CGB Review of Live By Night (2017)

I remember one time when my brother commented how he didn’t really care for Ben Affleck.  “He always plays a stoic Boston street-tough in every movie he’s in.”
This whole movie is my brother’s argument personified.

This is my review of Live By Night!

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Okay, so like Nocturnal Animals, this movie is a tad hard to summarize.  Here goes nothing!
Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a World War I veteran who has vowed to never live by anyone else’s rules other than his own–he’s basically Tommy Pickles if he grew up and became a gangster.  We first meet Joe when he’s in a–how to put this delicately?–romantic entanglement with Emma Gould (an unrecognizable Sienna Miller), who is the mistress of Irish mafia gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister).  When things go horribly wrong for Joe and Emma, i.e. Albert finds out they’re lovers by night because the plot demands it, Joe turns to Italian mafia gangster leader Maso Pescatore (okay, this character [Joe] is a crime boss magnet, isn’t he?) and ends up running a rum empire in Ybor City in Tampa, Florida, where he meets Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana), the sister of a Cuban businessman and falls for her.

Yeah…if this all sounds like an Edgar Award-winning novel from 2012 that is a 401 pages long, that’s because it is!  Live by Night is based on the book of the same name by Dennis Lehane, who was also the screenwriter for this flick.

The Hits
This is certainly a well-made movie.  There are some gorgeous shots and the cinematography is as outstanding here as it was in Arrival.  The second and third act of this film is really where it shines.  The story gains a much better pace and we do get to connect with Joe Coughlin.  The climactic Michael Mann-style shootout is thrilling and engaging to watch.  No doubt that actor/director Ben Affleck knows how to make one heck of a heart-pounding action sequence.
Live by Night has a lot of very intriguing ideas and subplots.  For one, Joe is the gangster son of Officer Thomas Coughlin and THAT relationship between a law-abiding father and law-breaking son (a reverse Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, if you will) would’ve been fascinating to explore!   Also, halfway through the second act, we meet Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), who goes from drug-addicted aspiring actress to a devout Christian preacher and her sermons turn the public against the construction of a new casino run by Joe.  Honestly, I wish that was the main plot; a character study of the rivalry between a rum empire-running gangster and a young female preacher as the fate of the casino lies in the hands of both forces, one opposing and the one trying to keep it alive.  I’d pay money to see that movie!  Speaking of which, Elle Fanning’s performance as Loretta is haunting; soft-spoken and cloaked in white dresses with hollow eyes, I really wish she had a bigger role than what she got here.  Nevertheless, she’s as mesmerizing here as she was as Aurora in 2014’s “Maleficent.”  I’ll be sure to post a review of Maleficent here on CGB at some point.
And yet, those enthralling subplots I mentioned are both a strength AND a weakness.  Just head for the Misses segment and I’ll explain.

The Misses
These intriguing subplots are given almost no time to develop.  The relationship between Joe and Graciella comes and goes, and we’re just supposed to assume that they’re in love because they hug and talk romantically every once in a while.  Meanwhile, Elle Fanning’s ex-druggie turned 1930’s version of Paula White–minus White’s prosperity gospel angle–shows up, preaches with vigor and then we’re just told via Ben Affleck’s narration that her sermons turned the public against his casino.  As for the relationship between Joe and his cop dad, well, we get a taste of the intrigue of their conflicted relationship, but then cop dad dies off-screen.
Halfway through this movie, I found myself asking a question that, once I thought it, made the whole movie fall apart for me: “What is this movie about?” Allow me to explain.
Okay, on its surface, Live by Night is about a gangster who does crummy things to build a rum empire during Prohibition.  That’s all fine and dandy, but at its core, what is Live by Night about?  What’s the interior goal within the story?
I’ve picked some examples to bring perspective into my argument:

What is Zootopia about?  It is a commentary on how our perception of those who are different from us can color the way we treat them.

What is Arrival about?   It is about how language is a bridge between peoples and raises the question of how you would act if you knew your own future.

What is Pan’s Labyrinth about?  It is about how we as human beings are capable of being the most frightening monsters, and how fantasy can be both a coping mechanism and a Hell of our making if we allow the line between what is real and what is make-believe to become a blurry fog.

So, with all of this in mind, I have no idea what Live by Night is about at its core because the movie itself has nothing to say.  Believe me, I tried very hard to find its narrative center, and to be fair it does have hints of the impact of toxic masculinity here and there.  There is also some speck of prosperity gospel commentary lying around, but the script is so restrained in its approach to the ambitious source material that it ends up not really having anything on its mind.

Overall, Live by Night is one of those movies that gets made to win awards.  I would not be surprised if this gets some awards recognition.  The set design and costumes are top-notch, the cast is stellar and the cinematography is nothing short of remarkable.
That all being said, I’ve always believed that the best compliment you can give to a film is to have it analyzed and remembered by popular culture.  I’ve watched countless YouTube videos that examine the complex narrative choices of Arrival, Pan’s Labyrinth and other films.  Though it really does try to have meaning, Live by Night never really finds its voice and, in turn, probably won’t be getting that analytical treatment any time soon.

Saint Isaac of Nineveh, pray for us.

CGB Review of Silence (2016)

The “war on Christmas” is not persecution; being burned alive if you don’t spit on a crucifix is.

This is my review of Silence!

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Father Cristóvão Ferreira has committed an act of apostasy, i.e., he has renounced faith in Jesus and is now living as a Japanese Buddhist.
Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) are former students of Ferreira and cannot believe what they are hearing, which is understandable.  It would be like if I suddenly announced, “I’m no longer Catholic Girl Bloggin’!  I’m now Rastafarian Girl Ranting, so y’all are just gonna have to deal with it!”
Anyway, the two shocked Jesuits decide to go to Japan, which is a very risky move since the gruesome persecution of Japanese Christians is going on.  As they search for their mentor, Rodrigues and Garrpe find themselves serving the embattled Christian villagers who must practice their faith in secret or risk the penalty of death.

This movie made me anxious.  It made me cry.  It made me angry.  I was reeling right up until the end credits…
…And I loved every minute of it.  Why?  Because Silence does what movies are supposed to do: Forces you to feel and confront emotions you would rather not visit.  This movie is cathartic in the most beautiful way.

The Hits
Andrew Garfield continues to impress me.  He made me admire Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge and he made me weep for the embattled Father Sebastião Rodrigues.   Similarly to Hacksaw Ridge, Father Rodrigues is a Christian character written correctly: Faithful yet struggling, clinging to Christ while wrestling with growing doubt, this is a character untouched by Pure Flix, so he’s not an unrealistically righteous wonder bread.  The heart faith of Father Rodrigues both clashes and compliments the head faith of Father Garrpe.  Garrpe starts out only focusing on what’s in front of him, while Rodrigues keeps his eyes on what’s to come, but as the film progresses, they experience a reverse of perspective, with Garrpe evolving into the big picture guy and Rodrigues clinging to what is in his face at the present moment.
The real stars of the film are the Japanese villagers.  Their unshakable faith and hunger for God brought me to tears.  The way they greet Rodrigues and Garrpe with sheer delight, how they fold their hands in prayer under straw huts, the light in their eyes as they receive the Eucharist; their commitment to Catholicism was refreshing to see on the big screen.  In addition, their dedication made their martyrdom all the more powerful and gut-wrenching to behold.
In one of the reviews I had read before seeing the film, it was mentioned that Scorsese’s use of sound design makes particular scenes anxiety-riddling.  As a person who struggles with anxiety myself, it occurred to me to take into consideration whether moviegoers who suffer from anxiety issues would be able to watch the film.  Having seen it, I can say that the use of sound is well handled.  Silent pauses in the film serve as a subtle yet urgent warning, allowing the audience to brace themselves for upcoming martyrdom.  The sounds you are allowed to hear are of burning wood, crashing waves, breaking bones and human misery.   Yes, this movie makes you anxious for the characters, but it works within the context of the film.  It’s the kind of anxiety that you can recover from once the film ends, though what you’ve witnessed will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Finally, I’d like to add more brownie points for the Japanese convert character who took the name “Monica” as her baptismal name; “like the mother of the great Saint Augustine,” Father Rodrigues says.  Any mention of my Confirmation saint (Monica) always brings a smile to my face.  🙂

The Misses
Much like Arrival, I honestly can’t think of any glaring flaws.  If you’re looking for something with more action and a fast-paced plot, you’re not going to find it here.  I guess going back to my concern for moviegoers with anxiety problems, if you are really worried, I do recommend looking at this film’s IMDB page, primarily the parental guide.  Also check out Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of Silence on the late Roger Ebert’s website.  In his review, Zoller-Seitz goes over Scorsese’s use of sound editing:  http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/silence-2016

About That Ending…[MAJOR SPOILER WARNING]
Okay, time to address the elephant in the room: The ending.
Throughout the film, Japanese Christians are forced by government officials to trample on the fumie, a crudely carved image of Jesus.  Those who refuse are brutally put to death.  In the film’s climax, Father Rodrigues comes face to face with the fumie and, apparently, hears the “voice of Jesus” say to him, “Come ahead now. It’s all right. Step on Me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Step.”  This is a paraphrased version of what “Jesus” said to Father Rodrigues in the 1966 novel, “You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
First: No, I don’t think it was Jesus who said that to him.
Second: The phrase “test the spirits” automatically came to mind. Basically it means that not every interior voice or vision comes from God; I’ve mentioned before that there is a spiritual world where both angels of light and fallen angels of darkness reside.  I looked up the phrase “test the spirits” and came across 1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
If anything, I think the ending of Silence is a cautionary word of what happens when proper discernment has not taken place.   A friend of mine once told me, “Remember that a bad spirit will never give you God-centered advice and a good spirit will never give you advice that moves you away from God.”
Let’s face it: Discernment of spirits isn’t exactly a popular subject, but by God, it is an important one.  If there is any time for the subject to be brought to the mainstream, that time would be now.

Overall, Silence is a work of genius, quite possibly Martin Scorsese’s best cinematic achievement.  It is a grueling, atmospheric meditation on when our Lord provides no response in the midst of chaos and how to deal with divine quiet.  Carried by the performances of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, as well as the tasteful handling of bloody martyrdom, Silence is worth being watched, studied, pondered and discussed for years to come.
May we American Christians appreciate the religious freedoms we enjoy here in the United States.  May we thank God for allowing us to worship freely without the fear of death.  When I got home from seeing the movie, I hit my knees and thanked God for placing me in a country where I can wear a cross or a saint medal in public without having to fear a knife to my throat for doing so.

Holy martyrs of Japan, pray for us and for the conversion of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver.

Why The Prosperity Gospel Needs To Go

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I love the TV show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”  John Oliver is a pretty famous comedian known for self-deprecation and cringe comedy.  I came across his televangelist episode a month ago, which inspired this editorial.
Oliver started off the episode by talking about preachers like Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar (yes, that is his actual name; I checked), Mike Murdock and others who preach humility, yet live extravagant lifestyles.  He showed clips of Mike Murdock boasting to his congregants about buying two private jets with cash and of Kenneth Copeland claiming that a private jet he purchased with donations was for church purposes, i.e., a “preaching machine” as he called it.  However a local news crew discovered that Copeland’s personal jet was less for spreading the Gospel and more for going on vacation.
Oliver went on to say, “…and yet, despite that personal wealth, people still send them lots and lots of money, and that’s partly because they [the pastors] preach something called the prosperity gospel…”
A disgusted “Ugh” escaped my mouth as I rolled my eyes.  This is my reaction every time I hear the words “prosperity gospel.”

I learned about the prosperity gospel a year ago and it has been a thorn in my side ever since.  I’m sure you know what it is, but just for the sake of clarity, I’ll summarize it.
The prosperity gospel, or prosperity theology as it is called in some circles, is the belief that wealth and personal success are a sign of God’s favor.  Basically, if you follow God, try not to sin and donate money to your church, you will be blessed abundantly with secure finances and material possessions.  If you’ve ever heard the phrases “name it and claim it” or “positive confession theology,” that is where they come from.
Right off the bat I thought to myself, “Hmm, this sounds really–oh, what’s the word–high-mountainy…” By the way, keep “high mountain” in the back of your mind; we’ll come back to that later.
Anyway, I have been wanting to tackle this toxic “theology” for quite some time, and after coming across John Oliver’s televangelist episode, I knew that the time had come.

The gloves are off.  It’s time to tackle the prosperity gospel.

Scriptural Elephants in the Room, or common verses used to defend the Prosperity Gospel
#1
Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”  

If you’ve been following Catholic Girl Bloggin’ for a while, you may notice that I frequently cite Jeremiah 1:5 and other verses from the Book of Jeremiah.  Even though Jeremiah is one of my favorite books in the Bible, there’s a good reason why I don’t often post Jeremiah 29:11 on a regular basis.  That is because, unfortunately, Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the verses championed ad nauseam by prosperity gospel proponents.
Let’s take a look at some context: In this chapter of Jeremiah, the Israelites were being punished for their transgressions and their punishment was being exiled to Babylon.  The prophet Jeremiah had sent a scroll from Jerusalem to the remaining elders of the exiled people.  In this scroll, the Lord tells the Israelites to build houses to live in, get married, start families, and so on.  Now, if you read the verse in its entirety, you will notice that the Lord does not give specific instructions, but rather tells them to live their lives and how they go about doing so is up to them.
It seems to me that what has happened is prosperity gospel champions see the words, “…plans for your welfare and not for woe…” and translate that to mean personal success by the world’s standards, i.e., fancy car, big house, a spouse with minimal flaws and so on.  Now there are three definitions of the word “welfare.”  The third definition speaks of the U.S. welfare system, so I’ll skip that one and go over the first two definitions.
The first definition describes welfare as, “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group.”  With this definition in mind, I can see how one would misinterpret the Lord’s use of the word “welfare” to mean individual prosperity.
Now let us take a look at the second definition of welfare: “A statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the basic physical and material well-being of people in need.”  At first glance, when you look at this definition and then look at Jeremiah 29:11, it is easy to miss the connection between the two.  However, I think we should let Jeremiah 29:4-11 speak for itself.

“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters.  Increase there; do not decrease.  Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for upon its welfare your own depends.  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not be deceived by the prophets and diviners who are among you; do not listen to those among you who dream dreams, for they prophesy lies to you in My name; I did not send them—says the LORD.  For thus says the LORD: Only after seventy years have elapsed for Babylon will I deal with you and fulfill for you My promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”
–Jeremiah 29:4-11

It would appear that by instructing them to build homes, grow food and start families, the Lord is encouraging the banished Israelites to engage in a social effort to promote the physical and material well-being of one another, all while they await His return.  I see nothing about Him making things easy or smooth sailing for the Israelites, let alone anything about an increase in wealth.  Rather, the Lord is telling the Israelites–and perhaps us here in the 21st century–to live in the now, to provide for ourselves and for one another in the present moment, and to go into the future without fear because what lies ahead is all in His hands.

#2
Deuteronomy 8:18, “Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth, by fulfilling, as He has now done, the covenant He swore to your ancestors.”
Now while Jeremiah 29:11 is what is often cited mostly by millennial Christians, the real culprit of the prosperity gospel is the out-of-context application of Deuteronomy 8:18.
Okay, all in fairness, if you were a Martian and you were handed a Bible that was opened to Deuteronomy 8:18 and then read it on your own without any doctrinally-sound person to explain the verse to you, you would probably think to yourself, “Oh, so the humans’ God has promised them material wealth!  Good for them!”  Yes, I know what it looks like, but let us examine this verse a little more closely.
I think the very first line speaks for itself: “Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth.” We do not get wealth by our own merits, nor does the Lord just hand us over Scrooge-McDuck-moneybags, but rather it is God Himself who has given us the ability to obtain what we need for basic survival.  What He is saying is, “Rely on Me, trust in Me, and I will give you the ability and strength you need to provide for yourself and for those you love,” and not, “strong-arm Me into catering to your every materialistic whim.”
Come to think of it, when you read Deuteronomy Chapter 8 in its entirety, a more humbling message starts to emerge.

Deuteronomy Chapter 8:1-18
“Be careful to observe this whole commandment that I enjoin on you today, that you may live and increase, and may enter in and possess the land which the LORD promised on oath to your ancestors.  Remember how for those forty years the LORD, your God, had directed all your journeying in the wilderness, so as to test you by affliction to know what was in your heart: to keep His commandments, or not.  He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your ancestors, so you might know that it is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.  The clothing did not fall from you in tatters, nor did your feet swell these forty years. So you must know in your heart that, even as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD, your God, disciplines you. Therefore, keep the commandments of the LORD, your God, by walking in His ways and fearing Him.
For the LORD, your God, is bringing you into a good country, a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains welling up in the hills and valleys, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey, a land where you will always have bread and where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones contain iron and in whose hills you can mine copper.  But when you have eaten and are satisfied, you must bless the LORD, your God, for the good land He has given you.  Be careful not to forget the LORD, your God, by failing to keep His commandments and ordinances and statutes which I enjoin on you today: lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built fine houses and lived in them, and your herds and flocks have increased, your silver and gold has increased, and all your property has increased, you then become haughty of heart and forget the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that house of slavery; He guided you through the vast and terrible wilderness with its serpents and scorpions, its parched and waterless ground; He brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the wilderness with manna, a food unknown to your ancestors, that He might afflict you and test you, but also make you prosperous in the end.  Otherwise, you might say in your heart, “It is my own power and the strength of my own hand that has got me this wealth.” Remember then the LORD, your God, for He is the one who gives you the power to get wealth, by fulfilling, as He has now done, the covenant He swore to your ancestors.”

Yes, it is a lot to read, but when read carefully, it becomes clear that the Lord reminds us that whatever we obtain for ourselves, it is because of His providence.  Prosperity gospel preachers argue that God provides because of our persistence, but the very verse they frequently cite says something completely different from their narrative.   This goes to show that God is not a genie who grants our every wish, but is the reason why we exist in the first place.
The result of Deuteronomy 8:18 being distorted for an earthly agenda can be found in these actual quotes from the mouths of prosperity gospel preachers themselves.

“I am a little god.  I have His name.  I am one with Him.  I’m in covenant relationship.  I am a little god.  Critics be gone!”
–Paul Crouch

“When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass.”
–Pastor Creflo Dollar

“When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance.”
–Joel Osteen

The prosperity gospel treats God as a permissive doormat being who becomes helpless and bends to our will if we believe hard enough and verbally declare victory before it has even happened.  According to the prosperity gospel, God serves us.
In essence, the prosperity gospel trumps free will, meaning that someone else’s ability to make my life difficult by their choices is supplanted by my “power” to influence God by my declaration of faith.  In other words, “If I say it, God’s gotta do it.”
At the risk of using an overused meme…
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The idea of a God who does all that He can to propel our individual success instead of sticking to His own plan for humanity is actually quite frightening.  Success means different things to different people.  For one person, success is a modest house and enough food for three square meals.  For another, success could mean getting that promotion even if it means someone else who may need that promotion more than them getting knocked down.  There’s a very good reason for the phrase, “Thy will be done.”  God is infinite and can see the big picture; we are short-sighted, finite humans and can only grasp at what’s in front of us.  Our will being done instead of God’s will does not always work in our favor.

#3
James 4:2, “…You do not possess because you do not ask.”
A major aspect of the prosperity gospel is what is called “name it and claim it.”  It’s basically tell God exactly what you want and He will give it to you.  James 4:2 is the basis of this argument.  Now there’s actually more to the verse and we will come back to that in a second.
Prosperity gospel proponents tend to (conveniently) only see the tail-end of James 4:2.  In fact, Pastor Creflo Dollar once wrote, “When we pray, believing that we have already received what we are praying, God has no choice but to make our prayers come to pass.”  You can read it here for yourself: http://ww.creflodollarministries.org/BibleStudy/Articles.aspx?id=329
Stop right there, sir.  God DOES have a choice when it comes to how He answers our prayers; He’s the inventor of having a choice!  Two words: Free will.
Also, God always answers prayers; it’s just that sometimes, His answer is, “No,” because what we might be asking at that time is not consistent with His will.  The answer we get may not always be the answer we were hoping for, but God never fails to respond.  Even His silence can be an answer.
You may notice that, unlike the previous two segments, this one is very short.  There is a reason for this.
Would you like to know what James 4 actually says?  I’m glad you asked…

James 4:1-3, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?  Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?   You covet but do not possess.   You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.  You do not possess because you do not ask.  You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

Oh, the irony.  One of the verses used to advance the prosperity gospel is a verse that, when read fully, actually rebukes it in one fell swoop.  That last sentence, “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions,” is a kick in the teeth to the prosperity gospel.
I think my work on this segment is done.

Upon The High Mountain
Remember earlier how I said that the prosperity gospel seems very “high-mountainy?”  Let’s really think about this: Who in the Bible is quoted as saying, “All these [kingdoms] I shall give to You, if You will prostrate Yourself and worship me“?  I’ll tell you one thing: It wasn’t Jesus.
Let’s cast our gaze a little lower…

Ah, there you are, Satan.  I almost didn’t recognize you behind all those distorted scripture verses and shiny dollar-sign deception.
No, actually, I did.  As a Catholic blogger I have a responsibility to help others recognize that the prosperity gospel is a brainchild of the evil one, his dangling carrot used to lure souls seeking purpose in their lives. The prosperity gospel has Satan’s claw marks slashed all over it.  Think about it: Sickly-sweet catchphrases peppered with scripture here and there, proclaimed with boldness by popular preachers who insist that God is on their side.  It’s downright Luciferian.
The worst part is many prosperity gospel preachers say all the right things to make their money-driven agenda hard to catch.  When I was looking up quotes from prosperity gospel preachers, a lot of them didn’t sound heretical at first.  The quotes were the kind you would have as a motivational refrigerator magnet.  Many of these ministers have written devotionals that are bought and sold in droves.
But, you see, that’s how the devil operates.  He’s a jerk, but a highly intelligent one who takes his time.  He knows it would be counterintuitive to just show up as–oh, let’s say– an imposing gargoyle with horns and a pitchfork and start shouting, “Hey, I’ll give you whatever you want if you obey me!”  He wouldn’t get very far if he did that.  Hence, he works slowly and behind a variety of disguises.  I would argue that the devil can come in the form of a well-dressed man eloquently stringing together promises of wealth, neatly packaged with scripture and public admiration.

A Plan For Woe
Now I am aware that declaring something to be the work of the devil is often perceived as extreme and alarmist.  You never want to give the fallen angel too much credit because he is a defeated foe who flees like Roadrunner at the Name of Jesus.  However, a friend from my parish pointed something out to me:  The prosperity gospel has the ability to accomplish two very destructive outcomes.
The first destructive outcome is to cause believers to worship a false Jesus; a “Jesus” who is a cross between Santa Claus and Genie from Aladdin.
The second destructive outcome is that it has the capability to drive a person completely away from God if they don’t get what they feel entitled to.  There is also the propensity for the person to feel that they are not worthy of God’s love since they didn’t get what they expected; perhaps they figure they aren’t doing something right or aren’t “good” enough for God.  This causes them to despair and a lost sheep wanders into the night.

The Greatest Promise of Them All
So if serving the Lord doesn’t grant you wealth beyond your wildest dreams and a steady road to success, then what does it get you?  I would like to talk to you about two teenage girls who could really teach us what following Jesus is all about.
Meet Chiara Badano and Rachel Joy Scott.

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Chiara Badano (1971-1990)
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Rachel Joy Scott (1981-1999)

Chiara lived in Sassello, Italy.
Rachel resided in Littleton, Colorado.
Chiara was Catholic.
Rachel was non-denominational.
Chiara and Rachel never met during their time on earth, but they had one thing in common:  Both of these girls loved the Lord with all their heart and soul and committed themselves to serving Him through acts of kindness.  They were unashamed of the Gospel and strived to glorify Jesus in their daily lives.  By prosperity gospel standards, Chiara and Rachel would be considered most deserving of all the abundant blessings and personal success the Lord has in store.
In reality, Chiara was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer.  Rachel was the first victim of the Columbine massacre.  Chiara lost her hair and the ability to walk, while Rachel’s commitment to Christ caused five of her closest friends to abandon her.
What did they have to say about their personal losses?

“If I had to choose between walking again and going to Heaven, I wouldn’t hesitate.  I would choose Heaven.”
–Chiara
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“I am not going to apologize for speaking the Name of Jesus, I am not going to justify my faith to them, and I am not going to hide the light that God has put in me.  If I have to sacrifice everything…I will.”
–Rachel
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Chiara was 18 when she died.  Rachel’s life was taken at age 17.  Neither of them had ever asked the Lord for fame or riches.  In fact, Rachel once wrote in one of her journals, “I don’t want to be successful without You, God.  I can’t be successful without You.”  Meanwhile, Chiara never begged God to take her cancer away.  As she was losing her hair, she said this: “For You, Jesus…if You want it, I want it too!
These two ordinary girls went after the heart of God.  They drew near to Him, and in turn, He made His love known to them.  At a young age, Chiara and Rachel fully understood that the ultimate reward for following Jesus is far greater than any material possession.  They embraced the Lord’s greatest promise: Himself.
God never promises us a perfect spouse, a perfect big house or a perfect bank account.
He doesn’t promise to make things easy.  He doesn’t promise that you won’t go through hard times.  He doesn’t promise that things will always turn out as planned.
What He does promise is that He will be with you.  He will stay with you when everyone else has left.  When you need to vent, He will be your listening ear.  When you need a shoulder to cry on, He will hold you tightly in His arms.
The greatest promise of them all is God Himself.  His unconditional love, His endless mercy, His loyal friendship, His unfailing assistance; all these things that the human heart yearns for is His free gift that He wants to give to you.
The bank account will dwindle, the car will break down, the house will be sold to another; the riches of this world come and go.
Only He remains forever.

“Father, reach out Your hand.  Grab ahold of my life.  Open my eyes to Your wonderful light.  Fill me up with Your undying love.  Save me a place in Your kingdom above.”
–A poem by Rachel Joy Scott

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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!

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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!

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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 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!

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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!

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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 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)