Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots_of_Fire_beach“Now there are just two of us – young Aubrey Montague and myself – who can close our eyes and remember those few young men with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels.” ~ Lord Lindsay

I am hardly a world traveler but one of the places I fell in love with early on was the British Isles. London is a wonderful city with so many memorable landmarks from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace. Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes. There are the Salisbury plains hosting the monolithic Stonehenge, and the Lake District which is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. No wonder Wordsworth and Blake were so enamored by it. However, St. Andrews Scotland has to be one of the most starkly beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. It’s steeped in golf history due to the Old Course and despite being the home of a university, it is surrounded by a charmingly quaint town.

And of course, most pertinent to this discussion, its beaches became the perfect setting for the opening moments of the now iconic Chariots of Fire. Really it is so much more than its stellar theme by Vangelis because these sequences bookend a truly remarkable story. We enter the narrative in 1978 where two old men eulogize about the old days and their good friend Harold Abrahams who has recently passed.

Cross_and_HaversBack in the 1920s, a brash young Abrahams (Ben Cross) is about to enter university at Cambridge intent on becoming the greatest runner in the world, and taking on all the naysayers and discrimination head-on. He’s a Jew and faces the antisemitism thrown his way with defiance and a bit of arrogance. He’s a proud young man who loves to run, but more than that he loves to win. His best friend becomes Aubrey, a good-natured chap, who willingly lends a listening ear to all of Harold’s discontent. Soon enough Abraham’s makes a name for himself by breaking a longstanding record of 700 years, at the same time gaining a friend in the sprightly Lord Lindsay. Together the trio hopes to realize their dreams of running for their country in the Paris games of 1924. They are the generation after the Great War and with them rise the hopes and dreams of all those who came before them.

Charleson_as_LiddellSimultaneously we are introduced to Eric Liddell (Ian Charleston) a man from a very different walk of life. He’s a Scot through and through, although he grew up in China, the son of devout Christian missionaries. Everything in his life is for the glory of God, and he is a gifted runner, but in his eyes, it’s simply a gift from God (I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure). His sister is worried about his preoccupation with this seemingly frivolous pastime, but Eric sees a chance at the Olympics as a bigger platform – a platform to use his God-given talent to glorify his maker while living out his faith. Abrahams is a disciplined competitor and he goes so far as to bring on respected coach Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) to help his chances. Liddell is a pure thoroughbred with life pulsing through his veins, and of course, they must face off. It’s inevitable.

But this is only the beginning as all these men we have built a connection with travel across the sea for the Olympic Games grappling with their own anxieties and consciences. For Abrahams, it’s the prospect of failure and success. Failure will burn because his whole existence has always been about running — about winning. He has only a few seconds to justify his very existence. However, the fear of winning is almost greater, because at 24 years of age, where else is he supposed to go after winning a gold medal? It scares the life out of him. Liddell’s tribulation is of a different nature as he must stand true to his beliefs even if it seems to be sabotaging his own success. And of course, Aubrey and Lord Lindsay have their own successes and failures that run the spectrum. Perhaps most importantly these men prove their worth not only to their American opponents but the entire world. They can return home with their heads held high — champions of a feel-good tale to be sure.

Yes, this is a story about two strikingly different individuals, but Chariots of Fire becomes so engrossing due to all its characters. Aubrey resonates with me due to his general contentedness. Lindsay has an air of playful charm that is refreshing. Harold embodies my own hopes, fears, and anxieties. Eric reflects every person’s struggles with spirituality and personal conviction. In essence, the narrative goes back to the glory days to bring light to the universal and continual rise and fall of man. We’re far from perfect, but in spite of all our failures, there is still space for redemption.

The refrains of the theme music paired with William Blake’s majestic “Jerusalem” get me every time. I love being steeped in this atmospheric periodness and my heart yearns to be back in England so I can run on those very same beaches with wreckless abandon. But even if I don’t get there soon, I will be content in running life’s race to the best of my abilities wherever I am. That’s all that any of us can do.

“I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.” – Eric Liddell

4.5/5 Stars

Garden State (2004)

gardenstate1Garden State was written and directed by Scrubs star Zach Braff before he made it big, while he was still struggling to get into the business. It’s one of those deep blue funk movies where a person has to find themselves in the giant mass of humanity. Andrew Largeman’s mom just died from drowning in a bathtub. He hasn’t seen his dad (Ian Holm) for about a decade because they haven’t really been on speaking terms. Now he lives in L.A. across the vast expanses from his native New Jersey. He works in a very zen Vietnamese restaurant and surreal daydreams clutter his apathetic mind.

The question is what will shake him out of his despondency because the death of his mom is only the inciting incident. As it is with a small town community, he’s constantly meeting all the old acquaintances from his high school days. Most are impressed by his foray in acting even though he hasn’t made much a career of it yet. The people he reconnects with include his old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who works at the cemetery and doesn’t have much of a life except smoking weed. Then there’s Jesse who made a killing off Silent Velcro and now has all the time in the world for parties in his huge mansion.

That’s not what does it though. It’s when Andrew is sitting in the doctor’s office, hoping to get checked, because he’s been having headaches after being off the meds he’s been prescribed all his life. There he meets Sam (Natalie Portman) for the first time, and he’s never the same. She’s a scatterbrained, off-the-wall personality with a lot of energetic pizzazz. That about covers it except she also has epilepsy and is a compulsive white-lier. But in her Andrew finds a genuine spirit, who can revitalize his life, by giving him sympathy in his pain, while also brightening up his everyday reality.

gardenstate2On his last day in New Jersey, Andrew obviously wants to spend the time with Sam, but it ends up turning into a daylong treasure hunt as Mark tries to track something down. It isn’t much, however, it’s the thought that counts, and on their odyssey, Andrew is finally able to let go of a lot of the hurt and pain he’s been harboring. He’s ready and willing to forgive his father.

Then, there he is in the airport terminal getting ready to leave Sam for L.A. He has to get back and he promises to call her, but he seems to remember he’s a different person now. It’s a delightfully sweet ending to the film and we absolutely want it.

gardenstate3Braff’s wistfully apathetic demeanor is so wonderfully personified by a memorable soundtrack including alternative rock groups like Coldplay and especially The Shins. His brand of acting is really just playing a wet noodle, but he does it well. Those beady eyes of his constantly scanning back and forth nervously around the space he inhabits. And the film certainly has some dirtiness around the edges, but our main couple is so endearingly sweet. I respect a film that respects its characters such as not needing to show them having sex all the time, but it can paint their romance in more playful, soft, even intimate shades. Andrew takes drugs and curses, but only to dull the pain or express his bitter frustrations. Sam’s the kind of girl who states that she’s not innocent, confirming our suspicions of just the opposite. We appreciate both of them exactly for those reasons. He rides an army issued motorcycle with a sidecar for goodness sakes, and she gets teary-eyed over a deceased hamster. They’re quite the pair.

3.5/5 Stars

Ratatouille (2007)

RatatouillePosterOnly Pixar could make me empathize with a rat, and they did it with true style and sensitivity like they have done many times before. Ratatouille is often a forgotten classic that I easily forget in a repertoire that boasts such modern masterpieces as Up, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and of course the Toy Story trilogy. However, Brad Bird’s tale of a gifted rodent and a hapless chef deserves to get its just desserts too and so I will attempt to do that now.

As was already hinted at, Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a very unique rat, because he has an incredibly sensitive palette thanks to an impeccable sense of smell. He cannot stand digging through the trash heaps like his brother Emile and he has higher aspirations than his single-minded father. One day Remy comes across the revelation of mixing foods and flavors in a culinary epiphany. His family doesn’t quite understand his more cultured aspects (walking upright, reading, cooking, etc.), and it ultimately gets him into trouble.

He winds up in none other than Paris and sitting on a rooftop he sees his own personal Mecca. The restaurant of Gusteau (Brad Garret), the man who famously said that anyone can cook before he was taken down by pernicious food critique Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole). After his tragic death, Gusteau’s lost two of its stars and that’s right about where a young man named Linguini (Lou Romano)  comes in.

He’s a bumbling nobody with little talent and only a note from his deceased mother vouching for his character. The incumbent tyrant of a chef (Ian Holm) reluctantly gives him a job as a wash boy which he barely is able to perform. In a fateful moment, he ruins a soup and Remy drops in to salvage the dish. Now after an initial berating, great things are expected of Linguini after a critic loves his new dish. Skinner suspects something is up.

In this predicament with nowhere to turn, Linguini looks to this little chef, and Remy decides to help him. Thus, begins the strangest of symbiotic relationships as Remy learns to control Linguini who acts as the front for the artistic genius who just happens to be a rat. For a while, it works really well. They keep Remy hidden under Linguini’s hat while also keeping Skinner constantly delusional with visions of rats.

Then, success continues to come Linguini’s way. Thanks to Remy the restaurant is a hot spot once more, he gets the girl Colette, and he has become the main attraction at Gusteau’s displacing Skinner. But it gets to his head a little too much, and he and Remy part ways.

The big night of Anton Ego’s return to Gusteau’s is fast approaching and the culinary dream team is no more. Once again Linguini is lost without his culinary partner. But the ever faithful Remy gets the support of his family and returns to the kitchen to aspire to his dreams. Linguini also finally has the courage, to tell the truth which ultimately loses him the respect of his staff.

However, Remy and Linguini both learn something about family and relationships, realizing the need to be who they are. In a brilliant stroke of genius, the ever resourceful Remy makes a simple yet elegant Ratatoullie. Everyone expects the disdain of Ego and yet it never comes. You see Ego also learns something about himself. Upon seeing the mind behind the dish that took him back to his early years, he remains pensive for once. He finally understands the wisdom in Gusteau’s simple adage.

The voice talents of this film are obviously wonderful, from the impeccably-casted Patton Oswalt to Brad Garrett as the jolly Gusteau and Peter Sohn as rollie-pollie Emile. However, I want to focus specifically on the late great Peter O’Toole.

It is rather extraordinary that just before seeing this film again, I took in How to Steal a Millionaire. It too is set in Paris, involves deception, and has its share of drama. Featured in that film is a younger O’Toole, handsome, blue-eyed and far from world-wearied. But the reality is, he had a hard life and you can hear it in his wonderfully Shakespearian, but still noticeably older voice. He brings such a wonderful lineage to this film, and he turns in one of his great roles. Peter O’Toole was part of a dying breed of theater-trained actors who will be greatly missed for their tour de force performances.  But once again many thanks to Pixar for doing the impossible. In some weird, disgusting way I love rats now.

4.5/5 Stars

“In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.” – Peter O’Toole as Anton Ego

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

fea8c-fellowship1Without the inventiveness and lore that J.R.R. Tolkien created in his books, there would never be something as visceral and grand in scope as The Lord of the Rings. However, it is a vibrant mythology that Peter Jackson breathed life into, and it becomes evident in the opening minutes of the Fellowship.

There is so much ground to cover as far as history and context go and Jackson sets it up beautifully with an epic prologue narrated by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) which became synonymous with this trilogy.

“But something happened then that the Ring did not intend. It was picked up by the most unlikely creature imaginable: a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, of the Shire. For the time will soon come when hobbits will shape the fortune of all.”

Thus, begins the Fellowship of the Ring. We find ourselves in the awesomely beautiful Shire (courtesy of New Zealand) backed by an exuberant score by Howard Shore. This is the home of a now elderly Bilbo (Ian Holm) and his relation Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). The backdrop is Bilbo’s Eleventy-First Birthday and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is making an appearance for his old friends birthday.

There is a lot of merriment to be had complete with Gandalf’s world famous fireworks, however, Bilbo is also preparing to say adieu, and he must finally give up the Ring. It is at this time that Gandalf is reminded of its power as it gets handed off to the unknowing Frodo. It is now this little hobbit’s task to flee everything he has ever known because 9 Black Riders sent by the evil Sauron are heading to retrieve the Ring.

By his side is the loyal gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) and his two jesting friends Merry and Pippin. As for Gandalf, he must deal with some business with the head of his order Saruman (Christopher Lee).

With the Riders in hot pursuit, the hobbits stop at the Prancing Pony. By this time Gandalf has yet to return but they cross paths with a ranger named Strider (Viggo Mortensen). He agrees to lead them to the Elvin city Rivendell but before they can get their Frodo is ambushed by the Ring-Wraiths and receives a fatal wound. He survives and is reunited with Bilbo as well as Gandalf who was forced to flee Saruman who has switched his allegiance.

A decision is made to destroy the Ring in Mount Doom from whence it came and Frodo is joined by his friends, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), Gimli the dwarf (John Rys-Davies) and Boromir (Sean Bean) the man.

They must take a treacherous path leading to the Mines of Moria which are in complete ruins. The area has been completely overrun by orcs and Gandalf must stave off an ancient demon called a Balrog so the others can escape.

They wind up in Lothlorien the home of more Elves including Galadriel who informs Frodo of what the future hold for him. Boromir is the next person to be tempted by the Ring and he tries to get it away from Frodo who starts to flee once more.

Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas take on a legion orcs and Boromir attempts to redeem himself but is struck down. Merry and Pippin get kidnapped leading the enemy away from Frodo. Ever faithful Sam follows Frodo because of the promise he made. And the three other members of the Fellowship resolve to go after the press-ganged hobbits after they pay their respects to Boromir.

It’s a cliffhanger ending, but it is packed with enough epic drama and heart to make it a worthwhile ride. Just know that this is just the beginning of a long, hard journey.

Lord of the Rings is visually magnificent and it’s absolutely mind boggling that most of the scenery and extras in the film (ie. orcs) were actually real. Thus, it seems like The Lord of the Rings is one of the last great epics in a long line of epic films. It is sad to think that this kind of “real” epic is a dying breed with the use of CGI. Human actors and real life scenery is slowly, or actually quite rapidly, getting replaced by computers.

My criticism is that computers make the world and even characters look too perfect. You can tell that it is not real and it loses some of its allure in my mind. Furthermore, if characters are being created from scratch you lose the human interaction and thus a great deal of movie magic. My hope is that these type of epics will find a resurgence because they are usually well worth it.

Another observation has to do with Howard Shore’s magnificent score. If you removed it from this film we would have a completely different movie-going experience. It would be as if a piece of the puzzle is missing, because he seemed to so perfectly personify each locale and he accented each scene so wonderfully with music. Whether it was epic choral arrangements during dark moments or the flute for the gaiety of a sunny day in the Shire.

This certainly not my first romp in Middle Earth, but I was reminded why this world was so engaging. I am excited to revisit the other installments, because the story only gets better with time, even if we already know the ending. Thank you, Peter Jackson, and thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien.

5/5 Stars

Alien (1979)

70cca-alien_movie_posterIn the wake of other Sci-Fi smashes like Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977), Alien was a radically different film, since it lacked the same sentiment of its precursors. One would wager a guess that this core variance stems from director Ridley Scott who certainly is no George Lucas or Spielberg. His films are generally darker, more world-wearied, and disillusioned. Blade Runner is a perfect illustration of this, but three years earlier came Alien, a Sci-Fi Horror film of immense critical acclaim and impact even to this day.

The film opens as a spacecraft called the Nostromo gets ready for a return trip to earth after a commercial excursion by its 7 member crew. However, a distress signal halts their plans and the captain named Dallas (Tom Skerritt) resolves to go investigate. On the surface of the abandoned planet are the remnants of what seems to be an ancient alien empire. One member of the crew Kane (John Hurt) comes upon a chamber full of what appear to be eggs and as is expected he is attacked. We knew it was building up to this point.

Back on the craft, Kane is still alive but now he has an octopus-like alien clinging to his head. It’s an acidic situation because it appears to be feeding him oxygen and it has no plans of coming off anytime soon. Next, comes the calm before the much-anticipated storm as the tension slowly increases exponentially.

What ensues is a cat and mouse game between the crew and this belligerent alien which has grown increasingly larger. Its evolutionary adaptations make it seemingly immune to extermination, but the crew tries desperately to destroy it with electric prods and flamethrowers. Soon it’s difficult to know who the cat and who the mice are, but it certainly favors the alien.

It doesn’t help that Jones the cat is on the loose and there is even a bit of mutiny aboard the craft. It feels a bit like a tense Agatha Christie novel with person after person slowly getting knocked off. But that sensation does not last long when we actually see what we are dealing with. This creature has no conscience. No humanity. It only cares about survival by killing its prey. To win you must do the same and beat it at the game.

Thus, although I initially thought it a weakness to only have one alien, it turns out that it makes this film all the more tense. Also, very little of the action actually takes place outside of the ship. They are stuck on board in the middle of outer space fighting for their lives. Not much can be more horrific than that, and it is a very unnerving ride with surprisingly good pacing and many graphically shocking moments

The cast is a nice diverse group of actors including Skerritt, Hurt, and Ian Holm, but Sigourney Weaver is undoubtedly the standout as 3rd in command Ellen Ripley. She is the last one to keep her head and her story would set the framework for the entire Alien franchise. Not to mention the role propelling Weaver to stardom and introducing the archetypal model for future female protagonists.

Alien definitely has a lot to offer and I am excited to see the next installment Aliens. That added “s” has me intrigued.

4.5/5 Stars