Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan. 1951)

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers..."

I have a challenge for you. The next time you watch any movie made before the release of A Streetcar Named Desire I want you to have a pen and pad ready and available. While watching whatever film it may be, I ask that you keep a tally of every single emotional scene that comes off as just a tad too stiff to be believable. Seems easy, right? Just make a note of each moment where you needed the action to be a bit more raw. A lot of films from Citizen Kane to The African Queen have been criticized for the dated feel of their leading actors. We all know that realism was the problem with movies before Streetcar, and actors before Marlon Brando.
Brando has an unequaled ability to dig deep into himself to find the characters that he is playing on the screen. It has famously been dubbed "Method acting" and his particular use of the practice in this film paved the way for several actors, like James Dean and Sean Penn who would go on to use the Method style with great success. I am not an expert on the acting process, but it does not take an expert to see that Brando's portrayal of Stanley Kowalski is one of the most emotionally charged performances in all of movies. He is played with such depth and circumstantial understanding that if the audience didn't know any better they would believe that Marlon and Stanley were the same person.
The whole production is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans and follows Stanley, his wife Stella (Kim Hunter) and her sister Blanche (Vivien Leigh) as they live together in an apartment that feels a great deal more claustrophobic than it does inviting. Stanley dominates his home life with an animalistic dominance with his ripped, sweaty shirts that show off defined muscles and his brute  speaking tone. As a character, Stanley's intelligence is lacking, but his masculinity has inflated his head to the point of being comparable to a Neanderthal.
Stella is about as anti-feminist as a female character can be. She is blinded by her sexual attraction toward Stanley. Just watch the famous scene in which Stanley is screaming for Stella to return to him. Pay attention to how quickly and sharply she reacts to his voice as he wallows in the rain for her forgiveness. The crime he committed against her was domestic abuse, and Stella had the presence of mind to escape that bad situation. But then hearing him emit an almost masculine battle cry immediately sends charges of sexual energy through her that ultimately lead her down the stairs and back into her abusive husband's arms. As she slowly walks back to him it almost looks as though she has surrendered her well being over to her own desires. She even later admits to being "excited" by Stanley's overly-aggressive behaviors. I'm not going to say that her situation is her fault because Stanley is obviously to blame for the abuse, but nobody in Streetcar is really the good character. They are all flawed - none more than Stella's sister, Blanche.
Vivien Leigh is an actress who has been crucified for her off-screen behavior, but on the screen she is as solid as any other Golden Age actress. Her performance is so charged with emotion that the audience is automatically drawn to her. Tennessee Williams not only wrote the screenplay, but also the play on which the film is based. I think it is obvious that he spent the most time coming up with Blanche as a person. Her psyche is annoyingly fragile, but her varying life experiences demand sympathy. Her young husband committed suicide due to his inability to deal with his own homosexuality. She cannot return home because she was forced out of town for being promiscuous with younger men. One of the best scenes in the film has Blanche flirting with a young delivery boy. A lot of the original "sexiness" in this scene was initially cut from the film (though Kazan fought to keep it) and wasn't seen as a part of the movie until the restoration in 1993. 
It goes without saying that the acting in Streetcar is superb. Leigh, Hunter and Karl Malden all won Academy Awards for their roles as Blanche, Stella and Blanche's gentlemen caller, Mitch. Brando's Method acting technique changed the way that actors played characters, but he actually lost the acting Oscar to Humphrey Bogart. Most people chalk this up to the fact that Stanley was much too vile of a character to be awarded in that time period. Marlon Brando was simply ahead of his time with his gritty performance.
Most of us already know how A Streetcar Named Desire ends. For those of you who do not, I will spoil nothing. But the ending has created controversy and sparked discussions for many years now. I personally think the ending is perfect in every sense of the word. The black and white shimmers perfectly and beautifully amidst the heartbreaking conclusion. Kazan's camera frames the action deliberately to keep the audience focused on the characters over everything else. Streetcar is a movie that is primarily about three people - each one of them flawed. Whether it be masculine aggression, sexual desire, homosexuality or insecurity - this masterpiece was bold enough to approach the topic and mature enough to do it well. 
A Streetcar Named Desire: A  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Glengarry Glen Ross (Foley. 1992)

"'Cause only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line which is dotted!"

When I started this blog I made it pretty apparent to any reader that I was a college student. I have now been out of college for about one year, and I pretty much still feel like a kid. My current work situation has me hosting four hours of country music radio every weekday, and working in an office with several people who make up our sales team. After seeing how these sales people operate, I have come to the conclusion that I do not mind still feeling like a noob - as long as I don't have to hate my life by wasting away in sales.

That profession is the center subject of one of the more dialogue-heavy English language movies on the "1001", Glengarry Glen Ross. It also happens to be a movie that fully encapsulates my nightmares. Who on this great Earth would want to sell real estate from a shady office below the L-Train?! The interior of the office itself looks like it was furnished using the bare bones technique. There is a sectioned off office area with big glass windows to separate the boss (Kevin Spacey) from his sales staff of peons. The sales staff (Pacino, Lemmon, Arkin, Harris) get the luxury of sitting in plain, empty desks making heartbreakingly desperate phone calls while the boss sits in his office flaunting the "good" leads (cards that contain the names of potential real estate buyers). From the opening moment in the film you can see that a life in this office is not a good one to live. And it is about to get a whole lot worse.

The most famous moment in Glengarry Glen Ross happens within the first few moments of the film. Blake is a hot-shot from the ever mysterious "downtown" who is here to inform the motley sales team of the newest incentives for sales. This month's contest prizes are pretty varied. First prize: new Cadillac. Second prize: set of steak knives. Third prize: you're fired. All of this is laid out to the audience and the staff in a profanity-ridden monologue that is delivered perfectly by Alec Baldwin. I understand that in 2013 Baldwin is a polarizing actor due to his mouth, but his only moment in Glengarry Glen Ross makes the entire picture.

The movie is based on a play written by David Mamet. I had the great pleasure of reading the play while in college and it is worth noting that Blake is not a character in the source material. Mamet also wrote the screenplay for the film and added Baldwin's character as a way to kick-start the action before letting his masterful dialogue take over the film. The way the characters talk to each other in the movie is harsh, profane and sad. Mamet creates a world with his writings where this type of speech is the common language. I personally love the numerous reaction shots caught by Foley's camera after almost every sentence. As the film rides on, the sales staff become more and more desperate to not necessarily win, but rather to simply not be fired. The emptiness behind their eyes becomes more evident by the minute.

Though Al Pacino garnered the film's only Academy Award nomination, Jack Lemmon is the real protagonist (albeit in an unconventional form of the term). He plays Shelley "The Machine" Levene - a once great salesman who is no longer making any money. His wife is in the hospital and desperation drips from his mouth with every word. It is a wonder that the man doesn't just physically collapse by the conclusion, though it would be safe to say that he does collapse morally. I think it is interesting, though I could be reaching that Mamet chose to give the most floundering character a name that has been shared by both genders. It is obvious that the entire production is a statement on greed and business, but I think masculinity has a major role in the goings on as well. Blake almost makes Shelly cry at the start of the film, perhaps implying that Levene can no longer hack it in a man's world.

Glengarry Glen Ross indirectly asks the audience a very simple question - are you man enough to close the deal? A. always B. be C. closing. It is the urgency behind the ABC mentality that gets the film off the ground, but it is  Mamet's cadenced words that turn the movie into something special. Everyone is impacted differently by the actions surrounding the conclusion, but nothing is really concluded by the end. At just 100 minutes in runtime, Glengarry Glen Ross is a must see for actors and a should see for everyone else.

Glengarry Glen Ross: A-

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Warriors (Hill. 1979)

"Warriors...come out to plaaay..."

Some movies do not have to be all that great to garner a loyal fan base. Very few would argue that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a "good movie", yet it has been running in midnight theatres for years. Another great example of a less-than-decent movie that has gained considerable cult-classic status is the 1979 gang war movie, The Warriors. Directed by Walter Hill and VERY loosely based on a novel by the same name (that is very loosely based on Anabasis by Xenophon), The Warriors is one of my favorite anytime movies. I say that because I can literally watch it at any time and still enjoy it just as much as the time before. Admittedly, it is far from being an actual example of good filmmaking, but it serves the purpose of a movie based on such ridiculous subject matter.

The movie takes place "sometime in the future" in a version of New York City that sees the streets overrun by gangs. The opening credit sequence, which is very long, explains that Cyrus (the leader of the biggest gang in New York) has called a summit to which all gangs should send a designated roster of unarmed members. The resident gang on Coney Island goes by The Warriors and they are skeptic about sending their men into such a meeting without any way of protecting themselves. In the grand scheme of things, The Warriors are pretty small potatoes and would rather follow the rules than stir up trouble with New York's biggest gang. They all reluctantly agree to follow the rules of the gang summit.

This elongated opening credit sequence is important because it introduces each character, the plot and the point of the entire film all in the first moments. The director, Walter Hill, decided that he needed a faster way to introduce the plot in order to promptly kick off the action in the movie. I cannot stress enough that this part of the film seems to drag on forever, but if you can stick it through the formulaic dialogue that introduces the action, you will be rewarded with an overall pleasant experience.

The gathering of New York gangs, if thought about, is actually a pretty terrifying scene. The shear mass of gang members in one area is like a nightmare for your average major-city dweller. Cyrus delivers a charismatic message posing the idea that if all gang members in New York combined to make a super gang they would outnumber the cops and be able to run the streets. He stresses his points with his now-famous "Can you dig it?" catchphrase and each time he says it he is met with wild applause from the densely populated audience. Cyrus, played by Roger Hill, is an interesting character because he seems to be able to keep every gang in check. Though you know he is a bad guy, you strangely respect him as someone who unites people.

All of that ends when Cyrus is suddenly shot from the crowd. The viewing audience knows right away that it was Luther (David Patrick Kelly) of the aptly named "Rogues" who fired the shot. Luther wastes little time before blaming The Warriors for the assassination and the rest of the action flows from there. The Warriors are now miles away from home and will have to fight their way back to their beloved Coney Island through not only police, but every other gang in the city. The Warriors, of course, have no idea that they have been blamed for killing Cyrus, but they still have an understanding that the gang truce in no longer active after the messiah-like leader was killed.

What makes The Warriors so interesting is Hill's visual style as a director. Everything from costumes to extended panning cameras instill a sense of a dystopian world. I mean, New York in the 70s was a pretty rough place to be, so it had to take some work to make the future look worse than the actual times. Every aspect of the film is strictly staged and characters sometimes seem telepathic in their ability to be in the right place at the right moment. The major flaw of the movie is easily the dialogue that could be called the opposite of Tarantino-like. Every single line is unnatural in delivery. Not all of the actors in The Warriors are bad, but when you let the frame of the camera dictate who is allowed to speak and set up all conversation in a linear, A-B style, you pretty much shrug off the desire for realistic characters. But is anything in the film supposed to feel realistic?

My biggest peeve with the movie is how it has been re-marketed as a great action thriller. The Warriors is not that. Rather than making an everyday action movie, Hill decided to make a heavily stylized statement about violence and overall male testosterone. It does not promote violence in the way that other movies can, but it is not as anti-violence as its own source material. In other words, it is far more complicated than it seems on the surface.

If you pressed me for an answer I would say that this film became a midnight, cult-smash because it features an array of elaborate costumes and people seem to like dressing up when they hit the midnight cinema. It is not as fun as Rock Horror and it isn't as "overlooked" in its own being as a film like Plan 9 from Outer Space. I think it was just a film that people were not ready for at the time of its release. In 2013, it seems pretty tame. The acting is below average mainly because the dialogue is atrocious. But the story is compelling and the uniquely slow camera work and artistic design is straight out of graphic-novel-nerd heaven. A movie like this is not for everyone, but if you can put up with slow action that is made up for by an original artistic style, then The Warriors is for you.

The Warriors: C+