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





REVIEW: Love & Mercy

7 06 2015

Love and MercyStruggle is an inevitable, unavoidable part of creating art and living life.  But in Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy,” an unconventional two-panel biopic of Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson, struggle is practically the whole story.  Rather than running through his entire life, writers Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner take a pair of cross-sections featuring Wilson’s breakthroughs and breakdowns.

The 1960s Wilson, as played by Paul Dano, struggles to break his band out of their disingenuous surfer boy marketing gimmick.  To do so, he sets out to create a record that will redefine the capabilities of rock and make The Beatles quiver.  Observing Wilson hard at work fine-tuning the iconic tracks of the Pet Sounds album, which includes such staples as “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” provides an undeniably joyous sonic rush.  (It was almost enough to make me forget I was watching Paul Dano.)

Fast-forward to the 1980s, and a middle-aged and overmedicated Wilson is now played by John Cusack.   The lights are on, but the person at home is hard to pin down.  “Love & Mercy” might be the first time since “Being John Malkovich” that Cusack does not play some variation of himself, and it proves devastating to watch a helpless soul squirm under the oppressive thumb of exploitative psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, angry as ever).  Thanks to some tender love and assistance from the kindly soul of Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter, played by an absolutely ethereal Elizabeth Banks, Wilson finally manages to get some relief.

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REVIEW: Maps to the Stars

28 02 2015

MapsI have spent extended periods of time in Hollywood, and I really wish I had David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” by my side then to confirm all my suspicions and misgivings.  Director David Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner do not merely depict the shallowness and the narcissism dominant in the local culture so much as they diagnose it.  The film pinpoints a number of endemic ills in a town built on deception with the accuracy of a pathologist.

This saga of shameless self-promoters caught in a tangled web of ego bashing may not quite cohere in its explosive third act, yet it hardly detracts from the pleasure of simply watching them exist for an hour or so.  Cronenberg gets his cast to deliver performances tuned to the perfect channel: exaggeratedly hilarious without ever veering sharply into parodic or burlesquing territory.

Nowhere does this approach find better expression than in Julianne Moore’s brilliantly demented Havana Segrand, which – all due respect to “Still Alice” –  is the kind of work that should have netted the actress her first Oscar.  Nonetheless, she has the statue now, and we have this performance to relish forever.

Havana is Moore’s Norma Desmond, the fading and aging screen icon vividly realized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  In an obvious attempt to jumpstart her career again, Havana tries desperately to land a coveted part in a remake of a movie that originally starred her late mother.  To settle her neuroses and ease her pain in the meantime, she hires a new “chore whore” at the suggestion of Carrie Fisher (playing herself, in a brilliantly ironic insertion by Wagner) – the mysterious burn victim Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who recently arrived in town.

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REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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REVIEW: The Paperboy

12 12 2012

The PaperboyThere’s no way Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy” came from the same director as “Precious.”  A film this sweaty, steamy, and trashy simply does not follow a movie so emotionally searing and poignant.  And not only is the movie purely sordid, it isn’t even done artfully or tastefully.

I pray you haven’t seen director Lee Daniels’ debut film, “Shadowboxer,” because your eyes will never forgive you for it.  There’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of it, and that’s because the movie is an absolute mess from beginning to end.  Oh, and there’s also the matter of Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Helen Mirren having a pretty graphic sex scene.  Thanks, but no thanks.

But it’s Lee Daniels of “Shadowboxer” who showed up to direct “The Paperboy,” not Lee Daniels of “Precious.”  Now we are all left to wonder if Oprah directed “Precious” for him or something.  I’m serious, watch “The Paperboy” and try not to let these types of conspiracy theories bubble up in your head.  Well, actually don’t watch “The Paperboy” and just take my word for it that you would feel this way.

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REVIEW: Hot Tub Time Machine

2 09 2010

Walkmans and legwarmers and tracksuits, oh my!

It’s a blast back to the ’80s in “Hot Tub Time Machine,” the raunchy romp that defies the laws of physics.  A sort of irreverent “Back to the Future,” the movie has no science to back up what is happening.  Then again, do you expect much to back up the premise that a hot tub could transport a group of four drunk guys 25 years into the past?

Thanks to the bubbling portal, the four losers in 2010 get a chance to be their younger, cooler selves in 1986 (with the exception of Clark Duke’s gaming Jacob, who has yet to be born).  In their hangover logic, they decided that they need to do exactly as they did when they lived the weekend the first time.  For some of them, it means promiscuous escapades; for others, it means taking punches.

For those of us who didn’t live through the decade, for better or for worse, the movie still manages to be funny.  It’s not some giant ’80s inside joke; there are some nods to “Back to the Future,” both through situations and the perfectly cast Crispin Glover as a creepy bellhop, but they don’t make the movie any less accessible for those who haven’t seen it.  There’s plenty of universal humor that anyone can laugh at – provided they check their maturity at the door.

The bulk of the comedy comes courtesy of Craig Robinson, who plays Nick, the guy whipped by his unfaithful wife to the point that he takes her last name.  Robinson has been gold on “The Office” for several years now and has done many memorable supporting roles, often times being a highlight of those movies.  If “Hot Tub Time Machine” isn’t enough of a testament to his comedic talent to give him a headlining role over Chris Rock (or any other tired comedian, for that matter), there is truly no justice in the world.

Everyone else is good too, just no one on the level of Robinson.  Most of the jokes centered around John Cusack come at the expense of his own fame in the ’80s.  The woebegone Lou, played by Rob Corddry, is the most crass of the bunch, which guarantees a few laughs.  Duke’s Jacob is great for those of who didn’t live in the decade as he gapes in amazement at the social climate.  And then there’s Chevy Chase as the hot tub repairman, who is just plain creepy.

But the movie’s best facet (and the one that will make it stand out among recent comedies) is its willingness to forget teaching a lesson and just have fun.  It doesn’t pretend to have scrupulous morals; really, it doesn’t pretend to have any morals at all.  “Hot Tub Time Machine” is four guys having fun, and for once, Hollywood’s rules don’t spoil it.  B+ /





REVIEW: 2012

21 11 2009

Director Roland Emmerich gets a lot of grief for making so many disaster-oriented movies.  I must say I’m glad that he doesn’t listen to these critics because he is the best there is at making these kinds of films.  “2012,” his latest project, is incredibly stimulating to the part of you that loves watching your favorite landmarks get wiped off the face of the planet.  Many claim that it doesn’t offer much that you haven’t seen in Emmerich’s previous movies in the same vain, “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow.”  However, I thought “2012” was much more audacious, willing to destroy some venerated structures such as St. Peter’s Basilica, Christ the Redeemer, and the White House.  By doing this, Emmerich introduces some apprehension into the moviegoing experience and makes you wonder what the apocalypse would really look like.

The highlight of “2012” is its phenomenal special effects, but Emmerich had the good sense not to let them drive the movie.  He gets two angles on the catastrophe that the Mayans predicted, one from a normal citizens experiencing the disaster and the other from the politicians and scientists trying to save humanity.  The normal citizen is Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), a sci-fi writer thrown into the situation after consistently being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  With the aid of an eccentric who sees the writing on the walls (Woody Harrelson), he finds a path to save his family from the imminent destruction.  The scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and politician (Oliver Platt) add a moral depth to the the plot as they agonize over who can and should be saved.

What distinguishes “2012” from a movie like “Transformers” is a clear understanding that its audience doesn’t take the movie too seriously.  Thankfully, Emmerich is aware of the regard that people hold his movies in, so he has no qualms with using a formulaic plot and being a tad silly.  He also knows from experience not to try to move the plot significantly while he indulges us with sweeping, gratuitous shots of the Earth getting annihilated by tsunamis and earthquakes.  Emmerich recognizes that it is undeniably fun to watch Pasadena split in two, and he lets us marvel at the work of some dedicated visual effects artists.  “2012” is no masterpiece, but Roland Emmerich gives us an enjoyable cataclysmic romp that excites the lover of destruction that lurks inside all of us.  B /