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Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

TV Reviews: “Killing Jesus” on NatGeo + HBO’s “Going Clear” doc exposes charges against Scientology

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Killing Jesus airs this Sunday (Palm Sunday) @ 8:00 (ET) on National Geographic Channel.

Synopsis: The story of the political intrigue that led to the crucifixion of Jesus.  Screenplay by Walon Green based on the book by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Directed by Christopher Menaul. Cast includes Haaz Sleiman (Jesus), Stephen Moyer (Pontius Pilate), Rufus Sewell (Caiaphas), Emmanuelle Chrique (Herodias), John Rhys-Davies (Annas), Eoin Macken (Antipas), Stephanie Leonidas (Salome), John Lynch (Nicodemus), Chris Ryman (Malchus), Klára Issová (Mary Magdalene), Abhin Galeya (John the Baptist), Alexis Rodney (Simon/Peter), Khalid Laith (John), Yousef Sweid (Joseph), Waleed Elgadi (Saul), Joseph Long (Joseph of Arimathea), Joe Doyle (Judas Iscariot), Julie Namir (Young Mary), Jason Kavan (Matthew)  and Kelsey Grammer as King Herod. The long list of executive producers includes Ridley Scott (producer/director Exodus: Gods and Kings), David W. Zucker (TV’s The Good Wife)  and Bill O’Reilly.

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Mini-Review: The gospel according to Bill O’Reilly and company certainly has a realistic look and a cast that, by and large, reflects in appearance the region where the events recounted took place. Though the movie may irk Christians by taking no stand on whether Jesus was the Son of God, Haaz Sleiman, a Muslim, does a fine job of portraying Him (who I believe is the Son of God) as a man of love with a divine connection to the Creator. He brings an admirable heart to the role.

O’Reilly, a Christian, and his collaborators take pains to present a historic, just-the-facts version of events that isn’t skewed by religious beliefs — which, in the end, has the impact of diminishing its dramatic power the story. And, even as strict history, it seems to me that there scenes that probably rely less on historical documentation than on the writer filling in the gaps between the broad history that can be verified and the details that can’t.

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In any event, I’m not a historian, a theologian or particularly smart. But, as a viewer, I think the film may have benefited from keeping its focus to the drama and political maneuverings surrounding final days of Jesus. Attempting to cover Jesus’ entire life made the film seem both a little long and a little rushed.

While I’m a fan of Kelsey Grammer, his inclusion as King Herod seems unnecessary and his death scene borders a bit on camp. And, while its true Grammer has a great voice, utilizing that voice (Herod’s voice) at the end for the narration describing what happened to those involved — and the Christian church — following Jesus’ death seemed a very odd choice.

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Overall, Killing Jesus isn’t awful but is uneven. And that’s the memo.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief airs this Sunday @ 8:00 PM (ET) on HBO.

Synopsis: An investigative documentary profiling eight former members of the Church of Scientology who detail how the church allegedly cultivates true believers and what they were willing to do in the name of religion. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Lawrence Wright. Directed by Alex Gibney (Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine).

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Mini-Review: In what I think are my better moments, I try to resist piling on against any group, religion or person just because it is currently in vogue to do so. For instance, I don’t know one way or the other if Bill Cosby is guilty or innocent of any or all of the multiple sexual charges against him but it’s somehow become politically incorrect not to assume his guilt and, in too many case, to shout that assumption via any online platform available. As an American, that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not accusing anyone of lying but sometimes people do lie and sometimes they’ll lie in large numbers. Trial by Twitter can be a very dangerous thing.

My point being that, even though Scientology is powerful in terms of cash on hand, it is waning in popularity and, despite Tom Cruise and John Travolta (both of whom take hits in Going Clear), it is not currently in vogue. My own opinion of Scientology certainly is not a good one. But I endeavor to be fair.

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All that said, Going Clear is far from a hit-and-run Twitter post. Instead, building on the highly-researched book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright, the compelling documentary makes a very convincing case for staying the heck away from the organization founded by the late sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard who, as presented in the film (and elsewhere), was a bit of a nut job.

The stories of the eight former Scientology members are nearly as riveting as they are disturbing. My suggestion is that you have to be in the right frame mind to take in the film since it’s hardly feel-good television. But Going Clear is a fascinating film and an important reminder of how otherwise intelligent people can be manipulated by skilled manipulators.

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Note: For its part, Scientology issued a letter to The Hollywood Reporter refuting the charges made in the film. That letter can be read here.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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Ted McGinley reflects on faith, the meaning of the Cross and playing a pastor in “Do You Believe?”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

These are Happy Days for Ted McGinley. Pure Flix’s newest faith film, Do You Believe? debuted at No. 6 at the box office last weekend. With an estimated weekend gross of $3.6 million dollars, and a release to over 1,300 theaters nationwide. While not quiet matching the B.O. returns set last year by the company’s unexpected hit God’s Not Dead, I’d say that’s still not bad — especially when you consider the positive audience reaction on social media. In my view, in terms of quality, Do You Believe?, which expand to about 100 additional theaters for Easter weekend,  is actually better than its predecessor in terms of storytelling, acting and production quality.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Do You Believe? is about a group of people whose lives unexpectedly intersect in a way in which they all must individually answer the question of whether or not they believe in the power of the cross of Christ. The ensemble cast includes Mira Sorvino, Cybill Shepherd, Lee Majors, Sean Astin, Alexa PenaVega, Brian Bosworth, Andrea Logan White, musician Shwazye,  UFC star Mavrick Von Haug and, tying it all together, Ted McGinley as a pastor forced to question the depth of his own faith.

I recently had the opportunity to interview McGinley — best known for his regular roles in iconic TV series like Happy Days, The Love Boat and Married…with Children about his role in Do You Believe? and about his own quiet-but-real Christian faith. I was joined in the interview by Jeannie Law of Breathcast.com.

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JWK: You’ve spoken very lovingly and respectfully about your upbringing that was far from the world of show business — about your mother being a rock of the family while your father was busy working to put on the food on the table. What did your father do?

TED MCGINLEY: He sold cardboard boxes and, at one point, sold corrugated egg cartons. When I was a kid I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t president of the company…I was angry at them (the company) forever. He was in sales and he’d have to take these guys out. He was always taking them places that I thought “Well, why can’t we go there?!” He had to take these people and I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the company that they wouldn’t make him the president. But, that’s me. I’m wired to want to be the president. I don’t know that he was. I have no idea where he came down on that deal.

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JEANNIE LAW: What was the appeal for you and the other actors to be a part of such an overtly Christian film?

TM: (Producer) David AR White called me and said “Hey, I think I got something for you.” He sent me the script and when I read it there were four parts that I wanted to play. That never happens, right? So, I thought this is pretty interesting. Right away, just the script alone was enough to pull you in…The story, the writing was everything. The script comes first. If that isn’t good enough, you know it’s gonna be a long ride. So, I was pulled into that. And..,to have the opportunity to play the pastor and sort of marry one of those fantasies of mine as a kid (to be a pastor) to your real life, that’s pretty cool.

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JL: Not that you would really know, but what do you think drew the other actors?

TM: There’s always a part, as an actor, where you just take it because it’s a gig. Billy Bush…(asked) is that a gig or is that a passion project? I said both — how lucky. So, for some actors it is just a gig. Maybe there were some in their (because) it’s just work. But, I think what happens on a film like this — now that they’re seeing it — is now (they) realize the full scope of a project like (this). You can’t work on a film like (this) without being changed in some way.

JWK: Did you and the cast get along well? .

TM: Yes.

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JWK: Considering the subject, it would seem natural that you and the other cast members might talk a bit about the subject of faith. Did you talk about faith with any of the cast?

TM: Well, I certainly did with (Tracy Melcior who plays my wife) on the (film) and the director (Jon Gunn). Most of my scenes were just with them — with (an) exception (being) my interaction with Delroy Lindo (in) the beginning. That was it. But, really, I had to cover it with my (screen) wife and with Jon Gunn. We talked about it quite a bit in the beginning. Brian Bosworth talked about it. The guy who gets hit by the car with the tattoo on his face, Mavrick (Von Haug), he’s a UFC fighting champion but he’s a born-again, out-there, proud (Christian). He talks about it. That’s all he talks about. He’s very cool, a very, very interesting guy. He’s frightening to look at. You think he’s gonna eat you.

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JWK: You mentioned that you have thought about being a minister? Have you ever played one before this film?

TM: Somebody else asked have you played one before and I said “I can’t even remember” half the shows that I’ve done.

JWK: You’ve mentioned that you’re a little shy about talking about your faith — but playing a pastor in this film has, in a way, forced you to open up about your faith. Have you found that to be cathartic?

TM: Yeah, absolutely. I’m very proud of my faith. So, it’s not so much (being embarrassed by it). It’s just it is really personal. It’s not one of those things I’m willing to compromise. I don’t have to bounce it off other people. I’m not willing to take judgment on what I believe — and I would hate to not live up to it. That’s just not fair.

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JWK: In the sense that the film has given you a reason to talk about your faith, have you found that to be at all liberating ?

TM: Yeah, absolutely, for sure.

JL: Because the Cross is so important in the film, I’d like to ask you if you could summarize in one sentence what the Cross means to you?

TM: It means forgiveness. It means everlasting life. I believe it is the Way and it is the Truth. When I say that in the film, that wasn’t…the script. I meant that. I believe it’s the Truth. I think what it really means to me personally is that I’m never alone and that, as a man, as you go through your life, there’s no way anybody gets through this life without being bloodied along the way.  It’s rough. We’re human. It’s hard. So, the truth is that in my deepest, darkest moments, I realize that I’m not alone. I feel bad for people who (don’t have) faith because they don’t have that blanket of comfort…If I’m going out on stage, I always say a prayer right before I go out. Whatever it is. Before I take off on a plane. There’s just always this connection…God knows. I know. That’s all I need. That’s how it works for me.

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JWK: Have there been any films that you’ve seen that have been particularly inspirational to you?

TM: Off the top of my head, I would say Schindler’s List. For me, I think it is the most powerful movie I’ve ever seen. I’m always amazed…that someone would be willing to risk their life for the lives of others.  That’s the truest statement there is, that kind of courage. That one sticks with me.

And the film-making aspect of that is the highest level there is. No matter what category — if it was costume making, if it was lighting, whatever — they were the best of the best. It was a masterpiece (to) me. Hard to watch. I couldn’t speak afterwards.

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JWK: Getting back to Do You Believe? what did your wife think when she saw it?

TM: She loved it. I didn’t let her see it…until I saw the film. So, I watched it but I wouldn’t let her watch it with me because I wanted her to see it at the premiere so that I could really get that experience — and she loved it. She was very, very moved — (to) tears. And that’s fun (to experience it that way with her).

Note: In July Pure Flix will release its next film, Faith of Our Fathers, in theaters. In May the studio is set to begin production on God’s Not Dead 2 which is scheduled for theatrical release next Easter.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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Coming Attractions: “Holderness Family” on TV + “Brother’s Keepers” and “War Room” in theaters

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

TV: The Holderness Family airs on UP TV tomorrow night (Thursday, 3/26) @ 10:00 PM (ET).

Synopsis: Billed as the “first family of viral video,” The Holderness Family is a reality show that follows the eponymous husband-and-wife filmmakers Penn and Kim as they go about their everyday lives in Raleigh, North Carolina while producing musical parodies with titles like Xmas Jammies and their recent Super Bowl anthem It’s Sunday Night. The videos often involve their two kids (eight-year-old Lola and five-year-old Penn Charles) who certainly seem to be enjoying the process. 

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The family’s online videos have been viewed by about 33 million people to date and have been featured across diverse platforms, including Today, Buzzfeed.com, USA Today and US Weekly. They’ve even been parodied on SNL. The series will premiere with back-to-back episodes following the special one-hour season finale of Bringing Up Bates which is UP’s highest-rated series ever. The show is produced by Figure 8 Films (which also produces Bates and TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting) and Greenroom Communications which is the Holderness’ literally in-house production company with commercial clients that include Hidden Valley Ranch, Weight Watchers, the children’s clothing store Chasing Fireflies and Hasbro’s Monopoly.

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Mini-Review: There’s no doubt that Penn, Kim and their kids have great chemistry and seem to genuinely have fun doing the program and their show may very well be a success for UP. After all, how can you go wrong with funny videos featuring kids?  And, I must say, their music has catchy tunes and witty lyrics. The back-and-forth between Penn and Kim is also often quite clever. While some of the some of the relentless aren’t-we-having-fun? banter can seem a little forced, if you like happy family reality shows you may very well enjoy this one.  The bottom line is that The Holderness Family is probably a good business and programming gambit by UP. My only question is why is such a family-friendly show is airing at 10:00 PM?

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Theaters: Brother’s Keeper opens nationwide on May 29th.

Synopsis: Brother’s Keeper follows the story of two orphaned identical twins, Pete and Andy.  As their high school graduation nears, Pete plans to marry Maggie, the love of his life, and head off to school to become a preacher. Andy, who wants nothing to do with God, has no plans, no direction and seemingly no future. In a cruel twist of fate—orchestrated by a rival for Maggie’s heart—Pete finds himself locked away in prison on trumped-up charges. The brothers must decide if they will seek vengeance on those whose corruption and deceit have taken that freedom away.
While revenge may seem sweet, Brother’s Keeper co-director Josh Mills sees the story  as a powerful reminder that only forgiveness can truly heal. He says “The film addresses multiple themes and shows the raw emotion of how truly difficult it is to forgive in extreme circumstances, It captivates the audience into feeling both deep-seeded anger and compassion for the characters…This film will surprise audiences, forcing them to reevaluate what is most important in their own lives.” He adds “The movie grapples with several themes throughout the story, including: reconciliation, second chances, salvation, forgiveness and sacrifice.”

Brother’s Keeper
is a Desert Wind Films production.  Executive Producer Steven Camp helped to secure the rights to The Gift & Giver, the original story that inspired the film.  The movie is directed by Josh Mills and TJ Amato and stars Alex and Graham Miller, Daniel Samonas (iCarly, Wizards of Waverly Place), Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy) MacKenzie Mauzy (Into the Woods),  Ray Wise (How I Met Your Mother), W. Earl Brown (True Detective), Noell Coet, Robyn Lively and country music artist Travis Tritt.
Brother’s Keeper will be released through the movie ticket reservation platform and film distribution company SEATZY which allows moviegoers to participate in the process of supporting the films getting ticket reservations in early and assuring the film will play in the theater closest to them. It also allows moviegoers all across the country the opportunity to bring the movie to their city if the movie is not playing nearby.

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In the fall of 2013, the film was shown at eleven select locations as part of a “sneak peek” week long release. With sold out showings, Brother’s Keeper boasted a successful opening weekend at the box office averaging over $11,000 per screen (including SEATZY presales), beating out national films including Ender’s Game, About Time, Last Vegas and Free Birds.

Theaters: War Room opens nationwide in theaters August 28.

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Synopsis: From the award-winning creators of Fireproof and Courageous comes War Room, a film drama that explores the  power that prayer can have on marriages, parenting, careers, friendships and every area of our lives.

Tony and Elizabeth Jordan have it all—great jobs, a beautiful daughter, and their dream  house. But appearances can be deceiving. Tony and Elizabeth Jordan’s world  is actually crumbling under the strain of a failing marriage. While Tony basks in his    professional success and flirts with temptation, Elizabeth resigns herself to increasing  bitterness. But their lives take an unexpected turn when Elizabeth meets her newest  client, Miss Clara, and is challenged to establish a “war room” and a battle plan of  prayer for her family. As Elizabeth tries to fight for her family, Tony’s hidden struggles  come to light. Tony must decide if he will make amends to his family and prove Miss  Clara’s wisdom that victories don’t come by accident.

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Writer-director Alex Kendrick (who also acts in the movie) says “We made this film to inspire, challenge and motivate viewers to fight the right kind of battles and to fight them the best way.”

Others in the cast include T.C. Stallings (Courageous), comedian Michael Jr., Karen Abercrombie,  Alena Pitts and New York Times bestselling author and Bible teacher Priscilla Shirer in her film debut. Christian speaker Beth Moore has a cameo role.  her first acting role. War Room is directed by Alex Kendrick and produced by his brother Stephen Kendrick and Gary Wheeler.  The Kendrick brothers also co-wrote the script. AFFIRM Films and Provident Films partnered with the Kendricks on the film which was  filmed in and around Charlotte, N.C.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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Muslim actor Haaz Sleiman on portraying Jesus in NatGeo’s “Killing Jesus”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

A Muslim perspective on Jesus. I attended the red-carpet event for Killing Jesus at Lincoln Center last night. The film, shot in Morocco and based on the bestselling book by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, focuses on the political intrigue leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. The film premieres on National Geographic Channel this Sunday (Palm Sunday) at 8:00 PM (ET). The cast includes Stephen Moyer as Pontius Pilate, Kelsey Grammer as King Herod, John Rhys-Davies as Annas, Rufus Sewell as the high priest Caiaphas and, quite interestingly, the Islamic actor Haaz Sleiman (Covert Affairs).

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Muslims, of course, believe Jesus to be a great prophet but not to be the Son of God. I had the opportunity to talk briefly with Sleiman, who projects a very warm and kind demeanor, about the reaction he has received from both the Christian and Muslim communities.

He replied by saying that from both sides he has received “so much support, beautiful support.” He adds “You know, there are few here and there from both sides that were just either not happy about it or had their opinions and I love that — because that means we are doing the right thing. Whenever you create some sort of disturbance in the air, there’s an awakening that happens, an opportunity for a conversation, an opportunity to build bridges, specifically, an opportunity to connect different groups that typically wouldn’t connect with one another…For me, a wonderful example is when you see a rabbi sitting with a priest sitting with an Islamic (cleric) and they only have love. They’re  coming from a place of love of one another and respect even if they disagree about certain things that are fundamental in their beliefs.”

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The UAE-born actor who grew up in Lebanon is busy this TV pilot season with a role in ABC’s Biblically-themed saga Of Kings and Profits that’s shooting in South Africa.

I’ll post my review of Killing Jesus on Friday.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Previous Posts

TV Reviews: "Killing Jesus" on NatGeo + HBO's "Going Clear" doc exposes charges against Scientology
Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture. Killing Jesus airs this Sunday (Palm Sunday) @ 8:00 (ET) on National Geographic Channel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgccekzzZ3Q Synopsis: The story of the political intrigue that led to the crucifixion of Jesu

posted 2:47:35pm Mar. 27, 2015 | read full post »

Ted McGinley reflects on faith, the meaning of the Cross and playing a pastor in "Do You Believe?"
Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kBcmuGuS7M These are Happy Days for Ted McGinley. Pure Flix’s newest faith film, Do You Believe? debuted at No. 6 at the box office last weekend. With an estimated weekend gross of $

posted 8:36:29am Mar. 26, 2015 | read full post »

Coming Attractions: "Holderness Family" on TV + "Brother's Keepers" and "War Room" in theaters
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posted 6:05:11am Mar. 25, 2015 | read full post »

Muslim actor Haaz Sleiman on portraying Jesus in NatGeo's "Killing Jesus"
Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5W3FKCN8Z0 A Muslim perspective on Jesus. I attended the red-carpet event for Killing Jesus at Lincoln Center last night. The film, shot in Morocco and based on the bestselling book by

posted 11:32:30am Mar. 24, 2015 | read full post »

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posted 5:48:32am Mar. 23, 2015 | read full post »

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