'50s Nostalgia and '70s Paranoia

American Graffiti. George Lucas' best movie. A recollection of the end of an era--glossed over, perhaps, but that's part of

American Graffiti. George Lucas' best movie. A recollection of the end of an era--glossed over, perhaps, but that's part of the concept, and the film glistens with a dopey, wistful irony. Lucas combines shimmering, colorful, almost surreal sequences of cars drifting down "The Strip"--heads craned out car windows, bare asses pressed against glass, hoots and come-ons and dares--with plain, naturalistic, informally posed medium shots of his characters; or he sets them against neon. Underneath it all--almost without a break--rocks the music of Bill Haley and the Comets, The Platters, Buddy Holly, and everyone else, and underneath them the rasp and howl of the Wolfman. The cast reads like a list of "Who's Made It Real Big in the Last Five Years"--Ron Howard (excellent as always at doing the same goddamned thing), Cindy Williams (magnificent; the best performance in the film. I actually thought at the time that she had a promising career ahead of her as an actress. What a shame...), Richard Dreyfuss (a shallow, hammy, wise-ass punk of an actor, but he was less offensive back then, and is used marvelously here), Harrison Ford (amusing), MacKenzie Phillips (see Harrison Ford), Candy Clark and--for a few seconds, Suzanne Somers. Paul LeMat is very fine, too. A poignant ending--not the moronic "Here's What Happened To Each Guy" part--but the final shots of Dreyfuss looking out over the valley from his plane window; no music, just the hum of the plane, and that touching little irony.....

Five Easy Pieces. Bob Raphelson's depressing story of malaise and alienation, which works devastatingly well on the college audience. The big problem is the caricatures--of course we're going to be alienated when the supporting characters are psychos, ghouls, vacuous chatterboxes, intellectual snobs and snots, or vegetables with fixed, idiot smiles. Jack Nicholson plays--superlatively--a rich, formerly preppie pianist who has abandoned the family mansion--a mausoleum on an island off Washington--and gone to work for an oil company in the wilds of California, as a hardhat. Then he returns home for a visit. Raphelson gives the mansion and grounds a wonderfully icy, creepy feeling, and the whole film reeks of slick, professional cynicism. The definitive Nicholson performance--snide, disillusioned, but slightly more cerebral than usual, and his fading youthfulness (now gone) is surprisingly appealing.

Who'll Stop the Rain? Despite the nonsensical, Creedence Clearwater-derived (how do you say it? Hoool?) title, this is arguably the finest movie of the year, with barely a nod to the sentimental hokum that passes for sensitivity these days. Adapted from Robert Stone's award-winning novel about bringing Vietnam home--and with it, incidentally, two kilos of heroin. The film takes off and never lets up, sometimes reaching the point of nausea. Describing an Army campaign to murder elephants suspected of being NLF symps from helicopters, Michael Moriarty as John Converse says, "In a world where flying men hunt elephants, people will just naturally want to get high."

Fine performances from Moriarty, Tuesday Weld as Moriarty's strung-out wife, and especially from Nick Nolte as Ray Hicks, the martial arts enthusiast with a Nietzschean twist. A wonderful reading period film--"All my life I've taken shit from morons!" See it.

The Odd Couple. The film adaptation of Neil Simon's funniest and most endearing play that isn't too funny and not very endearing. Matthau is a good Oscar--he can play these roles in his rumpled sleep, but Jack Lemmon "acts" too much, and his whine has none of Randall's or Carney's dingy charm.

The Grateful Dead Movie. The odds are that everyone in the audience as well as everyone on the screen in this movie will be stoned--conditions perfect for the dose of excellent Dead concert footage that makes up the bulk of the movie. The initial animation sequence, featuring the Omar Khayyam skeleton-and-roses fellow, as well as other Dead album-cover regulars, is pretty impressive whether you're stoned or not. Afterwards, the music is presented unencumbered by the psychedelic claptrap groups like Led Zeppelin have thrown into their movies, or the self-consciousness of an "event" movie like The Last Waltz. Interviews with Deadheads fill space and add atmosphere, but most likely you'll be able to find both in the seat next to you or the air around you.

Superman. Whoo-whoo. A piece of already chewed bubble gum, out of which the producers have tried to blow a big, big, big bubble. With all the money that went into this film it should have soared, or at least floated agreeably. But the writers have crammed too much in, and the structure is lumpy and slow, devoid of suspense, toneless and horribly bland. And I'm sorry, I don't believe a man can fly--at least not in the fractured, badly edited take-offs, where the colors stink of chemicals and you can tell that any life has been squeezed out in special effects laboratories. Director Richard Donner and the late cameraman Geoffrey Unswerth provide some striking compositions (although the camerawork is far too heavy on rising and dipping crane shots), but Donner puts them together ineptly--whole sequences seem chopped up and hurried, and the images don't flow into each other. Superman is 100% studio hype; is the public so gullible that it can flock to a film because the studio says it's a hit, because Warner Brothers has the money to shove dolls, shirts, lunchboxes and ball-point pens into an already garish, mindless popular culture? John Williams has composed his worst and most blatantly derivative score, and among the actors, Brando is inexcusably wasted as Superman's father-saint, and Gene Hackman is embarrassing as the campy villain--is it possible that this once-gripping character actor has lost every drop of style he ever possessed, or was he just miscast in a role that cried out for a polished ham (a Brando, an Olivier, a George C. Scott)? Only Christopher Reeve radiates from within.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Why bother? This remake has the critics rolling their eyes, extravagantly praising it, and finding in it all sorts of social commentary about '70s paranoia. The cast is competent and the direction by Philip Kaufman is skillful if opportunistic, but this is routine horror, not science-fiction or social statement. Donald Sutherland is bloodless as the health inspector who catches on to the massive eggplants which are infesting California, and it's a relief when he finally gets and eggplant of his own and becomes one of them. It's obvious that Leonard Nimoy is one of them from the start, although he plays the automaton well enough. Jeff Goldblum turns in the only creative performance as a counter-culture angry young man who gets pissed off at Nimoy's psychiatric platitudes. Brooke Adams is nearly as uninteresting nude as she is during the rest of the movie. Whatever fear there is in this comes from predictability and inevitability, not surprise. The real surprise is the critical reaction. How ironic that so many of the critics who find in this movie a condemnation of '70s conformity are falling in line behind Pauline Kael's grossly irresponsible rave.