Hollywood

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

If "Unplanned" was an ordinary movie, its creators would be busy right now studying second-week box office numbers while starting negotiations with the digital giants that stream products to the masses.

But this has never been an ordinary movie, which is why it's an important test case for religious believers trying to bend Hollywood's unwritten rules about religion and hot-button moral issues.

Backed by a company called Pure Flix, "Unplanned" was filmed in secret in Oklahoma, using the code name "Redeemed" in an attempt to postpone controversy. The filmmakers behind "God's Not Dead" and similar Christian-market projects had a $6 million budget for their take on the story of Abby Johnson, a young Planned Parenthood executive who in 2009 quit to join the protestors outside her own clinic in Bryan, Texas.

Mainstream entertainment's powers that be have made it clear that the images and themes in "Unplanned" are not acceptable, said Cary Solomon, who wrote and directed the film with Chuck Konzelman.

"We offered them money for TV advertising and they turned us down. Now Netflix doesn't want us," said Solomon, earlier this week. "We've made a good movie and people want to see it. … We'll be getting close to $20 million at the box office in another week or so. Why won't some of these companies let people see our movie?"

Most of the "Unplanned" press coverage has focused on the marketplace controversies swirling around the film, as opposed to the film itself. One of the best summaries of the fine details in the drama about this drama ran as a column in The Washington Post.

"They gave the movie an "R" rating -- which meant the trailer could only run before R-rated movies and no one younger than 17 under could see it without a parent's permission," noted Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. "A half-dozen major music labels refused producers' requests to license music for the film. Many major television networks except Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network refused to run ads promoting it. Then, curiously, the movie's Twitter account was suspended through no fault of its own during opening weekend. … Tens of thousands of users (myself included) mysteriously found themselves involuntarily removed from the account's followers and/or unable to follow it in the first place.

"Get the feeling someone doesn't want you to see Unplanned?"

Trying to bring the rest of the 'Unbroken' story to the screen, altar call and all

Trying to bring the rest of the 'Unbroken' story to the screen, altar call and all

The lanky young evangelist from North Carolina was starting to attract media attention by the end of his 1949 tent revival in Los Angeles -- which means that professionals recorded his sermons.

So historians know exactly what the Rev. Billy Graham said during the sermons that changed Louis Zamperini's life. And because of author Laura Hillenbrand's 75-plus interviews with the Olympian and World War II bombardier, millions of readers know what happened inside his heart during the altar call.

In her 2010 bestseller "Unbroken," she wrote: "Why, Graham asked, is God silent when good men suffer? He began his answer by asking his audience to consider the evening sky. … 'I see the stars and can see the footprints of God. … I think to myself, my father, my heavenly father, hung them there with a flaming fingertip and holds them there with the power of his omnipotent hand … and he's not to busy running the whole universe to count the hairs on my head and see a sparrow when it falls, because God is interested in me.' "

Zamperini flashed back to his 47 days in a lifeboat after crashing in the Pacific, including the moment when he stared at the heavens and whispered: "If you will save me, I will serve you forever." Stunned, he tried to flee the tent, but Graham said: "You can leave while I'm preaching, but not now. … Every head bowed, every eye closed."

There's no way around the fact that this was the moment when Zamperini escaped his demons, said Matt Baer, producer of the 2014 movie "Unbroken" and of the new "Unbroken: Path to Redemption."

"At the end of the day, this is a true story," said Baer. Thus, they needed to show Graham in the pulpit and Zamperini on his knees, because "this was Lou's life. This was what happened. We had to show -- in a cinematic fashion -- that this is when his life changed."

This does, however, create a problem for a Hollywood moviemaker. The 2014 film directed by Angelina Jolie contained the camera-friendly scenes in which Zamperini competed in the Olympics, encountered Adolf Hitler, fought sharks in the Pacific and triumphed after brutal standoffs with prison-camp commander Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe.

The movie "Unbroken" ended with Zamperini coming home. That's where "Unbroken: Path to Redemption" begins, with a broken hero trying to wash away Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder nightmares with bottle after bottle of beer and whiskey.

After 70 years, It's (still) a Wonderful (Catholic) Life in Frank Capra's epic

After receiving 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot repented, threw the money away and hanged himself.

Religious authorities used the money, according to St. Matthew's Gospel, to buy the "potter's field, to bury strangers in," which became known as the "field of blood."

Anyone who thinks it was a coincidence that the slums owned by bitter banker Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" were called "Potter's Field" isn't paying attention to the gospel according to Frank Capra.

"There's no question that Capra's great enough" to be listed among Hollywood's greatest Catholic filmmakers, said critic Steven D. Greydanus of DecentFilms.com and The National Catholic Register. He also serves as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.

"It's a Wonderful Life," he stressed, is also Capra's greatest film and the one that best captures his Catholic view of life. Capra directed, co-wrote and produced the film, which was released on Christmas Day in 1946. The movie's 70th anniversary will be celebrated Dec. 9-11 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the model for the fictional Bedford Falls.

"Capra worked harder on this film than any other," said Greydanus. "He was passionate about it and the themes in it. …  I think his worldview was shaped by his Catholic upbringing and, whatever idiosyncrasies he added as an adult, that faith shaped this movie."

'The Young Messiah' -- A new/old Bible movie that tries to stay orthodox

Ages ago, there was nothing unusual about Hollywood producing epics based on Bible stories.

In the so-called Golden Age, these movies had titles like "King of Kings," "The Ten Commandments," "The Robe," "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Barabbas." At least one -- "Ben-Hur" -- was a character-driven classic that helped shape blockbusters for decades to come.

"I have watched them all. … No one called them 'Bible movies' back then or considered them strange. They were big movies about big stories and the big studios knew that lots of people wanted to see them," said Cyrus Nowrasteh. He is the director and co-writer, with his wife, Betsy, of "The Young Messiah" from Focus Features, which hits theaters this weekend.

"These movies went away for a long time … Then there was 'The Passion.' "

Nowrasteh was, of course, talking about "The Passion of the Christ" -- Mel Gibson's 2004 blockbuster that rang up $611,899,420 at the global box office. Hollywood's principalities and powers have been trying, ever since, to find the magic formula that will reach that same audience.

That's a challenge. Just ask the creators of "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Men."

'Amazing Grace' tests faith in the modern Broadway marketplace

NEW YORK -- During his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pickney, one of nine worshipers killed at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., a visibly moved President Barack Obama paused as he pondered mysteries of grief and forgiveness.

"Blinded by hatred," he said, the gunman could not comprehend the "power of God's grace. … Amazing grace. Amazing grace." The president then began singing: "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."

The congregation joined in during that June 26 service, which was not a surprise since researchers say believers worldwide sing the Rev. John Newton's classic at least 10 million times a year.

But the president's solo had an unexpected impact in New York, where the cast of the Broadway musical "Amazing Grace" was doing preview performances before its July 16 opening in a tough town for a show about sin, repentance and salvation.

Some theater insiders, for example, had suggested changing the show's name.

"When Obama sang the song it was like heaven for us. If the president knew this song, that meant it was acceptable, that it wasn't just something for church people," said veteran playwright Arthur Giron, who wrote the musical's book -- dialogue and many lyrics -- along with self-taught composer Christopher Smith.

"You see, many Broadway people didn't know 'Amazing Grace,' let alone what the song was about. They obviously didn't know the story of the song and that was the whole point of our show."

Dark Halloween nights vs. bright All Hallows' Eve rites

It's Halloween in suburbia and most of the houses are decorated and glowing, waiting to serve treats to Disney princesses, superheroes, movie pirates, zombies. Minions and tiny people disguised as puppies, pumpkins or other innocent options.

But a few houses are dark because, for reasons of safety or theology, their inhabitants have made the countercultural decision to avoid contact with a season they believe has grown too dark and dangerous. Others believe "pagan," evil influences have shaped Halloween, deep into its roots.

"It's hard to know precisely what people mean when they use a word like 'pagan.' For many people it means anything that's ungodly or disturbing. … That's what some Americans think Halloween has become -- a clash between good and evil," said Scott McConnell, vice president of LifeWay Research.

A recent LifeWay telephone survey, he said, found that 21 percent of Americans have decided to avoid Halloween altogether, while another 14 percent specifically try to avoid "pagan" elements of the festivities. Nearly 60 percent said Halloween is "all in good fun," while 6 percent of survey participants were "not sure" what they thought.

While some people are worried about ghosts, goblins, devils and other images of death and decay, Americans are much more likely to see Hollywood symbols of "good and evil" arrive at their doors shouting "trick or treat."

Short, candid sermon about faith and life -- from Denzel Washington

As often happens on a campus with strong religious ties, the commencement speaker began with a personal story about life and faith -- with a hint of the miraculous.

The speaker flashed back to a specific date -- March 27, 1975 -- when he had flunked out of college and was poised to enlist in the U.S. Army. Then, during a visit to his mother's beauty parlor, a woman he didn't know gazed into his eyes and demanded that someone bring her a pen. 

"I have a prophecy," she said, writing out key details. She told him: "Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people."

That's the kind of thing Pentecostal Christians say to future preachers all the time. But in this case she was talking to Denzel Washington, a future Hollywood superstar. The key, he recently told 218 graduates at Dillard University in New Orleans, is that her words rang true.

"I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that's not the most important thing," said the 60-year-old Washington, who received an honorary doctorate in the ceremony. "What she told me that day has stayed with me ever since.

"I've been protected. I've been directed. I've been corrected. I've kept God in my life and He's kept me humble. I didn't always stick with him, but he's always stuck with me. … If you think you want to do what you think I've done, then do what I've done. Stick with God."

Indie flick 'Little Boy' fights big labels in movie marketplace

Voters at the Toronto International Film Festival created a stir in 2006 when they gave the long-shot drama "Bella" the People's Choice Award, a prestigious salute that often precedes Oscar nominations. 

Then critics began focusing on a key detail: The unmarried waitress at the heart of the indie flick's plot struggles to decide whether to have an abortion, but then decides not to after being befriended by Jose, a former soccer star with a complex, tragic past. Also, the film was drawing public support from pro-life groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Was this a "Christian," or even "anti-abortion" movie? Meanwhile, a New York Times review called "Bella" a "mediocre cup of mush" and an "urban fairy tale." 

"The minute someone wrote that this was a 'pro-life' movie, there were some people who set out to destroy it," said Eduardo Verastegui, who played Jose. "We saw 'Bella' as a movie about faith and family in Latino communities and the importance of relationships built on respect. … But soon people were talking about the labels, instead of our movie." 

 Now the same creative team is back with "Little Boy," an indie film about faith, family, friendship and the ties that bind, along with one or two near-miraculous plot twists. Once again, writer-director Alejandro Monteverde, actor-producer Verastegui and other "Bella" veterans are headed into the tense territory that divides theater seats and sanctuary pews. "Little Boy" hits theaters on April 25, after early screenings backed by churches, veterans groups and nonprofits that help the poor and homeless. 

The broken soul at the heart of the 'Unbroken' movie

For decades, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's World Wide Pictures unit produced many films with titles like "Souls in Conflict," "The Heart is a Rebel," "The Restless Ones" and "The Prodigal."

Critics relentlessly noted the formula that drove most of these films: The sins of the main character would cause a crisis, then -- somehow -- he would hear a Graham sermon and be born again. Roll credits.

That was cinema. But the drama was real in 1949 when a shattered sinner named Louis Zamperini attended Graham's historic "canvas cathedral" crusade in Los Angeles.

Come judgment day, warned the evangelist, "they are going to pull down the screen and they are going to shoot the moving picture of your life from the cradle to the grave, and you are going to hear every thought that was going on in your mind every minute of the day ... and you're going to hear the words that you said. And your own words, and your own thoughts, and your own deeds, are going to condemn you as you stand before God on that day."

When Zamperini told his life story -- a rebellious childhood, Olympic glory, then the horrors of World War II, including 47 days adrift in the shark-infested Pacific, followed by two hellish years in prison -- this was the climactic scene.