BlacKkKlansman

Release: Friday, August 10, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Spike Lee; Charlie Wachtel; David Rabinowitz; Kevin Willmott

Directed by: Spike Lee

BlacKkKlansman is one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounts the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proves to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

In 1979* Ron Stallworth made waves by becoming the first black officer hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the film he’s portrayed by an unflappable John David Washington (son of action superstar Denzel Washington), sporting a classic 70s ‘fro and an earnest face that has commitment to duty written all over it. It wasn’t a smooth transition of course. Not all members on the force wanted him around, like Master Patrolman/Major Asshat Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), who’s introduced as a kind of primer to the pleasantries we can expect later on.

Having the good fortune of working for Robert John Burke’s open-minded station chief, he eventually gets handed more meaningful work when he’s assigned to observe a rally that is to take place at Colorado College, where prominent civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, powerful) is set to deliver a speech addressing the escalating tensions between black citizens and police officers nationwide. There, he runs into a Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union. Harrier creates in this fictitious character a headstrong young woman, someone in whom Stallworth finds a reliable source of information and possibly something more. Spurred into action due to the harassment she and her peers have had to contend with on a daily basis at the hands of bigoted cops, Dumas is a staunch believer in retribution, rather than the more “diplomatic” tactics her newfound brother is trying to engage in. If only she knew.

The story of Ron Stallworth is one of dueling identities, not so much metaphorically but in an actual physical sense. The overarching reality is that he’s an officer sworn to protect and serve, but in order to do those things he will also become a rising star within the ranks of the white brotherhood. When he makes detective, it becomes his mission to pull out the weeds of hatred by their roots. To beat the Klan, he’ll have to join ’em. Finding a recruitment ad in the paper, Stallworth calls up Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the president of the Colorado Springs chapter, and in a profanity-laced rant, pitches himself as the next-in-line to help “make America great again.” Watch as the heads in the precinct turn, including those of his soon-to-be inside man Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver — I love this guy) and underling Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi).

Breachway wants a face-to-face, but there are obvious complications — a major one being the fact that the newbie detective used his actual name over the phone. (He is, however, mindful enough to disguise his “black voice.”) So Stallworth will send Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew, into the field as him. Two Stallworths, one ballsy mission, absolutely zero fuck-ups allowed. The newly-minted White Stallworth is swiftly integrated as one of them good old boys, with standouts being Finnish actor Jasper Pääkönen as the intensely suspicious Felix and Paul Walter Hauser’s dumber-than-a-box-of-bent-nails Ivanhoe.

From here, strap in and hold on for dear life as we stroll into the living rooms and basements of some of the most hateful people imaginable. As Zimmerman gets in deeper, finding himself doing and saying things he never imagined, the morality of the mission becomes further complicated. The writing team envisions Stallworth as a force for good but stops short of painting him an out-and-out hero. Occasionally he seems reckless in the pursuit of justice — perhaps more so than if it were actually him being threatened to take a lie detector test. As Zimmerman puts it after a close call, is this really anything more than a personal vendetta? Meanwhile, the threat of something big about to go down, as vaguely hinted at by Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), makes it pretty clear the composited Stallworth has little option but to continue apace.

As BlacKkKlansman is a film largely informed by attitude and ideology, you expect Lee’s righteous anger to be ever present, and it is — that real-life coda at the end leaves little doubt as to how the writer/director feels about the progress we have made since the days of the Civil Rights marches. What you might not expect is for the film to also be amusing. If it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there are moments of such gratifying uplift that feel just as good as a fit of the giggles. The comparatively calming presence of producer Jordan Peele is undoubtedly responsible, and nowhere is that felt more than in a scene of glorious comeuppance, wherein an accomplished Stallworth finally gets to stick it to the man (“the man” in this case being KKK grand wizard David Duke, played by a very good Topher Grace). It’s a real team effort as far as realizing that tonal sweet spot, pinning you somewhere between being entertained and plain horrified.

* the film takes several dramatic liberties with its content, but the biggest edit is the timeline on which the events take place. In the film, Ron Stallworth joined the force seven years prior, in 1972. this was done in observance of the re-election of president richard nixon.

“Yo, what’s good man?”

Recommendation: Spike Lee’s latest is a bombshell that arguably saves its actual drama for the final few frames. While the events of the film are sent up for entertainment purposes, what’s also clear is that this is one of the outspoken director’s most urgent and unmissable works. Powerful stuff. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “With the right white man, we can do anything.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.collider.com

Fences

fences-movie-poster

Release: Christmas Day 2016

[Theater] 

Written by: August Wilson

Directed by: Denzel Washington

In 1987 American playwright August Wilson won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his 1950s Pittsburgh-set drama Fences. It employed James Earl Jones as a surly 53-year-old garbage man who led the audience down a dark path littered with heartbreaking revelations about the black experience in a racially divided America. In 2010 Denzel Washington helped to revive Wilson’s work, and after a 13-week engagement the effort proved worthwhile, picking up ten Tony nominations and winning three. Six years later the action superstar has decided to transfer the material to the silver screen.

Washington’s reverence for the original is so apparent if you are like me you can only assume the production does its source material justice. I mean, how does it not? If anything there’s an overcommitment to facsimile. Fences isn’t very cinematic, despite strong efforts from a promotional campaign to make it so. But static, relatively uninventive camerawork and minimalist settings are not enough to take Fences down. The film features one of the year’s most impressive tandems of performances, realized through a series of meaty monologues that pierce at the heart and soul of a thoroughly broken man and his family.

The story is about a garbage man named Troy Maxson (Washington reprising the role he played in 2010) who struggles to reconcile his present with his past. Though he eventually becomes Pittsburgh’s first black garbage truck driver Troy is bitterly disappointed in the way his life has turned out — his failure to realize his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player lying at the heart of his existential crisis. Troy experienced some success as a prominent player in the Negro leagues, but with the passing of time and the social climate of the country being as it was, nothing came of it. World-weary and prideful to a fault, Troy refuses to watch his sons go down the same path he did. He attempts to instill in them not so much the fear of God but the fear of consequences of one’s own lack of personal responsibility.

In a period where opportunities for whites are in far greater abundance than those for blacks, Troy believes his sons need to support themselves with “real jobs,” rather than pursue what he views as pipe dreams. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his eldest son from a previous marriage, aspires to be a musician but he seems to rely more on his girlfriend’s income to get by. One day he believes he’ll make enough to support himself. But at the age of 34 Troy can’t stand seeing him show up at the house on his payday ‘begging for hand-outs.’ On principal, he refuses to lend his son $10. Boy does that get awkward.

Washington’s performance dominates the narrative and arguably to a fault. A fault that, I’m not sure if humorously but certainly oddly, mirrors Troy’s fundamentally domineering nature that renders him as a character with whom others in the story often clash. The Denzel-favoring dialogue can be an endurance test at first but it helps that the writing is so poignant and perpetually working to shed light on many aspects that made this period in American history so turbulent. It also helps that Denzel is a revelation, the cantankerous Troy Maxson perhaps the zenith of an impressive career featuring Frank Lucas, Detective Alonzo Harris and the estranged father of Jesus Shuttlesworth himself.

As icy as his relationship is with Lyons, the film chiefly preoccupies itself with the tension that exists between Troy and his younger and more physically gifted son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who claims he has college recruits interested in offering him a scholarship to play football. Troy won’t let Cory play out of a combination of jealousy and similar concerns over the legitimacy of such a career. Coaxed by a few too many sips from a cheap bottle of some godawfuliquor, fears of his son actually finding the success that eluded him chip away at a slowly crumbling man. But the more sobering reality of the racial prejudices of the day are what convince Troy his son will never play. Either way, he’s not signing any forms he is handed. Meanwhile his wife doesn’t understand why the kid can’t have some fun and try to lead a normal life.

Though she’s half the chatty Cathy her co-star is, Viola Davis is no less Denzel’s equal as she offers an understated but full-bodied interpretation of Rose Maxson, a woman similarly jaded by life having had to sacrifice personal goals so she could make life work with this man. She’s hardly bitter about it; she loves Troy deeply. In the wake of a heartbreaking revelation, Davis emotes with stunning sincerity as she reminds us of her humanity, what the difficult choices she had to make have meant to her. It’s a reaction made all the more powerful given her extraordinary composure as she witnesses the increasing hostility between her husband and their growing children. When she’s not being playing the part of peacemaker she’s providing them the love her husband refuses to.

It should be noted several of the performers beyond the two leads who took the stage in 2010 have reprised their roles here. They’re also extremely effective in more limited capacities. They include Hornsby as Lyons, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, a longtime friend and coworker of Troy’s who enjoys a good swig every now and then while listening to one of Troy’s many tall tales about wrestling the Grim Reaper into submission when he outlasted a near-fatal bout of pneumonia as a youngster, and Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s war-scarred younger brother Gabriel.

Self-contained, talky sociopolitical drama is very much a play caught on camera with several theatrical accouterments on display. The stage manifests as the backyard of the Maxson family, a cramped space nestled deep within a financially struggling African-American community. It is here where we are dealt some of the film’s heaviest blows as wars of words erupt as the film’s “action scenes,” if you will. A baseball tied to a tree and a bat become props whose significance (and versatility) evolve and become more integral to the story. Music is almost entirely absent, save for a few melancholic interjections from composer Marcelo Zarvos. And like with plays, we come to see the people; intimate sets with a reserved production design allows the actors to take center stage.

Purists might argue it’s just not the same as watching thespians in the flesh. They might liken this experience to listening to old jazz records on an iPhone. Even if what I just watched was simply a play filmed on an expensive camera, if this is the only way I’ll ever be able to see August Wilson’s brutally honest work, I’m not sure how much I would feel like I had lost out. I was constantly engrossed.

ten-dolla

4-5Recommendation: Dramatic showcase for the likes of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis — heck, for everyone involved honestly — proves a welcome new addition to the steadily growing oeuvre of some of Hollywood’s most prominent black actors. Fences rewards patient viewers with an intensely dialogue-driven journey into the heart and soul of an African-American father and family living during a shameful chapter in American history. Worth the two hours if you are a fan of talky pictures. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Like you? I go outta here every morning, I bust my butt ’cause I like you? You’re about the biggest fool I ever saw. A man is supposed to take care of his family. You live in my house, fill your belly with my food, put your behind on my bed because you’re my son. It’s my duty to take care of you, I owe a responsibility to you, I ain’t got to like you! Now, I gave everything I got to give you! I gave you your life! Me and your Mama worked that out between us and liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain! Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Magnificent Seven

the-magnificent-seven-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Wenk; Nic Pizzolatto

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Try as they might, Antoine Fuqua continues falling well short of the benchmark set by his 2001 smash hit Training Day and Chris Pratt can’t quite make this the Guardians of the Galaxy of the ole wild west. Despite bear-dressing-like-people jokes he is merely one silly pawn in a story that doesn’t deserve them. Not even the all-star roster can lift this generic western crime thriller from the dust of its superiors. The title is The Magnificent Seven, but for me that really just refers to the number of scenes that are actually worth remembering in Fuqua’s new shoot-’em-up.

Here’s all I really remember:

Magnificent Scene #1: The ‘badass’ that is Bartholomew. Billed as a drama, the film opens promisingly with robber baron Bartholemew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) besieging the sleepy mining town of Rose Creek circa some month in the late 1800s. The film’s dramatic thread for the most part sags like a dilapidated tent between two strong points, and the dramatic opening is one of those strong points. Tension is palpable as Sarsgaard’s cold, lifeless eyes survey the room. Haley Bennett‘s Emma Cullen becomes widowed by his murderous spree (or, to be brutally honest but more accurate, her husband’s foolish actions that do nothing but further incense Bartholomew), an act that supposedly establishes the film’s emotional foundation.

Magnificent Scene #2: The Actual Badass that is Denzel. Introducing Denzel Washington is something that needs to be done sooner rather than later and his swaggering cowboy/”dually sworn peacekeeper”/bounty hunter Sam Chisolm walks in at just the right moment (i.e immediately). A fairly typical stand-off inside Rose Creek’s saloon ensues. Everyone in the scene puts on their best ‘Not To Be Fucked With’ face. Rah-rah. Guns. Liquor. Seconds later Chisolm walks out of an empty saloon leaving everyone but a semi-impressed, semi-drunk loner for dead. That loner is none other than Peter Quill Josh Faraday. Chisolm is soon approached and persuaded by a desperate Emma Cullen to gather together some men to take a stand against Bogue and his men to avenge the death of her beloved Matthew and reclaim the town.

Magnificent Scene #3: The Avengers this ain’t . . . but this is still fun. Movies in the vein of Fuqua’s adaptation, those that spend more of their bloated running time assembling rather than focusing on the ensemble itself, are really more about that journey of coming-togetherness than they are about the destination. It’s too bad The Magnificent Seven really only offers one or two strong first impressions. One is a shared introduction between Byung-hun Lee’s knife-wielding assassin Billy Rocks — a name that somewhat confusingly belies the actor’s South Korean heritage — and Ethan Hawke’s sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, with whom Chisolm shares some history. Billy and Goodnight come as a packaged item, apparently; one never goes anywhere without the other and they are swiftly drafted into the ranks without complaint.

Magnificent Scene #4: There’s always at least one crazy. Vincent D’Onofrio also qualifies as one of those memorable introductions. He plays a vaguely mentally unstable (or perhaps he’s just a simpleton) tracker named Jack Horne, a physically imposing presence who clearly hasn’t had much human contact in a long time. His soft, nervous line delivery initially gave the impression the actor wasn’t comfortable in the role and/or that he was about to deliver a career-low performance but the character really ended up growing on me. Of course it would have been nice if he had more to do but when there are seven actors competing on screen I suppose sacrifices must be made, especially when one of them is Denzel Washington.

Magnificent Scene #5: Preparations not reparations. Heeding the warnings of Chisolm and his band of misfits, Emma and her fellow townsfolk prepare for the return of Bogue and what is likely to be many more nasty men on horseback in an obligatory, if not genuinely fun, fix-it-up montage. Rose Creek becomes retrofitted with all kinds of booby traps and hideouts that are sure to give the enemy fits and a mixture of excitement and dread for the bloodbath that is to come starts to build in earnest. Granted, the end results are all but a foregone conclusion: some will survive the ordeal and others will not. We know almost for a certainty that the Magnificent Seven will be reduced in number after this fight. And we also know that ultimately this last battle is just another good excuse for directors who like to blow stuff up, to go ahead and blow a quaint little set right the fuck up.

Magnificent Scene #6: Say hello to my little friend! For all of the film’s lackadaisical pacing and story development from essentially the 20th minute onward, The Magnificent Seven seems to wake back up again at the very end with a rousing gunfight that will demand every rebel’s sharpest wit and shot. It even comes close to earning our empathy as numerous dead bodies hit the ground à la Fuqua’s goofy assault on the White House. The editing becomes frenetic but remains effective and while Fuqua shies away from excessive blood-splattering the violence is still pretty confronting as a gatling gun makes its way into the mix. Ultimately this is the same kind of joy I get out of watching Macauley Culkin outwit the nitwits in Home Alone every Christmas.

Magnificent Scene #7: The end credits. A movie that runs about 30 minutes too long and that fails to make any real emotional connection is finally over. (Though not for a lack of trying: Fuqua awkwardly asks us to pity the lone woman in the group because she has lost her husband — she’s not there because of her individual strengths and in fact many of the rebels can’t or refuse to take her seriously; likewise Hawk’s last-minute cowardly act feels cheap and fails to make us care deeper about him.) I enjoyed the famous faces in by-now-familiar roles and their natural gravitas cleaned up some of the script’s blotches but there is only so much goodwill I can show towards something that feels so well-trodden, so ordinary, so un-magnificent.

the-magnificent-seven

Recommendation: A superb cast barely manages to keep The Magnificent Seven from being a totally and utterly forgettable and disposable movie. The people who you expect to shine, shine — those on the roster you don’t recognize as much don’t turn up as much. Simple as that. Some delicious scenery to chew on, though, and the soundtrack is hilariously overcooked. So all in all, I don’t really know what to make of this movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What we lost in the fire we found in the ashes.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.esquire.com 

Decades Blogathon – Inside Man (2006)

2006

 

As we wind down another great blogathon, I’d like to thank each and every one of you for your great posts. I’d also like to tip my hat to my co-host for firstly coming up with the concept last year and for helping manage it again this time around. As always, it’s a real treat. With any luck we will return again next year. I will be adding each of these pieces to my Decades sub-menu up at the top so if you ever want to go back and catch up on something you missed, feel free to visit that drop-down menu up top. 

For my entry I’ve decided to go with another contemporary release, realizing this would be a great opportunity to give Spike Lee another try. So here’s my take on a film he released now ten years ago: 


'Inside Man' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 24, 2006

[Netflix]

Written by: Russell Gewirtz

Directed by: Spike Lee

Prolific filmmaker, documentarian and notable New York Knicks’ sixth man Spike Lee, taking a few pages from F. Gary Gray’s guide to properly dramatizing delicate hostage situations, directs this thrilling and surprisingly intelligent heist film involving a cunning thief, an experienced detective, a wealthy bank owner and a not-so-proverbial bank-load of hostages.

Inside Man has Clive Owen to thank for delivering big in a decidedly (and brilliantly) complex role that sees him holding up a Manhattan Trust and many of its employees and patrons, confident he has planned for every possible outcome and disaster. No offense to Denzel the detective, who exudes charisma and charm throughout situations no other person could, or really should — but this is Owen’s film. Owen plays Dalton Russell, a name he’s only going to say once so you better pay attention because he never, ever repeats himself.

The hold-up begins like any other: Dalton and his cronies sneak in as painters and promptly reveal themselves on the inside as anything but. They’re armed and they’re not messing around. Stress levels sky-rocket within seconds. Dalton’s got plans for the vault but before we learn what those are Spike cuts away and begins constructing the world that awaits anxiously outside the building. The closest in proximity are the swaths of police and detectives, including Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Willem Dafoe’s Captain John Darius.

Elsewhere, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), founder and chair of the board of directors of this particular branch, is informed of the developing situation. Even though he luxuriates in a cavernous living room, the rich mahogany of its ornate interior boasting a life brimming with accomplishment and prestige, his concern lies with a single safety deposit box in the bank’s vault. He calls in a favor from fixer Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) to help him recover it, for whatever it contains could be embarrassing if it ever fell into the wrong hands.

Yeah, embarrassing. Let’s go with that.

If Owen is the standard to which all other performances must rise Foster proves to be the bare minimum you can get away with, playing a character so deeply rooted in some ethical and moral grey area you’re not sure if she’s being intentionally vague or if the actor ever believed in the part. Despite another wooden performance, she does manage to generate an aura of mystery as she slinks in and out of the shadows, her allegiance to any one group perpetually impossible to verify. (But are the mind games of her own creation, or is that Spike directing one of the most overrated actors working today?)

Spike’s direction assumes the role of surveillance cameras stationed at all corners of a building. The omniscience is really rewarding, as we see the extent to which this event has been planned and organized. In contrast, we come to realize the relative helplessness of a pair of detectives who want to end all of this as peacefully as possible, but who are coming up short on options — not merely because they’re bound by protocol and bureaucracy, either. In this world, the balance of power is almost entirely in the favor of the robbers. The shifting power dynamics make Inside Man a cut above your standard crime/heist thriller and one of Spike Lee’s better offerings.

Clive Owen in 'Inside Man'

Recommendation: Inside Man proves to be an involving and thoroughly surprising crime thriller featuring stellar performances from a diverse cast. Despite my qualms with Lee as a human being, his directorial talents can’t be denied. This might be my favorite of his thus far. If you can’t get enough of the bank heist thriller, I definitely would recommend this one. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “Peter, think very carefully about how you answer the next question, because if you get it wrong, your headstone will read, ‘Here lies Peter Hammond, hero, who valiantly attempted to prevent a brilliant bank robbery by trying to hide his cellular phone, but wound up,’ [presses gun muzzle into Peter’s cheek] ‘getting shot in the f***ing head.’ Now, Peter Hammond, where’s your cell phone?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.yify-torrent.org 

TBT: He Got Game (1998)

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 11.18.51 PM

Yesterday marked the end of the regular 2013-’14 NBA season. I do realize that to a great many people this day passes with the significance of a fart, but to some, April 16 marks the official arrival of a much-anticipated point in the year, the moment when professional basketball becomes VERY interesting to watch (and some non-fans will even admit to this being the moment where basketball is watchable at all), the moment that beckons all players to step up their game, because now it’s not just about the paycheck. This is about something more lasting, it’s about establishing legacy. Its about how history will end up favoring teams and players, coaches and organizations. Yes indeed, the 2014 NBA Playoffs begin this coming weekend, and to help celebrate, 

Today’s food for thought: He Got Game

He-Got-Game

Release: May 1, 1998

[Netflix]

Given that Spike Lee directed this film, it’s a wonder there is no mention of the New York Knicks anywhere in this basketball-centric drama from just before the turn of the millennium. A true blue-and-orange supporter, you can always find Spike Lee somewhere up-in-arms on the sidelines at Madison Square Garden. The man has his viewpoints and opinions, and though that may not be something that characterizes every director, it certainly applies to him.

He Got Game is the result of a stunt Spike Lee pulled by hiring then-NBA rookie Ray Allen quite literally in the middle of a game between Allen’s team at the time, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Knicks. When Lee asked if Allen would be interested in the part of Jesus Shuttlesworth (a name that’s in the discussion for one of film’s all-time greatest), Allen walked off the floor and quit the game. The Bucks lost 90-44. Not really, but everything up to and including the conversation actually did happen.

While Ray Allen’s best performances will certainly remain on the hardwood, the 23-year-old proved to be an engaging enough presence in one of the film’s major roles. He played the son of convicted murderer Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington in his third go-around with Lee), who, upon the governor’s wishes, would receive a shorter prison sentence should he be able to convince Jesus to attend and play for the governor’s alma mater. The governor arranged with prison staff to release Jake for one week so he could track his son down and ask him to sign a letter of intent, which would officially commit him to Big State, the governor’s school. Naturally, in a week this would prove to be a nearly impossible task given how far Jesus has distanced himself from his father.

Lee framed the story with a timeline that provides the ensuing drama with just a little bit more tension. Jake had exactly one week to not only locate his son, but then somehow speak to him and then give him significant career advice. If he failed to persuade the town’s most talented star to go to Big State, back to the grind it would be for Jake.

Jesus Shuttlesworth was a phenom, although his father liked to think his incredible talent was manifested in the gene pool. In Jesus’ childhood Jake liked to push him hard and often past the brink to strengthen his son mentally and physically. Unfortunately, and the shock is mostly due to Denzel’s incredibly balanced performance, Jake has something of a dark streak in him and his competitive spirit. . .and drunkenness. . .often seized control of his calm and gentle demeanor. At the same time fierce competition drove the father-son relationship, it often brought it to a screeching halt and Spike Lee handled these ups-and-downs better than anything in his lengthy final cut.

As a writer, Lee proved to be somewhat the astute observer of conversational dialogue and human interaction. He Got Game feels organic in its development, which might explain why Ray Allen fits better into this film than many athletes who are shoehorned into a 90-minute product-placement ad. Scenes tend to linger for longer than they should at times, while others are strung together in rapid succession; journeying through Spike Lee’s late-90s sports drama is a little like flipping through the pages of a photo album — you tend to gloss over several photos and pages and stay on others, and that’s precisely how the film is paced.

Though some became a little repetitive, Lee threw in a few vignettes involving Jesus’ increasing conflict with making a decision about where to go to school; his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) — a number of the scenes with her took place at the extremely photogenic Coney Island amusement park on Long Island — and also his relationship with his weirdo aunt and uncle who became his legal guardians following the death of his mother and the incarceration of his father. Together, these little stories merged satisfactorily to give the impression of a walking-in-his-shoes perspective. Jesus Shuttlesworth was on the verge of superstardom, yet had a responsibility to his young sister at the same time. He insisted she go to school and become educated, and by way of avoiding setting a double-standard, he came to understand he must play for a college himself.

The question remained, though: which one to select?

Spike Lee intertwined (arguably too) many subplots to create his realistic depiction of a chaotic time in a young basketball player’s life. It blended curious social commentary with sports politics to induce the headache athletes undoubtedly feel while going through the college selection process. But for Jesus, that was only part of the picture; his father being back around bothered him deeply yet at the same time forgiveness wasn’t what was being asked of him. Jake finally came clean and told his son what the conditions were for him being on the outside. And it was just one of many moments that played out with a painful realism.

Adding to the film’s dedication to keeping it real (damn, there’s a ’90s expression for ya), Lee managed to get a hold of several noteworthy names, including NBA Coaches Rick Patino and George Karl, and the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton and even MJ himself literally get a word in during a brief montage. Can’t forget “yeah baby!” Dick Vitale, either.

He Got Game is Spike Lee’s ode to the late 90’s; from the romanticized settings at the amusement park to the dimly lit courts in the city where the one-on-one showdowns happened, its a visual treat as much as it was in tune with reality. It paid off to hire a top-talent athlete as well, as Ray Allen offered the film a vulnerable soul to care for, even if his acting chops likely won’t earn him anything more than bit parts. I’m sure that sits perfectly fine with Allen, as his role on the real courts is anything but a ‘bit’ part. I can’t wait to see how he performs in the Playoffs this year.

Go Jesus Shuttlesworth!!!

Ray-Allen-He-Got-Game

3-5Recommendation: As a non-fan of Spike Lee (typically), He Got Game appealed to the basketball lover in me, and there’s no doubt this is the audience it serves best. But anyone who has followed Spike Lee should see this as well. A Celtic fan? Then you must consider catching a piece of your boy’s acting career if you haven’t already (and if you don’t hate him for going to Miami).

Rated: R

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “People veer off the path, so what? God forgives them. When will you. . .?”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

2 Guns

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Release: Thursday, August 1, 2013

[Theater]

Gleefully tongue-in-cheek, 2 Guns is a mostly-successful buddy-cop action film that delves into the heart of a Mexican drug cartel while revealing surprising truths about the clientele it conducts business with. One could sense the lack of seriousness a mile away with this film. Fortunately, though, one gets exactly what one expects (and pays for) in this humorous account of two crooked trigger fingers, played by Marky-Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington as they get caught between the cartel and several nefarious American government officials, including those within the Navy and the CIA.

Wahlberg’s Marcus “Stig” Stigman is a former Naval employee who went AWOL awhile back, and now finds himself “partnered” up alongside the smooth-talking, shady DEA agent Bobby Trench (Washington). The two make a satisfyingly comedic pair, and even when the events surrounding their story include plot holes and cliches galore, one cannot deny that the pairing of Wahlberg with Washington is the main reason you go to see this film from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur.

The film, set ostensibly near the Mexican border, opens with the duo planning a bank heist in which they stand to gain something like $3 million in cash. The bank they plan to rob — Tres Cruces Savings & Loan — is situated across from a diner with apparently some of the best donuts you’ll ever eat. Or so Bobby thinks, anyway. However, when the act goes down after some editorial backtracking to bring us all up to speed on what has occurred over the week prior, the two walk away with a hell of a lot more than the $3 mil they were expecting. It turns out they become $43 million richer, but a hot-tempered, rough-and-tumble CIA agent named Earl (Bill Paxton) quickly catches on to the scent of these pseudo-expert bank robbers and soon starts blazing a trail to find them and, presumably, kill them.

One of the main issues with this film is the lack of seriousness in any and all aspects of it. Well, excluding the violence. There are certainly a few moments that are shocking and which don’t seem to fit the bill of a movie that tries to be more light-hearted than dramatic. It is a little difficult to buy into the fact that Stig and Bobby are this good when they shoot their mouths off at each other, as well as several more serious-looking Mexican drug dealers. Aside from Stig’s demonstration of his accuracy (by shooting the heads off of several partially-buried chickens in a backyard — all the while eating a plate of fried chicken, no less), and the same applying to Washington’s character in other contexts, this is a film that insists you wholeheartedly accept these characters based on the actors’ reputations alone. That’s all well and good, except for the final scene where they manage to avoid a torrential downpour of bullets. It’s perhaps one of the most egregious scenes of Hollywood magic, and would make Keanu Reeves in The Matrix look like a newbie in his bullet-dodging scene. Still, it’s best to accept things at face value here and leave it at that.

An appealing aspect of 2 Guns, which may be misconstrued by more bitter critics as being dumb or confusing, is the fact that identities are never really clear virtually until the very end. We are not even sure for half of the time whether Bobby and Stig are working together or working against each other. Their relationship is certainly one of love-hate — perhaps more of the former than of the latter — and is a real treat to watch unfold. The two prove here that they could carry at least another movie together — not a sequel as such, but I’d love to see them pair up again as the leads of a similarly toned movie. They are simply too much fun to watch, and again, this is in spite of the fact that their backdrop is extremely familiar and steeped in cliche.

Paxton makes for a suitably villainous and corrupt CIA agent whose only intent is to reclaim what’s his. Edward James Olmos plays the despicable drug lord Papi Greco; James Marsden as Naval Officer Quince as well as Fred Ward, as Admiral Tuwey, prove that not even the Navy is free of corruption. Unfortunately, by the time you get around to meeting the latter character, the whole business of literally everyone on screen being a crook has become old news and any credibility that was barely established at the beginning is more or less evaporated by the desert heat (and somewhat abecedarian writing). Even the enticing Deb (Paula Patton), the would-be girlfriend of Bobby, turns out to be nothing more than femme fatale. The double-crossing gets to be a little too much, admittedly, but it’s not quite enough to turn the movie from a ‘two guns up’, to ‘two guns down.’

An explosive finish predictably pits mob boss, American government officials (represented of course by Paxton, Marsden and a few others), and the two rogues in Bobby and Stig all together in the ultimate showdown where bullets fly, bodies drop, bulls run rampant and $43 million in cash erupts in one of the funniest “makin’ it rain” sequences I’ve seen in a while. As cliche as it is going to sound, Bobby and Stig indeed stumble off into the desert sunset together, and, well. . . that’s that.

On the whole, this movie is nothing special. It is boosted exponentially by the fun interplay between well-matched leads in Washington and Wahlberg, and although it may sound repetitive saying that, I honestly couldn’t get enough of it. To me, seeing them together was well worth the price of admission. The story line needs little to no explanation (other than a warning notice about all the confusing betrayals and such) since it’s so well-worn and not entirely thought out well. But it’s just enough to justify 2 Guns‘ existence. It may be surprising to think of the fact that this film will be far from anyone’s mind when it comes Oscar season when you consider the star talent on display, but it proves that you need more than just great actors elevating an average script to make a great movie. This one is purely for entertainment purposes only, and I’m quite alright with that.

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3-0Recommendation: Come in with low expectations and you’re sure to have a good time. It’s capably acted, decently paced although it plods around a bit in the middle, and the conclusion can be seen coming a mile away, but if all you’re looking for in a movie is a great escape from your real-life drama, be sure to check in on these guys’ movie life drama. I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end. And honestly, who DOESN’T like Mark Wahlberg. . . ?

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com