Film review – American Graffiti (1973)

22 April 2011

American GraffitiAt first glance American Graffiti appears to be a nostalgia trip back to the early 1960s, the teenage years of its now legendary filmmakers – producer Francis Ford Coppola who at the time had just directed The Godfather and writer/director George Lucas who would go on to create the Star Wars franchise. Made in 1973 and set over one summer night in a small town in California in 1962, American Graffiti depicts the adventures and misadventures of a group of teenagers on the brink of adulthood. Upon closer reflection American Graffiti casts a bitter/sweet shadow over a time of perceived innocence, suggesting that the ideal of a simpler way of life was just a front for a far bleaker and cynical reality. It’s one of the all-time great feel good films, but its sly cultural commentary is what makes it the masterpiece that it is.

In many ways American Graffiti set the template for the coming-of-age teen film. The characters are all distinctive types and the film is set over just one night, where the revelations that the characters experience have a profound impact on how they view themselves and their place in the world. The four main characters are the nice guy Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), the tough drag-racing guy John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the awkward nerdy guy Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields (Charles Martin Smith) and the slightly whimsical Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss).

American Graffiti: Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss)

Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss)

Over the course of the night all four characters are either revealed to the audience in a new light or see the world around them in a new light. Steve’s treatment of his high school sweetheart Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) suggests that under the small-town politeness and boyish good looks he is not such a nice guy, while John is shown to be a bit of a softy. More importantly John realises that by becoming the king of the road he faces a future of either being eventually usurped by a young challenger or forever being a big fish in a small pond. While Terry learns the more conventional lesson that being himself is enough to impress a girl, it is Curt’s story that is most interesting.

Curt has the most reason and opportunity to break free from the path set out for him. Unlike Steve, who was presumably always destined for college, Curt seemingly would have been destined to remain in his childhood town with John and Terry if he hadn’t earned a college scholarship and therefore his ticket out. On the eve of his departure he is nervous and anxious about leaving, making his night a journey of self-discovery to assess what he should do. While hankering for the past and developing an impossible and intangible obsession with a mysterious blonde woman in a Ford Thunderbird, Curt finds fewer and fewer reasons to stay. Like Truman in The Truman Show, Curt sees behind the scenes for the first time and it changes his entire worldview. His teenage years are over now that he can see that the world is much less glamorous, noble and exciting than it once seemed.

American Graffiti: John Milner (Paul Le Mat)

John Milner (Paul Le Mat)

The car has long been a symbol in American cinema for freedom and status, and in American Graffiti cars play a very important role in the lives of the characters. Cars are status symbols to admire, they are used to assert dominance when revved at traffic lights and they can take the characters out of town to secluded spots for make-out sessions. As the cynicism begins to creep into the film images of car crashes increasingly become a fixture in the film in dialogue, setting and storyline to once again indicate a dying mythology for both youth and America in general. As the lyrics ‘We’ve been having fun all summer long’ by The Beach Boys fades over the film’s final credits, it is difficult to shake off the sad feeling that now that summer is over the fun is over too. It won’t ever be the same again and now the characters have little to look forward to other than mediocrity or worse.

American Graffiti functions as a final farewell to childhood dreams before reality steps in. The main sting in the tail is that the film also signifies the end of the post-WWII American Dream. It is especially telling when Curt is teased about his ambition to one day shake hands with President John F Kennedy. Audiences now and in 1973 will recognise that Curt will never fulfil that ambition as a year later Kennedy would be assassinated.

American GraffitiFor the most part American Graffiti is a joyous and frequently very funny vicarious night in the life of a likeable group of characters. The film’s multiple intersecting narratives and exhilarating constant use of diegetic music (heard by the characters in the film as well as the audience) create a wonderful sense of time and place. American Graffiti has lost none of its charm or energy, making it one of the many great masterpieces of the New Hollywood era.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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MIFF 2010 Diary: Part 6

1 August 2010

One of the two things I do each year to take a break from the intense experience that MIFF can be is to see a non-MIFF film; something very B-grade or very Hollywood. This year I went to the media screening of Salt, which didn’t really deliver the guilty pleasure respite that I was hoping for so was a bit of a waste of time. My other break-from-MIFF activity is to attend some kind of live performance and this year I went to see Stephen Fry, which was one the most entertaining and inspiring nights I have experienced for a long time. The wisdom and stories that Fry shared actually complemented MIFF, and the types of films that such a festival champions, as he is so passionate about culture, intellectual curiosity and the importance of self expression.

I Love You Phillip Morris

I Love You Phillip Morris

Back to the festival. On Friday night I saw I Love You Phillip Morris, which is essentially a con-man film, with some similarities to Catch Me If You Can, but with a warm love story at its heart and a very wicked sense of humour. Jim Carrey gives a terrific performance as the extroverted con-man who does what he does to fund the lifestyle he shares with his sweet and shy partner Phillip Morris, played beautifully by Ewan McGregor. Carrey and McGregor have incredibly chemistry and are completely convincing as a couple. You will gasp at some of the subject matter that this film draws laughs from but that’s part of its brilliance. The distributors in Australia and other countries who are nervously sitting on this film for whatever reason (surely in 2010 they’re not worried about the gay content?) need to give this film the wide release that it deserves or pass on the distribution rights to a company that can handle a film like this.

[EDIT 1/4/2011: Read a full review of I Love You Phillip Morris]

The new film by Francis Ford Coppola, Tetro, is about estranged brothers reuniting in Buenos Aires. Tetro is gorgeously shot in crisp black-and-white, full depth-of-field cinematography. For the most part it is a steadily paced drama with faint echoes of John Cassavetes in the way it gives a sense of vibrancy to the everyday lives of the people who occupy the various locations the film is set in. However, the final section of the film moves it from drama to melodrama so that ultimately a very good film is let down by a flabby ending. Vincent Gallo is great in the lead role, demonstrating just how photogenic he is and just how suited he is to playing such disagreeable characters.

The Illusionist

The Illusionist

Many people will check out the animated feature The Illusionist because it is directed by Sylvain Chomet of The Triplets of Belleville fame. That is a good enough reason in itself but my own interest was more it do with the fact that it is based on an unproduced Jacques Tati script. It is only in the past five years that Tati has become one of my favourite filmmakers and I was delighted by how well The Illusionist captures both the look of Tati’s films and his favourite theme of how modernity is sweeping away a way of life that was simpler and purer. The animated character of the magician looks and moves exactly like Tati, provoking plenty of laughs. The defining aspect of Tati’s onscreen persona is the idea that he can’t fit into the world around him. This facilitates lots of great physical comedy but also the incredibly sad nostalgic sentiment that the time of old-school entertainers is over. The Illusionist is a wonderful and a fitting tribute to the great Jacques Tati.

[EDIT 18/8/2011: Read a full review of The Illusionist]

I went to see Welcome to the Rileys mainly because of James Gandolfini and he certainly gives a fine performance as a man who is still coming to terms with the death of his teenage daughter. He befriends and takes is upon himself to look after an underage stripper played by Kristen Stewart, in a role even grittier than the one she played in The Runaways. When Melissa Leo’s character enters the narrative more substantially, the film gets even more interesting as it explores the situation of a middle-class America couple wanting to ‘save’ an underprivileged teenager. Welcome to the Rileys has some similarities to The Blind Side, as both films explore a similar scenario, but Welcome to the Rileys is more complex, less conservative, less offensive and an overall far superior film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Informant! (2009)

3 December 2009

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon)

The Informant! opens with a distinctively retro feel: the font used in the titles; the soft focus, slightly over lit and orange toned cinematography; the overblown spy film music by legendary film and stage composer Marvin Hamlisch and the close-ups on old-school recording devices all evoke Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 surveillance classic The Conversation. It then comes as somewhat of a surprise to learn that The Informant! is set during the early to mid 1990s. Not only does this retro style remind us of how much has changed since the still fairly recent digital revolution but it also creates a slightly over-the-top paranoid mood, which was a characteristic of Cold War themed 1970s cinema. This mood then contrasts beautifully with the very droll, borderline ridiculous, based-on-a-true-story narrative about a corporate whistle blower who worked with the FBI to expose his company’s price-fixing practices.

The whistle-blower is Mark Whitacre and he is played brilliantly by Matt Damon. Whitacre is a truly bizarre character who on the surface seems like an endearingly simple and naive company man but is also somebody with very ambiguous motives. Damon’s voiceovers throughout the film cue the audience into Whitacre’s thought process and very quickly it becomes clear that he has an incredibly active mind that is always going off on strange tangents. Whitacre may be nodding his head in agreement during an important meeting but in his mind he is musing over the way polar bears try to hide themselves. The results are frequently funny but there is a sense throughout The Informant! that something is just not right with Whitacre. Indeed, later in the film it becomes apparent that he is a completely unreliable narrator who not only constantly deceives the audience and the other characters, but also himself.

After presumably finishing up with the Ocean’s Eleven films in 2007, Steven Soderbergh made the two-part Che film in 2008 and now The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! in 2009. The price of being so prolific is that inevitably the quality of the films does suffer. While The Informant! is an improvement on the single-idea experimental film The Girlfriend Experience it doesn’t feel as polished and tight as it could have been. It’s still an inventive film with an excellent performance by Damon and Hamlisch’s glorious over-the-top score is a real treat. Nevertheless, this strange and off-kilter corporate espionage satire never quite feels as fulfilling as it could have been.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – American Gangster (2007)

29 January 2008

Despite its grandiose title and being based on a true story, American Gangster is not the definitive American gangster film. Only half the film concerns the gangster element, although it is the classic rise to power story through boldness, cunning and strategic brutality. The other half of the film is the archetypal story of an increasingly shunned cop who overcomes the odds to dispense justice.  This aspect of American Gangster, plus its 70s New York and New Jersey urban settings, make it evoke The French Connection and Serpico more than The Godfather or Goodfellas.

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