Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

Films selected and reviewed by discerning movie buffs, television junkies, and documentary diehards (a.k.a. our staff).

Zebraman

Dir: Takashi Miike, 2004. Starring: Sho Aikawa, Kyoka Suzuki, tons of CGI-jellybean aliens. Asian Cinema.

I know most folks immediately shy away when I say it’s directed by the maestro of mayhem, Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, the Dead Or Alive series, Audition, and over 70 (!!!) other movies); and it’s finally being put out domestically by an outfit, foreign exploitation/ultra-gore distributors, Tokyo Shock Cinema, for which I have a soft spot in my ugly, mean heart, but Zebraman [or, more properly, “Zee-Borah-Mahnu”] quickly reveals itself to be super-campy fun and vaguely family-friendly (no disembowelment or graphic torture, honest!) in a way not seen from Miike since the uneven kiddie fantasy Great Yokai War or the gorgeous piece of art that is Bird People In China (one of the few films I can say without hesitation must be watched by everyone who loves movies).

Whereas Bird People made its pretentions obvious to all, Great Yokai War somewhat and Zebraman very explicitly are aimed (in the sense of appealing to AND in the weapon sense) directly at adults reared on monster/fantasy/superhero movies and television, making them terrific fare for dorks like me and you. C’mon, admit it, you know you are…

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Posted by:
Eddie Vegas
Mar 3, 2008 3:01pm

The Conversation

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola. 1974. Starring: Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, John Cazale. English. Suspense/Thriller

Though Francis Ford Coppola is best known as director of bona fide American classics such as the Godfather and Apocalypse Now, The Conversation may be his purest offering of artistic expression. And though not autobiographical, the film is certainly personal and undeniably haunting.

Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a lonely surveillance expert hired by a mysterious agency to record a seemingly benign conversation between a young couple. Though Caul is meant to remain unattached and unconcerned with the contents of the conversation, he soon finds himself becoming personally involved, fearing for the safety of the couple and the possibility that he may unwittingly play a role in their demise.

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Posted by:
Amoebite
Mar 3, 2008 2:44pm

Crooklyn

Dir: Spike Lee. 1994. Starring: Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, Zelda Harris, Carlton Williams. English. Black Cinema/Comedy/Drama

Crooklyn is a love letter from Spike Lee to his youth. Co-written with his sister Joie and brother Cinque, it draws from memories of their childhood growing up in Brooklyn. It is the story of the Carmichael family made up of a jazz musician father, an overworked and harried schoolteacher mother and 5 children. Seen from the eyes of ten year old Troy, the only daughter, we see the chaos and turbulent joy, frustration and sorrow of the Carmichael family. The movie plays like impressions with abrupt shifts from comedy to drama and has no political or dramatic motivation other than a look at life through the eyes of a child. Even without this the movie provides a true emotional arc and one is absorbed by the nostalgic and slightly foreign era where children are not afraid to play in the streets or confront crazy neighbors. Nobody walks around shaded by hooded sweatshirts and assuming menacing anonymity simply for their own protection. The only drug users are two ridiculous glue sniffers who are the neighborhood's sad joke.

When we follow Troy, who visits her relatives in Virginia, there is a wonderful shift of perspective as the differences in environment and behavior are cataloged and deciphered through her eyes. You can feel the strength of her mother rise to the surface as she adapts and dismisses affection and manners from her southern family. There is no arguing her demand to go home and, once there, she must draw on that strength again to see herself and her family through tragedy.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 27, 2008 3:39pm

Touki Bouki (The Hyena's Journey)

Dir: Djibril Diop Mambéty. 1973. Starring: Magaye Niang, Mareme Niang. French. Black Cinema/African Cinema/Foreign.

Two poor, restless University students in Dakar (Mory and Anta) attempt to raise the funds to move to Paris in search of a better life. To accomplish this end, they engage in petty thievery and steal some expensive threads from a rich, gay fellow who's picked up Mory and taken him back to his palatial estate. In the process of raising funds they ride around on a motorcycle adorned with a cow's skull.

The tone is langourous and playful, similar to Godard's Pierrot Le Fou or Malick's Badlands. Unlike the didactic types in many of Mambéty's peers' films, Touki Bouki's protaganists are merely two characters in a diverse milieu which views neo-colonialism vs. African traditionalism with a fair amount of ambiguity. The visuals are pretty stunning too. There are a lot of shots of the heroes riding around the city and countryside on the aforementioned motorcyle and in a beautiful, customized Citroën 2CV. There are a lot of great threads and vibrant colors fill most of the stylishly composed frames.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 23, 2008 3:51pm

Yeelen (Brightness)

Dir. Souleymane Cissé. 1987. Starring: Issiaka Kane, Aoua Sangare.Bambara. Black Cinema/African Cinema/Foreign/Fantasy.

Niankoro, a young man in the powerful Malian Kingdom, is relentlessly pursued by his evil sorcerer father Soma in this mythological tale set in the 1200s. It seems Niankoro has stolen secret knowledge reserved exclusively for a secret society of old men with the intention to share it openly. He seeks out his father's twin and fellow sorcerer, Djigui Diarra, for protection. Niankoro's travels take him through the lands of the cosmologically-oriented, cliff-dwelling Dogon and the Peul, whose king enlists Niankoro's aid in protecting them from raiders and giving him a child - which he does (although not through magic) and Niankoro picks up a wife in the process. Niankoro avoids his father but Soma won't back down, however, and the confrontation between father and son becomes inevitable.

Cissé attended the Moscow School of Cinema and Television on a scholarship and Yeelen, based on Bambara legend, is very reminsicent of the Soviet films of Tarkovsky or Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami with a slow, methodical pace and lots of quiet space. Salif Keita and Michel Portal's score is minimal and used sparingly. The use of magic is handled similarly without flashy special effects along the lines of Tarkovsky's Stalker or Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock. There's ritualistic drinking, sniffing and smoking of various unnamed substances and Cissé depicts everything with an appropriate sort of hazy, dreamlike detachment. For a genre not generally known for restraint, this is one of the calmest films you'll ever see.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 23, 2008 3:45pm

Flag Wars

Directors: Linda Goode Bryant, Laura Poitras. 2003. English. Black Cinema/Documentaries

Set in Columbus, OH and filmed over 4 years, Flag Wars is not only a film about gentrification, but also of racism, homophobia, and privilege. Throughout the film, you will follow Linda Mitchell as she fights for both her home and her life, Chief Baba Olugbala Shango Obadena as he struggles to keep a simple sign with his name above his door, and Jim Yoder and Nina Masseria as they face hate crimes and resistance from their neighbors. You will meet African-American families who have lived in their homes for 40 years and now face the fear of losing them to a wave of mainly white, gay professionals looking to rehab properties and better the neighborhood. While one side strides toward change, the other enjoys a life established long ago. Flag Wars shows us, quite literally, the middle of the road where the two sides meet....

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Posted by:
Amoebite
Feb 23, 2008 3:33pm

Tsotsi

Dir: Gavin Hood, 2005. Starring: Presley Chweneyagae. Tsotsitaal, Zulu, Xhosa, English, Afrikaans. Black Cinema.

We've all seen the gang leader film a few hundred times. We've seen him in "tha hood" starting fights, we've seen him in a classroom getting into trouble and reporting to the principal's office, we've seen him ride slick cars, and we've seen him lead labor unions into civil uproar.

Place him in South Africa - we have a teenager named Tsotsi (meaning"thug") who doesn't know emotion and lives alone in the ghettos outside of Johannesburg. Place him in a wealthy city, and he steals a woman's Mercedes, as well as shoots her. Riding off, he finds himself not alone - the woman's baby is left in the backseat, and he is left by himself to take care of him. The film follows his journey as he learns how to care for someone other than himself, and the lessons and people that come along the way.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Feb 16, 2008 2:30pm

The Wiz

Dir: Sidney Lumet. 1978. Starring: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Mabel King, Nipsey Russell. English. Musicals/Black Cinema

The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of ...

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 11, 2008 3:30pm

The Spook Who Sat By the Door

Dir. Ivan Dixon. 1973. Starring: Ramon Livingston, Lawrence Cook. English. Black Cinema.

For years I was inundated by requests for this seemingly much-in-demand film that I'd never heard of. It played in theaters for only three weeks upon its initial release before being yanked. Despite being successful and popular, the FBI and COINTELPRO put pressure on the film's distributors, fearful of what it might inspire in viewers. When it finally came to DVD, I watched it.

The plot concerns a white U.S. senator whose political career is faltering. In a cynical bid to appeal to black voters and save his career, he voices his support for a C.I.A. drive to recruit more blacks into the organization. This works but - in a move that's both comical and obviously designed to rile up viewers and sets the tone for the rest of the film - the new recruits are graded on a curve. Only one of these new, token black agents can pass - quiet, polite Dan Feldman. And Dan learns that his new position will be as Reproduction Chief which requires him to man the copy machine in the basement at all times.

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Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 9, 2008 3:36pm

Emperor Jones

Dir: Dudley Murphy. 1933. Starring: Paul Robeson. English. Drama/Black Cinema.

Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was one of the towering figures of African-American art, culture, and politics in the 20th century. An All-American collegiate athlete and attorney, he became a star of the dramatic and musical stage, an international concert luminary, recording artist, and the first black leading man on film. But his outspoken opposition to segregation and his support of Russia’s Communist regime made him a pariah during the Cold War ‘50s; the U.S. State Department lifted his passport for nearly a decade, until the Supreme Court overturned its action in 1958. Only near the end of his life did his singular achievements begin to be recognized without the taint of racial or political prejudice.

Robeson’s 1924 appearance in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones launched him to stardom. He portrayed Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter turned murderer who becomes the despotic ruler of a Caribbean island. The expressionistic 1933 film production recreated that heralded performance, and was expanded to include several musical numbers featuring Robeson’s peerless, profound bass voice. The last 15 minutes of the film is essentially a soliloquy by Jones, who, hunted by rebellious natives, is terrorized by “haints” from his past; it’s an acting tour de force.

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Posted by:
Chris Morris
Feb 6, 2008 6:01pm
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