Another Piece on Robin Williams

Robin Williams

There are by now, I’m sure, thousands of articles available on the Internet about the passing of the comedic genius Robin Williams. Why write another? Because if you’re anything like me, Williams was more than just an actor or stand-up comedian. He was a friend, a father figure, and a guide into worlds that were before unknown.

Though he was originally known for outlandish characters, he eventually made a name for himself in dramatic acting with films like “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting,” for which he won an Academy Award. Aside from those listed already, some of my favorites from his filmography are “Patch Adams,” “What Dreams May Come,” “Insomnia,” and “Hook.”

I can still remember the day that I saw “Patch Adams” for the first time. It was a day or two after Christmas ’98. I went to the theater with my brother and cousins because even at an early age we knew that Robin Williams was a funny guy. Was it a masterpiece? Of course not. However the film left an impression on me that has stuck with me to this day: The importance of laughter in life can never be overstated. Not exactly “Carpe diem” but it’s something that has affected me for the better through the years. It is one of many influences that have allowed me to overcome the tough days and to embrace the hope of a better tomorrow.

Comedy, and art in general, has the ability to pierce into our souls and provide a truth that we didn’t even know we were looking for. The stories we view on the silver screen can shape who we are just as much as any person in our lives. That’s why the passing of great actors (especially those who die too soon) is always a burden we’d rather not face.

Sadly in the case of Robin Williams, it appears that his own demons were the cause of death. There was no plane crash or sudden explosion, only the internal struggle of a man drowning in despair. It is a sad cliché that some of our funniest entertainers quietly suffer from what they deem a hopeless existence. Mental health is a puzzle whose pieces we are only beginning to run our fingers around.

As we take a few moments to mourn this great actor, here are a few of his most memorable scenes. The park scene from “Good Will Hunting” is often thought of as his best.

Whichever film or scene you most treasure from his work, Williams will be remembered for the laughs he provided to audiences in the past and to future generations as well. I will miss his wild antics and booming voice. I will miss his quick-witted humor and dramatic roles. I will miss the friend who taught me to laugh, even on days such as this when I don’t want to.

Thank you for contributing a verse.

PS-This seems as good a place as any to remind those reading this in America that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-8255.

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians of the Galaxy

With only a couple of quality films under its belt, Summer 2014 was looking like a major bust for the film industry. Things started well with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” recently breathed a little life into the box office. Just as it looked like the summer might end with a whimper, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is here to revolutionize the superhero genre.

After he is beamed aboard a spaceship as a child, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is raised by smugglers and scavengers. During the course of a big score, a bounty is put on his head that draws the likes of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). After a series of events lands them in jail, they come across Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who is on a vengeful path to kill Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). As it so happens, Ronan is also after an artifact that is possessed by Quill, who also goes by Star Lord.

Thus the Guardians of the Galaxy come together as assassins, thieves, and…tree things to fight Ronan and save the planet he intends to destroy.

The concept of the film is a pretty tall order as it has traces of “Star Wars” but carries the attitude of a Saturday morning cartoon. Fortunately, James Gunn is at the helm and he understands the material perfectly. His direction is fun, though fairly by-the-numbers, and makes the film reach its full potential. The previous Marvel films have all favored a lighter tone mixed with their heroes, but this latest film has perfected the formula and delivered the most entertaining film of the summer.

“Guardians” is one of the, if not THE, best casted superhero films of all time. From Pratt and the rest of the heroes to Pace’s Ronan and even the superb choice of Michael Rooker as Yondu, the smuggler who raised Quill. This film started with a leg up because each character has the right person playing them.

While it certainly delivers on the laughs, a superhero space film without good special effects and action sequences would be a waste of time. Luckily, there’s nothing to worry about on those fronts. Though “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” might have the film beat on fight scenes, there are more than enough fisticuffs and explosions to suit your summer blockbuster needs.

The plot alone is compelling enough to warrant the ticket price, but it’s the characters that make the film worth remembering. The opening scene of the film establishes its heart by showing us Quill’s life on earth before he is abducted. That heart continues throughout the film with the relationship between the characters and their backstories. Even Drax the Destroyer is an endearing character and Bautista plays him with the perfect amount of rage and humor. One of the best relationships of the film is between Rocket and Groot, the group’s least human characters. Rocket is a raccoon who can fight as well as talk after some nasty lab experiments and Groot is essentially a talking tree (granted he only says “I am Groot”) that can beat the sap out of some bad guys. Their Han Solo/Chewbacca relationship is one of the films more heartwarming qualities.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was such a weird concept that it was either going to bust or be the biggest hit of the summer. I’m glad to report that the latter is, in fact, true.

Grade: A+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Hercules”

HERCULES

How many movies about Hercules does it take for us to see the character truly brought to life in a good story? Apparently more than two.

In January of this year, “The Legend of Hercules” brought us the hero in the form of “Twilight” actor Kellan Lutz. Strangely enough the film was received with thunderous boos as it earned a Rotten Tomatoes score of 3% (yes, out of 100).

The second, and hopefully last of 2014, film about the super-powered demigod is the self-titled “Hercules” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. With Brett Ratner at the helm, this outing seemed eager to entertain while never taking itself too seriously.

After enduring the trials that make him a legendary figure, Hercules becomes the leader of a small group of mercenaries who rid kingdoms of unwanted visitors or sway a conflict in favor of the highest bidder. Among his crew are Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) and others.

When Lord Cotys (John Hurt) hires the warriors to train his army and rid the land of an evil warlord, the group sees it as a chance for one big payday before heading off into retirement. As this scenario naturally goes in Hollywood, the plan doesn’t go as smoothly as they hoped.

Playing the title hero with the absurd charm of someone in a chewing gum commercial, Dwayne Johnson is clearly trying to have fun with a role that is tailor made for him. For a character known for his athleticism and strength, the majority of Johnson’s action scenes are simply him trying to push an object over or nonchalantly swatting at bad guys like one might wave off a fly at a 4th of July picnic. I feel pretty confident in saying that 71-year-old Ian McShane has more interesting stunt choreography in the film.

Though Johnson tries to make him endearing, Hercules is one of the most boring characters in a film filled with boring characters. The only three characters worth noting are Amphiaraus, Autolycus and Tydeus (Aksel Hennie). Autolycus is a mercenary of the more cold-blooded variety and Sewell gives him the funny, cynical personality that many of his characters have shared. This is my first exposure to Aksel Hennie, but the Norwegian actor made a character that has almost no audible dialogue interesting solely through body language.

The film is clearly intended for an audience in the 12-18 age range as it glosses over the majority of its violence and waters down any heavy themes that would have made it interesting. One of the writers has actually made a living writing for direct-to-video sequels for the majority of the animated Disney franchises (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

The script for “Hercules” is also a mess as it changes character motivations on a dime, has several unanswered holes in the story, and includes too many convenient coincidences to hold water.

Brett Ratner and company tried to deliver a fun blockbuster loosely based on the mythology of Hercules, however, what we have instead is a pretty shoddy film that is only mildly entertaining. It may be good enough to keep your attention for 98 minutes, but anyone seeking a quality film to hold them over until “Guardians of the Galaxy” will probably wish they had just held onto their money.

Grade: C

Happy viewing.

Review: “The Purge: Anarchy”

The Purge Anarchy

Would the world be better if there was a holiday each year where all crime was legal for 12 hours?

This is one of the many questions asked by writer/director James DeMonaco in “The Purge: Anarchy”, the follow-up to last year’s “The Purge.” In these films set in the near-future, a new American political party has taken over and come up with the perfect way to clean up the country. Each year, the Purge holiday allows for all Americans to get away with whatever crime they wish. The streets essentially turn into the Old West as citizens “release the beast” during a 12-hour period.

The program is declared successful as poverty has dropped and crime decreased, but what’s really happening is that the rich can afford security measures to last the night while the inhabitants of slums and ghettos wipe each other out. The first film in the series explored the morality of the situation on a small scale. A family is forced to choose between handing over someone being hunted by purgers, basically killing the man, or themselves being attacked by his hunters. “The Purge: Anarchy” delivers the bigger story that most people wanted from the first film. Trapped on the city streets during the Purge, five individuals have to stick together to survive the night as they are chased by murderous gangs and madmen.

In one of his biggest action roles to date, Frank Grillo (“Warrior”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) stars as a man only known as Sergeant. Of the main cast, he is the only one on the streets during the Purge by choice. While hunting for the man who killed his son, he comes across 2 sets of people that are in need of rescuing: a couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) whose car died mere minutes before the Purge began, stranding them downtown, and a mother (Carman Ejogo) and daughter (Zoe Soul) who were forced to evacuate their home after it was invaded by killers.

It’s surprising for a movie like this that all five of these characters feel like real people, as you would normally expect things to go down Resident Evil-style with everyone being a cardboard cut-out ready for a gory death. The only character in the film that really doesn’t work is Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), an underground rebel fighting against the Purge leaders. His character is so laughably bad and cliché that each appearance was followed by an audible, involuntary sigh from my mouth.

The main problem with the first Purge film was that the execution of an interesting story led to disappointment. DeMonaco does much better this time around, but he still tries to explore too many aspects of the Purge’s real-world implications. Instead of developing some of the more interesting ideas, he throws a million things at the wall and lets the audience member decide what to take away. There are ideas about income inequality, the moral decay of society, the untrustworthiness of the government, gun crimes, etc. The film does make a few of these things stick and offers some interesting ideas, though.

Although it has its flaws, “The Purge: Anarchy” does what a lot of great science fiction aims for: take something that seems completely foreign and fictional to us and somehow use that to open a dialogue on issues that we face in the real world.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.

Review: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Ten years after an ape named Caesar (Andy Serkis) led a revolt on the Golden Gate Bridge, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” picks up the story in the prequel franchise of “Planet of the Apes.”

Apes and humans find themselves simply trying to survive in a world where a plague has wiped out the vast majority of mankind. Riding horseback, speaking broken English and learning to read/write, the apes have begun to grow into their reputation in the original franchise. Meanwhile the humans are living in the ruins of San Francisco and losing more resources by the day. The leaders of this colony, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), discover they might be able to save the colony by restoring power to a nearby dam. Unfortunately for them, the dam happens to be located in the ape territory run by Caesar.

While the plot is very simple, what makes the story interesting is the development of these two colonies and their interactions with one another. The apes are mesmerizing, of course, due to the motion capture technology utilized in the film. Andy Serkis does amazing work as Caesar, but the whole cast of stunt actors playing the apes bring a new level of life to the process. Given that the apes are not speaking full English all of the time, the personality quirks of their movement does a lot more for the audience than rubber suits or basic CGI.

As for the human characters, they’re really not all that interesting by comparison. The 3 most interesting people are Malcolm, Dreyfus and Ellie (Keri Russell). Clarke, in the lead role of Malcolm, plays the curious observer trying to bring about peace between the species. I’m not sure if it was the best casting decision, but he’s serviceable in the role. Gary Oldman lives up to his reputation as the more militant leader of the human colony. While I would have loved to have seen more screen time for his character, he delivers a couple of very powerful scenes. Russell has a lot less to work with as the lead female, but she does what she can with the role. Probably the biggest surprise from the cast is how stinkin’ tall Kodi Smit-McPhee has become at the ripe age of 18. It was only 4 years ago he played a much smaller child in “Let Me In.”

With Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) taking over for Rupert Wyatt in the director’s chair, it seemed like there were a lot of new possibilities for the camerawork in this film. Though he mostly plays it safe, there were a handful of really cool shots. The most popular of these is a sequence where the camera is attached to the top of a rotating tank, allowing for the viewer to get the full view of an ongoing battle. Another nice shot involves a long take where the camera is following Clarke around during the aftermath of the film’s big human/ape battle.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has some remarkable visual effects between the apes and the night battle scene, but something that really helped the film were the characterizations of its villains. With these species colliding in a post-apocalyptic setting, black and white bad guys aren’t nearly as interesting as bad guys who you can identify with. Of course, people in the film make wrong or right decisions that push them closer to hero or villain, but we can at least understand their reasoning and perhaps even sympathize with them.

A mild improvement on its predecessor, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a quality summer blockbuster that provides more than just pretty lights and booming explosions.

Grade:A-

Happy viewing.

Review: “Transformers: Age of Extinction”

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Seven years after Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) first bought Bumblebee from Bernie Mac (RIP), the Transformers franchise has taken a new direction for its fourth outing.

In the lead role now is Mark Wahlberg, playing a failed inventor from Texas named Cade Yeager (the first of many doubtful scenarios). Cade is a single dad to Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and the creator of a million gizmos unfit for publication in SkyMall. After purchasing a junked truck at a condemned movie theater (it makes as much sense as you’d imagine), Cade discovers that the truck is actually the remains of Autobot leader Optimus Prime. Eventually the government, working with shadowy figures to kill/capture all transformers, discovers Cade’s secret and goes all out to secure the alien machine.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know how this movie is going to go. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, “Age of Extinction” is by far the longest film of the series, but still follows the same pattern of the last few films. The film’s finale will be an action scene that lasts a full hour and roughly 15 minutes of the film will actually try to explain the plot.

With the Battle of Chicago from “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” having left an entire American city desolated, “Age of Extinction” deals with the aftermath in multiple ways. The more obvious result is that all the transformers are wanted fugitives, but more interestingly, the robot remains from the battle have been salvaged by corporations and governments so that they can try and harness the transformational metal material that makes up the aliens’ DNA. The direction this is taken in, though nonsensical at times, is actually one of the best plot ideas the series has ever had. Kudos.

Along with replacing its leads in LaBeouf and Megan Fox, even smaller players like John Turturro and Josh Duhamel were cut for this new story (the first in a new trilogy). This provides the film with a clean slate for past mistakes to be fixed, but sadly most of the complaints from those films still fit the new addition.

Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer and T.J. Miller are among the new faces added, but only Tucci provides a character worth remembering. As the CEO of a major tech company that is probably supposed to poke fun at Apple, his character is a somewhat conflicted one that actually advances the plot and keeps the jokes to a minimum.

As with any Transformers film directed by Michael Bay, there are endless compaints to make with a script that includes such dialogue as “My face is my warrant.” You could also point out the terrible characters Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor) and Lucas Flannery (Miller), who fail so hard at being funny and/or worth screen time that you simply hope a Decepticon steps on them. It’s really sad because Miller is a comedian who is usually funny, but no one can save this script. Next on the Transformers checklist, annoying product placement. Again, the film goes out of its way to show as many product labels as possible. Every beer is label out, every car has a medium close shot on the front bumper so you know it’s a Chevy, etc. Honestly, you can just go read a review for the last 3 films and 85% of it will still apply.

This is an easy film to rant on so I’ll try to boil it down more clearly. Everything that Michael Bay does as a director is based on him asking himself “Wouldn’t it be cool if____?” Throw out plot consistency, character arcs and basic logic. Decisions are made based on how cool they would look onscreen. That’s why there is a scene where our heroes drive out of the side of a 6-story building and land on an X-Games approved ramp. Or why there’s an alien gun small enough for Mark Wahlberg to use despite the fact that the aliens are 5 times his size.

All complaints aside, everyone knows what they are getting into with this film. Bay and Co. have toned down a lot of the immature jokes from the last 3 films and Mark Wahlberg is a breath of fresh air for those of us tired of LaBeouf and Fox running the show. In some ways “Age of Extinction” is an improvement on past films, but it is still guilty by association for a multitude of sins that still poke their heads up. Until Michael Bay is no longer at the helm and the scriptwriting pen is not in Ehren Kruger’s hand, these films will continue to be an exercise in bonehead filmmaking.

Grade: C-

Happy viewing.

 

 

Review: “Think Like A Man Too”

Think Like a Man Too

Is there anything more tired than a comedy centered around a wedding set in Las Vegas?

After the success of the film adaptation of Steve Harvey’s book, “Think Like a Man, Act Like a Lady”, it’s only natural that a sequel would follow. When Michael (Terrence Jenkins) and Candace (Regina Hall) decide to marry in Vegas, the whole crew is invited to take part in the festivities. Among others, the returning cast includes Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy and Meagan Good.

As the men and women separate for the bachelor and bachelorette parties, each couple is faced with decisions that threaten to undermine their relationship. While everyone works through their issues, they must also survive a night in Vegas planned by big-spending best man Cedric (Hart).

If you feel like you’ve already seen this movie, it’s probably because you have. No, it isn’t a rip-off of “The Hangover.” This is much too safe and bland to be compared to the hard-R-rating that series is known for. It does follow the stereotypes of every comedy set in Vegas, though. Strip club? Check. Extravagant pool party? Check. Character that needs to gamble in order to pay off large debt immediately? Check. Jail scene? Check. The film’s thin plot isn’t too much of a surprise and it’s certainly not the first film to try and capture the essence of Vegas in a bottle. Thankfully the film does stay away from overplayed jokes about Wayne Newton or the other attractions that tend to be swept up into these films.

As for the comedy, there are a few gags that work really well. One of them that doesn’t? The cliché white character who is the epitome of uncool. Poor Gary Owen walks around with his fanny pack the whole film being the butt of every joke. Get it? He’s the whitest guy in the group so he’s a loser. Hilarious!

The film packs a few laughs thanks mostly to its mascot, Kevin Hart, but the ladies outperform the men overall in both the acting and humor departments. An impromptu music video halfway through the film shows that the females were more willing to go all out with the comedy than the men, who mostly played it straight for the film.

When you combine forgettable characters with a thin plot and the emotional prowess of a Hallmark Channel movie, no amount of comedy is going to make a film great. “Think Like a Man Too” is a film you can probably skip unless you’re a fan of Kevin Hart.

Grade: D+

Happy viewing.