Christian Movie Reviews: Last Ounce of Courage

On the back of the DVD, there’s a quote from Chuck Norris that reads, “This is a wonderful family film to watch time and time again, as we have in our home.”

Chuck, you’re the epitome of manliness, but you don’t know jack shiz about good cinema.

This is my review of Last Ounce of Courage!

Riding off into the sunset of bad cinema.

I waited to go into rant mode in my “Christian Mingle The Movie” review, but this whole review is going to be a rant, so here we go:

(Commencing Rant Mode) It’s generally not a good sign when I’m already hitting my face with my movie review notebook (yes, I have one of those cause I like to take notes during a movie) within the first five minutes of a movie.   This movie has a MAJOR structural issue, and that’s made evident in the first five minutes.  The opening scene is filmed as if it were the climax; fast transitions, jump cuts from characters aboard to characters back home, letter-reading voiceovers that have characters saying things that the movie expects us to know about them, even though we’ve just met these people.   Intense openers have their place in movies, but man, it can really kick you in the keister when executed poorly.  On top of that, you’ll notice very quickly that a lot of scenes look like they were edited by a French Revolution executioner with a butcher knife.

I don’t normally criticize character name choices, but holy cow, when your good guys are named “Bob Revere” and “Christian,” and you actually name your antagonist “The Hammer,” that tells me that the filmmakers see these people as props for an agenda, not characters to be fleshed-out and developed.

The narration…Good Lord, the voiceover narration is the reason why the main character is unable to give a good performance.  His whole personality and all of his motivations are explained to us heavy-handedly.  “I had been passive for too long.  My son died for freedom and I had to take a stand…” Gee, Bob, I sure would have loved to have seen this conveyed from a thoughtful performance instead of being spoon-fed to me via narration.

Speaking of character motivations, the people who don’t get voiceover narration just do things out of nowhere.  For instance, when Bob’s son Thomas is killed in Iraq, his daughter-in-law Kari just leaves the family because….the Illuminati!  Then fourteen years later, Kari and her teenage son Christian visit them out of the blue because…unicorns!  Where Grace Unplugged allowed the characters to be believable, Last Ounce of Courage uses each character as a pawn, so this restrains all of the actors from giving any kind of performance.  Also because all of the characters are agenda props, they’re never given realistic motivations or personalities.  Even the poorly-paced Courageous understood proper character development!

As a happy little Independent (I’m Purple, da ba de da ba die), I have nothing against FOX News.  I don’t think they should be compared to Hitler, but they’re certainly not the Messiah of the journalism world.  With all that in mind: This is the kind of movie that FOX News would make.  Every. Single. Line. Of. Dialogue is a red-state talking point, every character fits into the “Conservative Christian White Male” Bible-belt stereotype, and the “save Christmas” ascept is shoehorned into the story with little to no personal connection to the protagonists’ lives.

Religious liberty is an issue in this country (leave Hobby Lobby alone!)  Anyway, this movie intends to tackle this issue, but an incoherent script, constrained acting and preachy, in-your-face dialogue is not going to compel anyone to take the Religious Freedom movement seriously.

Saint Thomas Moore, pray for us.

Christian Movie Reviews: Grace Unplugged

Hey Christian filmmakers, if you want to save the genre, this is the movie you need to imitate.

This is my review of Grace Unplugged! Grace-Unplugged

Grace Unplugged is a family drama that centers around Grace Trey and her father Johnny Trey, a former rock star turned music minister.  The opening scene tells you (very subtly) that though they play in the church band together, there is tension between musical talent Johnny and the equally talented Grace.  When Johnny’s old manager Mostin tries to get him back into the secular music world, Johnny politely declines, but Grace goes behind her father’s back by sending Mostin a demo of her singing.  She enters the world of secular music and is given a new identity as Gracie Trey.  However her inability to write her own songs and the rift she has caused within her family hinders her path to stardom. Aj Michalka gives an impressive and sincere performance as Grace.  Though at times she tends to rely on the “deer-in-a-headlights” look in the second act, her facial expressions convey the protagonist’s inner turmoil.   Aj Michalka portrays a frustrated girl who expresses herself through music and just wants to be free to create.   James Denton plays Johnny Trey, and he gets the most transformation as a character.  I hated him in the first half because of how uptight and overbearing he was, but his journey into humility made him more sympathetic until I finally gave in and changed my mind about him.  This movie succeeds at having both Grace and her father learn a lesson; Grace learns not to throw herself into a world that she’s not ready for, and Johnny sees the error of his suffocating Grace’s talent. The film does a great job at not letting the message clash with the story.  The humanistic script allows the characters to be living, breathing people and not become Bible-belt stereotypes.  The God-dialogue sounds like it’s coming from the characters and not part of an agenda.  The filmmakers understand that our God is not a forceful God, so they avoid forcing His role in the story.  By allowing God to be in control without shoving Him into clumsy dialogue, the moral that God is in control is able to flourish in a natural progression. People, this is a freaking good Christian movie.  It’s a believable family drama, a well-thought character study of Grace and Johnny, and the music is pretty awesome.   I’m gonna go ahead and say it: Grace Unplugged and Soul Surfer are the movies that are going to save the Christian movie genre if filmmakers follow their example.   There is hope for this genre, and it’s movies like Grace Unplugged that are going to lead the way.

Saint Cecilia, pray for us.

CGB Review of The Babadook (2014/2015)

[Disclaimer: The Babadook was released in Australia last year, and got a DVD release here in the U.S. in April of this year, so that’s why it gets the “2014/2015” in the title]

So I had planned on watching this movie with the lights off, the volume at 100 and wearing my ear buds…By the second half of the movie, the lights were back on, my ear buds were off and I had placed four saints statues on my laptop while clutching onto a crucifix.

This is my review of The Babadook!

No, seriously, don't let him in!
If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.  So make sure you have a Vatican exorcist on speed dial.

Guys and gals, this is gonna be a tough review.  I had to discard the notes I had written while watching the movie because they just didn’t do my real thoughts on the film justice.  The Babadook is virtually perfect, and incredibly harrowing at the same time.  An opening scene that will leave you speechless, great scene transitions and a tense, sorrowful atmosphere bring this movie to Pan’s Labyrinth level of greatness (and yes, I will be reviewing Pan’s Labyrinth in the near future).

Give Essie Davis an Oscar right now. She is devastating as Amelia, one of the most miserable movie characters in recent memory. Amelia Vanak is a glassy-eyed widow whose husband was killed in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their troubled son Samuel. Barely functioning with weary eyes and unkempt hair, the grief she carries and the weight of her stress over her wild child is made palpable to the audience.

Noah Weiman plays the little boy Samuel, and as a preschool teacher in real life, I can say that he nails his role as a hyperactive, out-of-control child.  I thought his character was well handled to where I could never hate him because his misbehaving is never intentional.  The film is very clear that he thinks that by making slingshots and dart shooters (out of wood, by the way), he’s protecting his mother from monsters.  He is legitimately unaware that he is the cause of Amelia’s misery.

I don’t issue trigger warnings often because I feel our society will find any reason to use trigger warnings, but this is one of those times where a trigger warning is necessary.   So here are my reasons for the trigger warning.

#1. If you have or are currently experiencing grief, I would urge that you proceed with caution if you plan on watching this.   This movie understands grief so well that it hits too close to home.  I say this as someone who has experienced grief.  I recently lost Sophie, my Old English sheepdog who I’ve had since I was a little girl. I used to watch movies with her sitting in front of the TV.  She would just lay there and let me pet her while listening to me rant at bad movies and praise the good ones to high heaven.  It’s only by the grace of God that I’m still able to sit through a movie at home without Sophie’s paw on my leg.  The Babadook is unflinching in its acknowledgment that when you’ve lost a significant figure in your life, the next few days, months and years are riddled with confusion, emptiness and even the sense that you’ve lost your own purpose.

#2. Speaking of pets, thank God for IMBD’s parental guide.  I knew I was in trouble when I read that a dog has its neck snapped.  If you’ve recently lost a pet (primarily a dog), then it might not be the right time for you to watch this.  I couldn’t watch the actual scene of when the dog is killed.

#3. IMBD’s parental guide mentioned that the movie might send triggers to anyone who has experienced childhood abuse, and that warning is warranted.  The scene where Amelia holds a knife in front of Samuel while she verbally attacks him is disturbing even if you’ve never suffered abuse.  Like in Silver Linings Playbook, the characters are well-written and fully realized that I became distressed for them when things go to Hell.  Also the toxic, codependant relationship between the weak-willed Amelia and the unpredictable Samuel might bring back memories for people who have been in that kind of relationship.

That all being said, don’t let those warnings deter you from The Babadook, a movie that tackles grief and the challenges of raising a troubled child with tact and grace.  (Hears a “baba baba dook dook dook” knocking at the door) Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go throw holy water at my door to keep Mister Babadook away.

Saint Rita of Cascia, pray for us.

Putting A Hashtag On Human Life

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Florissant, Missouri, June 24th, 2015

While speaking at a historic black church, presidential candidate Hilary Clinton spoke to the congregation about her mother, who became a maid as a teenager after being abandoned by her own parents.  All was fine and good…until this happened:

“What kept you going?” Mrs. Clinton had asked her mother.  She then explained that, “Kindness along the way from someone who believed she mattered.  All lives matter.

In another era, the last three words would have been well-received, wholeheartedly embraced by most people regardless of their political leanings. However, that is not the case in 2015.  It is all thanks to two simple hashtags: #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter.

Southern California, June 24th, 2015

It was during my lunch break that I logged onto Facebook and found my newsfeed riddled with statuses and articles all concerning Mrs. Clinton’s use of “All Lives Matter.”  Blindsided by Internet activism, I took a breath and followed my natural instinct to investigate.  Once I had gotten the whole story of Mrs. Clinton’s debacle, I decided to look deeper into the two hashtags #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter.

#BlackLivesMatter was a hashtag created after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2013 trial centered on the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.  It was later revived after the death in 2014 of another African-American man named Michael Brown.  The purpose of #BlackLivesMatter was to tackle racial issues that continue to plague this country years after the Civil Rights Movement.  However, there is an opposing camp:  #AllLivesMatter, a hashtag created as a counter to #BlackLivesMatter.  Unlike the first hashtag, which emerged in 2013, the second hashtag entered the picture after the shooting of Michael Brown.

What I want to know is what is it about these two hashtags that fuels the flames of impassioned emotions in people?  Alongside this, a more disturbing question emerges in my mind: How did we get to this place where we as a society have to hashtag whose life is more important than the other?  If the value of a person’s life can be ranked from greatest to least, then we are all drowning.

Into The Minds of Two Movements

I’ve always felt that once you know the psychology of both sides of a conflict you can often get to the root of the problem, so let’s dive into the mindsets of these two opposing forces.

From what I have observed, the #BlackLivesMatter camp sees itself as champions for the African-American community.  They feel that the justice system treats this community unfairly, and the acquittals of George Zimmerman and Officer Darren Wilson have struck a serious blow to the black community morale.  I completely understand how the mother of a black son would be fearful for her child’s life in light of Trayvon Martin (age 17), Eric Garner (age 43), Michael Brown (age 18) and Tamir Rice (age 12).  Their issue with #AllLivesMatter is that it comes off as too broad and dismissive of the deaths of these three men and a young boy.

The #AllLivesMatter camp, which exists to counter #BlackLivesMatter, feels that the opposing camp is preaching that only one specific group of people is more important than others.  They see it as exclusory of other sets of people, and dismissive of situations where a white person is shot and killed by a black person, or an African-American is murdered by a Hispanic-American.  Anyone could be the victim and anyone could be the perpetrator.  They fear that by giving all the attention to one specific ethnicity, this raises the possibility of other racial groups being ignored.

When The Greater Good Is Forgotten

Any time I write about a controversial issue, I always ask God to point me to a Saint who is related to said issue.  Because this op-ed is about race and social justice, God guided me to Saint Martin de Porres, an interracial Peruvian monk who was the illegitimate son of a Spanish knight and a freed black woman.  During his time on earth Martin had experienced racism firsthand due to his mixed blood.   In spite of this, he was known for his compassion and humility, which was the driving force of his charitable deeds throughout Lima, Peru.  Because of his humble character, he never forgot the One he served and never let pride in his good works cloud his judgment.

I began to wonder, “What if Martin didn’t have the gift of humility?   It’s easy for a virtuous person to become aware of their accomplishments…” This thought led me to think about the modern heroes of literature and cinema (Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Peter Parker/Spiderman, etc.) and how they never thought to themselves, “Oh, I’m such a hero!”  They were simply fighting for a greater cause.  What happens when social justice activists see themselves as heroes?  If someone thinks they are ahead of everyone else, it is easy to get comfortable and neglect self-improvement.

That was when I realized that comfort in the message can lead to corruption.  Most people would agree that discrimination is wrong and that every life matters, but too often the actions of activists betray the message.  As a result, in this case both parties (#BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter) have a public image problem.

#BlackLivesMatter is tainted by the images of looters during the Ferguson protests.  Because the loudest voices get the most attention, the media focused more on the looters than on the peaceful demonstrators.  While most of the looters just wanted to cause trouble, it is also possible that some of the looters were good people who started out as peaceful, but got caught up in the outrage and were blinded by their desire to fight a system that they felt had wronged their community.  Fueled by frustration, they chose a destructive path that was caught on camera.

#AllLivesMatter is tainted by its own inception: It was created for the sole purpose of opposing #BlackLivesMatter and had no further vision.  With the mindset of “Everybody agrees that all lives matter, so winning the public will be no problem,” this led to their camp neglecting to work toward a greater good.  Their lack of vision caused the hashtag #AllLivesMatter to be used by ill-informed people as a way to dismiss the concerns of the black community.  In turn, the #BlackLivesMatter camp went further on the offense and gave their opponents the ammunition they needed to portray the looters as the face of #BlackLivesMatter.

When two forces go to war with one another and lose sight of the greater good, social justice is reduced to fashionable controversies that are here today and gone tomorrow, resurrected in the public square only after the death of another unarmed black father/husband/brother/son/friend makes the headlines.  Does it take another tragedy to keep the productive conversation going?


Earlier I asked how we as a society came to this place where the value of human life can be ranked from greatest to least.  If the skirmish between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter has shown us anything, it is that the pyramid of who is convenient and who can be ignored has permeated American politics for a long time.  Every civilization goes through a period of establishing a human pecking order.  In our time this mindset couldn’t be more evident than by the two hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter.  Both sides accuse the other of being dismissive of certain lives, but it is their fighting between themselves that keeps effective change from coming to fruition.

In a perfect world, these two camps could perhaps come together and say, “We both have a sound message, so why don’t we stop bickering with each other and go after the real enemy?” the real enemy being social injustice, even the human pecking order.   Unfortunately, after the Garden of Eden peace rarely lasts before conflict steps in.

Saint Martin de Porres did not fight poverty by creating hashtags and inflaming passions.  The will of God was his General, humility was his armor, and his faith by example was what brought hope to the desperate poor.   He did not champion certain types of people who advanced his agenda.  He served all.

Until we remove the price tag on human life, social justice will always be like a faucet that only pours out water when it suits an agenda.

Saint Martin de Porres, pray for us.

1 Corinthians 4:6, “I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brother, so that you may learn from us not to go beyond what is written, so that none of you will be inflated with pride in favor of one person over against another.”