American Graffiti

Dir: George Lucas,1973. Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith. Comedy.

American Graffiti posterConsidered 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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 29, 2013 1:15pm

Grease

Dir: Randal Kleiser, 1978. Starring: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway. Musical.

GreaseAt the peak of the disco era, the film version of the so-so Broadway musical Grease managed to be the perfect vehicle to celebrate 1950s nostalgia while becoming an iconic relic of '70s pop culture. Since its release it has become a rite of passage for young people—a romanticized version of teen rebellion and young love. It’s surprisingly raunchy, but very funny, with great music and very energetic choreography. More then Rebel Without a Cause or Blackboard Jungle it has actually taken over as the ultimate representation of 1950s teen life. While the earlier films were made by people who were afraid of that generation’s American teenager, Grease was created to celebrate them.
 
After his breakout performance that turned him into a massive superstar in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta was as hot as could be. Grease proved to be an almost equally popular follow-up for him (through critically it took a drubbing). In the role of Danny Zuko, high school greaser and heart throb, Travolta was able to continue to showcase his flashy dance moves and add “passable singer” to his resume. More importantly he showed his flare for light comedy. As time passes it's easier to recognize the fun Travolta was having with his own image. He's kinda a mix of Elvis and TV’s Fonzie, but much more charming than both and, though cool, much more vulnerable. (Vulnerability proved to be a staple of Travolta’s acting bag of tricks.)

Australian transplant Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) is just trying to fit in to her new Southern California school, Rydell High. Though she had ...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 29, 2011 5:11pm

Rollercoaster

Dir: James Goldstone, 1977. Starring: George Segal, Timothy Bottoms, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda. Cult.

Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.

To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 11, 2014 2:44pm

The Wanderers

Dir: Philip Kaufman, 1979. Starring: Ken Wahl, John Friedrich, Karen Allen. Drama.

WanderersThat period in American history as the country moved from the Eisenhower conformism of the ‘50s to the freedom of the ‘60s has made for some wonderful films (American GraffitiBaby It’s You), even if they often prove to be overly wistful. The Philip Kaufman film The Wanderers, based on Richard Price’s great novel, captures this period perfectly. It takes place in 1963 and though these teenagers of the Bronx who are the film's subject do stop to watch some JFK assassination news, they have no idea that a cultural youth quake could soon open them up to a whole new world. Not since West Side Story had gang life been as romanticized as it was in the ‘70s with the T-Birds of GreaseThe WarriorsThe Hollywood Knights andThe Lords of Flatbush (only of note because of the presence of a pre-stardom Henry Winkler and Sylvester Stallone). Though perhaps now a cult film because of years of people discovering it on cable, The Wanderers really is a lost gem and the best of its genre.

In a newly integrated Bronx neighborhood, Ritchie (Ken Wahl, an actor who had the toothy good looks and acting chops to be a big star, but his personal life derailed his career) leads the Italian American gang the Wanderers. He’s a stud and has his sights on bohemian chick Nina (played by the adorable Karen Allen), but when he ...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 31, 2011 4:55pm
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