Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

Films selected and reviewed by discerning movie buffs, television junkies, and documentary diehards (a.k.a. our staff).

Computer Chess

Dir: Andrew Bujalski, 2013. Starring: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gordon Kindlmann, Gerald Peary. Comedy.

American independent cinema has been ghettoized and marketed into a certain type of cinema. Popular types of independent films include low budget digital cinematography about post-collegiate confusion or Indiewood films about “quirky” relationships and situations involving beautiful losers. It's a sea of films that has flooded festivals like SXSW or Sundance that leave great works of independent cinema behind in the dust. So it’s a grand pleasure to have Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess emerge out of Sundance, a film that openly breaks these stereotypes and proves that American independent cinema can be exciting, experimental and even fun.

Taking place sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, several groups of professional, amateur and student programmers meet at a motel to compete in a computer chess tournament where computers are pitted directly against one another to see which program has the most advanced AI. But this is almost just an excuse (a mundane MacGuffin?) for a film that takes leaps into computer philosophy, surrealism and hippie hedonism. Bujalski steps out of his comfort zone of painful, singular character based comedies shot on 16mm with a pastiche shot on low-grade video on a Sony AVC3260 (never a gimmick, but an integral part of the aesthetic and feel). Lesser filmmakers would lament and moan about the use of such an anti-cinematic camera and look, but Bujalski and his excellent regular cinematographer Matthias Grunsky revel in it with jump cuts, bad split screen, video errors, and unsynced sound and light that smears like old live television. The first minute or two of Computer Chess start as a faux-documentary with programmers speaking into mics directly into the camera about why they want to win the championship. Jump cut to an audience preparing to sit down in an auditorium while the camera dollies across the audience--until it crashes too hard into the end of a dolly track, causing another jump cut to static. If you were watching this on an old CRT-TV, you’d probably be provoked to slap the TV straight a few times.

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Posted by:
Mark Ayala
Apr 3, 2014 11:19am

Mulholland Drive

Dir: David Lynch, 2001. Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux. Cult.

Like all great cities no one film best sums up Los Angeles. The city is too fractured, the personal narratives of its citizenry too outlandishly varied, for any one film to seize on everything. But if you want a sense of what the city can do to a person – a starry-eyed, beautiful, blonde, female person with dreams of Hollywood – this is probably the most artful and poignant one you could find. On one level it’s a mysterious love story involving a sparkling ingenue from “Deep River, Ontario” (I have no idea if such a place exists) and a gorgeous brunette with a head injury who doesn’t know who she is or how she got to the ingenue’s apartment (technically her aunt’s apartment). They meet awkwardly but soon become each other’s trusted confidante. The possibilities of a new romance and the thrill of being in the most magical slash sinister city on Earth, new to them both (since one is an amnesiac), set us up for a strange, hypnotic love story. But this is David Lynch’s movie and things get really dark really quickly.

A film director (played by Justin Theroux) with a wife who cheats on him (with Billy Ray Cyrus, in fact) has his Hollywood career ruined in a day by nefarious forces he doesn’t understand. Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita’s (Laura Harring) relationship, at first so full of the giddy, dangerous thrill of a new romance, turns into something obsessive and horrifying as the characters mutate into different people, or different versions of the same people. The ingenue becomes a frightening, jaded shell of who she was. The mysterious brunette becomes a cold, calculating, and manipulative trophy wife (at least I think that’s what happens).

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 24, 2014 12:11pm

The Seventh Victim

Dir: Mark Robson, 1943. Starring: Kim Hunter, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks. Horror.

The best Val Lewton movie not directed by Jacques Tourneur, The Seventh Victim is an almost perfect summation of the famed producer’s themes of loneliness, alienation, urban paranoia, and romantic fatalism, just without some of the visual poetry that Tourneur brought to his own Lewton films (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie). But it’s pretty haunting all the same. The plot is so sinister. A naive but determined teenage girl named Mary (a plain Jane named Kim Hunter) leaves her upstate boarding school to look for her missing older sister, Jacqueline (played by Lewton regular, Jean Brooks) in New York. Once in New York Mary acts as a Nancy Drew sort of detective, piecing together the clues of her sister’s disappearance before arriving at the conclusion that her sister is under the control of a group of Greenwich Village devil worshipers.

Mary’s only guardian is her older sister Jacqueline, a New York sophisticate with a sort of Egyptian art deco haircut who owns her own perfume company. Mary traces her previous whereabouts, discovering that before her disappearance Jacqueline mysteriously deeded her company to some of her co-workers. Various friends and lovers of Jacqueline, equally concerned about her, help Mary in her quest but nothing seems to quell the overarching feeling of doom hanging over the character of Jacqueline. She’s a different take on the Laura Palmer mystery, a beguiling woman no one could save.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 24, 2014 11:55am

Guilty of Romance

Dir: Shion Sono. Starring: Megumi Kagurazaka, Miki Mitzuno, Satoshi Nikaido, Makoto Togashi. Asian Cinema/Mystery-Thriller.

Whenever you find a film that is based on actual events or someone's life, with the exclusion of biopics, I highly recommend giving it your time. It's similar to the interest piqued from a movie based on a book you find yourself drawn to, but much more involving. This is perhaps due to - and heightened by - the interest from the director. To consider that there is someone's story out there that captivates a filmmaker to the point that they are willing to spend thousands, if not millions, of dollars funding a work that will tell this story the way they imagine it in their mind after (hopefully) researching the events leading to it is, in all seriousness, a wonderful thing. Of course, the director needs to be someone you trust to tell this story—and what better example than Shion Sono and the grizzly tale of a woman on the brink of sexual discovery in a repressed society that can and will eat the faint at heart for breakfast.

Opening with “On the eve of the 21st century...,” Guilty of Romance takes off at a hurried run as a detective (Miki Mitzuno) stumbles upon a bizarre crime that would rattle even the most experienced among her profession. The remains of a woman are found in various locations known for being the playground of anyone keen on prancing through the erotic underworld. The fact that a murder took place there isn't necessarily jarring. The fact that the remains were partial and attached to a mannequin dressed like a schoolgirl was.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 11, 2014 2:42pm

The Woodsman

Dir: Nicole Kassell, 2004. Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, Benjamin Bratt. Drama.

Redemption is a complex thing. Our quest to find and observe it is even more multifaceted and often biased. We are drawn to stories where characters have redeeming qualities or, at the end of some relevant venture, find redemption in an act, thought, or belief. Usually this is something that your average person can relate to; a person coming into the dizzying territory of adopting a sense of selflessness or virtue—maybe making some wrong right. But who can relate to a story where someone who has done something as deplorable as molesting a child strives to find a way to redeem himself? Who even thinks they can sit through a film where this is obviously the end goal? Unfortunately the answer could very well be not many, but The Woodsman, should one feel comfortable enough with their own sense of self, is one of the finest stories about this quest that is not only overlooked, but avoided.

Kevin Bacon takes on the most dynamic role of his career thus far as Walter, a man just released from a 12-year prison sentence for molesting pre-teen girls. He finds work at a lumber yard run by Bob (David Alan Grier), who takes him on simply because he inherited the company and knows that Walter gave years of excellent service to his father. Though he has the jaded look of a man who has obviously come from prison, his coworkers are unaware of his crimes and don't care to pry except for Mary-Kay (played by singer-songwriter Eve), the office secretary who wants to know everyone's business and makes false friends in order to do so. In the midst of his daily routine Walter meets Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick), a spunky blonde struggling to hold her own in a male-dominated field. Her seen-it-all demeanor and harmlessly invasive conversation leads her to be his only confident and, in time, lover.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 11, 2014 2:25pm

The Filth & The Fury

Dir: Julian Temple, 1999. Starring: The Sex Pistols. Documentaries.

“Because the work, at the end of the day, is what matters…and we managed to offend all the people we were f***ing fed up with.”

– Johnny Rotten

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 7, 2014 2:59pm

We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song

Dir: Tom Trbovich, 1985. Documentaries.

Billy Joel famously told Rolling Stone magazine that most of the singers didn’t actually like the song and that “Cyndi Lauper leaned over to him and said, 'It sounds like a Pepsi commercial.'" Of course the song is pretty lame, but the spectacle of the one-night-only super-group, USA For Africa, recording the otherwise forgettable song, “We Are The World,” is one of pop music's most bizarre and fascinating stories. The infomercial/documentary We Are The World: The Story Behind The Song, hosted by Jane Fonda in the same stagey '80s home-video visual style as her hot selling aerobicizing videos, runs at a sparse 52 minutes (though the DVD is packed with extras on two discs), but I could have easily watched three more hours. It’s truly the greatest line-up in music history.

Back in 1984 Bob Geldof of the British band The Boomtown Rats became aware of the horrible starvation going on in Ethiopia and he gathered a bunch of his countrymen (and a few Americans) to record the wonderful little song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Calling themselves Band Aid, the super group was made up of then hot singers including Sting, Bono, George Michael, Phil Collins, Boy GeorgeSpandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Jody Watley, and a couple guys from Kool & The Gang. There were no older British super legends, it was the kids. No Bowie, no Elton John, no Jagger, not even a Ringo Starr. The song helped raise money and brought attention to the issue of African famine and, at the time, was the biggest selling UK single ever.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 27, 2014 4:52pm

Serpico

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 1973. Starring: AL Pacino, John Randolph, Tony Roberts. Drama.

Al Pacino played his first cop in Serpico and, by my count, would go on to do it six more times in Cruising, Sea of Love, Heat, Insomnia, Righteous Kill, and something called The Son of No One. (He’s played a criminal in twice as many films.) It’s fair to say that at the time Serpico was released there had never been an on screen cop like this one. It was Pacino’s most Dustin Hoffman-like performance (back in those days they were compared to each other, for good reason). In Serpico, Pacino seemed shorter than usual, his back was humped, his voice more nasally, and his Elliott Gould mustache early in the film grows into a full on scraggily beard. Serpico was an oddball cop who liked ballet, lived with the freaks in the Village, had a dog instead of a baby, and most weird of all, wouldn’t take a payoff. In New York that was enough to almost get you killed. 

Serpico’s story take place in the '60s, which was a time of unprecedented police brutality. In the South civil rights workers were being abused by cops. In the North racist big city cops were continually harassing black citizens which led to many major uprisings (or riots). Vietnam protesters in Chicago were faced with Gestapo tactics on national television. The film was an unflinching look at the underbelly of a police force that differed so much from the propaganda Hollywood had given us about cops on TV and films for decades. The film was based on the hard-hitting, best-selling biography of Detective Frank Serpico by Peter Maas (King of the Gypsies), with a screenplay by Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy) and Norman Wexler (Saturday Night Fever). The great New York director Sidney Lumet (Network) took over production after John G. Avildsen (Rocky) was fired. Lumet brought his signature grit to the look and, as usual, elicited truthful performances from the cast. 

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 24, 2014 5:49pm

Lady Sings the Blues

Dir: Sidney J. Furie, 1972. Starring: Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor. Black Cinema.

The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.

Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 20, 2014 12:51pm

Rollercoaster

Dir: James Goldstone, 1977. Starring: George Segal, Timothy Bottoms, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda. Cult.

Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.

To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 11, 2014 2:44pm
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