Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

Films selected and reviewed by discerning movie buffs, television junkies, and documentary diehards (a.k.a. our staff).

La Commune (Paris, 1871)

Dir: Peter Watkins, 2000. Starring: Enthusiastic, articulate non-professional actors. French. Foreign/Documentary/Cult.

If there’s one thing the French government doesn’t want people to know about, it’s that for two months Paris was a Socialist state ruled independently from the rest of France. Napoleon III’s catastrophic decision in 1870 to declare war on Prussia for amorphous reasons of power and prestige precipitated France’s ruinous capitulation to the Prussian army, ultimately concluding in a Prussian assault on the capitol. During the siege, working class Parisians suffered the most, falling into destitution as prices of essential goods rose, and becoming increasingly resentful of the seemingly immune bourgeoisie. The government moved to Versailles during the war and, after Napoleon III died in battle, set up a new conservative Republic there. At the end of the siege, the army tried to re-appropriate cannons originally left behind to protect the city from the invading Prussians, which Versailles now worried would fall into the control of anarchist elements of the restless populace. However, Parisians protested the removal of the cannons because they had been paid for with public funds, and the listless soldiers, identifying more with the howling mob than with their well-bred officers, fraternized with the crowd and refused to take the cannon. Revolutionary spirit inflamed the city and La Commune was born. Without outside assistance, regular Parisians set up elections, formed a government with executive and legislative branches, and outfitted a defensive army. The citizens of the Commune created worker owned co-operatives, passed a law separating church and state, and abolished religious schools in favor of secular state education. In two months it was gone.

Director Peter Watkins takes five hours and forty-five minutes to narrate not only the rise and fall of the Commune, but also the inspiration and contradiction at the core of all its ideological rhetoric. Shot on black and white 16mm film in a warehouse in the suburbs of Paris, Watkins recruited non-professional actors to play characters that they could politically sympathize with and then asked them to research the period in detail. He also shot the scenes in chronological order for the benefit of the actors, an almost complete rarity in filmmaking. As a result, the line is blurred between fiction and documentary, and historical re-enactment is enriched by real people devoting themselves to the period doppelgängers they have created. The film is meticulously careful to be historically accurate, portraying without hesitation the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the Commune, as well as their fair-minded and progressive principles. There is, however, one intentional anachronism:  television. Commune TV is the television of “la peuple” and Versailles TV is the propagandist station of the establishment. The government station with its preening, self-serious anchors and cliché theme music intros is far and away the highlight of the film.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Feb 22, 2009 11:44am

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

Manhattan

Dir: Woody Allen, 1979. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep. Comedy/Drama

Manhattan could be America's most moving film about the genuine love between a forty-something-year-old intellectual and a 17-year-old high school student. Well, it's about a bit more than that, but the central storyline is moving in ways few people can quite articulate, but are quick to call "brilliant." Both completely modern yet seemingly timeless, Woody Allen's 1979 film provides a picturesque tribute to one of the world's great cities, as well as a bold statement on finding romantic happiness in not so widely agreeable places.

Allen stars as Isaac Davis, a single father and writer living in Manhattan, who most would consider depressed. Involved in what he considers a meaningless relationship with the underaged Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), friends Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman) are concerned Isaac is wasting his life away with the girl while writing junk television shows. Isaac starts to re-evaluate his situation, however, after meeting Yale's mistress Mary (Diane Keaton). At first repelled by her "pseudo-intellectualism," he quickly develops an interest while her affair with Yale becomes more intense.

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 1:11pm

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 2007. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Michael Shannon. Drama.

Maybe it sounds odd to call a movie "great" if by the end it makes you feel like your soul was taken away, but Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is such a work. With an amazing ensemble cast and a non-linear script that reveals new facts about the characters all the way until the final shot--this is a film that reminds you how powerful dramatic fiction is supposed to work.

Through the different character's perspectives, the film is about the build-up and aftermath of a botched jewelry store robbery in the suburbs. Opening with the violent event, we soon find out afterwards that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) planned the robbery together as a victimless crime in response to some urgent needs for money. But these aren't your typical, slick movie heist-men whatsoever. Andy is a somewhat well-off business accountant seeking escape for a more fulfilling life, while Hank is a single father who's desperately behind on child support. Part of what makes the film work so well is how the script gradually unfolds and clues the audience into new details as it plays, so the only other plot point worth mentioning here is that the store they rip off happens to be owned by the men's parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Martha (Amy Ryan).

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 12:49pm

Paranoid Park

Dir: Gus Van Sant, 2007. Starring: Taylor Momsen, Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu. Mystery.

Gus Van Sant is nominated for Best Director at this year's Academy Awards for his moving bio-pic Milk, but that wasn't the only film Van Sant directed this year. Last March his indie film Paranoid Park opened around the country in a limited release. The film flew under the radar when it was in theaters and it was later overshadowed by the big budget Milk, but Paranoid Park is a beautiful film that deserves its time in the spotlight. The film is another one of Van Sant's dreamy, meditative character studies similar to his two previous films Last Days and Elephant. Visually the film has a slow entrancing rhythm that is accentuated by an eclectic, beautiful score. The cast is mainly non-professional actors that Van Sant found on the internet, and their performances bring a delicate honesty to the story.

The film is about a young teen named Alex who wants to hangout at the local skate park but, in doing so, he experiences a life altering accident. As the film progresses we see Alex internally struggling with this enormous secret he has, a secret that soon isolates and estranges him from almost everyone he knows. Van Sant is less interested in moving the plot along than he is in observing and capturing his characters' state of mind. In Paranoid Park Van Sant captures that middle school state of mind like no other director has, as the film unfolds we slowly start to realize that Alex is carrying that burden of knowledge that so many adolescents learn in their mid teens:  that life can be overwhelmingly difficult and often unfair. My favorite scene in the film is when Alex meets a good friend for coffee and, in their conversation, his friend just might provide him with a solution of how to lift the burden that is weighing so heavily on his conscious. Invest time in this film and let it cast its quiet spell on you.

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Posted by:
Eric Kench
Feb 18, 2009 12:38pm

In The Bedroom

Dir: Todd Field, 2001. Starring: Marisa Tomei, Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl. Drama.

In Hollywood films about revenge a grieving family or friend or lover typically realizes that the only way to bring closure to the loss of a loved one is to turn vigilante and mete out the justice they were denied and we are usually meant to cheer them on as populist heroes. But in the 2001 film In the Bedroom, the "grieving family avenging a loved one" plot may be a familiar one but its execution is decidedly not because the cheap and manipulative tactics that get us as an audience fired up for spilled blood are nowhere to be found. This story of a middle aged couple dealing with the tragic death of their son and falling apart as their anger consumes them is the rare film where the idea of grief is not just a pretext for something “bigger.” The visceral, teeth-gnashing sense of loss that death brings—especially the grief that follows unexpected violent death—is allowed to unfold and hang in the air like the slow heavy unstoppable force of nature that it is and it’s unforgettable. This is the rare film about grief and death and vengeance that has no room for histrionics. It has no false notes. The director, Todd Field, is shockingly assured for what was his first feature length film and the incredible cast including Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei hit rare notes of emotional honesty in their work.

Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a well off middle aged couple getting on in their years in their small coastal Maine town. Matt is a town doctor and Ruth is the high school choir director. Their son Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is home for the summer before he starts college in the fall. He is seeing Natalie, a woman twice his age (played by the gorgeous and intriguing Marisa Tomei) with two small children, and this situation is cause for his mother’s concern and his father’s shy sense of pride in his son becoming a man.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 18, 2009 12:18pm

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

Billy Elliot

Dir: Stephen Daldry, 2000. Starring: Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, Julie Walters. English. Drama.

Billy Elliot stands out as a musical, a family drama and fiercely insightful look into the sacrificial toll on striking coal miners in Northern England in 1984. Stephen Daldry's direction alternately charms and punches with equal power until you are pulling at your own hair as Billy dances out his frustration through the run down back alleys, over cobble streets and finally into a brick wall furiously, fruitlessly and against all odds.

Billy is the youngest son of a widowed coal miner with an older brother not long in the mines himself, and an invalid grandmother. Coming from the tough and tumble Elliots, eleven year old Billy is naturally enrolled in boxing at school but somehow finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet lessons. Their teacher, the no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, sees potential in Billy and encourages his newfound passion and determination not knowing that Billy has kept it a secret from his family. All the while the coal miners' strike puts constant pressure on the Elliots, backing them into financial and emotional corners. When Mrs. Wilkinson procures Billy an audition at the Royal School of Ballet Billy must battle his family for the chance to be something different. Not only from what they know but what they themselves are fighting for.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 17, 2009 5:05pm

Lords of Dogtown

Dir: Catherine Hardwicke, 2005. Starring: Heath Ledger, John Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Nikki Reed. English. Drama.

I'm slightly envious of Stacy Peralta for not only conquering the professional skateboarding world but also for his career as a filmmaker. These two industries, in the general sense, do not correlate, but he manages to find the bridge. The result? A fantastic documentary about the legendary Z-Boys skate team in 1970s Venice named Dogtown Z-Boys, a 2004 documentary chronicling the evolution of big wave surfing called Riding Giants, and a biographical feature film about the Z-Boys journey titled Lords of Dogtown. Peralta penned the screenplay himself, with Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen and Twilight) directing.

The film, while written with obvious yet needed nostalgia, is action-packed full of skateboarding glamour, parties, competitions, strained friendships, and the intensity of male adolescent energy. The plot is loose and without any specific thread other than to chronicle the history of what happens to the Zephyr Skate Team from the beginning of their surfing days to the point where they meet again after the start of their separate careers. The lack of any overbearing plot creates an enjoyable, fast-paced energy that captures a certain spirit of the pioneering skate culture from the 70s.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Feb 17, 2009 4:31pm

Sunshine

Dir: Danny Boyle, 2007. Starring: C. Curtis, M. Yeoh, R. Byrne, C. Murphy, B. Wong, H. Sanada, T. Garity, C. Evans. Science-Fiction.

Danny Boyle knows how to engage you. He knows, more than most other directors, how to scoot your butt to the edge of the seat, whiten your knuckles as they grip the armrest and give you a stress headache from furrowed brows. The man just keeps pushing it higher, faster, and closer to the edge. What edge? Any edge - that's the kicker - you don't know where the edge is or where it's coming from. It could be around the corner or RIGHT THERE. Seriously, you could fall at any moment.

Sunshine is a perfect heart pounding pulse kicking, monster mouth drying example. The stakes? Only the planet and all mankind. The risk? Dying alone in space in a myriad of painfully awful ways including murder and knowing in your last moments that history died with you.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 17, 2009 4:24pm
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