Rabu, 16 September 2015

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino is the Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema, a pounding performer who doesn't care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking. His new movie "Pulp Fiction" is a comedy about blood, guts, violence, strange sex, drugs, fixed fights, dead body disposal, leather freaks, and a wristwatch that makes a dark journey down through the generations.

Seeing this movie last May at the Cannes Film Festival, I knew it was either one of the year's best films, or one of the worst.

Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie, but he could possibly make a bad one: Like Edward D. Wood Jr., proclaimed the Worst Director of All Time, he's in love with every shot - intoxicated with the very act of making a movie. It's that very lack of caution and introspection that makes "Pulp Fiction" crackle like an ozone generator: Here's a director who's been let loose inside the toy store, and wants to play all night.

The screenplay, by Tarantino and Roger Avary, is so well-written in a scruffy, fanzine way that you want to rub noses in it - the noses of those zombie writers who take "screenwriting" classes that teach them the formulas for "hit films." Like "Citizen Kane," "Pulp Fiction" is constructed in such a nonlinear way that you could see it a dozen times and not be able to remember what comes next. It doubles back on itself, telling several interlocking stories about characters who inhabit a world of crime and intrigue, triple-crosses and loud desperation. The title is perfect. Like those old pulp mags named "Thrilling Wonder Stories" and "Official Detective," the movie creates a world where there are no normal people and no ordinary days - where breathless prose clatters down fire escapes and leaps into the dumpster of doom.

The movie resurrects not only an aging genre but also a few careers.

John Travolta stars as Vincent Vega, a mid-level hit man who carries out assignments for a mob boss. We see him first with his partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson); they're on their way to a violent showdown with some wayward Yuppie drug dealers, and are discussing such mysteries as why in Paris they have a French word for Quarter Pounders. They're as innocent in their way as Huck and Jim, floating down the Mississippi and speculating on how foreigners can possibly understand each other.

Travolta's career is a series of assignments he can't quite handle. Not only does he kill people inadvertently ("The car hit a bump!") but he doesn't know how to clean up after himself. Good thing he knows people like Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel), who specializes in messes, and has friends like the character played by Eric Stoltz, who owns a big medical encyclopedia, and can look up emergency situations.

Travolta and Uma Thurman have a sequence that's funny and bizarre. She's the wife of the mob boss (Ving Rhames), who orders Travolta to take her out for the night. He turns up stoned, and addresses an intercom with such grave, stately courtesy Buster Keaton would have been envious. They go to Jack Rabbit Slim's, a 1950s theme restaurant where Ed Sullivan is the emcee, Buddy Holly is the waiter, and they end up in a twist contest. That's before she overdoses and Stoltz, waving a syringe filled with adrenaline, screams at Travolta, "YOU brought her here, YOU stick in the needle! When I bring an O.D. to YOUR house, I'LL stick in the needle!" Bruce Willis and Maria de Medeiros play another couple: He's a boxer named Butch Coolidge who is supposed to throw a fight, but doesn't. She's his sweet, naive girlfriend, who doesn't understand why they have to get out of town "right away." But first he needs to make a dangerous trip back to his apartment to pick up a priceless family heirloom - a wristwatch. The history of this watch is described in a flashback, as Vietnam veteran Christopher Walken tells young Butch about how the watch was purchased by his great-grandfather, "Private Doughboy Orion Coolidge," and has come down through the generations - and through a lot more than generations, for that matter. Walken's monologue builds to the movie's biggest laugh.

The method of the movie is to involve its characters in sticky situations, and then let them escape into stickier ones, which is how the boxer and the mob boss end up together as the captives of weird leather freaks in the basement of a gun shop. Or how the characters who open the movie, a couple of stick-up artists played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, get in way over their heads. Most of the action in the movie comes under the heading of crisis control.

If the situations are inventive and original, so is the dialogue. A lot of movies these days use flat, functional speech: The characters say only enough to advance the plot. But the people in "Pulp Fiction" are in love with words for their own sake. The dialogue by Tarantino and Avary is off the wall sometimes, but that's the fun. It also means that the characters don't all sound the same: Travolta is laconic, Jackson is exact, Plummer and Roth are dopey lovey-doveys, Keitel uses the shorthand of the busy professional, Thurman learned how to be a moll by studying soap operas.

It is part of the folklore that Tarantino used to work as a clerk in a video store, and the inspiration for "Pulp Fiction" is old movies, not real life. The movie is like an excursion through the lurid images that lie wound up and trapped inside all those boxes on the Blockbuster shelves. Tarantino once described the old pulp mags as cheap, disposable entertainment that you could take to work with you, and roll up and stick in your back pocket. Yeah, and not be able to wait until lunch, so you could start reading them again.

Schindler s List (1993) Review/Film: Schindler's List; Imagining the Holocaust to Remember It

There is a real photographic record of some of the people and places depicted in "Schindler's List," and it has a haunting history. Raimund Titsch, an Austrian Catholic who managed a uniform factory within the Plaszow labor camp in Poland, surreptitiously took pictures of what he saw. Fearful of having the pictures developed, he hid his film in a steel box, which he buried in a park outside Vienna and then did not disturb for nearly 20 years. Although it was sold secretly by Titsch when he was terminally ill, the film remained undeveloped until after his death.

The pictures that emerged, like so many visual representations of the Holocaust, are tragic, ghostly and remote. The horrors of the Holocaust are often viewed from a similar distance, filtered through memory or insulated by grief and recrimination. Documented exhaustively or dramatized in terms by now dangerously familiar, the Holocaust threatens to become unimaginable precisely because it has been imagined so fully. But the film "Schindler's List," directed with fury and immediacy by a profoundly surprising Steven Spielberg, presents the subject as if discovering it anew.

"Schindler's List" brings a pre-eminent pop mastermind together with a story that demands the deepest reserves of courage and passion. Rising brilliantly to the challenge of this material and displaying an electrifying creative intelligence, Mr. Spielberg has made sure that neither he nor the Holocaust will ever be thought of in the same way again. With every frame, he demonstrates the power of the film maker to distill complex events into fiercely indelible images. "Schindler's List" begins with the sight of Jewish prayer candles burning down to leave only wisps of smoke, and there can be no purer evocation of the Holocaust than that.

A deserted street littered with the suitcases of those who have just been rounded up and taken away. The look on the face of a captive Jewish jeweler as he is tossed a handful of human teeth to mine for fillings. A snowy sky that proves to be raining ashes. The panic of a prisoner unable to find his identity papers while he is screamed at by an armed soldier, a man with an obviously dangerous temper. These visceral scenes, and countless others like them, invite empathy as surely as Mr. Spielberg once made viewers wish E.T. would get well again.

But this time his emphasis is on the coolly Kafkaesque aspects of an authoritarian nightmare. Drawing upon the best of his storytelling talents, Mr. Spielberg has made "Schindler's List" an experience that is no less enveloping than his earlier works of pure entertainment. Dark, sobering and also invigoratingly dramatic, "Schindler's List" will make terrifying sense to anyone, anywhere.

The big man at the center of this film is Oskar Schindler, a Catholic businessman from the Sudetenland who came to occupied Poland to reap the spoils of war. (You can be sure this is not the last time the words "Oscar" and "Schindler" will be heard together.) Schindler is also something of a cipher, just as he was for Thomas Keneally, whose 1982 book, "Schindler's List," marked a daring synthesis of fiction and fact. Reconstructing the facts of Schindler's life to fit the format of a novel, Mr. Keneally could only draw upon the memories of those who owed their lives to the man's unexpected heroism. Compiling these accounts (in a book that included some of the Titsch photographs), Mr. Keneally told "the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms."

The great strength of Mr. Keneally's book, and now of Mr. Spielberg's film, lies precisely in this pragmatism. Knowing only the particulars of Schindler's behavior, the audience is drawn into wondering about his higher motives, about the experiences that transformed a casual profiteer into a selfless hero.

Schindler's story becomes much more involving than a tale of more conventional courage might be, just as Mr. Spielberg's use of unfamiliar actors to play Jewish prisoners makes it hard to view them as stock movie characters (even when the real events that befall these people threaten to do just that). The prisoners' stories come straight from Mr. Keneally's factual account, which is beautifully recapitulated by Steven Zaillian's screenplay.

Oskar Schindler, played with mesmerizing authority by Liam Neeson, is unmistakably larger than life, with the panache of an old-time movie star. (The real Schindler was said to resemble George Sanders and Curt Jurgens.) From its first glimpse of Oskar as he dresses for a typically flamboyant evening socializing with German officers -- and even from the way his hand appears, nonchalantly holding a cigarette and a bribe -- the film studies him with rapt attention.

Mr. Neeson, captured so glamorously by Janusz Kaminiski's richly versatile black-and-white cinematography, presents Oskar as an amalgam of canny opportunism and supreme, well-warranted confidence. Mr. Spielberg does not have to underscore the contrast between Oskar's life of privilege and the hardships of his Jewish employees.

Taking over a kitchenware factory in Cracow and benefiting from Jewish slave labor, Oskar at first is no hero. During a deft, seamless section of the film that depicts the setting up of this business operation, Oskar is seen happily occupying an apartment from which a wealthy Jewish couple has just been evicted. Meanwhile, the film's Jews are relegated to the Cracow ghetto. After the ghetto is evacuated and shut down, they are sent to Plaszow, which is overseen by a coolly brutal SS commandant named Amon Goeth.

Goeth, played fascinatingly by the English stage actor Ralph Fiennes, is the film's most sobering creation. The third of its spectacularly fine performances comes from Ben Kingsley as the reserved, wary Jewish accountant who becomes Oskar's trusted business manager, and who at one point has been rounded up by Nazi officers before Oskar saves him. "What if I got here five minutes later?" Oskar asks angrily, with the self-interest that keeps this story so startling. "Then where would I be?"

As the glossy, voluptuous look of Oskar's sequences gives way to a stark documentary-style account of the Jews' experience, "Schindler's List" witnesses a pivotal transformation. Oskar and a girlfriend, on horseback, watch from a hilltop as the ghetto is evacuated, and the image of a little girl in red seems to crystallize Oskar's horror.

But there is a more telling sequence later on, when Oskar is briefly arrested for having kissed a young Jewish woman during a party at his factory. Kissing women is, for Oskar, the most natural act in the world. And he is stunned to find it forbidden on racial grounds. All at once, he understands how murderous and irrational the world has become, and why no prisoners can be safe without the intervention of an Oskar Schindler.

The real Schindler saved more than a thousand Jewish workers by sheltering them in his factory, and even accomplished the unimaginable feat of rescuing some of them from Auschwitz. This film's moving coda, a full-color sequence, offers an unforgettable testimonial to Schindler's achievement.

The tension in "Schindler's List" comes, of course, from the omnipresent threat of violence. But here again, Mr. Spielberg departs from the familiar. The film's violent acts are relatively few, considering its subject matter, and are staged without the blatant sadism that might be expected. Goeth's hobby of playing sniper, casually targeting his prisoners with a high-powered rifle, is presented so matter-of-factly that it becomes much more terrible than it would be if given more lingering attention.

Mr. Spielberg knows well how to make such events truly shocking, and how to catch his audience off guard. Most of these shootings are seen from a great distance, and occur unexpectedly. When it appears that the film is leading up to the point-blank execution of a rabbi, the director has something else in store.

Goeth's lordly balcony, which overlooks the film's vast labor-camp set, presents an extraordinary set of visual possibilities, and Mr. Spielberg marshals them most compellingly. But the presence of huge crowds and an immense setting also plays to this director's weakness for staging effects en masse. "Schindler's List" falters only when the crowd of prisoners is reduced to a uniform entity, so that events no longer have the tumultuous variety of real life.

This effect is most noticeable in Schindler's last scene, the film's only major misstep, as a throng listens silently to Oskar's overwrought farewell. In a film that moves swiftly and urgently through its three-hour running time, this stagey ending -- plus a few touches of fundamentally false uplift, most notably in a sequence at Auschwitz -- amounts to a very small failing.

Among the many outstanding elements that contribute to "Schindler's List," Michael Kahn's nimble editing deserves special mention. So does the production design by Allan Starski, which finds just the right balance between realism and drama. John Williams's music has a somber, understated loveliness. The soundtrack becomes piercingly beautiful as Itzhak Perlman's violin solos occasionally augment the score.

It should be noted, if only in passing, that Mr. Spielberg has this year delivered the most astounding one-two punch in the history of American cinema. "Jurassic Park," now closing in on billion-dollar grosses, is the biggest movie moneymaker of all time. "Schindler's List," destined to have a permanent place in memory, will earn something better.

"Schindler's List" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes violence and graphic nudity. Schindler's List
Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Thomas Keneally; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Allan Starski; produced by Mr. Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen and Branko Lustig; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 185 minutes. This film is rated R. Oskar Schindler . . . Liam Neeson Itzhak Stern . . . Ben Kingsley Amon Goeth . . . Ralph Fiennes Emilie Schindler . . . Caroline Goodall Poldek Pfefferberg . . . Jonathan Sagalle Helen Hirsch . . . Embeth Davidtz

12 Angry Men (1957)

In form, "12 Angry Men" is a courtroom drama. In purpose, it's a crash course in those passages of the Constitution that promise defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. It has a kind of stark simplicity: Apart from a brief setup and a briefer epilogue, the entire film takes place within a small New York City jury room, on "the hottest day of the year," as 12 men debate the fate of a young defendant charged with murdering his father.

The film shows us nothing of the trial itself except for the judge's perfunctory, almost bored, charge to the jury. His tone of voice indicates the verdict is a foregone conclusion. We hear neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, and learn of the evidence only second-hand, as the jurors debate it. Most courtroom movies feel it necessary to end with a clear-cut verdict. But "12 Angry Men" never states whether the defendant is innocent or guilty. It is about whether the jury has a reasonable doubt about his guilt.

The principle of reasonable doubt, the belief that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, is one of the most enlightened elements of our Constitution, although many Americans have had difficulty in accepting it. "It's an open and shut case," snaps Juror No. 3 (Lee J. Cobb) as the jury first gathers in their claustrophobic little room. When the first ballot is taken, 10 of his fellow jurors agree, and there is only one holdout--Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda).

This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism--the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, "12 Angry Men" was lean and mean. It got ecstatic reviews and a spread in Life magazine, but was a disappointment at the box office. Over the years it has found a constituency, however, and in a 2002 Internet Movie Database poll it was listed 23rd among the best films of all time.

The story is based on a television play by Reginald Rose, later made into a movie by Sidney Lumet, with Rose and Henry Fonda acting as co-producers and putting up their own money to finance it. It was Lumet's first feature, although he was much experienced in TV drama, and the cinematography was by the veteran Boris Kaufman, whose credits ("On the Waterfront," "Long Day's Journey into Night") show a skill for tightening the tension in dialogue exchanges.

The cast included only one bankable star, Fonda, but the other 11 actors were among the best then working in New York, including Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Ed Begley and Robert Webber. They smoke, they sweat, they swear, they sprawl, they stalk, they get angry.

In a length of only 95 minutes (it sometimes feels as if the movie is shot in real time), the jurors are all defined in terms of their personalities, backgrounds, occupations, prejudices and emotional tilts. Evidence is debated so completely that we feel we know as much as the jury does, especially about the old man who says he heard the murder and saw the defendant fleeing, and the lady across the street who says she saw it happen through the windows of a moving L train.

We see the murder weapon, a switch-blade knife, and hear the jurors debate the angle of the knife wound. We watch as Fonda imitates the shuffling step of the old man, a stroke victim, to see if he could have gotten to the door in time to see the murderer fleeing. In its ingenuity, in the way it balances one piece of evidence against another that seems contradictory, "12 Angry Men" is as meticulous as the summation of an Agatha Christie thriller.

But it is not about solving the crime. It is about sending a young man to die. The movie is timely in view of recent revelations that many Death Row convictions are based on contaminated evidence. "We're talking about somebody's life here," the Fonda character says. "We can't decide in five minutes. Supposing we're wrong?"

The defendant, when we glimpse him, looks "ethnic" but of no specific group. He could be Italian, Turkish, Indian, Jewish, Arabic, Mexican. His eyes are ringed with dark circles, and he looks exhausted and frightened. In the jury room, some jurors make veiled references to "these people." Finally Juror No. 10 (Ed Begley) begins a racist rant ("You know how these people lie. It's born in them. They don't know what the truth is. And let me tell you, they don't need any real big reason to kill someone, either...") As he continues, one juror after another stands up from the jury table and walks away, turning his back. Even those who think the defendant is guilty can't sit and listen to Begley's prejudice. The scene is one of the most powerful in the movie.

The vote, which begins as 11-to-1, shifts gradually. Although the movie is clearly in favor of the Fonda position, not all of those voting "guilty" are portrayed negatively. One of the key characters is Juror No. 4 (E. G. Marshall), a stockbroker wearing rimless glasses, who depends on pure logic and tries to avoid emotion altogether. Another Juror No. 7 (Jack Warden), who has tickets to a baseball game, grows impatient and changes his vote just to hurry things along. Juror No. 11 (George Voskovec), an immigrant who speaks with an accent, criticizes him: "Who tells you that you have the right to play like this with a man's life?" Earlier, No. 11 was attacked as a foreigner: "They come over and in no time at all they're telling us how to run the show."

The visual strategy of the movie is discussed by Lumet in Making Movies, one of the most intelligent and informative books ever written about the cinema. In planning the movie, he says, a "lens plot" occurred to him: To make the room seem smaller as the story continued, he gradually changed to lenses of longer focal lengths, so that the backgrounds seemed to close in on the characters.

"In addition," he writes, "I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, shot the second third at eye level and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie." In the film's last shot, he observes, he used a wide-angle lens "to let us finally breathe."

The movie plays like a textbook for directors interested in how lens choices affect mood. By gradually lowering his camera, Lumet illustrates another principle of composition: A higher camera tends to dominate, a lower camera tends to be dominated. As the film begins we look down on the characters, and the angle suggests they can be comprehended and mastered. By the end, they loom over us, and we feel overwhelmed by the force of their passion. Lumet uses closeups rarely, but effectively: One man in particular--Juror No. 9 (Joseph Sweeney, the oldest man on the jury)--is often seen in full-frame, because he has a way of cutting to the crucial point and stating the obvious after it has eluded the others.

For Sidney Lumet, born in 1924, "12 Angry Men" was the beginning of a film career that has often sought controversial issues. Consider these titles from among his 43 films: "The Pawnbroker" (the Holocaust), "Fail-Safe" (accidental nuclear war), "Serpico" (police corruption), "Dog Day Afternoon" (homosexuality), "Network" (the decay of TV news), "The Verdict" (alcoholism and malpractice), "Daniel" (a son punished for the sins of his parents), "Running on Empty" (radical fugitives), and "Critical Care" (health care). There are also comedies and a musical ("The Wiz"). If Lumet is not among the most famous of American directors, that is only because he ranges so widely he cannot be categorized. Few filmmakers have been so consistently respectful of the audience's intelligence.

Selasa, 15 September 2015

The Dark Knight

Batman” isn’t a comic book anymore. Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy. It creates characters we come to care about. That’s because of the performances, because of the direction, because of the writing, and because of the superlative technical quality of the entire production. This film, and to a lesser degree “Iron Man,” redefine the possibilities of the “comic-book movie.”

“The Dark Knight” is not a simplistic tale of good and evil. Batman is good, yes, The Joker is evil, yes. But Batman poses a more complex puzzle than usual: The citizens of Gotham City are in an uproar, calling him a vigilante and blaming him for the deaths of policemen and others. And the Joker is more than a villain. He’s a Mephistopheles whose actions are fiendishly designed to pose moral dilemmas for his enemies.

The key performance in the movie is by the late Heath Ledger, as the Joker. Will he become the first posthumous Oscar winner since Peter Finch? His Joker draws power from the actual inspiration of the character in the silent classic “The Man Who Laughs” (1928). His clown's makeup more sloppy than before, his cackle betraying deep wounds, he seeks revenge, he claims, for the horrible punishment his father exacted on him when he was a child. In one diabolical scheme near the end of the film, he invites two ferry-loads of passengers to blow up the other before they are blown up themselves. Throughout the film, he devises ingenious situations that force Batman (Christian Bale), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to make impossible ethical decisions. By the end, the whole moral foundation of the Batman legend is threatened.

Because these actors and others are so powerful, and because the movie does not allow its spectacular special effects to upstage the humans, we’re surprised how deeply the drama affects us. Eckhart does an especially good job as Harvey Dent, whose character is transformed by a horrible fate into a bitter monster. It is customary in a comic book movie to maintain a certain knowing distance from the action, to view everything through a sophisticated screen. “The Dark Knight” slips around those defenses and engages us.

Yes, the special effects are extraordinary. They focus on the expected explosions and catastrophes, and have some superb, elaborate chase scenes. The movie was shot on location in Chicago, but it avoids such familiar landmarks as Marina City, the Wrigley Building or the skyline. Chicagoans will recognize many places, notably La Salle Street and Lower Wacker Drive, but director Nolan is not making a travelogue. He presents the city as a wilderness of skyscrapers, and a key sequence is set in the still-uncompleted Trump Tower. Through these heights, the Batman moves at the end of strong wires, or sometimes actually flies, using his cape as a parasail.

The plot involves nothing more or less than the Joker’s attempts to humiliate the forces for good and expose Batman’ secret identity, showing him to be a poser and a fraud. He includes Gordon and Dent on his target list, and contrives cruel tricks to play with the fact that Bruce Wayne once loved, and Harvey Dent now loves, Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The tricks are more cruel than he realizes, because the Joker doesn’t know Batman’s identity. Heath Ledger has a good deal of dialogue in the movie, and a lot of it isn’t the usual jabs and jests we’re familiar with: It’s psychologically more complex, outlining the dilemmas he has constructed, and explaining his reasons for them. The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan (who first worked together on “Memento”) has more depth and poetry than we might have expected.

Two of the supporting characters are crucial to the action, and are played effortlessly by the great actors Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Freeman, as the scientific genius Lucius Fox, is in charge of Bruce Wayne’s underground headquarters, and makes an ethical objection to a method of eavesdropping on all of the citizens of Gotham City. His stand has current political implicstions. Caine is the faithful butler Alfred, who understands Wayne better than anybody, and makes a decision about a crucial letter.

Nolan also directed the previous, and excellent, “Batman Begins” (2005), which went into greater detail than ever before about Bruce Wayne’s origins and the reasons for his compulsions. Now it is the Joker’s turn, although his past is handled entirely with dialogue, not flashbacks. There are no references to Batman’s childhood, but we certainly remember it, and we realize that this conflict is between two adults who were twisted by childhood cruelty — one compensating by trying to do good, the other by trying to do evil. Perhaps they instinctively understand that themselves.

Something fundamental seems to be happening in the upper realms of the comic-book movie. “Spider-Man II” (2004) may have defined the high point of the traditional film based on comic-book heroes. A movie like the new “Hellboy II” allows its director free rein for his fantastical visions. But now “Iron Man” and even more so “The Dark Knight” move the genre into deeper waters. They realize, as some comic-book readers instinctively do, that these stories touch on deep fears, traumas, fantasies and hopes. And the Batman legend, with its origins in film noir, is the most fruitful one for exploration.

In his two Batman movies, Nolan has freed the character to be a canvas for a broader scope of human emotion. For Bruce Wayne is a deeply troubled man, let there be no doubt, and if ever in exile from his heroic role, it would not surprise me what he finds himself capable of doing.

The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather” is told entirely within a closed world. That’s why we sympathize with characters who are essentially evil. The story by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola is a brilliant conjuring act, inviting us to consider the Mafia entirely on its own terms. Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) emerges as a sympathetic and even admirable character; during the entire film, this lifelong professional criminal does nothing of which we can really disapprove.

During the movie we see not a single actual civilian victim of organized crime. No women trapped into prostitution. No lives wrecked by gambling. No victims of theft, fraud or protection rackets. The only police officer with a significant speaking role is corrupt.

The story views the Mafia from the inside. That is its secret, its charm, its spell; in a way, it has shaped the public perception of the Mafia ever since. The real world is replaced by an authoritarian patriarchy where power and justice flow from the Godfather, and the only villains are traitors. There is one commandment, spoken by Michael (Al Pacino): “Don’t ever take sides against the family.”

It is significant that the first shot is inside a dark, shuttered room. It is the wedding day of Vito Corleone’s daughter, and on such a day a Sicilian must grant any reasonable request. A man has come to ask for punishment for his daughter’s rapist. Don Vito asks why he did not come to him immediately.

“I went to the police, like a good American,” the man says. The Godfather’s reply will underpin the entire movie: “Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first? What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if, by chance, an honest man like yourself should make enemies . . . then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.”

As the day continues, there are two more scenes in the Godfather’s darkened study, intercut with scenes from the wedding outside. By the end of the wedding sequence, most of the main characters will have been introduced, and we will know essential things about their personalities. It is a virtuoso stretch of filmmaking: Coppola brings his large cast onstage so artfully that we are drawn at once into the Godfather’s world.

The screenplay of “The Godfather” follows no formulas except for the classic structure in which power passes between the generations. The writing is subtly constructed to set up events later in the film. Notice how the request by Johnny Fontane, the failing singer, pays off in the Hollywood scenes; how his tears set up the shocking moment when a mogul wakes up in bed with what is left of his racehorse. Notice how the undertaker is told “someday, and that day may never come, I will ask a favor of you. . .” and how when the day comes the favor is not violence (as in a conventional movie) but Don Vito’s desire to spare his wife the sight of their son’s maimed body. And notice how a woman’s “mistaken” phone call sets up the trap in which Sonny (James Caan) is murdered: It’s done so neatly that you have to think back through the events to figure it out.

Now here is a trivia question: What is the name of Vito’s wife? She exists in the movie as an insignificant shadow, a plump Sicilian grandmother who poses with her husband in wedding pictures but plays no role in the events that take place in his study. There is little room for women in “The Godfather.” Sonny uses and discards them, and ignores his wife. Connie (Talia Shire), the Don’s daughter, is so disregarded that her husband is not allowed into the family business. He is thrown a bone--”a living”--and later, when he is killed, Michael coldly lies to his sister about what happened.

The irony of the title is that it eventually comes to refer to the son, not the father. As the film opens Michael is not part of the family business, and plans to marry a WASP, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). His turning point comes when he saves his father’s life by moving his hospital bed, and whispers to the unconscious man: “I’m with you now.”

After he shoots the corrupt cop, Michael hides in Sicily, where he falls in love with and marries Appolonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). They do not speak the same language; small handicap for a Mafia wife. He undoubtedly loves Appolonia, as he loved Kay, but what is he thinking here: that he can no longer marry Kay because he has chosen a Mafia life? After Appolonia’s death and his return to America, he seeks out Kay and eventually they marry. Did he tell her about Appolonia? Such details are unimportant to the story.

What is important is loyalty to the family. Much is said in the movie about trusting a man’s word, but honesty is nothing compared to loyalty. Michael doesn’t even trust Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) with the secret that he plans to murder the heads of the other families. The famous “baptism massacre” is tough, virtuoso filmmaking: The baptism provides him with an airtight alibi, and he becomes a godfather in both senses at the same time.

Vito Corleone is the moral center of the film. He is old, wise and opposed to dealing in drugs. He understands that society is not alarmed by “liquor, gambling . . . even women.” But drugs are a dirty business to Don Vito, and one of the movie’s best scenes is the Mafia summit at which he argues his point. The implication is that in the godfather’s world there would be no drugs, only “victimless crimes,” and justice would be dispatched evenly and swiftly.

My argument is taking this form because I want to point out how cleverly Coppola structures his film to create sympathy for his heroes. The Mafia is not a benevolent and protective organization, and the Corleone family is only marginally better than the others. Yet when the old man falls dead among his tomato plants, we feel that a giant has passed.

Gordon Willis’ cinematography is celebrated for its darkness; it is rich, atmospheric, expressive. You cannot appreciate this on television because the picture is artificially brightened. Coppola populates his dark interior spaces with remarkable faces. The front-line actors--Brando, Pacino, Caan, Duvall--are attractive in one way or another, but those who play their associates are chosen for their fleshy, thickly lined faces--for huge jaws and deeply set eyes. Look at Abe Vigoda as Tessio, the fearsome enforcer. The first time we see him, he’s dancing with a child at the wedding, her satin pumps balanced on his shoes. The sun shines that day, but never again: He is developed as a hulking presence who implies the possibility of violent revenge. Only at the end is he brightly lit again, to make him look vulnerable as he begs for his life.

The Brando performance is justly famous and often imitated. We know all about his puffy cheeks, and his use of props like the kitten in the opening scene. Those are actor’s devices. Brando uses them but does not depend on them: He embodies the character so convincingly that at the end, when he warns his son two or three times that “the man who comes to you to set up a meeting--that’s the traitor,” we are not thinking of acting at all. We are thinking that the Don is growing old and repeating himself, but we are also thinking that he is probably absolutely right.

Pacino plays Michael close to his vest; he has learned from his father never to talk in front of outsiders, never to trust anyone unnecessarily, to take advice but keep his own counsel. All of the other roles are so successfully filled that a strange thing happened as I watched this restored 1997 version: Familiar as I am with Robert Duvall, when he first appeared on the screen I found myself thinking, “There’s Tom Hagen.”

Coppola went to Italy to find Nino Rota, composer of many Fellini films, to score the picture. Hearing the sadness and nostalgia of the movie’s main theme, I realized what the music was telling us: Things would have turned out better if we had only listened to the Godfather.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

"The Shawshank Redemption" is a movie about time, patience and loyalty -- not sexy qualities, perhaps, but they grow on you during the subterranean progress of this story, which is about how two men serving life sentences in prison become friends and find a way to fight off despair.

The story is narrated by "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman), who has been inside the walls of Shawshank Prison for a very long time and is its leading entrepreneur. He can get you whatever you need: cigarettes, candy, even a little rock pick like an amateur geologist might use. One day he and his fellow inmates watch the latest busload of prisoners unload, and they make bets on who will cry during their first night in prison, and who will not. Red bets on a tall, lanky guy named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who looks like a babe in the woods.

But Andy does not cry, and Red loses the cigarettes he wagered. Andy turns out to be a surprise to everyone in Shawshank, because within him is such a powerful reservoir of determination and strength that nothing seems to break him. Andy was a banker on the outside, and he's in for murder. He's apparently innocent, and there are all sorts of details involving his case, but after a while they take on a kind of unreality; all that counts inside prison is its own society -- who is strong, who is not -- and the measured passage of time.

Red is also a lifer. From time to time, measuring the decades, he goes up in front of the parole board, and they measure the length of his term (20 years, 30 years) and ask him if he thinks he has been rehabilitated. Oh, most surely, yes, he replies; but the fire goes out of his assurances as the years march past, and there is the sense that he has been institutionalized -- that, like another old lifer who kills himself after being paroled, he can no longer really envision life on the outside.

Red's narration of the story allows him to speak for all of the prisoners, who sense a fortitude and integrity in Andy that survives the years. Andy will not kiss butt. He will not back down. But he is not violent, just formidably sure of himself. For the warden (Bob Gunton), he is both a challenge and a resource; Andy knows all about bookkeeping and tax preparation, and before long he's been moved out of his prison job in the library and assigned to the warden's office, where he sits behind an adding machine and keeps tabs on the warden's ill-gotten gains. His fame spreads, and eventually he's doing the taxes and pension plans for most of the officials of the local prison system.

There are key moments in the film, as when Andy uses his clout to get some cold beers for his friends who are working on a roofing job. Or when he befriends the old prison librarian (James Whitmore). Or when he oversteps his boundaries and is thrown into solitary confinement. What quietly amazes everyone in the prison -- and us, too -- is the way he accepts the good and the bad as all part of some larger pattern than only he can fully see.

The partnership between the characters played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is crucial to the way the story unfolds. This is not a "prison drama" in any conventional sense of the word. It is not about violence, riots or melodrama. The word "redemption" is in the title for a reason. The movie is based on a story, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, which is quite unlike most of King's work. The horror here is not of the supernatural kind, but of the sort that flows from the realization than 10, 20, 30 years of a man's life have unreeled in the same unchanging daily prison routine.

The director, Frank Darabont, paints the prison in drab grays and shadows, so that when key events do occur, they seem to have a life of their own.

Andy, as played by Robbins, keeps his thoughts to himself. Red, as Freeman plays him, is therefore a crucial element in the story: His close observation of this man, down through the years, provides the way we monitor changes and track the measure of his influence on those around him. And all the time there is something else happening, hidden and secret, which is revealed only at the end.

"The Shawshank Redemption" is not a depressing story, although I may have made it sound that way. There is a lot of life and humor in it, and warmth in the friendship that builds up between Andy and Red. There is even excitement and suspense, although not when we expect it. But mostly the film is an allegory about holding onto a sense of personal worth, despite everything. If the film is perhaps a little slow in its middle passages, maybe that is part of the idea, too, to give us a sense of the leaden passage of time, before the glory of the final redemption.