Sunday, December 19, 2010

Weekend DVD Review: Upside, Letters To God


I'll come right out and say it: movies like Upside make my job worthwhile. Not that it isn't already great on its own, what with all the great music I have access to 24/7. But once in awhile, a gem like this one is uncovered, causing me to smile to myself and say, "Wow. I've got it good."

But enough about my job and how Upside reminds me I'm truly blessed to have it. The story goes that Solomon "Soli" White (Randall Bentley, Heroes) is a star high school lacrosse player who seems to have his future cut out for him: an impending sports scholarship to Cornell, a blond, seemingly popular girlfriend and basically, the "perfect" life. That is, until he suffers a head injury during a vital lacrosse match that was his chance to impress the talent scout in attendance.

His world is turned upside down, literally the damage to his brain flips his vision and his lacrosse days are over, until his vision is right side up again and his raging headaches subside without the aid of painkillers. In the meantime, he is issued an ultimatum by his English teacher, Mrs. Buck (theater veteran Taylor St. Clair): write a 5000-word essay with the theme "See The World With New Eyes", or risk losing his scholarship for good.

Unable to play lacrosse and having to constant return home to a controlling mother intent on planning his life for him, Soli sits in on a session for the visually impaired and meets Wren Woods (newcomer Leah Sims), a pretty, independent older girl who was born blind. Their friendship grows and eventually, mutual attraction develops, as the seemingly fearless Wren opens Soli's eyes to faith and God.

At the same time, recognizing his potential in writing, Mrs. Buck enlists the help of an old friend, Craig Parker (Jeremy Harrison), to help Soli in his assignment. Their interaction is refreshing, with Craig widening Soli's perception of writing and encouraging him to take charge of his own life.

The film shows, without preaching, that God works in mysterious ways: love and enlightenment are borne of adversity and Soli can now make difficult decisions he was once unable to. Though its pace may seem slow at times, directer Ken Horstmann manages to make it worth the viewer's while, with rich character and plot development: Soli finds direction and meaning in life, Wren's endearing wit and positivity belie her inner fears as she struggles to deal with them and Craig and Mrs. Buck make changes for the better in their own lives. The wonderful soundtrack helps, too.

Those who watch Upside will be inspired by its underlying themes of faith and reliance on God, as well as its message that, whatever happens, there is always an upside.

Letters To God

Tyler Doherty is a cancer-stricken eight-year-old who, in the midst of his suffering, regularly prays to God in the form of letters addressed to Him, which he leaves in his mailbox for the mailman to deliver.

Sounds cheesy? That's what I thought — until I actually watched it. Based on the true story of writer Patrick Doughtie's late son, Tyler (1995 - 2005), it depicts the life of Doherty (played ingeniously by Tanner Maguire, whose credits include CSI: NY, Desperate Housewives and Without A Trace) as he is recovering from brain tumor surgery and two months of MRIs and radiation. He lives with his widowed mother, Maddy (Robyn Lively, Chicago Hope) and elder brother, Ben (Michael Bolten, Criminal Minds), while his grandmother, Olivia (Days of Our Lives' Maree Cheatham), helps care for the boys when Maddy is at work.

Everyday, Tyler writes a letter to God, praying for himself, his family, his friends and everyone else around him. When the new mailman, an alcoholic by the name of Brady McDaniels (Jeffrey Johnson, Bones) fetches the mail, he sees the letters and, unable to bring himself to shred them, tries to leave them at the local church. The pastor spots him and, believing that the letters wound up in his hands for a reason, persuades him to keep them. Soon, Brady grows close to the Dohertys, feeling a deep sympathy for and affinity to Tyler. He is reminded of his own son, who is temporarily in his ex-wife's custody.

As the film progresses, Tyler's struggles and triumphs are chronicled: the heartening relationship between he and his best friend, Samantha "Sam" Perryfield (the wonderfully precocious Bailee Madison, Bridge to Terabithia), the impact his unfaltering faith and strength has on his family, neighbors and Brady and how his constant determination and positivity allow him to live a full, albeit short, life.

The focus on Jesus and how God listens to every prayer is obvious but not overbearing and it is impossible not to be moved (or even to shed a tear or two) by the end of the film. We can laugh with Tyler and Sam as their sincere interaction and simple innocence brings joy to their lives. We can cry with Maddy as she faces the overwhelming possibility of losing her son. We feel Brady's pain as he risks losing permanent custody of his son. And above all, we see the ripple effect Tyler's life has on everyone around him.

I am not the first person to sing the praises of this film but if you haven't heard the kind of positive critique it has received or simply don't understand the hype, I strongly recommend this DVD, if not for its quality direction and performances, then for its proof of the power of prayer.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Social Justice: A Double Take

The I Heart Revolution: We're All In This Together

We're All In This Together is the second in a three-part project by Hillsong United, entitled The I Heart Revolution, the first being their ninth studio album, With Hearts As One, which was released two years ago. We're All In This Together is basically a documentary on social justice. Predictably, it also provides a good yank on the heartstrings to remind us just how fortunate and blessed we are to have the means to watch DVDs. Their slant? If their entire focus is directed only to what happens on stage, then maybe they have missed the point altogether. Hence their efforts to connect with people in other, non-musical ways.

In the film, the band chronicle their travels and the people they meet along the way: youth from different cultures and backgrounds, the underprivileged (from victims of natural disasters to child prostitutes) and volunteers who are trying to turn things around for the aforementioned people.

There really isn't a whole lot to reveal about the film — no plot twists, no exciting scenes it is, after all, a documentary. What it does have, however, is excellent editing and the ability to drive home its main point: we are called to be a blessing to others, especially the less fortunate.

From India to Indonesia, the US to the UK, poverty and suffering are showcased in the film, broken up by animated segments telling true stories of social justice, from William Wilberforce's fight against slavery to the birth of the Salvation Army. Famous references are scattered throughout, from Nelson Mandela's speeches to Mother Teresa's quotes. Interviews with social workers, as well as big names in the Christian music world, Martin Smith, Reuben Morgan and Joel Houston, lend added perspective on the human condition and the one thing all of us need: God's unconditional love.

And though Hillsong United is one of the most well-known Christian bands today, the film manages not to be preachy, despite several Christ-centered testimonies and Bible verses. Ultimately, We're All In This Together is an eye-opener that both Christians and non-Christians can watch and be moved by — moved to make a difference, no matter how small.

To Save A Life

Continuing on the theme of social justice, we have To Save A Life, a story involving high school cliques, jocks, geeks and a tragedy that leads to a life-changing epiphany.

Randy Wayne (TV's Numb3rs) stars as Jake Taylor — the blond, blue-eyed star of Pacific High's basketball team, complete with a university scholarship and a blond cheerleader girlfriend in the form of Amy Briggs (Deja Kreutzberg, CSI: Miami, Law & Order). Jake's childhood friend, Roger Dawson (Robert Bailey Jr., Coraline), is the exact opposite: a lonely outcast who walks with a limp, the result of saving Jake from an oncoming car in sixth grade.

The story is simple enough: they grow up and grow apart when Jake becomes popular and eventually, a despised and desperate Roger walks into school one morning, fires a few shots at the ceiling and turns the gun on himself but not before he looks Jake in the eye and accuses him of not having cared. Almost immediately, Jake embarks on a journey of reflection, realizing there's more to life than grades, popularity and a pretty girlfriend. He meets Chris Vaughn (Joshua Weigel, director of the award-winning The Butterfly Circus), a pastor at a local church, who ministers to him.

Soon, Jake turns to God and the Christian faith, shunning the hard-partying lifestyle of his teammates for Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings in church. Using Roger's MySpace profile, he begins to reach out to young outcasts and even befriends Jonny Garcia (Akeelah & The Bee), a stereotypical "emo" geek with a penchant for art & cutting, eventually saving his life in a sudden plot twist towards the end. After becoming a Christian, Jake begins to seek God for answers — how to deal with his warring parents, his increasingly strained relationship with Amy and life itself.

The film's good points include realistic portrayals of issues many teens today experience: family dysfunction, sex, matters of the heart and cliques, among others. Jake's parents have a shaky marriage, his pre-Christian self engages in drunken sex with Amy and the high school social ladder is examined.

However, every problem seems to be resolved a little too easily and the characters can be a little too stereotypical — the jock, the cheerleader, the geek. Before there is enough time for the viewer to vicariously experience each character's feelings as he / she goes through a crisis, a solution is provided. Yet, somehow, the film also manages to chug along slowly at certain parts.

The film does not shy away from its Christian values and even some Christians may cringe ever so slightly at the prospect. But overall, To Save A Life is good for parents and their teens to watch together. In this cynical world, such a film reminds us that all of us can change and ultimately, save lives, even if we doubt our ability to do so.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Album Review: Our God Is Near

 For those who are not familiar with Brenton Brown or his work, here's a little background: born in South Africa, Brown served as worship pastor at Oxford Vineyard while studying in the UK, writing several songs which were used on Vineyard UK projects. His first solo album, 2006's Everlasting God, was borne of a spiritual breakthrough Brown experienced after being diagnosed with ME or chronic fatigue syndrome. Its title track received an ASCAP award two years later, the first time any Christian song had been recognized at the major music awards ceremony. He followed that with 2008's sophomore effort, Because Of Your Love.

Now, his third album, Our God Is Near, is about to be released (the exact date has not been confirmed at press time). Having heard it, I must say that not one track on it disappoints. The album starts with a sprightly, uplifting Our God Is Mercy, a soaring anthem of unrestrained guitars, steady drums and honest vocals. Arise and Sing is a delightful song of praise, with an irresistible riff you'll find yourself tapping your foot to. 

Higher (Empires Fall) kicks the mood — and volume — of the album up a notch, with its upbeat rhythm and Brown's heartfelt voice, making it a top candidate for worship bands in churches all over Singapore to use in their services.

The album closes with an intimate acoustic number called All For You, which expresses the singer's devotion to God. But perhaps, the song which best showcases the simple ingenuity of the album is Joyful, Brown's simple yet ingenious take on Friedrich Schiller's Ode To Joy:


I could go on about how Brown manages to blend a classic ode with modern worship ever so seamlessly but I should think the above video speaks for itself.

Overall, besides the aforementioned standout tracks, the album is an honest, earnest effort in modern praise and worship: from quiet, acoustic tracks to energetic songs that would make the listener want to get up and dance, Our God Is Near is definitely worth a listen — or 10. 

So, watch out for this album and grab it when you see it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

DVD Review: Hansie

 I’m not a cricket fan. I’ve never gotten into it, never watched a whole match. I don’t dislike it — I just don’t know much about it. Perhaps, that might be a good thing, so I could watch Hansie without any bias or expectations.

For those like me, Hansie is a film based on the life and career of the late Wessel Johannes “Hansie” Cronje, once the face of South African cricket. Directed by Regardt van den Bergh and written and produced by Cronje’s brother, Frans Cronje, it chronicles, in particular, his involvement with Indian bookmakers in the 1990s and the subsequent events of his life, until his untimely death in 2002.

On the surface, it seems like yet another inspirational sports film. There is a difference between Hansie and other such films, however: in a movie involving a team sport, the focus weighs heavily on its eponymous character, played by Frank Rautenbach (of Faith Like Potatoes fame). There are no standout characters among Cronje’s team, no loveable sidekicks or interesting rivals, save for Bob Woolmer, the team’s coach and voice of reason. That’s not necessarily a negative, though. The audience gets to journey with Cronje as he enjoys success as captain of South Africa’s national cricket team, experience his struggle as he is approached by several Indian bookmakers and feel his pain as he publicly confesses his mistakes and tries to pick up the pieces afterwards.

First, the negative: at times, the characters seem rather two-dimensional: it is all too easy to vilify the bookmakers from the outset, to respect Woolmer and Cronje’s close friend, Peter Pollock (David Sherwood), to like his wife, Bertha (Sarah Thompson). The ending seems abrupt, such that the impact of his death is somewhat lost on the viewer.

The positive? Rautenbach’s portrayal of Cronje is anything but two-dimensional. He starts off as a likeable, talented cricketer whom I find myself rooting for, even when he is tempted by Indian bookmakers. When he accepts, the audience is likely to feel more disappointed than angry, although the relative ease (apart from the run-of-the-mill attacks of conscience) with which he gives in can be cause for much dissatisfaction. When he finally confesses, however, we see Cronje’s great fall, from international sporting hero to a dishonest, disgraced athlete. Rautenbach manages to simultaneously invoke a deep indignation at Cronje’s mistakes and sympathy for his subsequent punishment. Beyond the rampant public criticism of his actions, he struggles to piece himself together again, after his wrongdoings have destroyed his self-worth, made worse by his professed Christian faith.

No less admirable is his wife, Bertha, whose unwavering strength and love prove to be his pillar in his time of need. She encourages him, practices tough love where needed and ultimately makes him stand on his own two feet again.

Overall, Hansie is worth a watch. It may not be the best biopic ever made but at the heart of it, it is a moving tale of love, loss and God’s divine redemption.

Friday, December 3, 2010

(Guilt) Free Music

As I type this, Integrity Asia's annual Warehouse Sale is, unfortunately, over. It was two weeks of madness (and I do mean that in the best way possible) that we can't wait to resume next year. But for those of you who missed it or who just couldn't finish all their shopping because of the mind-boggling variety of products we had, here's a little consolation:

That's right Parachute Band will be giving away nine of their songs to anyone who wants them. Three songs each from their albums Roadmaps & Revelations, Technicolor and the yet-to-be-released Love Without Measure will be available for download, free of charge. All you have to do is follow the link by clicking on the picture above, leave your name, email address and location and you can commence your download.

While this is a great way for Parachute Band fans to preview their upcoming album, which will be released on February 1, 2011, it is also an excellent channel through which those unfamiliar with the band's work can be introduced to some quality Christian music. So for fans who will be falling over themselves to download the songs, don't forget to recommend this to your other friends as well!