Monday, May 25, 2015

Top Ten War Films for Memorial Day 2010: Which Ones Will You Be Watching?

When I was a kid, every year on Memorial Day, my dad and I would watch war pictures on TV.  We normally would see a John Wayne WWII film, or a Civil War picture.  This year, I am choosing from my DVD collection of my favorite war films in remembrance for those who gave their lives to defend my right to share my opinion.  First off, I am leaving off a couple of films that I think everyone would agree are appropriate Memorial Day film classics -- "Saving Private Ryan," and of course "Band of Brothers."  The networks are still airing these films every six months, often enough to warrant a search for something ageless and nostalgic.  So, here are my top ten war films for Memorial Day.

The American Revolutionary War

The Patriot: Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger | A Constantly Racing Mind
The Patriot (2000) -- Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, and Chris Cooper

A Rolland Emmerich epic of the American Revolutionary war, depicting through fictional characters, some slightly more historic battles in the southern colonies of the Carolina's during America's fight for independence of British rule.  This film brings the atrocities of the war home during the scenes of the British Invasion.  Told from the point of view of a veteran of the French Indian Wars, (George Washington started that one, by the way.) renouncing violence, a widower, and turning to running his plantation, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), just wants to raise his family of four boys and three girls.  Martin receives an invitation to join a meeting in Charlotte to discuss a decision to rebel against King George of England.  Benjamin Martin is against it, "Why should I trade a tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile a way."  A good point, if you honestly think about it.  However, his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), enlists against his will, and serves for two years before reuniting with his family.  The reunion is only because he is traveling through his father's plantation, as the war has come to his home.  The villainous lead in "The Patriot" is played with realism, and cruelty by Jason Isaacs ("Event Horizon") as Col. William Tavington, in charge of the British Light Dragoons (cavalry). He is Martin's nemesis throughout the film; a sure bet that there will be blood spilt between those two by the end of the story.  High in drama, quick with the action, light on the romance, and a mush of history, you have almost three hours of epic fun to watch on Monday.

The American Civil War

Gettysburg | A Constantly Racing MindGettysburg (1993) -- Starring Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, and Stephen Lang

Based on "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara, Gettysburg is a long and loving look at the men behind the military campaign that turned the tide of the Civil War for the North.  Told from the points of view of Colonel Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), General James Longstreet (Tom Berenger) and Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen) of the Confederate Army, the film explores both sides of the three-day battle, and the victories and mistakes that the leaders made.  A long movie to be sure, but well worth the time it takes to understand the details of the battles that comprise the campaign.  Like war itself, sometimes boring and endless, till battle starts, and the bullets fly, the man next to you goes down and before you know it the battle is over and you thank God that you are left standing.  Gettysburg may be one of those films that you start on Friday and finish on Monday.

Cold Mountain (2003) -- Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger | A Constantly Racing Mind

Cold Mountain (2003) -- Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger

I have two films from the Civil War era on my list.  "Cold Mountain" is a people drama set against the backdrop of the Civil War but tells the story from the perspective of the people of the south.  Although I like the film for war scenes at the beginning, I like the film more of how it humanizes the people of the south rather than totally vilify them.  I liked Jude Law's performance as the deserting soldier, Natalie Portman's as the young wife of a dead soldier, trying to keep her baby, and herself alive. Both Kidman and Zellweger turn in some very powerful performances as they try to keep their world's from falling apart at home while the war rages. I like the fact that it portrayed both the men of the North and the South as capable of doing evil. Look for a pre-Jax Teller as Charlie Hunnam ("Sons of Anarchy," "Pacific Rim") plays Bosie, one of Teague's (Ray Winstone) henchmen. Overall "Cold Mountain" is a drama at heart, significant others are welcome to enjoy this film too.

World War II
Midway (1976) -- Starring Charlton Heston, 
Midway 1976 | A Constantly Racing MindHenry Fonda, James Coburn, Hal Holbrook, Toshirô Mifune, and an all-star cast.

After the U.S. defeat at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the President of the United States requested and received from Congress, a declaration of war upon the Imperial Nation of Japan.  Less than a year later, in June 1942, while the Japanese continued to push an offensive in the Pacific, the United States prepared for the battle that turned the tides of victory from the Japanese.  By intercepting coded Japanese signals, the U.S.  Navy intelligence, trick the Japanese into naming their next target, the Midway Atoll, a third of the way between the islands of Hawaii and Tokyo, Japan. The small island would make an excellent jumping off point in a campaign to capture Hawaii.  The battle is primarily seen through the character of Captain Matt Garth (Heston).  The film shows the various points of view from each of the different ship's commanders, making the film, quasi-documentary in style.  Leading the Japanese armada towards the island is Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune) and his convoy of four carriers, five battleships, heavy and light cruisers and as the advertising world says and much, much more.  Up against great odds the U.S. Navy rallies together three carriers, 25 support ships and about 360 air and land attack based aircraft.  The battle is epic; the drama is intense; and the archive footage lends a sense of realism to the film.  As a kid, I used to keep track of all the archive footage used in TV shows that came from the film, "Midway."

A Bridge Too Far (1977) -- Starring Sean Connery, James Caan, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier

After Operation Overlord, the landing on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1946, a few months later, the Allied Command implemented Operation Market Garden to take several strategic targets in the Netherlands.  Like the operation itself, "A Bridge Too Far" stars an international cast, including Maximilian Schell as Lt. Gen. Wilhelm Bittrich and Hardy Krüger as Maj. Gen. Ludwig.  Adapted from Cornelius Ryan's book by the same name, the film recounts the disastrous account of the attempt to take northern positions to the Siegfried Line and outflank it.  As the situation slowly unravels, British and American forces do their best to overcome the obstacles and put forth their best efforts.  "A Bridge Too Far" features intense action and suspense, vivid but not gory violence, and a hit musical score by composer and conductor, John Addison.

The Battle of the Bulge | A Constantly Racing Mind
The Battle of the Bulge (1965) – Starring Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, and Charles Bronson, with Telly Savalas

Near the end of World War II, in the Ardennes forest, the German's pushed out for one last offensive during the winter of 1944 - 1945.  Seen from both the German point of view as well as the Allied's, the two forces battle it out -- turning the French snow, blood red.  Lt. Col. Kiley (Henry Fonda) leads the American defense, while Col. Hessler’s (Robert Shaw), Panzer division leads the offensive.  Kiley is an intelligence officer who spends the first part of the film trying to convince his commanders that the Germans are pushing an offensive during the middle of winter.  Allied generals have a hard time accepting that the German's are crazy enough to attack in the middle of winter, at a time when the roads and the weather are not conducive to waging war.  The battles and tactics are inspiring, and for a 40 + year-old film, it still holds it's own, in character building, pacing, story development and a memorable patriotic musical score.

Patton (1970) -- Starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden
Patton | A Constantly Racing Mind

Patton is the story of one of America's best and worst general.  A brilliant tactician, a leader in tank innovations, and a man who didn't know how to keep his mouth shut.  Based on the book "A Soldier's Story" by Omar N. Bradley and introduction by A.J. Liebling, we get Bradley's perspective of the man who was once his superior officer, and how he raced across Europe, defying orders along the way, and who struck fear in the hearts of the German officers and soldiers.  Reprimanded by Ike for slapping a soldier, Patton's apology scene deserves attention in that it shows a man showing how to make an apology.  In this day and age, I think saying I am sorry is an almost forgotten art.  Patton shows the man’s greatness and his flaws.  Patton is inspiring film for all ages.  However, AMC runs Patton every six months, and as much as I like this film, the acting, the charisma that George C. Scott imbues Patton with, I need another year's rest before I can watch this film and enjoy it as much as the film deserves.


We Were Soldiers | A Constantly Racing Mind
We Were Soldiers (2002)  -- Starring Mel Gibson, Sam Elliott, and Madeleine Stowe

Director Randall Wallace's adaptation of the book "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young: Ia Drang - the Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam," written by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.  Like any historical war fiction, this one, although not historically accurate, does allow the viewer a snapshot in time of the mid-sixties escalation of force in Vietnam.  The film shows Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), and trusty Sgt. Major Plumley (Sam Elliott), standing side-by-side training troops that will fight in the first significant battles on Vietnamese soil.  Like "The Green Berets," "We Were Soldiers" tells the story from essentially three points of view, by Hal Moore's -- as he sees the battle, correspondent Joe Galloway's  (Barry Pepper) perspective, and by Hal's wife, Julie.  Madeline Stowe, as the Colonel's faithful wife and partner, shows the audience what life was like for the Army wives, as they received notices from a cab driver that their husbands fell in battle.  The film's production values exceed expectations for war films, with realistic special effects, and a haunting musical score.  Look for "Mad Men's" John Hamm as Capt. Matt Dillon, a minor part, but a glimpse at the actor before his success as ad executive Don Draper.

The Green Berets | A Constantly Racing Mind

The Green Berets (1968) -- Starring John Wayne, Jim Hutton, and David Janssen

Co-directed by Ray Kellogg and John Wayne, "The Green Berets" bring to life Robin Moore's book "The Green Berets: The Amazing Story of the U.S. Army's Elite Special Forces Unit," written by Robin Moore in the sixties, after going through Special Forces training himself.  Always the patriot, The Duke, and friends stride into the war and kick some enemy butt.  Col. Kirby (John Wayne), leads his Green Beret forces to a base camp in the jungle and takes command.  One of the soldiers that Wayne brings along is Sergeant Petersen (Timothy Hutton), the lovable scrounger of the group.  (Every troop seems to have one), and journalist George Beckworth (David Janssen), who comes along for the ride to report on the waste of time and resources by the U.S. government in Vietnam.  What the soldiers do see are the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong upon their own people.  Also, starring as the South Vietnamese Captain, Nim, is "Star Trek's" helmsman, Mr. Sulu -- George Takei.  Filmed in Georgia, doubling for Vietnam, "The Green Berets" shows the heroic acts of the elite military force.  Look for Jack Soo from TV's "Barney Miller."  Included in the cast is Wayne's long-time friend and colleague, Bruce Cabot as Colonel Morgan.  After watching "The Green Berets," one usually comes away from the film with an extreme sense of patriotism, along with a catchy tune, "Ballad of the Green Berets." another Robin Moore contribution to the film and sung by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

Apocalypse Now | A Constantly Racing Mind
Apocalypse Now (1979) -- Staring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, and Robert Duvall

Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam era, psychedelic take on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" that leads Army Cpt. Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) up the Nung river in on a classified mission in pursuit of one Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a Green Beret officer, who apparently went MIA at best, and at worst is psychotic.  "Apocalypse Now" features many notable performances in this film, almost too many to count.  For example, Robert Duval as the gung-ho surfer, Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, leading his Wagner screaming Air Cavalry into enemy territory.  Along with his navy guides, Willard, a deeply troubled man himself, studies the career of the man whose command he was ordered to "terminate, with extreme prejudice."  Included in the over-the-top cast of characters is Dennis Hopper who plays a crazy photojournalist, who worships Kurtz as a god.  Look for a young Laurence Fishburne ("Matrix," "The Signal") as Clean, and Sam Bottom's as the LSD dropping front gunner are amazing.  Look for a cameo of Coppola himself as the TV news director filming on the beach.  In addition, look for a cameo from Harrison Ford as he has makes a brief appearance that took place during breaks between "Star Wars" films.  A clearly disturbing film, it does give one the sense of surrealism of that era.

This list is not in any order of preference; however, I did arrange the films chronologically historically.  I don’t have any movies in this list that represents the War of 1812, Spanish American War, and World War I. One of my favorite films depicting the First World War are "Gallipoli," "All Quiet On the Western Front" staring Lew Ayers. Nor do I have any films representing the Gulf Wars, but that is not to say films like "Jarhead," "The Hurt Locker," or "In the Valley of Elah" shouldn't be overlooked.   Most of the films, selected are based on books by authors whose passion was to make history come alive.  I am sure you may have your own favorite films that have a meaning for you as you start your summer, while that you will be watching while you are barbecuing those tasty ribs or steaks.  Don’t be afraid to comment and post your list for Memorial Day

All photographs belong to their respective studios and distributors

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dracula Untold: A Story That Should Have Remained Untold

Dracula Untold - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind F or the uninitiated, "Dracula," for many is a vampire who wears a black tuxedo and sometimes turns into a bat after he seduces women with his hypnotic stare. He speaks with a Romanian accent and says silly things like, "I want to drink your blood," He is a monster that preys on women, and in a venereal sense, is a creature of lust. However, "Dracula Untold" attempts to tell the story behind the legend and bring to light the historical figure that Bram Stoker hinted at in his 1897 Gothic Horror novel. Luke Evans ("The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," "Immortals") plays the semi-historical Prince Vlad of Transylvania. Sarah Gadon ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2") plays his wife Mirena, and Art Parkinson, little Rickon Stark from the HBO series "Game of Thrones" is Ingeras his son. Although freshmen director Gary Shore and writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless attempt to fill in the details behind the mystery of who Dracula is, they fall short in the history department while trying to make up for it in effort, special effects and action. 

This is the second origins blockbuster film for 2014. The first, "Hercules" staring Dwayne Johnson did a decent job bringing a version of the demigod to the big screen that is a more human and perhaps a more honest view at how we see ancient legends. Bram Stoker gave only a few hints in his novel of who he was basing his dark count on. For instance during one of Jonathon Harker's conversations with the Count, Dracula mentions that his family comes from the proud Székelys, and Boyars who fought Ottoman Turks in defense of his people and their lands. This narrows the field down to Prince Vlad III of Walachia, situated next to the region of Transylvania. Although Stoker displaces Vlad III to the Transylvanian Carpathian Mountains, there was no person other than the reviled Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler. Even more specific is the name Dracula, as Vlad III was a Christian Knight in the Order of the Dragon, or Dracul, or Dragkwlya. As the reputation as the bloodthirsty Prince spread, 400 years later, Irish playwright and theater manager, Bram Stoker, created a vampire story around that legend. Others say that Stoker had his story pretty much outlined when he was looking for a name for his vampire and came upon the bloody prince.

"Dracula Untold" attempts to bring back Stoker's Count by providing the audience with a few morsels of truth about the infamous man behind the legend, as well as plenty of Hollywood myth making tossed in for good measure. In this version, a narrator recounts how Vlad and his brother Radu “The Handsome” were given as political hostages as a children and were educated by the Turks. He learned the Quran, Turkish, literature, logic, and the Art of War. Instead, Sharpless and Sazama turn the atrocious Vlad into a sympathetic anti-hero. Yes, Vlad the Impaler was a Christian Crusader who took up the cross during Pope Pius II's Crusade against the Ottomans, but he did so with such gusto that both friend and foe alike reviled him.  "Untold" presents us with a man born into a cruel world and tries to soften the edges and humanize him. As the narrator tells us, after leaving the captivity of the Turks, and returning to his own lands to reign, he renounces violence, and like Rock’s character in “Hercules,” intends to settle down and become a stay at home prince to his wife and a good and loving father to his son. 

Dracula Untold: Charles Dance - Master Vampire  | A Constantly Racing Mind
After encountering evidence that the Ottoman Turks are on his lands, he and a small band of his men track the Turks to a bat infested mountain cave. Within the cave, they find the bones of humans who have lain there for centuries, along with the recently dispatched Turkish scouts. So many so, that Vlad realizes that something darker abides there. In a decent scene of horror (for a PG-13 movie), Vlad finds a creature who is so strong, but also so monstrous that he files that information for later. Returning to his home, we find that he has a beautiful wife (Gadon) and a well-bred, and unspoiled son (Parkinson) waiting for him to return. Shore allows us to see for ourselves perhaps the reason why Vlad hates the Turks so much as he removes his shirt to reveal horrible scars on his back from the whippings he endured when he was their prisoner.

While he and his family are in the midst of celebrating Easter in his grand hall with both servants and people of his court, Shore  depicts Vlad as a noble and generous prince. The Turks march in and interrupt the feast demanding their tax and levies for their Janissary corps. Janissarys are male children between the ages of 8 and 15 that serve in an elite corps of the Turkish Army. This sets the stage for rest of the film. Vlad is a good person only trying to save his family and his people. He has almost no army, and as he begs Mehmed II to leave his son out this deal, his hate returns with the memories of abuse at Mehmed's father's hands. Dominic Cooper ("Need for Speed," "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter") plays the Sultan Mehmed II who serves not only as the villain, but also as the catalyst that forces Vlad's hand in deciding to turn to the dark side. Returning to the bat cave mentioned earlier, he encounters a very old and ancient evil that may supply him with an answer to his dark prayers. "Game of Thrones" Charles Dance plays the very old Master Vampire. A dark Yoda of sorts, he cautions the young prince on the pitfalls of immortality and the need to feed. Yes, he will become a hero, but many will hate him. Unlike Louis and Lestat in "An Interview with a Vampire," Prince Vlad is given time to decide if he has buyer's remorse. He has three days to defeat the Sultan, however, the need to feed on human blood will become unbearable, but he cannot drink blood in that time. If he does, his change will become permanent. 

What would you do? Would you accept the dark side in order to save your loved ones? Or, would you stay the course and give in to the Sultan and wait until you have built your army? What the film does mention that is more or less historically accurate is that Radu, Vlad's brother, sided with Mehmed during the upcoming battles. From here on out, the "Dracula Untold" becomes a formula action film with somewhat melodramatic bitter sweet doomed romance, and plenty of CGI shenanigans which include Vlad morphing into not just one bat, but into an entire colony of them. The blood and gore is kept to a 21-century minimum, and the horror and thrill are more at an action level rather than going for the paranormal suspense and fear. 

Dracula Untold: Aftermath of Battle | A Constantly Racing Mind

The battle scenes are shot close up in the "Jason Bourne" style of dizzy and frenetic camera work, more of a blur if you will. Luke Evans' acting is stiff at times but conveys the charm of a prince and the brooding weight of responsibility for others. Dominic Cooper's Mehmet isn't around enough to like or dislike the character nor is Cooper's acting is of anything to note. Charles Dance as the creepy and demonic Master Vampire is probably the only real scary part in the whole film. Vlad's son Igneras is just another kid whom the audience are supposed to feel concern over his fate. Unfortunately I didn't. If anything i felt the film was lacking in passion (except for Luke Evans) for the whole film seems to me to be on the same level as Johnathon Harker played by Keanu Reeves, in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” The special effects in “Untold,” in some ways overshadow the story, and not in a good way. Watch if you are looking for an average action film  with just a tad bit of history, stay away if you are looking for that special film that you will remember as an important part of the Dracula cannon. If anything I give the director and writer some points for effort. 

"Dracula Untold" opened in theaters on October 10, 2014 and on DVD and Blu-ray on February 3, 2015.


Movie Data

Genre: Action, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, War 
Year: 2014
Staring: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance
Director: Gary Shore
Producer(s) Michael De Luca
Writer: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Bram Stoker (characters)
Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: 10/10/2012

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Chappie: New Trailer - Cogito Ergo Sum

Director of "District 9" and "Elysium," Neill Blomkamp, has a new trailer out for his latest film "Chappie." 

Chappie, is the artificial being created by Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire," "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel") is like a child becoming aware gradually. CNN's Anderson Cooper introduces the world to these robots meant to act in conjunction with police forces. As stated in the above trailer, they will go into force in 2016. 

Vincent Moore played by Hugh Jackman ("Wolverine," "Prisoners" is a former soldier who is on a crusade against artificial machines taking over the duties of police and soldiers claiming that "they are way too unpredictable."  While professor Wilson is intrigued with a machine that can actually think and feel, Moore is concerned about world domination by sentient machine overlords.

This trailer shows a different side of Blomkamp's new film. The title cards declare that Vincent Moore is "a man corrupted by power," and that Wilson is "a man inspired by change." While the story seems to have Sigourney Weaver playing in her usual role of the woman out to save mankind ("Paul," "The Cabin In the Woods," "Avatar," "Alien," "Aliens," etc.) She tells Moore that, "a thinking Robot could be the end of mankind." She also goes on to command Moore to "destroy that robot," and "burn it to ashes."  

It seems like Patel's Wilson character has gone ahead and done the unthinkable.and gave one of the police scouts the ability to think. Thus creating the conundrum, of creating what could be taken for a sentient being on the same level of humans. 
Cogito ergo sum

I Think Therefore, I am. 
The questions unfold about artificial-intelligence as the technology to create something akin to what we call consciousness looms on the horizon. Chappie declares, "I am alive. I am Chappie." as Chris Clark's haunting, but triumphant melody plays in the background. The real question that Blomkamp is asking, of course, "Is it a child, or the next step in evolution."

Sharlto Copley, the star of "District Nine," and co--star of "Elysium," in a motion capture suit plays Chappie the robot. Also along from the Blomkamp retinue of talent is Trent Opaloch as director of photography. Opaloch's credits include "District,"9" and  "Elysium," for Blomkamp and  "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" for directors Anthony and Joe Russo. 

Look for "Chappie" hits theaters March 6, 2013


Movie Data

Genre:  Sci-Fi, Thriller
Year:  2015
Staring: Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Yo-Landi Visser
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Producer(s): Simon Kinberg
Writer: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
Rating: R
Running Time: Unkown
Release Date: 3/8/2015

Friday, November 28, 2014

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens: First Teaser Trailer

A long time ago, when I was but a child, The Force was present. It changed the way special effects were made, and had a huge social and cultural impact on the world. Then, not too long ago, when my children were young and impressionable, they too felt the force. Now the force has awoken and producer, director, writer, and all around bad-ass  J.J. Abrams has released the first teaser trailer for the recently named seventh installment of George Lucas' epic mythology that captured the minds and hearts of audiences back in 1977. 

When  George Lucas wrote and directed "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope." he drew on all the archetypes basic pattern is found in many narratives from around the world called the "Hero's Journey." Episodes 4 - 6 were, in mind the best of the six. However, say what you will about the prequels, my kids love them.

There isn't an official synopsis yet, as Abrams is a pretty secretive guy. However, you can glean what you can from the trailer. 

In the trailer below, the scene fades from black to the arid desert of what we all presume to be Tatooine. A voice says that, "There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?" Actor John Boyega pops up wearing a Stormtrooper's uniform sans helmet. He is looking panicked, and confused. Boyega turns his back to the camera. Still in the desert, but I guess closer to 

civilization, a droid that looks like a ball with an R2-D2 like semi-spherical top comes rolling past the camera. A platoon of Stormtroopers prepare to disembark into the night. Actress Daisy Ridley mounts a box like speeder and dashes away. Cut to an X-Wing pilot sitting in the cockpit as several X-Wings skim over a lake. A robed person, presumably a Jedi or a Sith, walks away into a dark forrest. He draws his lightsaber -- it is red, but with a handle guard. The voice once again speaks, "The dark side, and the light." John Williams' classic Star Wars theme blasts as the Millenium Falcon screams through the sky banking and rolling as it comes to skim the desert floor as two TIE fighters scream by blasting away. Then the familiar logo that launched a franchise appears on screen. 

I find the whole clip both interesting and disturbing at the same time. Interesting in that like in "Star Trek" we  saw some pretty interesting places that he placed the Enterprise. Here we some X-Wings doing more within the atmosphere. We see some new speeder and droid designs. I find it disturbing in that the Empire still exists or was the Republic was never restored after "Return of the Jedi?"  Lawrence Kasdan, who contributed his writing skills to "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" and "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi" is listed along with Abrams as writers for this installment.

Overall, I am happy to return to that galaxy far, far away and a long time ago.

December 18, 2015 is a long time to wait.

Movie Data
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Year:  2015
Staring:  Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley
Director: J.J. Abrams
Producer(s): J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Kathleen Kennedy
Writer: J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas (characters)
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 
Release Date: 12/18/2015

Thursday, November 20, 2014

John Wick: Just When I Thought I Was Out...

John Wick: Keanu Reeves stars in Derek Kolstad's story - directed by Chad Stahelski's | A Constantly Racing Mind
L ast year Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix," "Speed") made "47 Ronin." The film was a critical and box office disappointment. The story was one of revenge based on a historic event from Japanese history. Sadly, the film was effects heavy but a narrative that lacked a certain amount of coherence as the producers tried to shoehorn Reeves into the story as a half-breed hero. This year Reeves is back with another revenge flick, and this time he doesn't disappoint. It's been a while since we have seen an action film that features some real decent Gun Fu. Perhaps we could count some scenes from Tarantino's "Django Unchained," or perhaps going back to 2010's "Kick Ass." In "John Wick" close quarter combat hasn't looked so good since Christian Bale's Gun Kata scenes in "Equilibrium." "John Wick" is an hour and forty minutes filled with action, a straightforward and compelling story, and some beautiful choreography and a decent body count.

John Wick is a former Hit Man for the Russian Mob. He miraculously left the business and got married. Five years later, his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan – “Battle LA”) dies from cancer. The best years of John’s life are gone; however, knowing that she was dying, Helen buys her husband a small beagle puppy by the name of Daisy. The dog is delivered to John the evening after her funeral. At first, the two are guarded, but John eventually warms up to the gift from his wife. The next day while out getting supplies for his new friend, he stops and gets gas. While filling up his 69 Mustang, a young thug named Iosef played by "Game of Thrones’" Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy), hits John up about buying his car. John, of course, tells him that it's not for sale. Iosef tells John in Russian "everything has a price." John tells him that he doesn't have a price, and he says it in Russian. Later that night, Daisy has to go to the bathroom, and John follows her downstairs. In the dark, five guys in hoodies ambush John. They beat John with a baseball bat and Iosef steals the key to his car. Oh yeah, they also kill his dog. Iosef is the son of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist - "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") a Russian Mafia boss who quietly runs a good portion of the city. When Viggo finds out his son has stolen John's car, he punches his son and tells him that he just made the biggest mistake of his life. John Wick is the Boogeyman. He isn't an assassin per say, as Viggo explains; he is the man that he would send to kill the assassins. John can do the impossible when it comes to killing. 

A man who has lost everything has nothing left to lose and has no problem losing himself in the single-mindedness necessary to fight an all-out war on the mob. Keanu Reeves is back in action hero form as Wick. Derek Kolstad's ("The Package") script introduces some interesting characters. Kolstad only fleshes out Wick's character leaving the rest thinly defined relying on archetypes instead. Willem Dafoe ("Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant") plays Marcus, an assassin and a potential ally or a potential foe. We meet Marcus after Helen's funeral. He comes to the cemetery in the rain to see how John is doing. The thing with the characters that Willem Dafoe plays is that there is always some ambiguity as to what side he is on. After declaring war on his former boss, he knows that Viggo will send men to kill him -- and he does. Later that night, the hit men arrive at John's home, all ninja style. John waits for them in the dark and in a ballet of bullets with John spinning and throwing his targets he claims a quick victory. Afterwards, John calls a cleanup crew as he makes dinner reservations for 12.

John Wick: Keanu Reeves as John Wick and Daisy | A Constantly Racing Mind

The stunt work is incredible in this film and there is a reason for it. First time director Chad Stahelski was Keanu's stunt double in "The Matrix," "The Matrix Reloaded," and "Constantine." Stahelski started in the film industry doing stunts in the early nineties. In fact, he was Keanu Reeves stunt double in "Point Break." Other interesting characters that Kolstad and Stahelski introduce are Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki - "Legion") as a female assassin who doesn't mind breaking the rules, and Charon, the manager of a hotel that caters exclusively to assassins. The Continental Hotel is owned by Winston and played by the charismatic Ian McShane ("Hercules"). He warns John that conducting business on the premises will incur heavy fines. The manager of the hotel, played by Lance Reddick ("Fringe") is both ominous and mystical. Named after the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron in Greek Mythology, Reddick is accommodating to Wick yet retains an aura of otherworldliness. The Continental is in a sense a limbo of sorts.

Much of the action takes place in a nightclub not far from the hotel. As mentioned before, the gunfights are a wonder to behold. Throughout the close quarter battles, John uses a form of the center axis relock system of firearms handling that provides the character with greater stability and maneuverability as he takes on each of Iosef's bodyguards.

As far as the story goes, Wick's motivation for going to war on the Tarasov crime organization is not because of the death of John's dog. Like the 1999 revenge flick "Payback" starring Mel Gibson, the motive is not so much vengeance, but principle. In that film, Gibson's character Porter takes on the Chicago mob because they have $70,000 of his money -- half of what he and his double crossing partner stole from him and gave to the mob. Here the dog is an extension of the emotions and love that he had for his wife, and his wife's love for him. Although John's dead wife is a total cliché, Kolstad twists it slightly to give John a slightly different reason for rage. You could say that "John Wick" is cliché ridden would be an understatement. But that doesn't detract from the entertainment value. Filled with foul language, gore, and violent scenes, "John Wick" is popcorn munching good time. If you aren't able to catch Keanu at the theater, make sure you check him out on Blu-ray or DVD.

Movie Data
Genre: Action, Thriller
Year:  2014
Staring:  Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane
Director: Chad Stahelski
Producer(s): Basil Iwanyk, David Leitch, Eva Longoria, Chad Stahelski, Mike Witherill, Keanu Reeves (executive producer)
Writer: Derek Kolstad
Rating: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: 10/24/2014

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Interstellar: Christopher Nolan's Wrinkle In Time

Interstellar - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
W atching Christopher Nolan's new time twister, "Interstellar," one will find themselves engulfed in a cacophony of ideas, images and concepts that within the first half hour begin to form into a symphony of beauty and wonder. In this Science Fiction-Adventure film, Nolan takes, scientific concepts, and stunning visual effects, intertwining them with a compelling character story about love for humanity that transcends both space and time. Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey (“Contact,” “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) stars as a former test pilot who must leave his family in order to find hope for humankind. Anne Hathaway (“The Dark Knight Rises”) joins McConaughey and two other scientists as they travel through a space-time anomaly that magically appears orbiting Saturn. They must search for a new planet that will sustain the human species as life on Earth is ending. John Lithgow, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain ("Take Shelter," "The Debt," "Mama"), and Michael Caine, co-star in a film where Christopher Nolan pushes cinematic ideas of time and space further, rather than looking into the subconscious, this time he looks farther out into the reaches of space. Be prepared for an almost three hour cinematic event that kids over 13 and adults will enjoy.
"We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt." ~ Cooper
Although no one mentions the timeframe for "Interstellar," one can probably surmise that the opening of the film is taking place somewhere in the second half or near the end of this century. In a sense, this is a post-apocalyptic film where the horrors of worldwide famine have ravaged the population to a more manageable number. War is no longer an issue, and the United States government no longer has a standing army. The screenplay by Jonathon and Christopher Nolan introduce us to the former test pilot, and now a reluctant, and failed farmer played by McConaughey who only goes by his last name, either Coop or Cooper. Perhaps Nolan named him after Gordon Cooper, one of the seven original astronauts in Project Mercury. Coop is the father of two children, a 15 year-old boy by the name of Tom (Timothée Chalamet), and a 10 year-old daughter named Murphy or Murph (Mackenzie Foy). Perhaps Christopher Nolan is referencing Capt. Ed Murphy of Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert. As some allege that, the adage is named for him.

Interstellar - Timothée Chalamet, Mackenzie Foy), and Matthew McConaughey | A Constantly Racing Mind

The kid's mother is dead, and they live with Cooper's father in-law Donald, played by John Lithgow. In the first thirty minutes, Christopher Nolan works to establish the family dynamic and the world they live in. We find that a benevolent “ghost” haunts Murph by knocking books off her shelves. Books in this film are the key to the knowledge of the universe. Cooper is a scientist and only accepts facts and not superstition. We learn quickly that in this world, in order to quash any hope, or the funding of exploring space, society denies that the Apollo moon missions ever took place and was just a grand hoax. At Murph’s school, they have corrected books that explain that the United States never went to the moon, but faked it in order to, "cause the Soviet Union to bankrupt their economy and waste it on building rockets." I believe Nolan added this as one of his many tributes to the famed director Stanley Kubrick. Conspiracy theorist contends that Kubrick shot the Apollo 11 moon landing while filming his space epic. Also, that Kubrick's reason for not following Stephen King's original script for "The Shining," was that he filled it instead with Easter eggs crying out his complicity in the sham. In this world, the government shut down NASA about 10 years prior. The people of Earth are now a “caretaker” society. They focus on finding crops that resist blight, as wheat and rice, and now okra are gone. Corn is the last crop left, and that too is dying. Blight is a term that the Nolans, use to describe a world that is out of balance and nature has turned against humans. 
"We're not meant to save the world. We're meant to leave it," ~ Prof. Brand
The ever-present dust and frequent storms reminds me of "The Grapes of Wrath," and for a few minutes, I was sure I was watching the Ken Burns documentary "The Dust Storm" with interviews of elderly survivors of the new depression caused by famine and drought. The film is however, about how some unseemly interference by a other worldly presence, allow Murph and her dad to discover that humanity hasn't given up on saving the world. After following some clues left in the dust, they start on an adventure that reunites Cooper with his former mentor, Professor Brand (Caine). Cooper and Murph discover that deep in the former home of NORAD, NASA survives. We also meet his lovely daughter, Amelia (Hathaway) who and a group of scientist who have been training to explore space for a world to colonize. Like the use of Cooper, as the name of the main character, the Nolan brothers prefer to stay with aerospace pioneers they refer to Amelia Earhart. Prof. Brand convinces Cooper to join a group of scientist including his daughter, who will follow in the footsteps of 12 astronauts who entered a space-time anomaly (wormhole) and exited on the other side to a new galaxy. The Lazarus mission identified three habitable planets. All his life, Cooper feels that he has a greater purpose beyond what he does now. The mission is to enter the wormhole orbiting Saturn, locate the planets where Lazarus mission astronauts, Miller, Mann, and Edmunds have sent positive feedback for sustainable life, check out the planets and report back to Earth.

Interstellar - The Black Hole Gargantua | A Constantly Racing Mind
“Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” ~ Prof. Brand
Both Nolans explore the emotions of separation and abandonment. Cooper must make a decision to lead the mission and leave his children behind in order to save humanity, or to stay and die and fight for survival with his family. As Brand tells Cooper, "We must confront the reality that nothing in our solar system can help us." He further ups the ante and tells him to, “...get out there and save them. We must reach far beyond our own lifespans. We must think not as individuals but as a species. We must confront the reality of interstellar travel." Brand has two plans to save humanity. Neither of them are efforts to save Earth. Plan A is to build a gigantic Torus that the refugees from Earth can travel in and follow through the wormhole. Plan B is the reseeding of a new planet with the fertilized embryos that they hope will multiply exponentially. The acting of the major characters in this film is exceptional. McConaughey, Hathaway, and Caine lead the cast in an emotional and visceral experience. The ones they love motivates each one of these three. Throughout the film Caine’s character, Brand, recites a Dylan Thomas poem, like a mantra, or a litany in hopes that someone can forge forward where he can’t. It is during the first half of the film where Mackenzie Foy ("The Conjuring") shines as the young Murph. She embodies the wonder and the hope that children have, and when Cooper leaves for space, almost at a moment's notice, Foy displays a range of emotions on the opposite side of the spectrum – those of hurt, abandonment, and despair.  
"Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." ~ Murphy’s Law
Space is fraught with danger, but as Amelia Brand says, "there is no evil." Nature isn’t evil, but humans are. We will see the truth of this philosophy later. Disaster is what the four humans and two robots find out there. Two of the four humans are Red Shirts, there is no other way to put it. Nolan, for the most part keeps to the no sound in space rule. Instead, Han Zimmer's epic score at times sweeps into strains akin to György Ligeti's version of "Lux Aeterna." Throughout the film, Zimmer's score resonates with emotion that accentuates but doesn't over power the narrative. Astronauts Romilly (David Gyasi - "Cloud Atlas") and Doyle (Wes Bentley - "The Hunger Games") join Cooper and Amelia as they launch into orbit to rendezvous with the spaceship Endurance. Adding to the cast in a most spectacular way are the two robots TAR and CASE voiced by Bill Irwin ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") and Josh Stewart ("The Collector"), respectively. If the homage to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey " isn't apparent to you, then the monolithic structure of these two robotic life forms should make it apparent. In addition, they also capture the essence of HAL but in a more cheerful and happier type of Artificial Intelligence. Programmable with truth and humor spectrums, both TAR and CASE are essential to the plot. 

Interstellar - Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey | A Constantly Racing Mind

For me, the big surprise was Matt Damon as Dr. Mann. Amelia proclaims that he is "the best of us." I don't want to spoil the film so I will say no more about him and the planet he is on. I will say that both of the planets that our explorers visit are amazing cinematically. Nolan displays many of his influences throughout the film, like having Matthew McConaughey play a man of science whose story arc moves him closer towards a more spiritual outlook. We remember McConaughey, as Jodie Foster’s love interest and a man of faith in the 1997 film “Contact,” telling Foster’s character that science can’t prove everything, like the concept of love. As in "Inception" Nolan plays with the relativity of time. Because, as we know, the closer one gets to a black hole, time has a tendency to stretch. For example, as our group of intrepid explorers travel closer to the first planet, for every seven years spent on the Endurance as it orbits around the planet, the people down below spend only an hour. So for some of our characters, they age differently than others. Jessica Chastain plays the older Murphy, who takes on the weight of saving humanity after Brand dies. Like Meg in “The Wrinkle in Time,” she becomes the hero of this story as she searches for her missing father.

This is a big movie filled with grand concepts of ecology, cosmology, metaphysics, humanism, and sacrifice, but ultimately this is a love story. The love of a parent for their children, the love between a man and a woman, and a man’s love for all humanity. Christopher Nolan knows that it is ambitious to reach for galaxies far, far, away, but to not do so, sells himself, and his viewers short as well. Behind the camera in place of Nolan regular Wally Pfister, is the Dutch cinematographer Hoyt Van Hotelman ("Let the Right One In," "The Fighter," "Her"). Nolan is a proponent of using real film, rather than high definition video in his work, and it shows. The camera work is more utilitarian rather than sweeping and grandiose as in the works of David Lean. However, Nolan’s visual effects crew did more than an outstanding job in creating the black hole. California Institute of Technology’s (Caltech), Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist and the inspiration for “Interstellar” had a direct hand with the mathematical models that Nolan’s effects team used to render “Gargantua.” The effects are more in line cinematically with Stanley Kubrick, but perhaps a bit more comprehensible. There is a lot of exposition in "Interstellar" as the characters talk about loss of hope, loss of family, loss of courage, and plans for humanity's future. But don't worry; if you want action, there is plenty of it. From visiting a world covered in water, to an icy frigid planet, to the boundlessness of space, Christopher Nolan keeps the pace moving, he even adds a disaster on the Endurance, to up the drama and heighten the tension. Unlike Alphonso Curon's "Gravity,” we only have a few minutes in space with intimate contact with our main character as he tumbles through the void. For the socially conscious, Nolan features an ecological disaster that prompts visions of the apocalypse for the metaphysically inclined. I would be lying if I said that "Interstellar" is perfect, it isn’t. Nevertheless, those minor imperfections uplift this story of dying and renewal to stand as one of Christopher Nolan's masterpieces.


Movie Data
Genre: Action, Adventure, Mystery, Sci-Fi 
Year:  2014
Staring:  Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy 
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producer(s): Christopher Nolan, Lynda Obst, Emma Thomas
Writer: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 169 minutes
Release Date: 11/7/2014