Scientology and the Life and Death of Chicago

Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq (2015)

In an inspired creative decision, Spike Lee updated a Classical Greek comedy (Aristophanes’s Lysistrata) to the current climate of Chicago.

In Aristophanes’s original play, the women of of Greece withheld sex as punishment for fighting in the Peloponnesian War. In Lee’s update, Lysistrata pledges to refrain from sex with her boyfriend until there’s a peaceful resolution between rival gangs.

With this film, Lee reminds us of the pliability of art. A play first performed over 2400 years ago, still contains enough truth to speak to present day situations. This is humbling, comparable to people finding inspiration in Blade Runner in 4500 AD.

Despite its explosive subject matter, the movie largely avoids racial politics which makes the film more poignant and accessible.

The cast, featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Dave Chapelle, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and John Cusack is uniformly excellent, making Lee’s first musical one of his best films in years.

The Jinx (2015)

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)

In 2010, Andrew Jarecki directed All Good Things, a film about multimillionaire Robert Durst and his alleged involvement in the disappearance of his wife.

After Durst saw the film, he was so impressed he agreed to let Jarecki interview him. These interviews, along with interviews Jarecki conducted as background for the previous film resulted in this documentary.

During the trial for his murder of a New Orleans man, Durst admitted to cutting the man into pieces and dumping the body into the water, but claimed it was self-defense. To the astonishment of many watching the case, he was acquitted.

At the end of this chilling documentary, Jarecki confronts Durst with damning evidence linking him to another murder. A visibly frustrated Durst goes to the restroom and (unaware his microphone is still recording) appears to admit to killing several people.

Everyone who watched this fascinating look at the special protection afforded the wealthy will instantly elevate the frail, elderly, constantly blinking Durst into their pantheon of scariest people in the world.

Going Clear (2015)

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015)

Documentarian Alex Gibney traces the life of L. Ron Hubbard and his founding of the Church of Scientology, then explores criticisms of the sect and its current leader David Miscavige.

Beyond the usual claims of indoctrination and brainwashing, this film alleges physical abuse and imprisonment for those daring to expose questionable church practices or question its leadership.

Gibney depicts an organization willing to bully and intimidate any former members who speak publicly about their experiences.

Exposing the ways religion has been used and manipulated for the personal gain of a selected few, this film is a must see for anyone interested in a serious discussion of the role of faith in 21st century America.

The Week That Was, Issue 12

The Week That Was

January 11, 2016 – January 17, 2016

Monday, January 11, 2016

1) Bugsy Malone (1976)

Why I watched: In Empire’s top 500 films of all time.

While Fat Sam and his chief rival Dandy Dan fight over control of a speakeasy, boxing promoter Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) begins a relationship with Blousey Brown, but has to fend off the advances of Fat Sam’s girlfriend, Tallulah (Jodie Foster).

Continue reading “The Week That Was, Issue 12”

Creed Passed over the Hateful Bridge

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies (2015)

When insurance salesman James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is recruited to represent captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, he initially only plans to provide an adequate defense, but his principles and his burgeoning friendship with Abel compel him to fight the case as long as he can. Because of his association with Abel and the lengths he went to in his defense, when American pilot Francis Gary Powers is captured behind Soviet lines, Donovan goes to negotiate an exchange: Abel for Powers. However, things are complicated when Donovan learns about an American student who is being held prisoner by the East Germans.

Working from a script by the Coen Brothers, Hanks and Spielberg do something very difficult, they make international diplomacy exciting and compelling. It was a little annoying the film never wanted to take sides and insisted on operating in such a gray area with regards to the two spies, but it was great to see a movie which unashamedly shows how dire the situation was in East Berlin in the early 1960s and dared to dramatize the complex political realities behind the Iron Curtain.

In the end, this was a movie about how principled action can lead to positive results. Spielberg’s recent work explores the intersection of politics and real world consequences, the limits of ideals, and the importance of fundamental principles. Spielberg, the wide-eyed storyteller of E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind has given way to a grizzled moralist in Amistad, Munich, and War Horse.

Creed (2015)

I’ve seen all the Rocky films, I love Michael B. Jordan, and Sylvester Stallone was nominated for a Golden Globe

The original Rocky feels like an independent film. The sequel take on more of a studio film feel. The third film (with Mr. T and Hulk Hogan) feels like a typical franchise film. The fourth film, which many say is the series epoch, audaciously has Rocky win the Cold War by proxy.

In the fifth film, the series takes a dramatic turn. Rocky is retired, but finds passion in training another fighter.

The sixth film, Rocky Balboa focuses more on Rocky’s relationship with his son and coming to terms with his legacy.

This, the seventh films in the Rockyverse, follows Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) as he finds his way and makes a name for himself. It’s full of sly references to previous films, but wisely forgoes the over their tendency for over the top excess. Case in point:

Stallone has morphed from the young up and comer to the embodiment of Mickey, the role Burgess Meredith played in the original film. Stallone is excellent in the introspective role, there are moments of genuine pathos in his performance. The weight of the previous films and his four decade long relationship with American movie audiences serve as a stark reminder: all heroes will fade and die.

Director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan previously worked together on Fruitvale Station, a powerful exploration of race relations in 21st century America. This film ensures both will have a voice in Hollywood for some time. Coogler’s instincts are solid; he knows when to go for a joke, when to remind viewers of the previous films without feeling derivative. The fight scenes are well-done.

I’ve loved Jordan since his heartbreaking work as Wallace in The Wire, although it’s difficult to reconcile my memory of that character with his work here. His career is still ascendant, but he seems destined to be a Hollywood mainstay.

This is how you reinvent and re-energize a 40-year-old franchise.

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) escorts outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock where she’ll be hanged.

Joining them on their stagecoach is Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black bounty hunter, former major in the Union Army, and possible pen pal of Abraham Lincoln.

Soon the coach picks up one last passenger, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a Confederate sympathizer and the incoming sheriff of Red Rock.

When the coach arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the quartet take shelter from the upcoming blizzard and meet the rest of the titular octet, Bob (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and former confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern).

None of the group trusts each other, with good reason. As they feel each other out, there’s copious snappy dialogue, and plenty of racial epithets hurled at Warren, including a particularly nasty exchange with Smithers.

As everyone’s back story and hidden agenda are slowly revealed, there are fights, bloodshed, and death.

Ironically for a film where most of the action takes place in a small cabin, Tarantino filmed in expansive 70 mm, which somehow makes the film feel huge and claustrophobic at the same time.

I love Goggins and this is his best work since The Shield. Leigh’s performance is her best in a decade. Jackson is the film’s emotional centerpiece and carries the weight well. Russell trades in on his iconic and beloved performances of the 1980s, but doesn’t do anything new. Bruce Dern was disappointingly pedestrian.

I enjoyed most of the film, but the Tatum ex Machina felt contrived (even by Tarantino standards). Perhaps the original ending would have been more satisfying, but after the first draft of the script leaked online, Quentin defiantly refused to film that version.

The characters and dialogue will stick with me, but my memory will be clouded by my dislike of the ending.

The Week That Was, Issue 11

The Week That Was

January 4, 2016 – January 10, 2016

Monday, January 4, 2016

1) Inside Moves (1980)

Why I watched: Diana Scarwid was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

After a suicide attempt leaves Roary (John Savage) partially paralyzed, he drown his sorrows at a bar frequented by other disabled people where he meets Jerry (David Morse), a talented basketball player who needs an expensive operation to repair a deformed leg. Their burgeoning friendship renews Roary’s desire to live.

Everything goes well until Jerry gets the money for his operation and a tryout with a professional basketball team. As his new career flourishes, he turns his back on his former friends, including Roary.

It’s difficult to believe Richard Donner followed up Superman with this. It features a rare performance from disabled WWII veteran turned Academy Award winning actor Harold Russell, but sadly feels like the template for too many “After School Specials” about the value of true friendship.

3 stars.

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The Week That Was, Issue 10

The Week That Was

December 28, 2015 – January 3, 2016

Monday, December 28, 2015

1) The Room (2003)

Why I watched: Included in a list of the worst films.

Impression: Johnny’s (Tommy Wiseau) fiancée Lisa seduces his best friend, Mark (Greg Sestero), intending to use Johnny for financial support while continuing the affair.

When Johnny’s future prospects deteriorate, Lisa coldly tells him about the affair at his surprise birthday party. He reacts poorly, destroying their apartment before killing himself.

As bad as advertised, the film’s nonsensical inconsistencies are legendary. In one memorable scene, Johnny and several friends play football in tuxedos, for no apparent reason. Mark sports a beard in the first half of the film, only to suddenly appear clean-shaven in the final act. According to Sestero, this was only so Tommy could call him “Babyface.”

In an early, inexplicable scene, Lisa’s mother announces a breast cancer diagnosis. Lisa responds with a non sequitur about her relationship with Johnny and the film never mentions it again.

This uncomfortable vanity project by writer, director, and producer Tommy Wiseau is schlocky and poorly made, like the “film” your adolescent nephew made and forced you to watch. The only saving grace is the film’s earnestness.

2 stars.

Continue reading “The Week That Was, Issue 10”

In Back to the Future Part II, why didn’t anyone tell Marty that Bill Cosby was a rapist, Hulk Hogan was a racist, and Donald Trump might be our next President? A look back at 2015

In 2015,

Cuba and the United States resumed diplomatic relations,

New Horizons became the first spacecraft to fly by Pluto,

NASA announced liquid water had been found on Mars,

Volkswagen admitted to widespread cheating of emission testing,

A group associated with ISIS attacked the Bataclan theatre and other sites in Paris,

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik attacked a holiday party for the employees of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health,

Katy Perry performed at halftime of Super Bowl XLIX,

“Hello” by Adele became the first song to record over one million digital copies in a week,

Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo,

NBC suspsended news anchor Brian Williams after he admitted to embellishing his activity in the 2003 Iraq War,

Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40th anniversary,

19 Kids and Counting was suspended after allegation surfaced that Josh Duggar had molested his younger siblings years earlier,

Charlie Sheen confirmed he was HIV positive,

Businessman and reality show host Donald Trump emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the 2016 US Presidential election,

In Obergefell v. Hodges, the United States Supreme Court held that homosexual couples have a right to marry,

Dylan Roof attacked Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina,

Subway spokesman Jared Fogle pled guilty to possession of child pornography and having sex with a minor,

Comedian Bill Cosby was charged with aggravated indecent assault

Former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner,

The WWE released Hulk Hogan after tapes of him making racists comments were released,

Princess Charlotte of Cambridge was born,

While Mario Cuomo, Lesley Gore, Leonard Nimoy, Anthony Mason, Terry Pratchett, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King, B.B. King, Christopher Lee, Dusty Rhodes, Ron Moody, James Horner, Dick Van Patten, Roger Rees, Omar Sharif, E.L. Doctorow, Roddy Piper, Yvonne Craig, Wes Craven, Oliver Sacks, Dean Jones, Yogi Berra, Moses Malone, Jackie Collins, Maureen O’Hara, Flip Saunders, Fred Thompson, Scott Wieland, Haskell Wexler, Lemmy, Natalie Cole, and Wayne Rogers died.

These are my top ten films released in 2015:

Continue reading “In Back to the Future Part II, why didn’t anyone tell Marty that Bill Cosby was a rapist, Hulk Hogan was a racist, and Donald Trump might be our next President? A look back at 2015”