Five Corners

November 8, 2012

Before John Patrick Shanley wrote the beautifully crafted, crowd-pleasing screenplay to Moonstruck, which has placed him among the hottest writers in the movies today, he wrote a script called Five Corners. This earlier piece, made into a film by producer-director Tony Bill, shares the New York setting and the ethnic flavor of Moonstruck.

Yet, despite the territorial similarities, it becomes clear early in Five Corners that this movie is a different serving of pasta. Here Shanley reveals his theatrical roots, for this film is like a small Off-Broadway play, full of absurdism and daring.

The Five Corners of the title refer to a section of the Bronx where different ethnic groups (and Shanley’s storylines) come together in 1964. The action is triggered by the prison release of Heinz, a brutal thug who was jailed for attempted rape.

Three other people were affected by the attack. Linda was the intended victim, and she assumes Heinz will come after her again. James is Linda’s estranged boyfriend, who was partially disabled when he tried to protect her from Heinz. Harry is another friend who had prevented the rape when he stepped in and “iced Heinz completely with a pitcher of beer.”

Now Harry’s a peaceful follower of Gandhi and Martin Luther King; he’s named his Saint Bernard “The Buddha.” Harry’s off to Mississippi to march for civil rights, but first Linda asks him for protection from Heinz.

This is the main matter of the film, but there are other elements at play. Occasionally intersecting with the central plot are the adventures of two spirited women (Elizabeth Berridge, Cathryn de Prume) as they lark through town. More bizarrely, an algebra teacher is felled by an arrow in the back as the film begins. The Bronx police are stumped. Says one: “Indians?”

Shanley’s script establishes an odd tone throughout, an absurdism that skitters from comedy to horror. For the most part, director Bill is true to this offbeat vision, staging things in an appropriately middle-range, deadpan style (aided by some topnotch photography by Fred Murphy, who recently shot The Dead). There’s an authentic sense of the rundown streets of the Bronx, particularly at an almost magical neighborhood fountain called “The Oval.”

This consistency of tone apples to the ensemble performances, too, especially the central quartet: Tim Robbins as Harry, Todd Graff as James, John Turturro as Heinz (the German name of this very Italian character remains a mystery), and Jodie Foster, as Linda.

Foster, who has a child was an exceptionally honest actress, is noteworthy. One can’t help but observe that her character’s situation (dreading the advances of an unwanted admirer) is queasily reminiscent of Foster’s own problems with the man who shot Ronald Reagan to get her attention, John Hinckley.

I think Five Corners is a tad too self-conscious to succeed at its many ambitions, but it’s good to have around, if only because Shanley’s conceit is usually restricted to the experimental theater. The inevitable question: When is this guy going to start directing his own scripts?

First published in the Herald, January 1988

Shanley did get to direct a in Hollywood two years later, and it was Joe Versus the Volcano, a very peculiar movie that has its fans. Then back to the theater as well as screenwriting, but he returned to the movie-director’s chair with Doubt, in 2008.

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Do the Right Thing

September 19, 2011

With each of his films, Spike Lee has upped the ante. His low-budget debut, She’s Gotta Have It, was a clever and catchy take on male-female relations. His second movie, School Daze, was a lively view of life at a black university, no holds barred.

In Lee’s third and latest film, Do the Right Thing, the stakes are higher. Lee, who wrote, directed and produced this movie, and also plays one of the main roles, looks at a single hot summer’s day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Echoes of Howard Beach and other ugly racial incidents are present in the film’s violent climax, but Lee has imagined his own complete, original world here. The action centers on Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, where Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons (John Turturro, Richard Edson) serve up the best slices in the neighborhood.

Lee plays Mookie, the pizza delivery man, whose rounds take him on visits to various local characters, including a lengthy stop with his girlfriend (Rosie Perez).

As the sweltering day progresses, there are hints of racial tension, from the innocence of a dispute about whether Dwight Gooden or Roger Clemens is the best pitcher in baseball, to the hostility and fear of Sal’s sons. Then Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) notices that there are no photos of black people on Sal’s wall, only Italian-American celebrities, despite the fact that virtually all of Sal’s customers are black. Sal figures it’s his place, he can do what he wants.

This minor disagreement eventually turns into a violent scene, and the community briefly goes aflame. Lee is playing with the way volatile elements can suddenly converge, and he does a good job of catching the crackle of the community’s long fuse. He also has made a movie full of funny moments, especially the rhythms of a trio of sidewalk-sitters who comment on the action.

But Lee is also playing with fire here, and it’s not quite clear he knows what he’s doing. He shows different sides to the main characters, as though to give each his say, but in the process the movie doesn’t seem to have a point of view. The issues Lee serves up deserve a deeper treatment.

First published in the Herald, June 29, 1989

As the movie went on to win acclaim, I became less impressed by its undeniably funny comic sequences and more disenchanted with the overall picture; there were some exchanges that might’ve passed muster on an average episode of “All in the Family” in 1971, but were embarrassingly clumsy in 1989. Many people find it an important and significant film.