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)”

Drunk Reveiws Update: I Won’t Always Be Drunk. :(

Update: 2/4/2018 7:56PM EST: Just got through some big life changes. Cannot afford alcohol for every review. I will have more time for reviews though. That being said, my reviews may not all be drunken. I’ve instead begun distilling my drunken personality and will try to write all reviews while embracing what makes drunken me so awesome. Like arrogance. I’m an arrogant turd sometimes when drunk. Basically, I won’t be holding back, even when sober. I definitely plan on getting hammered when possible because it’s Fun.

Up next is a classic: Groundhog Day

Here’s hoping I can slow myself down more often to write a review and enjoy or loathe a new piece of cinema. Cheers.

– Dustin

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Christmas comes incredibly early this year. I open up this freshly gift-wrapped turd and was confronted with mind-numbing stupidity. After watching this tripe, I had to take a nap, and I cried myself to sleep. I’m not sure, but I think this film has given me permanent brain damage. I still see them when I close my eyes. Green leotards. Brown face paint. Illogical head apparatuses. But all of that pales in comparison to that unearthly laughter. Santa has come to town, and he’s kind of scary. Continue reading “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)”

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