The Light from the TV Shows: Giving HBO’s “Phil Spector” a spin

When it was announced that Al Pacino and David Mamet, who proved to be a formidable combination of actor and writer/director on 1992’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” would be reteaming for HBO’s original movie about Phil Spector, reactions of giddiness and uncertainty seemed to be in equal measure. Sure, Mamet’s awesome, and he’s obviously proven that he can get a great performance out of Pacino, but surely there’s substantial chasm between the fiction of Ricky Roma and the reality of Phil Spector, isn’t there?

Actually, you might be surprised.

PhilSpector2

If you haven’t seen “Glengarry Glen Ross” recently, maybe you should see how Roma’s described on Wikipedia:

Although Roma seems to think of himself as a latter day cowboy and regards his ability to make a sale as a sign of his virility, he admits only to himself that it is all luck. He is ruthless, dishonest and immoral, but succeeds because he has a talent for figuring out a client’s weaknesses and crafting a pitch that will exploit those weaknesses. He is a smooth talker and often speaks in grand, poetic soliloquies.

Those who’ve read about Spector’s brusque, often downright crazed interactions with musicians in the studio, his turbulent relationship with ex-wife Ronnie Spector, and a notorious obsession with firearms which—no matter how you spin the story of the night a woman named Lana Clarkson ended up dead in his home—was directly responsible for his eventual incarceration will certainly see some immediate similarities between him and Roma. After seeing HBO’s “Phil Spector,” you will see even more of them. What you will not see, however, is a movie that matches “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

But, then, you probably didn’t expect that, anyway.

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Hidden Netflix Gems: Glengarry Glen Ross

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992)

“Glengarry Glen Ross” is David Mamet’s film adaptation of his 1984 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play of the same name. The star-studded drama depicts two desperate days in the lives of four Chicago real estate salesmen after Blake, a corporate trainer sent by the downtown office (played by Alec Baldwin in one of the best single-scene performances of all-time), announces that in a week all but the best two salesmen will be fired. The film is named after two of the properties the salesmen attempt to unload, Glengarry Highlands and Glen Ross Farms.

Chief among the salesmen is office hotshot Ricky Roma (Al Pacino), who knows every trick in the book and then some, always ready with another up his sleeve. Roma is joined by the less fortuitous Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin), who are rightfully intimidated by Blake’s speech. Last is Shelley “The Machine” Levene (Jack Lemmon), an old-timer whose career was in jeopardy even before Blake showed up. The once-successful Levene’s glory days have long since passed, nothing but the distant memories of a man working support his daughter, who’s hospitalized with an undisclosed condition. Levene will be familiar even to those who haven’t seen the film, as the character was the inspiration for Ol’ Gil from “The Simpsons.”

Early on, Blake shows up to give his “motivational” speech, which includes a likewise familiar line: “A, B, C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing.” It seems there’s to be an office contest over the next week. First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado, second prize is a  set of steak knives, and third prize? Well, “third prize is you’re fired.” Central to the salesmen’s efforts are “leads,” the names and numbers of potential clients distributed by coldly reserved office manager John Williamson (Kevin Spacey). Most of the leads are old and useless, the contact information of people the salesmen have already spoken with and who tend to lack the funds or the desire to actually invest in land. In spite of this, Williamson holds the more promising leads under lock and key, in reserve for the contest’s winners. The situation is a clear Catch-22, as the salesmen need the good leads to have any hope of keeping their jobs, but access to them will only be granted to those that do so by placing in the top two.

Because it was adapted from a stage production, “Glengarry” is minimalist in nature. Only nine actors have speaking roles, it seems every other line of the tight dialogue is highly memorable, while all the action takes place in a small handful of locations. The film is divided nearly exactly into two 50-minute acts. The first takes place on the rain-soaked evening of Blake’s speech and is propelled in large part by Levene’s bumbling attempts to get his hands on a worthwhile lead and make sales. It also showcases Moss and Aaronow’s strategizing in reaction to the announcement of the contest. Pacino’s character receives considerably less screen time in the first half than the other three salesmen, which serves to contrast them with Roma’s cool confidence as he neglects to show up to hear Blake speak and makes a sale with relative ease. On the other hand, the second act is largely Pacino’s turf as the salesmen and their manager show up to work the following day to discover the prime leads have been stolen.

The cast of “Glengarry Glen Ross” has jokingly referred to the film as “Death of a Fuckin’ Salesman.” It’s a profanity-soaked, modern version of the Arthur Miller play the nickname makes reference to, and in each the salesman represents the reality and failure of the American Dream. It’s a fine line between deception and salesmanship, and the film gives us both. It’s the subtle contrast of Levene’s grandstanding—barking orders to an invisible secretary or pretending he’s got a plane to catch—with the defeated look in his eyes. He seems to be perpetually a moment from tearing up and two from a total breakdown.

A frighteningly accurate portrayal of working in sales, “Glengarry” has been certified fresh and currently sits at a 96 percent on the Tomatometer. Pacino’s work in the film garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but Baldwin’s speech alone makes “Glengarry Glen Ross” a more than worthwhile way to spend 100 minutes on a Saturday evening.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

 

  

Load up on guns and bring your friends: Twenty great action movie ensemble casts

When we saw the cast that Sylvester Stallone assembled for war machine throwback that is the upcoming “The Expendables,” well, we were just giddy. It didn’t matter that Stallone’s recent writing projects (“Rocky Balboa,” “Rambo”) were as predictable as a sunrise and safe as houses – he has put together the single biggest cast of ass-kicking movie stars we’ve seen in decades, possibly ever. Indeed, as we looked back at great action ensembles from the past, we discovered just how infrequently the big stars worked together for an action movie. It happens all the time for dramas (two words: Oscar bait), but one quick look at the ‘80s in particular will tell you that action movies, by and large, are a single man’s game.

However, there are times when movie stars have forsaken the lion’s share of the spotlight in order to deliver something special, and so we salute the great guy movie ensembles of years past. In the interest of full disclosure, once we discovered that the list was going to consist almost entirely of war movies, westerns and sequels, we decided to play around a little bit with the definition of “action movie.” To the point where it included Tim Burton and Steven Soderbergh. Don’t judge.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Cast: Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Brad Dexter
The Plot: A village of farmers, frequently raided by a group of bandits, recruits a group of gunslingers to defend their town.
The Back Story: In the 1950s, it wasn’t exactly the easiest task to get the average American to go see a Japanese film, no matter how great it may have been. Fortunately, director John Sturges was up to the task of seeing Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” and upon doing so, he saw elements in the story and characters which would translate well to the Western genre. Boy, was he right…and if his instinct for hot properties was good, then his gift for casting was downright remarkable, given that the only truly top-shelf actor in the cast at the time was Brynner, who was riding high on the Academy Award winning success of “The King and I.” Combining these upstanding gentlemen, the inspiration of the original source material, and the classic score by Elmer Bernstein, and you’ve got yourself one of the greatest Westerns of all time.
The Money Shot: There are a lot of great small moments leading up to the big showdown between the Magnificent Seven and the despicable Calvera (Wallach), including the classic knife-throwing sequence that introduces Coburn’s character, and, indeed, the grand finale offers several immortal death sequences. None, however, match the power of Calvera’s final seconds onscreen, specifically his stunned reaction to the fact that Chris (Brynner), despite his earlier retreat, has not only returned but, indeed, successfully taken him down.

The Great Escape (1963)

Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, James Donald
The Plot: A group of Allied prisoners plan a daring escape from a supposedly escape-proof German prison.
The Back Story: Remember what we said about Sturges’s gift for casting? It wasn’t a one-off, as this ensemble clearly demonstrates. Based on a true story, utilizing Paul Brickhill’s book of the same title as its inspiration, “The Great Escape” was adapted somewhat from its source material, pumping up the importance of the Americans in the story and adding a bit more motorcycle action. The latter was reportedly done at McQueen’s request, but whoever came up with the idea deserves a round of applause, as it makes for some of the film’s most exciting moments. Ironically, “The Great Escape” got more shrugs than kudos upon its original release, but it has since gone on to become recognized as a classic.
The Money Shot: When Hilts’s mad motorcycle ride through Germany ends abruptly when he attempts to jump the fence into Switzerland, only to get caught in the barbed wire. That’s got to hurt…

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