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Mississippi Burning – Review

5 Jan

In 1964, 3 Civil Rights activists went missing in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Foul play was suspected, so the FBI made their presence known and an official investigation began. Over time, a handful of city officials and other citizens were ousted as members of the Ku Klux Klan and sentenced to prison for the murders of the activists. This story shows a very dark time in modern American history and is a perfect incident to be dramatized because all of the themes and hostilities that it could explore. This is where Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning comes in. Parker isn’t one to shy away from controversial topics, and this film did spark controversy, but it also works well as a piece of hard hitting entertainment. There is just one major flaw that stands in the way of this being a truly excellent movie.

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When three Civil Rights activists go missing in Jessup County, Mississippi, two FBI agents are sent to investigate. The investigation is headed by the young and hardheaded Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), who is partnered up with the experienced yet brash Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman). Upon their arrival they are warned by multiple city officials that nobody wants them there and that whatever happens in their town is their business. This is unacceptable to the two investigators who call in more agents to help with the search. This causes an uproar in the Mississippi town, and causes the KKK to become even more hostile to the African American community in this town. With more lives being threatened every day, the town suddenly seems to be at war with itself which forces the agents to change their tactics in order to achieve justice.

The strongest thing that Mississippi Burning has going for it is its fantastic cast.  Other than Dafoe and Hackman, Frances McDormand, Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, and Michael Rooker all have supporting roles. This is one of the stronger casts I’ve seen in a movie in a long time and they all bring their best to the table. While everyone is great I have to focus the most on Gene Hackman. There are times when he really stands out and there are times where I don’t really remember him, but never is he bad. In this film he’s downright excellent and it may be my favorite performance of his I’ve ever seen. These performances work really well with getting me really into the story and into the time period, which is super important for any period piece.

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What also be remembered to get an audience into a time period are the production values and costume design. Mississippi Burning exceeds in these two areas. This is a fantastic looking movie and is well deserving of the Academy Award it won for Best Cinematography. There is a great juxtaposition of serenity in the film making mixed with much more harsh and unforgiving film making. This works great with the themes and story of the movie. The set design and costume design also looks very natural and very believable. Sometimes when a movie about the 1960s comes out, there can be some unnecessary flashiness like the film makers are trying to prove that it’s a different time period instead of trusting the audiences to see for themselves. This movie looks exactly what I’d expect a small Mississippi town to look like the mid-1960s. I wasn’t alive, of course, so this is just an assumption.

There is one major thing about Mississippi Burning that really gets under my skin and I didn’t really notice it as I was watching. It was only when I was thinking about it afterward did I realize that the representation of African Americans in this movie isn’t all that flattering. There’s mention of Martin Luther King and there are a couple of marches shown in the movie, but altogether they’re just portrayed as weak, helpless, and scared. Of course, that’s a part of history. It was a terrifying time to be alive for many people, but it was also a time to stand up for yourself and your basic human rights. There could have been more black main characters instead of just using them as mostly silent side characters. This isn’t something that made the movie any less entertaining as it was on, but it was something that kept eating at me afterwards.

Mississippi Burning is very close to being a great movie. The performances are amazing and the cinematography is worthy of the Academy Award that it won. The only issue is that there are no central black characters in a movie that is all about racism in the South during the 1960s. Even if there was just one main African American character to ground the film with that perspective, I would have been pleased. Still, Mississippi Burning is a very entertaining movie that is filled with tension, suspense, and realistic atmosphere.

Final Grade: B

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Unforgiven – Review

31 May

Clint Eastwood and the western genre pretty much go hand in hand. Eastwood practically built his career out of playing heroic gunslingers navigating through the violent old west. From his iconic performances in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to more traditional American westerns like Hang ‘Em High, Eastwood has really just become a staple of the genre. Wether it was intentional or not, he was also responsible for resuscitating this kind of film making with his 1992 revisionist western classic, Unforgiven, which has gone down in modern history as one of the best American films.

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After cutting a woman working in a brothel in the town of Big Whiskey, Sheriff Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman) runs two cowboys out of town, despite the other girls wanting to see them hanged for their crime. As a last resort, the women at the brothel pull their money and put a bounty on the cowboys’ head, which draws in a couple of bounty hunters like English Bob (Richard Harris). It also attracts the attention of a young gunslinger called the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) who hires the help of a retired outlaw known for his brutality, William Munny (Clint Eastwood). After a wave of reluctance passes, Munny realizes he needs the bounty money and brings along his old friend, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), to help him and the Schofield Kid kill the two criminals. What this gang of bounty hunters don’t know is that Little Bill Dagget runs Big Whiskey with an iron fist, and he’ll be damned if a bunch of no good gunslingers undermine his authority.

I’m not really a huge fan of classic westerns where the hero is a moral gunslinger who faces off against the clearly evil bad guys. It doesn’t seem like that’s really what the west should be portrayed as. Granted, there are some exceptions, but I like my westerns to be a bit more complicated than that. That’s why I love a good revisionist western like The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven. There really aren’t any clear good or bad guys in this movie, even though you’d want to think that Clint Eastwood is the obvious good guy. This just isn’t the case, because it’s made clear that William Munny was an awful guy in the past and you can still see some of that evil lurking beneath the surface. On the flip side, Little Bill Dagget makes some pretty brutal moves in this movie, but there’s still a human side to him that just wants to live a peaceful life. This is an intriguing western with complex characters.

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Another interesting thing about this movie is that it can be argued that Unforgiven is just as much about a lifestyle, set of beliefs, or state of mind as it is about the characters. There are a lot of characters in this movie that all get ample amounts of screen time, which makes it hard to really distinguish who the main protagonist is. This is a movie that does tell a story about a group of people who clash in a small western town, but it’s also a look at the violence and attitudes of people during the time period. Is it all accurate? I don’t know, but it is a good way of examining the tropes of a genre along with what is known about the time period. This is kind of a weird thing to figure out the first time you watch the movie, but after letting the structure sit with you for a while, it starts to really feel like Eastwood did something new with this movie and reinvigorated a genre and his faltering career.

Unforgiven is possibly the most beautifully shot western I’ve ever seen. A lot of this is due to Eastwood’s skill as a director, but credit also has to be given to cinematographer Jack N. Green. Green worked with Eastwood before Unforgiven and would work with him even more afterwards, but nothing in his career has really stood up to his work on this film. The silhouetted figures riding their horses in front of a setting sun has never looked as great as it does here. That along with the natural looking lighting in the various saloons and jailhouses makes this film feel as naturalistic as it does artistic.

Unforgiven is a modern day masterpiece that has gained the recognition and reputation that it deserves. It took home 3 Oscars, which were Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Editing. There’s plenty to enjoy with this movie, but Unforgiven is more than just a western featuring the heroics of the good guys and the evil deeds of the bad guys. Instead, it explores a time period and the thin line between leading a good life and falling into unforgivable sin. This may well be Eastwood’s best movie and certainly has a place as one of the best westerns ever made.

A Bridge Too Far – Review

18 Nov

It’s easy to make a war film that celebrates victory, but I can’t say the same about making a film that tells the story of an overwhelming defeat. Film history is sort of lacking in movie that tell the story of missions or operations that have gone terribly wrong. Arguably, one of the most notorious failures was Operation Market Garden, which happened after D-Day as World War II was coming to a close. Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter William Goldman took Cornelius Ryan’s in depth book examining the loss and turned it into the grand World War II epic, A Bridge Too Far.

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On September 17, 1944, Operation Market Garden was put into effect by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The plan was to drop 35,000 men behind enemy lines and secure a series of bridges so that ground forces could cross them on the way to liberate Arnhem. After only a few days of preparation, the mission began and things soon begin to go very wrong. This film follows different people through different locations and problems, among them being Staff Sgt. Eddie Dohun (James Caan), Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart (Sean Connery), and Lt. Col. John Frost (Anthony Hopkins). As the mission drags on a lot longer than it should have, supplies begin to run low and more soldiers fall victim to the desperate Nazi soldiers.

This films may be one of the most “star studded” movies I’ve ever seen. I almost can’t believe how many people they got to sign on this project. I’ve already mentioned James Caan, Sean Connery, and Anthony Hopkins but the list doesn’t end there. A Bridge Too Far also features Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Elliot Gould, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Caine, Maximilian Schell, and Laurence Olivier. With a cast like this, you would expect a lot of really emotional and hard hitting performances, but in this case you would be wrong. Sure, the acting is great, but A Bridge Too Far is far from being an emotional powerhouse. In fact, save for a few scenes, this is a pretty cold and objective look at Market Garden.

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With this huge amount of actors, it’s pretty obvious that there’s also a huge cast of characters. There’s British soldiers, American soldiers, and Polish soldiers to keep track of along with a couple of scenes of important Nazi soldiers. There came a point in the movie where someone was asking about how others were doing, and I didn’t know who they were talking about. I still have a hard time remembering who was who. I don’t think that’s really my fault either because so much is crammed into this movie. Even at 3 hours long, I felt like it could have gone on for even longer since some of the characters never really got their story arc fully realized. That’s part of the reason why I say this is a very cold war movie rather than an emotionally intense one.

Now while this is a pretty detached move doesn’t mean it doesn’t get pretty wild. There are scenes in this movie that are some of the coolest I’ve seen in a war movie because they feel huge and are executed with perfection. One scene in particular shows the thousands of men being dropped out of gliders, with some of them being show from a first person perspective. There’s also no music playing during this part which makes it extra effective. Some other great scenes include the air force bombing Nazi forces entrenched in a forested area and the nail biting assault on Nijmegen Bridge. There is unfortunately a lot of down time between some of the other better scenes, which often makes everything feel uneven at times.

A Bridge Too Far certainly can’t be called the best World War II film ever made due to some of its glaring issues with character and pacing. There’s so much stuffed into this movie, there really was no way to give every event or character a chance to develop fully without making this some sort of miniseries. Still, there are plenty of scenes that stand out as something truly special. The scale of this movie is large enough to fit the shoes of such a military blunder as Market Garden. If anything, this movie should still be viewed to get an interesting look at history and also for its extraordinary cast.

The French Connection – Review

1 Dec

I can’t believe I haven’t seen this movie until now. I feel almost ashamed of myself, missing out on a classic like The French Connection. Better late than never I suppose, and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing. This is a fast paced, intelligent thriller with foreign intrigue and tough but likable characters topped off with an ending that will leave you speechless. “Did you ever pick your toes in Poughkeepsie?”

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After a mysterious murder in Marseilles, New York detectives “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) start up on a case connected to the murder which involves an obscenely large shipment of heroine and a French criminal, Alain (Fernando Rey). This isn’t a typical investigation, but more so a psychological and physical test that will push the detectives out of their comfort zones and into an elaborate maze of cat and mouse.

I love watching a movie where it’s literally one excellent scene after another. A couple scenes stand out in particular. One involves a comedic bust in a bar, but there’s also an adrenaline fueled car chase, powerful shootouts, and suspenseful tailings through the underbellies and upper echelons of New York City. There’s never a dull moment in The French Connection and many times you’re left sitting in your seats dying to know what’s going to unfold in the next five minutes.

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Hackman gives the best performance of his career as the tough talking, mean spirited, yet strangely likable cop, Doyle. His whip smart attitude and outstanding physical acting shows just how deep he is in character. Roy Scheider also gives a great performance, and is the perfect yin to Hackman’s yang. They’re so much more than good cop/bad cop because neither of them are especially “good.” One’s just a bit more heated than the other, which makes for some funny and often dramatic character scenes.

The drama in this film is heightened by its incredible shock value. This doesn’t mean its over the top, but it certainly pushes the limits of what is normally seen in some movies, like innocent people getting killed without any remorseful reactions. The car chase featuring an elevated train is also thrilling even after all these years and hundreds of car chases later. The ending scene alone left my mouth wide open in this weird shock/smile combo. Definitely one of the top 5, if not the top 3 endings off all time, but that’s a list for another day and another time.

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I loved The French Connection and I can’t believe it took me this long to finally see it. The wait paid off because I was totally engaged by the thrills that were taking place before me. It’s a gem from the past that earned 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was the movie to see in 1971, and I’d say it’s still the movie to see in 2012.