DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on November 20th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Written & Directed by Spike Lee, starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, and John Turturro.

24 hours on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.
On the hottest day of the summer, racial tensions simmer between residents of a predominately African American and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and the Italian American owners of a pizza parlor. And then they explode.

Spike Lee had touched on racism earlier in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, but following what became know as The Howard Beach Incident, he decided the gloves needed to come off. This is the script than earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and the film that earned him a Palm D’or nomination at Cannes. It also earned him the fear of critics like newspaper columnist Joe Klein, who wrote “Spike Lee’s reckless new movie DO THE RIGHT THING … opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes).” The controversy surrounding DO THE RIGHT THING in the summer of 1989 cemented Spike’s reputation as a voice who demands to be heard.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

P.S. Come early, or you’ll miss Rosie fightin’ the power with Public Enemy!

AFTER THOUGHT from 11.20.2011
I don’t know if Spike Lee still does this, but in the early days of his feature directing career, he used to do college tours with his films in the weeks before they opened. My brother Ed & I used our Emerson College IDs to see him present DO THE RIGHT THING at a theater in M.I.T. This was just a few months after MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a fictionalized story lacking any significant African American characters despite its civil rights themes, received 7 Oscar nominations. Ed and I arrived fairly early; we were among the first 100 people into the theater, in what turned out to be a packed house with many people turned away. Waiting for the movie to start, I spotted a young man with a t-shirt featuring a parody of the MISSISSIPPI BURNING logo: “Brooklyn Burning.” I approached this guy to ask him where he got this shirt, and I realized it was Spike Lee! I immediately forgot the shirt and became tongue-tied. I managed to introduce myself and thank him for this screening; he shook my hand and thanked me for coming out to see the movie. During his introduction to the film, Spike acknowledged early critics who predicted DO THE RIGHT THING would incite racial violence, balancing their concerns with his personal mandate that “the gloves come off” following the aforementioned Howard Beach incident. In aspiring to directly address an elephant in the room that had been ignored for years by mainstream films, he calmly and humbly set the bar very high for himself and an ensuing generation of film makers.

I rolled DO THE RIGHT THING nearly two decades later in our agency conference room. It was generally well received, but to my younger coworkers who were raised on the generation of filmmakers who followed in Spike’s footsteps, they found the story overly episodic without enough of a narrative through-line. While that is a fairly accurate point, I submit that it is irrelevant, as DO THE RIGHT THING is not a standard three act structure with a protagonist and an antagonist. Oh, it’s very well disguised as one, enough so to make it marketable. If you want to pick a “good guy” and a “bad guy” out of this bunch, Spike’s pizza deliverer Mookie is a funny and likable enough hero, and Danny Aiello’s pizzeria owner Sal is frequently bombastic enough to be a villain. You can even find a story arc over the course of the single day storyline in that Mookie begins the film as an apathetic quasi-irresponsible kid, and through a sequence of events beyond his control, emerges as a man who makes a stand and takes control with an irreversible decision that affects his entire neighborhood.

Yes, you can say that DO THE RIGHT THING is about Mookie and Sal, and the general racial tension that I used to pitch this film to my coworkers. On further analysis though, I don’t think this is that kind of movie, and I submit that the title alone tells you what type of movie this is. Let’s look at two other titles: TOMBSTONE (1993) and WYATT EARP (1994). I like both, I am in the minority that prefers WYATT EARP, but I think it is notable that their titles alone tell us that these are very different movies. TOMBSTONE is about one event, the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral, and its effect on the lives of many people. It begins shortly before October 26, 1881 and ends shortly after, padding its running time with some fun western cliches, plus a level of historical inaccuracy required to make These Guys heroes and Those Guys villains. WYATT EARP is about many events in the life of one man, who lived from 1848 to 1929. Since it follows this one man’s life, WYATT EARP is able to give us a more nuanced portrait of Wyatt Earp than TOMBSTONE, examining positive and negative aspects of Earp’s life and personality. DO THE RIGHT THING does not belong to any one character, but there is also more at work than a single event in the lives of many people.

A title like DO THE RIGHT THING has less similarity to TOMBSTONE or WYATT EARP, and more to do with an intangible like THE RIGHT STUFF (1983). It’s probably no coincidence that when I screened THE RIGHT STUFF, some viewers preferred APOLLO 13, again because of its strong central characters an singular story arc. THE RIGHT STUFF and DO THE RIGHT THING are titles that tell you that this is a movie about a specific idea or value. As a pilot you either have THE RIGHT STUFF or you don’t, and only fellow pilots can really discern who possesses that quality. On a sweltering day in Bed-Stuy, with a continuing heatwave expected the following day, you can either DO THE RIGHT THING or not. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) pointedly admonishes Mookie to “always to the right thing. That’s it.” He does not tell Mookie what the right thing is, or how to do it, only when to do it (always). This is a film about each character’s decision to do right or not, and what happens when one person’s decision collides with that of another. ***SPOLIER ALERT — skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** — Spike Lee has observed that more have criticized Mookie’s decision to through a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria than have objected to the N.Y.P.D. character’s decision to use a lethal (and now illegal) choke hold on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).***

To some of my former coworkers, and maybe to some who read this, DO THE RIGHT THING plays as a little outdated. If this is so, it is because we do not make as many films these days about intangibles like the Right Stuff, the Right Thing to do, or faith and doubt. [Spike Lee addressed faith and doubt in THE MIRACLE AT ST. ANA in a manner rarely seen since THE MISSION (1986) and other films written by Robert Bolt.] Because DO THE RIGHT THING wrangles that quality of a single person with the inequality of races in a neighborhood and a nation, the story is able to show examples of each across its spectrum of characters. Sal is not a villain through and through; early in the film he treats Mookie with the same stern affection as he does his own two sons, and embraces his position in this neighborhood, even over the objections of one of those sons. Mookie is not a hero through and through, but don’t take my word for it, ask his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez). Da Mayor tries to live by his own advice, and be a good guy, but he is mostly seen as a bum by those around him. Good intentions go wrong. Decisions are often hard to make, and often have unintended consequences. Inaction comes with its own consequences. As long as these things are true, DO THE RIGHT THING will be one for the ages.

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BLADE RUNNER: The Final Cut (1982/2007)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on July 26th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Friday, January 25, 2008.

Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, James Hong, Joe Turkel and M. Emmet Walsh, featuring a score by the mad Greek, Vangelis.

Los Angeles, 2019: Androids, herein called Replicants, have taken the place of humans performing hazardous occupations. Among those occupations is the colonization of space. Four replicants mutiny in space, return to Los Angeles seeking their creator, and leave a path of violence in their quest. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a burnt out detective who specializes in hunting down rogue androids, leaves his own pretty grim wake trying to keep the mutineers from their goal.

While BLADE RUNNER is stylistically the most fully realized dystopian nightmare sci-fi movie this side of METROPOLIS (1927), its story is pure Film Noir. It took me several viewings to get past the stunning visuals and understand that Deckard is following up real clues like a proper detective, and not merely stumbling from cool action moment to cooler action moment. After I noticed that, I started noticing other colorful subtleties (like the fact that Deckard is an alcoholic) that a lesser movie that didn’t trust its audience would have beaten them over the head with.

Why are we watching this, haven’t we all seen it already? I missed this new Ridley “Final Cut” when it played at The Landmark last November, and I dunno about you guys, but my TV at home is nowhere near as big as the one in the 8North conference room. If this version contains differences from the 1982 Theatrical and 1992 Director’s Cut versions, I want to be able to spot them on the best screen available! If you’ve wondered whether this new DVD is worth buying, come check it out.

It’ll finish Wednesday.
Love, Jim


AFTER THOUGHT from 7.26.11
I tend to prefer movies that attempt multiple levels, even if they are not entirely successful on all of them, to movies that attempt and succeed on only one level. BLADE RUNNER is a favorite among science fiction movies plus it resonates as an existential quest film. In addition to this being one of my favorite film noir detective movies it is, at least in my estimation, the quintessential Los Angeles movie. This movie fires on all burners and the end result is delicious.

I was fortunate enough to be born within the wake of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY where suddenly it was no longer enough for science fiction movies to simply be about robots and rayguns. Movies like SILENT RUNNING and LOGAN’S RUN and Charlton Heston’s trilogy of doom (PLANET OF THE APES, THE OMEGA MAN, SOYLENT GREEN) used science fiction as a framework to explore political instability, environmental degradation and nuclear annihilation. Though STAR WARS proved that it was more profitable to turn that frown upside down, this did not spell the end of future fear; 1982 blessed us with THE ROAD WARRIOR and BLADE RUNNER. BLADE RUNNER envisioned a future of of haves and have-nots where a few live in fantastic opulence, like Replicant creator Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), and the rest exist in squalor.

This is a cautionary tale at its most pointed; virtually every promise of a “brighter tomorrow” is balanced by a glimpse at the failure of that promise. Replicants are not the only technology having the reverse effect of their intended design. Plumes of fire shoot into a permanently sooty sky as a by-product of generating the power necessary to run the city’s massive high rises. Modern conveniences in Deckard’s home, including a lightning fast elevator and voice activated amenities, do not make the place any less of a dump. Sure there are flying cars, but seemingly few for a city this crowded; most are exclusively for police surveillance.

It is rare that an existential quest is handled as directly as it is in BLADE RUNNER. Films where human characters confront their perception of their deity or search for meaning in their life tend to be ponderous, what supporters would call deliberately paced, and detractors dismiss as tedious or boring. The search of the Replicants, led by Nietzcshian superman Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is somewhat less complicated in that they know where they were manufactured. They only need to find their chief designer, the aforementioned Dr. Tyrell. Deckard’s hardboiled voiceover in the original theatrical release explains that Batty and his crew simply want the same answers the rest of us want from life. Where human characters questioning their existence struggle to define the questions they wish to pose to their chosen higher power, the Replicants have precisely defined questions, but face the task of locating the intellect who designed their minds to find their answers.

***SPOILER: Please skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** A debate has raged among fans as to whether Rick Deckard himself is a Replicant. In Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the novel on which BLADE RUNNER was based, Deckard is revealed to be artifical. Ridley Scott has been cagey over the years, but his answer tends to support Dick’s novel. Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer prefer to believe that Deckard is human. Such a conflict of ideologies could have wrecked the story, and allegedly did cause considerable tension between Scott and Ford, but I think it makes for a better film. Since nothing is implicitly revealed as to Deckhard’s humanity, his own spiritual identity becomes a more gnawing mystery than that of the known Replicants. The Replicants may hunt, fight, and kill their way to their maker. Deckard continues to search for the vocabulary to even question his existence, or else quiet his soul with that great melodramatic indicator of human weakness and suffering: booze.

Deckard’s alcoholism is one of the time honored traits of a Film Noir antihero but it also humanizes him compared to his virtually flawless Replicant opponents. Deckard is not one of the MAD MEN drinkers who make viewers nostalgic for frequently slurred-speaking, occasionally falling-down drunks, who barely manage to do their jobs. He is more the alcoholic typified by Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY; return home from work? Pour a drink. Saying goodbye? One for the road. Shot a Replicant woman in the back on a crowded street? Don’t bother phoning it in promptly like a good cop, go buy a bottle first. The very notion that the hero cop is, in his own warped way, as twisted as those he pursues makes BLADE RUNNER stand shoulder to shoulder with other 80’s noir like Kasdan’s BODY HEAT or Eastwood’s TIGHTROPE.

The production and costume design take their cues from film noir of the late 1930’s to 1950’s. Before exaggerated shoulder pads became a staple of power suits for executive women in the mid 80’s, Sean Young sported classic Joan Crawford hair and Lauren Bacall / Katherine Hepburn style as a Replicant so perfectly constructed that she does not know she is artificial. The smudged makeup, spiked hair and fetish clothing of the renegade Replicants suggests a trajectory where the L.A. punk scene, pioneered by The Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys during BLADE RUNNER’S late 70’s early 80’s development, had continued to spawn among an angry proletariat. Beneath Roy Batty’s punk surface we find an unexpected collision of two noir archetypes: the cold and calculating villain, and the wronged man seeking revenge. While Batty toggles between punk and noir, existential and visceral, everything about Rick Deckard’s world clings wholeheartedly to noir ethos. His shadowy Frank Llyod Wright tiled apartment, the dilapidated Blade Runner department (filmed in the Art Deco former splendor of L.A.’s Union Station), and the easy going unguarded racism of Deckard’s boss Captain Bryant belie the unsupressable decay of those clinging to a buttoned up 1950’s normalcy.

The finale of BLADE RUNNER plays out within the Bradbury Building, a downtown L.A. icon that has been featured in noir classics from D.O.A. to CHINATOWN as well as multiple episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS. The Bradbury has such a signature look and name that its mere inclusion becomes shorthand for the world we have entered. When I saw BLADE RUNNER in Westport, CT on opening weekend, you could spot the true sci-fi fans in the audience by who reacted when Captain Bryant informs Deckard to continue his investigation “at the Bradbury apartments.” I had not yet visited Los Angeles, didn’t know this was a real building, nor do I expect most of the audience did either. We simply took it as an invocation of sci-fi saint Ray Bradbury. As much as a nod to Ray elicits credibility in the fantasy realm of the incredible, it also enables the film to establish its L.A. reputation, Ray’s position being as solid as Chandler’s in the pantheon of L.A. writers. The very use of the Bradbury building and its name confirms that this is not New York or Chicago, San Francisco or Off-World, this is the City of the Angels.

BLADE RUNNER is a like a snow-globe representation of the past, present and future of Los Angeles, violently shaken so that 100 years of the city collide at once. Past Los Angeles is referenced via architecture and a shared history with film noir, with the present acknowledged by massive neon advertising for Atari, RCA, and Pan-Am, which in 1982 seemed like corporations capable of global dominance. The future of Los Angeles is evinced by more than Replicants and flying cars, more than electronic music and punk rock fashion. No less than the language of the people has evolved. Early in the film we were introduced to what Deckard’s voiceover in the original cut described as “city speak, gutter talk. A mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.” I remember thinking this prediction of racial and ethnic mingling must strike your average Klansmen as the scariest vision of the future any movie has ever created. In 2019 there is no Chinatown or South Central or Beverly Hills, no Boyle Heights or Koreatown or Little Tokyo; every community has overflowed its banks such that the language of Los Angeles encompasses elements of every ethnicity.

BLADE RUNNER is most often regarded as science fiction, but as with the sociological implications within METROPOLIS or the spiritual secrets of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, science fiction provides the foundation on which the rest of this experience was built. Is it an existential quandary with gunplay? A pulp mystery with a Kraftwerk style groove? One of the eight million stories in the cybernetic city? It hits me differently each time I revisit it. The one constant is that the words “Blade Runner” have become as loaded as the name “Bradbury” was in 1982, summoning immeasurably more than a film that was coldly received by critics and ticket buyers, to stand for the the kind of story for which you are not prepared but should have seen coming.

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NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (2004)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on June 15th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Friday, February 1, 2008.

Written & Directed by Jared Hess, starring Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino and Jon Greis.

If Apathy had a poster-child, it’d be Napoleon Dynamite. He spends his days going to school to avoid his weird family, and his nights avoiding his classmates by hiding in his home drawing mythical beasts. His complacency is shaken when circumstances force him to experience two classic high school rites of passage: ask a girl to a dance, and help a friend run for Student President.

Between the bigger studios and the indie world, we get a handful of movies like this every year. Most are deservedly forgotten. Every so often, a performance comes along to set one film above the rest, becoming the prototype for the next generation of characters cherished by nerds as “quotable:” Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, and Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite.

It’ll finish on Tuesday – CALIFORNIA PRIMARY DAY!! If you’re at a loss who to vote for, write in Pedro Sanchez.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 6.15.11
I have pondered my statement above from three years ago that studios release movies like this. I now recant that statement. Maybe ten or twenty years ago NAPOLEON DYNAMITE would have a chance at a major studio, but not anymore; this film is living proof of the necessity of the film festival circuit. If this script were submitted to any of the major studios it never would have passed through the first round of readers. The characters are too passive, development execs would say, and the story is too challenging to market. If the script were submitted to a talent agency, Hess’s quirky dialog might have been enough to get him signed as a client, but he would have quickly found himself farmed out to the latest Fox, WB or UPN teen/tween show. Certain movies will only get made if a committed crew makes costumes out of their own clothes, borrows locations from neighbors, rents a camera and shoots it with no guarantee that anyone other than friends and family will ever see it. Where the studio marketing team sees a product that does not fit their target demographic paradigm, the audiences who seek out film festivals will take one look at Napoleon, and say “He looks weird, but I know a guy like that; I wonder what this kid’s story is?”


I like NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, but I do not love it, and I do not regard it as a cult classic. Then again that may be because I am not part of the cult! When we screened it over two days at the agency, the first day drew one of our best crowds ever, with all chairs at the conference table filled and some dragging their desk chairs in from outside. Only my pal Sammy showed up on the second day. Everyone else jumped ship, including a few people who had urged me for weeks to show it, and with whose lunch schedules I had coordinated the screening dates. This led me to a new theory about this movie: it worked initially because it was a surprise. Just as a studio story department can’t draw up a character like Napoleon by design, the film loses something if you plan to see it; it’s one of those movies that you may own on DVD but never watch. When it runs on cable after midnight you’ll stay up late to watch it. You could have planned to watch it at 8pm with your own DVD, but when it pops up as a surprise, that is when the charm shines through. Just a theory; I’ll have to test that by catching it unexpectedly, like I tested my “studios give us movies like this every year” notion. What do you think?

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