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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New Releases for the Week of August 14, 2015


Straight Outta Compton

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

(Universal) Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Aldis Hodge, Neal Brown Jr., Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcus Taylor, Alexandra Shipp. Directed by F. Gary Gray

In the middle 80s, Compton was a part of Los Angeles that you didn’t want to live but nonetheless people lived there. It was sometimes described as Southern California Beirut; overrun with gangs and violence, extreme poverty and drugs, growing up was a mixture of survival and despair in some of the most dangerous streets in the country. Out of this mix came NWA, a rap group that not only changed hip hop forever, they changed the attitudes of African-Americans and channeled the rage into action. All these guys did was tell the truth about their existence; in doing so, they galvanized not just a people but an entire movement.

See the trailer, interviews, a clip and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Musical Biography
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use)

Brothers…Blood Against Blood

(Fox Star/FIP) Akshay Kumar, Jacqueline Fernandez, Jackie Shroff, Sidharth Malhotra. When an alcoholic father goes to jail, his two sons part ways and become bitterly estranged from one another. When Dad is released some ten years later, the two boys are struggling to make ends meet; one an ex-fighter turned schoolteacher faced with mounting medical bills for his daughter, the other an alcoholic himself eking out an existence on the underground street fighting circuit. When the biggest MMA event in the world comes to India, both men unknowingly sign up for the winner take all event; when both end up facing each other in the finals, all bets are off. Will blood prevail over years of bitterness?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks
Rating: NR

The End of the Tour

(A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Joan Cusack. David Foster Wallace was one of the most talked-about writers in America. It was 1996 and he had just published Infinite Jest, and was on tour promoting it. Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky was assigned to interview the hot young author and the two shared five days on the road. They would bond in some way, sharing confidences that may or may not have been entirely truthful. Ironically, the interview was never published and the two men went their separate ways, never meeting again. In 2008, Lipsky stumbled on the tapes from the trip in his attic and decided to write a book on his experience, which became the basis for this film for which Segel has been getting some serious Oscar buzz.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

(Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant. It is the height of the Cold War and the United States and Soviet Union are playing a deadly game of chess with nuclear annihilation as the stakes. But now there’s a new player in the game, a criminal organization bent on world domination and they’ve just become a nuclear power. The Soviets and the Americans must bury the hatchet at least for the time being and take on this new threat together, although they can’t do it officially, and so a new agency is created – U.N.C.L.E. – with agents Napoleon Solo from the West and Ilya Kuryakin from the Evil Empire partnering to save the world. Based on the hit TV show from the 60s and directed by Guy Ritchie.

See the trailer, clips, an interview, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)
Genre: Spy Action
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for language)

Return to Sender

(RLJ) Rosamund Pike, Shiloh Fernandez, Nick Nolte, Camryn Manheim. A blind date turns into the worst kind of nightmare for a woman who courageously stands up and accuses her attacker. Against all odds, he is sent to prison. While there she continues to communicate with him, developing a sick kind of relationship. When he is finally released, he seeks her out – setting up the opportunity for her perfect revenge.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: NR

Walt Before Mickey

(Voltage) Thomas Ian Nichols, Jodie Sweetin, Jon Heder, David Henrie. Before Walt Disney was synonymous with family entertainment around the world and had become a global brand name, he was a struggling artist trying to make it in a harsh world. This is the story of a driven, determined and sometimes obsessive man who would later make history – thanks to a chance meeting with a rodent.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Downtown Disney
Rating: PG (for period smoking throughout, mild thematic elements and language)

Law Abiding Citizen


Law Abiding Citizen

Gerard Butler's career is on fire.

(Overture) Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Michael Irby, Viola Davis, Regina Hall, Annie Corley, Roger Bart. Directed by F. Gary Gray

Justice is something of an abstract concept in our modern civilization, but when you get right down to it, justice is about wrongdoers paying for their wrongdoing. Most of us are well aware that justice isn’t guaranteed simply because the rights of all, even those who commit heinous crimes, must be respected. We are required to prove guilt rather than innocence, as most legal systems worked before ours. It can be tricky to prove what you know.

Engineer Clyde Shelton (Butler) has a good life, a beautiful family and a good deal of wealth. In one horrible evening, it’s all taken away from him when a pair of brutal home invaders murders his daughter, rape and murder his wife and leave him for dead. The Philadelphia police capture the two thugs who committed the crime, but the ambitious prosecutor Nick Rice (Foxx) trying the case decides to make a deal with the killer in exchange for sending his partner to death row. Shelton is outraged, but is helpless to do anything about it.

Ten years later, the convicted thug is finally getting his just desserts. The execution by lethal injection, however, goes horribly awry, leading to a particularly gruesome and agonizing end. Shortly thereafter, his partner who testified against him is kidnapped and cut into many, many pieces on camera while the horrified city watches. The killer is revealed to be Clyde who is subsequently arrested. That’s when the circus really begins.

All those who had something to do with the trial – from the defense attorney to the judge who tried the case to the assistant who worked with Nick on the case – meet a grisly fate, ostensibly at the hands of Shelton who is, incredibly, locked away securely in a prison cell at first, then a solitary confinement cell eventually. Even this doesn’t stop Clyde from exacting his revenge from prison. Does he have an accomplice, or is he the second coming of Houdini? How is he accomplishing all this mayhem from a prison cell?

Director F. Gary Gray has done some interesting movies in his time (The Italian Job and Be Cool among them) and this one is no less so. Here he takes a script that really forces us to examine the justice system and its priorities and turns it into an action thriller. The action sequences work to varying degrees, but the movie is truly at its best when Butler and Foxx are allowed to do their things. Yes, it can be said to be a direct descendent of Death Wish but it’s not a rip-off so much as it is a logical extension; the Charles Bronson character was not nearly so clever as the Gerard Butler character is here.

Foxx is a gifted actor who makes a basically unlikable character likable. Most of us will cringe when he takes the low road to get a conviction, but this is certainly not uncommon among prosecutors. He’s also a family man, and when that family is threatened he turns into a cornered grizzly, all the more dangerous.

Butler is one of the most likable screen presences going right now; that saves him quite a bit here. He has to rely on audience sympathy to keep them aboard as most of his actions are pretty sick and twisted. If there’s a problem with the character, we don’t get enough of him as a sane family man at first in order to see his descent into amoral vengeance taker by the movie’s end. Plus, often he seems to be omniscient, which makes it harder to relate to him. Keeping him human makes the character more relatable to audiences and that is better for the movie.

The support cast is mainly solid character actors who fill their roles admirably. Meaney, of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame is particularly memorable as the dogged detective who assists Nick in his investigation, but McGill is solid as the DA that Foxx replaces.

This took a critical lambasting when it was released, but I really can’t say why. This is actually a good movie, not just a decent one but a good one. It kept my attention and had a few interesting twists in it; you can’t ask for much more from a suspense movie than that. While it doesn’t claim to have a fix for the justice system which will always be imperfect as long as humans are involved, it at least initiates the conversation which puts it a step up of most suspense movies to begin with.

WHY RENT THIS: This is a taut, suspenseful thriller that is surprisingly well-acted. Raises some compelling questions about the justice system.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Makes Clyde out to be nearly superhuman; a little more realism might have been more effective there.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of brutal violence, some of it rather sadistic. There is a fairly graphic rape scene, as well as a whole lot of bad language. This is definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man holding the Bible as Nick is being sworn in as the new District Attorney is the actual Mayor of Philadelphia at the time the film was shot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interesting featurette entitled “The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen” has a couple of legal experts debating the plausibility of the script which has to be a first for Hollywood.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Cove