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Quarantine 2020 Catch-Up — Double Feature Special: Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” & “Da 5 Bloods”

Firstly, I have to amend a small fault on my part. On the last post of this blog I noted that my next piece of writing would include two of Spike Lee’s films, one being the latest film he recently released on Netflix in “Da 5 Bloods”, and the other being “Do The Right Thing” which I incorrectly noted as being his first film when in fact it was his third. That post has already been edited for the mistake, but it only made clear for me that I didn’t know all that much about the American filmmaker, and that it was past due for me to dive headlong into his filmography. The result begins with this post and an acknowledgement to watch more of his films in the future. After watching these two films, I have to admit to an admiration for the filmmaker’s tendencies. I quite enjoy provocateurs filmmakers, and Spike Lee is a fascinating creator in that regard.

That being said, while I highly recommend giving these two films a watch, you should note going in that these films can be uncomfortable at times. “Do The Right Thing” in particular has moments that seem to be ripped straight out of today’s headlines and while it may be upsetting for some, Lee is very adept at showing the ugliness of humanity alongside it’s beauty. Love and Hate are key themes in both films, and as such, he will not avert your eyes away from the ugliness. Absorb it. Learn from it. Be warned though, both films have heavy ideas and themes, but again, I think everyone should give them a watch. I always challenge anyone that reads this blog to seek out new films and different filmmakers, and that is especially true for the provocateur filmmakers like Spike Lee.

Written and directed by Spike Lee, “Do The Right Thing” (1989) follows a day in the life of Mookie (Spike Lee) a local pizza delivery boy in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn New York. Though to limit the scope of the film solely to Mookie and his interactions would be a disservice to the film and it’s story. It’s more of an ensemble cast in truth. The film is layered with terrific and memorable performances from John Turturro, Richard Edson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Danny Aiello, Bill Nunn, Joie Lee, and Martin Lawrence in his first feature presence. While we may follow Mookie’s path through the neighborhood, the camera often leaves Mookie to linger on the many faces and personalities of the neighborhood.

Mookie works at Sal’s (Danny Aiello) famous pizzeria with his two sons, Pino (Turturro) the eldest and most overtly racist of the family, and Vito (Edson) the quieter and friendlier brother. As Mookie makes his rounds delivering pizzas we’re introduced to many people from the block. From Da Mayor (Davis), a friendly drunk with a heart of gold, to the stoic Radio Raheem (Nunn) a powerful presence who wields a boombox constantly blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”, but there’s also Mother Sister (Dee) eternally watching the neighborhood from her brownstone windowsill, and a trio of entertaining middle-aged men that sit across from both the pizzeria and the Korean grocery store who crack wise throughout the film. However there are two important individuals left to discuss, one is Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), a local radio DJ host who is a benevolent voice of reason piercing the veil of narrative function several times in the story, and then there’s “Buggin Out” (Giancarlo Esposito), as he is called. “Buggin Out” sits down to eat a slice of pizza at Sal’s for lunch when he notices that the “wall of fame” in the restaurant only has Italian Americans (Sinatra, DiMaggio, DeNiro, Pacino), so he asks, “Why aren’t there any brothers up on the wall?”. To which Sal replies that it’s his restaurant, he can put anyone up on the wall that he wants. “Buggin Out” points out that the place is only ever full of black customers, and that they should have someone up there too. Sal rejects the idea and “Buggin Out” is kicked out while Mookie has to clean up the mess.

For the rest of the film while the other plotlines and characters are given attention “Buggin Out” is pounding the concrete looking for supporters to boycott Sal’s pizzeria. He doesn’t have much luck as everyone legitimately likes Sal’s, but by the day’s end he returns with Radio Raheem and Smiley, the mentally challenged man that sells colored pictures of Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X on the streets. I won’t ruin the culmination of the film here, but as a whole I found the film to be funny, charming, eclectic, and one that truly understood race relations in America as they were, and as they are today. There’s a scene, one of the most memorable of the film for me because I didn’t expect it, where Mookie and Pino begin an argument about race where Mookie asks Pino why his favorite athletes and musicians are black, but he still chooses to use words and language that are racist? It’s a notion that explodes into slow zoom mid-shots on several characters in the movie that openly and blatantly expel the most racist, stereotypical, and vicious insults from multiple races and backgrounds. It’s a startling dive into hatred that is broken only, mercifully, by Mister Señor Love Daddy. There’s a link below to an interview where Spike Lee discusses the scene at length.

“Do The Right Thing” is a powerful film that challenges its viewers to consider America’s race relations at more than face value. After introducing us to a community of good people, a hot summer day sends all the unsaid and il-considered notions to the forefront, and Spike Lee shows us how such terrible and awful things that exist within our society can hurt all of us, if only we care to look these truths in the eye.

Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, and directed by Lee, “Da 5 Bloods” (2020) is the story of four Black Vietnam War veterans returning to the country to find the remains of their fallen brother and give him a proper burial. However, they are also looking for the gold bars they left buried there as well. This film was an absolute surprise, I expected the film to confront unpleasant truths about the Vietnam War and the Black soldiers that participated in it, but I didn’t expect it’s timeless nature. I didn’t expect the film to eloquently showcase how hate and brain programming can crush a man’s soul, and I didn’t expect to be wowed so thoroughly by the technical aspects of the film. There are also creative choices throughout the film that were equally astounding. I also didn’t expect an enormous and effective amount of violence both real and fictional. Lee filled the film with real war footage, some of it is disturbingly violent, while some is purely historical archives of real black men-in-arms of that time. It gives the fictional characters a sense of immersion into our past that is seldom possible for other characters within period pieces. There are scenes in the present day and flashbacks to the Bloods’ time back in Vietnam, and the way each are depicted within the film changes how we view the story as a whole. The Vietnam scenes were shot on 16mm with grain, and curiously, the younger versions of the Bloods aren’t depicted with lookalike younger actors or de-aged with rubbery tenacity- instead they’re performed by the older actors. It’s a unique choice, but one that effectively underpins the point that this war didn’t leave them. Granted, all of the Bloods have varying issues with the past and how they chose to deal with it. There’s also the ever-changing aspect ratios, there’s four different ones paired with varying filmmaking techniques spread throughout the film. I’ve got a link below for an article from Slate discussing the details behind these. In lesser hands, these techniques might have failed or been a detriment to the story being told, but here they add a layer of magic to the film that only enhances the story being told.

That being said, the characters in this story are what make it so compelling. The technical wizardry and cool cinematic tricks are very good and I love them- but it’s the character work that truly makes this film shine. The four living Bloods reunite at a Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon). Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most complex and misunderstood of the group, Otis (Clarke Peters) the medic and peacemaker among them, Eddie (Norm Lewis) the eccentric high roller that funded the whole trip, and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) the jokester and artillery specialist. I’m not quite as assured in my description of Melvin, Whitlock’s performance was a fine addition to the cast, but his characterization was the only one I found to be somewhat lacking. Then again, I may just need to give the film a rewatch to better dig into that character, it’s a bit of a long movie running at two and a half hours. In both time periods there is a fifth Blood member. In the war, the squad leader of the Bloods was Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and in the present day, it’s Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) who joins the four unexpectedly before they depart into the jungle. With regards to Melvin, the rest of the Bloods feel fully realized and complex. They all have deeper issues that need addressing, but the absolute standout is Delroy Lindo as Paul. He is his own Colonel Kurtz who unravels more as they journey deeper into their pasts looking for treasure, for salvation, for forgiveness. If the film industry continues to take the shape that it has for most of this year, then Lindo has already won “Best Actor”, his performance was mesmerizing. Spike Lee, also, should get the Director’s gold- the year may hold out more gems and high quality surprises, but I’d be hard pressed to see anyone else deserve a hard earned win more than Spike Lee.

Lee touches on a lot of modern day issues, from the Opioid Epidemic to MAGA hats, the director has not and does not shy away from ‘hot topics’ as you by now well know. With this film, Spike Lee has refuted any naysayers to his skill and standing in the film community. Lee’s latest film is fierce, passionate, and ambitious. Hopefully we get more films with this kind of energy from Lee, I know I’ll be looking forward to them.

LINKS FOR MORE INFO ON SPIKE LEE:

https://ew.com/movies/spike-lee-breaks-on-do-the-right-thing-scene-mookie-and-pino/

https://slate.com/culture/2020/06/da-5-bloods-aspect-ratios-explained-spike-lee-movie.html

https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/where-begin-spike-lee

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Review: Avengers 3 Infinity War

*WARNING* This review will be full of spoilers, you have been warned!

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, “Avengers: Infinity War” is the third superhero event film under the Marvel banner and the culmination of ten years of interconnected storytelling across all eighteen previous films. If you’ve been following these Marvel movies and are up to date then you will gleam the most out of the two and a half hour epic that is Infinity War. However if, by some chance, you’re just now considering a Marvel movie marathon and are curious as to which movies are most necessary for this latest Avengers movie, I believe about half of them are required viewing (Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1, Dr. Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther). The rest help to build upon the structure, and character development, of the cinematic universe, but that list will get you mostly acquainted with what’s going on.

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So, we’re finally here. After hearing about and seeing several of the infinity stones throughout these films, and with a couple cameos from the mad titan himself, does the film live up to the monumental expectations that Marvel Studios has built? Yes. I can answer that wholeheartedly with a resounding yes. Infinity War is a monumental feat of crossover film-making and it makes the once grandiose events of the first Avengers seem minuscule in comparison. The film follows the wake of destruction left by Thanos and his black order as they seek out the six infinity stones and crisscross the cosmos to implement the will of the mad titan. The opening scene perfectly showcases who Thanos is and why we should be afraid for the fate of our superheroes. After laying waste to Thor and the Asgardian refugees’ ship Thanos quickly bests the Hulk in a fistfight, takes the Tesseract from Loki before killing him, and completely destroys their ship leaving Thor to drift unconsciously through space. Heimdall was able to send the Hulk off to Earth before being murdered by the Black Order and as the incredible hero smashes through Dr. Strange’s staircase in New York City, Bruce Banner comes with a dire warning, “Thanos is coming..”

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Dr. Strange quickly grasps the magnitude of the problem at hand as he grabs Tony Stark from a morning run with Pepper Potts, but it isn’t long before Thanos Black Order arrive to make a power grab for the Time stone in the doctor’s possesion. Spider-Man also gets in the mix and we’re off to the races! The movie moves at break neck speeds jumping across space and back to service all of the various storylines in play but the Russo brothers have outdone themselves with this installment as everything flows naturally with the needs of the story. Now I won’t go beat by beat and describe the whole movie, but instead give a general sense of the scale and the threat that comes with Thanos seeking to wield his infinity gauntlet. Not to mention how the movie cleverly utilized it’s massive cast by breaking the characters off into various factions in different locations to best suit the needs of the story. For example, the Guardians of the Galaxy bump into Thor when responding to their distress signal and then separate into two teams, one consisting of Thor, Rocket, and Groot in order to seek out a “Thanos killing weapon” while the rest head to ‘Knowhere’ from their first movie as it’s the last known location of the reality stone. Iron Man and Spider-Man hitch a ride on the ship that the Black Order arrived in to save Dr. Strange from Ebony Maw on his way to Titan, while Captain America, Falcon, and Black Widow stave off an attack on Vision and the Scarlet Witch thanks to a heads up by Banner and eventually head to Wakanda as a last stand to keep Vision’s Mind stone in his head and not on the gauntlet of Thanos.

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The central theme of the movie is that, when pressed by Thanos and his cosmic conquering, will you trade one life for another? Several characters have this grueling predicament pushed on them, some make choices out of love, others for the fate of the universe, but ultimately they fail when crossing that line. The moral center of the MCU, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), never falters in his moral code. Several times throughout the movie he reiterates to others that, “We don’t trade lives”. He discards the math of the scenario in giving a life to save millions, nay billions. He saves lives, he doesn’t play that game. That right there, might be the absolute best aspect of this film. All of the characters are true to their nature as established in the previous films. There is a palpable consistency to their actions and reasoning. The Guardians all feel like themselves, still making jokes and acting on impulse. Black Panther and Captain America leap into battle first and have unwavering foundations. Thor feels the most evolved since the ramifications of ‘Ragnarok’ changed the game for his films and overall nature, a kingly warrior burdened with grief, yet still able to convey humor as a fish-out-of-water situation with the Guardians. Consistency paired with well thought out plot-points and a very clever villain, possibly the best the MCU has seen yet, add up to one hell of a Marvel movie.

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With an ending as shocking as it is, I- and many other millions, cannot wait to see how these characters rebound and ultimately save the day. This is most definitely a part one, and with only two other films between now and (the still untitled) Avengers 4 that take place before the events of this movie, we’ll have to wait a year and see how this all unfolds. I cannot praise this movie enough, it was far more emotionally mature and full of dread than I expected. There were significant deaths, high stakes and excellent action, and on top of that the film still managed to be really funny at times. They did it. They really did it. The next challenge is to outdo themselves next year, which I have to say, is a tall order. I have faith in the Russo brothers though, their movies in the MCU have been some of the best entries in the superhero genre as a whole. Now all we have to do… is wait.

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Final Score: Infinite Avengers

THE CAST:
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man

Chris Hemsworth as Thor

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow

Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange

Tom Holland (II) as Peter Parker/Spider-Man

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther

Zoe Saldana as Gamora

Karen Gillan as Nebula

Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Paul Bettany as Vision

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier

Idris Elba as Heimdall

Danai Gurira as Okoye

Benedict Wong as Wong

Pom Klementieff as Mantis

Dave Bautista as Drax

Vin Diesel as Groot

Bradley Cooper as Rocket

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts

Benicio Del Toro as The Collector

Josh Brolin as Thanos

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord

William Hurt as Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross

Letitia Wright as Shuri

Peter Dinklage as Eitri

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill

and Ross Marquand as Red Skull

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Review: Black Panther

Written by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler and directed by Coogler, “Black Panther” is the 18th movie in Marvel Studios’ sprawling universe of superheroics and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) takes center stage as the titular Black Panther whilst being surrounded by an impeccable cast. This weekend marks a significant debut for representation not only in the Marvel Studios Universe, but for superhero films in general. We’ve had previous superhero movies starring African American leads like Wesley Snipes in “Blade” and its two sequels. There was also “Steel” starring Shaq, “Hancock” starring Will Smith, and the oft derided “Catwoman” starring Halle Berry amongst a few others. This is a different film though, one that doesn’t tiptoe around various injustices, but rather it makes those questions of morality and the adverse effects of colonialism the beating heart of conflict in the film. This film also doesn’t just recognize Africa, the film took great efforts to ingrain the fictional country of Wakanda into the real world setting of Northeastern Africa.

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Which brings me to what I believe is the greatest asset of the film, the incredibly effective world building that went into realizing Wakanda. The filmmakers’ crafted Wakanda as a place that felt as if it had existed untouched and unfiltered by time, hidden by superior technology granted by a chance vibranium meteorite crashing into Wakanda ages ago. Sprawling cityscapes depict a fascinating version of Afrofuturism unleashed in the bustling merchants district alongside the wide and open plains under the watchful eye of W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and the border tribe, there’s even a mountainous wintry region ruled by the Jabari tribe who are staunchly against the rule of T’Challa, chief among them being their leader M’Baku (Winston Duke). Along with the River tribes and the vast and intricate mining facilities, Wakanda feels like an interconnected country with a long history and that’s a feat that the filmmakers should be praised for accomplishing so efficiently.

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Another way that “Black Panther” stands out from the crowd is in its sense of community. There’s a balance between tradition and futurism that affects all those who live in Wakanda, but especially for those who lead among the isolationist nation. It is here between the pendulum of modernity and tradition that T’Challa has his conflicts within the film, but it has a rippling effect on all of the characters in some form. Okoye (Danai Gurira) the general of the royal guard, the Dora Milaje, and Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s brilliant younger sister and head of the technological prowess of Wakanda, both perfectly exemplify this bridge between conflicting ideologies. Okoye is bound to a strict interpretation of tradition within the Dora Milaje-even after unspeakable acts (I’ll try to keep spoilers at bay) have taken place, she must fufill her duties to the throne. Whereas Shuri is bound to the future inherent in Wakanda’s tech, she is always looking to the next update or upgrade. Though Lupita Nyong’o’s  Nakia may be more of a divergent spirit in this sense. Nakia’s background in espionage and her former relationship with T’Challa provide her with a character that’s willing to break from tradition when its logical to do so. It is this divide that drove T’Chaka’s, (John Kani) brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) towards his revolutionary tendencies and the crux of the film’s conflict; should Wakanda open itself up to world and aid those worse off with their great technological feats? Or should they stay unconquered and safely hidden from the world? The film deftly handles the question of how the previous generations handled the world, in all it’s beauty and tragedy, and whether or not they were right by their actions.. or damned by them? Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is the literal formation of these past demons come to haunt T’Challa, the new King and Black Panther of Wakanda.

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Perhaps the single greatest part of this film is its villain in Eric Killmonger. Motivated by the death of his father as a child and abandoned in America, Killmonger pursued his interests with a lethal tenacity and never let a soul intercept his goal of invading Wakanda. Like his father before him Killmonger is a violent revolutionary in the spirit of Magneto, seeking to liberate those who were besieged by history’s injustices. Michael B. Jordan excelled in crafting an adversary whose intentions never wavered, and more importantly, he made Killmonger a layered individual with purpose behind his eyes. His goals, while extreme, can be understood. However since he’s a violent and careless individual we naturally side with T’Challa’s approach, but Eric’s a tragic character whose anger comes from a very real place.

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I have to say that I quite enjoyed the film overall. The film is the first since “Doctor Strange” in the MCU to have so few connections to the wider MCU canon and that’s a benefit to this story. There was no need for a Stark reference or even a Captain America cameo for this film to work within the structures of the MCU, it had enough to juggle without needless and contrived studio mandated team ups (though I do love it when it works well in other movies!). As for the two white guys in the movie, I really enjoyed Andy Serkis getting to work without being covered from head to toe in digital garb or practical effects and make-up, his Ulysses Klaue (sounds like Klaw) was a scene chewing performance well worth the time spent with him. The other melanin deficient character was Martin Freeman’s C.I.A. agent Everett Ross revived from his “Civil War” role and plopped into this film without feeling misplaced or ill advised. The film as a whole was a great time at the theater and I look forward to seeing how these events change the MCU from here out!

Final Score: 1 Prince and 1 Pauper (Seriously, just go see it- you don’t need my arbitrary and baseless scores to know whether or not you’re interested in this film)