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CHI-RAQ Review – ***

Chi-Raq poster

Spike Lee returns, if not to form. (Source)

When I was in Chicago for Thanksgiving, the subject of Chi-Raq came up at dinner, and my uncle’s girlfriend dropped her voice to a whisper, noting that the city fathers of Chicago had condemned the film, starting with its title, a damning nickname for a city long infamous for violence and crime, which Spike Lee was asked (and refused) to change. It increased my excitement for a film which, on paper, sounded like a must-see.

I’m not inclined to say that it is, but I’m less inclined to say that it isn’t. In some respects, it’s vintage Lee–righteously angry, incendiary, exuberantly stylized–and uneven in tone and quality. But it lacks the emotional or thematic unity to wholly overcome that unevenness, and it cannot be counted as one of his masterpieces.

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Southeast Kansas on film for the win. (Source)

Southeast Kansas on film for the win. (Source)

(Apologies if this review is a little scattered. I meant it to be a journal entry and it ended up reaching the length of a full review.)

Not many films have been made in the corner of America I grew up in. But one very talented man, Gordon Parks, was born and raised not half an hour from my hometown, and 40-some years later returned to make a film there. My mother, in her capacity as a news reporter, covered a couple of events at the Gordon Parks Museum, and was even able to meet him. On at least one of these trips, my father went along, and spoke to Parks; reputedly, he said that, although he liked Shaft, he preferred The Learning Tree.

That makes sense, since The Learning Tree was based on his novel, which in turn was based on his youth in southeast Kansas. I had known about both for some years–in fact, on one of my mother’s trips to the museum, I went along, and saw Kyle Johnson–the star of the film, playing Parks’ surrogate–talk about his memories of the film. (Unfortunately, I don’t recall any specifics.) We also saw a clip of the film, covering the opening scenes where the teenage protagonist, caught in a storm, finds himself taking shelter with Big Mabel (Carol Lamond). I was informed that she seduces Newt in this scene; I think, because the clip was pan-and-scan (the original film being shot in ‘Scope), it was hard to tell what was happening…and the gauzy, stylized approach to the sequence didn’t help.

Anyway, a decade or so later, I finally sat down to see the whole thing.

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ALOHA Review – *½

I'm not sure what this poster is saying, other than there are white people and we're in Hawaii. But this sure as shit isn't The Descendants. (Source)

I’m not sure what this poster is saying, other than there are white people and we’re in Hawaii. But this sure as shit isn’t The Descendants. (Source)

I knew from the trailer that Aloha would be a pretty pathetic excuse for a film–any film that highlights one of its worst jokes (the hysterically dated Flava Flav reference) and then drops that joke from the final film doesn’t have its head in the right place, and neither did Cameron Crowe, whose writing and direction are objectively bad and subjectively sad–the man who won an Oscar for writing Almost Famous and coined two of the most recognizable film quotes in Jerry Maguire has come to this, a film which makes no sense and offers less entertainment.

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SELMA Review – ****

Is it in trouble? Or is this just a hiccup on the road to the Oscars? (Source)

“It cannot wait.”

The historical drama film carries a certain kind of baggage. There’s always the risk that history will be distorted, often for the sake of a more “dramatic” narrative, or that the historical figures will be depicted as more saintly–or demonic–than they truly were.

Selma is the kind of film which manages to be both compelling as a drama and worthy as a historical chronicle. And it treats its characters as human beings–some noble, some cruel, all flawed, but all human. It has become the locus of a controversy which, as per usual, seems to be propagated by those who haven’t seen the film. It’s a sorry thing, as it may deter people from seeing one of the finest Hollywood films of the year.

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"You're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter! And you know what? You're right. You don't." ()

“You’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter! And you know what? You’re right. You don’t.” (Source)

To what degree can a few seconds impact an entire film? In his review of Thelma and Louise, Roger Ebert argues that the climactic shot ends a few seconds too soon, and as such robs the film as a whole of just enough power that it doesn’t get **** from him. And in the case of Birdman, there are a few moments, which add up to less than a minute of the film’s two hours, which haunt me enough that I cannot rank it higher (as of this writing, I put it at #8 for the year). (Addendum: after further meditation, I’ve decided that these elements are not quite as damaging as I first surmised, so I’m bumping my score up a point, and the film up to #6.)

But at the same time, so much of the film is so good–so well directed and so richly acted–that even considering those troubling moments, I cannot rank it less than ****. One could fairly dispute whether it says anything truly new about the nature of acting and about role-playing in general, but it whatever it says, it says it in a tremendously entertaining fashion.

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"I'm so sick of your 'tragic mulatto' bullshit--" "You can't say 'mulatto'--" "Oh, mulatto, mulatto, MULATTO!!!" "Did somebody say 'mulatto'?" ()

“I’m so sick of your ‘tragic mulatto’ bullshit–“
“You can’t say ‘mulatto’–“
“Oh, mulatto, mulatto, MULATTO!!!”
“Did somebody say ‘mulatto’?” (Source)

In the midst of a tense confrontation under the guise of an academic warning, President Hutchinson (Peter Syvertsen) tells campus firebrand Sam White (Tessa Thompson) that she longs for the days of lynchings and Jim Crow, because that would give her something to truly fight against. As ignorant and hateful as Hutchinson, he’s more right than even he might have guessed. For Dear White People takes place in a time and place where racial tensions are just as potent, but manifest themselves in ways which are hard to identify and harder still to combat.

The real crime, in the world of Dear White People, is not violence or exclusion, but that so many of the people who live and (try to) learn at Winchester University cannot be themselves, because they are stuck in a system which demands they label themselves, pick a side, and stick to it. The tragedy of Dear White People is the denial of the true self. That it manages to be incredibly funny at the same is its genius.

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20,000 DAYS ON EARTH Review – ***½

"I love the feeling of a song before you understand it." ()

“I love the feeling of a song before you understand it.” (Source)

Going into 20,000 Days on Earth, I knew fairly little about Nick Cave. I knew he was a musician, but hadn’t listened to his music, and I knew he written a few screenplays, but had only seen one of the resultant films (the underwhelming Lawless–though his rejected Gladiator 2 script sounds awesomely ridiculous). So I might have been justified in wondering if this film would leave I and all other Cave neophytes bewildered.

Thankfully, the film doesn’t confuse, but highlights an amiable, thoughtful, and undeniably talented artist in suitably unusual fashion: one minute philosophizing with Kylie Minogue, the next eating pizza and watching Scarface with his young sons. While it arguably lacks a strong thesis and is not without its slow spots, 20,000 Days on Earth is a rather splendid film on the whole.

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