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

New Releases for the Week of December 4, 2015


KrampusKRAMPUS

(Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler. Directed by Michael Dougherty

Holidays are the time for families to come together, but some families should remain far apart. Young Max has such a family and tired of the squabbling and the dysfunction, he finally reaches his breaking point and turns his back on Christmas. Little does he know that his anti-Christmas behavior has awakened a demonic presence, hell-bent on punishing those who don’t believe in the Christmas spirit. Now this fractured family must truly come together if they are to survive the night.

See the trailer and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Holiday Horror Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of horror violence/terror, language and some drug material)

A Royal Night Out

(Ketchup) Sarah Gadon, Bel Powley, Emily Watson, Rupert Everett. As Europe celebrates the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth are allowed outside the walls of Buckingham Palace to join the festivities. However, the two headstrong ladies ditch their military escort and find the first flush of romance and intrigue.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and brief drug elements)

Chi-Raq

(Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes. As the murder rate in Chicago skyrockets above the military casualties in Iraq, the death of a child caught in the crossfire of a murderous gang war sparks the women of Chicago to stand up and say enough. They vow to withhold sex from all men in Chicago until there is peace. Spike Lee’s latest joint is based on the classic Greek play Lysistrata. Catch the Cinema365 review of the film right here tomorrow.

See the trailer, clips  and a Q&A with Spike Lee here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use)

Jack of the Red Hearts

(ARC Entertainment) Famke Janssen, AnnaSophia Robb, Taylor Richardson, Sophia Anne Caruso. A streetwise teenage girl is desperate to get her younger sister out of the foster care system. Conning her way into a suburban home as a live-in helper for an autistic 11-year-old girl, she finds herself able to communicate with the child in ways nobody else can. She also finds a mother figure in the girl’s mom. But when the law finally catches up with her, she’ll have to choose between saving her own hide and saving someone else.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Drama
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: NR

Janis: Little Girl Blue

(FilmRise) Janis Joplin, Cat Powers, Juliette Lewis, Dick Cavett. Janis Joplin remains a cultural icon, one of the first women to become a rock star (as opposed to a pop star which most women were relegated to prior to Joplin). Her gigantic voice was augmented by her reputation as a free spirit. Her death at 27 insured her status as a legend. This Amy Berg-directed documentary was given unprecedented access to the Joplin family and shows a side to the singer that few have ever gotten to see.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

The Letters

(Freestyle) Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, Rutger Hauer, Priya Darshini. Some have characterized Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a modern day saint and indeed the Vatican is looking into canonizing her even as we speak. However, the woman behind the selfless commitment to the poor and forgotten of the Calcutta slums revealed in her letters reveal a troubled and lonely woman who actively questioned her faith and even whether or not she’d been abandoned by God.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Cafe, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for thematic material including some images of human suffering)

The Second Mother

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles. This frothy Brazilian concoction considers a hard-working domestic whose daughter comes to live with her in her employer’s estate. Her arrival puts the class distinctions in the household which mirror those set in place for generations into complete disarray.

See the trailer and stream the full movie from Amazon here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for some language and brief drug use)

Men in Black II


Johnny Knoxville's best day ever.

Johnny Knoxville’s best day ever.

(2002) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rip Torn, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Patrick Warburton, David Cross, Jack Kehler, Colombe Jacobsen, Peter Spellos, Michael Rivkin, Tim Blaney (voice), Lenny Venito, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Nick Cannon, Peter Graves, Doug Jones, Mary Stein  Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Sequels are by and large, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, either a continuation of the original story or a repetition of it and on that score as he was on so many others, Ebert was dead on. Sequels are at once the bane of Hollywood’s existence and the revenue machine that makes other, less sure-thing hit movies possible.

In this follow-up to a 1997 hit, things have changed a lot for the MiB since the first movie. Agent K (Jones), the agency’s best, has been neuralized – you know, had his memory erased by a device that looks something like a laser pointer – and Agent J (Smith), his former partner, is the new Top Dawg. Like K, J has been going through partners like the Kardashian girls go through husbands.

When Serleena (Boyle), the baddest bad girl in the universe comes to Earth in search of something called the Lights of Zathar and the MiB have only 24 hours to stop her from finding it or once again the Earth will be blown up, the only one who knows what or where the Lights of Zathar are is K. J is going to have to go to Massachusetts and find K, who now works in a post office (where half the workforce are aliens in one of the movie’s best jokes) and bring him back to New York to deneuralize him, which becomes problematic when Serleena takes over MiB headquarters along with her two-headed friend Scrad (Knoxville) whose smaller head may well have more control on his actions than his bigger one.

The key to everything may be the lovely Laura (Dawson), a pizza waitress who witnessed some of Serleena’s homicidal chicanery, but J is developing feelings for her – and she for him. The kind of feelings that make doing the job of protecting planet Earth from destruction a mite harder.

As important as bringing Smith, Jones and Torn (who reprises his role as the curmudgeonly Zed here) back on board, perhaps the most important return is make-up legend Rick Baker who created most of the grotesque alien looks. That retro-futuristic vibe of the first movie remains, albeit a little less obvious.

The good news is that even though five years had passed since the first film, the chemistry between Smith and Jones hasn’t decreased one iota in the intervening years. The two work together as well as any duo in the movies, now and ever. Once K’s memories are retrieved, the two resume their relationship from the first film and thankfully, Sonnenfeld doesn’t waste any time getting that relationship back on track.

He doesn’t have any time to waste quite frankly since the movie is only 88 minutes long,  almost a short by Hollywood franchise standards. Sonnenfeld does make every moment count quite frankly; a lot of modern filmmakers should take a few cues from him. Therefore the movie never feels like it’s dragging, even during lulls in the action. While the energy is different than that of the first movie, it is at least a kinetic energy here. Those that really loved the first film though may find this one somewhat flatter than the original.

The problem here is that the movie doesn’t really add anything new to the franchise. Other than a brief reversal of roles with J the mentor to the neuralized K for a brief time, it’s the same basic story as the first. Boyle is less a memorable baddie than Vincent D’Onofrio was in the first film; while she has plenty of tentacles, her performance is a bit strained, as if she isn’t sure what kind of role she’s playing. I don’t know if her late casting had anything to do with it because I’ve always found Boyle to be a capable actress but here she is strangely flat.

Also back from the first movie are Frank the Pug (voiced by Blaney) in a greatly expanded role and the Worms, all of whom provide much comic relief even though when you have Will Smith around you really don’t need much more. Still, this is a pretty decent sequel as sequels go, and while critics tended to grouse about the story overly much, the movie still stands out as top notch entertainment. Anytime you get a duo like Smith and Jones together it’s a good day.

WHY RENT THIS: Smith and Jones are a formidable team. Sonnenfeld’s trademark offbeat humor still in full force. Frank the Pug and the Worms deliver plenty of comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Story seems way too similar to the first film. Boyle is a bit stiff and wooden.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and provocative humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially, Famke Jansen was cast as Serleena and several scenes were shot with her, but due to a death in her family she had to drop out of the production and Boyle was added at the last minute.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The animated short The Chubb Chubbs which preceded MiB2 in some theaters, is included here. Also, there’s a blooper reel, an alternate ending, a music video starring Smith, and a plethora of featurettes. The DVD-ROM also includes an interactive game and screensaver. The DVD-ROM features, it should be noted, aren’t available on the Blu-Ray edition.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $441.8M on a $140M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental and streaming), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stargate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Paper Towns