Tag Archives: Marlon Brando

Actor Profiles & Reviews

The Score (2001) 3.57/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.7
Genre: Crime
Duration: 124 mins
Director: Frank Oz
Stars: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando

A neat little crime thriller about an ageing master thief (Robert De Niro) who takes one last job when a brash and cocky young counterpart (Edward Norton) convinces him to stage a robbery in his own town. Frank Oz defies the worn premise by bringing a fresh energy to the caper and allowing the considerable acting talent at his disposal to improvise their characters across the movie. As the man behind the schemes, Marlon Brando is, in particular, a treat and despite not getting on with his director, the latter is clearly in his element when Brando begins playing with his lines. De Niro had hit a point in his career where he was giving less to each role but while nowhere near as intense as earlier showings, he’s strong as oak in this film. He does however allow both Brando and Norton plenty of room to shine and they take every inch. Though littered with slickly executed set pieces, The Score’s most distinctive technical achievement is Jackson De Govia’s production design. Informed largely by its Montreal setting, it’s one of the chief reasons the film feels as fresh as it does. Films set in lesser seen cities are often more interesting not necessarily because of something inherent to the cities but because the director and DP usually take more time to introduce the audience to the town and its personality. In two or three early scene Oz, De Govia, and Rob Hahn’s noir-esque photography gently gives us a flavour of this Montreal and it inhabits the film as much as it inhabits the city. It all adds up to one hell of a classy thriller that measures modestly but proudly against the best heist films.

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Apocalypse Now (1979) 5/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 93.4
Genre: War
Duration: 153 mins
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert DuvallHarrison

Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness switches the action from Africa to Vietnam to telling effect given the reverberations the East Asian context would have with an audience of the late 70’s and beyond. Thus, in Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard journeys up the Nung River with a boat full of assorted and richly drawn American GI’s to deal with Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz.

The stories behind the film’s making are legendary (a typhoon destroying the helicopters being used on the film, Martin Sheen’s health troubles, etc.) but the end product is a mesmerising and reflexive exploration of the dark side to humanity. Brando makes a brief but arresting appearance as the disturbed but magnetic leader of a rag-tag jungle army which includes Dennis Hopper in one of his more deranged roles (and that’s saying something!). However, Sheen’s contribution is just as important as Brando’s, if not more, as the film rests on his shoulders for the vast majority of its long duration. It’s a powerfully tempered performance that encapsulates, more than any of the others, the fragile and disturbing yet steely nature of man.

The last word, of course, should be reserved for Coppola for Apocalypse Now is a sublime piece of film-making. From the very opening sound that phases between the sound of helicopters and that ceiling fan to the illuminating shots that followed it to the audacious La Cavalcata Delle Valchirie sequence now immortalised as perhaps the most famous movie sequence of all time, the level of inspiration and innovation demonstrated here, both technical and from a purely artistic point of view, is simply spell-binding. It was also arguably Coppolla’s last truly great work and given that it was capping films like The Godfather Part I and Part II and The Conversation, he certainly seems to have burned twice as bright as practically every other director working at that time. And if Apocalypse Now really was his denouement as a genius director, it’s an utterly unforgettable piece of work to sign off on.

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A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) 4.64/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 94.8
Genre: Drama
Duration: 122 mins
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter

When any critic or film lover worth their salt sits down to draw up their list of the very best screen dramas, Elia Kazan and Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire will be right up there with the best of them. What is even more certain is that Marlon Brando’s primal Stanley Kowalski will be right on top of the closely related list of greatest ever performances. Vivian Leigh is Blanche, the ageing former southern belle who arrives in the seedy part of New Orleans to live with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her husband Stanley. Coming as they do from old money, Blanche soon informs her sister that their family estate has been lost, an announcement which Stanley meets with suspicion and anger. Over the next two acts we gradually learn that this change in circumstance is only one symptom of something deeper. With all the outward pretensions of a lady, Blanche is nonetheless damaged and she reveals glimpses of recent corruption here and there, more than enough for her typically blunt but perversely perceptive bother in law to hone in on.

Everything that makes a film truly great is in play here. Everything! Bertram Tuttle’s set direction and general production design and Harry Strandling’s cinematography are the very definition of classic creating a psychological space out of Stella and Stanley’s apartment and the outside of the dance hall where Leigh and Karl Malden’s would-be suitor share their uncomfortably revelatory date. Kazan frames the drama around this space through a continuously bold use of light and shadow with the latter subsuming the former as the hidden complexity of the ever looming back story is increasingly revealed. Weaving Alex North’s sultry jazz score into this visual tapestry gives the characters’ environment a surreal quality disconnected from the concrete world of our daily perceptions. Wearing as such devices are on the audiences’ tolerance for disequilibrium, as the veil is slowly drawn back on Blanche’s emerging psychosis, the screw is turned ever tighter and a terrible tipping point seems more unavoidable.

Of course, the real meat and potatoes of this tension lies in the acting and writing and Kazan was clever, disciplined, and secure enough to, in every other way, turn this Streetcar into a vehicle for such. His lens rests on the emotional surface to the story which can facilitate a uniquely close examination of character but only if the cast are up to pulling the extra weight. Needless to say they are… and then some. Firstly, Hunter’s contribution has always been in danger of going underappreciated given the quality of the material the two leads had to play with but Stella is the lynchpin and she handles it deftly. At all times, Hunter instinctively balances Stella’s gentry upbringing with the rough edges life with a boorish husband has left her with. Therefore, she perfectly relates to both sister and husband even though at times they seem to speak different languages. It’s not that she’s a translator but more a diplomat and a wearily clever one at that. Leigh is dizzingly effective as the detached and spiralling older sister who herself performs a powerful balancing act between victim and manipulator, abused and abuser. She postures delicately in front of men attempting to wield what she desperately tries to convince herself is a weapon against them. But when one of those men is Stanley Kowalski, it’s only a matter of time before that pretension is obliterated. And with Brando’s undiluted power and magnetism, when that happens, its just about one of the most difficult things to watch on screen.

Brando is beyond immense harnessing as he does all his capacity for innovation and wisdom for character into the focused personality of an inarticulate lout. His burly tempestuous presence ripples through the film catching everyone else in its wake and with each gesture and uttered word the audience is well and truly hooked whether we like it or not. Naturally, when you have Kazan directing you and Williams writing you, it’s not entirely a solo act. The manner in which he is introduced to us is genuinely inspired and his dialogue is some of the most deviously functional ever written for stage or screen. While Blanche utters one lyrically mesmerising line after another, Stanley’s words are robust and flaying. It’s not what his words articulate but what they exude that makes them so dangerous. But it is Brando who is ultimately responsible for heaving those words and that man onto an altogether different plane, a place that few other characters and performances (if any) stand on.

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On the Waterfront (1954) 4.72/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 95.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 108 mins
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam

Easily one of the most inspired pieces of film-making to grace the silver screen, Elia Kazan’s film about a young longshoreman who gets mixed up with his local mob-run union is a searing triumph of writing, direction, and acting. Marlon Brando is the ex-fighter Terry Malloy, whose path towards the world championship abruptly ended when his educated yet corrupt big brother began using him to do some of the mob’s nickel-and-dime dirty work. Rod Steiger is the brother, a sophisticated hoodlum who runs the numbers for his hard-as-nails self-made mob boss Lee J. Cobb. Together they have perfected a despicable racket on the docks whereby only those dockworkers who take out extortionate loans from their outfit get work. Eva Marie Saint stars as the sister of a dock worker recently murdered by the mob for speaking out against this enterprise while Karl Malden rounds off this solid gold cast with a firecracker turn as the local priest whose exasperation with the climate of fear his flock live under, leads him to take an open stand against the union.

Given how well history has remembered the directing and particularly the acting in this film, it’s no small thing to say that Budd Schulberg’s script is just as good. It tells an essential story which reaches into soul of humanity. The unnatural corruption of people lies at the centre of this allegory – from the perversion of a man’s right to work by making him pay for it (corrupting its direct function of acquiring money in the first place) and fight others like him for it (corrupting its wider function of contributing to society) to the manner in which the victims are cultured (programmed) to see this as the natural law and to call any man who stands up for them “a rat”. In fact, by the time Marie Saint’s character poses the question “Isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”, the more perceptive audience members will find themselves sickened at the all too real way in which normal people can be twisted away from normal healthy behaviour by bullies who shout louder and harder.

On a more technical level, the screenplay is just as impressive. The character dynamics are inspired as the link and connection between everyone from dock-worker, to cop, to priest, to mob-boss profoundly reverberates with the broader tropes of the tale while simultaneously setting up some powerful confrontations both dramatic and subtle and within practically every scene. The dialogue is deeply affecting and always feels real even (especially!) when Lee J. Cobb is “LeeJCobb-ing” it to the max – “They’re dustin off the hot seat for me”. As with all great dialogue, the cast are mutually inspired by such writing with Cobb, Steiger, Malden, and Marie Saint all giving uniquely memorable performances. But of course what Brando does with it is even more special.

For those of us who didn’t grow up watching the old greats of the acting profession, it can take years of watching to appreciate the depth and importance of what they were doing on screen. Not so with Brando and definitely not here. From the first moment we see him, there’s an unmissable magnetism that utterly captivates. The improvisation, the intensity, the innate understanding of how to move in relation to the camera. At times, it feels like the performance could become too big for the film even with a story this powerful. That is until we realise that his acting is, in its own unique way, directing the film as sure as the man behind the camera is. It’s an astonishing thing to behold and in the moment when Kazan’s direction, Schulberg’s writing, and Leonard Bernstein’s score catch up with him in the back seat of that car as he delivers that line, it’s as perfect a cinematic moment as we could ever hope for. Seriously!

A final word should be saved for Kazan because On the Waterfront is directed with gargantuan vision. Every shot is masterfully composed with the lighting, staging, and camera movement at times eclipsing even what Brando was doing with his words (the alleyway scene towards the end being a prime example). Whether or not Kazan’s passionate take on a story about everybody being part of everybody else can be interpreted meaningfully with regard to his role in the Hollywood blacklistings of the 1940’s and 50’s is beyond the scope of a straight review of the film’s virtues as a film but a more sensitive depiction of the downtrodden worker yet scathing indictment of the perils of free enterprise you couldn’t find. What is clear, however, is that On the Waterfront is as close to cinematic perfection as few films have got.

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The Godfather (1972) 5/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 97.4
Genre: Gangster
Duration: 175 mins
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James CaanRobert Duvall

“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” Francis Ford Coppola’s epic tale of the Corleone crime family’s battle to maintain their position at top of the mob underworld gives us two of the finest acting performances in history and is the peak of cinematic story-telling. The story opens with a lavish wedding which in addition to setting a contrasting tone to the latter half of the film outlines the dynamic of the Corleone family as well as the various political allegiances both of which will define the tensions to follow. This scene also counts as one of the most awesomely written, staged, edited, and shot openings in cinema history and has become a revered masterclass in film-making

With the main players and their relationships established, writers Mario Puzo and Coppola allow both to develop throughout the rest of the film in resonating style resulting in a tragedy of moral corruption as profoundly perceptive as anything we have seen before or since on film. Within the broader battles and strategies of the Corleone organisation’s fight to remain dominant lie the more interesting and richly drawn personal battles as hopes and ambitions are turned on their heads and Michael Corleone is drawn into the world from which his father fought to save him. There are no caricatures here as father and son, brother and brother, husband and wife, and enemy and enemy are turned and twisted against each other which intermittently boil over into one sublime and daring set piece after another. As Vito Corleone Marlon Brando is at his improvisational best and commands every bit of our attention when the camera is on him. It’s one of those rare performances that is so rich and intuitive that every aspect to the character’s personality and demeanor feels real and substantial. On the other hand, Al Pacino gives us the most complete and contemplative performance imaginable. He is nothing short of mesmerising as he transforms before our eyes from the young and innocent war hero to the cold and calculating puppet-master.

Rather than embracing the counter-culture of many of his contemporaries, Coppola tells the story in the classic style of old Hollywood and the result is a Shakespearian masterpiece of pacing and intrigue informed by Nino Rota’s seminal and mesmerising score. Philip Smith’s set decoration, Dean Tavoularis’ overall production design, and Gordon Willis’ cinematography are sumptuous to behold but seductive and engaging enough to comfortably contain a story as broad as the one told here. Coppola’s use of the visual feasts they serve up is truly inspired as he frames the slow and blisteringly fast drama and action with precision and controls their momentum with his trademark ultra-disciplined innovation. And in the scene where Michael meets Sollozzo and McClusky, he gives us perhaps the best example of tension building the medium has ever offered. Sublime indeed.