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Craig's Movie Club
Movie Recommendation

Spotlight on: JFK
Alternate: Glengarry Glen Ross

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JFK DVD Cover Oliver Stone's JFK

It has been said that JFK is Oliver Stone's favorite of his films, and I can understand why. In many ways, it is his best. It is certainly his most ambitious.

Even if taken only in terms of its visuals and editing, this was an ambitious undertaking. And he's taken it a step further. He has taken the dry minutiae (whether you can give a label of "hard facts" is debatable) and not only kept it from being boring, but has also made it compelling, gripping cinema. Three hours go by without a yawn.

JFK is Stone's rendering of the primary conspiracy theories regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In his time, Kennedy was a mythological figure, seemingly the president for everyone, especially the downtrodden. His administration was even nicknamed "Camelot," with Kennedy cast as America's savior King Arthur and wife Jacqueline as its Guinevere (of course the infidelity in this story went the other way, but that's for another time). And if you consider the lies the American people were fed by the government for years, JFK may even be "fairy tale" enough to be reviewed on Green Man Review.

Culled from two major sources -- On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison (who is the lead character played by Kevin Costner) and Crossfire by Jim Marrs--as well as other governmental records and his own interviews, JFK is an almost complete picture of what information was available at the time.

Also involved in the film's riveting status is the all-star cast Stone has hired to portray important characters. A listing of actors in this film includes: Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Candy, and Gary Oldman. Donald Sutherland (playing "X," a character based on Fletcher Prouty) gives a ten-minute monologue that should have been dull as dishwater, but it is so chock-full of information combined with intercut dramatizations and John Williams stunning score, that it is a pivotal (and my favorite) scene in the movie.

There is so much information involved here that it could have easily become confusing or overwhelming but Stone and co-screenwriter Zachary Sklar have assembled the pieces in a narrative form--often having the information come out in the form of character interviews--and doesn't talk down to its audience. Also, the mix of film types--grainy documentary-like footage, differences in lighting and colored filters mixed with footage from the Zapruder film--was surely a step toward the making of Natural Born Killers a scant few years later.

My only question lies in Kevin Costner's performance as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. He gives his normal measured performance, but, apart from a workable Louisiana accent, never really delves into the character. Perhaps this is deliberate. After all, Garrison is only the means Stone uses to tell his story (putting other people's theories in the character's mouth along the way), so why wouldn't the actor playing him be just as much of a conduit? A familiar face that we have come to trust through his relationships with other quality films playing a man who we need to trust for the film to work. If this is so, it also explains the stunt casting of the key personalities: give us familiar faces so we don't have to learn new identities, we can just take what we know of their past performances and subconsciously layer that over the new ones.

I could keep going on but suffice to say that JFK is one of my favorite films and I recommend it highly as entertainment--regardless of what you think about the cause of the assassination.

(Other good reading on the subject is Don DeLillo's novel Libra, which suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald was hired to pull off an unsuccessful attempt on the president in order to blame it on Cuba and warn Kennedy to change his administration's relationship with that country.)

Glengarry Glen Ross DVD Cover Alternate Recommendation: James Foley's Glengarry Glen Ross

When I read other people's opinions on Glengarry Glen Ross (especially those of amateurs like myself), I invariably hear the same statement: "This is the film that really made me appreciate acting."

Nothing could be truer. Glengarry Glen Ross has one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled, comparable even to that of JFK. Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Alec Baldwin--these are names that resonate with cinema fans everywhere, and they are all at the top of their games in this adaptation of David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play (adapted for the screen by Mamet himself).

The setting is a real estate office (presumably in Chicago) located under an elevated train. The train roars by at expected moments of tension. Blake (Alec Baldwin) has been hired to come in as motivational speaker because sales are down. Only Ricky Roma (Al Pacino)--former student of Shelley Levine (Jack Lemmon)--seems to be closing any deals and is notably absent from the proceedings.

Baldwin then spouts the films most memorable line:

"We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives.

Third prize is you're fired."

Actually, this whole scene is dynamic. Plus, we get to see great actors reacting, instead of acting. That's half of the game, making your reactions seem like you're actually listening to the other person (instead of thinking of your next line).

As far as subtlety goes, Lemmon is the standout here. Sure, he already had two Oscars, but he should have been at least nominated here (certainly instead of Pacino in Scent of a Woman -- that's not acting, that's overacting).

Glengarry Glen Ross never transcends its stage roots; it always feels like a filmed play. But when the writing and directing are of this caliber, who cares?

(The DVD's extras are plentiful, but range from lame [director's commentary] to awesome [Kevin Spacey at the Actor's Studio]. Of all the commentaries, Baldwin's is the most interesting, but none of them are full-length. Get the DVD only if you love the film.)

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