Love And Death

Dir: Woody Allen, 1975. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, James Tolkan, Harold Gould. Comedy.

I’m not enough of an expert in Russian literature to give Woody Allen’s Love And Death it’s full due, intellectually. I do know there's some Crime And Punishment, some Brothers Karamazov, some War And Peace, and some Chekhov being spoofed. Visually there are references to Allen’s Swedish idol, Ingmar Bergman, with The Seventh Seal and Persona, and as well as some Charlie Chaplin. Allen also borrows healthily from his wisecracking forbearers, The Marx Brothers and Bob Hope.

If Woody Allen’s directing career can be broken into three sections - his early slapstick comedies, his middle important films, and his later mostly forgettable busts that he’s been marred in for almost the last 20 years - then Love And Death marks the end of that first period. It would be his final "straight comedy" before making his evolutionary leap with his next film, the masterpiece Annie Hall. Love And Death ended his six-year period of comic experimentation following the hit and miss joke epics Take The Money And Run, Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, and Sleeper. Hard to believe at one time a film critic argued who was the more important comic filmmaker: Allen or Mel Brooks (after making the classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein)? Allen went on to do Annie Hall and Manhattan and about a ten more relevant films while Brooks did Dracula: Dead And Loving It. Woody was always growing, while Brooks peaked early. That is not to say Love And Death is only important as a growth record. It’s also a great comedy on its own merits. It’s beautifully shot in Hungary by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (Au hasard Balthazar, Tess, etc.). Also it’s been cleverly scored with the music of 20th century Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (later The Ren & Stimpy Show would use his music as well).

Like Allen’s Latin American revolution comedy, Bananas, a lot of the fun is putting Woody in an absurd situation and letting him be Bob Hope. During the Napoleonic era, Allen, sporting his trademark horn rimmed black glasses, plays Boris Grushenko, a Russian coward ("Yes, but I'm a militant coward"). As his two virile brothers enlist in the military, Boris is too busy fretting about life and trying to get laid. The object of Boris's lust is his independent cousin, Sonja (Diane Keaton), however she is engaged to the herring merchant. Eventually Boris enlists in the army, becomes a hero, and then he and Sonja set out to assassinate Napoleon (played wonderfully by James Tolkan).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 10, 2010 5:14pm

Go

Dir: Doug Limon, 1999. Starring: Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Jay Mohr, Scott Wolf. Comedy.

A lot of films about drugs and drug users take an exploitive yet ultimately moralistic tone about their contentious subject matter. Actors are given scenery to chew as either addicts or dealers. Junkies waste away tragically, but elegantly, and the dealers are suave thugs making the most of their Faustian bargain of a career. So often we are meant to envy the way the characters give a middle finger to societal rules and yet, when they ultimately reach their downfall, we are encouraged to feel morally superior. Call it a cultural byproduct of our country's draconian drug laws where all drugs are equally bad. (Except for alcohol which never causes any problems whatsoever.)

The thing I love about Go is the refreshing lack of judgment on the characters. It’s a movie about a random assortment of relatively amoral young people in L.A. in one insane 24-hour period. They work dead end jobs, they go to raves, and they take ecstasy. They’re basically good kids, just young and broke and out for a good time. They get into trouble, but not the kind of finger-wagging clichéd trouble that a bad screenwriter would normally concoct for these characters. It's more of the absurdist kind of trouble that Quentin Tarantino used in various plotlines of Pulp Fiction.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 10, 2010 2:47pm

Radio Days

Dir: Woody Allen, 1987. Starring: Mia Farrow, Mike Starr, Don Pardo, Julie Kavner, Wallace Shawn. Comedy.

I’ve been on a Woody Allen kick of late and I’m not sure what prompted it. In the twilight of his career he remains a polarizing figure mostly reviled for personal indiscretions or ignored for his supposed cultural irrelevancy. He doesn’t always make it easy to defend his work. The things people used to find amusing about his movies now just elicit a kind of widespread yawning contempt—the gross age difference between him and his latest ingénue, the aloof quality of the writing, and the way his characters don’t seem to bear even the slightest relation to actual people in New York City or anywhere else. His last few international productions have been, by all accounts, hit-or-miss and the early fans who adopted Annie Hall and Manhattan as the films of their generation have deserted him. I don’t necessarily disagree that his films aren’t what they used to be, but I think his good films are still some of the best American films ever made. The period of his work I generally romanticize is the mid-1980s period and the film of his that I like best is, in some ways, the least representative of his work, Radio Days. It’s light, unabashedly sentimental, and probably the least cynical movie he ever made.

Radio Days is more-or-less a series of vignettes related to Allen’s childhood that revolve around the radio and the central role it played in everyone’s life. The scenes are breezy and comical with a wry knowing melancholy hovering over them because this is, after all, a lost world that Allen is eulogizing. The film shows Allen’s childhood in a nostalgic light. He lives in Brooklyn in a cramped house where various assorted aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived too. Their banter is typically neurotic for an Allen film but there’s a familial ease and a gentleness to it. It’s very funny but it’s not abrasive. Seth Green plays Allen as a kid who is obsessed with the Masked Avenger, a radio show about a super hero of sorts whom Green’s character imagines as a dashing crime fighter but in actuality is played by Wallace Shawn, the impish character actor. A lot of the fun to be had from the stories Allen tells about the golden age of radio is how the actuality of who the performers are bears little resemblance to the identities they assume on the radio for a rapt audience living vicariously through their glamorous exploits. None is funnier than Mia Farrow, a painfully ditzy supper club cigarette girl who is perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time but who eventually gets (mostly) rid of her Brooklyn squawk and becomes the host of a sophisticated Hollywood gossip radio program.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Oct 5, 2010 4:11pm

Saved!

Dir: Brian Dannelly, 2004. Starring: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Eva Amurri. Comedy.

You can’t find someone who is more against the glorification of teenage pregnancy than yours truly. Let’s just downplay that aspect of the movie and focus on all its other awesome parts, and for a brief moment I’ll praise the director and writer for their interesting approach on the matter. If you’re wondering why I steer clear of films like this, let’s just say it's because of those sappy dramas and comedies that show some spoiled middle-class teen who gets knocked up, has a family behind her, and finishes school without a hitch. Movies like Precious are slowly putting a smudge on that crystalline looking-glass we’ve become used to.

In this perfect comedy, we meet a group of teenagers who are coming up on their senior year at a Christian high school. We are following Mary (Jena Malone) in particular. She has it all - a charming and talented boyfriend, a cool mom, and the name of a religious icon. In the summer before senior year, her boyfriend confesses to her that he is gay. Following his confession, she bumps her head and, while in a daze, she sees the image of Jesus who tells her that her boyfriend needs her help. So, like any religious person, she interprets the message of God the best way she can: cure him of his homosexuality.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 27, 2010 5:00pm

Mischief

Dir: Mel Damski, 1985. Starring: Doug McKeon, Chris Nash, Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelly Preston, D.W. Brown. Comedy.

There is a middle-ground in comedy that transcends generations and surprises us all with its wit and components. Screwball comedies are on one side of this spectrum, and while they hold up great and are considered classics, the heavy traditional overtones and lack of modern humor make them harder to relate to. Not that they aren't enjoyable for the seasoned film fanatic, but with younger and more industrialized audiences, I think they serve a more historical purpose. And then there is current comedy, consisting of mainly crude and sexy plots or dark comedies, both with the possibility of going overboard and disappointing. So it seems that '80s cinema is this middle-ground. I can't think of a movie in the '80s, including dramas, that is not half comic relief. Perhaps the sappy plots only come off as funny now, but I still think a lot of it was intended.

Mischief walks the tightrope between these two worlds and replenishes what is missing or poorly done in either one. Set in Ohio, 1956, it already stands apart from others by being a period piece in a way. Gene (Chris Nash) has just moved into a small suburb with his widower father from Chicago. Here they hope to find peace from city life and to enroll Gene in a new school, on account of him being expelled from his previous one. From the start you can tell that he won't last long in the new town as he takes a break from moving in to ride his motorcycle across all of his neighbors' lawns. The only person who seems more than eager to make his acquaintance is his next-door neighbor Jonathan (Doug McKeon). The two couldn't be more unlike each other; Jonathan in his pastel sweaters and Studebaker, and Gene in his leather jacket and motorcycle. But behind their differences, the two reach out and bond simply on the basis of being outcasts.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 17, 2010 2:15pm

Cashback

Dir: Sean Ellis, 2006. Starring: Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne. Comedy.

This is not a movie about love. This is a movie about eros and the comedy of the daily grind. The difference between love and eros seems to be in the history of the words and the reactions from them. Love is fresh, tender, and pleasant—it changes you and, for many, it is a lifelong quest. You can fall into it and be unfolded by it and, for some, it is something that can fade. Eros is inescapable and erotic. It is the poison at the end of cupid's arrow and reminds me of hot phrases like "engulfed in fire." That's not what the word literally means, but more of my metaphorical picture of it. Once known in Greek mythology as the God of Love, eros is now a universal word describing a deep and sickening sense of affection toward beauty (however you define it), and it is exactly this force that has captured and unhinged this movie's lead character.

Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) has just suffered a grueling breakup, equipped with a ceramic mug and IKEA lamp being thrown at his head and the loneliness that soon followed. But the objects that became tools for abuse are not the last of his worries. Shortly after splitting with his first girlfriend Suzy, he becomes a full-fledged insomniac and is in awe at the fact that he now has eight extra hours in each day to do whatever comes to mind. At first the insomnia is simply frustrating, though it allows him to read and re-read everything he has ever wanted to finish and work hard in his first year of art school. After shopping for snacks in aisle 8 of the Sainsbury supermarket, he notices a "now hiring" sign and decides to "waste" his extra eight hours of nighttime working.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 10, 2010 5:56pm

The Cable Guy

Dir: Ben Stiller, 1996. Starring: Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, Jack Black. Comedy.

Like a paranoid science-fiction film from the '70s, The Cable Guy pretends to be about the threat of technology and America's addiction to television. In the mid 1990s, was the developing "information super-highway" a potentially scary thing? This was Ben Stiller's directional follow up to Reality Bites, his would-be Gen-X anthem, and they both play almost like period pieces now. The Cable Guy's underlying messages may not be very convincing, but as a showcase for Jim Carrey's insane performance it hits its mark perfectly.

With TV's In Living Color Carrey had become a comedy name, but with the surprise hit, the messy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and its even lazier sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, he became a box office super star. With his rubber face and goofy physical comedy in films like The Mask and later Dumb & Dumber Carrey he was also becoming popular with the kiddies. Though he had played a villain with some great physicality as The Riddler in the otherwise forgettable Batman Forever, it surprised many audience members when he popped up in '96 in such a dark and mean-spirited comedy as The Cable Guy. (His $20 million paycheck at the time also got a lot of flack from those audiences who fret over actors' salaries.)

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 19, 2010 5:57pm

Love at First Bite

Dir: Stan Dragoti, 1978. Starring: George Hamilton, Susan Saint James, Richard Benjamin, Arte Johnson. Comedy.

Dracula. Disco. Delusional dufuses. That's right folks, you get the whole package with this ridiculously funny and well-dialogued farce of Dracula.

The year is 1979, and things have certainly changed in 700 years. Count Vladimir Dracula (George Hamilton) and his bug eating servant Renfield (Arte Johnson) are evicted from their castle in Transylvania to make way for government training grounds. Distressed by the notice, he and Renfield try to decide where to live. The only contact that Dracula has had with the modern world is through women's magazines, which he collects to get a glimpse of Cindy Sondheim (Susan Saint James)—a model whom he believes is his soul mate and a reincarnation of women he was fond of centuries ago. In order to pursue her, they travel to New York where she lives, where he will try to win her heart.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 28, 2010 5:15pm

Bulworth

Dir: Warren Beatty, 1998. Starring: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle. Comedy.

If someone told me they found Bulworth, filmmaking wise, to be a little lazy and, comedy wise, not all that funny, I wouldn’t argue with them. If they found it a touch offensive, maybe I could be persuaded to concede their point. But for me, though flawed, Bulworth is one of the most audacious political satires ever made. And for star and director Warren Beatty it’s one of his gutsiest moves in a long and fascinating career of audacious moves. Bulworth is one of the few modern political films that is actually political - it names names.

Beatty’s first starring role was in Elia Kazan’s soapy teen love classic Splendor In The Grass (1961). He would surround himself with major directors for the next two decades, working with John Frankenheimer, Robert Rossen, Robert Altman, George Stevens, Richard Brooks, and Mike Nichols. They would all be unmemorable films with the exception of Altman’s talkie, cult Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He would fare much better working as his own producer and later as a director. As producer and star Beatty helped start a filmmaking revolution in Hollywood, with the masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The French New Wave inspired period piece, with its frank sexuality and startling violence, would influence a generation and help to jumpstart the golden age of auteurism in Hollywood of the 1970s. He would star and produce Shampoo (1975) and add director to his resume with Heaven Can Wait (1978). Both comedies were massively popular in their day with audiences and critics alike, though maybe not as "hip" in today’s light.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 25, 2010 6:51pm

I Am a Sex Addict

Dir: Caveh Zahedi, 2005. Starring: Caveh Zahedi, Rebecca Lord, Lindsey Tjian. Comedy.

The whole concept of being addicted to sex went over my head until I saw this film. Sure, I saw that the act could be something that people heavily desired, but it wasn't until after I saw an example that I was able to understand what many celebrities and political figures are trying desperately to confess in the public eye. I Am a Sex Addict is the hilariously simple and yet wholly autobiographical story of Caveh Zahedi, a director who decided to make a film about his struggle with sex addiction. After introducing that he has had two failed marriages on account of his addiction and is moments away from having his third failed marriage, Zahedi maps out his adventure, starting with his childhood, and openly discusses his parents' bitter divorce, which was based on infidelity. He also goes on a tangent in order to express the dreamy optimism of searching for a soulmate in every girl whom he encountered as a boy. From there it dives into confrontations with Anna, his first girlfriend and true love. Their relationship was based on "free-love" and polyamory, which eventually led to Caveh meeting Caroline on a trip to France and marrying her in order for her to remain in the States. After this ended his relationship with Anna, he returns to France with Caroline only to find himself entangled in a web of temptation when he discovers the world of prostitution.

At first, his desire to confront them is fulfilled by merely conversing with them, followed by the first step of his addiction, masturbation. It then goes on to actually performing sexual acts with them, while being honest about his indulgence with Caroline. This produces strain, so he then becomes dishonest with her, which ultimately ends their relationship. After learning nothing from those two women he meets Christa, a girl he thinks has finally accepted him for what he is. But as it turns out, their relationship also leads to destruction on account of his honesty. While with her he meets Devin, who also does not believe in monogamy and leads him to believe that he simply needs a better, more understanding girlfriend. But after leaving Christa to be with Devin, he realizes that Devin is an alcoholic and they too part ways in an ugly fashion. It wasn’t until his relationship with Devin that he discovered that all of his girlfriends were, in some ways, mirrors into his own soul, and that while he was not an alcoholic, he had the tendencies of one in terms of sex, and he eventually got help.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 19, 2010 2:49pm
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