Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

Dir: Dave Borthwick. 1993. Starring: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard. Cult Animation.

The Bolex Brothers production, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, is a creepy, yet enchanting, twist on the classic fairytale. It conjures up all sorts of menacing, unnerving, and violent imagery—unlike that of the traditional tale. It's set in a seedy tenement building where an unsuspecting couple conceive a tiny baby—a child so small that they name him Tom Thumb. We quickly see that the world is a harsh place, as Tom's mother is slain and he is kidnapped by sinister men who want to use him for experimentation and genetic research. The plot unfolds around how this tiny creature, with the help of some very unusual friends and the love of his father, escapes the evil forces holding him hostage; the subtext revolving around how this amazing child remains innocent and caring in a world full of fear, reactionary hatred, and prejudice.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb uses stop-motion animation in ways that I have never seen before to create scenes of epic discomfort and fear. Live actors are combined in scenes with clay-mation figures, which causes an uncomfortable, almost anxiety driven performance by the actors, who move with a lurching stagger and speak with a mumbling coo. It took dozens of hours to animate the live actors for seconds of film—an amazing feat! But it's not just the way the live actors are animated that makes this a visual triumph. Every scene is covered in tiny animated insects, the walls seem to breathe, and the earth to shake. The sets are awe-inspiring, to say the least.

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Posted by:
Grace Bartlett
Nov 19, 2008 4:40pm

The Fog of War

Dir: Errol Morris. 2003. Starring: Robert S. McNamara. English. Documentary.

We hear Robert S. McNamara's voice before we actually see him – then he tells the director, "I don't want to go back and introduce the sentence because I know exactly what I want to say." McNamara is candid, opinionated, and passionate – qualities appropriate and endearing from America's former Secretary of Defense, under President Kennedy and President Johnson.

Here Errol Morris offers us a former leader of America's military force's inside knowledge in our nation's war-driven period from the Cold War to the Vietnam War. Some of the information McNamara reveals is astounding. What moved me was that, in the film, he is emotional and intimate – I felt privileged to be able to hear what this historical figure had to say. He explained the results of our actions in several aspects – from the statistical numbers our position in war has had on our daily lives, the impact of our technological weapons, and his own position on being our Secretary of Defense.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Nov 8, 2008 4:46pm

Enemy Mine

Dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1985. Starring: Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett, Jr. English. Science Fiction.

Uncle Davidge’s Cabin Enemy Mine joins a long list of Hollywood films using alien-human tension as an allegory for race relations. The line begins with Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a 1960s space opera currently released by Criterion with a beautiful new transfer. Departing from the Daniel Defoe novel, the Friday character is not black, but he is still a slave, and the fact that he’s an alien, as well as his lowly status, still positions the white explorer as the Other’s protector. During the Cold War science fiction films used the alien-human dichotomy again to symbolize the lack of understanding between communist and capitalist ideology, sometimes propagandistically (Don Siegel’s chilling 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers), sometimes as a sympathetic plea for understanding (from Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still all the way to James Cameron’s The Abyss). But concerns about racial equality remained, addressed in various forms from the original Star Trek series to John Sayles’s underrated, overlooked masterpiece Brother from Another Planet.

In the year 2092 we’ve achieved world peace (I guess there must have been some glitches after Obama achieves it in 2009) so the human race decides to devote itself to exploration and economic development of the far reaches of space. On the course of its journey it discovers an alien race with imperialistic ambitions of its own, the Draks. During a VERY Star Wars-esque fighter plane battle, human pilot Willis Davidge (Jerry Lee Lewis, a.k.a Dennis Quaid) and Drak pilot Jeriba (Dolph Lundgren’s pursuer cop in The Punisher, Louis Gossett Jr.) are shot down over an uninhabited and hostile planet. Initially distrustful of one another, Davidge and Jeriba soon learn the other’s language, and form a close, fraternal bond. Davidge soon discovers that the contents of Jeriba’s prized book contain the same teachings as the Bible, because “truth is truth, no matter in what language.” Enemy Mine is full of warm scenes of brotherhood and life lessons learned, set against majestic, fully-rendered matte paintings. (Matte paintings, when special effects were beautiful.) Although Jeriba’s skin is a tawny brown and he is played by an African-American actor, the differences between Davidge and he are treated as primarily cultural, until a third-act racial twist involving Robinson Crusoe-esque scenes of slave labor and benevolent white protection. Although the film has a positive message and good intentions, Davidge’s near single-handed rescue of a gang of enslaved Drak miners projects a message redolent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that racial equality will come at the hands of enlightened and sympathetic whites, rather than Black agency or even integrated effort. The simplistic treatment may come from director Wolfgang Petersen’s German nationality and hence a lack of experience with the subtext’s subject matter. These faults are minor in comparison with Enemy Mine’s many virtues: an epic story centered around two isolated “Waiting for Godot” type characters, excellent production design, and an idealistic, if flawed, message.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Nov 8, 2008 4:36pm

Charlie Wilson’s War

Dir: Mike Nichols. 2007. Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Drama.

A smart and funny political biopic for grown ups from director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) about the likable Texas congressman whose influence led to U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays “(Good Time) Charlie Wilson” as a well meaning political hack who watches as his crusade for the U.S. to assist in helping the people of Afghanistan against their Soviet occupiers turns into a Cold War sideshow that inadvertently gives rise to Islamic Radicalism. The film manages to stay light on its feet without glossing over the sobering consequences of what was a complete mishandling of a volatile situation.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:18pm

Glengarry Glen Ross

Dir: James Foley.1992. Starring: Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin. Drama.

David Mamet’s pitch dark morality play about capitalism as a nihilistic force for poisoning the human spirit was turned into a film in 1992 with an all star cast featuring Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Spacey, and Alan Arkin. All of them play miserable salesmen both complicit and bitterly at odds with having their sense of identity wrapped up in their weekly sales figures. The actors work the odd time signatures of Mamet’s trademark dialogue and the lines are delivered with a seething intensity that leaves you a little shaken.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:14pm

Prairie Home Companion

Dir: Robert Altman. 2006. Starring: Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson. Comedy.

Robert Altman’s last film is an adaptation of NPR staple “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s liberal humanist weekly revue of folky Americana music, wry story telling, and gentle send ups of modern mores and it couldn’t be a more fitting film to go out on. Altman uses the big cast putting on their last show plot as a means of meditation on different kinds of death: the death of an old timer, the death of live radio as an art form and he creates something moving without being cloying, heartfelt without being sentimental....

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:10pm

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism

Dir: Robert Greenwald. 2004. Starring: Linda Vester, Steve Doocy. Documentaries.

The inside scoop on the “Fair and Balanced” news network and how its notorious enthusiasm for “truthiness” made it the perfect cable news counterpart to the Bush years. Outfoxed is a scathing indictment of Rupert Murdoch’s crappy idea of journalism put into 24 hour news cycle form. From former employees giving the lowdown on Fox’s shady way of skewing coverage to favor Republicans to the jaw dropping series of clips of world class blowhards Bill “Shut up!” O’Reilly and Sean Hannity turning journalism into a joke Outfoxed is a relentless assault on the dishonesty at the core of Murdoch’s failed experiment to control the message....

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:07pm

Small Town Gay Bar

Dir: Malcolm Ingram. 2005. Starring: Justin Williams (VII), Fred Phelps. Gay Cinema.

Small Town Gay Bar is a sometimes sad, sometimes uplifting account of the collective efforts of a few every day small town Americans in red state U.S.A. to create a sense of community for GLBT people where they live. What ultimately resonates from this documentary is that there is something deeply heroic about their efforts to create a safe place for people to live openly where it’s needed most even if it’s just for a few precious hours before last call....

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:04pm

Black Book

Dir: Paul Verhoeven. 2006. Starring: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch. Foreign.

Director Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) went back to his native Holland to make this stylish and subversive action adventure movie about a WW2-era Jewish spy who lives by her wits as a member of the Dutch resistance as she navigates a treacherous world of sympathetic enemies and dubious allies. As usual with Verhoeven there is a layer of social commentary to Black Book that lies beneath the glossy surface. This is old Hollywood spectacle with depth. Best movie of 2006!...

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:00pm

Gladiator

Dir: Ridley Scott. 2000. Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix. English. Action

A modernized take on the sort of old Hollywood ancient Roman epic that updates the sword and sandal genre with plenty of ass kicking spectacle and a powerful central performance from Russell Crowe as a Roman general who seeks vengeance after losing his family at the hands of a corrupt prince and is forced to fight as a gladiator in Rome’s coliseum. The film’s populist hero and themes went over big with audiences turning Crowe into a mega star in the process.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 7:55pm
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