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Movie Mom
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I spoke to writer-director Rich Christiano about making — and marketing — faith-based films.
You were really a one-man show behind the scenes for this film.
We have a good production team and worked hard on the distribution. This the third film we’ve put out theatrically. We learned a lot doing it. It played over 300 screens. We lot local churches to sponsor the movie in their cities. The churches that put forth the effort did well. We also worked with Christian radio. In Dayton, Ohio we ran 22 weeks because the radio station got the word out. In another city there was a pastor who really got behind the film and we did really well there. Promotion is the hardest part of it. We made sure we had local groups pushing the movie.
Is there a big audience for faith-based films?
The inspirational films have a lot of upside. One-third of this country goes to church each week and that’s our marketplace. And they’re an under-served audience. If everyone who goes to church would see our movie, we’d have “Avatar” numbers. Our society has changed over the last 20 years. If I’d told you back then there would be a weather channel, you would not have believed it. The Christian consumer group is now becoming more and more a player. They audience wants to watch these films; they just need to know they are there.
What do you hear about the way audiences respond to this film?
We’ve had wonderful reactions. There’s an emphasis to read the Gospel of John in the film. I heard from a lady who said her eight-year-old came home from the movie and read the Gospel of John. Then he wanted to go to Bible study like the boys in the movie. Another woman said her husband had drifted from the Lord. But when he came home he said three words that really lifted her spirit: “Where’s my Bible?” A 60-year-old lady told me her sister was visiting from Scotland and that she’d never, ever seen her cry until she saw this film. One of our sponsors in Fort Worth, Texas took his daughter to the film. When she saw a character change in the film, she told her father she wanted to show that she had been changed. There’s a strong message of forgiveness in this film. We’ve shown it in prison. Several of the prisoners wrote me a letter.
What can a movie convey better than a book or a sermon?
The church needs to recognize how powerful the audio-visual really is. I spoke to a man who was a church-goer and asked him if he could remember what his pastor preached a month ago. He couldn’t. I asked him if he could tell me about “The Wizard of Oz.” Even though he had not seen it for 15 years, he could remember all of the details.
Movies manipulate us, affect us, influence us. Most movies influence people away from the Lord. I want to use them to influence people for the Lord. There’s a spiritual battle going on and the Message of Christ is always being snuffed out. Movies are an entertainment medium, but every movie is religious because every movie has standards, every movie has a message about those standards. We’re trying to put forth films that are entertaining but put forth a message for the Lord, to inspire, to challenge thinking, to provoke spiritually, to make people think about eternity.
It was nice to see the film set in 1970 because that lends it a simplicity that suits its themes.
There’s no cell phones, no text messaging, no X-Box. I showed opening credits over pictures like old-school film-making. It’s like Mayberry with Bible study. It’s a throwback. It’s not edgy. It’s simply shot, no visual effects. It’s story-driven. It’s not an action film. It’s got laughs. And it’s got heart.

A movie’s premise can be implausible and still work. The audience does not have to buy into whatever it is that the hero and heroine are after long as we believe that the movie’s characters believe in it. But in “Leap Year,” the premise and its ensuing complications are so preposterous that it just can’t work, despite the best efforts of its adorable leads and postcard-pretty settings. It has become something of a tradition to lead off the year with a weak romantic comedy, and we can cross the 2010 edition off the list.

The ones to blame here are screenwriters Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, also responsible for the mind-numbingly painful Surviving Christmas and Made of Honor. Once, many years ago, they made a fresh and endearing little film about a high school graduation party with a cast of promising newcomers and a soundtrack of unexpected treats. That was “Can’t Hardly Wait.” But since then, they have made one formulaic, synthetic failure after another.

Their first movie had heart. Everything since then has been about what can get studio approval. These are “elevator pitch” movies — the premise is based on a successful film and can be summarized in an elevator ride, and the deal-makers rely on established stars with a lot of appeal to make it work. Their last movie tweaked “My Best Friend’s Wedding” by making the BFF who wanted to stop the nuptials the guy. This one takes the idea of the glossy “French Kiss,” the classics “I Know Where I’m Going” and “It Happened One Night” and about two dozen other squabbling-couple-dealing-with-a-disaster-prone-journey movies and, as Woody Allen once said of his mother’s cooking, “puts it through the de-flavorizing machine.”

Amy Adams in full twinkle mode plays Anna. She is, predictably, uptight, a bit of a control freak, and dying to have her perfect-on-paper boyfriend propose to her. But alas, he gives her diamond earrings instead of an engagement ring, just before he leaves for a meeting in Dublin. When her ne’er-do-well father (John Lithgow) — can his unreliability be the source of her need to be in control? — tells her that in Ireland, women can propose on February 29, she decides that in spite of her lifelong fear of flying, she will pop over to Dublin to pop the question.

But of course the best-laid plans of perky heroines in romantic comedies always go wrong, and here enters the complication. Handsome bartender Matthew Goode, for reasons that are too dull to go into, agrees to get her the rest of the way to Dublin, and all of the predictable problems line up like an obstacle course between us and time to go home. Car problems. Party crashing. Having to pretend to be married. Some flickers of romance that are quickly crushed by some un-funny contrivances and pratfalls. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

Cute kid + The Rock in a pink tutu = movie deal.

After the success of The Game Plan, Dwayne Johnson (nom de wrestling: The Rock) has become the go-to guy for movies about taming the gentle giant. So once again, the fun is seeing Johnson playing an arrogant jock who is schooled by just about everyone.

This time, Johnson is a hockey player named Derek who has been knocked down to the minor leagues following an injury. His nickname is “The Tooth Fairy” because his blocking is so aggressive that it sometimes knocks out the opposing player’s teeth. He is proud that he leads the league in penalty time. But he is cynical and disappointed in his life, and when a young fan says he hopes to play professionally, Derek bluntly tells him that it will never happen.

Derek is dating Carly (sweetly played by Ashley Judd), a single mom with a cute little girl and a sulky middle school boy. Derek impatiently almost tells Carly’s daughter that there is no tooth fairy. That night, under his pillow, he receives a summons. Suddenly, he has sprouted wings and is wearing a pink tutu. For the crime of failing to believe, he has been sentenced to two weeks of duty as a tooth fairy. With guidance from an administrative fairy (the towering Stephen Merchant of the UK’s “The Office” and “Extras”) and the fairy godmother (a regal Julie Andrews), Derek is outfitted with all of the necessary equipment (including a male version of the uniform) and sent out to retrieve some teeth and tuck money under some pillows.

This turns out to be quite a challenge. Breaking into people’s homes for benign reasons is still breaking and entering, and Derek will need his shrinking gunk, amnesia powder, and invisibility spray. And there will be times when a tooth fairy emergency will come at the wrong moment, and misunderstandings will have to be straightened out. The film has a number of screenwriters who seem to have missed a meeting on consistency in the tooth fairy rulebook and the wings themselves are not very attractive. But everyone is game, the silly humor is good-natured, and Merchant is not the only one who has some fun making Johnson seem small.

There have been many articles about the end of the era of the movie critic as print media cuts have led to the departure of many of the best-established and most widely-read commentators on film. But Roger Ebert says this is the golden age of film criticism.

Never before have more critics written more or better words for more readers about more films. But already you are ahead of me, and know this is because of the internet.

Twenty years ago a good-sized city might have contained a dozen people making a living from writing about films, and for half of them the salary might have been adequate to raise a family. Today that city might contain hundreds, although (the Catch-22) not more than one or two are making a living.

Film criticism is still a profession, but it’s no longer an occupation. You can’t make any money at it. This provides an opportunity for those who care about movies and enjoy expressing themselves.

I am honored to have my photo included among the critics he discusses. When people ask me how to become a movie critic I say, “I just waved my magic wand. You’re a movie critic! All you have to do is write reviews.” And if they ask me how to become a good movie critic, I say, “It takes more than loving movies. It takes more than having opinions. It takes more than knowing a lot about movies, though all of those things are important. You have to be a person with a full life, a vitally engaged head, and a heart that is open to experience and learning. I can’t bear talking to people who think they know movies because they can keep all the IMBD data in their heads.
A movie critic is first and foremost a writer. And if you ever want anyone to read your reviews they had better be lively, informative, and vivid. Most of the movies you see won’t be very entertaining or filled with insight, but your reviews have to be both, every time.” Watch a lot of movies, yes, but read a lot of books and live a lot of life because you will need all of that. The readers deserve it, and you know what? The movies and the people who make them do, too.