Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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My Review of DARKEST HOUR

Darkest Hour, rated PG-13
****

Darkest Hour is one of the top films of the year, led by an Oscar worthy portrayal of Winston Churchill by Gary Oldman. This is the second film of 2017 based on the “Miracle at Dunkirk” during World War II. Darkest Hour nicely complements Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (see my review). While Dunkirk focused on the action around the Dunkirk rescue, and had minimal dialogue, Darkest Hour focuses primarily on the politics involved with the Dunkirk issue, and particularly the role of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The film is directed by Golden Globe nominee Joe Write (Atonement) and written by two-time Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything). The musical score is by Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (Atonement), and the incredible cinematography (note the final scene with Churchill powerfully leaving Parliament with paper floating in the air), by four-time Oscar nominee Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince).
The film takes place in 1940 when Hitler’s German troops have begun an invasion of France. Churchill, played by Oscar nominee Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is the newly named British Prime Minister, after Neville Chamberlain has lost the confidence of Parliament. We see Churchill as a great orator, making several powerful speeches in this film.  Initially he delivers a radio address to the English people portraying that the situation is much more positive that it actually is. Then he hears that there are more than 300,000 British troops trapped on the beach at Dunkirk.
This film is primarily the story of two conflicting political and military approaches to the Dunkirk situation. Former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, The Crown, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who is dying of cancer, and the Earl of Halifax (Stephen Dillane, John Adams), believe that Britain should begin peace negotiations with Hitler to save British lives. Churchill on the other hand, wants to move forward with a risky plan to rescue the British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk.  We see Winston Churchill carrying the weight of leadership on his shoulders and also using his influence to its greatest advantage.  He is a good leader in that he listens to wise counsel, but also is willing to take the hard stands when necessary.

***SPOILER ALERT***
At his lowest moment Churchill hears from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt that the United States will not be providing any assistance to Britain when he most needs it. The conflicting plans (negotiate peace vs. rescue) are brought to King George VI, played by Golden Globe nominee Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline).
We see Churchill conflicted as the reality of the Dunkirk situation sinks in. Earlier in the film we hear him tell his driver that he has never ridden a bus. In a key scene, we see him on the way to Parliament, but in the middle of traffic, he hops out of his limousine and heads toward the underground train. There, the initially shocked riders eventually open up to him and voice their support for his approach.
********************

Oldman is unrecognizable as Churchill – the hair and makeup work done on him is flawless. He drinks a lot and often has a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He delivers a brilliant performance, the best acting performance I’ve seen this year. Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) delivers a strong performance as Churchill’s wife Clemmie, and Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella) is very effective as Churchill’s loyal secretary Elizabeth Layton. We see Elizabeth working closely with Churchill, typing his speeches, whether he is in bed, in the bathtub, car, etc. The film contains a small amount of adult language, including a few abuses of God’s name.
Darkest Hour is a well-written, acted and directed film. Gary Oldman delivers a performance that may earn him the Oscar for Best Actor, a performance that has already been honored with a Golden Globe nomination.   Bruno Delbonnel should win an Oscar for best cinematography.
For those wanting to learn more about the events portrayed in these two films, I would recommend the book The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo by Walter Lord. (see my review).  

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My Review of ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

All the Money in the World, rated R
****

Christopher Plummer and Michelle Williams shine in this tense film inspired by the kidnapping and demands for ransom of J. Paul Getty’s grandson. The film, which has been nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, is directed by 80-year old four-time Oscar nominee Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator). It is written by David Scarpa, based on John Pearson’s 1995 book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty. The film features a strong cast, but it is who is not in the film that is every bit as interesting as who is in the film.
Four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea, My Week with Marilyn), stars as Gail Harris. Williams has been nominated for a Golden Globe award for her performance. Gail had been married to John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan, Broadchurch), the son of J. Paul Getty, played by Oscar winner Christopher Plummer (Beginners). Plummer has also been nominated for a Golden Globe award.
When John becomes desperate for a job, he reaches out to his father, who he really never knew, as his father focused on his business dealings, and is given a job in Rome, Italy. Unfortunately, John turns to drug and alcohol abuse and Gail decides to divorce him. In exchange for sole custody of the children, Gail agrees that she will not accept any money from the Getty family fortune.
In 1973, Gail’s son, John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), who goes by Paul, is kidnapped by masked men and held for a ransom of $17 million. Gail has no money, and is forced to ask her former father-in-law to pay the ransom for his grandson. How J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world at the time, responds to the ransom demands shows that he cares less about the torture and possible murder of his grandson than he does for his money and possessions. You’ll dislike J. Paul Getty’s character, but you’ll have to admit that Plummer delivers a strong, and perhaps an Oscar worthy performance.
Mark Wahlberg portrays Fletcher Chase, J. Paul Getty’s security advisor and ex-CIA operative. Getty instructs Chase to work with the police to find Paul so that he will not have to pay the ransom. Chase and Gail work closely together to try to get Paul home safely.
Oscar winner Timothy Hutton (Ordinary People) plays Oswald Hinge, J. Paul Getty’s chief attorney.  Romain Duris portrays Cinquanta, one of the kidnappers that shows kindness to Paul.
What is fascinating is that Christopher Plummer was not even supposed to be in this film. Instead, Kevin Spacey played the role of J. Paul Getty, in the film that was already finished when sexual abuse charges were first brought against him on October 29. On November 8, Scott decided to replace Spacey with 88-year-old Christopher Plummer, and he began to re-shoot key scenes on November 20, just over a month before the film was released on Christmas Day. In just nine days, twenty-two scenes were re-filmed at a cost of $10 million.
The film includes a significant amount of adult language and some graphic violence. Themes in the film include wealth, greed, drug abuse and family dysfunction.This is an extremely well-acted and directed film about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson and the surrounding family turmoil.
J. Paul Getty’s relentless, unfulfilled desire for money and possessions reminds me of two quotes:
“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.” Blaise Pascal
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13


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MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2017

Here’s my favorite books that I’ve read this year, not all of which were actually published in 2017. I read and/or listened to more than 65 books this year in a variety of genres, from faith and work, biography, theology and sports. These are my favorite books of 2017. How about you? What were some of your favorites?

Top pick – Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. This book was suggested to me by Lecrae to help me understand his decision to “divorce white evangelicalism”. My wife Tammy and I read and discussed this powerful and well-written book.

Here are the rest of my favorite books (in no particular order):

  • The Legacy of Luther, edited by R.C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols
  • From Weakness to Strength: 8 Vulnerabilities That Can Bring Out the Best in Your Leadership – Scott Sauls
  • The Mythical Leader: The 7 Myths of Leadership – Ron Edmondson
  • The Gospel According to Paul: Embracing the Good News at the Heart of Paul’s Teachings – John MacArthur
  • Glory in the Ordinary: Why Your Work in the Home Matters to God – Courtney Reisigg
  • Learning to Love the Psalms – Robert Godfrey
  • Calling to Christ: Where’s My Place? – Robert Smart
  • Discipleship with Monday in Mind: How Churches Across the Country Are Helping Their People Connect Faith and Work – Skye Jethani and Luke Bobo
  • Between Heaven and the Real World: My Story – Steven Curtis Chapman
  • Leaders Made Here: Building a Leadership Culture – Mark Miller
  • Workplace Grace: Becoming a Spiritual Influence at Work – Bill Peel and Walt Larimore
  • Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear – Scott Sauls
  • Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture – David Murray
  • Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen

See what I’m reading now.

Author of the Year – Scott Sauls. Scott is my author of the year for his two books   Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear and From Weakness to Strength: 8 Vulnerabilities That Can Bring Out the Best in Your Leadership. I also enjoy reading his blog, which you can read here.


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MY 2017 FAVORITES

As has been my practice for a number of years, I am sharing some of my favorites from 2017 in a variety of categories.  What about you? What were some of your favorites in these categories?

Television Series

Top Pick: Victoria

Others that I’ve enjoyed, in no particular order were:

  • This is Us
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • Broadchurch
  • The Crown

Podcasts

Top Pick: Albert Mohler’s The Briefing. Each weekday morning, Albert Mohler hosts a podcast providing worldview analysis about the leading news headlines and cultural conversations. This is required listening for me. Check out Dr. Mohler’s website here.

 

Blogs

Top Pick: Tim Challies’ Ala Carte. This is required reading for me each Monday through Saturday. Challies includes helpful Kindle deals, links to a good variety of helpful articles and a quote. Check out Tim’s website here.

Recommended Resources

Top Pick: The Whole Christ – Sinclair Ferguson

Other new resources released in 2017 that I would recommend are, in no particular order:

Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer.  See my review of this excellent new documentary.

Dispatches from the Front. Episode 10: The Fourth Man. See my review of this excellent resource here.

The Lord’s Prayer by Albert Mohler. In this twelve-part series, Dr. Albert Mohler shows that the pattern of prayer Jesus provides is few in words, yet massive in meaning. His prayer reflects true theology and proper doxology – a perfect guide in our lives. I listened to this series as our book club at work was reading and discussing Tim Keller’s book Prayer.

Conference  

Top Pick: Ligonier Ministries National Conference: The Next 500 Years. Watch or listen to all of the messages here.

Ministry Highlights

  • Speaking on faith and work at the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly in Greensboro, North Carolina.
  • Speaking on faith and work at the Lexington Community Church By the Way Conference in Lexington, Illinois.


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MUSIC REVIEWS and NEWS


Give More Love – Ringo Starr
***

The 77-year old former Beatle follows his 2015 album Postcards from Paradise with his nineteenth studio album, which was recorded in his home studio in Los Angeles. The album was originally planned to be a country album recorded in Nashville with Dave Stewart. They recorded one song – “So Wrong for So Long” – before the album took a different shape. In addition to ten new songs, there are four bonus tracks, which are new versions of old songs.  Starr self-produced the album, assisted by engineer Bruce Sugar. The album features a number of guests, including former band-mate Paul McCartney, brother-in law, guitarist Joe Walsh, and fellow Eagles singer-bassist Timothy B. Schmit, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, saxophonist Edgar Winter, guitarist-producer Jeff Lynne, guitarist Dave Stewart, bassists Nathan East and Don Was, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz.

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My Review of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

The Greatest Showman, rated PG
*** ½

The Greatest Showman is a very entertaining and well-made musical inspired by the life of P.T. Barnum, featuring excellent new songs by the Oscar winning lyricists from La La Land. The film, which has received three Golden Globe nominations, is directed by Michael Gracey in his directorial debut, and is written by Emmy winner Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City) and Oscar winner Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters). The musical score is by Oscar nominee John Debney (The Passion of the Christ) and Joseph Trapanese. The film includes eleven new songs written by Oscar (La La Land) and Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Cinematography is by Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina, Atonement).
Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) portrays the legendary 19th century promoter Phineas Taylor P.T. Barnum. Jackman read approximately three dozen books about Barnum to prepare for the role.
The film opens with the title song performed in a big song and dance production number. Jackman, with his Broadway experience, is excellent in his performance as Barnum.
We then see a flashback in which Barnum, a young and impoverished tailor’s son, played by Ellis Rubin, first meets the privileged but sweet Charity, played by Skylar Dunn. We see them fall in love, but Charity’s father tells P.T. to stay away from his daughter, who is then sent away to a boarding school. But we see them stay in touch through letters. The film moves forward a dozen or so years, with Jackman portraying Barnum, and four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea), portraying his now wife Charity.
Barnum longs to make something of himself. He and Charity have dreams that they sing about in “A Million Dreams”. As time goes on, the family grows with two daughters but they struggle financially. When things are really desperate, in 1841 Barnum comes up with an idea for a new kind of entertainment. He decides to open a museum/theatre in the heart of New York City. At first, he doesn’t have any success. Then his daughters suggest that he feature real people, not stuffed animals and displays, so he decides to look for people with special talents and also some with physical abnormalities (bearded lady, Siamese twins, dwarf, giant, etc.). This leads to what we now know as the circus. Although he now has success, Barnum and his circus face a significant amount of protests, some of them violent.
Barnum convinces the socialite playwright Phillip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron (High School Musical) to become his business partner; together they sing “The Other Side”. But this is much to the chagrin of Phillip’s parents. They are even more displeased when Phillip falls in love with Anne Wheeler, played by Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), a beautiful black trapeze artist in the show. Zendaya does all of her own trapeze stunts in the film. She and Phillip perform “Rewrite the Stars” about their love that has so many obstacles.
Barnum achieves great success with the circus, but he longs for greater social acceptance. He is never satisfied, though Charity loves and accepts him just as he is, and tells him that she has everything she needs in their life. To try to gain more acceptance in higher social circles, Barnum brings opera singer Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale”, to the United States for a very successful tour. He wants her to be known as the best singer in the world.  Lind is played by Golden Globe nominee Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen), but whose singing in the film is actually performed by Loren Allred.  She offers a powerful performance of “Never Enough”. But as Barnum becomes charmed with Jenny and fame, he abandons the circus, leaving it to Carlyle to run.
I’m not usually a fan of movie musicals. But I really enjoyed The Greatest Showman. It is a film that the entire family can enjoy this holiday season. You’re most likely going to want to check out the movie soundtrack after seeing this film. Jackman excels in his role as P.T. Barnum, as someone with great dreams and imagination. This has been a dream project for Jackman since 2009, and seems to be a role that he was born to play. Efron also delivers a strong performance as Phillip Carlyle. Tony nominee Lettie Lutz shines as the bearded lady, particularly as she performs the song “This is Me”. Williams, one of today’s best actresses, is strong in a smaller role. The film features excellent dance choreography by Ashley Wallen. I also appreciated the costumes and production design in this film. Themes include classism, friendship and treating others who are different from us with kindness and dignity.
Note: Ironically, on May 21, 2017, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, founded by P.T. Barnum closed down operations after 146 years. The circus had come under attack for exploitation and animal abuse, and was suffering from declining attendance.


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My Review of JUMANJI: Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, rated PG-13
***

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is an action comedy that is very entertaining, but has some mild content concerns, and will be too scary for very young viewers. The film is directed by Golden Globe nominee Jake Kasdan (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), and the screenplay is written by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. The film is considered a sequel to the 1995 film starring Robin Williams.
The film opens in 1996. A man finds a Jumanji board game on the beach. He takes it home to his teenage son and overnight the board game turns into a video game version. The movie then fast-forwards twenty years. Four teens, two boys and two girls are serving detention after school in a Bratford, New Hampshire high school. The school principal instructs them to clean up a storage room. As they begin to do so they come upon the Jumanji video game, and they plug it in. Rather than cleaning the room, the teens decide to play the game, with each picking one of the game’s avatars. Instantly, they find themselves transported to the Jumanji jungle (the jungle scenes were filmed in Hawaii), where they show up as the avatar they chose.
This is all played for laughs as the nerdy Spencer is now in the muscular body of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Dr. Smolder Bravestone; the female Instagram loving Bethany is now in the body of Jack Black as Professor Shelly Oberon; the muscular football player Fridge finds himself in the body of Kevin Hart as Franklin Finbar; and the smart non-fun-loving Martha becomes Ruby Roundhouse, a commando in the body of Karen Gillan.  One of the game’s characters is not available since there are just the four teens.  Will it be used later?  You’ll have to watch and see.
The objective of the game that has come to life is that the four teens are to find a giant glowing emerald that has been stolen, and return it to the forehead of a huge jaguar that has been carved out of a mountain. This would free Jumanji of a curse.
To accomplish this, the four have to work as a team and finish the game if they have any chance of getting back home. To do so, they have to overcome a number of obstacles (snakes, vicious men on motorcycles, hippos, etc.) put in their path by villain Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale). Each of the characters has three bars tattooed on their wrists, signifying that they have three lives. Each of the characters also has special powers. However, all but one of the characters also has a weakness.
I found this film to be extremely funny, especially as you see the actors playing against their own type. Jack Black had to be my favorite character, as Bethany transformed into a fat middle-aged man.
There are some concerns however. There are a number of profanities that are certainly not needed, almost all of them coming from Kevin Hart’s character, along with an abuse of Jesus’ name. It also has some anatomical humor and sexuality played for laughs.  Themes include courage, working as a team and sacrifice.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is very entertaining, but not quite family friendly.