(Photo by Walt Disney Studios courtesy Everett Collection)
Since making his feature debut with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, Spike Lee has blazed a trail for himself as one of Hollywood’s most vibrant — and defiantly original — filmmakers. Lee has challenged audiences to confront their expectations, assumptions, and prejudices while delivering some of the most memorable films of the last several decades. Even when critics don’t warm to his movies, they still acknowledge his work is thoughtful, ambitious, and bold. With comedies (Do the Right Thing), dramas (Malcolm X), and documentaries (When the Levees Broke) to choose from, there’s something for everybody here, especially if you like your pictures full of energy and attitude. With his latest films, (BlacKkKlansman, Da 5 Bloods, David Byrne’s American Utopia) among his most vital and celebrated, we’re ranking all Spike Lee movies by Tomatometer!
What better way to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama by watching Oliver Stone’s W. this week on DVD? While a handful of middling studio releases hit home video this week (Nights in Rodanthe, Soul Men, Blindness), the Certified Fresh pick (and Oscar nominee), Frozen River, hits as well. Celebrate Black History Month with the latest from Spike Lee (Miracle at St. Anna) or go indie with the moving directorial debut of actor Giancarlo Esposito (Gospel Hill). Finally, peruse the week’s more eclectic offerings for a break from the norm — and a well-placed roundhouse kick or two (Chocolate, Street Fighter Extreme Edition, and Bruce Campbell in My Name is Bruce).
The politically-inclined movie lover should take note of Oliver Stone’s latest, a shockingly tame envisioning of the early adult life of former US President George W. Bush. As Dubya, Josh Brolin turns in an astoundingly acute and yes, often humorous, portrayal of the Texan playboy-turned-Commander in Chief, and fellow cast members Elizabeth Banks (as Laura Bush) and James Cromwell (as George Bush Sr.) drew praise from critics. The problem, however, lies in relevance — Stone opts to ignore much of Bush’s Presidential choices in lieu of speculating a psychological case study of power ascendance and daddy issues, in the process neutralizing his too-subtle damnation of the former Prez. Learn more about Stone’s approach in a filmmaker commentary available on the standard release, with more materials (making-of featurettes, deleted scenes) found on Blu-ray.
Next: Spike Lee’s latest joint falls south of Fresh
While his impressive track record boasts more fresh movies than the average director (he’s got a 75 percent Fresh filmography), Spike Lee has known the occasional flop. Unfortunately, Lee’s latest flick, Miracle at St. Anna, is one of those Spike Lee joints; an over-earnest World War II fable about an all-black squadron in Nazi territory, it careens back and forth between war actioner and mystical legend and runs well overtime. That said, Lee’s epic has something to say about black American soldiers in battle and their depictions (or lack thereof) in American cinema, and that’s worth watching for. Expect no additional bonus materials, however, unless you spring for Blu-ray.
Next: The schmaltzy Nights in Rodanthe
3. Nights in Rodanthe — 30%
Richard Gere and Diane Lane reunite (after starring as a married couple in the thriller Unfaithful) in this schmaltzy romance about two middle-aged strangers who meet at a seaside B&B. How much schmaltz are we talking, you ask? Perhaps these two words can give you an idea: Nicholas Sparks. The author of goop-fests like The Notebook and Message in a Bottle offers up another three-hankie romance full of sentiment that is only for those with the strongest tolerance for cornball contrivances. Featurettes, deleted scenes a commentary by director George C. Wolfe (Lackawanna Blues) and more appear — but only on the Blu-ray disc.
Next: Remembering Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes…with Soul Men
If we are to remember the late comic Bernie Mac and the late musical legend Isaac Hayes, let it not be through watching Soul Men. The two artists, who passed away last year, deserve more of a send-off than this tepid R&B buddy comedy, though the disc fittingly includes separate tributes to the careers of both men. The film itself, directed by Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother, Roll Bounce) follows the reunion of two former singers (Mac and Samuel L. Jackson) who reunite for a concert; humorously delivered expletives and adult humor mar much of the proceedings. If that’s your cup of tea, so be it, though there are more fitting ways to pay tribute to the memories of two such well-loved entertainers.
Next: Blindness, from the director of City of God
A city-wide epidemic mysteriously leaves the population without sight — save for one woman (Julianne Moore) — in Blindness, the latest film from Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener). As in his previous films, Meirelles tells a story of human conflict in a strikingly visual manner; that story, however, was too bleak and muddled for many critics. Although this allegory fell short of the freshness mark, the dynamics of post-apocalyptic society and the social cannibalism of Lord of the Flies may appeal to fans of science fiction. An hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary and deleted scenes bolster the DVD, which lacks what would have been an intriguing commentary track.
Next: Bruce Campbell goes post-modern in My Name is Bruce
Fans of the Evil Dead films, Brisco County Jr., or Bruce Campbell himself should pick up this week’s DVD release of My Name is Bruce, a post-modern horror adventure in which a small town is terrorized by an ancient demon, and Campbell (as himself) must step in to save the day. Similar to the recent JCVD, in which over-the-hill action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme plays himself as hero in a fictional situation, Campbell pokes fun at (and celebrates) his own movie star status as a B-movie actor of yesteryear. Featurettes, a fake trailer (for the faux film within a film, Cavealien 2), an hour-long making-of documentary, and a feature-length commentary by Bruce Campbell and producer Mike Richardson all make this a must-own for Campbell fans.
Next: Chocolate: Are you ready for the female Tony Jaa?
If the phrase “the female Tony Jaa” doesn’t grab you, then you’re not going to be hooked by this Thai import. (And you also have no sense of fun — because it gets even better.) Chocolate stars newcomer Yanin Vismistananda as Zen, a young autistic woman with an uncanny knack for Muy Thai who puts her martial arts skills to work to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments, leading to a battle with the Yakuza. Plot-wise, it may not make much sense, but amazing stunt work is the leading reason to give Chocolate a go; director Prachya Pinkaew also made the landmark Ong Bak, which made a star of Tony Jaa, and he’s looking to do the same with his agile 22-year-old female star. Chocolate opened in theaters in limited release only last week, so those in major metropolitan areas might even still catch it on the big screen.
Next: The Certified Fresh (and Academy Award-nominated) Frozen River
Independent cinema often needs the most help reaching the masses, so here are a few more reasons to check out Frozen River this week: at 86 percent and Certified Fresh, it’s the best-reviewed wide release of the week, and features an Oscar-nominated performance by actress Melissa Leo. The drama, directed by first-timer Courtney Hunt (who is also up for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay), follows a financially-struggling mother (Leo) who takes to smuggling illegal aliens across the Canadian border to make ends meet. Morally complex, this thriller is made all the more relevant by today’s economic climate — not just in its story, but in the behind-the-scenes drama of how an independent film reportedly made for less than $1 million made it to the Academy Awards.
Next: Giancarlo Esposito’s directorial debut, Gospel Hill
Actor Giancarlo Esposito (Mo’ Better Blues) makes his writing and directing debut with this independently-made drama about race relations and community in the fictional town of Gospel Hill, screened at the Oxford Film Festival last week. As in many Southern towns today, Gospel Hill and its denizens are still hurting from ills committed during the civil rights movement; in examining the lingering specter of segregation, Esposito (who also stars) aims to help heal the social wounds that still separate black and white communities. Esposito managed to nab colleagues Angela Bassett, Danny Glover, Samuel L. Jackson and Julia Stiles for his passion project, which also stars Taylor Kitsch, Adam Baldwin, and the RZA.
Next: Do you need the re-released Back to the Future trilogy?
If you already own the time-traveling adventures of Marty McFly from the previously-released box set, or are waiting patiently for the trilogy to get its as-yet unannounced Blu-ray treatment, then you’ll probably want to avoid double-dipping with this week’s 2-Disc Special Edition. But if not, you might want to take advantage of this week’s re-release of all three Back to the Future films, available for the first time individually. While each film has its own substantial set of extras and a commentary track featuring producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton, only the first movie comes with an additional disc that highlights Back to the Future: The Ride; Robert Zemeckis and star Michael J. Fox only appear in Q&As. Personally, where the future of home video is going, we will need more.
Next: Street Fighter hits Blu-ray!
Despite the lack of any indication that the world particularly needed a Blu-ray release of 1994’s Street Fighter, here it arrives in an “Extreme Edition.” What’s so “extreme” about this High Def release, besides the sight of seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme about to spiral into B-movie obscurity (in high definition)? Nothing much, though we are extremely sad to be reminded that such respectable thespians as Ming-Na, Raul Julia, and heck, Kylie Minogue, cashed in to bring such iconic characters as Chun Li, Bison, and Cammy to life. A plethora of bonus materials are on display here to commemorate the cheesy action flick, which helped to kick off an entire genre (the disappointing video game adaptation) and — surprise! — arrives just in time to help promote Capcom’s new game, Street Fighter IV.
Until next week, happy renting!
Indy Jr. looks to seize control of the North American box office with the new action thriller Eagle Eye which leads a new pack of candidates heading into the multiplexes on Friday. Also opening are the romance Nights in Rodanthe starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane plus Spike Lee‘s historical war drama Miracle at St. Anna. Overall, the marketplace stands a good chance of beating last year’s performance ending the month of September on a positive note after such a dismal start.
Shia LaBeouf and director D.J. Caruso spent three weeks atop the box office chart with their sleeper hit thriller Disturbia last year. Now, the two reunite and hope that lightning will strike twice with the political action thriller Eagle Eye which should have no problem debuting in the number one spot this Friday. The PG-13 film finds the Transformers star playing a slacker who is targeted by a mysterious government agency that can use modern information technology to track the lives of any person. Michelle Monaghan, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, and Billy Bob Thornton co-star. Paramount and DreamWorks are aiming for a broad audience here but teens and young adults should be the core. Cross-gender appeal is solid as Shia is a star with males and females alike. This one is for the actor what Enemy of the State was for Will Smith ten years ago – a chance for a rising action superstar to break away from bigger guaranteed hits and anchor a conspiracy thriller on his own.
With most films in multiplexes now skewing towards the 30-plus crowd, Eagle should hit its mark just fine. Plus, there really haven’t been any major serious modern-day action movies since The Dark Knight so ticket buyers are ready to go for another action-packed thrill ride. The reliable tactic of using “from Executive Producer Steven Spielberg” in the marketing is also at play here and will add to the numbers. Disturbia debuted to $22.2M in April 2007 and outside of the Saw sequels, movies released in the September-October corridor rarely break past the $30M mark. Attacking over 3,300 locations, Eagle Eye will try to approach that level and could generate around $27M this weekend.
Samuel L. Jackson hit the top spot last weekend with the not-so-friendly-neighbor thriller Lakeview Terrace. The Sony film’s adult audience will have new options so a 45% decline could be in order. That would leave the PG-13 film with about $8M for the frame and a ten-day sum of $27M.
Burn After Reading held up nicely in its sophomore session so another moderate drop is likely. Focus may see a 40% decline to roughly $6.5M for a total of $45M after 17 days. Dane Cook flicks fall hard on the second weekend as witnessed by his pics Good Luck Chuck and Employee of the Month which both stumbled by 54% in the second frame. The comic’s new masterpiece My Best Friend’s Girl looks to fall by 55% to about $3.5M for a disappointing cume of only $14M after ten days.
LAST YEAR: The Rock became the latest macho star to drive a family comedy to number one. His hit The Game Plan debuted on top with $23M for Disney on its way to a solid $90.6M making it the top-grossing pic for the September-October corridor. Opening in second was the political thriller The Kingdom with $17.1M for Universal on its way to $47.5M. Former chart-topper Resident Evil: Extinction lost two-thirds of its audience and fell to third with $8M in its second weekend. Rounding out the top five was Lionsgate with its double feature of Good Luck Chuck and 3:10 to Yuma with $6.2M and $4.2M, respectively.
Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com
This week, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna hits
theaters, telling the story of the struggle of African American soldiers in
World War II. So RT thought it would be a good time to take a closer look at the
work of Lee, one of cinema’s most provocative, probing, and stylistically
audacious filmmakers. Here, from worst to best reviewed, is every single Spike
She Hate Me
Tomatometer: 20%With a
tagline that boasts “One heterosexual male. 18 lesbians. His fee: $10,000…
each,” anyone could tell just from looking at the poster that She Hate Me
was either going to be an incredibly pointed look at sexual politics and
modern gender roles, or the source of some of the worst reviews of Spike Lee’s
career. Unfortunately, the latter proved to be the case; critics piled onto She
Hate Me, calling it a muddled, overreaching mess. (One of the only critics
to give it a positive review was Roger Ebert — and in his writeup, he
correctly predicted its eventual 20 percent Tomatometer.) Trying to summarize
the plot — whistleblowing executive loses his job, agrees to impregnate his
lesbian ex-girlfriend for cash, and ends up turning it into a lucrative
business — is enough to give a person fits; toss in a few confused subplots,
a title inspired by XFL player Rod Smart, and some heavy-handed allusions to
the story of Watergate security guard Frank Wills, and it isn’t hard to
understand why She Hate Me prompted such a negative reaction. Still,
some scribes were able to see the good in the film, such as the Chicago
Tribune’s Michael Wilmington, who says it’s “Chock full of provocative
statements about corporate morality, sexual hypocrisy, and what’s wrong about
Girl 6 (1996)
Tomatometer: 32%Spike Lee
directing a movie about a phone sex operator (with soundtrack duties held down
by Prince!) sounded like a failsafe winner in 1996 — at least until Girl
6 reached theaters, at which point critics loudly proclaimed their
inability to figure out what to do with it, and audiences pretty much just
ignored it. (As an indicator of Girl 6‘s position in the Lee canon,
consider that it didn’t receive a proper DVD release until a full 10 years
after it reached theaters.) In retrospect, the film was a courageous choice
for Lee; he had, after all, been accused of misogyny throughout his career,
and in tackling this subject matter, he had to know he was opening himself up
to further criticism. Indeed, more than one critic complained that Lee was the
wrong director for Suzan-Lori Parks’ script; he came under particularly heavy
fire for the film’s opening scene, in which the cameras play right along with
the lechery of Quentin Tarantino’s character. On the bright side, Theresa
Randle’s performance as Girl 6 was repeatedly singled out as the film’s high
point; Variety’s Todd McCarthy was just one of the critics who praised her for
her “luminous presence and dignity.”
Tomatometer: 47%At once a cri de coeur and a teeth-grittingly funny comedy, Bamboozled
was one of Lee’s most divisive discourses on racial matters. And that’s exactly
as he intended it — this is Lee at his most grenade-tossing. Damon Wayans stars
as Pierre Delacroix, a Harvard-educated network executive who’s sick and tired
of the casual racism of his boss (Michael Rappaport), so he dreams up a show
that’s sure to get him fired: recruiting two street performers (Tommy Davidson
and Savion Glover), he stages a minstrel show, filled with blackface and
retrograde stereotypes. However, when the show becomes a surprise (and
controversial) hit, Delacroix becomes a target, as well as a repository of
self-loathing. The film has its share of bitter laughs, and Damon Wayans is
brilliantly nerdy in the lead role, but many critics found Bamboozled to
be too angry, too didactic, and too scattershot in its plotting to truly work as
satire. “Yes, Bamboozled is a picture of genuine importance,” wrote
Xan Brooks in Sight and Sound. “Yes, it is also crude, unstable and
Summer of Sam (1999)
Tomatometer: 50%Like Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam takes place during a
particularly hot summer in New York City, during which neighborhood loyalties
are tested and tempers are at a fever pitch. This time, however, Lee drew upon
historical events — namely, the crazy summer of 1977, during which the Yankees
were bound for the World Series, the punk and disco subcultures took the city by
storm, and the Son of Sam murders terrorized the Big Apple. Vinny (John
Leguizamo) and Richie (Adrien Brody) are two old buddies with plenty of
problems: Vinny can’t stop cheating on his wife (Mira Sorvino), and Richie has
to endure the withering glare of his old friends, who don’t much care for his
punk rock look. As the Son of Sam killings grip the city, Vinny and a group of
neighborhood friends become obsessed with finding the killer themselves — and
suspicion turns toward old friends. Messy? You bet, but it’s electrifying in
spots (especially when Brody strums along to a scratchy record of the Who’s
“Baba O’Riley,” as a montage weaves through the troubled aspects of his life)
and it has an excitable edge that stays strong, even when Lee’s point exceeds
his grasp. “For more than two hours, you can’t catch your breath,” wrote Jack
Garner of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
School Daze (1987)
Tomatometer: 55%After breaking
new ground for black filmmakers with She’s Gotta Have It, Lee opted to
spend some of his recently earned capital on a story drawn from his
experiences at Morehouse College. The result was School Daze, a movie
that, despite sharply dividing critics, provided early career boosts for stars
Tisha Campbell and Laurence Fishburne (not to mention Kadeem Hardison, Darryl
M. Bell, and Jasmine Guy, all of whom went on to join the cast of the Cosby
Show spinoff A Different World). It also provided a window into
Lee’s Method-friendly approach to filmmaking; behind the scenes, he duplicated
the class lines portrayed onscreen by purposely putting the actors portraying
the “wannabes” in better hotels than the “jigaboos.” Lee’s tactics sparked an
unscripted on-set brawl — which Lee had the shrewd foresight to film.
Unfortunately, most critics were unimpressed with School Daze, echoing
the sentiments of the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, who deemed it “an
arrogant, humorless, sexist mess.”
Tomatometer: 67%Based upon Richard Price’s best-selling novel, Clockers is a gritty,
complex portrait of the ravages that drugs bring to the inner city. Strike (Mekhi
Phifer), a teenage drug dealer, is tasked by his boss (Delroy Lindo) with
killing a fellow member of the organization. But when the murder goes down,
it’s Strike’s brother Victor (Isaiah Washington) who takes the rap — which
baffles homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), Meanwhile, Strike
looks to escape his life of crime, but remains in fear of the repercussions of
his actions. Bolstered by excellent performances (the interplay between Phifer
and Keitel is excellent, and Lindo oozes menace), Clockers is one of
Lee’s most underrated films — it’s tense, morally complex, and sad.
“Clockers uses unexpected narrative turns to accentuate the themes of
lost innocence and uncultivated potential, and affirms that tragic melodrama
is not a prerequisite for emotional impact,” wrote James Berardinelli of ReelViews.
Tomatometer: 71%Following the success of Do the Right Thing, Lee scaled down for
his next picture, trading summer heat for nighttime cool. The result, Mo’
Better Blues, lacked the focused intensity of his previous work; then
again, it’s about a pretty mellow guy who operates in a laid-back milieu.
Denzel Washington stars as Bleek Gilliam, a jazz trumpeter with a whole host
of issues: he’s got two girlfriends, he’s not on the best of terms with his
spotlight-stealing sax player Shadow (Wesley Snipes), and his manager Giant
(Lee) has little nose for business. Mo’ Better Blues is uneven, but it
has its moments, with Washington embodying Bleek as an archetypal jazzman,
hipper-than-hip but with a tortured soul. It also works as a meditation on the
demands placed upon artists. “Few will accuse Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better
Blues of being a masterpiece,” wrote Desson Thomson of the Washington
Post. “But it’s still full of the things that make Spike Lee films, well,
Spike Lee films. Full of the fun, full of the spirit.”
Tomatometer: 76%After the
serious themes and behind-the-scenes struggles of Malcolm X, Lee must
have been ready for a lighter, less demanding project — and that’s exactly
what he gave audiences with 1994’s Crooklyn, another film inspired by
the experiences of the director’s youth. Boasting an enjoyable (albeit
extremely predictable) soundtrack and a tremendous performance from Alfre
Woodard, Crooklyn allowed Lee to step down from the enormous podium
he’d clambered up on top of to create Malcolm X, and reminded critics
and audiences that he was still just as capable of telling small stories as he
was of making grand statements. Though it wasn’t a huge hit, the critics were
generally kind to Crooklyn, paying particular attention to Woodard’s
performance — and reacting with bemused surprise to the genuine affection
with which Lee framed his portrait of 1970s Brooklyn. As Janet Maslin of the
New York Times argued, of all Lee’s pictures to date, Crooklyn was “the
first one to display real warmth of heart.”
25th Hour (2002)
Tomatometer: 77%Lee is at once immensely fond and endlessly skeptical of New York City. So
who better to make a film that reflects the anxious post 9/11 mood of the Big
Apple? Monty (Edward Norton) is a convicted drug dealer who roams the city on
his last day of freedom, reflecting on how his life jumped the rails. He meets
with his father (Brian Cox) who thinks he should go on the lam; his girlfriend
Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), whom he thinks may have ratted him out; and his
friends Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper), who are
crushed by Monty’s predicament but have plenty of problems themselves. The
film captures the feelings of guilt and uncertainty many felt in the wake of
9/11, and Norton delivers a monologue of raw power, skewering all the city’s
residents before turning his ire on himself. “Superbly acted, as you would
expect, it’s also rich in moral nuance,” wrote Paul Byrnes in the Sydney
Morning Herald. “Doing the right thing is not as simple in [Lee’s] films
as it once was.”
He Got Game (1998)
Tomatometer: 81%Lee returned
to his social activist roots — and reunited with Denzel Washington — for
1998’s He Got Game, which uses the promise of a professional basketball
career for one young man to reflect the conflicts wrought by urban decay and
the dissolution of the black family unit. Sound like a lot to chew on for a
two-hour drama? It is — and that’s more or less the major critical knock
against He Got Game, which bowed at the top of the box office but faded
fast, ultimately failing to recoup its $25 million budget during its
theatrical run. Although Washington and real-life NBA guard Ray Allen were
both praised for their performances, and critics mostly applauded Lee’s
dependably colorful work behind the camera, the positive word of mouth wasn’t
enough to maintain the movie’s commercial momentum. Perhaps people were turned
off by its dark tones — or maybe they’d already seen the story told enough
times, both in other dramas and in documentaries such as 1994’s Hoop
Dreams. It was their loss, according to critics like Variety’s Emanuel
Levy, who called it “One of the most accessible films Lee has made.”
Jungle Fever (1991)
Tomatometer: 83%Can a film still be deemed a success even if its central premise misses
the mark? Such is the case with Jungle Fever, Lee’s examination of the
allure of interracial relationships and family dynamics. Wesley Snipes stars
as successful architect Flipper, who becomes enthralled with Angie (Annabella
Sciorra), a temp in his office. The two begin an extramarital affair that
meets with outright disdain from their respective families. But that’s not the
only thing troubling them; Flipper’s brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) is a
hopeless crack addict, and in one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, Flipper
ventures into a crack house to try to save him. If the central relationship
isn’t explored as fully as it should be, it isn’t for lack of trying on the
parts of Snipes and Sciorra, who bring conviction to their roles. But it’s the
couple’s family members (whose ranks include Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as
Flipper’s parents, and Anthony Quinn and John Turturro as Angie’s father and
fiance, respectively) that provide the punch that makes this a troubling,
brave drama. “There are so many voices you may think you’re swimming through a
maelstrom, but thanks to Lee it’s all superbly orchestrated,” wrote Jonathan
Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader.
Kings of Comedy (2000)
Tomatometer: 86%In chronicling a wild, insightful Charlotte concert featuring Steve
Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac, Lee said he
wanted to bring attention to a group of African American comedians who were
selling out stadiums while getting scant notice from the mainstream (i.e.
white) press. The Original Kings of Comedy is a pretty straightforward
performance film, and it lacks Lee’s usual stylistic flair. But this material
needs no bells and whistles. MC Steve Harvey riffs hilariously on everything
from Titanic to the pleasures of classic soul music; D.L. Hughley has a
gut-busting take on bungee jumping; and Cedric the Entertainer meditates on
African Americans in the White House and outer space. But the late Bernie Mac
steals the show; his lengthy rant about his family’s troubles is so agonized
that it borders on performance art — it’s almost too painful to be comedy, but
it’s delivered with brilliant gusto. “Watching Spike Lee’s concert movie is
the next best thing to having been in the house when the Kings of Comedy
caused a laugh riot in Charlotte, N. C.,” wrote Susan Tavernetti of Palo
Inside Man (2006)
Tomatometer: 86%In which a
director most recently known for smaller projects with strong sociopolitical
overtones takes over a heist flick for Ron Howard and turns it into one of the
biggest hits of the year. It’s backfired on him on more than one occasion, but
Lee has essentially built a career out of confounding expectations, and he did
it again with 2006’s Inside Man, taking what could have been a
garden-variety thriller and turning it into a smartly subversive take on the
whole tired genre. Lee was aided and abetted, of course, by an ace cast led by
Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster, not to mention Russell
Gerwitz’s sharp script — but what really fuels the movie is Lee’s direction,
which artfully combines both the familiar with the unexpected. Arguably the
movie’s finest feature is the way Lee takes New York — a city featured in so
many movies that it lost much of its big-screen mojo — and restores some of
the wonderfully messy character it showed in 1970s thrillers like “The Taking
of Pelham One Two Three.” As Newsweek’s David Ansen put it, Inside Man
is “A Spike Lee joint that’s downright fun.”
Get on the
Tomatometer: 86%Released on the one year anniversary of the Million Man March, Lee’s Get
On the Bus is a potent allegory, capturing the headiness and the
“where-do-we-go-from-here” nature of the event. Featuring lots of bristling,
impassioned interplay by a large, talented cast that includes Charles S.
Dutton, Ossie Davis, Isaiah Washington, Andre Braugher, Hill Harper, and
Bernie Mac, Lee examines the generational conflicts, homophobia, the O.J.
Simpson trial, gang violence, and March organizer Louis Farrakhan’s alleged
anti-Semitism as the bus makes the long trek from Los Angeles to Washington.
As with other Lee films, the answers are never simple, but thankfully, Get
On the Bus airs plenty of grievances that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare
touch — while also managing to be funny and, finally, deeply touching. “Spike
Lee’s one-year anniversary commemoration of the Million Man March is a smart,
funny, passionate, and open-ended tribute to the spirit of the unprecedented
gathering that so galvanized the hearts and minds of African-American men,”
wrote Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle.
Have It (1986)
Tomatometer: 93%Released in the mid-1980s, a key period in which the Coen Brothers’ Blood
Simple and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise showed the
potential of independent cinema, Lee’s Debut, She’s Gotta Have It,
marked the arrival of a major voice in American Movies. Made for $30,000, is
the story of fiercely independent Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), who
finds herself courted by three very different men: Greer (John Canada
Terrell), a narcissistic model; Mars Blackman (Lee), a wacky, childish bike
messenger; and Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), a decent, well-meaning guy who
also has some control issues. Nola has little problem remaining unattached to
these guys, until they become embittered with each other — and demand that
she make a choice. It’s bumpy in spots, and it shows the limitations inherent
in many low budget productions, but the sharply-drawn characters, insightful
dialogue, and ribald humor of She’s Gotta Have It drew comparisons to
Woody Allen. “She’s Gotta Have It is funny, honest and brave, and
unafraid to admit to complexities and contradictions within the
African-American world it portrays,” wrote Channel 4 Film.
Malcom X (1992)
commonly regarded as Spike Lee’s passion project — which is certainly
accurate — but what people often forget is that producer Marvin Worth had
been trying to get Malcolm X off the ground since 1967, and by the time
Lee took over for Norman Jewison in the director’s chair, the movie had passed
through countless hands; Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Sidney Lumet, and David
Mamet are just a few of the famous names that were attached to Malcolm
at various points. And in true Lee fashion, the bumps in the road didn’t go
away after he took over: His involvement was protested by groups including the
United Front to Preserve the Legacy of Malcolm X, and he was pre-emptively
accused of focusing on the more sensational aspects of his controversial
subject’s life. Lee also battled with Warner Bros. over the movie’s budget and
runtime, eventually relying on donations from prominent members of the black
community (including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Janet Jackson) to rescue Malcolm
X from post-production shutdown. Happily, all that struggle paid off: Not
only did the film earn back its budget, but critics almost uniformly praised
it, singling out Denzel Washington’s performance in the title role. As Channel
4 Film’s Jon Fortgang put it, “It’s Washington’s performance that really
energizes this film, and he’s an exhilarating presence throughout.”
Tomatometer: 100%On Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb ripped through the basement of the 16th
Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley,
Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, four teenage girls who were preparing
for Sunday service. The bomb was planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, as a
threat to African Americans attempting to end segregation. However, this was
an act of domestic terrorism so brutal and so coldhearted that even garden
variety bigots were appalled. 4 Little Girls is a mournful, profoundly
moving document of the bombing and its aftermath; featuring interviews with
Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, Jesse Jackson, and even George Wallace,
Lee makes the convincing case that it was a turning point in the civil rights
movement, galvanizing public opinion in favor of ending segregation. However,
4 Little Girls is not simply a tale of martyrdom. Featuring poignant
interviews with the girls’ families and friends, who tell of happy, smart,
hopeful children, the film is a meditation on what was lost that terrible day.
“4 Little Girls brilliantly captures a moment in American history and
tells an achingly painful story of injustice and family loss,” wrote Edward
Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Do the Right
Tomatometer: 100%An American classic, Do the Right Thing may be the fullest, most
emotionally devastating portrait of race relations ever captured on celluloid.
At the time of its release, some critics accused Lee of fanning the flames of
racial resentment in an already red-hot New York City. However, that charge
seems more ludicrous with each passing year; Lee was certainly angry when he
made the film, but the characters are so richly, lovingly drawn that Do the
Right Thing becomes a portrait of a neighborhood in its darkest hour. Much
of the action is centered in and around Sal’s Pizzeria and a Korean corner
store, two non-black business viewed with suspicion by the largely African
American populous. Sal (Danny Aiello) has been a part of the neighborhood for
years, but runs into conflict with local youths, who don’t much care for his
“Wall of Fame” that contains only pictures of Italian American celebrities. In
the middle is Mookie (Lee), who works for Sal but is tired of the casual
racism espoused by his son Pino (John Turturro). Do the Right Thing
culminates in an almost apocalyptic finale in which tensions come to a full
boil, but Lee never shortchanges the complexities or flaws of his characters,
and the ending, though uncertain, is one of the most profound attempts at
understanding in movie history. Hal Hinson of the Washington Post
called Do the Right Thing “a movie made by filmmaker working in sync
with his times — an exciting, disturbing, provocative film.”
Bonus: Even more joints!
As you might already be aware, Spike Lee has also directed a handful of films that were made for the non-theatrical market — a distinction that prevented us from featuring them in our retrospective, but since bending the rules a little never hurt anybody, we don’t have any qualms about using this space to say a few words about three of Spike’s documentary joints:
Jim Brown: All-American (2002, 60 percent) is an HBO-distributed look back at the NFL Hall of Famer and social activist.
A Huey P. Newton Story (2003, 100 percent) consists of a filmed performance of Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show of the same name.
When the Levees Broke: A Documentary in Four Acts (2006, 96 percent) is Lee’s searing, Peabody Award-winning look at the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; it is among Lee’s four finest hours as a filmmaker.