Thursday, March 22, 2012

Merrill's Marauders

Drama / War
98 minutes; 1962
Rating: 6 / 10

Merrill's Marauders - the 5307th Composite Unit (provisional) - was a US combat unit that fought in South-East Asia during World War II.

In the course of five months in 1944 they trekked 750 miles through some of the worst jungle terrain in Burma, and fought in five major battle and countless other skirmishes. In addition to combat losses, their forces were diminished by typhus, malaria and dysentery, and further weakened by low supplies - the 2,800-calorie, daily ration packs they were provided would have been sufficient for most other forces, but not men asked to hike, climb and hack their way through the hot, humid, Burmese jungle.

The force, named after their commander, General Frank Merrill, made their name by taking on larger, more heavily armed Japanese forces and beating them, again, and again. They continued on, without reinforcements or rest until, by the time of their last battle, at Myitkyina, only 200 of the original force of 2,750 were present. The Wikipedia entry notes that at the end of this final battle only two "had never been hospitalized with wounds or major illness."

Merrill's Marauders is a mostly accurate account of this fighting force, and how they were asked to battle on, beyond endurance. This is a good story and great film for anyone interested in World War II. The reason I gave it only a 6 out of 10 is because the many battle scenes in the film are, by today's standards, quite unrealistic: we see almost no gore, with enemy soldiers simply falling down when shot. So anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan or some other modern, ultra-realistic war film, will find it hard to take these battles seriously. But this lack of gore is also a selling feature. It means this film is appropriate for a much younger audience - fathers could watch this with their sons, to show them a piece of history. That said, the battles do still involve explosions, lots of shooting, and of course, soldiers dying, so they will still be too intense for the very young.

One other caution - while the language in here is pretty clean - no one takes God's name in vain - there is one or two uses of "damn" and "hell."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

unPLANNED

Documentary
62 minutes; 2011
Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Abby Johnson was raised pro-life but became the head of one of the United States’ biggest Planned Parenthood abortion clinics. In 2009 she left her job and walked down the street into the offices of Coalition for Life, a pro-life group that regularly picketed outside her clinic. She wanted their help; she wanted out; she wanted forgiveness.

This is an eye-opening documentary in two entirely different ways.

First, unPLANNED shows us how a young woman can be pulled into the abortion movement. When Abby Johnson went off to college she got involved with a man several years older than her. When she became pregnant and didn’t know what to do, this boyfriend had a ready “solution.” Soon after, when she came across a Planned Parenthood display on campus, she still told them she was pro-life, but it didn’t take much for them to sway her. She wanted them to be right; she didn’t want to think of herself as a killer. Soon she was volunteering at the abortion clinic, along with many others sincerely thought they were helping women.

But outside the clinic fence there were pro-life Christians praying. They were praying for the unborn babies, praying for their mothers, and praying for Abby too.

The second eye-opening aspect of this documentary is the way it shows us how the pro-life movement, by God’s grace, won this woman over. Gracious volunteers who spoke the truth and were clearly motivated by love spent years talking with Abby, through the fence. One even brought her flowers! Then, in late 2009, she, for the first time, helped with an ultrasound-guided abortion of a 13-week-old unborn baby. Though she had been told that fetuses at this stage could not feel pain, she saw the fetus jerking and squirming to get away from the vacuum tube. Watching the child get ripped apart on the ultrasound screen brought her to a moment of horrifying clarity.

I was just watching, in shock, and just horror, almost, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing…. I couldn’t believe it. I could believe that - I couldn’t believe that I had believed a lie for that long. That I had lived a lie for that long. That I had spoken so many lies, to so many women, for so long.

She didn’t know quite what to do, but only a few days later she was at the doors of Coalition for Life asking for their help.

Her story hit the national airwaves when the Planned Parenthood clinic, in what seems an attempt at intimidating her, sued her. Their case was thrown out of court, but it helped publicize Abby’s departure, and the story of a former abortion clinic director becoming pro-life was too good for any news organization to ignore. We don’t always understand the means by which God further his plans, but in this instance what Planned Parenthood intended for evil, God very quickly and very clearly turned to good: the news coverage allowed Abby Johnson to speak up for the unborn to a national audience.

While I would recommend this film to anyone over 12, I do want to add a couple cautions.
First, this is a fantastic pro-life resource, but shouldn’t be used as a theological one – many of the interviewees talk about God from a distinctly Arminian perspective, which isn’t surprising since many are undoubtedly Catholic (including Abby Johnson).

Second, as my father-in-law noted about the book this film is based on, it lacks an appropriate sense of gravitas. Though she acknowledges she sinned horribly, the true horror of what Abby Johnson was involved in isn’t really conveyed in the film. The reaction of her pro-life family, and pro-life husband to her abortion clinic work contributes to this lack of gravitas – they make it clear they disapprove, but their daughter’s/wife’s ongoing involvement in the murder of countless children doesn’t prompt them to anything more than muted expressions of disapproval. It hardly seems like she could be doing anything too wrong if this all the reaction she gets from her friends and family.

I’ll conclude by noting I’m being a bit overly cautious with these cautions and I hope this doesn’t leave you wondering if the film is any good. It is wonderful! What a story – praise God for the wonders He can perform! It is also a great resource for anyone involved in the pro-life movement, and to those who are not, but are starting to recognize that they really should be! I highly recommend it (and have already seen it 5 times!).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry

Family / Drama
96 minutes; 2010
RATING: 5/10

In the summer of 1970 three boys develop a friendship with an elderly man, Jonathan Sperry, who teaches them about the necessity of living out, and spreading God’s Word.

The first time I watched The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry I stopped about ten minutes in – the three principal child actors weren’t very good. Not horrible, but awkward enough to get in the way of the story.

But when I shared my thoughts with a friend, he encouraged me to watch the whole thing, and instead of focusing on the acting, look at what else the film had to offer. And it does have a lot to offer  - this is a “message film” that uses storytelling to teach Christian morals. The lessons the three boys learn from Mr. Sperry include how:

-       important it is to share the Bible with everyone we know
-       we should look to older godly people to mentor us
-       we should respond to bullies by using Matt. 5:38-42: “If your enemy takes a piece of your pizza, offer him two.”

In a particularly illuminating conversation, Mr. Sperry teaches the boys that God’s love is evidenced in the Bible’s laws and restrictions.

Mark: “The Lord is interested in the girls we like?
Mr. Sperry: “Absolutely The Lord is interested in everything in our lives!”
Albert: “Yeah, I know the Bible is always saying, don’t do this, don’t do that”
Mr. Sperry: “I never look at it that way. Now the bible says not to steal. Would you like anyone stealing from you Mark?
Mark: “No”
Mr. Sperry: “Well, I guess that’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it?”

There is a value to these sorts of "message" films, especially when we take them as such. This isn't a great film, acting-wise, but is pretty impressive as a means of teaching a moral lesson - a pleasant way of getting a conversation started with our kids about the importance of sharing God's Word.

But let’s dwell on the acting for a moment. Christian films often have problems when it comes to “believability” – the storyline and acting often don’t ring true. But as Jonathan Sperry concluded I became quite a bit less critical, because the closing credits told us what happened to the boys after they grew up – one became a pastor, another a radio station owner and another a police officer. This must have been based on real events and I have a lot more leeway then. If a film story seems a bit too easy, or too good to be true – say, the baseball team that is made up of losers that wins it all – but I know it is based on a real story, then I just go with it, and turn off my inner critic. After all, it really happened! So sure, Mr. Sperry seems too nice to be authentic, and the bully in this story has a change of heart that happens a bit too quickly, but if this was based on real events, who am I to say this is unrealistic?

However, the film's closing, by giving the impression that these were real people, is misleading. The opening of the film actually states that these are entirely fictional events. And as a fictional piece, my criticisms pop up again. Like the fictional baseball team of losers that just wins, wins and wins, the fictional wonderful Christian man that does everything right is more than a bit unrealistic. This is a flaw common to many Christian films – Christians who are too perfect. We make ourselves look too good, and we need to work on that.

So, a pleasant family film, though some of Mr. Sperry's lessons do have the strong Arminian overtones that parents should point out. I give it a 5 out of 10 for entertainment, noting that there are better "message" films out there, including one by this same director called Time Changer. But this will make for a nice evening with the kids.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Free online film: Programming of Life

Documentary
44 minutes, 2011?

This is a critique of the insufficiency of random chance as any sort of explanation for the complexity of life. This is basically an Intelligent Design presentation, so it argues against evolution, rather than arguing for creation. Still, it makes a pretty compelling case that information has to come from somewhere, and that we have a lot of information - our programming for life - packaged inside us. So where did it come from? This is clearly a presentation intended to be palatable in public schools, so they don't answer that question with the obvious answer - God - but this answer is inescapable nonetheless.

There is a lot to chew on here, so you may want to watch it a few times to properly digest it all. Fantastic computer animation aid in making this a painless educational journey. I would recommend Programming of Life to anyone interested in the origins debate, including those that are already quite familiar - even they will find something new and of interest here. You can find out more at their website, ProgrammingOfLife.com, including previewing the book the documentary is based on, and you can watch the complete film below.