When it comes to faith-based movies, especially those based on best-selling books, you know that they’re going to be preaching to the choir and more determined to give its intended audience the message it wants first; everything else is secondary. With The Shack, I got the start of an interesting film scenario and then it became the most boring, laborious, and theologically trite Ted Talk ever. I was fighting to stay awake and it was a battle that I was losing. The opening twenty minutes presents a story with dramatic possibility: Mack (Sam Worthington) is a family man who is grieving the loss of his youngest daughter. On a camping trip, she was abducted by a pedophilic murderer and killed in a shack in the woods. Mack is a shell of himself and his family doesn’t know how to reach him. He gets a mysterious invitation from “Papa,” his wife’s nickname for God, inviting him to the murder shack. So far so good. There’s even a fairly interesting back-story for Mack about his alcoholic and abusive father. Young Mack eventually poisoned his bad dad’s drinks with hazardous chemicals to protect he and his mother. However, all remote sense of entertainment is snuffed out once Mack enters the confines of the titular shack. Inside are human avatars for the Holy Trinity of Christianity, with Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer serving as a homespun “Papa.” The next 100 minutes is a series of talk show interview segments with each person to engage in full on flimsy spiritual psycho-babble to explain why God lets bad things happen and forgiveness is key. The movie stops being a dialogue and becomes a lecture series, and each one just kept going on and on. The characters stop being characters and become different mouthpieces for the spiritual cliches. It’s like the filmmakers threw up their hands and gave up. This is not a movie. It’s a inspirational exam told by the most cloying professors. The lessons learned feel trite (who are you to judge, God is with you through good times and bad) and the movie curiously leaves a lot of dramatic implications unresolved. Did Mack kill his father with the poisoned drink? Did this killer pedophile ever get caught, and if not doesn’t that mean other children are at risk? It’s like once Mack enters that mystical murder cabin, the movie loses any sense of structure, pacing, stakes, and dramatic propulsion, and that’s before the silly race across the water with Jesus. I would also say Worthington (Avatar) is not the best choice as the lead actor due to his limited dramatic range and growl-pitched voice. Other movies have dealt with heavy loss but rarely has one felt so detached from making that loss personable and empathetic. The Shack is a maudlin fable that wants to make people feel good even during the dark times. That’s admirable but it doesn’t make this 135-minute sermon any more of a worthwhile movie to watch.
Nate’s Grade: C-
A nearly three-hour movie about Portuguese Jesuit priests facing persecution in 17th century Japan and struggling with the personal demands and costs of their faith sounds like a hard sell for your casual moviegoer. It may seem even stranger coming from the likes of director Martin Scorsese. This is a deeply personal film and perhaps the greatest movie about the nature of spiritual faith, both good and bad, I’ve seen. Two priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) sail to Japan in 1635 to find their mentor after hearing he has renounced his ties to Christianity and taken up a Japanese wife. Christianity has been outlawed and those caught practicing the religion can be turned in for 100 pieces of silver, and a priest for 300 pieces. The repression forces Christian converts to make difficult choices, especially when their refusal to recant their faith causes suffering for others. The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) is a fascinating figure who argues that these misplaced missionaries never understood Japanese culture and that this foreign religion simply cannot flourish. The meaning of individual faith is explored beautifully with existential highs and lows. When the priests come across a village of secretly practicing Christians, it’s a powerful example of the goodness of faith, as these people are nourished body and soul, empowered. They can also finally confess their sins and garner a clean slate. However, much of the film is about the internal struggle to retain one’s faith in the seeming absence of confirmation. The priests are eventually caught and ordered to apostate, and their ongoing refusals are met with harder and harder challenges to bear. It’s an ongoing process for many people to square the concepts of a loving God and the horrors and general torment that do not merit said God’s intervention. At one point one of our priests, shaken by his experiences, asks if he is merely praying to silence. In some regard, I think the movie is about coming to terms with the fact that faith is often a relationship with a silent partner. Silence may be the greatest spiritual epic about doubt. It feels like a thriller at times and also the most Christian movie at other times. It puts the simplistic tripe starring the likes of Kirk Cameron to shame. Scorsese’s camera is unmistakably his and the movie is often dazzling to just experience. The pacing is very much a slow burn but the historical context felt increasingly intriguing for my tastes. Ogata is the real star of the movie, embellishing his antagonist with a magnetic power. Every time he was off screen I wished for his return. Silence is not going to be a movie for everyone or for many. It’s too long and airless, but it’s a deeply serious, deeply meditative, and deeply searching film about the power of belief and the price we pay to hold on.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Tyler Perry is an industry unto himself, and the face of that industry is his matriarchal force of nature, Madea, the trash-talking, advice-giving woman of fear and esteem. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly enjoy Perry’s Madea movies, and I fully admit being outside the target audience, but I think I’m coming around on the Madea character and in particular Perry’s broad comic performances. Boo! A Madea Halloween is a flimsy excuse to re-introduce Madea and her elderly gang of colorful cohorts, including her gruff brother Joe (also played by Perry). The movie seems to barely have enough plot at all, aimlessly revolving around Madea babysitting a pair of teen girls on Halloween and thwarting them from going over to a nearby fraternity party. There’s perhaps a 10-15 minute segment that just… keeps… going involving Madea and her friends literally advising a weak-willed father (also Perry) to enforce discipline and beat his child. As a writer, Perry relies too heavily on transparently expository writing in between his funny. The story keeps circling around on itself, stretching the improv jags with diminished returns and needing more comic set pieces for a 100-minute running time that could clearly be trimmed. Perry directs his actors much like his plays as they go for broke, playing to the rafters. However, Perry as actor, especially as Joe and Madea, is an enjoyable and quite credible comic performer who definitely displays surefire instincts. I found myself laughing enough even during the more aimless lulls in conversation. The plot doesn’t have to be David Mamet when you just unleash Madea on others. I appreciated that she’s a moral authority who is also shamelessly irreligious and hypocritical. The character manages to beat down some of Perry’s more misogynistic and moralizing tendencies as a writer. Her former stripper past comes out in entertaining ways like trying to stop herself dancing during a hip-hop track at the frat party. The conflicting physicality on display in the scene is terrific. Boo! A Madea Halloween is going to be candy for its intended audience, and for those willing to push through the expected negative reviews, you might find enough moments to enjoy. I’m not going to say I’m on Team Madea but I wouldn’t necessarily mind more of this matron run amok.
Nate’s Grade: C
The creators behind God’s Not Dead 2 won’t admit it but their movie is pure science fiction; it exists in an entirely parallel universe that’s topsy-turvy where atheists want to stamp out the last signs of Christianity and will use their collusion of government and media power to marginalize and eliminate freedom in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity.” It’s another heavy-handed moral parable that feeds into the persecution complex of its target audience, the same people who made 2014’s God’s Not Dead a surprise hit. While the sequel isn’t nearly as mean-spirited and cruel (the godless characters don’t have to die or get stricken with cancer this time), it’s still speaking in code to stoke its audience’s unfounded fears of losing religious liberty. We follow an AP History teacher (Melissa Joan Hart) who gets into trouble from making a purely literary connection with the teachings of Jesus and non-violent revolutionaries Gandhi and MLK. The school board wants to “wash the blood off its hands” and she’s taken to court where her very faith is on trial and where her hunky lawyer has to prove Jesus historically existed. The entire premise is laughably preposterous given the context of her pedagogical reference. A student makes the Jesus connection and asks about it, and the teacher was not endorsing a religion but merely quoting a piece of literature as it pertains to those inspired from it. There’s no time for subtlety in this movie because we have a martyr that needs roasting, and in comes an ACLU lawyer played by Ray Wise (God bless this actor saying yes to everything) who may very well be the devil. Wise is the lone source of entertainment for me. There’s also a nasty TV pundit who says Christians are the real danger in this country (replace “Christian” with “Muslim” and the TV segments start to sound more familiar from our own world). Several characters from the first film pop back up but with very little to do. God’s Not Dead 2 is a pretty lackluster, laughable, and theologically simplistic morality tale but at least it isn’t as risible and offensively insincere as the original film. Like the first film, the credits close on a list of court cases the filmmakers say inspired the movie. Except, upon minimal research, not one of these cases echoes the movie I just watched. All of these cases involve intolerance against accepting gay marriage or fulfilling birth control and/or abortion services, all legal and protected aspects of our culture. I’m reminded of the quote “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” I wonder if this kind of thinking would have lead an enterprising filmmaker telling the “brave story” of the segregationist standing up against government pressure to accept integrated schools. It’s not far off.
Nate’s Grade: C-
How can one review the 2016 version of Ben-Hur without bringing up its multitude of predecessors, chiefly the 1959 Best Picture winner with one of the greatest sequences in all of cinematic history? I try and judge each movie on its own merits but remakes are difficult by nature because without the fame and hopefully good will of the original, they wouldn’t ever exist, and yet they have to find their own voice and purpose in order to justify why we even need another version of the movie. I understand some of the excuses why even tackling a new Ben-Hur would be advisable, mostly coming down to a more audience-friendly running time that’s half of the 1959 classic. Of course truncating a four-hour biblical epic has its own problems too, and while this newest Ben-Hur isn’t a three-chariot pileup of a misguided mess, it certainly pales in comparison and comes across mostly as a jazzed up yet mediocre imitation of something immutably great.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a wealthy first century Jewish man who is sold into slavery as punishment from his adopted brother Mesalla (Toby Kebbel), a Roman soldier. Messala is also one of the greatest chariot racers for the Roman Empire, and so Ben-Hur, after surviving a slave ship shipwreck, rises to the top of the chariot ranks to confront Messala, seek vengeance, humiliate him, and find his family once more.
It’s obvious that this new remake wasn’t going to banish any cinephile’s memories of the 1959 version, but some of the decision-making handicaps the overall impact of the 2016 version, chiefly among them the characterization and casting of its lead. Judah Ben-Hur is definitely lacking when it comes to being a strong and engaging hero. The casting of Huston does not abate this. For fans of TV’s Boardwalk Empire, it’s clear that Huston can be a very capable and intriguing character actor, and he has an easy handsomeness that might slide him readily into mainstream big-budget projects. The problem is that Huston lacks the gravitas the role requires and this is further hampered by the limited characterization, and the two negative qualities twist together, lessening and lessening the quality of the picture. He’s certainly no Charlton Heston (unfair comparison, I grant you).
Here’s how bland it got: I was feeling more sympathy for the character presented to be the central antagonist. In the first act, I felt more for Messala and his plight than I did for Ben-Hur, and I’ll explain why. Ben-Hur comes from a wealthy Jewish family and a life of privilege, yet Messala did not want to fall back on this and wanted to make his own path, joining the Roman army. He returns several years later and connects with Ben-Hur, asking him to help root out zealots that would jeopardize a peace with Rome and incite violence against innocents. It so happens Ben-Hur is secretly harboring a zealot and, surprise, the guy stupidly tries to assassinate Pontius Pilate in full view of the Middle Eastern world. Ben-Hur allows the zealot to flee for his own safety. Messala has little choice in bringing some consequences but he’s asking for the zealot’s name, you know the guilty party, or else he knows that Ben-Hur’s family, Messala’s adopted family, will suffer in place as punishment. He’s begging his brother, pleading with him, and yet Ben-Hur refuses even though it may cost his own family members their lives. This plot point, by the way, is new. In no other version of Ben-Hur does a zealot jeopardize the Ben-Hur family. It’s always been an overreaction to the accidental coincidence of falling tiles from the family roof that doomed Judah Ben-Hur to slavery. This change makes the protagonist more culpable. It was here that I felt I was on Messala’s side. My friend Ben Bailey likens this to siding with a “kind Nazi” and says Rome was the Evil Authority that should be bucked at every opportunity and burnt to the ground. I don’t know what this says about me but I think it shows that the writing failed to make me root for our hero.
The movie gets slightly better once Morgan Freeman enters, as most movies do, and from there the plot streamlines into training to be a world-class chariot driver to take away from the glory of Messala and thus the roman overlords. The story follows familiar underdog plot beats seen in other sports genre movies from hob-knobbing with the disdainful and overconfident elites to training montages; it’s all here. It’s all marching toward that climactic brother vs. brother chariot race, and I’ll give the filmmakers credit that it’s respectable. There are some genuinely exciting moments and some great camera angles to communicate the danger and thrills of the action. The editing is a tad too choppy and the camera setups strangely favor far too many close-ups for a large-scale competition. Nothing could compare to the 1959 chariot race, which still holds up as one of cinema’s greatest sequences, more so with the renewed appreciation for practical effects. It’s not CGI horses and chariots and people in the stands cheering along. All of that is real and all of it is stunning to witness play out to tremendous realistic heights.
Director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not exactly the first name you might think of tackling a biblical epic. His sensibilities seem, at first glance, a bit lowbrow for such a venture, but the man is a gifted visual stylist, as he’s shown to perverse degrees in the perversely watchable Wanted. If you’re trying to bring the story of Ben-Hur to a new audience for a new century, Bekmambetov will at least ensure that it looks pretty, and most certainly it does. The biggest fault is with the challenges of the adaptation and the shortcuts and alterations that hamper the development of the characters and their ultimate arcs. Bekmambetov has one virtuoso sequence, and no it’s not the chariot race. It’s when Ben-Hur is chained in the galley of a slave ship and becomes one of the rowers. We’re trapped in his limited perspective during an attack sequence and it’s a terrific sequence. The confusion, the adrenaline, the fear are all accurately portrayed, and as the battle escalates and the ship is under attack and eventually sinks, it’s a race to escape his chains that is visually striking and exhilarating to watch. I don’t blame the director for this movie not working well.
Another side effect of the overall truncating of the Ben-Hur saga is that the religious elements, namely the inclusion of Jesus Christ, feel really tacked on and obvious, reaching for a faith-based audience but doing so clumsily. Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) is on the outskirts of the events of the movie, just enough to clue you in to his parallel presence (“Oh look, it must be Palm Sunday”), but he’s really another means to an end. The purpose of Jesus is to (spoiler alert) help facilitate Ben-Hur to abandon his anger and vengeance and instead adopt a position of forgiveness for Messala. The problem is that at a little over two hours long, and with the Jesus stuff fully feeling flimsy and tacked on, this big turning point for our protagonist also feels flimsy. Why would he be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus when his knowledge of the guy is primarily a helpful carpenter who fetched him water when he was thirsty? It doesn’t add up the way the movie wants.
Was a Ben-Hur remake doomed to fail considering the parameters it was fighting against? Not necessarily. While no remake will ever displace the majesty of the 1959 classic, a new movie doesn’t have to, merely opening up a new angle on a familiar story (the novel was originally published in 1880) and providing something of substance. It doesn’t have to cancel out one good movie to be its own good movie. There are enjoyable aspects of this newest Ben-Hur but all they end up becoming are aspects, frayed bits that fail to become a satisfying whole. It was a mistake to cast the blandly effective Huston in the lead and leave the character underdeveloped; a protagonist can survive one of these sins, not both. It was a mistake to coast for as long as it does with its second act. It was a mistake to provide more significant supporting characters, and Jesus doesn’t count. It was a mistake to film much of a chariot race in tight close-ups. This is not a disaster despite the money that will likely be lost. It’s easy enough to watch but hard to fully connect, and those memories of the 1959 film keep creeping back, providing unflattering comparisons.
Nate’s Grade: C+
When it comes to Christian-aimed movies finding release in the mainstream multiplex, I’ll admit that my expectations are pitifully low, and sometimes even those are unmet. It’s not that I object to the message on spiritual grounds, though sometimes it can be objectionable in how it’s applied like with the hateful yet popular God’s Not Dead; my problem is that the message is the sole purpose of the movie, not the storytelling, and so everything seems to be slapdash and inconsequential. They’re not interested in telling good stories with Christian main characters; it’s about selling good Christian messages and the movies are simply a delivery system to reconfirm the faith or at times the special elevated stature (see: God’s Not Dead) of the ticket-buyers. Every now and then one of these movies seems to slip through the cracks, so to speak, and surprise me with a genuine story and a deeper exploration of its characters and their dilemmas. I was hoping that Miracles from Heaven could be something like 2014’s Heaven is For Real, a well-meaning and consciously inclusive movie. Miracles from Heaven was my own 105-minutes of hell as I endured the barest of attempt to service a feature-length story.
Based on a true story, Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) is a loving and doting mom who checks in on each of her three daughters (Abbie, Anna, Adelynn) during their nightly prayers. Her world is turned upside down when young Anna (the heavy-lidded Kylie Rogers) has intense stomach pains and intense vomiting. She can’t keep anything down for weeks and the doctors are unhelpful until she’s finally properly diagnosed. Anna has a twisted intestine, which makes her unable to digest food, and this illness has no cure and often dooms its afflicted cases to short lives. Christy and her husband Kevin (Martin Henderson) have their hopes pinned on getting admitted to Dr. Nurko’s (Eugenio Derbez) treatment, a specialist in Boston. Even after enrolling, the long weeks apart from family, and the mounting bills, leave little hope for Anna and the Beam family. It’s the perfect conditions for a miracle of some sort to take form, wouldn’t you say?
If you’re looking for a feel-good affirmation you might be barking up the wrong tree because Miracles from Heaven was, for me, an interminable experience of unyielding and tactless sadness pornography. Allow me to unpack my choice terminology. Any movie that features a young child stricken with a very deadly and incurable illness is going to fall upon the sadder side of human drama, but what sets this movie apart is that this emotional landing spot is the only territory it mines. Its scenes exist just to remind you how sad these characters are about their sad experiences with their sad daughter while she sadly suffers and will likely never sadly recover. The specialist in Boston only gets new patients when the old are cured or die, and they don’t get cured. I’m by no means saying that storytelling dealing with overpowering sadness is not worth exploring. I enjoy a sad movie as much as somebody who enjoys sad movies can because I want art to move me, to make me feel genuine emotions in response to the human condition. However, Miracles from Heaven failed to move me because every one of its scenes feels so carefully calculated to make its audience reach for tissues. Manipulation is also not an unforgivable sin when it comes to storytelling, but what makes this movie’s crime egregious is that it doesn’t provide any depth to justify those shed tears. You’re crying not because you feel for the characters of Anna, Christy, or the entire Beam brood, it’s because Christy is Suffering Mom dealing with Suffering Child. There is no characterization involved in this movie and instead it relies upon its simplistic setup to provide all the empathy. Why do they need to build characters when a few shots of a sick child or Garner with tears dribbling down her face will suffice? It’s lousy screenwriting and it honestly made me upset as scene after scene reconfirmed this emotional stupor.
Having some understanding that this movie wouldn’t exist if Anna didn’t miraculously heal by the end, we’re left with an enormous amount of time to fill. They don’t make miracles until the third act, folks, and this one is a tad peculiar but effective. The time between the diagnosis and the miracle would be a fine opportunity to flesh out the Beam family and learn more about them and how this illness is affecting each of them. The only thing we learn is that the oldest daughter misses her soccer tryouts. This is the only onscreen ramification of Anna’s constant medical attention affecting somebody. Everyone is suffering with dignity and poise, and even the oldest daughter isn’t that upset after the briefest of angry outbursts. These people are just not interesting screen characters. They are one hundred percent defined as Family to Sick Kid. That’s it. After forty minutes with this clan, I was overcome with a powerful malaise. I just wanted the movie to end and was mentally counting down this miracle, which always felt so infinitely far away in my theater chair. There’s no momentum in this movie. It’s about getting Anna to that specialist, then it’s about treating her, and then it’s about making her comfortable when she goes home, presumably to die. The movie lacks basic reflection and introspection, highlighted by a laugh-out-loud moment when a group of inhospitable church members ask Christy what kind of sin she, or even Anna herself, must have committed to bring upon this illness. I wanted to yell at the screen at this moment.
I genuinely felt sorry for Jennifer Garner in this movie; not her character but the actress herself. I’ve been a fan of Garner since her star-making turn in J.J. Abrams’ TV series Alias (those first two seasons are some of TV’s greatest). I enjoy her kicking bad guys in the face, I enjoy her making me feel a plethora of emotions, and I thought she could have reasonably been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for one very affecting glance she delivers with perfection in Juno. I am a J. Gar fan, but my God did I want to save her from this horrible movie and what it was forcing her to do. It felt like Garner was held hostage and crying out for sanctuary. I can practically count on one lone hand the number of scenes that did not involve Garner crying. Every scene calls for her to be at a constant state of weeping, from angry crying to confused crying and finally hopeful weeping. She has a few angry mother monologues putting skeptical doctors in their places, but this is a performance almost entirely predicated upon crying. The emotional stakes are kept as such a fever pitch for so long that Miracles from Heaven crosses over into unintentional parody, feeling like a melodramatic Christian telenovela. I was envisioning a team with cattle prods to constantly keep Garner in a state of distress.
The rest of the actors barely register, and there are some good people here. What is Queen Latifah doing in this to play a Boston waitress who becomes an unofficial tour guide for Christy and Anna? She has maybe three scenes and all of them are introduced and handled so awkwardly that it feels like the movie declaring, “And now, Christy’s Special Black Friend.” Derbez (Instructions Not Included) looks like he was given the directing note of performing like a slightly less inebriated Patch Adams. There’s John Carrol Lynch (TV’s American Horror Story, Zodiac) as the kindly preacher, but his words of wisdom are often rote and lack great insight. That’s because none of these people feel like they’re characters. They’re all placeholders in service of waiting for the film’s miracle and thus its faith-affirming message to “hang in there, kitty.”
I fully accept that I’m not going to be the target audience for Miracles from Heaven, and that’s perfectly fine. Filmmakers are allowed to make stories targeted at a niche audience, though I would hope they would include enough satisfactory and developed elements for a film to transcend its niche. What bothers me is that Miracles from Heaven takes its audience for granted repeatedly. They don’t bother with characterization and the examination of insurmountable grief and parental terror because instead they’ll just boil everything to its core element of Grieving Parent cries over Sick Child. It’s the same scene, over and over, bludgeoning the audience with sadness and suffering until it taps out, cries mercy, and is overjoyed for the titular miracle to chase away this dirge. Miracles from Heaven feels more like an anecdote than a film. It’s stretched far too thin. It doesn’t respect its audience enough to even bother forming characters or present a story that explores the realities of an incurable illness and the stress this unleashes on all parties. Movies have provided great empathetic exercises where we watch human beings suffer and then triumph, moved by their plight and uplifted by their spirit, perseverance, or perhaps even the frail realatability they exhibit as they tackle their oppression. The Oscar-winning film Room is an excellent example of this and a movie I highly encourage all readers to seek out and give a chance, subject matter notwithstanding. Room is a movie that celebrates the human experience but acknowledges the pain of it too. Miracles from Heaven, in sharp contrast, is a movie that barely acknowledges the need for basic storytelling and is nothing more than insulting high-gloss sadness pornography. You deserve better, America, and so does Jennifer Garner.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I was expecting to bury Little Boy in an avalanche of negativity once I found out a late plot point that made my jaw drop. This inspirational Christian independent film is set during World War II and features a pint-sized moppet, Pepper (Jakob Salvati), whose only real friend is his father (Michael Rapaport), who is now serving in the fight in the Pacific. He’s told that through the power of belief he can accomplish great things, and well, he really wants his dad to come home. So through the power of belief he causes… the dropping of the atomic bomb (WWII aficionados will recognize the nickname of the bomb). I was waiting for the moment and amping my sense of dread and moral outrage. A funny thing happened on the way to a nuclear bomb detonation, and that is that Little Boy is a fairly agreeable and effective family film that conveys a message with a welcomed degree of ambiguity and complexity and tolerance. This is a Christian-themed film about the power of belief but at no point does it make explicit whether it’s coincidence or the power of Pepper channeling God. Part of Pepper’s list of good deeds given to him by a priest (Tom Wilkinson) is to befriend a Japanese neighbor who returned home from an internment camp. The movie shows how casual these small-town folk indulge in racism and bullying. The Japanese man is also an atheist and I was legitimately astonished that the movie never makes a judgment about this. He’s treated as a complex man with his own system of thinking, and he’s not viewed as lesser or wayward because of his lack of belief in a higher power. Little Boy is no God’s Not Dead. The melodrama is well paced, the acting is solid if a bit heavy on long bouts of weeping, and the movie undercuts what normally would be the inspirational apexes with harsher reality. The bomb is dropped, and Pepper is initially celebrating until he discovers the total horror of Hiroshima. His “wish” may have even backfired with his father getting further punishment in a POW camp. While I still find the development tacky, I have to reluctantly credit the filmmakers for refusing to pander in a style that removes the complexity and ambiguity of real life. It’s still a movie and it still has a rather predictable albeit emotionally earned ending, but Little Boy might just be one of the biggest surprises of this year for me at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) is back to work some of his Gladiator magic on another sword-and-sandals epic, the classic story of Moses, this time played by an ever-bedraggled and bearded Christian Bale. It’s been a banner year for Christianity at the movies, though most of those films have been uninspiring save for Darren Arofonsoky’s radical and ambitious Noah. That movie did not go over well with many conservative ticket-buyers. That’s the danger of adapting the biblical epics; pleasing the core audience means not straying too far from the accepted renditions of the oft-told tales, no matter if those popular renditions are themselves inerrant. Exodus: Gods and Kings is an underwhelming translation that slogs through the miraculous. It’s empty CGI wonder in place of authentic storytelling and emotional resonance.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a big-budget biblical epic that is startling in what it lacks, namely any amount of surprise or character development. The Moses story is oft told so I’m glad that Scott’s film skips ahead to when he’s already an adult. No basket in the reeds necessary. The brotherly conflict has little impact because, besides Moses, no other character is even given proper attention. Ramses (Joel Edgerton) is pretty much a thoughtless killer from the start, someone who ignores his advisers when it comes to political unrest and just slaughters his own starving people. He is by no means a dynamic villain in any shape, which is disappointing because the role has such dramatic potential. The 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt did a better job exploring the relationship between Moses and Ramses, the pharaoh. In fact, that movie did just about everything better, and it had some pretty songs too. Stuck with a one-note villain, Exodus tries to round out Moses by making him a figure of doubt, providing an arc where he finds his voice when he finds his faith in Judaism. The film even sets it up so Moses has to go on his quest so he can just return home to his family. It’s a pretty strict hero’s journey storyline. Bale is plenty good. His character just isn’t that interesting nor is anyone else. Being stuck with this crew for 150 minutes can get to be rather tedious. That’s because the real emphasis has been put on the special effects and digital landscapes. The action is acceptable but little sticks in your memory. I’m starting to become numb to CGI spectacle. I’m starting to think back to the epics from the 1950s and 60s, when there was no such thing as computer effects. Every person assembled for those epic shots of huddled masses was a real human being, and that’s becoming more impressive with each and every CGI spectacle with copy-and-paste digital figurines.
Given the predictable nature of the plot, you try and find little moments or directions that stand out, something, anything to mark this newest Moses story as different from the numerous retellings of cinema’s past. Beyond the modern-day special effects and the strength of Scott as a visual artist, here is a short list of what you have to look forward to with Exodus: Gods and Kings.
1) An attempt to ground a biblical epic with realism. If conservative audiences were upset with Aronofsky’s portrayal of the Almighty in Noah, just wait till they see what Exodus does. It’s not that God has been removed from the tale, it’s just that God has been mitigated in a way as to provide a rational throughline to follow the supernatural events of the ten plagues and so on. There’s even the possibility that Moses is just seeing things in his head. Two different characters advise Moses that being hit on the head could be the real source for his visions of God. Joshua (Aaron Paul) spies on Moses at several points arguing with God but sees no one else. The plagues are presented in a cause and effect series of misfortunes, with the Nile being turned red due to a surge of crocodiles munching on all the fish. The polluted water then causes the frogs to leave en mass, which then causes them to die and bring about waves of flies, which bring disease to sicken the livestock as well as boils for the Egyptians. Some thought went into this, however, it’s all inconsequential with the Angel of Death killing the first-born sons. There’s no real skeptical or scientific method to explain away this one, as the biblical story relates, and so the grounded approach seems misplaced. It takes away the miraculous from the miracles. And yet, even the parting of the Red Sea is given this same approach, with it resembling low tides brought about by perhaps a meteor strike. The fantastical nature of the Moses story feels handicapped by going a more realistic route. This is not the biblical epic for realism.
2) God is literally represented as a petulant child. When God does make Himself present for Moses, it’s in the form of a young child who is often mocking his servant. This is an angry often-bloodthirsty God who doesn’t appreciate being challenged. He complains how long Moses is taking with his war of attrition, and Moses says right back, “Impatient? You waited 400 years with ‘your people’ in slavery.” A fair complaint, and one that God does not answer.
3) Bad overall casting. Whitewashing isn’t exactly a new trend in Hollywood. It’s not like Charlton Heston looked particularly Middle Eastern. However, it’s rather distracting to watch a movie starring Egyptians and Middle Eastern Jews portrayed by a Welshman, an Australian, John Turturro, Sigoruney Weaver and Aaron Paul. I am a fan of each of these actors but they are just wrong for these parts. There are very little people of any color in the film despite the fact of its geographic location. Moses marries Zipporah, who several biblical scholars believe to be Ethiopian, which seems like a natural opportunity for some much-needed diversity in the cast. Just because you give Paul a bushy beard does not mean he suddenly resembles a Middle Eastern Jew. Same thing with adding eyeliner and bronzer to Edgerton. Then there’s the bizarre appearance of Scottish actor Ewen Bremner (The Rundown) as an adviser for the king. Taken as a whole, the whitewashing is a nagging distraction from a supposedly more grounded approach. To be fair, having relatively unknown (as far as the public is concerned) actors of appropriate ethnic background speaking in subtitled Hebrew and Egyptian sounds like a hard sell for a studio footing a $140 million dollar bill.
4) Lots of dead horses. This is not a friendly movie for our equine friends.
5) Moses sex. Well, sort of, because showing a husband and wife being physically intimate will still offend some of the more conservative ticket-buyers. So after Moses goes through his somewhat romantic question and answer ritual with his wife, the camera pans away from the disrobing couple and fades out. Classy. Now on to more CGI spectacle and carnage thank you very much.
I admire Noah more and more and think he successfully found a way to make a biblical epic accessible, challenging, and complex morally and psychologically without sparing the dark details. In essence he found a way to make a popular story new and interesting again. Scott’s Exodus just leaves me shrugging my shoulders. It’s by no means an appalling film. Beyond the big-budget modern-day spectacle, there isn’t enough going on in this movie to even justify all the expenses. The characters are too sketchy and given little to do, especially Ramses who pretty much just sneers and barks for 90 minutes. The costumes are fancy, the production design is lush, and all the technical elements are impeccable. It just falls woefully short on what should make you care. It feels like a product more than a film and a resonating story, and as such it’s delivered just in time for the Christmas shopping season for the masses. The film takes too long to get started and too long to conclude. It has some moments in the middle, especially when Moses is plotting his political insurrection, but as a whole Exodus is disappointingly lackluster. It ends up becoming empty and noisy CGI spectacle, with lots of yelling to compensate. It’s hard to find inspiration from the film when you’re checking your watch.
Nate’s Grade: C
Given the title, Kirk Cameron’s prominent placement, and a poster involving Cameron with a background explosion of holiday paraphernalia, one would assume Saving Christmas would concern itself with the oft-repeated “War on Christmas.” I was expecting Cameron to lament our use of “Happy Holidays” and the like. Perplexingly, Cameron’s war is not with those outside Christianity but those within. Saving Christmas is a shoddy evangelical sermon with shoddier theology, straining to fill out a running time, and ultimately being pro-materialism and anti-empathy. Come again?
At Kirk’s (Cameron) family Christmas party, his brother-in-law Christian (Darren Doane) is a Grinch. He complains that Christmas has been co-opted by secularism. Santa Claus and other symbols with pagan origins dwarf the nativity and baby Jesus. Christian removes himself from the party and sits in his car. Kirk won’t allow this to stand. He gets inside the car and proceeds to explain why Christian is wrong about Christmas.
To call this a film is to be more charitable than perhaps even Jesus would be. Saving Christmas (or Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas as listed in certain places) is a smug sermon presented by Kirk Cameron lecturing his “bro”-in-law in a car. The majority of the film takes place in a parked car. If that sounds deeply cinematic to you, then stick with me. The film shambles its way to 80-minutes, exasperating to fill out a minimum feature-length running time. There’s about ten minutes of “hilarious” bloopers. There’s a five-minute opening where Cameron speaks directly into the camera and sips from his mug of hot chocolate three separate times. There’s a five-minute, though it feels tortuously endless, “hip hop Christmas dance” performance by a bunch of white people (it is powerfully uncoordinated, like you’re watching someone’s home movie of their kids). You do get to watch Cameron effectively do the Worm, though (his finest acting moment onscreen, in my humble opinion). There’s also the occasional, very tin-eared comedy break with supporting characters that skirt the line into stereotypes. When it all comes together, there’s maybe a total of 40 minutes of an actual movie here, laboriously stretched out. And when I say “movie” I mean Cameron and Christian talking back and forth in a stationary car. This is not a movie. At all.
Director and co-writer Doane is one of the most inept filmmakers I’ve observed. This is a horrible looking movie with many clueless edits and strange visual compositions. His onscreen wife is always seen looking wary and in slow motion, like her face has frozen. There’s also the annoying habit of not properly framing his subjects, who will get caught behind a pot of hot chocolate or some poinsettias. This is just bad filmmaking. The lighting is amateurish or overdone, like when Kirk spends about five minutes standing back-lit, as to communicate his inherently angelic nature. Doane will also keep focusing on repeating scenes like he’s filling time. The film has a very rushed and patched-together feel, as if they had a weekend to film it at Cameron’s place with his friends and family. The “comedy relief” is also terribly executed, with two characters having a conversation holding mugs to their face, the better to disguise the fact that one of them is not actually speaking his lines. The pacing is also dead. The movie keeps faking you out when it’s going to end but then continues on, overstaying its welcome so Cameron can have yet another victory lap to hear himself talk.
Cameron and his producers seem to subscribe to an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to recognizing the malleable symbolism of cultural artifacts. Is there any harm in acknowledging the past connections of certain ceremonial customs and artifacts we use today? While the origins of the Christmas tree can go back to the pagans, Cameron seems to forget to mention that it was Martin Luther who took the Christmas tree as a German holiday tradition and gave it a Christian spin. Of course acknowledging such would indicate that the Christmas tree wasn’t always the same symbol. But who cares? History is a melting pot as far as cultures are concerned, and we pick up many customs that become passed down for various reasons, often expanding and adapting. Is there any implicit harm in simply admitting that a Christmas tree has an origin that predates Christianity? Today it is a different symbol commemorating a different holiday. Just because we know history doesn’t somehow devalue our customs and traditions. Cameron and his cronies seem to disagree, which is why he presents flimsy arguments to reclaim historical authority. What he’s really doing is treating the symbols of the season as metaphors, applying deeper meaning to them. That’s fine and good. If Cameron wants to see the Christmas tree as a representation of the cross, or the trees of the Garden of Eden, that’s fine. But he shouldn’t pretend that this interpretation is gospel. That’s the thing about metaphors; they’re subjective and pliable. They are not absolute.
Amazingly, Saving Christmas ends up becoming a misguided and ludicrous defense of materialism and the commercialism attached to Christmas. In Cameron’s very narrow perspective, anything associated with the holiday has to be positive. Yes, Cameron literally argues that all the material excess and spending actually honors God. Instead of looking at the presents under the tree as just that, look at them as the outline of a skyline of a new Jerusalem, Cameron offers in one of the more head-scratching moments. He conflates the spending of money with celebration, admonishing people to buy “the biggest ham, the richest butter” as long as they just don’t “max out their credit cards.” That’s the limit he sets, so everything below that must be agreeable. Just to hammer the message home further, Cameron says that materialism is good because “Christ was made material.” That sure is a slippery slope of ethics there. It’s not much of a leap to then justify greed or to equate spending the most money with being the godliest. Why would any film, let alone a Christian one, choose to defend unchecked materialism?
I know Christian is more a foil for Cameron to helpfully inform, a straw man who cannot articulate his intellectual rationale, but Christian is the worst skeptic of all time. If he truly believed what he does then he should be able to provide evidence to support his stance. It wouldn’t be hard. The historical record is loaded with stuff ready-made to counter-argue Kirk’s cherry picking of relevant theology. The very concept of late December existing as a pagan holiday celebrating the winter solstice (Saturnalia) is backed up by a treasure-trove of sources, despite Cameron’s snide rejoinder that “last time I checked, God created the winter solstice.” The Romans would even exchange gifts on December 23 in celebration and feast. If Christian were a real skeptic, he’d at least have a cursory knowledge of this stuff before even approaching specifics. Instead he sputters and is proven to be a fraud, duped into believing these anti-Christmas thoughts. Every time Kirk finishes another of his rather unconvincing asides, Christian shakes his head, dumbfounded, and says he never looked at things like that. He is the most easily converted skeptic since the Spanish Inquisition.
I kept going back in my head to a vital point of Christian’s that is never referenced or challenged by Cameron: wouldn’t all this money better be spent helping the disadvantaged? Christian looks at the extravagant money spent on an ostentatious party and thinks of how many people could have been fed, how many wells could have been dug in villages. “You’re wrong,” Kirk says. “About everything. You’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.” Even as Cameron bends over backwards to defend materialism, he never addresses Christian’s fundamental point, which is that the money can be better spent elsewhere. to the movie’s worldview, Christian is a “jerk” and he’s “terrorizing” (I kid you not, they specifically use the word “terrorize”) his family with his negativity. This is a guy who wants to put the “Christ back in Christmas” and he’s setup as the bad guy. He’s not storming the party, aggressively challenging people, calling them names. He sits to himself, eventually leaving the space for his car. It doesn’t sound like he’s terrorizing anyone and is rather considerate of others. No matter, no one is allowed to have a different opinion than Kirk Cameron and so he will not allow one man’s empathy to bring everyone else down as they spend lavishly to celebrate the birth of a poor carpenter.
And that’s what’s most distressing for me when it comes to this poorly made and poorly reasoned movie; I’m concerned that others will use Cameron’s distorted teaching as a justification for excess over empathy. Cameron seems to use the film as a defense of his affluent privilege. He uses the Bible to back up his lifestyle and to defend materialism. Did we forget that part where Jesus said to sell all your possessions and help the poor? The film is packaged as a comedy and a family movie with a spiritually uplifting message, but what’s so uplifting about saying “SPEND SPEND SPEND” is how you show love? Just because Cameron says a nutcracker is representative of King Herod’s foot soldiers prowling Jerusalem for the baby Jesus doesn’t make it strictly so. To call this a movie would be too charitable and I am not in the season of giving. Saving Christmas is a lump of coal disguised as a open-hearted message. Skip this movie and donate your money instead to some charity. At least that will do some actual good.
Nate’s Grade: D
Christian movies have been lighting up the U.S. box-office this year. First there was Son of God, which opened at over $30 million dollars for what is essentially a retread of what people could see for free on TV. Then there was Noah, the Biblical epic given a new life with modern special effects magic. Then the little indie that could, God’s Not Dead, which continues to hang around the box-office, collecting astonishing sums. Now in time for Easter is Heaven is For Real based upon the best-selling book of the same name. Adapted and directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat, Braveheart), the film manages to be emotional, earnest, and efficient, even despite not really having the elements needed to be called a film.
Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor for a small town in rural Nebraska. He and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) are struggling to pay the bills and care for their two children, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum). One fateful day, Colton is rushed to the hospital with a burst appendix. He makes it through the operation. Afterwards, he tells his family the amazing news that while unconscious he visited heaven. The Burpos are ready to dismiss their son’s experience as a response common to those who went through near-death experiences, except little Colton never died on the operating table. Todd is unsure what to do with his son’s information, including key knowledge that he has no Earthly way of knowing. The members of Todd’s church worry about trusting the child’s account, and are wary of the media circus, and may just hire a new pastor for all the trouble caused by Colton’s confession.
Kinder and gentler, here is a movie that has an inclusive, positive message executed with earnest conviction. The drama isn’t subtle but it can be effective. The music rises, the actors crinkle their faces and get tears in their eyes, and you’re left feeling like there’s something in your own eye. It may be manipulative in some sense but it’s so well executed, and without any hint of pretension or agenda, that I really didn’t mind. It’s a heartfelt movie that could fervently inspire the masses that pack the theater. I’d much rather have any Christian consumers, or the curious, check out this well-meaning movie than the mean-spirited and spurious God’s Not Dead. This movie actually allows its characters to feel like regular people who exist in our world. Todd and Sonja have a sex life, and the Burpo family doesn’t just sing famous Christian tunes in the car, they’ll shout Queen at the top of their lungs. In other words, they’re a fairly normal Midwestern family, and I appreciated that the movie didn’t feel the need to sanctify them. The supporting characters also have dollops of depth to them, at least in the hands of actors like Thomas Haden Church (so wonderfully deadpan) and Margo Martindale (her sorrow fermenting into bitterness). Heaven is for Real is anchored by two strong performances by Kinnear (The Last Song) and Reilly (Flight) as the parents. Both of these actors get a wealth of emotions to play, a few crying scenes, one angry outburst, and they sell it all, never overplaying the emotions of the scene, gently grounding the film with compassion.
I suppose in some capacity this film could be the more religious version of The Sixth Sense. It’s about a gifted child who sees things others cannot and who battles with being taken seriously by the scolding adults. We know that he’s going to say something he should not know, the adults would gasp and say, “How did you know that? There’s no possible way,” and then we’ll repeat this process. It reminded me of when young Haley Joel Osment finally gets through to his mother when he tells her that grandma saw her dance and is proud of her. Just add a dash of non-denominational Christianity.
The problem is that there really isn’t a movie here. Heaven is For Real is comforting and earnest, but there just isn’t a story here that translates into the structure and form of a film, and it shows. First off, there really isn’t much in the way of authentic conflict here. After Colton is saved, the only real conflict is whether to believe what he experienced. This setup could work in the scheme of a movie if his parents were not believers; thus their arc is one that goes from disbelief to belief. However, the movie already begins with the Burpos as good Christian folk. Todd is the town’s pastor for crying out loud, so you’d think he wouldn’t be troubled with his own set of doubts. These are also rather good people. In the opening scenes, despite being behind on bills, Todd refuses to charge someone for his garage-repair services and accepts free carpet instead. In the end, when Todd is preaching and talking about his own journey and how prideful he was back at the start, I’m left wondering what he’s talking about. I suppose he didn’t have to try and run to third base in that church softball game, but is that really all we have to go on? Would staying on second symbolize his lack of faith? What I’m saying is that the Burpos don’t really travel on a character arc, so their squabbles over their son feel forced. More so, the struggles with Todd’s church feel the most inauthentic. I just don’t get it. The pastor’s kid says he went to heaven, and the congregation has members that are mad, but mad at what? Should the pastor, who preaches about heaven for a living, dispute his son, especially when the boy possesses extraordinary knowledge? I don’t understand what the conflict is here and neither does the movie, which doesn’t really adhere to a three-act structure, and just sort of ends without much preparation. People just believe. End. Why did it take this long? It’s not like these people are stone-cold atheists.
It’s that lacking sense of urgency, let alone goals or a central through line, which makes me question how Heaven is For Real spends its time. Why does the movie choose to spend as much time on scenes that don’t seem to matter? The first act is spent with such dramatic moments as… Todd playing softball and breaking his leg (the one thing that pushes the film into PG material). And from that… a completely unrelated kidney stone infection. Then from there… the family takes a trip to the Denver zoo. I was getting restless myself that this kid was never going to get to heaven. I kept waiting for these moments to have consequence, like how the Burpo kids fall ill after visiting the zoo. Aha, it must be connected to the zoo (monkey pox!). Nope, it’s his appendix rupturing. Very little of the pre-heavenly visit looks to have any bearing on the overall plot, instead providing texture to the family life. I suppose Todd passing the kidney stones was meant to be a comedic excursion (Church says the average is passing 15 stones – that is too insane for me to believe at face value). Why kind of hours does Todd have for his family when he’s a minister, a full-time job, repairs garage doors as a second job, then volunteers as a firefighter AND coaches a high school wrestling team? He’s got way too much on his plate but objects to the idea of his wife getting a job. What purpose does Todd seeing a psychiatrist on short notice serve other than allowing an externalization of his internal doubts? I’ll let that one slide, but they never come back to the psychiatrist. Too much of the movie feels like padding and stalling until the non-conflict reaches its end.
Wallace also shows a lack of faith in his own audience. By choosing to visualize the heavenly sequences, though brief they are, the movie risks being goofy, as whatever man can derive will never be comparable. If the whole movie is about whether or not to accept Colton’s story on faith, why do we have to have dramatizations of his story? Isn’t that cheating? The heavenly sequences don’t really add much oomph to the story any way. Colton goes to church, watches vaguely humanoid angels bathed in light hover and sing. He asks them to play “We Will Rock You.” The angels laugh but they don’t play the classic Queen rock song/universal sports anthem. Is it a matter of taste, angels? Who doesn’t like Queen? Then Jesus shows up and walks Colton outside. Other than a visual glimpse of Colton hugging his dead sister, that’s it. The other issue with depicting heaven onscreen, or something close to it, is that we can start picking it apart. Just ask Peter Jackson and his miscalculated Lovely Bones. If everyone is young in heaven, as Colton observes, then do we get a say in what our prime age is? I personally think George Clooney is a more handsome man as he ages than back in his E.R. days. And why does Jesus have to dress in the standard robes and sandals of 2000 years ago? Couldn’t he wear something more casual? Just imagine: Jesus relaxing in the pajama jeans. Then there’s Colton coming across his departed sister, who died at eight months, but is represented by a 6-8-year-old girl. Does this mean she’s going to be like that for eternity? Does she not get to choose to be an adult? See what I mean about picking it apart?
Its heart is in the right place, its message is inclusive and positive, and ultimately Heaven is For Real preaches about making life on Earth just as significant as the one after, and so I can say that the film is a relatively inoffensive and effective drama. It isn’t enough to say heaven is for real; the movie challenges the audience to do more. It doesn’t go overboard into maudlin territory, though it comes close enough with some of the wistful child acting. There really isn’t much of a movie here, and some of the choices seem to backfire, but it’s saved by its sense of earnestness, compassion, and some above average acting. Amidst the glut of evangelical movies this spring, I’d recommend Heaven is For Real above the rest (I’m excluding Noah from this list). It’s a thoroughly nice movie, and a film that should inspire its core audience, but in a good way, unlike God’s Not Dead. I can’t exactly say that this is a movie that needed to be made, especially from the cut-and-dry source material, but there’s a level of skepticism and reality imposed on what could easily be transformed into a blunt outreach piece. Even though the outcome is never in doubt, there’s an intelligence to the craft here that is much appreciated. Heaven is For Real may not be a great movie, but it works well enough as a movie when it shouldn’t, and that’s enough of a success in my book.
Nate’s Grade: B-