Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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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based on Diane Ackerman’s 2007 bestselling book, The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, which itself was inspired by the unpublished diary of Antonina Zabinska.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.


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My Review of The Boss Baby

The Boss Baby, rated PG
** ½

The Boss Baby offers some humor and ultimately a good message about the importance of family that will appeal to both children and adults.
This animated comedy from DreamWorks is directed by Tom McGrath (Madagascar films), written by Michael McCullers (Austin Powers sequels, Mr. Peabody and Sherman) and is based on Marla Frazee’s 2010 children’s book. As the film opens, we see babies proceeding along a conveyer belt. Ultimately, a “tickle test” will determine whether they will go be delivered to a family or to positions in “management” with Baby Corp. Baby Corp is a competitor of Puppy Co. for the affections of families.
The Boss Baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin) wears a suit, carries a briefcase and is delivered to the happy home of seven year old Tim (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi), his Dad (voiced by Jimmy Kimmel) and Mom (voiced by Lisa Kudrow). Tobey Maguire narrates the film as the older Tim.  Dad and Mom both work for Puppy Co.  Prior to the arrival of the Boss Baby, Tim was a happy seven year old with an active imagination, who loved to play with his parents. He was awakened every morning at 7:00 am by his Lord of the Rings wizard-inspired alarm clock. He had all of his parent’s attention and affection. Each night as he went to bed, he got hugs, stories read and was sung to sleep by his parents singing the Beatles classic 1968 song “Blackbird”. All that changes when his new baby brother shows up via a taxi cab. The Boss Baby immediately commands all of Dad and Mom’s attention and energy, much to the chagrin of Tim. Tim goes from receiving all of his parent’s attention to almost none of it.
But Tim is suspicious of the Boss Baby. Soon he finds out that the Boss Baby is not an ordinary baby. No, he can actually talk, and is on an undercover mission for Baby Corp, leading other babies in the effort. Tim seeks to expose him to his parents, so his life can go back to the way it was before the Boss Baby showed up. He eventually agrees to work with the Baby Boss to work against the Puppy Co. CEO (voiced by Steve Buscemi) and their anti-baby plot (they are developing a lovable new kind of puppy that will cut into the amount of family love available to babies). The Boss Baby agrees to leave the home after his mission is accomplished.
The film is mostly family friendly, with a bit of language, a good deal of “toilet humor” and several shots of baby bottoms, all played for humor. Adults may get some of the jokes that children will miss, such as the Boss Baby’s line, “Cookies are for closers”, which is a parody of Alec Baldwin’s famous line from Glengarry Glen Ross, “Coffee is for closers!”
Overall the film was better than I expected. It delivers a strong pro-family message and delivers some funny moments. In addition, the computer animation lives up to the high standards that we expect from DreamWorks.


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My Review of Get Out

get-outGet Out, rated R
***

Get Out is a creative, well-made film about race combined with satire, horror and comedy that will make you want to scream at the main character during the film, “Get Out”!
This film is written and directed by Jordan Peele (Comedy Central series Key & Peele), who has cited the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead film as an inspiration for making his feature film writing-directing debut because that film had an African American protagonist and dealt with serious racial issues inside the framework of a horror movie. He has also stated that he first got the idea for the film during 2008 Democratic primary discussions about whether an African American or a woman was more deserving of the presidency. He then went on to explain that he further conceived the movie as a twist on the 1975 movie The Stepford Wives, in which suburban husbands replace their rebellious wives with compliant robots.  This satire on interracial relationships cost just $4.5 million to make and is receiving an incredible 100% rating on RottenTomatoes.com by film critics. The film is produced by Jason Blum who also produced Split, which recently was the number one film for three consecutive weeks.
Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario), stars as 26 year-old Chris, an African-American photographer who has been dating Rose, (Allison Williams, Girls television series) who is white, for five months. The couple is visiting Rose’s parents – neurosurgeon Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing) and psychiatrist Missy Armitage (two-time Oscar nominee Catherine Keener) – at their beautiful but remote lake house estate, for the first time. Chris is nervous about their reaction to him being an African-American, but Rose assures him that it won’t be a problem as her parents are not racists. And initially it appears that she is right, as he initially begins to feel welcome.
But then Chris begins to get increasingly uncomfortable, beginning with Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). He notices that the other African-Americans in the home – groundskeeper Walter (Martin Henderson) and maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) – are acting strange.  Then Missy is intent on wanting to hypnotize Chris. Later, we see Chris attending an awkward party with the family’s friends, all white, along with one black man Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield) who is also acting strangely. Chris then calls his best friend TSA Agent Rod (LilRel Howery) – who adds a good deal of humor to the film – to express his concerns. Does he have reason to be concerned or is he just paranoid?
Race plays a central role in this film at a time when race relations in our nation are unfortunately as poor as they have been for a long time. Rose’s parents would not consider themselves to be racists, but they use racial stereotypes, as they try to connect with Chris. All of their white friends at the party are also interested in Chris because of his race. Why?
This creative genre blending film (horror, comedy, satire) was very well done. As a white man, I felt uncomfortable watching it, which is probably what Peele would want me to feel. Michael Abel’s music score is very effective in building the suspense.
The film is rated “R” for violence, bloody images, and a significant amount of adult language, including several abuses of God’s name and sexual references.


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My Review of Silence

silenceSilence, rated R
***

Silence is a well-acted film that deals with the subject of apostasy (denying the faith).
The film is directed by Oscar winning director Martin Scorsese (The Departed), and is based on a 1966 historical novel written by Shusaku Endo. Scorsese was given the book in 1988, and has been wanting to make a movie of it ever since. Jay Cocks co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese.
The film is set in 17th century Japan. Father Cristovao Ferreira (Oscar nominee Liam Neeson, Schindler’s List) from Portugal, has gone missing while working as a Jesuit missionary in Japan. He hasn’t been heard from for years. Rumors are that he has committed apostasy (denied the faith). His former students Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) fail to believe that their teacher and mentor has apostatized. They finally convince Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) to let them go to Japan to try to find Ferreira. They will be aided by a drunken Japanese guide named Kichijiro (Yoshi Oida). He is a complex character, not the simple “cut and dry” Judas to Rodrigues that he may appear.
As the priests arrive in Japan, they find a church that has gone underground or hidden, in the midst of persecution. Christianity has been outlawed in Japan, but there are those who remain faithful, despite the lack of priests. Those who are caught and suspected of being Christians are forced to trample on wooden figures of Jesus, called fumie. Those who refuse (and even some who do actually trample on the image of Jesus), are tortured to death. The film depicts Christians being tortured – boiling water poured on them, hung upside down in a pit, tied to stakes in the ocean, etc. That makes this film difficult to watch.
The film is well acted, particularly by Garfield, who deserved an Oscar nomination for his work here, but had already received a Best Actor nomination for Hacksaw Ridge, perhaps taking away his chances for a nomination here. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, particularly his depiction of the landscapes of Japan, is excellent, earning the film it’s only Oscar nomination. You can also feel the heat and the irritation of the insects of Japan, as the Japanese persecutors constantly fan themselves.
The film is extremely thought-provoking, as it deals with themes such as silence (of God particularly), faith, persecution, fear, apostasy, and doubt. You’ll be talking about the ending as you leave the theatre. But the theme of apostasy is the key one in the film. Jesus said “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).
The film, which had its premiere at the Vatican, is overly long at 2 hours and 41 minutes, and for the most part is pretty slow. The film cost $40 million to make, and will most likely have a limited audience, but was well done and is thought-provoking.


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My Review of Split

splitSplit, rated PG-13
***

Split features an outstanding performance from James McAvoy, and a triumphant return to form for director M. Night Shyamalan.
This low budget ($9 million) film has been the number one film in the country for the past three weeks and has already grossed over $102 million in the U.S. alone. It is directed by two-time Oscar nominee M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) in his follow-up to 2015’s The Visit, and stars James McAvoy as well….several different personalities. You see, he has 24 personalities, from 9 year-old Hedwig to a fashion designer named Barry. For the sake of this review, we’ll refer to him as Kevin. Betty Buckley stars as Dr. Karen Fletcher who works with Kevin on his dissociative identity disorder.
We see Kevin kidnap three teenage girls – Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen, Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy – as they are leaving a birthday party with one of the girl’s father. Kevin takes them to an undisclosed location. We see the girls interacting with several of Kevin’s personalities as they try to figure out how to escape, and over time we see them have some of their clothing removed.
Claire and Marcia are good friends, while Casey is the outsider, invited to the party only because everyone else in their class had been invited.  The film shows many flashbacks of Casey hunting with her father and creepy Uncle John (Brad William Henke).
This horror film is dark, and could have easily been rated “R” for violence. Other content issues include a small amount of adult language and the above mentioned removal of some of the girl’s clothes.
McAvoy was outstanding in his performance of the multiple personality Kevin, oftentimes switching from one personality to another in front of the camera at close range.
Filmgoers will be talking about something that happens at the end of the film that connects this film to one of Shyamalan’s earlier films and sets up his next one.


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My Review of Fences

fencesFences, rated PG-13
****

It took 360 days into 2016, but I finally saw my hands-down top movie of the year!

Fences is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by the late August Wilson who is also credited with the screenplay. The play won a Tony Award in 1987 with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the lead roles, and had a 2010 revival on Broadway, starring two-time Oscar winner (Glory, Training Day) Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson and two-time Oscar nominee (The Help, Doubt) Viola Davis as his wife Rose. Washington directs the film version, his third overall, and first since 2007’s The Great Debaters. The film has received two Golden Globe nominations – for Best Performance by an Actor (Washington) and Actress (Davis).  Joining Washington and Davis from the 2010 Broadway revival of the play are Stephen Henderson as Troy’s longtime friend and co-worker Bono, Russell Hornsby as Lyons, Troy’s musician son from a previous marriage who Troy considers a freeloader, and Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump), as Troy’s brother Gabriel. Gabriel was badly injured in World War II. He has a metal plate in his head and walks throughout the neighborhood with his trumpet waiting to blow it for Saint Peter to open the gates of Heaven. In addition, Jovan Adepo stars as Troy’s youngest son Cory, who is a good high school football player being recruited by a university.

The film is set in Pittsburgh, and Washington does a good job showing us what a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1950’s looked like. My wife loved the reminders of living in a tight-knit neighborhood where all the kids played outside together.  Much of the film takes place on Friday nights after work in the small backyard of the Maxson home where Troy and Bono enjoy some gin. Troy was a one-time Negro League baseball player who had once hoped for a major league career but now hauls garbage for the city.  Troy often goes off on monologues about injustices that have been done to him, often using baseball as a metaphor. He also touches on the importance of hard work, diligence and self-reliance.

The title of the film refers to the fence that Troy is building around the backyard, and that Cory and Bono occasionally help him with. Bono states that fences can both keep things out, and also keep things in.

**SPOILER ALERT**

Troy is a proud and bitter man. He is a good provider for his family (although later we find out it was Gabriel’s settlement payment for his injuries that paid for Troy’s home). He is also an ex-convict, who spent 15 years in the penitentiary for killing a man. Troy compares his father to the devil, never learned to read, has dialogues with death, and overall is very opinionated. Like all of us, his life is one of contradictions. He wants to be a good man, but makes some painfully bad decisions, reminding me of Paul, writing in Romans 7:15, when he states “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”   We see Troy reaping what he sows, and feeling the weight of the consequences of his decisions and actions.

Wife of eighteen years Rose is long-suffering. She is a person of faith and character, and we see her strength and wisdom throughout, especially the last part of the film.

Themes in the film include having and teaching a great work ethic, racism, secrets, lies, pride and guilt and the overall complex relationships Troy has with those around him.

The film features brilliant acting from Washington and Davis, the best I’ve seen this year. Both Washington and Davis should receive Oscar nominations for their roles here. They are joined by a strong supporting cast. I especially enjoyed Troy’s likeable friend and co-worker Bono played by Stephen Henderson who tries to warn him about things he is doing and tries to tell  him that the world is changing around him.

The film is rated “PG-13” for language (the “n-word” is used frequently) and adult themes.


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My Review of Sing

singSing, rated PG
***

This animated film with a budget of approximately $75 million is directed by Garth Jennings and Christophe Lourdelet. It has been nominated for two Golden Globe awards (for Best Animated Motion Picture and also for Stevie Wonder’s song “Faith” for Best Original Song).

Buster Moon (Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyer’s Club), a koala bear, owns a once grand theatre that has fallen on hard times. He can’t pay the stage hands or the mortgage, and is constantly being hounded by the bank. To help generate interest in the theatre and hopefully keep it from closing, he decides to hold a singing competition (think of American Idol), which is questioned by his best friend sheep Eddie (Oscar nominee John C. Reilly). The plan is to offer a $1,000 prize to the winner. But his elderly one-eyed iguana assistant, and my favorite character, Miss Crawly (Garth Jennings) mistakenly lists the prize amount on fliers as $100,000, rather than $1,000. Needless to say, this prize amount generates a lot of interest.

We meet the contestants, all of whom have dreams, and like American Idol we hear their backstories. Finalists include Johnny the ape (Taron Egerton, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Eddie the Eagle), Rosito (Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line) a stay at home mom to 25 little piglets, Ash (Golden Globe nominee Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation) a teen punk-rock porcupine, Oscar nominee Seth MacFarlane plays Mike a shady white mouse and Meena (Tori Kelly) is a shy elephant. Throughout the film, you hear bits of more than 85 songs, ranging from the 1940’s to the present day. The film builds to an excellent finale.

I really enjoyed this film. The writing was sharp, and the animation, while not spectacular, was good. While the film will interest children and they will enjoy the animals, some of the backstories were a bit heavy. A theme in the film is to always pursue your dreams. The importance of support from family was another theme.

The film includes a small amount of bathroom humor and some mild sexually suggestive content, such as three female rabbits dancing to Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”, but overall is acceptable for all ages.