For the second week of May, top movies in theaters focus on grace and are for a range of audiences and ages, bringing redemptive light into our current darkness. These include: Black Panther (PG-13), for teens through adults; Chappaquiddick (PG-13), for older teens through adults; Pandas (G), for all ages; The Miracle Season (PG), for teens through adults; The Greatest Showman (PG), for older children through adults; and God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (PG), for teens through adults.
Addressing hope for reconciliation, Black Panther picturizes how to avoid, thwart and prevent evil through unified sharing and coordination of technology with good leaders. In the dangerous world in which we live, superhero movies with heroes of with good moral character, integrity, and self-sacrifice are popular partly because audiences want to see heroes who enable good to prevail over evil. This movie is rated PG-13, due to the violent struggles between good and evil. It is appropriate for middle schoolers-adults.
Black Panther is about Wakanda, an African nation, which has developed “vibranium,” an invaluable metal from a meteorite. Vibranium has helped Wakanda produce extremely advanced technology and civilization, which they have kept hidden from the world, as they pose as an impoverished country.
Wakanda struggles with the following universal questions and dilemmas: Should they share what they have with those in need? If they share, will they lose control of their resources? Will those with whom they might share use their technology for evil? Is the king’s highest loyalty and duty to his nation or to humanity? If Wakanda refuses to help those they can, how will it affect Wakanda? Can Wakanda use its power and technology for the good of all, as well as for their own country?
Where the earlier American Black Panther group used power for militancy, this latest Black Panther uses technology and power for the Good of All.
Another top pick movie, Chappaquiddick, (produced by Mark Ciardi, who also produced The Miracle Season) continues in theaters. It highlights the need for truth and true Christian virtues. This PG-13 movie is appropriate for older teens through adults. Chappaquiddick gets beneath the spin to the facts of a critical day in the life of Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy to shine light on that darkness of the events related to that day. It is a much-needed look at political spin that covers over, whitewashes, and hides the truth.
This riveting suspense drama picturizes the events surrounding the tragic death of Mary Jo Kopechne, after Ted Kennedy drives his car off the infamous Chappaquiddick bridge. This movie, which gets behind the scenes to reveal the truth of these events, features Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy and Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne. The cast also includes: Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, Olivia Thirlby, and Bruce Dern.
This movie is based on true accounts, documented in the inquest (a judicial inquiry to ascertain the facts relating to an incident, such as a death) from the investigation in 1969. From these facts from true accounts, director John Curran and writers Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen, intimately expose the hiding of truth by political power and spin as they focus on the life of Ted Kennedy.
On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy and campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne left a party on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, heading into darkness in Kennedy’s car. There is no question that the car ended up overturned in shallow water with Kopechne trapped inside or that Kennedy waited 10 hours to report the accident. It was the tragic end of a promising life for Kopechne and the end of any presidential hopes for the senator.
Allen and Logan decided to focus on this critical week in Kennedy’s life with its historical backdrop. At this time, the country had seen the back-to-back assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 and Bobby Kennedy in June 1968. Ted was at his brother’s side the night he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Mary Jo Kopechne too had worked on his Bobby’s presidential campaign. For contrasting historical context, in July of 1969, the country watched the Apollo 11 space mission on TV, which fulfilled JFK’s promise to take America to the moon. Just two days after Ted left Kopechne to die in shallow water, Neil Armstrong planted a flag on the lunar surface.
Always living in the shadow of his two more successful older brothers and now the last political hope of the Kennedy family, Ted believed that winning the presidency was his chance to redeem his brothers’ and family’s legacies, as well as securing his own. However, these desires were spectacularly and tragically stopped one fatal night in the darkness due to Ted’s own choices and behavior.
“We never wanted this to be a conspiracy movie,” Logan says. “We pulled from objective facts to lay the groundwork—no insinuation, no innuendo, but the real truth,” adds Allen. “That’s why our collaboration with director John Curran was so successful because we shared that passion for fact-finding.”
See my interview on Sonoma Christian Home with Chappaquiddick producer Mark Ciardi (The Miracle Season, Invincible, Secretariat, The Rookie, McFarland USA… and former major league pitcher, whose company fully financed the production of Chappaquiddick).
Like Allen and Logan, Ciardi said in our interview, “…We did not want to editorialize but just tell the emotional story based on the facts.” Further, he said that the many layers of the Chappaquiddick story are what make it relatable today. “It does feel uniquely current right now, even though the story happened in 1969,” Ciardi said. Furthermore, in my interview with him, Mark Ciardi says that this movie speaks to the issues of ”… abuse of power and gives voice to the voiceless… putting oneself in potentially dangerous situations…We must each read between lines, seek Truth, and have a rational sense of right and wrong… History repeats itself. There are consequences for our actions…The end does not justify the means…”
Pandas (G, for all ages) continues in select IMAX® and IMAX® 3D theaters. Pandas is a breathtaking documentary with adventure and amazing experiences for the whole family.
After years of success breeding captive pandas, scientists at the Chengdu Research Base in China take their work to the next stage to prepare and launch captive-born cubs for release in the wild.
This film follows a researcher, whose passion leads her to initiate a new reintroduction technique inspired by a black bear rehabilitator in rural New Hampshire. Beginning as a cross-cultural collaboration, a life-changing journey emerges for a team of scientists and one special panda named Qian Qian. (pronounced Chen Chen).
This film, captured with IMAX® cameras, follows Qian Qian as she begins an exciting new adventure into the mountains of Sichuan. She experiences nature for the first time and discovers the freedom, as well as the perils, of the wild side.
Another inspirational, redemptive family movie continuing in theaters is The Miracle Season. After the tragic death of star volleyball player Caroline “Line” Found, a team of dispirited high school girls find unity and inspiration under the leadership of their tough-love coach to win the state championship.
The Miracle Season is a true-life drama, in which one girl story leads her team and town to victory in volleyball. In Iowa, the girls’ volleyball team, from Iowa City West High School, brings their community together, and Caroline Found – or “Line,” as she nicknamed herself – is their inspiration for the season.
The 17-year-old Line is a role model who is vivacious, life-loving, compassionate, and caring. She makes sure kids don’t eat alone in the lunchroom and that everyone gives their all at volleyball games. Line is the captain of the girls’ volleyball team’s captain. She helps coach Kathy “Coach Brez” Bresnahan (played by Oscar winner, Helen Hunt) rally everyone together to repeat their championship win from the previous year.
Then, as her senior year is about to begin, Line is in an accident that leaves her team, her school, and her father, Ernie (performed by Oscar winner William Hurt), heartbroken by their loss. Two weeks later, Ellyn, Line’s mother, succumbs to cancer and the grief for all seems overwhelming.
But when the team starts to wonder if they can move forward, Ernie’s strength and faith encourage them. Caroline’s best friend, Kelley Fliehler, won’t let down the girl she loved since childhood. Kelley also encourages her classmates, Coach Brez, and even the opponents the City West team faces across the net to “Live Like Line” – to never back down, never stop smiling, and always give 100 percent, even against seemingly impossible odds. By the time their miracle season wraps up, the Iowa City Trojans help Ernie, Coach Brez, and the whole community find the strength and spirit to live like Line, which makes it The Miracle Season.
Another top pick movie that has continued in theaters into April with the theme of healing conflict to find reconciliation and unity among diverse characters is the spectacular musical The Greatest Showman. Love, grace, and unconditional love are also dominant themes in The Greatest Showman. This original musical is inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum.
This charming movie tells the story of the visionary, P.T. Barnum, who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation. P.T. Barnum played by Hugh Jackman, founder of the three-ring circus, started with nothing; but he envisions a grand spectacle of theater, acrobatics, and amusement.
Academy Award® nominee Hugh Jackman especially likes “…the idea that your talent, your imagination and your ability to work hard should be the only things that determine your success. He (PT Barnum) knew how to make something out of nothing, how to turn lemons into lemonade. I’ve always loved that quality. He followed his own path, and turned any setback he had into a positive. So many things I aspire to in my life are embodied in this one character.”
Australian director Michael Gracey says “…The Greatest Showman also touches on another idea of these times…families built around allowing people to express who they are without reservation… A big idea in the film is that your real wealth is the people that you surround yourself with and the people who love you…Barnum pulled people together who the world might otherwise have ignored. And by bringing each of these people into the light, he created a family who were always going to be there for each other. In the course of the film, Barnum almost loses both his real family and his circus family – but then you watch him discover that the most important thing he can do is bring them both back together again… Barnum’s story is about not limiting your imagination, about using what’s in your head to create new worlds….”
Gracey also focuses on the Oddities, the circus performers with uncommon physical conditions. Displays of such individuals as freaks is not acceptable today and Gracey sees another side of what Barnum’s performers experienced – the opportunity to escape hidden, marginal lives; the chance to inspire admiration and feel pride; and most of all the ability to provoke questions into just how narrowly we define “normal.”
“The Oddities are people who are invisible to society so they’ve been kept behind closed doors,” explains Gracey. “And what our P.T. Barnum does is give these invisible people a spotlight and a chance to feel love for the first time. He tells wondrous stories in which they are not damaged but special. I think audiences will love the Oddities because at the end of the day, everyone’s an Oddity.” He emphasizes, “There’s a line where Barnum says, ‘No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.’ That to me is the heart of the film.”
For Gracey, everything hinged on getting the music for this movie right. He determined that the songs could counterpoint the period setting – rather than going back in time, he wanted songs that would make the characters and dilemmas urgently of-the-moment. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul known for Oscar®-winning work on La La Land brilliantly provided this and more. Gracey said, “What Benj and Justin songs they wrote are always taking you somewhere – each is a narrative in its own right.”
Tony Award winner and Academy Award® nominee Hugh Jackman brings his commitment to family to this movie. Producer Laurence Mark says, “I think this is the first movie in which Hugh has actually played a family man and calls upon that part of himself… He makes it very much a story about a man who loses and then rediscovers his family – both his home family and his circus family who together mean everything in the world to him.”
Jackman also says, “What I like most is that at its heart, this is a film about taking risks, following your dreams and celebrating what makes each and every one of us unique…Barnum filled his show with the most talented but overlooked people he knew and gave them a magnificent spotlight in which to shine – and that’s the story we’ve decided to tell….Barnum broke walls down and I think what he represents to us now is this idea that you can be whoever you are, you can choose the life you want regardless of class or race or background.
If you work hard and use your imagination, you can do something amazing. I think Barnum was a little bit of an Oddity himself, growing up. He believed that what makes you different makes you special. That resonates with me in a huge way — and I think everybody can relate to it, particularly young kids. That’s why I’m thrilled that the theme of this movie is that it is empowering and cool just to be you….as the father of two teenagers, I talk to them constantly about the idea that no matter who you are, no matter how you differ from supermodels and football players, it’s irrelevant. Love yourself exactly the way you were born.”
Jackman’s song “From Now On,” is about seeking redemption. “That song is about Barnum coming to terms with …mistakes he’s made…” says music writer Justin Paul. “It begins in a hush and build and builds until the moment where he has to rush down the street trying to win his family back.”
The music, choreography, and production elements of this spectacular musical movie creatively and freshly communicate the central themes through the skillful performances of top performers. As with the songs for The Greatest Showman, the design aesthetic blends vintage and new – hurtling the 19th century of P.T. Barnum into the future of today. Along with a team of dedicated artisans – including cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Nathan Crowley and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick – Michael Gracey establishes a look that is not grounded in any specific era. It is grounded in the power of the imagination of every era, bridging the gap between Barnum’s times and our own.
The movie culminates with the film’s climactic reprise of The Greatest Show. Choreographer Asley Wallen says, “We left our biggest dance for the end…It’s just a huge number that incorporates all the circus acts, all the dancers, all the Oddities, the…animals and so much more. It’s created to be a big, astounding, celebratory final note.”
Producer Laurence Mark says: “We all hope to have created a feast for the eyes, for the ears and for the heart. The old Barnum & Bailey circus’s time has come and gone, but what lives on as the legacy of Barnum is that desire to spark joy and imagination, and that’s the tradition we hope to have honored.”
God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, is especially strong with its compelling, timely story with a powerful, unexpected ending. It also deals with critical issues for today and encourages forbearance, forgiveness, and grace that facilitate redemptive unity.
This movie starts a critically needed dialogue. In the marketplace of ideas today there are many loud, opinionated voices. Many of these monologues we hear today seem more about one-sided forcing of ideas and winning arguments than about collaborative problem-solving. Discussions and disagreements about faith seem especially sharper and more divisive than ever today.
“In our society and culture right now, we have a lot of darkness,” explains David A.R. White, who returns to the role of the Rev. Dave in God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness and again serves as a producer. “There’s a lot of anger; there’s a lot of fighting. You can’t turn on the news for even a second without seeing something that’s really disturbing. This is a time in our society when it seems like we have so much tension … – we have the left, we have the right, and nobody can agree on anything. This movie really brings that out. It’s a movie about hope, about love, about healing, and, ultimately, forgiveness.”
David A.R. White again plays the role of Rev. Dave, who takes on the central role in this movie after being a supporting player in the two previous movies. When his St. James Church burns to the ground in a suspected act of arson, a conflagration of different sorts rages up in town. The public university on whose land the church resides attempts to use the tragedy to keep it closed for good. Rev. Dave commits to fighting that effort even as growing public opinion questions whether a college campus is the proper location for a house of worship, and even if the church is a necessary part of such a diverse community.
The questions being asked, notes Ted McGinley, who plays Ellsworth, Hadleigh University’s dean and Rev. Dave’s close friend, are legitimate: “Does this church represent everyone on campus? Can this church be for everyone on campus? Are we allowed to put money into a church, because when you do, you take away from other areas?”
However, the way those questions are being debated by most of the movie’s characters, including Rev. Dave, are part of the problem.
“Many of us are so protective about our own views…that we stop listening,” McGinley says. “The reality of this movie is that these are all people who may be right in their own groups. This movie is not about ‘the Christians’ versus ‘the villains.’ It’s about everyone. There are a whole bunch of people in this movie who aren’t incorrect. They’re just two different sides, and they’re not listening to each other.”
Into this contentious environment comes Pearce Hill, Rev. Dave’s brother, a big-city lawyer who drifted away from his family years earlier, when he drifted away from his Christian faith. The siblings’ reunion is rocky on multiple levels, but Dave has nowhere else to turn in his fight to rebuild his church.
“Pearce is reluctant to help, but Dave is his brother, so he decides to help,” says John Corbett. “But, there’s also something about returning home and breaking through those walls they put up after drifting apart. As it turns out, we find a greater love and understanding when we find a common denominator of leaning on each other. I come alongside my brother to conquer something that was insurmountable.”
That breakthrough, at the micro level, is what God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness hopes to be at the macro level.
“This film allows conversation to be OK,” White added. “It says, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this,’ instead of just beating you over the head with what I believe is right or what your parents believe is right or what your friends believe is right. Let’s just open up and talk about it.”
Jennifer Cipolla, who plays Sydney, one of the college students who brashly challenges the wisdom and relevance of having a church on her university’s campus, says the way in which the film encourages dialogue is “going to get audiences’ heads turning.”
“It’s not about trying to sway their ideas or make them think a different way, but just think in general,” she said. “And, most of all to come together. The idea of this movie isn’t you have to think one way or the other. The idea is that all of us can come together, and we can all have our different opinion – and that’s OK.”
“In our culture right now,” White noted, “there is a lot of fighting. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, left side, right side, nobody seems to be able to get along and there’s a lot of dissension. So, we wanted to shine a light on this, but in a God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness way: filled with hope and healing and forgiveness.”
Actor Shane Harper, who returns as Josh Wheaton, the role he popularized in the original movie, said, “My hope is that the overarching narrative of this story would bring light into people’s hearts – feelings of unity and compassion as opposed to anger and frustration. I want people to be encouraged that we’re in a time that we need the church to be the church and reach out and be loving and be gracious. This film is called A Light in Darkness for a reason: There’s a lot of darkness in the world right now, and we need to focus on grace and compassion and unity rather than division.”
“The message of this movie is how do we as Christians, as individual believers, relate to others? How do we be a light in darkness?” White said. “The biggest thing I hope all believers will take away is that Jesus was about love. How do we relate to those in need? How do we encourage them? Uplift them? Care for them?
“Ultimately that’s what this film is about. I don’t think it’s exactly what people will expect. I think it’s more than what they will expect.”
God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (PG) is suitable for teens through adults.
I also spoke to Ted McGinley and Shane Harper at the Los Angeles Premiere for God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. See the entire interview with Ted McGinley and Shane Harper for God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness on Sonoma Christian Home.
Uniquely, each week Sonoma Christian Home provides valuable reviews and substantive interviews for worthwhile family movies. It also publishes the top picks in movies in theaters for all ages that are not only entertaining; but they are redemptive, of good value, and have quality production elements.
Top pick movies in theaters for the first week of May include: Black Panther (PG-13), for teens through adults; Chappaquiddick(PG-13), for older teens through adults; Pandas (G), for all ages; The Miracle Season (PG), for teens through adults; Greatest Showman (PG), for older children through adults; and God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (PG), for teens through adults.
Although theater release dates can change, here is what is known about what and when some of the most promising redemptive and family movies are due in theaters this year: Lego Movie, Sequel, 5/18; Incredibles 2, 6/15; Christopher Robin, 8/3; Unbroken, Path to Redemption, 10/5; The Jungle Book, Origins, 10/19; Mulan, 11/2; The Grinch, 11/9; The Nutcracker and The Four Realms, 11/2; Wreck-It-Ralph, 11/21; Mary Poppins Returns, 12/21 and more.
Other promising redemptive and family movies with release dates to be announced include: Heavenquest: A Pilgrim’s Progress; Indivisible; Run the Race; The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair; Peter Pan; The Little Mermaid, and many more. Watch for interviews and insightful stories for these movies on Sonoma Christian Home.
Please continue to search for and support the best movies for your friends and families. The best is yet come as long we continue to support the ongoing reformation in content and renaissance in artistry in media and movies.
As audiences continue to see good family and redemptive movies in theaters, keeping them at the top of the box office, more good movies like them will be made. Watch for many top picks this year of redemptive, Biblical and faith-based movies that continue to improve in the ongoing renaissance of artistry and reformation of content in movies. Remember that consumers can facilitate the success and wide global distribution of good redemptive movies. Attending a movie during its opening weekend has the most impact on its success.
To learn more about this author, please visit Dr. Diane Howard