Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

The Dead Don’t Die

September 15, 2019

Brody-DeadDontDie “The dead just don’t wanna die today,” growls Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, of course) near the end of Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan zombie doodle The Dead Don’t Die. The movie may seem like lightweight, lesser Jarmusch, but I have a feeling it’ll grow in stature in memory. Like George A. Romero before him, Jarmusch uses zombies as a Trojan horse for whatever ideas he has about society. His film feels like a riff on Romero’s work — a film-nerd character even wears a Night of the Living Dead pin. Well, Jarmusch and Edgar Wright know that if you’re working in the genre Romero invented, you show him due respect. The Dead Don’t Die has its wiseass downtown moments, but there’s also something morosely creepy about it, and Jarmusch isn’t larking around at Romero’s expense. Whatever Jarmusch is saying here, he’s as serious about it as Romero was.

Hermit Bob lurks in the woods of Centerville, a rural nowheresville impacted, like the rest of the world, by weird phenomena apparently caused by our planet going off its axis due to excess fracking. We meet a handful of townspeople, who all tuck little idiosyncrasies in their shirt pockets. Well, “little” except for Zelda Winston, a mortician who practices tirelessly with a samurai sword and who seems to hail from far away — like, way far away. Obviously, Zelda is played by Tilda Swinton, and her character name is one of several in the movie that function as scrambled variations on, or slight deviations from, either an actor’s name or the name of a past character he or she has played. So we have a news anchor named Posie Juarez played by Rosie Perez, and Adam Driver, who starred in Jarmusch’s previous film Paterson, plays a cop named Peterson.

The movie is a little long on meta fancies like this and a couple of fourth-wall-breaking scenes between Peterson and his older cop partner Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray). But generally Jarmusch holds to a melancholic realism (albeit a Jarmusch realism). Out in the woods, Hermit Bob happens across a paperback of Moby Dick, and twice he offers a partial quote of “For every one knows that this earthly air, whether ashore or afloat, is terribly infected with the nameless miseries of the numberless mortals who have died exhaling it.” Jarmusch possibly might have preferred The Nameless Miseries of the Numberless Mortals as a title, but I imagine it would’ve been a challenge for Sturgill Simpson to write the theme song around that. (In this universe, everyone has heard Simpson and has an opinion about his music; this is a reality where Sturgill Simpson exists, but other real-life musicians like Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, and RZA  — driving a “Wu-PS” truck, ha-ha — appear playing characters.)

Anyway, that Melville quote seems to suggest we are sickened by breathing air filled with psychic toxins (sounds like Marianne Williamson after a dank bowl). This notion of a plague spreading like a mood across a community — peopled by drones who come back from the dead croaking the one word that defines them as consumers — is more poetic than the usual zombie epidemic, and perhaps shares more DNA with the excellent unconventional zombie flick Pontypool than with Romero. Driver and Murray put on their best deadpans, though not everyone is so affectless; consider the angry Trumpster farmer (Steve Buscemi) or the aghast cop (Chloë Sevigny) or the abashed geek (Caleb Landry Jones) or the gloomy mechanic (Danny Glover). The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t seem like a reverie on mortality like Jarmusch’s Dead Man; it has more to do with bad vibes, bad feelings, that threaten to splinter human connection.

Again like Romero, Jarmusch creates a circumstance in which the dead return — a miraculous event, or a perversion of Lazarus — only to be locked into their one favorite thing, like phones or coffee or Chardonnay. The dead become automatons, and the living, reduced to retreat and defense, become little better. Both groups are single-minded to the point of blindness to their surroundings. Thus “zombie comedy” doesn’t fit very well on The Dead Don’t Die; neither does “horror film.” Sometimes its sense of creeping global wrongness evokes Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World; sometimes it seems like Jarmusch’s typically elliptical response to current events. It does manage to be funny here and there, but I don’t think that’s the effect Jarmusch is after, or not the only effect. It’s beautiful almost in spite of itself; cinematographer Frederick Elmes finds the lushness in gas stations and diners and cemetery trees backlit by the moon.

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Booksmart

September 8, 2019

booksmart The good-hearted, often hilarious coming-of-age comedy Booksmart deserves to be to Gen-Z girls what Clueless was and is to millennials. It’s the night before high-school graduation, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have had a revelation. Since they can remember, they’ve hit the books and steered towards ivy-league colleges, after which, they’re sure, come fabulous, empowering careers. Their ambition has come at the expense of having any stupid kid fun, and the girls learn to their horror that many of their classmates, notorious party animals, are also getting into good schools. So Molly and Amy determine to find the biggest, coolest party and have at least one disreputable night to remember.

Booksmart feels solidly of-the-moment, very “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I don’t know that it would have felt so vital, felt so much like something one reaches towards gratefully, a few years ago. In the current moment it feels like an oasis and (forgive me) a hug. The movie was written, directed, and (with one exception) produced by women, and it pokes a little gentle fun at the performative wokeness of its era while never denying its necessity. There are holes here and there that I imagine are accounted for by deleted scenes — we meet Amy’s parents but not Molly’s, and one character makes such a belated comeback in the story I had a hard time remembering who she was and why she’s antagonistic to Amy. But mostly the narrative is loose and anecdotal, like so many other fond comedies about what goofy but lovable kids we were. (If “we” were well-to-do California kids, of course.)

The exuberant Feldstein and the wary Dever anchor the comedy in their characters’ respective insecurities, and director Olivia Wilde stacks the supporting cast largely with bright newcomers. One ringer, Billie Lourd, plays the school’s rich wild girl and turns in an eccentric but generous-hearted performance that does her mom, Carrie Fisher, proud. Some of the goings-on reminded me of the affectionately-seen hijinks of the kids in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. There are (with a brief exception) no villains here, just kids and — occasionally — grown-ups just trying to get by and have fun. Even the apparently mean kids have nooks and crannies of kindness. If they talk trash about you in the restroom it’s just because they don’t really know you.

Wilde is generally in gentle but firm control of the movie’s tone and moods, and when things get dramatic in the third act, we feel the potential loss sharply. It feels a little too much like a screenwriting trope, though, to have Molly and Amy fight and fall away from each other, and we don’t want to see them hurt (and we also know they’ll make up). We develop warm feelings for just about everyone — the rich dork who rents a yacht to throw a competing party; the drifty, smiling girl on whom Amy has a crush, but who might not actually be worthy of it; the teacher (Jessica Williams) who finds herself drawn into the party; and most of all for Molly and Amy. I always wanted more of everyone here; I would sit for a ten-episode Netflix Booksmart prequel series, as long as they could get the whole cast back.

I keep using words like “gentle,” but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Booksmart isn’t also funny. The scenes are clipped to open up a line or a gag for maximum punch. There’s a bad-sex scene of titanic awkwardness that’s played for uneasy chuckles but mostly for cringing compassion; in general, we don’t have to wonder if it’s cruel to laugh at anything here. Even that well-worn stereotype the flamingly gay black guy is intended to be funny on his own terms. The movie is casual with gayness and is incisive on the inner lives of smart girls. For those reasons it often feels like a waft of cool fresh air piping into the humid, fart-filled elevator we’re all now stuck in. Some of the air is not so fresh; that’s what happens when you have four credited (albeit female) screenwriters. Every so often a line or situation lands with the heavy thunk of predictability or familiarity. But not too often. I’m glad films like Booksmart can still be made. I hope to see many more like it — or, not like it, but in the same spirit, with the same embracing soul. Its kindness makes it seem radical resistance.

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.

The Abyss

August 4, 2019

the abyssAfter all these years — it turns 30 on August 9 — James Cameron’s The Abyss remains the most intense movie I have ever seen. Cameron is never happy unless he has a thousand plates spinning, each threatening our heroes and the very existence of human life itself, and the threat grinds on in mega-sequence after mega-sequence until we stagger out half-dead, played out, winded. The attitude here, if not the aesthetic (which owes more to Moebius), is clearly heir to the macho clenched-teeth posturing of Bronze Age Marvel comics — the adventures drawn by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema, where the gods themselves whale on each other inside a live volcano in eruption, or inside an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, or something. This is Clenched Teeth: The Movie. It runs, in the director’s cut, two hours and fifty-one minutes, and there are maybe a few seconds of downtime. Six, possibly seven. The rest is showdowns and light shows and drowning horrors and phosphorescent aliens.

This all might sound as though I don’t honor The Abyss. I do. From a distance, mainly in memory. Going through it, actually watching it, can be an endurance test. By about the two-hour mark, when things look bleak for oil-rig engineer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the rig’s big dog and her estranged hubby Ed Harris is screaming himself hoarse for her to “FIGHT! FIIIIIGHT!” you might rub your temples and mutter “Jesus Christ, there’s almost another hour of this?” Ed Harris’ head explodes or threatens to explode about 27 times in this movie, by the way. I can imagine a lot of fist-holes in the walls of his dressing room on the set, if he had one. Famously, Harris offered the following to a Premiere reporter, probably through clenched teeth: “I’m not talking about The Abyss. And I never will.”

Michael Biehn is also on hand, clenching until he cracks several molars, as a Navy SEAL who is along for the mission (the oil rig is commanded to go find a sunken sub) and soon develops High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, which is another good name for this movie. Helpfully, Cameron has a few characters sit around and discuss the symptoms so we can recognize them in Biehn later. This is a film with a million Chekhov’s things — Chekhov’s wedding ring, Chekhov’s “hammer,” Chekhov’s hand tremor, Chekhov’s pink liquid that people can somehow breathe. A rat is dunked in this liquid and held under, for real, until it respirates the stuff. I never really bought this — for use on humans with human-sized lungs, anyway — and I don’t buy it now; we don’t seem to be much closer to people regularly chugging air than we were 30 years ago. For a long time I thought The Abyss was meant to be slightly futuristic for this reason, but I guess the film’s events are set in 1988, when we were having problems with Russia. Gee.

Those problems furnish one of the many moving parts that heat up the film’s sense of urgency. We seem to be on the brink of nuclear war (started because we think the Russians sank the sub), and the alien race, Cameron’s deus ex machina, intervenes to save us from ourselves. This point was muted in the half-hour-shorter cut that saw release in American theaters, but it’s all there in Cameron’s version. He was really, really concerned about the bomb back in the ‘80s, until finally in Terminator 2 he threw up his hands and showed us what nuclear holocaust would look like. Cameron put himself and Ed Harris and us through all this just to deliver the homely message: All you need is love. Seriously, the aliens are about to flush us down the toilet — before we destroy the planet that they share with us — but their hands are stayed by Harris’ heartfelt goodbye text to his wife. Like Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard, Mastrantonio accepts her identity as Mrs. Clenched Teeth and falls in love with her blue-collar man anew. This sort of thing was in the air we breathed in the late ‘80s.

The Abyss has major flaws, but is still, and probably for that very reason, the closest Cameron has come to his blunt-force, beef-stew, crap-dialogue version of art. Terminator 2 may be the most pristine example of his overbearing aesthetic, but The Abyss sees him reaching for the stars — and not the stars above but the stars below the waves. And, man, does he ever maintain a crisis pitch for almost the complete running time, while Alan Silvestri’s score shrieks and ejaculates or a children’s choir sings to sell maximum awe. Cameron tightens the screws until their heads are stripped. The movie expresses extreme anxiety, claustrophobia, things catching on fire while submerged, mini-subs imploding in deep dark water with a crescendo of heavy bubbles. Cameron taps into something of the national mood at the end of the Reagan era, yearning for the past, afraid of the future, letting the present slip by. At the end, Ed Harris emerges from the abyss, looking beatific, enlightened. He has seen a superior race, and he knows it loves us. He will no longer clench nor scream. The Abyss is nutty as hell but almost as unguarded as a diary entry. Its intensity is genuinely felt and earned.

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.

The Reflecting Skin

July 21, 2019

reflecting skinI have been waiting for years to talk at length about The Reflecting Skin, one of my favorite movies few people have seen. Since it’s making its American Blu-ray debut in a couple of weeks (along with a new DVD), the time seems ripe. This is the feature directing debut of Philip Ridley, only 24 when he made it, and it unfolds in a distinct dream-logic world. The setting is the American midwest circa the 1950s (post-WWII, anyway), but the film exists aside from time and place. Roger Ebert’s much-quoted, accurate assessment goes like so: “It’s not really about America at all, it’s about nightmares, and I’m not easily going to forget it.”

Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), “nearly nine,” is a borderline monstrous little boy, though with a sensitivity that indicates redemption is possible (though perhaps not probable). We meet him when he and two of his friends are committing a particularly grotesque form of cruelty to animals, a detail that seems partly indebted to the kids burning a scorpion alive in The Wild Bunch and partly to Ridley fighting a fever and falling asleep, bathed in sick-sweat, in front of a TV playing The Fool Killer or Night of the Hunter while a paperback of Faulkner rests tented over his chest. The movie is suffused with a febrile, half-articulated aesthetic of American gothic — vampires and dead babies and maimed sheriffs and grinning hairless werewolves in a Cadillac.

A mysterious woman (Lindsay Duncan) who calls herself Dolphin Blue lives nearby, and Seth becomes convinced that she’s a bloodsucker and that his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), just returned from a stint in the Army, is about to be seduced and drained by her. Meanwhile, Seth’s gruesome and unhappy mother (Sheila Moore) resents her life with his father (Duncan Fraser), who reeks of the gasoline he pumps out in front of the house. All the adults have secrets, perhaps none more so than Cameron, who has seen what atomic bombs do — he has a photo in his wallet of a Japanese baby whose skin “got all silver and shiny. Just like a mirror. You could see your face in it.” This image is preceded by Seth’s ghastly discovery in a hayloft, a discovery he takes to be the angel of his friend Eben. Eben was kidnapped and murdered, most likely by the strange, suspiciously amiable hoodlums in the Cadillac. People keep disappearing, not just kids. 

The Reflecting Skin will enrapture those attuned to its wheatfield surrealism and repel, violently, everyone else. Upon its release almost thirty years ago it attracted unavoidable comparisons to David Lynch, but these days it seems sui generis. Ridley, sadly, hasn’t done much in films since (though he has kept his hand in creatively with books, paintings and plays). 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon (with one of Brendan Fraser’s finest unseen performances) and 2009’s Heartless are about it for those who want to see more Ridley cinema. But at least he batted three for three (though Heartless, while fine, is the weak link of the three). For some, the early lead performance by Viggo Mortensen (who also shows up in Darkly Noon) will be a draw; the then-31-year-old weighs in with a cloaked, edgy turn later elaborated on in Sean Penn’s essential The Indian Runner.

Mortensen fits right into the curdled nostalgia of the piece. Truly, though, the film is held together by young Jeremy Cooper. I think he’s the reason we don’t hate Seth after his first scene. Seth is in pain, and as we see more and more of his grim home life we can understand why, even if he doesn’t. The movie’s title, as I said, is given a literal explication, but it’s also a metaphor for how, when we look at others, we just see weird reflections of ourselves, or of our expectations or prejudices. So people are vampires or perverts, or they go around calling themselves sinners, or they just go around killing children — either in a Cadillac or in a United States military aircraft. A lot of The Reflecting Skin has to do with toxic masculinity — though that wasn’t a concept back in 1990 and definitely not at the time of the film’s setting. Almost every scene is creepy or morbid or painful or all three. The people, out there in the beauty of the unnamed pastoral country, are damned from birth. The whispering landscape crawls with demons, and the angels are fishy-smelling, maggoty corpses. The vision of hell is forceful and complete.

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.