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 Scarlet Empress
Every review of Josef von Sternberg’s 1934 film The Scarlet Empress begins with a quote from the director calling it, “a relentless excursion into style,” and that’s pretty accurate. This film is packed so full with style that the actors seem to be competing for space within the frame. The sixth of seven collaborations between von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, the film tells the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power in bold visual extravagance, complete with bawdy humor and twisted, fetishistic desire.
To see it is to bask in its utter strangeness. At the time of its release, the Hays Code was in full force, cracking down on what it deemed to be Hollywood’s rampant immorality. How Von Sternberg slipped this one past them is either an act of cunning or bribery. Dietrich portrays Catherine the Great as a sexual adventuress brought to Russia with the sole mission of providing a male heir to the imbecilic Grand Duke Peter (played with leering brilliance by Sam Jaffe), while igniting the passion of the matinee idol pretty Count Alexei (John Lodge). She provides Peter with an heir, all right, but it’s very clearly not his, nor is it Alexei’s.Continue Reading
They Live By Night
There’s a scene in the ﬁrst act of Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night in which Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) and Bowie (Farley Granger), young lovers on the run from the law, ditch a Greyhound bus out of town when they see a sign advertising fast weddings. It’s at one of those cheap, 24-hour chapels: $20 for the wedding, plus $1 to rent the ring or $5 to buy. Bowie, his pockets full of cash from his last bank robbery, says he wants to buy it. Despite being completely on a whim, this union is meant to last forever. Yet as they speak their anxious vows, it is clear that their love is doomed from the start.
Released in 1948, They Live By Night would provide the template for such ﬁlms as Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Drugstore Cowboy, and Natural Born Killers, in which violent crime enters almost abruptly into the lives of damaged souls. Yet unlike those ﬁlms, They Live By Night focuses its attentions almost solely on the love affair, with very little sensationalism. Although there are bank robberies and shootouts, they are mostly hinted at, and oftentimes, occur completely off-screen. It’s as if Ray is telling his audience that the crimes themselves are not as important as their aftermath.Continue Reading
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Obviously Martin Scorsese is one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation, now into his sixth decade with a fairly diverse body of work. He has his great masterpiece, Goodfellas, and his next tier of classics: Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and maybe even The King of Comedy. All five of those are with his methody, then alter-ego, Robert De Niro; though not as extraordinary but still of note is his later Leonardo DiCaprio period. Interestingly, between all these films Scorsese has also unleashed many notable documentaries. After being one of many editors on Woodstock, he started with shorts, including a great bio/interview of a druggy hustler (who played the gun dealer in Taxi Driver) called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. But since his feature-length docs have mostly been made for television (with subjects ranging from film history to the New York Review of Books to Elia Kazan), his best have been about music. From his first feature doc, the concert film The Last Waltz, through the mini-series The Blues to his more recent outstanding George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the guy proves he loves and understands the world of musicians. It’s his respect for the little details and the big picture that make No Direction Home: Bob Dylan his true documentary masterpiece, and maybe secretly as great as anything he has directed (or at least right under Goodfellas).
Made for PBS’ American Masters series (the source of so many brilliant documentaries of the last thirty years), the film clocks in at over 200 minutes and was shown in two parts. Instead of his famous, show-offy visual flair, more than anything else he has ever done, No Direction Home shows off his storytelling skills. All of the footage was shot before he came on board, so in some ways his role as director was really that of lead editor (though the actual editor job is credited to David Tedeschi, who later was promoted to co-director with Scorsese on his NY Review of Books doc, The 50 Year Argument). Besides the incredible plethora of material (film footage and music, much not even of Dylan), the great choice Scorsese made is that instead of an entire overview of Bob Dylan’s life, he kept it small. After a quick run-through of Dylan’s childhood in Minnesota, the film ONLY really details his New York years from 1961 when he first hit Greenwich Village, until his famous motorcycle accident in ’66 (which let to a brief retirement and then a career reboot). But what an amazing five years that was. The film is also about the other music that was happening at the time that influenced Dylan (and which he would go on to influence) and really works as a history of folk music as well.Continue Reading
Stories We Tell
They say history belongs to the victors, and right or wrong, the person who tells the story gets to make up their own version of history. Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley’s brilliant (and frankly ingenious) documentary Stories We Tell uses fragments and pieces of memory to tell her own and her parents' story, but without giving away too much, there are many surprises and twists. With the opening narration by her father, actor Michael Polley (of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows), you think the film is through his eyes, but eventually you come to realize he may be reading from a text written by Sarah. He tells the story of his relationship with Sarah’s mother Diane, also an actress (who passed away when Sarah was eleven), which fully comes to life, aided by wonderfully edited-in apparent home movies. But as other family members and family friends tell the same stories from different points of view, you also come to realize nothing is as it seems. Everyone has different memories and different points of view, some only coming in fragments. What starts out as a complicated tribute to an artistic family eventually becomes almost a mystery as major family bombs go off. In the end, Stories We Tell becomes one of the most gripping and unique personal documentaries ever made.
Growing up, everyone thought Diane was a “good time Charlie”--an attractive life-of-the-party, a loving free spirit--even though she had two young children from a previous marriage. Michael was a dynamic young British actor on stage, but off, more of an introvert. He was private and she was outwardly showy. Looking back, Michael is convinced Diane fell in love with the characters he played on stage, and was disappointed with who he really was. Nevertheless, the two got married and raised a family. But after some years the marriage grew stale, especially as Diane grew more frustrated with Michael’s lack of career ambition. To both of their relief, Diane was offered a play in Montreal, while Michael stayed back in Toronto with the kids. After a long separation, the two were reunited and were able to rekindle the romance briefly, even having another child together, who turned out to be Sarah. After Diane’s death from cancer, Michael fell into depression, but was forced to raise his little daughter alone. It’s about at this point in the documentary that it starts to come out through different memories that Sarah must have been conceived while Diane was in Montreal and that dear old Michael might not be her biological father. And here Sarah begins to track down all the men who conceivably may have had an affair with her mother while she was away. And then the film takes a big new turn....Continue Reading
Eyes on the Prize
The greatest documentary series in PBS history (or television history, for that matter) does not belong to Ken Burns (though arguably he would easily place a couple in the top ten). It belongs to the 1987 production Eyes On the Prize. The term "television landmark" may get overused, but this story of America’s mid-century Civil Rights Movement truly deserves that distinction. Produced for PBS by a little-known production company called Blackside Inc., the series can be broken down into two seasons: the original six episode masterpiece Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965 and then its less earth-shattering but still relevant follow-up Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965-1985 with eight episodes in 1980. With no credited director, it feels it like it directed itself, as if the world needed it and it sprang up (though Blackside founder Henry Hampton is credited as Executive Producer). The film is made up with talking heads of witness and historians and an avalanche of archival and news footage. There have been a number of significant documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement, including two other PBS docs, Citizen King and Freedom Riders, as well as the Spike Lee directed 4 Little Girls, but Eyes on the Prize is the official starting point, the all-encompassing encyclopedia on the subject.
Though there was an accompanying Eyes on the Prize book, the more in depth paper version would be Taylor Branch’s extra thick “America in the King Years” trilogy of histories. Like a book, Eyes on the Prize is made up of chapters (episodes) that unfold, building on each other and creating suspense and outrage. The first chapter, "Awakenings," is where the modern movement started with the Montgomery bus boycott (which in turn introduced the world to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.) and the murder of a young boy, Emmett Till, which stirred the conscious of so many. Episode Two, "Fighting Back," takes place after the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the battle of Southern school integration. Episode Three, "Ain’t Scared Of Your Jails," details the student takeover of the movement with their creation of The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the lunch counter sits-ins and the freedom rides. Episode Four, "No Easy Walk," sees King back in the leadership position as marches in Albany and Birmingham are finally met with the historic March on Washington. Episode Five, "Mississippi: Is This America?," focuses on activists trying to bring voting rights to the state; with the murder of the three civil rights workers and the assassination of Medgar Evers, peaceful activists are met with extreme violence. And finally "Bridge To Freedom," after King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the fight moves to the streets of Selma and the back rooms of Washington, DC with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.Continue Reading
In the strange mega-career of Clint Eastwood, no matter what your overall opinion of the guy is, it can’t be argued that his choices have been fascinating. Before becoming the acclaimed and active old-man director of middle-of-the-road bores he is today, he was a huge super-duper action actor and in his heyday made some interesting zigs and zags (all from 1969-1973 when he made ten films).
Fresh off of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, giving him international box office clout, he made the bizarre musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) with Lee Marvin. The same year Dirty Harry cemented him as America’s premier tough guy, he directed the female stalker thriller Play Misty For Me (1971). He followed that up directing the completely awkward Breezy (1973) about a romance between senior citizen William Holden and a teenage flower child. Also in 1973 High Plains Drifter, which may be his greatest directing accomplishment, was released. Eastwood plays a drifter in the old west and the film opens with him raping a woman (of course, she ended up falling for him). Right in the middle of those crazy four years he made the oddest and maybe most psycosexual film of his career, The Beguiled, a sorta Gothic Civil War almost-ghosty story (in the sense that people are haunted by memories), about female lust. It’s as if Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women went on a Picnic at Hanging Rock.Continue Reading
Important in the evolution (or devolution) of Sylvester Stallone is Nighthawks. From ‘81, it falls in that post-Rocky burst when Sly was still considered a legitimate actor. Though Paradise Alley, F.I.S.T or Rocky II didn’t threaten Hoffman or De Niro’s place as America’s top actor-laureates, Sly hadn’t yet become the steroidy, sequely crap machine he would come to be known as (of course with some quality films like Rocky III, First Blood to come and later Cop Land, but with mostly junk between). Today Nighthawks feels like a gritty '70s cop film. (It was originally developed to be French Connection 3.) It’s taut, strong but not overly muscular, and moves at a fast pace that you don’t notice till it’s over. Frankly, one of the most interesting aspects here is that Stallone in Serpico mode (bearded with longish hair) often wears glasses (big, clear disco-era glasses), which is something rarely seen in an action hero and symbolizes how the film was a leftover from the more character-driven film days (the glorious '70s) before guys like Schwarzenegger (and Sly) made them into total cartoons. Sly’s cop even pines for his ex-wife (played by TV’s Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner). The guy is vulnerable, not always successful and flawed. Nighthawks represents the end of an era, not just for Stallone but for the realistic action hero.
Actor Rutger Hauer made a name for himself on the international circuit from his work with director Paul Verhoeven in Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, Katie Tippel and Spetters. Nighthawks would be his first American film, though not his first English language one. (Earlier he had appeared in the British flick The Wilby Conspiracy.) Word from the set is that he and Stallone clashed. (More reason to love him!) Here the Dutchman plays a Euro terrorist known as Wulfgar who, after wearing out his welcome abroad, heads for the States. Meanwhile, New York street detectives Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and his partner Matthew Fox (Billy Dee Williams, fresh from The Empire Strikes Back introducing him to audiences outside of black '70s cinema, where he was already a superstar leading man) are being transferred from their play-by-their-own-rules undercover decoy work to a terrorist unit, which is already on the lookout for Wulfgar. Knowing he’s a sucker for foxy dancing queens, in a subtly intense scene, the eagle-eyed Deke manages to spot Wulfgar through the crowd at a discotheque, despite him getting face-changing plastic surgery, which leads to an exciting Friedkin-esque foot chase through lower Manhattan. Wulfgar manages to finally escape with a nasty knife slash to Fox’s face, making things personal now for Deke. And the cock-blocking Deke pulled makes things equally personal for Wulfgar. The one-upmanship eventually leads to an exciting highjacking showdown on the Roosevelt Island Tram and a crazy cross-dressing twist ending.Continue Reading
Films that have a moral condemnation about the seedy underbelly of life but still try to offer up a little titillation along the way have been around since the beginning of cinema. Sleazeploitation, if you will. Think of all those sexy pre-Code films and then consider the gangster and later noir period when the arousing exploits of a hatcheck girl would be stymied by the censors, making sure we knew this was amoral behavior. By the '70s and Midnight Cowboy, the sex industry had become a full-fledged and often legal enterprise and shock was less easy. Sleazeploitation films often deal with an innocent seeing the seedy world that has been around him all this time (and usually in such sleaze capitals as New York or Los Angeles). It's most interesting when big name directors make these films; of course when guys like Brian De Palma (Body Double) or Paul Schrader (Hardcore) make films about such subject matter it’s not shocking because they have a dark history in exploitation-ish cinema. That’s what make one of the great sleazy thrillers of the '80s, 52 Pick-Up, all the more interesting. It was directed by the great John Frankenheimer, a guy who was an innovator in the early dawn of live television and by the '60s was a major director of classics The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds and Seven Days in May. In the '70s he generally moved to straight but tasteful thrillers like French Connection II and Black Sunday, but he ended the decade on a sour note with the mutant bear horror dud Prophecy. The '80s meant mostly forgettable work for hire, including 52 Pick-Up, which in ’86 was a box office bust and mostly written off by critics as trash--and I can sorta see why. But on a recent screening, I was struck with just how intense and exciting it actually is; this is a film that may have a cornball dated score and we may laugh at the clothes, but it actually ages well and deserves reexamination as a possibly important film by an important director.
If the name Frankenheimer wasn’t enough to bring some class to 52 Pick-Up, consider this; it’s based on a book by one of America’s all-time great crime novelists, Elmore Leonard. At this point only his early Western novels had transferred well to film (3:10 to Yuma, Hombre). 52 Pick-Up had just been adapted into a film called The Ambassador with Robert Mitchum and Ellen Burstyn to little notice in ’84, and the following year Burt Reynolds would star in the horrible Leonard adaptation Stick. It really wasn’t until the '90s that Leonard adaptations would hit their zenith with the trifecta of Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. For Frankenheimer, Leonard adapted the book himself (with John Steppling), changing the setting from his hometown of Detroit in the book to, of course, the more glamorously seedy Los Angeles.Continue Reading
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
The opening title card of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution reads: “In 1891, Sherlock Holmes was missing and presumed dead for three years. This is the true story of that disappearance. Only the facts are made up.”
This clever welcoming very much sums up the kitschy and revisionist way the story of literature’s greatest detective is treated. One-time dance choreographer turned director Herbert Ross created a near-brand for himself in the '70s with his theatrical adaptations, with films like Funny Lady and Play It Again, Sam, and Neil Simon scripts including The Goodbye Girl, California Suite and The Sunshine Boys. But it is with this adaptation from the popular novel by Nicholas Meyer that Ross really gets to break away from his more stagebound roots, taking advantage of actual European locations and a very exciting cast to tell this tale of Holmes being treated by Sigmund Freud. (Later he would have success going back to his dancy roots with films like The Turning Point and Footloose.)Continue Reading
When I was ten years old I declared Foul Play to be the funniest movie ever made. Maybe now it’s not quite as amazing as I thought it was then, but it’s still pretty entertaining. After hitting gold with the scripts for Harold and Maude and Silver Streak, screenwriter Colin Higgins made his directorial debut with Foul Play. Like Silver Streak, Foul Play is a sorta romantic-comedy (slash) mystery-thriller hybrid. It both romanticizes the old style of Cary Grant and accepts the newer Saturday Night Live inspired raunch that has dominated American film comedies ever since. This was Goldie Hawn’s peak years, coming off of Shampoo and just before her signature performance as Private Benjamin. In her mid thirties, she was still playing the big eyed pixie to perfection and she matched Chevy Chase, in his first lead role (he had played some bit parts in The Groove Tube earlier). The film is definitely a time-capsule of disparaging styles, jumping between slapstick sex comedy and violent Hitchcock spoof, there is more would-be suspense than comedy, but when the comedy works I can see why ten-year-old me got so excited.
The plot is some kind of murder mystery that has something to do with an assassination attempt on the Pope or something. It really doesn’t matter. Goldie plays a beautiful San Francisco librarian, one of those unlikely lonely hearts who goes to see old movies by herself. Through a number of contrivances she ends up with a dead man as a date which puts her into a vast conspiracy including an albino hitman working for a corrupt Catholic church until bumbling cop Chevy Chase comes to her rescue. The two eventually put the case together (along with his trench-coated partner Brian Dennehy) and, of course, fall in love. And in-between their Charade-like pleasantries, there’s Burgess Meredith as her wacky karate-chopping neighbor, Dudley Moore as a sex crazed swinger, Billy Barty as a dwarf door-to-door salesman, a laughing snake, opera, car chases, murders, and an Oscar-nominated theme song by Barry Manilow. I may sum this up shallowly, as if I’m poo-pooing, but it’s actually with much affection.Continue Reading