Genre: Drama (2015, R)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker
Director: Antoine Fugua
Distributor: The Weinstein Group
Writer: Curt Sutter
Anger-challenged Fighter Loses All but Gets a Shot at Redemption
When boxer Billy Hope’s wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), tells him he has to quit boxing because he’s getting “punch-drunk” and she can’t handle seeing him beat up and bleeding anymore at the film’s onset, you wonder if she’s too late. He slurs his speech, talks in mono-syllables, and looks like he hasn’t slept in three days (and that’s throughout the whole movie). You also wonder how he became the light heavyweight champion of the world by using his face as a primary blocking tool. Though Jake Gyllenhaal does an impeccable job with the character, I kept hoping someone would throw a pail of ice water on him in the second half, just to wake him up.
The story is about a lower class, uneducated man achieving greatness in a sport, losing everything he cherishes because of anger issues, and then striving to get some of it back by relearning his trade through an old trainer (brilliantly played by Forest Whitaker) who teaches him not only new boxing techniques but also the nobility of taking personal responsibility for his actions.
Rachel McAdams plays his loving and protective wife well, but unfortunately lowers herself by appearing in a few sexually-charged scenes–one involving a bathrobe “malfunction” to use the current vernacular. As a film, however, it moves along at a good pace. You understand Billy’s predicament. You want him to overcome his life-controlling habits. You root for him even though he makes bad decisions. You see the pain in his family because of his mistakes. You applaud his humbling steps to get his life back together for the sake of his daughter. In terms of content, it has a lot going for it. If they had toned down the constant foul language and sexual stuff, I could have recommended it.
*To me, Southpaw does not come close to matching my favorite boxing movie, Cinderella Man, with Russell Crowe. The latter film is based on a true story during the depression when the boxer, James J. Braddock, becomes a legendary figure of hope for all America as a guy who also lost it all, but instead of getting self-destructive and angry, he goes to work at the docks until he gets his golden opportunity. This film also includes a spiritual element as people are shown praying in churches that he will win.
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” James 1:19).
Genre: Musical Drama
Starring: Blake Rayne, Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Erin Cottrell (Love’s Long Journey, Love’s Unending Legacy)
Director: Dustin Marcellino
Writer: Howard Klausner
Distributors: Freestyle Releasing
Availability: Red Box
Hear God for Yourself
I took a chance on this film since I only read one review, which was positive from a Christian point of view. After I saw it, however, I learned that the movie had a very short theatrical release time and most critics blasted it. This is a rare time when I have to disagree with the majority of the critics. What I found was an entertaining movie with a good story, important themes, Christian values, and winsome characters. Of course, it helps if you like Elvis and the style of music from the 1950s because the main character looks like Elvis, sings like Elvis, and moves like Elvis, but you don’t have to be a die-hard fan to enjoy it. I’m not, and I was delighted.
The story begins during the depression where a young couple just has identical twins, but the unemployed father can’t rejoice because he feels he cannot take care of both of them. In desperation he goes to a evangelistic tent meeting but instead of hearing a sermon he hears the preacher share his heart that he and his wife need prayer because they cannot have children. When the new father gets home from the meeting he tells his wife that he thinks God is asking them to give one of their boys to this couple in the ministry. At first his wife is shocked and angry about his suggestion, but later prays about it and believes her husband is right. The birth father insists that the preacher and his wife do not tell their son the truth until he and his wife have both passed away.
The story’s focus mainly is on Ryan, the preacher’s kid, who loves music and has an obvious singing gift, even as a young boy. In fact, he loves music so much he slips out at night with a friend as a teenager to go to “honky tonks,” and later starts a rock and roll band. His father, however, has his own ideas about Ryan’s life and thinks he should follow him into the ministry. When the police raid one of the places where Ryan was singing, his father finally finds out what he’s been doing at night. His solution is to send him into the army where he can learn to be a man. Yet, even in the military, Ryan can’t stop singing and entertaining his fellow soldiers.
Meanwhile, the other twin, Drexel Hemsley, becomes a famous singer/songwriter that Ryan loves and wants to emulate. Yet, Ryan is torn and wants to please his dad so after the army he goes to Bible school and studies for the ministry, but his heart is not in it. His wife and friends encourage him to sign up for a prestigious singing contest in Nashville. You’ll never guess who shows up to witness his debut.
An added bonus to the movie is the fact several of the songs were written and sung by the main character, Blake Rayne, who has a rich, baritone voice like Elvis. Rayne, a former Elvis impersonator, was quoted as saying that the movie mirrored his own life in many ways. Don’t let the critics bury this one. It deserves to be seen. Uplifting and inspirational.
“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.” 2 Thessalonians 1:11
The Good Lie
Genre: Drama (2014), PG-13
Director: Phillippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar)
Writer: Margaret Nagle (Warm Springs, HBO Movie)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jai, Kuoth Wiel
Distributor: Warner Bros.
This is a wonderful movie which delicately balances the horrors experienced by the Sudanese refugees and the challenges they faced resettling in the United States. The African actors include “Lost Boys” themselves who testify of the film’s authenticity. While avoiding graphic scenes of slaughter, the film nonetheless gets the point across by having bodies floating down a river and children running and screaming as sounds of gunfire are heard in the background. The focus of the story revolves around a family of Sudanese siblings (four brothers and a sister) who lost their parents in the civil war. Many years of their childhood are spent in a Kenyan refugee camp. Finally, their names appear on the list to go to America. They find out in the U.S., however, that the brothers will go to Kansas City, Missouri and their sister will go to Boston because there was not a host family to take her in Kansas City. The brothers protest but to no avail.
Once at their destination, the young men are clueless about life in America to comic effect. When the employment agency person Carrie (Reese Witherspoon, Walk The Line) calls them, for example, they hear the phone ringing but have no idea that they are supposed to pick it up. “Maybe it’s an alarm,” one of them suggests as the three of them stare bewildered at the strange contraption. Another humorous scene is when they meet a friend of Carrie’s who is a police officer. Mamere stuns the man when he sincerely says, ” We appreciate any person who risks their life to uphold the law. May God bless you and keep you safe from harm.” Carrie is taken aback again when one says: “We’ll pray for a husband to fill your empty house.” A more poignant incident takes place with the character Jeremiah, who works at a grocery store, when he is instructed by the manager to throw out food, which looks perfectly good to him, into the trash. His boss explains that it is easier to just throw it away than to get in trouble with the Health Department for going beyond the freshness date on the products. Jeremiah is later caught giving some of that food away to a homeless person and feels forced to make a radical decision.
The only problem I had with the film was the depiction of an apparent Christian woman who is their contact in Kansas City (I am assuming she is supposed to be a Christian anyway since she works for a Faith-based organization). After she helps Carrie clean up her house she readily accepts Carrie’s offer to drink Tequila and appears to overdo it a bit. She also seems somewhat flippant about their predicament and does not even offer to speak with the leaders of her organization to see if they could find a host family for their sister. In a big city like that with many Christians, I doubt there would not have been one family to welcome her. Instead, an apparent unbeliever opens her home and saves the day. That is not to say a non-Christian cannot be touched by compassion and help someone–-far from it. They do it all the time–-it just struck me as odd that this situation would not have been communicated to the Body of Christ in the area and one family would not have responded.
Overall, I would highly recommend this film. The characters and the script really help you identify with the refugees in the U.S. and, at the same time, highlight their faith, perseverance, family loyalty, and resilience.
“When a stranger resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33).
War Room (2015), PG
Starring: Priscilla C. Shirer, T.C. Stallings, Karen Abercrombie
Director: Alex Kendrick
Writers: Alex and Stephen Kendrick
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Excellent movie by the Kendrick brothers who also produced Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous. This time the theme is spiritual warfare. The story revolves around a middle-class, affluent African-American couple, Tony and Elisabeth Jordan, who are having marriage problems. He is a successful pharmaceutical salesman and she is a real estate agent. They have one young daughter. Yet, despite their material success, all Tony and Elisabeth seem to do is argue. So much so, their daughter tells her friend flatly, “All my parents do is fight all the time.”
During the course of her work Elisabeth meets Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), an elderly black woman, who wants to sell her house. As they speak about different issues Elisabeth lets it slip that she’s having marital problems. Miss Clara invites her back for coffee the next day. That’s when Miss Clara tells Elisabeth about her favorite room in the house that she calls"The War Room." She explains that this is the place where she meets with God. Tacked on the wall are prayer lists and written answers to prayer.
When Elisabeth starts complaining about her husband, Miss Clara cuts her off and challenges her to fight for her marriage in prayer before it's too late. To make her point, she serves Elisabeth lukewarm coffee. When Elisabeth takes a sip and grimaces, Miss Clara smiles and says, “You see, people like their coffee hot or cold, not lukewarm. It’s the same with God. He wants us to be hot or cold.”
Elisabeth decides to take Miss Clara'’s challenge to pray every day and to refrain from arguing with her husband. Meanwhile her husband is trying to hook up with a contact from work and doing other nefarious activities. The acting is well-done, especially by Karen Abercrombie, and the drama unfolds evenly with comic elements typical of these filmmakers.
The only thing I found fault with the film was that it may give people the impression that answers to prayer always come quickly, which is not the case. Sometimes you have to persevere. Mary’s prayer after she was visited by the angel was: "May your word to me be fulfilled" (Luke 1:38). That prayer of submission to God was answered shortly thereafter. Her cousin Elizabeth's prayer to have a son, however, went unanswered for many many years (Luke 1:7).
One point is well-taken. We have an adversary and our best weapon is on our knees.
"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Ephesisans 6:18).
"And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).
Secretariat - PG (2010)
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Otto Thorwarth
Director: Randall Wallace
Writers: Mike Rich, William Nack (book)
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
You don't have to be an equestrian to enjoy this movie. In fact, the real story is about Penny Tweety (Diane Lane) who defied reason and took over her deceased father's horse farm in the early '70s--despite the enormous debt on the property, the opposition of some family members, the skepticism of a male-dominated industry, and even her station in life. She was a housewife and mother of teenagers and she had never managed an enterprise like this before. Even her husband doubted her capability at first.
Yet, an inner conviction told her she could do it. Her brother suggested that they sell the colt that was sired by a previous champion for six million dollars so they could settle the estate's debts. She refused. Instead, she sought investors, and assembled an elite team consisting of a top French-Canadian trainer, Lucien Laurin (played skillfully by John Malkovich), and a daring jockey, Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), that was destined to rock the horseracing world.
Probably what so endeared Secretariat to the American public was his habit of always starting out last at the gate and then passing all the other horses one by one before the finish line.
This is a high quality family movie with an exhilerating finale that may force you to your feet unashamed and cheering with everyone else: "You can do it, Secretariat! You can do it!"
"Do you give the horse its strength or clothe its neck with a flowing mane? Do you make it leap like a locust, striking terror with its proud snorting? It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength, and charges into the fray. It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; it does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles against its side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement it eats up the ground; it cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds" (Job 39:19-25).
"...we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans 8:37).
Flash of Genius
Flash of Genius PG-13 (2008)
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Lauren Graham, Alan Alda
Director: Marc Abraham
Writers: Philip Railshack, John Seabrook (John Seabrook, article in the New Yorker)
Distributor: Universal Pictures
You can be sure that The Ford Motor Company did not rejoice when this movie came out. It is based on the true experiences of Robert Kearns who bulldoggedly battled this giant corporation in court for many years over patent infringement--an inspiring, 20th century David vs. Goliath story.
Kinnear gives a superb performance as a man who cannot shake the injustice of having his invention taken by a company he had trusted without giving him credit for it, or remuneration, while they raked in millions with his idea. Despite personal betrayals, a nervous breakdown, compromising lawyers, and years of legal delays, he finally gets his day in court--representing himself, with his son, Dennis, as an assistant.
This movie makes you wonder how far you'd go to be vindicated and if the end result is worth the price you'll pay.
It is rated PG-13 for some language.
"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?" (Luke 14:28)
Mr. Holmes - PG (2015)
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney
Director: Bill Condon
Writers: Mitch Collin (novel), Jeffrey Hatcher (screenplay)
Distributor: Miramax (USA)
It is no wonder that this new Sherlock Holmes movie with Ian McKellan did not appeal to the masses. Holmes is 93 and has left London to live in the country to retire and tend to his bees. He is perplexed , however, because he cannot remember why he stopped working and thinks he failed somehow. The beginning of dementia perhaps. He travels to Japan to get some herbs that are supposed to help his memory. A young boy and his mom, the maid, live in the house. Holmes teaches the boy about bees while he tries to figure out the mystery of his last case. It involves a young married woman who lost two children and acts strange and sees shady characters.
Ian McKellan does a good job as the aged Holmes battling to keep his powerful intellect in the face of a debilitating disease, but he could have used some of the warm compassion of Gandaf (from Lord of the Rings) for the boy. The movie is a British import made by the BBC and suffers from that country's tendency for slow characterization and sluggish pacing. It also lacks humor to offset the heaviness of the theme. I did like seeing, however, the famous sleuth humbling himself and letting a boy help him find the answers that were eluding him.
Although I would not say "don't see it" because it was bascially a decent movie and ends on a positive note, I also would not recommend it wholeheartedly because it did not really draw me in. Hence, the two and a half star rating.
"Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come" (Psalm 71:18).
Creed PG-13 (2015)
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Availability: In theaters now
The African/American writers of this new Rocky Balboa reboot get it right. They keep Rocky's loveable, loyal, and generous character intact while introducing Adonis Johnson (or Creed played by Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of the deceased champion Apollo Creed, to take Balboa's boxing baton of greatness to another generation.
At first, the cocky and confident Creed thinks he can do it alone but after getting his butt kicked by a champion in Rocky's old gym he thinks otherwise and seeks to convince Rocky to abandon his modest restaurant, Adrian's, to teach him how to win against the big boys.
Rocky, however, is not thrilled to take on this new role. He is found by Creed going through the motions of life with his glory faded, his wife dead, friends gone, and his son living on the west coast. But, with Creed's insistence, Balboa puts himself back in the ring as a manager/trainer. He gives his young protege solid, Rocky advice: "Just beat the body and the head will fall."
It's nice to see integrated into the film little reminders of the first Rocky movie such as Balboa breaking eggs with one hand and his unorthodox training methods like chasing chickens. Another humorous scene brings us up to the 21st century when the tech-savvy Creed tells Rocky that the info is stored "in the cloud" and Balboa looks to the sky in bewilderment.
I was pleasantly surprised how clean the movie was in terms of nudity and swearing. Many boxing film directors like to throw in a lot of foul words and tend to linger on the scantily-clad women holding up the round cards, or worse, but not so in this case. I was disappointed, however, in Rocky's decision to let Creed sleep with his girlfriend at his house, but not surprised since Rocky also indulged in premartal sex prior to his marriage to Adrian (the sex scene shows little but you get the idea). I also don't know the purpose in having Creed find a porn magazine in the room that was previously Paulie's (again no nudity shown).
In a time when racial tensions are high in some parts of our country, it's great to see an older white man helping a young black man achieve his dreams, and a young black man challenging an older white man to never give up on life.
"Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called..." (1 Timothy 6:12).
Avalon (1990) PG
Starring: Armin Mueller-Stah, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth Perkins, Elijah Wood
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Barry Levinson
Distributor: Tristar Pictures
In a day when many people are debating about immigration reform, this is a delightful movie about a Jewish Polish family whose patriarch, Sam Krichinsky, came legally to America in 1914 during the July 4th celebrations in Baltimore. It realistically shows the difficulties of adapting to a new culture and the challenges of holding onto the old traditions as the years go on, such as maintaining close family ties as families prosper and move to the suburbs.
They discover, for example, when everyone lived in the same neighborhood it was much easier to have frequent family gatherings where all the ages mingled together. A touching scene before the families start separating is when a young aunt is sitting on the stairs with all the children and they pepper her with a barrage of 'aunt' questions: "Are all aunts kids before they become aunts?;" "What's the difference between a 'Regular Aunt' and a 'Great Aunt?'"; "Why do they call them 'Great Aunts' ? Why not 'Fantastic Aunts' or 'Good Aunts,' or 'Terrible Aunts?'"
The invention of the television also occurs during this time period and it is seen as a not- so-silent intruder into this close-knit family cutting off dinner conversation and capturing everyone's attention (could easily be compared with cell phones today) to the detriment of family relationships. Going from the lively exchanges with a full house to a single family quietly watching TV as they are eating dinners on trays is quite a stark contrast.
A key relationship in the movie is between the grandfather and his grandson, played wonderfully by Armin Mueller-Stah and a very young Elijah Wood.There is a beautiful scene where the boy's conscience is bothering him so much he has to run to his grandfather's house to tell him about it.
In terms of spirituality, there is not much. Though they are Jewish, there are no scenes of going to the synagogue, praying, or talking about faith in God. In fact, there is a Thanksgiving supper scene where the grandmother is asking why they are eating turkey. Amazingly, no one knows the history of the pilgrims and the indians after so many years in the country, or the fact that people are supposed to be giving thanks to God. Of course, at that point, as a Christian, I wanted to jump into the movie and say, "Wait! I know. I know," but, so far, that is not possible (see the movie, The Purple Rose of Cairo, if you like the idea of being able to do that.)
This movie was nominated for four Academy Awards and won the Writers' Guild Award for "Best Original Screenplay" in 1991. Definitely, a quality production.
*Be aware that there are a number of scenes with drinking and smoking, as was typical of the era, and a few GDs expressed in times of frustration.
"Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them" (Deuteronomy 4:9).
The Revenant (2015) R
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy
Writers: Mark L. Smith and Alejandro G. Inarritu
Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
To win a Golden Globes Award for "Best Actor," Leonardo DiCaprio proves you don't need words to act brilliantly (he probably uttered less than 20 sentences throughout this entire 2 1/2 hour survival/revenge tale). He plays Glass, a wilderness scout, leading a group of fur traders in Indian-controlled territory in the 1820s with his son, Hawk, who is half Pawnee. The film begins with their group being savagely attacked by a marauding Indian tribe in cahoots with the French.
Only a handful of the men escape the carnage and make it to their boat. Glass counsels their leader, Capt. Henry, to let the boat drift downstream to throw the pursuing Indians off their trail while they trek over land. Fur trader John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) hotly disagrees with this plan, but Henry listens to Glass. It's rough going, but things get rougher when Glass forges ahead alone and is mauled by a mama Grizzly bear protecting her cubs. This scene is horrific and probably the first of its kind in cinematic history. This last event, however, leaves Capt. Henry in a quandary. Carrying the wounded Glass on a litter over treacherous ground slows them down and risks the slaughter of them all. Yet, he also knows without Glass they would not have made it this far.
Finally, the captain makes the hard call. He offers a generous amount of money to anyone who will stay with Glass until he dies so they can give him a proper burial. Of course, his son Hawk volunteers and also another young man, as well as Fitzgerald. The latter's motivation, however, is not compassion, but survival, expediency, and money. Eventually, he leaves Glass to die.
The rest of the movie involves Glass, through extraordinary will power and perseverance, enduring one hardship after another until he finds his man.
The acting throughout is superb and DiCaprio and Hardy are perfectly matched as hero and villain. The cinematography also is sensational and one particular shot shows poignantly the smallness of man in the immensity of a vast wilderness. The overall tone, however, I found to be grim and the take away not all that uplifting. In fact, the only light moment is when he and a friendly Indian open their mouths to catch falling snowflakes.
In terms of the film's portrayal of Christianity, the guy spouting the most religious jargon is the bad guy and the one giving the most profound spiritual advice is an Indian (it is a Biblical concept, however).
If I were to describe the movie in seven words they would be: grim, gritty, grisly, savage, stark, scenic, and the one word to rule them all...revenge.
*Be aware that this movie contains a rape scene (no nudity or details shown) more than a few swear words and vulgarities, and several scenes of graphic violence. Not for the squeamish.
"Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 't is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord" (Romans 12:19).
Risen (2016) PG-13
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Peter Firth, Maria Botto
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Writers: Kevin Reynolds, Paul Aiello
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Availability: In theaters now
For the record, this movie is a “fictional” story about a Roman tribune named Clavius (*Joseph Fiennes) who is ordered by Pontius Pilate to find Jesus’ body after the Jewish leaders report its disappearance. Therefore, if you are expecting all the ‘t’s crossed and ‘i’s dotted biblically, you will have something to gripe about. In fact, in the opening scenes, your eyebrows may immediately arch as you witness Barabbas leading a band of zealots against Clavius and his soldiers. This is the only action scene in the movie, but it is a good one. You get to see how the Romans effectively used their shields to triumph over their enemies.
Yet, is it really out of character to see Barabbas in that role? In Mark 15:7 (NIV) we read: “A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.” Without a change of heart he probably would have been right out there again challenging the foreign occupiers. Granted it’s a bit of a stretch to make it hours after his release but, hey, this is a movie, not a mini-series.
In terms of acting, Fiennes plays the stoic tribune well--a Roman military leader under a lot of stress maintaining order among an oppressed people and a lonely man just wanting peace in his life. While investigating this strange case of a dead man's missing body, however, Clavius sees clearly that the facts just don't add up. He helped move that enormous stone with several men and it had the Roman seal on it, which meant death to anyone who broke it. There were also guards on duty. To him, it does not make sense that a few people came and overpowered the guards, rolled this huge stone away, and then took the body.
Although I would not say this is the new Ben Hur (it could have used more action scenes), it is a good movie and will touch you--if you don’t let the little details become hairs in your soup. I was especially moved at the end when Jesus runs to heal a leper who has just been beaten and chased away by other people. I also liked Bartholomew’s simplicity when he turns to Clavius, as they watch Jesus healing the man, and says, “That’s why” in answer to the tribune’s question about why he follows Jesus. Biblically, I do not think there is any reference to Jesus healing anyone after he rose from the dead. That ministry at this stage, I believe, belonged to the disciples. Nonetheless, just to see Jesus’ depth of compassion for the outcast to actually run to him, after others had rejected him, was powerful and beautifully revealed God's heart for the hurting. It helped too that the actor playing Jesus looked more Middle Eastern.
The laudable fact about this movie is it focuses on the most foundational Christian doctrine of the Bible—the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and it is being shown throughout the world! That, in itself, should give Christians (of all flavors) something to shout about.
"If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9).
"But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Corinthians 15:12-14).
"But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead..." (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).
**Fiennes also played Martin Luther in the excellent 2003 film Luther.
Whiplash (2014) R
Genre: Drama (Music)
Starring: Miles Teller, JK
Simmons Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Writer & Director: Damien Chazelle
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The title comes from a challenging jazz piece that freshman Andrew Neiman, (Miles Teller), must master if he is to be part of the “core” in the most elite jazz group at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in NYC (school is fictional). The title also is an apt description of how the sadistic conductor, Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons), provokes his students to perfection like circus animals—by stinging, verbal whiplashes at random to anyone who does not measure up to his high standards. Just imagine the worst Army drill sergeant with the foulest mouth filled with degrading perversity and profanity and you get the idea.
At first, Andy is excited at being selected to be a part of such a top group, but soon discovers he must give himself 100% to his music, with no romantic ties, if he wants to please his exigent instructor, and achieve his dream of being great like the saxophonist, Charlie Parker, and the drummer, Buddy Rich.
The dialogue around the dinner table with his uncle and aunt, two cousins, and his father reveals his motivation for striving so hard with his music. After listening to his uncle boast about his son’s exploits on the football field, Andy pops his uncle’s balloon by saying his son’s school is only third division and that the NFL will never be interested in him. In retaliation, his uncle asks him if he has any friends, to which Andy responds:
Andy: “Never saw the need. Parker didn’t know anybody till Joe Jones threw a cymbal at his head.”
Uncle: “That’s your idea of success?”
Andy: “I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody’s idea of success.”
Father: “Dying broke and drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 is not my idea of success.”
Andy: “I’d rather die drunk at 34 and have people talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembers who I was.”
Uncle: “But your friends will remember you. That’s the point.”
Andy: “None of us were friends with Charlie Parker. That’s the point.”
Hearing the mention of Buddy Rich in the movie brought back my own memories of the legendary drummer. I was at Disneyland one night and I walked by a small tent where he was playing. He had just finished an amazing drum solo and the response of the audience was incredible--something I had never heard up to that point or since. Instead of clapping there was a spontaneous “Ahhhhh” that erupted from the big crowd listening to him, almost like worship.
Later, I remember seeing Rich on The Johnny Carson Show on TV and being astounded at his refusal to answer the simplest questions posed by the host. Sure, he could play drums, but he could not even extend common courtesy to a man who had invited him on his national program. Unfortunately, it was the latter that made the biggest impression on me.
Although the movie is artistically well-made, the language is over the top, the main character is arrogant, and technical artistry is exalted above our relationships with God and others.
"...For they loved human praise more than praise from God" (John 12:43).
Young Messiah (2016) PG-13
Starring: Adam Greaves-Nel, Sara Lazzarro, VIncent Walsh, Sean Bean, Christian McKay
Writers: Cyrus Nowrasteh, Betsy Giffin Nowrasteh
Director: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Distributor: Focus Features
Availability: In Theaters
Deeply moving and artistically well-done
This fictional account of Jesus' life when he was seven years old is based on the novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (2005) by Anne Rice, which imagines what it may have been like for Jesus and his parents as He becomes aware of His unique identity and special abilities. The story begins in Egypt with Jesus being beaten up by an older boy with a devil character standing by in a hood (similar to the one in The Passsion but with blond hair, a beard, and black mascara) manipulating the circumstances.
Here Jesus and his family must leave Egypt because Jesus performed a miracle and their neighbors are chasing them away, plus the biblical reason, which was because Joseph had a dream from God telling him that Herod was dead (Matthew 2:19 & 20). The former reason, however, is key for this narrative because upon it hangs all the drama that follows. Rumor circulates in Archelaus' palace that there is a boy with miraculous powers travelling up from Egypt. This, of course, scares the ruler because he remembers what the wise men said to his father about another king. He, therefore, orders a Roman centurion (Sean Bean) to find the boy and kill him.
I found this movie a refreshing and an innovative addition to the "Jesus" films now available. I especially liked the humanity shown through the depictions of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. For example, Mary and Joseph don't know how much to tell their son about who He really is out of fear that it may not be the right time. Jesus, on the other hand, is shown as learning and growing as a boy/Messiah. The actress playing Mary (Sara Lazzarro) also is exceptional (best Mary I have ever seen) and her scene with Jesus at the end when she gently tells Him, "God is your father," is both beautiful and powerful.
In regards to Jesus doing miracles as a boy there is no biblical support, but it is interesting that Mary told the servants at the wedding reception in Cana to "do whatever He tells you." Did she say that because she had seen Jesus do miracles before or just because she knew He was the Son of God? Of course, assuming it was from His childhood is purely speculative. In any case, the character of Jesus in this movie aligns well with the one we see in the gospels. He is compassionate, wise, fearless, and kind.
The only thing I saw in the movie that would suggest a Catholic slant is Jesus has no siblings, only cousins. Otherwise, I think this film would appeal to both Catholics and Protestants.
"And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man" (Luke 2:52).
"Son, though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him..." (Hebrews 5: 8 & 9).
*Be aware that this is not a movie for small children. There are scenes of violence, crucifixions, and the devil character could be scary to younger audiences. There is also a belly dancing scene in Archelaus' palace.
The von Trapp Family:
A Life of Music
The von Trapp Family: A Life of Music (2015)
Starring: Eliza Bennett, Matthew MacFadyen, Yvonne Catterfeld, Rosemary Harris
Writers: Christopher Silber, Tim Sullivan
Director: Ben Verbong
Distributor: Lion's Gate (USA)
This is the dramatic version of the von Trapp family's experiences through the eyes of the famous captain's eldest daughter, Agathe, (who had the name of "Liesl" in the musical) based on her book, Memories Before and After The Sound of Music (first published in 2004). The movie begins with an aged Agathe (played by Rosemary Harris) trying to convince Kirsti (her teenage grandniece) to stay at her father's home for Christmas. Her nephew had divorced Kirsti's mom and remarried and Kirsti had trouble accepting it. Therefore, Kristi just wanted to take a train back home to where her mom lived. This action, of course, reminded Agathe of the hard time she'd had accepting Maria as her step-mom after her mom died. As Agathe and Kirsti talk at the train station the film flashes back to Agate's time in Austria and her challenges with her own family's new dynamics and the country's imminent takeover by the Nazis.
If you don’t mind seeing a Christmas movie in the spring and a closer rendering of the Von Trapp story to the truth as to what really happened with less humor and less music, this one is for you. Some changes from the classic movie include: Agathe’s love interest is not a Nazi sympathizer but a childhood friend who defies the Germans by publicly posting writings against them; the captain is not a caricature bossing everyone around but a gentle man who loves his family; the songs you hear are in German; and Maria only has a minor role in this film. This is Agathe’s story. It is well told and well acted. Eliza Bennett was an excellent casting choice for young Agathe (and I’m not saying that because we share the same last name…no relation). It would make a great mother/daughter kind of evening or a husband/wife date night (you can bite the bullet, men, on this one and watch something your spouse might appreciate more for a change. If you do that for her, she may not mind when you want to watch the DVD of 13 Hours: the Secret Heroes of Benghazi when it comes out. You may want to watch it, however, with a buddy or an older son rather than your wife).
"He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents..." (Malachi 4:6).
The End of the Tour
The End of the Tour (2015) R
Starring: Jason Segal, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Chlumsky
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: Donald Margulies (screenplay), David Lipsky (book)
Distributor: A 24
Another true story illustrating that our own works can't save us...
I may be going out on a limb here but I enjoyed this movie involving two professional writers--one a nationally acclaimed author of a behemoth-sized novel, Infinite Jest, named David Foster Wallace, and the other a reporter, David Lipsky, for Rolling Stone Magazine. The structure of the movie is around the five days that Lipsky spent interviewing Wallace for Rolling Stone when the latter was finishing up his book tour promoting his bestselling novel in 1996. The dialogue comes from the tapes of those conversations. My appreciation of the film probably stems from the following: I studied English Literature in college; I enjoy honest dialogue; I'm partial to films about writers; and I consider myself, on good days, a legitimate member of their literary ranks (though from a Christian point of view).
What makes the dynamic between these writers so interesting is the fact that one writer had really "made it" in the sense that Wallace had a novel that the critics loved (LA Times Book Editor, David Ulin, wrote that Wallace was "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years") and was also a commercial success (it sold 44,000 copies the first year) and the other writer was still seeking to make his mark.
Of the two, I'd say that Wallace comes across as more likeable. He is honest, hospitable, profound, and insecure. We first meet him coming out to welcome Lipsky to his home during the winter in Ilinois. His two dogs go before him and he quickly explains to his visitor that he likes taking in dogs that other people might "not have the patience for" either because of their looks, or behavior. Wallace also insists that Lipsky stay at his house and not the hotel. When Lipsky wants to get right to the questions, Wallace will not let him get away with asking all the personal questions at no cost to himself. Wallace wants a human connection, not a one-sided discussion with a symbiontic interviewer who expects him to spill his guts while he remains emotionally aloof.
When they sit down for their first meal at a restaurant Wallace says frankly, "I'm nervous about whether you are going to like me or whether I am going to like you." Lipsky, however, wants a stellar interview with this new literary star more than friendship. When Wallace goes outside for a few minutes, for example, Lipsky frantically looks at everything on the walls to gather more data. When he uses the bathroom he opens the medicine cabinet to see what is inside and scribbles down what he sees.
During one conversation Lipsky gets an unexpected flow of thought from Wallace about internet pornography: "You're running a movie in your head and having a fantasy relationship with someone who is not real strictly to stimulate a neurological response. As the internet grows in the next ten or fifteen years and virtual reality pornography becomes a reality we're gonna have to develop some real inner machinery inside our guts to turn off pure, unalloyed pleasure. I don't know about you, but I'm gonna have to leave this planet cause the technology is going to get better and better and it's gonna get easier and easier and more and more convenient to sit alone with images on a screen given by people who do not love us, but want our money."
Of course, neither writer professes being a Christian nor embraces a moral lifestyle. Yet, Wallace seems spiritually attuned enough to see the emptiness of the world system. Unfortunately, it appears he never had a personal experience with his Savior to give him hope in the midst of a depraved humanity. He commited suicide 12 years after the interview. It was interesting, however, that Lipsky saw a written prayer attached to a wall in Wallace's room. Watching this film reminded me of the need to pray for today's celebrities and artists and not be afraid to reach out to them. Afterall, what we all really want deep down is a love connection with our Creator and with one another.
"What a person desires is unfailing love..."(Proverbs 19:22).
*Be aware that there is a fair spattering of foul language, and some frank discussions about sex, though nothing graphically detailed.
Ben-Hur (2016) PG-13
Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Hebhell, Nazanin Bonidadi, Sofia Black-D'Elia, Morgan Freedman
Writers: Lew Wallace (novel)
screenwriters: Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley
Director: Timur Bekmamabetov
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
If you are a fan of the 1959 original of Ben-Hur you may be hesitant to plop down the mandatory $10 to $12 to see a beloved classic possibly butchered and watered-down by contemporary mores. I understand. I was myself. Yet, despite being labled a "summer flop" and getting some scathing reviews, I found the movie more specifically crafted for a faith-based audience (producers of the widely successful Bible TV mini-series were behind it*), creative with the storyline to avoid too much familiarity, and faithful to the basic plot and theme of the multi-Oscar-winning film.
There were many things that I could compliment Director Becmamabetov for in this new rendition and, of course, a few things I would have changed.
Let's start with the positive. As opposed to the original, the character of Jesus shows up three times and He is not a spaced-out, mystical type but a clear-eyed, straight-talking man who looks physically strong (he was a carpenter afterall) and not afraid to do things in defiance of heartless authorities. It's nice to see his face too. In the original, you just saw the back of his head. The coordination of the music with the movement of Roman soldiers also powerfully illustrated the oppressive rule over the Jews.
I liked the galley scenes where you only saw things from the slaves' perspective and I actually wondered how Judah was going to survive. I understood why they cut out the part where Judah saves a Roman Admiral, learns chariot racing under his tutelage, and becomes his "adopted" son. The original was over three hours long and they had to do something radical to make it more palpable for today's audiences. It just makes it more of a stretch that he could compete professionally in the races.
The biggest problem I had with this version was the casting of Morgan Freedman as the owner of the white chariot horses and his role in the film. In the old version, this character was worldly-wise and funny and provided a needed comic element to the movie. Morgan Freedman , on the other hand, looks ridiculous with dreadlocks, is too serious and, frankly, totally boring. Also, making Messala an adopted brother of Judah Ben-Hur was unnecessary and not clearly explained. This makes Judah's biological sister's romantic attachment to Messala somewhat strange and complicated.
The lead actors were fine, but I would say that Judah Ben-Hur's character could have used an actor with a more noble and weightier presence. The only actor I could think of that may have fit the bill was Henry Cavill from the last Superman movie.
In comparing the two versions I would say the original wins hands down, but I still thought it was a good movie standing alone. It was entertaining, different enough from the original to make it interesting, and well-focused on forgiveness, which is a foundation of the Christian faith-- making it as relevant today as it was fifty-seven years ago.
"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" (Matthew 6:14).
*It could be argued that the loose ends were tied up a little too neatly and quickly.
Ithaca 2016) PG
Starring: Meg Ryan, Sam Shepard, Hamish Linklater, Jack Quaid, Alex Neustaedter
Writers: Erik Jendresen (screenplay) William Saroyan (story from book The Human Comedy)
Music: John Mellencamp
Director: Meg Ryan
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
This movie apparently went straight to streaming without a theatrical release. It is the directorial debut of Meg Ryan, the comedic actress, who dropped out of the Hollywood scene for several years. Although both Ryan and Hanks have some cameos they are not very integral to the story. Hanks plays a dead father/husband who shows up occasionally as a ghost-type figure that only Kate Macauley (Ryan) sees. He looks concerned and utters a few words: "katie...Marcus" and that's about it. If you were looking for another Sleepless in Seattle this is definitely not it. Ryan, as Kate, also has little screen time. She plays a grieving and world-weary woman in a somber time after her husband's death, which is a radical change from her perky personality in many of her popular, romantic comedies.
Most of the story revolves around the 14-year-old Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter) who goes to work at the local telegraph office to help his family after his father dies and his oldest brother Marcus joins the army during WW II. Here Homer grows up fast as he delivers telegrams from the War Department to rich and poor parents alike confirming their worst fears have come true.
He poses deep questions to his co-worker Willie Grogan (Sam Shepard) like: "Do you think things will be better when this is all over?" to which the older man is non-committal. He asks his mom another heavy one: "I never thought a fellow would ever cry when he got to be grown up 'cause that's when you start finding out about things." His mom says in response: "There will always be pain in this world, Homer. And a good man will seek to take the pain out of things."
The theme of what a good man is comes out again in a conversation between Homer's brother Marcus and a fellow soldier as they wait to go into action. Marcus tells his friend about his father who was a poor farmer but managed to buy a piano for his sister. His buddy says,"There's still good men like that in the world."
Although I had great expectations with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks getting back together their small parts do nothing to help this movie. The best I can say about the film is: I appreciate the PG rating and I liked the sets that effectively put you back to the forties. Overall, however, it feels more like a plane rolling down a runway that never quite gets off the ground.
"A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart..." (Luke 6:45).
Mr. Church (2016) PG-13
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, Natascha McElhone
Writer: Susan McMartin
Director: Bruce Beresford
Distributor: Cinelou Releasing
If you enjoy character movies you will love this one
This movie proves that Denzel, Jamie, and Samuel have nothing on Eddie Murphy when it comes to dramatic acting. Although known for his manic exuberance in his comedies (think of the donkey in the Shrek films), Murphy tones it way down to beautifully embody the calm and staid character of Henry Church, par excellence. Susan McMartin, the screenwriter and the person whose life is presented in the film, said that it was worth waiting ten years just to have Eddie Murphy play the lead role.
The movie begins with ten-year-old "Charlie" Brody (or Charlotte played by Natalie Coughlin), discovering a black man, Henry Church, making breakfast in the kitchen of the house she shares with her mom, Marie Brody (Natascha McElhone). Her mom explains that he is there to prepare meals (gourmet of course) because her mom's rich, ex-lover Richard paid for it in his will. What Charlie does not know is it is only supposed to last for six months, because at that time her mom should be dead from breast cancer. Of course, the doctors are ultimately wrong in their prediction and Mr. Church stays for years, thus becoming a solid anchor for the family. Initially, Charlie hates Mr. Church's intrusion into their lives but later sees him as a father figure giving stability and unconditional love. Britt Robertson plays an excellent Charlie as a young woman growing up into adulthood.
Although there is no real spiritual references in the movie, Mr. Church's character is a type of Christ--he loves unconditionally and he's faithful. In fact, at one point in the film, Charlie says to her friend Poppy: "You don't understand. He wasn't just our cook. He saved us!" Mr. Church is not perfect, however, and Charlie learns toward the end of the movie about some of his shortcomings, which do not diminish her love for him.
If you enjoy character movies, you will love this one. Based on a "true friendship" as opposed to a "true story" McMartin says Mr. Church's character is accurately portrayed though some of the scenes are fictionalized.** The film was directed by Bruce Beresford who also did another quality, character film based on a true story, Driving Miss Daisy.
"Many claim to have unfailing love, but a faithful person who can find?" (Proverbs 20:6)
*Be aware there are several scenes with some strong language (several GDs) though not excessive.
**Could not find anything online that says what was fictionalized and what was not.
Waiting for Forever
Waiting For Forever (2010) PG-13
Starring: Rachel Bilson, Tom Sturridge, Blythe Tanner, Richard Jenkins
Writers: Steve Adams
Director: James Keach
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing
We first meet our protagonist, Willie Donner, as a young man hitchhiking back to his home town. He looks like the artistic, creative type who wears a top hat, a vest, and flannel pajamas. He is picked up by a middle-aged, African /American couple. He informs them that he is going to see his girl friend with whom he is deeply in love. He promises to invite them to their wedding. The woman is deeply touched and gives him their business card to make sure he stays in touch.
Later, we learn through his interactions with his older brother, Jim, that he has been obsessed with Emma, his childhood friend, for years and has been living a care-free, somewhat irresponsible life as a street performer. Emma, meanwhile, has been a star in a TV comedy show, which has just been cancelled. She has come home to see her dad who is dying.
At first, when Willie finally talks with Emma , she has fun reminiscing with him as he brings her to some of their childhood haunts, but her demeanor changes after he confesses he's been following her all around the country, unbeknownst to her. She is shocked by this revelation and makes him promise never to do that again. She then says she has to go.
Although it is tough as a viewer at the onset of the movie to hang in there because of the obvious denial of reality by several characters, the film has a satisfying denouement. Willie also possesses a winsome honesty despite his emotional challenges. When Emma confesses she has done something to hurt someone he says simply, "If you care about the person, just say you're sorry."
As a Christian, it is obvious the person Willie is really seeking after for a foundation of unconditional love is God, not a mere romantic relationship. Yet, it was Emma's comforting words to him after his parents were killed in a train accident as a child that kept him going until he could accept the truth. This is not a light, romantic comedy but a drama that touches on some serious issues like loss, denial, mental illness, and realistic dialogue that can make you uncomfortable. Yet, it is well-written, well-acted and it ends on a positive note that makes it an unusual and worthwhile movie experience.
If you like offbeat, deeper movies that offer more than just entertainment, you will enjoy this film. It reminded me of Lars and the Real Girl in some ways.
"Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones" (Proverbs 16:24).
*PG-13 for adult themes such as infidelity, mental illness, jealousy and a scene of violent behavior
Sully (2016) PG-13
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Writers: Todd Komarnicki (screenplay) Chesley Sullenberger (book)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Sullied by a lack of thanksfulness to God
They say, "There are no atheists in the foxholes," but in this movie, out of 155 people, not one person cries out to God to save them as the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, instructs them to: "Brace for impact."
This is not to say the film is not well-done or well-cast because it does hold your interest to learn about the true story of "the miracle on the Hudson" and the subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Board which questioned the pilot's or "Sully's" decision to belly-flop the commercial airplane on the river January 15, 2009.
For the record, I want to acknowledge that what Sully, the flight staff, and the first responders did was wonderful and they should all be applauded and recognized for their good work. Yet, in my mind, not including scenes with at least a few people crying out to God as their plane is going down and a scene with people thanking God for their lives after they were rescued did not ring true to me.
In just a cursory look on the internet I found a few quotes from some of the survivors on CNN that confirmed my thoughts. Andrew Jamison said: "God was certainly looking out for all of us" and Fred Berretta said: "I think a lot of people started praying and collecting themselves." So two out of the ten people quoted in this CNN piece mentioned God or praying.
So, if you do see this good movie, do me a favor...just thank the Lord at the end.
"Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress" (Psalm 107:6, 13, 19, 28).
"Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind" (Psalm 107:31).
Genius (2016) PG-13
Starring: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman
Writer: A. Scott Berg (book), John Logan (screenplay)
Director: Michael Grandage
This movie focuses on the relationship Max Perkins, the famous and eccentric, former editor of Scribner & Sons, had with one of his tempestuous authors, Thomas Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward Angel. It is based on the book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Scott A. Berg, that was first published in 1978.
Although I found the film to be a lackluster production, despite some top talent such as Colin Firth, Jude Law, and Nicole Kidman, I was grateful that it inspired me to reread the book, which details Perkins' relationships with, not only Wolfe, but also Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and several others.
To a writer, Perkins was the ideal editor. When he believed in your work it didn't matter if it was a commercial success or not. He also did not limit his contacts to his office. He went out to eat with his writers, had them over socially to his house, kept up an active correspondence with them, and visited them where they were writing. In the case of Fitzgerald, he even arranged cash advances. In short, Perkins cared about his writers individually and not as commodities to be exploited.
In the movie, the director included Perkins' habit of always wearing his hat both indoors and outdoors. After a while, as a viewer, you may want to jump through the screen and knock it off his head. I was convinced that the filmmakers had made an error because during that time it was considered rude to keep your hat on indoors. But, according to the book, this idiosyncracy was correct. This is a case where too much attention to a detail became distracting.
In terms of spiritual giftings, Perkins seemed to have had a pastoral motivation. Too bad the deep caring he had for his authors could not have been supplemented with a sharing of the gospel. Two of his top talents, Fitzgerald and Wolfe, died young. Fitzgerald was an alcoholic and Wolfe died of a brain disease. Hemingway later took his own life despite winning the Nobel Prize for literature.
"What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?"
*There is some language and a brief scene of impassioned lust between Wolfe and his companion who was married. No nudity.
Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story
Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story (2011; Biography; TV Movie)
Starring: Poppy Montgomery (Unforgettable, 2011, TV Series), Emily Holmes, Janet Kidder, Antonio Cupo
Director: Paul A. Kaufman (Twist of Faith, 2013)
Writers: Jeffrey Berman, Tony Caballero
Producers: Lifetime Channel
A Literary Cinderella Story That Can Inspire You Even If Witchcraft Turns You Off
Although I believe, as a Christian, presenting witchcraft in a positive light can be spiritually harmful to children (because it could possibly cause some to dabble in the real thing) I was intrigued by what I’d heard about the creator of “Harry Potter” and her personal rise to fame. I found this TV movie, now available for streaming, very encouraging, especially being a writer myself–that things can change for the better if I stay at it and keep believing in what I am doing–and for anyone else who is stuck for a season in circumstances beyond their control.
The movie balances well the different stages of the author’s life, beginning with her as a child imagining characters in the woods with her friends and a few scenes from high school. It is easy to see where some of her Potter characters originated. At one point she asks her mom, “Am I normal? I mean I read books that nobody reads.” Just the type of activity for a person who hears the sound of a different drummer, or the one who takes the road less traveled. Though her passion is to write, her father suggests choosing a major in college that is more “practical.” Despite being at the top of her class, she is rejected by Oxford and, instead, goes to Exeter University and majors in “Languages.” After college she goes to Portugal to teach English and there meets a suave Portuguese journalist with whom she has a fiery romance (no sex scenes), gets married, and has a daughter.
Unfortunately, her husband loses his job, turns to alcohol and becomes abusive so she returns to her native England as an unemployed, single mom on public assistance. And, if that is not enough to cope with, she also has to see her mom deteriorating from MS. Yet, with the encouragement of her mom and her sister she continues to write…and the rest is history.
Overall, I found the acting by the principals convincing and the Rowling character well-played by Poppy Montgomery (Unforgettable, TV Series, 2011). It is amusing, as a viewer that knows the end of the story, to hear Rowling’s literary agent in the movie tell her on several occasions, “Don’t expect too much, children’s books usually don’t sell that well.”
From a Christian point of view, her story reminds me not to get too tied up in my own head about my situations, but to trust in the Lord with my heart and to persevere in faith.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5&6).
Unbroken (2015) PG-13
Starring: Chris O'Connell, Miyavi, Domhnall Gleeson
Writers: Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson (Screenplay), Laura Hillenbrand (book)
Director: Angelina Jolie
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Bringing a popular non-fiction book to the screen (the hardcover was over four years on the NY Times bestseller list) on the life of Louis Zamperini, the famous Olympic runner and former Japanese war prisoner, would be a major challenge for any director and screenwriter. Yet, it is too bad a screenwriter and director with more Christian sensibilities could not have done it. Randall Wallace (Braveheart and We Were Soldiers) comes to mind. But alas, not everyone has the mega bucks and the studio networking clout like Angelina Jolie.
Though Jolie does a good job on Zamperini’s boyhood and his amazing survival on the ocean, there is just too much time focused on his concentration camp experiences and the abuses he suffered there. It would have been a much more powerful movie if this part had been shortened and the film ended on the positive things that happened after the war, which included his marriage, conversion to Christianity and his many years of serving the Lord. Instead, the only references we get about his faith come at the end where you just read about them. For example, sentences like the following flash just before the end credits: Louis Zamperini chose forgiveness over revenge and he credits his faith for allowing him to escape such an ordeal. He also took a trip to Japan to be reconciled with his enemies.
Though I found the screenplay top-heavy, I enjoyed the scenes during Louis’ boyhood where his older brother Peter takes him under his wing and encourages him to go out for the track team instead of continuing on a path of youthful rebellion. I also liked the scene where his mom is praying for protection over her boy Louie and the one where Louis is watching his mom make supper.
Overall, it was a letdown for someone who enjoyed the book thoroughly and hoped for a screenplay that would give full weight to the faith Zamperini embraced after the war. Though it was heroic for him to reject the temptations to speak negatively about his country to secure comfortable conditions for himself and to defy a sadistic Japanese officer, the real beauty comes when he admits his “brokenness” and receives Christ as Savior and is able to forgive his tormentors.
“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory” (Matthew 12:20).
Nice effort but book is much better
I'm Not Ashamed
I'm Not Ashamed (2016) PG-13
Starring: Masey McClain, Ben Davies, Cameron McKendry
Writers: Philipa A. Bayens, Robin, Hanley, Kari Redmond, Bodie Thoene
Director: Brian Baugh
Distributor: Pure Flix Entertainment
I read some of the negative reviews by the national media about this movie and I beg to differ. I found this film, based on the journals of Rachel Joy Scott, the first student killed at Columbine High School, a very real portrayal of a 17-year-old girl trying to live her faith in a secular environment. For those concerned whether the movie is a heavy-duty recreation of the murders, it isn’t. In fact, the only scene from that day is at the very end when the killers come walking toward the school and shoot Rachel as she is talking with another student outside.
The film is mostly about her struggles as a Christian teen. She goes through a phase of falling for a non-Christian boy in drama club. She faces betrayal by one of her close “friends.” She slips out one night to go to a party. She recommits her life to Christ after a summer with her Christian Aunt and family. She then fleshes out her faith, not so much in words, but by showing compassion to those normally rejected by the student population. She befriends an older, homeless teen who comes to Christ and treats him like the older brother she never had.
Rachel Joy Scott, you discover, was not perfect but she was genuine…and prophetic. She spoke to her friends saying she did not think she would live past 20. For some reason, she also could not see herself being married and having a family. One of her last drawings was of a big eye with 13 teardrops (there were 13 people murdered at Columbine). To me, it’s no wonder the worldly media would pan the film. She was the real deal and her short life is an inspiration to anyone who wants to follow Christ.
"I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God" (Luke 12:8).
*It was a pleasant surprise to see that the bestselling author, Bodie Thoene, was a contributor to the screenplay.
The Shack (2017) PG-13
Starring: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Tim McGraw
Writers: John Fusco, Andrew Lanhan (screenplay), WIlliam P. Young
Director: Stuart Hazeldine
*The following review was written by guest writer Robert LaCosta from sonrisen.com.
Foreword: “The Shack” has touched tens of millions and this is particularly true for those who have lost children and loved ones and who have been devastated by life’s worst experiences.
The Plot: A man receives a handwritten invitation to meet God in the very place of his pain: a shack where his young daughter had been killed by a kidnapper. The man, who doesn’t have the faith of his wife, goes to the shack and there discovers the God that his wife knows as “Papa.” However, he must witness the kidnapping and death of his little girl in order to do so.
Review: The kidnapping takes place during the 2.3 seconds that he takes his eyes off his little one to make a heroic lifeguard-style, once-in-a-lifetime save of his son who is about to drown. I’ve run the numbers and the chances of a water-save and a kidnapping occurring at the exact same time in the exact same place are… well I ran out of zeros. Can you spell “melodrama”?
First, the production of The Shack is well done: acting, effects, etc. Secondly, it will touch many. I’ve already talked to people who have sat there and cried. But like many Christian movies, The Shack has a leaky roof… and it’s not just theology. And it is not because these tales don’t have something to say. It is because they try to say so much that the roof begins to sag from that weight and the shingles lift and, little by little, the audience goes from being dripped on to being drenched, which is a bit annoying.
It’s like the guy in church who only gets to preach once or twice a year and so he throws it all in one Sunday sermon. He’s given you some truths, but he hasn’t tied them together.
If the theme of The Shack is healing, let good enough be adequate.
If the theme of The Shack is the “Why?” of a good God allowing suffering, let’s probe that. The Book of Job does a pretty good job of staying with that singular theme.
If the theme of The Shack in a white America is that God is not Caucasian and not made in our image, let’s run down that alley.
If the theme of The Shack is that God is approachable like a kind, portly, black mom who loves to serve you a good meal and wants to hear how her son is doing, let’s sit down at that table.
If the theme of The Shack is that everything will be all right when we get to heaven, let’s definitely go there!
The Shack is bound to be a love-it or hate-it movie--either because it gets some high scores in the “grace” and “inner healing” camps, or low ones because of its universalistic-leaning theology. Young gets points for posing the questions…if only he were a bit more skilled at answering them.
This writer will leave that to Papa.
"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18).
Go see The Shack for the meat
out the bones.
Pricless (2016) PG-13
Starring: Joel Smallbone, Bianca Santos, David Koechner
Writers: Chris Dowling, Tyler Poelle
Director: Ben Smallbone
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Every person concerned about human trafficking must see this movie. As presented,
in a non-sleazy way through an engaging story, based on true events, it gets the point across--human trafficking is evil and we have to do something about it. The movie begins with James, a modern-looking young man with tattoos and an unconventional hairstyle, driving a box truck down a highway talking about his life: "We're all on a journey. A road full of delays, dead-ends. With bright and beautiful views and storm clouds and darkness, too. It seems somewhere along the way I took a wrong turn that led me to somewhere I didn't want to go. And now, I'm just trying to find my way back."
Later, we learn that James' young wife died and he was left with a deep sorrow and a young daughter that was eventually taken away from him because of his inability to hold a job. In desperation, James agrees to drive a truck across the country, with unknown cargo. He tells the one who set it up: "As long as it isn't drugs, I'll do it." At one point during the trip, however, he nods off and is rudely awakened by a loud horn blowing at him. In his confusion, he veers off the road. Shaken, he gets out and walks behind the truck. He hears whimpering from inside the box. He breaks the lock with a tire iron and discovers two, Mexican, young sisters--Antonia and Maria.
Antonia tells him that they are going to work as maids and waitresses to pay off a debt their father had accumulated. He invites them to ride with him in the cab. He stops at a rest stop so they can clean up and he generously buys them new dresses and a hamburger lunch. When he arrives at the drop-off point, however, he sees what is really happening. He meets a motel owner, Dale, who challenges him to listen to what a small voice in his head is telling him to do.
I was pleasantly surprised with the quality acting, story line, and emotional power of this independent Christian film. See it and by all means...and let's do something.
*Please consider supporting Shared Hope International, which was founded by the former member of Congress, Linda Smith. Visit their website at: www.sharedhope.org.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" (Edmund Burke).
"Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Proverbs 30:8 & 9).
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace (2018) PG
Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie
Writers: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
Director: Debra Granik
Distributor: Bleecker Street Media
When you meet Will and "Tom," his daughter, camping out in a state park in Oregon you see they work well together to survive--whether it be gathering edible mushrooms, conserving rain water in receptacles, or practicing escape routes and hiding in the forest. At first, you may think that Tom is a very compliant child since she is soft-spoken and respects her dad but soon it becomes evident that this story is not really about her dad, an emotionally wounded ex-marine, but more about Tom's coming of age in terms of her thinking and acting independently.
For example, at one point while Will is trying to light a fire with two flint stones, she suddenly announces, "I'm hungry," and starts up their propane grill despite Will's protests that it will cost more money. Next, when Tom finds a necklace on a path she is excited about it but her father says to leave it on the trail in the open with the idea that if someone comes back looking for it they would find it. Tom agrees with him but then, when his back is turned, she kicks some dirt over it with her shoe so she can get it on the return trip. Later, she does the unthinkable. A person either hears her or sees her and yells out: "Is anybody there?" several times, but Tom does not tell her father about it. Later, rangers appear with scent-sniffing hounds and find them rather easily. They are handed over to Social Services and the interrogations begin. To Tom: "Did your father touch you inappropriately at any time?" Tom: "No. Never." To Will: "Please answer all these questions to the best of your ability on the computer."
The authorities decide to let them live together in a small house on a Christmas tree farm. Will quickly puts the TV in a closet and looks ill at ease in such a comfortable dwelling. While he is working with the trees, Tom goes out unaccompanied and runs into a young man and starts to talk with him. He shows her his rabbit and invites her to a 4-H club meeting. She is thrilled and stays out later than expected, which Will finds excruciatingly painful and scary. Tom, however, enjoys the new experiences and is interested in everyone. When a boy on a bus starts making weird faces and taking "selfies" Tom watches bewildered--a comical commentary on contemporary culture.
They even go to church at one point and Tom seems intrigued by the Christian literature they are given: "Hey Dad, says here God created frogs!" Will responds skeptically, "Says who?" Soon, Will has had enough and craves his solitude and isolation in the great outdoors. He tells Tom to come and they leave secretly. Without giving away any more of the plot, the climax of the movie comes when Tom finally expresses what she has been feeling for quite some time: "What's wrong with you is not wrong with me."
Beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted, Leave No Trace tackles a difficult theme: What does a a young woman do when a loved, but emotionally disturbed father, threatens to suck her into his own vortex of torment and social suicide?
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).
Din is a popular choice on business and tech sites. It’s also a good font for creating page titles with impact.
L Made in Italy
Made in Italy (2020) R
Starring: Liam Neeson, Micheal Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Yolanda Kettle
Writer: James D'Arcy
Director: James D'Arcy
Distributor: IFC Films
Let's start off with a couple of corrections. This movie is not a comedy but rather a dramedy leaning more toward drama than comedy with some light romantic moments. Hence, I would have rated it PG-13, not an R, for language--a tad too many F-bombs.
What makes this movie particularly intriguing, however, is to see Liam Neeson sharing the spotlight with his real-life son, Micheal Richardson. The story is also not far from what each of them experienced--the death of a wife for Neeson and a mother for Richardson (Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident in 2009 after being married to Neeson for 15 years).
In this film, we discover early on that Robert (Neeson) and Jack (Micheal), a father and son, are estranged after the tragic death of the beautiful Raffaella--wife and mother respectively. Robert was an up and coming artist before his wife's death but found it hard to paint after she died. He sends his son to boarding school because he can't handle the pain. Twenty years later Robert is still struggling, so much so he cannot even remember the name of a woman with whom he spent the night.
The movie picks up as Jack, now in this thirties, is desperate to keep the art gallery that he has been running with his wife, Ruth. Ruth wants out of their marriage and the gallery, and her family wants to sell it since it belongs to them. Jack, however, loves the gallery and thinks he can come up with the cash to buy it himself. His plan is to convince his father to sell their mutually owned villa in Tuscany, Italy.
The challenges begin when Robert and Jack arrive at the old villa and discover it needs a lot of work--symbolic perhaps of their relationship. Varmits inhabit the place, adding a comedic element, and they must employ locals to extricate the animal. Eventually, deep-rooted emotions come to the surface regarding Robert's neglect of his son and he finally admits to Jack his wrongdoing in a powerful scene of repentance and reconciliation.
Earlier in the film, Jack loiters down to the local business district and accidentally falls over some tables at a restaurant. Enter Nathalia, a beautiful young Italian woman who owns the eatery. "May I help you knock over more tables?" she asks with a smile in perfect English. She offers him a hand to help him up and then invites him into the restaurant for a plate of her delicious pasta. They share about their lives and a spark ignites.
Meanwhile, as the old villa recovers its charm, Robert is less and less inclined to sell it. Jack just sees it as a means to an end. Will this house then sour their new father and son relationship and will Jack have to seek another job when he returns to the states? Also, will Nathalia and Jack work things out despite the fact Nathalia has a young daughter and an ex-husband on the loose?
My biggest disappointment with the movie was the language. Otherwise, it is entertaining with a poignant theme of reconciliation with light romantic/amusing scenes and a fine cast with beautiful shots of the Italian countryside.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse" (Malachi 4:5 & 6 NKJV).
The Queen's GambitW
The Queen's Gambit (2020) TV MA
Netflix mini-series (7 episodes)
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Moses Ingram, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Marielle Heller
Writers: Scott Frank, Allan Scott, Walter Trevis (based on his novel by the same title that was published in 1983)
Director: Scott Frank
* Disclaimer: Description of some objectional scenes
In many artistic ways this dramatic mini-series has a lot going for it, but it also has some troubling elements, of which Christians should be aware.
First the positive. The cast was well-chosen. The lead role of the older Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, was an excellent choice to play a chess prodigy. Taylor-Joy exudes an aloofness, both innocent and defiant, a model's pouty coldness, while, at the same time, convincingly portrays an addicted, gifted young girl with a deep need for love and acceptance.
Other outstanding actors in the series include: Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Maze Runner, Love Actually) as the young rogue-type U.S. Chess champion, Benny Watts. He shows his eccentricity by wearing long leather coats and a leather cowboy hat; Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley, Beth's adoptive mother, who plays a love-scorned, middle-aged, alcoholic woman who pushes Beth to pursue her dream while they both enjoy the perks of fame and fortune; Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel, the taciturn janitor at the orphanage who teaches Beth how to play chess; and Jolene, the black girl at the orphanage who befriends Beth and shows her the ropes of survival when they are young girls only to reappear later in Beth's life to offer key support.
The depiction of the '60s through dress, music, and city scenes evokes well the time period. Also, as a chess player myself, it was refreshing to see legitimate games being played. It was a wise move (forgive the pun) to use former Russian chess champion, Garry Kasparov, as a consultant for the episodes. Nothing undermines the credibility of a chess game in film more than seeing the chess pieces in the wrong positions or random moves unrelated to actual play.
In terms of the story line, some of the positive takeaways are: Beth has friends who are not afraid to confront her about her addictions and to warn her of the likely consequences; Beth begins to make positive steps to a healthier lifestyle; Beth is loyal to her friends (for example she is disturbed that Mr. Shaibel is not mentioned in a magazine article about her) and she deeply cares about her friends and adoptive mother.
On the negative side, there are no warnings of the sexual/sensual scenes in the series by Netflix. Each episode only says TV MA (for mature audiences) and "Substances, language, and smoking." Yet, there are several scenes that would fit into these categories. One occurs when Beth is a new student at a high school and she sees a boy groping a girl (hand going up her sweater to her breast) in the library.
There is another when she is older and goes to a party, sees a candle in the form of male genitalia, and winds up having simulated sex with a boy from her Russian class. Again, no nudity but the boy is shown fully clothed on top of her and her dress is opened showing her bra. Clearly, Beth did not enjoy the experience because she says to the boy, "Is it over yet?"
Later, she has another encounter and quips, "So, that's how it is supposed to be." Other scenes also show her in her underwear as she binges on alcohol. Toward the end of the series it is also implied that she's had a fling with a woman. Nothing is shown but you see clearly that the woman Beth was partying with the night before slept in her bed: there is a shot of the woman's head and then her face turning from underneath the covers as Beth gets up the next morning.
As it relates to Christianity, it is in-your-face anti-Christian. The bias starts out more subtly with a staff member of the "Christian" orphanage giving daily tranquilizer pills to the orphans. As a result, Beth eventually becomes addicted as a nine year old that continues into her young adulthood. Beth also skips the chapel services to play chess with the janitor in the basement.
This negative view of Christianity is seen much clearer at the end of the series when a Christian organization wants to sponsor Beth's trip to Moscow for a tournament. When two old ladies tell her that they'd like her to say something publicly about her faith (they wrongly assume because she went to the Christian orphanage that she is a Christian) she tells them flat out, "I don't believe that nonsense." Her friend, Benny Watts, tells her, "Take the money," but Beth gives the money back--a more honest decision, given she is not a believer.
Overall, the philosophy of the series appears to be atheistic humanism. In other words, Beth is basically a good person who triumphs both in chess and life through the help of her friends and family, her innate chess talent, and her resiliency to overcome anything life throws at her.
If they had scrubbed the sex and sensual scenes, omitted the crass language, and cut out all the anti-Christian bias, I could have rated this series very highly.
"The fool says in his heart, 'there is no God'" (Psalms 14:1).
The English Game
The English Game (2020) TV-14
Mini-series of six episodes
Starring: Edward Holcroft, Kevin Guthrie, Charlotte Hope, Niamh Walsh, and James Harkness
Writers: Julian Fellowes, Richard Barber, Tony Charles, Oliver Cotton, Edward Charlton
Directors: Tim Fywell, Birgitte Staermose
At first glance, you may think this is only a movie about soccer, but it is much, much more. It is about the origins of this most popular sport, which started among England's elite and gradually expanded to include the working classes, and then to the rest of the world. It's about families looking out for one another; it's about loyalty; friendship; romance; loss; forgiveness; persevering when it hurts; understanding people who are different from you; and telling the truth despite the cost.
The first episode begins when a factory supervisor, James Walsh (Craig Parkinson) makes a radical decision--he hires "professional" football players (or "soccer" players for Americans) to join his working class team of Darwen so they can compete with the upper class team that has been dominating the sport. Fergus Stuter (Kevin Guthrie) and Jimmy Love (James Harkness) have made names for themselves on their former team in Glasgow, Scotland and are excited to get paid for playing the sport they love, and challenge the "Old Etonians" for the national cup. Fergie also has a secret reason to play for money.
Things do not start out well, however, with Fergie's and Jimmy's new team. The captain of the team resents the fact the new players are paid to play, while the rest of them play voluntarily. He also knows it is plainly against the rules to get paid, and even if they did win, they could be disqualified because they broke the rules. Yet, Walsh is convinced the playing field is not level given the fact that the Old Etonians are mostly wealthy gentlemen who do not need to work and can always put in extra time to train while his team has to work long hours just to put food on the table.
Throughout the series, the contrast between the two teams is evident. For example, the poor team is often shown at the local pub drinking beer and being boisterous while the aristocratic team is usually seen in formal attire quietly conversing around Arthur Kinnaird's elegant dining room table sipping wine.
In regards to Christian values, some "Christian" characters display condemning tones with a pregnant young girl in one scene at a non-profit organization. Alma Kinnaird (the wife of the captain of the Old Etonians), however, comes to the girl's defense to confirm that the girl quoted the verse from the Bible accurately--that "God demonstrates his own love for us in this; while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Alma later shows Christian compassion by risking her reputation and physical safety to help this woman. Other characters throughout the series also demonstrate Christian principals by asking forgiveness for their actions and showing repentant attitudes.
I have no qualms recommending this series. The character arcs of the main actors are satisfying, the cinematology is excellent, the story is based on history, and the struggles are realistic and applicable today.*
*Be aware that there are several drinking scenes with people getting drunk, a male character sleeping with a woman before marriage (only alluded to and not shown--he does marry her eventually) a few coarse words, alcohol addiction shown through Fergie's father, a riot, and a few English words in the dialogue that may have you running to the dictionary (or Google). I also found it odd that one of the Old Etonians was named "Monkey" with no explanation.
"Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation--since they will pass away like a wild flower" (James 1: 9-10).