Shaft

Dir: John Singleton, 2000. Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christian Bale, Jeffrey Wright, Toni Collette. Black Cinema.

About the only thing this Shaft remake has in common with the original Richard Roundtree cop classic is that great Isaac Hayes theme song and similar funky score (and Roundtree pops up in a supporting role in this one). Both Shafts are swinging ladies men and both have to deal with race issues being African-American cops in a hostile world and working with a corrupt police force. What makes the remake stand out as more than just a serviceable late night TV time killer is the presence of two great unlikely villains teaming up, played by two great actors, Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright, working at their scenery chewing best.

The original Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks is usually unjustly labeled "blaxploitation," but it’s degrading because Shaft was actually much closer in class and style to an acclaimed crime film like The French Connection than say, some jive like Superfly. Shaft became a minor cultural phenomenon, birthing two decent sequels and even a short-lived television series. The inevitable remake comes 30 years later, and though it might not have delivered as a franchise starter, it does deliver perfectly as a solid action guilty pleasure.

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Sean Sweeney
Jul 4, 2011 4:51pm

Out of the Past

Dir: Jacques Tourneur, 1947. Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Virginia Huston. Film Noir.

Of that post-WWII generation of male actors who came of age in war flicks but really defined themselves in the Film Noir genre, none was cooler than Robert Mitchum (and that was a group of cool dudes that included Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, and his co-star here Kirk Douglas). Whether playing a hero or a villain, Mitchum reeked of both danger and manly charm even when he spewed indifference. His career spanned decades with a number of signature roles and important films, but of the Noir period none was better than that of ex-detective turned gas station owner Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.

Director Jacques Tourneur is more known today for his groundbreaking horror flicks with producer Val Lewton: Cat People, The Leopard Man and I Walked With a Zombie. Though in retrospect those eerie and strange shadowy black n’ white flicks could be called horror noir, making the Frenchman the perfect director to bring his almost Expressionistic approach to a crime mystery in what was then considered a B-genre. Like much gothic horror, Jeff Bailey is a guy haunted by his past, trying to escape from his own mind and hide from his own instincts.

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Sean Sweeney
Jul 1, 2011 7:57pm

Election

Dir: Alexander Payne, 1999. Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell. Comedy.

On first appearance what could be just another high school comedy is actually much, much more. From Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the directing and writing team later responsible for About Schmidt and Sideways, Election is a wonderfully smart political satire as well as a rich character study of suburban Omaha, full of truths about both teen and adult life. Reese Witherspoon, in her best performance and perhaps best role, brilliantly plays Tracy Flick, an ambitious high school overachiever, so driven she mostly comes off as unlikable and vindictive, but her back story proves to be much more complicated.

Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) seems perfectly content in his life; his marriage may be stale, but he finds an almost smug satisfaction in being a beloved teacher. Tracy is running unopposed for student body president in the upcoming school election and the inevitable outcome starts to grate on Jim, not just because he finds her generally annoying as a student but also because he knows a secret about her. His one time best teaching bud, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik), had an affair with Tracy. After some manipulation she told her mother, which inevitably led to Dave’s firing and his wife, Linda (Delaney Driscoll), leaving him. Jim and his wife Diane (Molly Hagan) are trying to get pregnant, but with Dave now out of the picture, Jim has developed an attraction for Linda and tries to have an affair with her.

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Sean Sweeney
Jun 29, 2011 12:41pm

Goodfellas

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 1990. Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino. Drama.

Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s real life true crime book on minor criminal Henry Hill, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas marks the last great film for the director and for most of the high caliber talent on both sides of the camera. Spanning three decades, this epic is the ultimate and maybe final word on the world of organized crime. These guys don’t seem to be as politically connected as the Corleones of The Godfather or even the Jersey gangsters of The Sopranos (which carries many crossover cast members), they are a petty crime crew of thieves and are willing to use extreme violence to protect their interests and egos. However as the culture of the '70s takes root in their old-world existence, though warned by their highest authority, Pauley (Paul Sorvino), not to get involved with drugs, they eventually lead to Henry’s downfall. It’s an amazing journey made more amazing by the brilliant filmmaking style of director Scorsese working at the peak of his creative powers.

Like a life in crime itself the film sucks you in, showing you the highlights then becoming increasingly dangerous, and eventually you're searching for a way out. As far back as Henry can remember he wanted to be a gangster. The young Irish-Italian kid gets a job working for the mob at their cabstand. They take him under their wing, teaching him the ways of a criminal, as well as the philosophy (most importantly “never rat on your friends”). With an unhappy home life, the gangsters make Henry feel a part of something bigger than him. Eventually he grows up to be played by the actor, Ray Liotta. Coming off of strong good guy and bad guy performances in Field Of Dreams and Something Wild, Liotta proves to be ingenious casting by Scorsese. Though handsome and charming in a rogue way he’s an offbeat leading man who brings a lot of danger to every role (peaking as the aging, corrupt cop in Narc). As an adult Henry becomes a part of the crew led by Jimmy The Gent (Robert De Niro) and his psychotic nephew, Tommy (Joe Pesci, brilliant in an Oscar winning performance). The film follows their ever-escalating crime schemes peaking with a famous Air France robbery.

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Sean Sweeney
Jun 23, 2011 3:30pm

RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy

Dir: Shane O’Sullivan, 2007. Documentary.

As a hardcore JFK assassination buff (what red-blooded American kid didn’t go through that phase and read Mark Lane’s amazing book Rush To Judgment?), I have to admit, I generally thought that it was kind of a given that Sirhan Sirhan was the lone gunman in brother Bobby’s murder. There have been some swirling conspiracy theories in the back of my head but I never acknowledged them, thinking the assassination of RFK was pretty much an open and shut case. But Shane O’Sullivan's documentary on everything you could ever want to know about the case is very persuasive in making its claim that there is more than meets the eye. Like the JFK case, what makes it more suspicious is the effort that was put forth by law enforcement (LAPD and the FBI) to convince witnesses that they didn’t actually see or experience what they think they saw and experienced. RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy may be the quintessential document on the case with some stunning information and footage that I had no idea was available to the public.

Director O’Sullivan proves to be a smart unbiased filmmaker; he lets some of his dramatic conclusions contradict themselves when they don’t fully add up as neatly as a Hollywood story. He’s not fully sure where the information will take him so therefore he does not appear to be driving the story in one direction. The material just so happens to lead to the conclusion that something odd happened that night at the Ambassador Hotel.

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Sean Sweeney
Jun 22, 2011 1:06pm

Play It Again, Sam

Dir: Herbert Ross, 1972. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Jerry Lacy. Comedy.

If Play It Again, Sam looks a little more like a generic 1970s romantic comedy than the usual Woody Allen flick of the period, that’s because Allen didn’t direct it. But it was based, seemingly line-for-line, on his own popular Broadway play with the three stars (Allen, Diane Keaton & Tony Roberts) reprising their roles. Allen was still early and raw in his directing career, so the much blander Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl), an ex-theater choreographer, took the helm. But it still has Allen’s incredibly funny script, showing many signs of the more mature style that would explode into Annie Hall, later in the decade.

Woody plays Allan, a San Francisco film fanatic and writer. Recently dumped by his wife, he’s even more of a mess than usual and in need of constant consolation from his friends, the married couple Dick and Linda (Roberts and Keaton), though Dick always seems to be preoccupied with work. Allan is hoping to score with a chick to help mend his broken heart, but he’s more comfortable watching movies than talking to a woman. Like a classic film geek, his life and his relationship to the world are based on a pose he has seen in films (usually the classics). He’s so lonely and extreme in his film obsession that he has developed an imaginary friend, Humphrey Bogart in his full Casablanca trench coat and hat get up. Bogart imparts two-bit noir advice, "I never saw a dame yet that didn't understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45." Allan usually ignores the advice and does the opposite or when he tries to obey, it usually goes hopelessly wrong.

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Sean Sweeney
Jun 10, 2011 12:01pm

Z

Dir: Costa-Gavras, 1969. Starring: Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jean-Louis Trintignant. Foreign.

Once upon a time a little French film shot in Algeria by a Greek director became a massive international hit, winning a bunch of awards including a couple of Oscars. Z may actually be left wing propaganda, but it plays brilliantly as a fast paced piece of suspense pulp. Oh the 1960s! What an amazing time for filmmakers and film watching, you were. In the docu realism tradition of The Battle Of Algiers, the unnamed country of Z may look a lot like Greece or even Italy, but it could anywhere. The shooting at Kent State was just two years away, and much of the world appeared to be in political turmoil. Z plays like a "how to" guide for both sides: how to start a left-wing revolution and, for the people in charge of keeping the status quo, how to squash it.

Z opens with a title card reading, "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL." This tells you that director Costa-Gavras is willing to wear his politics (or his bias) on his sleeve. The military dictators are worried about political protests from “beatniks” and foreigners, and they commit to shutting down any outside agitation. As a left wing political leader known as both Deputy and Z (the all-time great French actor Yves Montand) prepares for a rally for nuclear disarmament, while the Russian ballet performs across the street, Government thugs carrying bats continue to harass and beat his supporters. Trying to cross the street the Deputy is walloped by a guy with a baseball bat - though fake witnesses say a drunk driver hit him - he sustains injuries that eventually kill him.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 9, 2011 4:15pm

The Kid Stays In The Picture

Dir: Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen, 2002. Starring: Robert Evans. Documentary.

The autobiography The Kid Stays In The Picture by one time hot-shot studio head and producer Robert Evans may be the only book to have gained a cult following with its audio recording. Evans reads from his own pages, and his cool persona as a guy with a lot of regret and a lot of amazing memories are quite entertaining. The film version uses those audio recordings for narration and a lot of archive footage, film clips, and most creatively still pictures with a 3-D effect to tell this rather astounding story of Evans' miraculous Hollywood rise and then devastating fall.

At first Evans was in the clothing business in New York with his brother. And then one lucky break after another happened for the tanned haberdasher. Famously, on a business trip to Los Angeles he was “discovered” by Norma Shearer while lounging by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was thrust into a minor acting career playing Irving Thalberg in the Lon Chaney bio A Man Of A Thousand Faces and then Pedro the bullfighter in The Sun Also Rises. That was the peak as an actor but he soon became an independent producer developing The Detective with Frank Sinatra. With Gulf & Western taking over Paramount Pictures out of seemingly nowhere Evans was made the Head of Production.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 6, 2011 8:28pm

Born Free

Dir: James Hill. Starring: Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers, Geoffrey Keen. Children's.

Having a realistic, almost The Battle of Algiers docudrama feel helps give Born Free an even bigger heart. The line between real life and film is pushed in so many ways; though as a child seeing this film, I didn’t quite know what a documentary was, that’s what Born Free almost appeared to be. The film is based on the best-selling book by Joy Adamson about her and her husband’s experience raising a lion named Elsa from cub to full-grown. Real life married acting couple Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers play Joy and her husband George, adding to the realism. But what really separates the film from one of those Disney pseudo nature docs is its nice score by John Barry with that moving theme song.

The Adamsons are a naturalist couple living in the Kenyan bush - he’s a game warden and she’s an artist/writer and a big animal lover. After a couple of lions in the jungle behave like lions, per his job, he goes and casually shoots them. But then he is stuck with their three little cubs, and he and Joy bottle-feed and hand raise them. She really takes a shine to the runt of the trio whom she names Elsa. Under pressure from their boss, Kendal (Geoffrey Keen), eventually the other two are shipped off to a zoo while Elsa stays behind to become one of the family. As she reached her full grown state, Joy makes a bold choice, instead of sending her to a zoo they release her back into the wild, because after all she was born free and deserves to live free. The dilemma though is, like any wild animal raised by humans, she is too tame and doesn’t have the skills to live in the wild. The Adamsons must teach Elsa to be a wild lion, all leading to a gut-wrenching conclusion as the Adamsons will eventually have to say goodbye to their giant pet cat.

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Sean Sweeney
Jun 4, 2011 6:42pm

Apocalypto

Dir: Mel Gibson, 2006. Starring Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernández, Raoul Trujillo, Jonathan Brewer. Foreign/Action.

It's not easy to heap praise on Mel Gibson. His apparent personal conduct and views are completely unappealing and, worse, totally offensive. On screen Gibson started out with a bang in the Mad Max films and was entertaining in the first Lethal Weapon movie, but otherwise his performances and choices of roles have not been very memorable. As a director, I couldn’t slog through his The Passion of the Christ; Man Without A Face was trite; and Braveheart was an overrated piece of hokum. All that aside, it’s easy to declare that his Mayan action adventure film, Apocalypto, is pretty damn brilliant, maybe even a sorta-whacked out masterpiece.

The film takes place in 16th century Central America near the end of the Mayan period, just before the arrival of the Spanish. It’s shot completely in the Yucatan Maya language with unknowns and non-actors, indigenous North Americans. In some ways the film is actually one long, exciting, and very brutal chase scene. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), low on his tribe's totem pole, witnesses his tribe being slaughtered and enslaved. He hides his wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and child and goes on an adventure worthy of Playstation. After killing of some of the raiders he is captured by the psychotic Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and led to the Mayan city, a much more advanced and destructive place than anything the young villager had experienced before. Jaguar Paw manages to escape after much horrific torture and human sacrifices, and is chased as he tries to get back to save his family. It’s a delirious obstacle death course of horror, as he has to make his way through the jungle using all his survival skills to outwit his captors.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 26, 2011 3:56pm
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