“It Was a Christian Movement” — Wendell Pierce on Selma

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Selma is one of the most anticipated films of the holiday season. Having received four Golden Globe nominations, including nods for Best Drama and Best Director, and currently sitting at 100% “Fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes, it is emerging as an Oscar contender.

I was fortunate enough to visit the set during this summer’s shoot, witnessing the filming of King’s speech on the Montgomery steps. I was also part of a panel of reporters from the evangelical press that participated in a round table interview with co-star Wendell Pierce. The actor, best known for his roles in The Wire and Treme, plays Hosea Williams in Selma.  He spoke passionately about his experience making the film as well as that of growing up Roman Catholic in a segregated city–and how racism challenged the development of his own faith. Below are some excerpts from his comments:

On the “Christian” nature of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s advocacy:

All of these people were leaders in their own right, and it wasn’t a coincidence that they were reverends. [It] was a Christian movement, and I think the thing that was amazing about it was not only showing the hypocrisy of Americans, challenging them, but challenging Christians also. Dr. King […] really challenged people’s spirit, heart, and soul—what they believed in. How could you be Christian and treat others that way? I think that was the combination of the two: the political strategy of understanding what advocacy could do, understanding what God could do in non-violence, but [also] understanding that they were men and women of faith trying to appeal to the hearts of other men and women of faith.

What did he ask those who participated in the Selma march?:

When I asked John Lewis, “In that moment, when you crossed the bridge, what did Hosea say?” He said, “He turned to me and said, ‘John, they’re about to tear gas us.’” For me, realizing that this man, this reverend had fought in World War II—African-American soldiers, the double V campaign, you know about that? Victory abroad and victory at home. He had fought one battle. There was victory abroad, and now he was fighting a second. Victory at home. He had the waddle of a walk because he was injured in a tank in World War II. And [….] when John said that to me, I remembered that my father, who also fought in World War II, that was a part of the training. [They] basically sent you into a gassed house, filled with gas, and you had to take the gas mask off to see how it would impact [you]. So he knew, because he had experienced it, what was about to happen.

Experiencing racism at church:

I struggle with my faith. I…[long pause]…I grew up Catholic in the South. I’m still Catholic. I don’t go to the church near my neighborhood now because when we first got there, the separate but equal neighborhood in New Orleans [….]the parish happened to be on the white side. And when my parents first got there, they sat in their favorite pew, right side, fifth row, anywhere in the world the Pierce family’s there. And they tapped on their should, they said, “Excuse me, the Negro pews are in the back.” My grandmother’s Bible study was segregated. The white kids would go first, and then the black kids would go second. And the white kids would go to the choir loft and pee on them. The reverend would just say, “Stop, stop, stop, stop.” That’s it. So now, you grew up in a church like that, the first thing you ask as a kid is, “Momma, why do we go to church?” She said, “Baby, we’re trying to have a relationship with God. Always separate that which is divine and that which is man-made.” [….] In religion, I’m constantly trying to make sure—I want to get to what God is trying to say to me. And so…understand that man is…fallible. So that allowed me to stay in the church, you know, and understand that, okay, all the things I hate about the church doesn’t have to do with the divine.

What is the importance of the film now that the generation that lived through these events is passing away?

I think [films like this are] profoundly important because…there are those that don’t have our best interest at heart. Who love revisionist history. And to…belittle, to lessen the impact that Martin Luther King had on this country and this world. I told people, as we make this film and celebrate Dr. King and meet all these men and women who actually stood by his side, that developed this movement with him, like the courageous eight in Selma, like Reverend Reese, and C.T. Vivian…those who were on the other side are still alive, too. There are some men and women that…we forget that. We forget that there are those who are in agreement with Bull Conoor and Clark, and to this day think that Martin Luther King was a communist, was a plant, who want to discredit him. That he doesn’t deserve the accolades that he’s getting, because he actually changed a system that they felt was fair enough. Men who wrote that constitution did not consider me a human being. And there are some that don’t have that enlightenment, that feel as though—when they say “America,” that doesn’t include me. So as we look at these elderly statesmen and women, remember that there are still many men and women who cannot grasp the idea that we deserve—of everybody having those rights. Martin Luther King is emblematic of that change that they cannot accept. And it’s important that we not allow those folks to change who he was [with] revisionist history that he didn’t make the impact that he did on this country and change one of the great American heroes. We should never allow anyone to demean him to a point where he is ineffectual.

Selma has a limited release on December 25th and will expand to theaters everywhere on January 9, 2015.

“What Do I Pay Attention to in My Life?”–Blake Robbins talks about The Sublime and Beautiful

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“I had to write it,” Blake Robbins says of the screenplay for The Sublime and Beautiful (★★★★).

Writing was a way for the actor-director to process his own experience of grief, particularly that stemming from his aunt being killed by a drunk driver. In the film, Robbins plays David Conrad, a college professor whose children are similarly killed by an intoxicated driver.

There have been several good films in recent years about parental grief: Rabbit Hole, The Sweet Hereafter, Beautiful Boy, Cake, and, of course, In the Bedroom. I asked Robbins how his film was different.

“I felt like what was missing sometimes when I would see another film  dealing with parental grief was [caused by] the obligation to create a performance that might be worthy of awards [….] The truth of an experience of grief is that most likely the people that experience it are dealing with shock [….] They don’t really always reach out, or try to move on–the human moments don’t come until possibly a year later.”

“When  Hollywood takes on a film like this, “Robbins opines, “they usually want awards.” That desire means requiring a script’s focus to be split in order to make both roles award bait. Robbins cared more about being true to the experience, which is often isolating, and he stated several times that his first hope was that those who knew grief themselves would tell him that he conveyed that experience–as a writer and actor–accurately. “The truth is, sometimes you’re just stuck.”

But to be true to the experience of grief as he experienced it was a risk, since making David “stuck” meant that “the audience doesn’t get any relief either.”

Sublime_EPK_3Robbins also took the risky writing path of making David an imperfect, often unsympathetic protagonist. David is having an extramarital affair, and the fact that he is with his mistress when the accident that kills his children happens is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. The loss of the children puts the Conrads’ marriage under strain, since neither husband nor wife appears capable of helping the other or graciously receiving empathy. In one of the film’s several showcase scenes, David’s wife flies into a rage when a friend at a party tries to console her with a hug. When a police officer tries to cut him some slack, David, too, metaphorically slaps away the overtures of friendship and attempts at intervention.

Was it a conscious decision to make to make David unlikable at times?

“It absolutely was. I wanted to make him an every man. Usually in a grief film, we try to set them up as someone heroic […] as someone that is sort of better than the average person.” Robbins suggests that The Sublime and Beautiful is also a story about “someone who was going to experience another path had this tragedy not sideswiped [him].” David’s affair was the writer’s attempt to give the audience a “taste” of what that alternate path might look like.

Sublime_EPK_6The Sublime and Beautiful is not an overtly Christian movie in the way that term is often (mis) used, but David does spend two (silent) scenes in church, one while he is contemplating vengeance and another after a painful confrontation with the man who killed his children. Robbins says he wanted the film to cause people to ask, “What do I pay attention to in my life?” Western, middle-aged men often become “comfortably numb” and David is no exception. “He’s starting to wonder if he’s in decline […], and he’s starting to wonder if this is all there is.”

No single scene better exemplifies the differences between Robbins’s script and that of other grief films than the moment when David finally does find himself face to face with the man he holds responsible for killing his children. Neither cathartic in a conventional, Hollywood sense nor particularly heroic in a spiritual sense, the scene reminds us that–try as we might–we can’t really script any part of our lives.

All that may make the film sound nihilistic or despairing, but it isn’t. Like most good writers, Robbins sees “fate” and “free will” as both intertwined and in tension with one another. The Sublime and Beautiful illustrates how to be human is to experience that paradox. We are not in control of our lives, nor can we escape our fates. But we can and do make choices every day about how to respond to what happens around us and to us.

The Sublime and Beautiful will be playing in New York City at Anthology Film Archives on December 16. It will also be available to rent via Itunes and VOD starting the same day.

 

 

 

Strange Rumblings in Shangri La (Guglielmino, 2014)

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The surfing movie has been a staple film genre since the late 1950s when swarms of kids invaded the California coastline, surfboards in tow. Hollywood went crazy, with films such as Gidget and Surf Crazy documenting this enthusiasm. By the late 1980s, the genre had died down, and currently there are few big name surfing movies. Not ones that end up in the theaters, anyway. So the independent film Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La is a welcome treat.

The film, shot on 16mm, has a coloring that surpasses anything I have had the pleasure of watching in the last several months. In addition to the storytelling or the framing, the pure, saturated colors were a treat for the eye. The contrast between land and water, with the lone figure of the surfer, combine to make an excellent dynamic. The colors are pure and undiluted, making the film  a visual masterpiece. Every drop of water can be observed. Even besides the water visuals, the other scenes were a treat: scenes of village life, children running ahead of the vans, the surfers walking through rocky terrain to reach the ocean. They all popped and seemed to glow, even more so than in the most realistic films. These colors were so bright they almost seemed impossible or fictitious.

The film follows a group of surfers and the people they find throughout their journey; on their expedition to find paradise, the titled Shangri-La. The group travels by boat, plane, and cart pulled by elephant, through villages the world over, searching through the world’s most beautiful and picturesque surfing locations. The film has no real conflict and there is essentially no plot; it seems to merely float along as effortlessly as the waves on which it focuses. The plot in a sense is to provide the viewer with interesting cinematography and locals, not to draw attention to a problem or provide any kind of solution to this problem.

As a whole, the film stands on its own well, but one wonders how engaging it would be if it lasted any longer than its 51 minute runtime. There is only so long that the average person, not a surfer, not someone with technical expertise on this subject, will be interested in watching repetitive surfing shots. The real draw for a non-surfer lies in the human shots, in the bits of humor that punctuate the film, in the shots of the villages with children running and playing in front of the wagon. For a person unfamiliar with the surfing documentary, this may have just enough human interest to keep them watching, especially with such a short run time.

The film director, Joe Guglielmino, credits Bruce Brown and Jacques Cousteau for influencing the film, saying he attempted to create a work in the spirit of both of these classic surf directors. Brown was cited as one of the first pioneers of the surf film genre, and Cousteau carries with him a legacy of both naval exploration and aquatic photography. Cousteau, a French naval officer turned ocean explorer is often credited as one of the first true aquatic pioneers, interested in underwater research for its own sake, aside from tactical maneuvers.

Likewise, the film seems to take a pure joy in its subject matter. It is clearly a labor of love for the creators, documenting their journey. The film is divided into segments, with each introduced by a narrator providing a brief commentary. Besides that, however, the film’s dialogue has a minimalist feel, with only the essential information being provided. Everything else is left up to the interpretation of the viewer. In this sense, it feels like the creators have chosen this viewpoint so that the dialogue or voiceover will not distract from the cinematography. The focus is not on the interactions between the people in the film; they are only props to get from destination to destination, not well explored characters of their own.

Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La was enjoyable to watch. Perhaps more time could have been spent on the motivations and goals of the main protagonists and the narrator, thus humanizing what are essentially props leading the viewer from location to location. But otherwise it was visually stunning, and I anticipate more well produced works in this genre from these creators.

Rachel Davis is a student and freelance journalist.

DamNation (Knight and Rummel, 2014)


Did you know there are over 75,000 dams over three feet high in the United States? I didn’t, until I screened DamNation, an educational and provocative documentary about the history of dams and their environmental impact.

At first the film looks like it might turn into a standard taking sides/issue film, with proponents of dams touting the wonders of hydroelectric power and critics lamenting their effect on wildlife. Gradually, however, the film follows (and advocates) the rising movement to remove obsolete or inefficient dams. It makes a strong case that doing so is a public good, preserving the renewal of wildlife while having a minimal impact on energy creation. The film argues that energy created by the Condit Dam could be replaced by as little as three windmills.

Issue documentaries often forget that film is a visual medium, but this one doesn’t. Ben Knight’s photography is stunning. He told the audience his background is in still photography, and he tried to approach each shot of the film as though it were a still photo. Nature shots are to photography what sonnets are to poetry—so ubiquitous it takes an extremely skilled craftsman to breathe new life into a tired form.

Also, most environmental films are downers, infected by the apocalyptic despair of An Inconvenient Truth or Surviving Progress. But DamNation chronicles some successes in removing dams, shows the remarkable resiliency of salmon species, and evidences the miraculous (I use the term deliberately) ability of nature to be renewed if given “half a chance.”

DamNation became available to Netflix subscribers in November, 2014.

This review was originally published as part of my coverage of the 2014 SXSW Film Festival at Christianity Today Movies and TV. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

Cybill Shepherd Joins Pure Flix’s “Do You Believe?” Cast — Praises Script

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Pure Flix, the film production company best known for God’s Not Dead has begun principle filming on Do You Believe?

The film, which several people involved in the production likened to Paul Haggis’s Crash, but with more overtly religious themes, features several prominent stars who have appeared in other Christian films: Sean Astin (Mom’s Not Dead), Mira Sorvino (Like Dandelion Dust), Ted McGinley (Redeemed), and Brian Bosworth (Revelation Road).

It also features Golden Globe winner and four-time Emmy nominee Cybill Shepherd, who cited her love of working in ensemble groups as one of the reasons she chose the film. “I was surrounded by so many wonderful actors, how could I not be good?”

Shepherd was also effusive in her praise of Chuck Konzelman’s and Cary Solomon’s writing: “I cried four times reading the script,” the actress told reporters at a press conference during a break in filming. “I felt very strongly that it was not proselytizing, that it was telling true stories about how we are all interconnected.” She added that “it was one of the best scripts” she has read.

Konzelman and Solomon mostly tried to shrug off criticism of their last script–God’s Not Dead–saying that “if they [love] you in the world, you’ve done something wrong.” They did concede that criticism from Christian critics and viewers was a little bit harder to take. “We’re the only army that bayonets their own wounded,” one of the writers opined. When they hear hyperbolic criticism claiming that they wrote the screenplay for the worst movie ever, they ask rhetorically if even their critics really think that God’s Not Dead was “worse than Hostel and Saw?”

Lee Majors, Ted McGinley, and Cybill Shepherd in Do You Believe?

While the perception of critics and secular audiences towards faith films may be slow to change, Pure Flix seems to be be gradually convincing Hollywood stars to bring their talents to faith based films. J. J. Soria said he had turned down the opportunity to read for faith-based films before. It was his character’s background in the military that made him willing to take a look at this script. Lee Majors commented that many contemporary films have simply become too violent for his taste. “My career has always been [stories] that were the good guys against the bad guys,” he said, but they featured “action, not bloodletting.” Majors said that when he considers a project he asks “is there some good in it?” and “do I want the film to represent me?” He also left the press gallery laughing when asked about preferring ensemble work to star projects: “I would never take another series with the word ‘the’ in front of it,” he quipped. McGinley praised Pure Flix for getting in the business “before it was profitable” and “for the right reasons,” saying that its target audience “is dying for product.”

Shepherd also hinted at a more personal reason for accepting her role: “I was born a Christian,” she told reporters, “sang in the choir. Then I lost touch with my savior, Jesus Christ. I stopped talking [with him]. And then I started just talking to Jesus and it started feeling really good, and I got the offer to do this.”

Do You Believe? is scheduled for release in theaters in Spring 2015.

 

 

 

Role Models? Dolphin Tale 2 Cast Embrace Chance to Influence Young People


Dolphin Tale 2, premiering September 12, tackles the subject of the arrival of Hope, a baby Bottlenose Dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Animal Hospital. The hospital was first featured in Dolphin Tale, 2011, when a prosthetic was developed for tailless dolphin, Winter.
Now, three years later, not only is Dolphin Tale 2 the first sequel based off a true event, but the same cast returns to their roles, and they are as enthusiastic as they were for the first film.

The film features a diverse range of actors, from experienced cast members Harry Conick Jr. and Morgan Freeman, to young rising actors Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, both 16. As befitting the cast of a family friendly movie, the young adult and older actors echo the positive relationships between the characters they portray in Dolphin Tale 2.

Gamble, who plays Sawyer Nelson, and Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel Haskett, both find their characters exploring growing up and discovering new boundaries and freedoms. In the first film, both kids are 12 years old; in the sequel they are 15. As a result, they are asking to be treated as adults, yet still retain some of their childhood. Zuehlsdorff highlighted their growing maturity by saying, “Whenever we approach our parents in the movie, it’s not like, ‘Dad, you’re treating me like a kid, you’re so lame!’ [Hazel] approaches him like the adult she wants to be treated like.”

Although they are only 16, these actors realize the importance of highlighting their maturity if they wish to be treated with the same respect. Their relationships with the rest of the cast members, including those playing their parents and other authority figures, emphasize mutual respect. Zuehlsdorff also mentions that parents tell her that their kids watched the first movie dozens of times on DVD; knowing that, she was all the more aware of how her character’s actions sent a message–on that she wanted to be a positive one–to younger viewers.

Gamble owns a photograph, which he keeps by his bed, of him and actor Morgan Freeman, taken at a cast party. It’s a candid shot of the two talking and laughing together, and it’s one of his most prized possessions, due to the influence he cites Freeman as having on his acting career thus far. Freeman is credited with saying of his relationship with Gamble and Zeuhlsdorff, “Children aren’t listening to what we say, they’re watching what we do.”

Likewise, actor Austin Highsmith, another of the film’s adult actors, mentions how conscious she was of how she referred to herself throughout the weeks of shooting and making sure her speech was uplifting, especially to avoid any negative body image that might be absorbed by  young women on set. She also mentions making sure to eat full meals and not deliberately diet, to avoid any body consciousness from young girls watching her.

To read 1More Film Blog’s review of Dolphin Tale 2, click here.

Rachel Davis has previously written feature articles for the Campbell University website. Kenneth R. Morefield contributed research for this story.

Blake Rayne Interview: Identical Star Discusses Learning from a Pro

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Blake Rayne says film acting was “always on my bucket list of things” but that without the connections or time to pursue it, he wasn’t sure it would ever happen. The story of how he was cast in the double role of Ryan Wade/Drexel Hemsley is, in a way, as archetypal as the one The Identical tells about his character. Rayne was working at a recording studio in Nashville, when the film’s producers visited. Their film needed someone who could sing well enough to be credible as a rockabilly crooner (and his identical twin). The fact that Rayne bears some physical resemblance to a young Elvis Presley in the film couldn’t have hurt either.

Not just imitating Elvis
Not just imitating Elvis

Rayne gently disputes the notion, though, that Ryan is meant to be simply an Elvis doppelganger, claiming that in his mind the character is “”more of a conglomerate” of many rock idols. Early in the film the associations with Elvis are stronger, particularly in dress and make up. Later looks suggest Jim Morrison or, perhaps, Jerry Lee Lewis, and he worked with a dance coach to vary the style of stage performances throughout the film. Watch closely, he says, and you might see “a little Jackie Wilson, a little James Brown.”

That’s a tall order for an actor taking on his first movie role. I asked Rayne if channeling such legendary figures, most of whom had plenty of archival footage that could be consulted, was an intimidating task. He was generous with his praise for his more experienced co-stars, particularly Ray Liotta, who Rayne said was “the one I watched the most” in order to learn to “care about the craft.” What did he see in Liotta’s approach that he tried to emulate? “Every scene, every day, he was focused, he was prepared–he had done his homework.” Rayne wondered if people realize how much work goes into making a film. Success, he learned, was not just about what one did while the cameras were rolling.

If taking on the lead role opposite more established stars was a tall order, Rayne acquitted himself well. His performance in the film is quieter and more nuanced than one is used to seeing from many first timers. He listens well. The actor himself concedes that when the cameras start filming, “Your natural instinct is that you have to do something.” But being more emotive or talkative isn’t always the right choice, especially for a character who is “shyer and more introverted.”

Rayne shows just a touch of that shyness when discussions turn from his character or craft to questions about his own life. He admits that Ryan’s arc is “so close to my own life story” but seems reluctant to get into too many specifics. “I grew up in a very strict family, religious family” he says. Because of his family’s financial situation, a lot of emphasis was put on his succeeding in “sports and grades.” He didn’t feel free to pursue his own passions or dreams “until after I got out of college.”

The Identical tells the story of twin boys, one raised by his biological parents and the other given over to a minister (Liotta) and his wife in an adoption. Reece Wade pushes his son to follow in his footsteps and become a preacher, but Ryan’s first love is music. One of the things that is nice about the film as one directed towards Christian viewers is that it is a bit more mature in questioning some of our (i.e. Christians’) assumptions about the sacred/secular dichotomies we fall into. It would seem to me to be a useful discussion starter for those who are thinking about the “Incarnational” tradition in Renovare‘s Spiritual Formation Workbook.

The Identical opens in theaters on September 5. Here is a clip of Blake Rayne in the film:

Dolphin Tale 2 — Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Bethany Hamilton

There are hardly two more pervasive stereotypes in Hollywood than that of the child actor scarred by too early fame and that of the female performer who feels pressure to conform to unattainable and unhealthy social standards of size and weight.

Cozi Zuehlsdorff deftly torpedoed both stereotypes Continue reading “Dolphin Tale 2 — Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Bethany Hamilton”

T. C. Johnstone Interview

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Director T. C. Johnstone visited Campbell University as part of its Undergraduate Lecture Symposium. He talks with us about how he got into film making and the challenges of filming Rising From Ashes.

Listen to the interview by clicking this link: T. C. Johnstone Interview

Who Do You Say That I Am? — Full Frame Day 2

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What do Pamela Smart and Viktor Bout have in common? Continue reading “Who Do You Say That I Am? — Full Frame Day 2”