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!

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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!

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

The Chain Reaction Film Club: The Player

Film 36: The Player

The Player 01

Eh? What’s the Chain Reaction Film Club?

Having been friends for too long, my chum Tim and I have run out of things to talk about. So instead we meet up pretty much every week and watch a film. The only catch is that we take it in turns to pick, and it must be linked to the previous film by a shared actor. We’re looking to catch up with films we haven’t seen for ages, find classics we’ve overlooked and uncover hidden gems. We started with the film Chain Reaction, hence the rather fortuitous name.

So where are films 1 – 35?

Good question! You can find the full list of films here. I’ve been meaning to blog about it from the start but… haven’t been. If I have the time I’ll fill in the blanks.

Previously on…

There’s been a bit of a gap thanks to me being off on holiday. Last time we watched The Tall Guy, a Richard Curtis comedy that isn’t as fondly regarded as his more recent stuff. It was good fun, especially when Emma Thompson was on screen. And made me want to see Griff Rhys Jones’ ‘Whoops, Hamlet.’ Just a shame that doesn’t exist. This time around it’s my choice…

 

The shortlist

Jeff Goldlum

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Morning Glory

Jurassic Park

Chain of Fools

The Player

The Fly

Silverado

 

Emma Thompson

Last Chance Harvey

In the Name of the Father

Peter’s Friends

 

Geraldine James

Made in Dagenham

 

The Choice

From the shortlist I’d only previously seen Jurassic Park (a lot) and The Fly (once, a long time ago). Neither me nor Tim are fans of Wes Anderson, but do like a bit of Bill Murray, so Life Aquatic was a front runner for a while. Eventually though I narrowed it down to The Player and Silverado. Both have incredible casts for the next pick. Tim is already a fan of Silverado, but hadn’t seen The Player, and so the choice was made. Tim is also easily flummoxed by big casts full of options for the next film, so that may have influenced my choice a little.

The Player 02

The Player and me

Tim Robbins is a favourite thanks to an early appreciation for Bob Roberts, Shawshank (obviously) and The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve seen more times than any other Coen Brothers film now that I think about it). I like Robert Altman too – though he’s one of those directors who I always think I’ve seen more of than I actually have. So why haven’t I seen it?

It’s a film about Hollywood. I know Hollywood is fond of films about Hollywood, but I’m not really. Whether it’s a fear of self-indulgence, worry that I just won’t get the references (Hail Caesar suffered from this in particular) or just not being that interested in the realities of the film industry there’s not much that entices me. It’s either all backslapping or spleen-venting. So I imagine that’s a part of why I haven’t sought it out before, despite being aware of it. My understanding prior to watching was that it fell more into the spleen-venting camp than the backslapping one. Was I right?

IMDb says

A Hollywood studio executive is being sent death threats by a writer whose script he rejected – but which one?

I says

Yup, definitely more spleen-venting, but has a lot of fun while doing it. Tim Robbins is the Hollywood exec who  spends his days rejecting scripts and suggesting tooth-achingly cheesey amendments to what might otherwise have been interesting projects. He’s wary of his position at the studio, particularly as a new hire is brought in, and things take a dark turn when he starts receiving death threats with increasing regularity…

This is definitely in the top tier of films we’ve watched in the Chain Reaction Film Club. From the opening 7 minute tracking shot (during which characters discuss great opening tracking shots) to the Hollywood ending, The Player managed to make for an interesting character drama and an enjoyably vitriolic look at one side of the film business.  I’m sure there’s lots of exciting technical stuff going on (I spotted a lovely shot that begins on Burt Reynolds and chum chatting, zooms in to the table behind them where our main character sits down and has a conversation and ends by zooming back out to Burt still deep in conversation.

And that cast… It’s an absolute who’s who of Hollwood circa 1992. Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Goldblum, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Rod Steiger, Harry Belafonte even!  The only oddity was seeing so many people playing themselves then Whoopi Goldberg turning up playing a character rather than herself. It took a while to work out who was a character and who wasn’t.

The plot was engaging and, if not ultimately that satisfying, sacrificing that for the point it was making about the industry seems fair enough. The other day I read a piece about studio execs rejecting pitches that were secretly famous French nouvelle vague classics (a marketing stunt, but hey ho) which chimes nicely with this film.

Tim Robbins is both naïve and conniving, a great choice of actor for an unlikeable role. This felt like a proto American Psycho – released at almost exactly the same time as the book – and they’d actually make for an interesting double bill. The studio machinations, and particularly the way they talk about scripts, still feel very relevant.

The verdict

Definitely an overlooked (by me) classic

Coming attractions

It’s Tim’s choice next, and he effectively has all of Hollywood to pick from. Brion James is a good shout for the next link (I’d kill for a Fifth Element rewatch), as is Bruce Willis (I’d kill for a Fifth Element rewatch). All being well the film club will take place on Wednesday and I’ll update as soon as possible afterwards.