Sunday, September 6, 2015

War Room

2/4

Starring: Priscilla C. Shrier, Karen Abercrombie, T. C. Stallings, Alena Pitts

Rated PG for Thematic Elements Throughout

Christian films represent a huge paradox for Hollywood; despite being generally regarded with derision and spite, they make big money at the box office.  It's certainly not the first time this has happened (the "Twilight" franchise is an example), but it remains perplexing.  It's generally not all deserved ("Hardflip" and "Mom's Night Out" are actually good movies), but they have a tendency to become mouthpieces for evangelism rather than telling compelling, or even interesting stories (last year's despicable "God's Not Dead" is an example, and Kirk Cameron's "Saving Christmas" faced a severe internet backlash because of it).

A while back, I read an interesting article on why Christian films are so bad.  The author concluded that it was because the audience of evangelical Christians receives messages in ways that the mainstream audiences perceive of as preachy.  They enjoy hearing bible verses and seeing simple, easy-to-solve conflicts.  That doesn't fly with audiences who like more mainstream, non-religious entertainment.

Director Alex Kendrick seeks to bridge the gap between entertainment for the faithful crowd and the masses (no pun intended).  For the most part he succeeds, primarily because he doesn't preach.  He uses a story to spread his message, and Kendrick knows what he's doing.  There are two major slip-ups that keep it from working in the way that he probably wants to.

The Jordans are in trouble.  Outwardly a happy, well-adjusted and financially secure family, inside the house is a different story.  Tony (Stallings) is a self-absorbed drug rep who couldn't care less about his family.  His wife Elizabeth (Shrier) is a well of pent-up frustration, and although she tries to shield her daughter Danielle (Pitts) from the aftermath, the girl is well aware of what's going on between her parents.  Elizabeth is in the process of selling a house, whose owner, Miss Clara (Abercrombie) senses her malcontent.  Miss Clara says that through prayer and leaving her problems in God's hands, her life will get a whole lot better.

To be fair to the film, it tells the story in a way that will speak to those who aren't in the film's target audience.  Sure, it's hokey and at times so out of touch that it's goofy (the daughter is obsessed with double dutch...what, is this the 1980's?), but that's to be expected for such a conservative-minded film.  More important is that the film's message is that it's presented believably.  I wouldn't call it subtle, but it at least has the intelligence to know that religion and prayer isn't end all to a person's problems.

Acting has never been a hallmark of faith-based films (the exception being "The Passion of the Christ").  The budgets and subject matter can't support big stars.  However, the two leads of "War Room" are effective.  Priscilla C. Shrier is quite good as Elizabeth.  With her ability to project warmth, cry believably (something that is a challenge for many established actors), and ease with self-deprecating humor, Elizabeth is impossible not to sympathize with.  She saves many of the hokier scenes, or failing that, makes them significantly less painful.  It's not Oscar-worthy work, but I could see that with a less gifted actress the film would fall flat on its face.  Her co-star, Karen Abercrombie, is also very good, breaking out of the Southern black lady caricature that her character is written as.  Sure, she's feisty and religious, but she's also warm and occasionally quite funny.  Their co-stars are on the stiff side, but that's okay.  This is their show.

I'm willing to give this film a little leeway, considering the kind of movie it is.  After all, it is religion-focused and much of the material (including some humor that is worth a chuckle or two) works well enough.  However, when Elizabeth starts blasting Satan for trying to destroy her marriage and casts him out of her house, it goes too far.  The scene is impossible to take seriously.

The film is also far too long; Kendrick seems to be convinced that tying up every single subplot is a necessity, preferably with a moral.  I have no problems with that per se, but this needed some creative editing.  Or paring down on the scripting stage.

I was going to give this film a sort of "see it if you must" recommendation, until I saw the ending.  Kendrick falls into the trap that so many Christian films do: preaching to the converted.  It shows Miss Clara giving what is really a sermon and countless people turning to the Bible.  It's shockingly unsubtle, and the speech's content treads too close to the "Christian Warrior" mindset for comfort.  Not only is it gag-worthy, but it's "fire and brimstone" to the point where it made me squirmy.  Odd considering that it's in almost direct opposition to the film's message.

But maybe that's just me.  The audience I was with seemed to like it, but their frenzied applause seemed to be more appropriate for a rally.  Or a Christian revival.

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