To Save a Life (Movie Review)

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Plot Summary

Jake Taylor is one of the most popular kids in school: he’s a basketball star on track for a big scholarship, and he has the girlfriend everyone wanted. He seems to have friends everywhere, but he’s chosen to ignore the only friend he had in middle school because it’s not cool to hang around him anymore. However, this appears to lead to his old friend becoming suicidal and bringing a gun to school one day in an apparent last-ditch attempt for help. In the fallout of the tragedy, Jake and his friends try to get back to normal, but they seem to sink deeper into their vices as a response to the trauma. What is the true purpose of life, and is it possible for high school to have meaning?

Production Quality (2 points)

As an early 2000s production, To Save a Life is good despite some minor missteps. For one, the flashback sequences, while great to include, sometimes come off as a bit disorienting and invasive as they tend to jump back and forth too much and use disruptive flashing effects. In a similar vein, some montages are a bit confusing and protracted in length, especially since they take up time that could have been used on other things. However, there are plenty of positives to note about this production, For one, the soundtrack is fairly good, and the camera work is professionally artistic even if there is some wild zooming and cutting during suspenseful scenes. Nonetheless, much of the production elements improve as time goes on, and video quality, sets, locations, and props are all great in each part of the film. As a whole, the editing is good enough considering how much content is in the story and how many characters there are, so overall, this is an above average production that’s mostly on the mark and improves with runtime.

Plot and Storyline Quality (2 points)

Even in the beginning, Brian Baugh was always a master of capturing the real human experience, especially of Millennial coming of age years, as he weaves complex storytelling via raw, realistic topics, effective flashbacks, and accessible characters. To Save a Life is a real and honest look at authentic problems facing teenagers both in high school and in the church. It’s a hard but necessary look at the factors leading to teen suicide and teen substance abuse, among other vices; in doing so, the plot unfolds fairly well without dumping too much information onto the audience in the beginning as plot points are developed gradually. The relationships among the characters are very easy to believe as they feel like real people who do real things with real motivations. The psychological material therein is used in very great ways, and the hard look at problems within the church is refreshing. To Save a Life has a very complex cast of characters that makes it feel more like a series than a movie; because of this, some of the characters arcs are a bit too steep due to lack of adequate development time. Even still, the dialogue is well-constructed as the subplots weave together, but the number of storylines is also the slight undoing of the film as we’d like to see some more backstories and more explorations of the issues rather than trying to cover too much in one film. Because of how many ideas are in one movie, the epilogue and the lead-up to it tend to fix things too quickly and easily without many tangible character consequences. The climax scene is also slightly contrived just to have one and only leads to expository dialogue designed to finish things off. In the end, To Save a Life is a massive mixed bag of content that is both rewarding and disappointing, yet Brian Baugh’s talents are still undeniable in his first movie attempt.

Acting Quality (2.5 points)

At first, the acting can come off as a bit awkward, but this also tends to work in the film’s favor. This is really the only nitpick to point out since the cast is overall really good despite its large size. There are quite a few standout roles…even Randy Wayne posts a good one. Due to the sheer number and diversity of cast members, they would have done so well in a series, but alas, this film occurred before the era of Christian streaming. Nevertheless, perhaps something similar to To Save a Life will be crafted in the future.

Conclusion

We would definitely love to see Brian Baugh make a series either like this movie or about something else because some creators are just too big for the big screen. Some creators (see Dallas Jenkins) are better the small screen because series provide much better forums to explore complex characters and subplots. No matter what, Baugh is consistently showing today that he has a profound understanding of people, and with two Hall of Fame entries after To Save a Life (I’m Not Ashamed and The World We Make), the sky is the limit for his creative potential.

Final Rating: 6.5 out of 10 points

Love, Kennedy (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

Jason Hansen has a seemingly perfect family life, but tragedy strikes when his oldest teenage daughter Kennedy is diagnosed with terminal juvenile Batten disease.  As their family grapples with this new reality, they soon find that there is hope even in the hurt and that God does have a plan for Kennedy even if her life will be shorter than usual.  Together, they find that God’s plans are always greater than people’s plans.

 

Production Quality (2 points)

T. C. Christensen has always had a commitment to professional productions, and Love, Kennedy demonstrates this commitment by having good video quality, above-average camera work, and fine audio quality.  However, there are one too many musical montages as a lot of the film is saturated with music.  Sets, locations, and props are realistic and appropriate, however.  The main thing that keeps this production from being all that it could be is the choppy editing that contributes to an awkward story-telling style, but for the most part, this production is above average and professional.

Plot and Storyline Quality (.5 point)

Though it’s basically obvious the T. C. Christensen pushes Mormon messages in his films, at least he tends to craft films about real life stories and events.  Regardless, the true story of Love, Kennedy is unfortunately stifled by unnecessary heavy-handed narration, which also stunts character development.  Since these characters are based on real people, we need a chance to get to know the characters better, but this chance does not materialize.  Unfortunately, this makes the slight Mormon message-pushing more noticeable since the dialogue is rushed and empty.  It seems like the characters get swept along in the predictable plot progression without any choice of their own.  Elsewhere, Christensen includes his typical magical elements that are a bit much.  As a whole, Love, Kennedy is a nice try but not quite good enough.

Acting Quality (2 points)

Overall, the acting of this film is mostly fine with no obvious glaring errors.  However, the acting is not dynamic either, and there are a handful of minor issues that add up over the course of the film, such as some half-hearted performances and some odd portrayals of cast members.  Moreover, as a whole, this section is mostly above average and is better than a lot of films on par with it.

Conclusion

Christensen and his team outpace many other Christian groups in film making when they make clear efforts to build professional productions and to coach above-average acting performances.  The Mormon message-pushing may be off-putting and not much better than other Christian message-pushing (see: Christiano Brothers), but at least it’s packaged in a semi-acceptable way.  Nevertheless, this still isn’t good enough to get past the halfway mark, so maybe it will be better luck next time for the Excel Entertainment team.

 

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 10 points

 

90 Minutes in Heaven (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

When Don Piper was driving home from a church conference one rainy day, he was blindsided by a rogue eighteen-wheeler semi-truck, which crushed his car and killed him on the spot.  When he passed into the afterlife, he entered Heaven and saw people who has gone before him.  However, due to the prayers of a man at the crash site, Don was pulled back to earth, full of injuries.  For months, he was confined to a hospital bed and his wife and children went through many trials due to Don’s uncertain medical condition.  However, through it all, God showed Himself to be faithful.

 

Production Quality (3 points)

90 Minutes in Heaven is one of those mainstream films about Christian concepts that puts many Christian films to shame due to its commitment to a high production quality.  Video quality, camera work, and audio quality are all what it should be.  The soundtrack is very creative and engaging.  Sets, locations, and props are highly authentic and realistic, especially for the time frame.  Finally, the editing is relatively good considering the large amount of content that is taken on in this film.  In the end, this is the standard production quality we should see with each movie that comes out.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

Though this is a very interesting and realistic true story that definitely warrants a movie of its own, it’s hard to think that it was handled very well in this particular film.  For one, unnecessary and heavy-handed narration forces the plot along and explains things that should be allowed to develop on their own.  The narration stunts character development and subverts the use of effective flashbacks.  There are plenty of characters in this film, but it’s hard to get to know any of them very well due to the constant voiceover.  Besides this, the presentation of this otherwise good story is very slow and boring, perhaps in attempts to be overly dramatic.  Nonetheless, it doesn’t come off right as there are too many stop and start scenes and dead sequences before all of the important information is shoved at the end.  In the end, this movie carries an important message that is not handled very well.

Acting Quality (2 points)

This movie clearly has a professional cast with plenty of recognizable names, yet sometimes the cast members appear to be overconfident in their abilities.  There’s no question that they have talent, but they underwhelm in their performances, like they are just phoning it in.  But for the most part, this section does reflect a professional effort.

Conclusion

Movies like this one, that are made by ‘Hollywood’ for Christians are usually a mixed bag.  Professional production and casting is rarely shirked on, but there always seem to be those lingering problems that drag it down.  The story behind 90 Minutes in Heaven is worthy of the Hall of Fame, yet this film is not due to a handful of small issues that hold it back.  Yet regardless, many will find this film to be enjoyable and it’s certainly worth your time.

 

Final Rating: 6 out of 10 points

 

The Cokeville Miracle (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

When a madman and his wife entered a small Wyoming elementary school and took everyone inside hostage for an astronomical ransom, it seemed like all hope was lost.  As the hours ticked by and tensions rose, no one could have predicted how it all would end.  The crisis escalated and a seeming tragedy struck, but no one in Cokeville was prepared for what happened next.  The children of the school claimed a miracle had occurred, but many were skeptical at first—until they saw the evidence for themselves that God was at work.

 

Production Quality (1.5 points)

The Cokeville Miracle is a raw production effort that starts out, unfortunately, very cheap-looking and drab.  This mostly pertains to some poorly lit scenes, some grainy video quality, and some poor special effects.  However, as the movie goes on, all production elements improve.  It’s clear that this team stayed within their means and did not over-exhaust their resources.  By the second half of the film, there are virtually no production errors, making this a very unique production.  Overall, it comes out as average, and since the production does get better as it goes, the film is saved from total disappointment.

Plot and Storyline Quality (3 points)

We always say you can never go wrong depicting real life on the big screen, as long as it’s depicted properly.  The story of the miracles at the Cokeville Elementary School in 1986 is one that is worth portraying, but also difficult to portray since such a portrayal could easily become sensational and unrealistic.  However, this was not the case with this film.  Each character is realistic and believable—even the villains—and dialogue is effective in building the characters.  This type of story is not easy to craft properly, yet The Cokeville Miracle unfolds exquisitely and makes you stay until the very end.  Historical authenticity is preserved as this story makes everyone, even skeptics, think about the nature of modern day miracles.  In short, this is a film well-worth your time.

Acting Quality (3 points)

For an ‘amateur’ cast with not much notoriety, the cast of this film gave a slam dunk performance.  There are no acting errors here, even where there were potential pitfalls, such as villain acting and child acting.  Care was taken to preserve the original people who experienced this crisis firsthand.  Emotions are believable and line delivery is effective.  This rounds out a job well done.

Conclusion

While we would have loved to see higher production quality, this team did everything they could do with what they had, and that’s really all we ask of film makers.  Whatever God has given you, do the best you can with it.  The Cokeville Miracle proves you don’t need a big budget or big names to make a great movie.  All you need is a good story and the care enough to tell it properly.  ‘Little’ films like this one put ‘big’ ones to shame and demonstrate true greatness.

 

Final Rating: 7.5 out of 10 points

 

Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (Movie Review)

Get ready to slide into that New Jerusalem bro
Get ready to slide into that New Jerusalem bro

Plot Summary

The war on Christmas is everywhere, dontcha know?  I mean, we can’t even talk out Santa Claus anymore.  If we say Merry Christmas, we’re practically blackballed in social circles.  We can’t even put Christmas trees or neigh-tivity scenes on government property anymore (or Muslim symbols for that matter).  Something has got to change before ‘Merica becomes one of those atheistic third world countries we buy Christmas junk from.  We need a hero to save our Christmas traditions from extinction.  Never fear, Kirk Cameron is that hero!  Join him on a quest to turn the hardest Scrooge heart back to the good ole’ days of Christmas.  Join Kirk in a meditation experience unlike any other as he guides your mind to focus on rocks, trees, snow globes, ornaments, and nutcrackers.  Experience the Christmas spirit in a way you’ve never experienced it before—with Kirk Cameron as your Christmas Zen master.  By the time it’s over, you’ll want all the Buzz-Saw Louie’s you can grab, because that’s what Christmas is really about.  You’ll probably also join the awkward white yuppie people dance-off to the tune of Family Force 5 Christmas, prompted by your stereotypical black friend DJ.  Get your tickets today, this is a show you don’t want to miss (not)!

 

Production Quality (-3 points)

Saving Christmas is a real doozy, even more so than Mercy Rule, if that’s even possible.  Starting with the three opening sequences and concluding with the two most ridiculous scenes in modern Christian film, space does not permit us to truly convey the lunacy of this film.  Filled with endless narration from the egotistical Cameron, this production is an explosion of every Christmas decoration you can imagine.  As an annoying Christmas soundtrack blares in your ears, you are forced to be subjected to Cameron’s famed use of slow motion and freeze frames, obviously to improve the runtime and give Kirk more chances to impart his wisdom.  The barely one-hour runtime is also propped up by recycled footage, stock footage, scenes of characters endlessly staring, and even an entire minute of total silence.  Besides all this, the meditation on Christmas is aided by fading out to the same scene several times.  Sets are severely limited to an extravagantly decorated house, a vehicle, and some random outdoor scenes.  We could go on and on, but we would risk becoming as long-winded as Cameron.  Basically, think of the worst possible production scenario in a film, and this would be it.

Plot and Storyline Quality (-3 points)

While there is really not plot to speak of, there is plenty of madness to speak of, from its schizophrenic structure to its racial stereotypes.  As Cameron attempts to tie every Westernized holiday tradition back to the Bible with bizarre correlations and to lead the audience in creepy meditation on these objects, we are left to ponder some extremely head-scratching and sometimes disturbing ideas.  For instance, Cameron advocates for outright violence through the less than historically accurate retelling of Saint Nicolas.  If somebody doesn’t agree with you, body-slam them!  Also, when a character brings up the excellent point of the consumerist waste of Christmas, saying that the money could be spent on charitable work instead, Cameron just laughs it off and later encourages Christians to spend all they want on themselves at Christmas time, just to make sure not to ‘max out the credit card’.  But the nonsensical ramblings are not limited to materialistic apologetics—the centerpiece of the film is Cameron’s strange and laughable holiday concepts, such as trying to link nutcrackers to Roman soldiers and Christmas gifts to the New Jerusalem or something.  While he falls further and further down the rabbit hole of forced correlations, he makes light of real issues in his quest to shove his ridiculous worldview down your throat.  There is far too much nonsense in this film to discuss at length here, but the bottom line of Saving Christmas is that Kirk Cameron paints a giant strawman out of people who disagree with his outrageous claims that white Christians should grab all they can at Christmastime while totally disregarding the poor and less fortunate.  His position is indefensible and has no place in Christian film.

Acting Quality (-3 points)

Besides the patriarchal superiority and zany ‘holiday cheer’ displayed by the self-centered Cameron, his costars enablers post performances that will be forever remembered—for all the wrong reasons.  Darren Doane, who tolerated and assisted Cameron in creating this madness for some reason, comes off as a rambling lunatic.  David Shannon is perhaps one of the most self-parodying actors in history.  From start to finish, Saving Christmas will go down in history as one of the worst films ever.

Conclusion

There is no comprehending the twisted mind of Kirk Cameron.  Calling himself a fundamentalist Christian and donning the cape of a hero who claims to stand for religious freedom, Cameron decides to throw off convention again and opt for…advocating for materialistic Christianity?  Seriously, who cares about Christmas ornaments looking like ‘stylized fruit’?  Why do we need to defend and cling to snow globes, nutcrackers, and creepy Santa’s in order to be better Christians?  If this movie is to be believed, there is no difference between westernized Christmas traditions and the Scriptures.  This is wrong on a number of levels.  Saving Christmas is not only a terribly lame attempt at filmmaking, nor is it only a total waste of your time: it is an affront to the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ because it suggests and infers that Christians just need to have a lot of stuff to be happy.  This childish notion has no place in Christian film and Kirk Cameron should no longer be regarded as a legitimate filmmaker.  He has plumbed the depths of horrible film making and has written the proverbial book on how to run a film into the complete ground.  It’s little wonder he has not made a movie since this one.

 

Final Rating: -10 out of 10 points

 

The Grace Card (Movie Review)

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Plot Summary

Police officer Mac McDonald has big plans for his future career, but his entire life crashed down the day that his son was killed in an accident involving racial violence and drugs.  With his life in a tailspin, Mac’s family and work environment feel the effects of his newfound anger towards the world.  But he especially directs his anger at African-American criminals, further contributing to the racial divide in the community.  However, when Mac is paired up with Sam Wright, a popular African American police officer and part-time pastor, he is reluctantly forced to take a look at the basis for his racial hatred—is he angry at African-Americans or at God?

 

Production Quality (1.5 points)

At first glance, it seems like The Grace Card had time and money spent on its production.  The video is clear and the sound quality is pretty good.  The musical score is intriguing, but there are still some minor issues that plague the film.  The camera work is good in some parts, but not good in other parts.  Some of the action scenes are a bit shaky.  The sound quality of some of the action scenes is also inconsistent.  Lighting is good in some scenes, but not in others.  The sets and locations are slightly limited.  But at the same time, some scenes and elements of production seem well constructed.  Overall, the production quality comes out as average due to inconsistency.

Plot and Storyline Quality (2 points)

This is an excellent topic to discuss via a Christian movie—the racial divide in most American cities combined with tense relations between police and racial minorities.  From the beginning, it is unfortunately obvious where the plot is going to go, but at least the journey is interesting.  The Grace Card mostly stays away from stereotypes, an important factor in this type of film, but some of the characters are a bit too obvious.  The dialogue is mostly thought-provoking and balances out the action sequences.  However, it seems like these characters could have been deeper than they were.  Also, there are some seemingly unnecessary parts in the plot, including scenes in which it is difficult to tell what’s going on.  Overall, the storyline is above average, but once again, little issues keep it from being all that it could be.

Acting Quality (1.5 points)

The acting in The Grace Card is neither obviously great nor obviously bad.  Each actor and actress seems to be cast into their respective roles very well.  There is obviously cast diversity.  Yet it feels like these actors and actresses could be more than they are in this film.  Their potential needed to be drawn out more.  Therefore, the ultimate outcome of this movie is average.

Conclusion

The Grace Card is a great start for a new film making team.  It exhibits an important issue that needs to be tackled and confronted in every area of Christian culture.  But we could not help but watch The Grace Card and wish for something more.  Nonetheless, it is definitely something to build off of for the future.

 

Final Rating: 5 out of 10 points