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).
This is Spinal Tap
Although it has had a lot of competition since it was released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap still remains the greatest mockumentary, the best spoof on the rock music scene, and one of the funniest, most continually quotable flicks I’ve ever seen. This was the first film directed by Rob Reiner who, at the time, was primarily known for his role as Meathead on the legendary sitcom All in the Family. He would go on to have a mostly pedestrian directing career with a few stand-outs (Stand By Me). With This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner and his three costars - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (all four of whom are the credited writers) - created something very special whose style has been copied many times over, especially by Guest himself. But nothing has hit it so far out of the park as this one did.
The mockumentary (a spoof of a documentary) was not new at the time. Though rather dull, David Holzman’s Diary was considered a landmark in 1967. Woody Allen made the now classic Take the Money and Run. There was that Beatles spoof, All You Need is Cash, and Albert Brooks foresaw the coming of reality TV with his Real Life. What makes This is Spinal Tap especially impressive is that it keeps the documentary format the entire film, something most other mockumentaries rarely sustain (including Guest’s later work). Most of the other films often cheat and have moments to try and help the plot along that couldn’t have been documented by a pesky camera crew. Every moment in This is Spinal Tap keeps the documentary format humming. By 1984 the ego-driven rockumentary had been a standard cash generator for most megabands (peaking in the seventies before the music video came to dominate the self-promotion machine). Going at least as far back as Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back in ’67 and the music festival docs Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it was really The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same that gave This is Spinal Tap its most potent fodder.Continue Reading
After Sean Penn’s solid supporting performance in Taps (as the sensitive guy, opposite Tom Cruise’s hothead), his now legendary scene stealing turn as stoner Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then his work as Chicago juvenile delinquent Mick O’Brien in Bad Boys, Rolling Stone Magazine put him on the cover at the age of 23 and called him, “the next James Dean.” Since Dean only starred in three features, it's his cultural impact and dying young status that still make him a household name today. Dean also showed himself to be a gifted actor and it’s fascinating to imagine what his career would have been like had he not died so young. Penn has lived past those three early films (to some people’s surprise). He has had a long and eclectic filmography, with moments of pure acting brilliance (Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown), while some critics have accused him of sometimes being a hammy overactor (I Am Sam, All The King’s Men, Mystic River). Either way the guy is easily a first-ballet hall-of-famer.
In addition to being a good jumping off point for any study of the truth and beauty in Penn’s acting, director Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys is, for my money, the best American juvenile detention center flick. (Internationally you would have to add the British film Scum and Brazil's Pixote.) By 1983 Hollywood had only a spotty record grappling with teen crime flicks (the best at this point was Over The Edge) and Bad Boys sometimes feels a little overwrought with its occasional After School Special moments. On the other-hand it’s shockingly bleak and the violence is pretty brutal. Both teen prisons and the mean streets of Chicago are places full of predators - kill or be killed. Though Bad Boys doesn’t hit the exploitation highs of Class of 1984, it’s certainty much harder hitting and believable than most of the other teen dramas of its era.Continue Reading
Great Balls of Fire!
Great Balls of Fire!, the sort of tragic but really fun story of Jerry Lee Lewis, is a movie as bonkers as its hellcat hero. Lewis was a first class creep who made enough bad decisions to fill up a whole heap of country records many times over but he has more scorching Lucifer-bestowed talent than you, me, and all of our friends put together, probably. He got the biopic he deserved in this cranked up Southern exploitation romp that manages to both vilify and celebrate “the Killer” at the same time without any useless moral handwringing that would’ve sounded an insufferably false note anyway.
Dennis Quaid is a terribly wonderful, terribly underrated actor and he goes all out with his Killer. Looking like a Deep South doppelganger of Cesar Romero’s the Joker from the 1960’s Batman TV show, he’s a demonic pretty boy in a yellow suit who knows he can steal the show from anyone he’s put onstage with. He charms and infuriates all the people hitched to his star, be it Sam Phillips of Sun Records (played by the late, great Trey Wilson) or his bandmates (including John Doe from X). Alec Baldwin plays his (later to be notorious) cousin, preacher Jimmy Swaggart. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jerry Lee, from a groupie who makes off with a lock of his golden hair to his “man of God” cousin who even then was a terrible hypocrite while up there on his bully pulpit.Continue Reading
Behind the Candelabra
Remember when Wilco got a ton of press for having been dropped from their record label, Reprise, just as they were about to release the album that went on to be their most critically acclaimed and popular work, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? It was a story often repeated at the time as a shorthand demonstration of how sorry and dysfunctional the music industry had become. How could one of the country’s best, most innovative and respected bands get dropped as a reward for making their finest synthesis of experimental leanings and classic Americana pop song craft? The story became symbolic of how skewed the priorities had gotten within the music industry which increasingly focused on short term profits from lowest common denominator garbage.
Well, I happen to think that Behind the Candelabra has become the filmic equivalent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Every story about the film leading up to its release had to mention how no Hollywood studio would make the movie even though it was to star two of the most famous (Michael Douglas) and bankable (Matt Damon) stars working today and directed by one of the most successful and esteemed filmmakers (Soderbergh). Bankable stars; a respected, dependable filmmaker; a juicy, ridiculous story—what’s not to like? Apparently enough that only HBO would agree to make it, effectively killing the film’s chances of a theatrical release and giving one of the best, most entertaining movies of the year over to television.Continue Reading
Easily the most underrated film of the great Alfred Hitchcock’s massive career, Topaz is a perfectly constructed little cold-war thriller with many cool little filmmaking flourishes. It’s truly a wonder why this film has not been rediscovered by Hitchcockian enthusiasts and given its proper due. As a follow-up to his other cold war thriller in the '60s, the Paul Newman dud Torn Curtain, perhaps audiences were just weary of the subject matter. Perhaps because it had no stars it wasn’t taken seriously. Or maybe by the late '60s audience tastes had changed and by then the Grand Master was considered "old hat." Of course he would follow it with another often over-looked gem, Frenzy, which was his chance to finally go balls-to-the-wall with the sex and violence (and no stars). Like Billy Wilder’s cold-war comedy One Two Three, another lost gem, both films were financial flops, but both are actually great examples of what the two directors do best. In Wilder’s case, of course, it’s cynicism (though One Two Three was more slapstick than his usual cool) and with Topaz, Hitchcock again demonstrated how to create suspense with just camera pans and small pieces of information.
Based on a novel by Leon Uris (Exodus) with a script by Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo), Topaz jerks around in different directions and, at 143 minutes, is Hitchcock’s longest film. It opens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1962 (pre-Cuban Missile Crisis), with a Soviet military bigwig, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius, a Swedish actor who in real life died setting himself on fire as a tax protest), his wife and teenage daughter sightseeing and are being followed by their KGB handlers. Aided by an American spy, Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe who would become a big star on TV’s Dynasty), they make a daring escape, defecting and getting shipped out to Washington, DC. While debriefed the Americans learn of a pact between the Soviets and Cuba. Nordstrom hooks up with his French counterpoint, André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who is vacationing with his wife Nicole (Dany Robin), daughter and her UN reporter husband (Michel Subor) in New York. Here the film totally shifts and becomes Devereaux’s. A classically suave spy, he seems to be cozy with the Soviets but is still willing to help the Americans, even when his wife objects. In a great scene, Devereaux enlists the help of an undercover French florist, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne), to steal some incriminating papers from a visiting Cuban delegate, Rico Parra (John Vernon, Dean Wormer of National Lampoon’s Animal House, here doing his best Che). In an effort to find out what’s really going on Devereaux jets off to Cuba where his beautiful mistress (Karin Dor, a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice) also happens to the widow of a Cuban Revolutionary hero and secret leader of the anti-Castro forces. The two work to get evidence of Russian missiles and for a while the film becomes an escape from Cuba adventure.Continue Reading
Considered by some to be an interesting historical footnote as the film uber-nerd George Lucas directed before he became a zillionaire with Star Wars, American Graffiti is actually much more. Besides helping to usher in a nostalgia wave during the '70s for a more innocent time before the Vietnam War and playing like catnip for classic car geeks, American Graffiti is a perfect ensemble comedy with a then cutting-edge use of wall-to-wall classic Rock & Roll songs on the soundtrack and a wonderful piece of Americana. It’s Lucas’s homage to those years in Modesto, California when kids drank milk shakes at Mel’s Drive-In and then cruised up and down the boulevard all night with their radios blasting, looking for kicks. The film is set in 1962. JFK was still alive, most Americans couldn’t yet point out Vietnam on a map, the Beatles hadn’t even touched down yet, and the baby boomer youth culture was beginning to dominate but still looked a lot like leftover 1950s innocents.
In a now classic coming of age set-up, American Graffiti takes place one August night after high school graduation. With the summer coming to an end, four buds (and the women around them) face the dilemma of impending adulthood about to overtake them. The clean cut Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to be heading off to college but has to figure out how to break it off with his longtime girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams of future Laverne & Shirley fame). The much more thoughtful Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would jump start his career before Jaws would make him a superstar a few years later) isn’t so sure about leaving for college out East the next day and goes on a search for some kind of meaning to his life and for the beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) he spotted cruising around in a T-Bird. Instead he ends up taking part in antics with a gang of Greasers known as The Pharaohs (lead by the hilarious Bo Hopkins). Steve leaves his beloved Chevy Impala in the hands of his nerdy pal Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith who would go on to play a similar bumbler in The Untouchables). Now sporting a bitchin’ set of wheels, Terry spends the evening wooing a much more experienced woman, Debbie, played wonderfully by Candy Clark who scored an Oscar nomination for the performance and went on to appear in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth strand of the story follows the more blue-collar, street racing cool kid, John Milner (Paul Le Mat, an actor who had the charisma and looks to hit the big time, but unlike many of his costars, his career never really took off other than playing the lead in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed flick Melvin and Howard). He is being pursued for a drag race by a new guy in town, Bob Falfa (a cowboy hatted Harrison Ford), but his nightly fun is interrupted when he gets stuck with an annoying "tweener" Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the two start off at odds but end up with a sweet brother/sister like relationship. A final "where are they now" epilogue scroll tells us what happened to the guys, bringing the film even more powerful pathos.Continue Reading
After his great little run of action films from 1975 - 1982 that included The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort and 48 Hrs, gritty director Walter Hill wandered in the wrong direction with the action musical Streets of Fire and the unfunny Richard Pryor comedy Brewster’s Millions. Even though he would go on to have a big hit with the Schwarzenegger muscle bore Red Heat, most of his flicks had potential but oddly fell short (Johnny Handsome, Wild Bill). He did do an underrated urban thriller, Trespass, but otherwise nothing reached that earlier high.
Hill started out as a writer and one of his first credited screenplays was for Sam Peckinpah’s mean spirited thriller, The Getaway. So Hill’s 1987 Tex-Mex action flick Extreme Prejudice, though completely ignored by audiences in its day, now plays as a perfect homage to his one-time boss, Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), the master of masculine violence who had burned out and died a few years earlier. With about as good a cast of tough guy character actors you could find in 1987 (including Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe, Michael Ironside, Rip Torn, Clancy Brown and William Forsythe), time has been kind to Extreme Prejudice. Though it’s set in modern day, it’s now starting to look like one of the better “Westerns” made in 1980s.Continue Reading
Dirty Pretty Things
Who the hell is hounding you in the BMW
How the hell he find you, 147'd you
Feds gonna get you
Pull the strings on the hood
One paranoid youth blazin' thru the hood
– M.I.A. “Galang”
In the introduction to his published screenplay of Chinatown Robert Towne considers the depressing state of contemporary cinema in a Hollywood decades removed from Chinatown and the New Hollywood of the 1970s. For him it's the overload of expository dialogue meant to move the plot along and wooden, one-dimensional quality of characters in current films that kills any suspense or drama.Continue Reading
Of all the so called Jaws rip-offs - and there were plenty - the best of the lot was The Deep. Most were just exploitation quickies (Great White, Barracuda and, of course, the very entertaining Piranha), but a few actually had classy casts (John Huston, Shelly Winters and Henry Fonda in Tentacles; Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling in Orca). The Deep, besides having a distinguished cast (Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach) and a credible action director, Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), most importantly, was written by Peter Benchley, the author who wrote the novel Jaws (though everyone agrees the movie Jaws was better than the book). The Deep was his follow-up and although much of it does take place underwater and it even has a nasty electric eel, it’s less a killer fish flick and more of a smuggling thriller (which makes sense since Jaws the novel had a minor but still awkward gangster subplot). But because Benchley and the producers were obviously trying to cash in on the Jaws phenomenon it still, fairly or unfairly, falls into the “rip-off” genre. But, hey, better to be the best “Jaws Rip-Off Flick” than nothing at all.
Benchley adapted his novel along with co-screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn (who wrote the great Burt Reynolds prison football flick The Longest Yard). Perhaps the personal histories and relationship dynamics between the characters were a little more fleshed out in longer book form, but on screen they are just touched on, teased out enough to make the movie feel a little more complicated than it probably deserves. Uber-sexy couple David (Nolte in his first big screen star vehicle after his brilliant performance in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man) and Gail (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda and while scuba diving they discover an abandoned old shipwreck, The Goliath. Among the artifacts they discover is a little vial of liquid. It turns out the cute bottle is filled with morphine and the bottom of the ship is covered in it (it was to be used as medical supplies during WWII). This gets the local drug kingpin, Cloche (Gossett Jr.), sniffing around them, knowing it could be worth millions up on the streets of New York. But they hook up with the local treasure-hunter, Treece (Robert Shaw of Jaws, in a less antisocial but equally knowing role), whose team includes his brutish bodyguard, Kevin (Robert Tessier, the often bald-headed tough guy familiar to '70s and '80s B-movie fans), and an untrustworthy old sailor named, oddly enough, Coffin (classic Actor’s Studio super ham Eli Wallach), who is the only survivor of The Goliath. Shaw and Nolte scuba dive and dig up the drug and also uncover another ship full of gold jewelry. There’s talk of some kind of old-timey conspiracy about the king of Spain and a noblewoman. There's a killer eel down there and some sharks make a dangerous cameo. Haitian voodoo comes into it and Bisset often flaunts a lovely wet T-shirt. It has a very “early James Bond” like score by John Barry and a discofied end-credits song by Donna Summer (though her vocals seem to be missing from the DVD version). Oh, and the underwater sequences are spectacularly shot.Continue Reading
Good Night, and Good Luck.
Most of the movies directly about the horrors and political terrorism of the McCarthyism of the 1950s usually center on a dim schmuck who accidentally finds himself involved in the blacklistings. They’ve ranged from the good (The Front with Woody Allen working as an actor-for-hire), the bad (Guilty by Suspicion, the beginning of Robert De Niro’s slid towards mediocrity) and the terrible (Frank Darabont’s awful The Majestic with Jim Carrey, a movie that makes “Capra-esqe” a mortal sin). The usually simplistic genre helps make mega-star actor George Clooney’s second directing effort, Good Night, and Good Luck. (after the interesting but far from perfect Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), seem positively genius in comparison. Instead of piercing the blacklisting from the streets he sets it upstairs in the newsroom of the TV show See It Now, where the legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn in the performance of his career) dared to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities. Clooney (who also wrote the script with another one-time journeyman TV actor Grant Heslov) not only makes one of the most pointed films about this ugly period in American politics but also gives us a fascinating glimpse into the working of 1950s television. Shot in color and then transferred to a stunning black & white in post by cinematography all-star Robert Elswit (he’s shot all the Paul Thomas Anderson joints up to There Will Be Blood), Good Night, and Good Luck. really is a marvelous film, beautifully realized in its simplicity and a triumph on all fronts.
Murrow and his trusty producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), fluctuate their television news magazine show between lightweight celebrity interviews (Liberace!) and more meaningful political pieces, where their heart really is - the fluff is a way to appease their sponsors and the higher-ups at CBS. Knowing that it could start a battle, they decide to take on the dangerous bullying tactics of Senator McCarthy, who was at the height of his powers. He was ruining careers of American citizens by accusing them of being Communists unless they groveled and told McCarthy what a great job he and his Committee where doing, and they were often forced to name others who may be Communists, just to give more names and more power to the often drunk lout Senator. Murrow and Friendly have to walk a tightrope when the Government begins to hint at an investigation of the station's employees and McCarthy himself falls on his old standby trick, accusing Murrow of being a Communist. Meanwhile the head of CBS, William Paley (Frank Langella, wonderful in the role), is forced to defend his star but also tries to keep him on a short leash (the moments between Langella and Strathairn are the best in the movie). The staff is under their own pressure. Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson play a secretly married couple (CBS policy did not allow employees to wed), and in another captivating performance, Ray Wise plays CBS News Correspondent Don Hollenbeck who admires Murrow but lives in terror of having his own lefty political background exposed.Continue Reading