movie reviews December 2015

Victor frankensteinBrooklynchi-raq


Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Chi-Raq
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Stories become classics, not because they’re written on stone or rotting paper, but because the problems that inspired them still haven’t gone away. That’s certainly the case with Aristophanes’ 411 BCE play Lysistrata, which lamented the futility of war. Oh, and there are lots of dirty parts in it, too.

In the play, the women of Sparta and Athens unite to force the men in their communities to stop fighting. Led by the title character, the ladies subdue the men’s urge to fight by denying them sex.

Considering the fact that more Americans have died in the streets of Chicago than in both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s no wonder that Spike Lee has looked backward for a solution.

Lee and KU professor Kevin Willmott (who has directed Destination: Planet Negro and CSA) move Lysistrata (played here by Teyonah Parris) to the Windy City with all of the raunch, outrage and humor intact with Chi-Raq. Lee and Willmott do nothing to hide the origins of the tale. To drive the point home, Lee even has Samuel L. Jackson speaking as a sort of Greek chorus explaining why the film features rhymed speech and exaggerated characters.


Considering the urgency of the situation in the film’s setting, subtlety would be a vice instead of a virtue.

While Lysistrata may enjoy intimacy with her wannabe rapper of a boyfriend Demetrius, who goes by Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), she’s getting tired of people in his gang the Trojans and their rivals the Spartans killing each other, and any bystanders unlucky enough to be nearby. When a young mother (Jennifer Hudson) wonders why no one has turned in the killer of her daughter, Lysistrata begins to wonder if her man is much of a prize despite his tattoos and musculature.

A wise neighbor (Angela Bassett) informs Lysistrata that women in Liberia, led by Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, helped bring an end to that country’s horrific 14-year civil war in 2003 by using a sex strike. Deciding that America has tolerated this sort of violence for too long, she decides to imitate the campaign, which quickly goes viral.

Soon the women who have previously been romancing the Spartans are following the Trojan ladies’ abstinence. Demand for the prophylactics of the same name instantly plummets. Soon Chi-Raq and the Spartans’ leader Cyclops (Wesley Snipes, with an appropriate eye-patch) go from being feared gangsters to impotent figureheads as every male, gay or straight, is forced into celibacy.

Despite the banter and the allusions to ancient culture, the message is still simple: Nobody benefits from all of this bloodshed. Lee and Willmott have characters, like an eccentric Catholic priest played by John Cusack, yelling till their voices are hoarse trying to drive the point home. Thankfully, all the pontificating comes with some genuinely witty wordplay that keeps the sermon from getting pompous. It’s worth a chuckle to find out that one disgruntled male with a mother fixation is named Oedipus.

It certainly helps that Lee has assembled a deep cast who can handle the stylized dialogue fluently. Parris, in particular, spouts her lines with an authority that makes Lysistrata’s demands seem like scripture. She can walk in heels in a manner that makes her seem like she was born to lead.

It’s also refreshing to see Cannon demonstrate that he can play characters who are more than brash and callow. There’s a hidden vulnerability buried under all of Chi-Raq’s muscles, and it takes someone as wise and desirable as Lysistrata to make him realize it.

Lee sometimes bellows his assertions long after viewers have already gotten the idea. Some of the speeches go on so long that the film comes to a standstill. That said, Lee and Aristophanes before him recognize that the issues have vexed our ancestors are systemic. Thankfully, as Gbowee and the women of Ancient Greece have shown, the solutions can be more than ancient history (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 12/02/15)

Haiku
Chi-Raq

Spike Lee returns to
ancient Greece to fix today’s
needless waste of life.


Brooklyn
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In this moving adaptation of Colm Toibín's 2009 novel Brooklyn, director John Crowley follows the long-held writer's axiom "show, don't tell," largely through the masterful, nuanced performance of Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, a twenty-something Irish immigrant in 1950’s New York, struggling to find her place in the world.

Eilis’ new life in America has been arranged by older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and facilitated stateside by a sympathetic Irish priest (Jim Broadbent), who lines up lodging at a boarding house and employment at a department store cosmetic counter. Like most of the developments in Brooklyn, the move is bittersweet, freeing Eilis from the dead-end part-time job and numbingly routine social life of tiny Enniscorthy, but burdening her with an almost debilitating homesickness for her sister and mother that seems to undermine all attempts to get along in this new world.

Eilis receives plenty of advice and counseling, from the sharp-tongued landlady (Julie Walters) and boy-obsessed fellow boarding house residents to self-possessed department manager Miss Fortini (Mad Men's Jessica Paré). Two developments, however, hint to Eilis that she might actually find a place in this new life: a bookkeeping night class at the local college and a charming young Italian plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen), with whom she falls in love.

The changes in Eilis are gradual, registering subtly on screen: a slightly bluer patch of sky among the trees, a brighter tone in Eilis’ wardrobe, and a more colorful palate in the exterior backgrounds. They are also revealed in Ronan‘s performance as her face, her gait, even her posture is incrementally transformed. Some of Brooklyn’s finest moments occur when nothing much is happening.

When tragedy calls her back home, Eilis realizes how much her circumstances have changed. No longer the wallflower who left Enniscorthy behind, Eilis now finds herself the stylish, confident center of attention, rediscovering the town’s modest pleasures while garnering the affections of a local boy (Domhnall Gleeson) who has grown into a sensitive and eligible suitor.

The lure of the familiar is strong, and Eilis is faced with a heart-rending decision, a decision that gets at the inescapable choices about home and identity all of us face — and the doubts that inevitably linger in their wake. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 12/02/15)


Victor Frankenstein
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Victor Frankenstein feels less like a labor of love than like a film school exercise: take a hoary old cinema convention and reinvent it. In the quest to bring new life to their subject, director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Max Landis have lopped, chopped, added and rearranged so many elements to the Frankenstein story that it emerges on screen a lumbering, albeit occasionally interesting, mess of loosely stitched together parts.

This time around, Frankenstein and his creation aren’t even the main characters. Despite the film's title, this story is told from the perspective of hunchbacked lab assistant Igor, the now-archetypal horror figure absent from Mary Shelley's 1818 novel that emerged through the Universal Studios Frankenstein films of the thirties and forties. And he’s given a backstory right out of a Lon Chaney movie: deformed circus clown humiliated on stage for laughs carries torch for beautiful aerialist.

Unwilling to leave well enough alone, however, Landis makes the hunchback an autodidact as well, studying medical books and making detailed anatomical sketches by candlelight during breaks under the big top. How an itinerant cripple in 19th century London would have come by literacy, let alone medical texts, is glossed over, as is an explanation of why, despite the troupe's contempt and cruelty toward him, Igor is trusted as circus medic.

On a visit to scout animal parts for his experiments, med student Frankenstein (James McAvoy) immediately recognizes a fellow medical genius and rescues Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) from his servitude in a scene that, with its speed-ramping action beats and Victorian locale, resembles Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films. As the remainder of Victor Frankenstein unfolds, it becomes clear that Victor and Igor are being developed, like Ritchie's Holmes and Watson, as a sort of action duo.

As director of several of BBC's Sherlock episodes, perhaps McGuigan comes by this honestly. Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra), however, seems to be grasping for anything that might bring life to the proceedings. In a film where simply teaming up to reanimate a corpse would be plot enough, Landis tosses in a romance between Igor and trapeze artist Lorelei (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay); a childhood secret and a disapproving father for Frankenstein; a fey, wealthy fellow med student (Freddie Fox) with designs on super-villainy; and a hyper-religious Scotland Yard detective played by Andrew Scott (Moriarty on BBC’s Sherlock), all briefly introduced then left undeveloped.

Perhaps the most interesting update Landis contributes is a homoerotic subtext for the relationship between these two experimental “partners.” On first arriving home from the circus rescue, Frankenstein rips off Igor’s shirt, grabs him by his misshapen shoulders, and pressing from behind, shoves the hunchback's finally erect body against the wall, savagely piercing his exposed hump with a huge hypodermic and sucking the attached tubing to begin siphoning the pus (turns out Igor has woefully misdiagnosed his own condition). Later, in a nod to Bride of Frankenstein’s Dr. Pretorious, Frankenstein harangues a table of mortified society ladies about a new world where the female is irrelevant to the reproductive process.

Unfortunately any chemistry between the two leads is undermined by their inexplicably incompatible acting styles. Early on, behind Pagliacci makeup, Radcliffe's hunchback evokes a gentle sympathy; straightened out and dressed up, however, he tends to fade into the background. Frankenstein, on the other hand, McAvoy (Filth, X-Men: First Class) has the volume turned to '11,' all spraying spittle and lunatic grins.

Having wasted so many story elements, the film’s momentum ultimately relies on our anticipation of the creature’s appearance, which offers far too little far too late and feels like an obligatory cameo by a character that used to be at the center of this story. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 12/02/15)

 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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