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From Art-House Obscurity To Grindhouse Schlock - With A Special Focus On '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die'

Viddy Well Brothers... Viddy Well

Thursday, December 11th, 2013

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Clueless (1995)


Most Recent Reviews and Commentary:

Casino Royale Review

Casino Royale Guest Post

Like just about everybody else, I walked into 2006's Casino Royale ready to give James Bond a fresh start. I actually enjoyed Pierce Brosnan's version of the character for the most part, but Die Another Day, Brosnan's last Bond film, had essentially abandoned everything that makes 007 so great in favour of outright silliness. It was almost a parody of its own franchise. For that reason, I was excited to see what Daniel Craig could do to revive the character. I wasn't disappointed.

The story of Casino Royale is actually fairly simple for a spy film. It's set up as Bond's first mission as a Double-O agent, and his task is basically to track down a series of villains ultimately leading to a financially motivated terrorist named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Le Chiffre's game is to short stocks in major businesses and then bring about their crashes (and thus his own, and his financiers', profits) through attacks and sabotage. After thwarting Le Chiffre once, Bond ends up travelling to Montenegro (and incidentally to the Casino Royale) to compete against him in a high-stakes poker game in an attempt to win away enough of Le Chiffre's money to force him to turn on his creditors. Bond is accompanied by Vesper (Eva Green), an MI6 operative sent to oversee Bond's own finances for the game. As the film reaches its climax, the relations and dealings between Bond, Le Chiffre, and Vesper grow more complicated than they initially seem.

Actually, taken out of the context of the film as a whole, it's almost a boring plot line. But the film itself is anything but dull. It excels not only as a stand-alone project, but as the movie that brought Bond back to his roots. Here's a bit more on how specifically Casino Royale accomplished this feat. 

First and foremost, the action sequences in this film are real. In Die Another Day, much of the action unraveled more like a video game: there were car chases on ice plains, hovercraft gun battles, and even a high-tech space station harnessing the sun's energy to strike the Earth with a concentrated laser beam. It's fun, perhaps, but entirely fake. Casino Royale went a different route entirely. When Bond drives his car, it gets dinged up; when he sees a bad guy, he chases on foot and assaults with his hands; when he does pull a weapon, it's an unassuming handgun. Not only are these elements more realistic, but they were actually filmed and not drawn in later. Roger Ebert spoke to this point in his own review of the film, stating that "the public is getting tired of action sequences that are created in post-prodcution." He also noted that most of the action in Casino Royale takes place "in something vaguely approaching real space and time." I can't speak to the public as a whole, but Ebert perfectly captured what was so appealing to me about the stunts, fights, and chases in this movie. 
Another area in which Casino Royale impressed were that its poker and casino scenes (of which there are many) were so delightfully old school. This is actually an element of the film that showed great restraint given its 21st century setting, simply because the world is now more accustomed to gaming online than in person. Indeed, to the U.K. audience that makes up so much of Bond's fan club, the online poker rooms at Betfair are probably more familiar than the hotel lobby tables and upscale Montenegro back rooms depicted in Casino Royale. Tournaments online, where players can gamble real money against real people in virtually any kind of casino format they wish certainly carry their own drama. Also, again, they are relatable to a modern audience. But instead of taking advantage of modern casino trends, Casino Royale held stubbornly to the sexy settings and their tense, intimate interactions of old-school poker rooms.

This allowed for the best of both the script and the cinematography: the snappy back-and-forth between hero and villain across a poker table, the sharp-dressing characters, the flicking and fidgeting of chips and clinking of martini glasses. It all adds to the flavour of a 21st century Bond film without doing anything they couldn't have done 50 years ago.

Perhaps this is all getting to, or surrounding, the point that really won me over. Daniel Craig's James Bond is a human being, rather than a superhero. I think the title of the NPR review that followed the film's release probably sums it up best: "He's Shaken, We're Stirred." This is a Bond who isn't bulletproof, whose attraction to the lead actress goes beyond sexual intrigue, and who bothers to question whether there may be a better life out there for him than stopping criminals for MI6. He takes a beating in every sense of the word: he's tied up and tortured, poisoned to near-death, scratched, punched, forced into a car crash, and heartbroken. It all just seems to combine to make the movie more worthwhile as if, should you choose to look away, you might actually miss something important. 

Guest post written by Roger Murray.

Carrie (1976)


Fan Art is The Best Art
Fan Art is The Best Art

Genre: Horror

Starring: Sissy Spacek (Badlands • In The Bedroom), Piper Laurie (The HustlerChildren of a Lesser God)

Directed By: Brian De Palma (ScarfaceThe Untouchables)

Overview: Carrie is an unpopular 17-year old girl with telekinetic powers and an overprotective, religious zealot of a mother. When Carrie is asked out to the Senior prom, she’s torn between finally being accepted by her peers, and doubting the motives of her new friends.

Some movies are work. Some movies are treasures and hidden gems, and some feel like coming home. Those ‘coming home’ movies are the sort where you decide one night, on a whim, to re-watch, especially if you have a friend with you who needs to be educated on something they haven’t seen. You may suddenly remember how much the movie meant to you once, in that way that the scent of a happy childhood is comforting. You miss it and mourn how you could have forgotten how warming it was. Ironically, the classic Horror film, Carrie, is one such film. It’s a perfect little gem that weaseled itself into my mind so quickly that on this - only my third viewing - it already lives in a special place in my heart.

Zealous Mothers are the Best Mothers

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) isn’t a popular girl. In fact, the opening scene takes what is a very natural moment and points out how completely alien Carrie White already has become amongst her peers. In the showers after gym class, she is horrified when she sees blood coming out from between her legs. She begs her classmates for help. They only laugh, throwing tampons and sanitary napkins at her until she’s a crying mess on the shower floor. Her coach helps her and punishes the entire class with hours of physical detention – with the threat of being suspended from school and banned from the Senior prom. The girls who weren’t fans of Carrie in the first place are now far less sympathetic. While some students seeth, others see that Carrie’s just a troubled girl who needs to be given a chance. The handsome, rugged and perfectly-coiffed Tommy (Willliam Katt) agrees to ask her to the Senior prom. Carrie, for her part, is having a hard time. Her mother (Piper Laurie) is insanely zealous, spreading the Good Word and punishing Carrie for things that are a normal part of growing up, like being interested in boys and having her first period. Carrie’s coming of age isn’t like most girls… especially if she can also move things with her mind.

If you asked for concrete examples of cinema that would define the word ‘classic’, I would include Carrie in my list. There’s just something about it that is perfectly crafted to appeal to the masses. The pacing is perfect. There’s never a dull moment. After 98 minutes you’ll wonder where the time went. Sissy is wonderful as Carrie, but she is phenomenally upstaged by Piper Laurie in the role of Carrie’s mother. Her character is like a dark iceberg that you only see the tip of until it’s too late. Piper manages to pull off histrionics without overacting, and her lines are consistently the best of the film. In fact, come to think of it, she may be one of my favourite characters in cinema history. But the whole cast really shines, from just-plain-nice-and-honest characters Tommy Ross (Willliam Katt) and Sue Snell (Amy Irving) to the kinda-horrible-and-mean-even-to-each-other Chris (Nancy Allen) and her boyfriend Billy (played wonderfully dimwitted with a penchant for slapping his girlfriend in the face by John Travolta). Add Brian De Palma’s attention to cinematography and imagery and it’s not surprising this is one of Hollywood’s most famous horror films.

Then, when the climactic scene finally does happen - that deliciously long and beautifully paced climactic scene - it’s incredible. You’ll actually feel your pupils dilating as a piece of essential cinema history is fed into your brain. And when it’s over, the credits do not roll, there’s more. There’s denouement that takes the cake.

Do yourself a favour. Just get this in you.

Prom Night is the Best NightProm Night is the Best Night

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 9 Script: 9 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 88% (Definitely Not A Heavy Burden)

Man I just want to see this again right now.

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Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

I still don't get what 'Two-Lane' means...
I still don't get what 'Two-Lane' means...

Genre: Drama

Starring: James TaylorWarren Oates (The Wild BunchBring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia)

Directed By: Monte Hellman (CockfighterThe Shooting)

Overview: A driver, a mechanic and a girl get into a cross country race with their car as the prize.

As one of my film-freak friends pointed out very early on in our first viewing of Two-Lane Blacktop, it’s like no other car culture / racing movie out there. It’s not a hip, action-packed Vanishing Point filled with shots of gearshifts and close-ups of tires. Their cross-country ride is not an Easy Rider adventure of exploration / condemnation / celebration of American culture. And it’s certainly far too pessimistic to be called a coming-of-age American Graffiti, celebrating youth and car culture.

The story is rather simple. A driver (James Taylor), and his mechanic (Dennis Wilson – yes the drummer of the Beach Boys) go from city to city, earning their money drag racing. They pick up a girl hitchhiking (Laurie Bird). As they drive around in their Chevrolet 150 painted a matte primer grey, they keep seeing a shiny-bright, slick yellow 1970 Pontiac GTO. Its driver (Warren Oates) challenges the Chevy to a race. They suggest the biggest prize: the pink slip of car ownership. He retorts by making it a long-distance contest to Washington, D.C. They accept and the race is on.

GTO and the girl
GTO and the girl

Even the credits do a wonderful job of pointing out what’s important to the lives of these characters: The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl, and G.T.O. Everyone else in the movie is equally nameless, the credits filled with job titles and locations, like ‘Tennessee Hitchhiker’ and ‘Waitress in Roadhouse’, instead of proper names. Two-Lane Blacktop is as broody and single-mindedly focussed as The Driver. He keeps his head down and hates distractions. In one scene, The Girl begins massaging him while he drives. She comments on how tense his shoulders are. He tells her, eyes never leaving the road, that it’s how he likes them. The mechanic is a little less stoic, but he gives their Chevy 150 all the care of a good lover, including lines like “yeah, she needs some attention”, and “I polished that crankshaft so fine the cylinders whispered my name.” For his part, G.T.O. is all pomp and flash, rattling off stats and stories, proving to the audience that he’s prideful and inexperienced, even at middle age. He just talks. When the boys act out and puff their chests, it’s to bait, humiliate and push their potential opponents to step up the game and put real money on the table.

After a few hours of this long-distance race with these kids, it’s a real treat to watch G.T.O.’s character arc. He might be racing for glory and image, but the boys are racing to teach him a lesson while ever proving something to themselves. G.T.O. gets to know them, and you can almost see the moment when he realizes that he’s part of something real, that he’s forging something these kids have already built long ago. This is what Two-Lane Blacktop offers its viewers. And this is what seekers of Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift are going to get bored during. Racing isn't the focus - in fact it's downright Jarmuscian how Two-Lane Blacktop seems to actively avoid showing it. The very first race scene seems to intentionally thumb its nose at the action, showing prize money changing hands before the contest then cutting to a long shot of taillights in the dark with the race over.

The Driver and The Mechanic are singular in purpose, and so their archetypes are quickly understood. G.T.O. on the other hand lives a fascinating life and it’s a pleasure to watch him grow. Warren Oates is playing a great role and I couldn’t get enough of him.

Two-Lane Blacktop is quiet and deliberately paced. It’s more personal that American Graffiti, it’s more specific than Easy Rider, it’s more honest than Vanishing Point. And though it begins and ends with cars, it’s not about cars… cars are merely the vehicle used to show the souls of these characters… yeah, ‘vehicle’… I couldn’t resist.

 Gorgeous cars...
Gorgeous cars...

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 82% (Might Even Be Worth a Two-Time Viewing)

Another wonderful example of an understated, little-known film that I went into knowing only ‘it’s about classic cars’, the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book delivers another enjoyable drama that I otherwise never would have known about. 

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Trainspotting (1996)


I think I had two friends with this poster back in the 90s...
I think I had two friends with this poster back in the 90s...

Genre: Drama (UK)

Starring: Ewan McGregor (The Pillow Book • Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith), Ewen Bremner (The Acid House • Julien Donkey-Boy), Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks LaterThe Full Monty)

Directed By: Danny Boyle (28 Days Later…Slumdog Millionaire)

Overview: Renton is a heroine junkie, ever trying to get clean. These are his vignettes, and those of his friends.

I’ve read a handful of Irvine Welsh’s books, the author of Trainspotting. He has a wonderful way of conveying, through his writing, the effect of drugs to those who’ve never experienced them. Trainspotting – the novel – is no different. Translating those and Welsh’s other vignette-style stories to film is something Danny Boyle manages to pull off rather well, thank you very much.

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?  


That opening monologue runs in narration as Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) run through the streets of Edinburgh being chased by police. The words above teach us all the things that Fight Club also taught us about living the normal life, but Trainspotting is just a little more nihilistic about it. From here, we follow the lives of a couple of heroin addicts: the sometimes-hopeful-for-a-clean-life Renton, the dimwitted Spud and the amoral Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller). They also have a few friends who don’t use, like the utterly psychotic-rage-filled Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who’s above shooting smack: No way would I poison my body with that shite, all they fucking chemicals, no fucking way. This he says while smoking and drinking a pint. Then there’s the genuinely-straight-edge Tommy (Kevin McKidd). We follow their lives in vignettes, including their daily habits and their capital-H Habit.

Renton is the kind-hearted closest-to-an-everyman-character. He narrates, helping to teach us how incredibly incredible heroin is, and how utterly miserable life is without it. His stories include getting clean… a couple of times. Spud, well he’s more of a follower. He tags along, talking shite and getting into trouble. The proud Sick Boy loves talking Connery while lining up targets with his bb gun. Then there’s Begbie. He’s absolutely psychotic. His friends are too scared of him to stop being his friend. He carries a knife, isn’t afraid to use it and fighting in pubs is probably his favourite hobby. But you may have guessed already that Trainspotting isn’t about Renton and Spud and Begbie; it’s about heroin and how the lives of all these not-quite-boys, not-quite-men are inextricably linked to the double-edged sword that is this malignant addiction – event for those who don’t use.

I don’t think I could ever call Trainspotting’s cinematography ‘beautiful’ but it’s highly stylized. There’s several scenes that proudly stand out for me, enhancing the visual metaphor: the worst toilet in Scotland, where Renton has to go fishing for suppositories; a scene where Renton is kicking smack, with the walls moving as he hallucinates; even the place where he and his pals get their fix is wonderfully detailed misery. As for the acting, well, its Ewan McGregor in the lead and and wonderfully outrageously played characters supporting him. You have nothing to worry about there – with Begbie being the insane angry cherry on top.

And the classic baby on the ceiling scene.
And the classic baby on the ceiling scene.

As for the story and its themes, let me get into it a little bit. Here’s a quote from the 1001 tome: “[Director] Boyle and [screenwriter] Hodge’s refusal to take a moral stance is in fact one of the movies’ many attributes.” The first time I saw Trainspotting back in ’96, I could not disagree more with that statement. Here’s this movie that talks about the horrors of heroin and how terrible and painful a life it is, but it’s riddled with glorious – and glorifying – anthems by the likes of Iggy Pop. The music is kind of incredible. Add the obvious highs that these addicts go through when they get their fix and there’s a lot of Trainspotting that makes you start realizing why so many people think it’s worth it.

Today, after having seen films like Scarface and Spring Breakers, I realize that accurately reflecting life’s ups and downs isn’t glorifying, it’s recounting, and today I agree with that 1001 quote. The only thing I could say that Boyle does to soften the blow is that the misery is often funny – but when it’s truly horrific, Boyle doesn’t hold back.

Hilarious, wacky, and so full of feces – so often! – that you might just forget that it's about drugs… just maybe.

 Fan art attack!
Fan art attack!

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 7 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 80% (Pull Up A Chair)

I’m still on my Welsh kick. I watched Filth this week, I plan on a third viewing of the Acid House, and even his miserably reviewed Ecstasy (2011) are on the menu for this month. Having read them all, it’s fun to see how they translate to film.


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Rain Man (1988)


Love that poster
Love that poster

Genre: Drama

Starring: Tom Cruise (Magnolia • Top Gun),  Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. KramerStraw Dogs)

Directed By: Barry Levinson (The NaturalGood Morning, Vietnam)

Overview: Charlie, a luxury car dealer, is trying to keep his failing business afloat when his estranged father dies. When Charlie finds out that the $3 million estate was bequeathed to someone else, he learns that he has an autistic savant brother.

Rain Man is a movie that takes me back to childhood – childhood enough to know that I was growing up and I could fully grasp all the things that a movie was conveying to me. Rain Man conveyed an original character and a tight story. It was also a time when Tom Cruise hadn’t jumped the rails and gone all lightning-bolt, space-crazy Scientology.

The story is quite simple. Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a luxury car dealer with a business in trouble when he learns that his estranged father has passed away. During the reading of the will, Charlie inherits a car he was never allowed to drive in his youth, as well as some prize-winning rosebushes. The rest of the $3-million estate, however, is in trust to an unnamed benefactor. Charlie has no idea who this other person might be. His investigation leads him to a mental care institute. There Charlie discovers the estate’s benefactor is Raymond, an autistic savant brother (Dustin Hoffman) he never knew he had. He leaves for L.A. with Raymond with plans to trade him back to the institute for half of his father’s estate. Of course Raymond won’t get on a plane, so the two of them have to drive across the country – and the bonding begins.

It's all cause of Quantas.
It's all cause of Quantas.

For those of you who don’t know Rain Man, it’s really not a touching story of a kidnapping tale gone to a warm Stockholm Syndrome place. Charlie’s not a bad guy, he’s just a selfish prick. He’s blameless, smug and proud and Tom Cruise plays him exceptionally well - just as well as when he played the smug and proud Jerry Maguire, the smug and proud Maverick in Top Gun, or the smug and proud Frank T.J. Mackey in MagnoliaDustin Hoffman, on the other hand, has in Rain Man one of his most famous roles and with good reason. His character is immediately enchanting, entertain and compelling. The way Dustin and Tom exchange their lines is downright Coen-grade perfection. The script is peerless and the delivery is truly memorable.

 Scenes that stand out in particular include Charlie and Raymond’s introduction, where Charlie finds a stranger sitting in his car. Charlie kicks him out and Ray replies, “Dad lets me drive every Saturday. Of course, the seats were originally brown leather… Now they're pitiful red. It's a 1949 Buick Roadmaster. Straight-Eight. Fireball Eight. Only 8,095 production models. Dad lets me drive on the driveway, but not on Monday. Definitely not on Monday.” He proceeds to rattle off stats about his father and mother. Another wonderful moment has Ray walking into a sex scene in Charlie’s bedroom to investigate the strange noises and repeating the sounds he hears. Then of course there’s the ever-classic casino scene where Ray uses his gifts to win big.

Rain Man is the kind of movie you watch with your mother. It’s the kind of movie you have on in the background when you’re doing something productive but you need a distraction. Rain Man is the kind of movie that the Academy loves. I can safely say that because they gave it the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman) Best Director and Best Screenplay. It’s accomplished. It’s cinema for the masses. And it’s fun.

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 8 Script: 10 Plot: 8 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 86% (Let It Come Down)

One new thing I learned after this recent viewing is that the EPA is the antagonist of Rain Man.

“This fuckin' E.P.A.! The whole world is chokin' on smog... and they're gonna correct the situation by keeping my four cars off the road?”

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Fatal Attraction (1987)


Talk about the poster that stands out.
Talk about the poster that stands out.

Genre: Thriller

Starring: Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct • Traffic), Glenn Close (Dangerous Liaisons“Damages”)

Directed By: Adrian Lyne (Jacob’s LadderIndecent Proposal)

Overview: After a married man breaks off a weekend affair, the other woman won’t take no for an answer.

Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a happily married lawyer. Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) is a book editor. The two of them meet and hit it off. Dan’s wife (Anne Archer) is away for the weekend and, like hot rutting pigs, Alex and Dan have a wild weekend full of pork. Dan tries to return to his life, but Alex isn’t quite as accommodating. In fact when he puts his foot down and leaves, Alex slashes her wrists. Dan bandages her up, but it doesn’t stop him from ending their fling. Alex isn’t the kind of woman to let her man leave without a fight – and she does what she must to keep him.

Fatal Attraction was a critical success when it hit theaters in 1987, including 6 Oscar nominations, and it’s a good fun, thrilling movie. Fatal Attractions greatest strength is in the character of Alexandra Forrest, played to perfection by Glenn Close. The awesome that is Alex’s pure-distilled madness also comes from how quickly director Adrian Lyne unleashes the action – starting with a wrist-slashing suicide attempt and moving on to phone calls and stalking before the movie’s even reached the mid-point. 

From the first moment we see her, Alex already looks like a psycho, with Glenn’s witchy-wild hair, her piercing eyes and sharp nose. Glenn has a terrifying way of keeping Alex unsettling and sexy at the same time. Even the way she romps is dangerous, whether it’s in an elevator or while Dan’s doing the nasty while blindly walking off a landing from his kitchen to the living room.

I was scared stiff…

No it's not a back alley, it's a wicked NYC loft, I could see how you got confused.
No it's not a back alley, it's a wicked NYC loft, I could see how you got confused.

The pacing is perfect, the little shocks of insanity are thrilling and original and it’s wonderful entertainment. If you haven’t seen it, Fatal Attraction is just a touch yardstick of 80s cinema enough to be worth adding this feather to your repertoire-cap... but let me dwell one interesting observation.

Fatal Attraction’s illicit affair opens without any real context outside of pure lust. Dan and Alex only meet a handful of times – at work, at a party, then next for a drink at a restaurant. There, during their first real ‘getting to know you’ conversation, Alex propositions a happily married man who jumps right in. I found it interesting to note that from that point on, the audience would be receptive to watching Dan get whatever’s coming to him because he couldn’t keep it in his pants. With a subtext of failing marriage and an angry/bitter/sick wife we’d be much more likely to resent Alex for her actions, be put off by the ‘distribution of injustice’ if I can coin a phrase. When I realized that early on, I looked forward to descending down the rabbit hole Alex was taking us down. See what I spoiler-free did there?

 Y'know, all she really needed was just a hug and a glass of Merlot.
Y'know, all she really needed was just a hug and a glass of Merlot.

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 7 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 82% (You Won't Be Able To Get Away)

The Wikipedia entry for Fatal Attraction is also quite interesting, including a section about an alternate (original) ending and a wonderful psychiatric diagnosis section detailing the Erotomania that Glenn Close modelled her character’s mental illness on. It’s a fun read, check it out.

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Targets (1968)


Targets (1968)
Targets (1968)

Genre: Horror Thriller

Starring: Boris Karloff (The Mummy  Frankenstein), Tim O'Kelly

Directed By: Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture ShowMask)

Overview: While an aging and bitter actor suddenly decides to retire, a Vietnam vet prepares to go on a killing spree.

met·a  /ˈmetə/


(of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.

So much of the story of Targets is rooted in truth and history. Though fictional, the real events that inspired Targets is a dark and fascinating read, and are paralleled in this, Bogdanovich’s first feature film.

Targets opens with an old movie starring Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff). The old and disenchanted actor has become embittered by Hollywood. His director, Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich) has been planning a comeback: a dramatic role to kickstart Byron’s career and take him out of the clichéd ‘High Camp’ roles he’s long ago been typecast into. Orlok isn’t hopeful or impressed and wants nothing to do with it. He decides, on the spot, to retire immediately. This includes any appearances he’s set to make. Those near to him do what they can to try to make him reconsider. In the meantime, ex-marine Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) is showing signs of murderous intent, from pointing a loaded weapon at a friend during target practice to buying a large collection of weapons. While Byron Orlok deals with his plan to wind down his career, Bobby’s descent to a sinister plot winds up to murderous proportions.


Targets impresses on so many levels. Right away, seeing Boris Karloff in a role where he’s essentially playing himself after a long–and-potentially-exploited career was instantly touching. I recalled the plot to JCVD and basked in the honour that Bogdanovich granted to Karloff in the twilight of his career. More than this, Karloff is allowed to flex his talent and proves scene after scene how easily it comes to him – and yes he’s acting. Orlok’s bitterness and resentment was certainly not Karloff’s own sentiment on Hollywood. Then there’s Bogdanovich himself, the real-life director who plays Orlok’s director, who plays an impressive role himself. Also, Bogdanovich named his character Sammy Michaels as a thank you to Samuel Fuller for all his help during the filming.  

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I'd like to leave you with a little story to think about as you drive home... through the darkness... Once upon a time, many, many years ago, a rich merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace to buy provisions... and after a while the servant came back, white-faced and trembling, and said, 'Master, when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and I turned to look, and I saw that it was Death that jostled me. And she looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Oh, master, please, lend me your horse, that I may ride away from this city and escape my fate. I will ride to Samarra and Death will not find me there.' So the merchant loaned him the horse and the servant mounted it, and dug his spurs into its flank, and as fast as the horse could gallop he rode towards Samarra. Then the merchant went to the market-place and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he said to her, 'Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?' And Death said, 'I made no threatening gesture - that was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight... in Samarra.' - Byron Orlok

Really, the entire cast is excellent. Even the editing gets itself noticed. Targets does something interesting in its storytelling style. I was reminded of Once Upon a Time in the West and The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo and the way those stories also have very separate and distinct storylines that take a nice long time to entwine themselves. What’s more, the pacing and style of the Orlok story is very different than that of sniper Bobby Thompson. One is often comedic and filled with light-hearted dialogue, whereas the other is quiet, filled with long shots, macabre action and is overall rather somber. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition to watch. It makes me wish Bogdanovich had directed more works like this one.

And shopping for more guns!
And shopping for more guns!

Targets is one giant reference. Firstly is Orlok’s first name, clearly an homage to Fritz Lang’s 1922 Nosferatu title character Count Orlok. The character of the ex-marine sniper, Bobby Thompson, is inspired by two true events. First is Charles Whitman, made famous for the devastating shooting spree from a tower at the University of Texas in 1966. The other is a sniper attack that happened on a California highway in 1965. Bogdanovich’s script goes deep to paint a fictional yet accurate picture. In a scene where Bobby Thompson buys rifles from a gun salesman, he says “I’m gonna shoot some pigs”. Charles Whitman also said he was going hunt wild hogs with the guns he bought to commit his mass murder.

Regardless of how film-industry-meta the Orlok story is, regardless of how completely based in fact Bobby’s tale is, Targets is entertaining fiction, and as such, one doesn’t need the context of reference to enjoy it. All in all Targets is an extra special film, and one I’d never have known about - much less seen - had it not been for the glorious tome that is 1001 Movies.

Bogdanovich and Karloff, just kickin' it meta!
Bogdanovich and Karloff, just kickin' it meta!

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 7 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 82% (Keep It In Your Sights)

What I find even more interesting is that Targets is Bogdanovich’s first feature. I would think that this would be the kind of story that a director would want to tell after spending a career in the industry. Perhaps he was wise beyond his years.

I’m not sure if it was the film, the company or a perfect combination of a day distilled into a good time, but I think Targets is going to stay happy in my mind for quite a while.


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An Education (2009)


An Education

Genre: Drama (UK, USA)

Starring: Carey Mulligan (Shame • Drive), Peter Sarsgaard (Boys Don't CryGarden State)

Directed By: Lone Scherfig (Italian for BeginnersWilbur Wants to Kill Himself)

Overview: In London in 1961, a 16 year-old is wooed by a wealthy older man. As this young girl comes of age, she is torn between two lives – her own education and dreams of Oxford, or the man offering her the good life.

Delving deeper into the background of An Education, I’ve come to learn some very interesting things. Making sure not to spoil the ending of An Education, I can say that it’s based on the memoir of Lynn Barber, and her real life seems even more interesting than is shown in the drama of the film. In fact, for a brief time she even dated an international and famous drug smuggler named Howard Marks – a man whose entry in Wikipedia is rather long. I’d suggest that once you’ve seen An Education, check out her own wiki page. It’s juicy, including being full of sex and porn.

Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) is a 16 year-old girl living in London in 1961. She’s intelligent and dedicated. Her interests include the cello, dreaming of going to Oxford and dreaming of going to Paris. David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard) is easily twice her age. His interests include wealth, his sports car, his bon vivant friends and Jenny. She is quickly swept off her feet by his charm and grace, by his maturity. Her mother (Cara Seymour) and overprotective father (Alfred Molina) are immediately wooed as well. David offers their daughter the good life, and everyone knows it. Her teacher (Olivia Williams) and school headmistress (Emma Thompson) know better. Try as they might, they can’t sway her to keep her nose to the grindstone and get into Oxford; Jenny’s too busy dreaming of the wonders David can offer her. But nothing is perfect…

And then you remember she's 16
And then you remember she's 16

I guess that’s as far as I’ll get before delving too much into spoiler territory. An Education’s strength is in its witty script, and the rich dimension of its characters. Jenny is played brilliantly by one of my soon-becoming-a-favourite actresses, Carey Mulligan. Peter Sarsgaard plays the perfect charmer. But An Education has exceptionally strong supporting roles. There’s Alfred Molina as Jenny’s father. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike are David’s debauched friends, very reminiscent of characters from The Great Gatsby. And there’s Olivia Williams as Jenny’s teacher, Miss Stubbs.

Visually An Education is rich as well. Real effort is taken on making the costumes and set pieces a spectacle, including the vivid colour palate of all the bright and regal places David brings Jenny on their nights out, ever dripping money and excess. Add a script that includes strong women and men dug into their 60s selves and you’ll find that when you’re done, you’ll have enjoyed that your evening included An Education.

She loves her French records.
She loves her French records.

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 7 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 78% (Worth Learning)

Having had several different editions of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, I know that about a dozen films are added every year. Most of those are this and last year’s releases. In the next edition, they’re almost all replaced to keep up to date. After watching An Education, I could tell that it wouldn’t survive the 2011 edition. Though it’s a wonderful film, it’s not nearly as important as most of what sits within those hallowed pages.


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Mirror, The (1974)


Genre: Drama (USSR)

Starring: Margarita TerekhovaFilipp Yankovskiy

Directed By: Andrei Tarkovsky (SolarisStalker)

Overview: A dying man in his forties remembers his past. His childhood, his mother, the war, personal moments and things that tell of the recent history of all the Russian nation. - IMDb

Director Andrei Tarkovsky and I have never really genuinely gotten along. He's long and drawn out, he's ‘pastoral’, which is a nice way of saying that he often has long, rolling, meditative shots of the countryside but with zero content. Granted, I’ve only actually seen his The Mirror and Stalker, but Stalker burned away so much of my goodwill that I couldn’t climb back onto the Tarkovsky-wagon until I learned that he made a couple of movies that I’m actually interested in seeing in spite of its director: Solaris and Andrey Rublyov… which I have yet to screen.

The Mirror isn’t a story with a plot, it’s a series of slice-of-life vignettes – the recounted memories of a man’s life, mostly of his childhood and his mother. It’s told with archive war footage, colour film and slow-motion black-and-white dream sequence shots while poetry is narrated. Moments include the visit of a doctor on his way to town, a barn fire, shooting practice at school and the mother working at a newspaper.

Tarkovsky - thus far in my experience, and definitely the case with The Mirror - is definitely art-house cinema for the elite. His movies are for fans of Kieslowski, Fellini, Ozu and Bergman. Specifically, The Mirror is for the patient cinephiles who like to dwell on the honest minutia of the real stories of real people – in short it’s for people who aren’t me. Of course, like those other directors, The Mirror has occasional gorgeous shots and images rife with beautiful symbolism, but not nearly enough to make me happy. My favourite parts of The Mirror were those wonderfully indulgent scenes where poetry was narrated. I found the poetry beautiful, and the images that accompanied them were the best and most artistic of the film, usually because they were so lovingly crafted. And again, sadly, they were too few and far between to keep me entertained.

In all, considering the context of how this film crossed my path - as assignment for the 1001 Movies Club, I don’t imagine The Mirror is Tarkovsky’s best work and not nearly genius enough to be in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. Tarkovsky’s already got three other films in the 1001 Movies list, and I dare say he’s overrepresented.

When I started watching The Mirror, I knew that it would be more as homework than enjoyment. I had the patience of my 40 years but I got exactly what I was expecting. For those of you who like watching the common tales of a common people, enjoy, but I like a bit more Drama in my drama. For me, The Mirror is too slow and plotless to recommend to anyone but the snobbiest of cinephiles.


Performance: 8 Cinematography: 8 Script: 6 Plot: 5 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 66% (After Some Reflection)

Ultimately, it’s unfortunate when you can distill 108 minutes of someone’s vision into the Overview above, check it off the ‘Seen it’ pile and move on with a shrug.

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