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).
Were you to ask me to recommend you a good horror film at Amoeba I would invariably direct you to the Val Lewton section and I would try explaining why the films that he did for RKO in the 1940s are some of the most astonishingly sophisticated and genuinely haunting movies ever made. The reason I would rely on Lewton’s films for a good horror recommendation is twofold—they’re really that good and I haven’t seen that many horror films because I think a lot of them look really gross. Psychological thrillers are the tops but when a film involves the removal of intestines and the liquefying of brain matter - and worse when it takes place in the 1970s (I hate those even more for some reason, I think because of all the excess body hair) - I know that a film is not for me. Suffice to say the oeuvre of Rob Zombie is pretty much off my radar. I can’t help it! But sometimes I come across a horror film with real emotional depth and a captivating escalation of dread and tension and I remember how excellent a horror film can be if it meets my weird aesthetic criteria. The Innocents is the kind of film I’m talking about. It’s one of the most unsettling films ever made. The horror is there but it exists in such an ambiguous, queasy realm of anxiety and when it’s over you will question what you really saw, but you will not stop thinking about the film for a long time.
The Innocents is an adaptation of Henry James’s novel, The Turn of the Screw, though apparently the movie adheres closer to the play that was spun off of the book (also called The Innocents). It’s interesting to note that Harold Pinter was one of the authors who worked on the screenplay. It’s an English gothic horror story set at a country estate, but while the repressive atmosphere of a Victorian setting is ever present the shades of nuance in the psychology of the film is startling even for the early 1960s. It’s hard to imagine the same film being made in the United States. Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a governess hired to look after the orphaned niece and nephew of a London playboy who has no intention of living with them in the country. She is our guide as we descend into a very weird state of affairs at the house.Continue Reading
Saturday Night Fever
At first glance what may appear to be a cultural relic from the disco '70s is actually a deeply sensitive star-making vehicle for the young John Travolta as a Brooklyn hot dog who is slowly realizing that everything in the world he knows - his unemployed and jealous father, his gooney Brooklyn buds, his life as the king stud on the dance floor, everything around him - is all bullshit.
Who would guess that a little script by Norman Wexler (Serpico) based on a New York Magazine article by Nik Cohn, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night," would be at the center of a cultural phenomenon? (The piece was said to be based on his reporting of real life characters he met in Brooklyn, but later it was revealed he made the whole thing up.) Everything about Saturday Night Fever became hot; Travolta’s white suit started a fashion trend, discotheques went from being an urban, ethnic or Euro trend to being found on main street in the middle of America. But hottest of all was the soundtrack, selling 20 million copies. Most was produced and performed by the Australian family band, The Bee Gees, the one time Beatles wanna-bees. The soundtrack scored them hit single after hit single, including "Staying Alive," "Night Fever," "How Deep Is Your Love," and "If I Can’t Have You" sung by Yvonne Elliman (who played Mary Magdalene in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar).Continue Reading
The Stepfather (1987)
The whole "death to remakes" wave didn’t really hit me until there was a remake of this film. It seems as though when one produces a remake of a movie that was very popular or influential to a genre, such as The Thing or Clash of the Titians, audiences will keep in mind the differences and critical aspects of both, often remaining loyal to the original or the "better" of them. At the very least, every generation is aware of the fact that it was a remake. With The Stepfather, it seems as though no one really remembers the first, which is a shame. Along with Arachnophobia, it remains one of the few films, horror or otherwise, which can get under my skin in a good way. I’ll admit that I am not a horror buff, which I’d argue is very common for people born after the mid-'80s. Horror films seemed to stand out, if not dominate audiences back then, as they should following a baby boom that left a considerable amount of teenagers and young adults who expected the ultimate theater experience. Many of the films that I’ve just been introduced to are some of the most well designed films around, in any genre. Not just for story, but for the lack of computer effects and some notorious soundtracks by awesome conductors.
The Stepfather plants its tactics in the home, unlike most other horror films. There are no (fictional) monsters—no radiated zombies or blood thirst beasts. The film opens with its most psychologically disturbing scene. A peaceful suburb is overlooked and all the attention is placed on a beautiful home. A man washes his bloody hands in a bathroom. He looks like a gangly lumberjack. Within minutes, he is showered and begins to change his appearance right down to his eye color. Standing in the mirror now is a clean-shaven gentleman in a nice suit. The look on his face both before and after his transformation tells us that there is a screw loose up there in his big head. He puts his old clothes, spectacles, and wedding ring into a suitcase and walks into the hall, where the buzz of a phone off the hook has spread throughout the house. He returns some toys to their bin (he's a tidy man, after all). You see adorable photos off-kilter on the stairway and still you are not alarmed, until he reaches the bottom of the steps and blood is smeared on the wall. The mangled bodies of his wife and young daughter are on the floor; it becomes obvious that he is the killer. But what does he do before he leaves the grizzly scene? Places the blood-smeared phone back in its cradle and puts the cushion of a chair back where it belongs. It’s as if he’s thinking that when the cops find the massacre, they will note that barbarians didn’t live there.Continue Reading
Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers & Their Times
It drives me crazy when people say that Los Angeles has no history. I have no idea what that means because I don’t think I’ve ever been to an American city as steeped in its illustrious glittering and haunted past as L.A. It’s a history that is certainly taken for granted and poorly managed—it seems every year brings with it another historic landmark that bites the dust here—but the city (and really the entire country) have been so shaped by L.A.’s past that you will never be able to exorcise all the ghosts here. There are too many of them. And the people who ran the city from its inception made decisions whose results we are still burdened with today.
The Chandler family and their paper, The Los Angeles Times, are a good example of this. From the very beginning the paper was designed as a mouthpiece for the voice of Harrison Gray Otis, an ardent capitalist who used the paper to prop up his friends in the business community and attack his enemies from the world of labor. By using The Los Angeles Times as a forum for attacking unions Otis helped ensure that L.A. would have a cheap supply of labor without threat of these workers organizing. When a group of union members bombed the L.A. Times building and killed scores of Times employees Otis became that much more virulent in his crusade against organized labor. (You can see a monument to the workers who died in the blast erected just after it happened in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.)Continue Reading
Spike Lee’s films have always been hit or miss for me. I grew up watching them, as they were fictitious and familiar depictions of African-Americans, but for the longest time I fell just short of pleased with his work. Forgive me for going on a tangent, but I feel the need to cite the differences and subject matter of some other Spike Lee Joints before raving about this one.
The first Lee film I saw was Crooklyn, and it is perhaps the only other that I am fond of. In short, it is an energetic, sometimes melancholic film about a family in Brooklyn—more or less through the eyes of the couple’s only daughter in their large brood. Overall, the movie is harmless, though it deals softly with substance abuse and death, but it’s a little too gentle; it held up when I was a child, but lost flavor for me in adulthood. This criticism does not translate to it being a bad film, but rather anticlimactic. Another that comes to mind is Jungle Fever—a ballsy film about two co-workers (black male/white female) who become lovers despite their committed relationships. The movie unfolds with over-the-top characters and events, ultimately making it very black and white, both literally and figuratively. I remember being unmoved by the assumed dangers and taboo thrills of biracial lust. It disappointed me then, and it does now. Do The Right Thing, while it is Lee’s most popular and acclaimed work, still reminds me of the misdirected angst that would follow its release in the form of riots. Obviously the film is not to blame, but in times of such hostility, you'd think a message geared toward working together would be better suited and more universal. Its deadpan racist rants (common among his Italian and Black characters) hit you over the head so hard that it almost begs you to choose sides, if not fails to deliver a clear message.Continue Reading
The Cable Guy
Like a paranoid science-fiction film from the '70s, The Cable Guy pretends to be about the threat of technology and America's addiction to television. In the mid 1990s, was the developing "information super-highway" a potentially scary thing? This was Ben Stiller's directional follow up to Reality Bites, his would-be Gen-X anthem, and they both play almost like period pieces now. The Cable Guy's underlying messages may not be very convincing, but as a showcase for Jim Carrey's insane performance it hits its mark perfectly.
With TV's In Living Color Carrey had become a comedy name, but with the surprise hit, the messy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and its even lazier sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, he became a box office super star. With his rubber face and goofy physical comedy in films like The Mask and later Dumb & Dumber Carrey he was also becoming popular with the kiddies. Though he had played a villain with some great physicality as The Riddler in the otherwise forgettable Batman Forever, it surprised many audience members when he popped up in '96 in such a dark and mean-spirited comedy as The Cable Guy. (His $20 million paycheck at the time also got a lot of flack from those audiences who fret over actors' salaries.)Continue Reading
The Great Mouse Detective
Do you like Sherlock Holmes? What about rodents, British royalty, or old-timey pubs? Whatever your age, and whatever your tastes, I can assure you that this is grimmest and most interesting Disney animated classic, ever. I say this because it not only feeds the comic and suggestive needs for adults, but also prepares the kiddies for better tastes in terms of cinematic experiences. I watched it the other night and was shocked at how it not only pays an excellent homage to Noirs and Sherlock Holmes stories, but also because it has a fresh and almost foreign plot. Disney films, both animated and live-action, have the most success if they flaunt an all-American glow, as in ultra-feminine ladies or heroic male characters, young boys with man’s best friend, etc. It comes as no surprise that this movie was sort of lost among all the others, possibly for its heavy risquÃ© tones (like a drunkard bat, seedy pubs, and champagne fountains), and for the fact that it is sort of like a British comedy—you either love it, or you don’t care for it at all.
But if you think that today’s youth are simply too informed or sensitive about the vices of adults, you can watch it yourself and have a great laugh based on its wit alone. Basil of Baker Street is a mouse detective who helps get to the bottom of the most ludicrous cases. One day a toymaker is kidnapped by a peg-legged bat and taken into the underbelly of London. His distressed child, Olivia, is found by Dr. David Q. Dawson and brought to Basil of Baker Street, the Sherlock Holmes of London's talking rodents. Together these three discover that the toymaker has been captured by Basil’s archenemy—the evil Professor Ratigan (with the voice of Vincent Price). Their journey through the "twists and turns" of Ragitan's territory is designed both to save the toymaker and to figure out why he captured him for evildoing in the first place. Ratigan’s world is full of thugs with mustaches, scantily clad "dancing" mice ladies, tons of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and even roofies. Once Basil finally confronts Ratigan and his posse of beefy rats like him, things get more than complicated. Ratigan’s use for the toymaker involves well-crafted diversions and a series of traps in order to assassinate the Queen and take over rodent London once and for all.Continue Reading
Stalag 17 is flawed, but entertaining Billy Wilder. It’s not in the great director’s top tier, which would include Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot. Some might put The Apartment in that top group, but I would put it in the second group with Ace In The Hole, Witness For The Prosecution, and Stalag 17 (that third level of his films is also still very interesting and might include One, Two, Three, The Major And The Minor, Kiss Me, Stupid, Sabrina, and The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes).
Stalag 17 is the story of WWII American soldiers, prisoners of war in a Nazi camp, based on a popular play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. In recent years there was talk that director Spike Lee was going to restage it on Broadway with British actor Clive Owen, but it never happened. The film adaptation by director Wilder and Edwin Blum is said to follow the stage version pretty closely. It’s been made less stagy by opening it up, out of the barracks and into the camp around them. The POWs live a boring and cramped life, working whenever possible to put one over on their German captors. One POW, Sefton (William Holden), is an "operator" trading favors with the guards, running a still and a betting track. He is a survivor, in it for himself. When he places bets against his fellow Americans it alienates him from his prison mates even more.Continue Reading
There will always be films that cater to the loners of society (or at least those who are disappointed by life's inability to provide them with peers and/or a family who compliment their personalities). Looking back on my own childhood, I remembered and recently re-watched one of my favorite movies that deals with such displacement. Matilda, directed and narrated by Danny DeVito, is a touching and colorful little tale about a young girl whose intellect and class does not exactly mesh well with her scheming couch potato family. The author of the book upon which the movie is based, Roald Dahl, is also the author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, which would explain the imaginative story.
Matilda’s father, Harry Wormwood (Danny DeVito), is a car salesman who prides himself on the various "lemons" and shabby mechanical restorations he sells to the townspeople. Her mother, Zinnia (Rhea Perlman), is a complete ditz, and her older brother is a chubby tyrant. From birth Matilda was visibly quite spectacular, though her family was too absorbed in their programs and TV dinners to appreciate their new infant who could spell her name before walking. As time goes on, she begins to nurture herself completely and meet her desires for brain food by frequenting the local library. By four, she has learned to dress herself and cook and becomes anxious and upset at the fact that she can’t put any of her talents to good use.Continue Reading
If you watch any of the terrific documentaries on films of the last fifty years (The Kid Stays In The Picture, A Decade Under the Influence, Visions Of Light, etc) you will notice there is ONE film that comes up over and over, its influence and success massive, the impact it had on the public and the industry indescribable. If you polled people, I bet it would make as many favorite ten-best lists as any other movie. If I happen upon it on TV I set sucked right in. It's the Gone With The Wind of its time.... Yes, you know what we are talking about, The Godfather. Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.
Of course this is the epic story of a post-WWII Italian American family. Vito, the Patriarch (Marlon Brando), is the head of the Corleone crime organization. The film opens at the wedding of his daughter, Connie (Talia Shire). His oldest son, Fredo (John Cazale), is a rather weakly type. His next son, Sonny (James Caan), a hothead womanizer, is the heir to take over the business. There is also an adopted Irish American son, Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall), who works as the family’s lawyer. His youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is there with his new girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). He is not part of the family business; as a collage graduate and a "war hero" there are expectations for greatness cast upon him. In a nutshell, The Godfather is a tale about how Michael evolves from clean-cut, all-American wanna-be to the head of the family when his father dies and his brother Sonny is murdered. And he ends up becoming even more ruthless than his father ever was.Continue Reading