Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

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

Patton Oswalt: My Weakness Is Strong

Dir: Jason Woliner, 2009. Stand-Up Comedy.

I love Patton Oswalt. He is the rare comedian whose grasp of language is as rich as his jokes are funny. That such exquisite verbiage is so often used in the service of detailing the most appalling and grotesque aspects of life as he sees it makes him just as much a public intellectual for my generation as a hilarious fatty joke teller. My Weakness Is Strong is his second stand-up DVD preceded by No Reason to Complain a few years ago. He is still as impishly caustic as ever but, with his latest, he goes a little deeper than he has in the past. Whereas before he has obsessed over how awesome it would be to die in the apocalypse, the theoretical conversations among employees of a Dutch porn magazine called Piss Drinkers, and perhaps most famously, the 21st century horror that is KFC's "food bowl" menu, now there is a new poignancy to his material.

I had avoided this DVD for a while because Patton got married and had a kid not too long ago and, as he pointed out so astutely once, nothing kills comedy like being happy. I was resigned to the fact that My Weakness Is Strong was going to epitomize the niche suckiness of parenting humor and didn't want to witness a once brilliant comedian wasting his prodigious talents on such boring garbage. I was totally wrong in two ways. First of all, yeah, he talks a little about being a father, but all his observations are refreshingly unsentimental and kind of demented. And with his new material he casts himself in a pretty vulnerable light, adding a new layer of depth to his comedy. He talks about his struggle with depression and his attempts to wean himself off Prozac, as well as the toll his outsized well of negativity that is the source for so much of his creative inspiration has taken on his life. Everybody knows that comedians are miserable people but I don't think I've ever heard someone get to the heart of it as artfully as Patton does in My Weakness Is Strong.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 6, 2010 4:56pm

Nói (Nói albínói)

Dir: Dagur Kari, 2003. Starring: Tomas Lemarquis, Prostur Leo Gunnarsson, Elin Hansdottir. Foreign.

He can solve a Rubik's cube in less than two minutes. He sleeps like the dead, especially in class. He bobs his head to reggae and can break into just about anything, or even beat you at a complex board game in the first move. His name is Nói (Tomas Lemarquis) and in his Icelandic small town locals can't figure out if he's the village idiot or an undiscovered wonder kid.

Yes, I've chosen to review another coming of age film. Like Louis Malle, I think it's a common source of intrigue for me, though I hope you'll discover that, aside from my personal interest, the genre is the best way to learn about the nuances of youth across the world. This is the first and only Nordic film that I've seen that is not based in the city or in the distant past, which I'm sure is more cutting edge. The director kept things interesting by being simple and yet very potent. Unlike directors who attempt to jazz things up and shoot in the more industrial mainland of nations, Nói is set in the outskirts and follows its albino outcast through his uneventful and yet mesmerizing adventures. Even though the film is fairly slow and doesn't have a wide array of events, it is more alive and present that some of the sappy over-stimulating dramas that we're used to. Its pathos and grim humor stand as excellent examples of everything that should be in the work of an up and coming filmmaker.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 5, 2010 4:38pm

Overnight

Dirs: Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith, 2003. Documentary.

The tough-minded vision of a master filmmaker fighting the odds to bring his vision to the screen has made for some truly memorable documentaries over the years. The almost mad mavericks Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now in Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse and Werner Herzog’s epic struggle to make Fitzcarraldo in Burden Of Dreams - the documentaries are almost as good as the films themselves. Another interesting film is Lost In La Mancha which chronicles Terry Gilliam's attempt to get the unbearable looking The Man Who Killed Don Quixote started and completed, the latter never happened. These are three men devoted to filmmaking with grand goals. The documentary Overnight is about another filmmaker, Troy Duffy, trying to get his first film, The Boondock Saints, made. Unfortunately for this maniacal egomaniac his visions are mostly about himself and how cool his sunglasses are.

Back in the '90s Harvey Weinstein and his film company, Miramax Pictures, were riding a wave of good fortune and good will after making an overnight sensation out of a video store clerk turned happening director/screenwriter, Quentin Tarantino. Suddenly everybody had a script ready to go and were ready to be discovered by Weinstein. Unfortunately, it also made Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction two of the most imitated films of their day. Hip dudes spewing cool dialog and then nonchalantly taking part in extreme violence and gunplay. (Does anyone want to sit through Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead, Very Bad Things, Love & A .45, The Salton Sea or 2 Days In The Valley again?) One of the worst Tarantino clones was The Boondock Saints. Overnight is the story of how The Boondock Saints' production was hot, then cold, and then barely got made.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 4, 2010 11:40am

The Inkwell

Dir: Matty Rich, 1994. Starring: L. Tate, J. Morton, S. Douglas, G. Turman, V. B. Calloway, J. P. Smith. Black Cinema.

A "vacation film" seems to be in order before the summer ends, so I chose an old favorite of mine which was set in the '70s and has early performances from several great actors, many whom have been forgotten, and others who rose to stardom. Larenz Tate (Menace II Society, Why Do Fools Fall In Love) plays the leading role as a young teenage boy named Drew. It's difficult to explain why you start to feel for his character very early on, but I'm sure it has to do with his disposition. Besides being a shy virgin whose only friend is his doll, his parents Brenda (Suzzanne Douglas) and Kenny (Joe Morton) seem convinced that he is mentally disturbed and that a blaze he recently set in the house might not have been an accident. With all the bad vibes floating around they decide to spend the Fourth of July weekend at Brenda's sister's house in Martha's Vineyard.

Upon arrival, things go exactly as they seemed to go for me when I was young and going on family vacations. In fact, I think this is one of the few films I've seen that hits the awkwardness of distant and eccentric relatives on the nose. There's that annoying first night when you're not in your own bed—the aggravation from your cousin(s) who are either more boring than you thought any teenager could possibly be, or worse, they're too cool to socialize with you. For Drew, his problem rests in the latter as his cousin, Junior, is a pompous, smooth-talking bully. But Drew isn't the only one having problems with the relatives, and the narrative of the film works wonders by having people for his parents to hate as well, thus putting them in their son's shoes for once. Brenda's sister Francis (Vanessa Bell Calloway) and her husband Spencer (Glynn Turman) are two conservatives who have all the great Republican presidents' portraits on their wall, while Kenny is a former Black Panther and Brenda wears a dashiki. As you can imagine, things get quite messy between both the youngsters and the adults.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Aug 3, 2010 4:21pm

The Big Chill

Dir: Lawrence Kasdan, 1983. Starring: T. Berenger, G. Close, J. Goldblum, W. Hurt, K. Kline, M. K. Place, M. Tilly, J. Williams. Drama.

Don’t get me wrong, I hate yuppies as much as the next guy. And the thought of two hours of white bread yuppies reconnecting while bemoaning their lost youth and wondering where the dreams went, I would agree, sounds painful. The idea had been filmed once before by indie maverick John Sayles with his very boring Return Of The Secaucus Seven in ’79. But for the much better The Big Chill, director/ screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan was able to ensemble a dream cast of bright up and comers who brought magic to his incredibly complicated and witty script (written with Barbara Benedek).

Kasdan had been a hot go-to guy for scripts, having written The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders Of The Lost Ark. His first outing as a director was the steamy modern noir twister, Body Heat, starring the young William Hurt and Kathleen Turner (with an excellent little role for an even younger Mickey Rourke). The Big Chill was his personal take on a group of 1960s college friends reuniting fifteen years later for the funeral for their mutual bud, Alex (played in flashbacks by Kevin Costner, though those scenes were famously cut out of it. Kasdan would reward Costner with a plum role in his next film, the overrated gee-wiz Western, Silverado).

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 2, 2010 5:05pm

Word Is Out

Directed by Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, 1977. Gay Cinema.

You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been. This is never more true than in how we think about Civil Rights issues. A documentary recently restored and released onto DVD through a joint effort of Outfest and UCLA's Film & Television Archive, Word Is Out, is an enormously moving survey of the lives of ordinary Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian. It was made in 1977 and it features a variety of people from many different walks of life. It manages to be riveting for most of its running time and this is especially noteworthy considering it features nothing more than people talking about growing up gay and how their sexual identity has enriched their lives and simultaneously made their lives more difficult. This is fairly benign stuff, the kind of thing you might hear on This American Life week after week, but its cultural and historical importance as a record of gay life in America in the post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS era is priceless.

In 1977, the gay rights movement was just getting under way in the U.S. before AIDS would ravage the community a few years later. The interviews with gay and lesbians in Word Is Out don't feature any talk of AIDS because it hadn't devastated the community yet, but it was hard not to wonder whether anyone interviewed in the film had their lives destroyed by the disease in the years since the interviews took place. Still the interviewees had plenty to contend with. Some of them were sent to mental institutions by their families when they came out to them. One woman was discharged dishonorably from the army. One woman lost custody of her kids when she left her husband for a woman. And yet, through these interviews, one gets the impression that these regular folks have an incredible sense of perspective and peace of mind that they earned the hard way. Their friendliness, optimism, and bravery shine through in these interviews and it's hard not to wonder whether gay equality would have been on the radar sooner if a plague wasn't about to derail the movement.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 29, 2010 7:07pm

Once Upon A Time In The West

Dir: Sergio Leone, 1968. Starring: Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards. Westerns.

Sergio Leone's giant mega-Spaghetti Western is the ultimate Spaghetti Western. It may be the greatest Western of all time, period (it's at least up there with Shane and The Wild Bunch) and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Like a novel, we are introduced very carefully to four separate characters, their motives and links to each other slowly come together. Like an opera, Ennio Morricone's masterful score gives each character their own theme. Once Upon A Time In The West is such a unique and fascinating film, it's no wonder that its influence can be seen in so many films after it, including the works of directors Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez.

The Spaghetti Western is a term which refers to a genre of Westerns generally starting in the 1960s which were produced by Italians (but often shot in Spain). They usually had another Euro co-financier (usually Spain) and they would use an international cast (usually Italians and Spaniards and maybe an American) to sell the film in different countries. The '70s would also see the rise of sub-genres such as Spaghetti Gangster and Spaghetti Zombie flicks. A number of Spaghetti Western directors had an impact like Enzo Barboni (They Call Me Trinity), Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown), Gianfranco Parolini (the Sabata trilogy), and Sergio Corbucci (Django). But the big dog, the Orson Welles of the genre, was Sergio Leone. He hit it big with his "Dollars trilogy" (Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly). Beside Leone himself the trilogy also made international stars out of the score's revolutionary composer, Morricone, and its star, Clint Eastwood, then only known as a hack American TV actor.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 28, 2010 4:24pm

It Came From Kuchar

Dir: Jennifer M. Kroot, 2009. Documentary.

I'm not sure how to begin this, so I'll try to make it linear, though the documentary is nothing but. George and Mike Kuchar are two twin brothers, born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. I can imagine their birth to be extraordinary; a lighting bolt striking their mother and producing these two electrifying individuals. That didn't really happen, but that's how it plays out in my imagination. At the age of eleven, the two were given consumer-grade 8mm cameras as gifts, but what would later become of those tools is nothing short of spectacular.

This documentary spans across generations of filmmakers and artists, mainly in the New York and San Francisco underground scenes. The interviews consist of those from the two brothers and the various "stars" of their B-movie delights, as well as people like John Waters and Christopher Coppola (brother of Nick Cage), who claim that the Kuchar brothers and their films were their first sources of inspiration. Other clips include archive footage of New York and San Francisco from the '50s to present day, as well as photos and/or interviews of various influential artists, such as Andy Warhol, Guy Maddin, and cartoonists Bill Griffith and Robert Crumb.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 27, 2010 2:17pm

I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (J'entends plus la guitare)

Dir: Philippe Garrel, 1991. Starring: Benoit Regent, Johanna ter Steege, Yann Collette, Brigitte Sy. Foreign.

Criterion released a DVD titled Philippe Garrel X 2, in which a restored copy of this film is officially released. Zeitgeist Films and The Film Desk have worked to present this collection simply because they, and others among certain film circles in France, think that Garrel's work has been widely overlooked, with the exception of Regular Lovers, which stars his son, Louis Garrel (The Dreamers)—an actor whose popularity reaches well beyond France. As a post-New Wave director, I think Garrel was trying to produce a film that cannot and will not function as entertainment, but rather a crippling and sensational piece of art. I'd say that he succeeded, but the poetic and lyrical dialogue of his characters speaks for itself.

The film is, in fact, an ode to Garrel's destructive ten-year relationship with the highly celebrated German singer, Nico. Gerard (Benoît Régent), in a sense, is Garrel and Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) is his girlfriend. Their relationship is indescribable, though they attempt, along with their close friend Martin (Yann Collette), to both define it in terms of love and happiness. Gerard defines love as something to live for, and thus something you can die of when it runs out. It is his "love conquers all" rational that irritates his girlfriend the most. Marianne believes that love is everything you can't say, and a million other things—that happiness is simply the fear of being unhappy again. And Martin, their unsocial and awkward friend who is a painter, thinks that sometimes you can be too close to a person to actually see them in their entirely. For him, one cannot reason out or prove love. Like religion, you either believe in it or you don't, but in the end, the issue is merely subjective.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 26, 2010 6:48pm

The Office Special

Dirs: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, 2003. Starring: Ricky Gervais, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook, Lucy Davis. Television.

After only two seasons (twelve half hour episodes total) The Office returned for two more final episodes that beautifully wrap up the short-lived British series. The series had a massive influence on television, spawning a still on-going American version and made its star and creator, Ricky Gervais, into an instant comedy guru (he co-wrote and directed every episode with his partner, Stephen Merchant). Season Two ended on a rather depressing note. In the office of Wernham Hogg Paper Company blowhard boss David Brent (Gervais) had been fired. Everyman Tim (Martin Freeman) turned down the offer to take David’s job, leaving it open for David’s toadie, Gareth (Mackenzie Crook). Also Tim’s pursuit of Dawn (Lucy Davis) came to a fizzle as she and her fiancé, Lee, headed off for the United States. With The Office Special we pick up some time later. The Office had been a minor blip on the BBC TV schedule. David, by day, is now a cleaning supplies salesman, but in the evenings he is using his new minor fame (or infamy) to break into show business, doing the washed-up reality TV star circuit. Unfortunately it means appearances at rowdy bars with ex-Big Brother cast member types for a hostile crowd (they hate him). Not working at the office but spending much of his free time there, with Gareth’s help, he is also pursuing a relationship on an Internet dating site (so he can score a date to the Office’s Christmas party). David trying to find reasons to be back at the office is David at his most pathetic - all one can do is pity the man.

The Office has always been about the slow burn. The humor is not in the immediate joke but in what the characters say, it may only be a funny line to someone who already understands the character, their motivations, and their insecurities. Like the influences Gervais has cited for his humor, the films of Christopher Guest (the one good one, Waiting For Guffman), This Is Spinal Tap (Guest co-wrote and co-starred in it, but it was actually directed by Rob "Meathead" Reiner), and the most obvious influence Garry Shandling’s brilliant inside Hollywood, character-driven The Larry Sanders Show. Both are giddy in the burning humiliation of their characters, but unlike the cruelty of much cynically spirited humor, it's obvious that Shandling and Gervais both have hearts and affection for the men they play and the characters around them.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 26, 2010 3:46pm
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