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MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #17 – SPIKE LEE

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #17 – SPIKE LEE

Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a prolific actor, director, producer and polemicist for some time now. An ultra talented and outspoken cinematic artist, he has directed thirty fiction and documentary films since his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Plus, all manner of promos, commercials, music videos, short films and television series.

To celebrate his work and the fact he finally got recognised for his amazing filmmaking skills by the Oscars this year, I would like to highlight, five of his finest films that are worth watching and rewatching. An energetic firebrand of a director he has made films in many genres and is a risk-taker in subject, theme and style. Whether you agree with what he has to say he is a filmmaker who is always creating situations and characters who must be heard. Here are some great examples of his cinematic work.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

DO THE RIGHT THING (1986)

Spike Lee’s incendiary look at the day in the life of a Brooklyn neighbourhood finds a variety of characters coping with both rising temperatures and simmering racial tension. Lee’s brilliant script is fully of boldly written and brightly sketched characters presented via a succession of hilarious and dramatic vignettes. The formal excellence on show too from Lee is to be applauded as he uses devices from: music video and cinema to tell his rich stories. The day does not end well as the neighbourhood erupts into tragic violence with Lee proving himself adept at balancing humour, politics and tragedy in equal measure.

MALCOLM X (1992)

Arguably, Malcolm X (1992), is Spike Lee’s most significant and impressive film. It charts the life and death of a man born Malcolm Little who would grow to be anything but. After a troubled childhood he became a drug dealer and criminal in order to survive. Having converted to Islam he rejected his slave roots, going on to become one of the most outspoken voices against black oppression the world has ever seen. The project took decades to come to the screen and Lee and Washington both faced objections from many parties for their involvement. However, the finished film a masterful biography capturing the spirit of an intelligent, passionate and outspoken individual trying to right the wrongs within American society and history. Both Lee and Washington should have won Oscars for their work. The film stands ultimately as a fine cinematic tribute to a true spokesperson for a generation.

HE GOT GAME (1998)

From my basic research Spike Lee is revealed to be a New York Knicks fan. It’s no surprise then his love of basketball really shines through in this mix of sport, crime and personal drama. The story follows young hot-shot basketball prospect, Jesus Shuttlesworth, and the decision he has to make in regard to which college he goes to. On paper it’s Jesus’ choice but in reality he has all manner of people attempting to influence him. These include: his girlfriend, his coach, agents, local gangsters and most pressing of all, his jailed father portrayed by Denzel Washington. Ray Allen is excellent as Jesus and Lee invokes an empathetic character study with lashings of verve and style.

INSIDE MAN (2006)

Spike Lee directs in confident style, with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen both excellent as the lead cop and main criminal. Jodie Foster is brilliant too as a venal fixer brought in by Christopher Plummer’s bank owner. What makes Lee’s direction ping here is his deft handling of a complex structure within the heist genre. Moreover, Lee demonstrates he is able to convey a genre story with impeccable skill and deliver fine screen performances to boot. I especially loved the diversity of the supporting characters and the film oozes a pure New York atmosphere throughout.

BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018)

BlacKKKlansman (2018) is a complex film which expertly mixes many genres, infusing musical, thriller, Blaxploitation, comedy and documentary styles, making it a joy to experience. Spike Lee has never been afraid of experimenting and sometimes his films have not worked because of it. However, with this he succeeded in making one of the best films of 2018. It should have won Best Film Oscar in my view. It is thought-provoking but never preachy for the sake of it and uses humour most often as a weapon to undermine the senseless ideologies of the KKK. Indeed, in ridicule there is hope they may eventually be side-lined to the shadows of history.

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: THIS IS ENGLAND (2006)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: THIS IS ENGLAND (2006)

Written and directed by: Shane Meadows

Produced by: Mark Herbert

Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Vicky McClure, Joseph Gilgun, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim, Stephen Graham, Andrew Ellis, Jack O’Connell, Rosamund Hanson, Danielle James, Kriss Dosanjh, Chanel Cresswell etc.

Cinematography: Danny Cohen

Music by: Ludovico Einaudi

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

I remember the early 1980’s for: Thatcher, miners’ strikes, racism, teacher strikes, Shergar, penny sweets, Wham, bicycle tyres round lamp posts, white dog-shit, the IRA, hating school, riots, racism, heatwaves, Spitting Image, Duran Duran, caravan holidays in Canvey Island, Sergio Tacchini tracksuits, Bjorn Borg, bombs, the Falklands War, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), sherbet, cap-guns, Spurs winning the FA Cup, Fred Perry, glue-sniffing, school bullies and much, much more.

The early 1980’s were the primary years of awakening for me. I was ten when they started and grew into my teens as they drifted along. I was at a school I hated and was just becoming fully aware of what life and the world around me was about. It seemed to me, for various reasons, a place full of wonder but also injustice, fear and negativity. I grew up on a concrete Battersea council estate full of ruffians, stray dogs, sunshine, cold winters and family dysfunction.

Tapping into such emotions and memories is Shane Meadows’ gritty slice-of-life drama, This is England (2006). Set in the Midlands, it centres on twelve-year-old Shaun, portrayed by newcomer, Thomas Turgoose. Shaun and his mum are grieving the loss of his father; a soldier killed during the Falklands War. Shaun is angry, confused and an outsider at school. But he finds community when he meets Woody, Lol, Milky, Michelle, Gadget and other members of a group of skinheads. They are non-violent and into the music, fashion and generally fending off boredom together.

The first forty minutes of the show are politically infused but relatively light compared to the last hour. When Stephen Graham’s dominant alpha-male, Combo, is released from jail, the narrative dynamic changes and goes very dark. Combo is a bitter racist and angry at the world, blaming, like many ignorant people the influx of people from outside England of diluting the heritage of the nation. Meadows, through the character of Shaun, shows both sides of the impact of skinhead culture. Similar to the film, Platoon (1986), a younger, naive character becomes torn between two surrogate fathers. In this case the violent Combo and the passive, happy-go-lucky, Woody (Joseph Gilgun).

The film has no easy answers and what starts as a reasonably pleasant nostalgia trip backed by a superb soundtrack of punk, ska and reggae music, ends violently and in despair. The socio-political reflections of society through Shaun’s character arc finds a young boy even more lost in this forgotten Midland town by the end. The damning image of this lad chucking an English flag into the sea haunted me.

Shane Meadows, on a relatively low budget, has created a British film masterpiece worthy of the likes of Alan Clarke, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. He captures the look, feel, sounds and even smell of the era so evocatively. As a rites of passage film it works as an antithesis to the shiny Hollywood films with tightly wrapped happy endings. It’s a brutal exploration of identity, politics and racism which lingers long in the heart and mind. In Turgoose’ debut acting performance we get echoes of Englands’ innocence lost forever.

Lastly, the cast are incredible. This film has some familiar faces, all who would become pretty famous. They include: Stephen Graham, Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun, Jo Hartley and a very young Jack O’Connell. Such actors would go on to bigger things but, collectively, they are never better than in this amazing film. It’s a true and proper drama which spawned an equally memorable and dramatically impressive television series. But, more about that in the future.

GREEN BOOK (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW & OSCAR BINGO #4

GREEN BOOK (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Peter Farrelly

Produced by: Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Charles B. Wessler

Written by: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

I have to be honest I am getting very tired of racism and racists, so lord knows how the people who it affects deal with it on a day to day basis. To judge and attack people because they have a different race, background or skin colour is, and has always been, the height of stupidity. We are all humans and should be judged on our actions and behaviour and NOT our physical appearance, social background, sexuality or gender. Furthermore, we must not treat someone a certain way based on general experience of how others behave too. I subscribe to individualistic judgement and the desire for peaceful attempts to resolve conflict and differences. Those that attack and bully and abuse any other human being are wrong and their minds must be changed.

If a feel-good film such as Green Book (2018) can at the very least change one person’s negative attitude then it will be a success. It makes very broad points in regard to race relations and while arguably simplistic, in the very fabric of its story remains a heartwarming call for tolerance, understanding and friendship. Directed by Peter Farrelly, Green Book is based on the true story of Dr Don Shirley, a genius musician, and his brave trip across the deep South of America in 1962 with working class Italian driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. Safe to say the road tour is not without its ups and downs and the men, after initial differences, find common ground, loyalty and friendship.

BEST PICTURE CHANCES – 8/10

As aforementioned in a previous review I would say Roma (2018) will probably win best film at the Academy Awards. Green Book has a decent chance based on the sheer energy and persuasion of the story. Moreover, it attempts to marry comedy with social drama and on the whole succeeds. Peter Farrelly directs with skilled aplomb and the guy is a past-master of the road movie genre with films such as: Dumb and Dumber (1994), Kingpin (1996), There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Me Myself and Irene (2000), all comedies which adhered to road movie genre tropes. I guess that’s one thing that holds Green Book back and that is it’s very “by-the-numbers”, however, that’s also one of the joys of the story in that it hits the heights of genre expectations so well. Finally, Farrelly marshals the road trip, musical gigs and period setting really impressively and film made me feel all glowy by the end.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE CHANCES – 8/10

Viggo Mortensen is such an intelligent actor and has often been cast in intense roles which require much internal conflict. Here, his Tony Lip, is a larger-than-life Italian tough guy, handy with the bullshit and his fists. He eats like a horse and loves his family. Further, he’s stand-up guy who won’t be dragged into the Mafia underworld no matter how broke he is. The character verges on the Italian stereotype we have seen many times before but Mortensen imbues the lovable rogue with a humanity, humour and a do-the-right-thing spirit throughout. It’s his journey we follow as he moves from prejedicial jerk to something more socially acceptable. Lastly, Mortensen’s scenes with Ali are just brilliantly acted; the two bouncing off each other with wit and perfect timing.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE CHANCES – 10/10

Mahershala Ali should win this. He is absolutely outstanding. While Mortensen’s character is big and splashed across the screen in ebullient effervescence, Don Shirley quietly steals the show. His erudite, intellectual and refined exterior hides a pained and lonely soul who just does not fit in to society anywhere. While his music is loved and his genius revered he just cannot find inner peace. I mean I know nothing about playing the piano but Ali impresses here too with his conveyance of the musicianship of the character. Lastly, Ali’s performance is one of the best of the year, and while he won previously for Moonlight (2016), this performance is so good he should be on the list of leading actor role nominations.

BEST SCREENPLAY CHANCES – 8/10

The structure of the screenplay adheres to the classic Hollywood model to a tee. There are few surprises as the set-up of two opposite characters meet and go through a literal and figurative journey of discovery and change. Along with the lead performances, what raises the story though, is a fizzing script full of conflict and comedy. We get set-up-punchline, set-up-drama, set-up punchline, set-up feelgood moment throughout, making it a metronomically impressive piece of writing. The letter-writing running gag, for example, is pure comedic gold. Moreover, the script is littered with tremendous dialogue exchanges between the lead roles and ensemble characters which had me laughing and emoting throughout. Perhaps, historical and political accuracy could be queried by some and there is a reliance on familiar archetypes, but that doesn’t interfere with a zinging story.

CONCLUSION

Green Book is a film that has its chicken and eats it. It is full of life, food, music, family, friendship while making important points about racial issues. It also raises many laughs with heartwarming poignancy, highlighting the inequalities of 1960s with a broad hand. While these issues are not as intriguingly addressed as in BlacKKKlansman (2018), they elevate the generic road-movie-opposites-buddy-bromance tropes and structure. More than anything this is a story about friendship and while it treads a well worn road, mirroring films such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and Midnight Run (1988), it does so with verve, humour and heart.

Mark: 9 out of 11

CINEMA REVIEW: LADY MACBETH (2016)

CINEMA REVIEW: LADY MACBETH (2016)

DIRECTOR:  William Oldroyd

WRITER:      Alice Birch, adapted from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov

CAST:           Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie, Paul Hilton

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

lady-macbeth-film

Are there great films announced as classics or loved by critics which you do not like? That isn’t to say they aren’t great films but subjectively you just don’t enjoy them? I guess the biggest ones for me are probably Mulholland Drive (2001) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I love the work of Spielberg and Lynch mostly but just do not enjoy these critically acclaimed films at all.

Similarly, a brilliantly made low-budget-period-horror from last year called The Witch (2016) got huge plaudits and the filmmaker Robert Eggers deserved much praise for his atmospheric direction. However, I found it a tremendous bore. As for the box office smash Blair Witch Project (1999); don’t get me started on that over-rated genius-marketing-over-quality-cinema-trash.

lady_macbeth_still_1

Anyway, how is this ranting connected to my viewing of the grim and pretentious Lady Macbeth (2016)? Well, it’s a film that critics are no doubt going to enjoy for its subversive genre skewering of the traditional period drama. Moreover, the direction by William Oldroyd is stark and impressive, while the fearless Florence Pugh in the lead is clearly going to be an actress to watch in the future. However, it is an intellectual film with little humanity and is ultimately nihilistic in terms of entertainment.

The story is set in 1865 rural England up North against the backdrop of patriarchal dominance where women must and shall know their place. Pugh’s character Katherine is essentially sold into a loveless marriage and rather than play the dutiful wife she rebels viciously. Firstly, she drinks the Master’s house dry of the booze and then enters into an extremely erotic affair with one of the servants, portrayed with muscular naivety by Cosmo Jarvis.

lady-macbeth

From then on the cycle of events descend to hellish depths. Murder and revenge are clearly hinted at in the film’s Shakespearean title as Katherine gives Lady Macbeth a run for her money in terms of evil plotting and fiendish acts.  Indeed, this expertly made film is a pure exercise in passionate hysteria featuring a spoilt and lustful lead character. While I love challenging cinema — especially by the likes of Nicolas Winding Refn, Michael Haneke and Lynn Ramsay — there remains an emotional vacuum in this narrative because I found it hard to care about anyone.

The most sympathetic character in my view was the brutalized maid Anna and perhaps the story would’ve been more interesting for me if told from her perspective? So while the film was beautifully shot and framed, I was quite often stumped by the characters’ motivations; especially by Katharine’s decisions at the end. I mean is she the kind of heroine feminism longs for? I doubt that because ultimately she is an evil human being and not a standard bearer for woman kind. Or is she?

Lady Macbeth undoubtedly makes valuable points in regard to the racist and sexist oppression of the time but it is very difficult to have empathy for a lead character who has had a severe personality by-pass.  A far better representation of female empowerment against dominant patriarchy is Park Chan-Wook’s brilliant film The Handmaiden (2016). So, while this film is likely to be on a lot of critics’ “Best films of 2017” lists, I found it overall a pretentious bore.

(Mark: 5.5 out of 11 for the film)
(Mark: 9 out of 11 for Florence Pugh)