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LFF 2016 Review: Chi-Raq

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CHI-RAQReviewer: Chris Haydon

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Wesley Snipes, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson & Angela Bassett

Certificate: 15

Release Date: 2nd December 2016 (UK)

 

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is a shot of pure energy. A ballistic, hyper-aggressive and high-concept presentation of gang violence and oppression, feverishly played with soul and swagger. In any other hands it would likely feel cloying and preachy, but the veteran auteur maintains a fierce grip; enabling his latest to share equal bark and bite.

A modernised retelling of ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Chi-Raq swaps togas for urban camo, and trades in the Parthenon for Southside Chicago; a land commanded by black-on-black violence, poverty and macho misogyny. In a bid to collapse the senseless cycle of crime and misery, confident and lusty Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris – the breakout star of Dear White People) hatches a cunning plan. The girlfriend of hip-hop heavyweight and gang leader ‘Chi-Raq’ (Nick Cannon), Lysistrata convinces her fellow females to abstain from any sexual activity with their men until they can learn to behave: no peace, no piece.

Legendary performer Samuel L. Jackson serves as a postmodern Greek chorus named Dolmedes – complete with blaxploitation-worthy pimp suits – here, and early on turns to the audience, explaining that to honour Aristophanes, the story will be delivered in rhyme. It is a thunderously unique manner in which to convey narrative. Characters speak largely in loose, janky poetry, with rhythms that vary between Shakespearian couplets, freestyle-rap battle verse, and slam-poetry riffing.

CHI-RAQ

Lee’s film arrives at the BFI London Film Festival with remarkable urgency. It is a frenentic prayer, a call to arms; gun violence and inner-city crime is a disease that continues to plague, and a vaccine must be devised. Expertly blending genre and thematic tone, Chi-Raq is able to be both vital and arresting contextually, yet explosively entertaining and enveloping cinematically. Despite the harsh realness, this is a brazenly funny, seductively slick motion picture; one ravishingly textured and populated by memorable characters.

Parris in particular spellbinds. She struts through scenes with infinite power and prowess, ensuring your attention is fixated on her every movement and motion. She evokes sexuality and stamina, and her interplay with the cavalcade of high-calibre co-stars – John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, Dave Chappelle, Wesley Snipes – to name but a few, is most impressive. Cannon is equally excellent, and thrives in the film’s titanic musical sequences. His spits bars with venom and humanity, as if he really is feeling the verses he’s reciting, and the effect is strikingly potent.

Perhaps Chi-Raq‘s finest brushstroke however is the representation of this weathered land. Despite Chicago being alive with warfare and chaos, Lee ensures it looks more like an idealistic battleground as opposed to a tourist’s nightmare. There is much blood on these streets, but equally hope and opportunity, too.

After a number of incidental works, it is a sheer pleasure to have Lee back in rhythm again, and his latest moves to an unmistakably original beat.

Film fanatic and UFC obsessive. Avid NFL fan and Chelsea supporter. Maintains a BA (Hons) degree in Film Studies attained from the University of Brighton. Adorer of Michael Haneke, Woody Allen, Pixar Animation Studios, James Bond 007, American Indies & French New Wave.

Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Featured Review

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween ★★★

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Directors: Ari Sandel

Starring: Jeremy Ray Taylor, Caleel Harris, Madison Iseman

Released: Friday, October 19th (UK)

Considering how brilliantly 2016’s Goosebumps positioned itself as Jumanji for a new generation, you have to admire the hilarity that it’d then take less than a year for the same studio to revive the latter brand actually utilising the name star of Goosebumps. With that in mind, then, continuing the Goosebumps brand with a second instalment featuring not only its shared Jumanji alum but also adding a second one seems an extremely knowing wink to their shared audience, a wink that sets the tone nicely for the fun to come in this riotous Halloween family adventure.

Skewing marginally younger in demographic than its predecessor, Haunted Halloween sees tweens Sonny and Sam attempting to set up a junk removal business in their small town, a business that takes them to the abandoned childhood home of one Mr. R.L. Stine (Jack Black). Discovering a previous forgotten Goosebumps manuscript hidden in the fireplace, the pair accidentally unleash the villainous dummy Slappy back into the world – but Slappy’s agenda has changed. This time Slappy wants nothing more than to be embraced as part of his saviours’ family, and it’s a desire he’ll wreak all sorts of havoc to indulge.

IT alum Jeremy Ray Taylor and Castle Rock’s Caleel Harris – intriguingly, both Stephen King vets – make for a fine pair of Stranger Thingsish leads; but, of course, none of the usually horror-tinged adventure could be complete without the presence of a requisite adult stand-in, here provided by Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’s Madison Iseman (consider who she played and wait for the ensuing chuckle) in a role that arguably works better than that of previous figurehead Dylan Minette purely by virtue of being introduced a more rounded character. On the adult side, meanwhile, there’s a bevvy of comedic worth to be found – Ken Joeng, Chris Parnell, and Wendi McLendon-Covey all make it look effortless – and incoming DUFF director Ari Sandel knows how to capture the comedy with just as much investible zaniness as he does the Scooby Doo-esque antics taking place around them.

Not quite as refreshing a prospect as the first movie was in 2016 (an unavoidable drawback of time, admittedly), Haunted Halloween serves delightfully as its own standalone tale, yet does surprisingly serve as a pretty great sequel in much the same way as… well, guess what in 2017? Chock full of side-splitting gags, an enduringly fun villain in Slappy, and even a sequel gag to what was already the first movie’s best gut-buster, Goosebumps returns with nary a step skipped – even going so far as to show itself off as what could so easily become the more family-friendly answer to the Conjuring cinematic universe. It’s the ultimate All Hallow’s treat – a wacky wild romp through the delightful scares of youthful trick ‘r treat mayhem that takes its family-targeted hijinks seriously enough to make for a gleeful ride for all. Roll on Goosebumps 3!

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Featured Review

Halloween ★★★

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Directors: David Gordon Green

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Will Patton

Released: Friday, October 19th (UK)

Beaten in its number of reboots only by Eleanor Shellstrop, the original slasher returns to our screens in… well, Halloween. Yes, that trend of naming your rebootquel shows about as much chance of dying as the ghostly faced central figure of the genre-defining series, with David Gordon Green and co-writer Danny McBride (no, really, that Danny McBride) reviving the now-forty year-old franchise for this erstwhile fourth attempt at a revival.

This time around, all bets are off as the series reverts to a sort of “Part 2B” and everything in the aftermath of director John Carpenter’s iconic 1978 trendsetter is washed away in favour of a new timeline. Here, Michael Myers was caught moments after the close of the first movie, his days since spent in total silence as the resident of a psychiatric hospital. Not to be outdone, however, Myers’ only surviving victim, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, the queen of scream returning to that which made her so), has become a prisoner entirely of her own trauma. Holed up in her isolated rural home, Strode’s gone a bit Sarah Connor in the years since her ordeal – becoming a self-styled mistress of self-defence, and forsaking her relationships with her own family as a result. That sacrifice won’t be for nought though, when, forty years to the day since his infamous killing spree, a prisoner transfer gone awry sees Myers unleashed once more.

As reverential rebootquels go, Halloween’s probably best compared to the likes of Bryan Singer’s rather polarising Superman Returns – at least by virtue of its concept. In execution, Halloween instead fares better in contrast to its own prior reboot, H20, by way of serving as a continuation of an established classic aimed squarely at another audience entirely. This time around that audience may well be a fanbase more than primed for what’s to come, but with a more generational sensibility in mind (again, see H20’s pursuit of the post-Scream crowd). As such, the return of Curtis comes with a brilliantly unspoken on-screen fanfare, her every line as (the wonderfully broken) Strode a sharply chiselled slice of cynicism crafted that way for maximum brutality. Imagine Ripley never got to meet that xenomorph queen, but spent four decades preparing instead – that’s the level of trauma we’re talking, and Jamie Lee Curtis sells the hell out of it.

Behind the camera, the game’s played as proudly. With Green’s direction never beholden to Carpenter’s seminal progenitor, but knowing just enough of the cues to borrow to make a decent go at a bit of fan service without inducing the usual level of eye-rolling. There’s some great stuff in here, with a tracking shot even Carpenter’s jaw would hit the pavement for, and some truly inventive sequences that could easily rank among the series’ best. What it’s not though is in any way particularly original, with a storyline unlikely to keep anyone – newcomer or series mainstay – guessing, and serving largely as a “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” run around a gentrified block. It looks great, it plays well, it just… isn’t that new.

For everything that works about Halloween (Judy Greer getting a decent role, for a change, easily ranks among them), there’s something that just doesn’t work quite as well (a largely phoned-in Loomis stand-in more than deserves to be greeted by Curtis with “so you’re the new Loomis…”). On balance though, Green and McBride bring enough fun and a couple of solid chills to Halloween to wring a solidly good time out of a largely average revival flick, doubled down by a deliciously nostalgic score by none other than Carpenter, among others. It’ll delight, engage, and captivate anybody looking for a good ol’ fashioned slasher at the movies, and, as rebootquels go, it more than tops Superman Returns. But, to be fair, Busta Rhymes never drop-kicked Superman between his reboots. 

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