Category: Tony Sands

‘The Stray’: One Dog Movie Worth Finding

If you love dogs, or just want a movie for the whole family, “The Stray” may be for you.

I have been noticing that the family film doesn’t really exist in theaters anymore. Now, I’m not talking about animated motion pictures from Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks and others. No, I’m referring to live-action films, with actual people in them, made for families.

If parents have kids that are too young to watch superhero films – and I’m a firm believer that the PG-13 rating that most of these film receive is a warning parents should believe – then there is almost nothing for families to watch together other than cartoons and the occasional gem like Dolphin Tale.

I think we have another such gem launching nationwide on Friday, Oct. 6 — The Stray. Going back to the basics, this is the story of a man and his dog, or in this case, Mitch Davis (Michael Cassidy), who is trying to live his Hollywood dreams while supporting his wife and three kids, and the stray dog that literally wanders into their lives.

Trying to make it in the movie business has increasingly taken Mitch away from being a husband and father. He suggests getting a dog to be an emotional four-legged crutch, to provide the companionship he can’t, as he works nearly 24/7 at a major studio. Before Mitch can go buy a dog, his son, Christian Davis (an older Connor Corum, who played the adorable five-year-old from Heaven is for Real), finds a dog – or it finds him – when he’s facing bullies on the playground.

This canine from nowhere comes to the boy’s rescue and follows Christian home. Since Mitch already announced the family would have a dog, he can’t see how he can say “no” to this one.

The stray, however, comes into a family in turmoil. The mom, Michelle (played by Sarah Lancaster), informs Mitch that his absence has effectively estranged his son and is putting a strain on everyone. As Mitch works to save his family, he finds an ally in their new pet. This wandering mutt stands with the Davis family, ultimately showing that sometimes a dog can save the day.

Ostensibly, The Stray is as story about a loyal pet, but it’s really a story about family. On an even deeper level, it is a metaphor about love and how true love is sacrifice, with the one who loves us the most being God. Yep, there is a healthy dose of faith in this film, but not in an over-the-top kind of way, but from the fact that the Davises are people of faith.

To be clear, The Stray is not a religious fairy tale or holy parable, since the movie is based on a true story. But, like many of the big events in our own lives, this family’s story points to a bigger truth. I know it sounds there is a lot going on in what seems like a small movie. Also, I know this is the kind of film that I think many parents may be tempted wait to watch until it reaches Redbox or Netflix. However, I would argue that if families do that, they will miss a rare treat in a moviegoing experience.

First of all, the film features beautiful footage of landscapes and vistas that just won’t have the same impact on your TV or iPad, and there are some epic moments that will definitely lose something on a small screen.

Second, we are so busy as people, that it’s rare we all get to experience something together. It’s about as rare as getting a live-action movie that a whole family can see as one.

I would take the opportunity provided by The Stray for families to spend some time together and see this in a theater, especially since it is a film that should spark some good discussion afterward.

Click here to learn more about The Stray and how your faith community, business or civic group could have a private screening on Oct. 5.

Image: Courtesy Struck Films LLC

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.

Amen! FTP’s ‘Down From the Mountaintop’ Wins Two 2017 Telly Awards

Since 1979, the Telly Awards have honored outstanding productions, whether they’re on broadcast TV, cable or, now, digital and streaming platforms. Family Theater Productions is honored to have taken home two Telly Awards for 2017, for our short film, “Down From the Mountaintop.”

More than 500 industry professionals judged from over 13,000 entries from all 50 U.S. states and other countries.

“Down from the Mountaintop” received two Bronze Awards, one for Religious/Spiritual TV Show, and the other for Charitable Non-Profit TV Show.

Based on scripture, “Down from the Mountaintop” tells the story of Adam, shy teen who hears God’s call but is disappointed when others don’t share his enthusiasm for his newfound spirituality. The faith film relates to The Transfiguration, when the Disciples witnessed Christ’s transformation into radiant glory and wanted to bask in that glow forever.

“Down from the Mountaintop” stars Alex Miller as Adam, and Paulina Cerrilla as Cristina, a recurring role in Family Theater Productions movies for the young actress. She also sings lead vocals in the Christian rock song “You’re the Author of My Life,” which is featured in the new film.

Available on DVD (click here), “Down from the Mountaintop” is produced in English, dubbed in Spanish, and subtitled in French and Portuguese on one DVD, and includes a multi-lingual study guide.

Asked for comment, writer/director Father David Guffey, C.S.C. — also Family Theater’s head of production, said:

I am so grateful for the Telly Award for the short film I wrote and directed, “Down from the Mountaintop.”

Over my years as a Holy Cross priest I have witnessed so many people return home after a powerful retreat experience only to find that their family and friends do not understand. This is the story we tell in the film. What do you do the Monday after a spiritual high?

It was a great pleasure to work with Alex Miller, a brilliant young actor who plays Adam the main character, along with the incredible Paulina Cerrilla, who acts and also sings an original song.

My colleague Tony Sands [at right below] produced the film and Jeff Clark, our director of photography, captured some beautiful shots.

With this film, Family Theater proved ourselves as a team and helped us launch our new digital series, “Catholic Central,” and set in motion the development of feature films.

At Family Theater, we believe in story as entertainment but also as a way to look deeper into life.  To look deeper into life is eventually to find God.

Miller and Cerilla joined us at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, California, earlier this year, and were a big hit with the parents and young people who’ve enjoyed the film.

As soon as news hit Twitter, FTP’s former head, Father Willy Raymond — promoted to president of Holy Cross Family Ministries, our parent organization — sent congratulations.

 

As Father Guffey mentioned, we have a Web series, “Catholic Central,” coming out this fall. Go to CatholicCentral.com to see a trailer and sign up for updates; click here to learn more about this fun, fast-paced series about the Faith.

Image: Courtesy Family Theater Productions/Kate O’Hare

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.

 

‘Game of Thrones’: What If HBO’s Sexy, Violent Fantasy Is Your Only View of Faith?

“Game of Thrones” fans have kept the faith, but what about the show?

The social media world was abuzz on Sunday, July 16, with the long awaited premiere of the 7th season of Game of Thrones. While many Catholics, Protestants and other faithful question the morality of even watching the show, which is known for its graphic violence, sex and language, one fact that can’t be ignored is that millions of people watch each episode.

For example, from TechCrunch:

In total, the season 7 premiere reached a combined audience of 16.1 million viewers across its linear TV airing, same day DVR playback, and streaming via HBO GO and HBO NOW. That’s a 50 percent increase over the season 6 premiere last year, HBO says.

One things the show is not known for but is very much a part of series is religion. In fact, rather than being godless, the universe of Game of Thrones has too many gods. There are the Old Gods, symbolized by the Werewoods, trees with the faces of humans carved in them. This faith is vaguely pagan and has some of the trappings of Celtic Druids. Then, there are the New Gods, also known as The Seven, but they are 7 faces of 1 God. As many mainstream Christians might figure out, this is much like the concept of the Holy Trinity, 3 persons in 1 God.

The religion of the New Gods has definite connections to Medieval Christianity, especially since the religious of this faith wear clothes strongly reminiscent of nuns’ habits and monks’ robes. Sadly, the show depicts the hierarchy of this faith as righteous bullies who, in seeking the truth and talking about mercy, really focus on shame and power. The evil queen Cersei famously blows up their Great Sept (cathedral) with the High Sparrow (Pope or Patriarch) inside it after he threatens her rule.

A third religion follows the Lord of Light, R’hllor, who is a God of fire and the sun. This faith has the marking of Islam with R’hllor being a sometimes harsh god whose will is mysterious and is to be obeyed, not questioned. To the followers of R’hllor, all other religions are false and will ultimately need to be wiped out. Also, this Lord of Light occasionally demands that people be burned at the stake in sacrifice.

Lastly, there is the Faceless God, whose clergy are an assassin’s guild. This god is Death, the god that, according to his followers, everyone must eventually meet.

Why this matters is that since the show has 25 million viewers, and currently only 20% of the Catholic faithful actually attend Mass each week, there is a good chance more people watched Game of Thrones this past Sunday than the total number of Catholics who went to church in the entire nation. If this series has something to say about faith, be aware that it has a big audience listening. One interesting facet of the show is that it does indeed seem to have something say about faith.

A part of this first episode of the new season that didn’t get as much attention on Twitter is that the show brought up some pointed spiritual questions. These issues of faith came mostly through the character of Sandor Clegane, known as the Hound for his ferocity in battle and loyalty to the king.

He began the series as a notoriously violent, heartless, amoral and cynical character, who after being saved from grievous wounds by a septon (priest) of the New Gods – thankfully some followers of The Seven are shown as good – he seems to be undergoing a change of heart.

In this most recent episode, Sandor has joined a band of Robin Hood-style outlaws who are trying to fight for justice for the common people. The outlaws believe in the Lord of Light, whose followers often do good things when they’re not burning people at the stake. Sandor’s one great weakness is a fear of fire which has plagued him since childhood when he was badly burned as a boy. He makes the comment “Just my luck that I would fall in with a band of fire worshippers” to which the priest of the group replies to the atheistic Clegane, “Yes, it’s almost like divine justice.” This is not lost on Sandor.

The leader of the outlaws, Beric Dondarrion, is famous because he has been killed multiple times, but on each occasion, the priest has brought him back to life by the power of R’hllor. After coming across a cottage containing a dead peasant and his daughter, Sandor accosts Beric with a question “Why you [Beric]? Why does the Lord of Light bring you back to life but not these people? And not this little girl? You are no better than her.”

Now both of these statements make for a scenario to which most people, especially people of faith, can relate. Events happen in our lives – “coincidences”, or “divine providence” the faithful might say – that seem to clearly indicate God’s hand at work. Then, life moves in another direction and God is seemingly nowhere to be found. This ranges from terrorist attacks that kill innocents, to seemingly bad people having good jobs, positions of power, or the luxuries of life, while seemingly good people live in poverty, get passed over at work, or struggle with finances or health. We wonder why? Is God there, if so, does He care?

The key thing for us who believe in Christ is that Jesus helps us understand the answers to these questions. While in each individual case the answer may vary, the important thing is that we ultimately know that we have a good God who suffers with us, and who has suffered for us and, no matter the good or the bad, will never leave our side.

It is interesting to note that a show so popular is asking some of the big questions of life and ones that are very theological. Where interest needs to meet action is that we must take the challenge of getting to know our faith so we understand the answers to such questions and can give a better response than Beric’s, whose only reply to Clegane is “You’re right. I don’t know. I guess the Lord isn’t done with me yet.”

We need theses answers for ourselves… and just in case one of our friends, family or acquaintances happens to be one of those millions of viewers, especially if Game of Thrones is one of the only ways they encounter religion at all.

Tony Sands is the Senior Producer for Family Theater Productions

Image: Courtesy HBO

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

Reflecting on the Legacy of William Peter Blatty and ‘The Exorcist’

William-Peter-Blatty-FFBEarly in the morning of Friday, Jan. 13, “The Exorcist” director William Friedkin announced via Twitter that his friend and collaborator, William Peter Blatty — who wrote both the novel and screenplay for the 1973 film — had passed away the day before.

Blatty-Friedkin

Blatty, a lifelong Catholic of Lebanese extraction, was 89. Born in New York City, he attended a Jesuit high school and later studied at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. After working as a door-to-door salesman and a stint in the Air Force, Blatty came to Los Angeles in the 1950s. He worked in PR and journalism, later writing comedy, ghostwriting for advice author Dear Abby (Abigail Van Buren) and penning more than a dozen novels.

His most recent book was “Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death” in 2015, which focused on his only child, son Peter, who died of a heart ailment in 2006.

The-Exorcist-William-Peter-Blatty

Blatty remains best known for “The Exorcist,” published in 1971. It was a literary hit, and that may be because of a bit of divine intervention.

From The Hollywood Reporter:

After an extremely slow start, his Exorcist novel wound up selling 13 million copies, thanks in large part to an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

Beatty was booked on the talk show at the last minute when someone else fell through, then given more time when the first guest, actor Robert Shaw, was sent off early (he may have been drunk, Blatty noted in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times).

“I always believe that there is a divine hand everywhere,” said Blatty, who got to chat about his book with Cavett for nearly 45 minutes on national TV. The Exorcist then jumped to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and attracted the attention of Warner Bros. head John Calley.

Here at Family Theater Productions, we’re big fans of Blatty and “The Exorcist” — I even liked the Fox spin-off series of the same name, which just finished its first season on a high note — so I turned to a couple of our film experts for opinions.

First, here’s Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a Holy Cross priest (FTP was founded by a Holy Cross priest, Father Patrick Peyton, and remains under the auspices of the order), who’s also trained in film production. He’s currently at Holy Cross’ Notre Dame University, teaching a film-related course. Reached by email, he wrote:

I join with Catholics, priests, exorcists and people of good will around the world in mourning the loss of William Peter Blatty, famed writer of THE EXORCIST, an account of the real-life exorcism that took place at St. Louis University many years ago. In a cynical world that often scoffs at the mere mention of the supernatural, Blatty gave us pause to consider the reality of evil and the sacred actions required to drive it out.

As a young child, my father encouraged me to watch THE EXORCIST to counterbalance the now, in hindsight, laughable horror films I so cherished in the 1980s. The film did not disappoint. I ran out of the living room and dove under the covers of my bed the first time I saw Regan “spider walk.” Little did I know, the seeds for a vocation to priesthood were planted.

I hope the consulting work I continue to do on demonic-possession films and television programs will honor the memory of William … scaring future audiences, to be true, but leading them to greater faith as well.

Then I turned to Anthony Sands, FTP’s Senior Producer and resident film buff, for his reaction. He wrote:

William Blatty not only impacted Hollywood and entertainment, but all of American culture as well as American Catholicism. In the 1960s and 1970s, the first winds of the “Spirit of Vatican II” were making their way from Europe and into the U.S. Among many alterations that were entering into the Catholic Church was a mentality that Catholics were seen as a backward, superstitious lot who believed in “magic” and were trapped in the Dark Ages. Part of the push came, sometimes through the offices of the U.S. hierarchy, to distance ourselves from the supernatural or unexplained and focus on the historical, the strictly factual and modern explanations of ancient beliefs.

One of the biggest ideas was to get away from the idea of the Devil, or actual demons, and write off Satan and his legions as a creation of the Medieval church, or a literary construct used by Christ to explain the concept of evil to an uneducated people. Demons were also being recast, as merely the figurative term the Gospels used to explain things like mental illness to a culture 2,000 years before Freud and popular psychology (which was quickly becoming the rage of 1960s and ‘70s.)

The Devil was becoming an idea rather than a person, and many, many in America, both in the Church and in the culture, were happy to see that occur.

Then enter William Blatty, with his book based on the case of an actual exorcism in the U.S. The book became the Academy Award-winning film “The Exorcist,” and Blatty helped make Satan and his demons real again. He made evil a tangible thing that had to be addressed, confronted and overcome, and not just an “outdated concept driven disordered psychoses” as many in the pop psychology culture wished it to become.

“The Exorcist” made it acceptable to believe in real good and evil.

Also, in a culture that recently embraced the motto “F- the Man!”, it make it OK to show a priest in full clerics back on the big screen again. Blatty both reinvented the horror film and certainly created a new sub-genre, the Supernatural Thriller. Blockbusters today ranging from “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” to the “The Conjuring” movies are part of the “The Exorcist’s” legacy.

Today, one of the few recurring roles that depict priests as good people are in films where they are shown performing exorcisms.

Granted, no one person, book or film is solely responsible for such massive cultural shifts. However, they can have great influence. Consider this — up until the 1960’s, every Catholic priest was given the faculties of exorcist as part of his ordination. That stopped in the 1960s.

Then “The Exorcist” came out in 1971. Now, every diocese is once again required to have at least one dedicated exorcist. Sometimes art and an artist can give us a clearer view of our world, even if the view is to recognize darkness.

Well done, William Peter Blatty, good and faithful servant.

Images: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Warner Bros. Pictures

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

 

Faith in Horror: What Good Can Come Out of Being Scared?

The-Exorcist-William-Peter-BlattyIt’s an irony that some of the most positive portrayals of the Catholic Church — whose major mission is to spread Christ’s Gospel of peace, love and sacrifice — is in the horror genre, especially when the Church is going up against ultimate evil.

I always joke, when Satan and his minions are threatening to sweep over the face of the Earth, Hollywood always goes for a priest.

All of this could be just a case of visual shorthand, since we have the Latin, the outfits, the rituals, etc., that make for good visual storytelling. But it’s also a kind of compliment, even if it’s a backhanded one, in that Hollywood takes our connection to God seriously enough to portray us as the last bastion against supernatural evil. In an entertainment world where true faith is often treated as a superstition or a joke, the power of the Cross against demons still has great appeal for the audience.

Los Angeles’ own Bishop Barron discusses it here …

Of course, not all horror movies have Catholic priests as protagonists, and Catholics enjoy scary movies as much as anyone. So, how should we think about them? How far is too far?

content_tonyFamily Theater Productions’ own Senior Producer, Tony Sands recently took part in a panel discussion sponsored by Bel-Air Presbyterian, a Protestant megachurch in the L.A. area. The wide-ranging discussions cover many aspects of the horror genre and how it relates to faith.

Click here to watch the talk in segments.

But back on the topic of exorcism, here’s an excerpt of what Bishop Barron has to say about the 1973 film version of “The Exorcist” in his video, which is as much about the Catholic priesthood as anything:

The film is meditating on two great truths. First, it shows how the young priest moved, slowly and painfully, from a cramped rationalism to a keen sense of a dimension that transcends our ordinary experience. It demonstrates how he came to appreciate the properly supernatural and to understand how his priesthood relates him precisely to that realm. I believe, by the way, that the persistent popularity of the genre of the exorcism film is largely a function of this clear communication of the reality of the transcendent realm, especially during our time when an ideological secularism holds sway. In our guts, we know that there is something “more,” and stories about demonic possession give that intuition vivid confirmation. Secondly, “The Exorcist” shows that the mission of a priest finds its fullest expression in the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the good of the other. Both priests died in battle, defending a little girl whom they barely knew but who had been entrusted to their care. The very last scene of the film is arresting. As Regan and her mother are pulling away in a car, happily leaving the place where they had endured so much suffering, the girl spots a priest in a Roman collar. She asks the driver to stop, and she runs out, throws her arms around the priest and kisses him. It was her tribute to the men who had saved her.

Like any other movie genre, nobody likes everything. Personally, I don’t enjoy slasher films or overly gory films, preferring to stay with psychological thrillers and, of course, the “Catholic horror” genre, if you will, including “The Omen” movies, “Stigmata,” “The Exorcist” and the like. Everyone should know what he or she can tolerate, and if there’s doubt about the spiritual impact of a movie, either leave it alone or discuss it with a priest or spiritual director.

The argument can be made, as is discussed in the videos, that the glamour of Satan and of evil in general can be overdone in horror films. That is certainly true and must be guarded against. But when you see a priest, pushed to the limits of his mental, physical, psychological and spiritual abilities, standing with nothing but the Cross and his faith against the demonic — well, there’s hardly a better advertisement for the Truth of the Faith than that.

Image: “The Exorcist,” courtesy Warner Bros.

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.

Should You Go See ‘Ben-Hur’?

Ben-Hur-chariot-race-ffbThe Big Question about the new version of “Ben-Hur,” hitting theaters on Friday, Aug. 19, is, “Should Catholics go see it?”

The answer: YES!

It is an intense and entertaining period-piece drama with engaging characters and enough thrills and action to make it a fun summer blockbuster with – and here’s a shocker – an uplifting, positive ending.

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: to properly enjoy this film do not spend the entire time you are watching it, making mental comparisons to the blockbuster 1959 film, starring Charlton Heston as a Jewish nobleman wrongly accused, who becomes a galley slave and eventually returns to seek retribution in a chariot race against his rival and one-time friend (Stephen Boyd).

This is a new “Ben-Hur” for a new generation, and I promise the enjoyment will be seeing it with fresh eyes rather than weighing it down with memories from the past.

Now this can bring up another big questions such as “Why remake Ben-Hur?”

This query has many answers and I’m sure I don’t know them all, but there is an important one I do know, and it’s a bit of insight into Hollywood. When a studio makes a movie it is a very, very expensive gamble. Some movies make hundreds of millions of dollars, while many films don’t even earn back their budget, not to mention how much it costs to advertise them, distribute them … you get the idea. Part of the problem is the advertising. How can filmmakers get their movie to stand out and actually get people into movie theaters when there are so many choices?

Producers have realized that one way to improve the odds for their movie is to take a story that already has a following, a built-in audience of fans, or some kind of brand name that will encourage people to see it on the big screen. The name for this kind of content even has an industry name, “branded entertainment.” That is why we are seeing so many re-makes, sequels, and movies based on everything from books to board games. It’s the reason why almost every other film is from a comic book.

Therefore, it is no surprise that a studio like MGM would bring out “Ben-Hur,” one of its most famous, older titles for a new audience.  Unfortunately, it is also no surprise that this causes people to compare the new one to the original.

Just to call out the elephant in the room, I’ve read other reviews and more than half of their comments are all about the comparisons.

This is a mistake. Let this movie stand on its own!

Here is what I did and what I highly recommend (understanding that the movie is rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images, not for language or sex). Ask yourself, would this be an entertaining summer movie? Here is my checklist:

  • Does it have interesting, engaging characters? CHECK

It’s the story of Judah Ben-Hur, played by Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”), who is falsely accused and betrayed by his brother and best friend, Messala (Toby Kebbell) thereby losing everything he loves. That’s good tension, I’m in!

  • Does it have a good story? CHECK

Ben-Hur struggles against all odds to survive in order to win his freedom, save his family, and get revenge.  Well, those are pretty high stakes.

  • Does it have strong drama or intense action? DOUBLE CHECK, it has BOTH!

Rivalry, intrigue, betrayal and revenge are all part of the drama and murder, war, sea battles, and chariot racing are part of the action. Definitely not boring!

  • ADDED BONUS – it has AN UPLIFTING ENDING and a HOPEFUL MORAL MESSAGE.

Yep, this period piece, action drama actually has a positive theme that makes you feel good about life at the end.

*NOTE: This is far more than I can say for the films that where number 1 and 2 at Box Office last weekend. “Suicide Squad” features a paper-thin plot where the government tries to use bad guys to fight badder guys – so I guess, it’s message is fight evil with evil. Then, “Sausage Party” mocks all religion and ends with animated food items engaging in a XXX-rated free-for-all. If that sounds confusing, stupid and disgusting, you pretty much summed up the whole movie.

That being said, if these films can be big earners at the box office, then we should definitely celebrate “Ben-Hur,” which is a much better movie, is legitimately GREAT fun, and has far better values!

Will it become another immortal classic like the original? I leave that for you to judge.

But see “Ben-Hur.” It is a thrill ride with a timeless yet timely message, and it definitely hits all the check marks for good blockbuster entertainment!

Image: Courtesy Paramount/MGM

Visit the Family Theater Productions homepage and Facebook page to learn more about how FTP is reaching out to Hollywood and producing its own projects.