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Recent Movies: Listen to Me Marlon; Shaun the Sheep Movie; Jafar Panahi’s Taxi; Old Movies: A Streetcar Named Desire; On the Waterfront

October 31, 2015

Recent Movies

Listen to Me Marlon

A British documentary uses audio and video footage to expose the private life and thoughts of the legendary Marlon Brando.

Before Brando’s death in 2004, there were periods when he was either placed on a pedestal or mocked for his eccentricities.  Luckily, this documentary covers all periods mainly through audtiotapes Brando made for himself which he used for personal meditation to alter his thinking.

There was a high in the 1950s (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront – see reviews below), a slump in the 1960s, a comeback in the 1970s (The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now) followed by another slump which included major family tragedies.

While many would rightly think of Brando as extraordinary, “Listen to Me Marlon” informs us that he was part of a dysfunctional family curse (both parents were alcoholic, his father being physically abusive and also from an abusive family) which he would inherit (despite his fame and fortune) and pass on to his children.  The film also reminds us that this situation is more universal than one might think.

“Listen to Me Marlon” has similarities to another recent documentary “Amy” about Amy Winehouse.  Despite their great difference in longevity (Brando died at age 80, Winehouse at 27), both performers were shocked with the reality of their fame once it came about and each faced public humiliation during personal scandals.

“Amy” slightly exceeds “Marlon” in effect as it included interviews with those who knew the subject well.  “Marlon” could have used more of this though it is understandable that such footage might not have been available.  Yet, the footage that is used still leaves a powerful effect: by the end, one feels that one better understands a well-known troubled genius who was badly misunderstood.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *

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Shaun the Sheep Movie

A British animated film tells the story of a farmer whose life is turned into chaos as he is unexpectedly transported to a nearby big city. A flock of his sheep and his sheepdog try to find him and bring him back. There’s not only the usual city vs. country contrast but also one of humans vs. animals.

Perhaps “Chicken Run” (2000) is the benchmark for great British animated films. While “Shaun” may not quite reach that level, it’s very close and it’s a winner in the all-around entertainment factor.

The inevitable mishaps in the city have a good share of slapstick in which everyone seems to get a piece. (The worst slapstick is when only the same character or a few characters are the constant victims.) There is also a good jab against the pretense of celebrity, style, and trends.

The climactic scene is enjoyable even if it might not be outstanding. But “Shaun the Sheep Movie” also has a good heart in its compassion for its various characters. It really is good old-fashioned entertainment.

RATING: * * *

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Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

Panahi directs himself as a taxi driver in the streets of Tehran picking up a variety of passengers each of whom has a fascinating story to tell.

Worth noting: in 2010, Panahi was forbidden by the Iranian government to make movies for the next twenty years.  Getting around this ban adds edge to the movie though it doesn’t need it.  Its uniqueness, charm, warmth, humour, and boldness all stand out very well on their own.

While the viewer sees a lot of the street life, the camera is always placed within the taxi – a bold move especially for the final scene.  The greatest delight is the variety of characters who inhabit the titular vehicle.

The first scene involves two strangers, travelling in the same direction, having a blunt argument about their nation’s capital punishment law.  From here, the film’s courage and frankness had me hooked.  Another scene was frank about how Iranian women could face great difficulty in inheriting their husbands’ estates.

There is also great comic relief in two other scenes.  One involves a seller of illegal foreign DVDs who is also a gushing fan of the director.  When he’s caught telling a name-dropping fib, he’s hilarious.  The other involves two middle-aged women whose “life and death” dilemma involves delivering goldfish to a particular location on time.   One hopes to see this comedy duo in future films.

Panahi’s predicament is told via two other passengers.  One is a pleasant woman who tried to help him legally during his prosecution but was “brought down” with him.  The other, a major character, is his pre-teenage niece (Hana Saeidi) who talks of the short-film project she must make for school.  Her descriptions of the film-making content rules add a further edge as they are the same ones Panahi had broken, thus putting him in his current situation.

The performances vary but are mostly quite good including those of the characters mentioned above.  Their names cannot be mentioned as no casting credits were allowed for this “unofficial” movie.  Panahi himself is delightfully laid back, making the best of his life situation.  Saeidi’s performance is a bit mixed.  She has the right precociousness for someone her age but her monologues are often loud, fast, and in a monotone.  This is grating at times.

“Taxi” is not only an inspirational film; the story behind it proves that no matter how much a regime might wrongly repress its citizens, true art and talent will always find its way to those who appreciate it.  It joins a list of other great Iranian films of the past two decades:  “A Separation” (2011) – a masterpiece; “The Past” (2013) – a co-production with France; “The Colour of Paradise” (1999); “The Circle” (2000) – also by Panahi; and “A Moment of Innocence” (1996).

RATING:   * * * 1/2

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Great Old Movies Seen Again

A Streetcar Named Desire  (1951 – USA)

**** THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. ****

Blanche (Vivien Leigh) is a formerly privileged woman with a troubled past and an equally troubled mind. She arrives in New Orleans to move in with her sympathetic sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and her very unsympathetic brother-in-law, Stanley (Marlon Brando). As expected, havoc occurs. The film is based on the play by Tennessee Williams who also wrote the screenplay.

Many play-to-screen adaptations are criticized as “stagey”. Indeed, most of this film is dialogue taking place on the same set. However, the dialogue, story, acting, and directing (by Elia Kazan) are all so riveting that any complaints about being “stagey” can be quickly dismissed.

Some parts of the story are outdated by today’s standards especially the idea of banishing a single woman “past a certain age” who has a sexual history. But the drama is so intense, it provides a solid record of a very prejudiced past.

As Blanche, Leigh has the burden of carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders as she is in nearly every scene. She does so superbly including scenes with very long monologues. Achieving this feat is exceptional. Her best scenes include a date in which she details the tragedy of her marriage as well as the final tragic scene of great betrayal.

Brando is superb in the rawness he brings to the brutal Stanley . With many scenes being shirtless or in torn shirts, it is rare that a male actor is sexualized in a film especially one in the 1950s. While he clearly deserves high praise, I believe that some of the praise given is over-rated especially when it is mentioned that his performance is the main reason to see this film.  I believe it is Leigh who deserves this credit. One can feel contempt and pity for her character simultaneously. In Brando’s case, one mostly feels contempt. His rage is top-notch but we rarely feel compassion as we might, say, for his character in “On the Waterfront”.

Hunter does fine work as perhaps the only character with sanity and decency while being stuck in the middle of the conflict between her sister and husband.  As a friend of Stanley who is at first smitten by Blanche, Karl Malden is also remarkable. He can be shy and awkward in his attempts to be gentlemanly but he also shows a more angry and lusty side as well.

The final scene is a great culmination and conclusion of all that has preceded it. The emotions stick well after the credits have rolled.

RATING: * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:

1) Directing by Elia Kazan
2) Performance by Vivien Leigh

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On the Waterfront  (1954 – USA)

Terry (Marlon Brando) is a former top-notch boxer who is now a longshoreman working in the docks of New Jersey.  His older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is a right-hand man for the corrupt union boss (Lee J. Cobb) who involves his gang in criminal activity.  Terry is “protected” by his brother’s status but this status causes problems.

This movie rightly deserves its classic status as a ‘film noir’.  Elia Kazan’s directing evokes a very bleak atmosphere that enhances the superb nail-biting drama.

The highest praise must go to the cast, especially Brando for being so convincing as someone who could be dismissed as a “loser” yet goes through a soul transformation as his eyes open to a life overwhelmed by inner conflict.

During the story, Terry becomes involved with Edie (Eva Marie Saint) who has become a passionate activist against the corruption for personal reasons.  Brando and Saint are a perfect and convincing pair in their budding but unlikely romance particularly as Terry has strong feelings for Edie while he keeps a torturous secret from her.

Karl Malden also adds greatly to an ensemble cast as a fiery priest who joins forces with Edie to fight against the corruption, realizing that this is his mission as a ‘man of God’.

And Brando shows his best acting yet again in that classic scene with Steiger (equally great) in their  confrontation scene in the back seat of a car.

Kazan, Cobb, and screenwriter Budd Shulberg had all revealed names of suspected Communists during the McCarthy trials in the 1950s.  It is very evident that they are defending their decision via the content of this film.  This is especially so in a scene when the priest is lecturing the union members to ‘name names’ of the corrupt criminals to a crime commission.  This leaves a very eerie and creepy feeling.

The final scene seems overly melodramatic and unbelievable in its conclusion.  But this cannot take away the admiration overall for the greatness that has preceded it.  “On the Waterfront” is well deserving of its classic status.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:

  1.  Directing by Elia Kazan
  2. Ensemble Acting (especially Brando, Saint, Malden, and Steiger)

 

 

 

 

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