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A summer night in 1962 with the radio as a backdrop becomes the focal point in the lives of four small town California teenagers as they face decisions, both immediate and long term, about the directions of their lives. Steve, wants to break up with Laurie, his devoted high school sweetheart and pursue new experiences away from home. Curt, is hesitant about going away to school and leaving the comfortable, familiar surroundings of family and friends. John, tries to maintain his "too cool for school" image as a hip guy, but can't seem to shake a nagging awareness that life is somehow passing him by. Finally, there's Terry, the nerdy wannabe trying to fit in but who still manages to screw up.. By the next morning, their lives will be changed, some only temporarily and some for a lifetime.
For more about American Graffiti and the American Graffiti Blu-ray release, see American Graffiti Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on May 12, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Director: George Lucas
Writers: Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, George Lucas
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark
» See full cast & crew
American Graffiti Blu-ray Review
Lucas indulges his nostalgia to authentic but indifferent ends...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, May 12, 2011
The first time I sat down and strapped into American Graffiti, I found my brow furrowing and my mind brewing. "It's like George Lucas just threw a couple of kids in some classic cars, drove around town, and shot, wrapped and edited whatever happened," I thought. "They're so far off script it's really beginning to show." As it turns out, that wasn't too far from the truth. With a tight shooting schedule and difficult edit, a production budget topping just $700,000 and a string of boys-will-be-boys antics courtesy of a young cast, American Graffiti was as unpredictable and unruly behind the scenes as the final cut of the film is on screen. But somewhere between the film's at-times pedestrian performances and stilted exchanges, the American Zoetrope co-founder's ode to early '60s cruiser culture takes on an invigorating life all its own. Boys struggle to become men, an oft-forgot era in American history springs to life, and indispensable songs from the likes of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and the Platters grab hold of the radio-savvy teenagers and propel them toward an uncertain future. Just don't go into Lucas' sophomore effort expecting a timeless classic.
American Graffiti tells the somewhat episodic, coming-of-age tale of four longtime friends and recent high school graduates -- blonde bombshell-smitten Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), college-bound Steve Bolander (future Happy Days mainstay Ron Howard), stiff-lipped cruiser John Milner (Paul Le Mat, Melvin and Howard) and socially inept Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith, The Untouchables) -- who drive, dance and race their way to morning over the course of a single, life-changing night in Modesto, California. Set in 1962, sandwiched snuggly between the baby boom of the '50s and the social firestorm that would soon erupt as Lyndon Johnson began expanding the scope of the Vietnam War, Lucas' film exudes nostalgia and realism. While an unmistakable yearning for simpler times bleeds through nearly every scene, the director never allows nostalgia to consume him, nor does he don rose-colored glasses. (At least none that he leaves on for very long.) His third act represents a sobering, startlingly poignant commentary on the folly and short-sightedness of youth; so much so that it casts an all-too-revealing light on everything that proceeds it. Curt and his friends may be full of hope and youthful idealism, but the moment the boys face mortality, uncertainty and looming adulthood -- no matter how brief a glimpse each one of them may be afforded -- whatever confidence they once possessed, whatever preconceived notions they might have clung to, are shaken.
Unfortunately, that same sense of purpose doesn't fuel the rest of the film. For the better part of ninety-minutes, Lucas hurries after his cast in a fit of cavalier spontaneity, shooting from the hip like an out-of-breath storm trooper. He not only takes what he's given, he doesn't bother asking them for anything more. (As Harrison Ford, Lucas' once and future gunslinger, explains it in the film's accompanying production documentary, shooting is the director's least favorite part of making a film.) The result is a string of hit-then-miss performances that showcase his young actors' inexperience more than anything else. Dreyfuss and Howard are the most invulnerable to Lucas' strange indifference, acting and reacting with the instinctual ease of the natural talents they already were, but Le Mat, Smith, Ford, Cindy Williams and Mackenzie Phillips have a bit of trouble adapting to his directorial style. While their performances aren't bad by any means, or even average, they sometimes have the wide-eyed stare of actors unaccustomed to their surroundings. In some cases, the Lucas' slice-of-life beats work wonders: Smith's bike troubles, the burst of laughter that comes after Phillips is struck by a water balloon, and Le Mat, Ford and Bo Hopkins' drinking between takes. In other cases, such on-the-fly mishaps serve as all-too-jarring reminders that Lucas' Modesto teens are little more than pen-scribbled characters adrift in an at-times purposefully aimless narrative.
But just when it all begins to take a toll, the sweet smell of nostalgia wafts out of the doors of Mel's Drive-In. Though Lucas, to his credit, keeps a firm grasp on the wheel and his '70s wits about him, his innovative use of music and silence, all-encompassing sound design, and flawless selection of '50s and '60s rock-n-roll classics is the first of many things that help the film weather its more severe storms. It's really hard to despise American Graffiti, if only because the siren songs of some of the greatest musicians and artists of the era are weaved into the fabric of Lucas' distinctly American story. His approximation of 1960s Modesto, viewed through the lens of memories near and dear to his heart, can't be praised enough either. Everything from the cars to the diners and dives ring true, and his costuming, locations and set pieces only intensify the illusion and endear the film to anyone with affection for the time period, history or culture. Thunderbirds, sock hops, greasers, Impalas, real radio broadcast excerpts... there's even an appearance by legendary radio DJ Wolfman Jack himself. American Graffiti isn't George Lucas' finest hour, nor does it feature any career-defining performances from its cast members, many of whom would go on to do bigger and better things just a few years later. But it is a milestone in independent cinema, its director's canon and its actors' lives.
American Graffiti Blu-ray, Video Quality
Oh edge enhancement and noise reduction, why do you vex me so? Universal's 1080p/VC-1 transfer would earn resounding praise from me if it weren't for the unsightly, ever-present halos, ringing and smearing that haunt its high definition presentation. Granted, it isn't the worst I've had to endure, not by any stretch of the imagination. But it is apparent and distracting, enough to single-handedly knock my score down quite a bit. I can deal with the darkness and filmic softness that comes to bear on the image; both trace back to Jan D'Alquen and Ron Eveslage's photography and the now-thirty-eight-year-old source. I can even deal with the film's occasionally muted black levels, which also lead back to the source. Lucas's early '60s palette is brimming with bold period colors, coming-of-age primaries, largely lifelike skintones (barring some muddiness) and stable contrast. But detail doesn't reveal as much as it should, even when delineation flounders and the dark of night presses in. Closeups look good, but not outstanding. Textures abound, but aren't refined. Grain permeates the picture, but cloaks ever-present noise reduction. Thankfully, artifacting, aliasing, banding, smearing and other such nonsense is nowhere to be found -- at least none that proves to be significant -- and overzealous DNR and EE are the sole stumbling blocks to be hurdled. Suffice it to say, American Graffiti has never looked better than it does here, but I strongly suspect it could look much better.
American Graffiti Blu-ray, Audio Quality
It would be a mistake to dismiss Universal's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix. At least outright. It may "only" be a two-channel track, but it's a very authentic two-channel track. And while it may seem strange to those who've never watched American Graffiti or experienced its then-groundbreaking sound design, the various background songs sound exactly as Lucas intended. Yes, a meticulously remixed 5.1 surround track could potentially make the director's desired effect that much more immersive, and yes, some additional cleanup work could possibly eliminate some glaring inconsistencies. But to do either would risk compromising the one thing that makes American Graffiti such an interesting cinematic milestone: its ahead-of-its-time, shot-from-the-hip, American Zoetrope aesthetic. Even as is, dialogue is direct and intelligible, effects are distinct (albeit thin) and the lack of LFE oomph and rear speaker support is really the only prevailing disappointment. The quality of the original elements limit the end results, sure. But I doubt those who treasure American Graffiti will expect, or even demand, much more. I, for one, was pleased. Not delighted, mind you, but pleased.
American Graffiti Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Blu-ray release of American Graffiti serves up a solid selection of special features, among them a U-Control video commentary with George Lucas, a must-see 78-minute documentary, original screen tests and more. Granted, only the newly recorded video commentary is presented in HD, but fans of the film will find their money has been well spent.
American Graffiti Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
American Graffiti shares little in common with THX 1138 (other than American Zoetrope's independent know-how) and light years away from the original Star Wars trilogy. But it certainly has its charms and holds tremendous nostalgic sway over children of the '50s and teens of the '60s. The music and production design alone make it worth watching. Like the film itself, Universal's Blu-ray release has its share of problems. Overzealous edge enhancement hinders an otherwise impressive video transfer, its DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix is faithful but inconsistent, and its supplemental package offers plenty of content... just not everything fans might be hoping for. In the end, cruisers will be satisfied, newcomers will shrug their shoulders and everyone else will probably fall somewhere in between.
American Graffiti: Other Editions
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American Graffiti Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Interview: American Graffiti Actress Candy Clark - May 16, 2011
American Graffiti took the world by storm when it was released in 1973. The film was George Lucas' first mainstream success and it also helped to launch the careers of many actors who would go on to become among that generation's biggest stars: Richard Dreyfuss, ...
• Buy Two Select Universal Blu-rays at Amazon, Get $8 Off (Expired) - May 9, 2011
Amazon is currently offering customers who purchase two select Universal Blu-ray releases $8 off their total purchase price at checkout. The deal is notable in that five of the fourteen eligible titles are upcoming releases: American Graffiti, Legend, Billy Madison, ...
• American Graffiti Blu-ray Announced - March 2, 2011
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced that it will release American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) on Blu-ray on May 31. This classic coming-of-age story, set in 1962, was the first box office hit for the maker of Star Wars. This special-edition BD ...
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