Tomorrow’s Hope


Hope is a warm hug

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Jackie Robinson, Jalen Rayford, Crystal, Jamal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Aija Larry, Portia Kennel, Brenda Eiland-Williford, Emma Gonzalez, Anita Harvey Dixon, Manuel Oliver, Elishaba, Jamie, Bridgette, Asia. Directed by Thomas A. Morgan

 

Escaping poverty can sometimes seem an insurmountable task. Those caught in its clutches are busy just trying to survive; making headway to get out is almost impossible. Many take the easy way out of violence and crime. Most agree the best way out is through education, but often those neighborhoods who need it most are also neglected the most, particularly when it comes to early childhood education. Poor kids getting a head start? Who’s going to pay for that?

In Chicago, the poorest neighborhood in America was located in the Robert Adams housing project. Also the largest public housing project in America, the massive high rises were riddled with disease, drugs and despair. Elevators never worked and the stairways were places where violence often occurred. Parents often restricted their kids to playing on the ramps outside their apartments.

Neighborhood educators knew there had to be a better way. Many of the parents who were concerned about their kids worked and were desperate for daycare, but couldn’t afford it and even if they could, getting their kids there in back was an unreasonable risk. Putting together a foundation called Ounce of Prevention, these educators established a center right there in the Adams housing project, using an empty apartment as their base. Rather than just babysitting the kids by plopping them in front of a television set, they used the opportunity to help them to learn socialization skills and education through play. When playing outside proved to be a formidable obstacle, they put the kids on busses and took them to a local park.

But this center, known as The Beethoven Project, had a major obstacle to face; the city, tired of the crime and violence that festered in the project, decided to tear them down and replace them with better, safer housing. Of course, in order to do that, they needed to relocate the families to new housing throughout the city. Then, the walls came down.

But the city reneged on their promise to rebuild and the parents found themselves in the same predicament, only now they were scattered all over Chicago’s South Side. Ounce of Prevention took the bull by the horns and built Educare, an early education center geared towards impoverished and at-risk children.

This short documentary (just over 45 minutes long, including a prologue testimonial from Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot which felt unnecessary) follows three members of the first class at Educare in 2000. All three are getting ready to graduate high school and have big plans; Jamal, a drum line major who has music running in his veins, plans to become a sound engineer. Sensitive Jalen writes poetry to work out the issues that upset her; having been suicidal at one time, she wants to give back to her community ad plans to be a psychiatrist and work in the same South Side neighborhood she grew up in. Crystal, who has a thing for wigs, looks to become a pediatrician after she graduates college, to which all three are attending.

Now, I have a healthy dose of skepticism in my veins. All three young people are articulate and clearly on the cusp of becoming community leaders. I’m sure not everyone who came through Educare is as cinematic as these three, but certainly any educational program would be happy to have three kids like this as alumni, and it doesn’t hurt to highlight success stories for a program that had so many obstacles to overcome, as indeed these kids did growing up – all three have seen gun violence or known a victim of it. Jalen’s brother was murdered when she was young, and as a result when the Parkland students came to march, she marched right along with them (as did Jamal).

The importance of early childhood education is demonstrable, and too few kids in poor neigborhoods have access to it. Programs like Educare, which has branched out to 25 locations around the country, are going to be necessary if this country is going to keep up with global competitors – an educated population is the key to innovation and economic growth. It seems criminal that we choose to squander the opportunity to develop this country’s greatest asset – its young people.

REASONS TO SEE: The three young people that are followed here are inspirational. The obstacles the center had to overcome are daunting. The film is more concerned with the results of the program rather than the nuts and bolts of how it works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prologue was somewhat unnecessary and a bit long-winded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brief profanity (one word) and an image of a body being wheeled out of the Robert Adams housing project.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Every one of the kids enrolled in the first Educare class graduated from high school.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starting at Zero
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Stateless

Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?


In their own way, they're both sticking to their guns.

In their own way, they’re both sticking to their guns.

(2016) Comedy (Area23s) Andrea Anders, Matt Passmore, Cloris Leachman, Katherine McNamara, John Michael Higgins, Garren Stitt, Horatio Sanz, Lauren Bowles, John Heard, Christine Estabrook, Kevin Conway, David Denman, Fernanda Romero, Max Lloyd-Jones, Marshall Bell, Terrence Beasor, Ray Auxias, Julie Brister, Gina Gallego, Eileen Grubba, Victoria Moroles. Directed by Matt Cooper

 

In Texas, there is power and then there is power. For the men, the power resides behind the barrel of a gun. For the women, the power can be found between their legs. At least, that is what this comedy would have you believe.

In the oh-so-very Texas town of Rockford, the town motto is “Live free, shoot straight.” The men work at the fruit packing plant all week long, the one owned by the reclusive billionaire Cyrus Rockford who hasn’t been seen in decades (the prevailing rumor is that he’s been dead for years) and on weekends, go out hunting. The womenfolk take care of the kids, the house and occasionally get together in their book clubs. Things are going the way they’ve always gone there for generations.

Glenn Keely (Passmore) is one of the plant’s managers and, rumor has it, a prime candidate for a vice-president’s position. His life is pretty dang sweet; his wife Jenna (Anders) is smart, gorgeous and sexy; his daughter Sandy (McNamara) is the same. His son Lance (Stitt) is growing up to be a fine young man, even if he’s a bit impatient to get satellite TV.

Glenn is a bit of a gun nut; he collects the handguns, some of which are pretty sweet. When Lance decides to show off his dad’s latest purchase to his friends at school, it leads to an accidental discharge of the weapon that results in nothing more wounded than the crossing guard’s pride (and tush) but the thought of what could have happened is enough to give Jenna night terrors. What makes it worse is that none of the men seem to think much of the incident; the school gave his son a slap on the wrist, the sheriff (Heard) looks the other way and Glenn seems more concerned that Lance took the gun without permission than the fact that it went off in a crowded courtyard.

After airing her frustrations to her book club pals, she hits upon a plan; the men in town must give up their guns. Until they do, the women of town will withhold sex from the men. At first the ladies are reticent; will this even work? Getting the other women in town to come on board will be an uphill battle. Nevertheless they do it, the prime ringleaders being the foul-mouthed grandma (Leachman), the sexy Latina next door trying to have a baby (Romero) and the sheriff’s matronly wife (Estabrook).

To Glenn’s chagrin, Jenna’s leadership and determination galvanizes the ladies into an organized group to be reckoned with. At first the men dismiss the women’s stand, figuring it would blow over as soon as they began to miss their husbands embrace but as time goes by, it soon becomes apparent that the ladies aren’t going to give up the fight anytime soon. The spineless mayor (Higgins, channeling Fred Willard) is unable to rally the troops to get control of their women so it falls to an NRA-like organization called the National Gun Organization led by a dour Charlton Heston-worshipper (Bell) to send in the cavalry to rescue the men and their God-given rights to have as many guns as they want. The ladies are in all sorts of trouble until help comes from an unlikely source.

This is the second movie in a year to be based on the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes about a group of women who refused to make love until their men ceased making war. Quite frankly, associating that ancient play with the modern issue of gun rights vs. gun control is a stroke of genius. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really hold up to the concept; there is a TV movie of the week quality to the film that is quite disappointing.

Anders is a very attractive lead and with the right material could become a solid big screen leading lady. This isn’t the right material; it is riddled with cliches and stereotypes and nearly entirely white faces in the cast. Yes, even Texas has some diversity and more than a token Hispanic couple lapsing into Spanish whenever they get angry. Sorry Hollywood; those of us who are second generation or later view English as a first language and we don’t express our frustrations in Spanish. Just sayin’.

I also find it disconcerting that the filmmakers will throw some sobering facts out there in one breath (such as the number of mass school shootings after Newtown or that the Second Amendment only referred to arming state militias until the Supreme Court decreed that it referred to individual gun ownership in 2008) and then deliver a boner joke with the next. It does a disservice to the material and honestly if I were the parent of a child slain in a school shooting I would find it highly offensive.

This is an equal opportunity offender. Lefties will object to the cultural stereotypes, while conservatives will grouse about the Hollywood liberal gun control bent that the movie obviously has. Others will find the humor crude and vulgar. What it boils down to however is that anyone who loves a good movie will be greatly offended that this movie is far from even being mediocre; this is pure and simple a poorly made, poorly executed film that could have been so much better with sharper satire and fewer trouser tent gags.

REASONS TO GO: There are a few funny moments, mostly involving erections.
REASONS TO STAY: A film riddled with cliches and stereotypes. The tone is flat and dull. The filmmakers dumb down an important and controversial subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of sexual references and sensuality, some brief violence, crude humor and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is at least the fifth movie version of Lysistrata to be filmed, none using the original name or material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 6/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Mechanic: Resurrection

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