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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

She’s Gotta Have It, or: Three-Penised Monster

There’s no one quite like Spike Lee as a director; like the best out there, you know immediately when you’re watching one of his films. It’s pretty incredible that this is true even with this week’s pick, his earliest film. And that, for this same feature, he wrote the line “We let her create a three-headed, six-armed, six-legged, three-penised monster.” Truly a contender for the most Spike Lee moment of this very clearly Spike Lee film.

CW: rape

The Film:

She’s Gotta Have It

The Premise:

A Brooklyn artist is content with having three lovers at once…but the men involved may not be quite so chill about this arrangement.

The Ramble:

A young artist living in Brooklyn on her own (before it became unlivably expensive), Nola Darling is a woman interested in pushing boundaries. She’s ready to tell her own story, speaking directly to the camera to do so.

However, it’s not long before others begin to chime in–it seems virtually everyone has an opinion about Nola. Those voicing the loudest concerns are three men, all of whom Nola has been involved with romantically: Jamie, Mars, and Greer.

A black-and-white still of a woman glancing over her shoulder at a man while crossing the street on a busy sidewalk.

Right away, it seems as though Jamie is the most sincere of Nola’s love interests and your classic romantic lead who believes in things like true love and soul mates. Oh, how a first glance can deceive. Though Jamie’s first meeting with Nola is framed as a rom-com meet-cute when he follows her while waiting for a bus, it creeped me out so much. I’m sorry, but it was not dating apps that “killed romance”–it was definitely behavior like this.

Far from Jamie’s character is Mars, a young Spike Lee who jokes a mile a minute, never taking anything too seriously. Meanwhile, aspiring model Greer embodies very white, middle-class obsessions with self-improvement, health, and his own looks.

In front of a painting in progress, a woman speaks with a man in a New York jacket, a baseball cap with the lid turned up, and large-framed glasses.

While Nola brings all three men into her bed at different times, she identifies as heterosexual, gently turning down the advances of her friend Opal. Nevertheless, Jamie shows a jealous streak. Nola’s disdain of monogamy becomes a problem for all three of her lovers, but her charm is enough to keep the peace for a while.

I’m not going to lie…there’s not a whole lot to the plot beyond this. There’s a somewhat bizarre musical interlude for Nola’s birthday, and she makes the decision to bring together her lovers for a Thanksgiving feast (not a euphemism). The Thanksgiving decision exists almost entirely for the three men to make petty jokes at each other’s expense, and I’m not mad about it.

Three men sit around a table, eating the Thanksgiving turkey and other food served on the table.

Ultimately, Jamie’s jealous streak takes over, and he demands that Nola choose to be with him exclusively. Even though she agrees, I think you can guess how long that relationship lasts.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Spike Lee’s first film may feel somewhat unpolished and meandering, but it’s an impressive movie nevertheless.

We really can’t talk about it without discussing Nola’s rape, which is presented more or less as an aside (and since there seem to be different ways of describing this scene, Spike Lee himself refers to this as a rape scene). It’s a scene that is very much there for the story and to reinforce our feelings about Jamie, but not so much to recognize Nola’s feelings during or after.

And, I’ll be honest, despite the feminist themes, there are a LOT of topless scenes featuring Nola’s breasts that feel very male gaze-y. I do appreciate that Lee has no interest in a sleazy male fantasy lesbian scene between Nola and Opal…but I do wish he had made the decision for the two to actually get together (especially since this is supposedly what happens in the Netflix series).

For all of its issues, this film is a refreshing celebration of different ways to express Blackness, a vibrant Brooklyn neighborhood, and Black women living on their own terms. As much as the film is about Nola, it’s also a calling out of men engaging in problematic behavior, even–and especially–when they consider their behavior a reflection of love. All three of the men Nola loves try to change or control her while labeling it love. No wonder Nola rejects the narrative of monogamous romance.

Btw, three-penised monster is not a phrase you want to Google when you can’t remember the exact quote from the film.

Would my blog wife enjoy a non-monogamous romance with this one or shut down that penis monster right away? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Fruitvale Station, or: I’ve Got Nothing on the Witty Subtitle Front This Week

The disturbing number of acts of police brutality recorded on cell phones within the past 20 years only becomes more disheartening based on these representing a fraction of the whole. And one of the unintended consequences here is that those who have suffered and died at the hands of the police on camera have been reduced to victims–and that people continue to dismiss these stories with or without video evidence.

Ryan Coogler’s first film seeks to give one victim of violence an opportunity to be seen as more than someone detained and shot by police. Oscar Grant III was a father, son, partner, formerly incarcerated person, and held many other identities that more fully represent him as a multifaceted human.

The Film:

Fruitvale Station

The Premise:

Based on the events surrounding Oscar Grant’s 2009 murder, this film follows the final hours of his life.

The Ramble:

As New Year’s Eve 2008 approaches, Oscar Grant III hopes for new beginnings and a better year ahead. He will be celebrating with his long-time girlfriend Sophina despite ongoing relationship trouble after she caught him with another woman. Still, Oscar is committed to Sophina and their daughter, Tatiana, vowing to find a way to support his family without selling drugs.

Three people snuggle together in a narrow bed: a man, woman, and their young daughter between them.

A devoted father, Oscar loves spending time with his daughter and is always goofing around with her or sneaking her a treat after Mom said no. Close with his own mother despite past fights about his incarceration, Oscar is dedicating much of the day to gathering the food for her birthday celebrations that night.

When it comes to turning his life around, Oscar has quite a hill to climb. Having recently lost his job at the grocery after turning up late for shifts, Oscar hasn’t quite broken the news to anyone in his family yet. Despite no longer being employed at the store, Oscar takes the time to help a white woman with major regrets about promising her boyfriend a fish fry that evening. He goes so far as to help the woman, Katie, by calling his grandmother for advice.

A man and his daughter smile at each other, a playground and trees behind them.

As Oscar prepares for an evening in with the family and a night out with Sophina, he regretfully remembers some of his past decisions. After watching a friendly stray dog die when hit by a careless driver, Oscar shows compassion to the animal–and, chillingly, is marked with its blood.

After enjoying the family dinner for his mother, Oscar heads to San Francisco with Sophina to watch the fireworks. The group of friends they meet at the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station end up missing the fireworks at midnight, but an impromptu countdown and celebration breaks out on the train anyway.

A man and woman stand in a subway car, smiling.

It’s during the ride home that the events leading to Oscar’s death begin to unravel. When Katie spots him on the train and offers a friendly hello, a gang member notices Oscar too and begins fighting with him. Though the fight has dispersed before the train arrives at the next stop, the transit police are waiting and demand those involved exit the train.

When Oscar and his friends are detained, he and several others in the vicinity begin filming the events with their phones. It’s not a spoiler to say Oscar Grant’s life ends when an officer shoots him (later claiming he thought the weapon was a taser), but it’s no less heartbreaking.

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Watching this film after seeing real footage of so many murders of Black people at the hands of police doesn’t make it any easier; in fact, it’s even more difficult in some ways. In part, this is because so little has changed since Oscar Grant’s murder in 2009. However, I won’t shortchange the power of this film here–it tells a story that we virtually never see in the ways we witness and discuss these murders.

Oscar Grant doesn’t get the saint treatment; he was a human who made mistakes, had bad days, and regretted some of his choices. But the focus here is on his relationships and, therefore, the impact of his life and death on his family and community. Oscar’s role as a father grounds the film and offers the most heartbreaking contrast to his death; it’s difficult to see him so joyful, energetic, and full of life, especially in light of his unjust, violent, and frightening death. Hauntingly, the last lines of the film are Tatiana’s “Where’s daddy?”–a question that hangs in the air.

In terms of plot, not a lot really happens here, and that’s the point. The vast majority of Oscar’s day is rather ordinary, with little indication that it will end abruptly and tragically in the early hours of January 1, 2009. This chillingly implies that the life of many Black men could very suddenly end on any given day as a result of just one brief interaction.

Additionally, Coogler highlights the power of holding police accountable through cell phone video. This is a double-edged sword, as recordings of Black people dying has taken a damn long time to create awareness, and the footage certainly hasn’t changed the outcome of these interactions with police.

Would my blog wife sneak this one a bonus fruit snack or send it along with the lie that a piece of fruit counts as dessert? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Da 5 Bloods, or: Bros Before Bars of Gold

The Vietnam War supposedly marked the end of an era for the United States–so, too, did the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Yet the effects of that time in history continue to hold sway over the events of the present, none more clearly than in the lives of Black Vietnam War veterans. It wouldn’t be Spike Lee if this week’s film didn’t examine the events of the past in the context of the present day in an effort to unravel the interconnectedness of white supremacy, violence, greed, and imperialism.

The Film:

Da 5 Bloods

The Premise:

Decades after serving in the Vietnam War, four veterans return to the Vietnamese countryside to retrieve the remains of their fallen leader…and a secret fortune in gold bars.

The Ramble:

Though 45 years have passed since US troops left Vietnam, the war continues to loom large in the lives of the remaining 4 Bloods of our film’s title. Returning to Vietnam to recover the remains of their lost leader, the heroic Stormin’ Norman, the 4 veterans anticipate a much less dangerous trip this time around. But there are more dramatic secrets and stunning betrayals here than on daytime TV, making this reunion–and film–an adventure story; admittedly, an adventure story that maybe could have cut out one or two interludes and still remained satisfying.

Four older Black men walk alongside a younger Vietnamese man in Ho Chi Minh City at night.

The main concern of the Bloods is to bring Norman’s body home; however, who’s to say they can’t multi-task? During their final mission together, the 5 Bloods opted to hide a chest full of gold they were instructed to return to the US government. Under Norman’s guidance, though, the 5 Bloods decided to claim it was lost to North Vietnam forces with the intention of returning to take back the gold as a form of reparations. Before they could return, the area was napalmed–and now that a landslide has uncovered the plane marking the spot, retrieving the gold may just be in reach.

Who exactly is part of the crew? Otis is a compassionate former combat medic who is in for a big surprise; when he pays a visit to his ex Tiên, Otis learns that he is the father of her grown daughter. Through Tiên, Otis is able to arrange a meeting with Desroche, a Frenchman who, despite being shady as shit, may offer the only option for the Bloods to get their gold out of the country.

In contrast, Paul is a loyal Trump supporter (complete with MAGA hat) with anger issues exacerbated by PTSD. Having watched the legendary Stormin’ Norman die, Paul carries a great deal of guilt, and is haunted by visions of Norman at night.

Eddie is an upbeat car salesman who has made a small fortune with his business savvy. And Melvin is just kind of there to be the 5th blood? I’m going to be honest–the character development for these two is somewhat lacking.

Four men put their fists together in a sign of solidarity, waiting for a 5th man to join in.

Our modern day 5th Blood is a surprise to the others; upon hearing of Paul’s plans to return to Vietnam, his son David arrives to stop his father from doing anything too outlandish. Because of Paul’s PTSD and the early death of his wife, his relationship with David is tortured, to say the least.

As the group treks through the Vietnamese countryside, they reminisce about Stormin’ Norman’s heroism as a leader, knowledge of untold Black history, and strategic brilliance in keeping the Bloods alive. At a bar, David meets a woman he mistakes for American, but turns out to be Frenchwoman Hedy. Hedy is the founder of a non-profit, LAMB: Love Against Mines and Bombs. So she essentially spends her days trekking through the country, defusing landmines to atone for all of her family’s criminal behavior and war profiteering in Vietnam. There is chemistry between the two, but they go their separate ways…for now.

Five men with backpacks walk through a grassy field in Vietnam, the hot sun high in the sky.

Things are rolling along fine until the Bloods do manage to accomplish their mission and find Norman’s remains, along with the gold. Much debate begins about Norman’s intentions for the gold–is it acceptable for each of the Bloods to hold onto his share or should the money be donated to charitable causes?

All of this becomes of secondary concern when the Bloods find themselves in a literal minefield, the LAMB volunteers witness more than they should, and a double cross that shouldn’t surprise you at all leaves the Bloods fighting for their lives. And there’s still about an hour left!

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

The film is framed by words from Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr, both of whom reflect on the injustices faced by Black Americans who served in Vietnam. There’s a clear parallel to the unjust war perpetrated against the Vietnamese people from the 1950s-1970s with the persecution of African-Americans in the US then and now. It couldn’t be a more timely message from Spike Lee, who uses historical images and footage for dramatic effect and, in one humorous instance, points out that one Black guy who appears in Trump rally footage to “prove” that the Black community supports the man Lee often refers to as Agent Orange.

I enjoyed this film a lot, but, to be honest, the story is a bit flimsy. Unpacking the events of the past and the evolution of the relationships between the 5 Bloods is fascinating, but things get a bit messy and confusing with the plots involving Otis’s daughter, the LAMB crew, and the maneuvers of Desroche. Not to mention that, at 2 1/2 hours, it’s difficult to imagine there isn’t something that could have been cut.

As other reviews have highlighted, Delroy Lindo does phenomenal work here. Paul often treats even his friends and son terribly, but he uncovers enough of the character’s trauma for us to sympathize. And when he’s not sympathetic, he’s still compelling and so watchable, and gets some of the most Spike Lee-esque lines and moments.

In contrast, I found the only 3 named female characters to be pretty unremarkable. I expected at least one of them to be involved in underhanded schemes, but all were much too naive and one-dimensional for that. I get that David and Hedy were meant to have a connection, but I don’t know if I’d be quite as wiling to forgive and forget in her shoes (even though Jonathan Majors is keeping those arms in good shape and most likely about to be in all of the roles). The same is true for Tiên and her daughter–it feels like their only purpose is to embrace Otis with open arms, but I think some nuances would exist there, and the opportunity to reflect those is missed.

One of the most fascinating approaches of this film is the avoidance of using younger actors or any sort of aging effects during flashback scenes–all 5 of the Bloods appear the same in both present and past scenes. This works for me as a reminder that the story is about the present as much, or perhaps more than, the past. It also serves to recognize that memories are brought forth in the context of the present; they don’t stay the same across time, but are altered by time and our experiences.

Perhaps not a new favorite, but a compelling story well told.

Would my blog wife step on a mine for this one or is she only in it for the gold bars? Read her review to find out!