Why is the Shawshank Redemption so popular?

shawshIs it the nail-biting finale in which the cornered Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) threatens to blow up the prison killing all of its inmates with the tons of explosives he has deviously placed under the prison foundations?

Is it the thrilling final battle on the roof of the prison block between Andy Dufresnse (Tim Robbins) and the dastardly Captain Handley (Clancy Brown) in howling rain amidst flashes of lightning and a vomit-inducing virtual camera spinning around the roof  in circles?

Is it the brilliant cliffhanger ending when Ellis (Morgan Freeman) reaches the beach at the movie’s end only to discover a note that Andy has been captured and incarcerated in another prison, and that cinemagoers now have to go watch another movie in which Ellis breaks his friend out of prison, in SHAWSHANK II: ANOTHER REDEMPTION?

Well no, funnily enough it has become incredibly popular possibly because its none of the above.

The Contract (2006)

contractpicOne of the rare pleasures of something like Netflix, because of its ceaseless attempts to grab public attention with something ‘new’ is managing to find the older films on the platform worth watching. Well, I say ‘old’, but in the case of The Contract, which I stumbled upon by chance/vagaries of the Netflix algorithms, I have to wonder what qualifies as old: is 2006 as ancient as current-centric platforms like Netflix might suggest, and where does that leave all the films of the 1970s and (especially) the 1980s that I grew up with? Bad enough working with colleagues who weren’t even born when I was a lad in the Odeon Cinema watching Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As for films of the 1940s or 1950s… 

Anyway, maybe I’m just too forgiving but The Contract proved something of a surprise. Not just that it was actually better than I’d expected (you know, set your sights low enough and anything can surprise), but also that it was a film I’d never heard of, despite featuring both Morgan Freeman and John Cusack (particularly the latter, as he’s one of my wife Claire’s favourite actors). It was directed by Bruce Beresford, and seeing his name got my attention as I remembered his Driving Miss Daisy (another Morgan Freeman vehicle (sic)) which was a big success at the time, albeit possibly quite forgotten today, as films tend to be, attention-spans such as they are. Mind, I’d actually mistakenly thought Beresford had directed Harry and the Hendersons but it turns out I was wrong on that score, proving that my memory is getting fuzzy. 

The Contract was hardly going to set the cinematic world afire back when it came out in 2006, and indeed it was actually a straight to video release in most markets, but its a reasonably solid effort, predictable in places but none the worse for that- there is something rather comforting watching something like this, a fairly low-key drama/thriller depicting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Well, maybe not all that ordinary, but this is Hollywood. I guess this is the kind of mundane film that oddly ages quite well considering the over-the-top, noisy extravaganzas we tend to get these days. 

Cusack plays Ray, a widower who has a fractious relationship with his teenage son, Chris (Jamie Anderson) and takes him on a hiking trip out in the woods to try fix their issues. Meanwhile, following a chance car accident assassin Frank Carden (Freeman) has been caught by the FBI whilst recovering in hospital and is being transported to headquarters when Frank’s hitmen associates try to free him. The attempt goes astray, the car Frank is being driven in plunges off the road into a river sweeping him downstream to where Ray and Chris are hiking. The FBI agent handcuffed to Frank dies, but fortunately not before telling Ray who he and Frank are and the need to get Frank to the authorities. Frank’s team, of course, are soon on the chase. 

The narrative is spoiled by a few of the usual tropes- Ray is a small-town teacher now but he used to be a cop, so is better qualified than might be expected to protect his son, mind Frank’s attempts to abscond and thwart the mercenaries on their trail, and the film can’t avoid providing a young romantic interest for Ray when they stumble upon a young couple and the annoying boyfriend catches a bullet to remind us that Frank’s team aren’t completely useless. A welcome treat is Alice Krige, who plays a duplicitous Intelligence chief with an agenda that requires Frank to be killed rather than possibly reveal agency plots about a contract on a reclusive billionaire- its all very daft but kind of fun. Its one of those films in which nobody’s wardrobe ever seems to get dirty or creased despite days spent in the wilds (Frank’s tailored outfit is practically the stuff of sorcery). Freeman, of course is quite brilliant, effortlessly playing this cold assassin with a moral compass; his natural charisma assures us he’ll do the right thing eventually (especially when he realises his boss has turned on him and he’s now a target).  Its almost bewildering how Frank’s team of mercenaries are oddly inept rather than the coldly ruthless killers they purport to be, but that’s part of the fun of the film. Its very much a Sunday afternoon film, really, and possibly none the worst for that- but yeah, maybe I’m too forgiving. I’ve seen much worse.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)


hitmans wifeThe Hitman’s Bodyguard was one of my guilty favourites a few years back (a rare digital rental that got me buying it on 4K disc a few months later when it dropped in price). It was one of those films where you just know you’re being had, that its not a great film, but there was something in the cast, the chemistry between them, that just clicked for me. Really, how could you go wrong with a cheesy action flick with Ryan Reynolds cracking jokes and Samuel Jackson blasting expletives? They even had Gary Oldman chewing up the scenery as an Eastern European megalomaniac villain (if there’s such a thing as an Eastern European megalomaniac hero, let me know).

The law of diminishing returns proves inevitable with the sequel, but its the cast which again largely saves the day. I get such a kick out of these characters, and the film really benefits from Salma Hayek having a much larger role, not so much chewing the scenery but rather simply demolishing it. To be clear, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard is not a very good film (its arguably awful trash), and it is clearly inferior to the first, but I still got that guilty kick out of it.

I couldn’t even tell you what its about- some vague plot about a Greek billionaire (Antonio Banderas) seeking revenge on the European Union by infecting it with some war-grade virus in order to destroy European Civilization. Somehow our three crazy misfits get caught up in it, there’s something about a briefcase, Frank Grillo wants to get back to Boston, mostly its a lot of loud swearing and even louder action: there’s violent deaths, and lots of them. I don’t know what the body count is of the other night’s Kate and this one, but I perhaps need to chill with some sedate contemplative romantic comedy now these two have assaulted my senses.

The one thing that particularly irritated me this time around, was the editing. This thing is edited down to within an inch of its life, so much so that its almost rendered impossible to make sense of (hence my bemusement regards the plot). Its possibly because they had little confidence with the script carrying the film, which is a pity because it renders the pacing so relentless it almost breaks the film entirely. Transitions are perfunctory at best as we leap from one location (and another action sequence) to the next, characters noisily come and go, its hard to make sense of it all. Consequently the film loses something that the original had- there’s fewer character beats (and hell, the original was never Shakespeare), as if the film-makers have decided we don’t want characters, we just wants stunts and explosions and Ryan Reynolds thrown all over the place. Its much like a cartoon.

Its the cast that saves it. Hayek in particular is in great form, a foul-mouthed tramp with a heart whose, er, physicality becomes a visual gag all the way through. Samuel Jackson of course is just doing Samuel Jackson; he’s one of those actors whose presence alone can light up a scene even on autopilot. I suppose the same is true of Morgan Freeman, but he’s largely wasted here, one of the few actors not given free rein to let loose (although his casting gives the film one of its better jokes, perhaps Harrison Ford would have been a better choice). Likewise Frank Grillo isn’t allowed to break into action- seems a wasted opportunity burying him in what is a minor role when his physical prowess could have been better utilised; maybe he’s being set-up for a larger role in a possible sequel. Antonio Banderas has an unlikely crack at playing a Bond villain- he’s perhaps too charming, and not as nasty and cold as he needs to be: some guys just make better heroes than they do villains. 

There’s a fantastic drinking-game with this film; have a drink whenever Hayek breaks into a foul-mouthed tirade. Pretty sure I’ll never manage it through to the end of the movie, but I might have fun giving it a try. Maybe the plot will make better sense in spite of the toxic inebriation, some films just work that way.

The Heist (2009/2013)

heistThe Heist has a curious history- released in 2013 here in the UK, when it passed me by (as I’d never heard of it until yesterday), it appears it was actually first released a few years prior, in 2009, which is usually a sign of a troubled production that a studio doesn’t know how to release (or even want to). These days, I guess this is where a streamer such as Netflix usually steps in, and an indication of how much things have changed in the past several years regards how films are distributed and how we access them. In The Heist‘s case, its troubled history was actually a result of its film company going bankrupt (like Dredd and Solomon Kane, it seems some films just can’t catch a break). As it turns out, sure, The Heist is not high art, or profoundly dramatic- its not even hysterically funny, but it is very pleasant, light-hearted and undemanding fun.

I suppose that The Heist is for heist movies what Space Cowboys was for space movies. Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, and William H. Macy play art gallery security guards who are horrified to learn that three of their beloved art works are being shipped off to Denmark thanks to a revamp of the gallery. Roger (Walken) spends most of his shifts standing opposite a painting called The Lonely Maiden; Charles (Freeman) is obsessed by a painting of a woman with a cat, and George (Macy) has a strange preoccupation with a bronze statue of a male nude. Aghast at losing these works of art that they are so deeply attached to, they marshal a plan to steal the artworks and save them from the Danish infidels (or something like that) so that they can enjoy them themselves forever.

Its daft fun, a very light-hearted caper that chiefly rewards thanks to the lovely performances of the three leads. There’s certainly a place for something as light and fluffy as this film, particularly in times such as these. Its a warm, life-affirming film that is possibly the perfect Sunday afternoon matinee. What’s wrong with that?

The Heist is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and is available on DVD/Blu-ray.

Five lessons from Deep Impact

deepLesson One: Someone should take Hollywood to task for its depictions of Presidents. They keep putting the likes of Harrison Ford or (in this case) Morgan Freeman up as idealistic Presidents and its as far from cynical corrupt politicians, liars and Orange Men as its possible to get. Freeman comes across as so earnestly honourable in this, its excruciating. Imagine what 2020 would have been like with a President like this in charge. But yeah, Hollywood needs to get Real, this kind of unrealistic portrayal of what a President could and should be does nobody any favours. Donald Pleasance still remains my favourite and most realistic President in any movie, I don’t think anybody comes close (but if you can think of one, enlighten me in the comments).

Lesson Two: You never appreciate what you’ve got until its gone, and yeah, hearing a James Horner score in a film these days is just really sad. Sure, this wasn’t one of his best scores, although its certainly no slouch (which reminds me, I have it on a CD somewhere). Its just perhaps too sentimental and overpowering, as if Horner knew the film was lacking some level of energy that he thought his score could provide, but instead teeters on the brink of melodrama. That said, I repeat its just so sad to hear a Horner score in a film – its just a bitter reminder of what we’ve lost. While so many Horner scores sounded so alike at times (and yeah, with Deep Impact you hear the routine Horner-isms that haunted his later career), now that he’s gone, even those familiar motifs and sounds suddenly seem all the rarer. I felt just the same way about Jerry Goldsmiths score for Gremlins when I watched it in 4K a week or so ago (Gremlins is a GREAT Christmas movie)- movies aren’t what they used to be now that we’ve lost such great film composers.

Lesson Three: Well its definitely Christmas, because with this I’ve watched a film on commercial television, and wow, its so Old School. Its like I’ve flashed back twenty- thirty years. It seems every 15 – 20 mins the film just stops (and at the oddest places, too) for a commercial break, just killing any involvement in the film. What a bizarre way to watch movies, but yeah, thirty years or more (okay, its more, I’m older than I like to think) ago this was the way we used to watch movies, unless we were lucky enough to catch it on the Beeb. Mind, back then everything was pan and scan, at least these days they broadcast films in widescreen, even if they are ripped to pieces by deodorant, car, washing powder and perfume commercials.

Lesson Four: For about twenty minutes I thought it was Dr Zhivago playing Tea Leoni’s father until it dawned on me that it was that crazy scientist from The Black Hole. Sometimes I’m some kind of idiot.

Lesson Five: Deep Impact‘s credentials as an Apocalypse movie are utterly undermined by the fact that it at no point portrays scumbags hoarding toilet rolls. 2020 has taught us a lot about how Joe Public behaves facing the End of the World and all these Apocalypse movies have been totally found wanting. I look forward to the next Apocalypse Movie coming out (well just as soon as any Studio has the nerve) and putting it to the 2020 Covid test of authenticity.

Angel Has Fallen

angelfCan we talk about casting? I ask because, while I expected very little, really, from this film (London Has Fallen was almost a parody of the first film, it was so bad), I had at least hoped for a few hours mindless diversion from everything going on in the Real World- alas, right from the start it proceeded to derail itself at breakneck speed. As soon as Danny Huston turned up as Mike Banning’s old friend seeking a favour, it was clear that this so-called good guy was going to do the dirty on old Mike and prove to be a double-crossing bastard. I like Huston, he’s a very good actor, but he’s gotten so typecast now its working against the films he features in. Forget any twist, it ensures the viewers are about thirty minutes ahead of our hero.

A film like Angel Has Fallen has enough trouble with originality and predictability- expecting the screenwriters to create something novel and surprising is clearly far too much anyway, and I suppose it could be argued that the fans of these films actually enjoy being ahead of things anyway. Keep ’em simple, keep ’em predictable seems to be the order of the day with action flicks like this- Tales of the Expected, I suppose, fits pretty well. But its really done no favours with such routine and unimaginative casting. I suppose the casting directors are doing whats asked of them (find a good ‘bad guy’ actor, and sure, Huston’s one of the best, no doubt) but its damned infuriating to me.

Its not as if there is anything unique regards Angel Has Fallen in this, its getting pretty commonplace in both film and television. Its such a pity that they can’t be more imaginative and surprising with casting. Ever since Henry Fonda turned out to be such a shockingly surprising villain in Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968 (I’m sure there will be earlier examples, its just one that immediately springs to mind) it was proven how powerful such daring casting can prove to be. I’ve remarked several times on this blog over the years that Tom Hanks would make a fantastic Bond villain someday, if only someone would write it with the mother of all twists.

Instead the casting of someone like Danny Huston just deepens the sense of formula and routine that permeates Angel Has Fallen. To be clear, Huston is very good and is perfectly capable as the villain, but we’ve seen him do it before and the film just continues to tick the boxes, so to speak. There is no surprise, we always feel ahead of the plot, and I hate that in film- I prefer to be hoodwinked, surprised by the creative teams sleight of hand, so to speak, but its clear that with films such as this that is no priority, or that the team behind it aren’t capable, or just don’t care. The cynic in me suspects that with this third film in this franchise, its all about making money by not upsetting the proverbial apple cart, regards what the target audience expects. Quite what Morgan Freeman is doing still slumming in these films is quite beyond me- its like everyone’s just in it for the money.

Angel Has Fallen is currently streaming on Amazon Prime


Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

olympus1Its big and its loud and its dumb, and yes, its Die Hard 6 in all but name. Frustratingly so, because that Die Hard reference isn’t just an indication of the genre, its an indication of the actual plot and its twists and turns- it mirrors the Die Hard template so completely you’d be forgiven that the seizing of the White House is actually a ruse and that there’s a bank situated next door, or that the White House basement itself has a safe full of priceless jewels.  Its one of those movies that does everything by the book- its characters, its plot, its action sequences. There’s no surprises at all. There’s no harm in it- this film is simply what it is. It’s Die Hard In The Whitehouse, minus Bruce Willis, of course. You can imagine the pitch to the studio and the film lives up to it. Its a dumb action romp with, well, lots of action. But it is incredibly, incredibly lazy.

There’s a section where a helicopter full of hostages/terrorists leaves the  White House lawn and two security guys are watching- one of them vents his frustration, obviously to mirror the audience’s feeling and heighten the tension, the other responds, “Its ok, there’s a tracker on the helicopter!”. Of course in a real situation both would be calm and both would be aware of the tracking device, but in the movie its all about the dialogue explaining stuff to the audience. This film isn’t attempting to mirror reality at all. Watching it we are in a parallel universe, a movie universe in which characters verbalise their internal reasoning, their feelings and motivations, and in which everyone is such an idiot that everyone else has to explain everything to them because that’s the way things are explained to the audience too- the dialogue explains everything that we see, so much so that at times its like its a commentary track.  Its lazy but its how these movies work. Across town where the acting President (played of course by statesmanlike Morgan Freeman) has his emergency briefing room with dozens of aides and military staff, the screen is full of goggle-eyed actors wincing and groaning and shaking their heads at everything they see and hear during the movie, heightening tension and yes, aides with dialogue that explain everything stage by stage to Freeman and the audience, and of course if anything goes ‘right’ they are whooping and applauding- its another way of the movie telegraphing everything to the audience. Its very lazy and condescending but its all straight out of Scriptwriters 101.

And of course its that parallel universe where the President is noble and good and heroic. He’s the man who does the Right Thing. He’s in no way a conniving political creature trying to survive in a sea of corruption and vested interests. And this is America the International arm of Justice and Good, not the America that interferes and undermines democratically elected governments to further its own political machinations. And all the Bad Guys are foreigners, and even the one treacherous Bad American  realises he’s done wrong and does right at his very last. Man, imagine Oliver Stone making this movie! Now that would be interesting!

For all that, this isn’t a bad movie, just a depressingly familiar one. Its strange that its true worth isn’t as entertainment but rather for how it betrays how so many films are made these days. It really is a lesson in how plots are strung out, character arcs set-up, how dialogue and voice-overs can replace good storytelling by ‘fixing’ bad storytelling. How actor’s reaction shots can inform how the audience should be feeling or thinking. Its all manipulation. For all that, its just an action movie. And it could have been much worse.

The film also has one last lesson: success bears repeating, so this film having proven popular enough to warrant a sequel is getting one set this time across the pond in our own dear old London. Brittania Has Fallen doesn’t have quite the ring to it so I do wonder what kind of title the spin-meisters have set for it (actually, I just looked, and it has the sadly unimaginative title London Has Fallen). As for the plot, well, I guess we all can hazard an idea but I’m certain it will be… rather familiar.