Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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My Review of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, rated PG-13
*** ½

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is visually stunning, funny, surprisingly emotional, and has some great messages about the importance of family. Oh yeah, it has some good action scenes and music as well.  Overall, it’s a lot of fun.
I was pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed the first movie in this Marvel series. If you enjoyed that film you will enjoy this one as well. It is directed by James Gunn, who also directed the first film in 2014. Gunn shares the writing credits with Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who also wrote the first film. We saw the film in IMAX 3-D so the film was visually spectacular thanks to cinematographer Henry Braham. The IMAX sound system was helpful as the film includes a lot of 1970’s music from Fleetwood Mac, Cat Stevens, Sam Cooke, George Harrison and others.
Filmed in the Atlanta, Georgia area, the film had a budget of about $200 million, and is projected to open this weekend at more than $140 million in the U.S. alone. A third film has already been announced.
The film takes place three months after the end of the first film. As the opening credits roll, Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, Fate of the Furious) is dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” from the Awesome Mix Part 2, seemingly unaware of the space battle going on behind him. That battle has Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World), and the other Guardians – Gamora (Zoe Saldana, Avatar), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (voiced by four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper) – defending valuable batteries from a monster called the Abilisk for people known as the Sovereign, led by a golden woman Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, The Night Manager). Their payment is Gamora’s evil sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), who the Guardians plan to turn in for a substantial bounty.
After the Guardians successfully complete their mission, Rocket decides to steal some of the batteries from the Sovereign. Ayesha hires the blue-skinned Ravager Yondu (Michael Rooker), who had abducted Peter from Earth as a child and raised him, to pursue the Guardians and bring them back for punishment.
The Guardians escape, but their ship is badly damaged when they have a crash landing. There they meet Ego (Golden Globe nominee Kurt Russell) who tells Peter that he is his real father, and has been looking for him for years. In ancient Greek “Ego eimi” means “I am”, which is how God identified Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14: God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And He said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
***SPOILER ALERT ***
Ego identifies himself as a god with a “small g”, a celestial. He has his own planet, that he created over millions of years. Peter, Drax and Gamora decide to go with Ego to visit his planet. There they meet Ego’s assistant/companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Mantis can read the emotions of others and is even able to change them. She is able to help Ego sleep.
We see Yondu shunned by Stakar Ogord (three-time Oscar nominee Sylvester Stallone), who appears in the film in two brief scenes. Stakar tells Yondu that he has betrayed his people. Then, Yondu’s men rebel against him when they complain that he has gone too easy on Peter. He is imprisoned along with Rocket while they try to get Baby Groot to rescue them. Meanwhile, Ayesha hires Yondu’s men to go after Peter, Drax and Gamora, to kill them. There is a lot going on. To tell you more would reveal spoilers.
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I really enjoyed the characters in this film, how they are developed and interact with each other. The film includes some excellent humor and a lot of fun. The music from the 1970’s is used well, as it was in the first film. Mostly, the film is about family – Peter dealing with two fathers – his biological father Ego, and Yondu, the one who raised him. Then there is the relationship between sisters Gamora and Nebula, and Nebula’s own father issues. And mostly, it shows the Guardians, though they had originally come together by accident, are their own type of family.
I felt that the first half of the film was superior to the second, primarily because the ending scene went on for way too long.  This is certainly not a children’s film, though I did see some young children in the theatre. It includes some adult language, some of which is of a sexual nature, and some of which abuses God’s name. There is a good deal of violence in the space battles as well, which is to be expected.
And, as with all Marvel films, don’t forget to sit all the way through the closing credits, as there are five scenes included throughout the lengthy credits.
The Guardians of the Galaxy will return in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duGqrYw4usE


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My Review of Gifted

Gifted, rated PG-13
***

Gifted is a pleasing film about self-sacrifice and the importance of family.
This film is directed by Marc Webb ((500) Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2), and written by Tom Flynn. It features a solid cast and some strong performances. Although set in Florida, it was actually filmed mostly on Bull Street in Savannah, Georgia.
Frank Adler (played by Chris Evans of Captain America films), is a former university professor who now repairs boats in Florida. When his sister, a genius mathematician, took her life seven years ago Frank took the responsibility to raise her infant daughter Mary (Mckenna Grace). The two have a great relationship, living in a small home with their one-eyed cat Fred. In one touching scene, Mary asks Frank if there is a God and whether Jesus is God.
But Mary isn’t happy at all that Frank is making her go to public school (first grade) after home schooling her. Mary also has an excellent relationship with their neighbor Roberta (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer).
It doesn’t take Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) long to realize that, like her mother, Mary is extremely gifted in mathematics. The school principal offers Frank a scholarship for Mary to go to a school where Mary would be challenged, but Frank refuses, saying that he only wants Mary to have a normal life.
Then Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, Sherlock) Frank’s manipulative mother, shows up from Boston. Frank and Evelyn are not particularly close and we hear about Evelyn’s contentious relationship with his sister. This all leads to a custody battle between the two over Mary.
I enjoyed this well-acted film. There were strong performances from Evans, Grace and Duncan; Spencer delivered her usual solid performance in a small role.
The film does include some adult language, including the abuse of God’s name. Frank and Bonnie have a relationship, and it is inferred that they have sex (nothing explicit is shown).


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My Review of Risen

Risen, PG-13
***

Risen is a well-made Christian film that would be a good one to watch with family and friends this Easter weekend.
This 2016 film, directed and co-written (with Paul Aiello) by Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte CristoWaterworld), gives us a different perspective on the greatest story ever told. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (here referred to as Yeshua, well-portrayed by Cliff Curtis) is told through the eyes of a skeptic. And while I tend to be wary of faith-based films due to their often emotional manipulation and lack of quality, the trailer for this film had reflected that it might be a step above the norm in this genre. After seeing the film, I found it, with a budget of $20 million, to be well-acted with good use of scenery and sets, and an effective musical score. And unlike 2014’s Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, Christians will find that it respects the biblical account of the death and resurrection of Christ.
The film, set in Judaea in 33 A.D., takes the point of view of a fictional character Clavius, a powerful Roman Military Tribune, who we see praying to his gods, played by Joseph Fiennes (who has played Martin Luther in 2003’s Luther, and will portray runner/missionary Eric Liddell in the upcoming film On Wings of Eagles). Clavius serves under and is often summoned to the presence of Pontius Pilate, played by Oscar nominated actor Peter Firth. He is driven by ambition, and seeks power and wealth, telling Pilate that he desires “an end to travail, a day without death, peace.”
The film begins with Clavius’ troops brutally defeating Jewish rebels. Pilate then summons Clavius about a Nazarene leader (Yeshua) who has claimed to be God. He is being crucified and Pilate tells him to quickly finish the work because the Emperor is coming for a visit. We see a sword pierce Yeshua’s side, and Clavius watch him die before turning the body over to Joseph of Arimathea for burial in a private tomb.
Since there are rumors Yeshua will rise from the dead, and the Jewish leaders fear his followers will steal his body and claim that he rose, Clavius seals the tomb and assigns two soldiers to guard it. When the body is missing from the tomb on the third day, Pilate orders Clavius and his assistant Lucius (Tom Felton, best known for his role as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), to quickly find the body and end the rumors of Yeshua’s resurrection.
The film, which moves at a slow pace, follows Clavius’ search for Yeshua’s body as he interrogates Mary Magdalene (Maria Botto) and Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan) and encounters Peter (Stewart Scudamore). As his investigation proceeds, we begin to see Clavius changing.
I thoroughly enjoyed this well-made telling of the story of the days before and after the death of Christ. The violence at the beginning of the film and some disturbing images of dead bodies earn the film its PG-13 rating. Risen is available on DVD and video streaming outlets. Enjoy it with family and friends this Easter weekend.


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My Review of The Case for Christ

The Case for Christ, rated PG
***

The Case for Christ is a well-made film based on a true story. It would be an excellent film to watch this Easter weekend.
This film tells the true story of award winning Chicago Tribune journalist Lee Strobel’s spiritual journey. Strobel, played by Mike Vogel (The Help), is a committed atheist. His wife Leslie, played by Erika Christensen (Parenthood), was raised in the church, but has since fallen away. One night in a Chicago restaurant, their young daughter Alison, played by Hayley Rosenwasser, nearly chokes to death. A nurse named Alfie Davis, played by L. Scott Caldwell (Mercy Street, Lost), is in the restaurant and comes to the child’s aid, saving her life. Alfie tells Leslie that she hadn’t planned to be at the restaurant, but Jesus had changed her plans that evening. Leslie becomes friends with Alfie, who invites her to her church (Willow Creek), and she eventually becomes a Christian, much to the displeasure of her husband.
Kenny London, played by Mike Pniewski (The Good Wife, Madam Secretary), is the religion editor at the Tribune. He is a Christian, and he challenges Lee to use his reporting skills to investigate Christianity. He tells him that the truth of Christianity rests or falls on the resurrection of Jesus. If Lee can disprove the resurrection, he can disprove Christianity. So Lee sets about using his investigative skills to disprove the resurrection and as a result, Christianity. He is convinced that Christianity can’t be supported by facts, and he sets out to prove just that. And Strobel is certainly no slouch. He earned his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri and his Master of Studies in Law at Yale Law School.
As he begins to investigate the resurrection and his wife’s faith grows, we see him become frustrated, angry and drinking a lot. At the same time, we see Leslie pray for her husband’s salvation and her love for Lee, who is not very lovable, continues to grow.
The movie focuses much on the relationship between Lee and Leslie and how Leslie’s newfound faith rocks Lee. He decides the only way he can save his marriage, and to get his old wife back, is to get Jesus out of Leslie’s life. Along the way, in a parallel storyline, we see Lee’s investigative work on James Dixon’s alleged shooting of a police office.
The film boasts a solid cast. Lee has a complicated relationship with his father Walter, portrayed by Oscar nominee Robert Forster (Jackie Brown). Frankie Faison (The Good Wife), portrays Joe, his editor at the Tribune. Oscar winner (Network) Faye Dunaway portrays Dr. Roberta Waters, appearing in one scene. Ray, portrayed by fellow atheist Brett Rice (Foxcatcher), mentors Lee on investigating the claims of Christianity. Tom Nowicki portrays Dr. Alexander Metherell (The Blind Side, Flight), who Lee consults about the so-called “Swoon Theory” of the crucifixion.
The film is directed by Jon Gunn, and is written by Brian Bird (Captive), based on Strobel’s best-selling book The Case for Christ. Themes in the film include the search for truth, faith, love, friendship, faith and prayer.
Most faith-based films I’ve seen over the years have not been well done. Budgets are low and the writing and acting has often been sub-standard. This film is a pleasant exception. Although I would have preferred for the film to focus more on the evidence that Lee encountered in his investigation of the resurrection rather than on his relationship with Leslie, I can still give it a strong recommendation.


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My Review of Dispatches from the Front

Dispatches from the Front. Episode 10: The Fourth Man
****

In this tenth episode of Frontline Missions’ and Tim Keesee’s excellent Dispatches from the Front series, Keesee travels to the Middle East. He talks about the deep darkness in the territory, but also that the Gospel is powerfully at work here. He speaks of the contrast of darkness and light, death and life,
Throughout his travels, we see Tim with these brothers and sisters who courageously preach and teach the Word in difficult areas. He states that Christ, the Fourth Man (the one in the flames with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), still walks with his people in the fire (Daniel 3:25). So don’t lose heart, the Fourth Man has already gone before us through the fire and crushed death.
The DVD also includes some special features which I enjoyed.
I highly recommend this new episode, and all ten episodes, in the Dispatches from the Front series.


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My Review of The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife, rated PG-13
** ½

The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the amazing true story of a Polish couples’ courage and self-sacrifice during World War II.
This film was written by Angela Workman and based on Diane Ackerman’s 2007 bestselling book, The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, which itself was inspired by the unpublished diary of Antonina Zabinska. The film is directed by Niki Caro (McFarland, USA, Whale Rider).
The film takes place in Warsaw, Poland (though the film was actually shot in Prague), beginning in 1939. It covers seven years in the lives of Antonina Zabinski, portrayed by two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (trying her best to use a Polish accent), her husband Jan, played by Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown), and their young son Ryszard. We see that they care deeply for the animals in the zoo that they own and run. In addition, Jan is involved in the Polish Underground and the Home Army.
German bombs are falling on Warsaw and the Warsaw Zoo while German troops occupy the city. We see the violence of war with people and animals dying. When the zoo is bombed, the surviving animals are seen wandering about the city. Jewish people are taken and held in an area that is known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The Zabinski’s see what is going on and decide to provide shelter to Antonina’s best friend Magda Gross, played by Efrat Dor.
Lutz Heck, played by Golden Globe nominee Daniel Brühl (Rush), is a former colleague and the head of the Berlin Zoo, but who is now an SS officer and Hitler’s leading zoologist. After the bombings, he offers to transport the most prized animals to Berlin for safekeeping. The Zabinskis approach Heck with a plan to turn the zoo grounds into a pig farm that would serve to provide food for the German army.  In reality, however, they have a plan to save as many Jews as possible and by doing so put their own lives constantly in danger.
The film’s focus is on Antonina, though it can be argued that Jan took the greater risks in this story of resistance against the Nazis. The film includes powerful themes of self-sacrifice, courage, fear and love. It also will challenge the viewer with moral dilemmas.
The film is rated PG-13 for war violence, scenes of sexual assault and sexuality, and surprisingly contains some brief gratuitous nudity. The film’s costumes, sets, and musical score all add to the film’s realism and tension. The acting performances, particularly by Chastain, Brühl and Heldenbergh are solid.
Although I can’t put my finger on it, this film is missing something. It moves along slowly, and despite the danger all around her, we don’t see Antonina feeling the fear that she had to be feeling.  Overall this is a great story that the film doesn’t quite measure up to.


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My Review of The Boss Baby

The Boss Baby, rated PG
** ½

The Boss Baby offers some humor and ultimately a good message about the importance of family that will appeal to both children and adults.
This animated comedy from DreamWorks is directed by Tom McGrath (Madagascar films), written by Michael McCullers (Austin Powers sequels, Mr. Peabody and Sherman) and is based on Marla Frazee’s 2010 children’s book. As the film opens, we see babies proceeding along a conveyer belt. Ultimately, a “tickle test” will determine whether they will go be delivered to a family or to positions in “management” with Baby Corp. Baby Corp is a competitor of Puppy Co. for the affections of families.
The Boss Baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin) wears a suit, carries a briefcase and is delivered to the happy home of seven year old Tim (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi), his Dad (voiced by Jimmy Kimmel) and Mom (voiced by Lisa Kudrow). Tobey Maguire narrates the film as the older Tim.  Dad and Mom both work for Puppy Co.  Prior to the arrival of the Boss Baby, Tim was a happy seven year old with an active imagination, who loved to play with his parents. He was awakened every morning at 7:00 am by his Lord of the Rings wizard-inspired alarm clock. He had all of his parent’s attention and affection. Each night as he went to bed, he got hugs, stories read and was sung to sleep by his parents singing the Beatles classic 1968 song “Blackbird”. All that changes when his new baby brother shows up via a taxi cab. The Boss Baby immediately commands all of Dad and Mom’s attention and energy, much to the chagrin of Tim. Tim goes from receiving all of his parent’s attention to almost none of it.
But Tim is suspicious of the Boss Baby. Soon he finds out that the Boss Baby is not an ordinary baby. No, he can actually talk, and is on an undercover mission for Baby Corp, leading other babies in the effort. Tim seeks to expose him to his parents, so his life can go back to the way it was before the Boss Baby showed up. He eventually agrees to work with the Baby Boss to work against the Puppy Co. CEO (voiced by Steve Buscemi) and their anti-baby plot (they are developing a lovable new kind of puppy that will cut into the amount of family love available to babies). The Boss Baby agrees to leave the home after his mission is accomplished.
The film is mostly family friendly, with a bit of language, a good deal of “toilet humor” and several shots of baby bottoms, all played for humor. Adults may get some of the jokes that children will miss, such as the Boss Baby’s line, “Cookies are for closers”, which is a parody of Alec Baldwin’s famous line from Glengarry Glen Ross, “Coffee is for closers!”
Overall the film was better than I expected. It delivers a strong pro-family message and delivers some funny moments. In addition, the computer animation lives up to the high standards that we expect from DreamWorks.