Is Pure Flix, the ‘Christian Netflix,’ any good? I’m about to find out

 

What would Jesus watch? Maybe Pure Flix, dubbed the “Christian Netflix” by many viewers.

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-headquartered Christian film production and distribution company was founded in 2003 by David A.R. White and Russell Wolfe. The company’s biggest hit to date is “God’s Not Dead,” which made almost $61 million on a $2 million budget, according to IMDb.

Pure Flix is also the studio behind that film’s sequel, as well as “Do You Believe?” which could be described as a Christian version of “Crash” starring Sean Astin as a cynical doctor. Upcoming releases include the Lee Strobel biopic “The Case For Christ” and October’s “Same Kind of Different As Me,” a true story about a Fort Worth art dealer, his wife and the homeless man they befriend.

The Pure Flix home page on March 2, 2017.
The Pure Flix home page on March 2, 2017.

Pure Flix also offers a streaming service not unlike Netflix, or Hulu, or HBO NOW. The service is free for one month and then jumps to $7.99 after that. It’s available on Android, the Apple App Store, Roku and Amazon. The site advertises “thousands of titles” with “no language, sex or violence surprises” in any of its content, which includes movies and TV shows in genres like faith, education, shorts, kid’s choice and sermons and ministry. Sample titles include the aforementioned “Do you Believe?,” “Saved By Grace” and “Revelation Road.”

The service allows Christian parents the ability to control what their kids are watching without worry, and that’s a big deal in today’s cord-cutting world where entertainment is available at the click of a button. And for those so inclined, many of the films offer an opportunity to discuss matters of faith with your family.

But many of these films have very low or nonexistent Rotten Tomatoes ratings and (at least in my case Wednesday night,) look to be made on shoestring budgets in an attempt to relate a message that would comfort the intended audience but alienate possible converts. I’m a Christian, and I have always been curious about why there has to be a divide between “Christian” film and “secular” film, and why there’s such a tension between the two.

More: ‘Silence’ scholar: Tough film ‘should challenge Christians’

For a week, I’m going to be watching one movie or TV episode a night from Pure Flix’s streaming service, and will be live-tweeting my experiences on Twitter @jakeharris4. I started my journey last night with a screening of “New World Order: The End Has Come,” a poor man’s “Left Behind.” It was made for $50,000 and wasn’t released in theaters, according to IMDb.

The movie paints a not-very-bleak picture of a post-Rapture America as a place where the Mark of the Beast looks a lot like the Wu-Tang Clan logo, the Antichrist is the only Hispanic man in the film and people pronounce the final book of the Bible as “Revelations” with an “s” (if you’re going to make a movie about the book of the Bible that talks about the end of the world, at least copy edit).

The plot follows young Demi and Christen, two friends who were not raptured with everyone else and are living out the earth’s last days after Supreme Chancellor Lord Aldo Deluca has been Satan-resurrected after he is assassinated while trying to broker a peace treaty in the Middle East. Or something. The movie’s explanation for the Rapture is never too clear, content to throw around words like “Iran” and “assassination-by-hire scheme” to explain why the bad guys are here.

By the end of the movie, Demi and Christen must choose whether to be branded with the Mark of the Beast or be martyred for their beliefs. There’s not a lot of room for subtlety in this movie, so you can guess which one is martyred and which one takes the easy way out. I don’t recommend it unless you want to relive your childhood memories of watching really bad Tribulation-themed movies in Sunday School (or maybe that’s just me, I don’t know). It would make a great candidate for the “How Did This Get Made?” podcast. If you really want to find out what happens, check my Twitter feed.

So while my first viewing experience with Pure Flix wasn’t pleasant, I’m keeping an open mind. I’ll be watching and live-tweeting “Do you Believe?” tonight, using the hashtag #PureFlixWeek. And if you or someone you know uses Pure Flix’s streaming service, send me a message or comment on this article- I’d love to know your thoughts!

Terrifying thriller “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is not for the squeamish

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For three generations in Grantham, Virginia, the Tildens have owned and operated the local morgue and crematorium. Tony (Brian Cox) has been showing his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) the ropes, but he’s not too excited to carry on with the family business. His girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) is ready for him to come clean with his father and Austin is close to mustering up the courage to tell him.

After a long day at work, Austin and Emma are planning to head out to the movies when the local sheriff drops in with a new body. It’s an anonymous “Jane Doe” found buried in the basement at the site of a home invasion. The cops at the crime scene can’t figure out what happened, saying that it looks like the other victims “were trying to break out” of the house. Sheriff Sheldon needs a cause of death for the Jane Doe body before he can fully report on the case to the press. He asks Tony and Austin to work into the night to tell him what really happened to her.

Tony is a self-professed traditionalist. He is less concerned with the crime scene details and more interested in nailing down the exact specifics that led to death. Each step of trying to uncover the story behind Jane Doe’s demise leads farther down a path of confusion.

This is the English-language debut for “Troll Hunter” director Andre Ovredal. He masterfully manages a foreboding sense of dread as each new secret comes to light during the autopsy. Not for the squeamish, the procedures in the film are detailed in a very graphic manner as the potentially ritualistic murder of this woman is slowly revealed.

To say much more would spoil the film’s surprises, but it’s fair to say that it hits all the right notes. Not only is the story clever, but the performances from Cox and Hirsch absolutely take it to the next level. As a powerful storm rolls in and the power starts to flicker, these actors elevate what could’ve been a simple genre exercise into something far more effective and truly terrifying.

“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” plays again at Fantastic Fest on Wednesday at 9 p.m. It has been acquired by IFC Midnight and is expected to be released in late December. 

Post-apocalyptic “The Bad Batch” bites off more than it can chew

bad-batchIn her second full-length film, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour throws us into a fairly specific post-apocalyptic world of her own creation and provides viewers very few details.

In this (possibly) not-so-distant future, those in society who are most unredeemable are tattooed with a number behind their ear and thrown through a perimeter fence into a far-flung wasteland that is, or at least was, part of Texas. If this happens to you, you’re in the “bad batch.”

When we meet Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), she’s freshly inked and dropped off into the desert with only a sandwich, some water, and a pair of very colorful jean shorts. While there appears to be nothing in the distance as far as the eye can see, it isn’t long before Arlen is captured.

You see, there appear to be two distinct ways of survival if you are an awful enough to be exiled here. Some people make it to Comfort, a safe-haven community where anything is available for a price. Those picked up before they arrive in Comfort are snagged by “bridge people,” a cannibalistic tribe of bad batchers (many of whom are inexplicably bodybuilders) who survive by dismembering their prey and honing some serious butchering skills.

Arlen’s price for survival is literally an arm and a leg. She escapes from her predators and makes her way to Comfort, which is like if “Mad Max: Fury Road” went to Burning Man. Five months after her traumatic limb losses, Arlen is out scavenging for scraps, when she comes face-to-face with a woman and her young daughter. These are bridge people who are unfortunate enough to have crossed her path.

This setup of this first thirty minutes or so are incredibly promising, but then we get ninety more minutes of nonsense. The film’s widescreen frame is filled with striking visuals and heavily detailed set design. The technical merits are plentiful, but the film is overloaded with a bloated storyline and groan-worthy dialogue. Along the way, we’re treated to an unrecognizable Jim Carrey and the guru of Comfort played by Keanu Reeves. In one particularly awful scene, he explains his power and influence by regaling Arlen with a story about how he makes the sewer system work. He also appears to be managing a baby farm, surrounded by young pregnant women all wearing shirts that say “The Dream Is Inside Me.”

Unfortunately, “The Bad Batch” presents many more questions than it answers and survives on style over substance. Amirpour does have an uncanny knack for setting the tone with an incredibly propulsive soundtrack that features music from Darkside, Pantha Du Prince, and White Lies. It’s a shame that these audiovisual merits of the film far exceed the storytelling.

The film does not have any scheduled encore screenings at Fantastic Fest. It has been acquired by Screen Media Films and Netflix, who will premiere it in early 2017. 

“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is the greatest/most spot-on movie title since “Snakes on a Plane” (and is much better than “Snakes on a Plane”)

“I like this idea,” the character of Dash Shaw says in the filmmaker Dash Shaw’s “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.” “It has the quality of a dream.”

myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_02That notion holds for all of Shaw’s striking feature debut. The cartoonist is a well-known and prolific quantity in underground comics circles. NPR named  his “New School” one of the best of 2013. “Bottomless Belly Button” (Fantagraphics) and “Bodyworld” (Pantheon) are strong and distinctive — part Gary Panter punk squiggle, part Charles Shulz emotion, part fine art color sense, part 21st century technique.

“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” written and directed by Shaw, takes his distinctive technique — a blend of traditional drawing, animation techniques (such as acetate drawings and paintings laid over a background that might be painted or colored by hand) and Photoshop – and translates it to a full-length animated feature. Well done, everybody.

Dash Shaw (voiced, in a perfect bit of casting, by Jason Schwartzman, who has made a career out of unlikable protagonists) is a sophomore. He and his best pal Assaf (Reggie Watts) work on the school newspaper with Verti (Maya Rudolph). Indeed, the three are the newspaper, and their daily lives are filled with what you remember from high school: mean girls such as Mary (Lena Dunham, also note perfect), weird lunch ladies named Lorrain (a very gravely Susan Sarandon) and various bullies.

Dash, who sees himself as the hero of his own life and possibly everyone else’s, loves the sound of his own voice, especially when overwriting for the paper. As Assaf and Verti grow closer, Shaw is feeling left out, printing bitter rants about his now-estranged friend. Determined to get a real scoop, Dash discovers a genuine problem with the school. Too late — an earthquake sends it literally falling into the ocean.

The allegory for struggling in high school becomes concrete (and rather damp) as Dash and his band of outcasts must avoid sharks, drowning and despair as they ascend the Titanic-like school to get to the senior floor and the roof, hopefully to “graduate” by surviving

Shaw (the creator) does a fine job mixing emotional nuance, surrealism and one of the most striking stylistic mash-ups most animation fans have ever seen (though it is almost exactly like Shaw’s comics work). Crude-looking (but very canny) black outlines are filled with flat, ever-shifting colors depending on mood and plot. Watercolors blend with gouache and oils, John Cameron Mitchell shows up as the king jock and there’s a really great ongoing Go Nagai joke.

Which all makes for a movie that turns a tired indie trope — the outcasts in high school flick — into something fresh, weird and at all times lovely to look at.

 

‘Arrival’ is the year’s best sci-fi film, bar none

"Arrival"
“Arrival”

Let’s get one thing clear: It takes nothing away from “Arrival” — as powerful as it is — to note that director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer were working with extraordinary raw material.

“Arrival,” which screened Sept. 21 as part of Fantastic Fest and will open wide in November, is based on “Story of Your Life” by the amazing Ted Chiang. It is perhaps the single best sci-fi novella of the past 25 years.

(Chiang, it should be noted, releases no wine before its time — of his 15 *total* short stories, novelettes and novellas, seven have won a total of 14 awards; dude’s batting average is insane).

Now, that said, “Story of Your Life” is a deeply internal work, and it is a tiny miracle that Villeneuve and Heisserer figured out a way to translate this tale to film in the first place, let alone make it so touching and smart.

It’s a movie about the day the world metaphorically shifted on its axis, but it is mostly the story of one woman.  Like the very best science fiction, “Arrival” is hopeful and a bit implausible and slightly corny and mind-bending and a little bit sad. It fills a where-do-we-go-from-here shaped hole in the heart and manages to be a canny look at the nature of grief and time at the same time.

We first see Lousie Banks (Amy Adams, as good as she gets without having a scene-chewy part) mourning the loss of her daughter, whom we see, in a montage, from her joyful birth to too-early death. Then, we see the aliens arrive — 12 smooth, black ovals, hovering over various points on the globe.

Banks, a brilliant linguist, is brought in by the military (represented by Forest Whitaker) and the CIA (represented by Michael Stuhlbarg) to attempt to communicate with the aliens — massive, seven-legged creatures that humans come to call “heptapods.” Their speech is impenetrable but, working with physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner), Banks starts communicating with the heptapods, whose written language may or may not be the key to their presence on Earth.

While Banks holds off the U.S.’s military, the rest of the world (by which I mean the Chinese and Russians, mostly) is starting to freak out at this stuff. Paranoia soon takes over, and suddenly nobody is sharing information with anyone else. The question hangs in the air like one of the alien ships: Do the heptapods mean to do us harm, or are they here for another reason?

Adams gives a tight, measured performance, while Villeneuve,  cinematographer Bradford Young, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and editor Joe Walker dole out information and color it in knowing ways, building to third act revelations that make for profoundly moving film-making, the sort that demands that you watch it again from the beginning.

 

 

New movies: ‘Popstar,’ ‘Me Before You,’ ‘Weiner’ and more reviews

 

A scene from "Popstar."
A scene from “Popstar.”

“Popstar, Never Stop Never Stopping,” tops the list of this week’s new movies.

Here’s a quick link to that review and others coming out on Friday.

For “Popstar,” go here.

For “Sunset Song,” go here.

For the documentary “Weiner” and his questionable sexting, go here.

For the surgary “Me Before You,” go here.

And for “Almost Holy,” go here.

On Friday, you’ll notice that no review of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” was printed in Austin360. That’s because we didn’t have a review in time. But if you’re interested, it gets a D+ from Katie Walsh of Tribune News Service.

SXSW review: ‘Don’t Think Twice’

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(L-R) Mike Birbiglia, Tami Sagher, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, and Kate Micucci in Mike Birbiglia’s DON’T THINK TWICE. | Credit: Jon Pack

Improvisational comedy can make some people uncomfortable. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is — maybe it’s the playfulness and lack of shame on the part of the performers. Maybe people who don’t like it are just jealous of the performers’ fearlessness. What is clear once you spend time around a group of improvisers, however, is that the best groups have a sense of family, support and shared mission that you don’t often find among groups of adults.

That familial (if sometimes dysfunctional) dynamic of encouragement and sacrifice makes for a solid backdrop for writer-director Mike Birbiglia to explore what happens when individual ambitions and latent jealousy can poison a group.

“Don’t Think Twice,” which made its world premiere at South by Southwest at the Paramount Theatre starts with expository slides and voiceovers that explain the history of improvisation and the main tenants of the art. To wit: 1) Say ‘yes.’ 2) It’s all about the group. 3) Don’t think.

Birbiglia, whose 2012 directorial debut ‘Sleepwalk with Me,’ also explored with vulnerability the act of creating art, plays Miles, a 36 year-old approaching middle age with very few options. He created the Commune (a spot-on name for a NYC improve troupe) that has built a local following and graduated some talent to “Weekend Live,” an obvious stand-in for “Saturday Night Live,” eccentric and intimidating executive producer and all.

But despite forming the troupe and serving as the instructor at the Commune, Miles can’t seem to catch his break. He had an audition for “Weekend Live” years ago, but his anxieties got the best of him. Or so he says.

Miles makeshift family is rounded out by the nebbish, self-effacing Bill (Chris Gethard), the quirky and creative Allison (Kate Micucci), spoiled pot-head Lindsay, who still lives with her parents (Tami Sagher) and the talented, charismatic and achingly cute couple of Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs).

The film’s quick edits capture the clever and snappy repartee shared by the group, most of whom live together in a college dorm-style apartment, and the roving camera realistically delivers the feel of being at an intimate improve show. But the light-heartedness of lives spent feeding their creative jones while working horrible day jobs has recently been overshadowed by the looming specter of the loss of their performance space.

Adding to the tension is the fact that Jack lands a gig with “Weekend Live,” a change in his status that splinters the group and strains Jack’s relationship with Samantha, a performer of equal if not greater talent who seems content to toil for her art outside of the limelight. The film is at its best when it digs into the growing rift between Jack and Samantha. Key brings ambition and boyish charm to a character torn between the life he’s been living and the brighter future that might light ahead, and you can’t take your eyes off Jacobs, as she wanders from charmingly goofy and sprightly, all big, shifting eyes and loose movements, to troubled and introspective. She has an ability to wear her internal feelings plainly on her face while still remaining some of a mystery.

Birbiglia brings a slow-building sadness to Miles, a man approaching middle age but still sleeping with unwitting students, but there is just enough self-awareness to keep the character from straying into obnoxious self-pity. Not all of the characters have the same depth as its three central figures, and the movie attempts to accomplish a lot in its short 90-minute running time. The character’s backstories get fleshed out in short order during the film’s climax, and while that scene may feel a bit contrived, it wholly captures the spirit of the movie and the underlying questions it poses: What happens when the group isn’t the most important thing? Can you simultaneously have everyone else’s back while looking out for yourself? When is it ok to go your own way?

SXSW Film 2016: ‘Sidemen: Long Road To Glory’

'Sidemen' features the incredible photography of over 15 shooters that captured these legendary bluesmen over the course of their long careers. These three images of Pinetop, Willie and Hubert capture the film's essence. | Credit: Photos by: Jerome Brunet and Sandro Miller
‘Sidemen’ features the incredible photography of over 15 shooters that captured these legendary bluesmen over the course of their long careers. These three images of Pinetop, Willie and Hubert capture the film’s essence. | Credit: Photos by: Jerome Brunet and Sandro Miller

Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith were some of the greatest musicians to ever play the blues. Director Scott Rosenbaum had an idea to bring them together for a documentary that would culminate with a big reunion show inspired by “The Last Waltz.”

When all three men died in 2011, Rosenbaum had to completely refocus his plan. The end result made its world première last night on the first evening of SXSW.

These musical geniuses played with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, pioneers of electric Chicago blues. Over the years, their riffs and beats would power some of the most iconic songs ever to be recorded.

Their work struggled to be recognized in the mainstream until the early 1960s when British teens, removed from the racial lines that divided the music in America, started to fall in love with American blues music. It ended up influencing an entire generation of artists from England like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton who helped to turn American teens on to these musicians who were right in their backyard.

Perkins, Sumlin and Smith all rose out of the Jim Crow South and ended up in Chicago, music already deep in their blood. Perkins ended up on piano and Smith behind the drums for Muddy Waters while Simon played guitar for Howlin’ Wolf. They were always in the background, but their impact on the music was undeniable. They helped to establish the cornerstone of rock and roll and this film lovingly tells their stories.

Thankfully, the filmmakers were able to get over two years worth of interviews under their belt before these titans of the blues passed away, meaning that we get to hear many stories in their own words. Comedian and podcaster Mark Maron narrates the story, providing a little extra context to the important history and legacy of these players. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman and Johnny Winter are among the artists who shared stages with these men over the years who are also interviewed and recount some of their favorite memories.

At the post-film Q&A, a local audience member asked why Clifford Antone’s story of supporting the blues in Austin didn’t make it into the film. It was argued that he was the one who convinced Pinetop Perkins to spend his final years living in town and to continue playing. Rosenbaum admitted that there were hundreds of hours of footage that had to be narrowed down and that, in shaping the final cut of the film, a lot was left out.

“Sidemen” is an important story of friendship, perseverance, and passion. In the end, it seems fitting to have focused on who these men were and tell the stories of how they all went from humble, if not difficult, beginnings to become the greatest blues musicians who ever lived even if their names weren’t on the marquee. These are stories of skill but, also to a degree, of chance. Had they not been in the right place at the right time, who knows how different their legacies might be.

Other screenings: 10:45a.m. Wednesday, Alamo South Lamar; 1:45 p.m. March 19, Topfer Theater.

‘Boy & the World’ is charming bit of Brazilian animation (Our grade: B)

A boy tries to reunite his family in the Brazilian animated movie "Boy and the World." (GKids)
A boy tries to reunite his family in the Brazilian animated movie “Boy and the World.” (GKids)

Charles Solomon – Los Angeles Times

One of the first animated features made in Brazil, “Boy & the World” is a brightly colored, often charming film that juxtaposes simple, hand-drawn animation with kaleidoscopic computer-generated patterns.

When his father leaves to find work in the city, a boy named Cuca follows him, hoping to reunite his family. Far from his rural home, the boy witnesses scenes of industrial agriculture, colorful festivals, ecological destruction and oppressive urban life.

» Read full review at MyStatesman.com » Find showtimes for “Boy & the World”

‘The Revenant:’ DiCaprio vs. everything the frontier can throw at him (Our grade: B+)

Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant."
Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant.”

Alternately shockingly violent and bleakly serene but always ice-cold, Alejandro Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” is a gnarly, pitiless ode to a time and place in America when was life was nasty, brutish and often short.

Thanks to world-class work from Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, the nearly three-hour film is gorgeous through and through, with ferocity lensed as gracefully as the grim, silent landscapes.

» Read full review at MyStatesman.com  » Find showtimes for “The Revenant”