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

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The Godfather Part III


Just when I thought I was out...

Just when I thought I was out…

(1990) Drama (Paramount) Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Talia Shire, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Sofia Coppola, George Hamilton, Bridget Fonda, Raf Vallone, Franc D’Ambrosio, Donal Donnelly, Richard Bright, Helmut Berger, Don Novello, John Savage, Franco Citti, Mario Donatone, Al Martino, Vittorio Duse, John Cazale. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” 16 years after the second part of the trilogy comes the conclusion, although Coppola prefers to think of it more as an epilogue. Coppola also wasn’t particularly eager to make this film but with his production company having serious money issues he went ahead and did it anyway.

Using real life events surrounding the Vatican Bank and the short reign of Pope John Paul I, Coppola weaves a tale that involves Michael Corleone (Pacino) – now a legitimate businessman, still fighting to keep his family out of the old family business. His nephew Vincent Mancini (Garcia) the illegitimate son of Michael’s brother Sonny and his sister’s friend and bridesmaid Lucy Mancini, has an issue with Joey Zasa (Mantegna) who runs what used to be the Corleone family in New York. Michael doesn’t want to get involved but reluctantly does so at his sister Connie’s (Shire) urging.

Michael has made at least an accord with his estranged wife Kay (Keaton) to let their children go their own way so that Anthony (D’Ambrosio) is free to pursue a career in opera rather than become the lawyer his father desires him to be. Mary (Sofia Coppola) is also free to pursue Vincent although Michael disapproves of the union. And despite Michael’s attempts to remain legitimate, his past will come back to haunt him in a big way.

Whereas The Godfather was operatic in tone, The Godfather Part III is more soap opera than opera. Daddy Coppola is masterful at weaving multiple storylines into a crescendo, bringing them all together in a terrifying violent coda. He still shows that ability here but this script simply doesn’t have the power that the first two movies did.

Still, this movie has Pacino at the top of his game and while he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work here he richly deserved one. Here Michael is aging and his vitality is ebbing from him. He speaks in a gravelly voice roughened by time and tears, stooped with the weight of all his misdeeds. He may have gone legitimate but he still carries his sins like anvils around his neck. The eyes of Michael Corleone are haunted by demons so horrible that thee and me could never imagine it. It is in the eyes that Pacino’s performance truly becomes masterful.

He has some help. Talia Shire, often overlooked in the first two movies becomes a black widow here. Connie Corleone sits in the shadows, weaving her webs, Michael’s feminine support but also the demon of his lesser nature. She is the siren call of the Mafia life, the life Michael has struggled so hard to get away from. Her machinations are central to the movie’s plot and help Shire give the performance of her career.

Garcia who was so memorable in The Untouchables channels James Caan here playing his bastard son with explosive violence and yet the cool and snake-like intelligence of a Corleone. You can see Sonny in the son but that isn’t all Vincent is. Garcia imbues him with loyalty and malevolence, violence and cleverness but also love and respect. In many ways Pacino and Garcia have taken the roles of Brando and Pacino from the first film, allowing Michael to go full circle.

Sadly, Sofia Coppola – an excellent director – doesn’t fare as well as an actress. It’s not that she doesn’t have talent in that department – she actually delivers a decent performance. Unfortunately, the role and the situation both call for something better than that. She’s a housecat among lions, having to put her performances up against some of the best in the business and by comparison suffers badly. She doesn’t really have the screen charisma developed to give the role what it really deserved – a performance that forces the audience to care about the character. We kind of do but not enough by the end of the final reel. She was perhaps unjustly excoriated by critics and audiences alike which effectively ended her career as an actress which in a way is a good thing – we’ve gotten some pretty damn good movies from her as a director perhaps as a result. Still, I can’t help but wonder how well she would have developed as an actress had she not been kicked around so much in the press which surely soured her on pursuing acting at all.

There are other problems with the movie as well – the convoluted story line, Paramount’s inability to let Coppola make the movie he wanted (among other things they wouldn’t pay Duvall a salary akin to what other actors in the film were making so Coppola wound up being forced to write the character of Tom Hagen out) and perhaps most importantly the movie simply wasn’t able to hold up against two all-time classics. That’s not to say that The Godfather Part III is a bad movie – far from it. Part of the problem is that expectations are sky high after the first two. If There hadn’t have been the first two movies of the series, The Godfather Part III taken by itself probably would be remembered with far more fondness.

It is worth seeing as a closing chapter in the series although there has been talk on and off over the years of a Godfather Part IV but if there is it is unlikely Pacino or Coppola will be involved. With author Mario Puzo – very much Coppola’s muse when it came to these movies – passed away, it isn’t likely that another Godfather movie will ever capture the lightning the way the first two movies did. When you take the three films as a whole, it is as epic a saga of an American family as has ever been made. There hasn’t been it’s like before and there never will be again. While the third entry in the trilogy may be something of a disappointment, it is still a good movie if you avoid comparing it to the first two which is admittedly hard to do but if you are able to do it, you’ll enjoy this movie more.

WHY RENT THIS: Closure. Pacino is mesmerizing as always.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really hold up to the other two films in the trilogy. Story often confusing and Sofia Coppola’s performance isn’t up to scratch.

FAMILY VALUES:  More than its share of violence (some of it bloody) and foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Godfather trilogy was the first to have all three films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The Lord of the Rings trilogy later duplicated the feat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $136.8M on a $54M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Saving Mr. Banks

Gangs of New York


Gangs of New York

A more dapper group of gents you will never meet.

(2002) Historical Drama (Miramax) Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Cara Seymour. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

It’s a myth that immigrants have always been welcomed to America with open arms. Immigrants have all too often been sneered at, spat upon and been the victims of violence. Still, nobody can argue that immigrants were the bricks that built America. Every European-descended American citizen has an immigrant somewhere in their family tree. Gangs of New York is a story of some of those who built modern America, and it isn’t pretty.

In the mid-1800s, Priest Vallon (Neeson) wants his Irish comrades in the Five Points section of New York to be left alone. He wants freedom from the harassment of the Nativists, led by “Butcher” Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis). The two warring factions decide to settle their differences the old-fashioned way — on the field of battle.

Vallon is backed by his lieutenant, Happy Jack (Reilly) and the mercenary Monk McGinn (Gleeson) who fight passionately but to no avail – the Nativists carry the day after Cutting cuts down the Priest. Vallon’s son is taken away to Hellgate to be raised as an orphan.

Forward to 1862. The Civil War is in full fury, and the word of the day is conscription. Irish immigrants continue to pour into New York, at a rate of 15,000 a week; ongoing for the 15 years since the potato famine of Black ’47. The son of Vallon, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) has grown to manhood and intends to infiltrate Butcher Bill’s gang, and then strike at his father’s killer when the time is right. Amsterdam meets a thief and cutpurse, Jenny Everdeane (Diaz) from whom he initially recoils, but the two fall deeply in love true to Hollywood form.

Cutting has made an alliance with Boss Tweed (Broadbent) of Tammany Hall to deliver crucial votes in the upcoming election in exchange for political protection. However, the coming conscription is making everyone uneasy. Many don’t want to fight for the rights of blacks, who are despised nearly as much as the Irish.

Still, Amsterdam quickly becomes one of Butcher Bill’s best men, and the gang leader takes a liking to the young man, in almost a father-son relationship. Eventually, he discovers the true identity of Amsterdam and all hell breaks loose, leading to a confrontation. Unfortunately, the two leaders pick a bad day for a fight – a riot has broken over the conscription act, and federal troops move in. A fight for survival becomes even more harrowing.

Director Martin Scorsese does an incredible job of evoking 1862 New York City. He establishes a realistic depiction, down to the language and idioms of the dialogue. The costumes, the sets, all reek of authenticity. Of course, there is a great deal of violence, which is to be expected. There is also a surprising amount of nudity, particularly in the bordellos where some of the movie is takes place.

The cast is marvelous. Daniel Day-Lewis gives his most electrifying performance since The Last of the Mohicans and one of his finest ever, pointing out what a shame it is he doesn’t do more movies. DiCaprio doesn’t have to carry this movie due to Day-Lewis’ presence and as a result delivers a more relaxed performance, paving the way for a long association between him and Scorsese. Reilly, Broadbent, Gleeson and Henry Thomas (as a friend of Amsterdam’s) all do solid work.

The problem here is the love story. It’s extraneous, and detracts from the movie overall. The Jenny Everdeane character exists only to be DiCaprio’s love interest, and doesn’t contribute much to the story. It’s billed as a love triangle, but the movie would have worked just as well, if not better, without it. Some of the 2-hour, 46-minute run time could easily have been excised.

Martin Scorsese is considered by some to be the greatest American film director of all time, and Gangs of New York does nothing to diminish that claim; in fact, over the years it’s become a movie that many consider to be one of his finest – certainly it stands up well with some of his better-known movies like Taxi Driver and The Departed. It’s an amazing epic that never averts its eyes from the seamier sides of the story, but refuses to wallow in them either.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Day-Lewis. Perfect capture of an era long gone. One of Scorsese’s finest and that’s saying quite a lot.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A superfluous love triangle. Runs a little bit too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a whole lot of violence, some of it quite graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a surfeit of nudity, along with a few curse words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The sets of old New York were actually built on the lot at Cinecitta studios in Rome. George Lucas visited the set during filming and reportedly said to Scorsese “You know, sets like that can be done with computers now.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a 30-minute Discovery Channel documentary on the real gangs of New York, a U2 music video, a featurette on the Five Points area where the filmwas set, and a featurette on the immense sets at Cinecitta with Scorsese conducting a personal tour of the sets and relating stories from the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.8M on a $100M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even during it’s theatrical run, although it almost certainly turned a profit on it’s home video release.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Arbitrage