Film Review: Left Behind: World At War (dir by Craig R. Baxley)


With the 2005 film, Left Behind: World At War, the Left Behind series enter special guest star territory.  Kirk Cameron and Brad Johnson, while still present in the film, were largely pushed to the background and Louis Gossett, Jr. and Charles Martin Smith popped up as Nicolae Carpathia’s two main adversaries.

Gossett plays President Gerald Fitzhugh.  Smith plays Vice President John Mallory.  (Speaking as someone of Irish descent, it fills me with pride to think that America will someday be led by the presidential ticket of Fitzhugh and Mallory.)  Despite the fact that Carpathia (again played by Gordon Currie) spent the previous film talking about how, under his leadership, there would be no more borders, it appears that there still are borders.  However, Carpathia has a plan to take care of that.  Mallory has discovered the plan but, right after he tells Fitzhugh about it, they’re attacked by Carpathia’s goons.  The presidential limo is blown up and with it, John Mallory.  (Poor Charles Martin Smith.)  Fitzhugh manages to escape, thanks to the help of the Tribulation Force.

It turns out that Carpathia’s latest scheme is to steal the few remaining bibles in the world, lace them with anthrax, and then distribute them back to the believers.  Gossett gets to go full action hero as he tries to stop Carpathia and good for him.  As for the other members of the Tribulation Force, Buck (Kirk Cameron) marries Chloe Steele (Janaya Stephens) and Chloe’s father, Rayford (Brad Johnson), meets his former lover, Hatti Dunham (Chelsea Noble).  Hattie is now Carpathia’s lover and is pregnant with his child.  Some members of the Tribulation Force die over the course of the film.  Buck has a moment of anger at God, which is the best scene in the film because it at least acknowledges that one can believe and still be angry.  The majority of the film, however, is Lou Gossett, Jr. wandering around with a “How did I go from winning an Oscar to appearing in this?” look on his face.

Anyway, credit where credit is due.  World at War is the most action-packed of the Left Behind films and, while it’s still definitely an evangelical film, it’s considerably less preachy than either the first Left Behind film or Tribulation Force.  World at War is pure melodrama, with a lot of plotting and evil cackling and overdone action scenes.  If you don’t want to listen to the dialogue, you can focus on just how small the film’s version of the Oval Office is.  That’s what happens when you try to a globe-spanning epic on a low budget.  Sometimes, you have to settle for a small replica of the Oval Office instead of trying for the real thing.

That’s not to say that World At War is a particularly good film.  Brad Johnson gets even less to do than in the second film and Kirk Cameron is still Kirk Cameron.  Since he lost his job at the end of Tribulation Force, we’re no longer asked to believe that Kirk Cameron’s playing a respected journalist.  Instead, Buck is now just a self-righteous evangelist and, for obvious reasons, it’s easy to believe Kirk Cameron in that role but Kirk Cameron is one of those actors who is far more likable when he’s miscast than when he’s playing himself.  Much as with Tribulation Force, World At War can’t seem to decide just how powerful Carpathia actually is.  He’s got supernatural powers and is apparently actually immortal and yet, he is often easily deceived by the simplest of ruses and is incapable of killing anyone until their usefulness to the film’s narrative has expired.

Louis Gossett, Jr. was smart enough to play a character who dies at the end of World At War, therefore freeing him from having to appear in any more Left Behind movies.  It turned out to be a moot point, however.  This was the last Left Behind film until the recent unsuccessful attempt to reboot the franchise with Nicolas Cage as Rayford Steele.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #20: The Untouchables (dir by Brian DePalma)


“Let’s do some good!” Eliot Ness shouts as he and a platoon of Chicago cops raid what they believe is a bootlegger’s warehouse.

That line right there tells you everything that you need to know about the 1987 film, The Untouchables.  In real life, Eliot Ness was known to be an honest member of law enforcement (which did make him a bit of a rarity in 1920s Chicago) but he was also considered to be something of a self-promoter, someone who tried to leverage his momentary fame into an unsuccessful political career.  In the 50s, after Ness had lost most of his money due to a series of bad investments and his own alcoholism, Ness wrote a book about his efforts to take down Al Capone in Chicago.  That book was called The Untouchables and though Ness died of a heart attack shortly before it was published, it still proved popular enough to not only rehabilitate Ness’s heroic image but also to inspire both a television series and the movie that I’m currently reviewing.

None of that is to say that Ness didn’t play a role in Al Capone’s downfall.  He did, though it’s since been argued that Ness had little to do with actual tax evasion case that led to Capone going to prison.  It’s just that, in real life, Eliot Ness was a complicated human being, one who had his flaws.  In The Untouchables, Kevin Costner plays him as a beacon of midwestern integrity, a Gary Cooper-type who has found himself in the very corrupt city of Chicago in the very corrupt decade of the 1920s.  The film version of Eliot Ness has no flaws, beyond his naive belief that everyone is as determined to “do some good” as he is.

So, The Untouchables may not be historically accurate but it’s still an entertaining film.  It’s less concerned with the reality of Eliot Ness’s life and more about the mythology that has risen up around the roaring 20s.  Everything about the film is big and operatic.  In the role of Al Capone, Robert De Niro sneers through every scene with the self-satisfaction of a tyrant looking over the kingdom that he’s just conquered.  While Costner’s Ness tells everyone to do some good, De Niro’s Capone uses a baseball bat to keep his underlings in line.  He goes to the opera and cries until he’s told that one of Ness’s men has been killed.  Then a big grin spreads out across his face.  It’s not exactly a subtle performance but then again, The Untouchables is not exactly a subtle movie.  It’s not designed to be a film that makes you think about whether or not prohibition was a good law.  Instead, everything is bigger-than-life.  It’s a film that takes place in a dream world that appears to have sprung from mix of old movies and American mythology.

In real life, Ness had ten agents working under him.  They were all selected because they were considered to be honest lawmen and they were nicknamed The Untouchables after it was announced to the press that Ness had refused a bribe from one of Capone’s men.  In the film, Ness only has three men working underneath him and they’re all recognizable types.  Sean Connery won an Oscar for playing Jmmy Malone, the crusty old beat cop who teaches Ness about the Chicago Way.  A young and incredibly hot Andy Garcia plays George Stone, the youngest of the Untouchables.  Best of all is Charles Martin Smith, cast as Oscar Wallace, a mild-mannered accountant who first suggests that Capone must be cheating on his taxes.  There’s a great scene in which the Untouchables intercept a liquor shipment on the Canadian border, all while riding horses.  Sitting on the back of his galloping horse and trying not to fall off, both Oscar Wallace and the actor playing him appear to be having the time of their lives.  For Oscar (and probably for much of the audience), it’s a fantasy come to life, a chance to “do some good.”

The Untouchables was directed by Brian DePalma and his stylish approach to the material is perfect for the film’s story.  DePalma fills the film with references to other movies, some from the gangster genre and some not.  (In one of the film’s most famous sequence, DePalma reimagines Battleship Potemkin‘s massacre on The Odessa Steps as a shoot-out between Eliot Ness and Capone’s men.)  DePalma’s kinetic style reminds us that The Untouchables is less about history and more about how we imagine history.  In reality, Capone was succeeded by Frank Nitti and The Chicago Outfit continued to thrive even in Capone’s absence.  In the film, Nitti (played by Billy Drago) brags about killing one of the Untouchables and, as a result, is tossed off the roof of a courthouse by Eliot Ness.  It’s not historically accurate but it makes for a crowd-pleasing scene.

Big, operatic, and always entertaining, The Untouchables is an offer that you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
  19. Scarface (1983)

Deep Cover (1992, directed by Bill Duke)


When Russell Stevens was 10 years old, he saw his father get gunned down while holding up a liquor store.  Now, 20 years later, Russell (Laurence Fishburne) is a cop who is so straight that he doesn’t even drink.  But because of his father’s background, a psychological profile that indicates Russell is unique suited to understand how the criminal mind works, and the fact that he has no loved ones at home, he is recruited to work undercover.  His weaselly handler, Carver (Charles Martin Smith), explains that going undercover means that Russell is going to have to become a criminal 24/7.  He can’t just do his job for 8 hours a day and then go back to his normal life at night.

With the government’s money, Russell sets himself up as a dealer, buying and selling the drugs that are destroying his community.  It does not take long before Russell meets David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), a lawyer and aspiring drug kingpin.  At first, David makes Russell as being an undercover cop but, after Russell is arrested by the righteous but clueless Detective Taft (Clarence Williams III), David changes his mind and brings Russell into the operation.  The line between being a cop and a criminal starts to blur, especially after David and Russell start to bond over their mutual dislike of their boss, Felix (Gregory Sierra).  It doesn’t take long for Russell to get in over his head.

There have been a lot of films made about undercover cops losing themselves in their new criminal identity but few take the story to its logical conclusion like Deep Cover does.  Russell may start out as a straight arrow but, by the end of the movie, he’s killed a dealer in cold blood and broken his own personal pledge to never do cocaine himself.  He also discovers that David is often a more trustworthy partner than his own colleagues in law enforcement.  Fishburne and Goldblum both give excellent, spot-on performances as Russell and David and they’re supported by an able cast of weasels and tough guys.  I especially liked Charles Martin Smith’s performance as Carver.  (When Russell asks Carver if he’s ever killed a man, Carver laughs and says that he went to Princeton “just to avoid that shit.”)  Gregory Sierra is also great in the role of Felix and I loved that, of all people, Sidney Lassick played one of Felix’s henchmen.  That’s like seeing John Fiedler play the Godfather.

One of the best crime thrillers of the 90s, Deep Cover is not only a detective film but it’s also a politically-charged look at why America’s war on drugs was doomed to failure.  No sooner does Russell get into position to catch the man behind Felix’s operation than he’s told to drop the case because the State Department thinks that the drug lord could be politically helpful to them in South America.  As Russell discovers, the War on Drugs is more interested in taking out the soldiers on the streets than the generals in charge.  While men like Carver sit in their offices and move people around like pieces on a chess board, people like Russell are left to clean up the mess afterward.

Film Review: The Hot Spot (dir by Dennis Hopper)


As befits the title, the 1990 film, The Hot Spot, is all about heat.

There’s the figurative heat that comes from a cast of characters who are obsessed with sex, lies, and murder.  There’s the literal heat that comes from a fire that the film’s “hero” sets in order to distract everyone long enough so that he can get away with robbing a bank.  And, of course, there’s the fact that the film is set in a small Texas town that appears to be the hottest place on Earth.  Every scene in the film appears to be drenched by the sun and, if the characters often seem to take their time from getting from one point to another, that’s because everyone knows better than to rush around when it’s over a hundred degrees in the shade.  As someone who has spent most of her life in Texas, I can tell you that, if nothing else, The Hot Spot captures the feel of what summer is usually like down here.   I’ve often felt that stepping outside during a Texas summer is like stepping into a wall of pure heat.  The Hot Spot takes place on the other side of that wall.

The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight.  Harry (Don Johnson) is a drifter who has just rolled into a small Texas town.  Harry’s not too bright but he’s handsome and cocky and who needs to be smart when you’ve got charm?  Harry gets a job selling used cars, though he actually aspires to be a bank robber.  Harry finds himself falling in love with Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a seemingly innocent accountant who is being blackmailed by the brutish Frank Sutton (William Sadler).  Meanwhile, Harry is also being pursued by his boss’s wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), an over-the-top femme fatale who is just as amoral as Harry but who might be a little bit smarter.  Complicating matters is that, while Harry’s trying to rob a bank, he also ends up saving a man’s life.  Only Dolly knows that Harry isn’t the hero that the rest of the town thinks he is.  She tells him that she’ll keep his secret if he does her just one little favor….

The Hot Spot was directed by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) and, from the start, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not really that interested in the film’s story.  Instead, he’s more interested in exploring the increasingly surreal world in which Harry has found himself.  The Hot Spot plays out at a languid pace, which allows Hopper to focus on his cast of small-town eccentrics.  (My particular favorite was Jack Nance as the alcoholic bank president who also doubles as the town’s volunteer fire marshal.)  The film is so hyper stylized that it’s hard not to suspect that every character — with the possible exception of Harry — understands that they’re only characters in a film noir.  For instance, is Dolly really the over-the-top femme fatale that she presents herself as being or is she just a frustrated housewife playing a role?  Is Gloria really an innocent caught up in a blackmail scheme or is she just smart enough to realize that the rules of noir requires her to appear to be Dolly’s opposite?  And is Harry being manipulated or is he allowing himself to be manipulated because, deep down, he understands that’s his destiny as a handsome but dumb drifter in a small town?  Do any of the characters really have any control over their choices and their actions or has everyone’s fate been predetermined by virtue of them being characters in a film noir?  In the end, The Hot Spot is more than just a traditional noir.  It’s also a study of why the genre has endured.

It’s a long and, at times, slow movie, one that plays out at its own peculiar pace.  As a result, some people will be bored out of their mind.  But if you can tap into the film surreal worldview and adjust to the languid style, The Hot Spot is a frequently entertaining and, at times, rather sardonic slice of Texas noir.

Film Review: A Dog’s Way Home (dir by Charles Martin Smith)


I’ll admit it right now.  I’ve never really been a dog person.

That’s the way it’s been my entire life.  According to my sisters, I was bitten by a dog when I was two years old.  Needless to say, I don’t remember that happening but that still might explain why, when I was growing up, I was scared to death of dogs.  Seriously, if I was outside and I heard a dog barking or if I saw a dog running around loose (or even on a leash), I would immediately start shaking.  It didn’t help that, for some reason, I always seemed to run into the big dogs that wanted to jump and slobber all over me.  (“Don’t be scared,” one dog owner shouted at 10 year-old me, “that’ll just make him more wild,” as if it was somehow my responsibility to keep his dog under control.)

As I grew up, I become less scared of dogs but they still definitely make me nervous.  I still cringe when listening to the barking and I still reflexively step back whenever I see a big dog anywhere near me.  Now that I know more about dogs, I have to admit that I feel a little bit guilty about not liking them more.  Knowing that dogs actually blame themselves for me not liking them is kind of heart-breaking and I have been making more of an effort to be, if nothing else, at least polite to the canines who lives in the neighborhood.  That said, I’m a cat person and I’ll always be cat person.  Cats don’t care if you like them or not nor do they blame themselves if you’re in a bad mood, which is lot less of an emotional responsibility to deal with.

With all that in mind, I have to say that I still enjoyed A Dog’s Way Home.  It’s a family film that was released last January, dealing with an adorable dog named Bella.  Bella (whose thoughts are heard courtesy of a Bryce Dallas Howard voice-over) is raised underneath an abandoned building by a cat.  (“Mother cat!” Bella shouts as the audiences goes, “Awwwwwww!”)  When the building is demolished by an unscrupulous businessman, Bella is adopted by Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King).  Lucas works at the VA and Bella is soon a hit with everyone from the patients to Lucas’s mom (Ashley Judd).  In fact, the only people who don’t love Bella are the corrupt animal control people.  They not only declare Bella to be a pit bull but they also say that it’s illegal for her to live in Denver.

In order to keep the city of Denver from putting Bella down, Lucas and his mom make plans to move to a suburb.  However, until they can move, they arrange for Bella to stay at friend’s house, 400 miles away.  Bella doesn’t understand what’s happening.  She just wants to get back home to Lucas.  And, when she hears someone utter the words “go home,” this leads to Bella attempting to do just that.  Escaping from her temporary home, Bella spends the next two years making her way to her real home.

Along the way, of course, Bella has adventures.  For instance, she discovers that humans really suck sometimes.  When a cougar is killed by hunters, Bella adopts and raises the cougar’s child.  (Bella calls her “Little Kitten” and then, after a few months pass, “Big Kitten.”)  She also discovers that sometimes, humans can be okay, like when she’s temporarily adopted by a couple who love her but who just aren’t Lucas.  And, when she’s temporarily the property of a homeless man, Bella learns about the comfort that a pet can bring to someone in need….

There’s nothing surprising about the film but it’s well-done and, like Bella itself, blessed with a genuinely sweet nature.  (I started crying about five minutes into the film and I teared up several times afterwards.)  Though the corrupt animal control officers seem like they stepped out of a bad Disney film from the 60s, the rest of the cast does a pretty good job of bringing some needed sincerity to even the most sentimental of scenes and it’s impossible not to be touched by Bella’s determination to return to Lucas.  It’s a sweet movie, one that can be enjoyed even by someone who isn’t much of a dog person.

A Movie A Day #212: Fuzz (1972, directed by Richard A. Colla)


Detective Eileen McHenry (Raquel Welch) has just been given her new assignment and she is about to find out that there is never a dull day in the 87th Precinct.  How could there be when the precinct’s top detectives are played by Burt Reynolds, Tom Skerritt, and Jack Weston?  Or when Boston’s top criminal mastermind is played by Yul Brynner?  There is always something happening in the 8th Precinct.  Someone is stealing stuff from the precinct house.  Someone else is attacking the city’s homeless.  Even worse, Brynner is assassinating public officials and will not stop until he is paid a hefty ransom!

Based on the famous 87th Precinct novels that Evan Hunter wrote under the name Ed McBain, Fuzz has more in common with Robert Altman’s MASH than The French Connection.  (Skerritt and Bert Remsen, who plays a policeman in Fuzz, were both members of Altman’s stock company.)  Much like Altman’s best-regarded films, Fuzz is an ensemble piece, one that mixes comedy with tragedy and which features several different storylines playing out at once.  Scenes of homeless men being set on fire are mixed with scenes of Reynolds and Weston going undercover as nuns.  (Of course, Burt does not shave his mustache.)  Since it was written by Hunter, the film’s script comes close to duplicating the feel of the 87th Precinct novels.  Unfortunately, Richard A. Colla was a television director and Fuzz feels more like an extended episode of Police Story or Hill Street Blues than a movie.  Unlike Altman’s best films, Fuzz‘s constantly shifting tone and the mix of comedy and drama often feels awkward.  Fortunately, Fuzz does feature good performances from Reynolds, Westin, Skerritt, and Brynner, along with a great 70s score from Dave Grusin.  Raquel Welch is never believable as cop but she’s Raquel Welch so who cares?

And Yet 6 More Reviews Of 6 More Films Lisa Saw in 2014: Art and Craft, The Book of Life, The Box Trolls, The Quiet Ones, and Vampire Academy


Art and Craft (dir by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman)

Art and Craft is a fascinating documentary about a fascinating human being.  As quickly becomes obvious, Mark A. Landis suffers from any number of mental illnesses.  However, he’s also one of the most successful art forgers in history.  While his own artwork is undistinguished, Landis is capable of perfectly imitating the work of other artists.  For 30 years, Landis would forge the work of other artists and then donate the forged paintings to museums across America.  (Since Landis never made any money off of his scam, he never technically broke any laws.)  The documentary follows Landis as he prepares for a show of his work and it features revealing interviews with both him and the people he fooled.  Ultimately, this is a film that — much like Exit Through The Gift Shop — forces us to consider just what exactly makes something a work of art.  Is it the name of the artist or is it the work itself?

The Book of Life (dir by Jorge Gutierrez)

The animated film The Book of Life was released in October and, for whatever reason, it never seemed to become quite the hit that a lot of us were expecting it to be.  However, even if I don’t think it came anywhere close to reaching the heights of producer Guillermo Del Toro’s best films, I still rather liked it.

The film tells the tale of Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) who is tricked, by Xibalba (voiced by Ron Pearlman), the ruler of the Land of the Forgotten, into believing that the love of his life, Maria (Zoe Saldana), has died.  Eager to see her again, Manolo allows himself to be bitten by a snake, which kills him.  Now trapped in the spirit world, Manolo has to find a way to return to life and be reunited with Maria.

The Book of Life is a gorgeously animated film that pays wonderful tribute to the culture and mythology of Mexico.  And it’s great for los niños!

The Boxtrolls (dir by Graham Annabelle and Anthony Stacchi)

The Book of Life was not the only animated film to not quite get the respect that it deserved in 2014.  The Boxtrolls was another perfectly charming film and, considering its dual message of tolerance and not giving into paranoia, one that more people should have seen.

Taking place in a town that’s full of stupid people who are obsessed with cheese, The Boxtrolls is a memorably dark little film from the same studio that gave us Paranorman.  The citizens of the town live in fear of the Boxtrolls, a group of creatures who live underneath the city.  Little do they understand that the Boxtrolls are actually peaceful and the only reason that they come out at night is to scavenge through trash.  The citizens of the town hire the evil Snatcher to take care of the Boxtrolls and, because of their paranoia and fear, they are soon literally slaves to the whims of Snatcher.

(Insert your own NSA surveillance analogy here.)

The Boxtrolls is a memorably subversive little film, one that makes the argument that even the ugliest of animated monsters still deserve a chance to find happiness.

Dolphin Tale 2 (dir by Charles Martin Smith)

So, as some of you may remember, I absolutely loved the first Dolphin Tale.  The sequel is not quite as good as the first film but you know what?  I saw it with my niece and she absolutely loved it and I loved watching it with her and yes, the film totally made me cry.  So, as far as I’m concerned, the film succeeded.  Winter the Dolphin appears as himself and he’s joined by Hope the Dolphin.  And both Winter and Hope give Oscar-worthy performances.

The Quiet Ones (dir by John Pogue)

Want to hear something sad?  The Quiet Ones, which is probably one of the most forgettable films to be released last year, was produced by Hammer Studios.  That’s right — the legendary British studio that produced such immortal films as Horror of Dracula — also produced The Quiet Ones, a film that could have just as easily been made by …. well, by anyone.

Borrowing multiple pages from The Conjuring, The Quiet Ones takes place in the 70s, is “based on a true story,” and features a creepy doll!  Jared Harris plays a psychiatrist who wants to prove that ghosts do not exist and that poltergeist activity is the result of telekinesis.  In order to prove his theory, he and his forgettable students isolate an orphan named Jane (Olivia Cooke) and go out of their way to upset her, hoping that she’ll lash out at them with her telekinetic abilities.  Apparently, nobody in this movie has ever watched a movie before or else they would have understood why this was a bad idea.

Anyway, The Quiet Ones feels like about a hundred other recent horror films, right down to having Sam Claflin play a student with a camera who records the entire experience.  Jared Harris is well-cast and Olivia Cooke proves that she deserves a better film but otherwise, The Quiet Ones is forgettable.

Vampire Academy (dir by Mark Waters)

Speaking of being forgettable…

Actually, Vampire Academy is not as bad as a lot of critics said.  It was one of the many YA adaptations that were released in 2014.  It deals with a bunch of teenage vampires who are attending St. Vladimer’s Academy.  When the film tries to be Twilight, it’s boring.  When the film tries to Mean Girls, it’s a lot more tolerable.  Best of all, one of the main characters is named Lissa and I like any film that features a Lisa.

But, otherwise, Vampire Academy was pretty forgettable.

Back to School #13: American Graffiti (dir by George Lucas)


Well, this is certainly intimidating.  I know I’ve said this many time before but it deserves to be repeated: it’s often a hundred times more difficult to review a great film than it is to review a merely mediocre one.  When a film fails, it’s usually easy to say why.  The acting was bad.  The directing was uninspired.  The plot didn’t make any sense.  Or maybe the film has been so overpraised that you, as a reviewer, are almost obligated to be tougher on it than you would be with any other film.  However, it’s never as easy to put into words just what exactlyit is that makes a movie great.

Take the 1973 Best Picture nominee American Graffiti for instance.  I could tell you that this is a very well-acted film and that it features an ensemble of very likable performers, many of whom subsequently went on to become stars and celebrated character actors.  Then again, you can say the same thing about countless other films.

american-graffiti-1973-03-g

I could say that director George Lucas does such a good job putting this film together that it’s hard to believe that he’s the same man who would later be responsible for all three of the Star Wars prequels.  Then again, I could also say the same thing about how odd it is that the same man who directed the entertaining Final Destination 5 was also responsible for the far less enthralling Into The Storm.

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I could tell you that the film serves as a valuable time capsule in that not only does it feature a loving recreation of small town America in the early 60s but that it’s also a chance to see what Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Charles Martin Smith all looked like when they still had hair.  But then again, I also praised The Young Graduates for being a time capsule as well.

MelsGraffiti

Let’s face it — it’s difficult to define the intangible qualities that make a film great.  Often times, it’s a case of simply knowing it when you see it.  I’ve seen American Graffiti a few times.  The last time I saw it was at a special Sunday showing at the Alamo Drafthouse.  And, on that early Sunday afternoon, the theater was packed with people who had paid for the chance to see the 40 year-old film on the big screen.  I’m 28 years old and it’s significant that, while the majority of the audience was older than me, there were quite a few people who were younger.  American Graffiti is one of those films that obviously spoke to audiences when it was first released and continues to speak to audiences today.

As I mentioned in my review of Rebel Without A Cause, films about teens tend to age quickly and, often times, one generation’s masterpiece will turn out to be a later generation’s joke.  When a film like Rebel or American Graffiti survives the test of time, it’s because the film has managed to capture a universal truth about what it means to be young and to have your entire life ahead of you.

American Graffiti takes place over the course of one long night in Modesto, California in 1962.  The film follows several different characters, the majority of whom have just graduated from high school.  What these characters all have in common is that one phase of their life has ended and a new one is about to begin.  Over the course of that one night, all of them are forced to say goodbye to their past identities and, in some instances, are forced to face their future.

Curt and the Pharoahs

For instance, there’s Curt (an amazingly young Richard Dreyfuss), a neurotic intellectual who spends the night trying to decide whether or not he actually wants to leave for college in the morning.  Complicating Curt’s decision is a mysterious blonde who mouths “I love you” at him before driving away.  While searching for her, Curt finds himself unwillingly recruited into the Pharoahs, a somewhat ludicrous small town gang that’s led by Joe (played, in hilariously clueless fashion, by Bo Hopkins.)  Curt, incidentally, is my favorite character in the film.  He’s just adorable, which admittedly is not a reaction that one often has to Richard Dreyfuss.

(Curt is also featured in one of my favorite scenes, in which he smokes a cigarette with a lecherous teacher named Mr. Wolf.)

Cindy Williams, Ron Howard, and Charles Martin Smith

Curt’s sister (Cindy Williams) is dating Steve Bolander (Ron Howard).  Steve is the former class president and, unlike Curt, he’s very excited about leaving home.  Ron Howard gives such a likable performance that it actually takes a few viewing to realize just how big of a jerk Steve really is.

Terry and Debbie

 

And then there Terry (Charles Martin Smith) who wears big glasses and has bad skin.  Terry gets to spend the night driving around in Steve’s car and manages to pick up a girl named Debbie (Candy Clark).  For Terry, this is his night to actually be somebody and what makes it all the more poignant is just how obvious it is that Terry will probably never get another chance.  Though he may not realize it, those of us watching understand that this is literally going to the be the best night of Terry’s life.

(Incidentally, much like Ron Howard, Charles Martin Smith would go on to become a film director and gave the world the amazingly sweet Dolphin Tale.)

John Milner

And finally, there’s John Milner (Paul Le Mat).  John is a little older than the other main characters.  He spends most of his time in his car, driving around and getting challenged to race.  He’s the epitome of late 50s/early 60s cool, with an attitude and a look that he obviously borrowed from James Dean and Marlon Brando.  Over the course of the night, he is forced to deal with a bratty 13 year-old stowaway (MacKenzie Phillips) and a mysterious challenger named Bob Falfa (played by a youngish Harrison Ford, who wears a cowboy hat and speaks with a country twang).

Harrison Ford in American Graffiti

The film follows these characters through the night and then, at the end of it, we get the famous epilogue where we discover that all of the male characters have pretty much ended up exactly how we thought they would.  In some cases, that’s a good thing.  And in other cases, it’s not.  It’s a good ending that’s kept from being great by the fact that none of the film’s female characters rate so much as even a mention.

So, what else can be said about American Graffiti?

It’s a great film.

Isn’t that enough?

American Graffiti

Lisa Marie Cries and Cries As She Watches A Dolphin Tale (dir. by Charles Martin Smith)


 

On Wednesday evening, Jeff and I went down to the dollar theater and we finally got around to seeing A Dolphin TaleA Dolphin Tale is one of those movies that I was really enthusiastic about seeing when it first opened in theaters but then, for whatever reason, I just never got around to seeing it.  So, I was happy to have a chance to catch it before it left theaters for a sure-to-be popular life as a video rental.  The film’s trailer led me to suspect that I would cry and cry while watching A Dolphin Tale and I was not disappointed.

This is going to be a pretty simple review because A Dolphin Tale is a pretty simple movie and that’s exactly why it’s a good movie.  The movie tells the true story of Winter, a dolphin who was horribly injured by a crab trap and who lost her tail as a result.  After almost dying, Winter manages to fight back and is soon able to swim again.  However, swimming with no tail is damaging her spine and, unless something can be done, Winter will eventually end up killing herself.  Luckily for Winter, there’s a dedicated and eccentric scientist (played by Morgan Freeman, who can make any line sound like an edict from God) who dedicates himself to building her a prosthetic tail.  Will Freeman be able to get the tail built before Winter has to be put down and, more importantly, will Winter be able to learn how to use the new tail before her new home, the Clearwater Marine Hospital, runs out of money and is sold off to a businessman who wants to turn the place into a hotel?

If you don’t already know the answer then you’ve never seen a movie before.  Yes, A Dolphin’s Tale is predictable and yes, it’s not very subtle about manipulating the audience’s emotions but I don’t care.  The movie is just so sincere and the film’s story is just so inspiring that I had no problem allowing myself to be manipulated.    This is a movie that has a good heart and it’s obvious that for director Smith and for most of the cast (which includes Ashley Judd, Harry Connick, Jr., and Nathan Gamble, along with Freeman) that this film really was a labor of love.  The true star of the film, however, is Winter, who plays herself in this film.

The film itself is in 3-D and yes, there’s about a hundred shots of Winter swimming straight at the camera that were obviously included just because the film was in 3-D but who cares?  Yes, it’s manipulative but it works.  At the film’s end, we see documentary footage of Winter actually being rescued and cared for by the real people who we’ve just seen recreated in the film.  Not a single one of them looks as good as Harry Connick, Jr. or quite as wise as Morgan Freeman but they all look like heroes to me.

Seriously, if this film doesn’t touch you then you have no heart and you are quite possibly a member of the walking dead.