A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Do The Right Thing” (1989) 9.20.15

In continuing my streak of seeing older films that I admire for the first time on the big screen, this week I caught both writer/director Spike’s Lee most well known work, as well as the defining film on racism that’s ever been made in the United States (or anywhere else for that matter). It’s also perhaps maybe the single most important film to date outside of maybe Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993). Lee’s work, especially his work throughout the eighties and nineties, were arguably his best, and anyone that knows me knows that I have been and always will be an avid Spike Lee supporter. Even if the last really good project he’s released was the Hurricane Katrina documentary – “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006). It is because of this one film, “Do The Right Thing”, now 26 years old; but just as prevalent as it is in the present day as it was way back then, that I will always have nothing but the utmost deep respect and admiration for Lee the artist, even if he never puts out a single good film ever again.

It’s interesting to me now when I think about the fact that we live in a society and culture that’s both so entrenched and sculpted by the language, music, art, and aesthetic of hip hop, that there was actually a time where the force of that movement hadn’t been tapped into yet. At least certainly not in the filmmaking world. And at the same time thinking how commercial, materialistic, and shallow much of this music has become. It was once an actual youth movement that stood for something where the music was radical, subversive, and even revolutionary. “Do The Right Thing” was the first film to capture that point in time where hip hop or rap music was urgent and conscious while also channeling a lot of the issues of Black America at the time – racism, racial pride, class struggle, and urban living.

The film’s opening credits are set to an assault of beats and bombastic music of the hip hop elders and icons – Public Enemy and their single “Fight The Power”. We then meet the many different characters that occupy a dense Brooklyn neighborhood as they face one of those unbearable stretches of heat in the summertime. Most all of whom are vibrant, loud, and eccentric who ultimately cross paths and intersect and various points throughout the film. The film is anchored by its main character, Mookie (Spike Lee), a pizza delivery boy who traverses back and forth throughout the neighborhood and through who we get to meet the film’s many vibrant characters while doing so. There’s his girlfriend (played by the then newly discovery Rosie Perez), the two elders (the late great Civil Rights activists and actors – Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee – who were married in real life), the neighborhood youth as represented by; among others, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), and the Italian pizzeria owner Sal (the Oscar nominated Danny Aiello) and his two sons – Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Rounding out this large group of characters are three late middle-aged men (one of them played by one of the greatest Black comedians of all time – Robin Harris) whose scathing commentary on the day’s events provide a lot of the film’s funniest scenes. As the hot summer day progresses and tempers start to flare ordinary events take on extraordinary significance.

I’ve always declared that “Do The Right Thing” was one of my top 25 favorite films of all time. And this viewing; again my first time on the big screen, just solidified why I consider it to be such a major and important work, and yet another film that I can honestly say I have a relationship with, or a special bond to, that I do with only my very favorite of films. Lee’s expertly written (which he would receive an Oscar nomination for for Best Original Screenplay) and utterly confident piece of directing is astonishing to watch. But even more importantly, are the themes; many of which I listed above, that he interweaves into his morality play on racial tensions in America. How seemingly ordinary daily exchanges by people of different races, creeds, and colors, can explode into fiery bursts of violence (the climax of the film; which apparently caused riots in certain cities in the US upon its release, is brutally powerful and utterly devastating) and showcased police brutality and the fracturing within a community of people. This winds up being a clear metaphor for the state of the late 20th century’s American race relations. Forget Paul Haggis’ Oscar winning “Crash” (2004) that tried to tackle similar themes yet failed miserably at trying to do so. “Do The Right Thing” is a unapologetically angry film, but it needs to be in order to speak to the themes in which it explores. But even despite it being so, Lee expertly handles these difficult themes in a balancing act that’s also filled with images of black love and social camaraderie that is both so real and so rare to find, especially nowadays, in American cinema that they seem radical (and were) for their time. Shot beautifully in bright, vibrant colors that represented much of hip hop culture in the eighties, with skewed camera angles that almost make it look like it was framed to look like a comic book, along with a fine example of film editing that reflects the energetic thrust of the film. “Do The Right” thing has become one of the most influential movies in the history of filmmaking, not only stylistically, but for being the first film that gave other future filmmakers permission to draw from the experiences of lives (specifically that of Black America) that previously had been ignored or distorted in both Hollywood and independent film. It’s Lee’s calling card to the entire country in hopes of waking us up or rendering us more conscious of how racism exists and functions in America. And for it I am forever grateful.

[A]

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DVD Midweek Reviews: “Champs” and “Danny Collins” (6.24.15)

“Champs” was my first pick of the week. Coming off the heels of a rather busy weekend of watching just purely feature films, I thought I would switch it up a little bit and watch a Netflix Streaming documentary that’s been out for a little over a month. Sports documentaries almost always fascinate me. Mainly because well, admittedly I don’t watch a whole lot of sports. So when I see documentaries like “Happy Valley” (released earlier this year) about Penn State University assistant coach’s Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on child sex abuse charges, it’s almost as if it’s entirely new news to me. An even better example of this example of this being “totally tuned out” than all of a sudden being “tuned in” months or even sometimes years later after the initial story was released to the public was when I watched famed documentarian Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie” (2013) last year. I remember thinking to myself – wait what, Armstrong was doping? He eventually admitted it and was banned from the sport along with his titles taken away? This must have been the sports news story of the decade. And yet I hadn’t heard of a single thing about it before watching that documentary. So the point I’m trying to make is I’m so immersed in the world of film that an earthquake could hit San Francisco (I live in Portland, OR) and I probably wouldn’t know about it until they made a documentary about it, or better yet a feature film, well after the time that the event took place.

My point was proven once again here with the sports documentary “Champs”. Which focuses on 3 of the greatest boxers of the last quarter century or so in Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Bernard Hopkins…wait, who in the hell is Bernard Hopkins? Having been familiar with the other 2 boxers, particularly that of Mike Tyson (the “Tyson” documentary currently stands on my top 10 list of not only sports documentaries of all time but of documentaries in general) I had never even heard of the ex-Lightweight Heavyweight Champion of the World.

It’s a fairly straight-forward telling of each individual’s upbringing (mostly poor) and each of their plights in becoming some of the best, most recognized, fighters in the sport of boxing, of the past quarter century or so. About half of the documentary focuses on Tyson’s story, which for someone like myself, whose seen the “Tyson” documentary about a half dozen times or so, really brought nothing new to the table. What interested me most about this particular documentary was learning about both Holyfield (who I only knew about in relation to his 2 Tyson fights), and especially Hopkins, who did a lengthy prison sentence that allowed him to realize the impact he could have on the sport. And once released, he became the Lightweight Champion of the World. It also features a bevy of interviews with some rather well known and respected celebrities who have had ties to the boxing world. People like Mark Whalberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Spike Lee, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, etc, share their views in candid interviews where they try to explain how significant of a role each of these 3 fighters had on the world of boxing. The Tyson portion is mostly a rehash of clips and archival footage from the 2009 documentary of the same name. While the other 2 boxers are given almost equal treatment in the telling of the adversities they had to face both in and outside of the ring, which I thought was the documentary’s greatest strength. Omitting Tyson would have been an atrocity, but to rehash everything we’ve already been told, shown, and know about the infamous boxer yet once again, can’t help me but to think how much better of a documentary this could have been had the focus been more on Holyfield and Hopkins. [B-]

The second movie of the week was a film that was just released on DVD/VOD platforms this week called “Danny Collins”. I had been a bit conflicted about this film when it was released in theaters as to whether or not I really wanted to see it. However, despite its mediocre to moderate reviews, and virtually knowing next to nothing about it, I decided to give it a whirl when it came out on DVD.

Danny Collins (aka Steve Tilson), played by Al Pacino (in his best late Pacino performance thus far) plays a sort of a fictitious, modern-day, broken down musician, who can still draw in arena size audiences but whose personal life is on the fritz. Collins is a selfish man, more immersed in fame, fortune, booze, and cocaine than he is almost anything else. He’s estranged from his family, he believes his much younger wife is cheating on him, and he’s grown tired of going out night-to-night only to deliver songs that he became famous for several years earlier. Through an act of epiphany and self introspection, he decides to go on a quest to become reacquainted with his son (played by the likeable Bobby Cannavale), his wife (played by Jennifer Garner), and his granddaughter. With the help of his long term/best friend/tour manager (played by maybe the greatest 80+ actor alive, Christopher Plummer), along with a personal letter from the John Lennon, that he receives 40 years after he wrote it, and a new found muse that he finds in a hotel manager played by Annette Bening, he goes on sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to make amends with his estranged family while also trying to find inspiration to revitalize his career.

This wound up being a very entertaining film despite its contrivances and predictable story. Pacino reminds us here once again why he’s one of the best actors of the last 40+ years, putting in a knock out performance as the aging famous musician who has a self revelation about his life and everything that he has been missing up to this point. It’s one hell of a bravura performance and one of the greater roles I’ve seen in recent memory that’s been given to an actor of yesteryear (the only comparison I can think of is Michael Douglas as Liberace in “Behind The Candelabra”) (2013). The supporting players mentioned above are all play their best in what often times feels like a cliche script. But really that’s besides the point, because it’s so good to see Pacino back in top form, in a late career role which reminds us of the undeniable depth of his talent. If you’re looking for something more on the lighter side where the acting winds up superseding that of the actual story, and liked last year’s “Begin Again” (a movie I drew quite a few comparisons to) then this is something worth checking out. As long as you’re prepared enough that you will be delving into familiar Hollywood territory which can be overlooked for its universally identifiable story about the willingness of one man’s aspirations to reconnect with a former piece of his life and formal self. [soft B]

Review: ‘How I Live Now’ 9.22.14

Scotland born director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”, “Marley”) is one in a slew of directors who work in both the feature film and documentary formats. Some notable others including the granddaddy of the crop, Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”, “Rescue Dawn”, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, “The Bad Leiutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” ), followed closely by Spike Lee (“Do The Right Thing”, “4 Little Girls”, “Inside Man”, “When The Levees Broke”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”, “Life Itself”, “Prefontaine”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”, “Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980“), and Joe Berlinger (The “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”) just to name a few. Macdonald is that rare breed of filmmaker like Herzog or Lee that are just as proficient making feature films as they are documentaries. In the documentary format, Macdonald wowed myself with both 2003’s “Touching the Void” and 2012’s “Marley”. As for the feature format, I found myself both really liking 2006’s Academy Award winning “The Last King of Scotland” as well as 2009’s underappreciated “State of Play”. So I saw it as only be befitting that I would see whatever it was that he came out with next.

We first meet up with the central character, Daisy (yet another bold performance by Saoirse Ronan), as she’s getting off a plane in what appears to be a war torn London. She is picked up and driven to some sort of compound, where shortly after we learn is inhabited by the sister of her estranged father, who seems to be some sort of extremist fighter. Daisy is a closed off, irritable, angst ridden teenager; who has a very difficult time warming up to all of her many cousins who live at the house. She also has quite a few phobias. She’s deathly afraid of bacteria, washes her hands incessantly, and has a mind that seems to be in a constant state of overdrive. While at the compound, she meets a young man named Eddie (played my George McKay), who has an almost unspoken language and communication with animals and who, coincidentally, can also hear Daisy’s thoughts. She begins to take a liking to and forms a bond with him. But just as soon as they can fall in love, a radio announcement is received declaring a Civil War throughout all of Britain. The compound soon becomes under attack, and the military detains them splitting the men from the women. Diasy declares that no matter what situation she finds herself in or no matter how far they take her, she will come back to find her true love. Her younger cousin and she are then taken to a kind of foster home where they plan their escape. At a pivotal moment when they’re just about to do so without any risk of harm or violence, a devastating turn of events takes place at a checkpoint, and the two are left to flee which is when their journey really begins.

I really have nothing but good things to say about this film. Even though I did find the ending to be a bit contrived and stayed a little bit too close to Hollywood tropes. From an artistic stand point, Macdonald does a magnificient job at filming the war ravaged English countryside, capturing some stunning photography in both the beauty of its nature and the devastation of its ruin. Macdonald also expertly jumbles a film that takes on many parts – it’s part War film, part Romance, part Drama, and part Action/post-apocalyptic film in equal measures. As mentioned above it also features a fine performances by its two leads, Saoirse Ronan and George McKay, who also provide the center of the love story and whose relationship and on screen chemistry feels genuine and without artifice.  I also found that it was both engaging and moved at somewhat of a quick pace while evoking a sense of urgency, dread, and suspense throughout the entire proceeding. My one or two criticisms of it had to do mostly with the ending as I mentioned above. I felt like it laid the sentiment on a tad too thick and came across as slightly overmelodramatic. That aside, this was a solid film that I had a lot of fun with and enjoyed many aspects of it. Thus proving once again my belief that if a director does you right more often times than he does you wrong, then chances are that much greater that you’ll walk away satisfied with their next film.

Grade: B

 

Review: ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’ 9.18.14

It’s an incredibly daunting task to write about somebody you admire and hold in such high regard as I do Muhammad Ali. I consider Ali to be one of if not the most important people in the history of the United States of America, never mind one of the greatest athletes. He stands right alongside others I so deeply admire like Malcolm X, Spike Lee, Stokely Charmichael, and countless others. He’s also one of the few people that I get so emotional just thinking about what facet of his life I could try to do justice by writing about. Because he really is that much of an idol of mine. Like the blurb from the reviewer on the poster says, I too feel like I should utter “dare I say – I’ve seen em all”. But I’ve certainly devoted a large part of my life absorbing everything humanely possible about this incredibly amazing and inspiring individual.

This, in my opinion, is the most comprehensive document of his life that I’ve seen up to this point. Rather than choosing to focus entirely on his boxing career and fight highlights as so many documentaries of him that I’ve seen do, this really probes into Muhammad Ali “the man”. Shedding light on his childhood having been born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky (one of the only “American” identities he would go on to carry with him). They show his introduction to the sporting of boxing at the tender young age of 12, to going on to win the Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome at the age of 18 and thus declaring that he would be “the heavyweight champion of the world at 21” (he would miss it by only a year). Then shows how he him being thrust into the global spotlight in his early twenties, where he would go on to denounce his birth name, Cassius Clay; because it was given to him by the white man and he thought of it to be a slave name. To the depictons of his religious and political affiliations with the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Which takes up about the half of the film. Which I liked because I’ve always found it to be the most fascinating aspect of his life. And ultimately wound up being drafted into the Vietnam War and refusing to go because of his religious beliefs (the Muslim faith was vehemently opposed to any type of violence, never mind War). Then being ostracized by not only the American government (shame on you), but the American people (shame on you more) and ultimately being stripped of his boxing license. Following this, after 3 long years of “American exile” and touring around college campuses and becoming the single most important spokesperson for the African American community (Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X had both already been assassinated by this point), he’s cleared of all charges of draft dodging and being “sincerely unpatriotic” (since when is that a crime?). By this point, the American people have lost faith, and say that a man who’s been gone from the sport for so long could never come back and be the champ. In typical Ali fashion he eventually comes back to the sport with more vigor and vengeance than he ever had up to that point in his career, and goes on to win 2 more heavyweight bouts (they skip over the infamous 1974 fight with George Foreman in Zaire, otherwise known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”. But remember, this not a documentary about his fights. And, finally, his battle with Parkinson’s disease. Which they shed very little light on. Why? Because there’s entirely no reason to. This man lived more in the first third of his life than any of us will in this life, the afterlife, and the next life after.

This is an unbelievable documentary, all biases aside, for the sole reason that it really gets into the heart and soul of a man who stood by his convictions and religious beliefs for the entirety of his boxing career and into his adult life no matter how he was viewed by the United States government or the American people. The opening scene alone really allows the viewer to see how much hatred a portion of the American demographic (mostly White poeple) disliked Ali. It opens with a voice over of some of the most unkind, mean spirited, and hateful comments a person could possibly made, and the camera pans in on Ali as he sits there fully composed and unscathed by anything he’s just heard. Despite facing so much adversity throughout his boxing career he always was aware of who he was and never gave up his ideals or what he stood for. He would never become someone’s else’s “puppet” (one reason why he eventually dropped his sponsorship group of White Capitalists and named the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s son to be his manager) but instead became a leader, mentor, and spokesperson for all Black men and women throughout America during a time when the nation was experiencing its most political unrest. If you have even the slightest interest in Muhammad Ali “the man” and don’t necessarily want to see a documentary that focuses solely on his fights (for that I would highly recommend 1996’s Academy Award winning documentary “When We Were Kings”) then this is the documentary for you. Never have we been given such unlimited access into the heart and soul of a man who truly was “The Greatest”. This is one, just behind “Life Itself” and alongside “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, that’s earned itself a #2 or #3 spot of my favorite documentaries of the year.

Grade: A-/A

“See, we have been brainwashed. Everything good and of authority was made white. We look at Jesus, we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels, we see white with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I’m sure if there’s a heaven in the sky and the colored folks die and go to heaven, where are the colored angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey. We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at Miss Universe, we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white!”

Why are we called Negroes”? “Why are we deaf, dumb, and blind“? Why is everybody making progress and yet we lag so far behind”?

-Muhammad Ali (Howard University, 1967)