Archive for June 1989

Do the Right Thing

June 30, 1989

Spike Lee’s angry masterpiece about tensions fanned to a flame on a broiling summer day in Bed-Stuy. Its secret is that it isn’t necessarily “about” racism, or about “getting whitey” (as many stupid commentators charged), or really about anything except a day in the world Lee has crafted so lovingly. The title suggests a command, but Lee’s film itself almost puts a question mark on the end of it: What is the right thing? That’s why some critics looking for an example of “the right thing” being done were confounded. In Lee’s view, the right thing is subjective and situational and driven more often than not by intense emotion. Is Mookie (Lee himself) doing the right thing by tossing the trash can through the window of the pizza place, therefore deflecting anger away from the people who work there? Is Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) doing the right thing by demanding that Sal (Danny Aiello), the owner of the pizza place, put photos of black luminaries on the walls? The whole movie is up for debate. Lee may be saying that in a world where racism is so deeply ingrained and ethics are so bifurcated — one set of rules for whites, another for everyone else — it’s hard to define “the right thing.”

This is generally acknowledged as Spike Lee’s peak (though he has made fine films since), mainly because his filmmaking has seldom been more unified — his visuals are on the money (Ernest Dickerson, who was Lee’s cinematographer from the early days up until Crooklyn, can take a bow) and so are his characterizations. The large, gifted cast — including the electric Samuel L. Jackson (playing the radio jock Mister Señor Love Daddy, a name worthy of Francesca Lia Block), the not-yet-unfunny Martin Lawrence, the hilarious Robin Harris, the stoic Bill Nunn (who was well into his thirties when he played Radio Raheem but managed to look like a damn teenager!), the irritable Rosie Perez, the sad, wise Ossie Davis, the no-nonsense Ruby Dee, the puckishly racist John Turturro (his character Pino, that is, not the actor), the radiant Joie Lee, the pissed-off Frank Vincent (“Moe and Joe Black”), the poignant yet funny Roger Guenveur Smith as “Smiley,” the amiable Richard Edson — comprise one of the finest ensembles ever seen in a movie. Much of the film, up until the final tragedy, is actually pretty light and funny (it’s endlessly quotable — one of my favorites is “D, motherfucker, D!”); Lee gradually turns the heat up until we believe that the bottled-up tensions can lead to death and destruction. This is Lee’s Nashville, his Godfather, his Taxi Driver — the movie his subsequent work will (perhaps unfairly) be measured against for the rest of his life.


Batman (1989)

June 23, 1989

It’s easy now to laugh at the studio’s pre-release paranoia (Mr. Mom as Batman? $40 million budget? Are we gonna die here?) that led to a marketing Bat-blitz not seen since the ’60s. But this project, which Warner sat on for years, was considered a big gamble. As everyone knows, it paid off. Tim Burton’s spectacularly depressed vision took a page from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and restored Batman to his dark pulp roots, with added elements of opera and German silent films (the latter would be much more evident in the first sequel). Narratively, it doesn’t make much sense; almost petulantly, Burton skimps on plot basics. For example, when is the moment that crusading photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) discovers Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne? Burton never tells us.

By his own account, Burton was miserable during the making of Batman, and the anxious exhaustion shows; the movie isn’t an effervescent cartoon like Burton’s previous features. But it’s a fascinating watercolor in purple and black, with a surprisingly subtle performance by Michael Keaton, who plays Batman/Bruce as a borderline case who needs to climb into a bat-suit and kick some ass. And, of course, there’s the top-billed Jack Nicholson hamming it up as the Joker — though his admittedly crowd-pleasing turn isn’t quite as brilliant as everyone said; he’s antic and loud without being especially funny (or scary). Burton sees himself in both Batman and the Joker, which is what gives Batman the complex duality the comic books generally lack. This gloomy opera isn’t so much heroic as it is bitter and wounded. Many critics expecting an ordinary adventure movie had no idea what to make of it.

Murky, eye-punishing cinematography (which looks sharper on video) by Roger Pratt; Oscar-winning sets by Anton Furst; costumes by Bob Ringwood; great score by Danny Elfman, with some mewling background things (one hesitates to call them songs) by Prince. With Michael Gough as Alfred, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Robert Wuhl, Tracey Walter, a hambone Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, and William Hootkins. You might remember (uncredited) co-screenwriter Charles McKeown as the guy who occupies the office (and desk) next to Jonathan Pryce in Brazil. Followed by Batman Returns; Burton’s next was Edward Scissorhands.

Vampire’s Kiss

June 2, 1989

A fascinating cult black comedy with an infamously left-field performance by Nicolas Cage as a Manhattan literary agent who thinks he’s a vampire. The movie barely opened in theaters (and was cut by the distributor prior to its shabby release), probably because it was sold as a spoof á la Love at First Bite. After a night with mysterious Jennifer Beals, who may or may not be a bloodsucker, Cage deteriorates into a cross between Dwight Frye’s Renfield and Max Schreck’s Nosferatu. He intimidates and then rapes his frightened secretary (Maria Conchita Alonso); he gobbles pigeons and cockroaches (notoriously, Cage actually ate a live roach on camera); eventually he staggers through the streets with a wooden stake pointed at his heart, begging people to kill him. For pure, undiluted Cage-osity, Vampire’s Kiss is the film to beat and is a strange, uncommercial, and worthwhile movie in its own right.