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Archive for September 2011

Christian basketball film doesn’t quite sink it

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Film Review: ‘Breaking the Press.’ 20th Century Fox / Mustard Seed Entertainment. 94 minutes.

Ever since the success of the football film Facing the Giants in 2006, many producers have been trying to catch the eye of that newly found niche, the churchgoing, moviegoing public. This year we’ve already seen Soul Surfer (surfing) and The 5th Quarter (more football) — and now it’s the turn of Breaking the Press.

This newest film is a retelling of the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, in a context of high school basketball. It’s done with some success, thanks to decent acting and believable cinematography. But because of its heavy-handed spirituality, it may not get much beyond the church audience.

Brothers Josh and Matt Conaghey are friendly enemies and competitors on the basketball court at their small town high school in Texas. Unfortunately for Matt, Josh is a hotdog with a knack for grabbing and dunking the ball. It both helps and hurts that their loving, Bible-quoting dad, Joe, is also the coach.

Josh transfers to a larger high school in Dallas for a chance at the big time. Away from Dad’s influence — he’s staying with an relative — he falls in immediately with an outrageously stereotyped li’l vamp. “His Delilah,” the narrator says. She gets him drinking and partying and foolin’ around every night.

His grades slip, his on-court performance falters, and he’s expelled from school. Too proud to return home in shame, he hits the streets, working odd jobs and sleeping in alleys.

Finally he comes to his senses and loudly repents in an over-wrought night scene on the steps of a church. He comes home, literally to his father’s arms. Matt, though, may be another matter. In Josh’s absence, he has grown into the team leader. Why take back a wannabe star who has been thinking only of himself?

Breaking the Press does a better job of showing the actual sport than The 5th Quarter did. That film showed very brief clips. This one gets into the strategy (hinted in the title itself), told by coaches, players and sports announcers. The games are shot via multiple angles — from the bleachers, a balcony, overhead, even on court among the players — capturing the excitement and nimbleness of basketball.

Trivia alert: Catch a glimpse of a horror movie on TV in the Conaghey household. It’s the 2004 flick Curse of the Komodo — which starred William Langlois, one of the screenplay writers for Breaking the Press.

Although the filmmakers said they wanted to keep from being preachy, the characters toss off God words an awful lot. Granted, it’s refreshing to hear “Jesus” in a movie as something besides a swear word. But it still seems they’re trying too hard to wedge the gospel stuff in.

Josh, played by Tom Maden, comes off as hard-headed yet na├»ve. He wants his way and his future, but clearly can’t handle the temptations that freedom offers him. I guess that’s true to the prodigal in the parable.

The meatier role falls to Chad Halbrook, as older brother Matt. Having felt overshadowed all his life by the talented Josh, he finally comes into his own after his brother transfers — only to face him again as he returns.

Drew Waters, a veteran of the TV series Friday Night Lights, is a credible coach and father, by turns showing leadership, tough love and self-doubt. Farah White, a Paula Abdul lookalike, is his relentlessly sweet and supportive wife.

The film makes a bit of the fact that both sons are adopted. The element was apparently to make a point of the evangelical Christian belief that when you place your faith in Jesus, God “adopts” you as his child. That’s made clear in a study guide that comes with the DVD version of the film. Oddly, though, it isn’t developed much in the film itself.

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Written by Jim Davis

September 30, 2011 at 3:50 am

A window into the Mormon mind

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DVD review: “A Mormon President.” Adam Christing Productions.

Straight documentary? Mitt Romney campaign video? One of those excruciatingly polite commercials for Mormonism? A Mormon President seems to be a hybrid of all three. And more: A look into how Mormons think.

Released directly on video, the documentary scans the life and struggles of Joseph Smith, the charismatic and controversial founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It honestly though sympathetically examines the doctrines that set it apart from other churches. And it praises presidential candidate Mitt Romney, well, to the heavens.

Joseph Smith figure holding a copy of the Book of Mormon, Temple Square, Salt Lake City. (Photo by Ricardo 630 via Wikimedia)

As the video points out, Romney has by no means been the only Mormon presidential candidate. He’s matched by his contemporary Jon Huntsman and was preceded by his father, George Romney, in 1968, then by Morris Udall, Orrin Hatch — and even by Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church.

The documentary then segues into a rather drawn-out account of Smith’s life and ministry, starting with his alleged visit from God and Jesus and his writing of the Book of Mormon. The story is illustrated with some tame sequences of his rise and fall. We also see a lot of those portraits of Smith with half-smile and annoyingly large, liquid eyes, rather like traditional European paintings of Jesus.

Smith is treated as a man before his time, advocating things like smaller government and “gradual emancipation,” freeing slaves by small steps over several years rather than all at once. The video, however, omits the fact that the LDS church didn’t allow blacks to become priests until 1978. That’s exceedingly gradual.

The video has a general Mormon flavor to it, with staid historical re-enactments and a lot of gushy praise of Smith from believers. However, producer Adam Christing is actually a former member of the breakaway Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He even allows commentary from anti-Mormon missionaries, although Mormons usually get the last word.

The bio portion, though, is forthright on the beliefs and deeds that scared Smith’s contemporaries — and make people today leery, rightly or wrongly, of anyone who follows his church.

Smith condoned plural marriage (although the church has since dropped the practice), wedding perhaps 33 women — some in their teens, some in their 60s. He thought Independence, Mo., would become the new Jerusalem. He said there were many deities — both gods and goddesses — and every human had the chance to become one. Mormons defend and soften these beliefs onscreen, but they don’t deny them.

Smith also raised his own army, strutted in uniform and literally saber rattled. He not only ran for president, but had his secret Council of Fifty crowned him king of the nation even as his campaign was starting. And he sent a gang to bust up the printing press of his former right-hand man, William Law, who had become a bitter critic — and founded the rival Reformed Church.

Smith himself became a victim of a mob when he was shot and fell from an upper-story window. Although he declined to mobilize his private army, he is not painted as a mild-mannered martyr: He went down fighting, pistol in hand.

Here’s where Mitt Romney comes in: The documentary compares Smith’s enemies with the “right-wing evangelicals” who want to “derail” Romney’s campaign. Through remarks by people inside and outside the church, the video throws doubt on his chances for the White House. This is presented as a pity: As a Mormon church member says — very late in the video — the United States Constitution bans any “religious test for public office.”

Perhaps Mormons are happy just to use the 2012 presidential campaign as a kind of teaching moment. As the video quotes Romney at the end, “I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it . . . Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they’re right, so be it.” Whether Romney wins or loses, Mormons have a chance to spread their beliefs.

The “Mormon President” website has an interesting blog, with some background on the documentary and other items. One is a picture of death masks of Smith and his brother, Hyrum; both were killed in the same shootout. Another discusses similarities and differences among the 200 to 400 offshoots of the LDS Church. And not to get too far afield, another discusses whether Republicans are “ready” for a Mormon president.

There’s also a link to an external website that has a lot of portraits of Smith, including what may be two photos of the man.

Written by Jim Davis

September 25, 2011 at 2:07 am

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