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).
The Big Heat
Film noir is a style, genre, atmosphere, whatever, often synonymous with a dizzying amount of plot twists, shadowy visuals, and double and triple crosses interwoven into spider web of a plot. But in some of the most memorable examples of film noir certain filmmakers took a more, well, direct approach. The Big Heat is a lean, stripped down revenge story without the murky lighting and wafting smoke of rotten glamour that permeates many a classic film noir. The visual style is flat, the plot is relatively straightforward, but make no mistake, it’s a film that pulsates with paranoid intensity. Lang would return over and over to the trio of themes best spelled out in the title song of his weird western, Rancho Notorious: “murder, hatred and revenge.” He liked to chronicle the way that an obsessive need for revenge can turn men into that which they despise.
Before Dirty Harry there was The Big Heat’s Sgt. Bannion, an honest cop in a nameless city in the stranglehold of corruption at every level. Bannion doesn’t mince words and takes relish in stepping on the toes of every person he’s not supposed to mess with. A police captain dies under mysterious circumstances. His mistress meets Bannion for a drink and tells him she thinks he was murdered. This sparks Bannion’s investigation into a conspiracy that ensnares almost everyone in power surrounding him. When the mob retaliates in the most horrifically personal way imaginable Bannion’s crusade takes on a deranged quality. He’ll stop at nothing until he takes down Italian dandy crime boss Mike Lagana any way he can. When a ditzy girlfriend of one of Lagana’s thugs decides to help Bannion she becomes just one in a line of many victims whose personal sacrifice for Bannion’s crusade means almost nothing to him.Continue Reading
Samurai Jack Season 3
Admittedly, the show Samurai Jack does not seem worth getting into if giving it a quick glance. What with its child-like premise, silly title, and kind of annoying theme song, it would be easy to pile it together with all the other harmless cartoons that come and go. But to do so would mean to miss out on some of the best writing and certainly best direction, cartoon or otherwise, in the action genre. During its four year run, the story of an ancient samurai thrown into the future followed in the footsteps of other great hero journeys like Star Wars or Conan The Barbarian and reached the height of its potential in the Season Three, two-part episode "Birth of Evil."
Part One begins thousands of years in the past, somewhere in the cosmos, where three gods battle a formless, dark evil. One of the things that Samurai Jack has done so well is prove how gripping a simple good vs. evil story can be. There’s never any doubt in the show who the good guys or bad guys are, which is contrary to so much entertainment that likes to paint too much in gray. Most likely this happens so often for two reasons: one, because it seems more interesting to not know who to cheer for or to sympathize with the villain; and two, because we fear moral absolutes. But stories of good and evil work so well because they go beyond the skeletons in our closets and into a force larger than us, so well depicted in the opening of this show. But unfortunately for the three gods in battle, and the inhabitants of Earth, a tiny piece of this beast breaks off and makes its way toward our home.Continue Reading
Let’s Do It Again
What do you get when you mix funk, hypnosis, boxing, hustlin’ and church? You get Let’s Do It Again, starring the Uptown Saturday Night duo Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier and the ever-hilarious Jimmy Walker, who most know from the TV show Good Times. Apparently, this film is seen as a sort of trilogy with Uptown Saturday Night and A Piece of the Action, but I’ve only seen this one and have yet to blur in other films into its overall plot since it stands up great on its own.
Clyde Williams (Sidney Poitier) and Billy Foster (Bill Cosby) are two friends who desperately want to help their congregation, awesomely named The Brothers and Sisters of Shaka, who are in need of financial aid. In order to keep it from breaking apart, Billy refreshes Clyde’s memory of a time when they harmlessly used Clyde’s solider-derived knowledge of hypnosis to have a little fun and to make him see the advantages of using such a tool to place bets on boxing. The two come to an agreement and take what little money the congregation has in its savings and venture to New Orleans in order to bet on boxers, with the pressing deadline of the congregation's need in mind. There they scout out the most pitiful opponent, Bootney Farnsworth (Jimmy Walker) and hypnotize him into thinking that he is practically invincible. From there they place an astounding bet that Farnsworth will win his match against 40th Street Black. The plan works and the two win boatloads, returning home where they save their congregation and sit on easy street as local heroes, leaving behind angry and street-smart betters who know something fishy has happened.Continue Reading
For the sake of argument, let’s agree that catharsis can come from viewing tragedies. We watch movies circulating around slums and the darkest corners of imagination not only to get a clearer understanding of them but also because we come away feeling a little more alive and grounded in our own circumstances. But there is a unique squalor of America not found anywhere else in the world. A sort of squalor of choice or adaptation where people dwell in their own filth and close-mindedness willingly, and with perceptions that someone forced to live in such a way might not understand. So in response to this catharsis, I’ll be the first to admit that Gummo sort of hit me like a drug. Say, heroin for example. I couldn’t quite grasp what was going on, but in the trailer when I heard Madonna’s voice singing, “In the midnight hour, I can feel your power, just like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there…” over cigar-smoking, cat-torturing youth, a boy in filthy bathwater, a tornado and a happy albino woman dancing in a parking lot, I was pulled into a trial run. But since it also induces a fever-like edge of comedy, I’m going to write this review in the form of a mock prescription.
If you like to be pulled out of yourself in order to see the irony and falsehood of the pursuit of the "American Dream," Gummo might be for you. Set in the tornado-stricken city of Xenia, Ohio, it features the lives of two boys, Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) and Tummler (Nick Sutton), who spend their days killing cats to sell to butchers, riding bikes with mismatched parts, sniffing glue, having sex, and philosophizing about life in an eerie way that only a person living in this reality can. Their town is filled with strange and disturbing people who are rooted so deeply in their own bitterness, racism, and boredom that their actions can only be received as a cult-like unison of abandon and self-destruction. ChloÃ« Sevigny plays Dot, who along with her sisters Darby and Helen, occupy themselves with a benign sense of vanity and seclusion similar to Little and Big Edie in Grey Gardens. Not exactly hard to watch, but still strange.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
Ghosts...of the Civil Dead
"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.Continue Reading
Deliver Us From Evil
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.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
The Parent Trap
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).Continue Reading