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).
After his death, Steve McQueen reached rebel-cool icon status based on his off-screen machismo (racing cars and motorcycles, martial arts with Bruce Lee, stealing Robert Evans’ wife) and partly on his actual film resume, which in retrospect isn’t as great as you would expect. His peak years start in ’63 with his one masterpiece, The Great Escape (he did the overrated but still influential Western The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier), a couple of big hits that now feel more like remake-bait time capsules (The Thomas Crown Affair and The Cincinnati Kid), and of course there is also Bullitt, largely famous for its amazing high-speed San Francisco auto chases. But for the most part the late sixties were rounded out with forgotten melodramas (Love with the Proper Stranger, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Sand Pebbles). The early seventies include a couple lesser collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and the super cast/super dud The Towering Inferno. But besides appearing as himself in the Oscar-winning motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, McQueen’s best film since The Great Escape is the epic Papillon, a film that has been written off by some as overly long and cold. But for my money it’s one of the best prison escape movies ever, as well as an eye-opening look at worlds I knew little about. (ALSO OF NOTE: I first saw it as a very young kid, in its second run at a drive-in, and there are some moments of violence that then confused me, but have stuck with me ever since.)
Based on the questionable autobiography of French petty criminal Henri “Papillon” Charrière, (played by the very American McQueen and shot in exotic locations all over the world) the script is credited to blacklisted legend Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (one of the creators of the '60s Batman TV series). The film begins in pre-WWII France with Papillon and other convicted criminals being marched through town and on to a boat to be shipped off to a French penal colony work camp. On the long and brutal ship ride, Papillon strikes a deal with a wealthy and rather famous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman in full nebbish mode), for protection. With a promise to keep the meek embezzler alive, Dega will finance any escape attempts. Through the course of time, the two strike up an unlikely friendship (a prison adventure Midnight Cowboy). The film covers years in swampy, tough malaria-plagued conditions, finally ending on the infamous Devil’s Island. The film is loaded with wonderful set pieces, including long and short escape attempts, a leper colony, sadistic guards, creepy prisoners, solitary confinements and lots of double crosses (even a nun stabs Papillon in the back). It’s a survival saga and a friendship story, though the survival aspect is the highlight.Continue Reading
Based on Patricia Highsmith's book The Talented Mr. Ripley (the first of her five Ripley novels known as the "Ripliad," she is also the author of the book that became Strangers on a Train), which of course was also filmed later by Anthony Minghella in ’99, the French version Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) proves to be a much more entertaining ride. That’s not to say that the American version isn’t also very good. I like it a lot and I don’t know which version is closer to Highsmith’s book, but where Minghella tried to ring psychological complexity out of simplicity, often making it feel overstuffed, director René Clément (most famous for Forbidden Games from ’52) goes for a more straightforward suntanned noir. And as much as I admired Matt Damon as Ripley, Clément’s ace-in-the-hole is the young French superstar Alain Delon who doesn’t wear his acting on his sleeve like Damon did--instead he just naturally oozes charisma, making the character less a super-geek psycho and more a smooth criminal.
The film starts right off with two American buddies (strangely, played by the French stars) living the cafe life in Italy. It’s casually mentioned that the father of the rich one, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), has hired the other, Tom Ripley (Delon), to convince his party-boy son to return home to San Francisco (?!) and finally face his adult responsibilities. Of course, Minghella’s Ripley starts in the States, with the setup played out on camera; score this to Purple Noon for cutting to the chase. None of Philippe’s other rich friends care much for Tom, including his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) and his pal, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns, an actor actually born in America, though most of his career was in French cinema. He’s fine but the American version’s Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the movie in the role). But the ever cruel Philippe enjoys having Tom around where he can pick on him and taunt his lack of sophistication. (Ronet is much more mean-spirited and less charming than Jude Law’s take on Dickie). Ripley envies Philippe’s lifestyle, his money, his clothes, his freedom and his relationship with Marge. The American version gives Ripley an obvious homosexual obsession with his idol. Here it’s only lightly hinted at; Ripley’s main obsession is more financial and materialistic. The French version does not linger on their relationship long enough to get into those matters, and by the end of the first act, Ripley has purposely killed Philippe in order to steal his money and even woo Marge. The murder in the American version is a fit of passion; here it’s premeditated. The suspense comes in how he covers it up. It’s on a boat and it’s not easy. And the rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between Ripley and the police investigating the murder (and later Ripley is forced to kill Freddie), as Ripley pretends to be Philippe to keep the investigators and Marge off his trail.Continue Reading
Let me just lay it out there: not only is Kate Winslet the best actress of her generation, she’s probably reached all time top ten for me. After some British TV work she burst in to movies while still a teenager with her haunting performance in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and then established herself as a major young adult actress with her wonderful work as Lucy in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Winslet then capped off this early period of art house auteurs with Michael Winterbottom’s adaption of another victorian novel Jude the Obscure (shortened to just Jude for the screen) and the best on-camera interpretation of the role of Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s underrated Hamlet. And then her career exploded with the cultural and box office goliath Titanic making her a giant international star. But she did an interesting thing; she didn’t chase the money, and (until recently) she mostly stuck to smaller character driven films, never again working with another A-list brand name director like James Cameron or even Lee. (With smaller exceptions being Nancy Meyers, Michel Gondry and Jane Campion, while directors like Philip Kaufman and Roman Polanski were well past their primes. She only had a small role as part of a large ensemble in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.)
With Hideous Kinky in ’98, (Winslet’s first post-Titanic role) she really laid down the gauntlet for the kind of career she would map out for herself: challenging, surprising, anti-star and often unsympathetic. Based on Esther Freud's autobiography about her childhood being raised with her sister by her free-spirited British mother in Morocco, Winslet plays the mom, Julia. Disillusioned by life in stuffy London and with a hippie attitude, in a search for some kind of spiritual enlightenment, she packs her eight and six year-old daughters up for a Middle East quest. The two little girls are played by Bella Riza and Carrie Mullen, and they deliver a pair of outstanding performances. Julia, though loving, is also young and selfish, with only fleeting concern for her children’s needs for stability. The girls actually want to go to school, but Mom keeps whisking them off on busses across the desert landscape to romance her Moroccan boyfriend, Bilal (the charismatic Said Taghmaoui), who also seems to be a lost soul, unwilling to live up to his community's expectations. It’s never fully clear if Julia is truly spiritual (her enthusiasm usually feels naive) or if it’s all a pose to rebel against her family and the girls’s father, a London poet. (The question of their marriage is also blurry.) The film provides an insightful and fascinating look at Moroccan city life; this, of course, is before the full-blown Islamic revolutions would make Westerners a little less comfortable being strangers in a strange land.Continue Reading
At one time Burt Reynolds was a megastar. By 1987 the shine was thinning, as his hair piece was thickening. Just two years after his arch '70s box office king rival Clint Eastwood made his obligatory quasi-Shane remake Pale Rider (the least of the four Westerns Clint directed), Reynolds did his own less blatant variation of Shane, with an equally simple title: Malone. Updated, instead of an old-timey oater, Malone is more of an '80s muscle film. This could have been a by-the-numbers vehicle for any number of steroidy non-actors of the day; the ace up the sleeve here is the lovely British Columbia backdrop and Reynolds' considerable charm. Even when he seems to be barely trying he’s much more likable then most of the action stars of the period. Back in his salad days (the '70s) Reynolds starred in two bona-fide classics, Deliverance and The Longest Yard, and had a massive box office hit with Smokey and The Bandit. But by the '80s--though Reynolds was still a very popular personality--none of the vehicles really matched his talent. Looking back years later, as the smoke has cleared, Malone is probably his most entertaining film of the decade.
Burt plays Malone, an ex-CIA hitman trying to escape his past (is there any other kind?) and make a break from his sexy handler (Lauren Hutton). After hitting the open road, his car ends up breaking down in a small mountain town where he befriends a clean cut gas station owning family, the Barlows. Father and his teenage daughter (Scott Wilson and Cynthia Gibb) take him in and luckily for them Malone also happens to be handy with a wrench for fixing engines. It turns out Malone happened to show up in the knick of time, as the town is being bought up by a nasty rich guy, Delany ( the alway dependable Cliff Robertson). The Barlows won’t sell, even under pressure from the town’s corrupt cops (lead by Kenneth McMillan) and Delany’s own band of thugs, plus the usual suspects of '80s B-creeps--including many familiar faces such as Tracy Walter (Batman) and Dennis Burkley (the lovable big mute biker from Mask). The bad guys try to exert muscle and Burt kills a couple of them. Shane had that famous tree trunk digging scene, but Burt doesn’t exert much sweat. Although he does get shot, giving Hutton a chance to come back to bandage him up and have a quickie romance before the creeps kill her. This leads to an all out war as Malone is forced to use his considerable killing skills to take out the security team and finally have it out with Delany. And then, very abruptly, it ends. But this was the '80s. Who wanted to sit through a movie much longer then ninety minutes? We had to get to the arcade.Continue Reading
My Darling Clementine
It’s sometimes hard to write or discuss what made John Ford one of the greatest cinematic artists. He avoided deeper analysis of his films, refused intellectualizing characters and in interviews, not only dodged questions, but made the interviewer feel like a fool for even trying. He famously stood up at a Director’s Guild of America meeting and only introduced himself as “My name's John Ford. I make Westerns,” underplaying his Oscars and Hollywood status. But decades later, reflecting on his work means seeing the master approach art with the humble nature of a craftsman, creating distinct and immense visions that could be described now as “Fordian.”
And without a single iota of hyperbole or exaggeration, My Darling Clementine isn’t only one of the (many) great films by John Ford, but one of the preeminent masterpieces of art of the post-war era. After the war, Westerns seemed to lose their jingoistic American values and abandon the portraits of brave handsome men and the women they love. Stagecoach, directed by John Ford only seven years earlier, is an ensemble film with clear antagonists, a hero who’s the classic “good bad man” trope and a tremendous amount of fun on top of everything, a film which sees endless enthusiasm and optimism for the growing country. My Darling Clementine is far more complicated, with characters who should be villains proving they have a sense of pride and dignity, and societal problems attached to class and love and complex ideas of civilization. Still, Ford hasn’t reached quite the cynical edge and distrust in the world that The Searchers has, but it certainly has that foreboding sense of darkness after America’s victory overseas.Continue Reading
Like the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which tell the tale of Terry Gilliam’s never finished film adaptation of Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune appears to be a much more enjoyable ride as a lost film rather had it actually been made. After the midnight circuit cult success of his bizarro lo-fi films El Topo and Holy Mountain, Chilean filmmaker and all around artsy guru Alejandro Jodorowsky set out to adapt Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune to the big screen. He assembled a a group of holy warrior artists intent on helping him realize his vision, leading them like a prophet. The entire enterprise eventually collapsed when the need for Hollywood big money entered the story. But while his ideas could have been visually fascinating (much of it is too ahead of its time), the overall metaphysical philosophies he was cramming into the story might have only made it another cult curio. Certainly for my taste, the story of the making-of is much more watchable than what might have ended up on the screen. On the other hand, with Jodorowsky’s charismatic storytelling skills it’s hard not to root for his mad-man belief in his dream and for that passion to go beyond mere storytelling to world changing.
Jodorowsky's background in experimental and avant-garde theater in both Paris and Mexico led to an even more unlikely film career. His surrealist and druggy early films found admirers in the midnight filmgoers as well as in French producer Michel Seydoux, who asked the director what he would like to do next. Jodorowsky said Dune and then begun putting together a creative dream team. For his FX Supervisor he failed to convince Douglas Trumbull (2001 and Silent Running) to join the carnival (not a spiritual warrior), but instead landed Dan O'Bannon (fresh off of Dark Star with John Carpenter). He would also convince comic book artist Jean Giraud (Mœbius), the surrealist Swiss painter H.R. Giger and British science fiction book cover illustrator Chris Foss to join the fun. As Jodorowsky apparently worked out the script, he also worked out his visions for the characters and sets with his artists. The ideas came to him in dreams and the talented group came up with some truly astounding art work for what the film would look like. He also supposedly got major rock act Pink Floyd to work on some of the score (as well as goofy French prog rock band Magma). For the cast he managed to gather Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles (who besides his fee was also sold on the project by being guaranteed a free meal at his favorite French cafe every day of the shoot). The young hero of the film would be played by Jodorowsky‘s adolescent son Brontis (who at the age of seven was prominently featured in El Topo); he would take on around-the-clock sword and combat training for over a year in preparation. The documentary features many of the storyboards that were put in a large coffee table type of book to help sell the project to would-be investors. Needless to say, that book of art now looks like the ultimate Christmas present for any sci-fi geek.Continue Reading
In the States, after the critical and financial success of English movie imports like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty, there was a tidal wave of working class Brits vying for their would-be places in the American cultural zeitgeist unfelt since The Beatles and The Stones landed on our shores. (The Snapper, Walking Ned, Still Crazy, Bend It Like Beckham, Shirley Valentine, anyone?) It helped us re-appreciate the old days of Bob Hoskins, when working class Brits were gangsters in films like The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa during that great British wave of the '80s. So you can understand why I felt so cynical back in 2000 when I heard that the latest British darling, Billy Elliot, earned a couple Oscar nominations (for its script, director and supporting actress Julie Walters)--and even worse, it was about some kid who was alienated from his working class family because he wants to be a dancer. Egads, that sounded like a load of goop to me. And like my own personal feel-good-story, eventually I caught up with the movie and was pleasantly surprised. As a matter of fact, I was shocked; I too was a sucker for the flick and on rewatching it some decade-and-a-half later, I again fell for its charms.
It’s called The Doors but director Oliver Stone’s hyper-bonkers bio of the band should have just been called Jim Morrison. Because the real show here is Val Kilmer’s brilliant performance as the self-destructive lead singer, while the rest of the guys--Ray Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan), Robby Krieger (Frank Whaley) and John Densmore (Kevin Dillon)--spend most of the movie standing around scolding Jim and telling him to grow up. As usual, Stone hits his points with a sledge hammer, and Doorsaphiles may take issue with the actual facts. I mean, was Jim’s LSD-inspired obsession with an Indian shaman a Morrison or a Stone concoction? But that’s neither here nor there; like Stone’s greatest film, JFK (also released in ’91), in the end the actual facts don’t matter. What does matter is the incredible filmmaking skills on show here. From the camera work to the editing to the use of sound, Stone is in his element with his usual all-star crew at their most dizzying and superfluous. If Morrison was one of music’s most self-indulgent windbags--some love The Doors while others call them overrated--Stone is in a similar boat. The guy has won a couple Oscars and penned a couple kinda-classics (Midnight Express, Scarface) but often gets eye rolls when his name is mentioned. And that proves to be part of the beauty here; the excess of Morrison’s short life is perfect for Stone’s excess on film.
Though living members of The Doors at different points of production were consulted, in the end they all publicly disavowed the final movie, claiming Stone ignored their suggestions. So in Stone’s world, the story of The Doors goes something like this. Transplanted from a nice all-American, middle class childhood, Jim was a groovy, shirtless UCLA film student, influenced by Literature 101 (The Beats, Nietzsche, Rimbaud, etc.), making ridiculous overly arty student films. After discussing his coolness with a classmate, Manzarek, they decide to form a band. They add the less hip, but apparently talented Krieger and Densmore to the band and pretty quickly start to gain a rep on the Sunset Strip club scene for their rulebreaking improvised style. Jim, in full swagger, also stalks and then seduces a young flower child, Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan), and she becomes his old lady. The band navigates the swirling waters of the swinging sixties rock scene, having hit records, meeting Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover), dealing with police arrests and a general far-outness. Meanwhile the more successful they get, the more Jim alienates Pam and his band with his excessive egomania and drug and alcohol abuse, until he finally overdoses in Paris at the age of twenty seven, just after the publication of his poetry book.Continue Reading
On a first peek the Golan/Globus produced Runaway Train looks like it could be a standard prison-break action flick, but further along the viewer realizes it’s much more.Though it has slam-bang action and some spectacular stunt work, it’s actually some kind of thought-provoking, oddly foreign feeling (meaning perhaps, intellectual) character study. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' company Cannon Films made its name in the '80s with loud action movies like the Missing in Action flicks, the Sly Stallone steroidy Cobra, Breakin’ (and its sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) and the unwarranted sequels to Death Wish (including the so-bad-it’s-good Death Wish 3). On paper Runaway Train should have been just more adrenaline-sploitation, but the back story alone led it in a direction that made it totally unique. It's based on a screenplay by Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa (and his long time collaborators Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima), who had been hoping to make it back in the late '60s. Instead veteran Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy took it over, while Kurosawa got a “based on a screenplay by” credit and the final script credits went to the odd threesome of Djordje Milicevic (a Serb), Paul Zindel (famous for writing the play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) and the very interesting Edward Bunker, who turned his own criminal life into a successful writing and acting career. (Books he wrote were adapted into the underrated movies Straight Time and Animal Factory, and as an actor he appeared in many films including Runaway Train. Most famously he played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. What a long strange trip it’s been, indeed.)
In a nasty, damp Alaskan prison, superstar criminal bank robber (Jon Voight) has won his state appeal. Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) is forced to remove him from solitary confinement, where his cell was welded shut. He's a legendary badass and the prisoners are excited to have him back in the population, especially his brother, Jonah (Bunker) and a young boxer, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who's in on a statutory rape conviction and who takes hero worship to a new level. Manny wants to escape with his bro but when Ranken sends a killer after Manny, Jonah ends up getting messed up bad. So by default Manny hooks up with the annoying Buck instead. The two escape through a drain pipe and then make an impossible trek through a freezing Alaskan wasteland and eventually hop a freight train...home free. Somehow the train conductor dies and the train becomes a runaway, barreling through another train and making a deadly derailment the only possible option for the befuddled group of train dispatchers (C.K Carter, Kenneth McMillan and Kyle T. Heffner, the nerd from Flashdance). It turns out the train does have another passenger, a railroad worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay, a few years after her breakthrough in Risky Business, still looking for the role that should have taken her to the next level--something that unfortunately never quite happened for this talented actress).Continue Reading
Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (Rocky, Raging Bull, etc.), The Split is a lost relic. Besides being the first film to ever receive an “R” rating by the ratings board, it’s a nifty heist film with a great cast full of fascinating credentials. Because it stars football star turned actor Jim Brown (and has Diahann Carroll as his ex-wife and a funky-lite Quincy Jones score), it’s often lumped in as an early blaxploitation flick. It’s not. Directed by a Scotsman, Gordon Flemyng, (who did a lot of '60s Dr. Who) and written by the great crime writer Donald Westlake (credited in the script under his equally known alias Richard Stark), this is the guy who wrote the books that became Point Blank (and later Payback), as well as The Hot Rock and The Outfit, and later wrote the script for The Grifters. So The Split could have easily been a vehicle for Lee Marvin, Rock Hudson, James Coburn or any other leading man of the era. It just so happens that Brown took the role. It’s a gritty little crime flick. It barely even qualifies as crooksploitation. Yes, it’s an imperfect film (chunkily directed), but it's still entertaining with some nice ’68 Los Angeles locations and some wild twists.
Fresh out of the slammer McClain (Brown) is recruited by Gladys (Julie Harris) to pull a big heist at the Los Angeles Coliseum (shades of the race track robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing). McClain gathers an all-star cool cast to take part in the caper: tough guy Ernest Borgnine, escape artist/racist Warren Oates (a little less oily than he was a year earlier in In The Heat of the Night), limo driver Jack Klugman and creepy hit-man Donald Sutherland (still two tears before MASH made him a star). In a very complicated robbery and clever escape, the gang gets away with over a half-million bucks. But it’s after the heist when the real drama starts. It’s what happens to the loot before “the split” that cause the usual problems of greed and suspicion. First, the ex-wife has a sadistic, rapey landlord (James Whitmore) who kills her and steals the money, and then a crooked cop, Walter Brill (the great Gene Hackman pre-testing for Popeye Doyle) gets involved. The film becomes a stand-off for the money between McClain, Gladys, the gang and Brill.Continue Reading