Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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My Review of THE GRINCH

The Grinch, rated PG
** ½

The Grinch is a modernized version of Dr. Seuss’ much-loved tale of the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. The film is directed by Emmy winner Yarrow Cheney (Dilbert) and Scott Mosier. The screenplay is written by Michael LeSieur (Keeping Up with the Joneses) and Tommy Swerdlow, based on the book by Dr. Seuss How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
This film takes quite a few liberties with the Dr. Seuss’ story that we are familiar with. The Grinch, voiced by Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, Sherlock, Dr. Strange) is not as mean as the one we met in the classic 1966 television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  This Grinch is lonelier and sadder, than he is mean, though he certainly still has a mean streak in him. He lives with his under-appreciated dog Max inside a cave on Mount Crumpet, overlooking Whoville. I enjoyed the scenes of how each morning would start with Max making the Grinch’s coffee and bringing it up to his bedroom using the inventions and contraptions that the Grinch has built for his daily needs.
After running out of food because of his emotional over-eating, the Grinch and Max must go down the mountain to Whoville to pick up groceries. In the village he runs into the friendly Mr. Bricklebaum, voiced by Emmy winner Kenan Thompson (Saturday Night Live), who has the house with the most Christmas decorations. In fact, this year, the goal in Whoville is to make Christmas three times bigger than its ever been before, which aggravates the Grinch even more.
He also meets Cindy-Lou Who, voiced by Cameron Seely (The Greatest Showman), who is desperately trying to mail a letter that contains a very special request to Santa Claus.  The Grinch assumes this is for a gift for Cindy-Lou, but it is actually something for her hard-working single mom Donna, voiced by Emmy nominee Rashida Jones (Hot Girls Wanted).
While in Whoville, the Grinch passes by carolers singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (well-sung by Pentatonix), which includes some very clear lines about Jesus, and the real meaning of Christmas: Continue reading

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My Review of THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, rated PG
****

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a delightful live action film from Disney that the entire family will enjoy. It is directed by three-time Oscar nominee Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules) and Oscar winner Joe Johnson (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Johnson directed 32 days of reshoots written by Tom McCarthy when Hallström was unavailable, while Hallström oversaw the post-production. The screenplay is written by Ashleigh Powell, based on E.T.A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and the Nutcracker Ballet by Marius Petipa. The film, which has a strong cast, had a budget of approximately $133 million.
Clara, played by Mackenzie Foy (Twilight films, Interstellar) is a teenage girl who has excellent mechanical skills; her mother has recently died. The film is set on Christmas Eve in Victorian London. Her grieving father, played by Matthew Macfadyen, gives her and her brother and sister gifts from their mother. Clara’s gift, a mechanical silver egg, can only be opened by a key, which she does not have.
Later that evening, the family goes to a Christmas Ball at Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer’s estate.  Drosselmeyer is played by Morgan Freeman, five-time Oscar nominee and winner for Million Dollar Baby. Drosselmeyer gives each of the children a gift. As Clara goes after hers, she is transported to a magical world. She sees the key to her egg, but a mouse steals it from her. As she chases the mouse, she meets a Nutcracker Guard named Captain Phillip, played by Jayden Fowora-Knight (Ready Player One). Phillips tells Clara that in that world, her mother was Queen Maria, making her a Princess.
After the mouse who has taken her key gets away, Phillip takes Clara to the palace, where she meets the leaders of three realms – the Land of Snowflakes, led by Shiver played by Richard E. Grant (Gosford Park), the Land of Flowers, led by Hawthorne, played by Eugenio Derbez (Overboard), and the Land of Sweets, led by Sugar Plum, played by Kiera Knightley, two-time Oscar nominee (Pride & Prejudice and The Imitation Game). She has also been looking for the same key that Clara has. Sugar Plum tells Clara about a fourth, dark and evil realm, governed by Mother Ginger, played by Helen Mirren, four-time Oscar nominee and winner for The Queen. Mother Ginger had stolen the key that Clara has been looking for. Clara must get the key from the evil Mother Ginger to save the land from disaster.
The film, which contains very little ballet – just one scene, and the closing credits, with American Ballet Theatre star Misty Copeland – is visually stunning and has a good plot twist. The makeup is outstanding. The production design is done by two-time Oscar nominee Guy Hendrix Dyas (Passengers, Inception), and the costume design is by eight-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road, A Room With a View). The outstanding musical score is by eight-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard (Defiance, Michael Clayton), and incorporates much of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The film features strong acting performances particularly from Knightley, Foy and Fowora-Knight.
Themes include being self-reliant, working as a team, courage, sacrifice, forgiveness and family. Very young children may be frightened at times.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is an entertaining film that the entire family will enjoy.


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My Review of INDIVISIBLE

Indivisible, rated PG-13
***

Indivisible is based on the true story of U.S. Army Chaplain Darren Turner and his family. The film is directed and co-written by David G. Evans (The Grace Card).  Cheryl McKay (The Ultimate Gift) and Peter White wrote the screenplay with Evans.
Justin Bruening (Grey’s Anatomy) stars as Darren Turner. He had recently completed seminary and basic training as an Army chaplain and just arrived at Georgia’s Fort Stewart with wife Heather, played by Sara Drew (Grey’s Anatomy) and their three young children, when he found out that he was being deployed to Iraq for the Operation Iraqi Freedom’s 2007 troop surge.  Although in a state of shock at how quickly things were happening, Darren and Heather both agree that they had been called to this ministry. That didn’t make things any easier, however.
In Iraq for fifteen months, Darren is eager to provide spiritual support for the hurting troops he is assigned to, though he admits he doesn’t know exactly how to do that. He carries and hands out “Armor of God” coins. He receives encouragement from his commanding officer Jacobsen, played by Eric Close (Nashville) and the helpful Sergeant Peterson, played by Skye P. Marshall (Grey’s Anatomy). But he is challenged by his neighbor Michael Lewis, a veteran of multiple tours, played by Jason George (Grey’s Anatomy) and rifleman Lance Bradley, played by Tanner Stine (The Thundermans), who ask difficult questions about God. Eventually, he grows closer to both men. But the horrors of war and a painful loss put Darren’s faith to the test.
Continue reading


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My Review of THE OLD MAN & THE GUN

The Old Man & The Gun, rated PG-13
***

The Old Man & The Gun is a well-acted film that is “mostly true” about the real-life bank robber Forrest Tucker. The film is directed and written by David Lowery and is based on David Grann’s 2003 article in the New Yorker titled “The Old Man and the Gun”. The film is set in 1981, and is shot by cinematographer Joe Anderson on Super 16 mm film. The musical score is by Daniel Hart.
Oscar winner Robert Redford (Ordinary People), now 82 years old, portrays 76-year-old Forrest Tucker, a man who has lived a life of crime from age 13 when he stole a bicycle until we meet him as a bank robber. Tucker is also known for escaping from jail or prison, having done it 16 times. Tucker is seen as a gentleman bank robber, dressing nicely and being very courteous as he and his “Over the Hill Gang” rob bank after bank without ever shooting their guns.  The Gang consisted of Teddy, played by four-time Emmy nominee Danny Glover (Freedom Song) and Waller, played by Oscar nominee Tom Waits (One From The Heart). In fact, we never even see the Gang or Tucker’s guns – just a flash of his suitcoat in the banks. Tucker was known to have robbed as many as 80 banks, taking in excess of $4 million in his career as a gentleman bank robber.
As the film begins, Tucker has robbed a small Texas bank. To elude the police who are pursuing him, he stops to assist Jewel, a widow played by six-time Oscar nominee and winner for Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sissy Spacek, whose truck has broken down along the side of the road. The two strike up a friendship in a diner, with Forrest initially telling Jewel that he is a travelling salesman.
Oscar winner Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) plays Dallas Police detective John Hunt, who has just turned 40, seems depressed, and doesn’t seem to like his job very much. But Hunt is revived when he starts putting together that a string of bank robberies is related, and he takes the lead on the case.
Themes include crime and deception. Content concerns include some adult language and a small amount of violence. In addition, this is one of those films in which the filmmaker wants you to cheer for those that are committing the crimes, as opposed to the police who are pursuing them.
It’s interesting that Tucker only seems to be happy when he’s robbing banks. On the other hand, Hunt, comes alive only when he’s pursuing Tucker, not before or after.
The film is getting some extra attention as Robert Redford has indicated that this will be his last film as an actor. The film deviates from the real story of Tucker on several points, as is summarized in this article.
The Old Man & The Gun is a well-acted film as Redford, Spacek and Affleck deliver excellent performances. Redford has good chemistry with both Spacek as a love interest and Affleck as his pursuer.


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My Review of FIRST MAN

First Man, rated PG-13
** ½

First Man is a film about astronaut Neil Armstrong, leading up to and including his historic trip to the moon. The film was highly anticipated as it was directed by three-time Oscar nominee and winner for La La Land, Damien Chazelle, who also directed the excellent Whiplash, and written by Oscar winner Josh Singer (Spotlight) based on the book by First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen. The film tries to be as historically accurate as possible, with Armstrong’s sons working with the filmmakers.
The film has a solid cast led by two-time Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling (La La Land, Half Nelson) as Neil Armstrong. The film is not just about the Apollo 11 mission, and Armstrong being the first man to walk on the moon. It delves deeply into Armstrong’s strained relationship with his wife Janet, played by Golden Globe winner Claire Foy (The Crown).

***SPOILER ALERT***
After their young daughter Karen dies, Neil becomes distant and throws himself into his work at NASA. A very high percentage of marriages can’t survive the loss of a child, and the Armstrongs were not an exception, as they divorced in 1994 after 38 years of marriage. Armstrong was a hero, one that his family referred to as a reluctant American hero. He died in 2012.
The film follows Armstrong from his early days as a pilot, joining NASA, time on the Gemini program, including the near fatal Gemini 8 mission, and through the historic 1969 Apollo 11 mission with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. The film conveys how dangerous being an astronaut was, as we see or hear about several astronauts dying, including Armstrong’s friend and neighbor Ed White, played by Jason Clarke (Chappaquiddick).
The film shows that not everyone in the country was in support of the space program with its cost and danger, while the country was facing many problems at the time.
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The film is visually stunning thanks to cinematographer Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (La La Land), especially the scenes on the moon, which were controversial because they do not depict Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon.
Themes include patriotism, family, dedication to work at the expense of family, grief following the loss of a child and friends, and danger. Content concerns include some adult language and the death of astronauts.
First Man was in some ways brilliant, notably when it gives the viewer a feeling of what the rocket blast-off was like, as the screen shook and the camera pans over to the bolts (will they hold?). I don’t like even the slightest bit of turbulence when flying, but this film, perhaps better than any other, gives us a feeling of what the experience in the cockpit of a rocket would be like. The acting was excellent, not only by Gosling and Foy, but also by the solid supporting cast. But in other ways, the film was much too slow, including a final drawn out scene between Gosling and Foy as they meet for the first time upon his return from the moon, and a good twenty minutes too long.


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My Review of GOSNELL: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer

Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer
*** ½

Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is a film based on the investigation and trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. It is an important film, but also a very difficult one to watch. The film is directed by Nick Searcy, who also plays one of the major roles in the film. The film is written by Andrew Klavan based on the book Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer by a married couple of investigative journalists from Ireland Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney.
In 2010 Philadelphia detectives James Wood, played by Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), and his partner Starks, played by Alfonzo Rachel, obtain a warrant to search Dr. Gosnell’s clinic regarding an illegal pharmaceutical drug business being run out of the clinic. The DEA and FBI are also investigating the clinic for the same reason. What they find at the clinic is disgusting, a house of horrors. The clinic is filthy, and we see bags containing dead babies and jars of aborted babies’ feet. Cats run freely through the clinic, adding to the terrible smell inside. In the midst of the raid, Dr. Gosnell, played convincingly by Earl Billings, calmly feeds his pet turtles.
As the detectives interview clinic workers, they find out that patients were given anesthesia by untrained clinic workers, some of those workers being as young as 15 years old. One patient died at the clinic from an anesthesia overdose. Abortions were performed at the clinic past the state’s legal limit of 24 weeks. There were many babies that were born alive. In those instances, Dr. Gosnell cut their spinal cords with scissors.
Concerned with what he has seen at the clinic, Detective Wood contacts Assistant District Attorney Lexis McGuire, played by Sarah Jane Morris (Brothers & Sisters), about getting a search warrant for Dr. Gosnell’s home, as it appears that he has recently moved some files from the clinic. District Attorney Dan Molinari, played by Michael Beach, is concerned about the political ramifications of bringing murder charges against an abortion doctor, telling McGuire that it could damage her career aspirations.       
Dr. Gosnell hires defense attorney Mike Cohan, played by the film’s director Nick Searcy.  An investigative blogger, Molly Mullaney, played by Cyrina Fiallo, plays a key role in the case against Dr. Gosnell. The Mullaney character is a composite of JD Mullane and Mollie Z. Hemingway. The film uses actual transcripts from the two-month trial. Three-time Golden Globe nominee Janine Turner (Northern Exposure) plays Dr. North, an abortion doctor called to the stand during the trial who explains in painful detail the procedures she and her clinic have performed.
The film is difficult to watch not so much for what is shown on the screen, but for what is left to the imagination. Christine Wechsler (on whom Morris’ character is based) and the real-life Wood, served as consultants on the film, which also relied “very heavily on actual court transcripts” and “dozens of hours of interviews with Kermit Gosnell” himself.
The film tells us that despite concerns about the deplorable clinic conditions that were brought to their attention, the Philadelphia Department of Health refused to inspect Dr. Gosnell’s clinic based on orders from a past Pennsylvania governor. As a result, Gosnell’s clinic had not been inspected for several years.
Themes include abortion, murder, justice, sanctity of life. Content concerns include bags containing dead babies, aborted babies’ feet in jars and some adult language.
The film features a solid cast, led by Billings portrayal of Dr. Gosnell. It focuses on the facts of the story, so there is not a lot of character development. Real-life police photos are displayed over the ending credits.
Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is a film that almost all top critics have refused to review, despite the film finishing in the top 10 its opening weekend while only being shown in just 673 theatres (the top film Venom is showing in 4,250 theatres). Facebook banned ads for the film in May 2018 saying it was “political speech”. The film’s producers raised $2.3 million in 45 days from nearly 30,000 people to fund this film.
It’s an important film. Go see it. Here is a current list of theatres where the film is showing.


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My Review of THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS

Three Identical Strangers, rated PG-13
*** ½

This well-made documentary tells the incredible true story of three brothers who were separated at birth by the Louise Wise Services, a Jewish adoption agency in New York. Their story is truly one of truth being stranger than fiction. The film is directed by Tim Wardle and includes interviews with the three boys, some of their family members and others involved in their story along with home movies, archival footage and re-creations.
The boys’ story is told sequentially and unfolds like a mystery. On July 12, 1961 in Glen Oaks, New York, Robert Shafran, Eddie Galland, and Robert Kellman were born as identical triplets to a single teenage mother and later adopted by different families.

***SPOILER ALERT***
The film begins in 1980, when one of the boys arrives for his first day at Sullivan County Community College, and is warmly greeted by returning students, which he feels is very strange, since he has never been there and didn’t know any of the students. It turns out that he has been mistaken for someone else, which he finds out to be his identical twin. When the story hits the New York newspapers, a third brother is identified, and we see the happy reunion. The boys are instant celebrities, appearing on the Today Show, the Phil Donahue Show and even have a brief cameo opposite Madonna in the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan. They have some of the same mannerisms, smoke the same brand of cigarettes and have the same taste in women. Later, they would own a restaurant called “Triplets” together.
Louise Wise Services had separated the boys (as well as other children), at birth, and they had been adopted by three different families – an upper-class family, a middle-class family and a working-class family. Some of the parents were more loving than others and some had stricter discipline. None of the families had been told that the boys were part of triplets separated at birth.
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The first half of this film was heart-warming and funny. The second half of the film, which I won’t ruin with spoilers, takes a shocking, disturbing and much darker turn as we meet New Yorker reporter Lawrence Wright, who looked into the boys’ story.
This documentary is well-written, with good editing of the interviews. The major theme in the film is family, also secrecy, and betrayal. The only content concern is some adult language.
Three Identical Strangers is a well-made documentary that is both heart-warming and heart-breaking.