Benjamin Smoke

Dir: Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, 2000. Documentary.

A lot of people end up finding what they think is a kindred spirit in an icon, and perhaps just as many find it in someone who is prophetic or a poet. The icon can bring comfort in embracing the wonder and beauty of art, while the poet can expose the haunting and sometimes transgressive side of things. Sometimes you can find both these qualities in the same person. It's the only thing that can explain the popularity of Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg, for example. Benjamin Smoke is a documentary that does just that, but for someone who never got the chance to assimilate ... and he maybe never would have, anyway.

Born Robert Dickerson and called only Benjamin, his voice and lyrics brings to mind that of Tom Waits or Nick Cave. The band he fronted, Smoke, was infamous in Cabbagetown, GA, a town that, as Benjamin explains, was always separate from Atlanta, where it rests, riddled with poverty. This poverty allowed for all the good and wonderful things in life, he states: “hustlers, inter-breeding, drugs and sniffing glue.” The documentary, one soon realizes, didn't need more than to put up a camera to Benjamin in an empty room in order to make a bold impression, but thanks to the truly masterful direction and awe-inspiring editing by Nancy Roach and the directors, something quite miraculous was captured. As a result, a small legend had his story told.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 25, 2015 4:45pm

The Idiots

Dir: Lars von Trier, 1998. Starring: Bodil Jorgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing, Troels Lyby, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Louise Mieritz. Foreign.

Dogme 95 is the only contemporary avant-garde film movement that comes to mind. Its founders included Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and the requirements set forth in the manifesto are simplistic and humble. However, they're often cited by cineastes as pretentious and narcissistic. For some, myself included, they are refreshing classics in the world of unconventional cinema and some of the most telling works in regards to the filmmakers behind them and audiences drawn to them. My personal favorite for a very long time was Dogme #6, Julien Donkey-Boy, directed by Harmony Korine. Dogme #2, The Idiots, by the versatile Lars von Trier, not only surpassed my expectations – as it is the most revered film meeting the requirements – but shook me in a way that was both disarming and enlightening.

The film has two protagonists who could easily be taken as characters to represent the stance of audience and artist. It unfolds as a sort of mockumentary. We start with the “audience,” made tangible by the character of Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), a soft-spoken, lost and almost infantile woman who finds herself drawn to a group of people after a chance encounter. The group, though at first not unified on this revelation, gives the founding title to Stoffer (Jens Albinus), a charismatic, proud and egotistical participant in the act of “spazzing” or releasing one's inner idiot. Here we find our caricature of the “artist.”

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Edythe Smith
Nov 12, 2015 12:45pm

Adaptation

Dir: Spike Jonze, 2002. Starring: Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Comedy.

If you're a fan of Charlie Kaufman you'll find plenty to love and adore about Adaptation, a film written by Kaufman (and oddly credited to him and his non-existent twin brother, Donald) who is behind such films as Being John Malkovich, Synecdoche, New York and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you are not a fan of the larger name celebrities in the film's cast--which would be Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep--and have avoided the work due to them being in it, I'd urge you to see this often overlooked masterpiece where they give their finest and most revealing performances.

Told by way of jumping through a three year time frame, the film surrounds the mystery and truths involving several characters on the brink of self-discovery. Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) is an eclectic but shabby screenwriter trying to grow as an artist and a person. Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) is a writer for The New Yorker who is assigned to write a piece on John Laroche (Chris Cooper), an eccentric agriculturalist on trial with three Seminole natives for removing a series of plants, mostly orchids, from a federal reserve. Her article is expanded into a book, The Orchid Thief, and the publicist (Tilda Swinton) wants to take it further by adapting it into a film. Kaufman is the man given the job, following the success of his script for Being John Malkovich and an ingenius reputation for his craft.

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Edythe Smith
Nov 12, 2015 12:22pm

Donnie Darko

Dir: Richard Kelly, 2001. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze. Cult.

Donnie Darko is one of the quintessential cult film of the 21st century. It maintains style and story while simultaneously asking the most existential questions relating to God, good and evil, purpose and place. All the while it presents the music, pastimes and feel of the '80s better than films made during the time did. More realistically, at least. It also showcases and/or introduces the talents of an ensemble cast and has a truly righteous soundtrack.

Our protagonist shares the same name of the film. Donnie, the middle child of a wealthy family in Middlesex, Iowa, stands out from his peers and community in many ways. His earlier years, we later discover, were quite troubled. He sees an expensive shrink twice a week and takes medication. He's bright, though hard to discipline in school. He sleepwalks, ending up all over town in various places - compelled by an imaginary man in an eerie rabbit costume who calls himself Frank. One particular sleepwalk allows him to cheat death when a mysterious jet engine crashes into his bedroom on the same eve. The event changes Donnie's life and the lives of everyone around him forever. This is the film's skeleton, more or less. The flesh is much more enticing and can be considered a religious fable of sorts, where Donnie could easily represent Christ and all supporting characters provide an amalgamation of arch-angels, prophets, messiahs, and the anti-Christ.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Nov 2, 2015 2:41pm

Hunger

Dir: Steve McQueen, 2008. Starring: Stuart Graham, Brian Milligan, Liam McMahon, Michael Fassbender. Drama.

Hunger is Steve McQueen's unforgettable dramatization of a volatile period in Irish and British history. If we can apply all the factions of war to the individuals involved, then we can and should call it as such –though the common man is seldom able to dictate history. The key battleground where it was waged was the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. The leader of the opposition was Bobby Sands, whose written words shortly before his death, “I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world,” rang true for the members of Irish Republican Army. Dozens of IRA soldiers, unkempt and uniform in misery, withstood years of imprisonment and torture whilst those on the outside continued efforts to have the entity recognized as a political one –thus rendering those taken in as political prisoners instead of the terrorists they were publicly deemed.

McQueen's political sympathies are quite clear in the film, and his background in contemporary art is not only blatant in the work, but recognized in moments of ethereal beauty. Narratively, the film is not of the norm in terms of the characters we follow and the amount of time dedicated to each. In fact Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) hardly appears in the film until the final 3rd of it. It opens by following the daily routines of Raymond (Stuart Graham), a prison official: icing his swollen knuckles after beating inmates, smoking, checking under his car for explosives planted by the IRA, sitting alone amongst bombastic colleagues at lunch break. One is never aware if he is coming undone or reeling in a sociopathic void. I don't think he even utters a word. His segment, and a brief glimpse later in the feature, are not necessarily a looking-glass in the supposed inner-conflict of those with the upper-hand, but they do offer a realistic vision in terms of the psychological turmoil that had to be a reality for at least some of the guards involved.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 6, 2015 2:49pm

Come on Children

Dir: Allan King, 1972. Documentary.

It didn't occur to me until a few years ago that “teenage” is a concept that's not all that old. I'm sure that there are places in the world where is doesn't, and never did, exist. For most cultures, there has always been a sort of initiation into adulthood by way of customary or religious celebration. A way to make the change less mundane. Perhaps intended to alleviate or lessen the pangs of transitioning into an adult, the identity of a teenager gave and continues to give people a kind of social weaning. A time where it is allowed and expected for one to experiment with new ideas and figure out just what they want to do in their passively thought-of futures. I'm not sure that much consideration or weight has been given to the results of this. Parents are often sited as ones we cannot identify with, specifically when we are teens. That stance seems reasonable; the times play a huge role in the social construct of a teenager, and times are always a-changin'.

Come on Children is a modest documentary on the subject of a teenage disillusionment and its effects. Director Allan King (A Married Couple, Warrendale) and colleagues grew intrigued at the amount of regurgitated complaints from teens that seemed certain that their lives would be much more enjoyable if it weren't for their nagging parents, cops and teachers. So, they gathered twelve youths from the suburbs of Toronto, ages 13 to 19, and took them to a farm without supervision. The youngsters were all from the same middle-class background, with attentive families and, even in their home life, a considerable amount of freedom. One of the group is 9 months pregnant and stays on the farm with the newborn, another is a father already but estranged from his former girlfriend. There's a puppy and two cats and plenty of beer, pot, acid and cigarettes to go around. Even a bit speed, brought by the most boisterous participant, John Hamilton.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 6, 2015 2:18pm

Crumbs

Dir: Miguel Llansó, 2015. Starring: Daniel Tadesse and Selam Tesfayie. Foreign/Sci-Fi.

There were three points of interest for me when hearing about Crumbs. I had yet to see an Ethiopian film, admittedly. It being a sci-fi film made it even more intriguing. Lastly, it is the debut feature film of Miguel Llansó, a Spanish filmmaker who previously directed several shorts and seems to have an affinity for journeys, both mentally and spatially. I suppose it's always refreshing to become aware of an up-and-coming artist for a cineaste. However, since it is an independent film, the limitations attached were given consideration and my expectations were not necessarily lessened but most certainly lenient to what is reasonable and pragmatic. Perhaps that stance allowed for such a surprising and enjoyable experience.

As made evident in my review of Children of Men, there lacks a personal interest for me in science fiction on a broad scale. The unrelatable plots and inadequate or non-existent social commentary often makes me feel like a moth fumbling around a bright light that fails to burn hot enough for me to combust. That being stated, films that successfully remind me of my own mortality and culture leave a most-welcome impression--even if they are sci-fi. While it is a Spanish-Ethiopian production, Crumbs is a bizarre and oft-hilarious tale of Western influence and its global permanence. A permanence that, in theory, cannot even be washed away by an apocalypse.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 18, 2015 4:54pm

Love & Anarchy

Dir: Lina Wertmüller, 1973. Starring: Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato, Eros Pagini. Foreign.

Assassination and anarchy are two terms that are almost absent in our current use of language. They are historical terms. Bold terms that suggest justice by ugly, self-sacrificing means. Now we say that someone of power, who is perceived threatening and unjust, has been slain, killed, etc. Love & Anarchy sheds a bit of light on why the terms and practice of such measures have gone out of favor - even among the most militant activists.

The protagonist of this film is Tunin (Giancarlo Giannini), a freckled country boy who looks like a caricature and behaves more like a sheep than a herder. Though meek, he has only one thing on his mind: assassinate the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It’s hard to root for him on sight alone or take his quest seriously, which is the predicament that Salome (Mariangela Melato) finds herself in. Salome is one of the most sought after prostitutes in Rome at established brothel of high esteem. She is also a spy for the Communist regime and contact for young men sent to carry out the grandest feat of their lives. She’s currently bedding Mussolini’s head of security, who has confided several key bits of information that seem uninteresting but can be used to an anarchist’s advantage.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 11, 2015 6:34pm

Swept Away

Dir: Lina Wertmüller, 1974. Starring: Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato. Foreign.

When I was 13, I was asked to play a peculiar game in class. At the request of our teacher, my peers and I were asked to draw four squares on a piece of paper. Inside each square we were to write the name of a loved one. We were then given a hypothetical scenario to consider: imagine being swept away to an island after a plane carrying you and your loved ones crashes - but you can only take one person with you. Everyone chose a parent or sibling. In retrospect, I suppose the point of the game was to make us realize that the person we chose could not meet all our needs in life. We could not propagate with this person, or grow to understand certain aspects of the human condition. The wise choice, we were told, would have been to look deeper into our futures and save the last square for a future partner. The whole thing confused and terrified us for weeks.

Lena Wertmüller’s Swept Away puts an endearing, comedic and political spin on such a scenario. A small group of wealthy adults are vacationing on a private sail boat far at sea. At their service is a modest company of poor Sicilian men. The rich are mostly comprised of married couples of no particular importance, but the most outspoken and vivacious of them all is Raffaella (Mariangela Melato). Raffaella loves to start political arguments or complain about the service, food and the state of Italy in the same breath. When not doing that, she’s gambling below decks or immodestly sunbathing. All to the outraged disbelief of Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), a proud servant with whom she seems to enjoy fleshing out an example of everything wrong with socialism and communism. The two practically hate each other, for Gennarino is a defensive member of the Party she so fiendishly puts down. She is also, to his standards, morally bankrupt--and his machismo spirit is rapidly downtrodden when at odds against the “liberated” female.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 11, 2015 5:38pm

Funeral Parade of Roses

Dir: Toshio Matsumoto, 1969. Starring: Pita, Osamu Ogasawara, Toyosaburo Uchiyama. Gay Cinema.

“I’m a wound and sword, a victim and an executioner.” - Funeral Parade of Roses

Provocation is born from relativity, and originality in its broadest sense can be a pretension that hinders many films. While filmmakers dare, still, to produce original and thought-provoking works without noting the context or relevancy of their efforts, Toshio Matsumoto was able to present something quite spectacular with his debut feature film, Funeral Parade of Roses - a masterpiece that appeals to the age-old desire to be loved and the accepted curse of being misunderstood. Here one can find a visual experience that says nothing definitely and therefore can speak to everyone, particularly those who enjoy avant-garde. Its also a direct ode to several key individuals of the beat generation and Warhol scene, as well as an interesting reworking of the Electra complex.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Sep 4, 2015 3:10pm
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