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Archive for March, 2011

I fear that the word “badass” is somehow going to have a serious impact in my life thanks to the films we’ve been watching as of late in Film Studies class. A couple more movies along the same lines and I might even have to add a nickname in the middle of my real name and call myself Yasas “Badass” Ratnayake; not because I’m badass, but because I’m compelled to use that word way too often thanks to films like Shaft and Do the Right Thing; the movie I’m reviewing right now. The former was overtly badass, and mashed pigheaded goons and cruised on raw masculinity on its way to “badassery” (think Chuck Norris), but the latter was the kind of badass that was subtle, intellectually intimidating, and viscerally emotional (think Malcolm X, or Chuck Norris) in a way that kept you rocking in its impact like the eerie ringing in your ears that would persist for days after being in the front row of a rock concert. If I had to choose between which badass I’d choose, Do the Right Thing would get my vote before two shakes of a lamb’s tail; and not even Chuck Norris could stop that without having to kill me with the bristles of his invincible beard.

He will kick you in the face AND your brain.

Do the Right Thing is a 1989 movie by Spike Lee that tells the story of a Pizza shop, a heat wave, three Italians, a black neighborhood in Brooklyn, a pizza delivery guy, a big guy with a big boombox, a virtuous drunkard, a mentally handicapped civil rights movement devotee named Smiley, an Asian grocery store, a radio love doctor, a wall of fame, and a riot. The story would be clearer to those who watch it, because accurately summarizing such a complex, yet emotionally engaging film such as this would take more than the desired space needed for a film review. For those who have watched 2005’s Academy Award winning ‘Crash’ and had to put all that information onto a 5-6 paragraph article; you would know what I’m going through right now. Do the Right Thing is a visually arresting composition that challenges the viewer to critically analyze many complex social values, norms, and mores and question: what IS the right thing to do?

As Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader says Do the Right Thing is “A powerful and persuasive look at an ethnic community and what makes it tick–funky, entertaining, packed with insight, and political in the best, most responsible sense”. The main story portrays the inconsequential goings on of a hot summer day in Brooklyn manifesting into an ugly race riot. The movie revolves around Mookie, a scrawny pizza delivery guy (played by Spike Lee), who works for the only white establishment, a well known Pizzeria called Sal’s, in a predominantly black neighborhood. Even the most minor characters in the movie carry a great amount of depth and each person in the movie tells his or her own story to give the film a rich, bittersweet texture much like a helping of good tiramisu. Do the Right Thing weaves in good measures of comedy, historical allusions, political ideals, profanity, modernist movie dynamics, and frequent repetitions of Public Enemy’s hit “Fight the Power” (thank you for that, Radio Raheem) to create a multicolored patchwork that is complex, yet beautiful to behold. I wouldn’t know how to fit in a brief, yet accurate summary of the movie into a single sentence without missing out on many important parts, so I won’t try. Instead, if there is anyone who’s reading this blog who isn’t in my Film class (which I highly doubt; but hey, thanks for stopping by!) and you haven’t watched Do the Right Thing, I highly recommend that you grab your popcorn, soda, Black Panther beret and WATCH IT!

John Turturro telling Spike that he should be delivering them pizzas.

Watching it with a focus in trying to decipher references to a deeper message than what is communicated on the surface, I believe the way the movie ended threw the cat out of the bag and left the meaning to be inferred with the subjective lens the viewer saw and understood it with. Where did the cat go? Is it in the basement? Or is on a tree, trying to catch a pigeon of some kind? One could say, especially if he or she is more of the Malcolm X type, that Mookie DID do the right thing and justified Radio Raheem’s death by inciting the riot, which I personally thought was something that Raheem brought about himself. I guess my opinion is shaped by the fact that Martin Luther King’s writing stirred a lot of meaning in me thanks to my First Year Seminar, which was dedicated to study the civil rights movement. But I think that this is exactly the point that Spike Lee is trying to make with the movie.

Ultimately, the viewer must face the question and conclude what the right choice was; based on everything he or she saw in the film. The viewer was given insight into Sal and his two sons, and also given an insight into the rest of the community that crowded that street and ultimately turned Sal’s Famous Pizzeria into a heap of worthless ember that’s burnt to the crust. The fact that Smiley pins the picture of MLK and Malcolm X in a friendly moment (they were known to be divided in their belief of how to win civil rights) on what was once the wall of fame at Sal’s, might symbolize the ambiguous ending where the viewer is called to identify whether the right thing was accomplished in the end of the film or not. What was the right thing to do? Was MLK right? Was Malcolm X right?

Personally, I’m with the Sonny the Korean guy. He says “I no white! I black! You, me, same! We same!” Although this might have been interpreted incorrectly by the rioters, I think it stood for the real message that Lee tried to convey. Like the words of all great people in history whose messages have been distorted, modified, and ignored, the Korean guy too, was dismissed by the mob as probably being some kooky Asian dude with schizophrenic tendencies, although he WAS pointing to an essential truth that transcends race. All in all, I personally thought that no one really did the right thing in the end of the film. I suppose that’s why the guy who sincerely wants everyone to do the right thing and does it by example is good ol’ Mayor, the drunkard. Who wouldn’t be drunk when he or she understands the truth is so simple to see, yet everyone’s too foolish to realize it? Let’s just leave that possibility to be inferred by the intellectual badasses.

Steve Park is doing the right thing. Two thumbs up man!

And for those who watched and enjoyed the movie, here’s something to check out. It’s pretty badass.

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Shaft (2000)

Just when you thought that Samuel L Jackson couldn’t get any more badass, he himself proves to you that he CAN. And that he will. And, unfortunately, that’s the problem with Samuel L is that almost all his roles are somewhat generic and predictable, yet entertaining at the same time. This is the case with the sequel to 1971’s iconic blaxploitation film Shaft. The sequel, made in 2000, doesn’t carry the same kind of sophistication and finesse as its predecessor, but is entertaining if you want it to be.

John Shaft (junior?), played by Samuel L Jackson, is a maverick NYPD cop that specializes in busting people who happen to escape in the most exciting, adrenaline packed, commotion rousing manner ever. When faced with the task of apprehending a millionaire convicted of beating a black person to death, Shaft takes on more than he would have liked to handle, as he gets entrenched in an epic struggle to apprehend the culprit Walter Wade, played by Christian Bale with a devil-may-care disposition, in a gang busting, gun toting, face smashing extravaganza of blood, adrenaline, and pure machismo. The movie features a cameo appearance from the original John Shaft (senior?), Richard Roundtree, who, although much older, hasn’t lost his penchant for attracting the ladies, as the filmmaker would want us to assume. The movie also features rap star Busta Rhymes as a loud, obnoxious, and positively horrible sidekick to Samuel L, and a host of other minor characters that give the movie some entertaining quirks. The film takes the audience through a rough-and-tumble progression of underworld violence instigated by Christian Bale and his for hire Dominican drug running buddy Peoples Hernandez, played by Jeffery Wright. The story’s action packed narrative unfold as Walter Wade’s (unsuccessful) attempts to snuff out the only witness to his crime intertwine with Shaft’s determination to protect the witness and convict Wade.

As Widget Walls of needcoffee.com puts it; “This is a film where if you decide to take it too seriously, you will be seriously disappointed.” The key to enjoying the remake is to forget little details like the several cheesy lines of dialogue between Samuel L and some of the ladies that are craving his “L.D” (one can only guess what that is), the ease of which an expert gangbuster like Shaft can be located and followed by his enemies, and the fact that Peoples Hernandez can repeatedly drive a sharp weapon into himself out of frustration and still find the energy (and blood) to chase down the good guys through the streets of New York, among other things. Besides the obvious shortcomings and the fact that the sequel can’t be held in the same respect as its predecessor (even with Isaac Hayes’ smooth sounds from the original movie), the film isn’t as horrible as many would think. It will surely be entertaining for fans of Samuel L Jackson, lovers of the crime and action genres, and those who love guns, bullets, knives, speeding cars, the streets of New York; all materializing at the same time; but it would be a disappointment for those who expect the same Shaft from 1971.

Rich; white; black guy killer, Walter Wade

The movie attempts to displace broader issues of institutionalized racism, class conflict, police corruption, and gang violence in its narrative. The fact that the villain, Walter Wade, is a millionaire white guy, and the fact that he beat up an ordinary black guy to death with a nightclub fixture carries a certain undertone that seems to be a deliberate attempt by the moviemaker to convey a message. The complicity of the Dominican drug runner, Peoples Hernandez, in Wade’s machinations also show how income status, race, and extralegal activity can all be arbitrated by money in a world of chaos and confusion. I also wonder whether the fact that all the characters in the movie, good or bad, being able to expertly sneak up on each other in various parts of the movie was a kind of message that was being conveyed by the filmmaker; but then again, it could just be the filmmaker taking cues off the “Action Movies 101” manual to try and make the film more exciting than it should be.

All in all, the movie wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Even though Samuel L. has turned into a generic badass over the years, watching him is somewhat like humoring yourself by watching Will Ferrell movies for kicks (Yes. I don’t mind doing that from time to time). It was reasonably enjoyable, as long as I chose to forget the little details, and it wasn’t as bad to have left people gouging their eyes out for watching it. A word for Samuel L though; even if you spit out the same old brutal rhetoric till the day you die, don’t forget that no matter how old or hacked your taunts may be, there will never be anyone as bloody good at it as you are. Respect.

 

Bad Motherf***er!

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Shaft (1971)

The BBC’s Micheal Thomson in a revised review 30 years after his original article writes “‘Shaft’ has long since reached icon status, and is thus deemed to be beyond the reach of criticism.” Besides a moderate grilling from Roger Ebert, Shaft really does seem to live up to Thomson’s statement, as it is nearly impossible to find a harshly criticized review of Shaft. Being one of the breakthrough blaxploitation movies after Melvin van Peebles’ pioneering film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, Shaft enjoys widespread critical praise from film critics and filmmakers; and for good reasons.

The movie was memorable for two main reasons. Firstly, it was a film that shattered the conventional movie scene and defied the dominant ideology of the time. Even though Sidney Poitier, the legendary Bahamian/American black actor had won critical acclaim for his roles in anti-establishment movies such as In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner a few years prior to the blaxploitation breakthrough for portraying a similar role as Richard Rountree in Shaft, it was Shaft that really shook the foundations of the film industry, and brought new meaning to Black cinema. Rather than being a technical masterpiece, Shaft was significant for its cultural impact; especially given its context in the years following the civil rights movement, the formation of the Black Panther Party, and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The movie was a story of empowerment, defiance, sheer bravado, and a fresh brand of in-your-face humor that probably rocked the socks offa’ the 70’s.

Secondly, it was the music. Who could ignore that iconic, fresh and funky, groovalicious soundtrack by Isaac Hayes? Right from the beginning, Shaft takes place inside an edgy, big city, big risk soundscape which went on to win tremendous critical acclaim. These two factors alone would have been enough to make Shaft the important cultural achievement it truly is.

The story takes the viewer through the smog filled, dodgy streets of New York City as the slick and suave John Shaft, a black detective, makes his way through the dark alleyways and seedy hotels to rescue the kidnapped daughter of Bumpy, another funnily named Gangster that seems to be a pretty big deal in the Big Apple (where DO these guys get their names anyway?). Shaft, a quick witted, street smart, chick magnet detective, takes on the Italian Mafioso to, guess what; RESCUE the girl in the end! No big surprise there. The story itself isn’t very complicated, but the style and approach that Shaft pulls off the task with is what was truly revolutionary about this movie. Not only does it have a black man doing what is usually expected to be pulled off by a white, no nonsense, straight talking cop in a time of cinema that was completely saturated by white Hollywood; he does it with a fresh new, radical take on law enforcement. The movie has several references to the civil rights movement, beginning with Shaft’s “movement” buddy Ben Buford, and ending in a pretty violent scene that also includes a high pressure hose; a clear allusion to the police brutality that blacks endured not so long ago before the making of the movie. The film also has Sharp stepping into pretty sensitive territory with a pretty raunchy scene with a white girl he picks up at the bar as a kind of reward for unabashedly slamming a mafia goon’s head with a big bottle of whiskey. Interracial sex aside, you’ve got to admit that smashing bottles over the heads of villains is a pretty timeless strategy of attack.

The film was a pathbreaking creation that led the way for a boom in African American cinema. Besides, Shaft’s cultural influence went onto inspire filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and managed to penetrate the white dominated movie business, with temporary, but memorable success. It was too bad that the whole blaxploitation genre was to soon run aground thanks to a proliferation of outrageously silly films like Blacula (Yes. A black Dracula), but Shaft was remembered above most of the other movies that came following its success. It was a film that empowered the masses of African Americans at the time, and still continues to be that same empowering force to this day.

And no. Martin Lawrence and his stupid fat suits don’t empower anyone.

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