The Wrestler

Dir: Darren Aronofsky, 2008. Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood. Drama.

Director Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) returns to his roots by making a film with a bare-bones look reminiscent of his debut Pi. Aronofsky makes a far less polished film than its predecessors, as far as aesthetic design, focusing on performance above all else. The Wrestler is less plot driven than it is about the nature of desires, regret and one “broken down piece of meat”'s last shot at athletic glory.

Mickey Rourke (Barfly, Angel Heart) headlines the film as the wrestler in question, Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Although he did some supporting work in such films as Tony Scott’s Domino and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, it is as the title character of this film that Rourke put himself back on the Hollywood map. As a man fighting against time, desperate for one last shot at life in the spotlight before his body fails him, Rourke plays Robinson with unflinching honesty. It is one of those performances when actor and character become so integrally linked that it feels as if you're watching true life unfold. It is a brave and unabashed performance. One of the year’s finest.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Jun 29, 2009 2:03pm

The Ice Storm

Dir: Ang Lee, 1997. Starring: K. Kline, J. Allen, S. Weaver, T. Maguire, C. Ricci, E. Wood, K. Holmes. Drama.

Set over 1973’s Thanksgiving weekend, The Ice Storm is the tale of a group of suburban families in Connecticut dealing with ever shifting social mores and sexual desires.

Based on the acclaimed novel by Rick Moody, James Shamus’ screenplay adaptation is a dark but truthful examination of the American family. It is well structured with highly dimensional characters, never bowing down to the oversimplification of human behavior. Rather, he gives them each their own voice and distinctive point of view.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Jun 29, 2009 1:19pm

Network

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 1976. Starring: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Drama.

Network has cemented its place as one of the finest and most enduring examples of American cinema. A satirical look into the media industry and its effect on the human condition, a film that unflinchingly makes points and claims that, in 1976, may have seemed like comedic exaggeration, yet today are accepted norms. Prophetic and eloquent, a film whose undying relevance seems to resonate with growing intensity as time moves on...

"This story is about Howard Beale, who was the network news anchorman on UBS-TV." This is the narrated introduction to the film. Beale, played by Peter Finch, has recently learned of his imminent firing from the station and announces his plan to commit suicide in a future broadcast, live on television. This creates a huge uproar at the corporate level and, soon after Frank Hackett, the Executive Senior Vice President of the network, appears (played by Robert Duvall) to fire Beale on the spot.

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Posted by:
Jonah Rust
Jun 8, 2009 7:49pm

The Arrangement (1969)

Dir: Elia Kazan, 1969. Starring: Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr, Richard Boone. Drama.

Thanks to my co-worker Jackie for throwing this one my way after telling her how much I enjoy Richard Lester’s Petulia.

Here’s another success from jack-of-all-trades Elia Kazan. This time around he’s mining the tumult of the white-collar male psyche amidst 1960s america. This was a time when veteran and rookie American filmmakers were absorbing the groundbreaking editing and storytelling techniques of European behemoths like Bertolucci, Bunuel & Bergman, and regurgitating them into something wholly new. Something prime Americana. This particular example is a great meeting place for leaders of the old guard (Kazan, Douglas & Kerr) rubbing elbows with a dash of the then-newer crop (Dunaway). This vehicle ends up working as a social mixer for the classic styles of Kazan’s past and the fresh ideas coming in from across the Atlantic. The resulting product nests roughly between the realms of a classic melodrama and a surrealist psychological satire.

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Posted by:
Adam Payne
May 18, 2009 1:27pm

Rachel Getting Married

Dir: Jonathan Demme, 2008. Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Debra Winger. Drama.

So, I'll go ahead and use a fussy distinction, and call Jonathan Demme's film cinéma direct, rather than cinéma vérité, since it calls more attention to its subject than itself. It's grueling enough to deserve the three accent marks, however. Unlike the use of the shaky-cam in Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, always keep the camera in the objective, 3rd-person tense. They also, thankfully, keep it more transparent than Paul Greengrass's more navel-gazing camera eye. While moving room to room, the audience floats along, but when the wedding party guests are talking, the filmmakers fix the shot, remembering that modern cameras can re-focus on stuff in the background without having to move. Whatever you call it, Rachel Getting Married is realism at its squirm-inducing most direct.

Jenny Lumet's script rarely hits a wrong note in analyzing a particular bourgeois Connecticut family's power struggles that are inherent to most families. Whereas my family get-togethers center on frito-pie and football, Rachel's wedding involves Indian attire and cuisine with Robyn Hitchcock and Cyro Baptista supplying the entertainment. All attention is being paid to Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) until her younger sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), shows up with a weekend pass from court-mandated rehab. What follows is the gentrified version of the Electra Complex. The sisters compete for attention from Dad (Bill Irwin) using what they have: Rachel is the perfect daughter with some undefined perfect job, perfect friends (successful musicians and writers) and a perfect fiancé, whereas Kym is the classic second-child fuckup, with drug addiction being her calling card.

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
May 12, 2009 4:53pm

I’m Not There

Dir: Todd Haynes, 2007. Starring: C. Blanchett, C. Bale, R. Gere, H. Ledger, K. Kristofferson, B. Greenwood. Drama.

Contrary to the average Hollywood celebrity, Bob Dylan’s a star who largely created the stories surrounding him, sold his image based on those stories, but then resisted those stories once the media and his fans began to read him too literally through them. In this fantasy documentary about the singer, director/co-writer Todd Haynes tries to walk the line between individualism (subjectivity defining itself) and his own radical semiotic belief that everything is just stories, signs signifying other signs. The problem here is that if there is no core Dylan that we can ever arrive at, only a series of stories that we compile, how can we understand or appreciate what Dylan was resisting against or why, since that rebel is nothing but another confabulation, no truer than the rest? As the title suggests, the movie celebrates Dylan’s resistance to being defined, giving its subject what he wants, a portrayal on his own terms, not held down by anything he says about himself or others. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Dylan gave permission for the extensive use his music. The irony here is that, despite its postmodernist structure of multiple narratives, the film divines a core Dylan-construct by giving into and clearly defending his side of the story, or stories.

One might be tempted to take the position that the only thing important about Dylan is his music, but this film isn’t about determining the meaning of his lyrics from his personal life. Rather, it asks how we should view an artist (or artist qua celebrity) in relation to his art. Haynes is right in the sense that, at best, all we’re going to get is a construct/story of Dylan, but aren’t some constructs better than others? You can sail as long as you like, but you ain’t going to fall off the world, regardless of how old your map is. Therefore, aren’t we entitled to hold the storyteller, or mapmaker, responsible for at least some of his creations? It’s in addressing this question of moral/political/aesthetic responsibility that Haynes gives up the postmodern ghost. As has been well reported, there are a number of actors playing what’s been best described as avatars of Dylan. None of them are named ‘Bob Dylan,’ nor are they supposed to be biopic versions of the man himself, only cognates of stories about the man that have been spun by Dylan and others. I’m only interested here in a few of them: Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett as a female version of Pennebaker’s folk-rebelling Electric Bob in Don’t Look Back), Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin as a black child representation of Americana that Dylan emulated at an earlier age), and Billy the Kid (Richard Gere as the storybook American rebel and rambler that Dylan often played out in his songs and as symbolized in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, which featured Dylan in a supporting role). I no more care about their actual veracity than Haynes does, only the way he uses them as suppositions in his argument as a movie.

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
May 11, 2009 12:33pm

Quiz Show

Dir: Robert Redford, 1994. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield. Drama.

Quiz Show is a quintessential tragic American story. The great subject of the film is television and the point at which it came to define American culture for better or worse (mostly worse). With television itself having an almost operatic power as a thematic backdrop, the film tells the story of a son tarnishing his family’s good name, the architects of television’s pop cultural dominance cynically duping an entire nation, the casual anti-Semitism of the 1950s, the cultural clash of WASPs and ethnic New Yorkers, and a young Washington investigator who wants to make a name for himself and winds up destroying his friend in the process.

The year is 1958. An NBC quiz show called 21 is a national obsession that 50 million people tune into each week to see what they think is an honest display of intellectual acumen and knowledge. What they don’t know is that the show’s producer, Dan Enright (played by character actor David Paymer), in cahoots with the show’s principal sponsor Geritol and with the implicit approval of NBC itself, is fixing the results of the show to boost the ratings. The film begins as the current reigning champ of 21, Herbert Stempel (played with wiry desperation by John Turturro), is given the boot for being too goofy looking, too unrefined, and, though they won’t say it, it’s clear that he is too Jewish. As the president of NBC muses, they want a guy on 21 who looks like he can get a table at 21. Enter the elegant, educated, and super dreamy Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes playing the Ralph Fiennes type) who innocently drops by NBC to try out for a different game show at the behest of his friends. When Enright and his sleazy sidekick Albert Freedman (played by Hank Azaria) spot him, they can barely contain themselves. Charles Van Doren is from a celebrated American literary family. His father Mark (played by the recently deceased Paul Scofield) is an English professor at Columbia University, where Charles also teaches. Charles has amazing hair and Ivy League manners. He is the perfect little lamb for Enright to lead to the proverbial slaughter.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
May 7, 2009 4:08pm

Chopper

Dir: Andrew Dominik, 2000. Starring: Eric Bana, Bill Young, Kate Beahan, Simon Lyndon. Drama.

Loosely based on his autobiography written from behind bars, Chopper is the story of legendary Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read who garnered fame with his claim that he had killed up to seventeen people.

Andrew Dominik’s screenplay adaptation is wonderfully colorful and peppered with Aussie colloquialisms, while also being naturalistically brutal and raw. It is the type of story that pulls no punches and hits you in the face like a locomotive.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Apr 28, 2009 5:56pm

Basquiat

Dir: Julian Schnabel, 1996. Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Benicio Del Toro, David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman. Drama.

In Julian Schnabel’s intimate portrait of an artist, Jeffery Wright exploded on the film scene as Jean-Michel Basquiat, a graffiti artist turned international painter. The story is about his rise and fall amidst the New York elite, his friendship with Andy Warhol, and the women he loves.

After a successful painting career, Julian Schnabel (Oscar nominee for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) made his feature debut as a writer-director in this tribute to the life of his friend. His screenplay is simple, but efficient and his direction is gentle and compassionate -- bringing out wonderful performances from a brilliantly cast group of actors. He also does a great job of incorporating the music to define the times and emotions of the moment.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Apr 27, 2009 12:32pm

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 2007. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Michael Shannon. Drama.

Maybe it sounds odd to call a movie "great" if by the end it makes you feel like your soul was taken away, but Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is such a work. With an amazing ensemble cast and a non-linear script that reveals new facts about the characters all the way until the final shot--this is a film that reminds you how powerful dramatic fiction is supposed to work.

Through the different character's perspectives, the film is about the build-up and aftermath of a botched jewelry store robbery in the suburbs. Opening with the violent event, we soon find out afterwards that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) planned the robbery together as a victimless crime in response to some urgent needs for money. But these aren't your typical, slick movie heist-men whatsoever. Andy is a somewhat well-off business accountant seeking escape for a more fulfilling life, while Hank is a single father who's desperately behind on child support. Part of what makes the film work so well is how the script gradually unfolds and clues the audience into new details as it plays, so the only other plot point worth mentioning here is that the store they rip off happens to be owned by the men's parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Martha (Amy Ryan).

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 12:49pm
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