The Bridge on the River Kwai

Dir: David Lean, 1957. Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins. War.

After his weepy romantic travelogue Summertime, director David Lean took an evolutionary jump with The Bridge on the River Kwai, the first part of his super epic trilogy (followed by Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago). If The Great Escape is the ultimate German prisoner of war flick (with apologies to Stalag 17) then Kwai is the quintessential Japanese POW story. The performances are top notch—the British chameleon Alec Guinness deservedly won an Oscar for his powerful performance. As both a human drama, a giant war spectacular, and just a kick-ass action flick Kwai is still a hair-raiser with a famously shocking ending.

A cynical American POW named Shears (William Holden, cynical was his trademark in the fifties) watches Colonel Nicholson (Guinness) lead his British regiment into a Japanese camp deep in the harsh jungles of Burma (while whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” which became a hit record).  There the prisoners working as slave laborers are building a military bridge, but Nicholson will not work and demands to keep his rank among his men. A battle of wills takes place between the overly proud Brit and the camp’s Japanese command...

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Sean Sweeney
Aug 17, 2011 6:16pm

Purple Rain

Dir: Albert Magnoli, 1984. Starring: Prince, Morris Day, Apollonia Kortero, Morris Day. Music.

Purple RainAs opposed to being a dated period piece from 1984, Purple Rain is more like a time capsule from another planet. A truly ambitious film debut for funk ‘n rock star Prince, the success of both the film Purple Rain and its soundtrack helped send Prince’s career into another stratosphere. This kinda sorta autobiography of Prince’s early days playing at Minneapolis music venue First Avenue focuses on the struggles of the brooding and mopey musician as he tries to navigate his domestic abuse impulses and his love of frilly shirts. Though completely entertaining it’s actually maybe more depressing than the Eminem flick 8 Mile though not even close to the mental anguish that the Bjork film Dancer in the Dark can cause. At the time of release Purple Rain was a massive hit but it was also justly scorned for its misogynistic attitudes towards women. Luckily now the film feels so over the top that instead of being offensive it plays more like a glammed-out cartoon.

Prince plays “The Kid,” and though his band The Revolution seems to have a loyal following, the club owner (Billy Sparks) thinks they aren’t drawing the crowds they should be. He seems to side with The Kid’s chief rival, the zoot-suited Morris Day and his band The Time. He wants the Kid to stop doing that “one song shit” and making the kind of music that only he understands, or he’s going to be axed from the club’s roster. When a foxy new Russ Meyer-esqe babe, Apollonia shows up on the scene, The Kid woos her with motorcycle rides and by ogling her from behind his oversized sun glasses. Strangely he still lives with his parents, where his washed-up musician father (Clearance Williams III of ...

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Sean Sweeney
Aug 9, 2011 10:56am

Traffic

Dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2000. Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas. Drama.

TrafficAfter his massive debut film Sex, Lies, and Videotape helped jump start the impressive independent film movement of the 1990s, director Steven Soderbergh had a rough go in the world of filmmaking. Though his follow-ups King of The Hill, Kafka, and The Underneath were all interesting, none lived up to the promise shown earlier. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that Soderbergh started to really find his stride with a pair of terrific crime thrillers, Out of Sight and The Limey. Often working as his own cinematographer his films developed a grainy, handheld look and an almost docudrama feel. In 2000 Soderbergh peaked critically with the solid drama Erin Brockovich and his two-and-a-half hour epic Traffic, a truly outstanding look at the drug trade in both the United States and Mexico.

A remake of the British TV mini-series Traffik, Soderbergh’s film follows the original very carefully, but expands on the political potholes faced by the politicians while changing the land of the traffickers from Pakistan to Mexico. It all adds up to a more complex tale. The film follows three stories taking place in Tijuana, San Diego, and Ohio. Each story is given a different look and color scheme—Ohio looks cold and blue, while Mexico is washed out and yellow. The film is giant with over a hundred speaking roles, and even includes actual politicians Barbara Boxer and Orrin Hatch playing themselves for added realism.

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Sean Sweeney
Aug 3, 2011 7:01pm

Grease

Dir: Randal Kleiser, 1978. Starring: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway. Musical.

GreaseAt the peak of the disco era, the film version of the so-so Broadway musical Grease managed to be the perfect vehicle to celebrate 1950s nostalgia while becoming an iconic relic of '70s pop culture. Since its release it has become a rite of passage for young people—a romanticized version of teen rebellion and young love. It’s surprisingly raunchy, but very funny, with great music and very energetic choreography. More then Rebel Without a Cause or Blackboard Jungle it has actually taken over as the ultimate representation of 1950s teen life. While the earlier films were made by people who were afraid of that generation’s American teenager, Grease was created to celebrate them.
 
After his breakout performance that turned him into a massive superstar in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta was as hot as could be. Grease proved to be an almost equally popular follow-up for him (through critically it took a drubbing). In the role of Danny Zuko, high school greaser and heart throb, Travolta was able to continue to showcase his flashy dance moves and add “passable singer” to his resume. More importantly he showed his flare for light comedy. As time passes it's easier to recognize the fun Travolta was having with his own image. He's kinda a mix of Elvis and TV’s Fonzie, but much more charming than both and, though cool, much more vulnerable. (Vulnerability proved to be a staple of Travolta’s acting bag of tricks.)

Australian transplant Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) is just trying to fit in to her new Southern California school, Rydell High. Though she had ...

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Sean Sweeney
Jul 29, 2011 5:11pm

Black Sunday

Dir: John Frankenheimer, 1977. Starring: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver. Action.

Black SundayBefore novelist Thomas Harris created the character of Hannibal Lecter for his Red Dragon book series, he had written one other novel entitled Black Sunday. It was a terrorist thriller obviously inspired by the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The adaptation for the screen by legendary screenwriter Ernst Lehman (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) provides the setting for one of the best action flicks of the 1970s and another cool movie notch in the belt for director John Frankenheimer. Along with The Deep released the same year (’77), Black Sunday would provide the peak role for actor Robert Shaw as a big star leading man, before tragically dying of a heart attack the following year.

A kinda sexy Palestinian terrorist, Dahlia (Marthe Keller, who played a similarly spooky Euro a year earlier in Marathon Man) finds the perfect boyfriend—Vietnam Vet Mike Lander (Bruce Dern, in his full whacked-out mode) who works once a week as a Goodyear blimp pilot for the NFL. To make a point about America’s support for Israel, she convinces him to fill the blimp up with explosives and blow up the Super Bowl. (Oh yeah, the President is going to be attending the game, too). Luckily, badass Israeli intelligence agent David Kabakov (Shaw) is on her tail.

Like the adaptation of Frederick Forsyth&r...

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Sean Sweeney
Jul 27, 2011 5:06pm

Sunset Boulevard

Dir: Billy Wilder, 1950. Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson. Film Noir.

Sunset Blvd DVDThere has never been a screenplay quite like Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder’s screenplay for their 1950 opus Sunset Blvd. It’s a macabre gothic noir comedy about the ghosts of Hollywood past. It’s one of those films, though a first-string classic, where the myths and back-stage stories are just as memorable as the film itself. For a legendary cynic like Wilder it was his ultimate drubbing of the hand that fed him. For star Gloria Swanson it was the ultimate film comeback (ten times more unlikely than, say, Travolta in Pulp Fiction). And for her co-star William Holden it began a decade of big performances in important films that cemented him as a major actor. In a time when the studios controlled their products as well as their own image with an iron fist, it’s shocking that Sunset Blvd. ever got made.

Narrating from a swimming pool of a rundown mansion, a floating corpse tells his story of how he ended up there. Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) can’t land a new assignment and is on the run from debt collectors. With a flat tire he hides his car in the garage of that rundown mansion. Invited in by the home’s butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim), to lend a hand for the funeral of a monkey Joe soon meets the mistress of the house, one-time silent film star, Norma Desmond (Swanson). She lives with only one foot in reality. Her decrepit house is filled with photos and mementos of her former self from her glory days 30 years earlier. Eventually she employs Joe to write...

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Sean Sweeney
Jul 22, 2011 4:05pm

The Blues Brothers

Dir: John Landis, 1980. Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cab Calloway. Comedy.

Blues Brothers DVDThere was a time in 1978 when John Belushi had the number one movie in theaters— National Lampoon’s Animal House. He also starred on the massively popular Saturday Night Live and his band The Blues Brothers, a group he co-fronted along with SNL co-star Dan Aykroyd, had the number one album in the country. The success of their album Briefcase Full of Blues led to a film adaptation, The Blues Brothers—the first and still the best of many films to originate from SNL skits. It’s a loud musical-action-comedy film that works in all three genres while boasting some great car chases, stellar music, and staying very funny throughout.

Fresh from a stint in prison Jake (Belushi) reunites with his brother Elwood (Aykroyd). Spurred on by an old friend, Curtis (Cab Calloway) they visit their childhood orphanage and learn that it’s on the verge of being shut down for owing back taxes. After a vision “from God” in church they decide to reform their old blues band and raise money with a large charity concert. Most of their bandmates have contempt for them and need convincing to reunite. Along the way they tend to wreak havoc and leave large swaths of destruction wherever they go which leads the police after them. They also create foes with a country/western band, The Good Ol' Boys (led by Charles Napier), when The Blues Brothers steal their bar gig. They disrupt a Nazi rally and manage to put a carload of uniformed Nazis on their trail (led by the hilarious Henry Gibson of ...

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Sean Sweeney
Jul 14, 2011 12:11pm

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Dir: George Roy Hill, 1969. Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Strother Martin. Westerns.

The massive hit from 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is often cited as a "Western that people love, who usually don’t like Westerns." But it also often makes "all-time most overrated" lists, especially from folks who do like Westerns. That contradiction may be because the film is completely carried by the charisma of its two superstars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Also it's closer in spirit to a light comedy or even the "outlaw reexamination" genre started by Bonnie and Clyde than the landmark Westerns of its era that Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone were directing at the same time. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an incredibly simple tale, and regardless of its place on the Western checklist it’s perfect entertainment.

The script seems to have very little dialogue and often the same lines are repeated, "You keep thinking, Butch," which is ironic since the script by William Goldman (Marathon Man, All The President’s Men) has been hailed for its perfect three-act structure (pre-film school era Goldman wrote a number of books about screenwriting and the business which also helped elevate his status as a quintessential writer). Act One is an introduction to Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Redford), two charming but frustrated bank robbers who are now hitting trains. Butch is the brains and Sundance the gunman. They also share a woman, schoolteacher Etta Place (the mumbly Katharine Ross of The Graduate), Sundance is her lover, while Butch flirts but is more the big brother. Act Two is one long chase as a hardcore posse follows Butch and Sundance over miles of picturesque Western plains (shot by the legendary cameraman Conrad L. Hall), ending famously with the two jumping off a cliff into a raging river. Act Three has the heroes and Etta traveling to Bolivia where they work as muscle for a paymaster (Strother Martin) and culture clashes impede their bank robbing career, finally ending with a shoot out with the Bolivian army.

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Sean Sweeney
Jul 6, 2011 4:19pm

Shaft

Dir: John Singleton, 2000. Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christian Bale, Jeffrey Wright, Toni Collette. Black Cinema.

About the only thing this Shaft remake has in common with the original Richard Roundtree cop classic is that great Isaac Hayes theme song and similar funky score (and Roundtree pops up in a supporting role in this one). Both Shafts are swinging ladies men and both have to deal with race issues being African-American cops in a hostile world and working with a corrupt police force. What makes the remake stand out as more than just a serviceable late night TV time killer is the presence of two great unlikely villains teaming up, played by two great actors, Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright, working at their scenery chewing best.

The original Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks is usually unjustly labeled "blaxploitation," but it’s degrading because Shaft was actually much closer in class and style to an acclaimed crime film like The French Connection than say, some jive like Superfly. Shaft became a minor cultural phenomenon, birthing two decent sequels and even a short-lived television series. The inevitable remake comes 30 years later, and though it might not have delivered as a franchise starter, it does deliver perfectly as a solid action guilty pleasure.

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Sean Sweeney
Jul 4, 2011 4:51pm

Out of the Past

Dir: Jacques Tourneur, 1947. Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Virginia Huston. Film Noir.

Of that post-WWII generation of male actors who came of age in war flicks but really defined themselves in the Film Noir genre, none was cooler than Robert Mitchum (and that was a group of cool dudes that included Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, and his co-star here Kirk Douglas). Whether playing a hero or a villain, Mitchum reeked of both danger and manly charm even when he spewed indifference. His career spanned decades with a number of signature roles and important films, but of the Noir period none was better than that of ex-detective turned gas station owner Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.

Director Jacques Tourneur is more known today for his groundbreaking horror flicks with producer Val Lewton: Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie. Though in retrospect those eerie and strange shadowy black n’ white flicks could be called horror noir, making the Frenchman the perfect director to bring his almost Expressionistic approach to a crime mystery in what was then considered a B-genre. Like much gothic horror, Jeff Bailey is a guy haunted by his past, trying to escape from his own mind and hide from his own instincts.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 1, 2011 7:57pm
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