Saturday, 23 March 2013

Goodbye

Well, here we are. That's every Elia Kazan movie. He is a good director, but he certainly has his share of duds. Overall, he has a 72% directorial average from me. Be sure to check out some of his films.

You can read the complete review of some other directors here. Thanks for reading!

The Visitors (1972)




The following review will contain constant spoilers. I have no other choice considering the film's slowness up until the climax.

THE FILM:
Alas, I sit down to write the final Elia Kazan review. The Visitors was not intended to be my last film, On The Waterfront was. I wanted to end on a major classic, one that was considered Kazan's best. But The Visitors got in the way. It was very difficult to find. The only reason I was given the pleasure of viewing it is by purchasing a region one export from the UK. That's The Visitors for you. It was the Elia Kazan nobody ever saw, and nobody will ever see, which is quite tragic, considered it is a very powerful film.

They idea for The Visitors, clearly comes from a true story, that later went on to become the subject of Brian de Palma's Casualties of War. There are many differences between the two films. They both took very different approaches. Casualties of War is a very un-subtle film about when the events actually unfolded. Where as, The Visitors is a very subtle film that takes place after the events depicted in Casualties of War occurred.

The character Michael J. Fox plays in Casualties of War, is the character James Woods plays in The Visitors. In fact, this was James Woods feature film debut. He was the only actor in The Visitors to go to becoming a star. In fact, Woods starred in such films afterwards as Once Upon a Time in America, The Virgin Suicides, Casino and Videodrome.

I think it is pretty clear that I cannot find very much to say about The Visitors. I don't want to bore you with dull details, so I'll stop now. Where does The Visitors stand today? It is most likely the most unpopular film Elia Kazan ever made. It is practically impossible to find on DVD. It currently holds a 6.6 on IMDb and it does not have a score on Rotten Tomatoes. That said, it could be Kazan's most underrated film.

THE PLOT:
Bill and Martha live a very typical life on snow-ridden farm land. They have a young baby together and they live in close proximity to Martha's-pulp-western-writing-alcoholic father. All is normal until one unusual day that is marked by the arrival of Tony and Mike. Bill, Tony and Mike were three buddies back in Vietnam, and they stopped by for a quick visit. However, it soon become apparent to Martha that the three men were involved in something very secretive during Vietnam. Martha is filled with questions.

As Tony and Mike's stay lengthens, she begins to find out more than she expected. Much to her surprise, she discovers that during the war, the three men were involved in a court marshal after Tony and Mike kidnapped and rapped a young Vietnamese girl. Bill is filled with quilt for ratting the two men out to the authorities. However, Tony and Mike are filled with something much more sinister than quilt. They are filled with the need for vengeance.

THE CRITICISM:
I will never forget The Visitors. It uses a very clever and unique style to get a unique point across to the audience. Yes, this film, like many others, is an anti-war film. There were several films with a similar message around the time of the Vietnamese war. But none of them were anything like The Visitors. Here we witness the realism of the horror of war. No, I don't mean any Spielberg type film where blood and guts spurt out everywhere in order to show "the horrors of war". This film is all about how war scars us, how it haunts us. The Visitors creates the perfect tone in order for the rest of the film to work. And oh does it work!

 I had some problems with how Elia Kazan stretched out a great deal of the film in order to make the climax seem more abrupt, sudden and utterly terrifying. As we witness long scenes in which they sit on the couch watching football, and talking about how football players are the people who get the most women, are interest dwindles. We know how everything in the film will end, there are no surprises whatsoever. Therefore, Elia Kazan didn't need to spend so long building the realism of the lengthy discussions between Bill, Martha, Tony, Mike and Martha's father, Harry.

I've probably built up a fair bit of mystery about what happens in The Visitors. I'm going to go ahead and spoil it. What happens is, Tony and Mike beat up Bill, and rape Martha. They then drive off into the distance. The scene in which Bill is beaten is not particularly graphic, it is shown in a long shot in the middle of the night where darkness surrounds everything. Yet, it leaves us with such a feeling of horror, because of the fact that it appears so realistic. However, Elia Kazan continues to prove that Spielberg's belief that the only way to shock and audience is through graphic violence is a naive one. Tony and Mike proceed to rape Martha. We don't see any nudity in this scene, we see minor thrusting, and yet it becomes much more disturbing that the "singin' in the rain" rape scene in A Clockwork Orange. Why is this? It appears Kazan truly understood something about how to make people re-act to violence, but he didn't have enough time to truly demonstrate what he was capable of, because he spent so much of his career working under very strict regulations. Elia Kazan was never able to show as much as his films would entail. Such films as Baby Doll work because of how much he was forced to suppress the sexuality. Yet, until The Visitors, no Elia Kazan film ever felt proper. This was the only film where Elia Kazan was able to release what his films needed to show.

The Visitors manages to suffer in performances. James Woods delivers an acceptable performance that seems as though he could have delivered much more. Patricia Joyce, who plays Martha is neither good nor bad. The film would have been much better should a better actress been hired. We need a great performance to make us believe, so we can sympathize. Steve Railsback and Chico Martinez give mediocre performance as the realistic but sadistic visitors. The characters of the film are so perfectly written, but the acting doesn't live up to the film's maximum potential.

It is the quiet and cold visitor that makes the impact. After watching The Visitors, I will never be the same. No, it is not a great film, no it is not a masterpiece, but it achieves precisely what it intended to.

The Visitors,
1972,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: James Woods, Patricia Joyce and Steve Railsback
7.5/10 (B+)


Ranked:
1. On The Waterfront
2. Baby Doll
3. Panic in the Streets
4. A Face in the Crowd
5. Splendor in the Grass
6. East of Eden
7. A Streetcar Named Desire
8. The Visitors
9. The Last Tycoon
10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
11. Viva Zapata!
12. Boomerang!
13. Pinky
14. Gentlemen's Agreement
15. Wild River
16. America, America
17. The Sea of Grass
18. Man on a Tightrope
19. The Arrangement

Thursday, 14 March 2013

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

THE FILM:
A Face in the Crowd is a rough depiction of not only one person, but a kind of person. The main character, Lonesome Rhodes was based off the television personality, Arthur Godfrey, but the film manages to say much more about people than just one man. However, there was also another inspiration for the character of Lonesome. The children's radio broadcaster, "Uncle" Don Carney reportedly once said at the end of a show "that 'otta hold the little bastard", not knowing he was still on air. Something like that does appear in A Face in the Crowd.

A Face in the Crowd is an important film because it brought two big names that we all know to fame. Andy Griffith's film debut was A Face in the Crowd. He went on to become a large success in the film industry, but even more of a success on television. He is very popular for "The Andy Griffith Show", and it is hard to believe that it all started here. Another debut from A Face in the Crowd is that of Lee Remick. She would later go on to star in The Omen, Anatomy of a Murder, Days of Wine and Roses and, another film directed by Elia Kazan, Wild River.

In the 1990s, somehow A Face in the Crowd managed to create a popular phrase used for a certain group of people who resembles Lonesome Rhodes. The name itself, was Lonesome Rhodes. For example, Fox News anchor, Glenn Beck has been called Lonesome Rhodes in the past.

Where does A Face in the Crowd stand today? It is certainly held in high esteem. That is the reason I was saving it for one of my last Elia Kazan films. A Face in the Crowd was not originally held too high by critics, you could say that it received mixed reviews. However, as time has passed it has been surprisingly accurate in depicting the manner in which humanity would progress. A Face in the Crowd currently holds an 8.1 on IMDb, making it Kazan third highest film and a 91% on Rotten Tomates, making it among his best.

THE PLOT:
A young woman named Marcia enters a penitentiary in the mild of nowhere. She comes to interview the drunken men from the jail for a radio program of hers called "A Face in the Crowd". Nobody is keen on being interviewed. The warden of the jail tells one of the drunken men asleep on the floor that if he sings a song he can be a free man in the morning. Well, the drunken man agree. Marcia asks him what his name is. He says "Rhodes". She asks for his first name, he tells her it doesn't matter. She flicks on her radio and introduces "Lonesome Rhodes". Lonesome does more than just sing a song, he talks with power and energy, he shouts, he has delight of freedom in his voice.

Marcia takes the recording back and shows it to her uncle. He tells her that they simply must get their hands on Lonesome for a radio broadcast program. And so, Marcia and her uncle manage to track Lonesome down. They beg him to do the show, and he agrees. At that very moment Lonesome begins to head down the road from homeless man to world famous star.

The next day Lonesome begins the radio show. He immediately connects with his audience. Women worship him for his understanding of their daily toil. Men respect him for his brutally honesty about the world. Lonesome soon learns he has an influence on these people listening. Lonesome his receiving nothing but success when he receives an offer to do a television program in Memphis.

Lonesome arrives in Memphis and begins the program. Audiences love him. However, his sponsors seem to have a separate opinion on him. A sponsor of Lonesome's is frustrated when Lonesome constantly mocks the products. However, the sponsor soon learns that his sales have increased by 55%. It's a win win situation for everyone, the audiences are entertained, the sponsor's sales experience a heavy increase, and Lonesome receives power, fame and money. But Lonesome does not peak yet. His real fame as nowhere near commenced. He is invited to do a television series in New York, and so he does.

In New York, Lonesome reaches maximum power. The question is, how long can he go on until he peaks and slowly fades away? Will people forget him? Will he become... just another face in the crowd?

THE CRITICISM:
For a film like A Face in the Crowd that is so character driven, it is important to have great actors to pull it all off. Guess what? A Face in the Crowd  certainly manages to pull it off. Andy Griffith gives the obvious performance in A Face in the Crowd. By obvious I mean that it is the one that clearly demonstrates quality acting, that nobody will miss. However, I felt that the ultimate performance of A Face in the Crowd belongs to Patricia Neal, who would later go on to star in a supporting role in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Her character suffers from the sickest forum of mental abuse from Lonesome, and yet she puts up. She puts up, and yet you want to her to walk out and be strong, but she is weak. A Face in the Crowd is without a doubt another Elia Kazan film where all the acting is practically flawless.

A Face in the Crowd shows in great detail how Lonesome progresses to a big name. Since it is so detail and realistic, it seems to be quite believable. It is very important for a film like this to be very believable, because since it is not about plot, it requires you to believe in it so you can focus on the characters. Although A Face in the Crowd remains generally realistic, that does mean it does not go dry. At one point, around the middle of the second third, it seems for a short amount of time that Lonesome is not the main character. In switching for a short while to Marcia as the main character, Kazan really loses us. She is a flat character who only matters to us, when Lonesome is around. Luckily, we soon go back to Lonesome's perspective as he begins to breakdown.

One of the more minor aspects of A Face in the Crowd that I consider worth mentioning is the great original music. Lonesome is a country-folk musician, so the film would truly benefit from original music. The score was original and seemed to be better than a lot of professional country music I have heard. The music is a clever manner of contradicting against the very dark themes and manners of the film.

A Face in the Crowd has a lot of meaning within it's cinematography. Kazan uses shadow in the background, and lighting in the faces. He illuminates the faces of the characters to emphasize well... the face. Because in the film, the face is what matters. The characters are what make this film so fabulous.  Therefore, we need to see what we want to see - their face.

At last, I can say why I really love A Face in the Crowd. Everything I have mentioned above is generally mild in comparison to what A Face in the Crowd says, and how it says it. Although it is a message film, and a very unsubtle message movie, it really got under my skin. I'm not quite sure how, but it did. It is very rare to be disturbed by a film from the 1950s, but A Face in the Crowd nails it. The idea from A Face in the Crowd (if you haven't understood already) is that all people start off a face in the crowd, and they will die a face in the crowd. Lonesome Rhodes is an accurate representation of people, and what people are.

A Face in the Crowd,
1957,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal and Lee Remick
8.5/10 (A)

Ranked:
1. On The Waterfront
2. Baby Doll
3. Panic in the Streets
4. A Face in the Crowd
5. Splendor in the Grass
6. East of Eden
7. A Streetcar Named Desire
8. The Last Tycoon
9. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
10. Viva Zapata!
11. Boomerang!
12. Pinky
13. Gentlemen's Agreement
14. Wild River
15. America, America
16. The Sea of Grass
17. Man on a Tightrope
18. The Arrangement

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Gentlemen's Agreement (1947)

THE FILM:
Gentlemen's Agreement is the kind of film that overtime has developed a reputation of being a film with overly blunt messages, much like Kazan's film he would release two years later, Pinky (read my review here). As surprising as it is, Gentlemen's Agreement was a very controversial film at the time. When several of Fox's producers discovered about the film production, they demanded that film be shelved. They did not want to have to deal with anti-antisemitism so outright bluntly. They considered it to be a a subject that should be discussed and worked on quietly. However, not only did production continue, but a sequence was added based on the confrontation among the producers. However, today, Gentlemen's Agreement is the opposite of controversial.

The film names three antisemitism political figures. Darryl F. Zanuck went to meet up with lawyers to see what they could do in their defense, as the political figures were real people. Zanuck learned they would be allowed to sue Zanuck and 20th Century Fox. Zanuck was reported saying "Let them sue us. They won't dare, and if they do, nothing would make me more happy than to appear personally as a witness or defendant at the trial". Ah, finally. An example of how Darryl F. Zanuck can successfully achieve something that assisted his film. Of these three politicians who were depicted in Gentlemen's Agreement, the first died shortly before the film's cinematic release, the second lost his campaign around the time of the film's release and the third did try to sue Zanuck. However, it was an immediate failure and Zanuck did not lose a cent of money.

Zanuck and Kazan had opposite reactions to the film. Zanuck felt that the film was perfect as it brought up antisemitism in a way few were aware of. He felt is was the opportune timing for the film's release, as it was during a time when there was a lot of discussion on the actual events that surpassed within the Nazi death camps. Kazan took a separate approach to the film's quality. Elia Kazan did win an Academy Award for his direction in Gentlemen's Agreement, but he still did not think of it as a good film. Much after the film's release he claimed that the film's centre romance was ridiculously forced. He did not believe the characters would actually fall in love if they were real. He also claimed part of the film's fault was because of him. Kazan claimed that he had showed no passion to the film. As it was not a sensitive issue to Kazan, the film was not deep and sympathetic enough for his liking. However, if he were to make it very personal and passionate, he would have ended up with something like his 1963 film, America, America (read my full review here).

Where does Gentlemen's Agreement stand today? Well, it is often compared to Pinky, which is not a particularly faltering comparison. The general consensus (or the gentlemen's agreement, if you will) on Gentlemen's Agreement is that it is a forced message movie. Although it is one of Kazan's most renowned movie, it has drowned over time. It was nominated for several Academy Awards, including: Best Supporting Actress (won), Best Director (won), Best Picture (won), Best Actor (lost), Best Actress (lost), Best Film Editing (lost) and Best Writing (lost). People who watch Gentlemen's Agreement can be divided into two groups of reactions. Many people may admire it's sugarcoated messages, and others may not. For that, it has mixed reviews. It currently holds a 7.3 on IMDb and a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes. Gentlemen's Agreement lives on, but it may not be for very long.

THE PLOT:
Philip Green is a writer living with his young sun and mother. One day, he is offered to write a story on antisemitism in modern American times. However, it is not long before it dawns on him. In order to fully take on the story, he must take on the life of a Jew. So for the next six months he must pretend to be Jewish in order to get the best possible story.

As Green pretends to be Jewish his life begins to crumble. His rights are taken away from him. He cannot stay in nice hotels, he cannot attend nice parties. Philip Green learns the struggles that Jews have experienced... just for believing in their religion  But can he can it all onto paper and effect the world? Can he make everyone see it, the way he sees it?

THE CRITICISM:
Ouch. I have never had to cover my eyes to shield them from stale acting in my entire life. There is a sequence when Gregory Peck as Philip Green is conversing with his mother. He suddenly realizes, and as he shouts out "MY GOD! I'VE GOT IT! I MUST BECOME... JEWISH!". His mother gasps and looks at him. Then begins a very painful scene of overacting. Although the entire film does not roll out in this manner, there are a few other scenes. However, Gregory Peck is awful, even though he was nominated for an Academy Award. Celeste Holm delivers an average performance that doesn't make you cringe like Gregory Peck did. Dorothy McGuire is as good as always. Her performance is slightly bland, but understandable.

Another ouch. Gentlemen's Agreement knows what it wants, however what it wants is not necessarily a good thing. I respect a film that can combine a message, with subtly. There is no combination in Gentlemen's Agreement. If I wanted to be told about the many terrible aspects of racism  I would hire to people to tie me to a chair and yell into my face for two hours about how bad antisemitism is. Because that would be more subtle than Gentlemen's Agreement. I admire the fact that Gentlemen's Agreement tries, but how could I possibly admire the fact that Gentlemen's Agreement fails?

When I watch a black and white film, I love to see great cinematography. However in Gentlemen's Agreement, Elia Kazan uses the camera only to record and not to show what can be done with video photography. Although the sets are occasionally set up well to show balance in the scenes that are supposed to be balanced, they are still balanced during the scenes where Philip Green is not a balanced person. Therefore, Kazan was not reaching out in any way there. He just wanted everything to look "nice". As well, Elia Kazan fails to do anything noteworthy with the camera in order to help tell a story. His camera sits there, and then cuts. Great filmmakers use great shots, great angels to best exhibit characters' emotions, Elia Kazan acts as though that is a foreign concept to him in watching Gentlemen's Agreement, much like what he did in The Sea of Grass (read my review here). Every frame in Gentlemen's Agreement is poorly lit. Nothing in the frame is given any attempt to be emphasized, even when there are clear things that should be the focal point. With Gentlemen's Agreement, Elia Kazan proves to be much more concerned with storytelling than quality film making.

Even after all that, I found it rather difficult to crush Gentlemen's Agreement. It tried so hard to be a film to change the way people see the persecution Jews experience. I have to give it a lot of credit for putting so much effort into it, even though Gentlemen's Agreement could not make any alterations today.

Gentlemen's Agreement,
1947,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and John Garfield
6/10 (C-)


Ranked:
1. On The Waterfront
2. Baby Doll
3. Panic in the Streets
4. Splendor in the Grass
5. East of Eden
6. A Streetcar Named Desire
7. The Last Tycoon
8. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
9. Viva Zapata!
10. Boomerang!
11. Pinky
12. Gentlemen's Agreement
13. Wild River
14. America, America
15. The Sea of Grass
16. Man on a Tightrope
17. The Arrangement

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

On The Waterfront (1954)

THE FILM:
On The Waterfront to this day is considered to be Elia Kazan's greatest masterpiece. Upon opening release it was immediatly deemed an instant classic. Much time has passed, and On The Waterfront has never dulled or become less poignant.

The idea for On The Waterfront emerged from an article for the New York Sun. It was then adapted into a screenplay by was originally turned down by Daryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox. However, he later decided he would let 20th Century Fox make it into a film. After reading over the gritty script, he decided that Elia Kazan would be the perfect director for the film. However, Elia Kazan currently... hated Darryl F. Zanuck. The reason for his hatred was because of how Zanuck forced Kazan to cut down Man on a Tightrope to the bare bones. Believe me, Man on a Tightrope would have been better if all the essence of it had not been got out. It was an awful film (read my review here), and Kazan blamed Zanuck. However, Elia Kazan read the script and he was quite impressed. During a meeting with Kazan, Zanuck and the film screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, Zanuck admitted to something. He claimed he didn't like the script one bit. He didn't comprehend why anyone would possibly want to waste their time on a film about a bunch of poor, sweaty men. This was beneficial for Schulberg and Kazan's view of the film. They then met up with Sam Spiegel who decided the would re-locate their film to Columbia.

Sam Spiegel knew what was best for the film's future, and Marlon Brando was the best option. So Spiegel sent the script to Brando, however he placed small pieces of paper between several pages. When the script was returned to Speigel from Brando, Brando claimed he was not interested  And yet, the small pieces of paper were still left in the pages, indicating that Brando had not even attempted to read it. However, Spiegel had his heart sent on Brando. As he continued to convince Brando, Frank Sinatra was hired in case Brando was unsuccessful.

This was a difficult film for Brando to accept. Not only was it a very controversial film with a difficult character for Brando to play, but his mother had just died and he was in the middle of a difficult time. Brando decided to accept the role for the greater good of his career. However, during the shooting, Brando could not stay past 4:00 P.M because every day after working he would have to go see his analyst. Brando was meeting with his analyst at the time because his mother was dead and he was having trouble getting over his family problems. The classic sequence in the back of the taxi cab where Brando's character and his brother (played by Rod Steiger) argue was completed after 4:00 P.M. The close-ups of Steiger could not be completed in time, so Brando had to leave. Steiger was very aggravated by this because he felt it was very difficult to feel as if he was the character with Brando. He was apparently very bitter during the shooting and he would often bring this up in many interviews to follow.

As I said earlier, On The Waterfront was an immediate success. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards including: Best Picture (won), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (won), Best Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best Director (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Actor (won), Best Writing (won), Three Best Supporting Actor Nominations (lost all three) and Best Music (lost).

Where does On The Waterfront stand today? It holds an 8.3 on IMDb, currently ranked as Kazan's best film. On Rotten Tomatoes, On The Waterfront has 100%, tied for Kazan's greatest film. On The Waterfront has never sunk in popularity and it is considered one of the greatest American films of all time.

THE PLOT:
Ex-boxer, Terry Malloy, now has to work on the docks to make money to stay alive. He sits back and remembers the times in his life where he mattered. It is then that the corrupt head of the docks, Johnny Friendly, manipulates Terry into helping them knock off someone Friendly wants out of the picture. In trying to escape his guilt, Terry falls in love with Edie, the sister of the man he knocked off.

As he continues hiding his secret he finds his brother has been knocked off by Friendly's men. Malloy then tries to take matters into own hands by getting his revenge and liberating the freedom of the under-paid dock-workers.

THE CRITICISM:
What can be said on On The Waterfront that has never been said before? I wish I could provide a unique opinion, but everything has been said before. Perhaps the primary aspect of On The Waterfront is the performance of the underling main character, played by Marlon Brando. For years and years everyone has been in awe of his performance. He takes what he did in A Streetcar Named Desire, but dials it down to a realistic level. Then he piles on a softer side to make us believe in him and to sympathize with him. I believe that Marlon Brando became a great actor after this film.

I found that the other performance worth commenting on is Karl Malden. I have found myself to be very impressed while watching every Kazan film, and this is another great film. There is a sequence in On The Waterfront where Karl Malden stands in a pit over the dead body of an acquaintance  He yells about justice and the disrespect these people have shown. He yells about justice, and how these people need to stand up. It was then I felt in complete awe of the Karl Malden's acting. He makes us feel very strong emotions.

On The Waterfront is without a doubt Kazan's most dedicated film. He says so much about abuse, the mob and communism. Here in On The Waterfront we witness the well-acted, and yet unrealistic performance of Lee J. Cobb as Johnny Friendly. He abuses his workers and constantly operates around the law. Kazan certainly raised awareness for the abuse against dock workers. Over time, if there is one thing we have learned about audiences, is that they love film about gangsters. Have popular have Scorsese's film been? Well, On The Waterfront is the birth of Scorsese's gangster films. Here we view the entertaining type film of gangster in long coats, with guns sitting around smoking cigarettes. We see hatred, violence and the gritty truth. Here's the truth: we love gangster films. Yes, many people did not consider On The Waterfront to be about communism. Yet, the main character's values were of equality, that everyone should be treated equally. In fact, the main reason Kazan made this film was to make a point about communism to his friends.

Everything about On The Waterfront is so classic. How many people have not heard the lines "You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you Charley." These chracters are the ones that stick in our mind with the moments we stick in our mind. On The Waterfront is a gritty film about the realistic world we live in. Terry Malloy is a hero for every man in the world. On The Waterfront is a masterpiece, see it, NOW!

On The Waterfront,
1954,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb
9/10 (A+)


Ranked:
1. On The Waterfront
2. Baby Doll
3. Panic in the Streets
4. Splendor in the Grass
5. East of Eden
6. A Streetcar Named Desire
7. The Last Tycoon
8. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
9. Viva Zapata!
10. Boomerang!
11. Pinky
12. Wild River
13. America, America
14. The Sea of Grass
15. Man on a Tightrope
16. The Arrangement

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

THE FILM:
In 1951, a film adaptation of a successful Broadway play hit the big screen. This film was A Streetcar Named Desire, based off Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" play. Other than in the lead of role of Blanche, there was not much thought put into casting. Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden all reprise their roles. The real struggles, as I said earlier, was to find the actress who would play Blanche DuBois.

Many actresses attempted to audition for this role. Jessica Tandy was originally slated for the role, as she had played Blanche in the original Broadway performance. However, she was removed as she was not a big enough name at the time. Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis were both considered for the role, but the final decision was to go with Vivien Leigh, who had made her sudden cinematic breakthrough with Gone With The Wind. In fact, Vivien Leigh had once played Blanche under the direction of her husband at the time, Laurence Olivier. She later claimed Olivier was a stronger director than Elia Kazan. This was a great choice for the film, but not a great choice for Vivien Leigh. As she grew older, she developed, she had much difficulty distinguishing her life from that of Blanche DuBois.

Before Elia Kazan was attached to the directing A Streetcar Named Desire, William Wyler had hoped to direct a screen adaptation with Bette Davis in the lead role. Kazan had no desire to adapt this into a film. However, the studio certainly did. Kazan felt he had achieved a high degree of personal and critical satisfaction in the Broadway play. It was not until Tennessee Williams began to pressure Kazan into doing it that he gave in.

It's unfortunate that the studio forced Kazan to cut down A Streetcar Named Desire to remove certain material that would be deemed unsuitable for the audiences. For example, in the original play, Blanche's ex-husband had committed suicide after discovering he had become a homosexual. Nothing of this nature appears in the film. Some alterations were made to the screenplay, and others in the cutting room. However, to this day, A Streetcar Named Desire is considered to be advanced in it's suggestive content. There are few films to exhibit this much sexual material made in this 1950s. Another example, is Kazan and William's later collaboration, Baby Doll.

Where does A Streetcar Named Desire stand today? Well, it currently holds an 8.0 on IMDb, with a ranking in the top IMDb 250 of all time. As well, it holds the 47th position on the AFI 100 Years... 100 Movies list. It is also considered to be one of Kazan's finest films.

THE PLOT:
Blanche DuBois arrives in New Orleans to visit with her sister, Stella and her caveman-like husband, Stanley. After Blanche observed Stanley's brute-like habits he becomes wary of her. He claims she is lying about much more than she admits.

While on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Stella hooks up with Stanley's friend Mitch. This brings nothing but misfortune as all that Blanche takes for granted collapses beneath her.

THE CRITICISM:
Here is an example of time's weight on acting. Most of the performances are very up-to-date, with the exception of Vivien Leigh. It is almost as if she is oblivious to the fact that there is a camera in front of her. She acts as though she is surrounded by a stage of 1,000 people. Her performance is forced, and even though there are many who consider her to be a marvel to this day, I would have to disagree. Marlon Brando is quite good, as he always is, and yet I found this performance to be another of his more overrated ones. He delivers his performance with accuracy, as he plays an uneducated alcoholic brute, and yet, it didn't seem like to difficult a role to play. Kim Hunter did as the role was supposed to. She did not more or no less. Karl Malden demonstrates skillful and controlled acting in the minority of scenes he is in. His character is realistic. At times he is aggressive, and at other times he is sympathetic. A very strong performance for Karl Malden!

A Streetcar Named Desire  lays it's characters out flat on the table and takes time to dissect each one. Some characters get more dissection, but they all get some. This makes A Streetcar Named Desire not only a more enjoyable experience, but a more bewildering experience.

Yes, the themes and characters do tend to be exaggerated. But that can be said for many films. In life, people don't stand up and yell at the top of their lungs. Nobody expresses themselves like they do in plays. That is simply for the personal gain of these characters and this story. It is fairly easy to put this aside, however.

I certainly love it when an old film uses questionable material.  A Streetcar Named Desire is just filled with alcoholism and sex. For a film in 1951, that is practically insane. So I congratulate Kazan on taking a leap of faith.

In this Elia Kazan film, it seems as though Kazan did not direct. It seems as though the weight of direction was placed upon the shoulders of the actors. To further explain, it seems as though the entire film rests on the quality of the performances. It is almost as if there is nothing else to admire. Although Kazan could have helped execute the best performances from the actors, it seems as though he didn't.

I will take a moment to express my gratitude towards Tennessee Williams for writing a mighty fine play. The dialogue is snappy and quick. In fact, by the time you catch the innuendo in the previous line, you've already missed something. A Streetcar Named Desire would possibly benefit from a re-watch.

Just on a final note, A Streetcar Named Desire works through realism. At a few points during Blanche's mental meltdown there seemed to be an audio echo. This was the only effect in the film and it certainly took me out of the proper mood.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a very strong film, but an overrated film as well.

A Streetcar Named Desire,
1951,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter
7.5/10 (B+)

Ranked:

1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. East of Eden
5. A Streetcar Named Desire
6. The Last Tycoon
7. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
8. Viva Zapata!
9. Boomerang!
10. Pinky
11. Wild River
12. America, America
13. The Sea of Grass
14. Man on a Tightrope
15. The Arrangement

Saturday, 23 February 2013

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

THE FILM:
In 1945, Elia Kazan's cinematic debut was publicly released. The film was an adaptation on a novel titled "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". The novel's success was predicted therefor there was a massive pre-publication bidding. Darryl F. Zanuck eventually won the bidding with $55,000. That was a mighty large price to pay for the right to a film in the 1940s.

From that point, who knows why, but Zanuck selected Kazan to direct the film. Having only made one documentary short in the past, Kazan was a newcomer. There is much speculation of how exactly Kazan got to be the director. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Kazan and the author of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn", Betty Smith, both attended the same university.

When Kazan left New York to arrive at pre-production for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, he left New York with Nicholas Ray. Ray went on to become a successful film director with such films under his belt as Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place. He became a Hollywood gossip sensation when he came home to find his wife (at the time), Gloria Grahame in bed with his thirteen year-old son. Perhaps Ray's career all started with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn since he had a small role, he was un-credited as an assistant director, he assisted Alfred Newman with the score, and he was credited as dialogue assistant. Ray's directorial debut was in 1948, when he made They Live By Night.

Since the novel was so successful, there was a massive battle for the lead roles in the film. Alice Faye was considered for the role of Katie Nolan, but Kazan did not approve of her and selected Gene Tierney instead.  However, Tierney was impregnated and the role was bestowed down to Dorothy McGuire.

Kazan demonstrated quality direction that few filmmaker would be strong enough to do in their first film. 20th Century Fox was very satisfied with Kazan's progress and they immediately envisioned A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a major success. It was the opinion of every 40s and 50s production company that a film could only be successful if there was in Technicolor. No matter how many film would prove that point to be wrong  they still went on believing it. Therefore, it is no surprise that Fox wanted to re-shoot A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in Technicolor. It is a marvel that Elia Kazan had enough authority to decline and convince Fox that it was a poor idea. Kazan didn't go on to make a film in colour until 1955's East of Eden.

How does A Tree Grows in Brooklyn stand now? It currently has a 7.9 on IMDb and a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

THE PLOT:
In the early 1900s in Brooklyn, the Nolans family endure many hardships. They are a large family with many children and one mother who does all the work. The family's father is an alcoholic. As the film progresses we begin to learn each of the characters and their issues. Katie (the mother) struggles to support her family. Sissy (the aunt) struggles with her own love life and how she constantly falls in love again and gets married. Johnny (the father) is trying desperately to pull his act together and become a responsible father so his children and wife will accept him. Francie (the daughter) wants her family to become wealthy so she can have a proper education.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of a family that must come together to unite in true happiness.

THE CRITICISM:
As time passes, the definition of quality acting evolves. Yet to this day, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not dated in it's acting. Each cast member demonstrates that they deserve to be in this film.

Dorthoy McGuire proves to be a unique and versatile actress. There is a great deal of a difference in her acting in this film than in The Spiral Staircase. She brought a beloved literary character to life. She was have felt a lot of pressure from fan's of the novel, but she exerted herself perfectly. Although her portrayal had flaws she managed to combine sympathy with realism and created an overall powerful performance as a powerful character.

Peggy Ann Garner's career never truly progressed past A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I generally hate child actors, but Garner is an exception. She is fairly likable and intelligent. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I wanted for matters to go well for Francie because of Peggy Ann Garner's excellent performance.

A definitive weaker part of the acting was because of James Dunn as Johnny Nolan. His character was supposed to be dismal and melancholic. Instead he was fairly cheerful and charming. He seemed to be acting to please the audience instead of the critics. However, there is one fabulous scene when he is playing the piano and singing when he breaks through his charm. Sadly, after that scene he returns to just being charming.

Elia Kazan demonstrates a strong eye for social interaction. He does not spend his time focusing on great shots, but on how to depict a character. Every line spoken from every character seems as if Kazan spent a long time tinkering with it to make it sound natural. Kazan makes a marvelous blend of sympathy for the characters he wrote. It seems as if he loves these characters, so you should to. Although I would not take a bullet for these characters like most people who watch A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would, I can give them my empathy.

As I watch the tree slowly grow, I do find myself glancing at my watch. This is one example of how the naive actions of a film production company can indeed provide assistance towards the quality of their films. Elia Kazan spent too long building tragedies in his character's lives so he could give them opportunities to cry. Every character has an unnecessary amount of character development to the point where it is no longer realistic. Once the film dwells in it's loss of realism, it plummets to a slightly lower level. In writing these melodramatic chronicles in the lives of the Nolans, Elia Kazan certainly was pleasing the audience members who would certainly shed a tear. Kazan followed the formula for a successful film, but missed the formula for a great film a little.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,
1945,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Dorthoy McGuire, Peggy An Garner and James Dunn
7.5/10 (B+)

Ranked:
1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. East of Eden
5. The Last Tycoon
6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
7. Viva Zapata!
8. Boomerang!
9. Pinky
10. Wild River
11. America, America
12. The Sea of Grass
13. Man on a Tightrope
14. The Arrangement

Monday, 18 February 2013

The Sea of Grass (1947)


"It's the only picture I've made that I'm ashamed of. Don't see it,:
       - Elia Kazan on The Sea of Grass in his autobiography


THE FILM:
Throughout it's time, The Sea of Grass has made 4.5 million dollars with a budget of 2 million dollars. This means it made 225% percent of it's budget. At first glance, one might consider that to be a great achievement. However, On The Waterfront had a budget of $900, 000 and it brought in just under $10 million. That means On The Waterfront made 111% or so of it's original budget, a success that clearly far surpasses The Sea of Grass.

What would draw someone to see The Sea of Grass? The first option could be Elia Kazan. Although this was a film he suggested nobody see, his name would definitely draw a lot of people in. I know for a fact that he is the only reason for which I just watched The Sea of Grass. The two other possible reasons for The Sea of Grass to draw in a crowd would be because of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. They had a charming, classic Hollywood chemistry that brought many to the theatres to explore the fun those two would have. Their partnership began with Woman of the Year in 1942. Later on, it included Adam's Rib and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. The Sea of Grass is considered to be their weakest film. If you give it some general consideration, Woman of the Year and Adam's Rib were screwball comedies that demonstrated both actors' comedic talent. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner works as it bases it's character relationships on the fact that over the past years we have seen Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn act together, we understand them, and when we see them as an old married couple we can easily sympathize with them and truly want the best for them. That said, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is not a great place to start watching Tracey and Hepburn films as you must be familiar with their chemistry to enjoy it fully. To get back on topic, a reason that I would predict The Sea of Grass does not work as those three other hits did, is perhaps because it was a straight romance-drama when we knew little of the chemistry between Tracey and Hepburn. It was their fourth film and their second and third films had not been massive hits. That said, The Sea of Grass did not go down in history the way some other Tracey and Hepburn films went down in history.

Generally, its not great publicity for a director to denounce their own film and declare it to be an example of poor film-making. Why exactly did Elia Kazan disapprove of The Sea of Grass? Most likely for the same reasons as every other average person (some examples of this reasoning will appear in THE CRITICISM, below). Many sympathize with Kazan in that it is said that he was not in fault when he made The Sea of Grass. The studio put him up to it after the success of his debut film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The public generally accuses Conrad Richter and Marguerite Robert for the poor quality of The Sea of Grass, as they were the writers of the screenplay. However, I am certain that Kazan could have made a few edits to improve the film, that he did not.

The Sea of Grass currently stands with a 6.5 on IMDb and a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes.

THE PLOT:
A woman from St. Louis named Lutie Cameron goes to marry a New Mexico cattleman named James B. Brewton. After their marriage, James B. Brewton shares "the sea of grass" with Lutie. The sea of grass is a sprawling field of long grass the blows in the wind. James experienced many hardships when he moved to New Mexico and he lost his brother. The sea of grass remains a symbol of peace and a way for him to remember.

However, the local inhabitants of the near by village are not crazy about James. They despise the manner in which he keeps them away from "the sea of grass" in an attempt to use it for his personal cattle grazing! What on Earth should Luttie do? Is it correct for her to go on imagining everything is alright?

THE CRITICISM:
The Sea of Grass was a victim of misrepresentation. Many came to the film showings expecting a western as the trailer would have suggested. That said, nothing can hurt a film like advertising the suggests it is something it is not. For example, the 2011 film, Drive, suffered from poor audience reception as most of the audience came in expecting two hours of explosions. I bet a lot of men came to The Sea of Grass expecting to see Spencer Tracey having gun fights. Instead, they received a very slow classic.

Have I mentioned that nothing happens in this? The story dwindles and by half way through you're thinking "they should really have cut out a lot of this" and buy the end of the film you are thinking "wow... they should have cut out all of this!". For a film that is intended to make you feel the emotion of the drama, I sure was feeling board.

The Sea of Grass is a poor imagination that seemed as though it was written by a fourteen-year-old-girl who tries to write like as mature as possible so she can be like her idol Jane Austen. Yet the problem remains, she is fourteen... and she is a terrible writer. I felt like I was watching a replica of everything I'd seen before, Gone With The Wind, a little bit of the drama-romance portion of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion and all those three hour long BBC classic literature adaptations.

Save your time and brain cells - don't watch The Sea of Grass.

The Sea of Grass,
1947,
Directed by Elia Kazan,
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracey and Melvyn Dogulas
5.5/10 (D+)

Ranked:
1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. East of Eden
5. The Last Tycoon
6. Viva Zapata!
7. Boomerang!
8. Pinky
9. Wild River
10. America, America
11. The Sea of Grass
12. Man on a Tightrope
13. The Arrangement

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Man on a Tightrope (1953)


THE FILM:
I have written about how so many of Kazan's film are extremely hard to find. Man on a Tightrope is certainly his second most unknown film (first of course being The Visitors which I have still yet to get a copy of). I've done a fair amount of research on Man on a Tightrope only to learn a few things. One of those things is that this will certainly be a small review.

Man on a Tightrope is an attempt at a melodrama-thriller. It stars Frederic March, Gloria Grahame, Terry Moore and Richard Boone. Gloria Grahame was not originally the first choice for her role. Marlene Dietrich was supposed to play the role but she eventually turned it down. What a shame. It seems every role was originally intended for Marlene Dietrich. Then second choice for the role was Hildegard Knef until Kazan spontaneously changed to Grahame.

Interestingly, Man on a Tightrope was shot on location in Bavaria, Germany. This really helped make me believe in the film.

Where does Man on a Tightrope stand today? It barely does. The most popular way of viewing the film is through The Elia Kazan DVD Collection - a collection I recommend for any Kazan film. In fact, if you look at Man on a Tightrope on IMDb it's poster is one of the Kazan DVD Collection. I'm certain most people only check this film out because of Kazan.

THE PLOT:
Kael Cernik is the head of a group of Czechoslovakian circus performers in 1952, Germany. However, as Czechoslovakian soon falls under the control of communists, Cernik is informed his circus will be re-organized by the communists. A great deal of Cernik's performers are sent to join the military and his circus equipment is taken away from him.

After learning that he is being forced to insert pro-communist messages into his remaining few acts, Cernik decides he has had enough. It is then he decides to escape Bavaria.

THE CRITICISM:
What a mess! This film is filled with characters who seem as if they're to have something essential to the plot of the film... and then we never see them again. It was as if Kazan began to film a ensemble drama where we begin to understand the characters when suddenly - BAM! Kazan decides he wants a thriller.

I just don't get it. Kazan claimed to be a communist and yet here he is, making a clearly anti-communism film. That just proves it. He was a manipulating genius. He pretended to care for several separate causes. However, in giving it two cents worth of thought, you can see right through him. On The Waterfront was clearly pro-communism, and Man on a Tightrope is clearly anti-communism. What kind of filmmaker would make a film to contradict what he believed in? What kind of filmmaker would try to convince people not to believe in his cause?

Each and every big name in the cast fails to deliver performances that could be called even 'adequate'. Here's the problem with melodramas: You can have a great actor star in a melodrama, and you will have no idea whether they will deliver a good performance. The genre itself is very unique, and quite frankly, I have learned that I do not like it.

Little can be said about Man on a Tightrope, and little deserves to be said about it. I recommend you don't see it, even if you love Kazan.

Man on a Tightrope,
1953,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Frederic March, Gloria Grahame, Terry Moore and Richard Boone
5.5/10 (D+)


Ranked:
1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. East of Eden
5. The Last Tycoon
6. Boomerang!
7. Viva Zapata!
8. Pinky
9. Wild River
10. America, America
11. Man on a Tightrope
12. The Arrangement


Saturday, 9 February 2013

East of Eden (1955)

THE FILM:
In 1955 the world changed. One man made that major change. The truth is he could have hardly been called a man at the time. His name was James Dean. He starred in only three films. All of which he played a rebel, a troublemaker and the kind of person we all wish we were. Marlon Brandon was almost given the lead in East of Eden, but it was decided he was too old. You can tell that James Dean never acted, everything he did was play himself. In fact, John Stienbeck (author of the novel "East of Eden") arrived on the set one day and after meeting Dean he exclaimed "Jesus Christ... HE IS CAL!" Another example of Dean's rebellious attitude is when he refused to show up at the premiere of East of Eden, for unknown reasons. This act of rebellion nearly cost Dean his starring role in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, which is perhaps Dean's most well-known role.

Personally, I find that East of Eden best demonstrates Elia Kazan's very original directorial style. There is a classic scene on a rooftop where Cal (James Dean) talks to Abra (Julie Harris). The reason I selected this scene is because in order to get the reaction he hoped for from his actors, he actually got James Dean drunk so he could best deliver a realistic performance. However, Elia Kazan wasn't the only actor doing original things to help cast members deliver the best possible performances. Off-camera, James Dean would provoke Raymond Massey so Massey would hate Dean. The reason for this bizarre action is that Dean felt that this would make Massey's acting as Dean's hating father would appear more realistic. In looking back to this classic film, it most certainly have worked. Eli Kazan knew that Massey despised Dean but did nothing to prevent it, as he approved of realism in characters.

In '56 East of Eden was nominated for four Oscars in the categories of best actor, supporting actress, directing and original screenplay. It one best supporting actress but lost all of the others. Now a days many would despite the academy's naive ruling and consider it an injustice. East of Eden is judged to be Kazan's greatest film as well as James Dean's greatest film. It certainly makes sense to be given such a claim. Despite the fact that I do believe that East of Eden is slightly overrated it still deserves it's position as a major Hollywood classic. What makes this film Kazan's best? Two words. These two words were made into an Eagles song... "James Dean".

THE PLOT:
We start in 1917, a historic time period: right before America drew involvement into World War I. Adam Trask is a successful and elderly farmer with two sons. His first son is Aron, a young successfully who resembles his father; both physically and mentally. His other son is named Cal. To say the least, Cal is the opposite of his brother. He is moody and has difficulty managing his angry outbursts. 

Cal learns from his father that his mother is alive, which contradicts that how his father had claimed that she was dead for many years. After tracking her down, Cal now understands where his anger comes from. After his father loses most of his money, Cal begins to sell beans in order to make money and impress his father. This fails and Cal is once more united with a feeling of depression. Matters get worse as Cal and Abra begin to feel an attraction towards each other.

Nothing is going correctly for Cal as he watches how is life is being torn apart before his eyes. East of Eden is a fascinating character study of a young man who we can all relate to.

THE CRITICISM: 
East of Eden is the type of film that strongly grows on you over time. At least, that how the film worked for me. At times East of Eden is just a little too much, but then again, which Kazan isn't? East of Eden is made by it's acting. There is very little more to comment on while discussing East of Eden.

In the other Kazan films I've seen, this is most likely the greatest performances from the entire ensemble. No, this does not have the greatest performances, but as a whole, East of Eden gets the cake. James Dean does overact  but that's the way the part was written. He takes the lead as as symbol for young people who want to rebel against the strict guidelines of society. This is the best film to view James Dean's best acting. If Dean had not been tragically struck by a car the same year East of Eden was released he would have made perhaps another 30 films. 20 of those films would have been made for money and not have James Dean delivering his greatest performances. The other ten films would most likely have good nonperformance by James Dean, but I highly doubt any of them would compare to East of Eden

Julie Harris demonstrates true diverse acting. She is the star of my favourite horror film, The Haunting in which she plays a nervous woman on the verge of a mental breakdown. In this she plays a young and pretty woman in love. It seems like a simple role that doesn't necessarily demonstrate acting the rises above and beyond. However, Julie Harris adds a simple twist to make her character both realistic and sympathetic. Her character, Abra, apples a new side to Cal that we would not get from any other type of character. Abra's character is more essential than more people give it credit for. Julie Harris nails it. 

The novel, "East of Eden" is more a competition between brothers than it is in the film. I find that the film, East of Eden, cycles around Cal's need for respect from his father, not so much his rivalry between his brother. That said, Raymond Massey does a great job acting like he hates his son, but not acting like he really loves his son (which (this isn't a spoiler) he really does). This is probably because he truly hated James Dean, as I mentioned earlier.

Burl Ives is a great character actor. He gives us a moment to smile and think, "Hey! That's Burl Ives!", but he really does not deliver a great performance like he did in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Finally, the only character that got themselves an Oscar for this film, Jo Van Fleet. She seemed to understand not only her character completely but also Cal's character completely. This was a difficult part to play as she has to find the connection between herself and James Dean to make us believe that she really is the character she plays. She delivers a fabulous performances. 

Finally, I can understand how some people can really dive into East of Eden, but the film in it's entirety did not appeal to myself as much as it did to others. Still, a very strong film.

East of Eden,
1955,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: James Dean, Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet
8/10 (A-)

Ranked:
1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. East of Eden
5. The Last Tycoon
6. Boomerang!
7. Viva Zapata!
8. Pinky
9. Wild River
10. America, America
11. The Arrangement

Friday, 8 February 2013

America, America (1963)

THE FILM:
America, America is Elia Kazan's personal favourite of his own films. The reason for this is it is clearly an extraordinarily personal film for Kazan. The film is the true story of how Kazan's uncle made it to America. America, America is about the struggle he went through to get to the place of his dreams. Stating that he succeeded is in no way a spoiler as the first line of America, America is "My name is Elias Kazan, I am a Turk by Birth, Greek by origin and American because my uncle made a trip." America, America

America, America was originally very well received  It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Bet Art Direction (which it won) at the Academy Awards. However, over time the film's reputation has slightly decreased in quality. Perhaps this is due to the now considered 'wooden' acting. Or, it could be due to the fact that Elia Kazan failed to show flaws in any of the characters of his family. All of that will be discussed later. America, America  currently holds a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes (a score that is just over being "fresh"). However it is still highly regarded on IMDb (Internet Movie Database), where is currently has a 7.7.

America, America's cast is completely unknown. There were some talented actors, and some un-talented actors in the crew. But they were all unheard of. After the film was released there was lots of talk for a future career for Stathis Giallelis. Have you heard of him? If it weren't for this film, I certainly would not have. As I wrote earlier, this film is now considered somewhat... laughable. A portion of that is due to the wooden acting.

THE PLOT:
Elia Kazan narrates at the very opening of the film that the reason for his American nationality is because of his uncle. That is the basis for America, America. His uncle, Stavros lived in Anatolia. After a long Stavros decided he'd had enough of his miserable life. For a long time he'd dreamed of America, and now it was time to go there.

Stavros embarks on his journey, only to find that matters are more difficult that he believed. At one point he retires into the life of a wealthy newly-wed only to find that he is not ready to abandon his dream.

America, America is the opposite of subtle. It is perhaps the most blunt melodrama Kazan ever brought us.

THE CRITICISM:
I first logged America, America as a 8.5/10. A short amount of time later I was staring at a film that I would rate 6/10. Once you've cracked America, America's outer layer, you find that the goo oozes from the inner pustule - and you find a rather large mess upon your hand.

I saw America, America nine days from when I wrote this very sentence, and I can tell you now: there are several moments in the film that have escaped my mind. I see America, America as a film in chapters. This is a reasonable concept considering the film spawns a very long length of time. It is a story that twists and turns, where characters progress and jump backwards. I cannot stand how people express that that is not a problem of the film considering its a true story. "The film is a true story, therefor any problems with the story or script do not count considering the fact that it is a true story" is most likely the most ludicrous opinion the human race has adopted into consideration. It takes more than text stating 'a true story' to make me believe in your film. With that point placed into focus, America, America suffers. Elia Kazan spent time paying homage to his family that he forgot to focus on crafting a well-built story.

The entire deal behind America, America is Elia Kazan giving himself a big hug. The heroes (Kazan's family members) are written perfectly. They are innocent and brave. They are victims of such misfortune and never do they crack. I highly doubt that anyone who is a victim mistreatment every single day of their life would still be so perfect. As well, these characters (especially Kazan's uncle, Stavros) are written terribly. They speak like every single poorly written character we've seen in the cinema for decades and decades.

Perhaps it is a large portion of  the poor writing that makes America, America so wooden. However, another major factor is the emotionless performances from the array of unknown performers. These actors act as if their characters deserve to elicit our sympathy when really, how are we intended to sympathize a group of people whose expression never changes? Why should I care about a group of people who barely appear human?

In approaching America, America I figured that my main problem with the film would be the "flag-waving" factor of promoting America. I was wrong. That was without a doubt the most emotional and well done aspect of the film. At the end of the film, Stavros arrives in America. It appears to be very rundown but it is  Stavros' haven. In exiting the immigration office, he trip and falls on the steps leading out. A man steps out and yells at him to get off the ground. He does not notice, because he is distracted by America. To me, Kazan was trying to say that America did save his family, but he does comment on how harsh the city is. To me, this is Kazan's most complicated message. It is a film that spends the entire film promoting the American country... when really it's doing the opposite.

America, America
1963,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff and Harry Davis
6/10 (C-)

Ranked:
1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. The Last Tycoon
5. Boomerang!
6. Viva Zapata!
7. Pinky
8. Wild River
9. America, America
10. The Arrangement

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Viva Zapata! (1952)

THE FILM:
Viva Zapata! translates to "Long Live Zapata!". The film is in English, the title is in Spanish however. This film is not an unknown film, however it is a hard film to find. Viva Zapata! is the least renowned film with both Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan's collaboration.

There are two stories about Viva Zapata! that I find to be both more fascinating than the film itself. Here is the first. During the shooting of Viva Zapata!, Marlon Brando decided to get into some strange stunts. At one point while in Texas, Marlon Brando set off a firecracker in the hotel. Then later on he sat at the top of a tree at three in the morning and sang to Jean Peters. When a group of reporters bumped into Brando while on set he told them he ate grasshopper and gazelle eyes. Finally, The following include a minor spoiler to the end of the film. If you know anything about history, this will not be a spoiler. After shooting the scene when Zapata is shot down by a large fire of bullets, Brando pretended to be dead for a long time. This terrified the entire cast and crew.

The second tale that occurred on the set of Viva Zapata was after it was revealed that Marlon Brando would play Zapata. Anthony Quinn believed he should have received the role as he looked more Latin American. He brought this point to Marlon Brando. They decided they would have a contest to see who could urinate farther into Rio Grande. Should Quinn lose the bet, Brando would keep the role of Zapata. Should Quinn win the bet, the role of Zapata would go to Anthony Quinn. In the end, Brando's urine traveled a farther distance and Quinn had to settle for the role of Zapata's brother, which he later won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for. All in all, I think he could live with losing the bet.

Elia Kazan worked on the script for Viva Zapata! with John Steinbeck. Apparently as the two would sit around in his New York apartment, Steinbeck would sit opposite Kazan and would whittle. After this, they had a long-lasting friendship.

THE PLOT:
Zapata is the leader of a delegation to report their injustices to the corrupt president, Porfirio Diaz. Time after time, Zapata is dismissed without begin given any thought. With no hope Zapata and his brother begin a rebellion with the help of the North (them being from the South).

Porfirio Diaz is removed from his power by the rebellion and the head of the North, Madero is put in charge.  However, much to Zapata's terror, nothing is different. Madero is just as corrupt in allowing injustices to occur. Even Zapata's own brother is disobeying everything Zapata agrees in. As time passes his world begins to collapse into nothing. The following include a minor spoiler to the end of the film. If you know anything about history, this will not be a spoiler. In the end, the new general who has just been appointed by Madero takes Madero captive and murders him. He then orders an ambush on Zapata and has him killed.

THE CRITICISM:
Viva Zapata! is the kind of film the out-right lies to you and a few Google searches can prove that. This is a film that shows Zapata as a brave rebellion leader... when really, he was a cowardice tyrant to his people. I have no issues with changing appearances of the characters, but Viva Zapata! overdid it. For the film that claims to biographical, it sure does do a lot of lying.

Marlon Brando (as usually) delivers a bewildering performance as Zapata. He combines the rebel character he would play in On The Waterfront with Mexican leader. Make-up did a great job making Brando look as if he were indeed Mexican. However, Brando did not deliver the sole brilliant performance in the film. Anthony Quinn (who as I said earlier did win an Academy Award for this) makes such an unexpected story of sudden corruption seem plausible. There is a great deal of chemistry between Brando and Quinn. This deal of chemistry is essential for the story as the two of them are supposed to pass for brothers. In watching Viva Zapata! it seems as if Brando and Quinn spent a long amount of time together off the set (and not all of that was spent urinating into Rio Grande). However, acting was not the greatest part of Viva Zapata!. Perhaps, it would have been if it weren't for Jean Peters had not starred in it. Her acting skills failed to help her elicit human emotion. Thankfully she does not have a great deal of lines as a lengthy amount of her screen time is spent starring at Marlon Brando as he walks around dramatically.

Viva Zapata is essentially and action-drama. There are multiple sequences of battle scenes followed by long scenes of human drama. This was Kazan only attempt at anything even slightly considerable to being an action film. This is a very bizarre selection for Elia Kazan as this is more of an adventure film than the films he made where the main character in a likable rebel. I'll just say it was enjoyable to see Kazan attempt something different.

By watching the first five or so minutes of Viva Zapata one can easily learn the film is an allegory for the corruption of power. However, as more and more time passes in the film they make this allegory less and less subtle. By the end of the film it can barely be called an allegory. I have said this in previous reviews: if there is one single thing I look for in a film - that is subtly. Viva Zapata! seems at times as if the word 'subtle' is a foreign concept. Partially, as Viva Zapata! is a melodrama at times. However, being a melodrama is no excuse for so overt with no chance for us to stop and think.

The film itself as a great deal of ups and downs. By the end of the film it balances out to an alright score.

Viva Zapata,
1952,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn and Jean Peters
7/10 (B-)

Ranked:
1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. The Last Tycoon
5. Boomerang!
6. Viva Zapata!
7. Pinky
8. Wild River
9. The Arrangement





































Saturday, 26 January 2013

Wild River (1960)

THE FILM:
Wild River is the kind of film I would never have watched if it weren't for Cinema Stripped Down. Not because it has a negative reputation, but because it's reputation is practically absent. The film was released in 1960, making it one of Elia Kazan's later films. Wild River stars Montgomery Clift and I want say it was a terrible performance but I would be offending a man who went through a terrible accident. In the late 1950s Clift was a victim of a very dangerous car crash that he never healed from - emotionally or physically. He went on to make films for another ten or so years. However he never delivered another good performance after his accident (no that he was too good an actor to begin with, see: I, Confess). Also starring in Wild River is Lee Remick who claimed Wild River was her personal favourite of her own films. She wasn't the only one who was awfully fond of Wild River, Kazan considered it to be his greatest of his own films as well. In fact, at one point in the 1970s, Elia Kazan attempted to buy the film's rights so it could be re-released to the public. However, the studio would only sell the rights to Wild River at too high a price for Kazan to purchase.

Bruce Dern made his film debut in a minimal part is Wild River. However, it was still a long time before he became a big name. Speaking of big names, June Carter Cash (Johnny Cash's wife) auditioned for the lead role. However, as you know the part was given to Lee Remick. Lee Remick selected the two actors to play her two children. The fact was selected since it looked like her at the age of seven. The other, the boy, was selected since he loved hugging and kissing Lee Remick. One final thought on big names, Marlon Brandon was Kazan's first choice for the role of Chuck. Marlon Brandon would have been beneficial for the film as he would have delivered a superior performance and being a larger name, a larger quantity of people would have seen Wild River.

Today, Wild River is Elia Kazan's second highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with 100% of critic's appreciation. As well, it receives a 7.6 on IMDb.

THE PLOT:
Wild River takes place around the Tennessee Valley in the early 1930s. For too long islands have been flooded by the overflowing river. TVA is a program that plans to build a dam so that the water will no longer cause havoc. However, in order for this dam to be built everyone living on a small island will need to vacate.

An agent named Chuck is sent to help evacuate the island. When he arrives he notices that they're giving him the cold shoulder. It seems nobody wants to leave. The island is run by an old woman named Ella. She has lived on the island her entire life. Her family was buried there and she will not leave. Chuck then meets Carol, Ella's granddaughter who is burdened with two children and no father. For a short time, Chuck becomes father to those two children as he falls in love with Carol.

And still Ella will not budge. It is not long before everyone has been convinced to leave by Chuck. In fact, everyone is ready to turn their backs to Ella and leave. However, Ella will not allow this.

THE  CRITICISM:
Wild River seems like that environmental film from before everyone was running around screaming about the environment. Of course, that does not last. Wild River has absolutely nothing not say about the world's environmental state, it is about the humanity's state. What I mean by that is rather than commenting on the environment on comments on anti-progress. It is never a question of whether destroying the island to build a dam is the right thing. It discuss if giving into the demands of those who wish to relocate their life and build the dam is the right thing. It was an interesting perspective, but the film would have been superior to it's current state should it have tackled more important issues.

As I quickly mentioned earlier, Montgomery Clift is terrible in this. I'll come right out and say it. He never shows emotion and ever line he reads sounds unnatural. Both truth be told, how can you blame a man who is slowly decaying for delivering a bad performance? Still, if you compare Wild River to I, Confess one could make a statement such as "Montgomery Clift's accident improved his acting skills." This is not the worst performance given by Montgomery Clift. It's one of them. This is also not the worst performance given by someone in a Kazan film. It is one of them. Montgomery Clift wasn't alone in bad acting. Lee Remick was close behind him. I felt like I was watching a sop opera every time the camera zoomed into to her large eyes. The character was not well written, nor was it well played. Finally, to top things off, Jo Van Fleet was fabulous as the elderly woman who runs the island and refuses to see it be taken away from her. At times her acting allows us to look at her as a senile woman who is in the way of progress. But by the end of the film we see everything through her eyes and want everyone to leave her alone.

As I have been working on this site I have began to notice that Elia Kazan's films are much more melodramatic than I expected. So far, if I had to choose one of Kazan's films to best represent melodrama, Wild River is at the top. From the ridiculous and cliche love story between Chuck and Carol to the over dramatic and predictable ending, I felt as if I spent a long time watching Wild River with my head in my hand.  By the end of the film you are wondering how many more times Carol will burst into tears and embraces Chuck as she whines about how bad her life is. How many more times will you have to sit through Chuck's emotionless yelling as he tries to convince people to leave the island? Melodrama can be done well, and it can be done poorly. It has been done poorly in Wild River.

If there's one thing I hate in classic films it is when Technicolor is used... but only because the film has a big budget. Not because it would enhance the film or anything. For example, Rear Window would have worked just as well should it have been in black and white. Don't get me wrong though, I love Rear Window. However, how can you compare it's use of Technicolor to how colour was used in Lawrence of Arabia. I will tell you this, Wild River uses Technicolor beautifully to illustrate the island's beauty and lush. Kazan's first Technicolor picture, East of Eden (which I have been working on my review for a while now) uses Technicolor uselessly as well. It is a story of characters and emotion. In the 50s and early to mid 60s, Technicolor made their films look too unnatural. To this day, I swear, Cary Grant's face looked orange in North by Northwest. However Kazan proved to be master of using colour in film with Wild River as he was able to present both dull and beautiful shades of colour.

As you have probably guessed, I did not like Wild River very much. But I can certainly understand how it would appeal to others. I will suggest it, as it was the kind of film that did not work for me personally.

Wild River,
1960,
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet
6/10 (C-)

Ranked:
1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. The Last Tycoon
5. Boomerang!
6. Pinky
7. Wild River
8. The Arrangement