Monthly Archives: August 2015

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

Straight_Outta_Compton_poster“Straight Outta Compton,” the new biopic of pioneering gangsta rap outfit NWA, is very much a conventional music biopic, with many of the conventional music biopic flaws. It relies on cliche. It’s too long by about a half hour. It distorts history in some respects and de-emphasizes things in others. It’s much, much more sympathetic to the people in the story who cooperated with the production than those who did not.

That said- I was overjoyed myself the entire time. The film executes the established biopic formula to near-perfection, it’s well-acted and well-staged, and thoroughly enjoyable even when relying on cliche. And let’s not forget that the idea of a major Hollywood studio making a movie about NWA- especially one that so greatly emphasizes the role police brutality played in the group’s rise- would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

If not for “Love and Mercy”- another epic in which Paul Giamatti played the heavy- “Compton” would be the best music biopic of the year.

NWA- which stood, of course, for Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes- emerged from Compton, Calif., in the late 1980s, led by drug dealer-turned rapper Easy-E, rapping standout Ice Cube and producer/performer Dr. Dre; DJ Yella and MC Ren rounded out the group. Plagued by poverty and seemingly non-stop harassment from police, the group emerged in the first Bush era, brought into major label prominence by possibly shady veteran manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti.)

The first half of the film, directed by F. Gary Gray, documents the group’s rise and brief time at the top, later undone by the departures of Cube and Dre and various infighting. The second half is mostly taken up by the group’s doings following NWA’s heyday, including Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s collaboration, Ice Cube’s solo work and eventual movie stardom and Easy-E’s death from AIDS complications in 1995.

Is it a bit too much, stretching the running time to nearly two-and-a-half hours? Yes. But that’s par for the course with these music films. And there’s some great stuff there, mostly involving Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) as a villain who’s more mob boss than music label boss. The group’s long-running feud with law enforcement is well-depicted and timely, especially its staging of the famous incident, in 1989, when NWA was arrested for singing “Fuck the Police” at a concert in Detroit. Again, it sort of puts the lie to all the fashionable “PC Police” crap these days- NWA didn’t get called “problematic” or criticized on Twitter for their lyrics. They literally got arrested, by the actual police, for the crime of performing song lyrics that the cops didn’t like.

The cast is fairly strong from top to bottom, led by Corey Hawkins as Dre, Jason Mitchell (a true dead ringer) as Easy-E and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. playing his dad, Ice Cube. Giamatti plays Heller very well, as a charmer, and whether or not he was actually robbing the group blind is left unambiguous for most of the running time.

The film omits various things, most notably Dr. Dre’s much-reported-about history of violence against women, and that DJ Yella enjoyed a successful and prolific career as a pornographer. I don’t even remember seeing Arabian Prince, once a member of the group, in the film. One can’t help but notice that Dre and Cube- the two members of the group who are alive, successful and have the means to have shepherded the film to the point where they have producer credits- come across a bit more positively than anyone else.

There’s much less open drug use than I would imagine there probably was in real life, and the episode in which Heller enlisted the nutty Jewish Defense League against Ice Cube is mostly glossed over. There are a couple of continuity errors- in the opening scene, set in 1986, Eazy-E is wearing a White Sox hat that wouldn’t exist until several years later. And the actor playing Snoop Dogg, “Short Term 12”’s Keith Stanfield, looks nothing like him, even if he does have the voice down perfectly.

Still, “Straight Outta Compton” is ultimately a success, and if that music ever meant anything to you, it’s a must. I for one am rooting for its success so we get more definitive hip-hop biopics. Wouldn’t you watch a whole movie about Suge Knight’s life? Or Tupac’s? Chris Rock has talked about wanting to make a movie about a bunch of the original rappers, now living life as middle-aged men. Wouldn’t you want to see that?

“Notorious,” a biopic of Biggie, came and went a few years ago and isn’t well-remembered. “Compton” will likely be better-remembered.

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Movie Review: “Ricki and the Flash”

Ricki_and_the_Flash_posterMuch like director Jonathan Demme’s last feature, 2008’s astonishing “Rachel Getting Married,” “Ricki” is the story of a flawed woman, awkwardly re-connecting with her estranged family, on the occasion of an unusually music-intensive wedding. Of course, the tone is much different. And so is the music.

If you’ve seen the TV commercials or trailers for the film, you likely think of it as “that Meryl Streep rock star movie.” But it’s really not that at all. It’s much deeper, and affecting than you’d think.

“Ricki” combines the styles and worldviews of director Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody, in a marriage that’s much more successful than you probably imagined.

Streep plays Ricki, a middle-aged dive bar rock performer who, years earlier, abandoned her family to chase rock star dreams that never came true. Working as a Whole Foods cashier by day and playing classic rock covers to small, aging audiences at night alongside guitarist/boyfriend Rick Springfield, Ricki seeks a second chance with her estranged family once her daughter (Streep’s own daughter, Mamie Gummer) attempts suicide.

The middle, and best, section of the movie consists of Streep’s visit to the opulent Indianapolis home of her former husband (Kevin Kline, again playing a repressed Indiana man 15 years after “In & Out.” And this is mostly due to a standard performance from Gummer, who- with clothes and hair that it appears are actually unwashed- is much more convincing as a depressed person than such characters typically are. After a sojourn back to California, the film concludes with a musical wedding not exactly like the one in “Rachel Getting Married,” yet good for much the same reasons.

The movie works largely due to the writing- Cody seems to have gotten over her obsession with painful, “honest to blog” phrasings- and the creation of outstanding, multidimensional characters who are allowed to be both good and bad, and right and wrong. And the portrayal of these characters- led by Streep, Gummer and Kline- is first rate across the board.

Streep is playing a very different type of character for herself- for one thing, I couldn’t tell you the last time she played a Republican- but she knocks it out of the park anyway, and she’s even an all-right singers. Springfield, suddenly ubiquitous as an actor with this and True Detective, gets to act and play music, both reasonably well. Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate have some good moments as Streep and Kline’s sons, as does Audra McDonald as their stepmom. And the 89-year-old Charlotte Rae- Mrs. Garrett!- has a killer one-scene cameo as Kline’s mother.

The other thing I liked about “Ricki” is that it reverses stereotypes and movie conventional wisdom by making the Indiana characters rich, eccentric and crunchy- complete with wedding RSVPs in which the food options are “vegan” and “vegan gluten-fee”- and the Californian as an unsophisticated rube with an American flag tattoo and a record of voting for George W. Bush. Regional differences aren’t actually as cut-and-dried as the movies usually make them, so I found that refreshing.

So yes: The “Meryl Streep Rockstar Movie” is much, much better than it looks.