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.

 

CGB Review of The Danish Girl (2015)

It’s official: Eddie Redmayne was put on this earth to get people who don’t normally cry during movies to cry.
Excuse me, I’ve got something in my eye…

This is my review of The Danish Girl!

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The Danish Girl tells the true story of Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery.  Lili was born as painter Einar Wegener who confronts repressed feelings and seeks to become a woman.  Along for the tumultuous journey is Gerda Wegener, the progressive, strong-willed wife who must come to terms with her spouse’s transition from male to female.
Guys and gals, this review was a labor of love.  Transgenderism is a sensitive topic that strikes a nerve in people.  I knew that in writing this review, I had to be charitable to LGBT people while remaining loyal to the Church’s stance on sexuality.
For the record, I will never go against the Church’s teaching that God creates us as male and female; Genesis 1:27 states, “God created man in His image; in the divine image He created him; male and female He created them.”
I will also never cast aside the human dignity of our transgender brothers and sisters. Whether they be gay or straight, every single person is a child of God.
With all that said, let’s take a look at The Danish Girl!

The Hits
Eddie Redmayne broke my heart in The Theory of Everything and in this movie, his performance had me crying like a baby once again.  Empathetic, vulnerable and even childlike at times, Redmayne brilliantly captures the torment of having to wrestle with gender identity.  Any time he has to look at his body in the mirror and mentally envision Lili, his conflict and inner pain are well conveyed.  There is a scene where Lili is beaten up by two homophobic men and, as gut-wrenching as it is, I admire how this one scene unflinchingly depicts the grim reality of anti-gay prejudice.  Like Alan Turing in Imitation Game, Lili is a fleshed-out character, never treated as an agenda pawn.  Much care was taken to be compassionate to Lili’s plight.
Alicia Vikander’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar win was well deserved.  Through her portrayal, we come to know Gerda Wegener as Lili’s advocate, guardian angel and kindred spirit.  Her heartbreaking evolution from playing along with her spouse’s “game” to fully realizing that the person she married is becoming someone else is sold by Vikander’s grounded and spirited performance.
Similarly to The Theory of Everything, the Wegeners’ marriage is engaging to watch. I like how before becoming Lili, Einar starts out as timid and reserved, while Gerda is the adventurous free spirit.  Redmayne and Vikander have a natural chemistry and the love between their characters is convincing.
The set design and the costumes are immaculate.  The color palate resembles that of a painting, which wonderfully reflects the main characters’ shared passion for art.  The film successfully captures the look and feel of 1920’s Denmark.
Where this movie really shines is helping us understand the depth of Lili’s suffering and desire to be a woman while at the same time being considerate of Gerda’s own turmoil with losing her husband.  Neither character is vilified and both have moments of selfishness, hence treating the complexity of the subject matter with tact.

The Misses
Focus is a major issue in this movie.  The film attempts to make both Lili and Gerda the main characters, but more attention is given to Gerda than to Lili.  By the second act of the film, Lili feels like a glorified supporting character.  The movie has a generally steady pace up until the third act, where it starts to meander and toy around with filler and the ending feels a tad rushed.
The musical score is composed by Alexandre Desplat, the same man behind the remarkable Imitation Game soundtrack.  Unfortunately the musical score here is not as inspired.  It sounds nice and it is as smooth as a brush on a canvas, but it pales in comparison to the Imitation Game music.  Sorry, Mr. Desplat, but it looks like you can’t always catch lighting in a bottle twice.
So before the gender reassignment surgery, the movie treats Lili as an apparition, as a separate character whom Einar seeks to become.  I am sad to say that this strategy backfires.  Lines of dialogue such as, “I think Lili’s thoughts.  I dream her dreams,” and “There was a moment where I wasn’t me.  There was a moment that I was just Lili…” made me cringe.  Because Lili and Einar are handled as two characters embodied by one person, there are quite a few times where the movie comes dangerously close to confusing transgenderism with split personality disorder.
It is clear that director Tom Hooper could have used the help of a transgender specialist.  Throughout the film, it appears that Mr. Hooper realized how complicated transgenderism is and became intimidated by his own project.  As a result, the focus on Gerda feels like a security blanket to cover up the film’s inability to delve into the psychology of Lili and it keeps the film from being the character study it could have been.

I have come to the conclusion that The Danish Girl is an admirable misfire.  On one hand, the hearts of everyone involved are in the right place, the technical work is praiseworthy and the committed performances of both Redmayne and Vikander express the triumph and tragedy of their love story.  On the other hand, the restraint and timidity of the filmmakers hold back the story from being able to get inside Lili Elbe’s head, leaving more to be desired.  It is certainly not a bad film, but rather a misstep with good intentions.

Saint Raphael the Archangel, pray for us.

CGB Top Ten Most Anticipated Movies of 2016

Welcome to a new review year here at CGB!  These are the movies that I am looking forward to this year!

10. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
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I have friends who are super excited about this flick, and I also have friends who are really not looking forward to this one.
I am willing to give this one a shot.  If it’s great, I will be ready to defend it.  If it’s horrible, then I will say so.

9. The Jungle Book
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The live-action versions of Maleficent and Cinderella have made me excited for this one.  The cast is great, the effects look stunning and I already love the little boy playing Mowgli.
Also Scarlett Johansson’s monologue in the trailer is read so brilliantly and is quite terrifying.

8. Finding Dory
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I LOVE Finding Nemo!  It’s a classic in my family and I can’t wait for this sequel.
Yes, I will review Finding Nemo before seeing this one.

7. The Huntsman: Winter’s War
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I didn’t particularly care for Snow White and the Huntsman, but I really like the cast assembled.  Charlize Theron will definitely be lively, Emily Blunt is always great to watch, and the handsome Chris Hemsworth will be, well, HANDSOME!

6. Alice Through the Looking Glass
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I have a confession to make: I hate Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland from 2010.  I will review it here on CGB at some point and explain why.  However, the trailer got me hook, line and sinker.  Tim Burton’s not directing this one, the visuals are gorgeous and the main villain’s monologue is an example of some darn good writing.  I also love the concept of time being a literal enemy (Sacha Baron Cohen plays the main villain named Time).

5. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
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If it weren’t for American Sniper, I probably wouldn’t have put this on the list.  It was American Sniper that made me more open to war movies and I really hope that 13 Hours is as engaging and powerful as American Sniper was.

4. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
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If you haven’t seen the announcement teaser trailer, do so RIGHT NOW!  It shows so little, yet it will leave you wanting more.  Also Eddie Redmayne is in it and given that he was extraordinary in Theory of Everything, I eagerly await another great performance from him.
Finally, if you’re a fan of Pan’s Labyrinth, you may notice that Katherine Waterson’s character looks like Ofelia all grown up.  🙂

3. Doctor Strange
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Benedict Cumberbatch is one of those guys who you could cast as a pizza delivery man and he would still deliver a fantastic performance.   He alone is the reason why I want to see this movie.

2. Star Wars: Rogue One
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My CGB Star-Wars-A-Thon made me fall in love with all things Star Wars, so I’m dying to see this movie.  Also Felicity Jones from Theory of Everything is in it!   🙂

1. Suicide Squad
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I know this is an odd choice, but the Comic-Con trailer intrigued me.  Once I read what Suicide Squad is about, I was sold.  The idea of villains being brought together for a greater good is awesome.  I’ve never been a fan of Harley Quinn, but after seeing Margot Robbie’s elusive performance in the trailer, I now see why the character has such a strong fanbase.
I do hope that Jared Leto brings some variety to his Joker.  Given that Heath Ledger’s Joker set the bar so high for future incarnations of the character, Jared Leto has big shoes to fill.  Nevertheless, I eagerly anticipate Suicide Squad.

Happy 2016 movie year commence and may the reviews be ever in your favor.

CGB Review/Explanation of The Theory of Everything (2014)

Is it possible for a movie to be so gut-wrenchingly beautiful that it breaks you in the best possible way?

This is my review of The Theory of Everything!

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The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking.  In the 1960’s Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde meet at Cambridge during a party.  They begin an intellect-centered friendship that blossoms into a romance.  However all seems lost when Stephen learns he has a motor-neuron disease (ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of 21.  In spite of this, Jane makes the decision to confess her love for him and becomes his wife, vowing to be his staunchest ally in the fight against his disease.

After watching the film, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot use my usual “Hits and Misses” system.  This is the first film I have seen that needs to be reviewed on an entirely different standard.   The reason for this is everything right with the film is objective and everything wrong with the film is subjective, a matter of personal taste.

The Objective Good
Good Lord, the lighting and cinematography is exceptional!  The opening shot of the film is a soft gold color pallate, while the night scenes are a lovely shade of turquoise.  There’s a great scene where Stephen is sitting alone, watching TV and the red color pallate expresses his inner turmoil over the diagnosis.
Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking and frankly, he earned it.  His extraordinary physical performance is heartbreaking, while his vulnerablity and willingness to have other actors carry his body had me sobbing. Eddie Redmayne becomes Stephen, a lover of the sciences.  Fluent in physics and mathematical theory, he pursues an understanding of the structure of the universe with every fiber of his being.
Not only does Felicity Jones have the same gentle beauty as Lily James in Cinderella, but she is also as empathetic as Keira Knightly in The Imitation Game. In the Hawking marriage, Stephen is the head and Jane is the heart.  Felicity Jones brings Jane to life as an angelic flower with an iron will.  She knows what is at stake, but honors her vows by refusing to abandon her ailing husband for her own personal comfort.
If you love the piano and classical music in general, you will want to buy the soundtrack immediately.  The musical score here is just as great as The Imitation Game soundtrack.  It has an epic vibe, illustrating the marriage of Stephen and Jane as a daring, intellectual adventure.
In fact, if you are a fan of The Imitation Game, you might enjoy this movie, as well. The script is very intimate with Stephen and Jane, giving the impression that the director knows these two people personally and wants you to know and love them as much as he does.
I am going to go out on a limb here and recommend this movie to newlyweds and long-time married couples.  The Theory of Everything is the best portrayal of marriage I have ever seen.  It neither advocates nor argues against marriage; it only demonstrates the trials and triumphs that marriage entails in an honest, humanistic way.

The Subjective Bad
If you have endured the trauma of watching a family member decline, this movie will be a very difficult experience.  The deterioration of Stephen’s body is agonizing.  I had to take quite a few walking breaks.
One scene in particular shows Stephen trying to get up a flight of stairs while his toddler son Robert watches.  I don’t want to talk about it for too long, otherwise I’ll start crying again.  This scene is that painful.
Oddly enough, as the movie nears the third act, I found myself becoming desensitized to Stephen’s collapsing body until he gets pneumonia and ends up needing an operation that will make him unable to speak ever again.   My heart was broken in two all over again.
All that being said, to tell you not to watch this movie would be a disservice. Instead, I will advise that you exercise good judgment.  Know your limits in terms of what you can handle to see on screen and go from there.

Guys and gals, The Theory of Everything broke me in the most beautiful way.  I love it and I hate it all at the same time.  With inspired performances, wonderful music and an excellent script, The Theory of Everything is a tragically victorious story of how love really can overcome all obstacles.  This is an exceptional film that I never want to see again, but am sure glad that I gave it a shot.

Saint Jude, pray for us.