Malcolm X

Dir: Spike Lee, 1992. Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Spike Lee, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr. Black Cinema.

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.

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Edythe Smith
Jul 19, 2010 6:38pm

The Great Mouse Detective

Dir: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, 1986. Starring: Vincent Price, Burny Mattison, David Michener, John Musker. Children's.

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 risqué 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.

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Edythe Smith
Jul 14, 2010 1:45pm

Matilda

Dir: Danny DeVito, 1996. Starring: Mara Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Embeth Davidtz, Pam Ferris. Children’s.

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.

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Edythe Smith
Jul 12, 2010 7:46pm

Puppets & Demons

Dir: Patrick McGuinn, 1997. Short Films.

Several works from filmmaker Patrick McGuinn (Sun Kissed, Eulogy for a Vampire) are collected in this delightful DVD. Below are descriptions of the shorts featured, many of them done with 16mm film and Claymation, and later with digital video once the technology became available.

 

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 6, 2010 3:31pm

Dancing Outlaw

Dir: Jacob Young, 1991. Documentary.

Dancing Outlaw is the first of two films by director Jacob Young that follow the comical and sometimes endearing daily rituals of Jesco White—a young man with a few different personalities who has followed his father’s footsteps in attempting to become the greatest living mountain dancer in the Appalachians. He lives in Boone County, West Virginia—a place where everyone seems to have either gone mad or suffers from some kind of gentile and permanent cabin fever.

His wife Norma Jean describes him in by far the most amusing and unflinching way, claiming that he is the most beautiful person that she’s ever met, but also the Devil himself. Through fluid interviews, she sort of forewarns the audience of Jesco’s three personalities: there’s Jesse, the son of his father who has a healthy beard and enjoys digging into his hillbilly roots and growing into a stronger tap dancer; Jesco, the man who wears grungy metal clothing, talks simple, and tells stories of sniffing glue and gasoline, among other things; and finally, there’s Elvis—Jesco’s personality at home, where his entire house is literally filled with an overwhelming amount of Elvis memorabilia. Aside from his home being stuffed with everything with “The King’s” face on it, he also slicks back his hair, wears fancy clothes, shaves his beard, sculpts his brows, and records himself singing along to Elvis records in his bedroom.

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Edythe Smith
Jul 5, 2010 12:36pm

The Blood Splattered Bride

Dir: Vincente Aranda, 1972. Starring: Simon Andreu, Maribel Martin, Alexandra Bastedo. Horror.

Feminist theory and the Sexual Revolution explode on screen for this fleshy and colorful vampire tale. It bends the rules quite a bit by allowing for vampires who roam around in daylight, as well as having a female lead and another who plays the vampire in erotic pursuit.

Susan (Maribel Marti­n) and her husband (Simon Andreu) are two newlyweds who decide to skip a hotel and take their honeymoon at his family's estate. Susan quickly becomes an admirer of his home and family until she realizes their attitude toward women. After noticing that the walls containing portraits of his ancestors only have paintings of men, she discovers that all the ones of the women in the family are hidden in the cellar. One in particular sparks her interest—the portrait of Mircalla Kerstein, a young bride with a blood-stained pearl dagger and a missing face, who murdered her husband on their wedding night, claiming that he requested she do despicable things.

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Edythe Smith
Jun 28, 2010 5:23pm

Love at First Bite

Dir: Stan Dragoti, 1978. Starring: George Hamilton, Susan Saint James, Richard Benjamin, Arte Johnson. Comedy.

Dracula. Disco. Delusional dufuses. That's right folks, you get the whole package with this ridiculously funny and well-dialogued farce of Dracula.

The year is 1979, and things have certainly changed in 700 years. Count Vladimir Dracula (George Hamilton) and his bug eating servant Renfield (Arte Johnson) are evicted from their castle in Transylvania to make way for government training grounds. Distressed by the notice, he and Renfield try to decide where to live. The only contact that Dracula has had with the modern world is through women's magazines, which he collects to get a glimpse of Cindy Sondheim (Susan Saint James)—a model whom he believes is his soul mate and a reincarnation of women he was fond of centuries ago. In order to pursue her, they travel to New York where she lives, where he will try to win her heart.

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Edythe Smith
Jun 28, 2010 5:15pm

Late Bloomer (Osoi hito)

Dir: Go Shibata, 2004. Starring: Masakiyo Sumida, Naozo Hotta, Mari Torii. Asian Cinema.

Picture, if you can, a film with the nightmarish quality of a Harmony Korine movie in Japanese, with a bit more focus on the characters and plot, that is deliberately presented as an avant-garde horror film. Late Bloomer is about as close to that combination as you're ever going to get. Not only is it toxic and arresting like the films of Korine, who I'll admit is one of my favorite directors, but the film is extremely off-putting.

As far as craft goes, it is shot in black and white (needed, I assume, for the eerie quality and mass bloodshed), with out-of-date dissolves and overlapping images that I haven't seen in years. The soundtrack is also jarring, mainly consisting of minimal electronic and death metal.

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Edythe Smith
Jun 22, 2010 5:51pm

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Dir: Chan-wook Park, 2002. Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ha-kyun Shin, Doona Bae. Asian Cinema.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is perhaps one of the best anti-hero films I have ever seen, based on concept alone. Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy is unlike most others because the plot, actors, and characters are all in no way linked or the same, but each film circulates around revenge. Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a young deaf-mute who lives with his sister in a seedy apartment complex. His ambition was formerly focused on art school until his sister fell ill and needed a kidney transplant. He quit school and began working as a manual laborer in a factory in order to save up for her operation. Unable to give her one of his own kidneys because their blood types don't match, Ryu takes a chance and, using all the money that he has saved, tries to purchase a kidney from an illegal organ supply group which offers to give him the kidney he needs in exchange for one of his and 10 million won. But after waking up from the operation, he finds that the group has split with his clothes, money, and kidney.

Disheartened and furious about yet another streak of bad luck in his life, he vows to kill the people who wronged him. While visiting the medial center he frequents to find a donor, he receives the great news that they found a proper donor, which is hard to do in such a sort amount of time. The only problem is that Ryu has just been fired from his job and the operation costs 10 million won. Together, he and his girlfriend Cha-Yeong-mi (Doona Bae) decide to kill two birds with one stone by seeking vengeance on the illegal group and kidnapping his former employer's daughter for ransom in order to pay for his sister's operation.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 21, 2010 4:02pm

Punishment Park

Dir: Peter Watkins, 1971. Cult.

The ability to suspend disbelief is easiest to do when you're watching films about global conspiracies, justice systems, and especially politics. Having movies like this be shot in a documentary style only aids this experience. After seeing this movie, I can honestly say that I haven't been this motivated to discuss politics and justice in a long time, and I'm glad that a film could have the power to stir the pot. Punishment Park is set in 1970, a year before the film's release. Nixon is president and we are currently occupying Vietnam. Due to the war, America is going through a brutish and frightening phase where even a handful of politicians are resigning from office over their disgust with the nation's actions towards its outspoken citizens and the overall progress of mankind. With new laws and the proposed threat of Russia, there has been a complete re-working of the justice system in which American citizens have lost basic freedoms that were once seen as the staple of American life. These new laws include the "cancellation of immunity," stop and frisk laws, activation of detention camps, the ability to overrule basic amendments of the Constitution during trial, and the McCarran Act—a real law developed in the '50s that called for the ability to investigate Americans who posed a threat to national security, and was later dismissed and "revised."

Individuals seen as a threat to national security include those who start riots or do any sort of activism that carries a violent message; those evading or refusing the draft; those charged with Communism; and even a privileged 19-year old whose pop music is accused of having harmful messages and promoting violence. As a particular group of people are being given a ludicrous trial by a bonkers committee of trustees, a batch of people who have already received their own trials are being transported to Punishment Park—the alternative option to a prison sentence after being found guilty.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jun 15, 2010 4:42pm
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