film

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

film

Review Double Feature: “Halloween” (1978) & “Halloween” (2018)

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Written by Debra Hill and John Carpenter and directed by Carpenter, “Halloween” is a cinematic pillar of the Horror genre and typically recognized as the first film in what would become the Slasher sub-genre that would dominate horror films over the next decade. Since there’s a new sequel out now that ties itself so directly to the DNA of the original haunting film, I figured now would be as good a time as any to squeeze in a quick recap of the first night he came home.

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Admittedly, there’s not much more I can add to the long gestating conversation surrounding the original “Halloween”. It’s a brilliantly simple premise executed with precision and a deft guiding hand with Carpenter at the wheel. Michael Myers instantly became iconic and inspired hundreds, if not more, of homages and send-ups from across the country and the world over time. The tale of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the first “final girl”, is one buried in anxiety and nightmarish fear. The film ingrains in the audience a slow burning sensation of being watched, pursued, and hunted by the shape of evil in human form. Carpenter’s cinematography, sound design, and score all heavily add to the thick atmosphere that permeates the frame.

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The two performances that ground the film, while simultaneously elevating it, are that of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie and Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis. In a somewhat ironic event Curtis imbued Strode with enough character and personality that she escaped what would become the tropes of becoming what her character inspired in so many slasher horror genre films over the next twenty years. Maybe she was more memorable because she was one of the first of her kind in cinema, but I like to think there’s more to it than that. The addition of Jamie Lee Curtis to the cast also brought a bit of film royalty to the production as her mother was Janet Leigh, most well known for her starring role as Marion Crane in “Psycho” eighteen years prior. Pleasence himself was an English actor with a lengthy and prestigious career, he was the original Blofeld in the James Bond films after all. Much like “Star Wars” casting several well known prolific English actors in Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing in their first film, “Halloween” benefits greatly from his contributions. As Dr. Loomis, Pleasence is mostly cornered into exposition and giving dire warnings about the threat of Michael Myers, but damn, he does it with a serious yet tempered skill. His concern of the potential threat really gives us pause the next time Myers appears onscreen.

Final Score: 1,978 carved pumpkins

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Written by Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green, and directed by Green, “Halloween” sets itself up as the direct sequel to Carpenter’s initial haunt with The Shape. Getting Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle to reprise their roles as Laurie Strode and Michael Myers was the absolute core of this film, if this hadn’t happened- this sequel would plainly not exist in any serious fashion. The seven original sequels and two remakes by Rob Zombie in the forty year interim have been completely disregarded and cast aside by this latest film in the seemingly never-ending franchise. Gone are the explanations and reasoning behind why Michael Myers does what he does. He is no longer the brother to Laurie, he isn’t a cursed soul, no Celtic mysticism, and Laurie isn’t dead either. This film was an attempt to return to the simple and powerful nature of that first film and I think it captures that spirit fairly well. It’s probably the best of everything that came after Carpenter’s original film.

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This isn’t to say there aren’t some weak links here though. Some characters exist only to literally move the plot along at times, and some won’t like the twist that takes place somewhere near the beginning of the third act (no spoilers here), and although I’ve heard that many had issues with the humor in the film- most of it worked for me. I don’t want to over-explain this film because it’s simplicity keeps things moving at a relatively quick pace and going into too many details would be a bit of a disservice, on my part. What I can say is that when the movie is firing on all cylinders, it works magnificently. It’s raw, unnerving, and brutal. The score, once again crafted by John Carpenter with some help from his son as well, is insanely effective here. There are flashes and rhythms of the original score with the iconic theme but it’s never over utilized. Jamie Lee Curtis is the framework of the film- her dedicated performance ties everything together with realistic portrayals of decades of anxiety and traumatic paranoia. She’s effectively crafted a layered person under all the nightmare fueled preparation that Laurie’s been up to these forty years. Nick Castle returning as Myers was the other necessary pillar of the film, and while this may be a character without a voice- his physicality speaks volumes. He made the horror icon a terror again. If you haven’t seen the new “Halloween” yet, this is the perfect weekend to give it a shot- especially if you’re a fan of the original film as the filmmakers themselves were and they’ve thrown in plenty of visual throwbacks to that first Slasher film. Happy Halloween everyone!

Final Score: 2,018 Bloodied knives