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Column Fri Dec 04 2015

Tarantino & Friends, Chi-Raq, James White, The Forbidden Room & Janice: Little Girl Blue


Tarantino and Friends

Before we dive into this week's releases, I wanted to let you extreme film fans know about a fairly major event going on for the next week at the Music Box theater, in advance of the venue's Dec. 25 opening of the 70mm presentation of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. It's being called "Tarantino and Friends," and its a collection of both key Tarantino films (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown) and movies that deeply wove their way into the DNA of his works (Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, Kubrick's The Killing, the kung-fu epic Five Fingers of Death, De Palma's Blow Out and Jack Hill's Coffy). All films will be presented in 35mm, as God intended them to be. The full schedule can be found at the Music Box's website.

Also as part of the week's retrospective festivities is a discussion with author Tom Roston about his book I Lost It At The Video Store, as well as Tarantino's work. On Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 7:30pm, Roston will be joined by myself, Keith Phipps of Uproxx and Brian Chankin, founder of Odd Obsession Movies. Before the discussion, you can catch a screening of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. The discussion will be followed by a book signing and a screening of Reservoir Dogs. The event is free to anyone buying a ticket for either of those two films. For more information about the panel and Roston's very cool book, go to the Music Box's event page.


Please pray for my city
Too much hate in my city
Too many heartaches in my city
But I got faith in my city
It's Chi-Raq, and I love that
You can't take away from my city
Some can't relate to my city
They die everyday in my city

Spike Lee's Chi-Raq opens with the slap-to-the-face rap anthem "Pray 4 My City" (which ends with the spoken-word declaration by Nick Cannon's lead character, also named Chi-Raq: "I don't live in no fuckin' Chicago/boy, I live in Chi-Raq"), much like Do the Right Thing opened with a bang 25 years earlier with Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." But almost more importantly, the two films share a common line of dialogue: "Wake Up!" Trust me, there's no danger of anyone going to sleep during Chi-Raq; the fear of missing any of its insanity and/or poignant ideas and nerve-rattling performances is enough to keep the eyelids wide open.

I'm writing this about 20 miles from where most of Chi-Raq was filmed, but I'm making zero claims that I have any inside knowledge about the conditions and dire situations depicted in the film. One of the many messages in the movie is that Chicago (like most large American cities) is a city divided, so Lee is, in essence, telling a tale of two cities. But one thing I can deduce after watching Chi-Raq is that Lee loves Chicago — he always has. For years before I started writing for Ain't It Cool News, I used to go to test screenings of Spike Lee's films going all the way back 20 years to Clockers. Lee used to test every one of his films here, often attending the screenings and talking to the crowds afterwards.

As one of the few white audience members at these screenings, I was could always be counted on to get picked for the 20-person focus groups after the general polling of the audience. I've never done a 1-on-1 interview with Lee, but we've talked several times in these settings. The Midwest is a strange and wonderful place to him, and he values the opinions of its citizens greatly. He also loves the city of Chicago, and Chi-Raq proves that. The film is a cry for sanity to prevail in the hopes of saving the town from collapsing in on itself.

Lee took writer Kevin Willmott's adaptation of the Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata" — the story of women refusing men sex until they end a great war — and turned it into the story of a grass roots movement to end gang violence on the South Side of Chicago. In Chi-Raq, Lysistrata is played by Teyonah Parris (Dear White People, "Mad Men"), a strong, sexy woman who is in full control of her sexual powers, especially over her man, the up-and-coming hardcore rapper Chi-Raq (Cannon, completely shattering his nice-guy image). Chi-Raq is also a proud member of a gang (the gang names — Trojans and Spartans, sporting orange and purple colors — are inspired), and would just as soon shoot a rival as he would write a diss track about him. Wesley Snipes pops in all-too briefly as rival gang leader Cyclops.

After one particularly brutal gun battle in the streets, a young girl is left dead, with no witnesses willing to come forward. Chicago native Jennifer Hudson plays the girl's grieving mother, Irene, and it's virtually impossible not to think of what it took for her to accept this part, since she's lost several close family members to gun violence. The incident sets off a chain reaction of protests and calls to action to end the black-on-black crime in the neighborhoods, beginning with Lysistrata and her girlfriends going to the girlfriends of rival gang members to organize the sex strike — "No Peace, No Piece!" One of the loudest voices in the neighborhood is Miss Helen, played by Angela Bassett in one of her most powerful performances in years, who has a deep and painful connection to deaths by stray bullets.

But the film's tipping point, the exact moment when it all comes together and hits home, is during the little girl's funeral, when presiding minister Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack, essentially playing real-life priest Father Michael Pfleger, who is credited as "spiritual advisor" for the film) unleashes a fiery eulogy in front of the girl's coffin that is effectively the mission statement of Chi-Raq. And in a film that is largely satirical in nature and fantasy in execution, watching Cusack spell out the roots, causes, and results of this killing, it is pure righteous indignation and one of the finest scenes in any movie all year.

Chi-Raq touches upon such issues as police brutality and the thoughtlessness of city officials to the issues of poorer communities (D.B. Sweeney's characterization of a non-specific Chicago mayor is actually a little too clownish to be as biting as it should be). Also on hand are Steve Harris as the leader of a men's group that demand the woman start putting out again — they are silenced rather impressively; and the great Harry Lennix as the police commissioner, overseeing a standoff with the women in an abandoned armory. Pulling it all together is the charismatic Greek chorus representative Dolometes (Samuel L. Jackson), who rhyme-speaks his way through the film as our narrator. Oh, did I not mention that most of the film's dialogue is in rhyming verse? In a story set partly in the world of hip-hop, it works surprisingly well and certainly shouldn't scare you from seeing Chi-Raq.

Chi-Raq is far from a perfect film. Some of the humor simply falls flat, especially the sex jokes. But more to the point, the closer the primary plot of the film gets to its conclusion, the more the film begins to fall apart. There's really nowhere realistic for a film about a sex strike to go, and the film even acknowledges this to a degree. Clearly, the political and corporate leaders of the world aren't going to stop wars and ban guns, but that doesn't stop Lee from imagining a world where they just might. What works far better are the smaller-scale stories of Chi-Raq, Miss Helen and Irene, and how their individual pain brings them together in a touching sequence back on the streets.

Not surprisingly, Chi-Raq ends with a call to action, a plea to a city to pull it together. Lee may be showing Chicago at its worst, but it's because he's desperate to see it at its best. I certainly think that's true for those of us who live here as well. Chi-Raq is something of a patchwork quilt of ideas, tones, styles that somehow coalesces into a singular, vital statement about the city of Chicago and all major cities in America. The film is being distributed both theatrically and On Demand through Amazon beginning today.

To read my transcript of Chicago's Chi-Raq press conference, go to ( Ain't It Cool News.

James White

If you've ever wanted to see raw emotion ripped from a human being and hurled onto a screen, allow me to introduce you to James White, the film and the character, played with a fractured fragility by Christopher Abbott (Hello I Must Be Going, A Most Violent Year, and formerly of "Girls"). The film opens with a tight close-up for James's face, as he glides through parties, clubs, streets with headphones on, providing a soundtrack to drown out the even louder one on the streets of New York. He's sweaty and wild-eyed, clearly on something and barreling toward some form of hedonism or self destruction.

But it turns out, James's adventure outside the home are a form of extreme release from the rest of his life, which is wrapped up in taking care of his ailing mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon, who matches, then surpasses Abbott in acting skill), who can transition from extremely sweet to impossibly cruel in a single breath sometimes. When we meet her, she's actually in remission, so James decides to take a brief vacation with his oldest friend, Nick (Scott Miscudi, aka Kid Cudi), but gets bored rather quickly, even though he meets fellow New Yorker Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), who later becomes James's girlfriend.

Between Jayne and Nick, James's self-destructive tendencies are kept mostly in check, and he manages not to kill or get killed during one of the many fights that he picks at local bars. Nick also makes certain that James makes it to a job interview with old family friend Ben (Ron Livingston), for a writing gig that James really wants. Despite all of his nihilistic ways, the way James is with his mother is remarkably attentive and affectionate. He's the greatest caregiver she could possibly have, and the way he fights and advocates for her care in hospitals and at home is moving beyond words, and it's that contrast between this intimate, two-person world where James must be on his best behavior and his outside-the-home existence that provides James White with so much of its tension and exceptional power.

Based partly on the life of first-time feature writer-director Josh Mond (a producer of such works as Martha Marcy May Marlene), James White is about a young man's reaction to being forced by circumstance to grow up and attempt to accept a responsibility that doesn't allow him to be reckless whenever he'd like. Instead, he must select his hedonistic moments carefully and go full tilt when he believes he can. The film feels genuinely dangerous and scary at times, especially when James feels like an emotionally cornered animal with no escape. Mond is careful to keep things authentic and not delve into sentimentality, although it is James's capacity for caring that gives him his strength, as he weaves fictional stories for his mother about his own perfect future. It'll tear your guts out, but it's also one of the most perfect dramas of 2015. The film opens today in Chicago exclusively at the new ArcLight Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with James White star Christopher Abbott and writer-director Josh Mond, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Forbidden Room

Like nearly all of the films from Canadian cinematic magician Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, My Winnipeg), the point isn't necessarily to make sense of them. No, the best way to appreciate their dark powers is to simply allow them to take you over. If you do that and don't force conventional methods of dissecting films onto his work, themes will usually emerge from his haunting black and white (with splashes of color), tattered and torn images. And sometimes, if you're lucky, even a plot might rise to the surface. With his latest, The Forbidden Room (co-directed by Evan Johnson, who has made several shorts with Maddin, but this is their first feature together), there are actually several stories going on, each one connecting or leading into the next. And while I'd hardly call it conventional, the film does actually lend itself to being somewhat accessible.

There's a submarine crew gasping their last few hours of breath, trapped on the surface of the ocean; a group of rogue woodsmen who stumble onto a lone lumberjack; volcano gods that demand sacrifice; vampire bananas; a psychotic man who escapes an asylum and ends up as a rich man's gardener; and an instructional film on how to properly take a bath. And those are just a fraction of the many stories at play, both as standalone stories and with each other (the shorts were originally conceived as an internet series, but that didn't quite pan out). Keeping us all the more amused are appearances by a host of familiar faces, including Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Mathieu Amalric, and Geraldine Chaplin, all playing multiple roles in this puzzle of a work.

Quite often, The Forbidden Room twists and turns and folds in on itself, but it mostly ties together in the end. As many of Maddin's films do, it relies heavy on the visual style and tricks of silent film, sometimes using title cards instead of dialogue, sometimes using natural sound — often in the same scene. His films are often impossible to explain accurately, but that's likely the point. One doesn't get a sense that Maddin is simply editing a movie; he's composing it, drafting then redrafting right over the old draft. The layers are quite present on the screen.

I'm guessing the mental and physical means by which he puts together his films is like no other. Certainly, the way his films make us feel is like no other works do. There's a heavy melancholy, but I also found myself laughing a great deal with The Forbidden Room; it might be his funniest film to date. In a way, I hope I've done a terrible job explaining this movie. It's best you simply walk in and let it massage and warp your brain with gentle hands. I think you'll get a satisfying kick out of it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

One of the most prolific documentary filmmakers in recent years is Amy Berg, whose 2006 debut feature, Deliver us from Evil, earned her an Oscar nomination. Since then, she has made such indispensable works as West of Memphis, An Open Secret and, earlier this year, Prophet's Prey, an unnerving look at Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. Her latest work (coincidentally produced by Gibney) is Janis: Little Girl Blue, an intimate look at the troubled background and triumphant music career of Janis Joplin.

Ferociously bullied and called ugly at her school in her native Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin was determined to get the hell out of there to a place where he liberal way of looking at the world and barely contained personality would be better appreciated. It also helped that she revealed herself to be a gifted and passionate rock and blues singer, and when she landed at ground zero of the San Francisco hippie gathering — also known as the Grateful Dead's house — she was embraced by the music scenes and eventually asked to join the group Big Brother and the Holding Company, which eventually led to her launching a solo career.

Joplin was also a dedicated letter writer, and Berg uses the text of these letters (read by Chan Marshall, also known as the singer Cat Power), written to friends, family members, lovers and other folks, as the narrative thread of Little Girl Blue. It becomes immediately clear that the only way the singer could ever love herself in the wake of her upbringing was to be worshipped by the masses while on stage. Her letters includes accounts of her time in San Francisco and on the road, but they also always make sure to mention any career landmarks and successes, as if she still had something to prove to any of these people. One particularly tense section of the film involves Joplin going home for her 10th high school reunion, and before she even goes to the event, interviews reveal that the terrible memories of that time in her life still haunted her.

The movie also allows us to enter Joplin's heart, with sad tales of great loves that leave her, as well as her on-again/off-again struggle with drugs and alcohol — all of which fueled her blistering performances on stage, many of which are shown in Little Girl Blue. Berg wisely saturates the film with music, really focusing on just how captivating Joplin was in concert, perhaps the only place she felt truly beautiful and in control. The film shows how possible it is for someone to use their insecurities to fuel their success, and it's a remarkable account of a woman who was capable of being tough and sensitive to such extremes that it may have led to her young death at age 27, just as her solo career was taking off. This is a long overdue look at this incredible artist, and if you have a passion for great music, make this a priority. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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