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).
The Iron Giant
1999 was about as exciting as it gets for feature film animation with such diverse highlights as Walt Disney’s better than expected Tarzan, the jump from TV to the big screen South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Pixar’s great sequel Toy Story 2, and the American release of Hayao Miyazaki’s Japanese mind-bender Princess Mononoke. Out of nowhere came one of the most unique, stylish and moving animated flicks ever, The Iron Giant, from a Simpsons executive consultant named Bill Bird (who famously would go on to direct two of Pixar’s best, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and then the live action Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol).
Taking place in the chilly Cold War year of 1957, The Iron Giant works as both an allegory to America’s heightened paranoia and a stylistic tribute to the imagination those jitters created. It’s sort of a cross between The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (with some Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot in there too). With a theme of embracing what you don’t understand, it may sound like just another “boy and his giant robot” story, but it’s much richer than a simple pitch and it may just bring a tear to even the most cynical of viewers.
Paris is Burning
If, at some point, the world burns to a pulp and only one film can be loaded onto an escape pod for future generations to glean some insight into all that was remotely worthwhile about human beings and society in general, you could do worse than nominating Paris is Burning for such posthumous preservation. At the very least it might make some of us look better than if some turgid superhero epic ostensibly depicting epic struggles of great societal importance was chosen in its place. Forgive me for mentioning but after just sitting through The Dark Knight Rises and subsequently observing all manner of literate and engaged humanities majors discuss the Dickensian implications of such a stupid, stupid movie in painfully earnest detail that completely ignored the fact that it was a goddamn movie for children I am ready for California and its most famous culture industry to sink to the bottom of the Pacific. Like now. We don’t even get good trash any more. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a more relevant film to understand American psychology than anything Christopher Nolan, with his cheesy conceptualization of urban politics as an “us” vs. “them” struggle, has come up with. But I digress; this is an opportunity to talk about a truly epic film: the ferocious extravaganza spectacle-cum-urban-
As is always the case in the United States, a small marginalized group—in this case, black, gay folks—creates a subculture of such magnificent vitality and militantly glamorous urgency—in this case, the Harlem Drag Ball scene of the late-‘80s and early ‘90s—that the only end result can be its utter annihilation as collateral damage in the larger story of poverty and racism that is the dominant narrative of AmeriKKKa and for the opportunistic capitalist sex mercenaries (in this case, Madonna) to cannily co-opt their electric pleasure art into a 1990 pop hit cassingle called “Vogue.” Now, “Vogue” was a great song and a noble tribute to this Harlem Drag Ball culture that Paris is Burning depicts but it’s still a subcultural Occupation that created a revenue stream that went directly into the granny panties Madonna wore under her Victorian costume from that one MTV Video Awards performance she did of the song whilst bypassing the originators completely. So forget her for a moment and let’s go back to this black-flesh-ensconced-in-crushed-red-velvet-counter-narrative-protest-to-the-World-of- White-and-Straight that Paris is Burning represents.
God Bless America
God Bless America is a satirical masterpiece, plain and simple, and it’s not surprising if you look at the trajectory of Bobcat Goldthwait’s films as a writer/director. The former stand-up comedian and star of the Police Academy sequels kicked off his filmmaking career with the often misunderstood and underrated 1991 comedy Shakes The Clown, in which he also starred, but it was his two follow-ups, Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad, that solidified him as the master of the black comedy. Those two films represent some of the darkest and most uncomfortable cinematic farces you’re bound to ever see and while he had plenty to say through the characters of those previous movies, God Bless America feels like his most personal rant on the wrongs of our current celebrity obsessed society. All the things he’d probably vent about in a modern stand-up routine are all neatly plugged into his latest feature-length film making this arguably his most personal movie to date.
Joel Murray (reuniting with Bobcat for the first time since his 1986 big-screen debut One Crazy Summer) plays Frank, a genuinely decent person who gets frustrated easily by the stupidity that constantly surrounds him. Take his completely oblivious and inconsiderate neighbors who through paper-thin walls stay up super late to loudly discuss the most asinine subjects while their unattended newborn baby cries in the background nonstop. Between the noise and his migraines, Frank can never get a good night’s sleep. So most evenings he’s plopped on his couch flipping through the channels to catch commercials for “pig fart” ringtones and power drink advertisements in between episodes of reality shows like Tuff Gurlz where one girl throws a used tampon at another girl. (No doubt, an MTV show.) But hey, that’s nothing compared to the news reports he combs through depicting kids doing violent things and then posting them on YouTube, or the angry religious fanatics protesting some social ill of the week.
The Toxic Avenger
Troma Entertainment has been churning out what can be considered the epitome of “cult” films for over 30 years and has proudly stood tall as the purveyors of independent cinema. But most of their output in those 30 years might be looked upon as lowest common denominator material. To be blunt, the majority of their movies feature some of the most outlandish gags and stories being executed in the poorest of taste with the sole purpose of offending just about anyone and everyone that watches them. Then again, therein lies the charm of a typical Troma film. No other movie among their catalog matches the greatness of The Toxic Avenger, Lloyd Kaufman’s most famous creation which at least manages to be offensive and entertaining.
No one could’ve predicted back in 1984 that this little low-budget indie gore-fest would go on to spawn three sequels, comic books, a television cartoon titled the Toxic Crusaders and a slew of related toys and merchandise. After all, could the world’s first superhero from New Jersey who was born of toxic waste really become that huge of an icon? Low and behold, for better or worse, he has! And that’s part of the fun in revisiting the film now which so perfectly captures the sleaziness of New Jersey/New York of the early '80s.
At one point Sylvester Stallone was considered a real actor, bursting into superstardom with the original Rocky flick, becoming a household name and even winning an Oscar for his original screenplay. He would continue to stay popular with its first two sequels, as well as some interesting (though less popular) movies like the quasi Hoffa bio F.I.S.T and the underrated terrorism thriller Nighthawks. He would hit box office gold again in 1982 with an intelligent action flick, First Blood, and though he would go on to become a global brand, First Blood would be more or less the last time he would push himself as an actor (though about once a decade he has managed to pop up in thoughtful, quality non ‘roid roles like Cop Land in ’97 and Rocky Balboa in ’06). Though some of his roles from the '80s have become almost camp classics of bad (Cobra, Tango & Cash), First Blood was about the last time he was able to combine both muscle and a quality script to perfectly suit his oversized ego and release a flick that still holds up today.
Ted Kotcheff was a television director in the '60s, but by the next decade he hit the big screen with a string of fairly popular flicks (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun with Dick and Jane and North Dallas Forty). In ’82 he made the little seen but admirable cult deprograming drama Split Image as well as First Blood. It would be his peak both commercially and critically before slowly moving back to TV assignments. Still it's an interesting filmography and important to explain why First Blood works so well. Kotcheff was a character driven director, not an action hack.
In a bleak, warless future society that stylistically looks a lot like the 1970s, corporations have taken over for governments. But without war the people are still bloodthirsty so they get their kicks from a sport called rollerball, a male version of roller derby, but way more violent and even deadly. Besides guys zipping around a track on roller skates, punching each other out, there are motorcycles too. Worrying that a player can get too popular, corporate head honcho Bartholomew (John Houseman) informs Houston’s star player, the he-man Jonathan E. (played by he-man actor James Caan, a couple years after The Godfather made him a big star), that he needs to retire, but Jonathan E. plays by his own rules and will do what it takes to not be a lackey for the man.
Rollerball director Norman Jewison had a long and respected career moving easily between comedy (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming), social drama (In the Heat of the Night) and even musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar), but his work usually had a liberal take to it (A Soldier's Story, ...And Justice for All) and though he was no stranger to straight entertainment (The Thomas Crown Affair) he must have looked a little miscast as a sci-fi action director. Luckily the action is well shot and the rollerball game sequences are still amazingly exciting, but there are only a couple of those games so, at over two hours long, there’s a lot of exposition in between. As a kid, all the talk was boring and confusing, but now I can appreciate what Jewison was driving at. There is definitely a rebellious anti-corporate spirit at work here and a prophetic vision of corporate dominance over sports and everyday life to come.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
Kevin Clash grew up in a sizable family of humble means. He began watching Sesame Street as a young boy, which led to watching The Muppet Show. His ravenous interest in creating and performing his own puppet characters grew. He started performing for children at his mother’s day care center, which led him down a path that would ultimately blossom into a promising career as a puppeteer. But not just any puppeteer. He would ultimately become one of children’s most beloved icons, a little red fury monster named… Elmo! Not too shabby for a shy boy from the suburbs of Baltimore.
Spider-Man 2 is not only one of the best sequels ever made, it’s easily one of the best superhero movies ever made. And while the first Spider-Man most definitely felt like a Sam Raimi film, this one is 100 percent the filmmaker we’ve come to know and love over the years through films such as the Evil Dead trilogy to Darkman and A Simple Plan. It’s not surprising that his influence is more recognizable in the sequel looking back now in retrospect. The first Spider-Man was a major gamble for everyone involved. For Marvel, for the studio (Sony in this case), hell, even for the toy companies which I’m convinced are the reason the Green Goblin looks the way he does rather than looking like his comic book counterpart in appearance. But the gamble paid off and director Raimi delivered in spades, satisfying not only all the interested parties involved in the first movie’s investments, but savvy comic book fans and worldwide movie-goers alike. So, with the mega-success of the first Spider-Man, it feels like they pretty much left him alone to make the sequel exactly how he wanted to make it.
And the opening alone is impressive and unique. We’re re-told the plot and events of the first Spider-Man during the opening credit montage through a series of amazing drawings by comic artist legend Alex Ross, backed by Danny Elfman’s returning score. Once we’re brought up to speed, we pick up about two years after the events of the last movie and are thrown right into the hectic life of Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire), who is scootering along the busy streets of Manhattan trying to deliver pizzas and avoid being distracted by the multiple billboards featuring the now semi-famous model and his former high school crush, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). It’s the frantic nature of the scene done in trademark Raimi style that shows us what a day in the life of Peter Parker is really like. He’s got 15 minutes to make it across town to deliver a dozen pizzas or else he loses his job. On the way, he encounters every obstacle from New York City traffic to kids playing in the street, in which he makes a quick change into Spider-Man to save them from being mowed down by a speeding truck, to a stoner on the balcony of his posh Manhattan apartment trying to snag a piece of pizza from one of the pies Spidey left there momentarily to make his save. (The stoner dude is a welcome cameo by Evil Dead 2 co-writer Scott Spiegel!)
Halloween: 25 Years Of Terror
It’s been nearly 10 years since the Halloween Returns To Haddonfield 25th anniversary convention celebrating the release of John Carpenter’s now legendary film took place in Pasadena, California, and I’m sure at the time the organizers couldn’t have possibly predicted that the event would be the impetus for the documentary Halloween: 25 Years Or Terror, nor that that documentary would kick start and pave the way for similar retrospective films on the making-of horror franchise classics. Feature length retrospective documentaries were not anything new at the time of Halloween: 25 Years Of Terror’s release. Filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau was already producing some of the best making-of docs for DVD and Laserdisc releases of famous titles such as Jaws and Psycho; but the Halloween doc was the first to offer a feature length retrospective packaged completely on its own as the disc’s main feature with hours of bonus materials for the die-hard Halloween fans to soak up afterwards. Because of its success, we got a string of other horror documentary releases such as His Name Was Jason, The Psycho Legacy, Never Sleep Again and even More Brains!, a documentary focusing primarily on the first Return Of The Living Dead film! But it’s fascinating to go back and revisit where this particular sub-genre all began, which was with Halloween: 25 Years Of Terror.
While the doc chronicles all the Halloween movies including its sequels in sequential order, it kicks off with the original and sets-up what was going on in the horror genre that led up to it; films like Night Of The Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and most importantly Black Christmas which paved the way for a film like Halloween to exist. A young filmmaker named John Carpenter was tapped by a pair of producers to direct a feature with the premise of “the Babysitter murders” and it was to be set on Halloween, a holiday that not only everyone could identify with since we all recognize it, but also one that hadn’t yet been fully exploited as the title of a movie. Paired with his writing and producing partner Debra Hill, Carpenter agreed to tackle the project as long as he had complete creative control and could have his name above the title. While Debra takes credit for writing the dialogue pertaining primarily to the teenage girls' conversations, she gives credit to John for creating Michael Myers and all the dialogue setting him up as evil incarnate. No one involved could’ve possibly predicted that Halloween would become the most successful and lucrative independent film ever made, maintaining that title for decades up until the release of The Blair Witch Project which came along and snatched the crown.
Strangers on a Train
Coming off a string of underwhelming flicks (The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn and Stage Fright), Alfred Hitchcock would kickstart a decade of unparalleled creativity with Strangers on a Train, a nasty little piece of amoral pulp, delightfully mean spirited and loaded with cruel dark humor. This is textbook Hitchcock, full of as many classic set-pieces as any of his films and a must for anyone who wants to learn about the simplicity of creating genuine tension from dynamic camera moves and clever editing. Besides the master director, the other highlight of the film is Robert Walker who gives the performance of his short career as the one of the great conniving psychopaths in film history. Unfortunately not long after the film was completed Walker died, at the age of 32, from an apparent fatal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Also of note, any documentary or academic study on the history of homosexuality in film will certainly cite Walker’s character’s obvious closeted sexuality (and maybe for shame because, like many gay characters on the screen back then, his possible homosexuality is linked to his disturbed nature).
The beautifully crafted screenplay is credited to two nobodies (Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook) and the great crime writer Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep). It was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith whose series of books about the psycho Tom Ripley was the source for the excellent Hitchcockian French thriller Purple Noon as well as the notable The American Friend and The Talented Mr Ripley. Instead of Ripley, the deadly mind at work here is Bruno Anthony (Walker). When Bruno recognizes a local tennis playing celebrity, Guy Haines (Farley Granger), on an East Coast train, he seems to know everything about the guy. Bruno is fully aware that Guy is stuck in a loveless marriage to the frosty Miriam (Laura Elliott) and wants to get rid of her so he can upgrade to the more beautiful Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), who comes from a respected rich family which could help in Guy’s future prospects. Bruno suggests to Guy, hypothetically, they do “criss-cross murders” - Bruno will bump off Miriam and Guy can kill Bruno’s father for him. Since they don’t know each other, they would never be suspects. Guy excuses himself from the stalker, but for Bruno, maybe this wasn’t hypothetical.