Tag Archives: Hip Hop

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.

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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.

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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: BIG MONEY RUSTLAS (2010)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Paul Andresen

FEATURING: Violent J, Shaggy 2 Dope

PLOT: Sugar Wolf, son of slain sheriff Grizzly Wolf, returns to restore law and order to the town of Mudbug, now in the grips of gambling baron Baby Chips.

Still from Big Money Rustlas (2010)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Despite the fact that both hero and villain wear “insane” clown makeup and speak in hip-hop patois, it’s the existence of this movie that’s really strange, not its content.

COMMENTS:  If you assumed there was no way a Western performed by washed-up white rap stars in greasepaint could fail to deliver some sort of camp value, then you’ve seriously underestimated the lack of wit of the bizarre cultural phenomenon known as the Insane Clown Posse. (So you’ll know what you’re getting into, in the DVD commentary, clown Shaggy 2 Dope confesses that, to him, a closeup of a horse’s anus is the funniest feces ever [to paraphrase]). Starting from a script that would have been rejected by Troma studios as too lowbrow, tasteless and juvenile, Big Money Rustlas ambles its way onto the screen with all the charm of a syphilitic cowpoke and all comedy value of Eminem doing a vaudeville routine. Since they’re merely inserting their generic gangsta personae into a generic Western revenge tale, the insane clowns need to stuff the movie full of gags to keep up the interest for ninety minutes; but the jokes overwhelmingly fall flat. The incongruity of two dudes in Stetson hats and evil harlequin makeup speaking dialogue like “give him his f***in’ money you platypus lookin’ motherf***er!” only goes so far. The novelty value fades away after about fifteen or twenty minutes, and Shaggy and Violent’s boastful, grating personalities take over instead. To be fair, there are a few decent jokes in Rustlas: Sugar Wolf’s mother, the town prostitute, also wears clown makeup, and there’s an Indian who sits by the town entrance with a jar of corn liquor and changes the Mudbug population sign every time a villager is killed. There are also isolated weird moments to jerk you awake: a gunfighter who inexplicably shoots laser beams from his eyeballs, and an S&M whipping scene with a mini-dominatrix lashing a clown wearing a baby bonnet. Most of what little entertainment value there is here, however, comes from watching the parade of near-celebrity cameos: besides relatively big roles for cult star Jason Mewes (the “Jay” of “Jay and Silent Bob,”) and retired dwarf porn star Bridgette Powerz, we also catch sight of Todd Bridges, Jimmy Walker, Brigitte Neilsen, wrestler Jimmy Hart, Dustin Diamond, Vanilla Ice, Tom Sizemore (!), and Ron Jeremy (it just wouldn’t be a crappy low budget comedy without a Hedgehog sighting). Most of the cast is made up of rap “stars” unknown outside of the Insane Clown Posse galaxy, guys like Monoxide, Boondox and (I kid you not) Blaze Ya Dead Homie. There is no rap music outside of the opening credits. More surprisingly, in a movie packed with profanity, violence, homophobia, toilet humor, and macho posturing, there is no nudity; this must be because of the Insane Clown Posse’s enormous respect for bitches.

This movie is a more expensive remake of/prequel to Insane Clown Posse’s 2000 effort Big Money Hustlas (which told the same basic story in a faux-blaxploitation style). Insane Clown Posse is a rap duo who had some success in the late 1990s. Until this movie, I was unaware that they still had a dedicated cult following (emphasis on “cult”) a decade later. ICP have created a small media empire for their fans, consisting of a stable of all-white rappers on their own “Psychopathic Records” label, an internet radio station, and a pro wrestling venture. Followers call themselves “juggalos,” emulate their hero’s makeup, and have their own private lingo revolving around “clown love.” If this internet petition is to be believed, some of them consider being a juggalo to be a religion. There have been so many violent incidents involving ICP fans (including the stoning of former bisexual reality star turned failed rapper Tila Tequila) that “juggalos” have been defined as a gang in some school districts. The fact that the mediocre music of these two arrested adolescents could inspire such slavish devotion in thousands of susceptible youth, without the band having scored a charting single since 1998, is far weirder than anything Shaggy and Violent could ever put on film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…what the movie is essentially about is how much more awesome the two guys in clown makeup are than anyone else they encounter. That’s the movie’s worldview: women are objects, and anyone not wearing clown makeup should hand over their money and then be killed, presumably for not wearing clown makeup. Or maybe because they’re ‘insane.’ The Rational Clown Posse would never act that way.”–Patrick Bromley, DVD Verdict (DVD)