“The Case for Christ”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“The Case for Christ” is based on the true story of Chicago Tribune investigative journalist Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel), a man who claimed to be an atheist but set out to prove the claims of Christianity in an attempt to debunk them. The film is based on Strobel’s bestselling book of the same title, which lists bullet point after bullet point that supposedly “prove” that Christians got it right. While the material isn’t presented in the most compelling of ways, on the surface it’s not a terrible movie.

When a devout nurse saves their daughter from choking, Lee’s wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) joins the crazy train for Jesus. In times of crisis it’s human nature to seek meaning, and she finds great comfort in religion, church and the Bible. It’s interesting to watch how a brand new Christian deals with a partner who has yet to “come to know god.” There is scene after scene of Leslie praying for Lee to see the light, and the strains of living with the daily stress of being unable to come out as a Christian to her husband.

I can see how this could very well be emotionally relevant and moving to Christians. As a nonbeliever myself, I find that extremely hard to relate to — but I do know if the situation was reversed and my husband suddenly jumped off the deep end for Jesus, I’d absolutely act like Lee. I wouldn’t go so far as to attempt to prove or disprove Christianity, but I can attest that those scenes are portrayed with quite the realistic honesty.

It comes as no surprise that this film clearly knows its audience and plays directly to them. For the odd atheist who mistakenly wanders in or buys a ticket out of sheer curiosity, let me assure you this isn’t going to convince nor change the mind of any nonbelievers.

The film feels more intellectually dishonest than offensive (the text of the Bible itself is offered up time and again as irrefutable “proof”), and there are plenty of pious characters repeatedly asking “when is enough evidence enough?” There are a lot of irrelevant, unreliable written eyewitness accounts and deceptively tricky “facts” from questionable “experts” and “scholars,” including a doctor, an archaeologist, several members of the clergy, and a psychiatrist. It’s a faith-based movie that’s at least trying to be smart and thoughtful rather than cheesy and drowning in sappy sentimentality.

I won’t delve in and start debunking Strobel’s mostly ridiculous claims and his outlying of the supposed clear “proof,” but ultimately he fills in the huge gaps in logic and reason with that old Christian adage that always seems to be their go-to when they want to end an unwinnable debate: “ya gotta have faith.

There’s not a lot of humor but I did laugh out loud at an extended research montage set to the classic rock anthem “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas. The acting is competent for the most part but sometimes veers into B-movie territory: the film’s second unintentionally funny scene involves Lee stumbling around his house in a drunken stupor until he knocks over a potted plant! Oh the horror!

This being a Pure Flix production means there are plenty of jabs at agnostics and “nones,” tidy plot points that try to excuse and explain away Lee’s skepticism, and the popular (yet grossly untrue) notion that folks are atheists just because they don’t know how to talk to god or that they are angry at god make their obligatory appearance. The party line that free thinkers just don’t want to see a god in their lives is a little offensive, but we’re used to it.

At least atheists aren’t completely demonized or portrayed as mustache twirling villains in this one, but they still have a slightly smug, self-satisfied edge, which is sure to appeal to the Christian base at which this well produced project is aimed.

“I’m Not Ashamed”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The horrific 1999 shooting at Columbine High Schol sets a chilling backdrop for “I’m Not Ashamed,” the latest Christian faith-based film from Pure Flix. This biopic is no doubt for the devout, but this isn’t a completely unwatchable movie like so many others in the devotional genre.

The film centers around the real-life Rachel Joy Scott (Masey McLain), a very religious teenager who loves to write in her daily journal. The screenplay is based on Rachel’s actual musings from this diary and her own written words, adding an authentic, and at times chilling, glimpse into the final year of a young girl’s life. I’m sure there were certain liberties taken with the true story (some things are just too rosy and perfect), but the sentiment remains the same. There are the normal high school parties and cliques and boy crushes, but it’s hard to view any of those moments with delight because we all know how her story tragically ends.

McLain spends most of the movie doing what looks like a shoddy Katie Holmes impression, but she’s not the worst actress in the world. She’s capable enough for this material (newsflash: this isn’t high art) and she carries the movie, which was probably better suited for a DVD rather than a theatrical release, with ease. There’s not much talent on display in the supporting cast either, with some seriously laughable performances and stiff line delivery from most of the cast in the early scenes (I triple dog dare you not to laugh out loud at the awful performance from Sadie Robertson, granddaughter of Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame).

As expected, this film is far too preachy to be fully enjoyed by those who aren’t already inclined or encouraged by their church group to buy a ticket. Get ready for scene after scene of people attempting to pray away their problems, life-affirming Bible study, the nervous fondling of crucifix necklaces, and plenty of discussions and cheerful platitudes about letting “his light shine through” you. I found all of this nearly laughable and more than a little ridiculous, but I have to hand it to the filmmakers here because there’s one area in which they truly stand out from the other faith-based dreck: the film doesn’t paint nonbelievers in a bad light.

The film is well done in the sense that it doesn’t try to classify skeptics, agnostics and atheists as some sort of evil spawn of Satan. There are plenty of times when our young heroine reminds her friends that she’s “not that type of Christian” who just tries to “convert” everyone. I can appreciate that kind of message. If other hard line faith-based films would take this approach, they would be much easier to swallow among the rest of the world.

Of course, Rachel is portrayed as a type of superhero for Jesus who uses her spirituality to save plenty of folks (including a homeless teen), but this is the sort of validation the core religious audience for this type of film wants to see. I have no issue with this, but I wish devout worshipers would understand and accept that one doesn’t need a religion or a god to “do good” and spread happiness in the world. But hey, you know, baby steps.

This is not to say that there aren’t some troubling portrayals of pro-censorship attitudes on display, most in relation to the school shooters, Dylan Klebold (Cory Chapman) and Eric Harris (David Errigo Jr.). There’s no disputing that these two were extremely troubled kids, but here they are portrayed as cartoonish villains, two over the top outsiders who are drawn into a world of violence because they like to read history books about Hilter and they spend their afternoons playing first-person shooter video games. At times, the movie makes Rachel’s imminent death feel very commercialized, and it’s more than a little off putting. In fact, much of the film feels like one big advertisement for the Christian religion.

The end is stirring and the message, when stripped of the religious aspects, is one that can be universally appreciated. Yes, it’s more than a tad exploitative, but there are a few sincere, touching moments leading up to Rachel’s graphic on-screen murder. It’s hard not to care about a kindhearted girl who was just trying to make the world a better place.


Matt was unavailable for review.

“God’s Not Dead 2”

LOUISA:   2 STARS   MATT:   2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Watch out Christians, the big bad boogie man atheists are out to get you! Yes, the far from subtle “God’s Not Dead 2,” the sequel to 2014’s successful “God’s Not Dead” has arrived. Like its predecessor, this sequel is surprisingly well made and decently acted; unlike the original, it’s not very entertaining.

The plot is decent enough, but the film quickly sinks under the weight of its one-sided, overtly religious message. Melissa Joan Hart plays high school teacher Grace (get it?) who (gasp!) mentions Jesus and the Bible in response to a student’s (Hayley Orrantia) question during history class. (For the record, the teacher’s response in a public classroom setting was not out of line at all and would never be something that would land her in court in the first place). Soon all hell breaks loose and Grace soon finds herself defending her beliefs in a court battle over the separation of church and state. Grace’s appointed lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) laughably figures the only way to win this thing is to — wait for it — prove in court that Christ was real.

The courtroom scenes are absurd but at least they are entertaining. Before the trial begins we see a juror contested by the civil rights lawyer because his favorite t.v. show is “Duck Dynasty” and another because he “looks like a U.S. Marine.” One (David A.R. White) is chosen only because he’s a pastor. Another is shown to side with Grace simply because she has a tattoo of a cross (never mind that the film portrays as Christians as lacking the ability to remain impartial and follow the law rather than their personal beliefs — if you are religious, this alone should insult you). Things pick up a bit during the trial, mostly due to Ernie Hudson and his unintentionally funny, over-the-top portrayal of a judge.

The most outrageous scenes involve the endless parade of real life religious “experts” that are brought in to prove that Jesus was a real man (which, despite what the film wants you to believe, does not prove that “God’s not dead”). Authors Lee Strobel (The Case for Christ) and James Wallace (Cold-Case Christianity) play themselves and present some ridiculous arguments (all masquerading as “proof”) in an attempt to trick the audience into accepting that okay, maybe Jesus was a real man, so therefore God is real too! Note to Christians: do not cite these less-than-credible examples to attempt to prove that “God” is real while debating an atheist unless you want to embarrass yourself.

The movie grandstands by name-dropping several other actual researchers who’ve offered their own “proof” of Jesus’ existence (again wrongly implying that Jesus is real therefore God is real), making a huge point in playing up the fact that many of them are former atheists who now are proud one-way ticket holders on the crazy train for Jesus — as if their reversal of faith gives them more credibility.

Fans of the first “God’s Not Dead” will delight as characters from the original are pointlessly paraded out one by one in what amounts to nothing more than some good ol’ fashioned stunt casting. Their presence is dutifully written into the plot in a mostly meaningless way. Amy (Trisha LaFache), Martin (Paul Kwo) and Reverend Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango) are back, as is the popular Christian rock group The Newsboys (who finish out the film with a rousing closing theme song).

Now let’s get down to the truly offensive elements of the movie: most distasteful is the way atheists and nonbelievers are portrayed. When a wealthy, smart, successful atheist shows up, you can bet their presence is accompanied by sinister music with plenty of smirking and sneers. Seriously, all that’s missing is a mustache twirl! As in most faith-based films, atheists are always portrayed as complete and utter assholes. It’s a clear, simple formula: Christian = shiny, happy, energetic balls of bright light; Non-believers = miserable, vicious, religion-hating villain.

There are several references to a “war” between atheists and Christians, a notion that should terrify all of us regardless of our faith (or lack thereof). Jabs are also made towards Muslims, the ACLU, Ivy league colleges and political correctness in general. I know I’m not in the target audience for this film, but when will Christians stop claiming that they are an oppressed minority and rid themselves of the notion that it’s always “us against them?” It’s not helping bridge the gap between the freethinkers and the faithful.

“God’s Not Dead 2” does more of a disservice to the Christian cause, doing nothing to promote any sort of understanding nor exhibiting any real intention to start a useful, pragmatic dialogue between freethinkers and the faithful. The film instead comes across as nothing more than a whiny, crybaby “poor me” pity party that showcases the fallacy of “Christian persecution.” Of course there’s an agenda here (I would expect nothing less from Pure Flix faith-based entertainment), and the filmmakers don’t even remotely attempt to hide it. This film does much more harm than good, but it’s not a bad movie.

MATT SAYS:

“God’s Not Dead: The Strawman Strikes Back!”

“God’s Not Dead 2” focuses on a public high school history teacher, the subtlely-named Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart), who finds herself in hot water after mentioning Jesus in the classroom. This in response to a student’s question about Jesus and his teachings as compared to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In her answer, Grace doesn’t cite her personal belief, pray, or urge the students to join in prayer with her; instead, she quotes words attributed to Jesus that respond to the student’s question, citing the Bible as the source for the quote.

Grace’s mere mention of Jesus and scripture in the classroom leads to a massive legal battle, with the charge led by the ACLU. The ACLU, you see, hates Christianity, sees it as a disease, and wants to eradicate it. Not just remove it from the classroom — completely eradicate it. This is not subtext: the fancy-shmancy ACLU lawyer (Ray Wise, channeling Leland Palmer) in his expensive suit actually says that while sneering with eyebrows upturned. Why the filmmakers didn’t give him a black hat and a mustache to twirl is beyond me: if you’re gonna create a caricature for your bad guy, why not go all in?

Of course, the central conceit of GND2 relies not only on a tortured reading of the law, but also a misrepresentation of the argument for separation of church and state. Grace was talking about words attributed to a historical figure in a history class in answer to a direct question. She wasn’t leading prayer in school or preaching to her class. But from the movie’s viewpoint, the ACLU (and therefore, the secular opposition) doesn’t see or understand the distinction. Having carefully constructed this fallacious strawman-version of the argument against religion in school, GND2 proceeds to knock it down. This intellectual sleight-of-hand may fool some of the audience, but it’s not going to bring the two sides any closer to understanding one another. That said, this movie isn’t interested in promoting understanding; it’s peddling a culture war.

Selling the culture war is the business of the “God’s Not Dead” movies. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.

In the world of “God’s Not Dead,” Christians are a silent minority who are unable to express their views in any public place without fear of persecution. Teenagers rebel against their godless parents by reading the Bible and learning about Christianity. Secularists are hate-filled and angry protestors, while Christians are quiet, respectful, and practice passive resistance. Major television news networks openly promote secularism and criticize the faithful. Public institutions seek to stamp out religious expression of any type, and the judicial system quietly supports those efforts. This is a false world masquerading as our own, recasting the vocal majority in the role of the oppressed.

In this world, Christians are convicted and face prison sentences for simply expressing their beliefs (again, this isn’t subtext, this movie actually says that). Although the film never has the guts to say it outright, one can only imagine that they are alluding to Kim Davis, discriminatory bake shops, and the conviction that believing in what you want means being able to freely discriminate against others.

While the movie’s intellectual dishonesty about the opposing viewpoint is frustrating, its portrayal of atheists is downright disrespectful. You see, the student who sparked the firestorm by asking Grace about Jesus in class — Brooke (Hayley Orrantia) — has atheist parents. Six months ago, Brooke’s brother died in an accident. Understandably, Brooke hasn’t gotten over the tragedy and still misses her brother. Her parents, however, are completely over the death of their son and callously tell Brooke to “forget about” her brother and move on. Apparently, not only do atheists not believe in any gods, but they are also incapable of feeling and human emotion. The only sympathetic atheists are those who are quick to abandon their worldview and turn to religion for comfort when tragedy strikes (spoiler alert: they always choose Christianity).

It’s this lack of respect that is most troubling about these movies and the community they represent. It’s hard to see the conversation about faith and its place in society moving forward if we can’t honor the basic humanity of people who see the world differently than we do.

So yeah, it’s safe to say that I had some problems with the message of “God’s Not Dead 2” and what it is selling. But as a piece of entertainment, it isn’t terrible. It stretches on a little too long and spends a little too much time revisiting characters from the first movie, but overall it isn’t too draggy. The acting is mostly passable, save for Melissa Joan Hart, whose range (if you can call it that) is limited to either nervous/fearful or happy. As a piece of propaganda, it’s fairly effective at doing what it set out to do.

“Miracles From Heaven”

LOUISA:   2 STARS   MATT:  2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Miracles From Heaven” is surprisingly well directed and well acted, putting it a cut above your average faith-based film fare. It’s as melodramatic and preachy as you’d expect, but at its center is a pandering, uplifting story that should play extremely well with its core religious audience. There’s nothing objectionable here — the movie delivers a wholesome, clean, modest night at the movies — but be forewarned that this sappy Christian crowd pleaser will be a tough sell for secular audiences.

It’s a gross understatement to accuse this melodramatic film of ‘preaching to the choir.’ A good portion of the film takes place inside a church (with a hip preacher and a slick rock band, of course), making me feel like I was attending a Sunday service instead of watching a movie. I want to be entertained, not stuck in a 2 hour sermon! The sad thing is that this would make a pretty decent Lifetime movie of the week if it wasn’t overloaded with all the Jesus-y junk. At its core is a story of a family dealing with a horrible crisis, a story that has the power to transcend crossover audiences. Ultimately the film fails miserably in its handling of the subject matter.

So just how doctrinal is it? Let’s start with the unintentionally laughable opening sequence: you’ve got your hard working, non-threateningly shirtless, sexy daddy; three cute little girls playing in mud puddles in their “Sunday school dresses;” close-ups of crucifix necklaces; several rapid-fire mentions of Bible readings, church and the like. A joke about how “my friend says Hell is in California” got the biggest sincere laughs from my audience (that tells you all you need to know).

The movie’s message is that everything will be fine as long as you pray, pray, and pray some more. If you aren’t getting what you want, you aren’t praying hard enough. This dangerous notion is driven hard, over and over and over again. It’s also funny how the movie glosses over the serious, real questions. When mom Christy Beam (Jennifer Garner) stands up in church to address the congregation with a rousing speech, she touches on the idea as to why her child was cured and others are left to suffer. How does she answer? With the frequent Christian cop-out of “I don’t know.” The movie is absolutely fine to leave it at that. Scenes like this are exactly why many thinking people can’t stomach faith-based entertainment. 

Movies like this promote exclusivity simply because they exist. The supposedly “true” story on which its based sounds mostly like a bunch of malarkey, but its imagined retelling here comes across as nothing more than a recruitment video for evangelical Christianity. It’s offensive and does the religion more of a disservice in the eyes of a nonbeliever. The movie portrays Christianity as the only way (a child states that “not everyone’s going to believe, but they’ll get there when they get there”), has characters suggest that a child became terminally ill due to the family’s “sins” (to the film’s credit they do call them out for this), and advocates praying as a legitimate way to heal a human being (newsflash: it isn’t)! In the middle of the big child-trapped-in-a-tree rescue scene (itself laughable), the firemen stop to pray, making me want to blurt out “quit praying and do your job!” The weight placed on the importance and effectiveness of prayer in this film isn’t just ridiculous, it’s downright terrifying.

As in other faith-based dramas, the highly educated (in this case, doctors) are portrayed as goofy buffoons (Eugenio Derbez) or condescending, uncaring jerks. At least the atheist who shows up isn’t portrayed as a complete jackass, but — spoiler alert — he does sort of “find the power of faith” by the end. I do have to mention the unexpectedly admirable performances from genuinely talented Kylie Rogers (as the sick child Anna) and the immensely likable Brighton Sharbino (as sister Abbie). Queen Latifah charms in her very minor supporting role as a friendly waitress. And although her performance was brimming with tear-filled pain and honesty, I ultimately felt sorry for Jennifer Garner. She’s an adept actress giving some truly heartfelt work here, but I kept imagining that I was hearing wooshing sounds in the background: the sound of her career being flushed down the toilet.

If you love Jesus then you’ll probably love this movie. But for me, it’s a miracle I was able to sit through it ’til the end.

MATT SAYS:

If you know me, you know I’m not part of the target audience for “Miracles from Heaven.” If you are a member of the target audience, this movie will likely be right up your alley.

For the most part, “Miracles from Heaven” is a rather bland and unremarkable movie-of-the-week that would have found a happy home on the Hallmark Channel. What distinguishes it from those films is its subject matter and rather heavy-handed Christian message. Faith in Jesus is what it’s selling, and miracles are the engine that will get you there. It’s unlikely to result in any religious conversions, but if you already are a person of faith, you will likely find this movie inspiring and affirming to your view of the world.

The problem with this movie – and the reason it’s unlikely to reach anyone beyond its core audience – is that it takes place in a plastic world with plastic trees and plastic houses inhabited by plastic people. Other than Annabel’s (Kylie Rogers) disease, there is no adversity in this world. Every kid is a little angel who is willing to make any and all sacrifices for the sake and well-being of the other kids. The worst scolding these kids ever get from mom is for playing outside in their Sunday school dresses. There’s no boredom in church; the congregation enthusiastically crams in the pews every Sunday, and every man, woman and child listens with rapt attention when the pastor speaks, and laughs loudly at every joke he makes. In this world, “OMG” means “oh my goodness,” that other “G” word not being spoken unless it is in service or prayer to him with a capital “H.” Every single denizen of this world is a pious and believing Christian, with the notable exceptions of the (LIBERAL) media. This world is a Norman Rockwell depiction of the real one we actually live in.

While the messaging is heavy-handed, it is mostly not offensive to non-Christians. . . mostly. Unlike many of the other “faith-based’ films, there is thankfully no Christian Persecution Complex on display here. These characters operate well within a Christian worldview, where a crisis of faith doesn’t mean losing faith in the existence of god, it means losing faith in whether god actually will intervene in human events and help people who ask for it. There are even some Christians – the judgmental a*holes – that are temporarily portrayed in a negative light. While there is some Christian misogyny is on display here (reacting to a life-threatening emergency for her daughter, the dutiful wife calls her husband before she calls emergency services; the husband makes a big show of actually “allowing” his wife to say grace at the dinner table), it’s mostly whitewashed.

If it would have stuck to its folksy, downhome approach to religion and focused simply on the miracles, “Miracles from Heaven” would have been okay. The problem, however, is that it’s not content to be simply faith-affirming; it has to condescendingly try to tear down other world-views, too. There is a prominent subplot featuring an atheist/agnostic dad (again, a member of the LIBERAL MEDIA), with his like-minded daughter sick with cancer. Predictably (but unrealistically) the dad has a sudden change of heart after his daughter’s life is touched by Annabel. It is this type of messaging that’s offensive, because it perpetuates the Christian view that atheists and agnostics are only one miracle or sermon away from converting. “If I preach hard enough, or carry the message in just the right way, you’ll change your mind.” It is this lack of respect that deepens the religious divide in this country, and the one and only reason I have a problem with this film.

Listen up, faithful: atheists and agnostics don’t care what you believe in. They don’t care who, what, or how you worship. They don’t even mind movies and stories like this one. What the “nones” DO mind is your lack of respect for differing world views. “I’m right and you’re wrong” never got the human race anywhere in issues of politics, international relations, or philosophy, and as long as the discourse continues to be focused that way, we will continue to have this alleged culture war.

I’m upset that “Miracles from Heaven” had to cross that line, because otherwise it was an okay (if somewhat slow) movie of the week with a decent message that most folks – both religious and non-religious — would readily agree with: live each day like it is a miracle, and appreciate all of the little and big things that life has to offer.