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Posts Tagged ‘drama film’

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

06/23/2011 2 comments

Stephen King is well-known for spinning tales of terror ranging from the supernatural to the mundane, using his considerable storytelling skills to inject fear into such things as a vintage car, a hotel room, and high school awkwardness. What many people don’t know is that happens when he steps outside the realm of horror and offers up an inspirational tale of maintaining hope in a situation that seems utterly hopeless, and in keeping a strong spirit in a setting that seems determined to tear you down. The result is this.

The Shawshank Redemption is a drama film written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It stars Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, and Clancy Brown.

It is 1947. A mild-mannered banker named Andy Dufresne has just been convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his protestations of innocence, and sentenced to two life terms in the infamous Shawshank Prison. While there, he meets and befriends one Ellis Redding (known to his friends as Red), who is well-known in the prison for being able to get things for the inmates, and makes two simple requests: a rock hammer, in order to start and maintain a rock collection while in prison, and a poster of Rita Hayworth, one of the sex symbols of the day. Red takes an interest in Andy over the years as inmates come and go (including a lifer who couldn’t handle the outside world after serving 50 years in prison), watching as every part of Shawshank tries to break his will to go on, from the corrupt warden to the predatory band of rapists known as the Sisters. However, Red is about to learn an important lesson from the quiet banker: Prison is more than the walls that contain you. Prison is a state of mind – and if you don’t let prison get into your mind, you are capable of some amazing things.

I was honestly surprised when I found out this was Stephen King’s work. I’d seen and read a lot of his usual fare (my first taste of him was Carrie), and while there are some terrifying moments like Andy becoming the target of the Sisters, most of the tale is character-driven. Having Red as the point-of-view character allows the audience to observe Andy from a point one step removed from the man, even as we cheer on his efforts to overcome the institution’s restrictions. The main circle of convicts that the narrative follows over 20 years are mostly sympathetic despite their crimes, and as they start to look to Andy as a beacon of hope, we look to him as well: his unbreakable spirit offers us guidance for the times when circumstances seem hopeless. In other words, The Shawshank Redemption is spiritually the complete opposite of The Butterfly Effect. Both movies offer a protagonist who is repeatedly beaten down, but only one ultimately overcomes.

Of course, because it’s stupid to hate an institution, even one as intrinsically oppressive as a prison, the movie offers two groups of antagonists on whom we can focus our hate: The corrupt warden, whose every effort seems angled towards breaking the collective spirit of the inmates (and Andy in particular), and the Sisters, a gang of prison rapists who naturally target the fresh-faced Andy when he first arrives. Of course, this isn’t to say that the two antagonist groups are necessarily working to parallel purposes, as once Andy starts to become useful to the Warden, the Sisters’ reign of terror is brought to a swift – and brutal – end. Both the Warden and the Sisters feel like an intrinsic part of Shawshank, like natural predators in the prison environment, and they are the worst kind of douchebag that can be found in any environment. Specifically, they do what they do because they know they can get away with it, making their respective comeuppances that much more satisfying.

This movie will be an unexpected surprise for those familiar with Stephen King horror: a deep, inspiring story about one man’s unbreakable spirit in a setting designed to trap both body and soul within inescapable walls. Absolutely watch this movie.

Air Force One (1997)

06/14/2011 1 comment

Air Force One is the official air traffic call sign of any United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. The two jets to which this title is officially assigned are the most technologically advanced and most secure aircraft in the world, designed to protect the President from any threat. You practically have to give a kidney and your firstborn to get the clearance to board. However, little do bad guys know that the real threat to intruders is not the hordes of Secret Service agents and countermeasures that populate the plane during Presidential excursions – at least not when the President is Indiana Jones.

Air Force One is an action film directed and co-produced by Wolfgang Petersen, and written by Andrew W. Marlowe. It stars Harrison Ford, Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, and Paul Guilfoyle.

It is 1993. A crack team of elite Spetsnaz and Delta Force commandos have just captured General Ivan Radek, the leader of a terrorist regime in Kazakhstan. Three weeks later, American President James Marshall gives a speech in Moscow, rejecting the idea that he should be congratulated for this victory, instead expressing dismay that it took the United States this long to act. He vows to take a hard line against terrorism, political self-interest be damned. Of course, this is certain to get up somebody’s nose. As he, his wife and daughter, and most of his political posse of advisors and cabinet members board Air Force One to head back to the States, a group of terrorists loyal to Radek board the plane under the guise of a Russian news crew. In the middle of the flight, they seize control of Air Force One and take its passengers hostage with the goal of forcing the President to call Moscow and have Radek released. Meanwhile Secret Service agents hustle Marshall to the escape pod to keep him out of harm’s way. Marshall has other ideas, though; these people are threatening his family and national security, and he is not going to let this stand. It isn’t long before the terrorists realize that they are trapped aboard a highly advanced aircraft with a very angry ex-military Battle President, who is willing to do anything to get them the hell off his plane.

It is clear from the premise itself that this is a pre-9-11 movie. Petersen himself said that with the tightening of national security protocols both civilian and presidential, it would be nigh-impossible for anyone to get the level of access to (and inside) Air Force One, let alone highjack it. As it was, at the time film crews were not even allowed inside either of the Air Force One jets, forcing the filmmakers to make educated guesses about the interior. However, the fact that the setup is dated and the immediate setting for the bulk of the movie was pretty much made up does not make this an uninteresting movie. The idea that terrorists would manage to get this far into the U.S. government’s inner sanctum is thrilling and terrifying, considering that they would be able to wipe out the top tiers of American political authority with frightening ease. While it is still an extremely difficult plan to execute in today’s political climate, this is the scenario that all the security-tightening is designed to prevent, and all it would take is a single hole to render everything moot.

Of course, while this is an action movie, it largely depends on a skilled cast to execute properly. Harrison Ford is excellent as James Marshall, an ex-military man trying to outwit some very dangerous people aboard a relatively tiny space. While he has come a long way since his Indiana Jones/Han Solo roots, he is resourceful and clever, using the resources he has at hand to foil the enemy forces swarming his jet. Glenn Close, playing his Vice President, is a protective and helpful voice on the ground, doing her best to negotiate with dangerous terrorists and guide Marshall to the knowledge he needs while working to prevent the Presidency from being usurped by well-meaning cabinet members. On the other side of the coin, Gary Oldman is a terrifying villain, willingly threatening women and children in pursuit of goals that could throw the civilized world into chaos, in ways that seem a far cry from his villainous role as Zorg in The Fifth Element, released the same year. He is ruthless. He is fanatical. He is unquestioningly loyal to Radek. He will eat your children. (And off-camera, he’s apparently a fun guy to be around.)

If you enjoy gripping, claustrophobic action movies and you’re a fan of Harrison Ford, I highly recommend Air Force One. While the premise may be nearly impossible today, it still plays on modern terrorism fears and keeps you hooked the whole way through.

Cast Away (2000)


In this day and age, it seems that we have become too connected. We can communicate instantly with people all over the world, and we live and die by the whims of the clock. As a result, we often lose sight of what it is to really live. Chuck Noland is about to rediscover his own humanity, courtesy of Federal Express.

Cast Away is a drama film directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Tom Hanks, a remote island, a volleyball, and Helen Hunt.

Chuck Noland is a time obsessed systems analyst, in charge of improving the efficiency of Federal Express hubs all over the world. Although he is in a long-term relationship with the love of his life, Kelly Frears, whom he plans to marry, his demanding hours often interfere with his social life. When Christmas with relative is cut short by a Fed Ex emergency in Malaysia, Chuck leaves Kelly with a wrapped ring box, telling her not to open it until he returns on New Year’s Eve. However, it appears fate has other plans for him, when his plane crashes somewhere in the Pacific Ocean while trying to navigate through a violent storm. He is saved by the inflatable raft, but the emergency transmitter breaks off. Clinging to the raft, he floats all night and eventually washes up on the shore of an uninhabited island. Good news: Now Chuck has all the free time he could ever want. Bad news: He has nothing else but the clothes on his back, the contents of a few Fed Ex packages that wash on shore, and whatever else the island has to offer. Chuck must embark on a journey that mirrors the development of the earliest humans in order to survive, and in the process he learns what is truly important in life…

Tom Hanks is a great actor. There are very few people who can carry the bulk of a movie like this essentially on their own, and Hanks nails it. Add to this the directing chops of Robert Zemeckis, and you have the formula of a dramatic example of minimalism done right. The first half hour sets up the character of Chuck Noland, a tightly-wound corporate analyst who hardly has time to breathe, let alone develop a social life. While he lives by the clock and demands nothing short of the best from the employees he oversees, he does lend some sympathy to the character, so that he comes off as efficient and analytical rather than an obnoxious bureaucrat (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play an unsympathetic role in his life. Then the plane crash tears away everything he thought was important, and he is forced to learn how to survive with virtually no knowledge. Basically, he’s rediscovering what it is to be human, but at the same time he is determined not to forget what it is to be Chuck Noland.

Of course, the huge chunk of movie that takes place on the island is at once maddeningly quiet and terrifyingly loud. It lacks the usual noises of civilization (and a musical soundtrack), but possesses unexpected noises of virgin wilderness. It is not only the setting for Chuck’s personal journey but also a character in itself. It offers no advice, only the barest essential things he needs. He has no companionship save for a volleyball, with whom he has one-sided conversations to stave off loneliness. The plot is boiled and distilled and concentrated down to one thing – Chuck trying to survive. There is no antagonist except for the trials of scraping out his own existence, and you will either find it engaging or boring as hell, depending on your opinion of Hanks’ skill in this movie. Personally, I am in the former camp, and any actor or director that can make you cry for a volleyball deserves any awards he gets.

If you’re a fan of Tom Hanks and you’re in the mood for a modern-day take on Robinson Crusoe, absolutely check out Cast Away. You will soon find yourself journeying alongside Chuck into the heart of his own humanity, brought to you by Fed Ex.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

05/20/2011 1 comment

What do you get when you cross a Steven Spielberg movie with a Stanley Kubrick movie? What do you get when you update Pinocchio to a futuristic setting? What do you get when you combine all of these together into a single movie? You get this.

A. I. Artificial Intelligence is a sci fi drama film directed, produced, and co-written by Steven Spielberg, based on the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. It stars Haley Joel Osment, Frances O’Connor, Jude Law, Sam Robards, and William Hurt, with a brief camero by Robin Williams.

It is the near future. With the melting of the polar ice caps, coastal cities have been flooded, forcing people inland. With the reduction in available resources, a new class of robots is invented, capable of emulating human emotions – but their creator has something more in mind for artificial humans. Professor Hobby has created a prototype child robot that is capable of feeling true love, like that felt by a child for its parent, rather than merely emulating the appropriate behaviors. His company, Cybertronics, tests the child robot, named David, on a pair of their employees, the Swintons, whose biological son Martin is sick with an unidentified disease and currently in cryogenic suspension. Monica Swinton is initially afraid of this robot child, but she soon warms to him after activating the imprinting protocol, causing him to irreversibly feel love for his “mother”. Things get awkward later on, though, when a cure is found for Martin’s illness and he is able to come home. A sibling rivalry erupts as the two vie for Monica’s love, with David not understanding what is upsetting their parents so much. Things come to a head at Martin’s birthday party by the pool, nearly resulting in Martin’s drowning, and the decision is made to send David back to Cybertronics to be destroyed. Monica has grown to love David, though, and can’t bear the thought of him being destroyed like a common robot, so she abandons him in the woods, instructing him to do whatever he can to escape. From here, David teams up with Gigolo Joe, a lover-mecha on the run after being accused of murder, and embarks on a journey to find his place in this world, to explore the meaning of love, and to find a way to finally earn his mother’s love by becoming a real boy.

Spielberg is one of the great geniuses of filmmaking, as was Kubrick before his death. It makes sense that Kubrick would have asked Spielberg to helm this movie, and for the most part the two style combined well. This vision of the future is melancholy, by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking as we see the lengths to which mankind will go to maintain their humanity – on the one hand, they fill out their dwindling population with robots created in their own image to act as everything from executive assistants to prostitutes, but at the same time the humans seem to fear their uncannily-perfect creations, exemplified by the Flesh Fair, a sort of demolition derby involving outdated or castoff mechas, attended by those who fear being replaced by their mechanical counterparts. A common recurring theme throughout the movie is the nature of love, explored from the respective points of view of David, the child mecha, and Gigolo Joe, a prostitute mecha. In Joe’s mind, humans are imperfect, but he is programmed to make them feel beautiful. In David’s mind, he himself is imperfect, programmed to love unconditionally but apparently rejected for being artificial. The robot effects are excellent, nudging you into the uncanny valley from the human side as the mechas look too perfect to be real when intact, and entirely too human when malfunctioning or in pieces. In fact, Kubrick had sat on this project for about twenty years because he felt that CG effects would be needed to bring his childlike hero to life.

Now for the shortcomings. First off, while a child robot that will love you forever seems like a great idea, in fact it’s a terrible idea, because you’re stuck with this little entity that will be ten years old and dependent on you forever. Whether or not David’s mass production (and that off his distaff counterpart Darla) ultimately led to the downfall of civilization is left unclear, which brings me to my next complaint: the ending. The last half hour felt tacked on for the sake of giving David at least half a happy ending, and just dragged on and on and on like an ex that just won’t let things go, and just made the movie too damn long. Many have proposed suitable moments where the movie could have ended, albeit tragically, and given that this was originally a Kubrick film this could have fit just fine. Seriously – the epilogue takes place 2000 years later. And it keeps going. And going. And going… Making the end product feel just too damn long.

If you’re looking for a futuristic Pinocchio tale with all the trappings and you’re feeling patient enough to sit through your happy ending, give A. I. Artificial Intelligence a shot. Spielberg and Kubrick’s diverse styles largely combine well to offer an ultimately tragic glance at a dwindling future, even if it could have used a bit more trimming at the end.

The Abyss (1989)


About two-thirds of the Earth is covered in water. While science has pretty well figured out what lives on all the landmasses, the depths of the ocean remain a mystery. So far we’ve only caught glimpses of the strange, nearly-alien lifeforms that can withstand the crushing pressure in the deepest portions of the ocean, and its unlikely that were can ever know everything about the sea. We can only hope that whatever’s down there is friendly.

The Abyss is a science fiction film written and directed by James Cameron, starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Beihn, and some really neat CGI effects created the hard way. Because it’s a James Cameron film, that’s why.

It is the height of the Cold War. When the U.S.S. Montana sinks near the Cayman Trench after an encounter with something unknown, the Soviets waste no time in sending ships and subs to recover the submarine and its warhead. With a hurricaine moving in, the Americans decide that the quickest way to get to the sub before the Soviets do is to insert a team of Navy SEALs into a privately-owned experimental underwater oil platform called the Deep Core and use that as a base of operations. Lindsay Brigman, the designer of the platform, insists on going along, even though she knows that her estranged husband, Bud Brigman, is serving as the platform’s foreman. Things get complicated when the salvage team tries to determine the cause of the Montana‘s failure, and spot strange, apparently intelligent creatures down there with them. The situation goes from bad to worse when the hurricaine hits above them and they are unable to untether themselves from the Benthic Explorer before its crane breaks off in the storm, nearly pulling the Core into the Trench. Now trapped far underwater, they must decide the best method of recovering and disarming the Montana‘s nuclear missile, while all the time something unknown and inhuman is watching them…

James Cameron does not make small movies. Even when he has a small budget, he makes big movies. For The Abyss, he had a big vision that, unfortunately, outstripped the capabilities of special effects at the time. As a result, almost a half hour of footage was cut out of the theatrical release until Cameron was able to find a way to make it look good. Fortunately, I had the privilege of watching the Special Edition (sometimes erroneously called the Director’s Cut, even though Cameron did the original surgery himself), and it definitely fills in a few of the holes leftover in the theatrical release, like why are the water beings there and what the hell happened to the hurricaine at the end. The underwater setting is spooky and haunting, reminding us how little we know about this particular biome, and the interior shots are claustrophobic in a way that reminds me of the original Alien, and for similar reasons: there is nowhere to run. There is no escape. In this case, though, the main internal threat comes in the form of a Navy SEAL suffering High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, one of many true-life phenomena that Cameron included to give the story a nice ring of verisimilitude.

The plot was slow to develop, but engaging all the same. While the first third seemed like it was just going to be a deep sea drama, giving the audience time to meet the characters and learn about the setting and its hazards offered a chance to identify with the cast before weird stuff starts happening. As such, I had a chance to sympathize and care about these people, and I was definitely rooting for Bud during his moment of truth in the Trench. Some people criticized the Brigman estrangement subplot, pointing out the possibility that it had been inspired by Cameron’s own pending divorce, but I felt it added a layer of human drama to it, setting up a believeable reconciliation at the end. The alien beings were alien enough that they were definitely outside the realm of People in Suits, and the fact that all their technology was water-based offered a glimpse of the true possibilities of intelligent alien life. Interesting note: At the time this movie was made, CGI technology didn’t exist to create effects that shared a scene and interacted with human actors, so for example with the water tentacle Cameron made live-action models of the tentacle, and filmed the set from every angle so it could be digitally recreated with the water tentacle in place. In the end, ILM spent six months to create 75 seconds of really awesome looking footage.

If you’re in the mood for a sci fi drama with just as much drama as sci fi, check out The Abyss. It doesn’t get overwhelmed by the special effects, and in the end the human plot is every bit as crucial to the story as the alien plot. James Cameron wins again.

Speed (1994)


“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. If the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed. If it goes below fifty, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”

There are relatively few movies out there where the entire premise can be explained in a single line of dialogue. Fortunately, this one sticks to the basics. Bomb. Bus. Nameless potential victims. Mad bomber. Love interest. Heroic cop. Shit blowing up. All that’s left is for you to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Speed is an action thriller film directed by Jan de Bont and written by Graham Yost and Joss Whedon (Yes, that Joss Whedon). It stars Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sanda Bullock, Jeff Daniels, and a Santa Monica city bus.

Howard Payne is not a happy man. So show how unhappy he is, he traps a bunch of people in an elevator rigged with explosives, threatening to send who whole mess plummeting to a rather abrupt doom if his demands are not met. He is thwarted by SWAT officers Jack Traven and Harry Temple, who rescue the hostages, but Howard appears to get blown up by yet another bomb. Oh well. Jack and Harry are commended for their bravery, and all seems well, until the following day when a city bus driven by a friend of Jack’s goes boom. Jack receives a call at a nearby pay phone, and learns two things in rapid succession: Howard Payne is (surprise!) still alive, and he has rigged a second bus to explode. Once the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed, but once it drops below that… well, you get the idea. Since this second bus is an express bus, stopping it before the bomb is armed proves futile, leaving Jack with no alternative but to board the bus at cruising speed in order to ensure the safety of its passengers and try to figure out how to get everyone safe. Now, he and his fellow police officers must think fast during the only fixed scrolling level in cinematic history to keep a city bus from going boom.

This is not a complicated movie, as summarized by Payne. As one of the crew for Die Hard, naturally de Bont would bem well-suited for this “Die Hard on a Bus” scenario, and as far as that goes he does not disappoint. Speed doesn’t try to pretend to be anything but an extended car fu story, and in this respect it does well. The plot is exciting, the villain is Evil with a Reason (which you find out as the cops dip into Payne’s backstory), and the idea of being trapped on a city bus rigged to explode is a commuter’s nightmare.

That said, the acting is… about what you’d expect in a movie like this. Keanu Reeves had made other movies between Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and this one, but I think this is the first one where he managed to really shake off the spirit of Ted Logan and start to mature as a serious actor. Dennis Hopper is wonderfully hammy as mad bomber Howard Payne, and Sandra Bullock is charming as the frazzled brunette role she would go on to play in later movies. Among the supporting cast, the other police officers were surprisingly competant given the usual trend in the action genre, but amongst the imperiled passengers the only real standout is Alan Ruck’s character Stephens, notable for his diplomatic translation over a radio of Jack’s reaction to finding a second explosive device on the bus.

So, if you’re looking for a decent action movie with a deceptively simple plot, you could do worse than Speed. It’s not complex, but it is engaging in a Snakes on a Plane sort of way, and it would be worth a rental one evening if you had nothing else to do.

Man of La Mancha (1972)


To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To be with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love, pure and chaste, from afar
To try, when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star!

Man of La Mancha is a film adaptation of Daniel Wasserman’s Broadway musical of the same name, with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion. It was inspired by Wasserman’s non-musical teleplay I, Don Quixote, which in turn was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. Directed by Arthur Hiller, this movie stars Peter O’Toole, Sophia Loren, and James Coco.

It is the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Miguel de Cervantes and his manservant are imprisoned after putting on a play making fun of said inquisition. Their fellow prisoners rifle through the trunk containing Cervantes belongings, which include stage props, costumes, and a manuscript of which Cervantes is very protective, as it represents his life’s work. The prisoners seize the manuscript and hold a mock trial to see whether Cervantes should get the manuscript back, and the playwright presents an impromptu play as his defense, telling the story of Alonso Quijana, a daft old man who has decided to live out his days as a knight-errant named Don Quixote de la Mancha, seeking out advantures with his “squire”, Sancho Panza, who privately agrees that Quijana is crazy but sticks around because it’s a likeable sort of crazy. And, either despite or because he is out of his gourd, Quijana/Quixote leaves a lasting impression on a number of people in the small town that hosts him, particularly a jaded whore named Aldonza whom he takes for the fair maiden Dulcinea, treating her like a queen when everyone else treats her like trash.

I don’t watch many musicals. I don’t know why. However, I enjoyed the hell out of Man of La Mancha. It was made during a time when Hollywood actors first had to claw their way up from the stage, and thus many of them were expected to sing and dance as well as act. Peter O’Toole is an obvious alumnus of this school of acting, but surprisingly so is the beautiful Sophia Loren (whose looks still hold up twenty-mumble years later). O’Toole is charming as both Cervantes and his creation Don Quixote, with both preferring to see the world as it should be rather than as it is. Loren’s portrayal as Aldonza initially rails against Quixote’s sweet romanticisms, having lived her adult life as a plaything for travelers, but even he brings her hope in the end, a spark of promise that perhaps she can be more than the lowly Aldonza, that perhaps Dulcinea lives within her after all. Running interference between madness and sanity is Sancho, who doesn’t believe in his master’s delusions but does consider him a loyal friend and is willing to defend him if need be (though he is not stupid – he hangs back and watches Quixote’s disastrous and iconic charge against the four-armed giants unsuspecting windmills).

While the source novel was intended as a satire of chivalrous fiction popular in the day, here Quixote’s madness is an allegory for idealism, for following your dreams, and for reaching for the stars even as life pushes you down into the mud. The fact that this clearly delusional knight is able to affect the “sane” people around him to the point that he does demonstrates the need for dreams, and it is heartbreaking to watch Quijana’s well-meaning family turn his own delusions against him, confronting him with a shattering dose of reality that nearly breaks his spirit entirely.

If you’ve ever wondered how important dreams and fantasies were an age of cold facts and harsh reality, watch Man of La Mancha. It’s an older classic that still holds up well today, and the tale of Don Quixote’s quest for humble greatness (if only in his own mind) is likely to inspire even modern audiences to reach for the stars.