Trial by Fire


The despair of a father or the guilt of a murderer?

(2018) True Crime Drama (Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment) Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry, Jade Pettyjohn, Chris Coy, Joshua Mikel, Jason Douglas, Carlos Gómez, William Tokarsky, Wayne Pėre, Darren Pettie, Blair Bomar, Rhoda Griffis, Katie McClellan, Noah Lomax, Catherine Carlen, Michael H. Cole, Carlos Aviles, Elle Graham, McKinley Belcher III, Bryan Adrian, Mary Rachel Quinn. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

The death penalty remains a controversial subject, igniting passionate responses on both sides. Some consider it cruel and inhumane; others see it as righteous justice. Some say it is a deterrent to criminals, others point out that there’s no evidence that suggests that’s true. Some say that it at least keeps those who have committed heinous crime out of commission for good; others point to the possibilities that those who are innocent might be put to death wrongfully.

A young girl in the small Texas town of Corsicana was playing in her yard when she saw smoke billowing out of the house across the street. A shirtless man came out of the house, coughing and screaming that his kids were still in the house. The little girl’s mommy called 911 but it was all for naught – the three little girls inside the house were gone. Their father, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) would eventually be charged with their murder.

On paper, it seems like a slam dunk. Willingham was a notorious local troublemaker with a violent streak who had on several occasions physically abused his wife Stacy (Meade) who was away from the house when the fire occurred. Arson investigators for the county pronounced that it was absolutely a case of arson. Willingham was given a public defender who didn’t see much point in putting up any kind of defense. He never challenged the testimony of witnesses who changed their stories on the stand, nor checked on the veracity of a convicted criminal who testified that Willingham had confessed the crime to him in jail. Willingham was quickly convicted and sentenced to death, despite his protestations of innocence and his wife’s insistence that he would never hurt his own kids.

Willingham was put on Death Row where he was taunted as a baby killer and abused by guards and fellow inmates alike. His mandatory appeals are going nowhere and he can’t afford decent representation. Then, along comes playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern), a kindhearted do-gooder who reluctantly contacts him through a prison outreach program. Far from the thuggish brute she expected, he seems charming, gentlemanly and kind but absolutely unwavering in his cries that he’s an innocent man about to be executed for something he didn’t do.

Gilbert becomes drawn in to his story and starts to do research into his case and what she finds is shocking. The investigation was conducted in a shoddy and haphazard fashion with no other option other than Willingham ever considered for the crime. When she engages world famous arson investigator Dr. Hurst (Perry) who states unequivocally that that the initial investigation was botched and the culprit was likely a faulty space heater, Gilbert tries to find someone in authority to listen.

This case actually happened and despite overwhelming evidence that he didn’t do what he was accused of doing, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, more than twelve years after his daughters died in that terrible blaze. Zwick, an Oscar nominated director for Glory, puts together a searing indictment of our current justice system in which the law has become a commodity; only the very wealthy can afford good representation and that means often those who are poor are without any sort of recourse to get an adequate defense. It is the reason programs like The Innocence Project exist.

O’Connell, a fine actor who has been sort of just on the cusp of something brilliant, delivers it here with an absolutely stellar turn as Willingham. While I don’t think Zwick did O’Connell any favors by inserting imaginary one-sided conversations with his deceased oldest daughter, we get a sense of his despair, his outrage and yes his anger. The role likely won’t win him very many awards but might be the stepping stone to roles that will.

Zwick enlisted Alex Belcher to compose the music and he delivers with a haunting mood-inducing score that is absolutely unforgettable. Unfortunately, Zwick doesn’t give this film the kind of passion that he managed in Glory; I’ve read other critics describe his direction as workman-like and that is unfortunately right on the money. This is the kind of movie that should leave you with your blood boiling but oddly, it doesn’t and considering how tailor made it is to eliciting that kind of reaction, it’s almost criminal in and of itself.

Still, this is an important movie on the subject of our legal system, especially implying that then-Texas governor Rick Perry refused to even read Hurst’s report that should have exonerated Willingham, preferring that the execution go on as scheduled to preserve the reputation of the State as kick-ass against crime. This is one that got by them and quite frankly, some of those whose shameful behavior sent an innocent man to jail and execution should have had criminal charges filed against them.

REASONS TO SEE: O’Connell does a sterling job. The score is absolutely haunting. An important film on the issue of capital punishment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should leave you with your blood boiling but it doesn’t.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, brief nudity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a New Yorker article written by David Grann which opined that Texas had knowingly and willfully executed an innocent man.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Man Walking
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Violent Separation

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Liverleaf (Misumisô)


The phrase “pure as the driven snow” doesn’t apply here.

(2018) Horror (T-Joy) Anna Yomada, Hiroya Shimizu, Rinka Ôtani, Rena Ôtsuka, Kenshin Endô, Masato Endô, Kazuki Ōtomo, Masahiro Toda, Seina Nakata, Minori Terada, Ayaka Konno, Arisa Sakura, Reiko Kataoka, Aki Morita, Sena Tamayori. Directed by Eisuke Naitô

Bullying is sadly not an unusual thing, whether in American  high schools or Japanese ones. There always seems to be a human urge for the strong to prey on the weak.

Haruka Nozaki (Yomada) falls into the latter category. A transfer into a small rural middle school from a larger city, she doesn’t fit in and is preyed upon mercilessly by a gaggle of girls led by the diffident Queen Bee Taeko (Ôtani) who for a short while was friends with Nozaki. Now, she gives tacit approval to her followers in making the life of Nozaki a living hell.

Things start off typically; knocking her book bag out of her hands, throwing her shoes in a mud pit, knocking her into the mud-type things. Then things begin to escalate; a dead crow is put in her locker and she is jabbed with needles. Her mother (Kataoka) and father (Toda) have a meeting with Nozaki’s teacher (Morita) who is strangely cowed by the other students; they call her “vomit teacher” because she throws up when the misbehaving gets extreme. In any case, the teacher informs the parents that the school is closing at the end of the term and there’s no sense in opening up a can of worms. Nozaki’s parents take the extraordinary step of keeping their daughter home from school.

Infuriated, the bullies send Rumi (Ôtsuka) – a girl with a stammer who would be next on the list to get their full attention – to get Nozaki back to school but Nozaki knows all too well that things will end badly for her if she goes to school, so she declines. Rumi, wanting to fit in with the ugly bully crowd, professes that she wants Nozaki to die. Some of the boys in the group decide to see how serious she is. In the meantime, Nozaki has a friend in Aiba (Shimizu) who is more than a little interested in photography and is, like Nozaki, a transfer student. He lives, for some unexplained reason, with his grandmother.

But Nozaki’s refusal causes things to spin completely out of control from there as the bullies go way, way, way over the line. Tragedy results and Nozaki is left a shell of herself, a ghost floating in the winter snow. Even then the bullies won’t leave well enough alone and Nozaki finally stands up for herself – and she’s holding a knife when she does.

The film, based on an ultraviolent manga, is the latest teen bully horror film from Naitô who has already directed a couple of movies with comparable themes. Some critics have labeled this a revenge film and I’m not really sure if that’s accurate; certainly Nozaki’s actions later in the film could be construed as seeking vengeance but I get more of a sense that it is self-preservation she’s after. She’s pushed to a wall and like any cornered animal, fights her way out.

Yomada is excellent as the timid, cringing wallflower turned psycho killer. Her change from one extreme to the other is totally believable and while the gore and mayhem may be somewhat over-the-top, it is a comic book adaptation folks and one would expect an exaggerated amount of violence and bloodshed in that situation. In fact, some of the most brutal scenes in the movie are so beautifully photographed by cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya that you almost feel guilty enjoying the images he captures.

The movie could have used some judicious editing; the climax is a long time coming and when it arrives it’s almost a relief. I was left wishing it had come sooner but again, like most Americans I have the attention span of a loaf of bread. It felt like Naitô was taking a bloody long time to get to where he was going. I haven’t read the manga so I’m not entirely sure how faithful the film is to it but it feels like there was some fat that could have been trimmed.

As scary movies go this is more visceral than spooky. The scares are mainly in the gore and violence, not so much from any build-up from tension; think of it as a slasher movie in a Japanese school girl uniform (you know, the Sailor Moon outfit) and there you have Liverleaf, which is a local flower that blooms to usher in spring and is a big deal to Nozaki’s photographer friend, her only friend and maybe more than that. This isn’t going to scare the bejeezus out of you but then again, not every horror film has to.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes of brutality are filmed in a strangely beautiful manner. Anna Yomada delivers a killer performance (literally).
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and disturbing images, gore, profanity and scenes of brutal bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on the Misumisô manga by Rensuke Oshikiri.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
1/1

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

The Dressmaker (2015)


Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

(2016) Drama (Broad Green/Amazon) Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Hayley Magnus, James Mackay, Julia Blake, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley, Alison Whyte, Barry Otto, Sacha Horler, Shane Bourne, Mark Leonard Winter, Olivia Sprague, Darcey Wilson, Rory Potter. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse

 

There is an old Chinese proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold. Personally, I like my revenge hot in a spicy oyster sauce, but that’s just me. In any case, the point is that vengeance is something best left to ferment awhile.

The tiny rural Australian town of Dungatar is the kind of place where not much ever goes on. It was doubly so in 1951. That is, until Tilly Dunnage (Winslet) stepped off the bus in the dusty streets of the town. She walked over to where the town’s team was playing in a rugby match. Wearing a stylish red dress, her lips slathered in cherry red lipstick, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from a holder at a rakish angle, she made for a sight that the town had only glimpsed in fashion magazines.

The more so because there were whispers that she had murdered a young boy named Stewart Pettyman (Potter) and while nothing was ever proven, had led to her being exiled from the town in disgrace. Her mother Molly (Davis) went quietly mad and became something of the town codger. Most of the town has turned its back on the both of them, particularly town counselor Evan Pettyman (Bourne), Stewart’s father. However, there’s no doubt that Tilly is a talented dressmaker and when Trudy Pratt (Snook) underwent a radical transformation from Plain Jane to va-va-va-voom thanks to a makeover and a Tilly original creation, soon the ladies of the town were flocking to Tilly to get their own haute couture from the former pariah.

Also lining up to see Tilly is rugby star and neighbor Teddy McSwiney (Hemsworth) who has his eyes on Tilly but must woo Molly first in order to get her blessing. However, Tilly believes she has a cursed cloud over her head and when a new tragedy befalls her, she threatens to fall apart but her mum, realizing there’s only one thing she can do for her daughter before her own time is up, comes up with a plan to get the most delicious revenge for her daughter – and perhaps redemption for herself.

Based on a book by Betty Ham, this Aussie flick was the second highest grosser of 2015 in its native land and the eleventh all-time as of this writing. It’s received little to no fanfare here in the States and in some ways that’s not so bad; it allows you to experience the twists and the turns of the plot without expectation. Unfortunately, it’s bad in that a lot of people haven’t really heard much about this movie and it’s a shame because it’s pretty dang good.

Winslet is one of those actresses who elevates bad movies into good movies and good movies into great movies. She is a force of nature here, dominating the screen almost effortlessly. Davis, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, holds her own and even Hemsworth, who has always been something of a pretty boy, uses his easygoing charm to his advantage. Weaving, who I’ve always enjoyed as a terrific character actor, shines here as a cross-dressing cop.

The movie lampoons our obsession with fashion as well as small town insularity, both of which have been done elsewhere but here at least are done stylishly. The problem here is that there are too many styles going on; there’s a kind of American western tone (Moorhouse herself calls the film “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine”) as well as a kind of noir mystery (particularly near the end of the film as we find out what really happened to Stewart Pettyman) as well as an Edward Scissorhands­-esque ode to non-conformity, romantic comedy in the developing relationship between Tilly and Teddy and even a little family drama as per the relationship between Tilly and Molly.

I found myself liking the vibe here. I’ve never been what you’d call exactly fashion-conscious so I found that aspect of the film amusing. I also liked the relationships between Tilly and Molly as well as between Tilly and Teddy. The denouement of the film when Tilly takes her revenge is absolutely classic and worth all the extraneous material. You may favor the noir as I did, or the rom-com, or the offbeat stuff or some other aspect but I’m reasonably sure you’ll find something about this film to like. I know I found quite a bit.

REASONS TO GO: The acting here is extremely good, particularly from Winslet and Davis. As dramas go, this one has some pretty funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many undercurrents here.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Moorhouse has directed in eight years; she has two children with autism and spends most of her time off devoted to them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Micmacs
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Audrie & Daisy

Hunt for the Wilderpeople


An odder couple you will not find.

An odder couple you will not find.

(2016) Comedy (The Orchard) Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Cohen Holloway, Rhys Darby, Troy Kingi, Taika Waititi, Hamish Parkinson, Stu Giles, Lloyd Scott, Selina Woulfe, Mabelle Dennison, Timothy Herbert, Sonia Spyve. Directed by Taika Waititi

Florida Film Festival 2016

Kids aren’t always easy fits. They aren’t always little darlings. Some have had a tough go of things and they don’t always behave like angels. They act out. They lash out. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad kids though.

Ricky Baker (Dennison) is a kid just like that. After his mom gave him away, he has been shuttled from foster home to foster home. Each time he ends up back in the hands of child services and Paula (House), his exasperated case officer. Ricky has one more shot – out in the sticks with Bella (Wiata), a kind-hearted woman living on the edge of the bush with her husband, curmudgeon Hec (Neill) who clearly wants nothing to do with Ricky – and for whom the feeling is mutual.

Circumstances arise that force Ricky and Hec to go fleeing into the bush with the incorrect assumption that Hec has somehow abused Ricky (mainly due to the surprisingly naive Ricky himself) and that due to circumstances, Ricky will be remanded to juvenile jail until he turns 18 as he has used up all of his foster care opportunities. The two become the object of a massive manhunt, becoming a major news story in New Zealand and the two become folk heroes.

With the relentless Paula chasing them and bounty hunters on their tail, it will take all of Hec’s bush knowledge to keep the city-bred hip-hop loving Ricky safe. And all of New Zealand seems hell bent on capturing the two and sending them both to their respective jails.

From the co-director of the wonderful What We Do in the Shadows, this is one of those movies that either the humor will appeal to you or it won’t. For me and Da Queen, it definitely did. There’s a scene early on of Bella killing a wild boar which won’t sound funny on paper, but had me in stitches. Comedy gold, I tell you.

Sam Neill, who has been around for quite awhile, puts in what just might be his best performance ever here. It’s not that Hec is just grouchy; he has to deal with all sorts of emotions, including some tender ones, during the course of the film. I’ve always liked Neill, going back to his turn as an adult Damian in The Omen III to his work in Jurassic Park and one of my favorites, The Hunt for Red October. This is the movie that fans of this actor should make a point of seeing.

Also, mention must be made of Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker. This is a young actor who has amazing comedy chops. He is blessed with a script that doesn’t descend into chintz or shtick, nor does it unduly play off of Dennison’s size (he’s overweight as you can see from the picture). Yet they don’t make him a laughingstock, as the movies often do with portly kids. That’s a good thing to see, but as well, Dennison nails his role and makes Ricky Baker a memorable character. That’s not an easy thing to do in a film like this.

The scenery is beautiful – New Zealand came by its reputation as one of the most beautiful places on Earth honestly. The soundtrack is also chock full of some terrific Kiwi pop songs that will keep your toes tapping throughout. There literally is nothing not to like about this movie.

Okay, maybe one thing. Some of the humor might be a little more over the top than some American audiences are used to. There’s a character played by @Midnight favorite Rhys Darby named Psycho Sam who lives up to his name. His presence derails the movie a little bit even though Darby does a fine job. It just feels like the character came in from another movie.

Otherwise, this movie rocks from beginning to end. It’s funny, sweet and like Ricky himself has a heart of gold under all the bluster. Definitely one of the finer movies to be screened at the Florida Film Festival this year. It’s out and about the country right now, doing a walkabout of its on in American theaters. Catch it at one while you still can.

REASONS TO GO: Much funnier than I was led to believe it was. The soundtrack is abso-bloody-lutely terrific. Majestical scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too out there for some.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the birthday scene, ten takes were filmed of the cast singing “Happy Birthday” to Ricky until someone realized that they didn’t have the rights to use the song. Therefore, the actors made up a new song on the spot, the one which appears in the film (and also partially in the trailer).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buddymoon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience begins!

Chi-Raq


Lysistrata gets real.

Lysistrata gets real.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, Anthony Fitzpatrick, Anya Engel-Adams, Ebony Joy, Erin Allen Kane, Michelle Mitchenor, Felicia Pearson, La La Anthony. Directed by Spike Lee

Violence in the streets has reached epidemic proportions, with homicides in the city of Chicago, one of America’s great cities, now higher than the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of American soldiers. There is a war in the streets of Chicago, mainly being waged by street gangs, and the innocent are being caught in the crossfire as they often are in war. It’s so bad that the residents of the embattled South Side where much of the violence is centered have taken to calling their home town Chi-Raq, a merging of Chicago and Iraq which in their eyes the Windy City has become. They’re not wrong.

Director Spike Lee has turned his gaze towards the problem and has come up with a unique viewpoint. Adapting the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes and setting it in modern-day Chicago, Lee makes the bold move of putting the dialogue into rhyming couplets – just as Aristophanes did. Utilizing a narrator named Dolmedes (Jackson) who acts as kind of a, if you’ll excuse the expression, Greek chorus, he tells the tale of two warring gangs; the Spartans, who wear purple and who are led by the passionate Chi-Raq (Cannon), a rapper with a rap sheet, and the Trojans, who wear orange and are led by the humorless one-eyed Cyclops (Snipes).

After an attempt on Chi-Raq’s life misfires, leaving a member from each gang badly injured, Chi-Raq and Lysistrata go back to her crib and do what comes naturally. The fire they are making suddenly becomes a bit too hot; Cyclops has set fire to the apartment building in an attempt to flush out Chi-Raq but that, too, fails.

Lysistrata moves in with Miss Helen (Bassett) across the street, a woman who preaches non-violence and doesn’t approve of Lysistrata’s lifestyle or choice in men. Lysistrata at first is not real happy about Miss Helen’s criticism, but all that changes when a young girl, the daughter of Irene (Hudson), is caught in the crossfire during a gang shootout and is killed. Local preacher-activist Fr. Mike Corridan (Cusack) thunders from his pulpit and urges his flock to change their ways.

When Lysistrata hears of a Liberian activist named Leymah Gbowee who convinced the women of that war-torn country to withhold sex from their men until peace was declared – and it was – she realizes that something like that could work in Chicago too, but she’ll have to convince the ladies of the various gang members on both sides which is no easy task since there’s plenty of suspicion to go around on both sides. However, all the women are tired of going to funerals, tired of seeing their children murdered, tired of seeing their men murdered. It’s time to make a difference, and the women decide to do just that. Their sex strike spreads to the prostitutes and phone sex girls, then to other cities. Soon men around the world are suffering blue balls, and the women seem to have the upper hand. However, the men won’t take this lack of lying down…lying down.

This is Spike Lee returning to his roots as it were, creating a movie that’s both ambitious and ballsy. How many directors do you know would adapt an ancient Greek play, set the dialogue in rhyme and infuse it with a rap soundtrack? Not damn many. Okay, just one.

Lee can sometimes have the touch of an elephant when making a point, but few excel at satire better than he. This is overtly a musical, but not in a West Side Story kind of fashion. This is at times a rap video but I do believe that’s part of the satire. He has gone into this territory before, with his casts breaking into song and dance numbers, but there is still a subversive flavor about the way he does it.

Likewise the humor can be big and brawny, but it tends to be more successful when it’s rapier-like or playful. Lee is not above poking fun at African-American icons or at himself for that matter, but occasionally he misfires when going after broader targets, like the National Guard general who comes off as a cornpone Confederate. That sequence doesn’t work and will probably hit Southerners the same way minstrel shows hit African-Americans. I suppose though that there is a bit of justice in those type of reverse stereotypes.

There are plenty of powerful performances here but none better than Parris as Lysistrata. Lee has a history of celebrating the strength and pride of African-American women throughout his films, and Parris may be the best he’s ever had. Not only is she a drop-dead, make a preacher kick a hole in a stained glass window gorgeous, she carries the movie’s sensibilities without being strident. She is super sexy when she needs to be (which is often) but also gentle and nurturing when she is called to be (which isn’t often). It’s a nuanced performance that just reeks of star potential.

Already stars, Jackson and Cusack have some great moments as well. Jackson is jaunty as the narrator, showing up in loud, colorful suits and outrageous hats, looking like a cross between a pimp in a 70s Blaxploitation movie and a tap dancer from a Busby Berkeley musical. Jackson keeps it light, which makes the movie work a lot better than if the tone was darker. Cusack has a powerful moment when he delivers a sermon at the little girl’s funeral, preaching until he goes hoarse, reiterating to me why he’s one of my very favorite actors. Bassett provides gravitas, and Hudson shows that she continues to be one of the best actresses in Hollywood with her brief but emotionally powerful role as the murdered girl’s mother.

Like most of Lee’s movies, the soundtrack is the real deal. But while the soundtrack here is rap, the movie is pure jazz and the same can be said about Lee. Love him or hate him, admire his politics or despise them, he takes chances and does things his own way. Not everything works here – at times I feel like he’s borrowing too much from other sources and the movie can have a “seen that before” quality that you sometimes get from a Tarantino film when that director falls too deeply in love with his references. However, this is clearly Lee’s best work in decades, although not up to his very best films. However, this is a welcome return to form by a director who is an American treasure that is rarely considered as such by the Hollywood establishment.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performance by Parris. Vintage Spike Lee. Nifty soundtrack. Subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly self-conscious. Not subtle at all. Occasionally bombastic. Sinks into cliche from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexual content and sexual references, some nudity, a little bit of violence, drug use and a whole lot of crude language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Wake up” is both the first and last line of dialogue in the film; it is also the first and last line of dialogue in Do the Right Thing which also featured Snipes and Jackson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do the Right Thing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II

Parker


Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

(2013) Thriller (FilmDistrict) Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., Bobby Cannavale, Patti LuPone, Carlos Carrasco, Emma Booth, Micah Hauptman, Kirk Baltz, Kip Gilman, Sharon Landry, Charleigh Harmon. Directed by Taylor Hackford

Most of us have some sort of moral code that we live our lives by, even if we can’t always articulate. We call them “lines” and we try not to cross them (although we aren’t always successful). It’s always somewhat miraculous when someone actually accomplishes it.

A priest and two clowns walk into the Ohio State Fair main office. Sounds like a joke but it’s actually a robbery, one spearheaded by the priest – who is actually Parker (Statham), an expert thief who lives by a rather stringent moral code – never steal from those who can’t afford it, never hurt those who don’t deserve it. It’s served him well.

But when you work with clowns, well, you get what you deserve. One of them, Melander (Chiklis) has an idea for an even bigger score but needs the entire take from the State Fair job to make it happen. Parker, who is already not happy with the crew because one of them (Hauptman) had set a diversionary fire in the wrong place, decides to pass.

Unfortunately, Melander isn’t willing to take no for an answer and leaves Parker shot and nearly unconscious on the side of the road. Fortunately, a farmer and his family spies Parker on the side of the road and takes him to a local hospital. Parker regains consciousness and manages to escape before the cops arrive to ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. He recovers in a stolen ambulance in a secluded patch of woods and a helping of Demerol to help him sleep it off.

When he comes to he’s in a pretty foul mood. He approaches Hurley (Nolte), his mentor and also the father of Claire (Booth) – his girlfriend – and the man who set him up with Melander. It turns out that Hurley didn’t know that Melander was extremely connected, in this case to Danzinger (Gilman) a vicious crime boss. Hurley advises him to walk away but Parker can’t do that. He needs his score and he needs justice. He knows that Danzinger will send people not only after him but after Hurley and Claire and anyone Parker knows but it’s the principle of the thing.

After a visit to the brother of the misplaced arsonist (Baltz) in New Orleans, Parker gets wind that the job is taking place in Palm Beach, Florida. From snippets of  conversation just prior to his assault, he knows they were looking for a house down there. He contacts Leslie Rodgers (Lopez), an ambitious realtor trying to get her first commission. She’s in desperate financial straits – a divorce has left her with plenty of bills and precious little cash and she is forced to live with her difficult mother (LuPone) and field calls from bill collectors and repo agencies. She is at the end of her rope.

Parker, posing as an Ecuadorian-born oil baron from Texas (yeah, she doesn’t believe it either), soon discovers where Melander is hiding out and what he’s up to. Even with his atrocious Texas accent, he soon comes up with a plan but he has to dodge a hitman that Danzinger has sent after him and Leslie’s well-meaning interference. He’ll have to beat some pretty stiff odds to get away with this job.

This is based on Flashfire, the 19th novel in the Parker series by Richard Stark which is the nom de plume of the late Donald E. Westlake, one of the most respected and honored crime novelists of the 20th century. This was meant to be the ground zero of a Parker franchise, but given the anemic box office and quite frankly the lackluster quality of the movie, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Hackford might not have been the best choice for the director’s chair. While he’s a veteran helmer, he’s better known for movies like An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray. Noir-ish action flicks, which is what this was supposed to be, are outside of his comfort zone and it shows – the action sequences have almost no life to them and are filmed kind of statically. In fact, the movie is kind of oddly lacking in kinetic energy.

It’s not Statham’s fault. He actually makes a pretty good Parker given the taciturn nature of the character in the books. Parker is meant to kick ass and take names….well, he doesn’t really care about the names so much but Statham inhabits the role well. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Lopez has never really been my cup of tea although I thought she showed amazing promise in Selena back in ’97 but she actually was pretty good here. There’s a scene in which she is reading an e-mail about her car being repossessed and her mom is giving her crap about some inconsequential thing and then she looks up at her mom and you can see in her expression all the pain, the stress and the worry that has brought her to her breaking point. The look is so poignant her mother puts a hand on her shoulder, unsure what to do (inside you’re screaming Hug her you idiot!) but at last her mom walks away and Leslie hides her face in her hands. It’s some really affective acting and tells me that if Lopez could just stay away from the pop star diva thing she’s done she can be a really great serious actress.

The Palm Springs locations are actually quite nice as we see gorgeous home after gorgeous home. Yes, the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Makes me want to punch someone in a Giorgio Armani suit and Ralph Lauren sunglasses. Or at least give them the evil eye.

I would have liked to see a movie with a little more grit, a little less glitz and a lot more spice. For a movie looking to establish a franchise beachhead there isn’t a lot of bang for your buck. It’s basically a mediocre action film with poorly written logical lapses – if you were going to buy a home in which you were going to lay low with tens of millions of stolen jewels, wouldn’t you at least consider some sort of home security system? – that with a little more care and a director more suited to this sort of film might have been the right step towards a profitable action franchise. As it is it’s back to the drawing board.

REASONS TO GO: Statham actually makes a pretty nifty Parker. Gorgeous Palm Beach location. Lopez ain’t half bad here.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything to the mix. Lacks spice.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. A surprisingly small amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the fifth film to be based on a Parker novel, it is the first in which the character’s name is actually used.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100; the reviews are mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff