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

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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

Turbo


Snail fail.

Snail fail.

(2013) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzman, Bill Hader, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Mario Andretti, Michael Patrick Bell, Aidan Andrews, Paul Dooley, Latifa Ouaou. Directed by David Soren

If you must dream, dream big. It’s easy to dream of getting an ice cream cone – after all, that’s something nearly everyone can achieve. But for a snail to dream of winning the Indianapolis 500…

But that’s just what Theo (Reynolds) a.k.a. Turbo does. He dreams of being fast, to race alongside his idol Guy Gagne (Hader), a French Canadian who has won four Indies and is the most loved race car driver in the world. However, the reality is that for all of Theo’s dreams, he’s still a snail. His delusions make him the target of a lot of abuse, much to the chagrin of his brother Chet (Giamatti).

When a mistake on Theo’s part leads to a disaster at the tomato plant in which he works, his brother and Theo are both fired. Disconsolate, Theo goes to an overpass to watch traffic pass by…fast. However a chance truck sends him over the side and onto the hood of a street racing vehicle. When Theo is sucked into the manifold and it is flooded with nitrous oxide, Theo attains super-speed that allow him to go Indie car speeds. Barry Allen, take note.

Theo – make that Turbo – then chases down a crow that has taken Chet and rescues him. The two are then captured by Tito (Pena), the dreamer brother of a taco stand owner (Guzman) in a dilapidated strip mall and entered in snail races which of course Turbo dominates. Tito – with an assist from Turbo – then determines to enter his unique snail in the Indy 500. Tito’s snail pit crew of Whiplash (Jackson), Smoove Move (Dogg), Burn (Rudolph), Skidmark (Schwartz) and the White Shadow (Bell) are very much supportive; Chet, not so much.

However, things take on a life of their own and Turbo becomes the big story at Indy, bringing in record crowds and viewing numbers. This doesn’t sit well with Gagne who doesn’t relish being beaten by a snail. It will take every ounce of courage and fortitude for Turbo to achieve his unlikely but now well within his reach dreams.

I have to admit, auto racing does nothing for me so the subject of the movie left me underwhelmed. That’s a personal bias more than an indictment of the plot here. While I will admit that the snails make fascinating animation subjects, they are kind of limited as one-joke subjects; they’re slow, we get that. There’ s the slime trail and then…nothing. That means it was always an uphill climb for the writers and filmmakers to make these characters interesting and I will give ’em props for managing to do it more or less; sadly they were less successful with the human characters.

Although bashing Reynolds has become a popular critical pastime, you won’t find me joining in. His voice is expressive and he gives Turbo a heroic yet nebbish personality. One of the movie’s funnier sequences has Turbo getting pie faced by rotten tomatoes (it’s his job to dispose of them at the plant) which pretty much sums up the critical reaction to the film.

Yeah, there are a lot of pretty colors and kids are going to love it along with all the merchandising that is sure to follow. I will say that overall that the filmmakers purloined so many elements from so many films from the TRON-like neon trail that Turbo leaves when he’s in turbo mode to the Big Wheel-riding shell crusher kid who brings to mind Sid from Toy Story that a savvy moviegoer might be more entertained by spotting the rip-offs than actually watching the movie.

It’s been a pretty subpar year for animated features and this one isn’t going to redeem it any. By any measure, this is fairly bland entertainment for kid and parent alike. That doesn’t mean it won’t keep your kids happy and content in the theater which for a frazzled parent who’s had to deal with amped up kids all summer long is all the blessing you need.

REASONS TO GO: A bit better than you’d expect.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really into snails or race cars. Very derivative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of cartoon violence and action as well as some thematic elements that might be a bit more than the very wee tots can handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Gagne” means “to win” in French.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100; the reviews are pretty mixed thus far.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ratatouille

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Wolverine

The Big Bang


Noir, 21st Century-style.

Noir, 21st Century-style.

(2010) Mystery (Anchor Bay) Antonio Banderas, Sienna Guillory, James van der Beek, Snoop Dogg, Autumn Reeser, Sam Elliot, Jimmi Simpson, Thomas Kretschmann, William Fichtner, Robert Maillet, Delroy Lindo, Bill Duke, Rebecca Mader, Robert Ernie Lee, Rachel Handler, Sean Cook, Khanh Doan, Keith MacGeagh, Chandra Bailey. Directed by Tony Krantz

When you think of film noir, you think of hard-bitten detectives in rumpled suits, gorgeous dames in dresses two sizes too tight and big bruising thugs with brass knuckles. You think of soft black and white, foggy back alleys and sleazy private investigator offices. You think of Bogart, Bacall, Mitchum and Greenstreet. You don’t think of Antonio Banderas and neon colored strip clubs.

But they can be noir too. In this celluloid extravaganza Banderas is Ned Cruz, a P.I. from the mean streets of L.A. A Russian boxer named Anton “The Pro” Protopov (Maillet), freshly release from prison after killing a man in the ring, is looking for a girl. Not just any girl though – you can find one on the Internet – but the lovely Lexi Persimmon. You heard me. Anyway, she wrote him a bunch of letters in the slam but gave the galoot no info to go on, no address, no social security, no phone number – not even an e-mail.

There’s also this stash of $40 million in blood diamonds, a waitress named Fay (Reeser) who loves particle physics, a porn director (Dogg) who loves his product a little too much, a kinky movie star (van der Beek) with a dark secret, a cross-dressing nuclear physicist (Simpson), a crazy billionaire (Elliot) obsessed with finding the God particle and willing to re-create the Big Bang in the New Mexico desert to do it and the billionaire’s wife (Guillory) who might be the key to the whole sordid tale. Oh, and did we mention the three brutal cops (Kretschmann, Lindo and Fichtner) chasing down Cruz to find out where the diamonds are?

On paper this really does sound like my kind of movie – something smart but timeless, using the conventions of a noir detective thriller with a touch of sci-fi and a little bit of black humor mixed in. However, references to physics and science doesn’t necessarily a smart film make although this one is pretty clever in places.

Banderas is an engaging star but I didn’t really believe him in the role. Ned Cruz should have been a lot more badass than pretty boy; in some ways I think Danny Trejo might have been more suitable but of course Banderas is the bigger box office draw so from that standpoint I can’t really blame the producers.

The cast is pretty impressive for a low budget thriller with a tiny distributor but not many of them get the kind of screen time that makes for much of an impression. Most are little more than cameos although Elliot seems to be having the most fun playing the kind of character he rarely gets to play while Simpson camps it up nicely. Reeser and Guillory really don’t have much more to do but look pretty which to be fair they do very, very well – but I suspect if their characters had been given a little more fleshing out they would have risen to the challenge as well.

I don’t think the movie achieves everything the filmmakers set out to do, but it is entertaining enough to be worth a look-see. Although I criticized his casting earlier, Banderas at least does an adequate job of playing the tough guy and of course doing the narration which is a noir tradition. While the movie takes a few left turns too many, it nonetheless at least doesn’t disgrace the genre and given that since its heyday many have tried but few have succeeded in giving us a good noir thriller I have to at least admire the attempt.

WHY RENT THIS: A noir thriller involving particle physics – I can’t make this stuff up. Decent cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes a little bit off into left field occasionally.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and quite a bit of sexuality (some of it graphic), a bit of foul language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an extended sex scene shot that got the film an NC-17 rating that was removed from the film in order to bring it down to an R rating; director Krantz refers to it on the home video commentary track but the scene isn’t included on the Blu-Ray release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Perfect Host