, and films with a Christian  theme available on Netflix. The US service has many more films on offer, but at least the Australian service has made a start.

Kings’ Faith (M): a teenager leaves a gang and is cared for by Christian parents who face some difficult personal choices.

A Matter of Faith: A contemporary evolution v creation debate on a university campus.

David and Goliath: A slightly awkward telling of the traditional story.

The Ark: the building of the ark is told by BBC1.

Born to Win: the title belies the focus as a teacher’s faith is challenged in a school for special needs.

The Blind Side: A Christian family support a young African-American in his football career.

The Preacher’s Son (M): an illuminating adult look at a fictional African-American local church dynasty and their failings and past (and present) sins. An eye-opener into the combining of politics in American society and the church. The wife of the Minister has the title ‘First Lady’ in the church.

The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler: the story of a Polish social worker who saved Jewish children during WWII.

Soul Surfer: The story of Bethany Hamilton who lost her left arm in a shark attack.

Christian TV – in a new way

Many readers would be aware of the dedicated Christian TV channel, the Australian Christian Channel (Yes, another ACC). As noted above, many people now use a form of pay TV – Fetch is a common one and ACC TV is available on Fetch or Foxtel.

However, the Australian Christian Channel is now more than just a channel, as its website provides live TV and on demand/catch-up. You can also download the ACCTV App and watch when you want to on your tablet or phone, or Apple TV. For more information see: https://acc.tv/

Moving from DVD base to Digital

Heritage Films (marketing through Movies Change People) continues to provide a theatrical release arrangement for churches and groups, and a DVD based service, and has now developed digital on-demand and streaming to meet the needs of a new era. See their website: https://www.movieschangepeople.com/

During so much change in broadcasting, it is good to see Christian organisations again at the forefront of technology; just like they were at the start of the film industry in the early 20th century.

Peter Bentley

Denial

Denial (2017, M)

Denial is also a film based on a book, but in this case the non-fiction work "History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier," by Deborah Lipstadt, the US historian who had to defend herself against a libel charge by David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier when she gave a lecture in England. In English law the burden of proof is on the accused, so the defence focussed on the facts of the Holocaust and by relation, proving that Irving was a liar. It is a well-made courtroom drama, with fine performances, though Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt has very much a supporting role as the legal eagles dominate the film. Deborah Lipstadt has often been asked about ‘free speech’ and among many comments, I thought it was helpful to consider the following quote from the film.

“Now, some people are saying that the result of this trial will threaten free speech. I don't accept that. I'm not attacking free speech. On the contrary, I've been defending it against someone who wanted to abuse it. Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want. What you can't do is lie and expect not to be held accountable for it. Not all opinions are equal. And some things happened, just like we say they do.”

Peter Bentley