Radio Days

Dir: Woody Allen, 1987. Starring: Mia Farrow, Mike Starr, Don Pardo, Julie Kavner, Wallace Shawn. Comedy.

I’ve been on a Woody Allen kick of late and I’m not sure what prompted it. In the twilight of his career he remains a polarizing figure mostly reviled for personal indiscretions or ignored for his supposed cultural irrelevancy. He doesn’t always make it easy to defend his work. The things people used to find amusing about his movies now just elicit a kind of widespread yawning contempt—the gross age difference between him and his latest ingénue, the aloof quality of the writing, and the way his characters don’t seem to bear even the slightest relation to actual people in New York City or anywhere else. His last few international productions have been, by all accounts, hit-or-miss and the early fans who adopted Annie Hall and Manhattan as the films of their generation have deserted him. I don’t necessarily disagree that his films aren’t what they used to be, but I think his good films are still some of the best American films ever made. The period of his work I generally romanticize is the mid-1980s period and the film of his that I like best is, in some ways, the least representative of his work, Radio Days. It’s light, unabashedly sentimental, and probably the least cynical movie he ever made.

Radio Days is more-or-less a series of vignettes related to Allen’s childhood that revolve around the radio and the central role it played in everyone’s life. The scenes are breezy and comical with a wry knowing melancholy hovering over them because this is, after all, a lost world that Allen is eulogizing. The film shows Allen’s childhood in a nostalgic light. He lives in Brooklyn in a cramped house where various assorted aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived too. Their banter is typically neurotic for an Allen film but there’s a familial ease and a gentleness to it. It’s very funny but it’s not abrasive. Seth Green plays Allen as a kid who is obsessed with the Masked Avenger, a radio show about a super hero of sorts whom Green’s character imagines as a dashing crime fighter but in actuality is played by Wallace Shawn, the impish character actor. A lot of the fun to be had from the stories Allen tells about the golden age of radio is how the actuality of who the performers are bears little resemblance to the identities they assume on the radio for a rapt audience living vicariously through their glamorous exploits. None is funnier than Mia Farrow, a painfully ditzy supper club cigarette girl who is perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time but who eventually gets (mostly) rid of her Brooklyn squawk and becomes the host of a sophisticated Hollywood gossip radio program.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Oct 5, 2010 4:11pm

Raising Arizona

Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen, 1987. Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Frances McDormand. Comedy.

A childless-couple, with no hope of their own, decides to kidnap one of furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona’s eight babies. But once they do, life takes a serious turn, giving them much more than they bargained for.

In this early effort by the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men), the duo makes a timeless classic of the absurd. The script is hugely original and chock-full of many memorable lines. There is no scene-wasting as these people’s lives spin out of control with pitch-perfect tone throughout.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Feb 7, 2009 3:53pm

Rushmore

Dir: Wes Anderson, 1998. Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymore Cassel, Brian Cox. Comedy.

After his ultra low-budget, indie caper comedy Bottle Rocket, director Wes Anderson (along with co-writer Owen Wilson) peaked with Rushmore, developing a formula and a brand that he has continued to hammer into the ground, with less and less success. But with Rushmore, the story of an eccentric high school underachiever and his relationship to the people around him, Anderson found the right level of quirk without going over the annoyance line and in the process made one of the best comedies of the '90s, a truly unique and special film.

In the teenage mind of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), he’s a scholastic genius, admired by his classmates at his beloved upscale private school, The Rushmore Academy. But in truth he’s a below average student and not very liked by his peers. Max is a different kind of outcast than we usually find in teenage nerds. Instead of rebelling against the school, his goal is to fit in, but his grandiose ideas and belief in himself makes him stand out. His lower income also keeps him at a distance from his peers. Max’s gentle father (Seymour Cassel) is a low-key barber, but Max claims his old man is a brain surgeon. Also at odds with Max is the school’s headmaster (Brian Cox). Max’s enthusiasm seems to be a constant source of stress for him, including Max’s effort to keep Latin in the school’s curriculum, his ambitious school theater production of Serpico, and his efforts to build an on-campus aquarium in a bid to impress a lovely widowed teacher, Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 1, 2011 5:50pm

Saved!

Dir: Brian Dannelly, 2004. Starring: Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macaulay Culkin, Patrick Fugit, Eva Amurri. Comedy.

You can’t find someone who is more against the glorification of teenage pregnancy than yours truly. Let’s just downplay that aspect of the movie and focus on all its other awesome parts, and for a brief moment I’ll praise the director and writer for their interesting approach on the matter. If you’re wondering why I steer clear of films like this, let’s just say it's because of those sappy dramas and comedies that show some spoiled middle-class teen who gets knocked up, has a family behind her, and finishes school without a hitch. Movies like Precious are slowly putting a smudge on that crystalline looking-glass we’ve become used to.

In this perfect comedy, we meet a group of teenagers who are coming up on their senior year at a Christian high school. We are following Mary (Jena Malone) in particular. She has it all - a charming and talented boyfriend, a cool mom, and the name of a religious icon. In the summer before senior year, her boyfriend confesses to her that he is gay. Following his confession, she bumps her head and, while in a daze, she sees the image of Jesus who tells her that her boyfriend needs her help. So, like any religious person, she interprets the message of God the best way she can: cure him of his homosexuality.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 27, 2010 5:00pm

Scotland, PA

Dir: Billy Morrissette, 2001. Starring: James LeGros, Maura Tierney, Christopher Walken. Comedy.

Though it appears to be the love child of Ronald McDonald and William Shakespeare, Scotland, PA is only the most innovative adaptation of Macbeth, which was forgotten about after it went to Sundance. Its satire, while crude and greasy, just like the worst fast food server, is so un-artsy and plain that it can honestly be called upon frequently when you have a craving for some simple, yet refreshing comedy. To add to its charm is an already off-beat cast that gives, perhaps, their funniest and most quirky performances. I must commend Maura Tierney for her role as the modern Lady Macbeth, which she played with excellent style, and her co-star, James LeGros, for his depiction of Macbeth. For the sake of being interesting, their last name is McBeth, and everyone calls her Pat and him Mac. Instead of being regal characters during the Renaissance, they are two ordinary folks in the '70s who work at Duncan's, a former donut shop owned by Norm Duncan. Notice the catchy play on an actual food chain. Duncan is trying to branch out and get new ideas for fast food, and under his employ are a ton of outrageous characters, including his sons, and many whom you'll recognize. Like most people in food service, the McBeths are extremely restless, causing the dynamic of their marriage to be bittersweet. Their sex life is at its peak (the two go at it like rabbits), but the romance turns sour when Pat constantly nags Mac about his inability to break away from Duncan, or at the very least, stop blurting out good ideas and letting him take the credit for them. While Mac is wandering around an empty carnival site, he is approached by two intoxicated hippies (the Greek chorus), who lead him to a fortune teller (the prophet, played by Amy Smart). She shakes her toy 8-ball and mentions a concept that has never been invented: drive-tru. Dismissing the entire ordeal, Mac returns to work the next day and hears of an employee being fired, which could mean a promotion for...

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jan 19, 2011 1:03pm

September

Dir: Woody Allen, 1987. Starring: Elaine Strich, Denholm Elliott, Mia Farrow. Comedy.

September“It’s hell gettin’ older, especially when you feel 21 inside.” 

— A sobering reflection made by the aging Diane, brashly played by the vibrant, and still very alive at 86, Elaine Stritch, in Woody Allen’s 1987 drama, September.

The film centers on Lane, a fragile and confused woman in her early fifties, played by Mia Farrow.  After having moved into her summer home in Vermont for some much needed mental rest, Lane’s familial, platonic, and romantic relationships unravel at the arrival of autumn.

The plot of September, taking place over the few remaining days of the summer, floats through the home from room to room, mostly centering on a love triangle, or really, love train, secretly developing amongst the characters.  Howard loves Lane, but she in fact loves Peter who in turn loves Lane’s friend Stephanie who is already unhappily married with children.  This potential fodder for comedy, Woody Allen’s challah and butter, is instead treated and explored as the stuff of a serious stage piece, filled with the morose blend of emotionally heavy dialogue and restrained expression normally found off-off-off Broadway. 

But in September, which for all intents and purposes is a filmed play, the love triangle is no laughing matter.  The characters, all in their early to mid-fifties, find themselves at a complete loss as they enter the autumn of their lives.  The triangle’s unrequited love takes an appropriate and subtle backseat to the feeling of regret and melancholy gnawing at the middle-aged dreamers.  Lane desires a fresh start with a new career, new love, and a new apartment.  Peter wants artistic and commercial suc...

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Posted by:
Robbie Ikegami
Dec 7, 2011 6:24pm

Shameless - Complete Season One

BBC Television Series. 2004. Creator: Paul Abbot. Comedy/Drama.

I love British television. It's like being 8 and hanging out with the older, cooler kids on the block. The ones who aren't afraid to cuss, make rude remarks about, well, anybody and might even show their bum to a passing neighbor before running off in fits of laughter. According to your well bred American TV parents those kids are trouble and you should stay well away if you know what's good for you.

Shameless is good for you. The Gallagers are a family of trouble in Manchester with an absentee mother and a town drunk for a father. Six kids who all know tricks to survive as a family will offend, shock and even make you fall in love. There is Fiona, who plays surrogate mother and reluctant ingenue, Ian, a gay teenager whose stay in the closet keeps him from thug beatings but also gets more and more confining, Lip, a charming smart ass, Debbie, the dangerously protective 9 year old plus hyper-active Carl and adorable Liam. They will have you cheering for their escapades and mourning for their betrayals all the while their in-league neighbors help make trashy seem downright domestic.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Dec 26, 2007 3:22pm

Silver Streak

Dir: Arthur Hiller, 1976. Starring: Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, Ned Beatty, Patrick McGoohan. Comedy.

Silver Streak DVDThe train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.

With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 14, 2013 2:06pm

Sleeper

Dir: Woody Allen, 1973. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, John Beck. Comedy.

Sleeper Movie PosterMost films about the future seem optimistic about human intelligence levels rising, with Mike Judge’s depressing comedy Idiocracy being an exception. Woody Allen’s Sleeper splits the difference: the technology and science have evolved but people have gotten shallower. Since ’73 his vision looks to be almost prophetic. As a follow up to Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper was his most polished film at that point. It was the peak of Woody’s slapstick phase, just four years before his evolutionary jump into the more mature filmmaker he would become with Annie Hall and Manhattan (both films co-written with Marshall Brickman, who also worked on the Sleeper script). Kinda, sorta, slightly based on H.G. Wells’s 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes, it’s a film that,  because of the science-fiction element and the high laugh count, has always been considered one of his more admired and easily digestible films from his non-fans. 

In 1973, Miles Monroe (Allen), owner of the Happy Carrot Health-Food store, is put into a scientific sleep chamber, without his knowledge, and finally revived two-hundred years later in 2173. He wakes up in a futuristic American police state (similar to so many movie future societies from Logan’s Run to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes to The Hunger Games). The rebels need him because he’s the only citizen without an identification number. He ends up helping them by posing as a robot servant for a dingy socialite, Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton, working wi...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 3, 2012 11:35am

Something Wild

Dir: Jonathan Demme, 1987. Starring: Jeff Daniels, Melanie Griffith, George 'Red' Schwartz. Comedy.

What happened to Jonathan Demme? He used to make the best movies. I’m talking about the films he did before Silence of the Lambs changed his life and career options for good. Perhaps regretting his film's instigation of a wave of serial killer-based entertainments, he got very high-minded after Silence of the Lambs and kept returning with more Oscar bait in the form of Philadelphia, which continued his winning streak, and Beloved, which did not. Since then he has alternated between director-for-hire projects and small scale documentaries, before returning to something like his old style with last year’s Rachel Getting Married. But nothing he has done in years has been as good as the comedies he did in the late 1980s. They were exuberant life-affirming spectacles. He brought a New York downtowner’s aesthetic to mainstream comedy and lifted up a dreary end of the decade—a time best remembered for comedies that celebrated getting rich or blowing shit up—with an offbeat sensibility. He was like an American Pedro Almodovar in love with the idea of New York as a melting pot of bohemians and working class immigrants, all tuned in to the same Afrobeat soundtrack. His New York was full of loud colors, Jamaican beauty salons, and cool people—one big punky reggae party.

Something Wild is his best film. It’s a film that celebrates a life lived without rules before segueing into darker territory exploring the same themes. Jeff Daniels plays Charlie, a nice guy yuppie in Manhattan that gets his kicks walking out on his lunch bill. Melanie Griffith is Lulu—she’s got the famous Louise Brooks bob and lots of Voodoo priestess jewelry on. She’s an edgy chick who catches on to Daniels’s pathetic act of rebellion immediately. She threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t get in her car and see where the day takes them. She’s going to teach him a thing or two about wild. Pretty soon they’re naked in a hotel room and she’s making him call his office while she otherwise distracts him. The scene is playful and sexy, rather than obvious, because Lulu isn’t objectified as Charlie’s "manic pixie dream girl" who teaches him to live; instead she’s the one in charge. The scene is more about Lulu’s fetishizing of Charlie’s straightness than anything, though we get the feeling that Charlie has been looking for someone like Lulu all along. It’s the complete opposite of how most straight male directors would have played the scene and just one of the details that make this film unique.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 17, 2009 6:02pm
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