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Sweeney Todd (2007)


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Ok, I saw this one last weekend. Parts of it I enjoyed, particularly the music which I was unfamiliar with, but (and I am not someone whom blood or gore particularly bothers), this film really bugged me and I cannot openly embrace it. Not the design. Not the cinematography. I don't know, but I felt it was a hateful film. And that is a rare reaction from me.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Wow, Anders. That's the most intriguing response I've read yet. In Oscar season, there's so much focus on Power that it's refreshing when someone reacts to the *spirit* of a film. I haven't seen it yet.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Wow, Anders. That's the most intriguing response I've read yet. In Oscar season, there's so much focus on Power that it's refreshing when someone reacts to the *spirit* of a film. I haven't seen it yet.

I personally need to tease this one out further, especially in light of so many other dark films this year, many of which I liked. My negative reaction to the film is something that was challenged by an aunt whom I had gotten into a disagreement about regarding No Country For Old Men, which she hated and felt was "too dark." But there was something about The Coen's film that I reacted strongly to in a positive way. No Country was speaking a truth about the darkness and reality of evil in the world, but Todd was just reveling in it. Again, I need to think about it a little bit more.

Oh, a positive comment. I think Sascha Baron Cohen was great as Pirelli. Most enjoyable part of the film.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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My review.

My apologies if it sounds far too glib or over-praising. I'd just really given up hope that Burton would ever make a really good film again (and I'm new to reviewing!)

I'm surprised at your reaction, Anders, because I got almost the exact opposite impression; Burton certainly has had a tendency to revel in evil in the past (*coughcoughBatmancoughcough*), but I think with Sweeney he's finally decided to show a bit of restraint.

Yes, I realize this sounds outrageously ironic when I'm talking about the bloodiest musical in history. :P

Edited by Plankton

My name is Darth Vader. I come from the planet Vulcan.

- Back to the Future

To me, truth is not some vague, foggy notion. Truth is real. And at the same time, unreal. Fiction and fact and everything in between, plus some other things I can't remember; all rolled into one big "thing." This is truth, to me.

- Jack Handey

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Ok, I'm currently listening to the soundtrack right now in an effort to try to understand what bothered me about the film.

I guess what I'm trying to see is if it's Sweeney Todd that bothers me, or if it's just Tim Burton.

I'll update once I've had some more time to think about it.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Ok, I'm currently listening to the soundtrack right now in an effort to try to understand what bothered me about the film.

I guess what I'm trying to see is if it's Sweeney Todd that bothers me, or if it's just Tim Burton.

I'll update once I've had some more time to think about it.

Anders--have you seen the the 1979 Broadway version (you can get it on DVD) with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou? That would be an interesting place to start--to see the show in its original context and determine how you feel about it. It's an amazing work--obviously disturbing as Sondheim often is and the leads are really wonderful. There were several songs cut from the movie, etc, and it would be interesting to hear how you view the film in light of the original work...

Edited by Ben Johnson
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I notice we've not got any stars for this yet, but it's won a golden globe or two, and checking the IMDB and Rotten tomatoes it has 8.3 and 86% respectively, yet no-one here seems particularly keen for it. Any thoughts on this?

Matt

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I notice we've not got any stars for this yet, but it's won a golden globe or two, and checking the IMDB and Rotten tomatoes it has 8.3 and 86% respectively, yet no-one here seems particularly keen for it. Any thoughts on this?

Matt

I also have a question. I would like to know if "Sweeney Todd" is as anti-Christian as some of Tim Burton's other films. I am growing ever more sensitive to these issues, and am done paying to be insulted. I recall that, earlier in the thread, Christian and Peter hinted at something...

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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Remember: Sweeney Todd wasn't written by Tim Burton. It was written by Stephen Sondheim. And while the director's touch is clear, the words and music are all Sondheim. Sondheim isn't a Christian but poses many deep and multi-faceted questions that should cause anyone to pause. I'd again suggest going back to the DVD of the original production (1979) where you can see the story without the gore. It's still very dark, but the score is beyond it.

Matt

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No, I didn

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Alan Thomas wrote:

: To satisfy the hungry god

Is it lower-case in the libretto, then? I was going to ask about this after reading Christian's post. Could make a huge difference.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Alan Thomas wrote:

: To satisfy the hungry god

Is it lower-case in the libretto, then? I was going to ask about this after reading Christian's post. Could make a huge difference.

I wouldn't trust reading the lyrics from anywhere except the actual script. The cd liner notes may not be accurate... you'd probably have to go to Sondheim's own notes -- or take a hard look at his body of work to figure out his beliefs and intentions regarding writing about and questioning God.

I'm curious though--does it really make a difference? Does the story become anti-Christian because it references small god rather than Big God? Sweeney is far from the 'truth' no matter who he thinks he serves... This story reminds me of Judges and how those people had knowledge about the true God, but allowed their views to become distorted and took matters into their hands. The character of God didn't change, but their idea of him did--enough to just list him as one of many gods (small g). Are those stories 'anti-Christian' because of the characters' definition of God?

A related question that probably belongs in another post: how many people insert their own beliefs into the film they're watching? I would tend to assume that our God was present in Sweeney Todd...but Sweeney took matters into his own hands, etc, therefore it becomes a story about what happens when someone rejects the true God. (I know the story is much more complex than that...) But do others view the film without inserting their own 'worldview' into it? It seems like many stories (Harry Potter, A Wrinkle In Time, McCarthy's The Road, even Great Expectations, etc) could be glass half empty or glass half full depending on the worldview through which one reads them. How do you guys view it?

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Ben Johnson wrote:

: Does the story become anti-Christian because it references small god rather than Big God?

Quite the opposite, arguably, if the god/God being referenced in the song is an angry, vengeful, murderous, bloodthirsty deity.

: A related question that probably belongs in another post: how many people insert their own beliefs into the film they're watching?

Well, the morning after I saw Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, my first thought on waking up was to wonder how God could have created something so horrible as the Predalien. Which is a weird thing to think for any number of reasons, but beginning my morning with that thought sure cast a pall over the rest of my day. (Because no matter how fictitious such a creature may be, it DOES have parallels in the natural world at, say, the insect level.) There was NOTHING in the film that required or encouraged or facilitated a religious reading -- that was simply where my brain was at, I guess.

Is that the sort of thing you were thinking of?

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Is that the sort of thing you were thinking of?

Yeah..that's great. I think those things, too -- for example, The Matrix drove home ideas of heaven and the brevity of life here that were never so clear to me as when I saw that film. I just wondered how many other people think about stories and movies that way. Something like Sweeney seems to be more distasteful to many people and I wonder why (I guess I'm speaking directly to the story. I'm much more accustomed to it with less gore and can see how that aspect would turn people away) -- it IS difficult to watch sometimes (gore or not) and offers a very bleak picture of the world, but for me it illuminates so much--'if not for the grace of God that could be me' for starters... I'm just curious to know how other people react. This forum is great because most of the people that I know are very black and white about what may or may not be acceptable. If it's by a Christian author, then it must be Christian and vice-versa. Of course, most of them don't think much at all when they participate in the arts... so I'm excited to be reading the thoughts of people on this forum. I'm also a theater guy, so having a wider range of people seeing this 'show' is intriguing and I'm interested to hear how it works or doesn't work for them...

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Well, I don't recall having particularly religious thoughts while watching this particular film -- nothing that has stuck with me, at any rate. All of the evil is clearly inflicted by individual people against other people, and I don't have too hard a time saying that THAT is all humankind's fault, and not godkind's fault.

What gets me going, sometimes, is films that dwell on "natural evil", for lack of a better word -- horrible things that are seemingly built into the very fabric of our world, built into the "intelligent design" if you will. Spiders are a fantastic example of this: so much complexity, so much "planning" ability (even if it IS just so-called "instinct"), and yet all that web-spinning is in the service of death. (Not that I regard animal death as equivalent to human death, of course; I don't. But animals "designed" to kill other animals often kill people, too. And there is something beautiful and marvelous about the growth of animals and plants that makes the death of any of them inherently sad, in a way.) The thing that struck me about The Motorcycle Diaries was how the young Che Guevara brushes up against what we might call "cosmic injustice" -- the prevalence of sickness and illness -- yet we know he will resort to dealing with "social injustice" only, forsaking his medical calling in favour of a series of military uprisings (and, even sadder, we know that he will do this in a way that perpetuates even MORE social injustice). Stuff like THAT tends to get the theological juices going, for me. Films like Sweeney Todd are interesting from a human-morality point of view, exposing the pros and cons of vengeance and forgiveness and so on, but they don't necessarily go deeper than that, for me.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Sweeney certainly believes in original sin and total depravity:

No, we all deserve to die

Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why.

Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief

For the rest of us death will be a relief

We all deserve to die.

Tellingly, that title of that song is "Epiphany." It's true, though, that he errs in taking matters into his own hands. From the same song:

I will have vengeance.

I will have salvation.

As if they were the same thing. In "A Little Priest," Sweeney sees his killing spree as an inversion of an unjust social order:

The history of the world, my love,

Is those below serving those up above!

How gratifying for once to know

That those above will serve those down below!

Merely inverting injustice, however, doesn't stop it ... it just changes the direction.

In the same song Sweeney contemplates eating a priest, a bishop, a curate, a vicar, and a friar, but concludes:

No, the clergy is really

Too coarse and too mealy!

Surely that's more than just clever wordplay. You'd be justified in reading it as an explicit rejection of the church. Sweeney's "dark and vengeful god" is his own anger. But I think the playwright's perspective is broader than that: Sondheim, especially with the "To seek revenge may lead to hell" line, is showing us where Sweeney's path leads: to destruction of the very thing he loves. (I've never seen the Christopher Bond play on which the musical is based, so I can't say which ideas come from Bond and which are Sondheim's invention. It would be interesting to compare the two.) Sweeney's perspective is not necessarily the perspective of the entire play. Othello and Hamlet don't get to have the last word in their plays, and neither does Sweeney in his ... even though all three explore very similar themes.

Whether one can say the same thing about Burton's film is another matter. He cuts the "To seek revenge" lyric, but gives us something equally if not more intriguing in the final tableau.

Sweeney, knowing that he has nothing left to live for and that Toby's coming with the razor, deliberately bares his throat. In death, he holds Lucy in a classic

Pieta pose, and the blood on the floor forms the shape of a cross.

Edited by mrmando

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mrmando wrote:

: Sweeney certainly believes in original sin and total depravity:

: : No, we all deserve to die

: : Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why.

: : Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief

: : For the rest of us death will be a relief

: : We all deserve to die.

Hmmm. "We all deserve to die" may point in that direction, but the distinction between "the wicked" and "the rest of us" may suggest otherwise. There's an ambivalence there. Certainly, as a logical argument, it would be odd to say that "we ... deserve to die" because, for "us[,] death will be a relief". The fact that "we" might find death a "relief" does not, to my way of thinking, indicate that "we" "deserve" death.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Hmmm. "We all deserve to die" may point in that direction, but the distinction between "the wicked" and "the rest of us" may suggest otherwise. There's an ambivalence there. Certainly, as a logical argument, it would be odd to say that "we ... deserve to die" because, for "us[,] death will be a relief". The fact that "we" might find death a "relief" does not, to my way of thinking, indicate that "we" "deserve" death.

Quite so. In the film, we also get this couplet:

We all deserve to die

Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I

Which isn't in the original libretto, as far as I can determine at the moment. The ambivalence you speak of is part of Sweeney's moral confusion: he does recognize his own wickedness on some level, but he finds a way to justify it to himself. Becomes his own god, in a sense.

Burton also gives us a telling exchange between Beadle Bamford and Judge Turpin, just after the latter has pronounced the death sentence on a boy who couldn't have been more than 10 years old:

TURPIN. Was he guilty?

BEADLE. If he wasn't, I'm sure he'd done something else that deserved a hanging.

TURPIN. Who hasn't?

Burton might well be saying the judge isn't any different from Todd. They both believe in total depravity, including their own, and they both pass death sentences on other people.

Edited by mrmando

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On another note, it is odd to hear this score done mostly by untrained singers (except Johanna, Anthony, and Toby). It's surprising how effective Depp and Rickman are. Timothy Spall's singing is atrocious (mercifully, almost all of it is cut) and Helena Bonham Carter's is not much better. The voice is thin, uncertain, unexpressive, and she apparently cannot act and sing at the same time.

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

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mrmando wrote:

: Burton might well be saying the judge isn't any different from Todd. They both believe in total depravity, including their own, and they both pass death sentences on other people.

Ah, I like.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I'm curious though--does it really make a difference? Does the story become anti-Christian because it references small god rather than Big God? Sweeney is far from the 'truth' no matter who he thinks he serves... This story reminds me of Judges and how those people had knowledge about the true God, but allowed their views to become distorted and took matters into their hands. The character of God didn't change, but their idea of him did--enough to just list him as one of many gods (small g). Are those stories 'anti-Christian' because of the characters' definition of God?

A related question that probably belongs in another post: how many people insert their own beliefs into the film they're watching? I would tend to assume that our God was present in Sweeney Todd...but Sweeney took matters into his own hands, etc, therefore it becomes a story about what happens when someone rejects the true God. (I know the story is much more complex than that...) But do others view the film without inserting their own 'worldview' into it? It seems like many stories (Harry Potter, A Wrinkle In Time, McCarthy's The Road, even Great Expectations, etc) could be glass half empty or glass half full depending on the worldview through which one reads them. How do you guys view it?

I personally think that there's a "Videodrome" factor in this, that Hollywood movies contain an anti-Christian virus. ;)

I may go off on a tangent here, but I feel like typing, so...

For me, the problem is that "Sweeney Todd" isn't just a one-off. It is part of a body of work. Have an all-nighter of "Sweeney Todd" (assuming that it actually is as anti-Christian as those lyrics make it sound), "Edward Scissorhands", "Corpse Bride" and "Sleepy Hollow", and then see if you find the glass half full.

Let me talk specifically about "Sleepy Hollow" for a moment as that's the Tim Burton film I am most familiar with (I owned it on both video and DVD, and have watched it repeatedly over the years). When I first saw it (1999, I think) I was a new Christian, and I had no idea what a worldview was. The film isn't a masterpiece but it resonated with me because it reminded me of the Hammer horrors I watched as a boy. To me, it was just a nostalgia trip; just another fun movie; nothing to fret over.

But as time has passed I have grown far more sensitive to the concept of worldview (I had something of a wake-up call two years ago when I read Marcus Honeysett's superb little book "Meltdown: Making Sense of a Culture in Crisis" - a reading experience which I wrote about on this board). Now when I watch "Sleepy Hollow" I notice that Naturalism and the New Age (specifically Wicca) are shown in a positive light - that they are problem solvers - and that Christianity gives the world nothing but "Bible-black tyrants" who relish torture, and hypocritical ministers who plot and scheme and bang the maid when no one is looking. Now when I watch, I notice the look on Ichabod's face when he is handed a Bible - the sort of look one reserves for offensive smells.

But it isn't only Tim Burton and Johnny Depp who find the Bible to be a bad smell. Just last weekend, me and Peter briefly discussed the anti-Catholic content in another recent musical: "Hairspray". Truth is, things have gotten so bad that now when I watch an American movie I always expect to be insulted or ridiculed. And do you know what? I often am.

Does it matter that Hollywood hates me? Yes, of course. There's that anti-Christian virus I mentioned at the start of this ramble. I have had many encounters with non-believers who are convinced that Christians are intolerant and that the church is corrupt. They think we are stupid (we even had an atheist register on this board under the nick "Grow Up"). It is only when you challenge their presuppositions that you discover that many people have no real reason for holding such views. Their strange ideas seem to have come through osmosis - through the lowbrow entertainment which defines their reality.

Why is the church evil? Because movies constantly present the church as evil. Why is being gay normal? Because "Will And Grace" is a funny show. Why is it perfectly safe and acceptable to flit from relationship to relationship? Because the characters in "Friends" are so glamorous, and they all sleep around, don't they? Why is taking drugs cool? Because rock stars and sportsmen all do drugs, and rock stars and sportsmen are our role models; and so on, and so on, and so on.

Long live the new flesh!

In the thread on "The Golden Compass", talk turned briefly to the film "Shadowlands", and I said this in reply to SDG:

Invisible Man, do you really think that Shadowlands failed to "accurately depict or reflect the Christian worldview" because the protagonist "has a major crisis of faith and rages against God before the end credits roll"?

No, but I think that, true to Hollywood form, Attenborough lets us down badly (given his source material). If there were lots of Christian films out there, all showing different aspects of the faith, the good as well as the bad, our strengths as well as our weaknesses, then "Shadowlands" would be acceptable to me; but Christians are seldom depicted well in movies. In movies, the church is always corrupt and corrupting, men of the cloth are usually comedic or crooked, and the common or garden Christian, if he is ever shown at all, is seldom sensible, or serious, or capable of doing the right thing (unless it's a vampire movie, then he usually knows how to get the job done). This is why it rubs me up the wrong way when "Shadowlands" derails, and the C.S. Lewis character rages against God.

The glass isn't just half empty, it's completely empty! Can you name twenty Hollywood movies made since the turn of the millennium that present Christianity in a positive light? How about twenty films with recognizably Christian characters who act in a dignified or half-decent manner?

Edited by The Invisible Man

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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We all deserve to die

Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I

Which isn't in the original libretto, as far as I can determine at the moment.

I'm pretty sure it's in the original.

Well, George Hearn doesn't sing that line here.

Of course, does he really explain why "even I" deserves to die? Or is it that the pompous are so hypocritcal that they've dragged everyone down with them? (Rather than original sin, it's imputed unrighteousness!)

Perhaps, although I like to think that Sweeney Todd isn't entirely cynical. As noted above, Sweeney is certainly a match for Turpin when it comes to pomposity.

Remember that the film eliminates Turpin's self-flagellating solo number, which begins with "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" and finds the judge whipping himself in an attempt to curb his growing sexual attraction to Johanna ... and repeatedly crying "God, deliver me!" When included in the play, this song establishes Turpin as a professing if hypocritical Christian, but curiously also makes him a bit more sympathetic. We know that he at least has a conscience, weak though it may be, and struggles with his own sinfulness. We don't get to see that side of him in the film.

Anyway, we might be asking too much of "Epiphany" in trying to find a cogent theological argument in the lyrics.

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

Do you know the deep dark secret of the avatars?

It's big. It's fat. It's Greek.

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The glass isn't just half empty, it's completely empty! Can you name twenty Hollywood movies made since the turn of the millennium that present Christianity in a positive light? How about twenty films with recognizably Christian characters who act in a dignified or half-decent manner?

It isn't the job of filmmakers and movie executives to portray Christians positively.

That's the job of Christians.

Edited by mrmando

Let's Carl the whole thing Orff!

Do you know the deep dark secret of the avatars?

It's big. It's fat. It's Greek.

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The glass isn't just half empty, it's completely empty! Can you name twenty Hollywood movies made since the turn of the millennium that present Christianity in a positive light? How about twenty films with recognizably Christian characters who act in a dignified or half-decent manner?

It isn't the job of filmmakers and movie executives to portray Christians positively.

That's the job of Christians.

But is it their job to constantly portray Christians negatively?

We are part of the generation in which the image has triumphed over the word, when the visual is dominant over the verbal and where entertainment drowns out exposition. We may go so far as to claim that we live in an age of the image which is also the age of anti-word and potentially is the age of the lie. ~ Os Guiness

So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17)

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Can you name twenty Hollywood movies made since the turn of the millennium that present Christianity in a positive light? How about twenty films with recognizably Christian characters who act in a dignified or half-decent manner?

New thread on Christians and Christianity in the movies.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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