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
When it comes to Bukowski, the rest of the world can be separated into three categories: those who don't know he exists, those who praise his unconventional poetry and language, and those who detest his work and see him as a glorified alcoholic and womanizer. As far as films surrounding Bukowski are concerned, many are aware of or have seen Barfly, which attempts to paint a portrait of the man and his muses. I've mentioned Factotum to others and most are unaware of the film, just as I was unaware of others based on him and his work in general. The title is taken from a work of Bukoski's with the same name, which I have haven't read, nor have I seen other films surrounding his alter-ego and work, and this includes documentaries. A large part of me doesn't want to, which is why this film works well for me and others who are unaware of or not interested in doting on another poet. Matt Dillon's performance - and the film as a whole - makes it easy to take the film in for what it is, a movie about an alcoholic who is a writer, gambler, womanizer, and blue-collar misfit. You can find this person, give or take a few qualities, within most artists and writers. The fact that Dillon's character is named Chinaski instead of Bukowski, and that everything is centralized in a few events and acquaintances, removes the film from your traditional adaptation. In short, even if you are among those who don't like or don't know of the writer, you can enjoy this due to its lack of a "faithful" attachment to him or the work.Continue Reading
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a darkly comical rock musical about the trials and tribulations of an East German transsexual songwriter. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, young Hansel was raised by a cowering G.I. father and a cold-hearted German mother. Once grown, he falls in love with an American soldier, who promises to marry him and take him to the states. The one catch is he has to be a woman to flee the country.
Hansel’s sex change operation is blotched and he becomes “Hedwig,” left with only “an angry inch.” Once free of communism, her husband leaves her and she scrapes by babysitting for a military family. The teenage son, Tommy (Michael Pitt), is enchanted with her and they fall in love. That is until he steals her songs and becomes a superstar known as “Tommy Gnosis.”Continue Reading
Though it almost shares a title (but little else) with director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 spaghetti-war flick The Inglorious Bastards, which was just a dirtier Dirty Dozen knockoff, Quentin Tarantino knows a good title when he sees it. With a minor spelling change he gave us his own comic book WWII movie, Inglourious Basterds. With a definite nod to François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, it’s like a Powell & Pressburger (49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing) piece of propaganda, if those guys were still making those flicks in the 1970s. What at first glance may seem like a nasty and mean Nazi revenge fantasy is actually a tribute to the power of cinema and the power of Tarantino’s beautifully composed dialogue. This may be the most talky war script ever written, but unlike the pointlessly inane ramblings of the film he made two years before this, Death Proof (his half of the double feature movie Grindhouse), this dialogue is used to constantly build suspense, and in the hands of an expert actor like Christoph Waltz, it often sounds like an evil poetry. Aided by the clever score, pirated from other films, and the sharp period detail, Inglourious Basterds proved to not only be one of Tarantino's most ingenious creations, but is a film that has aged well (in the brief years since) and is sure to take its place with the best of the genre (lets call ‘em Naziploitation flicks).
Inglourious Basterds is an equally shared international ensemble piece divided into chapters. First you are introduced to a cat n’ mouse playing German SS man, "Jew Hunter," Col. Hans Landa (Waltz in a mannered piece of scenery chewing that deservedly won him an Oscar). The film opens with him interrogating a French dairy farmer who is hiding a neighboring Jewish family in his floorboards. He toys with the man before his soldiers shoot up the floor, but the teenage daughter Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to escape into the countryside. Meanwhile an American unit commanded by a very Southern Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt acting like a cross between Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn) leads a group of Jewish soldiers known as the "Basterds" on a dirty trick mission to torture and wreak havoc on Nazis, becoming legends and the thing of nightmares to Nazis, including even a flummoxed Hitler (Martin Wuttke). A few years later, Shosanna, now known as "Emmanuelle Mimieux" (and resembling a young Catherine Deneuve), runs a hip cinema in Paris and is any movie geek’s dream girl. Unfortunately she has the unwanted attention of a young German war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl of Good Bye, Lenin! and The Edukators). He is even starring as himself in a recently completed film about his sniper exploits called Nation’s Pride, directed by head Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller convinces the higher-ups, including security-chief Hans Landa, to hold the premiere at Shosanna’s cinema, with the German high command in attendance, including the Führer himself. Shosanna and her boyfriend hatch a plan to burn the theater down during the screening.Continue Reading
Lords of Dogtown
I'm slightly envious of Stacy Peralta for not only conquering the professional skateboarding world but also for his career as a filmmaker. These two industries, in the general sense, do not correlate, but he manages to find the bridge. The result? A fantastic documentary about the legendary Z-Boys skate team in 1970s Venice named Dogtown Z-Boys, a 2004 documentary chronicling the evolution of big wave surfing called Riding Giants, and a biographical feature film about the Z-Boys journey titled Lords of Dogtown. Peralta penned the screenplay himself, with Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen and Twilight) directing.
The film, while written with obvious yet needed nostalgia, is action-packed full of skateboarding glamour, parties, competitions, strained friendships, and the intensity of male adolescent energy. The plot is loose and without any specific thread other than to chronicle the history of what happens to the Zephyr Skate Team from the beginning of their surfing days to the point where they meet again after the start of their separate careers. The lack of any overbearing plot creates an enjoyable, fast-paced energy that captures a certain spirit of the pioneering skate culture from the 70s.Continue Reading
There are multiple attitudes through which one can examine the film Radio On. It’s another example of the phenomenon of a film critic becoming a director. Christopher Petit was the editor for the film section of Time Out London from 1973 to 1978, and though he never achieved the notoriety of the Nouvelle Vague directors who once wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, his film career has turned out far better then Roger Ebert (who penned the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) or Susan Sontag (who lost some of her critical credibility for the ill received Duet for Cannibals). Radio On is also a unique British-German coproduction, written and directed by an Englishman, but produced and shot by two Germans, Wim Wenders and Wenders’ ubiquitous cameraman Martin SchÃ¤ffer. The art direction of the film is best compared to David Bowie’s album cover for Low, no coincidence considering Bowie’s “Heroes/Helden” is the song that starts the film. Actually, Radio On might one day be added to the list of films that will be better remembered for their soundtrack’s significance than the film’s cinematic merit. The film makes prominent use of hipster favorites like Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, and Devo, and includes a cameo from Sting in one of his first roles. Now Sting is not a hipster favorite, and probably never will be after boasting of his tantric exploits to multiple media outlets while promoting his adult contemporary hit “Desert Rose” in a slick Jaguar commercial. That doesn’t mean that we should forget Sting is a gifted actor, his performance in Brimstone & Treacle being a particular favorite.
It’s perfunctory to synopsize the plot in any film review, but here it seems somewhat irrelevant. A factory DJ drives to Bristol to investigate the mysterious death of his brother, but the plot is only a pretext for long periods of listening to the radio broadcasting the hip music and chaotic news reports of Northern Ireland bloodshed and conservative outrage that prevailed in Thatcherite England, as well as to look out the window at the excellently photographed landscapes. Once the DJ arrives in Bristol he becomes distracted by a German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) looking for her five-year-old daughter, Alice. This is a clumsy attempt by Wenders to expand the narrative of one of his own characters from his 1974 film Alice in the Cities, where Kreuzer plays a woman who abandons her daughter nine-year-old daughter of the same name. Wenders tries to create an impromptu prequel and belatedly illuminate the viewers of his previous film that Alice’s mother had once traveled to England to search for the child she would subsequently abandon. Considering Radio On is so sensitive to the politics and music of the decade it occupies, it was unwise of Wenders to ignore the glaring asynchronicity of Alice being five in 1980 and nine in 1974.Continue Reading
Saturday Night Fever
At first glance what may appear to be a cultural relic from the disco '70s is actually a deeply sensitive star-making vehicle for the young John Travolta as a Brooklyn hot dog who is slowly realizing that everything in the world he knows - his unemployed and jealous father, his gooney Brooklyn buds, his life as the king stud on the dance floor, everything around him - is all bullshit.
Who would guess that a little script by Norman Wexler (Serpico) based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," would be at the center of a cultural phenomenon? (The piece was said to be based on his reporting of real life characters he met in Brooklyn, but later it was revealed he made the whole thing up.) Everything about Saturday Night Fever became hot; Travolta’s white suit started a fashion trend, discotheques went from being an urban, ethnic or Euro trend to being found on main street in the middle of America. But hottest of all was the soundtrack, selling 20 million copies. Most was produced and performed by the Australian family band, The Bee Gees, the one time Beatles wanna-bees. The soundtrack scored them hit single after hit single, including "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "If I Can’t Have You" sung by Yvonne Elliman (who played Mary Magdalene in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar).Continue Reading
The Big Chill
Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).
Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).Continue Reading
There is no greater cinematic seduction than that of black and white film. Something about the absence of color helps you tune into so many other things and lose yourself in the screen; the images seem so much more complete and the messages come through clearly. While this film is fairly short, I feel even more excited about the filmmaker's ability to eliminate fluff and find that the choice to make your point quickly will never go out of fashion. In fact, the movie reminded me of a sci-fi picture without the excess and flash. The most charming part about The Committee is that it is a confident work that flaunts only that sense of assured storytelling.
The movie is from the '60s and known mainly for its groovy/intellectual soundtrack by Pink Floyd, and for the fact that it attacks conformism and politics within societies. It opens with a quote on free will and Britain's collective position on both revolt and passive submission. It then moves on to a young man (Paul Jones) hitchhiking across woodlands who is picked up by a talkative egoist (Tom Kempinski). When the men stop to check on the car, the young man beheads the driver, then puts his head back on and leaves the scene. He returns to the city and his dull job as an architect and receives a summons to attend a committee. Rumor has spread that committees are complex gatherings in the country. As little as eight and as many as 300 people are gathered and separated into groups in order to be surveyed, tested, and probed. The idea behind it is to see how the majority of people approach issues as meaningless as fruit, to a game of chess. One might be isolated in the country for a week up to a month, and in the end, the data gathered will help those in power control and regulate society. You could then compare such a letter to the draft, only the war you wage is entirely in your head. For our protagonist, he is fighting the urge not to go along with the government's game by attending.Continue Reading
The Last Wave
In Peter Weir's atmospheric film The Last Wave, we are brought into a world of Aboriginal witchcraft, dream reality, and disorientation; similar to his film Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir offers few clear cut clues and loads of mystery, creating a wholly mesmerizing viewing experience.
The film opens up with a scene from a school house in a rural area of the Australian desert. A sudden violent storm begins outside and, as a young boy is looking out the window, a heavy hail begins and a large chunk of ice crashes through the window, slashing the boy in the neck. During this scene we are treated to a montage of images from the city, showing gridlocked traffic and people running from the heavy rain of the freak storm.Continue Reading