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).
One of the lost near-great films of the '80s by a major director and writer remains mostly buried, but is due for a major reconsideration. Daniel, directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) based on his own novel, The Book of Daniel, got no love in its day and has received only a compulsory bare bones DVD release since. An easy description would be what happened to the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the real life Jewish couple who were railroaded by the US government and executed for being Soviet spies: a case that reeked of paranoia and anti-Semitism. Doctorow has created a story from pure imagination with the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson sitting in for the Rosenbergs, who had two sons in real life. Doctorow's couple instead have a girl and a boy, Susan and Daniel, played by the fascinating Amanda Plummer and Timothy Hutton (a few years from his Oscar-winning, star-making performance in Ordinary People.) But instead of just being a character study, it’s also a history lesson in post WWII American radicalism, as Daniel, now a young man tries to understand what happened to his parents. As the 1980s were not a great decade for liberalism on film or in real life, spiritually and timeline-wise Daniel sits perfectly between Warren Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, and Lumet’s own Running On Empty.
The Isaacsons were the classic NY liberal family, children of immigrants, with generations all living under one roof. Paul (Mandy Patinkin), a proud WWII vet and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are naïve in their trust of the “American way,” taking part in causes, meetings and marches that usually involve their children, including free Paul Robeson concerts. (His deep voice fills most of the film's soundtrack). The film knocks back and forth from the '40s to the '50s as the couple grows more radical and eventually are arrested (for something having to do with atomic secrets, but clearly more to do with their outspokenness), and then to the late '60s as the orphaned but now adult Daniel and Susan adjust to life. Susan has become a hippie rebel open to any cause and eager to use her family’s street cred to advance it; a few years later, all that passion leads to a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Daniel, in the mean time, has grown into a coolly bearded and intensely angry young man with a wife (a young and adorable Ellen Barkin) and eventually his own kids whom he seems to ignore. Susan’s mental health issues lead him to finally begin exploring the mysteries of why his parents were punished so extremely.Continue Reading
As was the case with Louise Malle and Murmur of the Heart, Le Souffle (Deep Breath) has, according to its maker, a distinct autobiographical identity. For Odoul, memories of time in the French countryside were far from idyllic. These areas are usually depicted, in a variety of artistic forms, as breathtaking splendors. Few artists, outside of a handful of filmmakers, flesh out the unsettling aspects of being surrounded by nature. Le Souffle is not only an eerie, carnal experience in this regard, but it is also exemplifies the magnetic force of nature as a backdrop in the coming-of-age process.
The serenity of nature is often an accompaniment to youth, sexual awakening and so much more in a film. You can see it in films like Blue Lagoon, for example. In a simplified metaphor, you can look but you cannot touch; you cannot relate to this fantasy. In Le Souflle we find the complete opposite, and so we find a far more invigorating experience.Continue Reading
Mother Joan of the Angels
There is a great amount of history and text surrounding the Possession at Loudon and the death of Father Urbain Grandier in 1634. The priest was one of the many sent to a convent in Loudun, France, where nuns were reportedly possessed by demons. But after confessing to fornication with said nuns, among other things, the poor lad was tortured and burned at the stake.
Mother Joan of the Angels is not only a direct adaptation of these events, but a haunting tale of ambivalence. It poses a very relevant question for people of faith as well as non-believers: How contagious is conviction, and does it have the power to thrust us beyond reason? This question isn't directly asked by the subtext, and the director openly referred to the plot as a retold tale of repressed love, one in which a man and woman of the church were not allowed to love one another. And while that may be true on the surface, I'd argue that something larger and far less romantic is revealed.Continue Reading
The all-time great director Sidney Lumet is often associated with his ear for the New York streets (The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Prince of The City). He's also acclaimed for his skill at balancing his films’ often loud histrionics (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). So, ironically, he hit a home run late in his career with a legal drama that actually gets its power through silence.
The film is written by a master of gritty verbal sparring, David Mamet. Upon its release in ’82, The Verdict instantly joined the ranks of the all-time great courtroom dramas — an elite company, with flicks like Anatomy of a Murder and Witness for the Prosecution. And the role of alcoholic lawyer Frank Gavin gave Paul Newman his best role in 15 years (at least since Cool Hand Luke in ’67).Continue Reading
Call me crazy, but recently I stumbled across the 1976 King Kong remake, the one that is now known as Jessica Lange’s first movie, and for some reason, I really enjoyed it. (I saw it years ago as a kid, but didn’t remember it too well.)
Don’t get me wrong—the original ’33 flick really is a classic, and if you have kids, it’s a great introduction to both older and adventure films. And everyone agrees, even with its archaic special effects, the film still holds up as a thing of beauty. Well, guess what—so does this version.Continue Reading
Naked is Mike Leigh's most philosophical exercise in improvisation. It also happens to be a very entertaining tale of the anti-hero and cynicism.
The protagonist, Johnny (David Thewlis), is an upbeat though altogether conflicted young man on the run from his native Manchester after getting himself into a sticky situation. He travels to London, ending up on the doorstep of his ex-girlfriend and encounters her roommate, Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), while his ex-girlfriend is at work. Here we find our first example of Johnny putting his philosophical idioms and questions to work, as he seduces Sophie via negativity and shrewd, boastful simplification of existence and purpose.Continue Reading
A lot of people end up finding what they think is a kindred spirit in an icon, and perhaps just as many find it in someone who is prophetic or a poet. The icon can bring comfort in embracing the wonder and beauty of art, while the poet can expose the haunting and sometimes transgressive side of things. Sometimes you can find both these qualities in the same person. It's the only thing that can explain the popularity of Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg, for example. Benjamin Smoke is a documentary that does just that, but for someone who never got the chance to assimilate ... and he maybe never would have, anyway.
Born Robert Dickerson and called only Benjamin, his voice and lyrics brings to mind that of Tom Waits or Nick Cave. The band he fronted, Smoke, was infamous in Cabbagetown, GA, a town that, as Benjamin explains, was always separate from Atlanta, where it rests, riddled with poverty. This poverty allowed for all the good and wonderful things in life, he states: “hustlers, inter-breeding, drugs and sniffing glue.” The documentary, one soon realizes, didn't need more than to put up a camera to Benjamin in an empty room in order to make a bold impression, but thanks to the truly masterful direction and awe-inspiring editing by Nancy Roach and the directors, something quite miraculous was captured. As a result, a small legend had his story told.Continue Reading
Addams Family Values
Since they all seemed to spring from The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy, early sitcoms mostly followed the same basic comedy concept: the battle-of-the-sexes, men-vs-women formula. Breaking that rule is one of the many traits that made The Addams Family TV show and the two big screen movies so different and special. Here instead of bickering and plotting against each other, the married couple have a passionate and deeply sexual love, leaving most comedy hacks at a loss for creating conflict. And in the case of the films directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the even bigger ace-in-the-hole is the brilliant casting of the couple, Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as Gomez and Morticia Addams (taking over for John Astin and Carolyn Jones who were pretty fantastic themselves on the small screen). The first Addams Family flick was the directing debut of Sonnenfeld, who had made a name for himself as the cinematographer of the first three Coen Brothers films (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, which had a then completely fresh look to them). Here he combines his zapped-up camera energy with a Tim Burton-like appreciation for the comically macabre (the first film was written by some of the writers of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice). That first Addams Family movie was good but the second one, Addams Family Values, proves to be one of the rare sequels that is even better than the original.
Based on Charles Addams' now legendary cartoon for The New Yorker depicting the bizarre and wealthy family that skewered traditional family values, they horrified all the straight people who encountered them, and although not self-aware were totally confident in their own beings. The first film gave us the basic update of the show; Gomez and Morticia are the heads of an eclectic family clan of eccentrics that includes their daughter, gloomy Wednesday (Christina Ricci, born to play the role), their son Pugsley (not as funny as the chubby kid on the show) and the witchy Grandmama (played by Judith Malina in the first one and Carol Kane in the sequel). Also hanging around are their Frankenstein’s monster-looking valet/butler Lurch (the film version is not nearly as memorable as the TV version played by the giant actor Ted Cassidy) and their devoted assistant Thing, a disembodied hand, who really gets to shine in the movies with the help of technology. Both films really revolve around Gomez’s brother, Uncle Fester, played here by Christopher Lloyd much more grotesquely then Jackie Coogan’s TV version. Lloyd, with his gravely voice, comes off like a sheepish version of Murnau’s Nosferatu as opposed to Coogan, who is just a fat guy with a high pitched voice, but who is very funny. The first film revolved around crooks trying to swindle the Addams’ fortune by having a guy pose as Fester (similar to the plot of the second Brady Bunch movie, A Very Brady Sequel), and in the end it turned out the impostor was actually the real Fester.Continue Reading
Dogme 95 is the only contemporary avant-garde film movement that comes to mind. Its founders included Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and the requirements set forth in the manifesto are simplistic and humble. However, they're often cited by cineastes as pretentious and narcissistic. For some, myself included, they are refreshing classics in the world of unconventional cinema and some of the most telling works in regards to the filmmakers behind them and audiences drawn to them. My personal favorite for a very long time was Dogme #6, Julien Donkey-Boy, directed by Harmony Korine. Dogme #2, The Idiots, by the versatile Lars von Trier, not only surpassed my expectations – as it is the most revered film meeting the requirements – but shook me in a way that was both disarming and enlightening.
The film has two protagonists who could easily be taken as characters to represent the stance of audience and artist. It unfolds as a sort of mockumentary. We start with the “audience,” made tangible by the character of Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), a soft-spoken, lost and almost infantile woman who finds herself drawn to a group of people after a chance encounter. The group, though at first not unified on this revelation, gives the founding title to Stoffer (Jens Albinus), a charismatic, proud and egotistical participant in the act of “spazzing” or releasing one's inner idiot. Here we find our caricature of the “artist.”Continue Reading
If you're a fan of Charlie Kaufman you'll find plenty to love and adore about Adaptation, a film written by Kaufman (and oddly credited to him and his non-existent twin brother, Donald) who is behind such films as Being John Malkovich, Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you are not a fan of the larger name celebrities in the film's cast--which would be Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep--and have avoided the work due to them being in it, I'd urge you to see this often overlooked masterpiece where they give their finest and most revealing performances.
Told by way of jumping through a three year time frame, the film surrounds the mystery and truths involving several characters on the brink of self-discovery. Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is an eclectic but shabby screenwriter trying to grow as an artist and a person. Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) is a writer for The New Yorker who is assigned to write a piece on John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an eccentric agriculturalist on trial with three Seminole natives for removing a series of plants, mostly orchids, from a federal reserve. Her article is expanded into a book, The Orchid Thief, and the publicist (Tilda Swinton) wants to take it further by adapting it into a film. Kaufman is the man given the job, following the success of his script for Being John Malkovich and an ingenius reputation for his craft.Continue Reading