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

Atlantic City

Dir: Louis Malle, 1980. Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid. Mystery/Thriller.

With Atlantic City the then 67-year-old Burt Lancaster gave the performance of his five decade long film career. And what an incredible career it was. As Lou, an over-the-hill, broken down loverboy who dreams of one big score and still fancies himself a player, telling tales of one-time peripheral ties to the mob, Lancaster is able to use the physical and emotional gifts that have defined him his whole career. Like many of his characters, Lou is all buff and gusto on the outside, while sensitive and gooey on the inside.

Lou spends his days running numbers and looking after his sugar-mama Grace (Kate Reid), a decrepit ex-mob moll who came to Atlantic City during WWII for a Betty Grable look-a-like contest. The highlight of his life is lusting after his younger neighbor, Sally, a casino waitress and wanna-be blackjack dealer (an outstanding Susan Sarandon). Lou peeps at her through the windows as she gets topless and erotic with a lemon, rubbing it on herself to get rid of the restaurant's clam smell. When Sally’s lout ex-husband stashes a huge bag of cocaine in his pad and then gets killed by mobsters, Lou is able to woo Sally and become the true gangster he always fantasized about being. Meanwhile the city of Atlantic City in the background represents the foreground - it’s an aging, crumbling dinosaur being torn down by developers and being rebuilt with slick new buildings.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 5, 2010 12:51pm

August Rush

Dir: Kirsten Sheridan. 2007. Starring: F. Highmore, R. Williams, T. Howard, K. Russell, J. Rhys Meyers. English. Drama.

Family films are precious commodities. Slapstick plus smart humor have been winning combinations for many years now while the sentimental tearjerkers have taken a back seat. Lately, however there have been a few jewels emerging that are not only appropriate for young audiences but will entrance their parents as well. August Rush is a lovely music filled Orphan Annie/Oliver tale with sincere performances, intelligent, economical writing, a wonderful score and charming cinematography.

Two young and talented strangers meet and fall in love under a full moon in New York but are separated by fate and an overly controlling father the very next day. We learn that the young lady, an accomplished cellist named Lyla Novecek has become pregnant and that her star crossed lover, Louis Connelly, waits every night under the Washington Arch. After Lyla has an accident around her due date her father takes the opportunity to take the healthy newborn boy and put him up for adoption while telling Lyla that he didn't survive. Twelve years later we see the young and vibrant rock musician, Louis, has become a suit wearing businessman still stifling under a broken heart and broken dreams while Lyla is quietly teaching music without playing it herself.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Mar 31, 2008 5:05pm

Bad Day at Black Rock

Dir: John Sturges, 1955. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis. Classics.

I wish the screenplay for Bad Day at Black Rock was taught in screenwriting classes as a model example of how to craft a perfect thriller. Ideally it might inspire a confidence in economic storytelling that students today would have little familiarity with. An incredibly suspenseful movie that lasts just 81 minutes, Bad Day at Black Rock could be the perfect corrective to every lousy impulse by movie executives to lard up a story with overkill. I think that’s the real problem with modern studio fare. Lest their movies be ignored by an increasingly fractured and distracted audience, movies nowadays are oversold into oblivion. Even trailers are exhausting to watch. It’s a simple case of too much information at every turn. As far as Hollywood is concerned, a film that treats the audience like adults with the capacity to figure things out for themselves is a risky prospect for the 15-year-old fan boy market and, at this point, what’s not good for the fan boys is not good for Hollywood’s bottom line. And this all-pervasive tendency for movies to be too long and too obvious even extends to the contemporary thriller where it tends to spoil them from the outset.

The mantra of a good screenwriter is "show, don’t tell" but the inclination of most movie people nowadays is show, tell, and then add a commentary track to the DVD that spells out even more useless information. It can be said that independent film has created a forum for more offbeat storytelling, but there was a time when a good story was enough reason for a big studio such as MGM to produce it. Which brings us to the case of Bad Day at Black Rock. It represents the antithesis of the overkill approach.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Nov 11, 2009 5:45pm

Before Night Falls

Dir: Julian Schnabel, 200. Starring: J. Bardem, O. L. Garmendia, A. Di Stefano, O. Martinez, J. Depp. Cine en Español/Gay Cinema.

Oh, how I adore Javier Bardem. These past five years have been groundbreaking in his career, but before Eat Pray Love, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and No Country for Old Men, the Spanish heartthrob had a knack for landing roles which were not as stylish and required a gift for versatility. The roles that came before the year 2000 consisted mainly of two kinds of steamy romances: ones in which he co-starred and slobbered over Penelope Cruz or other leading ladies; and ones, such as The Ages of Lulu or Second Skin, where he played a gay love interest. In Before Night Falls, Bardem plays Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban writer with a "sensitivity for poetry," who later trades in verse for novels. Director Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, [Lou Reed's] Berlin) seems to have a knack for biopic tales of artists, be it literary or fine arts. Directors who stick with the same subject matter in all their films usually fall into two categories: ones who are playing it safe and disappoint; and those who have a natural gift for bringing consistent, yet similar stories to the screen. Schnabel does the latter, and though he has less than six features under his belt, each of his works has an amazing cast of stars who were willing to take risks and play some very controversial roles under his direction. Look for an almost unrecognizable cameo by Sean Penn and one from pre-teen Diego Luna.

The film begins by going over Reinaldo’s childhood in Oriente, a place that is presented as poverty-stricken, yet rich with the wilderness and isolation that would remain a source of inspiration for the rest of his life. His gift for poetry was not only recognized by his teacher, but by everyone who stumbled upon his phrases and single words that were etched into trees. As an adolescent, he moves with his single mother (Olatz López Garmendia) to Holguín, where the nightlife and revolutionary energy causes him to run away from home with the hope of joining Castro's rebels. Before long, during college in Havana he is noticed by a group of literary enthusiasts who offer him a job working for the National Library. While roaming the streets he meets Pepe (Andrea Di Stefano), a socialite who brings nothing but trouble and remains his lover for many years, though they see other people. The sexual revolution was sort of a counter-attack to the oppression that Arenas and his fellow countrymen experienced. Homosexuality became a tool to fight back against the revolution that he once held sacred - one that sees artists as a threat and nontraditional behavior of any sort as something that holds back progress. Reinaldo ignores this and continues to enjoy his lifestyle and soon he meets and befriends Jose Lezama Lima, who becomes his mentor. Lima's encouragement and connections lead to Reinaldo being offered help with his first novel that he wishes to get published.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 7, 2010 9:02pm

Billy Elliot

Dir: Stephen Daldry, 2000. Starring: Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, Julie Walters. English. Drama.

Billy Elliot stands out as a musical, a family drama and fiercely insightful look into the sacrificial toll on striking coal miners in Northern England in 1984. Stephen Daldry's direction alternately charms and punches with equal power until you are pulling at your own hair as Billy dances out his frustration through the run down back alleys, over cobble streets and finally into a brick wall furiously, fruitlessly and against all odds.

Billy is the youngest son of a widowed coal miner with an older brother not long in the mines himself, and an invalid grandmother. Coming from the tough and tumble Elliots, eleven year old Billy is naturally enrolled in boxing at school but somehow finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet lessons. Their teacher, the no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, sees potential in Billy and encourages his newfound passion and determination not knowing that Billy has kept it a secret from his family. All the while the coal miners' strike puts constant pressure on the Elliots, backing them into financial and emotional corners. When Mrs. Wilkinson procures Billy an audition at the Royal School of Ballet Billy must battle his family for the chance to be something different. Not only from what they know but what they themselves are fighting for.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 17, 2009 5:05pm

Black Swan

Dir: Darren Aronofsky, 2010. Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder. Drama.

Once again, Darren Aronofsky has stunned us with another story about a person trying to make it to the top. I will admit that Requiem for a Dream is still my favorite, but his touch is evident in this film and in The Wrestler. One might not consider Requiem for a Dream to be a movie about achieving greatness, but it certainly is. The mother, the son, his girlfriend, and their mutual friend, are all trying to get back in touch with the person they were in their prime. They aren’t necessarily about age or youth, but the time when the characters were most fulfilled. The Wrester tackles the same thing, where a washed up wrestling star tries to prepare for a chance to get back in the ring. Black Swan is the story of a soft-spoken, prudish ballerina who attempts to get to the top without using sexual favors; choosing to focus on perfection and grace. The present prima ballerina of her company, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), is being pushed out of the limelight and a fresh face is being scouted for their winter performance of Swan Lake. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is hoping to be that fresh face. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is an overbearing, retired ballerina who has been pushing her daughter to be the best and sheltering her naivety in an unsettling way. She gets the part and is overjoyed at the news of playing the Swan Queen. However, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director, worries that she won't be able to lose her inhibitions in time to pull off both sides of the role.

Swan Lake and the fantasy tale of The Black Swan both have a lot of history in the world of ballet. Aronofsky's film merges the two in order to create an emphasis on one character being both the hero and the villain, or more or less, her own enemy. When Nina begins to rehearse for the part, a spunky new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) comes to the company. While her form leaves much to be desired, her sensuality sparks interest in Thomas. The main reason her dancing is so alluring to him is because Nina's is so reserved. He believes that she dances the White Swan perfectly, but when it comes to the dance of the evil Black Swan, she fails to seduce. Nina becomes obsessed with Lily and sees her as a direct threat, not only in terms of the leading role, but also in terms of their director's affection.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Dec 27, 2010 6:30pm

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Dir: Ridley Scott. 1982/2007. Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer. English. Sci-Fi.

What is “human?” That’s the basic question posited by Ridley Scott’s visionary science fiction opus, release in 2007 in a 25th-anniversary “final cut,” the director’s third pass at the film.

Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and set in the dark, rain-soaked Los Angeles of 2019, the tale follows “blade runner” Deckard (Harrison Ford) as he pursues and attempts to terminate four “replicants” – genetically-engineered humanoids – who have violently escaped an off-world colony and returned to earth. Deckard becomes increasingly conflicted about his murderous job and doubtful about his own identity, as he falls in love with a replicant (Sean Young) and begins to realize that his prey may be more human than he believed.

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Posted by:
Chris Morris
Jan 2, 2008 3:06pm

Blue Velvet

Dir: David Lynch, 1986. Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell. Cult.

Before director David Lynch got too carried away with his so-called genius, before his television show Twin Peaks brought him into the home and consciousness of the casually pretentious, before he would slap any old weird images together and have people call it art, back in ’86 he made his best film...Blue Velvet. It had much of the surreal oddball touches we’ve come to expect from a "David Lynch film," but instead of relying on hammy artifices, it’s just simply a haunting, funny, and beautifully crafted film. Though it’s challenging and can be considered an "art film," it’s still one of Lynch’s most accessible films and works just as well as a straight suspense movie.

Before Blue Velvet helped push David Lynch further into the "auteur" big leagues, he had already had some major artistic success. His first feature film, the horror, sci-fi, surreal Eraserhead became an instant cult film for both its disturbing imagery as well as the humor in its strange pacing. He got an Oscar nomination for his next film, the beautiful and disturbing studio picture, The Elephant Man. He was miscast as blockbuster director for Dune; the adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel was a massive bomb, both financially and creatively. Though Blue Velvet was produced by the big-time producing Dino De Laurentiis Company and was even originally sold as a mainstream thriller, it was Lynch’s return to his roots with an original screenplay, not developed for him, but by him and his own weird mind. Lynch and the film were obviously embraced by Hollywood. With Blue Velvet he would score another Oscar nomination for directing, but it meant he would never go back to being a "director for hire."

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Aug 12, 2010 12:08pm

Boogie Nights

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997. Starring: M. Wahlberg, J. Moore, B. Reynolds, D. Cheadle, J. C. Reilly, W. H. Macy. Drama.

From the opening sounds of sad circus music flowing into disco, you feel you are in for something unique. As the camera tracks across a street into a bustling nightclub, introducing us to a large array of characters in one take, you know you are in for one hell of a spectacle...

Boogie Nights is an epic tail about life in the swinging seventies through the lens of the porno industry of Southern California. It explores the transition of the business into the 1980s, where film was switched out for video, and the roof caved in for many. But it’s not simply a story of the sex trade—it’s about family. Although somewhat warped, the group of porn stars connect together as if they were brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Jan 26, 2009 11:25am
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