Billy Elliot

Dir: Stephen Daldry, 2000. Starring: Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, Julie Walters. English. Drama.

Billy Elliot stands out as a musical, a family drama and fiercely insightful look into the sacrificial toll on striking coal miners in Northern England in 1984. Stephen Daldry's direction alternately charms and punches with equal power until you are pulling at your own hair as Billy dances out his frustration through the run down back alleys, over cobble streets and finally into a brick wall furiously, fruitlessly and against all odds.

Billy is the youngest son of a widowed coal miner with an older brother not long in the mines himself, and an invalid grandmother. Coming from the tough and tumble Elliots, eleven year old Billy is naturally enrolled in boxing at school but somehow finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet lessons. Their teacher, the no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, sees potential in Billy and encourages his newfound passion and determination not knowing that Billy has kept it a secret from his family. All the while the coal miners' strike puts constant pressure on the Elliots, backing them into financial and emotional corners. When Mrs. Wilkinson procures Billy an audition at the Royal School of Ballet Billy must battle his family for the chance to be something different. Not only from what they know but what they themselves are fighting for.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 17, 2009 5:05pm

Sunshine

Dir: Danny Boyle, 2007. Starring: C. Curtis, M. Yeoh, R. Byrne, C. Murphy, B. Wong, H. Sanada, T. Garity, C. Evans. Science-Fiction.

Danny Boyle knows how to engage you. He knows, more than most other directors, how to scoot your butt to the edge of the seat, whiten your knuckles as they grip the armrest and give you a stress headache from furrowed brows. The man just keeps pushing it higher, faster, and closer to the edge. What edge? Any edge - that's the kicker - you don't know where the edge is or where it's coming from. It could be around the corner or RIGHT THERE. Seriously, you could fall at any moment.

Sunshine is a perfect heart pounding pulse kicking, monster mouth drying example. The stakes? Only the planet and all mankind. The risk? Dying alone in space in a myriad of painfully awful ways including murder and knowing in your last moments that history died with you.

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Jessica Kaman
Feb 17, 2009 4:24pm

Waitress

Dir: Adrienne Shelly, 2007. Starring: Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines. Comedy.

It is hard to review this movie and not mention the tragic death of its writer/director Adrienne Shelly. For a young woman in the 90's she was an unsung hero, portraying women who didn't want to be beautiful, or famous or even in love. Hal Hartley used his muse to create a female Woody Allen - funny, smart and confused by her own search for the unnameable. Ms. Shelley never failed in being simply interesting while taking in strange events and strange worlds unfolding around her. She emanated compassion with a steely sense of self preservation. I missed her presence for many years and when I heard about Waitress I felt her new day was coming and long over due. The violent crime against her fills me with such anger. That her future of telling her own stories is gone fills me with pain. There is no poetry in her death but because of who she was in the history of film there is a strong reminder that women must be ever vigilant against those who would silence us.

Waitress has enough of her compassion, hilarious practicality plus delicious pies to keep any viewer satisfied. Our young heroine, Keri Russell, is less than overjoyed at finding herself pregnant by her domineering and abusive husband. She falls into an affair with her doctor and dreams of making an escape by entering a pie contest which would free her from her unhappy story. Her fellow waitresses provide touching and absolute comic genius thanks to Cheryl Hines and Shelley herself. Nathan Fillion and Jeremy Sisto are no simple caricatures as the doctor and husband and as a bonus Eddie Jemison gives a unique and slightly sociopathic performance of spontaneous poetry reading as Shelly's courting beau. However, the jewel of casting is Andy Griffith as the grumpy diner regular. What a joy to see this veteran actor have some real fun and still make us feel like he could be the Pops that would teach us how to fish.

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Jessica Kaman
Jan 27, 2009 10:37am

Lars and the Real Girl

Dir: Craig Gillespie. 2007. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, P. Schneider, K. Garner. English. Comedy.

Here it is. Weird and definitely not what anyone was expecting but the next film to grace our local cable stations every day twice a day from Thanksgiving to Christmas and beyond will be Lars and the Real Girl. That is until some billionaire tycoon buys the darn thing and only lets it play once a season in order to preserve it. Thanks for ruining Christmas, billionaire tycoon. It's a Wonderful Life aside, Lars has all the charm, pathos, and even menace of its classic predecessor. Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a goofy under achiever who has seems happy enough in his quirky solitude despite his sister-in-law's maternal pressing for more social interaction. He is liked and respected at work, in the community and has even inspired a crush by the new girl in his office.

Not until he introduces his Internet girlfriend, Bianca, a Brazilian missionary raised by nuns, do we realize his situation is more dire than that of a solitary bachelor. Bianca is a life sized doll made to order and anatomically correct. In Lars' mind she is also a real person. His delusion is complete and Gosling's performance so nuanced that her side of conversations are filled in by your own imagination. At once Lars' brother and sister-in-law seek help as Lars' fragility becomes utterly apparent. The stunning absurdity of the situation filmed with a cunning honesty and a soundtrack that plays at a love story but weaves the underlying sadness from Lars over Bianca and subsequently, the audience, makes it inevitable that we write the dialog and story between them. Disturbing? Maybe, but Lars is loved and protected by the entire community. Not since It's a Wonderful Life has a township been portrayed with such fun and affection. Lars has touched all of them somehow, if only by finally being himself in the midst of his sadness.

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Jessica Kaman
Jun 28, 2008 3:06pm

Cleo From 5 to 7

Dir/Writer: Agnes Varda. 1962. Starring: C. Marchand, A. Bourseille, D. Davray, D. Blanc, M. Legrand. French. Drama/Foreign.

What defines the feminine experience? What does it mean to live, breathe, and die as a woman? Agnes Varda questions mortality through the eyes of a beautiful young woman on the edge of success in 1960's Paris. Cleo has been to the doctor and is waiting for the diagnosis, though she's convinced it's cancer. We follow her in real time for two hours and stand as witness to the fullness and frivolousness of a life coming to terms with itself.

Death and despair compel the coquettish Cleo into existential searching meeting with friends, lovers and strangers and we see her precise steps into and out of an other's preconceived perception. Coy lover, whimpering child, precocious beauty, passionate collaborator, old friend and lovely stranger: Cleo is all of these but then so much more as you realize she is fast forwarding the journey to find herself the anchor that she desperately needs to face her death and to fight for life.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
May 31, 2008 3:13pm

August Rush

Dir: Kirsten Sheridan. 2007. Starring: F. Highmore, R. Williams, T. Howard, K. Russell, J. Rhys Meyers. English. Drama.

Family films are precious commodities. Slapstick plus smart humor have been winning combinations for many years now while the sentimental tearjerkers have taken a back seat. Lately, however there have been a few jewels emerging that are not only appropriate for young audiences but will entrance their parents as well. August Rush is a lovely music filled Orphan Annie/Oliver tale with sincere performances, intelligent, economical writing, a wonderful score and charming cinematography.

Two young and talented strangers meet and fall in love under a full moon in New York but are separated by fate and an overly controlling father the very next day. We learn that the young lady, an accomplished cellist named Lyla Novecek has become pregnant and that her star crossed lover, Louis Connelly, waits every night under the Washington Arch. After Lyla has an accident around her due date her father takes the opportunity to take the healthy newborn boy and put him up for adoption while telling Lyla that he didn't survive. Twelve years later we see the young and vibrant rock musician, Louis, has become a suit wearing businessman still stifling under a broken heart and broken dreams while Lyla is quietly teaching music without playing it herself.

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Jessica Kaman
Mar 31, 2008 5:05pm

A Room With a View

Dir: James Ivory. 1986. Starring: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day Lewis, Helena Bonham Carter. English. Drama

There has never been a more perfect film than Merchant Ivory's lush and lavish, A Room with a View. Visually it offers more than a simple view; instead there is a grandiose explosion of natural and cultural beauty traveling from the historical vistas of Florence to the opulence of the English countryside. Adapted with wit and wisdom from E.M. Forster's novel of the same name, A Room with a View explores the mingling of Britain's emerging middle class with the slowly dying aristocracy during the picturesque Edwardian Age. Similar in theme, adaptation and age to the tragically redeeming Howard's End, View tenders a gentler more fairy tale touch.

Filled with immortal performances by actors who would soon dominate the cast of truly great films for the next twenty years and counting, we are treated to study after study of the pomposity and passion in human nature. Romance, humor and a sensitivity to our frailties permeate every frame. Whether it is a bloody crime of passion between unknown but unforgettable Italians in the square, the giggling girlish adventures of two aged maidens in a foreign city, a kiss among poppies (that might just be the best kiss in cinematic history) or the heartbreaking politeness of a rejected suitor in a drawing room each moment is filled with timeless, laughable, lovable humanity.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Mar 23, 2008 3:46pm

Margot at the Wedding

Dir/Wri: Noah Baumbach. 2007. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Zane Pais. English. Comedy.

Dark and funny, this bitter little comedy comes with sharp pointy teeth and a soft underbelly. Margot at the Wedding is an intellectual smörgÃ¥sbord without overindulging in “smart” references, plot curve balls, or even winning attempts of redemption.

Margot, a married and successful writer living in Manhattan, travels by bus with her son, Claude, to her family's Long Island home for her estranged sister's wedding. We quickly learn that Margot (Nicole Kidman) is tightly wound, very smart, and incapable of not saying exactly what she's thinking even if - especially if -  it's cruel. As they arrive at the house on a short cliff by the sea we meet her mellow new age sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her fiance (Jack Black) who is sightly less than impressive. Margot can barely contain her disdain and you feel a change of air pressure within her sister's family unit which also includes her own teenage child, Ingrid, from a previous relationship. Soon, we realize that Margot's oozing destruction comes form her own life crisis and that she's really come to meet her lover, escape her own life and attempt a change in course.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Mar 5, 2008 4:21pm

Crooklyn

Dir: Spike Lee. 1994. Starring: Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, Zelda Harris, Carlton Williams. English. Black Cinema/Comedy/Drama

Crooklyn is a love letter from Spike Lee to his youth. Co-written with his sister Joie and brother Cinque, it draws from memories of their childhood growing up in Brooklyn. It is the story of the Carmichael family made up of a jazz musician father, an overworked and harried schoolteacher mother and 5 children. Seen from the eyes of ten year old Troy, the only daughter, we see the chaos and turbulent joy, frustration and sorrow of the Carmichael family. The movie plays like impressions with abrupt shifts from comedy to drama and has no political or dramatic motivation other than a look at life through the eyes of a child. Even without this the movie provides a true emotional arc and one is absorbed by the nostalgic and slightly foreign era where children are not afraid to play in the streets or confront crazy neighbors. Nobody walks around shaded by hooded sweatshirts and assuming menacing anonymity simply for their own protection. The only drug users are two ridiculous glue sniffers who are the neighborhood's sad joke.

When we follow Troy, who visits her relatives in Virginia, there is a wonderful shift of perspective as the differences in environment and behavior are cataloged and deciphered through her eyes. You can feel the strength of her mother rise to the surface as she adapts and dismisses affection and manners from her southern family. There is no arguing her demand to go home and, once there, she must draw on that strength again to see herself and her family through tragedy.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 27, 2008 3:39pm

The Wiz

Dir: Sidney Lumet. 1978. Starring: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Mabel King, Nipsey Russell. English. Musicals/Black Cinema

The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of ...

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 11, 2008 3:30pm
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