Follow up your Smorgasbord with
A Gooden Dessert Cart

Last week, I presented a smorgasbord of five mini-reviews. This week, it’s time for a sweet follow-up, three maxi-mini-reviews of substantially pleasing films. And not only are these videos on the better side of average, they all came to me recommended by friends and readers. This, therefore, is also a Hershey’s kiss to those fellow ‘venturers who recommend good films.

Shawshank Redemption (1994)

My Rating:

Exciting prison story in which justice is served.

Bitable Bytes:
“Riveting Even at 140 Minutes!”

What to do while watching:
Cringe now and again.

What to eat while watching:
Meal worms. If you stir them into oatmeal, you’ll hardly notice they’re there.

“I like your top movies list,” writes reader Nathan P., “but you’ve left out one of my favorites of all time: Shawshank Redemption.” While I truly appreciate movie recommendations from you, dear readers, I often cannot get to them for months, if ever. But something about Nathan’s e-mail struck me as so earnest, that I had to see what all the Shawshankin’ fuss was about. Good old reliable Nathan did not let me down.

Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman star in this prison tale of innocence and guilt. Robbins plays Andy, a man driven to do something stupid by an unfaithful wife. His bad move is to get drunk and buy a gun; but it’s bad timing that lands him in prison. Though he did not commit the murders, his wife and lover are coincidentally killed the same night as Andy’s drunk-on. An energetic and moral man in a corrupt and brutally violent prison, Andy becomes a model inmate at Shawshank Prison, using his time to get grants for the prison library and, later, to help the guards with their taxes. This latter activity turns shady as he is enlisted by the crooked warden to hide the profits from illegal uses of prison labor.

Freeman plays Red, a wise and resourceful con and a good ally to Andy. Many climactic and intense moments make for a riveting picture even at 140 minutes. I’m put off by some directorial choices, but I can forgive the overall film because it is so exciting. Shall I pick on director Frank Darabont? Okay. When a character puts a gun in his mouth and the camera cuts away for the sound effect--BANG!--there's no need to cut back to the bleeding body. This type of thing happens a few times in the movie. You see a man tying a rope to the ceiling and then see his feet dangling in midair. The close-up of his lolling head and the taut rope above it is decidedly overkill, pardon the pun. Furthermore, the story has its share of unbelievable bits. The coincidence that puts Andy away is one, and there are at least two more of equal far-fetchedness before the film is done. Still, the tale is fascinating and entertaining, but be prepared for considerable violence.

The Hanging Garden (1998)

My Rating:

Strange, human journey into memory and family.

Bitable Bytes:
“Surprisingly Feel-Good!”
“A Strong Story!”

What to do while watching:
Raise an eyebrow or two.

What to eat while watching:
Please consult a mental health professional before deciding what to eat, if anything, while watching this film.

I went to see Dead Man with my good friend Steve B. several years ago. He and I have similar tastes in many ways, and, as such, I find that he’s never sent a bad cassette into my VCR. The latest recommendation from him is The Hanging Garden. Decidedly an art flick, Garden takes an unflinching look at your typical dysfunctional family. What distinguishes this film from others of its kind is its surreal grasp of time and space. Without giving it away, the main character seems to bifurcate into two main characters who could not simultaneously exist in reality as we know it.

Okay, that’s too vague, so I’ll give it away: he hangs himself to death as a teenager, but returns to his childhood home years later to cut himself down and bury himself. I hope my tactlessness won’t dim the fascinating device. Of course the conceit is metaphorical: William (played by Chris Leavins) has returned home having at least partly gotten over the destructive patterns of his teenage years; and he is returning home at least partly to get over more. His sassy sister Kerry Fox is a strong ally, whom he needs since dad is abusive and drunk and mom is sad and distant. Time skips between three main eras in William’s life; and one good plot twist, besides the strange narrative structure, caroms the story toward a surprisingly feel-good ending.

Skeptics may take the laurels on the box and the Canadian origin of the film to be a sign of arsty-fartsiness or self-indulgence, but director Thom Fitzgerald delivers a strong story that never gets bogged down. Not only is the tale distinctly human and fascinatingly told, it is also dressed in the symbolism of flowers, which makes for a very pretty picture as well.

About a Boy (2002)

My Rating:

A good adaptation of a good read about people who need people.

Bitable Bytes:
“There’s Nothing to Dislike about This Movie!”

What to do while watching:
Chuckle. Alternately, compare it to the book. Alternately-alternately, reminisce about the Hugh Grant scandal.

What to eat while watching:
A bowl of cereal.

Though it occasionally succumbs to that certain superficial pretence of an adult’s interpretation of what goes on in a youngster’s mind, About a Boy is a generally charming film, based on the generally charming book by Nick Hornby. The book was loaned to me by my good friend Derek W. and it was an enjoyable read (its popular success is no surprise). The film obviously had to leave out a lot, like the extended relationship between the young anti-hero Marcus and his punk-rock-girl school mate. There was also a lot in the book about Kurt Cobain, which the film, not wanting the baggage of being an early-90’s period piece, dropped.

Overall, though, it’s refreshing that two characters who initially hate each other actually don’t wind up falling in love. A Hollywood spin would have placed the unlikely anti-hero Will (Hugh Grant) with the cute but unlikely character of.... But this time, I don’t think I’ll give it away.

It’s the tale of how lives cross. Will, the rich and idle ne’er-do-well has a life to himself. Marcus, the boy with the awful school life and depressed mother has a life to himself. Supporting characters enter the picture, each with their own strengths and burdens, and somehow, everyone comes to rely upon one another, a happy situation. It’s the determination of Marcus that catalyzes the story, and it’s pretty charming. In fact, all the characters are charming. Though it may not be as emotionally soaring as Down By Law or as funny as The Dinner Game, there is really nothing to dislike about this movie. No, it’s good.

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For your collection: The Shawshank Redemption (DVD), The Hanging Garden (VHS), About a Boy by Nick Hornby (Book).

Gooden's Listening to: Legends of the 20th Century -- Spike Milligan

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