Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta ComptonDirector: F. Gary Gray

Screenwriters: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff

Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Paul Giamatti

When one considers the characteristics of the “movie musical,” things like big, grand orchestrated song and dance numbers and big set pieces often spring to mind. Conversely, crack houses, the L.A. riots, and hip hop music are not usually the first things associated with the genre. Nonetheless, the genre of musical cinema, in its simplest terms, explores characters who engage with music in a way that reveals something about them. And it is within these terms that I suggest the new biopic Straight Outta Compton, about hip-hop group N.W.A., is most certainly a movie musical!

Now Straight Outta Compton may not have big song and dance numbers or big set pieces, but the film is most certainly big. Its ambitions are big, its cast is big, its running time is big, and currently sitting at number one for its third week in a row – its box office is big. The film opens with a tense drug deal gone wrong where Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) narrowly escapes an unsatisfied customer and the LAPD. Director F. Gary Gray then takes us on a quick tour of the city of Compton via introductions of the other four soon-to-be members of N.W.A. including Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins). Compton has its nails dug into each of these boys one way or another, but if there’s one thing the streets have taught them, it’s that their stories are worth telling. What follows is a fairly conventional rise to and fall from fame story, complete with corrupt managers like Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), struggles with the excess that come from success, and acts of retribution by those who have been wronged.

The element that makes this film rise above the conventional is, of course, the music. Like any good musical, the songs play a role as big as any character. The evolution of the group’s most famous anthems are well documented and the group’s cause against the corrupt and downright racist establishment that they have been victimized by is “expressed” with great care. I found myself engrossed in the way this film presented the record business. Many films have depicted the rise of the music artist and the corporate paradox between the money and the art, but Straight Outta Compton shows how unique that process is for Rap and Hip-Hop, especially for a group that was such a trailblazer. It is in this facet that Straight Outta Compton is most impressive. Also, keep an eye out for “cameos” from some of the other key players on the scene as street rap started taking off.

On the other hand, the genre of street rap is admittedly not very “woman friendly” and the same can be said about this film. Female characters are few, far between, shallow, and flat (in the character development sense). Recently, Dr. Dre made a public apology to the women he has hurt, and while much of his misogyny is rather glossed over in the film, the tone is undeniably present with what little dealings with women the film displays. This is not a new criticism when it comes to the latest blockbusters (see my San Andreas review or any Transformers film for more evidence), but a desensitization is emerging. Maybe it’s not a film like Straight Outta Compton’s job to start swinging the pendulum the other way, but that doesn’t excuse the gauche factual omissions that consequently rebrand these men as complete saints.

Still, Straight Outta Compton is successful mostly due to its confidence, which its principle subjects have in spades. The cast captures the spirit of these “boyz in the hood” to an almost eerie degree, and there are some great decisions made in the way that the music is featured. Ice Cube said, “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.” While we may not be dealing with the whole truth here, Straight Outta Compton does give you a little truth, so go crazy! B+

Straight Outta Compton is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 27 minutes.

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San Andreas

san andreasDirector: Brad Peyton

Screenwriter: Carlton Cuse

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Daddario

I am pleased to say that San Andreas, the new action film from director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) is by far the director’s finest work but also a really enjoyable film from start to finish. Many action films struggle to find a niche for themselves given their overabundance at the box office, especially in the disaster genre, but San Andreas manages to deliver for the most part.

Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a California rescue chopper pilot who knows the ropes. Recently divorced, Ray is trying to pick up the pieces and maintain a strong relationship with his teenage daughter, Blake (Alexandrea Daddario). When Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) a Cal Tech Seismology professor discovers tremors in a new fault line under Nevada that allows him to accurately predict upcoming earthquakes, he realizes that San Francisco is in for an earthquake, the magnitude of which the Earth has never seen before. Now, Ray has to risk it all to rescue his family.

I’ll say this once just to get it out of the way and leave it at that. This is not the film from 1996 about the scientists who are trying to invent a way to increase warning systems before a natural disaster hits centralized around a recently divorced protagonist with a tragic past that risks it all to keep his family safe, including his ex-wife. That film was Twister. This is also not the film about a group of heroic men who through strength and determination are able to save various female characters who are depicted as much weaker, until one female character with a masculine name (Jo) proves to be just as tough as the boys. That film was Twister. This is the one from 2015 that has the girl named Blake.  Oh, and did I mention both Jo and Blake spend most of their respective films in tight cotton tank tops?  You know, the ones male action characters often wear with the unfortunate colloquial term, “wife-beater.”

Ok, snarkiness aside, this is a fun movie. Feminists will cringe at the fairly common occurrence of women getting into trouble and requiring men to save them, in some instances costing the male characters their lives. However, screenwriter Carlton Cuse has tread these waters before. Mostly known for his television writing on shows like Lost, The Strain, and Bates Motel (the latter involving a female character named Bradley), Cuse knows how to thrill, pace, and deliver some thrills. Furthermore, director Brad Peyton creates a spectacular scene of San Francisco’s demolition throughout the film. The tension is palpable and tangible regardless of our familiarity with this genre and the formulas that come along with it.

San Andreas is a traditional summer tent pole blockbuster, but as more and more of these types of films are starting to feel stale, this one works. Johnson continues his ascension to being the next Arnold Schwarzenegger, only with more charisma (of course, I am aware that there still is a current Arnold Schwarzenegger, but did you see The Last Stand, Sabotage, or The Expendables 3?). Unoriginality and misogyny do hold the film back slightly and boy oh boy does the final shot reek with clichéd patriotism, but I still recommend the film on its merits and believe audiences are smart enough to not find the film’s shortcomings offensive. B

San Andreas is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes.  

Saving Mr. Banks

ImageWhen nominations were being made for the 2014 Golden Globes, I read that if Saving Mr. Banks were to get a nomination, it would have been in the drama category.  That sounded odd.  I mean Tom Hanks as Walt Disney trying to get the author of Mary Poppins to sign over movie rights, a drama?  Now, the Golden Globes don’t always get it right – it’s kind of their thing, but regarding Saving Mr. Banks as a drama – they were right about this one. 

It may seem a bit self-indulgent for a movie studio to make a movie about how amazing they were when they made another movie, but there’s more to this story than just that.  Primarily, Saving Mr. Banks is the behind the scenes story of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) furiously courting writer P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in the hopes of getting her to sign over the movie rights to her Mary Poppins children’s books. Hanks summons all of the likability of well, Tom Hanks, to portray the larger than life filmmaker.  His motive is to fulfill a promise to his daughters 20 years in the making, that he would produce a film about their favorite childhood books.  Travers is the holdout as she has seen Disney’s films over the past 20 years and does not want her beloved characters to be romping around stage, singing, and worst of all…as cartoons!  In 1961, Disney finally convinces Travers to at least visit Los Angeles, sit in with the writers, and see what happens. 

Travers is a terror on Disney, his writers, and his staff.  Her arrogant British ways are on full display, but it is clear that she has high defenses for a reason; these characters are important to her for reasons Disney can not possibly understand.  Director, John Lee Hancock explores the layers of Travers through flashback, sporadically inserting scenes of her childhood with her parents Travers (Colin Farrell) and Margaret (Ruth Wilson).  Through these flashbacks, the audience gets a rueful sense of Poppins’ origin.  Hancock and his editors are brilliant at sensing when these scenes are necessary.  This is especially evident in a fine scene set to the Mary Poppins song, “Feed the Birds.”

Cleary, Mary Poppins becomes a film and a film beloved by generations of people for 50 years now, so whether the film is made is not a source of tension whatsoever.  The strength of the film is in its way that Travers and Disney slowly are able to find common ground.  Doubtless, we are seeing some revisionist history.  I’m sure that if another studio had been granted the rights to tell this story, we might get a different vision of Walt Disney, the man.  However, Saving Mr. Banks does not seek to disparage its characters.  Rather, it desires to explore some of the “magic” that makes characters and stories meaningful to us.  The film is actually quite clever in its construction as it subtly mirrors the conflict in Mary Poppins through Travers’s fear of what blind capitalism might do to something she sees as so precious and pure. 

Disney fans will also find much to enjoy as the nostalgia level is through the roof and hypnotizing.  Memorable songs from Mary Poppins are strewn all over the film, and it is very enjoyable to watch these songs develop and be performed all over again.  In one scene, as Paul Giamatti’s character, Ralph, drives Travers into Walt Disney Land for the first time, he may as well come back and pick us up too!  In fact, during the credits photos of Walt Disney and all of the characters from the film are displayed and a real audio sample of the real P.L. Travers bossing around the writers can be heard.  The film is laced with Disney, but the contact high is pleasant.  

Thompson is irrepressibly repressive as Travers.  It is a delight to see her take the lead again for the first time since reprising her role as Nanny McPhee in 2010; however, this is her finest and most substantial performance in many years.  By the end of the film, she has the audience in the palm of her hand and conveniently one of the film’s final scenes takes place in a movie theater where the audience has no choice but to fully experience and empathize with her literally from per point of view.  Hanks does an ample and sufficient job as Disney, but most of his scenes involve making puzzled looks or smiling a lot.  There are several times throughout the film where viewers will ask themselves, “how is he ever going to get this woman to sign over the rights?” and he succeeds in making us understand, chiefly thanks to one fine speech towards the film’s end.  Otherwise, Hanks is a recognizable caricature.  It is certainly P.L. Travers’s story, but it would have been nice to get a bit more into Disney’s head than this film had intended. 

Saving Mr. Banks is a surprisingly rich contextual film, appropriately layered to tell not one but two deeply related stories.  I was surprised how caught up I found myself with the flashback scenes and consequently with how much I liked this film.  A-

Saving Mr. Banks is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours.       

12 Years a Slave

ImageThere’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years a Slave where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks directly into the camera and seemingly at the audience.  He stares for an extended moment, as if to say, “Can you believe that only 150 years ago – this happened…in the United States of America?”  12 Years a Slave is the quintessential American slavery-era film; it is heartbreaking, disturbing, tender, raw, and also beautiful.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free, New York citizen who is a victim of a horrific kidnapping scheme where Southern slave traders abduct free Black citizens and transport them South forcing them back into slavery.  Northup’s life and family are ripped from him so suddenly that it is astonishing.  The title is pragmatically evocative of how long Northrup will endure his injustice, and director Steve McQueen makes sure the audience feels every bit of it as well.

The film is based on Northrup’s own memoir, a literary example preciously rare as so many slaves died before they could tell their stories or were never taught to read and write.  A pervasive struggle Northrup faces in the film is searching for tools or opportunities to write.  The film opens with Northrup covertly trying to make ink out of blackberry juice and fashion a pen out of stray twigs.  McQueen wisely emphasizes the oppressive silencing that occurred in order to, in some way, try to explain how such outrageousness was even possible for so long.

McQueen frames Northrup’s experience by casting recognizable faces as various archetypes of 19th Century Southern society.  Paul Giamatti plays a slave merchant in all of its absurdity, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the hypocritical plantation owner who seemingly appreciates humanity but wants to turn his eyes from the horror he knows is happening right under his nose, and Brad Pitt plays…Jesus; I’m pretty sure he’s playing Jesus.  However, one player, other than Ejiofor, gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far more substantial, Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a slave owner who owns Northrup for nearly 10 of his 12 years in slavery.  Fassbender is terrifying; his character is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List, yes – he’s that chilling.  However, what sets him apart from being a typical embodiment of evil is that as the film goes on, it is clear that Epps is mentally ill.  This element does not garner sympathy for his actions, but it does reveal some of the helplessness inherent in a society that avoids the value of human life.  The end result is a decaying infrastructure that eats away at itself until it collapses.

Of course, this is a showcase for Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has been on the brink of greatness for some time now.  Ejiofor’s performance is certainly in the running for the best of the year.  He harnesses strength as he portrays the effects of a dark and obtuse time in human history.  As Solomon Northrup, he leads the audience through a series of events that certainly require a bold and fearless guide.

12 Years a Slave is a moody masterpiece that I’m sure offers more context in repeat viewings, but I don’t know what kind of person would be able to sit through this film more than once.  McQueen contrasts the most abhorrent events of our young country’s history with some beautiful filmmaking, glorifying the Southern landscapes in rich, luscious irony.  His camera is up close and personal, using countless close-ups with the clear objective of putting slavery “in your face.”  The emotion is real and raw, not melodramatic.  Towards the end of the film, Northrup finally breaks down, which is inevitable.  He weeps for what he has missed.  It is a history lesson of the best and worst kind.  A