Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton


Jim Carrey channels Andy Kaufman.

(2017) Documentary (NetflixJim Carrey, Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, George Shapiro, Danny DeVito, Carol Kaufman, Judd Hirsch, Paul Giamatti, Stacey Sher, Milos Forman, Ron Meyer, Carol Kane, Bill Corso, Peter Bonerz, Michael Stipe, Jerry Lawler, Courtney Love, Gerry Becker, Elton John, Lynne Margulies, Linda Hill, Angela Jones. Directed by Chris Smith

 

Sometimes an actor will get so lost in their role that it’s nearly impossible to tell where the character ends and the actor begins. Is it art or is it simply self-indulgence?

Jim Carrey notoriously went through this when he was playing the late cult comic Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s Man in the Moon back in 1999. Carrey refused to break character during filming, even allowing the notorious lounge lizard/obnoxious jerk character Tony Clifton to take over, sometimes to uncomfortable lengths. Universal kept the backstage footage in the vaults for nearly 20 years before they finally allowed it to be shown in this documentary.

We get a sense of the method here and Carrey candidly discusses the strain of playing Kaufman and the way it effected his career. You get the sense that Carrey doesn’t enter any role lightly but this one did a number on him, as he admits to feeling the emotional after-effects for years afterwards. The documentary is well-filmed, utilizing footage filmed by Smith in 2016 as well as the backstage footage from the shoot in 1998 shot by Kaufman’s writing partner Zmuda and his girlfriend Margulies. Members of Kaufman’s family even came on set to commune with their deceased loved one (Kaufman passed away from lung cancer in 1984) in the form of Carrey.

I wasn’t a big fan of Man in the Moon when it came out but the documentary does give a better appreciation of the film. I wish that someone had asked Carrey the question that stays with me after seeing the doc: was the performance worth the pain? I suppose that’s a question for posterity to figure out.

REASONS TO SEE: Carrey comes off more thoughtful than you’d imagine. A portrait of a man lost in his role.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t ask some important questions.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Kaufman and Carrey share a birthday (January 17th).
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 767/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Radioflash

The Catcher Was a Spy


Fog and espionage go together like pitchers and catchers.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFC) Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham, John Schwab, Hiroyuki Sanada, Giancarlo Giannini, Pierfrancesco Favino, Anna Geislerová, Bobby Schofield, Demetri Goritsas, William Hope, Milan Aulicky, Jordan Long, James McVan, Ben Miles, Agnese Nano. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

Doing a biography of a real individual is a difficult undertaking. It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of the subject in just a ninety-minute movie; real lives don’t always condense well. Sometimes, though, you get a subject who has so little known about them that ninety minutes seems too many.

Moe Berg (Rudd) was such a man. A journeyman catcher for five Major League ballclubs, he is depicted here near the end of his career with the Red Sox, being urged by his manager Joe Cronin (Whigham) to hang up his spikes and take up a coaching position. His teammates and contemporaries bestowed on him the nickname “The Professor” because of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and his success on radio quiz shows.

But Berg had a destiny beyond the ballpark; fluent in seven languages, he was recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan (Daniels) of the OSS – which would eventually become the CIA – to work initially as an analyst but eventually was sent out into the field to determine how close the Nazis were to developing an atomic bomb of their own and if they were close, to kill the lead German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Strong).

The film has a good number of atmospheric visuals, terrific production values that really bring forth the era and a stellar cast. All this combines to give the film a real noir feel which is a good thing. What it doesn’t have is a sense of urgency or of peril; the atomic race between the United States and Nazi Germany was essentially a struggle to the death for both nations. We never get that sense of suspense which would have been made the movie a lot more watchable; it feels more like an intellectual exercise.

Not all of that is the fault of the filmmakers. In real life Morris Berg was a private man to the point that it was nearly impossible to get to know him. He remains today as mysterious as he was in life. The movie brings up the rumor that the book this was based on did; that Berg was a closeted homosexual but there’s no valid evidence that proves or disproves it so rather than having the courage of its convictions, the film kind of wimps out on it. They do show him having a vigorous physical relationship with his girlfriend Estella (Miller) but even she found him a distant cold fish.

It’s hard for an audience to get behind a character like that and the normally very likable Rudd does his very best but in the end he becomes a bit standoffish and flat and the film kind of follows that lead. Berg is a fascinating character who deserves to have his story told but I sort of doubt it ever will be; the man was much too private for that to occur.

REASONS TO SEE: The strong cast gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Berg deserves a better movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, language and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The baseball sequences were filmed at Fenway Park in Boston.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Spy Behind Home Plate
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Do It Yourself

Morgan (2016)


Mirror images.

Mirror images.

(2016) Sci-Fi Thriller (20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Michael Yare, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, Chris Sullivan, Boyd Holbrook, Vinette Robinson, Brian Cox, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Crispian Belfrage, Amybeth McNulty, Jonathan Aris, Charlotte Asprey, Frank Cannon, Bobby Marrio, Martin O’Sullivan, Chrissie Harris. Directed by Luke Scott

 

As our technology and scientific understanding progress, we will be confronted by questions having to do with what it means to be human – and whether or not that definition is broad enough to cover the wonders that are sure to follow. Will artificial life forms have the same compunctions we do? Can we ever truly trust them?

Morgan (Taylor-Joy) is the results of a bio-engineering experiment using artificial DNA. She is brilliant, strong and yet emotionally immature; she’s only five years old chronologically speaking although she is in her teens in terms of physical development. When she suddenly and without warning attacks a psychologist (Leigh) in the compound, the corporation funding the experiments sends risk analyst Lee Weathers (Mara) to make the determination if the plug should be pulled on the experiment.

When she reaches the secluded Pacific Northwest compound where the scientists studying Morgan are housed, she is met with wariness. Lee is surprised to find the personal attachment many of the scientists have with Morgan with the exception of nutritionist Skip Vronsky (Holbrook) who still refers to Morgan as “it.” The rest of the team has bonded with the girl in spite of the attack on one of their number; they show affection towards her, even though they keep her in what amounts to a cage.

After an examination by another psychologist (Giamatti) ends in disaster, the lead scientist on the Morgan project (Yeoh) reluctantly decides to terminate Morgan which meets with resistance from the team, but Lee is adamant that the directive be carried out. However, like all living beings, Morgan is possessed with a strong survival instinct. She also has not only the ability to use it, but deadly abilities not even her handlers were aware she had.

Artificial life forms gone amuck have long been a staple of Hollywood sci-fi horror films. This isn’t really a horror movie per se, although there are some pieces of shocking violence here (particularly the initial sequence). Mostly this is a thriller with philosophical overtones as the cold, calculating Lee is put up against the occasionally sympathetic Morgan, although at the end of the film all our sympathies are confused.

Most will see the twist coming, although that isn’t the fault of the actors involved. Mara and Taylor-Joy both play polar opposites for much of the movie and both do credible jobs, with Mara getting a slight edge in terms of performance. The supporting cast, including Leigh, Yeoh and Giamatti, are stellar and are sadly underused here; their combined screen time is probably less than ten minutes all told and we end up wishing to have seen more of them by the time the movie ends.

There are some beautiful images here as well, with Ireland subbing for the Pacific Northwest. Then again, this is a micro-budgeted film and that unfortunately shows in some of the production design; for whatever reason the housing compound for the supposedly high tech facility is ramshackle and looks pointedly like the Psycho house. If they had just gotten ordinary dormitories it would have looked more realistic and I can’t believe it would have cost them any more to use, particularly in the exterior shots.

Mostly this is a credible thriller that goes off the rails near the end of the movie when it becomes a standard action film and quite frankly, the action portions aren’t particularly noteworthy. That spoils some of the nifty mood making that Scott engaged in during the bulk of the movie, in which viewers are given a disturbing feeling that things Aren’t Quite Right Here, which of course most would know anyway from seeing the trailer.

Scott has some good techniques and when he gets something in his wheelhouse, he knows what to do with it. I can’t say if he’ll end up being as good or better a director as his dad but for my money he has the potential to do so. Let’s hope he finds the right material to enable him to do just that.

REASONS TO GO: Mara is cold and remorseless. The film raises some interesting philosophical questions.
REASONS TO STAY:
Another film peopled with characters who don’t behave like real people. Several terrific actors in the cast are wasted in roles that go nowhere.
FAMILY VALUES: The violence in the film is pretty brutal; there’s also a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scott is the son of director Ridley Scott.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ex-Machina
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Train to Busan

New Releases for the Week of September 2, 2016


MorganMORGAN

(20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Brian Cox. Directed by Luke Scott

A corporate troubleshooter is sent to a remote lab to investigate a recent accident and to evaluate whether the program being conducted there should be continued. When she arrives, it soon seems that the culprit behind the chaos is a seemingly innocent whose facade hides enormous potential – and incredible danger.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for brutal violence and some language)

Don’t Think Twice

(The Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Keegan-Michael Key. When the member of a popular New York City improv troupe gets a big break on an SNL-like late night sketch show, the others in the group – all friends – begin to realize that the odds are that not all of them are going to make it after all. And maybe, none of them will.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language and some drug use)

Kickboxer: Vengeance

(RLJ) Alain Moussi, Georges St-Pierre, Dave Bautista, Jean-Claude van Damme. After his brother is killed in the ring by a brutal fighter, a young man swears vengeance upon the man that killed him but in order to beat him, he’ll have to get training from the best of the best – a kickboxer by the name of Durand.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Martial Arts
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

The Light Between Oceans

(DreamWorks) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Jack Thompson. Just after the First World War, an army vet takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on the rugged, isolated Australian coast, two days ride from anywhere and only seeing a supply boat once a season. Here he brings his strong-willed wife and here they try to bring a baby into the world, but meet with miscarriages and a stillbirth. One day she hears a baby’s cries on the wind and finds a baby in a lifeboat with a dead man. Believing this to be a sign from God she keeps the baby for her own against her husband’s better judgment. However, when they return to the mainland, they discover that their choice may have been devastating for someone else – a woman who may well be the true mother of the child.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sexual content)

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

(Miramax/Summit) Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aaron Paul, Oliver Platt. After surviving eight near-death experiences, a little boy plunges off a cliff – and miraculously survives, but is left in a coma. In order to find out what really happened, an acclaimed neurologist tries an experimental procedure to get inside the boy’s mind – and finds something sinister lurking there.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Supernatural Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for some disturbing images and brief strong language)

No manches Frida

(Pantelion) Omar Chaparro, Martha Higareda, Monica Dionne, Rocio Garcia. After a bank robber is released from prison, he goes to recover his stolen money which he’d buried in a schoolyard. Unfortunately, while he was inside the school built a gymnasium on top of where he buried the loot. In order to get into the gym and dig for his cash, he must masquerade as a substitute teacher at the school – which quickly escalates into chaos.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC The Loop, Epic Theaters at Lee Vista

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual content, drug material, teen smoking and drinking, brief strong language and gestures and thematic elements)

The Sea of Trees

(A24) Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe, Katie Aselton. A suicidal American enters a Japanese forest at the base of Mt. Fuji to finish himself off. While there he finds a Japanese man lost in the impenetrable woods and the two become friends. Finding the way out of the forest however turns out to be a lot more difficult than finding their way in. This is the latest from director Gus Van Sant.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing images and brief strong language)

Yoga Hosers

(Invincible) Johnny Depp, Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Adam Brody. A pair of comely convenience store clerks in Winnipeg, Manitoba is chagrined to discover they’ll have to be working when they could be at the party of the year. To make matters worse, their store is ground zero for an interdimensional invasion of…Nazi sausages. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. Thankfully, director Kevin Smith can.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (playing Friday night at midnight only)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for crude humor, sexual references, some violence and brief drug material)

The Little Prince (2015)


On top of the world.

On top of the world.

(2016) Animated Feature (Netflix) Starring the voices of Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Bud Cort, Paul Giamatti, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks, Mackenzie Foy, Jacquie Barnbrook, Jeffy Branion, Marcel Bridges. Directed by Mark Osborne

 

In 1943, French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote the novella The Little Prince which while ostensibly a children’s book has become one of the most beloved books of all time. Poetic, bittersweet in places, joyful in others, it examines the difficulties of growing up, the importance of love and the journey of life. It not only appeals to the young and the young at heart, but also reams of material have been written on the underlying themes. A 1974 live action film was until now the best-known adaptation of the book.

This, the first animated version of the film, pads out the original story with a framing story. A stressed out Little Girl (Foy) is pushed by her overbearing mother (McAdams) to ace an interview into the prestigious Werth Academy, which would guarantee her a productive future. Her mother, who wears business suits with ties in the style of men, is gravely disappointed when the Little Girl blows her interview when a question she didn’t study for is asked.

Discouraged but not defeated, her mother moves the Little Girl to an area where she has a repeat chance of getting into Werth. There her mother outlines a Life Plan for her daughter that she expects the young girl to stick to, but fate has other plans. It turns out they’ve moved next door to an Aviator (Bridges) whose attempts to start his airplane ends up in disaster. In a neighborhood of block house conformists, he is the odd man out. Naturally he and the Little Girl bond and he tells her the tale of a strange thing that happened to him when he crashed in the Sahara desert years earlier.

There he’d met a Little Prince (R. Osborne) who had was visiting our planet from Asteroid B612, a tiny place which was always threatened to be overrun by insidious baobab trees. One day, he discovered a beautiful rose was growing on his tiny world. The Rose (Cotillard) implored him to protect her with a glass cover, which the adoring Prince did. He and the Rose were deeply in love, but he was disturbed by her vanity. At last, feeling abused by the Rose, he decides to leave his asteroid and see what else was out there. He discovered several other asteroids, each inhabited by an adult with a failing; such as the Conceited Man (Gervais) who took bows whenever he felt the need, or the Businessman (Brooks) who endlessly counted the stars so that he could own them all. Finally he had come back to Earth only to discover thousands of Roses and realized that his own Rose was nothing special.

=However, a Fox (Franco) that he’d tamed informed him that his Rose was special because he loved her and urged him to see things with his heart, which would allow him to see much more clearly. Desperately lonely and wanting to see his Rose again, he travels home to the stars the only way he knows how – to allow the Snake (Del Toro) to bite him and allow him to leave his cumbersome body behind. The Aviator grieves for the loss of his friend but is mystified when his body disappears.

The Aviator, now an old man, succumbs to illness and has to be hospitalized. Disillusioned and wanting to escape her life, the Little Girl goes in search of the Little Prince along with a fox stuffed toy which has magically come to life. Using the Aviator’s plane, she flies to the asteroids and eventually finds the Prince (Rudd) who is no longer little and has forgotten everything. Can she help him remember?

Mark Osborne is best known for directing Kung Fu Panda which had to its advantage some cultural exploration. This is a much tougher sell; for one thing, while kids today are fairly familiar with The Little Prince it doesn’t really translate well to the screen. It is also a short book; the 1974 live action version padded itself out with musical numbers and dancing. In some ways this is way more ambitious; not only does it add to the story with the Little Girl and the old man Aviator but it mixes techniques; the Little Girl’s story is told in CGI, the Little Prince with stop-motion animation. The Little Prince section also takes as its inspiration the original illustrations Saint-Exupéry hand-drew for the book. It’s not quite uncanny, but the stop-motion is enough like those original drawings to make one feel quite at home, especially if you grew up with them.

One of the chief complaints I have with the movie is one I have with the book; with the exception of the Aviator, all the adults in the book are pretty much jerks. They are way self-involved, uncaring of the needs of a child to be a child, they put far too much emphasis on achievement and material things and worst of all, they are soulless. The Little Girl’s mom is completely unsympathetic and the Aviator is at best eccentric and at worst an utter lunatic. Even the grown-up Little Prince is frightened and spineless. Granted, some adults are some of these things but what the movie is in essence telling children is not to trust adults AT ALL. Not even their parents.

The animation is quite stylized and while the CGI looks pretty standard (even sub-standard in places), the stop motion is beautiful and wondrous, capturing the wide-eyed amazement of childhood. While some of the details of the original story are changed and some characters eliminated (for example, the drunkard is cut out of the movie), the essence of the story and more importantly the spirit of the story are both intact.
The movie enjoyed a successful theatrical run globally and Netflix gave it a fairly limited theatrical release and I have to say it’s a bit of a shame. I’d love to have seen this on the big screen. Perhaps an enterprising art house near you will book it even if it is on Netflix. I suspect seeing this in a theater will make this an even more riveting experience for young and old alike.

REASONS TO GO: Much of the spirit of the beloved book is captured here. The mix of stop-motion animation and CGI is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: The animation can be a bit primitive looking at times. Few of the adults in the film have any value to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril and violence and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the highest-grossing animated film to be made in France to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Castle in the Sky
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lights Out

Trumbo (2007)


Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

Bath time is work time for Dalton Trumbo.

(2007) Documentary (Goldwyn) Dalton Trumbo, Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland, Dustin Hoffman, Kirk Douglas, Helen Manfull, Mitzi Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo, Walter Bernstein, Kate Lardner, Peter Hanson, Emanuel Azenberg. Directed by Peter Askin

documented

One of the core values of the United States is the freedom of speech. Our forefathers in their wisdom decreed that nobody’s right to it would be abridged by congress or any other legislative body. That freedom is one we take for granted…until someone tries to take it away.

In the late 1940s we were riding high, but all was not perfect. The Nazis had been defeated, but we weren’t quite out of the woods yet; the communists in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were on the rise and we were fully certain that a World War III was just on the horizon and there was a fatalism that it would be nuclear.

At that time in Hollywood, Dalton Trumbo was also riding high. One of the most acclaimed and honored screenwriters in the business, he fell afoul of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC led by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy. The committee, attempting to root out what was rumored to be a heavy communist influence in Hollywood, went after Trumbo who was unapologetically a member of the Communist Party (although he would later leave it, disillusioned). When questioned as to his activities, Trumbo asserted his First Amendment rights and refused to answer. He was found in contempt of Congress and jailed for a year. When he was released, he discovered he was blacklisted by the major studios and had to make a living writing scripts under “fronts” – other screenwriters who were credited with the scripts that Trumbo (and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten) wrote. Two of them, The Brave Ones and Roman Holiday, would net Oscars for Trumbo which he couldn’t collect at the time.

Eventually Kirk Douglas enlisted Trumbo to write Spartacus, perhaps the most well-known of all his movies. Once that became a blockbuster, the blacklist essentially ended. and Trumbo resumed his writing career which lasted into the mid-70s (he would die in 1976 of a heart attack).

His son Christopher Trumbo created a play from the letters Trumbo wrote during the period of his trial before HUAC, his incarceration and the years he was blacklisted. Askin has skillfully weaved that into an unusual documentary, taking the elder Trumbo’s words read by a variety of socially conscious Hollywood actors skillfully interwoven with archival footage, home movies and contemporary interviews detailing Trumbo’s ordeal.

The readings themselves vary; some are very emotional, while others feel stiff. Clearly some of the voice actors connected more with the material than others did, and quite frankly some of the letters sound better in the mind read on the printed page than they do spoken aloud. However, the home movies and some of the archival footage is absolutely riveting, and Askin maximizes their effect. Editor Ken Engfehr is to be commended for his deft touch.

Through these readings, interviews and footage, we get a glimpse of Trumbo the man, a man of unique principles and courage. Standing up for his beliefs at a time when conformity was more the norm – well, I suppose that can be said of any time – but certainly at a time when rocking the boat when it came to communism was tantamount to treason. Trumbo, despite his disdain for capitalism, had a deep abiding love for the Constitution and despite the fact that he could have pleaded the Fifth chose not to and ended up going to jail because he did not. He felt that the First Amendment was precious and needed to be protected, no matter the cost.

We honor those soldiers who have fought to keep us free and justifiably so. They put their lives on the line to uphold the principles that founded this nation and made it, despite all its flaws, a great one, and that’s something that should be treated with respect. However, along with those who defended our nation on the battlefield, respect should also be given to those who fought for our liberty on different battlefields; in the courtrooms, in the halls of our legislature and in the hearts and minds of our citizens. It would take decades before Dalton Trumbo’s courage would be recognized and honored but better late than never.

The story is compelling enough that it has been made into a feature film, with Bryan Cranston starring as Trumbo. It is in the process of a staggered release and should be coming to a theater near you soon (it’s already out in major markets like Los Angeles and New York City as this is published). Cranston is said to be on the Oscar shortlist for Best Actor and wouldn’t it be ironic indeed if he won an Oscar for the role. I haven’t seen the new movie yet but something tells me it will be a sentimental favorite.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent use of archival footage. Some of the letters are really touching.  Important story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the readings sound a bit stilted.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $109,057 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trumbo (2015)
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Documented concludes!

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