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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.

The Dark Knight (2008)

06/03/2011 2 comments

In 2005, after the sheer goofiness of Joel Schumacher’s tenure in Batman movies, a little-known director named Christopher Nolan decided to retool to Batverse through a more real-world lens. His contribution was called Batman Begins, and it happily left its recent predecessors in the dust. In 2008, he directed a sequel to this retool, featuring his own take on one of the best-known and most frightening Bat-villains ever: the Joker. How did he do? Let’s find out.

The Dark Knight is a superhero drama directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the DC Comics character Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. It stars Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckart, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Gotham’s criminal underworld is currently facing pressure from two fronts: on the one side, a bank that the mob uses for laundering money has just been robbed by a band of hood led by a mysterious figure called the Joker. On the other side, Batman and Lieutenant James Gordon have just recruited idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent to dismantle the mob through legal channels. When their accountant, Lau, reveals that he has hidden their money and fled to Hong Kong to pre-empt the D.A.’s plan, the Joker crashes the meeting, offering to kill Batman for the simple fee of half their funds. Nothing happening, they say. Kill the Joker, they say. Whatever, the Joker says. A little tip to all future mob bosses: if a complete psycho offers to show you a magic trick, SAY NO. It might not help, but at least you tried. Needless to say, nobody is likely to argue with a man that just jammed a pencil into their boss’s eye socket. However, the Joker’s motives, insofar as he has any, seem to be unrelated to money or power, and rather based on the theory that anyone can be corrupted, even the legendary Dark Knight himself. When he sets his sights on white knight Harvey Dent as an object lesson in this, things take a horrifying turn that has Batman questioning his own role in keeping the city safe…

Let me start out my saying that prettyboy Heath Ledger has managed to pull off the impossible: he can be scarier than Jack Nicholson. His portrayal of the Joker in this film was no sadistic clown with a circus shtick, no merry giggler with a fondness for deadly laughing gas and explosives. He as completely frapping out of his mind. He was chaos – a spanner in everyone’s works, determined to make everyone as psychotic as him, convinced that all it takes is one sufficiently bad day to make someone snap. He laughs because life and death and our insipid little rules of human interaction mean nothing to him. The Joker is the iconic villain of the Bat-mythos. He’s meant to be scary. He’s one of the reasons clowns are scary. He’s the villain we love to hate, but can’t kill because he’s just too damn awesome. Ledger absolutely nailed it – which kind of sucks in a way, in light of the actor’s death, because there is little hope that anyone could replace him as the Joker in the Nolanverse.

In a mild contrast to the Joker, Eckhart’s portrayal as the tragic, fallen paladin Harvey Dent/Two-Face works not on chaos but on law – but law can be just as unforgiving as chaos. The Two-Face effects were well-done – not cartoony and extreme like the Batman & Robin portrayal, but realistically disturbing, looking like he actually had his face dipped in flammable chemicals and set alight. (Incidentally, the effects guys were going to have the burns look more subdued and more realistic, but test audiences were literally getting sick in the theaters, so they said, “Screw it – dial up the burns all the way!”) It is easy to draw parallels between Dent’s fall and the tightrope that Batman walks every day: “Look at how hard he snapped; if I’m not careful that could be me.” While Dent walked in the sunlight, Bats walks in darkness, meaning that his tipping point is potentially both thinner and murkier – how far does he need to go to keep Gotham safe? How far is he willing to go to keep Gotham safe? How far can he go before Batman himself becomes a danger? Nolan’s multilayered portrayal of good and evil (and all the shades of gray in between) gives the Bat franchise a depth and complexity that hasn’t been seen in a while; you can’t always tell who the good guys and bad guys are. Under the right circumstances, they can be the same person.

If you enjoyed the gritty “real-world” vibe that Nolan has imparter to the Batverse, and you like your heroes flawed and your villains terrifyingly plausible, check out The Dark Knight. It deserves a place in any Batman fan’s movie collection.

Outbreak (2005)


How do you catch a killer? How far to you go to end the violence, agony, and death? How hard do you push to do your job and save countless lives, against insurmountable odds? What if the killer is only a billionth your size?

Outbreak is a disaster thriller film directed by Wolfgang Petersen, centering around the Center for Disease Control and how it handles an outbreak of a deadly virus. It stars Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Cube Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey, and Morgan Freeman.

In 1967, a deadly outbreak of hemorrhagic fever called Motaba is discovered in a mercenary camp in Zaire. The camp is bombed and the disease is kept secret from the public. Thirty years later, the virus resurfaces, and the USAMRIID is sent to investigate. Led by Colonerl Sam Daniels, the investigators gather information and, fearing a second outbreak, recommend that his superior, Brigadier General Billy Ford, put out an alert, but Ford says it’s an unlikely scenario. And you know it would be, if a capuchin monkey carrying the virus were not captured for the illegal pet trade in the States. unfortunate monkey-thief is infected when the monkey scratches him, but when he can’t sell it to his buyer, he sets it free locally. It is not long before those who have come into contact with the infected monkey start to succumb to Motaba, and the CDC moves in, locking down Cedar Creek to contain the virus. Daniels investigates, trying to determine a cure for the deadly virus, but he soon learns that Motaba is not as new as he thought, and he finds himself battling against interested parties who want to insure that Motaba is not completely destroyed…

Movies about infectious diseases are nothing new. The Andromeda Strain played with this type of storyline from the CDC’s point of view before, but here the scenario is frighteningly plausible. Viruses are sneaky. They can wait until the conditions are just right before they come out and mess you up, and they can mutate in some ingenious and scary ways. This movie is especially relevant today, with the various outbreaks of bird flu, swine flu, and super-resistant viruses and bacteria. Let’s face it – if nature wants to kill us, it will find a way. And to really hammer the point home, only a few months after Outbreak was released, there was a real-life outbreak of Ebola in Zaire. Kind of makes you want to stock up on hand sanitizer, huh?

The casting here was nice and tight. Dustin Hoffman, and exemplary veteran actor, is spot on as Daniels, barely keeping it together in a crisis that could wipe out the United States if it got loose, alongside Rene Russo as his ex-wife caught in the same boat. Cuba Gooding, Jr., as CDC newcomer Salt, lends a degree of an outsider’s perpective in the opening scenes, and his initiation into the wonderful world of super-cooties seems natural, rather than a device to allow the more experienced investigators to explain the basic concepts to the audience. Donald Sutherland is effective as the Curt Military Asshole Major General McClintock, and Morgan Freeman as General Ford is, well, Morgan Freeman. Each character has his own agenda: the CDC want to eradicate Motaba. Their higher-ups want to preserve Motaba. Most of the civilians just want to survive Motaba. Families are torn apart. People panic. All over a tiny little critter only visible in an electron microscope than can nonetheless kill you horribly. Good times.

If you like your diseases deadly and your thrillers grounded in reality, absolutely watch Outbreak. Just remember to wash your hands afterwards.

RED (2010)


In a world filled with aging action stars from the 80s, where uncommon men are menaced by uncommon dangers, one man will have the courage to stand up for his right to peacefully co-exist with his average suburban neighbors, to quietly draw his pension and not have people trying to kill him at every turn. That man… is Bruce Willis. And somebody just pissed him off.

RED is an action comedy film loosely inspired by the three-issue comics miniseries of the same name created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner. It stars Bruce “Die Hard” Willis, Morgan “The Shawshank Redemption” Freeman, Mary-Louis “Boys on the Side” Parker, John “Con Air” Malkovich, Helen “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” Mirren, and Karl “The Bourne Supremacy” Urban.

Frank Moses (Willis) wants nothing more than to live peacefully in retirement, but he has grown lonely. To remedy this, he calls up Sarah (Parker), a customer service representative working at the office in Kansas City that handles his pension, using the conceit that his check is late but actually tearing up the first one that comes each month. However, his previous life as a black ops CIA agent soon comes back to bite him when a hit squad shows up and tries to kill him, shooting the hell out of the front of his house in the process, but managing to completely miss Frank. At least it wasn’t for lack of effort. Frank is aging but still sharp, and he kills the hit squad. How? He’s GODDAMN BRUCE WILLIS, that’s how. Realizing that whoever sent them likely tapped his phone, he goes to Kansas City to kidnap protect Sarah, dragging her along as he rounds up his old black ops team, likewise pseudo-retired, to find out who would want to kill him and why, journeying into Frank’s shadowy past and that of the people he used to work with. In the meantime, CIA agent William Cooper (Urban) has also been assigned to hunt down and kill Moses, apparently not aware of what happened to the other eleven guys. Action, explosions, and Bruce Willis kicking ass ensue.

I had never heard of this movie before I watched it, but I recognized many of the stars and decided to give it a shot, figuring it would at least be a good popcorn movie. Within the first twenty minutes, I was pleasantly surprised. This tongue-in-cheeck action-comedy is delightfully over-the-top with its action sequences, stunts, car chases, and batting about of action movie conventions, conspiracy theories, and espionage story elements. You get things like a conspiracy theorist who turns out to be right 90% of the time and lives in a car trunk that actually leads down to an elaborate underground base, a retired badass with advanced liver cancer that gets his jollies making the shapely caretaker at his retirement home adjust the rabbit ear antennae on his TV, plots within plots within double-crosses, minor background characters suddenly trying to kill the heroes, and shit getting blown up just to have shit blow up.

Bruce Willis as Moses is casually deadpan about how he handles things, like stepping out of a car that’s just been sent into a spin by being rammed by an SUV – while it’s still spinning – and using his fists and his wits to beat the everloving HELL out of countless mooks. I’d seen elements of this during Live Free or Die Hard, but here he’s distilled down to pure badassery. John Malkovich as the prescient but off-kilter Boggs is the sort of paranoid gun nut that would have Burt Gummer telling him to get off decaf, and Helen Mirren as Victoria is an entertaining paradox: a soft-spoken British woman who will save your bacon by throwing a hunting knife into someone’s throat while at the controls of a tripod-mounted Gatlin gun, and then invite you back to her place for tea and cookies, and that cut looks like it might need stitches, let me take care of that for you, dear.

So. Action. Comedy. Conspiracies. Explosions. Fight scenes. If you like your movies big and manly, the sort that don’t take themselves too seriously, I highly recommend RED. It’s a surprisingly smart little action-comedy that will leave you cheering for more.