Thursday, December 31, 2015
Based upon the play by Lillian Hellman
Screenplay Written by John Michael Hayes
Directed by William Wyler
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
You know, this one took me by surprise.
Dear readers, I typically do not find myself in the habit of watching old movies. Not for any sense of prejudice I may or may not hold towards films older than myself, although I will admit to feeling that "old movies" do tend to read as "corny," a reaction that is nothing more than knee jerk and has often been proven wrong to me once I do actually sit down to watch. Director William Wyler's' "The Children's Hour" from 1961 is just such a film. While it was one that was undeniably hemmed in by the restrictions of the time period, it undoubtedly packed a hard, emotional punch, conveying ugly truths about our humanity that sadly still ring truthfully and loudly within the 21st century.
William Wyler's "The Children's Hour," based upon the original 1934 play of the same name by Lillian Hellman, and also a cinematic remake of his own "These Three" (1936), tells the sad, dark and infuriating tale of Karen Wright (played by Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (played by Shirley MacLaine), lifelong friends who have embarked upon their dream to open and run a private school for girls.
Martha's eccentric Aunt Lilly (played by Miriam Hopkins), also an aging actress, teaches elocution at the school, while additionally keeping somewhat dowdy Martha under her constant derision. The more elegant Karen, meanwhile, has been involved in a lengthy engagement to respected obstetrician Joe Cardin (a sharp James Garner), an engagement to which she has at long last accepted, and unfortunately,becomes another seismic element that only adds Martha's sadness as she fears Karen's marriage will take her away from their school, potentially leaving Martha alone.
Yet none of those day-to-day stresses compare a whit to the trauma caused by the relentlessly conniving, bratty and malicious Mary (played by Karen Balkin), a student prone to lying, stealing and even blackmailing her classmates. When Mary undergoes one transgression too many, leading her to be punished by Karen, she enacts her revenge by spreading a spiteful, vindictive, and wholly untrue rumor about Karen and Martha to her classmates and finally, to her wealthy, deeply influential Grandmother Amelia Tilford (played by Fay Banter). The rumor rapidly sends shock-waves throughout the school, threatening to inflict irreparable damage to both Karen and Martha.
Just by that description, I am certain that you are already able to guess what precisely the rumor Mary spreads in "The Children's Hour" happens to be. In fact, just as the movie was beginning (and even before the end of the opening credits) my wife happened to guess 100% correctly. To that end, knowing the contents of the rumor ahead of time will do nothing to spoil the actual viewing of the film. In fact, I think having the knowledge beforehand actually enhances the drama, making the film feel like that proverbial and unavoidable car crash that you are unable to do anything to stop from happening.
As I started watching, I do have to admit, that I was initially distracted by the old fashioned tenor of the piece, a certain chasteness of the times, I guess. But, very soon, jointly due to the often pointed nature of the dialogue as well as the performances overall, I found myself settling into the story. By the film's final sections, where the sense of melodrama increases greatly, the level of histrionics that would normally cause me to turn away rather revealed a powerful truth about human nature, the pain of love, an individual's existential crisis and the honest sense of tragedy that can so easily occur through just one person's unrepentant cruelty. Here is where William Wyler's "The Children's Hour" ceased to be just some "old movie" and transformed itself into something transcendent. And truthfully, I haven't been able to shake this one since having seen a few nights ago.
Both Audrey Hepburn and especially Shirley MacLaine were wonderful in the leading roles. While Hepburn's coquettish charms are initially upon display copiously, as the film continues and the lives of Karen and Martha begin to unravel, I was certainly impressed by Hepburn's subtle resolve and hard stoicism (especially during the film's emotionally brutal final moments). But mostly, I found myself very impressed with the various levels Hepburn approached her character of Karen, ultimately displaying a complex portrayal that really forces the audience to think about what exactly a "woman's role" in society could actually be.
To begin, let's take her reluctance to marry Joe, a quality that contains growing tension between the two and even makes their very first scene together crackle with a bit of frustration fueled nastiness on Joe's part. On the one hand, Karen is deeply focused upon her career with the school she has created alongside Martha and that is completely understandable that she would not wish to leave it all behind, essentially being forced to choose between her chosen career and marriage that she may not even fully desire in the first place. Even when she does accept Joe's proposal, throughout the remainder of the film, I always had the feeling that she wished that she hadn't succumbed to Joe's (rightful) pressure. (In Joe's full defense, he wished for nothing but to marry her and if she did not feel the same, then she owed it to him to reveal her intentions rather than keep him on deck, but I digress...)
Now, my feelings concerning whatever Karen's truest motives happened to have been do not strictly lie with her allegiance to her career and business relationship with Martha, I think we are meant to wonder if there are some other undertones to her feelings towards Martha. Just watch Hepburn from scene to scene, especially during the later sections of the film when life has fallen apart for both Karen and Martha. Watch how Hepburn wordlessly moves through sequences featuring just herself and MacLaine and I believe that you will find yourself questioning to what degree does Karen actually love Martha.
With regards to Martha, as played by Shirley MacLaine, the motives are crystal clear and provide "The Children's Hour" with its greatest sense of pathos. Yes, some of MacLaine's scenes are more on the melodramatic side, but I'm telling you, she floored me. Where Hepburn obviously carried the more glamorous appearance in the film, MacLaine was obviously geared to be more of the young, introverted, lonely spinster type. For me, she possessed a fragile beauty, as she carried a quietly devastating power that unearthed itself in sharp bursts in some of the film's early scenes and then exploded into a wrenching, painful, existential fury by film's end as she is forced to confront not only her deepest feelings for Karen but her entire concept of herself.
And herein lies the tragedy of "The Children's Hour," the paradox that occurs when a lie eventually is found to contain a level of truth, but a truth people are forced to confront completely not on their own terms or within their own specific time table. The character of the vitriolic Mary is despicable. Believe me, you will wish to reach inside of your screens and throttle the little beast because she is portrayed somewhere between exaggeration and reality. Honestly, there are some children this side of Damien skulking around in the world wishing for nothing but to make everyone share their misery.
What made me feel an increasing amount of anger as I watched "The Children's Hour" was not necessarily the bratty Mary herself but the ease in which she found herself able to lie for nothing else than her sense of childish self-preservation at the expense of anyone and everyone else around her. In fact, as I watched her, I found myself looking to events from my own life as a preschool teacher as well as events within the current political landscape where words are hurled around without thought of any sense of consequence whatsoever, especially when it comes to pervading prejudice and living through one's own fear of others different than oneself.
That fear based mentality combined with a wholly reckless behavior serves to cut wide and unforgiving swaths through individual's lives, a tragedy that is so sadly commonplace within our collective humanity and therefore, "The Children's Hour" is easily utilized as a parable, a means to hold up that much needed mirror to ourselves if we are to ever begin to understand the damage caused when we become piously judgmental. But the even greater tragedy for me remains as I think back to Martha as portrayed by Shirley MacLaine. I think of how everyone's journey of self discovery is so primal, personal and individualistic that it is nothing less than a crime to force another person to undergo lifelong transformation upon when they are not yet ready to acknowledge certain characteristics and qualities about themselves.
No, the film never announces "homosexuality" outright at any point but this is indeed the topic we are dealing with throughout the film and just imagine being a young woman in 1961, or rather anyone right now in 2015, who is entertaining questions about themselves and their sexuality. Shouldn't it be the right of each, individual person to be able to explore themselves when they wish to, if at all? With Martha, the rumor and the damage it ultimately causes for the school, Karen's impending marriage plus Joe's career (purely by association), brutally forces her to engage in her inner odyssey at a time when she was not ready, when she maybe wasn't even certain if she even had to embark upon such a journey anyway. It was a shock to the system. Too fast, too powerful and too soon and the effect was nothing less than an existential cataclysm. Again, the film's final scenes do indeed play to the melodrama of the time, and certainly didn't do the concept of addressing a person's homosexuality any favors as it does delve into the stereotypes of the time as well (lonely, never experiencing love, doomed to depression, etc...) but that being said, MacLaine delved deeply, unearthing the struggle poor Martha was not equipped to handle so rapidly and certainly within a public forum, where she is shamed, scorned, blamed and has soon become a public oddity or nasty curiosity.
How do we treat one another, acknowledge each other's similarities and differences, accept and admonish each other and especially based upon nothing but conjecture sits at the heart of William Wyler's "The Children's Hour," a heartfelt tale of love, lies and morality that is as essential to revisit in 2016 as it was to explore in 1961, 1934 and 1809, the year during which a real world event at a Scottish school involving two female teachers was the inspiration for the original play. Frankly, I would actually like to see a revival of this material for the 21st century but with people so divided, politically, racially, socially and spiritually, would anyone even take the time to listen anyway?
Yet, we should. So, for now, I invite you to place this film within your personal queues and settle in and I really think that when you experience the power of this film, and especially Shirley MacLaine's full performance, which equally moves from quaint and reserved to furious, shattered oblivion, may it remain housed inside of each of you just as it has for me.
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
While I pledge to do my very best to keep my comments brief, I sincerely hope and wish that any sense of brevity upon my part is not misconstrued as being ungrateful. For honestly, how could I be ungrateful, when I owe so very much to all of you.
Six years ago, while vising my parents in Chicago over the holidays, I took a giant leap in my life by beginning this blog which I christened "Savage Cinema," based upon an ancient high school nickname that I have continued to utilize here and there. Now, six years later, I am sitting within the study (such as it is) inside of my own house as my wife and cats are sleeping soundly in the next room, and I am stunned to realize how much time has passed, how much I have written and most importantly, the wonderful support that I have continued to receive from all of you to keep pushing ahead and pursuing my dreams of writing about movies, an art form which I will forever cherish.
THANK YOU so very much for taking the time out of your busy lives to spend reading absolutely anything that I have written regarding movies that I have watched. Believe me, it is not lost upon me whatsoever that the world does not need any more film critics and that the internet specifically, does not need even one more voice chiming in about anything at all. But that said, I am humbled more than I can ever tell you about how endlessly appreciative I am if you have ever felt that anything I have contributed has been worth your time, and that you have found some sense of value.
It remains of the utmost importance to me to keep Savage Cinema a positive place for you to visit. Even when a review is negative, and even harshly so, I continue to pledge to not devolve into mindless vitriol. My greatest wish is to just be a good writer and in doing so, I always keep at the forefront of my mind that there is always a way to say something. I'm not writing to try and score points. I'm just writing because I love writing and I am hoping that if you have been a frequent visitor over the years, you have been able to see some sense of growth amidst the purity of intent.
THANK YOU for all of your kind words and support, all of which propels me to the next review, the next month, the next year, the next...well, anything! Your kindness gave me a bit more courage than I ever could have mustered all by my lonesome. Your encouragement gave me the strength to not only keep pushing along with Savage Cinema, it gave me the strength to give birth to my music blogsite Synesthesia and to even begin releasing my creative writing upon a third blog devoted to a long gestating novel entitled Tales From Memorial Union. It is because of you that my creative life has taken such flight and as always, my gratitude is bottomless.
And now, I am about to begin Year Seven!! I still cannot believe it. And always know that I never could have achieved this feat without you.
THANK YOU! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!!!
Monday, December 28, 2015
Based upon the novel The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
Screenplay Written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
Directed by Adam McKay
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
I felt as if I was sitting at the kid's table all over again.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: star ratings are arbitrary. Yes, a quick glance at the amount of stars I award a film on a scale from zero to four would certainly give you a certain tenor to the way a film has affected me. But even so, stars do not give the entire picture. At this time, I turn your attention towards "The Big Short" from Director Adam McKay, who is primarily known for helming the likes of "Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy" (2004), "Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby" (2006), "Step Brothers" (2008) and "The Other Guys" (2010) as well as his comedic partnership with Will Ferrell as the co-creators of "Funny Or Die."
While there are comedic moments sprinkled throughout "The Big Short," the laughs this time around come with a painful sting and truth be told, McKay has delivered his first drama, a social political diatribe against the rampantly corrupt financial system that caused the nearly cataclysmic crisis of 2008. Surprisingly and pleasantly so, McKay proves himself to be up to the challenge as his sense of moral outrage is palpable and it is clear that he wants to have audiences become equally as infuriated as he. But, the problem is that something got itself lost in the translation...or at least for me.
I am not sure, dear readers but there was something about "The Big Short" that kept me firmly at arms length despite all of the obvious skill of the writing and direction and the excellence of the performances from top to bottom. Frankly, I was confused. I was tremendously confused. With all of the financial terminology and jargon flying around from beginning to end, I found myself confused to the point of being lost over and again and nearly to the point of checking out of the experience altogether. "The Big Short" is by no means a bad film. Quite the contrary, I could easily find myself watching it again in the future. Going even further, I am willing to concede that it just might even be a great film, whose values have just been hidden from me during this initial viewing. But, all I am able to do at this time is to report to you about what I saw and how I feel right now, and to that, whatever successes "The Big Short" may possess has fully eluded me.
Opening in 2005, "The Big Short" introduces us to unorthodox hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), one of the very first individuals to discover the severe instability of the housing market due to the prevalence of high risk subprime loans that produce fewer and fewer returns. After predicting that the market will crash sometime in 2007, Burry also realizes that he just might be able to profit from this situation by betting against the housing market.
After catching wind of Burry's proposal, which has been accepted by the banks, a slick investor named Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), realizing Burry's predictions are true, wants in on the action. Soon, trader Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his team of business partners follow suit to profit at the public's expense, fully and frighteningly convinced of the inevitable collapse of the economy.
Additionally, we are also introduced to Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock), two young investors who enlist the aid of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get a piece of the action, all of whom become increasingly horrified that they will each make out big winners by the time of the economy's apocalypse.
Adam McKay's "The Big Short," on the surface, may seem to exist as a completely engaging tale of a band of misanthropic outsiders who all figured out the financial doom to come and how they each profited from the crisis as well, as it is a vibrantly directed, fast paced film whose rightful and righteous anger only continues to rise to a furious boil over the course of its running time. McKay proves himself to be a strong dramatic filmmaker with a passionate outlook over seismic world events that is fueled through a feral inventiveness as well as the high quality of performances from his entire cast, including Steve Carrell, who again showcases his considerable dramatic chops with a furious indignation combined with a melancholic sorrow that was deeply impressive to view.
All of that being said, and again, I was lost, confused, and at times frustrated with the film (and quite possibly myself) for not being able to follow all of the financial and therefore Mathematical twists and turns. Truth be told, even in providing the plot description for you, I needed to perform a small bit of research as it is something that I would have been unable to explain to your extemporaneously.
For all of the talk of housing bubbles, subprime mortgages, credit default swap markets, collateralized debt obligations (CDO), synthetic CDOs, plus all of the deals, counter deals and so on, I have to admit that it was just all Greek to me as comprehension of these concepts is not my strong suit in the least, a hefty problem considering the entire film is loaded end to end with dialogue concerning nothing but these particular topics. To the film's credit, McKay seems to understand (somewhat) that mainstream audiences may be seated within the same boat as myself regarding the difficulties of digesting such complicated and confusing material and he addresses those concerns in a couple of very clever sequences where pop figures like Selena Gomez, seen at a gambling table, and Margot Robbie from Director Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street" (2013), seen luxuriously in a bubble bath, each engage the audience directly to explain subprime loans.
Yes, very clever, sharp and indeed funny and informative. But even so, even as they were explaining, demonstrating, and eventually returning to the main action, I found myself lost all over again, realizing not only that the extra effort really did nothing to illuminate the proceedings but that possibly, the stunts were more self-serving to McKay than necessary. Trust me, dear readers, it's not as if I necessarily required McKay to "dumb down" the content for me. I just needed something to hang onto. Something that could be utilized as a "through line," to aid me through the constant morass of terminology that would therefore give greater weight to the main conceit of the film, which is that the country was intentionally screwed...and frankly, we're setting ourselves up to do it all over again.
On the one hand, I have been here before with other films in recent years. I remember vividly sitting in the theater watching Writer/Director Stephen Gaghan's political thriller "Syriana" (2005), casually peeking around the theater wondering if any of my theater patrons were as dumbfounded as I with the intricacies of petroleum politics and the oil industry. And there was also Writer/Director Tony Gilroy's adult corporate thriller "Michael Clayton" (2007), where its dense legal concepts which were filtered through a plot involving toxic agrochemicals also left me behind...only to catch up with me in a subsequent viewing sometime later. Like I said at the start of this review, in both of those cases, I felt as if I was sitting at the kid's table.
Even so, I am feeling that Adam McKay clearly has a message that he intensely wishes to convey to the general public about what has happened to us within the recent past and it did rub me the wrong way that he did not accomplish what seemed to be his primary goal: enlightening, and even enraging, the audience while also creating a strong film. Perhaps if McKay had approached the material from the heightened reality of satire, for instance, a greater connection would have been fused with me. But, "The Big Short," for all of its aggressive, vitriolic energy, and breaking of the fourth wall by Ryan Gosling, is indeed fairly straight-forward film, yet so far inside, that the film began to feel more than a little impenetrable.
Yes, I can see this is precisely where quite a lot of McKay's rage filled incredulity is stemming from: the fact that the system and the wheelings and dealings grew to the point of such mass confusion, even within the main players, than how could the general public even catch on to the tragedy that was about to happen in the first place? These were concepts that were never meant to be understood! So, there was no way to gain a grasp over concepts that may as well be foreign. And still, I contest that somehow McKay could have devised a way to make his message understood as successfully as possible, something that truly is not impossible.
I think back to films like Director Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (1987), which housed at its core a morality play and Father/son dynamics to help assuage the financial terminology on display throughout. Or even Director Michael Moore's excellent, infuriating satirical documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story" (2009), which also accomplished its hefty goals through his distinctly personal touch and political outlook.
But, Adam McKay's "The Big Short" unfortunately didn't operate on either of those high levels, try as it did. Again, I cannot hep to wonder if it was just me. But what if it wasn't? And honestly, what is the point of making a film designed for the masses if the masses are unable to understand?
Monday, December 21, 2015
Based upon characters and situations created by George Lucas
Screenplay Written by J.J. Abrams & Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt
Directed by J.J. Abrams
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13
I am overwhelmed. Powerfully overwhelmed.
Dear readers, as with so many millions of people around the world, the cinematic universe of "Star Wars" completely changed my life. I was 8 years old in 1977 and with eternal thanks to my Father, I saw the very first "Star Wars" film on its opening day, the very movie that made me love the art and artistry of the movies, as well as gathering the communal richness of having a shared experience in a roomful of strangers. "Star Wars" creator George Lucas instantly became one of the heroes of my life via the texture of his imagination, ingenuity, talent and creativity, and he remains so to this day, through all of the universally heralded sequels and the excessive--and I firmly believe--unfairly maligned prequels.
The stories that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away with its heroes, villains and overall mythology has existed as some of the purest and most immersive cinematic storytelling that I have had the privilege to regard. The films have sustained me for so much of my life, that I honestly count this fact as nothing less than a blessing to have been there at the very beginning, when absolutely nobody knew what it all was and we all discovered it together with mouths held agape, minds completely blown and imaginations expanded far beyond anything we could have previously conceived.
Now over these past 35 years since the release of "Star Wars: Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), the idea of the "Star Wars" universe consisting of a series of trilogies has been the source of excitement and confusion, entrancement and disappointment over and again. When I was a kid, the word was that there would be three trilogies, of which Episodes IV, V and VI made up the middle section. Yet by the release of "Star Wars: Episode VI-Return Of The Jedi" (1983), Lucas, unquestionably weary from over ten years of creating the films, declared the series finished.
By the time the controversial prequel trilogy was resurrected and began to arrive in 1999 and concluded in 2005, Lucas again declared the series finished, even proclaiming that there never were more than six films in the first place...a statement even challenged by Mark Hamill himself who explained that Lucas even once expressed that there would be twelve films in all. Regardless, the possibility of seeing Episodes VII, VIII and IX felt to be even more remote than ever and I actually began to put the idea out of my mind altogether as I was more than satisfied with the six we have been given and due to Lucas' advancing age, a new trilogy seemed highly unlikely.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," officially Episode VII in the series and featuring the return of the iconic trio of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo, is the installment I really felt would never see the light of day under any circumstances and I have to say my personal feelings on its road to fruition have been mixed at best. As we all now know, George Lucas has sold the rights of his creation to Disney, an empirical conglomerate if there ever was one. But, Writer/Director J.J. Abrams was put in place as the first to helm a "Star Wars" feature film without Lucas' direct involvement in any capacity, and to that, my excitement and interest grew. Because if there was any filmmaker that I could think of to pass this specific torch along to, it would be Abrams as his deep passion for "Star Wars" and his superior gifts with filmmaking and storytelling made him the perfect fit. Yet, as I have said throughout the making of this film, I trust J.J. Abrams. I do not trust Disney, especially as their plans to create "Star Wars" movies until the end of time smacks of nothing but the most shameless greed that I could think of, especially for material that is sacred to so many, and part of its magic rests in the fact that its cultural presence is not ubiquitous. Frankly, all I could hope for is for Disney to just leave Abrams completely alone and let him make the movie.
Thankfully, they did.
Picking up approximately 30 years after the events of "Return of The Jedi," which saw the destruction of the second Death Star, the end of the Empire and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader before his death, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" finds a new evil known as the First Order, risen from the ashes of the Empire, now underway to overtaking the galaxy, and partially led by the insidious and nearly unhinged dark side of the Force/Vader disciple Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
This new intergalactic conflict finds its way to directly influencing the lives of Finn (John Boyega), a conflicted First Order Stormtrooper who defects to assist the Resistance, including ace X-Wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and most crucially, Rey (Daisy Ridley) a scavenger from the desert planet Jakku, whose chance meeting with a small, rolling droid named BB-8 sends her on a life altering odyssey that brings her face to face with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Resistance General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the last Jedi Knight, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), figures she thought only existed in mythical tales of old and gone.
After so much wonder, worry, cautious curiosity and anxious anticipation, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is undeniably wonderful and I believe that J.J. Abrams was not only the perfect individual to bring the series back to the big screen, this was the film he was born to make. Remarkably, Abrams has devised a way to not only adhere to everything that has come before, as well as treat George Lucas' creation with the respect and reverence it deserves, Abrams also somehow made a film that the feverish fan base will eat up with a spoon while also possessing a personal stamp and artistic integrity. It is an impossible feat and like the best magicians, J.J. Abrams has essentially pulled the rabbit out of the hat, spun ten revolving plates and made an inanimate object disappear all at the same time!
Yes, this is a film that sits more comfortably with the pace, style and more tactile experience of the original trilogy rather than the synthetic dream worlds of the prequel trilogy. While I never had an issue with the massive usage of CGI technology in the prequels as I felt them to represent Lucas' vision in the most unfiltered fashion, there is also something to be said with viewing a world that does indeed feel to be more tangible, approachable and much less ephemeral. There is a weight to the objects, ships and characters that can be deeply felt within the film, therefore making the proceedings seem to be even more realistic despite their fantastical nature. The sands of Jakku almost feel as if they are settling within your pores even in a comfortable theater seat. The feeling of flight and the impact of interstellar combat is also powerfully noticeable. And having locations that are built by hand rather than machine does indeed infuse a you-are-there quality that has been missing in most feature films for quite some time, and the feeling, also vigorously present in Writer/Director George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road," is definitely welcoming.
In addition to those state of the art and seamless special effects, most importantly, J.J. Abrams ensures that with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," the story and themes that have made the series what it is remain firmly intact, while also beginning to display some new threads, and the effect is possibly the most emotionally resonant in quite some time. Just as the previous two trilogies have contained echoes that play off of each other, Abrams has beautifully crafted some connective tissue between his film and the previous six episodes masterfully. While again, a lot of visual flourishes and touchstones contain primary references to the original trilogy, it is within the thematic elements where the connections exist at their most profound, and I would also argue, makes this film a particularly dark entry.
As with the past six episodes, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" continues George Lucas' amalgamation of Samurai films, Westerns, 1930's science fictions serials, Nazi propaganda images, and Arthurian mythology more than handsomely--a certain lightsaber possesses a most overt nod to Excalibur, the sword in the stone which can only be released by its rightful bearer. But, it is in the themes present in both the inaugural "Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope" (1977) and "Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace" (1999), where Abrams provides significant nods--the concept of the most unlikely individuals who find themselves caught within an extraordinary situation where they have the chance, or are forced, to become heroic.
While the pilot Poe Dameron is already aligned with the...ahem...forces of good, it is through the figures of Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey, where the eternal "Star Wars" questions of good and evil as they relate to the grander concepts of destiny and free will come into play and form the heart and soul of the film in the process. There have already been some minor criticisms that "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is too derivative and reverential to the original 1977 film, and to that I can understand, yet I disagree with that assessment. For me, the effect is entirely purposeful and essential to the larger existential themes of the series and the characters who populate this film universe. The questions are always variations of "Who am I?" and "Who am I destined to become?" and how the power of choice is crucial within the conflict between free will and destiny. With this installment, Abrams has successfully helmed a chapter that serves as a complete story while also setting up the larger, longer arcs of Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey and their ultimate destinations. Family legacies are paramount once again as are the revelations, triumphs and tragedies our characters face, and as far as the "Star Wars" universe is concerned, Abrams has given his characters a tougher, darker road to travel from the outset, and his cast rises to the occasion perfectly.
Much has been made about the new and more overt sense of diversity contained within the casting of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," and to that J.J. Abrams must also be applauded, as it not only serves the characters beautifully, it also serves the diversity of the audience who loves these films as much as anyone else. As the conscience stricken Stormtrooper Finn, John Boyega wonderfully portrays a figure who emerges from Orwellian/Lucas based enslavement a la "THX-1138" (1971) to emancipated galactic freedom fighter. And while it meant the universe to me to see a Black man wield a lightsaber (Samuel L. Jackson notwithstanding), it meant even more to see a Black man at the epicenter of the film's story. Not as a sidekick or supporting character but as a central figure for whom this new trilogy will surround.
Going even further is the marvelous Daisy Ridley as Rey. Like Charlize Theron in "Mad Max: Fury Road" as well as Rebecca Ferguson in Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation," Ridley OWNS the Force as this latest installment is her movie without question. Unlike the heroines of the past films, Rey eclipses both Princess Leia and Padme Amidala by having a trajectory that fully mirrors those of both Anakin and Luke Skywalker, the nobody desert dweller who unwittingly becomes the central figure within an intergalactic conflict and odyssey of transformative self-discovery. Ridley is a natural fit within this cinematic universe with her fully organic performance that surges from areas of abandonment and pain yet fuels them into a character who is resourceful, feisty, compassionate, inventive, resourceful, bemused with her own growing abilities and seemingly possesses a sense of hopefulness that is bottomless. For all of us, this is indeed the heroine we have been looking for and I am already anxious to see where her journey extends in the next chapters.
For all of the emotional heft that is contained within the new story and characters of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," I have to remark upon how primal it was to re-visit the characters and iconography of the original trilogy in a new context and after all of this time. Aided superbly by Composer John Williams' gorgeous score, I found myself often spontaneously finding tears in my eyes with just the sight and sounds that are nothing less than old friends. The iconic theme, the opening title crawl, the first sight of the Millennium Falcon and so on, like Han Solo and Chewbacca, I too felt as if I was home again. It is an inexplicable feeling certainly and I honestly have no idea of how J.J. Abrams captured and harnessed that quality so beautifully. But he did and I thank him.
As the elder statesman with the most screen time, Harrison Ford, who has always maintained a certain difficult relationship with this series, turns in a lovely performance that adheres to all we have ever known and loved about our favorite intergalactic mercenary turned Rebellion leader while also displaying growth and even gravitas. Make no mistake, Han Solo is still a scoundrel but he is a more informed scoundrel, one who has weathered some deep storms over these past 30 years, therefore giving him a wider sense of understanding of the universe he exists within...and to say anymore would produce spoilers, so I'll just stop there.
When "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" concluded, I again express to you that I felt overwhelmed, and I remain so as I write to you now. J.J. Abrams produced a wholly satisfying work of top-flight excellence, that instantly left me desiring Episode VIII, which will be written and directed by Rian Johnson with filming to begin early 2016 for a May 2017 release. And just as when I was a kid awaiting the next chapter, the new adventure cannot arrive soon enough!
That said, the new film did not give me that same feeling as seeing the original for that very first time, and truthfully, it couldn't and I could never have expected it to. However, the feeling I had the most once "The Force Awakens" concluded was extremely similar to the one I had when I first saw "The Empire Strikes Back."
J.J. Abrams has delivered an opening installment of this new trilogy that does not possess the innocence of either Episodes I or IV, but the turbulence and emotional upheaval of Episode V, and possibly "Star Wars: Episode III-Revenge Of The Sith" (2005). "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" gives us a galaxy where darkness rises with constant TIE Fighter air raids, Stormtrooper led exterminations of villages, and with the arrival of the solar sucking, planet sized Starkiller Base (essentially the Death Star on copious steroids), our heroes are constantly on the run or disillusioned or have abandoned the fight altogether.
But also with "Star Wars," hope remains, as does friendship, honor, love and self-sacrifice and the glorious sense of wonder and discovery that can be found in endless possibilities. There is a lot to digest but I was completely enthralled.
To George Lucas, with J.J. Abrams, your creation has been placed in the very best of hands. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is one of the very best films of 2015.
This is for those of you out there who happen to be parents of small children and are wondering if you should take your child to see this film. Well, I will begin with this...
While our film ratings system is highly problematic, as a parental guide, I do think it does serve its purpose very well. This is the second "Star Wars" film to be rated PG 13, and I do feel it to be deserved as this is one of the darker entries in the seven films, as described in the main review . Yes, the action and violence in the film is intense yet essentially bloodless, save for a blood stained hand print on Finn's Stormtrooper helmet and there are a few really frightening monsters to boot.
But, for me, your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast who happens to be a preschool teacher, I have always felt that the "Star Wars" movies, while essentially fairy tales and fables for children, are not designed for children under seven, and definitely not for children 5 years old and under. It is rated PG 13 for a reason, and I feel the over-stimulation of the entire film in a dark movie theater for an extended period of two hours and fifteen minutes is inappropriate for very small children.
That being said, if you are going to allow your children to see it anyway, I urge you to see it first for yourselves as you know your children best with what they are able and not able to handle. For kids 7 an up, they should be fine, depending upon their individual dispositions. But for those under seven, I highly recommend that you wait until the DVD/Blu-Ray release so the film is not too overwhelming and you have the ability to pause and stop if the experience proves to be too intense for your little ones.
Sunday, December 13, 2015
Based upon characters created by Sylvester Stallone
Story by Ryan Coogler
Screenplay Written by Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington
Directed by Ryan Coogler
**** (four stars)
RATED PG 13
There is not one reason in the world for there to be another anything related to the cinematic life of the "Italian Stallion" himself, Rocky Balboa. That being said, "Creed," Co-Writer/Director Ryan Coogler's kinetic, perceptive, enormously entertaining, moving and downright sensational entry into the on-going saga heroically rises to the challenge and becomes the finest installment since 1979.
For a character that has been so beloved by fans--the earnest, pure-hearted underdog, the battered, bruised but never broken lovable palooka Rocky Balboa--it has often boggled my mind that his longevity has remained s powerful, especially as he has been so under-served by his own movies. Of course, the original, Oscar winning 1976 film, written by series creator and star Sylvester Stallone and directed by John Avildson, is a veritable classic that deeply touched a populist nerve during the turbulent 1970's, but aside from the strong "Rocky II" (1979), the series essentially took a regular joe armed with the deepest of tenacity (and a powerful punch) and transformed him into something superhuman, and therefore unrelatable.
Yes, "Rocky III" (1982) was highly entertaining but that was indeed the film in which Rocky began to become a bloated cartoon version of himself. The odious jingoism of "Rocky IV" (1985) only cemented the transformation from somewhat of an every-man into a Right-wing fantasy film flag waving icon. The less said about "Rocky V" (1990) the better and yet, only the understated grace of the most unlikely sixth installment "Rocky Balboa" (2006), which had our hero negotiating his elderly life without the love of his life by his side, returned the series to exploring human beings rather than the next opponent to vanquish inside the boxing ring.
With "Creed," the first installment not written or conceived by Stallone, Ryan Coogler certainly has a daunting task at hand by attempting to tackle this nearly 40 year cinematic legacy. But he too, like Balboa and now, the young boxing upstart Adonis Creed, is indeed the underdog made great as his creative ingenuity, plus his clear reverence for the character and series while merging that affection into his own uniquely crafted vision made for a film that nearly laid me flat with its superb execution.
Believe me dear readers, I have said more than I ever need to say decrying the lack of imagination in Hollywood and its over-reliance upon sequels, re-boots, re-imaginings and now superheros. But as Writer/Director George Miller proved victoriously with the brilliant "Mad Max: Fury Road" earlier this year, sequels and re-boots do not need to exist as soulless machines designed to pick our pockets. They can honor the past while injecting honest and ferocious vitality into moving familiar characters into new cinematic territories. Ryan Coogler's "Creed" sits triumphantly at the top of the heap.
"Creed" stars a visibly hungry and absolutely terrific Michael B. Jordan in the titular role of Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed who died in the boxing ring before Adonis' birth. After serving time in a youth facility where his anger and propensity for fighting is paramount, Adonis is soon taken in by Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) upon the passing of Adoinis' biological Mother. Over the following seventeen years, Adonis grows, is handsomely educated and finds himself in a fine corporate career with a promotion to boot, but he still finds himself unfulfilled and consumed with anger fueled restlessness, which leads to him becoming a somewhat seasoned lightweight boxer across the L.A. border in Mexico.
Soon quitting his job, Adonis moves from California to Philadelphia, adorns himself with a new secretive identity as "Donnie Johnson," begins a tentative romance with budding songwriter/musician Bianca (the captivating Tessa Thompson) and finally, tracks down the retired boxer/now restaurant owner Rocky Balboa (again played by Sylvester Stallone) to ask if he would train and mentor him as he pursues his path of becoming a full time fighter. Rocky, while gracious, politely refuses but of course, he finds himself warming to Adonis thus beginning a new relationship that forces both men to redefine their respective notions of family, confronting the fears and failures of life while always fighting the good fight one step at a time, one punch at a time.
Ryan Coogler, re-teaming with Michael B. Jordan after their richly humanistic work with the quietly devastating "Fruitvale Station" (2013), arrive at and approach the legacy of Rocky Balboa and now the new journey of Adonis Creed with the same serious attention to the emotional details that construct a life as they achieved with their previous effort. While all of the beats within the story will indeed ring familiar and in tremendous step with all that has been presented to us before, Coogler miraculously makes the proceedings of "Creed" feel as fresh as the very first time we all saw the original 'Rocky" by always keeping his attention to the characters and their predicaments at the forefront and never allowing any sense of spectacle overtake the film. Coogler presents a world that is appropriately gritty, lived in, and run down, a world that has truly seen better days but tries its best to continue moving forwards. Like Adonis himself, "Creed" is about paying homage to a legacy while also attempting to create a new legacy, and Coogler handles every momoent with class and empathy as well as urgency and passion.
I loved how Coogler weaved in the familiar story elements and iconography of the previous six "Rocky" films effortlessly and so organically that nothing felt to be forced. In fact, I enjoyed how he took past plot points that for their respective films felt to be grandiose (almost to the point of parody) and burrowed them down to their most basic elements, thus making for a film that was often primal in it overall effect. We all know that Apollo Creed died at the hands of the evil, steroid addicted Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV," for instance. But in "Creed," Apollo's premature death is treated as intimate tragedy, therefore with a reality and gravitas that was absent from many of this series' installments.
In "Creed," Apollo's death is not a comic book plot point but an action that has left long term bruises for severeal of the film characters. A wife who lost the love of her life. An aging rival still dealing with regrets of actions not taken that could have maybe saved his life. And now, a son wrestling with issues of self-discovery, identity and determining precisely what is his place in the world. While Adonis Creed's journey does of course lead him into the boxing ring for a toe-to-toe trial by fire against the undefeated and possibly prison bound British bruiser, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the lightweight champion of the world (and in sequences that are beautifully filmed), the soul of "Creed" is not about the boxing match. The soul of "Creed" lies firmly within Adonis' existential struggle with figuring out precisely who he is within the world, within his chosen path, and within his own name.
Michael B. Jordan, a young actor I have watched since his stint on "All My Children" (where he was once a love interest for Amanda Seyfried), is a sight to behold as his imposing physical presence and smoldering intensity make him compulsively watchable in what I felt to be his star-making/breakthrough role. He owns the screen completely, fully nailing the vulnerability that is housed inside of his rage, the pain, hurt and fear that serves as his fuel to blaze his own path, despite the legend of his Father. While his physicality made for a fully convincing sight in the film's richly executed fight sequences, his coiled force is forever present in the film's many sequences of intimacy (like a very lovely moment as he is braiding Bianca's hair), to especially the heart of the film in which he and Rocky Balboa create a new version of family for themselves.
Sylvester Stallone has not been this natural, this loose, and this honestly affecting in many, many years. Whatever awards season attention he is and will continue to receive is deeply earned with this tender, urgent performance that fully reminds us about why we all fell in love with this character in the first place. It is a wonderful piece of work, filled with earned life lessons, subtle rhythms, deep affection and a level of generosity I would not have expected from him--especially so, as he has released the reins of his own creation to Coogler.
A scene of Rocky visiting the grave-sites of his beloved Adrian and now Paulie comment upon the passage of time, loneliness and mortality with a graceful melancholy, especially as we are meant to note that he is now the only surviving member of this series' core cast of characters. Beyond the echoes to the past, a new trial Rocky is forced to confront provides "Creed" with a newfound element of pathos that not only mirrors the film's primary storyline with Adonis but again injects a sense of realism the "Rocky" series abandoned for so much of its duration. And Stallone handles the entire performance with supple strength and skillful sensitivity, never once over-playing any moment or attempting to brandish the attention for himself. It is remarkable to see how through the act of letting go of his signature creation, Sylvester Stallone has surprised once again and climbed to even greater heights with his lovely performance.
I must make special notice of Tessa Thompson, who first made a powerful impact upon me in Writer/Director Justin Simien's "Dear White People" (2014). While the amount of her scenes are scant compared with those of her co-stars, and she is indeed relegated to the sidelines as the focus shifts to the climactic boxing match, I did deeplye appreciate her grounded, serious work that suggested a very detailed life that was not presented upon the screen. Her romance with Adonis, should there be a new installment, could heat up in most interesting and compelling ways, while also presenting audiences with that cinematic rarity: a young, attractive African-American couple in love. Even deeper is the character detail and trajectory of Bianca the musician as she deals with her progressive hearing loss. This avenue already provided the film's love story with yet another sense of urgency that fueles the narrative handsomely.
Ryan Coogler's "Creed" is possibly the most unlikely film that I have seen this year to have succeeded so highly. As entertaining as the film is, it is the sense of honesty and authenticity that makes the film soar. Any and all sense of contrivance has been stripped away leaving only a story about real people dealing with real emotions, conflicts and tribulations in a very real way. And in doing so, when those echoes to the past do arrive, there is a euphoria filled sense of recognition and release that proved to be intoxicating, ultimately providing a much needed sense of hope and perseverance during a time when so many have been pushed to the wall and into the water with little to cling to. Yet, like Adonis and like the elderly Rocky, with each solitary step, we may one day prevail.
By the time "Creed" reaches its conclusion, set in a familiar location, if you find yourself with a lump in your throat as the moment is sublimely poetic and poignant, do not be surprised. What is happily surprising, however, is how beautifully earned that lump in the throat actually is.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Screenplay Written by Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee
Produced and Directed by Spike Lee
**** (four stars)
Over and again as I viewed the outrageous, explosive "Chi-Raq," the latest, surrounded in controversy "Joint" from Spike Lee, I found myself bathed in the flow of my own tears.
Not through sadness or sorrow, per se. But, through the release of long pent up frustration, intolerance and incredulity regarding the lives that we are all living in 21st century America, lives that should be rejected with the fullest vehemence by all of society, we have seemingly turned into a life of complacency and even normalcy as we face week after week hearing about one more gun massacre after another...and whatever outrage that does exist falls entirely upon the deaf ears of our leaders.
It is a shameful and inexcusable era we are living in and moreso, it is an era that is increasingly infuriating because how many more times do we need to read/hear/see the news about yet another shooting, yet another violent death of a child, to which we will all hear the empty, pointless "thoughts and prayers" of our chief politicians, so many of whom are in the back pockets of the NRA in the first place. I don't know about you, but I cannot take anymore and if even one more person who has bastardized the 2nd Amendment explains to me that we cannot have gun laws simply because someone will undoubtedly break that law, I will find myself frothing at the mouth, for with that strand of so-called logic, why have ANY laws??? I'm sorry, but we, as a society, have to try because even if the attempt is futile, doing nothing is not an option!!
Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" speaks to that very frustration and outrage with the strength of an artistic powder keg. This is Lee's most vibrant, vital, explosive work since the blitzkrieg of his own "Bamboozled" (2000), it marks a full return to the peak of his powers of provocation and artistic excellence and he has released one of the most audacious films of his nearly 30 year career. Believe me, it could not be more timely and downright necessary, yet who knows if any of you out there will even take the chance and see it. I hope that this review will convince you to engage with this uniquely passionate and defiantly artistic experience.
Based upon "Lysistrata," the 411 BC play written by Aristophanes, Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" updates the tale to 2015 Chicago, as murder rates in the city have already eclipsed the total deaths in our wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 4th of July just this year saw 55 deaths. A surprisingly impressive and imposing Nick Cannon stars as the rapper Chi-Raq and leader of the purple clad Spartans who are caught in the throes of an endless gang war with the orange clad Trojans, led by the one-eyed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes).
After a shootout at a nightclub where Chi-Raq is performing (brutal shades of the November 13th Paris attacks at Le Bataclan), which leaves a few of Cyclops' members injured and/or killed, Cyclops retaliates by nearly burning down Chi-Raq's home, which then leads to another shootout on the Chicago streets. The following morning as Chi-Raq's girlfriend Lysistrata (a terrific Teyonah Parris) happens across yet another crime scene, this time the body of 11 year old Patti, struck dead by a stray bullet, and mourned in anguish by her Mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson) as she pleads with the surrounding bystanders to please speak up if they had seen anything at all.
As Father Mike Corridan (a towering John Cusack), the powerful neighborhood social/racial/anti-gun activist and Roman Catholic priest, offers a $5000 reward for any information leading to the shooter still produces no results, Lysistrata, after taking counsel from the neighborhood book loving Peace activist Miss Helen (an excellent Angela Bassett), persuades all of the women of the Spartans and Trojans to begin a sex strike until all of the fighting comes to a halt. Once Lysistrata and her army take over a local armory, the battle of the sexes explodes, leaving the fate of Chicago's soul in the balance.
As dynamically narrated directly to the camera/audience by the one man Greek chorus of Dolmedes (a vivacious Samuel L. Jackson)--himself a completely updated version of 1970's Blaxploitation urban hero Dolemite--and with dialogue that is spoken completely in rhymed verse from beginning to end, it is no wonder that much controversy has been sparked over "Chi-Raq" as many have feared that the film would make light of a subject as morbidly serious as our nation's gun violence epidemic. Point taken. But that said, what of Stanley Kubrick's classic "Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" (1964), which poked its tongue out at nothing less than nuclear evisceration? Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" is easily cut from that same excessive cloth and frankly, I felt that Lee's film essentially served a concoction that was partially Kubrick, partially Director Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo And Juliet" (1996), a dash of Director Milos Forman's "Hair" (1979) and copious amounts of material reminiscent of the brilliantly enveloping and disturbing cosmic ghettos as presented through the 1970's albums by Funkadelic. This is filmmaking that is decidedly poetic and vulgar, often irreverent, brash and brazen and most of all, it is unquestionably and audaciously fearless.
Yes, "Chi-Raq" is a satire, as our Master Of Ceremonies Dolmedes explains at the film's outset (and just had Lee had also performed in the opening moments of "Bamboozled"). Yes, "Chi-Raq" contains some broad comedic laughs as well as rich musical sequences, a squadron of colorful characters all adorned within even more colorful names and costumes. Yes, "Chi-Raq" contains wildly bawdy sequences (including one involving an outlandish Chicago confederate soldier named Major King Kong played by Lee regular David Patrick Kelly) that seem to finally bring the sexual fantasies and conceits depicted within Lee's troublesome "Girl 6" (1996) and "She Hate Me" (2004) into a proper context, as the playfulness suggests much more about men's weaknesses than it ever does about Lysistrata's scantily clad army of women.
But do not be mistaken. From its pulsating core to every frame upon the screen, the tragedy of gun violence is front and center. "Chi-Raq" is fueled by Lee at his most creatively and politically ferocious. "Chi-Raq" represents the fire and brimstone Spike Lee that we have not seen in some time outside of his excellent documentaries and the return to his loud, passionate voice is a most welcome one as he speaks truths that many choose to disregard. "Chi-Raq" is not a film designed to just amiably give audiences what they may be wanting. Spike Lee is giving us precisely what we need. No, this film may not be for everyone and all tastes, and that is perfectly fine because why should it? The core of the film's message is the meat of the matter and even though I am certain this film will make a swift exit from movie theaters, "Chi-Raq" is thunderously essential viewing.
For those who are familiar with the controversy surrounding the film, all I can say to you is that to fully weigh in on the discussion, you have to see the film in order to do so. Not just the film's two minute trailer, which has already received more literal and digital ink than deserved. But the full two hour plus experience. Only then, will you see what Lee has devised and despite the visual razzle dazzle he has displayed across the screen, Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" is as serious as the gun violence it is rallying against.
A wordless sequence where Irene, on her hands and knees, is washing the blood of her dead daughter from the sidewalk is appropriately mournful and wrenching. Another where a wheelchair bound former gang member imparts to Chi-Raq much needed life learned wisdom of the futility of the gang warfare, a life that also made his son a paraplegic, is equally sobering. A protest march, where Lee places real life Chicago Mothers carrying photos of their dead children, all killed from gun violence, is profound, startling and blood boiling. And one startling sequence where Miss Helen is visited by an insurance salesman (played by Lee regular Roger Guenveur Smith), offering the opportunity to place a life insurance policy upon Helen's teenaged nephew is enraging.
Best of all, is John Cusack's extended, soul shaking monologue in which his character of Father Mike Corridan (himself based upon Chicago's legendary Roman Catholic priest/social activist Father Michael Pfleger) delivers a two-fisted sermon at the funeral of 11 year old Patti, where he riffs and extols upon everything from the life of the gun that murdered Patti (purchased at an Indiana gun show with fake ID and references), to the true economic downfalls of the Black community, the fear that has enshrouded the community due to the rampant gang violence, the public school to prison pipeline, the inhumane complacency and greed that exists within our leaders who will do and say anything for the NRA and gun manufactures instead of the will of the people they were elected to represent and then back again to the endless stream of violence Corridan rightfully and righteously acknowledges as "genocide." John Cusack might not be the most likely individual to find within a Spike Lee Joint, but with his scant amount of scenes, he inserts himself beautifully and with this sequence in particular, his voice growing hoarser the more voluminous it builds, is downright sensational. To one Chicagoan from another, John Cusack has done the soul of Chicago proud.
Yet beyond the city of Chicago itself, Spike Lee has utilized his film to take the setting of my home city and serve it as a metaphor for America itself. In many ways, "Chi-Raq" feels to be very much a companion piece and extension of past Lee films, all set within his home of New York, like the 1970's period piece of neighborhoods long gone in "Crooklyn" (1994) to the increased violence and decline of those very same neighborhoods today as presented in "Clockers" (1995) and "Red Hook Summer" (2012).
In detailing the downfalls of all of our American, predominately Black, working class/working poor neighborhoods and the violence that has now engulfed those neighborhoods, no one is spared from Lee's scornful criticism. From the gangs and "Black On Black Violence" to the murderous members of the police force, Lee's sympathies lie solely with the individuals and families caught in between, as represented by a shocking sequence where Dolmedes, flanked by a gang banger and police officer, fire rounds directly into the camera. Yes, it is an over-the-top moment contained in a film loaded with over-the-top moments but let's face it, we live in over-the-top times demanding of a critical analysis designed to reach whomever, wherever by any means necessary.
"Chi-Raq," a first-rate production in which Lee, alongside his Co-Screenwriter Kevin Willmott, is aided tremendously by his longtime core team Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter, Composer Terence Blanchard and several veterans of what I tend to think of as "The Spike Lee Players," all work feverishly with purpose and vitality to create this unique cinematic vision that blends the mythical and the harshest realities with supreme urgency. I have felt that Lee works best when he has a clear agenda in mind and it is clear that aside from the bleakness and violence, what he wishes to achieve with "Chi-Raq" is to present a world where the sanctity of life is upheld, where hope, forgiveness and redemption are all able to survive and thrive. But, only if we are able to put down the guns and extinguish all means and ways we have devised to extinguish ourselves first.
As the film's central figure of Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris has a most difficult role to fill and achieve as she is essentially an archetype as opposed to a "realistic" human being. Even so, she holds a commanding presence and works wonders as she effortlessly emerges from 'round-the-way girl bystander to warrior to revolutionary Queen. Lysistrata is basically Joan Of Arc, albeit the South Side Of Chicago 2015 version--a larger than life figure in a film that is equally outsized and Parris owns the screen with confidence, strength, and most importantly, an unshakable humanity.
So, with all of the controversies and commentaries surrounding "Chi-Raq" and its intentions and presentations, let's all try to keep everything within a certain sense of perspective here. If the title of the film itself is offensive to you rather than the gun violence that continues to permeate this nation to emergency levels, then you truly need to re-check your priorities. If a creative approach that is decidedly theatrical and even mythological is offensive to you rather than hearing about the latest gun massacre on a regular basis, then you seriously need to re-check your priorities. If the film's more surreal and even downright bizarre elements are offensive to you, rather than the surreal and bizarre realities of a world where it is easier to obtain a gun than it is to register to vote or that individuals named upon the terror no-fly list are still legally able to purchase guns, then you SERIOUSLY need to re-check your priorities!!
Just one day after seeing "Chi-Raq," I happened upon a fact checked tweet from noted Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson posted November 9th, which stated that this year, 3400 Americans were killed by household firearms over the previous five weeks from that date, the exact same number of Americans killed by terrorism since 2001. Two days before I saw the film, the New York Times ran their first front-page editorial in 95 years (!) specifically addressing the "moral outrage" against the "national disgrace" our American gun culture and violence has become. Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" looks directly into that horrific mouth of madness with brutal force, an ocean of empathy and staggering creativity. Some may decry the film's lack of subtlety. Yet, and I am not able to say this with enough emphasis...we do not live in subtle times and sometimes, an in your-face message is precisely what is demanded instead of shadings and nuances.
Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" is a wholly entertaining and emotionally exhausting return to his specialized brand of "WAKE UP!" cinema. It is an unrepentant howl of tear stained rage demanding that our society do whatever it takes, and again, by any means necessary, to meet the societal crisis that has not just overtaken my home city of Chicago but our entire nation.
"Chi-Raq" is also one of the finest films I have seen in 2015.
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens," officially Episode VII in the on-going space opera set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, arrives on December 18th and as with the rest of the world, I am gathering, I am anxiously awaiting to make the jump to light speed and return to the cinematic universe that first made me love the language and artistry of the movies back in 1977.
Of course, I am trying to take everything in stride, just as I did with the arrival of the prequel trilogy back in 1999. I am trying to keep my expectations at a simmer, realizing that it is just a movie and not a religious experience akin to the second coming...or in this case, the third. While I have been skeptical of this new venture simply because Disney now owns the franchise and are certainly not concerned with the art and magic of "Star Wars," I am feeling that Writer/Director J.J. Abrams is the right fit to carry the torch of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas' artistic vision and intent as best as possible, as Abrams has long professed his passion for the series and has referenced aspects of the original trilogy over and again within his own projects. Even so, all will be revealed soon...
As for any other films to see during this month...well, I have to play some catch up with "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2," "Creed," and "The Good Dinosaur." Aside from those..
And that is more than enough to keep me busy as 2015 begins to wind down. So, as always, wish me luck and good health and I'll see you when the house lights go down!
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Screenplay Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Directed by Tom McCarthy
***1/2 (three and half stars)
The news has been cancelled.
That damning phrase has been uttered more times than I am able to count over the years and yet, with each passing year, the truth behind that statement could not be any truer, as far as I am concerned. The rise of the internet, the 24 hour cable news cycle, severe budget cuts, and the decimation of the nation's newspapers would be more than enough to place powerful nails in journalism's coffin. But I also feel that the status of what could be referenced as "opinion journalism" has done more to erase impartial objectivity as well as contributed more than its share to the building of larger and more impenetrable echo chambers that are nothing but self-serving to every individual reader/viewer, thus forcing our overall political/societal discourse to break down.
None of us are really immune and we are all complicit to varying degrees. While I do love Rachel Maddow for instance, as well as John Nichols' especially strong work for The Nation, I also know that their personal politics are a part of the package, inherently existing as part of the stories that they are reporting, an element that is wholly unnecessary. At its worst, we are armed with newspapers as well as a television network, which shall remain nameless upon my site, that clearly, obviously and unrepentantly function as arms of propaganda masquerading as news, and since those outlets have the largest microphones, and most of the print and electronic media plus the radio and television airwaves, alternatives are scant to be found unless one scours for them. But, with the speed of life and survival in the 21st century, how does the average citizen have time and energy to perform their own sense of investigative journalism, the type of which that should be occurring in all of our news sources in the first place.
Director Tom McCarthy speaks to this very issue that befalls the state of our journalism with his latest effort "Spotlight," a taut, perceptive, sobering drama which works as a simultaneous tribute and lament for the very investigative journalism that we deserve and are continuing to rapidly lose. While some critics have already anointed this film with superlatives as "extraordinary," "pulse-pounding" and one source even proclaimed that the film is the finest motion picture about journalism since Director Alan J. Pakula's "All The President's Men" (1976), my reaction was considerably more muted as I did find the film to be a tad more sedate and drier than it needed to be. That being said, "Spotlight" is yet another strong, smart, provocative adult drama currently playing in the multiplexes and art houses that demands your attention.
Set in 2001, "Spotlight" focuses upon the small, insular and titular investigative news team for The Boston Globe as they meticulously and methodically uncover a systemic pattern of sexual abuse of children by the Roman Catholic priests in Massachusetts as well as the historical cover up by the Boston Archdioceses.
Based upon the actual series of stories run by the paper, McCarthy presents his cinematic version of the news team which consists of Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slatterly), and Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who, during the course of this film, becomes the new Editor of The Boston Globe, the one who shifted the newspaper's international coverage to more locally based investigative journalism, and was the key figure who quietly suggested the Spotlight team explore the sexual abuse scandal. The combined efforts of these individuals earned The Boston Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
While I am a little bit softer on this film than what the bulk of the reviews have been expressing, I will say that "Spotlight" is a true return to form for Tom McCarthy who has indeed delivered his finest film since the outstanding drama "The Visitor" (2007), which presented a star making performance from legendary character actor Richard Jenkins. With "Spotlight," I was pleased to see how McCarthy never once injected unnecessary drama into his film, one that already possesses an enormous amount of inherent drama considering the subject matter. The entire cast is appropriately understated and firmly on point, working beautifully as an ensemble, although I have to make special mention for the especially sharp work from Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup, who all portray attorneys, representing either the Catholic church or the victims of abuse. And I have to say that Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber in particular continued to impress with their richly grounded work.
McCarthy treats "Spotlight" as a procedural, keeping his film running smoothly at a simmer, allowing any sense of outrage to arrive naturally and without hyperbole. But it is a film that is perhaps a tad emotionally sparser than it needs to be, possibly undercutting its sense of urgency. For my money, the likes of Writer/Director James L. Brooks' classic "Broadcast News" (1987) and Writer/Director Billy Ray's "Shattered Glass" (2003) for instance, spoke louder to me. Additionally, if I were able to change one element, it would have to be Composer Howard Shore's television movie of the week score, which I found to be intrusive to the point of interference. Frankly, and in keeping with no-nonsense spirit McCarthy is obviously attempting to conjure, perhaps having no film score at all would have been preferable.
Regardless, "Spotlight" is a film that speaks powerfully to the painstaking process of investigative journalism, the demanding slowness of its pace, the feverish drive to continuously dig deeper to unearth the grandest truths. Not for sales, or for journalistic glory but for the result of providing an essential public service. And despite any competitive nature between The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald for obtaining information and getting a story to print the fastest, "Spotlight" is an impassioned testament for a period when investigative journalism existed in order to get the story absolutely right, instead of first--a quality that feels exceedingly lost within the speed of our current ratings driven news cycles.
The action of "Spotlight," such as it is, is to regard these journalists in pursuit of a story that is of course, dogged, but one that even transforms them within the process of building and creating the piece over an extended period of time. Certainly writing and editing is paramount, but McCarthy gives those aspects a back seat to the extended, exhausting research process, which continuously informs the team of what precisely is the story they are attempting to tell. Is this a story about one pedophile priest or is this truly the story of a historical cycle of abuse? Watching the team build trust with their interview subjects, while also sparring with members of the larger community, plus attorneys and representatives of the church is fascinating enough but in the spirit of these journalists, I believe that McCarthy also wishes to delve deeper to determine precisely what is the story of his film.
In a way, "Spotlight" does not necessarily have to be about this specific news team or even this specific story about church sanctioned child sexual abuse. As I previously stated, McCarthy allows us a window into the world of these journalists as we see how they are personally affected by the story they are collectively reporting. As all natives to Boston, the scandal carries a personal weight as McCarthy suggests a larger implication when dealing with social injustice. The more the news team discovers, the angrier Mark Rezendes grows while both Sacha Pfeiffer and Walter Robinson succumb to a grander sorrow. It is as if McCarthy is suggesting to us that if we are able to see it, then we are involved, for with our silence, we are therefore complicit, in even the worst aspects of human behavior. With that conceit, McCarthy ensures that "Spotlight" exists as more than a newspaper drama. It is a plea for our collective sense of humanity, especially when it comes to the safety and protection of our children combined with our collective sense of moral obligation.
I have expressed upon this site more times than I can count that we are living in very dark times. Angry, divisive times during which our sense of discourse has grown increasingly volatile and vicious. I really believe that the nature of our news has quite a part to play within this breakdown, something else "Spotlight" speaks to. Yes, politics are personal but isn't it necessary for our society to have our news delivered to us impartially instead of existing as an extended op-ed piece (at best) designed to speak to specific groups of people, while excluding all others who do not exist within a certain bubble?
The beleaguered HBO drama "The Newsroom" from Aaron Sorkin, while flawed, tried its very best to provide a lament for how our news information was gathered, presented and consumed in the past as we are bombarded by news that is not news in the present. But Tom McCarthy's "Spotlight" achieves the same goal at a higher level and completely without any proselytizing. McCarthy, like his characters and the real world journalists they represent, has mined deeply, unearthing the larger truth that we are all complicit in the news that we receive. And if we continue to remain silent, we will only receive the news that we deserve.
Friday, November 27, 2015
Based upon the film "Ganga And Hess" Written and Directed by Bill Gunn
Screenplay Written by Bill Gunn and Spike Lee
Directed by Spike Lee
*** (three stars)
In a bizarre way, I am wondering if everything that Spike Lee has been up to during the last several years is actually coming together.
During the entire filmography of Writer/Producer/Director Spike Lee, at least as far as his narrative features are concerned, he has consistently delivered a ferocious and unrepentant vision of social justice and injustice yet filtered through an artistic vision that presents a worldview through a heightened sense of reality. Through his innovative visual aesthetics, musical backdrops, all the way down to the names of his characters ("Buggin' Out," "Radio Raheem," "Flipper Purify," " Bleek Gillam" etc...), Lee has cultivated a cinematic universe unlike any of his contemporaries for nearly 30 years and counting, and I still contend that he remains one of the finest, and sadly, most misunderstood American filmmakers working today.
That being said, and as I have mentioned often upon this site, this past decade and a taste more has not been terribly kind to Spike Lee and his self-professed cinematic Joints. While he has remained uniformly in peak performance as a documentarian, most notably with his searing, compulsively watchable New Orleans pre and post Hurricane Katrina lament "When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts" (2006) and his up close and completely immersive document of the final performances of the Broadway smash "Passing Strange" (2008), his narrative features, save for the slick heist thriller "Inside Man" (2006), have found his intent and execution not coalescing as tightly as with the bulk of his uncompromising output.
His well intentioned World War II drama "Miracle At St. Anna" (2008) was undone by a surprising sluggishness. But it was within the satires, cultural commentaries and tone poems of the widely underseen "She Hate Me" (2004) and "Red Hook Summer" (2012) as well as the morally repugnant, career worst "Oldboy" (2013), which Lee himself has seemed to disown due to the never before seen on-screen credit of "A Spike Lee Film" instead of his trademark "A Spike Lee Joint," where I wondered if Lee had perhaps creatively gone off of the rails. I have always contended, and vehemently against the standard criticism of Lee's oeuvre, that his films are definitely not muddled. Spike Lee's films are defiantly multi-layered and demand more than one viewing to possibly unearth everything that has been weaved into his singular and idiosyncratic cinematic fabrics. Even so, I have been so unsure as to how to enthusiastically defend these more recent films, for they have just confounded me so tremendously as I just do not know what the creative impetus happens to be.
Now, we arrive with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," the latest effort and credited as "An OFFICIAL Spike Lee Joint." While this Kickstarter funded feature (I contributed) may not convince his detractors or even fully convince his supporters that he has returned to top narrative form, I do think that the film does indeed find Lee on more solid cinematic ground even as he extends his palate even further. Granted, "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is a strange, weird film. But it is also undeniably elegant, often hypnotic, and its deliberate pacing does indeed weave a dark spell that has haunted me since watching it. Even further, it quite possibly has shed some light over Lee's most recent narrative features, possibly encapsulating what may have been an intentional creative phase or undertaking.
Spike Lee's "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is in fact a remake of the late Writer/Director Bill Gunn's experimental horror film "Ganja And Hess" (1973). As with that film, "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" stars a strongly malevolent Stephen Tyrone Williams as Dr. Hess Green, a highly affluent anthropologist and African art collector who obtains a large dagger which originated from the Ashanti empire, an advanced culture who supposedly became addicted to blood transfusions.
When Hess Green is later attacked, stabbed and seemingly killed with the dagger at his Martha's Vineyard abode by Lafayatte Hightower (Elvis Nolasco), an increasingly unstable colleague who soon commits suicide, Green is apparently "resurrected" the following morning, now unable to eat or digest foods and beverages and shockingly housed with an insatiable thirst for human blood.
As Hess Green begins his pursuit of human blood, first through the theft of blood bags from medical facilities and soon through his nocturnal vampiric hunts during which he seduces and murders his victims in order to consume their blood, he is ultimately confronted by Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), who arrives at Martha's Vineyard searching for her missing, estranged husband. Hess Green falls immediately and completely in love with the brittle, British Ganja and the twosome quickly become lovers. Yet, Hess Green still possesses his uncontrollable urges, not only placing Ganja within mortal danger, but also risks whatever remains of Green's humanity and soul.
Spike Lee's "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is a chilly mood piece, a slow motion nightmare of unsettling erotica, and a grim thriller that merges elements of horror and dreamscapes, which all serve to illustrate an uncommonly striking ode to isolation, alienation and spiritual decay. In many ways, the film is a testament to the fact that Spike Lee is indeed a natural born filmmaker who certainly knows how to stretch a dollar to its breaking point all to ensure that, at least upon a visual level, his work stands as tall as the highest mega-budgeted feature. "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is of no exception, especially as the film was shot entirely in a mere 16 days! Lee, working alongside Cinematographer Daniel Patterson, have created a luscious palate that subtly alternates between warm and cold colors, fully augmenting the film's storyline and characters.
Another most notable element of the film is undoubtedly the music. Spike Lee has historically existed as one of our finest cinematic DJ's as he is truly one of the few filmmakers who intuitively knows how to merge sound and vision to masterful effect. "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" possesses ax excellent musical bedrock that perfectly captures the hypnotic and tragic elements of the story and characters. In keeping with the film's more independent spirit, Lee handpicked a collection of songs from entirely unsigned artists (out of 800 entries) and all of them serve the sonic world of the film brilliantly. Even better is the work of Composer/Pianist Bruce Hornsby, who remains an audacious choice as the figure to supply the film score (instead of frequent Lee collaborator Composer Terence Blanchard), which alternates between jazz and classical textures, which enormously assists the chamber piece like nature of the film as a whole.
The film's opening credit sequence is also a first class gem. Clearly serving as an echo to the brilliant edited and performed Rosie Perez dance sequence over the opening credits to "Do The Right Thing" (1989), "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" features the graceful and sophisticated moves of dancer Charles "Lil Buck" Riley over the opening credits and just as brilliantly edited as Lee's earlier masterpiece. Yet, where Perez's sequence was righteous and combative, Riley's dance is one of mournfulness and somberness, again perfectly setting up the viewer for everything we are about to witness over the course of the film.
Further still, I also love the connective tissue Lee places within his films, linking one Joint to another effortlessly. Essentially, and despite the fact that the majority of the film takes place on Martha's Vineyard, "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" could possibly stand as another entry into Lee's self-described "Chronicles Of Brooklyn" series, which houses "Crookyln" (1994), "Clockers" (1995) and "Red Hook Summer" among others, as the Li'l Piece Of Heaven church sequences within this new film are set at the exact same church depicted within "Red Hook Summer" and the fate of that film's primary character is also addressed. It is just yet another touch that makes Lee's output stand as a full body of work while also presenting an experience that flies into considerably more sinister territory.
And yet, I still had problems with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" overall. To begin, I just felt that Lee rushed the action and the primary act that sets the story in motion without firmly establishing precisely who Dr. Hess Green actually is. Within moments of meeting him, as well as Lafayatte Hightower, Green is stabbed and killed, Hightower has committed suicide and I haven't grown that accustomed to who each of those men happened to be. Another sequence set later in the film and featuring Ganja and Green's former lover Tangier (Nate Bova), begins a bit awkwardly and almost becomes the sort of prurient, male based fantasy sequence that Lee has been criticized for in the past (and rightfully so regarding "She Hate Me" for certain), yet, considering the nature of vampiric seduction, I felt he ultimately pulled it out of the fire.
What I felt most troublesome as I watched the film was that I was unsure as to what the point of this whole escapade even was. I mean, aside from Spike Lee obviously honoring Bill Gunn, what else was there to this experience to justify its existence? For much of the running time, I was reminded of Lee's phone sex fantasia "Girl 6" (1996), a film that was visually enthralling, deeply immersive and captivating but also seemingly empty. It was the first time during that stage of Spike Lee's career where I found myself disappointed because it seemed as if the material got away from him, or possibly he never really knew what he wanted to do or say about this excursion in the first place. This very feeling revisited me with "She Hate Me" for certain and to varying degrees with "Red Hood Summer" and "Oldboy" and for quite some time of "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" but then Spike Lee took me to church...
There is an outstanding sequence near the end of "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" where everything quite possibly began to click together. Not just for this film for for what Lee may have been devising and exploring for several years now. Set back within the Li'l Piece Of Heaven church, a choir band, featuring no less than Raphael Saadiq on vocals and guitar and Valerie Simpson on piano and vocals, performs a selection that consists of only four lines:
"You've got to learn
To let it go
You've got to know when it's all over
As the congregation is swept away with emotion, Dr. Hess Green sit silently and emotionless in the back of the church, contemplating his existence after having already committed several murders in order to obtain blood. He soon begins to slowly approach the altar but is ultimately unable to reach the destination before turning and leaving the church altogether.
With that sequence, which Lee filmed beautifully and richly, I felt that perhaps Hess Green, realizing that his actions have violated the natural law and/or God's law regarding life and death, thus making him live a soulless existence. Having tainted the "sweet blood of Jesus" through his murderous actions, Hess Green is trapped within an existential crisis, where his needs of immortality have outweighed any sense of higher morality, thus making "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" exist not as a story of vampires necessarily but as a tale that possibly speaks to our societal moral and spiritual decay regarding our soullessness to our fellow citizens of Earth.
As I have previously stated, Spike Lee has always presented a heightened sense of reality within his films. But with "She Hate Me," "Red Hook Summer," "Oldboy" and now with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," it seems as if he has traded a heightened yet recognizable outlook with one that exists on a grander surreal landscape, as if he is looking at America through a fun house mirror. "She Hate Me" dealt with whistle blowing and an addiction to money yet filtered through a squadron of lipstick lesbians, animated sperm, allusions to Watergate and the slavery auction block. "Red Hook Summer" told a simple tale of a Southern teenager's summer visit to Brooklyn but weaved in the story of the fall of a beloved, respected preacher in a dying Black church located in a re-gentrified section of New York. The less said about "Oldboy" the better but with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," the addiction to blood by any means necessary did eventually strike a chord, especially when dealing with the uber wealthy African American characters who are already isolated within both White and Black cultures.
I wonder if Lee was making a commentary about the uber wealthy Black people who do not attempt to do more to uplift the race but ultimately, cultivate a singular existence for themselves. With Dr. Hess Green, his wealth was amassed through his parents and then singularly for himself. He has surrounded himself with priceless works of African art and historical antiques, not to share and use to educate other, but for his own possession. And once, he does become a vampire, he preys upon the ones who have attained less than himself, in one instance a hooker (played by Felicia Pearson from "The Wire") and in another, a resident of the housing projects, two figure who are meaningless in Green's world. Only Ganja is seen to be an equal in Hess Green's eyes and even then, the twosome share a dance that proves deadly for both of them--like a snake eating its own tail. And I guess it is that very mournfulness that is sitting at the center of Spike Lee's recent output and I cannot help but to wonder if that was indeed the primary focus at hand.
Is that what "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus" is necessarily about? Who knows. Was this surrealistic approach in this film and others the full intention of Spike Lee? Again, who knows. With Lee's upcoming "Chi-Raq" appearing as if we are returning to the Spike Lee cinematic blitzkrieg of old, only then may we discover any creative similarities and differences within his next chapter of motion picture cultural critiques. But for now, with "Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus," we are given a flawed yet wholly intriguing film that certainly kept me involved, guessing and scratching my head.
And I still cannot shake its grasp.
If your curiosity has been piqued, how can you see this film? It is now available on both DVD and Blu-Ray formats and it is also running on premium cable channels as well. Since this is a 2015 release, it should not be that difficult to seek out at this time.