The DVD of the 1953 Hollywood version of Julius Caesar directed by the underrated Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) has been relegated to old-time Shakespeare buffs and students not wanting to sludge through actually reading the play. And yes, it looks a little stagey and feels a little dated and stiff, but it’s still a politically relevant play and has one of the most fascinating casts ever assembled for a Shakespeare adaption. Headlined by a young buck in only his fourth film, Marlon Brando absolutely dominates the veteran cast around him and proves his genius. His performance alone makes the film more than watchable, and luckily there are a few other treasures to be found in it.
The now familiar plot goes something like this... worried the head dog of Rome, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), was getting a little too powerful, his fellow politicians decide to kill him, led by the conniving Cassius (John Gielgud). Even Caesar’s good friend Brutus (James Mason) is convinced to join in the plot for the best of the Republic. The Senators all take turns stabbing Caesar (done mostly just off screen). After his death, Mark Antony (Brando), who was not part of the cabal and admired Caesar, is allowed to give a speech at his funeral only after agreeing to not implicate anyone. Brutus must deal with the nagging guilt, his still conspiring allies, and his wife Portia (Deborah Kerr). When Antony delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears speech” he convinces the crowd, using pure sarcasm and coded words, who is to blame for the murder. The speech is the centerpiece of the film and then it becomes a literal war between Antony and the conspirators who are all turning on each other.Continue Reading
King of the Gypsies
Due to a lack of high quality competition, King of the Gypsies is still the quintessential American fiction film about modern day gypsies, that is if you're old enough to think of 1978 as “modern day” (while the best non-fiction flick has to be Robert Duvall’s little seen documentary Angelo My Love). Based on a novel by Peter Maas (Serpico), King of the Gypsies reeks of importance and epic pretensions; but besides the cultural curiosity what actually makes the movie worthwhile and totally entertaining is the ham fisted act-off going on up on the screen. From Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire to Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River there’s a long tradition of method acting emoters chewing scenery and King of the Gypsies has its share of hungry thespians eager to chew. Heading the cast in his film debut the young pretty-boy Eric Roberts, pouting and brooding (but even under a teary-eyed tortured sulk the guy has chops and acts up a storm), doing what he can to keep up with his co-stars Susan Sarandon and Judd Hirsch who are totally over the top, with legendary ultra-hams Sterling Hayden and Shelly Winters nipping at their heels. Any film where Michael V. Gazzo (Frank Pentangeli in the Godfather: Part II) is an example of restraint in his one early scene, you know this is going to be some histrionic fun.
A New York and Pennsylvania gypsy clan is led by Zharko (Hayden); he claims to live like a millionaire who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life. The nomadic gypsies live without birth certificates, driver’s licenses, or paying taxes; they are proud crimin...
Even assuming director Elia Kazan’s 1952 film biography of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata only has a passing accuracy to the man’s real story, it’s still a very unusual picture for its day and still incredibly compelling. However, Viva Zapata! is most noted as the third film from the young actor Marlon Brando and it’s more evidence of his acting genius. In the title role, it’s the followup to his groundbreaking, earth-shattering, art-changing performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, and whereas his Stanley Kowalski was a lot of exciting scenery chewing, Zapata is intense minimalism (and of course Kazan was the director of both). If you can get past the “ethnic” makeup and the accent that skews close to Vito Corleone with a hint of Cheech & Chong (and if you can’t get past it, I understand), it reveals a twenty-eight-year-old actor with the chops of a seasoned professional. Whereas so many actors before him would have let themselves fall into caricature, Brando brings a complicated self-torture and his esteemed methody-ness, which elevates the film to essential viewing for any fan of great acting.
Kinda-sorta based on Edgcomb Pinchon's book Zapata the Unconquerable, with a screenplay by one of America’s greatest novelists, John Steinbeck, Viva Zapata! is a straight biopic. Though the young Zapata originally had his eyes on a normal working-class life, when he stands up to the longtime Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz in defense of poor farmers he is slowly pulled into the life of a revolutionary. Aided by his more colorful and reactionary brother, Eufemio (Anthony Quinn, terrific in an Oscar-winning performance and thankfully half Mexican in real life), while also trying to woo a merchant's daughter, Josefa (Jean Peters, best remembered as the sexy femme fatale of Pickup on South Street as well as briefly being the second wife of Howard Hughes -- and like Brando completely not Mexican), the brothers fight for the well-meaning and academic Francisco Madero (Harold Gordon). After overthrowing Díaz and a military assassination of Madero, Zapata endures a number of unethical generals who fear the respect he has earned from the people, even with a true Marxist advisor, Fernando Aguirre (Joseph Wiseman, most famous for playing Dr. No in the first James Bond flick) always lurking around. Eventually his fellow soldier, Pancho Villa (Alan Reed, the voice of Fred Flintstone!), names Zapata president but he ends up choosing the people over the power.Continue Reading
Woody Allen: A Documentary
At over three hours Robert B. Weide's documentary (originally shown as part of PBS’s American Masters series) is almost “everything you always wanted to know about Woody Allen - but were afraid to ask." As a rabid fan I still have some unanswered questions, but I couldn’t ask for a more entertaining examination of the fascinating career of one of cinema’s true masters. Though autobiographical snippets have appeared in most of Allen’s films, he has remained massively private and almost mythically close-mouthed about his filmmaking (for instance never giving any DVD extras), though in recent years he has done more film promoting and made more public appearances (as have guys like Robert De Niro, as the economics of promoting films have gotten more intense and needy). In ’97 Allen was the subject of a fun, lightweight documentary, Wild Man Blues, which was more about his clarinet playing career and his bizarre relationship to his one time step-daughter and now wife, Soon-Yi Previn. For fans that was the closest glimpse into the man (along with Eric Lax’s 1991 book of conversations with Allen). But with Woody Allen: A Documentary, Weide (mostly known as a TV director with credits that include Curb Your Enthusiasm) has gotten the most in depth, on camera heart-to-heart with Allen. Filled with wall to wall clips, the film mercifully spends most its time on the rarer early career of Allen and less on the stink he has mostly been putting out for the last 20 years.
Woody’s life growing up in Brooklyn is now the stuff of legend. As a teenager he started giving jokes to newspaper columnists, which led to some writing gigs that eventually put him in a room with future celebrated writers Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart writing for Sid Caesar. He would continue writing for comedians until hooking up with high-end managers Jack Rollins and Charles Joffe who talked him into hitting the stage and telling the jokes himself. A neurotic and shy young man, Allen never dreamed of being a performer and it often showed. It was a slow rise but eventually, as cerebral comics like Mort Sahl were coming into fashion, Allen found his voice and an eager audience in the groovy coffee house scene of New York’s Greenwich Village at clubs like The Bitter End. Allen soon became a showbiz fixture on the TV comedy circuit; exposure was the goal and here Allen admits nothing was beneath him (the documentary even includes a bizarre clip of Allen boxing a kangaroo a show called Hippodrome).Continue Reading