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


I will never be ceased to be amazed or thankful.

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.


Monday, December 28, 2015

AMERICAN HUSTLE: a review of "The Big Short"

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

FEEL THE POWER OF THE FORCE: a review of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

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)

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.

Until now...

"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

GONNA FLY NOW: a review of "Creed"

Based upon characters created by Sylvester Stallone
Story by Ryan Coogler
Screenplay Written by Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington
Directed by Ryan Coogler
**** (four stars)

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

TEARS OF RAGE: a review of "Chi-Raq"

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


Like I even have to tell you what the movie of the month is...

"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..
1. Spike Lee's already controversial "Chi-Raq," his updated version of the iconic Greek play "Lysistrata" as fashioned as a satire/cultural commentary about our current crisis status of gun violence my home city of Chicago (and the nation at large) is at the top of the list without question!
2. "The Hateful Eight," the 8th film from Quentin Tarantino is also riding highly upon my personal must-see list. But, I am wondering that despite its Christmas Day release date, if the film may not reach my city until January 2016, especially the three hour with intermission version presented in luscious 70MM.
3. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's "The Revenant" also extremely high upon the must-see list and possessing a Christmas Day release date, also will not arrive in my city until early January 2016,

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!