Nothing But a Man

Dir: Michael Roemer, 1964. Starring: Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Julius Harris. Black Cinema.

"They don't sound human, do they?" - Duff Anderson

When I was a kid, movies took up a big slice of my daily routine. I was an introverted introvert with nary a friend to call my own. Pop's wasn't around so that left my mom, sister and our RCA television to raise me. I was devouring movies at such an alarming rate my mother began to worry. But that's what mothers do; they worry about their children - especially African mothers. (How will she ever get a grandchild from someone who prays to a TV set?) By the time I was seventeen, I was a self-proclaimed film buff. (Not like I had anything else going for me.) I openly mocked peers with my cinema prowess, brandishing pithy one-liners and pop culture references to put them in their place. But one of those underlings asked an interesting question: "What was my favorite film on African American life?" It made me ponder how much Black cinema I've actually seen. The answer startled me. Now, outside of John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers, some Blaxploitation movies and the occasional Spike Lee joint, there weren't that many I was exposed to. I blamed it on the fact that compared to others, African American movies were far and few between. Heck, I saw more movies from Alfred Hitchcock than all the directors I named above combined. But that was lazy and actually quite inaccurate. There was plenty of gold to be had. So I started to dig. Nothing But A Man was one of those gems I discovered. Now this may come off as hyperbolical fluff but I honestly believe this is not only one of the best films on African American life, but American life, period. I never liked the distinction between the two anyway. It's rare to see a film on this subject handled with such tact and elegance - a quiet, sensitive piece with the delicacy and finesse of a Swiss watch.

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Posted by:
Aiah Samba
Jan 23, 2014 5:43pm

Julius Caesar

Dir: Joseph Mankiewicz, 1953. Starring: Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Greer Garson. Classics.

The DVD of the 1953 Hollywood version of Julius Caesar directed by the underrated Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) has been relegated to old-time Shakespeare buffs and students not wanting to sludge through actually reading the play. And yes, it looks a little stagey and feels a little dated and stiff, but it’s still a politically relevant play and has one of the most fascinating casts ever assembled for a Shakespeare adaption. Headlined by a young buck in only his fourth film, Marlon Brando absolutely dominates the veteran cast around him and proves his genius. His performance alone makes the film more than watchable, and luckily there are a few other treasures to be found in it.

The now familiar plot goes something like this... worried the head dog of Rome, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), was getting a little too powerful, his fellow politicians decide to kill him, led by the conniving Cassius (John Gielgud). Even Caesar’s good friend Brutus (James Mason) is convinced to join in the plot for the best of the Republic. The Senators all take turns stabbing Caesar (done mostly just off screen). After his death, Mark Antony (Brando), who was not part of the cabal and admired Caesar, is allowed to give a speech at his funeral only after agreeing to not implicate anyone. Brutus must deal with the nagging guilt, his still conspiring allies, and his wife Portia (Deborah Kerr). When Antony delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears speech” he convinces the crowd, using pure sarcasm and coded words, who is to blame for the murder. The speech is the centerpiece of the film and then it becomes a literal war between Antony and the conspirators who are all turning on each other.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 23, 2014 5:18pm

Hell Drivers

Dir: Cy Endfield, 1957. Starring: Stanley Baker, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan. Classics.

Much can be said in the realm of cinema for the undeniable attraction of masculinity for the sake of masculinity; observing men on the screen without the pretensions of heroics or unfathomable depth. Portraying men as these yearning, overly sympathetic balls of clay that can be molded into polite and admirable human beings with some ostentatious goal or task is a bit tired and unrealistic and done all too often. When you isolate the male, especially during the time that this film was made, you come out with primal displays of machismo that are oddly reassuring simply because they can be expected. Underneath the plot of this well-crafted, yet simple British film, is just that; men amongst men trying to downplay their competitive advances with each other using a speedometer, fights and a few witty remarks.

In the lead we find the handsome Stanley Baker (Zulu, The Guns of the Navarone) as Joe “Tom' Yately—an ex-con running from the past yet trying to get to a question mark of a future with haste. Through word of a dead friend he's learned about a company of truck drivers that operates in a bizarre way; should the speedometer for your vehicle drop to the speed limit (on a ballast top loader carrying tons of granite), you're fired. Men are expected to make above average drop offs to the granite yard and in return make a handsome salary.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jan 23, 2014 5:06pm

Buffalo '66

Dir. Vincent Gallo, 1998. Starring Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Ben Gazzara, Angelica Houston, Kevin Corrigan. Drama.

Few would dare to say that the films of Vincent Gallo are romantic. Certainly not when it comes to the ghostly plot of The Brown Bunny, and perhaps is even a stretch with Buffalo '66. Supposing you've seen these films (and this is more the case with Buffalo '66), you will have one of two reactions that says a lot about your own romantic relationships and you as a person. This, among other things, is something that brings me to view them more than any other drama. In all seriousness, Gallo's character studies—while vain due to the fact that he plays the leading male—are absolute works of genius; where transgression finds forgiveness and those of us who pine about the seemingly impossible task of finding someone just as strange as you can find solace and, I dare say, hope.

In the film we find Billy (Vincent Gallo), a young man released from prison after a five year stretch and understandably numb due to this experience. He seems to be someone who is cursed with bad luck and for a moment you're under the impression that his angst will lead him back to prison within a day. His first order of business is to call his mother to bring closure to a grandiose lie. He's informed his parents throughout his stint that he's actually been away on a top secret government assignment. Being a compulsive liar, he's also told them that he's married and promises to visit with his new wife. Through a random circumstance he meets Layla (Christina Ricci) and kidnaps her, though his efforts are more desperate and childish than violent. Intrigued by his efforts, and perhaps a bit smitten, Layla puts up a modest fight before hearing out his plea to get her assistance. He wishes to see his parents, which would mean introducing them to his non-existent wife. She agrees to play the role, and here their bizarre romance begins.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jan 23, 2014 4:56pm

Lost In America

Dir: Albert Brooks, 1985. Starring: Albert Brooks, Julie Hagerty. Comedy

Three comic masterpieces in a row is enough to put you on the higher rung of American humorists. The Marx Brothers had that run with Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Mel Brooks had The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (with the less vital The Twelve Chairs mixed in). WC Fields had that amazing trifecta of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen are three more legends whose hot streaks went beyond three. Albert Brooks, an underrated comic genius of recent generations, is the forgotten man. Throughout the '70s he shined as a cutting edge stand-up comic and made groundbreaking short films for that first season of Saturday Night Live. He made his writer/director feature film debut in 1979 with Real Life, a wonderfully uncomfortable comedy that predicted the coming of reality TV. He followed it with Modern Romance, often called Brooks’ Annie Hall, a deadeye take on both Hollywood and love. And then finally maybe his most perfect gem, Lost in America, the most biting satire of Ronald Reagan’s "greed is good" 1980s yuppie culture. (A less sophisticated comic mind like Steve Martin poked fun at the culture with L.A. Story, but was actually embracing the superficiality.)

The first step in embracing an Albert Brooks film is deciding whether or not you can stomach him. The guy plays some of the most neurotic and deeply insecure characters in movie history, and as David Howard in Lost in America, he’s as obnoxious as ever. The movie opens with him laying in bed with his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty, fresh off another comic masterpiece, Airplane!). He can’t sleep; he has second thoughts on the much bigger house they just bought and he’s excited with anticipation for the big promotion he is expecting to get at the advertising agency he has worked at for eight years. He assures her once that promotion comes he will no longer be the uptight husband he can’t help being. Linda is a study in understanding, but the next day she breaks down to a co-worker wondering if she can go on like this. To his shock and disappointment, instead of the promotion, he is transferred to New York. He throws a massive tantrum and is fired. In a sorta melt down, he convinces himself that he has been freed from the rat race and talks Linda into quitting her job too. They make a plan: sell the new house, cash out all their stocks and bonds, leaving them with $180,000 to live on for the rest of their lives (this was considered a lot in 1985), buy a motor home to escape from Los Angeles and travel the country (just like Easy Rider!), and maybe settle in a lighthouse in Connecticut where they can paint and write and no longer have to worry about ambition. Deal! First stop, Las Vegas, for a wedding vowel renewal. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works though. While David sleeps, Linda gambles away their entire fortune in a casino. It’s even more downhill from there as they head East and now must rediscover themselves without the comfort of the nest egg.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 23, 2014 4:19pm

Compliance

Dir: Craig Zobel, 2012. Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy. Mystery.

I’m all for being provoked by a film if I think there is a good reason. I’ve steered clear – right or wrong – of legendarily sadistic fare such as Salo, Irreversible, and Takashi Miike’s work, to name a few, because whatever important things about modern society they think they’re getting at, I just don’t like watching people horrifically degrade one another for two hours at a time. I don’t really think it’s a necessary punishment we need to go through when we go to the movies in order to learn about life or art. It’s just not something I can easily stomach. Maybe that makes me a dubious critical voice here but I think there’s a fallacious connection between onscreen depravity and important, serious cinema. It’s a weird kind of pretension that suggests that the movie-as-endurance test is the most serious kind of cinematic art. I think that’s dumb. But hey, that’s just me.

That said, Compliance, Craig Zobel’s true crime tale of a sinister phone prank played on a fast food manager in Kentucky, had its fair share of walkouts. A lot of people got angry at this film and were disgusted by what they saw onscreen and exasperated by the idiotic decisions made by the principle characters, but I didn’t mind because the film is an excellent and very timely morality tale. It’s a morality tale in that it’s a story with an actual moral seriousness running through it - something that I don’t think you can say of similarly provocative films of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it depicts a world so familiar to some of us – a fast food restaurant off the highway in rural America where employees are made to feel entirely dispensable and where there is always some omnipotent higher level of authority in charge but never present. That the employees never question the horrific things they are asked to do by a sociopathic prank phone caller is telling because, as service industry workers, they are made to feel so passive to the authority and control of the corporation that owns the franchise that it tragically never occurs to them to say no.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jan 3, 2014 11:31am
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