Tuesday, December 30, 2014

American Graffiti (1973)

George Lucas did just fine with a movie "no one wanted to do."

The soon-to-be creative force behind Star Wars had a tough time lining up financing for American Graffiti: Special Edition, his ode to cruising, cars and the American teen experience in the early 1960s.

It wasn't until Francis Ford Coppola, who recently wrapped up the first Godfather film, that Lucas was able to get financing for his follow-up to THX 1138.

I love American Graffiti soundtrack - a double album set I picked up, if memory serves, at Sam the Record Man in Barrie in 1991 or 1992. If you're a fan of American rock and roll from that period - songs such as The Great Pretender (The Drifters), Runaway (Del Shannon) and Party Doll (Buddy Know), get the disc.

The movie, marking early career appearances by a slew of stars including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford and Charles Martin Smith, is OK, but not stellar.

The film is set over one night in a California community in the early 1960s. Curt (Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) leave for college the next morning. Curt is starting to doubt whether he'll head east to study. Steve can't wait to pull up stakes for greener pastures.

Curt's final night in town is largely focused on trying to track down a beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) driving a T-Bird. "I just saw a vision," he proclaims after seeing this beauty for the first time. Steve's girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Wiliams) wants her beau to stay in town and is cool to his suggestion that they should both date others while they're separated.

Terry, or The Toad (Martin Smith) is elated to finally get a car of his own to drive, at least for awhile, and enjoy the company of Debbie (Candy Clark), a fine-looking lady he meets that night.

Rounding out the high school gang is John (Paul Le Mat), the champion dragster who cruises the strip with the very young Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). He is, depending on the moment, interested or infuriated to have her along for company. He's sought out for a race by Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). Harrison, I think you're an awesome actor, but this may be the worst performance I've ever seen you give. The cowboy hat and Texas accent just don't work.

Give American Graffiti credit for centring so much action in, and around, cars. Given how much time characters talk to others while behind the wheel, it's amazing more drivers didn't drive through red lights or rear-end other vehicles.

There's some laughs, but no real drama. The cars look great. The music is fantastic, but the story is just OK.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: See if you can spot Kathleen Quinlan and Joe Spano. I couldn't.

This is the first film appearance by legendary American disc jockey Wolfman Jack.

Another beef with this film - old actors playing teens. Bo Hopkins, a gang leader, was in his early thirties when he made this film. Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams and Candy Clark were all in their mid-twenties.

Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., son of Tarzan, is billed as Badass #1.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Conversation (1974)

Harry Caul makes a good living by not asking questions about what his clients want.

Based in San Francisco, Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert, revered by others in the business for the quality of his work and the equipment he creates to do his job.

Trouble is, Caul has a conscience that is starting to interfere with his work. He's already bothered by an earlier assignment that resulted in two people being murdered.

A job to record a conversation between a young couple in a public square causes him to cross a line and get involved with what he hears.

Caul is convinced something will happen to Mark and Ann (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) if he doesn't intervene.

The stress he's facing on the job isn't helped by what's happening in his personal life.

His girlfriend, Amy (Teri Garr) is frustrated by how she little she knows about Harry's life. She appears to be a bit of a ditz, but Amy notices how Harry likes to watch her.

Another big name in the surveillance world, Bernie Moran (Allen Garfield), is eager to join forces with Harry, get access to the tools he has conjured up, while also reminding him of that earlier incident that led to lives being lost.

Harry makes a point - as Amy notes - of not letting others know about his personal life. Birthday wishes from other tenants, and signs colleagues and foes are watching him causes his life to start falling apart.

Director Francis Ford Coppola made The Conversation between the first and second Godfather films. This drama from 1974 features a much smaller world and cast of characters. Hackman stands out in a film that can be uncomfortable to watch. Harry is on the edge and The Conversation's final moments are disturbing to see.

Harrison Ford makes an early screen appearance as Martin Stett, a right-hand man to the director of, well I think it's a business. His name doesn't appear in the credits, but this veteran of other Coppola films including Apocalypse Now should be identifiable.

See this film - and give a listen to Coppola's commentary.

RATING: 9/10

The Conversation was nominated for three Academy Awards - best picture, screenplay and sound.

Elizabeth MacRae was Lou-Ann Poovie, girlfriend of Gomer Pyle, USMC.

The Conversation marks the film debut of Mark Wheeler.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Air Force One (1997)

Watching Air Force One now is a whole other story.

This thriller from director Wolfgang Petersen was released in 1997, four years before a series of terrorist attacks killed 3,000 Americans in September 2001.

It's chilling to see this fictional story set on board Air Force One, used to transport the President of the United States, when planes were used in the 9/11 attacks.

Air Force One is a good, not great, thriller with its share of implausible moments. Here's one, how could so many bullets be fired with no damage to the plane's shell or windows? Two, just how many shells are in weapons used by the American president?

The story is one Hollywood keeps exploring because it's an exciting concept. Bad guys are thwarted by a hero who evades them and mucks up their plans. Think Die Hard and Passenger 57.

But, boy, there's some whoppers in this film. How does terrorist Ivan Korshunov and his henchman get on board? They wipe out a Russian television crew and assume their identities. But how does Korshunov's thumb pass a scan test? The tight security on Air Force One really looks like a joke with such easy access for the villains.

Give marks to Air Force One for a plot with a bit of an edge. President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) rouses a crowd in Russia with his decision, not vetted with this advisers beforehand, that there will be no negotiating with terrorists. "It's your turn to be afraid," he says. This declaration follows the capture of General Alexander Radek (Jurgen Prochnow), a Russian nationalist tied to all kinds of violence. Marshall's vow is put to the test when his wife, Grace (Wendy Crewson) and daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews) are taken hostage on board Air Force One.

Marshall is supposedly safe after an escape pod is expelled from his aircraft. But, the American president is an American Vietnam veteran, not a coward. He's stayed on board, unknown to the terrorists who want him captured, and works to retake Air Force One.

Back in Washington, Marshall's cabinet tries to figure out what to do. Poor Glenn Close. As Vice President Kathryn Bennett, she doesn't look all that decisive. She's also taking flack from Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell) who's itching to have Marshall declared incapacitated so he can be removed as America's leader. This subplot really drags down the film. Dean foams at the mouth with his actions.

Oldman is a good villain, but his occasional shrieks either suggest madness or a guy who just can't contain his emotions. It strikes me as a little overblown. Korshunov continues the Hollywood villain tradition of keeping hostages alive rather than killing them to prove a point, ie. Don't mess with me and give me what I want.

There's a few laughs, mostly from Harrison Ford. William H. Macy, such a great actor, is largely wasted here as Major Caldwell.

Korshunov suggests Marshall isn't unlike Radek, opting to kill people who don't fit in with the American way. "That's what you do in the White House. You play God." Discuss.

I've ordered Passenger 57 from an Amazon associate. I haven't seen that movie in years. It'll be reviewed in early 2015. I'll be curious to see what I think of it compared to Air Force One.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Prochnow starred in what is likely Petersen's best film, Das Boot. See it if you can. Petersen has not directed a film since Poseidon in 2006. Has he retired?

Liesel Matthews appeared in just three films. Air Force One was the second. n

Wow. William H. Macy was a critic in Somewhere in Time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Great fun. Great dancing. Singin' in the Rain is a great movie.

Too bad it's taken this movie fan so many years to finally see this wonderful dance film co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

This is a must-see movie that, strangely, only garnered two Academy Award nominations - and no wins.

Singin' in the Rain gives an affectionate nod to Hollywood's silent era and the publicity machine that built up its stars, acknowledges studio politics, celebrity worship - love how the fans react to the stars arriving at a film premiere at the movie's start and how a movie can either captivate an audience's interest or send them disgusted to the exits.

It's the late 1920s in Hollywood. The first talkie, Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, is released. The stars and bosses at Monumental Pictures aren't worried - initially. Novelty. Flash in the pan. That is until Jolson's movie starts doing boffo business at the box office. Suddenly, the silent screen pairings of supposed real-life couple Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) now provoke roars of laughter from movie-goers. It doesn't help that Lamont, a beauty on the screen, has a voice that can crack glass.

Lockwood needs a Plan B, pronto, or he figures his run on the big screen is kaput. Buddy Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) and the girl he's really sweet on, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), decide to take his latest project and turn it into a musical. Lockwood can sing. He can dance. Substitute Kathy's voice for the irritating tones of Lina and all should be well.

Lina has other plans.

Kelly's dance sequence, in the rain, after he bids Kathy a good night is impressive, but so are many other scenes in this wonderful film. Check out Kelly's work with Cyd Charisse. I felt like I was in a Salvador Dali painting. Donald O'Connor's Make 'em Laugh dance. Fantastic.

There's some great dialogue too - especially between Lockwood and his supposed girl, Lina. He calls it a "cooked up romance." The sparks are real with Cathy though, despite a less-than-promising introduction.


Lockwood to Lina: "I don't like her half as much as I hate you."

Lina: "I gave an exclusive interview to every paper in town."

Nice touch at the end. Movie is shot in "Hollywood, USA."

RATING: 9/10

NOTES: Millard Mitchell is always fun to watch. Here, he's studio boss R.F. Simpson. Mitchell died in 1953 at age 50. He'd appear in two other films after Singin' in the Rain.