John Turturro

Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

There are no clocks in Do the Right Thing. The film takes place over a twenty-four hour period; all the action is on one block, most of the characters live on the block. It’s a Saturday. Some people are working, some people aren’t. It’s a very hot day. And for the first ninety minutes of the film’s two hour runtime, writer-director-producer-actor Lee takes a relaxed approach to the pacing.

Lee’s protagonist isn’t exactly the main character; Thing has maybe four main plots running throughout the day, casually intersecting until everything crashes together. Lee’s part of most of them, but so’s Ossie Davis, so’s Giancarlo Esposito, so’s Bill Nunn. It’s about a lot of different people’s day. And Lee goes so deep with the backgrounds–narratively and filmically–it’s not always the top-billed who get the best scenes. Sure, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and Ruby Dee all get excellent scenes and they’ve got bigger parts, but where Lee the filmmaker isn’t always in those scenes. Not for monologues for sure. Sam Jackson is the DJ and he gets some great scenes. Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown change energy and tone with one cut to the next; the film already opens with Lee and Brown affecting the energy and tone.

The opening titles are over Rosie Perez dancing. She plays Lee’s girlfriend. They’ve got a kid. He’s not a great dad and he’s not a great boyfriend. But he loves her. They don’t live together.

Back to the opening titles. They’re over this red-colored monochrome Brooklyn street, empty besides Perez. Brown perfectly cuts on every movement as the shots cycle. Perez in different outfits, on different locations, with Ernest R. Dickerson changing up the lighting for most. More than the editing–or even pace, because Thing is never as relaxed as when Perez is dancing, not even in the quieter moments–more than either of those technical elements, Dickerson’s photography defines a lot of Thing. Especially during the first act when everything is getting set up. There’s a sharpness to Dickerson’s colors, but also enough warmth nothing ever clashes. And Frankie Faison’s third of a sidewalk raconteur trio is loudly dressed enough he definitely ought to clash. He’s in pastels in front of a red wall.

But Dickerson keeps it just warm enough. All those times where a clash should cause some kind of verisimilitude fissure–not because of the cast, but because of how Lee’s directing it–Dickerson’s photography keeps everything even. Or more inviting, actually. Faison doesn’t say much but he’s definitely the most amiable of the trio.

Robin Harris and Paul Benjamin make up the rest of the trio. Harris’s the most lovable, Benjamin’s unexpectedly the most dangerous. They sit and narrate the day, providing background through exposition. Lee’s script has so much going on at once, laying groundwork. One plot will discard an element, only for another to pick it up. Esposito is the energized pinball dinging between them.

Lee’s long setup, even after the first act establishing is done, is determining what exactly Esposito is dinging against. What are the bumpers he’s hitting. Only Espositio isn’t the main character either. He’s barely a supporting character. He’s kind of background, only he’s not, because the point of Thing is there is no background. Foreground and background intersect over and over–sometimes in great sequences, like Aiello friendliness to Joie Lee (Lee’s sister as his sister, which is a pragmatic goldmine). Lee and Turturro (as Aiello’s openly racist son–Aiello owns a pizza shop in a predominately Black neighborhood) don’t like Aiello’s attention to Joie Lee; Lee gets a lot of mileage out of it, both visually and in terms of narrative import.

There are times when Lee just lets a tangent go. It’s too hot to let things get drawn out. The end is different.

When the sun sets, Lee starts slowing things down. The last twenty minutes, minus the last two scenes, are in real-time. And Lee goes from a narrative distance of intense close-up to crane shot before things are over. He yanks the focus around, with Dickerson and Brown (and composer Bill Lee, accompanied by Branford Marsalis) making it all pretty, to keep the energy up but always different. He’s creating an entirely new narrative perspective, using materials he’s prepared in the previous ninety minutes.

Do the Right Thing goes from being great to being great in a totally different way; that second way is this careful rejection of melodrama, done at high speed. It’s awesome.

Great acting. Ossie Davis is the best. He’s got one of the fuller characters. Aiello’s real good, not flashy but real good. Turturro’s flashy and real good. Lee’s a fine protagonist. He’s generally reserved, which ends up helping to quickly introduce characters. In his scenes with Joie Lee and then Perez, he jumpstarts his character development. He’s more reactionary in his scenes with Aiello, Turturro, and Richard Edson (as Aiello’s nice younger son). Again, protagonist but not really main character.

In smaller parts, some fantastic acting. Dee, who starts a bigger character than she finishes, Harris, and Jackson, in particular. Joie Lee’s pretty good but never as good as when she’s bickering with her brother. Lee directs her a little different than everything else, almost like she’s in a featured cameo. The same goes, in very different ways, for Rosie Perez. She’s good too; it’s a good thing Perez is so naturally memorable–it’s the writing too but no one curses like she does–because she’s so set completely aside from everything else.

And, of course, a special mention of Christa Rivers. She’s in the background, she’s got no other film credits, but she’s tasked with holding a bunch of the film together just through reaction shots. She’s great.

Do the Right Thing is technically magnificent and beautifully acted. It’s also a stunning success for Lee. He goes after a lot with the film, does a lot with the film in terms of style and tone (and rapidly changing them), and it all hits.

Even with that studio-mandated insert shot of Lee at the end.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Bill Lee; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), John Turturro (Pino), Joie Lee (Jade), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Rosie Perez (Tina), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin Out), Richard Edson (Vito), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Ponte), Rick Aiello (Officer Long), John Savage (Clifton), and Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy).


Quiz Show (1994, Robert Redford)

Quiz Show is a story about pride and envy. The film’s main plot is about the quiz show scandals in the fifties–big media taking the American public for a ride–and I suppose it could be seen as a loss of innocence thing. But it isn’t.

It’s about pride and envy.

John Turturro’s working class Jewish guy doesn’t have much pride (though he’s gloriously proud of it) and he’s got lots of envy. But not so much for the WASPs, but for more successful Jewish guys. So Rob Morrow’s middle class Jewish guy. Morrow’s character has pride and envy; in this case, it’s envy for the WASPs. Like Ralph Fiennes, who’s got not so much pride but envy. In his case, it’s for his dad–Paul Scofield in a wonderful performance.

There’s a lot about class, there’s a lot about masculinity (the women get what’s going on and try to get their husbands to recognize it to disappointment), there’s a lot about the time period. And screenwriter Paul Attanasio brings it all together beautifully. Quiz Show has an incredibly complex structure, something director Redford and editor Stu Linder fully embrace. Even in its stillest moments, the film is always in motion.

Gorgeous Michael Ballhaus photography too.

The leads–Turturro, Morrow and Fiennes–are all excellent. Nice support from David Paymer, Hank Azaria and Allan Rich. Ditto Johann Carlo and Mira Sorvino. Redford’s use of prominent actors and filmmakers in cameo roles works great.

Quiz Show is a phenomenal film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Redford; screenplay by Paul Attanasio, based on a book by Richard N. Goodwin; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Stu Linder; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Jon Hutman; produced by Michael Jacobs, Julian Krainin, Michael Nozik and Redford; released by Hollywood Pictures.

Starring John Turturro (Herbie Stempel), Rob Morrow (Dick Goodwin), Ralph Fiennes (Charles Van Doren), David Paymer (Dan Enright), Christopher McDonald (Jack Barry), Elizabeth Wilson (Dorothy Van Doren), Paul Scofield (Mark Van Doren), Hank Azaria (Albert Freedman), Mira Sorvino (Sandra Goodwin), Johann Carlo (Toby Stempel) and Allan Rich (Robert Kintner).


Miller’s Crossing (1990, Joel Coen)

A lot of Miller’s Crossing is left unsaid. Between the hard boiled dialogue disguising character motivations and the lengthy shots of Gabriel Byrne silently reflecting, the Coen Brothers invite examination and rumination. They invite it a little too much.

The film’s a perfect object, whether it’s how the opening titles figure into revealing conversation and to the finish or how the frequent fades to black control the viewer’s consumption of the film. All of the performances are outstanding. Every single moment is supports the whole.

So what’s wrong with it? Too much control. Even the craziness–the film examines violence and the men who perform it–is choreographed. It’s an amazing example of filmmaking, but it’s all surface. All of the layers in Miller’s are baked in, not organic. The story’s too tight. A couple cameos in the second half, along with nods to other Coen pictures, offer some calculated relief.

It’s actually kind of stagy.

There’s also a vague homophobic quality… the closeted (it’s the thirties) gay guys are all misogynist psychopaths to one degree or another.

But it’s a beautifully made, beautifully acted film. Byrne’s great in the lead, Marcia Gay Harden is excellent as the girl who comes between him and friend Albert Finney. Finney gives the film’s boldest performance, having to play a dim tough guy.

Jon Polito’s awesome, J.E. Freeman, John Turturro–like I said before, it’s perfect. It’s confident, it’s thorough.

It just doesn’t add up to as much as if it were messy.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Ethan Coen; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), J.E. Freeman (Eddie Dane), Albert Finney (Leo), Mike Starr (Frankie), Al Mancini (Tic-Tac), Richard Woods (Mayor Dale Levander), Thomas Toner (O’Doole) and Steve Buscemi (Mink).


Clockers (1995, Spike Lee)

Clockers opens with actual crime scene photos juxtaposed against filmed sequences of a crowd gathering to watch as the police arrive. Lee is dealing with a lot in the film and opening with that startling sequence—against a beautiful song—at least shocks the viewer into paying attention. Though the film is too apolitical to be “about” anything, it does require undivided attention.

What Lee does do, very carefully and very clearly, is dismiss notions of simple characters. At times, the cops—with the exception of Harvey Keitel—appear the simplest, only to eventually reveal their internal strife in conversational asides. Keitel, top-billed, acts on that strife, though he does not describe it.

The film’s protagonist, a young drug dealer played by Mekhi Phifer (who’s amazing in his first performance), very clearly shows contradictions. But even Thomas Jefferson Byrd’s vicious, heroin-addled psychopath has these moments where he’s showing real concern, just unable to express it. Delroy Lindo’s similarly vicious drug lord has them too, but even Phifer’s gang of subordinate dealers are full of the contradictions. Lee never draws attention to it, instead just presenting reality.

Of course, with Malik Hassan Sayeed’s high contrast photography and Terence Blanchard’s emotive score, the Brooklyn projects become as lush and green as a tropical paradise.

All of the performances are amazing—there’s not a good one or a mediocre one. Keith David, Isaiah Washington, Regina Taylor… everyone’s spectacular.

Instead of simplifying a novel adaptation, Lee furthered complicated it, creating something remarkable.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Richard Price and Lee, based on the novel by Price; director of photography, Malik Hassan Sayeed; edited by Samuel D. Pollard; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Jon Kilik, Lee and Martin Scorsese; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Mekhi Phifer (Ronald ‘Strike’ Dunham), Harvey Keitel (Det. Rocco Klein), Delroy Lindo (Rodney Little), Isaiah Washington (Victor Dunham), John Turturro (Det. Larry Mazilli), Keith David (André the Giant), Peewee Love (Tyrone ‘Shorty’ Jeeter), Regina Taylor (Iris Jeeter), Thomas Jefferson Byrd (Errol Barnes), Sticky Fingaz (Scientific), Fredro Starr (Go), Elvis Nolasco (Horace), Lawrence B. Adisa (Stan), Hassan Johnson (Skills), Frances Foster (Gloria) and Michael Imperioli (Detective Jo-Jo).


The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009, Tony Scott)

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 might be the worst directed film I’ve ever liked. I haven’t seen a Tony Scott effort in eight years and he just gets more and more obnoxious with the post production effects. It’s like he’s competing with himself to affect more style and be more visually incoherent than any other filmmaker working today. With the possible exception of Simon West, he seems to be succeeding.

But even Scott can’t ruin a solid Denzel Washington star vehicle and, with the exception of John Travolta, Pelham is rather well-cast. Luis Guzmán is wasted, but James Gandolfini has some good moments, as does John Turturro. Instead of teaming with Scott again for this one, Washington should have brought in Spike Lee, whose realistic sense of New York would have played well with Helgeland’s script’s more fanciful, Hollywood characterization.

The film’s only source credit is the novel, which it doesn’t resemble much narratively, and it doesn’t improve anything on the earlier adaptation. In fact, it wastes the potential with Travolta, who does better than usual I suppose, but he’s not interesting to watch opposite Washington. He’s just not in the same caliber of acting and it isn’t interesting.

The film’s way too long, with the third act dragging on and on. The end’s a little bit absurd too, as Scott tries to pretend he’s capable of an honest observation of the human condition.

But it’s a decent hostage thriller. Even if Scott’s mise-en-scène horrifies.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Scott; screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey; director of photography, Tobias A. Schliessler; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Todd Black, Scott, Jason Blumenthal and Steve Tisch; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Denzel Washington (Walter Garber), John Travolta (Ryder), John Turturro (Camonetti), Luis Guzmán (Phil Ramos), Michael Rispoli (John Johnson), James Gandolfini (Mayor), Frank Wood (Police Commissioner Sterman), John Benjamin Hickey (Deputy Mayor LaSalle), Gary Basaraba (Jerry Pollard) and Ramon Rodriguez (Delgado).


Fearless (1993, Peter Weir)

I try not to concern myself with the Academy Awards these days. I scoff at the thought of them actually awarding quality, but I’m still pleased when someone like Clint Eastwood wins and perplexed when something like Crash does too. So I’m a little surprised at my reaction to Rosie Perez in Fearless. I’m enraged she didn’t win back in 1994, absolutely enraged. Not only is she outstanding, amazing and… oh, what was the word I banned from The Stop Button for overuse. Oh, incredible. Not only is she all those things, Peter Weir gave her the direction for an Oscar-winning role. He shines a light on her and says, “Look how great she is.” And she didn’t win. And she disappeared into direct to video (at best) obscurity by 1997.

As for the rest of Fearless, it’s probably Jeff Bridges’ finest work. The film shifts from being all Bridges to being all about Bridges by the end and, since some of the shift gives time to Perez, it’s not bad, but the film never really establishes what’s so wrong with him. There’s a big revelation towards the end and it’s not particularly effective, nor does it make much sense. It’s a case of a T-intersection and the story took the one leading toward an affirming ending, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not as interesting in this particular story. Some of the problem comes from the lack of emotional backstory on Bridges and his family. Isabella Rossellini plays his wife and it’s impossible to imagine them together outside the film’s present action. Any successful scene with Rossellini, all the work comes from Bridges, Perez, or the music. Her performance is the film’s biggest handicap.

The music–I thought it was Gabriel Yared, but it turned out to be Maurice Jarre, which surprised me since Jarre tends to have a (classy) “cool” sound–makes the last act work. Peter Weir loves his symbolism, but in the last act, he really gets going and there are a couple times he hits the audience over the head so hard, they’re seeing stars. For the rest of the film, he does a great job. But, since it’s Weir… well, I got worried he might Owl Creek Bridge the film. I actually was worried about it from the beginning, something on the back of the laserdisc set off the warning light. I’ll ruin it for everyone–no, it’s not an Owl Creek Bridge. Instead, it’s a rewarding experience.

The writing’s excellent in spots, but Weir’s getting such great performances out of his cast, except Rossellini, it doesn’t really matter. Tom Hulce is great as a slimy lawyer and Debra Monk and Deirdre O’Connell are particularly good. A young and only okay Benicio Del Toro shows up for a bit too. Obviously it was before discovered his niche of the grumble-talk.

I’ve been waiting thirteen years to see Fearless. Back when it came out, I liked Jeff Bridges for some reason. Maybe because my mom likes him. I never got around to it on tape, then it came out pan and scan on DVD. I got the widescreen laserdisc on remainder back in 1999 or 2000 and just now got around to watching it. Even with Rossellini, it was worth the wait.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Weir; written by Rafael Yglesias, based on his novel; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by William Anderson; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, John Stoddart; produced by Paula Weinstein and Mark Rosenberg; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Max Klein), Isabella Rossellini (Laura Klein), Spencer Vrooman (Jonah Klein), Rosie Perez (Carla Rodrigo), Tom Hulce (Brillstein) and John Turturro (Dr. Bill Perlman).


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