Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014

Robin Williams - July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014 | A Constantly Racing MindI received some very disturbing and heartbreaking news today. Actor Robin Williams was found dead today. In what the news media calls "an apparent suicide." Like many of you my age and older, met Robin Williams when he first appeared as Mork from Ork in an episode of "Happy Days" back in the late 1970's.  He went on to star in his own television show with co-star Pam Dawber titled "Mork and Mindy."  As I look back, both of those shows were corny by today's standards, but nonetheless I remember them with fondness.  I watched as Robin Williams transferred his talent to the big screen.  

In 1980, I went to the theater to watch him star as one of my favorite childhood cartoon heroes, "Popeye."  He starred along with Shelly Duvall, who was also starring the same year in the Stephen King/Stanley Kubrick horror film, "The Shining."  Even as a teenager on the verge of adulthood, I could still appreciate Robin's performance as the spinach-eating sailor.  A few years later, I was blown away with the extremely adult drama, "The World According to Garp."  Glenn Close starred as his feminist mother, and Mary Beth Hurt as his wife.  At that time I, I already knew Robin and Mary Beth, but I didn't know Glenn Close nor did I know John Lithgow who played the transgender pro-football player, Roberta Muldoon.  One of the best lines in the film comes from Lithgow, "I used to be a tight-end, and now I am a wide receiver."

I haven't seen all of Robin's films during that period, as I was alone in the world for the first time.  However, in 1987 I was wowed again as Williams took on the role of U.S. Air Force Airman Adrian Cronauer.  the film was "Good Morning Vietnam."  Cronauer was a radio D.J. for the military and had an unique style of bringing Rock and Roll music and the controversial war news to the servicemen in Vietnam.  Forest Whitaker and the late Bruno Kirby also starred along side him.

As English Professor Keating, he inspired Ethan Hawke and the viewers in "Dead Poets Society."  In "Awakenings," he played Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a doctor working to find a cure for a strain of encephalitis that afflicted patients during an epidemic earlier in the century. Robert De Niro plays one his catatonic patients that he cures for a time.  

Sometimes, an alternative take on a children's classic is in order, and Williams stepped up to the plate to play an older, reality based, workaholic businessman who once when he was younger was Peter Pan.  "Hook" came out in 1991 and co-starred Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, the late Bob Hoskins as the pirate Smee, and Dustin Hoffman as the infamous Captain Hook, in a film that both adults and children could love.

Ask me what my favorite Disney film is and my answer will definitely be "Aladdin" for 1992.  Although I didn't see the film at the theater, I bought the VHS to watch with my daughter when she was old enough to sit up.  I love the film primarily for Williams' role as the Genie.  

Throughout his career, his lyrical rambling would take me by surprise, and the weird things he would come up with were just amazing.  His only equal was, of course, his mentor, Jonathon Winters.  Reports from behind the scenes on films and TV shows were that he always was improv mode mode, and he would interrupt production with his comedic hijinks.

"Mrs. Doubtfire" in 1993 with Sally Fields is a film that is required watching in my house from year to year. Both funny and dramatic, Williams could be a master of both in one film. Another film that my family likes to watch from time to time is "Jumanji" where Williams plays Alan Parrish, a young boy trapped in a board game and comes back years later after living in the jungle.  

Good Will Hunting: Matt Damon & Robin Williams | A Constantly Racing Mind
In 1996, Nathan Lane starred with Williams, in the English language adaptation of a play by Jean Poiret, called the "The Birdcage." The play centered on a gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion agree to put up a false straight front so that their son can introduce them to his fiance's right-wing moralistic parents.

"Good Will Hunting" in 1997 was a major cinematic success for Williams.  The story, written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck gave Williams the chance to earn his first Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.  Playing the psychotherapist who helps Damon's character break through his hostility and rage Williams showed the depth of acting abilities.

1998 was the year that Williams starred as the charismatic, Doctor in "Patch Adams." Williams, through the character of Adams was able to transform the healing art of medicine, by adding humor and genuine care to the profession.  The film also starred the recently deceased Philip Seymour Hoffman.

In the beginning of a new century, Williams tried his hand at being the antagonist. He played the bad guy in the creepy, and disturbing "One Hour Photo" in 2002.  As the guy who develops photos at the local one hour photo,, he becomes strangely obsessed with a particular family and begins to stalk them.  As crime novelist Walter Finch he plays Al Pacino for a fool in the crime drama "Insomnia "  In the science fiction film,  "The Final Cut," Williams finds himself targeted, after revealing some secrets about a prominent lawyer for the company that he works for.

Back to comedy in 2006, he once again played a workaholic businessman in "RV." Trying to combine a business trip with a family vacation, which led to some silly, but sentimental escapist fun.  Williams didn't always play the lead character, sometimes he did small brief, but important parts.  Such as his role as the 26th President of the United States when he was a "Rough Rider in the Ben Stiller 2006 comedy "Night at the Museum."  He reprises his role again in 2009, and once again later this year in "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb."  He starred with John Travolta in the 2009 family comedy "Old Dogs." More escapist fun.

What Dreams May Come:  Robin Williams | A Constantly Racing Mind
For me, however, my favorite film of Robin Williams was the beautifully filmed, metaphysical oriented, but somewhat flawed and totally misunderstood, "What Dreams May Come." This is also the film come to mind now that I hear about his death.   The film deals with themes of depression, the afterlife, suicide, the eternity of the family and the soul, and the concept of heaven and hell.  A beautiful movie that challenges religious beliefs and questions existence in general.  

A few more Robin Williams films are yet to be released.  "Boulevard" is scheduled out later this year.  The synopsis on IMDB says "A devoted husband in a marriage of convenience is forced to confront his secret life."

Also out later this year is a film titled "The Angriest Man in Brooklyn." "A curmudgeonly man is mistakenly told that he has 90 minutes to live by his doctor and promptly sets out to reconcile with his wife, brother and friends in the short time he believes he has left."

In post production and due out in 2015, "Absolutely Anything" has Williams voicing Dennis the Dog in a film about, "A teacher experiences a series of mishaps after discovering he has magical powers."

Assuming that the producers keep on schedule, and they decide to release this film around Christmas, we will see Robin Williams again in "Merry Friggin' Christmas."  Kind of a family vacation film, "Boyd Mitchler and his family must spend Christmas with his estranged family of misfits. Upon realizing that he left all his son's gifts at home, he hits the road with his dad in an attempt to make the 8-hour round trip before sunrise."

Watching "The Crazy Ones" on CBS was a joy.  I liked the show and caught most of the episodes, including his on screen reunion with his ex co-star Pam Dawber.  I like the cheerfulness of the show and of course Robin's brand of comedy.  CBS cancelled the show after one season.  Numbers are everything.

Although I am deeply saddened, by Robin Williams' passing, I am happy to remember him as an artist who made films that touched people's hearts and filled the world with some zany humor to keep us keeping on.  Thank you Robin for all the memories you gave us in film, television, and interviews where you cracked up the audience, the interviewer, and me.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Review

The Hundred-Foot: Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
"To cook, you must kill. You cook to make ghosts." ~ Mama Kadam
Hokey or sappy are two words that one might choose to describe Steven Spielberg's and Oprah Winfrey's new film, "The Hundred-Foot Journey." Director Lasse Hallström ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "Chocolat," "The Cider House Rules") brings to the big screen an adaptation of Richard C. Morais's novel of the same name.  A look at the aspirations of a young man with a talent in the culinary arts pursue his goal at being the best, but in the process learn about who he really is and what makes him the happiest. Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal) is a young man, who with his family, escapes political turmoil in his home country. Papa Kadam (Om Puri), Hassan's father decides he, and his family will move to the south of France and start anew. Moving to the remote town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, they set up an Indian restaurant across the street from a Michelin starred restaurant ran by Madam Mallory played by the Queen herself, Helen Mirren. "The Hundred-Foot Journey" runs a little over two hours and is rated PG>

Hallström's film deals with a clash of cultures as the Kadam family movies in 100 feet from Mallory's French restaurant. Papa, guided by the spirit of the wife he lost in a fire caused by political vandals in their home country, feels that it is time that the French try some of his son's extraordinary Indian cuisine. The place they purchase is rundown, but with some good hard work and plenty of Indian flavored elbow grease, the family turns the place around and opens the doors to customers. Of course, there are some competitive hijinks, when Mallory gets a hold of the "Maison Mumbai's" menu for opening day. A spiteful Mallory runs to the market and buys all the fish (that was on the new menu) so the family has to go out of town to buy the ingredients fresh and causes them to have to rush their opening day meal.

The Hundred-Foot: Om Puri - Manish Dayal - Helen Mirren | A Constantly Racing Mind

Meanwhile, Hassan becomes enamored with Mallory's sous chef, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). At first, the two's flirtations are innocent, as they are both in the same field, but as the film progresses, and Hassan's talents in the kitchen become more obvious, the two begin to move into opposite corners. Early in their courtship, the two have a picnic in the woods, Marguerite is trying Hassan's versions of the five basic sauces, Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise, and Tomate. During this picnic, Marguerite tells Hassan that Madam Mallory can tell a great chef by having the chef prepare a simple omelette.  
"My mother didn't teach me how to cook.  She taught me how to taste."  ~ Hassan Kadam
Some cute and hilarious moments occur as the battle of chefs and restaurants kicks up, and Hallström cuts between the various members of the kitchen staff, as they are slicing and dicing, prepping and braising, cooking and baking as they fight for culinary victory.  Throughout the film, the director indulges in a very sensual version of food porn as the camera lingers lovingly from one dish to the next.  Not only that, the chemistry between the 31 year-old Manish Dayal and the 28 year-old Charlotte Le Bon begins to simmer.  

As the differences between the cultures begin to fade, and Hassan, in a joint venture between Papa and Mallory, wins another Michelin star for the French restaurant.  This is a joyous moment; after all, Mallory has only been waiting thirty years for her second star.  If you are not aware (just in case), The Michelin brothers, you know the company that makes tires and of Bib, the Michelin man fame, created a travel guide that rates restaurants and awards them stars.  What we learn from "The Hundred-Foot Journey" is that, "one star means the food is good.  Two stands for great.  "Three is only for the gods." 
"Food is memory." ~ Marguerite
"The Hundred-Foot Journey" is not a bad film, nor is it a great film.  If I did ratings as the Michelin Guide book does, then this film would be on Michelin starred film.  Hallström's directing and Linus Sandgren's cinematography, depicts the French countryside beautifully, and the town itself during the Bastille Day celebrations reminded me of the Disneyland castle.  Mirren, who is reported to speak French fluently, does a wonderful, but limited job playing the spiteful Madam Mallory.  Unfortunately, she isn't wicked enough to provide any real threat to the Kadam family.  A scene where Hassan and Mallory make an omelette together, although seductively filmed, requires quite a bit of suspension of belief.  As Hassan's hands are bandage due to burns, he and Mallory make the Omelette of the gods, he directs and she does the work.  After she tastes the omelette, she declares him her new chef and wants him to join her staff.  I get that some people have the culinary gift; however, I have watched enough of the food channel to know that cooking is an art that requires a certain level of skill and technique that a chef must have to create delicious food.  

The Hundred-Foot: Charlotte Le Bon | A Constantly Racing Mind

Manish Dayal is a handsome American actor of Indian descent that portrays the young Hassan with a certain blend of down to earthiness, and that of a dreamer and romantic.  However, as a chef, I didn't see the hustle and the frenetic rushing around that I see and hear about in highly regarded restaurants.  I didn't see any of what Anthony Bourdain calls, "a mix of unwavering order and nerve shattering chaos.”  Instead, the kitchen scenes were mostly fluid and beautifully choreographed like a ballet.  Charlotte Le Bon's Marguerite is smart, pretty, but somewhat naive.  But perhaps that is what this world needs is a bit more innocence.  
"Just because I ask for a discount doesn't mean I am poor.  It means I am thrifty." ~ Papa Kadam
The character I liked the most was Papa, played by renowned Indian actor Om Puri.  Puri has won many awards in own country and was awarded the Order of the British Empire by the Queen of England for his work in the British film Industry.  Obstinate and determined to bring to Europe the best that his culture has to offer.  Papa is both a superstitious and a pragmatic man, who deals with his family's expulsion from India, and setbacks in starting his restaurant with determination and hope.  As part of the diversity lesson that this film wants us to keep in mind, getting to know Om Puri is a delight and asks the question, can we see more actors that are Indian in Western films.  

The lessons that Hallström, and for that matter, Spielberg and Winfrey want to get across is that diversity is good, and should be welcomed, rather than feared and abhorred.  Yes, all of that is good, however, at some point in the film, I began to feel oppressed withe message.  Another theme that "The Hundred-Foot Journey" wants to instill is that no matter where you seek for happiness you will always find it in your own home, if you just look carefully.  I call this the "The Blue Bird" effect.  Based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck and a 1940 film starring the late Shirley Temple Black, where taking a long and arduous journey that leads you back to your own home.  Most of the film is fantastical in a contrived sort of way.  The journey in this film is the meeting of cultures, mindsets, and the search for happiness that is clearly only 100 feet away.  If you believe in miracles then this film is for you.  That is probably why we need to see films like this from time to time, to get a moral and spiritual pick-me-up.  If anything at all, watching this film has inspired me to read the book.

Movie Data
Genre: Drama
Year:  2014
Staring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon
Director: Lasse Hallström
Producer(s): Juliet Blake, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey
Writer: Steven Knight, Richard C. Morais (novel)
Rating: PG
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: 8/8/2014

Friday, August 8, 2014

Calvary: Focusing on the Virtues In Life

Calvary: Poster | A Constantly Racing MindGod is great, the limits of his mercy have not been set  ~  Father James Lavelle

W hat do you say about a film that starts with two men in a confessional and ends with one of those men ends up dying on a beach a week later. "Calvary" is a drama set in Ireland, and explores the sins of the Catholic Church, a town's utter hypocrisy, and a priest's desire to rise above it all and provide comfort and solace to his people.  Brendan Gleeson ("28 Days Later," "Cold Mountain," "The Guard," “The Edge of Tomorrow”) stars as Father James Lavelle.  He is a Catholic priest in a small rural parish in Sligo, Northern Ireland.  The town sports a variety of characters from the adulteress, to her lover and her husband, the morally corrupt millionaire, to a serial murderer, an American writer, a cynical coke snorting doctor, and a fellow priest lacking in integrity.  Above all, Father James's daughter (before he joined the priesthood) is staying with him after a suicide attempt.  With all this on his plate, the good Father must also deal with his own impending death.  This isn't a film for kids.  This is a film about life and as such there is plenty of swearing, priests included, and as such the film gets an R rating.  

Writer and director, John Michael McDonagh, opens the film with a startling and disturbing scene.  While in confession, Father James hears the story of one his parishioner's molestation and rape when the man was only seven.  When Father James asks if the confessor wants to file a complaint, the man says that the priest has been dead many years now.  Not willing to seek counseling, the man wants revenge and says, “Killing a bad priest isn't a big deal, but if you kill a good priest, people take notice."  The man tells Father James that he has until the following Sunday to put his affairs in order and to meet him on the beach.

Shaken, but undaunted, Father James goes on with his life, and his work.  He says Mass on Sunday; giving communion to the people he serves.  He half-heartedly accuses Mícheál (Michael Og Lane), his alter boy, of stealing booze and putting too much wine in the communion cups.  He sees the boy later on the beach drawing a picture of the beach.  However, in his picture there are two extra people in the scene.  Father James asks him about them, and the boy replies, "I’ve been having a lot of dreams about ghosts lately."

Father James works with Father Leary (David Wilmot), a man whose convictions as a priest are sometimes less than desirable.  He's a gossip, he is more concerned with money than with people, he is racist, and he is too detached from the people he serves.  James tells the priest that their duty is to provide solace for their flock.  Later, James determines that although he doesn't hate this Father Leary, he finds the man lazy, and utterly lacking in integrity.

Calvary: Kelly Reilly and Brendan Gleeson| A Constantly Racing Mind

Although Father James Lavelle is a simple man, he wasn't always a priest.  He once was a husband and a father.  After his wife died, he entered the ministry.  His damaged daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly - "Flight," "Eden Lake"), tried to commit suicide and failed.  She is coming to stay with her father while she thinks about her life.  Her father is genuinely happy to see her.  He tells his daughter that she sliced her arm across the wrist rather than going lengthwise down the arm.  He was joking.  Fiona is obviously troubled and in need of counsel.  Father James spends much of his off time with his daughter when he isn't attending to his parishioners.

Veronica Brennan (Orla O'Rourke) has a black eye, and is having an affair with Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), an immigrant from the Ivory Coast.  Her husband James (Chris O'Dowd - "Bridesmaids," "Thor: The Dark World"), is the town's butcher and claims not only that he knows about his wife's infidelity, but that he likes the arrangement.  He blames the black eye on Simon, but that his wife crazy, and that she is either "bi-polar or lactose intolerant.”  Father James meets with Simon afterward, trying to figure out who actually smacked Veronica.  James is more concerned with stopping the abuse, and not so much with the adultery.  Approaching Simon about the beating, their conversation gets mildly heated and Simon flicks a cigarette at him and it lands on Father James coat.  In a Christ like manner, the priest brushes it away as Simon threatens him to mind his own business.  

"It will be black day when the Catholic Church has no interest in money.”  ~ Michael Fitzgerald

The town includes a millionaire by the name of Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran -- "Shaun of the Dead," "Run, Fatboy, Run," "Notting Hill") whose general detachment to everyone have left alone and spiteful, and now he spends his days drinking, shooting skeet, and being a general prick.  He wants the father to visit him about a financial arrangement.  Upon arrival at his mini castle, Fitzgerald torments Father James and ridicules the man, his faith, and ultimately God.  In his drunken rant, he urinates on a painting of the "Ambassadors" by Hans Holbein.  Why not, as Father James points out, "You pissed on everything else." 

Each incident that the priest encounters on his last week on Earth becomes a mockery of his faith in one way or other.  In each case he tries to stay calm, rational, and allow the insults, the cynicism and anger pass over him.  On his way to the beach one day, he encounter a young girl (Anabel Sweeney) of about 8 or 9 years-old.  He has idle chitchat with the girl, but when they approach a cross roads, a car pulls up to a screeching halt and an angry man jumps out yelling at his daughter to get in the car.  He threatens the priest to stay away from kids.  Gleeson does a wonderful job of showing both the anger and the pity for his fellow man.  

The town doctor, Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen - "Games of Thrones") calls for Father James to come to the hospital to give the last rites to a man who was in a car wreck with some drunken teens.  He meets briefly with the dying man's wife and then he does his duty for the man.  The drunken kids ended up in the morgue.  Father James takes some time to minister to the deceased man's wife, Teresa.  They talk about life, death, religion, and faith.  Teresa asks about what in life is fair.  Ultimately, they both conclude that life is not unfair, it is, “just what happens."  Outside the hospital, the arrogant and cocky Harte quips that, he, the "Atheist doctor is a cliché," and would rather be in Father James's shoes, the pious priest.  Instead he is cursed with, "one part humanist, nine parts gallows humor." 

Calvary:Brendan Gleeson as Father James Lavelle | A Constantly Racing Mind

Even the youth of the town are disturbed, and skeptical about their future.  Milo (Killian Scott), tells the priest that he feels he only has two options in life.  Either he can join the army or he can kill himself.  Father James is surprised at this revelation and talks more to Milo.  Being unable to talk to girls, Milo feels that he has little recourse in his life.  The priest, of course, tells him that suicide isn't a good idea nor is joining the army.  The priest tells the youth, "I've always felt there's something inherently psychopathic about joining the army in peace time, as far as I'm concerned, people join the army to find out what it’s like to kill someone.  I hardly think that's an inclination that should be encouraged in modern society, do you?"

His encounter at the prison with serial murderer Freddie Joyce doesn't go well either.  Freddy killed many people but is unable to tell the police where the last body is found.  Initially he shows no remorse and uses the excuse that he was "tripping on LSD" for his memory failure.  Joyce also talks about how he ate the flesh of his victims.  He then tells Father James he is sorry.  Domhnall Gleeson is Brendan' Gleeson's son, and he plays this scene opposite his father, with a tone of underlying mockery, and Gleeson’s reaction is one of disgust as Joyce breaks down crying.

Of all the people in the town, Father James doesn't catch a break.  The town’s people come to him with their problems, and for solace, but not for repentance.  They wallow in their own, cynicism, and their own sense of hypocrisy.  Two beings that Father James encounters during this week show the benevolent priest respect and kindness.  The first is his dog, whom somebody later that evening slits the poor animals throat.  In despair, James sobs in despair at what a human did to the innocent animal.  The second is an old man only known as "The Writer."  Played by M. Emmett Walsh, he is an American getting on in years and is writing his next novel.  The first time we meet him, he is in his home, and the priest pays him a visit.  Father James brings him some gifts of food and a book the old man requested.  The next request the Writer asks of Father James is the Walther PPK.  The Walther, the Writer explains is the gun that James Bond used.  Asking why he would want such a gun when there really isn’t any crime in Silgo?  The old man replied that he wasn't planning on waiting to become old and feeble.  Father James takes this information in with a quiet understanding.  He doesn't scold or admonish, just says he doesn't think it is a good idea, but he will see what he could do.  

Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), the town detective has a rather odd relationship with the priest.  When Father James drops by on 'personal business,' he finds the inspector entertaining a Leo, a gay prostitute, or, is that the other way around.  Leo, not only shows the priest no respect, he offers to have sex with the man while he wears his vestments.  Because, Leo says, he knows that's how priests like it.  The reason for him being there is that he wants to ask the Inspector for a gun. However, Father James doesn't tell him why he needs it nor does he report the threat.  As leader of his parish, he knows who threatened him, yet I believe that Father James denies in his heart that the man will actually do him harm. 

Calvary:Brendan Gleeson  and Chris O'Dowd | A Constantly Racing Mind
The beleaguered priest deals with just about all of the seven deadly sins and makes his way through a symbolic journey of each of the Stations of the Cross.  He is condemned at the beginning, and director McDonagh even names Veronica and Simon after two onlookers who are at the stations.  The heavy overtones of religion are offset by semi-comical interactions and quirky dialog offered by the townsfolk.  On one level, McDonagh serves an indictment of the Catholic Church in general, and organized religion as a whole.  The characters reflect a certain sense of absurdness and nihilism in that they tend to accept the institute of religion on one hand, and revile it with their passivity.  Father James Lavelle isn’t perfect, far from it.  He is as human as the rest of us.  A Couple of nights after someone burns down the church, the priest, who so far has abstained from drinking alcohol (because he likes it too much) when he visits the local pub, in his anger and depression, gets drunk.  He lashes out at the tavern owner (Pat Shortt), who punishes the priest with a cricket bat.  

Brendan Gleeson does a remarkable job as Father James.  The passion in the character seems to come from the heart.  He plays a noble man with a noble heart amongst sinners whose real sin is that of the pursuit of pure selfish and hedonistic lifestyles with no care for their fellowman.  Gleeson’s strong performance not only carries the film, but also guides the audience (from any nation) along in this crazy Irish community.  Chris O'Dowd, Jack the butcher and Veronica’s husband, hails from the Silgo area, and although known for comedic roles in the past, turns in an angry, passive aggressive performance.  Dylan Moran’s performance is also the opposite of what on may expect of the comedic actor.  His sense of detachment to humanity fits well in this tale woe.  Larry Smith’s cinematography captures the beauty of Ireland, and the cloud of depression that hangs in the fog.

Although the ending is shocking in its violence and anger, it was in some ways anticipated.  Not that McDonagh’s film is predictable, not at all.  However, as the title of the film implies, “Calvary” is the place where one man atones for the sins of all of humanity.  On various levels, we learn from Father James, that there are good men and women of the cloth and not all of them fall into the stereotypes of pedophile priest and viciously mean nuns.  “Calvary” has a message that not everyone will be able to sit through, that not all people who hold positions in the religious community, are self-righteous hypocrites, but that they are human beings, failed and weak.  Instead of focusing on all the sins of the town, or the world for that matter, Father James thinks it is better to focus on the virtues of life. The first one, Lavelle says should be forgiveness.  The character of Father James, is one we can identify whether we are religious or not, Christian or not, Catholic or not, and the films McDonagh’ ending may not sit well with all audiences but it will make you think and perhaps rethink your worldview.

Movie Data
Genre: Drama
Year:  2014
Staring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Isaach De Bankolé, David Wilmot, Orla O'Rourke
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Producer(s): Alexandre Aja, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Cathy Schulman
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: 8/8/2014

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Horns: Daniel Radcliffe Grows A Pair

In 2010, author Joe Hill wrote a book called "Horns."  It was Hill's second novel and he filled wit with Gothic horror,  love, lies, murder,  theology, and a touch of comedy and  magical realism. 

Daniel Radcliffe ("Harry Potter" franchise) stars as Ig Perrish. One year after the murder and rape of his girlfriend, Merrin Williams (Juno Temple), Ig begins to sprout a pair of horns. Although there was not enough evidence to try or convict him, he is now the town pariah.  As the horns begin to form and grow, Ig finds that he has some uncanny powers with the town's people. He uses this power to figure out who the real murderer of his girlfriend.

"Horns" is directed by Alexandre Aja. Aja is both a producer and a writer as well as a director. His directorial credits include 2006's "The Hills Have Eyes," "Mirrors" in 2008, and "Piranha 3D" in 2010. Aja also co-wrote the screenplays for those films as well.

In the trailer below, Ig promises Merrin  to love her forever.  Then Ig's world turns upside down when she is murdered.  The town accuses him but he goes free.  As his horns begin to grow, the people of the town tend to tell him their darkest secrets, whether he wants to hear them or not.  At one point, reporters want an exclusive story from him and Ig promises them that if they fight it out amongst themselves, he will give the winner the story.  The strange part is that the people don't out-right string him up or burn him as a demon.

Just over two hours long, "Horns" premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year and is making its US debut on Halloween, 2014.  

Movie Data
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller
Year:  2014
Staring:  Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Kelli Garner, Joe Anderson
Director: Alexandre Aja
Producer(s): Alexandre Aja, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Cathy Schulman
Writer: Keith Bunin, Joe Hill (novel)
Rating: Not Rated Yet
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Date: 10/31/2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hercules: Cliched, Flawed But Entertaining

Hercules - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind"A man who wants nothing has no price."  - Cotys

I don't know how many movies and TV series (around 38) based on the Greek Heracles and the Roman Hercules.  Some are comedies like "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" and some are some are spoofs like the 1933 "The Warrior's Husband."  Some Hercules movies end up being ridiculous like the 1969 low budget attempt titled “Hercules in New York," played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Dwayne Johnson's "Hercules" turns out to be far above these aforementioned films that Brett Ratner's take may actually feel a bit encouraging.  Although not an epic film, Johnson's portrayal, although sometimes stiff, is actually decent.  Almost epic battle scenes and a slightly above average story based somewhat on the Steve Moore penned comic "Hercules: Thracian Wars," "Hercules" makes a fun Saturday popcorn action-adventure film.  Perfectly timed at a one hour and thirty-two minutes, the film is rated PG-13 for the aforementioned battles and the one swear word that the film could have done without.

I grew up reading Greek Mythology.  In doing so, I learned that various versions and translations exist and I have come to understand that part of Greek literature was a means of teaching lessons and values.  Brett Ratner's "Hercules" in spite of its obvious flaws, tongue in cheeks jokes doesn't exactly that, and just a tad more.  Since working his way out of the gladiator pit of the World-Wide Wrestling Federation in the late-late nineties, Dwayne Johnson has been working at the acting craft and has turned his presence into something more likeable then the horribly digitized Scorpion King in the "The Mummy Returns" in 2001.  He is good at action, we know that and he is good a lighthearted comedy, so it seems this version of Hercules is right for him. 

Hercules - Dwayne Johnson | A Constantly Racing Mind
In this version of Hercules, the year is 358 BCE and the place is Macedonia.  Hercules nephew Iolaus played by Reece Ritchie ("10,000 BC," "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time") gives his capturers the run down on how this Hercules is.  Apparently, Hercules is not the man of mythic legends -- yet.  This is not so much an origin story about the man but more of the legend.  By the time we catch up with Hercules we also find that he doesn't travel alone.  Instead, he travels with a merry band of mercenaries whose clichéd characters are just that.  None of Hercules supporting characters are well defined and relies on their tropes to enable the audience to recognize them.  Atalanta, for instance, is an Amazonian warrior woman, and like “Xena: Warrior Princes,” she is tough and hardcore.  Also like Xena, her companions don’t objectify her, but instead, respect her. Refreshing, huh?   Ingrid Berdal ("Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters ") plays Atalanta more like a Legolas type with bow and an unlimited supply of arrows and moves to match.  Aksel Hennie a fellow citizen of Berdal, the Norwegian actor is Tydeus, a strong and silent warrior.  Found as a child by Hercules in the city of Thebes.  The child was the only survivor after the towns people were raided and slaughtered.  Chained up at night because he tends to thrash around in his nightmares, Tydeus is actually an able warrior.  Autolycus is Hercules oldest friend, once roamed the streets as orphans as kids.  Rufus Sewell ("Dark City") does a decent job with scant material.  The standout performer of Hercules compatriots is Ian McShane as Amphiaraus, the warrior wizard.  A bit like Merlin, he is a seer who knows the moment of his death -- supposedly.  McShane recently played Blackbeard in the latest installment of the Johnny Depp vehicle "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." 

"We will fight for you, and we will die for you!"  ~ Atalanta

John Hurt is always busy these days.  The 74 year-old actor whose 189  film and television credits include the classic sci-fi horror film "Alien," David Lynch's "The Elephant Man," and "V for Vendetta.”  He played Winston Smith, the doomed revolutionary in the George Orwell adaptation of "1984,"  Hurt played in the "Harry Potter," and  "Hellboy" franchises and he co-starred in the much maligned "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."  He played Hrothgar in the science fiction version of “Beowulf,” titled "Outlander."  Here he plays Lord Cotys of Thrace, the seemingly beleaguered noble leader of the downtrodden Thracians.  Hurt plays Cotys very serious and is almost believable in his piety and desire for a better Thrace.  His daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson) is the dutiful daughter of whose job it is to entice Hercules to come and fight Cotys' enemies for him.  She has a son, Arius (Isaac Andrews), who is about the same age as one of Hercules's dead kids.  Peter Mullan ("Trainspotting," "War Horse") is Cotys's general and current military leader who eyes Hercules with disdain.  Joseph Fiennes ("Enemy at the Gates," "Luther") plays King Eurystheus of Athens, Hercules cousin and benefactor.

Hercules - Dwayne Johnson & Ian McShane | A Constantly Racing Mind

The story has nothing to do with Hercules' 12 labors of myth and legend.  In fact, as the audience finds out, these stories are the invention of Iolaus' imagination and his insistence at being Hercules walking public relations manager.  In fact, he is very good at it.  Iolaus turns the victories of the group into the victory of the one and fuels the flame of myth. At one point, I thought he was going to tell me that the leather armor was made out of "fine Corinthian leather."
The other four go along because it makes vanquishing their enemies easier if they think that Hercules is more than a man.  After Ergenia's urging, the gold seeking mercenaries come to Thrace and have an audience with Cotys.  Hercules accepts the role of training Cotys’ and Sitacles' (Mullan) rag-tag army.  They do this primarily by teaching the hapless soldiers to lock their feet and brace their shields for impact.  This is pretty much the basis, of the strategy (a good one by Greek and Roman hoplite convention) when Hercules shouts "Shield Wall!"

"You think you know the truth about him?  You know nothing!” ~ Amphiaraus

Much of what happens in "Hercules" is seen in films like "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe, or "King Arthur" with Clive Owen.  Like "Game of Thrones," there is treachery, there are battles and the death of his family haunts the hero.  Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos' script works to reduce the character of Hercules to its bare essence.  Is he a man?  A legend, or was he just a myth.  Although there isn't any epic battles against fantastical creatures (except told in the beginning by Iolaus) the battle scenes are done pretty well when seen from above.  From ground view, the action is realistic and the gore level is turned down to an appropriate PG-13 level.  Musically, Fernando Velázquez ("Mama," "Devil") score works for this film as it not only holds the scenes together but gets the audiences adrenaline rushing as well.  It takes many Special Effects Houses to create a film like this because there is just so much.  Many of the VFX are fine, but in places (snakes slithering from Hera's eyes) are not up to par. 

Hercules - Dwayne Johnson & Ingrid Bolsø Berdal & Reece Ritchie & Rufus Sewell | A Constantly Racing Mind

The plot twists are predictable, the jokes are corny, and the dialog is cheesy.  For the most part this works on one level, but is lacking in others.  Ian McShane works hard with what he has, does a reasonably good job in propping up with the dialog, and plays it kind of tongue in cheek.  For example, when a burning javelin is flying toward his chest, which he predicted, he opens his arms and welcomes his death.  Just as the music rises, ready to crescendo, Johnson snatches the javelin from the air, and Amphiaraus says, "Do you mind?  I was having a moment!”  Johnson does well in these types of sword and sandals flicks.  Unlike "300" and its sequel, I don't think Brett Ratner is actually working to reach the grandeur of either "Gladiator" or "King Arthur."  Instead, Ratner seems to know his place and gives us just enough story to keep us interested, just enough action to keep us from being bored, just enough corny dialog to let us know that this film isn't serious, and just enough of Johnson's charisma to keep us watching.  This is a fun film and entertaining film, but if you are looking for something profound, this isn't it.  What you will get out of this is a lesson on friendship, loyalty, honor, and integrity.  If you get that much out of "Hercules," then it is definitely worth watching.

Movie Data
Genre: Action, Adventure
Year:  2014
Staring: Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Reece Ritchie
Director: Brett Ratner
Producer(s): Beau Flynn, Barry Levine, Brett Ratner
Writer: Ryan Condal, Evan Spiliotopoulos, Steve Moore (comic)
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date:  7/25/2014

Friday, August 1, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: We Are Groot - Review of James Gunn's Epic Space Opera

The publicity Marvel (and Disney) have put into getting the word out for James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy," you would think that this new franchise is something close to the second coming of the messiah -- and they may be right.  Well, maybe not, but close.  Unlike other Marvel properties like "Thor," "Captain America," the "Hulk," and "Iron Man" along with their auxiliary characters who survive in a more serious universe; Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot exist in a galaxy of danger, romance, nostalgia, friendship, and humor.  Just like the real world, kind of.  "Parks and Recreation's" Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and wrestler Dave Bautista star as the live actors in Marvel's new franchise.  Yes Virginia, there is a sequel.  As of opening date, Marvel has already green lit a sequel.  Vin Diesel ("Pitch Black," "Fast and Furious") and Bradley Cooper ("American Hustle," "Limitless") voice the two best characters in this extravaganza.  "Guardians of the Galaxy" has some mild swearing, nothing a 13 year-old already hears at school (public) and the film runs a tad over two hours.  Don't forget to stay until the very end of the film for the short clip after the credits. 

For fans of the printed comics, let me be clear, this version is a new retconned version of what Guardian fans may know.  As far as the comics go, all bets are off and each of the Guardian’s past are different from the print version.  This is a new origin story for a new film franchise.

Gunn sets the tone immediately in the first two scenes of the film.  10 year-old Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) is facing the worse day of his life.  His mother (Laura Haddock) lies dying.  A victim of cancer, she wants to say goodbye to her son.  Walkman turned up, we hear 10cc's "I'm not In Love."  His grandpa (Gregg Henry) brings him into the room where his mom wants to hold her son's hand and let him know that things will be okay.  Melodramatic?  Most assuredly it is.  Does it work?  Most assuredly it does.  His mom tells him things to assure him that everything will be all right, and that his father will come for him one day.  She describes his father as an angel.  Peter, in his anguish, runs out into the fog, where he is beamed up into an alien craft.  

It is now 26 years later, and Quill (Pratt) is an adult now, a womanizer and a thief.  This is a stereotype that Quill sheds somewhere in the second act.  On the planet Morag, the tone of the scene is dark and serious, but the mood changes quickly as Quill puts on his earphones and blasts Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love."  The tone is set, as Quill dances his way to the temple where an orb resides.  Inside, Peter takes the orb and begins to leave.  Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and crew immediately set upon him.  First, he tries talking his way out of the mess invoking the name Star-Lord.  Failing that, Quill opts for a quick gun battle and ends up on the run.  Pratt plays Quill with all the likable humor and candor of Nathan Fillion of "Firefly" or the recently passed James Garner.  Already we know who this character is and we know we like him.  

"I look around and you know what I see? Losers!... But life's giving us a chance." Peter Quill

James Gunn and writing partner Nicole Perlman's characters in "Guardians of the Galaxy" are flawed and broken.  Quill, a victim of kidnapping, still holds on to the memory of his dead mother.  Gamora Saldana) has issues with the dark lord Thanos, who murdered her family and her whole race in front of her when she was a young child.  He trained and genetically altered her as an assassin, the day for her to seek revenge on Thanos has come.  Action scenes are not new for Zoe Saldana.  In “Colombiana,” she is a vicious killer, and in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” she kicks plenty of Klingon asses.  Playing the green colored Gamora, is not very different, no real stretch for her.  Gamora, and Saldana for that matter, are equal in every way to their male characters and fellow actors.  She leads at times, and sometimes she follows, but she is a presence that demands attention.

Drax (Bautista) is a slave to the memory of his dead wife and child.  No need to go into great depth in defining these characters, we know these types already.  We know what to expect.  I must note that the world from where Drax comes from has no sense of metaphor.  This lack of colloquialisms provides some humorous exchanges.  Bautista’s acting lessons are paying off, and he brings more life into the dry humorless Drax than he did with the Diaz character in last year’s “Riddick.”  Dave is likeable, and his dry wit is amiable.  
Asleep for the danger, awake for the money - Rocket to Groot
Groot (Diesel) and Rocket (Cooper) are two characters that in ways transcend their stereotypes.  Rocket and his bodyguard Groot always travel together.  Rocket is a raccoon, short, and tough.  Bradley Cooper does an excellent job bringing this Joe Pesci-like character to life.  He is the leader, and Groot, happily follows along.  Rocket, like Pesci, could be abusive to the childlike Groot, but of course, he never really means those insults.  Groot is a humanoid tree-like alien.   Vin Diesel has only one line, and it consist of only three words, I am Groot, exactly in that order.  Diesel puts his heart in soul into those words.  Every time Groot utters those words, the audience feels that emotion.  Groot is full of surprises and in the end, one of the most loveable of the Guardians.  

Marvel's new galaxy contains very interesting characters, and Gunn has interesting actors playing them.  For example, Quill is beholding to a blue colored alien character named Yondu Udonta.  Yondu is part villain, part father figure to Quill, played delightfully by Michael Rooker ("Cliff Hanger," "The Walking Dead").  He has and uses his Yaka Arrow that he controls by whistling.  Quill decides that he is going to break free from Yondu's hold and go on his own.  This, of course, is not suitable for Yondu and he puts a bounty on Quill's head.  Ultimately, Yondu’s character is the stereotypical not-so-bad-bad-guy. 

Gunn spends less time building the characters of the true villains in this film.  Probably because they won't be around for the next film.  Ronan the Accuser is both a military leader and a religious zealot of the Kree.  Think Tea Party if you must if that gets the point across.  By the way, similar in nature to the Judeo-Christian adversary -- accuser is another term used in relationship to Satan.  Lee Pace ("The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Soldier's Girl") plays this character with much of the same grandeur that Darth Vader held in "Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope."  Covered in makeup, a black hood, with dialog, that borders on cheesy at times, may be the least developed character in this film.  All we know is that this guy has issues with the Xandarians, and wants to wipe them out.  Djimon Hounsou ("Gladiator," "Blood Diamond") portrays Korath the Pursuer.  His part is small, and we just know that he is Ronan's henchmen.  Nebula (Karen Gillan), another adopted daughter of Thanos, is partly a cyborg.  Unlike Gamora, Nebula is devoted to Thanos and wants his approval.  Those of us who don’t follow the comics, have very little clue to who these baddies are, however, it isn’t necessary to enjoy the film.  But it doesn't hurt to know more.  
Well, on my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It's called Footloose. And in it, a great hero, named Kevin Bacon, teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.Peter Quill
Story wise, the plot for "Guardians of the Galaxy," is simple, keep the Orb with the Infinity Stone within, away from Ronan the Accuser, firstly and Thanos secondly.  Failing to do that, the story shifts to plan B, and becomes defensive.  Protect the planet Xandar and the Xandarians.  However, with this story getting from point A to point B takes some scenic routes.  The five main characters come together on Xandar, but bond in the Kryl prison.  Peter Quill doesn’t value much, but he does value his Walkman and the cassette labeled Awesome Mix Vol. 1 inside.  During the prison-processing scene, Quill is willing to get his ass kicked to Blue Swede’s version of “Hooked on a Feeling.”  He is willing to die for that machine, and the music.  However, it isn’t until the end of the film that we really know why.  Wearing prison yellow, the group plans an escape.  Under Rocket’s direction, each member must go on a scavenger hunt for parts to use in their escape.  What makes this whole whacky escape plan sublime, is the final execution.  The plot includes space and aerial battles, a meeting with The Collector (Benicio Del Toro),  personal battles where each of the Guardians takes on a baddie.  A little bit of romance, not much really.  And scenes that are touching, and funny.

None of the main characters is set up as comic relief; however, they all are funny at different times.  They all are also serious at times, and each can hold their own in combat.  Each has skillsets and likeable traits that the audience can relate to.  And they all have issues that their characters must work through in less than two hours.  A credit to Gunn and Pearlman is their ability to balance comedy, drama, and action in a way that appeals to both kids and adults.  Not everything in “Guardians of the Galaxy” is in your face hilarious.  Some of the best and most touching moments come subtly.  A simple scene that evokes emotion is Groot plucking a flower from himself and presenting it to a little girl.  Or another gesture from Groot, where he places a limb/hand on Drax’s shoulder in a time of despair speaks volumes about the characters.

I have been mentioning various songs from the 1970’s throughout this review.  The music is important and James Gunn understands that.  Not only are the tunes catchy and nostalgic, the music roots the character to a timeframe and feel-good emotions that a kid and the audience can relate to,   Tyler Bates score, although glorious and grand at times, is not quite that memorable.  When I walked out of “Star Wars” as a kid, I was humming the tune as I rode my bike home.  When I hear the tuba, I think get out of the water, I think “Jaws.”  

When thinking about epic space battles today, it is hard, because of the legacy of “Star Wars.”  In 1977, the attack on the Death Star was epic and exciting.  Chasing the Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field was mind blowing in 1980, and the final battle in “Return of the Jedi,” set a new standard that all space battle either comes close but rarely beat.  In the case of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the special effect meets the standard but doesn’t surpass it.  
I have lived most of my life surrounded by my enemies. I would be grateful to die surrounded by my friends. - Gamora
Nostalgic and fun, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is probably the best family film that I have seen in a while; at least for this year.  Gunn and Pearlman wrote a story that although is comic bookish at times, is overall both hilarious and entertaining.  This is a spectacle that deserves the theater experience; at least for the first viewing.  I particularly enjoyed the songs in the film.  I even liked the affability of the Guardians, even when they were at their worst.  We are all Groot.

No raccoons or tree creatures were harmed during the making of this film.


Movie Data
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Year:  2014
Staring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace
Director: James Gunn
Producer(s): Kevin Feige
Writer: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date:  8/1/2014