Vindication, Season 1 [2019] (Series Review)

Plot Summary

Detective Travis always wants to bring the criminals of his small Texas town to justice. However, he’s not always right, and he can’t do it all on his own, despite what he believes about himself. Through every twist and turn of each case, the detective learns something new about himself and about life, but the ultimate challenge of his work and life involves his daughter and her checkered past. Thus, when she comes to stay with him and his wife, he’s sure she’s got something to hide. However, he could have never foreseen the end result of this.

Production Quality (1.5 points)
For a relatively low-budget series, Vindication is definitely trying when it comes to production. The video quality is great throughout, and the camera work is respectable. Sets, locations, and props are mostly fine, but the audio is sometimes too quiet. At first, there’s basically no soundtrack, but this tends to improve as the series goes on. While there are some creative story overlays and plot criss-crossing throughout, the editing can be fairly choppy at times. Sometimes, scenes start and stop at awkward places, and some portions seem unnecessary. However, this element also tends to improve with time. In the end, this is an average production that shows commendable effort.

Plot and Storyline Quality (.5 point)
What an absolute roller coaster of a storyline. It’s difficult to know where to begin with this; in the first two-thirds of the series, many of the cases are either fairly unrealistic or extremely simplistic. Some contain improbable circumstances just for the sake, it seems, of being unique and tricky. Others contain lots of coincidences and convenient turns; many of them include partially or mostly inappropriate content seemingly just because. While being edgy and realistic is a good quality to have in Christian entertainment (rather than white-washing humanity), there’s a fine line to walk between authentic and trashy. As a side note, some of the ‘crimes’ that are actually ‘twists’ are substantially questionable and borderline ‘vindicate’ the wrong types of behavior. Elsewhere, the suspense elements don’t seem to jive with reality even though there are some interesting psychological elements throughout. Besides the head-scratching partially objectionable content included, the treatment of police ethics and criminal procedure throughout the series would be offensive to many real police officers. Rules are callously broken with no resource, and while it would be one thing to portray a rogue cop in a negative light for the purpose of being realistic, it’s another thing to downright condone unethical practices in the name of doing the right thing, including mixing personal vendettas against certain people and in favor of family members with police work. The detectives’ time is spent on petty misunderstandings that would likely draw the attention of higher authorities due to their frivolous use of resources and questionable methods of arresting people with little reasonable suspicion. These two major problem areas (inappropriate content and offensive portrayal of procedure) are almost enough to totally derail the series from the get-go, especially when these issues are combined with a lot of blank and empty dialogue and cheap Christian messaging throughout the first two-thirds of the season. Odd portrayals of women and minorities throughout the series are also concerns to contend with, but the recurring subplot between the main character and his daughter keep the narrative on life support long enough to get to the final two episodes of the season, which almost save the writers from themselves. It’s clear that the entire series was made for this storyline, and the daughter is the only notably interesting character in the entire creation. The last two episodes are so starkly different from the other ones (except for the disregard for jurisdiction and other questionable practices in the name of being police with agendas) that it seems like an entirely different idea, yet the thinly-developed characters still shine through due to their lack of depth in the first eight episodes. Had they been properly built in the first two-thirds of the season via real cases and authentic circumstances, we would be looking at a totally different concept. As they are, the last two installments include very effective flashbacks that take a good look at hard issues effecting many people. In doing so, the final ‘villain’ is fairly realistic, and the partial conclusion of the subplot between the father and daughter is mostly authentic and believable. Nevertheless, despite the acceptable ending, it doesn’t cover over the multitude of sins committed by the rest of the storyline.

Acting Quality (1.5 points)
Acting isn’t a glaring problem throughout the series even if many cast members come off as very robotic and overly practiced. However, this is likely not a talent problem or a coaching issue because the lines they are given are usually uninspiring. This is evident since acting seems to improve as dialogue gets a slight upgrade in the latter third of the season. Although makeup is terrible at first, this seems to get better too. The key standout performance from every episode she’s in comes from Emma Elle Roberts as she sets herself apart as a truly talented actress with potential beyond this series. In the end, this is neither the best nor the worst acting from a Christian season.

Continuity Quality (1.5 points)
As previously mentioned, the only significant continuity throughout season one of Vindication involves the storylines of the central character’s family, especially his interactions with his daughter and her checkered past. However, these recurring subplots are fairly good in the midst of a mostly typical recurring crime drama style. Still, it would have been preferable to see some other interwoven subplots that were worthwhile to follow.

Conclusion

The creators of Vindication are trying to do something, but there are too many elements of season one that are way off base. The use of edgy content is commendable for a crime series, but it would be nice to see better standards of propriety when it comes to dealing with sensitive topics. For another, a lot of significant research needs to be conducted before anyone creates a drama centered around criminal procedure and police work because it can be easy to make careless mistakes. Further, there needs to be a better look at mental and behavioral health issues beyond simplifying them and reducing them to trite Christian sayings and prayers. In the end, this concept may work better as a larger-scale federal investigative storyline rather than confining it to a small town with unusual half-mysteries. To summarize, the creators have potential somewhere in here, but there’s too much blocking out the light.

Final Rating: 5 out of 14 points

Unplanned [2019] (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director and abortion rights advocate, was taken by God on an unforgettable journey of redemption and forgiveness that led her to reject her former way of life and trade it for a ministry of pro-life activism. Though no one could have ever dreamed that an abortion clinic supervisor would switch political sides and join her former enemies, there is no end to the power of prayer.

Production Quality (2 points)

As expected at this point from PureFlix, the production of Unplanned is above-average and hits all the right notes, for the most part. On the surface, it looks good due to high video quality, professional camera work, and adequate sets, locations, and props. Audio quality is also good. They’ve checked all the typical boxes, but there are some issues with the soundtrack as many of the songs don’t properly fit the situations they are played in. However, the most glaring problem is the horrific editing that takes the viewer all over the map of a story that could have been good but only ends up playing like an audio book, as we see next.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

At this point, it’s painfully clear that the current PureFlix team can’t even properly portray a great true story even if it hit them in the face like Abby Johnson’s story did. Even if the book is already written for them, you can count on PureFlix to fumble the ball at the goal line by falling back on their old tried-and-failed pitfalls of trying to be too obvious without trusting the audience to read in to the subtlety and of crafting too many climax scenes for dramatic effect. The obvious goal was the hit all the high points of the story in order to maximize the most shock and awe possible with the hopes of scaring people about abortion. There’s no doubt that there were many powerful parts of Abby’s story, but we’ll never really know as the demonstrative elements are over-emphasized in the movie while the potential for character building is simply replaced with incessant and heavy-handed narration. They seem like great characters, but it’s impossible to know them due to the narration and the wild time jumps that leave the viewer disoriented. Since there’s a lot of content in this story, it could have been effectively laid out via flashbacks that built character motivation, yet instead, we were left with talking-points conversations and overly emphasized strawman villain moments. The film is written for basically one good scene near the end where we actually get realistic dialogue uninterrupted by Bratcher’s narration, but it’s too little too late. Unfortunately, where Abby Johnson’s story could have been a powerful treatise on prayer and a change of heart, all we’re given is a smile-and-wave, run-of-the-mill experience dedicated to grossing people out about abortion whose R-rating is warranted due to lack of balance.

Acting Quality (2 points)

Surprisingly, Ashley Bratcher is a bright spot in this cast, which suggests her performance in Princess Cut was heavily controlled by the creators of that film. While the supporting cast might have been interesting, it’s hard to tell due to the famine of lines and dialogue in this film. Even still, the casting and acting are mostly good without many glaring errors…it’s just basically unfinished and left wanting, like the overall feel of this movie.

Conclusion

There’s absolutely no doubt that Abby Johnson and David Bereit played integral roles in bringing the pro-life movement out of the dark ages through prayer and expert leadership, and Abby’s story is an amazing one that deserved a movie of its own. However, PureFlix’s treatment of the story doesn’t do it any justice. Moreover, Unplanned, in a way, represents the current state of the pro-life movement: lots of well-meaning people who want to do the right thing, along with a collection of more influential people who believe that ‘gotcha’ talking points and graphic displays of the evils of abortion will change things. The early marketing for this film proclaimed it to be (another) death knell for the corrupt Planned Parenthood, yet we beg to differ. Any success the pro-life movement will find moving forward is by both listening to and telling actual stories of real people, not by falling into the trap of unleashing smoking guns that will ‘sink’ your opposition. There was a massive opportunity to tell a real story in Unplanned that could actually reach people, but once again, PureFlix proves that they can’t tell stories properly because this requires actually knowing people. Unfortunately, while the gory moments of this film can be powerful if packaged properly, when they are separated from an emotional connection with the characters, they can re-traumatize those who have been hurt by abortion, which doesn’t win any ‘converts.’

Final Rating: 5 out of 10 points

Uncommon [2015] (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

When Aaron Chase’s brother dies in a school shooting, his family moves to a new area in the hopes of starting over.  He ends up going to Rosewood High School, whose arts department budgets have been slashed due to overall budget cuts.  The students in those departments are disappointed and seek to put on their own show.  Aaron gets involved and decides to stand up for the faith he has been hiding, even though an evil atheist teacher is trying to stop him at every turn.

 

Production Quality (2 points)

For what it’s worth, Liberty Counsel and JC Films made sure Uncommon looked good on the surface.  Video quality is clear and camera work is professional.  Audio quality also meets industry standards, although the soundtrack is bloated and full of cheesy songs.  Sets, locations, and props demonstrate that time was put into them.  Yet editing is quite poor, as there are far too many musical montages and filler scenes that appear to just be filling up the runtime rather than imparting real content.  Essentially, care was put into making this production look good, which is fine, but it’s just not enough when it comes to substance.

Plot and Storyline Quality (0 points)

As is to be expected, Liberty Counsel and JC Films construct a false reality where religious persecution is rampant in public schools—to a degree that is unrealistic and requires half-truths to be told—and which is full of heavy-handed propaganda messaging and narration to drive their points home.  Atheists are extremely offensive strawmen, while Christians are downtrodden and overly perfect.  Dialogue only forces the plot along, which is actually quite boring and melancholy when all is said and done.  There is an attempt to be complex and different with some of the plot elements, but it’s not enough to make up for the outright twisting of reality that has to be done to make this movie’s message work.  Basically, when all is said and done, Uncommon simply boils down to a sophisticated version of God’s Club.

Acting Quality (2 points)

Another interesting element to Uncommon is that time and care were also put into the casting and acting.  This is a semi-professional cast, yet they appear to be coached fairly well.  There are some awkward moments and unrealistic emotions, but on the whole, this is actually not that bad of a performance by this cast.  If only this truth could translate to other films.

Conclusion

Uncommon is an anomaly.  Usually movies that have small-minded plots like this one are terrible in all areas, yet time and care were spent on production and acting.  It proves that anything can be done if you put your mind to it.  Just think if this type of effort was put toward other movies that have better plots than this.  But in the end, Christians overall need to steer clear from these types of plots for like forever, unless they’re going to portray real persecution that happens anywhere except the Western world.  We need to change the mentality that ‘the atheists’ are always around the corner trying to snipe us and just live out our faith the way God wants us to.  Jesus didn’t constantly gripe at or sue the Pharisees or Romans for religious persecution, and He had plenty of His ‘rights’ violated.  God’s work can proceed whether or not you have your Bible club in a public school.  People need to know that Christians care, and with stuff like this being put out there, it’s really hard to see that Christian leaders care about anything except ‘getting back’ at atheists.

 

Final Rating: 4 out of 10 points

 

77 Chances (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

Jason Shaw is a photographer who always wants to capture the right moment.  But what happens when the same moment repeats over and over again?  After meeting Mackenna, his life is never the same as the day of their meeting continues to repeat itself.  Jason tries to change the fate he is left with, but is unsuccessful.  Will he be able to come to grips with the truth God is trying to tell him before it’s too late?

 

Production Quality (2 points)

EchoLight Studios and Liberty University clearly have the resources and know-how for crafting a top level production.  This is evident in the professional camera work, video quality, sets, and locations of 77 Chances.  However, there are some minor audio issues, such as an overbearing soundtrack.  Also, editing issues plague this movie as there is too much wasted time and incongruence.  But otherwise, this production is above average—we just feel that it could have been better.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

At this point, it’s likely that the Groundhog Day plot concept is a little worn out.  There is little that can be done with this idea, and the story only ends up being filled with montages and copied or varied scenes.  Therein, there is too much ‘silent’ dialogue covered up with music, which stunts the development of the few characters there are.  Nevertheless, some of the ideas and psychological elements presented in 77 Chances are interesting and intriguing, albeit sometimes too mystifying and confusing.  After establishing the repeating day and subsequently playing around with it for about an hour, a unique and creative concept is introduced with about ten minutes left to go.  Due to time constraints, this idea is not fully developed or completed, thus leaving the audience with a half-hearted effort.  This is frustrating to watch because there is actually a lot of potential here.  But alas, we are left wondering what could have been.

Acting Quality (1 point)

Erin Bethea, Andrew Cheney, and Rachel Hendrix have all had their better movies, but this is not one of them.  They come off as stiff, awkward, and flat.  Scotty Curlee and Stephan Schultze are supposed to be Kendrick prodigies, yet their acting coaching comes up short here.  Though not all is bad, this is another disappointing element.

Conclusion

We know that EchoLight has the ability to create a quality film, but the Liberty University team has even more potential they are sitting on that they are not properly using.  Tracy Trost, Curlee, and Schultze all have the training and the talent necessary to take the next step into greatness, but they are stuck in mediocrity.  As a side note, we would like to see this movie have a remake, if possible.  The bottom line is that this creative team has more resources than many film makers dream of—they just need to use them properly.

 

Final Rating: 4 out of 10 points

 

Polycarp: Destroyer of Gods (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

Polycarp was a great Christian who led the church at Smyrna in the second century just as the Roman Empire was becoming more radicalized and hostile towards Christians.  When a couple in his church rescues a young slave girl named Anna, Polycarp takes a personal interest in her, as he was also rescued as a slave boy.  As times become tumultuous for Christians, Polycarp seeks to lead his flock to always be strong in the Lord and to stand firm in the day of trouble.

 

Production Quality (2 points)

It is evident that the Henline Productions team cares about historical authenticity, as a great amount of time, effort, and resources were put into the realistic sets and props of Polycarp.  This is difficult for an independent film to pull off, yet they did it anyway.  Camera work is highly effective and professional.  Video and audio quality are also top-notch.  However, the soundtrack needs an upgrade, as it rarely can be heard.  Also, the editing needs to be worked on, since some scenes drag on too long and there are too many seemingly unnecessary or repetitive sequences.  But in the end, this is an excellent place to begin for a freshman production and gives great hope for the future.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1.5 points)

The plot of Polycarp starts out with an excellent historical idea, however, it wastes too much time getting to the point.  The first half struggles to hold the attention and we fear many viewers will give up on it halfway through.  However, once the second half of the movie begins, the real meat of the story is finally uncovered and things become interesting.  The characters are pretty good throughout, especially at the end, but we would have liked to see more development and deepening.  There is plenty of interesting and meaningful dialogue, but not all of it builds the characters as it should.  But as everything progresses, the ending sequences are very effective and drive the point home well—we hope the audience will stay until the end, because it is worth it.  In the end, though we can’t help but think what could have been, this is a formidable effort and shows potential for the future.

Acting Quality (2 points)

Though this is a largely amateur cast, most of the cast members deliver solid performances with few errors to speak of.  Line delivery is on point and emotions are believable.  The main thing that drags this score down is very over-the-top acting by one or two cast members that perhaps took their parts too seriously.  But overall, like the rest of this film, this is an excellent start to a budding career.

Conclusion

The story of Polycarp the bishop and martyr is a long and complex one, and the Henline team obviously did not have the resources to fully capture it in an epic, but it still may be worth doing in the future.  There are so many things the Henline team can do with more resources, so we pray that they are provided with what they need to take that next step into greatness.  With slight production upgrades, a more complex plot, and slightly better acting coaching, they are going to go places.  We know they have the ability to do so and can’t wait to see what comes next from their studio.

 

Final Rating: 5.5 out of 10 points

 

 

Full disclosure: We were provided by the creator with a copy of this film in exchange for a fair and honest review

 

Providence [2016] (Movie Review)

Image result for providence movie 2016

Plot Summary

As Rachel Cartwright and Mitchell Little grew up in the small town of Providence, Tennessee, they each took different paths until finally meeting up.  Though they were together for a while, they lost touch as they grew older and went different paths again.  But even as life takes them in their different directions, they are destined to meet up again no matter what.

 

Production Quality (2 points)

It’s very interesting to take a risk by creating a silent film, and as it turns out, it’s better to have no audio than bad audio.  Additionally, it was wise to fill the sound with an original soundtrack, even though it is sometimes incongruent with the time period the plot is trying to portray.  However, we would have liked to hear more instrumental tracks.  Silent films rely heavily on camera work and video quality, and both of these elements passed the test of professionalism.  There are also historically realistic sets, locations, and props throughout.  The main caveat to raise here is that some scenes tend to lag too long—we would have liked to see more content, but it’s a good start.  Regardless, Sharon Wilharm and Mainstreet Productions demonstrate the ability to engineer high quality productions, and we can’t wait to see them reach the next level.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

Due to the silence, there is no audible dialogue, only implied dialogue.  This is both good and bad because it limits the mistakes and the rewards.  Nonetheless, the viewer can figure out fairly well what is going on in the story.  However, the storyline is somewhat simple and typical.  Some sequences are too long while others are too short, but there is far more plot content in Providence than in many non-silent films.  We would have liked to know these characters a little better than we do, but that’s just a limitation of silent plots.  In the end, the plot is okay, yet we feel that this plot could have been a little more complex than this.

Acting Quality (2.5 points)

It is definitely difficult to act and to acting coach in silent films, yet both are pulled off well in Providence.  These cast members show better emotions than some non-silent films—for the most part, we really know what is going on, and that’s a huge accomplishment.  While there is some historically inauthentic costuming, most of it is good.  In short, this is a professional performance.

Conclusion

We were wary of silent films before seeing Providence, but it seems like having no sound makes everyone, especially the cast, try harder to improve quality.  While silent movies may not be the future, this is definitely a good place to jump start from and to use to improve into greatness.  The good news for Christian film is that after an extended wilderness of the early 2000s, movie makers are finally moving to the point of higher production quality.  Providence is an example of this trend.  Mainstreet Productions shows great promise for the future and we look forward to what they have planned next.

 

Final Rating: 5.5 out of 10 points

 

 

Full disclosure: We were provided by the creator with a copy of this film in exchange for a fair and honest review

 

 

In His Steps [2013] (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

When a homeless man comes to the town of Raymond and does not find that the Christians there do not practice what they preach, he interrupts a church service to tell them just that.  But when he collapses in the middle of his speech, he spurs some on to action.  Though he dies, five church members commit to changing their ways and beginning to live their lives as Jesus did rather than as Christians in name only.  However, their decision is hard than they first thought.

 

Production Quality (.5 point)

While money was spent on the ‘surface’ of production, that is, camera work and video quality, the beauty is only skin deep, so to speak.  Sets and locations are average, and the lighting therein is inconsistent.  Also, some outside scenes have quite loud background noises and there is a loud stock soundtrack that covers up far too much dialogue.  There was basically no editing present—pretty much all content was included to make the film long enough, including filler scenes.  Essentially, In His Steps is a generic bad production.

Plot and Storyline Quality (.5 point)

Based on the famous novel by Charles Sheldon, this film unfortunately ruins the book’s original idea and alters the original plot for convenience.  The storyline is very slow and melancholy and struggles to hold the attention.  The characters begin as empty but quickly progress to annoying as they try to become better Christians.  This is such a travesty because it doesn’t make anyone want to be stronger in their faith, but rather may turn some off.  After their recommitment, the Christians in this film become legalistic, forceful, and sometimes offensive, while those who oppose them are laughable.  Because of this dichotomy, there is far too much unintentional comedy that ensues, thus making a mockery of the novel’s original intent.  In short, though there is some potential here, this plot is mostly a disaster.

Acting Quality (0 points)

This moderate cast appears to be overly practiced in their line delivery and they come off as stiff and wooden.  Also, their emotional delivery is awkward and sometimes over the top.  Makeup is not a strong suit either.  While it seems like this cast had potential, they did not reach it.

Conclusion

Like eerily similar films What Would Jesus Do? and Do You Believe?, In His Steps carries an important message about Christians truly living out their faith.  However, this message gets lost in translation as audiences cannot ignore poor production quality, a vanilla plot, and obnoxious acting.  Why do movies like this have to be packaged this way?  It’s so disappointing to review one movie after another that all commit the same old mistakes.  We plead with Christian film makers to get second and third opinions on their works before releasing them—this will do a world of good.

 

Final Rating: 1 out of 10 points

 

Touched by Grace {The Senior Prank} (Movie Review)

Plot Summary

When a high school class is given the decision to vote for a ‘popular’ girl for homecoming queen or a Grace, a girl with Down’s syndrome, the latter wins in a shocking upset.  One of the ‘popular’ girl’s friends, Cara, accidentally befriends Grace and her friend Brandon as they try to find Grace a partner for the homecoming dance.  Cara finds herself torn as her ‘popular’ friends try to ostracize Grace and as she begins developing feelings for Brandon.  In the end, the entire school will be faced with the reality that special need people are just like everyone else and they should be treated thus.

 

Production Quality (1.5 points)

With an obviously limited budget, Touched by Grace sometimes does the best it can with what it has, but other times it does not.  The sets are quite limited, but this is not entirely a negative issue due to the small scale plot.  They are realistic, which is important.  The camera work and video quality are quite good for a production this small.  The soundtrack is average; we would have liked to see more here.  There is much positive to say about this small time production, but the biggest issue is the editing.  There is virtually no editing present in Touched by Grace.  Too many scenes are long and drawn out, making for a disappointing experience.  All in all, there are both positive and negative aspects to this film, which is very frustrating.

Plot and Storyline Quality (1 point)

There was so much potential in this movie.  It’s based on a great idea and has believable elements.  It could have been very touching had more time been spent on character development.  Sometimes the dialogue is meaningful, and other times it’s not.  There is far too much understatement in this film; sometimes things happen for no reason.  A common mistake in Christian film is overstating the obvious, but Touched by Grace has the opposite problem.  More needed to be emphasized regarding the important issue of treating special needs people as equals.  Where this movie could have been heartfelt, it just came off as somber.  The main redeeming quality is the effective end that the movie was obviously written for.  The end was powerful enough to make this movie something great had the remainder of the plot been adequate.  In short, it’s a disappointing plot and one that desperately needs a remake.

Acting Quality (1.5 points)

With a largely amateur cast, the actors and actresses sometimes come off as awkward, but other times they shine.  Ben Davies as a high school student doesn’t really work and he definitely needed more coaching.  On the flipside, the casting of special needs people was a score as they were some of the best cast members.  Overall, this cast wasn’t bad, but it could have been a winning cast with better coaching.

Conclusion

Touched by Grace receives half of an x-factor point for presenting an important issue in a semi-meaningful way.  Overall, while this movie was sometimes heartwarming, it was also frustrating to watch, knowing just how much potential it could have achieved.  This is not one of those Christian productions that has no heart or care behind it.  We truly believe that the creators sincerely cared about this issue and wanted to make a movie about it.  Their heart was in the right place, but their film inexperience derailed it.  Inexperience is probably not their fault either—it’s a tough world out there for independent Christian filmmakers.  This is why it’s all the more important for Christians to come together and pool their resources to produce quality over quantity.  Just think of what would have happened if two stupid Christian movies were defunded and the money was given to this one.

 

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 10 points