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Fireproof

Firep posterLet’s face it, movies are a waste of time and money, especially considering that the average film has a budget of over $200 million. Every once in a while, however, a true gem comes along that almost vindicates the flood of resources that fuels Hollywood debauchery. The other day I purchased a humble project titled Fireproof. My wife and I watched it together and had one of the best discussions we have had in our marriage.

The production is a bit rough; the acting seems rehearsed at times and the camera work is simple. Not all the actors have the sculpted bodies we’re used to, either. But it’s good enough that I never would have guessed what I learned in one of the extras on the DVD: this film was made entirely by volunteers. Members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA pooled their resources and their talents, according to their trade, in construction, cinematography, theatre or computer graphics, and on one occasion, a stranger whose house they filmed an action scene next to volunteered his services with a forklift. The result is a film that looks almost as slick as, and is more engaging than, many big-budget Hollywood pictures.

But the most important thing about Fireproof is that it is one of very – very few films in history that have the potential to profoundly impact the lives of those who see them. The beginning gets our attention instantly because it realistically portrays something most people care about and are fearful for – their marriages. A couple of heated exchanges between the primal couple, firefighter Caleb (Kirk Cameron, the only professional actor in the cast) and Catherine (Erin Bethea) Holt, are almost painful to sit through, not because they’re bad but because they’re such a frank portrayal of a marriage falling apart. Catherine eventually tells Caleb she wants out.

In the next several scenes, we see both of them talking to their friends

Caleb Holt at work.

Caleb Holt at work.

about it. I couldn’t help but laugh as Caleb tells Michael, his lieutenant, (Ken Bevel) “I bet she’s whining to all her friends about me right now … and they’re having this big old group hug …” while we see Catherine doing just that. It’s interesting that Michael pushes Caleb to reexamine himself and take responsibility for his part of the problem, while Catherine’s friends instantly agree with her and join her in disparaging Caleb. On the other hand, my wife says I side too much with Caleb.

Caleb’s parents urge him not to get divorced. His father asks him to wait forty days, and sends him a notebook with a hand-written forty-day program called “The Love Dare.” Each entry directs Caleb to do something to show love to his wife, beginning with not saying anything negative to her and increasing from there. Grudgingly, he forces himself through the motions of the first few days. We alternate between chuckling and wincing as Catherine scoffs at and spurns his half-hearted attempts. At one point he tells his father “I feel nothing.” His father reminds him that “you can’t listen to the way you feel at the moment.” This is a welcome change from the brainless follow-your-feelings messages movies spit out.

Calling this program a “dare” is no idle boast. In fact, it’s an understatement. In the United States, it takes two to get married, but only one to get divorced. The only way to stop it is to change your spouse’s mind. This makes it extremely risky for one partner to resist a divorce, because it’s almost impossible, and resisting the divorce when you could be fighting for your rights in the divorce leaves you much more likely to get burned. Fireproof is a story of extreme courage, and going out on a limb for somebody in a way that doesn’t require any special effects, but is no less nail-biting for it.

Caleb Holt at home.

Caleb Holt at home.

Bethea gives a tour-de-force portrayal of a wife’s pain in a marriage going nowhere. One scene where she pours out her heart about how humiliated she feels when Caleb looks at pornography is impossible to forget, and her sadness is infectious as she eats meals and does chores alone.

Cameron plays his role well as a real, relatable American guy, and screen writers Alex and Stephen Kendrick were careful to include a few intense fire rescue scenes to give the movie an ample dose of testosterone. Male audience members will connect easily with Caleb and his longing for respect, need to blow off steam, and yearning for the next big thing.

All of which is the perfect preparation for the pivotal moment in Fireproof, about half-way through. Upon the instructions of day 18, Caleb prepares a candlelit dinner for Catherine, sparing no expense. When she comes home and sees it, she simply looks at him and declares “I do not love you,” and walks out. The next day, Caleb is walking through a wood with his dad, and the rejection is beyond what he can bare. In a cathartic moment, he blurts out

“She’s ungrateful. You’d think after I’ve washed the car, done the dishes, cleaned the house, that she would try to show me a little gratitude. But when I come home, she makes me feel like I’m an enemy. … For the last three weeks I have bent over backwards for her. I have tried to demonstrate that I still care about this relationship. I bought her flowers – which she threw away! I have taken her insults and her sarcasm, but last night was it. I made dinner for her, I did everything I could think of to show her that I care about her, to show value for her. And she spat in my face! She does not deserve this, Dad. How am I supposed to show love to somebody who constantly rejects me?”

I grimaced as Caleb got on his knees, but my wife loved it.

I grimaced as Caleb got on his knees, but my wife loved it.

All of what he’s saying is true, and what turns things around is not that Caleb and Catherine realize how wonderful the other really is. In the following minutes, Caleb realizes that he has never truly loved his wife, and in fact he cannot do so, because, as his dad points out, “you can’t give her what you don’t have.” Everything that Caleb has just accused Catherine of, he has been doing to someone else throughout his life. The movie expresses a profound truth about love: it has to start somewhere. And it can’t start with flawed human beings, but only with the Love for that which is unlovable.

There aren’t many movies everyone should see, but this is one. Fireproof will challenge and inspire audiences to do the hardest, most frightening thing they’ve ever done – to truly love someone, as well as point them to the only way it can happen.

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Courageous

The Kendrick Brothers of Sherwood Bible Church are at it again. No doubt hoping to match their home run of Fireproof of 2008, they’ve shifted their focus from taking on divorce to attacking fatherlessness in America. We’re still in Albany, Georgia, but this time, instead of following the heroics of the Albany Fire Dept.,  we’re on patrol with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Dept. (Interesting that, Albany being a city of 77,000, it doesn’t seem to have its own police force, but I guess they had to trim the cast somewhere.)

The Kendricks have ramped the action up a notch with this one. Right at the beginning, we see Fireproof’s Ken Bevel, now playing Nathan Hayes, stop for gas, only to have his truck stolen by a dew-rag clad gang-banger (T.C. Stallings, a devoted husband and father in real life). He throws himself half-way through the driver’s window, and we are treated to a fist-fight with Nathan hanging out the window at 30 miles an hour. The movie eventually leads up to a climactic scene with guns blazing. In between is more action, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-felt message about how crucial a father is to a child’s development, and how those without fathers often become dew-rag clad truck thieves.

The story follows Deput. Hayes, a recent transfer to the department, three other Deputies, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick), Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes), and David Thompson (Ben Davies), and Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a rarely employed construction worker, and their families. Javier breaks his back to provide for his family and eventually finds employment working on Adam’s house. He then becomes part of the group. David is the rookie of the squad who’s holding in a shameful secret. He has a daughter around three years of age, whom he has never met, and whose support he had not contributed a dime to. (Apparently, the Georgia Division of Child Support Services was vaporized along with the Albany P.D.) Shane struggles to be a dad to his son when he only sees him every other weekend.  Adam dotes on his daughter but refuses to join his son for the father-son 5K. And Nathan and his wife, Kayla (Elenor Brown), struggle to fend off the “saggy-pants boys” interested in their teenage daughter.

A tragedy eventually forces these men to reevaluate what they are doing as fathers. The story dives into Christian kitsch for awhile. Adam comes up with a written resolution and the five families actually hold a ceremony with their pastor in which they dramatically recite it. In a similar vein, we later see Nathan take his daughter to a very expensive restaurant (below), where he, again with great ceremony, presents her with a “promise ring.” Yeah, I know. I chortled at this scene, too, but then I found out my wife had very specific plans for me to do exactly that with our daughter one day.

But for all the kitsch, the film really is trying, and trying to do far more than just entertain. The problems with Courageous mainly serve to highlight the fact that most movies just fill themselves up with explosions and car wrecks and expect you to buy a ticket. Courageous sets the bar much higher, and does come close to clearing it.

There was a time when I would have been unable to enjoy this movie. I can enjoy it now largely because I have a wonderful wife, who makes my life very sweet. That said, there are still some key points of this film I can’t help but take issue with. A lot of the film’s attitude is summed up when Nathan delivers the curmudgeonly line “If fathers just did what they were supposed to, half the junk we see on the street wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the mantra of conservatives and liberals alike: it’s all men’s fault. But if you look at the history of America over the last 40 years or so, men have not been the only – or even the primary – culprit of the breakdown of the family. History does not tell of a movement of men throwing off their responsibilities to society. We don’t see crowds of men burning their undergarments and demanding the right to kill their children. We do, however, see women doing all these things.

In the U.S. today, more than two thirds of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And why not? The feminist political machine has tilted the legal game board of divorce ridiculously toward the woman’s pockets. (Please note: Every man in Iowa should carefully read chapters 236 and 598 of the Iowa Code before he even thinks about getting emotionally attached to a woman. As for the other states, talk to a lawyer there.) Millions of children in the U.S. grow up without fathers because their mothers want it that way.

My first year out of law school, I worked in a family law firm. I never had a man in my office who didn’t care about his children. Most of my clients were there because they were having to fight just to see their children. The slant in family court is based on more than gender stereotypes.  The judicial community includes many territorial lionesses. A child is power, and they are not about to share it. Conversely, male judges are of the old way of thinking, in which men are expected to take the lumps and bear the weight of the world on our shoulders without complaint. This combination of liberal women and conservative men, not only in court, but also in society, is a frustrating dynamic. While women are exhorted about their rights, men are flagellated with our supposed responsibilities. Lawyers aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feeling the pain my clients felt. Commanded to be fathers by the right, yet torn from their children by the left; commanded to “be a man,” yet emasculated.

Courageous never addresses any of this, failing to live up to its name. The Kendrick brothers buckle under the pressure of political correctness. Too afraid to take women to task for their desertion, like so many before them, they turn on men.

It’s hard to stay angry at a movie that has this much heart, and is actually trying to make a difference in the world. But while it’s a valiant effort, another Fireproof it is not.  Fireproof met

Actor-director Alex Kendrick takes aim at bad fathers.

people squarely where they were at. There’s no reason 3 billion men couldn’t have connected with Caleb Holt, the fire chief who shows valor in the work place, but doesn’t know how to love his wife. The story eventually shows that, only by first receiving the unconditional love of God can Caleb show unconditional love to the flawed and sinful woman he lives with. It would actually  have been fairly simple for Courageous to do the same thing. Shane Fuller is a character that millions of men would easily connect with, including unbelievers. He is divorced. He wants to be a father to his son, but, as he explains it, he only gets him every other weekend, after his mother has filled his head with her toxic opinions of him. He wants to provide for his son, but almost a third of his paycheck is swallowed by alimony. Shane should have been the lead role of this movie! He could have been the Caleb Holt of Courageous. How can Shane, and other men, be the kind of fathers God wants them to be, despite the obstacles? How can God help them to raise their kids right despite what they have  to deal with? This was a golden opportunity for the Kendricks to win the hearts of their intended audiece. Beating up on men will do nothing to fix the family. Ministering to broken men where they are at will do a lot more.

Sadly, Shane is confined to a small role as the bad cop we’re not supposed to like, and Courageous preaches to the choir. Most of the focus is on Adam, Nathan and Javier, who all have perfect wives, straight out of a Christian fantasy.

Overall, I recommend seeing Courageous. There’s a lot of great moments I didn’t want to spoil here. The fact that I can even disagree with it shows it had more of a brain than most movies. It’s not easy to make a movie that ministers. I still laughed and I was still swept along by the story. It was good to see Christian cinema taking another (mostly) positive step.

Number four at the box office in October of 2011. High-five!

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Second Chance

2nd Chance posterIt seems before Fireproof, members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany Georgia were honing their film-making skills on smaller projects. One example is The Second Chance, in which they used their own church building as a set. Second Chance tells the tale of two churches, sister churches in fact, one of them a wealthy mega-church in the suburbs, the other a financially strapped church in the inner city, surrounded by prostitutes and drug dealers.

The inner city church, Second Chance Community Church, was once pastored by Jeremiah Jenkins (J. Don Ferguson) before he went on to bigger and better things in the suburbs. He left behind one of his early converts, Jake Sanders (Jeff Carr), a drug dealer turned pastor, to carry on. Jenkins is now grooming his son, Ethan (singer Michael W. Smith in his first acting job) to take his place at the mega church, The Rock, when he’s gone.

Jake addresses the congregation of The Rock one Sunday and, in disgust

Ethan (Smith) and Jake (Carr) kickin' it in da hood, yo.

Ethan and Jake kickin' it in the hood, yo.

over its lack of physical participation in inner city outreach, spurns its financial participation, saying “Keep your damn money!” (Yeah, that’s right, he said damn in church.) The Church Board blames Ethan for giving Jake the pulpit, and sends him to Second Chance to “observe and learn” from Jake. Thus worlds collide.

One reason Second Chance is such an interesting piece of film making is that, like Fireproof, you can tell they had a limited budget. What they do with it is quite impressive, though. From repeated confrontations on the same footbridge, each more intense than the last,  to a shot of a condemned church building with a wrecking ball dangling in the foreground, director Steve Taylor communicates volumes without a single line of dialogue. Instead of the seamless camera cuts that we’re used to, there will often be a single shot for a whole scene, with the camera panning back and forth to different speakers or facing the back of one side of a conversation. It’s kind of fun to watch for a change. In one scene, Smith accompanies a ghetto choir on the piano. Taylor tried to get fancier for this scene, and so we see a lot of rapid panning and zooming. It doesn’t look terrible, but still serves to highlight the budget limitations more than conceal them.

The credits start rolling at about 90 minutes, which is really too bad. The movie has a lot of subplots and a number of them could have stood more development. There are a lot of scenes that one would have to already be familiar with church life to appreciate. That’s okay, though, because this film doesn’t really have a message for the unchurched (which isn’t to say that they wouldn’t find it interesting). It’s a story about Christians, by Christians for Christians. It’s greatest contribution is its exhortation to those in safe and comfortable neighborhoods to leave them and be among the broken and the poor. Anyone who lives in the suburbs could learn a great deal by watching this film. It is a film riddled with clichés, but clichés exist for a reason, and these bear repeating. In other words, this is what The Preacher’s Wife would have been like if it had been made by smarter people.

The film’s greatest downfall is probably its two-dimensional portrayal of Jake as not needing to learn anything or repent of anything. Jake should have been forced at some point to reexamine his ideas the same way Ethan

"You see that cross? Anywhere you see that cross is MY hood!"

"You see that cross? Anywhere you see that cross is MY hood!"

is. Instead Carr plays the same two rolls the whole way through, waffeling between pastor and big, scary black man, and delivering lines like “The Bible says I have to love you, when right now, I just want to beat the hell out of you.” (Yeah, he says hell, too.) This is a problem for two reasons: it burdens the story with yet another cliché, and, frankly, Carr just isn’t very convincing in the roll. Still, I can’t deny that there’s something very grin-worthy about seeing him grab a gang banger’s fist, twist his arm behind his back, and say “ … I’m gonna open up a can o’ the wrath a’ God, all over your sorry ass.” (Yeah, he says ass, too.) If you’ve got two hours and a few dollars, get this one from your local rental (or Christian book store) and check it out. You won’t be sorry.

(I should note that, while this film was made by Christians, it is not for little kids. It deals with some very intense subjects, and it deserves its PG-13 rating.)

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