Considered by some to be an interesting historical footnote as the film uber-nerd George Lucas directed before he became a zillionaire with Star Wars, American Graffiti is actually much more. Besides helping to usher in a nostalgia wave during the '70s for a more innocent time before the Vietnam War and playing like catnip for classic car geeks, American Graffiti is a perfect ensemble comedy with a then cutting-edge use of wall-to-wall classic Rock & Roll songs on the soundtrack and a wonderful piece of Americana. It’s Lucas’s homage to those years in Modesto, California when kids drank milk shakes at Mel’s Drive-In and then cruised up and down the boulevard all night with their radios blasting, looking for kicks. The film is set in 1962. JFK was still alive, most Americans couldn’t yet point out Vietnam on a map, the Beatles hadn’t even touched down yet, and the baby boomer youth culture was beginning to dominate but still looked a lot like leftover 1950s innocents.
In a now classic coming of age set-up, American Graffiti takes place one August night after high school graduation. With the summer coming to an end, four buds (and the women around them) face the dilemma of impending adulthood about to overtake them. The clean cut Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to be heading off to college but has to figure out how to break it off with his longtime girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams of future Laverne & Shirley fame). The much more thoughtful Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would jump start his career before Jaws would make him a superstar a few years later) isn’t so sure about leaving for college out East the next day and goes on a search for some kind of meaning to his life and for the beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) he spotted cruising around in a T-Bird. Instead he ends up taking part in antics with a gang of Greasers known as The Pharaohs (lead by the hilarious Bo Hopkins). Steve leaves his beloved Chevy Impala in the hands of his nerdy pal Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith who would go on to play a similar bumbler in The Untouchables). Now sporting a bitchin’ set of wheels, Terry spends the evening wooing a much more experienced woman, Debbie, played wonderfully by Candy Clark who scored an Oscar nomination for the performance and went on to appear in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth strand of the story follows the more blue-collar, street racing cool kid, John Milner (Paul Le Mat, an actor who had the charisma and looks to hit the big time, but unlike many of his costars, his career never really took off other than playing the lead in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed flick Melvin and Howard). He is being pursued for a drag race by a new guy in town, Bob Falfa (a cowboy hatted Harrison Ford), but his nightly fun is interrupted when he gets stuck with an annoying "tweener" Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the two start off at odds but end up with a sweet brother/sister like relationship. A final "where are they now" epilogue scroll tells us what happened to the guys, bringing the film even more powerful pathos.Continue Reading
"What’s your favorite movie of all time?" Anyone ever ask you that? In my world (Hollywood, movie nerds, Rocket Video, Amoeba, etc.) it’s not unusual to be asked. Matter of fact, it’s almost expected. Though not as fluctuating as "what’s your favorite song of all time?" It is helpful to have an answer ready for the question. I have mine. Annie Hall.
"What’s your second favorite movie of all time?" is a little harder. The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In The West, Rosemary’s Baby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Blue Velvet, The Road Warrior, Vertigo, Apocalypse Now, Out Of The Past, I mean the list could go on and on. Maybe my number two is Woody Allen's follow up to Annie Hall, his black & white Manhattan.Continue Reading
Once upon a time in the golden period of films known as the 1970s, Mel Brooks was, along with Woody Allen, the biggest directing name in comedy. Both had been on the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the '50s (along with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and both brought a distinctly Jewish tone to their slapstick. While Allen represented the Manhattan highbrow, Brooks’s style lurked more in the offensively low end Borscht Belt style. By the '80s, when Allen's status raised to the level of genius, Brooks’s comedy had already become passe and completely juvenile, working in the obvious (Spaceballs, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.). But his early string of comedies, from The Producers through High Anxiety, created a lot of laughs, peaking in 1974 with two comic masterpieces: Young Frankenstein and, maybe even better, the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The western spoof is almost as old as the western itself—you had Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West, The Marx Brothers in Go West, Mae West and W.C. Fields did My Little Chickadee, and Bob Hope had The Paleface and then Son of Paleface, not to mention Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich (which Blazing Saddles actually directly spoofs). The '60s saw an examining of the western most directly through the Italian spaghetti westerns and American western comedies such as Cat Ballou and Support Your Local Sheriff! In the '70s, the reexamining went to the extreme as the western was turned in on itself and poked at by post-modernists with films as broad as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Altman&rs...
Replace the repressed white male anger of Fight Club with that of the repressed white housewife’s in order to explore the terrain of Jungle Fever and you get the gist of writer/director Larry Cohen’s debut. Instead of fitting squarely within the genre of blaxploitation, the film examines some of the stereotypical representations of the black male which helped make the genre possible to begin with.
Bernadette (Van Patten) is a bored Beverly Hills wife who lounges by the pool when she’s not spending her husband’s money. Her husband, Bill (Duggan), is the prototypical American salesman who’s invested so much of his life in the manufactured desires of advertising that he no longer remembers if there’s anything real behind the imagery. (We see him dreaming of selling junkyard cars filled with bloody corpses.) As George Costanza said, “it’s not a lie, if you believe it.”Continue Reading
On paper Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan could be considered nothing more than a bold stunt, but in actuality it’s one of the more subversive and gutsy “mainstream” films of recent years and one of the funniest. Borat was one of the three alter egos that actor Sacha Baron Cohen played on his television program, Da Ali G Show (first in England and then for HBO). Cohen would slip into these extremely absurd characters and interact with real people, unaware that they were being put on. Like the old show Candid Camera, half the comedy comes from people’s reactions to the often crude character's comments, but the best laughs come from the intense commitment that Baron Cohen gives these characters. Borat may say inane things, but the intelligence creating what he says is at the highest level.
Like the show, the movie Borat uses a lot of real people and improvised situations. But to fill it out, some actors and a cast have been added, and it works. Part of the fun is trying to figure out what’s real and what was staged. Borat is a clueless, almost sweetly innocent yet completely misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic Kazakhstan reporter. The film begins as a mockumentary as he leaves his third-world village for some reporting in New York with his rotund producer Azamat (American actor, Ken Davitian). In New York he interviews some saps on American customs, and engages in some classic “fish outta water” comedy (he thinks the hotel’s elevator is his actual room). Eventually, after seeing an episode of Baywatch, he becomes obsessed with Pamela Anderson and the two set out for California so Borat can bag her as his new wife.Continue Reading
Breakfast On Pluto
First you must know that, to me, men or women in drag are magical creatures - like unicorns. I love them with a wonderment I can't explain or dare not lest I somehow diffuse the potent joy I get just from admiring their mystical powers of fashion and daring.
That said, Breakfast unfolded for me like a rose in the gutter. At first a quaint story of a misfit orphan in an unflinching Irish landscape, it quickly becomes a quixotic journey of a boy/girl in search of love. And the best part is that our hero/heroine, who has always known who he/she is, just becomes more and more himself/herself no matter the hardship or heartache.Continue Reading
There is a moment in this film when Parker Posey is so vulnerable and desperate and beautiful that one remembers why we loved desperate crazy women in cinema before all this feel-good-about-yourself hullabaloo started.
She clutches her leaving lover, face wet with tears, slip bunched around limbs longing to fling themselves at him and loathing herself for it. Such a romantic image recalls French New Wave and American Noir as you witness an inevitable breakdown. Her love and her crazy are startling and translatable. This chemistry with herself is part of why Posey's Nora is one of the best character studies I've seen in a long time. Posey explores and exposes throwing away the funny femme characterizations she's begun to play with in bigger, less indie films and shatters herself into so many facets - sparkling like a jewel. Brilliant. Complex. Fragile, flawed and unique. The story and stories around her are just the stuff off indie romantic comedies and ultimately fill in the background of what can only be her in a focus so sharp we truly understand the phrase lovable neurotic.Continue Reading
If someone told me they found Bulworth, filmmaking wise, to be a little lazy and, comedy wise, not all that funny, I wouldn’t argue with them. If they found it a touch offensive, maybe I could be persuaded to concede their point. But for me, though flawed, Bulworth is one of the most audacious political satires ever made. And for star and director Warren Beatty it’s one of his gutsiest moves in a long and fascinating career of audacious moves. Bulworth is one of the few modern political films that is actually political - it names names.
Beatty’s first starring role was in Elia Kazan’s soapy teen love classic Splendor In The Grass (1961). He would surround himself with major directors for the next two decades, working with John Frankenheimer, Robert Rossen, Robert Altman, George Stevens, Richard Brooks, and Mike Nichols. They would all be unmemorable films with the exception of Altman’s talkie, cult Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He would fare much better working as his own producer and later as a director. As producer and star Beatty helped start a filmmaking revolution in Hollywood, with the masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The French New Wave inspired period piece, with its frank sexuality and startling violence, would influence a generation and help to jumpstart the golden age of auteurism in Hollywood of the 1970s. He would star and produce Shampoo (1975) and add director to his resume with Heaven Can Wait (1978). Both comedies were massively popular in their day with audiences and critics alike, though maybe not as "hip" in today’s light.Continue Reading
This is not a movie about love. This is a movie about eros and the comedy of the daily grind. The difference between love and eros seems to be in the history of the words and the reactions from them. Love is fresh, tender, and pleasant—it changes you and, for many, it is a lifelong quest. You can fall into it and be unfolded by it and, for some, it is something that can fade. Eros is inescapable and erotic. It is the poison at the end of cupid's arrow and reminds me of hot phrases like "engulfed in fire." That's not what the word literally means, but more of my metaphorical picture of it. Once known in Greek mythology as the God of Love, eros is now a universal word describing a deep and sickening sense of affection toward beauty (however you define it), and it is exactly this force that has captured and unhinged this movie's lead character.
Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) has just suffered a grueling breakup, equipped with a ceramic mug and IKEA lamp being thrown at his head and the loneliness that soon followed. But the objects that became tools for abuse are not the last of his worries. Shortly after splitting with his first girlfriend Suzy, he becomes a full-fledged insomniac and is in awe at the fact that he now has eight extra hours in each day to do whatever comes to mind. At first the insomnia is simply frustrating, though it allows him to read and re-read everything he has ever wanted to finish and work hard in his first year of art school. After shopping for snacks in aisle 8 of the Sainsbury supermarket, he notices a "now hiring" sign and decides to "waste" his extra eight hours of nighttime working.Continue Reading
American independent cinema has been ghettoized and marketed into a certain type of cinema. Popular types of independent films include low budget digital cinematography about post-collegiate confusion or Indiewood films about “quirky” relationships and situations involving beautiful losers. It's a sea of films that has flooded festivals like SXSW or Sundance that leave great works of independent cinema behind in the dust. So it’s a grand pleasure to have Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess emerge out of Sundance, a film that openly breaks these stereotypes and proves that American independent cinema can be exciting, experimental and even fun.
Taking place sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, several groups of professional, amateur and student programmers meet at a motel to compete in a computer chess tournament where computers are pitted directly against one another to see which program has the most advanced AI. But this is almost just an excuse (a mundane MacGuffin?) for a film that takes leaps into computer philosophy, surrealism and hippie hedonism. Bujalski steps out of his comfort zone of painful, singular character based comedies shot on 16mm with a pastiche shot on low-grade video on a Sony AVC3260 (never a gimmick, but an integral part of the aesthetic and feel). Lesser filmmakers would lament and moan about the use of such an anti-cinematic camera and look, but Bujalski and his excellent regular cinematographer Matthias Grunsky revel in it with jump cuts, bad split screen, video errors, and unsynced sound and light that smears like old live television. The first minute or two of Computer Chess start as a faux-documentary with programmers speaking into mics directly into the camera about why they want to win the championship. Jump cut to an audience preparing to sit down in an auditorium while the camera dollies across the audience--until it crashes too hard into the end of a dolly track, causing another jump cut to static. If you were watching this on an old CRT-TV, you’d probably be provoked to slap the TV straight a few times.Continue Reading