All Eyez on Me


Everyone wants to rap with ‘Pac.

(2017) Musical Biography (CODEBLACK) Demetrius Shipp Jr., Danai Gurira, Kat Graham, Hill Harper, Annie Ilonzeh, Lauren Cohan, Keith Robinson, Jamal Woolard, Dominic L. Santana, Cory Hardrict, Clifton Powell, Jamie Hector, DeRay Davis, Chris Clarke, Ronald Brooks, Jarrett Ellis, Erica Pinkett, Rayven Symone Ferrell, Josh Ventura, Chanel Young. Directed by Benny Boom

 

Tupac Shakur remains one of the most vital and influential artists of the 20th century; while there have been documentaries on his brief but meteoric life, there hasn’t been a biopic up until now. Shipp as ‘Pac is a dead ringer for the late rapper and displays at least some of the charisma that Tupac possessed; some have groused that Shipp is not even close in that aspect but that’s like bitching about a match because it isn’t the sun. For my money he did a pretty decent job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

The movie is a touch over two hours long and sadly you feel every moment of it. We get little sense of Tupac the artist and instead we spend a whole lot of time seeing Tupac the party animal. The movie reinforces a lot of the stereotypes Middle America has of rap culture – the misogyny, the violence, the drugs and alcohol and the conspicuous consumption. At no point during the course of the movie do we see Tupac actually creating anything; mostly we see him railing against the forces that were against him, hanging out with his boys and getting in confrontations with rivals. We get the highlights of his turbulent life and most of the soundtrack is made up of his more pop-oriented songs which may serve as a nice introduction to those unfamiliar with his work but will likely frustrate his fans.

Shakur is one of the most important artists of the last decade of the 20th century and his genius reverberates through modern rap without any let-up since his 1996 murder (which remains unsolved to this day) at the age of 25. He deserves a film that is as powerful as the music he created, but this isn’t it. What this is however is a fairly bland introduction to the life and music of Tupac and for now it will just have to do.

REASONS TO GO: Shipp is a star in the making.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie concentrates too much on the parties and the thug life and not enough on Tupac as an artist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, violence, sexuality, nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shipp’s father worked with Death Row Records as a producer and produced some of Tupac’s work near the end of his life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Straight Outta Compton
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cars 3

Fruitvale Station


A precursor to tragedy.

A precursor to tragedy.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal, Ahna O’Reilly, Keenan Coogler, Trestin George, Joey Oglesby, Michael James, Marjorie Shears, Destiny Ekwueme, Bianca Rodriguez III, Julian Keyes, Kenny Grimm, Thomas Wright, Alejandra Nolasco. Directed by Ryan Coogler

On December 31, 2008 a young man and his girlfriend left their daughter at a relative’s house and took a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to San Francisco to celebrate the new year. After a few hours of revelry, they returned home on the same train. A fight was said to have broken out, so the train was stopped at the Fruitvale Station so that the transit police could investigate. Four young African-American men were pulled off the train and detained, including the young father. When he rose up to protest, he was forced to the ground with an officer’s knee in his face. While he was down, another officer shot him in the back. He would die the next morning from his wounds.

The young man’s name was Oscar Grant III and his death provoked massive protests and outcry particularly on the West Coast. In the wake of the recent Trayvon Martin decision, his story is more relevant than ever.

The movie opens with actual footage of the incident (many passengers on the train captured it on their cell phones, as did surveillance cameras on the station platform) and then flashes back 24 hours as we see Oscar (Jordan) in the last 24 hours of his life. This young man was no saint – he had a temper and had been incarcerated for selling drugs. He’d recently lost his job in a grocery store for being late to work too often and had recently cheated on his girlfriend Sophina (Diaz).

Still, he clearly loved his daughter Tatiana (Neal) and was trying his best to be a good father to her. Despite his indiscretion, he wanted nothing more than a more permanent relationship with Sophina. And he adored his mother Wanda (Spencer) and looked up to her as a role model. He, Sophina and Tatiana spent the evening having dinner with Wanda and celebrating her birthday. Worried that traffic in and out of the city would be bad and that with all the drunk people on the road it might be dangerous, Wanda urges Oscar to take the train which he and his buddies (along with Sophina and another girl) elect to do, a train that will take Oscar to his final moments.

This will undoubtedly go down as one of the best films of 2013 and will certainly merit some awards consideration (I wouldn’t be surprised to see Weinstein do a brief theatrical re-release right around Christmas to remind Academy voters how good this movie is). I won’t lie and say this is a completely objective movie, but neither is it unrealistic – Oscar Grant had some issues in his short life and his family would undoubtedly be the first to say so. He’s not portrayed as some kind of saint here, but as a real guy struggling to better his life and the lives of his family. Most of us are no different in that regard.

Jordan delivers a real star turn here. He has the best onscreen smile since Tom Cruise and shows amazing screen presence and charisma here. He transforms Oscar Grant from a name on newscasts into flesh and blood. I don’t know how close he was to capturing the personality of the real Oscar Grant (although friend of the family Jack Bryson indicated that it was) but Jordan makes the impending tragedy hanging over the bulk of this movie like a Sword of Damocles all the more poignant because while he was far from perfect, Oscar Grant was a good man.

Octavia Spencer has already won an Oscar and she might just get another one as Oscar’s tough loving mom. She demands – and receives – respect from her son, and is the kind of mom that everyone loves and whose respect and approval everyone craves. Spencer gives Wanda inner strength (which the real Wanda possesses in abundance) and her grief for her son in the movie’s closing scenes is hard to watch.

The movie is highly fictionalized, portraying an incident in which Oscar watches a dog get hit by a car after which it dies in his arm (portending his own fate) and a shopper at the grocery store (O’Reilly) trying to get a recipe for a fish fry whom he connects with his grandma (Shears). In fact, Oscar is constantly on his phone, a conceit that is used throughout the movie by projecting the phone screen onscreen to show us the texts he’s receiving. It’s very effective.

There are those who will grouse that the movie is manipulative, but that’s bull. It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by the events that transpire onscreen. It’s hard not to like Oscar Grant and wish he was still around to take care of his family. But it’s harder still to avoid the conversation that should and does ensue – that even now, 45 years after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, we as a nation still treat our African-American citizens with suspicion and prejudice. While I can’t say it’s entirely unjustified to be wary of young African-American, they still deserve better than to be profiled and shot like animals. That we’re still having this conversation in 2013 is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and moving. Career-defining work by Jordan. Possible Oscar consideration for Spencer and Diaz.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of foul language, a bit of drug use and some violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Film Audience Award at Sundance, and Best First Film at Cannes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100; the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boyz ‘N the Hood

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Red 2

Nice Guy Johnny


Tastes great? Less filling!

Tastes great? Less filling!

(2010) Coming of Age Drama (Marlboro Road Gang) Matt Bush, Kerry Bishé, Edward Burns, Max Baker, Anna Wood, Brian Delate, Marsha Dietlein, Jay Patterson, Harper Dill, Michele Harris, Vanessa Ray, Callie Thorne, Anna Wood. Directed by Edward Burns

What do you want to be when you grow up? We get asked that question a lot when we’re a child. Usually we have some really cool idea of what we want to do – an astronaut, a cowboy, a teacher – but as we get older, we find something else that occupies our imagination. But still, the question persists throughout our lives, which begs the question whether we ever really grow up at all.

Johnny Rizzo (Bush) is living the dream. He works as a call-in radio host for a sports talk show in a small town in Northern California. He loves what he does. He also loves Claire (Wood), his fiancée who has bigger plans for Johnny. She’d made him promise that if he wasn’t making $50K by the time he was 25. Well, he’s just turned a quarter century and it’s time to pay the piper. Even though he’s doing his dream job and is happy and content, Johnny is also a man of his word so it’s off to New York to interview with his prospective father-in-law for a position as a warehouse manager at a cardboard box factory which is nobody’s dream job.

Once there he hooks up with his Uncle Terry (Burns) who is a hedonistic ladies man. Like Claire, he thinks that Johnny needs to make some changes – he thinks Johnny needs to get laid. So he takes his nephew in hand to Long Island to “get some strange,” as he puts it. So Johnny goes, knowing that he isn’t going to cheat on his fiancée but unwilling to disappoint his uncle, who is probably more about finding a married woman to have an affair with.

While there he meets Brooke, a free spirit who he connects with from the get-go. She’s a tennis instructor who thinks he’s an idiot to give up on his dream for a bigger salary job. Of course the two fall for each other in a big way, bringing up a moral dilemma for Johnny – he’s committed to Claire who he’s plainly not suited for but can he break that commitment and still be a nice guy?

Edward Burns is what I think of as a niche director which sounds a lot worse than it is. What I mean by that is that he consistently does movies that approach life and love from the viewpoint of working class mokes from the burbs of New York (generally Long Island where Burns grew up). As an actor I’ve always considered him a bit of a poor man’s Ben Affleck which again, sounds a lot worse than it is.

This isn’t one of Burns’ best in either role. His Uncle Terry really is a bit of a stretch for him. Not that he isn’t capable of this kind of role but he really isn’t convincing here. He’s a bit of a lynchpin too which makes it worse; what he needed here was someone who could have been more outrageous. As a director, he didn’t really cast this part very well but budgetary constraints and all. You know what I’m saying. Still, he’s entertaining enough in the part to be memorable which helps. He just needed more here.

Bishé really steals the show here. She takes what is essentially a typical indie free spirit role and runs with it. I like what she does here; she’s down to earth and never makes this a caricature. She’s sexy as hell and, unlike a lot of indie roles here, without shame or apology. It’s part of who she is and she doesn’t feel compelled to obscure it with self-conscious cuteness.

Bush doesn’t fare quite as well. He’s a good-looking guy with an aw-shucks demeanor but he’s kind of bland here. I know he’s supposed to be a nice guy (hey it’s the title of the freakin’ movie and all) but that doesn’t mean he has to be vanilla. I think he’s following the lead of his romantic interest and trying to avoid the quirky indie leading man cliché but he takes it a bit too far which leaves the audience with a character without character. By the middle of the movie I was less interested in him than in the female lead which, when you’re the title character in a movie, bodes a bit ill.

I think they would have benefitted from making Claire less of a materialistic harpy. There really isn’t any competition between Johnny’s two love interests and that takes the tension out of the film. If Claire was really loving and supportive it would have made for a more compelling decision. What we’re left with is a case where the audience is wondering why he stayed around as long as he did. There really is nothing to recommend Claire as a romantic partner to anyone other than that she’s pretty and quite frankly Johnny isn’t that shallow a character, or shouldn’t be. Maybe he is and I’m missing something.

Anyway with a few tweaks this could have been a really interesting romantic comedy. As it is, it’s pretty good entertainment and worth checking out for the performance of Bishé alone.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably romantic without being sentimental. Burns is always entertaining.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Writers needed to work a little harder.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality and some salty language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in ten days by a crew of three who worked for free, although they would share in any profits the micro-budgeted ($25,000) movie would make.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some choppy, grainy audition footage. There is also a special edition (???) that also includes an interview with director Edward Burns. Why?

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Adventureland

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Texas Killing Field

Moneyball


Moneyball

Brad Pitt hopes his latest draws bigger crowds than this.

(2011) True Sports Drama (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Kathryn Morris, Stephen Bishop, Kerris Dorsey, Bobby Kotick, Brent Jennings, Nick Porrazzo, Jack McGee, Glenn Morshower, Casey Bond, Tammy Blanchard. Directed by Bennett Miller

In Major League Baseball, as in most anything else, there are the haves and the have-nots. Some ballclubs have enough money to afford anything and anybody, others have to watch their budget carefully.

The Oakland A’s are a have-not ballclub. As General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) puts it, there’s the rich clubs and the poor clubs. Then there’s fifty feet of crap…and then there’s Oakland. Owner Stephen Schott (Kotick) doesn’t have the money to compete with a New York Yankees, for example. After the A’s lose in the divisional championship to the hated Yanks, the A’s are gutted by free agency going into the 2002 season; All-Star First Baseman has been signed by the Yankees, Johnny Damon by the Red Sox and Jason Isringhausen to the Cardinals.

Replacing players of that caliber from established ballclubs is nigh on impossible given the salary limitations that Oakland had. An attempt to get a decent player at a bargain basement price from the Cleveland Indians ends badly, but Beane notices that the Cleveland GM is listening to advice (indirectly) from someone in the room he doesn’t recognize. Beane eventually finds out that the non-entity is Peter Brand (Hill), a Yale economics graduate who has some pretty radical ideas on valuing players, mostly based on ideas from statistician Bill James who is persona non grata in baseball.

Brand gives Beane the idea of bringing ballplayers into the organization based on On-Base Percentage (OBP) as opposed to traditional baseball philosophy which takes into account home runs, fielding, RBIs and hitting. The team’s scouts and baseball brain trust are appalled as Brand seems to be recommending players who under traditional rules of thought are marginalized, players like Scott Hatteberg (Pratt), a catcher whose arm has been blown out and is facing the end of his career until Beane signs him up as a first baseman; Dave Justice (Bishop), a former star in the twilight of his career and Chad Bradford (Bond), a relief pitcher with an unorthodox delivery.

A’s manager Art Howe (Hoffman) also has some severe objections, exacerbated by a contract dispute. Howe and Beane butt heads constantly, Howe playing his line-up according to his point of view and Beane frustrated that the players he’s acquired aren’t being utilized properly. As a result, the A’s begin to lose. Often.

Beane, whose daughter Casey (Dorsey) is hearing rumors of his imminent unemployment, has got to pull things together, but can it be done? Is Brand’s theory simply smoke and mirrors and more than a century worth of wisdom actually the best way possible?

This is a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball movies, a sports underdog movie for those who don’t like sports. The script by Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List) is smart and doesn’t talk down to audiences while at the same time explaining some of the concepts being put forth – not the overly complex ones mind you but just enough to make sense to the casual viewer.

Pitt is one of America’s biggest stars and that fact often causes him to be underrated as an actor and yet he has roles like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that are Oscar-nominated, and not because he won the nomination in a cereal box either – it was well earned. There are some whispers going around Hollywood that he might be being considered for another Oscar nomination for this role too.

Beane is a complex man and Pitt captures those complexities, from his kind heart to his competitive fires. He wants very badly to win the last game of the season (which is the World Series-clinching win) partially fueled by his own promising but ultimately disappointing on the field career which he gave up a scholarship to Stanford for.

Hill is somewhat the comic relief but not because he is doing a typical Jonah Hill part. Brand (a fictitious character by the way) is part genius, very shy and quite un-self confident. Brand gets laughs because he’s a bit of a novice at the game of baseball and so he doesn’t fit in very well. He’s a nerd working in a jock factory.

The filmmakers wisely shy away from re-creating baseball scenes, mostly relying on archival footage in which the faces of the actors are digitally inserted. That means the audience isn’t forced to sit through badly staged sports sequences with actors who are obviously not athletic pretending to be professional athletes.

There are a lot of flashbacks to Beane’s baseball career which are I suppose to show his motivation for wanting to win so badly as a General Manager. There are way too many of them and they only serve to slow down the film, which is slow enough at times. Keep in mind that this is a movie about the front office more than it is about the ball field. Much of the action takes place on phone calls and in conference rooms.

This is one of the surprises of the year. It’s a movie that far surpasses expectations and turns out to be a legitimate Oscar contender. Had this been released in November or December, there would be reams of copy praising Pitt as a potential Best Actor and the movie itself a possible Best Picture. I was sold on this movie from the first few minutes and completely locked in for the duration. This gets a very high recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Brilliant performances and an amazing script. Need not be a baseball fan to love this movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The action moves slowly from time to time. Flashback scenes to Beane’s baseball career seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director of Photography Wally Pfister was hired somewhat quickly after the original DP had been arrested on serious charges and was unable to do the film.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d go the home route on this one; nothing here really screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Wanted

Youth in Revolt


Youth in Revolt

Even shades and a moustache can't make Michael Cera look dangerous.

(2009) Comedy (Dimension) Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Steve Buscemi, Ray Liotta, Justin Long, Jean Smart, Ari Graynor, Fred Willard, Zach Galifianakis, Mary Kay Place, Rooney Mara, Adhir Kalyan, M. Emmet Walsh.  Directed by Miguel Arteta

Growing up is hard enough when you are marching in lock-step with the crowd. If you are marching to your very own drumbeat, chances are it’s damn near impossible.

Nick Twisp (Cera) is a teenager in Oakland with the kind of family situation that makes you want to pull every sensory organ out of your head and stomp on them. His parents are divorced; Mom (Smart) has taken up with an unpredictable druggie (Galifianakis) who has run afoul of a group of sailors whom he sold a car to. He has run so afoul that he has thought the better part of valor was packing up his girlfriend and Nick and moving them to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere, California. Here he meets Sheeni (Doubleday), a young girl as quirky as he, someone who knows who Jean-Paul Belmondo is, and knows what it means to be hip in a conformist world.

His dad (Buscemi) is compensating with a much younger girlfriend (Graynor) and Nick prevails upon him to move into Sheeni’s complex, getting himself thrown out of his mom’s household for good measure. However, Sheeni doesn’t think Nick is dangerous enough. Nick invents an alter-ego (also Cera) with a wispy moustache, a smoking habit and who tends to give really bad advice that soon has Nick in trouble with the law, with his family and with Sheeni.

This is one of those coming of age stories (based on a novel, of course) that seems to have the idea that the more twisted and mixed up you are, the more interesting you become. The movie sat on the shelf for more than three years as Cera’s star grew brighter before it finally got a release. Even so, it milks the kind of character Cera has made a career out of playing; young, fey, sensitive, good-hearted and somewhat spineless. He has an easy manner of quipping and yet never seems to turn that intelligence into making his world a better place.

Doubleday makes a pretty nice romantic lead, except she doesn’t really pull off the quirkier aspects of her character well. She comes off therefore as a girl pretending to be hip rather than being actually hip, which matches up poorly with Cera’s character, who has the outer appearance of being hip without the inner self-confidence to pull it off.

Still, the movie is funny where it needs to be and quite frankly this is one of my favorite performances by Cera. It doesn’t hurt that he has a wealth of comic actors to work off of – from the established (Willard, Buscemi, Place) to the up-and-coming (Galifianakis, Graynor, Long – as Sheeni’s brother – and Kalyan, as Nick’s ethnic friend who may be even more of a dork than he is). The cast for the most part perform admirably, although some of the storyline just goes into ridiculous mode from the second half of the movie onwards.

It’s not a bad movie at all, and despite my low regard for hip indie coming of age movies about quirky teens who are hipper than thou, managed to reel me in thanks to some nice supporting performances (particularly from Buscemi, Willard and Galifianakis) and some good, solid laughs. What more can you ask from a comedy?

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written dialogue and some funny situations. A very strong supporting cast comes up aces.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Michael Cera is far too one-note an actor to be playing two characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of foul language, quite a bit of sexual content and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man who sells Jerry the camper is none other than Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who was in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin got all the glory.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on an $18M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Ghost Writer