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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Blended


These two hate each other so much you know they're going to wind up together.

These two hate each other so much you know they’re going to wind up together.

(2014) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Joel McHale, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Terry Crews, Kevin Nealon, Emma Fuhrmann, Bella Thorne, Braxton Beckham, Alyvla Alyn Lind, Abdoulaye NGom, Kyle Red Silverstein, Zak Henri, Jessica Lowe, Shaquille O’Neal, Dan Patrick, Jackie Sandler, Alexis Arquette, Josette Eales. Directed by Frank Coraci

As a young boy, the maxim “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” was hammered into me by my parents, my teachers and whichever adults happened to be handy. Personally, I wonder if they would have been quite as fervent about it if they had seen this movie.

Despite my upbringing, I am a film critic and sometimes it becomes necessary to discuss a movie that you literally can’t say anything nice about. I had some decent expectations about this movie to begin with – after all, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore have had great chemistry in  the past (particularly in The Wedding Singer) and the director from that film is on board for this one. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, everything. The plot is a mish-mash of unlikely coincidences and rom-com cliches guaranteed to knock your IQ points down a couple after you’ve seen the movie. The jokes take an interminable amount of time to set up and when they arrive, they simply aren’t funny.

The story, briefly put, is this; Jim (Sandler), a widower and Lauren (Barrymore) go out on a blind date and like most blind dates it’s a complete train wreck. They each arrange to get fake emergency phone calls just to get out of the Hooters that they are dining in. Note to single men – never take a first date to Hooters. There won’t be a second.

Anywho, through a convoluted set of circumstances, the two wind up together on an African safari vacation along with her two sons and his three daughters. At first the families fight like cats and dogs (or more to the African theme, like hyenas and jackals). But as they discover that they are all made for each other, the attraction begins to grow and…oh, I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Sandler has been on a cold streak as of late, appearing in several movies that have been absolutely horrible. It’s not because Sandler himself is horrible – given the right script, he can absolutely kill. However, he’s been choosing to go the PG-13 route trying to appeal to a family crowd who appreciate a little bit of an edge. The problem is, in my opinion, that he has mined that territory so thoroughly that everything he does is essentially déjà vu for the audience.

And Barrymore’s personality seems to have been diluted someone by her recent motherhood. She was always so free-spirited and spunky in all of her movies, not just the ones with Sandler, but here there’s a blandness to her that I’ve never seen in one of her performances before. I sincerely hope this is a one-time aberration.

And the kids…Oy, the kids! I have another maxim for you; spending time with your own kids is a joy; spending time with someone else’s is a chore. The kids here are all written one-dimensionally as a cluster of neuroses; one is a hyperactive terror who strikes out every time he comes to bat in Little League. One of the girls talks to her dead mother which isn’t a bad thing, but she insists that Mom be set a place at the table. There’s nothing funny about a kid who is in desperate need of therapy. One of the kids is an oversexed perv who tapes the face of his babysitter to centerfolds and…eww. See what I mean about there isn’t anything funny?

Even the bit with the best potential for actual laughter, a kind of African Greek chorus led by Terry Crews that seem to show up at every crucial moment, gets old quickly and dies a horrible death by over-repetition. I mean, did anybody actually watch this movie before they released it?

That the movie is flopping big time at the box office is somewhat comforting in that audiences are at least recognizing that these are not the type of movies they want to see. Hopefully Sandler will take heed and start doing comedies with a little more intelligence and a little less pandering. He’s too big a talent to waste on crap like this.

REASONS TO GO: Nice African images.

REASONS TO STAY: Not funny. Too many kids, all of them obnoxious. Appeals to nobody.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rude and sexual humor and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alexis Arquette makes a cameo reprising his role as Georgina from The Wedding Singer which was the first time Sandler and Barrymore teamed up.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grown-Ups 2

FINAL RATING: 3/10

NEXT: To the Wonder

Rubber


Rubber

Just rollin’ along.

(2010) Horror Spoof (Magnet) Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick, Wings Hauser, Roxanne Mesquida, Ethan Cohn, Charlie Koontz, Daniel Quinn, Devin Brochu, Hayley Holmes, Haley Ramm, Cecilia Antoinette, David Bowe, Remy Thorne, Tara Jean O’Brien. Directed by Quentin Dupieux

 

Sometimes things happen for no reason. Never is that more evident than in the movies. Some things just occur because they need to for the plot to advance. If you think about it too much your brain explodes.

In the middle of a desert (I’ve heard tell it’s California) a group of people gather. They are waiting expectantly, for what we don’t know. Suddenly a car roars in, knocking over a bunch of chairs. From the trunk comes Lieutenant Chad (Spinella), ranting about the movies and why people don’t use the bathroom in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the answer? no reason). He then presents for the onlookers a kind of live movie which they watch with binoculars and comment regularly on the goings on.

A tire (named Robert in the credits) stirs to life, half-buried in the sand. It takes halting attempts to rise and roll, often ending with it back on its side but eventually it begins rolling. It discovers it can direct its own travels and then it also finds it can cause things to explode, starting with birds and scorpions and graduating to larger animals…and humans. In the case of humans, it’s the heads that go boom.

It finds its way to a motel where it rolls into bed, watching an exercise video. It watches a maid make up the room. It evades the cops. Why? I’m sure you can guess.

Think of a nihilistic “Seinfeld” with a Dada streak a mile long, only without the standup comedy. The humor here is far more subtle and black. The horror element is more in the gore than suspense or atmosphere. They don’t always mix well.

Dupieux, who also operates under the nom des artes of Mr. Oizo (an electro musician and performance artist) has a twisted vision which I have to give props for. It is unique and unlike any other movie which you’re ever likely to see. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it necessarily something you would want to see. The constant breaking of the fourth wall by the actors and the audience/chorus gets to be irritating after awhile, plus the constant nihilistic “let’s move the plot in unexpected directions for no reason” is often confusing and also gets annoying.

I don’t have any problem with nihilism. I don’t really have a problem for making a movie about the randomness of life. I do have a problem with stringing together a random sequence of events that takes off willy-nilly just because you can. Actions, believe it or not, have consequences. They don’t occur in a vacuum and the best movies understand that. While I appreciate the sense of silliness and the courage to try something completely different, at the end of the day I wound up not connecting to this and just kind of enduring it as it came to its end. I need a little bit more from my Art.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever idea.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks in execution. The black comedy and horror elements don’t mesh well. At the end of the day more pretentious than outrageous.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, plenty of foul language and some twisted situations that have an underlying sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quinn, who plays one of the spectators here, also played a Scanner in Scanner Cop who was able to blow up people’s heads with the power of his mind as the tire does here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview with Dupieux conducted by a blow-up sex doll. Of course.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100,370 on an unreported production budget; I think it might have made a profit but more likely broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Howard the Duck (seriously, I couldn’t think of a single movie remotely like this).

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Klown