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.

GODSPELL – EVANGELICAL FLASH MOB ON STAGE AT LAKE CHARLES LITTLE THEATRE!!

SHORT TAKE:

Lake Charles Little Theatre closes out this season with Godspell, the musical of vignettes from the New Testament, which is performed like a theatrical troupe flash mob.

WHO SHOULD GO:

EVERYONE!!!

LONG TAKE:

Have you ever seen a flash mob? They’re all over Youtube. A bunch of people, appearing to be from all walks of life, converge on a public area: an airport lobby, a playground, a mall – and someone starts to play an instrument or sing a song or dance. Then, one by one, others in their group, camoflaged as passersby, join in with voice or a flute or guitar or in tap shoes and before you know it, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of people singing the "Ode to Joy" or Christmas Carols or tap dancing their hearts out, or like in the faux flash mob with actors from  The Greatest Showman, act out medleys from a Broadway show.

I am always pleased and delighted to watch these coordinated groups who, of a single mind, have the nerve and verve to perform for total strangers. And judging by the smiles, the photographs, and the applause from the suddenly blessed impromptu audience, I am not alone.

While I have never seen one in person, I would travel a considerable distance to be either a participant or an audience member, but by the very nature of the "show," most beneficiaries of these live exhibitions do not know about them ahead of time.

Musicals, like La La Land, have employed this concept since…well, since the advent of the musical. Random strangers all suddenly are inspired to break into song and  hoof coordinated complex dance routines. It's a wonderfully infectious and entertaining trope.

Now, imagine you are minding your own business at an empty baseball field – throwing a ball with your son, having a picnic, walking the family dog.  Suddenly a group of Catechism teachers from various eccumenical branches,  dressed for all walks of life, happen to converge and, inspired, cobble together a series of seemingly impromptu mini-plays, acting out stories and parables from the New Testament – from Jesus' baptism by St. John the Baptist through to Jesus' death. This is Godspell as the actors at Lake Charles Little Theatre truly personify the admonition from Matthew 18:20 that: "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Godspell, literally from the Anglo-Saxon meaning "Good Story," refers, obviously, to the Gospel or Good News of the New Testament. The show is written as though the characters arrive together by chance unprepared and without anything but the clothes they wear, whatever happens to be lying around on the baseball field, a fervour for the Lord, and a desire to preach and teach the Gospel, enacting "on-the-spot" demonstrations of lessons from the Bible.

The show begins with the chant: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," and features songs you will find very familiar from your high school years, if you are over forty, and might have heard your parents play or on an elevator somewhere, if you are younger. But THIS is the way you SHOULD hear these songs – live and on stage, sung by people, some of whom I know personally, who are of great faith and mean every word they sing and say.

Unlike the play Jesus Christ Superstar or movies like The Passion, where individual actors step into roles and assume the mantle of that character for the duration of the story, in Godspell the actors are NOT supposed to BE that person, but are only vehicles for the communication of the Gospel message. Ordinary people going about their daily business are inspired to teach the Word. Therefore, there is no disrespect intended when Apostles are dressed in running shorts, or for ballet practice, or in a leather jacket or lab coat, because that is how they are supposed to have showed up for this "come as you are" exercise in missionary work. The actors, thereby, communicate an additional underlying message, that EVERYONE – young, old, whatever gender, whatever your gifts, are all called to evangelize. That when the moment calls to speak up for your faith, you are not to let formality stand in the way, but just jump right in and strike while you have a receptive audience. 

And there is no "gender agenda," but only a "necessity of convenience agenda" when a group of ladies ham it up with fake beards as Pharisees or a young lady responds as Peter – there are simply not enough men in the available cast. (MORAL TO THIS PART OF THE STORY – You guys in Lake Charles – MAN UP AND AUDITION!!!)

Clay Hebert, a staple in both local independent films and community, high school and college theater for over three decades, speaks on behalf of Jesus in an Astros shirt. Unsurprisingly, he has the command of both the stage and the Gospel message. I've known Clay since he had hair and have always been impressed by him as a brilliant example of the RIVER of talent that flows through our city. Kirsten Bush, Heather Partin, Zoe LeBeau and Joseph Comeaux are very familiar figures on our Lake Charles stages. And the rest of the performers shine as well: Clay Corley, Rebecca Harris, Virginia-Kate Jessen, Theresa Hay Needham, Taylor Novak-Tyler, Liz Rentrop Trahan, and Jaylin Williams all round out a cast which embodies a wide variety of roles: from the fallen woman Jesus saves from stoning, to the wealthy merchant who will not live to enjoy their earthly treaures, to the rich man who ignores Lazarus; from Caiaphas, to a temptress Devil, to the ungrateful servant, and those healed by Jesus. All the stories these delightful actors tell will be well known and beloved to even a casual student of the Bible. It is a joy to see these stories play out and hear the  beautiful singing. These very familiar songs, which can grow stale over time with indifferent repetition, come alive with the energy of immediate re-enactment that this talented troupe brings to the stage.

Greg Stratton, with a resume longer than my arm, gifted actor and director, corrals all this enthusiasm into the Godspell that we enjoyed, masterfully inspiring his cast, bringing out the best of their vocal and acting talents, making the challenge of directing so many performers constantly on stage look effortless. I have had the privilege of watching Greg direct up close and his creativity, love for the theatre and respect for his performers comes through clearly. Greg has an enormous repertorie, wearing the hats on and off the stage in comedies and dramas alike.  

A theatrical master magician who, like Prospero in The Tempest, is able to make his audience weep or laugh, Greg manages to do both in this funny, joyful, and emotional modern re-presentation of Bible stories.

So go see Godspell at Lake Charles Little Theatre as soon as you can – the run is only through April 29th – and be uplifted as only a live retelling of the Bible can be where two or more are gathered in His name.

AND I APOLOGIZE FOR THE PAUCITY OF PHOTOS FROM THE SHOW – MY ACCESS TO PICTURES WAS VERY LIMITED. IF ANYONE FROM THE CAST WOULD LIKE TO CONTRIBUTE PHOTOS FROM THE PRODUCTION PLEASE SEND THEM TO MY E-MAIL AT: KBARRILLEA@SUDDENLINK.NET AND I WOULD BE DELIGHTED TO ADD THEM TO THIS BLOG IF AT ALL POSSIBLE.

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