The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Big House

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Shawshank Redemption is a movie which is hypnotising in just how good it is. You know the type of film; whenever it’s on TV (which in this case it constantly is) you have to stop what you’re doing and watch it – one of those rare movies in which you don’t want to end. With the all the movies out there in which you find yourself checking how long is left of the running time, here is one in which you see there is a whole hour left and you’re glad; the mark of a truly great movie.

Carcerophobia is the fear of going to prison and is something which has crossed my mind in the past, partially brought on by movies like The Shawshank Redemption. Even if you’ve committed nothing illegal like Andy Dufresne, there is always that possibility that an honest law abiding citizen could end up in the slammer. The world of Shawshank State Penitentiary is one with little to no human rights, one with shocking but believable treatment from both the guards and fellow prisoners as they engage in brutal, sadistic acts. Regardless of what prisons around the world are like circa 2017, your “whole life (is) blown away in the blink of an eye, nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it”. The Shawshank Redemption may be one of Stephen King’s non horror works, but the prospect of going to prison for a crime you never committed gets under my skin.

One of the aspects of The Shawshank Redemption which intrigues me the most in the empire Andy builds while inside prison as well as an insight of the economics and commerce which goes on between the prisoners and guards. Just like Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz, he is still able to find meaning in his life despite being in what first looks like a hopeless situation; he is able to find hope in despair. This really does show that at the end of the day, knowledge is power. Likewise Andy sending a letter every week to the state government for prison library funding and ultimately playing with the system, always something which inspires me.

What makes Andy Dufresne such a great character? Like Tim Robbins himself, there is more than meets the eye. Robins has an intelligence to him and you can’t quite figure out what is going on behind his eyes, an actor with a mysterious aura to him and this comes through with the character of Andy. He is not like the rest of the prisoners, he’s a civilised gentleman thrown into the jungle that is prison but he’s not a sheltered fool ether and knows how to deal with his new surroundings. But why do I need to tell you this, the narration sums up his character perfectly in a beautiful and poetic manner – “I must admit I didn’t think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.” Likewise I also find myself very intrigued by the character of Brooks; just how does such a gentle soul end up in prison? Did he really commit a crime? Who knows?

Morgan Freeman has the ability to play wise old men without coming off as a stereotype or a cliché. His narration is describing what obviously appears in the film, so what makes it so great? Like the best film narration it’s to do with its poetic manner and the way in which it’s delivered; scenes in the film were shot to time with the pre-recorded voice over plus it goes without saying Freeman has one of the most heavenly voices ever. None of his dialogue is necessary for the advancement of the plot, yet what would the film be without it? There are just so many inspirational quotes.

The escape sequence itself so incredible yet at the same time is entirely believable and one of the most satisfying movie revenge plots. Many people always point out as to how Andy could reattach the poster to the wall when he begins his escape through the tunnel, even Frank Darabont acknowledges this on the DVD audio commentary although I am puzzled as to why this is made into a big deal. Andy could simply attach the poster to the wall at the top two corners and allow gravity to cover the remainder of the hole and simply crawl into it from below as if the poster where a curtain, likewise we never see on screen if the poster has been reattached on all four corners.

When I think of films which can convey an expansive range of powerful human emotions and feelings and act as a form of emotional therapy a few instantly come to my mind – It’s a Wonderful Life, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shawshank Redemption. Films which help one to break from the mental prisons of our life.

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Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Oh England, My Lionheart

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

No Robin Hood movie can dream of even coming close to the perfection that is 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ranks as my 2nd favourite movie about the famed English outlaw. If the 1938 Robin Hood is one extreme of a bright, colourful, tight wearing, saccharine induced fantasy and the Ridley Scott Robin Hood is the opposite extreme of an unnecessarily dark, gritty and overly mature version of the tale, then Prince of Thieves is the middle ground.

Is the all American Kevin Costner miscast as Robin Hood? Yes. But do I care? No, not really. Costner’s enthusiasm does come through in his performance and shows he has what it takes to be an action hero. Most people won’t think of Costner as a screen presence, but to me he is. Likewise, realism is besides the point with a movie like this.

The movie opens unexpectedly in Jerusalem showing that this is a Robin Hood movie which does thing a bit different, largely with the character of Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a black man in medieval England. Azeem represents positive representation of an Arab as well as the Arab world. He holds more progressive views on women and in one of the movie’s pivotal scenes in which he hands Robin a rudimentary telescope (very similar to a paralleling scene in Dances with Wolves) which isn’t recorded to have been invented until the 17th century. However the notion that an individual or individuals from the Arab world might have known about such technology isn’t a too “out there” idea due to the Middle East being far more advanced society during the middle ages. I assume it’s unlikely we’ll see a character like Azeem in the post 911 world in which the Middle East is no longer portrayed in media as an exotic fantasy land rather than a haven for terrorists. Costner and Morgan Freeman make for a fun duo; who wouldn’t want to have Morgan Freeman always by your side giving you winsomely knowledge? After all what other actor embodies dignity more than Freeman? Yes there is a big gaping plot hole when Azeem saves Robin’s life as soon as they arrive in England. But do I care? No, not really.

The film’s message of equality between race and gender isn’t shoved down your throat and doesn’t come off as overt political correctness. Likewise Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s (try saying that name three times) Lady Marian is a woman in medieval England who has a sense of self and is not subservient to anyone; not historically accurate but progressive. Plus I do love a girl in armour.

However it’s Alan Rickman who steals the show as the twitchy, scenery chewing mad man that is the Sherriff of Nottingham. His performance is full of little things which feel like they were improvised and his many outbursts are music to my ears. Is it just me or do classically trained actors often make the most memorable villains? Sean Connery’s appearance on the other hand is one of the better uses of a celebrity cameo in a film. Just like how the characters are surprised to see Richard the Lionheart we as the audience are surprised to see Sean Connery; plus he’s perfect in these kinds of roles.

How can that score by Michael Kamen not evoke the adventurer in you? The music is so good that it appears Disney have been using it on their own logo. Likewise I guess I’m also the only person in the world who isn’t sick to death of Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For You; I still jam to it now and then. Ah the days when the pop song tie in was as big, if not bigger than the movie itself.

Prince of Thieves is good old fashioned swashbuckling action. The action on display has a sense of weight and physicality with the impressive large scale action sequences with even the out there moment with Robin and Azeem being fired over a wall with a catapult still feeling believable, and not a computer generated effect in sight; all practical glory.

The movie does the English landscape justice; even in the drab winter weather there is still a beauty to it. Prince of Thieves features some breathtaking money shots, such as that of Robin firing an arrow with an explosion behind him filmed at 300 frames per second; or perhaps my favourite shot in the film, the romantic elevator with the sun in the background splitting the trees. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is film with its faults but I’m so engaged with the world and its aesthetic that I can look past them, a world in which everything feels used and lived in, one beaming with personality.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Champion Filmmaking

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Million Dollar Baby is a movie I find works on different levels. On my first viewing I found the majority of the film great right up until the plot’s heartbreaking turn of events, it easily ranked as one of my new favourite films of all time. On second viewing however I found substantially even better as I was waiting in dread for the proceeding events; I mean almost literally quivering in fear knowing that dreadful scene in which Maggie falls to the ground and her neck lands on the side on a stool. Thanks to this movie I now fear the very sight of a stool. Million Dollar Baby is one of the most emotionally draining films I’ve ever witnessed. It’s such a powerful experience I can’t just immediately watch another film right away and I’ll still be thinking about it for days afterwards; a film so absorbing you don’t want it to end. Yet the last forty minutes after Maggie Fitzgerald’s life threatening injury are so difficult to watch. Morgan’s Freeman’s monologue in which he tries to justify a reason to pull the plug on Maggie as she got her shot and can leave the world thinking “I think I did alright” really made me appreciate being alive.

I don’t know if it was the filmmaker’s intent but I certainly get the impression Million Dollar Baby has a pro-assisted suicide message which will rub many people the wrong way. I will point out though I’m not against movie’s containing a message which supports a point of view, regardless of my views on the issue at hand as this (on top of making more people aware of an issue) can create a vocal point of discussion as well as being thought provoking.

Eastwood has only become better over time, delivering an amazing streak of directorial efforts during throughout the 2000’s, with stories of unpretentious human emotion. His direction on Million Dollar Baby (as well as many of his other films) is astounding in how he makes the art of filmmaking look easy. It amazes me the effectiveness of his films despite their simplistic (at least on the surface level) and humble nature. Never has the presence of a fighter training in a darkly lit gym ever looked so immaculate. Likewise Eastwood can combine serious drama and subtle humor perfectly. I love his smart-alecky sense of humor such as the scenes in which he annoys a priest for his own amusement or my personal favourite moment, Eastwood and Freeman’s conversation about socks. Not to mention Morgan Freeman’s narration is pure heaven to listen too, never as exposition been pleasurable. If only Morgan Freeman could narrate my life. I know its east to throw around the “M” word, but in this instance I will use it. Million Dollar Baby is nothing short of a masterpiece.