With Prisoners


Dinner is served.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Times Production Ltd) Neo Yau Hiewk-sau, Kelvin Kwan, Edward Chui, Kimi Chiu, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kwok Yik Sum, Amy Tam, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Han Wan, DreGar, Luk Yuen Yee, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki. Directed by Kwok Kuen Wong

Dostoevsky once wrote that you can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its prisoners. Who am I to disagree with so distinguished an author? In fact, I completely agree; most societies seem to be all about punishment ahead of rehabilitation. It doesn’t seem to be much of a concern that convicts be given the tools to go straight and lead a law-abiding life; the general consensus is that if they come back we’ve always got a cell and if we run short we can always build more. As for brutality, those who are in jail are there because they’re guilty of something and thus they deserve whatever they get.

Fan (Hiewk-sau) is a thug and proud of it. He lives with his Nana (Yee) who disapproves of his lifestyle, but he’s young, arrogant and has a quick temper. He has ambitions of becoming a big crime boss, but after getting into a brawl with a drunk police officer in a bar he ends up convicted of assaulting a police officer and is shuttled to prison in Hong Kong’s “Short Sharp Shock” program, an accelerated boot camp-like environment designed to provide self-discipline for young men who sorely need it.

Immediately he discovers that while there is brutal discipline, it is enforced by cruel and sadistic punishments – at one point Fan is forced to clean the toilet with his fingers and then brush his teeth with those same fingers without a chance to wash them first. And yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds. He is beaten by the guards, particularly the sadistic Gwai (Lun) who seems to take great pleasure in torturing the prisoners mentally as well as physically.

Things are so bad that he attempts to hang himself on only the third day but is saved by the quick-thinking guard Ho (Kwan) who alone among the guards seems to have any sort of humanity in him. He is the opposite of Gwai – he wants to see the kids rehabilitated and to make productive lives for themselves. He is deeply disturbed by the attitudes and behaviors of the other guards but the Warden (Singh) turns a blind eye so long as nothing negative reflects on him.

Fan eventually makes friends in prison, including the friendly Sing (Ki) and Sharpie (Ma) who has an agenda of his own. When word reaches Fan that his Nana is sick, he strives to become a model prisoner and get released early but will it come in time for him to see his Nana one last time? And once he is free, will he sink back into his old ways?

Based on actual events, the movie never really establishes a “this is the way it happened” feel to it. There are a lot of prison movie clichés that crop up – all that is missing is a prison riot climax – and some of the film actually feels more melodramatic than authentic.

That said, there is also a Scared Straight vibe as well. If you’re going to do the crime, you are likely to do the time and here, ladies and gentleman, is what that time looks like. There is very much a boot camp look to prison in Hong Kong with military-like marching, prisoners shouting “Good morning, sir!” at the top of their lungs every morning during role call and entire companies of prisoners forced to do push-ups and laps for the transgressions of a single guy. While there are beatings administered and sadistic punishments inflicted, there isn’t a ton of blood and the violence is pretty tame by American prison movie standards.

The two leads, Kwan and Hiewk-sau are both strong in their performances. Hiewk-sau goes from a smiling, snarling thug to a disciplined prisoner determined to get out early and see his nana and the transformation is both believable and compelling. Kwan’s character is more of a generic nice prison guard but there is a sub-plot involving his recovering addict wife that gives him more depth.

Hong Kong doesn’t produce a lot of prison movies but when it does they tend to be worth watching and this one is no exception. I would have liked something a little less slick and a little more gritty but I think that the difference in tastes between East and West might have something to do with that. In any case, there is ample reason to check this out should it appear in a festival near you or on your favorite specialty streaming channel.

REASONS TO GO: Hiewk-sau and Kwan give memorable performances. The movie can serve as a warning to those contemplating doing the crime as to what doing the time looks like.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is overly melodramatic in places. The film may be a bit tame for American tastes for this kind of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is fairly mild by prison movie standards, it does contain a brief scene of drug use, some mild profanity, sensuality, brief male rear nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mak Yee Ma, who plays the returning prisoner Sharpie, is the former convict whose story the movie is based upon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Violent Prosecutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Vampire Cleanup Department

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Toni Erdmann


Where the wild things are.

(2016) Comedy (Sony Classics) Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Alexandru Papadopol, Viktoria Malektorovych, Ingrid Burkhard, Jürg Löw, Ruth Reinecke, Vlad Ivanov, Mihal Manolache, Radu Bȁnzaru, Niels Borann, Radu Dumitrache, Klara Höfels.. Directed by Maren Ade

 

We all know somebody in our lives who simply can’t take anything seriously. Who knows, it even might be you. Behind the occasionally inappropriate humor and unending stream of jokes however a little wisdom might actually show up even more unexpectedly than you might think.

Winfried Conradi (Simonischek) is a music teacher living in Germany, who has retired none too gracefully from his profession. At his final performance with his student chorus, he has them all dress like zombies and he as the Grim Reaper, a joke that has his colleagues and parents scratching their heads, not to mention family members who have gathered to celebrate his retirement. Among their number is his only daughter Ines (Hüller) who has just jetted in from Shanghai on her way back to Bucharest. She works for one of those corporate consulting firms that usually advise big companies to lay off great numbers of their staff. She has a new project with an oil company whose boss is eager to get the cost savings of a mass layoff but doesn’t want to appear to be the bad guy so Ines will do it by recommending it. In taking one for the team, she knows she might finally get that promotion she’s been promised over and over again – but has never received.

Ines holds off her father at arm’s length with her cell phone grasped firmly in hand; not all the calls she claims “she has to take” are actually there but whatever works to give herself some space with her dad with whom the relationship has been stretched to the breaking point as long as they can remember. Shortly after Ines leaves with a half-hearted invitation for him to visit, an event occurs for Winfried that convinces him he needs to connect with his daughter – somehow.

Without any prior warning he shows up at her office in Bucharest. She takes him to a party at the American embassy but things become awkward when she begins to realize that her dad is much more socially accomplished than she is. Worse still, most of the people she works with are men who are either dismissive of her abilities, attracted to her sexually or simply hostile towards women in general. The visit with her dad doesn’t go well and he heads back home.

Only he doesn’t arrive at his destination. Instead, he shows up as Toni Erdmann, a life coach with a rumpled appearance, a brunette wig with long flowing locks and outrageous false teeth with a distinct buck-toothed grin. Ines is horrified particularly when “Toni” claims he is the life coach of the oil company’s CEO that she is trying to woo to go with her company’s program. And the longer “Toni” hangs around, the more empty her life seems.

This was on the shortlist of the Foreign Language Oscars this year and was a critical hit at Cannes, although critics were absolutely mystified that it was virtually ignored by the juries there. I have to say that I’m not on board this film as some of my colleagues are; at more than two and a half hours long it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Ade apparently chose no to edit down further for the sake of pacing; on the other hand there are scenes that go on far too long. For example, there’s a scene when Ines sings “I Will Always Love You” – the Whitney Houston hit – from beginning to end that could have been shortened, as could a scene at one of many, many parties and social outings that it appears that Romanian workers have a far more party atmosphere than their American counterparts.

The humor here is more subtle and sometimes awkward; Americans of late have seemed to prefer more outrageous, over-the-top humor that is both raunchy and essentially brainless. This is by no means a joke fest – often the viewer needs to think about what he or she has just witnessed for a moment or two before the absurdity settles in. As Da Queen might characterize it, the humor here is quiet which is a nice change from the loud overbearing comedies that are in favor at the moment.

The performances by both Simonischek and Hüller are outstanding. Simonischek, a renowned Austrian actor, never lets the character get to be a caricature of itself. Because he plays things low-key the absurd situations that Winfried/Toni creates have more impact. Hüller is also a revelation, giving Ines an uptight frayed nerve tone that is a poke at the career-obsessed in general. She’s so busy earning a living that she is not actually living and her dad knows that and tries, in his own way, to point it out to her. Sometimes it can be actually touching when he hugs her near the end after a bizarre appearance at perhaps the most awkward birthday party ever caught on film.

We do see a change in Ines as the film progresses but not one so great that it beggars imagination. Instead, we see a subtle change in her as she starts to let the cracks in her façade open up and allow her true face to reveal itself. It isn’t always an easy journey here – some of the scenes go on far too long – but otherwise this is a terrific and occasionally brilliant film that may test your patience over its running time but is a worthwhile investment of that time nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is subtle which is a nice change of pace. Terrific performances by Simonischek and Hüller make this easy to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content of a very overt nature, graphic nudity, some brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An English language remake is on the way, with Kristin Wiig and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles. If the casting holds, it will be Nicholson’s first onscreen appearance in more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harmonium

Audrie & Daisy


Daisy Coleman contemplates what happened to her.

Daisy Coleman contemplates what happened to her.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Daisy Coleman, Amanda Le, Delaney Henderson, Darren White, Paige Parkhurst, Charlie Coleman, Melinda Coleman, Jim Fall, Audrie Pott. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

 

There is no doubt that women have a lot to be upset about when it comes to the way they are treated compared to men, especially in matters of sex and rape. Many people were outraged at the way Stanford swimming champion Brock Turner was given a pass after brutally raping a nearly unconscious woman after a party. It turns out that’s just typical.

Daisy Coleman and Audrie Pott have very similar stories to tell. Both were young girls in high school; Daisy a 14-year-old freshman in Maryville, Missouri and Audrie a 15-year-old sophomore in Saratoga, California. Both girls went to a party and had too much to drink. Both were with friends that they trusted. In Audrie’s case, she was stripped and had all sorts of things written on her body with indelible markers, things of a sexual nature. Pictures were taken and video also taken of her being violated by two of her so-called friends. The next day her schoolmates had seen the evidence of what happened and rather than feel sympathy towards her they isolated her and shamed her, calling her a slut and that she had “asked for it.”

For high school students, their world is both large and small; large as the entire Internet, small as the crowd they hang out with at school. Reputation is everything and when that reputation is sullied the effects can be devastating. You can try to explain to someone victimized in that fashion that it is something that will not stay with them forever, that they will eventually move on to other places who won’t know what happened to them but teenage life is very much in the here and now. Audrie felt that her life was over and that she would be labeled a slut forever. She was not the kind of girl who wore provocative clothes or came on to guys; she was in fact fairly conservative from a sexual standpoint. All of that was beside the point however and she knew it; the perception of her had changed in her immediate circle and it broke her. She hung herself eight days after the events of her assault.

Daisy, who at 14 was a cheerleader and a dancer,  and her friend Paige were already inebriated at home when a friend of her brother Charlie’s texted her and asked if she and Paige wanted to hang out with them and chill. Charlie was already in bed, having celebrated a wrestling tournament win. Daisy agreed to go and almost immediately upon their arrival, the two girls were separated and then raped by the boys who were there. They were then returned home and left in the snow where Daisy’s mother found them.

Daisy was barely conscious and it was only when her mom put her in a warm tub that she realized that there were bruises near her genitalia. She brought her daughter to the ER where a rape kit confirmed she had been sexually assaulted. Both Charlie and Daisy were ostracized and rendered pariahs; the three boys at the party who had assaulted Daisy and Paige were football heroes. The town was divided, but most of the sympathy went not to the girls who had been raped but to the boys who had raped them. The girls were accused of making up the incident, that the sex was consensual which is absolutely outrageous; first of all there was physical evidence of rape. Secondly, they were both well over the legal limit that constitutes inebriation. There was no way they could have given consent to anything.

The physical assaults may have ended that night but the assaults continued on social media, especially towards Daisy who wanted to see justice done to those who had violated her. The town sheriff to the astonishment of most victim advocacy groups dropped all charges, explaining how he didn’t want to ruin the lives of the boys involved, conveniently neglecting that the girls who they had assaulted already had their lives negatively impacted for the rest of their lives. Personally I think any sheriff who doesn’t understand the consequences of rape to the victim should be recalled.

See, my blood is boiling again; as a critic, I should be talking about the documentary, how it gets its point across and the quality of the filmmaking and I promise I’ll get to that. However, I think that the movie is a devastating illustration of the attitudes towards rape that our prevalent in our society; how justice for rape victims is a rare thing, how social media is used to further punish those who undergo traumatic events and how those who stand up against their attackers will be targeted for hate; in the case of the Coleman family, their house was burned to the ground by those who supported the boys who hurt their daughter.

There are some flaws with the film; as important as both of the stories of Audrie and Daisy are, the filmmakers don’t link them well. They alternate the telling of them in an almost arbitrary fashion and as a result the narrative doesn’t flow as well as it could which robs the stories of their impact to a small extent.

Still, I believe that every high school in the country should show this movie to their student body every year without exception. It stands as a chilling reminder to young girls that even friends can turn on them and rape them, and that if they choose to drink they need to make sure that they are with someone who will stay sober and watch over them. Women shouldn’t have to take precautions like that but until attitudes change, it’s the prudent thing to do.

Men should also learn how devastating sexual assault is to the one assaulted; they should learn to respect women and appreciate them rather than treat them as objects who are there for their pleasure. There is an important message here that needs to be seen. In fact, it isn’t only high school students who should be watching Audrie & Daisy; their parents should as well. The leaders of communities where there are high schools. Law enforcement members in those communities. Basically, everyone.

REASONS TO GO: The film examines rape culture with clear eyes. The stories of Audrie and Daisy are heartbreaking and all too common. The rift between how young boys and girls are treated is starkly illustrated.
REASONS TO STAY: The stories of Audrie and Daisy are told alternately without any sort of narrative flow, robbing them of their effectiveness somewhat.
FAMILY VALUES: Very adult issues, vivid descriptions of sexual assaults, some sexuality and language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The directors are a husband-wife team whose previous film, The Island President, tackled climate change.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bully
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: UFO – It is Here

High-Rise (2015)


An open house you may not want to attend.

An open house you may not want to attend.

(2015) Thriller (Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way, Leila Mimmack, Bill Paterson, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Alexandra Weaver, Julia Deakin, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is part of human nature to divide people into class by their wealth; the upper classes – the haves – all the way down to the lower classes – the have-nots – and in between. Some places, class distinctions are much more concrete than others; the British have made an art form of it.

Set in 1975, this film based on a J.G. Ballard novel posits something that back in that time was only beginning to catch on as an idea but is more prevalent today – the lifestyle apartments. You know the kind; the ones that have shopping and sometimes even office space in the same building, allowing those that live there to need never venture beyond the walls of their high rise. This particular one sits just outside of London.

The middle class inhabit the lower floors with few amenities; the further up you go, the more amenities there are (gymnasium, swimming pool and so on) and of course the wealthier the resident. On the very top floor is Royal (Irons), the reclusive architect of the whole she-bang and his shrewish wife Ann (Hawes). Their luxury penthouse includes an outdoor garden where there is enough room for Ann to ride a horse and Royal to work on the other four towers of the five he has planned.

Into this environment comes Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a physiologist who is single and immediately catches the eye of Charlotte (Miller), the resident nymph who raises her son Toby (Suc) on her own as a single mom, who catches the good Doctor sunbathing nude. She invites him to a party where he meets Wilder (Evans), a dissatisfied television news reader who has the hots for Charlotte and a little bit too high of an opinion of himself.

The building is brand new and starkly furnished in the style of the time, but cracks begin to show in the facade. Electrical outages at first affect the lower floors before spreading and ending up in a complete blackout. The store where all groceries are bought fails to get resupplied and eventually panicked residents ransack it.

The social order breaks down quickly as the haves and have-nots arrange themselves into violent tribes. The women begin to gravitate towards men who can protect them from the violence and chaos going on in the building. The upper classes gravitate towards Royal as a leader (as he is the wealthiest) while the lower classes choose Wilder because of his fearlessness. Before long, civilization is a distant memory.

Ballard’s allegorical commentary on how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is was controversial in its time, although given recent events one can’t help but wonder if he erred on the side of caution. It also isn’t a particularly lightbulb-glowing concept, that the classes don’t like each other much. In some ways, the point was made better and earlier by Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal which suggests that with overpopulation and food shortages inevitably befalling any civilized nation that the wealthy should look to eating the poor. And you thought Ballard was cynical!

Hiddleston has been coming on lately as a legitimate leading man presence. He has a bit of an edge compared to guys like, say, Matt Damon; I think of him as more of a ‘70s archetype for a leading man, which makes him perfectly cast here. Initially, he’s got a bit of a shy and reclusive nature, which might be what draws the ladies to him (including Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Moss) with whom he has a dalliance late in the film) although it might be more due to the fact that he’s got crazy good looks. I know at least a few ladies who have him on their list of five (five men they get to do anytime, anywhere even if they are married). He’s also a hell of an actor and we watch his descent into obsessive insanity, although he never quite hits bottom. While Hiddleston is known for his villains at present, I would imagine leading roles in big-budget franchise films are just around the corner for him.

I was a teen in the era that is depicted here and there’s a bit of a shock in seeing how many people smoked (according to iMDB there are people smoking in 80% of the film) including pregnant woman. There was also rampant sexuality going on, including a crapload of extramarital affairs and plenty of drug use. All of which is captured here, which while I found unsurprising, still seemed jarring when given today’s mores. Still, I ended up feeling a bit grimy just watching it.

Likewise there are things that sort of rock the logic meter to its core. For instance, why don’t people just LEAVE? After all, the chaos is limited to this one building; if the situation became that out of control, wouldn’t you just walk out the door and be done with it? Also, why doesn’t the grocery store get restocked? That’s never addressed.

I think a lot of how you’re going to digest this movie is going to depend on your own social situation. People who are wealthy and/or conservative are going to identify with the upper class tribe; those who are working class and/or liberal might well identify with the lower class tribe, although the latter were guilty of some unspeakable acts which might give you a hint as to where Ballard’s own sympathies lie (or at least the filmmakers; I haven’t read the source novel yet). Quite frankly, from what I’ve read the jury is out as far as opinions regarding the book’s sympathies.

Similarly, the movie is polarizing – people either love it or hate it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, watching any five minutes of this film will convince you that it is brilliant but watching the whole of it will not – he called it the best disappointing film you’ll watch this year and in that he is absolutely correct.

REASONS TO GO: Class warfare for dummies. Hiddleston shows some star power.
REASONS TO STAY: Logical holes abound. Makes you feel like a full ashtray has been dumped on your head.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly disturbing stuff here; violence, rape, graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use, foul language and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.G. Ballard published the novel this is based on in 1975, the same year that ABBA’s “S.O.S.” was released (the song was covered by two different artists on the soundtrack).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

Everybody Wants Some!!


The 70s become the 80s.

The 70s become the 80s.

(2016) Comedy (Paramount) Blake Jenner, Juston Street, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, Glen Powell, Temple Baker, J. Quinton Johnson, Will Brittain, Courtney Tailor, Taylor Murphy, Christina Burdette, Zoey Deutch, Sophia Taylor Ali, Austin Amelio, Tanner Kalina, Forrest Vickery, Jonathan Breck, Ernest James, Justin Alexio, Celina Chapin, Shailaun Manning. Directed by Richard Linklater

College circa 1980 was a different place than it is now. Back then, there were no cell phones, no laptops, no Internet. There was a lot of sex and while there were sexually transmitted diseases, they could be cured with penicillin. There was a lot more facial hair and your music collection didn’t fit in a small box; you used a milk crate to carry your records around. A lot of things though, haven’t changed.

Linklater, whose last film was Boyhood and elevated him to perhaps the most successful indie director in the business, calls this film a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. None of the characters from that film appear here but I can see his point – while that film took place in the last year of high school, this one takes place in the first year of college.

It follows the members of the fictional Southwest Texas University baseball team during the three day weekend prior to school starting and the fall preview games for the team. It is August in Southwest Texas which means, well, heat, lots of beer and pretty girls wearing hardly a thing. There’s a lot of what we now call “Classic Rock” on the radio (but back then we just called it rock) and it’s about to be morning in America.

Jake (Jenner) is our proxy amongst the jocks. We see things unfold through his eyes. He’s smart enough to know that while he was the star of his high school team, he may not be talented enough to be a starter on this team and as for moving on to the major leagues, probably only McReynolds (Hoechlin) has a shot. But in the meantime, he’s making friends with the other players, including Willoughby (Russell), a California stoner who is kind of a Deepak Chopra of the pitcher’s mound, Finnegan (Powell) who knows that this will be the best time of his life and plans to make the most of it, Jay (Street) with an explosive temper, and Beuter (Brittain) who is an unsophisticated rube.

Over the weekend, the guys bang back beers, smoked a little leaf and do whatever it takes to get laid. All of that rings true to the college experience, then and now. Jake meets a comely freshman theater major (Deutch) and the two begin to hang out and develop something of a romance. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess – after all, we’re talking about the first weekend at college for the both of them.

I think that for the most part Linklater nailed the period (as he usually does) with a few quibbles; the guys play The Legend of Zelda which didn’t come out until the following year, for example nor would it have been likely that a college student had a VCR, which retailed for about $600 back in August 1980. Still, he gets the flavor of the period right.

This is very much a guy’s picture; only the theater major is given any sort of character and most of the women in this film are reduced to being the sexual prey of the baseball players. In a sense, we’re getting the worldview of the jocks – all bros and no hoes. Some viewers might have a problem with that. Still, this is a Linklater film so it’s thoughtful right?

Not so much. In many ways, this is one of his most mindless films yet. I kinda got the sense that this was almost a throwaway movie, one that he didn’t give a lot of thought to (even though it arrives in theaters a year and a half after his last one). To me, it doesn’t have the depth of character that is a hallmark of Linklater’s movies; the characters all seem much more to be stereotypes.

The acting is a little bland as well. The cast is largely unknown and while Jenner stands out by default, the rest perform their roles without distinction but at least without making a mess of it either. Damned by faint praise, I know.

But there is more to the movie than just a great soundtrack (and it really IS great) and capturing its era nicely. This is a Richard Linklater film and even though it will likely not be considered one of his best works, there are still moments that show you how good a director he is and how gifted he is at structuring comedic sequences. There are some really good light-hearted moments. Not the big laughs of a big Hollywood comedy, but the introspective chuckles of recognizing something as ridiculous that perhaps you took part in when you were younger.

I will admit that I’m definitely the target audience for this thing. While I didn’t go to college on an athletic scholarship, I knew some who did and I was there during this precise era (in August 1980 I was starting my Junior year). While I like to think I wasn’t quite so sex-obsessed as these guys were, I probably was – guys that age are hormones on legs. So while this isn’t one of Linklater’s best, it certainly isn’t his worst and even a subpar Linklater movie is worth checking out, and this clearly is worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Gets the era dead to rights. Terrific soundtrack. Some really funny sequences. Doesn’t overstay its welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little sexist. Bland cast. Not as thoughtful as previous Linklater films.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of profanity, plenty of drug use, a good deal of sexual content and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The credits include one for a cat wrangler credited to Bernie Tiede, who was the subject of Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dazed and Confused
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Angry Birds Movie

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

Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy