Monday, October 9, 2017

Torchlighters: the Martin Luther Story

Animated / Family
2016 / 34 minutes
Rating: 7/10

The strength of this film is its short length. At just 34 minutes, it can be shown in the space of a single school period. For the pre-teens this is intended for that might be just the right length, with the quick pace, and colorful animation sure to grab most students’ attention.

But the biggest weakness of this short film is….its length. It is far too short to tell this story with the gravitas it needs – Luther’s spiritual wrestling is dealt with in just 7 minutes! It also ends abruptly, with Luther busy translating the Bible into German in Wartburg Castle. The narrator then spends just a single minute summing up the whole of the second half of Luther's life. And then the credits role.

CAUTIONS

There are a just a couple cautions to consider, with the most striking involving a prophetic dream by Frederick the Elector, Martin Luther's long-time protector. After getting kidnapped (by friends, for his own safety's sake) Luther is told that the very night he nailed up his 95 Theses, Frederick had a dream about a monk writing on a church door with a quill that was so long it extended all the way to Rome "where it toppled the crown off of a lion." This is said to be the reason the Frederick was willing to defend his rebellious trouble-making monk: God had told him ahead of time that his monk was going to topple the pope. But, according to The problem? According to Thomas A. Fudge's biography Jan Hus, this story is found in many forms from 1591 on, but that is near 75 years after the events in question. So is this dream fact or fiction? The movie portrays it as unquestioned fact, but I think we have reason to wonder if this might just be a popular myth.

And, at the film's conclusion there is  a passing, two or three second shot of a title page illustration from one of Luther's books depicting Christ on the cross, with Luther and John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony kneeling below. I make mention of it, for any who consider this a violation of the Second Commandment.

CONCLUSION

This is a great film for children who don't yet have the attention span for a longer Luther film. It is well done, and will keep most children engaged. But for children with the attention span for it, and teenagers and up, the better film to watch is the Oscar-nominated, 105-minute, 1953, Martin Luther, which I review here.

Americans can rent or buy the digital version of The Martin Luther Story here, and Canadians can buy it on DVD here. You can check out the trailer below.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Newtons' Workshop

Children's TV series
1997 / 226 minutes
Rating: 7/10

That stars of this children's "edutainment" show are most certainly Grandma and Grandpa Newton, who have more spare time and are quirkier than any grandparents you know. Over the course of this 8-episode series, this set of seniors is ready to help any time their grandkids have a question or a problem. 

What kind of help?

Well, in Episode 1, when granddaughter Trisha and her friend Megan decide to do a science project on "world building" Grandpa Newton just happens to have a workshop full of mechanical models that show how wondrously God has designed this planet

And in Episode 4, when an astronaut's visit has Trisha curious about space, Grandpa helps puts the solar system in perspective. He creates a scale model in which the Sun is the size of a beachball, and Earth is almost a soccer field away.

It's fast-paced, funny, and has my daughters' attention even after repeated viewings. 

What I like is that they teach science from a conservative Christian perspective, which isn't surprising considering these are produced by the generally Calvinist, Moody Bible Institute. And, while I'm not up for quite as many viewings as my kids, these are entertaining enough that I don't mind seeing the repeats now and again.

CAUTIONS

That said, I did have a caution to share. In Episode 8, "The Pollution Solution," Grandma and Grandpa tackle the problem of pollution, and while most of this episode is sensible and helpful, there is a dash of confusion and a spoonful of tokenism mixed in. 

It begins with Dad calling a family meeting about the way everyone is wasting water. But he misrepresents the problem: he make it seem like long showers can contribute to drought, but shower water heads down pipes that will eventually return it right back to the lake or river it came from. Waste is happening here, but it isn't contributing to any drought. What's going down the drain, never to be seen again, is mom and dad's money, paying for water that isn't needed. 

The tokenism comes in when Tim and Trisha end up having a trash contest to see who can generate the least amount of trash over a week. What isn't addressed is that recycling costs money - it takes resources too - so some recycling isn't always the responsible choice

We see a similar sort of tokenism when the Newtons briefly address global warming. This episode was made 20 years ago so, compared to anything today, the doom and gloom is a lot less pronounced. But we do get fed today's typical non-solutions: Tim and Trisha suggest global warming can be addressed by "walking on short errands, or riding your bike, or carpooling to work." Sounds good, and you'll hear suggestions like that made today too. But it misrepresents the radical nature of the changes global warming proponents are really after. It isn't a matter of more bikes, but fewer children. Now, if the show's producers had heard that sort of argument 20 years ago I think they might have seen through it. They'd know from the Bible that children are a blessing to be embraced, so when the world says the opposite – that they are a curse to be avoided – that gives Christians reason to be skeptical. 

That said, Grandpa Newton has some good things to say in this episode too, and I think it can be watched to some benefit so long as mom and dad are there to talk their kids through it. But if you aren't buying this as a package set, then DVD #4 might be worth giving a miss.

CONCLUSION

So who would like this best? While the producers recommend this for 7-12, I'd lower that on both sides by about 2 years. This is best suited for 5-10, although Mom or Dad can enjoy it too.

Overall this is just a fun, clean, biblically-based, science lesson wrapped up as family TV series. It entertained our family and educated them too - not a bad combination!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the Mystery of Molecular Machines

Documentary
60 minutes / 2016
RATING; 7/10

Revolutionary is a fantastic documentary about what a quiet professor did to get Darwinian evolutionists very, very upset with him.

Michael Behe is not a creationist – he seems to believe in an old earth and that some sort of evolution may well have occurred.

So why would Darwinians be so very disturbed by him? Because Behe doesn't believe the world came about by chance. While studying the human cell he realized the microscopic machines within it are so intricate and complex it's inconceivable they could have come about via only random mutation and natural selection.

The cell's outboard motor and "irreducible complexity"

While Behe is the subject of this documentary, the real "star" of the show is one of those "micro-machines" that so fascinated him: the bacterial flagellum motor. As the documentary's narration explains:
"Perhaps the most amazing propulsion system on our entire planet is one that exists in bacteria. It is called the flagellum, a miniature propellor driven by a motor with many distinct mechanical parts, each made of proteins. The flagellum's motor resembles a human-designed rotary engine. It has a universal joint, bushings, a stator, and a rotor. It has a drive shaft and even its own clutch and braking system. In some bacteria the flagellum motor has been clocked at a 100,000 revolutions per minute. The motor is bi-directional and can shift from forward to reverse almost instantaneously. Some scientists suggest it operates at near-100% energy efficiency. All of this is done on a microscopic scale that is hard to imagine. The diameter of the flagellum motor is no more than 5 millionths of a centimeter."
In his book, Darwin's Black Box, Behe argued that Darwinian evolution could not account for micro-machines like this because Darwin required all complex living things to have evolved through a step-by-step process from simpler lifeforms. Behe couldn't see how these micro-machines could have developed in stages. They were, as he put it, "irreducibly complex" – take one piece out, and they don't simply function less efficiently, but instead seize functioning at all.

The flagellum motor is astonishing, and yet it's only one of many "molecular machines" scientists have discovered in the last several decades, all of them operating with a single cell. Some of the others include: "energy-producing turbines, information-copying machines, and even robotic walking motors."

(The title of Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box, is a reference to how, when Darwin presented his theory,  he didn't know how incredibly complex the inner workings of the cell were – they were only a "black box" to him. Would Darwin have ever suggested his theory if he'd had an inkling of how complex even the simplest life really is?)

The documentary shows that since Behe first poised the problem of "irreducible complexity" many have tried to address it, but with no real success.

Cautions

The ID movement is sometimes caricatured as being creationism in disguise. But it is made up of a very diverse group of scientists. There are Christians, cultists and atheists too, and while it seems most believe in an ancient earth, there are also 6-day creationists. What unites the ID movement is the shared belief that the evidence shows there must have been intelligence – an Intelligent Designer – behind the formation of the universe.

But because they are trying to avoid being labelled as a religious movement they won't name the "Intelligent Designer." This is the ID movement's greatest flaw: in this refusal they are not giving God the glory that is His due!

Since the "good guys" in this film hold to a wide variety of views on the age of the Earth, Who made it, and to what extent He made use of evolution, this is not a film for the undiscerning.

Conclusion

That said, this is an important and well-made documentary. Revolutionary shows how Behe became one of the fathers of the Intelligent Design (ID), and in documenting his history, they also provide a overview of ID movement itself. That's the best reason to see this film – to get a good introduction to a movement that questions unguided, Darwinian evolution, on scientific grounds. In just one hour it traces the impact Behe has had on the Darwinian debate since his pivotal book, Darwin's Black Box, was published two decades ago. There's a lot packed in here, and it is well worth repeated viewings.

While Revolutionary is important and has some wonderful computer animations of the inner workings of the cell, it is not for everyone. Since the central figure is a mild-mannered sort, it just isn't going to grab the attention of children or other casual viewers.

However, for anyone interested in the sciences and the origins debate, it is a must-see!

And – bonus! – it is now available to be viewed online for free (see below) and if you want to explore further, their website – http://revolutionarybehe.com – has a wealth of information.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Gruffalo

Animated / Family
27 min / 2009
RATING: 8/10

How can a mouse meet up with a hungry fox, snake, and owl, and live to tell the tale? It helps that he has a monstrously big friend who is just about to meet him. And a fox, or a snake, or an owl, wouldn't dare eat a small mouse who has such a big friend!

But...what if they found out what the mouse knows: "There's no such things as a Gruffalo"?

Or is there?

This short film, based on the book of the same name, is a clever tale about a mouse who thinks his way out of trouble. It is beautifully rendered, visually and musically, with the only concern being that everyone wants to turn this little mouse into a little morsel. So in our household the pause button had to be used a few times to calm some anxious viewers. For those under eight, especially if they don't watch much TV, there is a little bit of tension here. In fact, kids under three might find it just too scary.

But it does all work out in the end, and reassuring any little ones of that might help them make it through.

So, two thumbs up for this short, fun, and clever story. Who could ask for more?

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.