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).
Love & Anarchy
Assassination and anarchy are two terms that are almost absent in our current use of language. They are historical terms. Bold terms that suggest justice by ugly, self-sacrificing means. Now we say that someone of power, who is perceived threatening and unjust, has been slain, killed, etc. Love & Anarchy sheds a bit of light on why the terms and practice of such measures have gone out of favor - even among the most militant activists.
The protagonist of this film is Tunin (Giancarlo Giannini), a freckled country boy who looks like a caricature and behaves more like a sheep than a herder. Though meek, he has only one thing on his mind: assassinate the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It’s hard to root for him on sight alone or take his quest seriously, which is the predicament that Salome (Mariangela Melato) finds herself in. Salome is one of the most sought after prostitutes in Rome at established brothel of high esteem. She is also a spy for the Communist regime and contact for young men sent to carry out the grandest feat of their lives. She’s currently bedding Mussolini’s head of security, who has confided several key bits of information that seem uninteresting but can be used to an anarchist’s advantage.Continue Reading
When I was 13, I was asked to play a peculiar game in class. At the request of our teacher, my peers and I were asked to draw four squares on a piece of paper. Inside each square we were to write the name of a loved one. We were then given a hypothetical scenario to consider: imagine being swept away to an island after a plane carrying you and your loved ones crashes - but you can only take one person with you. Everyone chose a parent or sibling. In retrospect, I suppose the point of the game was to make us realize that the person we chose could not meet all our needs in life. We could not propagate with this person, or grow to understand certain aspects of the human condition. The wise choice, we were told, would have been to look deeper into our futures and save the last square for a future partner. The whole thing confused and terrified us for weeks.
Lena Wertmüller’s Swept Away puts an endearing, comedic and political spin on such a scenario. A small group of wealthy adults are vacationing on a private sail boat far at sea. At their service is a modest company of poor Sicilian men. The rich are mostly comprised of married couples of no particular importance, but the most outspoken and vivacious of them all is Raffaella (Mariangela Melato). Raffaella loves to start political arguments or complain about the service, food and the state of Italy in the same breath. When not doing that, she’s gambling below decks or immodestly sunbathing. All to the outraged disbelief of Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), a proud servant with whom she seems to enjoy fleshing out an example of everything wrong with socialism and communism. The two practically hate each other, for Gennarino is a defensive member of the Party she so fiendishly puts down. She is also, to his standards, morally bankrupt--and his machismo spirit is rapidly downtrodden when at odds against the “liberated” female.Continue Reading
Funeral Parade of Roses
“I’m a wound and sword, a victim and an executioner.” - Funeral Parade of Roses
Provocation is born from relativity, and originality in its broadest sense can be a pretension that hinders many films. While filmmakers dare, still, to produce original and thought-provoking works without noting the context or relevancy of their efforts, Toshio Matsumoto was able to present something quite spectacular with his debut feature film, Funeral Parade of Roses - a masterpiece that appeals to the age-old desire to be loved and the accepted curse of being misunderstood. Here one can find a visual experience that says nothing definitely and therefore can speak to everyone, particularly those who enjoy avant-garde. Its also a direct ode to several key individuals of the beat generation and Warhol scene, as well as an interesting reworking of the Electra complex.Continue Reading
To open a film with mischief is to prepare an audience for unknown degrees of tension. One is unaware of its magnitude or meaning at first, but hyperaware of its presence throughout the work. Tony Richardson's Mademoiselle begins with the breathtaking Jeanne Moreau (Elevator to the Gallows) tampering with the village sluice gate, causing a flood. She walks away from this menacing act only to stumble upon another opportunity for destruction; she crushes eggs in an onlooking bird's nest. This immediate and blatant portrait of sadism--outlined by serenity and juxtaposed with glimpses of the annual springtime procession through the fields--is one of the most powerful first impressions of a character that I've yet to behold. It's enough to make one utter "And this is only the beginning...."
Richardson keeps an impeccable pace throughout the film. We are thrust into one of many chaotic scenarios as farmers try to save their livestock from drowning. Here we are introduced to the town "hero," a strapping Italian named Manou (Ettore Manni, City of Women) who has developed a bit of a bad reputation despite his valiant efforts. His good looks have placed him with several women from the town, all of whom are either married and/or Catholic, and therefore expected to maintain their chastity until being so. His perceived weak morality and status as an immigrant has made him and his preteen son despised in a small town that is already in arms over their unknown and dangerous vandal.Continue Reading
Von Ryan’s Express
Two of the best action subgenres of the 1950s & '60s were the POW escape films (Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape) and train adventure flicks (Narrow Margin, The Train, Dark of The Sun). So what would happen if you combine the two? You get a really fun, utterly ridiculous, totally memorable movie from ’65: Von Ryan’s Express. Besides being a train adventure, what sets this one apart from other POW flicks is the adversary. While the prisoners of Stalag 17 and The Great Escape were housed in German camps and Kwai had Japanese overlords, the captives of Von Ryan’s Express are stuck in an Italian camp. And whether based on any kind of truth or not, Italian guards just don’t feel as cruel or deadly as their other Axis Powers partners. Based on a novel by David Westheimer (who also penned the novelization of Days of Wine and Roses), with the solid journeyman director Mark Robson (Earthquake, Valley of the Dolls) at the helm, this was made in the heyday of Frank Sinatra vanity projects and as usual he often feels miscast as an actual human being. On paper his role seems better suited for a more obviously physical presence, like a Lee Marvin. After all, Sinatra looks like he would be more comfortable with a martini in his hand than a machine gun, but his skinny frame in a wrinkled military outfit only lends to the absurdity and the fun.
A depressed group of mainly British prisoners in an Italian camp get a load of energy into their squalid existence when American Colonel Ryan (Sinatra) shows up, having been shot down in Italy. The highest ranking officer before him showing up was the very English Major Fincham (the always watchable Trevor Howard, in the more hammy late phase of his impressive career), who doesn’t like being pushed around by the runty Yank. When Ryan sees the poor condition of the health of the men, he rats out the tunnels they’ve been digging, in order to get the medicine the wacky Italians have been holding from them. But Ryan slowly earns the Brit’s respect by getting them new clothes and taking his punishment in the “sweat box.” Later, when it appears the war is coming to an end, the Italian guards flee giving the POWs free reign. They take off through Italy but are eventually caught again and put on a train headed for Rome, which is now overseen by nasty Germans who kill all the sick men. This is where the more original action setpieces start, as Sinatra and the boys take over the train and then have to ride it out of Italy while posing as Germans. In maybe the most bizarre scene, a British doctor (Edward Mulhare) who speaks some German poses as a Nazi high command to get the clearance for the train trip to continue and the two fifty-somethings, Howard and Sinatra, dress up like Nazi soldiers to accompany him. They must be the two oldest looking privates in the German army and actually resemble the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow when they dress up as flying monkey soldiers in The Wizard of Oz. What a sight for sore eyes!Continue Reading
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