Classic Film Review: “American Graffiti” (1973) at 50 — Nostalgia as American Epic

“American Graffiti” was a culture-shifting blockbuster when it came out, a modestly-budgeted movie with a mostly-no-name cast that spawned 1950s-early-’60s nostalgia that swam against the tide that gave birth of disco and punk.

Its warmth, innocence and fun, celebrating “car culture” in the middle of an Arab Oil Embargo, gave us “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” on TV, movies from “The Buddy Holly Story” to “La Bamba” and oldies radio stations that endured well into the ’90s.

But looking at anew, 50 years after it launched the career of George Lucas, passing over its impact on the culture, you can’t help but be struck by how beautiful it is — the glossy images, indelible, quick-sketch archetypal characters, the visual and aural grandeur of it all.

“American Graffiti” is something of an American Epic.

It’s about the allure of leaving for a bigger life vs. the pull of the comforts and security of home, the celebration of youth culture and nostalgia for its rituals, an eagerness to “grow up” battling the ease of arrested development, curiosity and naivete contrasted with the first insights of worldly wisdom

Director and co-writer Lucas plainly felt bittersweet, conflicted about it all, looking back on it a mere decade after he lived through it. His film became his “Great Gatsby,” his statement on his generation, and looking back, it’s clear that as popular as his later works became, this was his masterpiece.

Lucas was recreating his rural, overwhelmingly white Modesto, California youth, serving up a sort of “Andy Griffith” past where the farm-town’s Latin populace is represented by a lone character, and the tiny number of Black residents didn’t register.

But race and a shift in the culture worked its way in, through the music and by this admission from annoying tween Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) about her favorite DJ.

“I just LOVE listening to the Wolfman! My mom won’t let me at home, because he’s a Negro.”

The four threads of the totally masculine story are firstly, the Great Romance. Ron Howard is Steve, college-bound and clumsily trying to extract himself from his steady girlfriend. Laurie (Cindy Williams) is the only girl to wear his #62 letterman’s sweater.

“Where were you in ’62?” was the movie’s poster tag-line. And Steve’s big George-Bailey-in-“It’s-a-Wonderful-Life” becision is whether he has the guts to hurt someone he loves. Howard is wonderful as the exasperated, conflicted and responsible center of the movie. Cindy Williams is here to break his and our hearts.

You Can’t Go Home Again if you Never Leave is the thread about Curt. Richard Dreyfuss is Curt, Laurie’s brother and just as college-bound as Steve. But even though Curt has no real ties holding him there, he’s conflicted about going to college way out East. He will spend this “last night” sampling the world he might be leaving behind, tempted by the mysterious blonde in the white T-Bird (Suzanne Somers), buffetted by all the people urgin him to “LEAVE.”

“We’re finally getting outta this turkey town,” Steve pleads. Besides, you don’t “wanna end up like John.”

That would be John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the Big Fish in a Small Town icon and story thread. He’s an auto mechanic, and thanks to his yellow Little Deuce Coupe, the king of the illegal drag racing subculture. Like Wooderson, the “Dazed and Confused” character he inspired, Milner never left town, still acts like a juvenile and cruises every Friday night, looking for high school girls.

In Western terms, Milner’s the fastest gun. There’s always somebody new gunning for the legend. This night, that would be hotrodded ’55 Chevy cowboy Bob Falfa, played by future superstar Harrison Ford.

Curt? In a town of hot-rods and every V-8 under the sun, Curt drives a tiny Citroen 2CV. He’s plainy too hip for this ‘burg.

And the final thread is a Princess and the Frog story. Toad (Charles Martin Smith) is the runty mascot of them all, liked by everyone, respected by few. He figures his ticket out of that pigeon-hole isn’t leaving town. It’s Steve’s generous act of leaving Toad his ’58 Chevy Impala, fuzzy dice and all, to drive and take care of while he’s in college. Toad can reinvent himself in a town that thinks it knows him.

As we’ve seen him tumble off his Vespa pulling into Mel’s Drive-in, we know he’s got the steepest hill to climb. A lot of lies and misadventures trying to impress Deb (Candy Clark) lay ahead of him on this long, late-summer night.

As the music of the era — oldies from the ’50s, pre-Beatlemania/British Invasion pop and rock of the early ’60s — weaves in and out of the soundtrack, everybody in this narrative meets, flees or embraces his or her destiny.

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BOX OFFICE: “Transformers,” “Spider-Verse” race for $55-60 million weekends

The well-past-exhaused “Transformers” franchise may have one more King of the Box Office weekend left in it, thanks to decent Thursday previews and a $25 million, all-in Friday. is projecting that — thanks to the new standard multiplier — will add up to a $58 million weekend for “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.” Reviews won’t do it any favors, but those committed to this toy-based franchise are in too deep to wake up now.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” doesn’t get to add in its Thursday numbers, it being on its second weekend. It looks like the over-rated animated comic book will still sell enough tickets to perhaps yank the prize away from the newcomer. It too, is projected to pull in $58-60, a bit better than 50% of what it managed when it opened.

The third weekend of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” remake is holding audience and heading towards a $24 million take on its third weekend. It’s cleared $200 million already, not bad for a middling film. It’s doing OK overseas, save for the more racist cultures of the Far East.

WAaaaaaaaay below that, “Boogeyman,” “Guardians/Galaxy Vol. 3” and a fast-fading “Fast X” are stacking up the finish off the top five, as nothing else of wide appeal opens on a lot of screens.

Updating this as the weekend progresses and more numbers come in.

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Netflixable? Colombian couple learns “To Love is to Grow”

A couple of things come to mind after watching writer-director Harold Trompetero’s “To Love is to Grow,” a Netflix comedy titled “Amar es Madurar” (Love is to Mature) when it premiered in South America.

The cleverest conceit in this rom-com is to have singers Helen Villegas and David de Pablos wander into the shot at key emotional moments for our two leading characters, Juan Felipe (Diego Camargo) and “Eli” (Jessica Cediel), and emote through ballads that get across these on-and-off lovers’ state of mind.

Another odd piece of the picture’s puzzle is that this movie about love and pregnancy and “maturing” ends with problems getting pregnant, but begins with an unplanned pregnancy. As Eli is on the cusp of her big break as a model, “To have it or not to have it” is the question. Her unemployed “failure” of a longtime boyfriend doesn’t want a child.

They debate this. He contends it might not be his child.

And no more is said about this as the story meanders on, through a rift in the relationship, a breakup, a wildly improbable business breakthrough and an unlikely lovers’ reunion. So SOMEbody had an abortion, and it’s never mentioned.

As choppy, disjointed and tedious as this comedy is, I wonder if it was edited down for North American Netflix.

In any event, what’s streaming here now has a little bit of mugging for the camera and colorless bits where 40something Juan Felipe shows how immature he is — envisioning himself as a soccer star, dressing up as a ’40s movie private eye (something like that) to “spy” on Eli, whom he is sure cheated on him to get pregant.

But again, forget about that “38 weeks” pregnancy. Because the screenplay does.

Juan Felipe has a more mature friend (Julian Caicedo) to confide in. Eli has her baby-mad pal Cami (Judith Segura) as a sounding board. But those convesations (in Spanish with English subtitles) don’t produce laughs any more than hapless Juan Felipe’s efforts to “win her back,” or them both realizing they cannot visit China because they’re told there are “too many people” by a Chinese customs agent who won’t admit them.

There’s one serious chat about the things one has to give up when a child enters the picture, an abrupt -design-your-own-t-shirt app success our hero, a “go to Europe and become a star model” interval for our heroine.

I was at a loss as to how all this ever fit together into something meant to entertain or at least make sense as a narrative.

But every so often, the former child-singer winner of Colombia’s version of “The Voice,” Helen Villegas, belts one out and David de Pablos croons away his heartache.

So that’s something. Sort of.

Rating: TV-14, sexual situations and humor

Cast:Diego Camargo, Jessica Cediel, Judith Segura, Julian Caicedo and Ana María Arango, with singers Helen Villegas and David De Pablos.

Credits: Directed by Harold Trompetero, scripted by Harold Trompetero and Paula Torres. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:28

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Movie Preview: A raunchy throwback High School Party Comedy — “The Crusades”

This can’t have cost a lot, but there’s an anarchic energy to this trailer that suggests it could suck, or find its way to a few outlandish laughs.

Two high schools forced to merge, a “last weekend,” sex, drugs, brawls and binge drinking, before the inevitable happens.

Yes, there’s a Pankow in it. And a Turturro. No, not the ones you think.

July 7.

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Movie Review: A poetic Med Student falls hard for those “Montréal Girls”

“Montréal Girls” is a sharply-observed, sympathetically-scripted coming-of-age story about a Middle Eastern med student who has his horizons broadened and his heart broken by the title characters, the gorgeous bilingual young women of the capital of French Canada.

What director Patricia Chica and her co-wroter Kamal John Iksander “sharply-observe” may be mostly cliches of the genre, the tropes of a tale whose lead is in med school but whose heart is in poetry. But that familiarity can be a sort of cinematic comfort food, like the nostalgia for punk “scene” that inspires this young man’s “coming of age.”

Ramy has his ears and eyes opened by the city’s punk nightlife and the wild children who still populate it. And his heartbreak is as predictable as the warning Ramy, affectingly played by Hakim Brahimi, gets from his Arabic punk-rocker cousin (Jade Hassouné).

“Yaz is a lesson you don’t want to learn!”

Yaz is Yasmina (Sana Asad), an exotic, raven-haired music promoter, a goddess from the same corner of the world that Ramy came from and a muse in the making. Naturally, the aspiring poet meets her after getting advice from the pretentious but popular French-Canadian street poet (Guillaume Rodrigue) who bills himself as “Phenix.”

“Go into the dark void, have your soul crushed...then rise again!”

Dude’s got to get his heart shattered by a fickle, faithless woman in order to BE a poet. Everybody knows that.

Moving in with his uncle (Manuel Tadros) to go to school has the side effect of falling into cousin Tamer’s punk world. That’s where Ramy meets the flirtatious blonde photographer Desiree (Jasmina Parent). And through her, he falls under the spell of the alluring Yaz, given the haughty confidence and world weariness of the beautiful and “experienced” by Asad.

The film’s opening act is its most arresting. Ramy dips into this world, a straight-arrow who keeps video of a last conversation he had with his dying mother because somtimes flashbacks aren’t enough to remind him or us why he’s in med school. Next thing he knows, he’s left the club, headed for a threesome, sampling booze, drugs, punk and cigarettes, and creating poetic twaddle for that day when he’ll buy a black stocking cap (like every screen “poet” of recent vintage) and recite his work publicly.

“Beyond the black velvet futility, like glimmering watchers in the distant cosmos, the signal fires from your eyes arrive, burning like a dozen stars after a journey of lights years to ignite the heart’s lantern.”

Well, what Montréal Girl wouldn’t swoon over that? Maybe after Ramy’s learned French it’ll play better.

The dialogue has just enough snap to register — “That girl’s like Chiclets. Sweet on the outside, but she’ll stick to you like bubblegum.”

And the familiar, easily-guessed plot points and story beats entertain just enough to compensate for how unchallenging and unsurprising most of this is. Whatever one thinks of poets, movies about poets are always a tad on the pretentious, tin-eared side.

Rating: unrated, substance abuse, fisticuffs, sex, profanity

Cast: Hakim Brahimi, Jasmina Parent, Sana Asad, Jade Hassouné, Manuel Tadros and Chadi Alhelou

Credits: Directed by Patricia Chica, scripted by Patricia Chica and Kamal John Iskander. A Level 33 release.

Running time: 1:34

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Netflixable? New Parents experience the horrors of “The Wonder Weeks”

Every generation in the history of the Western World figures it’s the one that has mastered bringing up babies, that the difficulties it tackles are “new” and not as old as time itself.

And there’s always a raft of movies and TV series that reflect this, each introducing the new wrinkles to this process that the modern world has caused — “Baby Boom” to “Parenthood,” “thirtysomething” to “Kramer vs. Kramer” and on and on it goes.

“The Wonder Weeks” is a Dutch dramedy that follows three couples through the minefield of modern problems. They’re coping with traditions and inlaws from a different culture, the rights and place of a biological father with regards to the kids he fathered for a lesbian couple, and a two-career marriage struggling to care for a baby during a “boom” caused by “everybody” getting pregnant during the COVID lockdown, which strains even a nanny state’s childcare system.

The film has little in the way of “edge,” a few lighter moments, some eyebrow-raising judgements and the hopeful tone of a tale set in a recently-diversified but always modern culture, that “We’ll figure this out” Dutch pluck.

Titled “Oei, ik groei!” in The Netherlands (and possibly 20 minutes longer when it premiered there), “Wonder Weeks” introduces us to Anne (Sallie Harmsen) as she’s grimacing through childbirth and threatening her clueless husband Barry (Soy Kroon) for videotaping it.

But on getting home, they run afoul of the nurse/social worker who nags them about their “fat baby” and insults/guilts them because little Mia “hasn’t rolled-over-yet.” They can find no vacancy in their local daycares, and Barry quickly proves to be even more tone deaf as he slacks-off taking turns when the baby awakens in the night and thinks nothing of leaving partner-track lawyer Anne holding the bag, and the bottle.

Ilse (Yolanthe Cabau) didn’t marry her Moroccan mate Sabri (Iliass Ojja), something that irks his “traditional” mother. And apparently they didn’t have the circumcision and circumcision ceremony argument before the little boy was born. There’s a party involved? All his relatives will come over for an extended visit in the middle of the most stressful months of their lives? There’s a sheep in the tub, a special “guest” for the party?

Roos (Sarah Chronis) has her second baby with bossy, dictatorial Kim (Katja Schuurman) thanks to the sperm of never-grown-up Kaj (Louis Talpe). But now he’s ready to get involved with “his” kids’ lives. Kim isn’t having it.

The targets for jabbing here are mostly on-the-nose — secular vs Islamic culture clashing, a “cult” like “Moms 4 Moms” group that corners the market on childcare vacancies and trots out absurdist “Baby yoga,” “baby guru/healer,” “Mommy self-care” fads, for a profit.

And then there’s the marriage neglected because of work and a new baby and the temptations of a nanny.

The men are generally presented in an unfavorable, uncommunicative, abdicate responsibilities light. One member of the stereotypical lesbian couple has to be the “ball breaker” (A “Friends,” era rule.) and the Muslims are annoying, inflexible primitives.

All these stereotypes and all this new parent/different culture/gender “judging,” and barely a laugh or original thought enters into it.

But the players are good and the situations became cliches for a reason — because millions have dealt with variations of these issues in their own child-rearing years.

No, the “problems” aren’t new. The depiction of them and attempted solutions aren’t something this generation “discovered,” and the dramedy about that non-discovery isn’t all that.

Rating: TV-MA, masturbation, profanity, poop jokes

Cast: Sallie Harmsen, Yolanthe Cabau, Katja Schuurman, Sarah Chronis, Louis Talpe, Soy Kroon and Iliass Ojja

Credits: Directed by Appie Boudellah and Aram van de Rest, scripted by Appie Boudellah, Mustafa Boudellah and Maikel Nijnuis, based on a book by Frank Plooij and Hetty van de Rijt. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:31

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Movie Review: Failure is “Elemental” in this Pixar Pic

Pixar is as entitled to a swing and a miss as any studio. But the lovely-looking miscalculation that is “Elemental” stands out on the CGI animation house’s resume as a rare swing-and-almost-completely-miss.

It’s sentimental slop with a shiny, polished sheen. The film hangs on unlikable characters almost no one will connect with, dullish voice casting, a mostly mirthless script and a squishy, pointless plot with a vague anti-prejudice/follow-your-heart/bliss messaging.

Aside from that…

Actually, there is more. Even the Pixar short, “Carl’s Date,” a can’t-miss jokey heart-tugger “Up” sequel with Carl (the late Ed Asner) accepting his first date since being widowed and getting advice from the dopy dog “Dug” with the canine-translator collar, has barely a laugh in it. It may be the most dispirited short I’ve ever seen from them.

“Elemental” is an immigrant story about two flames from Fireland who leave their storm-tossed home to face discrimination in Element City, where cloud people, waterfolk and earthy vegetation have built a utopia for themselves. But as fire is quenched by water and fire torches trees and such, foreign-speaking Burnie (Ronnie del Carmen) and Cinder (Shila Ommi) have to set up shop in a ruined house in what comes to be called Fire Town.

They sell firebaby formula (lighter fluid), coal nuggets and other delicacies and fiery (lava) drinks to their “kind.”

Everybody else they mistrust, and the feeling is mutual as “the city isn’t made with Fire People in mind.” The elevated train is basically a boat in a canal, waterfalls are a favorite architectural feature and the most popular sport, Air Ball, involves cloud people puffing around a not-fire-friendly stadium.

Burnie dreams of passing his popular shop down to daughter Ember (Leah Lewis), who seems enthusiastic but is a literal hothead. She loses her temper with annoying customers, and her tantrums are firestorms.

Imagine her fury when one such hissy fit wrecks the ancient plumbing in their building, and weepy Waterperson code inspector Wade (Get it?) shows up to shut them down. Mamoudou Athie voices this lower-level bureaucrat, who dodges Ember’s efforts to waylay him on his way to file the paperwork.

Events conspire to throw them together to solve her problem, and his — the city has a potentially-catastrophic leak somewhere in the sytem. And thrown together, they must fall in love, even though simple contact could douse out her life and she could boil him into steam without really trying.

The “love will find a way” here, meeting the potential in-laws and the like (Catherine O’Hara voices Wade’s weepy mom) isn’t very funny and never quite overcomes the nonsensical premise in play. We don’t see much of a live connection, just a hint here and there. It’s the script that forces this issue, not anything organic about the relationship.

The “Get off your lazy ash” and “Make like a stream and flow away” jokes are rare and kind of gasp their way into a screenplay that was plainly lots of workshopping away from being anything Pixar should have ever put into production.

The “Go back to Fireland,” and “Never let them water us down” racial symbolism is more of a wince than a metaphorical wake-up call. The parent company beat them to that, didn’t they? Did no one at Pixar see “Zootopia?”

There are some lovely images and fanciful design elements. But the animated “element” characters are something of a bust, too. I can’t imagine kids wanting to take anybody here home as a plush toy.

Pixar used to have the independence and the luxury of honing their scripts until the pictures made from them had every chance to be an instant classic. In recent years, that process has been disrupted, the content treadmill has taken over and hit-or-miss sequels and shlock like “Onward” and miscalculations like “Elemental” and “Turning Red” get into production without proper vetting, workshopping or rewriting.

Let’s hope “Elemental” is a misstep that isn’t repeated, and while they’re at it, that we’ve seen the last “Cars” movie, too.

Rating: PG

Cast: The voices of Leah Lewis, Mamoudou Athie, Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Catherine O’Hara.

Credits: Directed by Peter Sohn, scripted by John Hoberg, Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh. A Disney/Pixar release.

Running time: 1:43, with a short film attached

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Movie Review: Snipers start seeing things in the “Bone Cold” Winter

You’ve spent years writing and making short films, working your way towards that “feature writing and directing debut.” And then some smug critic comes along and dismisses it with a “The longer ‘Bone Cold’ goes on, the worse it gets.”

I feel your pain, writer-director Billy Hanson. Didn’t care for your movie, but there’s effort in it and an idea or three. Not really good ideas, not packaged together, but anyway.

“Bone Cold” is a low-urgency, slowfooted sniper thriller that morphs into a creature feature horrorshow with a suggestion of “PTSD” about it. The first act is passably rendered, although we’ve had lots of sniper movies and most of them were better than this. The second direction the story takes is confused and confusing, as we wonder if our triggerman is hallucinating, or if his comrade and others might share that spectral Nosferatu image he’s haunted by.

It begins with the dispassionate professionalism of a military shooter (Jonathan Stoddard) and his wiseass spotter (Matt Munroe) who figures his one-shot/no-waiting sniper is a “You only miss when you want to” guy.

But that’s in the desert of Afghanistan. And even then, CPO Jon Bryant thinks he sees his target standing after he knows he plugged him right in the head. Plainly something about the work he’s been doing gets to him, as it would most compassionate human beings.

That “Thank you for your service” business that Jon and Marco go through on every ride home in uniform only earns their mockery and Jon’s borderline contempt.

“That lady has no idea what she’s thanking us for.”

And then he’s yanked for another mission within a day or so of getting back to his wife (Jennifer Khloe) and daughter. It isn’t just the lack of decompession time that makes this job seem sketchier. An “agency” man is there at the briefing, which is off-base. The intel is limited — some anarchist trouble-maker out to prolong the (now) ongoing Russo-Ukraine hostilities.

They’ll be in the snow, in Russia proper and pretty much on their own. But when you’re a soldier you follow orders.

The mission goes wrong, and the things Jon sees and hears grow more alarming as their support team refuses to extract them until they kill the man they were sent to assasinate.

One thing I’m a stickler for in horror movies is actors giving the viewer something like a realistic reaction when something inexplicable, horrific and/or supernatural happens. Characters should have memories and trauma from what they’ve experienced, and the actors have to convey that, spilling over in every scene after the initial “This can’t be REAL” epiphany.

The director has to ensure that terror and energy carry over, take after take, shot after shot, scene after scene.

There’s little of that here. “Bone Cold” is a movie that feels perfunctory, laid-back when the characters and the viewer should be panicked, on tenterhooks and frantic to get out of a situation they’ve not been trained for.

Every careless “Somebody’s about to get shot/grabbed” moment is telegraphed, given away before the unsurprising surprise happens. Every dismissal of danger is worth an eye roll, every underreaction to wounds, seeing the impossible and getting your mind around it, undercuts the suspense and sense of jeopardy and punches a fresh hole in the film.

The later acts have more histrionics and even less believability. And the damned picture just won’t end, with attempted confrontations and explanations, high stakes moments that lose their nerve and a narrative that tries have it both ways as it wanders off the reservation.

Whatever promise the premise of stranding two snipers in the “Bone Cold” once had is frittered away as the longer this movie goes on, the worse every thing about it gets.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Jonathan Stoddard, Matt Munroe, Jennifer Khloe and Elise Greene.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Billy Hanson. A Well Go USA release.

Running time: 1:48

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Movie Preview: A Venture Brothers movie? A look at “Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon’s Heart”

The gang’s back in business next month, or so they think.

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Movie Preview: Emma Stone, Willem, Mark and Ramy and Jerrod are Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things”

Strange and bizarre and “Lobster” “Dogtooth” Yorgos Lanthimos weird.

Sept. 8.

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