Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Fish

OK, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it really isn't even fair to include another movie in this post, much less a "meh" sort of one, but them's the breaks. Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea (aka "Thor vs. the Giant Fish") wants to be so much more than it is and it's a shame. The actual story of the sinking of the whaling ship Essex and the horrific aftermath is compelling on its own; there was really no need to embellish. (And the actual facts are more gruesome that the film feels comfortable discussing.) Liam Hemsworth is a fine actor; I truly believe that, but in this film, neither he nor anyone else on Nantucket can settle on an accent. I'm willing to forgive a good bit due to Owen Chase being a seafaring man, but it got a bit silly at one point. Not at all a bad film, but it could have been so much better.

Now to the main attraction. I'm a Star Wars nut and have been since I was the tender age of nine. That said, the second trilogy saddened me and the revolving door of "new and improved" editions left me cold. (Confession - I still have the original trilogy on Laserdisc. And yes, I have the player. Think on that for a moment.) And J. J. Abrams still owes me for the wreck that was Into Darkness. So it was with great trepidation that I went to see a showing of SW: TFA at the unlikely hour of 10:30. That's A.M., by the way - usually too early for popcorn, but hey, it was a special occasion.

Is the poster too crowded? Yes. Is it a perfect movie? Nope. Do I care? Not a whit. This film makes me happy. Yes, there are plot holes and don't even get caught up in the non-science. This is myth, not science fiction. And it's got throwbacks to the things that made the original trilogy "Joseph Campbell in space," including heroes, redemption, father-figures, conflicted villains, wise elders, and more besides. (Like lightsabers.) Young unknowns are going to be huge stars - get ready for that, John Boyega, Adam Driver, and Daisy Ridley.

Go see this. Just - go. Now.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

This Is An Emergency

With those words, Spike Lee's re-telling of Lysistrata begins. We're told to "Wake up!" at the beginning and at the very end of this brutal satire - just as Lee did 25+ years ago with Do the Right Thing and it seems logical to use that phrase as a set of cinematic bookends, since it appears we haven't learned a damn thing since then.

Yes - go see Chi-Raq. Go see it on the big screen and take your neighbors who are old enough to be frightened by the fact that gun violence in our country has reached levels that seem to only have one direction - up - and that many, many citizens seem to have thrown in the towel, insisting that the only solution to this plague is yet more guns in yet more places. (Oh, and bulletproof sleeping mats for napping kindergartners.)

Before I go into specifics about why you ought to carve time out of this cheery holiday season to see a film about gangs, senseless violence, sex, and the power of women (with nary a reindeer in sight), let's clear one thing up right now. Lee is taking a great deal of heat for this film - in part, due to some odd interviews he's given after the release of the film. But a lot of the pearl-clutching criticism comes from people shooting off their mouths about the film being "exploitative" and "disrespectful." He's been called the equivalent of a carpetbagger - that Brooklyn so-and-so coming in to Chicago to tell us what our problems are!

So - a quick lesson on Lysistrata and satire. To begin with, I was thrilled when one review mentioned that the source material is a play "that you’ve probably never heard about unless you’ve taken some (perhaps advanced) literature courses in college." I teach about that play in my first-year, open-to-folks-with-no-prerequisite intro to theatre course. Now - satire versus parody. Think of "parody" as mimicking something (or someone) specifically in order to create a humorous effect. It has no other purpose but to entertain. "Satire" is broader, involving mimicking something general in order to comment on something broader, with the intent of commenting on the society that created the subject, often with the idea of changing it. Parody wants you simply to laugh; satire wants you to think. The Scary Movie franchise (and its assorted ilk) is a parody on the genre of teen horror movies (and you need to understand the specific references to "get" the jokes), while Mel Brooks' hilarious Blazing Saddles is a satire on racism. 

Lysistrata is a satire - and a biting one. No, of course withholding sex isn't going to end war - for one thing, if the men are all off at war, who's around to be affected by the sex strike? But nevermind - it's a play, and as Shakespeare reminds us in Hamlet, the play's the thing. With Chi-Raq, Lee keeps the broad framework and the Greek flavor - the warring gangs are the "Trojans" and the "Spartans" (standing in for the Crips and the Bloods), there's a coffeehouse called the "Deus Ex Machina," the women await the peace talks in a fortified location, plus you've got Cyclops, Oedipus, and a very wise "Miss Helen." Most importantly, Lee kept the fact that the sex strike is undertaken by the women because it's the only power they have. These women feel helpless in their own community and want to end the bloodshed. In ancient Greece, women had very little power - political or otherwise. In our society, women have more power, but often don't claim it. And until you claim that power, it's very easy to think men just want One Thing.

Oh, and did I mention that Lee keeps the whole thing in rhyming couplets? Greek comic plays were known for rhyming structure and broad, coarse language (many weren't translated into English until the 19th century - it was felt that if you could read them in the original Greek, you were too sophisticated to be sullied by jokes about impotence, randy men, and hot-to-trot women. The Victorians were weird). Lee co-wrote the screenplay with film academic Kevin Willmott, who wrote the devastating satire C.S.A. - The Confederate States of America in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War. (Do check that one out.) And do not forget that satire is intended to be funny and Chi-Raq has laugh-out-loud points. I think that's probably what's confusing people - the situation is serious; how can you find humor in it? (Well, rewatch Blazing Saddles and ask yourself that question again.) Hearing Dave Chappell play an upset club owner whose "talent" has joined the striking women shout that "the situation's out of control/'Cause I'm in front of an empty stripper pole!" makes that point rather eloquently.

Go see this movie. Angela Basset as Miss Helen will move your heart, John Cusack as a liberal Catholic priest who grew up in the neighborhood (and is based on real-life Father Michael Pfleger) will stir up your outraged sense of justice, Jennifer Hudson will make you weep (oh, there's one scene that just her and the swish-swish of a scrub brush that will stay with me for a long time). As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris is transcendent and Nick Cannon as Chi-Raq (the title isn't about him as a person, though - he took that nom de street from the location) astonished me. And there's a sniggering Wesley Snipes and don't forget Samuel L. Jackson as the honest-to-Zeus Greek chorus, guiding us through the action. (And keep an eye on his canes.)

Chi-Raq is a harsh movie. But the fact that more Americans have been killed in Chicago in the last few years than were killed in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars is harsher. Lee's never been afraid to take on the troubling topic of black-on-black violence and in Chi-Raq, he's created a movie you ought to look straight in the eye.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Catching Up!

I've got several items to bring to your attention in this post - as well as another separate one on Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, but this is already going to get long, so look for that one early this week.

First, Jennifer Lawrence wrapped up her run as Katniss Everdeen with the release of Mockingjay, Part 2. There's not much to say about this one - if you liked the others, you'll like seeing the ending. If you haven't seen the others, this is not the place to jump in! Donald Sutherland's performance as President Snow is well worth singling out, especially for a scene toward the end where he lays out some hard truths to Katniss who, in many ways, is still a pawn, just for another side. She's got choices to make and none of them are easy ones. The world of The Hunger Games is a dystopia and those never fix themselves just because people want them to. Keep an eye on Julianne Moore's Alma Coin - she and Snow aren't as different as we'd like to think they are. (Two sides of the same Coin? Hmm.)

Next, Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan (trying desperately to make people forget the reeking mess that was Fantastic 4) hand the Rocky Balboa tale off to a new generation with Creed, which is the 7th (seventh!) film in the Rocky franchise. I was amazed at how solid a movie this was. I must admit a certain guilty pleasure in some of the less-likely of the Rocky movies (I'm looking at you, Clubber Lang! Oh, and Ivan Drago! You Soviet machine!), but underneath the bluster was a thoroughly American tale of the underdog who won't be counted out. Creed is a solid picture, with much to say about legacies, hard work, and (interestingly) disability. A good film and definitely a feel-good one.

Netflix has released the first season of Marvel's Jessica Jones and, while I don't recommend it for anyone who thought Daredevil was too dark (there are spots in Jessica that make DD look like a Sunday-school picnic), it is astonishingly good. They went full-out film noir here, with Jessica as the hard-boiled, world-weary, hard-drinking private eye who's seen too much of this world to feel much of anything for it, but still has that tiny spark in her that want to do right in the world. Krysten Ritter (Jane from Breaking Bad) carries off the role with aplomb and David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who) is frightening as Kilgrave, who has powers of mind control and no conscience. To him, people are furniture and he likes to decorate. The entire season can be easily read as an extended rape/consent analogy - in sometimes quite a literal way. For every woman who's ever been told to "smile, baby" while going about her business during the day, Jessica Jones will make you shudder and want to take a shower. The supporting cast is also strong and some seeds have been planted that will certainly come to flower in the next few Marvel projects.

Last for this catch-up post is the new release Spotlight, which tells the story of the Boston Globe's dogged investigative reporting to break the scandalous story of sexual abuse by priests and the shuffling around of pedophile priests by the Catholic hierarchy. It's a difficult film to watch in places, especially as the film progresses and you are faced with hard, cold evidence that higher-ups knew (not suspected, KNEW) that they were placing children in danger, yet continued business as usual. It's a quiet movie; one that's content to let solid performances work without being flashy. Michael Keaton, for my money, is better in this that in the over-praised Birdman and Liev Schreiber handles the role of outsider-in-Boston who has the responsibility of running with a story many would prefer to keep buried. But the standout may well be Stanley Tucci, whose role as a crusading lawyer who is patiently building an airtight case is in sharp contrast to his Hunger Games role as the brash TV host Caesar Flickerman. (How's that for bringing this post full circle?) You might have to drive a bit to find Spotlight and yes, the subject matter is upsetting, but the film never lapses into the lurid. This is a film about the power of an independent press and - in an age when too many of us get our news fast, furious, and often not fact-checked in the rush to be first - it's a reminder that accuracy takes time.