Saturday, August 30, 2014

As Above So Below: The Alchemist's Quest

As Above So Below: Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
I am not sure why any sane person would want to descend into the bowels of the earth for any reason.  Written by director John Erick Dowdle ("Quarantine," "Devil") and his brother Drew, "As Above, So Below," follows a group of adventurers into the catacombs of Paris in search of the mythical Philosopher's Stone. Perdita Weeks stars as Scarlett, a young academic who is obsessed with finding the illusive stone. Ben Feldman ("Mad Men") plays George, Scarlett’s language translator and partner in crime. Edwin Hodge ("The Purge") is Benji who is filming this documentary for prosperity. "As Above, So Below" contains plenty of scares as the group ventures deep into the unknown.  

This is a B-horror film in the style of Found Footage, and therefore falls into many of the traps and tropes of this horror sub-genre, such as shaky camera, bad lighting, and plot issues that don't seem to resolve. The film starts as our Laura Croft-like hero films herself as she rides a bus while trying to sneak into Iran. Her goal, is to find ancient writings in Iran's underground, that will eventually help her to decode, a secret message that the legendary European alchemist, Nicolas Flamel left as a pointer to where the great secret of the ages lies hidden. The legendary Philosopher's Stone, lapis philosophorum, is said to turn base metals such as lead into gold (chrysopoeia) or silver. The stone is also allegedly able to heal the sick, a lofty goal to be sure if used to help humanity. 

Scarlett (Weeks), like Jones and Croft, is well schooled, adventurous, sometimes impetuous, and like Laura Croft, very lovely to look at.  Like the two cinematic adventure heroes, Scarlett's father was also an archaeologist and he too was obsessive about finding some ultimate alchemist truth. Smart and pretty, Scarlett also has PhDs in Chemistry, History, and Symbology. Apparently, she also has a bit of a Robert Langston in her DNA as well. George (Feldman) is Scarlett's reluctant companion, and an interpreter of languages, including dead ones. 

Riddles and Rhymes

Along with camera operator Benji (Hodge), the couple deciphers clues found from stone carvings that Scarlett scanned in Iran. They trace the clues to Flamel's monument stone in a Paris museum.  Decoding the symbols, she reads a nifty set of Hermetic riddles and rhymes, which are clues that Flammel hid the magic stone somewhere below the streets of Paris. Luckily, for them, Paris is built above 6 million dead bodies, buried in the crypts below the streets. In 2007, the rock singer Pink starred in a film about some friends who enter the catacombs to take part in the illegal Techno raves that are held there. The film, aptly titled "Catacombs" was mildly interesting, and already gave horror fans a first glimpse of life below the surface. 

What do I look like, a tour guide? 

Joining Benji, Ben and Scarlett, are Parisians, Papillion (François Civil) and his crew, Souxie (Marion Lambert) and Zed (Ali Marhyar). Unlike the "Catacombs" which turned into a slasher film, "As Above, So Below" keeps with the paranormal theme. For example, while making their initial journey into the catacombs via a side entrance through a railroad tunnel, the six of them pass a cavern lit by many candles and with many people, chanting in what could be a satanic ceremony. Creepy. The setting of the catacombs allows the each member of the group to experience their own personal terror. For one member, he keeps seeing his dead brother, for Scarlett, she sees visions of her dead father. Also, the audience along with the adventurers we feel the passages getting narrower, and the claustrophobia sets in. The group gets lost, and it seems like they, as well as the story, are going in circles. 

As Above So Below: Perdita Weeks & Ben Feldma | A Constantly Racing Mind

What troubles "As Above, So Below" is the found footage concept. The point of the found footage is to create a sense of realism, but in this case, the camera movements are migraine inducing. The Dowdle brothers begin with an exciting concept, but unlike Indiana Jones films, the "realism" gets in the way of telling a compelling narrative that the audience can understand and enjoy. Although the brothers spend the first third of the film establishing Scarlett's character and her relationship to George, Benji, the group’s photographer, like all cameramen in most found footage films, is almost a non-entity. The rest of the characters, are two-dimensional and for the most part, expendable. One thing that I thought was important to note, is Weeks portrayal of Scarlett is of a smart lady, who uses her mind to lead, but uses her heart to drive her. 

"As Above, So Below" promises an Indiana Jones adventure, however, it’s found footage style encumbers the visual narrative. With all the buildup of creepy ghosts, trap doors, traps, and the gateway to hell, "As Above, So Below," if anything is similar some ways to "Event Horizon's" ghost story plot of characters haunted by their own guilt. In the story's last act, the characters fall back on religious concepts of redemption and seeking absolution in order for them to find their way back to the surface. Ultimately, the story fails in providing the viewer with any profound truths in the end. 

Movie Data
Genre: Horror, Thriller 
Year:  2014
Staring:  Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhya
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Producer(s): Patrick Aiello, Drew Dowdle
Writer: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Rating: R
Running Time: 93 minutes 
Release Date: 8/29/2014
All images are property of Legendary Pictures

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Interstellar: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Interstellar: Banner | A Constantly Racing Mind

Warner Bros. released a new trailer for Christopher Nolan's new Science Fiction Space Adventure titled "Interstellar."

 Here is the synopsis:
A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage. 
Based on a script by his brother, Jonathan Nolan, and some additional elements that Christopher Nolan fleshed out, "Interstellar" is looking pretty epic at the moment.  The film stars  Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey of last year's "Dallas Buyers Club", Anne Hathaway from Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" as astronauts looking for a new planet to colonize.  

In the trailer, Michael Caine quotes Dylan Thomas as McConaughey says goodbye to his children, and promises them that he will return after his mission of finding a new planet to live on.
Do not go gentle into that good night,

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

~ Dylan Thomas, 1914 - 1953

Brand; Couldn't you've told her that you are going to save the world?Cooper: No, when you become a parent, you want to make sure your children feel safe.
Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" is due out on November 7, 2014 in the United States.


Movie Data
Genre: Action, Adventure, Mystery, Sci-Fi 
Year:  2014
Staring:  Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine 
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

Dylan Thomas poem: From The Poems of Dylan Thomas, published by New Directions. Copyright © 1952, 1953 Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1937, 1945, 1955, 1962, 1966, 1967 the Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1938, 1939, 1943, 1946, 1971

Friday, August 22, 2014

Annabelle: A Gift From Hell

Annabelle: Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
Warner Bros. just released a new trailer for their "The Conjuring" spin off "Annabelle."  You remember, that horrid doll that would give any kid or adult nightmare. In fact, I think even Chucky would be frightened.  

Here is a synopsis of the film:
She terrified you in “The Conjuring,” but this is where it all began for Annabelle.
New Line Cinema’s supernatural thriller “Annabelle” begins before the evil was unleashed.
John Form has found the perfect gift for his expectant wife, Mia—a beautiful, rare vintage doll in a pure white wedding dress. But Mia’s delight with Annabelle doesn’t last long. 
On one horrific night, their home is invaded by members of a satanic cult, who violently attack the couple. Spilled blood and terror are not all they leave behind. The cultists have conjured an entity so malevolent that nothing they did will compare to the sinister conduit to the damned that is now...Annabelle.
Capable of unspeakable evil, the actual doll exists locked up in an occult museum in Connecticut—visited only by a priest who blesses her twice a month.

James Wan of "Saw" & "Insidious" fame will produce "Annabelle" while John R. Leonetti ("Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," "The Butterfly Effect 2") directs this one. The story is by "Swamp Devil" script writer Gary Dauberman.

"Annabelle" is due to hit theaters in time for Halloween.  The theatrical release date is set for 10/3/2014


Movie Data

Genre: Horror, Thriller
Year:  2014
Staring:  Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Eric Ladin, Brian Howe 
Director: John Leonetti
Producer(s): Peter Safran, Joan Mao, James Wan
Writer: Gary Dauberman
Rating: R
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: 10/3/2014

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Possession of Michael King: A Guide To Demon Possession

W riter and director David Jung brings together in one film practically all the ways that one can open the door and invite a demonic being home for supper.  Shane Johnson stars as the unbeliever Michael King, a documentary filmmaker whose worldview has suddenly taken a dark turn.  Little Ella Anderson stars as his daughter Ellie and Cara Pifko plays the unfortunate Samantha.  Blood and gore fans will appreciate this R rated thrilwrler.  “The Possession of Michael King” runs just short of an hour and a half.

I am not a fan of found footage films, with a few exceptions, so let me start there.  Jung's film starts innocently, but we all know that nothing in this film is going to turn out well.  The family enjoys a picnic in an L.A. park.  Michael, who is behind the camera, focuses on his "perfect" family, Sam, his wife, Ellie his 8-year-old daughter, and, oh yes, and the family dog, Fishbone.  After some terrible accident off screen, that leaves him a widower, and a single father, Michael becomes determined to debunk mediums as charlatans, the occult as fake, and religion as a house of greed.  To do this, he sets out to film his excursion into the realms of sexual magick, using drugs (LSD), and hypnosis to help open the doors to the other worlds.  

I think the time for found footage films needs to end.  The point of found footage is to give the audience a heightened sense of realism and to cover the lack of budget and production values. Sometimes the utilization of the found footage gimmick dampens the actual horrors taking place.  Although Jung does a decent job, I think to remove some aspects of found footage and allow the camera to peer into the ghastliness that a fallen or shaky camera doesn't allow.

**Minor Spoiler alert**  

Shane Johnson does an excellent job portraying a man whose life is turned upside down.  Taking on Necromancers, and other occultists with a sense of righteous cynicism and allowing himself to be the guinea pig on one hand is commendable, but ultimately foolhardy considering that he eventually puts not only his sister Beth's (Julie McNiven) life in jeopardy, but his own daughter's as well.  Using a variety of jump scares, sudden booming audio scares, plenty of blood and gore, and dead birds Jung raises the hairs on the back of your neck.  For example, Michael carves, and then sews up a pentagram on his chest.  Unfortunately, Fishbone dies a horrible bloody death (this is a warning for the PETA folks).

Don't answer the voices!

What I liked about this film is that Jung takes several well known and clichéd ways of summoning a demonic entity into his life, which keeps the pacing of the film moving along quickly.  There is no need for the requisite exorcisms and chanting just plain weirdness.  Although the daughter is put in peril as the film develops and as Michael's possession progresses, the refreshing concept was that Ellie or any child is not the demon's host as in "The Exorcist," "Evil Dead," "The Ring," "The Possession," “The Last Exorcism”  or as in "Insidious."  What kept me glued to the screen was wondering how in the hell did King’s wife die.  

A somewhat above average horror film, ultimately, "The Possession of Michael King" makes no significant contribution to the Horror genre in general, and to the paranormal sub-genre, or to the found footage sub-sub-genre.  One could see evidence of influence from "The Exorcist," especially the ending, and the dead wife syndrome from "White Noise."  King goes through all the stages of possession or madness (which could have been played up a bit more) including insomnia, voices in his head, seeing things that are not there.  As possession films go, this one doesn't really have any new surprises but besides the self-mutilation and the apparent murder of the family dog, "The Possession of Michael King" is pretty tame.

Movie Data
Genre: Horror
Year:  2014
Staring: Shane Johnson, Ella Anderson, Cara Pifko, Julie McNiven
Director: David Jung
Producer(s): Paul Brooks
Writer: David Jung, Tedi Sarafian
Rating: R
Running Time: 83 minutes
Release Date: 8/22/2014

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
H okey 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