Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Joker

January 19, 2020

joker-sequel-officialWatching Joker belatedly, I understood quite clearly why it got so many Oscar nominations. For what it is, it’s gorgeously assembled, with a ragged jewel of a performance by Joaquin Phoenix at its center. The problem is, well, what it is. Joker is set in Gotham City (read: New York City when you hate it; Metropolis is New York City when it’s energizing and teeming with good culture) circa 1981, and garbage is rotting on the sidewalks in its saggy tons. Joker got eleven Oscar nods, and it deserves eight of them. The grimy, soul-grinding milieu is realized with all the talent and vision $62.5 million can buy (while we realize that a movie like this not connected to a superhero franchise would have to make do with a fraction of that bankroll), and yet aesthetically the film is built to caress the eye and ear. The first half hour or so, establishing damaged wannabe-comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) and his uncompromising misery, is top-shelf filmcraft.

Unfortunately, there’s still an hour and a half to go, and Joker ends up repeating itself and lap-dancing its same handful of nihilistic points again and again. Even Phoenix eventually runs out of tricks until we can’t distinguish Arthur’s actual behavior from the iconic, narcissistic behavior (that now-famous stairway dance) in his head. We sit and diagnose Arthur: he’s a mama’s boy who suffered childhood abuse that may have rattled his brain to the point that he emits paroxysms of inappropriate laughter. The way Joker ties into the larger Bat-universe is fairly stupid; Bruce Wayne’s moneybags father Thomas (Brett Cullen, replacing Alec Baldwin and essentially doing Alec Baldwin) is an insensitive jerk, a tough-on-crime elitist who calls poor people “clowns” and is running for mayor. How is he connected to Arthur? Well, he is but he isn’t. It’s that kind of candy-ass movie, toying with big plot moves and then rescinding them.

Despite the supporting cast doing more or less what they’re asked — including Robert De Niro as a talk-show host Arthur fixates on — the movie is handed to Phoenix, and he does amazing things with his physique and voice. He commits fearlessly, and it’s a shame that people have to sit through, ultimately, a failure of a movie to see the performance. Phoenix triumphs over the material — who couldn’t? The material seems to have been conceived for him to triumph over it. The talk about Joker’s biting big chunks from Martin Scorsese, specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, is a little overblown. If anything, Joker shares more DNA with Abel Ferrara’s 1979 Driller Killer, in which the cold reality of the mentally ill being dumped onto the streets due to lack of funding was more disturbing than the gory drill-killings. Same goes here: again, if someone wanted to make a real drama about such issues that had nothing to do with DC Comics, it’d have to be made for couch change. Sadly, it doesn’t much matter that the topic is addressed in a big hit, because it isn’t really addressed so much as made into background.

An army of talent has been marshaled here to fashion a beautiful piece about a pismire. It’s loaded with artistry without itself being art, and the primary reason is that Todd Phillips, its nominal director, isn’t a director. Oh, he knows how to get usable footage for fake-outrageous mainstream comedies like the Hangover trilogy. But he can’t really shape material so that it means something or earns the horrible associations it may dredge up in some viewers, and it keeps backing away from anything truly explosive. Like The Dark Knight Rises, it demonizes protest (what the hell drugs was Michael Moore on when he praised this thing for its politics?) and finally takes no stand. It just takes this rambly, inchoate semi-narrative about a fractured psyche and pushes it out there on a toxic exhaust cloud of irony. I don’t usually pick on movies for violence they may or may not inspire, but Joker is the sort of interiorized, subjective work that doesn’t show Arthur’s life for the rancid squalor it truly would be; it just tries on the kinds of grim and gritty pirouettes and outfits that appeal to real Arthur Flecks. But, unlike a true work of art (like those two Scorsese classics) that would drive me to its defense, Joker is all pose. It says nothing about Arthur or his victims or his brutal world. Nothing.

1917

December 29, 2019

1917 Watching the immersive World War I movie 1917 makes for a divided experience: it’s a fine and compelling story, and the level of craft is unquestionable, but the mode of storytelling may hold us at a distance rather than immersing us. We’re in Northern France, and a British general (hey look kids, it’s Colin Firth!) assigns two corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), to go deliver a message to keep a couple of battalions from walking into a German trap. In other words, in the middle of all this muck and death and gore, these two guys are sent off on a pacifist mission — with the added urgency that one of the soldiers who must be called back from the fight is Blake’s brother.

All well and good. But director Sam Mendes (American Beauty and the last two Bond films) has chosen to construct 1917 as seemingly one unbroken shot (with a lot of digital trickery and one blackout). Sometimes this works to plunge us, as well as our two protagonists, into the inferno — we become an invisible third soldier, tagging along. Sometimes we even forget about the technique when the camerawork isn’t so insistently clever and we’re not wondering how many times certain lengthy takes had to be filmed if someone sneezed or blew a line. But some of it feels overextended; the suspense drains away and we’re left to admire the filmmakers (including master cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith) as they strain mightily to accomplish … what? The artifice of the unending take doesn’t connect to anything thematically, and it’s draining.

Chapman and especially MacKay convey grinding exhaustion, which, because of the filmmaking that wrenches us into lockstep with them, we share. They’re not given much space or time to develop personalities, either attractive or repulsive. (If Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns had chosen to make one of both of them annoying idiots nonetheless entrusted with a great mission, it might’ve been suicidal for the movie, but possibly interesting for a while.) The men are blanks by design: we’re meant to project ourselves onto them. And though Mendes is probably too modern a director to make the heroes stoic and brave, he also doesn’t make them ugly or cowardly. They’re meant, after all, as a tribute to Mendes’ own grandfather, upon whose WWI experience (at least as he told it) 1917 is based. Generally, though, most of the war movies that might occur to you as great films weren’t made to honor a specific veteran in the filmmaker’s family. They were made to illuminate war, not the warrior.

Certain scenes, though lovely in passing or elaborately ghastly, seem to place themselves in competition with Dunkirk or Paths of Glory or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s last two movies. Despite the technique (which Hitchcock’s Rope inaugurated at feature length over 70 years ago), 1917 feels like a regression compared with Sam Mendes’ previous war movie, or warrior-without-combat movie, 2005’s Jarhead. That movie touched on a subject generally ignored by war pictures: the boredom of war, the stultifying existential dilemma of being trained to kill and then being thwarted from doing it. And yet, in the moment, our rarin’-to-go jarhead hero is caught between disappointment that he doesn’t get to kill and relief that he doesn’t have to kill. There’s a lot more to unpack and chew on in a sarcastic, very Gen-X half-satire like Jarhead than there ever is in 1917.

A film, or any work, can be extraordinarily well-wrought and still feel a bit pointless. An abundance of fiddly labor, little flicks of the wrist, all meant to leave us impressed by the challenge of the very doing of the work. Would 1917 work as well if edited conventionally? Well, its technique does give it a hurtling-along quality, a beat-the-clock pulse. And at certain points, we seem to be watching one of the corporals bob along down some rapids for minutes on end, and we feel we’re getting sidetracked from the mission, just as the corporal is. Our impatience becomes incorporated into the suspense. Other times, though, we just feel impatient, and we have to gobble the fleeting hits of poetry or beauty as we run along with the corporals. 1917 uses its technique, finally, not to pull us into complicity with its characters but to deny us pleasure. It’s self-important and ungenerous.

The Irishman

December 1, 2019

irishman Martin Scorsese’s late-period masterpiece The Irishman kicks off on a note as darkly funny and devastating as much of the rest of the movie: a lengthy tracking shot through the halls of a Philadelphia nursing home, stopping on the gray, barely breathing husk of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Forget the famous, triumphant Copacabana tracking shot in Scorsese’s GoodFellas — this is the cold, bleak truth of a cold, bleak life. Frank, a truck driver turned button man for the Philly mob, swam in the same deep waters as crime-family head Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and embattled Teamsters king Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Before he died in 2003, Frank claimed he whacked Hoffa, a confession in much dispute. I don’t care if he really did it. The Irishman is not about the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa’s death; it’s about the mystery of Frank Sheeran’s life, and that of men like him, who gave up the long-term nourishment of family for short-term security.

At a party honoring Frank, there’s a bit where De Niro and Pesci sit and talk while Scorsese’s camera swings over for a glimpse of Pacino chatting with Harvey Keitel (as another big-time mobster). For those of a certain age who grew up watching these four men, this is like fan-service, or Christmas coming a month early. The Irishman often comes off as a farewell-tour concert, though I imagine all of them (except maybe Pesci) want to continue working — just maybe not all together, like this. The point is that the movie isn’t all desolation and loss; it has many pleasures, including watching younger turks like Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannivale, and Sebastian Maniscalco looking like kids on that same Christmas morning, in a daze of disbelief that they get to play with legends. Then you have the nearly silent Anna Paquin as Peggy, Frank’s daughter, who knows exactly what he is, and has since she was little. Peggy is what you look like when you’ve learned the harder, sharper bits of life long before you should. Paquin’s sorrow and anger haunt the film.

Aside from the much-discussed de-aging computer effects that allow De Niro and others to play men ranging from their twenties to their eighties, Scorsese doesn’t indulge much whiz-bang. His stamp is clear and bold, but shots are held longer than you expect, or old men in huge aviator glasses sit and talk, quietly or not, in hotel rooms. There’s no hint of the Rolling Stones or any other Boomer rock on the soundtrack. If Saving Private Ryan was Steven Spielberg’s salute to the Greatest Generation, The Irishman is Scorsese’s much more ambivalent view of them. The message seems to be, Our fathers may have done what they had to do, but that doesn’t make them heroes.

Or villains, either. Mostly, we see men hobbled by their own shortcomings. Pacino gives us a showboating Hoffa, afflicted with short-guy pugnacity and pride; he plays with Hoffa’s vowels like a cat with string, while De Niro nods and reacts or sometimes stammers. By and large, though, Pacino just simmers and seethes. Over-the-top bravura is left to the young men; the old masters at work here, including Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, seem to disregard anything noisy or inessential and get to the point without fuss. The Irishman is reserved, though not repressed. The old gangster violence pops out now and then, unemphatic and casual. A bullet comes for a man the way a stroke or cancer does. Nothing personal, fella, it is what it is.

Like Frank, Scorsese has all daughters. Is there a Peggy in Scorsese’s life, judging him quietly for being off on the set all the time? Even if there isn’t, Scorsese can imagine Frank’s particular purgatory. The women in these men’s lives have been trained, generationally and socially, to stand by the men and not make problems. It takes a Peggy, a woman of the next generation, to say, Hey, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. The Irishman is more about the conflict between Frank and Peggy, even when she’s nowhere near the screen, than it is about Frank’s tutelage under Bufalino or betrayal of Hoffa. The final shot invites debate and analysis. What does it express — hope, or acceptance of what’s coming? Scorsese was idiotically shamed for not giving Anna Paquin more scenes or dialogue, but she makes her presence felt, woundingly, throughout. She, too, is a master, though at 37 far from old. It’s enough that in that final shot, we know that Frank is waiting for one of two visitors. We know for sure only that one of them did come for him. And that’s that.

Wallflower

October 6, 2019

wallflower1-jumbo This past weekend, a film opened. You may have heard about it. Controversial in some quarters, it tries to enter the head of a man headed for a breakdown. His life is miserable; he wants to connect with women but doesn’t know how. He tries to fit into a community that will accept him, but it doesn’t work. Eventually his implosive anguish — we may as well say his toxic masculinity — expresses itself in explosive violence. Some commentators have said the movie sides too much with this man; others see it differently, as a depiction not glorification of anomic savagery.

Joker? No, Wallflower, a much smaller independent film based on a real-life tragedy. In 2006, a 28-year-old loner named Kyle Aaron Huff spent some of an evening at a rave in Seattle, then at an after-party. The next morning, he returned to the site of the after-party with a shotgun and a handgun; by the time he was done, seven people were dead, including Huff, by his own hand. Five years in the making, and funded on Kickstarter, Wallflower was cowritten and directed by Jagger Gravning, who’d known two of the victims and who wanted to divine meaning in the entrails of the massacre. Who was Kyle Aaron Huff (unnamed in the film, and played by David Call), and what drove him to his actions? Gravning offers some clues, and shows a few revelers trying to reach out to the killer, but sometimes fellowship isn’t enough. What would have been?

The glowering loner has his small arsenal in his truck, and at one point he acts as though he means to take his guns into the party at its peak, when the sun is still down. But he seems to think better of it — temporarily. Maybe he wants someone to change his mind, to touch something in his soul; maybe he wants to fall in love. He knows he won’t, but he’s willing to entertain the possibility. Meanwhile, we meet various players at the after-party: Link (Connor Marx), an affable anarch whose house it is; Strobe Rainbow (Atsuko Okatsuka), a lesbian cartoonist going through an acrimonious breakup. Strobe and the killer actually have a couple of things in common, but they may be too alike in the wrong ways. She seems to sense his bad vibes, and seeks to repel him from her group.

In this way do former outcasts ostracize current ones. It’s not Strobe’s fault, of course, nor does the movie come close to suggesting it is. But these are all people who — the film implies — escaped a small-town life where they were considered strange, and found a community of the likeminded strange in the rave scene of Seattle. The killer himself is originally from Whitefish, Montana, where he has a history of small dust-ups, including shooting up a moose statue. He came to Seattle, he says, because it was “close by.” He wanted to run away from home, but not too far. (The actual Huff moved there with his identical twin brother; the movie doesn’t mention a brother.) David Call does quietly pained work as the killer seems to pass an internal point of no return. Symbolically castrated and ejected from the group, he walks sadly to his truck.

Gravning has some definite chops as a director. Whether out of financial necessity or out of respect for the dead, he doesn’t show much of the carnage as it’s happening; we get a few aftermath glimpses. The style of the filmmaking is subdued and mildly doomy even during the bouncy rave sequences, when the killer is never far from the camera’s gaze, leaning against a wall staring in morose incomprehension at the ravers. A couple of the stoned conversations are as dreary as they are in real life, but mostly Wallflower walks a fine, unsteady line between keeping the narrative engaging and somehow making the story “entertaining” (exploitative). The narrative itself is splintered, nonlinear, reflecting the killer’s own cluttered headspace. By the end, attention is also paid to the continuing PTSD and coping of the survivors, and I found myself indifferent to how true to the letter of the real story the movie was. It feels true enough. Many, many fewer people will see Wallflower than saw Joker in its opening weekend, alas.

Chained for Life (2018)

August 18, 2019

chained_for_life_still A little while back, Scarlett Johansson took some heat for wanting to play a transgender character. The controversy came on the heels of earlier heat attached to Johansson playing a formerly Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell. Johansson’s tone-deaf response, which she later walked back, was “As an actor, I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal,” summoning an image of her as a pomeranian or as the title role in The Giving Tree. Yes, an actor can conceivably play anything, but should they? There are transgender actors, Japanese actors, not yet any tree actors, and they have enough trouble breaking through without cisgender white hetero actors enacting their experiences for plaudits and awards.

This goes double for disabled actors, and Chained for Life, written and directed by Aaron Schimberg, is an attempt to address their specific challenge as actors who are also disabled. Schimberg, himself born with a facial deformity, has lived and thought through the experiences of his characters, starting with Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), who has been hired to play a misunderstood-monster type opposite a blind character who falls in love with him. The movie within the movie is meant to be stupid, and many of the abled cast and crew say insensitive things (the script reflects Johansson’s remarks despite having been written long before she made them; her attitude is many things but not uncommon).

Pearson, who you may have seen opposite (ha!) Johansson in Under the Skin, lives with neurofibromatosis, and tumors pull and push his features out of alignment. His character Rosenthal says that he scares kids and animals, but I thought his face looked gentle — he looks kind, not monstrous. Sometimes his elongated jaw and full lips recall Fred Gwynne’s elegant mug. He speaks, with some effort but with precision, in a quiet English accent, though he gets his voice up in a roar when filming an argument in the movie within the movie. Rosenthal’s leading lady is Mabel (Jess Weixler), who plays the aforementioned blind woman. Mabel is the one who says, early on, to a reporter, “We’re all blind in some respect, aren’t we?” Well, no, Mabel, we don’t all have to contend with literal lack of sight and all the societal/political indifference, negligence, and downright violence associated with it. The movie knows this and doesn’t want to punish her for her entitled actor’s jargon — it wants to educate her, and eventually she comes to an understanding of disability that’s at least sharper than she had before.

Titled in a left-handed salute to the 1952 film of the same name starring the conjoined Hilton twins, Chained for Life brings in a group of actors with physical differences to play patients in a pompous melodrama about a surgeon who performs operations to make disfigured people “normal.” The director is an abusive jerk with a German accent — there’s some speculation on the set that he isn’t even German — called only Herr Director, strongly played by Charlie Korsmo in his first movie in 20 years (his last was 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait, as the drunk kid who sings “Paradise City”). The performances in general are incisive, with the insecure Weixler playing deftly off the witty Pearson, who carries himself in a way that makes the case for disabled actors playing disabled characters all by itself. He simply speaks, gestures, and stands in a fashion that almost no abled actor (Daniel Day-Lewis may be the exception; most everyone else gets a side-eye these days, rightly so) could duplicate without having lived that life year after year.

It’s a fine movie, though sometimes it tests our patience with scenes in which we have to watch actors try and try again to nail a take. The film is as much about Schimberg’s chosen medium as about disfigurement and its discontents. I get the sense that Schimberg’s script consciously diverged from any clichés (he says he’s seen and mostly disliked every film he’s seen about deformity), including the one where Mabel and Rosenthal end up together. The final shot, over which the end credits appear, is one of shared, neutral-faced community — the disfigured, the tall and short, the conjoined, the folks of indeterminate gender, all sitting in the back of a moving bus. This feels right. Rosenthal doesn’t need to have his life validated by becoming part of the pretty-face world. He has his people, and they understand each other, and Mabel, however well-intentioned, can’t be on the ride with them.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

July 28, 2019

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood will be described by some as his best and some as his worst, and both camps will have valid points. They may even both be right. All art is self-indulgent to some extent, but Tarantino really treats himself this time. It’s an elegiac film, a salute to a dead era in its death throes, and it’s a bit more melancholy than you might expect from this puckish filmmaker. It deals with real-world events freely and perhaps with even more abandon than did Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The movie, like most of Tarantino’s others, is drunk on movies — the famous Wilhelm scream is heard before the film is more than a minute old. Yet a powerful mood gathers in its prolonged takes and protracted scenes, an atmosphere of hope and despair co-existing in an America about as bitterly divided as the current one. Ultimately, OUATIH shakes out as an epic tone poem about dreams fed by violence and envy and credulity.

The sun-dappled yet decaying milieu of 1969 Hollywood — a year that saw the rivalry of two very different cowboys, John Wayne in the PG-rated True Grit and Jon Voight in the X-rated Midnight Cowboy — is lovingly realized by Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson. Partly, OUATIH is a buddy movie about on-his-uppers TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are loosely based on Burt Reynolds and his stuntman friend (and future director) Hal Needham; if Rick’s career arc is to copy Reynolds’, he might end up making one comeback after another that eventually dribbles to indifference, from which Rick might emerge again, and so on. But all that is outside the movie’s scope; Rick is still in his Navajo Joe phase, and hasn’t yet had his Deliverance or his Smokey and the Bandit. These men, who love each other, talk late into the night and watch Rick on TV together; this bromance, anchored by DiCaprio’s portrait of insecurity and Pitt’s more relaxed self-assurance, enables some of the gentlest drama Tarantino has attempted and possibly ever will again.

The story of these two has-beens parallels that of an up-and-comer, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who in our world was butchered, along with four others, by disciples of Charles Manson in the house she shared with the then-absent Roman Polanski. I don’t think Polanski even gets any (audible) lines, and Tate doesn’t get much more to say. She doesn’t really interest Tarantino as anything more than an example of movie-love and innocence imperiled. Never a feminist, though really only a masculinist on aesthetic grounds, Tarantino plays rough-house games with reality and with our expectations. He plays with our dread in ways that will bother some morally, and not entirely wrongly, either. What is he going to make us look at? In the end, he gets his bloodbath, and one can’t help noticing that the brutality against female characters is focused on, lingered on, more conspicuously than that of male characters.

Add the (ambiguous) fate of a nagging harpy in a flashback and you say, Does Tarantino hate women? Maybe not, but in a tone poem tone is everything. In scene after scene, Brad Pitt tools along in his powder-blue 1960 Karmann Ghia, down what one has no choice but to call a “painstakingly recreated” Hollywood Boulevard, the wind catching his radiant head of hair. The feel of these scenes is different from the ones where Tate is driving around town, finally pausing to watch herself in a theater playing The Wrecking Crew. I don’t think Tarantino is malicious towards women, just oblivious to their inner lives. He only has eyes for Rick and Cliff, and all the legends or near-legends he fills the margins with, and all the details and obsessively correct set design. We don’t have so many filmmakers working at this level of craft and physical verisimilitude — and who have the budget to do so, from anyone but Amazon or Netflix — that we can afford to throw Tarantino under the bus.

OUATIH may or may not spark debates about whether Tarantino is a good person (my take: he is exactly what he has always been; take that to mean whatever you want it to), but one thing beyond debate is that he’s a master. The film woolgathers and gives us scenes that seem extraneous, like establishing at length how well-trained Cliff’s dog is, but turn out not to be — and then it tightens the screws. The last half hour or so is a bravura symphony of dread and tension and release, and it simply wouldn’t be as effective were it not preceded by two hours of anecdotes punctuated by every fetish Tarantino has. It’s the donut you get after the sermon Tarantino preaches from the pulpit of his Church of Cinema. But the sermon, digressive and compassionate towards the outmoded male feeling his loss of big-dick energy, shows Tarantino at a different pitch from the revisionist pulpster who made Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. As in Jackie Brown — which has gradually been gaining favor as many viewers’ best-ranked Tarantino film — our most visible movie geek uses movie geekdom to tell a story about human defeats and disappointments. The fact is that OUATIH may be Tarantino’s most problematic film, but it’s also full of wonderful moments that wouldn’t otherwise or elsewhere be possible.

Do the Right Thing

June 23, 2019

0703_do-the-right-thing On June 30, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing turns thirty. It still hasn’t lost a step. Aside from some hairstyles and a few of the songs, it doesn’t read at all like an ‘80s film. It’s truly an end-of-a-decade work. In some respects it’s almost experimental; some of the scenes play like short theater pieces, and the movie is full of words — debate, disputation, denunciation, or just plain shooting the breeze — yet we never question it as a work of cinema. The way cinematographer Ernest Dickerson paints with skillet-hot colors, or the way editor Barry Alexander Brown snips scenes to release our laughter as well as to propel the story, or the way Ruth E. Carter dresses the characters to sketch them for us in an instant — these and more put Lee’s film, only his third, into the realm of art alongside entertainment. Its concerns are timeless and, as the film itself wearily admits, will ever be.

Nobody is really the main character of Do the Right Thing — the Bed-Stuy community itself is, it’s a group portrait — but Lee picks out Mookie, played by himself, as the character who interacts with most of the others. As a delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, Mookie sees the same faces a lot; one of the first things we see him do is direct an exasperated “Hell no” to a pair of girls who look like they want to talk to him about God, or get him to sign a petition, or something. Mookie does this as though this is far from the first time he’s waved these girls away; the same is true, mostly, of his relationship with the neighborhood disabled guy Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith). Everyone who lives or works here is by and large tired of each other, but nobody can afford to go on a vacation away from them, and it’s going to be a brutally hot day. (The movie takes place on August 5, 1989, according to the newspapers we see.)

The only thread of narrative we get is the attempts of the abrasive Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to shame Sal (Danny Aiello) into putting up photos of black celebrities alongside the Italian stars on Sal’s “wall of fame.” Buggin’ Out’s logic is that Sal’s clientele is mostly black, so the decor should reflect that; like almost everyone else in the movie, he’s not wrong, but that doesn’t make him completely right, either. Buggin’ Out’s mission is debatable; the whole chatty, pop-art-colored film is. The very title has been discussed endlessly. Does Mookie, in an act of destruction that may or may not be intended to draw collective ire from flesh towards property, “do the right thing”? Lee’s line has always been that white people always ask that question and black viewers never do. Put another way, does anyone here “do the right thing”? When, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, there is no dialogue but only contrapuntal monologue, and when there are two sets of rules, one for people of color and one for everyone else, it can be nearly impossible to know if there is a “right thing.”

To Lee’s credit, he writes dialogue (or guides his actors into improv) that allows his characters to open themselves up, justify themselves, let us see how they see themselves. Even Pino (John Turturro), Sal’s rancidly bigoted son and the closest thing the movie has to a villain other than the cops, is given some breathing room to suggest why he’s so angry. (His cronies back in Bensonhurst give him a hard time for serving food to black people.) In short, everyone would like to think he or she is doing the right thing; everyone is the star of his or her drama, each of which plays itself out on the stoops and egg-frying sidewalks of New York on the hottest day of summer. Lee’s movie is as much about a community of psychically isolated people as about racial tension. Nobody can see past their own scrim of rage, sadness, regret. Everyone is irritable.

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), one of the movie’s many great archetypes seldom seen in major films before, calls out the dichotomies that make up Lee’s film with his Night of the Hunter parable about love knocking out hate. Originally, when Robert Mitchum delivered this, it was a hypocritical little ditty that turned out to be ironically prescient. Radio Raheem looms around the neighborhood all day toting a massive, deafening boom box (playing Public Enemy’s instant classic of electric urgency “Fight the Power”) but is essentially harmless; in a way he is the film’s Jimmie Blacksmith figure, who ultimately becomes unhinged when the white power structure severs him from how he defines himself. Once he begins to lash out, he is doomed from that moment. But in his love/hate scene, Radio Raheem seems to be speaking hopefully.

And naïvely? Love, in this movie, seems short-lived, and hate persists. Mookie’s baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez in a vivid debut) closes out her time in the film cussing out Mookie. The neighborhood elders Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) — whose presence as onscreen antagonists and as real-life couple always brings a fond smile to my face — seek cover together after the climactic event. They seem sobered, though not driven into each other’s arms as a more conventional story would demand. Before that, we see Mother Sister screaming “Burn it down!” and not much later crying “No!” in despair over and over; there you have the opposite sides of the movie’s moral coin, all in the emotional inferno of an old black woman who has seen and lived great heartache. Do the Right Thing did not turn out to be the fire this time (pundits in 1989 worried about copycat violence; number of Mookie-inspired riots: zero), but the right and wrong things it deals with haven’t gone anywhere. This is, and seems more than ever like, the great American movie of the last thirty years.