Play the Flute

A film review by Chet Tan, library volunteer

Writer and Director: Rich Christiano
– Production Company: Rich Christiano Film Group

The first part of Matthew 11:17, as rendered in the NIV, reads: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance…,” and this is where the film “Play the Flute,” gets its title. This movie centers on Brandon Cobb (Brett Varvel), a young pastor who defers career advancement in favor of returning to the church he grew up in to revitalize its ailing youth group. However, far from welcoming Brandon, the church youth group’s motley cast of misfits repeatedly challenge Brandon’s abilities, confidence and resolve as a pastor and teacher.

This film is very clear about the Christian messages it wants to convey, from the sovereignty of God to the immutability of the Gospel. Almost every scene is a teaching moment, whether it is Brandon’s discussions with the youth group, or more casual conversations that the students have with one another outside the classroom.

If there would be any area that needs improvement, it would be the script, which has some of the youth group members abruptly change and suddenly embrace the Gospel message, with seemingly little story-related impetus to do so. This results in the actors’ performances coming across as unnatural, when the real problem may have been the screenplay itself. Perhaps the filmmakers did not think that the movie’s 103-minute runtime was long enough to convey everything they wanted to say, and so eschewed, for the sake of brevity, any scenes that show how each of these characters embraced the Gospel. Unfortunately, this made the movie a bit jarring at times, and does not do the film’s pacing any favors.

Some might call this film preachy, but one could argue that it may actually have been intended to be more instructional than cinematic. Appreciated in this light, it is conceivable that Christian schools, Sunday school programs or, appropriately enough, church youth ministries could find this movie useful for teaching a substantial amount of doctrine in a format that may be more appealing to college or even high school-aged students, particularly visual learners. However, viewers must be mature enough to handle a conflict that arises later in the film, which serves as its turning point, and teachers presenting this movie to their students have to be ready to handle this sensitively.

Despite its rough edges, “Play the Flute” still provides an interesting peek into the more subtle, everyday challenges and issues that pastors and other ministry workers must deal with, as they share the Gospel, and shines a well-deserved spotlight on those whom God has called to “play the pipe.”

Different Drummers

A film review by Chet Tan, library volunteer

– Directors: Don Caron and Lyle Hatcher
– Distributor: Bridgestone Multimedia Group

Reviewing films based on true stories is a tricky proposition. When you consider the plot or the way characters behave, you are not just critiquing a screenwriter’s craft: you are giving commentary on someone’s life. Which brings us to Different Drummers, a movie about the real-life friendship between two fourth grade boys living in Spokane, Washington, U.S.A. in the 1960’s.

Lyle Hatcher (Brendan Tucker) is a typical boy of his age, always running around outdoors and playing with insects. He could not be more different from David Dahlke (Ethan Reed McKay), who is wheelchair-bound due to muscular dystrophy. And yet this unlikely duo forms a bond that is surprisingly mature for their age.

Lyle demonstrates a selfless determination to help David experience life unbound by his physical challenges, a far cry from your typical self-centered youth. It is this mission of Lyle’s that provides the central conflict for the film.

For his part, David exhibits remarkable perceptiveness and deep concern for Lyle, particularly when the latter is subjected to the 1960’s bizarre version of behavior management. David’s “condition” and what his family must go through may need to be explained to younger viewers.

To call Different Drummers a Christian film would be a stretch, as its themes come across as more generically moral rather than specifically Christian. The only mention of God comes with David’s belief that God actually talks to him, which leads to points in the story that suggest that David is somehow prescient.

The DVD comes with several insightful featurettes, with interviews of the key personnel involved, including none other than the real-life Lyle Hatcher, who served as a co-writer and co-director on the film. It is through these short documentaries that we learn of the journey to bring this movie from inspiration to fruition, and the attention to detail that the filmmakers exhibited, such as shooting in the actual house David lived in.

Since the film tells the story of real events, it would be unrealistic to expect a neat resolution to all the challenges its characters face. Life is not like that. Instead, we witness the odyssey of two friends who look out for each other in their own way, significantly impacting each other’s life for the better. The making of this very film and the telling of this story are the culmination of that odyssey.

A Matter of Faith

A film review by Chet Tan, library volunteer

Director: Kevan Otto
– Production Company: Silver Lining Entertainment

Not to be confused with Rich Christiano’s “A Matter of Faith” (2014), Kevan Otto’s “A Question of Faith” (2017) tells a poignant story of how so much hurt, anger, and pain can flower into so much faith, love, and forgiveness.

This film follows the trials of Pastor David Newman (Richard T. Jones), as his family is beset with a terrible tragedy. However, rather than get a chance to move on, David and his family find themselves face to face with the Danielson and Hernandez families, whose lives are inextricably linked to that same terrible loss that has befallen the Newmans. These encounters force the protagonists to wrestle with age-old questions about God’s plan, goodness, and forgiveness in the face of tragedy.

This is no doubt a Christian film, with a sound Bible-based central message emphasizing putting one’s faith in God, even when life gives you every reason not to. However, the propriety of what David does later in the film could be subject to interpretation, if not some debate. (Those who want to avoid spoilers should skip the next paragraph.)

Specifically, during the final scene when David is preaching, he actually calls Maria Hernandez (Karen Valero) to the front of his church and proceeds to “out” her in front of his congregation as the person responsible for his family’s loss. Ostensibly, it can be surmised that David did this to give Maria a chance to ask for forgiveness, and Maria seems to be onboard with this. Still, one cannot help wondering whether this whole exercise could have been handled more discreetly (Matthew 6:1-4). Doing all of this in public may have given David an opportunity to showcase his magnanimity, but it also comes across as a little self-indulgent.

For the most part, the movie was competently shot, acted, and scripted, with Christian doctrines and Bible quotes finding their way into the dialogue naturally. If one were to nitpick, it would be the seemingly sudden transformation of the once-toxic John Danielson midway through the film (C. Thomas Howell). Doubtless, people have been radically transformed by Jesus throughout history, but the change for John here comes across as unnatural rather than miraculous.

As one watches this movie, it will be a challenge to avoid cringing at each gut-wrenchingly painful situation that the Newman family must endure. Which makes the film’s more upbeat ending a welcome surprise, as it manages to coalesce the movie’s disparate characters and plot points into a rousing crescendo. So, yes, sitting through the heavy drama of “A Question of Faith” does payoff in the end.

The Fifth Quarter

A film review by Chet Tan, library volunteer

– Director: Rick Bieber
– Distributor: 20th Century Fox (2010)

The 5th Quarter is not your typical “Christian film.”  In fact, it is debatable whether it is a Christian film at all. Based on a true story, The 5th Quarter centers around the Abbate family of Powder Springs, Georgia, U.S.A., whose lives are turned upside down by the tragic death of youngest child Luke (Stefan Guy).

The film’s plot does not seem to adhere to the classical structure of Freytag’s Pyramid, as there is no single climactic point at which the audience can be satisfied that the protagonists have finally “triumphed.”  Instead, the story proceeds at a slow burn leading up to a beautifully poignant resolution. The film’s ending does not, and cannot, completely take away the pain of the Abbates’ loss, and yet the audience is left comforted with the hope that this family will eventually come to terms with it.

Among The 5th Quarter’s strengths is a veteran cast that turns in convincing performances. With Luke’s father Steven, portrayed by Aidan Quinn, viewers observe how a seemingly rock-solid father can crumble upon receiving the call that no parent ever wants to receive or seeing what no parent should ever see. Andie MacDowell, who plays Steven’s wife Maryanne, gives the audience a soberingly realistic portrayal of the profound grief and loss that only a mother could feel.

And then there is the older son, Jon (Ryan Merriman), a rising star of Wake Forest University’s football team who loses all interest in playing upon the death of his younger brother. Jon challenges the audience with the classic dilemma: “If God is so good, why does he let bad things happen to good people?,” but the film offers no clear-cut answer (and as Christians, we know not to expect one in this lifetime).  It is Jon’s journey from the darkness of his grief to a historic winning streak buoyed by the memory of his brother that becomes the central beat of the film.

An extra feature on the DVD is The Making of The 5th Quarter, a 6-minute documentary that goes behind the scenes of the production of the film and includes excerpts of interviews with actual members of the Abbate family. This short program lends to the authenticity of the film, strengthening the impact of its story.

The 5th Quarter does not appear to have been presented as a Christian movie. Instead, it sets out to share the real-life story of an actual Christian family and how they survive the tragic loss of a loved one, and the film accomplishes this without hitting the audience over the head with Bible verses and Christian teachings at every turn. This is not a drawback for the film, as its understated resolution gives its viewers the opportunity to draw their own conclusions, which should make for interesting discussions within an SDG or even with non-Christian viewers.

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