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25th Hour & He Got Game: The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Vol. 1 Blu-ray Review

25th Hour (2002) movie poster 25th Hour

Theatrical Release: December 19, 2002 / Running Time: 135 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Spike Lee / Writers: David Benioff (novel & screenplay)

Cast: Edward Norton (Montgomery "Monty" Brogan), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jacob Elinsky), Barry Pepper (Francis Xavier "Frank" Slaugherty), Rosario Dawson (Naturelle Riviera), Anna Paquin (Mary D'Annunzio), Brian Cox (James Brogan), Tony Siragusa (Konstantin "Kostya" Novotny), Levani (Uncle Nikolai), Misha Kuznetsov (Senka Valghobek), Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (Agent Flood), Michael Genet (Agent Cunningham), Patrice O'Neal (Khari), Al Palagonia (Salvatore Dominick), Aaron Stanford (Marcuse)
He Got Game (1998) movie poster He Got Game

Theatrical Release: May 1, 1998 / Running Time: 137 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Spike Lee

Cast: Denzel Washington (Jake Shuttlesworth), Ray Allen (Jesus Shuttlesworth), Milla Jovovich (Dakota Burns), Rosario Dawson (Lala Bonilla), Hill Harper (Coleman "Booger" Sykes), Zelda Harris (Mary Shuttlesworth), Ned Beatty (Warden Marcel Wyatt), Jim Brown (Spivey), Joseph Lyle Taylor (Crudup), Bill Nunn (Uncle Bubba), Michele Shay (Aunt Sally), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Sweetness), Roger Guenveur Smith (Big Time Willie), John Turturro (Coach Billy Sunday), Lonette McKee (Martha Shuttlesworth), Arthur J. Nascarella (Coach Cincotta), Travis Best (Sip Rodgers), Walter McCarty (Mance Littles), John Wallace (Lonnie "Dub" Dukes), Rick Fox (Chick Deagan), Al Palagonia (Dom Pagnotti), Leonard Roberts (D'Andre Mackey), Saul Stein (Prison Guard Books), Ron C. Jones (Prison Guard Burwell), Jade Yorker (Jesus Shuttlesworth - Age 12), Shortee Red (Booger - Age 12), Quinn Harris (Mary Shuttlesworth - Age 6), Gus Johnson (PSAL Announcer), Stuart Scott (TV Announcer), Ray Clay (Tech U Announcer) / As Themselves: Dean Smith, Lute Olson, John Chaney, John Thompson, Roy Williams, Nolan Richardson, Denny Crum, Tom Davis, Clem Haskins, George Karl, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Bobby Cremins, Dick Vitale, Bill Walton, Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Robin Roberts

Buy 25th Hour & He Got Game 2-Movie Collection Blu-ray from Amazon.com

Spike Lee emerged as a bold and original writer-director with acclaimed films like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992). In the twenty years since, Lee's stock has fallen. His last film to earn both positive reviews and commercial success was 2006's Inside Man, a heist thriller on which he was merely a director for hire.
His latest efforts as screenwriter (2004's She Hate Me and 2012's Red Hook Summer) were poorly received by critics and avoided by the public in limited release. Lee hasn't fared any better directing others' scripts, either. Last year's Oldboy remake, a project met with skepticism by those fond of the original 2003 South Korean film, wound up being one of 2013's biggest disasters, as it grossed just over $2 million domestically and barely more overseas on a $30 M budget.

With that in mind, the timing is curious for Buena Vista Home Entertainment to recently devote two rare live-action catalog Blu-ray releases to the four Lee-directed dramas that Touchstone Pictures distributed from 1998 through 2008. Turning two unrelated films into double features, the pair of two-disc The Spike Lee Joint Collection sets seem to exist and arrive now simply because Lee wanted them to and even recorded new audio commentaries for them. Lee may not have much sway over moviegoers these days, but he apparently still carries weight at Disney, even as they've largely gotten out of making R-rated movies and making their catalog available on Blu-ray.

Undoubtedly the more attractive of the two sets, Volume 1 serves up a pair of dramas released within two years of turn of the millennium. 25th Hour and He Got Game involve characters coming from or going to prison and feature actress Rosario Dawson. They were both well-received critically and 25th Hour in particular is regarded as one of the high points of Lee's filmmaking career.

Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is shot behind bars on his last day as a free man in "25th Hour."

25th Hour (2002) spends a day with Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton), an Irish-American New Yorker about to serve seven years in prison under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. A flashback shows DEA agents entering his apartment and knowing exactly where to find Monty's stash of drugs and money. Now, he and others hold suspicions that his beloved live-in girlfriend Naturelle Riviera (Dawson) may have been the one to tip authorities off to his loot and racket.

Monty spends his final hours on the outside with Naturelle and his two longtime best friends, Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a mild-mannered English teacher at Coventry Academy, where they attended (and Monty was expelled), and Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), a high-strung, Red Bull-swilling investment banker. There's also a lunch with Monty's father (Brian Cox), a retired fireman who now owns a bar.

Monty tries to make some amends, including finding a suitable new owner for his fierce dog Doyle (whose rescue serves as the film's opening flashback) and assuring the Russian mob to which he has ties that he will not rat them out. A subplot also sees Jacob being tempted by an attractive, forward underage student (Anna Paquin) who contests her grade in his class.

Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) discuss their mutual friend's bleak future while overlooking Ground Zero clean-up and identification efforts at the site of the former World Trade Center.

I took a strong dislike to 25th Hour when I first saw it some eleven years ago. I thought it glamorized Monty, who we're meant to sympathize with despite being a drug dealer. He did the crime and now he's about to do the time. Aside from two critical remarks by Frank, the movie remains blissfully oblivious to this fact, painting the unrepentant Monty as a victim whose well-being is in danger behind bars.

I wasn't as bothered by that this time around, as I looked harder for the reasons that critics and, to an even greater degree, the general public took such a liking to this film. I found them too, while remaining conscious of the manipulative design. Probably the quality that most distinguishes the film now is its post-9/11 setting. That couldn't have been present in David Benioff's novel, which was published in January 2001. But Benioff's screenplay thoroughly reflects the world-changing terrorist attacks from inside the city most affected.

The setting now renders this cinema's definitive post-9/11 snapshot. Where films like Collateral Damage and Big Trouble were delayed out of sensitivity and Sony wanted you to altogether forget that the first Spider-Man teaser saw its hero trap bad guys' helicopter in a web woven between the Twin Towers, Lee, a New Yorker since childhood, did not hesitate to incorporate the aftermath of the tragedy in this film. The opening credits are placed over reverent shots of the light beams that marked the six-month anniversary of September 11th. Another scene shows Frank's apartment stands across the street from Ground Zero, a site where construction crews are cleaning up well into the night.

James Brogan (Brian Cox) gives his severely beaten son a ride to prison...or to a new life and fresh start in the contemplative conclusion of "25th Hour."

We also get multiple references to Osama bin Laden, which no longer serve as a painful reminder of his at-large status. The al-Qaeda founder is one of many cursed out in arguably the film's most memorable scene, in which Monty rants inside a vandalized mirror. Other targets include Korean grocers, black ball hogs, Sikh and Pakistani cab drivers, Puerto Ricans, and Jesus Christ. Leaving few groups unoffended,
the vitriolic tirade, inevitably transcribed in full as the first item on the film's IMDb Quotes page, is reminiscent of the unfiltered racist camera addresses in Do the Right Thing, one of the only ways in which we're reminded that Lee is directing.

It is unusual for Lee to make a film populated primarily with white characters and to not deal with or comment on race at all. But he fares fine stepping out of his discomforting comfort zone. 25th Hour's current 7.7 IMDb average user rating ties it with Inside Man and Malcolm X for second place (behind Do the Right Thing) in Lee's filmography, although the site's ratings are clearly skewed in favor of young white male tastes. Lee opts for long, uninterrupted takes and discordant dramatic score. When the film moves to the club, dance music takes over the soundtrack. Lee trots out some real poetic storytelling at the end, a what-if narrative that imagines a happy future where Monty's father does not drive him to prison but out west to the desert to make a new life for himself. It's a moving end to a film that arrests largely just by hanging this ominous deadline over everything that occurs.

With a budget estimated between $5 and $15 million, 25th Hour disappointed in theaters, although it did manage to gross $13 million from just 495 theaters and with minimal awards recognition despite the expectations of a limited pre-Christmas opening.


He Got Game (1998) hedges on the far-fetched premise that maximum security Attica Correctional Facility would grant a one-week release to a convicted murderer to persuade his athletically gifted son to choose to enroll at a governor's alma mater. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) has served six years with another fifteen to go for the death of his wife. The warden (Ned Beatty) explains the governor is a big basketball fan and wants Jake's son Jesus (Future NBA Hall-of-Famer Ray Allen) to attend Big State University. The entire world seems to be awaiting a declaration of intent from Jesus, who by most accounts is the nation's #1 high school player.

Armed with an ankle monitor and a couple of undercover agents on his tail, Jake claims he is out on "a work release program" as he returns to his old Coney Island neighborhood, where 6-foot-5 Jesus is a sensation as a star forward on Brooklyn's Lincoln High School team. Every major university is courting Jesus, most of them quite aggressively. His current coach offers him $10,000 and his uncle/guardian (Bill Nunn) accepts a Lexus on his behalf. Even Jesus' girlfriend Lala (Dawson) is pressuring him to meet with an agent, whose pitch to go pro includes the offer of a $30,000 diamond watch as a gift.

With mere days until the NCAA's deadline, Jake faces a good amount of resistance from Jesus, who refuses to acknowledge the felon as his father while single-handedly been raising his younger sister (Crooklyn's Zelda Harris).

Estranged father (Denzel Washington) and son (Ray Allen) square off in Spike Lee's 1998 basketball drama "He Got Game."

Lee's love of basketball is well-documented, from his regular courtside attendance of New York Knicks games to his role of pitchman Mars Blackmon (a character adapted from his debut feature She's Gotta Have It) in Air Jordan commercials from the late '80s and early '90s. The director is clearly enamored with the sport and what it means to those who play it. He lends knowledge and admiration to hoop scenes, almost all of which occur on playground blacktops, starting with an opening credits montage of random Americans from all walks of life.

Lee's past success helps secure appearances by NBA legends (including Shaquille O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, and, delivering the titular line, Michael Jordan), winning NCAA coaches (Dean Smith, Roy Williams, John Thompson, Nolan Richardson), and other sports figures (from then ESPN reporter Robin Roberts to Chicago Bulls P.A. announcer Ray Clay). Allen is not a great actor, but he's a passable one and brings authenticity to the part. It helps that he, a fifth overall draft pick cast after finishing his rookie season, has had one of the most accomplished careers of his era, one that may or may not finally come to an end after his Miami Heat's decisive NBA Finals elimination by the San Antonio Spurs last week.

The film's musical selections illustrate its dichotomy. The score is derived from pre-existing works by late composer Aaron Copland, while original songs are provided by rap group Public Enemy. Lee wants He Got Game to be high-minded art, but also retain street cred. The two qualities are at odds, but the film remains highly watchable nonetheless. Copland's instrumentals supply a fabric of Americana, heightening a number of artful compositions of Lee and his two cinematographers (Ellen Kuras seems to have replaced Lee's mid-'90s DP, Malik Hassan Sayeed, some point during filming). Lee occasionally opts for art over cred, with forced references to such white movies as Vertigo and Escape from Alcatraz but more noticeably in a ludicrous metaphorical ending.

Without consequence, "He Got Game" could easily lose a subplot involving temporarily released convict Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington) and Dakota (Milla Jovovich), the good-hearted prostitute next door.

In Do the Right Thing, Lee's art is also first-rate entertainment. Here, the two facets are somehow separable. The 137-minute runtime is far more than the film needs. A subplot involving Dakota (Milla Jovovich), a prostitute living and working next door to Jake in a seedy Coney Island hotel, could have been cut at no detriment whatsoever. That alone probably would bring the film down to under two hours without losing anything significant.
The film could also stand to gain from losing some depictions many would consider blasphemous; yes, the name Jesus does bring obvious connotations and invites certain puns, but it's doubtful a high school senior would wear a crown of thorns in a promo reel or pose crucifix-style on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Lee's depictions of race and ethnicity have been questioned before. It is easy to imagine his portrayals being downright controversial and deemed offensive if he were a white filmmaker and the characters in question were not. Once again, the director's evident perceptions creep in and trouble: Jesus' coach and would-be agent are fast-talking Italians who don't bat an eye at breaking the rules and on the one college visit we're shown (to the equally ludicrously named Tech University), white coeds are shown to be weak-kneed and all-accommodating to black athletes. Such awkward touches distract from the story that should be at hand involving the complicated relationship of an estranged father and son at the moment when athletic excellence offers an escape from poverty.

Sixteen years since seeing it in theaters, my view of the film remains mixed. There are some powerful moments artfully presented here (e.g. while we may not need to see the climactic father-son 1-on-1 game in its entirety, it engages), but there are easily as many awkward, tone-deaf ones. The sum effect is something uneven, discordant, and far from fully satisfying. He Got Game is better than most films at times (like in choice flashbacks), but decidedly subpar at others.

The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Vol. 1 (25th Hour & He Got Game) Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

25th Hour: 2.40:1 Widescreen; He Got Game: 1.85:1 Widescreen
Both: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); He Got Game: Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish)
25th Hour: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: June 10, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $20.00
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50s) / Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD: He Got Game ($9.99 SRP; November 10, 1998), 25th Hour ($9.99 SRP; May 20, 2003) and on Amazon Instant Video: 25th Hour, He Got Game

VIDEO and AUDIO

Presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, 25th Hour has a distinct look. Its cold, steely, washed-out color palette and consistent grain make it look different from your typical early Noughties film. The Blu-ray's presentation is sharp and clean, though that at times heavy grain may not be to everyone's tastes. He Got Game, whose timing made it suffer with a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer on DVD, looks more conventionally good. Its 1.85:1 visuals are sharp, vibrant, and pristine enough to mistake for a brand new film, particularly if you don't recognize some of the fashions and slang as belonging to the late-'90s.

Both films are treated to potent 5.1 DTS-HD master audio. They're recent enough to take advantage of the full sound field, immersing you in music and often colorful dialogue.

Covering Spike Lee's filmmaking career through 2002, "The Evolution of an American Filmmaker" includes behind-the-scenes looks at the making of "Do the Right Thing." Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, a lead in each film) fights with Monty in this "25th Hour" deleted scene. Crews at work on the gaping hole left behind by the Twin Towers are seen in "Ground Zero -- A Tribute."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

25th Hour receives a brand new audio commentary by Spike Lee and Edward Norton. They discuss the film's flopping as a product of a failed awards bid and its ability to subsequently find an audience, deleted bits, a softball game against the cast and crew of Analyze That, films they watched for inspiration (On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, and Dead End),
and the involvement of author David Benioff and producer Tobey Maguire. Norton also recalls getting a tiny widow's peak (and in doing so, giving rise to balding rumors) and having his nose broken by Barry Pepper. There are some sad, prescient remarks expressing concern over the well-being of Philip Seymour Hoffman and recalling their last encounters with him (this was clearly recorded prior to his February death).

The film's remaining extras are all recycled from its DVD and remain in standard definition.

"The Evolution of an American Filmmaker" (22:23) is a biography which places 25th Hour in the context of Lee's career. Admirers (like Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet) and collaborators (including Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Rosie Perez) complement clips and behind-the-scenes footage from many of the director's films. Though it skips over some credits to focus on the Touchstone movies (especially 25th Hour), it's much better than a typical making-of featurette.

Next up come six deleted scenes: dolly shots of characters discussing "sway" in direct camera addresses in motion (1:33), two scenes of the Russian mob discussing what to do with and for Monty (3:09 & 0:54), Naturelle talking to her mother on the phone and fighting with Monty (2:44), and Jacob's student sneaking into the dance club (0:49) and acting out her Hamlet death scene for him (1:02).

"Ground Zero -- A Tribute" (5:33) shares scored additional footage of World Trade Center clean-up efforts during the day and night along with some shots of the city in mourning.

Also retained from the DVD are two additional solo commentary tracks, one by Lee and one by Benioff.

He Got Game's Blu-ray menu uses a father-son Shuttlesworth collage. 25th Hour's Blu-ray menu is artsy.

The only bonus feature on He Got Game is a new audio commentary by Spike Lee and Ray Allen, recorded following a recent Heat-Knicks game. It is an enjoyable listen, full of spirited reflections about their shared experience. Allen recalls being eased into acting, the Jordans he wore and costumes he himself picked out. Lee marvels at the real people he was able to get (laughing at college coaches' willingness to appear in something so critical of the recruiting process) and those he wasn't (Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson would do the movie, but wouldn't audition). They explain that other players who auditioned for Jesus wound up cast as his teammates,
reveal that the climactic 1-on-1 game was improvised (originally intended to be an 11-0 Jesus shutout), and acknowledge that many fans do not care for the ending. Also, Lee aims to prove to his wife that women like Lala really do exist. This insightful track adds definite value to the platter.

While 25th Hour retains all of its DVD extras here, He Got Game sadly and inexplicably loses the only bonus of its DVD: the film's theatrical trailer.

The menus each play score over static collages, He Got Game's featuring Copland, and 25th Hour's setting Terence Blanchard's dramatic cues to an artful black, white, and red photographic display. Regrettably, neither disc lets you set bookmarks or is able to resume unfinished playback. It's a glaring deficiency which is the only obvious way in which these discs pale in comparison to their DVD counterparts.

No inserts accompany the plainly-labeled blue discs inside the standard blue keepcase.

Jesus Shuttlesworth's (Ray Allen) overalls and Jake Shuttlesworth's (Denzel Washington) afro may challenge your understanding of late-1990s fashions in the Coney Island-set "He Got Game."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

25th Hour and He Got Game represent Spike Lee joints at large: distinctive adult dramas that display obvious craft but also frustrate and disappoint with uneven, overlong narratives. This 2-movie set undoubtedly offers steep gains over the films' respective old DVD transfers plus worthwhile new audio commentaries all at the price of a single movie's Blu-ray.

Buy 25th Hour & He Got Game 2-Movie Collection Blu-ray from Amazon.com

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Reviewed June 22, 2014.



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