Cashback

Dir: Sean Ellis, 2006. Starring: Sean Biggerstaff, Emilia Fox, Michael Dixon, Michael Lambourne. Comedy.

This is not a movie about love. This is a movie about eros and the comedy of the daily grind. The difference between love and eros seems to be in the history of the words and the reactions from them. Love is fresh, tender, and pleasant—it changes you and, for many, it is a lifelong quest. You can fall into it and be unfolded by it and, for some, it is something that can fade. Eros is inescapable and erotic. It is the poison at the end of cupid's arrow and reminds me of hot phrases like "engulfed in fire." That's not what the word literally means, but more of my metaphorical picture of it. Once known in Greek mythology as the God of Love, eros is now a universal word describing a deep and sickening sense of affection toward beauty (however you define it), and it is exactly this force that has captured and unhinged this movie's lead character.

Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) has just suffered a grueling breakup, equipped with a ceramic mug and IKEA lamp being thrown at his head and the loneliness that soon followed. But the objects that became tools for abuse are not the last of his worries. Shortly after splitting with his first girlfriend Suzy, he becomes a full-fledged insomniac and is in awe at the fact that he now has eight extra hours in each day to do whatever comes to mind. At first the insomnia is simply frustrating, though it allows him to read and re-read everything he has ever wanted to finish and work hard in his first year of art school. After shopping for snacks in aisle 8 of the Sainsbury supermarket, he notices a "now hiring" sign and decides to "waste" his extra eight hours of nighttime working.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 10, 2010 5:56pm

Computer Chess

Dir: Andrew Bujalski, 2013. Starring: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gordon Kindlmann, Gerald Peary. Comedy.

American independent cinema has been ghettoized and marketed into a certain type of cinema. Popular types of independent films include low budget digital cinematography about post-collegiate confusion or Indiewood films about “quirky” relationships and situations involving beautiful losers. It's a sea of films that has flooded festivals like SXSW or Sundance that leave great works of independent cinema behind in the dust. So it’s a grand pleasure to have Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess emerge out of Sundance, a film that openly breaks these stereotypes and proves that American independent cinema can be exciting, experimental and even fun.

Taking place sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, several groups of professional, amateur and student programmers meet at a motel to compete in a computer chess tournament where computers are pitted directly against one another to see which program has the most advanced AI. But this is almost just an excuse (a mundane MacGuffin?) for a film that takes leaps into computer philosophy, surrealism and hippie hedonism. Bujalski steps out of his comfort zone of painful, singular character based comedies shot on 16mm with a pastiche shot on low-grade video on a Sony AVC3260 (never a gimmick, but an integral part of the aesthetic and feel). Lesser filmmakers would lament and moan about the use of such an anti-cinematic camera and look, but Bujalski and his excellent regular cinematographer Matthias Grunsky revel in it with jump cuts, bad split screen, video errors, and unsynced sound and light that smears like old live television. The first minute or two of Computer Chess start as a faux-documentary with programmers speaking into mics directly into the camera about why they want to win the championship. Jump cut to an audience preparing to sit down in an auditorium while the camera dollies across the audience--until it crashes too hard into the end of a dolly track, causing another jump cut to static. If you were watching this on an old CRT-TV, you’d probably be provoked to slap the TV straight a few times.

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Posted by:
Mark Ayala
Apr 3, 2014 11:19am

Election

Dir: Alexander Payne, 1999. Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell. Comedy.

On first appearance what could be just another high school comedy is actually much, much more. From Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the directing and writing team later responsible for About Schmidt and Sideways, Election is a wonderfully smart political satire as well as a rich character study of suburban Omaha, full of truths about both teen and adult life. Reese Witherspoon, in her best performance and perhaps best role, brilliantly plays Tracy Flick, an ambitious high school overachiever, so driven she mostly comes off as unlikable and vindictive, but her back story proves to be much more complicated.

Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) seems perfectly content in his life; his marriage may be stale, but he finds an almost smug satisfaction in being a beloved teacher. Tracy is running unopposed for student body president in the upcoming school election and the inevitable outcome starts to grate on Jim, not just because he finds her generally annoying as a student but also because he knows a secret about her. His one time best teaching bud, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), had an affair with Tracy. After some manipulation she told her mother, which inevitably led to Dave’s firing and his wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll), leaving him. Jim and his wife Diane (Molly Hagan) are trying to get pregnant, but with Dave now out of the picture, Jim has developed an attraction for Linda and tries to have an affair with her.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 29, 2011 12:41pm

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask

Dir: Woody Allen, 1972. Starring: Woody Allen, Gene Wilder, Lou Jacobi, Louise Lasser, John Carradine. Comedy.

Like most of Woody Allen's early comedies Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid To Ask is the definition of "hit or miss." This is a joke a minute film. Some are wonderfully funny but, like Airplane some years later, when you throw a ton of jokes at the wall not all of them are going to stick. Enough do to make this well worth the experience and make it an above average comedy. Released during the sexual liberation and adult sexual reeducation of the early '70s, this is kinda/sorta based on David Reuben's hugely popular manual about human sexuality of the same name. Allen uses the chapter heads to basically create seven short films, spoofing the pseudo seriousness of the subject matter. Some work better than others, but oh boy, the ones that do work are home runs. Here's the rundown starting with the least successful of the seven and moving to the better ones.

Why Do Some Women Have Problems Reaching Orgasms?

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 29, 2010 2:52pm

Fast Times At Ridgemont High

Dir: Amy Heckerling, 1982. Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Ray Walston. Comedy.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High is The Godfather or the Gone With The Wind of '80s teenage sex comedies. It's bigger and better than its lesser peers including My Tutor, The Last American Virgin, Porky's, Losing It, and a list that goes on and on. Inspired by the success of the wonderful National Lampoon's Animal House as well as the ensemble attitude of American Graffiti, based on a book by Cameron Crowe, with an exceptional cast of then unknowns (including two of their generation's best, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sean Penn), Fast Times At Ridgemont High is an epic study of Southern California teen suburban culture of the early 1980s.

The film really is more than just a teen sex comedy (which doesn't usually mean that sex is actually happening - it is generally more just being wished for - as well as preening and peeking for potential nudity). Besides being very funny there is some dramatic weight to the film and to many of the characters, mostly concerning an abortion. Other than a few teachers at Ridgemont High not many adults (parents) factor into the story (not including the 26-year old stereo salesman who seduces a teenager). This is a teen fantasy of laughs and sex all in a sunny, year-round location. It's the lighter side of the "burning the school down" fantasy of Over The Edge.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 15, 2010 4:16pm

Foul Play

Dir: Colin Higgins, 1978. Starring: Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, Burgess Meredith, Dudley Moore. Comedy.

When I was ten years old I declared Foul Play to be the funniest movie ever made. Maybe now it’s not quite as amazing as I thought it was then, but it’s still pretty entertaining. After hitting gold with the scripts for Harold and Maude and Silver Streak, screenwriter Colin Higgins made his directorial debut with Foul Play. Like Silver StreakFoul Play is a sorta romantic-comedy (slash) mystery-thriller hybrid. It both romanticizes the old style of Cary Grant and accepts the newer Saturday Night Live inspired raunch that has dominated American film comedies ever since. This was Goldie Hawn’s peak years, coming off of Shampoo and just before her signature performance as Private Benjamin. In her mid thirties, she was still playing the big eyed pixie to perfection and she matched Chevy Chase, in his first lead role (he had played some bit parts in The Groove Tube earlier). The film is definitely a time-capsule of disparaging styles, jumping between slapstick sex comedy and violent Hitchcock spoof, there is more would-be suspense than comedy, but when the comedy works I can see why ten-year-old me got so excited.

The plot is some kind of murder mystery that has something to do with an assassination attempt on the Pope or something. It really doesn’t matter. Goldie plays a beautiful San Francisco librarian, one of those unlikely lonely hearts who goes to see old movies by herself. Through a number of contrivances she ends up with a dead man as a date which puts her into a vast conspiracy including an albino hitman working for a corrupt Catholic church until bumbling cop Chevy Chase comes to her rescue. The two eventually put the case together (along with his trench-coated partner Brian Dennehy) and, of course, fall in love. And in-between their Charade-like pleasantries, there’s Burgess Meredith as her wacky karate-chopping neighbor, Dudley Moore as a sex crazed swinger, Billy Barty as a dwarf door-to-door salesman, a laughing snake, opera, car chases, murders, and an Oscar-nominated theme song by Barry Manilow. I may sum this up shallowly, as if I’m poo-pooing, but it’s actually with much affection.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 19, 2015 4:04pm

Get Shorty

Dir: Barry Sonnenfeld. 1995. Starring: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo. English. Comedy.

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.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Aug 11, 2008 3:41pm

Go

Dir: Doug Limon, 1999. Starring: Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Jay Mohr, Scott Wolf. Comedy.

A lot of films about drugs and drug users take an exploitive yet ultimately moralistic tone about their contentious subject matter. Actors are given scenery to chew as either addicts or dealers. Junkies waste away tragically, but elegantly, and the dealers are suave thugs making the most of their Faustian bargain of a career. So often we are meant to envy the way the characters give a middle finger to societal rules and yet, when they ultimately reach their downfall, we are encouraged to feel morally superior. Call it a cultural byproduct of our country's draconian drug laws where all drugs are equally bad. (Except for alcohol which never causes any problems whatsoever.)

The thing I love about Go is the refreshing lack of judgment on the characters. It’s a movie about a random assortment of relatively amoral young people in L.A. in one insane 24-hour period. They work dead end jobs, they go to raves, and they take ecstasy. They’re basically good kids, just young and broke and out for a good time. They get into trouble, but not the kind of finger-wagging clichéd trouble that a bad screenwriter would normally concoct for these characters. It's more of the absurdist kind of trouble that Quentin Tarantino used in various plotlines of Pulp Fiction.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 10, 2010 2:47pm

Hannah And Her Sisters

Dir: Woody Allen, 1986. Starring: M. Caine, M. Farrow, B. Hershey, W. Allen, D. Wiest, M. Von Sydow, R. Jenkins. Drama/Comedy

Many consider Hannah And Her Sisters to be the third and best installment in Woody Allen's realistic New York "dramadies" (the other two being Annie Hall and Manhattan). While not as stylish as the previous two, and perhaps even slightly marred by some distinctly 1980's hair and wardrobe choices, the film is one of the director's most mature and dense with ideas while still balancing his knack for comedic writing.

As indicated by the title, the multiple-storied movie focuses on the love lives revolving around Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael Caine) is torn by his romantic feelings for Lee, eventually leading to an uneven affair that also has Lee re-evaluating her life with ex-professor and current lover Frederick (Max Von Sydow). Meanwhile, Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) is a worsening hypochondriac who starts questioning the meaning of life after receiving news he might have a potential brain tumor. He also develops an interest in Holly, who is feeling secure and confidant in anything except her career or love life.

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 11:58am

Happiness

Dir: Todd Solondz, 1998. Starring: Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Comedy.

Back in the mid-1990s during the heyday of the American independent film scene there were several films released during the decade that became lightning rods for controversy stemming from their, at the time, risqué subject matter. I use the phrase "at the time" because it's not clear whether movies are really capable of shocking us nowadays. In the age of the "torture porn" genre (Hostel, et al.), where even Law & Order plotlines can get pretty damn sick for prime time television, a lot of what stirred social conservatives to boycott studios over what they deemed objectionable material in movies just doesn’t work them up the way it used to. It may come down to whether or not movies are really the pop cultural force they used to be.

The idea that an indie ensemble drama that features mostly a lot of awkward communicating between the unbelievably dysfunctional could cause so much trouble now seems almost quaint. Happiness, with its empathetic treatment of a pedophile character and it's numerous, uh, money shots, might still seem provocative by today's standards if for nothing else than for its refusal to deny the film’s screwed up characters their essential humanity, but at the time of its release it caused an outright media firestorm prompting its original distributor to deem it too toxic for release. It eventually found a new distributor and did open to equal parts fawning praise for people who think that provocative equals good and righteous denouncement from a lot of people who probably didn’t even bother to see the film.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 22, 2009 11:25am
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