Friday, January 20, 2017

Keep and Bear: the movie

Documentary
2017 / 77 minutes
RATING: 7/10

Gun documentaries are typically of the "get the guns off the street!" variety or, the "let law-abiding citizens defend themselves!" sort.

This one is a little different.

The intent of this film isn't to sway folks on one side or the other. Instead the director, Darren Doane, is reaching out to people like him, who already believe law-abiding citizens should have the right to bear arms...but who don't own a gun themselves.

"I want to own a gun, I'm pro-gun, but I'm scared of guns....With this film was I wasn't going to be tracking down FBI statistics, I wasn't going to be looking at charts. I'm already for guns – I'm just scared to death of guns. I wasn't trying to convince myself guns were good or guns were bad. I just wanted to figure out what would it take for me to actually bring a gun into my house."

That, right there, is the moral of this movie - if you think gun ownership is important, if you think guns in the hands of private citizens is a good thing, if you believe guns are an important protection tool....then you should go get one too.

Doane takes us along as he and his wife try out different guns and discuss the merits of this one over that. We hear from different gun owners explain why they decided to carry a gun. We visit a gun manufacturer and see how one of the more controversial guns in America is made. And we get to peek in on a gun safety course, where the instructor goes over the legalities and ethics of gun usage.

It's here in this classroom setting that a few conversions might be made. If you're watching this with a friend who is a little, but not a lot, anti-gun, then this instructor has a story that might nudge them over just a bit. He shows a picture of the front and back torso of a 6'4", 240 pound, 8th degree black belt police officer, who got cut up by a 5'2" 58-year-old, 120 pound man. The assailant had a box cutter and a 3-inch lock blade knife, and in just 15 seconds slit up the officer all over, through his bullet proof vest. This isn't as gory as it sounds - the pictures the instructor showed aren't shown very clearly in the film - but the story itself is impacting. It doesn't take much imagination to figure out how much worse it would have been if the sizes had been reversed - what is a small guy, or woman, going to do if a big guy attacks with a knife?

Guns still scare me, but this film did a lot to convince me that (when time allows) I should really learn how to use them responsibly. Yes, they can be lethal, but most every day I use a tool that can cause just as much damage - my car - but because I've been trained, and because I use it with caution, I'm not worried about having that in my house. A gun is a tool too, and one I do want my girls to know how to use. So if I'm going to teach them, I better learn some time soon myself.

Darren Doane is a documentarian best known for his films Collision, about a series of debates between Reformed pastor Douglas Wilson and atheist provocateur Christopher Hitches, and The Free Speech Apocalypse, about Pastor Wilson's visit to Indiana University to do a talk about God's view on sexuality. These are both awesome documentaries, and if you are familiar with those, and expecting this to be like them, you might be a bit disappointed. This is a more modest effort, and, strange to say since we're talking about guns, not nearly as controversial. So take this for what it is – a solid film about guns.

The only criticism I'd have for it is that it would have benefited from being 5 minutes or more shorter - he repeated some of his points a time or two too many. That aside, this would be a very fun one to watch with a large group of friends. It'll get some interesting conversations going!

You can watch the trailer below, rent the film for $15 here, and buy the DVD for $19 here



Keep and Bear EXCLUSIVE TRAILER from Darren Doane on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Way Things Work

Animated / TV series / Family
2001 / 300+ minutes (26 episodes)
RATING 8/10

This educational series takes place on a small island in which everything appears quite modern...except for the wooly mammoths everywhere.

On Mammoth Island everything is mammoth powered. Your house is cold? A mammoth in the living room will keep things toasty warm. Need hot water for your shower? Tickle the trunk of a sleeping mammoth in just the right spot and he'll provide a warm spray. Need to deliver the mail, or coconuts, or pizzas? Mammoths are there to help!

Except, as the residents keep discovering, mammoth power has a definite downside. Mammoth pizza delivery? Too slow. Mammoth-powered house heating? Too risky - if it wakes up you may end up with a mammoth-sized hole in your living room wall.

The way each 15-minute episode works is that after a particular deficiency in mammoth power is shown, then a new resident to the Island, known as the Inventor, works with a 14-year-old island resident, Olive, to see if they can come up with something better. And that something better involves the use of machines, both simple and more complex.

For example, in the first episode they explore how inclined planes can make it easier to lift heavy loads – it's easer for the mammoths to roll boulders up a gradual slope rather than just heave them straight up. A few of the other machines and devices that get invented (or rather, re-invented) include:
  • Levers
  • Wheels and axles
  • Belts and gears
  • Pulleys
  • Springs
  • Screws
  • Engines
  • Pumps
  • Steam power
The series is aimed for Grades 3-6, but my girls, who are all Grade 1 and under, really enjoyed it. I did too. There are so many kids shows that are absolutely brainless, and I can't sit through them. But this one was a pleasure to watch - there was lots for me to learn too.

I'd guess that even my oldest girl only understood about half of the explanations - it really is intended for at least Grade 3 – but it did spark her imagination. Every show includes an invention, and she was inspired to try to make her own creative creations.

Cautions

There is only one mild caution to note: one character, Brenda, is a negative nag. She is the nay-sayer who always says the invention isn't going to work. In small doses, that's no big thing. But if you watch this series over the course of a couple weeks, like we did, it does get a bit tiresome. And, particularly with younger audiences, it might then be good to note that Brenda is not being a team-player or a good example.

I was wondering, because of all the mammoths, whether the series would bring up evolution. However, that topic is never raised. There are mammoths on this island, but no reason is ever offered as to why.

Conclusion

This is a great series for the whole family to enjoy - younger kids will love the humor, and older children and even teens and adults, can learn a little something from it. Also, the short 15-minute episodes make it a nice way to watch a moderate amount of TV - the family can watch an episode or two without running through the whole afternoon.

The series takes it's inspiration from author/illustrator David Macaulay's The Way Things Work children's book, and while I've only skimmed through it, it looks interesting too (and mammoths also have a starring role).

I should note that while The Way Things Work is a fantastic television series it is definitely not one to buy. Here in North America this 26-episode series goes for more than $500 and his marketed only to schools and libraries. That's where we got it - from our local library, where all the episodes were available, with no waiting. I've checked a few other libraries across Canada, and it's in many of them too. So check it out - our family highly recommends it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

More Buddy Davis' Amazing Adventures!

Swamp Man!
45 min / 2012
RATING: 7/10

Our family really enjoyed the first two in this series of "Buddy Davis' Amazing Adventures" (see the reviews here and here) so when another two popped up at our local library we had to check them out.

Once again Buddy is our guide as we go out and explore God's great outdoors from an explicitly Christian perspective. In Swamp Man! Buddy takes us to the Florida Everglades where he gets up close and personal with alligators, lizards, dolphins, turtles, manatees, and snakes – lots of snakes!

This is fast paced, cutting from one animal to the next every minute or two, and in between Buddy has us zooming around on a airboat, a mudboat, a motorboat and an ATV. So there's lots of action to keep kids' attention, and mom and dad are sure to learn something too. I think I enjoyed this one almost as much as my daughters – very good family viewing!

Now anyone with a snake phobia will want to give this one a miss - of all the animals we meet, these are by far the feature creature. That's why this isn't a video I'd show my pre-school kids right before they go to sleep. It's not all that scary, particularly mid-day...but alligators, bears, and snakes at bedtime don't seem a good combo.

That aside, this is great family treat - one that mom and dad and kids anywhere from 2 and up will enjoy.

Alaska!
25 min / 2015
RATING: 6/10

This time we head way up north, to Alaska! Bears are the big focus this time, as Buddy teaches us about the different species, and even shows us the damage a bear can do to a cabin (fortunately it happened while they were away!).

There is a bit of an evangelism focus in these videos, which comes out in this one when Buddy talks about his love of fishing and segues to what the Bible says about becoming "fishers of men."

Alaska! is a short adventure, at just 25 minutes, and while my kids loved it, and my wife appreciated it too, I found this one a little lacking in content and slower-paced. If your family has liked the other Buddy Davis adventures this will be worth checking out too – Buddy is a charming man – but this might not be the best one to start with.

You can buy all of these "Amazing Adventures" at www.answersingenesis.org/store/ (just search for "buddy davis amazing").



Related reviews: other Buddy Davis adventures

Davis and a robotic dinosaur assistant tackle the Flood in A Jurassic Ark Mystery
Buddy heads deep, deep underground: Extreme Caving
This is a man who looooves dinosaurs: I Dig Dinosaurs! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos

Documentary
78 min /
RATING: 7/10

I enjoyed this documentary, but I'm really glad I gave it a quick preview before trying to share it with the kids.

There was a hint on the back cover of the DVD that this might include more than stunning visuals of flamingos. There were plenty of flamingo pictures, but there was also one hyena! So was this going to be a nature film where the good guys get eaten? Yup, I know that happens in the world, but I don't know if my kids have to be exposed to that quite yet. So I gave it a fast forward viewing and found newly and not yet hatched flamingo chicks getting eaten by Matabou storks (30 minutes in), mongeese (53 min), and Hyenas (62 min). Oh, and at about the 40 minute mark we get to watch a struggling, crippled chick how is left behind to die.

So I will not be sharing this with my 6-year-old and under crew.

Who would like it? The visuals are indeed stunning – the opening shots of a sea of bobbing flamingos are exotic, strange, otherworldly.

But in addition to the shots of "nature, read in tooth and claw" the film will discourage some viewers with its slow pacing. The birds are the stars here, and flamingos, it turns out, do a lot of standing around. So action is minimal, and the camera tends to linger long over each shot. But one man's slow pacing is another's calm close-ups and patient panoramic views. A bird lover will find much to love!

Cautions

When it comes to cautions, other than the scenes where feathers are flying (and these only add up to a total of maybe 3 or 4 minutes) the only nit I can pick are a few moments in the narration of a vague mystic non-Christian spirituality. So, for example, at one point we're told:
"The story of the bird is a promise to us - Nature's affirmation. In winter or in death, in times of desolation. the rain will arrive, the call of the birds will be heard and everything, everything, can begin again"
Nothing all that disturbing. I mean, we weren't expecting anything Christian from Disney, right?

Conclusion

So who should see The Crimson Wing? This is an intriguing, visual feast best suited for documentary-loving older children or adults who already love these birds and would love to learn more.




Related reviews: on flying creatures

A fantastic Intelligent Design documentary: Flight: the Genius of Birds

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Martin Luther

Drama
105 minutes, 1953
Rating 7/10

What sort of film is Martin Luther? The sort that gets produced by a church, and yet gets nominated for an Oscar – solid theology and high production values paired together. How often has that ever happened?

It does get off to a slow start; the first couple of minutes are more documentary than drama. But when we get introduced to Niall MacGinnis as Luther, his brilliant portrayal sweeps us into the story. We follow along, starting with his tormented time in the monastery, and continue all the way through to his marriage to an ex-nun. MacGinnis captures all the contradictions of the man – even as the Reformer stands before the Diet of Worms strong and defiant he is distraught and trembling.

That's is certainly among the best Christian films ever made.

CAUTION

Though there is nothing in the film that is graphic, some scenes are psychologically intense. On the one hand, I think that would just go over the heads of most children, but for some young sensitive sorts, Luther's emotional turmoil might be too much.

GOOD SOUND IS KEY

This is a black and white film, which is a mark against it in many minds. But if you're considering showing this to your class or to your family, here's the secret to helping them get into it: make the sound your priority! In a dialogue-driven film it's the sound, much more than the visuals, that really matters.

I still remember watching this with my Grade 6 class, years ago. The screen was small - minuscule by today's standards - but this big box TV had great speakers. There was no fuzziness, no straining to understand what was being said - we could all follow it. And after 30 minutes or so, we were all hooked.

HOW IT COMPARES TO OTHER LUTHER FILMS

There are quite a number of films about Martin Luther, with at least a half dozen dramas, and more than a dozen documentaries. The best known is probably the 2003 Luther that played in major theaters, and starred Joseph Fiennes (of Shakespeare in Love fame). It is a wonderful film (and in color!) but marred by an instance or two where God's name is taken in vain. As well, it focuses a little more on Luther's external struggles with the powers that be, and a little less on his own internal struggles. That makes for more action, but less of a theological focus. So the 1953 Martin Luther is the better educational film 

There is also a 1974 Luther that is again marred by an instance or two  of God's name being taken in vain (why do Christian films do that?) and which portrays Luther's action as being motivated more by arrogance than devotion. So, again, the 1953 version is superior.

CONCLUSION

This would make a great film for a dad and mom to share with the family this Reformation Day. I've seen kids as young as 7 enjoy it, though with younger children you're going to want to break it into a few "chunks" so it spread out over two or three nights. But for those 12 an up, so long as they are "forced" to give it a half hour ("No, you can't check your smartphone while watching this") it will grab them.

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here.

And check out the trailer below.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Narnia Code

The Narnia Code
59 minutes/ 2009
RATING: 8/10

The Da Vinci Code and The Bible Code had me close to swearing off anything with the word “code” in the title, but this documentary made me glad I held off. It is based on a book of the same name that argues C.S. Lewis modeled the seven books of his Narnia series on the seven planets of the medieval cosmology.

It is an argument that has intrigued and convinced many Lewis scholars. There seems good reason to believe the Lewis did add this extra layer of meaning and artistry to the books, and that, in a bit of patient playfulness, he was content to never make mention of it, leaving it for someone – as it turned out, a certain Michael Ward – to discover 50 years later.

For a detailed look at the theory itself, viewers will need to go to the Bonus section of the DVD. The main feature focuses more on the discovery of the planetary connection, the excitement it caused, and why so many people today still get excited by what this man wrote.

This is, admittedly, a documentary that will excite only a very particular audience: Narnia lovers who are equally fascinated by the tales' author. But for them, well, this brilliantly executed BBC production will have these folk scurrying off excitedly to their bookshelves and paging, once again, through these old favorites!

You can see the trailer below and learn more about the book and documentary at www.NarniaCode.com.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Swiss Family Robinson

Drama/Adventure/Family
126 min/ 1960
RAITING: 8/10

Based on the classic 1812 Johann Wyss book, Swiss Family Robinson tells the tale of a family of five that gets shipwrecked on a tropical island after being pursued by pirates.

Life on a tropical island can be fun, with ostrich and elephant races, but work is involved too. The family has to struggle together to build a treehouse that will keep them safe from the island's tiger.

But what will keep them safe from the pirates, who are still looking for them?

CAUTIONS

The big concern in this film would be violence. While most of it is softened (a tiger, rather than maul its victims, sends them flying high into the air) there are intense scenes near the end of the film as the pirates attack that would scare young children.

There is also a snake attack that may have parents rolling their eyes (the actors seem to be grabbing the boa constrictor, rather than the constrictor grabbing them) but it had my daughters eyes bugging out. We played some of these scenes with the volume down low, so the dramatic music wouldn't have the same effect. That seemed enough to make the scenes palatable for even our four year old.

CONCLUSION

This is a good old-fashioned classic with lots of gallantry on display - it's a great film to teach boys to look out for girls. It's also a good one to get your kids appreciating older films. Some of the acting is a little wooden, but as a family film that's fine – this was never going to win an Oscar, but there is a reason it's still being watched 50 years later. So all in all a great film.



Thursday, September 15, 2016

Biology 101

Curriculum / Documentary
2012 / 277 minutes
RATING: 9/10

Solid high school science curriculum resources that aren't tainted by evolutionary assumptions are hard to come by. That's why it was so wonderful to find filmmaker Wes Olson's Biology 101 DVD series.

It proceeds from a young-earth 6-day-creation perspective, but this isn't so much a specifically creationist resource as a solidly biblical one. Olson isn't always talking about creationism and evolution, but is instead in awe of what God has done. That awe shows up in all he says.

Now there are time when matters of creation do come up. For example, in talking about genetics he throws in the quick comment that there are only three people who have not come about by the combination of their parents' DNA: Adam, made from the earth, Eve, made from Adam, and Jesus, made from Mary's DNA and the Holy Spirit. The creationist perspective also comes out in how this look into earth's various lifeforms is broken up. Olson has ordered the segments by what day in the creation week that the organism was made. So, we start with plants on the third day, then look at aquatic and avian creatures which were made on the fifth day, and so on.

It looks good

Production values are solid throughout. There are piles of pictures and film clips of the creatures being discusses, and Olson, as narrator, has a delightfully dry wit. This is evidenced in the many short extra bits of information he includes, such as this:
"Ostriches are the largest birds, standing over eight feet talk, and the fastest two legged runner, sprinting nearly 45 miles per hour. Roadrunners, on the other hand, have a top speed of only 17 mils per hour, chasing lizards and snakes. Coyotes have a top speed of nearly 30 miles per hour, almost twice the speed of a road runner. Just in case you were wondering."
And sometimes it is the extra bits of trivia that serve to make his points more memorable. In talking about recessive and dominant genes he noted how dark hair was dominant over light, and,
"...incredibly the gene for having 6 fingers on one hand is dominant over the gene for having only five fingers on one hand, but practically everybody carries two copies of the five-fingered gene, which is why you almost never see someone who has six fingers on one hand."
Six fingers is dominant? I'm going to remember that. And in remembering it, I'm going to remember the difference between recessive and dominant genes.

Contents

This is meant as a high school biology course. However, it is only 4 and a half hours long, and while it comes with a 118 page textbook (on pdf, stored on one of the DVDs) it is less comprehensive than a high school biology course would need to be. So this would make a wonderful foundation for a course, but other materials would be needed to supplement it. The 9 episodes vary in length from as short as 15 minutes to as long as 44 minutes.

DISK 1
1. Introduction: Defining life and an explanation of organism classification systems
2. Plants

DISK 2
3. Aquatic creatures
4 Avian creatures

DISK 3
5. Land animals
6. More land animials
7. Mankind
8. More on Mankind

DISK 4
9. A brief history of the study of biology, the origins of genetics, and the moral questions involved in remaking our own genome

Audience

The course material is for ages 15 and up, but the content is appropriate for all ages. This focus on all-ages appropriateness does mean the discussion of our reproduction system is done in the broadest of strokes. We learn about how children are a combination of their mom's and dad's genes but no mention is made of exactly how those genes get mixed.

I'd highly recommend this to any Christian high school science teacher – whether they use it in whole or part, there's sure to be lots of it they will want to show their classes. It would also be an excellent supplement for any Christian child attending a secular high school; this is the perspective they'd be missing.

Families with an interest in this subject matter might also find this worth buying. I should note that while I gave this an 9 rating, that was for how it rates as an an educational resource – I can't think of any better. But from a solely entertainment focus, this would only score a 7. If you want to learn biology, this a wonderful method. If you want to be entertained, there are many more entertaining films out there.

You can find out more at the Biology 101 site and check out the 14 minute first segment and introduction down below. The 4-DVD Biology 101 set is $70 US on the website, but seems to be cheaper at Christianbooks.com and Amazon.com.

Chemistry 101 is even better

Wes Olson has also produced a Physics 101 series and a Chemistry 101 series. I haven't seen the Physics 101, but have had a chance to look at the Chemistry 101 series. I thought it was even better. Olson's approach to teaching chemistry is to lay it out as it was discovered – we go through it historically, learning about one discovery after another. I was rather surprised about how much of our knowledge of chemistry has only been discovered in the last 150 years.

This historical approach is brilliant and fascinating. I watched this one simply because I couldn't stop. But at 11 hours long it is a little over twice the material of the Biology 101 series....so I'm not done it yet.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Jungle Beat - fun for the kids that will have the adults laughing too

Family / Animated
65 min
RATING: 10/10 

I'm always on the hunt for films or shows my kids will enjoy that I'll enjoy too. There aren't many that fit that bill, but Jungle Beat sure does. This is comic genius at its best!

The videos are all 5 minute stand alone pieces featuring one jungle creature. Our favorite is probably the giraffe, or the turtle, but the bee, monkey and hedgehog are popular too.

While the videos do have sound, they remind me of the very best silent film comedies from Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin, because they are entirely dialogue-free (after all, animals don't talk, right?) so all the humor is physical. Let me give you an idea of some of the scenarios:
  • What's a poor turtle to do when it gets an itch, but its shell won't let it scratch? Maybe it should just slip off its shell? But like a pair of tight pants, his shell comes off easily, but doesn't go back on nearly so quickly. This leads to some hi-speed hijinks when the turtle has to surf on his shell to evade an eagle that wants to eat the now-exposed turtle.
  • What's a poor firefly to do when it wants to catch some sleep, but its own light is keeping it awake?
  • What's a poor giraffe to do when he accidentally head-butts the moon and knocks it to the ground, where it breaks to pieces?
Each of the stories has a creative set-up, and all come with a happy ending. I don't know if Jungle Beat's creators are Christian, but I suspect so, because they've gone to great lengths to make sure this is family-friendly. So far there are more than two dozen short videos in total, which amounts to more than two hours of viewing, so gather round the family - you are in for a treat!

SEASON ONE

The producers have collected all 13 Season One episodes into one 65-minute video that they've made available for free on YouTube (and which you can watch below). From our two-year-old on up to mom and dad we all love them. We just wished there were more...



SEASON TWO

...and now there are! A second season, of another 13 episodes has been produced, and also made available as a 65-minute compilation, here below.




SEASON THREE

A third season is also available, but not on YouTube yet. So far as I can tell, only Americans can access it online at Amazon.com by clicking here, where the season (mislabeled as Season One) can be purchased for $8.99 (or watched for free if you have Amazon Prime).

You can also check out some screen saver downloads, and a trailer for a very fun-looking Jungle Beat game app (I haven't played it, but think we might buy this one - it's just $2.99) at their website: www.junglebeat.tv

I can't say enough good things about this series. It is so very clever, and other than a few moments of peril, which might have our two-year-old a little nervous, it is entirely safe. Two thumbs very enthusiastically up – I give this a 10 out of 10!

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Peanuts Movie

Animated/Family /Children
2015 / 88 minutes
RATING: 8/10

This is the happy ending we were all waiting for.

Peanuts was always a little hit and miss for me. I liked Linus and Snoopy and PigPen and Marcie, but found it downright depressing when once again Lucy would get good ol' Charlie Brown to fall for her disappearing football trick.

That's why this film is better than comic. It has the strip's funniest bits (we even find out how the Red Baron first became Snoopy's nemesis) minus the melancholy. Sure, Charlie Brown still has more than his share of misfortunes, but he also has good friends – including a far more loyal version of Snoopy – to help pick him back up and push him to keep on trying.

The storyline revolves around a new kid who has just moved across the street. She has red-hair and very good judgment, and from the moment Charlie Brown sets eyes on her he wants to figure out a way to go talk to her. That proves to be a very difficult, largely due to the difficulties Charlie Brown sets up for himself. But with some help from Linus, Snoopy, Marcie and others, our hapless hero learns how to bravely go where Charlie Brown has never gone before.

Cautions

Our family isn't up for anything all that scary, so I was wondering how the girls would react to the scenes where Snoopy finds the Red Baron. It turned out that the comic setting made it very clear to our little ones that this was not at all real, so they weren't phased at all.

The only cautions I can come up with would be of the most minor sort. Charlie Brown falls in love at first sight and continues to obsess about a girl he has never even talked to. But of course, he's also 6, and kids do dumb things sometimes.

Also, near the end of the film Charles, frustrated by how circumstances were conspiring against him. seems to say a little prayer: "I'm just asking for a little help once in my life." Afterwards he gets what would seem some Divine intervention – he gets tangled up in a kite which pulls him up and over the crowd that was blocking his way. Now God is never specifically mentioned, so Charlie Brown might just be talking to "the Fates" but considering the many (but muddled) references to God in the original strip, it would seem more logical to conclude Charlie Brown is actually talking to God here. If so, his "Don't I deserve a break?" plea shows that Charles is not a Calvinist. At the same time, it doesn't get anywhere near being blasphemous.

Highlights

While Charlie Brown has always been a man of persistence, here his many positive qualities are finally recognized. (SPOILER ALERT) One of the key scenes in the film has Charlie Brown having to choose between being honest and being popular, and the really refreshing take here is that our good ol' Charles doesn't even hesitate before doing the right thing. There's lots of material here that would make good fodder for discussions about caring for our siblings,  standing up to peer pressure, and also recognizing our own gifts.

Conclusion

The producers have made a wonderful homage to Schulz's work, and, in fact, actually improved on it. A Charlie Brown who doesn't have to wait 50 years for a little happiness is a wonderful step up on the original!