Harsh Times - Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is twenty six years old, and until recently, was in the army rangers. Upon returning home to South Central Los Angeles, he resumed a life of drinking all day with his friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez). The one positive thing that he's been doing with his time is going through the motions to become a member of the LAPD. However, when they turn him down he sinks deeper into his own mind, forgetting about all his cares in the world including his career, his future, and Marta (Tammy Trull), the Mexican girl he wants to bring to America and marry. Then a job offer from the FBI gives Jim hope for the future again just in time to pull the carpet back out from under him and drag Mike down as well. Where did this movie come from? Apparently it was released in 2005, but my first encounter with it was a trailer playing in Suncoast Video while I was browsing the racks. Based on the DVD box cover (which looks like it was created by someone minutely skilled with Photoshop), I really wasn't dying to see the movie, but it kept on popping up on internet ads and store shelves suddenly in early 2007. Finally a review on IMDb convinced me that I should give Harsh Times a chance, and it turned out to be a good move on my part. I've seen Christian Bale in several movies, but none of his roles have impressed me as much as this one. He always seems completely committed to the character that he's playing, which is made very clear by the lengths he went to for his part in The Machinist, which required him to become dangerously thin. I enjoyed Batman Begins, Equilibrium, The Prestige, and American Psycho, but Bale's performance as a down-on-his-luck ex-ranger in Harsh Times takes the cake. There was never a moment when I wasn't completely convinced that Bale was Jim Davis, walking his life on thin ice. Matching his performance was Freddy Rodriguez, who until now I was all but unfamiliar with. The most recent film I'd seen with Rodriguez was Lady In The Water, but the role for which I remember him the most is Jose in Dead Presidents. Another performance that surprised me in Harsh Times was Eva Longoria, who played Mike's girlfriend, Sylvia. Honestly, all that I know her from is Desperate Housewives, which I've never even seen an episode of, but I was surprised that I enjoyed her performance as much as I did. There are occasionally scenes in movies that actually get my heart racing because I know that something bad is going to happen and I can't stop it, but not since the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have I gotten this feeling so often during the viewing of a single film. I think that the reason for this is that whereas The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a suspenseful thriller, Harsh Times is just so realistic that I felt like the events of the movie could really be happening to me. Christian Bale really made me feel like I knew Jim Davis personally and that his actions could affect me in some way. This is a perfect example of good acting driving a film. Without Bale's performance, I can see how Harsh Times could be a reasonably unknown/unpopular movie (as it apparently is), but after watching it, I'm not sure why it isn't more well known. It certainly deserves to be.
The Shawshank Redemption - Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a man sent to prison for the murder of two people sometime in the 1940's. Whether or not he actually committed the crime is unknown, but also unimportant. After being locked up, Andy begins forming a series of relationships with everyone from other inmates, who he befriends, to the prison guards, whose taxes he offers to do in exchange for certain rights and better treatment. Andy becomes the heart and soul of the prison, along with Red (Morgan Freeman), who has been on the inside for quite some time and is the man to talk to if you want something. Over time, as Andy gains the trust of every single person inside the walls of the prison, he also gains a way out. It's tough to write a synopsis for The Shawshank Redemption, because while I can describe the events of the film, the real plot is in the details. The emotional ride that the viewer takes alongside Andy Dufresne is one that many believe to be unrivaled in modern cinema. It's a movie that gives you such a feeling of joy and hope that immediately upon completing a viewing, you will want to start watching it all over again. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman deliver the standout performances of their respective careers that all performances prior to and since have been measured against. I have to be a bit vague in reviewing this movie for two reasons. One, which I already mentioned, is that it would be impossible to express the heart of The Shawshank Redemption in a paragraph or two of text. The other is that I would hate to ruin the experience of watching the movie for the first time for anyone who's never seen it. Simply put, if you haven't seen The Shawshank Redemption, you just don't know what it's like to enjoy a film.