The Shawshank Redemption (1994) (R)
















It's hard to keep on open mind when you go into "The Shawshank Redemption", mainly because its reputation precedes it. This movie tops "best films" lists time and time again and, if we are to believe IMDb, it's the best movie of all time. That's saying a lot and so, when watching it for the first time, it's hard to get rid of the idea that you're watching the best movie that's ever been made. Being the kind of person I am, I immediately go on the offense and look for errors in the film to justify to myself why my favorite movies are 'better' than this, which is probably not the right frame of mind.
I first watched "The Shawshank Redemption" a few years ago and I decided to give it another chance today. On first viewing, I found it long, boring, and counter-intuitive—on second viewing I must say I was more impressed with it.
The spoofs, rip-offs, and references to this movie are so numerous almost nothing is left as a surprise, even for first time viewers. And for those who know nothing, the script's tendency to lean towards optimism usually allows you to predict what's going to happen.
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongfully convicted of the double murder of his wife and her secret lover. He is sentenced to two life sentences and finds himself inside Shawshank, a prison run by a fundamentalist warden (Bob Gunton) and enforced by a violence prone Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown). There is something giddy and righteous about these two men and the power they hold over the prisoners of Shawshank, it plants the seed of resentment in both the audience and the prisoners themselves.
Like any movie with this power conflict, we are led into several situations in which fairness and equality are thrown away and the lack thereof is flaunted in front of our face. It's enraging and it's very energizing. Andy becomes a pawn in this world, but, as his new friend and our narrator Red (Morgan Freeman) points out, he may be the match the prison system is waiting for.
Unlike "Cool Hand Luke", "The Shawshank Redemption" gives us a hero who is in no shape or form a rebel. Andy likes to play by the rules, but he likes to be smarter than everyone else and use his knowledge to gain control of limited situations. When he hits a walls a realizes that he has come to the extent of his power, this is when his world starts to collapse.
The biggest theme that pieces together the more episodic moments of the film is hope. Red thinks that hope is dangerous and Andy thinks hope is the only thing left worth fighting for. It is clear by the end of the movie which man we are supposed to believe.
"The Shawshank Redemption" isn't what I would like it to be: a commentary on prison; but instead it's a movie about hope and how good things happen to good people. This is my biggest problem with it. There is nothing in the movie that feels believable, and yet the vacant spaces between acts of courage and intelligence are filled with the depressing realization that the world isn't fair. The karma of the movie winds up in a final trope that allows us to take a deep breath and realize that everything is going to be okay.
This is very different from "The Green Mile", director Frank Darabont's other Stephen King prison movie, which ended a little bleaker and a little more powerful. "The Shawshank Redemption" states its purpose in the title itself, it is a redemption of Andy Dufresne and the injustices done not only to his physical body but to his emotional well-being. And by the end of the movie, we realize that he is one such protagonist who deserves this redemption.
If I would have had my way, the film would be much more dismal than it, which would defeat the reason that "Shawshank" has become so ubiquitous to the American film oeuvre. In my mind, it would make a more honest film; but maybe that's not what people want, they want the good guy to win, they want to see the bad guy suffer, and then want—all ironies understood—escapism.
But still, watching the movie, you have to appreciate its artistry and the care that went into it, particularly Thomas Newman's evocative score.







Score: ★★★

Shaodw of the Vampire (2000) (R)














"Shadow of the Vampire" will mean nothing to you if you haven't seen the original 1922 "Nosferatu". Hollywood, as per its usual homage to itself, captures the madness of the production of the horror classic and mixes in its own psychedelic horror and poetry in order to establish something a little out of grasp than what it can achieve: art. That is to to say that the film is deftly made and often hypnotizing, letting little screentime go to waste; but it does try to overreach its boundaries.
Probably your marker of enjoyment of "Shadow of the Vampire" would come with how well you like the original "Nosferatu" and if you're a fan of vampire lore in general. I myself am a fan of both, therefore, this was not a movie that was difficult to like. The premise of the movie is so absurd it's almost impossible for the movie to function at all: maybe, the actor who played the vampire in the 20s, was actually a vampire. While this may seem a little too full of itself, when the film starts to play out, the similarities between the movies and life itself becomes purposefully blurred and the escapism of the film, in its more brilliant moments, allows us to believe in the story itself.
Friedrich Murnau (John Malkovich) is determined on making an amazing picture about a vampire. Having just been denied the rights to Bram Stoker's Dracula, he has replicated a similar story with a new villain called Nosferatu. Surrounded by a skeptical production team and hell-bent on making something lasting, Friedrich becomes obsessed with the relatively new technology of film and decides that this medium will be the one that will make his name go down in history.
In his research for the film, he comes across a method actor named Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) who seems so fit for the role of the vampire that it is soon too late to realize that he might be more than he originally said.
"Shadow of the Vampire" is very smart for two reasons: the intermingling of the original shots of the 1920s movie, and the way that Willem Dafoe handles himself so eerily like Schreck's mannerisms. Of course, Werner Herzog's influences are seen here as the vampire is then seen in many scenes reading from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's epic poem "Tithonus" about a man trapped by immortality These moments fade into the background as the vampire's more "human" side fades and he just becomes the villain of the movie, motivated only by bloodlust and greed.
John Malkovich's Murnau is a much more problematic character. He seems so ensconced in the idea of his movie that he risks other human lives for the sake of his art. In the final frames of the movie, he stands behind the camera, seemingly oblivious to the carnage, and commands that his will be done. His god-complex comes to fruition throughout the movie and it leaves the viewer wondering at what cost art is manufactured.
The issues with the movie are numerous, even considering its fantastical themes that excuse the less realistic feeling scenes. The wavering accents of the cast is a problem, as is Malkovich's tendency to over-play his characters with a typical scream-and-shout tantrum technique.
The take aways of the film far outweigh any of its problems; bu at its core, it remains deeply in love with itself as any film about films would be.







Score: ★★★½

Moonlight (2016) (R)

















This review contains SPOILERS!
"Moonlight" feels like many things at once. It is an example of the indie movie meeting great critical reception (and, no doubt, limited theater attendance); a poetic look at the anxiety of living as a gay, black man; and the story of a boy growing up in isolation.
It's no surprised that one of the first moments we see Chiron "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert), he is inside a run-down apartment, escaping the bullies outside. There is almost no light inside, but soon the window is pried open and Juan (Mahershala Ali) walks in and invites the little boy to lunch. The boy doesn't speak for hours, not even after he's taken back to Juan's house. Eventually, he tells them that his name is Chiron, but everyone calls him Little. 
Chiron lives with his mother in Miami and things aren't great at home. His mother and he have a strained relationship and he starts his mother's addiction become more important than his well-being. Juan sees this too—Chiron and Juan spend much of the first third of the movie together, talking about seemingly nothing. The first shift in the movie occurs when Chiron leaves his mother's house, walks all the way to Juan's place and asks him two important questions: 1. what is a faggot? 2. Are you a drug dealer?
The answers to which lead to the abrupt fade into the next section: Chiron as a teenager. Everything from the first part influences the anxieties that are now made much more evident in the movie's second act. We see Chiron (Ashton Sanders) now much older, much taller, skinny, and very, very anxious about his sexuality. The kids tease him constantly for being gay, bullying him and pushing him around. At home, his mother's addictions are getting worse and the only solace he finds is with Juan's old girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). This is probably the best portion of the movie, not only because Sanders is such a compelling actor to watch; but also because it perfectly focuses the tensions of the movie into a stretch of very precise film making.
As the film movies on and Chiron ages again (played this time by Trevante Rhodes) we begin to see the possibility of resolutions. The last act is the movie's weakest, not only for its curious optimism but also for its quick repair of all things we have come to be anxious about for the sake of the protagonist.
In some ways, the film is straight-forward, a coming-of-age story about one boy in a particular circumstance. Yet, the way the film defines itself, and is being defined by the wealth of critical acclaim it has already received, is a much more interesting idea: a gay black drama. Certainly, this is a far cry from "Brokeback Mountain" and it's probably the closest thing we have gotten to a virtual queer masterpiece ever since Haigh's "Weekend"; but I find myself resisting the urge to call it just a "gay drama". It becomes limiting.
It is enlightening to see how the movie tackles issues of masculinity, violence, and pride; but it never defines any of its characters within the normalized white queer culture, and for that, it becomes something we haven't really seen before.
The film making itself is beautiful to look at, from the classic inspired soundtrack to the more Dolan moments of emotional release and artistry. It's powerful and keenly acted. Everyone in the film feels honest and true to their parts. "Moonlight" should see some Academy Award attention when the time rolls around.
By the film's ending, it does seem that writer and director Barry Jenkins is very clearly stating that this is a gay film and the optimism in the end is appreciated for once. It doesn't feel campy or cliche and no one is killed off or destroyed by the end of the film—it is a resistance of those tropes. The last moments seem to indicate a healing of sorts that occurs; and in this, there is some mystery.
Whether or not I understand every idea and symbol in the movie is irrelevant. What is important is that the film gives us honest portrayals of people rarely seen on the screen before.







Score: ★★★½

Fiend Without a Face (1958)
















This review contains SPOILERS!
"Fiend Without a Face" seems, at first, like a movie that so disgustingly and perfectly embodies the woes of a post WWII world. Atomic energy, the military's intrusion into civilian lives, and the yearning for a 'simpler' time—they all seem to line up fittingly for a world that was just wrecked by a powerful war in which an atomic bomb seemed to be the genesis for mass hysteria and paranoia. Yes, at first all these themes and more make sense in a historical context...if the movie had come ten years prior.
But due to the gap between the end of the war and the movie's debut, one might have to reconsider these ideas—although, certainly, they should not be dismissed entirely...after all the second world war was no small issue. Instead, think of an international paranoia gripping the world because of intelligence. It shouldn't surprise you that central to the film's titular monsters is a radar powered by atomic energy that can peer thousands of miles away into the homes of everyday Russians.
While this fact is lost in the larger, gory, more entertaining suspense of a story about Canadians being attacked and strangled by brain sucking monsters from space, it should not be dismissed.
"Fiend Without a Face" concerns the American and Canadian border where a military base is testing out an atomic powered radar which they will use to gather intelligence on the Russians. Cold War panic was just about to hit its zenith in America, so the film seems fittingly targeted on Soviet territory. But, rather than be focused on the impact the radar might have should the enemy gain control of it, "Fiend Without a Face" presents a problem that allows us to examine it introspectively.
No, don't get me wrong, the film isn't that smart and purposely so, but it isn't a stupid movie. Here, rational arguments and complex ideas are pushed aside for "mental vampires" as protagonist Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) describes the phenomenon.
Civilian lives are dropped like flies due to an unseen, unknown serial killer and the tensions between the Canadian agrarian community and the American military stationed on the border. These farmers want the base gone; but the military chain of command is digging in its heels and shaking its head. Here is a classic stand-off.
Add a few deaths in there and voila, you have a perfect recipe for less than hospitable foreign relationships. In the case of "Fiend Without a Face" we can take a break from all the drama now and again for a scene now and again where important and periphery characters are taken down one by one by this mysterious killer.
Naturally Cummings' love interest is introduced at one of these initial deaths and from there the sparks fly, because nothing says "I love you" more than looking into the hollowed out skull of a man who just had his brain sucked out of his back like a hardboiled egg...oh, but don't worry, the man is also this love interest's brother. Barbara (Kim Parker) pops back into the plot again and again like an unwanted alarm clock that keeps getting snoozed. It's clumsy the way the script entangles her in the detective work of Cummings.
As they come closer to discovering who or what is causing these deaths, the stakes are revved up because the end of the world could be coming, as is only natural. By the end of it, having gone from political to the absurd and back, we are left wondering if "Fiend Without a Face" is discouraging any sort of rational thought. It might be suggesting that we stifle ourselves and not attempt to stretch our minds; but then again, maybe I'm reading too much into it.
Considering all it has against it, from the Irish accents that are supposed to be Canadian, to the more vibrant gore scenes in the end of the movie, "Fiend Without a Face" works...and it works surprisingly well. While it's philosophies may have gotten tangled, I'm still impressed that a B-horror movie could thrive on such a level of critical thinking and such a lack of monsters.







Score: ★★★

The Last Picture Show (1972)















At one point in "The Last Picture Show", Lois Farrow turns to her daughter and begs her to leave the small town of Anarene, Texas. The town is "flat and empty" and Lois has spent her whole life trying to spice up the monotony. It's no surprise that there is nothing to do in the town, the opening shot of the movie shows Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) struggling with his truck on what appears to be the biggest street in the whole town. It's empty except for his car.
Anarene has one pool hall, one theater, and perhaps only one bar. "The Last Picture Show" traps its characters in this town as it traps its viewers into it. A more optimistic approach might see the quaint-ness and intermingling of the people thereof as a reflection of proximity of people and find something uplifting about that. I don't see it this way, from the opening shot of Sonny's sole car puttering down the street to the deep chill that the movie's more emotional moments take place during, there is a stillness that is almost stifling here; and this is not a movie with dull moments. The gossip alive in the movie thrives in the underbelly of small-town America. It's this kind of film that inspires works to come after it like "The Ice Storm" or "Blue Velvet". In fact, Peter Bogdanovich gives us the most coherent David Lynch style of film.
With all that said, you can imagine how pleasant it is to watch.
A film more concerned with "life" than a gripping plot, "The Last Picture Show" is a snapshot of a year in Anarene as characters grow up, become more mature, lose their virginities, and decide about their future. The three highschoolers that receive the most screentime are Sonny, Duane (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). As they grow older, we begin to realize there is something almost malicious about the story itself. It's a not so subtle "losing of innocence" story; but what it entails feels rather ordinary. There is gossip about people sleeping around, there is heartbreak when relationships end, and there is the misery of knowing that at one point it might all be taken away from you.
The movie is slow and steady, never rushing and never preaching. It doesn't build into anything grander like Kubrick or Lynch might be tempted to do. Instead, it relies on its characters being multi-dimensional and nuanced to bring its emotional impact to a crescendo. What is most shocking about this is how well it works. I felt drained by the end of the movie, hopelessly crushed, desolated, but somehow hopeful. As the protagonist, Sonny is allowed to have a quasi-happy ending even though he might not deserve it.
Perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment is how fragile everything seems and how aware the viewer is of this fragility but how unaware the characters are. The dread comes from us knowing the small-town life has its host of issues; but no one saying or doing anything about it.
I won't really go into what happens in the movie because it's not really the point of the film. The affair during the middle of the movie is one of the most famous in cinema, but it really shouldn't define the film because there's so much more going on here.
With all these gears turning, sometimes the plot devices seem excessive, like watching Jacy's sexual, voyeuristic debut, or a moment where the town's caretaker figure Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) tells us about his highschool sweetheart. People claim this is the high moment of the film, but it seems like more of the same.
Not everything in the movie works; but it does take the breath out of you.








Score: ★★★½