Certification: 12A Running time: 132 minutes
A Summit Entertainment release 2017 – Director: Stuart Hazeldine
Starring Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Tim McGraw, Sumire, Amélie Eve, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe.
I have been in two minds about William Young’s bestselling story The Shack since reading the book when it was first published. The book and the film both begin with the same opening line: “Who wouldn’t be sceptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God – in a shack, no less?” This gets to the heart of the issue; the story grabs our attention but does stretch our credulity.
The Shack will be a marmite film for evangelicals; it will not be everyone's cup of tea culturally or theologically.
It does, however, face up to the complexity and agony of human pain. It also communicates well the reality of a God who draws near to us and identifies with our pain.
Sam Worthington, who plays the main character Mack, makes the helpful observation about losing someone we love: “If you look at it in a very simple way, the ?lm offers a beautiful message that if you forgive the tragedy that hits your life, you can actually get through it. It may be extremely painful and take a long time, but forgiveness releases you, it sets you free.”
One line in the film that struck a chord was when God said to Mack: “When you concentrate on the pain, it is harder to see me.”
I understand why some of the odder theological insights infuriated conservative evangelicals; it is important to remember, however, that the book is not attempting to define the Trinity but to tell a story. In some ways, the visual impact of the film makes the dance of the Trinity clearer. When Mack meets the Trinity, he asks: “‘Which one of you is God?’ ‘I am,’ said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next, and even though he couldn’t begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them.”
There is a raw authenticity to the story, that dares to name our human sorrow, and inches toward believing that God is interested in us. The film leaves room for a God who both intrigues with mystery but also comes up close and personal. The main message – that life is a mess but God can mend the broken heart – is clear.
From a cinematic point of view the film is well conceived, faithful to the book and well-paced, it has top drawer actors, and is set in the beautiful Oregon countryside. My son has been studying in Oregon, so when I saw the breathtaking Oregon scenery, complete with the spectacular Multnomah Falls, I was hooked.
The Shack is worth seeing and recommending as a potential bridge-builder for the gospel.
Some might find parts of the film overly American and sentimental, but you would need a heart of stone not to identify with the searing pain of loss it depicts, or the liberating hope it holds out to those who respond to the seeking God with humble trust.
John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle in West Sussex.
Director Lone Scherfig
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Clarfin and Bill Nighy
In an era that has been dubbed Post-Truth, a world of alternative facts and fake news, it is sometimes difficult to separate truth from fiction. Set in wartime Britain, Their Finest tells the story of the making of a Ministry of Information film to promote the war effort, and to inspire hope in a general public whose lives were being shattered by terrible loss during the Blitz.
The film cleverly shows how fact and fiction have often been somewhat blurred in the artistic, and the political process. Gemma Arterton's character is drafted in to assist in making an information film about the evacuation of Dunkirk, with its flotilla of small boats, that rescues more than 300,000 stranded military personnel.
The writing team soon find that they are under pressure to present the right kind of story. The result is a story that has a grain of truth but is cavalier with the facts. Such poetic licence leads to fiction that is stranger and more palatable than the actual reality.
Politicians, storytellers, film makers and preachers have often been economic with the truth, not letting the facts getting in the way of the story.
Their Finest captures the grind of wartime London, the daily living with uncertainty and loss, and the fragility of each moment and every relationship. Watch it with a box of tissues; all the main characters are touched by tragedy, and in some ways transformed by it.
As Christians watch the film with an eye for how truth works, how we often resist truth, and how we often crave for a different narrative.
John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle in West Sussex.
Directed by Garth David
Starring Dev Patel, Roony Mara, David Wenhamand and Nicole Kidman
Apparently, when the actor Dev Patel heard about the book A Long Way Home, he made his way to the author and asked if he could play the leading role of Saroo in the film. The author, the real Saroo Brierley said that he hadn’t written the screenplay yet.
Seeing the film, it is obvious why Patel was so was so enthusiastic about the role: it was made for him. Having read the book, I wondered how the film would manage to stretch the simple story over the whole length of a feature film. The answer is that the director has done an excellent job of communicating the tension of this “lost and found” story. Much of the story in the book is taken up with the inner thoughts of the main character and multiple flashback to the events that led to him being lost in the first place.
The film is a useful vehicle for exploring why people are keen to discover their true identifies; uncertainty about our past can make it difficult for us to move on in the present, and be ready for what the future might have for us.
Lion also tackles the complexity of dealing with lost and displaced children in India. Highly recommended as a moving story with a variety of thought-provoking twists.
La La Land (12A 2016)
Running time: 128 minutes
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Director Damien Chazelle
There is something wonderful about the sheer scale and exuberance of this film’s opening scene, which is a spectacular song and dance routine that takes the breath away. It continues at a high tempo throughout; a cross between a Gene Kelly-type musical and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. I guess this is what you might call a feel-good film; singing, dancing and romance.
La La Land is the story of two young people in Los Angeles, one an aspiring actress, the other a wannabe jazz pianist. The two meet and their stories, dreams and aspirations mingle throughout the film. Yet if this film is a little like Gene Kelly, it is because often the couple are metaphorically, singing in the rain!
The film is honest about how our dreams do not always work out as we hope or expect. Most of life has more than its share of setbacks, knockbacks and disappointment. Creative people learn that progress can involve perspiration and inspiration in equal measures – when anybody makes it in life it is usually the result of hard work and delayed gratification. Dreams must be reshaped as aspirations meet reality, comprises are made, as we learn to live with a revised version of that dream.
We see all of this in La La Land, yet the enduring feature of the film is how the two main characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone find joy in a series of moments shared together. It is a reminder that as the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us: “God makes everything beautiful in its time”. The film also reminds us how valuable it is to have honest friends, who can get us back on track when we are about to give up.
Who might enjoy this film? The audience when I went was 80% female but it is not a chick flick. This man, for one, found the whole film enthralling. It reminds us that it is OK to have fun, to dream dreams and to follow your heart. Christians would want to add that our heart’s focus needs to be refined by our love for God and others.
I said that I loved the opening scene; well the final scene is equally brilliant for another reason. It sums up skilfully the complex ambiguous web of human life, loves and dreams. One last thing: you might want some tissues!
John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle
Director Martin Scorcese
A couple of decades ago I stumbled on the novel Silence by Shusako Endo, and reading it again this year I was struck by how fresh and timeless Endo’s writing continues to be. It’s easy to see why Martin Scorcese was attracted to this compelling story of faith under fire set in the context of 16th Century Japan, a culture that appears to be almost completely impervious to the gospel.
Does the film manage to capture the tension that is at the heart of Japanese cultural engagement with the outside world? Yes; it does so brilliantly, along with the tension within the main characters as they wrestle with the cost of faithfulness to the gospel.
The three priests Rodrigues and Garrpe and Ferreira, and the mysteriously ambiguous Japanese figure Kichijiro, all respond to the challenge in contrasting ways.
The film is long and unfolds its overtly spiritual themes slowly; at times, I found it strange that I was in a cinema watching a film on general release. The depiction of torture is very graphic; what is left to the imagination in reading Endo’s novel is laid devastatingly bare in the cinema!
I guess it is obvious why Christians would want to watch this film. Themes of mission in a hostile environment, persecution, and the need for sensitivity in communicating the gospel in a different culture, are all poignantly relevant to the 21st century Church.
Maybe the most compelling theme is the struggle Christians have when praying before, what seems to be, a wall of silence. Another interesting observation in the film is how a culture might read Christianity through its own cultural lenses, adopting a sentimental mix of old and new spiritual ideas.
For some the many harrowing scenes of torture in this film will be just too much to bear. If the viewer makes it to the end, there are moments of hope that break through. Maybe it is the darkest night that allows us to see the brightest stars.
The back story to the novel is beautifully explored by the Japanese American artist Makoto Fujimura in his book Silence and Beauty.
Shusako Endo – Silence (with an illuminating forward by Martin Scorcese) Picador 288 pages £8.99 ISBN 978-1447299851
Makoto Fujimura – Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering IVP 263 pages £19.99 ISBN 978-0830844593
As always the good folk at Damaris have done a great job in providing study materials for reflection and use in evangelism.
John Woods (Pastor at Lancing Tabernacle in West Sussex)
United Kingdom (12A)
BBC Films directed by Amma Asante (111 minutes)
United Kingdom was one of those films that I watched without having to look at my watch once. David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike star in a bittersweet romantic film set against the backdrop of intercontinental political relations in the immediate post-war years.
The film is based on the true story of the heir to the throne of what has become Botswana marrying an ordinary white woman from Britain. This is a gripping story, well told, of the path of true love not running smoothly, until … well that would be telling.
Get some chocolate and tissues and go and see for yourself; you will not be disappointed.
Sully: Miracle on The Hudson (12A)
Warner Brothers directed by Clint Eastwood (96 minutes)
This is not a film to watch before, or during a flight! Sully, played by the evergreen Tom Hanks, is also based on a true story. The film shows his plane seconds after take-off from La Guardia Airport in New York, having both its engines disabled by a flock of birds.
Sully manages to land the plane on the Hudson River, with no loss of life. The film relates how the pilot’s actions were scrutinised by the Civil Aviation Authority, who seemed to want someone to blame.
In an age dependent on technological gadgetry, this film celebrates the human touch. “Behind every hero is an ordinary man”. Maybe that is something to remember as we celebrate the coming of the “Man who was God”.
John Woods is pastor of Lancing Tabernacle, West Sussex
Ben-Hur (cert. 12A)
This lavishly filmed remake of the Charlton Heston 1959 classic promises much, but ends up being a bit of a mishmash.
The story, if you’re not familiar with it, involves Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur’s relationship wth his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbel), an officer in the Roman army. When a young Zealot, being reluctantly looked after by Ben-Hur’s household, tries to assassinate Pontius Pilate during an army procession, Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) takes the rap and is hauled away to become a galley slave on a Roman ship, not knowing the fate of his wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) and family.
After years at sea, he returns to his homeland to seek revenge, but following a climactic chariot race against (among others) his adopted brother, he finds forgiveness, redemption, reunion with his family and peace with his brother.
There’s a lot of action in this movie, and the slave ship scenes and final chariot showdown are breathless and impressive. Some of the CGI battle scenes showing Messala’s Roman army career, less so.
But the real problem for me in this film is that it feels bitty – possibly a consequence of condensing a story that previously took four hours to tell, into two. Weaving elements of the story of Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro) in just didn’t help the flow of the storyline, and for much of it I struggled to identify with the characters.
Morgan Freeman pops up as Ilderim, a freelance chariot team coach and horse trader who also makes his money betting on his racers' performances. Oddly he has little clue on how to keep his horses healthy, so it’s handy when Ben-Hur is washed up at his camp from the shipwreck of his galley, and proves not just a horse-whisperer who treats his horse and helps it recover, but also races chariots rather well.
The happily-ever-after ending feels rushed and all too contrived, with Ben-Hur and Messala reconciled, imprisoned mother and sister’s freedom bought by Ilderim, and everybody appearing to be following Jesus.
Yes, there are talking points about forgiveness, family loyalty, identity and the Christian message, but I’m not convinced it will win over many unbelievers. You may disagree but $100 million seems to me to be a lot of money for a film that’s really not as good as it could/should be.
The Story of God with Morgan Freeman – National Geographic Channel, Sundays at 8pm
Let’s get the obvious joke out of the way; Morgan Freeman’s new documentary series, The Story of God, isn’t his life story. And as the show’s executive producer James Younger points out, “Morgan will be the first person to tell you that having played God in a film in no way qualifies you to make a show about him!”
What this six-part documentary series does do is show us a side to Morgan that we don’t get to see in his films: that of a man who’s immensely curious about the world around him, about religion, and about life’s big questions. Curious enough to go travelling around the world in search of answers.
The idea for The Story of God came out of another documentary show Morgan and James worked on together, called Through the Wormhole. “That series asked questions about the meaning of life and our place in the universe,” says James. “This series, in a way, is an extension of that.
“The idea for this series came about some years ago, when Morgan went to Istanbul and saw the Hagia Sophia. It had both images of Jesus and Quranic scriptures on its walls. He asked, ‘How can both these be in the same place?’ and his guide explained to him that Jesus is considered a prophet in Islam. Morgan was stunned; he’d never known that. And he thought, ‘If I didn’t know that, I’m sure lots of other people don’t either.’ This was a reason to bridge the divides.”
Sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, The Story of God does make for compelling viewing. In his travels, Morgan meets religious scholars and leaders from a wide range of faiths, a reformed jihadist who's now an expert on terrorism prevention, and scientists working on the next stage of artificial intelligence. He comes back with more questions than answers – but then, with a subject this big, that's to be expected.
Starring: Douglas Henshall aand Ruth Negga
Director: Scott Graham
Production: Verve Pictures (film opens 25 March 2016)
This award-nominated drama stars Douglas Henshall (Daniel) of BBC crime series Shetland and acclaimed TV, theatre and movie performer Ruth Negga (Iona), and Scott Graham's tense tale of faith and family trauma is undeniably well acted.
Beautifully shot, there is a brooding quality about the cinematography and the story builds slowly as we begin to piece together the narrative about Iona and her son Bull, fleeing the Scottish mainland to return to the island of her birth, and the close Christian community she was born into.
The fantastic scenery, the slow pace of island life and the gradual way the action builds does draw you in. But … I found myself wanting more from the characters. For any gritty relationship-based drama to work, you have to care about the characters and what happens to them. I struggled to identify with this bunch.
You sense there is a genuine community there, but everyone seems to have a secret skeleton in the cupboard. So the snatches of worship in church suggest an outward show of faith, where the flawed lives and tangled relationships exposed in the subsequent action question how genuinely this faith is lived.
Without revealing too much of the plot, it's a story where hope and redemption are in short supply, and the ending is pretty bleak. There was the opportunity here to ask real questions about faith, God, family and community and for me none of the characters was explored deeply enough to tease these out.
Pity really, it looked great and the performances were strong, particularly newcomers Ben Gallagher (Bull) and Sorcha Groundsell (Sarah).
* some strong language and sexual content.
One of my fondest memories of the summer of 2011 is of not just seeing Mavis Staples in concert headlining the Greenbelt festival, but of actually being on the same stage as her – off to one side, from where I play records to keep the crowd entertained in between bands.
It’s a memory that came back to me several times as I watched one of the most joyous music documentaries I’ve seen in a long while.
In 80 minutes, director Jessica Edwards gives us a potted history of not just Mavis' career both with and without her dad and siblings, but also of the Civil Rights movement, as well as of gospel and blues music and their relationship with America’s folk scene.
Mavis grew up in Chicago, at a time when the city was a breeding ground for music legends (Curtis Mayfield being just one of many the family hung out with when they were kids). Her dad, Roebuck (aka “Pops”) was a big admirer of Martin Luther King, and the feeling was mutual. The Staples family visited King’s church several times, and Martin’s message of freedom became a big influence on the songs Pops wrote for his children to sing.
Mavis! is more than just a documentary; it’s a tribute. To faith, to family, to friendship, to freedom – and, of course, to great music (sorry I don’t have word that begins with F for that last one).
(Editor's note: video clip above features Mavis Staples singing The Staple Singers' hit I'll Be There at The White House in 2013)
Risen (Cert 12A)
We’re all familiar with how Jesus’ crucifixion and the events that followed it played out from the point of view of his nearest and dearest. But what if your career and future plans depended on Jesus staying dead?
That’s the “what if” scenario Risen calls us to consider.
Pilate’s buck-passing strategy has backfired; he had thought that allowing Jesus to be crucified would get the Sanhedrin off his back, but instead he faces more potential unrest as Jesus’ followers have been going about declaring that if their leader is killed, he will rise from the dead.
Roman tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is tasked with the job of preventing Jesus’ followers from stealing his body – and then when the body does go missing, with finding it. Risen has been labelled by some as the unofficial sequel to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Thankfully, it's not as graphic as Mel's film was. The opening scene – a battle between a Roman legion and some Jewish zealots – is pretty full-on, but all the impaling and dismembering takes place off camera. When we do catch up with the crucifixion, the worst of it has already happened and Jesus and the other two have been on their crosses for some time.
Filmed in Malta and Spain, there are so many non-American accents in Risen, I was surprised to discover that it was, in fact, an American film. Alongside Joseph Fiennes's Clavius, there's Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) as his sidekick Lucius, and Peter Firth (Harry Pearce in Spooks) as Pilate.
Argentinean actress Maria Botto plays Mary Magdalene as a strong, defiant woman who refuses to be intimidated by Roman soldiers. And Jesus is played by New Zealander Cliff Curtis, better known to sci-fi and horror fans for his role in the TV series Fear the Walking Dead.
Editor's note: There are free church and community resources for download at http://risen.damarismedia.com/
Captive (cert 12A, 2015, David Oyelowo, Kate Mara)
David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma established him as a major Hollywood talent. He’s back on our cinema screens in another film based on a true story that took place in America’s South – only this time playing a character as far removed from the good Reverend Doctor as one could possibly get.
Captive is based on the book An Unlikely Angel by Ashley Smith. It’s the story of how Ashley ended up being taken hostage by Brian Nichols, a felon who had escaped police custody, killing five people in the process. This all happened in Atlanta in 2005. Ashley passed her time in captivity by reading Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life. At first, Brian dismisses it as “church cr*p”, but allows her to keep reading it to him anyway.
Unlike many of the other Christian films that have come our way recently, the characters in this film aren’t caricatures. The leading lady has some very real flaws and even though we see the bad guy kill a handful of people, we also see his insecurities and his wishes that his life had gone differently.
Kate Mara puts in a strong performance as Ashley, and I haven’t seen David look this mean since Spooks. David’s wife Jessica Oyelowo also makes an appearance, playing a TV journalist whose news reports the Police use to flush Brian out of hiding.
Aside from being a tense thriller (and, let’s be honest here, a commercial for Rick Warren’s famous book), Captive is also very much a story about parenthood and a message of hope to people who may feel that they have failed as parents; whether it’s Ashley, whose daughter lives with an aunt while she struggles to kick her drug habit, or Brian whose ex refuses to let him see the son they had together, following his conviction for an assault on another ex-girlfriend of his (a crime he repeatedly says he didn’t commit).
The scenes in which Ashley reads the Purpose-Driven Life aloud to Brian do smack of extreme product placement. This gets cranked up even further when the closing credits run and we’re shown a clip of Oprah Winfrey interviewing the real Ashley Smith on her TV show and then introducing her to Rick Warren. But the book is a key part of this story – and as Rick says, it is ultimately a story of hope (yes, he was saying that about his book. But it applies just as much to Ashley’s too).
Editor's note: Ethos Media has produced a free downloadable Viewers' Guide for churches to use in connection with the film. You can also order free printed copies of the guide for just the cost of postage from CPO.
The Emperor's New Clothes (cert 15, 2015, Michael Winterbottom, Russell Brand)
Russell Brand's transformation from self-destructive hedonist comedian to political activist and philosopher has seen him become a prophetic voice of sorts on all manner of subjects: everything from racism to pornography to disagreeing with Stephen Fry about the existence of God. But for this film, he and director Michael Winterbottom have focused mainly on the economy and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor.
Russell's 'doorstepping' tactics will be familiar to anyone who's seen any of Michael Moore's documentaries. In fact, there are parallels between The Emperor's New Clothes and Moore's debut film, Roger & Me. In that, Michael Moore's starting point was his hometown of Flint, Michigan, whose liveihood died when the General Motors car company closed their factory there.
In this film, Russell starts his journey in his home town: Grays in Essex, where many local businesses died when the Lakeside shopping mall opened up nearby, and which today seems overrun with betting shops, charity shops and payday loan companies. Russell may have given up on mainstream politics and doesn't vote, but given the timing of the film's release – and the hilarious rap at the end of it, compiled from various MPs' speeches – you definitely do get an idea of whom he would prefer you to vote against.
That disconnect with party politics is one thing Russell's detractors (and there are many) have singled out for criticism.This film isn't going to win those detractors over – but it's obvious Russell doesn't care, and he's happy to take the mickey out of himself ("I'll jump on any bandwagon," he informs us at one point).
He doesn't try to gloss over his past excesses either. Instead, he makes it plain that at some point in his life, he came to the realisation that fame and all its trappings don't have much to offer.
There's actually a lot of optimism in Brand's philosophy. What he does do well is encourage people to look for a cause bigger than themselves to get involved in and be passionate about. "This is no time to be lowering your horizons," he told the audience at the Q&A session that followed the film's premiere screening. "It's time to believe in your dreams."
One Rogue Reporter
A film by Richard Pepiatt and Tom Jenkinson
What happens when a reporter for a trashy tabloid newspaper sees the error of his ways and decides to dedicate his life to "speaking truth to power"?
Richard Pepiatt used to write for the Daily Star, but became disillusioned with the job when the paper started allying itself with racist far-right group the EDL. During Lord Leveson's enquiry into how the British press went about its business, Richard was called upon to give evidence, and delivered a scathing condemnation of his former profession's lack of ethics.
One Rogue Reporter started life as a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival fringe. It's now an hour-long documentary that combines comedy with social critique, in a similar vein to Michael Moore, Mark Thomas and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on American television.
In the film, Richrd identifies five of the British press' worst offenders and subjects them to a series of practical jokes. Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, John Prescott, AC Grayling and John Bishop chip in with their views on the press, alongside journalists such as Roy Greenslade and Owen Jones.
Some of Richard’s pranks can hardly be called tasteful (projecting porn films onto the wall of the Daily Mail’s offices was a particularly low point). On the other hand, when Kelvin Mackenzie gets stung, part of you just wants to shout (in true Sun headline style) “Gotcha!”
On the surface, One Rogue Reporter is an irreverent but harsh critique of how low some newspapers are prepared to go to make a profit (it doesn't ask who's buying this stuff; that's a subject for another film, I guess). But there's more to it than that – and one of the talking heads sums it up nicely in a comment towards the end: “Richard just realised that there was more to life than this.”
Richard may not have had a religious conversion, but he did come to see that he was in danger of gaining the world and losing his soul. There's a lesson here for anyone who feels uncomfortable with with the ethics (or lack thereof) in their profession – whatever that happens to be.
Director: Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson
I must admit, the story of Noah's ark is one I've found myself struggling with more and more the older I get. How on earth did we (and by "we", I mean Church, Sunday School and Christian culture generally) take a gruesome story in which the world's entire population is wiped out, and turn it into a cutesy tale about a jolly old man taking some animals on a joyride in a big boat?
Thankfully, Darren Aronofsky's adaptation of the story is far from cutesy. It's not a literal reading of Genesis chapters 6-9, but Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel use the whole Old Testament as source material, along with other Jewish texts that expand on the flood story.
And so we flash through the Creation and the fall of mankind; we have the Nephilim presented as enormous stone-people, and the overarching battle between good and evil personified in a feud between Cain's descendants (led by Tubal-Cain, played menacingly by Ray Winstone) and those of Adam and Eve's other son, Seth – from whose line Noah is descended. Anthony Hopkins portrays Methuselah as a young-at-heart great-granddad.
Russell Crowe plays Noah as a man who's not sure that he qualifies to carry out the big task he's been entrusted with, but who nevertheless commits to it with ruthless efficiency. Emma Watson steals the show as Ila – Shem's infertile wife, who becomes the catalyst in helping Noah see the flood as a new beginning for mankind, rather than as its end.
As I've said before, Noah is not a literal reading of the Bible story. But Aronofsky treats his source material with great respect, and uses it to craft a compelling story which urges its viewers to think about (and, hopefully, discuss) issues such as judgement, justice, responsibility and mercy.
Also – giant rock-like monsters! What's not to like?
Editor's note: Free resources for churches to use with the film are available here
The people behind Disney’s Cars films take their formula and add wings to it. Planes is your everyday David and Goliath story in which a farm boy from somewhere so remote it doesn’t even show up on maps dreams of greater things. This time round, ‘David’ is Dusty – a little crop-duster who wants to compete against much tougher aircraft in a round-the-world rally, despite his fear of heights.
The message in Planes is a simple one: you must have a dream that’s bigger than you are, and you must pursue it as best you can. Be kind to the people you come across on the journey – even if they don’t return the favour right away (or ever). And remember – foreign people talk funny.
Kids will laugh at those funny voices (which include John Cleese as a British plane) and be thrilled by the CGI aerobatics. Parents, meanwhile, will groan inwardly when one plane is disqualified for having an illegal fuel additive in its tank, or when an Indian aeroplane explains to Dusty that there are so many tractors running loose in India because “tractors are sacred here”.
As cartoons go, Planes is hardly in the Toy Story or Shrek league. But if all you need is something to keep kids diverted for an hour and a bit on a hot summer’s afternoon, it’ll do.
Life of Pi 3D (PG)
When I read Yann Martel's highly acclaimed book Life of Pi a couple of years back, I was captivated by the story and thought at the time it could make a stunning film – if there was a way of doing it justice.
Director Ang Lee has managed it, and the press preview I attended saw a full Leicester Square cinema captivated by the story, the cinematography and intriguingly by the impressively realised 3D experience.
Described as "an epic adventure of magical realism", Life of Pi tells the story of a young Indian boy, named rather embarassingly after a French swimming pool, who changes his name to Pi while at school to sidestep the micky-taking of his peers.
His family run a zoo based in India, and while the early part of the film sets the scene with charm and style – charting particularly Pi's growing search for spiritual truth via Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – it really comes to life when they all set sail for a new life in Canada, accompanied by many of the animals. When a great storm descends, Pi is catapaulted into a battle for survival at sea on a rowing boat ... alongside a ferocious Bengal tiger.
The ensuing journey is both thrilling, moving and deeply engaging, as well as an immersive cinematic experience. Yes, inevitably there is plenty of CGI but it is handled so deftly, and realistically, it never detracts from the story. And the 3D has been done so that a) it genuinely adds to the experience of watching the film and b) you aren't left with stinging eyes and a headache afterwards.
First time actor Suraj Sharma puts in a stunning performance as Pi, and the rest of the cast do an excellent job in keeping the viewer engaged, entertained and really caring about the characters.
The film explores some fascinating questions about what it means to be human, about the search for spiritual truth and meaning in the world, and about our instinct for survival and longing for hope.
Damaris are offering a range of free resources for download from www.damaris.org/lifeofpi including video clips from the film, and a range of options for groups: Film, Food and Fun, using food and drink recipes and quizzes; Scene Setter, for groups to explore the film as a piece of art, and the themes behind it; Thinking Film, taking a deeper look at the philosophical ideas; and Reel to Real, using experts to probe questions about hope, truth and faith in the film.
Life of Pi goes on general release across the UK on 20 December.
Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (U)
When you've produced a family Christmas film with the charm, musical clout and silliness of Nativity! (2009), starring Martin Freeman, what do you do to follow it up three years later?
Well, if you're director Debbie Isitt, you don't mess with a winning formula: cute kids from Coventry schools, a quality cast (David Tennant, Joanna Page, Marc Wootton, Pam Ferris, Jessica Hynes, Ian McNeice, Jason Watkins), a silly seasonal storyline and a spectacular musical finale packed with sparkle and jaunty songs.
And the good news is: it works. While the film takes a little while to get warmed up, the assured big names work well with the charm and cheek of the children, and the improvised dialogue gives it a freshness and energy that rarely lets up.
David Tennant does a great job in his dual role of twin brothers Donald and Roderick Peterson – one an earnest teacher at St Bernadette's, a struggling primary school, the other a highly acclaimed composer and conductor. Their paths cross in the national Sing A Song for Christmas competition, when Donald is unwillingly bundled off on a road trip by his good-hearted but childish classroom assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) to the Welsh castle hosting the final.
Cue lots of stunts and silliness as the ragtag choir – plus a donkey and a baby – negotiate the wilds of the Welsh countryside before the climactic musical finale. And rival posh school Oakmore, led by Machiavellian music teacher Mr Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) are there to challenge them ...
There's lots of silliness, and some fun songs in the competition climax, as well as a bit of a family subplot and a gentle message about the real meaning of Christmas. Your under 10s will love it, and most adults will find enough charm and amusement to keep them happy.
It opens on nationwide release on 23 November (although as the official 2012 Children in Need film, 42 Cineworld cinemas had a charity screening earlier this month). Damaris have produced some resources for schools, churches, Cubs and Brownies to use with the film, and you'll find them at www.damaris.org/nativity2
Looper is an incredible film that deserves all the praise that it’s already gained and more. It's my film of the year so far; and here’s why.
Just seeing the trailer had me excited from the start. Set at some point in the future, time travel has been invented but immediately outlawed by the authorities, with only drug barons and gangsters using it, and for only one reason only: to send someone back to the past, to have them assassinated.
It's the little touches that elevate a film from being cool to being amazing, and Looper has them in spades. I could spend the rest of the review listing them, but instead I’ll cite just one. When Emily Blunt’s character is first introduced she is shown doing a strange mime which looks highly illogical, until later when it all becomes clear. You won't want to miss any of the details - you never know what could prove significant later on.
Looper is a creative move that isn't afraid to challenge its audience. At points you do feel it borrows a little too heavily from other movies, but really I can forgive it for that, like Wild Bill in Silence Of The Lambs, it’s controversial to wear other people's skins.
This is the question Looper asks us: if you had the chance to kill someone who was evil, a mass murderer, would you? Before they performed all their evil, before they could get started, would you be willing to take another human's life to save thousands of others?
What if they were still a child? Then what? Would you be willing to trade your own life so this murderer could live? Knowing they would become the personification of pain?
Now if that paragraph didn't challenge you, then maybe you need to know God better. I believe I would lay down my life for anyone else (after all it is the greatest gift we can give), but watching Looper, I was challenged about what I would do in the same circumstances. The predominant idea is a scary one, namely: How good are you? Truly in your soul, how good are you?
Looper is so much of a visual frenzy, full of distinctive ideas, that it demands a second viewing – there is simply too much to take in at first sight. For a start the plot charges towards you with no rest period from beginning to end and the story goes into some truly dark territories (the murdering of innocent children in cold blood, is a complicated sequence to justify), and the direction is in a league of its own.
Looper’s writer and director is a relative unknown in Rian Johnson, but is made with such precision, poise, grace and sophistication, it’s hard to imagine a Nolan or a Spielberg or a Scott didn’t have a hand in the creation somewhere. The style in which the film is made is second to none, every shot is framed perfectly and the camera work is fluid, the special effects well paced and somehow Johnson has set Looper in the future, but not in one we couldn’t imagine.
One of the film’s best assets is the two main leads, in Joseph Gordon Levitt (above left) and Bruce Willis (above right), both playing Joe in different time periods. Both of these men can carry a film all on their own, so when both join together, it is an unstoppable force (in Levitt’s climb to the top) with an immovable object (in Willis' charisma). Needless to say they both bring out the best in each other.
An interesting feature to the film is that you are always switching sides; there are points where young Joe is the hero, then old Joe, then young again. Ultimately, Looper is a movie without a hero, there is no clear cut good or bad, and it doesn’t pretend to give you all the answers.
I suppose one of the most impressive parts of Looper is that the film is out and out plain nasty, there are whole sequences that look like they could have walked out of any graphic horror movie you care to name, but of course they are only used to crank up the tension and build the film's momentum.
Looper is Back To The Future for adults – a film that doesn’t give you all the answers and does ask a lot of questions. It’s a thinking man’s movie, and I love it.
The Dark Knight Rises (12A)
It’s without doubt one of the biggest films of the year. It’s a film that has left controversy and tragedy in its wake, and it’s been out less than a week. The real question is will The Dark Knight Rises be the movie we deserve or the one we needed?
Batman is a legend; he has a cult following, me included. A character who speaks to all of us, Batman is in my view the greatest superhero of them all. Why? He is moral. It’s that simple.
He refuses to murder anyone, no matter how bad they are, no matter what evil they unleash, he believes everyone has the right to live. That’s a good starting point before we begin; but it’s more than that. Batman for me is about so much more than just a single idea, but I’m not here to review the character but the final movie in the trilogy.
So I’ll just come right out and say it: The Dark Knight Rises is incredible and everyone should see it. I know many of you will have doubts because of how graphic The Dark Knight was, but in The Dark Knight Rises the violence is pulled back considerably. This is mostly because it's a film more about Bruce Wayne than The Dark Knight – more of a high budget art house thriller that just happens to be based in a comic book world. This is not a comic book film.
I’m not saying there isn’t any violence at all in The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s so much more subtle than its predecessor. For example (SPOILER WARNING) while one guard speaks to Bane, he kills another off screen. We know he is doing it but it’s not shown. Bane is true evil and works perfectly to end the series; he has the ruthlessness of Ra's Al Ghul, the insanity of The Joker and the dedication to his cause of Harvey Dent. He is a man who is quicker and better than Batman, and it shows.
In these few words I could never do The Dark Knight Rises justice, so I will say it’s 12 and up friendly, it’s stays with the darker formula of the other two movies, and has the greatest ending I’ve ever seen to any film.
Watch it. Watch it. Then watch it again.
The Amazing Spiderman (12A)
In a year when The Avengers broke almost every box office record ever, and Christopher Nolan has chosen to end a legend, it's only fitting that the franchise of Spiderman, the original web slinging hero, should start again now. But how tangled is the web it weaves?
For those who don't know, the story of Spiderman is thus: mild-mannered high school nerd Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider. It's from this moment on that he is given superhuman abilities, and eventually becomes the superhero we all know.
Spiderman is an interesting nut to crack, because his main selling point is that he's just a kid, that he makes mistakes and goes wrong but he somehow pulls it back. That's how he has always been sold, however the last Spiderman movie made a definite turn into the “darker” realms of Spidery personality.
Now, while this new version does have a brooding heart, the movie itself is continually upbeat and a joy to watch. The story is involving without being overworked, and the relationships are realistic without feeling like High School Musical. The evolution of Peter's ability, development and thinking can be followed; and – for once at least –is somewhere near logical, and here the villain is created out of desperation, not anger, hate or vengeance.
So often in cinema villains are made out of pure hatred and seek only distraction, however in Spiderman it's always made clear these people are only misguided, there is no malice to Dr Connors - only a desire to do what he believes is the greater good.
For the first time the focus in Spiderman is on the relationships. There is a lot of Peter Parker in Spiderman, but not a whole lot of Spiderman in Spiderman. This makes the film feel ... different to other superhero movies of late. It's as if new director Marc Webb knows he can take his time to really build a strong and successful franchise.
I'm sitting trying to think of a reason not to see The Amazing Spiderman, and I truly can't think of a single one. It's a film that has a dash of everything and blends well.
Fast Girls (certificate 12) –
reviewed by George Luke
Starring: Lenora Critchlow, Lily James, Bradley James, Noel Clarke
Released in time to capitalise on Olympic fever, this feel-good urban drama is bound to attract comparisons to Chariots of Fire. But Fast Girls is probably closer in spirit to Bend It Like Beckham than it is to Christian culture's favourite sporting film.
Shania (Lenora Critchlow from BBC 3's Being Human) lives on a council estate with her aunt. When she isn't acting as peacemaker for her sister's frequent domestics with her “waste man” boyfriend, Shania can be found practising her running with the help of her shopkeeper friend Brian (Phil Davis) and his pet dog Linford. Shania's talent as a sprinter earns her a spot representing Britain at a major athletics tournament – much to the disgust of middle-class Lisa (Lily James). It's up to their long-suffering coach Tommy (played by Noel Clarke, who also co-wrote the script) to get the two rivals to put their differences aside and work together as a team.
Fast Girls is very inspiring and has a lot of running in it, but that's as far as the similarities to Chariots go. There are no overt religious references in the film as there were in Chariots. Nevertheless, it does have a lot to say that is of value to people of faith – mostly around family issues.
Time and time again, we see Shania being let down by the only family she has (well, mostly by her sister), but we also see her willingness to forgive when that happens. At the same time, we see Lisa caught between an overly ambitious father and a mother who loves her regardless of whether or not she wins any medals.
The film also does a good job of reminding us about the importance of hard work, of valuing friendships, and iron sharpening iron (usually with sparks flying!). Although the lead characters are all young women, the film itself can hardly be described as girly. As a side note, fans of late 90s Christian dance-pop music might be interested to know that Shaz Sparks and Robbie Bronimann (otherwise known as Hydro and/or dBA) contributed a song to the film's soundtrack.
The Hunger Games (12A)
You may already have judged The Hunger Games on its press coverage, with the controversy about the violence leading the way – but hold those preconceptions for a moment and hear me out.
Like it or not The Hunger Games is an important film, and worth seeing. I know the film is dressed up a lot, but deep down it asks only one question of us: “If this was on TV, would you watch it?” and the horrifying truth is that we would. Not all of us, maybe, but most of us, and the books were written because author Suzanne Collins suggests we could be so desensitised to violence that it could become a reality TV show.
I know we have seen riffs on this before, but it’s never been portrayed quite so succinctly and poignantly as in The Hunger Games.
As far as the violence is concerned, I honestly believe we are outraged because it is children who are the victims, since the gore itself isn’t dwelled upon or even graphically shown. I have personally seen much worse in many, many films, even recent ones.
Personally, I liked The Hunger Games, I liked the books and I enjoyed the film. I understand it’s not for everyone and that some people will feel compelled to judge it without watching, but that doesn’t make its central message any less important.
It’s surprising to me how popular the pirates genre is currently, always has been – and how far we have come since Blackbeard’s Ghost. I suppose the real question is should this new picture from Ardman be a treasure to behold or thrown to Davey Jones' locker?
There is something altogether charming about Pirates! There is something oddly enduring to it, which somehow makes the movie simultaneously appeal to adults and children alike. I don’t think it’s the animation that does it, I mean A Nightmare Before Christmas was stop animation, that didn’t appeal and so was Coraline, and that was just … creepy. But there is something about Ardman’s work that sets them apart.
Maybe it’s the attention to detail that Ardman always do that makes it work so well. I’ve seen Pirates! twice now and I know there is still stuff I’ve missed, as it's a film that just gets better every time you see it. That’s a rare thing in cinema today, but it holds true.
I almost don’t want to say too much about the plot or script or jokes because I think the real joy is finding them out for yourself, but notable mentions go to the pirates' quick change, the Captain's opening speech and the ManpanZee who never gets old.
You'd have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy Pirates! It’s a great family film that’s better than all four of the Caribbean efforts put together.
John Carter (12A)
I’m sure by now we have all heard about John Carter's massive box office failure, so in this review I’m simply going to ask “why?”
The honest and quick answer is Disney waited too long to make an average film that cost way too much. The longer answer is John Carter is boring, pointless, nonsensical, and completely without merit. Let me try to explain.
Let’s ignore that the film is set on Mars and go straight to the heart of the problem: the “immortals”. In the introduction to the movie, we are shown these beings who are immortal and shape Mars' destiny to whatever their “oracle” wishes. The immortals are embodied by Mark Strong and one of the immortals' tricks is that they can change our perception of reality – they can make me see one thing and everyone else see something else entirely. Now that's confusing to read – just imagine it on screen.
However, the main drawback to the immortals is that the second John Carter encounters one, he shoots them and they die. So ... they're not really immortal at all, are they?
The directing is garbled and foolish, and the film takes all of its ideas from every other sci-fi movie you can think of. I actually preferred last year's Cowboys & Aliens.
What should have been played fast, loose and fun ended up looking tight, serious and emotionless.
On an entirely different planet – on just about every level.
The Wrath of the Titans (12A)
I’m going to cut straight to the chase for Wrath, it’s a film that isn’t just bad from a cinematic standpoint but is one that’s offensive not just to Christianity but to anyone with any kind of faith. The things the movie does are inexcusable and at times simply malicious without reason.
From a cinematic perspective, the directing is sloppy, the story is stupid, the acting is at times pointless and the script lacking. I’ve now seen both the Titans films and combining both together it has featured just one true Titan in it. The rest are simply Greek mythological creatures, like the Minotaur. And considering they are supposed to be the most feared beings possible, they are all quickly and easily disposed of by Perseus.
If this was the only problem with Wrath I would have forgiven it and moved on, but then the film just had to push the bar a little too far. For those of you who don’t know, Wrath is the sequel to the remake of Clash Of The Titans. With Clash I mentioned that one of its main drawbacks is that its central message seems to be that we don’t need God and we are our own gods now.
Wrath’s message is that “God is dead, there is no God, and if there was, he is destructive anyway”. There is a sequence where a character prays to one of the gods – Aries – and he comes down and murders her for doing it. This is a film that says 'prayer is wrong'.
There's nothing more to say. Avoid at all costs and pray for the writers, director and cast.
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