All posts from “April 2011”

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April 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Warner Herzog’s latest documentary is an immersive 3D experience

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The Chauvet Cave in southern France, discovered in 1994, contains the oldest cave paintings ever found, going back more than 30,000 years. (Think, roughly, of the timespan between Moses and us, then multiply by ten.) Access to the cave has been severely limited, but filmmaker Werner Herzog is a very persuasive man. Thanks to his efforts, the good graces of the French Ministry of Culture, and the marvels of 3D technology, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (now showing in limited release) takes us inside this time-capsule, littered with bones, where the tracks of cave bears are still visible, and where the presence of our distant yet not-so-distant ancestors is uncannily strong.

I saw this film with my wife, Wendy, who tends toward claustrophobia. The 3D experience is so immersive, I was afraid she might flee the theater. But it turned out that she was entirely absorbed by the images on the walls of the cave: horses, bears, panthers, rhinos, and many more. There are handprints, too, made by a man with a crooked little finger (his inadvertent signature). The film shifts at intervals to locations outside the cave: views of the ruggedly beautiful surrounding terrain, glimpses of the nearby lab where researchers studying the cave are based, and conversations with a few of these scientists—even a quick trip, late in the film, to Germany, where parallel investigations are going on. (Here we see a flute made of bone, discovered in Swabia in 2008, dating to a period contemporary with the paintings at Chauvet, and hear a tune played on a copy of it.)

As usual, Herzog himself, who narrates the film and engages in dialogue with researchers, is an intrusive presence, often charming, quirky, sometimes exasperating. Meditating on the paintings, he soars from eloquence into hyperbole, then lurches into jokeyness, as if embarrassed by his own effusions. (The accompanying music tracks the narrative, one moment over the top, the next moment hauntingly evocative.) The film concludes with a bizarre postscript that is pure Herzog.

Throughout the narrative, but especially toward the end, Herzog dances around the numinous. We come to an altar-like stone on which the skull of a cave bear was carefully placed many thousands of years ago, facing what was then the entrance to the cave. It requires conscious effort to talk about such matters without mentioning God, whose unacknowledged reality is nevertheless palpable here, where people like us painted by torchlight 30,000 years ago.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one of the year’s best documentaries, was recently named a Truly Moving Picture by Heartland Truly Moving Pictures. Here’s the trailer:

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.

April 29, 2011

'Survivor' Update: Hat Tip to the Almighty

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When we interviewed Survivor: Redemption Island contestant Matt Elrod, an outspoken Christian, earlier this week, he talked about wanting to proclaim God's glory while on the show.

He also said, "I would love for Survivor to start a revival, but if God is planting seeds into non-believers and encouraging Christians, that's enough for me."

That prayer, at least, has already been answered. One of Elrod's fellow contestants, Julie Wolfe, lost a three-way competition on Wednesday's episode that eliminated her from the game. Before walking away, though, she told host Jeff Probst that she had participated mainly to win the million-dollar grand prize, "but I'm walking away with something bigger." She glanced at Elrod and said, "I see Matt’s story with God, and I am looking forward to going back home and finding a church and getting involved."

Apparently she meant it.

In recent interviews, Wolfe, a firefighter, has said that Elrod's outspoken faith showed her "that I was on Survivor for a reason and I have had a rebirth, a relationship with God." In another interview, she said, "I went there . . . to win that million and I left with a bigger prize. There's no price tag on it. I went home and found a great church. I have a renewed relationship with God. All that financial stress that was on me has been lifted. That million dollars ... what money? I got so much more out of the game. I'm very grateful."

Wolfe also said, "My whole life has changed. I was sad to leave the game, but I was really looking forward to my new life." She said she was now attending Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego.

Meanwhile, Elrod, in his 28th day in the game and his 21st as a "castaway" on Redemption Island, made it clear in this week's Episode 11 that he was ready to go home. Weeping, he told the viewing audience, “I’m out here wasting away . . . God has me here for a reason. I said from the beginning that God wanted me here. I don’t know what the reason is for; I can’t see that yet. He has literally been carrying me the past four days. I know I’m still in the game, but I’m just so over this game.”

When it came time for a 3-way duel that would send one contestant home, Elrod told Probst that if he ended up going home, he was okay with that. But he added, "I'm going to do the best I can in today’s challenge, but yeah, I’m ready to go home."

When Elrod ended up placing second in the duel and staying in the game, Probst pointedly asked, "So Matt, are you frustrated with your God right now?" Elrod answered, "I guess he still wants me here for some reason. I told him I’d stay here as long as he wanted me to."

April 29, 2011

Just for Fun: Movie Mashups

What do you get when one film collides with another? Bedlam. Chaos. And fun.

These are troubled times, so here's a little chance for some fun -- but it all depends on YOU. It's Movie Mashups, where you take two recent film titles, smash them together, and provide a brief synopsis. For example:

Water for African Cats, in which Rob Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon try to assist thirsty lions while on safari . . . and are never seen again

The Bieber, in which Mel Gibson wields a menacing hand puppet that looks like a teen pop star with a bad haircut

Rangorio, in which Johnny Depp’s chameleon turns into an exotic blue bird and flies to Argentina. (Caution: some scenes are quite macawbre)

Red Riding Hoodwinked, in which superbad grannies save the day by killing off all the werewolves

OK, readers. Your turn.

April 27, 2011

The Best Films You've Never Seen

'Official Best of Fest' now airing on selected public TV channels

For every great movie you've seen or even heard about, there are probably five more fantastic flicks you've never seen or heard about. That's where Official Best of Fest can help.

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Founded in 2008 by film buff Rick Stevenson, OBOF takes pride in "finding gems among the rubble," as Stevenson says. "We're the ultimate international grapevine fed by the world's best film festival programmers." Indeed, the best movies at film festivals -- especially short films -- never make it to theaters, find distribution, or even hit the retail video market. You can only hear about them by word of mouth -- or through something like Best of Fest.

Now OBOF is airing on American Public Television, starting this month and running through the end of March 2013. Some 120-plus stations -- including in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Detroit, and Miami -- are airing the show (look for your local station here), and more are added every week.

OBOF also sells boxed sets of the films, in categories such as Chick Flicks, Laugh, Inspire, Real People, Family, and more.

Here's Stevenson describing Best of Fest in more detail:

April 21, 2011

Battistelli the Big Winner at GMA Awards

She won Artist of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and top pop-contemporary song

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Twenty-five-year-old Francesca Battistelli was the big winner at the 42nd annual GMA Dove Awards on Thursday night in Atlanta -- the first time the event has been held outside of Nashville.

Battistelli was named Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year, and also won for her pop-contemporary recorded song for "Beautiful, Beautiful." Chris August won New Artist of the Year, Best Male Vocalist and pop-contemporary album for "No Far Away."

The event, hosted by TV host and comedienne Sherri Shepherd, will be televised on GMC, on Sunday, April 24, at 7 p.m. PT.

A GMA press release rounded up the rest of the highlights. See the complete list of winners here.

April 21, 2011

Lady Gaga's Inclusion Problems

Pop star uses racial slurs in "Born This Way" -- and then calls her critics "retarded." Huh.

Last month, we blogged about Lady Gaga's new single "Born This Way," noting that at least one blogger interpreted the song as nothing less than the good news of the gospel.

To me "Born This Way" sounds less like an anthem than a peppy exercise song. When the chorus gets going, I always want to jump up and work those ab muscles or something.

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Gaga seems pretty proud of it. "I'm on the quest to create the anthem for my generation for the next decade," she said during the making of the album, also called Born This Way, "so that's what I've done."

And while it's clear from the title single and its accompanying video that Mother Monster wants her Little Monsters to be a "big-tent group" -- a race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom -- she's also taking heat from critics who object to some of her word choices.

The first objections came soon after the single's release, when people noticed the words she used to describe Latino and Asian people: Chola and Orient, respectively.

"Whoa, hold up. Did she just say Orient?" wrote blogger Edward Hong on 8asians.com. For many, "orient" evokes "Oriental," a rather outdated term for Asians. "I can't help but wonder all sorts of crazy questions in my head: Is it okay to call Asians "Oriental" now? Are we back in the 1950's? Why did I love Lady Gaga again?"

Still, as a longtime fan, he's willing to be charitable: "I don't find the words that she uses to be racist in any means," Hong said, "but a bit ignorant."

Cholo or Chola, meanwhile, is a derogatory term derived from an Aztec word for dog, or mutt, which a spokeswoman for the group Chicanos Unidos Arizona called as derogatory as the N-word is for African-Americans.

"Are Latinos supposed to be grateful that a white superstar, born of privilege, included a racist shout out to our community?" asks writer Robert Paul Reyes. "Not all Latino ladies are 'cholas' in the barrio, some of them are teachers, writers, engineers and nurses and doctors."

This week, Gaga infuriated a few more people by calling certain criticisms of her title single "retarded".

When asked about people who accuse "Born This Way" of ripping off Madonna's "Express Yourself," she shot back: "Why would I try to put out a song and think I'm getting one over on everybody? That's retarded."
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That didn't go over too well with Gawker. "It's getting a little difficult to stay sympathetic to Gaga's divine cause when she casually throws around terms like 'retarded.' Last time I checked, the intellectually disabled were born that way, too."

Quickly realizing what she's said, Gaga apologized through Perez Hilton's blog, calling it "a furiously unintentional mistake" and quoting a snippet from the song: "Whether life's disabilities, left you outcast bullied or teased, rejoice and love yourself today."

She's also responded to those already firing snark at her next single "Judas" and calling it blasphemous for its appropriation of Christian imagery: "I feel like honestly that God sent me those lyrics and that melody," she said in the same interview that featured the R-bomb.

Fortunately, everyone can now take a breather to enjoy her fellow musical iconoclast Weird Al Yankovic's just-released parody single "Perform This Way," to which Mother Monster somewhat belatedly gave imprimatur this week.

(edited 4/25)

April 20, 2011

'Useless' Gets Useful at 168 Competition

Short film about justice vs. mercy wins top prize in Christian speed-filmmaking event

One of America's more fascinating film fests is the annual 168 Project, in which entrants must shoot a movie from scratch in just seven days time.

The Christian-themed event, held in early April in Glendale, Calif., chooses a different Scripture passage each year as its theme. This year's theme was Philemon 1:10-11: "I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me."

Fitting that a film called Useless would win Best Film and several other awards -- and prize money totalling $12,000 -- at the 168 Fest. The 11-minute fictional film features a U.S. Marshal seeking revenge for his father's murder, but then is forced to consider the possibility of forgiveness.

You can watch the film below or at its official website:

Useless (2011 168 Project Winner) from Brandon Adams on Vimeo.

April 20, 2011

Full Slate at Full Frame Fest

Documentaries galore included several that explored issues of faith and spirituality

The 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, held April 14-17 in Durham, NC, had one of its strongest lineups ever, with over 90 documentaries—including several of particular interest to Christian viewers.

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Jane McAllister’s 17-minute short film Caretaker for the Lord (pictured here) won the fest’s President’s Award for best student film. Eschewing narrative for montage, the film deftly interweaves snippets of activities at St. Luke’s and St. Andrew’s Parish in Glasgow, where fewer than 30 people typically attend services and the caretaker is paid five pounds a week to try to keep the building functioning. McAllister told Christianity Today that some social observers have cautioned that if the rate of church closings remains constant, the church in Scotland could virtually cease to exist by 2033.

Allard Detiger’s The New Saint chronicles the attempts by the mother of slain border guard Yevgeny Rodionov to have her son classified a martyr by the Eastern Orthodox Church. A cultural portrait of the overlay between television entertainment, folk legend, and church tradition, the film provides a glimpse into a world that is simultaneously alien to most American viewers and yet, in many points, disturbingly familiar.

Julia Haslett’s An Encounter with Simone Weil works both as an introduction to an undeservedly marginalized moral philosopher and social activist and as a mediation on how the director grapples with Weil’s thoughts as she attempts to apply it to her own life.

To Be Heard, about students growing through “power writing” courses in the Bronx, is deeply informed by co-director Edwin Martinez’s Mennonite upbringing, particularly its emphasis on the power of community. Martinez told CT that unlike Waiting for Superman, his project “isn’t overtly an educational film” and that the filmmakers’ goals were “not to scream out policy issues” but to tell the story of three kids who find hope and empowerment through community. He opined that the film does, in its way, preach “salvation” of a kind.

Several other films dealt with world religions. Jed Rothstein’s Oscar-nominated Killing in the Name follows a Jordanian Muslim who speaks out against Jihadist violence, emphasizing how often those who are victimized by it are other Muslims and challenging its adherents that they are misrepresenting the Koran. Natalie Braun’s and Avigail Sperber’s The Hangman interviews the Jewish man assigned to guard and, eventually, execute Holocaust organizer Adolph Eichmann. Daniel Goldberg’s 27-minute, single-take Steps to Eternity is a wordless observation of one man’s routine yet inspiring struggle to attend religious services.

Political and social issues were front and center in many of the event’s films. Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams, previewed The Interrupters, a look at Chicago’s CeaseFire organization and its attempts to curb inner-city violence. Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA; Shut Up and Sing) screened Gun Fight, an examination of America’s love affair with weapons. The line between terrorist and activist was meditated on in If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front and Better This World, which tells the story of two Texas teens arrested for domestic terrorism at the 2008 Republican National Convention. Laura Israel shows how the prospect of wind turbines divides a town in Windfall, while Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee generated strong festival buzz by using the famous Liebeck vs. McDonald’s case as a lens to examine the politics of tort reform.

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC. He is the editor of and a contributor to Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema.

April 15, 2011

'Why Are Christian Movies So Awful?'

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir asks the question, but he's picking on the wrong movie

A few months ago, we ran a blog post titled, "Why Are Christian Movies So Bad?", prompted by a thought-provoking article of the same title over at Relevant magazine.

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The title above this blog post is taken directly from a new essay by Andrew O'Hehir at Salon; the only difference, of course, is that "bad" has been replaced by "awful." Maybe it's just a matter of semantics, and to an extent, I agree with the writers of both essays. There are a lot of crummy Christian movies; ugh, I've certainly seen enough of them.

What I completely disagree with, however, when it comes to O'Hehir's article, is his "hook": He's jumped on Soul Surfer as an excuse to write his opinions, and for that, I think he's wrong. O'Hehir calls the film "a trite, sentimental puddle of sub-Hollywood mush, with mediocre photography, weak special effects and an utterly formulaic script. . . . [T]his one is pretty awful."

I don't think Soul Surfer is a great movie; I'm pretty sure it won't be considered for our Critics' Choice list at the end of the year (though it'll be a strong candidate for our Most Redeeming list). It's not great, but it is very good. And if, as O'Hehir suggests, it is to be labeled a "Christian movie" -- and frankly, I could argue either way on that point -- I would say it's one of the best ones we've seen in years.

Our critic gave it three stars (out of four) -- somewhere between a B-minus and a B, if this were a grading scale. (3.5 stars would be B-plus to A-minus, 4 stars would be A to A-plus, for comparison's sake.)

Let's try to look at things a bit more objectively than O'Hehir does. Soul Surfer has a 53 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes -- meaning that 53 percent of the 74 critics compiled so far gave it a positive review, and 47 percent gave it a negative. ("Positive could mean anything from barely making the cut to thinking it's the best thing since sliced bread; I think the film falls somewhere in between. Conversely, "negative" means anything from barely missing the cut to "I hated it.")

Some of the nation's top critics liked the movie (Entertainment Weekly, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times), but many did not. But why didn't they like it? I don't have time for a full analysis here, but here's what Roger Ebert wrote in his 2.5 star (out of four) review:

My problem with "Soul Surfer" is that it makes it look too simple. Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) has a loving family of professional surfers and a big, friendly dog. She lives in walking distance of the beach. She was and is a committed churchgoer and got great support from her spiritual leaders. She was an indomitable optimist with a fierce competitive spirit.

But there had to be more to it than that. I applaud her faith and spirit. I give her full credit for her determination. I realize she is a great athlete. But I feel something is missing. There had to be dark nights of the soul. Times of grief and rage. The temptation of nihilism. The lure of despair. Can a 13-year-old girl lose an arm and keep right on smiling?

The flaw in the storytelling strategy of "Soul Surfer" is that it doesn't make Bethany easy to identify with. She's almost eerie in her optimism. Her religious faith is so unshaken, it feels taken for granted. The film feels more like an inspirational parable than a harrowing story of personal tragedy.

Ebert's skepticism is understandable. I've asked many of the same questions myself, even when I interviewed Bethany Hamilton, the title character: Didn't you get angry at God? Didn't you struggle with your faith? How could you and your family make it look so simple? Ebert is right to wonder about these things, but he can't blame the movie for them. I have spent time with the Hamiltons and with Bethany, and it IS uncanny how "simple" they've allowed this incredible experience to play out. A rock-solid but "simple" (er, childlike) faith somehow kept Bethany from experience those "dark nights of the soul" and "times of grief and rage" that Ebert wanted to see. I know I certainly would've have experienced those things. But again, don't blame the film -- those are questions for Bethany and her family, not for the filmmakers or scriptwriters. They're not making this stuff up.

Also, I think Ebert oversimplifies. If he were to watch the movie again, he'd see the scene where Bethany tearfully asks her youth pastor how this could possibly be a part of God's plan. She is downcast and troubled in the hospital (a scene which Bethany says was trumped up a bit, because she wasn't really all that sad). She worries that people will see her as a freak. She storms away from one competition, so upset about her circumstances that she says she'll never surf again (also fictional -- apparently the filmmakers tried to find those "times of grief and rage," and couldn't find them!)

Anyway, I'm not picking on Ebert. I'm picking on O'Hehir. Soul Surfer is a good, maybe even a very good, movie. And it is definitely NOT the place to start picking on "Christian films." I could name at least a dozen (or 50 or 100) places to start, but this ain't it.

April 11, 2011

'Soul Surfer' Catches a Box Office Wave

New faith-based film finishes in top five with a strong per-theater average

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Soul Surfer, the inspirational true-story movie about surfer Bethany Hamilton, exceeded studio expectations by pulling in $11.1 million over the weekend -- good enough for fourth place overall at the box office, but finishing first in the per-theater average ($5,014, compared to $3,848 for Arthur, $4,861 for Hanna, and $3,438 for Your Highness) among new releases.

“We’re thrilled with the response," said Rich Peluso, vice president of Affirm Films, a branch of Sony Entertainment, the film's distributor. Peluso noted that a rare A+ CinemaScore, strong exit polling (96% rating the film Excellent or Very Good, 92% saying they will recommend it), and strong Facebook and Twitter activity all point "to a strong and long theatrical run. What’s most exciting about all this is that the inspirational message of Bethany’s life and faith is impacting people all across North America, and we’re looking forward to expanding the release in other territories in the coming weeks and months.”

Blogging for the WSJ's Speakeasy, Anthony Kaufman said the film "exceeded expectations" and is "poised to go the distance in the marketplace." Kaufman's story also noted that the promotional team behind Soul Surfer had done a good job reaching out to Christian opinion leaders and church groups, while also trying to make it "a crossover film" and to "achieve a balance and not to make it seem like only a faith movie," according to Berney. "I think it was effective. Given the Cinemascore and exit polls, we think it’ll hang around for a long time.”

Deadline.com analyst Nikki Finke wrote that an exec from distributor Sony had said, "If we do $10 million this weekend (or close to it), it would be a home run for Sony and FilmDistrict." Finke went on to write: "Mission accomplished. A strong Christian message sometimes works at the box office, sometimes falls flat. This one worked, helped by the strong appeal and personal promotion of American Idol winner Carrie Underwood. Soul Surfer played incredibly well all around the country as Sony had been screening the title aggressively -- 350 previews -- especially for church groups who arranged for buses to bring in audiences all day Friday.

"The film was marketed extremely well by FilmDistrict by emphasizing the upbeat, positive message although not overtly its religious undertones even though Soul Surfer is the only mainstream movie with a faith-based message during the Easter holidays. Key targets were tweens, teens and moms, and the film tracked well with these groups, and direct engagement was made with Underwood’s fan base, extreme sports enthusiasts and athletes who had overcome personal obstacles."

Box Office Mojo analyst Brandon Gray noted that Soul Surfer's opening "was solid considering that surfing movies tend to wipe out. It was enough to land within the average range of inspirational sports dramas. Distributor Sony Pictures' research showed that 80 percent of the audience was female and 56 percent was under 25 years old."

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