The Shelf Is Half Full

An optimistic geek's blog on comic books, movies and professional wrestling.

Archive for the category “Always On My Shelf”

Always On My Shelf – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Everyone has a couple of movies that they would call a “guilty pleasure”, a movie that they know isn’t objectively that good but that you still really enjoy for some reason or another. In this particular case, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) is a personal favorite primarily for nostalgia’s sake: I freaking loved the Ninja Turtles as a kid. The movie adaptation of the popular children’s cartoon based on dark and gritty satire comic books by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird takes me back to that period of life and is just good enough for me not to feel stupid for liking it. Heck, I actually this movie more now as an adult than I did as a kid; I grew up watching mostly the sequel The Secret of the Ooze (1991) but now that I’m older I appreciate this movie more for it’s more serious tone.

TMNT

If you’re of those people who neither grew up with TMNT nor have passing familiarity with it thanks to other people’s interests (my nephews and niece are crazy about them), let me give a basic rundown. Four young turtles living in a New York City sewer come into contact with a mysterious green “ooze” that transforms them into intelligent, anthropomorphic and giant sized mutants. Similarly transformed is a rat named Splinter, who has learned the art of ninjitsu from his owner Hamato Yoshi (just stay with me here). He raises the turtles as his sons, training them to become ninja warriors and naming them after Renaissance artists. Now teenagers, the turtles work together to fight crime in New York City.

Yes, it’s completely ridiculous… which is kind of the point. It’s a wacky, insane concept that started as a way for Eastman and Laird to parody other popular comics going on the time; the X-Men and Daredevil among others. The comics were dark and gritty and moderately successful, but when Eastman and Laird were approached by various marketing groups, the Turtles would soon become a commercial juggernaut with extremely successful toys and a popular television cartoon. Taking a decidedly more kid-friendly spin on the idea, the Ninja Turtles became ingrained in pop culture in the late eighties and early nineties. Kids loved it and even teenagers enjoyed them thanks to the more mature stories in the comics.

Donatello and Michaelangelo

So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that a live-action movie would be made. What is surprising is that despite the proven commercial success of the franchise, no major studio wanted to be attached to the project. The small independent studio New Line Cinema finally attached themselves to it, and with the help of the most advanced puppetry and animatronics that Jim Henson could provide, created one of the ten highest grossing films of 1990 and one of the most successful independent films of all time.

TMNT is a franchise that by all rights is too ridiculous to work, but in some ways is too ridiculous not to work; the premise immediately stands out from everything out there, but what makes the Turtles such enduring pop culture icons is that there was some extremely smart character work put into them. Leonardo (blue mask and katanas, for the newbies) is oldest one, the leader who is most devoted to Splinter’s teachings. He’s more serious than his brothers because he has more responsibility. Michelangelo (orange mask and nunchucks) was the youngest, the fun-loving goofball who never took life too seriously and was more of an innocent kid. Donatello (purple mask and bo staff) was the most intelligent and creative of the group, and the one I related to the most.

And then there’s Raphael.

Raphael

Arguably the greatest contribution this movie made to the Turtles mythology was giving Raphael a more defined and interesting character. In the TV show he was definitely comic relief, a little more fatalistic than Michelangelo but not in a way that separated the two in a meaningful way. This movie cast the red-masked, dual sai-wielding Turtle into an angry loner who often came into conflict with his brothers and was prone to rash decisions. This not only made Raphael a breakthrough character (probably the most popular Turtle), but also helped to make Mikey stand out even more. Unsurprisingly, the characterization has stuck ever since.

This characterization is really the heart and soul of the Turtles franchise; while fundamentally flawed in many ways (and suffering a severe lack of female characters), the characters are instantly recognizable by their personalities. These personalities bounce off each other perfectly, whether the characters are getting along or butting heads; there’s a real sense of family with these characters and I think that’s what made them stand out over time.

Shredder

So anyway, if you haven’t seen this movie and are unfamiliar with TMNT, this is a really good way to become familiar with the franchise. Besides the Turtles and their relationships, the movie also incorporates most of the key elements of the franchise. The Turtles meet April O’Neil, a reporter who serves as both the audience surrogate and the narrator for the movie (played excellently by Judith Hoag) and Casey Jones, a vigilante who fights with sports weapons who kind of sits around making fun of the movie without being obnoxious about it. He’s much cooler than he sounds, and a lot of that is thanks to Elias Koteas’ natural charm and swagger.

The main villain is Shredder, a Japanese samurai warrior who killed Splinter’s owner and is running the Foot Clan, a cultlike gang of criminals who try to brainwash the New York youth by saying the Foot Clan is their new family. In contrast to that is the strong real family dynamics of the Turtles and Splinter, and I think what I love about this film most is how much it explores the dynamic between Splinter and the Turtles; there’s some real emotion put into the dialogue in this movie and it’s hard not to feel for the characters and what they are going through. The fact that the film has a pretty strong anti-gang and pro-family message was certainly powerful at the time the film came out and I think still makes it a good film for parents to show their kids today.

Always On My Shelf – Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a 1994 crime drama directed by Quentin Tarantino, based on a script by Tarantino and Roger Avary. The movie also has elements of black comedy and neo-noir, but ultimately transcends genre to care its own unique identity in cinema. The movie is one of the most talked about films of all time, with many critics examining the film, attempting to figure out what it is trying to say and why audiences are so captivated by it. Is the film too over the top in its violence, and is that harmful to viewers? Is there ultimately any point to anything in the film? And what the heck is in that briefcase?

This is not an article seeking to answer any of those questions. Instead, I just want to shine a spotlight on the fact that we are still asking questions about Pulp Fiction over twenty years after it first hit theaters. Tarantino’s breakthrough hit is one that has left a mark on cinema and pop culture. It brought John Travolta back into the limelight and made stars out of Uma Thurman, Tim Roth and most famously Samuel L. Jackson. And despite a fair number of critics, it still stands as essential viewing for any dedicated fan of movies.

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction has been dissected by almost every movie critic out there, and if you want serious in-depth analysis it is easy to find. For the sake of not being a Wikipedia article and to not give spoilers for those who haven’t seen it, I want to talk about my personal experience with the film and what stands out about to me. While I had seen and heard bits and pieces of the movie due to its cultural impact, I didn’t see it until I was twenty or so. And I’m actually glad that it took me that long to see it; film was a love that I discovered in college when I took an “Intro to Film” class and got an opportunity to learn about things like cinematography, composition and editing. While I would have always appreciated the acting, the characters and the dialogue, I wouldn’t have been able to fully grasp what makes Tarantino’s films stand out visually.

For me, what stands out most about this film is the way the characters talk to each other, and more importantly, what they talk about. We are introduced to the two main characters of Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Jackson) driving in a car talking about Vega’s recent trip to Europe, and specifically, the differences in how McDonalds markets their burgers for the European Market. Again, I won’t get into specifics here; if you’ve seen the movie you know the joke and if you haven’t I don’t want to spoil it. Vega later talks to Uma Thurman’s character Mia Wallace, the wife of his boss, about her brief acting career. Neither of these topics have anything to do with the plot of the movie, but they stick with audiences because it is in these frivolous conversations that we grow to understand the characters and their relationships with each other.

Mia Wallace

If this seems like an odd thing to bring up, I suggest watching this movie directly after watching another of my favorite movies: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). While that movie is my favorite Batman movie ever and has plenty of interesting themes, the dialogue is always driving the plot forward or blatantly psycho-analyzing the characters. While much of what is discussed is interesting, very little of it feels natural or organic. The characters are telling a story and that is all that matters. Tarantino is a director that understands that having characters that are both larger than life and very human is what anchors any good film. Pulp Fiction has some important plot points, twists and turns that drive the narrative. But the purpose of the plot twists is to put the characters into new situations where they can interact with each other and live their lives. That’s why they stick with us long after the movie is complete.

Pulp Fiction is also perhaps the best example of non-linear storytelling done well. There are a lot of movies that tell their stories “out of order” so to speak; there are times when it works (Christopher Nolan’s 2000 thriller Memento) and times where it is done so clumsily that it can derail a film (Man of Steel, for example). Pulp Fiction is carefully, meticulously constructed so that even when the film teeters on becoming confusing, we know enough the characters in the new situation that we aren’t totally lost. By the end of the movie everything comes together perfectly, and the film actually becomes more rewarding to watch the second time. With the benefit of insight into the characters’ lives, we find new layers in scenes that we couldn’t possibly know the first time we viewed the movie.

Jules

The last thing that stood out to me immediately was Samuel L. Jackson’s performance. While the shouting of a mangled verse from the book of Ezekiel is a moment that has become iconic, it is the re-visitation of this speech that really sticks with me. Sam is known for his charismatic and bombastic performances, but this quieter, more introspective scene may be the best acting of Jackson’s career. I really enjoy Jules’ arc as a corrupt man who finds his own version of faith and mercy, especially juxtaposed to Vincent’s cynicism and general apathy. On a larger scale, it impressed me that the themes of redemption and forgiveness were prevalent in a film known mostly for its violence. Those themes haven’t exactly been revisited by Tarantino in his other movies, and probably for good reason; he gets his point across well enough in this movie.

Pulp Fiction is not a movie that I would personally count among my very favorites, but it is one of the movies I respect the most. It is the definitive Quentin Tarantino film and one that deserves the legacy that it has. It isn’t perfect, but no movie is. In fact, I would argue that its the movies that overcome flaws that stand out most; it is more important to strike and emotional chord and challenge the audience’s perception of how movies can be made than to be a flawless, potentially lifeless film. And Pulp Fiction is anything but lifeless.

Always On My Shelf – Toy Story

Toy Story is a 1995 CGI-animated buddy-comedy about living toys and is one of the most important innovations in movie making in the last twenty years. This was the first feature length film done entirely with CGI, which is a massive accomplishment in and of itself; this opened the door for a new style of animation that has become the industry standard. But the reason Toy Story has endured as a classic is not because of its innovative technology; it is because it was a highly original idea with rich, fully fleshed out characters, a compelling plot, and themes that resonated with adults even as the movie entertained their children.

Woody and Buzz

The film was directed by John Lasseter, who wrote the film along with Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, and Joss Whedon. In the world of Toy Story, toys are living, sentient beings but most are aware that their purpose is to be played with by children. While one might think this would be a cause for distress, most of the characters we see in this movie are rather content; their owner Andy is still at age where he plays with all of them and tells epic stories with them. However, they do fear being replaced by newer and cooler toys. Woody, a pull-string cowboy doll, is Andy’s favorite toy and does not face this fear, but soon finds himself replaced when Andy gets a Buzz Lightyear action figure for his birthday.

Buzz is basically the coolest thing on the planet, a space ranger with a ton of buttons, bells and whistles; he’s also completely ignorant of the fact that he is a toy and believes that he actually is “Buzz Lightyer, Space Ranger”. The film, at its core, is about the existential crises of Woody and Buzz; Woody has to come to terms with the fact that his position as Andy’s favorite toy may not be a permanent one, and Buzz eventually has to realize that he is a toy, and figure out how he’s going to handle this. While the film is bright and colorful and funny, there is also a lot going on that adults can read into. It’s those layers that keep people from my generation coming back to this movie twenty years after its release.

Toy Story

Toy Story is rightfully a classic by almost everyone, and is one of those rare movies that manages to transcend cinema and become part of pop culture. The characters resonated deeply with viewers, especially my generation who felt like we grew up with them; not just in this film, but in the two quality sequels. Toy Story 2 is one of the most intelligent sequels ever made and I couldn’t even appreciate how good it was at the time because my brain hadn’t quite realized how human these characters were. Toy Story 3 may actually be a stronger movie than the original and made many people cry. That’s something special and very difficult to replicate in the movie industry. The fact that this cartoon movie was able to make toys feel like real living people, develop and grow the characters, and give them a satisfying ending is beautiful.

It’s kind of hard to imagine that someone may not have seen Toy Story, so let me recommend this in a different way. Buy this movie and preserve it for your children. Good movies come out every year, but there are very few that will affect your children in a more positive way than this classic film. It will inspire their imaginations, encourage them to make friends with those they have differences with, to examine themselves as human beings, and to remember that it is okay to grow up and yet remain a child at heart.

Always On My Shelf – Casino Royale

I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road a second time earlier today and I feel confident in saying that it’s the best action movie to come out in years. Pure action films have rarely ever been among my favorites; I’m more of a character guy and sometimes that isn’t given proper focus in action films, so I find myself not caring about the action involved. However, I have gradually started to develop an appreciation for the artistry behind a good action film; how they are shot, how the stories are told, how characters are developed without sacrificing the action, etc. The first time I sat down with an action film to truly study this was in the 2006 James Bond movie Casino Royale.

Casino Royale

Casino Royale is directed by Martin Campbell and stars Daniel Craig as James Bond, his debut playing the character. I didn’t play a lot of attention when this movie came out in theaters because I just didn’t have a lot of interest at the time, but it has since become one of my favorite “popcorn flicks”; a movie to throw on when I just want to relax and have a good time without having my intelligence insulted. The film has some spectacular action scenes; the parkour chase and the airport scene are the ones that always stick with me because of their energy and tension, but there are other good scenes throughout. However, Casino Royale also does well at the quieter aspects of the James Bond franchise: a cerebral villain and a love interest that actually feels fully realized.

La Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) is the primary villain and he and Bond play a lot of mental chess with each other, especially at the Texas Hold’em poker game that dominates most of the second half of this movie. Chiffre is a great character because he is feeling pressure from those behind the scenes and it is really cool to see such a desperate antagonist whose motivation is completely understandable. He looks like he never sleeps and may snap at any moment, which makes him both vulnerable and scary.

CASINO ROYALE

James Bond’s status as a sex symbol is at least as important to the appeal of his character as his job of being a super spy action star. Women have always thrown themselves at him throughout the franchise’s fifty year history, but I don’t think any of them hold a candle to Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green). Though she doesn’t appear until about a third of the way into the movie, she instantly makes an impression with her verbal jousting match against James on the plane, where they analyze each other based on first impressions. Vesper’s personality is well established and she doesn’t just fall into Bond’s lap, showing considerable reluctance to even pretend to be romantically involved with him.

Of course, as the film develops Bond ends up saving Eva on a few occasions, but it’s a scene where they have survived a near fatal run in with assassins that really sets the tone for their relationship and for this era of Bond films. As Vesper sits in the shower visibly shaken and trying to clean the blood off of her, Bond moves in to comfort her, showing a tenderness and compassion that is unusual for the character. James Bond has historically shown little regard for anyone, so to see him be kind to someone makes him more human and thus more interesting. In many ways, this movie is a deconstruction of the James Bond character, and this romance is no small part of that.

Vesper

And that brings me to what is probably this film’s greatest aspect: Daniel Craig as James Bond. I remember seeing trailers for Casino Royale and being surprised at who they had cast in the role. Bond to me was the dashing 1990’s action hero Pierce Brosnan and the suave, classically handsome Sean Connery from old Bond films that occasionally showed up on television. Craig seemed to just be a little too rugged for the role in my eyes; of course I hadn’t seen the man smile in any of the action-filled trailers and didn’t realize that he’s perfectly capable of making hearts melt. Ironically, Craig is now considered by many fans of the series to be the very best James Bond, or at least one of the best.

The reasons for this are two fold; one is the aforementioned vulnerability that he showcases. He is willing to show a more human side to the character and isn’t always calm, cool and collected. He shows that he’s capable of caring about another person, that he feels fear and can be selfless and even have his heart broken. This makes the audience connect to him a little more and we don’t just see him as some idealized symbol of masculinity. Sean Connery’s Bond was a TV character, but Craig’s Bond feels like a real person.

Shower

And on the other side of the coin, Daniel Craig is also the roughest, most realistic portrayal of James Bond to date. There’s a ferocity in his eyes during action scenes that is just endlessly more compelling that the unshakable grins of most other actors who have played the role. While Timothy Dalton showed that it was possible to do a harder, tougher Bond, Craig was able to take those aspects and amplify them while still keeping the charm and humor that have become synonymous with the character. This allows the grittier action and more serious style of Craig’s films to stand out in the franchise without feeling completely out of place.

Casino Royale is my favorite James Bond film to date because it was the one that made me finally connect with the character. While I enjoy other Bond films (Goldfinger and Skyfall being the other two standouts for me), this is the one that resonates with me most. I love Daniel Craig in the role and I hope that Spectre is far from the last time we see him play the character. For me, he is James Bond.

Bond

Always On My Shelf – Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook is a 2012 romantic comedy-drama directed by David O’Russell, based on Matthew Quick’s short novel The Silver Linings Playbook. Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, Jr., a man who has spent eight months in a mental health facility for bi-polar disorder. Pat wants to put his life back together and return to life with his ex-wife Nikki despite the fact that she cheated on him, an incident which triggered his anger to a boiling point and got him the help that he needed. While his parents (played by Robert Di Niro and Jacki Weaver) and his friends try to discourage that self-destructive path, the only person who manages to successfully distract Pat is a young woman named Tiffany Maxwell, played by Jennifer Lawrence. They bond by discussing the side effects of various medicines for their neuroses.

That sentence pretty much sums up everything I love about this movie.

Silver Linings

Tiffany is a young widow whose husband was a police officer and has her own share of mental health problems. Tiffany and Patrick have an explosive relationship due to their personalities; they are often combative but they also quickly realize that they understand each other better than most of the people around them, and develop a friendship that turns to romance. Whether they are arguing (which they do a lot), or conspiring on some grand scheme or just sharing their life stories with each other, they do so intensely. Both Lawrence and Cooper are in top form here and have tremendous chemistry; while I had enjoyed both actors in other roles this was the film where I stood up and took notice of their tremendous talent.

Silver Linings Playbook does have a plot, but it’s pretty bare bones and is honestly a bit cliche for romantic comedies. What isn’t cliche are the characters involved; both Tiffany and Pat are damaged emotionally and psychologically. And while they aren’t bad people, they aren’t nice people either; they can both be loud and neurotic and temperamental and just downright vicious to each other and everyone around them. But they are also quick to apologize and to forgive; they feel like real people.

Cooper and Lawrence

The film does right by people who struggle with mental disorders. David O’Russell was heavily motivated to make the film because of his own son’s battle with bi-polar and OCD, and the fact that this movie isn’t afraid to show how harmful these can be to people. What I truly appreciate is that the film never treats Tiffany and Pat as “special” or try to whitewash their problems; having mental disorders is a hindrance, but in most cases people can still learn to live with them. Pat and Tiffany are difficult to deal with, but they are also characters you are glad to have known by the time the movie ends.

I also appreciate that they aren’t the only people in the movie that are shown to be having trouble keeping their lives together. Patrick’s father is unemployed and makes most of his income by making illegal bets on NFL games, particularly supporting the Philadelphia Eagles. Patrick’s best friend Ronnie (John Ortiz) is struggling with his marriage to an overbearing wife. It’s not a pretty picture but it feels authentic; the movie’s world is messy and chaotic but completely sincere. And that allows it to get away with many of its more sentimental and contrived moments.

Dance

I often find romantic comedies to be a bit of a chore to sit through, but this is a case where strong character work and genuinely funny comedy mix with real emotion. The film goes to some very dark places, characters constantly feel like they are walking on a wire and could fall off at any time, and yet somehow they manage to keep each other standing. Strong acting, a great script and extremely memorable characters make this one of my favorite movies of all time.

Always On My Shelf – Spirited Away

As a child who grew up in the heyday of the “Disney Renaissance”, I developed a great love for epic movies with hand-drawn animation. I loved such films as The Lion KingAladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and as I got a little older I remember enjoying other movies like The Prince of Egypt and The Iron Giant. But I do remember that the early 2000s were a time where I started to lose interest; films like Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove were okay, but I was pulled into the new world of digital animation. And with movies like ShrekFinding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. aroud that were just objectively better, I remember feeling that hand-drawn animation had kind of had its day.

But then my mother brought home a film by Hayao Miyazaki that had won “Best Animated Picture” at the Oscars despite almost nobody knowing about. This movie not only restored my love for hand-drawn animation, but was one of the best movies that I had ever seen and has consistently been one of my favorites ever since. That film is Spirited Away.

Poster

If you are one of the unlucky souls who has yet to see this masterpiece, I implore you to seek it out because it is a film that is best experienced without any information before hand. If you want a generic description that doesn’t outright spoil anything, the film is basically a more serious Alice in Wonderland that actually has a point to it. But even that feels like an inadequate description of Chihiro’s journey into the Spirit World and the growth she experiences as a person.

I think what first captured my imagination first when watching this movie was not only the visual style of the movie, but the excellent musical score by Joe Hisaishi. It is just serene and feels like the music of everyday life, but then shifts in tone to this aggressive and scary style that perfectly meshes with Miyazaki’s story. That story is about Chihiro’s family moving to a new city but taking a detour and finding a restaurant store, where they greedily devour the food that isn’t meant for them. It is here where the movie becomes supernatural as the Spirit World comes to life, and the moment when Chihiro realizes that her parents have transformed into pigs remains one of the most unsettling moments I can recall in film.

Spirits

Chihiro panics looking both to escape and to get help; while she can’t find the former, the latter arrives in the form of Haku, a boy who guides her to his master Yubaba’s bathhouse. Telling her that she must get the old witch to give her a job if she is to be safe in this world, he helps her for a while before she is again left alone. And this is where I must mention one of the movie’s greatest strengths; you feel every bit of this movie when you are watching it. The panic, the sense of being lost, the desperation to be safe; Chihiro is feeling this, but the viewer is feeling it too. The movie completely sucks you into its world and makes you connect with the character.

When Chihiro is granted a job at the price of her name, she begins working at the Bathhouse as Sen. She is over the initial panic but now has to deal with this crazy world around her. This was one of the things that grabbed me here; there is so much creativity on display, so many unique character designs that I can’t compare to anything else except for some of Miyazaki’s other films. This is when I started to regain an appreciation for the art of hand-drawn animation and how it could bring amazing things to life in a way that even digital animation can struggle to do at times.

Haku

I will not explain any more of the plot here in case you are a reader who hasn’t seen the film and is still reading this article instead of heading to a local movie store and buying it. Instead, I wish to simply say that the movie is an interesting one that is steeped in Japanese mythology and almost seems like it should be more familiar to it is. It is almost a fairy tale, but isn’t quite there. It is almost a coming of age story, but not quite. Chihiro doesn’t so much “grow up” as she just well… grows. She becomes smarter and braver and more capable. When we are introduced to her she seems selfish and unwilling to experience anything new, but by the end of the film she has organically made friends and seems to appreciate everyone around her. She suffers but triumphs, and she never once feels too old for her age. She feels exactly like a ten year girl put in these incredible circumstances should feel. One of Miyazaki’s many gifts is his understanding of children and that is on full display in this movie.

Yet as much as I love this film, I have to admit that it stirs up another emotion in me every time I see it; jealously. I watch this and I wish I could be this original and this imaginative and just this brilliant. Spirited Away still feels fresh and still inspires me to be a better writer and to expand my imagination, and very few films, even my favorites, can do that the way this movie does. Which just makes me love it even more. In my book, it is the best animated movie ever made, and one of the greatest films ever.

No Face

Always On My Shelf – Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity is a 1944 film noir directed by Barry Wilder and starring Fred McMurray, Barbara Stanwick, and Edward G. Robinson. While probably not a movie that most people of my generation have sat down to watch, it is one of the most important films of all time and a personal favorite of mine for many reasons. I was introduced to the movie in my “Intro to Film” class in college and I credit this movie for sparking my interest in older films that I would have largely ignored. This is an interest that has allowed me to bond with people of entirely different generations through our mutual love of cinema. My DVD copy of this movie was actually a gift to me from an elderly gentleman who I met at my work, and is something I will always cherish.

Neff

Outside of my own sentimental value towards the film, Double Indemnity is one of the first and perhaps the most defining film noirs ever created. Many tropes of the genre are on full display here; the black and white is obvious, but the use of shadows and lighting to set the mood and convey the feelings of the characters are also key. A common lighting effect throughout the film is the use of Venetian blinds to create the effect seen above, reminiscent of prison bars.

The film’s story has a similarly dark tone; the most simplistic way to explain the plot is that two adulterers commit a murder and plan to make a lot of money doing it. Walter Neff (McMurray) is an insurance salesman who falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwick), the wife of a wealthy but cruel man. Though he is initially put off by her requests about knowledge about accident insurance, believing she intends to kill her husband, his fancy turns to an obsession that sets him on the road to committing the perfect crime. They will have Mr. Dietrichson sign up for accident insurance, then Walter will murder him on a train, making it seem like an accident and cashing in on the “double indemnity”, getting the woman of his dreams and a cozy $10 million.

Phyllis

This plot showcases two common themes of film noir. First is that the protagonist is a criminal who manages to earn our sympathy, and the audience almost finds itself rooting for Walter Neff to literally get away with murder. Phyllis is the “femme fatale”, a woman with evil intentions who tempts Neff’s darker emotions and leads him on a path of destruction. And make no mistake; this film does not have a happy ending for the two criminals. Another signature of film noir is that bad decisions have consequences. In this case, a web of lies and uncertain loyalties force Walter to constantly commit more crimes to save his own skin until he is trapped and doomed. As he tells us at the beginning, he “didn’t get the money and (he) didn’t get the woman.”

While these two are the films central characters, perhaps the best performance in the movie is that of Robinson, who plays claims adjuster Barton Keyes. Keyes is a close friend of Neff’s and has an unflinching moral compass; his job is to catch people in lies to make sure they do not unjustly get paid insurance. Talk about a thankless job. Neff finds himself in a chess match with Keyes as Keyes tries to prove that the death of Mr. Dietrichson was in fact murder; Walter’s actions cost him a very close friendship. Keyes is the moral center of the film and it is because of his actions that Walter is unable to get away with his crime. Watching Robinson go on long diatribes without missing a beat is truly a joy to watch.

Keyes

Double Indemnity was a product of its time. Before World War II, Hollywood films tended to be more idealistic and censored. The plot of sex and murder would never have been approved in the decade before, but American audiences knew the world was a horrible place and were ready for films that tackled more adult films. This film was a commercial and critical success, being nominated for seven Oscars and sparking an endless parade of film noirs that were inspired or just flat out ripping off this original classic.

While it may not be as flashy as modern movies, Double Indemnity is proof of several things. Good acting is still good acting, a good script is always a good script, and good filmmaking will always be good. It is timeless and deserves just as much attention today as it did in 1944.

Always On My Shelf – Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park is a 1993 science fiction monster movie directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Michael Crichton’s book of the same name. The film stars Sam Neil, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough as the primary human characters, and the award winning animatronic and digitals effects team as the dinosaurs, which are the true stars of the film. And that’s not to take away from the actors and their work; Jurassic Park is a monster movie in the vein of King KongGodzilla and Steve Spielberg’s own Jaws; people are flocking to the movies to see larger than life creatures brought to the silver screen through movie magic.

For those who have not seen the film, the movie is about a theme park funded and designed by philanthropist John Hammond, whose scientists have been able to clone and genetically engineer living, breathing dinosaurs. Hammond intends to use these creatures as attractions at the theme park, but has several legal windows that he has to go through in order to get the park running. Hammond (Attenborough) asks paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Neil) and paleobotonist Dr. Ellie Sattler to the island where the park is being created to vouch for the park’s safety. Lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferraro) brings in mathematician Ian Malcolm (Goldblum) as his expert, and Hammond also invites his young grandchildren to the park in order to experience the dinosaurs first hand.

Park

As it turns out, the only person who ends up backing Hammond is “the bloodsucking lawyer” Gennaro, as everyone else argues that Hammond is dealing with forces he can’t control and the potential for a disaster is too great. Hammond insists on letting them experience the park so they know it is safe, but unfortunately things go awry in the middle of a storm. I won’t go into exact detail here for those who haven’t seen the film yet, but the ultimate consequence is that the dinosaurs get loose. This includes the very hungry carnivorous ones, such as the enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex and the smaller, smarter and arguably deadlier velociraptors.

Before I get any further, I will acknowledge that the dinosaurs depicted in Jurassic Park are not always scientifically accurate. Some are fairly accurate based on the scientific evidence that was around at the time, while others are exaggerated for the sake of the movie magic. While some will be bothered by this, I am not one of them; this is not a documentary, it is a science fiction monster movie. Six-foot long velociraptors are much more interesting and threatening than small raptors, and in the context of this movie, that’s all I really care about.

Raptors

While the overall story of Jurassic Park is interesting and offers some interesting discussion about what we can do with technology and whether we should use it to “play God” or not, I think most people will agree that the dinosaurs are the reason we came to the theater. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t actually in the bulk of the film; the anticipation is carefully built and when they show up, they are given their proper due. The first time Alan Grant (and the audience) sees a brachiosaurus is given significant time in order for us to bask in the glory of the magnificent creature, and for the idea to settle in our minds. When the raptors show up they are legitimately terrifying in a way that many slasher horror pictures wish they could replicate. And the T-Rex? Yeah, pure concentrated awesome right there. So awesome I can’t even make an intelligent comment about how great he is. That’s a great payoff.

Spielberg is one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history, and perhaps the most amazing thing is the wide range of material he has created. He has delivered well-crafted and beautifully acted dramas like Lincoln and Schindler’s List, but is also famous for his work on Jaws, Indiana Jones and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. This is clearly a man who knows how to make entertaining movies in a wide variety of genres, and has been very successful because he knows how to deliver a film that will make audiences pay to go to the theater over and over again. Jurassic Park is never going to win any awards for its acting or the screenplay, but that isn’t really the point. All Spielberg wanted to do was give us a good time at the movie theater.

T-Rex

Jurassic Park does the one thing a monster movie should do very well. Monster movies are not horror movies in the traditional sense; we do not feel fear from a T-Rex the way we feel fear of a serial killer or a ghost. The terror that these enormous monsters like King Kong, Godzilla and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park is more akin to awe than fear; a healthy respect for the size and power for the creature and its potential to kill us. We are scared of the T-Rex for sure, but we still kind of want to sit down and watch it move because its beautiful. This is a tribute both to the effects team (who used a mixture of animatronic dinosaurs and digital effects that still hold up well today) and to Spielberg’s directing.

Spielberg is sort of like a Walt Disney for adults, and that isn’t a backhanded compliment. Both directors want to create a sense of wonder and “magic” in their audience than they can’t experience in the regular world. While Disney’s audience is primarily children who are receptive to the idea of fantasy, Spielberg’s audience is older and a bit more cynical. The fact that films like Jurassic Park are able to leave us in wonder is perhaps Spielberg’s greatest accomplishment; it truly is movie magic.

Always On My Shelf – The Shawshank Redemption

It is somewhat difficult to imagine a world in which The Shawshank Redemption isn’t one of the most universally celebrated movies of all time. The 1994 Frank Darabont drama film about an innocent man’s imprisonment and eventual escape is generally regarded as having one of the best screenplays ever, and has characters that have become iconic and defining roles for the actors. Andy Dufresne is easily the definitive role of leading man Tim Robbins and has come to be a symbol of perseverance, making the best out of terrible situations, and ultimately refusing to led the evils of the world tear you down. And while the distinguished Morgan Freeman has had many iconic roles in his career, Ellis Boyd Redding (better known to us as “Red”) is certainly one of the roles that helped define him as the master of charismatic, wise mentor figures.

Andy and Red

Similarly, Bob Gunton and Clancy Brown play two extremely memorable antagonists in Warden Samuel Norton and Captain Byron Hadley respectively. They have absolute power in their little section of the world and it has corrupted them; Hadley is a vicious bully to the inmates and Hadley uses Andy’s skills as a lawyer to carefully build an illegal fortune. These roles have definitely stuck with me; Brown has done a lot of voice work for animated projects and I still hear Hadley, and when Bob Gunton showed up as Leland Owlsley in Marvel’s Daredevil I immediately got an itch to watch this classic again.

So it is kind of weird to know that this film was not a box office success; poor promotion and a title that isn’t exactly clear hurt the film’s initial financial success. Critics loved it however, and those who did see it went out of their way to spread the word about the film’s quality. Perhaps the most important was Ted Turner, who loved the film and constantly had it played on his various television channels; this led to many people seeing it and wondering how such a great film sneaked under the radar. The film is now so popular and so respected that many have called it a great injustice that it did not win Best Picture at the Oscars despite stiff competition from Pulp Fiction and the eventual winner Forrest Gump.

Warden

The film enjoys such a high level of esteem that some who haven’t seen it might actually be underwhelmed from the hype. But I can’t imagine that would be a large section of people. The film has absolutely gorgeous cinematography, memorable characters and a wealth of great lines that engage the audience for its long running time. All of these elements work so well that even though I’ve seen this movie several times I still find myself becoming completely engrossed each time I watch it. And while there have been some very good prison dramas, I don’t think any has truly been able to recreate the magic of this one. Andy and Red are in Shawshank Prison for decades and we get a feeling for the passage of time.

One of the film’s brightest spots is a look at Brooks, an old jailbird who has been at Shawshank for fifty years when he is granted parole. Brooks has become institutionalized and finds himself unable to adapt to life outside of prison. He mentions that he saw an automobile once as a child but now they are all over the place. The world has passed him by and he has no place in it. This is a haunting idea that makes us even more sympathetic towards Andy when we find out he is truly innocent.

Brooks

But I think what ultimately is most memorable about this scene is the escape sequence. The movie is harsh and cold and sucks the viewer in to such a degree that one almost feels like they are in prison with these characters. So when Andy is finally able to escape and steps out into the rain a free man, it resonates with us deeply. It’s a powerful tribute to the human spirit and one of the greatest moments in film history. At least in this reviewer’s opinion.

There really isn’t much else to say. The Shawshank Redemption has a reputation and a legacy for a good reason; it is one of the very best movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it before, you owe it to yourself to see it before you die. And if you have seen it, I’m willing to bet that just reading about it has made you want to see it again. It’s one of those rare movies that I can watch over and over again and never be bored with.

Redemption

Always On My Shelf – The Lion King

“Always On My Shelf” was originally a tagline that I came up with for my review of The Princess Bride as a way to express my love for that movie and explain that I’ve watched it throughout my entire life and have never been bored with it. However, I feel the phrase nicely sums up my feelings on classic movies that have been in my possession pretty much all of my life. So I will be using it as a catch-all term for older movies while using “New On My Shelf” for more current releases.

While I will eventually be reviewing movies that are directed more at an adult crowd, I thought it would be fitting for my second review with this tagline to be another film that was a childhood favorite. This particular movie was requested by my childhood self so often that I am sure my poor mother could recite the entire script from memory. And if you’re somebody like me who grew up in the 1990’s, you’ve probably had a similar experience as this was the most commercially successful animated movie of all time when it was released in theaters in 1994.

Lion King

The Lion King is an epic Shakespearan adventure and political drama that is simplified in terms that children can understand. If that analysis seems far-fetched or pretentious than I suggest reading a plot synopsis of Hamlet. Or actually viewing the play. Regardless, The Lion King uses talking lions and other animals to play Shakespearean tropes and it does so very successful. The main character is a young lion prince named Simba who is eagerly dreaming of the day when he will become King of the Pridelands (Africa). His father King Mufasa, voiced by James Earl Jones, tries to teach him how to be a responsible king with mixed results.

This review is about to become very spoiler heavy, but honestly this film has existed for over two decades at this point and if you haven’t seen it then you really have nobody to blame but yourself. This isn’t some obscure cult hit like The Princess Bride, this is the Frozen of its time, a massive blockbuster feature that is considered to be a staple of childhood entertainment. So spoilers are just going to happen.

The villain of the movie is Mufasa’s jealous and conniving brother Scar, voiced by Jeremy Irons. Scar is one of the first bad guys that I remember having a lot of affection for because he was just so entertaining that I enjoyed having him on screen. He’s got a dry and sharp wit that is often self-depreciating and serves as a way to distract from what an intelligent schemer he is. He murders Mufasa in a scene that traumatized a generation of children and somehow convinces a heartbroken Simba that it is his fault and not Scar’s. Simba runs away from the Pridelands in a self-imposed banishment, surviving his treacherous uncle’s attempts to have him murdered by hyenas.

Still Sad

You know, I almost feel bad for including that picture. Isn’t it just soul crushing? How did I ever survive something like this?

Okay, so the young Simba runs away across a desert and nearly dies and then is rescued by a warthog named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and a meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane). This duo serves as both comic relief and life guidance for Simba, who grows up (changing voice actors from Jonathan Taylor Thomas to Mathew Broderick) embracing their motto of “Hakuna Matata”. It means “No worries”. For the rest of your days.

I know you have that stuck in your head now. You’re welcome.

Anyway the rest of the movie is fairly predictable as Simba eventually gets convinced to return to the Pridelands and oust Scar as dictator. Not that this is easy mind you. It takes his childhood friend and romantic interest Nala (Moira Kelly), a baboon that fills the “wise old sage” trope named Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) and a visit from the lion afterlife by Mufasa to get him going. But he eventually goes back and embraces his destiny as the one true king and there’s this big fight and Scar gets eaten by hyenas and everyone else is happy.

Hakuna Matata

The Lion King is honestly a difficult movie for me to review because it’s so tied into my childhood and I love every second of it like it is part of my family. I’m older now and I look at Simba and know he’s kind of a bland character that really needs to be kicked in the butt a bit too much to be a hero. That’s a problem. If I’m super honest, I have to admit that Elton John’s songs just don’t hold up to the work that Alan Menken and Howard Mashman did on earlier Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. I also know that Beauty and the Beast is a far superior film all around. That’s the best Disney animated classic of all time.

But this movie is probably one I will always love and the one that will always be my sentimental favorite. I can’t help it. It was just so epic and fresh and honestly, there’s still no other animated film quite like it. I can’t think of a movie that feels quite the same way. It’s unique and I think that’s why it holds up. And while the protagonist is a bit on the bland side, the supporting cast is a huge ensemble of memorable, funny and lovable characters. Or characters you love to hate in the case of Scar.

The Lion King is a flawed classic. That’s about as objective as I’m going to get. But it is definitely a classic and if you haven’t seen it in a long time, I really encourage you to watch it again. It’s a film that deserves to be experienced again and again.

And if Disney ever releases this from their vault again you can be sure I’m never letting anybody else steal it. It’s staying on my shelf for good this time.

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