Monday, April 11, 2011

I Saw the Devil Review

I Saw the Devil: Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind
Revenge is for Movies (Contains spoilers)

V iolence, revenge, redemption, all three of these words came to mind when I screened "I Saw the Devil". Jee-woon Kim's diabolical thriller out does M. Night Shyamalan's "The Devil" easily, hands down. Are there devils in this film? I guarantee you that there are, and these are real. Choi Min-sik plays the evil Kyung-Chul, a serial killer that would give the BAU Team of "Criminal Minds" a run for their money. Byung-hun Lee plays the secret agent whose pregnant fiancée is brutally murdered in the first ten minutes of the film, and he seeks revenge. Unlike the Bronson or the Eastwood films of the 70's, I Saw the Devil is wicked, suspenseful, vicious, and most of all moral. For almost two hours of watching this story unfold in the most unusual and engaging way, subtitled in English, and violent to the core. Not rated, but take my word for it, this film is rated at least R.

The film starts out typically enough; it is a cold South Korean winter night. A young women, stuck in the mud and snow, waiting for a tow truck, is talking to her fiancée on the phone. A school bus approaches, a lone occupant, is within. The woman rolls down her window just a crack, and the guy, hooded, tells her that he can change her tire and get her out. Her fiancée, on the other end of the phone, singing love songs to her, cautions her to wait for the truck. Kim Soo-hyeon, Joo-yeon's soon to be husband, is well dressed in a nondescript suit, visible behind his ear is a wire leading to an ear-bud, in his left ear. He is either working for an equivalent to the US secret service, FBI, or CIA. Joo-yeon tells the helpful gentleman that she will wait. However, not taking her refusal, he breaks the window, and savagely beats the woman, in the head, shoulders, or anywhere he can. The rage that Choi Min-sik portrays makes Hannibal Lecter seem like your everyday Julia Childs. Beaten, naked, and bloody, the killer takes the young woman back to his lair and chains her up. At this point, the audience is hoping for a rape scene, or more beating. What happens instead would make the Marquis de Sade proud (I can't believe I just wrote that). Joo-yeon, pleading for her life, with what little life she has left, tells Kyung-Chul that she is pregnant. It doesn't matter; Kyung-Chul dismembers her. First are the hands, then the legs, and finally the head. The next scene displays how differently cultures handle homicides, in the United States we are used to seeing police barricading off a police scene from the press. Here, Jee-woon Kim shows us pure pandemonium; a crowd has gathered along the shore of a wash, running under a freeway bridge. The girl's father, Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan), is there in what soon becomes a heart wrenching scene, as one of the searchers finds his daughter's head. Also, there in the distance is Soo-hyun, stands, and vows vengeance. Although vengeance is one of the main themes, Jee-woon Kim and writer Hoon-jung Park never forget their Confucius; "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." This theme lies just beneath the surface at all times, and Soo-hyun is almost constantly reminded of this fact throughout the film. 

Joo-yeon's father, a Detective on the police force for over 30 years, gives his almost future son in-law the case files. Taking off from being a secret agent for two weeks, Soo-hyun goes after the obvious suspects, ones that have already been investigated for similar crimes in the past. Like the psychotic Dark Knight - Batman, Soo-hyun takes out the first two suspects brutally and without prejudice. While checking out the third suspect, Soo-hyun stumbles upon Kyung-Chul's locked cabinet full of trophies. Purses, shoes, clothing of the women that Kyung-Chul has killed over the years, all found. In another room, Soo-hyun discovers the torture chamber where the woman he loved, died. In a drainage hole, Soo-hyun finds Joo-yeon's engagement ring. Canvasing the farm area behind the house, he comes across Kyung-Chul in the process of committing another rape and torture of a young schoolgirl. Before the girl is truly harmed, Soo-hyun and Kyung-Chul fight it out; in an action sequence that I can honestly say was as good as, if not better than a Jason Bourne battle. No documentary, shaky camera, no over acting that is typical of Asian films of the past, Soo-hyun triumphs over Kyung-Chul.

I Saw the Devil: Byung-hun Lee| A Constantly Racing Mind

Like an R rated version of Shakespeare, the story doesn't end here. Instead of ending Kyung-Chul pathetic and evil life, Soo-hyun instead shoves a GPS tracker down the creature's throat, and breaks the man's wrist. Leaving evil alive, rather than ending the story here, director Jee-woon Kim wants us to question the morality of his protagonist, Soo-hyun. Giving his prey some money to live on with, Kyung-Chul hitches a ride on a taxi cab that for some reason is traveling the back roads outside of Seoul. The cab stops for him as he walks along the road in the dark. The driver is uncannily happy, and Kyung-Chul is prepared to take the unsuspecting cabbie. However, the cab driver reveals that there is another passenger in the cab, who, like the driver looks somewhat unnerving and suspicious. Kyung-Chul attacks both the driver and his passenger, with a knife hidden in his boot. Stabbing, anywhere and everywhere he can on both of the victims, careening out of control, the car smashing into a rail, and crashing into a ditch. Looking for supplies Kyung-Chul checks the trunk to discover that the two passengers are, in fact, killers themselves. Killers upon killers walk onto the stage in this film -- Jee-woon Kim has plenty of them, ready for your inspection. Another assault on a young nurse in a small-town doctor's office, and once again, Soo-hyun arrives, beats the killer, and saves the day. Like a blood hound, the tracking device keeping Soo-hyun on target, the punishment that he inflicts on Kyung-Chul turns more gruesome and less human. 

Once again, after catching his prey, the hunter returns the prey to hunt another day. Like a cat playing with a mouse, we question who the real devil in this movie is. Which character is truly evil; the killer or the hunter? 

Sinking deeper into depravity, Kyung-Chul seeks out some former comrades from his militant old days, and we discover that his big burley friend and his pretty lady friend are cannibals. The story progresses and with each capture and release Kyung-Chul takes a bigger beating and is released again into the world. The police are closing in on both Kyung-Chul and Soo-hyun and time is running out for the both of them. Kyung-Chul does not stop, each time he murders or beats someone to a bloody pulp, he does so with apathy, and utilizing anger as a motivation, you could see in the man's eyes that like a killer white shark that his soul is dead, and his moral compass is utterly broken. No remorse, no pity for his victims, he laughs and mocks them as they lay on the ground bleeding. Once the hunted and now the hunted Kyung-Chul reverses positions and takes control of the Soo-hyun's mind and soul, driving him even deeper into immorality and perdition.

I Saw the Devil:Min-sik Choi | A Constantly Racing Mind

The story of murder, revenge, duty, and justice is well thought out and not afraid to show the audience the truth of this kind of absolute evil. Like Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers of the 80's horror genre, I Saw the Devil embraces all of them in the character of Kyung-Chul. Credit must go to actor Min-sik Choi. His portrayal of a psychotic serial killer is dead on. His facial expressions portray a man whose only reason to live, is to kill. Portraying a man, beaten, battered, stabbed, broken, and humiliated, Min-sik Choi is creepier than Anthony Hopkins, discussing fava beans, a man's liver, and a fine Chianti. Byung-hun Lee's Soo-hyun character on the other hand goes through the film with almost expressionless grim determination. Only near the end when the stakes have risen beyond his control does he finally show emotion. Part of those emotions is for the horrors that he has committed in the name of justice. Other emotions that Byung-hun Lee portrays are because he realizes that he is losing his sanity and for the loss of his soul. Both actors play their parts with a sense of subtlety and sincerity that is both believable and scary. Unlike horror films made here in the West, the violence in not gratuitous, it is necessary to show the sheer lack of humanity that evil incarnate has for his random victims. I Saw the Devil also teaches us that not everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, these random acts of violence are, in fact, just that, random acts of violence. No rhyme, no reason, just death for those in Kyung-Chul's way. In making a rash promise to his dead beloved, Soo-hyun at that moment sells his soul to the Devil. In doing so he takes on many of the qualities of which he is sworn to fight and despise. The greatest evil in the world is to become what you hate, and Soo-hyun's soul now belongs to Kyung-Chul. 

Released on March 4, 2011, I Saw the Devil played in only selected cities throughout the world. Despite the violence and the subject matter, I liked I Saw the Devil as a film that reminds us that evil is not a supernatural entity, nor is it necessary that evil is portrayed in the traditional imagery of the cloven hoofed, horned, pan-like creature. Evil resides in all of us to a degree, and sometimes individuals like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Kyung-Chul are, in fact, Evil Incarnate.

"I Saw the Devil" came out to South Korean audiences on August 12, 2010. US audiences didn't see the film until the Sundance film festival in January of 2011. The US distributor, Magnet Releasing, allowed US viewers to see the film in selected theaters around the country.

Movie Data
Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller
Year:  2010
Staring:  Min-sik Choi, Byung-hun Lee, In-seo Kim 
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Producer(s): Jon Avnet, Jordan Kerner
Writer: Hoon-jung Park 
Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: 8/12/2010

Originally published on Associated Content on  Apr 11, 2011 by Robert Barbere

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Limitless Has Its Limits

Limitless - Poster | A Constantly Racing Mind

There Are No Safeguards in Human Nature

W hat would you do if you had a magic pill that made you a 100 times smarter? Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro show us how to evade killer henchmen, and murderous loan sharks in 'Limitless.'  Would you use this drug wisely or squander it?

"Limitless" is one of those films that you come away from feeling like you just took the best acid trip of your life. Bradley Cooper stars as writer Eddie Morra, a Generation Xer, whose life showed promise while in college, but has basically gone nowhere since. He lacks the creative spark that we all know exists within us, but is buried so deep that very few of us can access it. The hope that director Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") tempts us with, as Eddie is tempted with, is that magic something that would unleash that spark. In this case, like the drug Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) of 60's and 70's, Eddie is hoping his mind will open and with a new vision of reality he can see his future and write his book. Robert De Niro stars as Carl Van Loon, a big shot businessman who plays Eddies mentor, employer and nemesis. Abbie Cornish ("Sucker Punch") plays Eddie's love interest who works at the publishing company where Eddie has his book contract. Limitless is about a new drug that could potentially help humanity, but ultimately the film is about drug addiction, the dangers involved, depression, and most of all, the rush and the thrill. Limitless is rated PG-13 and runs about an hour and forty-five minutes. 

"Limitless" starts off with a cliffhanger, literally. Standing on the balcony of his high-rise fortress of solitude, Eddie is narrating the circumstances of his predicament. Eddie has the wolves banging at the door, desperate, not wanting to die a slow torturous death at the hands of a loan shark, he is about to end his life. Not much of a film if he jumps, so instead we flashback about a year earlier... Looking somewhat like a drug addict, Eddie is a writer with a bad case of writer's block. He has an advance from a publishing company and no book, not even one word, to show for it, and Lindy (Cornish) his girlfriend, ceremoniously dumped him. At the nadir in his life, Eddie has a chance meeting with his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon (Johnny Whitworth). Eddy was married to Vernon's sister Melissa, right out of college for about four months. Eddie knows Vernon once was a drug dealer, and although Vernon assures him he is not, while at lunch, he gives Eddie a free sample. Telling Eddie that what he has now is a miracle drug that will help with his creativity. The free sample is of a "FDA approved pharmaceutical called NZT, but yet doesn't have a street name. Eddie pocket the pills as he is trying to stay clear so he can write his book, Eddy heads home to his crappy little New York apartment with its multiple door locks and filthy dishes, and junk all over the floor. However he doesn't make it to the door, as his landlord's young cute wife happens to be there and is ready to bitch him out about the rent. So finding he has nothing to lose, he pops the pill and about thirty seconds later, the pill kicks in and he starts making connections, the girls text book, she is going to law school, the subject of her paper, suggestions for a better paper, etc. All this stimulation to his synapses is shown with CSI like visuals, and here is where Burger wants us to make the connection that knowledge can get us brainy guys, you guess it, sex. This is only the first of many situations that show us that being smarter will somehow get you laid. Knowledge like anything in this world is a tool, and the question comes to mind, what would we do with such a power. Would we get rich with it, help others; hurt others; would we work to make this world better?
Limitless - Bradley Cooper | A Constantly Racing Mind
Trying to encapsulate the ideas in Alan Glynn's novel, The Dark Fields, onto the big screen, Burger resorts to having Cooper narrate many main points that he wants us to remember. The narration both helps and hurts at times. The rule in filmmaking is show, don't tell. This is a visual medium, however, there is just so much material crammed into this film that it is actually draining at times. Realizing that NZT is like Adderall for normal people, Eddie finds that now he can focus and prioritize his life better than he could ever have before. Burger uses mind altering camera effects to show Eddie essentially being in many places as one time, while he picks up the pig-sty of an apartment. He sits down and writes out several chapters of his book, delivers it to his slack jawed publisher, all in a space of a day. What becomes apparent quite quickly is that without taking the drug on a constant basis, that clarity, the ability to focus, the sense of urgency, that Eddie experiences when he took NZT, is gone. Like a junkie who needs a fix Eddie goes to Vernon's apartment. Finding Vernon a little worse for wear, Vernon sends Eddie on some errands. When he returns, finds Vernon dead. Shot in both the chest and in the head, Eddie realizes that whoever killed Vernon was after the drug. He calls the cops and then searches for the pills,
From here on out, "Limitless" takes on most aspects of a thriller, not only is he followed by the man in the Tan Coat, Unwisely, Eddie makes a deal with an Eastern European loan shark for a hundred grand. Coming out of nowhere, Eddy makes a small fortune, meets some really nice upper crust friends, gets a new wardrobe, cuts his hair, and goes to town. Knowledge is power. Using his limited supply of NZT, he sets out to take the small amount of cash of about eight hundred dollars into a small fortune by playing the stock market, and using math to win at Black Jack. Eddie gets noticed by one of the biggest badass businessman in New York, Carl Van Loon (De Niro). Not the type to take no for an answer, De Niro plays Van Loon like, uh, De Niro. Pressing Eddie to review some investment options, Eddie filters through all the data to see connections, between crap investments and some more lucrative possibilities that are buried deep in the portfolio. Scenes like this will actually cause the audiences eyes to glaze over, but it's the concept that matters. Human beings retain all that they hear, and all that they see, however, the problem is in recalling all that information as needed. Remembering the name of a song an hour later or a day later doesn't help you if you are trying to win a radio station contest for a prize.
Limitless - Bradley Cooper  & Abbie Cornish | A Constantly Racing Mind

Speaking of concepts, the idea of a smart drug is not new. Flowers for Algernon and the 1968 movie adaptation, "Charly" take on the subject with both positive but ultimately disastrous events. In the 1999 film, Deep Blue Sea, the search for an Alzheimer's cure leads to death by shark. Essentially, humans need the synapses in our brains to fire consistently, continually, and the ability to make new synaptic links. NZT creates these temporary links but as Eddie finds out, not only do you lose your ability to focus and recall information on a whim, but your brain actually deteriorates without it. Meeting up with his ex-wife Melissa, he sees a woman who let NZT suck the life out of her. She warns Eddie about it, informing him that he should wean himself off of it slowly. As the movie progresses, you will start noticing in other characters the signs of NZT addiction. You will start suspecting everybody, however, Burger, and producer Cooper will leave you with an interesting twist.
Bradley Cooper plays all version of Eddie Morra well. From the loser at the beginning, the successful but addicted Eddie, the desperate and depraved Eddie, and finally the completely changed Eddie that the film leaves us with. The question I have is without Cooper's good looks, but with his increased mental prowess, would he still score all the women that the film depicts? Abbie Cornish's Lindy seems a bit shallow, she dumps Eddie, but once he gets smart, she's back in his arms and in his bed. Robert De Niro plays Van Loon like Jimmy Conway from "Goodfellas." Andrew Howard plays the Eastern European mob character Gennady, and does so with gusto. 
Limitless is chalk full of special effects that Neil Burger uses to get our attention and trip us out with. Thank God the film is not in 3D as I think I would have puked. Images go on forever, space bends, and there is actually a very cool Matrix/Bourne fight scene. Drugs, like a viral video on YouTube get around. It doesn't seem to matter if the drug is legal or not, if people want it, they will get it. Is this another social commentary that is being pointed out to us? Another thing this film does, is that it encourages me to attempt learning a new language, or read Brian Greene's Elegant Universe and understand string theory. Not going to happen, but in the moment it seems achievable. Limitless also points out to us very clearly, is that we are actually only pale reflections of our true selves. The ability to use more than the 20% of our brains that we currently limited to, seems like a worthy aspiration doesn't it? What Limitless does show that there is a cost to letting the Genie out of the bottle? For some, they pay with their lives; some deteriorate physically, while others sink into the depths of depravity.
Although there is a lot to like about Limitless, there are a few things I didn't care for. The fact that, like "Underdog" we need to pop a pill in order to get out of jams. This seems just a bit too handy for the writers, sort of a Deus ex machina. Libby is told, by Eddie as she is chased through Central Park, that all she has to do is pop one of those clear, round NZT tablet, and all her problems are solved. Where is the work, the safeguards? As Eddie points out in the film - "There are no safeguards in human nature." A few people get killed in Limitless; however, these murders seem to clean themselves up a bit too neatly. Take Vernon's murder for example, although it was Eddie who called the police, he did have the NZT on him, yet the cops failed to at least pat him down. Or a girl, who Eddie was with before she was killed, seems to fade away without further mention. The film does point out, or at least infers to the theme that intelligence is not a substitute for wisdom, and this film points out some pretty unwise moves that the characters make. Far from being perfect, "Limitless" is worth a matinee showing, or for the thrill seekers it is a decent date film. I would definitely watch it again when it comes out on DVD or Blu-ray.
Movie Data
Genre: Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Year:  2011
Staring: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish, Andrew Howard, Johnny Whitworth
Director: James Gunn
Producer(s): Leslie Dixon, Ryan Kavanaugh, Scott Kroopf
Writer: Leslie Dixon, Alan Glynn (novel)
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date:  3/18/2011
First posted on Associated Content/Yahoo Voices on 3/19/2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Review: Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood: Poster | A Constantly Racing MindTwisted Tales and Fractured Fables

I  go into films hoping for the best but, I can usually tell within the first fifteen minutes if the film is going to keep me interested and has potential. I can tell you honestly, that within the first ten minutes I knew I was in trouble with "Red Riding Hood." I was with my wife and she seemed interested, so I kept my seat. Starring Amanda Seyfried ("Letters to Juliet," "Dear John," "Mamma Mia"), who plays our heroine Valerie. Gary Oldman plays the quasi-bad guy as usual in this 42 million dollar mess of a film. Battlestar Galactica's Michael Hogan appears as the medieval village's Reeve (elected land supervisor), in a pretty small and pathetic part. Walking through his part as Valerie's father is Billy Burke ("Twilight" series, "Drive Angry") who is capable of better, isn't. "Red Riding Hood" is just over an hour and a half, and is rated PG 13 for stupidity.

Twisting and fracturing the classic "Le Petit Chaperon rouge" as told by Charles Perrault, who is turning in his grave as I write. "Twilight" director Catherine Hardwicke seems to be doing what she thinks what fans want, instead of turning something classic into a film with class. Drawing from the familiar tale, Hardwicke takes a liberal literary license with the material and tries to add the teen romance elements to "Red Riding Hood" and fails. Living in a medieval village on the edge of the forest during the winter, we see the superstitious villagers preparing for the full moon. Valerie (Seyfried) wanders around introducing us to the various town characters in somewhat of a haphazard way. In a flashback we see Valerie as an eight year-old girl, and her slightly older boy pal, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez). In this scene they are trapping a rabbit in the woods, and showing Valerie's primal nature, she holds the trapped rabbit as she urges Peter to cut the white furry bunny's throat. Nice huh. But they don't show it, instead the camera blurs and we are whipped forward ten years and Valerie's hormones are pumping for Peter who is now a woodsman like her father. I suppose David Johnson ("Orphan"), is alluding to "Peter and the Wolf" in naming the love interest Peter? However, we find that Valerie's parents arranged for her to marry Henry (Max Irons), the Blacksmith's son. Virginia Madsen as Valerie's mother, Suzette was the force behind the marriage arrangement between her former lover's son and her daughter. Henry's father is killed during the classic scene were the villagers with their torches track the wolf into the forest and over the hill and through the dale and into a dark and dank cave.

Red Riding Hood: Amanda Seyfried | A Constantly Racing Mind
Needless to say, Hardwicke and Johnson weave a twisted tale of love, lies, deception, and in the process they drag just about everyone in the village into view as suspects as the werewolf. Even Grandma as played by Julie Christie is a suspect, and I must say she plays a pretty damn good one. If there is any shining light in this dark, cold film, it is Christie's performance as the Grandma who lives in the woods. Now, I am sure the Johnson and Hardwicke probably sat around a lunch table in some posh Hollywood restaurant, and were tossing around ideas and said to each other we need a villain that we can show during act two and part of act three, so we don't have to show who the werewolf is before the very end. Enter Gary Oldman, as Father Solomon, along with his black knights (pun intended), to lead the investigation into whom the werewolf is. Oldman's performance is weak at best, and passionless. While explaining how he killed his wife who he claims was a werewolf, I just don't find his performance believable. Seyfried's performance during her conviction as a witch too is unconvincing and soulless, Max Iron's (Henry) is just there to look good, and that is about it. Shiloh Fernandez's (Peter) is a bit better, but not by much, dressed in black, Fernandez gives a bit more life into his part, as he professes his love for Valerie.

Being that the film is PG-13; the film is tame and lame all the way through. Soulless and passionless also describes both the visual effects and the musical score (see, I can kill two birds with one description) - nothing special or memorable here. The images of the village in the distance, truly look like matte paintings, and are uninspired. Ask me what the music sounds like. Epic? Bold? Heroic? Nah, nothing. I took notes, but for the life of me the score is so unmemorable I can't remember if there was even music. Even the beloved Col. Tigh from Battlestar Galactica, Michael Hogan (the Reeve,) couldn't save this film. "Red Riding Hood" is doomed to end up on the SyFy channel with the tag line A SyFy original motion picture.

Movie Data
Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Thriller 
Year:  2011
Staring: Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Producer(s): Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Julie Yorn
Writer:David Johnson
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: 3/11/2011

First published on 3/14/2011 Yahoo Voices

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lost Horizon: Shangri-La Found!

Lost Horizon: Poster with Ronald Colman | A Constantly Racing Mind"...yes, I believe because I want to believe." ~ Robert Conway

I watch a lot of films in a year, both old and very recent films.  It is always a pleasure to screen, ponder, and review a film like "Lost Horizon."  Released in 1937 and staring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt, "Lost Horizon" deals with the age old story of paradise found, and then lost.  Adapted from James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Frank Capra ("It’s A Wonderful Life") and screen writer Robert Riskin take some liberties with the original story in adapting it for a Depression era movie going audience.  "Lost Horizon" is one of those films that provide a glimpse into the thoughts, morals, and style of the period of time between two great wars.  In the 70’s, while restoring the film, Sony realized that seven minutes of the film were either lost or deteriorated beyond being usable, and substituted still-photographs in their stead. "Lost Horizon" is a feel good film of the 30s which not only carries a message, but also provides today’s audience with some thoughts about war, peace, and the meaning of life.

In Baskul China, during the Japanese Invasion, Robert Conway (Coleman), a British diplomat, WWI hero, and book author is working to evacuate the area’s white population. Arranging cargo planes to evacuate the 90 or so British and American citizens, Robert Conway, along with his brother George (John Howard), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), and Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell), escape in the last plane out of Baskul and bound for Shanghai.  James Hilton’s book has only four passengers Conway, Barnard, Mallinson, and Miss Brinklow, a missionary.  The reason I believe that director Frank Capra wanted to add and change some characters in the film version have to do with trying to create a film that would appeal to an American audience with all the race bending that Americans were used to in that time period.  Lovett was added for comic relief, while the characters of Sondra (Wyatt) and the role of Maria (Margo) were one character in Hilton’s novel named Lo-Tsen, a Manchu woman.  I am sure with Chinese Communism on the rise; studio heads at Columbia were not too keen on portraying an interracial relationship between the two lead characters.

Lost Horizon: Highjacked | A Constantly Racing MindThe first act resides primarily on a DC 2 cargo plane hijacked by a man we find out later is a native of the legendary Shangri-La.  The characters not realizing until the next day that they are not en-route to Shanghai where a boat is ready to steam away with Robert Conway, the hero of Baskul.  Instead, the passengers find, through some comic bantering between Barnard and Lovett or Lovey as Barnard insists on teasing him that they have traveled west towards Tibet, and not east, in the direction of Shanghai.  Much deliberation ensues while the Conway brothers banter back and forth trying to figure out the best way of dealing with their situation.  George Conway replaces the Mallinson character of the book, a whiny youth of about 25 years-old, impetuous, intolerant, and selfish.  His brother Robert, on the other hand, is calm, peaceful, and wise.  Gloria is plagued with Tuberculosis, and she is dying.  A lot of dialog take place on the plane, setting the mood, and the mindset of the characters for the rest of the film.  On board the plane, director Capra gives us a glimpse of each character, who are these people? What type of person do they seem to be?  Most importantly, these glimpses provide us with a baseline for each of them so we can see what changes, if any, come about with these characters by the end of the film.  Robert Conway, the de facto leader of the group, because of his position with the British diplomatic service, is actually taking the events in stride, and quite calmly.  George is panicking, Gloria is hysterical, Barnard is just happy to be alive, and Lovett, is indignant.  After a quick refueling stop, the pilot takes his victims on a harrowing flight over the Himalayas. After some close calls, he finally crash lands the plane near the base of a mountain range.  The pilot dies after revealing that there is a Lamasery just over the mountains in the valley below.  George takes the pilot’s gun and hides it for later.

Lost Horizon: Shangri-La | A Constantly Racing Mind
The second act proceeds after the survivors determine the seriousness of their situation.  They wait a day before seeking the safety of the Lamasery.  However, the survivors are rescued the next day by a group of travelers from Shangri-La.  The trail to Shangri-La is hard, they must travel single file, and their rescuers tie themselves together to keep from getting separated.  They reach a hole in the wall, and when they enter, they find a beautiful, quiet valley.  Entering the sunlit valley the passengers are surprised to find modern western style buildings and the Lamasery comes equipped with all modern conveniences.  Their host is a young man who seems older than he should be, or a well persevered older man, by the name of Chang.  Chang is a polite host; however, while providing every comfort to his guests, he is vague when it comes to arranging the travelers’ passage back to their homes.  When Lovett tells Chang over dinner, that he wishes to return to civilization, Chang’s reply is subtle, but unnerving.  Chang says, “Are you so certain you are away from it?”  The library at Shangri-La contains great books from all civilizations, beautiful artworks, sculptures, painting, and music.  As it turns out, Robert Conway was the intended kidnap victim, and the rest are just collateral damage.  Chang explains the creation of the valley over two hundred years ago.  The valley was found by a Belgian priest, named Perrault.  Building the Lamasery and directing the accumulation of art and knowledge, Perrault fearing another great, catastrophic war between men, decided to create a haven for men and women who are willing to seek a higher order of existence.  To emphasize the magic of the valley, Frank Capra has Chang explain that Perrault had to amputate his own leg due to a severe wound.  If he hadn’t cut off his own leg, Chang goes on to mention that the wound would have healed by itself.

Moderation is a major theme of both the book and the film.  Moderation in all things, Chang tells Robert Conway.  The women of Shangri-La are moderately chaste, the men moderately honest, and the people are moderately happy.  Are the people also moderately moderate?  Conway asks Chang.  Being moderately active with moderate amounts of stress create an atmosphere that reveals that the magical valley of Shangri-La, gives them a certain amount of longevity.  Conway was brought to Shangri-La at the request of Sondra who herself was brought to the valley as a young girl many, many years ago and raised by the High Lama.  As for the rest of the passengers, while spending a short time in this virtual paradise, Gloria starts recovering her color and strength.  Barnard confesses to losing a great deal of stockholders money during the stock market crash in the fall of 1929, and is being branded a swindler.  His real name is Chalmers and he is in no hurry in getting back to civilization.  Lovett, stuffy by nature, holds out a little longer, but finding opportunities to contribute his skills and knowledge to the community and finding acceptance with the children of Shangri-La, not only accepts the name Lovey, that his former nemesis Barnard gave him, but he too decides he has no intention of leaving either.  On the other hand, George, Robert’s younger brother is desperate to leave.  George has the pilot’s gun, and in a fit of desperation starts shooting the place up while demanding answers.

Lost Horizon: Ronald Coleman - Jane Wyatt | A Constantly Racing Mind While trying to calm his brother down, Conway sees Chang in the hallway and calls him over to the room, where the group is having an impromptu meeting about their situation of possibly that they are, in fact; captives.  Chang responds by letting Robert know that the High Lama sent him to find Conway and invite him to a meeting with the High Lama.  Of the high Lama (Sam Jaffe), we know that he is very old, and by the title we assume him to be a native Tibetan.  What we find is the cinematic ancestor of Yoda.  Old, wise and wrinkled, the High Lama sits in a chair and welcomes Conway.  Conway realizing that the High Lama is missing a leg comes to the conclusion that he is indeed meeting with the 300 hundred year-old Father Perrault.  James Hilton, in his novel, describes many meetings between Conway and Perrault, but in the film we are limited to only a few meetings.  Conway was brought to Shangri-La, because like the 800 year-old Jedi Master, Perrault too will die soon.  Sondra, who has read Conway’s books, and likes his philosophy, decides that he is the man to take over for the High Lama and lead Shangri-La into the 20th century and beyond.  Conway accepts the challenge and decides to go on with his life in the valley and make the best of it.  He starts off by chasing after Sondra and the beginnings of a relationship start to bud.  George is captivated by a Russian girl by the name of Maria (Margo) and although moody, and anxious to leave, George too starts a relationship with this woman.  Barnard and Gloria seem to be getting along well.  Gloria blooms as her health returns and with the constant praise and attention of Barnard, the two seem to drift together as a couple.  Lovett seems to be the stereotypical confirmed bachelor and is happy to pursue his hobbies amidst and with the locals.

Spoiler alert: Much has been said about "Lost Horizon" over the years.  However, if you want to reading until you watch this excellent film, then I would stop here if I were you.

Act three begins about the time that the High Lama dies while Conway is present.  At this point, the mantle of leadership falls on Conway, The question is, will he do his duty to the Lamasery, or will he be drawn to do his duty as his brother’s keeper?  Within hours of Perrault’s death, George approaches Robert and informs him that he is leaving immediately.  George already asked the others to join him in his escape, but they are too happy in Shangri-La to leave.  Conway believes it is madness to leave, but sees that his brother is determined.  George tells his brother that the porters are waiting for them about five miles away from the Lamasery.  Maria paid the price in gold to hire them as guides and to escort them out of the valley and down into civilization.  Conway is in disbelief.  He knows that Maria arrived at Shangri-La a long time ago and is actually a very old woman.  Leaving the valley would cause her age to catch up to her in a very short space of time, causing her death.

Lost Horizon: Inside the city of Shangri-La | A Constantly Racing Mind

In the Bible we are told that in the Garden of Eden it is the deceit of a woman that causes Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise.  In "Lost Horizon," Maria’s deceit causes George’s and possibly Robert’s undoing.  Confronted with what Robert thinks are the facts, Maria tells him to his face that his information are the jealous lies that Chang told to keep her there.  Torn between duty to the future, and duty to his brother, Robert chooses his brother, with full intentions of returning after his brother is safe.  Man has searched for the Garden of Eden since the fall, and still has not been able to return.  Why would Conway be able to return after willfully leaving of his own accord?  The three set out to leave the peaceful valley, walking past the High Lama’s funeral procession, heading towards the narrow mountain pass, ready to meet their Sherpa guides.  Frantically following behind the trio, trying to stop them, in tears is Sondra.  Conway, as he is leaving the peaceful valley and right before he turns to face the cold, dangerous world beyond, stops, and turns, looks back once again into the valley.  The audience, hopes for just a moment that he will stay long enough for Sondra to catch up and stop him.  He does pause, but not long enough, he treks out into the snow with Maria and his brother, missing Sondra’s pleas and tears by just a few moments.

The trek down the mountain is arduous and takes a toll on Maria.  Unable to keep up because she is becoming weaker by the moment, the guides pull ahead and taunt the foreigners with leaving them behind.  Why not?  They have already been paid.  Another theme that Capra and Riskin introduce to the screenplay that is not mentioned in the novel is that of instant Karma.  The porters have taken to firing their weapons at Maria and the Conway brothers.  Robert is thankful that they are aiming for them, because of the wind; the bullets are going far astray of their intended targets.  The rifles not only fire bullets but those bullets create a loud explosive sound that sets off the avenging avalanche that saves the trio and at the same time sets the moral scales back to even by killing the traitorous guides.  Continuing their trek without the Sherpa, the three take shelter in a cave. Seeing Maria for the first time since their departure, George realizes his folly.  Maria is in fact an old woman and has died.  In a mad rush of insanity that one only finds in classic films of the past, George runs out of the cave and off the cliff to his death.  Instead of returning immediately to Shangri-La, retracing his steps, Conway instead continues down the mountain.  Scenes of Conway coming down the mountain depict the dangerous, treacherous, journey and the many falls that Conway takes along the way.  Conway is found by a search party, and we find out by way of epilogue that he has lost all memory of Shangri-La and willing departs for England on a ship.

Like all humankind we seem to have some sort of genetic memory of Eden, Utopia, Atlantis, or even Shangri-La.  It sits deep within us just below the surface, like a forgotten song faintly remembered.  Conway’s memories of Shangri-La return, and he jumps ship.  For ten months, he begs, borrows, and steals his way back to the borders of Tibet and to the mountain ranges that protect fair Shangri-La.  For ten months he attempts the pass, but nature forces him back each time until finally, he never returns.  Does Conway make it back to Shangri-La?  Or does he die like most everyone else who have ever attempted the search for Paradise.  The novel leaves this question open to the reader to draw their own conclusions.  While Frank Capra, like the lovely masseuse who likes to leave her customers with a happy ending, does so by providing one for his audience.

Lost Horizon: Plane crash | A Constantly Racing Mind
It is my firm belief that the producers and writers of the 2004 ABC television series "Lost," based or at least took some initial concepts from "Lost Horizon."  Both start with a group of
unwitting passengers on a plane who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and are brought to a secluded magical place.  Both the island of "Lost" and the valley of Shangri-La have special healing properties.  Note that John Locke is able to walk again upon arriving at the island, and Rose’s cancer goes into remission.  Compare these incidents to Gloria and her healing of T.B. and that if Father Perrault did not cut off his leg, it would have healed on its own.  Like Chang and the High Lama, both Jacob and Richard Alpert are both very old men.  Leaving the island permanently would cause them to age and die.  All the modern comforts of home are on the island, located at the island’s testing stations compared to the modern toilets, baths, and the complete library at the Lamasery of Shangri-La.  As the "Lost" series progressed, the writers took various tangents with their story, but the basic concept of the island being a sort of Shangri-La still remains.  

Frank Capra is a masterful story teller, and with the restoration of "Lost Horizon," by Sony and its subsequent re-release on DVD, this film still retains many ideals and concepts that today’s audience will identify with.  As the world is in constant turmoil, the idea of having a refuge from the violence in the world is comforting to most of us.  Creating our own little Shangri-La in our own homes is not a bad idea either.  So, take a couple of hours, pop some popcorn, get your family together on a lazy weekend, and watch "Lost Horizon." 

Movie Data
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Mystery
Year:  1937
Staring: Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, John Howard, Sam Jaffe, Thomas Mitchell, Margo, Isabel Jewell, H.B. Warner
Director: Frank Capra
Producer(s): Frank Capra
Writer: Robert Riskin, James Hilton
Rating: PG
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Date:9/1/1937

Originally published on 4/13/2011 by Robert Barbere on Yahoo Voices

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reviewing the War Epic - Battle: LA

"Retreat? Hell, We Just Got Here!"

If you take the best fast paced action packed war films of the last decade, put them together with an overtly overdone Sci-Fi element, utterly destroy Los Angeles, and you might come close to describing "Battle: LA." Aaron Eckhart ("The Core," "The Dark Knight") plays a cross between Clint Eastwood and John Wayne as the tough-as-nails Staff Sargent Nantz, who leads a young team of Marines into war. Also starring in "Battle: LA" is our favorite Latina Badass, Michelle Rodriguez ("Resident Evil," "Avatar"). Along for the ride is an interesting array of secondary cast of expendable 'red shirts' whose only goal in this movie was to make themselves known in a very short time and make that appearance memorable. Better than, "Skyline" (2010) , "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (2008) , and it is faster paced than Signs(2002) , not as philosophical as "Battlefield Earth" (2000) , no shrieking kids as in "War of the Worlds" (2005) , and not as detailed as "Independence Day" (1996), "Battle: LA" is action packed with just about the right amount of breathing room to allow you to catch your breath and collect your thoughts. Fun to watch and don't be surprised if you and the audience cheer at the end. "Battle: LA" runs about an hour and forty five minutes and is rated PG-13 for language and violence.

When we go to see films about alien invasions we know we need to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in order to get into the mood of the film. In "Battle: LA," Director Jonathan Liebesman ("Darkness Falls"), and writer Christopher Bertolini ("The General's Daughter") drops the audience into the midst of a battle scene that reminds one of "Band of Brothers," and the mood is set. Jumping back twenty four hours previous we get some background information on the phenomenon that is occurring, and an introduction to SSgt Nantz, Eckhart's tortured soldier character with a past, Realizing that his shelf life as a Marine is about to expire (mid-life crisis) and that his last tour in the Middle East was a fiasco (guilt factor), Nantz is ready to throw in the towel.

Apparently the Earth is succumbing to a barrage of meteors that unlike last year's "Skyline," we get a slightly larger, less limiting point of view of this invasion, a slight warning, and some possible insights as to why they are here. However, let me digress a bit. When any superior force conquers an inferior territory or people, they usually do so for the natural resources, or so that is what we have believed from our own experiences as conquerors. Old World's conquest of the New World was for gold, land, wood, spices, fuel sources, ("Avatar," "Independence Day, "Stargate"), or for some tactical advantage ("Star Trek: First Contact"). Looking back to film history, aliens have come to Earth to recreate their species ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), to feed on humans ("The Blob," "To Serve Man") or to utterly control and assimilate human-kind like the Borg from "Star Trek," or perhaps they are just plain lost like "E.T."-- it really doesn't matter why they are here. In "Battle: LA," the B.E.M.s (Bug Eyed Monsters), we are told by 'an expert,' who surmises that they must want our water, because Earth is mostly water. However, we really don't know why they are here. In "Independence Day," the audience is treated to a 'dialog' between an alien and the President of the United States, where we are told that like locust, they conquer, consume, and leave. Today, landing in the ocean around populated coastlines around the world, we are told Los Angeles is the last line of defense for the West Coast.
In the same style of James Cameron's "Aliens" (1986), Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" (2001), and Paul Verhoeven,'s "Star Ship Troopers" (1997), Liebesman introduces us to the 5th Marine Regiment, who are charged with evacuating Santa Monica. These gung-ho Marines fit every type of war casting stereotype you can remember. The regiment consists of the inexperienced Second Lieutenant (2nd. LT), the young backwoods soldiers, the career Marine Sargent, the soldier with the key information about the mission --Technical Sargent Elena Santos played by -- you guessed it, Michelle Rodriguez (Resident Evil, Lost, Avatar). As the impending doom from above threatens, we are given a brief opportunity to get to know some of these characters, to build a slight bond with them before the battle. Sensing that it would be a detriment to the audience's emotions and the pacing of the film, Liebesman only allows us to get to know just barely enough about these soldiers, because like the 'red shirts' in "Star Trek" they are doomed to die.

Taking the rescue mission element from "Saving Private Ryan" and the invasion of the Normandy coast, Aaron Eckhart's Nantz character, under the command of 2nd Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) leads the 5th into heavy gunfire while on their way to a police station to rescue civilians. An airstrike is on the way so our team has little time to mess around. The tension builds quickly and unlike "Signs" (2002) we get glimpses at of the aliens early on, but eventually get a better look sooner rather than later, to save us from any over-hype and then a possible let down by what the aliens look like. Taking hints from "Independence Day," "Predators," "Alien," and "District Nine," makeup designer Sanja Milkovic Hays designed these creatures in a similar exoskeleton style and added a touch of "Halo" and "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" style to her designs. These aren't your cute cuddly phone home type of alien, nor are they your typical "Close Encounters" we are here to study you and play cool music alien either. Steven Spielberg, eat your heart out. They are here to wage war, mindless, senseless, total destruction type of war. The fact of the matter is, "Battle: LA" is a war picture with only an element, a layer of Science Fiction. There are attempts to pay homage to the less cynical war films of John Wayne of days past. However, we are in a new generation and the films of The Duke are only a faded memory, even to the point that after a successful daring attempt by Nantz to 'mine' a gas pump in order to take out the advancing aliens, (similar to blowing up a bridge before the enemy crosses it) Lt. Martinez commends Nantz for his John Wayne type of stunt [my words], a soldier asks, 'Who is John Wayne?'
W riter Bertolini does try to work into this war picture a certain amount of pathos. When the soldiers arrive at the almost abandoned police station, they encounter a father and his son, played respectively by Michael Peña ("Shooter") and 14 year-old Bryce Cass. Also hiding out is a Veterinary Doctor named Michelle played by Bridget Moynahan ("Unknown," "IRobot") and two young girls. It is the interaction between Nantz and these civilians where the film really tries to bring out the human touch. A scene reminiscent of "The Green Berets," where Wayne's character consoles the young Ham Chuck, transpires between Nantz and young Hector Rincon after his father dies bravely.

What underscores the epic-ness of "Battle: LA" is the Brian Taylor musical arrangement. Big and brassy without the overpowering effect of a Hans Zimmer score, Taylor's music is bold and uplifting, accenting the hopefulness of a triumph for human kind. Almost, but not quite John Williams-ish in quality bringing out emotions that want the audience to shout "oorah(!)" as the 5th regiment does battle with the enemy.
What I find interesting about "Battle: LA" and that perhaps some won't, is that in spite of the senseless violence of war (is there any sense in war?), the unexplainable reason for alien invasion (does there need to be one?), and the now familiar "District Nine" style of alien spacecraft, I find that "Battle: LA" has an uplifting, almost cathartic quality to it. Now after several years of bad economy, high unemployment, Iraq and Afghanistan, this country needs something, or someone heroic. Aaron Eckhart makes a fine action hero and in a charming way, similar to Wayne in his younger days before the crust set in. In a poignant and pivotal scene, Aaron Eckhart as the ghost plagued Staff Sargent Nantz bears his soul to a young boy and to his men and in a way atones not only for himself, but for the film as well. Prior to this scene, mindless battles ensue, terse dialog is shouted, meaningless explosions occur and people die. Now the film has a new meaning, a new direction, a new reason for trying to save our dying planet. For the women and the children, for our fallen brave, for a hope of survival, and the hope that out of the wreckage of Los Angeles (or that matter, humankind), a new, and better world will emerge. See the film in the theaters, pay full price if you must, eat popcorn, splurge if you want, see "Battle: LA," you'll thank me.

Movie Data

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi
Year:  2011
Staring: Aaron Eckhart, Ramon Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, Michael Peña, Michelle Rodriguez
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Producer(s): Ori Marmur, Neal H. Moritz
Writer: Christopher Bertolini
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date:  1/24/2014

Originally published on Associated Content, then on Yahoo on 3/12/2011