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Independent filmmaker Eagle Pennell received high praise when Last Night at the Alamo premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983. It was the second of the director's films set in his native Texas, pursuing his fascination of the Lone Star State's more unusual characters and locales. Each work examines the lives of people living on the edge, maybe never having quite made it yet, but still pursuing their dreams. Pennell's affection for his characters shines through the camera, revealing the beauty of people that others might brand losers.
Last Night at the Alamo's title refers to the last night at the Alamo Bar, scheduled for the wrecking ball the next day. The decrepit dive is on a Houston highway, and is blocking progress. But it is the beloved hangout of its unique clientele, who run true to type, from the trampy vamp to the local Don Juan to the bar bully.
The characterizations, such as that by Sonny Carl Davis of the suave if balding pick-up artist, are so believable that when a last-ditch effort is made to call their congressman from the bar's pay phone, the audience roots for it to succeed. However, the phone goes unanswered and the bar will be no more: just time to tell one last lie and have one last call at the Alamo.
Pennell's first film is similar in tone. The Whole Shootin' Match (1979) is the story of a couple of Texas good ol' boys, Sonny Carl Davis and Lou Perry, who try to make it big in the home gadget market, while juggling home and women troubles. The tragi-comedic dimensions of the get-rich-quick drama typifies the Pennell touch, never losing sight of the humanity and dignity of his subjects. The characters may be flawed and funny, but they are still lovable.
The recurrent theme of searching for the blue bird of happiness is evident in the 1989 film Ice House, starring Melissa Gilbert, Bo Brinkman, and Andreas Manolikakis. The waitress, oil worker, and Greek expatriate are each reaching for the stars in Hollywood. The problem is they share lives but not the same dreams. Therein lies the story's dramatic irony, which takes the viewer from the Texas oil fields to L.A. and back.
The 1994 movie Doc's Full Service is stylistically reminiscent of the Last Night at the Alamo, using an almost stage-like setting through which parade a variety of odd characters, such as Big Silly, Little Silly, and Pee Wee. Doc's is a gas station in a dusty Texas town, where people pass by not so much for gas as to gas with each other and the proprietor, Doc, played by Kevin Wiggins. He gives advice out with soda pop, but has problems of his own at home. His dream of escape comes in the form of a pulchritudinous barbecue vendor, played by Jeanette Wiggins.
Pennell dropped out of sight after Doc's Full Service, leaving his body of work behind, with audiences to hope that his 1994 film will not be his last.