Category Archives: ★★★★

Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

Crooklyn is a series of memories. They’re mostly the main character’s memories—and if they’re not, they’re definitely from her perception. The memories start in the spring and go through the summer. Director Lee and his cowriters—and siblings (Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical) Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee frequently change the pace of the memories. Some are long scenes with a lot of action, some are shorter transitional scenes, memorable for their placement in the narrative and their location. The Lee siblings are very comfortable with the film’s narrative distance and changing it; they nimbly move between characters during the first half or so then turn around and slow down to focus on the protagonist. When they speed up again, there’s still the same tighter focus, but a lot more going on and at a different pace.

Zelda Harris is the protagonist. She’s nine years old; the only daughter of schoolteacher Alfre Woodward and successful working musician but not successful composer Delroy Lindo. She has four brothers. Carlton Williams plays the oldest, presumably Spike. He’s a jerk. He also gets the most material to do because he’s the oldest and he and Harris have a whole character arc going on through the movie but it’s one of the quietest subplots, because there’s not much room for laughs. Because Crooklyn has a lot of laughs. Woodward’s intense and the kids are stinkers. And Lindo not really being any help is one of the louder subplots. The masculinity isn’t terribly toxic, but it’s far from good. It leads to some big fights and tense discussions between Woodward and Lindo, which feature some phenomenal acting from the pair. Harris usually gets involved too, since her brothers are too busy being boys. The brothers being boys often contributes to a lot of the humor, which the script never uses to alleviate the drama. The two can coexist, but ones not a solution for the other.

As the film goes on—it starts towards the end of a school year, with Harris dreading the possibility of leaving Brooklyn to visit Southern relations over the summer. There are no scenes at the school. The film either takes place on the block, in the house, or down South. Until the third act, anyway. Third act is a completely different—appropriately—story for locations. But as the film goes on, the Lees take their time establishing the ground situation, establishing the characters, establishing the relationships. Exposition dumps are rare, usually only when they need to give context for an earlier detail, usually from Woodward, who is very fallible, she’s just not fallible about dumb things. She’s never sainted in the film, but she’s closer than anyone else to being a saint. The script doesn’t shy away from children’s cruelty or stupidity (not even Harris’s). It also is very careful in how it portrays Lindo, who takes the longest to get established. It’s a great script.

When summer finally arrives—in the second half of the film—and Harris goes down South to visit aunt and uncle Frances Foster and Norman Matlock and, more, cousin Patriece Nelson, Harris gets to really run the movie for a while. She gets to experience the strangeness of her relations and the South, but not to be aware of how that experience is going to perturb her character development.

Because she’s nine.

When the summer vacation is over, there’s a different Harris, but there’s also a very different situation waiting for her back at home. The script changes the pacing of the memories. Some events get missed, some events have more weight, and we’re watching Harris exist through them and experience them but have no idea what’s happening to her. Crooklyn isn’t a kids movie per se… but it’s also not not a kids movie. The film’s always from a kid’s eye-level, let’s say, and then it turns out that eye-level just perfectly matches Harris’s. It’s a really great script.

Performances—Harris, Woodward, and Lindo are the whole show. There are some really good supporting performances (Isaiah Washington’s performance as a Vietnam vet deserves its own movie). But it’s all about Harris, Woodward, and Lindo. As for whether Harris has better scenes with Woodward or Lindo on her own… it’s probably Lindo, just because how the character development arc goes. But there are still some fabulous ones between Woodward and Harris. Harris knows Lindo’s not exactly the most responsible adult. So lots of gristle for scenes.

Technically, Crooklyn’s near flawless. Great photography from Arthur Jafa, even better editing from Barry Alexander Brown, which is made even more effective thanks to the awesome Terrence Blanchard score. Wynn Thomas’s production design is awesome too. Especially when Harris goes down South and Lee stretches the screen to show it as otherworldly (distorted and televised). The production design is almost more important during that section, since the audience has to see and understand what Harris is seeing because she might not really understand it.

The stretching is director Lee’s most extreme style choice. He’s got a dream sequence, which fits into the film’s existing stylistic flourishes—Spike Lee appears a neighborhood glue-sniffer and jerk, so he gives himself most of the flash. It fits, given how his stand-in, Williams, treats Harris. Meanwhile, Joie Lee–Harris being her stand-in—shows up as a slightly overbearing aunt. Uncredited. Third screenwriter Cinqué Lee doesn’t cameo.

I haven’t even gotten to the soundtrack, which maybe was produced by Alex Steyermark. The use of seventies songs is exquisite, both in the narrative—as a detail—or as non-diegetic accompaniment of the scenes. It’s awesome.

Crookyln’s awesome. Harris, Woodward, Linda, and Lees Spike, Joie, and Cinqué make something special.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Joie Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee, based on a story by Joie Lee; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Zelda Harris (Troy), Alfre Woodard (Carolyn), Delroy Lindo (Woody), Carlton Williams (Clinton), Sharif Rashed (Wendell), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph), Christopher Knowings (Nate), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes), Patriece Nelson (Viola), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Norman Matlock (Uncle Clem), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), and Joie Lee (Aunt Maxine).


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2046 (2004, Wong Kar-Wai)

2046 is a very strange sequel. Because it’s most definitely a sequel to In the Mood for Love. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung and Lam Siu Ping are playing the same characters, a few years after that film. But the way writer and director Wong deals with the previous film and its events… he intentionally… well, I’m not sure if distorts is the right word, because it works out perfectly, but he delays it. 2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, but it’s also a sequel to itself. The film starts in the mid-1960s with Leung moving home to Hong Kong from Singapore. Well, actually, wait. It starts in 2046, a CGI megalopolis with a train and some narration about riding the train and trying to leave 2046. Like it’s a place.

2046 also has Hong Kong significance—when the British “gave” Hong Kong back to China in 1996, the Chinese said Hong Kong would stay the same way for fifty years. So 2046. Of course, it’s also got a significance to In the Mood for Love. But back to the future for a moment. There’s some love sick guy on the train. He wants to leave 2046. His narration also refers to Love, even though nothing else does.

So all the coincidences collide for Leung—mid-sixties Hong Kong had some significant unrest and Leung spends his time sitting it out, dreaming of the future and writing a serial called… 2046 in a hotel room 2047, which he took because 2046 wasn’t ready yet. Leung brings a litany of nightclub friends with benefits affairs home while musing on the goings on around him at the hotel. Faye Wong is the owner’s older daughter, in love with Japanese guy Kimura Takuya. Her dad (Sum Wang) doesn’t approve. Leung distantly watches the heart attack and incorporates it into his stories, which is good since Kimura plays the story’s protagonist in the future stuff. Leung’s also got to fend off Sum’s younger daughter, Dong Jie, who’s too young.

Because even though Leung is supposed to be a casual sex addict, charming the ladies by night, moping about his previous heartache through his writing, there’s got to be a line. And Wong, director, tests it from time to time. It’s a good narrative hook and only there because we still need to like Leung for later, because later is going to get worse before it gets better. Leung narrates the film–eventually even the future stuff–and it’s a very controlled narration. Wong, writer and director, doesn’t want to show too much. Like Wong, actress, appearing for an almost cameo before disappearing, just like when the film opens on Leung and mystery woman Gong Li to set up the Hong Kong homecoming. Wong, writer, is delaying certain things but for very good reasons, which aren’t clear until the end of the second act.

Because it’s not just Leung’s story; there’s also a second story-in-the-story, which Leung writes for writing partner and lovesick buddy Faye Wong for a while in the middle. It’s got a full narrative arc for future guy Kimura and even future Faye Wong. And that narrative arc is later going to matter for Leung and the film. It’s an exceptionally complicated narrative structure. Wong, writer, fractures the narrative in a lot of major ways, sometimes technically surprising ones (but the surprise isn’t the right reaction because they’re inevitable). But he lays out this always forward layer too. For the viewer, who is watching the events of Leung’s life—with tangents—but seeing Leung’s reaction to those events. Macro-reactions, not micro. So very deliberate plotting.

2046 has more than its share of “why is Wong doing this” head-scratchers, but they’re always the exact right move. Because while Wong, director, is keeping with Leung in the present, experiencing new events, Wong, just writer, needs to move the plot in peculiar directions. The film’s got these multiple, dense narrative tense layers and Wong, writer, needs to move between them sometimes rapidly, sometimes not. Wong, director—and with great editing from William Chang and music from Umebayashi Shigeru—has to figure out a way to trigger these movements stylistically. It’s gorgeously done.

The most drastic of the three big narrative shifts is someone I can’t believe I got 700 words into a post about 2046 and haven’t yet—Zhang Ziyi. She’s Leung’s first significant love interest. Meaning she falls in love with him and he treats her like shit.

Remember when I said it was important to like Leung? It’s when he breaks Zhang’s heart, which isn’t really a spoiler because it’s almost still first act stuff. If you took out the future stuff, it’d be first act stuff. 2046—a sequel—is initially just about Leung’s really sexy love affair with his neighbor, Zhang. During that time period, Zhang gets a lot more to do than Leung. It’s not exactly from her perspective, but Wong, director, makes sure it’s real close.

So, in the second act, 2046 becomes a sequel to 2046’s first act, which was a sequel to In the Mood for Love. Only as things go on, it turns out 2046’s first act is a sequel to the end of the second act flashback, which is a sequel to In the Mood for Love. The more Wong, writer, reveals about Leung, either through the present action, flashback, or the future story stuff… the more the narrative distance changes. Narrative distance in this case also taking into account narrative sympathies; assumed intentions as far as Leung goes. 2046 isn’t a mystery, but Wong does almost structure it as one. Really, I guess, the more appropriate phrase would be a secret. 2046 is a secret and Wong is very careful about how he wants to tell it.

Of the three female leads, the best performance is Zhang. Faye Wong is really, really, really close but Zhang wins out. Then Gong. Gong it’s the role. She doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of time as the other two. Gong’s really is the extended cameo it seemed like Wong was getting. Only Gong’s cameo seemed like a really short one when it opened the movie. Because Wong, writer and director, is so forcefully deliberate.

So good.

Leung’s really good. He’s not as good as Zhang, Wong, or Gong. In a way, it’s not his place in the story. Where he’s protagonist. And everything revolves around him. He shouldn’t be overshadowing in that narrative, at least not the way Wong wants to tell it. It’s a very delicate, precise performance. Lots of nuance. It’s outstanding.

It’s just not as good as any of the lead actresses.

Carina Lau has a nice cameo, Wang has some good moments, Ping is hilarious. Not comic relief hilarious, just momentarily hilarious hilarious.

High nineties majority of the film is inside. Restaurants, the hotel rooms, occasionally cars. Quiet moments between characters either on their own or in crowds. There’s one standout party scene, which opens things up for a while, but the scene’s still focused on Leung. Again, the film is exceptionally precise.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Kwan Pung-Leung. Great production design from editor Chang. Great everything.

2046 movie probably even works better if you haven’t seen In the Mood for Love, which is a singular description—and, in this case, compliment—for a sequel.

But it’s still a very direct, very intentional sequel.

It’s magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Wong Kar-wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Kwan Pung-Leung; edited by William Chang; music by Umebayashi Shigeru; production designer, Chang; released by Block 2 Pictures.

Starring Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Chow Mo-wan), Gong Li (Su Li-zhen), Wong Faye (Wang Jing-wen), Kimura Takuya (Wang Jing-wen’s Boyfriend), Zhang Ziyi (Bai Ling), Carina Lau (Lulu), Dong Jie (Wang Jie-wen), Sum Wang (Mr. Wang), and Lam Siu Ping (Ah Ping).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE ULTIMATE 2000S BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DREW OF DREW'S MOVIE REVIEWS AND KIM OF TRANQUIL DREAMS.


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Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai)

Chungking Express has two parts. First part is lonely young plainclothes cop Kaneshiro Takeshi counting down the days to his birthday, which is also thirty days since his girlfriend of five years dumped him. Simultaneously, sort of middle person drug trafficker Brigitte Lin loses her latest batch of mules (once they’re loaded up with the coke in luggage and person and at the airport, they run off when she’s buying the tickets). If Lin can’t find them, her creep boss (Thom Baker) will have her killed. Director Wong opens the film with stylized slow motion action; Kaneshiro running through the crowded Hong Kong streets after a suspect or something, almost bumping into Lin (who’s in a blonde wig, raincoat, and sunglasses—at night—all movie). Kaneshiro, narrating, explains he’s just come so close to Lin without meeting her and in two days, he’ll be in love with her. So presumably Express is going to be that story. And it is that story. Until it turns out Lin and Kaneshiro’s violent, melancholy romance is just a warm-up. A mood prologue.

The second part is Faye Wong and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Leung is a different cop, a little older, and in uniform. Wong works at the counter-only restaurant where Leung gets his coffee. And where Kaneshiro also gets his coffee. But there’s no crossover. Director Wong really did just do a warm-up. Because even though Kaneshiro is the narrator at the beginning, eventually Lin gets some. And her narration is the best in the film. She’s been a complete mystery—sort of unsympathetic but funny as she bosses her mules around, but still sympathetic because Baker’s clearly got some weird thing going on with her, which she might not even know about. You get to know her from her actions and behavior, not narration like Kaneshiro. When Lin does get the narration and makes a revealing statement or two, they send these shockwaves through the rest of the first story. She doesn’t get much narration and even though Kaneshiro gets a bunch, he becomes secondary. It’s clearly Lin’s story. Even though she never goes to the restaurant so has no crossover with kindly owner Chen Jinquan.

Chen gives romantic advice to Kaneshiro, who spends most of his time in the film at the restaurant waiting for his ex-girlfriend to call him. He has this great subplot about expired pineapple. He’s a complete sad sack and comically naive in his narration. Meanwhile, Lin’s sometimes mercurially merciless. There’s this fantastic contrast between their two stories. Wong has some of the same styles—the slow motion action sequences all work the same—but there’s some other visual distinction. Chungking Express is an exemplar of how narrative distance and style can work together while going at very different speeds. It’s awesome.

If Wong wanted, it could be neo-noir. But instead it’s a deliberate drama with Lin and Kaneshiro sometimes meeting in their orbits and how it affects them.

Back to Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Director and writer Wong gives them this third act story with the narrative distance changing to transition things along. It starts as an echo of the first story. Lovelorn cop, wise owner. Only this time there’s Faye Wong. She starts as a foil then becomes the protagonist. Not just of the story, but of the film. Director Wong went through the first part so we could see Faye Wong’s story, which almost entirely without narration as she starts stalking Leung. Comically and lovably, but definitely stalking. Director Wong always keeps this really light mood to Faye Wong hanging out in Leung’s apartment and messing with his stuff. He never breaks from the film’s sharp visual focus. While Express is a film about quiet, sometimes private moments between people, Wong uses the enormity of the city—artificially muffled, but still sharp-as the stage for those moments. That style—infused with bubbly—just further spotlights the film on Faye Wong. It’s jarring when director Wong changes the pace for the third act.

The first story takes place over two and a half days. There’s even a clock involved; the dates of the present action matter to the story and characters. Well, to Kaneshiro anyway. The second story is very loose in pacing, but also extremely precise. Director Wong only wants to give so much of the story at each point in the story. It’s a relaxed pacing, much different from the first story, much different from the beginning of the second story itself. Wong slows things down and lets the film enjoy itself. Faye Wong and Tony Leung are both really charming in the film. The first story is the neo-noir romance, the second half is the romantic comedy, and they’re almost exactly the same, stylistically. But without Faye Wong narrating even through her longer scenes. There’s more time without narration. A lot more. And there’s an entirely different sense of danger. It’s a wryly comedic one, done in a style where there’s no wry comedy. Because more than anything else—even a spectacular vehicle for Faye Wong—it’s this sad sack romantic drama about these two cops who can’t get over their heartache. And they don’t understand how their potential romances exist away from them. In very, very different ways, but it’s a definite echo. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, beautifully edited as it plays out on screen narrative. Director Wong and his crew do… I don’t know, I’m running low on positive adjectives. The film’s technically breathtaking.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-keung. Great editing from William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung. The film wouldn’t work without them. Or the music. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García’s score is awesome. The use of popular music is awesome. And essential. It’s magnificent.

Wong’s the best performance, then Leung, then Lin, then Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro’s still great. Chen’s perfect as the restaurant owner. Valerie Chow’s good as Leung’s ex-girlfriend because Leung’s so much the second story protagonist for a while he gets flashbacks. For a movie where Leung’s always walking around in tighty-whiteys, there are also some lovely romantic scenes. Director Wong and the crew bring the sexy for the salad days flashbacks, bringing yet another style into the film, which Wong still keeps once Faye Wong takes over, even though the narrative content has changed.

So astoundingly good. Chungking Express is astoundingly good. I’m livid at myself for not seeing it sooner.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung; edited by William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau and Chan Yi-kan for Jet Tone Production.

Starring Brigitte Lin (Blonde), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Zhiwu), Faye Wong (Faye), Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Cop 663), Chen Jinquan (Manager of ‘Midnight Express’), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Thom Baker (Drug Dealer), and Zhen Liang (May).


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Mikey and Nicky (1976, Elaine May)

The first hour of Mikey and Nicky is trying to decide if you’re going to like either of them. Because they don’t deserve sympathy, it’s just whether you’re going to like them. It’s possible to be sympathetic to Peter Falk (Mikey) while still liking John Cassavettes (Nicky). The movie runs two hours, there’s maybe fifteen minutes where you can do both those things simultaneously. And there’s time for being sympathetic to Falk, liking Cassavettes. Feeling guilty about both emotions. Mikey and Nicky doesn’t manipulate the audience–it’s very deliberate about how it sets things up, but the one twist comes really early on, with some exquisite foreshadowing from director May, both in the film and her script. And the actors too. There’s always a lot going on in the film for the two leads. The whole movie–not the plot–hinges on how their relationship develops (in a crisis) over the two hours.

See, they’re both in the mob. Though more like work for the mob. It’s not too important. When the mobsters do show up–Sanford Meisner and William Hickey–it’s one of May’s almost straight gags. The film’s full of them, especially in the first act when Falk is trying to get Cassavettes to get out of town and Cassavettes won’t leave his hotel room because he’s been locked up in there for a few days and nuts. As the film goes on–it takes place over like nine hours–the characters get tireder and tireder, more and more stressed. Sometimes it’s with new characters who come in–once Mikey and Nicky starts introducing the women in the men’s lives, it doesn’t stop. They’re completely absent for the first almost half and then the rest of the movie is basically all about how these astonishingly broken and awful men abuse the women in their lives. It doesn’t become the a plot–which is about Falk trying to get Cassavettes out of town before out-of-town and unpleasant hit man Ned Beatty can get him. Of course, they don’t know how close Beatty is getting or even his identity. Cassavettes goes in and out of paranoia for the first forty minutes or so. The way the character development drives the subplots is phenomenal. Mikey and Nicky has some unstable elements–but May’s gently savage about character shifts and plot developments are always wondrous. Like, Cassavettes goes from being this potential scumbag at the beginning to this possibly likable one to a piece of crap as an aside, while family man Falk calling home is the initial scene focus. And the movie’s just got done with the big reveal. Everything else is fallout for the audience, but not the characters, which is just another layer for the audience. It’s breathtakingly.

Most of the movie is about whether or not Cassavettes is going to get killed; you can easily spend a third of it not caring, but also a third of it where you hope he does because he really deserves it. The film takes these vague caricature roles–background thugs–and fleshes them out in miserable detail. The film’s always aware of the crime genre and it respects it, but tries not to interact with it. It’s not against genre, it’s just not genre. At all. It’s comedy. Really, really, really dark comedy.

There are some smiles and maybe even a laugh at the beginning when it’s Falk and Cassavettes kind of being silly. You’re not sympathetic to Cassavettes, somewhat inherently, so you can laugh at him freaking out. But once the film introduces the women… well, you’re rooting for him to be in terror. Because about halfway through the film, Cassavettes takes Falk up to Carol Grace’s apartment. To have some drinks, be mean to her, but also for sex. Grace and the other two main supporting actresses have the hardest parts in the film. They’ve got to create a character where the stars–in performance, direction, script–don’t let them have any oxygen. It’s really unpleasant, because May doesn’t show them any sympathy. The film’s narrative distance to the toxic masculinity it showcases never wavers.

Joyce Van Patten plays Cassavettes’s wife and she ought to have the best performance in the film but there are all these visual flubs during her big scene. John Carter and Sheldon Kahn’s editing averages to be, well, pretty average but when they’ve got to deal with mismatched footage–from apparently two drastically different takes on the scene–it’s not good. They don’t get away with it and somehow they emphasize the mismatch, which is a bummer for the scene given how great Van Patten’s been until things get shaky. It still works for the film, because the film’s not about Van Patten at all. Except in how she’s a victim, just like Grace, just like Rose Arrick as Falk’s wife. See, Arrick shows up early when Falk’s calling home to check in. She’s established. And getting the reveal on her life towards the end is another of the film’s gut punches.

Gorgeous photography from… wait for it… Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Jerry File, and Victor J. Kemper. The styles never clash–five photographers is a shock–and the film always looks right for what it needs to do at a given time. According to IMDb, Ballard did the last sequence and he does great work (he gets to bring in the daylight).

Also impressive is John Strauss’s score. Even when it’s excessive, it always fits. May’s got a great looking and sounding picture, just one with never great cuts.

Of the actors, Cassavettes is better more often, but Falk’s got some amazing scenes. Falk’s best scenes are better than any of Cassavettes’s scenes. Beatty’s fine as the hit man. It’s like an extended cameo. May plays Beatty more for laughs, but mean ones. There’s a lot of meanness to Mikey and Nicky.

So the film gets to the third act with a whole bunch of baggage, with the baggage getting heavier later on as the film transitioned from the sort of black comedy “adventure” or quest to the reflective visits to the three destroyed women. And May delivers on the finish perfectly. It’s so good. Even though the editors screw it up a little.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and by Elaine May; directors of photography, Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Victor J. Kemper, and Jerry File; edited by John Carter and Sheldon Kahn; music by John Strauss; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Michael Hausman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Peter Falk (Mikey), John Cassavetes (Nicky), Ned Beatty (Kinney), Rose Arrick (Annie), Carol Grace (Nellie), William Hickey (Sid Fine), Sanford Meisner (Dave Resnick), Joyce Van Patten (Jan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Bus Driver).


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