Tag Archives: John Cusack

CAPSULE: CHI-RAQ (2015)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Samuel L. Jackson, , Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Dave Chappelle, Harry Lennix, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney

PLOT: A modern adaptation of the Classical Greek comedy “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes set against the backdrop of gun violence in Chicago: the girlfriend of a gang leader starts a movement with other women to withhold sex from men until the violence comes to an end.

chi-raq-650

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It may appear to be weirder than most of Spike Lee’s recent output, but it’s actually a refinement of stuff from his directorial toolbox, and the subject matter is too grounded in reality to call the approach ‘weird’.

COMMENTS: [Full disclosure: I have worked with co-writer Kevin Willmott on several of his films.]

Amazon Studios couldn’t have picked a better subject as the first production out of the gate. Chi-Raq is timely, guaranteed to start discussion, and it provides Spike Lee an opportunity that hasn’t been available to him for awhile: it’s his angriest film since 1989’s Do the Right Thing. Not that he’s been inactive as of late, but most of his vital work in the 00’s has been in documentary, theater and independently financed features (Red Hook Summer and the crowdfunded for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), while the major studios are more interested in steering his talents towards existing properties (the Oldboy remake).

Chi-Raq was originally developed as Gotta Give It Up, written by Kevin Willmott (C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) as a ‘hip-hop musical’ with Jennifer Lopez eyed for the Lystristrata role. That project wasn’t made, but the idea was resurrected and retooled as Chi-Raq, and just as elements found in previous Lee films show up refined and evolved (Do the Right Thing, School Daze), one can recognize the same in Wilmott’s script (co-written with Lee): the complex interrelations of a community (Ninth Street), satire both slapstick and subtle (C.S.A., Destination Planet Negro) and the sense of history that’s present throughout Willmott’s work. Their sensibilities prove to be a good match for each other and for the material, and one can only hope that their collaboration will bear further fruit.

Satire works best when it’s pointed and angry; Chi-Raq proves that. Its major targets are guns and gun violence in America, specifically in neighborhoods on Chicago’s South-Side, and it’s not subtle at all on that subject. It opens with the song “Pray 4 My City” playing over a red/white/blue graphic of the USA comprised of various calibers of guns, followed by a flashing “THIS IS AN EMERGENCY” graphic,  followed by statistics of deaths in Iraq vs. gun deaths in Chicago. Gun violence is a constant presence in the film, and it takes it VERY seriously. The subplot involving Jennifer Hudson’s daughter’s death and the search for her killer ground the film in a reality that the lighter touches never obscure.

Obviously, the satirical touches are more pronounced in the main story, mainly concerning sex and power. One could see it as a modern-day version of one of Chester Hines’ Harlem novels (Hines, in fact, did pen a ribald sex satire, “Pinktoes” that perhaps Messrs. Lee and Willmott might take on at some point). Although the “hip-hop musical” angle largely went by the wayside, some of it survives in live performances: a rap gig at a nightclub, gospel singers at a funeral service. The musical element reaches its apotheosis in “Operation Hot & Bothered” where the police & military attempt to draw out the women via tactics used in Panama, only instead of blasting rock music, they use “Oh Girl” by the Chi-Lites as the film cross-cuts between the women holding their chaste resolve inside and the military outside.

Performances are very good all the way around, although John Cusack was cheated of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Father Mike Corrigan (based on real-life preacher/activist Father Michael Pfleger).

The film was first made available to stream from Amazon, where it can still be streamed; after a brief theatrical run, it was released to DVD/Blu-Ray in late January 2016. One advantage in the home video release is the availability of subtitles, which helps in appreciating Willmott’s and Lee’s wordplay. Also, being able to pause the film helps in catching some of the visual humor in the settings.

Extended and deleted scenes, mostly character bits that weren’t essential, but help clarify some relationships, are included as extras.

CR_D07_00254.CR2

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Urgent, surreal, furious, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MAPS TO THE STARS (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julianne Moore, , , Evan Bird,

PLOT: The lives of several Hollywood insiders intertwine unexpectedly after the arrival of Agatha, a mysterious young woman who intrudes upon the lives of a wannabe screenwriter, a popular teen heartthrob, a self-help TV guru, and a successful but aging actress.

Still from Maps to the Stars (2014))
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Its combination of Hollywood satire, ghostly apparitions, homicidal sensationalism, and heaps of incest does hit a few marks on the Weird-o-Meter, but Maps to the Stars doesn’t plunge into the depths of weirdness achieved in Cronenberg’s earlier, body horror-centric features like Dead Ringers and Videodrome.

COMMENTS: Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) has been around show business all her life. Her mother was a popular actress made more notable when she died tragically in a fire while still in the prime of youth, and now a prominent director is re-imagining her most famous film, with Havana gunning for a supporting role as her mother’s imaginary grown self. At a crossroads in her career and still coming to terms with sexual abuse she suffered at her mother’s hand, Havana sees the sudden arrival of new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) as a sign and instantly takes her in. Meanwhile, teen sensation Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird)—only 13 and just out of rehab—is filming the sequel to his hit comedy Bad Babysitter, but finds himself upstaged by his child costar. His father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a New Age self-help therapist with a talk show and a sea of celebrity clients, including Havana Segrand.

In that unsurprising cinematic way, these and many other lives are intricately connected through family and work, and Agatha becomes both the glue that binds them and the catastrophe that unsettles them. The incestuous nature of mainstream filmmaking is thus satirized, but with a heavy dose of actual incest. It is never outwardly explained or analyzed, it’s just there, a stated and very present fact looming over every interaction. Screenwriter Bruce Wagner packs in every ounce of sensationalism worthy of a Star headline, from sex and abuse to drug addiction and murder, bluntly illustrating the complete breakdown of this family beset by mental illness but unable to cope with it while in the public eye. It’s all done with a slight sense of distance, with each character playing exaggerated versions of real people and the whole observed with a cool eye, so that we won’t feel guilty laughing. Much has been made of Maps to the Stars being Cronenberg’s “first comedy” (though the director himself claims he’s never made anything but comedies), and it is for the most part quite funny. Between Moore’s exaggerated California accent, Cusack’s self-help b.s., Agatha’s tall tales, snarky movie references, and the winking celebrity self-obsession, there is a lot to laugh about.

Of course, Hollywood satire is nothing new, but Cronenberg  gives it his own sick, twisted take, fusing Greek melodrama and tongue-in-cheek humor with inescapable darkness. The story is populated with ghostly apparitions that haunt Havana and Benjie, gradually moving in on their already-fragile psyches. The egoism and lack of empathy so many associate with the movie industry are made manifest in these people, and their punishment is poetic. Though removed from the body horror aesthetic for which he is perhaps still most known, the film is visually striking in its very deliberate framing of characters, its stark, modern interiors, its costumes-as-uniforms, and its jarring juxtapositions. (There is, however, one major visual hiccup in a self-immolation scene towards the end that I hope was a self-aware commentary on cinematic artificiality because the CGI was terrible.) The vicious but contained acts of violence are brutal and chilling, escalating quickly until it becomes clear there can be no easy way out for anyone, every character has essentially been digging their own grave from the beginning. The abrupt changes in tone and focus could be distracting, but the very talented cast takes it all in stride and manages to make it work, moved along by the thoughtful direction. Besides, it’s not like anyone is going to a Cronenberg film expecting a nice, neat little package where everything works out in the end, right?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s something bizarrely funny as well as truly sad in the director’s vision of Rodeo Drive denizens and their heavily medicated affects.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

“I don’t think my characters are a joke. I take them seriously. And no matter how outlandish or weird their situation, their situation is real and a little tragic. I think that’s what gives people something to hang onto as they watch the film. We had to find a way to make everything play on a very naturalistic level, so it didn’t just turn into wackiness.”–Charlie Kaufman on Being John Malkovich (Salon interview)

“I’m sure Being John Malkovich would be regarded as a work of genius on whatever planet it was written.”–possibly apocryphal comment from a movie studio rejection letter

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich

PLOT: Craig Schwartz is an unemployed puppeteer who performs a marionette version of “Abelard and Heloise” on street corners for passersby.  His wife Lotte convinces him to get a job, and he winds up working as a file clerk on floor seven and a half of a Manhattan office building, where he falls for sultry and scheming coworker Maxine.  When he discovers a portal hidden behind a file cabinet that leads into the mind of John Malkovich, Maxine devises a plan to sell tickets to “be” the title actor, but things become extremely complicated when a confused love quadrangle develops between Craig, his wife, Maxine, and Malkovich…

Still from Being John Malkovich (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • The feature film debut for both director Spike Jonze and sreenwriter Charlie Kaufman (who would work together again on Adaptation).
  • In Being John Malkovich John Cusak re-enacts the story of Abelard and Heloise with puppets; the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is taken from Alexander Pope’s poem on the same subject, “Eloisa to Abelard.”
  • John Malkovich reportedly liked the script, but didn’t want to star in it and requested the filmmakers cast another actor as the celebrity who has a portal into his head; eventually he relented and agreed to appear in the film.
  • The film was nominated for three Oscars: Keener for Best Supporting Actress, Jonze for Best Director and Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay.  As is usually the case with uncomfortably weird films, it won nothing.
  • The film was originally produced by PolyGram, who were unhappy with the dailies they were getting from Jonze and threatened to shut production down; however, before they could make good on the threat the company was bought out by Universal, and Jonze was able to complete the movie in the ensuing confusion.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The recursive (and hilariously illogical) result of John Malkovich daring to enter the portal that leads inside John Malkovich’s head.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a movie about a secret portal that allows anyone who crawls through it to see the world through actor John Malkovich’s eyes for fifteen minutes before being spat out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike and not end up with a weird result.  The inhabitants of Being John Malkovich, like the denizens of a dream, don’t recognize the secret portals leading into others minds, the half-floor work spaces designed for little people, and the chimps with elaborate back stories as being at all unusual. Their matter-of-fact attitudes only throw the absurdity into stark relief.


Original trailer for Being John Malkovich

COMMENTS: Synecdoche, New York may be Charlie Kaufman‘s weirdest script, Eternal Continue reading 64. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)