Tag Archives: Spike Lee

Top 100 Films #29 – Do the Right Thing (1989)

 

034-do-the-right-thing-theredlist#29. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Starring: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Richard Edson

Spike Lee’s seminal film about race relations is one of the greatest of its kind, serving as a stylish, intelligent, and poignant snapshot of New York in the late 1980’s.  Do the Right Thing is one of the most memorable films I’ve ever seen, largely in part to its soundtrack, quirky characters, and arresting finale, and was the film that made me a fan of rap group Public Enemy.  The film follows an ensemble cast living in Brooklyn on one of the hottest days of the summer – Mookie (Spike Lee) is a pizza delivery man working for Sal (Danny Aiello)’s pizza shop, where his sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) also work. Pino and Mookie bicker incessantly, and it’s made clear that Pino does not respect the largely black population of the neighbourhood. Also featured are Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who carries a boombox and constantly plays Public Enemy, Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a local drunk trying to win the affections of a middle aged woman named Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), a young man who protests Sal’s pizzeria for not embracing black culture. Together, this diverse cast of complex and compelling characters help to create one of the most important films of the 1980’s, if not of all time.  Do the Right Thing is at its very best when the characters start to come together and interact with each other, with director Spike Lee’s cameras merely serving as a fly on the wall.  Though it is the hottest day of the year and tensions are high, the interactions between characters feel established and well-worn, which is important and eventually leads to the film’s climactic breaking point.  Mookie and Sal’s (Pino and Vito included) story is the most compelling – largely because it’s given the most time and attention – but is made even better when characters like Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out inject themselves into their scenes, if only for a moment.  Spike Lee’s filmmaking throughout is frantic and incredibly stylish, using loud music, narration in the form of a radio broadcast, and a constantly moving camera to add some flare to the already frantically-paced film.  Lee’s script establishes no characters as heroes and villains, instead letting their actions and words speak for them.  The most powerful moments of Do the Right Thing are not outright explained by the writer-director, instead it’s entirely up to viewers to decide motivations and reasoning – one of the reasons Lee’s movie still resonates today.  Do the Right Thing is a stylish, frenetic, and intelligent masterpiece about race relations that still feels relevant today – it deserves every bit of praise ever leveled at it.

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Black Directors Feature #7 – Malcolm X (1992)

large_tl3Bxpv6pLhm6gZOtokQuqPw7BuMalcolm X (1992)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, Arnold Perl (Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, Alex Haley)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee

One of the greatest biopics in film history about one of the world’s most important social activists in history, released in a notably strong year for Hollywood, and made by one of America’s most controversial and misunderstood filmmakers – what on earth could go wrong?  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out after a string of critically acclaimed hits from the young director.  How does one follow a filmography with titles like She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and one of the most important movies of the 1980’s – Do the Right Thing?  By making a film about one of the most important and divisive figures in modern American history, that’s how.  The pairing of Spike Lee and Malcolm X seems like a natural pairing in retrospect, but at the time lead up to its release the film had a great deal of naysayers and non-believers waiting for the epic project to crash and burn.  But it didn’t, and instead Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington crafted one of the most intimate, epic in scale, and meaningful biographical dramas ever made.  Covering the man’s young adulthood from his less than glamorous life of crime, to his time in prison that directly led to his adoption of the Islamic lifestyle, to his later political and religious activism in the American South, ultimately leading to the tragic and complicated demise of Malcolm X.  It was critically acclaimed from the moment it was released to the world, landing on many critics top 10 lists for 1992, was highly praised by legendary film director Martin Scorsese, and even ranked as Roger Ebert’s favorite film of the year.  Malcolm X was nominated for two Academy Awards – Best Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design.  Unfortunately for Spike Lee and his labor of love, the epic biopic was released in a year where Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven dominated the awards season, and films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, James Ivory’s Howards End, Robert Altman’s The Player, Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, and others like The Scent of a Woman and Chaplin hogged the spotlight.  Washington’s loss to Al Pacino for Best Actor has gone down as a tragic mistake for the Academy, giving the award to an actor who had never won the award, instead of one who truly had the best performance of that year.  Fortunately, Lee’s Malcolm X is now looked back upon as one of the best films of the decade, and lives on in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.  Since his critically acclaimed effort on Malcolm X, Spike Lee has made numerous acclaimed films, spanning a wide variety of genres, most notably documentaries like 4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and its follow up If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, along with narrative films like 25th Hour, Bamboozled, Summer of Sam, Inside Man, and his most recent Chi-Raq.

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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in his pre-Nation of Islam days.

Told in three separate acts, Malcolm X explores the entire adult life of the man himself.  Each act takes place in a different period of Malcolm’s life, and chronicles his rise from a relative nobody to one of the most influential and controversial men of his time.  The film begins with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) getting involved in the Harlem crime scene, committing petty crimes for West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a crime boss.  We also come to find out what has happened to Malcolm’s family – his father was murdered by white supremacists when Malcolm was a child, and his mother was institutionalized after displaying signs of mental illness.  After a falling out with Archie, Malcolm flees to Boston and takes up a different style of crime.  Soon enough, his luck runs up and Malcolm and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) end up in prison, where Malcolm is to serve a ten-year term.  The second act in the film sees Malcolm trying to survive the harsh conditions of prison.  He meets a man with some pull named Baines (Albert Hall), who slowly introduces him to the ways of Islam, and Malcolm becomes a bona fide member of the Nation of Islam.  The third and lengthiest portion of the movie sees Malcolm under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.), the leader of the Nation of Islam.  Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm form a strong bond, and the young man quickly rises up the ranks of the NOI.  Eventually, Malcolm meets his future wife Betty (Angela Bassett), who becomes a major influence on his life.  After travelling to Mecca, Malcolm’s beliefs are views are shaken and he begins to view things differently than the way the Nation of Islam has taught him to believe.  This sets in motion the events that will ultimately lead to the assassination of the charismatic civil rights activist, and the rest, for better or worse, is history.

There are very films sitting at the 200 minute mark that I’ve enjoyed every single second of, but I can say without a doubt that Malcolm X belongs to that very exclusive and prestigious club.  The 1992 biopic could have just been yet another run of the mill and standard story of an incredibly important man in history, which is why I’m so thankful for Spike Lee’s involvement in the project.  His passion for Malcolm X and the history of African Americans in the United States can be felt throughout the 200 minutes, and Lee’s timeless directorial style elevates it from what many would consider “Oscar-bait” into a truly brave and outstanding production from all perspectives.  After seeing and being highly disappointed by Lee’s acclaimed film 25th Hour, I thought that nothing in his filmography could ever reach the highs of movies like Do the Right Thing and Chi-Raq, but boy was I wrong.  Malcolm X may be not only the greatest biopic ever made, but also my favorite Spike Lee joint.  Nearly every aspect that I can think of featured in Malcolm X is outstanding, from the production design to the acting.  Every act feels different in its tone and deals with different themes, from discovering oneself in the first, to finding answers in spirituality in the second, and later to making profound discoveries about yourself and changing major views you once passionately held true.  The locations and costumes help bring the world around us to life, and allows the audience to completely sink into the era.  The true standout here is very clearly Denzel Washington in his portrayal of the titular X.  His portrayal always exudes the confidence that Malcolm X so clearly had in order to go so far at the rate he did, but also gets across the overly-serious nature of the man, as well as his later struggles with his faith in the Nation of Islam.  I’ve never seen Denzel better than he was here, and it’s a damn shame that he didn’t take home the Oscar on the fateful night in March of 1993.  Backing up Washington’s performance is a terrific roster of supporting players like Angela Bassett, writer-director Spike Lee himself, Albert Hall, and Al Freeman, Jr.  I firmly believe that Washington’s performance wouldn’t have been half as great as it was if it weren’t for incredible direction by Spike Lee.  If anything, the man knows how to direct an actor to a terrific performance, and this is easily his finest work.  Spike’s usual stylistic flashes are toned down in Malcolm X’s first half because of its historical and serious nature, but they’re still noticeable when they’re there.  The final act of the film is drenched in style, including montages and the incredible arson scene.  His quick editing style matched with the use of occasion long takes to get a point across works tremendously, especially in the film’s final twenty minute stretch.  While the death of Washington’s Malcolm X is incredibly hard to watch, the impact it has is a testament to the power of the picture.  You know it’s coming for three hours, and yet it still manages to shock and move you when the time finally comes for it.

malcolm-x

Denzel Washington as the titular Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s 1992 joint.

Please – if you haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X before reading this review, for the love of all things holy do yourself a favor and track down the film.  While the run-time may scare some viewers away, I can promise you that the experience flies by, especially once X has gotten out of prison and embraced his new found way of life.  This is an incredibly moving and powerful film about a man who I greatly admire, flaws and all.  It does his life and accomplishments justice, and still isn’t afraid to look at Malcolm X with a highly critical eye.  I firmly believe that this is Spike Lee’s greatest accomplishment, and a treasure of African American cinema.  Whether or not you have interest in the subject matter or the man, see this movie as soon as you can.  It’s a masterpiece on every level.  Spike Lee’s Malcolm X gets my highest recommendation.

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February Theme – Black Directors (An Introduction)

spike-lee-reaches
With February being Black History Month, I’ve decided to go with something of a broad theme to celebrate.  Our theme for this month will cover nine great and/or highly influential films made by black filmmakers, spanning the blaxploitation boom in the 1970’s to the black independent movement of the 1990’s.  I’ve decided not to cover modern day black filmmakers, as I will more than likely revisit the theme in upcoming monthly marathons.

The directors being covered this coming month all made a giant splash in their industry, whether it be the early independent scene in America, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood filmmaking, or the African filmmaking scene in the French-speaking country of Senegal.  The films covered explore themes of racial tension, economic and social struggles faced by the black community through modern history, and create iconic characters whose influence is still being felt today.

Filmmakers being covered include:

  • Senegalese legend Ousmane Sembene, who is considered to be the father of African film.  His career spanned spanned five decades, creating some of the greatest African movies ever made.
  • Gordon Parks, one of the first major African American filmmakers to find success in Hollywood.  He pioneered the “blaxploitation” genre with the Shaft series of films.  His son Gordon Parks Jr., killed tragically at the age of 44, will also be covered.
  • One of America’s most underrated black filmmakers, Charles Burnett.  Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep took decades to be released on a wide scale because of music rights issues.  His influence on black filmmakers is undeniable.
  • The controversial auteur Spike Lee, who broke into the scene in the 1980’s with groundbreaking films like She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.  Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X found mainstream critical and commercial success, and propelled Lee to become arguably the most successful African American director in history.
  • The 1990’s saw a sudden spike in original, stylistic, and highly influential African American films like John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated Boyz n the Hood, the Hughes Brothers’ independent hit Menace II Society, and F. Gary Gray’s stoner comedy Friday.

The schedule for February’s Black Directors Marathon is as follows:

#1 – Shaft (1971) (Gordon Parks) (Feb. 2)
#2 – Super Fly (1972) (Gordon Parks Jr.) (Feb. 5)
#3 – Touki Bouki (1973) (Djibril Diop Mambéty) (Feb. 8)
#4 – Xala (1975) (Ousmane Sembene) (Feb. 12)
#5 – Killer of Sheep (1978) (Charles Burnett) (Feb. 15)
#6 – Boyz n the Hood (1991) (John Singleton) (Feb. 19)
#7 – Malcolm X (1992) (Spike Lee) (Feb. 22)
#8 – Menace II Society (1993) (Albert & Allen Hughes) (Feb. 26)
#9 – Friday (1995) (F. Gary Gray) (Feb. 29)

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End of Year 2015 – Best Films of 2015 (#10-#6)

chi-raq10. Chi-Raq
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Starring: Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Teyonah Parris, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle

The funniest movie I saw all year came from the brilliant mind of controversial filmmaker Spike Lee, director of the race relations masterpiece Do the Right Thing.  Lee’s new film Chi-Raq sees the filmmaker going into uncharted territory, as it’s something of a musical, a comedy, and a satire all wrapped into one sweet package.  Chi-Raq is based on the classic Greek story of Lysistrata, which sees a group of women withholding sex from their mates in order to bring two warring factions to negotiate a peace treaty with each other.  The film sees a great deal of parallels with the story of Lysistrata, but applying it to modern day Chicago.  Chicago is seen through Spike Lee’s camera as a dangerous, but wonderful city, where young African American men and women essentially risk death on a daily basis just because they live in gang populated areas.  After the unexpected death of a young neighborhood girl, a troupe of ambitious and frustrated women young and old come together and solve the gang problem themselves, through the power of their sex appeal  The film is incredibly funny in all of its biting satire, incredibly relevant in the modern age of the Black Lives Matter campaign, as well as the ever-rising number of police shootings in the United States.  The entire cast of Chi-Raq plays outside of their comfort zone throughout the film, and what results is a film the likes of which I’ve never seen before.  Ignore the haters of all things Spike Lee and Chi-Raq, watch this film for yourself and enjoy it for its relevant satire, hilarious performances, and terrific musical numbers.  Chi-Raq is a near-masterpiece, and will hopefully elevate Spike Lee into a territory he hasn’t been in over a decade.


the-hateful-eight-still-19. The Hateful Eight
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Demian Bichir, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, James Parks, Channing Tatum

A film that parallels Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is many surprising ways in its dealings with hatred and race relations.  Quentin Tarantino’s highly entertaining – if overlong – The Hateful Eight may not reinvent the wheel, but I don’t think that was ever Tarantino’s mission for a film of this scale.  The incredible score by Ennio Morricone backs up one of the funniest, most charming, and surprisingly mean-spirited movies of the year, and there’s never a dull moment even in the film’s bloated runtime.  Leading the pack with incredibly entertaining performances are Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson, but the real standout performance for me was that of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s.  Leigh’s character is dirty, loud, obnoxious, and pathetic all at the same time, never quite showing upfront the level of desperation her character is feeling until the very last moments of the film.  Character actors like Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir, and James Parks all have some really fun and juicy roles that they bite into seemingly without hesitation.  None of this would have been possible if not for Tarantino’s epic-length – but small and personal scope – script for The Hateful Eight.  His trademark pitch black sense of humor is in the forefront at all times, but so are his occasionally insightful comments on society at large and the hatred, lies, and bigotry we tend to spew in our worst moments as people.  Tarantino seems like he had a lot to say through The Hateful Eight, and while it may not reach the highs of films like Inglourious Basterds or Pulp Fiction, it still manages to soar in its own right.  The Hateful Eight is a great, albeit dark, time for all moviegoers, and I can’t see how somebody couldn’t find something in this film to connect to.  


room8. Room
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Written by: Emma Donoghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, Sean Bridgers

Room is the little Irish-Canadian co-production that could.  Lenny Abrahamson’s film, based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, is an intensely personal and emotional film that takes a look at some serious issues.  Explored in Room are themes of mental illness, namely post traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression, and anxiety.  Starring the lovely Brie Larson and young star Jacob Tremblay, Room is a film that sounds good on paper, and looks even better when you see it actually come alive before your eyes.  I like to compare it in tone and themes to 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, although that film is a little lighter than Abrahamson’s adaptation of Room.  Brie Larson gives one of the most powerful and moving performances of the year, playing a traumatized mother who is willing to do anything to save the lives of her and her son.  Larson’s character is constantly conflicted and hurt by the things she’s experienced, and we as the audience can feel every bit of her pain.  Backing up Larson’s terrific performances is Jacob Tremblay in what I would say is without a doubt one of the best child performances in recent memory.  Tremblay’s sense of wonderment seen in the first half of the film, and then subsequent acclimatization to the world around him in the second half are both incredibly believable and compelling.  One of my favorite parts of Room is something I haven’t seen talked about very often, and that would be the set design of the titular Room.  Although it’s revealed that Larson and her son are living in what amounts to a garden shed, Room feels sprawling in some moments, and we often see it through the eyes of a child.  Room looks both large and small, and it’s a technical achievement by both the set design team as well as the director and cinematographer.  While Room may not be the easiest watch of the year, it holds two of the most interesting performances of 2015, and has a great deal to say about mental illness.  It’s a crowd-pleaser that doubles as a genuinely great film, I can easily recommend it to anybody.


2015-07-30-09_46_02-spotlight-trailer-1-2015-mark-ruffalo-michael-keaton-movie-hd-youtube7. Spotlight
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Written by: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan

Spotlight is a film I knew very little about when I went into it, and when the credits rolled I was very happy for that fact.  Tom McCarthy’s most ambitious project yet is also his most successful in terms of blending terrific performances, a tight script, and unblinking direction into one amazing package.  The film takes a look at the Boston Globe’s early 2000’s investigation of the molestation taking place within the Catholic church, and the “spotlight” team responsible for bringing them to justice.  McCarthy’s direction is incredibly fluid throughout the film, giving us up-close looks at both intimate moments between the journalists, and incredibly thrilling breaks in the case and new developments.  Leading the cast are the crew of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber, all of whom give some of the absolute best performances of their careers in Spotlight.  Keaton is every bit as strong as he was in last year’s Birdman, but is unfortunately overshadowed by a typically great performance from the very talented Ruffalo, who I hope to see pick up yet another Academy Award nomination for his performance in the film.  McAdams is solid in the film too, and is usually a strong talent as long as the writing is strong as well, which is definitely the case with Spotlight.  McCarthy’s script is quite possibly the most impressive thing about Spotlight, covering a great deal of information, investigating countless characters including church heads, victims, priests, journalists, etc., and yet McCarthy’s screenplay never stops to breathe for too long.  Even though this is essentially a film about journalists conducting what may seem a mundane investigation, Spotlight is one of the most riveting films I’ve seen.  It’s heartbreaking, satisfying, and incredibly compelling in every single moment, and I sincerely hope it picks up some big time nominations this award season.


maxresdefault (1)6. Creed
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew

Another massive sleeper hit that exceeded everybody’s expectations, Ryan Coogler’s followup to his debut feature Fruitvale Station has proven to be both a critical and box office sensation.  Creed follows the early career of Adonis (or Donnie) Creed, estranged son of former boxing World Champion Apollo Creed.  Adonis teams up with another former World Champion, in the form of “The Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa, who hasn’t trained since his one-off fight with former champion Mason Dixon back in 2006.  Together, Balboa and the young Creed look to overcome all odds and elevate the second-generation star to heights even Rocky hasn’t seen, but it won’t be an easy journey for either of them.  There are far too many great elements of Creed to focus on, from his incredibly energetic direction style, the quick and effortless pacing of the script, and the terrific performances from both Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone.  Stallone gives the performance of his career in Creed, reminding the audience exactly why they fell in love with Rocky Balboa in the first place, but elevating the stakes to new heights.  Stallone swings for the fences in every single scene he’s in, and manages to steal the show every single time.  He single-handedly proved all of his critics wrong in just one performance, and I hope he’ll be able to do it again in the film’s sequel.  Young Michael B. Jordan gives a terrifically physical and emotional performance through the film, always hesitant to acknowledge his roots and the influence his father had on the sport of boxing.  When he’s in the ring, he’s entirely believable as the young Donnie Creed, and is featured in some of the absolute best fight scenes in the entire franchise.  On top of some great performances, highly energetic direction, and a surprisingly subtle script, Creed’s soundtrack will be stuck in your head for days and days.  The new pieces of score are hard-hitting and work perfectly, the re-appropriated pieces from the original film’s soundtrack don’t stick out awkwardly, and the many hip-hop tracks featured throughout had me dancing in my seat more than once.  Forget everything you think you know about the Rocky franchise, and see Creed as soon as possible.


Part 1 (#20-#16) can be viewed here
Part 2 (#15-#11) can be viewed here

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