Killers Three (Bruce Kessler, 1968). This movie sucks, but it makes for great post-viewing trivia. The most obvious item is that the movie was produced for American International by Dick Clark, who also was one of the people who came up with the story, and who also co-starred as one of the Three. It was directed by Bruce Kessler, who may be the only person in history to get the following description on Wikipedia: “Bruce Kessler … is an American racing driver and film and television director.” He spoke with James Dean on the day of Dean’s death. And, as if the Formula One racing wasn’t enough, Wikipedia also tells us “Kessler was also a world class skeet and trap shooter.” The male lead was Robert Walker, Jr., son of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones (he once said, “I would like to develop as an actor in obscurity.”) The female lead was Diane Varsi, who earlier that year had been so charming in Wild in the Streets. Varsi only appeared in eleven movies, starting with Peyton Place, for which she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She took eight years off from 1959-67, and made her last movie, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, fifteen years before her death. But that’s not all! There is a country music soundtrack (it takes place in North Carolina in the late-40s and tells the story of bootlegging, among other things). At one point, there’s a party at which Bonnie Owens (ex-wife of Buck Owens and, at that time, wife of Merle Haggard) performs. Oh, and speaking of Hag, he has a small part as Diane Varsi’s brother. And he sings. His songs are the ones that fill the soundtrack, and it’s very unfortunate, because those songs consist entirely of Hag re-telling the events of the movie up to that point (“They drove all day and night, California seemed so far. Now the law is closing in, and they’re looking for their car”). The theme song is “Mama Tried”, which had been released earlier that year. The movie is a rip-off of Bonnie and Clyde, minus the artfulness of Arthur Penn, the excellence of the screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton, the editing greatness of Dede Allen, the cinematography of Burnett Guffey, the wonderful acting by Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman and the rest (Dick Clark is no Michael J. Pollard), and the beguiling charisma of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012). Practically everything goes right in this one. Spielberg mostly avoids the overwrought heart-tugging that affects even some of his best movies. The script by Tony Kushner is a marvel that manages to simultaneously walk the viewer through complex political machinations and offer vibrant characters (who are acted by a retinue of actors who must have been overjoyed to have such fine material). The movie has the look of the mid-19th century (as if I knew what that is), which I’m guessing is largely the work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. And Daniel Day-Lewis does something I admit I didn’t expect. I think of Day-Lewis as a showy actor in the Meryl Streep mode, but he buries himself inside Lincoln, and fulfills the cliché of forgetting it’s an actor and believing you are watching the actual Lincoln. In truth, I was surprised by a lot of things in this movie, mostly because as usual, I studiously avoided knowing much about it in advance. It’s not an action picture, it’s not a hagiography … no, it’s a political thriller, something like House of Cards only a lot better. Lincoln resorts to political scheming when necessary to achieve his goals, yet this doesn’t make him less appealing … in fact, it makes him seem more real, which is a hard thing to do with a character so embedded in the public mind. #163 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. A conversation I had with a friend reminded me that while all of the above is true, the film is successful in part because it narrows its focus by excluding social movements that mattered to the story. It also mostly excluded black people.
Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981). A movie that encapsulates most of what defines De Palma for both his champions and his detractors. His command of the medium is exquisite, his ability to extract a desired response from the audience is superb. And his misogyny … well, here it is, there’s no use denying it. Nancy Allen’s character is a charmingly dim blonde … Allen makes the most of the part, she’s very good, and it’s not her fault that her then-husband De Palma never really lets her climb out of her dimness. I like this movie a lot, but I feel kinda dirty about it. #856 on the TSPDT top 1000.