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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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SICARIO Review – ***½


Take your pick, they’re both good posters. Better than the movie, even.

After impressing me greatly with the haunting Prisoners and the marvelously maddening Enemy, I was eager to see what Denis Villeneuve would do next. Then, this opened at Cannes, to solid but not outstanding reviews, and the trailers failed to truly excite me. So my level of anticipation dropped accordingly. Then subsequent reviews proved more favorable, so much so that it now sits at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes–and I thought Villeneuve might have done it again after all.

I should have trusted my initial reaction. While not a bad film by any means, Sicario lacks a real reason for existing, and fails to say much about cartels or the War on Drugs that hasn’t been said before, nor does it feature such compelling characters or such dazzling craftsmanship as would compensate. It’s well done in most every aspect, but never takes that vital leap into being something special.

(NOTE: I also saw The Martian this weekend, and quite liked it, but I’d like to see it again before writing my review.)

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THE TRIBE Review – ****

The more common poster is borderline NSFW, but I actually just preferred the artistry of this one. (Source)

The more common poster is borderline NSFW, but I actually just preferred the artistry of this one. (Source)

The logline alone commands the attention: a Ukrainian drama, told entirely in sign language, without music or even subtitles. That it deals with the lawlessness lurking beneath the surface of a school for the deaf makes it essentially another troubled-youth film with the by-now expected sex and violence on top of the corrupted-innocence storyline. So we have, essentially, a very old story told in a very new way.

And, almost despite itself, it more or less works. The stylistic choices make the story hard to follow at times, and the ugliness on display will certainly push many viewers away. But despite all this, once I adjusted to The Tribe‘s rhythms, I found myself thoroughly compelled. Even as I recognized the predictable elements of the story and questioned its logic, my attention was held to the very end. It’s not a great film, but the form, courtesy of director Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi, greatly elevates the content.

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DOPE Review – ***½

They're supposedly 90s devotees, but the tagline references a song from 2005. (Source)

They’re supposedly 90s devotees, but the tagline references a song from 2005. (Source)

¹Dope is the kind of film that defies easy categorization and criticism. Its tone, its story, and its special mixture of strengths and weaknesses cannot be easily summarized. It’s the kind of film which many will consider better than it is–and for valid reasons. It’s the kind of film you want to like, and there are times when I liked it quite a bit. But it has serious fundamental issues, some easier to address than others, and in the end it barely sneaks into the **** level¹.

It’s the kind of film which gives you too much time to ponder its issues.

¹After further reflection, I realized the film’s issues were enough to push from a low **** to a high ***½.

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MAD MAX FURY ROAD Final Review – *****

“As the world fell, each of us, in our own way, was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy–me, or everyone else.” (Source)

When I first came out of Fury Road, I wasn’t sure what to think, nor did I know how the critics would respond to it. The critics spoke–and were nearly unanimous in their praise. But I knew I had to see it again for myself, to see if I would be swept up in the chorus of praise, or if, in sorrow, I would have to admit the film I had so longed to see, the film so many deemed a masterpiece, was in fact unworthy of its laurels.

But you see those five stars at the top of the page. You know how this story ends.

I’ll say it now–Fury Road is the best film in at least 18 months, and the best summer blockbuster in five years. I delighted at George Miller’s “mastermind” billing in the trailers, but it was absolutely justified. He draws on aspects of the original trilogy, from small touches (the little music box, for one) to primary themes–the damning social critique of Mad Max, the relentless brutality of The Road Warrior, and the post-apocalyptic grotesquerie of Beyond Thunderdome. Here, working with a budget far greater than the budgets of the originals combined, he has crafted a film which draws from and, in my opinion, exceeds them.

He, and an incredibly talented team, have made a masterpiece.

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CHAPPIE Review – **

Au Hasard, RoboCop. (Poster courtesy of Rob Pagenkopf.)

Au Hasard, RoboCop. (Poster courtesy of Rob Pagenkopf.)

What hath District 9 wrought?

For those who’ve been charting Neill Blomkamp’s painful career trajectory, it’s tempting to say that Chappie makes Elysium look like District 9, but the seeds of Chappie‘s badness are evident in District 9. What were secondary issues there–thin characters, logical gaps–here all but overrun the film’s strengths. It’s hard to explain just how incredibly, consistently stupid Chappie is, but I’ll do my best.

There are good things to be found here. On a technical level, it’s just fine. And as absurd as it is, it’s sincere, in a rather pathetic way. But the script–from two Oscar-nominated screenwriters–is so full of stupid characters, stupid situations, and stupid resolutions, that it makes you wonder if Die Antwoord (making their film debut) didn’t get a raw deal.

And given their performances, that’s saying something.

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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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