Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Rosemary's Baby

Dir: Roman Polanski, 1968. Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer. Mystery/Thriller.

Along with the original versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night Of The Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby was one of the most frightening film-watching experiences of my life. And what really makes Rosemary’s Baby an even more special film is that if you took the "horror" elements out of it and you just had a film about a young couple in New York City in the late '60s it would still be completely entertaining. It’s a great lesson in storytelling: interesting characters first will make the "horror" more powerful.

The perfectly taut screenplay credited to director Roman Polanski follows Ira Levin’s novel almost scene for scene, line for line. There is not a loose shred in the script, which may sound simple enough on paper - newlyweds Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into an old Manhattan building where they become friends with the elderly couple next door (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer). Slowly the pregnant Rosemary begins to suspect that they and their creaky posse are part of a witch’s covenant of devil worshippers who are hungry for her unborn baby.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 21, 2010 2:11pm

Punishment Park

Dir: Peter Watkins, 1971. Cult.

The ability to suspend disbelief is easiest to do when you're watching films about global conspiracies, justice systems, and especially politics. Having movies like this be shot in a documentary style only aids this experience. After seeing this movie, I can honestly say that I haven't been this motivated to discuss politics and justice in a long time, and I'm glad that a film could have the power to stir the pot. Punishment Park is set in 1970, a year before the film's release. Nixon is president and we are currently occupying Vietnam. Due to the war, America is going through a brutish and frightening phase where even a handful of politicians are resigning from office over their disgust with the nation's actions towards its outspoken citizens and the overall progress of mankind. With new laws and the proposed threat of Russia, there has been a complete re-working of the justice system in which American citizens have lost basic freedoms that were once seen as the staple of American life. These new laws include the "cancellation of immunity," stop and frisk laws, activation of detention camps, the ability to overrule basic amendments of the Constitution during trial, and the McCarran Act—a real law developed in the '50s that called for the ability to investigate Americans who posed a threat to national security, and was later dismissed and "revised."

Individuals seen as a threat to national security include those who start riots or do any sort of activism that carries a violent message; those evading or refusing the draft; those charged with Communism; and even a privileged 19-year old whose pop music is accused of having harmful messages and promoting violence. As a particular group of people are being given a ludicrous trial by a bonkers committee of trustees, a batch of people who have already received their own trials are being transported to Punishment Park—the alternative option to a prison sentence after being found guilty.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 15, 2010 4:42pm

Paradise Now

Dir: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005. Starring: Kais Nashif, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, Amer Hlehel. Asian Cinema.

The marriage between religion and politics has no known date. To explore this link with films is to visually investigate the times and reasons for which people intertwine the two in order to make sense of their disrupted lives and societies. Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now is the story of two friends whose lives have been torn apart by institutional violence and injustice. At first glance, they appear to be unaffected by their environment until a commitment made years before manifests the horrific day when they are called upon to become martyrs for a cause that they don't fully understand.

The story takes place in modern times with the Muslim dominated Palestine being in a constant state of war with the Zionist/Jewish society of Israel. Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are two childhood friends who agreed as teenagers to carry out a suicide bombing together for an organization which has been plotting its next attack for over two years. Each man, now in their early twenties, is visited separately by their messenger Jamal (Amer Hlehel) and told that the bombing will happen in less than 24 hours. The two begin saying goodbye to their families in order to prepare for their brief training.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 15, 2010 4:03pm

The Bad News Bears

Dir: Michael Ritchie, 1976. Starring: Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal, Jackie Earle Haley, Vic Morrow. Children's.

I have not seen the remakes of the original The Bad News Bears and its bawdy, sports film cousin, The Longest Yard. And though it stars Billy Bob Thornton, one of my favorite actors of his generation, I just have no interest in it. Knowing what they can and cannot get away with today, I assume the remake pales in comparison. One film, the remake, is a scheme to make money off a brand name, while the original version was created by one of the more underrated, personal filmmakers of the 1970s, Michael Ritchie.

Coming off of the charming teen beauty-pageant comedy Smile (a kinda "Altmany" gem, almost Nashville-light, in need of being rediscovered) and the biting political satire The Candidate, director Ritchie made one of the greatest sports comedies of all time and frankly one of my favorite movies of all time. Though the two horrid sequels, The Bad News Bears In Breaking Training and the even worse, much worse The Bad News Bears Go To Japan may have helped to bring down its reputation, it’s actually much better than you may remember or may have heard. If you’re not a prude about the language it’s a perfect film to introduce to a teenager who’s into baseball or just admires adolescent rebellion and mayhem.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 14, 2010 2:32pm

Sorcerer

Dir: Willam Friedkin, 1977. Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal. Action.

Back in ’77 the film Sorcerer was considered a mega-bomb, both artistically and financially. Coming off the mammoth success of both The French Connection and The Exorcist, it would mark the beginning of an enormous career decline for director William Friedkin. However in retrospect, Sorcerer is one badass action thriller and one of the most underrated films of the '70s.

By the end of the decade many of Friedkin’s peers, that great class of '70s film directors who set a new benchmark with their important and revolutionary films earlier in the decade, seemed to get bitten with the overindulgent bug. After years of hitting it out of the park, a number of these "geniuses" created what were considered duds with would-be epics. Spielberg had the loud 1941, Scorsese made the boring musical New York, New York, Coppola put forth the unwatchable One From The Heart, and Bogdanovich had a string of disasters. And of course Michael Cimino, after the success of The Deer Hunter, would help to sink a whole studio with his artsy Western Heaven’s Gate (which was derided for years, but more recently has found a new wave of critical support). Then it was Friedkin's turn to swing for his home run. For his epic he would do a remake of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's adventure movie, Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages Of Fear). Clouzot had of course also done the greatest French mystery thriller of all time, the more Hitchcockian than Hitchcock Les Diaboliques (Diabolique). Friedkin developed the remake for superstar Steve McQueen to head the international cast. Sorcerer was green-lighted with a budget that in its day made it a big, big event movie. But unfortunately McQueen got sick and then died and the film never made back its bucks. But what ended up on the screen is wildly spectacular filmmaking.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 14, 2010 1:48pm

Wittgenstein

Dir: Derek Jarman, 1993. Starring: Karl Johnson, Clancy Chassay, Michael Gough, Tilda Swinton, Kevin Collins. Cult.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is perhaps one of the more neurotic and bizarre philosophers that I’ve read thus far. Seeing any kind of interpretation of his life and measures of reason would be an oddly enjoyable migraine. Thankfully, our good friend Derek Jarman made a sort of homoerotic comedy that attempts to interpret his life and philosophical debates. I took the risk and gave it a try simply because Jarman himself seems to be a bit of a philosopher (perhaps if he had a favorite, it might be Wittgenstein). In what films I have seen of his, all of them tend to be laden with personal unease from his psyche. In that sense, his films are very exclusive and cater to his beliefs and sexuality. Watching Wittgenstein was sort of like sitting in a room with the director debating various issues and it just so happens that his side of the argument is better served through tangible images, rather than words.

To make a long story short, you might not enjoy Wittgenstein if you don’t care for his philosophy (or philosophy in general), much less a farce of it. Aside from the content, the film’s style might also be off-putting. It’s sort of like a stageless play where everything is set against black, similar to Lars von Trier’s Dogville, but even more minimal in terms of props and stage design.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 7, 2010 6:04pm

Caravaggio

Dir: Derek Jarman, 1986. Starring: Nigel Terry, Dexter Fletcher, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton, Spencer Leigh. Cult/Gay Cinema.

To be considered the "second coming" of anything is a huge weight to carry upon one’s shoulders. Caravaggio is the story of Michelangelo Caravaggio (Nigel Terry), a painter who is seen as the new Michelangelo amongst his supporters, and a priest who discovered him while he was a teenage prostitute. The film shifts between three stages of Caravaggio’s life: his adolescence, his middle-aged years, and finally, his last few days on his deathbed where he dies slowly, in agony and in exile. The entire film is set in a timeless Vienna, part regal and part modern, which seems to be the norm in Jarman’s films.

In his adolescence, Caravaggio (Dexter Fletcher) is a hustler, using his paintings to make extra money on the streets or taking direction from his "guardian" to return home with the male buyers when their interest is not in his paintings. His work is mainly mimetic and consists of still-lifes of fruit or people, and eventually falls into the hands of a priest whose church looks after Caravaggio once he becomes gravely ill for the first time. He then begins a sort of commission for the church in exchange for money and support, ironically or purposefully similar to the late Michelangelo in reality. This sponsorship continues into his adulthood, but his work changes from the simply mimicry of objects and people into the bold representations of them. With each painting, he uses live models to recreate sorrowful, if not gruesome details of the human condition.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 7, 2010 4:42pm

The Day of the Locust

Dir: John Schlesinger, 1975. Starring: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, William Atherton. Drama.

Adaptations of quintessentially L.A. novels tend to either work marvelously, as with L.A. Confidential, or don't quite measure up to their source material (a category I’d lump Ask the Dust into). John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust was a costly misfire for Paramount Studios which spent something like 6 months on the film and a whole lot of dough. It could have been as influential as Chinatown, but it was a flop upon release, though ultimately it had some enduring appeal as a cult film in later years. Nathaniel West’s novel is generally considered to be the very best novel on Hollywood, its more grotesque inhabitants, and its tragic allure as a festering dump where dreams go to die. That makes the novel sound sobering and self-serious but this is a story about fame whores, violently degenerate midgets, sociopathic child actors, cockfights, stag films, and a movie premiere that culminates in the apocalypse. It’s brutally dark and really, really entertaining.

The movie is essentially a literal adaptation of West’s novel and it came under criticism from some quarters for being too literal. Director John Schlesinger was taken to task for supposedly ignoring the arch satire of West's depiction of Hollywood as the epicenter of greed, desperation, and idiocy, and instead ratcheting up the cartoon nihilism to a fever pitch. But when you do a story about America’s pop cultural border town that ends with a murderous orgy of celebrity blood lust I’m not exactly sure "holding back" is the way to go. The Day of the Locust is about a particular kind of American tragedy that West found on Hollywood Boulevard during the 1930s. In the dive bars and diners that lined the boulevard were hundreds of desperate people without a nickel to their name, all drawn to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. Most, West found, couldn’t even get work as extras. He saw them as a mass of human wreckage under the movie premiere kleig lights. The dark joke beneath the glittering dream that Hollywood came to embody was exquisitely rendered by West as it was happening. The film does justice to the novel with its horror show theatrics under the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California and ultimately it’s more creepy than campy.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 7, 2010 11:00am

A Place In The Sun

Dir: George Stevens, 1951. Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters. Classics.

The "American dream." Many of the WWII GIs and their wives thought they were living it. It was the goal. A place of respect in society. Materialism. Love. It was all promised…Or so they thought. The flaws in the dream were gradually exposed throughout the '50s and especially into the '60s. One of the first to do so was the great filmmaker, George Stevens, a WWII vet himself (he shot some of the most important war footage ever recorded, the liberation of Paris and the Nazi camp in Dachau). Using Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, as a springboard, Stevens showed the horror of the ambitious dreamer (it was also made into a rarely mentioned film by Josef von Sternberg in 1931).

What is now considered Stevens' so-called American Trilogy begins with A Place In The Sun and then goes on to include his greatest masterpiece, Shane, and then James Dean’s final film, the overlong Giant. He would follow up the cycle with the touching, but stagy, The Diary Of Anne Frank, in ’59. Unfortunately his disastrous biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, in ’65 would more or less send him into early retirement as a director (he would pop out once more, five years later, for the Warren Beatty snoozer, The Only Game In Town). A Place In The Sun, in retrospect, is the perfect peek into the dark side of America in 1951. George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a modest, steady young man, accepts a job from his rich uncle at a factory. He gets involved with a mousy co-worker, Alice (Shelley Winters), eventually knocking her up, a major inconvenience when he meets and falls for the boss’s wealthy, fast lane daughter Angela (Elizabeth Taylor at her most stunning). The two have an intense chemistry for each other. George gets a taste of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but he is stuck with his whiny pregnant girlfriend who is basically blackmailing him into marriage. George will do whatever it takes to get rid of Alice so he can get his share of what he thinks the world owes him.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 2, 2010 6:14pm

Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974

Dir: Kazuo Hara. Documentary. Japanese.

Ever wish you could meet a strong-willed Japanese feminist from the '70s? Now's your chance. Director Kazuo Hara introduces us to a woman named Miyuki Takeda—his former lover, and one of the most impressive subjects to ever be captured on film. After leaving him and taking their child to travel from mainland Japan to Okinawa, Hara decides that the only way to stay connected with her and understand what happened in their relationship is to document her and those who enter her life after their time together. So from 1972 to 1974, Hara frequents Okinawa to film her, doing so with grace and capturing some amazing footage of locals as well.

In 1972, Miyuki begins a new relationship with a woman named Sugako. His presence throughout this segment caused tension and unease with the couple as their disoriented and sometimes abusive relationship unfolds onscreen. In this section of the documentary we are able to see an enormous transformation with Miyuki. Not only has she decided to abandon all aspects of her personality that would classify her as a "good wife," but also everything and anything that could prevent her or her son from becoming anything short of radical.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 1, 2010 8:29pm
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