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

 

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems: The Baader Meinhof Complex

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: “The Baader Meinhof Complex” (2008)

Rebels? Radicals? Criminals? Heroes? Martyrs? Murderers? Victims? Villains? Icons? 

“The Baader Meinhof Complex” is a 2008 film detailing the early history of a West German far-left extremist group who named themselves the Red Army Faction. To the public however, the group was generally known as the “Baader Meinhof Gang.” The nickname was a media invention centered around two of the group’s foremost members: ringleader Andreas Baader and former journalist Ulrike Meinhof. Both the film and the 1985 non-fiction book by Stefan Aust on which it is based altered the label to include the word “Complex” because they focus not just on the gang itself but on the tangled labyrinth that was the collective German psyche just 20 years after the death of Adolf Hitler—a volatile environment that was as instrumental in the eventual creation of the group as its members themselves.

The Red Army Faction was founded in 1970 (although the film begins three years earlier) by the radicalized “children of the Nazi generation who had grown up in the ruin their parents created.” The group’s early goals were strikingly similar to those of the American counter-cultural (or “hippie”) movement, on paper anyway. They spoke out against Western imperialism and its chief contemporary example, the war in Vietnam. But what makes the RAF so intriguing is that while the American peace movement sputtered out with a whimper, the gang refused to die, with a bang or otherwise. Its members do not give up when its goals cannot be met through peaceful protest—they saw that as a foregone conclusion. Rather, they are always willing to fight, always willing to take it to the next level. And that’s where the intrigue comes from. First it’s destroying property, all the while ensuring that no one comes to harm. But before you (or the more cautious characters) know it, it’s shootouts with police, killing innocent civilians, even hijacking a plane, and all in the name of justice and equality. As such, “The Baader Meinhof Complex” is a look at the most slippery of slopes, how one thing leads to another, how the goals you’re fighting for and your principles regarding what you’re willing to do to accomplish them can be crystal clear one day and so terribly confused the next.

Up there in bold is a quote from the film’s trailer (see it below). It asks which, if any of those words, correctly describes the Red Army Faction. Of course, all that asking is very much rhetorical. Anyone who’s heard of the Baader-Meinhof Gang is likely to have a different opinion of them. Whether they were rebels or criminals, heroes or villains and so on, is all in the eye of the beholder.

“The Baader Meinhof Complex” has been certified fresh and currently sits at an 85 percent on the Tomatometer. Furthermore, it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards. Although anyone who’s not a big fan of German cinema is unlikely to see any familiar faces (the only actor I knew was Bruno Ganz, having seen him play Adolf Hitler in “Downfall”), the film is still highly enjoyable. The real world tends to be a tad more boring than the movies, so often historical filmmakers must sacrifice reality for drama or vice-versa. “The Baader Meinhof Complex” is the rare film that refuses to forfeit either, blending historical accuracy with intrinsic excitement value and characters so well-developed you’re almost able to understand their thinking by the end. Almost. Despite its two and a half hour running time, “Baader Meinhof” is incredibly fast paced, I suppose it has to be when attempting to squeeze ten years of intimate detail into a feature film. It might be hard to keep up at times, and you will have to read subtitles, but it’s well worth it at the end, when you’ve earned the right to make the decision about which (if any) of those bold words correctly describes the RAF.

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

 

  

Hidden Netflix Gems: Once Upon a Time in the West

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: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968)

It’s 2012, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to discover a majority of young people have not heard of Italian film director, producer, and screenwriter Sergio Leone. After all, the man died 23 years ago in 1989. However, you’d likely be hard pressed to find someone in that demographic who hasn’t seen, or at the very least heard of the man’s work.

Leone, one of the most prominent figures of the Spaghetti Western sub-genre, released his first film, “The Last Days of Pompeii,” in 1959 and his last, “Once Upon a Time in America,” in 1984. But it was during the 1960s that a number of his most popular films, those that remain relevant to this day, were released. Firstly, there’s the Dollars Trilogy, a series of three films which Leone wrote and directed which followed the exploits of the “Man with No Name,” played by Clint Eastwood. There’s a name you’ve heard, Clint Eastwood, and I bet you’ve heard of the trilogy’s final installment as well, 1966′s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

After the Dollars Trilogy was completed, Leone decided he was done with Westerns. He’d said all he wanted to within the confines of the genre. It was only after Paramount informed Leone that he’d have access to Henry Fonda—his favorite actor, one he’d wanted to work with his entire career—that he decided to return. Leone and his fellow writers spent nearly a year watching and discussing some of the best American Westerns to date before constructing a story made up almost entirely of references to those classics.

Problem was, around the same time, Henry Fonda had decided he was done with Westerns too, and turned down Leone’s first offer to star in “Once Upon a Time in the West.” It wasn’t until Leone flew to New York to meet with Fonda in person that the actor accepted. To convince him, Leone said, “Picture this: the camera shows a gunman from the waist down pulling his gun and shooting a running child. The camera tilts up to the gunman’s face and…it’s Henry Fonda.” See, Fonda had spent most of his career playing good guys. But in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” he was cast against type, playing not just a bad guy, but one of the most sadistic, monstrous villains ever to grace the silver screen.

Now that all that background’s out of the way, I suppose we should talk about the film itself. Contrary to the fast-paced, upbeat nature of previous Westerns, the film includes numerous long, drawn-out shots and scenes with little dialogue and less action significant to the over-arching plot. These scenes of quiet are often interrupted by sudden outbreaks of violence. It’s the quiet, the routine, and then bam: sound and fury. The film is less a study of violence and more about the subtleties that precede it.

The film begins with the arrival of a quiet man known only as Harmonica, played by Charles Bronson (the Charles Bronson, the one from whom that other guy took his “fighting name”). “Instead of talking, [Harmonica] plays. And when he better play, he talks.” For reasons unknown to the viewer, Harmonica is on a mission of vengeance against the villainous Frank (Fonda), who works as something of an enforcer for railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti). As mentioned, the first time we see Frank, he’s massacring an innocent family, the McBains, for reasons equally unknown. Frank tries to pin the blame for the killings on a local outlaw named Cheyenne (Jason Robards). When Cheyenne hears this, he and Harmonica become uncertain allies in a war against Frank. They’re joined by Jill (Claudia Cardinale), a young woman who’d travelled out west from New Orleans to marry the recently deceased McBain.

Part of what makes the film special is its twisting of the genre’s many tropes. For example, Cheyenne is one of the film’s more honorable and likable characters. The fact that he robs people for a living is irrelevant. But the biggest and most interesting of these aversions is that it’s never assured that Harmonica will be capable of killing Frank and getting his vengeance. He’s wounded in the film’s first scene, and as a result, he’s clearly far from invincible. This is not the smooth ride of the overly-lovable sheriff defeating the bank robber. Whether or not the “good guys” can win is never a foregone conclusion. It wouldn’t be in the real world, so it’s not in “Once Upon a Time” either. Furthermore, horrible as Frank may be, it’s hard not to respect him. The first parallel that springs to mind is Darth Vader. Sure he’s the bad guy, but he’s also a badass.

“Once Upon a Time in the West” is long, with a running time of 165 minutes, and the drawn-out style will no doubt be foreign to contemporary viewers. But there’s a reason the film gets all the accolades it receives. It sits at a 98 percent on the Tomatometer, and is generally acknowledged as one of the best Westerns ever made. In 2009, it was placed in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. Consistently quotable, with a number of intriguing conflicts and sub-conflicts, taking in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, is a more than worthwhile way to spend your Saturday evening.

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

 

 

  

Hidden Netflix Gems: Drugstore Cowboy

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: “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989)

“Drugstore Cowboy” became director Gus Van Sant’s breakthrough film following its release in 1989. The film was critically acclaimed, ending up on both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s lists of the top ten films of the year. Today, its rating stands at 100 percent on the Tomatometer. Of course, aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes can be inaccurate for older films, but in this instance the site takes 27 reviews into account. Van Sant went on to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Director for his work on “Good Will Hunting” (1997) and “Milk” (2008).

But back to “Drugstore Cowboy.” The film stars Matt Dillon as Bob Hughes, the leader of a gang of drug addicts travelling the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s and doing just about anything to get a fix (generally of pharmaceutical opiates, for reasons that will become clear in a moment). Bob’s crew is made up of his wife, Dianne, who’s played by Kelly Lynch, his partner Rick (James Le Gros), and Rick’s new girlfriend, Nadine, who’s played by a 19 year-old Heather Graham. The cast also includes James Remar as Gentry, a police officer whose relationship with Bob is somewhat reminiscent of Ricky and Julian’s interactions with Park Supervisor Jim Lahey in “Trailer Park Boys” (which you know about if you’ve been keeping up with my “Hidden Netflix Gems“). And I can’t not mention that one of the film’s best scenes comes from a cameo by prominent author (and junkie) William S. Burroughs as Tom, a man who’s “shot a million dollars in his arm.” Oh, and who just so happens to be a priest.

The film is fantastic overall, but what really makes it special is its realistic portrayal of addicts and addiction. In no way does “Drugstore Cowboy” glorify drug use, but neither is it repentant in its frank depiction. “This is what it is, all of it,” the film seems to say, asking neither for your sympathy nor your approval, only your attention. “Drugstore Cowboy” delves into the minds and bodies of its addicted characters, examining what it feels like to need a fix as well as some of the underlying issues that might cause one to turn to drugs and the lifestyle that their use can (but does not necessarily) lead to in the first place. “Most people don’t know how they’re gonna feel from one moment to the next,” Bob explains, “but a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.”

One thing that might not seem so realistic is the way Bob and his gang generally go about getting their fix: robbing pharmacies, hospitals, and hospital pharmacies. Then again, we’re looking at it from a 21st century perspective, with all the technological advancement that entails, whereas in the 70s it seems all you needed was a distraction and someone who could pick a lock. Another tally in the realism column comes from the fact that the film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by James Fogle. I know what you’re thinking, there’s a reason it’s a semi-autobiographical novel, and even if it was non-fiction, it’d be easy for the author of such a book to lie, especially considering said book wasn’t even published until a year after the film was released. But then there’s this. It seems Fogle’s still at it. He was arrested in 2010 for attempting to, well, steal money and narcotics from a pharmacy in suburban Seattle. Yes, two thousand ten. It was a brilliant marketing campaign for a book/movie more than two decades old. Yeah, that or the man just needed a fix.

The crew keeps on keeping on, running around robbing and getting high for a while. But when tragedy strikes (that’s all I’ll say to avoid spoilers, watch the damn movie), Bob decides he wants to go straight. The time he spends trying to get clean and avoiding the traps of his former lifestyle make up some of the film’s best scenes.

Interspersed with all this darkness and addiction, “Drugstore Cowboy” does have more than its fair share of humorous moments. There’s Bob’s continuous torment of Officer Gentry (there’s a reason it reminded me of the comedic genius that is “Trailer Park Boys”), and of course the times Bob gets to discussing hexes. He’s a very superstitious man, this Bob Hughes. When Rick mentions dogs, he gets a scolding, and we (along with the character) learn from Bob that such a thing brings about a 30-day curse. When Rick tries to justify his statement by explaining that Bob had never told him not to mention dogs, Bob responds, “The reason nobody mentioned dogs, Rick, is that to mention the dog would have been a hex in itself.” And don’t even get him started on leaving hats on beds. That’s 15 years bad luck, maybe even death.

The film showcases brilliant direction from Van Sant, as well as a then 25 year-old Dillon in one of the best performances of his long career. When you find out what the tragedy is or why mentioning dogs is so awful, well, those scene really demonstrate both the actor and the film’s emotional range. As the movie runs its course you’ll find yourself on the edge of your seat, laughing, and perhaps even empathizing with one of those “low-down lousy junkies” for a moment, even if you’ve never touched a beer or a joint, let alone a needle, in your life. “Drugstore Cowboy” brings to the table a gritty realism that is uncommon not just in films about drug use but in films, period. I can think of few better ways to spend 101 minutes on a Saturday evening than enjoying this breakthrough masterpiece.

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

 

  

Hidden Netflix Gems: ‘Oldboy’

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a new 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: “Oldboy” (2003)

Here in the States, it’s entirely likely you haven’t seen or even heard about the 2003  film “Oldboy.” If that’s the case, you’ve been missing out on what’s generally considered one of the greatest films of all time. Directed by Park Chan-wook, one of South Korea’s most popular and critically acclaimed filmmakers, “Oldboy” won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, it’s been certified fresh with an 81 percent rating on the Tomatometer, and with its 8.4 rating on IMDb, the film sits at 87th on the site’s Top 250 movies of all-time. As a result, Spike Lee is set to direct an American remake and subsequently ruin an awesome film which deserves all the acclaim that’s been heaped upon it.

When “Oldboy” begins, its main character, Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik), is more than a bit too drunk on his daughter’s birthday. Dae-su is kidnapped and locked in a hotel room for 15 years, never knowing the identity nor the motives of his captors. Fed nothing but fried dumplings, a television is his only contact with the outside world. It is through his TV screen that Dae-su learns that his wife has been murdered and he has been made to look like the culprit. As he slowly loses grip on his sanity, Dae-su spends his days honing his fighting skills, waiting to be released and obsessing over the vengeance he plans to take on those who imprisoned him. Then, one day, completely without explanation, Dae-su is released. A beggar hands him a cell phone and a wallet filled with money, the phone rings, and the voice on the other end challenges him to uncover the reasons behind his imprisonment. Dae-su embarks on a quest for vengeance, finding himself caught in a web of conspiracy and violence, and perhaps more surprisingly, he finds himself in love.

“Oldboy” is  chock full of drama, intrigue, twist and turns, and incredibly graphic violence. But none of those elements are plot devices or mere spectacle, as Roger Ebert put it, “‘Oldboy’ is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.” The film is the consummate revenge movie, just as upon his release, its protagonist is vengeance incarnate. In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, Oh Dae-su fights through a hallway filled to the brim with mobsters working for his enemies armed with nothing but a hammer. Oh, and he’s got a knife jammed into his back. It doesn’t matter, there is nothing that will stop Oh Dae-su from uncovering why anyone would feel the need to incarcerate him, a seemingly good, ordinary man—though he is not without his faults, namely his tendency to drink—for 15 years.

I don’t want to reveal too much, but I will say that Oh Dae-su, a man seemingly addicted to his need for vengeance, ultimately discovers that his jailer was equally addicted, and arguably even justified in his actions. This is “Oldboy’s” crowning achievement, that after both Oh Dae-su and the audience spend nearly the full length of the film thirsting for both answers and recompense, when the climax comes, we wonder whether he’s truly in the right or if we were just rooting for him because of the given perspective.

Ultimately, I believe Oh Dae-su is the film’s “good guy.” But the real world is not filled with heroes and villains, or blacks and whites, but shades of grey. So too is “Oldboy.”

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

 

  

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