Hackmania – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Last time we were deep into Gene Hackman’s filmography and I promised Tim and I would continue (catch up if you’re new here – my friend Tim and I are working through films we’ve not seen or are overdue a rewatch linking to each film by a shared actor. At the mo we’re only linking to Hackman films, just because). And so we shall. Welcome to Hackmania 2017!

Film 68: Mississippi Burning (1988)

Mississippi-Burning-14

Some fine smell-the-burning-cross acting

Hackman and a youngish Willem Dafoe are FBI agents investigating the disappearance of three civil rights activists in Alabama. Dafoe is the ranking officer but Hackman, a Southerner who’s gone out and seen a bit of the world, is a loose cannon who don’t play by no rules.

This was an interesting one and I really wish I’d seen it when I was younger. It’s based very closely on real life, but with fictional names sprinkled over the top. And there’s plenty to recommend. However when I read about it after watching I was intrigued, and not that surprised, by the controversy that surrounded its release. I watched this in the same year I’ve watched Selma and Detroit. These films have a major focus on the black figures who were involved. By contrast Mississippi Burning is more of a white folks affair. So in a film dealing with trying to ensure black people were able to have a voice (by making sure they could vote unmolested) it also kind of doesn’t give black people a voice.

The other film we’ve watched as part of CRFC that deals with the civil rights struggle was Crazy In Alabama. It was before I started blogging the entries but is worth a quick mention here. Two intertwining stories: a young white boy befriends a black boy and they spend their summer hanging out until the local sherriff takes exception to the mixing of races and breaks up a party. In the process the black boy is killed by the sherriff and the white boy witnesses it but is too scared to come forward at first. Second story: the white boy’s aunt has decapitated her abusive husband and takes his head with her on a road trip to become a star in LA. It’s a horrendous mash up of coming of age, civil rights, women’s rights, zany comedy and issue-based drama. And once again sidelines the people most important to the story. I was reminded of it last week as well, because Surburbicon does the exact same thing. A Coenesque black comedy uses 50s racial hatred as… set dressing? Something like that. It introduces a serious and all too real threat to a black family to mirror tension in the main knockabout storyline, and barely gives them any lines in the process. I found it to be one of the most baffling and reprehensible things I’ve seen this year.

FILM-SUBURBICON-REVIEW

Suburbicon: the bit that wasn’t in the trailers

All of that is to say that in the context of a Hollywood that regularly sidelines the marginalised in their own story, I can see why Mississippi Burning attracted ire. It’s certainly not as bad as Crazy In Alabama or Suburbicon, but a film lauding the FBI as saviours when they were simultaneously trying to destroy Martin Luther King in real life is a bit much. At a time when we can also watch the likes of Selma, however, I think there is a place for it.

Phew.

Oh, one more thing on Mississippi Burning. The sherriff of the town where this really happened sued the producers (despite names etc being changed). The case was dropped when the studio’s lawyers pointed out that if he wanted to go to court they would have to show the evidence they had that showed the sherriff was in part culpable for the deaths of the activists. Sit. The fuck. Down.

Film 69: The Conversation (1974)

The Conversation 1

Listening in to the great white telephone

I’d been looking forward to this for ages. It’s appeared on the shortlist a few times, gets regularly referenced by critics and film makers alike and generally sounds like a great premise. From IMDb:

‘A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple, on whom he is spying, will be murdered.’

Earlier this year I saw the French film Scribe in the cinema. It deals with a character who is given tapes of bugged phone conversations to transcribe and slowly realises he’s in the middle of a shady conspiracy. It was an ok watch, but didn’t quite live up to the premise. I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t wait to see The Conversation to see how it should be done and… well… The Conversation was ok, but it didn’t quite live up to the premise.

Scribe

The French Gene Hackman

Were parties really shit in the 70s? My overiding memory of The Deer Hunter isn’t the famous Russian roulette sequence, it’s the interminable party. Likewise The Conversation is going to stick in my mind not for the tense eavesdropping or encroaching paranoia but for the inexplicable party Gene Hackman’s character hosts at his dingy workplace. Maybe Francis Ford Copolla and Michael Cimino were both invited to the same duff party and these films are them cathartically working through the experience. I’d just get drunk in the kitchen and throw up in the garden meself.

The Conversation 2

Bwah bwah bwah bwabwabwabwabwaaaaaah

Gene Hackman plays the sax a few times, and doesn’t even have the decency to play Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. I mean, what’s the point? Ok, so that wouldn’t be released for another 4 years but so what. A very young chubby cheeked Harrison Ford makes an appearance though, which is nice.

The Conversation 3

I could just squish those cheeks!

Film 70: The Firm (1993)

I wrote about The Client during Sarandon Season, and this is one of the other trio of John Grisham thrillers I missed growing up. We’ll tackle The Pelican Brief soon enough I’m sure.

Tom Cruise is a hotshot graduate lawyer with job offers aplenty. He goes to work for a small firm in Memphis who seem to have some shady dealings… with THE MOB!

The Firm 1

Name’s Tolar. Avery Tolar.

Gene Hackman is the improbably named Avery Tolar, a senior partner at The Firm with a devil-may-care attitude. It’s nice to see him playing a character who is having a bit of fun – most of his characters seem dourly irascible, but Avery has a bit of the mischevous spark he showed in Bonnie and Clyde or Scarecrow. Or, uh, Superman.

There was almost an incredible bait-and-switch but sadly my hopes were dashed: when Cruise enlists the help of a private Eye called Eddie, we cut to their office and a glammed up Holly Hunter (who can do no wrong). Cruise asks if he can go in and see Eddie and I was really hoping Hunter herself would be the private eye. A nice little bit of subverting expectations and giving a woman a role other than secretary/wife/prostitute (seriously, those were the only female roles in the film). But no, she’s the secretary to Gary Busey’s private eye. Hey ho. And then to make matters worse she has to give Busey head.

The Firm 2

Holly Hunter I will watch in anything. Gary Busey… not so much.

It’s a perfectly functional film with plenty of head scratching wait-but-why-do-they-not-just… moments that Tim hates. My biggest gripe though was to do with Cruise cheating on his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn). It happens on a business trip with Avery Tolar. Wait, hang on, it’s not Cruise and Hackman getting it on. No, Hackman is getting fresh with a call girl and sends some over to Cruise. Cruise is married though and not a dick, so says no and wanders off. Cue witnessing an altercation between a man and woman, coming to the woman’s aid and, you guessed it, boffing her right there on the beach. What a dick. Photos appear later on, used as blackmail material against Cruise. And then comes the reveal: she was a plant. She used her wiles to ensnare Cruise in a bit of slap and tickle purely so photos could be taken and leverage could be gained. Poor old Tom Cruise is innocent and his marriage saved. Because of course he couldn’t possibly have said no to such a tempting succubus. Wiles were used. Wiles! Urgh.

The firm 3

He’s powerless against her, powerless I say.

That makes six Hackman films on the trot and while there are plenty more tempting ones to try (I’m looking at you March Or Die, B*A*T 21 & Enemy Of The State), The Client is also a pretty good jumping off point to get back to more chain reactiony Chain Reaction Film Club. There’s Tripplehorn, Cruise, Hunter and Busey to pick from plus Paul Sorvino (he played a mob boss would you believe), Ed Harris, David Strathairn and Hal Holbrook to name but a few. It’s Tim’s choice next though, so who knows where we’ll end up.

@BornToPootle

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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!

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.

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