Morvern Callar

Dir: Lynne Ramsay, 2002. Starring: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott. Drama.

Morvern Callar is one of the most visually stimulating films I have ever seen. Based on the novel by Alan Warner, it is a poetic and complex work that stirs some of the most tender and infuriating emotions within us. The opening scene is fragmented and leads the film to its core with the same sorrow and confusion that will remain present throughout the feature. Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) finds her boyfriend shortly after he has slit his wrists and finds a message on his computer instructing her to publish his novel, make arrangements for his funeral, and to "be brave."

You wait for some kind of outburst from her. It’s Christmastime and everything is uncomfortably quiet. She lies on the ground next to his dead body and caresses his back. She leaves the body alone and opens her Christmas presents: a sliver Zippo, leather jacket, tape player, and a mix tape. After a while she listens to it and chain smokes. Still, you are waiting for some kind of extreme action in order to break your discomfort. In a sense, there is an extreme, but not what you'd expect. She begins to bathe and put on makeup, eventually leaving to attend a wild party with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). The film focuses on the color red throughout almost every shot, keeping you on the edge and expecting something foul. But I think the red stands for more than bloodshed. It reappears to illustrate the carnage in everyday life and the desire to eat it up before you get old.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 21, 2010 5:54pm

Factotum

Dir: Bent Hamer, 2005. Starring: Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei. Drama.

Factōtum: n. An employee or assistant who serves in a wide range of capacities.

When it comes to Bukowski, the rest of the world can be separated into three categories: those who don't know he exists, those who praise his unconventional poetry and language, and those who detest his work and see him as a glorified alcoholic and womanizer. As far as films surrounding Bukowski are concerned, many are aware of or have seen Barfly, which attempts to paint a portrait of the man and his muses. I've mentioned Factotum to others and most are unaware of the film, just as I was unaware of others based on him and his work in general. The title is taken from a work of Bukoski's with the same name, which I have haven't read, nor have I seen other films surrounding his alter-ego and work, and this includes documentaries. A large part of me doesn't want to, which is why this film works well for me and others who are unaware of or not interested in doting on another poet. Matt Dillon's performance - and the film as a whole - makes it easy to take the film in for what it is, a movie about an alcoholic who is a writer, gambler, womanizer, and blue-collar misfit. You can find this person, give or take a few qualities, within most artists and writers. The fact that Dillon's character is named Chinaski instead of Bukowski, and that everything is centralized in a few events and acquaintances, removes the film from your traditional adaptation. In short, even if you are among those who don't like or don't know of the writer, you can enjoy this due to its lack of a "faithful" attachment to him or the work.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 30, 2010 2:01pm

The Longest Yard (1974)

Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1974. Starring: Burt Reynolds, Eddie Albert, Ed Lauter, Michael Conrad, Bernadette Peters. Drama.

Along with Deliverance a few years earlier and Boogie Nights decades later, The Longest Yard is one the three best movies of Burt Reynolds' career (there are not a lot of good ones to choose from) and maybe his best performance. It’s the perfect role to show off his machismo sense of humor and the laid back, good-ol’ boy charm that made him a superstar in the '70s. He had his share of very successful films (Smokey and The Bandit, etc) and a few nice ones (Starting Over), but the trio of Deliverance, Boogie Nights, and especially The Longest Yard are about the only times he teamed with major directors and had perfect scripts to suit him. (By the time he did Nickelodeon with Peter Bogdanovich or Rough Cut with Don Siegel or Semi-Tough with Michael Ritchie those once great directors' shelf-lives had already expired.)

Director Robert Aldrich had a diverse and distinguished career - only a handful of home runs, but those hits were massive. Moving from television to film he would make one of the last great noir films, Kiss Me Deadly, and then the classily twisted What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. He would direct a number of solid action films including Flight of The Phoenix, Too Late The Hero, and peak with the wildly popular rowdy WWII film, The Dirty Dozen. The Longest Yard would repeat the cynical formula, making the bad guys the heroes. And with it Aldrich would prove he still had one more great film in him (unfortunately after The Longest Yard the rest of his career was pretty much junk, including reteaming with Reynolds for the listless detective film Hustle).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 26, 2010 1:34pm

The Runaways

Dir: Floria Sigismondi, 2010. Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon. Drama.

A great rock n’ roll film doesn’t have to get everything right. There really isn’t a way around the clichés of telling the classic rock biopic tale. It’s always the same. Scrappy young kids create sparks playing together in the garage. They play shows in divey little clubs and then a sleazy impresario comes along to whip them into shape and acts as Svengali, enabler, and all around brow beater. After several go nowhere sessions in the studio they get that one song right and then cue the montage of their steady climb up the charts followed by too much partying, band feuds, solo albums, and then the inevitable implosion. Whether it’s a documentary about the Sex Pistols, The Filth & The Fury, or the fictional Ladies & Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains the classic rock n roll narrative rarely veers off course. The Runaways is a great rock film, which is not to say it works on every level. It’s a disjointed film of mostly excellent individual scenes and adrenaline pumping performances. Don’t expect real insight into the collaborative nature of a band or really any aspect of the Runaways’ story that isn’t directly associated with Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, and Kim Fowley. The other girls in the band might as well not even exist. But do expect tough girls in tight jeans and leather jackets, 1970s Sunset Strip sleaze, and a deeply romantic portrait of teenage girls making rock n’ roll records and taking on a music industry that didn’t know what to do with them.

The Runaways doesn’t shy away from what made the band unique. Some reacted to the raw sexuality in The Runaways as if it was exploitive and that makes zero sense to me. As the scarily good Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley says, “This isn’t about women’s liberation! It’s about women’s libido!” Calling the honest depiction of teenage sexuality exploitive is condescending and misguided. The director, Floria Sigismondi, never loses sight of the fact that these are young women discovering the world and themselves together. It’s not cynical at all and is in fact much less offensive than the virgin/whore pop star thing that caters only to men.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 13, 2010 2:58pm

Fast Food Nation

Dir: Richard Linklater, 2006. Starring: Greg Kinnear, Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno. Drama.

It stands to reason that if you can get people to eat s*** and like it you can pretty much get away with anything. This is the sentiment I took away from Eric Schlosser's devastating expose of the fast food industry, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of The American Meal (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001). The book was compared to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle for its gritty glimpse into an industry that has a stranglehold over our agriculture, our declining health, and our government. (And he really does point out that because of the American beef industry's dedication to doing things as cheaply as possible sometimes feces make their way into hamburger patties. Seriously.) Eric Schlosser connected the dots as to why fast food is so cheap and omnipresent and what he discovered was a vast system of interrelated factors that have been set up to dominate and degrade almost every aspect of our society - from the disgusting ways in which cattle are treated, to the exploitation of undocumented workers, to the disease and obesity epidemics currently plaguing this country. Schlosser wrote the definitive account of why American ideals are so compromised by the dominance of fast food culture. Making a documentary based on the book seemed to be the most logical way to visually depict Schlosser's investigative findings but director Richard Linklater had a different approach. Instead of filming Fast Food Nation as a muckraking documentary he uses the general narrative structure of Steven Soderbergh's ensemble film about the international drug trade, Traffic, as a device for exploring the business of fast food and its negative effects on all of us from multiple viewpoints.

The film follows lots of different characters caught up within their own troubling relationship to fast food production. Greg Kinnear plays an executive for a fast food chain called Mickey's. We follow him as he meets different people affiliated with the hamburger chain. He's shocked when he's told by his superior that they have worries about public outcry over their product. "There's shit in the meat," he says. He talks to scientists paid by Mickey's to craft the taste of liquid smoke in test tubes. He meets the kids who work at a Mickey's in Colorado. A young idealist named Amber (Ashley Johnson) working at Mickey's after school starts to realize that she doesn't want to be a part of what Mickey's is selling. Bruce Willis has a cameo as a cynical meat processing plant owner who warns Kinnear's character about sticking his nose in their business when he hears rumors about mistreatment of workers at the plant. We follow the experiences of Mexicans who crossed the border illegally into Colorado and work in the factory who are taken advantage of at every turn. Some turn to drugs to cope with the long hours and brutal work. Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and even Avril Lavigne pop up in different roles. Amber meets up with a group of college students determined to raise public consciousness about fast food's toll on the environment but have their illusions shattered when they see it's more complicated than they realized.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 6, 2010 5:06pm

The Big Chill

Dir: Lawrence Kasdan, 1983. Starring: T. Berenger, G. Close, J. Goldblum, W. Hurt, K. Kline, M. K. Place, M. Tilly, J. Williams. Drama.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).

Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 2, 2010 5:05pm

The Godfather

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1972. Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton. Drama.

If you watch any of the terrific documentaries on films of the last fifty years (The Kid Stays In The Picture, A Decade Under the Influence, Visions Of Light, etc) you will notice there is ONE film that comes up over and over, its influence and success massive, the impact it had on the public and the industry indescribable. If you polled people, I bet it would make as many favorite ten-best lists as any other movie. If I happen upon it on TV I set sucked right in. It's the Gone With The Wind of its time.... Yes, you know what we are talking about, The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.

Of course this is the epic story of a post-WWII Italian American family. Vito, the Patriarch (Marlon Brando), is the head of the Corleone crime organization. The film opens at the wedding of his daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). His oldest son, Fredo (John Cazale), is a rather weakly type. His next son, Sonny (James Caan), a hothead womanizer, is the heir to take over the business. There is also an adopted Irish American son, Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), who works as the family’s lawyer. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is there with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). He is not part of the family business; as a collage graduate and a "war hero" there are expectations for greatness cast upon him. In a nutshell, The Godfather is a tale about how Michael evolves from clean-cut, all-American wanna-be to the head of the family when his father dies and his brother Sonny is murdered. And he ends up becoming even more ruthless than his father ever was.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 12, 2010 12:29pm

The Day of the Locust

Dir: John Schlesinger, 1975. Starring: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, William Atherton. Drama.

Adaptations of quintessentially L.A. novels tend to either work marvelously, as with L.A. Confidential, or don't quite measure up to their source material (a category I’d lump Ask the Dust into). John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust was a costly misfire for Paramount Studios which spent something like 6 months on the film and a whole lot of dough. It could have been as influential as Chinatown, but it was a flop upon release, though ultimately it had some enduring appeal as a cult film in later years. Nathaniel West’s novel is generally considered to be the very best novel on Hollywood, its more grotesque inhabitants, and its tragic allure as a festering dump where dreams go to die. That makes the novel sound sobering and self-serious but this is a story about fame whores, violently degenerate midgets, sociopathic child actors, cockfights, stag films, and a movie premiere that culminates in the apocalypse. It’s brutally dark and really, really entertaining.

The movie is essentially a literal adaptation of West’s novel and it came under criticism from some quarters for being too literal. Director John Schlesinger was taken to task for supposedly ignoring the arch satire of West's depiction of Hollywood as the epicenter of greed, desperation, and idiocy, and instead ratcheting up the cartoon nihilism to a fever pitch. But when you do a story about America’s pop cultural border town that ends with a murderous orgy of celebrity blood lust I’m not exactly sure "holding back" is the way to go. The Day of the Locust is about a particular kind of American tragedy that West found on Hollywood Boulevard during the 1930s. In the dive bars and diners that lined the boulevard were hundreds of desperate people without a nickel to their name, all drawn to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. Most, West found, couldn’t even get work as extras. He saw them as a mass of human wreckage under the movie premiere kleig lights. The dark joke beneath the glittering dream that Hollywood came to embody was exquisitely rendered by West as it was happening. The film does justice to the novel with its horror show theatrics under the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California and ultimately it’s more creepy than campy.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 7, 2010 11:00am

Last Tango In Paris

Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci, 1973. Starring: Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Jean-Pierre Leaud. Drama.

Film acting can be defined with "before Brando" and "after Brando." Marlon Brando brought a reality and a vulnerability to the screen that had never been fully been realized by a major movie star before his startling run of influential film performances in the early 1950s. The generations of "method actors" (Dean, Newman, Hoffman, De Niro, Pacino, Penn, etc.) all cited Brando as their number-one influence on their own revolutionary work.

No other actor has given a string of film performances like the first half dozen of Brando's performances; they were monumental. The Men (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), Julius Caesar (1953), The Wild One (1953), and On the Waterfront (1954) (for which he finally won his first Oscar) all contributed to his legend.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 19, 2010 12:51pm

Homer & Eddie

Dir: Andrei Konchalovsky, 1989. Starring: James Belushi and Whoopi Goldberg. Comedy/Drama

You know how in old classic films or screwball comedies there is usually some sort of love triangle where a guy and a gal "meet cute" and go on some ridiculous adventure together, later to get married? Well, Homer and Eddie is sort of like that scenario, only fairly depressing and in no way romantic.

Homer (James Belushi) is a slightly mentally handicapped man who has lost a bit of sense and gained a fair amount of childlike ignorance after being hit in the head with a baseball during a game when he was a boy. In the beginning of the movie he prepares himself for a long journey, saying goodbye to his desolate neighborhood and a local stray before hitting the road. His goal is to see his sick father before he kicks the bucket, though the man and his entire family have pretty much abandoned him after the case of his retardation. While hitchhiking on the freeway, he gets his suitcase and cash stolen. With no means of lodging, he wanders into a garbage dump and falls asleep in the backseat of a seemingly empty car. But in the morning, he discovers that he's not alone as the driver, Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg), was asleep in the front. After being startled by the aloof and friendly stranger, she tries once to rob him, then oddly offers up help in a half-brained scheme to locate the men who stole the money that she somehow figures is now rightfully hers.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
May 3, 2010 5:41pm
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