Film Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Also known as: Black Klansman (working title)
Release Date: May 14th, 2018 (Cannes)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott
Based on: Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
Music by: Terence Blanchard
Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Robert John Burke, Nicholas Turturro, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte

Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, QC Entertainment, Legendary Entertainment, Focus Features, 135 Minutes

Review:

“Darn tootin'” – David Duke

For the most part, I enjoyed this movie. I have to get that out of the way because it’s probably going to sound like I’m overly critical of it, as I continue on in this review.

First and foremost, it was a solid, interesting story with actors that I thought handled the material well. In regards to Adam Driver, this was the first thing that I have seen him in where he wasn’t Kylo Ren or that stupid Logan Lucky movie that made me want to burn the theater down. I really got to see his legit acting chops on full display and I was impressed. He lived up to what other people have told me about him. Well, mostly girls that wanted me to watch Girls. No thanks.

One major thing about this film is that it is based on a true story, the biographical account of these events by the real Ron Stallworth, the main character in the film. The problem, which happens with many Spike Lee movies, is that the director takes some tremendous liberties and sort of uses the real story as a basis to weave his films the way he sees fit, whether honest, accurate or not.

One major moment in this film is the big jab at the end where Stallworth calls David Duke to reveal that he was a black man the entire time. This never happened and Duke wasn’t ever privy to Stallworth being black until it was revealed to him in an interview in 2006.

Another issue I have with the film is that it works perfectly as its own tale but once you get to the end, it immediately switches to real world footage of the 2017 Charlottesville incident. I understand the parallels, everyone does, this film does a great job of painting the picture that Spike Lee needs to get his message across but the switch to modern real world footage is jarring. I know that it is supposed to be jarring but it isn’t jarring because of the incident itself, which is still very fresh in the public’s mind, but because it cheapens the film from an artistic standpoint. It’s heavy handed and forcibly shoehorned into the film in a way that cheapens the effect of Spike’s own picture, basically saying, “Hey, if you don’t get the message after this 135 minute beautiful film I did, than here’s a hammer to the face just to make sure you got it.” Spike Lee is talented enough to make films that speak for themselves and can lead his audience where he needs to without the hammer to the face. And this also looks like he has a lack of confidence in his own storytelling abilities; he shouldn’t. This worked without the exclamation point.

Additionally, this movie was released almost on the one year anniversary of the incident, which means it was already being made and Lee decided to tie it into Charlottesville after the fact or that it was made as a response to it and rushed out, which gets into some of the technical problems the film had.

Most of the film flowed well but there are some key points where I noticed clunky editing and transitions as well as bad audio management. Sometimes it felt as if something got cut from the film, it jumped to the scene after and the transitions were already done so they didn’t really bother to smooth out and polish the later cuts from the film.

Another thing that bothered me was Lee’s apparent lack of environmental awareness. I’ll give two examples.

One, when Stallworth is following the Klansman on a dark country road at night, the Klansman is able to see that a black man is behind him. I’ve driven on dark country roads. You can’t see the face of the person behind you, all you can see is their headlights. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t made into a somewhat important plot point that had an effect on three different scenes.

Two, when Stallworth is watching the Klan meeting towards the end of the movie, he’s watching from a second story window overlooking the meeting room. He is in direct view of David Duke, who is on the stage giving a speech. Every time they show the back wall with the windows you can see the silhouette of Stallworth’s head with it’s large afro. There’s no way that Duke wouldn’t see this while pontificating out to the crowd and while probably paying attention to his surroundings, as he has had threats and is under police protection.

I’m not sure if Spike Lee just doesn’t care about these details, as just telling the story is most important, or if he just didn’t think these scenes through. Again, maybe the film was rushed to try and get it out on the anniversary of Charlottesville.

Another thing that I disliked and it isn’t just in this film, it’s in a lot of films, is that it portrays the vast majority of KKK members (and general bigots) as buffoons. I’m certainly not defending those scumbags but I think in doing that, it dumbs them down in a situation where you need to show how much of a threat they actually are to all people and society as a whole. Are many of them dumb rednecks? Most likely, but playing some of them up for comedic value just makes them bumbling idiots and doesn’t really display them as beacons of pure evil. Granted, I thought Topher Grace did a good job in the role of David Duke and the local president of the KKK also played the role straight but they were the only two.

However, why the hell did Spike Lee cast Nicholas Turturro as a KKK member? Turturro is Italian as fuck and I am also part Italian and I’m pretty sure the Klan didn’t like us either. I guess Spike always needs a Turturro in a movie but this wasn’t the right spot for him and he stuck out like a sore thumb talking and jiving like a Little Italy gelato shop owner.

But enough griping.

I really enjoyed John David Washington as the star of this film. He hasn’t done much but he proved that he is an actor more deserving of bigger roles. Also, Laura Harrier was fantastic and the only other thing I’ve seen her in is Spider-Man: Homecoming. This role was a big jump for her but she knocked it out of the park and hopefully, gets more prominent roles after this film. I also might be crushing hard on her after this.

Back to Adam Driver, he was the focal point of the most challenging scenes in the film and he really steals the picture when he’s present. A lot of the material had to have been difficult but he nails it and carries the bulk of the film on his back.

Spike Lee crafted a pretty good movie, the running time was a bit long but he tends to do that. Initially, it wasn’t as preachy as I thought it would be. Well, at least until the blunt instrument to the face in the last few minutes, but the film made its point very well without him needing to spell it out in all caps like an angry twelve year-old girl tweeting about a breakup.

But, in the end, this was refreshing in a summer full of blockbuster duds.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Other Spike Lee movies: Do the Right ThingMalcolm X and Bamboozled.

Film Review: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Also known as: Nola Darling (alternate international title)
Release Date: May, 1986 (Cannes)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Music by: Bill Lee
Cast: Tracy Camilla Johns, Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell, Spike Lee, Raye Dowell, Fab 5 Freddy

40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, Island Pictures, 84 Minutes, 88 Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Review:

“It’s really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I’m not a one-man woman. Bottom line.” – Nola Darling

Everyone has to start somewhere and She’s Gotta Have It was where Spike Lee, one of the top directors of the last few decades, got his. It is also where his character Mars Blackmon originated from. You may remember Blackmon from all those Michael Jordan Nike commericals from the ’80s and ’90s. I think Lee still resurrects the character to this day, actually.

I wanted to revisit this film, as I haven’t actually seen it in at least fifteen years but I was always fond of it. Plus, Spike Lee has recently rebooted it for a television series on Netflix. Therefore, I wanted to re-familiarize myself with these characters before jumping into Lee’s new take on this story.

A lot of critics have referred to this as a romantic comedy with a feminist perspective but I think it’s more or less a romantic comedy with a realistic view. It isn’t just about Nola Darling (Johns) and what she wants, it is also about the men and what they want. You see, it is a story told from multiple perspectives.

You have Nola and you have the three men in her life, all of whom want her and her alone. Each man fills a specific need for Nola but ultimately, what this all comes down to is what does Nola really want and is it any of these three men on their own? It’s a film that explores sex in a way that popular romantic comedies at the time could not. And while most romantic comedies are Hollywood schlock, Spike Lee wrote something truly unique and exceptional here. It really isn’t a standard “romcom”, it’s a motion picture about relationships and people that is populated with amusing, charismatic characters.

I wouldn’t call this a well acted film but each of the main characters feels authentic. And each character is likable in their own way. Well, except for Greer (Terrell), who was such a fraudulent and self-absorbed jerk that you kind of wanted to wish him away. Props to John Canada Terrell though, who gave Greer life and did a great job making him a total narcissistic asshat. Really, you just wanted to see this competition for Nola’s heart come down to Jamie (Hicks) and Mars (Lee). Although, Jamie is a bit of an overprotective meddler that gets a bit rapey there towards the end. Really, I was pulling for Mars.

The point is, it doesn’t matter who Nola chooses, if she even chooses anyone at all. It is a story about her journey and seeking out what it is she needs. Any of these men had the freedom to walk away at any time and Nola was usually brutally honest, even if it didn’t deter the men. At one point, Nola even hosts Thanksgiving dinner with the three men as her guests. It’s a great scene where a lot of the emotional baggage of the characters comes to the forefront and certain stands are taken.

She’s Gotta Have It is a simple movie but it is also complex because people, at their core, are complex creatures. Most people don’t know what they want. Nola is someone that has the courage to try and figure that out. While most would be quick to condone her actions, she has certain qualities that people should aspire to possess. She’s not afraid of her desires and pursuing them in an honest and unapologetic way. Really, that’s kind of badass.

I like this film and it holds up quite well. It’s timeless in a way and maybe that’s just because of how it was shot and the great music. Spike Lee wrote a beautiful script, his father provided soulful tunes and the actors played their parts to perfection. It is a short and sweet film and even if it doesn’t come with a storybook happy ending, it leaves you with a satisfying one.

Rating: 8/10

Book Review: ‘Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema’ by John Pierson

I came to know John Pierson through his show from the late 1990s Split Screen. While I had heard about it back then, through message boards and chat rooms (when they were still a thing), I never really had access to it until it was available on FilmStruck’s streaming service through their extra Criterion Channel add-on.

Having watched some of the earlier episodes, some of which featured Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith, I got to know Pierson’s story and understand his influence and importance on 80s and 90s indie film. Because of that, I wanted to know more of the details, so when I discovered that he had written this book, I got a copy.

While the book tells these stories from Pierson’s point of view, they aren’t as exciting as one would hope. That’s not a knock against Pierson but he is sort of a bland guy and it comes through. This could also be my mistake for reading this after I just finished a string of Joe Bob Briggs and Hunter S. Thompson books, which put me on a colorful and charismatic high.

The best parts of this book are the sections where Pierson has conversations with Kevin Smith. Had the book featured more of this or just this, as Pierson tells the stories by conversing with those involved, it would have been a much more entertaining read. In fact, those sections feel more like an episode of Split Screen, which unfortunately could only fit in so much with its half hour running time and magazine style format.

Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes is still worthwhile, if you care about the filmmakers involved and how they got their start. It is just very straightforward and dry.

Rating: 5.5/10

Film Review: Oldboy (2013)

Release Date: November 27th, 2013
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Mark Protosevich
Based on: Oldboy by Park Chan-wook, Im Joon-hyeong, Hwang Jo-yoon
Music by: Roque Banos
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Michael Imperioli, Max Casella, Pom Klementieff, Rami Malek,

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Good Universe, Vertigo Entertainment, FilmDistrict, 104 Minutes

Review:

“I swear, I don’t know nothin’! I swear before God and eight motherfuckin’ white people!” – Chaney

The original Oldboy might be my favorite South Korean film of all-time. Its director, Park Chan-wook made an almost flawless film. It was an instant classic, has stood the test of time and become more than just a cult film in the United States and around the world.

Spike Lee is one of my favorite directors. I’ve been a fan since seeing Do The Right Thing as a kid. He’s got a unique visual style and a great gift for storytelling. While I respect his work, I’m a bit puzzled as to why he wanted to remake Oldboy, as it was pretty unnecessary.

I guess Hollywood always wants English language versions of foreign hits but the fact that Spike Lee stepped up is a bit strange. Although, the combination of Lee’s skill and style mixed with this violent Asian tale motivated me to check it out.

I’ve heard this film being slammed by many critics and fans of the original. I get it, as some things should be sacred and all that. However, after seeing the film, I think a lot of the bitching is just bitching for the sake of bitching. This film is not as good as the original but looking at it as a completely separate entity, it’s still a pretty good film.

Josh Brolin was fantastic, as he usually is. On top of that, Elizabeth Olsen and Samuel Jackson were really good. I also enjoyed the performances of Michael Imperioli and Sharlto Copley. Max Casella even shows up for a bit.

Action-wise, the epic fight from the first film was recreated but not as well. It was still a damn good sequence all on its own but if we are going to compare them, the original was superior. Again, the original, as a whole, was a superior film.

The cinematography in this movie was beautiful. Spike Lee and his art department really did their job in creating specific emotional vibes from scene-to-scene. The “hotel room” was eerie and haunting and really became its own character within the film.

If you were to see this film without being a big fan of the original, you’d probably enjoy it more. It’s not as bad as people say and Spike Lee did some great work, fattening his already amazing portfolio.

But again, after seeing it, I still have to question why this remake was necessary. And in retrospect, this was a project destined to piss off fans and critics alike.

Rating: 6/10

Film Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Release Date: May 19th, 1989 (Cannes)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee
Music by: Bill Lee, Public Enemy
Cast: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, John Savage, Roger Guenveur Smith, Rosie Perez, Joie Lee, Steve White, Martin Lawrence, Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Park, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Turturro, Miguel Sandoval

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Universal Pictures, 120 Minutes

Review:

In the summer of 1989 I was in Brooklyn visiting family for a few weeks. Being a big film buff, even at ten years-old, I had already seen every big summer movie that year. My cousin was driving us around and he asked if I wanted to see a movie. I did. He asked what I wanted to see. Thinking he would say “no”, I still replied “Do The Right Thing.” Being the cool nineteen year-old kid that he was, he smirked and said, “Well, alright.”

Leading up to my seeing Do The Right Thing in a movie theater in Brooklyn, not far from where the movie took place, I was mesmerized by the trailers and footage I saw on television. Living in Southwest Florida, I didn’t have a lot to do during summer days, except hang with friends, play video games or watch TV. I often times spent hours watching a cable channel called Movietime, which was actually E! Entertainment Television before it re-branded itself. On that channel, they always showed trailers, over and over again, and also went behind the scenes on films in development or coming out. It was a cool channel that taught a young film fan a lot about the industry and art he loved. But it is there, where I saw trailers and other footage for Do The Right Thing. Something about it just drew me in.

I always cherished the experience of seeing this film, so close to where it was made, at a time when I hadn’t quite experienced a real adult film in the theater. It was exciting but at the same time, it was a lot more than that. Do The Right Thing had a profound effect on me and how I saw other people. When I watch it now, much later in life, it is a reminder of that experience and the lessons I learned from it. It also is one of the first films that I saw to really cultivate my love for the art of motion pictures and filmmaking itself. This, alongside Cinema Paradiso, made me see movies differently.

Having just revisited Do The Right Thing for the first time in several years, it is kind of sad. Not because of the film itself but because it took away some of my optimism in regards to people. When I saw it was a kid, I truly believed that society was headed in the right direction. I thought that as time rolled on, the struggle of black people and the prejudices in America would improve. Yet, this film is almost thirty years old and its message is maybe even more relevant today than it was in 1989. Will it be even more relevant in another 30 years?

Spike Lee did a fantastic job with Do The Right Thing and it is, still to this day, my favorite Lee film (Malcolm X is a very close second). Maybe it is due to the experience it gave me when I should have been too young to have to see the world for what it is. But out of all his films, this one has the strongest message not just for African-Americans but for all Americans. And again, it is still a message that needs to be heard today.

The cinematography is stellar. The film really captures the people, the scenery and Brooklyn life in that era. The technique of using first-person perspective, which gets more prevalent as the film progresses and racial tensions increase, is masterfully shot and presented. The breaking of the fourth wall, as characters’ inner monologues come to life, directed at the audience, is effective in understanding their deepest inner prejudices and in helping escalate the tension from a narrative standpoint.

The use of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” throughout the film is perfect and really gives an anthem to the attitudes of many of the characters. It represents, what this film, at its core, is all about. The character of Radio Raheem was the perfect vessel within the film to deliver the song to the masses, as he walked up and down the street, all day, blasting the song from his radio. He wasn’t just a vessel for the message though, he was also a symbol, a physical embodiment of it. Bill Nunn did a fine job as Raheem and made him into an iconic figure for many.

There are several really standout performances in the film. I think a lot of props need to go to Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin’ Out. Most people know Esposito as the villainous Gus from Breaking Bad. It was his role in this film, that put him on the map for me. Then years later, when I did see him on Breaking Bad, playing one of the greatest villains in television history, I was ecstatic because this was a guy who I had followed since seeing him on the big screen as a ten year-old in a Brooklyn movie theater. I’ve always thought Esposito was an underutilized actor but those who regularly work with him know his talent. In Do The Right Thing, Esposito is so committed to the role that he really stands out above everyone else. And we’re talking about a movie that has Samuel Jackson, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, Robin Harris, Frankie Faison, Ossie Davis, Danny Aiello, Martin Lawrence, Frank Vincent and so many other faces that own the screen when they are on it.

Roger Guenveur Smith’s performance as Smiley is also superb. You couldn’t not feel for the guy and when he lost his shit, you were right there with him. It’s also heartbreaking to see how others in the film treat him, even his friends, due to his handicap. Smith  has played a lot of great characters over the years but Smiley is the one I most fondly remember.

There are few films that illustrate a sense of human brotherhood as much as Do The Right Thing. While it shows cultural clashes and tensions boiling over into violence, it also provides hope and displays a lot of wisdom. Most of the characters try to maintain order but the few who keep pushing each other bring the whole neighborhood to its breaking point. And then the cops show up to screw it up even more.

Do The Right Thing isn’t just a great film, it is an important film, maybe even more so today than in 1989.

Documentary Review: If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (2010)

Release Date: August 23rd, 2010
Directed by: Spike Lee
Music by: Terence Blanchard

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 255 Minutes

if_god_is_willing_and_da_creek_dont_riseReview:

If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise is a sequel to Spike Lee’s earlier documentary When the Levees Broke – A Requiem in Four Acts. I reviewed the original film series already.

In this documentary series, Spike Lee returns to New Orleans five years later, after he shot his first documentary, which chronicled the effects of Hurricane Katrina. This film acts as a follow up and shows us were a lot of the people from the original film series are at, after some time has passed. It also examines the British Petroleum Oil Spill, which happened close to New Orleans just before this documentary started filming.

Where it shows how far people have come post-Katrina and how far they still have to go, it emphasizes the impact of another disaster – this one not of nature but of man’s environmental carelessness. The film justifiably magnifies the plight of the people of New Orleans, who felt abandoned by their country, their government and now in a bigger sense, the world.

Like the previous film series, Spike Lee takes a step back as interviewer and director and just lets the people in this film talk: telling their story from their point of view. There really is no spin or hidden agenda other than letting the people of New Orleans discuss these issues and their problems while displaying the good, the bad and the ugly but most importantly, the kinship between many of those suffering together.

These two sister series of films are some of Spike Lee’s finest work. And being a New Orleans Saints fan, I really enjoyed the prologue that showcased the Saints winning Super Bowl XLIV and the impact it had on the community.

Documentary Review: When the Levees Broke – A Requiem In Four Acts (2006)

Release Date: August 16th, 2006
Directed by: Spike Lee
Music by: Terence Blanchard

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 255 Minutes

when-the-levees-brokeReview:

When the Levees Broke is a four-part documentary film series that aired on HBO. It follows the struggle of the people of New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina.

The film is comprised of interviews with dozens of people talking about the event and the effects of the event in their own words. Spike Lee, the director and interviewer, rarely even chimes in and thus, allows the people to tell their story honestly and passionately.

The film, broken into four segments, is quite long but it is an amazing and engaging documentary. It goes on to show that public perception of the events surrounding this tragedy are false and lays out, from first-person experience, how the citizens of New Orleans were trapped, had no one to turn to and how they lost everything. It also goes on to show the heroes who stepped up and what they did.

On the positive side, it shows how the people of New Orleans, still living in the aftermath, are attempting to rebuild their lives and move forward. It follows those who stayed, those who left and those who went back.

The film also interviews Sean Penn, who was a true hero for the fact that he showed up in New Orleans almost immediately after the storm and did everything he could to help in any way possible. Before this film, I didn’t realize how much Penn did for the people of New Orleans and I don’t think he really wanted credit for anything. He was just a man with the means to do something and he didn’t hesitate.

Spike Lee put together a great documentary here. It is upsetting and hard to watch at times because of the true agony these people went through but it is a beautiful film that is brutally honest and true to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.