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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 18, 2013)

18 01 2013

When you think of the films of Spike Lee, I can imagine some of the things that come to mind are didactic, pugnacious, and aggressive political commentary.  In other words, you would think of a movie that looks nothing like “Inside Man,” a tight thriller about the perfect bank robbery.  But precisely because it resists the trappings of a typical Spike Lee movie, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (And also because it’s an AWESOME movie!)

You’ve seen plenty of movies about bank robbers, but none quite like Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell.  He’s got a master plan to pull off the perfect heist, one that slowly and cryptically unveils itself in Spike Lee’s film.  Russell is interested in more than just getting quickly in and out with the money; he’s willing to play the long game with the police and the hostages in unconventional ways.  The tension is high as you wait to see when, if ever, his master plan will unravel.

Remarkably, it manages to hold up as some curious players with some very powerful ulterior motives enter the fray.  Namely, there’s the wild-card of Jodie Foster’s power broker tampering with everything she can to keep some secrets hidden inside the bank.  With so many people operating in the shadows and shades of grey, it makes the the quest of the righteous Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) all the more urgent and compelling.

There’s rarely a dull moment in “Inside Man,” and Lee manages to pull it off without ever needing to pull out a boombox and blare “Fight the Power.”  There’s a little bit of commentary on multiculturalism in New York, but it’s hands-off and not particularly distracting from the point of the film.  Which is, of course, to entertain for two hours and then yank the rug out from underneath the audience.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 7, 2011)

7 10 2011

I don’t quite know what inspired me to watch “25th Hour” recently, but I’m certainly glad that I did.  Spike Lee’s 2002 film about the heavy weight of the past and the future that we carry around in the present got little attention at the time, but over time, it has gained some passionate backers, namely Roger Ebert.  That inspired me to check the movie out, and while I don’t think it’s one of my favorites of the decade, it’s good enough to qualify as a “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

David Benioff’s script captures a day of solemn importance in the life of Montgomery “Monty” Brogan, played with typical excellence by Edward Norton.  We follow Monty in the last 24 hours before he must head up to prison to serve a 7 year sentence for dealing drugs.  He is remorseful for his past, apprehensive for his future, and filled with anger and hatred in the moment.  As he spends a day in a sort of purgatory state, we see the uneasy state of his relationships with his friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) as they all offer a sort of false optimism.

While this story is quite limited, what makes “25th Hour” such an interesting film (and one that I suspect will be increasingly viewed as a reference for future generations) is how poetically Spike Lee juxtaposes Monty’s biography with the larger tale of society, here post-9/11 New York City.  After the film’s prologue, Lee rolls the opening credits over various takes of the two bright beams of light shining to the heavens from Ground Zero.  Much like Monty, the site is a reminder of the emptiness of that day, while the lights represent a brighter future that can still be rebuilt once the ashes are removed.

In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, Lee employs a sort of Allen Ginsberg-meets-NWA rhythmic lyricism to express the pent-up rage that many New Yorkers felt in the wake of the tragedy.  It’s an unsettling, no-holds-barred diatribe against the city and everyone in it, and a man like Monty about to lose everything is the perfect person to deliver it.  Yet “25th Hour” is not just a movie of anger; indeed, Lee, ever the New York filmmaker, makes his movie an admiring tribute to the city’s strength and perseverance.  Even as Monty heads off to the pen, there’s a smiling child on the bus in the next lane willing to smile at him.