Horror Film Review: Twilight Zone: The Movie (dir by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller)


1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie is meant to be a tribute to the classic original anthology series.  It features four “episodes” and two wrap-around segments, with Burgess Meredith providing opening and closing narration.  Each segment is directed by a different director, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unfortunately, Twilight Zone: The Movie is a bit of a mess.  One of the episodes is brilliant.  Another one is good up until the final few minutes.  Another one is forgettable.  And then finally, one of them is next too impossible to objectively watch because of a real-life tragedy.

With a film that varies as wildly in tone and quality as Twilight Zone: The Movie, the only way to really review it is to take a segment at a time:

Something Scary (dir by John Landis)

Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd drive through the desert and discuss the old Twilight Zone TV series.  Brooks claims that the show was scary.  Aykoyd asks if Brooks wants to see something really scary.  This is short but fun.  It’s tone doesn’t really go along with the rest of the movie but …. oh well.  It made me jump.

Time Out (dir by John Landis)

Vic Morrow plays a racist named Bill Connor who, upon leaving his local bar, finds himself transported to Nazi-occupied France, the deep South, and eventually Vietnam.

How you react to this story will probably depend on how much you know about its backstory.  If you don’t know anything about the filming of this sequence, you’ll probably just think it’s a bit heavy-handed and, at times, unintentionally offensive.  Twilight Zone often explored themes of prejudice but Time Out just seems to be using racism as a gimmick.

If you do know the story of what happened while this segment was being filmed, it’s difficult to watch.  Actor Vic Morrow was killed during filming.  His death was the result of a preventable accident that occurred during a scene that was to involve Morrow saving two Vietnamese children from a helicopter attack.  The helicopter crashed, killing not only Morrow but the children as well.  It was later determined that not only were safety protocols ignored but that Landis had hired the children illegally and was paying them under the table so that he could get around the regulations governing how many hours child actors could work.  It’s a tragic story and one that will not leave you as a fan of John Landis’s, regardless of how much you like An American Werewolf in London and Animal House.

Nothing about the segment feels as if it was worth anyone dying for and, to be honest, I’m kind of amazed that it was even included in the finished film.

Kick The Can (dir by Steven Spielberg)

An old man named Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) shows up at Sunnyvale Retirement Home and encourages the residents to play a game of kick the can.  Everyone except for Mr. Conroy (Bill Quinn) eventually agrees to take part and, just as in the episode of the Twilight Zone that this segment is based on, everyone becomes young.

However, while the television show ended with the newly young residents all running off and leaving behind the one person who refused to play the game, the movie ends with everyone, with the exception of one man who apparently became a teenager istead of a kid, deciding that they would rather be old and just think young.  That really doesn’t make any damn sense but okay.

This segment is unabashedly sentimental and clearly calculated to brings tears to the eyes to the viewers.  The problem is that it’s so calculated that you end up resenting both Mr. Bloom and all the old people.  One gets the feeling that this segment is more about how we wish old people than how they actually are.  It’s very earnest and very Spielbergian but it doesn’t feel much like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

It’s A Good Life (dir by Joe Dante)

A teacher (Kathleen Quinlan) meets a young boy (Jeremy Licht) who has tremendous and frightening powers.

This is a remake of the classic Twilight Zone episode, It’s A Good Life, with the difference being that young Anthony is not holding an entire town hostage but instead just his family.  This segment was directed by Joe Dante, who turns the segment into a cartoon, both figuratively and, at one point, literally.  That’s not necessarily a complaint.  It’s certainly improvement over Spielberg’s sentimental approach to the material.  Dante also finds roles for genre vets like Kevin McCarthy, William Schallert, and Dick Miller and he provides some memorably over-the-top visuals.

The main problem with this segment is the ending, in which Anthony suddenly reveals that he’s not really that bad and just wants to be treated normally, which doesn’t make much sense.  I mean, if you want to be treated normally, maybe don’t zap your sister in a cartoon.  The teacher agrees to teach Anthony how to be a normal boy and again, what the Hell?  The original It’s A Good Life worked because, like any child, Anthony had no conception of how adults felt about him.  In the movie version, he’s suddenly wracked with guilt and it’s far less effective.  It feels like a cop out.

Still, up until that ending, It’s A Good Life worked well as a satire of the perfect American family.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (dir by George Miller)

In this remake of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, John Lithgow steps into the role that was originally played by William Shatner.  He plays a man who, while attempting to conquer his fear of flying, sees a gremlin on the wing of his airplane.  Unfortunately, he can’t get anyone else on the plane to believe him.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is the best of the four main segments.  It’s also the one that sticks closest to its source material.  Director George Miller (yes, of Mad Max fame) doesn’t try to improve on the material because he seems to understand that it works perfectly the way it is.  John Lithgow is also perfectly cast in the lead role, perfectly capturing his increasing desperation.  The one change that Miller does make is that, as opposed in the TV show, the gremlin actually seems to be taunting John Lithgow at time and it works wonderfully.  Not only is Lithgow trying to save the plane, he’s also trying to defeat a bully.

Something Scarier (dir by John Landis)

Dan Aykroyd’s back as an ambulance driver, still asking his passenger if he wants to see something really scary.  It’s an okay ending but it does kind of lessen the impact of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

 

Horror on The Lens: Where Have All The People Gone? (dir by John Llewellyn Moxey)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have a 1974 made-for-TV movie about what happens when a family comes down from the mountains and discovers that everyone’s disappeared.

“Where have all the people gone!?” is the obvious question and it’s also the title of this film.  Our own Jedadiah Leland reviewed this movie back in March and he described it as being “effectively creepy.”  I watched it with my friends in the Late Night Movie Gang a few months later and we described as being perhaps the best Peter Graves film we had seen since we watched that one where everyone was a clone.

So, after those recommendations, how can you not watch Where Have All The People Gone?

Enjoy!

Trapped (1989, directed by Fred Walton)


A man (Ben Loggins) leaves his home one day, thinks about how his life has recently gone wrong, and then goes to an unfinished office building where he kills not only the people who he considers responsible but also anyone else who gets in his way.  Trapped in the building with him and trying to survive through the night until the doors automatically unlock in the morning are the building’s manager, Mary Ann Marshall (Kathleen Quinlan), and a corporate spy who is only willing to say that May Ann should call him John Doe (Bruce Abbott).

Trapped was produced for and originally aired on the USA network and it went on to become a USA mainstay for most of the 90s.  It’s a surprisingly violent and gory for a made-for-TV film from 1989 and the nearly-empty office building is an appropriately creepy setting.  Director Fred Walton does a good job of creating and maintaining a sense of suspense and he’s helped by three excellent lead performances from Kathleen Quinlan, Bruce Abbott, and especially Ben Loggins.  Loggins is credited as simply being “The Killer” and the film keeps his motives murky.  If you pay attention, you can discover what has driven him over the edge but the film is smart enough to concentrate on the cat-and-mouse game that he plays with Quinlan and Abbott.  One thing that sets Trapped‘s Killer apart from other psycho move stalkers is that Trapped‘s Killer is ambidextrous, carrying a dagger in one hand and a baseball bat in the other, making him even more intimidating than the typical movie psycho.  Kathleen Quinlan, an underrated actress who is probably best-known for playing Tom Hanks’s wife in Apollo 13, is also a feisty and likable heroine.

Don’t let its origin as a made-for-TV film scare you off.  Trapped is a good and suspenseful thriller.

Where Have All The People Gone? (1974, directed by John Llewellyn Moxey)


Steve Anders (Peter Graves) and his teenage children, David (George O’Hanlon, Jr.) and Deborah (Kathleen Quinlan), are exploring a cave in the mountains of California when they experience a sudden earthquake.  After managing to escape from the cave and meeting a man who tells them about how there was a bright flash of light in the sky before the earthquake, the three of them come down from the mountain and discover that there does not appear to be anyone around.  Instead, where people once stood, there are now only piles of clothes and white dust.  Where have all the people gone?

As the Anders try to make their way back home to Malibu, they discover that the entire world has changed.  Towns are completely deserted and once friendly animals are now viscous and hostile.  While Steve tries to keep his children from giving up hope, he also tries to find the answer to the question, where have all the people gone?

This film, which is only a little over an hour long, was made for NBC.  Though the film’s short running time can sometimes make it feel rushed, Where Have All The People Gone? is still a effectively creepy movie from made-for-television specialist John Llewellyn Moxey.  Though it’s always difficult to accept an actor like Peter Graves as being anyone other than Peter Graves, he actually did a pretty good job playing the confused father and there are some good scenes where both of his children deal with thing in their own way.  (David refuses to get emotional.  Deborah does the opposite.  Only Steve understands the importance of mixing emotion with reason.)  When they do finally find another survivor, she’s played by Verna Bloom and the scene where they come across her sitting in her car, apparently catatonic, is really well-handled.

Though the film does eventually explain where all the people have gone, it still has an unsatisfying, open-ended ending.  It wouldn’t surprise me if this film was meant to be pilot for a potential televisions series because it ends with the promise of future adventures.  A weekly tv series would have allowed the Anders family to find more survivors and more angry animals but instead, the story ends with everyone still unsure as to what type of world they’re about to inherit.

If you’re one of those who is stuck inside right now, Were Have All The People Gone? is reasonably diverting and is available on YouTube and Prime.

Lifetime Film Review: Saving My Baby (dir by Michael Feifer)


Poor baby Lilly!

She’s only a few weeks old and her life is already all drama all the time!

First off, Lilly was born slightly premature, shortly after her mother, Sarah (Brianne Davis), was involved in a serious and suspicious auto accident.  Then, while her mother is still in a coma, her father, Travis (Jon Prescott), decides to take Lilly and run off to Palm Springs with her.  Accompanying Travis is his overprotective mother, Virginia (Kathleen Quinlan) and Jessica (Tonya Kay), who just happens to be the friend who introduced Sarah to Travis in the first place.  Speaking of just being friends, that’s what Travis swears that he and Jessica are but we all know that’s not the case.  We know this because this is a Lifetime film and it’s rare that anyone’s ever just a friend in the world of Lifetime.  Of course, Sarah’s parents and her sister object to Travis taking the baby to Palm Springs but what can they do?  He’s the father.

Of course, eventually, Sarah wakes up and she’s like, “Where’s my baby?”  When she hears that Lilly has been taken to Palm Springs, she quickly calls up Travis and demands to know what’s going on.  Travis assures Sarah that his mother is looking after Lilly and promises that they’ll return the following morning.  Sarah then hears Jessica talking in the background.

“IS JESSICA THERE!?”  Sarah asks.

Travis, not surprisingly, doesn’t have a quick answer for that.

As should already be obvious, there was a lot more to Sarah and Travis’s whirlwind romance than just love.  Unlike the attempted murder, the baby was never a part of the plan.  However, now that Lilly’s been born, Travis definitely wants to keep her.  Jessica, meanwhile, is concerned about how much Sarah and her family are willing to pay for the return of Baby Lilly….

Kidnapped children are pretty much a staple plot point when it comes to Lifetime movies.  That really shouldn’t be surprising.  The most effective Lifetime films are the ones that deal, however melodramatically, with real-life fears and what could be more scary than the thought of losing your baby?  Whereas other mothers in Lifetime kidnapping films at least get to spend some time with their child before the abduction happens, Sarah wakes up to discover that her baby has been taken to another city.  When she desperately asks her sister for information of how the baby looked before she was taken away, it’s a moment of intense emotional honesty.

Saving My Baby is a bit unique among Lifetime kidnapping films in that it actually spend more time with the kidnappers than with the family of the kidnapped.  Don’t get me wrong.  Sarah is a sympathetic character and Brianne Davis does a good job playing her but the film is far more interested in Jessica, Travis, and Virginia.  As played by Jon Pescott, Travis spend most of his screentime wearing the haunted expression of someone who knows that he’s made the biggest mistake of his life.  Not only does he have his wife angry at him but his mother won’t stop telling him that he’s a terrible father and his girlfriend keeps demanding that he get rid of both his mother and his daughter.  Kathleen Quinlan does a great jon, keeping you guessing about Virginia.  You’re never quite sure how much she knows about what Travis and Jessica are planning.  However, the film is totally stolen by Tonya Kay, who is like a force of destructive nature in the role of Jessica.  Jessica may be evil but you can’t help but sympathize with her frustration at times.  I mean, everyone around her is just so incompetent!

Saving My Baby is an entertaining Lifetime kidnapping film.  Wisely, the film eventually moves the action to Las Vegas, which is the perfect location for the movie’s melodrama.  For the film’s finale, Saving My Baby makes good use of the Nevada desert, with the desolation perfectly capturing the feeling of hopelessness that Sarah’s been feeling ever since the disappearance of her daughter.  It all leads to gunfire and tears and hopefully, a lesson learned about letting your no-good son-in-law take your granddaughter to Palm Springs.  We can only hope.

A Movie A Day #166: Warning Sign (1985, directed by Hal Barwood)


The world might end, again.

There is a laboratory in the middle of the desert.  While everyone thinks that the lab is developing pesticides, it is actually a secret government facility where the scientists have developed a chemical that will turn anyone exposed to it into a homicidal maniac.  While the scientists are celebrating the success of their project, Dr. Tom Schmidt (G.W. Bailey — yes, Captain Harris from the Police Academy movies) steps on a vial and releases the chemical.  The lab locks down and the army (led by Yaphet Kotto) arrives.  The government wants to let the scientists kill each other off but a pregnant security guard (Kathleen Quinlan) is also trapped in the lab and her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), is determined to get her out.

Warning Sign was blandly directed by Hal Barwood, a longtime associate of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  (Barwood wrote the script for Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and designed the title sequence for Lucas’s THX 1138.)  Barwood tried to take a very Spielbergian approach to Warning Sign, a mistake because successfully imitating Spielberg is easier said than done.  Replace the shark with germs and the ocean with a lab on lock down and Warning Sign is  like Jaws, without any of the suspense or humor.  Sam Waterston’s germaphobic sheriff feels like a knock off of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic police chief while Jeffrey DeMunn, as an alcoholic scientist, stands in for both Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.    With the violence and the gore kept to a minimum, this is one of the most tasteful zombie films ever made.  Just compare it to George Romero’s The Crazies (or even the remake) to see how needlessly safe Warning Sign is.

Horror Film Review: Event Horizon (dir by Paul W. S. Anderson)


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Event Horizon, a sci-fi/horror hybrid from 1997, is one of those films that starts out with a series of title cards:

“2015 First permanent colony established on moon.”

Wait … 2015?  How did I miss that?

” 2032 Commercial mining begins on Mars.”

Yay!  Only 16 more years to wait until we’re finally on Mars!

“2040 Deep space research vessel ‘Event Horizon’ launched to explore boundaries of Solar System. She disappears without trace beyond the eighth planet, Neptune. It is the worst space disaster on record.”

Wow, that sucks.  But things happen…

“2047 Now…”

Alright, let’s get this story going!

Seven years after it disappeared, the Event Horizon suddenly sends out a distress signal.  It turns out that it didn’t blow up like everyone assumed.  Instead, it’s still out in space.  The surly crew of the Lewis & Clark is called off of leave and sent on a rescue mission.  (And when I say surly, I do mean sur-ly!  Seriously, nobody on the Lewis & Clark is in a good mood … ever!)  Accompanying the crew is Dr. Weir (Sam Neill), the scientist who designed the Event Horizon.  Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) may not be happy about having Dr. Weir on his ship but, then again, Captain Miller always seems to be annoyed about something.

The Event Horizon appears to be deserted.  The walls are covered with blood.  The captain — at least it appears to be the captain — has been crucified and left on display.  Dr. Weir explains that the Event Horizon was designed to create an artificial black hole and it’s possible that the ship went into another dimension and that it may have brought something back with it.  Other crew members speculate that the Event Horizon may have accidentally been transported to Hell.  Either way, it’s not a good thing but, after the Lewis & Clark suffers some damage, the crew find themselves stranded on the Event Horizon.

Soon, the crew members are having hallucinations.  The ship’s doctor (Kathleen Quinlan) sees her son running through the ship.  Captain Miller sees the burning corpse of a friend that he had to abandon during a previous mission.  Another crewman appears to be possessed and attempts to commit suicide by opening up the airlock.  Dr. Weir has visions of his dead wife.  Things get darker and darker.  People die.  Eyes are ripped out of sockets.  A video of the original crew is found and it’s like something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.  Miller wants to blow up the Event Horizon.  Dr. Weir replies, “We are home!”

Agck!

Seriously, Event Horizon is a curious film.  I’ve seen it a few times and I have to admit that it’s never quite as good as I remembered.  If you want to get really technical about it, Event Horizon is a poorly paced film that is overly derivative of the Alien franchise and it features perhaps the worst performance of Laurence Fishburne’s career.

(Yes, even worse than his performance in Contagion…)

But, at the same time, even if I’m always somewhat disappointed with the film, Event Horizon is also a movie that stays with you.  Whatever flaws the film may have, it is genuinely scary and disturbing.  Director Paul W.S. Anderson does a good job of turning that spaceship into the ultimate floating haunted house and, even more importantly, he keeps you off-balance.  This is one of the few horror films where literally anyone can die, regardless of whether they’re top-billed or have an Oscar nomination to their name.  Whatever the evil is that has possessed the Event Horizon, it is ruthlessly and sadistically efficient.

Plus, there’s that video.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.  Anderson has complained that the studio made him cut a lot of footage out of the video but what remains is disturbing enough.  Seriously, you’ll never want to hear another Latin phrase after watching Event Horizon.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Apollo 13 (dir by Ron Howard)


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I just finished watching the TCM premiere of the 1995 Best Picture nominee, Apollo 13.  Of course, it wasn’t the first time I had seen it.  Apollo 13 is one of those films that always seems to be playing somewhere and why not?  It’s a good movie, telling a story that is all the more remarkable and inspiring for being true.  In 1970, the Apollo 13 flight to the moon was interrupted by a sudden explosion, stranding three astronauts in space.  Fighting a desperate battle against, NASA had to figure out how to bring them home.  Apollo 13 tells the story of that accident and that rescue.

There’s a scene that happens about halfway through Apollo 13.  The heavily damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft is orbiting the moon.  Originally the plan was for Apollo 13 to land on the moon but, following that explosion on the craft, those plans have been cancelled.  Inside the spacecraft, three astronauts can only stare down at the lunar surface below them.

As Commander Jim Lovell stares out the craft’s window, we suddenly see him fantasizing about what it would be like if the explosion hadn’t happened and if he actually could fulfill his dream of walking on the moon.  We watch as Lovell (and, while we know the character is Jim Lovell, we are also very much aware that he’s being played by beloved cinematic icon Tom Hanks) leaves his foot print on the lunar surface.  Lovell opens up his visor and, for a few seconds, stands there and takes in the with the vastness of space before him and making the scene all the more poignant is knowing that Tom Hanks, before he became an award-winning actor, wanted to be a astronaut just like Jim Lovell.  Then, suddenly, we snap back to the film’s reality.  Back inside the spacecraft, Lovell takes one final look at the moon and accepts that he will never get to walk upon its surface.  “I’d like to go home,” he announces.

It’s a totally earnest and unabashedly sentimental moment, one that epitomizes the film as a whole.  There is not a hint of cynicism to be found in Apollo 13.  Instead, it’s a big, old-fashioned epic, a story about a crisis and how a bunch of determined, no-nonsense professionals came together to save the day.  “Houston,” Lovell famously says at one point, “we have a problem.”  It’s a celebrated line but Apollo 13 is less about the problem and more about celebrating the men who, through their own ingenuity, solved that problem.

That Apollo 13 is a crowd-pleaser should come as no surprise.  It was directed by Ron Howard and I don’t know that Howard has ever directed a film that wasn’t designed to make audiences break into applause during the end credits.  When Howard fails, the results can be maudlin and heavy-handed.  But when he succeeds, as he does with Apollo 13, he proves that there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned, inspirational entertainment.

Of course, since Apollo 13 is a Ron Howard film, that means that Clint Howard gets a small role.  In Apollo 13, Clint shows up as a bespectacled flight engineer.  When astronaut Jack Swiggert (Kevin Bacon) mentions having forgotten to pay his taxes before going into space, Clint says, “He shouldn’t joke about that, they’ll get him.”  It’s a great line and Clint does a great job delivering it.

Apollo 13 is usually thought of as being a Tom Hanks film but actually, it’s an ensemble piece.  Every role, from the smallest to the biggest, is perfectly cast.  Not surprisingly, Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, and Ed Harris all turn in excellent performances.  But, even beyond the marquee names, Apollo 13 is full of memorable performances.  Watching it tonight, I especially noticed an actor named Loren Dean, who played a NASA engineer named John Aaron.  Dean didn’t get many lines but he was totally believable in his role.  You looked at him and you thought, “If I’m ever trapped in space, this is the guy who I want working to bring me home.”

Apollo 13 was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart.  Personally, out of the nominees, I probably would have picked Sense and Sensibility but Apollo 13 more than deserved the nomination.

Back to School #61: The Battle of Shaker Heights (dir by Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin)


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“When you’re 17, every day is war.” — Tagline of The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003)

Anyone here remember Project Greenlight?  It’s a show that used to be on HBO and Bravo, in which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would arrange for a director and screenwriter to get a chance to make their low budget feature film debuts.  The catch, of course, is that a camera crew would then follow the director as he (and all of the Greenlight “winners” were male) struggled to get the film made.  Mistakes would be made.  Money would be wasted.  Producer Chris Moore would randomly show up on set and start yelling.  In short, it was typical reality show drama with the catch being that the film itself would then be released in a theater or two.

Well, after being consigned to footnote status for the past nine years. Project Greenlight is coming back for a fourth season and a lot of people are pretty excited about it.  And why not?  I own the first two seasons of Project Greenlight on DVD and I’ve watched the third season on YouTube.  It’s a lot of fun, mostly because all of the directors, with the exception of season 3 winner John Gulager, turned out to be so incredibly inept.  (Gulager is one of the few Project Greenlight success stories — not only did his movie, Feast, come across as being made by a professional but he’s actually had a career post-Greenlight.)  It all makes for good televised drama.

However, it doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie.

Case in point: 2003’s The Battle of Shaker Heights.

The Battle of Shaker Heights is about a creepy 17 year-old named Kelly (played by the reliably creepy Shia LaBeouf).  His mother (Kathleen Quinlan) is an artist.  His father (William Sadler) is a former drug addict who, despite having been clean for 6 years, still has to deal with his son’s constant resentment.  Kelly is a high school outcast who spends all of his spare time thinking and talking about war.  Every weekend, he takes part in war reenactments.  At night, he works in a 24-hour grocery store where he doesn’t realize that he’s the object of Sarah’s (Shiri Appleby) affection.

(Why Sarah has so much affection for Kelly is a good question.  Maybe it’s the scene where he throws cans of cat food at her…)

At a reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge, Kelly meets and befriends Bart (Elden Hansen), which leads to him meeting Bart’s older sister, Tabby (Amy Smart).  Tabby is an artist, because the film isn’t imaginative enough to make her anything else.  (We’re also told that she’s a talented artist and it’s a good thing that we’re told this because otherwise, we might notice that her paintings are the type of uninspired stuff that you can buy at any county art fair.)  Kelly decides that he’s in love with Tabby but — uh oh! — Tabby’s getting married.  Naturally, she’s marrying a guy named Minor (Anson Mount).  Imagine how the film would have been different if his name had been Major.

As a film, the Battle of Shaker Heights is a bit of a mess.  It never establishes a consistent tone, the dialogue and the direction are all way too heavy-handed and on the nose, and Shia LaBeouf … well, he remains Shia LaBeouf.  In some ways, Shia is actually pretty well cast in this film.  He’s an off-putting actor playing an off-putting characters but the end of result is an off-putting film.

Of course, if you’ve seen the second season of Project Greenlight, then you know that The Battle of Shaker Heights had an incredibly troubled production.  Neither one of the film’s two directors were particularly comfortable with dealing with the more low-key human aspects of the story.  Screenwriter Erica Beeney was not happy with who was selected to direct her script and basically spent the entire production whining about it to anyone who would listen.  (Sorry, Erica — your script was one of the film’s biggest problems.  When you actually give a character a name like Minor Webber, it means you’re not trying hard enough.)  Finally, Miramax took the completed film away from the directors and re-edited it, removing all of the dramatic scenes and basically leaving a 79-minute comedic cartoon.

So, in the end, Battle of Shaker Heights is not a very good film.  But season two of Project Greenlight is a lot of fun!

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.

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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.

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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