Boasting five motion pictures by director Spike Lee, the aptly titled Spike Lee Joint Collection is an economical remedy for fans of the controversial filmmaker.
Do the Right Thing
Do the Right Thing heralded Spike Lee as a major force in American cinema, and rightly so. Taking place on a scorching hot summer day in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the film chronicles more than a dozen characters in a series of small, but racially charged, conflicts that escalate toward inevitable violence.
The movie's anatomy of a riot was particularly relevant upon its release in 1989, considering how a slew of racially motivated incidents had shaken New York during the late '80s. In Do the Right Thing, a bespectacled youth nicknamed Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) demands that an Italian pizzeria in a predominantly African-American neighborhood put "some black faces" up on the eatery's "Wall of Fame," which showcases photos of famous Italian-Americans. Restaurant owner Sal (Danny Aiello) refuses, spurring Buggin Out to vow a boycott of the joint. The agitated young man finds a kindred spirit in Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), whose huge boom box has already incurred Sal's wrath.
While the film's politics earned it notoriety at the time, it is Do the Right Thing's energy and virtuoso filmmaking that infuse it with real staying power. The electrifying opening credits announce a movie as risky as it is audacious; actress Rosie Perez (who appears later in the movie) stands in front of an obviously fake row of tenement buildings, gyrating feverishly to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." The motion picture that follows is equally brash. Helmed by cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, the camera sweeps in from tree-lined streets to capture these Bed-Stuy characters inching toward tragedy.
The ensemble cast boasts some top-notch performances, particularly from Esposito, Aiello, John Turturro (who would become a Spike Lee regular) and Ossie Davis as the courtly neighborhood drunk. The only sour note is the interaction between Davis and Ruby Dee, who portrays an elderly woman called Mother Sister. Both actors are true pros, but their scenes together are plain corny and undermined by Bill Lee's score.
What remains interesting -- and infuriating -- about Do the Right Thing nearly 20 years later is its almost obstinate moral ambivalence. Like 2005's Crash, Lee's movie revolves on the conceit that we all harbor prejudices. Unlike Crash, however, Lee seems to accept such bigotry with a nihilistic shrug. Bad things happen to sympathetic characters, with some of those bad things being perpetrated by otherwise good people. The ambiguity of Do the Right Thing is encapsulated by Smiley (Roger Gwenveur Smith), a retarded man who hawks photos on the street of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Just as Smiley's pictures illustrate the opposing philosophies of achieving civil rights, Do the Right Thing embraces both nonviolence and violence simultaneously.
Mo' Better Blues
Lee's knack for knockout visuals has long dwarfed his competence at storytelling. Mo' Better Blues, his 1990 follow-up to
Do the Right Thing, belies that style-over-substance approach and is easily the weakest film in this five-film collection.
Oddly, the film's cinematic sumptuousness mainly serves to point out the lack of a coherent, or even interesting, plot. Such are the pitfalls of a character-driven drama that doesn't provide much in the way of characterization. Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) is a talented, albeit self-absorbed, jazz trumpeter who likes women and is a loyal friend. That's about it. Washington deserves credit for wringing what audience sympathy he can for a character who is essentially a misogynistic egotist.
Perhaps Lee had exhausted himself after the heated topicality of Do the Right Thing. Whatever the reason, not a great deal actually happens here. Bleek has his share of headaches from his one-dimensional girlfriends (nice Joie Lee and temptress Cynda Williams), an ambitious saxophonist (Wesley Snipes), a gambling-addicted manager (Spike Lee) and penny-pinching nightclub owners, Mo and Josh Flatbush (brothers John and Nicholas Turturro in cartoonish depictions of Jewish businessmen), but the makings of dramatic conflict are ultimately untapped by film's end.
Two stories exist within 1991's Jungle Fever. The foremost one concerns an interracial affair, while the secondary movie reveals the poisonous effects of crack cocaine on the African-American community. Both tales have a harrowing power to them -- but both would have been better served without the clumsy interweaving in this fascinating, if flawed, motion picture.
Wesley Snipes stars as Flipper, an upscale African-American architect who appears to have it all: a beautiful wife, precocious daughter and good job. Alas, he quickly hops into an affair with Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), an Italian-American office temp from the blue-collar environs of Bensonhurst. Flipper's pal (played by Spike Lee) attributes the relationship to "jungle fever," since, in Lee's universe, no human action -- not even sex -- is free of racial shadings.
As with most of Lee's works, moments of overblown sermonizing and genuine insight collide into one another like bumper cars. This is gutsy material, to be sure, but Jungle Fever takes considerable dramatic license. With the possible exception of John Turturro as Angie's meek boyfriend, we are shown a New York City of epochal bigotry, a bile-spewing place that makes Paul Haggis' Crash look mild by comparison. From the black-hating lunkheads in Bensonhurst to an African-American waitress (a then-unknown Queen Latifah) who rips into Flipper for dining with a white woman, Jungle Fever strives to depict the extremes of human behavior, and, in so doing, stretches itself thin on credibility.
Moreover, Lee is inconsistent in subverting stereotypes. On one hand, he earns kudos for presenting an educated, affluent African-American couple that too often goes unseen in American cinema (Flipper subscribes to The New York Times, while the film's knuckleheaded whites prefer the Daily News and New York Post). But the director is less enlightened with his other characters. Jungle Fever's portrayal of Italian-Americans is over-the-top. Even Angie is woefully underdeveloped; she could just as well be wearing a sandwich sign reading "White Italian." Flipper's bosses (Tim Robbins and Brad Douriff) are clichés of uptight white guys, complete with suspenders and oversized glasses; they are the WASP version of Mo' Better Blues' Flatbush brothers.
As for the secondary story, the one about the rot of crack? That subplot involves Flipper's older brother (Samuel L. Jackson), who is a crackhead. One memorable scene has Flipper searching for his brother in a cavernous crack house dubbed the Taj Mahal. It is powerful stuff, but Lee strains to link it to the story at hand. Could Lee be insinuating that crack, like interracial relationships, is corrupting black culture? Surely not.
Thomas Wolfe famously wrote that you can't go home again, but you wouldn't know it by the venerable tradition of filmmakers who do just that, commemorating their childhoods in motion pictures dripping with nostalgia. After the ambitious Malcolm X in 1992, Spike Lee turned to more wistful material and in 1994 figuratively returned home with Crooklyn, an ambling slice of life about growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1970s.
The film is an obvious labor of love for the director, who wrote the screenplay with sister Joi Lee and brother Cinqué Lee. Episodic and with only the barest of plotlines, Crooklyn details the adventures of Troy (Zelda Harris), a 9-year-old girl in the Carmichael family, a clan consisting of a hot-tempered mother (Alfre Woodard), a struggling musician father (Delroy Lindo) and four raucous boys.
As a product of the early '70s, this reviewer will confess to being an easy sucker for any movie filled with kids singing along to "The Partridge Family," playing Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots on the front stoop of their home or indulging in a lazy summer day of Strat-O-Matic baseball. Crooklyn conjures up all that and more, an engaging trip down memory lane (you don't need to be from Brooklyn to relate) with an outstanding soundtrack featuring the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, the Jackson 5, Jean Knight, the Chamber Brothers, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and more.
Dramatically, it is a mixed bag. While the movie spills over with affection for the craziness of childhood, Lee's sense of narrative often substitutes screaming for conflict. In Spike Lee movies, people have serious anger-management issues. It can be shrill-going.
Even so, Crooklyn is a fine effort. If nothing else, Lee is an adventurous filmmaker, unafraid to bombard his audience with dozens of ideas to see what might stick. Case in point is when Troy spends part of her summer with wealthy relatives in Virginia. Mirroring the girl's unease in this alien environment, Lee shoots the lengthy sequence in such a manner as to convey a compressed, distorted feel.
You might think your DVD player is suddenly on the fritz, but fear not -- it's just a misfire from a director who nevertheless deserves credit for attempting such innovation.
The most successful film in this set, Clockers is a gritty, often brutal portrait of poverty and street gangs, a world in which drug-related shootings are commonplace and bloodshed is too often dismissed by cops as "stains on the sidewalk." While very much a Spike Lee flick, Clockers benefits mightily from Richard Price, who co-scripted the movie (along with Lee) and wrote the 1992 novel on which it is based.
The movie tells the story of Ronald "Strike" Dunham (Mekhi Phifer in his big-screen debut), an ulcer-plagued crack dealer, or "clocker," who sells drugs at an inner-city housing project. At the directive of his vicious crime boss, Rodney (Delroy Lindo), Strike is told to "take care of" a hoodlum who owes Rodney money. That same hood winds up dead from four gunshots, and shortly thereafter Strike's older brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), confesses to the slaying.
Victor insists he shot the man in self-defense, but his story doesn't jibe with seasoned homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel). After all, Victor is a model citizen, a committed family man who works two jobs and is praised by his employers for his honesty and integrity. As Rocco probes deeper into the case, he becomes more convinced that Victor is taking the rap for Strike.
Lee eschews his typical preachiness and cinematic pyrotechnics (for the most part, anyway) in favor of more bare-boned storytelling. He is helped ably by a layered and complex screenplay of well-drawn characterizations. "You are selling your people death!" the mother of one child tells Strike, but Clockers primarily conveys such truths by letting its particular story unfold. At the movie's core is pressure – the multitude of pressures, both positive and negative, bearing down on Strike, a gangbanger who is still very much a kid (witness his predilection for chocolate milk and model trains).
The Spike Lee Joint Collection is a three-disc set. Clockers and Jungle Fever are on opposite sides of Disc 1, Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues are on opposite sides of Disc 2 and Crooklyn is on Disc 3. The collection is handsomely packaged in a fold-out, three-disc keepcase with a plastic slipcover.
Do the Right Thing
Its anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 is a terrific transfer that does justice to Ernest Dickerson's vivid cinematography. The colors are brilliant and the images sharp, although there is a hint of dirt visible in at least one scene.
Mo' Better Blues
Dickerson's dazzling cinematography is well-served by the anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1. The picture is rich and vibrant. A hint of graininess is visible in a few darkly lit scenes that feature high contrast, but this is quibbling, really: The transfer is first-rate.
The anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 is attractive, with well-timed colors and inky blacks. A solid transfer.
Another anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 presentation, Crooklyn's visual scheme is rich and colorful, shaded in yellowish and reddish hues.
Its anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 is meticulous, but Malik Hassan Sayeed's cinematography lacks the grandiosity of Lee's previous works. Scenes of graininess and startling light/dark contrast are by design.
Do the Right Thing
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is solid and clear, although it does not take advantage of the potential for truly creative surround sound. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Mo' Better Blues
Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is clear and rich. While the jazz-inflected soundtrack and various nightclub scenes could have benefited from an upgraded audio, the track still gets the job done. The score by Bill Lee (the director's father) is occasionally maudlin, but still mighty impressive. Foreign-language speaking viewers should note that only English subtitles are available.
Although heavy in dialogue, the Dolby Digital 2.0 is sharp and effectively showcases a versatile Stevie Wonder soundtrack. The crack house scene in particular gets a boost by its accompaniment of Wonder's "Living for the City." Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French.
As one of only two movies here outfitted with 5.1 Dolby Digital, it is disappointing to find that portions of the overlapping dialogue are not adequately separated, occasionally resulting in muffled audio. Generally, however, the audio is fully serviceable and spotlights a great music soundtrack. Spanish subtitles are available.
Occasionally muffled sound is the only weak spot in an otherwise excellent 5.1 Dolby Digital track.
Sadly, there are no extras in the set. Zilch. Nada. Hey, there's a reason it includes five flicks for $26.98.
Spike Lee fans would be hard-pressed to find a better bargain. While the absence of extras is a definite pisser -- no way around it -- the fact remains that The Spike Lee Joint Collection is worth the purchase for two great films and two good films (I'll leave it to you to determine the odd man out).