American Graffiti (1973)

American Graffiti

You just can’t stay seventeen forever. From magic hour until dawn, George Lucas’ evocation of the last night of properly being a teenager in Modesto, CA c. 1962 remains one of the most truly felt, realistically dramatised portraits of that difficult age. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is arguing with high school class president Steve (Ron Howard) in the car park of Mel’s Drive-In when he says he’s changing his mind about leaving for college in the morning. Steve breaks up with Curt’s sister and head cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams) and vests custody of his beloved wheels to Toad (Charles Martin Smith) while the oldest teen in town, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) looks on.  Music is pouring from the school hall where Herby & the Heartbeats aka Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids are performing at the back to school hop. Steve and Laurie have to pretend they’re still getting along as they dance in front of everyone. Curt spots a blonde angel (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a Thunderbird and can’t be persuaded she’s a prostitute even after phoning her. John gives little Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) a ride and she aggressively but innocently pursues her crush on him. Toad picks up Debbie (Candy Clark) in the car and she proves surprisingly sweet considering her Monroe-esque attributes. John agrees to a drag race on Paradise Road against Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) and it ends in a flame-out at dawn …  This low budget quasi-autobiographical film and tribute to hot rodding was made by George Lucas when he couldn’t get his version of Apocalypse Now off the ground. HIs college classmates Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck co-wrote his story and Richard Walter did a sexy rewrite which didn’t work for Lucas and he rewrote it all himself using his record collection as inspiration for the different sections. It wasn’t sufficiently sexy or violent enough for AIP so United Artists financed the development (whew). It looked to UA like a music montage so that was when Universal came up with the money for production. It was shot in Techniscope utilising two cinematographers in each scene to save time and money and look like widescreen 16mm. It was editor Walter Murch’s idea (after Verna Fields left the rough cut for a bigger budget movie called What’s Up Doc?) to arrange the story to Wolfman Jack’s radio show focusing on rock ‘n’ roll classics. The soundtrack budget didn’t allow for the fees demanded by Elvis’ company, RCA and it’s all curated by Kim Fowley. The songs chronicle each of the vignettes, culminating in Curt’s departure for college at the local airport. Steve stays in Modesto and the credits commence with a card telling us of what supposedly becomes of each of the four protagonists. Ironically Lucas missed his high school reunion in Modesto because of the shoot which took him to San Rafael and then Petaluma. It was done in sequence and mainly at night so the actors would look progressively more tired as the night becomes morning. Charming, cherishable, wise and funny, with a vast array of performers who became household names and starting a huge vogue for Fifties nostalgia – Rock and roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died, as one of the guys declares while rubbishing The Beach Boys. An evocative, classic, inspirational homage to guys, girls, cars and rock ‘n’ roll. What more do you want?! Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, whose Dementia 13 is on the marquee of the local cinema.

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The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King theatrical

Obnoxious NYC shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is doling out advice as per and looking forward to a part in a TV sitcom when the news mentions his name – a man was inspired by his rant against yuppies to go on a shooting spree in a restaurant and then killed himself. Jack spirals into a suicidal depression and we find him three years later working in the video store owned by his girlfriend (a fiery Mercedes Ruehl) and about to kill himself when some youthful vigilantes decide to do some street cleaning – he’s rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a Grail obsessive and homeless loner whose wife was killed in the restaurant massacre. How their lives intertwine and they both chase the objects of their affection (and each other’s obsession) while battling mental illness is the backbone of this comedy-drama-fantasy that is told in the usual robust and arresting style of Terry Gilliam, who was directing a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese. There are iconic images here – the Red Knight appearing to Parry as his hallucinations kick in, and the chase through Central Park;  the extraordinary Grand Central Station waltzing scene in which Parry meets the weird Lydia (Amanda Plummer);  Jack and Parry watching the stars. Gilliam’s own obsessions are all over this despite his not writing it, with references to the Grail (obv) and Don Quixote.  It’s all wrapped into four distinctive performances which embody oddball characters in search of a role for life in a very conventional time, with emotions riding high while personal circumstances contrive to drag them to the very pit of their being. There are some outstanding performances in small roles by Tom Waits, Michael Jeter and Kathy Najimy in a film that proves that dreams do come true.

Home Before Midnight (1979)

Home Before Midnight dvd cover.jpg

In the era of Yewtree and the fallout from the Jimmy Savile revelations, what an interesting piece of work from exploitation maestro Pete Walker this turns out to be. A sexually experienced girl Ginny (Alison Elliott) hitches a lift with successful songwriter Michael (James Aubrey) after she rows with her friend Carol about taking a lift from lorry drivers. She pretends to be studying at art college and  they have sex. She insists on getting a cab home. It isn’t until weeks into their relationship and she has met his friends and gone discoing and drinking with him that he discovers she is just 14. He breaks up with her, she is furious and persists in seeing him and he has sex with her again – and then her parents find out. Daddy (Mark Burns, who had quite the sex scene with Joan Collins in The Stud) simply cannot believe this voracious nymphet has consented to sexual intercourse (Mummy’s not so sure about her sultry daughter who looks about 30) and persuades the police that she was raped. She goes along with his version of events. The case goes to trial and the man’s life is ruined. Now, how you stand on this might be determined by the black and white issue of the age of consent (16 in England). Or how you stand on girls lying about their age and their appetite for sex with hunky men. Or how you feel about people pretending they’ve been raped in order to impress their parents. Or, how you feel about a 28 year old working class boy made very good who falls in love with a girl. (One remembers Bill Wyman and Mandy Smith…!) Considering this film’s provenance, it’s utterly lacking in sensationalism, which is a surprise. Walker, who wrote the story, started out making stag films and then graduated to sexploitation and horror. That this centres on the pop scene and DJs  is timely indeed – David ‘Diddy’ Hamilton (41 at the time…)  shows up with hot young totty and Annie Nightingale interviews the band. Walker’s career is mentioned by IQ Hunter in British Trash Cinema but is covered in its entirety up to his last known production in 1983 by Steve Chibnall’s 1998 book Making Mischief (the title comes from how Walker describes his output). This isn’t exactly his usual kitchen sink stuff – we’re well into middle class territory (bar a couple of accent slips) with a fairly liberal London household the backdrop to Ginny’s behaviour. We are left in no doubt as to her and Carol’s depth of experience although she hides her relationship with Michael from Carol as they continue to toy with schoolboys and introduce them to the ways of the flesh. Aubrey’s character is clearly not sleazy in the slightest. Their relationship is conveyed as one of consent and affection – which might now look somewhat suspect, for those watching with a politicised eye. This is what makes this a testing work. Aubrey’s bandmates include Chris Jagger and Andy Forray, who says to Ginny regarding her question on underage groupies, ‘The trick is not to ask.’ Alison Elliott hasn’t got an IMDb credit since 1984 and she had already appeared in Killer’s Moon, another Brit cult classic, from Alan Birkinshaw and she is clearly WELL over the age of consent so don’t worry about that. Debbie Linden, who plays Carol, had appeared on both Dick Emery’s and Benny Hill’s TV shows and her sex scene is the most explicit in the film. She died aged just 36. You may recognise Aubrey (it took me a while) – he was one of the boys in Lord of the Flies. And he had a key role in TV’s Bouquet of Barbed Wire and its sequel. He also acted  in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle – interestingly, Malcolm McLaren had hired Walker to do a documentary on the Sex Pistols but the band broke up before it could be made. The last film role Aubrey had before his untimely death was in Spy Game. Richard Todd (!) materialises as his QC. If you’ve never been in a courtroom you might be surprised to see him chatting about golf with the Prosecuting Counsel while awaiting the verdict but hey that’s how it rolls: all these guys are friends behind the scenes. And people lie on the stand. And their supposed predators suffer. This is really worth re-evaluating in terms of British cinema, above and beyond its cult credentials. Big up to Talking Pictures for resurrecting this.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Grosse Pointe Blank poster

This is the one where the hitman developing a conscience goes home to give romance a second shot. In fact, it’s one of the best films of the 90s. It’s a very black comedy about high school, life, killing, babies, music and all that kinda good stuff. John Cusack is Martin Blank, the troubled contract killer who’s persuaded by his assistant (played by sister Joan Cusack) to attend his 10-year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe. She says of her own, “it was as if everyone had swelled.” When he discusses it with his traumatised psychiatrist (Alan Arkin), he asks what he’s supposed to say to people there: “I killed the President of Paraguay with a fork, how have you been?” He has a job in Detroit so he can kill two birds with one stone as it were –  so decides to go home for the first time in a decade. Mom is on lithium in a home for the bewildered. His house has been taken over by a supermarket and a killer on his tail blows it up. The girl he stood up at prom (Minnie Driver) is now the local DJ and has a killer soundtrack (courtesy of Joe Strummer) but insists on bitch slapping him live on air before they can get together. And there’s another hitman, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) who has a bone to pick with him over crossing his path and wants him to join a union. Tom Jankiewicz wrote the story and did the screenplay with additions by Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis (currently on producing duty on the compelling TV drama The People Vs. OJ Simpson) and Steve Pink. There is fun to be had with the supporting cast, including Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria and in a tiny role, Jenna Elfman (where is she now?) This is one great curveball of a movie and it’s directed by George Armitage who you might recall did the terrific Miami Blues. And if there’s a message, it’s probably a bit Thomas Wolfe: yes, you can go home again, but you probably shouldn’t.