Film and Media
Exodus: Gods and Kings: A comment’ review’
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014, M)
Firstly I want to note this is not a traditional ‘old-style' biblical epic and thus those people seeking a message of traditional biblical encouragement and endorsement will be disappointed. It is a traditional Hollywood movie, and of course the themes are ones that resonate with Hollywood dramas are front and centre:
Hero starts well and has significant influence; has problems and falls from great height; has time away in the wilderness; comes back renewed and finds true purpose and meaning in achieving tasks set out at the beginning; settles down at end.
Leading actors Christian Bale (Moses) and Joel Edgerton (Ramses) have some excellent scenes and Bale grows into the Moses character, though at times he does give the impression he is like a bearded Old Testament version of John McClane from the Die Hard series. Some other acting parts are a bit hammy and some lines are a little too 21st century for the context. Of course, hammy acting in epic biblical based films has an honourable cinematic tradition, but there is a very odd portrayal by Aaron Paul as Joshua. Paul is well-known for his role in Breaking Bad, and in this role he looks like he tapping into the role of a wide-eyed blue crystal druggie.
Overall the film needs some editing. You do not want people screaming out ‘Let my people go (out of this cinema)'. While the overall editing is good, one could easily remove 25-30 minutes, which at least which would make it more manageable and more seamless in the story. It also oddly drags a little once the Red Sea scene is concluded, with these parts almost like an appendix.
A star in the movie is the computer generated imagery which goes well with the 3D base, though perhaps ironically, or deliberately, ‘The parting of the red sea' was a little underwhelming, but then it is probably difficult to do something without appearing to be a homage to The Ten Commandments (1956), though I suspect the main reason for this film's ‘parting of the Red Sea' is the implicit nature based interpretation for most of the miracles.
From church arenas, I imagine there will be a good bit of criticism and focus on the areas where it departs from the biblical message. One could list many, though the use of the giant crocodiles to turn the river into blood is an intriguing secular approach and reminded me more of the black comedy of Lake Placid (1999).
The choice of a child to ‘play out' the voice of God - when God is speaking direct to Moses, will also ensure endless controversy and question about what he was attempting to do? Scott told The Hollywood Reporter magazine that "Sacred texts give no specific depiction of God, so for centuries artists and filmmakers have had to choose their own visual depiction," Scott tells THR. "Malak exudes innocence and purity, and those two qualities are extremely powerful." (November 21, 2014)
I believe overall people need to be realistic. The director Ridley Scott did not set out to make a film to capture a Christian audience. This is clear from the start as he uses the term B.C.E. for the period setting, firmly establishing it in a secular context. God is very present in the film, but God is perhaps primarily the God of certain people's imagination, rather than the Great I Am.
I have often commented on how films provide opportunities to discuss faith, and this is one that certainly provides an opportunity to start a conversation, that could become a very biblical one.
Peter Bentley is the ACC National Director
Freedom - a new experience of Amazing Grace
Freedom (2014 M) was originally to be known as 'Carry Me Home', a title resonating with the spiritual songs in the film. It is a film intimately related to the tradition of the 2007 film Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace was one of the first films reviewed in ACCatalyst when we started in 2007 and the poster graced our second cover.
Freedom stands more firmly in the Christian film tradition, especially as it was filmed in the USA (Connecticut) and is clearly aimed at a certain market.
Musical theatre actor and Australian actor and presenter Peter Cousens is the director - his first film, clearly a labour of love, and a worthy effort. He would be well-known to Australian audiences from many musicals and television shows and he uses his musical theatre background in a variety of ways in the film, overseeing the many well-known spiritual songs and laterally connecting a musical acting troupe and the anti-slavery movement.
Freedom has two intertwined stories, connected by a bible and slavery. Virginian Slave, Samuel Woodward is played by US actor Cuba Gooding Jr.
Samuel leads his family to escape using the Underground Railroad - a network of anti-slavery workers - many Christians, especially Quakers, who provided safe passage for slaves to the north and to Canada.
The other story develops the Amazing Grace theme through John Newton as the slave trader, and connects with the second period as among his cargo of slaves on one trip was Samuel's great grandfather. As readers and singers will know John Newtown's life was eventually changed and this Amazing Grace is experienced by others in the film too.
The film itself is partly a musical as there are times when the actors break into song, but it is mainly a drama and is mostly well acted and made, though could have been helped by a tighter script, and some further editing and also deletion of some visual effects in favour of the simple storyline. The songs are memorable and quite moving. I personally found the star of the movie to be the singer Jubilant Sykes, who plays the slave translator Ozias. After taking up the film's kind offer of downloading four songs, I played City Called Heaven on a continuous loop while I was thinking about and writing my review.
Go and see this film, or buy the DVD when it comes out and invite some friends to view and discuss. It has a warm heart and addresses some serious issues and is part of the increasing world-wide campaign to recognise and address the continuing slavery scandal that belies many increasing wealthy countries.
Son of God - new film released
Son of God (2014, M) - Film released 22 May 2014 in Australia
Producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett brought the epic miniseries The Bible to life last year and created a significant amount of media and general public interest in the bible. I have no doubt that many readers viewed all of the ten episodes. Following on from the miniseries is a feature film about the life of Jesus which uses material from the mini-series as well as some scenes not featured. While the publicity refers to this as the first film about the entire life of Jesus since The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), I think the 1979 Jesus film could reasonably be referenced. Jesus is the 1979 docudrama that is available in many languages and has been widely used as an outreach tool. There are some similarities in the approach and the desire for outreach, though I see the Son of God as being a more visually contemporary film, utilising the digital age's stunning film capabilities.
Mark Burnett was always going to prepare a film focussing on Jesus as the material was there for a separate feature. The film could also be fashioned in a more contemporary film style, and Burnett has pointed to it partly as political thriller, and the elements of intrigue and the politics of the day certainly stand out. It is good background and provides the overall context to enable a secular audience to understand that Jesus will die, and given the level of knowledge today, perhaps to be genuinely surprised that he appears after death - raised!
Originally the film was to be about 3 hours, but the final version is 2 hours and 15 minutes. Many secular critics have commented it is a bit ponderous or laborious, and I can understand that they say it is one for the faithful. I think to capture the full attention of many (and younger) secular people today one would need to edit down to the standard 90 minutes, but personally I found many of the well-known stories moving and well-done. Some were wonderfully illustrative of the amazing answers that Jesus provided, especially to the Pharisees.
Intriguingly at times I caught myself thinking that the portrayal of Jesus by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado was so genuine that he captured the spirit of the person, but then (and as he has intimidated) who can really portray Jesus? When I reflected, I realised it was his words that are of course so stunning (and yes they are handled with grace and care) and they are (mostly) the words from the Bible. There is some historical ‘development' but the aim; like in The Bible mini-series is to be faithful to, and affirming of, an orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ.
There are extensive resources to use to promote or study the film. I believe it would be helpful for churches to show the trailer on a Sunday, and also encourage people to see and take people to see ‘at the movies' as this visual picture is meant for the big screen.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: click here
RESOURCES: Click here
12 Years a Slave - a critique
12 Years A Slave (2013, MA)
It is difficult to pen a critical review of the winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Picture, but I believe it is necessary to do, as the film's reception has been illustrative of the sometimes uncritical approach to films that focus on important issues. The issue of ‘historical' slavery in the USA is clearly one that people thought worthy to highlight for the issue itself, rather than the quality of the film.
The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a New York state born free African-American who is kidnapped and sold into slavery and forced to work in a Louisiana plantation. When freed in 1853 he wrote an account of his time and this memoir was rediscovered in the 1960s.
While there are some reasonable portrayals, the acting is woefully uneven with some parts amateurish and ungainly. The director's seeming attempt to provide an art-house film as well as mainstream picture conflict, causing at times an odd and sometimes jarring collection of music, dramatic scenes and visual camera techniques that I believe detract from the central elements of the story. A warning to potential viewers; there are some concentrated torture and beating scenes, which ironically could have the adverse effect of turning people off from the central story. The film is also at times boringly didactic, and yet there are quite moving parts as well. It is worth noting that the director, British born Steve McQueen did not receive the Oscar for Best Director.
While it is certainly worth considering for the story itself, it continues the history of Oscar winning films which were worth nominating to raise awareness of an issue, and ended up winning the main prize. Mind you, I could be quite mistaken; as most critics have been so effusive in praise one would think they had directed the film. Certainly I was the only one in the audience laughing at some of the pretentiousness and acting - a rarity for me, as I am usually so socially conformist I wouldn't dare to do so during a preview screening.
You will already know from the title that Solomon did not remain a slave, and thank God for that, but I hope that does not soothe our consciences. Let us reflect that slavery still continues today and the sexual slave industry is estimated alone to be about 21 million people.
The Railway Man
The Railway Man (2013, M)
While not an explicitly Christian film, the strong theme of forgiveness in The Railway Man will resonate for ACC readers. Colin Firth is Eric Lomax and Nicole Kidman plays his wife Patti Lomax. Some of you may have read his autobiography of the same name (published in 1995). The process of bringing it to film is a story in itself though the film does not deal with aspects of his family life prior to him meeting Patti whom he would marry in 1983.
During WWII British soldier Eric Lomax is captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore and ends up working on the Thai-Burma Railway. Apart from the general appalling conditions, Lomax (and many others) was tortured, with a particular incident providing the background to Lomax's torture.
The film weaves back and forth from the war times to the 1980s, illustrating his continuing psychological difficulties, particularly its impact on his second marriage. Eric eventually learns of a book published by one of his captors who is now running a tourist- type memorial (not exploiting the time but attempting to show remorse), and he eventually makes a journey to meet him. The former Japanese officer Takashi Nagase (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), from the prison camp was an interpreter during the torture sessions.
Laura Barnett in The Guardian Film News (24 January 2014 9:30 AM) writes: "'The torture scenes are terrifying - and completely realistic' ... . says torture rehabilitation expert Dr William Hopkins. I saw this film with a colleague who knew Eric Lomax, whose memoir it is based on. He had been a victim of torture, too.
" We both found it strikingly realistic: the torture scenes are terrifying without being remotely sensationalist, as can sometimes be the case with film and TV. Both Lomax's experience of torture in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and his ultimate reconciliation with his torturer are put across excellently."
Both men had become aware of the need for forgiveness, but as is often the case one person has to take the first step to reconciliation, and Eric knew he had to offer forgiveness as the only way to stop the hatred that had dominated his life and start to live again.
The Letter Writer
How long has it been since you received a postal letter? This film revolves around the endangered species known as the personal handwritten letter. In an age when short bursts dominate our increasingly social media oriented world, this film provides a ‘time out' for reflection and consideration.
Aley Underwood plays Maggie Fuller, a generally good, but pretty normal teenager and aspiring singer raised by her single-parent mother who has her own struggles. Maggie is trying to find a purpose in her life as she considers the world of music, her relationships, health issues, ageing, and many simply normal events. She is an unusual heroine, but certainly fits the role as she seeks to help others.
Bernie Diamond is ‘The Letter Writer' Sam, an elderly man who sends letters of encouragement and affirmation by post, choosing names from the telephone book. He also hand delivers letters to people he meets in his day to day walks or visits.
After receiving a letter, Maggie is so intrigued she tracks Bernie down and begins a journey of friendship and contact with others she would never have known, unless someone had taken the opportunity to encourage her (and the way this comes about is taken as God-provided).
There are some poignant elements to this film, and certainly those involved with Kairos and Emmaus will know the power of receiving an actual letter and words of encouragement, as opposed to hearing words of abuse or degradation.
In their initial exchange upon meeting, Sam asks Maggie:
Sam Worthingtom: Didn't you like your letter?
Maggie Fuller: Yeah, but you don't even know me.
Sam Worthingtom: If I'm the one person that has something nice to say about you, I know you better than anyone else.
A central theme to the story is ‘finding your role in life'. What are you meant to do on this earth? Sam puts it this way "Within every human being there is a God given ability that if you find it and nurture it you'll be able to bless the lives of others."
This is a gentle and intriguing film. I believe that it could be a film that will resonate with grandparents and parents - perhaps a good one for grandparents and grandchildren (not too young) to view together?
Showing in the Faith on Film programme at selected Cinemas in July - August 2013: Click here
Blue Like Jazz (M, 2012)
While this initially seems a conventional Christian film, one is drawn into a far broader picture once the main character chooses the "broad path". The movie is based on a very popular semi-autobiographical novel by Donald Miller, and is set in a USA college. Real-life Texan Marshall Allman plays Don, the Texas student from a Southern Baptist background who chooses to go to a liberal arts college, rather than a bible college. For Don, the college is an eye-opener in all of the traditional ways as he is involved in various forms of experimentation, though always with a little hesitation. It contrasts the Christian foundation he received as a child (and his application of it) with his inability to understand, let alone resist involvement in the new lifestyle, and then through a series of issues and relationships a new contrast with the beginnings of his re-considering of faith and understanding of grace and mercy.
The movie is directed by Steve Taylor, who has had a well-established music and video career. Initially he struggled to secure funding, but the film is now something of an icon in terms of fundraising on ‘KickStarter', a website-based arrangement where individuals from anywhere can contribute to a project they believe is worth supporting.
This is a more ‘adult' Christian film for its themes and approach, but will certainly raise some issues for people to consider, and may well lead to helpful and probably pastoral conversations among those who have found similar bewilderment when their ‘infant' faith is challenged. There is also the honest depiction of the developing conflict that arises from lifestyles that promise much, but in reality do not provide hope grounded in love.
Blue Like Jazz was showing as part of the Hoyts Faith on Film Sunday programme and is available on DVD.
Les Miserables (M, 2012)
I believe many of our members may have seen this film at the cinema, but if you did not, or indeed want to sing along again, you can readily find it now on DVD (and often at an amazing price). The book and the stage and film versions were incredibly popular in the late 20th century and now this continues in the new century. A new generation of people have been exposed to the Christian context and underlying message and through DVD and download, more people will also see this in the future. If people missed some of the underlying Christian references in this film, they were either asleep or so secularised that the heritage of our Christian foundation is now not able to be perceived.
Prisoner 24601 (Jean Valjean) is played by Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe is Javert his nemesis who doggedly pursues him to the end, and an end that Javert simply cannot accept. Javert cannot understand the mercy that is offered by the one who has become his obsession. It appears he would rather have been shot, or at least rejected, rather than actually understood. The film version is a spectacle by itself, and follows on from other period works by director Tom Hooper who made The King's Speech. The period in this case is the first half of the 19th century, focusing on the turbulent ‘back and forth' history of France following the end of the Napoleonic era and a period of social unrest and quasi-revolution. The era is well-captured in the costuming, the set buildings and occasional images of the vulgar and hedonistic lifestyles that had developed.
Musicals sometimes have a little difficulty being translated from the intimacy of the stage to the large screen format, but overall this one is done well and the special effects enable some scenes to be more dramatised than before. Some aspects of the acting are slightly melodramatic and parts of the singing are limited, but Anne Hathaway's stunning turn as Fantine, especially for her version of ‘I Dreamed a Dream' makes the film worthwhile by itself. She certainly deserved her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and she seemed to win every other similar award in this year.
Valjean's story of a man so touched by the mercy of another that he becomes a man who also shows mercy is a wonderful theme to consider. Les Miserables won the Epiphany Prize from MovieGuide for most inspiring film (2013). Watching this film with a group of friends at your home (perhaps with an intermission as it is a long film) could provide a gentle way into reflecting on the Christian story of forgiveness and hope.
Faith in Foreign Films
This short piece considers five foreign films that have created interest among critic and discussion groups that consider religion and film.
Babette's Feast (Denmark, 1987, G)
Set in 19th century Denmark, this somewhat disarmingly simple story is based on a story by Karen Blixen, who became well-known for her book Out of Africa. Babette's Feast is the story of a meal organised by Babette, a ‘refugee' from France, who is the housekeeper and cook for two sisters who live in a puritan community in a remote setting in Jutland. The sisters have the oversight of the religious community founded by their father and he is often referred to in glowing and saintly terms, but the community is struggling with ageing and health issues. The community keeps a fairly rigid lifestyle, including usually avoiding enjoyment of any food - it is just ‘fuel' to keep going. After coming into some money, Babette decides to provide a meal for the community in appreciation for their taking her in. The movie is also a story about a different era of perhaps unrequited love, and following what you believe God has called you to do. A gentle film, though one that is often considered to mark the beginnings of new interest in exploring the use of film in church circles.
Jesus of Montreal (Canada, 1989, M)
This is a film based around a group of actors putting on a passion play which achieves controversy, due to its more radical interpretation of the life of Christ and its confrontation with the authorities of the modern time (part of the official church). This has some famous analogous scenes as the life of one of the actors Daniel begins to mirror elements of the life of Christ. There is an especially contemporary scene related to the temptation of Christ by the devil. While the film has a theologically liberal base, adult viewers can certainly use this to look at biblical themes, and one can have a vibrant discussion about who Jesus really is.
As It Is In Heaven (2004, Sweden, M)
This movie struck a chord with Western audiences and in Australia ran in one small Sydney theatre for nearly two years. It is a simple story of a famous conductor coming 'home' to rest and recover, who then becomes caught up in helping a church choir learn to sing. This could have been a bit like Sister Act, but instead of a comedic foundation, it focuses on some real and sometimes disturbing issues in the not-so pious and fragile community. It should be noted that while religious, the theological premise is essentially humanist, as it focuses mainly on the people's responses in terms of finding their own way and even the conclusion reached while ‘spiritual' is more aptly centred around the idea of earthly nostalgia than ‘as it in heaven', that is to the glory of God.
Adam's Apples (Denmark, 2005, MA)
This poignant story features the now well-known Danish actor Mads Dittmann Mikkelsen (the villain in Casino Royale) as Ivan Fjeldsted, a pastor in a remote area who takes in former prisoners who are required to spend a certain amount of time following the conclusion of their sentence in community service. The latest arrival is Adam Pedersen, a former leader of a neo-Nazi leader gang. Each person at the church community has to choose a goal or task to undertake that will help with their rehabilitation. In an attempt to get the meddlesome pastor off his case, Adam finally resolves that he will bake an apple pie (there is an apple tree in the churchyard). While a seemingly simple task, it becomes fraught with difficulty and also issues arise with other prisoners, Adam's past connection and also Ivan's own tragic past. One book of the Old Testament features firmly in the discussions and also theme, but I will leave this to you consider. This is an adult film for its themes, but can richly reward a discussion about God's grace, providence and questions about good and evil.
Letters to Pastor Jaakob (Finland, 2009, PG)
In a similar theme to Adam's Apples, Pastor Jaakob finds himself with Leila, a recent though unwilling paroled prisoner, who now has to undertake long-term community service. Jaakob has a unique ministry for today - no technology here. He is blind and receives mail from people asking for advice and prayer. He needs an assistant to read the letters and write a response. His responses are typically scriptural references and a blessing. Needless to say some issues arise for Leila who finds the whole situation frustrating and odd, but God's love abounds. This is an amiable and reflective film, which helps the viewer to consider the mercy and grace of God.
For more reviews by Peter see the ACCatalyst magazine and the Culture Connections section of the website.
Pastors in Film
Billy: The Early Years (2008, M)
While made a few years back, this film has only recently made it to DVD in Australia. I should note (as the credits also record), this film was not made by the Billy Graham Organisation and is not endorsed by it, though one of Billy's daughters, Virginia, has spoken fondly about it.
It is nostalgic in a good way for a different era, though sometimes the abundant sentimentality does not allow deep critical reflection. It is also a romantic drama with a key focus on the development of the relationship between Billy and Ruth Bell.
Billy is brought to life by Armie Hammer, who had a significant role as the Winklevoss twins in the recent film about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg The Social Network. He is perhaps sometimes a little too ‘nerdy' or earnest, but that may be an attempt to reflect the idea that this was a gentler and idealistic American Christian period. The film helpfully illustrates some of the important characteristics of Billy Graham and the ministry he founded, and contrasts the call on his life as an evangelist with that of his former colleague Charles Templeton, an evangelist who eventually left his calling after having co-founded Youth for Christ International with Torrey Johnston. Templeton continued to speak highly of Billy though he viewed his faith as too simple. The film ends with a striking scene illustrating the important setting of the Los Angeles Crusade in 1949 and leaving a foundation for the significant growth in the 1950s, with Billy Graham continuing to preach the ‘simple' message of faith in Christ.
The Holy Roller (2010 PG)
This romantic Christian comedy with a touch of drama has many homage elements. It is based on a story by Australian actor Angus Benfield, who plays the lead role and was made in New Zealand just before the Christchurch earthquake. The story revolves around struggling Pastor Luke who heads for the big city, and finds a range of sinners and temptation, and yet also miracles. He inadvertently helps the owner of a nightclub aptly named Temple and then sets up a church. Issues abound as he attracts many similar people Christ did in his ministry. Some scenes are reminiscent of the well-used discussion film Jesus of Montreal (1989) and also Pray TV, the 1982 John Ritter film, which contrasts the personal style of pastoral connection with the tele-evangelist role so often seen in the USA, and in this movie through the appropriately named Reverend Shoebuck. The Da Vinci Last Supper image is also worth considering. A strength in the film is the music, led by the other major character Kate (Victoria Abbott), and also promoted as a key element in the development of the church. While the ‘nerdy' pastor is sometimes a little perhaps too deliberately cringe-worthy, this is a warm-hearted film exploring some of the essentials of the Christian faith in belief and practice and helps Christians to consider their motives and actions.
The Sessions (2012, MA)
This film doing the rounds in some religious and secular religious circles is one to consider with caution. Most of its interest has been because of the priest character and his seeming liberal attitudes regarding sexual practice. I found it less than heart-warming and mystifying as to why many film critics have lauded it, except for the way it tries to tug the heart-strings and promotes our individualistic culture. The film centres around the true story of American writer and poet Mark O'Brien, who due to polio breathed with an iron lung for most of his life. Mark has a desire to lose his virginity before his life (his life is remarkably precarious) and seeks a "sexual surrogate". One of the main persons he consults about this is a priest Father Brendan (played by William H. Macy) who portrays one of the most awkward figures I have seen in films. Many critics have praised his seeming humanness and accessible character, while I saw him simply as a priest who was not sure of his own role, the faith of his church and a theology of the body, let alone common sensibilities. Even if there are physical limitations, his confidential counselling with Mark in common areas of the church where other people are listening in, and in one case comment via their looks, is profoundly disturbing and I certainly did not find it provided the light relief it probably intended. The film needed a more robust depiction or perhaps cutting the character out completely.
Two other aspects stood out for me. Its focus on the contemporary idea that the sex act is a pinnacle of achievement, and central to being (not withstanding this person is disabled and the issues this raises for sexual expression), and secondly the intriguing bonding that occurs in a very short space of time with Mark's sexual surrogate, played by Oscar winning actress Helen Hunt. What does this actually say about the theology of the body-the bonding provided by sex and what was the film trying to say overall? Anyway, a film to note when you see reference, but I recommend avoid viewing.
Peter Bentley (ACC Executive Consultant)