Spike Lee


Spike Lee has been one of my favorite filmmakers since 1989’s School Daze. His earlier career reflected a steady ascent, with Lee giving us classics like Jungle Fever, Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X; the latter widely considered his best work to date. No stranger to controversy and never afraid to challenge the white power structure, Lee’s career hasn’t always been as commercially successful as it is culturally relevant. I’ll always give Spike a fair shot, so even though the trailer for Chi-Raq left me skeptical, I respect his intentions as an auteur and wanted to see the film for myself.

You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past couple of years not to hear about the gun violence plaguing the city of Chicago. Like many major cities, Chicago is a dual-sided metropolis. On the one hand the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama called it home. It boasts the “Magnificent Mile,” a renowned street dotted by high-end retailers and fine restaurants. On the other hand, it was home to one of the most notorious housing projects in the nation, and the fatalities reported in any given weekend could rival reports from Iraq, hence the macabre moniker “Chi-Raq.” There are significant cultural, psychological and social observations worth exploring about Chicago, and film could be a useful medium in tackling the deeply complex issues afflicting the city and its residents. Lee seemed like the perfect director for such a task, given his track record of political consciousness – but I’m not sure the casual movie fan will understand his artistic approach.

Rather than a documentary (like his prior work in 4 Little Girls) or a dramatic, original call to action (Get on the Bus) using real life events, Lee chose a unique way to portray Chicago. Chi-Raq is an adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, a comedy depicting its female protagonist’s brilliant plan to end the Peloponnesian War through celibacy, by imploring women to freeze all the men out of their bedrooms in a call to arms to end the suffering. Applying this satirical theme to modern day Chicago, the story is paralleled through local Chicago rapper and gangbanger Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon, Roll Bounce) and his girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, Dear White People). Chi-Raq is the stereotypical rapper: young, arrogant and ignorant. Ambitiously striving to transcend his environment through music, his violent behavior illustrates how he remains a product of it.

Chi-Raq’s scenes play out musically, delivered in a lyrical, sometimes rhyming cadence. Samuel L. Jackson (Avengers: Age of Ultron) features as Dolmedes, a fourth wall breaking narrator who frames our perception of Chi-Raq, furthering the action and reminding us that the film’s participants are in dire straits. The film served as a critique of our government and current political climate and a plea to members of the Black community to end our collective apathy demonstrated by misguided thinking like the “stop snitching” movement. Ultimately, I doubt that Lee’s film is accessible in a worthwhile way to the average viewer. Some may misinterpret his farcical approach, given the serious subject matter. Intellectuals and “progressive” types comprise his most likely audience – and they aren’t the ones killing each other.

Although I don’t think Lee crafted a completely successful film, it was not without its bright spots. Teyonna Parris as Lysistrata had more screen time than any other character, and she was captivating throughout. The cinematography was rich and colorful, and some scenes perfectly captured the city’s beauty. Nick Cannon was serviceable as Chi-Raq, though it was hard to take him seriously at times. I understand that the film is a satire, but there were some very cringe-worthy bits of dialogue I couldn’t ignore. All in all, it was a mixed bag for me. Again, I appreciate what Spike was trying to do with the film, but I’m not sure it’s accessible to average viewers in a way that makes it a worthwhile cinematic undertaking. Grade: C

End of Watch

Some filmmakers are known for their keen ability to capture the essence of a particular city, either filtering a landscape through loving eyes or exposing a harsh underbelly as only a native can do.  Spike Lee and Woody Allen have made their careers showcasing New York City, for example.  When I think of L.A. as portrayed in film, Michael Mann comes to mind – most notably for his depiction of the city in Heat and Collateral.  I’ve recently taken note of another filmmaker who has continuously highlighted Los Angeles from both the criminal and law enforcement perspectives, with that line frequently blurred.   Writer/director David Ayer has lent a hand to a few gritty movies set in L.A., including the critically acclaimed Training Day.  He also featured police corruption in Street Kings, an atmospheric tale set amongst a group of dirty Los Angeles cops.  He sticks with familiar territory in his latest effort, End of Watch – with mostly good results.

End of Watch doesn’t aim for much, but what it lacks in originality it compensates for in performance.  The “buddy cop” genre is well worn, but End of Watch takes it a step further by showing a deep and meaningful friendship between two young patrol officers.  Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs) and Michael Pena (Tower Heights) star as Officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala, respectively.  On the rough and tumble streets of L.A., they reign supreme.  They don’t exactly do things by the book, but for the most part they act honorably and take their jobs seriously.  Whereas most officers never have occasion to pull their guns in the line of duty (a fact smartly mentioned by Brian as narrator), Brian and Mike flash their iron quite often, seeing more action in a week than the average cop sees in a year.  The movie showed the danger they faced, but also the camaraderie between each other and the rest of the department.  This jovial, fraternal atmosphere has been done a thousand times before, but as long as it’s well executed; I don’t mind a familiar theme.

Ayer is clearly on familiar ground, and I was reminded of Training Day by some of the aspects of the storyline, as well as the cinematography.  Brian and Mike don’t just call it quits after they punch out; they are intertwined in each other’s lives, almost like brothers.  They are commended for their bravery in the line of duty and establish a reputation as fearless officers of the law.  That fearlessness could be construed as foolishness when routine surveillance leads to a huge drug bust one day.  The bust results in seizure of contraband belonging to a Mexican drug cartel, and they don’t take kindly to having their goods intercepted.  Eventually Brian and Mike find out that a hit has been put out on them.  They are undeterred, refusing to take added precautions when on patrol.  After a while things come to a head with the cartel, and the bond between the pair is tested.

I enjoyed End of Watch because of Gyllenhaal and Pena.  They had a natural chemistry and were believable as best friends and partners.  The movie had a good flow and pace, and I felt like a fly on the wall of their lives from the outset.  This was probably because Gyllenhaal’s character was filming a documentary that allowed him to narrate and explain what was happening as it unfolded, a neat trick that drew the viewer into the story.  End of Watch is not without criticism though, and I have to give a tepid endorsement of the movie, based on its ending.  I still think that a movie can be won or lost in the last ten minutes; and the ending didn’t work for me here.  I didn’t like what happened from a narrative point of view, nor did I like an utterly pointless last-minute flashback that served no expository purpose.  Bad endings just leave me flat and disappointed, no matter how effectively a movie started out.  This review isn’t exactly hot-off-the-press, so by now there are other movies I’d see ahead of this one.  All in all, not a bad flick though.  Grade: B.