Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

The Women [1939]

Dir: George Cukor, 1939. Starring: Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine. Classics.

I watched The Punk Singer (2013) – Sini Anderson’s adoring biopic of Kathleen Hanna – and, perhaps in a mini-rebellion from her feminist electro orthodoxy, I watched The Women as a follow-up. Of course I mean the original George Cukor-directed The Women and not the roundly panned remake from a few years ago. That big ol’ bomb reportedly tried to assert a more inexplicably positive “sisterhood” sort of tone to this story of caustically ridiculous females - an assortment of Park Avenue trophy wife types scheming, backstabbing, gossiping, and delivering withering putdown after…you get the idea, right? Which is kind of like trying to make the Khmer Rouge camp managers in The Killing Fields a little nicer to their captives.

In Anderson’s documentary and in the writings of chroniclers of Hanna’s work there is a lot of talk of “queerness.” Hanna is a heterosexual woman who has played “feminist electronic music” with her band Le Tigre featuring self-described “gender outlaw” and lesbian J.D. Samson. But “queerness” isn’t maybe entirely best understood through the work of people such as Hanna. For a theoretical perspective of what queerness means in a gay male context it is worth seeking out the work of academic David Halperin and specifically his hefty pink book, How To Be Gay. Halperin seeks to better describe the sensibility of queerness as defined by gay cultural touchstones such as Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and yes, in Cukor’s The Women (featuring Joan Crawford). Queerness in this context isn’t always as friendly to women as queers and their allies might wish and that’s an uncomfortable truth that Halperin seeks to wrestle with.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Dec 31, 2013 12:00pm

Dances with Wolves

Dir: Kevin Costner, 1990. Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant. Westerns.

It’s easy to be cynical about Dances with Wolves. Some might call it a three hour goody-goody vanity project for director and star Kevin Costne. Some may laugh at his blown-dry '80s mullet. For most, its worst crime was beating Goodfellas for the Oscar for Best Picture back in 1990. It’s no Goodfellas, but don’t blame Costner; blame the stupid Oscar voters and take Dances with Wolves for what it is. For the less cynical it’s hard not to be totally engrossed, even mesmerized, and eventually heartbroken by the film. Dances with Wolves was beautifully shot by cinematographer Dean Semler, who earlier shot the amazing The Road Warrior (1981) and would later shoot the stunning Apocalypto (2006). The film uses its South Dakota/Wyoming landscapes beautifully to elicit the loneliness of the frontier and the self-reliance of Native American culture.

I’m not sure if there ever was a “Western” before that so strongly presented such a powerful Native American point of view. After decades of offensive Indian stereotypes and John Wayne, by the late '60s attitudes were changing and the Western was evolving. Even John Ford tried a sympathetic approach to the plight of the Indians with Cheyenne Autumn (1964). There was Paul Newman’s half-breed gunslinger, Hombre (1967). Richard Harris was a Brit who took over a tribe in A Man Called Horse (1970). Dustin Hoffman brought a pro-Indian satire to the genre as Little Big Man (1970). Sergio Leone had a lot to say with Duck, You Sucker (1971). Ulzana's Raid (1972) went out of its way to showcase the brutality of the white man, and Clint Eastwood had an interesting fresh take on old stereotypes with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Since that golden age of “revisionist Westerns,” Jim Jarmusch got all post-moderny (or something) with his Dead Man (1995). Now, generally, the Indian is no longer automatically the bad guy or a monster. But what really makes Dances with Wolves notable is, though it stars a white man and the Indians are supporting characters, the film still manages to bridge cultural divides as well, if not better than any of its predecessors.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 24, 2013 1:22pm

Possession

Dir: Andrzej Zulawski, 1981. Starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent. Horror.

“Goodness is only some kind of reflection upon evil...that's all it is.” --Anna, in Zulawski's Possession.

Possession, the feverish and mesmerizing masterpiece from Andrzej Zulawski, is a drama about a failed marriage that unexpectedly turns into a horror film; a bad trip that you sometimes wish would end only because you feel disturbed, or at the very least unbalanced, for enjoying it immensely.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Dec 10, 2013 2:01pm

Antichrist

Dir: Lars von Trier, 2009. Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Cult.

Antichrist is one of the most misunderstood films that comes to mind. Lars von Trier is perhaps one of the most misunderstood directors; often written off as an auteur with enough support and gusto to start a film movement (Dogme 95), but not enough modesty to disregard pretensions. The notion to be moved by this argument is null at best if one allows themselves to be absorbed by Antichrist and to accept it as something to be critiqued, if not admired. To do this, admittedly, requires more than one viewing—the first being one that inspired audiences to flock from their seats. This was no doubt due to the disturbing sequences of violence, grizzly eroticism and a message about female nature that was, to most, anti-women. This review offers a proposal to revisit the film with a pair of fresh eyes for those who have seen it and a theorized way to introduce yourself to it for those who have not.

There are many ways to reinterpret the film or to approach it with a more critical eye. The easiest would be to view it as a fairy tale with overtly religious overtones. Comparatively it's in the style of a German fable—which is always direct and quite bleak, and appropriate here since the majority of the film was shot there. Like a storybook, the film is separated into four chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. Title cards with primitive etchings set the precedent for something to be absorbed in pieces, later to be given deep thought. The prologue and epilogue are in black and white and set to Georg Friedrich Händel's Lascia ch'io pianga. In the prologue we find a slow-motion and dreamlike erotic portrait of a husband (Willem Dafoe) and wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the throes of passion. Meanwhile, their infant son wanders from his crib and nursery to an open window and plummets to his death—dying during his parents' climax.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Dec 10, 2013 1:49pm

TCM Dark Crimes Film Noir Thrillers

Phantom Lady, The Blue Dahlia, The Glass Key. Film Noir.

Bless you Robert Osbourne and Ted Turner; you always come through! Thanks to TCM three important films noir have finally gotten a U.S. DVD release. TCM's Dark Crimes collection features Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944), George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Stuart Heisler's The Glass Key (1942). Though none of these three films really quite stand up on their own as bonafide noir classics each one is an indispensable entry in the classic noir canon. Phantom Lady was adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich. The Blue Dahlia was written by Raymond Chandler while The Glass Key was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammet. And two of the films star the legendary Hollywood thriller pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

For my money Phantom Lady is the best of the trio. Though its first half easily out-classes its second there is enough existential dread and lonely urban ennui to secure its importance as a go-to example of shadowy lighting, paranoia, and romantic fatalism. Then unfortunately things get a bit hokey. Still, that first half really is stellar. Alan Curtis plays Scott Henderson, an unhappily married business man who steps out one night to get away from his daily grind of bickering with his wife by picking up a stranger at a bar and taking her to a show. Unfortunately his wife is murdered while he's gone and the police don't believe his story that he was never home. Scott's secretary Carol (Ella Raines) frantically tries to track down the mysterious "phantom lady" whom Scott took to the show and who would be able to secure Scott's alibi. Along the way there's Elisha Cook Jr. at his sad-sack sleaziest and eventually Franchot Tone as a sensitive artist obsessed with hands (as the wife was strangled, I'm sure you can guess where this is going).

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Nov 27, 2013 1:33pm

Fame (1980)

Dir: Alan Parker, 1980. Starring: Irene Cara, Barry Miller, Lee Curreri, Paul McCrane, Gene Anthony Ray. Musicals.

British director Alan Parker’s third film, the high school musical Fame, has spawned a television series, a musical play, and a remake, not to mention inspiring reality competitions, the TV show Glee and other assorted bores about singing and dancing teenagers. What’s been forgotten is Fame works best as a gritty New York drama about teenage life in 1980. Parker, having just come off shooting the harrowing Turkish prison drama, Midnight Express, is no dance choreographer turned director. He’s a realist. Parker seems to be more inspired by the social realism of his countrymen Ken Loach and Alan Clarke rather than the Hollywood musical style of Busby Berkeley. He originally came out of television advertising and is often associated with popular English filmmakers of his generation like Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, who all started off in commercials and brought a shiny sheen to their films in the eighties. Although much of their work in that period (including Parker's) looks like champagne ads, Fame still resembles the unpolished look of seventies docudramas over the more purified work that followed. Fame is also one of the better films to casually capture the multicultural urban youth vibe of the times, unlike the John Hughes teenage whitewash that would come to dominate the eighties.

Fame depicts the lives of seemingly random students at New York’s School of the Performing Arts, from auditioning freshmen to upperclassmen. Ralph Garcia (Barry Miller of Saturday Night Fever) is a tortured Puerto Rican actor/stand-up comedian who worships comic actor Freddie Prinze and takes up some dangerously bad habits. The ambitious Coco Hernandez, played by singer Irene Cara (the original Sparkle), is a triple threat in acting, singing and dancing. Unlike her character Coco, Cara was never really able to capitalize on the attention Fame brought, although later she sang the hit theme to Flashdance. Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an obvious composing genius and his cab driver father will certainly tell anyone who will listen. Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) only auditioned to help his girlfriend get in, but when the impressed dance instructors take an interest in his raw talent over her, he becomes the school's resident rebel. Even though her pushy stage mother believes in her, Doris (Maureen Teefy) may be a little too insecure for the competition. Speaking of insecure, acting student Montgomery, played by Paul McCrane (who would later appear as a great creep in RoboCop), is a wreck until he finally confronts his homosexuality. When the beautiful and wealthy ballerina, Hilary Van Doren (Antonia Franceschi), enters the school she inspires more competition among students.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 19, 2013 2:26pm

Christmas in July

Dir: Preston Sturges, 1940. Starring: Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, Raymond Walburn, Alexander Carr. Classics.

Snarky critiques of the American success story – a myth so painfully central to the national psyche – are few and far between now and they are certainly hard to imagine coming out of 1940, a time when a nation shell-shocked by the Depression still had fresh memories of being sedated by Busby Berkeley musical fantasies and stylish gangster wish fulfillment crime dramas. But writer/director Preston Sturges was too funny, clever, and probably a bit East Coast elitist to let such a sacred cow of our national mythology go unskewered.

Sometimes I think Sturges is a bit too clever for my taste. With many of his movies there is the unsavory sensation of an author laughing at his own jokes too loudly. Some of them, such as The Palm Beach Story, seem less hilarious than just smug - too many playboys in tuxedos shouting, old mustachioed men harrumping, and women in gowns winking. But Christmas in July – with its ridiculous brevity (it’s only 68 minutes long) – is a short, sharp, shock of hilarity. Really, it is. Dick Powell plays a frustrated accountant who anxiously wants to be a success in life. Though he was known first as an awe-shucks sort of song-and-dance man from various Berkeley musicals, Powell was later often cast as a cynical anti-hero in many detective roles. In this film we get a little of that coolness from his slightly sarcastic tone and weary demeanor.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Nov 18, 2013 4:51pm

You're Next

Dir: Adam Wingard, 2011. Starring: Sharni Vinson, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, AJ Bowden, Joe Swanberg. Horror.

You're Next is a near-perfect little film that plays on two very exhausted genre points and still manages to be fresh and an all-around good time. Most everyone has seen John Hughes' much-loved holiday movie, Home Alone, which, if pondered on, shadows a pretty horrifying concept. Lesser-known but still popular home invasion films include Haneke's Funny Games, Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, and even Them and The Strangers. These latter examples have the unfortunate place card as being “game changers” within the thriller genre and several can hardly be considered horror films due to the lack of an impenetrable bogeyman. Some were also taken a little too seriously at the time of release. A perfect example is Straw Dogs—made and released during wartime when paranoia and sensitivity to violence were exceedingly high. So how, one might ask, can you revitalize the theme? The answer is quite simple; add the ghoulishness of a mask and give tons of nods to both slashers and home invasion films and you've got yourself a refreshing oddball that is actually a parody to all the above.

Following a supposedly agonizing two-year wait for a theatrical release, filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett recently attended a Q&A for the film and spoke about said wait, the inspiration behind the plot, and casting choices. The plot, they admit, is not necessarily anything to harp on. A well-to-do family comprised of mom (Barbara Crampton), dad (Rob Moran), three sons and a daughter have agreed—after a supposed estrangement—to gather for mom and dad's anniversary in a recently purchased massive house in the middle of nowhere. Dad's new “retirement project,” as it were.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 15, 2013 11:56am

This is Spinal Tap

Dir: Rob Reiner, 1984. Starring: Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner. Comedy.

Although it has had a lot of competition since it was released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap still remains the greatest mockumentary, the best spoof on the rock music scene, and one of the funniest, most continually quotable flicks I’ve ever seen. This was the first film directed by Rob Reiner who, at the time, was primarily known for his role as Meathead on the legendary sitcom All in the Family. He would go on to have a mostly pedestrian directing career with a few stand-outs (Stand By Me). With This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner and his three costars - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (all four of whom are the credited writers) - created something very special whose style has been copied many times over, especially by Guest himself. But nothing has hit it so far out of the park as this one did. 

The mockumentary (a spoof of a documentary) was not new at the time. Though rather dull, David Holzman’s Diary was considered a landmark in 1967. Woody Allen made the now classic Take the Money and Run. There was that Beatles spoof, All You Need is Cash, and Albert Brooks foresaw the coming of reality TV with his Real Life. What makes This is Spinal Tap especially impressive is that it keeps the documentary format the entire film, something most other mockumentaries rarely sustain (including Guest’s later work). Most of the other films often cheat and have moments to try and help the plot along that couldn’t have been documented by a pesky camera crew. Every moment in This is Spinal Tap keeps the documentary format humming. By 1984 the ego-driven rockumentary had been a standard cash generator for most megabands (peaking in the seventies before the music video came to dominate the self-promotion machine). Going at least as far back as Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back in ’67 and the music festival docs Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it was really The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same that gave This is Spinal Tap its most potent fodder.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 11, 2013 1:42pm

Bad Boys

Dir: Rick Rosenthal, 1983. Starring: Sean Penn, Esai Morales, Clancy Brown, Reni Santoni, Ally Sheedy. Drama.

After Sean Penn’s solid supporting performance in Taps (as the sensitive guy, opposite Tom Cruise’s hothead), his now legendary scene stealing turn as stoner Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then his work as Chicago juvenile delinquent Mick O’Brien in Bad Boys, Rolling Stone Magazine put him on the cover at the age of 23 and called him, “the next James Dean.” Since Dean only starred in three features, it's his cultural impact and dying young status that still make him a household name today. Dean also showed himself to be a gifted actor and it’s fascinating to imagine what his career would have been like had he not died so young. Penn has lived past those three early films (to some people’s surprise). He has had a long and eclectic filmography, with moments of pure acting brilliance (Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown), while some critics have accused him of sometimes being a hammy overactor (I Am Sam, All The King’s Men, Mystic River). Either way the guy is easily a first-ballet hall-of-famer.

In addition to being a good jumping off point for any study of the truth and beauty in Penn’s acting, director Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys is, for my money, the best American juvenile detention center flick. (Internationally you would have to add the British film Scum and Brazil's Pixote.) By 1983 Hollywood had only a spotty record grappling with teen crime flicks (the best at this point was Over The Edge) and Bad Boys sometimes feels a little overwrought with its occasional After School Special moments. On the other-hand it’s shockingly bleak and the violence is pretty brutal. Both teen prisons and the mean streets of Chicago are places full of predators - kill or be killed. Though Bad Boys doesn’t hit the exploitation highs of Class of 1984, it’s certainty much harder hitting and believable than most of the other teen dramas of its era.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 29, 2013 2:25pm
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