Marooned (1969, directed by John Sturges)


Imagine The Martian or Apollo 13 without any humor or narrative momentum and you’ve got an idea what Marooned is like.

Three American astronauts (played by Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman, and James Franciscus) are returning to Earth after serving on an experimental space station when the engine to their spacecraft fails.  Now stuck in orbit around the Earth, they only have two days before they run out of oxygen.  While flight commander Crenna tries to keep everyone calm and make sure that all the proper procedures are followed, Gene Hackman yells at NASA and demands to be rescued.

Down on Earth, the head of NASA (Gregory Peck) says that there’s nothing that can be done.  There’s no way to get a rescue mission set up quickly enough to save the lives of the astronauts.  Both the President and David Janssen disagree with him.  Janssen demands to be sent into space immediately, regardless of the dangers, so that he can bring America’s astronauts home.

Marooned is a painfully slow movie that went into production at the height of the space race and which was released just a few weeks before the first successful moon mission.  Because it was made at a time when there were still many who claimed that NASA was a waste of money, the movie goes out of its way to explain that, even though the astronauts are probably going to die in space, NASA is in no way to blame.  Richard Crenna absolves NASA of blame after being told that a rescue mission isn’t feasible.  Gregory Peck holds a press conference, where he gives a lengthy speech about why space exploration is still important.  The movie is very detailed in showing that NASA is staffed by personality-free professionals, which might have boosted confidence in NASA but which also leads to a dull story.  You’ll notice that I haven’t referred to anyone in this film by the names of their characters.  That’s because their names don’t matter because, other than Gene Hackman and David Janssen, none of them is really distinguished by any sort of identifiable personality.  Hackman chews the scenery while Janssen plays another surly character who seems like he has a permanent hangover.  I wouldn’t trust Janssen to pilot a spaceship.

Marooned won an Oscar for its Special Effects, which were probably impressive back in 1969 but which are dull by modern standards.  Winning that Oscar meant that Marooned would eventually earn the distinction of being the only Oscar winner to be featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  On MST 3K, it aired under the title Space Travelers, which is a perfectly generic name for a perfectly generic film.

 

18 Days of Paranoia #8: The French Connection II (dir by John Frankenheimer)


The 1975 film, The French Connection II, opens up three years after the downbeat conclusion of the first French Connection.

Having escaped from the police at the end of the first film, the wealthy and suave Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is still smuggling drugs and living his best life.  He goes to parties with wealthy people.  He has lunch dates with important businessman.  Even though the French police are keeping an eye on him, Charnier seems to be virtually untouchable and he knows it.  If Charnier seemed impossibly smug in the first French Connection, he’s even worse in the second one.

Charnier may be enjoying himself in Marseille but what he doesn’t know is that there’s an American tourist in town.  He’s a very loud American, one who insists on trying to speak to everyone in English and is shocked to discover that most of the French natives don’t have the slightest clue as to what he’s talking about.  He’s shocked when he goes into a bar and fails to impress two young French women.  He also doesn’t seem to understand that even French people who speak English are not going to appreciate being called a “frogs.”  He wanders around town in loud shirts and with a fedora sitting rakishly on his balding head.

Yep, it’s Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman).  The anti-hero from the first French Connection is still on the case and he’s now come all the way to France to help track down Charnier.  The last time we saw Doyle, he had just accidentally killed a cop and was running through a dark warehouse, firing his gun.  In fact, the first film ended with the suggestion that Doyle was such a loose cannon that his career as a narcotics detective was probably over.  Instead, in the sequel, we learn that Popeye is still working in narcotics and he’s still just as much of a loose cannon as he ever was.  If you thought people in New York found Popeye to be obnoxious, just you wait to see how the French react to him!

What Popeye doesn’t know is that his superiors in New York have only sent him to Marsielle so that he can be a target.  They know that Popeye will never be able to blend in.  Charnier will spot him and, hopefully, Charnier will panic and make some sort of mistake that will finally allow the police to capture him.  French detective Henri (Bernard Fresson) goes along with the plan, despite his own moral objections.  Henri can’t stand Popeye but he doesn’t want to see him killed either.

It doesn’t take long for Charnier to notice Popeye.  After Popeye is captured by Charnier’s man, they inject him with heroin until soon, Popeye is an addict.  Before Popeye can finally get his shot at Charnier, he’s going to have to overcome his own drug addiction….

The French Connection II starts out well, with Gene Hackman wandering around Marsielle and acting like a stereotypical ugly American.  Director John Frankenheimer does a good job of keeping the action moving at a steady pace during the first half of the film and there’s a lot of great scenes involving Popeye being followed around town by not just the police but also Charnier’s men.  The first half of the film does a great job of establishing an atmosphere of paranoia, which is not surprising when you consider that Frankenheimer’s other credits included The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days In May, and Seconds.

Unfortunately, once Popeye is captured and gets hooked on heroin, the action not only comes to a halt but the normally reliable Gene Hackman starts to act up a storm.  When Popeye, while going through withdrawal, starts talking about how he used to play baseball and how he once has a try-out with the New York Yankees, the scene seems to go on forever and Hackman’s performance becomes so histrionic that you basically just end up feeling like you’re watching someone auditioning his heart out for a spot in the Actor’s Studio.  Gene Hackman was one of the world’s great actors and Popeye Doyle was a great role but, in The French Connection II, we’re reminded that even a great actor occasionally needs to have his performance reined in.

Eventually, after Hackman’s had his big Oscar moment, the action kicks back in and the film kind of regains its momentum.  There’s a big action scene towards the end of the film.  (Ironically, it’s the type of big, good guys vs. bad guys shoot out that the first film deliberately avoided.)  The film ends with a literal bang that’s abrupt yet undeniably effective.

As far as sequels go, The French Connection II is good.  It’s not great and, not surprisingly, it doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the power of the first film.  But it still has enough effective scenes to make it worth watching.  You just might want to hit fast forward whenever Popeye starts talking about baseball…..

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls

Behind Enemy Lines (2001, directed by John Moore)


When hotshot Navy flight officer Chis Burnett (Owen Wilson) is shot down while doing a reconnaissance mission over Bosnia, he finds himself stranded behind enemy lines.  While Burnett tries to avoid being captured by a Serbian general and find evidence of illegal military operations in yje demilitarized zone, Admiral Leslie Reigart (Gene Hackman) tries to mount a rescue operation.  Standing in his way are the NATO bureaucrats who would rather just leave Burnett to his fate than run the risk of disrupting the peace process.

Behind Enemy Lines was released early in Owen Wilson’s acting career and, after years of watching him in buddy comedies and eccentric character roles, it can be strange to see him playing a traditional leading man, much less an action hero.  Burnett has his goofball moment but, for the most part, this is probably as dramatic a role as you’re ever going to see Owen Wilson perform.  Once you get over the fact that he’s Owen Wilson and still speaking in the same stoner cadences that he’s used in everything from Bottle Rocket to Inherent Vice, Wilson actually gives a decent performance as Burnett.  The fact that he’s not a traditional leading man actually makes the film’s action scenes more exciting.  If Burnett had been played by someone like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, you would never have any doubt about his survival.  With Owen Wilson in the role, you’re no longer quite as sure that he’s going to be able to make his way to safety.

Gene Hackman also gave a good performance, even if he didn’t really do anything with the role that he hadn’t already done with all of the other authority figures that he played from Unforgiven on.  Hackman’s intimidating as Reigart.  When Burnett says that he wants to retire from the Air Force, Reigart looks like he’s about to reach over and rip off his face.  But Hackman has so much natural authority that you understand why his men automatically respect Reigart and follow his every order.  Burnett is lucky to have him on his side because there’s no way Reigart’s going to let someone from NATO push him around.

When Behind Enemy Lines first came out, it was not loved by the critics.  They complained that the movie was heavy-handed and predictable.  They were right but it really didn’t matter.  Behind Enemy Lines made a lot of money because it was a legitimate crowd pleaser.  I remember seeing it when it first came out.  This was less than month after 9-11 and the theater was packed with people who, like me, were still dealing with the greatest national trauma of our lifetime.  When Owen Wilson killed the men who were trying to kill him, the audience cheered.  When Reigart said that there was no way he going to abandon an American behind enemy lines, the audience applauded.  By the time the film ended, everyone was on their feet and chanting “USA!  USA!”  (At least, that’s the way I remembered it.)  Critics be damned, at that time, Behind Enemy Lines was the movie that we needed.

Behind Enemy Lines was a huge box office success so, of course, it got a sequel that wasn’t as good.  I’ll review Behind Enemy Lines: Axis of Evil tomorrow.

A (Not-So) Brief Note On WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT (20th Century Fox 2004)


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Sometimes while scrolling through the channels one come across a pleasant surprise. So it’s Saturday afternoon,a thundershower has cancelled my plan to hit the beach, the Red Sox don’t start for awhile, and I’m clicking the old clicker when I land on WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT. I wasn’t expecting much, just a way to kill time; instead, I found an underrated little gem of a comedy that kept me watching until the very end.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT is an undiscovered classic or anything like that. It’s just a solidly made piece of entertainment about small-town life starring Ray Romano (riding high at the time thanks to his successful sitcom EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) and Oscar winning Gene Hackman. Romano uses his nebbishy TV persona to portray Mooseport, Maine’s local hardware store owner “Handy” Harrison, who gets involved in a mayoral campaign against Hackman’s Monroe “Eagle”…

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40 Years of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Warner Brothers 1978)


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Unlike today, when superheroes dominate at the box office and your local multiplex, costumed crusaders were dead as the proverbial doornail in theaters of the 1970’s. The last was 1966’s BATMAN, at the height of the camp craze, but after that zer0… zilch… nada. I didn’t care; my comic book reading days were pretty much at an end by 1978, driven away by other distractions, like making money, girls, beer, and girls. I had moved on.

But when Warner Brothers announced they were making a new, big budget Superman movie, I was intrigued. I’d always loved the old 50’s TV series starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel, corny as it was, and with a cast featuring Marlon Brando , Gene Hackman , and Glenn Ford , not to mention that girl from Brian DePalma’s SISTERS as Lois Lane, I wanted to see this new version. I also wanted…

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An Olympic Film Review: Downhill Racer (dir by Michael Ritchie)


For the past few days, like all good people, I have been totally obsessed with the Winter Olympics!  Last week, I asked my friends to suggest some Winter Olympic-themed movies that I could watch and review.  More than a few of them immediately recommended that I check out a film called Downhill Racer.

First released in 1969, Downhill Racer tells the story of David Chappellet (a very young and very handsome Robert Redford).  When we first meet David, he’s just arrived in Switzerland.  An alternate to the U.S. ski team, David has been summoned by Coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) to replace an injured skier.  From the minute that David arrives, it’s obvious that he’s not interested in being anyone’s friend.  He’s upset that he was an alternate.  He’s upset that he’s going to be skiing so late in the competition.  He’s upset about … well, almost everything.  Unlike the rest of his teammates, he’s a loner and he rarely has much to say.  He cares about one thing: winning championships and being recognized as the best.  David is not a particularly likable character.  However, the fact that he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks about him is one of the things that makes him compelling.  Add to that, David quickly proves himself to be one of the best.  He may be arrogant but, more often than not, he can back up his pride.

Why is David so driven?  We get some clues when David returns to his hometown in Idaho.  Even though everyone in the town knows him and he doesn’t have any trouble convincing a former girlfriend to go off with him, David still seems out-of-place.  When he visits his father, the taciturn man is not impressed by David’s success.  As his father puts it, the world is full of champions.  Why should David deserve any more praise than anyone else?

Standing in contrast to the reservered David is Coach Claire.  Whereas David is reserved, Claire is passionate.  Whereas David is an unapologetic loner, Claire is willing to fight for every member of his team.  Whereas David reacts to a crash by refusing to accept that he made a mistake, Coach Claire is always brutally honest.  David couldn’t be a champion without Claire’s help but, in the end, the Coach is destined to remain in the background while David signs lucrative sponsorship deals and becomes a hero to television viewers everywhere.

It’s a familiar story, though perhaps it wasn’t as familiar in 1969 as it is today.  Today, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that celebrities can be jerks and that “heroes” are often just manufactured idols.  (Downhill Racer has a good deal of fun with the shallowness of the media’s coverage of David Chappellett’s career.)  That said, familiar or not, there’s a good deal of authenticity to be found in the performances of both Redford and Hackman.  It takes a bit of courage to play a character who is as narcissistic and arrogant as David Chappellett but, even more so, it takes talent to make that character compelling.  As for Hackman, he’s the ideal coach.  He knows both how to get the best out of Chappellett but also when to call him out on his crap.  From the minute we meet the Coach, we knows that he cares but we also know that he’s seen a lot of David Chappelletts come and go over the years.

Of course, the main reason to watch Downhill Racer is because of the racing scenes, many of which were filmed as a point-of-view shot, putting you in the skis as the frozen landscape flies past you.  They are amazing to watch.  I’ve never been skiing, which is probably a good thing when you consider that I’m a bit accident-prone.  But the skiing sequences in Downhill Racer left me breathless, shaken, and exhilarated.

Downhill Racer is definitely one to watch, during the Olympics or any other time.

Recipe for Disaster: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (20th Century-Fox 1972)


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Although 1970’s AIRPORT is generally credited as the first “disaster movie”, it was 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that made the biggest splash for the genre. Producer Irwin Allen loaded up his cast with five- count ’em!- Academy Award winners, including the previous year’s winner Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION ). The special effects laden extravaganza wound up nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 2, and was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only THE GODFATHER!

And unlike many of the “disasters” that followed in its wake, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE holds up surprisingly well. The story serves as an instruction manual for all disaster movies to come. First, introduce your premise: The S.S. Poseidon is sailing on its final voyage, and Captain Leslie Nielsen is ordered by the new ownership to go full steam ahead, despite the ship no longer being in ship-shape. (You won’t be able to take…

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A Movie A Day #258: The Hunting Party (1971, directed by Don Medford)


Old west outlaw Frank Calder (Oliver Reed) wants to learn how to read so he and his gang ride into the nearby town and kidnap Melissa Ruger (Candice Bergen).  Because he saw her reading to a group of children, Calder assumed that Melissa was a school teacher.  Instead, Melissa is the wife of a brutal cattle baron and hunter named Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman).  Even after Calder learns the truth about Melissa’s identity, he keeps it a secret from his gang because he knows that they would kill her and then kill him as punishment for kidnapping the wife of a man as powerful as Brandt.  Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and Melissa starts to fall in love with Calder.  Meanwhile, Brandt learns that his wife has been kidnapped and, with a group of equally brutal friends, he sets out to get her back.  In Brandt’s opinion, Calder has stolen his personal property.  Using a powerful and newly designed rifle, Brandt kills Calder’s men one-by-one until there is a final, bloody confrontation in the desert.

Coming out two years after Sam Peckinpah redefined the rules of the western genre with The Wild Bunch, The Hunting Party owes a clear debt to Peckinpah.  Much as in The Wild Bunch, the violence is sudden, brutal, and violent.  What The Hunting Party lacks is Peckinpah’s attention to detail and his appreciation for the absurd.  Instead, The Hunting Party is just one shooting after another and, devoid of subtext or any hint of a larger context, it quickly gets boring.

Fans of Oliver Reed, however, will want to watch The Hunting Party because it features one of his best performance.  For once, Reed is actually playing the nice guy.  He may be an outlaw but he still cries when a mortally wounded member of his gang begs Calder to put him out of his misery.  Gene Hackman is also good, even though he’s playing one of his standard villain roles.  (The less said about Candice Bergen’s performance, the better.)  The Hunting Party may be dully nihilistic but Oliver Reed shines.

A Movie A Day #251: Cisco Pike (1972, directed by Bill L. Norton)


Yesterday, the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton passed away at the age of 91.   Cisco Pike is not one of Stanton’s best films but it is a film that highlight why Stanton was such a compelling actor and why his unique presence will be missed.

Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) is a musician who has fallen on hard time.  After having been busted several times for dealing drugs, Cisco now just wants to spend time with his “old lady” (Karen Black) and plot his comeback as a musician.  However, a corrupt narcotics detective, Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), approaches Cisco with an offer that he cannot refuse.  Holland has come into possession of 100 kilos of marijuana.  He wants Cisco to sell it for him and then Leo plans to take the money and retire.  Cisco has the weekend to sell all of the weed.  If he doesn’t, Holland will arrest him for dealing and sent him back to prison,

About halfway through this loose and improvisational look at dealers, hippies, and squares in 1970s Los Angeles, Harry Dean Stanton shows up in the role of Jesse Dupree, an old friend and former bandmate of Cisco’s.  Jesse is a free-living wanderer, too old to be a hippie but too unconventional to be a member of the establishment.  Unfortunately, Jesse also has a nasty heroin habit.  Jesse Dupree is a prototypical Harry Dean Stanton role.  Like many of Stanton’s best roles, Jesse may be sad and full of regrets but he is not going to let that keep him from enjoying life.  Stanton may not appear in much of the film but he still takes over every scene in which he appears.

Stanton is, by far, the best thing about Cisco Pike.  As always, Gene Hackman is entertaining, playing the inverse of The French Connection‘s Popeye Doyle and Karen Black is her usual mix of sexy and weird.  The weakest part of the movie is Kris Kristofferson, who was still a few years away from becoming a good actor when he starred in Cisco Pike.  It is interesting to consider how different Cisco Pike would have been if Stanton and Kristofferson had switched roles.  Stanton may not have had Kristofferon’s movie star looks but, unlike Kristofferson, he feels real in everything that he does.  With his air of resignation and his non-Hollywood persona, Stanton brought authenticity to not only Cisco Pike but to every film in which he appeared.

Along with Stanton, several other familiar faces appear in Cisco Pike.  Keep an eye out for Roscoe Lee Browne, Howard Hesseman, Viva, Allan Arbus, and everyone’s favorite spaced-out hippie chick, the one and only Joy Bang.

A Movie A Day #217: Wyatt Earp (1994, directed by Lawrence Kasdan)


Once upon a time, there were two movies about the legendary Western lawman (or outlaw, depending on who is telling the story) Wyatt Earp.  One came out in 1993 and the other came out in 1994.

The 1993 movie was called Tombstone.  That is the one that starred Kurt Russell was Wyatt, with Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton in the roles of his brothers and Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday.  Tombstone deals with the circumstances that led to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  “I’m your huckleberry,” Doc Holliday says right before his gunfight with Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo.  Tombstone is the movie that everyone remembers.

The 1994 movies was called Wyatt Earp.  This was a big budget extravaganza that was directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starred Kevin Costner as Wyatt.  Dennis Quaid played Doc Holliday and supporting roles were played by almost everyone who was an active SAG member in 1994.  If they were not in Tombstone, they were probably in Wyatt Earp.  Gene Hackman, Michael Madsen, Tom Sizemore, Jeff Fahey, Mark Harmon, Annabeth Gish, Gene Hackman, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rossellini, JoBeth Williams, Mare Winningham, and many others all appeared as supporting characters in the (very) long story of Wyatt Earp’s life.

Of course, Wyatt Earp features the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral but it also deals with every other chapter of Earp’s life, including his multiple marriages, his career as a buffalo hunter, and his time as a gold prospector.  With a three-hour running time, there is little about Wyatt Earp’s life that is not included.  Unfortunately, with the exception of his time in Tomstone, Wyatt Earp’s life was not that interesting.  Neither was Kevin Costner’s performance.  Costner tried to channel Gary Cooper in his performance but Cooper would have known better than to have starred in a slowly paced, three-hour movie.  The film is so centered around Costner and his all-American persona that, with the exception of Dennis Quaid, the impressive cast is wasted in glorified cameos.  Wyatt Earp the movie tries to be an elegy for the old west but neither Wyatt Earp as a character nor Kevin Costner’s performance was strong enough to carry such heavy symbolism.  A good western should never be boring and that is a rule that Wyatt Earp breaks from the minute that Costner delivers his first line.

Costner was originally cast in Tombstone, just to leave the project so he could produce his own Wyatt Earp film.  As a big, Oscar-winnng star, Costner went as far as to try to have production of Tombstone canceled.  Ironically, Tombstone turned out to be the film that everyone remember while Wyatt Earp is the film that most people want to forget.