Friday, June 5, 2020

FREE MOVIE: Dude Perfect: Backstage Pass

Documentary
84 minutes / 2020
RATING: 8/10

In 2009 some college friends, calling themselves the "Backyard Stuntmen" videotaped each other trying crazy basketball shots – behind the back shots, roof shots, hitting-a-hoop-driving-by-in-the-bed-of-a-pickup-truck shots – with each guy trying to outdo the last. Then they posted all their makes to YouTube, shared the link with family and friends, and then headed off to bed.

They woke up the next morning to find out they had been featured on Sports Illustrated's website and their video was getting hits by the tens of thousands. So they followed up that one with another. Ten years later the five friends, now called Dude Perfect, are still making videos and their viewers number in the tens of millions.

In this documentary the Dudes are giving their fans, old and new, a peek backstage at their 2019 live tour. And, in segments interspersed throughout, we also get the backstory on the ten years that preceded it: how the Dudes first met, why they all clicked, and even how they almost stopped before they really got going.

All five Dudes – Tyler, Garret, Cody, Coby, and Cory – are professing Christians, and while that isn't as obvious in their trick shot videos (except, maybe, in how family-friendly they are), it comes out clearly in Backstage Pass. One example: as the Dudes are about to head out on tour their family and friends come together to pray for them.

The very same ingredients that make their videos so popular are all on display in the documentary: amazing trick shots, over-the-top excitement, loads of humor, and good friends enjoying each others' company.

Cautions
The only content-related caution worth sharing relates to the "Rage Monster" that Tyler plays in a number of the videos, and on the the live tour too. The joke is that sometimes Tyler just can't control his temper and then he will, usually in a creative way, destroy something big. It might involve taking a pickaxe to a skidoo, or throwing a 4,700 piece LEGO Star Wars Imperial Destroyer off a second-story landing. Adults will be able to deduce that when the Rage Monster rampages, what he is destroying is likely already headed for the garbage heap. But when the Rage Monster destroys the Dudes' hardwood basketball court kids won't know water damage meant there were already plans in place to pull it up – they'll just see an adult acting like a child having a tantrum. So, even though the Rage Monster only has a limited role in the documentary, mom or dad might want to hit the pause button to let kids in on his backstory.

The only other caution isn't one I'd want to make too much of, but will still mention. These five Dudes show a lot of admirable traits in this documentary: they love their wives and their children, show respect to their parents and grandparents, and show love for each other. They also demonstrate industry, creativity, and hard work. But to some of their young fans they might seem to be five adults who have never had to grow up – the so-called "Peter Pan" syndrome. If any of our kids are under the impression they can play their way into millions, that's a course we want to correct. Fruitful work is a way to glorify God, and we should share with our kids that while the Backstage Pass shows some of the behind-the-scenes work, there's a lot more that gets left out because, like a lot of hard work, it would be boring to watch. But whether seen or unseen, our children need to know that hard work is key to the Dudes' success.

Conclusion
This is really all-ages viewing, keeping the attention of kids as young as 4 or 5, and while I haven't tested this on anyone over 50, I really can't see anyone disliking it. If you want to kick back for a dinner-and-a-movie family night, this should fill the bill.

You can watch Dude Perfect: Backstage Pass for free below.Pass for free below.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Overcomer

Drama /Family
2019 / 119 minutes
RATING: 7/10

This was going to be John Harrison's year. The high school basketball coach had all his best players returning, ready to make a legitimate run at the championship. But then the local steel manufacturing plant closed and took their 6,000 employees, and most of his players, out of town. So what's a basketball coach to do when he has no team? How about switching to a new sport? But when the school principal convinces John Harrison to give coaching cross country a try, his new team turns out to be just one student, Hannah,...and she has asthma.

That setup allows for a generous dollop of humor in this drama, but the best part of this film is more serious. Producers, the Kendrick Brothers, are known for packing messages into their movies, and they do so once again, making this film/sermon about finding our identity, not in our job, spouse, political party allegiance, or what ethnic group we're part of, but in Who we belong to. That's a message the Church needs to hear.

Because this is a message movie, it is easy to criticize – one secular reviewer rated it as just one star because it was too "churchy." However, for Overcomer's intended audience, being edified even as we're entertained is no reason to knock a film. What makes bad Christian films bad is not that they have a sermon inserted in there somewhere. The truth is, every film, Christian or secular, has a message, and the quality of the message is often what sets the great ones apart from the good ones (think Chariots of Fire, Lord of the Rings, Casablanca). What makes bad Christian films bad is that they deliver their message poorly, with bad acting, bad writing, bad production values, or some combination thereof.

In contrast, the Kendrick Brothers been upping their game from film to film. And Overcomer is them at their very best.

CAUTIONS

Though there are no concerns about sex, language, or violence, there are still a couple cautions to share. The first is that there are some Arminian flavorings to the film, coming out most overtly when school principal Olivia Brooks tells Hannah that Jesus offers salvation, but "He doesn't force it on you." That, surely, is news to Paul, whom Jesus turned right around on that road to Damascus, and without his permission. I heard an Arminian friend once liken Jesus to "a gentleman" in that he would never force Himself on us. But God, in His Word, reveals Himself, not as a gentleman, but as a parent, and as every parent knows, when our children head off in the wrong direction, we do force our will on theirs. That's what loving parents do.

However, this flavoring is a minor matter. More substantial is when Coach Harrison discovers that Hannah's dead father is actually someone he knows...and isn't dead at all. Hannah's grandmother, who is raising her, told Hannah her father was dead because he was into drugs, and because he had indirectly caused Hannah's mother's death by getting her involved in drugs too. So grandma, to keep Hannah away from a father who had caused them such pain, told her this lie. Coach Harrison ends up going behind the grandmother's back to introduce Hannah to her now Christian father. It all works out for the good, but that a teacher would work actively against a guardian's wishes should have been treated as a bigger issue than the film made it. It is a complicated situation, with an absent father's interests conflicting with the desires of the established guardian grandmother. But it seems, at the least, Coach Harrison needed to go to the grandmother and tried to convince her, rather than going behind her back.

While that's a big issue, it's an easy enough one for parents to correct by hitting the pause button and discussing.

CONCLUSION

What makes the film worth watching is the overall identity message. Even here there are nits to pick, as the Arminian flavoring to the film manages to even make having Jesus as first in our life somehow about us, as much as it is about Him. That said, this is still an effective reminder of how often we can put other things – our career, our family, our hobbies, our interests – ahead of our God. If your family liked Facing the Giants, or Courageous, or any of their previous films, you'll certainly enjoy the Kendrick Brothers' latest effort too.

 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

20,000 leagues under the sea

Family / Classic
127 minutes / 1954
RATING 7/10

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is a childhood favorite I've been looking forward to sharing with my own kids. However, it's been so long since I'd watched it, I wasn't sure it would live up to expectations. I am happy to say it did!

The year is 1868, and it is a time of both sail and steam on the high seas. When rumors of a gigantic sea creature stop ships from venturing out onto the Pacific, the US government asks if oceans expert, Professor Pierre M. Aronnax, and his assistant Conseil, will join a Navy expedition. The goal is to either disprove the creature's existence or, if they find it is real, kill it. To that end, harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) is also invited along for the expedition.

But Ned's harpoons are no use against the creature's hide because this is not something made of flesh and bone but of iron and steel! What's been destroying the ships turns out to be a submarine. When the sub destroys the Navy's ship, only these three - the professor, Conseil, and Ned – survive. They end up being taken on board.

So who created this sub, and why is it being used to destroy ships all over the Pacific Ocean? I won't give it away but as you might imagine, the Captain turns out to be more than a little disturbed.

Cautions

While there are some fantastic action scenes in the film – including a prolonged fight with a giant squid – even my timid 6-year-old managed to make it through them. So the only caution I'll share is in regard's to the good guys' morality – the three shipwreck survivors don't agree on much, and for any kid used to films where the good guys wear white, and where right and wrong are very easy to distinguish, this will be something quite different. Mom and dad should hit the pause button now and again to discuss how everyone is acting, and how that lines up with how God might want them to act.

Conclusion

Our whole family enjoyed this. It has action, but also some calm and wonderful scenes underwater where we get a peek at what it would be like to live always under the seas. I'd recommend it for ages 5 to 95, but I'll add that this being an older film, the pacing is a little more patient than modern fare. And that might take some getting used to

Still, it a classic for a reason – this definitely stands the test of time!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

FREE FILM: The Amazing Adventure


Drama / Black and White
62 minutes / 1936
RATING: 7/10

Ernest Bliss (Cary Grant) is a young man who has inherited a lot of money from his father. That's allowed him to have a very nice house, to buy whatever he wants, and to never worry about working.

Yet he's nervous, can't eat, and can't sleep. When he goes to the specialist and the doctor diagnoses him with "self-indulgence" Bliss is both offended and intrigued. What's the prescription then? The doctor tells Bliss to earn his own living for a year and dismisses him with a wave, knowing that this pampered socialite would never follow this advice. But Bliss ends up making him a bet: if Bliss does do it, then one year from now he'll expect a handshake and an apology from the doctor, and if Bliss loses, then he'll give £50,000 for the doctor's downtown charity clinic.

That's the setup, and the general plotline is as you might expect. Bliss learns some lessons about just how it can be for a regular Joe, and it isn’t too long before he’s secretly using his connections and money to help the struggling people who have befriended him.

CAUTIONS

The only caution I would add is a mild one. At one point a conniving employer tries to so arrange things that he'll be alone with his newly hired secretary. But before he gets anywhere at all, Bliss intervenes. Nothing at all happens, and I mention it only to give a heads up to parents, in case their kids question why it was that Bliss thought the lady needed rescuing.

CONCLUSION

This is part The Prince and the Pauper and part Cinderella, and while it might be predictable (there are a couple of twists!) it's also delightful – this makes for very fun family fare. If you have Amazon Prime, you can watch a version with closed captions here. But because the film's copyright wasn't renewed it is also freely available below (and it can even be chromecast to your TV).

Monday, March 2, 2020

C.S. Lewis onstage: the most reluctant convert

Biographical drama
76 minutes / 2018
RATING: 8/10

Imagine having the opportunity to go back in time and visit with C.S. Lewis, and not just at the local Eagle and Child Pub, but in his home, the Kilns, sitting across from him amongst his books and papers as he pulled on his pipe and shared thoughts from his latest literary efforts.

If that idea excites you, then you are in for such a treat! Max McLean’s one-man theatre production, C.S. Lewis Onstage is still touring across North America, but a filmed version is available on DVD and can be streamed on Amazon.com (Americans with Prime can watch it for free here). Mclean is Lewis, and we are his guests as Lewis recounts the story of his conversion. He shares how he rejected God as a schoolboy and grew more adamant as a young man. He voices the atheistic arguments he relied on – arguments that are still in use today. But, as Lewis explains to us, if one wishes to remain an atheist, you can never be too careful about your reading. God used the talents of a diverse cast of writers to bring this prodigal back, from George MacDonald to G.K. Chesterton, and Tolkien too. Lewis explains how he was drawn back in stages, and only bent his knee because he couldn’t do anything else. His was a grudging bow; he was “the most reluctant convert.”

I absolutely love this film, but I can also see how this would be dreadfully dull for anyone who isn’t already a fan of Lewis’ non-fiction. It is, after all, just a man talking and talking and talking. I should also admit that as much as I enjoyed this, I also fell asleep several times as I made my way through it. That was due in part to the complete lack of action (no explosions here to wake me back up again), to the charming but decidedly calm manner of the man himself, and due also to the demand the film put on my brain – it requires complete attentiveness or else you just won’t follow the train of thought Lewis is laying out.

However, even if it did get me nodding, each time I started watching again I rewound to long before I winked out. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed a bit of it. This really is something to savor…even if that savoring should be done in chunks, spread out over a few nights.

As to cautions, I can’t think of any. Lewis was no 5-point Calvinist, but his conversion story makes him sound almost like one: the account he shares is of God grabbing hold of him. Lewis takes no credit for it himself.

So, who'd love this? Well, if you don’t already know Lewis, this is not a good way to first get introduced – it'd be overwhelming, which might well make it seem boring.

But for anyone who wishes they'd had the chance to meet Lewis, well, this is the next best thing!

Monday, February 3, 2020

FREE FILM: 2081: Everyone will finally be equal

Drama
2009 / 25 minutes
RATING: 8/10

“The year is 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law you see; they were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else…"

In 2081 a “golden age of equality” has been ushered in by the “Handicapper General” whose job is to assess everyone’s abilities and, if they have any advantages, to then assigns them “handicaps” to take them away. In the film’s opening scene we meet George who, being a little stronger than most, is sunk down in his easy chair by the heavy weights he’s been assigned to sap his strength. He’s also outfitted with earphones that hit him with piercing sounds to make it impossible for him to use his higher than average IQ. Meanwhile, his wife Hazel sits comfortably on the couch, knitting. She hasn't been outfitted with any handicaps because she's been deemed to have no advantages.

So they are equal. But is it an equality we want to have? Hazel and George are now just as fast, just as strong, and just as able to do math as one another. But this is an equality of the lowest common denominator. To bring this equality George's gifts had to be diminished until he was at Hazel's level. And for the government to bring about this type of equality, it had to treat them quite differently: Hazel is free, while George is in chains.

Surely this isn't what we mean by equality, is it? There must be some other, better sort?

While the film doesn't really direct us to the equality that is worth pursuing, the Bible does. In passages like Leviticus 19:15, Ex. 23:3, 1 Timothy 5:21, and James 2:8-9 we're pointed to a type of equality that involve treating all alike, not favoring the less advantaged over the rich, or the rich over the poor. Instead of endorsing 2081's equality of outcomes, God tells us to extend an equality of treatment.

2081 is so short I don't want to give any more of the plot away. But if you're looking for a great conversation starter, this is a fantastic film to watch and discuss, though be sure to do so with a Bible in hand. You can watch the trailer below, and to watch 2081 for free, follow this link (you do need to sign up to their email list, but they won't spam you, and you can always unsubscribe).

[SPOILER ALERT: the questions below do give away some more of the story.]

Questions to consider
  1. In 2081 equality is said to have been achieved. But has it really? Are Hazel and George and Harrison equal to the Handicapper General? Can you think of any historical examples where governments brought a form of equality to the masses, that they didn't want to share in themselves?
  2. Does the Bible support an equality of outcomes or an equality of treatment (aka. an equality of opportunity)? See Leviticus 19:15, Ex. 23:3, 1 Timothy 5:21, and James 2:8-9.
  3. How is Hazel’s situation improved by George being handicapped? Why would she hate it if he removed his handicaps? How does Ex. 20:17 apply here?
  4. Is income inequality (2 Chronicles 1:12; Ex. 20:17) something that God calls on Christians to fight? Is poverty (Prov. 19:17)?
  5. What was Harrison Bergeron hoping to accomplish? If no one remembers his speech then did he die for anything? If we take an unsuccessful stand for what is right why could that still be worth doing? In what way is our measure of success different than that of the world's?
  6. In 2081 the government controls every aspect of people's lives. Why do governments grow? Who is it, that's asking them to do more? What are the dangers of governments that get too big? (1 Samuel 8:10-22)

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Flying Tigers

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

On January 3, 1942, just one month after Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of three American fliers staged a daring attack on a Japanese base in Thailand. The three were not members of the US military, but were, instead, part of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) – they were civilians hired by the US government. The AVG was going to be an unofficial group that could help the Chinese fight the Japanese, even as the US remained officially neutral. But delays in the group's initial organization meant they only saw action after war had been declared.

Flying Tigers is about the 1st AVG, the group that led America's first daring response to the Japanese attack. But as movies do, there are some liberties taken with the facts. In the film version Capt. Jim Gordon (John Wayne) and the 1st AVG have been conducting attacks on the Japanese long before his country's official entry into the war. What isn't a liberty is how successful the Flying Tigers are shown to be. On film and in real life the 1st AVG was constantly and often massively outnumbered, and yet never lost an air battle (they are credited with at least 296 kills, while only 14 of their own pilots were killed). Still, as the fighting continues, the casualties do come, and Capt. Gordon has to take whatever pilots he can find, even if some of them are troublemakers.

And the biggest troublemaker of them all is Capt. Gordon's independent and down-right self-absorbed buddy Woody Jason.

This film has a message and it's the same one that Woody Jason has to learn: to win this war that independent streak that's so much a part of the American make-up will need to be restrained. Yes, individual ambition helped make America prosperous, but ambition unrestrained is simply selfishness. What Woody learns can be summed up in biblical terms: we need to govern our ambition with the Second Greatest Commandment. Selfish ambition makes Woody despised; ambition and a love for his neighbor makes him remarkable.

CAUTIONS

There is very little blood shown – a Japanese pilot will get hit, throw his hands up to his face, and then, for a moment, we will see blood seeping between his fingers before the scene cuts away. That happens a half dozen or so times.

The only other warning would concern the portrayal of the Chinese and Japanese.  They only make brief appearances, but when they do they come off as a little bit silly or simple. That can be credited in part to the language barrier - anyone speaking a language they only partially know is going to sound a little simple. But there's also likely an element of racism here, which parents might want to point out to their kids.

CONCLUSION

A modern audience might find the pacing in the first 30 minutes slow, up until Woody Jason shows up. So some patience is required, but this is a fascinating look at the earliest of America's action against Japan. It would be a good one for John Wayne fans, and for a family with kids who are 10 and up who have an interest in World War II...and who haven't had their attention span ruined by constant video and TV watching.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Bataan

Drama / Black and White / War
1943 / 114 minutes
RATING: 8/10

This is a movie unlike any other you will ever see.

In the early months of 1942, Japan launched an attack on the Philippines and, over the course of three months, they drove General Douglas MacArthur and his American forces right off of the islands.

Bataan is set during that retreat. A group of 13 men are assigned the task of blowing up a key bridge after the Allies cross it, and before the Japanese reach it. The 13 are castoffs and strangers to one another. In all the fighting they'd become separated from their original units. But now they'd been asked to come together and delay the Japanese advance for as long as they could.

The motley nature of this crew makes for some solid character-driven action but what makes this film so very unusual and exceptional is when it was shot. America had been forced out of the Philippine Islands, and those wounds still stung. This was not the seemingly invincible America that we know today, but was instead America the bloodied. It would still be a year's time before the US returned to the Philippines, and for Bataan's audience, it was far from clear what the outcome of the war would be. The typical war film is about men facing incredible odds and eventually winning. They couldn't do that in Bataan, because it was about a battle the US lost. So, instead, Bataan was made as a pledge to honor the courage and sacrifice of men who died never knowing if victory would even happen.

The result is an emotional rollercoaster that keeps your attention right to the very end.

CAUTIONS

There is a lot of fighting in Bataan. And right from the opening – with the Japanese dropping bombs on the retreating columns of soldiers, Filipino families, and the wounded – there are a lot of people being killed. However, there is very little blood. In the 1940s directors didn't feel the need to make things hyper-realistic, or depict killing blows in slow motion, so, compared to today's gore-fests Bataan isn't going to disturb adults.

But the sheer volume of killing makes this a film unsuitable for the very young.

CONCLUSION

This is one of the most memorable, and certainly the most unique World War II film I've ever seen. I'd highly recommend this for guys who have the patience to appreciate black and white films and who have an interest in learning about World War II from the films of the time.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

I Can Only Imagine

Drama
2018 / 110 minutes
Rating: 8/10

This is the life story of MercyMe singer Bart Millard, or, more specifically, it's the story of what drove him to write what's been called the most popular Christian song of the modern era, I Can Only Imagine.

The story starts with 12-year-old Bart in 1985, listening to ELO tunes on his Sony Walkman, and crafting a carboard Star Wars fighter helmet. He's a creative dreamer, but his home life is a nightmare. When he gets home that evening his father burns his helmet, and when Bart heads to bed early his Walkman only partially drowns out his parents' screaming.

So is this a story about a man succeeding despite a difficult childhood? It's more than that. The focus isn't as much on Bart's transformation, from troubled kid to successful singer, as it is about God transforming his abusive father. As Bart tells Amy Grant:

"My dad was a monster. I mean that's the only word for it. And I saw God transform him from a man I hated into the man I wanted to become. Into my best friend....I guess I didn't realize God could do that. And so I wrote this song."

That's the central story, and if that was it, it might be too rough of a ride to really enjoy. But added in the mix is the sweet but certainly not simple story of how Bart eventually married his childhood sweetheart. Another great element is the lead actor, J Michael Finley who is a really good actor, and an absolutely fantastic singer!

Cautions

Millard's father is abusive, both physically, which we mostly don't see, and verbally, which we do. While the violence takes place primarily off-screen there are a few brief moments that are scary because the viewer has no reason to presume they are going to be just brief. One example: Millard's father breaks a plate over his head. It's shocking, however, it doesn't escalate. There's nothing here that would shock an adult, but these early scenes of Millard's family life are one reason this film, despite its PG rating, is not appropriate for children.

Another reason? Not only is Millard's father abusive, his mother abandons him. Neither of those are thoughts we want our children worrying about.

Conclusion 

Christian films often take a saccharine turn, but because it is anchored to a real-life story, I Can Only Imagine manages to remain authentic.

This is a remarkable film and I was trying to think of why it struck me just so. I think it was the message its pitching which could be summed up like this. Life on this side of eternity can be hard, especially when we don't understand what God is doing. But we do know He is good and we know He is mighty, so we know miracles are possible including changing even the hardest of hearts. That means sometimes we have to, in confusion, simply cling in trust to Him. But we never have to be without hope.

While the film is quite true to Millard's story, dramatic license has been taken in the climactic singing scene. If, after watching the film, you want to know how it really happened, click here and here.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

FREE FILM: John Hus: A Journey of No Return

Docudrama
2015 /55 minutes
Rating: 7/10

This docudrama covers the last months of Reformer Jan Hus's (1369-1415) life when he was imprisoned and awaiting trial on charges of heresy. His "errors" were of the sort that Luther would preach 100 years later: Hus had a problem with indulgences, and with the corrupt clergy, and he wanted the Bible translated into the Czech language. And, like Luther, he would not back down.

It's important to understand that the film is a fictional account based on historical facts. The biggest embellishment is the character Robert Tallio, who is portrayed as an inquisitor – a torturer – who has been brought by his cleric brother to report on Hus. But instead of getting what he wants from Hus, he gets what he needs – Tallio hears the Gospel and is increasingly troubled by it.

Tallio isn't a complete embellishment – he is based on a sympathetic jailer named Robert that we read about in Hus's letters. Hus even wrote a tract on marriage for him, so their relationship seemed to be a close one. But other than his name, occupation, and his apparent need for advice on marriage, we don't know anything else about this Robert. But it is through this bit of fiction that we get to see a more human face to Hus. We don't just see his courage, but also his compassion, even for his jailer.

CAUTIONS

The only content caution I can think of would be in regards to Tallio and his love interest, who begins the story as a prostitute. We don't see anything sexual or revealing – I mention it only to alert parents that her occupation is discussed. And, as mentioned it is important to remember that this blending of fiction with fact can't be relied on to give more than an impression of the man. If you want more than a brief, albeit intriguing, overview of the man, it'd be best to turn to a good book about him.

CONCLUSION

So who would like this? If you have any interest in Church history, this will be an enjoyable hour's viewing. The production values are lavish, the acting solid, and the dubbing from the original Czech, decently done. This looks good!

However, if you have no interest in Church history, well, this dialogue-driven movie likely won't be exciting enough to change your mind. That said, why not give it a try? You can watch it for free below.

Another, older, production, 1977's "John Hus," is widely available, but while just as educational, it is far less professional.


Jon Dykstra also blogs on movies at ReelConservative.com.