Tag Archives: Steve McQueen

Soldier in the Rain (1963)

Buddy films almost always have two clashing personalities at the core. Butch and Sundance, Woody and Buzz, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Thelma and Louise — more often than not it’s the Hardass and the Free Spirit, or the Mentor and the Newcomer, or the Brainiac and the Simpleton. But as far as the casting goes you can usually say cool: those two guys will be great together. Newman and Redford is a more obvious pairing than Hanks and Allen, but the latter’s not strange enough to raise any eyebrows.

But Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen? That’s not an immediate sell as a buddy-comedy duo, is it? Each of them is legendary, but in a different fashion. Gleason is a comedic entertainer at heart, delivering highly effective drama in smaller portions in The Hustler and a handful of other notables; McQueen, meanwhile, would build his career on strong silent types even in his lesser-known dramas, from The Sand Pebbles to The Getaway. He would rarely do comedy, and Gleason would rarely share the limelight in any of his comedic films (not intentionally, of course; he just stole the show pretty much every time). So perhaps a Gleason/McQueen team-up isn’t inherently strange until you consider that a) it’s a comedy with the duo sharing top billing, b) it’s fairly dramatic at times in a satirical Catch-22 sort of way (more on that in a minute), and c) McQueen is the loopy goofball and Gleason is the knowing-smile know-it-all. That said, the most important consideration is d) Soldier in the Rain is highly underrated.

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Shame (2011)

It’s just a shame that this film wasn’t a bit better.  I’m not saying I hated or even disliked Shame, but it had the potential to be a great film that handles an issue that is rarely discussed and is entirely taboo.  One thing, for sure, that impressed me about Shame was the way that it made me actually feel the shame and remorse and immense self-loathing that Brandon experienced on an hourly basis.  That was powerful, and I mainly attribute that to the sheer talent of one of my favorite actors, Michael Fassbender.  In his second collaboration with the talented Steve McQueen, Fassbender is almost frightening.  When he attacks his visiting sister in nothing but a bath towel (one that is starting to fall down, at that) and begins screaming in her face, I genuinely felt like he might have lost his mind.  His rage, which clearly stems from his own unimaginably great disappointment in and repulsion of himself, is fairly constant and, while far less intense than that of his later performance as a plantation owner in McQueen’s follow-up film 12 Years A Slave, is shocking.

At the same time, Fassbender is also wise to portray Brandon thoroughly enjoying the acts that ultimately lead to his frustration.  This is vital to his performance because it is clear that the film is attempting to show that sex addiction is, in fact, an addiction.  It is an affliction, much like alcoholism or drug addiction.  Brandon is not a freak, he’s not a pervert…he is suffering.  But, as all addicts do, Brandon enjoys doing these acts while he is doing them.  Just because a cocaine addict might desperately want to stop using the drug, this doesn’t mean that he will suddenly no longer enjoy cocaine when he does use it.  In order to achieve the goal that this film is trying to accomplish, Fassbender needs to be as dead-on as possible.  He nails it.

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Apocalypse Now (1979)

Oftentimes our “reviews” here at Motion State aren’t reviews at all, really, but just tangentially-related trivia-night factoids stretched into meandering essays posing as criticism (see here, here, here, here, here, herehere, and here, among others). Think sitting down for dinner and accidentally filling up on appetizers — every now and then it just happens. This is that, essentially, except today we’re filling up on dessert.

During the grueling production of Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal Apocalypse Now, his wife Eleanor took copious notes and video footage with an eventual resolve to distill it all into a documentary about the making of the film. She never found the proper “angle” for a documentary feature, but Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now was eventually published in 1995. And the unedited, uncensored writings are probably a better peek into Apocalypse Now than a film would have been, because here there is no “angle” — there’s only the experience of being there as the film came together.

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Hunger (2008)

Although I feel like it cannot be, I have to suppose that it is just a coincidence that this film, entitled Hunger, completely lacks any meat whatsoever. This film had me quite excited to see it; I am a total Fassbender fan and it had garnered a strong 82 Metascore. I thought it was going to be one of those slightly dull, but really fantastically unique and emotional films with great writing and better acting. Well, I got the acting out of Fassbender, but literally every other single aspect of this film fell heavily flat for me. Which did come as a surprise considering who the director is: the great Steve McQueen. With 12 Years A Slave, McQueen, in my genuine opinion, made one of the greatest movies of the twenty-first century. Everything just worked so well, from the otherworldly penmanship to the astounding, Oscar-winning performances. The Wolf of Wall Street was my favorite in 2013, but 12 Years was undoubtedly the best.

The biggest gripe I have with Hunger is probably the fact that it refuses to settle on a protagonist until about thirty minutes in. Inexplicably, the film starts with, and carries on with, the tale of two characters who ultimately become totally irrelevant. Granted, they do set up the scene; their situation portrays how terrible the conditions were for those imprisoned men. That does not change the fact that the exact same effect could have been as, if not more, easily achieved focusing instead on Fassbender’s character, Bobby Sands (the ultimate protagonist). The two initial characters essentially share a few lines of dialogue, smear their shit all over the walls of their cell, and grow long hair and beards.

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The Killer Elite (1975)

It’s tough to find defenders of The Killer Elite. Watching the film without any knowledge of the chaotic production or of director Sam Peckinpah’s personal, financial and artistic woes at the time probably makes for a bland and unexciting viewing experience; sadly, a little background on Peckinpah effectively makes it even worse, as it’s hard to watch The Killer Elite without noticing that the gleefully indulgent heart characteristic of his best films seems to have vanished.

The set-up ain’t bad, although that hardly ever matters in the hands of a capable director. James Caan and Robert Duvall star as CIA-contracted assassins and friends who have worked together for years. Duvall’s George betrays Caan’s Mike, shooting him in the elbow and knee and leaving him badly crippled. The rest of the film follows Mike as he recuperates, retakes his post at the shady government operations agency, and ultimately seeks revenge on his old pal George.

There are plenty of rumors associated with The Killer Elite that may or may not be true. First is that Peckinpah took the project specifically as an attempt to recreate the financial success he had with the Steve McQueen-starrer The Getaway, which marked the last financially successful movie Peckinpah would direct. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was both more in line with Peckinpah’s Western sensibilities and more of a box office flop, and so it is admittedly easy in that regard to draw parallels between The Getaway and The Killer Elite. The fact that the project may have been more associated with money than with any real passion pretty much sets the thing up for failure out of the gate.

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The Getaway (1972)

There is a scene in The Getaway where Steve McQueen’s Doc and Ali MacGraw’s Carol evade a roaming cop car by diving into a dumpster. The pair end up swimming in trash for a lot longer than they’d probably expected, but it’s the few shots leading up to this sequence that are the most interesting. As the cop car slowly turns the corner and begins the prowl down the thin alleyway, Doc moves furtively up to the corner and braces himself against the brick wall, gun drawn. This is Steve McQueen, major action star of the era, it’s Frank Bullitt and Thomas Crown and The Freakin’ Cincinnati Kid for chrissake – but when Doc sidles up to the corner of that alley, the guy playing him ceases to be so endearing as he usually is; those cops coming down the alley are about to die, and Doc’s going to kill them.

He actually doesn’t kill them, of course, and we’re treated to the dumpster sequence instead. Point is that Doc’s moral compass is way (way) off from the kinds of characters you usually see McQueen portraying, and the prospect of shooting cops dead is a decidedly likely prospect throughout the course of The Getaway. Sam Peckinpah plays with this beautifully, and it’s possible that his second collaboration with McQueen (following the much more lighthearted Junior Bonner) was designed specifically to explore the questionable morality of the central character. It’s also something that Peckinpah would continue to explore in his 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

It’s more jarring here, through McQueen’s Doc. Freshly released from prison, Doc takes Carol along on a heist as the getaway driver. The heist goes bad and team member Rudy (played brilliantly by Al Lettieri) attempts to kill Doc and take the money for himself. A narrow escape only paves the way for a multifaceted chase, with Doc and Carol, Rudy, the police, and other forces vying for the stolen cash. All the motivation Doc has is to survive, to not go back to prison, and to keep the money for himself; the first two motivations are understandable, but it’s the third that receives most of the focus here. Doc really wants that money, and he’ll beat up and shoot people to make sure he gets it.

Rudy’s character, I think, effectively makes Doc’s character tolerable, meaning we’d be a hell of a lot less likely to root for Doc if we weren’t also rooting against Rudy. The two men being opposed from the very start is what provides us a clear good guy/bad guy pairing, or at least pushes that idea a little more into the light. One of the best Rudy scenes sees him riding in the back of a car driven by a man he has taken hostage. The man’s simpleton wife inexplicably sides with Rudy during this entire encounter, and as the trio barrel down the highway Rudy and his new girl munch happily on sticky ribs. A rib fight ensues, meaning Rudy and the girl gleefully whip ribs and fries at each other and at the despairing hostage. Barbecue sauce coats the inside of the car. Suddenly, Rudy shrieks “I don’t like this game no more!“, and the trio go immediately back to silence. There’s something weird and off-putting about this scene, very nearly bordering on disturbing, because Rudy’s mental state is shown to be completely unhinged by something as absurd as a rib fight.

That said, Doc isn’t a portrait of mental health either. His prison stint has had a clear effect on him, evident when he states it out loud – “It does something to you…It does something to you” – and again when he snaps at his own girl Carol. He strikes her for a simple misstep, and one could argue that his turnaround is as sudden and therefore even as repulsive as Rudy’s. But we’ve seen Doc in prison at the beginning of the film, we’ve seen the mindless way that days bleed into one another and time slips into nothing, we’ve seen years of days in a few short minutes. Rudy doesn’t have such a backstory, so his character traits are unexplainable, unreasonable, alien and terrifying. Doc may very well exhibit the same traits, but the reason we aren’t scared of him isn’t just because he’s the protagonist or just because he’s Steve McQueen. Doc’s pain is the cause of his ruthlessness, and in this way out of the entire Peckinpah oeuvre The Getaway is probably matched only by Straw Dogs in terms of depth of character.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Continuing our mini-retrospective on actor and director Richard Attenborough, one notices that Netflix only musters seven films with his name in the credits – three of which he directed, three of which he acted in, and one of which is a documentary. Shouldn’t there be more of a selection for a guy who acted in nearly 80 different projects and directed twelve feature films, one of which won a Best Picture Oscar? Shouldn’t he have at least half of the Netflix catalogue awarded to William Shatner? Anyway.

Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles is an interesting one to be included in that hors d’oeuvre-sized offering, and it’s a film in which Attenborough shines. Steve McQueen takes the spotlight, as Steve McQueen is wont to do from time to time, but Attenborough’s character serves as a perfect compliment to the protagonist. McQueen’s Jake Holman and Attenborough’s Frenchy Burgoyne are aboard a U.S. gunboat (The San Pablo, though pronounced by some as Sand Pebbles) in the heart of China in 1926. It’s a time of revolution and both men get wrapped up in local and national affairs during their long tour.

Attenborough has said Pebbles was the longest shoot he ever worked on, including the epic Gandhi, and that the cast and crew spent 8 months in Taipei filming. Wise spent a full four years bringing the project to fruition, and the time spent and the care taken is evident in the epic sweep of the final product.

The film is sluggishly slow in most places. McQueen’s Jake cultivates a relationship with the engine of the ship (in the picture above he’s just said “Hello, Engine. I’m Jake Holman”) while Attenborough’s Frenchy cultivates a relationship with a local Chinese woman. The characters couldn’t be more unlike each other, but they build a mutual respect and even loyalty as their tour progresses. Also, Attenborough sports one hell of a handlebar mustache.

The Sand Pebbles takes its time, but is worth watching to see McQueen and Attenborough in two of their most distinctive roles.