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).
A few years ago a film premiered at Sundance starring several major blockbuster stars, shot by a couple of music video directors, and produced by a small, but successful Hollywood production company. Because of an aggressive marketing campaign and a highly publicized distribution deal, the film won several Academy Awards and made more than $100 million. Regardless of its high star wattage, its directors’ wealth of commercial experience, and Hollywood development credentials, it was still termed an “independent film.” 11 years previous, for 1/50th of its modern counterpart’s budget, Party Girl was made in New York by a first time filmmaker, starring an actress who, except for a notable supporting turn in a Richard Linklater comedy, had had only small character parts in independent films. Party Girl was accepted into Sundance that year and garnered only a limited theatrical run. But over the years through word of mouth, it has become a beloved cult hit, quoted ad nauseam by its devotees, whose ranks multiply yearly.
The plot seems at first utterly conventional, straying between nominally feminist chick flick to slacker comedy. Downtown It girl Mary (Parker Posey) is unemployed, on the verge of eviction, and “fabulous,” which in movie parlance means she wears quirky outfits and uses her acerbic wit against her friends. When she gets arrested for turning her apartment into a makeshift nightclub, Mary is bailed out by her godmother, Judy, a librarian. In order to pay Judy back and to prove herself to as capable and trustworthy, Mary becomes a clerk at Judy’s library. Gaining her good opinion is complicated by Judy’s constant panting that she can’t trust Mary because she reminds her so much of her mother, an irrational grousing that is the movie’s only major flaw. Mary’s mother may have been quite the party-goer, but many young women are, and one can’t hold young people accountable for doing the same things that their parents did when they were the same age. I would be extremely frustrated if my grandparents always said, “Gillian, you’re such a bleeding heart liberal, just like your mother was when she was your age. I won’t be surprised if you end up getting divorced, too.”Continue Reading
Delicatessen: A Pound of Perfection HUNGER: I hate waiting to eat. Especially when I'm starving. I become cranky. My cinematic appetite has been drooling for the domestic DVD release of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's Delicatessen for years now. Fortunately my French film fast has come to an end. ODD STORY SHORT: An out-of-work circus performer shows up at a butcher shop in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland to answer an ad for a handy man. The Butcher, also the landlord, has an agenda and a clumsy yet adorable wallflower of a daughter. The neighbors run the eccentric gamut. Have you ever met a troglodyte? And more importantly, what do you eat after an apocalypse? Let's just say few things go as planned. THE GOODS: Coming from the worlds of animation and advertising most likely gave Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro much time to experiment with various aspects of film design. This is put to the test on screen to great effect. Amazing sequences are played out like well-crafted jokes or the tumbling of an elaborate domino configuration. I can't help but feel one or both of the filmmakers are Charlie Chaplin fans. The visual landscape is rich and lived-in, drenched in musty browns, reds and greens. The characters can be quite cartoonish at times, only adding to the over-all oddity of this world. I believe in this "strange France" even though I can only visit via my DVD player. EXTRAS: Aside from the film the DVD includes some interesting tid bits. Included are: all the trailers (including teasers), a document of the filming, Jeunet's own archive footage and best of all a director's commentary track (in French with subtitles). The commentary track is done solo by Jeunet. It would appear for whatever reason that Mr. Caro has excluded himself from all the extra features. He is virtually not seen or heard outside of the...Continue Reading
What will the Europe of the future look like? In the opinion of the great Dane Lars von Trier Europe will be polluted, plagued, and riddled with an existential numbness preventing connection of any kind between its inhabitants. Life for Europeans will vacillate between madness and extremism and boredom and anonymity. Von Trier’s prognostications are manifested in his Europa trilogy: The Element of Crime (1984) set in the future, Epidemic (1987) set in the present, and Europa (1991) set in the fall of 1945 after the German surrender to the Allied forces. In Europa, von Trier extrapolates his fears for the future of Europe from its past, finding parallels in the alienation and chaos of post-war Germany replicated in the angst of modern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western Europe was facing the same problem of the Allies after WWII: now that you’ve won, how do you turn the enemy you vilified into a trustworthy ally?
Von Trier describes the theme of the Europa trilogy as “the story of an idealist who tries to save people, but it all goes wrong.” Element of Crime features a cop intent on proving the viability of the controversial, psychologically debilitating crime-solving techniques of his mentor; in Epidemic a director (played by von Trier) wants to bring to life the story of a doctor (also played by von Trier) intent on stopping a deadly plague who ultimately turns out to be the carrier of the disease. Europa is less conceptual and is in fact the most conventional of any of von Trier’s films. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) is an American of German descent who travels to Germany just after the war’s end with the vague goal of showing kindness to humanity. Kessler soon gets a job as a sleeping car conductor with the help of his fellow conductor uncle, so apparently showing kindness includes taking a job that could have been filled by a starving German. Kessler is soon invited to dinner at the house of Herr Hartman, the former Nazi collaborator who owns the Zentropa rail company where Kessler is employed. Kessler soon falls for Hartmann’s daughter, Katie (Barbara Sukowa), a sexpot who isn’t hesitant to admit that she was also once a collaborator. Kessler’s desire to save Katie from her past pulls him into a milieu of intrigue and betrayal that pose the ultimate challenge to Kessler’s altruistic weltanschaung. In plot, Europa is a Nazi spy thriller in the vein of Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Hitchcock’s Notorious, but because of a strong technical choice, von Trier gives it a new, singularly postmodern collage aesthetic.Continue Reading
The 400 Blows
The power of black and white film in an autobiographical story never ceases to be emotional and meaningful. The English title of French New Wave director FranÃ§ois Truffaut's film The 400 Blows is unfortunately a literal translation that overlooks the meaning of the phrase "faire les quatre cents coups." The main character of the film is a thirteen-year-old boy named Antoine Doinel, who does exactly that – raises hell, or causes disruption within a society of order. Truffaut has a unique and undeniably intelligent way of filmmaking that is showcased in this personal film.
Our protagonist is as mysterious as he is mischievous. That is his essential charm – a young figure full of paradigms and intrigues. The beauty of the film lies in the fact that we follow him without obvious or over-the-top plot moves. The viewer is able to simply observe and be with Antoine in his exploration of a being a French adolescent. Antoine enters a life of crime and trouble making. He is scolded by his teacher, he discovers his mother is having an affair, and engages in stealing. He is punished and misunderstood by adults. There is no perfect answer for this boy, and this film proves there is no need for that. Truffaut allows us instead to enter a boy's intimate moments in visceral and dreamlike states.Continue Reading
One would think that as blunt a director as Sam Fuller would have little use for metaphor when making a film about racism, but the director best known for his hard-hitting pulpy exposes of social injustice uses symbolism in White Dog as fluently as he used shock value in his previous films, without omitting any of the controversy expected of him. When Fuller made White Dog he had already pushed buttons with Shock Corridor’s blunt portrayal of inhumane conditions in sanitariums in the 1950s and The Naked Kiss’s vitriolic condemnation of small town hypocrisy. So why did Paramount seek out Fuller to co-write and direct a film based on a true story of a dog trained to attack Blacks, and then shelve the finished product? Fuller was back in favor after The Big Red One (1980), his first film after he made Shark! with Burt Reynolds in 1969, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Paramount pitched Fuller the concept, based on a Romain Gary article for Life magazine that Gary had adapted from his book Chien Blanc, and Fuller signed on to co-write the script with Curtis Hanson and direct the film. Together they adapted the non-fiction work into the story of Julie Sawyer, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd while driving in the dark canyon roads of the Hollywood Hills. She rescues the dog, but after he attacks a co-worker, Julie believes that she has a former attack dog for a pet and takes him to movie set animal trainer Carruthers to reverse his aggressive training. When he sees the dog maul a Black man, he tells Julie that she has a “white dog,” a dog trained by racists to attack only Blacks. Keyes, a Black trainer with an anthropological bent, attempts to deprogram Julie’s racist dog as an experiment in the reversal of racial inculcation. Paramount was intent to avoid any accusations of insensitivity and in an attempt to obviate any complaints asked the president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP to be on set during the shoot. After the film’s completion the organization voiced its disapproval of the film and Paramount decided to forgo its release.
This Criterion release is the first time White Dog has been available in the U.S. It never had a theatrical release here (although it did in France where it had decent ticket sales) and it has never been available on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or shown on television. Those of us who were lucky enough to rent (or work, *hech-hem*) at Mondo Kim’s in the East Village could rent a fuzzy bootleg with overmodulated sound. It was painful to listen to Ennio Morricone’s score in such a distorted form, but Faustian bargains were made to glimpse Fuller’s recondite masterpiece. Criterion does film scholars and the film community an immeasurable service when they release rare and obscure films like White Dog, Salo, Taste of Cherry, Sans Soleil, etc., more than amply making up for the plastic and human resources the label wastes the few times it releases films of questionable cinematic value that were already in wide circulation (I’m not going to name names. But one starts with Chasing…) By releasing White Dog Criterion is sharing with viewers one the strongest denunciations of racism in American film history, a denunciation that was stolen from audiences by Paramount’s timidity and the NAACP’s short-sightedness.Continue Reading
Joan Crawford grabbed at life the only way she knew how—by the balls, baby. She fled a hard scrabble childhood full of the horrors to become the reigning queen of Hollywood. She defied so many odds put in front of her and she almost always came out on top. Joan was many different versions of herself throughout her life: gold digger, jazz baby, Pepsi hawker, perennial MGM shop girl, terrible, terrible mother, the greatest star the world has ever known, poster woman for mental illnesses, bizarre recipe creator, transgender identity pioneer, role model to the uneducated, black market baby taker, dubious advice giver, enemy of slovenly hippies, the world’s most famous neat freak, world class fashion don’t… she did it all. Her crazy life was her greatest work of art.
When people talk about Joan’s essential artifice (and likewise the supposedly superior talents of her chief star rival, Bette Davis) I don’t understand why they mean it in a bad way. Her artifice was the whole picture and it was riveting. It gave her a unique kind of depth. It set her apart. She didn’t want to be liked; she demanded to be worshiped. Whether in a black market stag film early in her career (as was rumored) or any number of MGM prestige pictures or in her obsessive assembling of her bizarre family set up, Joan’s way of life was to attack. Her ambition was her identity. This can be either repulsive or, if she was in the right film, it can be put to very compelling use.Continue Reading
Your high school English teacher always said everybody had a story in them. The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was a filmmaker who only had one story, a story of revolution that he attempted to tell in as many ways as possible. As a Jew trying to survive in Italy during the Second World War, Pontecorvo became a Marxist. Going into hiding, he organized Partisans to fight the fascist government and also wrote for the Communist Party’s underground newspaper. His early exposure and involvement in radical leftist politics led to his adoption of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial theories, ideas that he would subsequently develop in his magnum opus Battle of Algiers (1965) and later in Burn!
Battle of Algiers ideological ambiguity angered many conservative viewers and critics upon its release only three years after the French loss of the Algerian War. At the time the French right wing terrorist group OAS (the villains of Fred Zinneman’s Day of the Jackal) was still active and had attempted to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle three years before for his role in the decay of the French empire. Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years, ostensibly for showing the atrocities committed by the French armed forces and the Algerian insurgents’ National Liberation Front with the same objective remove. The events portrayed in the film were carefully researched to accurately represent similar occurrences from 1954-1960. In contrast, Pontecorvo’s next film had only a tenuous connection to any factual incidences. The protagonist, William Walker, played by Marlon Brando, is very loosely based on the 19th century American rogue adventurer of the same name who while under contract from the Nicaraguan government to put down a rebellion ended up declaring himself President of Nicaragua. His story is told in Alex Cox’s brilliant film, Walker, finally available from Criterion, starring Ed Harris with a score composed by Joe Strummer.Continue Reading
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Buckwheat from Our Gang wash the back of his holiness the Pope with a scrub brush in a stand-alone bathtub in the middle of the woods? Has the idea of witnessing Moe, Curly and Larry shoot a flock of diseased goats ever cross your mind? Or perhaps, getting a bird’s eye view of several nuns free falling through the atmosphere during an impromptu skydiving trip? If so, Mister Lonely is the film for you.
Mister Lonely is the story of a shy Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) living and dancing his way through the streets of Paris. While performing at a retirement home, Michael comes into contact with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have lunch at which point Marilyn invites Michael to accompany her to a commune inhabited by celebrity impersonators located in the Highlands of Scotland. At first, Michael is apprehensive. But the beautiful and very uncanny Monroe impersonator convinces him to join her. Michael gathers his things in a scene, which in my opinion, is the embodiment of the entire film. Never has a moment in a film where a character interacts with furniture ever make me feel the way in which this particular (and peculiar) scene did.Continue Reading
Lady in White
A curious mix of autumn colored nostalgia for a small town early 1960s childhood and a supernatural fantasy with an icky child murderer sub plot to round it out, Lady in White is something of an anomaly. Released at a time when horror films were gorier than ever (think Freddy, Jason, et al.) this quietly creepy little movie made a virtue of suggestiveness rather than overkill and at least the hint of psychological complexity that works to the film’s favor even if the execution is a little clumsy. Still, the film has a couple of genuinely haunting moments that have some of the visual poetry of the classic Val Lewton horror films that he made for RKO (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie).
Little Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is a sensitive kid and a budding writer who loves to scare people with his monster stories. After terrifying his classmates with a special story he wrote just for Halloween he is tricked by some of his bratty classmates into being locked in the school coatroom after everyone else has gone home. He falls asleep only to wake up hours later, trying not to panic in his little Dracula costume, with the glow of moonlight shining in the window. It’s this scene that stays with you—just a simple, almost completely still shot that speaks artfully of the very real childhood fear of being abandoned, of being lost in the darkness that you are too young to comprehend.Continue Reading
Encounters at the End of the World
It’s an uncontestable fact that Werner Herzog is the greatest living director. His latest documentary Encounters at the End of the World may not be as cathartic or controversial as his dramatic features, but it validates Herzog’s ability to personalize every film that he directs with the creation of hypnotic, surreal images, images that despite their otherworldliness symbolize a litany of urgent, undeniable truths. The most famous of these are the 360-ton steamship being pulled over a hill in the Amazon rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, as well as the dancing chicken and interminable ski-lift ride in the finale of Stroszek. People who have seen multiple Herzog films walk away with images they hold personally to them, like amulets; for me it’s Kaspar Hauser standing immobile in the village square clutching a letter that he can’t read. Only a director like Herzog could go to edge of the planet and make a film that is idiosyncratic.
Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (his DP for the majority of his films since Gesualdo) received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to travel to Antarctica for several months to shoot footage for a documentary. The director seems to express ambivalence at the beginning of the film about his suitability for the subject, saying that he’s not interested in making a movie about “fluffy penguins.” Ironically, he ends up shooting some of the cutest baby and mommy seal footage I’ve ever seen. It eventually becomes apparent that Herzog’s focus is not so much the landscape as it is the modern day explorers who have come to study the frozen continent. The bleak landmass has become a magnet to a millenarian mixture of scientists, engineers, cooks, survival experts, and ice terrain vehicle drivers who believe that the secret of the earth’s future, and perhaps demise, is hidden in the landscape and wildlife of this frozen desert. Herzog compares these people driven to the end of the map by their dreams to adventurers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Admundsen, forsaking comfort and civilization to be near the Unnameable.Continue Reading