Thursday, February 14, 2013

Preaching to the Choir, Series 1: The Kendrick Brothers. Film 4: “Courageous”

With “Courageous,” the Kendrick brothers finally have an ensemble with all major and major-supporting roles filled with actors up to par for the writing.  Ken Bevel is back, this time paired up with Alex Kendrick as the two leads.  Robert Amaya is adorable as the hardworking Javier, the only father not also a cop in the film.  The wives and even the children turn in strong, genuine performances, buoyed up by the ever-improving production values.

But once again, the greatest strength of the film is in the writing.  The story is cleverly constructed, pulling five different fathers in very different life circumstances in to examine the importance of fatherhood, with the apt metaphor of the police motto—“to protect and serve”—as the image of a father’s proper role in a Christian home. 

Again, the connections are deft, the humor is warm, the illustration is strong, and the story is far from cliché or predictable.  They are now working with some professionals on the crew, and this shows in the production values.  A standout example is a brief but striking moment, a slow continuous pan past a house as people and cars fade in and out, coming and going in the aftermath of a funeral, speaking volumes about the family’s desolation and their visitors’ impotence to comfort in a few eloquent seconds.

Don’t get the impression of a quiet, moody film, though.  These guys are cops, and the movie begins with an action sequence that’ll get your heart rate up and climaxes in a shoot out.  It has got its share of popcorn-spilling moments. 

Unlike any of the previous three films, I was a bit disappointed with the final scene of this one, for being just a bit too overtly preachy.  I’m not sure whether it just isn’t Kendrick’s strongest point to speak from the pulpit (he does seem at his best in the moments of greatest emotional vulnerability, rather than the rousing ones), or whether the editing was just a tad too far in the “two by four” mode; but especially the very last image of the film and the abrupt cut from it felt awkward and a bit forced.  The speech is well written, and certainly justified in the context, but somehow it just didn’t flow as smoothly as one would wish, especially after a film which, for the most part, was the smoothest and strongest-flowing one yet from Sherwood pictures.  This minor bobble aside, though, yet another definite keeper from the Kendrick brothers. 

I for one would love to see more, but if this is “all she wrote” from these guys, I’d call it a strong and worthwhile legacy. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Preaching to the Choir, Series 1: The Kendrick Brothers. Film 3: “Fireproof”

 While not as sharply written as “Facing the Giants,” “Fireproof” is the more successful (in worldly terms) film, partly because of the co-marketing of The Love Dare and other popular “Christian self-help” or study group materials, as well as a novelization of the film; but probably mostly because this was the first Kendrick film to include an actual celebrity “star”—a “name,” as they say.

Kirk Cameron’s person and talents are favorite subjects of ridicule from secular critics—being openly Christian in Hollywood has got to be the modern equivalent of being Daniel in the pit of lions. . . or, perhaps more appropriately for this film, of being Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego in the furnace.  But at least in this film (I haven’t seen the “Left Behind” series yet), that ridicule is definitely not deserved.  Cameron’s Caleb is an uncompromising performance, rising above the limitations of many of his scene partners (again, everybody else is a church volunteer), and above the sometimes clunky dialog (not terribly so, just in comparison to “Giants”).   

Although I feared that adorable Kirk might not be willing to sacrifice his “good guy” persona should the role require it, this was an unfair underestimation of Cameron’s craft as an actor.  Caleb is a complete and utter (and totally believable) bastard to his wife at the outset of the film, and his transformation is a journey well worth following.  Although his boyish looks initially work against our accepting him as the Captain of the firehouse, he simply owns his responsibility there, and soon enough we’re as on-board as his crew in respecting him as a competent firefighter and leader.  His genuine, vulnerable apology to his wife near the end of the film “leaves it all on the field”—well done.

While most of the other actors in the film again turn in sincere, but not soaring, performances, I do want to mention Ken Bevel as Cameron’s closest friend.  Watching the film, I assumed he was also a “hired hand,” and was surprised to see that he was “just” another church volunteer.  Strong, genuine presence and performance.

These guys are clearly picking up speed as they literally learn to make movies as they go.  There is some deft and even truly scary movie making here:  the “he said/she said” scene is cleverly written and edited, and the train rescue scene is a real pulse-racer.  The fire rescue scene (of course there is one) felt like real peril, and the “While I’m Waiting” montage, if not soaring, definitely has enough uplift to get off the ground (not to mention, making you want to go check out Warren Barfield’s albums).

Another keeper from the Kendrick boys.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Preaching to the Choir, Series 1: The Kendrick Brothers. Film 2: “Facing the Giants”

“Facing the Giants” demonstrates the Kendricks’ clear writing talent.  The story is well-crafted, with nice (but generally not “two-by-four” obvious) little (and large) allusions to all kinds of Biblical stories, all of them cleverly integrated into a cohesive, strong whole.  The writing also includes some true gems:  the wife’s speech about their hoped-for children is among the best screen-writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to admire, and the “death crawl” scene is quite frankly among the most stirring scenes I’ve ever seen on film, period. 

The strength of the writing is obvious in the face of the fact that frankly, nobody is a “real” actor here.  The performances are sincere, but most of them suffer from simply an utter lack of any notion what acting really involves (not their fault, just a fact).  On occasion, this actually works better than a “hired gun” might have—Alex Kendrick, for example, clearly has such deep empathy for the character he has created that he can just “be” the role (the way Hollywood tag lines always promise us the star will be—“So-and-So IS. . .”—but which is rarely actually delivered).  His vulnerability is deeply touching; only the stoniest of hearts could not respond to it. 

The “making of” shows us that this marvelously blessed group of people start all their work by dedicating it to God and asking Him to work through them—and this does shine through the entire film.  It works despite the limitations of many of the actors, the budget, and the crew.  I can only wonder what might have happened had the rest of the ensemble been just a bit sharper with respect to acting craft, or if they’d had the budget to increase production values across the board.  That wife’s speech, for example, might have been an absolutely soaring moment; and the often truly adorable comedic moments might have sparked real hilarity.  On the other hand, as the clear goal of the ensemble was NOT necessarily to “make the greatest movie,” or even “the most successful movie,” but rather to glorify God with whatever He gave them the ability and resources to do, perhaps in the end it was all far more for the best.  The idea that I have even SEEN this film made by a Baptist church in Albany, Georgia—let alone that it is available to rent or buy all over the world—is clear evidence of God at work.  What more need be said?

A keeper. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Preaching to the Choir, Series 1: The Kendrick Brothers. Film 1: “Flywheel”

“Flywheel” is preceded by a short message from Alex Kendrick, essentially warning people about the production values and explaining the context in which the film was made.  A “church movie” never intended to be viewed beyond their local community, it is a testament to God at work in these productions that anyone else has even heard of this film, much less that it would be available to rent or buy now anywhere.

Yes, by Hollywood’s priority-disordered standards, where even a “low budget” film costs enough to feed starving masses for a lifetime, this film looks and feels “cheap.”  But sit down to watch it with the mindset of “this movie was made by a local church—like mine,” and all that falls away.  What makes the greatest impression is the quality of the writing, which even in this very first effort of a bunch of “media ministry” guys trying to figure out how to make a film, stands up very well. 

The strongest thing about the story is that the characters do not suffer from that all-too-prevalent “Christian movie” pathology of the goody-good syndrome.  Often, Christian filmmakers (even the ones with money!) seem reluctant to put any real conflict in a story, and/or to present characters with any real flaws.  The main characters are usually “pretty good guys” with “sorta kinda” problems.  The whole impression is milquetoast boring at best, and insufferably patronizing at its worst.  The engine of a story IS conflict—without real conflict, there is no drive.  And the interest of a character is in his transformation—if your character is already “pretty much there,” there’s no engaging journey we can take with him.  The Kendricks get this, and as a result, all of their films have stories worth watching.

God is definitely pouring real creative spirit into the Kendrick brothers.  Even this very first film has actual “teeth.”  Jay Austin is genuinely despicable when the film opens; he is the salesman you truly fear when you go to buy a used car.  At home, he’s a nasty husband and a neglectful, thoughtless father.  His very pregnant and very frustrated wife is sarcastic and disrespectful.  His kid openly admits to a friend that he doesn’t want to grow up to be anything like his dad.  All of this is developed naturally, not stereotypically; this family is written as very real people (aside from the fact that they seem to have the world’s unhealthiest eating habits—although, considering the state of most Americans’ health these days, maybe that is pretty real, too). 

The story turns on what happens when this very-superficially “Christian” man is pushed to the point that he must admit he needs God and give his life over to Christ.  Unlike other “come-to-Jesus” films, however, that’s not anything like the ending; they’re just getting started.  It appears we’re in for a simple, “turn your life over to God and live happily ever after” message, but the Kendricks have more to say than that.  Sin still has worldly consequences, life still has potholes and bumps in the road, but their clever and well-crafted story gives us a glimpse into how the highway of life becomes a different experience when you give God the wheel. 

A keeper.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Preaching to the Choir: Intro

One of the recurring foci of these ventures will be examinations of overtly Christian media:  books, movies, films, etc., that would outright have that “Christian” sticker on them in your local public library.  Because I expect this label almost always means that virtually everybody who sees/hears/partakes of these media is already self-identifying as Christian, I’m calling these ongoing posts “Preaching to the Choir.”

I know that phrase is most often used in a derisive way, but I don’t intend it so.  For one thing, I’m well aware that the choir NEEDS preaching to—if we don’t get our spirits fed, then anything we “sing” is just empty words and pitches.  For another, you never know who just might be passing by outside the church and overhear the preaching—as on the day of Pentecost, you just don’t know who might catch something of what’s going on “inside” and be reached and moved by it. 

So we’ll be celebrating some good choir-preaching here, as well as perhaps pointing out some you might want to save your time by skipping.  If you have any suggestions for overtly Christian books, movies, films, websites, music, kids’ media, etc., etc., for us to explore here, please suggest away!