There But For A Lack Of Ambition Go I

Punchdrunk are brilliant. I went to see their last London show a couple of times and was blown away (in different ways) each time. I’ve even compared their style of immersive theatre to what some videogames are getting up to.

Their latest show, which I haven’t been lucky enough to get tickets for, is on at the mo. In pairs people are led on a tour across London with a story and myth unfolding around them. It’s an alternate London, a psychogeographical twist. Apparently it takes in a major London landmark, and other lesser known spots. A handful of actors move things along, but half the game is not knowing who is an actor and who isn’t. In one review the critic spent a merry few minutes chasing after a random stranger and listening in in people’s conversations hoping for clues.

For halloween two years ago Lyd did something along these lines for me. We started in Highgate cemetery and went on a sort of choose-your-own-adventure across London. Instead of actors we used our imagination – at times purely imagining ghost figures in front of us, at other times picking members of the public to follow. We both agreed it was a fun idea and, given the number of actors we know (I trained and worked as an actor for a few years, Lyd started acting training but realised it wasn’t for her, and also worked in a drama school) discussed the idea of taking it a step further. Get a few mates involved, bring a few other friends along as punters and see how it goes, maybe then get some actual paying customers to come along.

But we didn’t do anything about it. Last halloween there were quite a few events on that, for once, we spotted in time to book for them. So although the idea crossed our minds again we didn’t do anything about it. 

This year it was my turn to lead Lyd on a trip through an alternate London. I recruited a couple of friends to handwrite some notes for Lyd to find, but that’s as far as the extrapolation has gone. It was just the two of us, dashing between events and landmarks that I had tied together in an occult conspiracy. We started at a mummy unwrapping at the National Archives, looked for clues at tombs in Westminster Abbey and St. Pauls, chased a suspect actoss St James’ Park and ended up eating Elizabeth I’s mummified flesh in Kensal Green cemetery at the climax of a concert.

And I can’t help but think about the lack of ambition that means it’s still just the two of us taking part. Neither of us has much in the way of entrepreneurial drive – we’re both ideas people, and although we often follow those ideas to their immediate conclusions, that’s where we leave them. Scattered novels, workshopped play scripts, immersive tours, cabaret sets… 

A little splash of ambition and who knows. Oh well. One day. So many hurdles leapt, and so many more to go.

Still, I realised that NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow and using that as a bit of inspiration got back to a novel I’ve been wrestling with (without writing anything) for a year or so. Managed a 587 word lunch break, which is ok by me.

So.

Here we go again.

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Sarandon Season – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Last time we ended up on Jeff, Who Lives At Home which is definitely not the film Lars and the Real Girl and I may or may not get them muddled up again. With a lack of interesting films starring Jason Segel or Ed Helms we were left with a 25 strong list of Susan Sarandon films to mull over. Some were classics that I’ve seen but are probably due a rewatch – Thelma and Louise for example – others classics that I haven’t seen at all, like Dead Man Walking. And then there were the ones which looked great on paper but for some reason neither of us had heard of. And that’s exactly where we started…

Film 57: The Company You Keep (2012)

This is how you do a goddamn cast list:

Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford, Stanley Tucci, Shia Lebeouf, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Brit Marling, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliot, Terence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins.

I mean, that’s just greedy.

With a cast like that I really don’t know how I hadn’t heard of this film. It’s also directed by Redford, though that isn’t always a hallmark of quality – last year’s A Walk In The Woods adaptation is surefire proof of that.

Susan Sarandon only makes a brief appearance, which was a bit of a shame for the start of Sarandon Season – she’s a former political activist whose cell went underground after someone was killed during one of their activities in the 60s. She’s settled down with a family and now the kids are old enough to handle it she turns herself in. The rest of the film revolves around Redford being on the run as he becomes implicated as a member of the group, and Shia Lebeouf’s journalist trying to uncover the secret they’ve been hiding.

It’s solid enough stuff, but doesn’t really get exciting at any point. It’s most notable for having what I’d argue is the most extreme example of a horrendous voice followed by a beautiful voice in cinematic history. Nick Nolte speaks, then Sam Elliot speaks. Hell followed swiftly by heaven. After it finished we watched the opening of The Big Lebowski just for Sam Elliot’s VO. It’s bliss. The Coens really know how to open a film – between that and Millers Crossing’s ice cubes in a tumbler/Jon Polito rant I doubt we’ll see much better.

Film 58: The Client (1994)

Somehow I missed all the major John Grisham adaptations in the 90s. I imagine we’ll tackle The Firm and The Pelican Brief in later outings of CRFC.  This is the only one with Susan Sarandon in though and so here we are.

Sarandon is a lawyer with a checkered past! Tommy Lee Jones is a smug District Attorney! Brad Renfro is a kid who witnesses a mob associate confess where a body is hidden then kill himself!

This is a great example of a film where it could all be over very very quickly if people just had a nice chat. I tend to find that a bit annoying generally – all the characters we’re following are ‘good’, they’re not maliciously throwing obstacles in each other’s way and yet throw obstacles they do. Despite those misgivings and serious concern about having a kid as a lead, they do a pretty good job of Brad Renfro’s background explaining his distrust of authority. It still wrankled but didn’t ruin everything.

Susan Sarandon does that great Susan Sarandon thing of being a mother figure but without being either mumsy or Rebellious Mum #2. Tommy Lee Jones does that great Tommy Lee Jones thing of being Tommy Lee Jones. It’s never less than watchable.

Tommy being Tommy

Film 59: Twilight (1998)

No, not that one. This is a wannabe noir with Sarandon, Gene Hackman and Paul Newman.

And Reese Witherspoon, Liev Schrieber, James Garner, Giancarlo Esposito, Stockard Channing, John Spencer and M Emmet Walsh.

It’s another of THOSE casts. I mean M Emmet Walsh doesn’t even get any lines for god’s sake! And yet… This is a film which tries to convince us that Gene Hackman is one of the beautiful people but Paul Newman isn’t.

Not one of the beautiful people. Yeah. Whatever.

That’s all you need to know. It’s not very good.

Film 60: In The Valley of Elah (2007)

Tim had a friend staying with him for a few weeks recently. He joined us for a couple of films, possibly The Dresser and Traffic, and was surprised at how depressing our film choices were. When I tell people about CRFC (they glaze over, obvs) there seems to be an assumption that we’re working our way through 80s action films or something. And while we have done a few of those, part of the point of the thing is to watch films we otherwise wouldn’t get around to. So not always the easy watches.

In The Valley of Elah is definitely in the more depressing end of the spectrum. It’s not quite Brokeback Mountain scale (I could feel that film in my psyche for weeks after seeing it) but it’s not far off. Tommy Lee Jones is a military vet. whose son has joined the military, been over to Iraq and back, and now gone missing from his US army base. He goes to investigate and doesn’t find anything happy.

It only goes downhill from here

Susan Sarandon only has a small part – another mother role – waiting for news from Tommy Lee Jones. She delivers a gut punch of emotion though. More central is Charlize Theron as a terrible detective.

The police are useless in this, with Tommy doing all the investigating. And that’s a bit annoying, as he sort of teams up with Charlize but does all the work himself. Charlize’s colleagues accuse her of only being a detective thanks to sleeping with the boss (which she has been) – it would have been nice for her character to prove that wrong by being good at her job, but nope. She uses Tommy Lee Jones’ findings to show them up, but she just tagged along.

That aside, it’s a deeply affecting film. At the beginning it claims to be based on real events. I looked it up afterwards, and it is very close to the truth – an investigative article (in Playboy) tackled the story, but names and a few other details were changed for the film. It’s not perfect but if you’re looking for a film about cycles of violence and that is definitely anti war then it’s worth a look. And it’s directed by Paul Haggis who, amongst more famous recent things, gave us Due South. Any friend of Constable Benton Fraser is a friend of mine.

Film 61: The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

Tim picked this out. I was put off by the title alone, but Tim saw Robert Redford and that was enough.

And then the opening credits rolled.

Director: George Roy Hill

Writer: William Goldman

And then I was convinced. If three of the four major players behind The Sting and Butch Cassidy are involved then you start to hope for a certain quality, and The Great Waldo Pepper delivers. It’s a fictional account of pilots trying to make a living after the first world war – biplane aces who got a taste of adrenaline and are constantly chasing a new high.

A magnificent man and his flying machine…

There’s barnstorming, wing-walking and glorious Redford grins. All of the plane action was done in real life, none of it was faked in a studio. When it looks like Redford is wing walking without a harness that’s because Redford was wing walking without a harness. Imagine trying to make that now! That’s one of the reasons Mad Max Fury Road tickled me so much – they wanted scenes with a load of cars smashing into each other in the desert, so they took a load of cars into the desert and smashed them into each other.  It’s effective and provides a thrill that, however realistic it’s become, still isn’t matched by cgi.

Oh, and the music in The Great Barry Pepper (hang on…) is by Mancini! The tone, led by the music, starts upbeat and fun. The music keeps this facade going, but slowly cracks appear. First in the stories Pepper tells with such panache, then in the possibility of being able to keep on flying as they have been. I hadn’t heard of this film before and it’s a real classic. A barnstormer, if you will. The second and third credited actor are both called Bo! And Susan Sarandon doesn’t play a mother!

As mooted above, William Goldman is responsible for Butch Cassidy and The Sting, two of Tim’s very favourite films. I think they’re pretty plucky too. And he also wrote The Princess Bride which is a stupendous achievement by any measure. Tim has spare copies of The Princess Bride on DVD to give to people he meets who haven’t seen it, which is entirely justified. There are plenty of his films neither of us have seen, and while linking to another film via a writer is outside the rules of The Chain Reaction Film Club, guess who turns up in another William Goldman movie – Robert Redford in The Hot Rock! And so we bid farewell to Sarandon Season and welcome to… The Goldman Variations.

Bonus Sarandon fact – I’d always assumed the Chris ‘Prince Humperdink’ Sarandon was a brother of Susan. Turns out they were married in the 70s, and she kept his name. So. There you go.

Filmapalooza 2017! – The Chain Reaction Film Club

I’ve been quiet on the film front lately but fear not, I’ve still been watching them it’s just that I’ve changed jobs and have to actually do a full day’s work now. Curse the lack of surreptitious blogging time!

As I’ve built up a fair old backlog I’m going to burn through them in a few handy (hopefully not too lengthy) posts.

So.

Last time was the 50th (and 49th and 51st) film extravaganza wherein I discovered just how good Starship Troopers still is. Endlessly quotable, fun yet compelling, poking fun at fascists. What’s not to like?

Film 52: Scanners (1981)

Link: Michael Ironside

Ironside

This was a serious gap in my film knowledge, and an odd one at that. I’ve heard it mentioned and referenced so many times that I had built up my own version of it in my head.  And of course that vesion doesn’t bear many similarities with the actual film other than there are explodey head psychics about.

The first half hooked me, but I’ve seldom seen a film so resolutely sunk by the lead actor’s performance. Going from hobo to superspy in the course of the film was always going to be a tough sell, but sadly Steven Lack was exactly, monotonously, the same throughout. You might say he was… Lacking… Oh well.

For what it’s worth, in my made up version the famous exploding head happens live on TV and is a news presenter or similar, and psychics are kept in some kind of walled prison. I think I prefer my made up version.

Film 53: Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

Link: Patrick MacGoohan

McGoohan

McGoohan and The Prisoner.

This was Tim’s choice. I was quite in the mood for some kind of prison escape romp or caper, but the capering and romping are kept to a minimum. I guess Clint Eastwood isn’t that much of a romper unless there’s an orangutan involved. There is some prison escaping though, so tick.

It’s the (pretty much) true story of the only three men ever to escape Alcatraz. The wrinkle is that they have never been recaptured or definitively identified since escape and so there’s a possibility they didn’t make it after all. It’s a solid, dour, straightahead piece uninterested in any unnecessary fun. Which is fine if you want that sort of thing, but I’ll take a caper any day.

Film 54: Running Scared (1986)

Link: Larry Hankin

I mainly know Larry Hankin as Mr Heckles from Friends and the actor playing the Kramer role in the Seinfeld sitcom within the sitcom. He also plays a convict in Escape From Alcatraz, andit turns out he’s been around. In fact he was in a film that Tim has been wanting me to pick since we started the Chain Reaction Film Club (or Thing Thing Thing Thing Thing as Tim usually calls it). He’s big on buddy cop films and big on Gregory Hines, and Running Scared is a buddy cop film starring Gregory Hines so… And the other buddy? Only bloody Billy Crystal!

Having now seen it I can confirm that it is most certainly a buddy cop film starring Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal. They’re engaging and snarky, it’s got an 80s-licious soundtrack, it’s got an 80s-licious attitude to women (seriously, yikes).

Running Scared

Double yikes

It’s for the most part a fun romp (finally, a romp!). But it’s so comprehensively overshadowed by the likes of Lethal Weapon or Beverley Hills Cop that there doesn’t really seem to be any need for it these days. One for historians of the 80s buddy cop genre, I’d say (hey I’m sure they exist. There’s a V&A exhibition about plyywood on at the mo, so anything’s game).

Film 55: Commando (1985)

Link: Dan Hedaya

Well Dan Hedaya in dark slap with a dodgy latino accent was an unpleasant surprise…

Hedaya

Greased up Arnie firing a machine gun topless was a more pleasant surprise. Jesus Christ the size of the man.

ACTOR ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN SCENE FROM COMMANDO

And the film… it’s Arnie. There are guns. That’s about it. There’s a very peculiar relationship with Rae Dawn Chong’s character that stays platonic but is utterly unbelievable – he kidnaps her for reasons, she shops him to the mall cops, he escapes and she runs away with him. And then keeps going to different places with him for no particular reason. It’s very strange.

We kind of cheated here a little. I was torn between Commando and The Cotton Club (via Gregory Hines), the latter of which has been on the list before. We ended up watching The Cotton Club too, separate to the Thing Thing Thing Thing Thing (crap, that’s catchy). There were a LOT of people in it, and it’s worthwhile for some of the singing (great Cab Calloway impression) and dancing (Gregory Hines’ tap).

Cotton

Strange in a film about a club famous for black musicians that we spend most of the time following white gangsters instead, but given black people weren’t allowed in the club as punters it seems oddly on point. I had a similar feeling towards Wind River recently. It’s a film which ends with a serious message about native American women disappearing, set on a reservation, in which we exclusively follow two white characters.

Film 56: Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2011)

Link: Rae Dawn Chong

I’ve always got this muddled up with Lars and the Real Girl, so nice to actually see one of them and hopefully put that behind me.

Lars

Jeff Who Lives With The Real Girl?

I’ve got a soft spot for damaged slacker characters – my favourite films are Donnie Darko and Harvey – so despite a few reservations (Jason Siegel and Ed Helms are in very few things I have even a passing interest in) this started off well. And if it had ended 10 minutes before it actually finished then I’d feel pretty positive about it. Unfortunately that last 10 minutes undid most of the charm.

Jeff

Lars Who Lives At Home?

I’ve already mentioned that the two leads aren’t in a whole lot I’m interested in, and though we sometimes have different opinions this is something that Tim and I share. So our options were a little limited for what to pick next… except… Susan Sarandon co stars as Jeff’s mother. And, it being his choice, Tim buffed together a shortlist purely consisting of Susan Sarandon films. There were 25 films on the list. Sometime ago we contemplated The Month of the Fox for Edward Fox though we ended up only watching 3 Fox films (The Duellists, The Dresser, The Day of the Jackal – all excellent). This seemed like the perfect time for Sarandon Season. How many did we manage before we were lured away? Find out next time!