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).
As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the clichÃ©-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.
That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.Continue Reading
"What’s your favorite movie of all time?" Anyone ever ask you that? In my world (Hollywood, movie nerds, Rocket Video, Amoeba, etc.) it’s not unusual to be asked. Matter of fact, it’s almost expected. Though not as fluctuating as "what’s your favorite song of all time?" It is helpful to have an answer ready for the question. I have mine. Annie Hall.
"What’s your second favorite movie of all time?" is a little harder. The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In The West, Rosemary’s Baby, To Kill A Mockingbird, Blue Velvet, The Road Warrior, Vertigo, Apocalypse Now, Out Of The Past, I mean the list could go on and on. Maybe my number two is Woody Allen's follow up to Annie Hall, his black & white Manhattan.Continue Reading
Let’s revisit the early 1980s. Picture yourself removed from all forms of technology that are now so familiar and seem to endlessly grow. We’re talking Internet, texting, Blu-ray, and even modern day cable television. Now imagine that satellite television is the most exciting concept. Let’s also imagine the thrill of recording and watching something on videocassette. Supposing you are one of the privileged few who has access to this technology, what would you choose to watch? Remember, you’re now able, for the first time, to pull video feed from anywhere with this satellite into your home. How much would you want to devour with your own eyes and in what ways might it change the way you live?
I have something I want you to watch. Its name is Videodrome. Directed and written by David Cronenberg, it is a film with a philosophy about a mind-altering pseudo-program that has a philosophy of its own. James Woods plays Max Renn—the president of a small cable television channel that presents exclusive and mostly erotic content. His idea is simple: allow people to manifest their desires at home and, as a result, keep it off the streets. While working with his assistant he comes across segments of a pirated television show called Videodrome. In short, Videodrome is a near primitive display of unlucky souls who are tortured and/or raped, never to return onscreen. The simplicity and terror of the program is unlike anything he’s ever seen. He wants to share this vision with his viewers, thus beginning a quest to find its source.Continue Reading
The Reckless Moment
What do a famous film director with a deep appreciation for Korean food and a handful of fellow middle aged customers who shop at Amoeba every single day have in common? They love the import DVD section. The import section is reserved for DVDs from different parts of the world that have different region coding from U.S. DVDs. If you have a region free DVD player you can watch them. What is surprising is how many film titles are only available as imports. 1984, Barfly, and The Magnificent Ambersons are just a few of the titles that either went out of print or were never released on DVD in the U.S. and can only be bought relatively cheaply as imports. Cinephilia can be a lonely and expensive calling made more frustrating by limiting what one watches to what the studios dictate as permissible for one to purchase. I begin this review extolling the virtues of Amoeba’s import DVD section simply because without it I would never have been able to see The Reckless Moment on DVD, which would have been a real shame because it’s one of the best thrillers released during the heyday of American film noir and perhaps one of the strongest feminist films I’ve ever seen. The Reckless Moment stars Joan Bennett as Lucy Harper, an upper middle class Californian housewife who looks after her teenage daughter and pre-teen son while her husband is perpetually away on business. Between her kids and her father-in-law she doesn’t seem to have any time to herself. Although her station in life is a privileged one, with all the perks such a position affords—hired help and a huge house to name but two—she is completely trapped by her situation without seemingly a moment to devote to herself. Her entire identity seems to be subsumed by motherhood. She is perpetually photographed in the film with the silhouette of her home’s staircase and other furnishings casting prison bar-like shadows across her. This isn’t a Douglas Sirk tearjerker about the spiritual emptiness of white American privilege (well, not completely), but rather a classic noir thriller, so let me get to the part of the story where someone gets murdered.
Bennett’s rebellious daughter Bea, played by Geraldine Brooks, is stepping out with a sleazy older guy whom Lucy knows is all wrong for her daughter. Bea is in art school which is shorthand in the film for being surrounded by all the wrong people. Mother and daughter fight but Bea refuses to budge. Lucy takes matters into her own hands by traveling to a seamy part of L.A. from her idyllic lakefront property to confront Bea’s boyfriend, Ted. She is determined to protect her family at all costs, and Ted turns out to be just as much of a lowlife as she thought he was. Later though, when Ted winds up dead just steps away from their beautiful home, Lucy, without knowing what exactly happened, must figure out how to dispose of the corpse and keep her daughter’s name out of the murder investigation. To complicate matters further, a couple of blackmailers turn up demanding $5,000 for Bea’s love letters to Ted which were used as collateral by Ted for a debt he never repaid. When asked by one of the blackmailers why she is doing so much on behalf of her daughter, Lucy looks him in the eye and offers up being a mother as the only reason necessary.Continue Reading
Murmur of the Heart
Some of Louis Malle’s most daring films capture the bewilderment that comes with entering young adulthood. Features such as Au Revoir Les Enfants and Pretty Baby not only guide the audience through the tender and turbulent times of their leading youth, but also deliver a glimpse of the social environment and conditions in which they live. Murmur of the Heart is, in few words, a nuance of intimacy and perhaps a re-working of the Oedipus complex. It follows Laurent—a fifteen-year-old boy whose aristocratic identity and layered personality result in a constantly altered state of mind and lavish exercises in rebellion. Due to his social standing and education Laurent is not your average fifteen-year old, and thanks to the privileges of a lax society and the perspective of older, rambunctious brothers, he has come to think of himself as a young man. The current leading lady in his life is his mother; a beautiful Italian who, like a girl of a much younger age, is constantly impressed and smitten with Laurent’s charm and innocence. Known to his older brothers and surrounding family as "sensitive" and intellectual, Laurent also shares a certain vulnerability to jazz, theft, and women. All of this is put to a halt, however, when Laurent develops a heart murmur and is sent on vacation with his mother to receive treatment. With plenty of free time and leisurely activities, Laurent and his mother grow even closer than before, ultimately leading to displays of affection that must later become secrets, and yet are still handled, by Malle, with delicacy.
For a first-time feature-length actor, young BenoÃ®t Ferreux is full of surprises. Laurent’s character is like a balanced mesh of puppy dog and tyrant, which somehow blends to make an odd and highly entertaining finished product. Portraying the unmasked desire by boys of this age and social class to become men is a refreshing alternative to the rough-edged machismo upbringings we often see presented in film. For Ferreux to be able to grasp that concept early and portray it correctly is in itself a promise of the fruitful career that was to come.Continue Reading
Doctor: " What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets." Cecilia: "Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl." -- Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides Rarely can one witness the gift of a film that has the gut and the power to deliver a story of the complex and trying "coming of age" which we all had to endure. Even more scarce is work surrounding the female perspectives of such experience. To shy away from female sexuality and experimental thought is an exercise used to the point of exhaustion in modern cinema. Catherine Breillat, on the other hand, has made a point of idolizing masters in the art of capturing the human condition and therefore has made many films doing just the opposite of her counterparts. Out of these, which include A Real Young Girl and 36 Fillette, Fat Girl dominates as a bold and provocative juxtaposition between two sisters, spiraling through two very different types of disgrace.
Anaïs Pingot and her sister, Elena, are on holiday with their mother. Typical of any vacation-town, spouts of ennui and a lack of familiarity cause these two sisters to roam aimlessly through the town in search of some kind of amusement. While dining at a local restaurant they meet Fernando, an Italian college-age man who is automatically drawn to the beauty and flirtatiousness of the 16-year old Elena, while the overweight 12-year old, Anaïs, simply stands by and allows her sister to soak up his affection. But as the vacation proceeds so does their sibling rivalry and the hastened and inappropriate relationship between Elena and Fernando. Here we gaze and experience, through the point-of-view of Anaïs, the desire to be wanted and the helplessness of seeing the innocence of a loved one shattered.Continue Reading
Everyone’s paying homage to Tarkovsky nowadays, it seems, albeit often losing something in the translation. Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is among the few directors (along with Mauritanian Abderrahmane Sissako, Malian Souleymane CissÃ© and Iranian Abbas Kiarostami) who thankfully picks up not only on Tarkovsky’s aesthetic, but also his humanism and subtle humor.
Ceylan makes no attempts to hide his most obvious cinematic inspiration; using Bach in a library scene, referring to the Soviet director in a speech among artists, and in one scene even using one of the master’s films to bore his unsophisticated house guest into going to bed so that his host can watch porn in peace. In the special features, Ceylan also professes a debt, not surprisingly, to Anton Chekov and Yasujirō Ozu. A short film included on the DVD, Koza, is even more overt in its aspirations to reflect Tarkovsky.Continue Reading
Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
Who would guess that the grandaddy of them all, the film that created the genre, came from two near dead franchises combining forces to create a classic and a landmark in the merging of film genres?Continue Reading
Back in the day, if there was one historical injustice that could get any red blooded film-geek or cinaphile extremely agitated, it was the fact that Martin Scorsese had not won an Oscar. Of course in 2006, he finally did win for the overrated The Departed, putting that controversy to bed. But before that, film-geeks would foam at the mouth, especially knowing that the Godly director had lost twice to actors making their directing debuts.
In 1990, Goodfellas was robbed by Kevin Costner's goody-goody Western Dances With Wolves. And ten years earlier Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.Continue Reading
When sci-fi is working properly it’s as a longer narrative form of the philosophical thought experiment, tweaking certain variables of existence while holding others constant to see where the manipulation leads. Sadly, the cinematic variety rarely does this, instead being an excuse for replacing bullets and criminals with lasers and alien monsters in what amounts to little more than just another action spectacle. So, it’s a good thing when a movie like Moon comes along, however modest its ambition, preferring to explore thought over action. Make no mistake, it falls well short of the ontological resonance of its two primary influences, 2001 and Solaris, but nonetheless gives the viewer a good bit to mull over, which is fine by me.
In the not too distant future, Earth’s scientists have found a solution to the present day’s energy crisis, mining something called Helium-3 from the moon. The governmental/corporate means of production for this involve mostly robot digging contraptions, but with a single human who has “signed up” for a three-year stint to make sure everything is running smoothly. Now, three years with nothing but books, models, an endless supply of '50s sitcoms and the ability to romp on the moon sounds pretty good to me, but I guess it would get a good deal lonesome for most. Thus, instead of paying volunteers, a series of clones are used, which are all based on one person, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). With only a HAL-like robot called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company, Sam’ (to distinguish this one from the original) whiles away the time in the aforementioned manners, occasionally receiving a transmission from Earth or having to do repairs on the diggers (as relayed by his robotic assistant). It’s on one such repair mission that things become philosophically interesting.Continue Reading