It is more than likely after today’s sojourn into cinema that we’ll be taking another little break from this series. There are some other things that The Lord is laying on my heart to write, some that I have already begun such as the Sermon on the Mount analysis and the examination of the Fruits of The Spirit. I do not anticipate that this breather will be a few months like last time…more like a few weeks. Until we pick things back up, please enjoy this entry and take a look around The Manofesto at the other subject matter I attempt to write about with some semblance of intelligence and affection.
40 Cast Away
Any hardcore sports fan will tell you that success in baseball requires a collective effort, as does football…but in basketball one superstar can put a team on his back and carry them a long way toward victory. Similarly, in film, occasionally a single performance is so brilliant that it makes an otherwise flawed film great. Tom Hanks is another actor, like Jimmy Stewart & Robin Williams, who seems equally adept at comedy and drama. I tend to prefer his more lighthearted performances, but that is a byproduct of my overall gravitation toward comedy and not really a commentary on Hanks’ abilities. In 2000’s Cast Away Hanks plays Chuck, a globetrotting FedEx systems guru who is constantly called to all corners of the world to put out fires (in a figurative sense). He is on the verge of proposing to his understanding girlfriend Kelly on Christmas Eve when he has to fly off on yet another problem solving endeavor. He tells her “I’ll be right back”, but his plane crashes and he ends up marooned on an island in the middle of nowhere. The plane crash scene is attention-grabbing and disturbingly realistic, but in a good way. A large chunk of the story is then told on the island, as we see Chuck evolve…or maybe devolve…from a harried, Type A, always on the run, white collar yuppie wannabe into a lonely, boney, grizzled survivalist. The island scenes are, in my opinion, sublime. There are long stretches with no dialogue, and it’s only the subtle, skillful craftsmanship of Tom Hanks that keeps us invested. Cast Away should be shown to every acting student in order to teach how a performer can convey so much with their eyes, small gestures, and sheer physicality. I cannot avoid spoiling things by saying that Chuck does find a way off the island after four years and is rescued. His return home is the portion of the film that is a mixed bag. On one hand I applaud the writers and director Robert Zemeckis for not giving into the temptation to give us the trite, happy ending. Kelly has moved on with her life, gotten married and had children, and that is dealt with effectively. And there is a scene where Chuck’s co-workers throw him a welcome back party complete with a smorgasbord that includes crab legs. Chuck picks one up and tosses it aside dismissively, which is absolutely exceptional. The man has just returned from a deserted island where he has eaten nothing but seafood for four years and these thoughtless jackasses put that kind of stuff on the buffet?? It is almost a throwaway moment, but for me it is one of the most memorable scenes in any movie I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, the ending leaves something to be desired. Chuck has held onto one unopened package that washed up on the island and delivers it. The note he leaves says “this package saved my life”, which I don’t get. Maybe I am just being thick, or overanalyzing. Then he comes to a crossroads…literally. The film ends with Chuck standing in the middle of a four way road with a slight grin on his face. It’s a very odd ending that I suppose was meant to have a thoughtful, ponderous tone. Instead it just leaves me…every time I watch…thinking “That’s it??”. At any rate, the film’s shortcomings are trumped by Hanks’ unforgettable performance and its “read between the lines” commentary on the value of time and the importance of priorities. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis put on what happens after Chuck’s re-entry into civilization, but that likely would have meant shaving the amount of time spent on the island scenes, which would probably lessen the overall impact.
Sometimes I wish Hollywood could figure out a way to put Morgan Freeman in every movie and television show. He automatically makes whatever he is in better. He has a certain something…call it class, or maybe gravitas…that draws the viewer in like a magnet. In 1994’s Shawshank Redemption, Freeman plays Red, a grizzled veteran of prison life and a man with “connections” who is able to get his fellow prisoners almost anything they want, which makes him an important guy. Red becomes good friends with the newly arrived Andy, played by Tim Robbins in his only notable performance outside Bull Durham. Andy has been wrongly accused and convicted of killing his wife and her lover. He begins to become an important guy like Red by tutoring fellow inmates to get their GED and helping the guards with their taxes. The warden utilizes Andy’s skills to launder kickback money. Eventually, after 20 years, Andy escapes in a unique and unforgettable way that involves a rock hammer and a Rita Hayworth poster, exposing the warden’s illegal schemes in the process. Not long after Red is paroled after having spent 40 years at Shawshank for a murder he did actually commit. The ending is all about hope and…well…redemption. But before we get to that ending we get realistically harsh glimpses of prison life, from brutal & crooked guards to gang rape to the suicide of an old convict who has been released but cannot function “on the outside”. The Shawshank Redemption is not light entertainment, and thus it probably ranks lower than many films of lesser quality on this list simply because it isn’t the kind of movie that one watches over and over again on a lazy rainy Saturday on one of the abundantly available cable TV channels. Or atleast it’s not the kind of movie I am going to watch that often. When I do watch stories like this my palate has to be immediately cleansed with something frivolous and optimistic. Nonetheless, Shawshank is a brilliantly written tale with a cast second to none.
38 Best in Show
I talked about my affection for mockumentaries when we looked at This Is Spinal Tap, and Best in Show is the funniest yet. Maybe being a dog owner enhances the experience?? I don’t know. There is a group of actors…Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Ed Begley Jr., Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, & Jennifer Coolidge…that have done several of these types of films together, all directed by Guest. The story centers around an eclectic group of dog owners all headed to the same show in Philadelphia. The show itself is a parody of the Westminster Dog Show held every spring at Madison Square Garden and The National Dog Show shown every Thanksgiving on NBC immediately following the Macy’s Parade. The owners portrayed include a redneck hound dog lover, a clueless airhead heiress engaged in the love that dare not speak its name with her dog’s lesbian trainer, an uptight yuppie couple, a middle aged Florida couple who keeps coming across men the wife has had sex with, and a humorously effeminate gay couple. We also get to meet the folks who actually produce the dog show, and the highlight is a clueless, over-the-top announcer that says things like “which one of these dogs would you want to have as your wide receiver on your football team?” and “I went to one of those obedience places once. It was all going well until they spilled hot candle wax on my private parts.” It’s all very absurd and that is kind of the point. There isn’t any message, no moral to the story, no lessons to be gleaned. It’s just a good time. Try this though…watch Best in Show and then watch one of the real dog shows. You will see just how perfectly the movie captures the essence of the actual event, and that’ll make the movie even funnier.
37 Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
The parade of Christmas movies continues. Lost in New York is a sequel to 1990’s Home Alone, which we will discuss down the road. I feel safe in assuming that the vast majority of folks have seen both films. The sequel uses the same formula as the original, only changing the setting. And while that may indicate an all too prevalent lack of creativity, it is also quite logical. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?? The question I had when this film first arrived in theaters in 1992…and I am sure I was not the only one…was “How in the world can these idiotic parents accidentally ditch their kid AGAIN??” The answer is actually rather clever, the only part of the story with any originality. Once little Kevin has been separated from the pack he ends up in The Big Apple and is having a rollicking good time shacked up at the posh Plaza Hotel. But coincidentally the bumbling thieves from the first film end up in New York too, plotting to rob a toy store on Christmas Eve. Kevin discovers the plan and foils the robbery. There is an extended scene of cartoon violence just as in the first film, this time making use of an absent aunt and uncle’s currently undergoing extensive renovations home. Meanwhile the rest of the family is in Florida until the police discover that Kevin has used his Dad’s credit card in New York. The story is completely predictable and we can see the ending a mile away, but I don’t care. This is a funny movie and a holiday tradition. Is it on the same level as some of the more renowned Christmas classics?? No. I would put it a level below most of them. I could have done without the pious subplot involving the homeless pigeon lady, and the preachy toy store owner is a weak but necessary plot device. But those are small points of contention. Joe Pesci & Daniel Stern are once again sufficiently amusing as the crooks, and Rob Schneider & Tim Curry are modestly humorous as maybe the most inept hotel employees in history. The family plays its necessary part. The city itself is always an effective co-star in the myriad movies and television shows set there. I suppose my affection is, in this case, more a function of repeated viewings than possibly any other movie thus far. Lost in New York is inexplicably on random television channels throughout the year, so I have watched it a lot. I am fully aware that it isn’t high art or critically acclaimed, but it is innocuous enough and suits my tastes just fine.
Let us segue from Christmas to Halloween. I am not a big horror guy. I just get no joy out of seeing some deranged serial killer mow through an entire cast of characters with a knife or chainsaw or other sundry instruments of doom. People who seem a bit too fascinated with blood n’ guts have a chemical makeup in their brains with which I cannot identify. That being said, Halloween is the one movie of its genre that I thoroughly enjoy and watch annually (during the appropriate season of course). Just to be clear, I am speaking of the 1978 John Carpenter original and not the fairly recent Rob Zombie “reimagining”. I haven’t seen that one yet and probably never will. Carpenter’s film introduces us to Michael Myers, who stabbed his teenage sister to death when he was six years old on Halloween night and has been in a mental institution for 15 years. He escapes…on Halloween…and returns to his hometown. In hot pursuit is the obsessed Dr. Loomis, who has been treating Michael all these years but at some point gave up because he realized the boy was “pure evil”. We also meet teenager Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in what was her first film role. Michael Myers seems to have an odd fascination with Laurie Strode and stalks her throughout the movie, killing several innocent bystanders along the way. I think one of the reasons I like Halloween is because it really isn’t all that bloody, atleast by today’s standards. The producers didn’t have much of a budget, so they rely mostly on atmosphere and ambiance, and that works really well. Halloween isn’t so much gory as it is eerie and suspenseful. The story is well written and not really all that out in left field. The use of our scariest holiday is inspired and the music is perfect. I particularly enjoy Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis. He is borderline maniacal himself in his dogged hunt for the killer. As with so many other horror films Halloween spawned countless sequels, each one progressively more ridiculous, atleast until Jamie Lee Curtis was brought back into the mix after two decades and participated in two follow-ups that basically ignored all the insipidly silly chapters that preceded them. But even those two movies couldn’t live up to the magic of the original. Sometimes the right mix of circumstances converges and we get lightning in a bottle, and it is nearly impossible to ever repeat. Such is the case with Halloween. I would be remiss if I did not mention Halloween II, which was made 3 years after the first but the story picks up exactly where the first film left off. Michael stalks Laurie in a hospital, slowly killing various nurses and staff. We eventually learn that Laurie is Michael’s younger sister and that’s why he is after her. Michael and Dr. Loomis both supposedly die at the end, but of course death is oftentimes not permanent in the slasher genre. I just cannot put Halloween II in the list, even as a backdoor tie. The violence and gore is increased noticeably and unnecessarily, and there just seems to be something missing. It is certainly much better than the countless sequels that would follow, but not on par with its predecessor. As I said, lightning in a bottle is almost never captured again.
- 5 reviews of The Ending of “Shawshank Redemption” (rateitall.com)
- 40 Days of Screenplays, Day 5: “The Shawshank Redemption” (gointothestory.com)
- The Ten Best Modern Acting Resumés (media.gunaxin.com)
- Who’s the Best “That Guy” in Movies? (media.gunaxin.com)