Saturday, December 26, 2015

'Chi-Raq' review

Despite what his critics or haters might say, Spike Lee is undoubtedly one of the most influential voices in American cinema. His films might not always be up to par, but there's no questioning Lee's ability to tackle tough subjects with intensity and a satirical bite. In many ways, Lee's Chi-Raq is his most virulent and thought-provoking film since Do the Right Thing. Jumping into a controversial topic with a poetic bend, Chi-Raq is so thrillingly current and so strikingly urgent that it's almost overwhelming. And the critical response has been unsurprisingly fervent. Chi-Raq currently stands at 81% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been the topic of many think-pieces over the last few weeks. This film is a wonderful conversation starter, stunningly ambitious and filled with endless content to dissect, discuss and contemplate. That alone makes it hard not to recommend Chi-Raq. This is a film of the NOW. Not yesterday, not tomorrow. NOW. But as a story, does it work? No. It's a crazed mess of tones, styles and ideas that never fully comes together. But we'll get to that later. For now, all you need to know is that Chi-Raq feels like it was made yesterday. That is its blessing and its curse.

Chi-Raq opens with a map of the United States of America. But this is no ordinary map. It's created out of an assortment of guns. Nick Cannon's "Please Pray 4 My City" thunders through the background, launching us into the world of Spike Lee, as we learn that murders in the city of Chicago have exceeded those of US soldiers in the Middle East. And it's during these moments that Chi-Raq hits the hardest. Yes, it's preachy. This is a message movie. But it's a message movie that makes you think. That's what they're supposed to do, right? And on top of that, Chi-Raq is a message movie told with explosive energy.

From there, we move to the story of Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), a woman living in the heart of the violence in Chicago. Her boyfriend is Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), a semi-famous rapper and the leader of the Spartan gang, engaged in a war with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) and the rival Trojans. In the aftermath of a gun battle, the murder of a child and a house fire, Lysistrata decides that action must be taken. She consults with Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), the wise old woman next door, and hatches a plan. The men won't put down the guns, so it's time to take the other thing they love- sex. Assembling an army of women determined to end the violence, Lysistrata begins a true movement that spreads across the globe and strikes fear in the heart of gangsters, politicians and regular Americans everywhere.

I don't think I've ever had stronger mixed feelings on a movie than I have with Chi-Raq. Spike Lee's reflection on our current societal landscape is so shocking and unique that I feel like it's a movie that you should see just because of how germane it is to our modern world. This is a rousing sermon with references to George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, Darren Wilson, Sandra Bland, Dylan Roof and more- if there's anything going on in America right now that revolves around race or violence, this movie discusses it. While watching Chi-Raq, I was in awe with how much Lee managed to fit into the movie, and just how up-to-date it was. Heck, they even reference the Drake vs. Meek Mill beef and that happened in September. I don't know what the production schedule was for Chi-Raq, but this movie feels like it was made last week.

Chi-Raq also uses a very provocative way to tell its story. It's told almost exclusively in rhyme, echoing Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Lee's inspiration for this modern day tale of gang warfare. This is Lee's most valuable asset- his ability to take a tough and somewhat uncomfortable subject and inject it with vibrant power and a vitality unmatched by most filmmakers. Chi-Raq does everything it can to try to get you to listen, whether it's a hip-hop spirit, pop culture references, or obvious fourth-wall breaking done by Samuel L. Jackson's narrator Dolmedes. And at times, it works. Chi-Raq is most certainly a sermon, but it's a very entertaining one at that. The poetry, the narrative techniques, the performances- it all works.

What doesn't work is the story. And it was so disappointing to me, because I loved everything else that Lee had set up so much. Chi-Raq is so scatter-brained and unfocused that it becomes almost intolerable at times. At 127 minutes, this is quite a lengthy film and it never gives you a single character to latch onto or one fully cohesive plot thread to follow. Teyonah Parris is wonderful as Lysistrata, but she disappears for large chunks of the film, making it difficult to call this her story. Nick Cannon is great as Chi-Raq, and yet just like Lysistrata, his character comes and goes. Cannon's gangster rapper has the biggest and most satisfying arc over the course of the film, but it almost seems forced at times. Finally, Samuel L. Jackson delivers a standout turn as the narrator of the story, and yes, just like every other character in this story, Dolmedes pops in and out whenever Lee decides that it's necessary that they show up.

If Lee had gone for something truly abstract and fascinating with Chi-Raq, the lack of focus and the lack of a truly centered plot wouldn't have been a problem. But in its current state, Chi-Raq is obviously trying to tell a story. Unfortunately, that story never really goes anywhere. Lee wanders around from topic to topic, spewing out opinions and ideas at a pace that's hard to keep up with. It's actually very impressive in a way and I feel like a lot of people who hold positions of power need to see this movie and hear what Spike Lee has to say. His voice thunders throughout the entirety of Chi-Raq and you can feel his passion in every frame. If Lee had structured this film as a speech or as a TED talk, Chi-Raq might have been more compelling and easier to follow. But as a piece of cinema, Chi-Raq is severely lacking.

It's a necessary film, but not exactly a good one. That's the best way I can describe Chi-Raq. Its concept is endlessly fascinating and the material is so compelling, but the shell that it's contained within drops the ball. However, I really want to stress that I'm still impressed by what Spike Lee did with this film. He took a subject that nobody wanted to touch and made something daring and thoroughly vital. And even if Chi-Raq fails in many aspects, it's still a meaningful failure. I know that there's a great film buried within this mess of ideas and tangents. It just needed more time to come together properly.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.5/10)

Image Credits: Forbes, Screen Rant, Indiewire

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