Monday, January 30, 2006

Review – The Emperor Jones

Writer Eugene O’Neil and actor Paul Robeson combine to make a chilling commentary on the nature and consequence of blind ambition. Brutus Jones (Robeson) begins the picture as a Pullman porter, and by the end of the movie he’s done time on a chain gang, shoveled coal on a steamship, and become the dictator of a Caribbean island. The end of the movie – when the Emperor attempts to escape a coup by fleeing into the jungle – is not to be missed. Robeson’s emotive reactions to the ghosts and memories that haunt him are one of the great, overlooked moments of American film. Of course it’s been overlooked at least in part because the dialogue contains more uses of the N-word than a Tarantino movie. Also, it’s helpful to do some background reading before viewing this picture, as it was cut in places to avoid offending white audiences. This would make an interesting double feature with Cabin in the Sky, another predominantly African American movie that came out in 1943. Mildly amusing

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Review – Cabin in the Sky

One could do an entire doctoral dissertation on the racial dynamics of this movie. This is a fascinating blend of an all-black cast, Hollywood’s 1940’s approach to black characters, theological twists in the plot and Vincente Minelli in the director’s chair (on his own for the first time). The story alone is worth a look. Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) has a near-death experience and ends up in the middle of a battle between angels and demons for his soul. Lucky for him, his wife Petunia (Ethyl Waters) is so devout that her prayers buy him a little more time to prove that he’s basically a good person. Enter Lena Horne as one of Lucifer’s best temptresses, out to lead our hero astray. But the main attraction here is probably the music. Waters and Horne are terrific, and they’re accompanied by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (who also has a supporting role as a devil) and plenty more. And although the dialects and a plot twist or two are very much creatures of their time, at least nobody in this movie picks cotton or works as a maid for white folks. Overall, then, this is a fun movie and historically at least a small step in the right direction. Mildly amusing

Review – Cabin Fever

Once again a decent premise is ruined by squandering it on a juvenile splatter movie. Ever since reading The Hot Zone I’ve wondered if a flesh-eating virus could be spun out into a decent horror flick (and not some big-budget Robin Cook medical thriller, but a real genre piece). But if this effort is any indication then the answer is “no.” Of course by the time you’ve stirred in a handful of annoying 20-somethings, just about any premise is doomed from the start. Indeed, the acting and script here succeed only in causing me to lose interest in whether any of the characters live or die, and that makes it hard to get into the story at all. Thus I hope more skillful filmmakers will be willing to take a stab at making the premise work in the future. Flesh-eating viruses have a lot of potential, but not when they’re coupled with a run-of-the-mill slasher movie production. Oh, and the almost constant animal violence didn’t help. Wish I’d skipped it

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Review – Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

The history of black resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa is a fascinating subject all by itself, but it becomes even more interesting when the focus shifts to the role music played in the struggle for freedom. The thing I found most interesting was the often-sharp contrast between the sound of the music and the message it conveyed. For example, a song that might sound joyful and carefree when left untranslated takes on a whole new importance when the subtitles reveal that the lyrics are about killing people with machineguns. The production suffers from some technical difficulties – inconsistent sound quality and occasional lapses in the subtitles – that HBO’s money should have been able to correct. But overall this is a touching portrayal of artistic expression as a weapon against injustice. Worth seeing

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Review – Crash (2005)

Question: how many race-related clichés can be crammed into one hour and 53 minutes? Answer: this movie. Ensemble piece. Lots of small stories, all related in some way to racial tension. The final impression is that all of Los Angeles has only a dozen or so people in it, and they keep running into each other. This is the sort of stiff, heavy-handed squandering of a big budget that must give hope to thousands of earnest but talentless film students. And I thought the Ballard Crash was bad. See if desperate

Friday, January 20, 2006

Review - Far from Heaven

And likewise far from good. The goal here seems to be to make a 50’s-style movie about problems that nobody in the 50’s would have made a movie about. A happy Connecticut housewife (Julianne Moore) discovers her successful businessman husband is gay. For solace she turns to her gardener, an educated black man relegated to menial tasks by the color of his skin. By the end of the picture everyone’s lives are ruined. Part of me wants to dish out some points for the guts it took to attempt such a strong re-creation of the era’s film-making style. Unfortunately, the points for intent are swiftly lost by the inept execution. The lighting and camerawork are terrible, and the script’s faithfulness to the decade that spawned it turns it into a stiff, cliché-ridden mess. This is how good ideas become bad movies. See if desperate

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Review – Blood from the Mummy's Tomb

Once again Stoker’s “Jewel of the Seven Stars” gets whipped out for another flogging. Ancient curses. Artifacts stolen from a tomb. Beautiful woman possessed by the spirit of an Egyptian princess. Blah blah blah. Some of the “scary” sequences are kinda fun in a creepy, Hammer sort of way. But most of the rest of the production moves between predictable plot points in a not particularly interesting path. Mildly amusing

Monday, January 9, 2006

Review – A Bridge Too Far

And at least an hour too long to boot. Like The Longest Day, this is one of those ensemble war epics that feature just about every actor in Hollywood in the appropriate age bracket (in fact, at least one or two of these folks are veterans of the aforementioned picture). Unlike D-Day, however, here we have a tale with a much sadder ending. Rather than emphasizing the heroic nature of the Allied assault on Germany’s Fortress Europe, the main idea this time around is that the airborne attack on Holland in 1944 was at best poorly planned and resulted in the unnecessary deaths of a lot of men. So sing “war is hell” rather than “dulce et decorum est.” Even as long as the movie is, we never really seem to get enough of any one particular story to make the characters fully fleshed-out and sympathetic. Indeed, several of the many subplots seem almost beside the point. Still, if you like this approach to storytelling then you should walk away happy. This is a fine, well-made example of the type. Mildly amusing

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Review – The Devil's Rain

The B-List Actors’ Rain would have been more apt, as there’s certainly a deluge of them here. Some, like William Shatner, Eddie Albert and Ernest Borgnine, are on the down-swings of their careers. Others, such as Tom Skerritt and John Travolta (so new at this point that he has no lines) would later go on to bigger and better things. Even devil-cult-leader-to-the-stars Anton LaVey has a hand in this as a behind-the-scenes advisor. And his take on the whole Satan-worship thing is fairly evident throughout the production. The story is a half-baked Twilight Zone-esque tale of an evil cult that perpetuates itself by taking over people’s bodies and imprisoning their souls in a big deviled Faberge egg in which it rains all the time. But in the end the joke’s on them (or most of them anyway) in a vast festival of noise and melting. Though this isn’t exactly anyone’s finest hour (well, maybe LaVey’s), it has a few moments. Mildly amusing