16 February 2011

Inspirational Films and Documentaries

An Inspirational Viewing List
By Kristin Battestella

There’s no time like the gloomy winter present or the forthcoming Lenten season to hunt and peck for the elusive quality Christian film or documentary! Here’s a quick list of inspirational movies and heartfelt documentaries to catch anytime of year.

AgoraAgora – This seemingly obscure 2009 Spanish film starring Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner) wonderfully deals with the early strife between paganism, slavery, philosophy, science, Judaism, and Christianity in Alexandria towards the fall of the Roman Empire.  Though tough subjects to deal with independently, let alone together, director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) also fits in a convincing romantic angle and women’s issues as well.  The fine dialogue is just right- the film itself represents an honest dialogue taking place in the Library of Alexandria.  Despite some historical liberties, more light is shed for good than ill with a well-dressed, non-digital, authentic looking design and period music.  Why don’t we see this time and place onscreen like this more often?  So many sword and sandal or Romanesque pictures are hit or miss, going for adventure and political statements over the tale at hand.  If they can all blend such intelligent topics with this kind action, performance, and design, then by golly why aren’t we making more movies like Agora?  

Crusade - The Life of Billy GrahamCrusade: The Life of Billy Graham – It took me awhile to watch this 1993 PBS documentary about ‘the most famous and influential preacher of the 20th century.’  Well, this show sets itself up with some big shoes to fill, doesn’t it? The straight narration is slow to start with a lot of educational background and history; and in all fairness, they do have a lot to cover! However, the ninety-minute biography picks up with one on one interviews and insights from family and friends including longtime singer George Beverly Shea. Fans of the evangelist will also enjoy hearing casual and personal stories from the man himself, as well as frank discussion about presidents and politics.  The chats and reflections are a little deep, yes, and the length and long-winded style here is probably a bit much for a younger classroom viewing.  Thankfully, adults who have grown up with Graham’s warm yet zestful style will enjoy the spiritual reminiscing, archival footage, and uplifting nostalgia whether personally or in a group or study discussion. I’ve been watching Billy Graham all my life and I still can’t get used to seeing footage of him looking so young!

LutherLuther – Overall, I was pleased with this 2003 biography by director Eric Till (Fraggle Rock) as a basic introduction to the father of the Protestant Reformation.  Although I still am not a fan of Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) and his uneven performance wavers between Luther’s crazy doubts and murmuring, bland rhetoric; the classy supporting cast including Alfred Molina (An Education, Magnolia) and Peter Ustinov (Spartacus, Quo Vadis) is delightful, if too brief. Not only is it difficult to dramatize Martin Luther favorably for all, but this is also not an easy time period to replicate without it looking a little silly in our eyes- what’s with those hollow bowl haircuts?  However, the beautiful churches, somber music, lovely locations, and both high and low styled costumes bring 16th century Germany to life along with the well-crafted story of Godly revelation. While the English captions go a long way with the soft-spoken dialogue, I’d like to see a serious examination of Luther and all his flaws again in a big and proper production with a better lead actor.  Christian classrooms, however, might enjoy a viewing and discussion, perhaps along with the Empires: Martin Luther PBS documentary.

One Night with the KingOne Night with the King Though not as well told as The Nativity Story, this 2006 biblical tale from director Michael O. Sajbel (The Ultimate Gift) is a fine family tale for Christian and Jewish families alike.  Though the narration from John Rhys Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones) is a bit much, Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, Troy) only has one scene as Samuel, and a little too much fantasy and lovey dovey hampers the story; Tiffany Dupont (Greek) is charming and inspirational for young and old.  The music is period enough, and the production also stays on the authentic side, but subtitles are a must for the mixed modern and thou sayeth speak.  Parents or teachers might also want to prepare with a reading and discussion pre or post- especially if the youngins ask, “What’s a eunuch?”

The RideThe Ride – Michael Biehn (Aliens, The Terminator) departs from his usual action and SF yarns for this lovely 1997 spiritual western funded by the Billy Graham association.  Yes, some of the youth acting leaves something to be desired, and the rodeo scenes in this a movie about downtrodden cowboys and bull riding dreams aren’t that good or even the primary focus really.  However, the inspirational turnaround and wonderfully heartfelt performance from Biehn can touch even the coldest viewer.  Again, some of the direction and writing from Michael O. Sajbel is a little obvious and borderline heavy handed on the sentiment.  However, if we could all watch a movie like this when we are our utmost despair, one might find one’s outlook seriously changed for the better.  That’s what quality inspirational film is supposed to do!

I really shouldn’t be a total grinch, but I do have a skipper:

Man of FaithMan of Faith – You want the religious sentiment and inspiration to come forth in this 2005 televangelist biopic from director, writer, and star Damian Chapa (Street Fighter, Brando Unauthorized), but the reverence never really happens.  Or perhaps it does, but you get really tired of waiting for it amid the zealous narration and bad but holier than thou Southern dialogue.  There’s little information about this film online, but I wonder how big names like Robert Wagner, Faye Dunaway, Jill St. John, and Brad Dourif came to be involved. Not only is the photography and camera work low budget, but the sound is bad on top of the overall poor acting and presentation.  And actually, I find the violent and threatening, gibberish styled Speaking in Tongues kind of insulting. Eh, stick with Elmer Gantry and The Apostle instead.

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