Director Studies Archives - Page 2 of 62 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
4Jul/160

Spike Lee: Chi-Raq (2015)

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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.

29Jun/160

Denis Villeneuve Podcast: Polytechnique (2009)

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Polytechnique

Courtney Small of Cinema Axis joins Andrew for a wide, and at times fiery, discussion about Denis Villeneuve's Polytechnique and the various societal ills it comments on.

Both the introduction and outro on the podcast come from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for Sicario ("The Beast") and Prisoners ("Through Falling Snow").

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14Jun/160

Denis Villeneuve Podcast: August 32nd on Earth (1998)

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August 32nd on EarthCourtney Small of Cinema Axis is back to discuss August 32nd on Earth, Denis Villeneuve's first major motion picture.  August 32nd on Earth features multiple perspective shifts, a fever-dream approach to romantic comedy, and more of the superb sound design which enhanced REW-FFWD and Next Floor.

Both the introduction and outro on the podcast come from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for Sicario ("The Beast") and Prisoners ("Through Falling Snow").

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11Feb/160

Mid-week Anger: Lucifer Rising (1972)

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The Kenneth Anger films discussed as part of this project are available for purchase in a collection from Fantoma.

THOSE TITLESI've come to the end, for now, of my look at the movies of Kenneth Anger.  In a curious twist I wonder how my reaction to Lucifer Rising might have been if I didn't spend the last couple of months watching Anger's work.  All the elements of Lucifer Rising are assembled from the different elements of style Anger assembled for his earlier movies.  We've got the multicultural imagery akin to Rabbit's Moon, the subtext of Fireworks, the fragmented editing combined with rock star soundtrack of Invocation of my Demon Brother, and an apocalyptic outlook similar to Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

My reaction to Lucifer Rising was like eating a lackluster stew.  I sense all the familiar ingredients and, individually, love them.  But when Anger throws them together in Lucifer Rising my reaction grew from interest to boredom.  This throws me for a bit of a loop since I enjoy so much of what Anger puts into his films and some of the incidental buzz about Lucifer Rising I've gleaned recently made me excited to watch it.

4Feb/160

Mid-Week Anger: Rabbit’s Moon Recut (1979)

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Rabbit RecutI'll be brief for this week's Kenneth Anger as it's a recut and rescored edition of Rabbit's Moon.  The previous iteration of Rabbit's Moon immediately became one of my most beloved cinematic experiences not just of Anger's career but of my last few years of watching movies.  This new version isn't without its charm, but the quickened pace and new soundtrack create a sort of live action Looney Tunes experience that I couldn't completely engage with.

Now, reminding me of Looney Tunes is never a bad thing.  It's just that the original Rabbit's Moon struck such a bizarre and wonderful chord with its doo-wop soundtrack, beautifully artificial staging, and multicultural approach to visuals and acting styles.  These things are all still technically present in the new cut but Anger quickens the pace of the story by removing frames and editing out a lot of the ebb and flow of desire from the original cut.