King Richard


Will Smith is usually the leader of the pack.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Noah Bean, Craig Tate, Josiah Cross, Vaughn Hebron, Jimmy Walker Jr., Kevin Dunn, Brad Greenquist, Christopher Wallinger, Chase Del Rey, Connie Ventress. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Champions are not born; they’re made. All the ability in the world will not avail you a championship unless you are willing to put in the work to earn it. Often, the ones who are making sure that the work is being put in is the parents, tirelessly believing in their prodigy even after trudging through practice…in the rain.

Richard Williams (Smith) had an improbable goal for his daughters Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) – to mold them into champion tennis players. Now, understand that in Compton, that was not the means to sports stardom that is generally chosen. There were no tennis clubs, no manicured courts. Just the indifferently maintained courts in the public park, where gang bangers often hung out.

Richard had written out a 78-page plan detailing how he was going to help his daughters turn into Grand Slam winners. Not everyone believed in the plan; a concerned neighbor (Ringor) questions whether it is healthy to force the girls to practice in the rain.

But they persevere and eventually Richard gets Venus hooked up with renowned tennis coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), the man who taught John McEnroe (Wallinger) and Pete Sampras (Del Rey). Paul gets Venus onto the junior tournament circuit, where her extraordinary success gets her national notice, but Richard isn’t satisfied. For one thing, Cohen wants Venus to utilize a closed stance, which is contrary to what Richard has taught her. He is constantly yelling at her to keep her stance open. “That’s where her power comes from,” he explains.

In the meantime, Richard’s wife Oracene (Ellis) is teaching the disappointed Serena, using videotapes of Venus’ lessons to augment practice (Cohen was unwilling to coach both girls for free, but he was willing to take one, so the older of the two, Venus, was selected). The disagreements on how to prepare Venus for turning pro lead Richard to switch to a different coach, Rick Macci (Bernthal) which necessitates the family moving to Florida so that both girls can benefit from being a part of Macci’s academy. Richard still exerts a great deal of control over the direction of his daughter’s career trajectory, but has become something of a huckster, promoting his daughters shamelessly. However, it begins to become an issue that his girls are getting no say in how their career is to progress, and as Oracene points out to her husband during a heated argument, that’s the way to push his daughters away forever.

These sorts of sports movies tend to be a bit of an anti-climax because we know how they’re going to end.We know that Richard’s plans come to fruition and that Venus and Serena become legends of the court, each achieving incredible success (with the younger Serena eclipsing her older sister in terms of accomplishment). It’s fascinating to watch it all happen, however.

Part of what makes it that way is an extraordinary performance by Smith, who has made a career out of playing affable, charming guys. While Richard has plenty of charm, “affable” isn’t a word I’d use to describe him; he’s temperamental, something of a blowhard, and dictatorial. But there’s something about the man that is wounded; you see it in his body language when he drives the VW minibus, he carts his girls to and from practice in; all hunched over, eyes darting from one way to the next, certain that something is coming to knock him down again and trying to prepare for the blow that is inevitably coming, and come they do, sometimes literally. While we end up liking Richard largely because it’s Will Smith playing him. If someone with more of an edge played him, like Mahershala Ali, we might be less disposed to forgive Richard his eccentricities and flaws.

Ellis has a tall task in standing up to a performance like that, but she actually holds her own, particularly in the second half of the movie when it’s clear that Oracene is not 100% behind her husband’s plan and method. The argument I mentioned above is a highlight of the movie and Ellis’ finest hour.

The tennis scenes…well, I’m not enough of an expert in the sport to determine how realistic the sports action is. To my eye it seemed decent enough, although I’m not enough of a follower to ascertain whether Sidney and Singleton are getting the Williams sisters’ mannerisms down right. To my untrained eye, they look pretty believable to me.

With the Williams sisters acting as executive producers, it’s a foregone conclusion that there aren’t going to be any dark corners explored in the film, particularly Richard’s serial infidelity, his treatment of his kids from his first marriage (they don’t appear onscreen in the film), and his penchant for self-promotion, which is only obliquely addressed. It’s not really a “warts and all” depiction of the family patriarch; more like a glossy photoshopped version, but it’s fascinating nevertheless and worth seeing just to see Will Smith at his very best.

REASONS TO SEE: Will Smith could be in awards conversation for his work here. Humanizes a pair of tennis legends.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references, a bit of profanity, a sexual reference and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. He remarried eight years later, but the couple has since also divorced.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until December 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borg vs. McEnroe
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Beta Test

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

Can You Dig This


Hosea Smith testifies.

Hosea Smith testifies.

(2015) Documentary (Gathr Films/Gravitas) Ron Finley, Mychael “Spicey” Evans, Kenya Johnson, Quimonie Lewis, Randy Lewis, Hosea Smith. Directed by Delila Vallot

There is something soul-enriching about going into the yard and planting a garden. The serenity that comes from working with the earth, watching seeds sprout into life and grow into plants bearing fruit and vegetables that we take for nourishment; few things are as wonderful and as satisfying as eating something you’ve grown yourself.

In South Central L.A., one of the most dangerous and violent neighborhoods in the country, that isn’t always an easy proposition. Ron Finley, a local resident, was tired of having little more than fast food available to him as a nutrition option and with grocery stores selling mainly prepared or unhealthy items and no alternatives for healthy organic vegetables, he chose to grow his own. His garden, on the verge in front of the house, grew to enormous heights which turned into an oasis of beauty in a neighborhood of vacant lots, barred windows and trash. When he was cited for violating an ordinance preventing residents from planting anything but grass on the city-owned verge, he fought  the ordinance  which attracted the attention of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez’ articles would eventually help turn the tide.

Other residents of the area were also inspired. Ex-convict Hosea Smith, living in a halfway house after being paroled from a thirty year manslaughter sentence, helped himself reintegrate into society by planting his own garden, along with his roommate Henry, also an ex-con. The two men formed a common bond by their love of growing things.

Kenya Johnson, an orphan, and Mychael “Spicey” Evans, a drug dealer, were both affiliated with gangs in South Central which is pretty much infested with them. The two found some relief through the Compton Community Gardens through a youth pastor there. Eventually the two, who had adjoining plots in the garden, became close friends and maybe more.

Quimonie Lewis, a precocious eight-year-old girl, likes planting things and wants to eat healthy things. With the help of her father, the Housing Project President where they live, she puts together a garden of her own, planting things like cantaloupes, tomatoes and peppers – all things she likes to eat. Her father, who has a heart condition, insists on eating an unhealthy diet, eventually being stricken with a serious heart attack. Quimonie sees her garden as a means of saving her dad’s life as well as a means of earning extra income for the family.

All of these stories are told through the warm eyes of director Vallot, who has a background as an actress and a dancer. Her camera movements are graceful as you would imagine a dancer’s would be, catching the jet planes that fly over South Central in mid-flight, going places most of the people who live there will never see. The sounds of gunfire, police sirens and jets are the constant soundtrack of South Central.

This is a gentle documentary, one that tells a story that actually can bring the viewer a feeling of inner peace as we watch how these people are directly affected by working with the soil and the sunshine and the water and the seeds, all that is needed to bring about life. As Hosea puts it, we all come from the soil and feel a connection with it.

Finley comes off as the most eloquent advocate. His efforts landed him a speech at a recent TED conference which has millions of YouTube views since it was posted; he isn’t what you’d call polished but the passion is there and so is the wisdom, although it is wisdom gleaned from the streets of South Central.

There’s an inspiring message to be had here; we can change the environment around us by something as simple as planting a garden, but it can go beyond that as well. For those who feel powerless and without any control, these are people who persevered and got something impressive done. Even Spicey, who was without work for more than two years, finds a job.

The editing could have used a little bit of work; some of the stories don’t flow as well as they should and in places we find out background information near the end of the movie that we could have used to put the film in context from the get-go, which makes for frustrating viewing; even the reveals have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

I did like the documentary, although I felt it could hav used a little more time in the editing bay. With a defter touch, this could have really been something special but even so, the story is compelling and the film overall is inspiring. Not a bad way to be remembered if you ask me.

REASONS TO GO: Laid back and serene. Finley and Smith are compelling advocates.
REASONS TO STAY: A little disjointed. Lacks context.
FAMILY VALUES: Profanity throughout and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers on the film is singer John Legend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Garden
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bone Tomahawk