From 1992

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X: Has Anything Really Changed?

Malcolm X. 1992. Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay by Lee & Arnold Perl.
Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee, Theresa Randle, Kate Vernon, Lonette MCKee, Tommy Hollis, James McDaniel, Ernest Thomas, Jean-Claude La Marre, O.L. Duke, & Larry McCoy. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks/Largo International N.V./JCV Entertainment Networks/Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13. 202 minutes.
Biography/Drama/History

★★★★1/2
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Sometimes I’m not a fan of Spike Lee as a public persona, simply because he doesn’t always think before speaking. However, I’m usually a fan of his work as a director. He has a big, wide mind and puts that to work usually tackling issues within the African American community. There are too many of his movies to talk of in an introduction, but suffice to say I do think he is a great director. One of the greatest in his generation, and certainly one of the best African American directors out there, period.
And that’s perhaps why Malcolm X is the film out of his catalogue which resonates most. It isn’t necessarily his greatest. Yet there’s such a poignancy and depth to the work Lee does to portray Malcolm X (played wonderfully by Denzel Washington), not just as a powerful black leader, but also as a human being; one not completely above judgement, one not perfect as some might idealise him. Furthermore, we’re able to get a look at the inside of the Nation of Islam, as far as fiction allows. Many prominent figures in the life of X and circling the NOI, as well as the Civil Rights movement in general, are included, from cameo roles such as Nelson Mandela, Al Sharpton and others, to the portrayals of characters like Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.) and Thomas Hagan (Giancarlo Esposito), among more. The nearly three and a half hour runtime of Malcolm X may seem daunting. If you’re sitting down to watch a film, you’ve really got to be prepared for this one, though it’s beyond worth the effort. For me, the 202 minutes rushes by in a beautifully shot and directed, phenomenally acted story that jams a whole man’s life into one screenplay. Not everything gets covered, and there’s also plenty of story to be told after X’s assassination. Above all else, the character of X comes out, as does his struggle. For some this was a stepping stone to learning more about the Civil Rights movements that began raging during the 1960s and 1970s, and onward. I won’t ever forget my first time seeing this one. It’s a classic that stands the test of time, telling an important, crucial story about America during the early latter half of the 20th century, and examining one of the more turbulent times of race relations in the country’s history. Sadly, some of what happened back then is still much too alive and much too well in American society, and if X were still alive he’d likely still be as fiery and determined as ever.
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The best aspect of Malcolm X is the fact Lee doesn’t attempt to make him above reproach. As a person, X was not perfect. Nobody is, so Lee never tries to make him out to be anything else. Some worried that he would include X’s life before he converted to Islam, and that’s exactly part of what makes this story interesting and intriguing. There’s no sense in ignoring that part of his existence. X himself never did ignore it, he always kept himself open and honest and raw. That’s a huge part of why many did, and still do(/always will), admire him. He was not like most other leaders. He didn’t admit every one of his faults – again, he is only human. But on the whole, he never shied away from his once criminal past, as that in a way led him to where he went after and helped him attain the enlightenment of Islam.
One of my favourite moments happens between Malcolm X’s speeches. A young white woman approaches him, admiring his work, and wondering what a white person without prejudice might do to help further his cause: “Nothing,” he says smiling before walking on. This is such a brief, powerful moment. I’m reminded of watching a recent documentary about the KKK, where they also spotlighted the Black Lives Matter movement and the shooting in Charleston; one scene shows a white woman, with a mixed race child, trying to march in solidarity, who’s told by a black woman to go home – she does in fact leave after, though the black lady gives her a hug and seemingly explains this is just not the time or place for her presence. There’s a stand-off element to X and his feelings for white people. Again, that changed once he went to Mecca on his Hajj, and then essentially transformed into a full blown humanitarian. Yet Lee never strays away from that inflammatory perspective X held towards white American society, and makes clear it’s simply about black people gaining back their power, or retaining what they have, not so much about hating white people. So in that scene where X shrugs the white woman off, it represents the idea that white people may want to help, but black people don’t need their help. They sometimes just need white people to stand back, let them do their thing and settle the issues on their own. That’s not always the case. Particularly in the time of X, there were tough things happening (not that there still aren’t in this day and age), so this was a stance he felt black society needed to take in those times of near racial war. Not long after X, once Elijah Muhammad was out of his life, he made clear the black community had to unite first, then they could work more on white-black relations. That scene with the white girl epitomises this concept.
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I love the inclusion of the conk hairstyle at the beginning with Malcolm and his buddy Shorty. Not simply because African American culture at the time saw a lot of young black men styling their hair that way. What’s most interesting is that Malcolm X later spoke about conk and its double edged sword-like effect on the black community. On the one hand, conk – because of its threat of chemical burns and scarring, hair loss, et cetera – was seen as a ritual of manhood, going from a boy to a grown adult. On the other hand, he and other African American scholars came to see conk also as a way of erasing oneself in order to become more white. This latter idea is presented in the screenplay after the conk is put in, washed out, then Malcolm admires his new hair in the mirror and says to the men in the barbershop: “Looks white, dont it?” The whole concept of the conk plays into how we see Malcolm ultimately reject everything white. And yes, he said incredibly inflammatory things about white people. But things can change, people can. He didn’t turn into who he was later because of a hate for white people. Effectively, he hated injustice. The white man, the white culture, the white HAIR, it all comes down to representing the white world that he lived in and found himself subject to at every turn, on a daily, minute-to-minute basis. So the conk is simply one element of the white superstructure that Malcolm came to reject. A great inclusion on Lee’s part to show that. It could’ve been a basic scene that shows us where he came from, his beginnings. Instead the scene represents a microcosm of that influence white culture had (/still has) on black people that are brainwashed into feeling as if ‘white is right’ or any of that other sadness. Later when Malcolm is in jail, the conk becomes a sticking point when he’s confronted by an inmate who tries to help him, out of the life of a gangster and moving towards something better, which is the Nation of Islam; a huge influence in his life during prison, as well as afterwards. It may seem a superficial, brief moment in the 202 minute runtime of this epic biography. And it’s a drop in the pond, really. Although, it is highly significant to the overall themes surrounding the film and X himself as a Civil Rights leader.
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This is one of the best movies of the 1990s, certainly one of Spike Lee’s best, too. Malcolm X is a dissection of a cult of personality. It is a film that attempts to get to the core of what X and his struggle represented. Without all the denial some insist on upholding in regards to X’s personal history, who he was, who he became. The movie is not totally perfect, though it is perfect where it counts. Likewise, Lee concentrates on not inflating X as a leader. Rather he takes an inclusive look at the man, not ignoring the good and the bad alike. He dives into the an era where things were different, and somehow not enough has changed as of this writing in 2016. Watching this movie again now, 24 years after its release and concerning a subject decades older, it’s almost sad to watch and think how hard X would roll over in his grave were he able to witness some of the scary racist madness that’s still going on in the streets of America. Love this movie, love Denzel, and Spike is near his best here. A positively entertaining piece of biography, history, all combining to make a well executed film in every respect.

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Raising Cain: There’s Better De Palma and There’s Worse

Raising Cain. 1992. Directed & Written by Brian De Palma.
Starring John Lithgow, Lolita Davidovich, Steven Bauer, Frances Sternhagen, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris, Teri Austin, & Gabrielle Carteris. Pacific Western.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★
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Brian De Palma is one of those classic directors of his generation, leaving his mark indelibly on the psychothriller, often imitating his greatest influence Alfred Hitchcock, though never in a way that rips off the master. Instead he is keen on homage, and uses the influence as an element incorporated into his overall style as a director and writer. He’s honestly not one of my personal top favourites. He is undeniably great, all the same. I do love CarrieSistersCarlito’s WayMission: Impossible, but don’t care for some of his more lauded works such as the cult phenomenon Scarface and The Untouchables, other than bits and pieces; they’re good movies, just not fantastic as others claim. I prefer the stuff like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out.
Raising Cain is a nice heady mix of psychological horror, mystery, and all folded into a thriller structure. While this is another film that doesn’t go on my top De Palma, it is fun. Almost in a seedy way. He’s tread through the sleazy, sexy-styled thriller before and isn’t a stranger to that territory. Here, it doesn’t feel as Hitchcockian. Instead the plot comes off more trashy than anything and not in a way that’s beneficial, in say the sense of a grindhouse picture or something purposefully attempting to feel like that. De Palma tries to make another solid thriller that twists and turns, but instead of doing much twisting or turning he opts for a load of nasty business, some steamy bits. Ultimately, the screenplay gets lost in its own convoluted attempts at becoming greater. I wanted to love this and only came out lukewarm even about its best bits.
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There’s no doubt John Lithgow is a wildly underrated character actor. Although he knocked the role out of the park, 3rd Rock from the Sun never did him any good, or justice. He’s been in plenty of movies since, but I can’t help feel that series put a damper on his career at a later stage, whereas someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt was young enough to shake it off. And that’s sad. Lithgow is at his best here, taking on a Peter Sellers-like task of multiple roles. Except these are twisted, each more sinister and unsettling than the last. All juxtaposed with the main character, Carter Nix, whose nice and friendly qualities are what you’d imagine Lithgow is probably like in real life. He does well portraying the Multiple Personality Disorder at the heart of the main character. There’s a genuine disconnect between the different perspectives, the different looks and their ways of speaking, and so instead of feeling like he’s just hopping from costume to costume, Lithgow legitimately gives us separate, distinct personalities. Right down to the voices and their idiosyncrasies. All the marks of a classic performance.
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This brings me to a point I don’t exactly enjoy about the screenplay. The whole Multiple Personality Disorder angle is fine, no problem. What boggles my mind is why there’s so much going on. There’s already a large split in the main personality of Carter, so what I’m not sure of is why De Palma insisted on involving such an intricate plot of Jenny Nix (Lolita Davidovich) cheating? Why does that have to be shuffled in there? Only clogs things up. It’s enough to have his wife suspicious of him and his complete obsession with the mental development of their daughter. A little too much to throw in a whole angle with infidelity, especially considering the movie’s only 91 minutes. Not that it’s badly written. Poorly, yes, but not bad. There’s simply too much going on for De Palma to properly juggle.
Partly it’s the end that makes me feel as if, in this film, De Palma goes too hard into his Hitchcock influence. With the whole female personality of Carter, a.k.a Margo, there’s almost too much Norman Bates lurking; in turn, we could say he’s riffing on Robert Bloch, as well. The timing of having this part of the personality come out feels too much like the climactic chills of Psycho for it to be any bit genius in its own right.
There are some real excellent scenes. Such as the simple yet effectively fun tracking shot following Lieutenant Terri (Gregg Henry), Sergeant Cally (Tom Bower) and Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) – not only is it beautiful, the Waldheim character is strong, as well as funny in the way she walks on talking, not paying attention where they’re going, only to be lead around forcefully by the lawmen while they trail behind listening. That’s just unbelievably good writing, and without being a major part of the plot or anything of the sort it adds a big boost to the movie. These are the portions in which De Palma’s talent shines. He doesn’t just write weaving plots, he’s capable of doing good things both big and small.
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Raising Cain has all the potential to be endlessly interesting. There’s no shortage of thrill, even a chill or two from time to time. John Lithgow is perfect in his multiple roles, bringing to light Multiple Personality Disorder in fine psychological horror fashion. This is a wild, sleaze-filled ride straight off the top until the last frame. Brian De Palma can and has done better as writer-director. His abilities as a next generation Hitchcock are usually on display. This movie tries to aim for that sort of feel, but falls short. I wanted so badly for this to break free of its chains. Unfortunately, De Palma tries doing too much at once. Instead of sticking to something more basic while serving better the thriller aspects of the Multiple Personality Disorder, he goes wide and throws in a kind of Hitchcock-type plot to make things move quickly. I can’t help thinking this would have been better served as a slower burning plot, one without the infidelity of the wife and focused solely on Carter. It doesn’t need so many bells and whistles. It was good enough on its own. Luckily for all Lithgow makes this enjoyable, keeping each eye glued until the underwhelming finale that’s both too similar to a classic of the horror genre and also slightly too predictable for its own good.

Batman Returns with Burton’s Gothic Style

Batman Returns. 1992. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Daniel Waters from a story by Waters & Sam Hamm.
Starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Michael Murphy, Cristi Conaway, Andrew Bryniarski, Pat Hingle, Vincent Schiavelli, Steve Witting, and Jan Hooks.
Warner Bros./PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.
PG-13. 126 minutes.
Action/Adventure

★★★★★
102114_BatmanReturns_PosterA huge fan of Batman now for about twenty five years, I only recently reviewed Tim Burton’s 1989 film; a favourite of mine. While there’s definitely even more of a cartoon-ish vibe with Batman Returns I almost can’t decide which one is my favourite. So many want to say Batman is better, however, this one combines even more of what I loved about the first one: the darkness and the campy nature of the comic books and graphic novels. With this film there’s not only a deepening of the visuals in terms of those aspects, Burton’s sequel to his own film also goes a little deeper into character than the first.
The character of the Joker is fundamentally supposed to be a bit of a mystery, so even the fact we saw Jack Nicholson as Napier before his transformation was more than you might anticipate. With Selina Kyle and Oswald Cobblepot in this film, there’s a lot of chances for Burton to dive into their characters alongside more and more Bruce Wayne. More than this, I find the look and feel of the movie makes things so much creepier than the first. There are plenty who would say creepy is not something Batman ought to be as a film, yet I say different. There’s lots of adventure, plenty of thrill and superhero fun, but Batman and many of the characters – especially those included here – are most certainly at least a bit scary. They aren’t as outright megalomaniac-like, except for the Joker and even he has an inordinate amount of darkness in him as a character. Batman Returns brings the cartoon comic nature of Batman and the villains to the world of film, and at the very same time excels by including so much of the darkness and violence you’ll likely not see in another comic book ever again (except for maybe the violence I anticipate will have found its way into Deadpool; hopefully at least).
Either way, I don’t feel this sequel gets enough credit, nor does Burton in general for making such wonderful adaptations of Batman. This is possibly my favourite of them all, though, I still can’t make a definitive decision whether or not I’m more a fan of this or the previous movie. Too much great stuff in them both, yet I’m always leaning towards this one for whatever reason. We’ll see if maybe I get to the bottom of it.
Batman_Returns_-_BatarangTo start, I love the look of the movie, from costumes to the makeup and special effects, to the scenes themselves. The cinematography in this film is courtesy of Stefan Czapsky, whose work includes Vampire’s Kiss, Director of Photography on Errol Morris’ incredibly documentary The Thin Blue Line, as well as D.P on the odd and wonderful Edward ScissorhandsA Brief History of TimeEd Wood (another Burton film I dig a ton), Matilda, and more. Czapsky also worked as gaffer and assistant camera on a bunch of awesome movies like Larry Cohen’s God Told Me ToQHe Knows You’re Alone, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and At Close Range among others.
He really does some good work here as D.P. Lots of interesting shots he captures, which really express the Tim Burton style. I imagine after working on Edward Scissorhands a couple years before with Burton they had a feel for one another, their style and methods, so much of that I feel comes out in this film. Throughout the movie, mostly due to the fact the setting happens around/on Christmas, Burton and Czapsky conjure up this incredibly dark carnival sort of atmosphere, and the tone stays pitch dark from start to finish.
Honestly, my pick for top shot of the film is right at the beginning where we get to watch little baby Oswald wash down the river in his basket, down into the sewers where he’ll remain for 33 years; it’s a great sequence following behind the basket, watching it float on through the water. So creepy and immediately makes us aware how grim this film aims to be from the outset.
Moreover, I think Burton and Czapsky draw out so much animal imagery throughout the movie. From penguins to cats to bats, there are a bunch of different moments where the animals show up in interesting ways. Great stuff, even if it may seem heavy handed. I thought Burton did good work in those terms, too.
5-things-you-might-not-know-about-tim-burton-batman-returns-20th-anniversaryThere’s something in this movie I love even more than the first: score. Fact is, even though I do love the sequence in the museum from Batman set to the Prince song “Partyman”, there’s a little too much of it all the same. Here, in Batman Returns, I think Danny Elfman has more of a chance to branch out, as opposed to the first. Studio involvement made the first a mix, with Prince and Elfman ending up both thrown around in the movie. This time around, though there were apparently troubles in the relationship between Burton & Elfman, I think the score is absolutely fantastic! Each character has their own theme, an aesthetic all to their own, and much of that comes from Elfman’s pieces. Like the bits with the cats and Selina, as they lick and bite her (et cetera), there’s neat idiosyncrasies happening in the score with violin strings scraping and screeching, and more. Elfman has a style all of his own, which really compliments much of Burton and his own aesthetic.
batman-returns-selinas-resurrectiondda12d1eebf83736f78a5b8e0a216f15One particular favourite scene of mine is when Selina (Pfeiffer) returns home after being thrown from the window by Shreck (Walken), and somehow surviving. There’s a creepiness and black humour to the whole sequence, alternating back and forth. The way Selina stumbles home, bleeding a little, her entire skin tone has changed to an almost milky white, it’s super weird in all the right ways.
This is another aspect I love even above the 1989 film. In this story, there’s even more violence and a further edge. While Nicholson’s Joker had some highly disturbing aspects to his character (think: Alicia the living & disfigured art installation), I can’t help but think of so many moments in this sequel pushing those boundaries.
Such as the nose biting scene. Of course there’s a darkly comedic feel to that scene, as well as what follows. But the actual visuals are nasty as hell. Penguin (DeVito) has enough black crap trickling out of his mouth as it is, then when he bites the poor unsuspecting Josh (Steve Witting) it is so vibrant, the gushing red from the nose all over the victim’s face, running down Penguin’s chin; such vivid violence while also it stays, at the same time, almost like a cartoon. It’s that fine line Burton manages to tread in so many of his films I find interesting when it comes to his take on Batman.
Burton-Batman-still-4I know most people will say I’m reaching way too far on this aspect, but here goes..
Batman Returns brings out an incredible aspect of the story between Batman and the Penguin (at least in his current form out of this screenplay). These are each two orphaned children, though, for very different reasons. It shows the difference some times between a hero and villain, that edge where one person falls over while the other person somehow manages to cling on tight. Penguin is the type who fell completely over, letting the darkness take him fully; Batman, while in the dark and very much gripped by it, has managed to hold onto the edge and not let go, refusing to even. While so many people focus on the parallel between Batman and Joker, a recurring plot and thematic device constantly used over and over in the films as well as the literature, I think this screenplay and the way Burton brings things to life really show a strong duality between Bruce Wayne and Oswald Cobblepot.
There’s a ton of further duality happening between Bruce Wayne/Batman and Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Most powerfully is the big costume party, or masquerade; you’ll obviously notice they’re the only ones not masked. Clearly you can tell these are two people more comfortable in their superhero personas, in their own costumes, than in their own skin – out in the open at a masquerade? More like their real face and their actual skin is their costume. Selina is truly Catwoman, deep down, as is Bruce actually Batman underneath it all. While I find the parallels between Bruce and Oswald most interesting, and furthest explored, it’s worth noting this excellent parallel between Bruce and Selina, as well. These are the little nuances of the script which take this above simply being a Batman vs. two villains film, as some see it. An appropriate sequel to the first, there’s even more character explored here than before with Nicholson’s knockout performance as the Joker. Not to mention the fact both DeVito and Pfeiffer are perfect in their roles. No one else could have done these roles justice like the two of these actors. Each are creepy and unnerving in their own right, offering plenty of fun and madness to counteract the more calm, calculated performance out of Michael Keaton.
br3There’s more of the weird, loner-style Bruce Wayne here out of Keaton. Even more than the 1989 film. Not to say either performance is better, simply I like how more of Bruce comes out in this screenplay. He’s a little more lonely, a little darker in a sense. Further than that, Bruce has also lost Vicki Vale since the first film and he’s got a broken heart. Already a man with a broken heart, Keaton brings out the vulnerability of Wayne. I’ve got to reiterate, for those who also love the Nolan trilogy like myself, Bale is awesome as Batman for me, I enjoyed him; however, Keaton and the screenplay for the two Burton films really emphasize the sadness of Bruce Wayne, the loneliness inside him, even more than anything in the Nolan films. Wayne is a weird guy, there has always been this quality to him even from the original comics. This is something Keaton brings out plenty, especially with a second chance here in Batman Returns.
Overall, while I gave Batman the same 5-star rating, I’ve got to admit over the years Batman Returns has evolved as my favourite of the lot. Still a huge fan of Nolan’s works as well, there’s simply something inescapably interesting and dark about Tim Burton and his two Batman films which draws me back, over and over. As much as I can watch the Nolan films, even back to back, time and time again, there are moments in Burton’s films which are engrained on my soul. Maybe it’s because they’re the ones I originally grew up with, but I think there’s more to it. Again I say it’s the cross of the perfect elements for Batman: the darkness and the grim side of him/the villains in Gotham, plus there’s the campy and fun nature of the comics and some of the original 1960s series preserved, which amounts to a potent combination.
Batman Returns is a vibrant and Gothic story of Batman/Bruce Wayne, including several villainous entities out of Gotham City, and Tim Burton brings it to life in the most wonderful way imaginable. Check this out if you’ve not seen it, especially if you love Burton and I think the same can be said if you do love the Batman comics in particular. This is great stuff and once more I say truly underrated.