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Good news: Your weekend moviegoing needs have been simplified. Every Thursday morning, our What To See guide will highlight the new releases opening in New York City and NYC repertory screenings that are most worth your time.
Here's your guide for the weekend of December 4 – December 6.
Welcome back, the abrasive, contentious, and vital Spike Lee of old…
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Teyonnah Parris, Nick Cannon, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Dave Chappelle, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, La La Anthony, Steve Harris
One of 2015's best movie sequences is also a contender for the year's most initially bizarre sights.
Angry, hilarious, and uniformly moving, Chi-Raq is Spike Lee's loose adaptation of the Greek play "Lysistrata," set in the gun-plagued Chicago but retaining the concept of women going on a sex strike to change their men's destructive ways. Lee cast John Cusack as Fr. Mike Corridan, the deeply passionate and naturally galvanizing lone white pastor in an all-black church—the character is based on the Windy City's real-life Rev. Michael Pfleger. When Cusack first enters the film, it's off-putting; aside from the acclaimed Love & Mercy, the actor's recent output has left him flirting with Nic Cage punchline territory. (See here.) Early into Chi-Raq, Corridan presides over the funeral of Patti, a pre-teen who's been killed by a stray bullet fired during gang warfare between the Spartans, led by rapper Demetrius "Chi-Raq" Dupree (Nick Cannon), and the Trojans, overseen by the eye-patch-clad Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Corridan uses the tragedy as a lynchpin to deliver a fire-and-brimstone sermon condemning his city's rampant gun violence. Near combustion, he attacks the "reality TV urban murder shows" seen on the nighttime news by people in the suburbs; he blasts mass incarceration of young black men by calling it "the new Jim Crow." The scene goes on for about 10 minutes, and it's amazingly performed and devastatingly relevant.
Much like the entirety of Chi-Raq, Spike Lee's best narrative film since 2006's Inside Man and an incredibly necessary missive. The ever-ambitious director's previous films haven't been lacking in ideas, but they haven’t been centered enough around any central plans—Red Hook Summer (2012) buried its scathing indictment of religion beneath an uneven coming-of-age comedy, while Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2015) blandly remade the underrated Ganja & Hess (1973) with inferior acting and a disastrously schizophrenic tone. Chi-Raq, though, finds Lee back in his confident School Daze/Do the Right Thing headspace. His mission is clear, and he attacks it with a powerful vigor that never wavers.
That objective is to, as Lee has stated in various interviews, "save lives." Chi-Raq addresses the horrors of inner city gunplay by emptying the rounds directly into the viewers' eyes. The film opens with a terrifying shootout amidst an overcrowded hip-hop concert, then quickly erupts with machine gun spray on a public street, and often transitions scenes with gunfire sound effects. Lee’s characters, including the fed-up elder Miss Helen (Angela Bassett) and the slain girl's mother (Jennifer Hudson), repeatedly decry their neighborhood’s violence through emphatic monologues, and maddening statistics—such as how Chicago's death tolls exceed those in Afghanistan—are shown on screen and voiced by Fr. Corridan. Lee's never been one for subtlety, and, in some ways, Chi-Raq is as pistol-to-the-face abrasive as Bamboozled.
Unlike that punishingly bleak 2000 film, however, Chi-Raq is also funny as hell. For the first time in ages, Lee figures out a way to accessibly preach his charged-up gospel. Honoring its “Lysistrata” origins, the film’s dialogue is almost entirely done in rhyme, and it's equal parts outlandish and witty: Chi-Raq fawns over his girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, exceptional and revelatory), by saying, during intercourse, "Girl, you finer than granulated sugar," and, "You just like my credit: bad as fuck!" Samuel L. Jackson, somewhat reprising his Do the Right Thing role, coolly drops riotous one-liners as Dolmedes, the film's recurring one-man Greek chorus. And Lee's script, co-written with Kevin Willmott, doles out one wonderfully absurdist set-piece after another, like choreographed dance routine set to the Chi-Lites' steamy soul classic "Oh Girl" and a great cameo from Dave Chappelle as a strip club owner who goes on a tirade about how women have "literally shut down the penis power grid."
Lee pulls off a terrific high-wire act with Chi-Raq, see-sawing between heart-attack seriousness and some of the year's best comedy with the kind of filmmaking dexterity that once defined his reputation. In the end, he doesn't provide any tangible solutions for the "reality TV urban murder shows" or the NRA-minded firearm worship that produces those figurative shows. Chi-Raq's larger-than-life aesthetics stoke the fires as only cinema can—and moreover, as only Spike Lee can.
Halloween isn't the only holiday that's ripe for horror goodness…
Director: Michael Dougherty
Stars: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Stefania LaVie Owen
With Krampus, writer-director Michael Dougherty cements his status as horror's master of holidays—even if general public doesn't know why. The mainstream's ignorance about the X2 screenwriter's niche sensibilities can be attributed to the unfortunate mishandling of Dougherty's directorial debut, Trick 'r Treat, a Halloween-themed anthology that's one of the best horror movies of the 2000s. Despite its quality, though, Trick 'r Treat, which was originally scheduled for a 2009 theatrical debut, fell victim to studio politics and only received a straight-to-DVD release in October 2009. Horror fans have been lauding him ever since; now, Dougherty's own perseverance is being rewarded by the big-studio release of the Christmas horror-comedy Krampus. Trick 'r Treat loyalists won't be disappointed.
The titular monster comes from centuries-old German folklore—it's the evil opposite of Saint "Santa Claus" Nick, a red-cloaked and oversized ghoul with large horns, hooves, and a penchant for punishing kids who've been bad and/or have lost the Yuletide spirit around Christmastime. Dougherty's Krampus targets young Max (Emjay Anthony), a well-meaning youngster whose Christmas-loathing family members turn him into a pint-sized Grinch. Max’s sister and parents (Adam Scott, Toni Collette) are forced to entertain mom's sister’s obnoxious brood (led by David Koechner and Fargo's Allison Tolman) for the holidays, and when their insufferable, though often hilarious for Krampus' viewers, antics leave Max in a "Bah humbug!" mood, Krampus and its evil minions pounce.
Dougherty's film is cut directly from the lovably ugly Gremlins Christmas sweat cloth, combining pitch-black comedy with seriously played scares. Krampus takes a bit to kick into gear, initially keeping its namesake mostly off screen, a la the shark in Jaws, and spending time inside Max's home as the kid's family systematically obliterates his Christmas cheer. But the film's second half brings the madcap goods. Homicidal gingerbread men, a child-eating Jack-in-the-Box ghoul, sadistic Teddy bears with blood-soaked fangs, masked elves that look like they've escaped from this old nightmare-fueling photo—Dougherty has a blast perverting Christmas imagery. There's little doubt that you'll share in all of his twisted pleasure.
Where to see it: Opening in wide release
Here's Shakespearian tragedy at its fiercest and most primal…
Director: Justin Kurzel
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Jack Reynor, Elizabeth Debicki, David Thewlis
How do you make something as old and familiar as William Shakespeare's Macbeth interesting again? If you're Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel, you accentuate the darkness.
Giving the legendary Bard's Scotland-set war story a fever dream spin, Kurzel's Macbeth is the strongest adaptation this side of Roman Polanski's 1971 version. As evidenced by Kurzel's distressingly brutal 2011 debut, the hauntingly lo-fi serial killer film The Snowtown Murders, he's not afraid to get hardcore; in Macbeth, he's found the perfect A-list material for that inherently inaccessible sensibility. Arthouse cinema at its most savage, Macbeth will lure viewers in with its star power; it'll also leave AMC/Regal frequenters cold, if not uncomfortably rattled. Which is its biggest strength.
Michael Fassbender is a fiery marvel as the titular war hero, a battlefield star whose deeply rooted ambitions and manipulative wife (Marion Cotillard) turn him into a cold-blooded murderer, as in Shakespeare's play, he becomes a king with figurative and literal blood all over his hands. Through an abundance of excellent visual touches, Kurzel emphasizes the macabre in Macbeth's self-destruction, whereas past Macbeth films have treated the character like a power-hungry overlord. The camera's entire frame gets drenched in a bright red filter for a few key scenes, playing up the film's boiling menace and shrouding Fassbender's Macbeth in a kind of beautiful decay; clouds of smoky fog waft across the frame, cloaking both the violence and the story's three prophetic witches and lending the Scottish Highlands setting a hypnotic surrealism.
Kurzel's Macbeth is Shakespeare in the same hallucinogenic and grisly pitch as Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising. It's psychological horror for the prestige crowd.
Where to see it: Landmark Sunshine Cinema
Spend 80 minutes in pure cinephile nirvana…
Director: Kent Jones
Now that it's officially awards season, it's easy for movie lovers to concentrate more on cinema's politics and headline-grabbing glossiness than its artistry. Rather than spend time writing about and enthusiastically discussing a movie like Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant's how-to's, for example, folks are predominantly worried about whether it'll land Leonardo DiCaprio his first, long-overdue Oscar. Which means it's the perfect time for a movie like Hitchcock/Truffaut to open—there's no way anyone can watch it and not remember whey they fell in love with movies in the first place.
Hitchcock/Truffaut uses film critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut's seminal 1967 book—for which he sat down with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962, at Universal Studios, for eight days to discuss Hitch's illustrious and then-critically-misunderstood career—as a way into a larger look at how Hitchcock's behind-the-camera brilliance has influenced generations of subsequent directors. Director Kent Jones, who's also the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, interviews Hitch fans Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, and James Gray, all of whom give wonderful anecdotes and fascinating analysis—Scorsese gleefully recalls seeing the crowd's noisy reactions to Psycho's shower scene in a packed theater 1960; Gray explains why Vertigo's pivotal hotel scene is, in his mind, the greatest cinematic moment of all time.
The most apropos insight comes from Fincher, who comments on how Vertigo's initially negative reviews are indicative of how people's need to immediately assess cinema betrays the art-form's timelessness—not unlike how, say, the aforementioned The Revenant will be instantly dissected on Twitter throughout this month. Hitchcock/Truffaut is a much-needed celebration of substantiality as cinephiles brace themselves for an Oscar-motivated oversaturation of trivialness over the next few months.
Where to see it: Film Forum
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