Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

There are no clocks in Do the Right Thing. The film takes place over a twenty-four hour period; all the action is on one block, most of the characters live on the block. It’s a Saturday. Some people are working, some people aren’t. It’s a very hot day. And for the first ninety minutes of the film’s two hour runtime, writer-director-producer-actor Lee takes a relaxed approach to the pacing.

Lee’s protagonist isn’t exactly the main character; Thing has maybe four main plots running throughout the day, casually intersecting until everything crashes together. Lee’s part of most of them, but so’s Ossie Davis, so’s Giancarlo Esposito, so’s Bill Nunn. It’s about a lot of different people’s day. And Lee goes so deep with the backgrounds–narratively and filmically–it’s not always the top-billed who get the best scenes. Sure, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and Ruby Dee all get excellent scenes and they’ve got bigger parts, but where Lee the filmmaker isn’t always in those scenes. Not for monologues for sure. Sam Jackson is the DJ and he gets some great scenes. Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown change energy and tone with one cut to the next; the film already opens with Lee and Brown affecting the energy and tone.

The opening titles are over Rosie Perez dancing. She plays Lee’s girlfriend. They’ve got a kid. He’s not a great dad and he’s not a great boyfriend. But he loves her. They don’t live together.

Back to the opening titles. They’re over this red-colored monochrome Brooklyn street, empty besides Perez. Brown perfectly cuts on every movement as the shots cycle. Perez in different outfits, on different locations, with Ernest R. Dickerson changing up the lighting for most. More than the editing–or even pace, because Thing is never as relaxed as when Perez is dancing, not even in the quieter moments–more than either of those technical elements, Dickerson’s photography defines a lot of Thing. Especially during the first act when everything is getting set up. There’s a sharpness to Dickerson’s colors, but also enough warmth nothing ever clashes. And Frankie Faison’s third of a sidewalk raconteur trio is loudly dressed enough he definitely ought to clash. He’s in pastels in front of a red wall.

But Dickerson keeps it just warm enough. All those times where a clash should cause some kind of verisimilitude fissure–not because of the cast, but because of how Lee’s directing it–Dickerson’s photography keeps everything even. Or more inviting, actually. Faison doesn’t say much but he’s definitely the most amiable of the trio.

Robin Harris and Paul Benjamin make up the rest of the trio. Harris’s the most lovable, Benjamin’s unexpectedly the most dangerous. They sit and narrate the day, providing background through exposition. Lee’s script has so much going on at once, laying groundwork. One plot will discard an element, only for another to pick it up. Esposito is the energized pinball dinging between them.

Lee’s long setup, even after the first act establishing is done, is determining what exactly Esposito is dinging against. What are the bumpers he’s hitting. Only Espositio isn’t the main character either. He’s barely a supporting character. He’s kind of background, only he’s not, because the point of Thing is there is no background. Foreground and background intersect over and over–sometimes in great sequences, like Aiello friendliness to Joie Lee (Lee’s sister as his sister, which is a pragmatic goldmine). Lee and Turturro (as Aiello’s openly racist son–Aiello owns a pizza shop in a predominately Black neighborhood) don’t like Aiello’s attention to Joie Lee; Lee gets a lot of mileage out of it, both visually and in terms of narrative import.

There are times when Lee just lets a tangent go. It’s too hot to let things get drawn out. The end is different.

When the sun sets, Lee starts slowing things down. The last twenty minutes, minus the last two scenes, are in real-time. And Lee goes from a narrative distance of intense close-up to crane shot before things are over. He yanks the focus around, with Dickerson and Brown (and composer Bill Lee, accompanied by Branford Marsalis) making it all pretty, to keep the energy up but always different. He’s creating an entirely new narrative perspective, using materials he’s prepared in the previous ninety minutes.

Do the Right Thing goes from being great to being great in a totally different way; that second way is this careful rejection of melodrama, done at high speed. It’s awesome.

Great acting. Ossie Davis is the best. He’s got one of the fuller characters. Aiello’s real good, not flashy but real good. Turturro’s flashy and real good. Lee’s a fine protagonist. He’s generally reserved, which ends up helping to quickly introduce characters. In his scenes with Joie Lee and then Perez, he jumpstarts his character development. He’s more reactionary in his scenes with Aiello, Turturro, and Richard Edson (as Aiello’s nice younger son). Again, protagonist but not really main character.

In smaller parts, some fantastic acting. Dee, who starts a bigger character than she finishes, Harris, and Jackson, in particular. Joie Lee’s pretty good but never as good as when she’s bickering with her brother. Lee directs her a little different than everything else, almost like she’s in a featured cameo. The same goes, in very different ways, for Rosie Perez. She’s good too; it’s a good thing Perez is so naturally memorable–it’s the writing too but no one curses like she does–because she’s so set completely aside from everything else.

And, of course, a special mention of Christa Rivers. She’s in the background, she’s got no other film credits, but she’s tasked with holding a bunch of the film together just through reaction shots. She’s great.

Do the Right Thing is technically magnificent and beautifully acted. It’s also a stunning success for Lee. He goes after a lot with the film, does a lot with the film in terms of style and tone (and rapidly changing them), and it all hits.

Even with that studio-mandated insert shot of Lee at the end.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Bill Lee; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), John Turturro (Pino), Joie Lee (Jade), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Rosie Perez (Tina), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin Out), Richard Edson (Vito), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Ponte), Rick Aiello (Officer Long), John Savage (Clifton), and Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy).


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Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945, Wallace Fox), Chapter 13: The Mystery of the Payroll

While most of the thirteen chapters of Brenda Starr, Reporter don’t deal with it, The Mystery of the Payroll is what the whole thing is supposedly about. And it gets solved in the last chapter. Though not really. I mean, it’s solved, but not satisfactorily. In fact, one of the big twists just raising more questions. Luckily, there’s no time to answer them because the serial is over.

After what should be an action-packed cliffhanger resolution (it isn’t, though there’s at least some action in a long shot), the story moves back to the newspaper office. Joan Woodbury is in trouble again with boss Frank Jaquet for disobeying copper Kane Richmond. Pretty soon, there’s a deus ex machina reveal and the wrap-up begins.

I suppose it’s efficiently executed; there’s quite a bit of wrapping up to do, even if none of it involves Woodbury. Given how poorly the serial leaves her, it’s probably better she didn’t get any of that material. It’s mostly Syd Saylor and William ‘Billy’ Benedict.

This chapter might be Benedict’s least annoying performance in the serial. He’s not a constant drag on the proceeding like usual. Or it might just be the “final chapter” energy.

Payroll is a disappointing end to a disappointing serial. It might have been nice, at least once, for Woodbury to take the titular Reporter job seriously instead of just being an adventurer.

Of course, the same goes for inept copper Richmond.

Brenda Starr, Reporter is a drag. Mystery of the Payroll might have been able to brace it after the last few chapters’ general competence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

CREDITS

Directed by Wallace Fox; screenplay by Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton, based on the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Charles Henkel Jr.; music by Edward J. Kay; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr), Kane Richmond (Lt. Larry Farrell), Syd Saylor (Chuck Allen), George Meeker (Frank Smith), Wheeler Oakman (Heller), Cay Forester (Vera Harvey), Marion Burns (Zelda), Lottie Harrison (Abretha), Ernie Adams (Charlie), Jack Ingram (Kruger), Anthony Warde (Muller), John Merton (Joe Schultz), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Pesky), and Joe Devlin (Sgt. Tim Brown).


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Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945, Wallace Fox), Chapter 12: Murder at Night

Murder at Night features two murders at night. It doesn’t, however, have much night. Ira H. Morgan’s day-for-night photography is so inept, most of the action seems like it’s taking place late afternoon. The visual cues run contrary to the script, which has all the action taking place over hours.

So, basically, no one sleeps in Brenda Starr. Cousin Lottie Harrison stays up all night in case Joan Woodbury comes home and needs a meal cooked for her (and any guests).

Oddly enough, the script introduces a whole new element–there’s a mole for the bad guy at Woodbury’s newspaper. Woodbury doesn’t even know the bad guy’s identity. Everyone thinks George Meeker is on the up-and-up, not realizing he’s running a gang for the still unseen (and not really heard from lately) “Big Boss.”

There’s some energy from the finale chase scene, which does set up a real cliffhanger, but the chapter–penultimate or not–is more of the same from Brenda Starr. There are double-crosses, there are betrayals, there is repetitive dialogue. Practically all of Wheeler Oakman’s dialogue involves begging Woodbury to turn him over to the cops; she always refuses, with her reasons getting thinner as the chapter progresses.

The chapter also has a pointless flashback to another chapter. Time killer.

There’s a lot to wrap up in the final chapter–the “Big Boss,” the mole, the secret code (presumably the location of some stolen money)–and Starr needs to use all its remaining time wisely, which seems highly unlikely given the serial to this point.

CREDITS

Directed by Wallace Fox; screenplay by Ande Lamb and George H. Plympton, based on the comic strip by Dale Messick; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Charles Henkel Jr.; music by Edward J. Kay; produced by Sam Katzman; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Joan Woodbury (Brenda Starr), Kane Richmond (Lt. Larry Farrell), Syd Saylor (Chuck Allen), George Meeker (Frank Smith), Wheeler Oakman (Heller), Cay Forester (Vera Harvey), Marion Burns (Zelda), Lottie Harrison (Abretha), Ernie Adams (Charlie), Jack Ingram (Kruger), Anthony Warde (Muller), John Merton (Joe Schultz), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Pesky), and Joe Devlin (Sgt. Tim Brown).


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Hammer, Slammer, & Slade (1990, Mark Schultz)

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a television pilot spin-off of a movie (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). It has the same writer as the movie–Keenan Ivory Wayans–and much of the movie’s cast. The three “leads” all return from the movie–Bernie Casey is Slade, Jim Brown is Slammer, and Isaac Hayes is Hammer. Slade, Slammer, & Hammer does sound terrible, but it’s the more accurate order as far as plot importance goes for the characters.

And then there’s Eriq La Salle. He’s playing the Wayans part from the movie, but a rookie cop for TV instead of the film’s war hero. Frankly, he’s in it too much. La Salle’s got two modes–passive and even more passive. He can’t figure out the part and director Schultz is no help. Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is often hilarious. But it’s never because of Schultz. His direction is an unmitigated disaster.

Harsh adjective, but there’s no reason this pilot shouldn’t have been magic. Except it’s not magic. And it’s not even Schultz’s fault; he’s just not the right guy to do this thing. Because this thing is a spoof of an eighties cop procedural, seventies blaxploitation pictures, with three–ahem, “older”– genre superstar leads, and an often deft script from Wayans. But Wayans’s jokes aren’t paced right for the forty-seven minute pilot–right, Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a pilot for an hour-long action comedy show. Back when it was shopped around in 1990–spoiler–it didn’t sell. Because it wasn’t time yet.

It also doesn’t help the film stock–that standard eighties drama film stock–used on the pilot doesn’t fit the content at all. Especially not with Schultz’s bad composition of set pieces. He’s never good, but he gets noticeably worse on the set pieces. Because he can’t direct the comedy.

The first act is La Salle’s cop mentor (also blaxploitation star Ron O’Neal) getting framed and La Salle going to Casey for help. It’s a great time for the character focus to pass off because La Salle’s too tedious. The show’s called Hammer, Slammer, & Slade, not the The Guy From the Movie Didn’t Come Back. It’s about Casey, Brown, and Hayes.

The getting the band back together takes way too long. It eventually pays off. But it takes too long.

Another timing issue is how long the talking scenes go on. Sure, all the actors get some cool posturing, but then it just keeps going. So either Wayans wrote terrible scene transitions or someone told the actors to just ad lib and hope for a quotable gem. During the second act, it gets annoying. The pilot has these illustrated transitions for commercial breaks–which are awesome–but when a scene is bad, you just sit and hope for it to go to illustration instead of it not stopping. It’s the same series of boring shots from Schultz and bad cuts from Stan Allen.

The editing is real bad, partially because Schultz clearly can’t get consistent deliveries from the actors. Just in conversation.

So it’s kind of rough going for a while. The soft misogyny jokes (from the good guys) don’t help–and it’s one of La Salle’s few scenes after the first act, so it makes him even more grating. And the way Wayans frames Hayes initially as a punchline for being hen-pecked (a fantastic Ja’net DuBois in a poorly written part) is tiresome.

There’s been at least one good laugh, but some failed ones too.

Then the team comes together in action scenes and there’s actual energy. Casey, Brown, and Hayes are all willing to do more work than the script or direction requires. They’ve been getting nerf balls or worse–Schultz has no idea how to direct Brown or Brown’s lines–but then the requirements of the medium take over and the pilot has to throw fastballs or whatever. And the actors are ready.

Even La Salle. He breaks character for a couple lines when he actually seems like he’s acting. Sure, he seems like he’s an angry Peter Benton but it’s something.

Poor Steve James does the most work in the unfortunately written part of Black man obsessed with karate. He never gets good material, though the script does at least recognize he’s the only one in shape. The out of shape, aging jokes are good. Not even Schultz can mess up the direction enough in those scenes. The actors seem cautious about it at first, then commit as things go on.

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade ought to be awesome. It’s not. It still should’ve been a series. With a lower budget–being shot on video and looking like a sitcom would’ve helped–and anyone else directing.

Still, as is, the cool factor outweighs the significant problems.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Schultz; written by Keenen Ivory Wayans; director of photography, Charles Mills; edited by Stan Allen; music by Stanley Clarke; production designer, Maxine Shepard; produced by Tony Bishop; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Bernie Casey (John Slade), Eriq La Salle (Jack Spade), Jim Brown (Slammer), Isaac Hayes (Hammer), Steve James (Kung Fu Joe), Ron Dean (Sgt. Hill), Mark Rolston (Little Mr. Big), Martin Lawrence (Willie), Bentley Kyle Evans (Lenny), Ja’net DuBois (Joanne Wilson), Almayvonne (Coreatha), and Ron O’Neal (Ray Samuels).


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