Do the Right Thing,
and a few more films

Do the Right Thing (1989)

#256  [archive]
MAR. 9, 2024

Written, produced, directed by, and starring Spike Lee, this is the movie that made his reputation. He's done other good stuff since, but this is still his best, and so wondrously layered that every time I see it, there's something I hadn't noticed before.

It's a sweltering day in Bedford-Stuy, where American Graffiti style, we meet everyone in the mostly-black neighborhood. Everything's sweaty, and most of the locals laugh and grouse about life, or buy a slice from Sal's Pizzeria, one of only two retail businesses on the block. It's owned by a white guy selling almost only to black customers. 

"Hey, Sal, how come there ain't no brothers on the wall?"

These characters bounce off each other, often comically, often not, and the heat in the air is almost visible on the film. The story gets hotter toward the end, and not out of nowhere. The tension has been building the whole way. 

These are colorful characters, and nothing here is black and white, even when everything is.

I've seen this movie with a crowd more than once, and talked about it with friends, and saw it once at a museum where there was a discussion afterwards, and always, some people insist on missing the movie's very obvious point. I've heard folks say, "I loved it until the riot," and that Mookie did the wrong thing, and what people saying such things have in common is that they're always white.

Do the Right Thing is well-written, very well-acted, superbly directed. Its point is obvious, and the movie's last scenes, the morning after the conflagration, are if anything more optimistic than America deserves. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Anita Ekberg is not structurally sound. She could topple at any moment, if you know what I mean and I think you do. 

Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) plays a gossip columnist living a shallow but 'sweet life' (that's the title's translation) of women and also women, Ms Ekberg among them. The film is effectively plotless, just Marcello roaming across Rome for seven days and seven nights, always with a lady or pursuing a different lady.

"I'm wasting time. I won't manage anything any more. Once I had ambitions, but maybe I'm losing everything. I forgot everything."

It's decadent for its time and somewhat still today, but not far underneath the extravagances, it's about an ordinary schlub's philosophical quest for meaning in his life. In that sense it's any man's story, only with prettier women and more of them than most of us.

Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita won a billion accolades and awards, and maybe didn't deserve all of them, but it's a fine film, very accessible despite the language barrier. It's also where we got the word 'paparazzi', from a scuzzy photographer in the film.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Dolemite (1975)

"Dolemite is my name, and fucking up motherfuckers is my game."

1970s blaxploitation is one of my favorite genres, when it's done right — full of kick-ass action, and the black guy comes out on top, unlike any other movies of the era. Blaxploitation faded away after the 1970s, perhaps because — like the Negro Leagues in baseball — when major studio films started hiring more black actors in better roles, blaxploitation was doomed. 

Dolemite has no first name in the movie, and it's probably blank on his driver's license. He's a pimp with a heart of gold, in prison as the movie starts, after being framed by white cops as a big-time drug dealer. The warden is convinced that he's innocent, and orders him released, with the expectation that Dolemite will hatch some scheme to catch the real baddies — the cops.

Of course, a warden can't simply release a prisoner, but forget reality. What jumped out at me right away is that Rudy Ray Moore in the title role is quite bad at the whole 'acting' thing. He's fine shouting "Motherfucker!", which he does about a hundred times in this movie, but when delivering ordinary dialogue, the film's leading man sounds like he's never been in front of a camera before.

And it's not just Moore. A lot of the cast can't act.

And it's not just the acting. Dolemite offers some of the worst camerawork I've seen in a non-amateur movie, and poor editing, and muffled sound. Boom mikes dangle onto the screen at least a dozen times, plus the moving shadow of the boom twice. What's craziest among all the incompetence is, it's an action movie, but most of the fights are so poorly staged it looks like friends play-fighting.

As schlock, though, this movie has it all. Dolemite changes into a baby blue pimp outfit in front of the prison on his way out, while the guards watch. He runs a business called Dolemite's Total Experience, which seems to be a bar and a nightclub and a massage parlor and a brothel, and in the nightclub he's part of the entertainment, performing a very slow, comic rap song. The story features a criminal minister, an always-stoned "hamburger pimp," and a fat chick who gets to be sexy, while Dolemite goes through a department store's worth of flamboyantly colorful pimp outfits, and kicks every motherfucker's ass and calls 'em all motherfuckers.

Verdict: YES.

PS. Guess it's a joke and I wasn't in on it. Per Wikipedia, Rudy Ray Moore was a successful comedian who used the character of Dolemite as part of his stand-up and comedy albums. He personally funded this film, and hired many of his friends instead of professionals. Which explains everything.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Downsizing (2017)

"The future of humanity is down that hole."

Here's a scientific breakthrough: We can shrink people, to .0364% of their previous mass and volume. This is marketed as good for the planet, because small people use far fewer resources, and leave so little waste and litter. More practically, though, it makes small people rich — food and clothes cost less, and you can move into a mansion that would fit inside a microwave.

Entire communities have been constructed for small people, with netting to keep the birds out. The brochures make it look appealing, and Paul and Audrey (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig) have been looking for a house, but can't qualify for a loan, so they decide to get small. The process is permanent and irreversible, but what could possibly go wrong?

Lots — but the complications are not what Paul and Audrey expected. The entire movie isn't what I would've expected from writer-director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Holdovers). He's always dealt with generally ordinary people and their generally ordinary problems, and actually, that's what he's done here, only these ordinary people are five inches tall.

The setup got my mind whirling, and I had to pause the movie to think about it — which is another way watching at home beats the theater.

You couldn't talk me into getting small. The physical vulnerability of it would worry me too much. Rainfall that leaves a puddle could flood an entire neighborhood. A full-size ant could make for a life-or-death battle. A big person in a bad mood could kill any small person with a flick of the wrist. Marauding hoards of full-size people could rule the small people's world.

Anyway, the film addresses most of the practical issues of getting small, but it's bigger than that. Much bigger, stranger, more profound.

Downsizing bombed at the box office, and I can understand why. The title kept me away for years. There are laughs, but it's not a comedy. It makes jolting genre jumps, and it's never what it was half an hour ago. Unlike The Incredible Shrinking Man or something, there are no particularly thrilling effects. Damon's character is a schlump, who never takes charge like most movie protagonists. And the general mood of the movie is sad, and then it's political, and then wow, and then weird, and then what?

It's a wild ride from being big to being small and then being big while being small. It's too far out of the ordinary for an ordinary audience, but that's not you, is it? 

"Told you. Nothing ever works out for this guy."

Verdict: YES, and on the verge of BIG YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964)
Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Dragged Across Concrete (2018)

Drive (2011)

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. Hate Do The Right Thing. Lee's done some good films (was just writing you an email to recommend the amazing 25th Hour) but this is one of his worst. Completely unsubtle and very dishonest. The dude is like Stanley Kramer giving Ollie Stone a reacharound. He's also a midget and the children of successful artists, it's not as if he fought his way up from the ghetto, pfft.

    Also, since you're going alphabetically, you'll have to watch 25th Hour first, ahah.


    What kind of fuck you give?

    I really like the last third of it the most, the journey to the commune/society and the change in tone, Said some interesting things about divesting yourself from impeding tragedy vs. staying engaged and doing your best to help. Me? I woulda been down that hole quicker than you can say lickety-split.

    1. What's dishonest about DTRT? He Disneyfied the neighborhood, obviously, and emptied it of drug addicts and dangerous criminals. Made it Sesame Street, basically. But it's the best damned episode of Sesame Street ever.

      For numbers, I depart from the ordinary rules of alphabetization. My philosophical belief is that whether it's Seven Days in May or 7 Days in May, it belongs under S. So 25th Hour goes under T.

      But I'm less finally decided, more open to persuasion, about spaces in titles — should The Shadow Out of Time be listed before or after Shadowlands? Factor in the space, it comes before; but ignore the space, it comes after. It's a moral quandary.

      Yeah, Downsizing kept completely changing, and getting better. I couldn't fit down the hole, though, because I wouldn't be small.

    2. Oh, also — he's a midget? Never met the guy; does Spike Lee do his acting on a milk crate like Tom Cruise?


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