JFK

Dir: Oliver Stone, 1991. Starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland. Drama.

With the film JFK, superstar editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia were able to do some of the most groundbreaking editing since Psycho and Battleship Potemkin, which would mean some of the greatest editing in film history. Combining actual news footage, historical recreations, and a dense investigation and courtroom story with literally hundreds of speaking roles, they were able to piece together a three-hour drama that, no matter what you feel about director Oliver Stone’s politics or often ham-fisted approach, this film is now the definitive pop-culture record on the murder of President Kennedy.

There was a phony outrage and assault thrown at the film JFK before it was even released or seen. Critics of Oliver Stone howled that he should not be messing with history, slanting it to fit his picture. But of course that’s what any good biography or historical account will do. The combination of news footage and recreations were called manipulative. But after thirty years of the "mainstream" press in lock step with the Warren Commission’s cover-up, it’s about time to see a "mainstream" movie question the events. No matter how much that news footage apparently confused some audience members, the bottom line is: this isn’t a documentary, those are actors. Not to mention, there are enough actual documentaries and books out there on this subject to fill a library. Some right, some wrong, some rational, some hysterical. If you need to hear from the other end of the spectrum, maybe the best made documentary on the assassination was Oswald’s Ghost, a very persuasive piece of filmmaking, but in the end it has Norman Mailer declaring there was no conspiracy.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 19, 2010 2:59pm

Frozen River

Dir: Courtney Hunt, 2008. Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott. Drama.

Neo-realism is having a bit of a renaissance within the American indie film world of late. Perhaps as a reaction to how Hollywood has all but ignored the working poor - or the just plain destitute - for decades there’s a new interest in stories about how middle Americans are coping with increasingly dire odds to surviving in a country where manufacturing jobs have left en masse to be replaced by meth labs and fundamentalist Christian churches. There’s a hopelessness about our future that has been encroaching for decades—wage stagnation, the credit crisis, the decline of labor unions, and the housing bubble are all symptoms of the decline of our much mythologized way of life. These new stories feature white, non-urban females in the lead roles. They have been deserted by deadbeat males who are overwhelmed by the stark realities of poverty.

The American Dream used to mean owning your own car and home and having a few vacations now and then. At some point it came to be synonymous with the tacky, greasy exploits of the Donald Trumps and P. Diddys of the world. Is it any surprise that economic mobility is harder to achieve than ever even as gross shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians are still pulling in viewers desperate for a fix of escapism? I think this is the most confusing time in this country since I started paying attention and I have no idea where things are headed. I think this national malaise is making us hungry for stories about people struggling to keep from losing everything. They are people who make up a majority in this country and their voices are seldom heard.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 16, 2010 5:42pm

The Mission

Dir: Roland Joffe, 1986. Starring: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Aidan Quinn, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson. Drama.

It's fair to say that The Mission is an underrated film. Unlike Raging Bull or Blue Velvet it does not appear on many lists of the best films of the '80s (though any such list that does not have the Russian war flick Come And See on it is completely invalid anyway). The Mission doesn't even get mentioned in most Robert De Niro retrospectives. But this physically demanding, yet subtle role is one of De Niro's best. This was back when De Niro was still "Robert De Niro - all time great actor." Back in the good old days when he was still trying, before he became "That hammy actor from Meet The Parents and other comedies." The Mission was derided by most critics when it was released as overblown, as was De Niro’s performance (though the film did score a bunch of Oscar nominations thanks to a pricey ad campaign). But The Mission may actually be a lost gem that needs to be rediscovered and reevaluated; perhaps it could use the three-disc Criterion treatment.

Written by Robert Bolt (Lawrence Of Arabia), The Mission, at first glance, seems like a sweeping saga, but on closer inspection, it’s a small story with large mountains behind it. Jeremy Irons plays Gabriel, a Spanish Jesuit priest building a mission in the rain forest of South America in the 18th century. He is able to win over the natives with his groovy oboe playing. The natives become fully invested in the creation and running of the mission - it’s like a small co-op of social peace - as the natives are converted to Christians. Until a menacing slave trader, Mendoza (De Niro), arrives, ensnaring natives and selling them on the open market. Mendoza is a man with no moral center. However, later when he kills his brother (Aidan Quinn, sporting very '80s hair) in a jealous quarrel, Mendoza finds God and serves his penance by joining Gabriel’s order and hauling all his armor and weapons through the mountains. Moved by the native people's acceptance of him, he becomes a fierce protector of the mission and its people.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 12, 2010 4:43pm

Diner

Dir: Barry Levinson, 1982. Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser. Drama.

In 1982 when Diner was released it may have been confused with Porky's, another film about the nostalgic sexual misadventures of young men in the 1950s. Porky's, though a big hit in its day, was actually a pretty lousy movie and now completely forgotten. Diner, on the other hand, gets better with age. It's not just because of the smart dialog, complicated relationships, and impressive core of young actors who would go on to substantial careers; it's also a rather powerful film about growing up and coming to terms with lost youth and adult responsibilities.

Diner is the story of a group of early twenty-something young men in 1959 suburban Baltimore and is said to be semi-autobiographical for writer and director Barry Levinson. Having written scripts for Mel Brooks (Silent Movie and High Anxiety), as well as the oddball dramedy Inside Moves, Levinson was an established writer making his directing debut. Levinson would, of course, go on to have a prolific hit and miss directing career (hitting often with Rain Man, The Natural, Bugsy, and Wag the Dog; but missing even more often with junk like Toys, Man Of The Year, and Envy). Diner has proved to be the high point for originality and earned pathos in Levinson's career.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 5, 2010 11:14am

Under the Skin

Dir: Carine Alder, 1997. Starring: Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham, Christine Tremarco. Drama.

What does this film, Control and Morvern Callar all have in common? They all feature arresting performances by Samantha Morton, as well as a wonderful soundtrack. I've concluded that Morton's acting career is a solid, aggressive work of art, and that the possibility of being disappointed with her does not exist. However, with Under the Skin, I think one can view her finest performance. It seems obvious that she takes direction well, but with Carine Alder's film, I believe she provided something extraordinary. Her efforts to connect with the character, and really push to bring something daring to the screen, is very inspirational. As for the director, who is a woman and unfortunately has not directed a feature film before or after this one, I also give my highest praise.

The film focuses on the lives of two sisters, Iris (Samantha Morton) and Rose (Claire Rushbrook). The two are like oil and water. Rose was named after their mother's (Rita Tushingham) favorite flower, while Iris bears the name of one with mixed meaning. They've just been informed that their mother has either 3 weeks or 3 months to live. When she does pass, the dramatic and pregnant Rose waits around for crocodile tears that never come. Iris seems untouched by her mother's death, but there is something about her that makes you believe she is devastated. They make arrangements to have her cremated and begin splitting her belongings between the two of them. Rose was the closest to her, and therefore feels entitled to just about everything. The only thing Iris wants is the ring her mother wore, which Rose steals, claiming that she can't find it in the house. While rummaging through her mother's things Iris finds a fur coat, her wig, and a pair of cheap sunglasses. As you see her putting them on, you get the sense that she'll never be the same again.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 3, 2010 4:43pm

Capote

Dir: Bennett Miller, 2005. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Shindle, Catherine Keener, David Wilson Barnes. Drama.

2005 was my favorite recent year for American films. We had Batman Begins, Brokeback Mountain, and a re-release of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows from 1958. (That technically shouldn’t count but it’s such a cool movie I have to include it.) As much as I liked those films, though, Capote was the one that made the biggest impression on me. It’s got a fearless Academy Award winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and it’s both a fascinating true crime story and a keenly observed morality play.

Capote traces the genesis of Truman Capote’s masterpiece "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, from the shockingly violent mass murder in a small Kansas town that was its subject to Capote’s ascendance as one of the most revered authors of his time. What transpires in between is a disturbing account of an artist manipulating the source of his inspiration - his death row muse, if you will - into providing him with the necessary materials to make an undisputed literary work of art. In Cold Blood is one of the most important books of the 20th century, not only for its brilliantly paced tragic story but also for its resolute humanization of its despised protagonists. But it’s not left wing agitprop; it’s a chilling glimpse into the depths of darkness. What director Bennett Miller does with his film is to posit that Truman Capote crossed an ethical line by getting in the middle of his story and that, for all of the success it brought him, it sowed the seeds of his later ruination.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 2, 2010 2:20pm

Kramer vs. Kramer

Dir: Robert Benton, 1979. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Jane Alexander, Justin Henry. Drama.

The amazing early part of Dustin Hoffman's career was filled with so many showy roles - Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Strawdogs, and Little Big Man - but he ended the 1970s with perhaps the best performance of his career in Kramer vs. Kramer. This little film actually beat Apocalypse Now for the Best Picture Oscar. Which film you prefer may be debatable, but what isn't is that Kramer vs. Kramer is more than a little film. Robert Benton (co-writer of Bonnie and Clyde) took a simple little story of a career man learning about domestic responsibility and gave it a wallop of emotion that has helped it last the test of time.

Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a New York ad-man married to Joanna (Meryl Streep) with a little boy, Billy (Justin Henry). One night after securing an important new account he comes home to find Joanna all packed and heading out the door. She leaves him...and Billy. Father and son have to learn to coexist - the usually selfish Ted has to learn to become a caretaker to his son and Billy has to get used to living without a mum. At first Ted doesn’t even know what grade his son is in and is forced to do what were then considered feminine chores like picking his son up at birthday parties and grocery shopping. But he learns to be a father and he and Billy build a special bond. Hoffman’s Ted obviously has a strong character arc and with the help of his single mother neighbor, Margaret (Jane Alexander), he develops a nurturing side to his tightly wound personality. This, of course, leads to his losing his job and, worse, after finding herself out in California, the icy Joanna eventually returns and fights to regain custody of Billy (hence the "vs." in the title).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 13, 2010 5:09pm

The Bloody Child

Dir: Nina Menkes, 1996. Starring: Tinka Menkes, Sherry Sibley, Russ Little, Robert Mueller, Jack O'Hara. Drama.

The form of a movie is something that most people don't pay much attention to, and yet it is the form that constructs your experience. Since the beginning of cinema, the arrangement of scenes, props, music and even the body language of the cast, sparks some kind of response in the viewer. I thought I had seen all there was to see in terms of form, even on the abstract and experimental level. For me, experimental films are like visual poetry, or projected dream sequences. They are usually short and nonlinear, and the "meat and potatoes" is in the style, not so much as the story. While watching The Bloody Child it became clear that a new form was being introduced to me—a feature length experimental film that is so pure in its development it resembles a morbid essay film.

The general stance on experimental film is that it no longer exists. I'd argue that the filmmaker who directs experimental film no longer exists, or is at least very hard to find. The whole idea behind it is to work on a low budget, typically with whatever materials are available, and come up with something that is free from being classified as any other genre. Low budget films are now considered indie or avant-garde and are not as artistically driven as they once were. Many of them are simple comedies or romances, which is not a bad thing. However, once you decide to get into the game of shooting something linear, you are assigning all the rules of form that go along with it. True experimental films have no rules, and that's what makes them so exciting, and also a threat. In terms of essay films, my claim that this resembles one might not make much sense at first. But if you've seen films like Baraka or Koyannisqatsi, you'll notice that they capture something miraculous about our world. They are visually breathtaking and usually have scores by conductors like Phillip Glass, both of which this film does not have, so don't compare it in that sense. What it does capture is the barbaric nature of violence and insanity. Menkes took a story straight out of a newspaper, let it simmer, and then interpreted what it meant to humanity in a film.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 12, 2010 5:40pm

Straight Time

Dir: Ulu Grosbard, 1978. Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, Theresa Russell, Gary Busey. Drama.

Edward Bunker is probably one of the most criminally (no pun intended) neglected writers in American history. Best known for his role as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, the character wasn't a huge stretch for him. He worked as a career criminal from the time he was a teenager up through his forties. He also wrote a slew of books that depict convict life with searing realism--real ball-kickers of stories that remain thrillingly authentic today. In the late '70s he helped adapt his novel, No Beast So Fierce, for the screen, which resulted in this somewhat shockingly little-known film starring Dustin Hoffman. Why such little fan-fare for it? My guess is that it was just a bit too real at the time.

Hoffman plays Max Dembo, a convict freshly released from prison for armed robbery. He meets with his sociopath of a parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), who reminds him that just one step out of line will earn a one-way trip behind bars again. Max insists he's ready to play it straight in a newly reformed life--and we believe him. He speaks earnestly, and a few minutes later in screen time he lands a job at a recycling plant, and even scores a date with a sweet-natured secretary (Theresa Russell). But it doesn't take long for his chances at a normal life to crumble; a meeting with a buddy from the old days (played brilliantly by a doe-eyed Gary Busey) sets off a heart-breakingly unfair chain of events. I'll only mention a few keywords that should drum up some interest for the last two-thirds of the movie: "shotguns," "Harry Dean Stanton," "jewelry store heist," and "freeway nudity."

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Oct 5, 2010 5:26pm

Morvern Callar

Dir: Lynne Ramsay, 2002. Starring: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott. Drama.

Morvern Callar is one of the most visually stimulating films I have ever seen. Based on the novel by Alan Warner, it is a poetic and complex work that stirs some of the most tender and infuriating emotions within us. The opening scene is fragmented and leads the film to its core with the same sorrow and confusion that will remain present throughout the feature. Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) finds her boyfriend shortly after he has slit his wrists and finds a message on his computer instructing her to publish his novel, make arrangements for his funeral, and to "be brave."

You wait for some kind of outburst from her. It’s Christmastime and everything is uncomfortably quiet. She lies on the ground next to his dead body and caresses his back. She leaves the body alone and opens her Christmas presents: a sliver Zippo, leather jacket, tape player, and a mix tape. After a while she listens to it and chain smokes. Still, you are waiting for some kind of extreme action in order to break your discomfort. In a sense, there is an extreme, but not what you'd expect. She begins to bathe and put on makeup, eventually leaving to attend a wild party with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). The film focuses on the color red throughout almost every shot, keeping you on the edge and expecting something foul. But I think the red stands for more than bloodshed. It reappears to illustrate the carnage in everyday life and the desire to eat it up before you get old.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 21, 2010 5:54pm
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