Movie Review: Heaven Help Us (1985) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Heaven Help Us
Release Date: February 8, 1985
Director: Michael Dinner
Production Company: HBO Pictures | Silver Screen Partners
Synopsis:

After the death of his parents, teenager Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) is sent to live with his grandparents in Brooklyn.  He’s enrolled at an all-boys Catholic high school, St. Basil’s, run by an order of monks (his grandmother hopes he will go into the priesthood).  He falls into a crowd of oddballs including Caesar (Malcolm Danare), a nerd who is dismissive of everyone else’s lower intelligence, and Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon), a bully who is repeating the year at school. Michael is shocked by the severe strictness of the school, especially Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), a teacher who routinely uses corporal punishment and humiliation on the students.

Michael also meets Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a girl who has dropped out of public school to run her father’s soda shop across the street from St. Basil’s.  It’s revealed over the course of the movie that her father is suffering from severe mental health issues and unable to run it himself.  Michael and Danni start off awkwardly but begin to date in one of the sweetest teen romances ever depicted on screen.

Over the course of a few months of the school year, Michael, Caesar, Rooney and others (including the weird kid who can’t stop masturbating) play pranks, go to confession, see Pope Paul VI’s procession in Manhattan, have a dance with students from the girls’ school (after a lecture on lust by a priest played by Wallace Shawn in a hilarious bit part), and they repeatedly get in trouble.  Things come to a head in a violent confrontation with Brother Constance and a surprise twist at the finale.

Three characters I haven’t mentioned in this synopsis add flavor to the story.  First is Michael’s little sister Boo (Jennifer Dundas) who is obsessed with death and burial.  She seems quirky at first but in a really touching scene with Michael she expresses her fear of losing him the way they lost their parents. It’s a small but beautiful scene that shows how children internalize trauma.  The next is Brother Timothy (John Heard), a new teacher who joins the staff at the same time Michael arrives and is a “cool” young monk, who smokes and trades baseball cards with the kids, and acts as an adviser to Michael.  He’s kind of the personification of Vatican II reforms in the movie.  Finally, there’s Donald Sutherland in a terrific performance as Brother Thadeus, the strict but ultimately fair headmaster of St. Basil’s

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I watched this movie when it was shown on cable tv in the mid-1980s. Growing up Catholic in a New York City suburb with parents who were teenagers in New York at the time this movie is set it was a no-brainer that I would watch and enjoy this movie.  It was fun to get a look back at the “bad old days” of the Catholic church with Latin masses and corporal punishment.

In retrospect, the 20 years between the time the movie is set and the time it was released doesn’t seem all that long.  In fact, the first English mass was held in the United States in late 1964, so this movie isn’t even set during the Latin mass period.  Still, both New York City and the Catholic church seemed to change quite a bit in those 20 short years.

What Did I Remember?:

I hadn’t watched this movie since the 1980s but it was surprisingly fresh in my mind.

What Did I Forget?:

I didn’t forget things so much as see them in a different light from an adult perspective.  For example, that kid who masturbates is a funny gag when you’re a kid, but as an adult it seems like a serious problem that should be addressed before he commits a sex offense on someone.  Similarly, Brother Constance was always a mean teacher, but now I see him as a total monster who’s comeuppance should’ve had more severe legal repercussions.  The movie also takes on a different feel in the aftermath of clergy sex abuse revelations that were allowed to persist due to many of the same factors of a corrupt system of power that we see in the film.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

If you break it down to its essence, Heaven Help Us is a series of vignettes soaked in Baby Boomer nostalgia.  But it is so much better than that. I think the strong cast of actors really makes all these characters feel real rather than archetypes.  A lot of the younger actors would go on to longer careers so you’re really seeing them come into their own here.  Also, as I noted above with the scene of Michael and Boo, there are a number of great, well-directed and well-written scenes that economically capture moments of great humanity.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Rooney is a bully and sexually aggressive with women and initially an antagonist to Michael, but eventually they become friends.  I think Dillon does a good job of giving Rooney some depth, but overall I think the movie wants to think of his behavior as funny and overlook how harmful it is.

Also, at the end of the movie, there’s an American Graffiti style epilogue where Rooney narrates what happened to all the characters.  It feels out of tune with the rest of the movie and ultimately unnecessary.

Is It a Classic?:

Objectively this movie falls short of being a movie classic, but subjectively it will always be one of my favorites.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with H:

  1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
  2. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
  3. High Fidelity (2000)
  4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
  5. Hope and Glory (1987)

What is your favorite movie starting with H? What do you guess will be my movie for I? (Hint: it has characters named Bert and Ernie).  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1984) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: A Fish Called Wanda 
Release Date: July 15, 1988
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Prominent Features
Synopsis:

English gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and his right-hand man Ken Pile (Michael Palin) plan a jewel heist. They bring the American couple Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto West (Kevin Kline), who claim to be siblings but are actually lovers. The robbery goes off without a hitch and then the members of the gang double-cross one another.  Wanda and Otto turn in George to the police, and Wanda plans to turn on Otto too, until they discover that George moved the diamonds to a different hiding place.

Wanda decides to seduce George’s barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) so she can learn if George plans to turn over the diamonds for a reduced sentence.  Her attempts to get to know Archie are interrupted by a jealous and stupid Otto (“Don’t call me stupid!”).  Meanwhile, Ken attempts to assassinate an elderly woman who is a witness that identified George as being a robbery.  An animal lover, Ken is broken-hearted that each of his three attempts to kill the witness lead to the deaths of one of her tiny dogs.

Despite the odds, Archie and Wanda form a real attachment and through a screwy series of events the diamonds are recovered, and they escape to the South America with them.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was at my peak period as a Monty Python fanatic, watching all their movies and taping every Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode off of MTV and PBS, as well as various other projects involving one or more Pythons.  I was ecstatic when I learned that there was a brand new movie involving two members of Monty Python and saw it soon after release with my family.

Kevin Kline was the revelation of this movie.  At the time he’d been mostly in serious dramas up to this point (although later in life I saw Sophie’s Choice where his character was both hilarious and terrifying).  His performance as a stupid American, ultraviolent jerk steals the movie.

What Did I Remember?:

“What was the middle part?”  I remembered pretty well how the movie began and ended but it was fun to rediscover how they got from point a to point.

What Did I Forget?:

Like I said above, I forgot the middle part.  I also forgot the subplot about Otto pretending to be gay with a crush on Ken, probably because it’s one of the few gags in the movie that doesn’t hit the mark.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie features a hilarious script by Cleese and Crichton and four actors putting in one of their career best performances while all playing against type. It’s really sad that they couldn’t find the magic again when they made Fierce Creatures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

So many comedies that I loved in the 80s cause severe cringe, and I was worried that A Fish Called Wanda would be the same. Blessedly, the movie holds up well, I think because of the fact that everyone in the movie is clearly an awful person, so it’s not like your dealing with a sympathetic character doing awful things.

Even at the time it was released, the movie was criticized for Ken having a significant stutter.  I enjoy Michael Palin’s performance so I want to find a way to justify it, but there’s no denying that the jokes come at the expense of people who stutter.

Is It a Classic?:

It’s definitely a standout comedy film, although it may fall short of the all-time great movies list.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with F:

  1. Fargo (1996)
  2. Field of Dreams (1989)
  3. Finding Nemo (2003)
  4. The Fisher King (1991)
  5. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

What is your favorite movie starting with F? What is your guess for my movie starting with G? (Hint: this movie gave rise to a psychological term). Let me know in the comments!

 

Movie Review: Electric Dreams (1984) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Electric Dreams
Release Date: July 20, 1984
Director: Steve Barron
Production Company: Virgin Films
Synopsis:

In a world where humans are distracted by electronic devices, a talented but disorganized young architect Miles Harding (Lenny Von Dohlen) is convinced to buy a personal computer to help keep on track. When he tries to download data from his company’s mainframe, his PC starts to smoke and the only thing nearby he has to try to put the fire out is champagne.  The combination of the too results in the computer gaining sentience and the voice of Bud Cort of Harold and Maude fame.

A concert cellist, Madeline (Virginia Madsen), moves in upstairs from Miles and they form an attraction. One day while Madeline is rehearsing Bach’s Minuet in G major, Miles’ computer hears her through the air vents and begins playing a duet with her in 8-bit electronic beeps.  Madeline believes that Miles is a talented, but shy, musician as is drawn to him more, while Miles tries to hide his computer from Madeline. The computer, trying to understand love, becomes jealous that he spend time with Madeline since he is impressing her with his music.

And thus begins a bizarre love triangle among man, women, and computer. The movie director, Steve Barron, primarily directed music videos including notable classics like “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, and “Take On Me” by a-ha. The music video style of editing and camera angles is used to great effect in this movie as well as a soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder and songs by several New Wave synthpop acts.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

In spring of 1984, we moved a new house, and as a treat, my mom subscribed us to cable tv for the first time. And thus came that opportunity to watch movies, lots of movies, and without commercial interruptions.  Soon, the realization dawned that I’d end up watching the same movies over and over again, and Electric Dreams became one of those movies I loved to watch again and again.

What Did I Remember?:

It’s a testament to the elasticity of the young, developing brain that so much of this movie I haven’t watched since the 1980s remained in memory, even specific dialogue and tones of voice.

What Did I Forget?:

I did forget the part where Edgar has a party with projections from an old movie, though.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

It’s a simple idea, a love triangle with a bit of Cyrano de Bergerac, but it’s told well.  Lenny Von Dohlen is a great likable nerd character in what I believe may be the only leading role in his career in a movie. Madsen is also great, and their fumbling romantic chemistry is believable. Cort’s voice is the right balance of innocent curiosity of a new being trying to learn as well as evil menace when Edgar the computer turns against Miles. Of all the movies I rewatched for this A to Z project, this is one that I thought would age poorly, but I’m pleasantly surprised that it remains a solid, little rom-com.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This is a movie about computing technology of 1984, and I suspect anyone too young to remember 1984 will find it laughable.  On the other hand, Miles’ computer (even before it became sentient) was remarkable sophisticated for its time.  Nobody had a personal computer system operating their apartment in the 1980s so the movie has a weird retro-future vibe to it.  The finale of the movie has Edgar taking over the radio airwaves to dedicate a new song to Miles and Madeline and there is a sequence of people around San Francisco dancing to it that is INCREDIBLY CHEEZY, even by the standard of the 1980s.  The song, “Together in Electric Dreams” by Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder, is really good though.

Is It a Classic?:

Maybe not a classic, but definitely an underrated gem of the 1980s.

Rating: ***1/2

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with E:

  1. Eight Men Out (1988)
  2. Eighth Grade (2018)
  3. Election (1999)
  4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  5. The Exorcist (1973)

What is your favorite movie starting with E? What’s your guess for my movie starting with F?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: Dr. Strangelove (1964) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Release Date: January 29, 1964
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Hawk Films
Synopsis:

A rogue United States Air Force general, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) initiates a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union using protocols that were designed only to be used if the President and federal government were incapacitated.  Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) of the UK Royal Air Force attempts to talk Ripper down, but soon realizes that Ripper is paranoid beyond rationality.

Meanwhile, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers, again) meets in the War Room to discuss how to avert catastrophe.  General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) advises going all-in on a nuclear attack on the USSR to reduce American casualties.  But with the help of the Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull) and Mandrake, the bomber wing is recalled.

Unfortunately, one B-52 Stratofortress bomber under the command of Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) loses its radio equipment and cannot be called back or shot down in time.  The Soviets have created a Doomsday Device that detonates if their country is struck by a nuclear attack and will lead to the death of all human and animal life on the planet for 93 years.  German scientific adviser Dr. Strangelove (Sellers, in his third and most bizarre role) suggests a small population of Americans can be persevere by living in a deep mine shift.  The movie ends with the world’s destruction by nuclear explosions as cheerful music plays.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I had a sick day from high school and decided to watch some of the movies my mom had taped on VHS.  Dr. Strangelove quickly became one of my favorite movies. It was one of those discoveries you have when you’re a kid when you think no one before the seventies swore or said anything bad about the government, and then you learn that your fore bearers could do very sophisticated satire indeed.  I remember in college when a professor had a screening of the movie and I brought some friends along who’d never seen it. Then I got to watch them as the brilliance of this movie slowly dawned on them.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the details and the major plot points very well.  And all those brilliant, quotable lines.

You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.

Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.

If the pilot’s good, see, I mean if he’s reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low… oh you oughta see it sometime. It’s a sight. A big plane like a ’52… varrrooom! Its jet exhaust… frying chickens in the barnyard!

I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious…service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.

Mr. President! We must not alloooooooooow a mine shaft gap!!

Sir! I have a plan… Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!

What Did I Forget?:

I noticed things I’d never realized before including:

  • The President’s phone call to the Soviet premier, where he talks to him like he’s calming a child, is very much like a Bob Newhart sketch.
  • Dr. Strangelove is visible at the table in the War Room far earlier in the movie than I realized.
  • Just how brilliant George C. Scott is at military double speak such as “I hate to judge before all the facts are in,” as well as the sheer joy he takes in describing the skill of the US pilots before realizing they’re doomed.
  • The War Room spends a lot of time just talking about ridiculous stuff that they don’t have time to talk about.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

I believe this is the only Stanley Kubrick comedy, and that is due to the fact that Kubrick and his writers realized that it was impossible to tell this story as a drama.  The movie starts out playing it straight and only gradually ramps up the humor until it reaches its absurd climax.  It’s too bad Kubrick didn’t do more comedies.

Peter Sellers in his triple role, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens all put in spectacular performances.  Curiously, with the exception of Dr. Strangelove, none of the characters act in a particularly over-the-top way, but the often mundane dialogue they have in extreme circumstances leads to hilarity.

I can’t imagine what it was like to watch this movie a little over a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and months after President Kennedy’s assassination.  Some people say that The Sixties began in 1964, and Dr. Strangelove played a big part in creating the social change of the turbulent decade to come.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This movie is 56 years old and should feel incredibly dated.  Despite the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, this movie still feels frighteningly relevant because we still live in a world with arsenals of nuclear weapons that can be accessed by any lunatic that gains power.

Is It a Classic?:

Most assuredly.  Probably in my all-time Top Ten.

Rating: *****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with D:

  1. Dead Poets Society (1989)
  2. Delicatessen (1991)
  3. Do the Right Thing (1989)
  4. Donnie Darko (2001)
  5. Duck Soup (1933)

What is your favorite movie starting with D?  What would you guess will be my movie starting with E?  (Hint: an 80s movie about the rise of personal computers).  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Release Date: August 10, 1994
Director: Stephan Elliott
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment | Specific Films
Synopsis:

Mitzi (who also goes by Anthony and “Tick”) is a performer in drag queen cabaret in Sydney portrayed by Hugo Weaving.  He gets a call from his wife, from whom he’s been separated for several years but never officially divorced, asking for a favor to bring his performance to her casino resort in Alice Springs. Mitzi invites Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a older transgender woman who was a legendary drag performer, to join him as she grieves the death of her partner.  They are joined by a third drag performer, Felicia (a.k.a Adam), a young, narcissistic, and acerbic gay man.  Felicia uses his parents’ wealth to acquire a bus for their journey across the Australian Outback which he christens Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The basic plot is the clash of three different personalities in a bus together on a several days journey, made even longer because the bus keeps breaking down. Along the way they meet rural Australians, some who are welcoming, some who are hostile, and on one occasion brutally violent. They pick up an auto mechanic, Bob (Bill Hunter), who keeps the bus running and forms a romance with Bernadette. Arriving in Alice Springs, it’s revealed that Mitzi also has an 8-year-old son, Benjamin (Mark Holmes) he hasn’t seen since Benjamin was a baby.  But Benjamin’s very cool mom, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), a queer woman herself, has raised Benjamin to be accepting of his father.

After performing for two weeks, Bernadette decides to stay in Alice Springs with Bob (who has found work at the casino) and Benjamin travels to Sydney to get spend time getting to know his dad better.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

My senior year of college, my friend John acquired the soundtrack to this movie which included several disco era hits, including the epically bad and unintentionally hilarious “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene. John’s room was a popular hangout in our dormitory so a lot of people heard the soundtrack and were deeply curious about the movie that went with it.  When the movie finally came to our local art house movie theatre it was a group outing.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered all the basic plot details and some of the dialogue, including Bernadette’s response to Felicia’s desire to climb King’s Canyon in a drag outfit: “That’s just what this country needs: a cock in a frock on a rock.”  I also remember the dance numbers and costumes are excellent.  And most beautiful of all is Felicia on the roof of the bus, singing an aria, as shiny fabric trails behind the bus.

What Did I Forget?:

I remembered the details of Mitzi’s storyline well, but not as much of Bernadette’s. Perhaps because I’m older, her story (and Stamp’s performance) feel more poignant.  I completely forgot about Bob and their romance, which on this rewatch I found the sweetest part of the movie.

When I watched this movie in the 1990s, I didn’t know who any of the actors were.  Terance Stamp was already an established “tough guy” actor for decades at the time, although I suppose there would be no way I’d remember him as General Zod in the Superman movies.  Weaving would go on to play parts in The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, and Captain America franchises, among other things. And Guy Pearce would also find fame in L.A Confidential, Memento, The King’s Speech, and Iron Man 3.  Watching this movie knowing the actors from their other parts rather than assuming they’re Australian “unknowns” makes for a different viewing experience.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This was one of the first major movies to offer a sympathetic portrayal of gay and transgender people (and coincidentally gave a boost to Australian cinema in foreign markets).  It’s strikes a perfect balance among road movie with striking humor, romance, a sensitive story of family, and great dance performances and costuming.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Even 25 years ago, the big problem with this movie is the character of Cynthia (Julia Cortez), a Filipina woman married to Bob (presumably through some sort of mail-order arrangement to gain Australian citizenship) who is also an exotic dancer. There is a possibility of comparing Cynthia to the Priscilla crew as different type of outsider in the Australian desert, but her character is portrayed in the most virulently stereotypical fashion in the few moments she’s on screen.

All three lead characters are portrayed by straight, cisgender actors.  I think in the 1990s it was possible to defend this as an act of solidarity to have cishet actors offer a sympathetic portrayal.  But if this movie was made today it would be rightly called out for denying parts to LGBTQ actors.

The movie also features the use of the term “tranny” and deadnaming Bernadette as jokes. I was ignorant of this in the 1990s, but today I know these are horribly hurtful things to say.  Granted, most of this is done by Felicia, a character who admits to being deliberately obnoxious to get a rise out of people. I don’t think the movie so much defends doing this as it is showing that some gay men, even drag queens, are prejudiced against transgender people.  Either way it’s an unsettling part of the movie.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, definitely!

Rating: ****

WARNING: This trailer actually makes the movie look bad.

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with A:

  1. Airplane! (1980)
  2. Aliens (1986)
  3. Amelie (2001)
  4. Anne of Green Gables (1985)
  5. Apollo 13 (1995)

What is your all-time favorite movie starting with A? What do you guess will be my movie for B?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: Clue (1985)


TitleClue
Release Date: December 13, 1985
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Production Company: Guber-Peters Company | PolyGram Filmed Entertainment | Debra Hill Productions
Summary/Review:

We played a game of Clue and then decided to watch the movie Clue.  The things you do while in isolation.  I saw this movie in the theater back when it first came out.  The gimmick at the time as that there were three different endings released to different movie theaters.  I saw ending C.  By the time it made it to video and television broadcasts (and now on streaming) all three endings are played back to back.

This is perhaps the first, but not the last, movie based upon a board game.  A comedy that parodies ensemble murder mystery movies while bringing in elements from the board game is a good premise. The movie has become a cult classic among Millenials, but I’m surprised at just how few laughs there are, especially considering the stellar cast.  The movie features Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren. but only Curry gets some truly funny moments.  And most of those are held until the end(s) of the movie when he’s revealing whodunnit.

Knives Out did it all much better.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: American Graffiti (1973)


Title: American Graffiti
Release Date: August 11, 1973
Director: George Lucas
Production Company: Lucasfilm | American Zoetrope | The Coppola Company
Summary/Review:

George Lucas’ directorial debut THX 1138 bombed at the box office and he was charged with making a more commercially appealing film for his production company American Zoetrope. (The same fiscal crisis contributed to Lucas’ partner Francis Ford Coppola to agree to direct an adaptation of a sleazy gangster novel). Lucas decided to make a tribute to his youth in Modesto, California where teens cruised the main street in hot cars while listening to rock & roll.

The movie focuses on one night in late summer in 1962 and the exploits of four teenagers:

  • Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) who is due to leave for college the next morning but is uncertain about going. He keeps seeing a mysterious blonde woman in a passing T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) and spends part of the night hanging out with a street gang.
  • Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who is also leaving for college, and is arrogant and obnoxious.  Early on, he tells his long-time steady girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) that he wants to have an open relationship leading to a tense night for the couple.
  • John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the city’s best hot rod drag racer. A car full of girls pranks him by sending over a 12 year old little sister, Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips), to ride with him. The initial awkwardness turns into the sweetest part of the movie as John and Carol form a sibling-like relationship.  Much like Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the best scenes in this movie involves John & Carol bonding through vandalism. John also has to face down a challenge from another drag racer, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).
  • Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), a younger teen who inherits Steve’s Chevrolet Impala. He picks up a Marilyn Monroe-esque woman Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) who proves to be an adventurous oddball with kind of a Luna Lovegood quality.

The movie is linked together by Wolfman Jack’s DJ patter over rock and roll hit.  He also appears in a cameo as himself where he gives advice to Curt.  Wolfman Jack was a celebrity DJ in New York when I was a kid.  I never realized that early in his career he broadcast from a high-powered radio station in Mexico and was a mysterious figure to the kids who listened to him at the time.

I ended up liking this movie a lot more than I expected.  But probably the biggest thing about this movie is its legacy. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall hit songs of the early rock & roll era. It’s one of the first movies to be scored entirely with previously-released popular tunes.  These songs are the familiar tunes of the 1950s and early 60s and makes me wonder how much the American Graffiti influenced what songs would be played on Oldies stations forevermore.

The first song heard in the movie is “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets (which later becomes the opening theme of Happy Days) and one of the last tunes heard in the film is “Goodnight, Well it’s Time to Go” by The Spaniels (which became the farewell song on Sha Na Na).  Which leads to the next legacy, the 50s nostalgia boom of the 1970s. It manifest itself in the tv sitcoms Happy Days (which also starred Ron Howard) and Laverne & Shirley (which also starred Cindy Williams), the comedy variety show Sha Na Na, the Broadway and Hollywood musical Grease, and the revival of musical careers of early rock & roll stars like Chuck Berry and Frankie Valli.

Perhaps the biggest legacy is the career of George Lucas, who went on to make movies that are nothing like American Graffiti.  I never realized that Lucas only directed six films in his entire career (and half of them are the Star Wars prequels!).  I don’t plan to watch THX 1138 anytime soon, but I’m going to assume that American Graffiti is Lucas’ best work of directing actors, as opposed to his true genius at creating story ideas and producing them.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Modern Times (1936)


TitleModern Times
Release Date: February 5, 1936
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

Modern Times is Charlie Chaplin’s light satire of industrialization, the Great Depression, and inequality in capitalist America.  It’s also his clever jibe at the new-fangled talking motion pictures, about a decade old at the time of release.  While Chaplin’s Little Tramp and other characters act in pantomime with title cards providing dialogue, this is most definitely a silent movie.  In fact, it has a full sound effect track with spoken dialogue, albeit almost always processed through machines.

The movie begins with the Tramp working in a factory where he ends up literally a cog in a machinery.  The Boss keeps an eye on the workers through screens, more than a decade before George Orwell wrote 1984. The Tramp ultimately has a nervous breakdown.  Upon release from the hospital, he inadvertently ends up leading a Communist march and is sent to prison.  While in prison he inadvertence uses cocaine.  I’m amazed that Communism and cocaine made it past the production code, but it’s all very funny.

After release from prison, he meets a young orphaned woman, Ellen (Paulette Goddard), and they team up for survival.  There’s something about Goddard that makes her look strikingly modern to me.  Plus, she has a very alluring manner of tossing bananas to street waifs.  They get a job as a night watchman at a department store, which involves roller skating close to the edge of a balcony.  Later she finds a ramshackle house for them to live in. The Tramp finally gets another job in a factory, and on the first day his boss falls into the machinery.  Two jokes at expense of labor, as the Tramp stops trying to rescue his boss when the lunch whistle blows.  Then all the workers go on strike even though they’ve only been working a few hours.

In the final sequence, Ellen gets a job as a dancer at a cafe and helps the Tramp get hired as a singing waiter.  You read that right, the Tramp who never talks is supposed to sing.  The tension builds as first he has to deliver a meal to an angry patron through the crowd of dancers.  Then it’s time for him perform, but he forgets the word.  So he sings a song entirely of gibberish.  What a brilliant introduction of the Tramp into talkies by having his pantomime still be the key to his performance even though he’s singing.  It’s also the final official appearance of the Tramp on film, and it ends with the Tramp and Ellen walking into the sunset.

I think this is my favorite Charlie Chaplin film yet, although I’m also quite fond of The Great Dictator.

Rating:

Movie Review: A Bug’s Life (1998)


Title: A Bug’s Life
Release Date: November 20, 1998
Director: John Lasseter
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Pixar’s follow-up to Toy Story shows all the signs of sophomore slump.  Unlike Toy’s Story’s timeless humor, A Bug’s Life is a product of the 1990s, relying on the irreverent and referential humor that was “edgy” at the time but feels tired now (not unlike The Emperor’s New Groove).  The movie has it’s moments but it lacks the magic of most Pixar films.

The story focuses on a colony of ants who are forced to gather food as tribute to bully grasshoppers.  An inventive but clumsy ant named Flik (Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall fame) proposes finding bigger bugs who can protect the ants from the grasshoppers (very much the premise of Seven Samurai).  Flik inadvertently hires a team of circus performers (from a “flea circus,” of course) instead.  Nevertheless, the ants and the ants and the circus performers team up to fight the grasshoppers in a fairly predictable manner.

The humor is slight and repetitive.  For example, a lady bug voiced by Dennis Leary gets angry every time he is mistaken for a female, because misgendering is apparently hilarious. It’s clear why Toy Story can still provide successful sequels 25 years after its debut, but A Bug’s Life was never fodder for sequels.  I suppose we can be thankful for it working out the, er, “bugs” in the Pixar formula leading to the string of greatness in ensuing films.

I remember when A Bug’s Life came out it went head-to-head with the DreamWorks animation film Antz. The latter cast Woody Allen in a family film despite allegations of his sexual abuse of his daughter Dylan Farrow.  Not to be outdone, A Bug’s Life was directed by John Lassetter who lost his position at Disney due to sexual misconduct and stars Kevin Spacey as the chief bully Hopper, who has his own litany of sexual assault accusations.  Somehow these men found a way to make movies about insects even creepier.

Rating: *1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Odd Couple (1968)


Title: The Odd Couple 
Release Date: May 2, 1968
Director: Gene Saks
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Odd Couple tv series was an institution of my childhood and I always enjoyed Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as Oscar and Felix.  But I’d never before seen the movie it was based on (nor the Neil Simon play which launched The Odd Couple franchise).  The basic plot is that Felix (Jack Lemmon) splits up with his wife and ends up moving in with his divorced poker buddy Oscar (Walter Matthau).  Tensions grow between the pair as Felix’s tidiness and neuroses clash with Oscar’s slobbishness and relaxed attitude.

What I really like about this movie is that it allows men to break from macho stereotypes and actually show feelings.  Both men discuss their sadness of separation from their families, Felix admits that he knows that his neat freak tendencies come from deeper problems, and they even express affection for one another despite driving each other crazy.

The movie is comic and heartwarming and has a great supporting cast. Even John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet, has a part as one of the poker night group.  The movie is also a great slice of life of late 60s New York.  And I have to appreciate Oscar’s dedication to the Mets when the team had not even had a winning season yet at that point.

Rating: ****