Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Cat People

Dir: Jacques Tourneur, 1942. Starring: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway. Horror.

"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations." — Orson Welles

“I like the dark. It’s friendly.” — Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Sep 2, 2009 5:23pm

Raw Deal

Dir: Anthony Mann, 1948. Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr. Film Noir.

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.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 20, 2009 1:21pm

The Shanghai Gesture

Dir: Josef von Sternberg, 1941. Starring: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature. Film Noir.

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.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 10, 2009 5:07pm

Living in Oblivion

Dir: Tom DiCillo, 1995. Starring: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros. English. Comedy/Drama.

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.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Jul 30, 2009 2:19pm

Alphaville

Dir: Jean-Luc Godard, 1965. Starring: Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine. French. Foreign/Science-Fiction.

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.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Jul 30, 2009 1:56pm

The Last Wave

Dir: Peter Weir, 1977. Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Olivia Hamnett, David Gulpilil. Foreign/Mystery.

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.

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Posted by:
Jonah Rust
Jul 27, 2009 11:48am

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Dir: Peter Weir, 1975. Starring: Rachel Roberts, Vivean Gray, Helen Morse, Kirsty Child. Foreign/Mystery.

What we see and what we seem are but a dream... a dream within a dream.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the first Australian films to break through to an international audience, and it is also one of director Peter Weir's earliest and most important works. Weir would later go on to direct such giants as The Year of Living Dangerously, Dead Poet's Society, and The Truman Show. Picnic at Hanging Rock, mysterious and dream-like, confusing and open-ended, provides a glimpse of this prolific director's early vision.

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Posted by:
Jonah Rust
Jul 27, 2009 11:33am

Pillow Talk

Dir: Michael Gordon, 1959. Starring: Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, Thelma Ritter. Classics.

I enjoyed Pillow Talk but I’m wracking my brain on how to justify why I liked it. It shouldn’t be that hard. It’s a colossally stupid movie to be sure, but then is profundity really the hallmark of a well made Hollywood film? A lot of the best movies produced under the studio system were always the end result of a delicate interplay between cynical studio ridiculousness and genuine artistry. No one would confuse Pillow Talk for a work of art even by Hollywood standards. Frankly I’m not even sure I’d call it a smart romantic comedy. Doris Day and Rock Hudson aren’t exactly Tracy and Hepburn. She is frighteningly perky and he has no comedic instincts whatsoever. What they embody isn’t really depth or wit or chemistry, but instead I think what sold the public on them is how happily “normal” they seemed during a tumultuous era in American history. They were movie stars for the age of television. They weren’t so much of the 1950s as of a perrenial 1950s mindset. If the fifties were the decade where conformity was next to godliness then conventional wisdom has it that Day and Hudson were its thoughtless, grinning poster children—Mr. & Mrs. McCarthy Era.

But their first onscreen pairing in Pillow Talk wasn’t until 1959 which leads me to conclude that instead of being a kind of cultural apex for a dull decade, Pillow Talk was really a last gasp of a reactionary hold over Hollywood. Bonnie & Clyde and the rise of a more sophisticated European art house influenced American cinema were only 7 years away. By 1959 Americans in-the-know were already getting their first taste of cinema in a radically different idiom from the likes of Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman to name a few. Pillow Talk, then, is retrograde even by 1959 standards and, as such, was already shorthand for how out-of-touch Hollywood filmmaking had become, fair dismissal or not.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 27, 2009 11:30am

Animal Factory

Dir: Steve Buscemi, 2000. Starring: Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Danny Trejo, Mickey Rourke. Drama.

Animal Factory is the story of a young man (Furlong) who gets prosecuted for drug dealing. He is sent to a maximum-security prison, putting his life and soul at stake.

Edward Bunker and John Steppling’s screenplay is raw to the bone writing—not trying to spice up the dialogue, rather providing a very realistic cadence to the way these prisoners speak and interact. The screenplay is based on Bunker’s novel, which was inspired by his own stints in the penitentiary. Modern audiences mostly know the author as “Mr. Blue” in Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Jul 21, 2009 1:31pm

The Beastmaster

Dir: Don Coscarelli, 1982. Starring: Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, Rip Torn. Fantasy.

Beastmaster is classic of early '80s swords and sorcery films. Providing all of the staples of the genre, as well as providing some head scratchingly original material. Although it's one of those action films that you really need a sense of humor to appreciate, (Beastmaster is a total B movie) there is a coherent enough story line, interesting characters, and some pretty decent effects for the time, making it clear why this film has, over the years, gained a growing cult following. The Beastmaster begins with 3 disfigured witches peering into a cauldron and casting spells. After seeing a vision, they inform Maax, an evil high priest (Rip Torn) that he will be slain by the king's unborn child. Maax, in order to sacrifice the baby, sends one of his witches late at night to the child's bedside with a cow. The witch transfers the baby into the cow's womb with magic and escapes with the child to a remote place. Just as the witch is finishing her ritual, about to deal the killing blow, she herself is killed by a passing peasant with a bladed boomerang.

The peasant then returns to his village with the child and begins to raise the boy. In his childhood the boy, now named Dar, discovers that he has a telepathic ability to speak with animals and see through their eyes. Soon after the boy Dar becomes a fully grown Beastmaster, played by Marc Singer, his entire village is destroyed by savage, animalistic, barbarians. Dar then does the only thing any respectable Barbarian, animal controlling, orphan would do. He begins a quest for revenge.

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Posted by:
Jonah Rust
Jul 20, 2009 5:11pm
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