Thursday, October 14, 2021

Odd Squad: The Movie

Children's / Family
65 minutes / 2016
Rating: 7/10

Odd Squad is an organization founded to correct the strange, the weird, and most especially the odd, wherever they might occur around the world. The organization itself is odd in that it is run entirely by children and even babies.

There's an educational aspect, with basic math and logic used to solve most problems. There's also a James Bond vibe, with agents, cartoonish villains, gadgets galore, the science types who invent them, and there's a leader known only by her letter, "Miss O." But, of course, this being a children's show there isn't any of Bond's violence and sex.

Odd Squad, the TV show, has been in production for 8 years, which has resulted in child actors aging out of their roles. So since 2014, there have been three "seasons," each with its own set of agents. Odd Squad: The Movie involves the first and second sets teaming up for the first time (which was very exciting for our girls).

So who do they have to battle? Well, it turns out, nobody. A new rival adult-based agency, the Weird Team, is dealing with all things weird and odd so quickly that Odd Squad doesn't have any cases to solve. So the film begins with Odd Squad disbanding. How's that for an unexpected twist!

However, Weird Team may not be quite as effective as they first seemed. Their fixes are coming unfixed... or maybe they were never really fixed in the first place! Whatever the case may be, it's clear the world still needs Odd Squad.

Cautions

There aren't any notable cautions for the film, so the only quibbles would be about the TV show that spawned it. In the 20 or so episodes we've watched so far (out of more than 100) one dealt with the number 13 and bad luck. The story was actually about addition – they were finding all sorts of ways that basketball players' uniforms could add up to 13 –and the bad luck was of a goofy sort, but we still hit the pause button so we could discuss the idea of luck with our kids. In a couple of other episodes, there was mention made about the organization being around for millions of years, which presumes the evolutionary time scale. But, so far, that's really it.

Conclusion

The film is goofy and creative, and especially fun because it had the two teams working together. While the target audience is in the 6-10 age range, it'll be a great one for a family movie night.

To get a feel for Odd Squad, here's an excerpt from the movie, with two agents dancing their way through a field of deadly lasers to some good old ragtime music (or you can watch this full episode from the show).

Thursday, October 7, 2021

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Documentary
2020 / 112 minutes
Rating: 8/10

This is a great, free, introduction to Postmillennialism, a particular view about how God will bring about the end of the world.

In talking about "Postmil," the documentary also compares and contrasts it with other popular "eschatological" or "end times" views, including Amillennialism and Premillennialism. There are big differences between these three, but they all get their names from the Millennium, a thousand-year period mentioned repeatedly in Revelation 20, starting with the chapter's opening verses:

"Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while."

In brief what the three camps believe is:

Premillennialists: Christ will return before (or "pre") this thousand year period. There are two main divisions in this group, between Historic premillennialists (which would include John Piper) and Dispensationalists which include Tim LaHaye, author of the Left Behind series.

Amillennialists: The Millennium is symbolic, not literal (the "a" in Amillennial means "not") so it isn't a specifically one thousand year period. It is understood to be happening right now, with Satan bound after Christ's First Coming, and it will end with Christ's Second Coming.

Postmillennialists: Christ will return after the thousand years have passed, when the whole world has been Christianized.

Of these three, the most popular is Premillennialism, though not in our Reformed circles which is split between the other two, with the larger group being the Amills.

I don't have a poll to back this, but I think it'd be safe to say the largest group of Christians don't really hold to any end times view, with most of us skipping over the Book of Revelation altogether. That's what makes this documentary essential viewing. God has a lot to say about his plans for this Earth and how He will bring about His triumphant return, so even if some confusion exists, we should be eager to listen.

On Earth as it is in Heaven has at least three major themes.

1. It's a historic understanding

In making the argument for Postmil, the documentary spends most of its against time addressing Dispensationalism, a subset of Premillennialism. 

In one clip from Larry King's CNN show, we see Dispensationalist Tim LaHaye argue that his view is the literal view. Many readers are likely young earth creationists who would also describe themselves as holding to a literal view of the Bible. Does that mean we should be Dispensationalists too? Well, what LaHaye means by literal isn't what we mean by literal. Kenneth Gentry explains that reading the Bible literally shouldn't mean interpreting the Bible's 66 books all the same way – it would be a mistake to read poetry, parables, allegory, hyperbole, and other genres the Bible uses, all in a literalistic fashion. We'll treat the opening chapters of Genesis as literal history, but when Wisdom is referred to as a woman in Proverbs 8, we understand her to be a symbol. One problem with Dispensationalism is that it frequently treats what is meant to be symbolic as being literal.

Another problem is that while there is a historic type of Premillennialism, the more popular Dispensationalism has a very recent origin, going back just a couple hundred years. In contrast, we're told of Postmil's historic roots, and how it was popular among the Puritans. Other notable Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards, and more recently, R.C. Sproul, were also postmillennial.

2. It's an optimistic outlook

The film delves into a lot of texts, including the one its title comes from in the Lord's Prayer. Matt. 6:10 reads:

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On Earth as it is in Heaven.

One way to summarize the film is as an exploration of how this petition is to be understood. Jesus instructed us to pray this, but why then are we often pessimistic about God's kingdom, and His will, being accomplished here on Earth? Yes, we know His kingdom will reign eventually – at Christ's final coming Heaven and Earth will both follow God's will perfectly. But is that all that this petition is about? Or is it a request that we're making to God about now too, and the future, and at Christ's return?

To put it another way, do we believe we are living in a post-Christian age or a pre-Christian age? Most believers seem to think things are getting worse and worse. However, as texts are explored, the film provides a biblical basis for an optimistic understanding of how God's Gospel will triumph here on Earth. Rather than living among the last vestiges of a formerly Christian culture, God's good news will be preached and will spread, disciples will be made, and the world will turn to God in repentance.

3. It's God as King, not the Church

On Earth also offers an important clarification about the Postmil expectations for this coming Kingdom of God. It is not going to be the Church ruling the State. It will instead be the Church teaching and discipling Christians, and those Christians then seeking to serve God and obey His will in every aspect of their lives... including the civic realm. So after a country turns to God they would forbid abortion because God says "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13). But this wouldn't be the Church ruling the State, but rather God's rule over the State finally being recognized.

Caution

While the film tries to be fair, it is making a case for one particular view. So if this is your first exposure to end-times discussions, you should note the advice Prov. 18:17 presents, and seek out further information.

One great resource, as mentioned in the film, is Steve Gregg's Revelation: Four Views, A Parallel Commentary, in which commentary for four different end-times views are listed for each verse of Revelation. Another helpful introductory book is Darrell L. Bock's Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, where he's enlisted defenders of Pre, Post, and Amillennialism to debate and discuss their differing views.

If you'd prefer audio/video to a book, then you'll like "An Evening of Eschatology" that John Piper hosted about a decade back. His two-hour round-table talk featured three different end-times views: Jim Hamilton for Historic Premillennialism (the view that Piper also shares), Sam Storms for Amillennialism, and Douglas Wilson for Postmillennialism.

Conclusion

Will you be convinced? Well, in my own case this is the start of an exploration and not the end, so I certainly appreciate the many texts cited. This is a documentary to watch with your Bible in hand, and your remote's pause button at the ready.

My own interest in eschatology is related to the fruit I've seen that follows the different views. As the film shows, the pessimistic Dispensational view lends itself to only short-term thinking. If the world could end at any moment, then why spend time building Christian institutions and infrastructure for the future? Or as was said, who polishes the brass on a sinking ship? I remember a story about a Bible college president explaining why they had built their campus with wood, rather than stone – they didn't want to give the pagans stone buildings. His presumption was that his institution would eventually be lost to the world.

The Amill view most prevalent in my own Reformed churches is generally pessimistic but hasn't abandoned Kingdom-building projects. That might be most evident in the Christian schools we've built everywhere we have a congregation. They might not be stone, but there's a lot of sturdy cinder block being used! However, if we think the world is going to get worse, then why are we "polishing the brass"? Maybe the answer is our assurance of Christ's ultimate victory. It might also be in keeping with a thought, attributed to Martin Luther (probably incorrectly), that if the Lord was returning tomorrow, it would still be worth planting an apple tree today because it could still be done to God's glory.

If we're keeping God's glory first in our minds then there is a sense in which our end-time views don't matter nearly as much. Whether pessimistic Amill or optimistic Postmill, if either are focussed on glorifying God they may well engage with culture, build businesses, and start up schools in ways that are nearly indistinguishable from each other.

And yet, the fruit of Postmil's optimistic outlook can be seen in the lives of a David Livingstone, who explored Africa with the thought of preparing the way for the missionaries that would follow him years later. His work was for a future he expected to happen – God's Word spread and gratefully received throughout Africa – but which he knew he wouldn't live to see. His goal was to be a small part of a long-term strategy for successful Kingdom building.

Where our end-time views might also be relevant is in our weakness. Humanly speaking, if a fight comes to us, and we're convinced we're bound to lose, doesn't it make sense to delay the fight for as long as we can, to put off defeat for as long as possible? That's where pessimism can take us, to a shameful "peace in our time" approach that hands off our battles to our children. That's the temptation we'll need to watch out for any time government or other cultural forces come after our churches, our schools, or our families. Instead of defeatism, we'll need to fix our eyes on God and realize that we can glorify Him by fighting for what is right, whether we win or lose. Of course, the Postmil believer has his own sinful tendency to watch out for. Believing that Christians can actually win some or most of these battles, he might be liable to start unnecessary fights.

The most important point then is to never lose sight of God's glory: that is the reason we were created, and it is our privilege to proclaim His Gospel. Whatever we think of the end times, all Christians should be ultimately optimistic, knowing that Christ has already paid for our sins, already conquered death, and presently sits triumphant at the right hand of God the Father.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Pride and Prejudice (2003)

Romance/Comedy
104 min / 2003
Rating: 8/10

When a book is adapted for the screen, readers want it to be as close to the book as possible. So let's begin this review with a heads up: that did not happen here.

The central plot remains the same – these are women "in need of a husband" – but the setting has been updated to the modern-day USA, with five girlfriends all sharing a house just off-campus. Other departures include how the first love interest, Charles Bingley, came by his wealth: selling classical music CDs for dogs, and marketing them via late-night TV infomercials. And he drives a motor scooter. Oh, and Mr. Collins' proposal now has him make the compelling argument: "Elizabeth, we've been commanded to multiply and replenish the earth."

So if you aren't up for a light, silly treatment of your favorite book, this is not for you. That said, I do think it is for most everyone else. And if you've ever wished that someone today could write something like it, well, this is "something like it" indeed.

This version also adds an element glaringly absent from the book and every film version: a car chase! 

Caution

There aren't many cautions to offer because, as it turns out, this was made by Mormons. Consequently, the violence amounts to a single fistfight played for comic effect. There's no sex, though it is alluded to twice, both times by the villain of the piece, Wickham. He first jokes that "there's only one reason people commit matrimony before they are 30” and follows that with a joke about being “relatively disease-free.” But his implied lack of chastity stands him in contrast with most everyone else.

The only other problematic element is a self-help dating guide called the “Pink Bible.” We had to explain to our kids that it was a “bible” only in the sense that it was purporting to be the final word on that subject – dating – as the Mechanics Bible would say it is for car repair.

Conclusion

This is not a faithful retelling of Pride and Prejudice. and yet it is a very good one, keeping remarkably close to the spirit of the book. That makes it the perfect date night movie for mom and dad, and a pretty good one for the whole family. The pacing is quick, the romance is sweet, and the humor is sprinkled liberally throughout. Of the 50 or so people I’ve watched it with, or loaned it to, somewhere near 90% have given it a thumbs up.

There are so many Pride and Prejudice films that if you want to find this one you should search for the title along with the year, or the title along with the word “Mormon." That’ll help you track it down.

I share the trailer below with some misgivings – the film is a lot better than this makes it seem.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Trans Mission: what's the rush to reassign gender?

Documentary 
2021 / 52 minutes
Rating: 7/10

Trans mission is a new, free documentary making the case against the "transitioning" of children – the chemical and surgical alterations of children done in an attempt to make them seem more like the sex they are not. It makes that case with two key points:

  1. it highlights the irreversible damage that is done to children (and adults) when they are put on puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones
  2. it challenges the supposed mental health benefits of "gender transitioning"

The strength of the film is that even as it argues against "gender affirmation therapies" for children, it presents the arguments on the other side, allowing them to make their case in their own words. So, for example, we are assured that puberty blockers are reversible; they are just a pause button to use while a family figures out what they want to do. This is the assurance being given to many confused parents, who are also told frightening statistics about elevated risks of suicide for the "gender non-conforming." Or, as it has been put to some parents, "Do you want a live son, or a dead daughter?"

After the case for is made, we get to hear what many of these parents never did: that there is no pause button to hit, and that puberty blockers come with risks, have not been well studied for these uses, and "there is no long term evidence showing 'gender affirmation therapy' reduces suicide."

Cautions

The many different examples given of problems with "transitioning" are evidences Christians can readily use, stacking them on the biblical foundation that God, and not Man, decides sex. The weakness with this documentary is that it has no such biblical foundation. They don't object to "transitioning" itself, but to children doing so, because they are not mature enough to know all the implications of starting on puberty blockers.

That is a good point. Before children are old enough to drive, they are deciding to forgo having children, and to permanently alter their voice and body frame. As the documentary shares, there are many who regret what was done to them, and who are "detransitioning" now because the feelings they had changed over time... but now the damage they've done to their bodies can't be undone.

But what's the counter to some people regretting the choice they made as a child? Wouldn't it be others who have the equal and opposite regret? There are those who regret not having "transitioned" earlier. Once a man goes through puberty, his voice gets lower, and his frame gets bulkier, and for men who wish they were women, they may well have regrets that they didn't start on puberty blockers earlier, so as to maintain their prepubescent body, and better maintain the delusion that they are women.

If this were simply one sort of regret vs. another, how would we decided whose regrets should prevail?

How do you answer that question if you're unwilling to take a stand on this issue as a Christian?

Conclusion

This is a must-see for Christians. The evidence the filmmakers present, shaky on its own, is useful, and usable once it is stacked atop the Rock-solid biblical foundation. We can show how departing from God's direction on sex can leading to devastating and lifelong difficulties. We can highlight how, once they are medicalized, these people will need to keep getting these hormones for life, as their own bodies will never produce the other sex's hormones.  We can explain that "These female people are never going to have a penis that works like a male penis, and these male people are never going to have a vagina that works like a female vagina."

The film offers a ray of hope at the end, one doctor speaking of a chat he had with the chair emeritus of the Hopkins Psychiatric Division:

"...he and I have had a chance to sit together and talk at length several times. And he said, I will tell you what is going to happen to change the tide. There's going to be major lawsuits by families or individuals who have been through this, gone down that pathway and come back at the other side. And they are going to take down not only the physicians, but the drug companies and the hospitals, healthcare systems, and the insurance companies that allowed this to happen, and that's when this will all end."

This is an attempt, again, to seek a solution apart from God, and it's worth reiterating, again, that this is a false hope. It's the sort of hope that might even discourage mutilation of the young while validating it for adults.

Christians can use the evidences presented in this film, but we must not adopt its secular approach to argumentation. The world needs to know that God made us male and female, and that rejecting that Truth will never lead to peace.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Freedom

Drama
2014 / 94 minutes
Rating: 7/10

Like many a film "inspired by true events," this isn't good history but it is pretty decent cinema.

Freedom is really two stories in one, the first loosely based on the life of John Newston. He's the author of the hymn "Amazing Grace" and while the film gets the broad details of his life right – he was the captain of a slave trade ship, he did have an encounter with God on his ship, and he did turn his back on the slave trade – the timeline of those events has been greatly compacted. In real life his rejection of the slave trade was a gradual shift over years and even decades, while in the film it seems more a matter of weeks.

The second story takes place 100 years later, and is a fictional account of a family of slaves fleeing Virginia via the Underground Railroad. Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as the father, Samuel. He has his wife, son, and mother with him, and while his mother trusts in God's faithfulness for everything, Samuel has no interest in God. How, he asks, can any slave think God cares about them? It's unusual for a Christian film to ask difficult questions. While Samuel does come to God before film's end, both he, and we, are left with the realization that God might not give us all the answers we are after, or at least, not on this side of Heaven.

What connects these two stories is a Bible that John Newton is supposed to have given Samuel's great grandfather when he was just a boy years ago. Samuel's mother still has it, and we take the leap back in time when she tells the story of how Newton came to give a Bible to a slave.

Newton's "Amazing Grace" is the musical centerpieces to the story, but there are lots of other songs too. It isn't a musical, though – in musicals people just randomly start to sing instead of talk. Here most of the songs have a natural fit: characters sing because they are comforting someone, or as part of a performance, or they sing to pass the time. But whatever the reason they are singing, the music is very good!

Cautions

Freedom received an R rating for the violence that's done to the slaves. While many of the blows happen just offscreen, communicated more by sound than by visuals, it can be brutal. That makes this best suited for older teens and parents.

While God's name is used throughout the film it is used appropriately, to either talk about Him, or to Him. There is one use of "damn."

Conclusion

One secular critic called this "an overly sentimental cinematic history lesson best suited for church and school groups" and while he meant it as a criticism, I'd just say he's nailed the target audience. The slave trade was brutal, and while this is in parts, the filmmakers didn't want to present an unvarnished look – they weren't trying to make a Schindler's List that'd leave everyone mute and depressed afterwards. By presenting only some of the horror, they allow families to view and discuss it together with their older teens. Freedom could serve as an instrutive introduction to this chapter of history... at least for teens and adults. 

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Jackie Robinson Story

Drama,
1950 / 77 minutes
Rating 7/10

This is the true story of the first black man to play Major League Baseball, made all the more interesting by the fact that Jackie Robinson plays himself and does a solid job of it.

The story starts with Robinson as a boy getting his first glove. Time passes quickly and we soon seem him showing his athletics skills in multiple sports at the college level. But athletic skills, and even a college degree, didn't get his brother a good job, so Jackie isn't feeling optimistic about his future. He eventually lands a job with a traveling African-American team, but for low pay and with long days of travel keeping him away from his girlfriend.

However, it's on that traveling team that he catches the eye of a Brooklyn Dodgers scout, who invites him to try out. Team president and part-owner Branch Rickey has both practical and principled reasons to want to integrate blacks onto his team: he had seen discrimination impact someone close to him and so wants to fight it, and he also knows that whatever team is first to integrate will have their pick of the best black players. Rickey wants Robinson to understand what sort of abuse he'd be signing up for. And most importantly, the two of them need to be in agreement that no matter what insults are directed at Robinson, or cheap shots delivered on the field, he can't hit back. Robinson's play, and not his fists, need to do that talking.

When Robinson agrees, he's sent first to the Dodgers' min0r-league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. After leading the league in hitting, he eventually gets the call to the Dodgers, and on April 15, 1947, he made his debut for them, blowing open the doors for many others to follow.

Cautions

A modern-day reviewer criticized the film for presenting a muted version of the real events: we aren't shown the worst of the insults and threats that Robinson had to deal with, and consequently, we don't get a full appreciation of the courage he had to have to endure that gauntlet.

That's a valid observation, but it misunderstands this film's target audience. While it isn't suitable for the very young, this is meant to be family viewing. Robinson is humble enough here but he is also trying to set an example that will impact the next generation. To reach that generation, he couldn't make a gritty R-rated film. The end result is an account of a courageous man, and his backers, fighting both deep-seated bigotry and the more surface-level ignorant sort of racism, and his story has been made suitable for ages 10 and up.

Conclusion

Robinson made this film in the off-season, just three years after breaking into the major leagues. While he continued to get death threats throughout his career, this still marks an encouraging shift in the populace's thinking. Just three years after many folks were jeering at him to get out, many more were now flocking to theaters to learn how he made it in.

So, even as this is "muted" there's lots to love about it, including Robinson's mother directing him to God, as he wrestles with decisions he has to make.

Because The Jackie Robinson Story is in the public domain, you can watch it in black and white for free below. But you can find it in higher resolution, and also in a colorized version, available on many streaming platforms that would make for much better viewing for a family movie night.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Meet John Doe

Drama
1941 / 122 min
Rating: 7/10

Director Frank Capra is probably best known for It’s a Wonderful Life, but that only became his best-known film later on. He actually had 13 films nominated for Oscars, as Meet John Doe was in 1941.

As in Wonderful Life, Capra’s Roman Catholic upbringing is evident in the general Judeo-Christian ethic running through Meet John Doe. That doesn’t mean Capra's films are always theologically orthodox – we know angels don’t get their wings when a bell rings – but there is a moral depth to many of them, including this one here, that is almost unknown today.

Set in the depression, the story revolves around a reporter, her editor, and a derelict, and the politician who is trying to take advantage of them all. When a round of layoffs at The New Bulletin leaves columnist Ann Mitchell out of a job, she decides to go out with a bang. For her last column, she submits a letter from an unemployed “John Doe” who is threatening to jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve to protest society’s degeneration.

The letter is actually a fake, concocted by Mitchell to express her own disgust, but it causes a sensation. Readers flood the newspaper with letters, some of them marriage proposals from concerned women, some job offers, but all wanting to know, “Who is John Doe?” When Mitchell’s editor finds out the letter is a fraud, he hires her back to prevent the public from learning about the deception. Then he takes things one step further, hiring a derelict former baseball player (played by Gary Cooper) to take on the role of Doe.

What starts as a deception soon takes a positive turn. When the paper’s new “John Doe” begins making public appearances his simple speeches encourage a helping spirit among his listeners. John Doe Societies spring up spontaneously to enable neighbors to help one another. Doe becomes the leader of a huge, helpful movement… that’s built on the lie of his false identity. Things come to a climax when a conniving politician threatens to expose this lie, unless Doe endorses him.

Caution

Some have called this a Christian film, even though it came out of Hollywood. That claim is made because God's second greatest commandment, "To love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31) undergirds the whole movie. It's worth noting then, and sharing with any others in the family watching it with you, that the film largely divorces the Second Greatest Commandment from the First. We hardly hear about God, and the need to "love the Lord our God with all your heart, soul, and mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). That makes this more humanist than Christian – Man-focused, rather than God-focused – but there is one scene which shifts it in a Godward direction, and least in part. To avoid spoilers I'll share the words, but not tell you the speaker or context:

"You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe idea alive. Somebody already died for that once, the first John Doe, and He’s kept that idea alive for nearly 2000 years. It’s He who kept it alive in them [the people of Earth]. And, He’ll go on keeping it alive forever and always.”

A powerful profession, but isn't it curious how Jesus is not actually mentioned by name? And this reference also doesn't talk about the real reason Jesus came, and what He accomplished. It presents Him more as an example to follow than as the One who suffered and died to take away the punishment for our sins. So... this is a near miss, but not really a Christian film. 

That said, it is a film Christians can really enjoy, understanding the truth of what is said here, and being able to fill in for ourselves what was not. 

Conclusion

At just over 2 hours long, the pacing is slower than us modern folk are used to. But just be sure to make a little extra popcorn: this is a classic for a reason.

That said, this is not the first movie I'd show anyone not already used to black and white films. Also, with suicide an ongoing topic throughout, this is not a film for younger viewers...but it wouldn't catch their attention anyways. So who should see it? This is a film for anyone who wants to peek into another culture and another time, to learn what they thought was important, and admirable, and worth fighting for.

Meet John Doe is in the public domain, so you can watch it, for free, below.

Friday, August 6, 2021

God of Wonders

Documentary 
85 min / 2008
Rating: 7/10

This is a nature documentary that starts at the stars, and touches on just about everything else: lightning, squids, hummingbirds, seeds, snow crystals, DNA and butterflies are just a few of the highlights.

That’s both the strength and the weakness of the film. Some of this footage is as remarkable as anything seen on the Discovery Channel, or a National Geographic special, but each time a creature is investigated, we learn only enough to know we would really like to learn more… and then we’re on to the next bit of nature. But there is a method to this madness. The theme of God of Wonders is straight out of Romans 1:19-20: God has revealed Himself in the wonder of his creation. If we reject God, we can’t claim we did so out of ignorance – God, through his creation has left us “without excuse.”

Cautions

The pacing is a little slow, with maybe a few too many talking heads, compared to the nature footage, but once we're about ten minutes in, it gets rolling. That does mean, though, that even as this would be a great film to watch with a questioning friend – it could be a wonderful evangelistic tool – it won't work if that friend isn't at least a little patient.

Conclusions

For families used to watching documentaries, this will be another fun one to check out. The breadth of this presentation means there's sure to be something new to learn for everyone watching, from the youngest to the oldest.

You can watch it for free in two different ways. It is available in "chapters" on the film's own website GodofWondersvideo.org/chapters.htm. The advantage to watching it in chunks is that it'll create the breaks needed for good discussions. But if you want to watch it for free in one go, you can find it (probably for only a limited time) here at the YouTube channel Christian Movies.

Check out the trailer below.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Time Changer

Drama / Sci-fi / Family 
99 min / 2002 
Rating: 7/10

In the year 1890, seminary professor Russell Carlisle proposes teaching morality to the masses but without making mention of God. He reasons to his fellow professors that even if people don’t become Christians it would be a good thing if they were at least taught that stealing was wrong.

If that sounds familiar, that's the point. Director Rich Christiano, in his boldest and best film, is taking on the Christian trend of publicly defend God's Truth – about the unborn, or marriage, sexuality, gender and more – but without mentioning God Himself.

While we'll have to wait a decade or two to see how that approach plays out for us, Professor Carlisle gets his feedback in a much more immediate fashion – a colleague uses a time machine to send the professor one hundred years into the future. Upon arriving in present-day America, Carlisle sees that morals founded on anything but God have no foundation at all, and are just dismissed as opinion.

While the film has a serious point, the time travel duck-out-of-water angle allows for some comedy too. However, Carlisle isn't as shocked by modern-day technology as he is by modern-day spiritual malaise. He's surprised to meet someone who works on Sunday and doesn't attend church regularly. And when he's taken to a movie theater, he finds the film shocking, and not because of the violence or sex. As the time traveler runs from the theatre he shouts:

“Stop the movie! You must stop this movie! The man on the screen just blasphemed the name of the Lord! There must be some mistake – you must stop this movie, this is an abomination!”

Cautions

Only caution I could think of is one use of the word "gosh."

Conclusion

This is a solid movie with an important and powerfully presented Christian message. From simply an entertainment perspective, it gets a 7, but its deeper point means this is a cut above most other Christian fare.

Because there isn't much action, and maybe a few too many philosophical discussions, this won't keep the attention of younger kids. But for mid to older teens, it could be a fantastic one to watch and discuss with parents. You can watch the trailer below, and rent the film online at various places.

Monday, August 2, 2021

And then there were none

Drama
1945 / 97 minutes 
Rating: 7/10

The film is based on the Agatha Christie mystery of the same name, one of just three English novels to sell oner 100 million copies (the other two are the first Harry Potter title, and The Hobbit). However, as popular as the book was, the film improves on it, with a new conclusion the author added because she thought the film's original wartime audience would appreciate a happier ending.

The story begins with 8 guests invited to a mansion on an isolated island. They are all strangers to each other, and none knows their host, Mr. Owens, who has yet to arrive. The only other people on the island are the two servants, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. After dinner Mr. Rogers puts a record on, as he has been instructed by the absent Owens to do, and on it is a voice accusing everyone present, including the servants, of being murderers who have escaped any punishment for their crimes.

That's quite the shock to them all, and all the more so when one of them admits he is indeed a murderer, and then, after taking a drink, promptly keels over and dies. He's been poisoned, and it seems their "host," Mr. Owens, has invited them here to exact his own form of justice on them all.

But how has he done it? After all, it's clear there is no one else on the island. That's when the remaining 9 realize that one of them must actually be Mr. Owens. From then on it is a murder mystery and not so much a whodunit as a whoisdoingit, as others are also killed, though almost always off screen.

Cautions

There are a lot of mysteries on TV today that revel in the darkness, and the gore, and the violence of murder. Another sort is about the investigator methodically, and sometimes brilliantly, putting the pieces together so as to bring the bad guy to justice. We should stay clear of the former because it presents evil as good, while the latter can be enjoyed. While And Then There Were None is gore-free, and has the violence taking place off-screen, it isn't clear for almost the whole film long whether there even are any good guys. So one caution would be that while this isn't dark like some of today's murder shows, it also isn't a heroic tale like Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes. It is somewhere in the middle, and that might be too much in the wrong direction for some...though I would not agree.

The other caution would be that the only character to quote Scripture is a hypocrite. But she isn't the only one.

Conclusion

Director René Claire demonstrates that is possible to "tell and not show" violence and still keep things suspenseful. Though this it is tame by modern standards, the suspense means it is still only for only adults, and only those who appreciate a good mystery.

The copyright for And Then There Were None was allowed to expire, so it is now in the public domain. That's why you can watch it, for free, in black and white below. A colorized version is also available for free, here.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Fighting Prince of Donegal

Drama / Family
1966 / 110 minutes
Rating: 7/10

Halfway through The Fighting Prince, I figured out why I was enjoying this so much, and why it was also so familiar: this is Robin Hood, but with Irish accents!

Irish prince Hugh O'Donnell takes the Robin role as leader of a rebellious and yet righteous band, alpha males every one of them, but willing to unite under this one man. Like Robin, Hugh's dispute isn't so much with the English crown, as with those who have usurped the crown's power. As the newly installed Prince of Donegal, Hugh offers a treaty to the English Queen, but the local English representative, Captain Leeds – in a Prince John/Sheriff of Nottingham role – won't even pass it along. Instead, he imprisons Hugh. And when Hugh escapes (he's a clever one... just like a certain famous bowman) Leeds occupies the O'Donnell castle and holds Hugh's mother hostage. Holding a man's mom hostage? How low can you go? Of course, that only sets the scene for the hero to make his triumphant return.

Cautions

If historical accuracy matters to you, then this is not a film for you. As near as I can figure the only resemblance this has to actual events is that they got some key names right. But this is as accurate an account of Irish history as Robin Hood is of England history.

This is very tame, despite the many sword fights, with more people punched out than stabbed. Still, stabbings do occur at least a couple of times, and we also see a dozen or so soldiers get hit by arrows, though all of this is entirely bloodless. However, for small children, it might be too much.

Conclusion

I had never heard of this film before watching it and didn't know what to expect. I was very pleasantly surprised. I'd have probably given it an 8, except that it starts a little slow. But so long as you give it 10 minutes this is a film that everyone in the family, ten and up, will really enjoy.

You can check out a scene from The Fighting Prince below.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Runner from Ravenshead

Children’s film
81 minutes / 2010
Rating: 7/10

Both the charm and the kitsch of this film come from the producers’ decision to fill all the roles with children. They aren’t playing children, mind you. Nope, these pipsqueaks are playing full-size adventurers and the result is both bizarre and delightful!

We jump right into the action, with our hero Henry taking on a whole tribe of savages. He engineers a one-man rescue of a tot tied to a pole but, just as he’s about to give the savages another licking, we discover it’s all Henry’s daydream. In real life Henry is no adventurer; he’s just a janitor cleaning the floors at the City of Refuge Guide Service.

Here’s where the film takes a leap from daydream to allegory. The Guide Service sends out guides to help escapees from the terrible Ravenshead Prison find their way to the City of Refuge. The guides also help escapees get away from the wardens who are trying to track them down and return them to prison. As near as I can figure, the Guide Service represents Christians who point people to Jesus (our refuge). Ravenshead Prison is sin, and the wardens represent temptation that wants to pull us back to sin. Parents may have to pause the movie on occasion to explain things to the young target audience, but if they don’t really understand the allegory, it doesn’t matter. This is also just a chase film, complete with derring-do, rocket cars, explosions, hijinks, and fight scenes. And all of it done on a pint-sized scale.

Now, our hero Henry desperately wants to be a guide but his boss isn’t sure about him. It’s only because guides are in short supply that Henry finally gets his chance to head out and help an escaped prisoner by the name of Sam. Sam is as headstrong as Henry is inexperienced, and this odd couple pairing ensures there’s lots of drama and loads of action as they try desperately to stay one step ahead of the wardens.

Caution

The only caution concerns escapee Sam. When she’s first brought to Ravenshead her tears are flowing, and I suspect this little actress might be too believable for some young viewers. Parents will have to remind their soft-hearted kidlets that this is just a movie and not real.

Conclusion

I had low expectations; I mean, with an all-kid cast, how could I not? But the cute factor is enormous, and enough to keep parents smiling throughout. For its pre-school and elementary-aged target audience, to see kids their age fighting bad guys, doing stunts, and escaping on a zip-line in a rocket-powered crate is going to be fantastic fun.

What’s more, you can watch it for free! It’s free with commercials on YouTube, while North American readers can view it without commercials on RedeemTV, though you will need to sign up for an account. If you like this one, you’ll also enjoy a sequel of sorts, done with kids actors too and by the same production company, called The Defense of New Haven.

To get a sneak peak, check out the trailer below.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Bear Called Winnie

Drama 
90 min / 2004
Rating: 7/10

This is the (mostly) true story of Winnie, the bear that inspired A.A. Milne's much loved Winnie the Pooh books. While she lived most of his life in the London Zoon, many don't realize that Winnie was a Canadian bear. So it was very fun to learn how he got from the wilds of Canada to inside the pages of everyone's favorite children's story. 

I think copyright concerns probably kept producers from using the words "Winnie-the-Pooh" but as the film begins, the connection is made, with an adult Winnie being watched by a man and boy who are unnamed, but unmistakable as Milne and his son Christopher Robin.  

"Father," Christopher Robin asks, "why do they call her Winnie? It's a funny hame for a bear. I wonder how she got it"

"Yes, I wonder," his father replies. "I bet it's quite a story."

From there we are taken back in time, and across the ocean to meet a group of veterinarians, enlisted in the Canadian army, riding the rails across the country on their way to the front lines of the First World War. Aside from the bear, the star of this piece is Harry Colebourn, and we're introduced to him just as he wins a sizeable pot of money from his fellow soldiers. But he's not rich for long, as at the next stop, in White River, Ontario, he sees a bear cub chained up. Colebourn uses his money to buy the bear and rescue it. But now that he has it, what is he going to do with it? When he takes the bear back to the train, his regiment adopts it as their mascot and it's named Winnipeg – Winnie for short – after Colebourn's hometown. 

From then on we get to see both Winnie's story and the story of this veterinarian regiment. 

Caution

The only caution concerns what one reviewer called the film's confusion about its target audience. 

It's about the most beloved bear of all time, so wouldn't this be a perfect one for the kidlets? The pacing is gentle, with the tension being mostly of a kiddish sort involving Winnie getting into things she shouldn't, and owner Colebourn, and his friends, trying to chase her down before they all get into more trouble. 

But if this is for children, then why the repeated scenes with the mentally unbalanced, and at one point drunk, general in command? And if it is for kids, then what were producers thinking when they had the young vet Macray, distraught by the battlefield deaths of his friends and animals, grabbing a gun and running off to his death? The violence is muted - we don't see any blood and gore, even in the midst of fallen men and animals and we never see or hear Macray get shot. The violence is of the sort you might find in a Hallmark film (in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this is on the Hallmark Channel). But you don't kill off charming characters in a children's film. 

So parents need to understand that, despite some appearances to the contrary, this is not one for kids. Or at least not kids who are of the age that they are being read Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Conclusion

Who would enjoy this? This would be a nice one for mom and dad on a night when they want something quite calm. It is a unique chapter in Canadian history, presenting not just a bear's story, but also showing some of the First World War from a Canadian perspective. There's humor, hijinks, and also a little educational content along the way so all in all, it ranks as quite a good TV movie.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Adventures in Odyssey: The Knight Travellers

Animated / Children's
27 min / 1991
Rating: 7/10

Back in 1987, Focus on the Family started a radio drama series for Christian families called "Adventures in Odyssey," and it is still running today, more than 900 episodes later. It also spawned 17 animated episodes, the first of which is The Knight Travellers.

It's clear from the start of the episode that viewers are expected to have some familiarity with the radio original, as main characters John Avery Whittaker ("Whit" for short) and his assistant, Eugene Meltsner, aren't really introduced. For those that don't know, Whit is a lovable grandfatherly figure and an inventor. In this episode, some bad guys have stolen his "Imagination Station" invention which Whit designed to allow people to travel back in time, at least in their imaginations, to find out what life was like back then. However, the bad guys have turned it into a "Manipulation Station" so they can use it to control people's minds and get rich. As regularly happens, Whit gets some pint-sized help, this time from 10-year-old Dylan Taylor and his dog Sherman (who aren't from the radio dramas).

Cautions

If you are familiar with the radio show, then it won't surprise you that these videos can have some tension to them. In this episode, Dylan has to contend with a crocodile, a giant boa constrictor, and a smooth-talking, and iron mace swinging, evil knight. And in the next episode, Dylan and the new neighbor girl have an ongoing argument that continues on through the episode and ends in a hospital trip. In Episode 3, Dylan's disobedience leads to a runaway mower destroying some prize flower gardens. Everything turns out alright in the end, and, of course, lessons are learned. But the arguing, and moments of scariness, will be too much for some sensitive viewers.

The episodes are meant to teach lessons, so I want to spend a moment on the lessons being presented. There are a couple morals to the initial story, with the first being that true treasures are not found in toy catalogs or toy stores, but come from God. True enough. But the second moral of this story is, if not problematic, at least misdirected. Whit tells the main bad guy that:

"Our hope lies in something you can never control or conquer. Our _______"

If you would have filled in that blank with "Our God" then you may understand why I don't like Whit's answer: "Our faith." Our faith is conquerable – we wouldn't hold steady if it was just up to us – but thankfully what we can't do, our God can. Jesus is unconquerable. That's a point worth raising with your kids.

Also problematic, is the third episode, where Dylan is initially irresponsible, so the lesson here is responsibility. But what goes unaddressed is how Dylan, in an attempt to make up for past mistakes, risks and almost loses his life to save some bird eggs. This is presented as brave, but in treating his life as of no more importance than that of birds' Dylan is actually being irresponsible.

That underscores how, even though this is a Christian show, there is a real need for parental guidance and discussion while watching them – they can't be treated as "hit play, and walk away."

Conclusion

To this point, I've only watched the first five episodes, and found the animation and writing on par with Hanna-Barbera productions like The Flintstones or The Jetsons. While this is too childish for teens, parents who remember Adventures in Odyssey from their youth will enjoy this for the nostalgia, and their younger kids - those who can handle some tension - will too.

There were two "seasons" to the animation series, and while it doesn't seem too important to watch them in order, The Knight Travellers does introduce us to Dylan so it is probably the best place to start. In total there's about 7-hours worth of viewing.

Original Series (1991-1998)
1 – The Knight Travellers
2 – A Flight to the Finish
3 – A Fine Feathered Frenzy
4 – Shadow of a Doubt
5 – Star Quest
6 – Once Upon an Avalanche
7 – Electric Christmas
8 – Go West, Young Man
9 – Someone to Watch Over Me
10 – In Harm's Way
11 – A Twist in Time
12 – A Stranger Among Us
13 – Baby Daze

Series 2 (2000-2003)
1 – The Last Days of Eugene Meltsner
2 – Escape from the Forbidden Matrix
3 – The Caves of Qumran
4 – Race to Freedom

You can see The Knight Traveller trailer below, and find the series on various streaming services including Amazon.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs. Douglas Wilson

Documentary
88 minutes / 2009
Rating: 9/10

The genesis of the film started back in May of 2007 when leading atheist Christopher Hitchens and Reformed pastor Douglas Wilson were asked by Christianity Today to dialogue on the question “Is Christianity good for the world?” Their wrote six exchanges which were printed in the magazine and then, in 2008, compiled into a book. When the two men headed out to do an east-coast book tour, filmmaker Darren Doane tagged along. He captured their exchanges and interactions, both on stage in formal debates settings, and as they conversed over a pint of beer in the local pub. The end result is the most entertaining and enthralling debate you will ever see on film.

But its appeal is not the reason this is a must-see film. You should see Collision because:

  • It prepares our children for what they’ll encounter at university. The attacks that Hitchens levels against God and Christianity are mimicked on secular campuses so Wilson’s able defense of the Faith will be instructive and will be an encouragement to our young people when they face these same attacks from their professors and fellow students.
  • It demonstrates the approach we need to take to answering the theistic evolutionists. How are we to understand Genesis 1-11, and what role should Science take in guiding our interpretation of these chapters? To properly answer it we need to rediscover a mislaid aspect of our Reformed heritage – presuppositional apologetics. Throughout Collision Wilson brilliantly demonstrates (though doesn’t really explain) this distinctly Reformed way of defending the Faith.

So what is presuppositional apologetics? And how does it compare to the other, evidential approach?

Evidential apologists figure if we present the evidence – enough of it, and the right sort – people will follow the facts and come to realize that there is indeed a God. The problem is, facts are always interpreted and there is no agreeable common “neutral ground” that both sides can meet on to examine those facts. Present someone with information about the stunning intricacy of the human eye and they’ll fall back on their worldview – their presuppositions – to tell them how to understand this information. A Christian will look at the eye and acknowledge it as evidence of a great and wonderful Designer while an atheist will understand it instead as evidence of millions of years of evolution, since something this amazing couldn’t have just sprung up overnight! Confronted with the same evidence, they come to opposing conclusions because sin taints even our intellect – even our reasoning – so evidence can be twisted to support two radically different worldviews.

Presuppositional apologetics delves into the assumptions – the presuppositions – that underlie every worldview. When, in Collision, Hitchens accuses God of being a tyrant for ordering the death of the Amalekites (Deut 25:19), Wilson asks Hitchens to provide, from his atheistic worldview, a grounds for being upset. If we are just “matter in motion,” as the atheist worldview contends, what reason is there for Hitchens to care what happens to Amalekites? Hitchens makes repeated moral claims, and Wilson repeatedly shows his atheistic worldview gives him no basis for claiming anything is wrong, or anything is right. While Hitchens has debated a throng of other Christians it’s only Wilson, and his presuppositional apologetics, that’s given him pause.

We can learn from Wilson and use this same approach to properly answer the theistic evolutionists in Christian circles. Like Wilson, we need to cut to the very core of the debate and address their presuppositions – we need to ask how evolution can fit with Christianity when it requires a mythical Adam and Eve, millions of years of mutations and mistakes, and Death before the Fall?

This is a film some will love, and others might find too loud (the producer has shot music videos in the past, and that influence is felt here in the driving, beat-y soundtrack), but the meat of what’s discussed, and the example that is set in the discussing, will be valuable for all ages and all interests. Would that everyone would watch this one!

And you can watch it on Facebook, for free, here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Torchlighters: the Eric Liddell Story

Animated / Family
2007 / 31 minutes
Rating: 6/10

Eric Liddell is best known for the stand he took to not compete in the 1924 Olympic 100-meter race. He was among the United Kingdom's best chances at a medal, but he didn't want to run because doing so would require him to run in a heat on Sunday. Despite enormous pressure to compromise for the sake of his country, he still refused, pointing to the 4th Commandment's call to "remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy." His country was important to him, but it came a distant second to his God.

Eventually, a different sort of compromise was struck, which had Liddell run in the 200 and 400-meter races instead, winning a bronze and a gold. His firm convictions, and his outstanding athletic performances, were the subject of the 1981 film (and Oscar winner for Best Picture) Chariots of Fire. However, Hollywood indulged in a bit of artistic license. They made it seem as if Liddell only found out about the Sunday heat on the boat ride to the Paris Olympics, but the truth, as shown much more accurately in this animated video, is that Liddell knew months before.

While both film and video cover Eric-the-athlete, this video covers his later years too, as Eric-the-missionary. Liddell was born in China, to Scottish missionary parents, and while educated in Scotland, actually spent most of his life in China. He returned there after the Olympics, serving as a missionary from 1925, until 1943, which is when the Japanese invaded. He could have fled, and he did send his family away, but Liddell stayed to continue telling the Chinese about God. That cost him, as he ended up in a Japanese internment camp, but even there he remained a faithful witness until his death in 1945, likely due to a brain tumor.

Cautions

This would have gotten at least a 7/10 if not for the choice the creators made to have Chinese characters speak broken and stilted English – their inarticulate language skills make them look a little dumb. Liddell was raised in China, which means his Mandarin was likely excellent, and for important conversations, they likely would have all used the language they all knew well, and his Chinese friends could have been shown speaking clearly and articulately in their native language. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they were all trying to learn English, and so that's the language they all spoke all the time, some better, and many worse. But I doubt it, and that's why I knocked a star off what is otherwise a solid account of a faithful and fascinating man.

Also, as noted earlier, Liddell does die in a Japanese camp, and while that is not depicted, if you have some sensitive younger souls, you might want to give them a heads up early on, so that ending doesn't come as a shock.

Conclusion

This is more educational than entertaining, but I think families could enjoy watching this together – that it is a true story does make it compelling. To say it another way, this might not be the sort of video your kids will ask mom and dad to put on, but if you start it going, and the whole family is watching together, I don't think there will be many complaints. So watch this with the family and be inspired by a man who knew that God was worthy of all honor, and most certainly came before fame and before his own safety.

You can watch The Eric Liddell Story for free below, though with quite a lot of commercial interruptions. For an ad-free presentation, you can sign up, also for free, at RedeemTV.com.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Sparky Chronicles: The Map

Family / Children's 
28 min / 2003 
Rating: 7/10

When their beloved Sparky is dognapped by the infamous international criminal known only as "The Clip," three college-age friends – Ethan, Jeffrey, and Christina – vow to find their pooch, no matter how long it takes. We join up with the search three years in – that's 21 doggy years! – and despite a Volkswagon van full of advanced tracking technology they still seem no closer to finding their four-legged buddy.

Sparky Chronicles is a Christian spy spoof, with sting operations, tranquilizer darts, explosions, and one chase scene after another. These aren't high-speed chases, mind you – and at one point the villain gets away by walking at a brisk trot – but that's the point. The pounding music, the quick cuts between the determined pursuers and their frantic prey, and then the shots of the speedometer needle slowly edging past 35: as spoofs go, they're pretty much nailing it.

So what makes this tweenish tale a Christian one? Well, during their long fruitless search the three friends come to realize it would be really helpful if they had some sort of guide to help them know which way to go. And when they happen upon a map that The Clip has left behind, Christina makes mention of how the Bible is the same sort of thing for life: a guide that tells us what's right and true. That's the lesson being taught, but unlike what happens in many a Christian production, this is an almost subtle presentation. Sure, they explicitly spell it out, but they don't beat kids over the head with it.

I'd recommend this for tweens, but younger kids might enjoy it too. And while this isn't going to be mom and dad's favorite, it'll be more interesting for them than some other children's fare. The only downside is that while things are set up for a sequel, there isn't one. 

You can watch it for free below.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Return to Grace: Luther's life and legacy

Docudrama
2017 / 106 minutes
Rating: 8/10

What makes this a must-see is its unique mix of drama and documentary. Other great Luther documentaries exist, but the most engaging of “talking heads” can’t really grab the attention of a broad audience. I have seen even children enjoy one of the many dramatized accounts of his life, but drama can’t go into the same depth as a documentary – an actor can show us Luther’s despair or his joy, but they can’t depict the greatness of God’s grace, so, in this genre, it goes largely unexplored.

A Return to Grace is a docudrama – half documentary and half drama, making good use of the strengths of each. There are learned theologians to give us the background and explain the Scriptural debates that occurred, and there are also elaborately set and well-acted scenes from Luther’s life. I would guess it is a near 50/50 split. Pádraic Delaney’s Luther is very believable (and maybe second only to Niall MacGinnis‘ 1953 portrayal), speaking volumes with not just his tongue, but his grimaces, smiles, and silences.

I’ve probably watched at least a half dozen Luther films, and I’ve never seen the chronology of Luther’s life depicted as clearly. There are also explanations offered here that are left as mysteries elsewhere. Have you ever wondered why the Pope didn’t just crush this monk early on when he was still seemingly insignificant? The answer shared here is that the Pope didn’t want to make an enemy of Luther’s prince, Frederick III, because the prince was one of the seven electors who would choose the next Holy Roman Emperor. The Pope had no direct say in that selection, and if he hoped to have any sort of influence at all, he would need to be on the good side of the electors. God so set the scene that the Pope had to act cautiously and with restraint and couldn’t just burn Luther at the stake.

While I was familiar with only one of the theologians interviewed (United Reformed professor Carl Trueman), they all had some great Luther gems to share. James Korthals, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary contributed this one about Luther’s view on vocation:

“The  farmer out in the field pitching dung is doing a greater work for God than the monk in the monastery praying for his own salvation.”

This was, at the time, a revolutionary idea of vocation. Even today, many seem to think that minister and missionary are the true God-glorifying jobs, and all else is second best. In saying all jobs could be done to God’s glory, Luther presented all fruitful work as being worthy of respect.

This is one of the ideas highlighted in the film’s alternate title: Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. The story here is first and foremost about Luther rediscovering the gracious nature of God, but it is also about Luther’s influence as it impacted people far beyond the church door, and about the ripples that continue to be felt even today, and even in the secular world.

Cautions

I have no real cautions for the film. I was a little concerned when a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Timothy Dolan, made a few brief appearances. But he doesn’t say much of anything, and even concedes that Luther’s rebellion was understandable against that old corrupted Roman Catholic Church. He might be implying that today’s Roman Catholic Church is different, but he isn’t given the time to make that case.

Conclusion

Return to Grace‘s drama/documentary combination draws viewers in without sacrificing depth. I’ll add that this still isn’t one for preteens, but for adults, and teens who are on their way, this will be a fascinating presentation of the man, and what he learned about our great God. So don’t save it for Reformation Day – it’s free to see now (though with some commercials).

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates


Family 
90 min / 1962 
Rating: 8/10 

When Hans’ father is hurt repairing a dike, young Hans drops out of school to take care of his family. But the Netherlands in the 1860’s were a hard place to find work and try as he might Hans can’t find enough work to pay for both his family’s food and the medicine his father needs. He is fast though, and when he hears that the prize for the annual 26-mile skating race is 300 guilders, both he and his sister Gretel enter in the hopes of winning the money his family and father so desperately need. 

Like the book that it is based on, this is a non-Dutch look at the Netherlands, and that comes out most noticeably in the accents, which are Scandinavian rather than Dutch. (The book’s American author Mary Mapes Dodge did her research, but mistakenly gave her characters German-sounding names rather than Dutch). 

But overall, this is a great family film, showing how we should love our neighbors in need. It’s also a wonderful sports movie without the typical sport ending. But be sure you get the 1962 film, as there is also a shorter, black and white, 1958 version that it is often confused with.

You can sample a clip of it below.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Jack and the Beanstalk


Children's
1952 / 83 minutes 
Rating: 7/10 

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello star in their own version of this classic tale. The story begins with the desperate-for-work pair signing up for a night's work as last-minute babysitters. We get to the fairy-tale part when Costello asks the boy they are sitting to read him a story. Then, when we shift from the real world to the fairy tale, the film switches over from a sepia-toned black and white to full color, like happens in The Wizard of Oz. And also like Oz, the people populating this fairyland look awfully familiar. 

While the story continues on in the usual way, there are some wrinkles, including Jack (Costello) getting a buddy to come along for the adventure – Abbott is the village butcher who wants to retrieve his stolen cow. A princess and prince are two more addition, both of them kidnapped by the giant and held for ransom. This is the romantic angle, the two of them starting as strangers, unable to see each other in their adjoining cells, but falling in love as they talk and sing to one another through the bars. 

When we meet the villain of the piece, parents might be surprised to see that he's only 7 or 8 feet tall – big, sure, but are we calling that a giant? But that only shows this is intended for children, more than families. Sure, mom and dad can come along for the ride, and they'll like lots of bits of it too, but this is meant for the undiscerning younger viewer who isn't going to find fault with a short giant, a singing harp whose lips don't move, or duels done with bending rubber swords. They'll laugh the first, second, and third time that Jack trips or gets bonked on the head, even as mom and dad will get their main enjoyment vicariously, watching their kids. 

I should mention one joke that parents will have to explain. At one point Costello inadvertently mixes some gunpowder into the chicken feed, and while I won't give away what happens, kids who have never seen a powder horn will have to be clued into what just happened if they are going to get the joke. 

Cautions

A minor caution would be that the boy they are babysitting is uppity...but mom and dad can point that out. 

The main caution is with the physical humor. The fights with the giant are all played to comic effect, and I think today's kids will get that. The only scene I found off-putting was in the black and white conclusion, where Abbott slaps Costello for sleeping on the job. Costello seems to feel no ill effects, but I mention it only because it happened in the "real" world and isn't the kind of thing you'd see in today's children's films – this is the slap in slapstick, and it just struck me as mean, not funny.

Conclusion

This is a good film for the kids, but in need of some parental guidance because of the slapstick. For the parents it is a little slow, and a little too silly, but still enjoyable over all. 

The film's copyright has expired which has allow all sorts of publishers to put out their own tweaked versions. That means you kind find copies that are entirely black and white, and the different versions vary in length from 78 to 83 minutes. So be sure you find a good one. You can watch Jack and the Beanstalk in low resolution for free down below, but better quality versions are widely available on all sorts of streaming service.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Babes in Toyland

Family /Musical 
1961 / 105 minutes 
Rating: 7/10 

Babes in Toyland stars all your children's nursery rhyme favorites. There's Little Jack Horner, Simple Simon and the pieman, Jack and Jill, Little Bo Peep and her sheep, and of course, Mother Goose herself. That might make this the perfect way to introduce your little ones to the musical genre. Our story begins with preparations for a wedding. Tom (as in, "Tom, Tom, the Piper's son") and Mary (quite contrary) are going to get married and the whole village is so excited they just have to dance and sing! 

There has to be a villain, of course, and the black-hatted, black-caped, black-elevator-shoe-clad Barnaby Barnacle is such an over-the-top meanie that only the youngest of children might be scared by him. He knows something Mary doesn't – that when Mary is married, she's going to inherit a large sum, so Barnaby wants to marry Mary, instead of Tom! To that end, he hires two henchmen – the very large Gonzorgo, and the entirely silent Roderigo – to, first, kidnap Tom and thrown him into the sea, and then steal Mary's sheep so that, impoverished and alone, she'll be forced to marry Barnaby. Crooks that they are, the two henchmen instead sell Tom to the gypsies so as to get paid twice. And that sets the scene for Tom's eventual return. 

But there are still sheep to recover, and that leads to an almost "second chapter" for the film where Tom and Mary head into the ominous "Forest of no Return" to search for the sheep. There they find "the Toyman" who is a Santa-like figure, making toys for girls and boys. Further hijinks ensue, with Barnaby still trying to marry Mary, but this time using all sorts of toys and gadgets from the Toyman's workshop to try to put an end to Tom. When he gets his hands on a shrinking ray he thinks he can finally cut Tom down to size. It turns out, though, that even pipsqueak Tom, with the help of a toy army, is more than a match for Barnaby!

Cautions

Not much to note here: the talking trees in the Forest of No-Return were the only truly scary characters for my sensitive 7-year-old, and it helped to assure her that they turn out to be not so bad after all. Also, Tom briefly plays the part of a gypsy fortune-teller, and that might have been problematic if it wasn't all just a prank on Barnaby.

Conclusion

The acting is over-the-top and the characters are all from nursery rhymes so the target audience is clearly children. But there's so much color and energy and action that older kids and parents will enjoy it too.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Sign of Zorro

Family / Drama 
1958 / 90 minutes 
Rating: 8/10 

Is Zorro a Spanish version of Robin Hood? The Spanish California of the 1800s stands in for medieval Sherwood Forest, but both men are outlaws who rescue the oppressed, and both frustrate the local tyrannical authorities even as they remain loyal subjects to their king. There's also a dose of Scarlett Pimpernel, with the young Don Diego disguising himself as a fool, an academic with his nose buried so deeps in his books, that no one would ever suspect him of being the brave and brilliant Zorro. 

As the story begins, Diego has been away in Spain for three years, studying at university. Now he's on his way home, summoned by his father because a new Commandant is making life miserable for poor and wealthy alike. It's on the long sea-voyage back that Diego decides to play the part of absent-minded egghead. He commits to the charade, staying in character even when meeting his own father, who is disappointed to find that the son he'd summoned is no man of action, but a foppish fool! Only Diego's loyal manservant Bernardo knows different.

There is a lot going on in this film and it's all great fun. We have a mute pretending to be deaf, a hero pretending to be a fool, a villain impersonating the hero, and a tyrannical commandant who might be despicable, but he isn't stupid. And Diego, while playing his eggheaded academic part, has to figure out how to survive a swordfight without giving away that he does actually know which is the pointy end!

Cautions

I'll note that while there is violence – a whole lot of sword fighting! – no blood is shown and no one dies. The other caution concerns a couple of Spanish dancing scenes, where one dancer swishes around her dress such that we can see a few flashes of her underwear. However, the immodesty on display here is comparable to the most concealing of 1920s bathing suits. More off-putting is the dance itself. It is not graceful or beautiful, but almost violent, with the dancer whipping her long dress back and forth so aggressively she could put out an eye! The men at the local pub are clearly meant to find this alluring, but I am mystified as to why.

Conclusion

This is one the whole family could enjoy. It is black and white, which might make some younger viewers skeptical, but if you can get them to commit to watching for 15 minutes, it's sure to grab and keep their attention. I can't imagine too many kids – at least those who have watched TV at all – finding this too scary. 

Zorro could be fodder for some good family discussions about what it means to live in submission to the proper authorities. When Diego defies the local corrupt Commandant, is he doing so in defiance of authority, or in submission to a greater authority? However, it isn't simply the educational possibilities that make this a great film; The Sign of Zorro is a classic worthy of the label, with enough action, twists, and turns, for two films!

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Dismantled

A scientific deconstruction of the theory of evolution 
Documentary 
2020 / 93 minutes 
Rating: 8/10 

The Creation vs. Evolution debate is sometimes portrayed as being the Bible vs. Science, but Dismantled wants us to know that while creationists certainly stand on the Bible, they aren't conceding on Science. Flipping the script, the documentary begins by asking if evolution should be considered scientific.

"Is it proper to equate evolution with science? Does science have the ability to address questions regarding past events that we were not there to directly observe or verify – events like the spontaneous origins of the universe, the origin of life from non-life, and the evolution of the earliest life forms into mammals? Or might we be giving science a power that it does not have? To answer this, it is important that we accurately define science, as well as its limitations."

Evolution has street cred because it's supposed to be scientific – it claims to come from the very same source of knowledge that gave us rockets, microwaves pizza, smartphones, and self-driving cars. But as Dismantled notes, evolution has little in common with that sort of science. A quote from the film, taken from a biology textbook, explains that:

"Scientific inquiry is a powerful way to know nature, but there are limitations to the kind of questions it can answer. These limits are set by science's requirements that hypotheses be testable and falsifiable and that observations and experimental results be repeatable."

It is precisely the testable, repeatable, falsifiable nature of operational science that got us a man on the moon, and it is precisely those points that evolution's historical science doesn't share. Our origins involve events that happened long ago and aren't repeatable, making these events hard to test, and these theories hard to falsify. So the origins debate isn't about the Bible vs. Science, but more about one historical account vs. another... with the notable difference that one of those historical accounts is thousands of years old and unchanging, and the other is a recent creation and constantly being revised. That's the film's lead-off point, and it takes the first 20 minutes to make it. 

From there, they go on to assess which of these two historical accounts seem a better fit with the world we observe around us. That's the bulk of the film, and this 70-minute tour takes us through topics including:

  • the micro = macro fallacy which assumes, without evidence, that small changes can add up to bigger ones
  • genetics including the limits of supposed "beneficial mutations," and the problem of genetic entropy – that we as a species are breaking down faster than natural selection could ever build us up – and the supposed genetic similarity between man and apes
  • the fossil record including Man's supposed ape-like ancestors, and the humanity of Neanderthals
  • radiometric dating and its problems

Dismantled is a slick production – the visuals are fantastic! – but its strength is in the scientists consulted. Whether it is Jason Lisle, John Sandford, Georgia Purdom, Rob Carter, Andrew Snelling, Nathaniel Jeanson (PhDs one and all), they all know how to explain big ideas to the rest of us who may not have been in a science class for decades. That doesn't mean this is all easy to understand, and I think most of us will have to (and be happy to) watch this twice, just because there is so much here to chew on.

Cautions

The one caution I'll note regards a mistake the film could, indirectly, encourage: believing the Bible only when the evidence says it is reasonable to do so. It is important to remember the evidence discussed in Dismantled wasn't available 100 years ago, and yet God's Word was just as true then. We need to know the Bible isn't true because it syncs up with the evidence; rather, the reason the evidence syncs up with the Bible is that the Bible is true. If that doesn't seem like much of a difference, its significance becomes apparent when the evidence doesn't seem to fit with the Bible. In those circumstances, if our trust is grounded in the evidence rather than the Bible, then we will side with it, against God's Word. But if we trust God, then we'll always stick with the Bible, trusting that any apparent conflicts will be resolved in time.

Conclusion

Dismantled is superb, summarizing important foundational concepts even as it presents the most current findings. I'd recommend it as a purchase, rather than a rental, because you'll want to watch it again to be able to properly digest all that is on offer. The target audience is high school and up, and for those who want to dig in even deeper, a great place to start is the recommended resources list available on the film's website. You can check out the trailer below, and then rent it on Amazon.com or buy the DVD or Blu-ray at Creation.com.