Criterion Sunday 97: Do the Right Thing (1989)

It’s been over 25 years since this film was first released — the film that very much put Spike Lee on the map, even if he’d had a few features before this which had garnered attention. It still fizzes with energy, a bold primary-coloured work of cinematic joie de vivre that, thanks to its sterling cinematography from Lee’s collaborator Ernest Dickerson, has a warm filter placed over everything. Every surface seems to drip with sweat and refract with the heat of this, the hottest day of the year. It’s shot and set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn NYC, and presents a warm-hearted portrait of a community that certainly isn’t perfect but is trying to get along. There’s a foothold to an older generation of Italian-American immigrants (the traditional white working class of Sal and his sons, running a popular corner pizzeria), whose ancestors may have made up much of the original population but who by the late-20th century have also largely fled to other areas further out in Queens and on Long Island (so-called ‘white flight’). There are the Black Americans who’ve also been there for some decades, and who are the beating heart of the modern community. There are Puerto Ricans in the mix, there is a newer influx of Asian immigrants (the Koreans who own the corner grocery opposite Sal’s, somewhat stereotyped), and there are even signs of a monied white middle-class moving in to start gentrifying the block. And everything would largely be fine except for the blasted heat which seems to fry everyone’s brains, leading to the film’s denouement. The one thing the heat can’t fully be blamed for — and the one area where Lee’s generosity to his characters is notably absent — is the action of the New York city police.

If the film still feels contemporary, still feels like a relevant angry broadside, it’s not just because fashions come back around, or that the urgent music of Public Enemy never really dropped out of style, or because of the stridency and subtlety of much of the acting. There’s Danny Aiello as Sal who tries to get along but is still marked by his racist upbringing, Richard Edson and John Turturro as Sal’s divided sons, Spike Lee in the central role of the rootless Mookie who can’t really manage his adult responsibilities, Rosie Perez as his angry girlfriend, angry as much from Mookie’s inaction as from the stress of raising their son, and the range of Greek Chorus figures like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the elderly witnesses to their neighbourhood, the unemployed men sitting out on the sidewalk commenting on the action which passes them by, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ. These are all very strong performances, and keep the film seeming fresh. But mostly it’s still contemporary because the interactions between American police and the neighbourhoods they are supposed to be policing doesn’t appear to have moved on, even as a generation has since passed by. Do the Right Thing testifies to the illegal deaths of Black men in police custody (not to mention a passing graffito reference, “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH”, to a notorious rape denial case of the era), and the sad thing is that news headlines of 25+ years later have scarcely moved on. The film makes the useful point, one that never really becomes tired, that racism and injustice affects everyone in a community. Hence: do the right thing.

Criterion Extras: It’s a packed edition, one of the early tentpoles for the growing collection. Most notably is the hour-long documentary Making “Do the Right Thing” (1989, dir. St. Clair Bourne), which is more than just a puff piece making-of that you’d get on a mainstream release. This is very much a cinematic work, one that tracks the progress of the shoot from its very earliest beginnings, but also talks to and gauges the response of the locals who’ve been affected for almost six months by this production, as Lee’s team builds sets along a block, and then for eight weeks is out there filming, shutting down the street and calling for silence for chunks of the summer. Suffice to say, not everyone is happy, and the film hears their voices, but is also watches carefully as the actors grapple with their characters (Danny Aiello in particular has trouble grasping the essential racism of Sal). It’s a very fine bonus feature indeed.

Alongside this, there is also a significant amount of (somewhat shakily amateur handheld) videos documenting the rehearsal and filming process with Spike Lee and his actors. The 1989 Cannes press conferences is reproduced in full, replete with slightly confused questions from the white European journalists present, and a short piece in which Lee and his producer revisit their locations 12 or so years on. There’s Lee’s video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which contextualises their words within a tradition of protest as seen on archival film footage. And there’s an interview with Lee’s editor Barry Brown talking about the challenges of the work. Each of these extras is prefaced by a short Spike Lee introduction, and he also wraps up with some final words.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Spike Lee; Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson; Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Richard Edson; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 May 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1997, and at university, Wellington, May 1998).

Criterion Sunday 54: For All Mankind (1989)

I can’t really fault this documentary about the Apollo space missions of the late-1960s and early-1970s: it tells a big story using archival footage of the era, shot by the astronauts and those working at NASA, and it does so using only these images and the voices of the astronauts. The value is in seeing this footage, some of which is shot from space and presents uncanny views of the Earth and of the work the astronauts were doing, and hearing from the participants. Nevertheless it can at times be a little difficult to tell apart all these buzz-cut white guys in their control centre, and the missions are interwoven fairly fluidly, meaning we jump back and forward in time. It’s a fascinating and informative work for those with a strong interest in the space race, and for those people this is likely to be far more interesting than it was to me.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Al Reinert; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015.

Criterion Sunday 8: 喋血雙雄 Diexue Shuangxiong (The Killer, 1989)

In Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas’s masterful film about the industry (which to a certain extent functions as an investigation into the the very nature of cinema and visual representation itself), a boorish and macho film critic at one point interviews/lectures Maggie Cheung about the balletic quality of extreme violence exhibited by his favourite filmmaker, John Woo. There’s certainly a lot of masculinist interest to Woo’s filmmaking, and while it wouldn’t be a stretch to classify these as bold and stylistic choreographies of bullet-ridden violence, there’s still a limit to the number of scenes where moody slow-motion heroes point guns at each other. It’s the prime means by which his characters seem to learn about one another: where in other films they might meet in cafes or bars for a drink, Woo’s heroes stand off head-to-head in tense gun battles. The antihero here is Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat), who accepts a last job to help out Jennie (Sally Yeh) whom he hurt in a gun battle, but is tracked by Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee), who comes to feel some kinship with his target, as (in time-honoured style), cop and gangster discover they are not so very different. Scenes and imagery are lifted wholesale by Woo for his later Hollywood career, notably Face/Off, but that doesn’t make them any the less impressive (think a church, candles and doves), while both heroes do a good line in atmospheric gazes off camera. It’s all quite ridiculous, but in a pleasingly goofy way.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Woo 吳宇森; Cinematographers Peter Pau 鮑德熹 and Wong Wing-hang 黃永恆; Starring Chow Yun-fat 周潤發, Danny Lee 李修賢, Sally Yeh 葉蒨文; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 November 2014.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

I’d like to tell you that this romantic comedy from the pen of Nora Ephron, which is coming up on its 25th anniversary, hasn’t dated at all, but I can’t tell you that. There are few scenes featuring either Billy Crystal or Meg Ryan (you can figure out their characters’ names, I’m sure) which do not provoke some gasp of incredulity at the 1980s fashion and hairstyles. Thankfully, though, the comedy set-up at the film’s heart is rather more resilient (using the time-honoured structuring motif of will-they-won’t-they antagonism and resolution) and, by the end, even the most ridiculous feathered hairstyle or cropped shorts cannot distract from the romance. Partly that’s on account of Nora Ephron, whose touch here is so central to the film’s success. Ephron went on to helm her own comedies in the 1990s, yet although this is directed by the workmanlike Rob Reiner, her writing style is all over it, channelling the shmaltz and brazen sentimentality of similar films from the Golden Era of Hollywood (the 1940s and 1950s) via the neuroses of latter-day New York bard Woody Allen. I daresay for some this would be enough to write off her own efforts in a mire of gloop, but I feel like her work is deft enough to avoid these pitfalls. There’s certainly a rather brittle framing device, using interviews with apparently real New York couples from an older generation, who comment on what it is to be in love. However, it’s easy enough to instead focus on the central story, and at that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan do very well, the latter well enough to basically keep her in this kind of territory for most of the following decade (my favourite of the Ryan-Ephron cycle remains 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, for what little it’s worth). It may not be a masterpiece, but it sums up something about the 1980s, and it’s all rather pleasant nonetheless.

When Harry Met Sally film posterCREDITS
Director Rob Reiner; Writer Nora Ephron; Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld; Starring Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 25 December 2013 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, years ago).