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…

Advertisements

Gregory Peck – The Chain Reaction Film Club

One of the great things about IMDb is that the URL for people betrays how early they were added to the database. For example, the first person on the IMDb, with the url ending ‘name/nm0000001/’, is Fred Astaire. There’s another film club to be had around that idea, now that I think about it.

Last time I wrote about the rather strange Last of Sheila, then waxed lyrical about two Gregory Peck fims. Anyway, so taken was I with Gregory Peck, and so enticed by the fact that he’s got a relatively small filmography for someone of his fame, that a season beckoned. And now after ten Peck films in a row I am a dedicated fan. Even though I’ve written about two of them before, I’ll look at the whole season here, because Peck deserves that sort of treatment.

From Last of Sheila we linked via James Mason to The Boys From Brazil. I enjoy Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives (the original, obvs) so another Ira Levin-based ooky thriller seemed like a safe bet. Laurence Olivier is a Nazi hunter (and the 59th person added to the IMDb), and Gregory Peck is the fiendish Joseph Mengele (and number 60, conveniently enough. The first hundred or so seem to have been added in alphabetical order!).

Peck Boys from brazil

It wasn’t great (nor was James Mason’s accent come to that), but I thought Gregory Peck was outstanding. Looking up trivia afterwards, it turned out that Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, which seemed terribly hammy to me. Peck on the other hand was critically mauled. Perhaps it’s time and acting styles passing on that have affected my view, perhaps it’s just down to taste, or perhaps it’s that I wasn’t saddled with the view of Peck that critics of the time had. He was, by all accounts, almost always cast as the good guy, the moral authority. But I can count the number of Peck films I’d previously seen on the fingers that I’d hold up at the President if I saw him.

The previous films were Roman Holiday and The Omen, neither of which I remember him from particularly. In fact, in my head Cary Grant played the lead in Roman Holiday, so what do I know!

Peck Designing Woman

It definitely wasn’t all top quality stuff in the season. Designing Woman was a fun enough romp, but would have benefited from Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant in the lead, with their screen personas more able to invite laughter at their expense. Spellbound and Mirage were a pair of duff Hitchcock and Hitchcock-wannabe thrillers. The former is notable for a Dali-designed dream sequence, the latter for an excellent Walter Matthau interlude.

Peck Mockingbird

But everything else was gold. To Kill A Mockingbird and Cape Fear both came out in 1962. Even without seeing any other Peck films, those two alone should be enough to cement an iconic image. A man of unwavering moral authority, brought to breaking point. A man for whom morality is the ultimate arbiter. I think Cape Fear is one of the very best we’ve watched as part of the Chain Reaction Film Club.

Peck Cape Fear

I’ve not seen the remake (I mooted it as a way to end the season, as Peck turns up in it, but Tim was less keen) and am a little scared of it now. I found Robert Mitchum to be skin-crawlingly horrible enough. I’m not certain I want to see where De Niro takes it.

Then there was The Gunfighter, a stripped down Western that would work well as a stage play. It’s largely set in one bar as a weary-of-fame gunfighter waits for the woman he loves and tries to fend off young hotheads and horrified matrons. It’s good stuff. The Guns of Navarone is one of those Sunday afternoon standards that I somehow missed growing up, and its band of plucky misfit soldiers assaulting a Nazi base seems to have laid the blueprints for parts of the original Star Wars trilogy.

A war film with a different tone, Twelve O’Clock High had Peck taking over a bomber unit suffering from low morale. Determined not to get attached to the men for their own good, it’s another great example of his moral strength being tested. Bouncing back to another western, The Big Country is as handsome as they come.

Peck Big Country

It’s here where Peck’s archetypal quiet competence and morality seemed to find their most natural home. Thrust into the middle of a feud which is about to bubble over, Peck outwardly takes the moral high ground, using brain over brawn. At the same time he tackles physical challenges on the quiet, determined not to use those as a means of proving himself to others.

After ten films, almost a fifth of his entire filmography, I am absolutely converted to the temple(ton) of Peck. Is he the greatest actor? No, I don’t think so. There is an unbendingness to his performances that suits his most notable roles. I think that’s also why he excelled as Mengele – a man who believes as unwaveringly in his (horrendous) actions as Atticus Finch believes in the law.

After leaving Peck behind we tackled The Ballad of Cable Hogue, then via Strother Martin we watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Made four years after The Big Country, it was a similar story of Jimmy Stewart’s moral man forced into a world where the rule of law is seemingly meaningless. When we started the Peck season I thought of him as an also-ran compared to the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Watching Liberty Valance I was struck by how much I would have liked Gregory Peck to be playing the lead instead.

It turns out that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was the 100th film in the Chain Reaction Film Club, so I’ll have a little look through what we’ve watched so far and pick out a few choice morsels. And if you haven’t looked at my post about some exciting writing news, then maybe tiptoe over here and see what’s going on.

Muriel’s Wedding – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 77: Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel 001

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…

Snogging boys out the back of the Yeoman, confusing feelings for Jamie Theakston, oh and the film Velvet Goldmine. It’s one of my favourite posts in the CRFC saga so far, so please check it out if you haven’t already.

The Choice

It was up to Tim and he managed to narrow it down to The Dark Knight and Muriel’s Wedding. One we’ve both seen (him repeatedly) but are always up for a rewatch, the other is an Australian film about a lady getting married… So that’s what we picked!

The Link

Toni Collette

Muriel 003

Usually I’d use an image from the previous film here, but I just don’t wanna

Well I didn’t know she was Australian, so it’s true that every day is a school day (though not sure that’s on any curriculum. And, well, she’s fab generally, isn’t she. Whether it’s an off kilter indie or a Hollywood romcom she tends to bring the goods. She’s never been one of those actors I get properly excited about and would see something purely because of (take a bow Allison Janney and Sam Rockwell, alongside whom she starred in The Way Way Back), but I’m usually pleased to see her.

Muriel’s Wedding and me

This falls into the heard-of-but-never-seen category. Some would say that it also falls into the chick-flick category to which I would say a number of things (my wife is studying for an MA in gender studies so I’d copy some long words out of her textbooks), but the upshot would be that I think that’s a singularly unhelpful genre label and normalises the idea that other genres are for men. So. There’s that.

It’s also forever tied up in my head with the film Let Him Have It about the last person to be hanged in the UK, purely because I heard them both advertised on Capital fm around the chart show, albeit a couple of years apart. I imagine they’re quite different.

M8DLEHI EC010

Muriel’s Beheading would’ve been a great pun. If only the UK had employed the guillotine.

IMDB says

A young social outcast in Australia steals money from her parents to finance a vacation where she hopes to find happiness, and perhaps love.

I says

Genres labels are stupid. They come with so many preconceptions for starters. Take ‘goth’ as an example. There’s the black clothing, the make-up, the scowling and the listening to Sisters of Mercy… and while some of that may be accurate (or certainly was for me), that’s never the whole of it.

On a Friday night at the Yeoman (second week in a row I’ve been able to shoehorn that pub in. I’d ask for a commission if they hadn’t closed 18 years ago) our goth gang would gather and drink Smirnoff Ice until we were wobbly. Then on particularly special nights Dancing Queen would come on the stereo and up would go one of our number, up on to a table, and a dancing queen he would be.

Muriel 004

The Kentish Yeoman, Tunbridge Wells, circa 1998. Around 11pm.

Which is to say that whether you’re a goth, emo, hardcore punk, grime obsessive or whatever, Abba know their way around a tune.

So finding out that the backbone of the film was the music of Abba was not exactly off putting. If you’re drunk and Abba are playing and you’re not dancing then you are doing it wrong. Or you’re too drunk and everyone should get out of vomit range.

I’m going to leap into spoiler territory now, but for a film about a wedding-obsessed social misfit looking for love after making a break for the big city, jesus christ does it go to some dark places. My initial reaction as the credits rolled was to say that you could tell it wasn’t an American film. The Hollywood version wouldn’t have the balls and the indie version wouldn’t have the charm. To juggle life-changing disability, suicide, selfish main characters, dance routines and sex slapstick and come out with a coherent charming and moving film is really quite incredible.

Toni Collette’s Muriel goes through the whole standard hollywood character arc in the first act of this, from retiring shrew to ballsy extrovert with a rebellious best friend in tow. And then the film has the nerve to keep going, to show where she goes next and the ramifications of her actions on those around her. Some of them have it coming, some of them not so much. But the film doesn’t pull those punches.

Muriel 005

Rachel Griffiths is The Best.

This is one of the earliest credits for both Collette and Rachel Griffiths (as one of cinema’s best best friends) and it is not hard to see why they have both gone on to long successful careers. They are really rather good in it, and work brilliantly together too.

So. It’s a chick-flick. About Abba and weddings. And I loved it.

Muriel 002

Toni Collette doing an impression of me watching Muriel’s Wedding.

But I imagine that’s apparent.

The Verdict

If you are not on your feet cheering during the Waterloo routine then I put it to you that you are, in fact, dead.

Muriel 004

An all-time great scene. Really.

Coming Attractions

Lots of Aussie actors to pick from, a few of whom have crossed over into American cinema too. I might try and keep it down under for now though, just for a bit of a change.

@BornToPootle

Films of 2017

Thanks to the powers of a Curzon membership I managed to see more films than I’ve ever seen before in cinemas in 2017. Between us, Lyd and I managed a total of 58, three higher than last year’s previous best. Looking back through the full list there are three immediately obvious things:

  1. There were loads of really good films this year
  2. There weren’t any films that will be troubling my top 3 (Harvey, Donnie Darko, Mad Max Fury Road)
  3. Despite seeing more films than ever before, there were still plenty that I wanted to see but didn’t get around to.

So as much for the benefit of jogging my memory as anything else, here’s a bit of a roundup of the greats, the surprises, the not-so-greats and the I-wonder-if-they’re-great-or-nots.

The Greats

After watching a film I try to pretty swiftly update my list and give it a knee-jerk rating. That’s not always the best way to judge a film, but it gives me a nice reminder about my instant reaction to it. Of the 58 seen, I reckon something like 20 or so managed an 8 out of 10 this year – that’s what I mean about it being a good year. Whittling it down to just a handful is hard so I won’t present a simple top 5 (edit: turns out I will attempt a top 3 later on, oh well).

Detroit

One of the things this year seemed very good at was tension. Dunkirk and Detroit were the big hitters that spring to mind, and in any other year one of them would be the most tense film by a country mile. But this year there were the two of them, and even then there was another film that managed to out-tense them by some margin. It Comes At Night was an absolute masterclass in two things – gut-wrenching tension for every second of its run time, and how marketing can fuck a film up. For some reason It Comes At Night was marketed as a jump-scare horror, but that’s not what it’s like at all. Perhaps it gets bums on seats to do it that way, as jump-scare horror is surprisingly popular, but most of their bums are going to be disappointed if they’re not getting the raucous scare-athon they were after. And you don’t want to disappoint a bum.

handmaiden

2017 was the year that I finally managed to visit Japan, so with unerring timing as well as some excellent Japanese animation in Silent Voice, there were a duo of films released in the weeks before my trip that really didn’t paint a good picture of Japanese history – Age of Shadows and The Handmaiden both used the Japanese annexation of Korea as a backdrop. Both also feature some pretty harrowing torture and are excellent, but the similarities end there.

In non-Japanese animation it was also a great year – Red Turtle and My Life As A Courgette are so utterly different to look at, but I found both deeply affecting and both being pretty short, are likely to make my rewatch list at some point. And I thought brevity was a lost cinematic art.

If, held at gunpoint, I had to pick a top three of the year though, it would probably be Death of Stalin, Lady Macbeth and Good Time.

Death of Stalin

I was expecting the humour of Death of Stalin, but how it managed to take its subject matter simultaneously so serious was a revelation. And Simon Russell Beale finally tearing up the big screen was a long awaited joy. Even if Jason Isaacs summarily upstaged everyone.

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth will, if there’s any justice, make a huge star of Florence Pugh. What I feared might be a film stuck full of long shots of countryside that were meant to be portentous or somesuch was actually a much tighter beast with a nasty streak a mile wide. There were still a few shots of countryside, but they were dripping with subtext. A timely re-examination of some costume drama staples.

Good time

Good Time was another top tense film, but it also rattled along, barely staying in one place long enough to let me catch my breath. There’s a fantastic twist about half way through and Robert Pattinson continues to exceed expectations by taking on interesting projects (The Rover, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars spring to mind) and excelling. Also there was a nice (small) role for Barkhad Abdi who was so fantastic in Captain Phillips. He also rocked up very briefly in Bladerunner 2049 and for me was one of the most memorable aspects of the whole film (more on that later). Let’s have some meatier roles for Barkhad please!

Oh, and Paddington 2 was just beautiful. I was snooty about the first one, but eventually watched it on the small screen and was blown away. The second one is, if anything, even better. Swallow any snootiness and go and be bowled over by loveliness.

I liked Star Wars n’ all, but the internet has volumes written on that so I shan’t trouble you any further with my opinion. But I do love Poe Dameron.

The Surprise

As part of my job I have to watch film trailers again and again and again. I watched various different cuts of The Daddy’s Home 2 trailer over 160 times, for example. One that I saw a LOT of trailers for was Happy Death Day, and I really thought it was going to be utter bobbins. Groundhog Day meets teen slasher is an interesting enough idea, I suppose, but boy did it look duff. And yet, it was one of the most purely enjoyable films I saw all year (see also: Thor Ragnarok). The horror goes out the window after the first half hour or so and it becomes a straight up comedy. It even makes some serious points about believing women when they call out abuse.

The Not So Great

There were 2 (and a half) walk outs this year.

Atomic Blonde didn’t seem like it was going to be my kind of film. I gave it a go because it seemed like a good time to support female- led action films (I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman much either to be honest, but that was a LOT better than this), Charlize Theron was great in action scenes in Mad Max, and I like James MacAvoy more than I should. It was definitely not my cup of tea.

La La Land. I gave it a go. The opening nearly killed me, then I thought it might settle down a bit. Then they were both just obnoxious and not as good at singing and dancing as people who’re the leads in musicals should be. Lyd has to spend a few minutes watching West Side Story to decompress if the memory of La La Land resurfaces.

Lyd walked out of Bladerunner 2049, but I stuck out the whole ting and honestly? I think she made the better call. It looked beautiful, of course – Roger Deakins is a magician. Lyd left because she couldn’t take the misogyny. And it is really misogynistic. It seemed like it was doing it to make a point, but I don’t think they pulled it off. When I explained the ending to Lyd she laughed and laughed and laughed. I’ve ever been in love with the original, so that probably didn’t help either.

Oh, and we should have walked out of Trespass Against Us, but kept thinking it was about to end. An utter waste of Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender.

The I-Wonder-If-They’re-Greats

I wanted , but completely failed, to see quite a few this year. Marjorie Prime, The Levelling, The Ritual (I think that’s what it was called – British horror of some sort),  God’s Own Country, Call Me By Your Name, Raw and many many more beside. Some of those are ending up in top 10 lists so hopefully I’ll catch up with them at some point.

That’s my tuppence worth. What should I have seen that I missed?

@BornToPootle

Talk Radio – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Film 73: Talk Radio

Talk Radio 01

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 The Three Musketeers. The 90s one. Why do we put ourselves through these things? It’s all for love.

The Choice

There wasn’t a shortlist this time as Tim decided to play his cards close to his chest. So the lights dimmed, the credits rolled and I discovered we’d be watching…. Talk Radio (1988).

The Link

Michael Wincott

Talk Radio 04

Plays villains you say…?

He’s the badassest villain in The Crow, he’s the slightly rubbish right hand man of the villain in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Three Musketeers, he’s the dead-too-soon captain in Alien Resurrection… And presumably some other things too. He’s got a voice and cheekbones to die for, I know that much.

What will he be up to in Talk Radio? If I had to guess (which I don’t, but will anyway), he’ll be a late night radio show host with some kind of grudge against the main character. He’ll be a nemesis, but not as nemesis-like as (let’s assume) the station owner. There’s always a villainous station owner.

Talk Radio and me

I’ve heard of it, but little more than that. It falls into a mass of broadcasting films that I don’t know well enough – Broadcast News, Network, A Face In The Crowd and I think a couple of others. Presumably there are others, otherwise that’s an embarrassing quartet to muddle up.

I used to listen to talk radio a fair bit while going through a lonely patch in my early/mid teenage years. I still remember Queenie from Margate calling up Adrian John for a natter every night on Radio Kent, so that’s the dramatic benchmark I’ll be holding this film up to.

But I bet there’ll be a villainous station owner.

IMDB says

A rude, contemptuous talk show host becomes overwhelmed by the hatred that surrounds his program just before it goes national.

I says

Well this was a nice surprise. Eric Bogosian is a late night talk show host on local radio. Station manager Alec Baldwin has big news for him… as of next week he’ll be syndicated nationally, but will his signature rudeness cut the mustard with the powers that be, and just who is he pissing off on the other end of the phone?

Talk Radio 02

Eric Bogosian taking his late night calls very seriously

This was based on Eric Bogosian’s play, and it shows. Most of the action happens over two show broadcasts, and the snippets we see outside those moments – added in for the film – seem very much tacked on. For largely all happening in one room with a static protagonist the film fair zips along and manages to keep a surprising amount of energy. Oliver Stone directed, and I think I normally associate him with a deal of ponderousness. Not so much here.

Eric Bogosian. Who he? Apart from looking like the missing link between Jeff Goldblum and Elliot Gould he didn’t seem familiar as an actor. I read one of his plays when I was auditioning for drama school and hunting for monologues so I’ve always assumed he was a playwright. Knowing what I do about the creative industries it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has many feathers to his cap, but somehow it always does. It’s like being surprised Bradley Walsh has an album out. No, wait, it’s nothing like that.

Funnily enough the play I looked at for drama school didn’t yield any useful monologues. As I watched Talk Radio it occurred to me that this would have been a much better play to read… until I remembered that I had been looking for monologues for a playing age of 18-25. Talk Radio would suit me now at my, ah, more mature age.

Important things to note:

1. There wasn’t really an evil station manager. Alec Baldwin came close but ultimately any undoing was more as a result of Bogosian’s character. Nice to be wrong for a change.

Talk Radio 05

Baldwin on the right with an inadvisable haircut. Or John C McGinley as he’s better known. 

2. The credits list the actors Park Overall and Rockets Redglare. Those are incredible names. Scarcely more incredible is Rockets’ bio on wikipedia.

3. Michael Wincott. Wow. He was reprising his role in the stage version (as were Bogosian and John C McGinley) which is always good to see. I didn’t know he was also a stage actor (usually a given in the UK, not always in the US) but it makes sense. His voice, presence and stillness make a bit more sense in that context. But he is utterly different here to the measured villainous roles I know him from. He’s a street corner Jon Bon Jovi, a big-haired, stoned, hooting gutter punk. And it works very well.

Talk Radio 03

Women want him, men want to be him…

4. SPOILERS!

This is the quickest a film has ever spoiled itself in my recollection. The opening credits roll. The text ‘Based on the play Talk Radio by Eric Bogosian’ appears. Below it also appears ‘And based on The Life and Death of….’ blah blah blah. So. In the opening credits they plant a pretty strong implication about where the plot is going. Sigh.

END OF SPOILERS!

The Verdict

Thoroughly enjoyable with plenty of drama and also a few Queenie from Margate moments. An overwrought ending and dodgy flashback away from greatness though.

Coming Attractions

Plenty to pick from for me. Baldwin, McGinley, Redglare (he’s in Big!), Bogosian and more besides.

@BornToPootle

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

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.