REVIEW: Chi-Raq

11 12 2015

Chi-RaqSubtlety has never been a strength of Spike Lee’s, and his latest film “Chi-Raq” is all the better for him not even attempting. From its opening scene, where big red letters and a booming voice declare “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY,” we know exactly how he feels about his chosen subject – the epidemic of gun violence in urban Chicago. Removing any guesswork just makes the political commentary come through all the more clearly.

Lee reworks the Greek comedy of “Lysistrata” into the modern day. Now, the women are not on a sex strike to end a war; they are withholding their carnal secrets to stop the carnage on their streets. Admirably, he tries to keep the sounds of verse in tact from Aristophanes’ plays, though they often times strain or falter altogether. Many times, a line will pierce with its accuracy. But at others, the exaggeration and hyperbole becomes unintentionally comical.

Though Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) and the movement she leads are undeniably the primary focus of “Chi-Raq,” Lee also has other balls in play. Chiefly, he follows a grieving mother, Jennifer Hudson’s Irene, who seeks justice after her young daughter was shot down in the streets by an unknown gunman. These segments have nothing outlandish or overblown about them. Hudson brings genuine, moving pathos to her character’s struggle (perhaps informed by what happened in her own life).

The inclusion of both stories might serve as a testament to the urgency Lee feels in getting people angry about this issue. Heck, the film shot over the summer and includes reference to the Emanuel AME shooting in Charleston and the Cecil the Lion kerfuffle – meaning he got it out of the editing bay in just months. Viewers would likely find one character more interesting and identifiable, meaning Lee could maximize his reach with a single film. Yet as a result, “Chi-Raq” feels wildly uneven … and that’s not even mentioning the musical numbers that constantly disrupt any narrative momentum.

Nonetheless, it’s encouraging to see Lee legitimately up in arms about something once again. His recent work, disciplined thought it might have been, has felt somewhat passionless. In “Chi-Raq,” he’s mad as hell and very much alive in letting us know. He provides, with rather blunt didacticism, solutions to Chicago’s bloodshed from both without and from within. And he even seems hopeful that a change is going to come, which might be the most shocking turn of the entire movie. B2halfstars

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REVIEW: Olympus Has Fallen

3 03 2015

Lest we forget, the sight of the White House, the very icon of the American Presidency, in flames could have been a non-fiction tale (or a Paul Greengrass film). On September 11, 2001, United Flight 93 was likely headed to Washington, D.C. to take out the beloved building. So given that history, a modicum of respect – not even Christopher Nolan levels of seriousness – and reverence seems due for the landmark.

None of this registered with the makers of “Olympus Has Fallen,” however. Director Antoine Fuqua seeks to inspire anger by focusing on the sight of the edifice under siege, yet the film just feels too cartoonish in its destruction for any real emotions to register. (This is a movie where someone gets killed by trauma to the head inflicted by a bust of Abraham Lincoln, after all.)

Furthermore, the trigger-happy festival of gore devalues innocent lives taken by terrorists – NOT a smart move when trying to invoke the legacy of 9/11. As Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning seeks to rescue the prisoners of the North Korean attackers who take over the White House, the stakes feel rather low. In terms of hostage movies, this feels about on the level of a bank robbery.

“Olympus Has Fallen” will not even leave you chanting “USA! USA!” And, keep in mind, this is a movie that stars Morgan Freeman. What a squandered opportunity. C2stars





REVIEW: White Bird in a Blizzard

27 09 2014

White Bird in a BlizzardGregg Araki’s “White Bird in a Blizzard” begins with the interesting premise of hybridizing two familiar generic forms, the missing person thriller and the adolescent sexual flowering drama.  The body of Eva Green’s Eve Connor disappears mysteriously while her 17-year-old daughter Kat (Shailene Woodley) “was becoming nothing but [her] body.”

Though the blend starts off curiously, it eventually just feels blandly noncommittal.  The film lacks a clear, purposeful narrative through-line to propel it forward.  It progresses largely on the basis of “here are scenes of things that happen to Kat,” an assuredly unsatisfying way to watch a film.

The wishy-washy, always vacillating plot of “White Bird in a Blizzard” is certainly not helped by the fact the leading actress has already explored its central issues.  We’ve seen Woodley deal with family trouble ensuing from an absent mother in “The Descendants,” and we’ve watched her carnal awakenings in both “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Spectacular Now.”

Woodley still has intermittent flashes of inspired breakthrough, which is a testament to just how talented of a performer she truly is.  Making a put-out teen watchable on its fourth reheat is certainly an achievement.  But “White Bird in a Blizzard” could mark the moment where she started to find brick walls where she once found niches in her archetypical adolescent.  I fear that the film’s lasting legacy will not be that Woodley revealed intimate parts of her soul but rather that she bared intimate parts of her body.

If that’s what Shailene Woodley needs to grow into an adult performer, then the film is certainly not a waste.  But I can’t help but think “White Bird in a Blizzard” does not serve anyone else particularly well, especially not its screenwriter and director Gregg Araki.  His work as a pioneer of New Queer Cinema broke boundaries; yet here, turning in a much more mainstream product, Araki seems lost and leaves a rather indistinct stamp as an artist.  C+ / 2stars