Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Ghostwatch

Dir: Lesley Manning, 1992. Starring: Imports

It’s hard to talk about the scariest movie of all time, just like it’s hard to talk about the funniest. Once you claim what it is people will have every other horror movie they’ve ever seen to compare it to and since the title of "scariest" is so subjective it all comes down to each person's experience. So in this case, I must go past personal experience and try to somehow justify why Ghostwatch scared me more than anything.

Over the last couple of years a lot of "found footage" movies have popped up. Some have been great and some have not, but all of them are outdated by Ghostwatch. In 1992 on Halloween, the BBC aired a special program about the most haunted house in England. News reporters were to take you inside and show you what ghostly goings-on were taking place and supposedly, while it was airing, a massive terror spread through England as children and adults alike thought that what they were watching was real. But it was not. It was a totally fictional program about a mother and her two daughters who were haunted by an old tenant that the children call Mr. Pipes (after their mother tells them that the noises they are hearing are just the pipes rattling). But once the media shows up, Mr. Pipes isn’t too happy and decides that if what they want is terror, then that’s what they’ll get.

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Posted by:
Eric Branscum
Mar 18, 2010 11:53am

Ghosts...of the Civil Dead

Dir: John Hillcoat,1988. Starring: David Field, Nick Cave, Dave Mason. Imports.

"You can only push a man so far before he pushes back," proclaims one of the more orderly prisoners in John Hillcoat’s Ghosts…of the Civil Dead. This line is one I’m sure I’ve heard dozens of times in films, but never more fully realized as when the violence and tension in the prison in which the film is set reaches a sort of chaotic resolution. The character in question is one of two prisoners whom the audience meets right at the start of the film, both of whom act as a common man that represent the two paths one is headed for when stuck in such an environment. One leads to murder and the other to suicide. And that’s not to say these are respectable people who don’t deserve their time in jail (we never discover what they are in for), but as the same aggressions and fears begin to show up in the guards' behavior, something clearly needs to change.

Apparently based on real events, Ghosts is an account of the events in a prison that lead to a total lockdown, confining the inmates entirely within their cells, and then to deathly acts of violence. Working as a sort of visual diary, we are taken through a series of seemingly unconnected events that, while not forming a narrative, show a clear route for the derangement that evolves. One such evolution is how physical recreation changes as prisoners continually take advantage of what freedoms are given them. First, the outdoor areas are closed off after a stabbing, restricting exercise to indoors, and then a fence is put up to further constrain them. This literal cage, as several of them point out, only solidifies their belief that they are no better than animals. Obviously prison is just a big cage anyway and the film isn’t trying to humanize clearly deranged people, but if something is clearly broken, it must need fixing. Sure the film doesn’t offer any easy answers but it is most certainly asking hard questions about what potentially is in all of us.

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Posted by:
Eric Branscum
Mar 18, 2010 11:39am

Deliver Us From Evil

Dir: Amy Berg, 2006. Documentary.

You don’t have to have or understand religion in order to understand spirituality. Most everyone has a source of reason or a spirit of life that feeds our quest for a healthy existence and is the foundation of our morals. Whether it comes from deities or an inner muse, every person who decided to remain a part of this world has their own way of defining purpose. Deliver Us From Evil deals with the corruption of such spirituality in the Catholic Church.

This is a brave and gut-wrenching documentary about the corruption of faith among the youth and families of several parishes in California. It touches on a sickening truth - that some years ago, the Catholic Church re-formed its guidelines which allowed a priest to get married and have children, as the resulting male sons would inherit his assets instead of the church. Now removed from the option of finding romantic adult peers, an alarming number of Catholic hierarchy, many of whom were sexually abused in childhood, now see children as their sexual peers.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 16, 2010 3:52pm

Citizen King

Dir: Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, 2004. Documentary.

The story of the Civil Rights Movement was almost made for television. It was done in front of TV cameras and acted out for the the television news audience. Much of the time the goal was shining a light on the abuse black Americans were suffering at the hands of the racist Southern political structure. Unfortunately, unlike say, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement does not have a very long list of important films about it. There have been solidly crafted films like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, but like most of them it’s actually about white people (the FBI v.s. the KKK. Now remind me again, which side are we supposed to root for?). Ironically, the best film inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement is a foreign one, Bloody Sunday, the Paul Greengrass docudrama about the massacre of Irish protesters by British troops.

The epic PBS documentary series, Eyes On The Prize, has become the bible of everything you could ever want to know about the Civil Rights Movement, but unfortunately due to licensing and rights issues, it has gone out of print on VHS and is only now available for educators. Luckily two of its producers, Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, also wrote and directed Citizen King for the PBS series, American Experience. And at under two hours it manages to tell a lot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. story with the perfect mix of archive footage and talking heads.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 16, 2010 2:09pm

Monster’s Ball

Dir. Marc Forster, 2001. Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger, Mos Def. Drama.

It is a treat and a privilege to see the work of actors and directors that are versatile and consistent. Director Marc Forster has had an interesting approach to portraying damage within people, families, and romantic relationships. In movies like Stay, The Kite Runner, and Finding Neverland, we can see examples of his attempts to unify an audience with stories and feelings that no one is exempt from. But when Monster’s Ball was presented, featuring an extraordinary cast and controversial subject matter, I was more than eager to see what all the buzz was about. To say that it did not disappoint would be an understatement.

The story seems simple: two strangers meet and become romantically involved. But here is the not so simple part. Halle Berry gives an Oscar-winning performance as Leticia, a waitress who lives on the brink of eviction with her son who has a lifelong struggle with obesity. Her ex-husband Lawrence, wonderfully played by Sean Combs, is within 72 hours of execution on death row. Billy Bob Thornton plays Hank, a corrections officer specializing in assisting prisoners on death row and currently is assisting Lawrence’s last days. He lives with his son Sonny (Heath Ledger), who is also in the same profession, and his father (Peter Boyle) who retired from the same profession. His life circulates with racism, ritual, unease, bitterness, and abuse. The two meet in the most unconventional way when Leticia’s son is struck during a hit-and-run and Hank later witnesses them in distress and escorts them to the hospital where the boy is pronounced dead. From there a consuming and aggressive romance begins to unfold.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 15, 2010 3:59pm

The Parent Trap

Dir: Nancy Meyers, 1998. Starring: Lindsay Lohan, Dennis Quaid, Natasha Richardson. Kids.

Let me just play my cards right now...On a lazy Sunday morning I was lying on the couch watching something called “The Family Channel” and BAM I became completely absorbed watching the 1998 remake of Disney's 1961 sorta-classic, The Parent Trap. Wow. I was blown away by it. And even with this Family Channel berating me with commercials (a 127-minute movie shown in a three hour slot), I was completely sucked in and moved by it.

Yeah-yeah, you know the deal...Two long lost identical looking little girls run into each other at summer camp. After some minor conflicts they realize that they're related, twin sisters to be exact. And then they hatch a plan to switch places in an effort to get their estranged parents back together and live briefly in the other's shoes. Before you scoff, let me remind you Shakespeare toyed with these same kinds of plots all the time (no, really, he did).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 15, 2010 2:32pm

Death Of A President

Dir: Gabriel Range, 2006. Mystery/Thriller.

It goes without saying that during the 8-year term of former President Bush, many activists, parents and the general public alike had little to no trouble expressing their anger and disappointment with the balance and well-being of the United States. Death Of A President, an astounding mockumentary on the successful assassination of President Bush, would then seem to be a sort of outlet in cinema of the events leading to and following the ultimate display of anarchy towards any government. But this is not the message behind this film. If anything, it simply asks that you both pay attention to the policies and laws that govern us as a people, and think twice about taking matters into one’s own hands.

The film opens with a certain anxiety, looking over industrial buildings while listening to an Arab woman’s voice off-screen. The point of her dialogue is to stress consequences. Her husband, Jamal Abu Zikri, is an IT professional of Syrian descent who has become the prime suspect among a line of other Middle-Eastern men in the assassination of the President. She knows he is innocent and cannot fathom how someone could commit such an act without knowing that it might lead not only to the end of the President’s life, but also to the end of government as we know it and the downfall of many other innocent people.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 9, 2010 5:17pm

The Thin Blue Line

Dir: Errol Morris, 1988. Documentary.

Two men are in prison for the rest of their lives. One is Randall Dale Adams, an average man who appears rational, patient, and has had no distinct trouble with the law. The other is David Ray Harris, a young and destructive delinquent on death row after many years of trouble with the law. On November 28, 1976 their paths crossed in an act of gratitude and friendlessness when Adam had car trouble and the then 16-year-old Harris offered him a ride. By morning, a police officer would be shot dead and the trial to decipher which of them is guilty is enough to plot an entire trilogy of thrillers.

Documentaries are a strange breed of cinema, outlined by rules and guidelines set forth in order to produce "cinéma-vérité." This quest to give the audience "truth" leaves absolutely no room for bias, or theatrics for that matter. That is of course until Errol Morris came through with The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that successfully argues the innocence of a man and eventually leads to his release. After all, once you put a camera up to any situation, you are in some ways distorting truth. Morris simply adds reenactments and colorful visuals to the frame in order to give an appropriate feel to a film documenting a crime and the lousy justice department that attempts to solve it.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 8, 2010 4:55pm

A Chinese Odyssey Part One - Pandora's Box

Dir: Lan Chun Wai, 1994. Starring: Stephen Chow, Athena Chu. Asian Cinema

Not too long ago the DVDs for A Chinese Odyssey Parts One and Two came into Amoeba. From the brief once-over I gave the boxes, they looked like they might be interesting and worth checking out. Both starred Stephen Chow, they are Hong Kong fantasy films, and they were only $4.99 each. I wanted to do a little more research to see if they were worth my time and money and quickly made my way to the internets to see if I could find a trailer. Which of course I did. The trailer for Part One has fleeting glimpses of a half man/half monkey as well as a half man/half pig. People were flying across the sky, women were turning into spiders, and I think I even saw a giant bull. As I was watching this my reaction was a quiet, “Oh, this looks pretty good.”

…NO! What is wrong with me!? A movie about a half man/half monkey and his pig friend flying and fighting and doing magic cannot be described as looking "pretty good." It looks absolutely crazy is what it looks like! And this was the moment that I realized that I have truly gone off the cinematic deep end. Because I love Kung Fu movies. And I watch a lot of them. So much so that my brain can no longer recognize something like this as silly but instead as totally awesome…which it is.

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Posted by:
Eric Branscum
Mar 8, 2010 12:09pm

Public Enemies

Dir: Michael Mann, 2009. Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard. Action.

As this year’s Academy Awards approaches I find myself trying in vain to understand how Public Enemies didn’t garner a single Oscar nomination. The film was gorgeous to look at, featured a career-best performance from Johnny Depp, and avoided the cliché-ridden territory of the period piece biopic for something more ambiguous and relatively challenging. Was that why the film was a relative critical and box office disappointment? Clearly the film did not satisfy as Summer blockbuster entertainment. Universal Pictures didn’t quite know how to market the film and seemingly tried to sell it almost like a comic book adaptation a la The Dark Knight with a larger-than-life image of Depp in a trench coat and fedora, shotgun at his side, stretching the length of office buildings on the huge banner posters that draped L.A. prior to the film’s release. It didn’t work to sell the film because the film they were selling wasn’t exactly the movie that we got. It’s a movie with beautifully shot bank robberies, shootouts rendered in symphonic splendor, and plenty of compelling narrative, but somehow in its fly-on-the-wall approach to following Dillinger it left audiences cold.

That aforementioned coldness works both ways. Public Enemies is downright frosty and it’s to Michael Mann’s credit that he refuses to overdramatize the life of an infamous gangster in all-too-familiar ways. Let me explain myself. Mann gives us a completely new kind of period film. He junks the typical sepia-toned melodrama approach and instead, with his digital cameras, creates something immediate, taking us out of the realm of nostalgia and into a real world scenario that actually feels dangerous instead of merely nostalgic. If you are willing to accept the worthiness of this approach it is completely thrilling.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 4, 2010 2:24pm
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