Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq, directed by Spike Lee, is a film set in Chicago and focusing on the gun violence that has plagued many of the neighborhoods of that city in the 21st century. The movie stars music artists like Nick Cannon and Jennifer Hudson, who rhyme their way through dialogue and form the soundtrack for the film whether in the background or in the midst of the scenes. The movie tells compelling truths through lyric and rhyme.

The shocking number of homicides in Chicago since 2001 seems to be the inspiration for the film’s title. The number of murders in Chicago since 2001 rivals the number of deaths of United States Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq combined (From Secondary Source as of 06-Sep-2016). In Chi-Raq, Spike Lee pairs Chicago’s violent reputation with comedy, receiving help from Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, and Dave Chappelle to portray his characters.

Inspired by the ancient comedy Lysistrata, also the name of the main character played by Teyonah Parris, the film humorously weighs a man’s sex drive against his desire to brandish a gun. The movie is filled with other parodies, but the main plot point is a feminine vow of abstinence designed to deter gang violence. As the women involved with men of rival gangs continue to deny the libido of their significant others, the tension builds. The stubbornness of the men and determination of the women is tested.

If one attends the movie looking for a solution to solving the homicide rate in Chicago, one will likely come away disappointed. The movie doesn’t tally many points for realism, but it does make some important points about the violence in Chicago. The film provides comedic relief while raising awareness about frustrating and long-standing problems. In the climatic end scene, there is plea for truth in spite of consequence. How can there be acceptance, forgiveness, and reconciliation without honest truth-telling? In a city consistently marred by senseless tragedies, truth seems to be a prerequisite for positive change.

 

Post-Post Note (12-Nov-2017):

After recently hearing part of a stand-up performance by Trevor Noah in which he drew to the audience’s attention the per capita murder rates in U.S. cities other than Chicago, it’s important to note that Chicago appears to have received media attention disproportionate to its per capita murder rate in recent years.

For example: the January to June 2015-2016 Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report (UCR) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): Offenses Reported to Law Enforcement by State by City 100,000 and over in population lists Chicago as having 213 and 317 reported murders per population of 2,728,695 in the first half of 2015 and 2016, respectively. In the same report, Kansas City had 37 and 51 reported murders per 473,373 population, Detroit had 135 and 103 reported murders per 673,225 population,  and St. Louis had 92 and 88 reported murders per 317,095 population in the first half of 2015 and 2016, respectively. Ranking risk of murder per population rather than number of murders per city looks like this…

Number of new cases of disease or injury during specified period  / Size of population at start of period =  incidence proportion (risk)

Chicago

Jan-Jun 2015:

213 / 2,728,695 = 0.000078 or 0.008 %

Jan-Jun 2015:

317 / 2,728,695 = 0.000116 or 0.01 %

Kansas City

Jan-Jun 2015:

37 / 473,373 = 0.000078  or 0.008 %

Jan-Jun 2016:

51 / 473,373 = 0.000107 or 0.01 %

Detroit

Jan-Jun 2015:

135 /  673,225 =  0.00020 or 0.02 %

Jan-Jun 2016:

103 /  673,225 =  0.00015 or  0.015 %

St. Louis

Jan-Jun 2015:

92 /  317,095 =  0.00029 or  0.03 %

Jan-Jun 2016:

88 /  317,095 = 0.00027 or 0.03 %

Based on the FBI UCR Jan-Jun 2015-2016, Kansas City ranks similarly to Chicago in risk of being murdered, and the risk of being murdered in both Detroit and St. Louis is higher than Chicago’s risk with the risk of being murdered in St. Louis nearly three times the risk of being murdered in Chicago during these time-frames. A clear look at the data is crucial to understanding the correct proportion of a problem. For these time-frames it appears Chicago should not have been the city receiving a disproportionate amount of attention for the risk of homicide.

The FBI UCR is a useful resource for examining statistics on crime in cities across the United States, and it can be found on their website.

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is known for movies like Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar, but while Dunkirk holds true to Nolan’s bold style unlike the aforementioned films it is based on actual historical events. The Battle of Dunkirk was a retreat for the Allied forces (the majority of which were British and French troops) who were being driven towards the English Channel by the German forces. The Allied forces were failing to defend France against Nazi Germany, and the only alternative to surrender was to die fighting or escape to the British mainland.

Nolan’s Dunkirk focuses on snapshots of the evacuation, making the evacuation Dunkirk feel more like one day rather than 10. While Nolan delivers his typical high octane action through dogfights and bombings he also highlights the humanity of soldiers and citizens through displaying a range of heroism and cowardice, sometimes presenting itself in the same character. This contrast of courage and fear is fitting considering the heritage of Dunkirk remains one of victory and defeat.

Another thing to note about the film is that Nolan focuses almost entirely on the British. There is recognition of the French and a Belgian makes an appearance, but besides their war machines, the Germans are silent. Nolan is telling a story about the resilience of the British and Allied forces in what would be a loss crucial to eventual victory for the allied forces. The movie avoids dehumanizing German soldiers while remaining entirely uninterested in the antagonist that is Nazi Germany.

The film displays star actors like Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance, but also sports breakout performances from Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles. The actors fit their roles well, and the quality costume design and cinematography creates a believable cinematic experience. The stubborn pride of the British shines through the film.

Dunkirk rightly displays the fear alongside courage, but the sweetness of this film is displayed in its summation. The audience is left with the words of Winston Churchill as the fate of the film’s characters is left hanging in the balance. That’s exactly where Britain and the whole of Europe was left in 1940. With the United States remaining on the sideline of World War II, Britain, France, and the rebel forces of other European nations were abandoned, caged with a monster.

The righteous rebellion of the Allied forces in the face of failure and defeat lights a fire of emotion and ignites endurance and hope within the human spirit. Though no war is black and white in its justifications and no person is entirely pure, World War II may be the best example of a just war. The struggles of the Allied forces at Dunkirk are amazing not only for the overwhelming obstacles faced, collective heroism displayed, and divine grace received but also for the moral argument fueling the British zeitgeist to “never surrender”.

Mud

Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Ray Mckinnon, and Sarah Paulson take up most of the screen time in Mud. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols who also wrote and directed Loving, Mud is a well-paced and well-acted film that steadily builds to its climax. Mud’s characters are so well-developed that supporting actors feel more intimately understood, and the film seems to use its characters full potential.

McConaughey’s performance is raw and authentic. His slow, rumbling voice and southern accent match his character’s unkempt appearance, and McConaughey appears to play a difficult role with ease. In 2012 McConaughey was no newcomer to Hollywood as he has had been headlining blockbuster films since the 1990’s. But, blockbuster films are typically bypassed by the Academy Awards.

Mud was overlooked at the 2013 Academy Awards, but McConaughey would not be overlooked in 2014 when he won Best Actor in a Leading Role for Dallas Buyer’s Club. Mud seemed to set off a new chapter in McConaughey’s career as the actor seemed to gravitate towards more complicated character roles like Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Mark Hanna in Wolf of Wall Street, and Rust Cohle in the True Detective series. In addition, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland give convincing performances in Mud, and the film uses its dialogue efficiently.

Besides its main theme of love, Mud explores life in rural Arkansas and vigilante justice. The movie captures beautiful shots of river life while subtlety questioning the righteousness of its characters. The justification of a regularly enforced crime is compared to a case of domestic violence, and the premise of one being enforced and the other ignored is convincing. The audience is treated to visuals of Arkansas country and rural river culture while grappling with their attitudes toward the films protagonists.

What Mud does best is explore romantic love across a spectrum of ages and situations. Young teenagers, married parents, adult singles, and an old widower all share their stories of love. Wisdom and foolishness mingle as the lines between right and wrong decisions seem to blur. Love itself is called into question.

Humans are social animals with the ability to shower or shatter one another with love. Reopening the wounds of a broken heart may develop deep scars that suppress the pulse of romantic feelings, but acts of kindness and words of encouragement can heal the naive hopes and vulnerable boldness of persistent love. Mud gives the audience a good glimpse of the complexities of life and love.

True concern for another’s well-being more than one’s own is willing to stay or leave – to hold tight or to let go. That means that true endearment frequently involves sacrificing one’s own desires. It also means that long-term romantic relationships can be often untidy and downright difficult. In a selfish world it may be futile to struggle for lasting love, but Mud advocates for endurance in the effort.

Silence

Directed by Martin Scorsese and staring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson, Silence is a film about 17th century Jesuit Priests seeking to spread their faith in Japan. The film depicts their persecution and struggles as the Japanese hierarchy sought to uproot Christianity in Japan.

Japan’s resistance to foreign influence was strong, and Christianity was no exception. The story of Silence centers around two Priests who set out to find one of their mentors after his letters from Japan cease and rumor is heard of his denial of Christianity. The Priests seek to spread their faith and find their lost mentor while hiding from Japanese authorities. A story of loyalty and betrayal, belief and unbelief, and faithfulness and unfaithfulness follows.

Silence is a deep and heavy film to watch. It explores cultural conflict, compares and contrasts faiths, poses deep theological and philosophical questions, and challenges the definition of truth. Is truth universal, international, national, cultural, or personal? Is truth dependent upon the circumstances that surround the truth seeker? Is it permissible for a person to repeatedly publicly deny his or her faith while privately believing that faith to be right and true?

Silence is a great precursor to the philosophical question – Is it right or permissible to lie in defense of self or others? While harder to justify in defense of self, lying for the protection of others is often considered a right thing to do. Modern Biblical theologians might argue the forgivable nature of denying one’s faith, but modern theologians did not have to be faced with the challenges of 17th century Jesuit Priests.

Silence also has a lot to say about belief in a higher power in general. As the title suggests, God is never depicted as having an audible voice in the film. There are rare suggestions of God’s presence, but the Priests mostly pray and suffer in silence. This leads to questioning the existence of God along with the reasoning behind unwavering profession of faith.

Though much can be said about the disgusting behavior and pathetic reasoning of the persecutors, Silence is about the persecuted. Silence is about the thin line between faithfulness and apostasy, and what it takes to reach and cross that line. Why should these Priests have died for a silent God? What is the promise of a paradise never physically experienced when compared to the tangible stuff of life and the relief of pain? Who is God, and is God universal? Is God worth our lives? If a person decides God is not worth her or his life, is God merciful enough to accept that person back?

Those may be some of the questions that Silence leaves with its audience.

Lion

If you’ve ever been mesmerized by the ability to explore the word from your laptop using google earth, you can try to imagine what it might be like to try to find a location without an address. But, now try to imagine finding a location that you last visited at the age of 5, that is in one of the most populated locations in the world, and that you think is somewhere within an area with a diameter of 1,200 km… that’s what Dev Patel, the lead character in Lion, tries to convey.

Having played an Indian Mathematician in The Man Who Knew Infinity and a kid from an Indian slum in Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel’s role as the adult Saroo was not typical for him. It’s no secret that certain actors are cast according to their looks or persona rather than their raw acting talent. Attractive female actresses may have trouble finding roles other than love interest, comedians may have difficulty attaining more serious roles, and other actors may never find work that breaks the stereotypes of their weight or skin color. In this film Patel plays a hunky Australian student far removed from his roots in India.

Lion is a film based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, a boy adopted by an Australian couple after becoming lost in India at the age of 5. The movie does a lot of storytelling with and without dialogue, and the film explores what it might have been like for Saroo to run from child traffickers or stay in an over-crowded orphanage in India. The complexities of adoption are portrayed as Saroo (Patel) is forced to deal with knowns and unknowns of his past.

Lion was nominated for six Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role [Dev Patel], Best Actress in a Supporting Role [Nicole Kidman], Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Music Score, and Best Cinematography) and sports actors David Wenham, Rooney Mara, and Sunny Pawar among others. The film rides slowly, smoothly, and nostalgically through the story line, intermittently interrupting the calmness to keep the audience engaged with tense scenes or dialogue. Family, fortune, and fortitude are some themes that emerge during the movie, and though the movie takes its time with storytelling, the takeaway is worth the wait.

American Sniper

American Sniper, staring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle and Sienna Miller as Taya Kyle, was directed by Clint Eastwood and inspired by the life of Chris Kyle as told in his book American Sniper. Chris Kyle, a navy seal sniper with 160 confirmed kills during his tours in Iraq, was patriotic Texan who was inspired to serve in the defense of his country. Kyle entered the war in Iraq at one of its most volatile points, when the coalition and U.S. forces were battling against insurgent forces in Fallujah, and American Sniper depicts some of the horrors of that time.

Known for films like Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, and American Sniper, all of which were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Motion Picture of the Year, Eastwood does not seem shy about exploring controversial issues through film. In American Sniper, Eastwood explores a controversial issue that he explored in the past in Unforgiven.

The issue that viewers may grapple with, from the first scene to the final credits, is the issue of ending another person’s life. What is murder under most circumstances is considered heroic in war, and the conflicting nature of that perspective is not easily resolved. In American Sniper the audience is invited into to observe the emotional angst and bold actions of a soldier, before she or he chooses to end the life of his or her enemy.

Complicating the controversy of taking a life in a war zone is the recent history behind the film. Many films seem to be capitalizing on recent historical events by adapting them to the big screen, but in many of these cases there may be insufficient hindsight to make the most of the story. In the case of American Sniper, the events and results of the Iraq War are still being interpreted.

Still, the film’s impact was broadly felt. When the credits rolled at a theater in Springfield, Missouri, the audience was silent. It seemed that no one uttered a word before leaving the room.

But, in other spheres of influence the film was met with criticism. The report of 160 confirmed kills in the defense of one’s country may pleasurably impress some while causing others to cringe in anger or frustration. Snipers may be slightly more removed from a battle, but does that discredit the responsibilities, dangers, and difficulties of their situations?

As American Sniper makes clear, the protagonist is highly motivated to defend the vulnerable whether that is his brother, his family, his nation’s citizens, or his fellow soldiers. The protagonist is also willing to work very hard and put himself in harm’s way in order to defend others. In addition to the dedication and protective instinct that the main character portrays, American Sniper exposes the importance of rehabilitating from tragedies of war.

The film may leave the audience with questions to reflect on. Are veterans well-enough appreciated? Are citizens aware of the harsh realities of a war on foreign soil? Are the atrocities of war avoidable or inevitable?

American Sniper may not be a film that one desires to watch multiple times, but it is a good reminder of the complicated realities of war. There is no easy answer for the harshness that this film presents. American Sniper reminds the audience of the consequences that battles have on the warrior while demonstrating the internal conflicts soldiers face on and off the battlefield. If the viewer can empathize with the film’s characters, he or she will likely find a broader, fuller perspective of what it’s like to be a warrior.

La La Land

Oh the drama this year when La La Land’s crew accepted the Academy Award for Best Picture only to learn that there had been a mistake in the reading of the winner. La La Land’s crew moved through nearly three acceptance speeches before the misreading was corrected. However, the professionalism of the La La Land cast and crew was impressive as they decisively handed off the Awards to Moonlight.

Director Damion Chazelle took a gamble with La La Land. There aren’t many movie musicals coming out of Hollywood these days, and La La Land broke big at the box office and at the award shows, winning 8 Critic’s Choice Awards, 7 Golden Globe Awards, 5 British Academy Film Awards, and 6 Academy Awards. Actors that can also dance and sing seem often under-utilized if not undiscovered. Whatever one’s feelings are about the jazz messaging, dancing, and singing in La La Land, part of the way films make money is by casting well-known actors, and La La Land does try to point to jazz as music that should remain spontaneous and ambiguous.

La La Land seems to be less about jazz, vocals, and dancing and more about love and dreams. Is it worth it to keep pursing that pipe dream? Who can guarantee that your life won’t be spent in futile pursuit of of that dream or that the dream will satisfy you if you ever get there? While La La Land is a bit fanciful with its character’s pipe dreams, it tells a truer story of love that reaches its climax in the final scene. That may be what La La Land did best.

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, depicts the story of  how a U.S. soldier/medic serving in World War II became a conscientious objector. Desmond Doss, portrayed by actor Andrew Garfield who was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, endured criticism from his fellow soldiers for avoiding violence in what may have been one of the most justified wars in history. The endurance of this man in his faith and heroics on the battlefield is inspiring.

Initially the movie relies heavily on storytelling and the plot surrounding Doss’s upbringing and journey to becoming a conscientious objector, but as seems to be Director Mel Gibson’s style, the battle scenes are gruesomely true to life. When Doss finally reaches the battle at Okinawa, the shock of war mixes with his determination find and save wounded soldiers. Doss was a part of a group tasked with scaling a steep-faced ridge to drive Japanese soldiers out of their positions. Following a day in which the group suffered many fallen soldiers and were forced to retreat down the ridge, Doss remained and searched for those soldiers who were left behind. In the film Doss in desperation voices that he cannot hear the voice of his God which one can imagine was a common plea of soldiers serving in World War II.

The cast of Hacksaw Ridge includes Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Luke Bracey, Vince Vaughn, and Sam Worthington, and though the film’s battle scenes are less grandiose than the ones in Braveheart the film tells its story well. Hugo Weaving plays the role of a war-torn father, Luke Bracey portrays a soldier embracing his job as a warrior, Teresa Palmer plays the love of Desmond’s life, and Sam Worthington and Vince Vaughn act as Doss’s superiors. What the film lacks in majestic cinematography it makes up for in character development and raw depictions of combat. Nothing is lost in the storytelling.

This film provides a good basis for the discussion of the justification of war and a persons role in it. Murder is among if not the highest crime(s) imaginable, but warriors are celebrated for their killings often garnering more attention for a higher tally of kills. Some people may despise this film for its passivity while admiring a film like American Sniper for its decisiveness while others may despise all war taking a position of pacifism. Questions of the feasibility of avoiding all war or the implications of embracing its role in the world may arise. Regardless of one’s position in the discussion it’s clear that there is something valuable to be learned from both films.

Hacksaw Ridge is a story of a man holding to his convictions. The man endured hard circumstances hurting no one through his primary actions and achieving something great in the process. Everyone should be able to celebrate that.

 

Captain Fantastic

Written and directed by Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic is a film about a family socially estranged from the modern world but rich in authenticity, independence, and philosophical knowledge. Viggo Mortensen (nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in Captain Fantastic) plays Ben, the father of a family raised in the wilderness of the United States away from the societal expectations and materialism of modern life. At first depicting a father keen on teaching his kids resilience, discipline, philosophical and scientific knowledge, and self-reliance, the plot of the film progresses as the family returns from their rural home to modern society.

Many humorous scenes follow as the brazenly honest father and his socially inexperienced children clash with societal norms, calling into question the reason behind those norms. Celebration of a holiday for the sake of tradition only, the ability of modern students to recall educational concepts, and telling white lies to children because of their age are some examples of the discussions in this film. In one scene the father gives a short sex talk to his 8 year old daughter after she asks what rape and sex are. The father later gives the same daughter the book “The Joy of Sex”, and these scenes further illustrate the father’s unwavering dedication to answer his children’s questions honestly and fully.

The movie is frustrating at many points as the father’s decisions put his children in physical danger and socially deviant or awkward situations, but there is some merit to the father’s choices. To live removed from materialism, to expose children to challenges at a young age, to live with a consciousness of the environment and its preservation, and to value a rich education through reading, writing, discussion, and teaching are all good things. In a modern society built for advertising, entertainment, and production there is something to be learned from the way Ben raises his kids. There is the parental temptation to shelter children from any possible harm and to leave their education to the school they attend, but Captain Fantastic shows the benefits of a parent, in this case a father, dedicated to educating his children in the necessities of risk taking, the temporal nature of life, and the richness of life-long learning. While one may not agree with all of the father’s decisions, the reminder to be an intentional and dedicated parent is a good reason to watch Captain Fantastic.