Christmas in July

Dir: Preston Sturges, 1940. Starring: Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, Raymond Walburn, Alexander Carr. Classics.

Snarky critiques of the American success story – a myth so painfully central to the national psyche – are few and far between now and they are certainly hard to imagine coming out of 1940, a time when a nation shell-shocked by the Depression still had fresh memories of being sedated by Busby Berkeley musical fantasies and stylish gangster wish fulfillment crime dramas. But writer/director Preston Sturges was too funny, clever, and probably a bit East Coast elitist to let such a sacred cow of our national mythology go unskewered.

Sometimes I think Sturges is a bit too clever for my taste. With many of his movies there is the unsavory sensation of an author laughing at his own jokes too loudly. Some of them, such as The Palm Beach Story, seem less hilarious than just smug - too many playboys in tuxedos shouting, old mustachioed men harrumping, and women in gowns winking. But Christmas in July – with its ridiculous brevity (it’s only 68 minutes long) – is a short, sharp, shock of hilarity. Really, it is. Dick Powell plays a frustrated accountant who anxiously wants to be a success in life. Though he was known first as an awe-shucks sort of song-and-dance man from various Berkeley musicals, Powell was later often cast as a cynical anti-hero in many detective roles. In this film we get a little of that coolness from his slightly sarcastic tone and weary demeanor.

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Matt Messbarger
Nov 18, 2013 4:51pm

Great Balls of Fire!

Dir: Jim McBride, 1989. Starring: Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, John Doe. Drama.

Great Balls of Fire!, the sort of tragic but really fun story of Jerry Lee Lewis, is a movie as bonkers as its hellcat hero. Lewis was a first class creep who made enough bad decisions to fill up a whole heap of country records many times over but he has more scorching Lucifer-bestowed talent than you, me, and all of our friends put together, probably. He got the biopic he deserved in this cranked up Southern exploitation romp that manages to both vilify and celebrate “the Killer” at the same time without any useless moral handwringing that would’ve sounded an insufferably false note anyway.

Dennis Quaid is a terribly wonderful, terribly underrated actor and he goes all out with his Killer. Looking like a Deep South doppelganger of Cesar Romero’s the Joker from the 1960’s Batman TV show, he’s a demonic pretty boy in a yellow suit who knows he can steal the show from anyone he’s put onstage with. He charms and infuriates all the people hitched to his star, be it Sam Phillips of Sun Records (played by the late, great Trey Wilson) or his bandmates (including John Doe from X). Alec Baldwin plays his (later to be notorious) cousin, preacher Jimmy Swaggart. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jerry Lee, from a groupie who makes off with a lock of his golden hair to his “man of God” cousin who even then was a terrible hypocrite while up there on his bully pulpit.

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Matt Messbarger
Oct 29, 2013 1:46pm

Behind the Candelabra

Dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2013. Starring: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe. Gay Cinema.

Remember when Wilco got a ton of press for having been dropped from their record label, Reprise, just as they were about to release the album that went on to be their most critically acclaimed and popular work, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? It was a story often repeated at the time as a shorthand demonstration of how sorry and dysfunctional the music industry had become. How could one of the country’s best, most innovative and respected bands get dropped as a reward for making their finest synthesis of experimental leanings and classic Americana pop song craft? The story became symbolic of how skewed the priorities had gotten within the music industry which increasingly focused on short term profits from lowest common denominator garbage.

Well, I happen to think that Behind the Candelabra has become the filmic equivalent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Every story about the film leading up to its release had to mention how no Hollywood studio would make the movie even though it was to star two of the most famous (Michael Douglas) and bankable (Matt Damon) stars working today and directed by one of the most successful and esteemed filmmakers (Soderbergh). Bankable stars; a respected, dependable filmmaker; a juicy, ridiculous story—what’s not to like? Apparently enough that only HBO would agree to make it, effectively killing the film’s chances of a theatrical release and giving one of the best, most entertaining movies of the year over to television.

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Matt Messbarger
Oct 1, 2013 6:38pm

Dirty Pretty Things

Dir: Stephen Frears, 2002. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo. Mystery/Thriller.

Who the hell is hounding you in the BMW
How the hell he find you, 147'd you
Feds gonna get you
Pull the strings on the hood
One paranoid youth blazin' thru the hood 

– M.I.A. “Galang”

In the introduction to his published screenplay of Chinatown Robert Towne considers the depressing state of contemporary cinema in a Hollywood decades removed from Chinatown and the New Hollywood of the 1970s. For him it's the overload of expository dialogue meant to move the plot along and wooden, one-dimensional quality of characters in current films that kills any suspense or drama.

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Matt Messbarger
Sep 10, 2013 8:26pm

Duel in the Sun

Dir: King Vidor, 1947. Starring: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck. Westerns.

Duel in the SunThey don’t really make ‘em like this any more. Dubbed “Lust in the Dust” by clever people of the time Duel in the Sun is a ferociously overheated western with a bad romance novel plot blown up to the scale of grand opera. The combination of terrible acting, epic scope, its goofy depiction of a lustily violent romance, and Technicolor so rich and strange it makes Texas look like Mars all work to achieve a rare kind of purity that the film exudes. Hollywood still produces expensive flops but rarely something this original and insane. It was truly the Showgirls of its day. We have star producer David O. Selznick to thank for this fantastic folly.

Selznick needed to top his previous success with Gone With the Wind. He was also determined to make his questionably talented mistress Jennifer Jones a big star. Selznick’s meddling with Duel in the Sun is legendary. He ran through directors (including Selznick himself and the inimitable Josef von Sternberg who, one would assume, would have been a perfect match for such gilded fakery), fought with his composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, and spent so much money and overstuffed his movie with so much talent – Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Herbert Marshall – that the results were going to be interesting no matter what.

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Matt Messbarger
Aug 6, 2013 9:55pm

Detropia

Dir: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, 2012. Documentaries.

Detropia PosterRecently I had to re-watch Michael Moore's muckraking sort-of masterpiece Roger & Me (1989) a film that would mark the start of Moore's ascendency to deified portly prince of the Left. Roger & Me was effective as a scathing satire of Reaganomics but also full of fabrications and inaccuracies, which were entirely unnecessary. He had a great story but, much like his lardy lad appetite for tasty sweets, he could not help himself and had to greedily embellish details to make his story that much more shocking. It was a dumb thing to do because it distracted from the important stuff his film addresses.

Still, no one doubts that Moore shined a light on important issues for an audience that could never be reached by The Nation or Mother Jones. He is probably right that professional jealousy accounts for at least some of the sour grapes that his adversaries on the left have been sucking on for some time. But I submit to you that they have a point. (Check out Manufacturing Dissent – a leftist critique of Moore – available illegally, I think, on YouTube.) For all his success it is true that he has dumbed down the discourse surrounding issues of systemic inequality embedded in a classist, white privilege-based society such as ours. He makes his films all about him and like a Leftist Charles Foster Kane he sounds paranoid and overly reactionary about anyone who dares criticize him or his methods.

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Matt Messbarger
Jul 22, 2013 1:25pm

Vito

Dir: Jeffrey Schwarz, 2011. Documentary.

Vito DVDI'll never forget seeing The Celluloid Closet, the documentary based on Vito Russo's seminal overview of LGBT representation in American film. I was 19, a college student in Lawrence, Kansas watching it in a documentary film class. It was like oxygen - for the first time I was seeing a film that confirmed gay stories and a gay sensibility had always been a part of Hollywood Cinema. You just had to know where and how to look.

Vito Russo's work as a film scholar synthesized a whole history of gay images and themes in film. The Celluloid Closet is an ecstatic celebration of such iconic gay images as Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo in Morocco and the gut-wrenching ensemble piece about life in New York for a group of gay male friends in The Boys in the Band. The movie also serves as a scathing indictment of Hollywood and its "morals" code, a system that perpetuated the false notion that homosexuals didn't exist and, if they did, they had to die by the film's end. It was sobering, educational, cathartic, and celebratory. And the man responsible was not alive to see it because he had died of AIDS years earlier.

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Matt Messbarger
Jul 9, 2013 6:21pm

Dig!

Dir: Ondi Timoner, 2004. Starring: Anton Newcombe, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, Joel Gion. Documentaries.

Dig! Movie posterDig! is a completely unreliable documentary about two rock bands who were around in the late 1990s -the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. You do not have to be fans of these bands to find this movie entertaining. I didn’t believe for a second that what I was watching was anything more than some amateur footage of two bands with a clumsy narrative about success, art, commerce and “selling out” (one of the really quaint concepts that shows you how different things are now) grafted on, but it’s worthwhile because it’s a film with some genuine characters – goofballs, sleazy good time Charlies, and actually some really good music. Part of the charm of these bands is how little they had in common with the music scene at the time.

I present a recap:

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Matt Messbarger
Jun 4, 2013 7:56pm

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Dir: Orson Welles. Starring: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders. Film Noir.

The Lady from ShanghaiA deeply weird thriller as exotically perverse as they come, The Lady from Shanghai is a solitary entry in the exclusive canon of "maritime noir." Much like The Big Sleep -- in that the plot is so utterly convoluted it becomes impossible to figure out who is double crossing whom -- yet is doesn't matter because the film succeeds as a glamorous nightmare, a proto-Lynchian exercise in atmospheric dread. It is less than a full vision of Welles's inimitable imagination because, as usual, the studio hacked away at the movie, adding corny musical cues, and soft-focus close-ups of Rita Hayworth where they didn't belong. But it mostly works because the images are so original and inspired and because Welles and Hayworth bring a genuine spark of sexual chemistry to their roles. Even when it's painful to notice the studio's inane additions to the film in compromise of Welles's artistry it's hard to regard the intense, dreamy, fragmented bits of brilliance the film is comprised of as a complete tragedy.

Welles plays Mike "Black Irish" O'hara, an "able-bodied seaman" for hire in New York. Mike's a romantic - a tough guy who writes poetry and killed a Franco spy fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He's a brooding, sexy tough guy with depth. He meets Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth), the wealthy wife of a crippled trial lawyer, Arthur Bannister, one night in Central Park. After rescuing her from an attempted gang rape in the park he is later propositioned by her husband to work on their yacht as they sail to Mexico. Mike can't say no to Elsa and soon they're sailing to Mexico. It's here where the film is most memorable as the landscape changes from a back lot version of Manhattan to actual location shooting of the ocean and a Mexican fishing village. As the characters are revealed to be more sinister the cinematography gets more and more darkly beautiful. Welles gets great things out of his cast and crew, and the result is unlike any thriller from the period. It's noir but in Welles's hands it transcends genre trappings.

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Matt Messbarger
Jun 4, 2013 7:41pm

Pitfall (1948)

Dir: Andre De Toth, 1948. Starring: Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr. Film Noir.

PitfallFor a downbeat noir as pessimistic as they come look no further than Andre De Toth's Pitfall (1948). It's a film that depicts a time often thought of as a golden age of American prosperity and nuclear family bliss and then tears our warm and fuzzy notions to pieces. After the end of WW2 the G.I. Bill changed America for the better. For the first time many more Americans would get a chance to go to college while also being able to own their own homes. People had tons of kids. Suburbia and the good life soon followed and we never really looked back. But all this peace and prosperity left some feeling trapped. Life for some became bland and predictable and if noir has taught us anything it's that a husky-voiced blonde can be as lethal as dynamite.

Dick Powell plays John Forbes, a man who seemingly has it all: an adorable son, a loving wife, a nice middle-class house, and a decent job working in insurance. But John is sullen and not terribly appreciative of how good he has it. He goes out on a call about a woman in possession of stolen goods that her incarcerated husband had given her. Lizabeth Scott, best known for her noir vixen roles, plays Mona Stevens, the girl with the loot. Forbes expects to find the kind of girl he thinks would take up with a criminal but instead sees that Mona is a victim of circumstance and never asked for the things her husband stole for her. She's also beautiful and Forbes takes the opportunity to spend the rest of the day with her, conveniently forgetting to mention to her that he's married.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Apr 24, 2013 3:23pm
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