Malcolm X (1992)

Whenever a movie runs over 2 hours, it immediately comes under some level of extra scrutiny. Such is the case with Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which actually has a run time of over 3 hours. To do this, he had to call upon many prominent black celebrities to raise funds when the studio budget had been spent. To this day he thanks Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Oprah, Prince and others for their donations.

Malcolm X, an adaptation of X’s autobiography, was originally slated to be directed by a white director. Spike Lee went well out of his way to obtain directorial control of the project. After securing the position, he did hundreds of interviews and other research to prepare. For his part, Denzel Washington totally changed his lifestyle choices. He didn’t eat pork, smoke, or drink in preparation for the role. This level of dedication on the part of both Spike and Denzel is not surprising, it shows throughout the film. It has been recounted by Lee that Washington would often continue speeches beyond the script channeling the spirit of Malcolm X.

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The film immediately solidifies its connection to modern social ills by using Rodney King footage during the opening credits. It also lampoons the famous speech from Patton (1970) by prominently displaying the American flag while Washington, as X, recites a speech sharply criticizing the collective white man for centuries of violence. From here, the film takes off.

A great quality of Malcolm X is both the pacing and timeline used throughout the film. It jumps back and forth at times, particularly in the first act, keeping the story fresh, interesting, and engaging. I will say, however, that a few of the scenes early in the film feel a bit gimmicky. In an attempt to recreate Harlem in the 1940’s, there are a few instances in which I felt Spike Lee went too far over the top. This film was the first instance in my watching where he felt “in the way” in some of his scenes. That being said, his overall acting contribution in the film worked out.

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Speaking of performance, there are a quite a few notable ones in the film. Denzel as Malcolm is of course excellent, particularly as the film develops. Angela Bassett as his wife Betty Shabazz is compelling and has great chemistry with Denzel. As well, Al Freeman Jr. in the role of Elijah Muhammad  both looked and sounded incredibly close to his real life counterpart.

I would like to note that about a year ago or so I did read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Several years prior to that I watched the film, with almost no knowledge of Malcolm whatsoever. If I recall correctly, at least two major elements stuck out in my mind that were not included in the movie. First was his relationship with his brothers and sisters much past early childhood. If I recall, they played a role in his joining the Nation of Islam (NOI) as opposed to the composite character of Baines (Albert Hall) a prisoner used to represent many real life people. This was obviously done to make a more cohesive story, however, I think it may have been better to use his family members. Also, midway through the film a white college student asks him if there is anything she can do to help his movement. This is based on a real event in the book. However, later in the book X expresses how that moment encapsulates the regret he has for many of his actions as part of the NOI. The second half of the story is not explicitly told in the film.

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Despite these somewhat notable exclusions, anyone expecting the film to cover the entirety of the book and his life is aiming too high. It’s understandable that certain things had to be changed in order to keep the film at a cohesive pace. It’s still a mammoth achievement that serves both to inspire and encourage further research on an individual basis. Clearly Spike Lee had prepared himself above and beyond what was necessary, which ultimately resulted in a masterfully dynamic portrayal of a complex man.

This is the first Spike Lee film I’ve reviewed not to be scored by his father Bill. Even so, there are still many great songs on the soundtrack. This includes jazz sage John Coltrane and a memorable montage using Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. Unlike the past 3 films, it also doesn’t have music underlying the entirety of the movie. This clearly makes sense being a historical drama and not a fictional story.

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The film concludes with several sequences. There is a heartbreaking eulogy read by legendary actor Ossie Davis, as well as a short speech given by Nelson Mandela among other scenes. While both of these elements were excellent on their own, overall I felt the ending lingered a bit too long. Each piece individually stood alone well, but together felt indecisive.

Even with some criticism, I highly recommend Malcolm X. At over 3 hours, a majority of the film will leave viewers on the edge of their seat. Students of X or those with little background info will equally gain something positive from viewing it. I would recommend reading his autobiography as well. As a historical figure that has been compartmentalized by mainstream historians and commentators, it is essential to gain a perspective from both Lee and X himself. Pairing the film and autobiography may inspire one to study other prominent black leaders and intellectuals, I know it had that effect on me.

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The Cloverfield Franchise Paradox

It’s the year 2008, and a common man New Yorker, Rob Hawkins, is about to go to Japan.  His friends document a goodbye party as part of a farewell video.  All the while, they’re expositing dialogue, setting up all conflicts and motivations among themselves.  They discuss sexual relations between Rob and his friend Beth, express frustration toward the comic relief character, Hudson, and just capture the love and drama between friends when one of them is moving across countries.  But, you know what’s never talked about, even casually?  An energy crisis so bad that cars are just sitting in a pile up waiting for gas, portions of the city seem to just lose power, and an unrelated character attempted to siphon power for her own house causing it to burn down and kill her children.  The Cloverfield Paradox is a movie that markets itself to be related to its franchise’s original film, Cloverfield, but, through details both minor and large, they couldn’t have done a better job confusing people that wanted to like it.  

The Cloverfield Paradox, directed by Julius Onah, put bluntly, is a terrible addition to the Cloverfield franchise.  Not only because the movie is a confusing mess with attempts at “horror,” but also because of its attempt to connect itself to the original film.  Paradox was apparently once called The God Particle, altered by Bad Robot to become a Cloverfield movie, and the sloppy and lazy attempts to make that connection turn what could have been a relatively decent film into an infuriating and bewildering movie.  

Paradox is mainly about a team of scientists and their attempts on the Cloverfield space station to hopefully discover potentially infinite energy.  Through some scientific mishap, the station all of a sudden finds itself Earthless and stranded.  From here, the crew experiences many, borderline asinine, bouts of horror, inter cut by kind-of-out-of-place comic relief and scenes back on earth where the original events of Cloverfield are supposed to be taking place.  

So, ignoring the lack of casual talk in Cloverfield about the end of the world, the use of then impossible video chat, phones of the common era, and a giant Mass Effect style space station constantly had the question “what year is it?” come up.  

Everything to do with Earth is what makes Paradox a poor addition to the franchise.  Wikipedia states the events of Paradox take place in 2028, which better explains the space station and video chat, but not its connection to the original, or the rest of the set design.  Details like this are usually minor, but become massively distracting when one is invested in the franchise.  But that’s not what makes Earth a laughable setting in this movie.  Bad Robot decided it was a good idea to keep reminding us that Paradox is connected to Cloverfield by occasionally pausing the main film and showing us benign, unrelated scenes involving a nearly unnecessary character and a child he saves in a blatant attempt to try to make the audience care he exists. Everything that happens on Earth doesn’t matter, and yet there’s a weirdly understandable reason for why things got as bad as they did, however, back on the space station, no such reason exists.

If the trailer is any indicator, a lot of weird stuff happens on the Cloverfield station.  Now, usually the “why” is never important in a horror movie, but here, it seems vital.  A movie like Event Horizon, has wonderfully terrifying and horrendous outcomes for its cast showcased with the understanding that the crew had opened a portal to Hell through their portal technology.  Oh, everything terrible happening is supernatural and does not require any further explanation.  Paradox says the crew and its station are interacting with a parallel dimension’s particles.  Okay, so why does that mean an arm is moving on its own, why are worms, that you have with you for some reason, found inside of a crew member whose eye started going sideways, and why are parts of the ship being discovered inside people as well?  There is a level of believability that can be breached when one involves the supernatural, but when one tries to make things scientific, the work has to be done.  A character can’t just say, “our particles are interacting with theirs,” and then expect the audience to accept utter nonsense.  See, ignoring the franchise connection attempt, this movie on its own does not work.  Its horror falls flat in its ridiculousness and random nature, and happens to characters we know almost nothing about.  

The cast of Paradox is actually very strong.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays the main character, Ava, and was given an actually compelling storyline.  Past her, though, everyone else just fits an archetype or are given one-note conflicts that hold no weight because the basis is not properly explored.  When these people inhabit the screen, it’s obvious who they are and what they’ll be.  David Oyelowo, as Kiel, actually has a good scene to himself that helps make all of his actions as a commander understandable and appreciable.  Everyone else is frustratingly boring or laughably predictable in a movie that just becomes aggravating to sit through.

This movie had potential.  Not Paradox, but God Particle.  There is a montage at the beginning of the movie, showing the crew go through two years on the station trying to figure out the energy crisis, and it seems these could have been the needed scenes of character development, but due to Bad Robot’s agenda to make the Cloverfield connection, those much needed and desired scenes of development have been cut down or out.  This final product is just baffling. How could a whole team of people think this is okay to show consumers and make them pay for it?  I guess they figured they wouldn’t, and that’s why they sold it to Netflix.

Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Released in 1990, Mo’ Better Blues is the follow up to Do The Right Thing. Not only is it a chronological continuation, but many of the same actors appear as well. Furthermore, this film explores many of the same themes as both Do The Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It.

The male lead, Bleek Gilliam, is played by Denzel Washington. Bleek is a professional jazz musician who has been mastering his craft from a very young age. As a child he was reluctant to sacrifice time with his friends in order to practice. Now, as an adult, he seems determined yet simultaneously indecisive about where he sees himself in the future.

Sharing as dual female leads are Indigo (played by Joie Lee) and Clarke (played by Cynda Williams). Much like Nola in the She’s Gotta Have It, Bleek is unable to decide on just one woman. Indigo is a student and aspiring professional, while Clarke is a hopeful jazz singer looking in part for a chance to sing with Bleek’s band.

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The supporting cast includes Spike Lee as the gambling addicted band manager Giant. As well as Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, and Dick Anthony Williams as Left Hand Lacey, Hammer, and Big Stop Williams respectively. They are the members of Bleek’s band and often a source of contention throughout the film. Other notable features include Robin Harris (as comedian Butterbean), Samuel L. Jackson (as both Señor Love Daddy and gang enforcer Madlock), and Charlie Murphy (as one of the jazz clubs two doormen).

Throughout the film Bleek struggles to remain focused and honor relationships he’s built through childhood and as an adult. Whether it’s confusing Indigo and Clarke in bed, failing to appease his bandmates request for a higher salary, or being too slow in helping Giant out of a gambling debt, Bleek seems to make one wrong step after another. Compounded on this is bandmate Shadow (Wesley Snipes), who’s also in love with Clarke and continually threatens to leave Bleek’s band. This leads him to hit rock bottom before making a slow and painful rise leading into the films conclusion.

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One issue that came out after the films initial release was the portrayal of Jewish club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush (played by real life brothers John and Nicholas Turturro). Spike Lee pushed back by citing decades of skewed and outright racist portrayals of African Americans in cinema. As I often write, this is up to individual viewers to decide.

Although I greatly enjoyed the conclusion, which bookended magnificently with the opening sequence of the film, the “ending” so to speak felt a bit unnatural to me. It seemed to be going one way and rapidly went another. Ultimately it works out in my opinion. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at that.

This film is about much more than just jazz but it would be foolish not to mention how much great music is in the film. Once again Spike’s father (who also plays a small role) provided music. Further, contemporary jazz great Branford Marsalis (who Spike worked with in School Daze, a film I have not seen) contributed both music and guidance to the actors. On top of that, many great jazz artist’s are featured in the soundtrack. One of my personal favorites was the use of the legendary John Coltrane toward the end.

Mo’ Better Blues handles relationships, luck vs responsibility, support for jazz in the black community, and many other heavy issues. Yet despite that, it manages to remain fast paced and sometimes even funny. The numerous references to jazz history and expansive soundtrack further illustrate Spike Lee’s love of the genre. This film is the culmination of prior work and a sign of things to come for Lee both in terms of subject matter and cinematography. His maturation as a filmmaker continues to show.

Whether it’s Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, another of the cavalcade of stars, jazz music or just general curiosity, Mo’ Better Blues has something for most viewers. Much like the prior two films this month, I consider this a must watch….even if you have to pay to view it.

On a sad note, this movie is the final work of the great comedian Robin Harris. He has some great stand up scenes in this film, a great testament to his legacy.

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Do The Right Thing (1989)

Do The Right Thing is often regarded as Spike Lee’s greatest film. Released in 1989, the film studies the complex issue of racism by focusing on one block in Brooklyn surviving the hottest day of the year.

The cast features Danny Aiello as Sal, owner of Sal’s Pizzeria and his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Spike Lee, who plays Sal’s deliveryman Mookie. Tina, played by Rosie Perez, who is Mookie’s girlfriend and mother to his son. Samuel L. Jackson as local radio host Mister Señor Love Daddy. Along with acting legends Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as Da Mayor and Mother Sister respectively.

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The film opens by illustrating how incredibly hot the day is, even first thing in the morning. We are introduced early to undertones of racism when Pino criticizes his father for paying Da Mayor to sweep the block in front their pizza shop. Conflict arrises further when Buggin Out, played by Giancarlo Esposito, questions why Sal’s only has pictures of famous Italian’s in the restaurant. Soon he is calling for a boycott of after being thrown out.

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As the film moves forward, the audience is introduced to each character and given an understanding of how everyone on the block interacts with one another. Da Mayor, disparaged for being an old drunk, saves a boy from being hit by a car and buys flower for Mother Sister. Mookie visits Tina, confronts the absurdity of Pino’s racism, and protects his sister (played by his real life sister Joie Lee) when he feels Sal is a little too interested in her. He also encourages Vito to stand up for himself against his brothers bullying.

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While the day wears on, Buggin Out soon realizes he’s going to have trouble gaining support for his protest. He finally tells Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), one of Spike Lee’s most memorable character creations, who is willing to confront Sal. Carrying his signature boom box, Radio Raheem is berated by Sal who smashes the stereo in a fit of rage. This ultimately escalates to the films necessarily ambiguous ending.

There are many things that make this film great, but for the sake of fairness I will provide a few minor criticisms. At certain points in the film, the acting becomes a bit melodramatic. Though this may be intentional, as some scenes feel as much like a play as they do like a film, it can take the viewer out of the movie momentarily. Also, there is a sub-plot about the blocks convenient store being run by a Korean family. Spike Lee walks a thin tightrope, often portraying the owner in a one dimensional manner.

One thing that makes the film so enjoyable is the genuine relationships felt between the characters. At 2 hours long it could’ve been double that length simply because of how dynamic the interplay was between the cast. Furthermore, top notch performances are given all around. A testament to this is how even set pieces like Da Mayor’s hat or Radio Raheem’s signature Love and Hate rings feel natural and almost become a part of the characters. To top it all off, the actors and actresses do an excellent job combining Spike Lee’s unique dialogue style with their own manner of speech.

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The film confronts racism from a unique angle. The entire plot is underscored by the seeming yin and yang of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s philosophies. This is expressed especially by the character Smiley, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, who scours the block trying to sell copies of the famous Malcolm and Martin handshake picture. In particular, the idea of black ownership of business in black neighborhoods is analyzed. This topic was often addressed by Malcolm X, who believed that the true problem of segregation was the lack of economic and political control by black people over their own neighborhoods. The film does make an important distinction, however, that despite popular understanding Malcolm X believed in violence as a tool of self-defense. It closes with a quotes from both Malcolm and Martin, giving the viewer food for thought long after they finish the movie.

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From a technical standpoint there are many great things as well. Once again his father Bill Lee scored the film and as expected it’s fantastic.  The film opens with a solo sax rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing followed by Fight The Power. This establishes the tension and duality in the film right from the start. Often there is interplay between Radio Raheem’s playing of Fight The Power and Lee’s jazzy saxophone heavy score that blend masterfully. The editing and actors addressing the camera all play out in true Spike Lee fashion. In regards to cinematography, is a red tint in much of the film that further exemplifies just how hot it is.

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When preparing this review I probably made about 30 notes and I’m not sure I even got to half of them. I may come back at some point and do an analysis of this film, as there are so many angles and subtleties that could be addressed. The only thing I can say is go watch this movie, it’s a masterpiece and you won’t regret it. The themes are just as relevant today as they were in 1989.

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Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968)

I feel a strong sense of deja vu, almost as if I’m reviewing the same movie twice. Welp, I essentially am. Both this film and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet are re-edited from the same film, Planeta Bur (Storm Planet or Planet of the Storms). Both are produced by Roger Corman. How and why this happened I am unsure. If I had to guess, Roger Corman may have needed some money. A cheap way to get some back then was re-releasing a film rather than produce a new one. But you only re-released a film that you though enough people would go see to recoup distribution costs. New films typically did better. Thus, we have this anomaly, produced just two years later. Continue reading “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968)”

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965)

In the 1960’s, America and the Soviet Union were engaged in a “space race”. Both wanted to be the first to make it to the moon. Both countries were very interested in space at this time, and popular culture was heavily influenced by this interest. This was reflected in the films and programs of the time. In the Soviet Union, one such film was made. Planeta Bur (which basically translates to Storm Planet), a 1962 film about Soviet astronauts searching for and finding life on Venus, fell into the hands of one Rodger Corman, notable film producer. The picture was re-cut, dubbed over, and re-titled to Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. All references to the Soviet Union were omitted and the Soviet actors were given American names. But this is only one half of the story. Continue reading “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965)”

Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

In the 1950’s America had much to fear. Vagrancy. Depravity. Communists. The enemy was on every street corner. But all of these horrors paled in the face of America’s true bringer of ruination: teenage rebellion! The 50’s had seen the rise of the teenager. They had new agency and independence when compared to decades previous. No longer were they simply “kids”. They belonged in their own category. Their generation rebelled against the status quo. They were rowdier, more sexually liberated, more passionate yet lazier, and all over just a pain in behinds of older folk. No, I’m not talking about millennials. Teenagers in the 50’s paved the way for youthful subversiveness, and now they complain about those damn kids that have no respect for authority. Teenagers from Outer Space promised audiences “Thrill-Crazed Space Kids” and “Teenage Hoodlums from Another World” that isn’t really what the film gives us though. Continue reading “Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)”

Drunken Reviews – Groundhog Day

On this fine Sunday evening, I shall be viewing the classic motion picture production Groundhog Day. I’ll be enjoying camp stove chicken noodle soup, hot cocoa and Tanglefoot IPA from the Royal Docks Brewing Company. The noodle soup is made from protein-rich veggie noodles, an egg, and a chicken bouillon cube, in case anyone is wondering. It’s what I eat these days in preparation for an extended bicycle camping trip. It’s tasty as fuck, and I can make it drunk as fuck, so it wins. Hot cocoa because it’s effing cold out and I like hot cocoa. The Tanglefoot IPA because it’s what a good friend generously brought home for me the other day. It smells like grapefruit with an aftertaste to match. I’m slowly acquiring a taste for beer. Continue reading “Drunken Reviews – Groundhog Day”

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

She’s Gotta Have It is the first feature-length movie by now famed director Spike Lee. Filmed on a microscopic budget, it is shot (almost) entirely in black and white. Further, it takes place exclusively in Brooklyn with many of the scenes occurring in lead character Nola’s apartment. Part mockumentary and part drama, it features cinematic and stylistic flairs that have now become cornerstones of a Spike Lee Joint. Continue reading “She’s Gotta Have It (1986)”

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