Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

Films selected and reviewed by discerning movie buffs, television junkies, and documentary diehards (a.k.a. our staff).

The Red Shoes

Dir: Powell & Pressburger (The Archers). 1948. Starring: M. Shearer, M. Goring, A. Walbrook, R. Halpmann, L. Massine. Classics.

The first time I heard a reference to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes was Wes Anderson discussing it as cinematographic inspiration for the Royal Tenenbaums--one of my favorite films. I knew then that I HAD to see The Red Shoes and wasn't surprised when the film begins with a book being opened, just as Wes Anderson begins his own film. The similarities don't end there, and as I watched I began to see why he was so inspired by The Red Shoes:  the film is beautifully shot in technicolor, superbly acted, sumptuously danced, and touchingly tragic.

Though roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, the story revolves around the struggle between a ballerina, a composer, and the man attempting to make his own dreams come true by bringing fame to them all. Anton Walbrook is dark and impressive as the antagonist, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, whose standards are so high that he abhors the idea of his proteges disturbing their creative lives by finding love. When the two protagonists, Ballerina Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, and Composer Julien Craster, played by Marius Goring, fall desperately in love with each other the Company that Lermontov has assembled begins to fall apart as he loses his own grip on reality. All with the most tragic of results.

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Posted by:
Grace Bartlett
Dec 3, 2008 2:00pm

Written on the Wind

Dir: Douglas Sirk. 1956. Starring: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone. Classics.

My description of Written on the Wind that I stuck onto a copy of the DVD in the “Employee Picks” section at Amoeba is that it is a candy colored fever dream of violence and ecstasy. Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, wrote that Written on the Wind was a “screaming Brechtian essay on the shared impotence of the American family and business life.” I like both descriptions and I especially like the word “screaming” as it applies to what these desperate characters are really doing.

The first thing you might notice about the film is the colors. They overwhelm. Even if the action of the film centers on the downfall of one of those big oil family dynasties from Texas and the renegade pair of lovers caught in the middle, you might ignore the untamed passions exploding before you and instead fall into a hallucinatory stupor from all the cherry reds and periwinkle blues that flood the action of each meticulously constructed scene. The film is supremely pleasurable to look at. That quality of a luxurious surface of beauty is central to all of director Douglas Sirk’s best known works. The surface appearances—which are always gorgeous—are reflected back on themselves via mirrors used throughout his films and create a grotesquely ironic commentary on the desperate entrapment that materialism and expectations of conformity conspire to create in the lives of his characters. If we want to understand the 1950s in America and what they mean to us now we would do well to watch his films. They reveal a lot.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 24, 2008 6:51pm

The Cruise

Dir. Bennett Miller. 1998. Starring: Timothy “Speed” Levitch. English. Documentary.

The hook of The Cruise is that most New York tour guides are jaded wage slaves repeating the same statistics and soulless anecdotes to dozens of tourists every day, but “Speed” views his “loops” as an opportunity to communicate the transcendental joy of being alive in New York, a city he anthropomorphizes in different forms, giving the film a second character, and in a sense a plot. Miller operated the camera himself and he manages to shoot New York with a sensual, humble idiosyncrasy worthy of “Speed” himself. The last shot of the film feels a touch contrived, but the presence of the World Trade Center’s erstwhile towers will haunt any viewer.

It’s difficult, and perhaps impossible to impart the appeal of the documentary The Cruise without quoting its protagonist Timothy “Speed” Levitch at some length; this is in itself a disservice to any potential viewer of The Cruise because the poetry of Speed’s erudition is best seen “live”, being delivered spontaneously by the man himself, rather than being read. Speed’s hyper-articulateness must be heard to be appreciated. To listen to Speed’s quotidian orations is to discover a human being who can extemporaneously compose sentences of Jamesian complexity. So fear not, gentle reader. His words are yours to discover.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Nov 19, 2008 7:45pm

Moog

Dir: Hans Fjellestad. 2004. Starring: Robert Moog. English. Documentary.

Who knew Bob Moog had so much energy and excitement? I mean, I guess you would have to if you were the inventor of the one musical instrument to change the face of music for at least the last forty years! This is an inspiring portrait of the inventor of the Synthesizer--the Moog Synthesizer. The one and only, used by everyone from Jan Hammer to Devo and in many soundtracks including Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Musicians spanning all genres have included the Moog Synthesizer in their repertoire. From Hip Hop to Experimental and Pop to Avant Garde. Almost everyone can agree that Robert Moog invented a masterpiece of equipment when he started playing with sound waves and harnessing electrical currents.

Moog states that he "fell right into it." He was an engineer who stumbled upon an idea that just blossomed. His bright personality, which is clear in the many interviews included in the film, and his love and passion for his creation helped to bring the instrument to prominence. He had a gift for inspiring people. This documentary proves that fact. With multiple interviews by people who knew him or were inspired by him we get a glimpse of the impact this one man, and his invention, had on the way we hear music today. We also get rarely seen footage of the man himself showing off his creations as well as the studios they are built in. We see him interacting with the musicians who adore and love him for what he has given them. And we see his humbleness and reciprocal love for the musicians themselves.

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Posted by:
Grace Bartlett
Nov 19, 2008 4:47pm

Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

Dir: Dave Borthwick. 1993. Starring: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard. Cult Animation.

The Bolex Brothers production, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, is a creepy, yet enchanting, twist on the classic fairytale. It conjures up all sorts of menacing, unnerving, and violent imagery—unlike that of the traditional tale. It's set in a seedy tenement building where an unsuspecting couple conceive a tiny baby—a child so small that they name him Tom Thumb. We quickly see that the world is a harsh place, as Tom's mother is slain and he is kidnapped by sinister men who want to use him for experimentation and genetic research. The plot unfolds around how this tiny creature, with the help of some very unusual friends and the love of his father, escapes the evil forces holding him hostage; the subtext revolving around how this amazing child remains innocent and caring in a world full of fear, reactionary hatred, and prejudice.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb uses stop-motion animation in ways that I have never seen before to create scenes of epic discomfort and fear. Live actors are combined in scenes with clay-mation figures, which causes an uncomfortable, almost anxiety driven performance by the actors, who move with a lurching stagger and speak with a mumbling coo. It took dozens of hours to animate the live actors for seconds of film—an amazing feat! But it's not just the way the live actors are animated that makes this a visual triumph. Every scene is covered in tiny animated insects, the walls seem to breathe, and the earth to shake. The sets are awe-inspiring, to say the least.

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Posted by:
Grace Bartlett
Nov 19, 2008 4:40pm

The Fog of War

Dir: Errol Morris. 2003. Starring: Robert S. McNamara. English. Documentary.

We hear Robert S. McNamara's voice before we actually see him – then he tells the director, "I don't want to go back and introduce the sentence because I know exactly what I want to say." McNamara is candid, opinionated, and passionate – qualities appropriate and endearing from America's former Secretary of Defense, under President Kennedy and President Johnson.

Here Errol Morris offers us a former leader of America's military force's inside knowledge in our nation's war-driven period from the Cold War to the Vietnam War. Some of the information McNamara reveals is astounding. What moved me was that, in the film, he is emotional and intimate – I felt privileged to be able to hear what this historical figure had to say. He explained the results of our actions in several aspects – from the statistical numbers our position in war has had on our daily lives, the impact of our technological weapons, and his own position on being our Secretary of Defense.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Nov 8, 2008 4:46pm

Enemy Mine

Dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1985. Starring: Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett, Jr. English. Science Fiction.

Uncle Davidge’s Cabin Enemy Mine joins a long list of Hollywood films using alien-human tension as an allegory for race relations. The line begins with Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a 1960s space opera currently released by Criterion with a beautiful new transfer. Departing from the Daniel Defoe novel, the Friday character is not black, but he is still a slave, and the fact that he’s an alien, as well as his lowly status, still positions the white explorer as the Other’s protector. During the Cold War science fiction films used the alien-human dichotomy again to symbolize the lack of understanding between communist and capitalist ideology, sometimes propagandistically (Don Siegel’s chilling 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers), sometimes as a sympathetic plea for understanding (from Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still all the way to James Cameron’s The Abyss). But concerns about racial equality remained, addressed in various forms from the original Star Trek series to John Sayles’s underrated, overlooked masterpiece Brother from Another Planet.

In the year 2092 we’ve achieved world peace (I guess there must have been some glitches after Obama achieves it in 2009) so the human race decides to devote itself to exploration and economic development of the far reaches of space. On the course of its journey it discovers an alien race with imperialistic ambitions of its own, the Draks. During a VERY Star Wars-esque fighter plane battle, human pilot Willis Davidge (Jerry Lee Lewis, a.k.a Dennis Quaid) and Drak pilot Jeriba (Dolph Lundgren’s pursuer cop in The Punisher, Louis Gossett Jr.) are shot down over an uninhabited and hostile planet. Initially distrustful of one another, Davidge and Jeriba soon learn the other’s language, and form a close, fraternal bond. Davidge soon discovers that the contents of Jeriba’s prized book contain the same teachings as the Bible, because “truth is truth, no matter in what language.” Enemy Mine is full of warm scenes of brotherhood and life lessons learned, set against majestic, fully-rendered matte paintings. (Matte paintings, when special effects were beautiful.) Although Jeriba’s skin is a tawny brown and he is played by an African-American actor, the differences between Davidge and he are treated as primarily cultural, until a third-act racial twist involving Robinson Crusoe-esque scenes of slave labor and benevolent white protection. Although the film has a positive message and good intentions, Davidge’s near single-handed rescue of a gang of enslaved Drak miners projects a message redolent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that racial equality will come at the hands of enlightened and sympathetic whites, rather than Black agency or even integrated effort. The simplistic treatment may come from director Wolfgang Petersen’s German nationality and hence a lack of experience with the subtext’s subject matter. These faults are minor in comparison with Enemy Mine’s many virtues: an epic story centered around two isolated “Waiting for Godot” type characters, excellent production design, and an idealistic, if flawed, message.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Nov 8, 2008 4:36pm

Charlie Wilson’s War

Dir: Mike Nichols. 2007. Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Drama.

A smart and funny political biopic for grown ups from director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) about the likable Texas congressman whose influence led to U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays “(Good Time) Charlie Wilson” as a well meaning political hack who watches as his crusade for the U.S. to assist in helping the people of Afghanistan against their Soviet occupiers turns into a Cold War sideshow that inadvertently gives rise to Islamic Radicalism. The film manages to stay light on its feet without glossing over the sobering consequences of what was a complete mishandling of a volatile situation.

______________________

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:18pm

Glengarry Glen Ross

Dir: James Foley.1992. Starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin. Drama.

David Mamet’s pitch dark morality play about capitalism as a nihilistic force for poisoning the human spirit was turned into a film in 1992 with an all star cast featuring Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, and Alan Arkin. All of them play miserable salesmen both complicit and bitterly at odds with having their sense of identity wrapped up in their weekly sales figures. The actors work the odd time signatures of Mamet’s trademark dialogue and the lines are delivered with a seething intensity that leaves you a little shaken.

____________________

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:14pm

Prairie Home Companion

Dir: Robert Altman. 2006. Starring: Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson. Comedy.

Robert Altman’s last film is an adaptation of NPR staple “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s liberal humanist weekly revue of folky Americana music, wry story telling, and gentle send ups of modern mores and it couldn’t be a more fitting film to go out on. Altman uses the big cast putting on their last show plot as a means of meditation on different kinds of death: the death of an old timer, the death of live radio as an art form and he creates something moving without being cloying, heartfelt without being sentimental....

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:10pm
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