Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


Leave a comment

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).


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

My Review of A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom, rated PG-13
*** ½

A United Kingdom is an inspiriting story of love and courage.  This film, based on a true story, is directed by Amma Asante (Belle), and is written by Guy Hibbert, based on the book Colour Bar: A United Kingdom by Susan Williams. Prince Seretse Khama, played by David Oyelowo (Selma) and quickly becoming one of our top actors, is the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, the African nation and British protectorate that would later become Botswana. Because his father, Sekgoma Khama, died when Seretse was only 4 years old, he was raised by his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, played by Vusi Kunene. Acting as regent, Tshekedi sent him to Oxford to be educated to prepare him for being his country’s leader.
In 1947 Seretse meets Ruth Williams, a white London secretary, played by Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) at a dance. They bond over their common love of jazz music and quickly fall in love. Seretse then receives a letter from his uncle indicating that it is time to return to his home country to assume responsibility as king. Seretse proposes to Ruth and she accepts, much to the displeasure of Ruth’s father George, played by Nicholas Lyndhurst, who says he will never speak to Ruth again if she marries Seretse, as well as Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi.  Soon, Ruth is estranged from her family and Seretse is estranged from his uncle, who now doesn’t feel that Seretse is fit to be the king.
Added to this is the interference of the British government, who were willing to sabotage the marriage to appease neighboring South Africa, who was introducing their policy of apartheid. Britain’s government, including Winston Churchill do not come across well in this film.
Themes in the film are love, courage, faithfulness, racism, betrayal, and estrangement from family. Oyelowo and Pike are excellent in their roles, and have good onscreen chemistry. Oyelowo delivers a few powerful speeches and Pike works hard to be acceptable to the people of Bechuanaland. The supporting cast is solid as well. Jack Davenport portrays British representative Alistair Canning so well you will really dislike him.  David cast his real-life wife, actress Jessica Oyelowo, as Lady Lilly Canning.  Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) portrays Canning’s second in command Rufus Lancaster. The film takes place in both Britain and Africa and is rated PG-13 for some language, including racial slurs.


Leave a comment

My Review of Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast, rated PG
***

Despite some well-publicized content concerns, Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast is a treat overall.
Following the success of their recent animation to live action remakes of some of their classic films – Alice in Wonderland (2010), Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016), Disney returns with a new version of Beauty and the Beast. The 1991 animated version received five Oscar nominations, winning two. The new film is directed by Oscar winner Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), and written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. It had an estimated budget of $160 million, but is expected to earn that back and more, with a projected worldwide opening this weekend of $215-245 million. The film features an outstanding cast and is visually stunning.
The film is set in the town of Villeneuve in France. Belle, played by Emma Watson (Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films) is a happy, independent, book-loving inventor who loves her father Maurice, played by Oscar winner Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda). Throughout the film Belle is pursued constantly by Gaston (Luke Evans, The Girl on the Train), who wants to marry her, but Belle has no interest in him. The one who does have interest in Gaston is the homosexual character LeFou, played by Josh Gad, who voiced Olaf in Disney’s Frozen.  The song “Gaston” has new lyrics that were written by the late Howard Ashman, but did not make it into the 1991 film as they were not considered appropriate for a children’s film.
As Maurice leaves on a trip, he promises to bring Belle back a rose. The rose he tries to bring her is growing on the land of the Beast, played by Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey). Maurice is then captured and put in a jail cell in the castle of the Beast. If you are familiar with the story, the Beast must find someone to love him before the final petal of a red rose kept under glass falls off. If he doesn’t, he is doomed to remain a beast forever, and the members of his household will remain clocks, cups, etc. forever.
As I mentioned, the film features a strong cast. In addition to Watson and Kline, Ewan McGregor portrays the candlestick Lumiere, two-time Oscar nominee Ian McKellen plays the mantle clock Cogsworth, two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility and Howard’s End) plays the teapot Mrs. Potts, and Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci plays Maestro Cadenza.
Alan Menken, who wrote the music for the 1991 film, returns to do the music for this film, which includes new recordings of his original songs such as “Be Our Guest”, along with new songs written by Menken and three-time Oscar winner Tim Rice (The Lion King, Aladdin, and Evita).  I loved the music and the costumes in the film. The computer generated imagery (CGI) – the castle, wolves, the face of the Beast, etc. were all well done.    My wife thought that the “Be Our Guest” scene was almost over done – maybe they were trying to have it be like a scene from Fantasia?
We attended the film on opening night; the theatre was filled with very small children. However, unlike the animated version, this is not a children’s film. It is dark and the scenes with wolves may well be too frightening for small children.
Leading up to the film there was controversy when the director made news in speaking about the film’s “exclusively gay moment”, which takes place near the end of the film. However, we saw LaFou’s homosexuality played out throughout the film, along with other things thrown in to make this film, as Condon has stated, as diverse as possible. He stated that “By representing same-sex attraction in this short but explicitly gay scene, the studio is sending out a message that this is normal and natural…” Chances are, small children will not even notice what Condon and Disney have put in this film, but discerning Christians will and they will find it in conflict with the Scripture (Romans 1:26-27). It’s not enough, in my opinion, to keep you from seeing the film, but it did impact our enjoyment and our overall rating of the film.  On the flip side, sacrificial love is portrayed well.


5 Comments

Why I Would Recommend You Don’t Go See the Movie “The Shack”

the-shackKnowing that I enjoy going to the movies, I’ve already had many friends ask me if I was planning to see the upcoming film adaptation of William P. Young’s best-selling 2007 novel The Shack. When I tell them that I’m not going due to serious theological issues in the book, they usually respond that they don’t know or care too much about theological issues, they just loved the book.

Several years ago, when it seemed like everyone I talked to was reading the book (the book has sold an incredible 22 million copies to date), I decided to read it myself. I wanted to see why it was resonating with so many people, even some of my friends who didn’t regularly attend church. And while the book can speak to those who have experienced a tragedy or lost a loved one, I had serious concerns about the way the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) were portrayed.

To help you be discerning as you consider whether or not to watch the film or read the book (as interest in the book has been rekindled with the release of the film), I offer the below perspectives from three respected Christians teachers.

  1. Tim Keller. In this article Tim Keller writes “But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible.”
  2. Tim Challies. In this article (which also links to his lengthy review of the book), Tim Challies writes “The Shack presents God in human flesh. It makes the infinite finite, the invisible visible, the omnipotent impotent, the all-present local, the spiritual material. In its visual portrayal of God it diminishes, it obfuscates, it blasphemes, it lies. Even though I would watch the film to help others interpret it and to bring correction to error, I would still be subjecting myself to a false, blasphemous portrayal of God. I cannot allow myself to watch it even for that purpose. I cannot and will not watch or review it.”
  3. Randy Alcorn. Randy Alcorn writes “Unfortunately, increasingly few people these days are well grounded in the Word and have both the knowledge and the discernment to filter out the bad while embracing the good. That means that some people, perhaps many, will fail to recognize the book’s theological weaknesses, and therefore be vulnerable to embracing them, even if unconsciously. Sadly, I personally know some who have been led down a path of universalism through their understanding of the book and what they have heard the author say, either publicly or privately.”

I know these comments won’t be popular with many. Please seriously consider them when making your decision about whether you will see this film. And if you disagree with what is written here, please let me know and why.  Also, if you need good materials that address the topics in the movie such as “Where was God when I lost my loved one?” I would be glad to give you some recommendations.

Blessings!