GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

By Marc S. Sanders

The characters in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross are under terrible pressure.  They are salesmen who are consistently chasing insurmountable sales goals in real estate properties.  One of them has an ill daughter in the hospital.  Another has a temptation to rob his office as a means of earning some fast cash.  Another is in despair of his self-worth.  To be a salesman, of any kind of commodity, is a tough life to lead.  The payoffs can be enormous when a sale is successful.  However, once a transaction is complete, the response is often “what have you done for me lately?”  These guys are never happy.  However, they are also some of the cruelest, most insensitive, and thoughtless people you will ever meet.  They have no other choice but to behave that way.  It’s the nature of the business.

The film adaptation of Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize winning play contains a collection of outstanding actors doing some of their best work.  They embrace the brutal dialogue the screenplay hands over to them with relentless cursing and flaring tempers.  Glengarry Glen Ross has you believe that you run your sales career on your own with little help or encouragement from the people you slave for. 

Early in the film, Alec Baldwin, known only as a man named Blake (based on the end credits) visits the office where these salesmen are based out of.  He delivers an unforgiving and harsh reality of what these men must do.  They either get their sales numbers high on the board, where they can win a new Cadillac, or they settle for a set of steak knives for second place.  After that, they are fired.  Regardless of where they currently stand though, they should not even be pouring themselves a cup of coffee.  Coffee is only for closers.  The office manager, known as Williamson (Kevin Spacey), only provides the men with sales leads that have already been exhausted with rejection and hang ups. 

Director James Foley does a wise technique with color.  The first half of the film appears in drabs of greens and greys amid an evening of torrential rain downpour.  Before Blake finishes his threatening presentation, he dangles new leads, the “Glengarry Leads,” in front of the men saying these are not for them, because they are only for closers.  The old leads that Williamson hands out are on green index cards, nothing flashy.  Blake’s leads are bright pink with a gold ribbon tied around them.  Foley makes sure that even a prop tells a story.

The salesman that gets the most attention is perhaps Shelley “The Machine” Levene played by Jack Lemmon.  He’s elderly and past his prime with no numbers currently on the sales board.  Frequently, he is making calls to the hospital for an update on his daughter who is due for surgery, but if he can’t make a payment, then the procedure is likely not to happen.  Lemmon is fascinating in maybe the best performance of his career.  Many of his scenes are toe to toe with Spacey as he shifts from pleading to demanding to disingenuously threatening and ultimately bribing Williamson for the new leads. Levene is so out of touch now that he can’t even sell Williamson on helping him out.  Spacey as Williamson is terrific in his defiance to not lend any sort of aid to Shelley.

David Mamet added additional material to the script, not found in the stage play.  The Blake character is new to the film, for example, and I think it is a better, more fleshed out story because of it.  As well, Foley is able to go outside of the reserved settings of the bar and office, as he follows Levene making a knock-on-the-door sales call in the middle of the rainy night to a family man.  This may be Lemmon’s best scene of the film as he weasels his way into the home to quickly get his raincoat and hat off and get a seat on the sofa as he begins his “once in a lifetime” opportunity that the potential customer may miss out on.  It’s a sales pitch, despite Lemmon’s charm, and the patron can see right through Levene’s performance.  As the door closes on Shelley, you’re terribly sad for his desperation and failure.

On the other end of the spectrum is the current, most successful salesman named Richard Roma.  He’s played by a showy looking Al Pacino who initially doesn’t perform in the broad strokes he’s become recognized for as an actor.  Pacino does a quiet, delicate approach to his character’s sales presentation as he shares a table with a sap (Jonathan Pryce) who is weeping into his liquor glass.  Roma stretches the rainy evening out in the bar with this guy, talking about vague anythings, until he can subtly pounce on him with a brochure that’ll get his signature on a contract. 

Two other salesmen, Moss and Aaronow (Ed Harris, Alan Arkin) vent their frustrations elsewhere in the bar as they eventually segue into an idea of burglarizing the office for those tempting new leads.  However, are they working together as a team on this idea, or is one working something over on the other?  Mamet’s dialogue is chopped up perfectly with utterances and interruptions, that before a character reveals his intentions, you are left flabbergasted.  What is demonstrated here is that a skillful salesman is also an efficacious manipulator.

The second half of the film is set on the following morning where the sunlight has come through.  New revelations following the stormy night from before will present themselves as the men gradually arrive at the office to find it actually has been robbed.  The obvious of circumstances are there.  However, Mamet sets up an ending that’ll leave you breathless.  It did for me the first time I watched the film.  Just when you think you are watching a protagonist throughout the film, something else entirely comes up.

Glengarry Glen Ross has been regarded as a modern-day Death Of A Salesman.  Maybe it is.  I’ve worked in this kind of field before. There were months where I was good at it, and like everyone else, I would brag about my success with recaptured anecdotes and celebratory curse words flying out of my mouth.  There were also months where I would gripe about how uncompromising this life is. When I didn’t want to do sales any longer, I spent twelve years as an assistant to sales representatives.  They are not your friend.  They are only focused on the next contract to be signed and booked before month end, and they will ask anything of you with a seething f-word attached to their request.    Are we so terrible if we can not make an unreachable goal with tools that offer no help and supervisors that lend no encouragement or forgiveness?  To be a salesman means that any of your past accomplishments or education do not define you.  You are only identified as the one who must acquire the next thing, and then the next thing after that.  It will change your attitude about yourself and how you treat others.  It’ll alter your dialogue which is so vitally apparent in Mamet’s story.  It will even influence you to take measures you never thought you’d be capable of.

James Foley enhanced an already electrifying script from David Mamet.  He knew that if he was going to show how hard and challenging it is to be a salesman of boring, uninteresting, and practically intangible parcels of land, then he was going to have to be relentless in the art direction and settings contained in the film.  The first half of the film never, ever lets up with the rain storm going on outside in the city street.  The evening is as black as can be, and yet Williamson casually will ask Levene if he is going out tonight. Who in the dead of night in the rain is going to want to talk to a droning salesman about anything?  Yet, that’s what is expected of this life.  The office setting is unfriendly, decorated with ideals that hang from the walls with phrases like “A man must embrace further than what he can reach.”  Little touches like this only add to the uncaring and selfish nature the men really have for one another. 

Glengarry Glen Ross depicts a hard life for the man in a suit.  You may dress like what is expected of a professional, but you are also always scraping the bottom of another bottom.  The cliché that money can’t buy happiness is personified in a film like this.  You may get to the top and score a nice commission, but it’ll soon be forgotten and nothing you’ve done before will lend to your current state.  Next month, someone else will be standing where you are standing.  Worse, you may never be standing on top again, and then what will you do?

Sadly, I believe that Glengarry Glen Ross reflects what many people experience at least at one point in their lives.  We are all salespeople to a degree whether we are doing a job interview or even trying to impress the parents of someone we are dating.  It doesn’t always work out.  The question is where do any of us go from that point.

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER

By Marc S. Sanders

John McTiernan’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s first bestselling novel, The Hunt For Red October, might seem dated but it’s still a crackling good thriller. It’s one of those films where you truly feel like you’re walking through the secretive hallways of DC government buildings with their elevators accessed only by an Admiral’s key. Soon you’re in a dark, underground boardroom. You’re also there on the various naval crafts and submarines with alarming lights, shiny steel and glowing monitors. The biggest treat is being in the command center of the titled sub, Russia’s Red October, commanded by their captain, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery). All in all, Terence Marsh built a convincing production design.

Clancy’s story takes a different approach than most thrillers involving Cold War politics. Ramius might have been a James Bond villain in another film as he hijacks Red October, but there’s more to him actually. Rather, Ramius wants to defect to the United States. Most of his command crew is in agreement as well. America doesn’t necessarily see it that way; a Russian, missile equipped submarine quickly approaching the eastern seaboard with other subs following him?!?!?!? Let’s not polish the tea set so quickly.

Fortunately, one man had the pleasure of meeting Ramius once and doing extensive research on the General’s background; Jack Ryan (appropriately cast with a young Alec Baldwin). Ryan is given three days to catch up to Ramius and guide him safely to the United States while avoiding getting the famed submarine shot down by either power nation.

I must point out my favorite scene and it actually takes place in that secret boardroom where it dawns on Ryan of Ramius’ true plan. Baldwin is great here. The young guy who is green when it comes to military and political protocol. McTiernan gets his company of generals and high ranking officials into a large quarrel over what to do and then he zooms in on Baldwin thinking for the close up before he calls Ramius a SON OF A BITCH. It’s at this moment, that the movie going consensus and fans of Clancy overall determined that Alec Baldwin was the best of the cinematic Jack Ryans. (No slight to Harrison Ford, who was too middle aged for the role when he took the part).

Connery at least has the commanding appearance of Ramius’ stellar reputation. He is not very exciting or charismatic. Then again, I don’t think Clancy built the character that way. Connery plays the role as silent, yet wise and experienced as implied by his well groomed, white beard and hairpiece plus his square stature. If this man is standing in your presence, you better give him an update. You shouldn’t have to ask if he wants one.

Good moments are made available to Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Sam Neill and Stellan Skaarsgard as well. It is the talking scenes among all these fabulous actors that really build tension. The underwater scenes…not so much. The subs look like long, black blobs weaving their way through depths and avoiding missiles coming their way. It’s forgivable because McTiernan always keeps the characters at play. This isn’t a film that relies on the dog fights depicted in Top Gun or Star Wars. McTiernan keeps his audience away from drowning in the underwater murkiness.

The makers of this yarn really are a great combination of imagination. We got Tom Clancy and John McTiernan to thank for a gripping tale from 1990 that still holds up today. The Hunt For Red October is definitely a film worth revisiting.

THE DEPARTED

By Marc S. Sanders

Martin Scorsese finally won his Best Director Oscar with the 2006 Best Picture The Departed, from a script written by William Monahan. The film is a remake of a Hong Kong crime drama called Infernal Affairs.

Also known as the one film in Scorsese’s library with a linear plot, The Departed depicts the stories of two guys who grew up in the south end of Boston and joined the police academy to serve. Only difference is one is recruited to go undercover within the Irish mob, while the other is recruited by the same mob to become a highly respected police officer and supply an unlimited wealth of information to his criminal boss.

Leonardo DiCaprio is the undercover cop Billy Costigan. Matt Damon is the criminal cop Colin Sullivan. Jack Nicholson is the Irish mob boss in the middle, Frank Costello.

The Departed works because Scorsese and Monahan allow the audience in on every deceit playing against the characters. Pleasantly surprising is that there are even twists to this layered story, and cellular flip phones assist all the players with trying to remain in hiding or hoping to one up and trap the other. However, because everyone is getting tipped from their own respective sources, people are either not ending up dead, or arrested or caught red handed. As Costigan builds his case against Costello, Sullivan is worming his way to protecting his cover in the police force while also tipping off his true boss.

Performances from DiCaprio, Damon and Nicholson are what you’d expect. Nicholson is chewing the scenery again appearing like the devil incarnate while hamming up the facial expressions. Damon is great at playing it like the Boy Scout cop in well-tailored suits, clean shaven and flirtatious within his department and earning respect among his peers, that is until it all seems to unravel. DiCaprio is wired as the cop who needs to show he’s a dangerous hood to be trusted among the mob cohorts. However, he’s getting more paranoid and unwound at the risk of being made.

Thelma Schoonmaker (one of my favorites) does a balanced approach edit to showing a parallel among the cops. She will insert a happening of Costigan for a snippet and then segue to Sullivan appearing to do honest police work, or reaching out to Costello with a warning of what’s coming for him.

Great support also comes from Ray Winstone as Costello’s right hand man, and Alec Baldwin, Anthony Anderson and Martin Sheen, all within the police department.

Ironically, the one Oscar nominated performance was bestowed upon Mark Wahlberg and I grew tired of his presence quickly as the cop who berates Costigan endlessly with yelling and fast one liners that involve someone’s mother. Could we just move on from this please?

I also found Vera Farmiga as a police psychologist to be mostly unnecessary until a contrived ending point needed to arrive. Her character naturally has affairs with both Damon and DiCaprio, who also attend her office for sessions. Of course they do! Whenever the film sidetracks to one of them with Farmiga, The Departed stalls for a moment. Her character carries no stake in the plot line and offers no further dimension to DiCaprio and Damon’s characters.

The film works best as the complications compound on each other. A great moment occurs between the cops when one of them picks up a bloody cell phone to dial back the most recent call. Silence on both ends of the line, and the moment just plays out until someone speaks or hangs up.

Moments like that is suspense similar to when a man is intruding in a dark house. However, this is suspense delivered by Martin Scorsese, and Martin Scorsese will film suspense that is anything but typical. Martin Scorsese’s suspense leaves you breathless.

BLACKKKLANSMAN

By Marc S. Sanders

Spike Lee has finally received a Best Director Oscar nomination for his film BlacKkKlansman. It is based on the book by Ron Stallworth. In the 1970s, Stallworth was the only black police officer in the Colorado Springs police department. He was always ready to face the backlash and criticism for his afro and skin color. He also orchestrated an infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan while developing a trust with their Grand Wizard and eventual Presidential candidate David Duke.

John David Washington (son of Denzel) portrays Stallworth with high intelligence, instinct and even tolerance to stay focused on the end goal of incriminating Klan members out to do more than just march. Stallworth partners up with Flipp Zimmerman, a Jewish cop who will make his presence as Stallworth among the ranks of the Klan. Call it a Cyrano set up. Stallworth does the talking over the phone. Flipp stands in their presence.

I’ve usually been hot and cold on Spike Lee. Forgive me but when a “Spike Lee Joint” debuts in theatres, my subconscious immediately expects a very biased and unfair viewpoint of racial tensions in America. I don’t care for Lee’s outspoken statements in the media at times and I shake my head at some of his misguided actions. That’s another conversation that I welcome to have with anyone at another time. However, Lee takes a very aware and balanced approach here. The film opens with Alec Baldwin as an evil messenger of hate attempting to record a sermon for his disciples. Lee films Baldwin very disturbingly among different color hues and jittery close ups and wide angles. It’s nauseating and it should be.

Then Stallworth’s story begins and he is assigned to go undercover at a former Black Panther member’s (played by Corey Hawkins, who I loved in the revival of 24) speaking event on a college campus. The police expect this will be an orchestration of violence among the black community but Stallworth sees it is anything but that. Lee commits a beautiful filmmaking effort as he shows the faces of black people listening to the speech in spotlights as Hawkins continues on. These are college students simply looking for a way to never succumb to anyone who considers them inferior. The speaker does hold the white man accountable, yes, and I don’t care for that as I’m a white man with no instinct of superiority. Therefore, don’t lump me in with a small sect of misguided people, please. Still, the scene is effective and relatable. America has its ugly histories and America is not settling for insensible and uncaring treatment of its people either.

From here, the film takes on a more linear story as Stallworth and Zimmerman build their case.

Lee offers good debates among his cast of characters. Stallworth becomes attracted to an activist named Patrice, played very well by Laura Harrier. Here’s hoping to a long, successful career for her. Patrice believes the police are the enemy and even questions if Stallworth will remain a police officer following this case. Stallworth takes pride in being a cop. Black Life vs Law Enforcement.

Stallworth and Zimmerman bear witness to the mentality of the Klan. Over and over the Klan members suspect Zimmerman of his Judaism. He denies it and goes to great lengths to disprove his heritage and yet the Klan continues to question him, despite some high level members truly believing his guise of white supreme devotion. White Supremicists vs. Judaica & Black Life.

Lee has offered a powerful film that left my wife and I up until two in the morning discussing its dynamics; discussing how many things have changed for the good since the 50s; discussing how many have gotten better, have gotten worse and how some things have sadly resurfaced in recent years.

BlacKkKlansman reminds me that Lee is truly an accomplished filmmaker. Beyond his messages and viewpoints, Lee knows how to edit a scene and offer inventive camera angles and direction. He’s a prize student of film, now a teacher. This latest effort is a reminder of how Lee’s production of Malcolm X in 1991 was robbed of recognition at the Academy Awards, a true injustice.

BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best film since Malcolm X and one of the best films of 2018.