DO THE RIGHT THING (1989). An out-and-out masterpiece, Spike Lee's best movie also remains the most penetrating film ever made about race relations in these United States. On the hottest day of the summer, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Italian-American Sal (Danny Aiello) runs a pizza joint whose employees consist of his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson) and local kid Mookie (Lee). When he's not enduring Pino's racist slurs, Mookie's out delivering the pies, taking his time as he visits his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez) and listens to the sage advice of 'hood elders Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). But matters begin to heat up when local hotheads Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) elect to boycott Sal's Pizzeria as a matter of principle. It's amazing that this was only then-32-year-old Lee's third major motion picture, as the complex characterizations, dicey moral dilemmas and superb dialogue (laced with plenty of hilarious ad-libbing by his capable actors) signaled a filmmaker working far beyond his years. The supporting cast includes several familiar faces: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence, and the late, great Robin Harris as the inimitable Sweet Dick Willie. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association named Do the Right Thing the year's best film, and since then, the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute have added it to their rosters of the great American movies. Predictably, though, the Academy bypassed it for most major awards, nominating it only in the categories of Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Aiello). That year's Best Picture Oscar, of course, went to Driving Miss Daisy, which was as tame about race relations as Do the Right Thing was provocative.
This two-disc, 20th Anniversary Edition from Universal improves on the masterful two-disc release Criterion released in 2001. It carries over virtually all of the extras from that set (except, alas, Public Enemy's music video for "Fight the Power") and adds some meaty new ones. Among the new bonuses are audio commentary by Lee; a 35-minute retrospective documentary; and 11 deleted and extended scenes. Among the holdovers are an hour of Lee's personal video footage taken during production; an hour-long making-of feature; the storyboard gallery of the notorious riot sequence; and press conference footage from the picture's premiere at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.
KNOWING (2009). Sober in its intentions but laughable in its execution, Knowing begins promisingly, as a letter written by a little girl in 1959 finds itself, 50 years later, in the hands of John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), a widowed MIT professor raising his son Caleb (wooden Chandler Canterbury) by himself. Koestler soon figures out that the piece of paper, on which the child scrawled nothing but numbers, foretold all the major disasters of the past five decades (well, all the disasters that resulted in deaths, as it appears the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were not included). The problem is that three of the prophesied disasters have yet to occur, leaving Koestler in the unenviable position of trying to figure out how to prevent large-scale tragedies. Meanwhile, a group of shadowy figures spend their time trailing Caleb; they're meant to appear menacing, but that's hard to accomplish when they basically all look like Sting impersonators. Knowing was directed by Dark City's Alex Proyas, although it feels like the sort of poorly defined spiritual salve that M. Night Shyamalan concocts in between preening sessions in front of the mirror. But early discussions regarding destiny versus randomness soon get sidestepped for one CGI set-piece after another, most of them hampered by mediocre effects work (and tasteless, too; did we really need to see blood repeatedly splatter on a subway car window as it rams into each successive victim?). Eventually, the film only elicits misplaced chuckles, as awkward acting, lulls in logic, and a cameo appearance by The Fountain's majestic tree make this a movie not worth knowing about, let alone watching.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Proyas; a 13-minute making-of featurette; and a 17-minute piece in which theologians discuss the end of the world.
PUSH (2009). If Push comes to shove, then the only sound advice is to stay away from the New Releases section and re-watch your own DVD copy of X-Men, an infinitely superior mutant movie. In short, here's another sci-fi muddle that never breaks out of its geekspeak ghetto, with David Bourla contributing an overly busy screenplay that doesn't always come together and Paul McGuigan providing draggy direction that takes this far past the point of audience involvement. Set in Hong Kong, the film centers on the Division, a U.S. government branch whose members are tasked with seeking out folks with psychic abilities and either recruiting them or (if that fails) killing them. These psychics have different powers, which places them into one of several different categories: Pushers, Watchers, Movers (but, alas, no Shakers), Bleeders, etc. Nick (Chris Evans), a Mover, has tried to maintain a low profile, but once Cassie (Dakota Fanning), a teenage Watcher, shows up and insists he help her find Kira (stiff Camilla Belle), a Pusher who holds the answer to taking down the Division, all hell breaks loose, as Division agents (led by Djimon Hounsou as a suave Pusher) and evil Asian psychics try to take them down. Some interesting ideas soon get buried under a jumbled narrative, a choppy shooting style and an unflattering visual scheme, all of which combine to make viewers feel as if they're watching a movie from inside a spinning clothes dryer.
DVD extras include audio commentary by McGuigan, Evans and Fanning; four deleted scenes; and the 9-minute featurette The Science Behind the Fiction.
TWO LOVERS (2009). It's not that writer-director James Gray makes bad movies; it's just that it's difficult to remember anything about the movies he makes. We Own the Night starred Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg and had something to do with bickering brothers on opposite sides of the law. The Yards also starred Phoenix and Wahlberg and somehow involved an ex-con being dragged back into a life of crime. And all I recall about Little Odessa is that, uh, it included actors and buildings and perhaps a few props. Two Lovers seems as likely as Gray's previous pictures to fizzle away, Alka Seltzer-style, until there's little left but a faint aftertaste. This Brooklyn-set drama casts Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, who lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) after a failed suicide attempt sparked by a romantic fallout. The folks try to steer Leonard into a relationship with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a business associate, but even as Leonard tries to make a go of it with this insecure woman, he finds himself drawn to his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a self-described basketcase who's having an affair with a married man (Elias Koteas). To his credit, Gray doesn't try to sugarcoat any of the relationships in the picture, but crucially, he and his leading man never make us care for Leonard Kraditor, nor do they find ways to make him interesting. Sandra and especially Michelle are also flawed, yet the actresses inhabiting the parts add nuance to their characters' imperfections. Phoenix, on the other hand, merely seems distracted, as if he was already looking ahead to his new career as the music man.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Gray; three deleted scenes; and a photo gallery.