Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Blue Like Jazz--the Film, opens this weekend

James Williams and Donald Miller
Me on the left, Don Miller on right, at the BLJ screening

This is a rewrite of last week's review, as it appears on Burnside Writers Collective:

By making a small contribution to last year's effort to fund the making of "Blue Like Jazz" via Kickstarter, I put myself in line to receive an invitation to the Fort Worth premiere on March 21. This showing was part of a 30-city tour in which Donald Miller, the author of the book by the same name, appeared in person, accompanied by director Steve Taylor and lead actor Marshall Allman.

I went in guessing that the movie would likely stray far from the "Safe for the Whole Family" boundaries that many Christian-themed films seem bound to. And as it turned out, I was right: the PG-13 rating was earned. The story in the movie (which bears little resemblance to the book) is about a young man who renounces his faith before rediscovering it in a fresh way. This necessitated the depiction of various sinful behaviors and attitudes. There are a few naughty words, multiple instances of substance abuse, and flat-out mockery of Christianity.  Plus, a giant condom placed on a church steeple as a prank. One character is a lesbian, which, now that I think about it, was the missing element in "Facing the Giants". (Relax. I kid.)

Speaking of which, it should be noted that the creators of "Facing the Giants" were mentioned in a blog post written by "Blue Like Jazz" director Steve Taylor. In a bit of remarkable timing, his post appeared the morning of March 21, the same day I attended the premiere. In the piece, Taylor called out Sherwood Films, the makers and distributors of "Facing the Giants", "Courageous", and other Christian-themed movies, accusing them of blacklisting actors who had worked on "Blue Like Jazz."
While that part of Taylor's post got the most attention in the press the next few days, I was drawn to the meat of what he wrote: He challenged Christian filmmakers to deliver more excellent work, and he challenged Christian audiences not to accept mediocre films simply because they contained the "Christian" label.

Back to the movie: Because "Blue Like Jazz" is a book of essays, a fictional story had to be created for the film. In it, a Baptist goody-two-shoes high school student named Donald Miller finishes high school, then heads to Reed College, the most godless campus in the nation. Miller, upset by some hypocrisy he witnessed at his home church, begins to question, and then reject, his Christian faith. The more he tries to fit in at Reed, the more he distances himself from the Jesus he has known all his life. He befriends Lauren, who's not romantically interested in him (after all, he's male), and he befriends Penny, an under-the-radar Christian. He also makes friends with The Pope, a senior who's loudly irreligious, who wears a Pope hat, and who is hiding some hurts.

The story was compelling from the beginning, but there was one part everyone in the audience was waiting for: the Confession Booth scene.  Truth be told, I didn't expect a lot out of that scene, simply because I was very familiar with it, thanks to the book. It's difficult to move an audience emotionally when they know what's going to happen, because the element of surprise is gone.

Against those odds, the scene blew me away, and I wasn't alone. The audience gave this film a very deserving standing ovation. That one scene sealed the deal.

I can only think of a couple of things I wish were different about this film:  1. Lauren's open lusting toward other women. (In bringing this up, I am not focusing on her same-sex attraction. I would have been bothered the same had it been a man ogling, and speaking graphically, about the various female body parts that were getting his attention.) The over-the-top-ness of her drooling was a distraction.  2. Evangelical Christians, as a group, are treated a bit harshly in this story. In the Q & A session after the movie, this was brought up by an audience member. Miller disagreed that they were treated unfairly, but I guess we can explore that topic another time.

The above two items are not show-stoppers, but they're worth noting.

To balance the criticism with something positive, I also want to point out that, despite the well-publicized troubles this movie has had when it comes to finding suitable financing, Blue Like Jazz does not look like it was made with money scraped together from the sub-$100 investments of 4,500 contributors (which it was). Typically, you can tell when a film was made on the cheap. There was nothing about this one which betrayed its shoestring budget.

As I mentioned earlier, once the film ended and credits began rolling, Taylor, Miller, and Allman faced the audience and took questions. I was first to raise my hand, thanking Taylor for what he had written that morning, because someone needed to say it. (I am speaking of the part about the need for quality movies with Christian themes, not the tiff with the Sherwood filmmakers.)

It's a bit unfair when those who object to "cheesy" Christian films point to the makers of "Facing the Giants".  The reality is that most of cheesiest of these films are made by organizations other than Sherwood. Think "Letters to God", "Soul Surfer", and the "Left Behind" series.

To be fair, "Facing the Giants" and "Fireproof", while featuring imperfect theology and bad acting at times, have their strong points.  And credit should be given to Sherwood because "Courageous" is much better than their previous efforts.  Not as good as "Blue Like Jazz", but still.....

Final word: I loved Blue Like Jazz. On a 5-star scale, I give it 4.5 stars. Please go see it this weekend. Go to www.bluelikejazztickets.com

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