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).
Busby Berkeley Bonus Disc (Busby Berkeley Collection)
It may seem like cheating to skip over the five films featured in the first Busby Berkeley Collection and single out the bonus disc included with the collection as a “Movie We Like,” but the very fact that Warner Brothers bothered to include the extra disc comprised solely of the musical numbers from Berkeley’s films indicates that they were eager to facilitate the pure rush of cinematic delirium that occurs when watching the crazy things back to back. Berkeley didn’t write or direct most of the films included in the box set collections that bear his name but his authorial hallmark is stamped right across all of them. He created and staged the musical numbers for the films and it’s these musical numbers that gave him immortality as one of the great film architects of glamorous spectacle and Hollywood mythology. The best of Berkeley’s musical numbers are pre-Production Code wonders of erotic reverie and paradisaical splendor. They looked like nothing that had come before though they have certainly been imitated and paid homage to by directors entranced by their bizarre majesty ever since. Berkeley turned song and dance numbers that bridged the scenes of what could have been generic studio musicals into glittering ecstatic pageants that rendered the lovely legs of chorus girls into a kaleidoscopic “ballet mechanique,” filling the entire screen in one hallucinatory art deco fantasia after another. There is beauty to Berkeley’s approach but there is also darkness that creeps in, such as in the desperate city-dwelling throngs killing, thieving, and hustling to the title song of 42nd Street. Fellow practitioners of the dark arts of Kino Delirium, Kenneth Anger and Guy Maddin, owe this guy a lot and I would assume that they would be the first to admit it.
The plots of Berkeley’s films are mostly variations on the backstage musical archetype with a make it or break it “let’s put on a show!” finale. The films themselves - such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 with stars like James Cagney and Ruby Keeler - are a lot of fun, if a little slow between the numbers. I once saw Gold Diggers… screened at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and seeing the film with booze, surrounded by the graves of Hollywood luminaries at night was several great things made more so by their combination. But it’s the musical numbers that everyone wants to see, and so to get the purest expression of Berkeley’s genius it’s nice to be able to skip right to the whiz bang heart of it and luxuriate in the delights of “We’re In the Money,” “By A Waterfall,” and the very weird and wonderful “Pettin’ In the Park,” which serves as unimpeachable evidence, if any was necessary, that the 1930s was as sexually frank an era as any before or since.Continue Reading
Alfred Hitchcock’s second to last film, the underrated Frenzy, may not rank in his top tier. I would reserve that for The Birds, Vertigo, Notorious, and the first two-thirds of Psycho. But it definitely deserves consideration for that next tier, a still high quality group of classics that may include Rebecca, Strangers On A Train, Rear Window and North By Northwest.
Returning for the first time in decades to his old stomping grounds in England, the then seventy-three year old master was able to fully embrace the sex, violence, and nudity standards that had become looser by the early 1970s. The film is shockingly explicit even when compared with say, Marnie, his sexual thriller he made only eight years earlier.Continue Reading
Blur: No Distance Left to Run
You will never convince me that there was a more definitive group for the 1990s than Blur. With a manifesto to astutely chronicle pre-millennial anxiety in sharply observant pop songs such as "For Tomorrow," "Girls & Boys," and "The Universal," they were three impossibly good looking young men (plus possibly good looking drummer Dave) with wildly different personalities who created some of the most memorable songs of the last decade of the 20th century. As is so often the case with the best bands their personal clashes made for some wildly explosive creative tension. In Damon Albarn they had a singer who looked like Leonardo DeCaprio reconfigured as an anime character—Britpop's very own Astro Boy; he of the vintage Adidas zip-up, artfully messed up hair, and burning ambition to front the biggest band in the world. His good looks and arrogant attitude were coupled with an extraordinary talent for writing catchy tunes that were every bit as good as their obvious influences—Bowie, Scott Walker, The Kinks, Syd Barrett, The Buzzcocks, et al. In Graham Coxon they had "the most talented guitarist of his generation," the indie kid obsessed with American hardcore who played raggedy chords that bled emotion and aggression all over Albarn's sterling compositions. Graham gave Damon’s songs soul and in his shy demeanor and anti-pop tendencies was seen as Albarn's main adversary within the group. Alex was Blur’s jet setting bon vivant bass player. He was gorgeous, tall, gave the best press quotes, and seemed determined to cultivate a reputation as a champagne Charlie always looking for a good time with people equally famous and beautiful. Simultaneously detestable and wholly endearing at the height of his explorations into the decadence of celebrity culture, he was also the most charming member of the group. Dave the drummer was just lucky to be there, I think, though his egghead presence gave Blur some of their singular cache as the thinking boy and girl’s pop star pin ups.
Cute boys writing old fashioned pop songs may seem kind of typical now but circa 1993 when Blur became Blur as we know them it started nothing short of a British pop cultural revolution. They hit their stride by railing against grungy yank dominance and waiving a Union Jack as a slightly ironic act of defiance. Their third record Parklife was a massive hit and their fantastic songs showcasing a scrappy post modern grab bag ideology was as influential in Britain as the first wave of punk. It was all downhill from there of course and they disappointed themselves and their original fans with a hollow if massively successful follow up LP called The Great Escape. After a year or so despairing about spawning the xenophobic watershed of Cool Britannia they managed to redeem themselves and even win over the U.S. in the process with a moody and reflective self-titled fourth album that harkened back to their scruffier beginnings. Two more records followed the last without contributions from Graham who had left the group or was kicked out. No one is absolutely sure what happened. At that point Blur was over and no one expected them to return. But rumors started circulating last year that they were going to reunite for some summer shows in England. No Distance Left To Run is a documentary chronicling their reunion shows and finds time to tell their story from their Goldsmiths Art College origins to the rise–fall–redemption– reunion story arc the band dutifully followed.Continue Reading
We’ve all seen movies that circulate around addiction, whether it be substance abuse or recreational activities. The success of their messages can either scare the pants off an audience, urging them to never go down that path, or pull recovering addicts into a reminiscing spell. But Candy is somewhat different. Directed by Neil Armfield and co-written by the novel’s author, Luke Davies, it is a story more about the addiction of being loved and its consequences than of substance abuse.
Heath Ledger plays Dan, a sensitive, almost puppy-like poet who is addicted to heroin. Candy, played by Abbie Cornish, is an artist who falls madly in love with Dan and all of his habits, including the drug. Together they think they’ve found a bliss and complacency unlike anything they’ve ever experienced that would be the envy of any romantic, as well as a "secret glue" holding their world together. Though this euphoria is aided by the opiate, the real drug they fall under the influence of is their infatuation with one another.Continue Reading
I Am a Sex Addict
The whole concept of being addicted to sex went over my head until I saw this film. Sure, I saw that the act could be something that people heavily desired, but it wasn't until after I saw an example that I was able to understand what many celebrities and political figures are trying desperately to confess in the public eye. I Am a Sex Addict is the hilariously simple and yet wholly autobiographical story of Caveh Zahedi, a director who decided to make a film about his struggle with sex addiction. After introducing that he has had two failed marriages on account of his addiction and is moments away from having his third failed marriage, Zahedi maps out his adventure, starting with his childhood, and openly discusses his parents' bitter divorce, which was based on infidelity. He also goes on a tangent in order to express the dreamy optimism of searching for a soulmate in every girl whom he encountered as a boy. From there it dives into confrontations with Anna, his first girlfriend and true love. Their relationship was based on "free-love" and polyamory, which eventually led to Caveh meeting Caroline on a trip to France and marrying her in order for her to remain in the States. After this ended his relationship with Anna, he returns to France with Caroline only to find himself entangled in a web of temptation when he discovers the world of prostitution.
At first, his desire to confront them is fulfilled by merely conversing with them, followed by the first step of his addiction, masturbation. It then goes on to actually performing sexual acts with them, while being honest about his indulgence with Caroline. This produces strain, so he then becomes dishonest with her, which ultimately ends their relationship. After learning nothing from those two women he meets Christa, a girl he thinks has finally accepted him for what he is. But as it turns out, their relationship also leads to destruction on account of his honesty. While with her he meets Devin, who also does not believe in monogamy and leads him to believe that he simply needs a better, more understanding girlfriend. But after leaving Christa to be with Devin, he realizes that Devin is an alcoholic and they too part ways in an ugly fashion. It wasn’t until his relationship with Devin that he discovered that all of his girlfriends were, in some ways, mirrors into his own soul, and that while he was not an alcoholic, he had the tendencies of one in terms of sex, and he eventually got help.Continue Reading
If I had a dime for every time I had to defend this brilliant film, I’d be a millionaire. The film is set in the red-light district of the early 1900s in Storyville, New Orleans—a time when prostitution was beginning to be looked upon as foul by the community. Brooke Shields plays Violet, one of three children who are being raised in the brothel in which her mother Hattie (Susan Sarandon) works and resides. The house also serves as a sort of hotel for passing travelers and is stumbled upon by a photographer named Bellocq (Keith Carradine). At first, he is only interested in the women in order to study how they live and to capture their beauty and charismatic wonder with his camera. But when the 12-year old Violet begins her initiation to join the ranks of the women there, he becomes trapped in a battle with his conscience to both stop the girl from having a future in the house and to hold off his desire to keep her for himself. As for Violet, she is, after all, only a child and offers no aid in helping Bellocq make the right decision. She plays on his affection as one would expect a vain, spoiled, and fatherless girl to do. The resolution that comes to these characters does so without any sort of satisfactory closure. You’ll still be thinking about the future of people like this long after you’ve finished the film.
Now, let’s get past the controversy quickly before continuing. Yes, Brooke Shields is a 12-year old portraying a child prostitute who is artistically nude in some shots, though never performing a sexual act on screen. To most, this would be considered child pornography. But let us remember this is Louis Malle we’re talking about—a brilliant director who has a gift for delivering complex coming-of-age films as honestly and true to life as one can in cinema. Let us also remember that this film was made in the '70s when artistic expression without limitations was soon to come to an end, especially in America. Lastly, for a person in this time period, the social requirements for whom you could marry and sleep with was as far removed from today’s standards as you could imagine. With that said, I believe there is a lot more than what meets the eye with this film. I believe that it is still relevant and important in our society, and is perhaps a visual image that pairs well with songs like "House of the Rising Sun."Continue Reading
The Puffy Chair
May God bless and keep little indie films (in circulation). Sure, I understand that big budgets and campy plots are great mainstream selling points, but comedy is one thing that had started to become jostled by these guidelines, oftentimes coming out not so great in the finish. The Puffy Chair is awesome because it’s for those who can certainly be amused by what many modern comedies have to offer, but don’t necessarily find them to be funny. This film draws on the hilarity of good intentions and everyday scenarios in a tasteful and unrushed way that is warm and very admirable.
Josh is a good son, equipped with a sort of filial duty when it comes to his relationship with his dad. As a child, he remembers that his father used to adore a certain reclining chair that eventually retired to furniture heaven. While shopping on eBay, he comes across a near exact replica of it and buys it, mapping out a road trip from New York to Virginia with his girlfriend Emily (Katie Aselton). The plan is to pick it up and bring it to his father for his birthday and it's also a chance for them to learn more about each other and bond. While stopping along the way to say hello to his earthy and emotional brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), the two find out that they have much in store for their vacation once his brother invites himself along for the ride. In a tangle of morals, passions, and disagreement, the trip turns out to be a redefining slap in the face for all the things Josh thought were true and well. And while the film does take a break from comedy in order to let you get angry in some cases or sad with others, it is absolutely hilarious. If you’ve ever tried to do the right thing and have it all go wrong, leaving you questioning what is right, then this is a comedy for you.Continue Reading
Return To The 36th Chamber
Director Lau Kar Leung is sort of a bridge from the hey-day of Shaw Brother kung-fu films to the new wave, hyper-stylized martial arts spearheaded by Tsui Hark. And I mean that literally, since he worked with Shaw master Chang Cheh and then directed his own films at the end of their era, and then worked with Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, and others of their ilk. I also mean figuratively, as his directing and choreography is pretty much solely responsible for moving things from chopsocky to the more modern approach. Unfortunately, he is pretty much only known for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, an undeniable masterpiece, and maybe for quitting Chan’s Drunken Master 2. But just about any one of his films would stand out amongst the crowd were they to be discovered in the West. Even though Return To The 36th Chamber was a cheap, cash grab it remains both innovative and gasp-inducing to this day.
Most likely the reason Return didn’t get the attention the first one received is because it’s not technically a sequel and it’s more or less the exact same plot. Gordon Liu returns, playing a lovable loser whose town is being harassed for money which they cannot afford so Liu pretends to be a Shaolin master in hopes of scaring away these bullies. After being humiliated when his plan fails, he heads to the real Shaolin temple to learn their ways but is only assigned construction duties once they accept him. He finds this worthless but when he returns home he finds he’s acquired skills he did not have before. Beat for beat, this is the same plot as the first. But while Leung still sells the story adequately, it’s in his fights that he really shines.Continue Reading
The only magic I believe in is the magic of documentaries like this. It had the power to reach deep down into my soul and turn on a switch in a room that’s been dark for years. Honestly, it is the most beautiful love story that I have seen to date—a love of life, animals, dance, God, and intimacy.
Ron and Joy Holiday were two childhood friends who set out to make a name for themselves in the dance world, more specifically adagio ballet. Ron’s first few stories of Joy are small and candid, mainly circulating around her Catholic upbringing. One in particular that is essential to their future together comes from Joy visiting a Mother Superior with the uncertainty of whether she should continue her future in dance after college or become a nun. "Go to New York and dance for God," was the answer she received, and it was after that story that I knew this documentary had much in store.Continue Reading
All About Lily Chou-Chou
The youth of many nations, especially industrial ones, are full not only of angst but of a yearning to fit in and be understood. For Yuichi and a group of followers just like him, the "ethereal" music of Lily Chou-Chou has become the center of their world, both in cyberspace and reality. Yuichi is the fan site manager under the code name "philla," where he reviews and praises her music with a sense of enlightenment and desperation. Like today’s youth, only anonymous and without photos, these young people drift online in order to connect and rave about the things they find most interesting, which for this group is Lily. But underneath the melodies and enchantment, Yuichi and other fans are still just homeless souls looking for adventure. Though Yuichi is really just looking for an escape, his reality grants him the total opposite. He and his actual friends occupy themselves with petty theft, a mysterious summer vacation, and several humiliating pranks that go terribly wrong. His world shifts into a tumult of despair and unkindness in what he calls "the age of gray," where all the color bleeds dry from the world. His only solace is a lush and isolated rice field where he goes to be alone and listen to Lily.
This advancement of newfound responsibility and savage energy reminds me of what it is like to become an adult. When you’re young, you almost worship your music idols and look to their sound for understanding and piece of mind. But for Yuichi and others, the pressure to find that same balance in reality becomes nearly impossible after you reach a certain age. Not that some can’t or others never did, but for him there is no turning back or resolution.Continue Reading