Saturday, April 29, 2017

SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE



(September 1994, U.S.)

During the 1990s, I did a lot of "movie hopping" at various multiplexes. In case that term eludes you, it's when you pay one ticket price and proceed to move around, or "hop" throughout the building watching more than one movie. Saved me a lot of money and I really got to catch up on my movies that way. Sure, it was dishonest and the multiplexes likely lost money because of me, but frankly, my dear, I just didn't give a damn!

Okay, so one night in the fall of 1994, I pay my ticket money at a local multiplex in Queens, but not to see THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Believe it or not, I was there that night to see WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (I kid you not!). You see, somehow I'd gotten it into my head that because Wes Craven was now directing again and Heather Langenkamp had returned to her role that made the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET such a hit (a film I actually no longer care for), this new (and seventh!) film in the franchise might be worth something. Oh shit, was I wrong! When it was over, I concluded that I somehow had to make up for the time and money wasted on this slasher dud. Without thinking too much about it, I simply walked into THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION because it was about to start at a convenient time. Despite the fact that the movie poster indicated it was based on a story by Stephen King, whom I loved to read, my thoughts and expectations of the film were minimal, at best. Well, it proves once and for all that sometimes the things you expect the least from shall deliver the most in return. And return, it did.

While I haven't seen too many prison dramas in my time, it's clearly become its own genre over the years, dating back to the earliest days of cinema. To call THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION my favorite prison film (which it is!) is almost too easy since I have almost no basis of comparison. In almost any prison story, you have the protagonist who is either innocent of his crime that put him there, or grossly misunderstood as a human being, despite the crime he's guilty of. This latter description would probably best fit the character of "Red" (played by Morgan Freeman and also the film's effective narrator), who, despite being convicted for murder, is a gentle man who's reputation as "the one who can get you things" not only identifies his purpose as smuggler at the prison, but also shows his kind heart in making conditions for the convicted felons there a little easier.

But let's step back a bit and concentrate on the film's hero, banker Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), who in 1947, is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover; a crime he didn't commit. Nonetheless, he's sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Keeping to himself at first, Andy finally opens up to "Red" by requesting a small rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth. While adjusting to the hell that is considered prison life, Andy is routinely assaulted and raped by a gang infamously known as "the Sisters". It's a simple spring day atop a roof building that turns things around for Andy when he inadvertently help a brutal prison guard keep his entire inheritance tax free by offering sound financial advice. The price of this valuable advice is merely three beers apiece for his fellow prison mates. In one moment of verbal risk, Andy is able to turn things around for himself with not only the prisoners, but the guards, as well, who now rely on Andy's financial services at tax time every year (and also get "the Sisters" off his back for good). As the years roll on by and the situations become more stable for Andy at Shawshank, so does his purpose there, including obtaining government funds to improve the decaying prison library and helping young prisoner Tommy Williams pass his high school GED exam. This young kid also just happens to possess information that could exonerate Andy from his crime and his conviction. Warden Norton (played by Bob Gunton) won't have that, though, as Andy has been quite instrumental in helping him in his corrupt money laundering scheme. Norton has Tommy killed to protect his little operation and it now looks like Andy has reached the end of his rope, as he faces a lifetime at Shawshank.

In the history of movie plot twists and shocking revelations, the moment when we discover that Andy has escaped Shawshank and has, for the last nineteen years, been systematically planning that escape, is one of the best I've seen on film. From the moment Norton rips the poster of Raquel Welch off of the wall and we're staring into a large gaping hole (looks like that little rock hammer wasn't so harmless, after all), it's astounding when we finally realize that all the while we've been victims (sort of) of a major deception that ultimately puts our hero on top. We know Andy has been innocent all along and we take pleasure in his personal triumphs within the prison walls that make his life easier. But nothing puts a smile on our face quite the way Andy's final act of defiance and revenge does when he not only escapes to his final destiny of the beaches of Mexico, but also in having taken down Norton in the process. To think back on Andy's actions, though small as some of them may have been, and realize how they all come together to make him a free man and to also aid "Red" on the day he should one day be free, is a personal triumph for us, as well, because we love the feeling of finally having been let in on the ultimate plan that was taking place behind our backs the entire time.

The integrity and feelings of self-worth among men are, perhaps, the strongest themes of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. In prison, where life seems hopeless, it's the simplest things that make men feel like men again, and not animals; whether it's cold beer on a May morning or a brief recorded excerpt of the opera The Marriage of Figaro. Still, even those moments of freedom are threatened by the hard fact of being institutionalized. As "Red" puts it, "These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them." By that reckoning, being free on the outside proves to be a form of imprisonment, as men like "Red" and Brooks are unable to function in the outside world. Friendship, while being nonsexual, is also very strong, as it proves the bonding love between men who have come to depend on each other for survival. There are moments that are wonderfully satisfying and uplifting, particularly the moment we, as viewers feel our own sense of triumph and validation at the end, when "Red", now a free man, strolls along the beach to be reunited with his best friend Andy, and the promise of hope and freedom.

Author Stephen King himself declared THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION to be one of his favorite film adaptations based on his own work. For myself, I consider it to be one of the top ten best films of the 1990s (and that's all because my initial purpose on night in 1994 was to see a stupid horror movie!).

Favorite line or dialogue:

"Red" (narrating) "I like to think the last thing that went through his head...other than that bullet...was to wonder how the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him."















Saturday, April 22, 2017

SHANE



(April 1953, U.S.)

Next to musicals, the western is the genre I enjoy the least. With a few exceptions, the western, in my humble opinion, is a cinematic formula that almost never changes. Good guys, bad guys, simple town folk, rustlers, Indians, hero gunfighter, climactic shootout, on and on and on and on. Sometimes it's a little more on the rough edge with a guy like Clint Eastwood and sometimes it's on the lighter side of music with the singing cowboy (think Roy Rogers). In the end, for me, it all never seems to change. So, that being the case, why the hell am I attracted to a classic western like SHANE? Two reasons: the first being that with any genre that tends to continuously repeat itself, you're likely to choose at least one or two of said genre that pleases you the most in its use of the common formulaic elements; so I choose SHANE. The second being my own personal memories of childhood. You see, when I was in the eighth grade of middle school, we were required to read SHANE in our English class. Upon completing the book, we got to watch the movie over a period of several days. Naturally, it's a relief to be able to spend a few days of English class watching a movie instead of doing any actual work, but I found myself really enjoying the movie. I'd watch it again whenever it was shown on television after that, and I suppose my childhood fondness for it has never really gone away.

While hardly a unique element for a well made western, SHANE has some of the best outdoor cinematography I've seen that would easily give John Ford a run for his money. Shane himself (as played by Alan Ladd) is a mysterious character with no indications of his past. We only know that he's passing through the isolated valleys of Wyoming and that he's very skilled with a gun. Having befriended a local family headed by Joe Starrett (played by Van Heflin) and his wife Marian (played by Jean Arthur), he learns that they and many other good folks like them are engaged in a private war with a ruthless cattle baron called Ryker (played by Emile Meyer) who has hired men to harass and terrorize them out of the valley, despite them having legally claimed their land under the Homestead Acts. Though not meant to be any sort of protector for the Starrett family, Shane stays on with them for a time as a hired hand.

Upon his first visit to town, Shane is harassed and bullied into fighting, but he resists, though hardly out of cowardice. We can easily sense that Shane deliberately avoids trouble whenever possible in order to avoid what is suspected to be a violent past (Clint Eastwood played a similar sort of man in PALE RIDER). Like any man, however, Shane has his breaking points and it's exciting to watch him not only defend himself against the bad guys in a wild bar room brawl, but those he cares about also. Shane is a caring man, too, as he also demonstrates father-figure tendencies toward the Starrett boy Joey, particularly when teaching him how to shoot a gun for the first time. Joey is drawn to Shane, and to his gun, too.

As with any battle between good and evil, their reaches a point where things escalate. As Shane now proves to be a problem for Ryker and his men, he hires an outside gunman called Wilson (played by Jack Palance, who had a special fondness for westerns...even CITY SLICKERS) who proves early on that he may just be a threatening match-up against Shane. At the moment the film reaches the point where Shane will face his enemies, it's hardly what I'd call a major shootout. Shane is the easy victor and it all happens rather quickly, with little Joey watching from afar. When it's all over, the peaceful settlers have won and there will likely be no more guns in the valley. But we also discover that Shane was hit by a bullet during the final shooting and I suppose it's here that the true mystery lies. During the iconic closing moment when Shane is seen riding forever out of town and Joey cries out, "Shane! Come back!", we have to look closely to realize that Shane is not exactly leaving intact. He's slumped forward in his saddle and it's quite possible that he may not survive. In fact, if you listen to Kevin Spacey in THE NEGOTIATOR (1998), he claims that Shane is dead at the end of the movie, though we as the viewer are not entirely sure of this fact because the light and darkness of the scene won't allow us to be sure. Are we meant to understand if Shane is alive or not or is it one of those ongoing mysterious that's meant to be debated among fans of the film? Perhaps it's this mystery that also attracts me to SHANE above many other westerns.

While I certainly won't claim that SHANE is a brilliant achievement in drama and performance (in fact, Joey's little whining voice can get on my nerves at times!), it is a rather rich and vibrant portrayal of the American frontier scene, not too unlike a beautiful painting by a gifted artist. The plains, the valleys and the mountains are a form of grand beauty, even as they're accompanied by some of nature's harsher elements like darkness and rain. The tale of the gun fighter is an old cliché, to be sure, but it's a cliché that's easy to embrace with SHANE because of a tough, edgy actor like Alan Ladd, as well as the frontier spirit of the little boy who yearns to understand the mystery of a man like Shane. In the end, however, we may never understand a man like Shane. We may never even know if he survived at the end, or not. Such is the mysteries of life...and the western.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Shane: "I've heard about you."
Jack Wilson: "What have you heard, Shane?"
Shane: "I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar!"
Jack: "Prove it!"










Sunday, April 16, 2017

SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE



(August 1989, U.S.)

The year 1989 marked a rather significant turning point in my (informal) cinematic education. It was the year I finally decided to break out of my commercial Hollywood shell of blockbusters and sequels and start giving the independent art film a chance by going to see Steven Soderbergh's debut film SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, but also my first foreign subtitled film on screen as well, with Giuseppe Tornatore's Italian classic CINEMA PARADISO (originally released in 1988, but didn't hit the local art house near me until 1989). Now while I can't claim that the film forever turned me off from wasting any more of my time on common Hollywood crap (that didn't happen 'till 2006), it finally did open my eyes to the idea of simple stories about characters of quality and depth, and in this particular case, I was already familiar with actors like James Spader (from LESS THAN ZERO) and Andie MacDowell (from GREYSTOKE and ST. ELMO'S FIRE).

The film tells the story of a rather dysfunctional man named Graham (played by Spader) who films women discussing their sexuality in order to try and get past his own public impotence (he can't get it up in front of another person), as well as his presence and impact on the relationships of a troubled married couple (played by MacDowell and Peter Gallagher) and the wife's younger, sexually-charged sister (played by Laura San Giacomo). The trouble in the marriage stems mainly from the fact that Ann, in her own form of neurosis and insecurity (when we first meet her, she's discussing her fear of the world's garbage with her therapist), refuses to allow her husband to touch her anymore (no comment!). As a result, he's fucking her sister behind her back, even in their own bedroom when the opportunity arises. Graham, who is now a drifter and living locally in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the time being, doesn't attempt to hide the fact from Ann that he's impotent and freely interviews women about their sexual experiences and fantasies, on videotape, though he never has sex with any of these women. Ann, spooked and confused at first, eventually cannot hide her curiosity at Graham's bizarre ritual. When her sister Cynthia learns of this, she's hardly shy about going to straight to his apartment to find out what it's all about. Graham propositions Cynthia to make a tape, assuring her that no other person is allowed to see the tapes. Believing him, she agrees. We get a firsthand look at how such a tape begins and progresses, as Cynthia tells the story of her first sexual experience and inevitably intercourse.

As is with any case of marital infidelity, the wife inevitably finds out. Though in this particular case, I can't say I take any sympathetic position with Ann. Perhaps it's wrong for her husband John to be fucking her sister, but if Ann is going to refuse to allow her own husband to touch her for no particular reason, then frankly, she deserves whatever she gets (if you're not going to get it from the one you love, then I believe you're free to seek it elsewhere!)! Though I have to give Ann credit for the direct way she confronts John by slowly announcing to him, "I-want-out-of-this-marriage!" However, that comes later, after in what I can only consider a direct act of revenge, goes to see Graham to make one of his infamous videotapes. Through our eyes and what we witness, though, it would appear that Ann has chosen to have sex with Graham in the end. When all is said and done, despite being an independent art film, there's still that touch of the Hollywood happy ending as it appears that Ann will forgive her sister for going behind her back and that Ann and Graham are now a happy couple (awwww!).

The insight to human sexuality may be as old as cinema itself, though censors had a much better way of hiding way back when. Soderbergh's script is a mature, intelligent and even nuanced look at flawed human beings and their approach to sex and relationships through their own neurosis. While we're watching these interesting characters come to life, we likely also can't help but wonder exactly how they managed to come together in the first place. Just what is it that originally brought a frigid woman like Ann together with a somewhat more spirited man like John. What exactly brings that same woman together with a troubled soul like Graham? Is it simply an act of revenge against her cheating husband, or is there something deeper inside her and Graham that manages to bring the old saying of "opposites attract" to life? Cynthia, whose open-minded sexuality hardly needs to be justified in fucking her sister's husband, is a curious one in that we wonder what it is between she and her sister that would allow her to commit such a betrayal. Soderbergh (rightfully, perhaps) doesn't try to justify these specific issues. He's showing us human beings who do strange things for reasons we're not meant to fully understand, as is often the case in real life. Who can explain why we do what we do or why we fuck who we fuck?

Favorite line of dialogue:

Graham: "You're right. I've got a lot of problems. But they belong to me."
Ann: "You think they're yours, but they're not. Everybody that walks in that door becomes part of your problem. Anybody that comes in contact with you. I didn't want to be part of your problem, but I am. I'm leaving my husband, and maybe I would have anyway, but the fact is, is, I'm doing it now, and part of it's because of you. You've had an effect on my life."



Saturday, April 1, 2017

SEX AND THE CITY



(May 2008, U.S.)

I am about to attempt to give a male's perspective and point of view (very likely chauvinistic, too!) on what I consider to be, in my humble male opinion, the most "chickiest" of all chick flicks, SEX AND THE CITY, the movie that continues the popular HBO series that went off the air in 2004. But first, a little backstory of my own...

I first discovered the HBO show in 1999, around the time I started dating my future wife. As in all new relationships, the conversions of one's likes and dislikes to the other person's entertainment appreciations is inevitable. Seeing movies the other person likes, visiting museum exhibits the other person like and trying out new TV shows you'd never watch on your own. SEX AND THE CITY was already into Season Two when my wife (sorry...girlfriend) urged me to watch it with her every Sunday night. Well, you know what happens - you reluctantly agree at first, you slowly get used to the new show in your life and before you know it, you find that you, like your better half, don't want to miss a single episode and are willing to make every effort to make sure you're in front of the TV at the appropriate time (I didn't have anything like a Tivo or DVR machine at that time). After a while, SEX AND THE CITY became a weekly ritual I started to look forward to because I found myself quite turned on by all the highly-sexual content of the show's four female character, particularly that of Samantha Jones, who (to put it bluntly) loved, loved, loved to fuck! Sometimes the hot topics of an episode would even lead to my having sex also...sometimes. Anyway, I stayed faithful to the show right up until the end and saw no reason to ever look back. When the movie follow-up was released four years later, I didn't exactly rush to the movies to see what would happen to these four ladies of New York City next. It could easily wait until DVD or HBO.

To start things off rather bluntly, the film of SEX AND THE CITY is quite simply a nearly two and a half hour version of the show. There's absolutely nothing new or unique that's been added for any cinematic value. Even the show's director, Michael Patrick King, is at the helm of what he clearly knows so well. My point here is that if you were a fan of the show, then there's no reason the film will disappoint you. If you never watched the show before...actually, if you're a MAN and you never watched the show before, then this film is very likely going to try your patience, even if you're forced to watch it with your significant other.

So, it's four years later and Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) gives us a brief narration of the events that have happened to her and her three best friends over the last ten years (very convenient for those who aren't in the know). Charlotte (played by Kristin Davis) is happily married to her divorce lawyer, mother of an adopted Chinese girl and still a little-Miss-Goodie-Two-Shoes prude. Miranda (played by Cynthia Nixon) is married, a mother, living in Brooklyn and has lost interest in sex with her husband (bitch!) for the time being. Samantha (played by Kim Cattrall) lives in Los Angeles with her stud-muffin superstar-model boyfriend and still loves to fuck! Carrie is, of course, still fine and fabulous and strutting her hot ass around the streets of Manhattan and is about to move into her 5th Avenue penthouse dream apartment with Big (played by Chris Noth) and is facing the fact that she'll have no legal rights to said apartment because he's paying for it. To ease her insecurities, Big suggests that they marry. The proposal is delivered as more of a business proposal than anything else, but Carries joyfully agrees. Now, you'd think this could be a simple matter of two people who were never that interested in marriage before just tying the knot, right? Wrong! Remember, Carrie Bradshaw is the city's ultimate image of fabulous, and a published writer, to boot. So when she's asked to do a bridal photo shoot for Vogue and is given the wedding dress of her dreams, she's suddenly unleashed into the pit of hell that is wedding planning, wedding decisions and every other egotistical issue that's ultimately designed to cater only to the bride's needs and leave the poor schmuck-of-a-groom left standing in the cold wondering what the hell is happening to him. Carrie's planning goes so far over the top that she completely forgets the notion that her pending marriage to Big is supposed to be about them and not how it's all going to make her look to her friends and adoring public.

By the way, I couldn't help but wonder if you're sensing a little anger in my writing now? Perhaps you are. I've been to my share of (Jewish) weddings that were so over-the-top ridiculous, I was practically ashamed to even be there. Thankfully and happily, my own wedding in 2001 was nothing like that. It was about me and my bride and not how it all made us look to others (the greatest day of my life!).

Anyway, when the big day finally arrives, Big is so overcome with fear and uncertainty about what he's about to do for the third time in his life, that he fails to get out of the car in front of the New York Public Library at the crucial moment. Even when he tries to take his little stunt back moments later, it's too late, because Carrie's realized what he's done and it's all over. From here, the film takes off to Mexico where Carrie tries to heal with her three best friends on what was supposed to be her honeymoon with Big. Carrie sleeps and Carrie suffers and I'd be lying to you if I told you that I, as the viewer, don't feel she deserves what's happened to her. Any woman who is so ME, ME, ME and fabulous, fabulous, fabulous and fails to remember what the true meaning behind the marriage is, deserves to fall flat on her pretty, little ass!

(there's that anger again!).

As Carrie is having her crisis and trying to bounce back from it, Miranda is fighting her own marital battles as she tries to get over her husband Steve's one-time infidelity that occurred some months ago because she had lost sexual interest in him. Okay, let's just forget for a moment that I'm a man and it's practically my obligation to take another man's side. But really, when a wife goes for months and months making it very clear that she no longer has sexual interest in the man she's supposed to love, what do we expect the man to do?? Cheating is wrong, yes, but when you're being repeatedly ignored by the woman you love, what are you expected to do? Just sit there and idly take it forever?? Well, as cliché would have it, time, patience and a little marriage counseling inevitably heal all wounds and Miranda and Steve live happily ever after as they meet in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Oh, and in cause you're wondering, Carrie and Big settle things, too, and are married in the simplest way - in a downtown courthouse and with their best friends over pancakes and omelettes later on.

SEX AND THE CITY as a film works well enough, as previously stated, if you're a fan of the show. The plot content, however, really seems to focus on just Carrie and Miranda, suggesting that Samantha and Charlotte have very likely outlived their characters and are only there to offer the sidekick support of the other two friends that represent sexual freedom and prim-and-proper stability. Yet despite this accusation against these other two women, there is a moment in the film when I have nothing but true respect for Samantha Jones and that's when, in a brief moment, she's feeding Carrie some breakfast when she refuses to leave her bed while hiding from the world after having been jilted by Big. It's one of those touching scenes of true friendship, loyalty and being there for someone you care about when they're really hurting. But like I said before, it's all pretty-much outlived with those two, but there's still something to be said about having four old friends with you again after a four year hiatus from television to screen. You're happy to see them again, and you're happy to see all's well that ends well with them, and perhaps you've even decided that you've seen enough of them when it's all over and the four women toast each other to the next fifty years of their lives. In other words, SEX AND THE CITY 2 was totally unnecessary!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Carrie Bradshaw: "So really, we're, we're getting married?"
Big: "We're getting married. Should we get you a diamond?"
Carrie: "No. No. Just get me a really big closet."