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).
One would think that as blunt a director as Sam Fuller would have little use for metaphor when making a film about racism, but the director best known for his hard-hitting pulpy exposes of social injustice uses symbolism in White Dog as fluently as he used shock value in his previous films, without omitting any of the controversy expected of him. When Fuller made White Dog he had already pushed buttons with Shock Corridor’s blunt portrayal of inhumane conditions in sanitariums in the 1950s and The Naked Kiss’s vitriolic condemnation of small town hypocrisy. So why did Paramount seek out Fuller to co-write and direct a film based on a true story of a dog trained to attack Blacks, and then shelve the finished product? Fuller was back in favor after The Big Red One (1980), his first film after he made Shark! with Burt Reynolds in 1969, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Paramount pitched Fuller the concept, based on a Romain Gary article for Life magazine that Gary had adapted from his book Chien Blanc, and Fuller signed on to co-write the script with Curtis Hanson and direct the film. Together they adapted the non-fiction work into the story of Julie Sawyer, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd while driving in the dark canyon roads of the Hollywood Hills. She rescues the dog, but after he attacks a co-worker, Julie believes that she has a former attack dog for a pet and takes him to movie set animal trainer Carruthers to reverse his aggressive training. When he sees the dog maul a Black man, he tells Julie that she has a “white dog,” a dog trained by racists to attack only Blacks. Keyes, a Black trainer with an anthropological bent, attempts to deprogram Julie’s racist dog as an experiment in the reversal of racial inculcation. Paramount was intent to avoid any accusations of insensitivity and in an attempt to obviate any complaints asked the president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP to be on set during the shoot. After the film’s completion the organization voiced its disapproval of the film and Paramount decided to forgo its release.
This Criterion release is the first time White Dog has been available in the U.S. It never had a theatrical release here (although it did in France where it had decent ticket sales) and it has never been available on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or shown on television. Those of us who were lucky enough to rent (or work, *hech-hem*) at Mondo Kim’s in the East Village could rent a fuzzy bootleg with overmodulated sound. It was painful to listen to Ennio Morricone’s score in such a distorted form, but Faustian bargains were made to glimpse Fuller’s recondite masterpiece. Criterion does film scholars and the film community an immeasurable service when they release rare and obscure films like White Dog, Salo, Taste of Cherry, Sans Soleil, etc., more than amply making up for the plastic and human resources the label wastes the few times it releases films of questionable cinematic value that were already in wide circulation (I’m not going to name names. But one starts with Chasing…) By releasing White Dog Criterion is sharing with viewers one the strongest denunciations of racism in American film history, a denunciation that was stolen from audiences by Paramount’s timidity and the NAACP’s short-sightedness.Continue Reading
Joan Crawford grabbed at life the only way she knew how—by the balls, baby. She fled a hard scrabble childhood full of the horrors to become the reigning queen of Hollywood. She defied so many odds put in front of her and she almost always came out on top. Joan was many different versions of herself throughout her life: gold digger, jazz baby, Pepsi hawker, perennial MGM shop girl, terrible, terrible mother, the greatest star the world has ever known, poster woman for mental illnesses, bizarre recipe creator, transgender identity pioneer, role model to the uneducated, black market baby taker, dubious advice giver, enemy of slovenly hippies, the world’s most famous neat freak, world class fashion don’t… she did it all. Her crazy life was her greatest work of art.
When people talk about Joan’s essential artifice (and likewise the supposedly superior talents of her chief star rival, Bette Davis) I don’t understand why they mean it in a bad way. Her artifice was the whole picture and it was riveting. It gave her a unique kind of depth. It set her apart. She didn’t want to be liked; she demanded to be worshiped. Whether in a black market stag film early in her career (as was rumored) or any number of MGM prestige pictures or in her obsessive assembling of her bizarre family set up, Joan’s way of life was to attack. Her ambition was her identity. This can be either repulsive or, if she was in the right film, it can be put to very compelling use.Continue Reading
Your high school English teacher always said everybody had a story in them. The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was a filmmaker who only had one story, a story of revolution that he attempted to tell in as many ways as possible. As a Jew trying to survive in Italy during the Second World War, Pontecorvo became a Marxist. Going into hiding, he organized Partisans to fight the fascist government and also wrote for the Communist Party’s underground newspaper. His early exposure and involvement in radical leftist politics led to his adoption of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial theories, ideas that he would subsequently develop in his magnum opus Battle of Algiers (1965) and later in Burn!
Battle of Algiers ideological ambiguity angered many conservative viewers and critics upon its release only three years after the French loss of the Algerian War. At the time the French right wing terrorist group OAS (the villains of Fred Zinneman’s Day of the Jackal) was still active and had attempted to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle three years before for his role in the decay of the French empire. Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years, ostensibly for showing the atrocities committed by the French armed forces and the Algerian insurgents’ National Liberation Front with the same objective remove. The events portrayed in the film were carefully researched to accurately represent similar occurrences from 1954-1960. In contrast, Pontecorvo’s next film had only a tenuous connection to any factual incidences. The protagonist, William Walker, played by Marlon Brando, is very loosely based on the 19th century American rogue adventurer of the same name who while under contract from the Nicaraguan government to put down a rebellion ended up declaring himself President of Nicaragua. His story is told in Alex Cox’s brilliant film, Walker, finally available from Criterion, starring Ed Harris with a score composed by Joe Strummer.Continue Reading
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Buckwheat from Our Gang wash the back of his holiness the Pope with a scrub brush in a stand-alone bathtub in the middle of the woods? Has the idea of witnessing Moe, Curly and Larry shoot a flock of diseased goats ever cross your mind? Or perhaps, getting a bird’s eye view of several nuns free falling through the atmosphere during an impromptu skydiving trip? If so, Mister Lonely is the film for you.
Mister Lonely is the story of a shy Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) living and dancing his way through the streets of Paris. While performing at a retirement home, Michael comes into contact with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have lunch at which point Marilyn invites Michael to accompany her to a commune inhabited by celebrity impersonators located in the Highlands of Scotland. At first, Michael is apprehensive. But the beautiful and very uncanny Monroe impersonator convinces him to join her. Michael gathers his things in a scene, which in my opinion, is the embodiment of the entire film. Never has a moment in a film where a character interacts with furniture ever make me feel the way in which this particular (and peculiar) scene did.Continue Reading
Lady in White
A curious mix of autumn colored nostalgia for a small town early 1960s childhood and a supernatural fantasy with an icky child murderer sub plot to round it out, Lady in White is something of an anomaly. Released at a time when horror films were gorier than ever (think Freddy, Jason, et al.) this quietly creepy little movie made a virtue of suggestiveness rather than overkill and at least the hint of psychological complexity that works to the film’s favor even if the execution is a little clumsy. Still, the film has a couple of genuinely haunting moments that have some of the visual poetry of the classic Val Lewton horror films that he made for RKO (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie).
Little Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is a sensitive kid and a budding writer who loves to scare people with his monster stories. After terrifying his classmates with a special story he wrote just for Halloween he is tricked by some of his bratty classmates into being locked in the school coatroom after everyone else has gone home. He falls asleep only to wake up hours later, trying not to panic in his little Dracula costume, with the glow of moonlight shining in the window. It’s this scene that stays with you—just a simple, almost completely still shot that speaks artfully of the very real childhood fear of being abandoned, of being lost in the darkness that you are too young to comprehend.Continue Reading
Encounters at the End of the World
It’s an uncontestable fact that Werner Herzog is the greatest living director. His latest documentary Encounters at the End of the World may not be as cathartic or controversial as his dramatic features, but it validates Herzog’s ability to personalize every film that he directs with the creation of hypnotic, surreal images, images that despite their otherworldliness symbolize a litany of urgent, undeniable truths. The most famous of these are the 360-ton steamship being pulled over a hill in the Amazon rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, as well as the dancing chicken and interminable ski-lift ride in the finale of Stroszek. People who have seen multiple Herzog films walk away with images they hold personally to them, like amulets; for me it’s Kaspar Hauser standing immobile in the village square clutching a letter that he can’t read. Only a director like Herzog could go to edge of the planet and make a film that is idiosyncratic.
Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (his DP for the majority of his films since Gesualdo) received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to travel to Antarctica for several months to shoot footage for a documentary. The director seems to express ambivalence at the beginning of the film about his suitability for the subject, saying that he’s not interested in making a movie about “fluffy penguins.” Ironically, he ends up shooting some of the cutest baby and mommy seal footage I’ve ever seen. It eventually becomes apparent that Herzog’s focus is not so much the landscape as it is the modern day explorers who have come to study the frozen continent. The bleak landmass has become a magnet to a millenarian mixture of scientists, engineers, cooks, survival experts, and ice terrain vehicle drivers who believe that the secret of the earth’s future, and perhaps demise, is hidden in the landscape and wildlife of this frozen desert. Herzog compares these people driven to the end of the map by their dreams to adventurers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Admundsen, forsaking comfort and civilization to be near the Unnameable.Continue Reading
There are some who would say that Bloodsport was the film Ingmar Bergman intended to make when he directed Wild Strawberries. And to be perfectly serious Bloodsport is the better film.
When Frank Dux’s childhood friend and the son of his martial arts mentor is killed in a Kumite, a bloody underground mixed martial arts championship, Dux (Jean-Claude van Damme) goes AWOL from his army post to travel to Hong Kong to compete in the next Kumite and avenge his fallen friend’s honor. Hot on his trail, two military agents (one played by Forest Whitaker) follow him to protect the army’s investment in Dux’s amazing martial arts talents. With the help of a wrestler with a huge forehead (Donald Gibb from Revenge of the Nerds) also competing in the tournament and a plucky and attractive female journalist, Dux enters the brutal Kumite and displays his excellent fighting skills. But can he beat the man-killing, pec-flexing Chong Li or will he end up like his boyhood buddy?Continue Reading
Dust Devil: The Final Cut
Dust Devil has suffered from a bad reputation ever since Harvey and somebody Weinstein eviscerated Richard Stanley’s cut of the film from 108 minutes to 87 for its ill-fated theatrical release. Stanley’s previous feature was the cult hit Hardware, which was noted for having made back its micro budget many times over as a video store hit. Why the Weinsteins chose to lop off 20 minutes and remove all the sense from the film is a bit of a mystery. Hopefully, Dust Devil: The Final Cut will redeem the film in the eyes of those who had seen it previously and introduce this gem to a new generation of horror fans.
Set in an arid, remote region of South Africa, Dust Devil follows an enigmatic serial killer (Robert John Burke), half man-half demon who follows the lonely highway, making love to and then killing depressed women. The killer uses ritual magic, attempting through his murders to transcend the earthly plane so he can return to the spiritual world. The desert setting gives the film a Western atmosphere as does the casting of an American actor in the drifter-killer role. Whether there are supposed to be additional political connotations in an American man using African magic and killing white African women is an unresolved quandary. Wendy, a narcissistic housewife, leaves her brutish husband, eventually crossing paths with the handsome killer. The fact that neither the killer, nor Wendy, nor her husband are likeable characters and the latter two are idiots, makes the final battle all the more enjoyable. By liberating you from sympathizing with the protagonists, Stanley allows the viewers to consider the killer’s motivations objectively and also enjoy the resulting bloodshed more thoroughly.Continue Reading
Morgan!: A Suitable Case for Treatment
I volunteer, in an unofficial capacity, that David Warner could play with intelligence and wit any part offered to him. Misogynistic art film buffs will fondly remember his uncredited role in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, 80s comedy fans know him best as vampire hunting Professor McCarthy in My Best Friend is a Vampire, and a certain blog writer can’t choose between his best performances, as Evil Genius in Time Bandits and Jack the Ripper in Time after Time. Warner’s rugged, sculpted features and his Royal Shakespeare Company training have made him one of the most versatile and charismatic film actors, on par with other distinctive, powerful talents like Stephen Rea and Harvey Keitel. Warner gives his leading man performance in Morgan! with such ease and virtuosity, it’s incredible that he’s so often been relegated to smaller roles. His is a rather unlikeable character: a juvenile underproductive artist with a complex involving gorillas and Communism, financially supported by his soon to be ex-wife. Vanessa Redgrave does a lot with a thin role as his rich, unappreciated spouse who has transferred her affections to Morgan’s oleaginous art dealer. Already suffering from (or in Morgan’s case thoroughly enjoying) delusions and fantasies, his wife’s ambivalent reaction to his attempts to win her back makes him lose his grasp of reality.
Morgan! is a seminal film in the Mod movement that flourished in England during a short period from the early to mid-1960s. Mod filmmakers like John Schlesinger, Richard Lester, and Karel Reisz transitioned from “kitchen sink” documentaries funded by the British government to Mod’s more vibrant, stylized aesthetic, some of them then continuing on to more commercial careers. While there has been controversy amongst sociologists as to whether the Mod movement was a working- class rebellion against mass-produced culture or an embracement of consumerism across class barriers, Mod filmmakers firmly posited Mod style as a youth-oriented rebellion against the previous generations mores, characterized in film by a stylized aesthetic and structure, portrayals of sexual liberty, and a quirky, if hit-or-miss sense of humor.Continue Reading
The Red Shoes
The first time I heard a reference to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes was Wes Anderson discussing it as cinematographic inspiration for the Royal Tenenbaums--one of my favorite films. I knew then that I HAD to see The Red Shoes and wasn't surprised when the film begins with a book being opened, just as Wes Anderson begins his own film. The similarities don't end there, and as I watched I began to see why he was so inspired by The Red Shoes: the film is beautifully shot in technicolor, superbly acted, sumptuously danced, and touchingly tragic.
Though roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, the story revolves around the struggle between a ballerina, a composer, and the man attempting to make his own dreams come true by bringing fame to them all. Anton Walbrook is dark and impressive as the antagonist, ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, whose standards are so high that he abhors the idea of his proteges disturbing their creative lives by finding love. When the two protagonists, Ballerina Vicky Page, played by Moira Shearer, and Composer Julien Craster, played by Marius Goring, fall desperately in love with each other the Company that Lermontov has assembled begins to fall apart as he loses his own grip on reality. All with the most tragic of results.Continue Reading