Film

“Left Behind” movie poster, photo courtesy of Stoney Lake Entertainment/RNS.

Two new movies that aim to attract a faith-based crowd join a glut of biblical films for 2014, testing the limits of Hollywood’s appetite for religion.

The two films, “The Good Lie” and “Left Behind,” both opening Oct. 3, reflect two different filmmaking strategies: One is geared for a wider audience that could attract Christians, while the other produces a movie clearly made for the Christian base.

With a number of films targeting a faith audience this year, it’s unclear whether Hollywood is oversaturating the market with faith-based films — a revolutionary idea 10 years after Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” shocked the industry by raking in $611.9 million worldwide.

“The Good Lie,” starring Reese Witherspoon helping four young “Lost Boys” from Sudan adjust to life in the U.S., has underlying faith themes. The refugees rely on their faith as they try to leave homeland strife behind, and Witherspoon’s character works closely with a faith-based agency to place refugees with families.

Jenna Barnett 10-03-2014
'Orange Is the New Black' cast, photo via Netflix

'Orange Is the New Black' cast, photo via Netflix

These days, female television characters can almost do it all. But we, the media consumers and producers, are still deciding if we should let them make mistakes, too.

And I don’t mean just the I-dated-the-wrong-handsome-doctor mistakes, or the I’m-an-overprotective-mother mistakes. I mean the type of mistakes that warrant the label of antihero. Merriam-Webster defines an antihero as “a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.” Over the past several years, TV has become saturated with male antiheroes. Breaking Bad made a meth dealer Emmy gold, and Dexter garnered a cult following behind a sociopathic vigilante. But hey, boys will be boys.

Girls will be girls, too, if we let them. And girls aren’t always perfect. John Landgraf, president of FX, says it’s much harder to find acceptance for the female antihero: “It's fascinating to me that we just have really different, and I think, a more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters in this society.”

Catherine Woodiwiss 10-03-2014
Captain Steele's daughter, Chloe, in 'Left Behind,' out in theaters today. Image

Captain Steele's daughter, Chloe, in 'Left Behind,' out in theaters today. Image courtesy LeftBehindMovie.com

Editor’s Note: ‘Left Behind’ starring Nicolas Cage hits theaters nationwide on Friday, Oct. 3. The film is based on the wildly popular book series and movies of the same title, in which God raptures believers and leaves unbelievers behind to learn follow Jesus and defeat the Antichrist. So how’s the film reboot?

Sojourners Web editors called up a group of religion writers in D.C. to watch and review the movie together. We left with more questions than answers. Here’s our takeaway on all things ‘Left Behind’ — and a little Nic Cage.

Catherine Woodiwiss, Associate Web Editor, SojournersSo first things first — why Left Behind again?

When the books were published [starting in 1995], there was a debate happening in Christianity over whether Hell was a real, physical place. And the original movies were produced in the context of 9/11 and the Iraq war. So you can look and say, okay, this was a time of questioning what some saw as fundamental beliefs, of war and terrorism. So the popularity of an end-times series makes some sense.

But why now? Why today?

Jim Wallis 10-01-2014
via 'The Good Lie' Facebook page

via 'The Good Lie' Facebook page

As the Washington, D.C., premiere of Warner Bros.’ new movie, The Good Lie, came to a close, I could barely see the credits through my tears, but the noise of the crowd around me erupting into cheers and the standing ovation was impossible to miss. This film really touched me. I knew I had to write about it.

The Good Lie is the story of some of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan — orphans of war, who walked hundreds of miles fleeing violence, only to spend a decade in a refugee camp before finally being resettled in America. But the film is much more than that. It is a story about the power of faith and regular people who do incredible things because there is no one else who can. It is the story of immigrants — a funny and heartbreaking insight into what it is like to be a stranger in America. And it's a story and performance made all the more real because the Sudanese characters are played by actors who were child refugees and child soldiers themselves.

It stars Reese Witherspoon, whose character and role encapsulate so much of why this movie works. She's the headline draw for Warner Bros., but the movie is not about her. She helps the Lost Boys, but as is so often the case when we respond to God's call to care for our neighbor, they probably help her more. No one saves the day in this movie, but they all help save each other.

Abby Olcese 09-17-2014

Andrew peers out at the Missouri countryside from the back of a truck.

“God has to be busy with everyone else. And hopefully he will come into my life. I hope it happens. It’s going to break my heart if it don’t.”

So says Andrew, one of the three teenage subjects of the documentary Rich Hill, currently playing in theaters across the country. While film refrains from any sermonizing on poverty, or any direct call to action from its audience, it’s mighty hard for socially minded Christians to hear these words and not feel compelled to react. Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s documentary is an unflinching portrait of poverty in rural America, and its sympathetic portrayals give heartbreaking examples of neighbors in need. 

The film follows a year in the lives of three boys: Andrew, Harley, and Appachey. They don’t know each other, but they have much in common. Besides living in the small town of Rich Hill, Mo., all three come from troubled families living well below the poverty line. Andrew is the most hopeful of the group. He’s got a family he loves, and a father who means well, but whose unrealistic dreams keep the family moving from place to place and dodging unpaid bills. Thirteen-year-old Appachey and 15-year-old Harley, however, come from darker situations. Harley is a victim of sexual abuse (his mother is in jail for attempting to kill the man responsible), while Appachey’s violent behavioral issues are simply too much to handle for his single mom, overwhelmed with his siblings and a dilapidated house filled to the rafters with junk.

Juliet Vedral 08-20-2014
Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

Image via TheLeftoversHBO on Facebook.

Editor's Note: Spoilers ahead! You've been warned.

Over the past eight episodes of The Leftovers, HBO’s latest drama based on Tom Perrotta’s play of the same name, viewers have been treated to a case study in grief and faith in the midst of a life-changing event. Unlike the Left Behind series, which incorporated Christian triumphalism with terrible theology, The Leftovers examines the deeper human and spiritual issues of what would happen were two percent of the population to suddenly disappear. It is powerful and beautiful and really hard to watch (especially Episode Five). It asks the question: does life go on when your world is changed forever?

The show offers a variety of responses to the Sudden Departure of October 14: Kevin Garvey, the police chief who seems to be losing his mind after his wife leaves him for a cult and after his father needs to be committed; Nora Durst, who’s lost her entire family, so she keeps everything exactly as it was when the Sudden Departure occurred; Rev. Matt Jamison, Nora’s brother whose faith has been shaken because he was not taken; the town dogs who have become feral; and finally, the creepiest citizens of Mapleton, the Guilty Remnant, or the GR as they’re “affectionately” known.

This past week’s episode gave us a greater understanding of the GR. Although the nihilistic views of the Guilty Remnant are quite different from those of Christianity, I was struck by their powerful and strategic mission of witness. The cult was formed out of the recognition that everything changed on October 14 and that to pretend otherwise was foolish. The group, in their white clothes, their silence, their stripped-down existence, bears witness to the fact that they are living reminders of what happened. They are fundamentalists about their cause and willing to die for it — even if that death comes from their own hands.

the Web Editors 08-12-2014

We lost a funny man on Monday to a sad and persistent disease. Robin Williams passed away last night of an apparent suicide.

In memory of Williams, we've compiled a few of our favorite scenes.

1. Aladdin

Williams' performance as the lovable Genie: "Ten thousand years will give you such a crick in the neck!" 

 

 

 
Tom Deignan 08-12-2014

Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges star in “The Giver.” Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

This Friday, a movie version of the classic novel “The Giver” opens in theaters with an impressive cast, including Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. “The Giver,” originally written by Lois Lowry, explores a seemingly perfect world where all conflicts have been resolved and annoyances — such as bad weather and adolescent “stirrings” — have been eradicated, allowing this culture to achieve a beautiful state of “sameness.”

As you can imagine, this utopian society is not so utopian. “The Giver” focuses on young Jonas, who has been selected for a daunting task: to serve as society’s sole proprietor of memory and emotion. Jonas learns about pain and sadness, but also experiences beautiful colors, a thrilling sleigh ride and ultimately learns to feel love. In other words, Jonas learns what it means to be human — and that his world may not be so perfect after all.

“The Giver” is the latest in a wave of dystopian stories that have washed over America in recent years. From this summer’s “Purge” sequel and “Under the Dome” to the latest “Hunger Games” movie (due out in November), people can’t get enough of these apocalyptic fantasies, in which seemingly perfect worlds turn horrific.

Why such an appetite for dystopian stories now?

Gareth Higgins 08-05-2014

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

Calvary is a rare and beautiful film, one that tells the truth, or at least asks for it honestly.

07-18-2014
This is not the first time that biblical films have been criticized for "whitewashing." In an op-ed for Sojourners last year, Ryan Herring noted that his initial excitement for "Noah" and "Exodus" turned to "disdain" after realizing that "not a single one of the leading roles in either movie was given to a person of Middle Eastern descent." "Some things never change. In Hollywood, whitewashing, also known as racebending, is one of many longstanding tradition...Historically, this practice was used to discriminate against actors, both male and female, of color," wrote Herring. "The most common examples of this in the past were white actors dressing up in what is known as blackface, redface, and yellowface. While maybe not as controversial or blatant today, the practice of whitewashing still continues in Hollywood...[where] roles from scripts that clearly call for a person of color are given to white actors."
Gareth Higgins 07-08-2014

Studios have been realizing that there is an audience for long-form storytelling that is willing to think.

Vicki Hyman 07-07-2014

“The Leftovers” is an American television series that premiered on HBO in June. Photo court. Paul Schiraldi, HBO/Warner Brothers

HBO’s “The Leftovers” is the feel-good series of the summer, if your summer revolves around root canals and recreational waterboarding.

Indeed, it’s pretty grim stuff — but quite engrossing and worth your time, thanks to intense performances by Justin Theroux and Christopher Eccleston, and the way creators Tom Perrotta, who wrote the book on which the series is based, and Damon Lindelof, best known for screwing up the end of “Lost,” unflinchingly tackle the nature of grief and the limits of faith.

Can you call it an apocalypse if you can still get a decent bagel afterwards? It’s three years after what has been termed the Sudden Departure, when 2 percent of the world’s population — Christians, Jews, Muslims, straight, gay, white, black, brown, and Gary Busey — suddenly disappeared.

Rick Barry 06-25-2014

"Here's how you bring light into the world," says a scruffy-bearded man in shirtsleeves and a knit cap on a Brooklyn rooftop. "First, you get up in the morning and you scream!" His mischievous grin melts into something more ethereally content as he screams. At length.

He's had plenty of practice screaming — he does it for a living.

The man is Yishai Romanoff, lead singer of the hassidic punk band Moshiach Oi and one of the half-dozen artists, activists, and culture-makers profiled in the documentary Punk Jews.

The phrase can seem like an oxymoron: The essence of punk is to challenge inherited convention, yet adherence to rich traditions of convention is the common through-line of all of Judaism's myriad flavors.

06-09-2014
The people we meet change our lives. Through hearing the stories and learning about the lives of others, we are transformed. And, it is for exactly those reasons that I hope you'll watch this short trailer and sign up to be one of the first people to watch The Stranger.
Suzanne Ross 06-04-2014
Image via Maleficent Facebook page

Image via Maleficent Facebook page

If the new Disney Studios movie Maleficent is, as some are saying, a feminist attempt to redeem images of weak and powerless women in fairy tales, then it is a cautionary tale. Feminism has always been its own worst enemy when it strives to create women in the image of men rather than encourage women to abandon rivalry with men and seek their flourishing elsewhere. This is a story about the redemptive power of a mother’s love. I wonder how many feminists will embrace that message?

Gareth Higgins 06-03-2014

At film festivals, because we're all living together for a few days, people let their guard down.

Lisa Sharon Harper 05-28-2014
Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Maya Angelou, public domain; illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

When I heard the news I wept.

“Renowned Poet and Author Maya Angelou Dies at 86,” read the NBC News headline.

My fruitless effort to hold back tears was proven vain as I made my way into the bowels of a D.C. Metro station — tears streaming. I felt silly.

“Why am I crying,” I thought. “I didn’t know Maya Angelou.” I met her once, but she wasn’t family or a close friend, yet I was reacting with the same profound sense of loss, as if my own beloved great grandmother had passed?

The New York Times called her a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South” in the headline that announced Ms. Angelou’s death this morning. But for nearly four decades Dr. Maya Angelou served as a kind of great grandmother of the African-American community — a bridge between the ancestors and us.

Antonio Banderas at a news conference during the 62nd Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 15, 2012. Photo:cinemafestival / Shutterstock

Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas may be cast in the role of Pope Francis in the first feature film to be made on the life of the Argentine pontiff.

Italian director Daniele Luchetti plans to make the $12 million Spanish language film, titled “Call Me Francesco,” with producer Pietro Valsecchi, who has made some of Italy’s highest-grossing movies.

Valsecchi’s Rome-based production house, Taodue Film, confirmed the news Wednesday, and a spokeswoman said the company was looking to shoot the film in various locations, including Argentina and Italy.

Banderas is one of the top Spanish-speaking actors being considered to play the lead role, she told Religion News Service.

Gareth Higgins 05-09-2014

To build a new world, sometimes you have to tear the old one down.

Tyler Francke 05-08-2014
Via 'A Matter of Faith' website, amatteroffaithmovie.com

Via 'A Matter of Faith' website, amatteroffaithmovie.com

In just the latest evidence that a certain subset of conservative evangelical Christians really has no interest in occupying the real world with the rest of us, the trailer for a new movie called A Matter of Faith has hit the Internet.

The film follows the travails of a Christian father, who — horrified by the fact that his daughter’s college teaches the theory of evolution as a fact (gasp!) — challenges the villainous biology professor to a public debate that will no doubt settle the matter once and for all.

If this premise sounds strangely familiar, it could be that you’re remembering God’s Not Dead, a film released in March, in which a Christian student who — horrified by the fact that his philosophy professor is a committed atheist — challenges the dastardly nonbeliever to a debate on the existence of God that, no doubt, settled the matter once and for all.

(I’m told that the new movie was called Christians vs. the Straw Man II: This Time It’s Personal throughout production, before filmmakers decided to rename it A Matter of Faith.)

The similarities between the two pictures don’t stop there.

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