“25th Hour” (2002) dir. Spike Lee / scr. David Benioff

One of the best films of the 2000s, one of director Spike Lee’s best films, and one that is … sadly … almost completely forgotten these days, “25th Hour” is a tremendously powerful drama about the last day of freedom for a drug dealer, played by Edward Norton, before going to prison for 7 years.  Based on David Benioff’s novel (who also wrote the screenplay), “25th Hour” is an incredibly complex look at family, friendship, morals, the legal system, and culture … specifically a post-9/11 New York City. The performances by Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin are all extraordinary and Oscar-worthy.  The editing is superb, the script is intense, and the ominous music composed by Terrence Blanchard is one of the finest scores I’ve ever heard for a dramatic film.

Despite how great this movie is, I can understand why it’s not that popular.  Despite many moments of dark humor, it’s an extremely troubling and depressing film.  Because it’s about guilt … it’s about regret … its about that feeling where you wish life had a rewind button for actions or inactions.   But this is truly an amazing film and worthy of your attention.

Probably the best scene in the film is when Norton’s character delivers an angry, beyond politically incorrect 5-minute diatribe about every social, ethnic, and economic groups in New York City.  It was part of the original novel, and ironically, Benioff said it was inspired by a similar rant from Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”  However, when he wrote the original draft of the script, he sheepishly left it out because he was afraid of what Lee would say.  However, Lee loved it and insisted it be put back in.  The rant may be considered highly offensive, but you must watch it until the end when Norton’s character turns the anger back on himself and realizes he’s the one responsible for his fate.  Again, powerful stuff.

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“A Huey P. Newton Story” dir. Spike Lee (2001)

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This is an amazing one-man show by Roger Guenveur Smith called “A Huey P. Newton Story.” Smith is someone you’ll probably recognize from many films over the past 25 years (especially in several Spike Lee films), but nothing will prepare you for his performance as Huey P. Newton delivering a monologue about his life. This was directed by Spike Lee for the Starz cable channel back in 2001, but has since slipped into obscurity, which is a real shame. Regardless of how you may or may not feel about Newton historically, this is one of the most ferocious and electrifying performances you’ll ever witness.

“Want You to Know” – The Rotary Connection

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The Rotary Connection were a psychedelic soul band from the late 1960s / early 1970s that recorded for Chess Records. Their most famous member was Minnie Ripperton, who later had a huge solo hit with the song “Loving You” in the 1970s. Ripperton was also the mother of the beyond awesome actress / comedienne Maya Rudolph and you can definitely hear Ripperton in the background of this song. How did I uncover this gem? This played at the end of Spike Lee’s severely underrated and controversial 2012 film “Red Hook Summer.” The song sounds a little awkward at first, but seriously, you need to stay with it. A totally amazing song that demands rediscovering.

“Jungle Fever” (1991) dir. Spike Lee

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Many people would argue that Samuel L. Jackson’s turn in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” was his breakout role. I would argue it came 3 years earlier in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” playing Wesley Snipe’s crackhead brother Gator. Jackson’s performance was BEYOND f–king intense and earned an unprecedented Best Supporting Actor nod at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. “Jungle Fever” is flawed (Spike Lee’s subsequent films “Malcolm X, “Get on the Bus,” “Summer of Sam,” “Bamboozled,” and “The 25th Hour” are arguably much better), but it has a lot of terrific virtues. This scene never fails to put a chill up my spine.

“White Lines” – Grandmaster Melle Mel

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Probably my favorite song from the early days of hip-hop, “White Lines” by Grandmaster Melle Mel was originally written as an ironic commentary on cocaine-fueled party lifestyles, but later added the “Don’t do it!” line throughout so radio programmers wouldn’t can it for being pro-drug. Though, Melle Mel can’t help but add an additional “Don’t” before “Don’t do it” to add further irony.  And, to push the irony further, Melle Mel advises you shouldn’t do it because so many people are doing cocaine, he finds it difficult to buy now.

The accompanying video was directed by then-NYU film student Spike Lee. It’s not particularly remarkable, but it’s kind of cool to see an early work by a now stellar director. Laurence Fishburne plays the drug dealer in the video. Be warned, the picture quality really stinks.

The famous bassline was borrowed by post-punk band Liquid Liquid from their song Cavern, also included here.

“Bamboozled” (2001) dir. Spike Lee

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Arguably,”Bamboozled” is Spike Lee’s most underrated film. It didn’t get a lot of critical respect back in 2001, but this is a film that seriously needs another look.

“Bamboozled”‘s lead character is an African-American executive for a television network (played by Damon Wayans) who wants to get out of his contract, but can’t unless he’s fired. To get fired, he decides to come up with the most racist show he can imagine, a new-Millenial minstrel show, with black actors in black face, tap dancing, etc. Unfortunately for Wayans’ character, the network not only loves it, but the public does too. His show becomes the most popular show in the nation and Wayans ignores his ideals, embraces his new fame, and loses his soul.

Lee patterned “Bamboozled” on two stellar and abrasive media satires, Elia Kazan/Budd Schulberg’s 1956 film “A Face in the Crowd” and Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film “Network.” While you can definitely see the influence of both films on “Bamboozled,” “Bamboozled” throws race into the mix. The result is a very uncomfortable and disturbing look at what we, as Americans, have called “entertainment” for over a century … an entertainment that is based on the debasement of a race of people. “Bamboozled” isn’t perfect and it could have been shorter by about 20 minutes or so, but what’s there is still devastating, especially the montage at the end which is a compilation of some of the most horrific examples of racism in film history.

“Bamboozled” in many ways prefigured the Dave Chappelle controversy of 2005, when Chappelle left a $50 million contract with Viacom because he no longer felt comfortable with the material that he was doing on his very popular cable show for Comedy Central.

What’s also intriguing about “Bamboozled” is that it’s one of the few films that seriously analyzes the art of comedy. Being a comedy junkie, I relish any pop culture artifact that takes comedy seriously and examines, sometimes uncomfortably, what makes people laugh and why.

“The Believer” (2001) dir. Henry Bean

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“The Believer” is one of the best (and most controversial) films of the last decade and contains one of the best acting performances I’ve ever seen. Forget what you think you know about Ryan Gosling. Gosling’s performance in “The Believer” is one of the most ferocious acting performances I’ve ever seen.

Based on a true story and brilliantly written and directed by Henry Bean, Gosling stars as Daniel Balint, a rising star in a neo-Nazi skinhead group who has a major problem… Balint is an Orthodox Jew. His hatred … and deep love of his Jewish faith keeps him conflicted throughout the film. As he starts to feel more conflicted, he becomes more dangerous and unstable. There’s not a happy ending.

“The Believer” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, but was condemned by some as anti-Semitic and wound up without a distributor. Showtime bought it, planned on premiering the film September 2001, but then 9/11 happened. Due to Showtime not wanting to show such an incendiary film so close in time to a national tragedy, the film got its appearance on the network delayed by several months.

It’s too bad this film got such short shrift. It’s a truly great, albeit extremely disturbing and upsetting masterpiece. The screenplay was published in book form by Thunders Mouth Press in 2002, with additional essays and thoughts by Bean. If you like the film, you definitely need to hunt the book down with the screenplay. Spike Lee said “Henry Bean is a big talent and ‘The Believer’ is his most courageous and thought-provoking work yet!'”

“A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke (as used in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”)

A brilliant use of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” from Spike Lee’s stellar 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.”  The scene where Cooke’s masterpiece is utilized is a triumph of acting (Denzel Washington), editing (Barry Alexander Brown), cinematography (Ernest Dickerson), and direction (Lee). Considering what Malcolm was up against at this point in his life, the scene really conveys the sense of a man who is tired of running and has accepted that death is inevitable for the path he has chosen.  When you also consider this was one of Cooke’s last recordings before his violent death, it’s hard to watch this with a dry eye.

On a side note, Washington seriously got robbed at the 1992 Oscars.  To say that he should have been the winner for Best Actor for “Malcolm X” that year is an understatement.  While I like Al Pacino (and, yes, even like “Scent of a Woman”), Pacino should have gotten the Oscar for “The Godfather” or “Dog Day Afternoon” or even “Glengarry Glen Ross.”  That hammy “Whooo-ah!” nonsense from “Woman” started Pacino down a very, very bad path.

“Baba O’ Reilly” – The Who (from Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam”) 1999

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The bravura montage from one of Spike Lee’s best, and most underrated films “Summer of Sam.”  This is the sequence where Adrien Brody’s character plays his guitar along to the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” juxtaposed with clips of the craziness from his character’s neighborhood, along with the rest of NYC (including the Son of Sam murdering more people), during the summer of 1977.  One of the best films of the 1990s and one that is sadly ignored / forgotten.  Co-written by Michael Imperioli, Christopher Molisanti from “The Sopranos.”  Due to graphic violence and language, not safe for work.