Category Archives: Drama

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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The Explosive Generation (1961, Buzz Kulik)

The Explosive Generation has expert plotting. Joseph Landon’s script; it’s expertly plotted. Even when it high tails it away from the “hook,” it’s still expertly plotted. The film goes from being about teenagers trying to frankly and openly discuss sex in teacher William Shatner’s classroom to being about student protest. The protagonist goes from being good girl Patty McCormack to her initially a jerk boyfriend, Lee Kinsolving.

McCormack is all right.

Kinsolving is horrific. He tries really, really hard too. The movie’s eighty-nine minutes and at least three of the runtime just has to be Kinsolving’s dynamic thinking expressions. He’s always so perplexed.

Maybe if director Kulik helped with the performances, but he doesn’t have time for the actors. He’s too busy butchering everything else.

Explosive Generation is an ugly, cheap picture. Floyd Crosby’s photography is bad. Hal Borne’s music is bad. Kulik’s composition and sense of timing are a nightmare. When the film does have its moments, it’s a shock; those moments succeed just because Landon’s plotting is so strong and his flat expository dialogue just happens to sync with the actor performing it.

Those actors are usually Shatner (though his performance falls apart as he becomes an unwilling martyr), McCormack, maybe Suzi Carnell–more on her in a bit–and sometimes Edward Platt. Oh, and sometimes single dad Stephen Dunne, who just wants to look cool to son Billy Gray. Gray’s never good but he’s a lot better than Kinsolving.

Again, who knows how it would’ve gone if the direction were a micron better. The film’s got some bad sets for home interiors, but the location exteriors are fine and it does shoot in a high school. Or some kind of school. Composition and lighting can do wonders. Kulik and photographer Crosby exhibit a striking inability to do wonders.

When the movie starts, it’s about teens McCormack, Kinsolving, Carnell, and Gray having a sleepover at Gray’s dad’s beach house. After some terribly cut together and scored opening titles–everyone involved in Explosive’s post-production seems to think having bland boppy “jazz” is going to make the film seem edgy. It leads to opening titles setting a bad tone. But then it’s Carnell talking McCormack into spending the night. Gray bullies and teases McCormack to get her to stay (for Kinsolving’s sake).

Well, then the movie cuts to the next morning and McCormack seems upset but Carnell’s having a full breakdown. Explosive drops Carnell as a character about ten minutes later, though it later blames her for snitching. It’s weird and about the only weak plotting decision Landon makes.

At some point, the movie becomes about Kinsolving trying to save Shatner’s job for him and discovering even though the school’s full of bland, upper middle class Southern California white kids, they have the right to intellectual curiosity.

The film entirely cops out on resolving the issues with the controlling parents. McCormack’s dad, Arch Johnson, gets to do a big meltdown and then disappears. Virginia Field, as mom, does something similar but then returns as a deus ex machina, because it turns out she’s just a person too.

Landon plots well. He doesn’t write well. Explosive Generation shows just how big wide the gap is between the two. The film has a great set piece at the end, which Kulik couldn’t direct even if he had the budget to stage it, but it’s a fantastic idea. The film’s got a few of them. Ideas but no potential because it’s so poorly made.

Crosby’s cinematography is so bad, so flat, one wishes for a computer colorized version just to break up the same shade of school hallway gray. It infests the pallette.

Despite being an audiovisual blight on the medium of film, The Explosive Generation is a heavily qualified “success.” So qualified it needs quotation marks, in fact. But thanks to Landon’s plotting, Shatner and McCormack’s likability, and its earnestess, the film compells.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Buzz Kulik; written by Joseph Landon; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Hal Borne; produced by Stanley Colbert; released by United Artists.

Starring Patty McCormack (Janet Sommers), Lee Kinsolving (Dan Carlyle), Billy Gray (Bobby Herman Jr.), William Shatner (Peter Gifford), Suzi Carnell (Marge Ryker), Edward Platt (Mr. Morton), Stephen Dunne (Bobby Herman Sr.), Phillip Terry (Mr. Carlyle), Arch Johnson (Mr. George Sommers), Jan Norris (Terry), Beau Bridges (Mark), and Virginia Field (Mrs. Katie Sommers).


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The Beguiled (1971, Don Siegel)

While The Beguiled is a thriller, the film keeps the thrills exceptionally grounded. The film’s set during the Civil War, with wounded Yankee sniper Clint Eastwood taking refuge at a girls school in Confederate territory. The school is quite literally set aside from the war. The war is outside the gates and everyone wants to keep it that way. And they can’t. The Beguiled opens with a montage of Civil War photographs in an attempt to sear the images into the viewer’s mind and memory (at least for the film’s runtime).

Even if the characters can avoid thinking about the war, the viewer can’t.

Because there’s enough going on in The Beguiled it could be avoiding the war entirely. Especially once Geraldine Page’s character reveals as all done. Except director Siegel keeps all the reveals as grounded as the thrills. He never wants to break tone, which is one of the film’s bolder moves as Siegel takes almost the first hour to establish the limits of that tone. The Beguiled is excruciatingly deliberate; Bruce Surtees’s photography makes that deliberateness something exceptional. He and Siegel do these despondent low light shots of the cast. Never scary exactly, but always disturbing. There’s no exposition about the difference between night and day in The Beguiled, but it’s there.

The Beguiled’s “there” is quite a lot.

Eastwood’s sniper is a deceitful, manipulative creep. He isn’t, however, a Confederate. And The Beguiled doesn’t shy from looking at how its female characters benefit from the Confederacy. Or what ugly people it encourages them to become.

Page’s headmistress is responsible, not caring. She’s haunted, which makes her sympathetic, but there’s always the threat of cruelness, which makes her not. Teacher (and former student) Elizabeth Hartman should always be sympathetic, but she too has some cruelty. It comes out in jealousy–usually after catching Eastwood paying too much attention to seventeen year-old student Jo Ann Harris–which somehow makes Hartman less sympathetic.

Yet Hartman has this ethereal, naive sadness to her, which creates omnipresent sympathy. Like everything in The Beguiled, there’s a lot going on.

Besides romancing Hartman, Page, and Harris, Eastwood also charms twelve year-old Pamelyn Ferdin (who finds him wounded and brings him to the woods in the first place) through some subtle grooming; the nicest thing, overall, to say about Eastwood’s character is when he’s manipulating Ferdin, it always appears it’s pragmatic exploitation, not perversion.

Because Eastwood starts being a little creepy about two minutes into The Beguiled and he never stops. He gets more creepy, he gets less creepy. Sometimes he’s right about something in addition to being a creep, sometimes he’s wrong, but he’s always a creep. He’s always untrustworthy and manipulative, even if he’s often too injured to be a real danger.

And then there’s Mae Mercer. She’s the school’s slave. She and Eastwood have the film’s closest thing to an honest relationship. Or at least one where Mercer thinks it’s honest; she’s able to see through the rest of Eastwood’s guile. Again, there’s no exposition about this understanding, it’s just in how Mercer’s performance and the film works. Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp’s script is just as deliberate as everything else–Siegel’s composition, Surtees’s lighting, the fantastic Lalo Schifrin score, and Carl Pingitore’s breathtaking editing.

The direction, the script, the photography, they all have askew aspects. Pingitore’s editing, Schifrin’s score, Ted Haworth’s production design, they’re always flat. They’re expansive and luscious, but they’re providing the foundation to keep the rest stable. The Beguiled’s exceptionally well-made.

All of the acting is great. Page is probably most impressive; her character has the most going on. Again, Eastwood’s one heck of a creep–contrasting ways he’s fundamentally a “better” character–but still just a creep. Hartman’s good, though she’s the first act romantic diversion. Once Eastwood starts flirting with Harris and Page, Hartman gets less to do. Harris is effective. It’s impressive how subtly The Beguiled reveals her innocence. Ferdin’s great. Mercer’s great.

And the rest of the girls–older than Ferdin, younger than Harris–are all good. They aren’t Beguiled, so they’re mostly background.

The film’s got this jarring technique of having a female character’s internal monologue play as they regard Eastwood or one of his behaviors, first as an enemy, then as a man (which, really, is the same thing). Siegel and Pingitore do it matter of fact, the insight not a narrative necessity, but a tonal one. Another fantastic little piece of The Beguiled.

The film’s full of them.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Carl Pingitore; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Ted Haworth; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Clint Eastwood (John McBurney), Geraldine Page (Martha Farnsworth), Elizabeth Hartman (Edwina Dabney), Pamelyn Ferdin (Amy), Mae Mercer (Hallie), Jo Ann Harris (Carol), Melody Thomas Scott (Abigail), Peggy Drier (Lizzie), Patricia Mattick (Janie), and Darleen Carr (Doris).


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The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973, Peter Yates)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an amusing, intentionally misleading title. Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) doesn’t have any friends. He has various criminal contacts he sees on a regular basis, but he doesn’t consider any of them friends. Mitchum’s a down-on-luck small-time crook who’s about to go away for a couple years. He didn’t rat, which just makes Peter Boyle–who set up the crappy job for Mitchum–even more of a jerk for teasing Mitchum about his impending doom.

Mitchum just wants to stay out so his family doesn’t have to go on welfare. It could be a tragic story, but Mitchum’s not really the focus of the film. Instead, it’s fairly even divvied between The Friends.

Boyle works at a bar where the criminals hang out and he spies on them for federal agent Richard Jordan. Mitchum also tips off Jordan on occasion. Jordan’s merciless without being cruel. He goes out of his way not to be cruel, just merciless.

Then there’s the other half of The Friends. Alex Rocco and Joe Santos are bank robbers. Mitchum supplies their guns, buying them from Steven Keats. Keats is a relative newcomer to gun dealing and a lot of the film follows him and his methodical approach to his trade. Rocco and Santos’s bank heists are similarly elaborate. Yates likes the procedural scenes. Pat Jaffe’s editing on these sequences is exquisite; they lacks dramatic weight, but they’re still masterfully executed.

Some of the problem with Friends’s dramatic weight is, frankly, Dave Grusin’s boppy score. The style might be contemporarily appropriate, but it still needs to fit the action and carry the drama. The score’s usually silly in procedural scenes and it’s fine. It doesn’t get in the way. But then when the film needs Grusin to carry some dramatic weight? Especially during the problematic third act. By then, the film’s given up on a consistent narrative rhythm and Grusin’s got to move scenes forward. The music needs to do something special. It needs to payoff.

It doesn’t.

Paul Monash’s script maybe could be better. The Friends are usually humanized in way to not make them seem bad. Even Keats, who’s only onscreen when he’s being a creep, gets humanized. But not Peter Boyle. He’s just a bad guy. Mitchum’s top-billed, plays the title character, and he practically could get an “and” credit. If it weren’t for the bank robber subplot, the film would go from being about Keats to being about Boyle and Jordan. Monash gets through it, maybe trying a little hard on the Boston criminal vocabulary, which often makes expository dialogue clunk. It’s just clear there’s got to be a better way to do this story. Monash’s script doesn’t crack it.

Yates’s direction is good. Best on procedural stuff because he too can’t figure out how to maintain consistent distance from the characters. Even though he’s second-billed and does more than Mitchum, the film’s not comfortable relying on Boyle. Instead it goes to Jordan, who’s good and all, he’s just not compelling.

Mitchum’s great. Keats’s great. Rocco and Santos are good. They don’t have a lot to do. Jordan’s good. Boyle’s good. With Boyle, there’s a definite disconnect between how Boyle’s doing the performance and how Yates’s shooting it. Boyle needs to be spellbinding. He’s not. He’s just good.

And, similarly, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is good. With some unfortunate qualifications.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Yates; screenplay by Paul Monash, based on the novel by George V. Higgins; director of photography, Victor J. Kemper; edited by Pat Jaffe; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Gene Callahan; produced by Monash; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Robert Mitchum (Eddie), Peter Boyle (Dillon), Richard Jordan (Foley), Steven Keats (Jackie Brown), Alex Rocco (Jimmy Scalise), Joe Santos (Artie Van), and Mitchell Ryan (Waters).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE "IT TAKES A THIEF" BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI.


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