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
Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is The Godfather or the Gone With The Wind of '80s teenage sex comedies. It's bigger and better than its lesser peers including My Tutor, The Last American Virgin, Porky's, Losing It, and a list that goes on and on. Inspired by the success of the wonderful National Lampoon's Animal House as well as the ensemble attitude of American Graffiti, based on a book by Cameron Crowe, with an exceptional cast of then unknowns (including two of their generation's best, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn), Fast Times At Ridgemont High is an epic study of Southern California teen suburban culture of the early 1980s.
The film really is more than just a teen sex comedy (which doesn't usually mean that sex is actually happening - it is generally more just being wished for - as well as preening and peeking for potential nudity). Besides being very funny there is some dramatic weight to the film and to many of the characters, mostly concerning an abortion. Other than a few teachers at Ridgemont High not many adults (parents) factor into the story (not including the 26-year old stereo salesman who seduces a teenager). This is a teen fantasy of laughs and sex all in a sunny, year-round location. It's the lighter side of the "burning the school down" fantasy of Over The Edge.Continue Reading
Even casual film historians know that the 1970s was the decade with the most creative freedom afforded to the director. Just as studios were beginning to become just pieces of larger corporate empires and the blockbuster became the only goal, filmmakers were given unprecedented access to seeing out their visions. No director took advantage of the era as unusually as Robert Altman managed to. After exploding as a brand name director with his huge hit MASH in ’70 he spent the decade exploring a plethora of film quirks, with such notable titles as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and California Split, as well as a number of oddities and misfires, ending the decade with the utterly unwatchable sci-fi bomb Quintet. But Altman’s greatest masterpiece (with apologies to MASH and The Player) came in the middle of the decade: Nashville, a film that truly stands alone as one of those films that could never be repeated (and still proves very challenging to even write about) and, in the end, is the most Altman-y film Altman ever made.
Clocking in at 159 minutes, Nashville is a sorta satire, but also a real tribute to country music. The film takes place during a political rally for the Replacement Party presidential candidate that coincides with a number of musicians coming to town to record and play at the rally. With over twenty main characters coming and going, it’s almost impossible to keep up with on a first viewing. The standout story lines start with Lily Tomlin as Linnea (outstanding in her first film), a gospel singer and mother to a pair of deaf kids, and her husband (Ned Beatty), a political operative for a campaign operator (Michael Murphy) who is putting together a fundraiser at Opryland. Meanwhile, country legend Haven Hamilton (the always entertaining Henry Gibson) is sought after by both the politicians, after he records a tribute to the bicentennial (“we must be doing something right, to last 200 years”) and a fish-outta-water British journalist (Geraldine Chaplin) who has an affair with his son. Another country music star, the very damaged Barbara Jean (Ronee Sue Blakley, who then was known more as a singer, but proves herself as an actress wonderfully here) seems to be having a nervous breakdown and is followed by a lurking uniformed Vietnam vet (Scott Glenn). Up-and-coming singer Tom (Keith Carradine) has all the women chasing him, including a spaced out groupie (Shelly Duvall), but he appears to make a real connection with married mother Linnea. And that's just a taste of the story lines, which also includes a motley crew of characters giving fully lived-in performances, including Keenan Wynn, Gwen Welles, Barbara Baxley, Barbara Harris, Bert Remsen, Karen Black, Jeff Goldblum, Allen Garfield and cameos by Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves. It’s almost like a hee haw version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.Continue Reading
In the 1970s, nostalgic pangs were for a time before rising gas prices, recession, Watergate and Vietnam. Such a time was the fabulous '50s. (For the nostalgic type, the '50s end in ’63 with the Kennedy assassination, the day the music died). Cinema captured it all throughout the decade, and the music of the '50s was at the core of films like American Graffiti, Grease, The Buddy Holly Story, The Wanderers, and even National Lampoon’s Animal House. By 1980 the craze was over, which explains why the otherwise terrific film The Idolmaker wasn’t as big a hit as the others.
It was kinda-sorta based on the life of music manager Bob Marcucci, who helped fill the pop idol scene with Elvis wannabes Frankie Avalon and Fabian. They may not have been as important as The King, but they sold some records and their handsome pictures were on plenty of teenyboppers' bedroom walls. The film isn’t a straight bio, but Marcucci served as a technical advisor to first-time feature director Taylor Hackford, who would go on to have a big career himself, with flicks like An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray.Continue Reading
That 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 Graffiti, Baby 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 Grease, The Warriors, The 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), ...