The Shelf Is Half Full

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

Archive for the category “Movies”

New On The Shelf – Selma

Selma is a 2014 historical drama film documenting the protest marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other prominent civil rights leaders of the times. Directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., the film has received critical praise both for the entire film and for the performance of its leading star, with many award nominations thrown its way. Since this is a blog that tends to focus on things that I like, you can probably guess that my opinion doesn’t differ too far away from that.


Protest March

I believe the single strongest creative choice for this film was to not back it an autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Biopics that try to capture the entire life of a person can sometimes fall short, exchanging depth for breadth. Selma focuses on a single important event in the life of its main character and allows us to look into what is going on in Martin’s head at the time. While events like the CIA’s investigation into Martin’s life and the effects his life has on his family, all of the focus is on the protest marches. I really like this because I think MLK, Jr. would rather be remembered more for what his work helped to accomplish than for his winning personality.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t have one. David Oyelowo’s performance as the civil rights leader is easily the best thing about this movie. Oyelowo has said in interviews that he felt like God was pushing him to play the role, and that conviction is largely what sticks out about his performance. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most gifted public speakers of the last century and having bits of his speeches to use in the script certainly helps, but if Oyelowo’s delivery wasn’t spot on it would have been hokey and a detriment to the film. When he is preaching it feels like preaching should feel; it is easy to believe what he is saying and to be moved by it. Oyelowo also does very well with some of the quieter scenes and says a lot with only his facial expressions. The fact that his performance was not recognized by the Academy Awards this season still baffles me.


Not all of the cast is able to hold up to David Oyelowo’s standard of excellence though. Actually, that’s a little too kind; most of the other actors are just there. Most are fine and functional, but when David isn’t on screen the film does seem to falter quite a bit. The only other performances I can distinctly recall are Tim Roth and Tom Wilkenson. Tim Roth is a treasure in my opinion, an actor who always elevates whatever he is in. Portraying a racist like George Wallace is not an easy role for anyone and I always have respect for people who are willing to sink their teeth into a role like that knowing that it could hurt their reputation to some viewers. I unfortunately remember Tom WIlkenson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson for negative reasons. Wilkenson is a fine actor and has had several roles that I have enjoyed, but this isn’t one of them.

While most characters other than Martin Luther King, Jr. are more functional than genuinely interesting, the film does succeed on other levels. It manages to avoid the traps that some of these types of films by not portraying its main character like a complete saint or trying to get too inspirational. It just feels raw and real and that’s infinitely more powerful than forced sentiment. One of the biggest reasons this mood is achieved is the score by Jason Moran, which allows the truly horrific moments in this film to resonate without distracting from the emotion of what is going on. On the other end of the music spectrum is “Glory”, a song by Common and John Legend that plays at the end credits which is absolutely spectacular and deserves all of the praise it can get.


Selma is a very good film that doesn’t quite reach greatness in the traditional film making sense. But it is an extremely important film, and is surprisingly the first theatrical film with Martin Luther King, Jr. as its focus, which is really sad to me. This is a movie that I believe deserves to be watched and will probably hold up several years from now. It is definitely recommended both for being a good movie and for covering a topic that deserves more attention.


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.


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.


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.


New On The Shelf – The Babadook

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not what one would consider to be a “horror junkie”. It has been my experience that the two most difficult genres to do well are horror and comedy, and they are probably the two genres I watch least because of this. I would argue that the main reason is that it’s very difficult to find something that is universally scary or universally funny. But every once in a while, a film comes along where everyone involved knows what they are doing and are able to deliver an experience that defines the genre.

Such is the case with The Babadook, a 2014 psychological horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent. It is, without any hyperbole, the scariest movie that I have ever seen. While the camera work that goes into making the movie scary while you are watching it is nothing less than masterful, it isn’t what makes the movie stick out for me. Rather, it is the terrifying implications of the movie’s themes that made this film such a profoundly unsettling viewing experience for me.

When I finished The Babadook I was resolved that I would never watch it again because it bothered me so completely. But over the next few days the ideas, themes and visuals of the film gnawed at my mind, festering inside of me because I had to talk about what a special, unique film this was.

You really need to give this a look.


The film stars Essie Davis as grieving widow Amelia and Noah Wiseman as her troubled son Samuel. Sam has an obsession with monsters and is convinced that there is one in his room; he rarely sleeps and grows violent whenever someone suggests that the monster isn’t real. While Amelia is skeptical, her life takes a dark turn when her son asks her to read a children’s book called “Mister Babadook”. The book proves not to be remotely suitable for children, though I won’t give specifics as it is best discovered by the viewer. However, after the book is read Samuel’s problems become worse. Even after she disposes of the book, Sam starts to see the monster everywhere that he goes, making it difficult for his mother to sleep and slowly driving her mad.

Eventually Amelia goes to a doctor to get pills to make her son sleep so that she can get some peace and quiet. This seems to work at first, but things take a turn for the worse when “Mister Babadook” shows up in her living room. Unable to resist the urge to read it again, Amelia finds that new pages have been added which warn her that the more she denies the existence of The Babadook, the worse it will get. And very soon it is not Sam who is plagued by images of Mister Babadook, but Amelia.

And much like this movie did for me, The Babadook gets in Amelia’s head and festers inside and makes her into a monster that is possessed with the idea that she must kill her son. And this is where the film becomes truly terrifying.

The Babadook

The Babadook blends the line between pure horror films and traditional character dramas so seamlessly that it’s almost impossible to tell which one it is at points. Jennifer Kent clearly knows how to make a good horror film. The colors are muted in a depressing fashion and even the most mundane of objects is shot in such a way that is off-putting. Perhaps the most effective tool in Kent’s arsenal is the design of the house that this mother and son live in. It is small and dark and in serious need of repair, but also has so many doors and sharp turns that it’s impossible not to feel claustrophobic watching the movie.

Before even the most routine of scares makes its way into the narrative, the cinematography puts the viewer on edge. The fact that the boy’s constant screaming truly grates on the viewers nerves enhances this unease. We feel Amelia’s pain and almost want her to shut the boy up somehow. Once it becomes clear that is exactly where the narrative is going, it’s hard not to feel a sense of regret for wishing such a horrible thing.

And just so we are absolutely clear, the “Mister Babadook” book is something that is going to haunt my nightmares for years to come. It’s a brilliant prop and a true piece of art.

My next paragraph contains a major spoiler, so if you have not yet seen The Babadook, please stop here and find some way to watch it. The quickest way is Netflix but even the Blu-Ray copy is relatively inexpensive for a new release. Once you’ve seen it, feel free to come back and read about what this movie is actually about.

It's in a word

The Babadook is not a real monster at all. At least, not in the traditional sense. The monster in this movie is the grief and rage that Amelia has towards her son for surviving when her husband died and for being such a difficult child. Amelia wants to kill her son because he causes her so much pain that it drives her mad. This is why the film is so unsettling and sticks with the viewer; it goes to a very raw, unhappy place that very few movies are willing to go to.

It presents an idea that is more horrifying than the monster on the screen. And it does this by giving us characters we truly go to care about, putting them in a situation none of us want to be in, and ultimately, showing that love is more powerful than hate. It succeeds as a horror film without resorting to cheap jump scares, displaying gruesome deaths or even showing the monster in full.

I absolutely love and adore this film. It made me genuinely afraid, but it also made me care about its characters and gave me material that resonated and stuck with me, making me think and challenge myself to figure out what the movie was really trying to say. That’s the kind of ambition that most horror films lack and why The Babadook stands out.

Check this movie out. You probably won’t be able to get rid of it either.

Always On My Shelf – The Princess Bride

It would be almost impossible to pick one movie that is definitively my favorite. There are so many great ones that are worth talking about and new ones every year that get added to my list of favorites. But if you were to ask the question “What movie has been your favorite for most of your life?” I can pretty easily answer that.

The Princess Bride is a 1987 romantic comedy/fantasy adventure film directed by Rob Reiner, with a screenplay by William Goldman based on his 1973 novel. Although it was a box office bomb when it released in theaters, the film has achieved cult classic status and there are very few people who haven’t seen the film by this point. Most significantly for me, the movie was one of my mother’s favorites and I was introduced to the movie at a very young age. Two decades later, it’s still one of my go to movies when I just want to throw something in and know I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

Westley and Buttercup

While the bulk of the movie’s story is a love story set in medieval fantasy kingdom called Florin, the movie starts with a grandfather (played by Peter Falk) visiting his sick grandson (Fred Savage). He hopes to cheer him up by reading one of his favorite books, giving a hard sell that is one of the most crucial scenes in the movie. He talks about monsters, fencing, pirates, giants, torture, suspense… and true love. It convinces the boy to listen to his grandpa read it, and also serves to calm the nerves of men in the audience who are probably expecting a sappy, cheesy love story that will bore them to tears.

And let’s not mince words here; The Princess Bride is a sappy and cheesy love story. There’s a handsome leading man (Cary Elwes in probably his defining role) and the titular princess, named Buttercup and played by Robin Wright, is straight out of a Disney movie. Fortunately, the two characters have a lot of chemistry with each other and have a lot of odds to overcome. They are easy to invest in and root for and provide a lot of the movie’s charm. It’s a love story done right.

True Love

But The Princess Bride is also an exciting adventure with one of the best sword fights ever put on film between Westley and Inigo Montoya. There’s a wrestling match, a treacherous journey through a swamp that spits fire and inhabited by enormous killer rats, and three men storming a castle to stop ruthless villains. It’s also one of the funniest movies you will ever see, with memorable characters delivering one liners left and right. It’s this blending of genres that makes Princess Bride stand out and very few movies have been able to successfully replicate the formula that makes this such a hit with viewers over twenty-five years later.

While the love story between Westley and Buttercup is the driving force behind the film’s narrative, it isn’t the first thing that I think of when I remember this movie. It’s three secondary characters that are hired to kidnap and kill Buttercup near the start of the film: insufferable brainiac Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), soft-hearted giant Fezzik (pro wrestling legend Andre the Giant) and charismatic Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). It quickly becomes evident that Fezzik and Inigo are not bad guys, but people looking for work and Vizzini is willing to pay them. The comedic back and forth between the three establish the tone of the film very early on.

Those Three Guys

One of the things I like most about this early portion of the movie is that each of these three characters gets a spotlight scene where they go one on one with Westley, dressed in black as the Dread Pirate Roberts, as he makes an attempt to rescue Buttercup. No, I’m really not spoiling anything with that revelation, it’s pretty obvious that it’s Westley the whole time. Anyway, Westley first goes up against Inigo in a great sword fight where Inigo is established as an honorable man who is also looking for revenge on a six-fingered man who killed his father. Westley is able to best him, but refuses to kill him, knocking him out with the hilt of his sword.

After that challenge, Westley if forced to compete in a wresting match with Fezzik when it becomes clear that the giant could kill him by throwing a boulder at his head. Using his speed and a choke hold, Westley is able to knock Fezzik out. Finally, Westley goes up against Vizzini in a battle of wits. I won’t spoil how this goes down, because if you haven’t seen the movie it’s one of the best twists I’ve ever seen. But each of these scenes is allowed to go down without interruption, allowing us to gain an appreciation for who the characters are and all work to showcase how capable and charming the lead hero is.

Fortunately, it’s not the last time that we see Fezzik and Inigo as they later work together with Westley to rescue Buttercup from her unwanted fiancee Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and his accomplish Count Reuben (Christopher Guest). Once again, I don’t want to get into the details of how they get through this, but it’s a thrill ride that is worth watching.


Man that is a glorious crown isn’t it?

The Princess Bride is a movie I have watched probably a hundred times over, and I could readily recite entire conversations from it. But even without my sentimental nostalgic feelings, I would still consider this to be one of the best movies of all time. It’s family friendly, it’s short enough not to overstay it’s welcome, and the characters and quotes are strong enough to stick with the viewer years after watching it. If you have somehow avoided seeing it so far, make plans to remedy that situation. There is a reason that Princess Bride always has a place on my shelf.

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