If it's crap ... We'll tell you
Looking ahead at this project, in many ways, feels like trying to find the best way to crawl through five football fields of steaming, garden-fresh sewage. Regardless of how you trek through, smelling like peaches is probably not a realistic goal to have. But at the same time, a breath of fresh air can reveal itself in a way not truly savored before. I suppose for me, the primary element in said air would be perspective.
I love seeing films in theatres, but in many ways, I don’t truly know what I am watching. By that, I mean…I don’t know how to truly appreciate where cinema currently is, since I have no clue where it has been. You are talking to a guy who was raised in a house with three sisters, on a steady diet of Disney and The Land Before Time, to the point where I did not see The Wizard of Oz until my freshman year of college. This is my effort to rectify that. Some of these films I have seen, most I have not. But until further notice, I see myself as a writer first and a novice fan of cinema second, so bear with me in the upcoming year as I take a stab at stepping into the Ebert-esque role.
There may be some days where I am unable to deliver the film I intend to give its fair attention. In such cases, I am going to count on a good friend of mine to supply a review for me, Greg E. If you would like to see more of his takes on films currently in theatres, come visit his WatchHombres blog at http://watchhombres.blogspot.com. He has a flowing, spoiler-free style (which I will feebly attempt to emulate) that most film reviews readers will likely appreciate in this day and age, and I would highly recommend checking it out. But in the meantime, let’s begin with Day 1.
TODAY (DAY 1): THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
This is the film that was requested on Spill more than any other, by a significant margin. It is also one of the films that I have intentionally avoided like the proverbial plague of gonorrhea simmering in a frat party. Maybe it was a bit of improper judgment (OK, a great deal of it), but it felt like the premise of “guy goes to jail for killing wife, and endures more trials than Job, Harry Potter and Lindsay Lohan combined” did not sound very uplifting at all to me. So why is this film rated higher than any other on IMDB? Why did so many of my friends and family express shock at my skepticism towards its emotional impact? Well, I came, I saw the film, and at long last, I get it.
Because this movie essentially hinges on the manner in which vague plot details are unveiled, I will attempt to summarize it briefly without giving too much away. The film is initially set in the 1940s, when Andy Dulfresne is sentenced to life in prison for the brutal murder of his wife. Shipped off to Shawshank Prison, not much is thought of him by any of the hardened veterans there – least of all by a steel bar-lined, street-smart “go-to guy” named Red. But over the course of months and years, Andy proves to be someone with an unusual sense of resiliency stemming from some untapped, uncaged source. Any sort of fairy tales about prison life are quickly dashed for viewers, as visions of brutality, corruption and lust of several kinds fly across the screen – a vision of a different sort of society, where the “American dream” is not picket-fenced self-reliance but hardened survival. Andy stays alive.
Everything about the way Frank Darabont directs this film masterfully interconnects, with every spanning shot of the courtyard and every simple exchange of dialogue (or cigarettes) serving the larger purpose of telling an engrossing story. I planned to not get pulled into this film, but the ambiguous manner in which the prisoners regard each other is eye-opening. Everybody claims to be innocent behind those walls, everybody got screwed by a lawyer or a judge or a scumbag bearing false witness, so named offenses alone cannot be a judge of character. In a way not even fully seen in normal civilization, only actions determine how you are seen by others…and thus, every minute act done by Andy and Company holds a significant factor in how our perception of Shawshank Prison evolves over 2 ½ hours.
That being said, all the anticipation and buildup in the world cannot satisfy without the right actors delivering the product, and this is an example of a film perfectly cast. As the genius banker-turned-oppressed inmate, Tim Robbins successfully manages to convey a deft mix of sullenness and strength of will even when he is silently in the ordeals he endures. Complimenting his unquenchable idealism is the grounded realism found in Morgan Freeman’s Red, a trait that leads me to believe he could play an old, wise soul even when learning how to spell the word “soul” in grade school. I guess it is not just impregnated penguins whose stories are enlivened by his gift for smooth, emotionally-resonating narration. The range of the supporting cast does its job adequately as well; ranging from the comic relief William Sadler’s wisecracking Heywood to the Bible-justified authoritative hand of Bob Gunton’s Warden Norton, most scenes elicit the necessary reaction of inspiration or loathing necessary to pull you in – so that by the time everything is revealed in the final hour, you are hooked.
I have no shame in admitting that I have been a bit of a blubber-eye in many films, especially those under the names “Pixar” and “Don Bluth”. But it is very rare for a film to move me to that point even after the credits have rolled and I have walked out of the room. The way every little detail comes together seamlessly in the climactic scenes (albeit with a little too much time recapping information in flashbacks, in my honest opinion), you need to see this film at least twice to catch everything. But chances are, you will want to go back more than once anyway because of how it makes viewers feel.
I adore this film, and have rarely been so happy to be so convincingly proven wrong. And after thinking about it, even though I think everyone can get their own message from films like this, I think I understand a little of why this movie is so universally beloved (bear with me for a minute). Hopefully not giving too much away, one theme reflected on in Shawshank is how prisoners eventually get attached to the prison way of life. They make friends there, they learn lessons and build respect, and they do not need to hide their crimes because they are out in the open. Removing that foundation after decades of confinement is equivalent to having your very sense of direction pulled out from under you. It can cripple, it can kill. So it is tempting for criminals to find a way back in once they are out.
My guess is that even without literal bars, we all hesitate in a similar way. It is very hard to maintain a sense of optimism when what we’ve gained comfort from no longer works for us – whether it involves a new change in scenery, death of a loved one, betrayal by a trusted comrade, or simply a growing sense of cynicism. More than anything, this film appears to emphasize the fleetingness of the present moment’s sense of security – and that hope in itself, for a better future and a validated past, is really our best shot at grabbing onto something that can sustain us in any circumstance…With any luck, as I start this a very uncertain year in Hawaii and (likely) end it in England, Shawshank will be proven right in its belief: namely, that such hope found in others can be contagious. If so, no vaccine for this film’s view of the human spirit should ever be made. Please, see it now and enjoy the “now”.
(Overall Score: 10/10)
TOMORROW (DAY 2): FATHER OF THE BRIDE