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Do the Right Thing (1989)
A strong examination of incitement and radicalization
It predated Rodney King and the countless cases of racial violence leading up to the Black Lives Matter era. Spike Lee has remarked over the years that while the white establishment has been comfortable supporting comedy with a cast of black actors it has been less willing to embrace drama, especially if it might stir anger and undo the carefully spun version of American History. Some of Spike Lee's films have a tragic ending that might seem like last-minute manipulation. Bamboozled comes to mind. School Daze has a blatant "Wake up!" message to camera, and Jungle Fever has an unintentionally funny solicitation and reaction of shock. Of the films that Spike Lee has written and directed, Do the Right Thing is the most perfectly woven story combined with aesthetic. He and Ernest Dickerson have made a visually cohesive and involving film that holds up enough that you will forget people are not carrying smart phones. We might be left debating among ourselves as to what right thing must be done, which is just as well. As an over-simplification from "The Mayor," the credo is politely received by Mookie.
In the aftermath of the movie's events, there may be people who claim the right thing to do was for the white man, Sal, to include black celebrity photos on the wall of his pizzeria among all the Italians he personally admires being a middle-aged Italian. The place is a little embassy of his own identity in the middle of predominantly black Bed Sty where it has been in business for decades. Despite eating there since childhood, Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) does a double-take one day while having a slice. Only then does he develop sudden and fresh outrage over the lack of black faces on Sal's wall. This is a debate that extends to diversity issues and OscarSoWhite, but we'll take it at face value. Should Sal have caved in to Buggin' Out's demand and eventually let him curate all of the photos on the wall of fame to ensure that there is a higher black to Italian ratio closer to that of the neighbourhood, or was Sal right to see Buggin' Out as a hothead and hang on to his own territory? People on-line have examined the continuity of a scene with white neighbour's/cyclist John Savage being accused of scuffing Buggin' Out's running shoe with his bike tire. The question of which shoe could have been run over doesn't add up, and the implication is that Buggin' Out is unjust and looking for issues to rage over.
Buggin' Out ropes in the mild-mannered Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) who just wants to walk around listening to his ghetto blaster. Buggin' Out is trying to boycott Sal's place. He radicalizes Raheem. They show up just after the restaurant closes and beg for Sal to open ostensibly for just one more slice, clearly gaining access only to protest the place and confront Sal. Raheem blasts his music at the counter and refuses Sal's request to turn it down. The young men won't leave and won't turn off the music. Sal finally picks up a baseball bat and smashes the radio. Raheem is then driven mad by the loss of his property and begins to fight the older man. The fight spills into the street. The police see the huge and powerful physicality of Raheem and intervene. They over-compensate for the strength of Raheem by putting him in a notorious choke hold he sadly does not survive.
This happening to Raheem then finally radicalizes the calm and reasonable, neutral Mookie who throws a trash can into the restaurant window and starts a riot. In the chaos that follows, Buggin' Out is somewhat part of the background and nobody notices a mentally challenged man wander off to start a fire and burn down the place; we see Italian celebrities on the wall of fame consumed by fire but also a picture the arsonist has left behind in the wreckage to also burn up - that of Martin Luthor King and Malcolm X shaking hands. Whether someone respected Frank Sinatra or MLK, their photos burned the same. The fire doesn't discriminate. Lee had said in commentaries that white viewers came away talking about loss of property (the restaurant, as opposed to the radio), and black viewers tended to focus on loss of life. But considering that police only appear in a couple of scenes and are not central to the spine of the film, it seems clear that whether intended or not Buggin' Out is the one to blame for the death of Radio Raheem. Had he not presumed to be territorial with Sal and attempt to boycott a business his friend Mookie works for, and had he not been single-minded and impatient (the way Twitter and blogger campaigns are today) without regard for Sal's right to self-determination in his own shop, the dominoes of violence would not have fallen. He drew Raheem into a bad position and exploited him as muscle. They knew Sal to be a take-no-crap kind of guy and an adult and obviously tough enough to be a white businessman in Harlem, and yet Buggin' Out coaxed Raheem into intimidating and trespassing. The police were careless in arresting Raheem and should have been more attentive. They were professionals responsible for protecting life, no question. But the events that got them there were mostly if not entirely on the shoulders of Buggin' Out. Not only on race but on various progressive issues, there are many perhaps well-meaning or just high-on-ideals internet activists who are more like Buggin' Out then they realize.
Years later, Spike Lee revisited the role of Mookie in his fifties for a film called Red Hook Summer. Mookie was still delivering pizza for Sal. Ultimately, it is not about Sal. We never do see what is on the more current walls of his new place, but it is also none of our business.
The Color Purple (1985)
Gets to the Heart of it
When Spike Lee first saw this Spielberg's film of The Color Purple, he noted in his journal "He's Gotta Have It" a complaint that Mister (Danny Glover) - while shown to be a product of his mean father, and somewhat redeemed from a distance - is portrayed as a menacing figure without explicitly showing cause and effect that sources his anger and rage back to the white men that keep him down. If this matter were addressed in filming, the movie would not be improved by it. This perspective "look what the white man made me do" does not allow Mister to own his mistreatment of Celie, the character from whose perspective the story is told so effectively both in the Alice Walker book and the Spielberg film.
If discussing this film with a lesbian movie fan, she may be dismissive of it and eventually reveal her disappointment that the intimacy with Shug is not more overtly sexual. Even though it would stick out like a sore thumb in the more tender and spiritual-focused film as a whole. As Celie eases into a sense of self respect and value, the film avoids what would read on screen as a diminishing of that into sexual terms. The focus of the story and narrative is right.
My own fear any time I consider watching this film yet again is that the emotion can sneak up on the viewer and if Spielberg wants the us to well up it will most likely happen. Some call that manipulation. I call it effective and engaging film making. Steven Spielberg directs the attention of the audience with care, introducing scene transitions he had not attempted before in his work and carrying us from exuberant moments to trauma and uplift. Spielberg's love of cinema and the craft of directing does come first, as people are divided as to the repeated use of western movie head-turns and slow takes before a punch is thrown. This is used to comic effect in most cases, though the most provoked and consequential punches thrown are off camera or obscured in the moment of impact. We may see the moment before, and feel the inevitability, and the aftermath and consequences. Even with Quincy Jones taking over the music from John Williams, there is an aesthetic of emotion that is palpable from the start. The separation of two sisters can be as jarring and shattering as a shark attack. Watching this film decades later, the way characters are presented allows you to see Celie without remembering Whoopie as a host of The View and Danny Glover without being distracted by the legacy of Lethal Weapon. Oprah Winfrey going through the indignities her character endures lends resonance to it all because of her iconic status. To various degrees, this can be said of many now familiar faces in the film. In the hands of a lesser director, a straightforward recording of the content might be too uncommitted. Steven Spielberg takes the mundane and the gentle and makes it just enough larger than life that it finds emotional truth.
October Gale (2014)
isolation is a key component suspense
After a doctor (Patricia Clarkeson) is widowed, she takes time away to tend to her old island cottage only to be caught in a storm and a deadly revenge plot between strangers. The movie is determined to emphasize the unspoken and realistic moments, and a sense of purpose in life that is lost with the death of the husband (Callum Keith Rennie in flashbacks). But even from the mundane tasks of maintenance on the cottage to first aid for a fugitive on her doorstep, she still has to deal with life that presents itself. When she is at her most rootless, the opening scenes are hand-held; the more steady presentation begins once she heads out on the lake for what seems like a joy ride or to vent and feel some control. Even when her boat has engine trouble and she has to accept help, she has asserted something and taken control. As the main plot of the movie kicks in with the intrusion of her visitor, there is danger on the horizon and the impending arrival of a vengeful two-man posse manages to avoid the tempo of a High Noon template while still taking its heroine somewhere interesting and leaving her with new options to consider. The presence of Tim Roth is welcome and well used as he brings a matter-of-fact sense of menace. As in her previous collaboration with director Ruba Nadda, Clarkeson let's us meet her half way with what might otherwise be said and what might be expected. Notice that Ruba Nadda has recently director for shows like NCIS, and I look forward to her doing more of her own features.
Subverting Expectations and Showing Heart
A trauma of adolescence, combined with a cold parental reaction, help shape the main character Cassie in a story about shaking the past and being fearless (within reason) about the future.
If you had told me that I would like a movie that has at its core the theme of "_____-shaming" I would have laughed that off. Or a movie in which the usual character arc might befall a "homophobic" supporting character. But the movie carries the viewer along and up to the titular premise with a plausible and likable series of events led by a solid and charming cast. Canadian fans will spot a pair of actors known for The Listener. Firefly/Serenity fans will be pleased to see Jewel Staite as the lead in what is essentially both a rom-com and social satire.
From the opening chords of music, there is a firm grasp of nostalgia and a gravitas given to situations from the backstory that could have been mishandled but instead give a sense of emotional stakes and a rooting interest. In a culture of obligatory affirmation, it is an accomplishment that this movie manages to stay funny and full of heart and show some empathy for the weirdo outcast nerd along the way. Definitely worth checking out. Some people might be intimidated by the word Orgy in the title. The full title suggests that there is more going on and the potential absurdity of reality versus expectations have been richly mined in this movie.
The Green Inferno (2013)
Under-seen and underrated horror
A few reviews I have seen outside of this site make brazen accusations that are just false about this movie. The acting? Nothing wrong with it. We have enough concern for the activists and their mission that we are compelled to stick with it even though we dread the premise that has been promised by packaging and marketing. There are a couple of misdirects which I appreciated that helped put off the inevitable and allowed us to have some hope. The dread promised at the outset and the fact that it is an Eli Roth movie caused me to hesitate in watching. But ultimately a movie can only be so nihilistic. I question somewhat where it ends up, but have not at this moment finished listening to the director's commentary. Ultimately horror movies have blended into each other, even those that are not remakes or sequels and reboots. Here is a premise that comments on a serious topic that has been largely off screen since Medicine Man. Roth chooses to do this with horror, where a lapse of attention and random and unforgiving environs can kill you unceremoniously - or ceremoniously and ritualistically. It is also bold that he chooses to take a jaundiced view of activism set against the unexpected. Much of the movie achieves its terror in full daylight. It is a movie that may not be populist because it kills those with a sense of entitlement in effigy and shows the blurry line between the exploiters and the exploited.
Fatal Attraction (1987)
social backlash distracts when it comes to ratings here
This movie deserves a higher IMDb rating, certainly. It can only be assumed that some people hating what for them the story represented for those who cheat or commit adultery influenced their numeric rating of the film itself. Sure we all know about the original alternate ending Nicolas Meyer wrote in his draft which was filmed and previewed. It can be argued either way as to which one was best. While I appreciate the value of both I think the more somber one suits home video and the scarier finale that replaced it was more appropriate for the community of emotion found in a theatre. The movie presents a what-if that is worthy of exploring. If it briefly did to affairs what psycho did to showers or Jaws did to the beach, then it was effective movie making.
It comes from an era of cinema where there was still some product worthy of looking at more than once and where the enjoyment of movie making might be found. If you have sen this movie, it is worth looking for the Saturday Night Live support group skit that Glenn Close did as the character. I think there is also a skit where Jan Hooks plays her in a Big Chill skit. But the movie itself has texture, tension and Hymie. Don't let people scare you from seeing it. I guess being from the eighties it will be considered "old" by some.
Club Utopia (2013)
restless housewife seeks part-time work
Sally Enitlav is an under-appreciated housewife looking to at least get a part-time job while her husband Alex is preoccupied with stock trading and talking in his sleep about someone from the office named Gretchen DeSanto. Some of his heavy dreams end with screams that wake him up and Sally believes it is guilt. Sally applies for what she expects to be a waitress position at Club Utopia only to discover what they want is a dancer. Embarrassed as she is, she goes through the motions of getting a burlesque license and learning that a client paying for a table dance actually expects her to take off some clothes. Alex begins to sense that Sally is being secretive about something, so he hires a private detective Richard Sabatini to follow her with help from a door to door perfume salesman calling himself Mr. Cologne. Involving Sabatini puts his own life in the cross-hairs of cameras and exposes him to blackmail over the relationship with Gretchen. Events escalate until Sally is ready to team up with Sabatini and turn the tables on Alex and putting his life comically in danger as his hidden assassin may have to reach around from hiding under a bed and attempt to jab a hypodermic into a buttock that is moving around while he entertains a female guest. Shiraz Tayyeb, the new actor playing Cologne, has a natural presence, and the club DJ Trevor Annon seems right at home. Brett Halsey has a grounded and understated authority with inherent humour as the owner of Club Utopia. Full disclosure: I was involved with the script for a couple of years in the Nineties and a few bits I was responsible for maybe didn't belong by time this movie was made. For example, a Basic Instinct murder parody at the start made sense and was timely in 1992 the year Basic Instinct was released. Also, Alex asks the detective why he has a fan running on a cold day and he says, "Atmosphere." That made sense if it was a ceiling fan I indicated and if the office evoked Phillip Marlow and Sam Spade era detectives, but the production had instead gone for a small desk fan. Those kinds of issues might only be a distraction for me and might not throw the average viewer. As Alex, Srdjan Nikolic's Russian accent removes any subtlety of delivery but seems suited for the agitated state of the character for much of the movie. Sally as played by Elsie Muller is at her most believable when angry or fully crazy. She has a typical movie star look and an edge that makes the more vulnerable aspects of the character seem less accessible to her. Frank A. Caruso directing himself as Sabatini has a few moments where he seems to aware of the humour, and the performance is much better when he has to be either the improbable voice of sanity or conning his own cousin Mr. Cologne into doing the dirty work of their caper.
The Interview (2014)
subverting the self-serious P.C. police
Reviews are entertainment and self-expression. If they are academic, it is in the moot sense. It still comes down to there being no accounting for taste. I myself react according to whether I am in the right mood to receive a piece of art. I am especially willing to appreciate anything that has the safety wheels off and is not appearing to run for office. I can't break down whether the apparent directing was the work of the credited directors, but if it was then Seth Rogan and his usual writing partner did a good job directing The Interview. But it's mostly the cheeky script - or apparent script - that I found amusing. Any non to patriotism is with a wink and there are some blatant jabs at American media and values. Also noted is the Lord of the Rings as go-to geek- religion has supplanted references to Star Wars. Having seen the "special" made up of outtake interviews with additional celebrities by James Franco as Dave Skylark, I am surprised they settled on the Eminem variation but it does contain all of the thematic threads that pay off in the climactic titular interview in North Korea. The lack of subtlety may be part of the comment overall as the movie both represents "American" sensibilities and pokes them in the eyes. It incorporates Korean-flavoured music and pays homage to their bloody horror flicks, embracing each dime the story turns on. It's not America versus North Korea, and care has been taken to portray good versus evil as beyond cultures and countries, right down to the arrival of (SPOILER) Team (Spoiler) members who could at first glance be mistaken for the "enemy." I found the movie ultimately to me layered and ultimately positive, despite some collateral damage.
Excellent, thoughtful, fun
I was very pleased to see this movie was willing to bring the action, as good as Ruba Nadda's romantic-leaning films Cairo Time and Sabah were. But where this film about a father who flies to a dangerous land to rescue his daughter from an unknown threat is different from Taken is that the hero is flesh and blood and approaches the problem in a civilized way first and by the time there is fighting we can feel a sense of consequence.
It has been said that the movie starts off fast. It starts as it should and as I reflected afterwards it avoids stock shots of a plane taking off and gives the impression of travel with aerial shot of a road the hero is riding along in a car. Cinematic short-hand. At the same time, it manages to avoid scenes that would be obvious beats in a lesser movie, like the panic of the mother upon learning of the crisis. Instead we see the moment before, as she watches her husband on the phone preparing to make the trip and confront the problem. There is just enough of the Canadian wife in this movie, considering that she would not compete with Marisa Tomei who "blends" into her environment and feels authentic. Even to the end I am thinking I hope Tomei's character makes out alright.
Alexander Siddig is not playing a super human but someone who is willing to face the worst and some real consequences to find his daughter. Joshua Jackson as a Canadian embassy guy manages to show several divergent aspects of his role without falling into any traps that would be central to a lesser movie with similar layers. Had Siddig been playing a typical action hero, he would have to cross a line into sociopath to clear away all the bad guys at once. He gets some good shots in and we can cheer for him, and one secret police figure is especially smug and needs to be killed but the way this film arrives at what has to happen is to take a left turn into character-motivated choices that are refreshing for the genre. Where there is tension, we are absolutely rooted in the reality of the moment by Siddig's expression. This is real for him and for us.
I have read a comment/review here on IMDb by one "A P" that seems to be a screaming stream of lies, one after the other. I contest his claim that people walked out during the TIFF screening. The movie grabs your attention and Siddig has a strong presence. There is a reason for every scene and not a moment is wasted. Any politics I took for granted. One villain is identified as Israeli but even he is redeemed. This is not a political tract. As I watched the story unfold as a Caucasian Canadian male I looked at the cultural aspect as colour that Ruba brings but the concept of a hero's descent into a special and dangerous world is one that we know and accept as classic myth. I had no problem identifying with Siddig's character, often called "Mr. Toronto" by an innkeeper in the film, and seeing it through his eyes. I am stunned by the current low numerical rating this movie has on IMDb and I trust that the more people see it the more the rating will improve. I noticed in a TIFF guide or other such publication Inescapable was misidentified as a romance. There is a restrained and heartbreaking lost love woven through the story, but it is a thriller that is correctly paced and set- up. It has action, though the build up is half the entertainment. I highly recommend seeing this movie.
The Three Stooges (2012)
highly underrated fun
The tone is the real star of this Three Stooges movie, as is the case with most Farrely Brothers films. Despite actions that would be considered violent in the real world, the mood is whimsical and cartoonish. Typical of this is a moment where someone in a full body cast is "turtling," hiding from the stooges by impossibly ducking his head and extremities into the cast.
Having been exposed to a few reviews and viewer opinions before seeing the film, I was shocked by one thing. People had repeatedly said that the structure of three short films was a distraction and it should have instead been one single story. This causes me to question the sanity of those people and their most basic comprehension. The movie is merely decorated with a few "short film" title cards in the fashion of the old shorts; the movie is indeed one premise and follows a conventional narrative like any other feature. It's key plot is essentially the same as The Blues Brothers - the orphanage is in financial trouble and the boys have to raise money to save it.
They manage to have some interesting and organic story twists along the way. Most inspired is the idea of a Stooge pulling up a gangster's droopy-drawers.
Now some people might have to adjust to the throw-back terminology that is carried over from the old black and white films. But oddly within the context of the movie what seems anachronistic is a moment where Moe refers to an English butler as "Threepio." Even though it is a contemporary reference, it stands out against the 1930's vaudeville style of most stooges dialogue.
Clearly this movie was made out of love for the stooges and there is a charm found even in less likable characters. This doesn't mean that people under 20 years of age will "get" it. They should, although the fashionable thing to say is WTF. Whatever the case, if you don't get it or don't like it the fault is not that of the filmmakers. Even in parts where I didn't laugh outright I found the groove of the movie fun and engaging. Interesting that the guy who plays Moe also has played Robin Williams and Frank Sinatra.
The one story continuity flaw I noticed had to do with Moe's discovery when he happens to have a fight on stage with the other two. . .and later the producer sees them together again and says "There's three of them?" He had already seen the other two during the unwitting audition scene which Larry and Curly walked out on. But other than that odd speed bump, it's a solid effort.
I won't compare it to James Frawley's biopic The Three Stooges which Mel Gibson produced for pay TV a while back. That had Californication's Evan Handler as Larry and The Shield's Michael Chiklis as Curly, but it got into the sad story of their real lives and the way they were exploited. Performances in both are spot-on.