Thursday, May 30, 2013

Flick of The Day: The Shawshank Redemption

In August 1982, Stephen King released his new book. It was something of a portmanteau novel combining four separate novellas under the title Different Seasons, linking each with reference to the changing seasons.  One of the novellas was a little fable called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”. So was born a tale of hope and its redemptive power. In 1987, an aspiring young film-maker and screenwriter named Frank Darabont optioned the rights to make the story into a feature film for the princely sum of $1. He had impressed the novelist with a previous adaptation and the pair had maintained a pen pal relationship over the years.  This was to say the least something of a coup for Darabont. The director Rob Reiner has been desperate to acquire the rights to Shawshank having offered $2.5m in the hope of writing and directing his own adaptation to have starred Tom Cruise as the main protagonist Andy Dufresne and Harrison Ford as his friend Red. However Darabont had his own vision for the film and saw it as his opportunity to make something special. Thankfully for all of us, he got to realise his vision.

In Portland, Maine in 1947, a wealthy young banker named Andy Dufresne, played with a Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz like charm by Tim Robbins, is accused of murdering his adulterous wife. She had left him for a local golf pro and the pair of lovers had been found murdered the next morning. Andy protests his innocence; he went to the house on the night in question and sat in his car drinking with a loaded weapon which he later claims to have thrown in the river.  He is found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences to be served at Shawshank State Penitentiary. We soon learn that Shawshank is a violent and brutal place overseen by the corrupt religious ideologue Warden Norton, a fantastic career best performance from Bob Gunton, and the thoroughly evil Captain Byron Hadley, played by Clancy Brown. Andy’s quiet and aloof manner is taken by his fellow prisoners as an indication that he sees himself as a cut above. It is not until a couple of months of passed that he speaks a word to anyone.  The man he chooses is Red, a prisoner who knows how to get things. Whatever you require, Red will provide. Morgan Freeman delivers perhaps his greatest performance as Red imbuing the character with wit and charm while retaining a hard edged outlook on prison life borne of his own life sentence.  Andy asks Red to procure a rock hammer; he was a collector of rocks in his former life and wishes to do so again. He later asks Red to procure him a poster of Rita Hayworth. As the year pass by, the pair develop a friendship, something to hold onto against the bleak landscape of the prison. Andy is targeted by a gang of rapists, the Sisters, led by the malevolent Boggs. He is repeatedly attacked, sometimes fighting them off, sometimes not. 

Eventually Andy manages to find himself useful in aiding the corruption at the heart of Shawshank and in particular Warden Norton. Years pass and we find ourselves moving through the 1950s and 60s. Andy is put in charge of the prison library and freed once and for all from the attentions of the Sisters. Throughout the decades of drudgery and setbacks, Andy maintains the hope of eventual freedom. Red on the other hand comes to accept that he may never leave the prison. As we reach a thrilling and life affirming ending, we are left in n doubt that hope can overcome all and bring redemption to those who have long given up on it.

I am determined to keep as much of the plot under wraps as I can for those unlikely few who have yet to see the film as it is such a joy to behold. Andy overcomes so much and yet maintains a lifelong friendship with Red. It would destroy lesser men and indeed the film certainly hints that Andy has taken all that he can take.
There are too many superlatives which could be applied to the film so I will only offer up a few small thoughts. The nuance and exactitude of Darabont’s storytelling is something to behold. There are no moments of fat on the script, it is tight, well thought out and leads to the finest of denouement. In terms of performances, the film is replete with some really fine turns. Tim Robbins perfectly captures a vulnerable and quiet man who is thrust into hell but hopes to retain his human dignity. He seeks only peace where others might need revenge. Morgan Freeman is equally adept as Red or Ellis Redding to give him his full name. He manages to bring a sense of loss to the character. A man who knows that but for one stupid mistake as a young man he could have lived his life. It is this sense of loss which drives him to survive and not rely on superfluous (in his mind) things like hope.

Of course every hero needs an enemy and in Bob Gunton’s Warden Norton, Andy has one for the ages.  From the first moment we meet him, he is a steely eyed zealot determined to enforce absolute rule on the prisoners. Much like Jesuit missionaries or the crusaders of old, he cannot be reasoned with and has a quote from the scriptures to justify all eventualities. Yet he is a deeply immoral man, through the use of Andy’s skills he creates a vast network of corruption with ill-gotten money flowing toward him.
Ultimately the central theme of the film is justice or the lack thereof. Andy may find redemption but he never gets justice. Neither his wife nor her lover could be said to have received it either, their true murderer remaining unaccounted for.  Warden Norton uses his own method to avoid the long reach of justice. I suppose the heart of the film is that you can’t rely on outside forces to deliver you safely; it is only true personal determination that we can hope to survive.

Having watched the film again for the purposes of this, it is strange to think that it was a commercial failure on its initial release, earning a grand total of $16m before it left cinemas.  It was however well received by critics and went on to garner seven nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was only when it reached the home video market that it truly began to be seen by cineastes as the triumph it is. In the years since, the legend has grown to the stage where it is now Number 1 on the IMDB 250 and appears unlikely to be toppled any time soon. It has become something of a Western cultural touch stone which everyone sees at some point. For that alone, I think Stephen King got his $1 worth.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Flick of The Day: Rounders

To me, defining a film as a “cult movie” can very often be a kiss of death. It implies a kind of blind faith in the film’s qualities on behalf of its followers. Very often this means that a small minority of people have decided to champion the work of a director who just isn't very good. If the film were the gem they claimed it to be, more people would like it. This is not always the case. There are those rare times when a brilliant film is overlooked due poor marketing or a studio releasing it for a week in only one cinema. It happens. It is often forgotten that The Shawshank Redemption was a commercial failure on its release and it was only when it was rediscovered and eventually championed on home video that it took on the mantle of modern classic which it bears today. Perhaps the original “cult” movie is Withnail and I, a film beloved by a generation of students since its release. Then again, perhaps now the film is less of “cult” and more of a cultural touch point because it has become recognised for the very fine film it is. I suppose what I am driving at is that a film tends to retain this mythic “cult” film status until its merits are recognised and the chances are that it this never happens, the film probably isn't worth your devotion. Today’s flick of the day is a film that has thrown of its “cult” status and rightly so for it is a very enjoyable couple of hours indeed, Rounders.

In the lexicon of professional poker, a rounder is a player who tours the country looking for gambling action, a man who lives and dies by the fall of the cards.  Legends of the game like Doyle Brunson and Amarillo Slim could be described thus and it was not a respectable career to have at the time. It is only really in the last two decades as the internet poker boom made it more socially acceptable to be a professional player that it has gained a modicum of respectability. Mike McDermott, played by Matt Damon, is a young man who wants to play the game at that kind of level. As the film begins, he is using his poker prowess to finance his way through law school in New York however he dreams of bigger things. In an attempt to build a bank roll he can take to Las Vegas he finds himself outplayed by a connected Russian Mafioso, Teddy KGB, played with wild abandon by John Malkovich.  It is a crushing defeat not least because he now finds himself broke and driving a delivery truck for friend Knish, in a fine turn from John Turturro as a wise old poker head. He promises his girlfriend he will gamble no more and as the months pass he keeps this promise. However when his old friend Worm is release from prison, played by the always excellent Ed Norton, he returns to his previous ways largely in part to Worm’s goading and pleading. Worm is like a bad penny and despite paying lip service to Mike’s attempts to change him, eventually runs up a large debt on Mike’s tab to local hoodlum Grama. When a long shot attempt to play their way out of trouble is fatally undermined by Worm’s cheating play, Mike is left with few options. This is made worse by the discovery that Grama is backed up by Teddy KGB. Ultimately Mike is left with no option but to attempt to play his way out of a debt that Worm landed him with.

There are few elements of gambling more replete with thrilling moments of drama than the turn of the final or river card in a game of Texas Hold’Em poker. The most enjoyable moments of the film are when Mike is throwing it all on the turn of a card. The film-maker successfully wrings every moment of tension out of it by allowing us to see the cards that Mike holds. Audiences love to see an underdog win, to beat overwhelming odds and come out on top. It is at the heart of the continued success of films like Rocky and its sequels. Mike is such an underdog because we have seen him lose it all before and know that he is only back here because a supposed friend has mistreated him. It makes the denouement all the more delicious.

In a young Matt Damon, the film has the perfect blend of sensitivity and charm to carry the role and it is of course no surprise that he went on the be the star he has subsequent to this film’s release in 1998.  Of course it helps that film is top loaded with excellent character actors like Ed Norton, John Malkovich and John Turturro. This is without even mentioning a crucial turn from Martin Landau.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable film which any poker player can’t help but identify with and indeed it has been credited in some quarters with helping to foment the massive increase in poker playing across the globe over the last decade.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Flick of the Day: The Name Of The Rose

It is often strange how the careers of actors and directors tend to move in cycles. When you’re up, you’re up and studios seem willing to make almost anything your name is attached to no matter how awful (See the early career of Colin Farrell).  The flip side of course is that when you are out of favour, you can’t get a film made for love nor money. While accepting his Oscar earlier this year, Ben Affleck noted how his career had been affected by negative publicity and indeed how he felt like he would never work again.  Of course the cycles come and go and I’d like to think that if somebody is talented they will continue to find work. One such example would be the star of today’s flick, Sean Connery. Now of course Connery is enjoying a well-earned retirement with a hard fought reputation as a screen icon. However, it was not always thus.  In 1986 when Jean-Jacques Annaud was casting his adaptation of Umberto Eco’s surprise bestseller, Connery’s name was one of the last on the list. The studio would have preferred to have cast almost anyone other than him and when he was cast Columbia pulled their financing. This is perhaps not surprising given where his career was at the time.  He was on quite a streak of failures stretching back to 1979’s misbegotten Cuba and including an ill-advised and unofficial return to James Bond in 1983’s Never Say Never Again.  Included in this period is something called Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which I will admit to knowing almost nothing about beyond its thoroughly awful rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Connery was eventually cast in the role of William of Baskervile, a Franciscan monk and intellectual who strives for knowledge while Europe is in the dark ages. Together with his young disciple Adso, ably played by a very young Christian Slater, William travels to a Benedictine Abbey in the mountains of northern Italy. Upon his arrival, it becomes apparent that all is not well with the monks. One of their number has fallen to his death from a tower above the library which the abbey is famed for. The Abbot, played with characteristic understatement by Michael Lonsdale, asks William to investigate the death. Together with Adso he sets about the desk with a zeal for finding the truth. Along the way he attempts to impart something of his knowledge to the naïve Adso. However as further deaths begin to occur, William realises that he is in a race against time to catch a killer intent on covering his tracks before the arrival of the evil inquisitor Bernardo Gui with whom William has a complicated history. He quickly becomes drawn into a plot involving a lust for knowledge, sexual power and the very nature of religion.

Half the battle in any production such as this is having a good story around which to build your film. In this case Umberto Eco’s superb novel is rich in detail and atmosphere and offers a bounty for any film adaptation. Annaud’s tone is consistently dark throughout which feels to me to be in line with the novel and helps to create an atmosphere of dread as it sweeps through the Abbey. The monks are men of learning and language who live in splendid isolation from the squalor of the peasants who live outside their walls yet they are if anything equally immoral if not more so than the flock they seem to despise. Ultimately nothing is black or white and all of the monks are cast in shades of grey.  The film also deviates from the book in avoiding great detail of the ecclesiastical split between the different orders of monks and how it had affected the Church at the time, something that while interesting would not make for thrilling viewing.

Of course it helps to have a great cast and in this regard the film’s cup overfloweth.  For all the travails around his casting, Connery is nothing less than superb in the role of William bringing wit and charm to the character. Plaudits must also go to the then hilariously young Christian Slater who really makes you wonder how all that talent was pissed away over the years.  Ron Perlman is almost unrecognisable as the brutish grotesque Salvatore and he is joined in the cast by the likes of F. Murray Abraham and the gorgeous Valentina Vargas.

A commercial failure in the US, the film became a runaway success in Europe including being the highest grossing film of the year in France. For Sean Connery it marked the start of a welcome return to form. He would close out the decade with hits like The Untouchables, The Presidio with a young and irritating Meg Ryan and of course Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and The Hunt for Red October. Such is the nature of career cycles .  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Flick of the Day: Elefante Blanco / White Elephant

Argentine film-maker Pablo Trapero has over the years developed quite a knack for successfully marrying complex social issues in his native Argentina with excellent story telling  and an eye for dramatic flair. Over the years, we have reviewed a number of his films for The Daily Flick including El Bonaerense, an engaging look at police corruption and 2010's  thrilling Carancho. The latter film stars Ricardo Darin, perhaps the best and most definitely the busiest actor in South American cinema. Darin and Trapero are reunited again in today's flick of the day, White Elephant, set in the teeming slums of Buenos Aires.
In the Villa Virgin shanty-town of Buenos Aires lies a long incomplete hospital, an icon of broken government promises around which a vast slum has built up. In this melting pot of humanity toils the good priest, Julian, played by Ricardo Darin, Julian strives to complete a new social housing project to free the people from poverty while working with crusading social worker Luciana, played by the incomparable Martina Gusman, to help the local young people escape drug abuse. At the film's open, we are introduced to Julian looking ominously at a brain scan and before long he welcomes a new priest to his staff, the idealistic and conflicted Nicolas, played by Jeremie Renier. Nicolas has recently survived a vicious attack on the jungle mission where he was working. Together the three fight to try and make the lives of the slums residents a little bit better while interacting with a clerical hierarchy who wish to keep the area at arms length and an organised crime element involved in bloody internecine conflicts between the narrow streets of the favela.
At times this is bravura film-making from Trapero, we are immediately drawn into the life at the heart of this neighbourhood, the living and the dying. The film has an epic feel from the beginning as the excellent cinematography by Guillermo Nieto manages to both highlight the scale of the slum and its conflicts while also accentuating the narrow claustrophobic streets that criss cross it. While the work of Julian and his team is worthy, it would not make for enthralling cinema were it not for the fact that as the tensions mount in the favela over the lack of construction progress and a bitter bloody feud between two rival gangs, the faith and belief of Julian, Luciana and Nicolas is shaken if not shattered.    
How this conflict and testing of the character's beliefs plays out is the emotional heart of the film. Ultimately the question asked by Trapero is what is the cost for people who give everything to help people with less than them? This is an often dark film but it is never less than compelling. If the film has a flaw it is that its ending doesn't live up to what has come before. Yet despite this, there is much to enjoy here not least another fine turn from Ricardo Darin. There is enough talent evident in Trapero's work to make me want to see where he goes next because it will surely be something special.

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