2015 Archives - Page 2 of 23 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
4Jul/160

Spike Lee: Chi-Raq (2015)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

What to do in a city where gangs are caught in a perpetual cycle of violence?  Dolemides watches and narrates with bemused interest, noticing the strong-willed Lysistrata who's tired of her man Chi-Raq trading blood for blood.  Taking a cue from her comrades in Liberia, Lysistrata leads the women of Chicago on a sex strike until the men are willing to put down their pistols and talk peace.  Spike Lee directs Chi-Raq from a screenplay co-written by Spike and Kevin Wilmott, and stars Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Cusack.

It's making me insaneThe first 10 minutes or so of Chi-Raq had me thinking back to Red Hook Summer. That was another film where Spike Lee seemed suddenly reinvigorated, not necessarily mimicking the rhythm and editing of earlier classic efforts like Do the Right Thing, but echoing their energy. As one of the the long takes opening that film followed the central characters through Red Hook, Lee had again found a way to tap into a complex, living, breathing community in his fiction the way then-recent documentary entries had shifted to. I had the same sense during the opening of Chi-Raq, where Spike drops us into a club moments before a shooting, transposing various voices from social media and texts with some rapid cutting that embodies the strong connection between the musicians and the crowd.

The reason I keep going back to that opening sequence (among some others) is that I can't think of too many ways to discuss Chi-Raq that aren't anchored in the aesthetic dimensions of the movie. Like so many of Spike's later films, the majority of the discussions here seem culled from an article or two and massaged into the dialogue. He hasn't been unsuccessful in this, but he's failed to use the dramatic situation and characters to build up much additional insight around these basic well-known talking points and statistics. Awhile after the movie was over, I was left with the impression I'd spent two hours letting Spike read a well-researched New York Times article to me that I'd already read myself.

That's a shame considering that, as usual, he demonstrates such a unique command over every aspect of the film. The craft is so clearly on display here that it's hard to imagine this isn't exactly the film he wanted to make (the production itself seems to confirm that as well), which makes the scattershot inconsistency and general lack of depth confusing. There are a handful of scenes that have some real, lasting power—which I'm sure we'll get to—but so much of the movie is all over the place that those sequences didn't connect and build into anything significant for me. Even when the tone shifts to near-Abrahams & Zucker levels of goofy satire (a soldier being carted away in a straight jacket comically shaking his head and repeating "big booty big booty"), it can sometimes be really funny and effective—the problem is we're recalibrating in nearly every scene to the movie we're supposed to be watching.No peace no pussyIn a few ways, I'm right there with you in your response to Chi-Raq.  But in the most important ways I'm diametrically opposed.  If Chi-Raq dropped today, with none of Spike's previous films to reference, I'd feel a bit more like you do.  Since Chi-Raq follows a period of restless creativity when the same social and economic ills plague black Americans, I have to think of it as the energetic, optimistic, and pointed follow-up to Do the Right Thing.  In 1989, Spike saw a simmering pot of tensions ready to explode in any direction with black Americans needing to take over their economic lives.  In 2015 there's no such economic push, there are already rappers and gangsters living on the shadow economy, and without government stepping in and bringing widespread employment things aren't going to get better.

That's where I don't think you're too far off comparing Red Hook Summer, especially with Chi-Raq's spectacular opening.  Where Red Hook Summer, and Do the Right Thing, got knee-deep into the rhythm of daily life, Chi-Raq goes straight into a verse from the chorus, then a character beat, and right back into the chorus.  Spike always said he wanted to make a full musical and here he manages to do that without including many musical numbers thanks to the chorus / character structure.  With Chi-Raq everyone lives to the rhythm of the music in some way, be it from Angela Bassett's firm and self-assured rhymes, to Samuel L. Jackson's insightful MC work, and, in the most surprising development, John Cusack tearing up a sermon with more fire than I've ever seen from him.

Chi-Raq pivots on an act of violence too, much like Red Hook Summer with the priest confessing after he is attacked, and in Do the Right Thing with the murder of Radio Raheem.  Unlike those films, Chi-Raq is more concerned with the aftermath of the violence instead of the build up followed by the community reaction.  This is why the musical structure is beautifully employed even if it results in few musical numbers.  The violence of daily life is built right in with the dialogue, and expressed through the gunfire texts and the militia wardrobe Lysistrata clothes herself in.  It's a fable that acknowledges it's a fable, a happy ending that's probably not possible, as violence is so deep in their lives that it takes a miracle and the involvement of wealthy companies to solve all the problems.  Spike is more optimistic than normal here, celebrating Chicago in all its darkly colorful glory, and I was able to jump from scene to scene when I thought of the music of the dialogue as an extension of the violence.

19Apr/160

The Hateful Eight (2015)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

A storm's coming, and eight strangers stranded in a solitary cabin on the hill are about to have a rough night.  One among them is a killer, picking off these mercenaries and reformed criminals one by one.  If any of them is going to survive the night they'll need to figure this out fast, or succumb to the hatred of an unseen enemy.  Quentin Tarantino writes and directs The Hateful Eight, and stars Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Into the murderous subsurvienceTo even the most casual of readers, it’s clear I haven’t been updating as much as in the past.  There’s a bevy of reasons, but the most important is many movies just haven’t been interesting me.  The Oscars hemmed and hawed their way through my screen, I saw a few of the stragglers left, and the DVD slowly gathered dust as my attention waned.  What I thought would be a good cure for this valley was Quentin Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight.

I’m not a Tarantino groupie, one of the few people bored by Pulp Fiction, and thought both Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds were terrible.  On the other side, Django Unchained was a magnificent change of pace and saw Tarantino turned some of the criticisms of his movies back on himself.  Tarantino the director-as-actor became a barely comprehensible huckster who gets himself blow up, all while Tarantino the director pointed at an alternate history where black performers dominated spaghetti westerns.  Django Unchained had its problems, most notably where Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda was concerned, but by criticizing himself Tarantino created one of his best films and my nominee for greatest scene of the 2010’s (so far).

The Hateful Eight began slow, gathered disdain through Tarantino’s typically spicy dialogue, and finally collapsed into a void of horrible as Tarantino indulged in all his worst impulses.  I suppose that’s better than forgettable, but the overt misogynistic, racial, and homophobic violence which forms the core of The Hateful Eight is barely preferable.  For those who think Tarantino cloaks himself in the veneer of an alt-filmmaker who uses his clout to write things so hateful they’d sink lesser directors, The Hateful Eight will offer little in the way of a counter-argument. It’s, in fact, so bad I may join them.

5Apr/160

The Hypocrisy of Life is Strange

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

We'll be enough for now, but not alwaysAlex Robinson is, for my money, one of the greatest graphic novel artists of the 21st century.  There's no bad place to start, but the most relevant of his works to this essay is the opening story to one of his issues of Box Office PoisonBOP is a soap opera of sorts, prone to breaking the fourth wall by having its characters answer questions like, "What would you ask God?" and taking detours into the character's histories.  The history that opens this particular issue of BOP (and I'd like to give you the number, but my collection's still packed away) has the cartoonist Jane Pekar address her high school self.  Instead of telling her past self things like, "You're going to be a massive success," or, "Everything will be ok," the elder Jane opts for the truth.  She tells her younger self that things are going to be hard, and she won't always fit in, but if young Jane continues to work through her pain and awkwardness she'll find success on her own level and meet the man of her dreams.

These are painful truths, that even though Jane recognizes as an adult that her teenaged self was a good person, Jane will have to weather more pain before she gets to the good stuff.  Life is Strange (LiS), developed by Dontnod Entertainment, focuses on the pain of being a teenager and still trying to figure out what your place is in the world.  There are clumsy aspects to this, especially as LiS hits its last chapter, but the focus on being a weird teenager ostracized from what you think is "normal" is always the focus of the game.

The brilliant aspect of LiS comes from its central mechanic.  Max, your player character, has the opportunity to rewind time and replay events in her life as they unfold.  This is a play on one of the most common desires of those entering middle-age or going through a rough college era patch - that you could go back in time and tell your high school self everything they'd need to approach life with more confidence.  But LiS, like high school, isn't so simply arranged in a, "Do this and now things'll be swell," mindset.  Instead, LiS constantly reminds the player, through the events of Max's life, that no matter how many "do-overs" you have, life is going to continue on - for better or worse - without you.

8Mar/160

99 Homes (2015)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

Dennis Nash is one of many Americans whose home is taken away from him in the '08 Recession.  But a moment of rage leads to a surprise opportunity from Rick Carver, the man who took his home.  Ramin Bahrani directs 99 Homes, written by Bahrani and Amir Naderi, and stars Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield.

Triple word score

"What official statement is going to encapsulate the tragic absurdity of this fucked up situation?"

Listen to the words, look at Michael Shannon's face and body language, and ask this question - just what makes Rick Carver (Shannon) go through this time and again?  He sounds annoyed and tells the officer on duty to stop wasting his time after dropping that bombshell of dialogue.  But when we first see Rick he's staring, almost vacantly, at a man who just committed suicide in his pristine home.  Director Ramin Bahrani's camera floats through the bathroom with the grace of an angry god, settling on Shannon as he looks speechless at the homeowner.

We'll return to Rick throughout 99 Homes and the question about what drives him will never be answered.  This is partly due to Shannon's pitch-perfect performance as Rick, Bahrani's insistence on reminding us of the predominantly white world this takes place in, and the piercing dialogue written by Bahrani and first time collaborator Amir Naderi.  This isn't Bahrani's first attempt at examining the rage of white Americans coping with the Recession, that came from 2013's At Any Price with its excellent Dennis Quaid performance.

99 Homes continues this examination in a trend I should have seen coming.  Bahrani's Man Push Cart and Chop Shop looked at the largely ignored, always maligned, foreign labor which fuels our cities and automobiles.  Then he took a spin around the city in one of those cars with Goodbye Solo, and went out to the countryside with At Any Price.  Now, with 99 Homes, the locomotion of American progress had to come home at some point, and by yet again focusing specifically on one man's profession, he makes another perfect capsule of American film.

1Mar/160

Trumbo (2015)

If you enjoy Can't Stop the Movies, contributions help me eat and pay rent. Please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution via PayPal.

With the Red Scare in full swing, Donald Trumbo, prominent screenwriter, and his Communist allies stage careful protests arguing for their First Amendment rights.  But as the public sways more against their favor, Trumbo has to abandon his public life to serve Hollywood from a less conspicuous perch.  Jay Roach directs Trumbo from a screenplay written by John McNamara and stars Bryan Cranston.

Unintimidated by the suitsTrumbo's director, Jay Roach, has as nondescript a style as they come in Hollywood.  Roach began his career directing Mike Myers as Austin Powers in all three of the Powers films, then transitioned to making lightweight political films like Recount and Game Change.  If his movies were bad, he'd have the same reputation as Brett Ratner.  But since they're frequently ok, or hinge entirely on the appeal of his stars, he's mostly existed on the sidelines of Hollywood.

As someone who already has to remind himself what movies Roach has done, Trumbo will do little to make his name or style a sticking point in my memory.  Trumbo is as bland and unoriginal as biopics come.  It also had the unfortunate timing to be released about the same time as Bridge of Spies which, while Bridge was just a decent flick, showed creative flair incorporating Cold War criticism into American and Soviet propaganda.