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.

Denzel_Mo_Better_Blues

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.

interview_Spike-MoBlues

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.

wj-mbb-robin-harris31

Advertisements

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.

tumblr_n6rcbcgzUI1rt1r5ro2_1280

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.

do-the-right-thing-1989-05-g

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.

MSDDOTH EC027

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.

do-the-right-thing-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000

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.

didactic-quotes-5

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.

tumblr_on6odtd9Rf1qetb0ho1_1280

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.

do-the-right-thing-spike-1083_041326-1

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)”

Three Billboards Outside Oscar Buzz

Three Billboards 1

After taking home 4 major Golden Globe awards, there is no doubt Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has solidified its status as an Oscar favorite. Much like my review of The Post, I found this film to be anything but perfect.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a complex character drama starring Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson…among others. McDormand plays Mildred, the mother of a daughter who was raped, burned, and murdered. The case has yet to be solved. This leads her to pay for three billboards which serve to antagonize the local police into putting more effort into the case. Continue reading “Three Billboards Outside Oscar Buzz”

The Post

As of writing this, The Post has already been nominated for and received multiple awards. The critical acclaim cannot be denied. However, the film is not without flaws.

The Post is a historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg primarily about The Washington Post’s role in informing the American people about the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers were a series of government studies analyzing the effectiveness and justification of military action in Vietnam. The film centers around The Washington Post’s legal and moral conflict over deciding whether or not to publish this information from classified documents. It also examines how these events were taking place at the same time that the Post was becoming a publicly traded company. Continue reading “The Post”

“Star Wars….nothing but Star Wars”

What more can be said about the original Star Wars Trilogy? Widely loved, critically acclaimed, technically revolutionary…all these and more have been used as descriptors. Yet with nostalgia comes a continual push to revisit these classics, maybe just to see if they still hold up. The common answer? Of course, they do. Continue reading ““Star Wars….nothing but Star Wars””

An Introduction

fear and loathing title

From a very early age, maybe 8 years old, I loved watching movies. I was always drawn to more “adult” films, as opposed to those oriented toward kids. My earliest memories of watching film include The Rocky franchise, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Small Soldiers.

Leaving grade school and entering high school, I started to broaden my horizons. I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time, which opened the door to Quentin Tarantino. I saw Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which opened the door to Martin Scorsese. Soon I was seeking out foreign films by directors like  Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Jean-Luc Godard. At one point in high school, I made an effort to watch a movie per day. Occasionally I would write a short review and post it on Facebook.

goodfellas title

It was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that inspired me to pursue studying journalism in college, which in some respects makes it my favorite movie. Now, being in college, it becomes easy to slack off in appreciating the arts. There’s always an excuse why I can’t read, or watch a movie, or take time to really listen to an album.

My resolution for the new year is to return to my film roots, watching and reviewing at least 1 movie per week. Hopefully, that journey will be cataloged on this blog for whoever cares to read it.

the squid and the whale title

— Anthony Calvaruso

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: