Review: Happy-Go-Lucky (dir. Mike Leigh, 2008)

Happiness is an elusive quality in a Mike Leigh film. Sometimes, in his films, you will meet characters who try to cheer other people up, but there is usually a darker side to their perkiness. The photographer who tries to get people to smile in Secrets and Lies is stressed out by conflicts within his family; the woman who provides illegal abortions in Vera Drake naively tells her clients they will all be “right as rain” after she has left, and is caught off-guard when one of them almost dies thanks to her efforts; and when Gilbert & Sullivan premiere their latest musical comedy in Topsy-Turvy, a depressed Gilbert responds to the applause by privately grumbling to his neglected wife, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”

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Review: Billy: The Early Years (dir. Robby Benson, 2008)

Billy Graham has appeared in many movies over the years, most of them produced by World Wide Pictures, the movie studio that he founded through his evangelistic ministry in the 1950s. But apart from a handful of parodies, no actor has ever played him before, and certainly no film has tried to show what kind of person he was prior to becoming the internationally recognized preacher that he is today. So there was lots of fertile ground for Billy: The Early Years, the first major Graham biopic, to explore. Too bad, then, that the film does such a poor job of bringing his story to life.

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Interview: Armie Hammer (Billy: The Early Years, 2008)

Armie Hammer came very close to playing Batman, in George Miller’s apparently now-defunct Justice League movie. But he got to play a superhero of a different sort when he took on the role of Billy Graham, one of the best-known and most widely-respected evangelists in history, in Billy: The Early Years, which opens Friday.

Hammer, who turned 22 in August, plays Graham from the ages of 16 to 31, before he became the world-famous preacher that he is today. The film covers Graham’s conversion at a revival meeting in 1934; his courtship of Ruth Bell (Stefanie Butler), who he married in 1943; and his crisis of faith when his fellow evangelist Charles Templeton (Kristoffer Polaha) became an agnostic in the late 1940s.

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Review: Fireproof (dir. Alex Kendrick, 2008)

Two years ago, there was a big controversy when Facing the Giants, an ultra-low-budget movie produced by a church in the Bible Belt, was rated PG, allegedly for its spiritual content. Pundits and politicians railed against the MPAA and its ratings board for its perceived bias against religious themes, and moviegoers rallied to the film’s defense at the box office, making it one of the most successful Christian movies of all time. But as the debate over the movie’s rating subsided, another controversy emerged. Some Christians praised the film for its positive, family-friendly values, while others condemned it as bad art, a bad story badly told that would only encourage the worst artistic instincts of the evangelicals who saw it.

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Interview: Kirk Cameron

Kirk Cameron may be best known as a former teen idol and as one of the stars of the 1980s sitcom Growing Pains. But over the past decade, he has been cultivating another, very different fan base, as the star of several Christian movies — including the Left Behind series and Miracle of the Cards — and as an evangelist with The Way of the Master, a ministry he shares with Ray Comfort.

Cameron, who turns 38 in October, became a Christian while still in his teens, and he has been married to the actress Chelsea Noble — who he met when she guest-starred on Growing Pains — since 1991. He recently published a book about his life and career, called Still Growing: An Autobiography (Regal).

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Review: Tropic Thunder (dir. Ben Stiller, 2008)

Very few people saw Empire of the Sun when it came out 21 years ago, and possibly even fewer people remember it. But the effects of that World War II film — one of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated efforts — live with us still. It introduced the world to a 13-year-old kid from Wales named Christian Bale, who has since conquered the box office as The Dark Knight. It also featured a young man named Ben Stiller, in one of his very first roles, as a prisoner of war named Dainty. And it was while working on that film that Stiller first got the idea for Tropic Thunder.

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