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Christianity Today Movie Reviews

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Review: Joy



The film is uneven, but Joy knows just who she is.

mpaa rating:PG-13 (For brief strong language.)

Genre:Drama

Directed By: David O. Russell

Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramírez

Theatre Release:December 25, 2015 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The text at the beginning of Joy, the latest film from director David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook), says it is “inspired by the true stories of daring women . . . one in particular.”

That “one” is Joy Mangano, played here by Jennifer Lawrence, who is always fun to watch and certainly holds the film together. The character and her story are based on Mangano’s true story of inventing the Magic Mop, hawking it on the still-new QVC, and overcoming difficulty to become a business mogul able to support other inventors and entrepreneurs.

Russell makes weird and frenetic movies that aren’t to everyone’s taste. They lurch around a bit and at times seem more infatuated with style than substance or coherence. That shows up again in Joy, which is narrated by Joy’s grandmother (Diane Ladd) and includes a montage introduction and a couple early black-and-white scenes from a melodrama, shot in soap opera style. Soon we segue into a whirling-dervish madcap romp through Joy’s house, with Joy as the axis, populated by a motley crew of relatives: Joy’s two children and her grandmother Mimi; Joy's ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), an aspiring singer who still lives in the basement long after the divorce; her mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen), who stays in bed and watches soap operas; her father Rudy (Robert De Niro, another Russell regular), who’s moving back in after his latest split—though he’ll have to share space with his ex-son-in-law, whom he sometimes-cordially hates. (Good thing he swiftly finds a new girlfriend in Trudy, played by Isabella Rossellini.) The family also includes Joy’s half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm), who ...

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Review: The Revenant



In the 1820s frontier wilderness, survival is a bear.

mpaa rating:R (For strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.)

Genre:Drama, Western

Directed By: Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Run Time: 2 hours 36 minutes

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter

Theatre Release:January 08, 2016 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

One of the memorable (and most talked about) scenes in The Revenant is an epic fight between Leonardo DiCaprio and a grizzly bear. The bloody brawl occurs early in the film and is the plot’s inciting incident. Gravely injured by the bear, 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is left for dead by his fellow hunters/fur-traders and must survive in the wilderness in the dead of winter.

As if it wasn’t already hard enough to survive the Pawnee tomahawks and arrows, subzero temperatures, blizzards, dehydration, and treacherous men within his own group (most notably Tom Hardy’s villainous character Fitzgerald), Glass must do it all having been maimed, mauled, and flayed by a bear.

But the death match with the bear is also thematically significant, as it sets up the film’s existential grappling with the meaning of humankind as unique (or not) among the creatures of the earth. What makes a man different from a bear? In their brutal fight, Glass and grizzly are evenly matched. Their fight is mirrored later in the film by a human-on-human blood bout that is no less savage and similarly choreographed.

Throughout the film, as he survives alone in the wilderness, Glass is purposely made to look and act like a bear. He wraps himself in bear fur as a coat and crawls along the ground. He grabs fish directly from a mountain river and takes bites out of them. He devours flesh directly from the carcass of a buffalo. His most elemental instinct is to protect his young.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, fresh off an Academy Award for a film where a man has fantasies of being bird-like (Birdman), this time explores a story that may as well be called Bearman. (Read our exclusive interview ...

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Review: Concussion



Hollywood tries to turn a clash between science and a powerful institution into an immigrant doctor's "such a time as this."

mpaa rating:PG-13 (For thematic material including some disturbing images, and language.)

Genre:Drama, Sports

Directed By: Peter Landesman

Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Theatre Release:December 25, 2015 by Columbia Pictures

Concussion tries to achieve the depth and stakes of the Biblical story of Esther, without quite enough unchecked power or genocide to support the claim.

The movie is based on real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of the danger of repeated brain trauma sustained by professional football players and his battle to publicize that danger. Omalu (played in the movie by Will Smith) is an immigrant from Nigeria with a stellar resume who works as a pathologist at a coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. Before every autopsy, Omalu asks the corpses to help him tell their story.

“The dead are my patients,” he explains.

That is how he approaches the body of Mike Webster, former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster was a football icon and Pittsburgh’s “favorite son.” He died of an apparent heart attack, but was also living in a car, super gluing his teeth together, and making himself sleep by self-applying a taser. But instead of putting pressure on Omalu to figure out what happened to Webster, most people seem to want him to revere the body by leaving it alone. This is not how Omalu understands his duty to the dead; fortunately his boss agrees.

This kicks off an investigation that turns into a personal quest to understand what drove Webster mad. It turns out Webster follows a pattern of other former Steelers players who died by suicide or in odd circumstances. Omalu’s quest to understand meets resistance at every turn. Apparently, no one else is brave enough to ask “why?”

The movie tries to create a sense of crushing opposition and a vast conspiracy involving a huge corporation, state government officials, and violent fans that are out to get Omalu, his career, ...

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Review: 45 Years



When the ground beneath a marriage is shaken, can it hold up?

mpaa rating:R (For language and brief sexuality.)

Genre:Drama

Directed By: Andrew Haigh

Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells

Theatre Release:August 28, 2015 by Sundance Selects

Much about 45 Years makes it clear that it’s adapted from a short story, but nothing more than the moment when Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is surveying the hall in which she intends to host her 45th wedding anniversary party at the end of the week. “So full of history, you see?” says the man showing her the room, which after the English fashion is old and stately. “Like a good marriage.” That line is a cipher for the story, the thread you tug and hold your breath to see if the whole thing will unravel.

Kate and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are just on the cusp of old age, retired but well-off and childless and still very fond of one another. The film takes place over the week leading up to their anniversary celebration, and it’s filled with the quiet shorthand that long-married couples use with one another, with a constant classical music backdrop. For much of the film, director Andrew Haight contrasts very wide shots of the fields and landscapes around Kate and Geoff’s house with beautifully-lit interior shots, often through doorframes, in nearly every room of the house. It's as if we’re seeing everywhere they’ve invested with their lives before the storm hits.

And hit it does, though you might almost miss it if you aren’t paying attention to their faces. Geoff receives a letter one morning that, despite his rusty German, he realizes carries startling news: in Switzerland, buried beneath ice, his former girlfriend Katya—who fell and disappeared before he even met Kate—has been found. Katya and Geoff had been pretending to be married to make travel easier, so he’s listed as her next of kin. Would he be able to come identify the body? ...

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Review: Sisters



Good for fans of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but not for much else.

mpaa rating:R (For crude sexual content and language throughout, and for drug use.)

Genre:Comedy

Directed By: Jason Moore

Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

Cast: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz

Theatre Release:December 18, 2015 by Universal Pictures

This is a great movie for fans of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler who are OK with laughing until they cry at dirty jokes that have no right being that funny. Anybody who’s just one, the other, or neither, should probably steer clear and go see Star Wars.

For those of you left in that small camp, you’ve hit a gold mine. Sisters is hilarious in all the worst ways, one of those movies you feel bad for laughing so hard at and enjoying so much. Maybe that’s what makes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in combo so good - they can land some of the nastiest punchlines by making them feel as awkwardly spontaneous as crude jokes should. That chemistry is the most significant thing about the film. The story could be a lot worse, but any movie that bookends an hour-long party plot with brief sympathy-building scenes could be better.

Tina and Amy play to their strength of playing off each other as polar-opposite sisters Kate (Fey) and Maura (Poehler). Kate is a struggling single mom running a beauty salon out of her friend’s bathroom. Maura is a well-off divorcee who works as a nurse and spends her free time handing out sunscreen and homemade proverb cards to homeless people. Their retiring parents call Maura to hesitantly reveal the news that they’re selling their family home and need the girls to come clean out their rooms. They don’t want to tell Kate themselves, knowing she’ll overreact, and leave it to Maura.

Maura also opts out of this responsibility, instead submitting her more austere personality to her sister’s exuberance. On their loud drive to the house, they stop off for beer, flirt with the handyman, James (Ike Barinholtz), across the street, and blare their music. This early party ...

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Sectarian Cinema: Oscars Highlight Muslim Defense of Persecuted Christians



Watu Wote joins other films attempting what African sermons cannot.

Two years ago, the heroic actions of some Kenyan Muslims brought their majority-Christian nation together. The Oscar-nominated film depiction of that heroism may do so again—if many people watch.

Watu Wote is a fictional retelling of real-life horror. In December 2015, al-Shabaab terrorists stormed a bus headed toward the border with Somalia and demanded Christian passengers separate for targeted execution. Muslim passengers responded, “If you want to kill us, then kill us. There are no Christians here.” The Christian women were given hijabs to wear, while the Christian men were hidden behind bags.

They knew the danger. One year earlier in a similar bus attack, Muslim militants killed 28 Christians who failed to correctly say the Islamic creed.

Filmed on location in Swahili and Somali, the 22-minute film was nominated for the Live Action Short Film category at the 90th Academy Awards.

“The film captures an issue close to Kenyan hearts, that apart from religious differences, we are all Kenyan,” said Timothy Ranji, bishop of the Anglican diocese of Mt. Kenya South. “The downside is that it will be watched by very few Kenyans.”

Access to film is limited in Kenya. The nation ranks 77th worldwide in terms of cinemas per capita, according to UN data. Radio is a far more effective means of communication in the East African nation, Ranji said.

And some, like William Black, may choose not to watch it. “The movie tells a good story, I’m sure,” said the American Orthodox missionary and professor at St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. “But it hits too close to home.”

Black believes that terrorists want to push Kenya to the tipping point. “The narrow focus ...

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Interview: Pete Holmes: Believing in God Gave Me Hope as Comic



In his new HBO show 'Crashing,' the former evangelical winks to Christian fans.

If Pete Holmes’s HBO series Crashing is his love letter to comedy, the church at least gets a tender PS.

Inspired by Holmes’s life and evangelical background, the show follows a nice Christian guy who’s trying to make it in standup after his divorce leaves him dumbstruck and homeless. Episode to episode, his character crashes with Sarah Silverman, Artie Lange, T. J. Miller, and other comics he meets while grappling with the brutal New York comedy scene and his quarter-life crisis.

Fans will not be surprised that Holmes’s series, complete with tracks from Joel Osteen sermons and Jars of Clay CDs, puts faith at the forefront. Even though he’s no longer an evangelical, he can’t resist talking about God. Religion constantly comes up in his popular podcast, You Made It Weird. On Crashing—which he produces with Judd Apatow—the TV version of Holmes makes for a likeably, laughably naïve protagonist; he stands by his clean comedy, owns up to being a “God guy,” and explains to his new buddies why he and his ex waited to have sex until marriage.

These days, Holmes, 38, draws inspiration from contemplative Catholic Richard Rohr, spiritualist Ram Dass, and pastor Rob Bell, now one of his best friends. The two go on tour together, and Bell prompted Holmes’s newest project: a book about God.

While his churchgoing days may be behind him, the Los Angeles comic considers himself “a Christ-leaning spiritual seeker” who finds new meaning in the Christian vocabulary and stories with which he was raised. CT online editor Kate Shellnutt talked to Holmes about his new show and the intersection between his faith and his comedy.

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Commentary: What ‘Black Panther’ Means for Christians



This celebration of black culture and black success points to a bigger story for the church.

A while ago, I stopped watching a certain type of black movie.

In the wake of the black suffering that I saw in real life, I didn’t want to see another black slave scene. I didn’t want the water hoses of Alabama to once again wreck my hopes. I didn’t want to see us integrate another school, sports team, or profession despite the overwhelming odds. I didn’t avoid these films because I was ashamed of our history, but because my soul needed rest.

The film Black Panther presented itself differently. It did not set out to highlight black suffering, but black achievement. Furthermore, it was black achievement in a black context. For black people, this was a film for us, by us, and about us.

The Marvel movie—set in a fictional, futuristic African country (Wakanda) and featuring an African and African American cast—has even inspired black viewers to come to the movie dressed in traditional African clothing.

This response might seem excessive, but given the history of cinema, the chance to center the black experience outside of the setting of extreme poverty is no small thing. Black audiences are celebrating the vision for a bigger story for black boys and girls; their support is a call to attend to the whole of black life and culture.

American evangelicals might look to Black Panther as a starting point for dialogue and reflection as they increasingly address concerns about diversity, reconciliation, and representation in their churches and the church at large.

This movie milestone exemplifies how deeply we as a people want to be our whole black selves and tell our whole stories. We resist the expectation that we must conform to cultural norms in order to be accepted in white spaces, including evangelical ...

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