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A Father’s Fight (2021)

Even though it doesn’t quite count as an Ohio indie, filmed primarily in southern Indiana, I was requested to write a review for the low-budget, faith-based film, A Father’s Fight, which is currently enjoying a small theatrical run in West Virginia and in its Hoosier home state. This was a passion project years in the making for director Tyler Sansom (Restore). Its $30,000 budget was fully financed by a local church and many of the cast and crew worked as volunteers, aiding the production which was filmed during COVID. In many ways, the movie is already a success story, a lot of people worked together to see an artistic vision to completion and during some of the most dire and restrictive circumstances of modern times. A Father’s Fight is a rare Christian indie that has more in mind than preaching to the choir. It wants to entertain too as it uplifts.

Bo Lawson (Travis Hancock) is a drunk. He’s also a lousy husband, yelling at his wife, Kacie (Sarah Cleveland), and ignoring her threats to leave with their two kids. Then she does it, and Bo doesn’t know how he can get his life back together. Enter Sal Burton (John French), his old boxing trainer, with an offer of a lifetime. It seems the reigning boxing champ wants to come back to his home town to stage a charity bout for the community, and the champ has personally requested to fight his old rival, Bo. This is his chance to make a statement, to shape up, and to win back his wife and perhaps find a new strength through Christianity.

For a faith-based film, I am happy to report that A Father’s Fight is refreshingly more concerned with its characters than purporting a big message. This has been my bias for Christian movies time and again, and it’s usually reinforced by slapdash storytelling that spells out a pragmatic assessment of, “Well they’re coming for the message and not the intricacies of plot and multi-dimensional characters.” Any viewer, no matter their personal belief, deserves a story worthy of their attention and characters that have depth and care. With this movie, it’s far more a domestic drama than a sports film. It has more to do with Marriage Story than Rocky. The boxing doesn’t even come until the final five minutes, which in hindsight also feels like too little boxing. I was impressed that the screenplay by Hannah Mowery does not get pushy with its spiritual message. The first real reference to the power of faith doesn’t even occur until 45 minutes or so into the film, and Bo doesn’t attend church until after an hour into the movie. In the realm of Christian indies, this is remarkable restraint. By no means are the filmmakers soft-pedaling their affirmative message. They just realize that it will be more powerful, and accessible to a wider audience, if you’re sincerely invested in the characters, their humanity, and their redemption. The power of their story will be better translated if they feel like characters rather than bland figures.

It’s here where A Father’s Fight shines brightest, with its depiction of alcoholism and abuse. He’s spiraling, angry all the time, drinking whenever he can, projecting much of his disdain into outbursts against his wife trying to control his behavior, judging him and his failures, and we recognize it as the Drunk Abusive Husband in your standard made-for-TV melodrama. Granted, this is a faith-based film in a PG realm, so the danger of abusive behavior will only go so far, but this movie pushes it. This does a few things for the narrative. It establishes a clear baseline of bad behavior, the Before, that we can judge the protagonist’s progress against, the After period, the triumph. It also makes it more challenging to connect with Bo. He has to earn our respect just like his wife. What’s even more appreciated is how the screenplay really treats Kacie as her own character worthy of consideration, heartache, and struggle. She gets a lot of screen time here, almost equal to Bo during those first 40 minutes, and I thought it was terrific. It’s shockingly rare for the other half of an abusive relationship to be given legitimate consideration and voice. Too often movies will place the wife as a prize needing to be won through penitence or the symbol of How Far the Man Has Fallen, the chief victim that represents the toll of his decline and misery. With A Father’s Fight, my favorite moments where when the script just gives Kacie time to share her complicated feelings, and they are refreshingly complex. She’s torn over what to do, she’s upset with herself that she still worries over this man, she sees her kids and sees her husband in them, and she recognizes her value and that she deserves to be treated better. The brief monologues where Kacie pours out her heart, her frustrations, with Bo, with herself, are the highlights of the film. The characterization is nuanced and empathetic.

The other main characters stand tall. Bo is following a pretty familiar redemption arc, and the vehicle of boxing seems tailor-made for a redemption story, a man voluntarily inflicted with pain to atone or prove a larger point of sacrifice. Adding a spiritual element to that redemption story seems pretty natural and familiar for a formula. The character of Bo isn’t quite as nuanced or clear as Kacie but there’s enough there to qualify as a heartfelt if not entirely satisfying character arc. His apologies and personal growth by the end feel genuine, and his acknowledgement that he has hurt those he loved and doesn’t deserve their forgiveness sets a nice balance for a Christian message about mankind not deserving its own sinful forgiveness. It works, it just could have worked better (more on that later). Bo is strapped into the reliable redemption track but there are points that confused me. At one point, he is backing out of a parking space, almost hits a pedestrian, and the angry pedestrian provokes Bo to almost fight him. This passing incident, with a guy we’ve never seen before, is curiously the thing that almost pushes Bo off the wagon and back to drinking. Why? Why would this one incident have that drastic effect? It’s not like he did get into a fight with the guy. The early Bo is never really clarified why he’s in such a stupor. He’s angry, but angry at what and why? Does he just feel stuck? Emasculated? Unable to provide? A little more time setting up how he fell into drinking and his life before would have smoothed this out. Also, this upcoming fight is with the literal champion of boxing but we don’t ever get a strong sense of what it means for Bo. This is a big deal, something that would attract national media attention, and yet it is never treated like a big deal (Bo is only making a laughably paltry $5,000 for his participation – IN A FIGHT WITH THE CHAMPION). What does this fight, the very title of the movie, represent for him? He’s told he needs to fight for what he believes in, which will ostensibly be the lessons of family, self, faith, etc., but why boxing? Why this guy? Why a champion? Does he want to become a boxer again? Is this his failed dream? It feels just like another odd job for our blue-collar protagonist.

There are two primary areas that detract from the mighty goals of A Father’s Fight: the second act squeeze and the strange editing. There seems to be a switch about 50 minutes into the movie where Act Two and all the personal growth we’re waiting to experience gets severely truncated. It’s hard to explain but the patience and nuance that was exhibited in the first 45 minutes starts to wave and the movie gets sloppy with its storytelling shortcuts. There’s one extending grocery shopping scene that seems to be the changing point. It’s Bo explaining all the changes in his life through one methodical trip down a grocery aisle, chatting to local busybody, Tammy Lynn (Lindsay Rawert). He’s explaining all the changes he’s undergone that we haven’t witnessed. He explains the guy he greeted was his AA sponsor, shows her his chip for being sober for a month, talks about how much he enjoys his time with his kids. All of this is important information and would certainly push Bo along on his predetermined redemption arc, but why are we being told it like we’re catching up with a long-lost friend who only has a few minutes to cover the basics? Why haven’t we been seeing these moments? Why didn’t we see Bo go to an AA meeting, feel uncomfortable and out of place, and then eventually open up, talk about his own history with alcohol and the wreckage it has caused him? It would be a dramatic breakthrough. The same with his interaction with his children. Let’s witness these moments, so that we can see their attitudes changing about their father that once scared and upset them in Act One. Movies are meant to be a visual medium and the screenwriting edict is “show, don’t tell.” The first half of A Father’s Fight was following this model. The second half seems to be rushed to tell us what it feels we need to know to fulfill our redemption obligations and get to the big finish.

The work by three credited editors, including the director, is also a frequent concern. There are several weird editing choices that took me out of the movie or undercut the intended drama. First off, many conversation scenes will awkwardly jump around an assortment of angles, and the pacing feels jumbled, especially when the 180-degree rule is frequently being broken and disorienting the viewer. I’m not a stickler that the 180-degree rule in film should be ironclad but flagrant violation throughout a scene creates unconscious disconnection. That can be put to good use if you’re going for something like loopy David Lynch territory. With a faith-based film, it’s distracting. There are drone shots wedged into montages that don’t need them because the production had drone shots and by golly they were going to be utilized regardless. The inclusion of certain shots and sequences also feels baffling. In the first act, Bo is picked up from the police station by his wife, and during the drive home we get flashbacks of Bo as a child watching his drunken father berate his mother. Minutes later, Bo returns home, immediately starts drinking again, and Kacie confronts him. He berates his wife and his two kids appear, horrified and afraid of how their father is behaving. Wouldn’t it make more thematic sense to include that flashback scene here, to make the connection that he is following in his father’s footsteps, and wouldn’t the scene simply have more dramatic impact here? Likewise, at the end of the movie, when Bo is fighting in the boxing ring, the movie’s big question is not whether Bo will beat the champion but whether Kacie will be present in support (so yes, it’s basically entirely Rocky). Bo gets knocked to the mat. He looks over. He sees his wife. He smiles. He has a reason to get back up, to continue fighting, renewed and stronger. Except that’s not what happens. He gets up, and the ref is checking with him, and he looks over and there she is. This is truly baffling to me. The obvious movie moment is, when he’s at his lowest, after taking the hit, he looks over and there she is. We don’t need to see her enter. It should be a surprise for the audience too and including it at its most dramatic point. We feel Bo’s elation. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t have a plethora of these moments but enough that add up and make me wish there had been a fourth editor to help.

The acting is much more subtle and controlled than what I was expecting from a faith-based indie where big theatrical acting can make the proceedings feel overly staged and phony. The three central performers deliver. Cleveland (End of the Road) is very emotionally affecting as Kacie, and she deftly handles the multiple conflicting emotions of a woman at the end of her patience. She’s the most nuanced character in the movie and Cleveland digs deep. She is not a cliche. Hancock (A Soldier’s Secret) has the more traditional role and leans into that familiarity but carries himself well physically and emotionally. His outbursts can be wince-inducing but his pleas for forgiveness can also ring true, aided by the character’s reflection and personal growth. French (The Right to Remain) has a really strong monologue where he reflects on his own war experiences and what motivated him to keep fighting. It relates to the larger theme of the movie, allows the versatile actor to slow things down, to open up, and become very vulnerable, and it’s a welcomed humanizing aside for a character that could have just been a standard coach cheering on our hero’s conditioning from the sidelines. I must admit this monologue is hampered by poor editing choices with quick camera pans and push-ins that feel entirely wrong. You want to slow things down and let the character have the moment, not ramp things up and distract. There is one major acting curiosity I need to cite and this belongs to Rawert and her thick accent. She sounds like she’s auditioning to be on Fargo (“Oh yay, yer’ goin’ inta tha boxin’ ring, doncha know”), and it’s a pronounced lilt that’s missing from every other actor in the movie. I don’t know if maybe this was her idea of a typical “Midwest voice” or a misplaced character choice.

As a faith-based drama, A Father’s Fight has a lot going for it and a lot I wish more Christian indies would prioritize. It puts its characters and story above its feel-good message, at least for half of the movie. The second half does feel rushed and sloppy, and while it does take away from the conclusion feeling fully earned, it cannot detract from the early good feelings. It’s a strange assessment that a movie has a first act, a third act, and a smushed second act, the one meant to bridge the problems to solutions, but there you have it. It’s quite possible there was more intended for the movie and the reality of budget and filming during COVID caused unfortunate shortcuts and the like. It definitely feels like the promise of the first 45 minutes was unable to be fulfilled for the second half. At 90 minutes, the movie could have even stood an additional 20-30 minutes of material to provide room for that character development and some time to breathe. Still, this is a professional looking production for its budget and the song selections are great finds, even if they quite often literalize the inner emotional state of characters onscreen. There’s much more right than wrong with this polished production, and I’m impressed with the consideration given to the characters, especially from the wife’s perspective. Most Christian indies feel more like elaborate sermons than genuine stories (sometimes they’re just Kirk Cameron lecturing you in a driveway). I think this film will play well with its target audience and even earn some fans from outside the flock, people who recognize the humanity of the people onscreen. Even with its limitations and weird edits, A Father’s Fight knows what it’s fighting for – your entertainment value.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Wager (2020)

The Wager is a gob smacking example about the utmost significance of screenplay structure and a lesson for others to learn and avoid. I was beside myself with frustration from this 90-minute movie available on Amazon streaming, occasionally yelling at my TV screen, but mostly I was dumbfounded by the storytelling choices. The wager of the title, which is also prominently noted in the synopsis attached for the film, doesn’t even occur until 78 minutes in. That’s right, you don’t get the hook of the movie until the very end. This astounds me. The Wager is an Ohio-made faith-based indie that generally bored me and occasionally made me guffaw or scream in bafflement. I’d wager unless you’re already among the faithful flock, you’re going to be unmoved and more than a little mystified by this tone-deaf drama.

Bruce (Ty Shelton) is a young man abandoned as a child and raised in the foster system. He gets into trouble at school and eventually gets plunged into a life of crime against his will. As an adult (Jim Gloyd), he’s strung out on drugs and resorting to petty robbery to find his scores. His childhood friend Suzy (Stephanie Haff) runs into him at a casino and offers spiritual outreach, but Bruce wants nothing to do with God. That is until an angel enters his life with a big bet about reliving Bruce’s tortured past with a new perspective.

If you’re going to present a Christian spin on the classic It’s a Wonderful Life formula, having a guardian angel intervene in a person’s life to show them a highlight reel of memories and what could have been, why wait until there’s only ten or so minutes left in your entire movie? Once Bruce does review his tortured life, it includes scenes we’ve already seen, including his birth, which begs the question why we needed to see these moments twice. It’s not like what came before this celestial review needed 78 minutes of undivided attention. For the first 15 minutes, all that happens is that an abused woman gives birth, drops the baby on the doorstep of the police, and the officers call social services. Did we need that to take up 15 minutes? From there we witness young Bruce getting in trouble at school and then being kidnapped (oh, there will definitely be more on this later) and living life as a drug dealer. We spend an hour establishing Bruce’s life as being awful, from child to adult, and it’s repetitive and deflating. How many scenes do we need to see of Bruce sleeping on the ground or shooting up drugs or being pushed around? Not only could the far, far majority of this plotting have been condensed considerably, it would have been more impactful to watch Bruce reflect on his experiences by re-living them rather than dwelling in the extended misery that made me wonder if this was going to be a modern-day passion play. Truly, imagine It’s a Wonderful Life but we spent an hour of watching George Bailey haggle over business practices with Mr. Potter. This central screenwriting miscue is just so catastrophic to the entertainment factor.

We could have easily established adult Bruce being a troubled man and the people of his past having difficulty recognizing the man they thought they knew from the movie’s start. This would establish that bad things have happened, and he could hint at more that he doesn’t want to reveal, and then the end of your first act could be him hitting rock bottom and getting his angelic intervention. We don’t need more than 20-25 minutes to establish how crummy this man’s life is. When given an hour, it just becomes too crushing and risks undercutting the message of personal redemption. Learning with the character about his life’s hardships would be more engaging with him having to come face-to-face with the them and his guardian angel partner. It also allows us to not have to be dependent on chronology and jump around to the major events we need to best define Bruce. This obvious structure makes so much sense that I am shocked the filmmakers missed out. Having an angelic guide would also force the character into conversation and confrontation and potential reflection, giving us better insight into the man than simply watching the events on our own without commentary. Simply put, you shouldn’t name your movie after a key plot event that happens in the last 15 minutes unless you’re a disaster movie and the Big One is finally striking.

The mistakes in plot structure also harm the overall slack pacing. The pacing is practically nonexistent for long portions. The energy level is so subdued that I thought I might just fall asleep. The camera movements will often utilize long takes and slow pans with minimal cuts, which just makes the lack of energy that much more palpable. So many dialogue exchanges sound like people are just reanimated zombies, and so much dialogue feels needlessly expositional. People talk in that phony way where they’re constantly repeating what the other person says but turning it into a question. It’s an inauthentic way of conversing that reminded me of Neil Breen’s silly films. Take these examples of poor onscreen conversations and see what I’m talking about:

“I have no clue what we’re going to do in Science today.”

“Me neither. I guess we’ll find out soon.”

“You’re right. See you there.”

Wow, did we need to be privy for that vital information? Or how about:

“I know you have your troubles, but I know you.”

“No, you don’t. That’s just how I act around you. I don’t think you know.”

“Just stop. I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to make excuses rather than accepting yourself for who you really are.”

Isn’t writing better when characters just blurt out another person’s internal dilemma for the audience? Or:

“He asked me for Herb’s Garage.”

“Oh yeah. I remember that place.”

“We all did. So, I didn’t expect a thing.”

We needed less time with scenes like these, where it feels like characters are detached and drifting with excess time to fill. There’s one long hallway exchange between a young Bruce and Suzy that lasts over a minute of chit-chat that feels like they’re just reading off the script. The performances have that rushed feeling, of sentences starting immediately after the next, but lacking an energy level that would justify the delivery. Simply put, when two or more characters are sitting down and talking, you might as well go get a refill or hit the bathroom. The chances will be good they will still be in that same sedate conversation and you will have missed little. This is why the structural choice to spend 78 MINUTES OF MOVIE on establishment scenes is so maddening, because writer/producer/co-star Gloyd did not have the material to cover the time.

Let’s get into what I think is the most egregious portion of The Wager and that is the lengthy middle where Bruce gets kidnapped and coerced into a life of crime. I thought we were headed for some Oliver Twist territory and we’d watch Bruce’s struggles over the pressure to commit criminal acts he was uncomfortable doing, maybe even while he schemed to escape. First off, the fact that the criminals are stereotypical depictions of black males made me sigh. I also was confounded why they placed so much emphasis on kidnapping teenagers and runaways to serve as drug dealers. When you have access to money and power, you have people that will come to you for opportunities (you’re a job creator). You don’t need to kidnap children and hold them hostage to sell your wares, especially having to worry whether they will run away or whether someone will recognize them as missing. It’s stupid risk. Considering these men just sit in the car and watch young Bruce make his first street corner deal, it’s not like they’re being terribly conspicuous.

And then there’s the undetermined time jump, which is revealed during one of those static camera angle montages. It’s a nice surprise; however, it means that Bruce has been sleeping on this same dirty mattress in the same room for, like, twenty or thirty years (also none of the items on the shelves moved in that same time, meaning Bruce never touched a thing in his living quarters or he is very, very particular about where things should go). The same crime bosses are still alive and in their same position of leadership. Bruce is now played by Gloyd in a horrendous looking ratty wig and I needed to know desperately how much time has passed. Gloyd definitely looks to be in his 40s, and this significant jump in time raises so many irksome questions. The police haven’t found adult Bruce in 30 years but the same officer who found him as a baby, who is still alive and working as a security officer, can recognize him on the spot? How old are these same criminal leaders then, and Bruce hasn’t ascended higher up the organization than street dealer? If we’re jumping that far ahead, wouldn’t it make more sense for Bruce to be the new leader, letting us know he has been molded under the negative influence of his captors? If he’s just going to be a drug-addicted adult then why do we need to jump so far ahead in time? The answer, it seems, is so that the writer/producer can have a starring role. That’s fine, but we could have done more structurally to maximize the drama rather than dwelling in redundant misery.

Let’s analyze the spiritual message at the heart of The Wager. Bruce’s life is pretty bad. He’s in and out of foster homes, gets abducted and held hostage as a criminal lackey, becomes addicted to drugs and desperate, and then homeless and contemplating suicide. He’s had, by all accounts, a hard go of things. He’s understandably resentful about the forces he feels have conspired to lock him into agony, so when other characters raise the notion of a loving God that has his back and watches over him, Bruce scoffs and views his life as refutation. There’s even a nature versus nurture argument to be had. In fact, the first time Bruce went to Suzy’s church was when he was abducted. The cop character tells Bruce he’s been praying for him since the moment they first crossed paths, but considering what Bruce has endured, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the power of prayer. Now obviously Bruce will conclude with accepting the love of God and finding a greater purpose with his life, but why did we need to wait so long? The end is never going to be in doubt with a Christian-themed indie any more than whether or not James Bond will get out of his latest scrape. That’s why refocusing the structure onto Bruce having to confront an angel over his feelings of abandonment from God would be far more dynamic, powerful, and I’ll say it, even Christian than the message as presented. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not questioning the faith and credentials of the filmmakers. I’m saying the way they go about telling their story makes the overall message less believably impactful.

The acting in The Wager is typically rather flat, given that energy-sapping direction that makes each scene feel twice as long. However, there is one actor I want to single out and that’s Cameron Arnett (Overcomer) as the unfortunately named Gabe Angelus (get it?). Arnett reappears in different roles, my favorite being a batty homeless man that helps out Bruce from time to time. In that moment, Arnett is so believable and arguably natural even while playing a highly mannered character. He immediately drew my attention and I remarked, “Here’s a good actor.” As for the other thespians, it’s hard for me to tell whether they just didn’t get the material to showcase their skills or whether those skills are in need of polishing. I know KateLynn Newberry (Widow’s Point, Dark Iris) as the queen of Ohio indies, and she’s pretty much wasted as a doting wife who lives to ask her husband what he wants for dinner. Fun fact: one of the crime lords is played by former Columbus resident and famous boxer James “Buster” Douglas.

With The Wager, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Obvious dramatic setups seem to be sorely missed, a structural reformatting was in dire need to maximize the hook, because without that it’s like watching one poor man spiral and suffer for an entire feature-length film. It feels like overwrought overkill. Do we need a half-hour of a guy slinging drugs and sticking needles in his arm, without any supporting characters to interact with, or can this information be conveyed with practiced brevity? I am amazed at so many choices that left me scratching my head. The movie ends with our guardian angel staring into the screen and laughing maniacally for several prolonged seconds, even over the cut to black. What? This is the kind of behavior we associate with evil beings. Why do we need a flashback of a young girl running out the door when the adult version could have just relayed this event in words? I know Christian movie audiences aren’t exactly the most discerning audiences, prioritizing message over storytelling and technical achievement, but the decisions that the filmmakers make impair that faithful message. You don’t make an It’s a Wonderful Life story and just reserve it for the last 15 minutes. I advise select people to watch The Wager simply to learn what not to do with the importance of screenwriting structure. That’s its ultimate cautionary tale.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Alan and the Fullness of Time (2020)

I don’t think I’ve come across a movie with a title as curious in recent years as Alan and the Fullness of Time. This Ohio-made indie was created for a predominantly Christian marketplace so, fairly or unfairly, I went in expecting more emphasis on the message than the storytelling. I figured the titular “fullness of time” would be a larger lesson about using the time God has given you, seizing the day and such, or maybe even related to time travel (no such luck). What I got certainly felt like it was far from the fullness of its own meager running time and ideas.

Alan (Brooks Harvey) is a normal teenage boy except he isn’t. His parents belong to a Christian sect that has for generations plotted to protect a special savior. Alan wants to live a normal life, hanging with friends and going to parties, but he is thrust into a war between heaven and hell. After an attack at home, Alan is on the run to learn about his identity and accept his destiny.

This movie is maddeningly unclear in just about every aspect of storytelling. It feels like you’re watching a Mad Libs version of a story with missing blanks where there should be essential information. It seems like Alan is a classic Chosen One archetype along the lines of a Christian Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Writer/director Markus Cook (The Deceived) repeatedly reminds the viewer how important Alan is in the larger scheme and how special he is but this is never fully explained except in very general terms meant to apply to any person watching, contributing to the idea that every life is important. That works as a comforting message but it doesn’t work explaining why Alan alone is so special. Likewise, if he’s so special and in hiding, why was he allowed to leave the house or go to a public school? The character would be far more compelling if he was a recluse not allowed to leave the house because his parents were overly protective with good reason. Sending the Chosen One that demons are looking for to a public school just seems careless (not an indictment on the quality of education). For that matter, why do these demons even bother waiting to attack? The Act One break involves demons attacking Alan’s parents and forcing him on the run, but if they’ve already infiltrated his school and are posing as his friends, why are they waiting? These are the kinds of things that add up and make a plot feel careless and under developed, and it starts early and often with Alan.

This lack of clarity extends beyond the first act and muddles so much of the conflict and characterization. After Alan’s parents are harmed, why does he not go to the police? What reason would he have for hiding at his school? He doesn’t know his fellow students were demons, at least not in a fully confirmed way of this hidden world of monsters. For that matter, why is Alan on the run and there is national media attention given to what happened to his parents? What reason does he have to not resort to the police? It would make far more sense for the demons to frame Alan for the violence at his home. That way he would have a reason not to turn to the authorities and make him feel more isolated and hunted. He would be limited seeking out help and refuge. This would also better explain why anyone even remotely cares about finding this kid from a media standpoint. I can’t imagine round-the-clock media updates on where the son of one crime has been if he is not clearly the chief suspect. Alan spends much of the rest of the movie learning about his parents’ hidden life and his own part in a larger war, but the world-building is far too vague for a story involving hidden conspiracies of good guys and bad guys. I think the movie is presenting an alternate world where some Christianity is outlawed by the government but this too is flagrantly unclear. Are these people being persecuted for their beliefs? It doesn’t feel like it onscreen aside from a few snarky comments from Alan’s teenage peers about his perceived boring life (and remember, they were really demons). Regardless, there is a branch of the NSA (or some other acronym) that is being run by a a centuries-old demon with Jedi mind trick powers, and yet even this is unclear too. What are the rules here? What are the limitations? What are the objectives? What are the stakes? If you’re presenting a “hidden world” story with powerful creatures and faith as a weapon, then we need a lifeline to grasp.

Alan is a fairly boring blank of a character. He’s angry because he keeps moving schools and feels like he doesn’t fit in, but once he’s on the run Alan becomes a receptive set of ears for people to fill him in on the power of faith, God, and his divine place in the world. Will Alan triumph? You know the answer but I can’t exactly explain it beyond him simply having more faith. Frankly, this character is not interesting enough to warrant a franchise. Even his vague powers as a Chosen One are not interesting enough to warrant further adventures. The most interesting character, by far, is Weston (Lucas Bentley) and he could have been cut completely from the narrative. He’s introduced early, apparently trying to escape to… the Chinese border for… reasons I’m still unsure about from the opening that literally begins with footage and audio of 9/11 (this inclusion is never fully earned and, at best, quite tacky). He was part of the same splinter group that Alan’s parents belong to, but Weston lost his faith after his wife was killed. He seems like he’s on a redemptive arc, the old gunslinger being called into one last battle to save a youth and find something worth fighting for. This doesn’t exactly happen but this setup made Weston the character I knew the most about, who had the most accessible struggle, and who could have easily been the lead perspective of the movie rather than the vacant Alan.

I think the filmmakers were going for a combination of an indie Christian YA character and their own version of a Jason Bourne spy thriller (you better believe I’m trademarking the term “Jesus Bourne” for future franchises). This would not have been the first indie to treat a Christian protagonist as a fugitive being hunted down for their beliefs, an externalization of a self-persecution complex I’ve never personally understood when a majority of Americans identify as some form of Christian. This scenario plays into the fears of its ready-made audience and it at least also provides a ready-made story for danger and intrigue. Rarely, however, have I seen a Christian indie that seems so taken with providing the “other half” of a Bourne movie, and by that I mean the desk jockeys clacking keyboards. With every Bourne movie, there is the Chief Chaser and his or her team of NSA agents manning banks of computer terminals and tracking down the whereabouts of our target. In normal spy thrillers, these moments provide scene changes and exposition, but they can also ratchet up tension as we, the audience, know how much closer these antagonists are getting to our hero. With Alan and the Fullness of Time, there are numerous check-ins with the agent half of this pursuit but it never raises tension or provides helpful clarity about the world or this agency. Part of this is because the boss Malkam (no first name, just… Malkam) is established as supernatural too early. Do the other agents know they’re working for a demon? Detective Lowell (Brittany Picard) pushes back occasionally saying they are misusing their government office, but nobody else seems to give much mind. I even think the end involves a siege of a church with literal gunshots and people killed, but again, the movie is too vague to clarify whether or not this escalation and the consequences made much sense.

It’s not like there wasn’t room to better develop this story, its world, the history and lore, and the characters. Alan and the Fullness of Time clocks in at 82 minutes, but for my online screening, the first three was an introduction by the lead actor, and if you wanted to discount opening credits and a minute of closing credits before a mid-credits sequence (why?), that means that Alan is actually approximately 76 minutes of material. There was more than enough space there to better flesh out, well, anything. If it was a concern about budget limitations, I don’t fully accept that because budget doesn’t limit how well you write for characters and conversations. The movie concludes with “Alan will return” and the promise of a sequel with a very Percy Jackson-sounding string of subtitles, Alan and the Rulers of the Air. If I had paid good money to watch this movie, I might be chuffed that the movie wants to carry over into a sequel when they didn’t even have enough material for 76 paltry minutes.

The dialogue can often be painful and stilted. For an action movie, there isn’t very much action. Most of the scenes from the Act One break onward are people chatting in cars, people chatting in churches, people chatting in homes, people chatting on the street. That would be great opportunities for the needed clarity and characterization lacking. It doesn’t help when these conversations include clunkers like, “At least we have that in common – dead parents. At least half of mine.” Dear reader, that line made me outwardly wince in pain. At another point the villain shows up with armed guards and says, “This is real lead and real brass, and they will pump you full of it.” Alan says he doesn’t have time and another character says, “Time has you, Alan. It has all of us. And it’s squeezing.” In reference to his school friends, who I remind you were demons that harmed his parents, he says, “They’re not my friends anymore.” Well, that’s good to know given the circumstances. Alan turns on a turncoat and says, “You sold me out. No wonder you can’t call us family.” I was a little worried about the implications of the line, “If you can pray, then you can fight.” At the conclusion, a character asks Alan how to teach her how to fight, and he hands her a bible, and we cut to credits. These are just the examples that stood out to me of bad dialogue. If we’re left with these characters and their thoughts, it is apparent that the filmmakers just were not equipped to provide them with appealing words to speak.

I don’t blame the performers because it feels like they were all following the same poor direction. Everyone in this movie is so subdued that I thought they would slip into a coma. This is intended to be a spy thriller, a chase movie, a world where demons can take human form and hunt the Chosen One, and nobody seems to be acting like it’s urgent. This does a tremendous disservice to establishing and maintaining tension. It completely saps the energy out of the movie. If the characters aren’t anxious or worried, then why should we be watching them? It’s too early to land a verdict on Harvey as an actor as this is his debut. I hope the future adventures of Alan provide the actor a better showcase and more energy. I want to single out one actor who was only onscreen for a few minutes but left quite an impression. In a movie filled with vague evildoers that seem too low-key, Kira Wilson (The Right to Remain) is definitely felt as the spooky principal to Alan’s school. She has a fun malevolence that is missing from the other bad guys and I can tell the actress is enjoying her wicked side. We could have used more of her.

I will credit the filmmakers for making a film that looks and sounds like a professional movie. The cinematography by Josh Bedsole doesn’t have a lot of focus depth but it looks crisp. The persistent hand-held camerawork provides an extra dose of energy to the proceedings and is another reminder of the film’s aspirations to be its own Bourne-style escapade. It’s a low budget movie, all things considered, but it doesn’t feel glaringly so that it’s distracting or compromising. The best part about the movie is the score by Josh McCausland and Jake Halm that adds excitement when it’s not being felt otherwise from the writing and direction. At points the electronic-infused score even reminded me of the work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Alan and the Fullness of Time doesn’t really justify your own investment of time. When you don’t provide enough explanation for your world when it’s different, when you don’t make it clear what the rules and limitations are, and when you don’t produce relatable and engaging character arcs, then you’re not really making a movie and more so making an inaccessible puzzle for the audience to piece together for their own fledgling entertainment. Alan and the Fullness of Time is not exactly an audience-friendly movie, despite the fact that its core audience will likely ignore its storytelling pitfalls because it admires its core message. I can feel the lack of storytelling finesse, as if the filmmakers shrugged and said, “It only has to be good enough to get us the next one.” I’ll even admit that the clips for the upcoming sequel look much more enticing and action-packed, but I haven’t been given enough from the first movie to hold out faith the second will deliver. This could have been Jesus Bourne, people.

Nate’s Grade: C-

I Still Believe (2020)

I Still Believe was one of the last wide releases before theaters shuttled thanks to COVID-19. It was a low-budget Christian indie by the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon (I Can Only Imagine, October Baby). My expectations were already low and the final film is equal parts earnest and goofy, but where it goes wrong is with its stretched-out passion play built on suffering.

Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) heads to college and falls instantly in love with art student, Melissa (Britt Robertson). He’s a budding Christian musician and gets his big break from fellow “student” and successful musician, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons). Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship is tested when she is given a cancer diagnosis, but he’s unwavering in his support. They pray for help and struggle for meaning, with Jeremy turning to music for answers.

As with many Christian indies, I’ve discovered that the elements of filmmaking and storytelling are generally secondary to whatever the message is the film wishes to confirm for its built-in audience. So the details don’t really matter as much as the bigger picture, which in this case I assume is to inspire in its audience that even when they are suffering that God has a plan for them. I can see how people can find that topic comforting because one of the nagging questions in theology is over why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen to good people. The best the film can surmise is that there is a “greater good” sort of response we cannot know, and that the death of one person could have ripple effects and inspire many millions more. That’s what I Still Believe is proposing with its true story, namely that the tale of Jeremy Camp’s deceased first wife happened to inspire millions and bring them closer to God through Camp’s music and storytelling over his loss. Either you find that comforting and an answer enough or you don’t, but if you question that logic, then the movie demonstrating this resembles a cruel passion play.

Even before I started this movie, I knew that Melissa was going to die, and I knew her ultimate purpose was going to be to push the man along on his own spiritual and artistic journey. She dies so that you can become a better guitarist, Jeremy. I don’t mean to sound crass considering these are based on real people, and the real Melissa really died, and her friends and family felt real grief. My critical aims are with how the movie handles this and not her real tragic loss. I think many can be irritated when a movie says a character’s ultimate suffering was all to prop up another character; I’m reminded of numerous Hollywood stories about African-American suffering where it props up a white savior character to learn or achieve Important Things. This nagging feeling would have been lessened had Jeremy come across as a more compelling character in the movie and, even, a more compelling artist. He’s a pretty bland white dude and his music is fairly vanilla acoustic guitar soft rock. The music is earnest, it’s pleasant enough, but there’s nothing that really stands out, but that assessment is personal, I admit. I struggle with movies that try to convince me of someone’s artistic ascendance but don’t feel like they back it up with the evidence for that fame. The character of Jeremy onscreen is a nice guy, well-meaning, but he’s more interesting when he’s in the goofy love triangle with Jean Luc. Once Melissa gets her cancer diagnosis, his characterization just gets put on hold. He becomes a loving caretaker and then, once she inevitably passes, he becomes a loving and bereaved husband.

This is where I rankle because that cancer diagnosis comes so early and that is all the movie becomes afterwards, and when we all know where I Still Believe is ultimately heading, it becomes very tedious and arguably garish. The cancer diagnosis happens with an entire hour left to go, which means we’re left to watch Melissa get sick, everyone worry and cry, and when her remission happens with a half hour left to the movie, you know we’re just biding time until it comes back again because what else are we going to do with all this extra time? It’s not like Melissa, fresh from beating cancer, says to her man, “Let’s pull off a heist.” We all know where this is going, so this momentary reprieve and the movie treating it like, “Hooray, look at what prayer has done,” feels downright cruel because we know it’s not going to last. We know the rest of the road ahead is going to be watching her returned suffering, which is the entire movie. It is a passion play where we watch a young woman suffer and die so that we will ultimately get some songs written about her memory and experience. For those outside the target audience, this can become borderline offensive, and from a storytelling standpoint so much is left simply broad.

The most enjoyable parts of I Still Believe for me are how goofy it can be especially with its fuzzy details. This is a movie without any sense of humor and yet it can inspire laughter. Jeremy seems to be attending a school where he never has to do any work. This school is also I guess a regular stop for Jean Luc, an alum who has already become famous and has a backing band, so why does he just keep showing up to perform on this campus? Doesn’t he tour outside the school? Also, Jeremy is almost immediately successful. He’s thrown onstage in what amounts to the film’s Star is Born moment when Jean Luc invites Jeremy to share his special song to a live audience. From there, Jeremy is recording, performing regular to packed crowds, to the point that I questioned when he has a sit-down with his college dean about quitting school to tend to the ailing Melissa, I was shocked he was still attending school at all. Isn’t he just a successful musician now? My opening impression of Jeremy as he goes off to college is positive, as he calms down his impaired little brother who is bereft with the departure. Then over the opening credits he’s playing his acoustic guitar on a charter bus and I thought how rude that would be. But by far the most amusing part of the movie is the love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean Luc. First off, every time a character says the name “Jean Luc” with such seriousness I giggled. The actor seems so much older than everyone else, though he’s only two years older than Robertson (who is 7 years older than Apa). The love triangle is enough to keep Melissa from being public about dating Jeremy, and when he presses her on it, she pushes back that he should return the jacket that Jean Luc gave him, as if these are equivalent. And then she keeps bringing it up. Jean Luc isn’t even a character so much as a platform of opportunity for Jeremy and then a contrived obstacle for their blooming romance.

The acting overall falls into that earnest yet occasionally goofy territory of many Christian indies. It’s not quite camp but there are moments where characters are so serious that things feel a tad off, like we’re just seconds away from everyone breaking into laughter. Apa (Riverdale) is blandly appealing but feels very much like Zac Efron lite. He does all his own singing and guitar playing which is more technically impressive than the character he has been given. Robertson showed such promise with 2015’s Tomorrowland and seems to be given little to do here. She’s slated in that dewy role as the Wise Woman Fated For Tragedy, which is kind of like the more somber terminal illness equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even in her last moments, she seems to have a radiance of knowledge. I wish I could say there was strong chemistry between the leads but Apa has better chemistry with his guitar. Then there are Jeremy’s parents played by Gary Sinise and, surprise surprise, recording star Shania Twain. This is only her third film appearance and she is given so little to do that, frankly, it didn’t impress me much. The best performance in the film happens late when Jeremy meets a fan (Abigail Cowen) who monologues what Jeremy’s songs and experiences have met to her and how they’ve changed her life. It’s a moment that feels emotionally affecting even if you know it’s here to literally remind the audience of the theme. That same woman would then go on to become Jeremy’s wife, so good for them.

I Still Believe isn’t offensively bad, campy, or even theologically misguided in its view of morality like a hokey Kirk Cameron vehicle. It feels like a glossy made-for-TV movie that just happens to be made for a majority-Christian audience. The message is paramount, and all else serves the message, which means the characters are uninteresting, the story is redundant to the point of piling on cruelty, and the overall earnest tone can approach unintentional goofiness. It feels like much of the film is padding the running time with lengthy musical performances like a concert movie. It’s also a movie without enough story to cover its near two-hour length. Either you connect with the overall message that there can be meaning in suffering or you see past it and take umbrage with the movie presenting a woman’s suffering as character development for a soon-to-be popular musician. This is like a Christian weepie version of The Fault in Our Stars, which was another movie we knew where it would be headed, but it lacks the effort level. The Erwin brothers shoot everything either with annoyingly distracting handheld camerawork or swooping drone footage. The film has technical merit but filmed like it’s a collection of B-roll for some prescription drug ad (all those smiling, warmly lit faces on the beach having fun). I Still Believe is a blandly dull movie built upon extended suffering and extended musical performances. Maybe it knows its audience too well but I doubt anyone outside the flock will find inspiration here.

Nate’s Grade: C

Beautifully Broken (2018)

Written by a staggering six credited writers, the faith-based movie Beautifully Broken is a well-meaning dramatic exercise that hopefully opens some hearts and minds to the refugee experience. Its message, for the most part, is worthy and empathetic. Reportedly based on a true story, we follow three families: 1) a Rwandan family that escapes the 1994 genocide, is trapped in the bureaucracy of the refugee system, and whose husband tries to make a new life in Tennessee for his family, 2) A Rwandan man who helped the previous family and has been imprisoned ever since, denied watching his own daughter grow into a teenager, 3) a wealthy Tennessee family struggles to cope with their rebellious teenage daughter, ignorant to the rape that changed her life. Can you guess which of these three storylines just isn’t as interesting as the others and yet is the one we inexplicably get the most time with? If you guessed “rich white people,” collect your prize. Beautifully Broken feels like an entire season of soap operas crammed into 108 minutes. The drama is so pitched but also strangely abbreviated, quick to resolution a few scenes later. It reminded me of those “previously on” clip packages before TV episodes. The characters are lacking recognizable dimension. They feel entirely too much like parts, meant to be happy, sad, and grateful, but rarely human. It makes for a dramatic feature that feels very inauthentic even when dealing with heavy issues like genocide, imprisonment, and sexual violence. Weirdly, the movie cannot even bring itself to utter the word “rape.” The film also feels written by people with a very selective sense of teenagers; some of the signs that the teen is on a wayward path that alarms mom and dad include her listening to rock music, locking her room for privacy, and, worst of all, not having an interest in horseback riding any longer. There’s a laughable subplot involving a bad boyfriend that seems like the most preposterous court case I’ve ever seen on film. Beautifully Broken examines the healing power of forgiveness and connection in a way that asks for compassion and understanding the immigrant experience. It even closes with a plea to sponsor a refugee to the U.S. Rarely do movies peak with their end credits. It just so happens that Beautifully Broken, a well-meaning but tedious tale, is that movie.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Shack (2017)

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-

Silence (2016)

cx3zloiucaedlkj-jpg-largeA 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+

Boo! A Madea Halloween (2016)

tyler-perrys-boo-a-madea-hallowee-posterTyler 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

God’s Not Dead 2 (2016)

gods-not-dead-2-trailerThe 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-

Ben-Hur (2016)

BEN+HUR+POSTERHow 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.

BEN-HURIt’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.

Ben-Hur-2016-after-credits-hqAnother 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+

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