Film and Media
The Penitent Thief
The Penitent Thief (M) is an imagined story based on the book by Don Willis (also the screenwriter), about the two men who were crucified with Jesus. The story revolves around the brothers, given the names Dismas and Jotham, and a companion Gestas, and their perhaps rather mediocre life of crime and chaos from children to adults.
The context and theme of forgiveness is highlighted from the start with the boy Dismas making it clear to his mother that he is not able to forgive his neglectful and abusive father. The theme of how people approach forgiveness is prominent as most of the characters are wronged by others, and it is of course the focus for the concluding scene on the cross.
The movie follows the development of the boys, particularly Dismas from just a regular naughty boy to a regular thief through a series of circumstances that introduce other characters that connect with aspects of the biblical narrative, from the birth of Jesus. I was reminded of Dickens’ characters Oliver Twist and Fagin, combined with the modern-day tragedy of the African child soldier in terms of the influence of those who take the role of his absent father on the development of Dismas.
Well-known Christian faith film actor Kevin Sorbo (also known from the series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) has a role as King Herod, and for me illustrated his potential as a Shakespearean actor, adding more to this character than the basic person that Herod was.
There are some usual inaccuracies with the arrival of the Magi, and the context of the killing of the male children, but as the introduction explains it is a work of imagination, focussing on being faithful to Jesus as the Messiah.
The Penitent Thief will provoke thought and more consideration of this side-character who is also one of the most captivating figures in the biblical record. A strength of the film is in the localised settings. These provide a helpful picture of the simple and ordinary nature of living in biblical times. While not as dramatic as The Passion of the Christ, the end scene is sincerely framed in a stylistic fashion that stays with the viewer.
What I liked about this movie was the use of ‘God-incidence’. Interestingly Dickens used this device regularly, though for him it was simply a secular tool for creating connections and keeping the reader journeying as he wrote in serial format. In this film, it is a pointer to the simple truth that we may never know what part we play in God’s plan until the grand end.
More Than Money - Christmas Jars (The Movie)
Christmas Jars (2019, PG)
This movie is tailor-made for the contemporary idea of Christmas with a focus on kindness and giving. It is not meant to be a traditional faith-based film, though there is an acknowledgement of prayer and faith. It could be described as a movie in the tradition of the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi. It is based on the 2005 novel by Jason Wright. Wright also co-wrote the screenplay. Over the last decade in the USA, the Christmas Jar concept has taken on a life of its own. The idea is that throughout the year, you put your change, (or notes) into a large glass jar and then at Christmas time provide to a person in need (usually anonymously).
While the jars contain money, that is interestingly not the focus. The story follows Hope Jensen, a young reporter working at an online website, who receives a Christmas Jar following a difficult time. After learning about other people receiving these jars, she makes it her mission to find out how it all began.
Christmas Jars is a combination of a Dickens-type story, with the usual emphasis on coincidence and a Hallmark Christmas card. The publicity itself highlights the cute, warm context and the encouragement one can receive from a message of hope.
While it certainly is a little twee in parts, there are some excellent scenes where the real issues come to the fore and the strength of the acting is often shown. The movie also considers in a helpful way the ethics of undercover journalism, illustrating the power of forgiveness. If you want an alternate to the dark side of much film and TV today, Christmas Jars is for you. For screenings see the website.
Christian Today Film Reviews
Peter Bentley's reviews on Press Service International
Don't Even Think That People are Just Seeking Attention (First published 6 November 2020)
Review of The Girl on the Bridge (2020)
Two Hollywood 'Christian' Movies (First published 3 December 2020)
Review of Same Kind of Different as Me (2018), and Saint Judy (2017).
Same Kind of Different as Me
This warm-hearted film was released online in Australia (due to the changed screening circumstances - see link at end) and will provide encouragement to look at the way people can be changed by common grace. The story is well-known in the USA. A couple befriend Denver (played by Djimon Hounsou), a homeless man, and a growing love and support for each other leads to a foundation that has raised multi-millions of dollars for homeless support.
The USA context is striking with the impact of the KKK providing the initial background to the story of Denver’s life and illustrating the history of the South and the issues that had continued since the civil war.
Greg Kinnear is Ron, the unfaithful husband, and film’s narrator, who is given a second chance by his wife Debbie (Renée Zellweger). She does not want him to win her back with presents, but wants him to change, and enlists him to serve in the local homeless mission. Here, while providing help, Ron renews his marriage and life as he connects with the most unlikely person he would have ever thought he would have connected with.
It is no coincidence that the movie night film at the mission is It’s a Wonderful Life.
Christian references abound, though this is not a typical ‘Christian film’, especially with the range of Hollywood actors involved (two Oscar winners as Jon Voight plays Ron’s estranged father). It is certainly a film one could see with family and friends and it will prompt discussion about faith, love and hope.
‘Little Women’ - Revisited Today
Little Women (PG, 2018)
This Little Women is the latest film based on the Louisa May Alcott novel. Though made and released in the USA in 2018 to recognise the 150th anniversary of the novel, this film is now having a commercial release in Australia in early September 2019 (and before the launch of a re-made traditional version). What makes this version distinct is that it has a modern setting and the four sisters are all women of the 21st century. The key question is still there though - what do you want to do in your life?
Marriage is still the context, rather than a relationship, and in a way today this consideration of faithful male - female marriage is a counter-cultural approach to the individualistic trend of looking to your own fulfilment.
There are some whimsical moments, including a really lovely cat, and aspects that will resonate with people in Australia, even though it is an American setting. Cracked phone screens are as much a symbol of this age as communication through text. The role of fantasy and fable are brought into a modern setting though without the usual focus on horror or desecration. I liked the references and context of books and reading and particularly the consideration that modern reading should still be in a printed book format because of the different dynamic of personal communication.
It is a helpful and gentle family film in a time when the idea is developing that there is no need to have a family or perhaps even be part of one. In this film there are positive models of women and men. The father is now a military doctor and is often away, and the mother and children all have love and support for him and each other, and together exemplify a faithful bond of unity.
I see this Little Women primarily as a good film for mothers and daughters to see together and talk about - it could lead to deeper conversations about what is really important in this short life we are given by God.
Billy Graham: An Extraordinary Journey
Billy Graham: An Extraordinary Journey (2018)
Many readers would have attended the 60th anniversary gatherings held earlier this year (2019) that were arranged by the Billy Graham Association (BGA) in recognition of the impact and long-term ministry of Billy Graham. Soon after Billy Graham’s death (February 21, 2018), the BGA released a documentary to provide an ‘official’ film of Billy Graham’s ministry calling. The documentary is now available via streaming services.
This is a personal journey, and features Billy Graham from his early years and at different and pivotal points of his life and with members of the Graham family.
His wider connections and ability to relate to a wide variety of people is a feature. In the USA and in other places, his regular appearances on radio, and then TV talk shows brought him into contact with many people who would never have attended a crusade. The ecumenical foundation of his crusade gatherings, and his general support for integration are prominent in themes, but of course the central focus is on his calling to preach the gospel.
There has been some debate over the style of the documentary and criticism that it was not a critical or academic documentary, though I think this misses the point as that was not its purpose. It is a relatively short overview (about an hour) and serves the purpose of being a visual eulogy for the countless millions of people that Billy Graham connected with, and clearly could attend the actual funeral. People are invited into the life of Billy Graham and towards the end of the documentary the actual funeral service is featured. I found the documentary to be quite illuminating and humble in its approach, with a focus on giving thanks to God for the life of one person who was called to tell others in this very public way about his lord and saviour Jesus Christ.
(Another interesting film, though not BGA produced is Billy: the early years (2008) - this was reviewed in an early ACCatalyst: March 2009.)
A.D. The Bible Continues
The ‘sequel’ to The Bible (2013) TV series, was originally shown on Australian TV with the title A.D. Kingdom and Empire in 2015 and is now available on some subscription channels. Even though the series is based on the first ten chapters of the Book of Acts, the latter title is a more accurate a description as it is more a biblical Game of Thrones than a historical docudrama rendition of the Bible stories. The last episode of The Bible series provided a shorter consideration of some key parts of the Book of Acts. The A.D. series has 12 episodes, with the first two connecting with the previous series The Bible and acting to remind or introduce viewers to the context of the new Christian community with a focus on the death and resurrection of Christ.
This series is similar to the SBS aired Vikings in terms of its historical accuracy (lack thereof) and use of truncated time-lines and re-arrangement of historical figures to suit an overall story, rather than a series based solely on the biblical text and historical sources. There is a good amount of creative licence (they are filling in 12 hours or so of material), but there are also some good scenes of biblical message and interaction. The main issue for me is that it suffers from the curse of contemporary television; the reality TV show, and so focusses on personalities and individual perspectives, rather than providing a holistic theology of the bible. Too often, (especially in the later episodes), the main characters are reduced to emotional caricatures in the attempt to personalise them. Essentially it is Hollywood-style television aimed at a nominal Christian audience and culture.
If you watch, have your bible ready and take the opportunity to review and work out what is biblically based and where the creative licence comes in.
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.
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.
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.”