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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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)

The Expendables 3


Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes decide to settle who has the bigger blade.

Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes decide to settle who has the bigger blade.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Ronda Rousey, Kelsey Grammer, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Robert Davi, Ivan Kostadinov, Slavi Slavov, Natalie Burn, Sarai Givaty. Directed by Patrick Hughes

Back in 2010, action fans eagerly awaited the debut of The Expendables which united action heroes from days gone by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Lundgren, Bruce Willis and of more recent vintage Li and Statham. The novelty factor alone made the movie a big hit but a single soliloquy by Mickey Rourke made the movie more memorable than the average action film.

Then came The Expendables 2 which added Jean-Claude van Damme and Chuck Norris (as well as more recent action star Liam Hemsworth) which was still entertaining in its own way but the novelty was beginning to wear off. Would the pattern continue?

Yeah, it does. While this is the most star-studded of the series, it is also the least fulfilling. I use that term advisedly – The Expendables 3 has a massive dose of testosterone that will grow hair on the chest of a Disney princess, and is surprisingly entertaining but not necessarily in a good way. You can sit back and watch this and take it for what it is, but if what it is doesn’t thrill you so much, you’re in for a long evening.

The team – leader Barney Ross (Stallone), right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham), surly Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), just as surly Toll Road (Couture) and abs-tastic Hale Caesar (Crews) board a prison train carrying a single prisoner – former Expendable Dr. Death (Snipes). As usual, lots of people get shot and stuff blows up but Team Ex wins out in the end.

But it turns out that the prison break was kind of a side trip on the way to something else. They’ve to head out and intercept a shipment of bombs from an arms dealer, who turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson) who just happened to co-found the Expendables before turning rogue and going out on his own. That job turns out to be something of a cluster frump and gets one of the team shot and in critical condition. Shaken up, Barney decides to retire the team and find a new one.

He needs one because their CIA contact Drummer (Ford) wants Stonebanks picked up alive and taken to the Hague to answer for his crimes. That’s easier said than done however and while Barney’s new team – including tech wizard Thorn (Powell), chatterbox Spanish killing machine Galgo (Banderas), team muscle Mars (Ortiz), beautiful but deadly Luna (Rousey) and anti-authoritarian potential team leader Smilee (Lutz) has more of a modern edge to them, they don’t do any better than the first team and things go sideways in a hurry. It will take the old team to rescue the new team and a final mano a mano brawl between Stonebanks and Barney to settle this once and for all.

Da Queen, being a pragmatic sort (and a bit of a masochist) decided to count up the ludicrous scenes in the movie when something that simply was too much of a stretch of the imagination to ignore; the end figure was in double digits. I can take a certain suspension of disbelief; after all, I used to love those ’80s action epics as much as the next guy. However, there comes a point where you’re inner brain starts to say “come on, you can’t be serious” to your testicles (or the female approximation of same) and the action fix begins to clash with your inner need for some sort of logic. How much you like the movie will depend on how bad you need an action fix.

Stallone, clean-shaven for the first time in the trilogy, looks every bit an AARP member at this point. There are several close-ups on his trademark sneer and as his righteous anger leeks out from his upper lip and into his eyeballs, you can tell he’s going to go all Rambo on somebody’s ass. Statham, not so nearly long in the tooth, merely looks uncomfortable most of the way through – perhaps that’s because he was involved in a near-fatal truck crash when the brakes on the truck he was driving in the movie failed and he was forced to abandon truck before it crashed into the sea.

I will say that the much-maligned Gibson fares the best here, channeling his Martin Riggs from back in the day and if Riggs were a villain in the Lethal Weapon series this is how he’d have turned out. He’s actually pretty fun to watch although I imagine that those who still haven’t gotten over his anti-Semitic drunken rant to the cops will be less sanguine about his performance. Snipes, recently released from prison, reminds us why he was such a great action star in the first place. I thought at one time he had the potential to be as big as Will Smith, although a series of bad roles and poor life choices derailed that. It still might happen though – he could use his performance here as an audition tape for any action movie in the offing and get serious consideration. He also has the best line in the movie; when asked by Toll Road what he was in prison for. I won’t tell you what he responds because the surprise is half the fun.

There is some CGI here and they must have done it on somebody’s Commodore VIC-20 because it is absolutely miserable, some of the worst I’ve ever seen. For example, for the scene near the movie’s end where he is hanging from a winch cable on a helicopter as the chopper pulls away from the camera, I’d much rather have stopped the scene with him dangling underneath it asking his snarky teammates to winch him up now right at that point instead of seeing a clearly CGI silhouette of the copter with the distant semi-humanoid figure and cable being sucked into the helicopter like a strand of spaghetti. I don’t like my action reality messed with.

This is a series whose novelty has run its course and needs to survive simply on the success of its action sequences and the quirkiness of its characters. For one thing, too many characters get virtually no screen time (Li shows up near the end and gets three or four lines and no fighting sequences which is a complete waste of his talents) and while the cast members are pretty able individually, the whole isn’t equal to the sum of its parts.

REASONS TO GO: Definite testosterone overload.

REASONS TO STAY: Super predictable and super brainless. Some of the worst CGI ever. Novelty has worn off.

FAMILY VALUES:  Oh yes, all sorts of violence with guns, blades, you name it – mayhem deluxe. There’s also a fair amount of language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Expendables film not to be rated R.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Commando

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Code Name: The Cleaner

New Releases for the Week of August 15, 2014


The Expendables 3THE EXPENDABLES 3

(Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas. Directed by Patrick Hughes

The Expendables are back in action and this time they’re up against a foe who knows them better than anyone – Conrad Stonebanks, a ruthless arms dealer who once upon a time co-founded the Expendables along with Barney. This is a shock to Barney who thought Conrad was dead but since it was Barney that tried to kill him, Stonebanks has an awful mad-on about the Expendables and is out to put them all down once and for all. Barney’s going to need a little help against the well-financed and merciless teams of mercenaries that Stonebanks has sent against them – and welcome to a group of new Expendables, more tech savvy, younger and faster than the classic team. Old School, meet New School.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette, a clip and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for violence including sustained gun battles and fight scenes, and for language)

The Giver

(Weinstein) Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard. In the future, mankind lives in a Utopian community where hunger and poverty have been eradicated and while colorless conformity is the rule, contentment is the reward. However, a young man discovers that the community has a dark and secret past and that only one man – the Giver – has custodianship of those memories and he intends to hand them off to the young man. That makes him dangerous to the elders of the community who will stop at nothing to take him out. He’ll have to escape the community – something that’s never been done before – in order to save it.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for a mature thematic image and some sci-fi action/violence)

Let’s Be Cops

(20th Century Fox) Damon Wayans Jr., Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle, Nina Dobrev. A pair of bros have been invited to a costume party and decide to go as cops. Mistaken for the real thing, they decide they like the way the rest of the world treats them as cops and so they’ll keep on going as long and as far as they can take it. Of course, the real cops don’t take kindly to this and they wind up with a heaping helping of T-R-O-U-B-L-E with a capital T.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Wednesday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, violence and drug use)

Singham Returns

(Reliance) Kareena Kapoor, Ajay Devgn, Anupam Kher, Amole Gupte. A police officer with a reputation for honesty but also for being ferocious with wrongdoers is promoted to Deputy Chief of Police. Dead set on wiping out injustice in his town, he comes up smack dab against not only wealthy criminals but corruption in his own department.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood Action

Rating: NR

What If

(CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall. After a series of failed relationships, a young medical school drop-out still trying to find out who he is decides to put his love life on hold. Of course, most of his friends then seem to find the perfect partner for themselves which makes him feel miserable and alone, but then he meets this great girl whom he connects with immediately. The trouble is that she lives with her boyfriend. Still, the two become best friends but maybe that’s not enough.

See the trailer, interviews, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including references throughout, partial nudity and language)

Brooklyn’s Finest


Brooklyn's Finest

Richard Gere drives his point home.

(2009) Police Drama (Overture) Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Vincent D’Onofrio, Will Patton, Ellen Barkin, Brian F. O’Byrne, Michael Kenneth Williams, Shannon Kane, Lili Taylor, Shannon Kane, Wass Stevens. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

There aren’t many jobs more difficult and stressful than that of police officer. In places like Brooklyn, you can multiply the stress levels times ten. That stress affects different men differently.

Three of Brooklyn’s finest (hey, catchy title) are in crisis; Eddie Dugan (Gere) is seven days away from retirement (usually a death sentence in cop movies) and is self-medicating with alcohol and the tender mercies of a prostitute whom he has fallen in love with. Then there’s Clarence “Tango” Butler (Cheadle) is deep undercover in a drug ring and is torn between his loyalty to the force and to recently paroled drug dealer Casanova Phillips (Snipes) who is trying to go straight. Finally there’s Det. Sal Procida (Hawke) has a seven kids and two on the way with a wife (Taylor) beset by mold respiratory distress trying desperately to get a mortgage on a larger home that he can’t afford.

The three stories run parallel to each other, with Tango being put under pressure by his contact (Patton) and a brass-balled bitch from the DEA (Barkin) who want arrests. Eddie is being asked to train young rookies, which Eddie is patently unsuited for. Procida is looking for a means of stealing enough cash to come up with his down payment.

Fuqua directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar in Training Day and has shown himself to be a mighty capable director over the years, particularly with talented actors (Hawke also appeared in that movie) and he coaxes some really good performances, particularly from Cheadle and Snipes. The scenes that those two share together are some of the best in the movie.

Snipes doesn’t have many scenes here, but they serve to remind us of how charismatic the man is. He’s had some well-documented legal problems that have yet to be fully resolved; hopefully at some point in the future he’ll be back to delight audiences once again.

Gere has some great acting chops but he always seems to be playing above his role. It’s hard to see him as a suicidal cop when his haircut looks like it came out of a Rodeo Drive celebrity hairdresser. He’s not the grittiest of guys in that sense and he might have been a touch miscast; it’s a credit to his skill that he manages to make the part believable.

Ensemble movies with parallel storylines have been plentiful in recent years and they mostly have the same damn problem – the insatiable need to wrap all the storylines with a neat bow and relate them all in some backhanded way. It worked in Traffic and Crash – it’s gotten old since.

Still, the storylines are awfully compelling here. The idea of the cop with mortgage problems is very relatable and in many ways that’s the storyline I was most interested in; however, the Cheadle-Snipes scenes make that storyline the best.

Cop movies run the gamut between the heroic cop and the bad cop. Often they are a bit of both and that’s the case here. None of the guys here is 100% admirable except for maybe Tango. However they are interesting enough and human enough to make the movie worth the price of a rental for sure.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted with intersecting stories that, for once, are all equally compelling. Nice to see Snipes onscreen again.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s a bit miscast but still pulls it off. Final scene feels a bit forced, as these sorts of movies often do.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of bad language, blood, violence, sex, nudity…oh crap, just don’t let your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film with Wesley Snipes in it to be released to theaters since Blade: Trinity (2004). All of his films in the interim had gone direct-to-home video.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on the Brooklyn projects where this was filmed, and the creation of Fuqua Film Movement. There’s also a piece on writer Michael C. Martin, who went from a toll booth to becoming a screenwriter.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.3M on a $17M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Twilight: New Moon