Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The first time I saw Shawshank Redemption was on a movie channel, shortly after its unheralded box office stint. I picked it up 15 minutes in, and spent much of the film wondering if the film’s protagonist, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) was guilty or innocent of his alleged murder. So naïve, I was.

Shawshank – my favorite movie of all-time – grows better with every viewing. There is simply too much depth, too much richness and too much to learn from this story to completely digest it in one pass.

It turns out that Shawshank is a story of guilt and innocence. It just has nothing to do with murder.

Andy Dufresne is a banker. Was a banker. He is smart, studious and hard working. But he’s also distant and cold, and that probably contributed to him pushing his wife away. He woke up one day and she was having an affair. And if that weren’t enough, the next day she was dead. He wears that guilt and despair on his face throughout the film’s opening stanza.

Perhaps his marriage was doomed from the beginning. It’s not important. Andy feels like he drove her away. I think many of us have done worse.

“A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”

Could Andy be angry? Yes. Could he blame someone else? Of course. Instead, he gives.

His first gift is to himself, when he arranges to drink Bohemian style beer on the roof of the license plate factory with his “coworkers.” And Andy doesn’t even drink.* Instead, he just sits there with a giant grin on his face. Red (Morgan Freeman) thinks he did it just to feel like a free man again. I think he did it just to feel. A man can’t rescue someone who’s drowning if he can’t swim himself. That was his moment to start a new life.

*Shawshank is littered with these subtleties. 142 minutes of film and one line devoted to him giving up drinking. Yet this is no small statement – the only time we see Dufresne imbibing is while loading a gun outside his wife’s lover’s cabin. That intoxicated recklessness help land him in prison.

Andy’s next gift is to the prisoners. Their lives are monotonous. Some feel hopeless. These are not situations unique only to prison life.

So he unleashes three of the most beautiful minutes that any prison yard has ever heard, echoing Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro over the loud speakers. It is a stunningly beautiful scene, and one that reminds us that there are things in the world that aren’t made of concrete; There is beauty that can never be stripped from our own minds. That’s Andy’s gift to them, even if falls on deaf ears.

Then there’s Tommy (and the others Andy helps with the Brooks Hatlen library). Andy knows Tommy (Gil Bellows) has potential. He knows that his life is redeemable. It’s a project so important to Andy that maybe, just maybe, he stays in prison for many extra months just to see it through.

That project tragically ends at the hands of the film’s antagonist, Warden Norton (Bob Gunton). Publicly, Norton is a saint, characterized by pious musings and a charitable labor force. His character’s lesson is not about judging books by their cover. It’s that salvation lies within. And sometimes, those who need it the most never look inside the book in the first place.

For many years, I thought the redemption in Shawshank was Andy’s. After all, he’s the one who escapes and lives out his dream on a Mexican beach.

But it’s not. It’s Red’s.Andy’s ultimate gift to him is not only the universal gift of friendship, but also the gift of Hope. And it frees Red from institutionalization.

“Get busy living or Get busy dying.”

I’ve heard critics allege that prisoners are not as likeable as the cast of regulars in Shawshank, despite Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and many other historical figures finding themselves in similar positions of incarceration. But that’s not the point. This is a story of redemption, and the setting of a prison is just the bottle in which to carry the message.

We all make mistakes. We are all subject to some kind of imprisonment – societal, vocational, interpersonal. Shawshank itself is a gift, to remind us that even after 500 yards of sewage there is fresh water at the end of the pipe. That there are horizons, like the Pacific, that have no memory. That hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things.

“I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

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Sushi Zo (Los Angeles)

If you wind your way far enough down National you will come around a bend and spot a Starbucks in a strip mall in Palms. I grow giddy every time I see it…because it sits next to Sushi Zo, arguably the best sushi place in Los Angeles. Really, it’s that good.

There are no menus – it’s all omakase. You can tell them to stop if you get full, or tell them to continue if you want more. They pro-rate the price around their standard $100 dinner, which is usually a good 20 courses. (Each course is typically a small piece of fish.)

Keizo, head chef and Master of the Universe, changes the menu depending on what he has in house, but there are staples.

His tuna sashimi is next to godliness. I’ve never had cuts of tuna so good. He somehow slices it so it melts in your mouth with the slightest effort of the masseter.

Another staple is the hand roll he fashions for you at the end, either crab or toro. Both are quite amazing.

And I must mention the rice and soy sauce – as good as any counterparts I’ve ever had. (Keizo learned to make rice properly for a year before touching a piece of fish.)

Tonight, six dishes stood out. The albacore, spanish mackerel, sawara, giant clam, squid and sea eel were astounding. Yes, it’s almost like being on Iron Chef Japan. Giggling girls included.

The preparation of the mackerel amplified all of the flavors of the fish. The clam, chewy and creamy, started very pungent and then left a complex finish of briny ocean in the mouth. The squid – somehow cut to look like a typical piece of fish – had the sweet and floral flavors of really good sweet shrimp. And the anago (sea eel) – delicate and sweet. Made me want to eat see eal forever. Sawara (a japanese seasonal fish) was sturdy in the mouth yet delicate and fatty all at once. Mouthgasm. I even requested two orders. It’s important to make sound decisions while being pleasured by good food.

Zo is always good, it’s actually fairly priced for the quality and the experience. Let’s be clear, this is not for a sushi newbie or a California roll lover. There are those who quibble about the lack of decor or how particular the service is. If you want something different than what is offered, or the dishes to come a little slower, you can just tell them. They are always very friendly and informative.

All in all, one of my favorite restaurants in the city. I have yet to try Urasawa, but will surely update this review after I do for a comparison.

4 out of 4 paws

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Black Swan (2010)

I planned on leading with a review of a favorite restaurant or favorite film, and while this blog will be replete with retroactive opinions, I haven’t been to many old food spots lately. Nor have I seen many old films.

What I did see was Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan. All I have to say is: What. The. Fuck.

**Typical Spoilers Below**

There is a psychological brilliance to this film, created by Natalie Portman’s schizophrenic performance and Aranofsky’s claustrophobic photography. And I’m not talking about a dramatic, Hitchcock feeling. Think Requiem For a Dream (also Aranofsky) meets The Shining.

By the end of the movie, a few things are clear:

  1. The story itself is an analogue of the ballet.
  2. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not.

The two go hand-in-hand and drive the film forward. Nina begins the story as the White Swan. She is sheltered and childlike. Her room is full of pink fluffy bunnies. Her mother tucks her in every night. She literally rides the subways of New York in snowy white outfits. She is mechanically meticulous, devoting seemingly every waking hour to her practice, and even dreaming about it.

She is also wound tighter than a top. OCD and anorexia nervosa are plausible diagnoses. Something is very off here. The only interaction she really has is with her mother. Now think Norman Bates.

The Mother, brilliantly played by Barbara Hershey, is nothing short of oppressive, micromanaging Nina’s life since God Knows When. Everything seems innocent enough until Nina turns down a piece of congratulatory cake, fearing weight gain, only to see Mom absolutely lose it and threaten to throw out the entire cake. Where did that come from? Mom even falls asleep in a chair next to Nina’s bed. She has a room full of paintings of Nina.

Dr. Phil isn’t needed here, Mister Pill is.

In Tchaikovsky’s original ballet, Odette is under the spell of an evil sorcerer. “Sorceress” might be a more befitting adjective in this rendition. Only this woman’s magical power seems to be an uncanny ability to keep her daughter in a 12-year old’s ballet bubble.

Everything seems status quo with Nina until she shows a hint of darkness when she bites her director’s lip during a surprise kiss. And then the transformation into the Black Swan begins. Nina originally struggles to break free from her rigid devotion. She’s all Technique when she needs a lot of Method. Lily (Mila Kunis) presumably helps her unwind and let herself go – the usual sex, drugs and violence triumvirate – but that’s precisely when the linearity of the story breaks down.

While the film is certainly an artistic and creative presentation of Swan Lake – which Nina is starring in, by the way (how’s that for a babushka doll?) – it’s told in a manner that pushes the edges of psychedelic horror. We see the wrong face on many people, and it’s always Lily’s face. Why? Is she self-conscious about her ascension into the spotlight? Was it guilt that produced a face-stabbing incident in her mind? Does she desire a way to break free from her mother? From herself? Perhaps a combination of all of the above. By the end of the movie, Nina literally transforms into a Swan, but it is extremely dark, and at times, leg-cracking and skin-peeling-gruesome.

But what in the world is real in this story? What is supposed to be real? It is apparent, probably thanks to Mom, that Nina is certifiably insane. She keeps scratching her back. Or so we think. If she’s losing herself and morphing into the Black Swan, how much of it is in her mind? Or, as I suspect, is it all just a folk tale?

I don’t think the particulars are important here. That’s not the point of the movie. At the same time, the film borders on being so dark and disorienting that I wonder if a second viewing is palpable, save for the lip-biting lesbian scene. I’m not even sure whether I’d say I liked it. It was certainly good, well made and full of artistic brilliance. Kunis is surprisingly good. Portman’s performance is spectacular. Aranofsk’y direction amplifies the mood.

I’m sure a second viewing would illuminate such details. I’m sure there would be notes in the acting and directing that delve deeper into the psychological process at work here. I’m just not sure I’ll ever get around to it.

3 out of 4 paws

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Welcome to Bear of a Critic

As a young cub, there were few things I enjoyed more in life than food and film. I have been writing about both for a while and am using this platform as an outlet for those thoughts. Ideally, reading this blog will enhance these experiences for others.

Thanks for reading! And enjoy the movie…and the dinner.

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