Movie Review ~ Chi-Raq

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.

Stars: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I can’t remember the last Spike Lee movie I saw…I’m ashamed to admit that I kind of gave up on the director about a decade ago after a series of heavy-handed offerings that got bogged down in their own messages.  And I hadn’t even heard about Chi-Raq until a screening popped up on my list so I stayed away from any previews, put away my pre-conceived notions of the director’s past work, and knowing only that it was Lee’s update to Lysistrata by Aristophanes, I let the film speak for itself.

And speak it does…with a strong, loud, clear voice.  It’s Lee’s voice and it’s familiar in its tone and delivery, but wrapped in a timely package about guns, violence, diversity, and peace.  Lee has brought forth his most focused film in quite some time and while it has its interminable sections, there are moments of sheer brilliance that’s as good as anything else I saw in 2015.

In Chicago, violence is at an all-time high. People are gunned down on the streets, in their homes…the innocent and the guilty are indistinguishable. Into this mix we meet Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, giving a star-making performance), the girlfriend of rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who has had it with the violence always right outside of her doorstep.  Moving in with a neighbor hardened by violence in her past (Angela Bassett), her eyes are opened to the power she holds to help effect change in her neighborhood.

After a child is gunned down in broad daylight, Lysistrata and her girlfriends band together to attempt to force their males to put down the weapons and make peace.  How do they do it?  Well, those familiar with Lysistrata will know but for newcomers, I’ll let that be something you discover on your own.  It proves to be a method that brings international attention to the war on street violence, a happening that moves Lysistrata to the front lines of the battlefield.

Lee expertly brings Lysistrata forward to the new millennium and has created a movie arriving when gun violence is at an all-time high and questions about police action and neighborhood activism is front page news.  Using Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) as a hilarious Greek chorus, Lee gets his message across in a more commercial way but its nonetheless powerful in how it’s received.

There are some parts of Chi-Raq that bristle with firepower and moments that seem to stretch on forever, thankfully in the end there’s more that crackles than strains and the end result is a movie that’s important to see with a message imperative to heed.

Movie Review ~ The Expendables 3

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Barney augments his team with new blood for a personal battle: to take down Conrad Stonebanks, the Expendables co-founder and notorious arms trader who is hell bent on wiping out Barney and every single one of his associates.

Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, Kelsey Grammer

Director: Patrick Hughes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 126 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I believe that part of being a balanced critic is to a) see most every film that comes your way and not just the latest blockbuster and b) being able to view a film for what it is and try to put yourself in the place of its intended audience. As a child of the 80s that grew up with action films featuring the headliners of these films, I was amped to hear they’d be brought together for The Expendables. When I finally saw the much-hyped film in 2010 I was awed by how ugly a film it was and how its one-joke premise stalled out before the first reel was done. Though 2012’s The Expendables 2 showed signs of improvement, it too faltered when it came to being more than the sum of its muscly, scar-tissued parts. It would be great to report back that the third film of the franchise finally knocked it out of the park but it’s actually a step backward, proving that logic, decent effects, and convincing performances are the true expendables on display.

Clocking it at an astounding 126 minutes and devoid of the CGI blood that pushed the first two entries into silly R-rated territory, The Expendables 3 feels neutered into a PG-13. Nothing much happens and nothing is truly at stake for our rag-tag bunch of mercenaries and certainly not for audiences. At least its predecessors had a little bit of loss to overcome…here the overstuffed script just puts everyone through the motions while making sure that every one of the hardly recognizable yet oddly familiar action star faces gets at least one zinger in.

Stallone (Escape Plan, and looking like he’s getting into character to play the title role for a live-action Droopey Dog) is as mush mouth as ever as the leader of The Expendables who are found as the film opens racing alongside a prison train to free Doc (Wesley Snipes). It’s one of the least exciting openers of any action film I’ve seen, though director Patrick Hughes tries to flash it up with a lot of flying fists, kicking legs, and a whopper of an explosion.

Hurtling into another mission that puts the crew face to face with a turncoat from their past (Mel Gibson, gleefully camping it up, whether you like it or not), Stallone and his men spend the rest of the film waxing nostalgic about the past, lamenting the fact that they’re getting older, and taking to task some new whippersnappers that are the next generation of Expendables…all the while being fired at by thousands of armed men that continually miss their shots.

Shot in Bulgaria (and numerous cockpit sets that appear lifted from a mall arcade), the film isn’t as dreadful to look at as the first film but achieves a new dullness thanks to lame green screen effects (I’m positive several of the big name stars weren’t in the same room when they filmed their scenes) and a non-existent visual style that renders the film almost black and white. Everything on screen feels cheap, from the cardboard sets to the CGI effects…leading me to believe that most of the budget went to the star salaries.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a few things that keep it from being total crud. Snipes is a refreshing addition to the cast and he gets a nice moment of self-mockery that you’ll see coming but still enjoy. While it may have been a coup for Stallone to land Gibson and Harrison Ford (Working Girl), their presence is more of a curiosity to see than anything really exceptional. Speaking of exceptional, Antonio Banderas (Haywire) should get substantial credit for nearly walking away with the film as a hilariously eager strong-arm for hire. The rest of the gang and especially the new recruits are better left unmentioned, lest they take it as encouragement to continue in their acting careers.

With a built-in audience I expect we haven’t seen the last of The Expendables…and as the film dragged on I started to think of names that could be tossed around to star in future installments. I’ll keep those to myself so I can check off my own personal list, but if the goal is to continue to feature faded names from the past…Stallone is just getting started.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Expendables 3

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Synopsis: The third installment of the action-adventure franchise that follows the exploits of Barney Ross, Lee Christmas, and their associates.

Release Date: August 14, 2014

Thoughts: I can’t tell you how nice it is to actually see a true teaser trailer pop up.  As I’ve lamented recently (check here for an example), the art of the teaser trailer appears to be totally lost with most previews clocking in at a spoiler heavy 2:30.  So it’s nice to see the latest entry in the profitable The Expendables franchise giving audiences a whet whistle before the final hours of 2013 tick away.  Though it’s not releasing until halfway through 2014, this is a nice way to announce the return of a series of films that have worked almost in spite of their BDL (big, dumb, loud) origins.  And you have to hand it to Sylvester Stallone (The Expendables 2); he sure knows how to rally the troops to get a cast that continues to makes 80’s/early 90’s action movie nerds salivate.  The Expendables 3 features a huge roster of stars: Stallone, Jason Statham (Homefront), Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand), Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas (Haywire), Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford (Working Girl), Kellan Lutz (The Legend of Hercules), Robert Davi (Licence to Kill) and Kelsey Grammer