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).
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
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a darkly comical rock musical about the trials and tribulations of an East German transsexual songwriter. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, young Hansel was raised by a cowering G.I. father and a cold-hearted German mother. Once grown, he falls in love with an American soldier, who promises to marry him and take him to the states. The one catch is he has to be a woman to flee the country.
Hansel’s sex change operation is blotched and he becomes “Hedwig,” left with only “an angry inch.” Once free of communism, her husband leaves her and she scrapes by babysitting for a military family. The teenage son, Tommy (Michael Pitt), is enchanted with her and they fall in love. That is until he steals her songs and becomes a superstar known as “Tommy Gnosis.”Continue Reading
Mr. & Mrs. Smith
After five or six years, John and Jane Smith find themselves in a marriage gone stale. That is until a little spice is thrown into the mix, and they come to realize they are both professional assassins, working for rival outfits.
In Doug Liman’s (Swingers, Bourne Identity) Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play the suburban couple with some serious skeletons in their closest. The film opens as the couple seeks marriage counseling and it becomes clear that the passion has all but drained from their love life. But when they are both sent out to neutralize the same target, their gun sights become turned on each other, with good comic effect.Continue Reading
Frederick Wiseman (various films)
Frederick Wiseman is one of those great filmmakers whose entire body of work has been virtually unseen by the fast majority of film lovers, even documentary nerds. That’s because for nearly 30 years, Wiseman has been “unsure” of the marketing of his films to the public. I was lucky enough to see two of Wiseman’s classics, Titicut Follies and High School at my local college library - they had a terrible VHS duplicate made from an old 16mm print. Even in these poor conditions, I was sure that Wiseman was one of my favorite filmmakers and that these films were two of the greatest documentaries I had seen or would ever see.
Titicut Follies is definitely the most well known and controversial of Wiseman’s films. Shot in 1967, the film explores the lives and living conditions of inmates at the State Prison for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The film was banned for nearly 25 years because of state privacy laws enforced by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Apparently, psychiatrists and social workers frowned upon seeing themselves on the silver screen humiliating, torturing, and straight up bullying the mentally insane and catatonic.Continue Reading
Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales
French New Wave director Eric Rohmer possessed a literary side not to be ignored. He wrote Six Moral Tales before he became a director. The six stories, included in the DVD box set, are perceptive modern age sensibilities dripped with moral reservations. They end without euphoric conclusions; more of wordless losses or gains, and yet that is the charm of them. They leave you with a sense of discomposure, like dreams cut off at the strangest moment, trailing into a world of thoughts nestling within oceans of principled questions.
This literary side of Rohmer's became a flourishing group of work when, upon entering the world of filmmaking, he decided to turn them into films. Each film in its own entitlement has a unique feel and purpose. When placed within a collective, the themes are stronger, more contemplative, and the characters more complicated in the tangle of moral dilemmas. And the films are steady, paced as humanly possible. These stories are vignettes of French young life in the 60s and early 70s through the eyes of Rohmer, who delightfully posits philosophical and intellectual challenges with the characters' accounts. Also notable is his careful style that is subtle and devoid of classic cinema's devices – lacking non-diegetic music, avoiding the full-face close-up, engaging the viewer in a character's everyday lifestyle, etc.Continue Reading
Moving pictures concerning WWII concentration camps have a tendency to romanticize the subject matter, and probably for good reason. But since Polanski experienced it for himself, the film naturally becomes personal for the viewer. The Pianist is filled with raw intensity and beautiful storytelling. Instead of focusing on the account of such an incredible turning point of world history, Polanski chooses to emphasize human character, conditions, flaws and strengths.
The story is based on the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jewish pianist who performed for Polish Radio and composed classical and popular music. His survival in the Holocaust is an incredible and moving tale. There is no way to define the tragedies of the Nazi march through Poland in any simple terms, but here is a film that depicts an intimate portrait of one who has traversed the witnessing of human death, loss of career, home, and family, and the persecution among his own race.Continue Reading
Beshkempir is a simple entwicklungsroman set in Bar-Boulak, Krygyzstan in 1960. It begins with a scene in which an infant is passed between women over a colorful rug. The women ritualistically intone, "This is not my son, this is not my son, but may his path in life be full of joy!" He is swaddled and placed into a cradle alongside a wooden bowl and a set of asiks (dice made from the knee bones of a lamb). They name him Beshkempir and he is taken in by a childless couple. From here on, we witness a world dominated by women and focused on children. The possible implication is that many of the Kyrgyz men died fighting for the Soviet Union in World War II. What few men are present usually are engaged in solitary activities like fishing or drinking vodka. The different generations of women seem to preserve the link to both the past and the future.
The film then jumps ahead 12 years to Beshkempir’s onset of puberty and is from here on is mostly shot in stark, poetic black & white. Beshkempir’s adoptive parents are strangely distant and reserved. Only his grandmother is openly affectionate. As a young man, Beshkempir’s attention is now divided between work, his friends and a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. He and his friends eagerly spy on a woman bathing. Beshkempir and his best friend become interested in their neighbor, Aynura. Tempers flare and during a fight Beshkempir learns that he’s adopted. His father hits him for his role in the embarrassing situation and the boy runs away. He returns following a death in the family and is thrust further into adulthood as he is put in the position of settling the deceased’s earthly affairs.Continue Reading
Takeshi Kitano’s directorial works are often separated into two strains where the considerable overlap is conveniently ignored in favor of an artificial dichotomy. On the one hand we have the explosively violent yet introspective crime dramas like Sonatine (ソナチネ), Hana-bi (花-火), and Boiling Point (３－４Ｘ１０月). Less widely seen (and therefore wrongly characterized) are his quiet, contemplative mood-pieces like A Scene at the Sea (あの夏、いちばん静かな海), Kikujirō no Natsu (菊次郎の夏) and Kids Return (キッズ・リターン). Dolls is usually placed in the latter camp or as an anomaly as its mixture of familiar ingredients (watching the ocean, yakuza, explosive violence, stoic acceptance of tragedy) from both strains is impossible to ignore.
In the first story, Matsumoto spurns his girlfriend Sawako to marry another woman, at his parents’ insistence. Sawako loses both her mind and ability to take care of herself as a result. Matsumoto attempts to fix things by binding himself to her with a red cord. Together they wordlessly wander through stunning, artificial landscapes of amazing beauty steeped with sadness.Continue Reading
Lars and the Real Girl
Here it is. Weird and definitely not what anyone was expecting but the next film to grace our local cable stations every day twice a day from Thanksgiving to Christmas and beyond will be Lars and the Real Girl. That is until some billionaire tycoon buys the darn thing and only lets it play once a season in order to preserve it. Thanks for ruining Christmas, billionaire tycoon. It's a Wonderful Life aside, Lars has all the charm, pathos, and even menace of its classic predecessor. Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a goofy under achiever who has seems happy enough in his quirky solitude despite his sister-in-law's maternal pressing for more social interaction. He is liked and respected at work, in the community and has even inspired a crush by the new girl in his office.
Not until he introduces his Internet girlfriend, Bianca, a Brazilian missionary raised by nuns, do we realize his situation is more dire than that of a solitary bachelor. Bianca is a life sized doll made to order and anatomically correct. In Lars' mind she is also a real person. His delusion is complete and Gosling's performance so nuanced that her side of conversations are filled in by your own imagination. At once Lars' brother and sister-in-law seek help as Lars' fragility becomes utterly apparent. The stunning absurdity of the situation filmed with a cunning honesty and a soundtrack that plays at a love story but weaves the underlying sadness from Lars over Bianca and subsequently, the audience, makes it inevitable that we write the dialog and story between them. Disturbing? Maybe, but Lars is loved and protected by the entire community. Not since It's a Wonderful Life has a township been portrayed with such fun and affection. Lars has touched all of them somehow, if only by finally being himself in the midst of his sadness.Continue Reading