Tag Archives: Universal Pictures

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 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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You Gotta Stay Happy (1948, H.C. Potter)

It takes You Gotta Stay Happy a while to get there, but it’s actually a road movie. Well, it’s flying movie. Owner-operator James Stewart flies his cargo plane from New York to California with a number of paying passengers (a no no), with co-pilot Eddie Albert doing most of the ticket sales. The film’s title is Albert’s favorite phrase, used mostly to remind boss and friend Stewart he’s not doing enough to make himself happy.

Except the film’s not about Stewart and Albert’s post-war attempts at getting a freight airline going (okay, maybe fifteen or twenty percent), it’s about Stewart and Joan Fontaine. He doesn’t know it, but she’s a wealthy spinster (at the ripe age of twenty-eight) who’s running away from her new husband on their wedding night. Willard Parker plays the husband. He’s awful. Not the performance, the performance is fine, but the husband. He’d be a troll if he weren’t so tall; he’s a dipshit. There’s no better adjective. He’s a dipshit.

And Fontaine releases she doesn’t want to be married to a dipshit, regardless of his social position, personal wealth, and career success. So she ends up in Stewart’s hotel room, letting him make assumptions about why she’s running away from Parker. Stewart too knows Parker is a dipshit and feels sorry for Fontaine. She doesn’t correct any of his wrong assumptions.

Stewart and Fontaine’s first night, which features mishaps with wake-up calls, sleeping pills, and intrusive hotel staff, sort of acts as first act, sort of not. Karl Tunberg’s screenplay is an adaptation of serialized story, which would make the film seem more episodic if Tunberg weren’t so good at streamlining and director Potter didn’t have such a fine sense of comedy. And, of course, there’s Stewart and Fontaine. They have very different styles in first act; he’s tired and distracted, she’s on the run. They have entirely different motivators and different ways of pacing their performances. The whole film has great pacing and it’s right from the start.

Then Albert comes in and the plane and the passengers and the cargo. There are newlyweds onboard, there’s a chimpanzee who only likes Fontaine, there’s an embezzeler on the run. The plot progresses along the plane’s flight plan, with Stewart and Albert mistakenly concluding Fontaine’s the embezzeler (not a rich heiress). Fontaine gets some fun scenes before the romance subplot takes over. Turns out Stewart’s taken with her, regardless of suspecting her to be a fugitive.

Many complications ensue, including some with phenomenal minature special effects of the airplane. And Stewart and Fontaine get in sync as far as their performances. You Gotta Stay Happy has a short present action–two and a half days at most–and for the romance to work, the chemistry’s got to be palpable. It ends up so thick it needs to chiseled. With Stewart’s arc mostly pragmatic–he’s got a plane to fly, cargo to deliver, Albert to control–and Fontaine losing her share of solo screentime after she gets onboard, their romantic subplot becomes Happy’s relief moments. They’re somehow set back from the plot–they’ve both got their own trajectories, which have to conclude, and their gentle, tender scenes together hint at something deeper.

It’s not easy to imply that depth, either, because the film is pretty clear about Fontaine’s romantic feelings after a certain point. But there are still problems to be resolved and Tunberg has some last act revealations about Stewart’s character to get in as well. There just wasn’t time to reveal them during the screwball scenes.

The supporting cast is excellent. Albert’s awesome. If it weren’t Fontaine and Stewart in the leads, he’d be able to run away with the movie. Percy Kilbride, Porter Hall, Marcy McGuire, Edith Evanson, they’re all excellent. Potter always gives his supporting cast a lot of room to work without ever overpowering a scene. Though Stewart and Fontaine are always more than willing to make room. The film’s got a wonderful balance. Helps there’s a built-in plot with the flight.

Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score, which is very screwball, gets a little much at times but never enough to break a gag. Russell Metty’s photography is gorgeous, especially once he gets to do night time exteriors. The film spends its open in hotels and hotel rooms, then moves into an airplane interior. Getting outside in to the air gives Metty a chance to shine.

Albeit at night.

You Gotta Stay Happy is a lot of fun. Potter’s direction. Stewart, Fontaine, and Albert’s performances. It’s not a surprise it’s a success–it puts a smile on your face and keeps it there once it’s over. The only time it doesn’t is when it’s making you laugh.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by H.C. Potter; screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on a story by Robert Carson; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Paul Weatherwax; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof; production designer, Alexander Golitzen; produced by Tunberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Joan Fontaine (Diana), James Stewart (Marvin), Eddie Albert (Bullets), Willard Parker (Henry Benson), Porter Hall (Mr. Caslon), Marcy McGuire (Georgia Goodrich), Arthur Walsh (Milton Goodrich), William Bakewell (Dick Hebert), Percy Kilbride (Mr. Racknell), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Racknell), and Roland Young (Ralph Tutwiler).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE JOAN FONTAINE CENTENARY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.


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Dracula’s Daughter (1936, Lambert Hillyer)

Dracula’s Daughter starts as a comedy. With Billy Bevan’s bumbling police constable, there’s nothing else to call it. Sure, the opening deals with the immediate aftermath of the original Dracula–returning Edward Van Sloan arrested for driving a stake through a man’s heart–but it’s all for smiles, if not laughs. Bevan’s terrified expressions carry the movie until it’s time for Gloria Holden to show up.

Holden plays the title role. She’s in England to dispose of her father’s remains and to paint (and to prey upon the living). She’s not happy about preying upon the living and Garrett Fort’s screenplay implies its all going to be about vampirism as a compulsion. Top-billed Otto Kruger ties everything together; he’s a society psychiatrist, trained by Van Sloan, who ends up defending his old teacher while taking an interest in Holden. She’s in society because her paintings? It’s unclear why anyone would invite her. Fort’s script isn’t good on narrative progression.

Holden thinks Kruger might be able to help her with the vampirism. She assumed her father’s death would help, but her man servant and familiar Irving Pichel convinces her otherwise. Pichel’s just around to encourage Holden’s bad habits. He definitely looks creepy, but he doesn’t treat her with any respect, much less fear. It creates a bit of a tonal imbalance–the vampire isn’t bad, the human encouraging her is bad–until Holden finally takes up the villain reins.

Once Holden and Pichel go after Nan Grey (who’s rather good in her small part), it’s clear the happy London society dalliances are soon to be over. See, Kruger’s her doctor too. And he’s going to get to the bottom of it. Can Holden convince him to join her–possibly replacing Pichel–in Transylvania before Kruger can dehypnotize Grey long enough to find out who attacked her?

It’d be a far more effective twist if Holden’s character were better developed (and established in the first place) and if director Hillyer didn’t direct Kruger like he’s always waiting to react to a punchline. Once the initial comedic stuff is over–though Scotland Yard man Gilbert Emery is mostly for laughs (including the film’s best ones)–Hillyer starts giving Kruger these close-ups where he’s just reacting to something or pensively smoking. I guess he needs to be doing something since he’s not figuring out Van Sloan’s not crazy and Holden’s got something weird going on.

Twenty-something Marguerite Churchill is quinquagenarian Kruger’s assistant. She’s an heiress or something so she gives him a lot of guff. She’s also, of course, enamored with him. Because why wouldn’t she be enamored with her fifty-year old boss. They don’t have any romantic chemistry, though occasionally Kruger does come off paternal. Too occasionally.

Churchill’s unprofessional jealousy of Holden eventually gets her in a lot of trouble, kicking off the final act, where Kruger’s got to fly to Transylvania to try to save the day. He doesn’t, as it turns out, because Fort’s script is goofy. I wonder if it had to contort itself through the Hays Code. Hopefully. At least contorting for the Code would provide an excuse.

The film’s got good sets and fine photography from George Robinson. Hillyer starts with some creepiness, but soon gives it up. Why the film should want to scare Bevan’s bumbling constable but not Churchill or Grey’s damsels is another of its mysteries. There are some excellent foggy London effects and some real mood with Holden, in her black wraps–though Holden’s costuming when she’s not a creature of the night is grey and drab.

Holden’s okay. The film’s failures aren’t her fault. They’re not Kruger’s fault either, but he’s so miscast after a while–and Hillyer’s direction of him is so awry–he gets tiring. Van Sloan’s fun for a while, but he too can’t survive. Churchill’s just annoying. Maybe it’s supposed to be the part.

Dracula’s Daughter is an almost solid production of a troubled script. It’s a bunch of ill-fitting pieces mashed together without success.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lambert Hillyer; screenplay by Garrett Fort, based on a suggestion by David O. Selznick and a story by Bram Stoker; director of photography, George Robinson; edited by Milton Carruth; produced by E.M. Asher; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Otto Kruger (Jeffrey Garth), Gloria Holden (Countess Marya Zaleska), Irving Pichel (Sandor), Edward Van Sloan (Professor Von Helsing), Marguerite Churchill (Janet), Gilbert Emery (Sir Basil Humphrey), Nan Grey (Lili), and Billy Bevan (Albert).


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