Review – A Long Way Off

A Long Way Off is a film that is a modern retelling of the story of the prodigal son. As such it has the foundation, firstly, to be an effective human drama and, second, transition well to a modern secular retelling. However, its successes and ultimate failures are attributable mostly to what is built upon the foundation of one of the most beautiful stories the Bible has to offer.

Aside from a title card at the beginning citing the chapter and verses of Luke wherein the story is disseminated first, the source is never that overt, save for plot points (should you know them) and certain pieces of dialogue (again, should you know them). That title card at the beginning is indicative of one of the issues the film has which is that of lacking in subtlety.

Not to say that this film ever truly hides its nature as faith-based entertainment, but the narrative of a man struggling with his purpose, family, ultimately faith is universal enough such that it should translate to all audiences regardless of their religious or other affiliations.

That’s why in a story of unconditional acceptance of a son by his father, and by extension of the Father for all His children, its an exceptionally curious and tonally incongruous decision to include divisive material that isn’t even veiled but appears in the forms of propaganda, virtual infomercials, politicking and more. One example is Sean Hannity introducing a book that “has converted many liberals to conservatives.” Another is a scene that has narrative purpose: the lost son seeks a gun in self-defense and the salesman is not only a clairvoyant, knowing he never used one, but also a mouthpiece for responsible application of the second amendment.

This isn’t a comment fueled by personal leanings but one that is made noting the lack of narrative necessity of these asides; in the aforementioned gun-buying scene Jake, the prodigal son; didn’t have money anyway, so it was crafted just to make the point that there are responsible gun vendors, etc. These are just a few examples. People who took issue with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty would have an embolism watching this film. Product placement is one thing (and a necessary evil of all levels of filmmaking) but when it starts to feel like you’re not just acknowledging the reality of corporate influence in the world but like you’re leasing airtime to people for infomercials, that comment overtly on the story mind you, it becomes a further issue.

Granted in the modernization of a story there needs to be a sojourn into excess and secularism. However, the perils of leaving home and forsaking ones family cannot be cartoonish if the film is to maximize its full potential. And that’s about the only way to characterize an eye-patch clad gangster with a wise-guy accent. The film still, in spite of itself and due to the strength of the story its basing itself on, has its moving moments.

It seems as if a few things were at work here the film was trying to cram all its ideas in one story whether they truly fit or not, when it really didn’t have to. Despite some stilted scenes and dialogue the core of the film does function, but in an updating it is really about the update that makes or breaks it. A litmus test of a faith-based film is if it’s preaching to the choir. It sounds like a platitude but it’s true, it has to work as a film. This film more often then not seems like it’s not only preaching to the choir but trying to tell us who is welcome in the choir – or maybe just sell us books also.


Films Losing the Religious, One Way or Another

Is there any winning with Hollywood and religious-themed fare? Many times, especially in recent examples, it feels like there isn’t. Frequently the film industry is pilloried for its content, as if visual fictions shape the lives of young people more than scripture. However, then when religion comes back in vogue on film (as almost everything does at some point) then that too creates issues. This year has been one of those years.

Noah was the first title to come under a lot of fire for its Biblical inaccuracy.

However, some of the issues that come to light when those complaints are registered is that the complaints themselves are inaccurate. As highlighted in this piece on The Daily Show.

It’s not an uncommon case at its core. It essentially boils down to selective reading and remembering of the Bible. Yes, the Bible does state that Noah is nude and drunk after the waters have receded and he’s cultivated wine. So one thing that Noah does do well is fill in the blanks wherein Noah is conflicted about his duty and where God is silent he has Noah wonder if he’s following His intent correctly.

Following test screenings where religious viewers had bad feedback Paramount returned with some humorous advertising.

Noah (2014, Paramount)

I agree with their stand that their film about Noah need not be a model of Biblical accuracy. I am fine with most of the decisions made in the film. My main issue with Noah is a filmic one not a dogmatic one inasmuch as I feel many of the conflicts and suspenseful scenarios are somewhat old hat and strung out far past their effectiveness.

The fact that the Bible does not cite Ham as deprived a wife or that Tubal-Cain tried to storm the ark is not a concern to me, in cinematic parlance motivations and conflicts were necessary. For after the flood there is a diaspora of Noah’s children to repopulate the Earth. Some additional incentive in that regard is not a bad thing.

While I can’t say I walked away pleased, I can say I appreciated Noah not being treated as a well-meaning buffoon as he was in The Bible: In the Beginning… And piggybacking on the Jon Stewart comment about the Old Testament, that may well be true, it’s a more dour, wrathful section so why make it Hollywood? Conversely, that and effects work may be why there’s never been a big budget rendition of Revelations. However, Noah did underscore that focused Biblical tales have a better chance of succeeding than sprawling pastiches.

Son of God (2014, 20th Century Fox)

In seeing that Daily Show piece I myself was stunned. I knew that in liking Son of God in spite of some of its sketchiness, incessant gravitas and occasional bouts of television, I would be in a minority. However, I could not predict that the casting of Diogo Morgado as Jesus would prove an issue to some.

The curious thing about this is that it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s Portuguese and occasionally had accent lapses, or even that he’s too Caucasian in appearance, but rather that he’s too attractive. This is even more surprising considering that I didn’t really hear much of this complaint when The Bible, the mini-series from which this feature was spliced, aired initially.

I don’t feel I need to belabor the point that an actor is an actor. He is playing a role. In fact, in an upcoming project on the CW he will be playing the devil – so his look is clearly malleable. I can’t say I haven’t been guilty of over-scrutinizing the appearance of an actor playing Jesus, but I’ve moved past such immature notions and it shouldn’t influence an overall impression of a film.

Heaven Is For Real (2014, Sony Pictures)

I’ve seen plenty of films that earned accolades from religious and family-based organizations that were downright awful. There can be a convergence of quality cinema and doctrinally palatable material, but they are not mutually exclusive and a decision needs to be made on both sides. For the filmmaker and consumer story decisions need to take precedent, and for the viewer only interested in faith-based stories they need to decide whether they’d prefer being ignored or slightly misrepresented. For the latter at least creates a talking point. In seeing trailers for Noah I knew it took liberties with the story. I may not have liked all of the decision or some of the techniques, but I definitely appreciated the intent.

Godspell (1973, Columbia)

For Son of God its tonality and casting of main parts were its strengths, but its trying to be too inclusive in the narrative created some issues. In the most recent film Heaven is For Real I was surprised to find debate and grappling with belief all over the place and thought. I have yet to hear if these doubts also made people uncomfortable but, in this recent rash of religious fare, it may be the best albeit not based in Scripture. Ultimately, films have to treat Scripture as source material, be it blasphemy or not. Essentially the same rules that apply to adapting other works to screen. The Word is still there untouched. The film is just another rendition thereof. Godspell is not any less powerful to me just because Jesus didn’t really have a fro or striped pants.