Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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My Review of ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Roman J. Israel, Esq., rated PG-13
**

Denzel Washington’s latest film is a flawed film that focuses on the main character’s values and moral failure.
The film, featuring a strong cast, is written and directed by Oscar nominee Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler). Cinematography is by Oscar winner Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood). After the film’s premiere at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, 13 minutes were cut from the film and a key scene was moved up earlier in the film.
The film is set in downtown Los Angeles, which is where Roman J. Israel lives and works; he is played by Washington, seven-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner (Training Day, Glory). His appearance is stunning; he wears outdated clothes, outdated glasses and an outdated hairstyle. He has a gap between his two front teeth, carries a heavy briefcase and always has a pair of headphones on to listen to his iPod. The ringtone on his flip-phone is Eddie Hendricks’ 1973 hit “Keep on Truckin’”. The man is definitely stuck in the 70’s.
Roman is a lawyer in a two-man criminal defense law firm that handles cases for the downtrodden and underprivileged. The firm has never made much money and is in debt. Roman lives in a modest apartment and often eats peanut butter. The owner of the firm, William Jackson, is the public face of the firm. He argues the cases in court and meets with clients, while Roman does the behind the scenes work (research, etc.). Roman may be a savant or has Asperger’s Syndrome. He has remarkable legal knowledge, but is very uncomfortable socially.

***SPOILER ALERT ***
When Jackson has a heart attack, the Jackson family decides to let Roman go. They hire George Pierce, a rich corporate defense attorney played by Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell (In Bruges) to close the firm down. Eventually Pierce in turn hires Roman at his firm. Roman, who believes in fighting for the underprivileged and has a strong sense of justice, tells George that he is all about the money and not justice.
A key point in the film is a bad decision that Roman makes. The decision was out of character for the principled Roman, and it is not really explained as to why he did what he did, though we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Carmen Ejogo (Selma), plays Maya Alston, a young legal activist, who develops a romantic relationship with Roman. Again, why she is so enamored with the not very likeable Roman is never explained.
********************

Washington delivers his usual strong performance as Roman.  Farrell does a good job portraying the arrogant owner of a high-priced law firm. We see him changing, adopting Roman’s values as the film progresses. This is not really explained either, as Roman is seen moving away from those very values.
The film is rated PG-13 for some adult language, including the abuse of God’s and Jesus’ names. Themes in the film include justice, sin, judgement.
Although there are things to like in this film, particularly Washington’s acting performance, there were just too many holes in the script by Gilroy for me to give this film a good recommendation.

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My Review of THE STAR

The Star, rated PG
***

The Star is a funny, family friendly animated film that provides a unique perspective on the Christmas story, but still stays true to the main points of the biblical account. The film is directed by Oscar nominee Timothy Reckart (Head Over Heels), and includes voicing by a number of stars. The film is written by Carlos Kotkin and Simon Moore.
Abby is a small mouse voiced by Emmy winner Kristen Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies). She is present when the angel comes to Mary to tell her that she will have the Son of God. Once Mary is told this news, a bright star appears in the sky.
Bo is a donkey, voiced by Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead), who has dreams of joining the royal parade. He is encouraged by his best friend Dave, a dove, voiced by Keegan-Michael Key (Key and Peele). Unfortunately, Bo is confined to the life of a working donkey, every day going around and around, over and over, crushing grain in the village mill. But then his older co-worker, voiced by Kris Kristofferson, helps him escape to pursue his dreams. Bo injures his leg in the escape and hides at the home of Mary, voiced by Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriquez (Jane the Virgin), and Joseph Zachary Levi (Tangled), who have just celebrated their wedding. Mary takes a liking to Bo, but Joseph not so much. Mary takes Bo in and nurses him back to health.
Meanwhile, the three magi go to see Herod, riding on three camels – Felix, voiced by Tracy Morgan, Cyrus, voiced by Tyler Perry, and Deborah, voiced by Oprah Winfrey. They ask Herod about the king to be born. When Herod, voiced by Oscar winner Christopher Plummer (The Beginners), hears this, he orders a census with the purpose of finding the prophesied Messiah. Mary and Joseph leave Bo behind and make the trip to Bethlehem. Herod sends a large, mean soldier with two vicious dogs Thaddeus, voiced by Golden Globe winner Ving Rhames (Don King: Only in America) and Rufus, voiced by Gabriel Iglesias, out to find Mary and the unborn child. The ferocious dogs could be too scary for very small children. When the soldier and dogs go to Mary and Joseph’s home, Bo knows that he and Dave must go and warn Mary and Joseph. Along the way they meet a helpful sheep named Ruth, voiced by Aidy Bryant.
The film tells the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of a donkey named Bo. This has similarities to theologian R.C. Sproul’s children’s book The Donkey Who Carried a King, which offers a unique perspective on the events of Jesus’ Passion week.
The film features some excellent Christmas music, by artists such as Mariah Carey, Take 6 and Kirk Franklin.  The Star is family friendly, with minimal content issues and humor. Those humorous moments are from Dave the dove – shaking his bottom, getting a laugh from the many children in the theatre, and making reference to dropping a “well-placed ‘number 2’”.
This would be an excellent film to enjoy with your family this Christmas season.


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My Review of WONDER

Wonder, rated PG
***

Wonder is a heart-warming, family friendly film with good messages, based on the best-selling novel that features a strong cast. Stephen Chbosky, who directed the film version of his own novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, directs this version of R.J. Palacio’s 2012 young-adult best-selling novel, which may remind some of the 1985 Oscar winning film Mask, about a teenager with craniofacial deformities.  Chbosky writes the screenplay along with Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. The story is told from the perspective of multiple characters.
The film is about one year in the life of ten-year old Auggie Pullman, played by Jacob Tremblay, who was wonderful in the 2015 film Room. A congenital disorder (mandibulofacial dystosis, which is known as Treacher Collins Syndrome (TCS),has badly deformed Auggie’s face.  (Note: it actually took 90 minutes each day during filming to apply the facial prosthetics he wore for the role.) The disfiguration was so severe, that even after 27 surgeries, Auggie’s face is still badly deformed to the point that when he ventures out of his home he wears a large astronaut helmet on his head to hide his face from others.
Auggie lives in New York with his overprotective parents, father Nate, played by Oscar nominee Owen Wilson (The Royal Tenenbaums), and mother Isabel, played by Oscar winner Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), along with sister Via, short for Olivia (Izabela Vidovic), who is neglected by her parents as they focus all of their attention on Auggie. Auggie has been home-schooled by his mother, but as he is to enter the fifth grade, they decide to send him to Beecher Prep School, where Mr. Tushman (played by three-time Golden Globe nominee Mandy Patinkin) is the kind principal.
The film follows Auggie, who displays a good sense of humor, during his first year at Beech, where we see him bullied and teased, make friends, etc. But the film is also about Via and how she deals with being neglected by her parents.
The film is told from the perspectives of Auggie, Via, Via’s best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), and Auggie’s classmates Julia (Bryce Gheisar) and Jack (Noah Jupe).  Three-time Golden Globe nominee Sonia Braga portrays Grans, Via’s and Wonder’s grandmother, in a small role.
The film is well-acted, and Wilson and Roberts have good chemistry on-screen. I really enjoyed Mandy Patinkin’s portrayal of the wise and kind principal, Mr. Tushman. The top performance though has to be by 11-year-old Jacob Tremblay, who follows his excellent performance in Room with another strong performance asAuggie.
Themes include acceptance, bullying, friendship and family.  My wife loved the father’s strength that was portrayed.  Mom wants to protect Auggie and keep him in her ‘nest’, while Dad wisely boots the little ‘eaglet’ out of the nest to teach him to fly.  The film is truly family friendly, with no objectionable content, which is really refreshing these days. And oh yes, you might want to bring a Kleenex with you to the theatre for this heart-warming film.


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My Review of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Murder on the Orient Express, rated PG-13
***

Murder on the Orient Express is an entertaining film with an all-star cast that will challenge viewers with moral issues around justice and vengeance. The film is directed by five-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh, and is a remake of the 1974 film version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery novel. The 1974 film received six Oscar nominations, and Ingrid Bergman won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. The screenplay is by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, Logan) and the film features an all-star cast (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Tom Bateman, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman, Willem Defoe, and Judi Dench).  Dench and Cruz are Oscar winners, while Branagh, DeFoe, Preiffer and Depp are Oscar nominees.
Branagh also stars in the film as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Poirot, who sports a large and distinctive mustache and has his own quirks around balance played for humor, is perhaps the most well-known detective in the world (well, at least according to him). The film is set in 1934. After an opening which is unconnected with the rest of the story, but serves to introduce us to Poirot’s detective skills and his quirky behavior, he realizes that he desperately needs a vacation. Unfortunately, he is needed in London for a case. Bouc (Tom Bateman), a friend and director of the famous Orient Express, books him on the luxury passenger train for what he promises will be three days of relaxation and time away from crime on a trip from Istanbul to Calais.
Early in the trip, the shady art and antiques dealer Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) approaches Poirot and asks that Poirot serve as his bodyguard since Ratchett has been receiving threatening letters he assumes are from Italians to whom he sold fake oriental rugs. Poirot refuses, indicating that he detects, not protects, criminals. That night, an avalanche stops the train atop a dangerous trestle, leaving everyone stranded until they can be rescued.
The next morning Poirot finds out that one of the passengers has been murdered in their bed, having been brutally stabbed a dozen times. Poirot is asked by Bouc to investigate the case. He reluctantly agrees, and asks Bouc to be his assistant. After confirming that none of the passengers have left the train, Poirot considers all of them as well as the conductor, to be suspects in the murder.
As Poirot investigates the murder he finds that none of the characters are really as they seem, as they regularly lie to him. A kidnapping and murder, based on the actual Lindbergh baby case, plays a role in the film. Flashbacks are used extensively to tell the story.
The film’s music score is by two-time Oscar nominee Patrick Doyle, and the cinematography, featuring some beautiful outdoor scenes is by Haris Zambarloukos, who worked with Branagh on Cinderella.  I enjoyed the unique camera work, including several uses of the camera looking down on the actors or through beveled glass, and the costumes and set designs depicting the 1930’s.
Content concerns include the bloody body of the victim, racial slurs and the abuse of God’s name a few times. There is not any adult language to speak of, nor any sexual content, both of which were refreshing.
Themes in the film are racism, vengeance, justice, deception and conscience. The film includes some Christian content and references (Penelope Cruz plays a Spanish missionary, there is talk of sin and judgement, etc.)
Having not seen the 1974 edition (though I plan to), I can’t compare this version to the Oscar winning film. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this film and thought that Branagh was excellent as detective Hercule Poirot.


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My Review of ON WINGS OF EAGLES

On Wings of Eagles, rated PG-13
***

On Wings of Eagles is a sequel of sorts to the 1981 Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire. It is co-directed by Stephen Shin and Michael Parker, and was titled The Last Race when it originally opened in 2016. The film was written by Rubby Xu, Christopher C. Chan, Shin and Parker.
Chariots of Fire introduced us to Eric Liddell (then played by Ian Charleson), and his participation in the 1924 Olympics held in Paris. Liddell, known as the “Flying Scotsman” who was favored in the 100 meters, chose not to run because the race was going to take place on a Sunday. He was criticized for his decision, but held fast to what he believed the Bible taught. Instead, he ran the 400-meter race, setting a world record, winning with his unique way of running with his head thrown back.
Liddell, played in this new film by Joseph Fiennes (Risen, Luther, Shakespeare in Love), would have many opportunities to financially capitalize on his win, but instead chose to return to China, the land of his birth where he was born to missionary parents, to serve the Lord with the London Missionary Society. Liddell would teach science and sports at the Anglo-Chinese College.
Liddell married Florence (Elizabeth Arends), and they would have three daughters. A pregnant Florence and their two young daughters would leave for Canada in 1941, while Eric remained in China. Eric fully expected to join them soon, but instead finds himself evicted from his home and moving with many others to live in his school building.
When Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, Liddell and others are relocated to the Weihsien Japanese internment camp, which had the ironic sign over the camp entrance “Courtyard of the Happy Way”. At the camp, we see him teaching the children and his faith in action as he cared for his fellow prisoners, including frequently giving away his own food and participating in a few races against the Japanese commander.
The film is narrated by an older Xu Niu (Bruce Locke), who is portrayed in the film by Shawn Dou. Niu is Liddell’s friend and former driver, who works from the outside to smuggle additional supplies into the camp. The film is in English, Mandarin and Japanese with subtitles. It is rated PG-13 for scenes of war violence and torture as we see prisoners, including Liddell, cast into solitary confinement in “the hole” for days at a time. The film includes themes of self-sacrifice, love, and hope.

A review from REEL Faith by Dewayne Hamby states the following:
Stephen Shin, a Chinese director (The Source of Love, Brotherhood, Heart to Hearts) and a Christian, spent more than 10 years trying to tell the final arc of Liddell’s life, all the while enduring cultural and religious barriers.
Shin has stated “The movie does not only serve the purpose of Christians,” he said. “We want to let the general audience can feel about the great work done by Eric Liddell and how he showed his love. He was a Christian and his life showed the love of God. So that everyone can know in difficult and hard times, they can show the love of God and people can overcome difficulties in their lives. My wish people can share the message in this movie.”

I was familiar with Liddell’s life and strong faith. For those who aren’t, I wonder how much of that will come through in this film. Yes, the film does show him with his Bible, showing love to a young Chinese orphan boy, officiating at a wedding, quoting Mark 10:9 “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” to his captors trying to separate a newly married couple, and the hymn “Be Still My Soul” being featured prominently throughout the film. Liddell’s work as a missionary is not featured in the film. And near the end of the film the narrator tells us that they learned from Liddell to have faith in the goodness of humanity, completely missing the point of his life.
Fiennes was excellent as the self-sacrificing Liddell. I appreciated the film, which was filmed in Tianjin, China. It contains some fine scenery of China, set design and costumes, but I would have liked more of Liddell’s Christian faith to come out in the script. For another look at Liddell’s life after the Olympics, check out Duncan Hamilton’s excellent 2016 book For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr.


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My Review of THOR: RAGNAROK

THOR: RAGNAROK, rated PG-13
****

THOR: RAGNAROK, the latest film from Marvel Studios and the third Thor film is an enjoyable action-packed Marvel film with a great cast that contains a lot of humor.
The film is directed by Oscar nominee Taika Waititi (Two Cars, One Night) and written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost. The film has a different feel than previous Thor films, more like a Guardians of the Galaxy film. It includes a lot of humor and some classic rock music by Led Zeppelin. The soundtrack is done by co-founder of the New Wave band Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh. The film has a loose feel, with an amazing 80% of the dialogue being improvised. The film had an estimated budget of $180 million and opened at $120 million in its first weekend in the U.S.
As the film opens, we see that Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, known as the “God of Thunder”, has been captured by a large demon named Surtur, voiced by Clancy Brown. Thor steals the crown Surtur is wearing, which is the key to Ragnarok (an apocalyptic battle in Norse prophesy) being unleashed on Thor’s home Asgard, which will result in total destruction. As Thor returns to Asgard, he finds that his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been impersonating his father King Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, four-time Oscar nominee and winner for Silence of the Lambs, who Loki has sent to Earth. Thor is furious with Loki, and the two go to Earth to find Odin. There they encounter Doctor Strange, played by Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) who directs them to Odin, who is in Norway and near death. Before he dies, he tells the brothers that they have an older sister, Hela, played by six-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, The Aviator). Hela is known as “The Goddess of Death”.  At one time she teamed with Odin before he became a man of peace and goodness. Odin tells his sons that upon his death, Hela will return to Asgard and take control; and that is just what she does. Blanchett is excellent as the villain Hela.
Skurge, played by Karl Urban (Star Trek, Lord of the Rings) joins Hela in the takeover of Asgard.
Thor is sent to a planet called Sakaar, where he is captured by Valkyrie, a former Asgardian warrior who is now a bounty hunter who drinks a lot, played by Tessa Thompson (Creed).  Valkyrie takes Thor to the Grandmaster, played well by Oscar nominee Jeff Goldblum (Little Surprises). The Grandmaster uses Thor to compete in his arena against his reigning champion, none other than the Hulk, played by three-time Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, who also plays Bruce Banner. The Hulk has been on Sakaar for two years, and likes it there.
Can Thor, Hulk and Valkyrie get back to Asgard to save it from Hela and annihilation? They will be assisted by Heimdall, played by Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom).
Content issues include some totally unnecessary adult language, the expected Marvel action violence, and brief rear male nudity, which is played for laughs. The film includes themes of family, sacrifice, friendship and forgiveness.
I thoroughly enjoyed THOR: RAGNAROK. It was a fast-moving, well-acted, entertaining and funny film.


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My Review of MARSHALL

Marshall, rated PG-13
****

Marshall is a well-acted film inspired by true events. It primarily tells the story of a 1941 case that future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther, 42, Get on Up) tried for the NAACP. The film is directed by Oscar nominee Reginald Hudlin (Django Unchained) and written by the father/son screenwriting team of Michael and Jacob Koskoff.
Marshall is sent by the NAACP to Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell, played by Sterling K. Brown (This is Us). Brown is a chauffeur that has been accused of raping and attempting to kill his employer Eleanor Strubing, played by Oscar nominee Kate Hudson (Almost Famous). Because Marshall is from out of state, he asks Jewish insurance lawyer Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad (Frozen), to take the case and have Marshall join the defense team. However, Judge Foster, played by Oscar nominee James Cromwell (Babe), has a personal relationship with the father of prosecuting attorney Loren Willis, played by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey), and will not allow Marshall to speak in court, indicating that only lawyers licensed to practice law in Connecticut can argue in his courtroom. This unexpected turn of events results in Friedman, who has never tried a criminal case, having to do the work in the courtroom, with Marshall preparing him to argue before the all-white jury. Note: the real Friedman was an experienced criminal lawyer.
Marshall is not sure he believes Brown’s story, and tells him that he will not defend someone who is guilty. Brown has a checkered past to say the least, while the woman he is alleged to have attacked is a wealthy, respected, church going member of the community.
The film focuses a lot on the relationship between the black Marshall and the Jewish Friedman. I especially appreciated the scene in which Friedman quotes Scripture and realizes he’s acting as Aaron to Marshall’s Moses.
We see how Marshall’s important work as an attorney for the NAACP, which results in frequent absences from home, has an impact on Marshall’s wife Buster, played by Keesha Sharp.

The film is rated PG-13 for adult themes (rape), some adult language, including the “n-word”, and several abuses of God’s name. There is also some sexuality included, though nothing explicit is shown.
Marshall is a well-acted film about a small part of Thurgood Marshall’s life.  (Chadwick Boseman should receive an Academy Award!)  The film portrays that Marshall, who would go on to become the first Black Supreme Court justice, was friends with poet Langston Hughes and author Zora Neale Hurston.
Near the end of the film Marshall is sent to Mississippi to defend a 14-year-old boy accused of killing a policeman. At the train station he’s greeted by Z. Alexander Looby (Benjamin Crump), and the boy’s parents, played by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon Martin’s parents. Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in February 2012.