The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol.1 Blu-ray Review

With the SPIKE LEE JOINT collections, both Volume 1 featuring HE GOT GAME (1998) and 25TH HOUR (2002) and Volume 2 featuring MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008) and SUMMER OF SAM (1999), we are presented with the first two volumes of a ‘definitive’ group of Lee’s films.. But these are strange collections of disparate films from Lee’s varied filmography, probably not the four movies you were hoping to get in Volumes 1 and 2 of a supposedly definitive collection, though besides MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA these movies are at least getting their first Blu-ray release. Collectors will be happy to finally have an opportunity to see these movies on their HD sets but Vol. 1 is an incredibly mixed bag.

Barry Pepper and Edward Norton

Despite my apprehensions, when I received Vol. 1 I was excited, having only seen HE GOT GAME and 25TH HOUR when they were initially released, to view them once again and provide my critique. Both are very good movies in their own right but I can’t help but be disappointed at the end result. Am I the only person who wants to see movies in collections based on tone? On narrative structure? Is that too much to ask? Instead, we get the disappointing pairing by studio/distributor (in this case Disney-owned Touchstone Home Entertainment) leaving us with a bitter taste when trying to pair them together; they just don’t work as a cohesive whole.

HE GOT GAME (1998) – Disc 1 [5/10]

The film that introduced the rest of the world to now-NBA-superstar (but at the time, very very young) Ray Allen, who plays #1 blue chip recruit Jesus Shuttlesworth. During the final week before he decides where he signs his binding letter of intent (or declaration for the NBA draft) his father Jake is approached in prison and asked to do the Governor a favor and get Jesus to sign with “Big State”, the Governor’s alma mater; if he succeeds he could have a shot at early release. Jake (played by Denzel Washington) doesn’t exactly jump at the opportunity but he is clearly excited for the opportunity to see his family…. And they are falling apart under the pressure.

Ray Allen

Jesus is living in a small apartment with his sister; shouldering all the doubt and fear festering in his life, facing the great unknown. All the while, everyone he knows is trying to get a piece of the future they assume will come so simply to him, hoping his big windfall will be theirs as well. Everyone thinks they have the answers and they all want a piece of him, but Jesus is facing a crisis and really doesn’t know what to do. In this, Lee portrays the complexity of the decisions these kids in a really incredible and believable way, making for a much more interesting viewpoint than traditional ‘sports’ flicks.

The heart of HE GOT GAME lies within the science and beauty of the game of basketball – which allows someone like Ray Allen, who had no acting experience prior to this film, to speak from the heart and present a perfectly competent performance. But when you put him next to Denzel Washington anywhere except on the basketball court Allen just can’t keep up. HE GOT GAME gave Washington the opportunity to give one of his finest performances to date. Washington’s command on screen is almost tangible despite the somewhat faltering stylistic choices of director Spike Lee. It’s as though Lee couldn’t quite decide what type of movie he wanted to make, so HE GOT GAME kind of became a bunch of things while at once being much weaker than some of his more confident works.

Ray Allen and Denzel Washington

Maybe it’s because Lee spends so much time focusing on the conflicting themes present within our High School/College sports continuum; themselves contradictory and sometimes appalling. HE GOT GAME definitely approaches this subject but starts short of really taking a stand it becomes more and move ambiguous. That ambiguity doesn’t do the film any favors as it plods on past two hours and adds in some ineffective plot devices that don’t do anything to propel the story forward, namely Milla Jovovich’s entire role in the film; but this isn’t to say that HE GOT GAME is a terrible film. It is quite engaging at times, especially during Washington’s scenes with his son on the court. But ultimately those moments are too few, too far between, to tie together the narrative.

25TH HOUR (2002) – Disc 2 [7/10]

This strange pairing is completed 25th HOUR, which (unlike HE GOT GAME) is one of Spike Lee’s most confidently directed films. 25th HOUR is probably as close as Lee will come to a fantasy film. Though he never quite crosses the line into true fantasy 25th HOUR features strong narrative choices that nonetheless imply a certain fantastic element – people saying or doing things that reflect the state of New York City at the time directly following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – but that aren’t ‘realistic’ per say. Like a musical that chronicles a true event, these moments of insight give 25TH HOUR a wider scope and reflect what we as a nation were considering following the events to rocked our nation. Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is facing a parallel set of similar self-doubt, which becomes more and more clear as the movie progresses.

Edward Norton and Rosario Dawson

This owes primarily to the caliber of acting presented on the screen, and I can easily say that 25TH HOUR is probably one of the best-acted films from the early 2000’s. Though it didn’t win any major awards the film features stellar performances from the entire cast, starting with lead Edward Norton (Monty) to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper as Monty’s two best friends, Rosario Dawson as Monty’s girl, Brian Cox as Monty’s father, even former NFL star Tony Siragusa turns in a nice performance. And as our cast all head toward the inevitable conclusion of the day so are we reminded that we cannot evade the things we do not like, we have obligations we must meet.

Edward Norton with "Doyle"

Along the way we get to go on an interesting ride and meet some very interesting people. Having been lucky enough to have lived in NYC for a time I can say this is the closest I have felt to the city since my time living there. There is something about the way Lee shoots, or maybe the way he does dialogue and editing… something about this movie just screams love letter to the city… and while it is sometimes an imperfect one I feel that love and hope I can someday experience it again. 25TH HOUR is definitively worth your time.

BLU-RAY REVIEW

Video: (1080p Widescreen 1.85:1 HE GOT GAME, 2.40:1 25TH HOUR) The video presentation of both films is stylized and immersive but 25TH HOUR is the film that really shines in the video department. HE GOT GAME never quite reaches out from it’s independent roots and stylistically feels a bit more disjointed.

Audio: (English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) The audio tracks for both HE GOT GAME and 25TH HOUR are immersive and varied, though both may suffer from a little too much background noise (and poor mixing) during dialogue heavy scenes. Dialogue being a key to Lee’s works, this is a bit unexpected and certainly disappointing.

HE GOT GAME

Audio Commentary with Director Spike Lee and Actor Ray Allen (02:16:35) A new commentary recorded specifically for the Blu-ray release of HE GOT GAME is sadly the sole special feature on the Blu-ray and by far the least interesting commentary in THE SPIKE LEE JOINT COLLCTION VOLUME 1. With the talent in the film it would have been nice to have Jovovich (THE FIFTH ELEMENT , probably even more appropriately, Denzel Washington who turned in one of his greatest performances in HE GOT GAME.

25th HOUR

The Evolution of an American Filmmaker (22:23) A made-for-television behind the scenes look at the making of 25TH HOUR and, more specifically, the works of Spike Lee. There are some really interesting tidbits here for both casual and hardcore fans. A very nicely constructed feature.

Audio Commentary with Director Spike Lee and Actor Edward Norton (02:14:45) This commentary was recorded specifically for the Blu-ray release of 25TH HOUR. Both Lee and Norton give some great perspective into the filmmaking process and their work; lending credibility to each of their genius in this medium. This is the commentary track to check out if you liked the movie as being more removed from the film allows for greater perspective into the intended subtext.

Audio Commentary by Director Spike Lee (02:14:45) This commentary track was originally recorded for the DVD release of 25TH HOUR. Lee gives some great information in his commentary but his voice and slow, thoughtful speech can be monotonous and you might lose interest. If you’re a fan of Lee’s, however, you should definitely check this out (unless you already heard it when the DVD was released).

Audio Commentary by writer David Benioff (02:14:45) 25TH HOUR also features a commentary track with writer Benioff who goes into depth describing his novel and the film adaptation, including some of the interesting choices made by director Spike Lee. This is another decent commentary but not for those who heard it the first time when it was released on the DVD.

Deleted Scenes Six scenes are included on the Blu-ray that just didn’t make the final cut of 25TH HOUR. There are some fairly substantial implications to the story but cutting these scenes was definitely, ultimately, the right thing to do as they generally don’t fit into the final style and do very little to drive the plot forward. Each scene can be viewed singly or with a ‘playlist’ play-all button; including: Sway (01:33); Little Odessa (03:09); Naturelle, Mom and Monty (02:44); Party Plans (00:54); Sneaking Mary In (00:49); and Mary’s Death Scene (01:02).

Ground Zero: A Tribute (05:33) The backdrop to 25TH HOUR is New York City shortly after 9/11 and the locations selected provide some beautiful and direct tie-in to the paranoia and fear that pervaded our country in the wake of this terrible tragedy. Lee presents some location-specific footage in this heart-wrenching feature.

OVERALL 3
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