This past weekend’s viewings took in a blockbuster that was supposedly about the visuals, with a ludicrous storyline and horrific acting and characters, that lasted too long at 2 hrs 27 minutes; and a movie from 19 years ago from a writer-director full of ideas, rich characters, and dialogue-heavy scenes, with some botched visuals. Guess which one I liked better? Hint: duh.
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen has a silly plot that is simultaneously mind-numbingly stupid and difficult to follow. Every scene seems silly and ridiculous, the action scenes look like complete shit despite the fact that it cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, and the best acting in the movie comes from Josh Duhamel. I don’t hate action movies, not at all, but I hate soulless blockbusters that make me ponder the question “which is worse - if the makers of this movie actually thought this was good, or if they knew that it would make money despite its innate shittiness?” This movie is definitely in competition for the worst movie ever made.
Jungle Fever is Spike Lee’s look at an interracial relationship. It is about an affair between married architect Flipper (Wesley Snipes), and his temp assistant from an Italian-American neighborhood, Angie (Annabella Sciorra). The movie also deals with the lives of their families, including Angie’s father and brothers who expect her to wait on them hand and foot; her erstwhile suitor, played by John Turturro; Flipper’s wife and child, as well as his crack addict brother (a pre-Pulp Fiction Samuel L. Jackson) and his parents, a loving Ruby Dee and the crazy ‘reverend doctor’ Ossie Davis.
Lee’s usual strengths are on hand here. The performances are stellar - career bests from Snipes and Sciorra, and he has a strong eye for undiscovered talent, with not only Jackson but Halle Berry on hand. The characters are well-drawn, and even when the dialogue becomes hyperbolic, it still seems consistent with the characterizations.
Lee’s weird point - for me at least - is the structuring of his ideas about race; namely, that if there is a racial issue at play, it is the only issue. Flipper cheats on his wife, which is not a big deal according to his best friend, until he reveals that it was with a white woman. His wife throws him out, apparently because he had sex with a white woman. When Flipper eventually breaks up with Angie, he tells her that they both just had jungle fever. Lee seems to be promoting this single-minded mentality. I think it’s a bit more complex - if it’s acceptable for men to cheat on their wives in Flipper’s world, could some of his wife’s anger be simply expressing her feelings about cheating in general, through a socially acceptable outlet of anger about race? If Angie lives in a working-class neighborhood and doesn’t know anybody who thinks beyond those limits, could some of her attraction to Flipper be about his upper-class status? Could Flipper be interested in cheating on his wife with a younger woman who is impressed with him, and also interested in what it would be like to be with a white woman? Lee doesn’t deal with these complexities, and that is both a strength and a weakness. He makes his points clearly, but does not leave room for complicated human emotions.
Lee’s weak point is visuals. He experiments with certain aspects of visuals, but they just don’t work. Lee stages numerous conversations where the participants are walking down the street with weird tracking shots, where it looks like the actors are floating rather than walking. It looks like shit, although not as shitty as any single scene in Transformers 2.
Despite all these flaws, Jungle Fever is, like almost all Spike Lee movies, well worth seeing due to the dialogue and characters. Jackson’s character in particular is great, showing how different members of his family deal with a fundamentally dishonest, scamming, drug-addicted brother or son. The character is only one of many that are interesting; there almost doesn’t have to be a plot to make a movie about these characters watchable. I criticize the heavy-handedness of the writing and directing, but Lee’s heavy hand is what makes his movies so interesting, and this is no exception.