Straight Outta Compton


N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

N.W.A. gives the people what they need.

(2015) Musical Biography (Universal) O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carla Patterson, Paul Giamatti, Alexandra Shipp, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, Keith Stanfield, Cleavon McClendon, Aeriel Miranda, Lisa Renee Pitts, Angela Renee Gibbs. Directed by F. Gary Gray

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not really a fan of rap but then again, I’m not really the target audience. It is hard for someone who grew up in a white collar suburban neighborhood to feel the same rage as someone who grew up in an inner city neighborhood where police harassment is an everyday occurrence as is gang violence and drug abuse. I’m also uncomfortable with the misogyny and homophobia that is often expressed by rappers, and I don’t condone the glorification of the thug lifestyle that they occasionally promote.

That said, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the music nor the effect it has had culturally. When gangsta rap and N.W.A. exploded on the scene, it had the effect of a cultural atom bomb on not only inner city youth but also on white suburbanites, some of whom feared it as the expression of all their racist stereotypes but also on the younger white suburban kids who embraced hip-hop culture and tried to emulate it, often to the amusement of the hip-hop community  (I once heard a rapper sneer as he saw a group of white teen girls listening to Tupac “What do they have to be mad at? Daddy won’t let them borrow the car?”) among others.

There is no denying though that gangsta rap is the result of legitimate grievances felt by the African-American community. Andre Young – a.k.a. Dr. Dre (Hawkins), O’Shea Jackson – a.k.a. Ice Cube (Jackson, the son of the actual Ice Cube) and Eric Wright – a.k.a. Easy-E (Mitchell) – all grew up in Compton, a predominantly poor, black section of Los Angeles. All are witness to the assaults going on in the community against those that live there, both from ultra-violent gang bangers and from the police who are supposed to be protecting them but yet treat all of the residents like criminals. All are angry that nothing is being done about it and that politically speaking, the African-American community is essentially invisible.

They all love hip-hop that is going on then, most of it coming from the East Coast. West Coast rap was then in its earliest stages and when the three of them got together along with MC Ren (Hodge, formerly of the underrated Leverage) and DJ Yella (Brown) there was no denying that there was magic going on. Easy decides that they need to record the songs that they are writing and after early attempts, they secure the services of Jerry Heller (Giamatti) to manage their business affairs but more importantly, open doors. One of the doors that gets opened is to Priority Records, who agree to distribute their Ruthless Records label which includes N.W.A. as well as the D.O.C. (Yates), a friend from their Compton neighborhood.

Then they record Straight Outta Compton, arguably the best rap record ever made. One of the tracks on it, “F**k Tha Police” becomes something of a touchstone for the band’s fans, who feel the same frustration. Of course, the law enforcement community look at it as an attack on them personally and a call to violence against them rather than as an opportunity to look at themselves and institute reforms – an attitude that continues to this day.

The album shoots the band into the national spotlight and becomes a monster success. However, Ice Cube, noting that the contract is not beneficial to the band members, opts to leave the band rather than continue. He starts a successful solo career and trades musical barbs with his former bandmates. After an N.W.A. record without Cube continues their hot streak, Dre is persuaded by his bodyguard Suge Knight (Taylor) to start his own label with him, which becomes Death Row Records, home to legendary acts like Snoop Dogg (Stanfield) and Tupac Shakur.

Easy-E is left with Ruthless and Jerry Heller, and finds his business falling apart. At the same time, his health is failing – the lifestyle of groupies, drugs and parties has led him to contract AIDS. Dr. Dre has become disenchanted with his friend Suge whose tactics of intimidation and violence are against his ethics; he eventually disentangles himself from Knight and starts his own Aftermath label. Rumors begin to swirl that the original N.W.A. is planning a reunion. But given Easy’s health, can it happen quickly enough?

This is as masterful a musical biography as you are likely to see. The portrayals are spot on, particularly Jackson as his dad who looks eerily like Ice Cube circa 1991 and has all the mannerisms down right. Mitchell does maybe the most emotional work as Easy-E, who has the hardest road of the three original members. The scene in which he’s informed of his diagnosis is easily one of the most heart-wrenching of the summer.

Fans of the band will delight in the soundtrack which carries not only the music of the band in question but also of performers on their various labels and performers who were (and are) important to the band members themselves. It’s a primer on early 90s West Coast rap, gangsta rap and hip-hop in general. For many, the movie will be worth it just for the music alone.

&The movie tends to demonize the “villains” of the group’s history (Heller, Knight and law enforcement) while glossing over some of the chinks in the band’s armor – Dre’s notorious incidents of woman battering for example, although since he’s one of the main producers of the film, one can hardly expect the writers to drag out all his dirty laundry.

In that sense, history is written by the winners and while Heller and Knight have both vehemently objected to their depiction in the film, there is no doubt that both had things to answer for in their actions. This is a loud, raucous celebration of N.W.A. and their music but also of their place in cultural history; their music remains relevant even today which is both a testament to their abilities but also an indictment of our own culture which has failed to heed their words and make things better; the Black Lives Matter movement is a direct spiritual descendant of the band which is depressing that it’s still needed.

REASONS TO GO: Gripping story well told. Terrific performances. Informative.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t address some of the darker aspects of the group.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of cursing. Nudity, sexuality, drug use and a little violence for good measure.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the largest opening weekend box office ever for a musical biography, beating Walk the Line.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: No Escape

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The 13th Warrior


No puss, no boots.

No puss, no boots.

(1999) Adventure (Touchstone) Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Omar Sharif, Vladimir Kulich, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Dennis Storhoi, Daniel Southern, Neil Maffin, John Desantis, Mischa Hausserman, Asbjorn Riis, Tony Curran, Albie Woodington, Erick Avari, Sven Wolter, Anders T. Andersen, Bjorn Ole Pedersen, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Maria Bonnevie, Kaaren de Zilva, Layla Alizada. Directed by John McTiernan

The late Michael Crichton’s books have had an uneven history on the screen, ranging from the classic (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) to the mediocre (Sphere, The Terminal Man) to the downright awful (Congo).

The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan and based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, isn’t a classic. But the movie, which tanked at the box office when it was released in 1999, is a surprisingly good adventure flick and well worth some viewing time.

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas) is a poet living in 12th Century Baghdad who runs afoul of the local caliph when he has an eye-to-eye dalliance with another man’s wife. For his indiscretion, the impetuous Ahmed is sentenced to be ambassador to the barbarous Norsemen. Accompanied by his old friend Melchisidek (Sharif), he arrives in the encampment of the Norse king – just in time to witness the old king’s funeral.

The brooding new king Buliwyf (Kulich) accepts the new emissary into his camp albeit begrudgingly. However, all is upset by the arrival of a courier who brings a call for help from a neighboring king whose people are being slaughtered by mysterious, seemingly demonic killers. Buliwyf consults a seer, who tells him that only 13 warriors must go. Quickly, 13 strapping warriors, led by their king, volunteer for the quest; but the seer admonishes that the 13th warrior must not be from the Northlands.

So, Ahmed is volunteered. Along the way to the embattled kingdom, Ahmed goes from being the butt of the band’s jokes to being a respected member of the cadre; he even manages to learn their language by a means that is delivered to the screen in a particularly imaginative way.

Once they arrive at the beset city, they are confronted by seemingly bear-like creatures who turn out to be a tribe of men – bear cultists. The heroic band of fighters bond amongst themselves, fight their implacable foes and the political intrigue of the kingdom they have traveled to, and sow courage, sacrifice and honor – qualities rarely seen in the movies these days.

The scenery here is gorgeous; the mists and shadows of the North make for compelling cinematography. The acting is solid; the Vikings are hearty and likable much in the way they are stereotyped in our culture. Banderas’ Ahmed is cultured and debonair, but is also brave and lethal. He is referred to by his mates as “little brother” and he is indeed brother to the honest and open Norse. His strength isn’t just in his muscles but in his heart, which his commander recognizes is the place where strength counts the most.

Banderas, post-Zorro, was looking to settle into an action hero role but the movie’s box office failure scuttled that career for him essentially – while he has continued to do action roles off and on since then, he’s tended to do more dramas and romantic comedies than anything else which was a bit of a shame – I thought he had great potential to help revitalize the moribund action hero role. Sharif made a rare but welcome appearance in the film – it’s a crime that Hollywood never really utilized this marvelous and charismatic actor more often after the 60s.

The 13th Warrior is a throwback film in many ways. It honors virtues that moviegoers since the antihero days of the 1970s have tended to disdain. We look for our heroes to be flawed so we can relate to them, rather than role models who inspire us to be something better. Ahmed is the kind of hero worth aspiring to – not to mention a rare portrayal of an Arabic character that is positive and strong. Now that’s something I’m all for.

WHY RENT THIS: Throwback adventure film. Nice sets and costumes. Omar Sharif.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat muddled in places. Sluggish and slow-paced.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of battle scene carnage, and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During test screenings of the film, the scores were so low that the film was deemed unwatchable; Crichton took over directing reshoots which nearly doubled the budget and delayed the movie by more than a year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.7M on a $160M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Planes

Les Miserables (2012)


Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off.

Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off.

(2012) Musical (Universal) Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson, Michael Jibson, Isabelle Allen, Charlotte Spencer. Directed by Tom Hooper

As a nation we love musicals. There’s something about the scope of them, the music, the spectacle that we just connect with. We love seeing them on Broadway but we also love seeing them in the movie theater. However, not all musicals translate well to the big screen.

Most folks are aware that this is based on the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel and was adapted for the French stage by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil and later for English audiences at the West End by lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. It was a big hit on the Broadway stage in the 80s and won eight Tony awards in 1987.

The film production was taken up by Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and boasts an all-star cast. The story concerns Jean Valjean (Jackman), arrested for stealing bread and serving a 19-year sentence for daring to feed his starving family. Released, he seems destined for a life of further crime as nobody will hire him since his papers identify him as a dangerous ex-convict. But an act of charity by the Bishop of Digne (Wilkinson) turns his outlook around. He realizes that in order to become the good man he once was, he must break parole and begin fresh.

That puts the obsessive Inspector Javert (Crowe) on his tail. Javert looks at the law as something of black and white, with those who commit crimes as criminals who can never change their natures. He sees Valjean as nothing more than a common criminal whose lot in life is to steal.

Valjean becomes a successful mill owner and becomes mayor of a small French provincial town. One of his employees is Fantine (Hathaway), a beautiful woman who rejects the advances of the lecherous Foreman (Jibson) and whose pay mostly goes to support her daughter Cosette (Allen) who is being looked after by the innkeeper Thenardier (Cohen) and his wife (Carter). The other women of the factory, jealous of her looks, get wind of her daughter and this gives the Foreman an excuse to fire her.

Fantine becomes immediately destitute, selling her hair, her teeth and eventually, her sex. She gets very ill and Valjean witnesses a client threatening to beat her up after she fends off his unwelcome advances. He sees that she is taken to the hospital and promises to send for Cosette. However he has something else to worry about; it seems that Jean Valjean has been caught – at least, someone who has been accused of being him and it appears that someone else will be going back to jail in his stead. This would appear to be the perfect solution but Valjean’s conscience can’t allow it so he goes to the trial and confesses. He leaves to go clear up his affairs, intending to surrender himself to Javert but he witnesses Fantine’s death and goes to fetch Cosette who now has nobody. He knows only he can save her from a life of abuse and takes her away from the Thenardiers, paying them 1500 francs to do so. Valjean and Cosette barely escape Javert and make their way to Paris.

There once again Valjean becomes prosperous and Cosette, now a beautiful young woman (Seyfried) has attracted the eye of Marius (Redmayne), a fervent young revolutionary who is the son of a wealthy man. Cosette falls deeply for Marius but he and his fellow revolutionaries led by the charismatic Enjolras (Tveit). The coming battle looks to be a slaughter of the revolutionaries and Valjean, who realizes Javert has spotted him again, knows that fleeing Paris would be the sensible thing to do but it would break Cosette’s heart.

One of the advantages that a film has is that it can put a more three dimensional feel to the story. A play is limited to the area of the stage; film can go on location or create landscapes of its own. A good translation won’t feel staged or confined. Oddly, that happens a lot here despite the often epic vistas.

One of the big problems I’ve had with Les Mis all along (and I know that this is sacrilegious) is that it’s too ambitious. Nearly every line is sung to the point where you long for some dialogue (there are a few lines here and there but not much) and quite frankly, the music doesn’t hold up for an entire two and a half hour long movie. A good deal of it is mediocre although there are several songs that are amazing (“Who Am I” and “I Dreamed a Dream” among them). This is more of an opera than a musical in that sense.

The performances here are pretty strong. Hathaway has justly received notice as delivering an Oscar-worthy performance and it seems a lock that she’ll get a best supporting actress nomination and most likely the win. The tortured and abused Fantine is a role that demands a great deal of the actress playing her and certainly Hathaway gives it everything she’s got and more.

Jackman does a pretty fine job as well. This is one of his finest performances ever. Having started out as a song and dance man, he should be a slam dunk for this but a tiny little complaint – I think that the key is just about on the high end of his range. It would have behooved the music director to move it down a couple of keys so that they could have gotten a better benefit of Jackman’s vocals.

Crowe has a nice voice but he almost seems to be in a different movie. He’s extremely low-key and doesn’t really pull off the obsessive quality of Javert. He’s a little too stoic here and the part really calls for someone who unravels and that just isn’t Crowe. He does a decent enough job however. Cohen and Carter (which sounds a bit like the name of a law firm) do reasonably well as the comic relief.

This might have been an excellent movie had this not been a musical/opera hybrid. A little more dialogue would have made it more palatable. This is a very emotional movie that requires little manipulation to get your tear ducts working overtime. That it’s sad is a given; the title is, after all, “The Miserable.” But be that as it may, there are some fine performances, enough to recommend the film but don’t go in there expecting the movie of the year. It certainly isn’t that.

REASONS TO GO: Some really amazing performances, particularly from Hathaway and Jackman. Nice comic relief from Cohen and Carter.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much singing for music that doesn’t hold up throughout. A little stage-y in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a suggestion of sexuality, some violence and adult themes. This isn’t a Disney musical folks; there’s some real suffering going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Seyfried and Hathaway have sung with Jackman at the Academy Awards, although on separate occasions.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews seem to be pretty mixed but leaning somewhat towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago

WEST END LOVERS: Many of the extras and small parts in the film are played by West End veterans, many of whom have appeared in the West End version of Les Mis.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away