Amanda Maddox, Tanner Kalina in ‘Evergreen’/The Daffy
I know I’m not alone in my typical dislike of most movies that are considered “Christian” or “faith-based” films. As much as I respect the good intentions that are probably behind most of those preach-to-the-choir-type stories, I usually can’t stomach the cheesiness and poor quality.
When one of the producers of the indie film Evergreen emailed me to see if I’d be interested in reviewing their “Catholic film” that he claimed was not like most Christian films, I didn’t make any promises. I said I would gladly watch it, but I figured if I didn’t like it, I’d just gracefully refrain from following up with a review.
But then I watched it. And I was kind of blown away by it for a few different reasons.
It’s a very simple, kind of unexciting-sounding idea: a dating couple (Tanner Kalina, Amanda Maddox) spends a Christmas-season weekend together by themselves in Colorado and decide to dig deep into the questions they need to answer for one another before their relationship can progress.
The entire thing has only four actors, and it’s mostly dialogue. And yet, it’s compelling and entertaining, and ultimately kind of heart-wrenching.
Kalina co-created the story with producer Marshall Kistner and Catholic director Joe Duca (who also wrote the screenplay).
The Catholic part
So the guy is a Catholic. He wears a cloth rosary around his wrist and has a copy of Saint Pope John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility on his bedside table. But he has a complicated past, which includes an annulment and a lot of pain.
The girl is not Catholic, but she once was. And she’s had experiences with Catholics in the past that make her view the religion in a not-so-great light.
This is very much a story about sex. In some respects, it’s almost a how-not-to guide when it comes to setting yourself up for success in chastity.
And I’ll be honest, the sexual aspect of this movie is not going to be for everyone. Some Catholic viewers are more sensitive than others when it comes to this type of thing. And while there are no actual scenes of sex in this movie, some more sensitive viewers might find the sensuality too much (the movie’s not rated yet, but my guess is it’d be PG-13 …).
But the difference here is that it’s all to a point. There’s no gratuitous sex thrown in for no reason. It very much has to do with the morality and mindset of these two people who are trying to figure out if they can be on the same page with things enough to make a relationship work.
And I feel like the struggles and moral shortcomings of these characters, even the Catholic whose reading material suggests he’s trying to live virtuously, are very real. I know a lot of Catholics who try to be faithful but have nevertheless fallen into temptations and situations very similar to what this story shows.
We don’t have a lot of movies like this…
Evergreen really isn’t a typical Christian or Catholic movie. It doesn’t preach its point, and things aren’t wrapped up too tidily.
This film feels very realistic and accessible, not only to Catholics and other Christians, but probably to a lot of people who are struggling in a romantic relationship.
The story is kind of uncomfortable in its honesty about how imperfect Catholics can be. But it’s a very well-done indie movie, and definitely a compelling, worthwhile watch.
Right now, Evergreen is playing at film festivals (it just won pretty big at Houston’s WorldFest Film Festival), and has been well-reviewed (like here). Watch for updates when it hopefully gets picked up for some sort of distribution, either to theatrical release, streaming service, or DVD.
(L to R) Topher Grace, Chrissy Metz, Marcel Ruiz of ‘Breakthrough’/Fox 2000/20th Century Fox
Hitting theaters on Wednesday, April 17, Breakthrough, from executive producer DeVon Franklin (The Star, Miracles From Heaven), is based on the true story of St. Louis teen John Smith, who broke through lake ice and was apparently dead for almost an hour, until, after his mother Joyce’s fervent prayer, he came back to life.
Directed by Roxann Dawson (the former actor’s first film, after directing lots of TV), and adapted by Grant Nieporte from Joyce Smith’s book, The Impossible, Breakthrough stars Marcel Ruiz as basketball-loving John; This Is Us star Chrissy Metz as Joyce; Josh Lucas as her husband, Brian; Topher Grace as their pastor, Jason; and Dennis Haysbert as John’s physician, Dr. Garrett.
BTW, John was taken to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, a Catholic pediatric medical center. The center’s website talks at length about the case here. And here’s a video:
Metz also did a song for the film, called I’m Standing With You, written by Diane Warren. Have a listen:
Thanks to Dawson, Breakthrough is more stylish than many faith-based films (it is a 20th Century Fox production), and its story does have the advantage of being true. It’s also backed up by a lot of medical evidence as to the unlikeliness of John’s survival and recovery.
The script lightly touches, but does not do a deep dive into, thorny issues like, why one person is miraculously saved and not another, or why not all prayers are answered.
Also lifting Breakthrough are the portrayals of the parents as less-than-perfect people. Metz’s plays Joyce as a fiercely devoted mother who can’t figure out how to make her Guatemalan-born adopted son feel wanted, but whose singleminded, almost manic determination that he would live rivals the emotional intensity of Metz’s high-drama This Is Us character. At the same time, Lucas’ Brian hangs back at the hospital, unable to match his wife’s intensity and refusing to face the situation head-on.
In the end, Breakthrough is affecting but not necessarily profound. We’re meant to celebrate the miracle without thinking about it too much. But it does leave room for people to draw their own conclusions, and that may make it interesting for secular audiences.
Recently, at a junket in Dallas, reporters got to sit down with the stars and producers. Here are some highlights:
From Franklin, on what he’d like people to take away:
The number one takeaway is that prayer works, love wins. Really when you think about it, it’s like why would Joyce pray that hard? ‘Cause of her love? I think that’s just so powerful. There’s so many films that celebrate superheroes that are great. Hey, those are billion dollar movies. But they’re all imagination; this is real. And what Joyce did is a real superhero doing a real superpower, which is faith and praying. So I really want people to take that away.
I want people to take away that they’re valued. We can go through life feeling that we’re alone, and that we don’t matter. This movie I think shows that we do matter. All of the people in the community that first responders, the pastor, the congregation, the basketball team, the teachers, the school, they all interceded for one. To me, if we do that, the whole culture changes for the better. We don’t do it enough. I think, I’m hoping, people will take that away when they leave the theater.
Metz on what she hopes people glean from the film:
That we’re stronger together than we are apart, and there’s all of these people on the planet to learn from, to teach, to learn, to grow, to evolve with each other, Otherwise there’d be one person on the planet. There’s a reason why we all look differently and like different things, come from different backgrounds, because we’re all here to teach each other, whether it’s empathy or tolerance or self-love in order to impart that on other people. So, I hope that that’s what people take away.
John Smith on what he’s heard since the story went public:
It’s just amazing to see how many responses we’ve gotten from atheists, from unbelievers. This has sparked curiosity regarding, “What is God?” And also the science part of it — that there is no answer for me. I say that respectfully. when there is 300-plus pages of medical documents of why I should be dead, but I’m alive.
So unbelievers see that and go “Oh, it can’t just be another God-based film.” Now we have doctors that are on our side to pull more unbelievers and to get them to believe that this is a bona-fide miracle. And the only person that can do this is God. And I truly believe that’s what separates us.
And, regarding his real mother, Smith said:
You mess with her, you’re in trouble. And her faith for God is just stronger than … I want to be like my mom, when it comes on to that sort of thing. Whether she is sick, ill, she never complains. It’s always “OK, God, I believe in you. This is just an attack. Let’s move forward. Let’s keep pushing back on the enemy.” That’s my mom in a nutshell.
In its first weekend after being released on March 29, the pro-life drama Unplanned grossed over $6M (recouping its production budget), but it didn’t disappoint in its second weekend.
The gross take was $3.2M (with 500 extra theaters), about half of weekend one, but good enough to keep the PureFlix-distributed film at number 8 on the BoxOfficeMojo.com list.
Obviously, people don’t just go to movies on weekends. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the current lifetime gross for Unplanned is about $12.5M.
Unplannedis based on a memoir by Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director in Texas who had a “road to Damascus” moment while watching an abortion procedure and became an ardent pro-life advocate.
The film’s success came about despite being turned down for advertising on almost all cable networks (except CBN and Fox News), receiving an R-rating, and having its Twitter account temporarily suspended on opening weekend.
“This movie tells the truth, and a lot of times we don’t get an opportunity to see that,” said Cheryl A. Riley, director of the Respect Life office for the Archdiocese of Newark, who organized the viewing and works with women who have had abortions.
Describing herself, like Johnson, as formerly in favor of abortion rights, Riley choked up while recalling her own experience terminating a pregnancy at 19: “I know that story, and I know that pain.”
“This film has been an overwhelming success,” said PureFlix CEO Michael Scott. “The amazing work of the filmmakers, actors and team behind bringing Abby Johnson’s story to audiences is helping to raise awareness to national and regional pro-life movements around the country. For one film to have such an impact with audiences that are showing up in such large numbers reinforces how important it is to bring this topic to audiences.”
The financial success of Unplanned may pave the way for other films presenting a view of hot-button topics that differs from that of most of Hollywood and the mainstream media.
And, by the way, appearing in the film as Abby’s attorney is Kaiser Johnson, who stars in our online series Catholic Central. More on him here.
Kaiser Johnson of “Unplanned”/Screenshot: PureFlix Entertainment
Sometimes a story impacts an actor on ways he or she didn’t expect.
In the new film Unplanned, hitting theaters on May 29, Kaiser Johnson plays lawyer Jeff Paradowski, who helps former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson (Ashley Brachter) with her legal troubles after she left the organization and turned to the pro-life perspective.
Since Johnson — who stars in Family Theater Productions’ online series Catholic Central — filmed his part in the film early last year, he and wife Keeley Bright Johnson had a daughter. As he sat in the theater for the Los Angeles premiere of Unplanned, his daughter in his lap, he
Kaiser Johnson, with Lisa Hendey, daughter and wife Keeley Bright Johnson on the “Unplanned” red carpet in Los Angeles/Photo: Patrick Nuo
had some thoughts, shared with me yesterday:
It just took on a much more personal context. … I had my own thoughts about it beforehand, but then to see this, to be holding my daughter and go, “Oh, my gosh, there is a corporation and an industry that exists only to separate children from their parents And to look at that and go … how do we not see this? How are we blind to this as a society?”
If we see that clearly, I hope that industry would cease to exist.
But, it’s like, the people who are clamoring the most about corporate greed and corporate power and stuff like that are looking at a corporation and an industry that is built around separating children from their parents. Whether it’s at the border or in whatever case, let’s look at where it’s being done the most, and the most recently, and that’s in the womb.
According to Abby, what she saw when she was called in to help with an ultrasound-guided abortion of a 13-week fetus shocked her. Having had two abortions herself (one with RU486, the so-called “abortion pill”), and spent years explaining the procedure to women at the clinic, Abby was no stranger to the concept.
But, she says, seeing the unborn baby fight to escape its own death affected her deeply, so deeply that she could no longer work at the clinic. She resigned in October, 2009. After leaving, Abby — also a wife and mother — has become a popular and tireless pro-life activist, author and speaker (and eventually, a Catholic).
Unplanned, directed and written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon (God’s Not Dead), traces Abby’s story from college through her change of heart. After Abby’s resignation, Planned Parenthood slapped her with a temporary restraining order to prevent her from talking about her former job. That order was lifted in Nov. 2009 — thanks to the efforts of Jeff Paradowski.
Kaiser Johnson got to meet the confident, freewheeling Paradowski at the premiere and said:
He’s exactly who you’d expect him to be. He’s definitely who he is in the movie.
Johnson also says that when you see Paradowski’s billboard in the film, that’s his real contact information. He notes:
So if you need a personal-injury lawyer in practice, you know who to call.
Johnson is a working film, TV and voiceover actor, and doing a controversial movie like this could impact his career. Asked about that, he says:
On the side of doing this movie, the only way to have this be controversial is if you don’t watch it, or if you go in bigoted and prejudiced, if you refuse to set your prejudices aside for a minute and actually look at it. This is a true story. This is a woman’s true story. If there’s anything that all of Hollywood is telling us right now, it’s that we need to listen to the true stories of women, and they should have a voice and be listened to … and I agree.
So if you are someone who goes, “Oh, no, this is the kiss of death to anyone’s carer,” or you go in and you go, “I’m not gonna see this movie because it’s anti-choice, or it’s anti-Planned Parenthood,” or something like that, well, you’re letting your biases shut out a true story that a woman has to tell. It’s a hot topic, but it shouldn’t be a controversial one.
And for those who might dismiss Unplanned by saying, “Oh, it’s just another one of those Christian movies,” Johnson says:
I read the script, and I’m like, “Oh, this isn’t even a Christian movie.” God is mentioned in it maybe twice, and it’s just because it’s part of the true story, too.” This is not a preachy movie. This is not an over-the-top movie. This is a movie that just shares the truth of this person’s story, and it’s worth watching.
Here’s a video Johnson recorded Tuesday for the Facebook page of Unplanned:
Kaiser Johnson who plays Jeff Paradowski (Paradowskilaw.com) in the movie #Unplanned – shares a personal story of how this movie has impacted him. See it in theaters this Friday – pre-order your tickets on Facebook and pay NO FEES – https://www.facebook.com/movies/2767431609998983 #Unplanned #PullBackTheCurtain
For more information and to buy tickets, visit UnplannedFilm.com. Warning to parents, the Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an R rating for “some disturbing/bloody images.” The filmmakers claim this is unfair, but that the rating, as a CNSNews story says, “reinforces the position that abortion is violence.”
Sorry to say it, The Bible miniseries notwithstanding, but History Channel is not always the best place to hear about Christianity. Jesus: His Life, premiering tonight, Monday, March 25, is no exception.
The four-week, eight-episode series aims to tell the story of Christ (and, to its credit, it emphasizes how important it is to understand that story, even for unbelievers, if one is to understand Western civilization) through the eyes of those who knew him. The first two episodes were made available to critics — Joseph: The Nativity and John the Baptist: The Mission.
There are the usual sword-and-sandal Biblical recreations, but at least actors were cast in the major roles, including Jesus, that are much more robust and expressive than the overly reverent stiffs that are too often found in these documentaries. Interspersed with the dramatic segments is an array of talking heads, including clerics and academics.
It’s a mixed bag, with the clerics including the controversial Father James Martin, S.J., and megachurch pastor Joel Osteen; along with Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry (famous for preaching at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle), Father Jonathan Morris, and Trinity United Church of Christ senior Pastor Rev. Otis Moss III.
Among the academics is Dr. Robert Cargill of the University of Iowa. At several points, he offers an, um, novel interpretation of Scripture, only to be followed by fellow scholar Dr. Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary, who disagrees with him. Being the resident skeptic appears to be Cargill’s self-proclaimed function.
But the expert who seems intent on dredging up controversy – and who is given a primary role in the series – is Dr. Robert Cargill. I should not be surprised by Cargill’s questioning: Cargill, who has been called the “Skeptic in the Sanctuary,” sees his role as asking difficult questions. “This is where I stand,” Cargill wrote,
“…atop the continental divide between faith and science, with one foot in the range of rigorous academic inquiry and skeptical scrutiny, and the other on the often slippery slope of competing religious worldviews. And from this marvelous vantage point I can survey both directions and ask difficult questions of both faith and reason. I imagine that I’ll spend the remainder of my career here, the ever-searching soul attempting to mediate between the two.”
Lent is a favorite time for TV networks to run Christian-themed programming, often with a strong undercurrent of doubt and skepticism. They love to draw in the Christian audience but too often can’t resist the impulse to throw shade on their faith.
Jesus: His Life isn’t as bad as some, and there is some lively commentary that doesn’t make you feel like you’re sitting in the back of a dusty lecture hall. But, for faithful Christians, it doesn’t add much to the conversation. For the unchurched, it does put flesh and blood on Biblical figures, and that’s a good place to start.
It would be better for these folks if they watched The Bible, or Bishop Barron’s Catholicism. But, Jesus: His Life isn’t the worst thing on Christianity ever — and it’s way better than History’s fanciful drama Knightfall, the first season of which was about as much about the real Knights Templar as James Bond movies are about actual espionage.
Just remember that most, if not almost all, mainstream productions about Christianity are not designed to encourage or confirm people in faith. Often, it’s just the opposite.
Jesus: His Life doesn’t go that far, but frankly, I’d rather spice up my Lent by rewatching Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (here’s the whole thing) or The Ten Commandments.
Here are History’s episode descriptions and airdates:
Episode 1 – Joseph: The Nativity
Premieres Monday, March 25 at 8pm ET/PT on HISTORY
The Roman Empire occupies the land of Judea in a time of turbulent unrest. A simple craftsman named Joseph faces a personal test of faith in the small town of Nazareth, when his fiancée Mary tells him she is expecting a child, who is the Son of God. Joseph vows to love and protect his son Jesus through many dangers: his birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi, and the flight to Egypt to escape death at the hands of mad King Herod.
Episode 2 – John the Baptist: The Mission
Premieres Monday, March 25 at 9pm ET/PT on HISTORY
Some thirty years after Jesus is born, his life intersects with that of John the Baptist, a radical preaching in the desert against Judea’s rulers, including Herod’s son, Herod Antipas. John baptizes Jesus, starting his divine mission, but loses his own life, beheaded in a famous conflict with Herod Antipas’ step-daughter, Salome.
Episode 3 – Mary: The First Miracles
Premieres Monday, April 1 at 8pm ET/PT on HISTORY
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is torn between wanting to protect her son and letting him go to fulfill his sacrificial destiny when the time is right; until Jesus is thirty, only she and Joseph know his mysterious mission. Jesus performs his first public miracle at her request at the Wedding Feast of Cana. But as Jesus’ work becomes public, he puts his life – and that of his family – in increasing danger. When Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath in Capernaum, he enrages the authorities and reaches an important crossroad.
Episode 4 – Caiaphas: The Raising of Lazarus
Premieres Monday, April 1 at 9pm ET/PT on HISTORY
Caiaphas, High Priest of Jerusalem and religious leader of the Jewish people, faces an impossible dilemma. Caught between determination to preserve his faith and the repressive might of Rome, Caiaphas must judge how great a provocation Jesus of Nazareth might pose. Jesus’ astonishing raising of Lazarus from the dead marks a turning point. Afraid that Jesus could prompt an uprising and possible brutal retaliation from Rome’s prefect, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas decides Jesus must be stopped.
Episode 5 – Judas: The Betrayal
Premieres Monday, April 8 at 8pm ET/PT on HISTORY
His name a synonym for traitor even to this day, Judas is known as the devoted disciple who ultimately betrays Jesus. What prompted one of Jesus’ closest friends to turn on him remains one of the Bible’s great mysteries, one explored as Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem for Passover and what will become the Last Supper.
Episode 6 – Pilate: The Trial
Premieres Monday, April 8 at 9pm ET/PT on HISTORY
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, has to make a decision about a troublesome preacher called Jesus. As pressure builds to execute Jesus, Pilate’s wife, inspired by a prophetic nightmare, urges him to leave Jesus alone. Instead, Pilate sends him away to be crucified, and publicly washes his hands of responsibility.
Episode 7 – Mary Magdalene: The Crucifixion
Premieres Monday, April 15 at 8pm ET/PT on HISTORY
Cured of “seven demons” by Jesus, Mary Magdalene is among his best-known female followers. With his mother, Mary Magdalene witnesses the torment of the crucifixion at the foot of the cross. But her faith is rewarded the most when she is the first to witness the seemingly unbelievable: His resurrection.
Episode 8 – Peter: The Resurrection
Premieres Monday, April 15 at 9pm ET/PT on HISTORY
A simple fisherman, Peter was Jesus’ most devoted disciple, his “rock.” But when a frightened Peter disavows Jesus three times during Jesus’ arrest, Peter despairs. The resurrected Jesus appears to Peter and restores him by commanding him to spread his gospel, and Peter takes on that mission, becoming perhaps the most important of Jesus’ disciples.
Jeff Daniels (l), Tahar Rahim (r), ‘The Looming Tower’/Photo: JoJo Whilden/Hulu
Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
The Looming Tower,a Hulu series based on the Lawrence Wright book,The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
The timeframe of events leading to the September 11th terror attacks differs between the Lawrence Wright book and the Hulu-produced miniseries. Wright contends Al-Qaeda was formulated soon after the founding of Israel, but the showrunners choose to start the opening episode with the 1998 US Embassy in Nairobi bombing.
The television series misses an opportunity to take up the faith of the lead CIA operative, Michael Scheuer (played by Peter Sarsgaard and re-named “Martin Schmidt” for the show). Scheuer, a pious Catholic, held a cool detachment about the job he was tasked with. In 1999, he received intelligence that Usama bin Laden was to spend an overnight at the governor’s house in Kandahar. Scheuer recommended an immediate cruise missile strike. The military balked in fear of potential collateral damage. It’s not surprising the show was quick to consider the conflicted faith of John O’Neill (see below), but omits faith references when lived faithfully and rationally as in the case of Scheuer. (Ed. Note: Or, it may also be that “Martin Schmidt” is a composite character.)
The book traces the FBI’s history, and I thought it made for a fascinating — if unofficial — recent history of the Catholic Church in the United States. Wright describes an FBI composed almost entirely of Irish- and Italian-American Catholic men who often called each boyish nicknames, like Tommy or Danny or Mickey.
What Wright latches onto as objective truth, I can affirm subjectively. Only later in life did I learn from a retired FBI agent that my hometown was designated as an “agent-town”— mostly Catholic, white-collar accountants and finance guys, some of whom served in the military, that the Bureau could draw fresh recruits from. I was one of them. One of my vivid memories as a teenager was being set-up with an agent from my parish. I interviewed him about his job and learned of the struggles and joys in his service to our country. As fascinating as the conversation went, God had different plans for me.
America’s enemies have since changed — existential threats abound from abroad, and so less necessary are those recruits who grew up in Mafia-infested neighbors of big-city America. Agent John O’Neill (played by Jeff Daniels) first realizes these latest and most relevant foes and added to his team Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim), a Muslim Lebanese immigrant, fluent in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture. Interestingly, O’Neill, in both real life and television, was a lapsed Catholic. Fittingly, I suppose, that one who is less obsequious to federal and clerical authority more readily challenges the status quo of operations.
Where the book only devotes a chapter to O’Neill’s infamous affairs and dalliances, the television show places his mixed personal life front and center — in fact, ensconcing it within a spiritual journey. These images juxtapose with depictions of Islam. Some critics took this as an indication of how similar the two faiths are. I disagree with the inference.
One equipped with a theological pedigree realizes the two faith traditions couldn’t stand further apart. Witness Muslim prayers intercut with a Catholic communion line. An imam delivers a long-winded, politically charged screed that effectively “talks God to death.” In contrast, the married O’Neill refrains from receiving communion. His unmarried mistress goes through the line. A great deal about the God of revelation and His people’s acceptance or rejection of Him is conveyed without the utterance of a single word.
Visual similarities, yet theological disparities, continue until the show’s tragic end. The radical Muslim Osama bin Laden orders the events of 9/11 from the remote confines of his technologically outfitted Afghan residence. O’Neill, recently retired from the FBI, takes the position of head of security for the World Trade Center. Survivors described his last moments of life as one who returned to a staircase dripping with jet fuel and helped others to escape.
In real life, O’Neill made an 11th-hour return to his faith in the spring of 2001, displaying the real, sacramental pull of the Church. For all of his personal faults, he rushed back into a hellish cauldron to live for others. In effect, at his life’s end, “Johnny” O’Neill took up his Cross and followed Him.
Image: Photo by JoJo Whilden/Hulu
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