CGB Review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

A new era of magic has begun, my lovelies, and it starts in the American wizarding world!

This is my review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them!

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A prequel to the Harry Potter mega-franchise, Fantastic Beasts follows the misadventures of Newt Scamander, a writer who has come to New York with a suitcase full of–well, take a guess–fantastic beasts!  When one of his, let’s call them, “pets” escapes, Newt is taken into wizard custody by Porpentina, or “Tina” for short, Goldstein, an ex-auror with some skeletons in her closet, only for the two of them to end up working together to find the missing mystical beasts.  Along the way, Newt and Tina are assisted by Tina’s sister Queenie and a No-Maj (non-magical human) named Jacob Kowalski.

The Hits
I really love the concept of visiting the American wizarding world.  Having grown up watching the Harry Potter films, I always assumed that the wizarding world only took place in England, so I like that the wizarding world is an international affair.  It brings variety and furthers the intrigue of an already-complex society.
The titular fantastic beasts themselves are not lacking in creativity.  Each creature is uniquely designed and belongs to its own group of species, making them easy to differentiate amidst the fast-paced action sequences.
Eddie Redmayne, it’s always good to see you in a flick.  In fact, I just realized that this is the third Eddie Redmayne movie that I’ve reviewed (see The Theory of Everything and the Danish Girl).  While the role of Newt Scamander is not as demanding or multi-layered as Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything) or Lili Elbe/Einar Wegener (The Danish Girl), Redmayne does deliver an enjoyable performance as he brings a quirky charm to the character of Newt.  I like his chemistry with Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, who–I gotta say–looks a lot like a grown-up Ofelia from Pan’s Labyrinth.  Alas, that’s where the comparisons end because where Ofelia is innocent and troubled, Tina Goldstein is a grounded and anxious professional.  She clearly wants her Auror job back, but must work within her current boundaries, all while doing what she knows is right even if it goes against the grain.
The real show-stealer is Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler)!  This guy is hilarious!  His well-timed expressions and dim-witted personality make him a delight to watch.   I like how he’s dense, but not a complete buffoon.  He has a good heart and steps up when things that are important are on the line.

The Misses
It may take some time getting used to not seeing Harry, Ron and Hermione running around.  While Newt, Tina, Kowalski and Queenie have their own charm and personalities, the absence of the original HP trio will be noticed.
The rapport between Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and Credence (Ezra Miller from We Need to Talk about Kevin) is intriguing, but comes out of nowhere.  I like the concept of their toxic relationship, but when we’re first introduced to their camaraderie, we see Graves going into an alleyway and chatting with a tearful Credence without any previous buildup; it’s a shaky and jarring transition that I feel could’ve been polished with some brief, earlier interactions between the two characters.

I am delighted to say that Fantastic Beasts is, indeed, a fantastic introduction to the American wizarding world!  Awesome characters, exciting action and the same phenomenal world-building that made the Harry Potter saga a modern classic helps Fantastic Beasts to both stand alone and be a welcome addition to the Harry Potter franchise.

Saint Colette of Corbie, pray for us.

 

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CGB Review of Arrival (2016)

Why are they here?
Well, I won’t give away the answer, but I am here to tell you that one of the best films of 2016 has arrived!

This is my review of Arrival!

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Freaky alien ships have arrived–no pun intended–on Earth with each pod landing in twelve different countries, including the US of A.  Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a renowned linguist who has been selected by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to lead a team of investigators and “interview” the alien species.  Given that language is her passion, Louise is determined to understand their speech patterns in order to get them to understand human language and context.  Diplomacy becomes a tricky road as China and other global superpowers threaten to take action against these beings they do not understand.  Louise and Ian (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, who by all calculations (again, no pun intended), has his sights set on the fair-minded linguist, must race against the clock to prevent World War III with the aliens.

Guys and gals, I saw this film yesterday and I am still thinking about it.  I have told my classmates, co-workers and my family to go see this intelligent, mind-bending film and I am here to convince you to go see it, as well!

The Hits
The story is expertly crafted from beginning to end.  It is neither overly-complicated nor insultingly dumbed-down; it provides plenty of symbolism and clues, but it also allows you to do the thinking for yourself.  I love how this film is not about lasers or explosions, but keeps its attention set on the very realistic scenarios of international negotiations and relations between worldly (and in this case, otherworldly) powers.  Granted, this movie certainly isn’t going to teach you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about international politics, but in terms of getting an idea of how it works, this movie serves as a good analogy.  The musical score is the best I’ve heard since the Imitation Game soundtrack and the very first shot of the alien pod ship is rightfully deserving of all the praise as a great achievement in cinematography that it has received.
Amy Adams has come a long way from her start as Princess Giselle from Enchanted.  Adams is mesmerizing as Louise.  Her vulnerable performance brings to life a logical and independent-minded woman who is seeking to understand without guile.  Characters who are essentially pure of heart can be hard to write, but Adams provides Louise with a grounded humanity to balance out the character’s cut-above nature.
Much like Miracles from Heaven, the characters in this film actually act like human beings.  Forest Whitaker’s Colonel Weber and the other military members are in a difficult situation and their reactions are made understandable to the audience.  This isn’t the “progressive-linguist-fighting-against-big-bad-rigid-establishment” kind of story; all the players involved are presented in a humanistic manner, doing what they know to do in a muddy waters of negotiations with global leaders and inter terrestrials.
Going back to the masterful storytelling, Arrival is a sci-fi psychodrama, being both plot-driven and character-driven.  The sci-fi elements are interwoven with the engaging character study of Louise and her own immersion into the aliens’ language.
One more thing: I’ve only seeing three of Denis Villeneuve films (Prisoners, Sicario and now Arrival) and I am so happy to say that this one is the easiest to watch!  I say that because Prisoners left me reeling for a week and Sicario did not help me get to sleep after I saw it.

The Misses
I’m honestly at a loss in terms of any glaring misses, but I guess if you are looking for lightsaber duels and galactic explosions, just wait until Rogue One comes out or watch the first Independence Day (NOT the crummy sequel that came out and bombed in the middle of this year).  Between this, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014) and Sicario (2015), Denis Villeneuve is an artsy-thinkpiece kind of filmmaker.  Look elsewhere for mindless entertainment, my lovely friends.

Very rarely has a film actually had me thinking about time, language, space and how our world works.  Arrival made me really ponder time and language, and how they are linked. Time is a pattern of day and night, while language is a pattern of communication, the structure of words.  As I drove home, I began to think about how God set these things to work in order so that all things can move smoothly forward.  All things must occur in a patterned order to prevent catastrophe.  Dare I say, in the strangest way, Arrival has increased my appreciation for God as the author of life, the linguist, the mathematician, the painter, the architect, the Creator of all things that are and are to come. While the movie itself doesn’t outright mention God, it would not be far-fetched to say that His hand was present within the pages of the screenplay.
When a movie can challenge you to stop and think about the world around you, that is the mark of a great film.
That was my experience with Arrival; it may not end up being yours, but see this wonderfully-acted, well-written film for yourself.  You just might get something out of it.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

CGB Review of Doctor Strange

As the election results have shown us, life can be stranger than fiction.

This is my review of Doctor Strange!

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Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a successful but arrogant surgeon whose career ends after a terrible car accident practically destroys his hands.  After speaking with a formerly-paralyzed man who has since been completely healed, Doctor Strange journeys to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and finds himself getting swooped in to a mystical battle with dark forces led by the sinister Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).

The Hits
Holy cow, the visuals are INCREDIBLE!  The battle sequences are truly a sight to behold.  I love the idea that these mystic warriors actually bend time and physical space in order to do battle.  The reality-bending is just so COOL!  I like how it’s not all shaky-cam and impossible to see what’s going on.  The spells cast are bright and colorful, the fight choreography is smooth and well-paced, and the battles themselves are brimming with imagination.  This is one of the rare films where the 3D enhances the experience and isn’t just a nauseating gimmick.  You’ll still enjoy it in 2D, but if you are thinking of seeing it in 3D, then DO IT!  Of course, if you are concerned about cyber sickness, then here’s my review of The Walk, where I offer tips and tricks on how to prevent cyber sickness:  https://catholicgirlbloggin.net/2015/10/11/cgb-review-of-the-walk-2015/
Benedict Cumberbatch has yet to disappoint me.  I think it’s been established that you could cast this guy as a lampshade and he would still give a great performance.  While the role of Stephen Strange himself is not entirely compelling, Cumberbatch has the time of his life with this character.  He makes Stephen Strange arrogant but likable; his sense of self-importance doesn’t harm anyone, it only makes it satisfying when the movie allows him to get his humbling comeuppance.  The movie has an awesome moral about humbling yourself for something greater, which is Christianity in a nutshell.
Tilda Swinton is another actor who can do no wrong (in movies, I mean).  She brings a complexity to her character The Ancient One.  Yeah, she’s basically a tall, female Yoda, but Swinton gives a grounded performance that enables her to make the role her own.
I’m sorry, I just can’t get over how much I LOVE the mythology of this world!  There’s a line where one character says (I’m going to paraphrase here), “The Avengers protect the physical world, while we fight off more mystical dangers.”  It made me think of the battles that take place in the spiritual realm where angels and saints fight for us against sinister forces.  In our secular world, it’s refreshing to see any big budget film embrace the idea that there is an invisible reality within our physical world where two opposing forces do battle for our souls.   Also I appreciate how Kaecilius is basically a discount Lucifer (a powerful being who becomes drunk with pride, wants more power and causes division in his wake); yeah, the similarities are there.
I don’t want to go into spoilers, but I’ll just say that how Doctor Strange defeats the main antagonist is quite clever and fun to watch.

The Misses
The relationship between Doctor Strange and his (ex-girlfriend-ish?) Christine Palmer is underdeveloped.  I’m glad that it’s a mostly platonic relationship, but they don’t have enough scenes together where we get to care for them as a couple.
Okay, so the Ancient One runs this whole mystic, inter-dimensional operation with Mordo, Wong and…a handful of other people?  Yeah, even though we do see other sorcerers training, when the actual fighting starts, we only see Ancient One, Mordo and maybe two other unnamed characters doing battle.  I kind of wish both the Ancient One’s group and Kaecilius’ gang had more members.

Overall, I really love Doctor Strange!  Benedict Cumberbatch alone makes it a must-see, but the creative and energetic battle sequences and the clever use of 3D makes even more worthwhile.  Like Kubo and the Two Strings, the story and the visuals enable Doctor Strange to stand tall and proud in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Saint Timothy, pray for us.

CGB Review of Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

“Everyone has a conscience and must follow it.”
–Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta

This is my review of Hacksaw Ridge!

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Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of my new favorite American hero, Desmond Doss, a medic during World War II who, influenced by his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, refused to use and even touch a gun, instead choosing to save as many wounded soldiers as he could.  He would later go on to become the first Conscientious Objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Hits
Andrew Garfield–wow, man–I have grossly underestimated you.  With a thoughtful performance, Garfield portrays Desmond Doss as, essentially, a real-life Captain America; brave but vulnerable, noble and flawed, and grounded in his convictions.  I’d also like to add that this is a balanced portrayal of a Christian character.  Often times, a mistake that is typically made in Pure Flix films (both the God’s Not Dead flicks and, to an extent, Do You Believe?) is a Christian character is all good simply because they wear the Christian label.  Hacksaw Ridge allows Desmond to be a three-dimensional human being who is a pacifist and a devout Christian.  I really appreciate that this movie doesn’t have him convert anybody because let’s be honest: That’s just not how life works, especially in our cynical, secular society.  Desmond doesn’t convert anyone to his way of thinking, but he does rightfully earn the respect and admiration of his peers simply for staying true to who he is.
Also, kudos to Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington, both of whom actually deliver pretty darn good performances, especially Vaughn, who I’ve only seen in crummy comedies.  Hugo Weaving does a great job too, but then again, of course he would.  I have yet to see a subpar performance from him.
This movie handles subtlety masterfully.  Elements of Desmond’s past are revealed through quick but well-placed flashbacks that are intercut with present day.  There is one particular flashback that explains his no-guns philosophy, but it’s not shoved down your throat; it only shows up three times and it makes everything come full circle once Desmond himself explains it to another character.
In an election year where many people had to wrestle with their conscience at the voting booth, Desmond Doss is living proof that you can obey your conscience and remain loyal to it through thick and thin.  Is it incredibly difficult to do so?  Absolutely.  Is it impossible?  No.  Desmond Doss is a witness to standing your ground and not being shaken when the storm comes.

The Misses
Okay, there’s one elephant in the room that needs to be addressed: There’s a scene in the climax where Desmond actually KICKS a grenade away from a fellow soldier.  Yeah…that’s stretching it a bit thin, don’t you think?  Look, I already know he’s a hero; you don’t need to have him roundhouse-kick a grenade to further prove that.
Admittedly, parts of the story are cliché.  There is a “rogue little guy versus big bad establishment” undertone of the film, but that’s to be expected given the nature of the story.  They try to make a villain out of Luke Bracey’s character Smitty Riker, but from his very first scene you already know what his character arch is going to be; he doesn’t like Desmond, then he really doesn’t like Desmond.  Desmond saves Smitty, Smitty is (emotionally) disarmed and the two become friends.  That’s not a spoiler, by the way; it’s just really predictable.

Guys and gals, I really hope that Hacksaw Ridge gets nominated for something, anything, because this is a powerful movie.  This is one of the few movies where I found myself admiring the main character.  What we have is the portrait of a hero who focused his energy on saving lives, even if it meant getting Hell from his superiors for his stance.  With a respectful performance from Andrew Garfield, excellent direction from Mel Gibson and an emphasis on standing your ground even if it means standing alone, Hacksaw Ridge shows us what a hero looks like.

Saint Martin of Tours, pray for us.

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Rest in Peace and thank you for your service, Desmond Doss (1919-2006)