‘Shawshank Redemption’ still powerful 10 years later

by By Michael Ventre /  / Updated  / Source: msnbc.com contributor

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The Shawshank Redemption: Two-disc special editionThis is what you call a tough sell: Taking a prison movie, featuring an all-male cast, and convincing audiences that it’s the feel-good story of the year. Warner Brothers was faced with this dilemma in 1994 as director Frank Darabont delivered a picture that was met with apathy and confusion by the public. Although “The Shawshank Redemption” went on to snag seven Academy Award nominations, it won none, and it tanked at the box office.

But through the miracle of home video, “Shawshank” found its audience. Today it is considered a phenomenon, one of those films that many rank among their all-time favorites, and is watched again and again.

Based on a novella by Stephen King called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” it follows Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a young banker who is convicted of killing his cheating wife. He is thrust inside the dank and dangerous walls of Shawshank Prison in Maine. While there, he forms a friendship with a career inmate named Red (Morgan Freeman), and through the years the two lean on each other for survival. What Red gives Andy is the benefit of his experience behind bars. What Andy gives Red is hope.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is now celebrating its well-deserved popularity with a 10th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition DVD package. The movie has held up well over the past 10 years, and feels fresh. That may be why it enjoys such wild popularity and regularly shows up on viewers’ “10 Best” lists. The themes of friendship, perseverance and hope resonate well beyond the prison genre.

The DVD package lives up to the movie, no easy task. There is an excellent commentary by Darabont, who is never boring and who obviously has been in love with this project from the time he first read King’s version until now. There are also two behind-the-scenes documentaries; a “Charlie Rose” segment celebrating the anniversary and including Darabont, Robbins and Freeman; a rather lame spoof called “The Sharktank Redemption” that seems misplaced here and would only garner a chuckle from Hollywood insiders; and tidbits like a stills gallery, the theatrical trailer and storyboards.

This DVD package follows a brief re-release in theaters in some major cities. If you’ve never seen the movie at all, it’s best to check it on the big screen first, if for no other reason than to fully appreciate Roger Deakins’ gorgeous and mesmerizing photography. He’s an unsung hero on this project, although he did get an Oscar nomination.

But “Shawshank” has popped up on cable regularly over the years, so folks are used to seeing it on television. With that said, this DVD package will more than satisfy the picture’s rabid fan base.

Check out this special feature: “Hope Springs Eternal: A Look at the Shawshank Redemption” is the better of two mini-docs on Disc 2. It not only has interviews with the major players, but also some of the actors who played minor but important roles like Gil Bellows (who played young buck Tommy Williams), David Proval (Snooze), Clancy Brown (the brutal Capt. Hadley) and Bob Gunton (the evil Warden). Sometimes when actors are queried later, they admit they didn’t know what they had while they were making the film. But this cast obviously knew something special was going on, and it’s fun to hear the actors reminisce about it. (Warner Home Video, $26.99)

The Wire: The Complete First SeasonRare is the television show that challenges viewers to pay attention, and think, and appreciate the gray areas rather than the blacks and whites. “The Wire” is such a series. HBO is currently running episodes from the third season, but it seems much of the public is only now getting around to tuning in, no doubt prompted by critical raves calling it “gritty,” “gripping” and “the best show on television.”

“The Wire” takes place amid the decayed ruins of inner-city Baltimore. Neighborhoods are rife with drug use and crime. The police clean up one mess, then find themselves with 10 more just like it. The economic conditions of the area keep residents down, and for many, selling drugs is their only means of survival.

A special unit of Baltimore cops — a rag-tag band of dedicated but alienated souls — is formed in the hopes that electronic surveillance will help bring down one particular drug gang, headed by kingpins Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). But the officers not only have to battle the drug dealers on the street, but struggle against the agendas of the higher-ups in the police department.

Everything about this show is impeccable. In fact, it’s the superb writing that may serve both to keep loyal fans tuning in and prospective viewers from trying it out. The language is often dense and specific to either the police or drug culture, so it takes effort to keep up. This may dissuade some among the couch-potato persuasion, and keep the audience for “The Wire” from reaching the mass popularity enjoyed by HBO cousins such as “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.” It’s also a crime and a joke that “The Wire” doesn’t clean up when Emmys are handed out.

The good news is that “The Wire: The Complete First Season” is out on DVD. Now there is no excuse. Folks who have heard about “The Wire” but were reluctant to jump into such an intensely layered experience in midstream are now able to watch from Episode 1 through 13 and get up to speed.

The DVD package includes few extras, but each episode will keep you riveted enough so you won’t need outtakes or countless cast and crew interviews. This could have used a behind-the-scenes featurette, since there are probably lots of interesting stories regarding the locations used and some of the background players. Also, these actors — including Larry Gilliard, Jr., Dominic West, Lance Reddick and Sonja Sohn, to name a few — deserve more attention than they’re currently getting.

There are some audio commentaries provided, however. Executive producer and creator David Simon offers his views on Episodes 1 and 12, and his insight is terrific, although in future efforts he probably should avoid calling attention to the deficiencies of other cop shows and television in general; it’s obvious that “The Wire” is a notch or two above the others without hammering home the point.

Also lending their voices are director Clark Johnson for Episode 2 and writer George Pelecanos on Episode 12. Simon and Pelecanos complement each other extremely well on their joint commentary during a pivotal episode.

The major problem with the first season of “The Wire” on DVD is that you’ll likely be hooked, and then you’ll grumble why it’s taking so long for season two to come out. (HBO Video, $99.98)

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.

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