The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Big House

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Shawshank Redemption is a movie which is hypnotising in just how good it is. You know the type of film; whenever it’s on TV (which in this case it constantly is) you have to stop what you’re doing and watch it – one of those rare movies in which you don’t want to end. With the all the movies out there in which you find yourself checking how long is left of the running time, here is one in which you see there is a whole hour left and you’re glad; the mark of a truly great movie.

Carcerophobia is the fear of going to prison and is something which has crossed my mind in the past, partially brought on by movies like The Shawshank Redemption. Even if you’ve committed nothing illegal like Andy Dufresne, there is always that possibility that an honest law-abiding citizen could end up in the slammer. The world of Shawshank State Penitentiary is one with little to no human rights, one with shocking but believable treatment from both the guards and fellow prisoners as they engage in brutal, sadistic acts. Regardless of what prisons around the world are like circa 2017, your “whole life (is) blown away in the blink of an eye, nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it”. The Shawshank Redemption may be one of Stephen King’s non-horror works, but the prospect of going to prison for a crime you never committed gets under my skin.

One of the aspects of The Shawshank Redemption which intrigues me the most in the empire Andy builds while inside prison as well as an insight of the economics and commerce which goes on between the prisoners and guards. Just like Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz, he is still able to find meaning in his life despite being in what first looks like a hopeless situation; he is able to find hope in despair. This really does show that at the end of the day, knowledge is power. Likewise, Andy sending a letter every week to the state government for prison library funding and ultimately playing with the system, always something which inspires me.

What makes Andy Dufresne such a great character? Like Tim Robbins himself, there is more than meets the eye. Robins has an intelligence to him and you can’t quite figure out what is going on behind his eyes, an actor with a mysterious aura to him and this comes through with the character of Andy. He is not like the rest of the prisoners, he’s a civilised gentleman thrown into the jungle that is prison but he’s not a sheltered fool ether and knows how to deal with his new surroundings. But why do I need to tell you this, the narration sums up his character perfectly in a beautiful and poetic manner – “I must admit I didn’t think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.” Likewise, I also find myself very intrigued by the character of Brooks; just how does such a gentle soul end up in prison? Did he really commit a crime? Who knows?

Morgan Freeman has the ability to play wise old men without coming off as a stereotype or a cliché. His narration is describing what obviously appears in the film, so what makes it so great? Like the best film narration, it’s to do with its poetic manner and the way in which it’s delivered; scenes in the film were shot to time with the pre-recorded voice over plus it goes without saying Freeman has one of the most heavenly voices ever. None of his dialogue is necessary for the advancement of the plot, yet what would the film be without it? There are just so many inspirational quotes.

The escape sequence itself so incredible yet at the same time is entirely believable and one of the most satisfying movie revenge plots. Many people always point out as to how Andy could reattach the poster to the wall when he begins his escape through the tunnel, even Frank Darabont acknowledges this on the DVD audio commentary although I am puzzled as to why this is made into a big deal. Andy could simply attach the poster to the wall at the top two corners and allow gravity to cover the remainder of the hole and simply crawl into it from below as if the poster where a curtain, likewise we never see on screen if the poster has been reattached on all four corners.

When I think of films which can convey an expansive range of powerful human emotions and feelings and act as a form of emotional therapy a few instantly come to my mind – It’s a Wonderful Life, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shawshank Redemption. Films which help one to break from the mental prisons of our life.


Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Oh England, My Lionheart

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

No Robin Hood movie can dream of even coming close to the perfection that is The Adventures Of Robin Hood from 1938, but Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ranks as my 2nd favourite movie about the famed English outlaw. If the 1938 Robin Hood is one extreme of a bright, colourful, tight-wearing, saccharine induced fantasy and the Ridley Scott Robin Hood from 2010 is the opposite extreme of an unnecessarily dark, gritty and overly mature version of the tale, then Prince Of Thieves is the middle ground.

Is the All-American Kevin Costner miscast as Robin Hood? Yes. But do I care? No, not really. Costner’s enthusiasm does come through in his performance and shows he has what it takes to be an action hero. Most people don’t think of Costner as much of a screen presence, but to me, he is (besides, realism is beside the point with a movie like this). Prince Of Thieves opens unexpectedly in Jerusalem showing that this is a Robin Hood movie which does things a bit different, largely with the character of Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir (Morgan Freeman), an Arabic man in medieval England. Azeem represents a positive representation of an Arab and the world from which he hails. He holds more enlightened views on women and in one of the movie’s pivotal scenes he hands Robin a rudimentary telescope (very similar to a paralleling scene in Dances with Wolves) which isn’t recorded to have been invented until the 17th century. However, the notion that an individual or individuals from the Arab world might have known about such technology isn’t a too “out there” idea if the claims of the Middle East being a far more advanced society than Europe during the middle ages are to be believed (it’s unlikely we’ll see a character like Azeem in the post-9/11 world in which the Middle East is no longer portrayed in media as an exotic fantasy land rather than a haven for terrorists). Costner and Morgan Freeman do make for a fun duo and who wouldn’t want to have Morgan Freeman always by your side giving you winsomely knowledge – what other actor embodies dignity more than Freeman? There is a big gaping plot hole when Azeem fulfils his duty to Robin by saving his life right after they land on the English shore yet for whatever reason this is not acknowledged. But do I care? No, not really.

However, if there is one actor who steals the show in Prince Of Thieves it has to be Alan Rickman as the twitchy, scenery-chewing, devil-worshipping madman that is the Sherriff of Nottingham. His performance is full of little things which feel like they were improvised and his many outbursts are music to my ears. Is it just me or do classically trained actors often make the most memorable villains? Sean Connery’s appearance, on the other hand, is one of the better uses of a celebrity cameo in a film. Just like how the characters are surprised to see Richard the Lionheart return to England, we as the audience are surprised to see Sean Connery (he is perfect in these kinds of roles).

Prince Of Thieves plays host to a number of anachronisms including the aforementioned telescope, the inclusion of the Beaux Tapestry in the opening credits to the presence of Celts in 12th century Scotland and Kevin Costner’s mullet. However, the most prevalent anachronism is the imparting of contemporary values into England circa 1194. The film does contain an undercurrent of feminism with the estate Robin visits shortly after his return to England, being run by women and guarded by a female in armour which is revealed to be none other than the Lady Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in a portrayal of the character as a woman with a sense of self who is subservient to anyone. Concurrently, Azeem affectionately refers to Robin as “Christian” throughout the course of the film, despite the story being during the era of the crusades and despite the prejudice Azzem encounters on his journey with Robin in England (“In your country, am I not the infidel?”). Prince Of Thieves is a Robin Hood telling which takes a rather dim view of The Crusades with both Robin and Azeem making various comments throughout the film of their disapproval of the event. Some may look at Prince Of Thieves as a more politically correct Robin Hood, but I don’t feel as if the film is attempting to shove any messaging down my throat unlike that or more contemporary films, nor does it interfere with the storytelling.

Prince Of Thieves is good old-fashioned, swashbuckling adventure filmmaking. The action on display has a sense of weight and physicality with the impressive large-scale action sequences with even that out-there moment with Robin and Azeem being fired over a wall with a catapult still feeling believable, and not a computer-generated effect in sight – all practical glory. Likewise, how can that score by Michael Kamen not evoke the adventurer in you (the music is so good that it appears Disney has been using it on their own logo). I may also be the one remaining person in the world who isn’t sick to death of Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For You – I still jam to it now and then. Ah the days when the pop song tie-in was as big, if not bigger than the movie itself. Prince Of Thieves even does the English landscape justice; regardless of the drab winter weather, there is still a beauty to it. Prince Of Thieves features some breathtaking money shots, such as that of Robin firing an arrow with an explosion behind him filmed at 300 frames per second; or perhaps my favourite shot in the film, the romantic elevator with the sun in the background splitting the trees. Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is a film with its faults but I’m so engaged with the world and its aesthetic that I can look past them, a world in which everything feels used and lived in, one beaming with personality.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Milliún Dollar Leanbh

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Million Dollar Baby is a movie I find works on different levels between first and second viewings. On my first viewing, I found the majority of the film great until the plot’s shocking and hard-to-digest turn of events in its final act – it ranked as one of my new favourite films of all time. On second viewing, however, I found Million Dollar Baby substantially even better as I was waiting in dread for the proceeding events; I mean almost literally quivering in fear knowing that dreadful scene is coming, that in which Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank) is knocked to the ground during a fight and her neck lands on the side on a stool (thanks to this motion picture I now fear the very sight of a tiny stool, scarier than anything in a horror film). Million Dollar Baby is one of the most emotionally draining films I’ve ever witnessed. It’s such a powerful experience I can’t just immediately bring myself to watch another film right away and I’ll still be thinking about it for days afterwards – a film so absorbing I don’t want it to end.

Clint Eastwood has only become a better director over time, in particular during the 2000s when he produced an impressive streak of directorial efforts with stories of unpretentious human emotion. His direction on Million Dollar Baby (as well as many of his other films) is astounding in how he makes the art of filmmaking look easy. He’s not a Martin Scorsese incorporating fancy camera and editing tricks, rather his films are presented in a simplistic and humble nature, often alongside a demure acoustic guitar score. Never has the presence of a fighter training in a darkly lit gym ever looked so immaculate as if it were a cathedral with the picture’s heavy use of shadows, stunning silhouettes alongside shots in which you only see the actor’s head (similar to those of Marlon Brandon in Apocalypse Now). Million Dollar Baby is one sweaty and grimy film, with the run-down gym known as the Hit Pit acting as a character in itself (especially since it doubles as a home for Morgan Freeman’s Scrap).

Eastwood has the ability to combine serious drama and subtle humour perfectly. As Frankie Dunn, I love his smart-alecky sense of humour such as the scenes in which he trolls a catholic priest, Father Horvak (Brían F. O’Byrne) with various theological questions for his own amusement while the banter and one-upmanship between Frankie and long-time friend Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris are a real joy to watch. The gruff nasally sarcasm of Eastwood and the deep baritone voice of Freeman makes for a great combo of dry wit when they have conversations such as that regarding the holes in Scrap’s socks. However, the best comedy in Million Dollar Baby comes from the almost sitcom-like set-up involving the comic relief character of Danger Barch/Dangerous Dillard (Jay Baruchel). The very low-intelligence but well-meaning hillbilly just hangs around the gym every day without paying any membership and constantly speaks in an earnest manner about how he is going to become the boxing champion of the world while Scrap acts as his surrogate babysitter – comedy gold. Watching Million Dollar Baby again, I did get a massive laugh at the character’s introduction with his casual and innocent use of the most taboo word in the English language – a perfect summary of his character.

Surely it is an accepted fact that a voice of God narration by Morgan Freeman makes any piece of media all the more superior. Freeman’s narration is a heavenly listen to and never has exposition been so pleasurable to the ears (if only Morgan Freeman could narrate my life). Freeman is only one-third of the trio of powerhouse performers in Million Dollar Baby. Hillary Swank as Mary Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald has a real earnest likeability with her Infectious enthusiasm and down-to-earth manner. The relationship she shares with Frankie is a fascinating insight into what could be described as a surrogate father and daughter. Maggie often speaks of the admiration she holds for her deceased father while Frankie is estranged from his own biological daughter who refuses to speak to him – the two fill a void in their own lives. Frankie’s character arc is the classic, corny dichotomy of a grumpy old man who learns to love but with the strength of the film’s material, it never comes off as feeling cheesy. Concurrently, I would be remised if I didn’t speak of Maggie’s family (God, I hate them so much) – the ungrateful, unsupportive, hillbilly, welfare scroungers. They visit Maggie in the hospital but only in order to have her legally sign away the fortune she earned (and only after they had been there for a week visiting Woody and Mickey). They are cartoonishly evil but it does work on an emotional level as they do get my blood boiling.

Million Dollar Baby is one of the rare instances of a film to feature the Irish language (also known as Gaelic) as Frankie attempts to learn the little-known language throughout the film and gives Maggie her own Gaelic slogan “Mo cuishle”. You don’t get any street cred for being an Anglo-Saxon, but you do for being Irish, although the Fitzgerald dynasty themselves were from Anglo-Norman origins they were described in the Annals of the Four Masters as having become “More Irish than the Irish themselves”. As Scrap says in his narration “Seems there are Irish people everywhere, or people who want to be”.

The final act of Million Dollar Baby, in which Maggie has become paralysed following her injury regarding the stool is the most controversial aspect of the picture. Million Dollar Baby was made during the Terry Shivo controversy and one could look on at the picture as an example of an Oscar bait film trying to capatilizing on the current thing. However, I don’t find its inclusion as part of the film’s story to be contrived or tacked on. Alongside abortion and the death penalty as some of the most difficult moral questions, assisted suicide is a topic of which Million Dollar Baby is ambiguous enough that I wasn’t left with the impression that the film was taking sides. The film does present a condemnation of assisted suicide from a religious point of view in which Father Horvak informs Frankie that “If you do this thing you’ll be lost, you will never find yourself again”. Likewise, the closest the film makes (albeit indirectly) to an argument in favour of Maggie’s life being ended is the monologue given by Scrap in which he speaks of how Maggie got her shot and can leave the world thinking “I think I did alright”. Regardless, watching Maggie in a paralysed state after her life-threatening injury is difficult to watch as she receives bed sores, one of which results in her leg being amputated.

Million Dollar Baby does raise the thought-provoking question of how much quality of life one can still lead when in a condition like that of Maggie? Evidently, for Frankie, it was one not worth living as he turns off her breathing machine and gives Maggie a shot of adrenaline (following Maggie’s own failed suicide attempt through blood loss from biting her tongue). It is left to the viewer’s imagination to picture his subsequent arrest by the police, however, the film does hint that Frankie could have taken his own life as he is seen putting two syringes into his bag beforehand (it’s up to you my good viewer to decide). To go back to Scrap’s words of “I think I did alright”, it does leave me as a viewer with a gratitude to be alive. I know it’s easy to throw around the “M” word, but in this instance, I will use it. Million Dollar Baby is nothing short of a masterpiece and Clint Eastwood’s finest hour as a director.