Monday, May 20, 2019

The Fool: The true "Banana Man" story (free film)

Documentary
66 minutes / 2019
Rating: 8/10

This is the true story of how evangelist Ray Comfort was mocked and ridiculed by atheists the world over for a silly joke he made that fell flat. But even as Ray was brought low, God was using Ray’s humiliation (Philippians 1:12): these same atheists started inviting Ray onto their shows, podcasts, and stages, and then they let him say anything he wanted. They asked him on to make fun of him, but their no-holds-barred invitations allowed him to use these forums to share the Gospel with hundreds of thousands of atheists who he would never have had a chance to reach otherwise.

Then atheists starting taking Ray’s books and began reading through them on their own YouTube channels, all in an attempt to mock Ray. But the end result was that now atheists themselves were sharing the Gospel with their listeners. As Ray asks, “Who but God could take atheists and not only have them listen to the Gospel, but have them proclaim it?”

This is documentary is a lot like its subject: frequently funny, always engaging, and focused throughout on spreading the Gospel by confronting sinners with their need for the Savior. You can watch it for free online at BananaManStory.com or down below.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Gosnell

Drama
93 minutes / 2018
RATING: 8/10

"Are you going to be the first prosecutor in American history to charge an abortion doctor with murder?" 

There are some great lines in Gosnell. But it was a film I almost didn't watch. I knew it was the true-life story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist who in 2013 was convicted of killing three babies after they were born. I'd thought it an important story to get out into the public eye, so a few years ago I'd been one of the 30,000 who'd contributed more than $2 million to its Indiegogo campaign. But now, with the DVD in hand, I found myself thinking, "I'm already pro-life so do I really need to sit through a 90-minute film detailing the horrors of abortion?"

I'm glad I did, for two reasons.

First, the film wasn't the unrelentingly depressing drama I had expected.

This felt more like a Law and Order episode, with a mystery that needs solving, and dedicated men and women trying to deliver whatever justice they can. There were some talented people involved in the production, from director Nick Pearcey, who also stars as the defense attorney, to the Daily Wire's Andrew Klaven who had a hand in writing the script. There's no clear star in this ensemble cast, but it might be Dean Cain (Lois and Clark) who is his regular personable self in the role of Detective James Wood, the man who first uncovered what was going on behind the closed doors of Gosnell's clinic.

Second, the film is a much better pro-life tool than I ever expected.

Gosnell killed thousands so this could have been as hard to watch as Schindler's List (Schindler is in everyone's top 100 list, but has anyone watched it twice?). But by hiding almost all of the gore, and by keeping a quick pace, not lingering in the clinic too long, audiences aren't confronted with the full horror of what Dr. Gosnell did. That makes this a film that can be shared with the undecided; if they can handle network TV, then there's nothing here that'll be too graphic for them.

Now, there is a method behind the muted visuals. A gory film would have undecideds walking out or staying away. But the producers didn't intend to pull any punches – they've just been clever enough to lay out their argument in a way that'll be the most likely to reach their intended audience. When Gosnell was being tried, both the prosecutor and the mainstream media emphasized that the case wasn’t about abortion – this was about the murder of already born babies. But in his defense, Gosnell’s attorney shows that what Gosnell did to these babies after birth was not significantly different from what other abortionists were – with the law’s blessing – doing to babies before birth.

His reasoning was sound, even if it wasn't enough to get his client off. And seeing an abortion defender make the case that killing an unborn baby differs not a whit from killing a newborn baby is an argument that is sure to hit viewers right between the eyes.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye

Documentary
77 minutes / 2018
RATING: 8/10

Twenty-one years ago the then 21-year-old Joshua Harris struck a nerve with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was written for Christian young people by a Christian young person, on a topic that every young person was interested in – how to find that special someone. It sold more than 1.2 million copies and was a big part of a purity movement within the Church that helped shape the way a generation of Christians thought about sex, dating, and looking for a spouse.

Fast forward to today, and in a just-released documentary the now 42-year-old author revisits his book and meets Christians who were impacted by it, for good, but also for ill. With a title like I Survived "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" it's no surprise that the documentary presents a rather negative overall assessment of the book. Early on Harris's wife Shannon puts it this way:
"I think it was a good book, and a well-intentioned book...well, I don't know that I can say it was a good book. But it was a well-intentioned book."
So why watch a documentary about seemingly-not-so-good 20-year-old book? Because the film is about much more than a single book. It tackles the Purity Movement overall, and more specifically, what it got wrong.

Of course, the Purity Movement got a lot right – hey, they want young people to abstain from sex until marriage, and that's even in the Bible! But it's because the Purity Movement seems so obviously good, that the unveiling of their errors is so instructive. As Spurgeon once noted, discernment isn't the ability to tell right from wrong, but rather to tell right from almost right. The Purity Movement is almost right – if we weren't worried about grammar Nazis we might say they are so very, nearly, almost right.

So if we can learn to spot their mistakes, then we'll be able to apply that lesson to most any other well-intentioned, but similarly misguided Christian movement.

The book and how it is misremembered

While I love the documentary, my one big criticism would be that it isn't fair to the book. If you just watched the documentary and hadn't ever read I Kissed Dating Goodbye you would think it was completely against dating, and all about courtship.

But after rereading it this week I would describe it as a strong condemnation of dating as it was commonly being done in the Church. Harris was against the recreational dating that had guys and girls paired up quickly, intensely, and most often briefly, with the focus on pleasure or prestige, and no thought spent on how to honor God through dating.

He was cautioning against teenagers experiencing too much too soon: too much physical intimacy, too much emotional intimacy, paired with too much immaturity – selfish and uncommitted kids pressuring each other to go further and further. Harris was speaking against turning girlfriends and boyfriends and dating and sex into idols that push God out of His proper place as first and foremost in our hearts.

But in taking a stand against an Archie Andrews-type of dating, was Harris pushing the courtship model?

Well, there's courtship and then there's courtship. Under one definition, courtship would require a man to first ask a woman's father before he could take her out on a first date. But a broader definition would define courtship as dating done with the specific intent of seeking a marriage partner – dating that isn't done just for fun – and conducted with some level of parental involvement/supervision.

In I Kissed Dating Goodbye Harris does encourage more parental involvement, and also intentional, marriage-focussed dating. But the book spends far more space highlighting all that's wrong with modern dating than it spends prescribing a cure. And when it does come to presenting the alternative, Harris is more about general and often clearly biblical principles, than any specific outworking of those principles. He argues at one point:
The Bible doesn't provide a one-size-fits-all program for moving from friendship to marriage. Our lives are too different, our circumstances too unique, and our God too creative to have only one formula for romance. 
While a lot of what he says does align with a courtship model, Harris simply wasn't pushing that model as hard as his critics in the documentary make it seem.

The Purity Movement's false gods

In the documentary, the book serves as the leap-off point for a look at the Purity Movement. It turns out it wasn't just reckless, immature kids who were turning sex into an idol. Strangely enough, the Purity Movement was doing it too.

I Survived "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" begins with Harris traveling to Washington DC, where he recalls a 1994 conference he attended there with 25,000 other young Christians. A part of the conference was a "True Love Waits" rally. With rubber mallets in hand, young people staked more than 200,000 True Love Waits commitment cards into the lawn of the Washington Mall. These commitment cards read:
Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.
As good as that sounds, there's a hint here of the Purity Movement's big mistake. It comes down to one question: Who, or what, is the god here? Calvin noted it is in man's nature to perpetually be manufacturing one new idol after another – we continually put this god and that in God's place. So in this pledge who or what is the "god"? Is it God? No. He's only one of several this commitment is being made to. But this commitment is being made in service to a very specific desired outcome: the securing of true love. That's the "god" here.

In a conversation with Christine Gardner, author of Making Chastity Sexy, Harris discusses how the Purity Movement sold abstinence, not so much as a way to please God, but as the way to secure the very best sort of sex. There's truth to what they were saying: studies have shown that on average married people enjoy sex more than sexually active unmarried people - married sex is best. But while "great married sex" can be a reason to stay abstinent, there's a problem when it becomes the reason. The Purity Movement lost its way when it started placing something – even fantastic married sex – ahead of God.

False gods and false guilt

In setting up a variety of false gods, the Purity Movement also caused people a lot of false guilt. As my wife put it, false guilt happens when we sin against, not God, but the idols we've made.

These idols of our own making are often entirely unforgiving. Consider the idol some have made out of maintaining their virginity. Serving this god, they've been told, is the way they can secure the spouse of their dreams (false gods always offer some version of the prosperity doctrine – serve your god in just the way it asks, and you can force it to give you what you ask).

But what of the boy or girl who has lost their virginity? What offering can be given, what forgiveness can be had from this god? You can't become a virgin again. No wonder then, that the followers of this god feel unrelenting guilt – where no forgiveness can be had, guilt remains.

Isn't it amazing that we keep setting up these false gods? They bring us only misery and guilt, while the one true God offers us real forgiveness....and we don't have to earn it!

Conclusion

Of course, false gods and false guilt aren't limited to the Purity Movement: money, career advancement, exercise goals, new year's resolutions, the spotless home, the perfectly behaved child – all of them can become idols of our own making. That, then, is what makes this is a must-see documentary. The discernment it fosters is desperately needed in every sphere of life.

More could be said: the film also explores legalism, and critiques how Christians will often treat certain books as if they were on par with the Bible itself. And while I have a far greater appreciation for I Kissed Dating Goodbye than the author seems to at this point – the film concludes by noting that Harris and the publisher have agreed to stop publishing I Kissed Dating Goodbye – I'd agree there are some notable flaws....but nothing that would keep me from sharing and discussing it with my own daughters.

And I'll be just as enthused to share this film with them, knowing it will be a springboard to all sorts of great conversations.

I Survived "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" can be watched for free here if you're willing to give your first name and email and sign up for their newsletter (which, I presume, you can unsubscribe from at any time). Otherwise you can rent it for $4.99 here.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Swallows and Amazons

Drama / Family
2016 / 96 minutes
RATING: 7/10

I remember my older brother reading Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons to me when I was very young, and being charmed by it. It was a story of four children - two brothers and their two sisters – making up their own adventures during a summer holiday on the lake, fighting off imaginary pirates and pretend sharks. It was a gentle book.  

That's why I thought it would make for a gentle movie to share with the family. But while a lot of the book's charm made it to the silver screen, the filmmakers decided that in addition to the children's imagined peril, they had to add some of the real kind – spies!

The four Walker children are on a lake for the summer, in 1935 Britain, and they have their parents' permission to take the Swallow, a small sailboat, out to explore a densely wooded island and camp there. But they are not the first to land on the island: a sign, surrounded by animal bones, warns that it belongs to the "Amazons." This is all loyal to the book – the Amazons are a couple of girls with a sailboat of their own, and the two groups get to pretend to be rival pirate gangs. But the island is also home to a real life spy. And there are a couple of other suspicious sorts following him. For a small little island, there's quite the population on it!

The additions of the spies adds to the excitement, but brings tension to a story that didn't really have that before. So, if you like the book, you probably aren't going to appreciate this adaptation – it's akin to adding a couple of spies to Winnie-the-Pooh. Exciting, yes, but not at all in keeping with the spirit of the original story.

However, if you don't know the book, or can at least forget it for a bit, this is quite the adventure. There are chases scenes on the water and through the woods, and even through and on top of a train. We see spies following each other, Walkers following spies, and spies following the Walkers. I don't want to give the impression this is all action – there's also the calmer fun of the Walkers learning how to camp, create fire, and catch and cook their own food. It still has the charm of the book.

Just with tension added.

CAUTION

There is a bit of language, with one spy saying "Damn it" in his native language, and the movie not so helpfully subtitling the translation for us. The siblings also call each other various names including "duffer" and "idiot." And one girl says, "shut up" a number of times.

The only other concern would be some behaviors that we wouldn't want our own children to model. There are a few times where the children do something hazardous (like sailing a boat at night) against their mother's expressed wishes. So mom and dad might have to pause the movie here and there to ask what the Walker children should have done.

CONCLUSION

While Swallows and Amazons was far too scary for my 8 and under young'uns, I think some 10-year-olds and anyone 12 and up would find this just the right level of exciting for them. It's great movie night material for families with older children, and it's bound to inspire either a camping or sailing request.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Desperate Journey

Black and White / War / Drama
107 minutes / 1942
RATING: 7/10

Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn are two members of a Allied bombing crew assigned a near-impossible mission over Nazi Germany. When their plane is shot down, they set out to make it home again....and to do as much damage to the Nazis as they can along the way.

Their desperate journey has plenty of explosions, fisticuffs, arial shootouts, guns blazing, and, at one point, Errol Flynn diving through a window to tackle two Nazi guards at once. There are laughs too, especially when the crew has the chutzpah to steal a ride on Nazi leader Hermann Göring's private train car.

Desperate Journey is jingoistic, and at times not so realistic (ie. the real Nazis were smarter than movie Nazis) but it has an authenticity to it that comes of being made during World War II. This film was part of the war effort, made to encourage those back home that not only were we in the right, but that Australians, Brits, Americans and more could come together as a team to outsmart and beat back the Nazis.

Caution

As the crew is chased across Germany it isn't surprising that there are casualties along the way. And while there is no real gore, those losses make this a film that children could find too dramatic and emotional for them to deal with. So this might be best for 12 and up.

Conclusion

I watched this with a group ranging in age from 40 to just shy of 80, and all eight of us enjoyed it. If you have any sort of appreciation for World War II films made during World War II, this is one of the especially fun ones.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island

Animated / Children
82 minutes / 2018
RATING: 6 out of 10

My kids loved this - we rented it for two nights, and they asked to watch it twice. So why give it just a 6 rating? Because what makes it attractive to gentle, easily scared, children is also what makes it a below average film: there is no conflict.

Summer vacation has arrived, and Grandfather Alden wants to take his four grandchildren to an island their family owns. He leaves them there, and with the exception of a couple minutes when the children are trapped in a cave just as the tide comes in, this is an entirely calm film. Grandfather Alden leaves them on the island alone, but the only other "danger" they have to deal with is a leaky roof.

This is a sequel to the slightly better 2013 film The Boxcar Children. Both movies are based on the beloved 150+ book series originated by Gertrude Chandler Warner way back in 1924. According to the bonus features on this DVD, Warner set out to make a story for Grade 1 and 2 students that would use the 100 most important words for them to learn. I found that rather telling – it makes the books out to be more about learning vocabulary than presenting kids with a rip-roaring adventure. And if that was her intent, she has succeeded.

CAUTIONS

The only caution I can think to include is that the movies make no mention of God (Heaven comes up once, but not God) and on such a beautiful island, where it would be hard not to sing His praises, His absence is felt (by adults, anyway). In the series a brief reference to evolution pops up in every second or third book, and that, along with God's absence in the books and films, makes me suspect that author Gertrude Warner was probably not a Christian.

CONCLUSION

So far I'm not exactly singing the praises of the book series, or this, the latest film based on them. So why recommend the movie at all?

Because, for younger kids, particularly those who are familiar with the Boxcar Children already, they will absolutely love it. My critique of the book and this movie is not that there is anything wrong with them; it's only that there is nothing remarkable about them. The acting is okay, the animation is middling, and the story, from a parental perspective, is on the boring side.

But on the other hand, there are no language, violence, sexuality, or other concerns. And young children, up to maybe 10 years old, will enjoy the familiar characters and the cozy comfy safety of this no-conflict story. It is a nice safe film for your family movie night.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Sea Hawk

Drama / Action
109 minutes / 1940
RATING: 8/10

While The Sea Hawk is set in 1585, and pitches Spain against England, this film was all about the politics of its day. Spain is clearly a stand-in for the Germany of 1940, and King Phillip could only have been more Hitler-esque if they had given him the small patch mustache.

The story begins with Phillip laying out his plans for world domination. He demands from England that they refrain from building a fleet and offers his friendship, if they give in to his demands. Queen Elizabeth does her very best Chamberlain imitation, refusing to prepare for the clearly hostile Spain. She chooses to appease the tyrant, even as Phillip is building an armada.

Then there is Captain Thorpe (Errol Flynn) with his own stand-in role. He has his own ship, which is part of an English privateer fleet, the Seahawks. Even as Elizabeth appeases Phillip, the Seahawks raid Spanish towns and sink Spanish ships. Thorpe is channeling at least a little Churchill, urging the queen – and through her, the nation of England – to prepare for war.

That makes this film fascinating on two very different levels. It is a fantastic swashbuckling film all on its own, and it is also a wonderful bit of anti-Nazi propaganda, intended to rally the nation to resist. Queen Elizabeth concludes the film with a speech that is a clear call for America to come join the war.
"When the ruthless ambitions of a man threaten to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men."
CAUTIONS

There is a lot of fighting, with folks getting stabbed and shot. But there is no gore.

CONCLUSION

I had an opportunity to watch The Sea Hawk with a group of friends who, as a general rule, don't watch black and white films. A few exchanges struck them as a bit corny – acting in the 1940s did sometimes take a melodramatic turn – but the swashbuckling action and the self-sacrificial hero, the Second World War subtext, well, it swept away all their resistance. They simply couldn't help themselves: they had to love it!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Born free

Family / Drama
1966 / 95 minutes
RATING 8/10

When a man-eating lion has to be shot, and his mate too, three little cubs are left as orphans. Game warden George Adamson takes them back to his wife Joy, and their home.

As you might expect, three wild lion cubs can get into all sorts of hijinks when they're kept inside. Seeing Elsa, Lustica, and Big One bound on the furniture, and on the Adamsons will be a favorite part for many younger viewers.

The Adamsons raise the triplets until they are too big to manage, and then send two to the Netherlands Rotterdam Zoo. But Elsa, the runt of the litter, ends up staying with them....until it become impossible to keep her too. But how can they send Elsa off to a zoo when all she's known was the wide spaces of the game reserve? The couple hatches a plan to teach their Elsa how to hunt and survive in the wild.

CAUTIONS

The story begins with a woman, busy washing her clothes in the river, getting attacked by a lion. We see only the lion charging, the woman shriek and put up her hands, but not the attack itself. Afterwards a shot of the river shows blood flowing by. While this opening scene is too scary for young children, if parents fast-forwarded that bit (explaining, rather than showing, what happens) the rest of the film could probably be viewed by most children 8 or 9 and up.

A 1-minute scene (in the last 10 minutes of the film) of one lion fighting another might also be too intense for young viewers.

Language concerns include one instance of "damn it" but nothing else.

CONCLUSION

In children's entertainment, whenever Nature or the environmentalism is addressed, Man is most often portrayed as a curse on creation rather than as a caretaker of it (think Bambi, Ferngully, The Lorax, etc.). But in Born free the Adamsons are games wardens, responsible for the care and management of creatures. We might question some of their priorities (when the Elsa stampedes an elephant troop into a village that should have been reason enough to send her away to a zoo). But overall, in Born free Man's management role is assumed - the Adamsons are exercising dominion (Genesis 1:28). That makes this film a counter to some of the unbiblical environmental propaganda children will encounter, particularly if mom or dad use it as a conversation starter.

Based on a true story, Born free is simply enchanting. Some of that is due to the on location shooting in Africa, as well as the Oscar-winning score. But the scene-stealers are the lions, especially when the three sisters are all cubs getting into laugh-out loud mischief. Whether you are a cat person or not, watching these beautiful creatures jump and play and hunt will have you in awe of the Creator who crafted them.

Born Free is a film that all ages will enjoy...so long as parents note the warnings above.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The man who shot Liberty Valance

Western / Black and White
1962 / 123 minutes
RATING 8/10

What does it mean to be a man? In this classic Western, Hollywood offers up two answers.

Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is a successful horse rancher living just outside the town of Shinbone who prides himself on not needing anyone and not fearing anyone. He solves his own problems, and figures that everyone else should do the same. Self-reliant - that, in his mind, is what makes a man a real man.

Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) is a lawyer, newly arrived to Shinbone who starts a school for both children and adults when he discovers that most can't read. He wants to bring law and order to town, but via the law book, and not the gun barrel, and that makes him naive. But he's also principled and caring, and that, in his mind, is what makes a man a man.

To put both these models of manhood to the test, we have Liberty Valance, a bully and a killer. He and his gang do whatever they want, and none of the town folk dare stop him. Doniphon could stop him... but that would be solving other people's problems for them. Ransom wants to stop him... but he'll need more than just his law books.

CAUTIONS

This is an all-time classic that everyone will enjoy...if they have the patience for it. It starts off slow, and the pacing throughout is far more relaxed than anything a modern viewer is used to. If it were made today, they would cut at least a half hour. But, if you go in understanding that, then this will be a grand film.

It's the nature of Western to have some violence in them, but in this one a lot of it occurs offscreen, though just barely so, as when Ransom is whipped. Onscreen we see a manic Liberty striking furiously, but Ransom is just below the frame, so we don't see the blows land. A couple people are shot, but without any real gore.

The only language concerns would be one use of "damn"

CONCLUSION

If your children regularly watch TV then the pace of this film will be too slow to keep their interest. But otherwise this would be a classic worth sharing with the family including children maybe 10 years old and up. It's good fodder for a discussion about the difference between Hollywood's ideal man, and the type of man God calls us to be in passages like Ephesians 5:21-33.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Cameraman

Silent film / Comedy
1928 / 76 minutes
RATING 7/10

Buster Keaton is a down on his luck tin-type cameraman. The film takes place in the 1920s, when photos are still a rarity and Buster makes his money taking portraits of passersby on the street for ten cents each. The story begins when Buster has a chance encounter with Sally, the receptionist at a newsreel company's office. To impress her he trades in his tin-type camera for a hand-cranked motion picture and heads off to find some news to film.

It takes Buster a bit of time to get the hang of things but his failures are entertaining, and Sally appreciates the effort. However, just as she's warming up to him, and Buster is figuring out how to run his camera, the villain of the piece – an already established news cameraman – arrives to break up the not-yet-a-couple. Nothing is ever easy for Buster!

CAUTIONS

There are a few cautions for this film that make it less than ideal viewing for the youngest viewers.

Buster first encounters Sally when a huge crowd crushes them into each other, with Buster stuck behind her, his nose buried in her hair. This takes the ridiculous love-at-first-sight trope, and turns it into a slightly creepy love-at-first-smell. Fortunately this is only a brief bit.

There is one "naughty" joke, involving Buster and Sally on their first date to a public swimming pool, Buster ends up in an oversized swimsuit. To impress Sally he heads to the diving board and, of course, ends up diving right out of his suit...though he doesn't immediately realize. To solve his dilemma he divests a woman in a large of swimsuit dress (right down to mid-calf) of her accompanying swim-pants, which he then wears on his way out of the pool. It's best not to think just how he pulled off that stunt (and the film doesn't spend any time on it).

Younger viewers might be shocked at the sudden apparent death of a small monkey that Buster falls on (but later we discover the little guy is okay). A scene in which a police officer tests Keaton's reactions by hitting his knee – and Buster returns in kind – might also be distressing to younger viewers who know that's not how you treat policemen!

CONCLUSION

MGM loved this film so much it was required viewing for all its comedy filmmakers. And no wonder! Like Keaton's other films, this one abounds in stunts and visual jokes, but it probably has the very best – though most abrupt – ending of them all.

So my take is, The Cameraman is a fun film but recommended only for older family members who understand that Buster Keaton is not always to be imitated.