Crooklyn is a love letter from Spike Lee to his youth. Co-written with his sister Joie and brother Cinque, it draws from memories of their childhood growing up in Brooklyn. It is the story of the Carmichael family made up of a jazz musician father, an overworked and harried schoolteacher mother and 5 children. Seen from the eyes of ten year old Troy, the only daughter, we see the chaos and turbulent joy, frustration and sorrow of the Carmichael family. The movie plays like impressions with abrupt shifts from comedy to drama and has no political or dramatic motivation other than a look at life through the eyes of a child. Even without this the movie provides a true emotional arc and one is absorbed by the nostalgic and slightly foreign era where children are not afraid to play in the streets or confront crazy neighbors. Nobody walks around shaded by hooded sweatshirts and assuming menacing anonymity simply for their own protection. The only drug users are two ridiculous glue sniffers who are the neighborhood's sad joke.
When we follow Troy, who visits her relatives in Virginia, there is a wonderful shift of perspective as the differences in environment and behavior are cataloged and deciphered through her eyes. You can feel the strength of her mother rise to the surface as she adapts and dismisses affection and manners from her southern family. There is no arguing her demand to go home and, once there, she must draw on that strength again to see herself and her family through tragedy.Continue Reading
Deep Cover is one of those underrated films with a bold social commentary that is often swept under the carpet because it's from the '90s—that time in America that everyone loves to hate (but I love unabashedly.) When I first saw the film as an adolescent there was something about it that begged a very adult question; is mankind good in nature but drawn to necessary evils, or are we evil drawn to the predisposition of trying to be good? Living in Los Angeles, where the film is set, I still find myself asking that question.
Taking the still-relevant racial tension of an era and focusing on its organized crime and judicial system, the film opens with a young boy witnessing his father holding up a store on Christmas Eve. He is shot and killed, leaving the boy with a determination to never have such a pitiful existence. Russell (Lawrence Fishburne), now a man, is a rookie police officer trying to make a difference in the world. He doesn't drink or do drugs, however, when called into an interview for an assignment, he is told that he has the psychological profile of a criminal. In undercover work, he is assured, all of his flaws will become virtues.Continue Reading
This is the kind of movie that was made with various limitations that must be taken into account. I’ll lay all the flaws out on the line, and in the end you can be the judge. The lighting is horrendous, but due to the grizzly subject matter it works. I can’t imagine what kind of equipment they used, but many of the scenes are shot at night, which normally boosts a film’s budget by several degrees. The camera work, however, is awesome. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I’d love to see how they crafted the various overhead shots and rotational pans, similar to some popular French films and 360 shots that Spike Lee used in the '90s. You could say that the darkness provides a good storytelling device for this film, seeing as how it has some very violent scenes, but there were honestly some shots where I could hardly see the characters or follow what was going on. The music is interestingly different, spanning from Mexican hard rock/punk to boleros, but it does lack proper placement and flow. The film is also fairly short and resolved with a bit of haste.
Now, if the above would not deter you from taking a look, I think you’d be as pleased with the film as I was. Instead of writing this review in a regular sense, I'd like to add a bit of analysis, which will better explain why I like it so much. Without spoiling the entire plot for you - or the ending - I'd say that if you are annoyed by religious overtones and metaphors in films, this might not be a movie you'd like. My next statement might not be as easily swallowed by some people, but certain elements in the film's plot and emotive efforts reminds me of two of my favorite movies, Pixote and Mulholland Drive. This is not a comparison, but simply an automatic mental note. It reminds me of the slum-element and young protagonist of Pixote (along with the poor production); but with Mulholland Drive, the resemblance for me is in the importance of a key object. In David Lynch's movie, it is the blue box and key that holds the fate for the lead characters and alters their past and future. In a similar sense, a golden watch and a pair of red sneakers are two simple props from which all the events in this movie can be pivoted.Continue Reading
Spike Lee’s films have always been hit or miss for me. I grew up watching them, as they were fictitious and familiar depictions of African-Americans, but for the longest time I fell just short of pleased with his work. Forgive me for going on a tangent, but I feel the need to cite the differences and subject matter of some other Spike Lee Joints before raving about this one.
The first Lee film I saw was Crooklyn, and it is perhaps the only other that I am fond of. In short, it is an energetic, sometimes melancholic film about a family in Brooklyn—more or less through the eyes of the couple’s only daughter in their large brood. Overall, the movie is harmless, though it deals softly with substance abuse and death, but it’s a little too gentle; it held up when I was a child, but lost flavor for me in adulthood. This criticism does not translate to it being a bad film, but rather anticlimactic. Another that comes to mind is Jungle Fever—a ballsy film about two co-workers (black male/white female) who become lovers despite their committed relationships. The movie unfolds with over-the-top characters and events, ultimately making it very black and white, both literally and figuratively. I remember being unmoved by the assumed dangers and taboo thrills of biracial lust. It disappointed me then, and it does now. Do The Right Thing, while it is Lee’s most popular and acclaimed work, still reminds me of the misdirected angst that would follow its release in the form of riots. Obviously the film is not to blame, but in times of such hostility, you'd think a message geared toward working together would be better suited and more universal. Its deadpan racist rants (common among his Italian and Black characters) hit you over the head so hard that it almost begs you to choose sides, if not fails to deliver a clear message.Continue Reading
Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall
If only every great artist could have a film made about them like Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall. Instead of trying to tell the entire Jackson story in one long novelistic film, Lee wisely concentrates on a few chapters, which allows him to really dig deep. Like the Martin Scorsese doc Bob Dylan: No Direction Home that spent over three hours telling the story of the folk icon’s period only up until the late '60s, Lee’s film focuses on the relatively brief period from the late '60s to ’79. He takes on Jackson’s newfound stardom as part of The Jackson Five, culminating in the making and release of his pop/disco masterpiece album Off The Wall. Lee throws everything he can at the screen, creating a dynamic hodgepodge of images and commentary. In his growth from child to young man, Jackson's world was full of musical influences and there is a plethora of archival footage from Fred Astaire to fellow Motown artists to Studio 54 to illuminate Lee's points. The amount of material documenting Jackson’s personal and creative growth is staggering. There are all those Jackson 5 music and television appearances, collaborations with Motown, studio work and even a Saturday morning cartoon show. Lee incorporates a "then and now" bookend by weaving in footage from the later Jacksons Victory Tour, giving us a chance to see Michael interpret his songs as both a boy and a man.
All the on-screen witnesses speak of the young Michael’s ambition, watching closely and questioning the adults he was surrounded by. That ambition led to the family leaving Motown while Michael was in his teens; the group became the more disco-infused The Jacksons and paved the way for Michael to slowly take on a stronger role in shaping the music his own way. He ventured away from his brothers first by recording the theme song for the killer rat movie Ben (and getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for it) and by appearing as the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of the Broadway smash The Wiz. Eventually everything he gleamed along the way led to the Off The Wall album.Continue Reading