A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Do The Right Thing” (1989) 9.20.15

In continuing my streak of seeing older films that I admire for the first time on the big screen, this week I caught both writer/director Spike’s Lee most well known work, as well as the defining film on racism that’s ever been made in the United States (or anywhere else for that matter). It’s also perhaps maybe the single most important film to date outside of maybe Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (1993). Lee’s work, especially his work throughout the eighties and nineties, were arguably his best, and anyone that knows me knows that I have been and always will be an avid Spike Lee supporter. Even if the last really good project he’s released was the Hurricane Katrina documentary – “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006). It is because of this one film, “Do The Right Thing”, now 26 years old; but just as prevalent as it is in the present day as it was way back then, that I will always have nothing but the utmost deep respect and admiration for Lee the artist, even if he never puts out a single good film ever again.

It’s interesting to me now when I think about the fact that we live in a society and culture that’s both so entrenched and sculpted by the language, music, art, and aesthetic of hip hop, that there was actually a time where the force of that movement hadn’t been tapped into yet. At least certainly not in the filmmaking world. And at the same time thinking how commercial, materialistic, and shallow much of this music has become. It was once an actual youth movement that stood for something where the music was radical, subversive, and even revolutionary. “Do The Right Thing” was the first film to capture that point in time where hip hop or rap music was urgent and conscious while also channeling a lot of the issues of Black America at the time – racism, racial pride, class struggle, and urban living.

The film’s opening credits are set to an assault of beats and bombastic music of the hip hop elders and icons – Public Enemy and their single “Fight The Power”. We then meet the many different characters that occupy a dense Brooklyn neighborhood as they face one of those unbearable stretches of heat in the summertime. Most all of whom are vibrant, loud, and eccentric who ultimately cross paths and intersect and various points throughout the film. The film is anchored by its main character, Mookie (Spike Lee), a pizza delivery boy who traverses back and forth throughout the neighborhood and through who we get to meet the film’s many vibrant characters while doing so. There’s his girlfriend (played by the then newly discovery Rosie Perez), the two elders (the late great Civil Rights activists and actors – Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee – who were married in real life), the neighborhood youth as represented by; among others, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), and the Italian pizzeria owner Sal (the Oscar nominated Danny Aiello) and his two sons – Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Rounding out this large group of characters are three late middle-aged men (one of them played by one of the greatest Black comedians of all time – Robin Harris) whose scathing commentary on the day’s events provide a lot of the film’s funniest scenes. As the hot summer day progresses and tempers start to flare ordinary events take on extraordinary significance.

I’ve always declared that “Do The Right Thing” was one of my top 25 favorite films of all time. And this viewing; again my first time on the big screen, just solidified why I consider it to be such a major and important work, and yet another film that I can honestly say I have a relationship with, or a special bond to, that I do with only my very favorite of films. Lee’s expertly written (which he would receive an Oscar nomination for for Best Original Screenplay) and utterly confident piece of directing is astonishing to watch. But even more importantly, are the themes; many of which I listed above, that he interweaves into his morality play on racial tensions in America. How seemingly ordinary daily exchanges by people of different races, creeds, and colors, can explode into fiery bursts of violence (the climax of the film; which apparently caused riots in certain cities in the US upon its release, is brutally powerful and utterly devastating) and showcased police brutality and the fracturing within a community of people. This winds up being a clear metaphor for the state of the late 20th century’s American race relations. Forget Paul Haggis’ Oscar winning “Crash” (2004) that tried to tackle similar themes yet failed miserably at trying to do so. “Do The Right Thing” is a unapologetically angry film, but it needs to be in order to speak to the themes in which it explores. But even despite it being so, Lee expertly handles these difficult themes in a balancing act that’s also filled with images of black love and social camaraderie that is both so real and so rare to find, especially nowadays, in American cinema that they seem radical (and were) for their time. Shot beautifully in bright, vibrant colors that represented much of hip hop culture in the eighties, with skewed camera angles that almost make it look like it was framed to look like a comic book, along with a fine example of film editing that reflects the energetic thrust of the film. “Do The Right” thing has become one of the most influential movies in the history of filmmaking, not only stylistically, but for being the first film that gave other future filmmakers permission to draw from the experiences of lives (specifically that of Black America) that previously had been ignored or distorted in both Hollywood and independent film. It’s Lee’s calling card to the entire country in hopes of waking us up or rendering us more conscious of how racism exists and functions in America. And for it I am forever grateful.

[A]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

I found it interesting that in the 100 or so+ reviews I’ve written since this blog’s inception in August of last year that I’ve not once discussed or shared how I feel about the works of the most important filmmaker of the past 50 years, Steven Spielberg. It’s probably because well, I can’t say I’m that big a fan of his as guys like him and George Lucas of the “Star Wars” films were single-handedly responsible for the death (I know that’s a big word) of the Golden Age of cinema, the 1970’s, and are noted for giving birth to the rise of the popcorn fare summer blockbusters which ultimately led to the art of film itself becoming commercialized. However one could say film has always been “commercialized” in a sense if go all the way back to the early days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Where the artistic side of the film was taken out and reduced to a mere form of entertainment. Though never was this contrast more apparent in the “change” from art film to that of the more mainstream that occurred towards the end of the seventies and early eighties with films like “Star Wars” and “The Indiana Jones” movies. Both hugely successful franchises that made a large imprint in terms of cinema history. And I deeply admire and respect both filmmakers for their vision and for the way in which they revolutionized the art form of film itself.

But if you look at the rather large filmography of Steven Spielberg (54 films and counting) and take a deep, hard analytical look at them, you’ll see why he’s the most important filmmaker of the latter half of the 20th century. And what interests me the most is more than any other filmmaker maybe ever, is the way in which he has the ability to straddle the line between commercial film and much more personal work, which to me is the most commendable attribute about the guy. I’ve always been a much bigger fan of the latter kinds of films that he’s done – films like “The Color Purple” (1985), “Empire of the Sun” (1987) “Schindler’s List” (1993 – a film I consider to be one of my top 5 favorite films of all time), “Amistad” (1997), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and “Munich” (2005). I’ve always favored these films over his more commercially viable films like the “Indiana Jones” series, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Hook” (1991), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “War of the Worlds” (2005), etc. The latter being all great works in their own right but with a considerable amount of mainstream appeal. While the former, seemed to be more personalized works that were deeply important to him as a filmmaker. And at least from my background as a student of film, are the kinds of films that I have a tendency to admire a lot more.

Within this large cannon of films Spielberg has made within his long and varied career are two of what I consider to be his best films are the ones that seem to be able to tow this “straddle the line” concept between mainstream and art film that I mentioned above. That being the enormously successful and influential “Jaws” (1975) which is really the first film that put him on the map and made him an almost household name. And his follow-up, this film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), both of which stay within a commercial context but showcase Spielberg the filmmaker’s more artistic side. While both films are very entertaining in their own respect, they’re also impeccably done from an artistic standpoint. I learned this first hand when I watched “Jaws” for the first time in high school at the guidance of a teacher of film. It was one of the seminal works in film that made me almost never look at the art form the same way again. And hit me on such a guttural level that putting it into words would be a bit too much of a daunting task to describe in words.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, while a much different kind of film in terms of genre than “Jaws”, is coincidentally not only his follow-up film to that but also my third favorite behind both it and “Schindler’s List”. It has been on my bucket list for quite some time now of movies that I chase to see on the big screen if given the opportunity. And boy was I excited when I saw that one of our local theaters in town was releasing it as a one-week engagement.

What’s so great about CEOTTK is that with the exception of maybe Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) it was the first film to deal with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. At least on the same kind of scope and level as that film. As I watched the film this time around on the big screen closely, I came to the realization of just how well executed it is from almost every single film-making component. The character and acting of Richard Dreyfuss as your simple-minded Joe Schmoe, who, after an encounter with a UFO, goes on the ultimate personal quest searching for answers is both compelling and thoroughly engaging throughout. As is its spectacular special effects and light show, which had my jaw gaping to both hear John Williams’ terrific score and see its astonishing visual imagery projected onto the big screen, with a story that produces both an undeniably compassionate and human one with an emotional core about an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

I also love the film’s timelessness and it’s appeal to both adolescents and adult thinkers alike. And more than any other Spielberg work, it feels deeply definitive in both its style and substance as well as being iconic and timeless. Finally, in what is maybe one of the single most greatest climaxes in film history – the alien mother ship sequence, is a technical delight, which had me looking up at the screen marveling collectively in awe at the brilliance of what I was seeing. This is one of the best Science Fiction films of all time that also works equally well as a thriller, and is a glimpse into the mind of Spielberg’s psyche, whose greatest gift as a filmmaker has always been his ability to grasp a hold of his viewers and allow them access to be able to marvel and wonder at the possibilities of the infinite.

[A]

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