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Posts Tagged ‘faith-based’

If you’re looking to make an uplifting family-friendly musical, starting off with your protagonist being pursued by the police is not the most obvious choice, but it’s the one that director Roman White makes at the start of A Week Away (currently showing on a Netflix account near you). Yes, our hero is a lad named Will (played by a dude named Kevin Quinn, whose striking similarity to a young Zach Efron it seems to be compulsory to mention). The script has a tricky balance to strike, in that the plot requires Will to have a long history of trouble with the authorities, while the general tenor of the film (not to mention its target audience) means that he must also be, in the final analysis, essentially wholesome and non-threatening.

The compromise they hit upon is that a) we don’t actually see Will doing anything naughty, the film just starts with him being pursued by a cop and b) at least some of his misdemeanours are presented in a ho-ho-ho slightly ironic way (he has supposedly put his high school on Craigslist, for instance). Anyway, he is duly nicked and we get some background: orphan, long list of expulsions from various schools and foster homes, and so on, but his most recent exploit – stealing a police car – has landed him in particularly hot water.

Normally I would have said the essential non-naturalism of the movie musical was epitomised by the fact that people keep singing and dancing about every few minutes. This does happen in A Week Away, but it is still somehow rather more realistic than a young male stealing a cop car in the US and pretty much being let off, which is what happens here. Will’s social worker does a lot of more-sorrowful-than-angry head-shaking and offers him a tough choice: he can go to Juvie, or… he can spend a week at camp with one of the foster parents (Sherri Shepherd) and her family. Hmmm, poser.

So off they go to family-friendly camp, which is run by the only person in this movie I can ever recall having seen before, David Koechner (previously in the Anchorman movies and Snakes on a Plane). Will bunks with his new foster mum’s son (Jahbril Cook), who is a nice guy but terribly uncool and hopes Will can give him advice on getting it together with one of the girls there (Kat Conner Sterling). Will, however, is rather preoccupied by Koechner’s character’s daughter (Bailee Madison). But given her thorough-going perky wholesomeness, how will she react if she eventually learns of Will’s scallywag past…?

The word ‘wholesome’ has cropped up a few times so far, along with ‘family-friendly’. It should therefore come as no surprise if I reveal there is a bit more to this movie than just a sort of chaste take on the Dirty Dancing-style holiday-romance plot structure. The first big musical number, only a few minutes into the movie, opens unexceptionally enough until Shepherd starts belting out lyrics about ‘the grace of God’ which the chorus all enthusiastically join in with.

This turns out to be a motif in the songwriting of A Week Away. The songs are not painful to listen to, and the performances are decent if not outstanding (in a similar vein, the choreography is hardly up to Gene Kelly standard but performed with gusto). Most of the numbers cover commendable themes encouraging teenagers to have confidence and self-esteem, but you can’t help but notice that the grace of God does get mentioned quite a lot. There’s another song called something like ‘Whoa, God is Awesome’ and one of the oldies smuggled onto the soundtrack – the kids in the target audience will be too young to recognise this – is ‘Baby Baby’, by arch CCM-pop-crossover star Amy Grant. In short: yes, this is a faith-based movie.

Full disclosure: I’ve never found a religion that actually worked for me, though only a fool would dismiss the importance of the great faiths to world history and culture. Faith-based movies? Not so much. These things tend to get pretty brutally reviewed, on the whole, and the only one I’d actually watched prior to A Week Away – just to see if it was quite as bad as its crits – was Last Ounce of Courage (yes, it was). I’m not sure why it should be such an iron law that faith-based movies are invariably so bad, but then of course I’m sure that many people of faith must find them entirely satisfying entertainment in the way that non-faith-based entertainment presumably isn’t. Perhaps we touch upon a deep truth about how one’s belief system colours one’s perceptions of the world here. Nevertheless, to paraphrase someone off Roger Ebert’s website, even the best of these films put me in mind of a commercial for a product which everyone in the target audience already owns.

And, to be fair, A Week Away isn’t anything like as bad as Last Ounce of Courage. True, early on I did catch myself wondering if I could somehow throttle myself into unconsciousness and get to the end a bit quicker that way (in the end I just ended up playing a lot of 2048 while watching it just to keep my higher brain functions busy), but it’s sort of amiable and unmistakably good-hearted, even if the requirements to be wholesome and family-friendly mean that it is almost totally innocuous, lacking drama, tension, or any sense of threat. It’s almost as if near-total blandness is a genre convention for this kind of film. Jokes which poke very gentle fun at faith-based organisations probably count as edgy, subversive material in this kind of film. (Not that there isn’t the odd particularly weird moment: at one point the leading couple experience a moment of shared triumph by wreaking havoc together on the paintball course, which feels rather tonally wrong – there are various other points where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to seem cool.)

Oh well. In the end, this kind of film really isn’t my kind of thing, but it’s bright and colourful and some of the songs are pleasant enough. I suspect that Netflix (who are streaming it) don’t feel any great ideological affinity with it either, but the Christian-movie audience is large and juicy and they probably need the subscriptions right now. I wonder how Christian movie-watchers feel about being exploited and/or pandered to in this way? It’s hard not to conclude that Netflix’s investment in this film is ultimately quite cynical and calculated. There are strong and less-strong ways of running your movie streaming service – and I can’t help but think that this is a weaker way.

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It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” – C.S. Lewis

You know, normally when I think about a film, one of the issues which can come up is that of its target audience – which slice of the population are the producers hoping to get to go and see it? This is quite a big deal; the wider the appeal of a project, the larger the budget you’re likely to be able to swing to make it. It’s usually all very straightforward, of course, and if I’m watching a film for which I am not really the target demographic then I make allowances for the fact.

I don’t really think I’m the target audience for Left Behind, released in 2014. But in this case there seems to be a little, if not confusion, then certainly obfuscation – the movie stars Nicolas Cage, who is, or was, a proper mainstream movie star, these days most likely to be found in somewhat eccentric genre movies, and is directed by Vic Armstrong, probably most famous as head of stunts on all manner of famous movies and Harrison Ford’s preferred stunt double. All my instincts and experience instantly suggested that Left Behind would be a slightly dodgy action thriller. But no…

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The film concerns the travails and, dare I say it, tribulations of the Steele family, a typical all-American family. Head of the bunch is Rayford Steele (…really?), played by Cage, a hard-working airline pilot. He is married to Irene (Lea Thompson), and they have a couple of kids, primarily Chloe (Cassi Thomson). All used to be well with the Steeles, but there has been trouble ever since Irene underwent a religious conversion and became a born-again Christian. Ray and Chloe are finding this difficult to cope with, to the point where Chloe avoids talking to her mother and Ray is contemplating giving new meaning to the word layover by shtupping one of the cabin crew (Nicki Whelan) at the end of an upcoming flight to London.

Well, the fateful flight takes off, with Ray at the controls, still not sure which way he’ll jump (so to speak) now that Chloe has discovered his possibly adulterous plans. Also on board is investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who met Chloe at the airport and has a bit of a thing for her, and various other movie-flight passengers. So, is it in fact the case that Left Behind is going to be a disaster movie?

Um – probably not in the generally accepted sense, no. All is going well when, suddenly, a bunch of the passengers vanish into thin air in the wink of an eye, causing alarm and panic amongst those – wait for it – left behind. The same thing has happened on the ground all over the world, and amongst those who have vanished are Irene and Ray Junior! Low-budget chaos breaks out as Chloe tries to battle her way home and work out what’s going on!

Of course, what’s going on is that Left Behind is a faith-based Christian film which has somehow managed to land the services of a couple of actors you may have heard of, in addition to the usual Australian soap opera alumni, and what’s going on in the story is that the Rapture has occurred. Fundamentalist Christian eschatology suggests that this is the moment at which all the faithful and innocent will be whisked off to Heaven, heralding the start of the reign of the Antichrist on Earth, leading up to the final battle of Armageddon and the end of the world as we know it.

Sounds like quite exciting stuff, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it seems that all the stuff with the dominance of evil and the battle for the fate of the world was held back for the various sequels (there are apparently sixteen novels in the series this film is based on), and the Antichrist himself isn’t in the movie either. Instead, what the film is about is…

You know, I have to admit I’m really not sure what Left Behind is actually about, but then I’m often not sure about what the point of a lot of these Christian movies is. These films are routinely eviscerated by mainstream secular critics but then go on to do pretty good business with audiences in America, and occasionally elsewhere too (there’s one front on the culture wars encapsulated in a single sentence). Now, I saw Risen a couple of years ago and thought most of it was reasonably engaging, until the last twenty minutes or so; I also saw the remake of Ben-Hur, which had clearly been retooled with an eye to the faith-based audience, but that was a slightly more confused project.

My issue with this kind of film is that they are essentially preaching to the choir – the nature of this film is such that the people most likely to see it are ones who already agree with the message it is trying to pass on. Left Behind is basically saying that it’s better to be a true-believing Christian than not, a sentiment its target audience of true-believing Christians is unlikely to take exception to. Even if the producers of these films are hoping to reach out beyond the faith-based demographic, the (no pun intended) fundamental problem is that the films themselves are simply not very good (and frequently excruciatingly bad).

I don’t say this to criticise anyone’s religious beliefs, because, after all, who knows, but because faith-based films, for a secular audience at least, are invariably scuppered by their didacticism and the fact that strong and satisfying storytelling is replaced by the sending of a message. Not that this means the people responsible are ever likely to stop making them, of course: these films are not made for profit, or to express some kind of artistic sensibility, but out of an implacable sense of moral obligation. Left Behind at least tries to go easy on its conversion narrative elements in favour of a cod disaster-movie narrative about Nic Cage not being able to land his plane in time due to all the airports being full. But it’s still the case that this is a notably slow and talky film – before the plane even takes off, there are numerous lengthy scenes in which various characters discuss their relationships and beliefs while gentle piano music plays in the background. The sensation is rather like being buried alive under tofu, I would imagine. Once the Rapture itself kicks off, you can see that Armstrong tries to pep things up a bit with suddenly-driverless cars crashing into things, and so on, but the low budget means that the action is surprisingly unimpressive, given Armstrong’s pedigree in this department.

Christians tend to be a forgiving bunch (it goes with the territory, after all) and no doubt anyone who might think Left Behind is not so much a piece of entertainment as a vision of What Is To Come will be happy to overlook its numerous shortcomings (I haven’t even touched on the underwhelming performances or pondered the question of what the hell an actor like Nicolas Cage is doing in a film like this one in the first place). But that’s the issue – it never really feels like a piece of entertainment. If you’re not prepared to lend an ear to its core message – Being a Christian is a Good Thing, and If You’re Not a Christian Already, You Should Be – there’s virtually nothing here for you. Not so much a movie, more a sort of tract, and a peculiarly unattractive tract.

 

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Still hanging around in cinemas is the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, a movie which gets most of its fun from affectionately spoofing types of movie they just don’t make any more: musicals, westerns, terribly mannered dramas, and Biblical epics, such as the film-within-the-film that supplies its title. The thing is, though, that they do still in fact make films of some of these types, although they frequently struggle to get attention in a crowded marketplace. As a case in point, there’s Kevin Reynolds’ Risen, which came out in the States a few weeks ago and is theoretically out in the UK too, though really struggling to get decent distribution.

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The film’s modest budget and creative team of people you’ve either never heard of or whose careers seem to have gone off the boil might lead you to expect something pretty grisly, but as it turns out the charnel stink is mostly limited to events on screen. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune enduring a far-from-plum posting to Palestine in 33AD – the only place in the Empire where the inhabitants rise up in violent rebellion against the occupying Romans and then sue them for brutality after they get put down. Clavius is jaded but retains his ambitiousness even so, and has managed to make himself pretty much indispensible to local top man Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth).

Pilate orders Clavius to oversee the execution of local mystic who offended the Jewish religious authorities, which he does, without much enthusiasm. He is further tasked with keeping the corpse of said Nazarene spiritual leader under guard, to head off rumours that the man has come back from the dead, as he apparently prophesied would happen.

Well, something goes wrong with the guard detail and the body of the Nazarene mysteriously vanishes, which means that Clavius has a new mission: find whoever is responsible, recover the body, and prevent the dead man’s acolytes from causing any trouble to the Jewish leaders or to Rome…

There’s no sense in beating about the bush here: Risen is another of those new-wave Biblical epics, albeit rather more modest in scope than Noah or Exodus, and its New Testament focus means it’s very hard to shake the suspicion it is gunning for the same keen audience that made The Passion of the Christ such a massive hit in 2004 – indeed, some reports suggest this started off as a semi-sequel to that film.

A lot of people, I suspect, will run a mile rather than watch a film about the Easter story, and it’s true to say that Risen has nothing like the spectacle or scale that made old-style films in this vein like The Robe or Ben-Hur so watchable. Nevertheless, I found this film to have many points of distinct interest, even though I would struggle to call it anything close to essential viewing.

I suppose it says something about the secularisation of western civilisation that a genre which was absolutely mainstream fifty years ago is now perceived is being rather niche: there isn’t anything like the same assumption that everyone is pious and Christian any more. I suspect the shadow of Life of Brian may also have had an effect in terms of making this kind of film a difficult proposition for film-makers and audiences. To its credit, Risen plays the whole story very straight – and to begin with at least – doesn’t go overboard with regard to any message it may be trying to pass along. Indeed, it almost seems to shy away from being too on-the-nose about this – the main man is referred to as ‘Yeshua’ in an attempt to steer clear of the usual associations. Hmmm.

The first half or two thirds of the film are actually a rather engaging political thriller, told from the point of view of someone largely disinterested in Jewish mysticism and (obviously) unaware of the significance of the case he’s working. I think it says something about the post-Roman nature of our own society that we find it so easy to identify with Roman characters in this kind of setting – we instinctively assume we have so much in common with them. I think this fundamentally misunderstands the different ethical system of the Roman Empire, but it’s a very helpful storytelling conceit if nothing else, and Fiennes gives a very good performance as the world-weary tribune. The film’s historical accuracy is a little variable but mostly rather impressive, albeit with one fairly important exception which we’ll come to soon.

However, once Clavius gets done with scene-of-crime work at empty tombs (in the film’s cheesiest moment, what-will-be the Shroud of Turin turns up), interrogating reformed prostitutes and running down disciples, there’s a fairly severe wobble as the film undergoes a profound change of gear. Though Clavius is still on the screen most of the time, he’s pushed into a very secondary role as a witness to the doings of the disciples. His main contribution is to help them evade Roman forces as they travel from Jerusalem to Galilee for another meeting with Yeshua (played, in case you’re wondering, by Cliff Curtis, who is thus probably the first Maori Christ in the movies – Curtis also appears in the Walking Dead spin-off, which is either very appropriate or utterly not, depending on your religious persuasion).

This works very well at injecting a bit of tension and action into the third act – Clavius has to contend with his ruthless aide, Lucius (Tom Felton) – but it does put one of the film’s issues centre stage, namely that it presents early Christianity as being a matter of great significance to the Romans, when it really wasn’t. To be fair, the film suggests there has been a bit of political maneuvering on the part of the Jewish authorities to secure Roman involvement, and – as mentioned – the presence of a Roman character as a point of identification for a general audience is essential.

Even so, it doesn’t help a final act which is primarily just a retelling of part of the book of Acts, with Clavius just hanging around in the background. One wonders why he didn’t get into the Bible himself, given the significance of his role here – he’s virtually the last person Yeshua has a conversation with before his ascension. (I couldn’t help being reminded of the Pythons’ original idea for their own movie on this topic, which dealt with St Brian, an apostle who was always in just the wrong place at the wrong time and thus got left out of all the Gospels.)

To be honest, I felt just a little bit cheated: I’d started watching a film with a bit of grit and thoughtfulness about it, concerned with some fairly novel new angles on this story, and for it to suddenly just turn into a very safe, by-the-numbers piece of Biblical reconstruction was rather a let-down.

Still, the whole thing is well-mounted and well-played, although I wonder just who the ideal audience for it is – if retellings of the Gospels are your thing, you may not like the start, but if you’re not into a sort of cinematic tract, you’ll most likely hate the ending. In the end, this is basically just a conversion narrative – and if conversion narratives are not your thing, none of the other good things about Risen are likely to make it appeal to you much. I thought it was an interesting curiosity which unfortunately didn’t live up to the promise of its opening section.

 

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