OVERCOMER – KENDRICK BROTHERS WIN THE RACE AGAIN

SHORT TAKE:

Another beautiful, faith-based, entertaining and inspiring movie from the Kendrick brothers, this one about cross-country running as an analogy for the search for faith as various members of a community deal with an unexpected economic catastrophe.

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE – though young children might become restless without talking animals or flying spaceships.

LONG TAKE:

The Kendrick brothers have a gift for making profound theological points using the most ordinary of human experiences. Much like the way an itinerant preacher some 2000 years ago Who taught using parables about those things with which his flock was most familiar: sheep, olive trees, pearls and wedding feasts, wine skins and goats, oil lamps and fishing, the Kendricks have followed the example of Jesus in more ways than one.

Their first offering to a spiritually starving world was 2003’s Flywheel, which humorously tackled a modern rendition of Zacharias, who Biblically was an unethical tax collector. Flywheel re-envisioned Zacharias as Jay Austin, an unscrupulous used car salesman. Written and directed by Alex Kendrick, then Pastor of Media at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, Kendrick also portrayed the very flawed Austin.

Intended originally as a cinematic lesson only for their congregation, the indie movie, with its homemade dolly and camera crane, volunteer actors, cars borrowed for 20 minutes, scenes shot in operating businesses, was a very DIY project. (And for any aspiring filmmakers you could learn a lot from their Making of Flywheel Youtube you can see HERE.) But the message and the skill of the storytellers overflowed far beyond their technical weaknesses and it instantly took off, becoming a cinematic sensation amongst the Christian community in such a big way that their profits paid for their next film, Facing the Giants.

Facing the Giants was about Grant Taylor, a failed football coach who, like Gideon in the Book of Judges, faced overwhelming odds. Gideon, self-described as the most insignificant in the poorest house of Manasseh, is put in charge of the Israelite troops to defeat the massive Midianite army. Both men, Taylor and Gideon, find their wins, as the newly Christ-committed Taylor tells his team, by following the instructions to: “…do the best you can and leave the rest to God,” as well as reminding them: “If we win, we praise Him. And if we lose, we praise Him. Either way we honor Him with our actions and our attitudes.”

Similarly Fireproof dealt with marital crises, Courageous (my personal favorite) with fatherhood, and The War Room with the power of personal pray on one’s family.

All the Sherwood films were written and directed by the Kendrick brothers, have won awards, broken box office records even amongst secular audiences, garnered critical acclaim, spun off books written by the Kendrick brothers which have made the New York Times Best Sellers’ lists, and made enough money to allow the brothers to start their own film company, Kendrick Brother Productions.

And now comes Overcomer, whose titular theme develops from various characters’ struggles, which emerge from lack of faith and who become inextricably intertwined with each other in their journey to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

The acting is excellent and professional standard – no cringy moments that occasionally plague the Christian based movies.

The Kendricks do what many Christian film makers can not manage – while they are as open about their message as Thornton Wilder, they never forget that for a film to be successful, in whatever genre, it must entertain. They remember that honey is a far better attractant than vinegar and always have a moving, engaging, often funny, always inspiring, and occasionally heart wrenching story to tell.

The central character is Hannah Scott, (played by newcomer Aryn Wright-Thompson), an aspiring cross country runner who must overcome both physical and familial challenges.

Like Kenneth Branagh, the Kendricks smartly use many of the same acting troupe from previous cinematic enterprises (including a dozen cast and crew whose last name is Kendrick) as well as new faces. Alex Kendrick (All the Sherwood films as well as other Christian based movies) again leads, this time as John Harrison, the coach and lynchpin of the several sub-plots in Overcomer. Shari Rigby (October Baby) plays his wife, Amy. Priscilla Shirer (War Room and I Can Only Imagine – see my previous review HERE) is the school principal and another point of intersection for the interwoven subplots.

The Kendricks choose their new faces wisely and carefully. Cameron Arnett plays Thomas Hill in a compelling performance, all the more impressive as it is done without making eye contact or moving from a bed. Arnett’s real life is an example of inspiration as well. A true moral hero, he renounced a rising career and lost everything when he refused to appear nude, even refusing the studio’s offer of a body double compromise. Like a modern day Eleazar, the God fearing and upright faith-filled elderly Jew in Maccabees who chose death rather than even pretending to do what he was forbidden in the sight of God, Arnett feared he might lead others to emulate him even if the nude was not him. Arnett thought his acting career over until he found the faith based film industry, or rather, it found him.

As in other Kendricks’ movies, there are really no “bad guys” per se, the struggles come from their own inner demons and flaws, rather than outer space aliens or megalomaniacal super villains, making the stories the Kendricks spin all the more immediately relatable to us mere mortals.

The Kendricks know how to make good use of their resources. Flywheel’s budget in 2003 was an astonishingly tiny $20,000. (And no, I didn’t miss a zero.) Their $5 million budget for Overcomer, is almost the total of the budgets of all the previous movies put together and every penny shows in their ever rising benchmark of excellent production quality. The cinematography startles with the opening drone uncut shot beginning far over head, focusing on a city, then a building, flying through a high gym window down to the floor of a court during the last few minutes of a championship basketball game. This production group has come a long way from camera dollies cobbled together from rollers and an auto “creeper” on glued together PVC pipe.

The music is inspiring and mostly made of songs from Christian artists like, among others: Casting Crowns, Mandisa and Paul Mills.

And it is with profound relief I can assure you of the family friendly nature of  this, as well as all their other films. The only caution I would give for ANY of the Kendrick movies is the intensity of the inherent nature of the subjects they tackle: marital infidelity, sudden death, unemployment and the confrontation of many other kinds of evil which emerge from our human sinfulness. But no violence is gratuitous, language will never treat blasphemy casually, or plots ever condone any form of licentious behavior. The main characters are as normally flawed as the audience who attends but are also as fundamentally decent and kind, just people trying to tend to their loved ones the best way they know how, but whose search for fulfillment will open a path to God.

So go see Overcomer. Of the film offerings available Overcomer comes in way ahead of the pack. Bring your kids, your pastor, your grandmother, your priest, your first date, your spouse, your best friend, or your drinking buddy. Like any good sermon, there’s something there which will reach everyone who listens.

MOTHER! – YET ANOTHER CINEMATIC CASUALTY OF POORLY UNDERSTOOD THEOLOGY

Aron  SHORT TAKE: Brutally violent and deeply disturbing metaphor for poorly understood Judeo-Christian theology.

LONG TAKE: Having seen Darren Aronofsky’s unusual and creative but theologically sound Noah, I had hopes that the rumors Mother! was a Biblical metaphor would play out and that the grosteque brutality I had also heard tell about would be justified.

I was disappointed…and more than a little shocked. Rex Reed savaged it as the worst movie of the century, calling it a "delusional freak show…of pretentious twaddle." I wouldn’t go that far, but even reading two synopses in advance I found it hard to watch.

There have been a lot of movies which allege to "interpret" the Bible but which mishandle, mangle and demonstrate a lack of understanding of the Bible in general and Judeo-Christian theology in particular. Some are Dogma, Paul, Michael, Legion, and pretty much anything written by Dan Brown. Some are merely misguided, some just foolish, and some viciously biased anti-Christian propaganda.

To give the benefit of the doubt to Mr. Aronofsky, and because of his Noah, I like to think Mother! falls under the sincerely meant but ignorantly misguided category. It is my understanding that Aronofsky attempted a metaphorical telling of the entire Bible, from pre-Genesis to the Apocalypse and, for a little while, he got it right.

SPOILERS

The premise has an almost Thorton Wilder – Skin of Own Teeth feel and made me think it might work better as a play. The story is about a never named young Woman (Jennifer Lawrence), deeply in love with her also never named older Husband (Javier Bardem), living in the quiet pastoral countryside in a charmingly creaky mansion that might have, at one time, been a farm house or even minor plantation. The Husband is a once famous writer with block and both patiently wait for his inspiration to happen again.

Unexpected guests appear in the form of a sickly doctor who is a fan of the Husband’s work (Ed Harris) and his boozy prickly wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The Woman wants them out but the Husband wants them to stay. The sons of the guests show up (played by real life brothers Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), fight over the coming inheritance and one kills the other then flees but not before demonstrating the mark of Cain on his forehead in his brother’s blood.

Up to this point I get it. The idyllic scene is Paradise. Bardem is the Creator whose very Words will fill their world with life. Lawrence is the paradigm for Mary. Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve – Harris brings death in the form of cigarette smoking and his own disease. Pfeiffer represents the vices of lust, uninhibited behavior, spite, and vengefulness. Their sons are, obviously, Cain and Abel. And up to this point, if you are prepared for this vision, it plays out as an interesting allegory. Had Aronofsky kept to the Biblical themes it might have been a great film. But it is at this point his theological symbology train goes off track.

God is love and desires obedience of His Creations but does not NEED love or adoration the way the Husband does. If Lawrence is playing Mary then she would not be clueless about the arrivals to her house, nor scream at "God" nor slap Him nor tell him no. As difficult as we humans all are, Mary is our adopted Mother. While she might be grieved at our condition, she would not try to bar us from her house – this is if we are keeping to the theology from which Aronofsky is supposedly dipping his ladle. And the linchpin of all Creation is that Mary told God "yes" in ultimate obedience to Him – "Mary said, 'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.'”  Luke 1:38.

By the end of this very odd film, Aronofsky’s Woman is more Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction and sexuality than Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus our Savior and Prince of Peace. By Aronofsky's own admission Lawrence's character is a "Mother Earth" figure, which druidic reference is completely inapproriate to a movie with all the Judeo-Christian themes and symbols. This inclusion alone exposes the glaring errors in Aronofsky's vision. 

Bardem is more like one of the Roman gods who craved worship and "needed" the love of others to thrive and be creative. In Christian theology, God is not the greatest among creations, yearning for approval and recognition, but is entirely outside of creation, being Creation Itself, and requires nothing from us – any more than a painter requires anything from his painting. But in Aronofsky’s misguided understanding of the Bible he seems to see God as suffering from creative entropy until he has one really good night with his wife and is greeted by a crowd of adoring fans. He is more admiration addicted rock star than God of Jacob, Joseph and Issac.

And, frankly, Aronofsky’s interpretation of the sacrifice of Jesus had me running to take a judiciously timed bathroom break. Again, Aronofsky's version is theologiocally unsound as Jesus was more than full age of consent and knew exactly what He was doing, what was being done to Him and why. He was not an unwilling infant martyr to a misguided divinity’s misplaced trust in his groupies.

Mother!, to borrow from a What Culture evaluation, is really only for film students and critics. It is a study in art house script writing which might have risen to masterpiece had Mr. Aronofsky had a firmer grasp of the theology he was supposedly analogizing. Instead it comes off as the violent musings of a gifted high school videographer who didn't pay enough attention in Bible study but only vaguely, and without context, remembered all the gory bits.

PASSENGERS – AN ALLEGORY FOR MARRIAGE

 
When my husband and I had been married for 15 years we volunteered to go through an Engaged Encounter Counseling training session. During that period of time we learned things about each other that we did not know! For example, his favorite color is blue. I thought it was tan. He always WEARS tan. Who knew?!
The process also reminded me about the dating/mating process. The early years when you become irresistably attracted. Then you wonder if you should take the risk of being a couple. After a time, as you consider you may be spending the rest of your life with this person – have I done the right thing? The infatuation. The sexual attraction. The sharing and adventure. The fun. And then you find out things maybe you hadn’t realized about the other. You fight. Maybe the fight seems to herald in the end of the relationship. But at some point you realize you would much prefer to journey through life WITH this person than without them – warts and all.
Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt star in Columbia Pictures’ PASSENGERS.
Perhaps it takes a personal crisis. Perhaps there is a moment when you see the resilient admirable core at the center of their being – the stuff that, even unknowingly, attracted you to them to begin with. Their morality. Their love of life. Their sense of fun….their courage in the face of life’s adversity. Something to which you can cling during the dangers and storms of life.
SPOILERS
In short, I have just synopsized Passengers. This movie is a brilliant allegory about just such a meeting, discernment, set of crises, resolution, determination and resolve that describe the stages of coming together in a marriage – not just the wedding, but truly the union of two people through thick and thin who commit selflessly to each other to face the life and death trials the world – or space – can bring.

Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) are strangers. Passengers on a deep space colony ship whose 5,000 colonists and 100+ crew are put into hibernation for the length of a 120 year trip. 32 years into the journey the ship has an unexpected, unplanned run in with a comet storm which causes damage which triggers the opening of Jim’s pod. It also causes other damage which will not be fully noticed for another 2 years.  Jim finds himself alone on a 1,000 foot luxury cruise ship with every amenity except companionship. There is the quirky addition of an android bartender


(Michael Sheen) but that’s it. He spends much of his time for the first few months: trying to contact Earth (round trip answer to even his cry for help would take 55 years), accessing the bridge (NOTHING short of a proper access code will get him entry despite the fact he is a mechanical engineer), reading manuals, trying to reactivate his hibernation pod. Finally he resigns himself to at least enjoying the amenities on the ship but after another few months he begins the slow descent into madness. He ceases to care even about shaving or dressing and finally is inches away from suicide when he randomly, if not Providentially comes across Aurora’s pod. He checks out her video profile and the books she has written and falls in love with her humor, her writing and ultimately…her. He struggles for months with the idea of manually opening her pod – even consulting Arthur, but his desperation is too great and he does what he realizes is the unthinkable – he awakens Aurora 87 years too early.

And so the courtship begins. The details of how the potential tragedy plays out, what her reaction is when she finds out what Jim has done, the reason why Jim's pod opened to begin with, and the resolution to their relationship I will leave to your watching of this amazing film.
Suffice it to say that I was captivated by the special effects, delighted by the story and impressed with the acting of two Robinson Crusoes and their bartender “Friday”. Pratt and Lawrence were terrific and Sheen endearing.
But it was my husband who recognized the analogy to marriage – how two people, against odds, found each other. That despite the hundreds of people around them it was up to ONLY the two of them to make a life for themselves, to overcome seemingly overwhelming obstacles and to triumph by self sacrificing to and for each other, recognizing their union may require foregoing other possible choices, binding themselves only to each other, and spending the rest of their lives making a life with each other. The perfect analogy of a courtship and marriage.
My only regret is that religion was sanitized out of the equation. There were Biblical elements: Jim willing to lay down his life for Aurora. Aurora willing to forgive Jim completely and his life becoming her life. They ultimately chose to cleave to each other, despite the fact Aurora was provided, by Jim, with another option. But there were no visits to a chapel, no praying to God in what was emotional extremity for Jim. No acknowledgement of the Hand of God and His Providence in their miraculously timed awakenings, finding each other or escape from mortal peril. And that’s a shame. Because with inclusion of the recogniztion of God this marital analogy would have been raised to the level of a sacramental union. There was even a clergy of sorts in the form of a Senior crewman (Lawrence Fishburne), who stood in the way of Captain for a time and who – before his demise – gave his “blessing” to them.
Despite this lack Passengers is a lovely, inspirational movie about the adventure of two people who bond for life…and who bond FOR life.