Movies We Like
Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff
Films selected and reviewed by discerning movie buffs, television junkies, and documentary diehards (a.k.a. our staff).
The story of the Civil Rights Movement was almost made for television. It was done in front of TV cameras and acted out for the the television news audience. Much of the time the goal was shining a light on the abuse black Americans were suffering at the hands of the racist Southern political structure. Unfortunately, unlike say, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement does not have a very long list of important films about it. There have been solidly crafted films like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, but like most of them it’s actually about white people (the FBI v.s. the KKK. Now remind me again, which side are we supposed to root for?). Ironically, the best film inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement is a foreign one, Bloody Sunday, the Paul Greengrass docudrama about the massacre of Irish protesters by British troops.
The epic PBS documentary series, Eyes On The Prize, has become the bible of everything you could ever want to know about the Civil Rights Movement, but unfortunately due to licensing and rights issues, it has gone out of print on VHS and is only now available for educators. Luckily two of its producers, Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, also wrote and directed Citizen King for the PBS series, American Experience. And at under two hours it manages to tell a lot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. story with the perfect mix of archive footage and talking heads.Continue Reading
It is a treat and a privilege to see the work of actors and directors that are versatile and consistent. Director Marc Forster has had an interesting approach to portraying damage within people, families, and romantic relationships. In movies like Stay, The Kite Runner, and Finding Neverland, we can see examples of his attempts to unify an audience with stories and feelings that no one is exempt from. But when Monster’s Ball was presented, featuring an extraordinary cast and controversial subject matter, I was more than eager to see what all the buzz was about. To say that it did not disappoint would be an understatement.
The story seems simple: two strangers meet and become romantically involved. But here is the not so simple part. Halle Berry gives an Oscar-winning performance as Leticia, a waitress who lives on the brink of eviction with her son who has a lifelong struggle with obesity. Her ex-husband Lawrence, wonderfully played by Sean Combs, is within 72 hours of execution on death row. Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank, a corrections officer specializing in assisting prisoners on death row and currently is assisting Lawrence’s last days. He lives with his son Sonny (Heath Ledger), who is also in the same profession, and his father (Peter Boyle) who retired from the same profession. His life circulates with racism, ritual, unease, bitterness, and abuse. The two meet in the most unconventional way when Leticia’s son is struck during a hit-and-run and Hank later witnesses them in distress and escorts them to the hospital where the boy is pronounced dead. From there a consuming and aggressive romance begins to unfold.Continue Reading
The Parent Trap
Let me just play my cards right now...On a lazy Sunday morning I was lying on the couch watching something called “The Family Channel” and BAM I became completely absorbed watching the 1998 remake of Disney's 1961 sorta-classic, The Parent Trap. Wow. I was blown away by it. And even with this Family Channel berating me with commercials (a 127-minute movie shown in a three hour slot), I was completely sucked in and moved by it.
Yeah-yeah, you know the deal...Two long lost identical looking little girls run into each other at summer camp. After some minor conflicts they realize that they're related, twin sisters to be exact. And then they hatch a plan to switch places in an effort to get their estranged parents back together and live briefly in the other's shoes. Before you scoff, let me remind you Shakespeare toyed with these same kinds of plots all the time (no, really, he did).Continue Reading
Death Of A President
It goes without saying that during the 8-year term of former President Bush, many activists, parents and the general public alike had little to no trouble expressing their anger and disappointment with the balance and well-being of the United States. Death Of A President, an astounding mockumentary on the successful assassination of President Bush, would then seem to be a sort of outlet in cinema of the events leading to and following the ultimate display of anarchy towards any government. But this is not the message behind this film. If anything, it simply asks that you both pay attention to the policies and laws that govern us as a people, and think twice about taking matters into one’s own hands.
The film opens with a certain anxiety, looking over industrial buildings while listening to an Arab woman’s voice off-screen. The point of her dialogue is to stress consequences. Her husband, Jamal Abu Zikri, is an IT professional of Syrian descent who has become the prime suspect among a line of other Middle-Eastern men in the assassination of the President. She knows he is innocent and cannot fathom how someone could commit such an act without knowing that it might lead not only to the end of the President’s life, but also to the end of government as we know it and the downfall of many other innocent people.Continue Reading
The Thin Blue Line
Two men are in prison for the rest of their lives. One is Randall Dale Adams, an average man who appears rational, patient, and has had no distinct trouble with the law. The other is David Ray Harris, a young and destructive delinquent on death row after many years of trouble with the law. On November 28, 1976 their paths crossed in an act of gratitude and friendlessness when Adam had car trouble and the then 16-year-old Harris offered him a ride. By morning, a police officer would be shot dead and the trial to decipher which of them is guilty is enough to plot an entire trilogy of thrillers.
Documentaries are a strange breed of cinema, outlined by rules and guidelines set forth in order to produce "cinÃ©ma-vÃ©ritÃ©." This quest to give the audience "truth" leaves absolutely no room for bias, or theatrics for that matter. That is of course until Errol Morris came through with The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that successfully argues the innocence of a man and eventually leads to his release. After all, once you put a camera up to any situation, you are in some ways distorting truth. Morris simply adds reenactments and colorful visuals to the frame in order to give an appropriate feel to a film documenting a crime and the lousy justice department that attempts to solve it.Continue Reading
A Chinese Odyssey Part One - Pandora's Box
Not too long ago the DVDs for A Chinese Odyssey Parts One and Two came into Amoeba. From the brief once-over I gave the boxes, they looked like they might be interesting and worth checking out. Both starred Stephen Chow, they are Hong Kong fantasy films, and they were only $4.99 each. I wanted to do a little more research to see if they were worth my time and money and quickly made my way to the internets to see if I could find a trailer. Which of course I did. The trailer for Part One has fleeting glimpses of a half man/half monkey as well as a half man/half pig. People were flying across the sky, women were turning into spiders, and I think I even saw a giant bull. As I was watching this my reaction was a quiet, “Oh, this looks pretty good.”
…NO! What is wrong with me!? A movie about a half man/half monkey and his pig friend flying and fighting and doing magic cannot be described as looking "pretty good." It looks absolutely crazy is what it looks like! And this was the moment that I realized that I have truly gone off the cinematic deep end. Because I love Kung Fu movies. And I watch a lot of them. So much so that my brain can no longer recognize something like this as silly but instead as totally awesome…which it is.Continue Reading
As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.Continue Reading
"What’s your favorite movie of all time?" Anyone ever ask you that? In my world (Hollywood, movie nerds, Rocket Video, Amoeba, etc.) it’s not unusual to be asked. Matter of fact, it’s almost expected. Though not as fluctuating as "what’s your favorite song of all time?" It is helpful to have an answer ready for the question. I have mine. Annie Hall.
"What’s your second favorite movie of all time?" is a little harder. The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In The West, Rosemary’s Baby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Blue Velvet, The Road Warrior, Vertigo, Apocalypse Now, Out Of The Past, I mean the list could go on and on. Maybe my number two is Woody Allen's follow up to Annie Hall, his black & white Manhattan.Continue Reading
Let’s revisit the early 1980s. Picture yourself removed from all forms of technology that are now so familiar and seem to endlessly grow. We’re talking Internet, texting, Blu-ray, and even modern day cable television. Now imagine that satellite television is the most exciting concept. Let’s also imagine the thrill of recording and watching something on videocassette. Supposing you are one of the privileged few who has access to this technology, what would you choose to watch? Remember, you’re now able, for the first time, to pull video feed from anywhere with this satellite into your home. How much would you want to devour with your own eyes and in what ways might it change the way you live?
I have something I want you to watch. Its name is Videodrome. Directed and written by David Cronenberg, it is a film with a philosophy about a mind-altering pseudo-program that has a philosophy of its own. James Woods plays Max Renn—the president of a small cable television channel that presents exclusive and mostly erotic content. His idea is simple: allow people to manifest their desires at home and, as a result, keep it off the streets. While working with his assistant he comes across segments of a pirated television show called Videodrome. In short, Videodrome is a near primitive display of unlucky souls who are tortured and/or raped, never to return onscreen. The simplicity and terror of the program is unlike anything he’s ever seen. He wants to share this vision with his viewers, thus beginning a quest to find its source.Continue Reading
The Reckless Moment
What do a famous film director with a deep appreciation for Korean food and a handful of fellow middle aged customers who shop at Amoeba every single day have in common? They love the import DVD section. The import section is reserved for DVDs from different parts of the world that have different region coding from U.S. DVDs. If you have a region free DVD player you can watch them. What is surprising is how many film titles are only available as imports. 1984, Barfly, and The Magnificent Ambersons are just a few of the titles that either went out of print or were never released on DVD in the U.S. and can only be bought relatively cheaply as imports. Cinephilia can be a lonely and expensive calling made more frustrating by limiting what one watches to what the studios dictate as permissible for one to purchase. I begin this review extolling the virtues of Amoeba’s import DVD section simply because without it I would never have been able to see The Reckless Moment on DVD, which would have been a real shame because it’s one of the best thrillers released during the heyday of American film noir and perhaps one of the strongest feminist films I’ve ever seen. The Reckless Moment stars Joan Bennett as Lucy Harper, an upper middle class Californian housewife who looks after her teenage daughter and pre-teen son while her husband is perpetually away on business. Between her kids and her father-in-law she doesn’t seem to have any time to herself. Although her station in life is a privileged one, with all the perks such a position affords—hired help and a huge house to name but two—she is completely trapped by her situation without seemingly a moment to devote to herself. Her entire identity seems to be subsumed by motherhood. She is perpetually photographed in the film with the silhouette of her home’s staircase and other furnishings casting prison bar-like shadows across her. This isn’t a Douglas Sirk tearjerker about the spiritual emptiness of white American privilege (well, not completely), but rather a classic noir thriller, so let me get to the part of the story where someone gets murdered.
Bennett’s rebellious daughter Bea, played by Geraldine Brooks, is stepping out with a sleazy older guy whom Lucy knows is all wrong for her daughter. Bea is in art school which is shorthand in the film for being surrounded by all the wrong people. Mother and daughter fight but Bea refuses to budge. Lucy takes matters into her own hands by traveling to a seamy part of L.A. from her idyllic lakefront property to confront Bea’s boyfriend, Ted. She is determined to protect her family at all costs, and Ted turns out to be just as much of a lowlife as she thought he was. Later though, when Ted winds up dead just steps away from their beautiful home, Lucy, without knowing what exactly happened, must figure out how to dispose of the corpse and keep her daughter’s name out of the murder investigation. To complicate matters further, a couple of blackmailers turn up demanding $5,000 for Bea’s love letters to Ted which were used as collateral by Ted for a debt he never repaid. When asked by one of the blackmailers why she is doing so much on behalf of her daughter, Lucy looks him in the eye and offers up being a mother as the only reason necessary.Continue Reading