Saturday, April 16, 2011

Movie Reviews-Glengarry GlenRoss, The Godfather, Your Friends and Neighbors

Glengarry GlenRoss
A long time commenter, Molly, asked what is it with men and The Godfather? I discuss some of that in the following review but another classic film that defines and debates masculinity is Glengarry GlenRoss. Even more than The Godfather, this film explores rigid ideas about manhood. And if you don't fit within those conceptions, hit the bricks pal, cause you are going out! This film was directed by James Foley but it was written by David Mamet and based on Mamet's play. It's Mamet's film. It had an all star cast (Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, and Al Pacino).

A group of real estate salesmen, having failed to meet their bosses' expectations are given one last chance to redeem themselves. I'll stop here and let Alec Baldwin explain it. He was truly at the top of his game here and could not be touched. He almost won an Oscar for this and should have. This scene was also "lifted" and used in Boiler Room. I used to work for someone like this character. I didn't always enjoy it but I did get better at what I do.

Obviously with that sort of incentive the salesmen take a variety of steps in order to keep their jobs. But don't be fooled by the sales setting. This film is really about competition among men and how men (and society) define men based on $ucce$$ or lack thereof. Good film.

"I'm here pop. I'll take care of you now. I'm with you now. I'm with you."
The Godfather
The Godfather's appeal is not limited to men but it does have sternly traditionalist views. There are parallels between tactics shown on screen and real life business. This is among cinema's greatest movies. In 1945, a quiet college educated Italian-American Marine Captain, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) returns to his New York home for his sister's wedding. Michael's family includes his domineering but fiercely protective oldest brother Sonny (James Caan), his adopted intelligent levelheaded brother Tom (Robert Duvall), his hapless brother Fredo (John Cazale) and his boisterous and imperious younger sister Connie (Talia Shire).

Michael is a prodigal son who has rejected his father's business. Michael brings his WASP fiancee, Kay, (Diane Keaton) to the wedding. Kay is fascinated by the stereotypically loud and demonstrative Italians celebrating the wedding, right up until the time that Michael explains to her that the large scary man sitting alone is Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) a Family retainer who murdered six people in two weeks to end a business dispute in the Corleones' favor. And even the dreaded Brasi is afraid of Michael's father.

Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is a grandfatherly Italian man who is earlier shown with his top advisor and adopted son Tom Hagen, dispensing gifts, advice and assistance to visitors. There's no man too humble to get Vito's help and no man so important Vito can't make him an offer he can't refuse. A wise man with great wealth and a warped moral system, Vito is a modern day King Lear. He leads America's largest and most powerful organized crime "Family". It's unclear who will inherit this kingdom.

Vito's underboss, oldest son and presumptive heir, Sonny, is a brash, extroverted Don Juan who is prone to sudden violence and acting before thinking. The middle son, Fredo, lacks the force, intelligence and charisma to lead men. His adopted son, Tom, is not Italian and though smarter than Sonny or Fredo combined, also lacks the strength required to lead. Michael is the best suited to inherit but Michael has refused to join the Family Business. The four brothers correspond almost perfectly to the Four Temperaments. Vito would prefer to see his youngest and favorite son free of corruption and violence.

But like any father Vito is not omniscient. Times change. Events spin out of Vito's control. An upstart drug dealer demands Vito's protection. When Vito declines this despite Sonny's and Tom's urgings, this rival gangster initiates a war that will leave several Corleones and their followers dead or in exile, the family divided internally and the Corleone power almost eliminated.

This movie redefined the genre. No other Mafia movie would challenge this film's artistry until Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas in 1990. Goodfellas was a corrective to The Godfather. Where The Godfather examined the tragically flawed top gang leaders and featured virtually operatic violence, Goodfellas showed street hoodlums. These characters were to a man (or woman) self-serving, greedy and treacherous. Their violence was brutal, disgusting and often mindless. Goodfellas was based on a real story.

The Godfather, today considered to be an unquestioned masterpiece, barely made it to the screen. The studio didn't want Brando or Pacino and constantly threatened to fire the director, Francis Ford Coppolla (FFC). Studio execs referred to Pacino as "the dwarf". And Coppolla didn't even want his sister, Talia Shire, for the Connie role. He thought she was too pretty for the job and didn't want her to get fired . He relented and hired her, thinking if nothing else someone in his family could make some money. The real life Mafia forced the writers to not use the word "Mafia" in the film. Robert DeNiro read for both Michael and Sonny but would have to wait until the sequel to make his mark. He and Marlon Brando remain the only two actors to have won Oscars for playing the same character.

The Godfather is a great film because it only uses the Corleone POV. From a father chastising one son for a dumb mistake to comforting another son overcome with grief,  from a deceptively jolly "uncle" teaching a younger man how to fix pasta sauce to brothers arguing over how to save the family business, the film humanizes characters who are after all, generally quite bad people. You actually identify with the Corleones.  We only see the Corleones acting in self-defense against people who are much worse than they are. FFC was actually dismayed by the audiences' positive reaction  (somewhat similar to how James Gandolfini was irritated by people's endorsement of the Tony Soprano character) and changed the viewpoint rather drastically in the sequel, making it evident that the Corleones were not heroic.

This should have been obvious from the infamous meeting scene of the Dons, who, struggling to define the rules of the post-war heroin trade, agree that it will not be sold to (white) children or in (white) schools but rather to "...the dark people. They're animals anyway so let them lose their souls..."

Your Friends and Neighbors
Neil LaBute wrote and directed this film. After his previous film In The Company of Men it made his reputation as an auteur who looked at humanity's ugly side. Some called this film "misogynistic". It wasn't. Both genders come off as equally vile or pathetic.

This film was LaBute's artistic high point. But it's not a date movie-unless you want to dump your date. LaBute set unnamed characters in a unnamed American city. You don't know the names of the characters until the end credits, although they have long conversations and other interactions with one another. That was a neat trick that never felt like a gimmick. LaBute's style is minimalist here.

This movie is like a Seinfeld episode, were Seinfeld much more cynical and tons more malefic. It's about nothing in particular. This film is dialogue heavy. There are comedic moments and you might call this "dark comedy" but it's definitely not a slapstick laugh out loud movie despite what the trailer shows.

Aaron Eckhart is a sad sack flabby middle management type (Eckhart gained significant weight for this role) who is nauseatingly nice to his wife, Amy Brenneman. Brenneman is patient with her husband but it's evident to each spouse that they have less and less intimate interest or common ground. Both walk on eggshells to avoid hurting the other's feelings.

One person who DOES have a physical interest in Brenneman is Eckhart's best friend, a priapic drama professor, Ben Stiller. But the talkative, demonstrative Stiller has met his match in his girlfriend, a no nonsense Catherine Keener, who seems perpetually upset at the world in general and in particular at Stiller's need to talk constantly-even during intimate moments. While Stiller may pretend he's BMOC when Keener is not around, when she's there it's clear who's running things.

Both Stiller and Eckhart are friendly with the Alpha male of their pack, Jason Patric, a handsome doctor who NEVER has any problems with women for the simple fact that he is so incredibly self-contained he has no need for them emotionally. For him women only serve a physical need. Though he makes this clear to women, he lands better looking and more numerous women than either of his friends. Nice guys finish last. Patric is not a nice guy.

Patric meets his buddies for dinner and exercise 2-3 times a month at which time he regales them with tales of male dominance, elaborate revenges and wild monkey coitus with beautiful women. When someone asks him isn't he concerned about the moral implications of his actions, his response is:
"Yeah, God right? Do I believe in all that, heaven and hell? I don't know. Maybe God does exist. Maybe. But right now, we're on MY time".
Patric has his own ugly secret which he fondly recounts to his friends but which both they and the viewer can only see as utterly horrific. Patric should have won an Oscar for this film. His character may be "evil" but the movie shows, sociopathic or not, he still has some loyalty to his friends. Patric has to show emotional coldness, threatened physical violence, barely contained seething anger, extreme self-righteousness, and zest for life all without raising his voice. Natassja Kinski also appears as an artist's assistant who is pursued by different characters in the film and changes their relationships.
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