Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Double Indemnity

Dir: Billy Wilder. 1944. Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson. English. Film Noir.

If you know nothing about film noir, start with Double Indemnity. This classic by director Billy Wilder was among the first bona fide pictures in the postwar genre, and it contains all the essential elements – lust, greed, violence, betrayal – that animated this wondrous American style during its great epoch of the 1940s and ‘50s.

Based on a novel by hardboiled fiction forefather James M. Cain, the biting script was co-authored by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, creator of detective Philip Marlowe. The brutal, sleazy tale is recounted (in traditional voiceover style) by canny but weak-willed Los Angeles insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), who is ensnared by the scheming trollop Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). The pair hatch a complicated plot to murder her wealthy husband and collect a large double indemnity insurance policy. But they don’t reckon on the acute intuition of Neff’s friend and co-worker, claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose “little man” in the pit of his stomach tells him something isn’t quite right.

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Posted by:
Chris Morris
Jan 19, 2008 3:07pm

Ace In The Hole

Dir: Billy Wilder. 1951. Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling. English. Film Noir.

Though it doesn’t revolve around a murder or a heist, Ace in the Hole remains a definitive film noir. Bitter, caustic, and unremittingly dark, it prophesied our age of journalistic madness as it focused on a literal “media circus” developed by a story-hungry press.

In a virtuoso performance that equals his turn in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-heels newsman who desperately takes a job at a tank-town Albuquerque paper. He stumbles on the headline of a lifetime after the owner of a roadside diner is trapped in an abandoned mineshaft while hunting for Indian artifacts. Envisioning a Pulitzer Prize and a return to the big time in New York, Tatum ruthlessly controls the story, befriending the terrified victim (Richard Benedict), romancing his slatternly wife (Jan Sterling), and cynically working local authorities and big-city editors. Then things start to come apart…

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Posted by:
Chris Morris
Jan 19, 2008 3:02pm

Witchfinder General

Dir: Michael Reeves. 1968. Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy. English. Horror.

Witchfinder General is a small classic of English horror that only recently saw re-release in its intended form. Originally distributed as The Conqueror Worm, to capitalize on the Edgar Allan Poe vehicles of its star Vincent Price, Michael Reeves’ film has previously been seen with incongruous narration and extraneous nudity added and its original score excised. A 2007 DVD restoration righted these wrongs, and it can now be experienced in all its chilling glory.

In 17th century England, chaos descends as civil war rages between King Charles I’s Parliamentarians and Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. “Witchfinder” Matthew Hopkins (Price) roams the countryside extracting “confessions” from accused witches and collecting a fee for each hanging and drowning, abetted by the sadistic torturer and rapist John Stearne (Robert Russell). A young coronet in Cromwell’s insurgent army (Ian Ogilvy) and his fiancée (Hilary Dwyer) become entangled with the murderous Hopkins.

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Posted by:
Chris Morris
Jan 19, 2008 2:55pm

Once

Dir/Wri: John Carney. 2006. Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova. English. Romance, Comedy, Musical.

Once is a love story masquerading as a musical disguised as a documentary. It is pure bliss from start to finish. Two lost souls find one another through music and then nudge each other back into life. I never once thought about the budget (which was tiny) or the acting (by 2 musicians) or even the director (who is amazing because he is completely invisible). From the opening scene where one of our heroes is unabashedly singing out his broken heart to its counterpoint towards the end where the other quietly lets out her own, I was snugly fitted into the camera lens that follows, captures and reveals them at tender, quiet, and charmingly awkward moments.

The movie is 60 percent music but it doesn't feel like a musical. It feels like a movie with a really good soundtrack. Better than any montage, each song is laden with romantic reminiscence and searching allowing us to stretch closer to the characters . This leaves enough mystery, enabling the story to unfold without compromise. If you hate the singer/songwriter Once might not be for you. But if you have an ounce of sentiment and a dash of a want-to-be-musician jones this is it.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Jan 16, 2008 5:28pm

The Day Today

BBC Television Series. 1994. Creators: Christopher Morris, Aramando Iannucci. Comedy.

I hate satire. Yeah, there, I said it. Get over it. One percent of the time satire is funny. Most comedic satirists believe all you have to do to be funny is be satirical. This is wrong. You must also be funny. Which they forget. Luckily, that one percent does exist and that one percent is The Day Today.

Created by Christopher Morris and Armando Iannucci, The Day Today is as silly as it is relevant. Much like The Daily Show, The Day Today is a spoof television news program that satirizes (I promise that will be the last time I use that word) both current events and the news programs that provide them. From anchors "losing" the news to making interviewees suck helium to discredit their statements, The Day Today puts all other subversive TV programs to shame. Did I also mention this was where Alan Partridge was created?

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Posted by:
Eric Branscum
Jan 12, 2008 5:59pm

Blood Simple

Dir: Joel Coen. 1984. Starring: John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh. English. Mystery.

I have this wacky theory that all Coen Brother movies are comedies. Even the ones that aren't comedies (this theory was proven wrong with No Country for Old Men). But even one of their bleakest films, Blood Simple, in all its revenge fueled violence and mayhem, still plays out like a Ealing Studios comedy. To fully defend my stupid (and most likely wrong) theory I'd have to give away too much of the plot, but basically every character in the movie thinks they know exactly what is going on despite the fact that they are, in reality, completely clueless to what is really happening. This all comes to a head in a final scene that if it wasn't so edge-of-your-seat, nail-bitingly tense, you'd laugh out loud. Or maybe not, what do I know?

Regardless of my pretentious genre-swapping, jibba-jabba Blood Simple is a great film. A well paced, methodically told story that seems ridiculously confident for a debut film. All of the Coen Brother aesthetics we've grown to love are there (clearly they have not progressed):  wonderful dialog, inventive camera work, and a love for southern folk. M. Emmet Walsh gives a particularly creepy performance as a hit man who will do anything if it pays right and is legal ... well, if it pays right. It also features cinemas greatest "Howdy" exchange between two passing cars.

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Posted by:
Eric Branscum
Jan 12, 2008 5:54pm

Un Couer en Hiver

Dir: Claude Sautet. 1992. Starring: Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Beart, Andre Dussollier. French. Drama.

I don't know if I have the academic background to write this particular review. Claude Sautet 's subdued genius of Un Couer en Hiver is threaded with music and art references I know nothing about. Yet, as an uninformed viewer I was no less affected by the interplay of silence, music and color to tell this elegant and slyly unique tale of love, betrayal and discovery through the eyes of an unlikely muse.

Un Couer may be seen as the birth of a great artist, or the tale of two (metaphorical) brothers and one love, but mostly it is the story of Stephane, a reserved violin maker who is a partner in a world class violin repair and design business within the elite sphere of classical music. His associate, the effortlessly dynamic Maxime, handles the buying, selling and deal making. He meets and greets the artists - is informed and affable while the reserved and intense Stephane is called when the violin needs a fine ear and fine repair. His passion is his control and within the first 3 minutes of the film you are under a spell so unexpected as to wonder about it days afterwards due to the brilliance of actor Daniel Auteuil.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Jan 7, 2008 3:15pm

A Clockwork Orange

Dir/Wri: Stanley Kubrick. 1971. Starring: M. McDowell, P. Magee, M. Bates, A. Morris, M. Gover. English. Science-Fiction.

A classic tale of boy loves violence, loses violence, and reunites with violence. Alex de Large (Malcolm McDowell) is a romantic hero for a decidedly unromantic age, represented here by a Moddish parallel universe. When all things, including humans, lose their intrinsic qualities, becoming place holders in the stimulus-response equations of a totally administered world, even the most barbarous of acts, if freely chosen, can take on a heroic hue. Not exactly a comforting thought, that one. Thus, Kubrick enhances audience identification with Alex’s creative acts of resistance via a first-person voice over, visualizing his sadistic reveries (as in a masturbatory sequence involving Beethoven’s 9th), and shooting his violent deeds through an extreme wide angle lens which tends to slightly distort everything around our humble narrator.

Alex’s fun comes to an end when he’s betrayed by his droogs after having killed a lady. After 2 years in prison, Alex charms his way into an experimental procedure at the Ludovico lab, which via behavior modification instills in him an aversion to sex and violence, as well as his beloved 9th, which happened to be the background music to one of the videos he was forced to watch. He can look, but he can no longer touch, his feelings now associated with a crippling nausea. Having been turned into a normal(-ized) citizen, Alex is released back into society. The violence he perpetrated in the first act is inflicted back on him by his former victims to which he can only respond with learned helplessness. Through the repercussions of the last creative act left to him, an attempt at suicide, the world is restored of violent personal meaning to the familiar tune of Ludwig van.

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
Jan 7, 2008 2:59pm

The Big Knife

Dir: Robert Aldrich. 1955. Starring: Jack Palance, Rod Steiger, Ida Lupino, Shelly Winters. English. Classics.

I get a real kick out certain big, strapping, "man's man" actors: Heston, Mitchum, Lancaster, Hayden and, most importantly, Jack Palance. Palance could work his way through those 50s monologues of seine-styled verbiage like Rosalind Russell on meth. If the modern-day film audience has trouble with his histrionic delivery, it’s surely because of the contemporary bias for realism within acting. To me, he's like the artist who manages to find the perfect curved line when representing action. Cartoonish? Maybe, but any comic book fan can tell you about the pleasure of a broad stroke. I prefer to look at that old-style melodramatic acting in which Palance excelled as the representation laid bare, a modernist nod to the fact that what's going on isn't real, but the emotions and thoughts are. He is the brutal signifier. And he was never better than in Aldrich's The Big Knife, a more masochistic film pleasure you’ll not likely find. The script is by James Poe, based on the play of the same name by Clifford Odets, whose work, when properly adapted as it is here, makes the more famous Tennessee Williams adaptations look like Sundance productions.

Palance plays a big-time Hollywood actor who's had his dreams replaced, piece by piece, with factory-line assembled product. Unfortunately for him, he knows what art is, but the Factory, in the body of Rod Steiger (one of the few actors who could go toe-to-toe with Palance up the tower of babble), has something on the actor, namely that he killed a child while driving drunk. Palance makes too much money for Steiger's hack producer, so he's forced to sign another 7-year contract of servitude. Due to his infidelity to both his art and their relationship, the actor’s wife, played by noir-babe Ida Lupino, is living separate from him with their child, and has threatened to leave for good if he signs on again. The misery becomes even more turbid when, like a pig to mud, Shelly Winters, playing the girl who was with Palance on that drunken night, threatens to reveal his dirty secret to the gossip columns. Steiger, not wanting to lose his golden goose, tries to get Palance to help kill Winters. The screen threatens to implode each time Palance and Steiger take a breath before launching into another tirade. With the aid of a bunch of booze, a lascivious harpy draining Palance's moral center (played by barrel-browed Jean Hagen), and a whole slew of master-servant dialectics between the royalty (Palance, Steiger) and their hanger-ons (the great character actors Everett Sloane and Wesley Addy, among others), the film reaches its moribund conclusion.

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
Jan 7, 2008 2:41pm

Solaris

Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972. Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis. Russian. Foreign/Sci-Fi

Solaris was Tarkovsky’s first foray into Science Fiction. Tarkovsky was a big fan of soft science-fiction, the kind that deals with deep moral and philosophical questions instead of focusing on laser rifles, improbable monsters and shiny robots. The film is rather loosely adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem and, predictably, the end result was not to Lem’s liking, partly because Tarkovsky took the story and thoroughly made it his own while retaining aspects familiar to Lem’s fans.

The plot concerns a mission to a space station surrounding an oceanic world they’ve named Solaris. A psychologist, Kris Kelvin, is sent to assess the deteriorating situation on the station as scientists kill themselves and apparently go insane without fail. He is to return and recommend future action, possibly shooting radiation into the planet, possibly ending the experiment.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Jan 7, 2008 2:30pm
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