Saturday, December 5, 2015

Chi-Raq: "Tomfoolery"


     Spike Lee's new movie "Chi-Raq" opened nationwide Friday, and while I planned on seeing it eventually—you kinda have to, given its theme of gang violence in Chicago—it was the sort of obligatory, I better-go-to-the-doctor-and-get-that-checked duty I might have put off for a while, if not forever, had not Ald. Joe Moore (49th) held a community forum to show the film Thursday, and invited Washington Post Syndicate columnist Esther J. Cepeda, who invited me. 
     It seemed an opportunity.
     As a fan of the classics, I admired Lee's bold decision to take Aristophones' 5th century BC Greek comedy "Lysistrata," about a sex strike trying to end the Peloponnesian war, and translate it to 2015 Chicago. A daring conceit that worked, complete with its rhyming dialogue and serpentine narrator, Samuel L. Jackson, dressed in candy-colored suits and carrying a cane like Baron Samdi, the voodoo spirit of death.
     It worked for about the first 20 minutes, that is. Truly, I began to suspect I was witnessing some kind of masterpiece, from the opening song, "Pray 4 the City," to Father Michael Pfleger's stern voice-over to the scene of a rap concert erupting into violence at a club. The movie is raw, funny, and strange. Teyona Parris, a statuesque goddess straight from the Pam Grier school of acting. She strides with far more authority than she delivers her lines. She's Lysistra, in love with Demtrius "Chi-Raq"  Dupree, a heavily-tattooed Nick Cannon, and their initial roll in the hay gets interrupted by a fire set by Cyclops, the head of the rival gang, the Trojans, played for laughs with eyepatches matching his outfits by Wesley Snipes. 
      Just to remind viewers that there's something tragic at the heart of this, Jennifer Hudson is Irene, the mother of a young girl cut down in gang crossfire. Hudson is the best thing in the film, obviously there in an attempt to prove that Lee isn't just having fun with the tragedy of others. In one scene Hudson tries to wash her daughter's blood off the street, ending up only spreading it further and further, in a widening circle, which is how violence goes.
     If only the rest of the movie were like that. But it isn't. The trouble with "Chi-Raq" is that it chews on its one great idea, and never offers another. The movie doesn't go anywhere from there, just grinds through the sex strike with a variety of set pieces and gags. "This is the longest movie I've ever seen in my life," I whispered to my companion, who was already checking her emails. "This is longer than Dr. Zivago." (It clocks at a couple minutes under two hours, in real time, but watching it felt like sitting through "Tristan und Isolde.")
    I wouldn't have guessed that it was possible to make sex, or lack of it, and violence so boring, but Spike Lee manages it. At times the movie is so poorly made I had trouble figuring out what's going on. Lysistrata, taking a page from John Brown, apparently, leads her chaste women to seize the Illinois National Guard Armory, after a ludicrous encounter with a white general in Confederate flag underpants that I guess was supposed to show how we white folk are really all closet racists.  The Armory scenes go on and on, her Valkyries snapping their fingers and repeating vows of chastity, the cops — their chief played with set-jaw brio by peerless Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick -- surrounding the place. I do give credit to Lee for repaying Rahm Emanuel's cack-handed attempts to water down the film's title with D.B.Sweeney's spot-on parody of the mayor's high pitched, stressed-out whine, although by that point things had become too surreal to carry any kind of satiric punch. If Rahm sees it — he has a way of ducking things you'd expect him to have seen—he'll probably just giggle and think: Cool, I'm parodied in a Spike Lee film.
     The final reconciliation scene, where the white-clad principles sign some kind of peace pact and then are promised new trauma centers that they wouldn't need if the shooting were going to stop , well, let's say that I wondered if a bunch of Ewoks were going to show up and burst into a joyous dance of celebration. It's just stupid.
     The community leaders that Ald. Moore gamely assembled to comment after the film were equally unimpressed.  
     "My mother once told me, if you don't have something good to say about something, don't say anything at all," began Charles Hardwick, tactfully. A former gangbanger with 14 years in prison, now director of the Howard Area Resource Center, working to help felons integrate back into society, Hardwick compressed the film into one word: "Tomfoolery."
     That's perfect. It's too trivial a film to get too overwrought about. It's like decrying "Cleopatra Jones" in the early 1970s. There are bigger fish to fry.
     "Hollywood did what it's supposed to do," Hardwick said (I'm not sure if Hollywood is supposed to turn out crap. It just does). 
     Hardwick offered a clearer view on the causes of violence than the film does, talking about how children are abused and neglected, then pass it on. "All your life, the one discipline you ever know is violence from your parents," he said. (The only child in "Chi-Raq" is Patti, dead and under a sheet, her bow visible). But then Hardwick lost the thread, along with several others, slipped seamlessly into vague references to plots behind all the problems of the urban poor: guns, violence, drugs and gangs. 
      "There's some people believe there's a conspiracy," he said. 
      At least he didn't blame AIDS on Jewish doctors, at least not at Ald. Moore's forum. The remarks—he wasn't alone in the observation—reminded me of Gore Vidal's deathless line about the rich: "They don't have to conspire because they all think alike." Perhaps the poor do too. There's no need for shady outside forces to impose these woes; folks lap 'em up, unaided. I would call "Chi-Raq" a noble failure, but there really isn't much noble about it.  The flick gives off a distinct reek of Quentin Tarantino homage. A mess of unerotic sex and cartoony violence that, for all Lee's stabs at its significance, is still too unreal, too prettied up far too much, despite Jennifer Hudson's bravura attempts to put a human face on the whole garish spectacle. 
     Oh, and John Cusack is in it, playing a Hollywood version of Father Pfleger. Cusack is slack-faced and raspy and radiates the tightly-wound, glum indignation that Pfleger sinks into more and more as the years go by. But Cusack is only a shadow of the real thing and his scenes just lay there, wheezing.  Which I suppose could be said for the film as a whole. To be charitable, I imagine being stuck in a life of senseless violence and endless drug use quickly become dull too, and in that sense "Chi-Raq" reflects that reality by being tedious for the last two-thirds of the movie. Which would be a kind of genius if Lee intended it to be that way. But my guess is he didn't. 


      
    
     

32 comments:

  1. Lee is overrated.

    As for Cepeda, didn't some of her columns use to appear in the Sun-Times?

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  2. http://ronbenningtoninterviews.com/2015/12/02/spike-lee-3/

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  3. "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." George S. Kaufman.

    The professional movie reviewers are being respectful. Roper liked it and the lady in the Washington Post called it "a bit of a mess but a bit of a masterpiece." Probably why I distrust movie critics.

    I saw a good production of Lysistrata in London some years ago. Very funny, particularly the dancing old men with giant leather phalluses. But it was not really about women upset that their men were killing each other, rather about women upset at not getting enough sex because their men were away at war. Not really an anti-war play or a feminist statement, but I suppose Aristophanes is in no position to object to the misuse of his intellectual property.

    Seeming to be long when it isn't is a good mark of artistic failure. For me the four hours of Tristan and Isolde zips by in a trice.

    Tom Evans

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    1. That's an excellent point about the actual motivation of the women in "Lysistrata", T.E.

      Re: "Tristan und Isolde" zipping by more quickly than this movie: "One man's meat is another man's poison." Being a stickler, you may prefer Lucretius' original version, "What is food for one man may be bitter poison to others." Or, perhaps the pun by your buddy, George S. Kaufman: "One man's Mede is another man's Persian." ; )

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    2. It's sad when some see themselves as victims all of the time.

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  4. Well, I, for one, am sorry to read that. The film does better at Rotten Tomatoes, where 87% of "top critics" give it at least a thumbs up, while the "consensus", written by an optimistic computer program, perhaps, is that "Chi-Raq is as urgently topical and satisfyingly ambitious as it is wildly uneven -- and it contains some of Spike Lee's smartest, sharpest, and all-around entertaining late-period work."

    http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/chi_raq/

    Gotta say, though, that somebody who is accustomed to sitting through 4 1/2-hour operas with plots that can easily be summarized in two paragraphs being so bored by it is not a good sign at all. Not having seen it, of course, I doubt very much that the average viewer will find it as hard to sit through as "Tristan und Isolde", however. ; )

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  5. "Tristan" is sublime. but De gustibus non est disputandum. I didn't actually see the film either. Only reacting to Neil's take on it.

    TE

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    1. Well, we're talking over each other. FWIW, each of my comments were made before having seen your slightly earlier ones. Of course, you've promptly trumped my attempt to emulate your erudition by switching to Latin! ; )

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    2. I once saw "Tristan" twice in the span of two weeks, so obviously I like it. But it is five hours long. Nothing holds your attention for five hours. If you were having sex with Kim Kardashian for five hours, at some point you'd tap your watch face and think, "Okay, let's wind this up."

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    3. Kim's not a good example.

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  6. "Mo' Better Blues" was the only Spike Lee movie I ever saw that I liked even a little bit. The man is wildly overrated.

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    1. I'm certainly not gonna defend all his movies, but if you saw and didn't like "Do the Right Thing" -- well, I guess I'm just very surprised, Scribe. That should've won Best Picture at the 1990 Oscars, IMHO, but wasn't even nominated. In their infinite wisdom, the "Academy" chose "Driving Miss Daisy" as Best Picture that year.

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    2. Do like "White Men Can't Jump."

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    3. Miss Daisy is a good film.

      The Academy usually plays it safe though.

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    4. I thought "Do the RIght Thing" was preachy, annoying, and too sympathetic toward bad behavior. As for "White Men Can't Jump," Lee had nothing to do with that. It was directed by Ron Shelton, who also did "Bull Durham."

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    5. Sorry you found it annoying. I can take preachy, depending on who's doing the preaching. I'm not very sympathetic of "bad behavior", myself, but there was a lot of good behavior in "Driving Miss Daisy" that was symptomatic of 100 years-worth of Jim Crow. Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus was some folks idea of "bad behavior", after all...

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    6. Rosa Parks wasn't a thug.

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    7. How about "Mo money?"

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  7. It could be that Lee is hailed as great because of his race and the movie reviewers have to walk on eggshells with that.

    If he was white, he'd be ripped to shreds on some of his material.

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    1. Or it COULD be that, like most directors, he makes some good movies and some that aren't as good. He HAS BEEN ripped for a number of his films, though he's had a fair number of winners, as well. I'm surprised, given your attitude toward him, that you've watched enough of his work to feel qualified to make that comment, anon.

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  8. interesting comments = not sure Lee's intended audience quotes satirists, reads the classics or understands Latin...just sayin'...

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  9. It's fairly clear that none of his intended audience is commenting or reading here. For my part I'm grateful to Jakash for two new quotes for my mish mash book.

    TE

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    1. most of that audience would rather smoke a blunt

      or give one to a toddler as evidence in the paper recently

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    2. Too many apologists for Muslims here.

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  10. good point, Just saying....some of his intended audience might be more into rap

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  11. Interesting articles on Sunday from Mitchell, Sneed and Fountain on Sunday about Laquan and the city leaders.

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  12. A good quote*******

    The elephant in the room is that the own Muslim clerics and imams are the ones who have called the holy wars and the caliphates. To this, the some religious leaders of Muslim teachings are the ones to blame and this is the problem. It would be like the Pope, Vatican, and cardinals to call a religious holy war (which has happened in the past) against Muslim infidels. So the problem really starts within the church and I blame the religious leaders of Muslim. To state anything else is denying the facts. So these problems in the world are a directive of their religious leaders in calling a Caliphate. At what point does the rest of the Muslim community then have a responsibility to stop this? It would be like a church in lets say the US, in the present day, preaching hate to all other religions and then ACTING on that hate and going out and actually killing other human beings on the wholesale and those religious leaders praising it as holy. To talk about something is one thing. To do it is an entirely different thing. The call to holy war by the imams is a very, very real thing. The Muslim community and religion is to blame as it cant fix its own doctrine.

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    1. If there are "too many apologists for Muslims here", why do you insist on haranguing us with your wildly off-topic insights? Uh, whatever your intent, other than repetitive trollery, it ain't working.

      "I blame the religious leaders of Muslim" Good for you. Perhaps you might consider focusing future diatribes on them, then, rather than the innocent refugees who are desperately attempting to flee their influence and the patriotic Muslim-Americans who pay such leaders no heed. Your opening sentence in not the "elephant in the room", it's one of a host of variables in an equation.

      "To state anything else is denying the facts." There are a whole lot of other things to state that do not deny the essence of your point about inflammatory Muslim clerics. There are plenty of "facts" to go around.

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    2. Sire,

      Thou dost need to move to a neighborhood or suburb with more Muslims in the population or convert thyself.

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  13. The good Muslims must say and do more in protest against ones like the not so patriotic ones in San Bernadino -and he's not alone.

    Everyone has the right to an opinion here. If the opinion agreed with yours and was repeated, you would not mind.

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.