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).
Bad Day at Black Rock
I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.
The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.Continue Reading
Every so often there comes a film that makes one question the motives of the individuals responsible for the picture that’s painted through the moving frames you see on the screen. Sometimes, not only do the motives come into question but perhaps the morality as well. It’s a very rare thing for an artist, director, writer, musician, etc. to push one to the brink of trust. The co-writer and director of the film The King, James Marsh, is one of those artists. An artist that paints a picture so bleak and disturbing that it becomes nearly impossible for one not to claim irresponsibility on the part of said artist. My description of the film might be a bit dramatic when in fact the film itself might be a bit melodramatic, but either way, this film will get you at your core and it will stay with you long after you view it.
The King tells the story of an afflicted young man by the name of Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) who, after just recently being discharged from the US Navy, goes on a journey to connect with David (William Hurt), the father he’s never known. After the first confrontation, David makes it clear to Elvis that he is not welcome. Suddenly, David is conflicted as he is faced with the moral responsibility of telling his family. What’s so conflicting is the fact that David is a minister at the local mega-church, as well as a respected member of the community, and he had no idea that he had a son other than the one who he calls “son.” Despite David’s warning to Elvis, Elvis forces his way into David’s life without him realizing it. Elvis’ presence in the family circle proves to be disatrous for all involved. From its mesmerizing opening to its violent and dreary climax, The King provides the audience with a look into the lives of those who are driven by faith, passion, and hatred, yet makes no judgment on those lives and allows for the audience to judge for themselves.Continue Reading
Star Trek (2009)
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN There are few things that get remade, revamped, remodeled or resurrected in such a way that actually makes me happy to see/visit it again. The newest take on the Star Trek franchise has made me a happy camper for sure. I blame this on several things actually...
SEVERAL THINGS Director J.J. Abrams, popular television maestro of Alias, Felicity, Lost, and Fringe uses his talents to guide us on this Trek. P.S. - Abrams has commented that he was not a Star Trek fan prior to directing the film.Continue Reading
“A mob doesn’t think. It doesn’t have time to think.” - Sylvia Sidney as Katherine Grant
Fritz Lang wasted no time in establishing his reputation in Hollywood as the master architect of the thriller. His first American film after having fled Hitler’s Germany is a searing indictment of the dark side of the American character that pulsates with an almost unbearable tension for its first half as a collision of combustible elements in a small town ignites into a shocking act of cold blooded mob violence. Lang wanted to do a film about the culture of public lynching in the U.S. and the curiously grotesque party atmosphere that has historically accompanied them. He felt that his protagonist would have to be guilty of the crime for which he was being lynched and that he should be African American in order for the story to truly resonate in this country and for the film to have the maximum impact. MGM would never agree to either of these stipulations, so he geared his story around a young Spencer Tracy as an American everyman in the wrong place at the wrong time, who faces the full unhinged brutality of a mob of townspeople calling for his blood.Continue Reading
"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." — Orson Welles
“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” — Simone Simon as Irena DubrovnaContinue Reading
Anthony Mann had a storied career as a director of westerns, many of which starred Jimmy Stewart (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur). He directed one of the most ecstatically bizarre examples of the genre—The Furies starring the great Barbara Stanwyck. But before he made his name with westerns and sprawling epics such as El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, he is best remembered as one of the original progenitors of the noir style. Mann made some of the most classic films associated with noir in the late 1940s and, for my money, nothing beats his shadow-drenched masterpiece Raw Deal. With its rich expressionist visuals and eerie Theremin score, Raw Deal is a poetic depiction of a world in perpetual twilight.
Dennis O’Keefe —one of those beautifully rough hewn actors in the Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden mold—plays Joe Sullivan, a guy doing time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit (as a favor to a local crime syndicate boss with the promise of $50,000 coming his way if he plays along). Joe’s girl Pat is played by Claire Trevor, who provides a haunting voiceover throughout the film in a whispered voice that suggests she’s mourning Joe before he’s gone. She would do anything for him, and he is happy to let her. She shows up for a prison visit with information about how she’s going to spring him from jail. Rick, the crime boss of Corkscrew Alley, a.k.a the bad part of town, has engineered a scheme to bust Joe out of jail and have him snuffed out before he can claim his 50 Gs, but all Pat knows is if things go as planned he’ll be out of the big house and back in her arms that night. Joe has another woman in his life complicating his relationship with Pat, though. Marsha Hunt plays Ann, his case worker, a prim brunette to Pat’s life-hardened blonde, who believes that the real Joe Sullivan is a decent guy who deserves a second chance in life if he agrees to play by the rules. But Joe never had much luck from the start and he has no intention of going straight now. At dusk he makes his escape, barely outrunning prison guard gunfire to a waiting car and, once inside, Pat and Joe make their getaway. But before they can get out on the lam Joe insists they first take Ann hostage and force her to play along until they get to the hideout (which is really a set up) that Rick has arranged for Joe.Continue Reading
The Shanghai Gesture
The Shanghai Gesture is an impressively sordid film noir with the gauzy atmospheric haze of an opium induced nightmare. Director Josef von Sternberg went admirably overboard in depicting his idea of an exotic horror show. As in his most famous film and the one that introduced the world to the Teutonic splendor of Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel (1930), Sternberg had a thing for dropping weak-willed characters into dens of iniquity, only to let those poor suckers become enslaved by their obsessions and get taken for every nickel. He seems to enjoy the spectacle of their descent from flawed innocents to vice-addled wrecks. Whereas The Blue Angel was about a priggish professor led into ruination by the low rent charms of Dietrich’s Lola Lola cabaret chanteuse, in The Shanghai Gesture it’s a beautiful young woman (Gene Tierney) who starts out as the privileged daughter of a British developer abroad and ends up a raving gambling and who-knows-what-else-addict. Although the play on which The Shanghai Gesture is based is reportedly far racier and more explicit than the film, Sternberg still finds lots of shadows to explore in the material, resulting in a film slightly less disturbing than The Blue Angel but still a lot stranger than most studio fare of its time.
The Shanghai Gesture takes place in Shanghai but is unmistakably shot on a studio set. The artifice of smoke machines and dimly lit indoor streets create a wonderfully nocturnal atmosphere that is perfect for the material. Realism has no place in this story. Gene Tierney plays Poppy (yes, Poppy) a rich girl who shows up at a Shanghai gambling house run by proprietress ‘Mother’ Gin Sling (Ona Munson). ‘Mother’ Gin Sling’s gambling house is the center of the action for most of the film. It’s circular in shape with multiple levels surrounding the main casino floor and blindingly white. It’s a temple of vice where anything can happen. Poppy takes an almost sexual pleasure in the illicit activities of the tuxedo-clad gamblers—wealthy denizens of a lawless town—and the money and alcohol all around her, and tells her date for the evening, “It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think a place like this existed except in my imagination.” Dialogue like that makes a film easy to love. As it turns out, Poppy’s father is a developer intent on forcing Mother Gin Sling to shut down her casino and vacate the premises. Gin Sling, with her terrifying Medusa hair and vindictive nature, discovers one of her new regulars is the daughter of the man who wants to shut her down and sets to work on destroying her as a way to get back at her father. Victor Mature, playing a cape clad minion to Gin Sling, is assigned with the task of leading Poppy astray. Poppy proves to be easy prey, getting hooked on gambling and losing her father’s money by the thousands while boozing it up night after night. Gin Sling keeps advancing her money to gamble with until she essentially owns her.Continue Reading
Living in Oblivion
An artist painting about art. A writer writing about writing. Here is a film from a filmmaker about filmmaking. Yes, this film may appeal most to all filmmakers of any trade, but aside from its low-budget-independent-film-reference-allure, the film is just as funny as it is smart and can be enjoyed by a wide audience.
Filmmaking in the independent scene is not an easy trade. Boom microphones find their shadows in shots. Good craft service can be hard to come by. The camera assistant might not understand how to keep a shot in focus. Your actress will do her best performance when the camera is not on. And, you can wake up sweating, from this terrible nightmare.Continue Reading
This is one science fiction film unlike any other. Jean-Luc Godard’s unique French New Wave sensibilities have combined science fiction with film noir, creating a multi-layered, French Surrealist work.
The premise is philosophical and metaphysical, where the main character, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), is a trench-coat wearing agent from the “Outlands.” He is in search of a missing agent, Henry Dickson, and is also looking to kill Professor Von Braun, the creator of Alphaville. Then he is set to destroy Alphaville or the controlling computer, Alpha 60, a sentient computer that outlaws love, poetry, and emotion. One of Alpha 60’s rules is that instead of people asking “why," they should only say "because," and therefore those who show any signs of emotion are interrogated and executed. Caution seeks the assistance of Natasha Von Braun (Anna Karina), the professor’s daughter, who claims she does not know the meaning of “conscience” or “love.” He ends up falling in love with her, his quest of destroying the computer-mentality to replace the human race by Alpha 60 more evident than ever. The unpredictability of his emotions stems a whole new adventure and ultimate discovery for both him and Natasha in his fight for free thought and individuality.Continue Reading
The Last Wave
In Peter Weir's atmospheric film The Last Wave, we are brought into a world of Aboriginal witchcraft, dream reality, and disorientation; similar to his film Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir offers few clear cut clues and loads of mystery, creating a wholly mesmerizing viewing experience.
The film opens up with a scene from a school house in a rural area of the Australian desert. A sudden violent storm begins outside and, as a young boy is looking out the window, a heavy hail begins and a large chunk of ice crashes through the window, slashing the boy in the neck. During this scene we are treated to a montage of images from the city, showing gridlocked traffic and people running from the heavy rain of the freak storm.Continue Reading