With this post, the film meme on this blog is coming to an end. I once again thank Dev from the bottom of my heart for urging me to take this up. I am also deeply grateful to all of you who have appreciated my writing, provided numerous recommendations, and shared your experiences to make this such a wonderfully entertaining series!
Kurosawa literally provided the curriculum and textbook for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. He made Yojimbo paying homage to the earlier John Ford westerns, and in turn provided the script for remaking it into A Fistful of Dollars and further, the forgettable Last Man Standing. And Toshiro Mifune was to Kurosawa what De Niro was to Scorsese. Mifune shines brilliantly in this highly entertaining, easily accessible, most popular Kurosawa film.
A samurai mercenary (Sanjuro, played by Mifune) drifts into a town to find two gang lords at war with each other. Ordinary citizens meekly watch the proceedings from their window shutters. To earn his livelihood, Sanjuro gets hired as the bodyguard at both ends double-crossing both his bosses. His strategy is like an intricate chess game, where he supports neither side, and his goal is instead to upset the game.
Sanjuro is amoral and cynical. His look has that calm fatality of the professional sword-slinger. There is almost no one worthy of being saved in this town. Everyone is bad and evil, so that the whole drama becomes grotesque and turns into a comedy. However, Sanjuro shows his human side when he is not able to maintain his amoral detachment and helps a poor farmer couple escape. He eventually overcomes the consequences of his tryst with good, and that helps us empathize with him as the hero.
There is a geometric strategy to the camera perspectives utilizing strictly right-angle camera views and deep focus on the widescreen. A long empty street lined by houses is shown with the camera viewing one end or the other. The houses are shown directly looking inside the windows at right-angles to the street. From inside the houses, the street is shown at right angles, or when showing the scene inside, our back is towards the street. The strategy is to provide a simple polarity to the situation, turning the hero into a diagonal who upsets the balance.
The settings, production design, and music (the most for any Kurosawa movie) are all wonderful. The samurai costumes with empty sleeves flapping at the sides gave rise to the Eastwood poncho. Mifune’s Sanjuro, who essentially replies ‘30-something with no name’ when asked his name became Eastwood’s “Man with No Name”, a character influencing movies for four decades.
If you’ve exhausted all other options and are still looking for a passable feel-good romantic comedy, You’ve Got Mail may fit the bill. It’s not officially my runner-up or noteworthy mention as it’s too gimmicky and sugar-coated for my taste.
A ‘W’ is formed when two Valentine Vs bond together to say ‘We’. Hence my ‘W’ selections are both enjoyable romances. When this ‘W’ becomes the ‘M’ for Marriage, things sometimes get topsy-turvy.
One of my all time favorite films, endlessly re-watchable, to the point where it becomes difficult for me to switch channels when it (re)plays on television. This is probably the one film in my series that I haven’t watched or studied with a critical eye on film appreciation. Its surprising success revived the failed romantic comedy genre resulting in a spate of such films in the 90s. Each of Rob Reiner’s films is unlike any of his others, and I love his Stand By Me as well.
Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) drive together to New York after graduating and stay separately. Their paths cross several times on and off throughout subsequent years, until they finally realize and accept to themselves that they love each other. Nothing revolutionary here, just a simple romantic comedy, but one which sparkles because of a few outstanding elements.
The polarized characterization of the leads and the unwavering focus on their relationship works well. Harry is the dark, pessimistic guy with his wisecracks concealing a warm heart. Sally is the cherubic exuberant blond, who is smart but vulnerable. The chemistry between Crystal and Ryan is so good, that it sustains us through a decade or so of their loving friendship, waiting for the inevitable outcome. As some reviewers observe, the characters could be straight out of a Woody Allen movie (indeed, there are striking resemblances to Annie Hall and Manhattan).
The script is remarkably sharp and witty. A single line of dialogue (“Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way”) has spawned numerous talk shows, editorials, columns, and a favorite topic for discussion in society.
This isn’t a romantic comedy about people who fall in love instantly, have misunderstandings, jealousy about flirting, come together against odds of some kind or other. No such clichés. Harry and Sally’s romance is not born of passion, but out of growing up and maturing together. For many couples, life’s like that. Not surprisingly, the movie is built around shared autobiographical experiences of Reiner and the cast.
The jazz score by Harry Connick, Jr. is brilliant. The performances, including those of the supporting pair, are good. Ryan has to ostensibly appear convincing Harry and herself that there is no love between them, while betraying the truth to us – not an easy assignment. The legendary fake orgasm scene is unbelievable but enjoyable. Deft touches of humor like the raising of arms in sync with the crowd’s wave while conversing and not watching the football game are littered all over the film. Six other elderly couples share their story in brief snapshots – they look so much like real couples, it’s hard to believe they are actors.
Finally, the unique thing about this film and why I like it: Unlike most movies, When Harry Met Sally shows people who do not easily fall in love. Love doesn’t sweep them off their feet, and they do not fight external forces to reach romantic bliss, but internal ones. To turn this profound psychological struggle into such a light-hearted entertaining comedy is an achievement!
There was a time when it was difficult to animate humans, and now we’ve reached an era when animation makes robots more human than real people. That’s what I felt after watching this gem from Pixar. In Wall-E, incredible as it may sound, robots are the real characters, while people act as animated robots whose life hardly has any meaning at all.
Charming story-telling from Andrew Stanton (director, co-writer) who also wrote and directed Finding Nemo. There are no gimmicks – this is a solid story, moving and poignant, while also being entertaining and comedic. The movie is largely without dialogue and you hardly notice that because of the amazing visuals and the incredibly deep study of body language by the animators. It makes you think about the environment, and simple things humans today take for granted. Not many animated films make you think while entertaining you at the same time. Wall-E does both, and more.
‘W’ films I’ve seen are like the Mumbai skyline. Plenty of tall buildings, but no single one of them towers imperiously over others, and none of them rival others in the world of alphabets. Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, the incredible wildlife movie When The North Wind Blows, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, the venerable Where Eagles Dare, the psychiatry comedy What About Bob, and Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit are some good films I’ve seen. But here are my picks:
- Wait Until Dark, a well-done thriller, with Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman, must-see for Hepburn fans.
- Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie + Billy Wilder. What do you expect?
- Woodstock, the most celebrated rock concert of all time is captured breathtakingly in this remarkable film, probably one of the best semi-documentary films of all time.
You can now bookmark and browse the entire list of movies I’ve written about, and those recommended by you, here. After the meme is complete, those interested can also get it as an Excel spreadsheet.
Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s most mesmerizing, haunting, and complex films I’ve seen. There are many layers at work simultaneously, and the more you probe, the more fascinating it becomes.
A short intro shows past events that led to ex-Detective John Ferguson developing an acute sense of vertigo. An old acquaintance Gavin asks John to tail his wife Madeliene, who he believes to be losing her mind, apparently possessed by the spirit of a woman, Carlotta. After a few days of watching her, they fall in love, but it is short-lived. During a visit to a church, John is unable to save Madeleine from falling from the church bell tower, because of his vertigo.
After recovering from his trauma, John happens to encounter Judy, who is an exact look-alike of Madeleine. While John attempts to control, shape, and model Judy to fit the image of his dream woman Madeleine, Judy starts to pity and care for him, and eventually falls in love. What John doesn’t know is that Judy is the real woman who played the role of Gavin’s wife in a murder plot.
When John suspects the truth, he takes Judy back to that church bell tower, and accuses her of being an accomplice in the murder. While doing so, we also see how John’s (the hero’s) attempt at re-making Judy into Madeleine was exactly the same as what Gavin (the villain) did. An emotionally shattering climax has John twice falling in and losing his love.
Two scenes in Vertigo represent great heights (no pun intended) in Hitchcock’s film-making. The first is to show John’s point-of-view when he looks down the square-shaped staircase of the church bell tower towards the bottom while pursuing Madeleine. This is a famous shot for its technical brilliance and innovativeness to achieve the mesmerizing effect of vertigo. Hitchcock pulls the camera back (reverse dolly-out) while forward zooming in with the lens. The effect is visually stunning.
The second is a more profound sequence after Judy reluctantly accedes to John’s obsession with remodeling her exactly like Madeleine. Her hotel room is bathed in green from a neon-light, and John is waiting for Judy who is getting ready in the bathroom. He is apprehensive as well as hopeful, yearning for his dream woman. When Judy appears, it is a dream-like sequence where she appears re-incarnated as Madeleine. (Her appearance is similar to how Madeleine had entered his bedroom in his apartment earlier in the film.) Judy yearns for his love and is desperate for it, even if it means she has to act like Madeleine. Both are slaves to an illusion created by a man, not even present in the room, to murder his wife.
When they embrace and kiss, the camera pans and revolves around them. Without any cut in the embracing sequence, Hitchcock alters the background as the scene revolves. It changes from the hotel room, to a livery stable where he had tried to cure Madeleine’s hallucinations, back to the hotel room. The hopelessness of the situation and the futility of desire is eloquently expressed as we experience the vast chasm between reality and illusion that always prevents any attempts to achieve happiness by distorting reality.
This sequence is a profound philosophical statement as well as the most psychologically revealing scene by Hitchcock. Earlier, feminists derided how Hitchcock used, feared, humiliated, and tried to control blond stereotypical women in all his films, but this changed over time. In ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’, Tania Modleski analyzes Hitchcock to be neither misogynist, nor sympathetic, but rather ambivalent towards women:
Throughout his work Hitchcock reveals a fascinated and fascinating tension, an oscillation, between attraction to the feminine… and a corresponding need to erect, sometimes brutally, a barrier to the femininity which is perceived as all-absorbing.
By withholding his films from circulation for rerelease many years later, Hitchcock showed a resemblance to his characters who exert influence even from their grave – like Carlotta and Madeleine in Vertigo. Some scholars contend that like his other films, Vertigo was influenced heavily by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Staying true to its title, the movie suggests the ‘falling’ concept in additional ways. Falling in love, and completely losing one’s self-control by giving in to obsession. The three levels of Carlotta-inhabiting-Madeleine-emulated-by-Judy forms a ‘vertigo of love’. And driving in the hilly streets of San Francisco, John is always shown driving downhill, never uphill. Also self-referential is the parallel of the car’s window-screen to widescreen cinema – just like us, John is a spectator. The distinctive red-green color schemes, and the long passages without dialogue beautifully held together by Bernard Hermann’s brilliant score that perfectly calibrates Hitchcock’s craft. A romance, a murder mystery, and a thriller, Vertigo is as complex and psychologically deep as Hitchcock himself.
I saw Von Ryan’s Express as a very young kid on the big screen. Only the gist of the movie remained in my memories, not the specifics. Except the ending. An unforgettable ending.
When I watched it again a few years back, I enjoyed the movie again. Unlike true-story based WWII films, this is a purely fictional, action-adventure movie. It is not constrained by any moral statements about the futility of war, or any historical accounts to not deviate from, and hence is thoroughly entertaining.
American Colonel Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is forced to collaborate with a British Major Fincham (Trevor Howard) in an Italian POW camp when WWII is nearing an end with Allied forces causing the Germans to retreat. The Germans pack the POWs in a train headed back to Germany’s concentration camps, and Ryan schemes an escape plan that results in a series of hair-raising escapes and near-misses. Real trains on location were used except in the most difficult scenes, and the technical craft is impressive for its time.
The battle scene at high altitudes in the Italian alps, with their train pursued by German troops and planes is nail-biting, leading to that wonderful climax.
I have heard that V For Vendetta is a good film, but I have not seen it.
The list of recommended films combining my posts and your comments (excluding this post), now totals 216 films. I wrote about 5 ways to catalog movies online at MakeUseOf.com. If you have any preferences, do let me know. We can always get a spreadsheet download from any of those sites.
Clint Eastwood’s homage to Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, Unforgiven is an ethically complex movie that is considered by some to be the last word on Westerns. It is also an anti-Western, in that it debunks the myths and reveals the ugly realities behind the genre.
William Munny (Eastwood) is a farmer with two kids who was once a professional killer. For money, he finds his old partner Ned (Freeman) to team up with a new kid on the block for bounty killing. The bounty is offered by a group of prostitutes in a town whose Sheriff is Little Bill, a man who lives the law, but is obscenely brutal in dispensing justice. Little Bill will not allow anyone to claim a reward for killing. In a nutshell, this is the plot setup that leads to an explosive climax. But it is an injustice to the movie to put it in a nutshell.
The traditional villain is turned into a sympathetic hero, the harsh and brutal upholder of the law becomes the villain. The characterizations are complex, and the first-rate acting performances deliver on Eastwood’s vision. Munny walks away unharmed in the end, and he is the one we root for the most, but we are not entirely comfortable doing so. This is not a feel-good movie, rather it’s a meditation on age, courage, cowardice, shame, guilt, and the price of violence.
Eastwood is a remarkably versatile director. Here he was producer, director, and star. Unforgiven is considered as his distancing himself from his ‘Dirty Harry’ persona. Unforgiven, one of the greatest Westerns, was ironically made at a time when Westerns reached their lowest level of popularity. Eastwood uses the genre not to make another Western, but to study human nature. In my opinion, it is the perfect elegy to the genre.
Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables is a thoroughly enjoyable Chicago mob crime thriller. Robert De Niro’s over-the-top performance as Al Capone shines, Kevin Costner is low-key as the lead cop, Sean Connery is brilliant as Jimmy Malone.
The production design is top-notch, recreating 1930s Chicago replete with period costumes, vintage automobiles, great sets and royal border police on horseback. Art direction is clever, with luxuriant red ambient in all of Capone’s scenes and dreary in others. Mamet’s screenplay provides every ingredient for a sumptuous adventure recipe with a delightful garnishing of excellent dialogue, while Ennio Morricone’s score provides the perfect backdrop.
A breathtaking sequence on the steps of Chicago’s railway station is inspired by Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, beautifully framed with some POV shots, woven together in De Palma’s unmistakable style. The only weak points are the shallow character of the hero and the over-emphasis on his home life, apart from which, this is a exhilarating thriller movie.
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, expecting comments stating that the book is better than the movie, I still recommend Kaufmann’s adaptation of Kundera’s ‘unfilmable’ novel. Master cinematographer Sven Nykvist provides Bergman’s eyes to Kaufman’s visuals of sensuality. A fascinating emotional roller-coaster of a film that is provocative and intellectually stimulating.
- Umbartha (Threshold): Vijay Tendulkar + Jabbar Patel + Smita Patil = a troika of immense talent that is sure to exude powerful cinema. A study of the familial and social roles a woman has to play and how she deals with the conflicts arising out of them. An apparently liberal and progressive family nonetheless limits a woman’s individuality, and Umbartha shows one woman’s steady progression towards crossing that threshold.
Ever had to take a leak during a long movie but didn’t want to miss the action? Runpee.com tells you the best time to go and also what you will (not) miss. They will soon have an iPhone app you can use to check PeeTimes, along with a timer that tells you how much longer you need to, um, hold it.
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a hell that we don’t want to see, but some of us live in. Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, taxi driver, is a desperate alienated man who tries to make contact but fails repeatedly. After a series of failed attempts to connect, he is so lonely that he asks himself in the mirror, “Who you talkin’ to?”
This powerful loneliness is the epicenter of the havoc Travis creates, and though his character is one of the strangest of all movie heroes, many people connect with him because they have experienced something like that in their lives.
When a girl rejects him, the camera dollies away to an empty hallway. It is as if the girl’s rejection is unbearable, but later we are shown the horror of violence in excruciating detail. The camera’s avoidance of the rejection is the most important shot according to Scorsese. He once said “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out”, but in this case, he keeps an important thing out of the frame.
Varying speeds of slow motion are used dramatically, either while observing faces in close-up or to increase awareness of Travis’s point of view. For example, the shots of the taxi are at normal speed, but what Travis observes on the street from inside it are in slow motion. Scorsese takes us inside the mind of Travis without using dialog.
See Thurman’s excellent analysis of how Scorsese pays homage via allusions in Taxi Driver.
Taxi Driver is great because it is not a superficial, violent, portrait of a sociopath. It actually takes us inside the mind and character of such alienated people, helping us understand them better. If you look at Martin Scorsese, he looks so gentle that it seems he won’t even hurt a fly. He grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood with violence all around him, and says he just wanted to be a parish priest. Those childhood days underlie many of his films, and it is important to understand Taxi Driver in the context of his own words:
Now more than ever we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other and understand how we see the world, and cinema is the best medium for doing this.
Extravagant, spectacular, and dramatic, Titanic is the most-voted for movie that is not in the IMDB Top 250 charts. Clearly, there are those who like it and those who don’t. Here are some reasons why I like it:
I admire Cameron. He took great ridicule and criticism in his stride for making the costliest and most delayed motion picture, while working as a one-man army as producer, director, writer, and editor. Heck, he even drew the sketches of the artist hero, Jack! It is a reach of greatness against all odds.
Attention to detail in an epic of this size is ‘beyond fanatical’ as the NYT puts it. One of the longest Trivia section in the IMDB details the extraordinary extent to which Cameron went to make the movie seem real. Learning about the meticulous level of detail will make you realize that you need multiple viewings to appreciate it.
The characterizations and storyline of the romance was deliberately ‘standard fare’, since any attempt at serious character study would have been dwarfed by the vision of the script – to create a cinematic spectacle of the tragedy of the Titanic.
Unforgettable touching scenes: a mother reading to her children while knowing they are doomed, an old couple embracing in a watery grave, musicians performing while staring at death in the face.
The actual tragedy doesn’t strike us or the characters in an instant, like many times in real life. The gravity of the situation slowly descends upon us, slowly. This is handled very sensitively, unlike sudden hysteria so typical of disaster movies.
Awe-inspiring special effects that are subservient to the story and not the other way around.
The movie educates the audience of the ships layout and its physics in an entertaining fashion before tragedy strikes. This is ingenuous, because after it strikes, we actually understand all the stages of the sinking without being focused on the physics. Rather, we are so knowledgeable about the ship that we are fully immersed in the tragedy, emotionally involved with the characters, and know exactly what is happening and will happen.
Making a suspenseful, engaging movie of this kind is a technological feat. Making it without altering the facts or deviating from history, and weaving a romantic drama in it, is virtually impossible. Cameron is a genius who achieves it.
Tenue De Soiree was weirdly interesting. As a kid, I actually enjoyed the 1978 British adaptation of The Thirty Nine Steps more than Hitchcock’s version. Two Half-Times in Hell, Zoltán Fábri’s Hungarian masterpiece that ‘inspired’ Hollywood’s Escape to Victory, is highly recommended. Ozu’s Tokyo Monogatari is high up on a mountain that I am still learning to scale – simple, powerful, and now competing with Citizen Kane as one of the best films ever made. So, here are my noteworthy mentions:
- Throne of Blood: Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth with the extremely powerful acting of Mifune is stunning. The end of the film where Mifune is killed by a thousand arrows is unbelievable, breathtaking, and iconic in cinematic lore.
- Terminator II: Pure entertainment.
- The Third Man: One of the best-ever film noir movies, that I saw only once and want to see again.
- To Kill A Mockingbird, a beautiful adaptation of a classic.
- The Terminal, Spielberg’s entertaining light film of an immigrant with a unique problem. Observe the entire construction of the set of the Terminal and study Janusz Kaminski’s unbelievable, astounding camera work.
The most famous and highly praised Japanese film of a band of samurais protecting a village from bandits gave rise to an entire genre of films. ‘Schichinin no samurai’ is Kurosawa’s grand epic when he was at the height of his creative powers. For those who haven’t seen it, I can only say watch it and enjoy it. Then you’ll start to see from where many of your favorite action epics came from!
Seven Samurai was the first film to assemble a team to execute a mission. It led not only to its remake, The Magnificent Seven, but also The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, and innumerable other war and caper movies. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was remade as Fistful of Dollars, which led to the spaghetti Western. Roger Ebert explains how this and Hidden Fortress inspiring Star Wars essentially means Kurosawa gave employment to action heroes for the next 60 years till date.
The hero being introduced by his engaging in a brave act in a situation not related to the main plot. Each hero within the team getting his own introductory sequence establishing the character. These are plot devices copied by dozens of movies over the years. The use of deep focus camera technique to keep everyone in focus whether near or far. The movie runs well over three hours yet the intermission seems like an unwanted break – such is the power of the story-telling, so overwhelmingly Seven Samurai draws you in its world.
Contrast the tough, commanding presence of the lead, Takashi Shimura (Kambei) with his worn out, defeated, meaningless existence in Ikiru as Watanabe. Contrast the high-spirited, rambunctious, showoff Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo) with his restrained, awe-inspiring, imposing presence in Red Beard. This is acting of the highest caliber.
Those who do not understand why the bandits keep attacking the village repeatedly when it is clear that they are getting decimated fail to understand the Japanese cultural roots behind the movie. Japanese society forces cultural roles and obligations upon individuals and groups to the extent that they become masochistic.
Kurosawa’s meticulously perfected battle-scenes, extraordinary camera work, great editing – everything comes together to make this a highly enjoyable, rewarding cinematic experience.
Schindler’s List: It was more difficult for me to choose the runner up between Schindler’s List and Seven Samurai, than the winner. In the greater scheme of things, maybe Schindler’s List would rate higher. For example, if I were to choose between the two to select one movie that we should send to share with an alien civilization, it would be Schindler’s List. I would like to tell the aliens – “look folks, here is what we did back on earth. We hope you don’t do anything like this. But more importantly, we would also like you to know that there are people like Oskar Schindler back on earth, so we are not all evil. We’re all human beings and we try our best to make the good triumph.”
Saving Private Ryan: 30 minutes of the most terrifying war scene ever filmed start off this devastating tour de force of Steven Spielberg’s war drama. It is a comprehensive assault on the senses and leaves you breathless. Watch it on the big screen or watch it in a home theatre with Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS. You will be transported to Omaha beach in Normandy during WWII. The rest of the movie is great but I still have to go beyond my study of the opening sequence that has overwhelmed me each time I see it.
Sholay: A noteworthy mention that was inspired by the runner-up says a lot. The perfect introduction for a Bollywood virgin. The most beloved and famous Bollywood movie ever made. A must-see for generations to come. Song and dance sequences where the plot continues and is not paused for their sake. The slickly-edited, impeccably filmed opening action sequence with the train and bandits on horses.
The use of silence. The swatting of a fly by the villain denoting the murder of a victim. Sharp characterizations.
The best villain unlike anything seen before in Bollywood. Dialogue that replaced school textbook lines in the minds of generations born decades afterwards. R. D. Burman’s memorable score. The massacre sequence with slow-motion, freeze frames, and the sound of a swing squeaking used to dramatic effect. Do watch the uncensored director’s cut for the true, more fulfilling climax – the censors have cut the heart out of the story in what is essentially a ‘revenge film’.
Do check out Karma Calling’s new twist to this meme with her Comprehensive Geek Guide to Movies.
Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free.
A movie described as a ‘prison drama’ with a weird, difficult-to-pronounce name, no action sequences, and running for two and a half hours. Further: no romance or love story, no heroine, no special effects, and no celebrity stars. Such a movie can hardly be expected to become popular. Yet, The Shawshank Redemption has more or less remained #1 on IMDB’s Top 250 films chart for over a decade. Why? Why have 400,000+ viewers rated it at the top and over 2000 users taken the time to write a review for it just at one website?
Nominated for 7 Academy Awards but winning none, the movie was underrated by most self-proclaimed critics, many of whom still dismiss it as a ‘popular feel-good’ movie with an improbable storyline. Their critical analysis focuses on exposing flaws, seeing the trees and missing the forest. Ultimately, The Shawshank Redemption works like music – the more times you watch and get familiar with it, the more you love it. Not many films share this unique trait.
This is the story of two imprisoned men, developing a bond over years of friendship, finding salvation and redemption. It is an inspiring story of hope and courage. The movie is an uplifting, spiritual experience, and that is the forest, and why this film has topped popularity charts in these times of fear, ‘threat levels’ and despair lurking beneath our everyday lives.
Frank Darabont, a first-time director, does not flinch from the nasty things that take place inside prisons. The cinematography by Roger Deakins (a Cohen brothers favorite) builds the lifeless life and drab existence in the prison. Despite this, it is not a dark film, in fact, it has its emotional payoff moments, humor, as well as a cathartic finale. From the quiet dignity exuded by Tim Robbins as the hero (Andy) and the beautiful narration and excellent performance by Morgan Freeman (‘Red’) as his buddy, to the entire supporting cast of Bob Gunton (the evil warden), James Whitmore (the old-timer Brooks), Clancy Brown (the sadistic guard), Gil Bellows (the young prisoner) – the performances are all first-rate.
I have following observations to add:
- Though set in prison, the film does not focus on the violence and hopelessness of life behind prison bars, but the opposite.
- The film is not seen from the hero’s point of view. This is pure genius and works subconsciously like a charm, because the hero continues to remain an enigmatic wonder to us.
- The character of the hero is conventionally established in films by a heroic or dramatic act or entry. Here, the hero is established ‘dramatically’ by the way he strolls in a carefree fashion inside prison.
- Our hero does not express any intense emotions for the most part of the film, but Tim Robbins is not under-acting. It is the character of Andy, beautifully built up by Robbins.
- The violent abuse and suffering of Andy is not shown closely, but from a distance. There is no pretentious or clichéd attempt to dwell on physical bruises or psychological wounds. Instead, Darabont makes us give space to Andy, like his fellow-inmates, thus building the character. This is remarkable story-telling.
- Meticulous attention to each sub-plot. Darabont is deliberate and thoughtful. This leisurely pace of the film is essential to the story, but was a great risk from a Hollywood box-office perspective.
- Simple, profound lines. “Salvation lies within.” “Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank!” “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
- The grandest, most crowd-pleasing, heroic act performed by Andy is playing a Mozart aria to the prisoners in defiance of the authorities. The point is – this is no grand epic, no great action-adventure, but a simple drama that evokes epic emotions because it has connected the hero with our hearts deeply.
- To the critics who decry the drawn-out ending, I’d like to point out that the film was actually supposed to end with the shot of ‘Red’ going away in the bus. It was the studio that insisted on a more emotionally gratifying closing sequence leading to the magnificent ocean scene. The result is there to see in the IMDB rank!
- This is a beautiful example of adapting a novel to a film. Note the subtle ways in which the story in Stephen King’s novella was adapted for the movie.
- Red’s parole hearing three times in the movie beautifully segments the film into three parts.
- The prison walls are felt all throughout the movie. Yet their imposing presence is shown in only two shots at the beginning – the magnificent opening helicopter shot and the walls looming overhead.
- The movie did not win any Oscars and was a failure at the box office. This movie did not make it big because of big-budget marketing. Instead, 5 years after it released, it became a phenomenon via the home video market and word of mouth. This is how social networking works.
- It usually takes multiple viewings to realize that the film, at its core, is more about Red than Andy.
Well, this is again examining the trees, if anyone is so inclined. For me, I enjoy the forest.
‘S’ encompasses everything the movies embody. Sex and superstars. Suspects and sleaze. Story-telling and sci-fi. Sensuality, sentiments, and scars. The sea, the stars, and the sky. A subject with sight and sound. The screen. Not surprisingly, ‘S’ is the most challenging letter in this series because there are simply too many excellent movies.
I shortlisted 30 odd films I liked for this entry. Spellbound and Strangers on a Train from the master of suspense. Billy Wilder’s masterpieces with the irresistible Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Al Pacino’s brilliant performances in Scarface and Scent of a Woman. Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi landmark Shantata Court Chalu Ahe, followed by his script in Sardar, directed by Ketan Mehta of Mirch Masala fame, and brought to life outstandingly by one of the most underutilized, stereotyped actors in India, Paresh Rawal.
There are riveting thrillers like Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en. Films like Sound of Music and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that we loved both as kids and adults. The legendary Star Wars, an institution by itself. Hindi films make their mark as well, with Saraansh, Sparsh and Sadma. And the sensitive, powerful drama of Salaam Bombay! There are hilarious comedies like Silent Movie that make you laugh, to The Sweet Hereafter, a great Canadian film that makes you share the grief of a tragedy. Afterwards, you need the lighthearted Singin’ in the Rain, or the nostalgia of Stand By Me or Summer of ‘42.
The ‘greats’ didn’t spare me. Shakha Proshakha, one of Ray’s last films, and the metaphysical The Seventh Seal by Bergman. Tarkovsky gave us the Russian equivalent of ‘2001’ in the haunting Solyaris, while Brando made history and changed film acting forever by his performance in Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. And yet, I am sure you, my readers, will come up with many more suggestions of excellent films that I must have missed.
Despite so many great films, some still stood above the rest. I think that they are timeless films that will remain great classics for generations to come. As I said in the beginning of this series, the cinematic experience is very subjective, hence my selections are those that I will keep seeing and enjoying throughout my lifetime.
In the interest of keeping the length of my posts manageable, giving me time to write, and retaining the momentum of interaction and conversation, the winners list will be in the next post. I’m sure that with many of the films listed here, you will be able to guess the winners, but the guessing game, though enjoyable, is not the only aspect of this series. Do share your thoughts of the films mentioned above!
Donald Richie’s ground-breaking study, The Films of Akira Kurosawa is a must-read for anyone interested in Japanese cinema or the art of film-making in general. I couldn’t help the length of this long post, the subject warranted it.
Kurosawa once accompanied his brother through the ruins of Tokyo after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Amidst the scenes of the dead and dying victims of the quake, his elder brother told Kurosawa, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of.” Red Beard is Kurosawa’s greatest statement in response to that challenge. Red Beard is powerful, moving, deep and profound. Kurosawa calls it a “monument to the goodness in man”. In my opinion, it is also the culmination and climax of Kurosawa’s humanist cinema, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune.
In around 1825, a young doctor Kayama, trained in modern medicine, comes to work at a free public clinic against his will. His ambition is to work as a personal doctor for a rich family. He rebels and refuses to even wear the doctor’s uniform. He works under the old doctor, Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune) who pretty much runs the show.
Through a series of episodic tales about the patients in the clinic – poor, suffering, victims of injustice – we and Kayama understand Red Beard better and better as each episode reveals yet another layer of this profound teacher. The young doctor learns that medicine is not a fashionable profession, and reality can be hard to face. But as a doctor, he has to face it if he is to do anything worthwhile.
After rescuing a traumatized 12 year old girl from a brothel, Red Beard asks Kayama to take her as his first patient and help cure her. There is a deeply moving scene as the girl refuses to take any medicine that Kayama tries to feed her with a spoon. Red Beard lets her push the spoon repeatedly, never giving up, till she finally accedes. Kayama learns that patience is invincible. (Recollect Watanabe’s patience while dealing with indifferent bureaucrats in Ikiru).
The startling proposition Kurosawa offers in Red Beard is that evil may beget evil as is widely understood, but it is equally more important that good begets good. The young girl cares for Kayama when he falls ill, then cares for a young, poor, thieving boy. Kurosawa shows human characters, none of them completely good or evil, and constructing a chain of good that has a profound impact on each. There is a dramatic, poignant scene of the young boy’s death, when a group of women shout his name in ostinato in a well. I have never been able to watch this scene without breaking down.
Red Beard has sometimes been criticized as a sentimental tear-jerker. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Richie explains, “to simply feel for, sympathize with, weep over – this is sentimental. But to gird the loins and go out and do battle, to hate so entirely, that good is the result: this is something else.”
The beauty of Red Beard is the realistic and complex characterization that shows Red Beard making personal and difficult decisions regarding what he considers to be ‘good’. He lies to a girl who has had a hard life that her father died a peaceful death, fulfilling her wish. (Kayama had fainted witnessing the painful death). He blackmails a magistrate. He fights. This kind of goodness has nothing weak nor even appealing about it and is the opposite from the traditional ‘being good’ in terms of obeying.
At the end of the film, Kayama comes full circle, and disobeys Red Beard by deciding to stay on at the clinic. Kurosawa shows that ideas of absolute evil and good are an illusion. We must decide what we think is good and act accordingly. Richie says: “We who live in hell are so conditioned that we would much rather laugh than weep – for that seems the only alternative. If one prefers this, then the film may be called sentimental, but of course to do so is to miss its point – and through what Kurosawa considers moral cowardice.”
Kurosawa deliberately shot Red Beard for two years to give the actors and sets the required ‘lived in’ effect. The set was an entire town meticulously built using century-old tiled roofs and wood. Costumes and props were ‘aged’ for months, bedding was actually slept in for months before shooting. Tourist buses ran through the set during the two years of filming. Red Beard covers a span of six months in the film, during which the characters undergo a profound spiritual change. The actors had to portray this change over a span of two years but the shooting was not chronological at all – this was a great challenge. Before shooting began, Kurosawa played the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and told the cast that this is how he wants the audience to feel when they walk out of the theatre. For two years from that day, the cast was devoted despite illnesses and many other difficulties.
Finally, about Toshiro Mifune. When I first watched Red Beard during my college days in the late 80s, I saw it in a festival a day after watching Seven Samurai. At that time, I was willing to bet that the austere Red Beard actor can never be the one that played the swashbuckling, rambunctious Samurai. On the big screen, Red Beard is intimidating, awesome, and demands respect. Mifune is one of the greatest of all actors. Clint Eastwood made an entire acting career out of him. But Mifune’s range was breathtaking. Kurosawa said that Mifune took 3 feet of tape to give an impression for which other actors will take 10 feet. I disagree emphatically. Kurosawa would have had to dump infinite feet of tape if he had tried Red Beard, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, or Seven Samurai – to name just a few – with any other actor. If you want reaffirmation of the goodness of man, watch Red Beard.
Kurosawa’s Rashomon shook the cinematic world like an earthquake when it was released in 1950 and its tremors can still be felt today. The first flashbacks that do not agree with reality (The Usual Suspects?). The tale of four inconsistent eyewitness accounts (Courage Under Fire?) has lent the adjective Rashomonesque to the language. From Robert Altman to Satyajit Ray, many great directors have acknowledged Rashomon’s influence on their film-making (See Wikipedia for more information). I need not write much about this well-known film in this already long post!
Rather, why do I rate Red Beard higher than Rashomon? The simple answer is that I enjoy watching Red Beard more than Rashomon. From the shot directly into the sun, which was a taboo at that time, to the unique plot techniques and story ideas, I would have liked Rashomon more if I was older and had seen it many decades ago. Today, for me, Rashomon is more a film to be admired than enjoyed. But that’s also the reason it is the runner-up winning over excellent, magnificent films like Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
And thus, Akira Kurosawa rules ‘R’ for me.
While Rain Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark are good films, I’d like to mention the following as noteworthy:
- Scorsese’s Raging Bull was voted in three polls as the greatest film of the decade. One of the most painful and heartrending portrayals of jealousy, it features one of Robert De Niro’s finest performances. Rates 10/10.
- Rear Window, one of Hitchcock’s best and a personal favorite.
- Roman Holiday, simple delightful romantic drama with Gregory Peck and the gorgeous Audrey Hepburn. Watch Hepburn’s facial expressions and eyes closely as she moves her gaze across the crowd in the end.
- The Right Stuff, the entertaining epic chronicle of the first 7 American astronauts who went into space in Mercury 7.
I have not seen any film starting with Q that I’d recommend to anyone. There are a handful of good films, but I have not seen any. So let’s do a twist on this meme and make up our own movie. Since movies are all about imagination and creativity, here’s what I could imagine!
The Queue is a slow-paced light drama film that shows people lined up in a queue at the gates of heaven. God, or whoever decides whether people go to heaven or hell after death, is on a vacation. Temporary arrangements have been made for these people to stay while the queue processing is halted. This area is shown as a small colony of shacks, in a Fellinesque style, where people appear to float around.
Naturally, the group interaction is all about what happened in their lives, how did they die, whether they were happy, and their hopes and fears regarding heaven and hell. And through their interaction, they learn more about their lives than they did when they were alive.
There is a man and a woman, whose hearts were broken back in their lives on earth. They empathize with each other. Slowly they fall in love, as they learn more about their lives. Towards the end however, a realization dawns in both of them, that if they had been more understanding and caring of their partners, like they were here, they would have found the same love on earth.
There is a middle-aged man who is devastated that he died of a heart attack earlier than he thought. He is depressed most of the time. Then he discovers a young boy, a teenager, who was killed in an accident. The teenager, far from being depressed, is looking forward to what happens next. They talk and the man discovers the youthful energy with which the boy lived an adventurous life. From the boy, the man wonders how much did he really live his life of so many years? Of what use would it have been to live in the same way for a few years more?
In this fashion, many people realize things and discover more about their lives than they ever had on earth. A loner learns to socialize. A socialite learns the beauty of solitude. A celebrity on earth is no longer famous here, doesn’t crave for fame, and enjoys life without it.
There is a Forrest Gump like simpleton, who everyone has been trampling on throughout the movie. Everyone steps on his shoes, so to speak, shoves him around, behaves domineeringly with him. He is our principal character, and our narrator. As the people around him understand what really matters in life, their behavior towards him gradually changes. They stop bullying him. They start being more polite. Some of them actually start being kind to him. In the end, he wonders, why people seem so much better here, than back on earth.