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).
On a first peek the Golan/Globus produced Runaway Train looks like it could be a standard prison-break action flick, but further along the viewer realizes it’s much more.Though it has slam-bang action and some spectacular stunt work, it’s actually some kind of thought-provoking, oddly foreign feeling (meaning perhaps, intellectual) character study. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus' company Cannon Films made its name in the '80s with loud action movies like the Missing in Action flicks, the Sly Stallone steroidy Cobra, Breakin’ (and its sequel Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) and the unwarranted sequels to Death Wish (including the so-bad-it’s-good Death Wish 3). On paper Runaway Train should have been just more adrenaline-sploitation, but the back story alone led it in a direction that made it totally unique. It's based on a screenplay by Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa (and his long time collaborators Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima), who had been hoping to make it back in the late '60s. Instead veteran Russian director Andrey Konchalovskiy took it over, while Kurosawa got a “based on a screenplay by” credit and the final script credits went to the odd threesome of Djordje Milicevic (a Serb), Paul Zindel (famous for writing the play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds) and the very interesting Edward Bunker, who turned his own criminal life into a successful writing and acting career. (Books he wrote were adapted into the underrated movies Straight Time and Animal Factory, and as an actor he appeared in many films including Runaway Train. Most famously he played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. What a long strange trip it’s been, indeed.)
In a nasty, damp Alaskan prison, superstar criminal bank robber (Jon Voight) has won his state appeal. Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) is forced to remove him from solitary confinement, where his cell was welded shut. He's a legendary badass and the prisoners are excited to have him back in the population, especially his brother, Jonah (Bunker) and a young boxer, Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) who's in on a statutory rape conviction and who takes hero worship to a new level. Manny wants to escape with his bro but when Ranken sends a killer after Manny, Jonah ends up getting messed up bad. So by default Manny hooks up with the annoying Buck instead. The two escape through a drain pipe and then make an impossible trek through a freezing Alaskan wasteland and eventually hop a freight train...home free. Somehow the train conductor dies and the train becomes a runaway, barreling through another train and making a deadly derailment the only possible option for the befuddled group of train dispatchers (C.K Carter, Kenneth McMillan and Kyle T. Heffner, the nerd from Flashdance). It turns out the train does have another passenger, a railroad worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay, a few years after her breakthrough in Risky Business, still looking for the role that should have taken her to the next level--something that unfortunately never quite happened for this talented actress).Continue Reading
Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (Rocky, Raging Bull, etc.), The Split is a lost relic. Besides being the first film to ever receive an “R” rating by the ratings board, it’s a nifty heist film with a great cast full of fascinating credentials. Because it stars football star turned actor Jim Brown (and has Diahann Carroll as his ex-wife and a funky-lite Quincy Jones score), it’s often lumped in as an early blaxploitation flick. It’s not. Directed by a Scotsman, Gordon Flemyng, (who did a lot of '60s Dr. Who) and written by the great crime writer Donald Westlake (credited in the script under his equally known alias Richard Stark), this is the guy who wrote the books that became Point Blank (and later Payback), as well as The Hot Rock and The Outfit, and later wrote the script for The Grifters. So The Split could have easily been a vehicle for Lee Marvin, Rock Hudson, James Coburn or any other leading man of the era. It just so happens that Brown took the role. It’s a gritty little crime flick. It barely even qualifies as crooksploitation. Yes, it’s an imperfect film (chunkily directed), but it's still entertaining with some nice ’68 Los Angeles locations and some wild twists.
Fresh out of the slammer McClain (Brown) is recruited by Gladys (Julie Harris) to pull a big heist at the Los Angeles Coliseum (shades of the race track robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing). McClain gathers an all-star cool cast to take part in the caper: tough guy Ernest Borgnine, escape artist/racist Warren Oates (a little less oily than he was a year earlier in In The Heat of the Night), limo driver Jack Klugman and creepy hit-man Donald Sutherland (still two tears before MASH made him a star). In a very complicated robbery and clever escape, the gang gets away with over a half-million bucks. But it’s after the heist when the real drama starts. It’s what happens to the loot before “the split” that cause the usual problems of greed and suspicion. First, the ex-wife has a sadistic, rapey landlord (James Whitmore) who kills her and steals the money, and then a crooked cop, Walter Brill (the great Gene Hackman pre-testing for Popeye Doyle) gets involved. The film becomes a stand-off for the money between McClain, Gladys, the gang and Brill.Continue Reading
The Red House
Public domain film titles can be a great source of discovery for classic film buffs. There are some really weird movies that have made their way into Amoeba's DVD stock from companies such as Alpha Video which specialize in the obscure, the really terrible, and sometimes, a lost gem or two. But the experience of watching, even a good film, from a public domain copy can be pretty iffy. For one, their cover art is generally terrible. Poorly photoshopped images, terrible title fonts: on the whole, they are generally an affront to graphic design and good taste. This is why I had stayed away from The Red House, a not terribly well-known Delmer Daves noir starring Edward G. Robinson, made in 1947. Even when I finally relented, in search of more obscure noir thrills, the public domain copy I found looked and sounded awful. Whatever the filmmakers intended I could not see what it was because the sound and image were of such poor quality it was practically unwatchable.
But then a company I'd never heard of called HD Cinema Classics released a DVD/Blu-Ray combo of The Red House and once seen it was like a completely different film. What, in earlier editions, looked muddy and incoherent was now restored to its eerily gorgeous self. It's a beautiful and dark, dark, dark film and deserves high placement in the noir canon. This is a film that belongs in the same cinematic world of spooky, mysterious enchantment of The Night of the Hunter and Twin Peaks and, though it might be a stretch, The Innocents.Continue Reading
The canon of films (both documentary and dramatic) about the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali continues to grow and has to be richer than that of any other athlete in history. It helps that Ali had such a fascinating, controversial and (eventually) revered life. The list would start with Ali playing himself in the 1977 film The Greatest. Then, a curiosity: the TV movie Freedom Road, which Ali starred in as an ex-slave who became a senator. Ali even provided his own voice for the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali. Will Smith played him in the underrated Michael Mann bio Ali. And on TV, Terrence Howard took his swing in King of the World, as did David Ramsey (a college classmate of mine) in Ali: An American Hero. Actors also pop up playing him in supporting roles in Don King: Only in America and Phantom Punch, while he is only talked about in the more recent Stephen Fears film Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight (as his fight with the United States over his draft status for the Vietnam war is decided by the Supreme Court). The documentary front has too many films to list, going at least as far back as 1970 with AKA Cassius Clay. Other highlights include Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story, Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World and The Trials of Muhammad Ali from earlier this year. And of course, the greatest of all is still the Academy Award-winning When We Were Kings. And just about every documentary on the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements usually has a chapter on the guy.
Finding a different angle on telling the whole Ali story is Facing Ali from 2009. Director Pete McCormack interviews Ali’s boxing opponents and surprisingly creates about as all-encompassing a documentary as there has been on the man. Whereas When We Were Kings really centers on the Ali/ George Foreman “Rumble In The Jungle” bout and veers off occasionally for backstory, Facing Ali moves back and forth on the timeline and manages to include all his historical highlights: winning the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the mega upset against Sonny Liston, joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name from Cassius Clay and infuriating the white press and boxing establishment, and of course, his heroic battle against the Vietnam draft (which put his career on hold for many years during his peak). But where the movie goes that can really excite a budding Ali-phile are the details of the non-historic fights, especially after his return in the '70s when he re-won and then lost the title of champ and then won it back.Continue Reading
Max Ophuls's reputation as one of the greatest of all film directors seems principally based on the films he did in Europe such as The Earrings of Madame De... (1953) and Lola Montes (1955), about which Andrew Sarris famously proclaimed “the greatest film of all time.” But before he got to those he was a temporary exile in Hollywood along with many of the greatest film directors of the 20th century, all European, all having fled from war-torn Europe. Some thrived in their new exotic environs (Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang), while some never quite regained their former stride (let’s at least think about including Jean Renoir here).
In Hollywood Max Ophuls made some of the most sophisticated thrillers of the late 1940s and yet, because they dealt with American women, were snubbed as "women's pictures" at the time. Both Ophuls's Caught and The Reckless Moment were released in 1949, ending the decade on a high note for nuanced portrayals of women attempting to navigate a darkened moral universe made unavoidable by the post-war era even as the coming Atomic Age onslaught of The Donna Reed Show was about to begin.Continue Reading
Escape from the Planet of the Apes
Once you can get past the absurdity of the set-up of Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the movie turns out to be the best of the sequels to the original brilliant sci-fi film Planet of the Apes. To recap, in that first film, an American astronaut, Taylor (Charlton Heston) traveled through space and returned to earth deep into the planet’s future where apes ruled and humans were just stinky wild mutes. In the less exciting but still watchable first sequel, Beneath The Planet of Apes, another astronaut, Brent (James Franciscus) follows Taylor into the future as ape hostility towards man is growing. Brent and Taylor finally meet up in an underground city where humanoids worship an atom bomb. Eventually apes attack and a dying Heston sets off the bomb, destroying earth and seemingly putting an end to the franchise. But, like Rocky III, the third film found a fresh take on the story and turns out to have a lot of fun on its own terms.
In this one, to the shock of the world, three apes in space suits land on present-day Earth (a very groovy early 1970s) in Taylor’s spacecraft. It turns out it’s archaeologist Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and his wife, animal (human) psychologist Zira (Kim Hunter), the two apes who risked their careers to help Taylor in the first film, along with the brilliant Dr. Milo (Rebel Without a Cause’s Sal Mineo). (Okay, so get over the set-up.) The three apes somehow salvaged Taylor’s ship from the bottom of a lake, managed to re-blast-off, and while watching the earth’s destruction from the sky, were sent into a time warp back to modern day. Silly. But now the fun starts....Continue Reading
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