Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview

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My Review of TOMB RAIDER

Tomb Raider, rated PG-13

Tomb Raider is an exciting and entertaining film based on the popular video game series. The series reboot (there were 2001 and 2003 films starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft) is directed by Roar Uthaug (The Wave). The screenplay is written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons based on a story by Evan Daugherty. The musical score is by Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road). The film had an estimated budget of $94 million.
Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina) stars as 21-year-old Lara Croft. She lives in London working as a bike courier scraping to make ends meet. She boxes in a local gym but doesn’t even have the money to pay the owner for her time in the gym. Her mother died when she was young. She loves her father, but as we see in flashbacks, he often leaves her (Emily Carey plays a young Lara) for extended periods of time.
Her father, Lord Richard Croft, played by two-time Golden Globe nominee Dominic West (The Affair, The Hour), has long been obsessed with the supernatural. He has built up an impressive business empire, but left Lara seven years ago looking for the hidden tomb of the Japanese Queen Himiko, the Mother of Death, and hasn’t been heard of since. Though Lara hasn’t heard from him, she refuses to believe that he is dead. If she would just agree to sign papers indicating that he is indeed dead, she could be financially secure and receive her inheritance, but she can’t bring herself to do that.

But eventually she gets to the point where she is planning to sign those papers. In that meeting, Lara is given a mysterious Japanese puzzle that her father left behind. The puzzle may leave her some clues as to her father’s disappearance. She decides to leave London and search for her missing father.
She travels to Hong Kong looking for the boat captain that had helped her father seven years ago. But he is missing too. She finds his alcoholic son, Lu Ren, played by Daniel Wu, a Hong Kong boat owner who agrees to give Lara a ride to the hidden island located in the dangerous Devil’s Sea, where Kimiko’s tomb is supposedly located.
On the island, they meet Mathias Vogel, played by Emmy nominee Walton Goggins (Justified). Vogel is an archeologist turned corporate mercenary. He has spent seven years trying to locate Himiko’s tomb, funded by the mysterious Trinity organization.

Themes in the film include self-sacrifice, bravery, family loyalty. Content issues include a good deal of intense action violence and some adult language, including at least one instance of abusing God’s name.
Alicia Vikander is excellent as the energetic and athletic Lara Croft. To prepare for the role, she put on a lot of muscle to play Lara, as she wanted the character to be as realistic as possible. She also wanted to do her own stunts. We see her leaping, swimming, running and shooting a bow and arrow.
Tomb Raider is an exciting action hero film and the end of the film sets up a sequel. I have to admit that I am not familiar with the video game, nor did I see the first two films, so I can’t compare this film to the game or previous films. But I did very much enjoy this well-made film without that background and look forward to the next film in the series.


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I Can Only Imagine, rated PG
*** ½

I Can Only Imagine is the story behind MercyMe’s song of the same title, the most- played Contemporary Christian song of all time.  It is one of the best faith-based films that I have seen. The film is directed by Andrew and John Erwin (October Baby, Woodlawn, Mom’s Night Out), and written by Alex Cramer, Brent McCorkle (Unconditional), and John Erwin.
We first meet Bart Millard, played as a young boy by Brody Rose, living in Greenville, Texas. His home life isn’t good, as his father Arthur, played by two-time Golden Globe nominee Dennis Quaid (The Special Relationship, Far from Heaven), is physically and verbally abusive toward Bart and his mother Adele, played by Tanya Clarke.

Arthur has never gotten over his failure to achieve his football dreams.  Bart’s mom sends him to a church camp where he meets a girl named Shannon, played by Taegen Burns. But when Bart returns home, his Mom has left the home, abandoning him to live alone with his father. The older Bart, played by J. Michael Finley, tries to earn his father’s approval by playing football. But a crushing tackle results in both of Bart’s legs being broken, thus ending his football playing days and his hopes of fulfilling his father’s dreams.
Shannon, now played by Madeline Carroll, encourages him to take the Glee Club as an elective, led by Mrs. Fincher, played by Priscilla C. Schirer (War Room). It is there that he finds out that he can sing and is given a lead role in the musical Oklahoma!, a role that he accepts reluctantly. But Bart’s relationship with his father continues to deteriorate, and so he decides to leave both his father and Shannon.
Bart leaves for Oklahoma City and eventually becomes the lead singer for a then struggling band, MercyMe, named for Memaw’s favorite expression. He asks a famous music manager Brickell, played by actor and country music artist Trace Adkins, to attend one of the band’s shows. Brickell is supportive of Bart but tells him that the band isn’t quite ready. After a promising showcase at the Gospel Music Association doesn’t result in an expected record deal, Bart decides to return home to deal with his relationship with his father. But Bart is not prepared for the father he returns home to.

Michael Finley is excellent in the lead role of Bart Millard as is Dennis Quaid as Arthur Millard, Bart’s abusive father. Nicole DePort portrays Amy Grant in a twist to the story that I didn’t see coming. 91-year-old Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show), portrays Bart’s Memaw in a small role. Themes in this emotionally powerful film include family dysfunction, fear, abuse, core lies, pursuing dreams, forgiveness, repentance, faith, redemption and reconciliation.
I Can Only Imagine is an emotional, well-made and acted film, and one of the best faith-based films I’ve seen, although due to the subject matter, parts of the film are difficult to watch. If you want to read more about this powerful story, check out Bart Millard’s new book I Can Only Imagine: A Memoir.

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Let There Be Light, rated PG-13
** ½

Let There Be Light is a well-made film about what happens to the world’s best-known atheist when he has a near-death experience. The film is directed by Kevin Sorbo (God’s Not Dead, Soul Surfer, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) in his directorial debut. Sorbo writes the film with Dan Gordon (The Hurricane), and also stars as Dr. Sol Harkens, the world’s best-known atheist.
As the film opens, we see Harkens debating a Christian apologist about the existence of God. It’s less of a debate than it is an attack on Christianity before a large audience sympathetic to Harkens. Sol is there primarily to promote his latest book Aborting God: The Reasoned Choice, and in his tirade his uses the death of his young son Davey from cancer to show that God is neither good nor powerful, and that there is no existence past this world. Instead, his philosophy is just to “Party on!”.  The debate works well to sell books, much to the pleasure of his agent Norm, played by Daniel Roebuck (Getting Grace) and publicist Tracee, played by Donielle Artest.
Sol is divorced from Katy, played by real-life wife Sam Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Andromeda). They have two sons, Gus and Conner, also played by real-life sons Braeden and Shane Sorbo. Katy, Gus and Conner are Christians. Despite his success, Sol is unhappy, lonely and not a very good father to Gus and Conner. Despite his hostility to their faith, Katy has never stopped praying for Sol.
We see Sol, who is an alcoholic, drinking extensively at a party to celebrate the release of his book. He is there with Venessa, a Russian bikini model played by Olivia Fox. On the way home from the party, Sol, driving drunk, is in a bad accident. As a result of the accident, Sol actually dies clinically for four minutes. During that time, he sees a bright light, and is reunited (in what could be perceived as Heaven) with his beloved son Davey, played by Ethan Jones. Davey tells his father that he has to go back, it’s not his time yet. He also gives him a message “Let there be light”.
This is a major problem for the world’s best-known atheist who has told his audience that there is nothing past this world, so you might as well “Party on!” The film addresses how Sol deals with what he has seen and the message that he has been given by Davey. We see how his agent and publicist respond, as well as his ex-wife and children.
Michael Franzese portrays Katy’s pastor Vinny. Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who also serves as Executive Producer, stars as himself.  Country music artist Travis Tritt plays Dr. Corey and Dionne Warwick portrays herself.
The film, with a budget of just three million dollars, was well-made, with the acting, writing and production better than most faith-based films. Despite this, discerning viewers will have some concerns with the film’s content. We see Sol, an outspoken atheist, during his near-death experience seeing a bright light and meeting his son Davey in what appears to be Heaven and receiving a message from him. This contrasts to the Apostle Paul who also saw a bright light and received a message directly from Jesus. Sol sees neither God nor Jesus. Also, the film perhaps moves too quickly in showing the changes that take place in Sol’s life. The film could have shown the world’s best-known atheist struggling more. The film could have also portrayed the gospel more clearly:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Despite these concerns Let There Be Light is a positive alternative to many of the current films in the theatres these days, such as Red Sparrow and A Wrinkle in Time.  It is emotional, well-made and features positive messages.

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Victoria and Abdul, rated PG-13
** ½  

With the ending of season two of the excellent television series Victoria, if you want more to feed your Queen Victoria fix, you might want to check out this film. But it’s a very different Queen Victoria that you encounter in this film than the young Victoria portrayed by Jenna Coleman in the television series.
The film is directed by two-time Oscar nominee Stephen Frears (The Queen, The Grifters). Oscar nominee Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) wrote the screenplay based on the book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu. The film received two Oscar nominations – Daniel Phillips and Loulia Sheppard for Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling and Consolata Boyle for Best Achievement in Costume Design. The film tells about the unlikely friendship between the aging Queen Victoria and the 24-year-old Muslim from India, Abdul Karim, played by Ali Fazal. The film and book are based on diaries kept both by Queen Victoria and Karim.
As the film opens, Queen Victoria, played for the second time by Judi Dench (seven-time Oscar nominee and winner for Shakespeare in Love), is going through the motions. She is depressed, lonely, surly and has little patience for others. She is awoken and dressed by her staff. Her scheduled days are spent by attending endless event after event, and we see her dozing off during them. It has been thirty years since the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. She seems to have little reason to live and is disappointed by her nine children, especially son Bertie, the next in line for the throne, played by two-time Emmy winner Eddie Izzard (Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill).
In 1887, Abdul Karim, a prison clerk, chosen because he was tall, and Mohammed Buksh, played by Adeel Akhtar (The Night Manager), chosen because the originally chosen tall Indian was injured, make the 5,000-mile journey to England to present the Queen, who is also the Empress of India, with a gift to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, and 29th year of British rule in India. While Abdul is excited about the trip, Mohammed is not. He resents everything about the empire which overthrew his own government, and he just longs to return home.
As they arrive at Windsor Castle to present the gift to the Queen, they receive very specific instructions on how to approach the Queen, including not to make eye contact with Victoria. But Abdul does just that. This begins an unlikely friendship between the two, which lasts the remaining fifteen years of Victoria’s life.
Victoria first appoints Abdul to be her personal servant, though Mohammed remains a common servant. Adbul is a Muslim who tells Victoria about his world and culture. Throughout the film, we don’t always know if Abdul is being completely truthful with Victoria about his life or not. Soon, the lonely Victoria, the head of the Church of England, asks Abdul to become her spiritual teacher, or Munshi. We see him begin to teach her about the Koran, and to write in Hindi, all to the disgust of the Queen’s court, household and administration who decide that Abdul, whom they refer to as “the Hindu”, must go.
The solid supporting cast is led by Izzard as Bertie, Fenella Woolgar as Miss Phipps, the head royal housekeeper, Golden Globe nominee Michael Gambon (Path to War and Harry Potter films) as the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as Doctor Reid and Tim Pigott-Smith as Sir Henry Ponsonby.
The movie is beautifully filmed, from the Taj Mahal to Windsor Castle, with impressive costumes. Judi Dench, as always, is fantastic in her role as Queen Victoria.
Content concerns include some adult language, including a few abuses of God’s and Jesus’s names. Some will also be concerned about how very positively and one dimensionally the Islam religion is portrayed in this film, and the inference that Queen Victoria converted to Islam near the end of her life.
Themes in the film include loneliness, friendship, racism, jealousy, and religion.
Victoria and Abdul will appeal to those wanting to know more about this little- known relationship between Victoria and Abdul over the last fifteen years of her life. The film is said to be “based on true events, mostly”, which leads one to wonder just how much of it is true.

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My Review of GAME NIGHT

Game Night, rated R

Game Night is a very funny adult comedy with a good cast, but has some content issues. The film is directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein who co-wrote Horrible Bosses and co-directed Vacation; it is written by Mark Perez.
Three-time Golden Globe nominee Jason Bateman (Arrested Development) plays Max. He is married to and very much in love with Annie, played by Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams (Spotlight). Bateman and McAdams have great screen chemistry. As a married couple they are so close, they often know what the other is thinking and finish each other’s thoughts. Their one issue is that thus far they have not been able to start a family. They love games, are very competitive, and host a regular game night at their home with friends. Those friends don’t include the strange neighbor and policeman Gary, played by Jesse Plemons, who wants to be invited to the game nights.
On this particular night, the game players are Ryan, played by Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods, The Big Short), a friend of Annie’s. Ryan brings a different date to each game night. On this night, his date is Sarah, played by Emmy nominee Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe). Kevin, played by Lamorne Morris (New Girl) is married to Michelle, played by Kylie Bunbury. Brooks, Max’s brother who has always been more successful than him, is played by Emmy winner Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights).
Brooks, always looking to one-up Max, invites the group to a special game night at his place. He promises that it will be the best game night they’ve ever had.

They won’t be playing a board game, but instead it will be a mystery night in which one of the players will be kidnapped and the rest will have to solve the crime.
As the players gather at the mansion he is renting, we see masked kidnappers take Brooks while the rest of the players look on enjoying their snacks, assuming it is all part of the game. But it turns out that these are real kidnappers who abduct him before the fake kidnappers can get there. It turns out that Brooks’ successful investing career wasn’t all that he made it out to be and now he is paying for it.  From there, we see one crazy development after another as Max and Annie work as a team to rescue Brooks.

The entertaining plot takes some interesting twists and turns and there are several laugh out loud moments. There are plenty of movie references and a car chase.
Content issues include a significant amount of adult language, some of it of a sexual nature, and many abuses of God’s and Jesus’s names. The film also contains a significant amount of violence.
Note of caution: The previews at our theater were pretty raunchy, so you might want to arrive 15 minutes late.
Game Night is a very funny well-acted film with a good cast. It contains some positive messages but also has some content concerns.  Themes include sibling rivalry, competition, marriage, children and sacrifice for others.

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Black Panther, rated PG-13

Black Panther, the latest film from Marvel, is a triumph and an exciting, well-acted and directed introduction to a new super hero. The film is directed by 31-year-old Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and written by Coogler and Emmy nominee Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story). Coogler uses cinematographer Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison (Mudbound), production designer Emmy nominee Hannah Beachler (Beyonce: Lemonade), and composer Ludwig Goransson, all who worked with him on 2013’s excellent Fruitvale Station. Two-time Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter (Amistad, Malcolm X) handled the costume design.
The film has an all-star cast, and an estimated budget of $200 million. This is the eighteenth film released by Marvel Studios for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This one is different from other Marvel films however, in that it is a pretty much self-contained world, though we did hear about the death of the King of Wakanda in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman (Marshall, 42) is the son of the king. After the death of his father, he returns to the mysterious land of Wakanda to take his place as king. Wakanda is a beautiful African nation that has never been colonized by White settlers that hides its riches and technology, powered by the rare and extremely valuable blue metal vibranium, from the rest of the world. Vibranium has many valuable uses.
T’Challa assumes the title Black Panther, with an impenetrable black battle suit, developed by his sister Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, who also provides the vibranium-based weapons. Okoye, played by Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) leads Wakanda’s elite female warriors. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) plays Nakia, T’Challa’s former girlfriend that he still has feelings for.
For centuries Wakanda has kept its great wealth to itself and T’Challa wants to keep Wakanda isolated from the rest of the world. But Nakia sees how Wakanda can help other nations with their vast resources.
A challenger to T’Challa and the throne of Wakanda is Erik Killmonger, a soldier played by Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed).  Because of an event that occurred in his childhood, Killmonger has motivation to destroy T’Challa. Killmonger also wants to steal the technology of Wakanda and use it for evil purposes. Ulysses Klaue is a South African arms dealer, played by Andy Serkis (Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings) and is a partner in crime with Killmonger.
The all-star cast also includes Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Oscar nominee Angela Bassett (What’s Love Got To Do With It), Golden Globe nominee Martin Freeman (Fargo, The Hobbit, Sherlock), Golden Globe and Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown (This is Us, Marshall) and Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out).
Coogler used experts in African history and politics as consultants on the film to work on defining Wakanda, a nation where three out of every five people go barefoot. The fighting in the film is based on African martial arts. The powerful musical score is by Ludwig Goransson and features new original songs from Kendrick Lamar.
Themes in the film include loyalty and tradition, and transitioning from barriers to bridges.  The film is visually stunning, particularly the costumes and how the African nation of Wakanda is portrayed. Parts of the closing battle scene will also remind you of Star Wars.
Content concerns include a significant amount of intense superhero violence, as is expected with any Marvel film. There is also some adult language. The king’s power is said to come from the panther god, Bast by way of a glowing flower. We hear people pray to ancestors and to Bast.
Black Panther is an achievement not only as a very entertaining film with a good story, but also culturally. It features strong women in key roles. The Black Panther is Marvel’s first African American super hero and the cast, director and supporting crew is largely African American.
Reminder: as with all Marvel films, don’t forget to wait through all of the ending credits.

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My Review of THE 15:17 TO PARIS

The 15:17 to Paris, rated PG-13
** ½

The 15:17 to Paris is based on the true story of the August 21, 2015 attempted terrorist attack aboard a train to Paris, and surprisingly includes a significant amount of Christian content. The film is directed by four-time Oscar winner, 87-year-old Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven). The screen play is written by Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Soldiers by Jeffrey E. Stern, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spenser Stone.
The film follows the friendship of Alek Skarlatos, Spenser Stone and Anthony Sadler, who are played as adults by the real-life heroes, not professional actors, a key casting decision by Eastwood. Inserted in their story are parts of the terrorist attack onboard the train.
The teenage Alek, played by Bryce Gheisar, and Spenser, played by Cole Eichenberger are best friends at a Christian middle school in Sacramento, California. Both have single mothers, Heidi, played by Emmy nominee Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Joyce, played by Judy Greer (The Descendants). The boys often get into trouble, ending up in the principal’s office. It is there that they meet Anthony, played by Paul-Mikel Williams, who also often finds himself there.
Later, we see Spenser and Alek join the military, while Anthony attends college at Sacramento State University. Spenser has to work extremely hard to get in shape, and even his close friends don’t think he can make it, but he eventually does. Throughout the film, we are told that Spenser has always wanted to help people.
Despite being separated, the guys stay in touch, and decide to vacation in Europe. That part of the film really slows, as we see Sadler taking numerous selfies. After a night of partying, resulting in hangovers, they leave Amsterdam and board the high-speed 15:17 Thalys train to Paris.
Ayoub El Khazzani, played by Ray Corasani, a Moroccan-born terrorist is on board, armed with a knife, rifle, pistol, box cutter, and about 300 rounds of ammunition, all with the purpose of doing damage to the 500 passengers. We see him beginning his attack and then Stone, and later Sadler and Skarlatos confronting him.
Similar to his last film Sully, Eastwood uses a very economical directing style, with the film clocking in at just 94 minutes, his shortest film as a director. But the film moves rather slowly without a lot of action, until the last fifteen minutes, which was outstanding.
The film contains a significant amount of Christian content as we hear the characters pray and talk about having a purpose.  But the majority of Christians in the film are portrayed as very uptight.  The film does have some content concerns which include bloody violence, adult language, including the abuse of God’s and Jesus’s names and women pole-dancing in an adult club.
Themes in the film include bravery, patriotism, and friendship.  The 15:17 to Paris shows that these three young men were just ordinary guys who were providentially put into a situation and responded with bravery and self-sacrifice. It’s certainly not a great movie, but having the real heroes portray themselves added to the film.  (My wife thinks the film would have been better if their roles were played by actors and then the real footage used at the end of the film, because there was some very stilted dialogue).