Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cuban Fury



I looked at two other blog sites today that both reviewed this movie. That is something I do not usually do before seeing a film. I want my perspective to be untainted as much as possible. The thing of it is though, I had no plan to see this movie before today. I'd only heard of it a day or two ago, and I knew next to nothing about it except that it featured dancing and Nick Frost. I let my curiosity get the better of me and I peeked at what others had said. It was not promising. The reviews that I saw were not terrible but they were at best lukewarm to the movie. They did however fill in enough details to let me know that this might be a movie I would appreciate.

Since I have the week off at one of my work sites, I thought I'd be able to take some time and sneak in several films. No such luck and to be honest I was not excited about anything I'd not already seen. I took my AMC Stubbs points, marched down and caught the matinee of this movie. I'm 56 years old and I was the youngest person in the theater. It was on one of the four big screens at the multiplex with 17 screens. There were maybe a half dozen of us there so the house seemed cavernous. All that said, everybody had a pretty good time. I heard the 70 year old ladies a dozen seats down from me laugh several times and I was doing the same. The film was a little predictable, but all romantic comedies are. What sets this apart from most of the others is the salsa-dancing background and the star.

For some reason I have usually enjoyed movie dancing. From the classic Hollywood musicals of the golden age, to the 80's revisionism of Fame, Flashdance and Footloose (the three big "Fs" of the 80s), a little fancy footwork seemed to do it for me. This film takes a big dose of "Strictly Ballroom" and crosses it with a goofball comedy sensibility to entertain for the nearly two hours that it ran. A dancer who has lost his way and seems to have settled for a more mundane existence, gets a chance to reconnect with his roots. All the while being slighted by an obnoxious co-worker and romantic rival. I liked the dialogue that reveals what a pig the rival really is and the performance of Chris O'Dowd  as the odious Drew was at least a third of the fun in the movie. So it is an underdog story set in England centered around salsa dancing.

The underdog here is Nick Frost, as Bruce, the man who gave up salsa as a child when bullied by a group of other boys. His sweetheart of a sister was his dancing partner and she still bravely faces the world with her own quirky way of coping. It is the arrival of a pretty new American woman who stirs Bruce's romantic inclinations, and when he discovers that she also salsas, he returns to the art, twenty-five years out of practice. Frost is best known to me as Simon Pegg's counterpart in the "Cornetto Trilogy"(there is a "blink and you'll miss it" appearance by Mr. Pegg in this film as well). He is a sweet faced, overweight, lump of an actor, who manages to bring real personality to his roles and sweep aside the stereotypes of his visual image. In this film, the whole goal is to subvert those sterotypes while also exploiting them for laughs. It worked really well for me.

It is not a classic that you will want to return to over and over again, but it has it's moments. There are some great scenes with an effeminate Persian man who encourages Bruce that are very funny. The showdown between Bruce and Drew is hysterically staged and full of mad ingenuity. The peripheral characters, including Ian McShane as Bruce's old salsa coach, fill the movie with little bits of charm and mild laughter. It was better than I was expecting and the credit has to go to Nick Frost, who manages to make us care that a dumpy guy might have bigger dreams than what he seems doomed to live out. 


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Academy Conversations: The Adventures of Robin Hood

So a few weeks ago, I was given a heads up by one on my friends on line that my Favorite movie was to be a subject of a Special Presentation at the TCM Film Festival. I had unfortunately not planned well enough to go to the whole festival, an issue I hope to repair next year. After looking on line for individual tickets, I discovered that you have to line up for standby on the day of the event at the venue. The screening and discussion were scheduled for  9:15 on a Sunday morning, so I felt pretty confident that we could get in, but I was concerned about where we would be able to sit, and my wife has a little trouble navigating the steep walkways and dark stairs at the Egyptian Theater.  We trekked down to Hollywood and Arrived before 8:00, just to be sure. The parking lot attendant had not yet arrived and they were just putting up the Stand-by line directions for our screening, so we ended up one and two in line. Of course that is after all the VIPs, Pass holders and other Festival attendees have been let in. Fortunately, we had a guardian angel. My friend who had told me about the screening was also attending as a Festival Pass Holder. We made plans to meet before the movie.

Michael and I had never met in person before but he and I know each other well from our respective blogs. He had let me know that he would be wearing a distinctive shirt that day, much like carrying a book and a rose to meet Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks. As we waited at the front of the line (alone I might add), I saw him approaching and recognized the shirt immediately. He had just as easy a time finding me since my presence on the internet has a variety of pictures of me and he showed me the smiling image from my gmail account on his phone. After spending a few minutes talking about the Festival that he had been attending, he offered to save us some seats when he went in. I am so grateful to him for that kindness, it made it much easier for us to relax and the seats he picked out were easily accessible for my wonderful spouse who is on her second year of vertigo.

The program started up and we were introduced to two Academy Award winning legends, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. They were in great form as they joked and talked about the festival and the movie. They had a wonderful presentation for us that reviewed the making of "The Adventures of Robin Hood". It began with the well known story that originally Jimmy Cagney was cast in the role and the movie was to be more comedic. The director of the movie, William Keighley was replaced during the shoot and there was a clearer explanation of that than I have seen before. Craig Barron  made a point to note that Keighley had done all the work that had set up each of the main characters and that while his contribution is sometimes minimized, he really did have a substantial impact on the tone and look of the film. Being the Special effects guy, Barron led us through a visualization of the three color process used by Technicolor. There was a smooth use of tri-color graphics being merged to give us the spectacular color that then comes off of the screen. We also got a review of some of the matte work that was done for the picture. Both he and Burtt spent time out in the former Warner's Ranch location, which is now a housing development and golf course, to try and locate the hills and set locations. They made the trip entertaining as all get out by referencing the celebrities that now occupy some of that space and revealing that they did get pulled over for speeding on the road that was earlier used by the raiding party at the end to sneak into Nottingham castle.

Ben Burtt took over for a while as the discussion shifted to the sound design process for the film. He began by looking at the location sound trucks that Warner's used and he had a clever piece of history concerning the remaining trucks and their actual colors. You could hear the geek side come out in him as he longed to have one of those trucks for his own. The mock up version using a Chevy HHR looked cool but you could tell it would not have cut it as far as his lust was concerned. The most intriguing part of the tale involved his attempt to identify how the sounds of the arrows were made in the movie. There were very distinctive references in the original script to what the sound of the war arrows should be, and the effect on screen is amazingly appropriate. Burtt attempted a series of tests to try to lock down the source of the sound. Only someone as obsessed with sound as the designer of the sounds for the Star Wars films, could find this necessary and finally succeeded in discovering the truth. It turns out that the arrows used by the archery master on the film, had distinct feathering and the feathers were cut in a specific way which helped make the dramatic impact we hear from the screen. Michael shared with me a couple of secrets about velocity and rotation that made the talk more interesting as well. The next time the film gets remastered, updated, special presentation formatted or generally packaged to get fans to buy it again, I would strongly urge the producers track down a recoding of this talk, or have the two gentlemen recreate it, because it was splendid introduction to the movie itself.

After that great presentation, which was worth the trip down to Hollywood and the ticket price, all by itself, we got to take in a screening of "The Adventures of Robin Hood". We could see and hear all of the elements that had just been talked about and of course we got to cheer for Errol Flynn. As each character arrived on screen there was applause from the audience and the reactions to the actors performances was as fresh as it might have been 76 years ago. Claude Raines picking at the pomegranate, Rathbone scowling with distaste at the mere presence of Robin, and Flynn's maniacal gleam, right before the spear comes through the back of his seat, all of these set the audience ablaze with laughter and expectation. Even after seeing the film as many times as I have, I was able to notice things I missed before. The murderous Dickon was one of the men, robbed of his clothing and sent back in rags to Nottingham. He is in the background and I had not realized that he was in this sequence. I also heard the name of the tavern keeper where Marion finds the men of Sherwood and helps them plan his escape. The name was there every time I've seen it before but it stood out for some reason this time, Humility Prim.

The danger with a screening like this is that I will want to see films presented like this always. My life will disappear into a darkened theater even more often if I give in to this temptation. I should join the Cinematique, I need to plan the TCM Festival next year. I want to book some classic movie cruises in the future. The Brotherhood of the Popcorn should expect a membership application from me any day. OK, those are all dreams that I have. For now I have this recent experience, which included meeting a couple of fellow bloggers and finding out that one I was sure was a good guy, turned out to be just as thoughtful as I imagined.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jodorowky's Dune



I read "Dune" when I was the same age as Paul in the story, and it was one of the best things I ever spent time with. I'd heard that the movie was being planned but in 1974 or 75, I did not follow the trades, keep up with gossip and of course there was no internet, so I had no idea what was going on. This movie reveals exactly what happened. Along with the Kubrick version of Napoleon, Jodorowsky's Dune is one of the great movies that was never made, and to hear him tell it, it is the greatest movie in history. After watching this documentary, you may very well agree with that assessment.

Alejandro Jodorowsky was an avant garde artist in the sixties who turned to film making and was responsible for El Topo, the original midnight movie cult classic.  He has a dramatic visual eye and on odd philosophical perspective. After he had another smash hit in Europe with "The Holy Mountain" (a movie that features a character who can poop gold) he was asked by his producer what he would like to do next, and his answer was the Science Fiction classic "Dune" a book that he had never even read. If you were a fan of the book, you were likely to have come across drawings by H.R. Gieger that imagined what some of the worlds of "Dune" would look like. Those images came from the project that Jodorowsky was trying to put together in the mid-seventies. This movie is a compelling story about the man who tried to make a film he thought would be transformative and instead ended up being invisible for almost forty years. No scenes were shot, but a whole crew of artists, craftsmen and unlikely actors were poised to make what might very well have been an amazing movie, when the money simply did not show up to execute the project.

This film works because Jodorowsky is a natural raconteur, who has incredible stories to share about Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd and a half dozen other major figures of the pop culture at the time. This movie is full of talking heads but they are all saying something interesting and Jodo, as he is referred to as, says some of the funniest things with a dry wit and sardonic smile. Even though his heavily accented English needed subtitles at times, you knew what he was saying and how he wanted you to respond to that story. For the most part you can see that he is a passionate madman. The ethos of the early seventies possessed him and he believed that he was searching for spiritual warriors to accompany him on this quest to make a movie that would enlighten the world. Yes, he really did speak that way and he did so with a fervor that might even convince you that he was right. However, the money men in Hollywood must have looked at him aghast because he is a missionary rather than a maker of product. When he does react on camera, to the unwillingness of Hollywood Studios to back his project, you can see the messianic nut job that the studios probably feared. His fit does not last long, but coming here forty years after the experience, it was intense, I imagine it was even more so in 1975.

The director of "Drive", Nicolas Winding Refn, shares an experience of visiting Jodorowsky at his home and being invited to watch "Dune". What happened is that Jodo, got out the elaborate production portfolio he had created to guide the film he planned and then led Refn through the story of the movie, using storyboards, costume designs, publicity photos and assorted other minutia. Refn may be the only person in the world to have seen "Jodorowky's film of "Dune" even though it was only in this form, but as he puts it in his interview, "it was awesome!". We are given glimpses of how terrific it could have been by creative photography of the story board drawings. The opening sequence was to have been a long shot like the take Orson Welles used in "Touch of Evil" only it occurs as the whole Universe is explored and then we pull in on a battle with a pirate spice freighter in space. The way this was shown in the film, makes your mouth water for the complete visual experience. There are several other sections that are also nicely brought to life, even though they are just still frames of drawings and Jodo speaking passionately.

Towards the end of the movie there is a montage of images from films that were made after this version of "Dune" collapsed. Many of the elements in the visualizations from the "Dune" portfolio appear to have influenced two decades worth of film makers after this, including Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and the King of the World himself, James Cameron.  Jodorowsky takes admittedly self satisfying gratification in the failure of David Lynch's version of the story. That is another story that could be told in a different documentary, but it could not be nearly as entertaining as this movie was, because it would lack the insane vision and story telling prowess of the completely nuts but utterly charming Jodorowsky himself.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel



I suppose everyone knows that Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. He has directed thirteen films and I have only seen five of them. I enjoyed "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore", I was largely indifferent to "The Royal Tennenbaums" despite the presence of my favorite actor, Gene Hackman, and I really enjoyed "The Fantastic Mr. Fox". For some reason I have been unable to work up enough enthusiasm for "Moonrise Kingdom". So I have not been pulled into the hypnotic world of his movies entirely, but I can say that I am not an novice either. The current offering does however threaten to drag me into the pool with the other Anderson fanatics, because "The Grand Budapest Hotel" works incredibly well for my sensibilities and I expect that it will be a movie that I return to on many occasions in the future.  

Let me divide my comments into three particular sections so that you will be able to see the discrete joys contained in each element of the film. I'll start with the look of the movie. Anderson has shot this for a nearly square ratio. I don't remember if his other films have been does this way or not but I did think it worked pretty well for this story. This film is set for the most part in the early years of the Twentieth Century, when movies were presented in the nearly square format that became standard for televisions and was retaliated against by movie makers in the fifties by using widescreen formats. Even though the film is presented in a muted palate of colors, it still feels like a traditional thirties film in many ways. The set design and costumes also recall the grand days of Europe before the war with attentive concierges and lobby boys dressed in smart uniforms that contrasted well with the elegant designs of the hotels they worked in. There is wall paper in some of the rooms that recalls the complex geometric design of the carpets from the Overlook Hotel in "The Shining". The worn down modern designs in the lobby and the baths suggest a standard of beauty and wealth that are no longer within reach of the times or the culture.

Still on the look of the film, it would be unwise to ignore the photographic styles that are used to achieve some of the effects in the movie. There are clever animated bits with ski lifts and trollies that look just normal enough to fit into the movie but also just ethereal enough to make the images look slightly magical. The stairwells and kitchens also have an otherworldly film on them which makes the story feel distinctive. The prison is a cinematic tribute to movies from the past with convicts in striped uniforms and barred doors that look like meat lockers. The escape using two different ladders is completed by exaggerating each one in a way that is comic and acknowledges the cinematic roots of the comedy we are watching. There are a thousand little details that make the look of the film so distinctive. I would say that it bears more in common with the "Fantastic Mr. Fox" than it does with most of the other films of Anderson's that I have seen.

The second element that demands a recommendation is the script. The plot itself is clever enough and it is reminds me of one of those stacking Russian dolls, with another doll contained inside the first and than another inside the second. For instance, Tom Wilkinson plays a writer as an older man, who is portrayed by Jude Law as a younger version, who interacts with F. Murray Abraham who is portrayed as a younger man by newcomer Tony Revolori. It does not quite go back infinitely, but the story definitely reflects three distinct time periods and two of those get quite a bit of development. I won't say that the story is unimportant but I will say that what is most memorable for me is the dialogue. There are passages of script that just demand to be listened to. Much like Quentin Tarantino, the spoken word is poetry in the hands of Wes Anderson. Where Tarantino speaks the language of pop culture with lines that burn like lyrics to a song that you can't get out of your head, Anderson's dialogue is more like poetry. In fact the lead character speaks poetry on a regular basis but the poems are never completed although the thoughts behind them are always clear. There is great humor in the language and the way it is used in context and frequently broken up by the context as well. It always feels like there is narration, even when the narration has stopped because the characters style of talking is so in sync with the style of story telling.

Finally, I'd like to mention the depth of acting quality that permeates the film. Take a look at the cast and you will see nineteen Academy Award nominated performers and four winners lurking in the foreground, background and center stage of the film. Ralph Fiennes is a comic revelation, his manner is controlled mania. He eyes the other characters with the view of a man used to evaluating others and being able to sum them up in an instant, but still not understand how to appropriately interact with them. His manner is winning, even in the face of circumstances that should have his character screaming and running away. That's what makes those moments when he does just that feel so great, because he breaks free of the mannered style that he is accustomed to. F. Murray Abraham should work more in films. His career has not achieved the level of excellence we might have expected after his Salieri, but he has a weight to his presence and a manner in his voice that makes him perfect for his role as the older version of Zero the Lobby Boy that is Fienne"s protege. Saoirse Ronan has a lovely demeanor that shines through even though she has only a small amount of dialogue and has to work with a splotch on her face in the shape of Mexico. There are a dozen other surpises along the way and the casting is ninety percent of the success here.

This film will need to be seen a second or third time for me to absorb all the intricate pieces of film making that delighted me. It has an off beat charm and it provoked laughter in both visual and auditory stimuli. As I started off saying, the Wes Anderson filmography may be a little off putting for some, but if you are looking for a starting place, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a delightful and amusing way to start an addiction to his weird charms.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier



I loved the first Captain America movie. I thought that the World War Two setting and the idealistic persona of Steve Rodgers was exactly what it should have been. The movie was very straightforward about the good guys and the bad guys. I'm also a big fan of The Avengers, I thought the splicing of the character into the modern story and the SHIELD organization took what we were given and ran with it. The mix of the super heroes helps keep some of the issues that Cap faces in the background, but the groundwork was being laid for future stories and an inevitable conflict between the Dudley Doo Right manner of our idealistic super hero and the harsh realities of the modern world and the spies that inhabit it.

"The Winter Soldier" puts Steve Rodgers back into the complicated position he found himself in during the Avenger's film. He sees that there are enemies, but he also has to question the methods of those charged with fighting those enemies. A confrontation between Rodgers and SHIELD's Nick Fury is brewing and we are being lead to believe that the spy organization is more malevolent than it originally appeared. It has been a popular pastime since the War on Terror became an official and public mandate, to question the means by which that war is being fought. Heck, those challenges have always existed even before 9/11. Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington went head to head over strategy on terror in "The Siege" back in 1998. Last year in "Star Trek Into Darkness", another allegorical story questioning the wisdom of aggressive policies on terror was crossed with a pop culture icon. I was somewhat concerned about the moralizing that goes on, getting in the way of a story about a good man, given a chance to do good, being lost in this symbolism. Fortunately, it works out for the best because the story here subverts that self questioning canard, with an insidious plot that allows the hero to be the good guy by actually fighting actively against an identifiable conspiracy rather than his own left hand.

Chris Evans was born to play this part. Like Hugh Jackman before him, the character is molded to fit the actor and the actor submerges himself in the character. The Wolverine character has often been better than the movies he was featured in, and this film has the same double edged sword. "The Winter Soldier" is not on a par with "The First Avenger", but the character of Captain America and the performance of Chris Evans, raises it to a level of excellence that will satisfy the fans. The plot is very convoluted and the twists are best left out of the discussion so that an audience can discover their pleasures and frustrations on their own. I will say that there are two things that are set up as reverse twists, that you will see coming a mile away. So, it is not quite as clever as it wants to be. That aside, the motivations and actions of the characters are even less clear than those in the first big screen "Mission Impossible" which was famously filled with "huh?" moments. You will ultimately figure it out, but it will confuse you and there is still at least one major question that does not get clarified. It is only of minor concern for the film because ultimately this will be judged as an action piece and at that it succeeds admirably.

The early action sequence involves Cap and the Black Widow, again played by a nicely amusing Scarlett Johansson, engaging in a rescue mission on the high seas. It turns out that the mission has multiple components to it that set up the rest of the plot, but the execution of the action was fun and the combination of teamwork by the SHIELD insertion group and the Captain was just enough to get us started and to show what we will eventually see as a necessary precursor to the plot. Later in the film, Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury gets a long chase segment and he uses the technology and wily experience available to a spy to bring off a pretty impressive stunt based scene. There are two follow up sections in the movie that also involve driving chases and they are solid as well but sometimes feel a little repetitive. The final battle scene is long and complicated and it looks spectacular, even though it is a little over the top. There are some clever plot twists that take place during the battle that make it a lot of fun as well. The movie does manage to keep some of the spirit of fun that made the first Captain America so effective. There is some sparring dialogue between Cap and the Widow, and a new character adds some comic relief as well as some grounding to the proceedings.

The plot line of the character of "The Winter Soldier" is set up dramatically, and the payoff is realistic in the end rather than sentimental. Key players from the first movie make welcome returns here and the conditions of each of those characters is a nice realization of the goals of the story. Fans of the comics will already know one of those characters but the other two were solid resurrections that while not essential for plotting, do contribute to giving the stories a sense of continuity. I could still use a few more light hearted contributions from a Tommy Lee Jones or a Stanley Tucchi like character. The presence of Robert Redford adds some gravitas to the story but not the energy that a movie like this could really use.  I did enjoy the sudden insertion of a more engaged Jenny Agutter for a moment or two, and Emily VanCamp could be a successful addition to the franchise with the right follow up. The real hero of the story is the honest soul of Captain Steve Rogers. His impromptu speech and rallying of the troops is exactly the kind of leadership that his character is supposed to inspire. I for one am completely ready to follow him on the next adventure.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Draft Day



There are so many things to love about life that some days it amazes me how often I'm in a bad mood. For instance, I love football. I'm a Trojan and I bleed Cardinal and Gold. I have season tickets to the new Arena Football team in Southern California, the L.A. Kiss. I had season tickets for the L.A. Express of the USFL and I went to Rams and Raider games when they were here in L.A.. I also love Kevin Costner. He can be weak in a movie and I can still enjoy it because he has star power still. Almost twenty-five years after he was the biggest movie star in the world, I can still look forward to a movie that he stars in. I love movies, obviously. For some reason, I love sports movies and Costner and sports movies go together like peanut butter and jelly. I love getting to see movies early. In the old days, when I was in the preferred demographic, I went to dozens of advance screenings and I still like a mid-night screening if I can work my old bones up for it. I am also developing a strong love for AMC theaters. They currently run classic films on the big screen, they host the annual Best Picture Showcase and they have the best rewards program in the business. So how does this all fit together? I got to go to an advance screening tonight of the new Kevin Costner football film, "Draft Day", because of the AMC Stubbs program.

Oh, and in case you could not guess, I loved the movie. "Draft Day" is almost genetically engineered to appeal to me. It is an adult movie, about the game that I love, starring one of the most appealing screen actors of the last three decades. There are no real football sequences, just a few film clips that are used to familiarize us with the potential players. There is no big game, player showdown or coaching miracle. This is a story about the behind the scenes maneuvering in the NFL for draft positions and the strategies used to improve your team or solve problems. There is almost as much macho posturing in the war rooms of the draft as there is on the field. Everyone has an opinion and an agenda, but ultimately someone has to choose. In this story the man who has to make that decision is Cleveland Brown GM Sonny Weaver.

Weaver is in a no win situation, the Browns are notorious at failing their fans. The best joke about that which I know is the longtime Browns fan who requested in his will that the pallbearers at his funeral be Browns players. When they show up out of respect, someone asks if he really loved those players that much that he wanted to honor them with this request. The answer was "No" he just felt that it would be appropriate at the grave for the team to let him down one last time. Costner's Sonny is the son of a legendary former coach who had died just a week or so before the draft.  It turns out that he actually fired his own father a season before. Everyone is rooting for the Browns to grab a Golden Ticket and make a run at the Super Bowl. An opportunity is presented to Sonny to trade up for the number one pick and a chance at a franchise quarterback, potentially of a Manning, Luck, Elway status. The pressure to make a deal, the desire to please the fans and his father's legacy, seem to conspire Sonny into making a choice he is not entirely comfortable with.

The NFL must have a piece of the action on this film. There is so much inside access to the Draft day events and personalities that It almost becomes a commercial for the business (cynics will probably take out the word "almost" in that last sentence). Real figures with the current NFL mix with our fictional characters and it all plays out like a backstage musical where we get to see what goes on behind the curtain. The story throws in some personal conflicts in the form of a demanding widowed mother, Ellen Burstyn, and a pregnant girlfriend who happens to be the front office money manager for the team played by Jennifer Garner. There are a slew of good supporting players including the devious GM for the Seahawks, the impervious owner of the Browns, and a couple of other prospects that Sonny has his eye on. The movie goes deep with character actors and peripheral characters that add color and context to the events in the film. There is a good deal of humor and as the clock starts counting down on the draft, there is a good deal of tension.

I don't think I have seen as much split screen use in a movie since the original "Thomas Crown Affair". The director turns out to be Ivan Reitman and he knows how to make an otherwise dull phone call something of an event. The personal stories don't get in the way of the dynamics of the business, they just flesh out the day a bit more. This is a movie that is well written when it comes to making the inevitable outcome suspenseful and entertaining.  Costner plays it real, never overdoing the drama and reflecting a man who knows what he wants but is not sure that everybody else will want the same thing. You will be cheering for the Browns and that is truly a piece of film making magic.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Shawshank Redemption



There is nothing so wonderful as a free Sunday afternoon and a classic film playing on a big screen somewhere. AMC has been doing screenings of classic films consistently over the last six months. I applaud them making the effort and I wish I'd made more of them than I have. Fortunately, today I was able to see "The Shawshank Redemption" back in a theater in the twentieth anniversary year of it's original release. This is a movie that received critical attention but not box office love when it first played. In it's initial release it made about $16 million and then, when it was nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, it added another $10 million or so. Today, it felt a little bit like a repeat because there were only five people in the screening, and I was the first one to buy a ticket according to the box office attendant. Those issues are still a little frustrating because this movie has built a reputation since it was released, like no other I have ever seen.

It is the number one rated film on the IMDB, and it ranks above another 1994 film that is often looked back upon as the film that should have won the Oscar that year "Pulp Fiction". For a movie so middling at the box office, it's reputation has to be based on secondary market exposure, so maybe now that everyone has seen it on DVD, Blu Ray, Pay Per View, Cable, Satellite and broadcast television people may feel it isn't necessary to revisit it. People out there, if that's you, you are wrong. The experience in the theater makes a movie sing like it can't anywhere else. I first saw this with my friend Anne at the old Hastings Theater in Pasadena. There was a sneak preview that was supposedly sold out but we went and got in anyway.  She loved it immediately and while I admired it, I thought maybe it was a little cliched. Over the years my opinion has changed and the main reason for that is an appreciation of the story structure. The whole segment with Brooks, the convict who got released seemed tired when I first watched it, but as I saw the movie again over the years, I realized that the segment is so much less about that character than about all the others in the story. It is a window into the mind of the reluctant "Red" and the hopeful "Andy".

I'm still not convinced that the Mozart moment would have played out the way it does in the film. but the narration by "Red", delivered by Morgan Freeman, makes the moment so poetic and beautiful, that I can now suspend my disbelief for two minutes and appreciate the scene for the moment of glory that it truly is. The shot of the yard with the transfixed faces and bodies of the prisoners and guards is visually arresting. The beatific expression on Andy's face as the Marriage of Figaro plays over the loudspeakers makes the punishment he will receive seem worthwhile.

The other sequence that is so worth watching on the big screen is the reveal of Andy's plan of escape and redemption. From the discovery of the exit, with the warden staring into the void in the wall, to the moment the warden enters the void himself, we get a perfect encapsulation of Andy's true brilliance. The just revenge that follows his exposure of the murder and corruption that takes place in the prison, is an incredibly satisfying moment. After having seen what Captain Hadley and Warden Norton were capable of, there is not an ounce of pity for either of them. Clancy Brown has been in many other films and made a great impression in them, but his sadistic guard makes most of the bad guys he has played over the years look tame. Whenever I see Bob Gunton in a film or TV show, I know that he is a good actor, but he has never had another part like this soulless bureaucrat again.

The Drew Struzan artwork for the tenth anniversary of the film.
Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins are both believable and heartbreaking in this film. While they have both subsequently won Academy Awards in the supporting actor category, this might have been the one time I can think of where a duo award for actor could be justified. They are two sides of a character trapped in prison, and they reflect the hopes and resignations of someone in that situation very memorably. Roger Deakin's photography looks amazing on the big screen and the shot of Andy in the sewer pipe will make you gag because it is lit just well enough to let us know how horrible that 500 yard crawl would be. Kudos to Thomas Newman's score which also sounded great in the theater today. It's playing again tonight at seven and on Wednesday, March 26 at 2 and 7 as well. Don't miss this opportunity, get busy living people.