Prodigal Sons

Dir: Kimberly Reed, 2008. Starring Kimberly Reed, Carol McKerrow, Marc McKerrow. Gay Cinema.

Prodigal Sons tells the too-strange-to-be-fiction story of a family from Montana with some really fascinating problems. Daughter Kimberly used to be a man named Paul who was the star quarterback of his high school football team. Paul was popular and dated girls but he never felt comfortable in his skin. He moved away to San Francisco and, in the process of figuring out his gender identity, he decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Paul became Kimberly and decades beyond her former life she is, in many ways, a completely different person.

Now living in New York, working in media, and in a long-term lesbian relationship Kimberly decides to go back to Montana for her high school reunion. She makes a documentary about her trip and the reaction of her former schoolmates to her new identity. She will also reunite with her estranged brother, Marc, who was in the same graduating class. Marc has an interesting story in his own right, though the fascinating details don’t emerge until midway through the film. Marc is Kimberly’s adopted brother and though he is essentially a good person he is also a very troubled man with a violent temper and Kimberly is nervous about what it will be like to see him.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
May 26, 2011 1:04pm

Beyond the Sea

Dir: Kevin Spacey, 2004. Starring: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman. Musicals.

Kevin Spacey is a weird case. He used to be so cool, so mysterious. Everyone had a theory about him. Though he had been kicking around the fringes of the film and television industry for years it wasn’t until his succession of three brilliant roles —as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995), John Doe in Se7en (1995), and Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential (1997)—that he seemed to arrive as a fully formed movie star. Any one of those show stealing roles would have made any actor famous but to claim all three and make each performance so memorably iconic is a tribute to Spacey’s versatility as a performer and to his incredible knack for knowing how to sustain an audience’s interest without giving too much away.

But fame, though he clearly sought it, began to intrude on his privacy. His coy question dodging as to whether he was gay or not seemed par for the course ten years ago when closeted celebrities insisted they weren’t closeted while refusing to just say they were gay (think Rosie O’Donnell and Ricky Martin). But Spacey, whose golden years are well past him at this point, insisted again only recently that he shouldn’t have to disclose his sexual orientation—an act of self-censorship no heterosexual would ever dream of having to play along with. Would anyone really care one way or the other at this point? It reminds me of the Onion article about the “Area Man Who Thinks He’s Still in The Closet.”

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Apr 27, 2011 1:04pm

The Brady Bunch Movie

Dir: Betty Thomas, 1995. Starring Shelley Long, Gary Cole, Christine Taylor. Comedy.

When I lived in Chicago there was this Johnny Rockets in the city’s “Gold Coast” area that had a painted mural near the entrance depicting an assortment of yuppie types seated at the diner’s counter enjoying milkshakes and hamburgers. I always thought it was kind of fascinating because the mural had clearly been painted sometime in the 1980s. One of the women depicted in the mural had kind of a big perm hairdo and her young son had on a sweater with an Esprit logo on it. I assume the mural was painted to showcase how a cross-section of then-modern society would have tons of fun hanging out in a fake '50s diner. Once the cultural attributes endemic to the 1980s started to look dated it gave that Johnny Rockets a doubly anachronistic atmosphere.

The Brady Bunch Movie has a similarly surreal kind of effect because the whole conceit behind the film is that standard comedy trope of the fish-out-of-water scenario wherein the Bradys and their perversely naive and dorky ways are transplanted from the 1970s sitcom world – where they belong – to the cynical world of mid-1990s Southern California. The film manages to serve as both a time capsule of '70s cheese and '90s-ness. In an ironic twist, the way the film depicts the “gritty” '90s as chock full of grungy attitude actually seems almost as quaint as the Bradys.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Apr 11, 2011 7:15pm

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Dir: Richard Brooks, 1958. Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives. Classics.

I've seen other movies with Elizabeth Taylor in them. She is particularly wonderful as a sickly child serenely accepting her impending death in the Orson Welles version of Jayne Eyre. Still, her performance as Maggie in Tennessee Williams's steamy Southern melodrama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  is what I'll always remember most vividly.

It was the fifth Tennessee Williams play to be adapted for the movies and is perhaps the most famous example of his hot-and-bothered Southern style being given the celluloid treatment. Paul Newman plays Brick, the alcoholic son of a Mississippi plantation owner (Burl Ives) with the excellent name of Big Daddy. Brick's wife, Maggie, struggles to understand why their marriage has deteriorated to the point where he barely looks at her. This is understandably unconscionable because his wife is Elizabeth Taylor in her prime as one of the most gorgeous women of her day.

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Jed Leland
Apr 3, 2011 6:11pm

The Aviator

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 2004. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda.

I’m a sucker for lavish recreations of Hollywood’s Golden Age and they don’t come much more spectacular than Martin Scorsese’s epic retelling of the life of Howard Hughes, The Aviator. The story and various legends of Howard Hughes could fill a couple of films. He was rich, by all accounts insane, and had an enormous influence on everything from aviation history to the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system. His life was by turns both enviably glamorous and enormously tragic. The Aviator doesn’t try to completely deconstruct Hughes because I think Scorsese realizes that there is something fundamentally mysterious about the man that no one key event from his life or particular psychological tic will ever fully explain. Instead, Scorsese focuses on Hughes as a man of his moment, documenting his rise and just hinting at the fall to come.

The Aviator begins as Hughes (played by current Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio) is commanding both a film production unit and a group of stunt pilots for his one film as Director, Hell’s Angels. His obsessive style exasperates both his crew and the money men in charge of bankrolling his endeavor (though they work for Hughes). His painstaking attention to detail regardless of cost is virtually unheard of in Hollywood because as an independently wealthy director he is beholden to no one. He stretches the shoot for months waiting for clouds to appear. Finally, he scraps the at-long-last finished film because it wasn’t shot for sound and was finished just as silent films were on the wane. He reshoots the film because he can.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 24, 2011 11:24am

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

Dir: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson, 1995. Documentary.

I’ve always mistrusted the adulation that greets Martin Scorsese whenever he makes a new movie. I wasn’t around for the glory days of the New Hollywood generation of film directors making their mark in the 1970s, of which he was, of course, a principle member. His reputation as a master of gritty poetic realism was built on films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets and I can understand their importance to American cinema of the 1970s and '80s. But what has always bugged me is his media-appointed status and de facto role as America’s Greatest Living Film Director. I just find such a distinction to be inherently suspicious. He’s a relatively apolitical filmmaker who, in his most successful films glorifies (whatever his intentions) a criminal underclass that is meant to embody the aspirational drive of Americans for success and material wealth whatever the cost. Goodfellas is a seamless rush of images and sound. It’s a great film, but I’ve always felt that some of the greatness accorded it by critics and audiences (and his other films like it) is based in part on an obvious celebration of his one dimensional psychopathic characters. What are we really celebrating when we call him America’s Greatest Living Film Director? I’m not totally sure.

That said, the man knows a lot about movies—he is almost as famous for his films as he is for boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the way a film’s subtext is made manifest through directorial technique. He also has excellent taste. Scorsese is the perfect guide to the world of American film and this BFI-produced documentary, in which he shares with us some of his favorite films, is a pleasure to watch for its three hour duration. He starts out by saying that this is a project for him to talk about his favorite films and that he can only vouch for their importance to him as part of the formative experiences that shaped him as a film director.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 25, 2011 6:13pm

Leave Her To Heaven

Dir: John M. Stahl, 1945. Starring: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain. Classics.

What do you call a film noir without shadows? Is it still noir? Leave Her To Heaven is a total anomaly, a claustrophobic thriller that takes place in the wide open spaces of some of the most serene nature settings imaginable. It’s a murky psychodrama done in Technicolor. This isn’t the blazingly sharp Technicolor of Douglas Sirk, though, where every pink wall and cocktail shaker gleams with vivid detail. Leave Her To Heaven was made a good ten years before Technicolor advanced to what we think of as its signature bold and bright look. The Technicolor process was more primitive when Leave Her To Heaven was made, giving the film a weirdly unsettling brightness like the eerie orange glow before a heavy summer storm.

Cornel Wilde plays Richard Harland, an author who meets a beautiful and wealthy young woman named Ellen (played by Gene Tierney) on a train. Soon they are in love, get married, and Richard is smitten with his new bride. However, Ellen’s behavior becomes bizarre and her treatment of Richard more and more possessive and unreasonable. Much like her attachment to her dead father, her need to possess Richard totally has drastic and murderous consequences for the other people in their lives.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 25, 2011 12:13pm

Strangers on a Train

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1951. Starring: Robert Walker, Farley Granger, Marion Lorne, Ruth Roman. Classics.

For some perverse reason I’ve never been much of a Hitchcock fanatic. It’s cinephile heresy to say so, I know, but his films, for the most part, just leave me cold. Most are beautiful, icy, and calculating experiments in psychological terror and you can’t really argue with that nifty a gimmick. But it’s the way he approached character in such clinical fashion that has always led me to stick up for his slightly less celebrated contemporaries (Nicholas Ray comes to mind). The artistry of his psychological subtext can be bewitching (as with Vertigo) or chilling (as in Psycho), but I find their formalism alienating or perhaps only in relation to their director’s iconic status. I’d rather watch Johnny Guitar or In a Lonely Place over any Hitchcock film any time.

With Hitchcock plot seemed to take precedence over character. It’s as if he started with the devising of an elaborate trap and then got around to filling it in with a variety of types. I’ve always thought that to Hitchcock characters were victims there to be fixed onto a fresh web of plot and observed as some kind of predator crept up to feast. There is plenty of psychological depth to his characters - think Jimmy Stewart’s unforgettable haunted detective in Vertigo - but not a whole lot of warmth or charm or whatever it is that makes us like a character, monster and hero alike. As a contrast, this was never the way with Welles who reveled in the vulnerability of even his most diabolical heavies. Hitchcock, like his artistic descendant David Lynch, loved to find the perverse in the ostensibly “normal” but the ultimate point was more akin to an extremely dark joke than a tragedy. He was not really any kind of humanist. He is, after all, the director who famously said all actors should be treated like cattle.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Dec 7, 2010 5:17pm

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Dir: Anthony Minghella, 1999. Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett. Drama.

A lot of directors working today try to ape Hitchcock. His films are the gold standard for artful forays into psychological terror. Christopher Nolan is just the latest celebrated director trying to tap into a rich vein of Hitchcockian malice for his own films. But while Nolan succeeds with astonishing set-pieces within his films—think of the face-to-face interrogation room sequence between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight—his films are, for the most part, long on disorienting gimmicks and rather low on psychological depth. He also doesn’t go near the subject of sex and Hitchcock’s films are full of sex—sexual obsession, sexual dread, sexual paranoia—the one exception being sexual fulfillment which seemed to exist only within the arms of his most beautiful and iconic star couplings in films such as Notorious and To Catch a Thief.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a first-rate Hitchcockian exercise from the late director Anthony Minghella and it has all of the corrosive sexual dread you could ask for as well as a disturbingly convincing subtext on the kinds of identity games Americans are always involved in. It’s glamorous and dark and manages to top Hitchcock in at least one respect—its undercurrent of eroticism is explicitly homosexual.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 24, 2010 11:06am

Frozen River

Dir: Courtney Hunt, 2008. Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott. Drama.

Neo-realism is having a bit of a renaissance within the American indie film world of late. Perhaps as a reaction to how Hollywood has all but ignored the working poor - or the just plain destitute - for decades there’s a new interest in stories about how middle Americans are coping with increasingly dire odds to surviving in a country where manufacturing jobs have left en masse to be replaced by meth labs and fundamentalist Christian churches. There’s a hopelessness about our future that has been encroaching for decades—wage stagnation, the credit crisis, the decline of labor unions, and the housing bubble are all symptoms of the decline of our much mythologized way of life. These new stories feature white, non-urban females in the lead roles. They have been deserted by deadbeat males who are overwhelmed by the stark realities of poverty.

The American Dream used to mean owning your own car and home and having a few vacations now and then. At some point it came to be synonymous with the tacky, greasy exploits of the Donald Trumps and P. Diddys of the world. Is it any surprise that economic mobility is harder to achieve than ever even as gross shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians are still pulling in viewers desperate for a fix of escapism? I think this is the most confusing time in this country since I started paying attention and I have no idea where things are headed. I think this national malaise is making us hungry for stories about people struggling to keep from losing everything. They are people who make up a majority in this country and their voices are seldom heard.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 16, 2010 5:42pm
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