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.   

The Lego Movie

I have a vague notion of playing with Tinker Toys when I was a kid and I know my older brother had an Erector set that I envied because it had gears and motors and a lot of shiny metal pieces.  I never knew the joy of Legos as a kid . When I became a parent, I must have deliberately chosen to keep legos out of the house for fear of the mess and pain they might represent (stepping on a sharp plastic item, barefoot and in the dark was something I wanted to avoid). We did play with the Legos at the daycare or at the doctors office but there were never any sets or instructions, just building blocks. Sometime in the last twenty years, Legos marketing figured out that connecting with brand-name icons would move even more product for kids who wanted their toys to resemble their movies and TV shows. So characters and action figures became part of the Lego Universe and it has all lead to this, a movie about building blocks.

Way back in the early eighties I was listening to speeches that criticized half hour kids cartoons that were basically shilling for toys. You know, G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, and My Little Pony. All of those toys eventually had movies made out of them and if you judged by those films, you would know what my students were worried about, but if you started with this film, you would have no worries at all. This is a movie, featuring toys, that is less about selling a product and more about playing creatively. While you will never be able to see this film and not think of the product, you will certainly not think of it in the same way. This movie is anarchistic, colorful and somewhat demented. It is also funnier than most of the comedies that you see being advertised. I have not yet seen , nor am I likely to, “Ride Along”, but the jokes in the trailers and ads for that have not made me smile once much less laugh out loud. “The Lego Movie” had me chuckling at the first trailer and seeing the film today, basically repeated the experience for ninety minutes. This movie is a kick and a contender for best animated feature in next years award lineups. 

The story is a hero’s quest featuring the “Legos” figures from most of the popular play sets and some that I’m sure were invented for the movie. There is a funky wizard modeled  after “Gandalf” but don’t think it is Gandalf because he appears as himself briefly in one sequence. The ancient giver of wisdom is voiced by the marvelous Morgan Freeman, whose voice was delivered to us by the Gods. Backing up Freeman are the voices of dozens of well known movie and TV personalities, all cast for the unique qualities of their voices. I was listening to the voice of our hero, Emmet, and I confused it with the voice of Chris Parnell. Emmet’s range is a little higher than Cyril Figus but they both have that plain, somewhat emasculated tone that makes them the vanilla of the cast of crazy vocal performances. The movie features voice acting from; Jonah Hill, Will Ferrell, Will Arnet, Will Forte, Shaquille O’Neil, Billy Dee Williams, Channing Tatum, Elizabeth Banks and a whole bunch more.  Drawing special mention along with Morgan Freeman, is the king of Winter badassery, Liam Neeson himself. I missed his work in “The Nut Job” a couple of weeks ago, but it seems that Mr. Neeson has been regularly employed because this is the second of three films he has coming out in January and February. His dual role here as “Good Cop”/”Bad Cop” is a jewel of comic vocal variety. Freeman and Neeson alone might have been worth the price of admission but there is also the visual spectacular to bring you in.

The city scapes, oceans, clouds and just about everything else is rendered in “lego” form. The effect is hypnotically amazing and very surreal at times. The space craft and cars and building, you sort of expect from the toys, but the backgrounds and scenery are also visualized as lego constructions and it give the movie an odd sense of “pop” art and engineering genius.  This movie is really well imagined and the look might be worth a 3D investment although I was happy with the traditional view that we experienced it through. 

All the crazy visuals would be only interesting to look at for a short while. You need a story and some dialogue to go along with it. The plot is not especially surprising, although the idea of the alternate universes of “Legos” colliding is a fun and creative addition to the story process. The characters are realized in the most creative part of the film. The action figures talk like they would be the characters, as if they were being voiced by a creative child. Ferrell’s President Business drops in an aside here and there to reveal his true colors in some most amusing comments. Will Arnet parodies both Bruce Wayne and Batman with a voice that is deep and dark and silly at the same time. It took a delicate mind to write some of these lines and not have them come off as loud and obvious at times. Pratt’s timing in delivering the gee whiz cliches and oh oh jokes is just perfect. Although we do get sucker punched into more Will Ferrell than I would have preferred, in the end he does a good job as well, keeping his usual screaming persona to a minimum. 

There are some serious attempts to make the movie a message about the faults of conformity, but to do so without kicking the kids that can actually follow directions in the teeth for doing so. The number one song in the “Lego” universe is a parody of upbeat dance infected pop that passes for entertainment these days, but it is also catchy as heck and like the pop music it is making fun of, it is very entertaining. 
Listen to this clip to get a sense of what I mean:

I would strongly recommend this film to adults and children. You will find plenty to enjoy, and a confusing set of messages that don’t detract from the spirit of the film. It is hard to imagine that the one film made from a specific toy, that I liked was one about a toy that I know next to nothing about and would seem to be incredibly boring. It is the opposite of boring and it is a terrific way to build your weekend into a winner.