Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview



First Reformed, rated R

First Reformed is about a pastor in crisis. This dialogue driven film features an excellent performance by Ethan Hawke as Reverend Ernst Toller and other strong supporting performances. However, the film deals with some difficult themes, has a disappointing last third, and will certainly not appeal to a broad audience. The film is directed and written by two-time Golden Globe nominee Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull).  Schrader himself was brought up in the Christian Reformed Church and graduated from Calvin College. The musical score by Brian Williams is effective and ominous.
Four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke (Boyhood, Training Day, Before Midnight, Before Sunset) portrays Reverend Ernst Toller the pastor of First Reformed Church, a tiny Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York that was built in 1767. The church, which is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, now has only a handful of attendees each Sunday. It exists now mainly as a tourist attraction, as Toller shows visitors the trapdoor that led to a shelter for the Underground Railroad and encourages them to make a souvenir purchase. The church is owned by the megachurch Abundant Life Ministries, led by Pastor Joel Jeffers, played well by Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer.
We see Toller writing his confessions, doubts and prayers in his journal each evening, while drinking heavily. He has decided to keep the journal for one year and then destroy it. He enjoys the writings of Thomas Merton.
Toller was once a military chaplain and married with a son. He encouraged his son to serve in the Iraq War, where he was killed. His son’s death was the primary cause for his marriage failing. He is also not well physically, as we see blood when he goes to the bathroom.
About a year ago, he had a relationship with Esther, the Choir Director at Abundant Life, played by Victoria Hill. She still has feelings for Toller, but he doesn’t have any feelings for her anymore.
Toller is contacted by Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables). Mary is a member of his church and pregnant.  However, her husband Michael, played by Philip Ettinger, is a radical environmentalist and doesn’t want to bring a child into this world but instead wants Mary to have an abortion. Mary asks the pastor to meet with Michael, which he does, in the best scene in the film, as Toller talks to Michael about hope in the midst of despair.
The environment becomes an important theme in this film. Later, Toller will have an encounter with Edward Balq, played by Michael Gaston, the largest donor at Abundant Life, a petroleum executive and one of the worst polluters in the nation.
The film is rated “R” for some adult language and adult themes, which include abortion, health issues, politics, radical environmentalism, mental illness, hope, despair and alcoholism.
First Reformed is a well-acted, dark and disturbing film that deals with some serious issues. Toller’s journey into the dark night of the soul deepens over the course of the film.  Toller paraphrases Merton at one point in the film: “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.”
Merton also said, “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.”
Although well-acted (Hawke may have earned his fifth Oscar nomination), written and directed, this will not be a film for everyone. And the last third of the film was certainly disappointing.

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My Review of Maudie

Maudie, rated PG-13
*** ½

This film features some strong acting performances.  It is newly available on video and based on the true-life story of Maud Lewis, one of the most beloved folk artists of 20th century Canada.
It opens in the late 1930’s and is set in Marshalltown in rural Nova Scotia, a beautiful quaint little town (the film was actually partially shot in Ireland and other parts of Canada). The film is visually stunning as we see the seasons change thanks to the cinematography work of Guy Godfree.

Maud Dowley, played by Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, stemming from childhood rheumatic fever. As the film opens Maud is living with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose). Maud’s brother Charles (Zachery Bennett) is paying Ida to look after Maud. He tells Maud that she is not coming home. As a matter of fact, there is no home to go to, as he has sold the family home. Maud is devastated. Charles then leaves, saying good-bye to Maud, for what appears to be the last time.
We then see Maud, who uncomfortably walks with a limp and with difficulty, sneak out of Ida’s home late at night to go a local club – to listen to music, drink beer and smoke. Ida refers to something that has happened to her in the past; we eventually find out that Maud once had a baby out of wedlock. At the time, Maud was told that the baby was badly deformed and died while she was asleep.
While in the local dry goods store, Maud hears Everette Lewis, a crusty fish peddler played by four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke, indicate that he is looking for a live-in house maid. Maud decides to make the long walk out to Lewis’ small home, which has no plumbing or electricity, to apply for the position which pays 25 cents a week plus room and board. This begins the uncomfortable relationship between Maud and Everette, who can be verbally and physically cruel to her (once telling her that his dogs and chickens were higher in the pecking order than she was).  He usually communicates via grunts.
We eventually see Maud cleaning up and making changes in the sparse one-bedroom home, basically a shack with a bed in an upstairs attic. She starts by painting birds on the walls. She makes dinner for the hard to like Lewis and eventually shares his bed with him. When he tries to have sex with her, she states that they should get married, which they eventually do in a local church. We then see these two people, both orphans and societal outcasts, slowly begin to find comfort in their relationship together.
Maud’s paintings come to the attention of one of Everett’s customers, the likeable and kind Sandra (Kari Matchett), a rich neighbor from New York, who is the first to want to buy Maud’s paintings and small cards. The word eventually spreads about Maud’s paintings, in large part due to a magazine article, and she even receives a request for a painting from then Vice President Richard Nixon. We later see many coming out to the small home to buy her paintings, including brother Charles.
The film is directed by Aisling Walsh and written by Sherry White. Hawkins is incredible in her portrayal of Maud, doing an amazing job portraying the physical challenges of her character, which only increase as she ages. Hawke portrays Lewis well, as a man who is much harder for us to like and who finds it hard to show his love for Maud.
The film is rated PG-13 for brief scenes of sexuality (nothing explicit is shown). In addition, God’s name is abused once.
Check out this well-acted and sweet film about the unconventional love story of Maud and Everette Lewis. You won’t regret it.

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the-magnificent-sevenThe Magnificent Seven, rated PG-13
** ½

This film is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 film starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, which was actually a remake of Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. This version is directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer), and written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk. It features a new rendition of the familiar Elmer Bernstein theme music as the closing credits roll. This was two-time Oscar winner James Horner’s (Titanic) final score before his death in June, 2015.

The film is set in the western town of Rose Creek in 1879. This was a time when the local church was still a prominent place in town. The film contains a surprising amount of Christian content (church, preacher, dialogue).

Corrupt industrialist Bartholomew Bogue, (well-played by Peter Sarsgaard) is wanting to take over Rose Creek because of the valuable mines located in the town, and is only offering the townspeople pennies on the dollar for their land. As the film opens, we see him burn down the church and murder several people, including the husband of Emma Cullen (played by Haley Bennett). Cullen is looking to avenge her husband’s death and save Rose Creek, so with her life’s savings she seeks out Sam Chisolm (played by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington in his first western film).  Chisolm is a man of justice, a bounty hunter, who dresses all in black and rides a black horse.

Chisolm then recruits six others to help defend Rose Creek from Bogue and his men. He first recruits Josh Faraday, (played by Chris Pratt of Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World). His repeated line in the film “So far, so good”, was also used by Steve McQueen’s character in the 1960 film.

We then meet sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheauz (played by four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke), who suffers from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and his right-hand man Billy Rocks (played by Byung-hun Lee), who is deadly with blades. Chisolm lets Mexican outlaw Vasquez (played by Manuel Garcia-Fulfo) live, and he becomes one of the seven. Next, Chisolm adds Comanche warrior Red Harvest (played by Martin Sensmeier) who is deadly accurate with a bow and arrow. The final member of the Magnificent Seven is the bear-like trapper Jack Horne (played by Vincent D’Onofrio), who has a bible verse for each new victim he kills.

The Seven know that the odds are against them, as Bogue will bring many more fighting men than they have. They try their best to train the townspeople how to shoot rifles and use warfare tactics which leads to some humorous results. One of my favorite parts of the film was seeing the strategic steps the Seven take to protect their undermanned town.

But there is little character development in this film, as the emphasis is on gun-fighting. Washington, one of our finest actors and long one of my favorites, is under-utilized in this role. The emphasis on action and lack of character development reminded me of this summer’s Jason Bourne starring Matt Damon. I would have liked Fuqua to give us the back-story of each of the characters and more character interaction and a little less of the gun-fighting scenes.

The film is rated PG-13 for extreme gun-fighting violence with dozens killed, and some adult language including several abuses of God’s name. It had a budget of about $95 million and took the top spot domestically with $35 million in its opening weekend. Overall, I felt that the film was entertaining, but nothing special considering the cast assembled, and also a bit long at 132 minutes.