Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Song

Drama
2014 / 116 minutes
RATING: 9/10

The Song destroys all the expectations we have for Christian films. It has great acting, a great script, an even better soundtrack...and also infidelity, abortion, suicide, drugs, and more infidelity. It's far better than most any Christian film you've seen, but also much grittier.

It is based on, but does not pretend to be, the story of King David and Solomon. The setting is, instead, Nashville, with Jed King an aspiring country singer, who hasn't yet measured up to the status of his superstar father. But he also hasn't fallen into any of his excesses either. 

When he meets Rose, the manager of a winery, he writes a special song for her that turns into his first major hit. From there we see him rise to spectacular heights. Like Solomon before him, he has it all. And like Solomon (and his superstar father) before him, he falls to the temptress, in his case the lead singer of his opening act. 

That doesn't really do it justice, because if you imagine how a story based on the Bible, however loosely, typically turns out, there's just one word for it: lame. That's why it's important to emphasize just how unusual and exceptional The Song is. Two things make it remarkable. The first is the perfect pairing of story, with song, and even with narrated voice overs. All the "Solomonic texts"– Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon – are quoted regularly, and impactfully. Jed is learning some hard lessons through the film, and he shares them, warning us of the ways of the adulterous women, but also the futility of having it all when it is all going to turn  to dust in the end. 

Remarkable too, is the music. It's another fantastic pairing of story and song: the musical performances are worth the price of admission right there!

While praising it as highly as I can, I will add that this was a hard film to watch the first time, since, being familiar with both David and Solomon's story, my wife and I knew that at some point the Jed's happy story was going to take a devastating, self-sabatoging turn. We actually ended up watching it in two nights, the first with all the fun romantic joking and giddiness between him and Rose. We shut it off right before Jed was set to make his stupid devastating decisions (it wasn't hard to tell when that was going to happen). Then the next evening, we could start off with that short bit of ugliness, and then ride out the end of the movie where we got to see his life impacted by undeserved, but gratefully recieved grace. 

CAUTIONS

Even though we don't really see anything, the mature topic matter means this is not a film for children. Underscoring that point, it begins with a two-minute overview of the lowlights of David King's life. We see Jed's father singing on the Grand ol' Ole Opry, and later catching his bandmate's wife swimming naked in a lake (paralleling David seeing Bathsheba). They try to cover up the pregnancy that follows by getting her husband drunk. While King David kills Uriah, in the film the husband, upon learning of his friend's and wife's betrayal, commits suicide. Thankfullly that is all over and done with in a quick montage in the opening minutes. 

CONCLUSION

Some films are gritty for the sake of being gritty. This is gritty for the sake of being true. But it is also funny, romantic, rousing, thought-provoking, and toe-taping for the same reason: because that's what life is like too. I feel like I didn't give this film the pitch it deserved, so I'm going to link to a few other reviews so you can get a second and third opinion. 

Variety (a secular publication)

If you want to dig into the film further, here's a list of some of the biblical references throughout the film. You can check out the trailer below, and rent it online at Amazon and other online streaming services.


Friday, November 13, 2020



Drama 
1939 / 112 minutes 
Rating: 6/10

Based loosely on the Alexander Dumas story of the same name, it takes place 20 years after Dumas' more famous The Three Musketeers novel. The opening is the French palace, where the Queen has just given birth to son Louis. The King now has an heir so his court and the whole country are caught up in celebration. However, back in the Queen's chambers the doctor and nursemaid are still at work because, so it turns out, the Queen was carrying twins. When the younger prince Philippe is delivered, the news is kept secret, for he presents a problem: so long as Philippe lives he is sure to become a tool that unscrupulous sorts will use against his older brother. The King and his closest advisors all agree, this boy will be the cause of civil war. 

So what's to be done? Baby Philippe is packed off with the King's most trusted friend and the greatest of the musketeers, D'Artagnan, to raise as his own son. The boy is never to know who his true father is. 

Fast forward twenty years and the older Louis has been king since he was five. Indulged since that young age he has grown to become a wicked tyrant, so much so that he thinks nothing of arresting his father's closest friends, including D'Artagnan. When Philippe gets arrested too, the king discovers their startling resemblance. Knowing no reason for it – the birth of his brother has been kept a secret from him too – he decides to use Philippe as a body double. He's learned his unhappy subjects are planning to assassinate him, and he sees in Philippes's appearance an opportunity to redirect the danger to this other! However, there are now two in the palace playing the part of the King, and that is one too many. As the title shares, there's an iron mask involved at one point, but I'll stop here lest I give away too much.

CAUTIONS

The twists and turns caused by one actor playing two roles confused our youngest. But hitting the pause button to get her back up to speed was all it took to help her. There is some swordplay, but of a near G-rated sort. At one point a man is whipped, just off-screen. We see the whip hit him, not directly, but in the shadows on the wall, and our sensitive girls wanted to know if the whipping was actually happening...and we could assure them it was not. 

Another consideration is that the King has both a wife-to-be and a girlfriend on the side. His lasciviousness is never shown on screen – the most anyone does in this film is get kissed on the forehead – but parents will have to explain how her presence tells us what kind of flawed character the King is.

CONCLUSION

I don't think anyone in our family would give this two thumbs up, though I think we'd probably all give it one – all of us found bits of the film we quite enjoyed. My wife likes to learn about historical settings, and appreciates being exposed to a famous story she hadn't heard before. The kids were intrigued by the whole identical twin angle with one actor playing both parts. All of us loved the sword fights. But I'll also add, my girls were a bit freaked out by the scenes with the man in the iron mask, and my wife was really disgusted by the evil Louis. So this isn't the sort of black and white film you should pitch to people who aren't used to black and white films. However, for those of us raised on such fare, this is a solid outing. 

While there doesn't seem to be a movie trailer available online, the clip before will give you a feel for the film's quite tame, cartoon-like violence. You can watch it for free by clicking here (though it might have commercials).

Friday, October 16, 2020

Free film: Genesis Impact

Docudrama
68 minutes / 2020
RATING: 7/10

This is a very good...something. The topic matter is plain enough – human origins – but what's less clear is whether this is a documentary or drama.

The beginning is standard documentary: apologist Ray Comfort, just off camera, interviewing college students about their views on evolution.

But when the camera pulls back we discover these interviews are actually a smartphone's 3-D holographic projections being viewed by a teen boy sitting on the edge of his couch (presumably a decade or two into the future seeing as there's no app for that quite yet). When mom wanders by to put away groceries, he shares his doubts about whether God really did create in just six days. "What if they're right, and we're wrong?" he asks, "I mean, the scientific evidence for evolution is pretty overwhelming. What if God...used evolution?" To answer his questions, mom takes us through another scene change, shifting back 20 years to modern day when she was still in school, listening to an origins lecture at a Natural History museum. When the speaker concludes and most of the other students leave the auditorium, the young mom-to-be stays behind to question, and eventually debate, the scientist/lecturer. That's where we stay, along with a few student stragglers, listening to a well-reasoned critique of the lecturer's evolutionary presentation. While Genesis Impact hardly has a plot, it still has plenty of drama as evolution and creationist go head-to-head over the next hour.

Genesis Impact shouldn't be evaluated as a drama though. The acting is fine – solid enough not to get in the way, and better than many a Christian drama – but the young lady is far too knowledgeable, and the evolutionist lecturer far too reasonable (readily conceding her every good point) to be realistic. Fortunately, the filmmakers' goal isn't realism. They wanted to present a challenging, highly educational lecture on a pivotal topic, and they wanted to deliver it in a really unique and entertaining manner. Mission accomplished!

Caution

While the topic matter is the sort you might want to share with an atheist friend, that this is a staged debate – an acted out debate – provides the "out" any skeptic would take to dismiss it entirely, arguing that a real evolutionist would have had better responses, or wouldn't have conceded so many points. So one caution would be that this isn't one to win over an unsympathetic or hostile audience.

Conclusion

What makes it valuable is that the creationist critique is a really good one. Evolutionary proofs aren't so overwhelming as it seems, with guesses built on assumptions, stacked atop beliefs. Secular science presents their conclusions as being unassailable, though sometimes the hype is as much the fault of the media as the scientists. Even when researchers couch their guesswork with phrases like "could be" and "might" and "probably" the media is likely to trumpet "Evidence of life has been found on Mars!" in 36-point front-page headlines.  Still, the same sort of unwarranted certainty can be found in Natural History displays, and in university classrooms, so evolutionary arrogance isn't simply a mainstream media invention.

Who should see Genesis Impact? It's best suited for bible-believing Christians who are interested in, or troubled by, evolutionary accounts. It'll be an encouragement and could serve as a leap-off point for further study. The depth of the material discussed also means this is best suited for college-age and up.

You can watch it for free below, and visit the film's website to dig deeper: GenesisApologetics.com/Impact.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Uncle Tom: An Oral History of the American Black Conservative

Documentary 
2020 / 106 minutes 
Rating: 8/10 

"Uncle Tom" is an insult thrown at blacks by other blacks for supposedly being too eager to get approval from whites. It's leveled at Larry Elder, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Candace Owens, Allen West, and the many other black conservatives who aren't willing to unquestioningly back the Democratic Party and the policies that it pushes. 

This conservative group is a small minority – in the US, blacks are a cohesively liberal voting block, with 9 out of 10 casting their ballot for the Democratic presidential candidate in the last election. But, as this documentary shows, the conservative minority is willing to wear insults as a badge of honor. They aren't going to stay silent about the damage that's been done to their black communities by government welfare policies and by a victimhood narrative that tells blacks they can't succeed because the system is stacked against them. 

Uncle Tom is conservative commentator Larry Elder's project, and offers his perspective which is, ultimately, a very hopeful one. Yes, he details the bigotry that has existed and continues to exist but he also notes that real progress has been made, and that "this is not your grandfather's America." President Obama is shown echoing that point, speaking of Martin Luther King Jr. and his generation as being "the Moses generation" that "took us 90% of the way" and the task for today's "Joshua generation" is to work on that last 10%. 

Elder contrasts that hopeful message with the scaremongering Democrats (including Obama) are running with now, where Republicans are caricatured as so racist that electing them will threaten black voting rights. The argument Elder makes is that it isn't a racist system, or racist boogie men that are blacks' biggest enemy, but the victimhood narrative. And he counters that narrative by showing and celebrating the successes of a broad assortment of black entrepreneurs and leaders.

Caution

Some of the exchanges we see are not polite ones, so there are language concerns, including the uses of the n-word (from blacks directed at other blacks), and quite a number of f-bombs, as well as some other words that we might not want our young children to know. 

Another caution concerns how this film might seem unfairly biased. Many of us have grown up in the church, read God's Word daily and heard it expounded each Sunday, and that has equipped us with fairly reliable sniff detectors – even when we aren't able to put it exactly into words why we don't trust what's being presented, we can still sniff out lies. But in this case, I suspect some folk's sniff detectors might register a false alarm. The alarm will go off because there is a clear Republican conservative bias here, but just as offering a Reformed perspective is a bias too and doesn't preclude a fair treatment of opposing views, I'd argue the bias in Uncle Tom doesn't get in the way of a generally fair presentation. The Democrats are given plenty of screen time, and while their clips usually don't show them in a good light, these are the real positions Democrats hold and there is nothing deceptive about sharing what they actually believe. So yes, there might be too generous an appraisal of Donald Trump, and other points that we shouldn't be swallowing whole, but the overall argument against the victimhood culture is a solid one.

Conclusion

While there are Christians in the film, and some Christian perspective is offered, we never really get a concise summary of why the victimhood narrative is sinful (though lots of clues are offered). Parents watching this with their older teens might want to discuss:
  • Is the victimhood narrative about raising victims up, or about assigning blame and guilt? Can any forgiveness be found in a victimhood culture?
  • The victimhood narrative is sometimes used to justify shameful behavior – the current rioting is supposed to be understandable because of systemic racism. But do two wrongs make a right?
  • How is blame being assigned? Is it based on actual sins committed, or is it on the basis of skin color? What does the Bible say about that?
  • Are the charges leveled about specific instances of wrong or are they often generalized accusations of systemic racism? Can we right unspecified wrongs? How about specific wrongs?
  • How does the hope offered in this film – that if you work hard you can get ahead – deliver, and how does it fall short?
Uncle Tom offers a conservative perspective that, even as it doesn't always line up with the Christian perspective, still offers genuine insight into much of what's going wrong in race relations. I'd recommend this for ages 13 or up, based primarily on language concerns. But it is a film that demands discussion afterwards – it has to be unpacked and cross-examined to be of any use. 

You can watch the trailer below, and rent the film for $8 US here. And if you enjoyed it, you can get a closer look at two of these black leaders in their own documentaries: Walter Williams: Suffer No Fools and the upcoming Thomas Sowell: Common Sense in a Senseless World.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Long Shot: The Kevin Laue Story

Documentary
91 minutes / 2012
Rating: 7/10

This is the amazing story of how a one-armed young man beats the odds to make it onto a Division 1 college basketball team. His disability alone would make Kevin Laue a "long shot" but then he also lost his dad at age 10. What the film celebrates is Laue's determination, but what it also captures is the enormous hole left when a father is missing. So much of what Laue does and wants to do is an effort to make his late father proud.

Laue does have a father figure in the film, a fantastic high school coach in Patrick McKnight who was willing to just invest in the young man, and "put a foot in his butt" when Laue needed it. He also has a family that loves him, including a grandmother who calls him her "chickadee" and has to be in the running for his #1 fan.

Cautions

Language concerns would be a couple of f-bombs dropped by players and one "gosh." We see Kevin in the shower, shot from the other side of the somewhat opaque glass door so we don't see any details, but enough flesh-color to know he is naked.

While the trailer below makes this look like more of an explicitly Christian film than it is - the Laues' trust in God only comes up in spots. And that's maybe the more notable caution: while the film highlights how important a father can be for a son, God isn't portrayed as nearly as significant, which prompts a great discussion question for our kids: who do you think is the "god" – the most important person or thing? – in this film? Is it dads or God?

Conclusion

This is a fascinating film about young man who is admirable in many ways, and yet not so idealized here that he becomes fake and distant. It's one that any sports fans will enjoy, and both teens and parents will enjoy equally. Check out the trailer below, and watch it for free here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Free film: Flight of the Butterflies

Documentary
2012 / 44 minutes
RATING: 7/10 

Equal parts detective story and nature documentary, Flight of the Butterflies tells the story of "Dana" and her offspring, beautiful monarch butterflies making their way across the United States. It also showcases the investigative work of biologist Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah, who spent their lives trying to discover where the butterflies were going on their yearly migration. 

The nature half is simply stunning, and deserves a widescreen TV viewing – you'd lose so much watching it on your phone. We get to follow Dana as she flutters from plant to plant, laying her more than 300 eggs, and get to tag along, too, as she flies as much as a mile up into the heavens. Then, when we eventually see one of Dana's grandchildren form her chrysalis, we get a peek inside:

"Fed oxygen by hundreds of fine breathing tubes. her brain, heart and digestive track change shape and size. New powerful flight muscles develop, and compound eyes form. Long legs and steady wings complete the transformation."

The caterpillar to butterfly transformation is astonishing – one creature becoming something else entirely! But it gets even crazier: while Dana didn't live all that long, and her daughter didn't either, they somehow manage to spawn a granddaughter that will look just like them, but be another sort of creature once again: Dana's granddaughter is a "super butterfly destined to live eight times longer" than either of the two previous generations! 

The mystery half is fun too. An actor familiar to many Canadians, Gordon Pinsent (Beachcombers, The Red Green Show) plays Fred Urquhart who recruits the help of regular folk – "citizen scientists" – all over the United States to help him tag, and then track the flight paths of monarch butterflies. After gathering this information for decades he can tell they fly south towards Texas, but where do these millions of butterflies go afterward? I won't spoil things: you'll have to watch it to find out.

Caution

The documentary opens with a quick nod to Darwin, with biologist Fred Urquhart declaring, "It has been said since Darwin's time that evolution has been written on the wings of a butterfly. I know my life has." Another similar sort of "nod" happens elsewhere, but the brilliant design evident in the monarch's lifecycle and remarkable migration far outshine these little mars. 

There is also a few mentions made of man-caused environmental issues that might impact the monarch, including a passing mention of global warming. But these are very brief, and the film is not any sort of anti-man screed. As with many a secular nature documentary perhaps the most notable caution is simply that in a film about a creature whose beauty and amazing lifecycle screams out the glory of its Creator, the film never gives God His due. But we can make up for this deficiency.

Conclusion

Fred and Norah Urquhart spent 50 years learning all about the monarch, and in this remarkable film we get to come along for that journey of discovery. 

This is a quiet film – there are no explosions to be found – so it isn't going to be to everyone's tastes. But maybe it should be – if the brilliance of the monarch butterfly doesn't fill us with awe at God's genius, maybe it's time we stopped watching so many car chases and superhero battles and sharpened up our sense of awe. Regardless, for the nature lover in your family this will be something special. You can watch the trailer below, and watch the film for free here.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Larryboy and the Fib from Space

Children's / Animated 
30 min / 1999 
RATING: 7/10 

Larry-Boy is no ordinary hero: first off, he's a cucumber, and secondly he's got super suction cup ears. And to complete the Batman spoof, he also has his own Larry-mobile, Larry-cave and asparagus butler named Alfred.

In this, his first adventure, a tiny alien named Fibrilious Minimus ("You can call me Fib for short") encourages a kid named Junior Asparagus to lie to get out of trouble. But one lie quickly leads to another and before he knows it Junior finds that his little friend Fib is now 20 stories tall. Can Larry-Boy stop the Fib from outer space?

Actually, no. Bumblyburg's resident superhero is completely confounded by the giant Fib. In the end only Junior can stop the Fib, by finally confessing to all his lies – a good message wrapped in great jokes.

If you like this video you may like a number of other "Veggietale" videos as well: Larry-Boy and the Rumor Weed, Madame Blueberry and Sheerluck Holmes. But not all the episodes in this Veggietales series are as admirable, with some tackling Bible stories in a way that just doesn't show the respect due God's Word.

You can get a taste of Larryboy by watching the official theme song video below.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Our Kids Online: porn, predators, and keeping them safe

Documentary
88 minutes / 2020
RATING: 8/10

Our Kids Online begins with a wake-up call: kids aren’t just seeing graphic, dehumanizing pornography online, many are now imitating these acts, and even filming themselves at it. That got my attention.

It also got me wanting to turn the documentary off right there. It’s too much, too dark, and I’d really rather not hear about it. The producers must have anticipated that feeling because right then, flashing across the screen, they shared the famous challenge, commonly attributed to Edmund Burke:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

As one of the filmmakers noted, “Just hoping our kids won’t be exposed is not an option….It’s not a case of if they see it; it’s a case of when.” So it was time to man up, keep watching, and trust that the promise in the documentary’s title – that I was going to learn how to keep my kids safe – would be born out. And by film’s end, I was glad I stuck with it.

A PARENTAL PERSPECTIVE

Filmmakers Rob and Zareen Cope are a couple of New Zealander parents who didn’t want to tackle this topic either. But then their kids started pressuring them for more access to the Internet. And because they wanted to keep them safe, the Copes started investigating what the online dangers were, and what could be done about them. That quickly left them feeling overwhelmed.

Then they started doing what documentarians do: as Zareen explains it: “We got in touch with some of the world’s leading experts in this field and we hit the road.” As we, the viewers, follow along, we get to listen in on some pretty insightful, sometimes devastating, and always eye-opening conversations.

PORN IS DIFFERENT TODAY

Many parents don’t know what pornography is today: it isn’t just some Playboy-type pictures. As Russ Tuttle, from the Stop Trafficking Project, explains, one six-year-old kid’s very first exposure to porn was a video, and on it a woman was being hurt. Choking, and much worse, are becoming a “normalized” types of sexual violence presented in countless videos. That’s what six-year-olds can stumble across now.

The Copes sum up another big difference as The Big 3 A’s of accessibility, anonymity, and affordability. Whereas pornography in the past was limited to magazines sold in corner stores, the advent of the iPhone in 2007 means that kids now have 24/7 access on their phones and also tablets and even gaming consoles, from the privacy of their own bedroom, and for free. Pornography has always been a problem, but it’s these 3As that have made it the epidemic that it is today.

Another problem actually involves how wonderful and helpful the Internet can be. As Rob Cope puts it:

“We’ve taught an entire generation to just jump online when one has a question. It’s brilliant. But what happens when their curiosity about bugs fully blooms into the curiosity about sex, and they type in ‘sex’ into Google?”

Consider also that it isn’t just what our kids might stumble across, but who – the thousands of sexual predators online. In one of the film’s scariest moments, a mom created two Instagram accounts, one in which she posed as a 15-year-old, and the second as an 11-year-old. Within an hour seven adult males had contacted her. This scene drove home the point that parents need to know where our children are when they are online. And for parents who don’t feel comfortable monitoring their children’s every online move, Russ Tuttle has this response:

“Let’s even say you feel like you’re invading their privacy. If you don’t ‘invade their privacy’ I promise you a predator will. You choose.”

WE SHOULD PLAN FOR OUR KIDS BEING CURIOUS ABOUT SEX

As another of the experts notes note, it is a myth that good kids won’t go looking for porn. Good kids are curious too. And then there is the added peer pressure we all remember of wanting to know what others know. The result? One statistic outlines the extent of the problem: public school officials in New Zealand have discovered that their country’s 800,000 students are making more than 300,000 porn-related searches at school each month!

This is shocking, but the point is repeatedly made that this should also be expected. Parents who think that just because they have “good kids” they’ll be immune from pornography have forgotten what it was like to be a kid. Rob Cope notes:

“Boy’s testosterone levels skyrocket between 900% and 1,000% from the ages of 10 to 14 right when…professionals around the globe are seeing a massive increase in [sexual] assault. It’s the worst possible time to give them unfiltered access to the Internet. And it is the exact time that we do.“

Todd Olson, of the pornography addition recovery network Lifestar, presents the problem another way:

“The prefrontal cortex is our brake system….The last part of our brain to develop is our prefrontal cortex so [until it does] mom and dad are there prefrontal cortex: no you can’t do that.”

Pornography is a far bigger problem than what parents faced when we were kids, and our children desperately need our help.

PROTECTION

So what can parents do? The Copes list “four main ways to keep our kids safer online” and it is worth noting they say safer rather than safe. Not only do we want to do what we can to protect them from exposure, we need to equip them with what to do when it inevitably happens. The Copes encourage parents to:
  1. Educate ourselves, to be able to address these threats head on
  2. Educate our kids, to be able to deal with exposure
  3. Put filters and monitoring apps into effect
  4. Be aware of what our children are doing online
To put it another way, we need to be “learning, talking, updating technology, and staying involved.”

1. Educating ourselves

One suggestion they offer for how parents can get educated is the website ProtectYoungMinds.org. Others that could be listed include the Christian organization CovenantEyes.com which, in addition to their monitoring software, offer a fantastic blog, and many free, very helpful e-books. And a specifically Reformed resource (though not free) can be found at SetFreeCourse.com.

2. Educating our kids

Some parents might find it disturbing to think about talking to our kids at 5, or 6, or 7 about pornography. That’s what I was thinking – I mean, can’t we just let kids be kids? But as I saw my kids hanging out with children in the neighborhood who had their own phones it became clear I had to get them prepped. As Protect Young Minds' Kristen Jenson put it:

“There were a lot of people who were like, ‘What, talk to a seven-year-old about pornography?!?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, 7-year-olds are on the Internet, right? I mean, they are on their devices….Then we have to warn them. Just like you warn a child about running out into the street.’….It’s important to talk to children earlier about sex so that you can give your version. You can teach them your ideals, your values about sex…. Sooner is safer. When you begin a conversation with a young child you are not ruining their innocence. You are simply giving them information that they need to be safe in the world that they live in.”

The film recommends a number of books that parents can read with their children to get this conversation going. I’m only familiar with the ones by Jenson – Good Pictures Bad Pictures jr. and Good Pictures Bad Pictures – which I’ve used with my kids and recommend as well. Those two books teach a pretty simple, yet vital, concept. Todd Olson, co-founder of the LifeStar Network, sums up the lesson this way:

“We’ve all been trained as kids, what if I catch on fire? Stop, drop and roll. We know that, from just being trained on that. What’s the stop drop and roll when you see pornography on the screen? Turn off the monitor, run and get mom, dad, and just leave this place, and they’ll come and help fix it.”

3. Filters and monitoring apps

The two filters they recommend are Safe Surfer and Circle, both of which are designed for ease of use – even non-techy parents should be able to manage them. For monitoring older children’s devices they suggest Bark and Covenant Eyes.

4. Tracking our children

Kids might push back against mom and dad tracking where they go online, but as Todd Olson says, “This is not a trust issue; this is a put your seat belt on issue.” It’s simply what parents and kids need to do to be safe.

TALKING WITH OTHER PARENTS

We can get monitoring devices and filters for our own homes, but our kids are going to venture outside those doors. What can we do then? Zareen Cope shared that for her younger kids, they would talk to the other parents before arranging play dates.

“…we check in with the parents to find out what filtering and rules they have in place around devices and internet usage. It felt really weird at first but…as parents it’s our responsibility to protect our kids regardless of how uncomfortable that may feel. What was awesome was that once we explained…about what we had learned other parents were really receptive to our request to have devices put elsewhere while the play dates took place. A lot of them, like us at the start, had no idea about all these dangers. We know a lot of parents that are now keeping devices out of bedrooms, in a communal area during meal times and while charging.”

How about older teens? Their friends also have phones, and they themselves are growing in ability and knowledge, so if they want to get around any protections you’ve put in place, they probably can. That’s why it is important to keep talking with them. We need to communicate that we are in this together, and that, rather than hide what they are doing from mom and dad, they can turn to us for help. As Solomon describes in Eccl 4:9-12, it is a wonderful thing to have backup:

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.

CAUTIONS

This is not a Christian film – the Copes describe themselves as non-religious – so that limits Our Kids Online to being a practical, rather than spiritual examination of pornography’s dangers. That also means that the solutions they offer are only of the practical sort – they never deal with pornography as a sin issue, or as the devilish attack that it is.

Still, they get a lot right intuitively, with a key insight being that it is families, rather than schools, that are the key to kids being able to resist pornography’s pull.

But they also get a lot wrong. For example, Rob Cope makes light of looking through Playboys. While it isn’t overtly stated, the Copes also don’t have a problem with premarital sex, though they are very worried about the violent sort they have learned is happening these days. They’ve spotted a problem with what pornography is doing to sex. But they don’t understand the solution to bad notions about sex is a better understanding of God's intent for it: to give pleasure certainly, but in doing so, to bind husband and wife closer together, and to craft new life out of that union. It never really comes out in the film that the reason pornography is so fleeting, so unsatisfactory, is because pornography makes it about pleasure alone, and as such, misses out on the other two purposes.

The final caution is related to the topic matter. The Copes have done a good job of making a documentary about pornography as visually tame as you could ever hope for. But the verbal descriptions are – unfortunately, and also necessarily – shocking. This is not a film you would watch with your kids.

CONCLUSION

Sometimes in our Reformed circles parents will sometimes leave sex-ed to the school system. But what even the secular Copes understand is that schools can’t fill this role; we need to protect our children. Steven Shields, cofounder of Unashamed Unafraid, spells out the alternative:

“So if you’re not going to teach you child about sex, or about sexuality, or about how to treat the opposite gender… they will be educated. You just won’t be in charge of it.”

What if you’ve gotten a late start to it? Maybe you’re worried your kids are already looking at pornography and you're scared to even face the possibility. Then it’s even more important to get to it. As Russ Tuttle shares:

“Parents tell me this all the time ‘My kid’s now 14, 15, 16. I wish I had stated earlier. If I make changes now it‘s going be World War III.’ Yeah, you’re probably right. But historically, World War I was worth fighting. And World War II was worth fighting. But they weren’t fought as wars, they were taught as battles. One battle at a time.”

Our Kids Online is an eye-opening call-to-arms and I highly recommend it. But Christians need to build on what’s offered here, telling our children not simply what is wrong with pornography’s portrayal of sex, but spelling out for them what God’s good design for sex entails. Parents need to step up. May God so enable us! You can watch the trailer below, and rent it for $5 US here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Antboy

Family / Superhero
2013 / 77 minutes
RATING: 7/10

Pelle is a 12-year-old boy who goes entirely unnoticed at his school...except when he ruins a couple of bullies' fun with a well-thrown apple. Then their attention turns to him, and he has to dash down street after street before ducking into the yard of old Mrs. Gæmelkrå. The bullies are too scared to follow, but why?

Well, it turns out some mysterious stuff has been going on at the Gæmelkrå house, involving some interesting insect experimentation. When one of those experiments – a tiny Hercules ant – bites Pelle he takes a Peter Parker-like turn and gains the proportionate strength of an ant.

But before Pelle can become the hero Antboy, he needs a little help from a friend or two. Wilhelm, a comic-book fanatic, is the first to spot Pelle's new abilities and offers to help as both costumer and coach. It's once they settle on an outfit that Antboy is then born!

Of course, you can't have a superhero movie without a supervillain, and it's the scariness of Antboy's nemesis, the adult "Flea," rather than any of the comic book type violence, that would make this film too much for young children.

Common to superhero movies, there is also a damsel in distress. Pelle 6th Grade crush, Amanda, gets kidnapped by the Flea and has to wait patiently for rescue. While I like the courage of Pelle – guys have to learn to be brave – as a dad of daughters, I'm not so wild about how Amanda is so very superficial and helpless (she's no Proverbs 31 sort!). Her twin Ida (they don't look alike but are in the same grade) is a very different type of girl, and while not the ideal role model either, she is a significant upgrade, working with Antboy at one point, to rescue Amanda.

CAUTIONS

One caution would concern a brief instance of potty humor: the ant-powered Pelle makes use of a school urinal only to discover that, like the ant, he can now secrete acid. There is no immodesty but we do see a stream of acidic pee, which does a number on the urinal. He later uses this "power" to break open a lock on a door.

The is also one instance of the use of "damn" (by the bad guy).

CONCLUSION

This is a movie about a quiet boy who sees his superpowers as a chance to be popular but realizes that friendship is quite a different and better thing.

Antboy was filmed in Danish, but its English dubbing is such that kids might not even notice (even as parents most certainly will). It owns its cheesiness and while not a spectacular example of the genre, is silly fun for families that can deal with the peril and tension.  Overall I would recommend it for 10, or maybe even 12 and up.

There are two sequels, but neither measures up to the original. You can watch the trailer below, and watch the film itself for free here.

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.