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).
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.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
The Big Chill
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).Continue Reading
Word Is Out
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.Continue Reading
Once Upon A Time In The West
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.Continue Reading
It Came From Kuchar
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.Continue Reading
I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (J'entends plus la guitare)
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.Continue Reading
The Office Special
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.Continue Reading
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