Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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My Review of THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS

The House With a Clock In Its Walls, rated PG
***

The House With a Clock In Its Walls is a PG rated dark, mysterious, creative and a bit wacky fantasy film, with some content concerns for Christian parents. The film is directed by Eli Roth (Hostel) in his first film not rated “R”. The screenplay is written by Eric Kripke based on the 1973 young adult novel by John Bellairs.
The film is set in 1955 in the small town of New Zebedee, Michigan. Ten-year-old Lewis, played by Owen Vaccaro (Daddy’s Home, Daddy’s Home 2), is orphaned, his parents having died in a car accident. He is then sent to live in a mysterious Victorian mansion filled with clocks with his eccentric uncle Jonathan, played by two-time Golden Globe nominee Jack Black (Bernie, The School of Rock) who was excellent in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Lewis eventually finds out that his uncle he has never known is a warlock and his uncle’s best friend and neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman, played by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, The Aviator), is a witch.   Lewis asks his uncle to teach him magic, which he reluctantly agrees to. Continue reading

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My Review of UNBROKEN: PATH TO REDEMPTION

Unbroken: Path to Redemption, rated PG-13
***

Unbroken: Path to Redemption picks up the incredible true story of Louis Zamperini where Angelini Jolie’s disappointing 2014 film Unbroken left off. The new film is directed by Harold Cronk (God’s Not Dead), and written by Oscar nominee Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It) and Ken Hixon, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent 2010 book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. If you have not read the book, I highly commend it to you. It’s one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever read – and it’s all true.
After a brief recap to acquaint us with Zamperini’s story (Olympic champion, World War II hero lost at sea for 47 days, rescued by the Japanese who then tortured him), the film picks up with Zamperini returning home to his family in his California hometown of Torrance. But we quickly see that Zamperini, who is portrayed well by Samuel Hunt, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and frequently has nightmares of being tortured by Japanese officer Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who was known simply as “The Bird”.

***SPOILER ALERT***
After drinking heavily on a tour to encourage the sale of war bonds, he is given a three-week vacation in Florida by his major, played by Bob Gunton (The Shawshank Redemption, Argo).  It is in Florida where he meets Cynthia, played by Merritt Patterson, and they quickly marry. Cynthia is a believer, and believes that Louis is an answer to her prayers, but she quickly finds out that Louis is tormented by his nightmares of “The Bird’ and begins to drink more heavily as he struggles to find a job. Because of his struggles, Cynthia delays telling Louis that she is pregnant. It is difficult watching Louis being tormented by his nightmares and their marriage failing, even after baby Cynthia ‘Cissy’ is born. Most of the film is about his dealing with PSTD, and refusing any help for it from Dr. Bailey, played by Emmy nominee Gary Cole (Veep) or his brother Pete, played by Bobby Campo.
Eventually Cynthia has had enough and tells Louis that she wants a divorce. Then, Lila, a friend played by Vanessa Bell Calloway, invites her to Billy Graham’s Los Angeles Crusade, and this changes her mind toward her husband and their marriage. Because of his suffering, Louis has been hardened against God, and initially refuses to go to the crusade with Cynthia, and when he does, he leaves when the invitation is given by Graham, played by Will Graham, Billy Graham’s real-life grandson. When he goes back on another night, the Lord saves him.
Zamperini’s life is immediately changed, and we see him pour out the secret bottles of alcohol he has hidden in their apartment and we are told that he never again suffered from nightmares about “The Bird”. The film ends with some archival footage of the real Louis Zamperini, who died in 2014, just months before Jolie’s movie of his life was released.
The movie includes adequate acting and production, although my wife thought it was the quality of a Hallmark/Lifetime movie. I would have liked to see more of Zamperini’s life after he became a believer. Most of the film takes us through his suffering from PSTD, and it ends too quickly after his conversion. “You Found Me”, a new song by Switchfoot written for the film, plays over the ending credits.
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Content issues include a lot of drinking of alcohol and some scenes of anger. Themes include marriage, suffering, forgiveness and salvation.
Unbroken: Path to Redemption is an at times hard to watch film about the struggles Louis Zamperini faced as he returned from being tortured at a Japanese prison camp. It is ultimately a film about how he was forgiven by his heavenly Father and how he extended that forgiveness to those who tortured him.


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My Review of OPERATION FINALE

Operation Finale, rated PG-13
****

Operation Finale is a tense, well-acted film based on the true story of the 1960 top secret mission to capture leading Nazi figure Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The film is directed by Oscar nominee Chris Weitz (About a Boy), and written by first-time screenwriter Matthew Orton.  Orton thoroughly researched the story, and the film stays mostly to the story exactly as it happened. Weitz filmed the movie in Argentina in the same actual locations where the events took place.
As the Allies marched toward Berlin in the spring of 1945 it became apparent that the Third Reich would fall. Some of the Nazi leaders, including Hitler, committed suicide rather than being captured. Adolf Eichmann, played in this film by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley (Gandhi) was among those who did not. Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, the wiping out of the Jewish population which would result in the murder of six million Jews, was originally captured by Allied forces, but he escaped the prison camp, eventually landing in Argentina with his family in 1950.
Peter Malkin, played by Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac (Show Me a Hero), is a member of Israel’s intelligence agency known as the Mossad. His job is to take out former Nazi leaders, but he has been known to make mistakes on missions, sometimes with deadly results. Malkin’s older sister and her young children were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Fifteen years after the war, we meet Sylvia Hermann, played by Haley Lu Richardson, a young woman living in Argentina. She was sent there from Germany as a child during the war to live with her uncle. What she doesn’t know, since she was raised as a Catholic, is that she is really a Jew. She begins dating Klaus Eichmann, played by Joe Alwyn, who takes her to a Nazi gathering. Over dinner, her blind father Lothar Hermann, played by five-time Golden Globe nominee Peter Strauss (Men Don’t Tell, Kane & Abel), becomes suspicious when Klaus tells him his last name. This eventually leads to the discovery that Adolf Eichmann is living as Ricardo Klement in Argentina with his wife and two children, working as a foreman at a Mercedes Benz factory.
Israel soon sends a Mossad intelligence team to Argentina to capture Eichmann and bring him back to Israel to stand trial. Peter Malkin is a part of that team. His former girlfriend Hanna, played by Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Bastards), who has also made mistakes on similar missions like this, is recruited to be the doctor on the trip. (Note: this part of the film was fiction. There was a doctor on the team, but the doctor was Yonah Elian, a male).
When the Mossad arrive in Argentina, they find that there are police and government officials who are sympathetic to Eichmann. Argentina’s fascist-leaning government had created a safe haven for Nazi war criminals. According to the Argentinean government, Eichmann will have to agree in writing to his deportation. Can the team get Eichmann to sign the document before the mission is discovered?
The film centers on the relationship between the captor and prisoner, with Malkin trying to understand Eichmann as more than a monster. Both actors give excellent and perhaps Oscar worthy performances.
The musical score by Alexandre Desplat, was particularly effective, especially during an opening credits scene.  The entire cast is solid, including Lior Raz, who plays Isser Harel, the director of the Argentinian operation.
Themes include sacrifice, justice, family, and the horrors of the Holocaust.
Content concerns include adult language, and Holocaust war violence, often depicted in flashback dreams of Malkin.
Overall, Operation Finale is a tense, well-acted true story of the 1960 secret mission to capture leading Nazi figure Adolf Eichmann that I would highly recommend.


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My Review of THE RIDER

The Rider, rated R
***

New on home video and streaming services, The Rider is a well-acted film based on real events, that has some content concerns. The film is written and directed by Chloé Zhao. The film is somewhat like Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris, in that it used real-life characters, rather than actors. As a result, the film can at times come across as a documentary, rather than a drama.
We first meet Brady Blackburn, played by Brady Jandreau, as he is pulling staples out of his head with a knife at home. Brady had checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s wishes. He was being treated for a bad head injury from the rodeo, which resulted in Brady going into a three-day coma. The near-fatal injury left him with a metal plate in his head.
Brady had been a star bronco rider in the rodeo on a South Dakota reservation. His friends are supportive, wondering when he is going to get back to the rodeo. Brady lives with his father Wayne, (his mother has died) played by Tim Jandreau and teenage sister Lisa, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, played well by Lilly Jandreau.

***SPOILER ALERT***
Brady and his father have a contentious relationship. Wayne drinks and gambles so much that he has to sell Brady’s favorite horse just to keep their trailer. The bond between Brady and Lilly is tender, funny and genuine.
Several times we see Brady visit Lane, played by Lane Scott. Lane was a bull rider and Brady’s mentor and idol. But then Lane was badly injured in the rodeo. Now he is paralyzed and can’t speak, communicating with Brady by spelling out words with his hands. The scenes between the two are some of the most touching you will see in a film.
We see Brady vomit a few times, and the doctors tell him that his riding days are finished. Occasionally, we see his right hand seize up, the result of partial complex seizures, making him unable to let go of whatever he’s holding on to. His hand seizing served as a metaphor for Brady not being able to let go of the rodeo life that might kill him.
As he is healing, he takes a job as a stocker/clerk at a grocery store. Eventually though, Brady begins training horses again, something that he has a special gift with. We see him training a wild horse that has never been ridden in an incredible scene that led my wife to wonder if this actor had actually trained horses before.  (We didn’t know when we watched the film that the real people played themselves and weren’t actors).
Eventually, Brady has to decide what to do with his life. Another blow to his head could be fatal. If he can’t ride horses, what will he do?
*********************

The film includes some wonderful scenes on the Pine Ridge Reservation and South Dakota’s Badlands (sky, horses, landscape) courtesy of cinematographer James Joshua Richards.
Content issues include a significant amount of language, including an abuse of both God’s and Jesus’ names. Themes include identity, family, friends and loss of dreams. Surprisingly, there were at least three times people prayed in the film.
The film was slow moving and emotionally draining. I kept waiting for something positive to happen in the film. It wasn’t until after the film that I read that the film felt so real because, well, it was. Brady Jandreau is a real-life rodeo rider that had a serious head injury like the character he played. His father and sister in the film are played by real-life family members. Lane Scott was not acting either. He too had suffered a serious real-life riding injury, which left him paralyzed and unable to talk. Director Zhao used people from the Pine Ridge Reservation as actors.
The Rider will most be appreciated for a few scenes (Brady training the wild horse and Brady’s visits with Lane).


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My Review of ALPHA

Alpha, rated PG-13
***

Alpha is a mostly family-friendly adventure film about a boy and his…. wolf. The film, which takes place 20,000 years ago in the last Ice Age, is directed by Albert Hughes (The Book of Eli). The screenplay is written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, and is based on a story by Hughes. The film, which had a budget of $51 million, has its dialogue in an unknown language, and is completely sub-titled, so it is recommended for kids old enough to read and up.
The tribe is led by Tau, played by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson. Each year, a dangerous Great Hunt journey must be made before winter sets in to get food (bison) for the tribe. Tau’s hope is that his sensitive son Keda, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Apocalypse; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), will one day take over leadership of the tribe. This will be Keda’s first Great Hunt, but there’s a problem: Keda doesn’t like to kill animals.

***SPOILER ALERT***
The film opens with a scene in which the tribe attacks a herd of bison. During the attack, Keda is flung over the edge of a cliff, eventually falling onto a small ledge far below. With no way to get down to his son, who he assumes is dead, Tau must leave his son and head back on the long journey home before winter sets in.
But Keda did not die, though his foot is badly injured. He somehow is able to get off the ledge to safety, but then is pursued by a pack of vicious wolves. He is able to injure one of them, the alpha wolf. Eventually the other wolves leave both Keda and the injured wolf behind.
Keda, again hesitant to kill, eventually decides to nurse the injured wolf back to health. Very slowly, we see Keda and the wolf, who he names Alpha, begin to trust each other and build a friendship. But will Keda be able to make the long journey back home to his family, especially with the brutal winter conditions coming soon?
**********************

The movie, which was filmed near East Coulee, Alberta, Canada and at Dinosaur Provincial Park near Patricia Alberta, is visually stunning, thanks to cinematographer Martin Gschlacht. We see beautiful blue water, the stars of the sky, desert sand and blizzard-like conditions.
Content concerns include some spirituality, primarily around ancestor worship, and some violence that could be frightening for young children. Themes include family, sacrifice, danger, death, survival, love and courage.
Alpha is a well-made film that older children and adults will enjoy.


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My Review of DOG DAYS

Dog Days, rated PG
** ½

Dog Days is a feel-good romantic comedy featuring several characters and their dogs set during the summer in Los Angeles. The film is directed by three-time Emmy nominee Ken Marino (Children’s Hospital, Burning Love) and written by Elissa Matsueda (The Miracle Season) and Emmy nominee Erica Oyama (Burning Love).  The film had a budget of just $10 million.

****SPOILER ALERT*****
There’s a number of stories going on at the same time – here’s a summary.  Elizabeth, played by Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries) is the host of a morning Los Angeles television show. Life is going well until her live-in boyfriend Peter cheats on her. That leads to her and her dog Sam going into depressions. She and Sam go to see the overpriced dog therapist Danielle, played by Emmy nominee Tig Notaro (Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted). Former National Football League star Jimmy Johnston, played by Tone Bell, has a dog named Brandy and is a guest on Elizabeth’s show shortly after the breakup. Their “chemistry” on screen leads the producer to hire Johnston to co-host the show, much to the disappointment of Elizabeth.
Walter, played by Ron Cephas Jones (This is Us), is a lonely widower, who used to be a professor at UCLA. He enjoys his overweight pug Mabel, and has a few run-ins with a 16-year old pizza delivery boy Tyler, played by Finny Wolfhard (It, Strangers Things). The second run-in results in Mabel running away. Tyler offers to help Walter find Mabel and in turn Walter offers to tutor the fatherless Tyler at no cost.
Mabel ends up being found by Amelia, played by Elizabeth Phoenix Caro, a young girl recently adopted by Grace, played by Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives), and Kurt, played by four-time Emmy winner Rob Corddry (Children’s Hospital).           
Amelia had been having a hard time adjusting to her new family and Mabel, who she names “Mr. Snuggles” is just what she and her new parents need.
Tara, played by Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) works in a coffee shop but wants to do work that matters. She also has a crush on Dr. Mike, played by Michael Cassidy (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), the hunky veterinarian whose office is across the street.  A frequent customer, the socially uncomfortable Garrett, played by Jon Bass has a crush on Tara, but Tara doesn’t notice that. Tara finds a stray chihuahua who she names Gertrude. Her apartment building doesn’t allow dogs. Garrett runs New Tricks, a dog adoption business and says that he will take Gertrude. Tara, looking for more purpose in her life, begins to volunteer at New Tricks.
Dax, played by Adam Pally, lives in the same apartment building as Tara. Dax is in a band named Frunk, and isn’t very responsible, forgetting to even show up for his sister Ruth’s baby shower, which he agreed to DJ. Ruth, played by Jessica St. Clair (Bridesmaids) and husband Greg, played by Thomas Lennon, have twins and ask Dax to take their labradoodle Charlie for a while as they adjust to their new babies.
End of plot summary – Did you catch all of that?
*************************

Content concerns include some adult topics (breakups, living together, romance), and a number of misuses of God’s name (“Oh my God”).  Themes include the family, motherhood, friendship and adoption.
I have missed going to see romantic comedies at the movies because they haven’t made very many lately, but this one is a bit sappy.  At times this film has the feel of a Lifetime or Hallmark television movie. That could be because the director, writers and many of the actors involved are best known for their television performances. The film includes a solid cast and the writing is average at best. The film is also overly long at nearly two hours.
Dog Days is an enjoyable, feel-good film that is somewhat predictable, but has some positive messages. Because of the adult topics included I wouldn’t recommend the film for very young children.


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My Review of BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman, rated R
** ½

BlacKkKlansman is a well-acted film that is mostly based on an incredible true story. Unfortunately, demonstrating the subtlety of a Michael Moore film, the film tries too hard to connect former Grand Wizard David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) with President Donald Trump. The film is directed by two-time Oscar nominee Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, 4 Little Girls) and is based on the book Black Klansman: A Memoir by Ron Stallworth. The screenplay is written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee.  The film had a budget of only $17 million.
Ron Stallworth, played superbly by John David Washington (The Book of Eli, Ballers), the real-life son of Denzel Washington, is the first African American police officer hired by the Colorado Springs Police Department. It is a police department in which racism is prevalent and tolerated.

SPOILER ALERT ***************
Initially placed in a boring position in the Records Department, Stallworth is then given an undercover opportunity in 1972 to attend a rally in which former Black Panther Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), played by Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton), is to speak. Outside the venue Stallworth meets Patrice, the President of the Black Student Union, an activist group, played by an Angela Davis look alike Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming). Inside the venue, Stallworth, finds himself agreeing with some of what Ture is saying, as he encourages the crowd with chants of “Black Power”. After the meeting, Patrice and others are harassed by the police. Stallworth takes a liking to Patrice, but working undercover, tells her that he works in construction.
Stallworth is then given the assignment to infiltrate the local chapter of the KKK, which is led by Walter, played by Ryan Eggold (Blacklist). Stallworth arranges to meet with Walter, but since he is African American he needs to identify a white police officer to portray himself and meet with him instead. Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish officer played well by three-time Emmy nominee Adam Driver (Girls) is assigned to portray Stallworth. Zimmerman does the job well, earning the confidence of Walter. The KKK members are generally portrayed as cartoonish stereotypes by Lee. Eventually Stallworth, who can speak both “white” and “jive” is talking on the phone to KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, well played by Emmy winner Topher Grace (The Beauty Inside).
At the local level, Walter decides he needs to step down, and proposes that Stallworth, though new to the chapter, take his place. As Stallworth and Zimmerman continue their work together they become aware of a planned KKK attack.
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The film makes excellent use of music throughout, including a previously unleased live rehearsal recording of Prince singing “Mary, Don’t You Weep” over the closing credits. Despite the serious nature of the film, it also includes a lot of humor.
An interesting scene showed the juxtaposition of different groups shouting “Black Power” (Black Student Union) and “White Power” (KKK), reminded me of Black Lives Matter and White supremacist groups today.  Dialogue coming out of Duke’s mouth included lines very close to Trump’s making America great again and putting America first.
Content concerns include a significant amount of adult language, including several occurrences of the “F” and “N” words.  It would be appropriate for older teens and adults.
For the majority of the film, despite the quotes referenced above, the film, particularly the acting of Washington and Driver, was excellent. The film also includes a strong supporting cast. Oscar nominee Alec Baldwin (The Cooler) and 91-year-old Emmy winner Harry Belafonte (The Revlon Revue) appear in small roles. Lee includes some of his classic people-mover camera work in a scene with Washington and Harrier late in the film.
Unfortunately, the film’s ending insults the intelligence of the audience with its “paint by numbers” effort to try to connect Duke with President Trump, using graphic video footage of the 2017 tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia and quotes from President Trump.
BlacKkKlansman, based mostly on a true story, is a film that you may not agree with, but it is certainly thought-provoking. But it’s also not a film that will tend to bring our country together, unlike the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As I wrote in my review of that film, one of this year’s best, that film was just the type of film we need today in our divided country.