Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Serpico

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 1973. Starring: AL Pacino, John Randolph, Tony Roberts. Drama.

Al Pacino played his first cop in Serpico and, by my count, would go on to do it six more times in Cruising, Sea of Love, Heat, Insomnia, Righteous Kill, and something called The Son of No One. (He’s played a criminal in twice as many films.) It’s fair to say that at the time Serpico was released there had never been an on screen cop like this one. It was Pacino’s most Dustin Hoffman-like performance (back in those days they were compared to each other, for good reason). In Serpico, Pacino seemed shorter than usual, his back was humped, his voice more nasally, and his Elliott Gould mustache early in the film grows into a full on scraggily beard. Serpico was an oddball cop who liked ballet, lived with the freaks in the Village, had a dog instead of a baby, and most weird of all, wouldn’t take a payoff. In New York that was enough to almost get you killed. 

Serpico’s story take place in the '60s, which was a time of unprecedented police brutality. In the South civil rights workers were being abused by cops. In the North racist big city cops were continually harassing black citizens which led to many major uprisings (or riots). Vietnam protesters in Chicago were faced with Gestapo tactics on national television. The film was an unflinching look at the underbelly of a police force that differed so much from the propaganda Hollywood had given us about cops on TV and films for decades. The film was based on the hard-hitting, best-selling biography of Detective Frank Serpico by Peter Maas (King of the Gypsies), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever). The great New York director Sidney Lumet (Network) took over production after John G. Avildsen (Rocky) was fired. Lumet brought his signature grit to the look and, as usual, elicited truthful performances from the cast. 

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 24, 2014 5:49pm

Lady Sings the Blues

Dir: Sidney J. Furie, 1972. Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor. Black Cinema.

The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.

Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 20, 2014 12:51pm

Rollercoaster

Dir: James Goldstone, 1977. Starring: George Segal, Timothy Bottoms, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda. Cult.

Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.

To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 11, 2014 2:44pm

The Punk Singer

Dir: Sini Anderson, 2013. Starring: Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon. Documentaries.

Cults can be wonderful, as The Punk Singer—Sini Anderson’s admirably idolatrous celebration of punker Kathleen Hanna—makes clear. Hanna always inspired a devoted few and it never seemed to matter if her fundamentalist fervor, totally understandable hypocrisies, or bratty indifference to anything more politically nuanced than “Suck My Left One” made her look simplistic to outsiders who wondered what the fuss was about. Hanna’s fans did not care and honestly I salute them. As The Punk Singer makes clear, once the Riot Grrrl movement got national media attention and some stories were written that Hanna’s band Bikini Kill disapproved of they reacted with a media blackout. They stopped talking to journalists because it was assumed they couldn’t be trusted to “get it.” As one of her next band’s (Le Tigre) songs went: “It’s just a joke man; it’s just an interview. You wouldn’t get it; I guess this shit is too new.”

Well, yes and no. Though little is said about the punk front women who preceded the punk of The Punk Singer, there were tons! Where to begin? Ari Up, Poly Styrene—it would be useless to even attempt to cover those bases here. But suffice to say Hanna worshipped those women even if the film about her doesn’t credit them for blazing a trail for her to follow. Still, Hanna was undeniably captivating right from the start. She looked great and she made people uncomfortable which is a really good combination for anyone fronting a rock n’ roll band.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Feb 11, 2014 2:32pm

Nothing But a Man

Dir: Michael Roemer, 1964. Starring: Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Julius Harris. Black Cinema.

"They don't sound human, do they?" - Duff Anderson

When I was a kid, movies took up a big slice of my daily routine. I was an introverted introvert with nary a friend to call my own. Pop's wasn't around so that left my mom, sister and our RCA television to raise me. I was devouring movies at such an alarming rate my mother began to worry. But that's what mothers do; they worry about their children - especially African mothers. (How will she ever get a grandchild from someone who prays to a TV set?) By the time I was seventeen, I was a self-proclaimed film buff. (Not like I had anything else going for me.) I openly mocked peers with my cinema prowess, brandishing pithy one-liners and pop culture references to put them in their place. But one of those underlings asked an interesting question: "What was my favorite film on African American life?" It made me ponder how much Black cinema I've actually seen. The answer startled me. Now, outside of John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers, some Blaxploitation movies and the occasional Spike Lee joint, there weren't that many I was exposed to. I blamed it on the fact that compared to others, African American movies were far and few between. Heck, I saw more movies from Alfred Hitchcock than all the directors I named above combined. But that was lazy and actually quite inaccurate. There was plenty of gold to be had. So I started to dig. Nothing But A Man was one of those gems I discovered. Now this may come off as hyperbolical fluff but I honestly believe this is not only one of the best films on African American life, but American life, period. I never liked the distinction between the two anyway. It's rare to see a film on this subject handled with such tact and elegance - a quiet, sensitive piece with the delicacy and finesse of a Swiss watch.

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Posted by:
Aiah Samba
Jan 23, 2014 5:43pm

Julius Caesar

Dir: Joseph Mankiewicz, 1953. Starring: Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Greer Garson. Classics.

The DVD of the 1953 Hollywood version of Julius Caesar directed by the underrated Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) has been relegated to old-time Shakespeare buffs and students not wanting to sludge through actually reading the play. And yes, it looks a little stagey and feels a little dated and stiff, but it’s still a politically relevant play and has one of the most fascinating casts ever assembled for a Shakespeare adaption. Headlined by a young buck in only his fourth film, Marlon Brando absolutely dominates the veteran cast around him and proves his genius. His performance alone makes the film more than watchable, and luckily there are a few other treasures to be found in it.

The now familiar plot goes something like this... worried the head dog of Rome, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), was getting a little too powerful, his fellow politicians decide to kill him, led by the conniving Cassius (John Gielgud). Even Caesar’s good friend Brutus (James Mason) is convinced to join in the plot for the best of the Republic. The Senators all take turns stabbing Caesar (done mostly just off screen). After his death, Mark Antony (Brando), who was not part of the cabal and admired Caesar, is allowed to give a speech at his funeral only after agreeing to not implicate anyone. Brutus must deal with the nagging guilt, his still conspiring allies, and his wife Portia (Deborah Kerr). When Antony delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears speech” he convinces the crowd, using pure sarcasm and coded words, who is to blame for the murder. The speech is the centerpiece of the film and then it becomes a literal war between Antony and the conspirators who are all turning on each other.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 23, 2014 5:18pm

Hell Drivers

Dir: Cy Endfield, 1957. Starring: Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan. Classics.

Much can be said in the realm of cinema for the undeniable attraction of masculinity for the sake of masculinity; observing men on the screen without the pretensions of heroics or unfathomable depth. Portraying men as these yearning, overly sympathetic balls of clay that can be molded into polite and admirable human beings with some ostentatious goal or task is a bit tired and unrealistic and done all too often. When you isolate the male, especially during the time that this film was made, you come out with primal displays of machismo that are oddly reassuring simply because they can be expected. Underneath the plot of this well-crafted, yet simple British film, is just that; men amongst men trying to downplay their competitive advances with each other using a speedometer, fights and a few witty remarks.

In the lead we find the handsome Stanley Baker (Zulu, The Guns of the Navarone) as Joe “Tom' Yately—an ex-con running from the past yet trying to get to a question mark of a future with haste. Through word of a dead friend he's learned about a company of truck drivers that operates in a bizarre way; should the speedometer for your vehicle drop to the speed limit (on a ballast top loader carrying tons of granite), you're fired. Men are expected to make above average drop offs to the granite yard and in return make a handsome salary.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jan 23, 2014 5:06pm

Buffalo '66

Dir. Vincent Gallo, 1998. Starring Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Ben Gazzara, Angelica Houston, Kevin Corrigan. Drama.

Few would dare to say that the films of Vincent Gallo are romantic. Certainly not when it comes to the ghostly plot of The Brown Bunny, and perhaps is even a stretch with Buffalo '66. Supposing you've seen these films (and this is more the case with Buffalo '66), you will have one of two reactions that says a lot about your own romantic relationships and you as a person. This, among other things, is something that brings me to view them more than any other drama. In all seriousness, Gallo's character studies—while vain due to the fact that he plays the leading male—are absolute works of genius; where transgression finds forgiveness and those of us who pine about the seemingly impossible task of finding someone just as strange as you can find solace and, I dare say, hope.

In the film we find Billy (Vincent Gallo), a young man released from prison after a five year stretch and understandably numb due to this experience. He seems to be someone who is cursed with bad luck and for a moment you're under the impression that his angst will lead him back to prison within a day. His first order of business is to call his mother to bring closure to a grandiose lie. He's informed his parents throughout his stint that he's actually been away on a top secret government assignment. Being a compulsive liar, he's also told them that he's married and promises to visit with his new wife. Through a random circumstance he meets Layla (Christina Ricci) and kidnaps her, though his efforts are more desperate and childish than violent. Intrigued by his efforts, and perhaps a bit smitten, Layla puts up a modest fight before hearing out his plea to get her assistance. He wishes to see his parents, which would mean introducing them to his non-existent wife. She agrees to play the role, and here their bizarre romance begins.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jan 23, 2014 4:56pm

Lost In America

Dir: Albert Brooks, 1985. Starring: Albert Brooks, Julie Hagerty. Comedy

Three comic masterpieces in a row is enough to put you on the higher rung of American humorists. The Marx Brothers had that run with Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Mel Brooks had The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (with the less vital The Twelve Chairs mixed in). WC Fields had that amazing trifecta of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen are three more legends whose hot streaks went beyond three. Albert Brooks, an underrated comic genius of recent generations, is the forgotten man. Throughout the '70s he shined as a cutting edge stand-up comic and made groundbreaking short films for that first season of Saturday Night Live. He made his writer/director feature film debut in 1979 with Real Life, a wonderfully uncomfortable comedy that predicted the coming of reality TV. He followed it with Modern Romance, often called Brooks’ Annie Hall, a deadeye take on both Hollywood and love. And then finally maybe his most perfect gem, Lost in America, the most biting satire of Ronald Reagan’s "greed is good" 1980s yuppie culture. (A less sophisticated comic mind like Steve Martin poked fun at the culture with L.A. Story, but was actually embracing the superficiality.)

The first step in embracing an Albert Brooks film is deciding whether or not you can stomach him. The guy plays some of the most neurotic and deeply insecure characters in movie history, and as David Howard in Lost in America, he’s as obnoxious as ever. The movie opens with him laying in bed with his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty, fresh off another comic masterpiece, Airplane!). He can’t sleep; he has second thoughts on the much bigger house they just bought and he’s excited with anticipation for the big promotion he is expecting to get at the advertising agency he has worked at for eight years. He assures her once that promotion comes he will no longer be the uptight husband he can’t help being. Linda is a study in understanding, but the next day she breaks down to a co-worker wondering if she can go on like this. To his shock and disappointment, instead of the promotion, he is transferred to New York. He throws a massive tantrum and is fired. In a sorta melt down, he convinces himself that he has been freed from the rat race and talks Linda into quitting her job too. They make a plan: sell the new house, cash out all their stocks and bonds, leaving them with $180,000 to live on for the rest of their lives (this was considered a lot in 1985), buy a motor home to escape from Los Angeles and travel the country (just like Easy Rider!), and maybe settle in a lighthouse in Connecticut where they can paint and write and no longer have to worry about ambition. Deal! First stop, Las Vegas, for a wedding vowel renewal. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works though. While David sleeps, Linda gambles away their entire fortune in a casino. It’s even more downhill from there as they head East and now must rediscover themselves without the comfort of the nest egg.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 23, 2014 4:19pm

Compliance

Dir: Craig Zobel, 2012. Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy. Mystery.

I’m all for being provoked by a film if I think there is a good reason. I’ve steered clear – right or wrong – of legendarily sadistic fare such as Salo, Irreversible, and Takashi Miike’s work, to name a few, because whatever important things about modern society they think they’re getting at, I just don’t like watching people horrifically degrade one another for two hours at a time. I don’t really think it’s a necessary punishment we need to go through when we go to the movies in order to learn about life or art. It’s just not something I can easily stomach. Maybe that makes me a dubious critical voice here but I think there’s a fallacious connection between onscreen depravity and important, serious cinema. It’s a weird kind of pretension that suggests that the movie-as-endurance test is the most serious kind of cinematic art. I think that’s dumb. But hey, that’s just me.

That said, Compliance, Craig Zobel’s true crime tale of a sinister phone prank played on a fast food manager in Kentucky, had its fair share of walkouts. A lot of people got angry at this film and were disgusted by what they saw onscreen and exasperated by the idiotic decisions made by the principle characters, but I didn’t mind because the film is an excellent and very timely morality tale. It’s a morality tale in that it’s a story with an actual moral seriousness running through it - something that I don’t think you can say of similarly provocative films of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it depicts a world so familiar to some of us – a fast food restaurant off the highway in rural America where employees are made to feel entirely dispensable and where there is always some omnipotent higher level of authority in charge but never present. That the employees never question the horrific things they are asked to do by a sociopathic prank phone caller is telling because, as service industry workers, they are made to feel so passive to the authority and control of the corporation that owns the franchise that it tragically never occurs to them to say no.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Jan 3, 2014 11:31am
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