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Friday, February 20, 2015

THE FRANK DARABONT COLLECTION -- Blu-ray review by Porfle (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION/ THE MAJESTIC/ THE GREEN MILE)



Checking his IMDb credits, I was shocked to find that, while a prolific producer and writer, Frank Darabont had only helmed a total of four features. In fact, if you added 2007's THE MIST and his 1983 Stephen King short story adaptation "The Woman in the Room", then Warner Brothers' new 4-disc Blu-ray set THE FRANK DARABONT COLLECTION would serve as a complete overview of his career as a big-screen director.

As it is, though, we get three of his most important films--THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE MAJESTIC, and THE GREEN MILE--in all their Blu-ray splendor, attractively packaged (in a rigid page-turner slip case adorned with photos from the films) and loaded with extras.


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THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)

For his debut feature film, Frank Darabont burst out of the starting gate with a vengeance by directing one of the most beloved American classics of modern film as well as writing the screenplay.

When I first heard that a movie was being made from Stephen King's novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" I figured that the short, somewhat sketchy story would have to be heavily padded out to make an entire feature. Darabont proved otherwise by augmenting King's prison yarn in ways that were a deeply satisfying enhancement to the original material, and then turning THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) into an engrossing, visually and emotionally rich cinematic experience that few who have seen it will ever forget.

The story involves a brilliant young banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) unjustly convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of his wife and her lover. Aging lifer Red (Morgan Freeman) gradually forms a grudging respect for Andy due to his quiet perserverance and refusal to be cowed or dehumanized by the prison system, which is embodied by a hypocritical warden (Bob Gunton as Warden Norton) and the brutally sadistic guard Capt. Hadley (Clancy Brown).


Andy becomes an invaluable resource to his jailers when he starts doing their tax returns for them and helping the warden launder all the money he's skimming from various illegal endeavors. But whenever he steps out of line by asserting his basic humanity, he's slapped down hard. This comes to a head when a new inmate (Gil Bellows) who may have information about the true killer of Andy's wife is murdered by the warden and Hadley.

After this, it appears as though Andy, who has become something of a heroic inspiration to his fellow convicts, has finally been beaten down and demoralized. There even comes a point in which they and we fear he's on the verge of suicide.

But the beleagered and embittered Andy Dufresne has a trump card up his sleeve, one which he's been holding for several years until just the right time to play it. And when he does, it leads to one of cinema's most dazzling and satisfying examples of comeuppance and righteous revenge, not to mention the exhilarating redemption promised by the title.


Proving himself a consummate screen artist, Darabont presents this story with the richest period production design and cinematography that the viewer could wish for and populating it with a cast filled with great A-list and character actors, each of whom seems inspired by his role.

Robbins is keenly attuned to what makes Andy Dufresne tick, letting us see both the sharply-perceptive intellect and deep emotions beneath the character's sometimes aloof manner. As Red, Freeman (whose character provides the film's soulful narration) expresses wisdom, melancholy, and an aching remorse for the crime he committed as a youth, and we're glad when Andy is able to instill in him--as well as the other prisoners--a feeling of hope after years of despair.

Darabont contrasts this with the frequent brutality of prison life, including Andy being beaten and raped by the monstrous Bogs (Mark Rolston of ALIENS and ERASER) and "The Sisters" while being subjected to lengthy stays in solitary confinement whenever he courts the warden's displeasure. A particularly sad interlude occurs when an old, institutionalized con named Brooks (played by the great James Whitmore) is released against his wishes and finds himself half a century behind the times in a world that's completely alien to him.


Yet even at its darkest THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION doesn't revel in graphic violence or ugliness for its own sake. Darabont displays admirable taste and restraint, relying on his rock-solid screenplay to convey what is needed while filming it in a beautifully classical, deliberate style that takes its time and eschews such things as shaky-cam and attention-deficit editing.

The actual prison location is remarkable. The abandoned complex, filmed shortly before a date with the wrecking ball, looks almost like a medieval castle, while Darabont's team has worked their movie magic with the interiors. The vast, specially-built cell block that houses our main characters is worthy of a Ken Adam 007 set.

Among those familiar faces adding their acting talents to the project are William Sadler (the main bad guy from DIE HARD 2, later to appear in Darabont's THE GREEN MILE), Jeffrey DeMunn (THE GREEN MILE, THE MAJESTIC), Larry Brandenburg (FARGO's Stan Grossman), Neil Guintoli (MEMPHIS BELLE), David Proval ("The Sopranos"), Jude Ciccolella (SIN CITY), and Paul McCrane (ROBOCOP, THE BLOB, "ER").

While stuck with a title that didn't exactly draw people into theaters or encourage positive word-of-mouth (nobody could remember it), THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION overcame initial bad box office and a seven-nomination strikeout at the Oscars to become one of the most popular home video and cable-TV favorites of all time. (As of this writing, it's voted #1 by members of the Internet Movie Database.) Redemption indeed, both in the film's heartrendingly upbeat ending and in real life as well.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

Commentary by Writer/Director Frank Darabont
2 Documentaries: 
Hope Springs Eternal: A look Back at The Shawshank Redemption
Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature
The Charlie Rose Show Segment Featuring Darabont, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman
Comic Spoof The Sharktank Redemption
Stills and Collectibles Galleries
Theatrical Trailer

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THE MAJESTIC (2001)

With THE MAJESTIC (2001), Frank Darabont dives all the way into the deep end of the nostalgia pool and wallows in cloying sentiment to the point of going under.

Throwing subtlety to the wind, the formerly restrained director indulges an apparent penchant for smarm while his first non-Stephen King effort ultimately morphs from a would-be tearjerker into a heavy-handed message film--a fantasy Hollywood wish-fulfillment tale in which our main character, emitting gleaming waves of Capra-esque integrity while wielding the Constitution like Captain America's shield, bucks the nasty government bad guys to a standing ovation during a HUAC hearing.

Jim Carrey divests himself of his usual mega-farcical persona and goes serious as ambitious hack screenwriter Peter Applegate, who gets accused of being a communist during the red-scare witch hunts of the 50s. When the drunk and depressed Peter accidentally drives off a bridge and is washed up onto a secluded California beach with no memory of his former life, he makes his way to a small town where he's mistaken for a missing WWII soldier named Luke who's been declared dead after several years.


Martin Landau (ED WOOD, X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE) plays Luke's father Harry Trimble, ecstatic over his son's apparent return and suddenly eager to reopen his derelict movie theater, the Majestic, with Luke's help. Meanwhile, Peter/Luke becomes a hero and inspiration to the entire town, not to mention Luke's former girlfriend, the lovely Adele (Laurie Holden of Darabont's hit TV series "The Walking Dead" ). 

After suffering many losses during the war, the embittered town's dormant heart is reawakened (symbolized by the Majestic's gala, blazing-neon resurrection) by the presence of their beloved prodigal son. Peter, on the other hand, feels unworthy of such admiration, knowing somehow that he hasn't earned it. Still, he does his best to live up to everyone's image of him--especially since the love between him and Adele has been rekindled--and finds himself settling into his new life as a truly changed man.


Almost as in a Ray Bradbury short story or an episode of "The Twilight Zone", the town seems to represent Peter's idea of Heaven after his symbolicdeath, and for awhile, we almost expect something supernatural to happen. Unfortunately, what does eventually transpire--Peter's discovery, arrest, and eventual grilling before a hostile Congressional committee--is disappointingly mundane and contrived in comparison.

To his credit, Carrey is pretty good in this serious role but unfortunately just carries too much baggage to make us forget him as Ace Ventura, Fire Marshall Bill, the Mask, etc. The film's standout is, unsurprisingly, Martin Landau as Harry, while a radiant Laurie Holden proves to be as much at home on the big screen as she was in "The Walking Dead."

The rest of the film's rather impressive cast includes James Whitmore (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION), David Ogden Stiers, Gerry Black (RE-ANIMATOR, NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION), Bob Balaban, Ron Rifkin, Allen Garfield, Chelcie Ross (THE LAST BOY SCOUT), Jeffrey DeMunn (SHAWSHANK, THE GREEN MILE), Hal Holbrook, and, in the "movie within a movie" scenes, Cliff Curtis (COLLATERAL DAMAGE, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD) and cult icon Bruce Campbell. Darabont also snagged some big name actors and directors to do offscreen voice work.


The Blu-ray disc is a bit skimpier on the extras this time around. In addition to a sequence (approx. 5 minutes) from the fictitious 50s adventure yarn "Sand Pirates of the Sahara" with Campbell and Curtis, there are some deleted scenes and a trailer.

It wouldn't be so bad if Darabont weren't trying so hard to channel Frank Capra and mold Carrey into Jimmy Stewart for the film's paint-by-numbers resolution, which ultimately attempts to recreate the tearfully joyous finale of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Like its honey-glazed period atmosphere, THE MAJESTIC's sentiment comes off as too sickly-sweet and unreal to be nearly as truly effective as either Capra's films or Darabont's own earlier triumph.

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THE GREEN MILE (1999)

Four years after 1994's THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Frank Darabont once again tapped master storyteller Stephen King (in addition to his own screenwriting talents) for another prison tale, THE GREEN MILE.

I recall the novelty of reading King's tale when first published not as a lengthy single volume but as a series of small paperbacks released in serial form a la Charles Dickens. I was skeptical when I heard that this riveting but highly unusual tale would be turned into a movie, a skepticism that Darabont proceeded to dash into smithereens by creating what I consider to be his finest and most thoroughly accomplished work to date.

The story takes place on Death Row in a Southern prison circa 1935, where head guard Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) strives to treat the condemned men with a fair amount of dignity and compassion until their date with "Old Sparky." Brawny, reliable Brutus "Brutal" Howell (David Morse) is his right hand man, aided also by the other guards Harry Terwilliger (Darabont regular Jeffrey DeMunn) and young Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN).


Paul's biggest headache, besides the occasional psycho prisoner such as fiend killer "Wild Bill" Wharton (Sam Rockwell, GALAXY QUEST, GENTLEMEN BRONCOS), is a cruel, cowardly weasel of a guard named Percy Wetmore, brilliantly played by one of my favorite actors, Doug Hutchison (MOOLA). As the spoiled nephew of the governor's wife, Percy threatens to tattle on Paul whenever he doesn't get his way or is caught abusing the prisoners. It's Hutchison's best role since that of inhuman super-creep Eugene Tooms on "The X-Files."

While his connections could secure any job he wishes, Percy remains on Death Row because he aspires to be lead guard during an execution. Anxious to be rid of him, Paul grants him this opportunity. But it turns disastrous when Percy deliberately botches the electrocution of a hated inmate, turning it into a horrifying, agonizing ordeal (which Darabont stages with exquisite aplomb) both for him and the mortified onlookers in the film's most grueling, deliciously Grand Guignol sequence. (The SPFX as the ill-fated inmate's smoking body jerks, spasms, bursts into flames, and finally roasts alive are gruesomely convincing.)

While all this horror is going on, the Green Mile--named for its faded green linoleum--receives its strangest guest yet, a monstrously huge but mild-mannered black man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), convicted of murdering two little girls but seemingly unable to hurt a fly. Duncan, whose only previous film credit was in ARMAGEDDON, sought the services of an acting coach for the role and this paid off handsomely when he delivered a bravura performance as the doomed behemoth with the mind and heart of a child.


The film plunges full-bore into the supernatural when it's discovered that Coffey has miraculous healing powers which he uses to bring life back to the pet mouse of fellow condemned man "Del" Delacroix, an eccentric Cajun (Michael Jeter), after Percy cruelly stomps on it. (The mouse, "Mr. Jingles", will be a crucial element of the story in unexpected ways.)

After Coffey heals his painful bladder infection as well, Paul suddenly gets a wild, farfetched idea upon which he's willing to stake not just his job but his very freedom--that perhaps, somehow, John Coffey might be able to heal the dying wife of his boss and friend, Warden Hal Moores (James Cromwell). But if Coffey is capable of doing this, how in the world can Paul preside over the man's execution? Especially now that he's convinced Coffey is actually innocent?

It's a dilemma to haunt the viewer for some time to come, as impeccably rendered by Darabont with the skills of a master screen craftsman. Here again he tells the story unhurriedly and in a formal, old-school fashion that evokes the satisfaction one feels delving into a fine novel. Beautifully designed sets and another ideal prison location, this one with a distinct Gothic atmosphere, combine with gorgeous cinematography to create a film whose period ambience is intoxicatingly effective.


Hanks is at his best here, as is Morse, both portraying the kind of good and stalwart men you'd want in such positions. (Ditto for actors DeMunn and Pepper as their fellow guards.) Duncan gives the performance of his career and earned the Oscar nomination he received for it. James Cromwell and Patricia Clarkson, as Warden and Mrs. Moores, help make their strange encounter with John Coffey unforgettable, while always likeable Bonnie Hunt provides endearing moral support and domestic romantic interest as Paul's wife, Jan.

Gary Sinise (FORREST GUMP), Eve Brent, and SHAWSHANK alum William Sadler appear briefly as well, and in the film's wraparound segments, an older Paul Edgecomb is portrayed by none other than the great character actor Dabbs Greer in one of his juiciest and most high-profile roles ever.

As in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Darabont and King present prison inmates who are more like members of a social club than hardened criminals in order for us to more easily accept and identify with them. The first one to walk the Green Mile is Graham Greene's Arlen Bitterbuck, who gets one wonderfully poignant scene in which he wistfully recounts his happiest moment in life to Paul. Michael Jeter is profoundly effective as Del in his scenes with Mr. Jingles the mouse, which never fail to have me blubbering like a baby even more than the film's powerful finale. As Wild Bill, Sam Rockwell is both repellent and perversely hilarious. Harry Dean Stanton is also funny in a smaller role as a prison trustee.


THE GREEN MILE ultimately becomes not only a highly absorbing tale of life on Death Row from both sides of the bars, but also a fascinating and moving morality tale that mines some of our deepest and most profound emotions. Darabont achieves a perfect balance here between the story's darker, uglier aspects, which manage to hold us in morbid fascination even at their most repellent, and the joyously uplifting passages that radiate with the compassion, empathy, and love which human beings sometimes display in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

Walking the Mile (Extended Version) NEW! High-def documentary feature starring Tom Hanks, Frank Darabont, Stephen King, and Mr. Jingles, the mouse
Commentary by Frank Darabont
The Teaser Trailer: A Case Study
Walking the Mile: The Making of The Green Mile
Miracles and Mystery: Creating the Green Mile- Stephen King: Storyteller
Miracles and Mystery: Creating the Green Mile- The Art of Adaptation
Miracles and Mystery: Creating the Green Mile- Acting on the Mile
Miracles and Mystery: Creating the Green Mile- Designing the Mile
Miracles and Mystery: Creating the Green Mile- The Magic of the Mile
Miracles and Mystery: Creating the Green Mile- The Tail of Mr. Jingles
Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Frank Darabont
Michael Clarke Duncan's Screen Test
Tom Hank's Old-Age Makeup Tests
Rare Unused Teaser
Trailer

 

Buy it at the WBShop.com

Own "The FRANK DARABONT Blu-ray Collection" on February 24th. The collection includes 15th Anniversary Edition The Green Mile, Blu-ray Debut of The Majestic and The Shawshank Redemption.

(Images used in review are not taken from the Blu-ray discs)

 

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