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).
Act of Violence
It’s always been puzzling to me why this almost unbearably bleak noir hasn’t made it to the forefront of the pack of truly exemplary films noir in critical circles. If we are to use the canonical criteria for noir of noted local author, former peeping tom, and current all-around creep, James Ellroy, as best summed up by a two-word description, “you’re fucked,” then noirs don’t come much more noir-ish than Act of Violence. We hear a lot about noir embodying the postwar anxieties of the United States. Well, Act of Violence lets those icky feelings boil to the top and builds its plot around a hornet’s nest of postwar guilt, fear and anxiety.
Van Heflin plays Frank Enley, a WW2 veteran living an idyllic life in a small California town. He’s a family man, and a pillar of the community. The film opens with a crowd gathered to cheer him for his latest real estate development and he is described as having proved himself in battle, as well as in business, an all-around great guy. He bounces his little son on his shoulders while listening to his tribute with his wife. But this blissful scene is contrasted with the severe image of Robert Ryan, dressed in a trench coat and fedora in some New York slum, brandishing a gun, and lurching towards a Greyhound bus leaving for California.Continue Reading
Stranger by the Lake
Talking about sex on film and why he felt it didn’t work Orson Welles once said, “Ecstasy isn’t really part of the scene we can do on celluloid.” I wonder what he would have made of Stranger by the Lake, a film that is about almost nothing but sex. Okay, you might say it’s about the search for connection, and the complicated nature of human relationships, and it’s kind of a murder mystery as well but everyone is naked almost the entire time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many uncircumcised penises (it’s French..) in a movie before. As a thriller, it works well enough. The nudity is distracting to a point but it works in tandem with the languid pacing and serenity of the visuals. This is, in some sense, a nature film.
The film takes place at a cruising spot near a lake in France. Men come to sunbathe nude, and to go into the woods nearby to have anonymous sex. It’s a world unto itself with its own peculiar rules and set of codes. Real life doesn’t seem to intrude but that’s an illusion because the dangers of the real world are ominously close. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular who is more drawn to this spot than he wants to admit. He likes disappearing into the woods. He strips, he swims, he sunbathes, he cruises, and the scenes have an unobtrusive medium-shot matter-of-fact-ness about them. They look like anthropologists doing fieldwork on gay subcultures could have shot them.Continue Reading
Super Duper Alice Cooper
Finally a quintessential documentary on Alice Cooper, rock’s original shock master, titled appropriately enough, Super Duper Alice Cooper. Unlike the usual quickie music doc (Behind The Music, etc.), this is a film edited with style and a totally engaging visual flare similar to the wonderful Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture, with those three-dimensional cut outs and old-timey film footage mixed in to help tell the story. And Cooper himself, an engaging story teller, narrates. Of course I’m the target audience; I had a couple of his records as a kid, I went to an Alice Cooper concert in Detroit when I was in middle school and I have nostalgic pangs that get me a little giddy when I see those '70s clips. But I’m also thrilled to report that I watched this with a woman who was born long after Cooper’s heyday who had little previous knowledge about him or interest, and she thoroughly enjoyed the movie, too. Again, stylishly and narratively it can satisfy the old-school fan and intrigue a newbie.
As told by the film, Cooper’s story is the usual "sickly kid dreams of more and beats the odds" ode. Born Vincent Furnier in Detroit, Cooper’s pastor father and mother moved him out West to Phoenix to help his extreme asthma. He grew up a churchgoing all-American type, but like many kids in the '60s inspired by The Beatles, their music (and spoofing the Fab Four at a school talent show) led to him and his buds forming a band. Even as a bunch of suburban squares they found some success in their hometown under the name The Spiders; later encouraged by a message from a ouija board they changed the name of the band to Alice Cooper (slowly Vincent would actually take on the name himself and later legally change it when he dumped his bandmates) and set out for hippie filled Los Angeles. In California they fell under the tutelage of super weirdo Frank Zappa and became the brother act to his all-girl band The GTO’s. Besides giving pointers on partying, the fashionable ladies also helped them update their look (with thrift store women’s Ice Capades costumes). Though they signed with manager Shep Gordon (a pot dealer, for whom managing music was just a side gig) they didn’t find the success they craved and were even jeered at for their growing onstage theatrics. The band took off for middle America, playing small gigs until they finally settled in Detroit, a working class city that liked to rock and appreciated a hard-hitting band with a strong work ethic. Playing alongside bands like The MC5 and The Stooges, it has been said that this garage rock scene was the beginning of Punk Music (and Johnny Lydon AKA Rotten, adds his voice to the narration later, giving credence to this by admitting what a big influence Cooper was on his band, The Sex Pistols). The Alice Cooper act grew more and more outrageous and when they got to open for John Lennon at a music festival in Toronto, an incident that led to a chicken being murdered made them famous. They eventually broke big with hits “I’m Eighteen and then “School’s Out”, but Cooper fell deeper into a dark hole of alcoholism and celebrity trappings. Finally he dumped his high school pals and went solo, where his shows became a sorta vaudeville horror act, complete with a boa constrictor, a guillotine and dancers. (He married a young pretty one.)Continue Reading
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
Written by William Rose, who was also responsible for the loud, brash and big It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a couple years earlier (as well as the overrated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is also a big ensemble comedy, but much better executed and focused than his previous script, with more heart and less mean-spiritedness. It also helps that it has a very able director at the helm, the nearly forgotten Norman Jewison, whose socially-conscious films still hold up (In The Heat of The Night, A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane; The Russians Are Coming could also be considered part of that group). He had a number of films which were popular and respected in their day (The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, Agnes of God, Moonstruck) and some fascinating curios (Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball and F.I.S.T.). He falls into that group of directors who emerged in the sixties like Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill, John Boorman and John Schlesinger who had a lot of acclaim and made some classics, but never became brand names like Polanski and Coppola, or even to a lesser extent Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. Jewison has as many solid films as his peers, though looking back none reach that same level of transcendence as a Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy or Deliverance. For my money, though many would disagree, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is his film that holds up best today.
Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley (whose son Peter wrote the novel Jaws), set in a little New England beachy island community (very similar looking to that one in Jaws, though surprisingly actually shot in Northern California), where a Russian submarine gets stuck in a sandbar, leading to havoc in the town. This was a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so this was the height of cold-war hysteria (think Dr. Strangelove), so even just having likable Russian characters was enough to make this film subversive to some. The film has dozens of characters, with top character actors of the day in peak form.Continue Reading
With post-Vietnam War movies there is a “Vietnam Vet taking down his enemies” genre that would include the pulp biggies Taxi Driver, Billy Jack and First Blood, as well as pure vigilante exploitation films like Eye of the Tiger, Vigilante Force, The Exterminator, The Annihilators and Gordon’s War (not to be confused with the ‘Nam vets that appear as crazies in Targets, Black Sunday, Skyjacked and Earthquake or the zombie vets of Cannibal Apocalypse). Somewhere between pulp and vetploitation lays the very intense and violent Rolling Thunder. This was director Joe Flynn’s followup to his interesting crime thriller The Outfit. Paul Schrader (most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) wrote the screenplay though he claims it was reworked away from his original intention by credited co-writer Heywood Gould (Fort Apache the Bronx and Cocktail). Either way Rolling Thunder definitely carries Schrader’s signature theme of the lonely loner on a self-destructive path against society while seeking his own kind of redemption.
The film opens with Denny Brooks’ ballad “San Antone,” which was used similarly in The Ninth Configuration (he also sang the theme to the Chuck Norris choppy-socky Breaker! Breaker!). After spending years as POWs, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (a very young and very intense Tommy Lee Jones) finally return home to Texas. Of course, we know from our film studies, going as far back as William Wyler’s WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives, that returning vets have a tough time readjusting. And Rane is no different. His pretty wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards of TV’s Dark Shadows) tries to help him ease back into civilian life, but he senses she has moved on (it’s obvious she has been involved with a local cop), and his son doesn’t even remember him. Rane suffers from PTSD and is emotionally distant, even turning down the advances of a young military groupie, Linda (Linda Haynes). The town tries to make him feel welcomed with a parade, a new car and over two grand in silver dollars (one for every day he was in captivity).Continue Reading
Usually when movie lovers talk about legendary lost works in which auteur directors had their films taken from them and butchered by the American studios that produced them, they’re referring to “holy grails” of cinema such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). But I recently stumbled across an account of another supposed lost classic, Swing Shift—Jonathan Demme’s tribute to America’s “Greatest Generation” of World War II and the women on the home front who found a new sense of self and independence by working for the war effort in the factories.
I actually really love the movie Swing Shift as it is but I hadn’t seen it in years. I remember my mom taking her mother to see it and letting me tag along. My grandma was part of that generation of women who did what they could for the war effort, whether it meant volunteering at the local USO or planting a Victory Garden in their backyards. By 1984, when the movie was released, that generation was elderly while I was only six. Seeing the movie as a kid, I think I just really loved the sentimental look at the U.S. during the 1940s. Taking place in Southern California, in Santa Monica, between the attack on Pearl Harbor and VJ Day, the film has a melancholic feel, with the sky looking perpetually overcast and the music usually something slow and beautiful, such as one of Jo Stafford’s torch songs. And though I don't remember if Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" is on the soundtrack it really should be.Continue Reading
If we lived in a perfect world, Police Story would be the archetypal action film all other action films would emulate. But the world is imperfect and most action films are bloated, $100 million plus productions filled with bad dialogue, aging stars, poorly choreographed fights, and CGI removing any semblance of real threat or excitement. And yet, Police Story is almost thirty years old and still excites in the way action movies should.
Police Story doesn’t wait around to give you tons of unnecessary exposition. Right from the start, it spends only a few minutes establishing who the bad guys are, why the cops are after them, and Chan Ka-Kui's (played by Jackie Chan, also the film’s director) moralistic view of his job. And right when they give you just enough info to get involved in the story, you’re treated to a gunfight followed by cars driving through and destroying an entire shanty town followed by Chan Ka-Kui chasing a bus being held hostage by the escaping villains.Continue Reading
No one has heard of Director Pino Amenta. The name John Waters has always brought to mind the Baltimore cult director instead of the English actor. Almost everyone has heard of Guy Pearce, who was introduced in Heaven Tonight—a dated melodrama circulating a strained relationship between a father and his son. The weight of their troubles doesn't have anything to do with your standard fare of family drama, like one of the members abusing substances to the point of domestic strife. The issues that Johnny Dysart (John Waters) and his teenage son, Paul (Guy Pearce), are having are based on talent. Johnny is a failing musician and a has-been after a short-lived but illustrious career 20 years prior. Like many bands from the '60s, his was one that was going to become the next Beach Boys or Beatles—hitting the top of the charts and soon to tour the world. All it took was for his best friend and bandmate to become a junkie and the band collapsed. Now young Paul is climbing to the top with his electro group and doing so without the help of his father. His determination and position as the leader of other young men who are keen on success is not only impressive, but the target of envy and resentment from his displaced father.
Still, things in the Dysart household have stayed relatively steady over the years. Everyone gets along for the most part and Johnny's wife, Annie (Rebecca Gilling), is waiting patiently, and with great understanding, for her husband to put away his guitar and settle down into middle age. Johnny, oblivious to the strain his nonexistent career is putting on his family, is waiting for his last chance to come through. He's finished another album and chases after an old colleague in the business to give him an answer in terms of releasing it. Annie has been the major breadwinner of the family, and with a new business opportunity on her hands she's ready to take a risk and wants her husband to be included. Meanwhile young Paul and his group starts to really become popular and he desperately wants his father's approval and attention. All of this is put to the side when Johnny's troubled old friend and former bandmate, Baz (Kim Gyngell), comes crawling back into their lives and leaves an impact that has the potential to destroy their progress as a family unit.Continue Reading
Children of Men
Can one really imagine a city underwater? A meteor penetrating the Earth's ozone layer after a team of rogues tries to stop it? Dormant aliens or complex thinking machines rising from the Earth's core? Zombies dressed like your neighbors who hunt down the fit and handsome last man on Earth? The answer is a resounding “no.” But infertility...inhumane policing of immigrants...turmoil and depravity...a civilized and desperate reach towards mankind's will to sustain and overcome—well, that's an apocalypse that is much more tangible. Alfonso Cuaron's slow burn to the end of mankind paints a poetic picture of biblical proportions. One that not only allows the viewer to sink into a mortifying suspense of disbelief, but also manages to exemplify a relevant and powerful social commentary; a science-fiction for realists.
Cuaron's name seems to be on a lot of people's tongues following the recent release and accolades of Gravity, but Children of Men is a masterpiece that, while commercially a success, fell short of the sort of interest and praise of his latest work. It's as though fans of the genre were still caught up in the thrill and evolution of robots and outdated imagination. Perhaps the grizzly immigration aspect struck a nerve or was regarded as too controversial.Continue Reading
Let the Right One In
Aside from being regarded as one of the best vampire movies to date, Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In is also one of the most apathetic and emotionally involving coming of age films. Its ability to paint a literally frozen portrait of Sweden post-Red Curtain while zoning in on the woes of childhood issues ranging from bullying to first love goes beyond the confines of a genre and allows the work to reach a rare platform of relatability that is truly a pleasure to behold.
Taking place in a small suburb of Sweden in the early '80s, the film is told through the experiences of Oskar (Kare Hedebrant)—a lonely pre-teen whose friendless existence and somewhat helpless position of a bullied youth has instilled in him a fascination with morbidness while simultaneously nurturing his eccentric personality. When a middle-aged man and his daughter move into the flat next door, Oskar takes a chance at befriending Eli (Lina Leandersson), the little girl.Continue Reading