25. The Shawshank Redemption
Famously, this is the movie that is most consistently found atop the IMDB Top 250. Why is that? All I can really figure is that while it’s not really anybody’s favourite movie, it’s not really a movie anyone dislikes either.
Aside from Amy Nicholson on the must-listen Unspooled podcast. She calls The Shawshank Redemption a “Lifetime Movie for men.” Well here’s my counter argument for that. The Shawshank Redemption is a Lifetime Movie for men! I know tone is hard to discern in print, but she said it derisively and I was all happy and shit.
It’s the most pleasant, virtuous group of prisoners you’ll ever spend a couple hours with. Shawshank has some nasty guards and inmates, but doesn’t seem like the worst place you could wind up. The crimes of most of the characters go completely unmentioned, prison is just a means to keep them in one place and get them to bond on a level that a lot of men long for but often feel afraid to say out loud.
Actually, although nothing about the look of The Shawshank Redemption suggests that it’s a fantasy, it sort of is. Look at how every tiny loose end is perfectly tied up throughout the last forty five minutes. Character wise, Tim Robbin’s Andy is impossibly good yet a bit distant and two dimensional, and Morgan Freeman’s Red seems a little too omniscient. He talks about how he misses his friend Andy (misses, present tense), but seems privy to every single detail of his escape. How could be possibly know what kind of shoes Andy is wearing to the bank the day after he gets out if they haven’t reunited as he’s telling the story? The answer to that last question was the key to the entire movie for me.
The story Red is telling has been embellished for the listener. The events of The Shawshank Redemption broadly happened, there was an Andy Dufresne, he was friends with Red and he did manage to escape prison. But in the telling and retelling of the tale, Red is leaving his friend’s character flaws out because amateur storytellers think their heroes need to be perfect. He’s exaggerating the villainy of the warden, and adding details to make his comeuppance all the better. For all we know the ending is a bit of fiction too. The movie feels like it ought to end on the more uncertain note of Red on the bus out of the country, and maybe his reunion with Andy is only something he’s envisioning. But I hope it’s what really happened.
Watching with this notion in your head adds a really fun layer to one of the breeziest and most likeable films ever made. It’s fun trying to guess what’s real and what’s not, and I’ve become convinced this is what’s intended on the part of the filmmakers. If not, then that means at its core The Shawshank Redemption is a contrived series of events with a flatly written lead character, and I love the movie too much to entertain such thoughts.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Applicability (Real World Resonance): LOW. The situation is pretty fantastical.
Anxiety (Suspense): LOW. Prison doesn’t seem so bad at first, and a lot of the third act is just things working themselves out, but things get pretty bad for a while there in the middle.
Awe (Visual Impact): LOW. Roger Deakins yet again, in what’s by far his most subdued looking film on my list.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): MODERATE. It’s low key funny when it wants to be.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Especially if you play the guessing game with what’s real and what’s not.
Affection (Emotional Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. One of the movies that’s made to make men cry and then gruffly claim “I wasn’t crying’.”
Appreciation (Construction): EXTRAORDINARY. It takes a hell of a plotter to design a backwards story with the twist at the beginning.
Affection (Emotional Impact): HIGH. The truth of Sammy Jenkins in a shattering moment.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. You’re in a constant state of anxiety, knowing that if you stop paying attention even for a second you might be hopelessly lost.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): LOW. “Nope. He’s chasing me.”
Adrenaline (Excitement): LOW. “I’m chasing this guy…”
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A. I can’t say Leonard’s predicament is anything that’s ever happened to me.
Awe (Visual Impact): N/A. If the movie was showy or ostentatious at all, it’d be as though a clown was dancing in your classroom as you tried to write an exam. Memento needs your full concentration on the story and doesn’t distract you with visual flair.
One of the least watched of my favourite movies. Much as I love it, Memento is work. It’s as close to a mind altering drug as a film can be. I didn’t know it was possible for the human brain to exhale a sigh of relief, but that’s what happens when the credits roll on this picture.
But as backwards stories (and backwards episodes of TV shows starved for ideas) go, Memento is still easier to follow than most. It took me a couple viewings before I even realized the backwards structure was putting us in the mind of a character who can’t remember what happened a few minutes before. The present is all that matters in Memento. The best way to watch the movie is to discard every scene once you’ve watched it. How often is your life impacted by something that hasn’t happened to you yet?
The DVD is confounding as the rest of the movie, but the road through the labyrinthine menus will sometimes spit you out into a chronological version of Memento. That’s worth watching too. Seeing the twist at the beginning does truly render the events of the film meaningless (since Leonard, and by extension us, only assume they have meaning), and it’s a frustrating experience hanging out with a protagonist who is not aware of what’s happening from moment to moment. We’re basically watching the movie from the perspective of the supporting characters. But more important, the tragedy of Leonard’s life does sink in in a way that it can’t in the regular cut, given that we’re so busy thinking we don’t have time to feel.
That’s the best way to watch Memento. See it as it’s meant to be seen, watch it chronologically to get the full impact of the character arcs, and then bring that emotion over to the proper cut.
”Now… where was I?”
23. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
My affection for the Harry Potter books goes back nearly two decades now, but the film series never really did it for me. Not because of what they changed, but because of what they didn’t.
The first two Christopher Columbus movies were 1 to 1 translations of stories that soared in my imagination but were lifeless onscreen, so what was the point? Then it was onto Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Nichols, two insanely talented directors whose sensibilities didn’t quite mesh with the Harry Potter universe.
The series eventually found its man in David Yates, but he came along at a time in which the books had become very long and not particularly suited for translation to the screen. Yates did the best with what he could but events that worked in print didn’t have as much power onscreen.
When I read the seventh and final Harry Potter novel for the first time, I remember sparring a thought for the eventual adaptation. I’d felt the last six chapters of the book alone would make for an incredible movie. It is so densely packed with inventive imagery, revelations, tearjerking moments, action scenes, and character resolutions. Too bad it was all going to get squashed down into the last 45 minutes or so of what would likely be a two and a half hour film.
The bifurcation of Deathly Hallows did lead to this awful Hollywood trend of splitting up final movies and final seasons of TV shows. And I’m not naive enough to think that it wasn’t a financially motivated decision on the part of the Harry Potter producers. But the split did have the effect of putting the not-especially-cinematic events of the first two thirds of the book (mainly a lot of camping) into its own movie I don’t have to watch anymore. And in Part 2, I get the fleshed out feature film based on the end of Deathly Hallows that I’d wanted all along. And not only that, it’s even better than the book.
Why is that? I’d say why except there’s a
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOON*
I know I didn’t say much in this one. Just think of this as the Deathly Hallows Part 1 of reviews.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A
Amusement (Humour/Elation): LOW. We’re in the end game, there’s not much time for levity.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. It being the climax of the series you know some casualties are coming.
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. The Harry Potter world has become this dark desaturated place with the only colour coming from deadly spells, makes for a memorable look.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Going back to the book I’ve loved the long winding path the end of the story takes to the final showdown with Voldemort.
Affection (Emotional Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. The Prince’s Tale hits even harder than in the book.
Adrenaline (Excitement): EXTRAORDINARY. It’s a showdown that spans the better part of a movie, dam right it’s exciting.
The perfect murder is staged, and the victim is left to be discovered in a pool. Only, much to the distress of the murderers, the corpse disappears.
Diabolique single-handedly changed my outlook on foreign cinema. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t connect as much with non-English films that are either purely dramatic or purely comedic. That’s reflects on me, not them. But after finishing this film, I clued in that suspense knows no language. I gobbled up every acclaimed subtitled thriller I could find. And though I had particular luck with French language movies (there are a few on this list), none of them have topped Diabolique.
It feel more like a Hitchcock film than (almost) all Hitchcock films. It’s a better movie about gaslighting than the movie that’s actually called Gaslight. It’s a better episode of Columbo than all actual episodes of Columbo. After a half hour of exposition (not as excessive as the director’s Wages of Fear, and ultimately a lot more necessary), every scene is more intense than the one before. It all leads up to a finale that puts us in the shoes of a character with a heart so weak she’s liable to be frightened to death if she’s not careful, and we’re right there with her.
Diabolique is well known to film buffs, but (anecdotally) it seems to be have escaped the attention of today’s audiences. If you’ve never seen it, you’ve got a huge treat waiting for you. It might even be a gateway to the wide, wonderful world of French thrillers, as it was for me.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): N/A.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A.
Affection (Emotional Impact): N/A.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): LOW. There’s a number of buffoonish supporting characters unaware that murder is afoot under their very noses.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Slightly slow (but necessary) start, then every knew sequence gets more and more nightmarish.
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. Nothing but shadows and atmosphere, I’ll tell you this, if Diabolique isn’t in black and white, it doesn’t make my list.
Anxiety (Suspense): EXTRAORDINARY. The final few sequences might surpass anything in Hitchcock quite honestly.
21. The Shining
Another Kubrick movie, another difficult to write capsule. But whereas I felt I hadn’t studied 2001 enough to write about it from an analytical place, and I wasn’t able to articulate quite what I liked about A Clockwork Orange, I have a very different problem with The Shining. I have so much to say about it it’s hard to know where to begin.
I could say so much about the craft of the film itself. How it manages to be so claustrophobic while being set in cavernous, brightly lit rooms. How brilliantly it’s paced and how suffocating the atmosphere becomes. How Jack Nicholson gives one of the scariest yet, honestly, one of the funniest performances ever. There’s a lot we could talk about surrounding the movie too. There’s Stephen King’s dislike for the adaptation because it eliminated the core idea of the book (that Jack was a good man consumed by demons), and the responsibility (or lack thereof) that an adaptation has to actually, well, adapt. Or how Stanley Kubrick got some incredibly performances through sheer psychological terror, and the uneasy peace I have with that given that I admire the results so much.
My relationship with this movie is weird and wonderful and tumultuous. How so? Well, I just said I had a “relationship” with a movie. That’s strange. But in any case, there’s so much worth dissecting about The Shining that I don’t even have a way into a short little capsule review.
So I’ll save it for another day.
*FULL REVIEW COMING SOON*
(None of it has to do with that Room 237 documentary so don’t worry.)
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. As cold and detached as any Kubrick movie, but you really don’t want anything bad to happen to a little kid of a mom who’s clearly just barely holding it together.
Appreciation (Construction): LOW. To be honest, it’s an ok script that’s elevated so much by a great director.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): MODERATE. A really great dramatization of how dangerous emotional abuse can be (notice how Jack doesn’t lay a hand on Wendy the entire movie).
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. Weird to say, but I saw this at a revival theatre and there was so much nervous laughter at everything Jack says, I think Kubrick intended it to be funny.
Awe (Visual Impact): EXTRAORDINARY. Wow is pretty much every shot in this movie worth studying.
Anxiety (Suspense): EXTRAORDINARY. No matter how well known or parodied its scary moments, nothing can ever undercut the terrifying atmosphere set by The Shining.