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).
Death Wish 3
The first three Death Wish films can easily be categorized as the good, the bad, and the ugly. The first one was a good, quality piece of exploitation pulp. The second is bad because it was dull and boring. The third is the ugly and isn’t ugly usually more interesting? In this case, it is. Death Wish 3 could be called bad because it’s so ridiculous and over the top but that’s also what makes it so good—it’s ridiculous and over the top. And any resemblance to the realism of the first film has been totally thrown out the window and now plays like a cartoon spoof of the vigilante genre. And forget the later Death Wish flicks to come; still starring Grandpa Charles Bronson, Death Wish 4: the Crackdown and Death Wish 5: the Face of Death, they are utterly forgettable and worse, unwatchable. But the middle child, Death Wish 3, is something special in a lovably ugly dog way.
In the first flick, Death Wish back in ’74, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) was a respectable NY architect, but when his wife was murdered by some savage street brutes he became a stone cold vigilante, knocking them off. While less credibly in Death Wish II, Bronson was in LA and got all killy again to avenge the memory of his maid. By the time 3 begins he seems to be a guy who just casually kills goons at will. Hoping to take a relaxing vacation in the projects of Brooklyn by visiting his old war buddy, he arrives to find his friend dying, having just been beaten to a pulp by the local street creeps. The cops arrest him for the murder; after giving him a working over, Chief Shriker (the great B-movie actor, Ed Lauter of The Longest Yard) cuts a deal with him, letting him go if he will go knock off some of the ‘hood rats (a multi-racial gang of central casting punkers, biker types, and “Beat It” dancers).
What About Bob?
It’s always been interesting to follow the cinematic career of Bill Murray, an actor and entertainer who, during the ‘80s, could do no wrong when it came to his comedic performances. Even during that period you could start to see his desire to make odd and unique film choices—The Razor’s Edge and Quick Change, for example—and those choices would eventually lay the foundation for the types of roles Murray would go on to play pretty much exclusively now. But there was one last great one-two comedic hurrah from Murray in the early ‘90s with the back-to-back films What About Bob? and Groundhog Day.
What About Bob? came first in 1991 and it stars Murray as a completely multi-phobic personality named Bob Wiley, a man incapable of doing even the smallest of tasks without completely panicking. Deep down, he’s a good-hearted person with the desire to do the right thing; he’s just petrified of everything and everyone around him. Hence, he works from his apartment by day, uses tissues to open doors or shake hands, and would opt to climb 44 flights of stairs rather than be confined in a claustrophobic setting like an elevator. He also starts off each day by repeating the phrase “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful,” over and over again and the one and only companion he converses with is his pet goldfish, Gil. After a strong recommendation from a previous doctor, Bob meets up with Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), a stern, serious, and fairly egotistical psychiatrist hot on the heels of a successful new book and on the cusp of superstardom via an upcoming appearance on Good Morning America.
There Will Be Blood
For director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson, his first film Hard Eight was a solid gambling thriller while Punch-Drunk Love gave him quirky Lynchian street cred, but it was his double dose of sprawling LA ensemble pieces Magnolia and Boogie Nights that put him in the big, big-time. Though those are two dazzlingly shot and acted flicks, there is a sense of Altman-esqe gimmickry and MapQuest symmetry about them. It really was his fifth feature, There Will Be Blood, which made Anderson more then just a hip taste of the day. Apparently the film was partially inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, with the setting moved from the 1920s to the turn of the century. The film works best when sticking to the source material, detailing the beginnings of the oil boom; it tends to loose itself when veering off-course into Anderson’s morality battle. Regardless, it’s always watchable thanks first and foremost to the epic performance from the great Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who channels the voice, look, and attitude of director/actor John Huston (even more accurately then Clint Eastwood did in White Hunter Black Heart). There Will Be Blood proves that when Anderson has the right, focused material he has as much clear-eyed vision as anyone making movies these days.
Spanning decades in the life and career of Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis), a prospector who gets into the oil game, the films opens with a stunning dialogue-free 15 minutes as Plainview digs for oil and adopts a baby boy from a worker who was killed. He has a knack for finding oil and becomes more and more successful. Though he is a greedy manipulator he seems to be a devoted dad, referring to his son as his business partner. However, after the kid goes deaf in an on-site accident he seems to lose his patience for fathering. Getting a tip from a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) about a piece of land that may have oil, he swindles the family out of their land and gets very rich with the oil he takes from their ground. Unfortunately, Paul’s twin brother Eli (also Dano, which at first seems confusing) is a true believer preacher who becomes a lifelong headache for the faithless entrepreneur. He also is joined briefly by a guy claiming to be his long-lost half brother (Kevin J. O’Connor) and has minor spats with the major oil companies.
Jump started by the success of the movie Airport in 1970, the “disaster movie” was a 1970’s cultural phenomenon, taking the soap-opera mold of Grand Hotel and putting a bunch of actors, ranging from big stars to has-beens all eager to cash their checks, into a dangerous situation with now cornball special effects. The best was The Poseidon Adventure and the biggest was The Towering Inferno (which inexplicably got a Best Picture Oscar nomination). But the most ambitiously awkward may’ve been Earthquake. The film was originally released extra loud in something called "Sensurround” and featured cameramen shaking cameras while Styrofoam bricks fell on extras. It was directed by Mark Robson (Valley of the Dolls) and written by Mario Puzo (yes, that’s right, Mario–the Godfather–Puzo, and he’s not the only major talent slumming here), though someone named George Fox also got a screenwriting credit as well, the only film for which he’s credited. Earthquake may not have been very good but as a cultural curiosity it’s fascinating, as a travelogue of mid-’70s Los Angeles it’s invaluable, and as a piece of ridiculous pop-junk it’s totally entertaining.
The goofball introduction to the characters goes something like this... hunky architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is in a dead marriage to Remy (Ava Gardner) and having a boring affair with a young struggling actress, Denise (Genevieve Bujold, a sorta less sexy ’70s version of Audrey Tautou), who is a single mom with an annoying son, Cory (the terrible actor but coolly named Tiger Williams). Meanwhile, maverick cop Lew Slade (George Kennedy) gets in trouble for punching out another cop after a car chase ends up ruining Zsa Zsa Gabor’s hedges, so he heads to the local dive to get drunk (which features a hilarious Walter Matthau, billed as Walter Matuschanskayasky, playing an inebriated, pimped-out bar fly). Would-be Evel Knievel motorcycle stunt driver Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree) and his manager, Sal (Gabriel Dell) are planning a big new loop-to-loop stunt to impress some Vegas hotel guys. Sal’s hot younger sister Rosa (Victoria Principle) is there to bring sex appeal to the act but she’s stalked by a creepy grocery clerk/national guardsman (the creepy Marjoe Gortner, most famous for appearing as himself in the documentary Marjoe, before becoming a TV and B-movie staple of the late ’70s and early ’80s). Also popping up are Lloyd Nolan as a doctor, Lorne Greene as Gardner’s father (though in real life he’s barely seven years older than her), and a bunch of earthquake studying scientists and maintenance men watching over the Mulholland Dam (actually the real life Hollywood Reservoir), as if there was a giant waterway above Los Angeles that needed to be dammed up.
The Incredible Hulk
After a long and rich 50-year history in the pages of Marvel Comics, The Incredible Hulk marks the second cinematic interpretation of the fan favorite titanic superhero. Abandoning all of what was established in Ang Lee’s 2003 version of Hulk, this version takes more of a cue from the original Incredible Hulk TV series of the late ’70s and is presented as a “reboot” rather than a sequel. Instead of spending an hour with exposition and showing a drawn out “origin” story like the other movie did (and as most superhero movies in general do these days), this version manages to encapsulate the birth of Bruce Banner’s alter ego in the span of a few minutes during a clever opening credits montage. Visually, it’s exactly what most casual fans of the TV show remember; Bruce is strapped down to a chair, the circular light beam from a giant machine shines down on his forehead and during his experimentation with gamma radiation he accidently over-exposes himself which turns him into the angry green goliath. As the credits unfold, Banner (Edward Norton) as the Hulk inadvertently hurts the love of his life, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and her father General ‘Thunderball’ Ross (William Hurt). And much like the TV series, Banner is then on the run and in hiding by the second scene of the movie, desperately trying to come to terms with his anger, find a cure, and keep the beast at bay.
When we find Bruce, he’s in Brazil working at a bottle plant factory by day and meeting with a yoga guru by night trying to learn how to control his inner hostilities. Meanwhile, he’s communicating with a mysterious scientist simply known only as Mr. Blue via the Internet and exchanging theories and notes regarding his condition. Ever since the incident we witnessed during the opening credits, General Ross has been on the hunt for Banner and the Hulk, and when Bruce accidently pokes his finger at work and inadvertently sheds a drop of his blood into one of the soda bottles headed for America, it eventually reveals his whereabouts. General Ross puts together a military team fronted by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to bring in Banner.
The Great Escape
After putting together a super team for the exciting western The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges assembled the rat-pack for the much duller western, Sergeants 3; so down but not out, Sturges reconvened some of his Magnificent Seven cast for his masterpiece, the WWII POW epic The Great Escape. With apologies to King Rat, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Empire of the Sun, The Hill, and even Victory, the official, no- arguments-allowed Big Three of POW flicks are (in order of release): Stalag 17 then The Bridge on the River Kwai, and finally The Great Escape; you can argue which of the Big Three is tops, but all three are wonderful and will rank in any war movie best-of list.
Like the recent action flicks The Expendables or The Avengers, The Great Escape is about assembling the team of super cool (now familiar) faces. The Magnificent Seven put the young supporting Steve McQueen on the A-List. Here, he’s the top dog and it may be his most memorable role; joined by two of the other Seven co-stars, Charles Bronson and James Coburn (who would both go on to be big stars in the years to come), with James Garner bringing his awe-shucks charm that would captivate TV audiences for decades and, rounding out the team, the British actors Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and James Donald (who was also in The Bridge on the River Kwai), lending some class to the team.
A Decade Under the Influence
Playing on the title of the groundbreaking John Cassavetes film A Woman Under the Influence, or maybe ’70s cokehead producer Julia Phillips’s memoir Driving Under the Affluence, the IFC-produced, three-part documentary A Decade Under the Influence is a fawning but wildly entertaining tribute to the films of the ’70s (actually 1967 onwards) and the maverick filmmakers who reinvented Hollywood. It’s the perfect film companion to Peter Biskind's incredibly readable book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which also spawned a BBC-produced documentary with the same name. The IFC series may come out slightly on top if only because it’s an hour longer and, at just 119 minutes, the BBC flick may not cover enough ground, while A Decade Under the Influence is crammed wall to wall with clips and interviews. For anyone who romanticizes this era in film (like me) this is three hours of pure, giddy love.
Episode One: Influences and Independents, begins with the big gaudy premiere of the crappy big gaudy musical Hello Dolly in ’69; the thesis: that bomb marked the end of the studio era. An intelligent group of interviewees, including Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, and William Friedkin, give us the set up: the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, the women's movement, ’60s innovative rock & roll and later Watergate, the formation of the counter culture, and youth movement had a generation of people asking why and breaking the rules. For filmmakers who were seeing the art house foreign films of Godard, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Antonioni, Bergman, and Fellini (and of course Julie Christie throws in the working class films of early ’60s England) the current beach flicks, musicals, and romantic comedies of Hollywood no longer seemed relevant. When Arthur Penn took influence from the French New Wave (who were influenced by American film noir and gangster flicks) and came up with his sexually frank and violent Bonnie and Clyde, it opened the floodgates for a new kind of American film. With Roger Corman and BBS (Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner) creating a new class of filmmakers who could work cheap while learning their trade and John Cassavetes making his homemade indie movies, the idea for the “’70s flick” was solidified. Those early influential flicks of the era are recalled and analyzed, including Easy Rider, Targets, Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, and The Last Picture Show. But it’s not all classics; less memorable movies like Joe and Hi, Mom! are also included and even Dirty Harry is given props as an obvious influence.
Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
Even if you’re a casual film fan, you must have a general knowledge of who Roger Corman is and how important he’s been to the movie industry. You need look no further than the impressive roaster of names that speak about the prolific filmmaker in the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel. Jack Nicholson. Peter Fonda. Martin Scorsese. Peter Bogdanovich. Joe Dante. Ron Howard. Robert DeNiro. Bruce Dern. Dick Miller. William Shatner. And so on and so forth. Corman is responsible for helping to launch the careers of every one of those names I mentioned above and then some! So it’s somewhat of a surprise that a documentary of this type honoring the man and his large body of work has taken this long to come into existence.
Not that Corman hasn’t gotten due credit and praise in the form of supplemental material before. Over the course of the last year, Shout! Factory obtained the license for dozens of his famous films and has been putting out great special edition DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s with extensive retrospective documentaries covering the making of each of those individual movies. There was also the fantastic documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed released last year from filmmaker Mark Hartley (who also did Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation) which had a large segment talking about the low-budget “women in cages” movies that Corman produced in the Philippines, which also launched the acting career of Pam Grier. But as much as I thought I knew about Corman from the above mentioned sources, there was still plenty I learned from Corman’s World.
Punisher: War Zone
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wished for a proper Punisher movie. As a diehard comic book reader and collector, there was a point where I discovered the idea of vigilantism and The Punisher immediately became my favorite superhero (actually, more like an anti-hero and minus the “super” part since he has no legitimate powers other than being a complete and total badass). With over 30-some-odd years of history and through various directions that comic creators have taken the character, it would seem that there are plenty of great stories to cull from in order to make a solid movie adaptation. But for whatever reason, while all the Punisher movies have incorporated different aspects of the original source material, none of the cinematic translations have been 100 percent successful, either financially at the box office or critically among both reviewers and fans. However, if you’re well-versed in the run by writer Garth Ennis over the course of the last decade or so, then Punisher: War Zone comes pretty darn close to capturing the over-the-top gory lunacy of Ennis’s books.
The movie wastes little time in getting right into the violent action. After a brief title sequence, the film opens at a grand dinner gala with several heads of the mob congregating to discuss business and celebrate with Uncle G, the Godfather-esque elder of the East Coast mafia. But their dinner is cut abruptly short when the Punisher drops in and literally slaughters just about all 30 of these bad guys in the span of a few short minutes. The action is brutal, highly stylized, fast in pace, and so over the top that you won’t be able to process everything going on with just one viewing. The Punisher manages to cut a head off, break a neck, lodge his hunter knife into a skull, kick a chair leg into the eye of a thug, then hang upside down from the chandelier where he unloads a never-ending spray of bullets from his machine guns into whomever is left in the room, as well as anyone else stupid enough to enter it. Did I mention this is all just in the first 10 minutes?
The Music Man
When I was a kid I looked to movie characters for whom to emulate. There really wasn’t a common thread between them except some magnetic quality my impressionable 6-to- 12-year-old self was able to discern. It also really helped if they wore good clothes. It didn’t even matter whether they were the heroes or the villains of their stories. I really liked Corey Haim's incredibly gay wardrobe in The Lost Boys just as much as I liked Kiefer Sutherland’s menacing hair metal vampire look in the movie. I started playing racquetball, as well as slicking my hair back, and wearing suspenders to be more like Gordon Gekko after I saw Wall Street. I began pretending to be sick to get out of going to school (and thinking I was really, really clever) while also becoming obsessed with owning argyle socks (which I had never heard of) after seeing Matthew Broderick wear them in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I was certainly impressionable, also maybe kind of weird. Still, the character that made, maybe, the biggest impression on me was that of Robert Preston’s Professor Harold Hill in the movie adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. He was a dapper con artist, a larcenous gent selling dreams to gullible townsfolk and making them feel like a million bucks as he fleeced their Edwardian era pockets. If you haven’t seen the film he probably sounds like a terrible person but the genius of The Music Man is that, though he is thoroughly dubious, he’s also the greatest thing to ever happen to the Iowa town that he storms right in to in order to swindle. Also, his red and white marching band uniforms are fantastic.