By the Waters of Babylon by Mesu Andrews

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Plot & Storyline Quality (3.5 points)

Mesu Andrews’ latest work and first novella, titled By the Waters of Babylon, is a captivating read that teaches the reader several important life lessons. Andrews’ stark commitment to Biblical accuracy drives the plot, and instead of leaving out the harsh truths of the era, she portrays them in the most palatable way possible. Merari is living a nightmare. She can no longer sell her hand-crafted harps in the marketplace, and because of this, she cannot buy enough food to nourish her young son and sister. Each day she returns from another fruitless effort to make money, only to be met by harsh words and insults from her sister. As she watches what her cousin Jeremiah prophesied come to life, she feels helpless to protect her son…and herself…from the horrors they face every day. Following a tragic set of events, Merari falls ill and slips into unconsciousness. When she awakes as the sole captive of a Scythian prince…she knows her life has changed forever. On the whole, this plot is masterfully done. Andrews handles this harsh topic tastefully and once again shows how God gives grace along with consequence. She seems to take a cue from pioneers such as Francine Rivers by combining gritty reality with the timeless message of God’s omniscience and unfailing love. For these reasons, Andrews earns a high score in this section.

Character Development (3.5 points)

Merari is the ideal female lead in a Biblical fiction plot because she is a great blend of relatable humanity and the potential we all have in Christ. Her personal struggles are very realistic, and her strengths are well-crafted because they develop through her decision to let God use her weaknesses. Idan is also a strong character because he is not portrayed as a straw-man pagan, but rather as a person equal to Merari and in need of God. Furthermore, the secondary characters are mostly effective. The only flaw to point out here is the presence of some unnecessary romance elements. The good in this novel outweighs the flaws, and because of this, Andrews earns an almost perfect score in character development.

Creativity & Originality (1 point)

Finally, this plot is very original and creative, earning Andrews a full point in creativity. I for one, was impressed with By the Waters of Babylon and highly recommend it to both those who love Biblical fiction. For these and other reasons, I think that this would make a great Bible film that could change the way Biblical films are viewed. The screenwriter would need to rewrite the romance a bit, but the wrinkles here can definitely be ironed out.

Wish List Rating: 8 out of 10 points

The Nativity Story [2006] (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

The timeless tale of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Savior of the world, has been told time and again, but rarely told from the correct historical perspective.  Mary, Joseph, and their families were real people with real struggles as they lived as poor people under the cruel dictatorship of Rome.  Elizabeth and Zechariah were a real couple who struggled with a real problem of not being able to have children.  The shepherds were also real people, living on the outskirts of society and shunned by the importantly religious.  Herod Agrippa was paranoid power mongrel who held his small locus of control in a firm grasp.  Yet his perceived power was no match for the divine plan of Yahweh.  The Magi were real truth-seekers who wanted to know the true meaning of the celestial anomaly they followed.  The lives of these characters all intersected in an epic moment in history when God stepped into the world He created in the form of an infant at the unlikeliest time and revealed Himself to the unlikeliest of people.  This story is not just for the holidays, but for every day, to remind us not only of God’s redemptive plan for humanity, but also to remind us that God works in ways we cannot even comprehend.

Production Quality (3 points)

Just as Jesus was born into obscurity, this film was created in obscurity and unfortunately still remains largely obscure in Christian circles.  But there is no reason for this.  Starting off, the camera work is superb in Nativity Story, as is the video quality.  The sound quality is above par, and the musical score enhances the viewing experience.  There is CGI used, but it is used properly.  The editing is excellent.  The surroundings and locations are authentic to first-century Judea, making for a realistically gritty experience.  This film joins an elite group of Biblical films as the only ones to capture the gritty reality of ‘Bible times’.  In short, there is nothing negative about this film’s production—it has every element needed to be perfect.

Plot and Storyline Quality (2.5 points)

As previously mentioned, this is not your children’s Bible nativity story.  Life was hard for Joseph and Mary, and the political climate was tumultuous.  Violence was a weekly occurrence and finances were very scarce.  Nativity Story correctly depicts all of these historical elements.  Joseph, Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, their families, Herod, the Magi, the shepherds, and everyone else are all very authentic characters that are accessible.  Too many times, Biblical films depict characters as lofty and otherworldly, but this group of characters is your everyday working poor or political elite.  The dialogue is outside the norm of Bible movies, but it pays off.  There are unique psychological\spiritual elements throughout that make this movie stand apart from other Christmas stories.  The one tiny complaint that keeps this film from being perfect is the fact that it slightly bends historical fact to make certain plot elements fit together.  However, this is still a masterful piece of screenwriting.  It captures the epic feel that this story needs to have and translates it in a way that all audiences will enjoy.

Acting Quality (3 points)

Nativity Story, in keeping with its usual themes, also schools Bible filmmakers in how to cast a film that is supposed to depict Middle Eastern characters.  Not a single British accent is heard among this cast, as each actor and actress is exquisitely placed into a superbly appropriate role.  The costuming is extremely realistic, thankfully forsaking those horrid church play robes.  Emotions are felt and lines are delivered excellently.  We really cannot stop saying good things about every part of this film: it is a force to be reckoned with.

Conclusion

Nativity Story earns an x-factor point for being generally awesome and for portraying an important concept in a great way.  It stands apart in a dismal holiday genre and owns the Biblical genre like a boss.  It shows not only what a Bible film should look like but also what the world Jesus was born into looked like.  It brings the real historical nature of the Nativity into your living room and presents it in a way that makes you want more rather than to reach for the remote.  Instead of watching those ridiculous ‘traditional’ films every holiday season, watch this one.

Final Rating: 9.5 out of 10 points

Priceless [2016] (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

James never intended to become a bad man, but he slowly slipped into a destructive lifestyle after his wife tragically died.  After losing custody of his daughter and being convicted of crime, James finds himself desperate for cash.  He agrees to help a ‘buddy’ out by hauling unknown cargo across the country to an unknown buyer, no questions asked.  But just before he reaches his destination, curiosity gets the best of him and he breaks the lock to see what is inside the box truck he has been driving for days.  Inside, he finds two young women in squalid condition and is faced with the ultimate moral choice: does he complete the job for the cash or does he break protocol and face consequences?

 

Production Quality (3 points)

It is refreshing and encouraging that there are new Christian film makers coming onto the scene every year to contribute to a growing army of creative minds ready to redeem the field once and for all.  2016 has been a year for many film makers to try to make their mark, but Priceless stands alone from them all, starting with exquisite production quality.  Shot on location (there’s a concept!) with professional camera work and angles, Priceless has all the goods.  Video quality is excellent, including diverse lighting done right.  Audio quality is flawless and the original soundtrack is an epic breath of fresh air.  Sets and locations are extremely realistic; outdoor scenes are executed well.  There are no editing problems.  There are few times we have an opportunity to say this: there are no production errors in this film.  The production is easily one of the best for a rookie effort.

Plot and Storyline Quality (2.5 points)

Unlike the failed Caged No More, which portrays human trafficking in a far-off location away from ‘safe’ America, Priceless shoves the issue in your face—in the middle of small town America and American suburbia.  Though the beginning sequence is a bit rushed and the narration is heavy-handed, there are no errors beyond this.  The flawed character arcs are inspiring; we really feel like we can relate to the struggles of the characters.  Dialogue is effective in building the excellent storyline, as is the use of flashbacks.  The plot itself is very gritty and down to earth; there are no unbelievable elements or plot holes.  The Christian message is neither in-your-face nor muted, but is presented tastefully.  Edgy elements are handled properly.  The creators did all they could do with this plot, including a slight plot twist and an appropriate ending.  In short, except for some minor rookie errors, this is a plot to be proud of.  It not only presents the human trafficking problem to the audience in a realistic way, but it does so with authentic characters and an engaging storyline.  We can’t wait to see more from the Smallbones.

Acting Quality (3 points)

Taking a page from the Kendrick\Erwin playbook, the Smallbone team employed acting coaching and it paid off.  Though the cast is small, they carry the movie well.  In Priceless, Joel Smallbone finally became vindicated for past uninspiring performances that were likely the consequence of poor leadership in those films.  Bianca Santos is a very promising actress for the future.  Emotions are very believable and line delivery is on point.  Costuming is appropriate.  In short, there are no errors here.

Conclusion

Priceless receives an x-factor point for presenting a highly important issue in an exquisite manner.  While watching this film, I was reminded that this is why we do what we do.  Christian film makers who care use their God-given talents to create movies that make a difference in the culture.  Similarly, we feel God has called us to critique the Christian creative so that hopefully the field will improve as a whole.  Enslaved girls is why we do this.  Lost souls is why we do this.  Mobilizing activism is why we do this.  Making a difference is why we do this.  Under such films as Priceless (and other Hall of Fame films) can we unite for a common cause and no longer remember the days of failed low-quality Christian movies.  Budding film makers like Ben Smallbone and his team are lighting the way and giving us hope for a new day in Christian film.  Since this is how he has debuted, we cannot wait to see what he has to offer next.

 

Final Rating: 9.5 out of 10 points

 

Voyage of the Dawn Treader [2010] (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

Left in England while their parents and siblings settle in their new home in America, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie are restless and not interested in continuing to be under the same roof as their obnoxious cousin Eustace Scrubb.  But it seems as though Aslan has other plans when he unexpectedly calls them back to Narnia, along with Eustance, for a unique mission—accompany King Caspian and the crew of the Narnia ship Dawn Treader in a quest to see what is beyond the Lone Islands and to retrieve lost friends of Caspian’s father.  Edmund and Lucy are sure that their past Narnian experience will help them excel, but what they do not realize is that the mysterious enemy they face on the high seas is unlike any enemy they have ever faced before.  In order to win, they must protect their minds and come to grips with who they really are as people.

 

Production Quality (3 points)

This movie franchise’s breakup with Disney was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to it.  However, since they retained Walden Media for this installment, the production quality remains high and even improves.  The video and sound quality are excellent.  The camera work is masterful.  Difficult action scenes are filmed with skill.  The editing is flawless.  The special effects are very professional and do not show any hints of being cheap.  In short, there is nothing negative say about Dawn Treader’s production quality.

Plot and Storyline Quality (3 points)

The original plot of C. S. Lewis’ work of fiction was honestly not that great on its face, but this film adaptation dramatically improves upon the book without losing the original message.  In fact, a more powerful message is provided.  The same plot elements are used and are rearranged in a better order so that they each serve a better purpose.  Another improvement from the both the book and the first two Narnia movies is that the character development is bettered through more creative and interesting dialogue.  Too many fantasy stories treat the characters as pawns to move around with imaginary elements, but Dawn Treader defies this trend.  There are plenty of plot twists in this film, along with cool psychological elements.  The end is not exactly predictable, even if you have read the book.  It is rare that you find a book adaptation film that actually improves upon the novel, but Dawn Treader changes up this narrative.  In summary, we could not find anything negative here.

Acting Quality (3 points)

This is the best cast Narnia movie to date.  Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, and Ben Barnes reprise as their former roles and are each better than in their previous films.  Will Poulter is a masterful casting choice for Eustace; he becomes the very essence of the original character.  Once again, there are no errors to point out.

Conclusion

This movie receives half of an x-factor point for having a meaningful and little-mentioned underlying worldview.  Unfortunately, it cannot receive the full x-factor point because it is not explicitly Christian, even though there are plenty of redemptive elements.  However, this is the only negative thing that can be mentioned about Dawn Treader.  After a success and a misfire at the beginning of the new Narnia franchise, Douglas Gresham and company have finally arrived with their third installment.  It brings the whole package and stands as a unique sort of movie that has the ability to reach many different types of audiences.  Christian film-makers everywhere can learn a lesson from Dawn Treader about reaching multiple audiences at once, bridging new movie genres, and creating a high quality film that is worth elevating to Hall of Fame status.

 

Final Rating: 9.5 out of 10 points