Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers & Their Times

Dir: Peter Jones & Mark A. Catalena, 2009. Starring: Dorothy Chandler, Harry Brant Chandler, Norman Chandler. Documentaries.

It drives me crazy when people say that Los Angeles has no history. I have no idea what that means because I don’t think I’ve ever been to an American city as steeped in its illustrious glittering and haunted past as L.A. It’s a history that is certainly taken for granted and poorly managed—it seems every year brings with it another historic landmark that bites the dust here—but the city (and really the entire country) have been so shaped by L.A.’s past that you will never be able to exorcise all the ghosts here. There are too many of them. And the people who ran the city from its inception made decisions whose results we are still burdened with today.

The Chandler family and their paper, The Los Angeles Times, are a good example of this. From the very beginning the paper was designed as a mouthpiece for the voice of Harrison Gray Otis, an ardent capitalist who used the paper to prop up his friends in the business community and attack his enemies from the world of labor. By using The Los Angeles Times as a forum for attacking unions Otis helped ensure that L.A. would have a cheap supply of labor without threat of these workers organizing. When a group of union members bombed the L.A. Times building and killed scores of Times employees Otis became that much more virulent in his crusade against organized labor. (You can see a monument to the workers who died in the blast erected just after it happened in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.)

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 21, 2010 11:12am

Malcolm X

Dir: Spike Lee, 1992. Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Spike Lee, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr. Black Cinema.

Spike Lee’s films have always been hit or miss for me. I grew up watching them, as they were fictitious and familiar depictions of African-Americans, but for the longest time I fell just short of pleased with his work. Forgive me for going on a tangent, but I feel the need to cite the differences and subject matter of some other Spike Lee Joints before raving about this one.

The first Lee film I saw was Crooklyn, and it is perhaps the only other that I am fond of. In short, it is an energetic, sometimes melancholic film about a family in Brooklyn—more or less through the eyes of the couple’s only daughter in their large brood. Overall, the movie is harmless, though it deals softly with substance abuse and death, but it’s a little too gentle; it held up when I was a child, but lost flavor for me in adulthood. This criticism does not translate to it being a bad film, but rather anticlimactic. Another that comes to mind is Jungle Fever—a ballsy film about two co-workers (black male/white female) who become lovers despite their committed relationships. The movie unfolds with over-the-top characters and events, ultimately making it very black and white, both literally and figuratively. I remember being unmoved by the assumed dangers and taboo thrills of biracial lust. It disappointed me then, and it does now. Do The Right Thing, while it is Lee’s most popular and acclaimed work, still reminds me of the misdirected angst that would follow its release in the form of riots. Obviously the film is not to blame, but in times of such hostility, you'd think a message geared toward working together would be better suited and more universal. Its deadpan racist rants (common among his Italian and Black characters) hit you over the head so hard that it almost begs you to choose sides, if not fails to deliver a clear message.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 19, 2010 6:38pm

The Cable Guy

Dir: Ben Stiller, 1996. Starring: Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Leslie Mann, Jack Black. Comedy.

Like a paranoid science-fiction film from the '70s, The Cable Guy pretends to be about the threat of technology and America's addiction to television. In the mid 1990s, was the developing "information super-highway" a potentially scary thing? This was Ben Stiller's directional follow up to Reality Bites, his would-be Gen-X anthem, and they both play almost like period pieces now. The Cable Guy's underlying messages may not be very convincing, but as a showcase for Jim Carrey's insane performance it hits its mark perfectly.

With TV's In Living Color Carrey had become a comedy name, but with the surprise hit, the messy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and its even lazier sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, he became a box office super star. With his rubber face and goofy physical comedy in films like The Mask and later Dumb & Dumber Carrey he was also becoming popular with the kiddies. Though he had played a villain with some great physicality as The Riddler in the otherwise forgettable Batman Forever, it surprised many audience members when he popped up in '96 in such a dark and mean-spirited comedy as The Cable Guy. (His $20 million paycheck at the time also got a lot of flack from those audiences who fret over actors' salaries.)

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 19, 2010 5:57pm

The Great Mouse Detective

Dir: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, 1986. Starring: Vincent Price, Burny Mattison, David Michener, John Musker. Children's.

Do you like Sherlock Holmes? What about rodents, British royalty, or old-timey pubs? Whatever your age, and whatever your tastes, I can assure you that this is grimmest and most interesting Disney animated classic, ever. I say this because it not only feeds the comic and suggestive needs for adults, but also prepares the kiddies for better tastes in terms of cinematic experiences. I watched it the other night and was shocked at how it not only pays an excellent homage to Noirs and Sherlock Holmes stories, but also because it has a fresh and almost foreign plot. Disney films, both animated and live-action, have the most success if they flaunt an all-American glow, as in ultra-feminine ladies or heroic male characters, young boys with man’s best friend, etc. It comes as no surprise that this movie was sort of lost among all the others, possibly for its heavy risqué tones (like a drunkard bat, seedy pubs, and champagne fountains), and for the fact that it is sort of like a British comedy—you either love it, or you don’t care for it at all.

But if you think that today’s youth are simply too informed or sensitive about the vices of adults, you can watch it yourself and have a great laugh based on its wit alone. Basil of Baker Street is a mouse detective who helps get to the bottom of the most ludicrous cases. One day a toymaker is kidnapped by a peg-legged bat and taken into the underbelly of London. His distressed child, Olivia, is found by Dr. David Q. Dawson and brought to Basil of Baker Street, the Sherlock Holmes of London's talking rodents. Together these three discover that  the toymaker has been captured by Basil’s archenemy—the evil Professor Ratigan (with the voice of Vincent Price). Their journey through the "twists and turns" of Ragitan's territory is designed both to save the toymaker and to figure out why he captured him for evildoing in the first place. Ratigan’s world is full of thugs with mustaches, scantily clad "dancing" mice ladies, tons of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and even roofies. Once Basil finally confronts Ratigan and his posse of beefy rats like him, things get more than complicated. Ratigan’s use for the toymaker involves well-crafted diversions and a series of traps in order to assassinate the Queen and take over rodent London once and for all.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 14, 2010 1:45pm

Stalag 17

Dir: Billy Wilder, 1953. Starring: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Peter Graves. War Movies/Classics.

Stalag 17 is flawed, but entertaining Billy Wilder. It’s not in the great director’s top tier, which would include Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot. Some might put The Apartment in that top group, but I would put it in the second group with Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution, and Stalag 17 (that third level of his films is also still very interesting and might include One, Two, Three, The Major And The Minor, Kiss Me, Stupid, Sabrina, and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes).

Stalag 17 is the story of WWII American soldiers, prisoners of war in a Nazi camp, based on a popular play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. In recent years there was talk that director Spike Lee was going to restage it on Broadway with British actor Clive Owen, but it never happened. The film adaptation by director Wilder and Edwin Blum is said to follow the stage version pretty closely. It’s been made less stagy by opening it up, out of the barracks and into the camp around them. The POWs live a boring and cramped life, working whenever possible to put one over on their German captors. One POW, Sefton (William Holden), is an "operator" trading favors with the guards, running a still and a betting track. He is a survivor, in it for himself. When he places bets against his fellow Americans it alienates him from his prison mates even more.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 14, 2010 1:19pm

Matilda

Dir: Danny DeVito, 1996. Starring: Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris. Children’s.

There will always be films that cater to the loners of society (or at least those who are disappointed by life's inability to provide them with peers and/or a family who compliment their personalities). Looking back on my own childhood, I remembered and recently re-watched one of my favorite movies that deals with such displacement. Matilda, directed and narrated by Danny DeVito, is a touching and colorful little tale about a young girl whose intellect and class does not exactly mesh well with her scheming couch potato family. The author of the book upon which the movie is based, Roald Dahl, is also the author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, which would explain the imaginative story.

Matilda’s father, Harry Wormwood (Danny DeVito), is a car salesman who prides himself on the various "lemons" and shabby mechanical restorations he sells to the townspeople. Her mother, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), is a complete ditz, and her older brother is a chubby tyrant. From birth Matilda was visibly quite spectacular, though her family was too absorbed in their programs and TV dinners to appreciate their new infant who could spell her name before walking. As time goes on, she begins to nurture herself completely and meet her desires for brain food by frequenting the local library. By four, she has learned to dress herself and cook and becomes anxious and upset at the fact that she can’t put any of her talents to good use.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 12, 2010 7:46pm

The Godfather

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1972. Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton. Drama.

If you watch any of the terrific documentaries on films of the last fifty years (The Kid Stays In The Picture, A Decade Under the Influence, Visions Of Light, etc) you will notice there is ONE film that comes up over and over, its influence and success massive, the impact it had on the public and the industry indescribable. If you polled people, I bet it would make as many favorite ten-best lists as any other movie. If I happen upon it on TV I set sucked right in. It's the Gone With The Wind of its time.... Yes, you know what we are talking about, The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.

Of course this is the epic story of a post-WWII Italian American family. Vito, the Patriarch (Marlon Brando), is the head of the Corleone crime organization. The film opens at the wedding of his daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). His oldest son, Fredo (John Cazale), is a rather weakly type. His next son, Sonny (James Caan), a hothead womanizer, is the heir to take over the business. There is also an adopted Irish American son, Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), who works as the family’s lawyer. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is there with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). He is not part of the family business; as a collage graduate and a "war hero" there are expectations for greatness cast upon him. In a nutshell, The Godfather is a tale about how Michael evolves from clean-cut, all-American wanna-be to the head of the family when his father dies and his brother Sonny is murdered. And he ends up becoming even more ruthless than his father ever was.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 12, 2010 12:29pm

Hollywood Canteen

Dir: Delmer Daves, 1944. Starring: Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, The Andrews Sisters, Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown. Musicals.

A great tradition which essentially disappeared when the studio system collapsed was what one might call the variety film. The variety film was a kind of cinematic vaudeville show—a hodgepodge of comedy bits, some singing, dancing, and whatever else a cast of players under contract could fill out the average running time of a movie with. They were goofy, hurried, made on the cheap, and meant to be light entertainment. A great example of this would be International House (1933), a film about a hotel in "Woo-Hoo" China where W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Cab Calloway all cross paths in very silly ways.

A variety film with the same spirit as International House but with more urgent purpose was Hollywood Canteen which chronicled a day spent at the famous club for GIs during World War II. The Hollywood Canteen originally came to exist through the efforts of Bette Davis and what she created with it really represented Hollywood at its best. From its opening day the Canteen was staffed with movie stars who volunteered their time nightly to serve GIs coffee and donuts or sign autographs. Girls came to dance with GIs and it was possible to see famous orchestras or comedians on a nightly basis there. Hollywood Canteen was made at Warner Brothers and the film features an all-star cast of contract players at the studio during the mid-1940s. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the entertainment world of the time with delightful cameos from everyone from Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, and Joan Crawford to Jane Wyman, John Garfield, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Roy Rogers, the Andrew Sisters, and many more.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 9, 2010 12:05pm

E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial

Dir: Steven Spielberg, 1982. Starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore, Robert MacNaughton. Science-Fiction.

Despite one of the worst movie titles ever, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial produced one of the most exceptional films about a child’s alienation from the adult world and the power of love, and is certainty on par with The Wizard Of Oz as an entertaining family film with much deeper meanings below the surface. Its massive success - at one time the highest grossing movie of all-time - brought on a wave of imitative clones (many produced by its director Steven Spielberg). But as the years and the hoopla have passed, it can now be enjoyed for what it is - irresistible.

An awkwardly adolescent suburban kid named Elliott (Henry Thomas), along with his younger sister and older bother (Drew Barrymore and Robert MacNaughton), are dealing with their preoccupied mother’s recent divorce from their father. She is played by Dee Wallace who went on to play the mother protecting her son from a psycho pooch in Cujo. Elliott comes upon a stranded space alien in his backyard whom he conveniently names E.T. (short for "Extra-Terrestrial," get it?). Employing his bro and sis they join the cute E.T on his quest to be reunited with his fellow spacemen, while having to hide him from their mom and the scary government officials who are searching for him. Oh, and earth's rotten atmosphere is slowly destroying him.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 6, 2010 3:55pm

Puppets & Demons

Dir: Patrick McGuinn, 1997. Short Films.

Several works from filmmaker Patrick McGuinn (Sun Kissed, Eulogy for a Vampire) are collected in this delightful DVD. Below are descriptions of the shorts featured, many of them done with 16mm film and Claymation, and later with digital video once the technology became available.

 

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 6, 2010 3:31pm
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