Kramer vs. Kramer

Dir: Robert Benton, 1979. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry. Drama.

The amazing early part of Dustin Hoffman's career was filled with so many showy roles - Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Strawdogs, and Little Big Man - but he ended the 1970s with perhaps the best performance of his career in Kramer vs. Kramer. This little film actually beat Apocalypse Now for the Best Picture Oscar. Which film you prefer may be debatable, but what isn't is that Kramer vs. Kramer is more than a little film. Robert Benton (co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde) took a simple little story of a career man learning about domestic responsibility and gave it a wallop of emotion that has helped it last the test of time.

Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a New York ad-man married to Joanna (Meryl Streep) with a little boy, Billy (Justin Henry). One night after securing an important new account he comes home to find Joanna all packed and heading out the door. She leaves him...and Billy. Father and son have to learn to coexist - the usually selfish Ted has to learn to become a caretaker to his son and Billy has to get used to living without a mum. At first Ted doesn’t even know what grade his son is in and is forced to do what were then considered feminine chores like picking his son up at birthday parties and grocery shopping. But he learns to be a father and he and Billy build a special bond. Hoffman’s Ted obviously has a strong character arc and with the help of his single mother neighbor, Margaret (Jane Alexander), he develops a nurturing side to his tightly wound personality. This, of course, leads to his losing his job and, worse, after finding herself out in California, the icy Joanna eventually returns and fights to regain custody of Billy (hence the "vs." in the title).

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Sean Sweeney
Oct 13, 2010 5:09pm

Horror Express

Dir: Eugenio Martín, 1972. Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Telly Savalas. Horror.

This early '70s British/Spanish co-production is more interesting than most of the other horror/sci-fi flicks its countrymen were putting out in its day. It’s also the best Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee flick of the '70s. Horror Express plays like a mad mesh-up of The Thing, Murder On The Orient Express, Night Of The Living Dead, and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series. It may be a wacky low-budget affair, but it’s actually an eerie little genre masterpiece.

Anthropologist Alexander Saxton (Lee) boards the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906 with a crated fossil of what he believe to be the "missing link." A mad Rasputin-like monk (Alberto de Mendoza) becomes obsessed with it, declaring it the devil and waking it from its deep slumber. When it escapes and starts killing passengers, Saxton must team up with his rival, Dr. Wells (Cushing), to destroy it. The scientists study its retina and learn that it came to ancient Earth from outer space a la The Thing. And also like The Thing it seems to be able to take the form of the people it mind-melds with, causing the killing to continue.

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Sean Sweeney
Oct 13, 2010 4:47pm

The Road Warrior

Dir: George Miller, 1981. Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Emil Minty. Science-Fiction/Action.

George Miller’s Australian gem, The Road Warrior, is hailed by most as one of the greatest action films of all time, especially since it’s a pre-CGI, stunt and stunt driver, driven thrill ride. Its vision of the post apocalyptic future has been ripped off as much as any film, usually badly (1990: The Bronx Warriors, Resident Evil, Doomsday, etc). It has echoes of Kurosawa’s early samurai films as well as John Ford’s cowboys or cavalry dramas. Here, the fort holds oil production so precious for driving around in your jacked-up automobiles; instead of Indians the attackers are mohawked punked-out brutes. This fairly low budget flick looks and feels like a big Hollywood spectacle (coming at the end of Australia’s golden age of stuntploitation films. See the wonderful documentary Not Quite Hollywood for more on this fascinating era).

The film is a sequel to the ultra low-budget Mad Max (in most of the world The Road Warrior was titled Mad Max 2). Mad Max got some mild play in the States but the strong accents were ridiculously dubbed with what sound like cartoon voice-over actors. The first one takes place "A Few Years From Now...” when the world has not fallen apart but seems to be on the brink and chaos rules. The high-speed police patrol seems to work as its own gang, taking on psychos and bikers. Max (Mel Gibson), a tough cop, is also a tender family man, and when a motorcycle gang kills his wife and child, he takes out his vengeance on them.

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Sean Sweeney
Oct 8, 2010 2:55pm

Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip

Dir: Joe Layton, 1982. Starring: Richard Pryor. Stand-up Comedy.

It’s a given that Richard Pryor is one of the most influential stand-up comedians ever (along with Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Mort Sahl or whoever you want to put on a short list). His feature length performance film, Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip, along with Richard Pryor Live in Concert a few years earlier, are still the benchmarks for stand-up comedy films. Sunset Strip may be slightly stronger because of the incredible autobiographical detail and honesty. He might have been a train wreck in real life, but on stage he was completely self-assured - without being cocky - and utterly honest about his own shortcomings, not to mention his takes on sex and race. Besides being hilarious, this film stand as a documentary about the mind of Richard Pryor and the unique way he interprets the world.

Like Bruce and Carlin, Pryor started off a TV-friendly, joke man who evolved when he found himself, got dangerous, got dirty, and embraced the counterculture. On The Sunset Strip is almost like an autobiographical one-man show; he talks about growing up in a brothel, how going to Africa changes him, working for the mob, but, most revealing, his cocaine abuse. In an almost too honest moment he discusses his famous "blowing himself up" incident. At the same time he still hits some great standards like the differences between men and women and black and white people. He also does his down & out character of Mudbone, for what he claims, thankfully, is the last time.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 6, 2010 6:41pm

To Kill A Mockingbird

Dir: Robert Mulligan, 1962. Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters. Classics.

One of the great American books, To Kill A Mockingbird, makes for one of the great American films. Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) compactly adapts Harper Lee’s dense semi-autobiographical novel. Now an adult, Scout Finch recounts two summers in her childhood during the Depression in a sleepy little Alabama town. She and her brother Jem befriend a boy named Dill (based on Lee’s lifelong friend, Truman Capote), while her father Atticus, a righteous lawyer (righteous, in an admirable way), defends a black man accused of rape. Scout learns many simple lessons and the film, with such simple qualities, packs a gentle emotional wallop.

This was 1962 disguised as the Depression. An innocent ‘62, pre-assignation of JFK and MLK; pre-Vietnam War making the front pages; pre-Black Panthers and "black power." When the naïve still believed that one crusading white man could potentially save a black man’s life. And though in the end Atticus doesn’t actually succeed (thematically it has something to do with why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird), it has enough of an impact on a child that she could grow up to be a great writer. Though in real life, unfortunately, Harper Lee would never write another book again, instead becoming Capote’s babysitter (Lee, along with Emily Bronte and John Kennedy Toole, would be one of the great one-hit wonders in literature history).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 23, 2010 1:15pm

The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters

Dir: Seth Gordon, 2007. Starring: Steve Sanders, Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell. Documentary.

Going back to Grey Gardens in 1975, so many successful and fascinating documentaries have been about misfits in their exotic sub-culture world. Through Gates Of Heaven, The Cruise, American Movie, and Hell House the viewers are given a glimpse into a unique world that they may not have otherwise known exists. Not only do these often oddball worlds exist, but the people who live in them are completely passionate or even obsessed with maintaining their status in them. One such "world" is the competitive classic arcade game scene. It started - and maybe peaked - in the '80s but according to the fascinating documentary, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters, it still continues and the nerds who occupy this world are obsessed with it.

Like many amazing documentaries, The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters has a plot so complete and ready-made, with a clear hero and a villain, it gives the impression that it could only have been concocted by a screenwriter. But no folks, it’s real.

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Sean Sweeney
Sep 20, 2010 4:17pm

Altamont Now

Dir: Joshua Brown, 2009. Starring: Daniel Louis Rivas, Frankie Shaw, Raphael Nash Thompson. Cult.

Ever since Marlon Brando’s Johnny in The Wild One was asked, "What are you rebelling against?" and he answered, "What have you got?" youth rebellion has been a mainstay in movies, making for some good, bad, and often subversive films. From Rebel Without A Cause to Wild In The Streets to Rock & Roll High School and Over The Edge -- all films that have elements of screwing the man. Altamont Now, directed by Joshua Brown, is more of a spoof of the genre but still keeps the spirit alive.

Like the late '60s films of Peter Watkins (Privilege, Punishment Park) or Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Altamont Now has faux-documentary elements and mixes in a lot of old B-roll using numerous film sources. Unlike the acid pace of those films, this has a more modern, hyper visual and editing style that helps contribute to the movie's anarchy. The film opens a la Blair Witch Project, reporting to be lost footage; luckily that angle is never really pushed (unlike the recent fake doc Catfish where the directors are still doing press claiming the obviously staged film is real). The "this is lost footage" claim is actually making fun of an already stale storytelling element. We never for a second believe that it works as a documentary; when only two people are in a room, there always seems to be a third person in the room working the camera.

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Sean Sweeney
Sep 16, 2010 12:42pm

The Day Of The Jackal

Dir: Fred Zinnemann, 1973. Starring: Edward Fox, Michael Lonsdale, Cyril Cusack, Olga Georges-Picot. Mystery/Thriller.

I often recommend The Day Of The Jackal to people and they always come back and say the same thing, “That was great. What are some more movies like that?” I’m hard-pressed to answer because there are none as good of the type (maybe in the general ballpark: State Of Siege, Z, Black Sunday, The Manchurian Candidate - I don’t know). The Day Of The Jackal is the best assassination thriller ever made. Ever. Not to be confused with the Bruce Willis sorta remake Jackal, which sucked. This, the original version based on the great novel of the same name by Frederick Forsyth (The Dogs Of War), is a taut, textbook example of how to make an exciting, sophisticated, suspense film with a cast of non brand-names and without having to rely on overblown action sequences.

After France ended their occupation of Algeria their military was left with a number of pissed off killers (the O.A.S.) who wanted revenge against their president, Charles de Gaulle (see the brilliant docudrama Battle Of Algiers for further study on that subject). So they hire the world’s greatest assassin - code-named "The Jackal" (Edward Fox) - to kill him. Traveling all over Europe, the film meticulously follows the small triviality of how The Jackal puts together his plan (the goal is not only to shoot and kill de Gaulle, but to escape alive, without getting caught). He’s British, but can slip into any country; he’s an enigma and sleeps with both men and women if they fit into his plan. The film details everything in his plan, including the ways he obtains forged passports and even has specially designed bullets made.

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Sean Sweeney
Sep 13, 2010 11:41am

How The Grinch Stole Christmas

Dir: Chuck Jones & Ben Washam, 1966. Starring: Boris Karloff, June Foray, Thurl Ravenscroft. Children's.

Based on a book by Dr. Seuss (Theodore "Ted"’ Geisel), this little 26-minute television special has been a holiday tradition since it first aired in 1966. But it’s more than just a Christmas cartoon. Besides being a moving story about the power of love, it may be the greatest animated (long) short ever made. It really is a tribute to three unique talents coming together: the prose of author Dr. Seuss, the voice of actor Boris Karloff, and the vision of the legendary animation director Chuck Jones (co-director Ben Washam was also a very respected animator and a long time collaborator with Jones).

The Grinch is a grumpy, old, green, Scroogey creature with a heart "two sizes too small" who lives with his sweet little mutt, Max, atop a mountain overlooking Whoville (though his actual color varies on different DVD versions). In a spat of bitterness listening to the Whos prepare for their Christmas festivities, he decides to ruin their Christmas. Disguised as Santa he descends on Whoville in a sled, with poor Max dressed as a reindeer and forced to pull the sled down the steep, snowy ledge. Then he slithers around the homes of the Whos and steals everything Christmas related, including trees, candy, gifts, and even burning fire logs.

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Sean Sweeney
Sep 10, 2010 11:48am

Rocky III

Dir: Sylvester Stallone, 1982. Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Mr. T. Action.

On paper the first Rocky may be a better film than Rocky III - and don't let the fact that Sylvester Stallone would become a muscle-headed goon persuade you that he didn't once have talent. The original Rocky was a moving film and Stallone gave a nice performance - though not sure if it deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar over All the President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver - but still, it was a film to admire. Rocky II was a dull follow up that stuck to the formula. Rocky III sticks to the formula and gives it some twists. In terms of sheer entertainment it's a knockout (that's a boxing term, get it?) and at a compact 100 minutes it's a fast and easy ride.

Bill Conte's infectious "Rocky Theme" opens the film and a recap of the final fight from the previous movie as Rocky predictably finally beats Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Then BAM! It’s the rockin' sounds of Survivor's "Eye Of The Tiger" and a montage of Rocky living the celebrity life while busting heads in the ring. Meanwhile a new Mike Tyson-type of up & comer, Clubber Lane, is demolishing opponents (played very well by Mr. T). After a wild charity match against a pro wrestler, Thunder Lips (Hulk Hogan looking like a giant), Clubber publicly pressures Rocky into meeting him in the ring. Clubber trains hard and Rocky trains soft. Before the fight Rocky learns from his manager, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), that he's not as good a fighter as he thinks he is - since fighting Apollo those were all tomato-cans he has been beating up on. And then in a twist to the Rocky formula Clubber gives Rocky a real whuppin', so bad in fact it kills Mickey and Clubber becomes the new champ.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 6, 2010 6:38pm
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