New Year? Newman – Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched three Strother Martin films in a row and regretted (some of) our life choices.

The Choice

It’s a quartet of films this week: The Prize, Harper, Torn Curtain and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. It’s another season dedicated to one actor (hmmm, who could it be?). I know, following the underwhelming and downright maddening previous season why do another? Two reasons:

Firstly, and most boringly, Tim and I are both are lot busier at work these days, so the merry hours of scrolling through filmographies are slightly harder to come by. Narrowing the focus for a bit makes life easier.

Secondly, it’s a really plucky actor…

The Link

paul newman

Hubba hubba

It’s only Paul bloody Newman! One of the most handsome men to ever walk the planet, and with a tasty line of salad dressings and sauces to boot. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a stone cold doozy, as is The Sting. His snarling turn in The Hudsucker Proxy is a joy (as is everything about that film). I’ve seen him eat dozens of eggs and lounge around like… someone looking at a cat on a hot tin roof, I guess. He’s also in loads of stuff I’ve never heard of, so will this tarnish his brilliance or make his lustre ever brighter? Here goes…

The Prize, Harper, Torn Curtain, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and me

The Prize and Torn Curtain were my choices, so I’ll start with them. I’d never heard of The Prize before – it was a complete unknown with a mediocre IMDb score. But it co-starred Edward G Robinson and sounded fun, and that’s been sorely lacking. Torn Curtain is a Hitchcock film, and I’m really never quite sure how I feel about Hitchcock. There are usually some very captivating moments, but the sum of the parts never quite comes together, for me. Though Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window are both immense.

Tim picked Harper and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. One’s a private dick film – how wrong can you go? – and the other a Western biopic. We’ve not had much enjoyment from Western biopics in CRFC before, but there’s always a first time. And despite McLintock’s shadow, Tim does love a Western…

IMDB says

The Prize (1963): As the Nobel Prize winners come to Stockholm to receive their awards, their lives are overturned and perturbed in various ways. 6.8 stars.

Harper (1966): Lew Harper, a cool private investigator, is hired by a wealthy California matron to locate her kidnapped husband. 7 stars.

Torn Curtain (1966): An American scientist publicly defects to East Germany as part of a cloak and dagger mission to find the solution for a formula resin before planning an escape back to the West. 6.7 stars.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972): In Vinegaroon, Texas, former outlaw Roy Bean appoints himself the judge for the region and dispenses his brand of justice as he sees fit. 7 stars.

I says

Well it’s not a repeat of the Strother Martin debacle, so that’s good.

The Prize was the real surprise of the bunch. Paul Newman plays a booze-soaked writer, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. In the hotel where the winners are all staying a cold war plot starts to play out, but no-one believes Newman’s unreliable witness.

newman prize

Having been down on Pocket Money last time for being pretty dull, strangely enough this time round I was almost disappointed when the plot kicked into gear in The Prize. Newman’s writer is being guided chaperoned by Elke Sommer, gets into an escapade with the wife of one of the other nominees and has a couple of lovely conversations with the hotel staff and Edward G Robinson’s scientist character. It’s all light and nicely played and I could have watched a whole frothy film about that with a big smile on my face. I don’t mean to be downbeat about the plot – it was absolutely fine cold war thrillery stuff – it’s just I was having such a good time without it in the first place! It’s not a life-changing watch, but is a hearty recommendation. It’s a shame it’s not better known.

Harper (or Moving Target as it’s also known) was… fine.

newman harper

It’s a private eye movie and it does all the things that private eye movies do and not a lot besides. Funnily enough Strother Martin turns up again (he was in quite a few Paul Newman films).

strother harper

Your Strother from another mother… or something

My favourite things in Harper were a couple of montages of 60s dancing. Worth it for those alone, I’d say. It’s written by the late William Goldman (adapted from a novel), but does not rank with his best.

Torn Curtain is probably the most frustrating of the bunch, as it featured some really good stuff, and some really terrible stuff (classic Hitchcock!).

newman torn

“Some really good stuff,” he says…

There’s a protracted silent fight sequence that really doesn’t gloss over the heroes killing a villain. It’s a pretty hard watch, but intentionally so. And it doesn’t have to pull the smug Funny Games trick to make you think a little about violence.

Where the film fell down somewhat was in the decision making of the characters, making them stunningly stupid to ensure the plot moved on. And there’s a whole chunk that should and could have been excised without necessitating any other changes. While Paul Newman’s scientist is on the run from the Stasi with his wife (Julie Andrews), he is told a name and address. He doesn’t quite catch it and asks again. And is told again. Then in the next scene he can’t remember the address and we’re treated to a truly terrible ten minutes that only detracts from the film, and any tension, as a passerby offers help and a long sob story about needing to get out of East Germany. The actress was a friend of Hitch and the scene was not trimmed at all. It should have been. In its entirety.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean proves that we really should just avoid Western biopics.

newman roy bean

I don’t mind films based on real stuff twisting the truth a bit to make a better film (unless it’s presented as the unvarnished truth), but this one took the cake. From the real Roy’s Wikipedia page:

In one case an Irishman named Paddy O’Rourke shot a Chinese laborer and during the trial a mob of 200 angry Irishmen surrounded the courtroom and saloon. They threatened to lynch Bean if O’Rourke was not freed and after looking through his law book Bean ruled that “homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman” dismissing the case.

In the film this is reversed. The killer turns up saying that there’s no law against killing Chinese people, and good ol’ Roy decides that the law treats all men equal so it is in fact a crime. I guess my frustration is why on earth make it about a real person and then so fundamentally reverse that kind of decision? Just make it about a fictional person instead… The bear from Gentle Ben turns up at some point so… there’s that.

The Verdict

The Prize takes the prize!

Coming Attractions

It’s my choice next. Having decreed we should avoid Western biopics, I’m going to pick a Western biopic. But this is different. This is one I know is good. It’s better than good. It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

@BornToPootle

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Strother Martin – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We managed the ton! Our 100th film was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which suffered by comparison to our recently watched Big Country.

The Choice

With Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin to choose from there were almost too many options. So Tim nixed them all and we ended up at The Wild Bunch via Strother Martin. In fact we stuck with Strother twice more, tackling McLintock! and Pocket Money in quick succession. I’ll cover them all in this post.

The Link

strother martin valance

Strother Martin is one of those character actors who usually has a meaty enough role but is never quite the lead. Both in name and performance he’s pretty unforgettable though, with a screen persona like a wussier M Emmet Walsh. Given the number of Westerns he’s in perhaps a better comparison is Strother being a more scheming Walter Brennan. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he played a giggling goon as likely to feel the back of Lee Marvin’s hand as Jimmy Stewart’s.

The Wild Bunch, McLintock!, Pocket Money and me

The Wild Bunch is one of those classics that I’d never seen but probably pretended to have during playground and pub conversations. I’ll be honest though, knowing Sam Peckinpah’s record for animal cruelty I’m always in two minds about whether I want to watch his films.

A long time ago I saw ten minutes of a John Wayne western on TV and really enjoyed it. It was a scene of Wayne sitting outside a woman’s room, either guarding her or being a creep (I can’t remember) but it was funny and silly. Given the poster for McLintock! I thought this might be the one… spoiler: it wasn’t. Got any ideas?

Pocket Money was Tim’s choice. I hadn’t heard of it, but a Paul Newman/Lee Marvin double header seemed like a sure bet. Right?

IMDB says

The Wild Bunch – An aging group of outlaws look for one last big score as the “traditional” American West is disappearing around them. 8 stars.

McLintock! – Wealthy rancher G.W. McLintock uses his power and influence in the territory to keep the peace between farmers, ranchers, land-grabbers, Indians and corrupt government officials. 7.3 stars.

Pocket Money – Broke and in debt, an otherwise honest cowboy gets mixed up in some shady dealings with a crooked rancher. 5.5 stars.

I says

The Good

Oof. Well let’s start with the best of the, ahem, bunch… The Wild Bunch. Yes, Peckinpah did seem to revel in animal cruelty so I think that’s it for me and him. And there was definitely some punishment of women going on. But otherwise (and that ‘otherwise’ is doing a lot of work) it’s all solid enough. A gang of rogues go up against a villainous ruler and no-one comes out of it well. It’s all muscular machismo which wore a little thin but Ernest Borgnine is a loveable grump and Strother Martin reprises his giggling goon act nicely.

strother martin wild

At the time it was apparently a revolutionary approach to a western, and John Wayne thought it would kill the myth of the West (along with his career). These days we’re so soaked in grimdark/realistic portrayals of violence that it perhaps doesn’t make the impact it did at the time.

The Bad

Pocket Money was written by one Terry Malick, it turns out, before he became Terrence. And while I’m a fan of Badlands and The Thin Red Line he does seem to have disappeared somewhere with himself with his last few films. This is more conventially narrative then his recent ouvre (and he didn’t direct this), but its two leads are so conflict-averse as to rob the film of much interest. Paul Newman is the cowpoke, Strother Martin the scheming mastermind and Lee Marvin the comedy sidekick acting through a series of mannered ticks. They pootle south. They pootle north again. There’s almost some trouble and Paul Newman gets slung in prison. But then it’s resolved and they pootle off again. It reminded me a little of The Scarecrow, which we tackled in the very early days of CRFC. But that had Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman’s drifter characters change a little along the way. Pocket Money… doesn’t really.

The Ugly

McLintock! was a difficult watch, I’ll be honest. The last ten or so minutes feature John Wayne’s titular landowner, a boorish drunk, pursing his estranged wife (Maureen O’Hara) through town to give her a spanking. The townsfolk hoot and holler him on, pointing out where she’s hiding. As her struggle to escape becomes more desperate parts of her clothing are ripped to tatters. She flings herself through a plate glass window to escape. But eventually he catches her and gives her a spanking. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s just the tonic, and they end the film on happier terms. It’s like the Terminator lurching through the West to administer domestic violence. It may be based Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, but it looks pretty horrible now. I’m utterly gobsmacked at its rating on IMDb. I think it ousts the rapping Hamlet part of Renaissance Man as the worst thing we’ve seen in CRFC.

strother martin mclintock

Meanwhile, on Strother-watch, Strother Martin played a slightly different kind of whiner in this one – an uptight big city man with a stick up his butt. I don’t think it suited him as well as his lowlife characters, but to be honest I was distracted by everything else going on. The only good news is that they didn’t copyright it correctly when it came out, so the film has entered the public domain and presumably no-one’s been able to make much money on it.

The Verdict

This was a wild bunch and no mistake.

Coming Attractions

We ended with Pocket Money. Pocket Money stars Paul Newman. I point blank refuse not to have a Paul Newman season next. So there.

@BornToPootle

The 100th Film Spectacular – Chain Reaction Film Club

We were so young, so naïve back in those hazy 2016 days. “I know,” said one doofus. “Why don’t we decide what film to watch each week by taking it in turns to pick, limiting the choice to the something starring an actor in the previous film.”

“Sure,” said the other doofus. It was an agreement he would come to regret…

And so was born the Chain Reaction Film Club in a blaze of noncommittal agreement and arbitrary rules (actors must be seen on screen and have dialogue! So no animation! And no TV movies!).

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

At least the film inspired something…

The first film was 1996’s Chain Reaction (obviously), the most recent 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Along the way we’ve been back as far as 1945 in search of hidden gems, classics we’ve not seen and films worth reappraising. We’ve watched some brilliant stuff, some weird stuff, and a couple of downright stinkers.

The darkest moment came pretty early on. In the 8th film we watched in fact. Hands up who wants to see Danny Devito’s embittered ad man relocate to a military base to teach English Lit to new recruits? Hands up who then wants to see those young recruits rapping Hamlet? Here you go: https://youtu.be/5Ij5XXaUl48

I don’t think we’ve bested (worsted?) that. Yet.

Traffic.jpg

It’s a very yellow film

There are a clutch of films that have proved entirely forgettable. I couldn’t tell you much about Sweet Dreams, The Insider, Syriana, Sunshine Cleaning or A Single Shot. I’ve now seen Traffic twice and still can’t remember much about it apart from the general message being ‘drugs are bad, m’kay’.

The player.jpg

Do you think Altman was dropping some hints to the Academy here…

But let’s focus on the positives. Mud was an early favourite in amongst a lot of mediocre choices, and a strong showing for Matthew McConnaughey. Robert Altman’s The Player was every bit as acerbic and well-told as everyone says, with a killer opening tracking shot. The Fifth Element was exactly as good as I’d remembered. I’m still gutted I didn’t see it at the cinema when it came out. I did see Starship Troopers on the big screen when it came out though, and again for the 50th film triple-header last year. It’s ageing very well, as the satire seems even more horribly relevant now.

Duellists

Got to entertain the sheep somehow…

Probably the strongest run of three films in a row was the Edward Fox triple-header of The Duellists, The Day of the Jackal and The Dresser. They’re all absolute stone-cold classics.

The best film about stunt pilots you’re ever likely to see is The Great Waldo Pepper, made all the better by finding out that Robert Redford really did climb out on the wings without safety tethering while high above the earth. Two other absolute stormers with great central performances were Talk Radio and Muriel’s Wedding – fewer stunts perhaps, but both just as gripping.

 

Along the way we’ve had mini-seasons for Edward Fox, Paul Verhoeven, Susan Sarandon, William Goldman, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Gregory Peck. And it’s with the latter that I think we found my favourite film of the CRFC so far – Cape Fear. The standout of our Peck season, even compared to the excellent To Kill A Mockingbird, The Gunfighter, The Big Country and Twelve O’Clock High.

And what of the weird? Well the jarring switch between race relations study/coming of age drama/black comedy about a woman and a decapitated head of Sweet Home Alabama will take some beating. Tank Girl was weird, but not in the same league. And I’m still perplexed by the nonchalant way characters reacted to revelations of child abuse in Last of Sheila. Compared to those, a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali in Spellbound actually seemed pretty tame.

So what next? We’ve been hankering after rewatches of Tombstone and The Blues Brothers for a while. Tim’s in a big Western mood. We both fancy heading back to the 30s, 40s and 50s slightly more. And Tim still hasn’t managed to trick me into picking Shooter with Marky Mark Whalberg…

Animal Kingdom – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 78: Animal Kingdom

Poster for the 2010 Australian movie Animal Kingdom

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched Muriel’s Wedding and it was one of the best we’ve had so far in the CRFC.

The Choice

Like last time it came down to a binary choice. On the one hand Animal Kingdom (2010), a gritty crime drama. On the other, Children of the Revolution (1996), a comedy about Stalin having an illegitimate Australian heir. I was mainly considering the latter to compare with last year’s excellent The Death of Stalin (plus it seems fairly positively reviewed and has Geoffrey Rush, F Murray Abraham and Sam Neill in). Then I watched the trailer and… it was Animal Kingdom all the way.

The Link

Dan Wyllie

Actor Dan Wyllie in Muriel's Wedding

Dan Wyllie in Muriel’s Wedding

He was one of Muriel’s deadbeat siblings last time, and seems to be something if a mainstay of Aussie film and TV. I’ve not seen him in anything else, but as he’s one of a couple of cast members who could link is to Animal Kingdom, it’s time for a second bite of Wyllie.

Animal Kingdom and me

I’ve always been a bit scared of Animal Kingdom, if I’m honest. I don’t gravitate towards gritty crime stuff at the best of times (there are a LOT of seminal British gangster films I’ve never seen), and this is Australian. And in my head Australian films tend to have an extra layer of grit, an extra twist of the knife.

Proposition

This is the image that springs to mind when I think “Aussie cinema…”

The Proposition always sticks in the mind as an example, but it’s true of the first couple of Mad Max films too (fyi I will not hear a single word against Mad Max Fury Road, but that’s a different topic for another day). Muriel’s Wedding demonstrated this too, tackling topics a UK or Hollywood film about Abba and weddings would not go to. And last year’s It Comes At Night, directed by Animal Kingdom star Joel Edgerton, fits the bill too…

So although I’ve only ever heard great things about it, Animal Kingdom scares me.

IMDB says

A seventeen year-old navigates his survival amongst an explosive criminal family and the detective who thinks he can save him. 7.3 stars.

I says

Well I don’t know what I was so worried about. It’s not exactly a light hearted romp, mind, but there’s a lovely sensitivity to Animal Kingdom that balances out the subject.

Animal Kingdom 005

James Frecheman and Dan Wyllie

When the opening scene was of J (James Frecheman), a teenager, calling paramedics to attend to his ODed mum, who had died, I’ll admit I felt a little bit justified in my fear. That said teenager is then inducted into his extended family who specialise in armed robbery didn’t help. A family being molested by police who are, by all accounts, itching to shoot first and plant evidence later…

Animal Kingdom 002

GRIT! SO MUCH GRI- Hang on…

But the violence, when it comes, isn’t lingered on. There’s a spray of blood from off camera here, a gentle panning away there. J doesn’t have to see the worst of it, and we’re not made to either. So J is hauled in for questioning by Guy Pearce’s tired cop we still have sympathy for him holding out. He’s not a saint himself, and the family have shielded him from the worst brutality.

Animal Kingdom 003

Grumblegrumble Gritty Moustache grumblegrumble

Let’s just pause and have a chat about Guy Pearce for a second. After Memento he was bona fide leading man material. He’s hunky, he’s interesting. And yet he rocks up in strange roles. The weatherbeaten cop here, the tacitern lead in The Rover, Weyland in Prometheus. He hasn’t gone down the star route, whether by choice or the ins and outs of the hollywood system. But he is consistently interesting and just slightly weirder than you expect (without being a stone cold oddball). I think Robert Pattinson might have taken notes from his career trajectory.

Anyway, J’s uncles are a combination of inspiring (cheers, Joel Edgerton), maverick (cheers, whatseryername from the 300 sequel), and creepy (cheers Ben Mendlesohn). His girlfriend’s family are a great contrast, a clear family unit but not saccharine. And over it all Jackie Weaver’s matriarch presides. She’s a Lady Macbeth figure with the hard edges tucked away so far that you forget all about them. And when she brings it, it’s in such a matter of fact style that it’s all so perfectly natural.

Animal Kingdom 004

Something real gritty might be happening, careful

I liked The Rover, David Michod’s follow up film, very much too. Critics made loads of smug puns that sort of spoiled some plot stuff, so if you’ve not seen it do give it a watch, but don’t read too much about it first.

The Verdict

I am less scared of Australian films than I was before, but no less impressed.

Coming Attractions

We could stay paddling around in Australian waters, but with Joel Edgerton and Jacqui Weaver having made a number of international films maybe we won’t… It’s Tim’s choice, so who knows where we’ll end up.

@BornToPootle

The Hackman Connection – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The only Hackman I used to know

Gene Hackman is one of those actors who I have almost entirely overlooked. I saw Superman as a kid, of course, and Unforgiven. I think I saw Get Shorty. But that’s about it. I didn’t really go to the cinema that much growing up, and much of his filmography is more adult-skewed anyway. There’s a lot of slightly gritty-sounding stuff in his filmography, realistic settings rather than the sci fi bombast I preferred (and often still do) so didn’t make the effort to catch them on TV. By my late teens/early 20s I was more into horror – all the former video nasties were finally given official releases in the late 90s so it was a glorious time. Then I met my other half who is obsessive about 30s, 40s and 50s cinema… So Hackman just kind of passed me by.

Since starting the Chain Reaction Film Club I’ve made a conscious effort to pick his films where possible. There are so many notable ones often used as reference points by film makers and reviewers that it’s been part out of interest and part out of obligation. So we’ve already tackled Bonnie and Clyde, Scarecrow, Wyatt Earp, and Twilight, plus Absolute Power and A Bridge Too Far as part of the Goldman Variations covered in the last post.

Rather helpfully his IMDb credits list 100 films, so I’m up to having seen 10% of his work (not sure if I ever saw Superman IV…). With another 90 films to choose from we started with…

Film 65: Under Suspicion (2000)

Hackman is… Under Suspicion

All I knew going in was that it was Hackman and Morgan Freeman, and some kind of cop/suspect cat and mouse. And then came one of the worst openings that I remember seeing. It’s a series of very cheap looking shots of Puerto Rico, swooping over houses and coastline like a 70s travel documentary. I was not inspired with confidence…

And then… it almost worked. Hackman is a bigshot lawyer who goes to see his friend and local police detective (Freeman) to clear up a few loose ends about a body he found while out for a run. But there are more questions than answers and suspicion starts to fall on him… They’re a solid pair of actors to anchor this kind of story around, even though in a couple of places you can tell they’re only moving from their seats because the director has blocked it that way. It twists and it turns and it almost but doesn’t quite hold together. Oh well. I liked what it was trying to do.

Film 66: The French Connection (1971)

He doesn’t even eat any damn spinach…

Here we go, a biggie. Somehow I’d never seen this. In my head it was indivisible from Bullitt (probably also coming to a CRFC blog soon), notable for a car chase but otherwise a mystery. Like Hackman, Steve McQueen has largely eluded me. 

The setup? Drugs are streaming through to America from France. A pair of New York detectives get a lead on the French connection who will be in town for one big deal…

One of the things that struck me most about The French Connection was how used to being able to look things up online I’ve become. In a few places Hackman and his partner (played by Roy Scheider) leave a straw hat in the back of their car. It’s pointedly done, but in a 70s pointedly way rather than a modern here-we’re-doing-this-and-I’ll-explain-it-twice kind of way. A quick google after the film, and I’ve discovered it was a signal to cops that undercover cops were on duty in the car. How did people used to deal with not knowing? God knows.

Hackman is irredeemably irascible, which is fun, and there is that humdinger of a car chase. It’s made even juicier from – you guessed it – looking it up. And finding out that:

A) They only had permission for part of the route

B) Director William Friedkin held the camera in the back of the car as he was the only non married member of the crew

C) One of the crashes is real – a driver had got round barriers and was sideswiped by Popeye Doyle for his trouble.

It’s taut and a bit nasty, just like Doyle himself. And it won 4 Oscars including best picture. That seems a bit over the top to me, particularly as Clockwork Orange was one of the other nominations. Perhaps it’s one of those occasions where so many films have followed the tone and riffs of The French Connection since that it’s hard to see it in context.

Film 67: French Connection II (1975)

Give the man an Oscar. Or a shirt.

Yup, we went straight into the sequel. And my but it’s annoying that they removed the definite article from the title. 

The car/train chase is what the first film is most notable for, so how did they decide to follow that? Generally the formula is to crank everything up to eleventy stupid (to quote Dr. Kermode) – you want a chase? Howzabout one with cars and a train and a bus and a tank?! In space!! Props to French Connection II for not attempting that at least. Instead it follows Hackman’s Popeye Doyle (one of only two returning characters) as he heads to France, is kidnapped and forcibly addicted to heroin, goes cold turkey and endures withdrawal, torches a building full of junkies who, frankly, probably wouldn’t all have made it out, and generally makes a mess of the investigation. It’s a bold move and these days would be seen as a performance chasing an Oscar. Maybe it was then too. 

The first is definitely the better film, but for a Hackman season this was worth it for the performance.

We’ve just scratched the surface of his filmography, and there’s more to come from The Hackman Connection. So far though? I like how unlikeable he is. Does he play any likeable characters? Ever? How great to have a leading man career based around unlikeableness. It just seems so… unlikely.

Next up will be 1988s Mississippi Burning starring… Gene Hackman!

Goldman Variations – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Last time it was Sarandon Season on the Chain Reaction Film Club. We finished that with The Great Waldo Pepper, which was indeed great. Written by master film scribe William Goldman, it seemed as good a time as any to tackle some of his films that we’d not already seen. Those we have seen include The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Sting. So he has some form for this writing lark. The only slight snag is that we can’t use him to link between films, as it has to be an actor who appears on screen and has a meaningful line of dialogue. So from Waldo Pepper we were able to get to:

Film 62: The Hot Rock (1972)

Link: Robert Redford

I’ve been in the mood for a crime caper for quite some time, so this was very exciting. A Goldman script (based on a book by Donald Westlake), Redford in the lead role, directed by Peter Yates (whose The Dresser I enjoyed very much) – all signs point to glory.

Redford is an ex con with a talent for planning heists. He’s brought back for one more job… a team is assembled… things go wrong… some stuff happens…

Rather than focussing on one big heist, this ends up being a series of escalating heists as things don’t quite go to plan. There’s a bit of silliness, but no one has told Robert Redford that as he plays it straight throughout. And the heists don’t really escalate that much. I think Goldman may have been having an off day when he adapted this one…

But wait, who’s this?

It does however feature one of Christopher Guest’s first film performances – one line as a cop in a police station. So worth it for that alone.

Film 63: A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Link: Robert Redford

Next to a crime caper, a classic war film has been pretty high on my list. And this one, about Operation Market Garden, is definitely a classic. Let’s just have a whiff of the cast:

Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Edward Fox, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, James Caan, Alun Armstrong…

Redford (yet again appearing in a Goldman-penned film) doesn’t appear until quite far through. By then we’re deep in the mud and blood, but Redford is approached for a mission and turns and smiles and is just Too Much.

No smile, but you get the idea

I don’t know that much about Operation Market Garden (must watch Band of Brothers…) but the film title alone gave me the impression it wasn’t an overall success. And while I got a bit confused here and there about which bridge was which and who was waiting for back up from who, it’s a solid ensemble beast. It’s not quite in the browbeating war is hell category, but it certainly isn’t tubthumping either.

Goldman was adapting a book again here, and strikes a fine balance between the stiff upper lip facade and the grim reality. Most of the military advisers to the film had the same names as the characters, so I’m going to assume authenticity was the watchword.

Also, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Sean Connery in anything other than Bond. He’s a fantastic, muscular presence.

That’s the Chicago way…

Film 64: Absolute Power (1997)

Link: Gene Hackman

This has the honour of appearing on more shortlists than any other film so far (ok, I haven’t really been keeping track but this and Bob Roberts turn up a LOT). And for once it’s a Goldman film without Redford in tow! It is another book adaptation though, this time of a David Baldacci thriller.

Clint Eastwood is a burglar who hides when the house he’s burgling turns out to be occupied after all. He watches a steamy affair from behind a two way mirror, then things get violent, the man calls for help and… the Secret Service run in and shoot the woman. That’s right, President Gene Hackman is in trouble and has a lot of covering up to do. 

Happy Birthday Mr. President…

We watched this the same week Weinstein allegations surfaced, so it was oddly on point (let’s not even get started on White House abuses of power). 

The first half chugs along very nicely, then it all gets a bit murky. It’s one where everything could have been resolved much earlier wih a bit less faffing around. Still, seeing a pre-24 Dennis Haysbert as the President’s bodyguard was fun. Soon enough he’d be in the big chair himself.

‘I hope my presidency is much less dramatic…’

Right at the beginning, when the prez is making out with the woman, not only are the Secret Service on hand but his chief of staff is too. And so I spent the rest of the film imagining President Bartlett and Leo being caught up in that kind of situation which, I’ll be honest, sounds like more fun. 

Gene Hackman has been in quite a few films we’ve tackled so far – not only Absolute Power and A Bridge Too Far (with a Polish accent no less) but there’s also been Bonnie and Clyde, Scarecrow, Wyatt Earp, and Twilight. There’s a simple reason for this: I just haven’t seen that many Hackman films. He’s an actor who has almost entirely passed me by, with the notable exception of Unforgiven and his Lex Luthor. I’m not really sure why this is – I’ll ponder it a bit for next time because… we’ve reached the end of The Goldman Variations and it’s time for Hackmania!

What have I learned from dipping toes deeper into Goldman’s inkwell? Maybe a little of what you fancy is better than a lot. His notable films really are extraordinary (I forgot he also wrote All The President’s Men, what a guy!) but not every script can be legendary. There are still more I’d like to tackle – I’ve never seen Marathon Man for example (we almost linked to that after A Bridge… via Olivier) – but I don’t feel like a mug for not being au fait wih every single film he’s been involved in.

Hackman though… Let’s see what I’ve been missing out on.

50th Film Spectacular – The Chain Reaction Film Club

I may only have blogged 13 entries in the Chain Reaction Film Club, but we’ve been going for long enough to reach 50 films. What, you’re thinking? Wasn’t the last film number 48?

Yes it was.

Aren’t I jumping the gun then?

Noooope.

To smash through the 50 film barrier we managed to link our way to a Paul Verhoeven triple bill at the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s fashionable West End. In honour of the milestone I’m ditching the usual format and going freeform.

Last time up we watched Traffic (2000). It was sort of like a rough draft of The Wire told in just 2 hours. Take the plunge and watch The Wire instead.

The late Miguel Ferrer played a grouchy drug lieutenant and provided our link to the first of the triple bill and film 49 of the CRFC:

RoboCop (1987)

Robocop

Confession time.

I’m 36 years old. And this was my first time seeing RoboCop.

I know, I know, what the hell did I do with my youth? I’ve been pondering that, and I think I kind of bypassed the violent action film phase and went straight to the horror phase. I amassed a nice little collection of the former video-nasties as soon as I was able – the Evil Deads, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Re-animator et al. Over the years I’ve filled in some of the blanks, but there’s plenty I should have seen that I haven’t (and a lot I probably shouldn’t have seen that I have). So yes, RoboCop for the first time in my thirties. Just in case you’re worried, I studiously ignored the remake the other year, you’ll be pleased to learn.

Miguel ferrer

Linking actor Miguel Ferrer, right

First up, Miguel Ferrer was a joy. It’s odd but always feel slightly protective of our linking actors, like me combing through their filmography means we’ve bonded in some way. There’s often a part of me that thinks about putting the CRFC on hiatus while we work through someone’s whole filmography, taking in the good, the bad and the experimental to get a sense of the arc of a career. In Traffic, and most other things I know him from, Miguel had a downbeat, snarky, rumpled quality. By contrast he’s a ball of energy in Robocop, almost a Patrick Bateman kind of figure but having a lot more fun.

And the film? Well ED209 has not aged well. The model shots are painfully obvious. Otherwise, it was a hoot.

Robocop 2

ED209 was a weird wobbling toy

I have mixed feelings about seeing classic films at the Prince Charles. I don’t find the audiences tend to be particularly respectful of the films – there’s a lot of over the top, frequently inexplicable cackling (despite warnings against cackling beforehand) – which I found really annoying at a Labyrinth screening a while back. I got the sense though that I might have enjoyed RoboCop less if I’d seen it without an audience treating it like a comedy – I might have been tempted to take it more seriously. The humour is clearly there, just like it is in other satirical Verhoeven films (more on that later) but having it flagged up as acceptable to find it that funny really helped. Certainly young me wouldn’t have laughed as much. Jolly good fun all told, and I can see the influence it’s had – I saw Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie recently (god that sounds filthy), and there’s a clear debt owed.

The prime baddie in RoboCop was Ronny Cox as an almost moustache-twirling evil-man-in-suit type. Handily, he plays an almost moustache-twirling evil-man-in-suit type in the second of the triple bill and film number 50 of the Chain Reaction Film Club:

Total Recall (1990)

Total_recall

I very much have seen Total Recall before, though not for a number of years. I even started watching the remake because… I guess I must hate myself a little bit. So I remembered the main thrust of the plot, some eyeball popping and, sigh, the three-breasted woman.

The thing that struck me most on this rewatch, particularly coming hot on the heels of RoboCop, was the humour. Where RoboCop had satire at its base, Total Recall just has one liners. It’s like a Bond film, or your stereotypical Arnie film in that regard, and feels like a worse fit for Verhoeven. Arnie kills someone, says something not particularly funny. Rinse and repeat. It’s a formula that I find a bit dull – if you want to make a funny film, make a funny film. Add humour, not shit one liners that feel tonally out of place.

This is going to sound odd, but I find the last act really stressful, and not in the good way. When the air is turned off to the red light district I kind of find the whole thing a chore and want it all to be over. I don’t know why – maybe the instant atmosphere that saves everyone just feels too deus ex machina.

And… women.

In RoboCop Peter Weller’s cop gets transferred to a new precinct and partners with a female cop who we first see kicking the hell out of a suspect. She then proves to be a resilient, feisty officer who can go toe to toe with the best of them.

Total Recall features two feisty women in notable roles who can also do a bit of the old violence. One is a sex worker, the other is being paid to pretend to be Arnie’s wife, including sleeping with him. Most of the other women in the film are sex workers. Hum.

Total recall 2

Great roles for women…

Talking of feisty women though, it’s time for film number 51 and the final film of the triple bill. And they saved the best for last:

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship_Troopers

Ten years on from RoboCop, but in effects terms it seems like a century. Jesus it’s aged well. Shockingly well. There were a few shots of ships that looked a bit outliney but otherwise it’s golden. Michael Ironside is the link – he loses his arms in Total Recall, only has one arm in this and then loses his legs. He must love working with Paul Verhoeven.

With the satirical newsreel clips it felt like a direct successor to Robocop – so much so that it was a bit of a shame that Total Recall was sandwiched between them. Then there’s the role of women in this futuristic society – there’s a mixed gender sport team, relatively balanced gender in the military recruits, the head of the military (or Chief Sky Marshall) is a woman – towards the end at least. It’s particularly surprising because it’s such a traditional gung-ho masculine fantasy. It’s not all plain sailing, but makes for an interesting starting point.

Starship troopers 2

Those oh-so sharp uniforms…

The film works so well because the society is plainly flagged up as some kind of authoritarian regime – early on Johnny Rico’s father references being willing to take a punishment whipping in a public square, the tone of the news broadcasts is fascistic – and yet by the end I’m always whooping and cheering for the ‘good’ guys in their SS-style uniforms. It’s a masterpiece of manipulation that’s as funny as it is thrilling.

I saw it at the cinema when it came out and was utterly gobsmacked that it was a 15 (it was subsequently bumped up to an 18 on video release). There are body parts and mutilations and scooped out brains galore. These days I’m shocked by some of the stuff that gets a 12A certificate (the opening of X-Men Apocalypse is the most recent example I can think of) but this was the first film where I really considered the rating. Worked in my favour though – I was 16 so may have missed it at the cinema if the BBFC had been more strict in the first place.

StarshipTroopers 3

Body. Parts.

So there we go. One night, three films and we’re over the half century. All this started with 90s actioner Chain Reaction, and here we are at 90s actioner Starship Troopers. The oldest film we’ve watched so far is Bonnie and Clyde from 1967, with the most recent being a couple from 2013. All have been British or American. Hopefully in the next few months we’ll get a bit further back (some of my favourite films are from the 40s, so I’ve certainly got nothing against going further back) and maybe even overseas. Standouts so far? Well The Fifth Element – but I’d already seen that. The Duellists, Day of the Jackal and Mud are some of my favourites. The Net and Renaissance Man by far the worst. You can see the full list here.

And Paul Verhoeven? I haven’t seen many of his other films – not even Basic Instinct or Showgirls. However this year’s Elle was phenomenal so if you missed it at the cinema I’d recommend checking it out when it’s on Netflix/DVD or whatnot.

Traffic – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 48: Traffic

Traffic 1

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor.

Previously On…

Last time we watched The Dresser which definitely did not make me want to act again. It definitely did make me regret not seeing The Dresser before however.

The Shortlist

There was a lot of wringing of handsand gnashing of teeth this week. I mentioned last time that we’re off to see a triple bill of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers shortly, and that, as it’s Tim’s choice, he would have a quick investigation of how possible linking from The Dresser to Robocop in just one film is. Turns out it’s possible!

However we were also considering adding in a cheeky extra film before the triple bill (yes, we spend too much time watching films and talking about watching films, what’s it to you?) so there were suddenly options.

With minutes to spare Tim decided we’d link direct to Robocop, leaving us two options – Traffic (2000) and Chaplin (1992). The war on drugs or a silent comedy icon.

I’m quite a fan of Chaplin, predominantly for Robert Downey Jr’s performance, but I’ve seen it a couple of times and we’ve been let down by biopics recently… So Traffic got the final nod as the vegan cheese pizzas browned in the oven.

 

 

The Link

Albert Finney. What a guy. I mentioned my love for Miller’s Crossing last time, but I shall dwell on it a little more. These days it’s pretty widely known, but just in case you aren’t aware, here’s a fun bit of trivia. Albert Finney plays the head of the Irish mob in Miller’s Crossing. He’s an honest sort of crook with no time for messing around (unless giving the high hat to Jon Polito in possibly the finest opening scene in film history counts as messing around).

Finney 1

He’s a man’s man.

Anyway, at one point Gabriel Byrne’s character bursts into the ladies’ room at Leo’s club to raise hell with his squeeze. All the women scuttle out, appalled by the man’s presence in their domain. And one of the women that scuttles out? Albert Finney in drag.

Finney 2

He’s a man? Man…

 

Traffic and me

When Tim suggested Traffic I did a bit of googling. After a few days I vaguely thought I might have seen it around when it came out – maybe at the cinema. Could I remember any of it? Nooooope. Not necessarily a great sign, but perhaps I was getting it muddled up with a different film about drug cartels.

IMDB says

A conservative judge is appointed by the President to spearhead America’s escalating war against drugs, only to discover that his teenage daughter is a crack addict. Two DEA agents protect an informant. A jailed drug baron’s wife attempts to carry on the family business. 7.6 stars.

I says

 

So having just watched it I can confirm I did indeed see it at the cinema in 2000. I think. Maybe. Ok, I’ll level with you, I have no idea. I really don’t remember it.

EXCEPT FOR…

The plot about Michael Douglas’ daughter. He’s the US’s new Drug Czar getting ready to ramp up the war on drugs. She’s a student who gets hooked on crack, runs away and sells her body for drug money. Taken in isolation I think I saw a version of her story in a terrible play for schools in 1993. Shit, I think I wrote it in a workshop in 1993. It’s the archetypal Young Person Gets Involved In The Drugs descent story.

traffic-4.jpg

Drugs = bad

As the IMDb synopsis suggests, the film is a series of separate yet related stories and we flit between them all. The image is drenched in yellow when we’re in Mexico (the plot strand which isn’t actually mentioned in the IMDb synopsis), blue when we’re in Washington. There’s a hazy, dreamlike feeling to the whole mashup. Partially that gives the feeling that you’re watching it stoned. Partially that gives the feeling that I won’t remember whether I’ve seen it AGAIN.

Traffic 2

Mexico = yellow

What it really made me want to do though, is rewatch The Wire. In fact, if you watched 10 minutes of The Wire followed by 10 minutes of Breaking Bad followed by 10 minutes of The Wire etc etc etc then you’d have a similar, but far superior, experience.

Or, if you want some Benicio del Toro/Mexican border action then Sicario from last year has you covered with the most tense traffic jam I’ve seen in a film.

Final bit of trivia – I noticed that they thanked The West Wing for their set in the credits. Now I just want to watch The West Wing instead…

Traffic 3

Set = West Wing.

 

 

The Verdict

I had seen it, I didn’t remember it. Now I’ve seen it again, I won’t remember it again. I’m not sure the holistic view idea worked in a 2 hour film. In a 4 season TV show however… Jackpot.

Coming Attractions

Robocop. Total Recall. Starship Troopers. One night. And that’ll take us sailing past the 50th film in the Chain Reaction Film Club too! Celebrations incoming…

 

@BornToPootle

The Dresser – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 47: The Dresser

Dresser 1

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor.

Previously On…

It was The Day Of The Jackal last time, following on from The Duellists. Can we make it three knock-outs in a row?

The Shortlist

It’s my choice this time around. Last time I suggested we might stick with Edward Fox for a while but, in the interests of completeness, I had a look through a few different filmographies. It’s disappointing how much crossover there is between The Day of the Jackal and Run For Your Wife. I’ve seen a little bit of Run For Your Wife. I will never watch any more of it. It really is as bad as you might think, and I don’t mind a bit of whoops-where’s-my-trousers-sorry-vicar farce.

So in the end I kept coming back to Edward Fox and a few film in particular:

The Shooting Party (1985)

I really don’t know much about this, other than James Mason, John Gielgud and Edward Fox star, and it’s set during a shooting retreat just prior to the First World War. I’m thinking a more intense Downton Abbey with all the female roles expunged.

The Jokers (1967)

This is a crime caper written by Ian Le Frenais and Dick Clement, and starring Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed. Hugely tempting.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

It’s three hours long, so keeps being an almost-ran. One of these days…

The Dresser (1983)

Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay star as an aging actor and his dresser. Pretty much all set backstage during one production of Lear. It’s been on my must-watch list for years. So long in fact that I couldn’t help but pick it this time.

The Link

Edward Fox

It’s… Edward Fox. Do keep up. He had an incredible air of detached authority in The Day Of The Jackal, rumpled class in The Duellists, how will he be in The Dresser? I’m guessing louche, but we shall see.

The Dresser and me

Okay, this is one I really should have seen. I trained and worked as an actor for a few years, so should have been lapping up theatre-related films. In fact when I saw – and loved – Black Swan, one of the things I loved most about it was the realistically unglamourous way it portrayed the rehearsal/backstage process. So a film all about the backstage goings on? Surely my soya-meat and drink.

Plus, before The Dresser was a film it was a play. I’ve scoured plays for speeches and two-handers over the years, but somehow, despite knowing the setup of The Dresser, never read it.

And finally, it’s got Albert Bloody Finney in it. I need to see a lot more Finney. He’s an incredible actor, and I could watch him in Miller’s Crossing every day and not get bored. Here he is in all his glory (may spoil the finest scene if you’ve not seen it): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_le4xh-XV3c

IMDB says

An effeminate personal assistant of a deteriorating veteran actor struggles to get him through a difficult performance of King Lear. 7.7 stars

I says

Dresser 2

Crown him King of Actors right bloody now

Well that was a tour-de-force from Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. My word. They both received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and I can see why. Who won? Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies. Whatever that is. Maybe we’ll tackle it soon.

Anyway, what struck me was this quote from the director Peter Yates:

“If I can make a film which will get more people to go to the theatre, I will feel I have achieved something.”

M8DDRES EC006

I can see what he means, but in a way the film had the opposite effect on me. It put me off the theatre. And that’s not because I didn’t like the film – I loved it. But the reminder of all the sweat and tears and agony that goes into putting a show on highlighted that I’m not sure it’s worth it. For the actor. And that’s probably why I’m not still acting! It’s shown as the herculean effort that it is – heightened by the particular circumstances of Albert Finney’s Sir, and bravo for shining light on the damp, cramped, fractious experience. It’d make for an interesting double bill with Black Swan – show those two to someone who you has ambitions to perform and they’ll give it all up in heartbeat.

The other film Peter Yates directed that year? Krull.

Krull

Incidentally, I was right. Edward Fox was indeed louche as Oxenby. What a cad.

The Verdict

Stunning performances and a handy reminder for me of why I shouldn’t resume life on the stage any time soon.

Coming Attractions

Well. There’s plenty more Fox in the den, so to speak. However… We’re going to see a triple bill of Paul Verhoeven films at the cinema soon – Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers in that order. And those link to each other by shared actors. It’s like they’re crying out to be included in the CRFC. If we can get to Robocop in time…

So, as it’s Tim’s choice, he’s going to have a quick shufti to see how appealing that is…

@BornToPootle

The Day Of The Jackal – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 46: Day Of The Jackal

Jackal 1

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor.

Previously On…

Last time we watched The Duellists, Ridley Scott’s debut film. It’s one of the best we’ve watched so far.

The Shortlist

There was no shortlist this time round. Just a very very long list. Tim struggled so much to narrow it down that he simply didn’t. Here’s what we were considering:

ShortlistShortlist 2Shortlist 3

Yeah. A fair old bit. Fortunately this was a rare case where Tim had strong hankerings for one film in particular, and so the die was cast – he picked The Day of the Jackal.

The Link

Jackal 5

Edward Fox in The Duellists

This time Edward Fox is up. Kind of like Keith Carradine last time, the Venn diagram of films he’s been in and films I’ve seen don’t really overlap. But so many of them either sound interesting or are classics I really should have seen that I’ve got a feeling we’ll be seeing more of this particular Mr. Fox.

The Day of the Jackal and me

I’ve worked out that it’s unrelated to Carlos the Jackal. I know it involves a hitman. I’m also sure it doesn’t star Bruce Willis sporting a silly moustache.

Jackal 3

Dear god, look at that thing

That’s about it. It’s one of those films that I’ve heard of (and probably nodded sagely when it’s come up in conversation to hide my ignorance) but never seen.

IMDB says

A professional assassin codenamed “Jackal” plots to kill Charles de Gaulle, the President of France. 7.8 stars.

I says

Jackal 2

The gentleman hitman…

The older I get, the more I realise that all that you really need to make a film, book, play, whatever, compelling is someone overcoming obstacles. The beauty of DOTJ is that it shows us two parallel stories – the hitman and the police. They are each trying to overcome the obstacles that they keep putting in each other’s path. That’s about it. There’s not much in the way of personal backstory – in fact the Jackal himself has no personal investment in the matter at hand other than money and professional pride. It’s amazing how enthralling it is, and an object lesson in less is more.

Jackal 4

… and the down-at-heel cop. It’s a classic combination

My grasp of French history is good enough to know that Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated, and I wasn’t expecting some kind of Inglourious Basterds-esque rewriting of history. Again, because of the simplicity of the setup that’s irrelevant. The moment-to-moment working to overcome obstacles is enough to keep engaged and on the edge of the seat.

Watching it in 2017 one of the things that most struck me was the speed of information. It moved so slowly. Sooooo slowly. At one point police went around the area they thought the Jackal might be staying in and gathered guest information from all the hotels. Then first thing in the morning it was sifted through for likely suspects. One was identified and the police swooped in. Of course this all took hours and hours so he was long gone. These days a few clicks in a database and the jig would be up. I wonder if we’re going to see an increase of things set in period because it’s easier to create obstacles – kind of like how mobile phones never work in horror films; they make escape too easy.

And, on a side note, Edward Fox sports an excellent array of cravats.

The Verdict

A brilliant setup that’s gripping in a way that it feels like we’ve somehow lost track of how to achieve in the intervening decades. Stone. Cold. Classic.

Coming Attractions

This may have been The Day of the Jackal, but we might try and have The Month of the Fox – Edward Fox had quite a few tempting films so I’m probably going to limit myself to his filmography for the next choice.

@BornToPootle