Thursday, December 3, 2015

Spike Lee's back in form again with his--and Kevin Willmott's--Lysistrata take-off, CHI-RAQ

To get right to the point, CHI-RAQ is the most successful and entertaining Spike Lee movie to get a theatrical release in, well, decades. This is particularly good news for us fans of Mr. Lee who had pretty much given up on him in the wake of misfires the likes of his Clockers and 25th Hour adaptations or full-out disasters such as Bamboozled, She Hate Me and Miracle at St. Anna. Sure, Chi-Raq is full of those not-so-hot Lee hallmarks (it hammers home its theme from first moment to last, it's too long, and it's repetitive) but it's also so full of Lee's strengths as a filmmaker -- passion, energy and spot-on casting -- that it barrels through one's objections with speed and gusto.

TrustMovies can't claim to know for certain who did what on this film, but I would take an educated guess that Lee's (the director is shown at right) screenwriting collaborator here -- Kevin Willmott of that ace mocku-mentary, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America -- had a lot to do with how successful Chi-raq turns out to be. First off, the film is written in, well, poetry. Now, before you start thinking "Molière, as translated by Richard Wilbur," let me puncture that balloon. The movie's mostly written as rap. But it's the words only, unaccompanied by the usual crap "beat" that beats this would-be music into mindlessly dead submission. And this is lively, smartly written rap poetry, every bit as profane, dirty and funny as the original play.

Play? As in theater piece? Yes, Chi-Raq is also based loosely (but close enough for jazz) on Aristophanes' Lysistrata -- that's right: the one where the women withhold their sexual favors until the guys stop making war -- and it takes place in today's Chicago, dubbed Chi-Raq (rhymes with Iraq), a city where black-on-black gang violence has reached a level so high that the women folk take matters into their own hands (and other body parts) to stop the carnage.

Chi-Raq is also the name of the movie's non-hero, a rock star/gang man played by Nick Cannon, (two photos up) whose woman, the knock-your-socks-off beautiful and sexy Teyonah Parris (Mad Men's Dawn Chambers), just above, has had enough. So she persuades everyone from her friends (and even some enemies) to the local prostitutes to join her No Peace, No Pussy movement.

The event that sets all this off is the gang-related drive-by shooting that kills an innocent child, the daughter of Irene, played by Jennifer Hudson, who gets a good song to sing (yes, the movie occasionally morphs, Bollywood style, into a musical). In the supporting cast pop up everyone from a strong-willed neighbor (Angela Bassett, above, center) and Chi-Raq's nemesis, Cyclops, essayed by good-to-see-him-in-a-humorous-role-again Wesley Snipes, to the local minister (John Cusack) and a terrific one-man Greek chorus, played by the indispensable Samuel L. Jackson (below).

All these actors know how to handle poetry and make it fall off their lips like dialog. Mr. Cusack's moving and vital sermon (below) is the only lengthy period in the movie -- that I noticed, anyway -- in which the screenplay in not in rap poetry. The sermon works beautifully and angrily (Cusack is at his usual best) because it's the most serious part of the film, and in fact, the very reason for its being.

Lee puts his flamboyance to mostly excellent use here, bringing his passion for this subject to full bloom in both the comedy and tragedy sections (Lysistrata's conquest of the military and the males bemoaning their fate at the local strip club are two of the movie's best comedy scenes). Lee's energy and commitment allow the comic and tragic to meld much better than you might expect. If they don't quite coalesce at all times, there's enough merit in what does work to make the movie as a whole work, too.

Funny, entertaining, moving -- and timely as death -- Chi-Raq is Mr. Lee's most daring and accomplished film in quite some years. From Amazon Studios together with Roadside Attractions, the movie opens tomorrow, Friday, December 4, in major cities all over the country. To learn the theater nearest you, simply click here, then enter your zip and you're all set (if you're near a big city, that is). Otherwise, you can probably bet that the film will hit Amazon's streaming service eventually.

The photo of Mr. Lee (second from top) is by 
Stephen Lovekin, courtesy of Getty Images

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