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).
Schatten: Eine Nachtliche Halluzination (Warning Shadows)
Schatten begins with a five minute introduction to the film’s players, who are trotted out like the foils in a police lineup onto an actual stage where they’re identified with intertitles. After this lengthy prologue, the film abandons the use of titles altogether and embraces the purely visual ideal of silent films (predating Murnau’s efforts which are usually credited as the first to do the same.)
In the 19th century, a slightly touched travelling illusionist performs shadow puppetry for the assembled guests at a wealthy baron’s dinner party. The host’s wife is pursued quite unashamedly by four otherworldly effeminate guests who openly and continuously wink and purse their lips. This effrontery quite rankles the woman’s husband (who looks like Orson Welles crossed with Kelsey Grammer). In one scene, the fops appear to grope the baron’s wife in a public ménage a quatre, but it turns out to be shadowplay. If this seems like bad behavior, it’s because it is. And the moral of the puppeteer’s story is brutal. Already confused and disoriented by phantasmagoric shadows, reflections and misleading silhouettes, the puppeteer’s curiously timely tale pushes the partygoers over the edge and the viewer is pulled along with them.Continue Reading
A Disquisition on Magnum P.I., Season 3
Magnum. Magnum, Magnum, Magnum, Magnum. Saying that name, (and for you, gentle reader, seeing it) just makes me feel better.Continue Reading
A Touch of Zen
A Touch of Zen is a 1971 wǔxiá film. Wǔxiá is a type of martial arts film from China which takes place in a mythical golden age or even parallel world (Jiang Hu) wherein fighters attained levels of skill never seen in our time; allowing them to run across water and trees as well as achieve near perfect aim and defensive moves. The plots concern warriors who live by codes of honor based on Buddhist principles which frequently place them at odds with the law enforced by corrupt authorities. The Communist government of China banned the genre in the 20th century, not having to strain hard to see how the genre could be used to attack them. During the reforms of the 1980s, the ban was finally lifted, resulting in more recent, Chinese-produced films wǔxiá films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero or Chen Kaige’s the Promise.
Filming for A Touch of Zen began in 1969 (during the Chinese ban) in Taiwan where, along with Hong Kong, wǔxiá flourished after beginning in silent era. Set in the 14th century, it’s seen through the eyes of Ku, an un-ambitious, nerdy painter who lives with his mother in a decaying, abandoned fort believed by the superstitious locals to be haunted. When the mysterious Yang Hui-Ching crosses his path, he’s immediately smitten with the icy stranger. To his surprise and delight, she beds him and then she fills him in on her background – she’s a fugitive being pursued by a Eunuch named Wei who murdered her father and is now seeking to obliterate her entire family. Ku’s eager to help and, combining his scholarly background and Yang’s out-of-this-world fighting ability, they route her pursuers.Continue Reading
Sword of Doom
大菩薩峠 literally translates to “The pass of the great Buddha” which is a much more evocative and memorable name than the calculatedly generic “Sword of Doom.” Despite being one of my favorite films of all time, I usually get it wrong as it’s so vague and unmemorable. In my (and many others’) opinion, it’s the greatest example of the martial arts sub-genre of chanbara which are Japanese period films focused sword fighting.
The film is based on the serialized, newspaper-published stories written by Buddhist author Kaizan Nakazato beginning in 1913. Over three decades he wrote and published new segments until his death. Sword of Doom isn’t the first time the stories have been adapted for film, but it is the most highly regarded.Continue Reading
Chili Palmer (Travolta) is a Miami shylock who finds himself looking for a new career path in life. While chasing down a collection, Chili encounters a B-movie producer named Harry Zim (Hackman) and his scream-queen star, Karen Flores (Russo). Harry has backed himself into a corner, owning money to a local hoodlum (Lindo), who tries to get a piece of the best script Harry has ever owned. In steps Chili, who loves Tinseltown and decides to become a producer. Chili and Karen approach her ex-husband, mega-movie star, Martin Weir (DeVito), to star in the film.
After a successful career as a cinematographer (Raising Arizona, Misery), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) took his place in the director’s chair. After two successful Addam’s Family films, he brought Elmore Leonard’s bestseller to the big screen.Continue Reading
In 1950s Los Angeles, three cops with very different styles, try solving a multiple homicide. Along the way, they face off against each other, as well as the corruption that runs rampant in the City of Angels.
The screen adaptation by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland (Payback), beautifully translates a very complex multi-layered story, based on the crime novel by James Ellroy. The characterization is very strong, the dialogue is razor-sharp, and the plot structure is intricate, but aptly realized. The two men won an Academy Award for their efforts.Continue Reading
Black Snake Moan
Black Snake Moan opens in the deep, poor South, as “Ronnie” (Timmerlake) leaves to join the Coast Guard. He leaves, in his wake, his white trash girlfriend, “Rae” (Ricci) - a young woman of dubious morals. As soon as his bus has left, Rae falls under “the sickness” and spreads her legs all over the small town. She is left for dead in the middle of the rural countryside, and found by a God-fearing former blues man turned farmer named “Lazarus” (Jackson). He nurses her back to health, keeping her hostage in hopes of curing her wicked ways, with the help of the Lord. In her salvation from sin, he hopes it will also be his own.
This is truly a unique, bizarre, and well-crafted story about a very specific slice of life. Although it takes place in present day, the film feels almost like a work of the 1970s.Continue Reading
Atanarjuat (Fast Runner)
Atanarjuat is set roughly 1,000 years ago in the Inuit village of Igloolik. The plot is based on an ancient legend about a community under the curse of an evil shaman and torn apart by human failings. One man, the heroic Atanarjuat, goes on a Homeric quest and offers change.
The screenplay came from writer Paul Apak Angilirq’s interviews with eight Inuit elders whose stories he combined and fleshed out and added personal touches. Sadly, he died of cancer during production. The film, shot on digital cameras, takes a Dogma-like approach that places the viewer in the middle of the action. The affect is akin to watching a pre-millennial episode of COPS set in the tundra.Continue Reading
There are multiple attitudes through which one can examine the film Radio On. It’s another example of the phenomenon of a film critic becoming a director. Christopher Petit was the editor for the film section of Time Out London from 1973 to 1978, and though he never achieved the notoriety of the Nouvelle Vague directors who once wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, his film career has turned out far better then Roger Ebert (who penned the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) or Susan Sontag (who lost some of her critical credibility for the ill received Duet for Cannibals). Radio On is also a unique British-German coproduction, written and directed by an Englishman, but produced and shot by two Germans, Wim Wenders and Wenders’ ubiquitous cameraman Martin SchÃ¤ffer. The art direction of the film is best compared to David Bowie’s album cover for Low, no coincidence considering Bowie’s “Heroes/Helden” is the song that starts the film. Actually, Radio On might one day be added to the list of films that will be better remembered for their soundtrack’s significance than the film’s cinematic merit. The film makes prominent use of hipster favorites like Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, and Devo, and includes a cameo from Sting in one of his first roles. Now Sting is not a hipster favorite, and probably never will be after boasting of his tantric exploits to multiple media outlets while promoting his adult contemporary hit “Desert Rose” in a slick Jaguar commercial. That doesn’t mean that we should forget Sting is a gifted actor, his performance in Brimstone & Treacle being a particular favorite.
It’s perfunctory to synopsize the plot in any film review, but here it seems somewhat irrelevant. A factory DJ drives to Bristol to investigate the mysterious death of his brother, but the plot is only a pretext for long periods of listening to the radio broadcasting the hip music and chaotic news reports of Northern Ireland bloodshed and conservative outrage that prevailed in Thatcherite England, as well as to look out the window at the excellently photographed landscapes. Once the DJ arrives in Bristol he becomes distracted by a German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) looking for her five-year-old daughter, Alice. This is a clumsy attempt by Wenders to expand the narrative of one of his own characters from his 1974 film Alice in the Cities, where Kreuzer plays a woman who abandons her daughter nine-year-old daughter of the same name. Wenders tries to create an impromptu prequel and belatedly illuminate the viewers of his previous film that Alice’s mother had once traveled to England to search for the child she would subsequently abandon. Considering Radio On is so sensitive to the politics and music of the decade it occupies, it was unwise of Wenders to ignore the glaring asynchronicity of Alice being five in 1980 and nine in 1974.Continue Reading
Set on the cusp of the advertising revolution in 1960s Madison Avenue, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men follows the exploits of the admen at a mid-level firm as its old-fashioned ways are being challenged by the popular onset of the counterculture. Advertising is America’s subterranean cultural history and most of the drama from Weiner’s show comes from contrasting our collective marketed images with the personal reality of his characters as this distinction begins to dissolve. As lead adman Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sits on a train confounded by the new Volkswagen Beetle ad from Doyle Dane Bernbach, you can feel the Age of Schizophrenia coming on. It was no accident that the Beetle became a signifier of the hippies.
William Bernbach’s major innovation was using the anti-consumerist rhetoric of fifties pop culture critics to sell more stuff. Where ads had previously promoted the supposed benefits of some object to the viewing subject, the new advertising began to redefine the subject through the object, emphasizing what that object says about its owner. As the potential buyer began to define himself by the connoted images of his desiderata, homo economicus gave way to homo consumens, man as consumer. That it has become nigh impossible to extricate ourselves from Madison Avenue’s Mephistophelean bargain can be seen by the way product placement serves to make the critique possible. Does it matter if the use of the VW Bug functions as sponsorship or objective correlative? The Marxist critique of capitalism has been reduced to comedic effect by this point – only, we’re the butt of the joke.Continue Reading