Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Who’s That Knocking On My Door

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 1967. Starring: Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune. Drama.

"A broad. You know, there are girls, and then there are broads. A broad isn't exactly a virgin, you know what I mean? You play around with them...You don't marry a broad..." -- Who's That Knocking At My Door

Who’s That Knocking At My Door, directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese, has had various names, influences, and spans of time in which it was filmed. One thing that leaves no question is that for Scorsese and Harvey Keitel’s first feature-film, it is an ambitious and carefully executed debut that will leave you wanting more. Keitel plays J.R., an average Italian-American whose idea of a good time is romping around with his friends and persuing “broads.” All that changes when he meets a beautiful and traditional girl (Zina Bethune) whose purity is so alluring that he cannot help but get involved. His Catholic classification of women to be the “Madonna or the whore” ignites an inspiration not only to be a gentleman, but also to offer up a willingness to settle for such a girl. But when a secret from her past distorts the fine lines he thought every woman could be defined by, J.R. must confront and break down everything he once understood about affection and his convictions.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 16, 2010 2:39pm

The Brown Bunny

Dir: Vincent Gallo, 2003. Starring: Vincent Gallo, Chloë Sevigny, Cheryl Tiegs. Cult.

It could be a hearty bias that this is currently one of my favorite feature-length independent films. With that said, I understand that it is arguably very exclusive in terms of its audience. The Brown Bunny, written and directed by Vincent Gallo, might lend itself to being watched a few times before going down smoothly.

This film is the haunting story of Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo)—a professional motorcycle racer caught in his own literal nightmare. A repetitive adventure from New Hampshire to California coming across women that he attempts to let into his life with haste in order to mend his loneliness. But as he soon discovers, the ghost and memory of his only true love Daisy (Chloë Sevigny) is not only irreplaceable, but at the peak of his heart's desire and torment. Though Bud tries daily to fill the void of her existence, the film concludes with us being able to view the tragic end of their love and leaves a bold statement you won’t soon forget. A statement, etched in pulchritude, of a nature that only the human race suffers and yet is one of the eerie qualities that still manages to make it wonderful and unique.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 8, 2010 5:02pm

Straw Dogs

Dir: Sam Peckinpah, 1971. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, and T.P. McKenna. Drama.

If you like your ultra-violence with a pulse, you must see Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs—the tale of David and Amy Sumner, played with fervor by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Unlike Hoffman’s more well-known portrayals of a man with wisdom and/or humor, his performance in the film produces a chill and admiration that could rival with any cold-blooded killer onscreen. He plays a mathematician who, with his wife, decides to take up residency in her native village of rural England. A place that seems peaceful, yet is nothing but—occupied with Cornish thugs, rat-breeders, tyrants and more than one sexual deviant.

While trying to find relaxation and work on their marriage and his profession, the two find themselves in a vicious and animalistic race to restore peace, David’s masculinity, and to survive. After days of passive-aggressive plots, spiteful conversation, and violence against women, a local girl goes missing. The man suspected of her demise, Henry Niles (David Warner), the town metal-handicap, winds up in the Sumner’s custody one evening. While protecting him in his home, a war unfolds between Sumner and the village thugs, unleashing a competition of wit vs. experience that sends more than one man to their graves.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 8, 2010 5:00pm

Bronson

Dir: Nicholas Refn, 2008. Starring: T. Hardy, W. Darke, H. Ross, J. Oldfield, J. Phillips, J. Lance. Drama.

And daddy doesn’t understand it He always said she was good as gold And he can see no reasons 'Cos there are no reasons What reason do you need to be shown? -- Bob Geldof

At age 22, Britain's "most violent criminal" Charles Bronson (né Michael Peterson, who initially took the name for his short-lived boxing career and then had it legally changed; here played by Tom Hardy) began serving a 7-year sentence for armed robbery. The year was 1974, less than 2 years after Stanley Kubrick pulled his movie Clockwork Orange from the theaters due to death threats. With the exception of just over 4 months, Bronson has spent the last 35 years as a ward of the state, all but 4 of them in solitary confinement. This extended sentence has to do with his seeming love of violence for violence's sake, something like the performance art of an evil Andy Kaufman. As such, he's a child of Alex de Large, or an Agent Orange -- that is, one whose real life lends itself to Kubrick's satire. Or, at least, that's how Bronson's director Refn takes it (some of Bronson's victims tend to approach his nature a little less abstractly). Therefore, Refn gives us Clockwork Orange's malevolent juxtapositions of barbarity and high-toned culture, gravitas and cornball pop tunes, with a comic book color palette and told through the wide-angled, symmetrical perspective of a demented narrator in clown makeup. Not exactly original, but like Cape Fear was to Hitchcock, livelier than most other films that don't steal from only one source.

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
Jan 26, 2010 5:16pm

Cradle Will Rock

Dir: Tim Robbins, 1999. Starring: Hank Azaria, Bill Murray, Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, Susan Sarandon. Drama.

Cradle Will Rock belongs to that class of movies that don’t particularly offend anyone or bomb big enough to become a notorious flop; nor was it greeted with a ton of enthusiasm. Considering the talent involved with the film—Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Susan Sarandon, to name but a few—the mild applause the film seemed to generate upon its release was kind of like damning with faint praise. I never understood this because I find Cradle Will Rock to be a whole lot of fun, while at the same time serving as a pointed critique of the political apathy prevalent in art today.

The film tells the story of one of the most mythologized theatrical events of the 20th century. No surprise that Orson Welles was directly involved then. We’re in New York in 1937 and the city seems to be the epicenter of a massive upheaval in society at large. There is labor unrest, growing unease about global fascism, and a gnawing sense that capitalism has failed the common interests of the average citizen. (Hey, maybe the film is due for a critical re-appreciation after all…)

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jan 21, 2010 6:43pm

Sweet Smell of Success

Dir: Alexander Mackendrick, 1957. Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison. Film Noir.

I tend to sum up Sweet Smell of Success by saying that it’s sort of the alpha male version of All About Eve. It’s a movie about men and envy and wanting to be numero uno at all costs. But really the star and thematic center of the film is New York. It’s sharply written and gorgeously photographed as a city full of shysters, whores, crooked cops, and naïve cigarette girls, with the city’s truly powerful people wielding their influence like back alley thugs. For all the neon-lit corruption it makes the New York of the late-1950s look like a terribly exciting place to be. It’s an after-dark town with a hot Jazz score soundtracking a desperate populace thieving, scheming, and hustling—the quintessential Dark City that Noir dreams are made of. As the terrifyingly important J.J. Hunsucker, New York’s most powerful gossip columnist (played by the imposing Burt Lancaster), says with true affection, “I love this dirty town.”

Hunsucker’s column attracts 60 million daily readers and he relishes his ability to make or break anyone he chooses. He’s a sociopath in a nice suit who strikes fear into the hearts of the major players in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent desperate for a piece of the Hunsucker pie. His world is a 24-7 confidence game where he feeds the dupes on his payroll line after line about how they’re next in line to get mentioned in Hunsucker’s column. But J.J. likes making Sidney squirm for his supper—he cuts him out of the loop entirely so that Sidney will do just about anything to get back in J.J.’s favor.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Dec 8, 2009 5:21pm

Something Wild

Dir: Jonathan Demme, 1987. Starring: Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, George 'Red' Schwartz. Comedy.

What happened to Jonathan Demme? He used to make the best movies. I’m talking about the films he did before Silence of the Lambs changed his life and career options for good. Perhaps regretting his film's instigation of a wave of serial killer-based entertainments, he got very high-minded after Silence of the Lambs and kept returning with more Oscar bait in the form of Philadelphia, which continued his winning streak, and Beloved, which did not. Since then he has alternated between director-for-hire projects and small scale documentaries, before returning to something like his old style with last year’s Rachel Getting Married. But nothing he has done in years has been as good as the comedies he did in the late 1980s. They were exuberant life-affirming spectacles. He brought a New York downtowner’s aesthetic to mainstream comedy and lifted up a dreary end of the decade—a time best remembered for comedies that celebrated getting rich or blowing shit up—with an offbeat sensibility. He was like an American Pedro Almodovar in love with the idea of New York as a melting pot of bohemians and working class immigrants, all tuned in to the same Afrobeat soundtrack. His New York was full of loud colors, Jamaican beauty salons, and cool people—one big punky reggae party.

Something Wild is his best film. It’s a film that celebrates a life lived without rules before segueing into darker territory exploring the same themes. Jeff Daniels plays Charlie, a nice guy yuppie in Manhattan that gets his kicks walking out on his lunch bill. Melanie Griffith is Lulu—she’s got the famous Louise Brooks bob and lots of Voodoo priestess jewelry on. She’s an edgy chick who catches on to Daniels’s pathetic act of rebellion immediately. She threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t get in her car and see where the day takes them. She’s going to teach him a thing or two about wild. Pretty soon they’re naked in a hotel room and she’s making him call his office while she otherwise distracts him. The scene is playful and sexy, rather than obvious, because Lulu isn’t objectified as Charlie’s "manic pixie dream girl" who teaches him to live; instead she’s the one in charge. The scene is more about Lulu’s fetishizing of Charlie’s straightness than anything, though we get the feeling that Charlie has been looking for someone like Lulu all along. It’s the complete opposite of how most straight male directors would have played the scene and just one of the details that make this film unique.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 17, 2009 6:02pm

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Dir: Robert Aldrich, 1962. Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono. Classics.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie lodged right into our pop cultural DNA somewhere between Psycho and Stonewall, and I would wager that its reputation as a “camp classic” might precede it to the film’s detriment because its greatness is in spite of its cultural baggage as a Hollywood Babylon-style punch line. Throughout the years since its release the film has been referenced, paid homage to, and parodied more times than I probably know about. There’s just something about the premise of two notorious aging movie queens tearing into one another—no one seems able to resist that glamorously morbid premise. By the early 1960s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were at the point in their careers where they had to spoof themselves in a Hollywood horror story to get the attention of an audience that had long since deserted them. It was a risk that paid off and ultimately redefined the kinds of roles being offered to aging movie stars. …Baby Jane? was more than just a sleeper hit that resuscitated a few careers; it became a phenomenon that helped spawn a whole cottage industry of films starring has-been actresses pouring on the fake blood and brandishing pick axes. People wanted to see these one-time "it girls" playing murderous grandmas. It was the age of the Hagsploitation horror flick and …Baby Jane? was the one that started it all.

But let me reiterate, I come to praise What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a sharp Hollywood satire, not to bury it under more faint praise as a “camp classic,” though there’s no denying it’s the Shakespearian gold standard for that. The problem is that identifying something as camp tends to negate it as anything other than a joke—even a knowing joke— and what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable goes far beyond its kitsch value. It’s a darkly comic satire in the vein of Sunset Boulevard but with weirder and more compelling characters. And it’s not just Davis and Crawford who remind us of why they were great to begin with. The supporting cast is just as good as they are—Victor Buono as the portly would-be suitor and artistic collaborator of Jane is particularly excellent. And in Robert Aldrich the film has a curiously awesome choice for a director. Aldrich could be described as a man’s man kind of director who made war pictures and nasty offbeat noirs like Kiss Me Deadly. Hiring him to direct a movie about two old Hollywood legends at each other’s throats was an inspired choice. Aldrich liked perversity and clearly the innate perversity of the film’s premise must have appealed to him. But he also locates the pathos in the characters and makes us care about what happens to them. It’s hard to categorize What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as anything other than a classic. It’s a Hollywood satire, it’s a lurid tragedy, a gothic noir of sorts - kind of horrific, certainly camp, and very funny. It has much to say about the two legendary leads and their notorious dislike of each other as it does about an industry that treats women terribly.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 17, 2009 5:08pm

Thirst

Dir: Chan-wook Park, 2009. Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ok-vin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-kyun Shin, In-hwan Park. Korean. Horror.

A fantastical adaptation of Émile Zola's Thérèse Raquin. Not that I've ever read any Zola, mind you, but I've read about him. Maybe after I've finished working my way through the entire output of the 19th century Russian realists, I'll be ready. If only Zola had featured more vampires in his stories...Well, Chan-Wook Park knows how to get me interested in realism, at least -- same as the Russians -- with ideological discussions of atheism.

Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) is a Catholic priest with a martyr complex or strong death drive (amounts to the same thing, I suppose), who plays guinea pig in a macabre experiment to help doctors find a cure for a virus that's particularly dangerous to Korean men. He's the only one to survive the voluntary infection due to a transfusion using vampire blood. The catch is that he now needs to feed on normal human blood to keep from sweating his own and breaking out in disfiguring boils. Initially, he's racked by guilt over his bodily urges, which leads to his sucking on a comatose patient's IV and a fellow priest, Noh (In-hwan Park), with a more sanguine attitude about the vampire virus. Sang-hyeon sees vampirism as a loss of humanity, Noh as a gift, a potential cure for his blindness. Due to his miracle cure, the vampire picks up a religious following of Catholics who see him as another messiah, parallel to that other popular tale of transfiguration. Is he a vampire who walks like a man, or man who acts like a vampire?

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Posted by:
Charles Reece
Nov 12, 2009 11:23am

Bad Day at Black Rock

Dir: John Sturges, 1955. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis. Classics.

I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.

The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 11, 2009 5:45pm
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