CGB Review of La La Land (2016)

Another day of sun!…even though it is currently cold and cloudy here in Southern California.

This is my review of La La Land!

lalaland

Sebastian Wilder is an aspiring jazz pianist.  Mia Dolan is an aspiring actress.  Their appetite for aspiration and making it big is what brings them together and, after multiple chance encounters, Sebastian and Mia embark on a musical journey as their kinship blooms into romance and beyond.
So…well, this is what has happened: When I first saw La La Land, I loved it!  My inner musical-lover kicked in and I was on board the La La Land express!….AND then I stopped to really think about the movie.  The more I thought, the more the film’s problems came to mind.  After much soul-searching, I realized, “Oh, no, I know what’s wrong with this movie and it is a big problem.”
La La Land is a technical achievement with a toxic relationship at the center of it all.

The Hits
If anything, La La Land is an impressive–most impressive–in terms of its set pieces, costume design and overall look.  The choreography is amazing!   There’s a lot of dance numbers in this film that require some complex moves with multiple dancers, and everyone does a great job in capturing the spirit of the sequences.  The opening number is especially fun to watch and it helps set the tone for the film.
I do appreciate the film’s color palate and, in particular, it’s use of yellow.  Yellow can be a difficult color to work with due to the eye sensitivity of some moviegoers, but the film makes use of the color really well; yellow is used sparingly as an attention-grabber on whatever director Damien Chazelle wants you to look at during a particular moment.
Speaking of Chazelle, between this and Whiplash, I get it–he really likes jazz and Charlie Parker (there’s a Charlie Parker reference in this flick whereas in Whiplash, his name was everywhere).  I like that jazz is not a shoehorned interest of Chazelle’s, but rather it makes sense within the context of the story.  Sebastian could find some work as a pianist, but being a jazz pianist exclusively brings on even more challenges, given that the market for jazz is not very steady, so the audience can sympathize with his frustrations and it is much more satisfying when he does succeeds.  The character who struggles is the one you root for.

The Misses
While Emma Stone’s performance as Mia is very good, the character herself is a problem.  To put it simply, she’s actually quite insufferable.   There’s a scene where she goes home and finds that Sebastian has taken time off from his band and has cooked a nice dinner for her.  During what is supposed to be a sweet candlelight dinner, they discuss Sebastian’s band and Mia is shocked that being a band requires him to be away from home and on tour.  I turned to my friend who accompanied me and whispered, “Well, no duh!  What did you expect?  He’s in a band!”
Let me explain: In my twentysomething years of life, I have had friends who pursued careers in the music industry; most of them got their start by being in a band.  I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with them when they were on tour, but I was supportive and not shocked that they were gone a lot.  I guess my impatience with Mia’s shock about Sebastian being away came from my own experiences with people like him, but still, by that point in the film she had been with him for a significant period of time, so one would think that this reality would have crossed her mind at some point.
Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Mia is attracted to guys who seem to have nothing else going on in their own lives, which explains why she resents Sebastian actually moving forward with his own dreams.  Aside from being shocked that someone in a band doesn’t spend a lot of time at home, Mia (before officially dating Sebastian) ditches another guy who has been established to have his own life set and runs to Sebastian, who at that point in the film is down on his luck.  To avoid spoilers, I will say that Mia is seen becoming nervous when Sebastian’s aspirations take off.  She meets him when he is down and would prefer that he stay there.
Hey, Mia, JP2 called; he would like to hand you a copy of Love and Responsibility.

On one hand, La La Land acts as a love letter to old Hollywood with its camerawork, set design, color palate and approach to romance (there’s no steamy sex scene; it’s mostly implied).  As a musical, it does what it sets out to do and will delight fans of the genre.
On the other hand, the implications of Sebastian and Mia’s relationship make this a queasy watch.  The current dating scene has enough confusion and lack of responsibility already, and glorifying a one-sided relationship where one person’s own dreams outweigh the goals of the other is misleading.

Saint Pope John Paul II, pray for us.

CGB Review of Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Between this and Arrival, I can’t help but wonder if an Amy Adams cinematic universe is in the works.  Hmm…

This is my review of Nocturnal Animals!

amyadams-1

All right, so this movie is a little difficult to summarize in a few words or less without spoilers, so bear with me and this ridiculously-long summation.
Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has it all: Wealth, a luxury home, a dashing husband (played by Armie Hammer), and a successful business.  Her life is basically the prosperity gospel on steroids.  So how does she start and end every day of her perfect life?
By hitting the scotch.
Her business is declining, her Prince Charming is cheating on her and she finds herself in the void of unhappiness and discontent.  Her sorrowful world is shaken when she receives a package one day.  Inside this package is a manuscript titled “Nocturnal Animals” written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The novel tells the story of Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and their daughter India.  On their road trip to West Texas, they are ambushed by three hooligans: Ray Marcus, Lou and Turk.  The three men kidnap Laura and India, then proceed to brutally rape and murder them.  From there, Tony seeks justice and vengeance with the help of a local cop Bobby (Michael Shannon).
As Susan reads this gut-wrenching thriller written by the man she once loved, she finds herself beginning to question her life choices that led to her currently melancholy existence.

The Hits
The writing is quite spectacular.  Director Tom Ford brilliantly blends the two narratives together into one, keeping them from ever overtaking one another or feeling crammed.  If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, then you might really enjoy this movie because it carries the sleek, neo-noir look, tone and feel of a Hitchcockian film.  As a fan of character studies, I absolutely admire that this film is an unnerving character study of Susan as she rediscovers her feelings (I’m not going to say “her love” because, based on how she is written, it seems that this character is incapable of truly loving someone or at least doing so for a sustained period of time) for her ex-husband through reading his manuscript and now must live with her regrettable decision to leave him “in a very brutal way” as she puts it.
The standout performances by far are Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  Gyllenhaal delivers a heartbreaking performance as Tony Hastings.  He’s technically playing two characters: Edward Sheffield and Tony Hastings.  Though we only see Edward a few times in Susan’s flashbacks, Gyllenhaal is convincing as both a vulnerable man and a self-motivated one, he’s basically a Hufflepuff; think a dark-haired Newt Schmander from Fantastic Beasts.  Gyllenhaal conveys Tony’s pain and suffering without overdoing it, blending the right amount of strength and inner collapse.  Michael Shannon is having the time of his life as the cop Bobby/Tony’s conscience personified (Director Tom Ford himself has said so) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the bland actor from that god-awful 2014 Godzilla film, ACTUALLY GIVES A PERFORMANCE–and a good one at that!   Taylor-Johnson’s Ray Marcus is slimy and vicious; the devil incarnate with a sly smile and raggedy hair.
Also, I should point this out: Edward’s novel Nocturnal Animals (the one Susan reads in the movie) is a book that I would definitely read.   That story itself is like Gone-Girl-times-twelve minus the sociopathic wife.  I could definitely see it being a bestseller here in the real world.

The Misses
So Amy Adams…okay, I praised her performance to high Heaven in my Arrival review and I even liked her role as Sydney Prosser in American Hustle, but I was quite disappointed in her performance here.  She’s certainly not bad, she just doesn’t have much to do here.  Susan Morrow is what I call a “novel character,” in which her character would work much better in a first-person novel than on film.  Because we don’t get to hear her inner monologue, all we get is her looking sad–A LOT.  Sorry, guys, but lying awake in bed with a sad expression is not character development.  Now in all fairness, she didn’t do a bad job looking lonesome and depressed, it’s just that in contrast to Gyllenhaal’s explosive performance, hers is somewhat anemic.
Now this is a well-crafted, brilliantly written film, BUT….the re-watch value is lacking.  This is definitely one of those films where, if you’re a film teacher, it’s a great movie to show to your students and have them write a paper on, but in terms of watching it again for entertainment, this movie doesn’t have that quality.

You’re probably wondering, “So CGB, which is your favorite: Arrival or Nocturnal Animals?” If you were thinking that, then–omgosh I’m a mind reader!–just kidding, but in all seriousness, I prefer Arrival over Nocturnal Animals because Arrival rocked my world and actually made me think.  Meanwhile Nocturnal Animals just made me depressed.

That being said, Nocturnal Animals is an impressive second film from Director Tom Ford (his first being 2009’s “A Single Man” with Colin Firth and Julianne Moore”).  A multi-layered film complimented by strong performances and Hitchcockian influences makes this a movie worth analyzing and drawing inspiration from.  If you’re looking for a slick revenge story and character story, then Nocturnal Animals might be just what you’re looking for.

Saint Zelie Martin, pray for us.

CGB Bonus!
If you’ve seen Nocturnal Animals already, then be sure to check out this analysis!

CGB Review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Rebellions are built on hope.

This is my review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story!

rogue-one-a-star-wars-story-3-2

This is the story of the band of rebels who went rogue (ba boom pssh) and stole the plans to the Death Star, the ultimate planet-destroying weapon of the Empire.  Leading the charge is Jyn Erso, the daughter of Galen Erso, the main architect of the Death Star.
I was quite nervous in the months leading up to Rogue One’s release into theaters.
On one hand, I was excited that Felicity Jones was the lead.  Jones wonderfully played Jane Wilde Hawking in The Theory of Everything, one of my favorite films, so I knew she would knock the role right out of the park.
On the other hand, shivers went down my spine when I saw that the director was Gareth Edwards, the same guy who brought us the 2014 Godzilla movie…a movie that I despise as much as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of No Plot–er, I mean–Justice.  Yes, I will rant/review Godzilla 2014 at some point in the future.
Anyway, so how did this movie starting one of my favorite actresses and my least favorite director hold up?….

Rogue One is impressive, most impressive.

The Hits
I really appreciate that this is a more gritty Star Wars flick.  This reminds me of primarily The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2 in that it portrays the horrors of war without becoming overtly gruesome.  Despite the absence of Lightsabers, the action itself is classic Star Wars.  Ships going at light speed, guns that go “pew pew” and, of course, Stormtroopers who STILL can’t hit anything make up for this nicely.
Jyn Erso’s traumatic backstory is intriguing to watch unfold.  I love the idea of her being the daughter of the man responsible for the creation of the Death Star.  It adds to the drama and it keeps her from being some chosen-one; it gives a reason for the rebellion to recruit her and promise to wipe her criminal record clean.   As for the character herself, Felicity Jones brings in her A-game.  Grounded yet vulnerable, Jones brings Jyn to life as a ragtag nomad turned reluctant fighter.  Now while the script does rush Jyn’s development into a committed rebel a bit (she decides she’s all in towards the end of the film’s second act), Jones is able to steady that pace by using her facial expressions and tone of voice to sell to us the moment when she decides that the rebellion is right and just.  A filmmaker creates the character, but the right actor can polish and perfect the character they have been given to portray.  Jyn Erso is no Rey, but she does hold her own and has earned her rightful place in the Star Wars universe.  You are one with the Force, Ms. Erso and the Force is with you.
As predicted, there is somewhat of a romance that blooms between Jyn and Cassian, but fortunately it is well-handled.  It is treated less as a romance and more as a relationship based on necessity–no, not a relationship where they use one another–rather a kinship where they have come to rely on each other for safety and mutual respect.
The real show-stealer is Chirrut Îmwe, the blind Force-wielder who has coined the now famous line, “I am one with the Force.  The Force is with me.”  I LOVE his faith in the Force, his reliance on it and his absolute no-holds-barred trust that the Force will guide his path and lead him to green pastures and still waters.  In another universe, Chirut would make an excellent monk–I see him as either a Jesuit or a Benedictine because that’s just how my brain works.  🙂

The Misses
Two major Gareth-Edwards-isms are front and center in this flick: WAY too many locations and weak characterization.   Seriously, we jump to six different locations within the first ten minutes!  Granted, it’s not as bad as in Godzilla, where the film took us to ten different locations before the first act ended, but still it made me roll my eyes.
The actors playing the characters are better than the characters themselves (with the exception of Chirut; he’s awesome).  Except for Chirut, Jyn and Cassian, the other Rogue One squad is pretty much forgettable.  While Jyn’s backstory is fascinating, it doesn’t seem to impact her overall arch.  She makes a comment about, “I’m not used to people sticking around when things go bad,” yet there is little indication that she doesn’t trust that people will stick around when the going gets rough.  Except for some hardened glances at Cassian and K-2SO (the forgettable comedic-relief robot) when she first meets them, Jyn gets along with them relatively well from that point on.  I’m not saying she has to be bitter or anything, but some tiny non-verbal example of her trust issue and inner scars from abandonment would have helped.

Despite some annoying Gareth-Edwards-isms, Rogue One is a most impressive addition to the Star Wars universe.  The story of the brave few who risked it all to steal the plans to the Death Star is a job well done thanks to a thoughtful performance from Felicity Jones (like Benedict Cumberbatch, you could cast her as a lamp and she’d still do a terrific job), an amazing representation of what faith is all about given to us by Chirut and classic Star Wars action.  The Force is most certainly strong with this one.

Saint Sebastian, pray for us.

CGB Review of Miss Sloane

What a sad world politics is; follow your conscience and lose, or sell your soul and win.

This is my review of Miss Sloane!

untitled-27

Madeline Elizabeth Sloane, or Liz for short (she never goes by her first name) is a Washington lobbyist who is notorious for her cunning intellect and insatiable appetite to win at any cost.  After turning down an opportunity to work for an NRA-type gun lobbying group, Miss Sloane instead takes a job working for a gun-control advocacy group (think a fictitious version of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) and comes to discover that the price to pay for victory in this arena may be higher than she had anticipated.

The Hits
I really appreciate that the filmmakers picked the topic of guns, which certainly does get heated, but isn’t nearly as volcanic as abortion or gay rights.  While their approach to the subject does have a left-leaning slant (this is leftist Hollywood we’re dealing with here), they do manage to make it accessible to both sides of the argument.  It also helps that the issue of guns is the backdrop, while the primary focus of the narrative is the behind-the-scene battle between competing lobbyists.
Jessica Chastain is magnificent in this role!  Now mind you,  I’m guessing that her role as the villainous sister in Crimson Peak was just a practice-run.  An icy woman with a piercing gaze, cloaked in an armor of designer clothes, a sharp tongue and grudging prestige, Miss Sloane is a femme fatale with a deeply flawed humanity.  I would say that she’s a character you love to hate, but then again, you can’t quite hate her.  Chastain’s performance doesn’t make Miss Sloane a complete witch, but rather allows moments of vulnerability without completely shedding her hardened persona.  Honestly, I really hope that Jessica Chastain continues playing flawed protagonists and even antagonists!
Esme Manucharian, played wonderfully by Gugulethu “Gugu” Mbatha-Raw, is the perfect foil to Miss Sloane.  Warm eyes with a gentle expression, Esme is the heart of the operation with Miss Sloane as the head.  The fight against gun violence is a personal one for Esme, in contrast to Miss Sloane’s impersonal pursuit of victory.  Esme is the losing follower of conscience while Miss Sloane is the winning warrior who sells her soul.
I would like to point out that I’m really glad the film subtly tackles insomnia.  It’s more a background detail of Miss Sloane’s character arch and is not completely in-your-face.  We never see her close her eyes for a quick nap, let alone is there ever a scene that begins with her waking up from a restful night.  While one would hope that she would end up getting help for her sleep deprivation in the end, it seemed more in-character that the self-preserving and prideful Miss Sloane wouldn’t admit this weakness to herself.

The Misses
Sam Waterson, who you will definitely know if you’re a fan of Law and Order, seemed a little too cartoonish at times.  No, his performance wasn’t horrible, but there’s one early scene where he’s confronting Miss Sloane and he looked like he was trying a little too hard, to the point of borderline overacting.
I think director John Madden might like “Gone Girl” a little too much, because Madeline Elizabeth Sloane is basically Amy Elliot Dunne if she [Dunne] were a lobbyist and–well, I don’t want to go into spoiler territory–so I’ll put it this way: The last twenty minutes of this flick pull some serious “Gone-Girl-eqsue” plot conveniences that are a bit of a stretch.  Now I happen to love Gone Girl, both the book and the movie, but still, some originality is always welcome.
A lot of the character relationships are underdeveloped.  I can tell that there was an idea for a friendship between Miss Sloane and Esme, but because of the titular character’s inability (or lack of willingness) to connect with others, the relationship never becomes anything more than two philosophically-opposed women who aren’t truly friends, yet are never really enemies.  Now the argument could be made that their relationship is meant to be lukewarm, but even by those standards, how the relationship develops feels very aimless to the point where I never felt ; like I said, there probably was an idea, but it got lost as production of the film went on.  Sorry, guys, but one scene with Miss Sloane and Esme eating at a Chinese restaurant isn’t gonna cut it.  They did a good job making Miss Sloane and Esme polar opposites, but how these two ladies connect goes quietly unexplored.

Miss Sloane succeeds as both a complex character study and a political thriller.  In this film, the chase is more interesting than the catch; the fight between lobbying groups is engaging enough to where we can put up with the political jargon and talk of poll numbers.  Jessica Chastain’s performance electrifies every frame while the tasteful handling of the subject matter makes this easier to sit through than all three Presidential debates (yes, I just had to bring up the 2016 election; I regret nothing!).  Despite some plot conveniences and undercooked relationships between characters, Miss Sloane stands tall on its own two feet.  For the political junkie in your life, I’d recommend that they give this one a shot.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.

CGB Review of Moana (2016)

Why do I get the feeling that this movie was written by someone who read the Book of Esther during a weekend on a Polynesian island?

This is my review of Moana!

moana-1

In the beginning, there was the Word…and that word was ocean!   Then comes the goddess Te Fiti who, with the power of her swirly heart (there’s a swirly circle where her heart is), creates island and island and so on.  Te Fiti then goes into a slumber, manifesting herself as a lush, green island.  All is cool until the demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) quite literally steals her heart, which has taken the form of a jade gemstone.  His theft unleashes a freaky sea demon called Te Ka and basically, like the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s screw-up, the world falls into darkness because Maui just had to steal the heart of Te Fiti.
Enter the island of Motunui, which is home to a free-spirited girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho).  Moana is being groomed by her father Chief Tui to become the next leader of Motunui, but the call of the ocean has a strong pull on her heart.  This primarily has to do with an encounter she had with the ocean as a toddler.  When Motunui begins to experience decay and famine, Grandma Tala reveals to her that the ocean chose her [Moana] to find the demi-god Maui and guide him across the sea to face off against Te Ka and return the heart of Te Fiti to its rightful place.

The Hits
The animation is fluid, colorful and gorgeous to look at.  The voice work is awesome!  Never once was I distracted by the celebrity voices because all of the characters are well-written and distinctive.  Auli’i Cravalho definitely brings Moana to life as both a youthful teenager and a kind-hearted young woman.  She doesn’t sound like a late-twentysomething voicing a sixteen-year old, neither does she sound jarringly young; her character’s age is conveyed by Cravalho’s performance.  I really love Moana’s childhood connection to the ocean.  Granted, it does make this a typical “chosen one” narrative, but Moana herself doesn’t have any magic powers or some random birthmark that displays her chosen-one-ness; she’s a regular girl who was called upon by the ocean.  Now I mentioned that this movie made me think of the Book of Esther.  That’s because Moana is next in line to rule a land and must save her people from dark destruction.  While she doesn’t have to marry a king like Esther did, she does have to find the king-like Maui and take him to Te Ka.
Speaking of the ocean, the idea of having it as a sentient being is fantastic!  They don’t push the envelope too far by making the ocean a god or something, but the ocean does act similarly to the Holy Spirit; calling upon Moana to go out, to leave her comfort zone and sail into the unknown for a greater purpose.  The ocean reminded me of Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Now, mind you, Moana doesn’t travel to Judea or Samaria, neither does the ocean give her the ability to speak in tongues or prophecy, but the ocean’s influence and friendship gives her great courage, helps her to find peace in the chaos, and does enable her to travel far to take Maui to defeat a volcanic sea demon in order to restore peace to the other islands, which brings to mind the Apostles being empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to preach the Gospel and open wounded hearts to Jesus.
Moana’s pet pig Pua reminded me of a puppy, which makes him adorable, but her chicken Heihei is to this movie what Kowalski is to Fantastic Beasts; a show-stealing comic relief.
Dwayne Johnson is perfectly cast as Maui!   You can tell that he is having the time of his life voicing the character and we are having fun alongside him.  Maui is your typical “self-centered powerful dude who needs to be knocked off his high-horse,” but his humor and soft-spot for humans does keep him from being unlikable.

The Misses
Yeah, this movie gets pretty predictable towards the third act.  I pretty much was able to correct predict all the actions of the main characters in the film’s climax.  I like this movie a lot, but you can tell that there is a Disney checklist that the filmmakers need to fill (princess, comedic animal sidekick, songs, etc.) and it’s not hard to see where the story is going.

Guys and gals, I really enjoyed Moana!  It’s a charming, delightful action-comedy that the whole family will love.  Fun lead characters, thrilling action and some intriguing (if not unintentional) Biblical parallels make Moana an end-of-the-year slamdunk.  I’ve already seen it twice and I just might see it again for a third time.

Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, pray for us.

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!

untitled-20

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.

 

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!

arrival-movie-1024x576

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!

doctor-strange-1-650x342

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!

hacksaw_ridge_andrew_garfield

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.

37fa6b2600000578-3776433-image-m-65_1473184179156
Rest in Peace and thank you for your service, Desmond Doss (1919-2006)

CGB Review of The Magnificent Seven (2016)/With A Brief Cameo from MsOWrites

(Rides towards a dusty old town on a horse) How ya doin’ back there, Guardian Angel?
(Enter GUARDIAN ANGEL)
GUARDIAN ANGEL: No wonder you humans prefer cars over horses.
ME: Don’t tell that to equestrian enthusiasts.  Also, you do realize that you have wings and can just fly ahead of me, right?
GUARDIAN ANGEL: (Shrugs) CGB, you know that angels aren’t show-offs.
ME: Are you ever gonna take off your Deadpool mask?
GUARDIAN ANGEL: Sure, if you want to be blinded by my light.
(Screaming people are heard from a distance) (ME and GUARDIAN ANGEL see the dusty old town on fire)
ME: Why does this remind me of the first ten minutes of The Magnificent Seven?
GUARDIAN ANGEL: Probably because that’s how the movie opens.

This is my review of The Magnificent Seven!

Denzel Washington;Chris Pratt;Ethan Hawke;Manuel Garcia-Rulfo;Vincent D Onofrio;Martin Sensmeier;Byung-hun Lee

After her husband is murdered for standing up to greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue, Emma Cullen and the other desperate locals of Rose Creek seek the help of warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), who then recruits a gambler named Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt; just think Emmet from LEGO Movie and Starlord from Guardians of the Galaxy, or Emmet Starlord as I like to call him), a Confederate sharpshooter named Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), the East Asian immigrant Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), an outlaw simply known as Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and the exiled Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) to take on Bogue and save Rose Creek.

The Hits
As a popcorn flick, this movie really works!  Much like Storks, the plot is very self-aware and focuses on being an entertaining shoot-em-up thrill ride.  This is the kind of standard plot that shouldn’t work, but the Magnificent Seven makes it work with a likable and dynamic cast, as well as fun action scenes where you can actually see what’s happening instead of being bombarded with constant shaky-cam.
Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington are just playing, well, Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington…and they are very good at it.  Washington brings his authoritative calm to the role of Sam Chisolm, asserting himself as a warrant officer who seeks the help the helpless and defend the voiceless.  Meanwhile Pratt plays Joshua Faraday with a slightly twisted yet playful charm.   The scene where he uses card tricks to get out of a situation involving two brothers who want to kill him is incredibly fun and even a tad suspenseful to watch.
While the marketing made it seem that this was going to be a Chris Pratt-Denzel-Washington vehicle, the final product makes use of the other cast members.  Ethan Hawke is given a compelling character arch as a Confederate soldier with PTSD, while Vincent D’Onofrio is absolutely fun to watch without overstaying his enthusiastic welcome.  The action sequences where all seven of them fight antagonists serve as showcases for each character’s fighting style, allowing distinction between protagonists so that they don’t all just blend into dull and boring pawns with muscle.  I definitely like the camaraderie that forms between the seven men.   As the movies goes on, a brotherhood develops and you really feel that these guys go from fighting as reluctant teammates to working together as willing allies.
I also appreciate that the female lead played by Haley Bennett doesn’t fall for one of the Magnificent Seven members.  Given that her husband, played by Matt Bomer, dies in the first fifteen minutes, I think it would’ve been out of place for her and even forced to have her fall head-over-heels for Pratt or Washington.

GUARDIAN ANGEL: CGB, get behind me!
ME: Wait, what?  (Grabbed by GUARDIAN ANGEL and thrust behind his large wings) Holy cow, you’re taller than I thought.
GUARDIAN ANGEL: You’re just now realizing that?
ME: Well, gee, I’m sorry I don’t have superior intellect like you angels.
GUARDIAN ANGEL: (Playful smirk) Stay down, but try to look past my wing.
ME: (Carefully looks up and sees a man in a white suit standing among the flames) Yeeesh, who the heck is that dude?
GUARDIAN ANGEL: That is White Suit.
ME: Is that his real name?
GUARDIAN ANGEL: No, but he comes from the netherworld, so I’d rather not say his real name.
ME: (Swallows) Gotcha.
GUARDIAN ANGEL: I know for a fact that he assisted Amanda Waller in capturing you, MsOWrites, Catholic N00B, Rosalie Contrite and Surrender the Brownies.
ME: That explains how Waller and Rick Flag found my house!
GUARDIAN ANGEL: Correct.  (Holds up two katanas)
ME: Wait, I thought you gave me one of your katanas.
GUARDIAN ANGEL: I did.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have an unlimited supply.  Listen, go to that conveniently-empty house and focus on the review.  I’ll see if we can cross through this town without catching White Suit’s attention.
ME: You do realize that I can fight, right?  I fought the Joker in the Suicide Squad review.
GUARDIAN ANGEL: Only to have Catholic N00b finish him off.  Case in point: You’re not ready to fight off fallen angels.  To be fair, no human is.
ME: That makes sense.  All right, I’ll comply.  (Heads to conveniently-empty house and sits on beat-up couch)  So while I wait for my guardian angel to find a safer way out of this town, I guess I have some time to go over the misses of Magnificent Seven.

The Misses
At times, the action can be hard to see, primarily in the climax.  There’s a complex plan formed to ambush Bartholomew Bogue and his henchmen and, because some of the Magnificent Seven members slightly resemble one another, it gets a bit hard to tell who’s who when they’re all bloodied with dirt-caked faces.
I’ve never been a fan of Westerns (the genre just have never been compelling to me) and this movie certainly didn’t change my mind.  As fun as this movie is, it’s pretty forgettable a few days after you’ve seen it.  Even though the characters have great chemistry, the majority of them are pretty two-dimensional with the exception of Ethan Hawke’s character.  Otherwise, as an afternoon flick, it’s serviceable nonetheless.

(Enter WHITE SUIT, a tall and lean man in a white suit with a white hat covering his face and large ashen wings)
WHITE SUIT: Hello, Catholic Girl Bloggin’.
ME: (Gasps) What the?  How did you find me?
WHITE SUIT: I have your guardian angel surrounded just outside.  It probably isn’t wise for you to hide in a place known as “conveniently-empty house”.
ME: What, is there is neon-colored sign hanging outside?
WHITE SUIT: See for yourself.
ME: (Looks out window and sees neon-lit sign that reads, “CONVENIENTLY-EMPTY HOUSE“)  Well, that does not help me at all.  (Backs away from WHITE SUIT)
WHITE SUIT: Oh, there’s nothing to worry about, my dear.  I actually come to help you.
ME: Yeah, you fallen angels are about as helpful as a brick to the face.
WHITE SUIT: Last time I checked, you currently have 1,666 likes on the blog’s FB page.
ME: And of course it just had to include 666.
WHITE SUIT: I have some tips and tricks to make that number skyrocket.  I can help you to propel your blog to instant fame…
ME: Oh, no, I’m not making any blood pacts!
WHITE SUIT: Don’t worry, I don’t require blood pacts.
ME: (Whips out angelic katana) Uh huh, sure you don’t….(holds it up between my eyes) 
WHITE SUIT: (sinister chuckle) I am simply here to make you an offer you can’t refuse.
ME: Bwahahahaha!
WHITE SUIT: (Gives quizzical look)
ME: Are you seriously trying to intimidate me by quoting the Godfather?  Dude, my family and I watch that at least once a year!  (Goes on a tangent) Some years we watch just the first film and the whole trilogy during other years, including the crummy third film…
WHITE SUIT: (whips out a sword)
ME: (Swallows) You do realize that you fallen angels can’t physically hurt us humans, right?
WHITE SUIT: (Shrugs)  But we can frighten and intimidate.  (Sinister grin) Submit or suffer. What’ll it be, CGB?
ME: (Grips tightly to the katana) A Christian I am and a Christian I shall remain.
WHITE SUIT: (Raises eyebrow) Very well, it’s your torment.  (Charges at me)
ME: (Holds up katana, bracing for impact) (Looks down and sees Mother Teresa medal around my neck) Hey, jerkface!  (Talks deep breath) Mother Teresa!
WHITE SUIT: (Sword flings out of his hand) (collapses to the ground)  Argh!  The one in white!
ME: (Begins to approach) Saint Gemma Galgani!
WHITE SUIT: (Writhes in pain) Ahhhhh!  The one in black!
ME: (Smiles with confidence) Blessed Imelda Lambertini, Blessed Chiara Badano!
WHITE SUIT: (Curls up in fetal position) The holy girls!
ME: (Begins to approach) Saint Jose Sanchez del Rio!
WHITE SUIT: (Rocks back and forth) (Snarls with flaming eyes) How DARE you invoke the boy martyr!
ME: (Raises katana) Pope John Paul II!
WHITE SUIT: (Thrashes wildly on the floor) (Scratches his own face with his claws)  NO!  The one who ruined our plans!
ME: Saint Michael, Saint Monica, Padre Pio, MOTHER MARY!  (Plunges the katana into his chest)
WHITE SUIT: (Tries to grab me with his claws)
GUARDIAN ANGEL: CGB, duck!
ME: (Takes cover by a table)
GUARDIAN ANGEL: (finishes off WHITE SUIT with his own katanas)  (A lone white hat is all that remains)
ME: Is he gone?
GUARDIAN ANGEL: For the time being, yes.  (Pulls katanas in his sheaths) I’m glad you invoked the names of saints instead of taking him on with your own strength.
ME: (Looks at Mother Teresa medal) I don’t remember wearing this earlier.
GUARDIAN ANGEL: (Smirks lovingly) I figured she’d be the best person to give you courage. (Looks around dishelved house) So any closing thoughts on the Magnificent Seven before we take off?
ME: Well…

The Magnificent Seven is a fun and engaging popcorn flick.  Given that the Western genre itself can be a hit or miss (with more misses than hits), the Magnificent Seven is definitely one of the few gems the genre has to offer.  Although it is, sadly, easy to forget about after a few days, for the time you’re watching it you’ll have a pretty good time.  Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are a selling point, but they allow others to share in the star-studded spotlight, which is a commendable feat.  A cast with believable and likable chemistry, some impressive set pieces and a self-awareness that keeps it from becoming needly dark and grim makes the Magnificent Seven a modern Western worth checking out.

GUARDIAN ANGEL: (Face becomes stern as his wings raise)
ME: What’s wrong?
GUARDIAN ANGEL: I’m going to have to knock you out.
ME: Why?
GUARDIAN ANGEL: Something worse than White Suit is headed this way.  (Wraps his wings around me, enveloping me)
ME: (Startled) What are you–
GUARDIAN ANGEL: Don’t worry, this is like being wrapped in a glow-in-the-dark blanket.
ME: (Begins to feel sleepy) (Goes under as the earth shakes beneath my feet.

(Cut to black)

(Enter MsOWrites)
MsOWrites: CGB?  CGB, can you hear me?
ME: (feels icy water splash on my face) (jumps awake) MsOWrites?!  Hey, where are we? (Looks around to see that we are on a beach)
MsOWrites: Listen, Catholic bloggers are in trouble again, so we’re all seeking refuge at Miss Peregrine’s?
ME: That school for peculiar kids?
MsOWrites: There’s a new world coming, and it’s just around the bend.
ME: Oh, boy…

(Fade to black)

Saint Jose Sanchez del Rio, pray for us.