The Letters

Posted on December 3, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Copyright Freestyle Releasing 2015
Copyright Freestyle Releasing 2015

Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who devoted her life to “the poorest of the poor” in India, is one of the foremost figures of the 20th century, and on the way to being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Some people are disturbed by discovering through her published letters that at times she felt doubts about herself, her work, and even about God. But it was that same resolute honesty that compelled her to follow her calling and it would be more disturbing if she never doubted or if she doubted and did not feel she could express it. Her accomplishments are even more impressive once we learn how fiercely she wrestled with God.

In “The Letters,” Juliet Stevenson plays Mother Teresa, from her early days as a nun to establishing her own order. At first, in the convent in India, she is teaching young girls in starched uniforms who sit quietly and are eager to learn. But she receives “a calling within a calling” and believes she has been called on by God to work with “the poorest of the poor.” Reconciling this determination with her vow of obedience and her dedication to humility is not easy. Persuading the people that she hopes to help that all she wants is to help them, not convert them, is not easy.

The tall actress Juliet Stevenson does a fine job as the tiny nun. Some people may object that the movie caters to those who are already believers. It does not question Mother Teresa’s greatness or her tactics and it elides over some of the controversies concerning the expansion of her operations and whether her faith-based approach was always best for the people she was helping. Some viewers will find the film slow, though for me that was one of its strengths. Writer/director Bill Riead makes sure that its quiet power is more like a prayer than a biographical portrait, a calling inside a calling inside a calling and one that its subject would find most suitable.

Parents should know that this movie’s themes concern work with the “poorest of the poor,” with extreme deprivation and illness.

Family discussion: What is the best way to help the “poorest of the poor?” Why did Mother Teresa want to help people who were not Catholic?

If you like this, try: “The Life Journey of Mother Teresa,” a documentary

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Based on a true story Biography Drama Spiritual films

Chi-Raq

Posted on December 3, 2015 at 3:37 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, nudity, language, some violence and drug use
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: A theme of the film is gang-related violence, guns, shooting, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Race and gender issues are the theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 4, 2015
Date Released to DVD: January 25, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B017W1P79I

“WAKE UP!” Laurence Fishburne pleads at the end of Spike Lee’s incendiary movie, “School Daze,” not just one of Lee’s best films but one of the most important films of the 1980’s. He was not talking to his fellow students. He was not talking to the camera. He was talking to us in the audience. He was telling all of us to rise above fear and petty differences — and fear of petty differences and stop hurting each other.

Copyright Amazon 2015
Copyright Amazon 2015

That message is even more urgent now, and so “Chi-Raq” is an even more powerful call for all of us to wake up, and it is Lee’s best non-documentary film in many years. It is more than a film; it is an anguished wail of grief and fury and the most important film of 2015.

We call the great Illinois city on the shores of Lake Michigan Chicago, but as the opening lines of the movie explain, for the residents of a South Side community with more violent deaths than the US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is Chi-Raq. In the film a little girl is killed by a stray bullet in a gang-related shooting. She is collateral damage. The week I saw the film, there was a funeral in the very community where it is set for a nine-year-old boy who was a deliberate murder target as an act of reprisal against his father. Even the ultimate symbol of Chicago gangster violence, Al Capone, never went that far. This is not a documentary and the mode of storytelling here is heightened, but there can be no credible claims that what it portrays is unfair or exaggerated.

They feel completely isolated from any kind of help from the outside. Businesses are afraid to come into their community, so there are not jobs or services. The government does not help. The newspapers do not tell their story. Their news is reported by rappers, and in a sensationally dynamic scene in a club a rapper known as Chi-Raq (a fierce Nick Cannon) tells the truth about what they see all around them.

Lee, working with co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott, brilliantly positions this vitally contemporary story as an updated version of a play written in 411 BC, “Lysistrata,” by Aristophanes. Just as the savvy strategist of almost 25 centuries ago plotted with the other women of her community to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War by withholding sexual favors from all of the men, “Chi-Raq’s” Lysistrata (a sizzling performance by “Mad Men’s” Teyonah Parris) sits down with the women from the opposing gang (to continue the classical themes, the gangs are the Trojans and the Spartans) to get them to pledge that there will be no loving until there is no more shooting. The heightened classical overtones include a narrator/chorus who has a Greek-sounding name Dolmedes — inspired by the Blaxploitation hero Dolemite and played by Samuel L. Jackson in a series of natty, brightly colored suits. And then there is the dialog, all in verse, somewhere between rap and iambic pentameter, which actually have a pretty broad overlap.

Lee makes it clear that this is a widespread, even universal problem as women around the world join forces with Lysistrata. And no one escapes responsibility for the carnage, with a searing climax of tragedy and redemption. We see a mother (Jennifer Hudson) scrubbing her little girl’s blood off the street. We see people tweeting the details of a shooting as it happens. Lysistrata is inspired not just by her namesake but by the real-life Nobel Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who brought the Christian and Moslem women of Liberia together to stop the fighting in their country. Lee is very clear about who is to blame and who is responsible for making it better: all of us.

And when we see mothers holding pictures of their children killed by guns, we are seeing real mothers, holding pictures of their real children. All of the flash, music, sex, and spectacle are balanced with moments of intimacy, connection, and poignancy, and all are anchored in Lee’s passion for his community. That reality makes this a rare movie that can change the conversation.

Parents should know that this film features gang-related and other violence with tragic outcomes including characters injured and killed, explicit sexual references and situations with nudity, smoking, drinking, and drug use.

Family discussion: What is the best way for the community, the government, and business to stop gang-related violence? How can a movie like this make a difference?

If you like this, try: “School Days,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and read “Lysistrata”

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Based on a play Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Politics

Interview: Teyonah Parris and Spike Lee on “Chi-Raq”

Posted on December 3, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Copyright Amazon 2015
Copyright Amazon 2015

“Chi-Raq” is one of the best films of the year and one of the most important films of many years. It is a searing wail of love, grief, and fury inspired by “Lysistrata,” a play written in 411 BC. A small group of reporters spoke to star Teyonah Parris and co-writer/director Spike Lee.

Parris told us that she actually performed in the original Lysistrata when she attended Juilliard. “I did not get to play Lysistrata but I have always studied Shakespeare and Greek plays and Chekhov and I love working on that sort of text. There is so much to mine from it. And so when I got this script for ‘Chi-Raq’ and I realized this was a modern retelling of that story I was all in. And then to hear Spike talk about what he was doing with the movie — the first thing he said is, ‘I’m trying to save lives. We have to save lives,’ and I was all in, there was no question about it. Spike certainly has an out of the box approach to his work but I think that’s why people gravitate towards him. He gives us another way to look at things. It is a bit more unconventional but I certainly think that it will resonate with our current generation because it’s Spike. It’s hard to put your finger on what it is he does that makes it hit right here but I think that people will watch this movie and certainly understand what we’re seeing and what the message is.” She acknowledged that the film is bound to be controversial. “The title has gotten a lot of flak but the no one has actually seen it and heard the message and seen what we’re trying to say but I know that Spike’s intentions and mine and everyone that is a part of this film, our intentions are pure and were trying to make a difference and get this conversation started so that people can actively make some changes. The issue that we’re dealing with in the film with our young brothers killing each other — to talk about that I don’t think eliminates the conversation which has been on everyone’s minds and hearts with the police brutality against particularly young black men and women. I think that those conversations can be had simultaneously. There is a lot more at play and we talk about it in the movie, the fact that there are no jobs in these places. People are trying to feed their families who are given no other way out.”

The character she plays in the film is confident, forthright, and very capable of weaponizing her sexuality. She is a long way from the more realistic characters she played in “Mad Men” and “Dear White People,” and the distinction is clear in her physicality as well as her dialog and responses to other characters. She spoke about the costume designer and movement coach who helped her create the character. “I call the costume designer Master Ruth Carter. I remember being in those fittings saying ‘Ruth, don’t you want to add a little bit more fabric, a little more here and there?” but I loved it. I thought it certainly was a physical representation of who this woman was and the confidence that she has and how she moves about the world and finding her physicality. It felt very theatrical which is no surprise because it’s from a play. So finding who this woman was and how she walks into a room or walks down the street, I certainly had lots of assistance from a wonderful woman name Maija Garcia who was our movement director, and we worked on just finding her strength and, how does she stand and how does she command a room simply by being there without walking around or whatever. It took some work. I didn’t just show up to set; I had to explore it before getting there and I definitely had the assistance of Maija Garcia. We just did little exercises, exploring what does it feel like to walk in 6 inch heels and how that changes you.”

Parris was excited to work with Lee and to play the central role. “She’s the hero. She comes in and she sees the issue. There has to be a strength and a determination not only for her to carry on her mission but for me also the actress to figure out what she’s trying to do and how she has to do it and in such a very short time. We shot this in five weeks, the entire thing. And I had to use every bit of my artistic being in this film from the dancing to just finding my center and my strength and how do I affect people and how to effectively lead people. Yes, I think those are some of the things that made it a challenge for me but they are a welcome challenge.”

Lee emphasized that this movie is not for any particular demographic. “The film talks strongly about guns and that affects everybody, all Americans.” But it was not easy for him to get it into production, in part because it is so unusual to have an entire screenplay in verse. “I’ve never done this before so it was a challenge to get this made. I think that one of the reasons why everybody said no in the process is because of the verse, because it’s hard to read, and that’s why before Amazon said yes we had two readings. They wanted to hear it, they want their ears to hear it, and I don’t blame them because even when I write my own scripts reading it and hearing the actors say the lines is two different universes. And that doesn’t even happen till you hear bits and parts during casting. I do a lot of rewriting during that period because I hear it for the first time.”

The training Parris got at Juilliard helped prepare her for speaking in verse as though it was natural conversation. “Essentially the idea is that the structure is different but your intentions are still the same. You are trying to affect something. You are trying to get something out of someone. So what are you doing? And you have to continuously remember and remind yourself that you don’t get lost in the sing-song or the verse of it. Nick Cannon] and I frequently had conversations about that, just reminding ourselves and each other what is the scene about, like what are we trying to do so that we don’t get lost in the sound of it, so to speak.”

Like Lee’s earlier film, “School Daze,” this film ends with someone calling on us in the audience to “wake up.” Lee said, “We’ve been using those two words, that’s the last two words of ‘School Daze:’ wake up, from Laurence Fishburne. ‘Do The Right Thing’ begins with Samuel Jackson saying ‘wake up’ and closes with him saying ‘wake up’ as Mister Senor Love Daddy because consciousness is not something that is at use all the time.”

Parris added, “I agree with what Spike said. I think our role as artists is to show, to be a reflection of our community and the world in a way that even though it may not be comfortable to watch or to receive its truthful and makes you think about the state of our community.”

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Actors Directors Interview Race and Diversity Writers

Interview: Roque Banos, Composer of “In the Heart of the Sea”

Posted on December 2, 2015 at 3:32 pm

Roque Baños composed the haunting score for Ron Howard’s new film, “In the Heart of the Sea,” based on the real-life whaling expedition that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. “I got involved at the very beginning of the shooting,” he told me in an interview. “My first conversation with Ron was before he started to shoot. We talked about many things of course but the most important words were like, ‘Roque, the music in this movie was going to be more than 50 percent of it.’ The music for him is another character of the movie. He treated us as another actor and we had conversations about emotions, the power represented on the whale. He wanted also a dramatic but also a very, very modern sound;, you didn’t want like an old school classic score.” There is one moment in the film where a sailor plays a genuine 18th century song on his guitar, but the score is not based on historical themes.

To convey the peril and passion of the story, Baños used a wide variety of instruments, from ethnic flutes to touch on the force of nature and the low sound, ancestral sound of the didgeridoo to represent the whale. There is an electric cello and orchestral guitars, “but the most unusual one was the percussion. I didn’t want to use the traditional percussion on the action scene. I wanted to use something special so then I asked Ron Howard if I could have everything they used from the ship for the shooting. Then they brought me everything that they had on the ship, even the sails, the sails, ropes, and hull, so we spent two days of recording a pallette of sounds that come from the ship. The whole ship was an instrument. So every percussion you hear on the music comes from the ship that we are seeing the picture. So another one that I will tell you, I was recording the sounds from nature like air, like water, the flow of water, the sound of the sea.” Putting all of those sounds together required a lot of mixing. “The whole thing was a like huge experiment. I didn’t know at the beginning how it was going to come out. I think there is always a way to combine extremely different instruments. I also created a big library of sounds so then I convert them into notes so then it could be used as music.”

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