Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview


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My Review of THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, rated R
***

This is a well-written and acted film featuring a strong cast, but has significant content issues. It is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, two-time Oscar nominee, and winner for the short film Six Shooter.
Frances McDormand, four-time Oscar nominee and winner for Fargo, portrays Mildred Hayes, a recently divorced mother whose teenage daughter was brutally raped and murdered seven months earlier. Mildred lives in Ebbing, Missouri (though the movie was actually filmed primarily in Sylva, a small mountain town in western North Carolina), with her teenage son Robbie, played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea). Her ex-husband Charlie, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), now lives with a nineteen-year old girlfriend.
Mildred is furious with the local police for their lack of progress on her daughter’s case. She decides to rent three abandoned billboards on a rarely traveled road near her home on the outskirts of the town for the purpose of shaming popular Police Chief Willoughby, played by two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson (The Messenger) and his staff, for what she perceives as their ineptness on her daughter’s case. She works with Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones, at the local advertising agency to rent the billboards. Welby’s character will play a significant role in the film.
The billboards become a controversy in the town when the local television station does an interview with Mildred.  A Catholic priest named Father Montgomery, played by Nick Searcy, visits the Hayes home and tells Mildred that he has taken a poll and most folks in the town are against the billboards, and that she should remove the messages. Mildred responds with vitriol toward the priest, taking the opportunity to implicate him in covering up for all priests who abuse young boys.
Chief Willoughby is married to Anne (Abbie Cornish) and has two small children.  [Note:  Abbie Cornish is a strange choice for this role – her Australian accent keeps breaking through – you’re probably not going to find many Aussies in that part of Missouri.]  The billboards prompt him to reach out to Mildred. He tells her that all of the leads have dried up; he’s sorry, but sometimes cases take a long time to be solved.
Sam Rockwell (Moon) plays Dixon, Willoughby’s second in command. He is racist, emotionally immature, lives with his mother, played by Sandy Martin, is often drunk, and enjoys comic books. James, played by Golden Globe winner Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) plays a small but key role in the film.
The film depicts flawed characters. Both Mildred and Chief Willoughby wonder if there is a God, or if there is anything past this life. Even though some of the characters do some very bad things, they are not all bad. The film is rated R for a significant amount of adult language – lots of swear words, some of it of a sexual nature, and includes racist and discriminatory language, some played for laughs, and several abuses of God’s and Jesus’ names. These issues along with the violence may keep many people of faith from seeing this film.
Themes in the film include justice, vengeance, racism, and forgiveness. The film’s unique music score is provided by Carter Burwell and the cinematography is by Ben Davis.
This is a well-acted (especially McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell), written (including a lot of humor), and directed film. However, with the significant content issues noted above, I can’t recommend it to people of faith.

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MY REVIEW OF The Glass Castle 

The Glass Castle, rated PG-13
*** 

The Glass Castle is a well-acted film based on a popular book that tells the story of a daughter’s life-long relationship with her troubled father.
This film is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), who also writes the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, and is based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling 2005 book The Glass Castle: A Memoir. Told from Jeannette’s perspective, this is the true story about her family on the run from the government and bill collectors, and often hiding in small towns and living in poverty.  The book has had a profound impact on readers, with in excess of 6,000 user reviews on Amazon, and as I write this, it is the sixth best-selling book on the Amazon Non-Fiction chart. I recently heard of someone who re-read the book twice in one day before seeing the film.  As I went into the movie, I wondered why a book and film about family dysfunction had resonated so much with people.
The film stars Oscar winner Brie Larson (Room) as the adult Jeannette Walls.  Younger versions of Jeannette are portrayed by Chandler Head and Ella Anderson. Jeannette’s siblings are portrayed by Lori (Sara Snook), Brian (Josh Caras) and Maureen (Bridgette Lundy-Paine). Two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson powerfully portrays Jeannette’s alcoholic father Rex, and two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts stars as Jeannette’s mother Rose Mary. The film’s title refers to the dream house that Rex was always promising to build for his family, with hopes for a better life.   
The film is told from Jeannette’s perspective, and focuses on her relationship with her father. As the film begins, we see her as a successful New York gossip columnist who is engaged to David (Max Greenfield), a successful financial advisor. The film moves back and forth between her childhood memories of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and her life in New York in 1989. We see her shame and resentment for how she was raised. Much of the blame is given to her father, but her mother was no innocent party to the dysfunction.    Everyone in the film seems to be wounded and broken.
Rex has strong opinions on racism, hypocrisy, capitalism, etc. We see how his alcoholism hurts his children. Rose Mary is a free-spirit, who is consumed with her painting. Rex and Rose Mary care deeply about independence and freedom, and are not very good parents, though in their own way they do love their children. Some pleasant times are depicted. However, they don’t provide the children a formal education, at times the children go days without food, and perhaps their biggest sin is exposing their children to Rex’s mother, their horrid grandmother Erma, played Robin Bartlett.
Harrelson delivers a powerful performance as Rex. He is depicted at times as brilliant, and other times as delusional, deceptive and mean, breaking his promises to his children, in particular Jeannette. He is always searching for the demon out there, but too late realizes that the demon is actually within himself.  Larson is outstanding as the older Jeannette, who as an adult is trying to distance herself from her parents and her upbringing, making a new life in New York City.  Anderson delivers a powerful performance as the young Jeannette, who loves her father, but is disappointed when he can’t overcome his alcoholism and the devastating impact it has on their family.
This is a well-acted film, but not an easy one to watch. If you are looking for a “feel good” film, this is not the one for you. Themes in the film include love, family dysfunction, sexual and other forms of abuse, alcoholism and broken promises. The film includes some violence, adult language, some swear words, abuses of God’s name, and sexuality, though nothing explicit is shown. The film may resonate with those who have also experienced dysfunctional family relationships, in particular women with their fathers, and is a story of children able to “rise above their raising”.


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MY REVIEW OF The War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes, rated PG-13
***

Final Film in the “Caesar Trilogy” Raises Questions about the Message.

**SPOILER WARNING!**

In the final film in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, “The Colonel”, played by two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson, raids the camp of the apes. During the raid, the wife and eldest son of Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit), the leader of the apes, is killed. This leads Caesar, to seek revenge.  The movie follows Caesar, and a few of those closest to him, as they start on a long journey that will lead them to the human camp and the Colonel’s highly trained soldiers. Along the way they meet Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), the lone survivor from a zoo, and a young mute girl, who they name Nova (Amiah Miller).
As David Sims states in his review of the film in The Atlantic, “In Dawn, the story’s darkness made more sense because there were heroes and villains on both sides of the human-ape divide; in War, we’re just watching the final death throes of our own species.” The Colonel (and the humans in general) are portrayed as the villains in this film, while the apes are insistently shown to be the ones with compassion. We see the Colonel using apes, they call donkeys, as slave labor to build a defensive wall in the camp. The group that the Colonel leads is Alpha and Omega, which according to the writer, is a reference to the bomb the mutants worshiped in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. (Jesus Christ also referred to Himself as The Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end.)  The Colonel wraps himself in a perverse distortion of both nationalist and religious symbolism.  We also see graffiti reading “APE-OCALYPSE NOW”, pointing out the similarities of the Colonel to Marlon Brando’s character Colonel Kurtz in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.  
The film is directed by Matt Reeves, who also directed 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The film is written by Reeves with Mark Bomback and had a budget of approximately $150 million. Since its release, the film has already made in excess of $133 million in the U.S. alone. The CGI (computer generated imagery) used in the film is amazing. Kudos also go to cinematographer Michael Seresin (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and composer Michael Giacchino for the film’s soundtrack.
Steve Zahn is a welcome newcomer and provides some comedic relief as the likeable Bad Ape. Terry Notary returns as Rocket, a chimp who is now one of Caesar’s most trusted followers. Karin Konoval also returns as Maurice, an orangutan that is another of Caesar’s most faithful advisors.
The film contains a lot of references to the Bible. What they are intended to mean is another question for discerning viewers. For example, Caesar is the ape “savior”, and there are points in the film when there are clear comparisons of him with Jesus. Caesar frees the apes from being slaves, is flogged and hangs on a cross.  He guides the apes to a new “promised land” but dies before entering it, which certainly brings to mind Moses. The Colonel says that he sacrificed his son to save humankind. He wears a crucifix and there is one displayed in his office. We see him make a Catholic sign of the cross over his men in a ‘blessing’. Are the filmmakers mocking Christianity?
Andy Serkies is amazing as Caesar, who has clearly aged by the time we get to this film.  There is some talk of him receiving an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the conflicted (revenge or mercy?) leader of the apes.
Themes in the film include war, hatred, family, self-sacrifice, bravery, revenge and mercy.  It is worth seeing for amazing CGI, great acting and cinematography; just be mindful of the worldview presented.
The film definitely went too long and moved along very slowly. It could have definitely been shortened 45 minutes from its 140- minute running time.


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Movie Review ~ Now You See Me 2

Now You See Me 2Now You See Me 2
***

The sequel to the 2013 film Now You See Me finds the Four Horsemen – Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and newcomer Lula (Lizzy Caplan), (who replaces Isla Fisher’s Henley Reeves from the first film as Fisher was pregnant when the film was being made)  laying low a year after their Robin Hood-style heist. The “Fifth Horseman”, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) gets direction for the Horsemen from the mysterious The Eye organization, while pretending to his FBI bosses to be trying to bring in the Horsemen, to the doubts of some in the organization.

The Horsemen plan to come out of hiding at the launch of a new mobile phone that will be able to steal the privacy of those who use it. Instead, a trick is played on them, and they end up in Macau, China, “the Las Vegas of China”, having been kidnapped by billionaire Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe), who the public assumes has been dead for a year. Mabry needs them to use their skills to steal a priceless computer circuit known as “the stick”, which can de-encrypt any computer on the planet, for him.  Merritt’s irritating twin brother, also played by Harrelson, is out for revenge and is assisting Mabry.  To prepare for their assignment, the Horsemen visit the world’s oldest magic shop, run by Li (Jay Chou) and his mother Bu Bu (Tsai Chin).

The film centers on a thirty-year connection between magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) and Rhodes, who Rhodes put in prison at the end of the last film. Michael Caine, the group’s patron in the first film, returns as billionaire Arthur Tressler.

The film contains much to enjoy, including the Macau and London locations, the dialogue and chemistry among the Horsemen and magical sleight of hand aided by excellent camera work and computer generated imagery (CGI). There is much going on in the film and it contains a lot of twists and turns. Like the best magic acts, things are not always as you think they are based on what you have seen with your eyes. There are certainly holes in the script, and I was particularly disappointed with the ending, but still found the film to be entertaining overall.

The film features a strong cast with two Oscar winners (Freeman and Caine) and three Oscar nominees (Eisenberg, Ruffalo and Harrelson). It is directed by Jon M. Chu (Louis Leterrier directed the first film), and is written by Ed Solomon, who also wrote the screenplay for the first film.

Content concerns include some adult language and some abuses of God’s and Jesus’ names.

We will see the Horsemen again, as Now You See Me 3 has been announced.