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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.

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.

Movie Review: “Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation”

Tom Cruise, just hanging out

Tom Cruise, just hanging out

It wasn’t too long ago that the “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise looked pretty much dead. The third film, in 2006, was a dud- the efforts of villain Philip Seymour Hoffman notwithstanding- which coincided with the Oprah’s couch-associated decline of Tom Cruise’s star power.

And that’s why the fourth film in the franchise, 2011’s Brad Bird-directed “Ghost Protocol,” was such an unexpected delight. You had a nearly 50-year-old Cruise doing fantastic stunts, such as hanging off a skyscraper in Dubai. You had a half-dozen awesome, tense action setpieces. You had the return of the team dynamic that was always part of the old TV show but wasn’t part of the movies since the first. And it all came from Bird, a director mostly associated with animation.

Now we have the fifth film, “Rogue Nation,” with another new director in the chair, “Usual Suspects” screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. And while the franchise has had five films from five different directors, the general formula stays the same: A globetrotting plot, tense and super-intricate action sequences, and a plot that’s twisty to the point of being sort of ridiculous. Oh, and those funny masks.

The one that’s gotten all the attention is Cruise jumping onto a plane as it takes off; that’s just the pre-credit sequence. The real centerpiece has Cruise sneaking into an underwater facility, with only three minutes to spare, in order to allow Pegg to sneak into a government facility undetected. There are also multiple chase scenes and a lot of fighting too.

The plot has the secret agency known as the IMF battling a global terrorist faction known as “The Syndicate,” not to be confused with the X-Files villains of the same name. Meanwhile, a Senate committee, at the urging of the head of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) is trying to shut the IMF down.

Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, certainly in impeccable fighting shape for a man of his age. The plot takes him from London to Vienna to Morocco and back to London again, as he goes toe to toe with Syndicate leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris.) Cruise is assisted by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames; it’s never explained what happened to the Paula Patton character from the last film, or for that matter Michelle Monaghan, Cruise’s love interest in the last two films.

Instead we get Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a British spy who may be either friend or foe. But either way, she’s a fantastic character, played by an unknown who’s unlikely to remain so for long. And her name’s Ilsa- of course she turns up in Casablanca.

The supporting cast is strong and deep, with Baldwin (playing a colorful bureaucrat much like he did in The Departed) a welcome addition. Renner, after last year’s “Kill the Messenger,” is still fighting the CIA. And fans of “In the Loop” will be happy to learn that Simon (Tom Hollander) has been promoted in the British government, all the way to prime minster.

While it’s a tick below “Ghost Protocol,” “Rogue Nation” is a winning effort- much better than you’d expect from the fifth film in a series featuring a 53-year-old man as an action star.

Movie Review: “Irrational Man”

“Irrational Man,” Woody Allen’s latest film, represents Allen making a version of “Crime and Punishment” for at least the third time, and the story of an older man finding bliss in the charms of a younger woman for about the 25th time. It plays something like a Woody’s Greatest Hits, minus only specifically Jewish angst and a gorgeous, daffy blond.

Irrational Man The film has its charms, but it’s ultimately a lot of been-there, done-that. And what we saw when Tom Wolfe tried to write a novel about college applies here as well: When a man who’s past the age of 75 sets out to create a work of art about today’s college life, it can only end in tears.

“Irrational Man” stars Joaquin Phoenix as a celebrated author and philosophy professor who takes a teaching job at a fictional Rhode Island college. Despite his pronounced paunch (prosthetic, I hope), tendency towards gibberish philosophizing and obvious depression and alcoholism, women can’t stop falling at his feet. These include one of his students (Emma Stone) and a married fellow professor (Parker Posey.)

It feels at first like another of Allen’s trademark tales in which a guy falls for a woman many years his junior, like last year’s mediocre “Magic in the Moonlight,” also featuring Stone. But midway through, there’s a twist- out of nowhere, Phoenix decides to commit a murder. And rather than take the guilt-ridden Dostoyevskian route like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Match Point,” this crime makes Phoenix… feel alive and purposeful.

It’s a worthy and interesting twist, although ultimately not one able to sustain a whole movie. It also doesn’t explain how multiple women in the same college town see it fit to chuck their existing boyfriends and husbands in favor of this drunken buffoon. Not to mention, Woody’s not exactly a keen observer of how young people act these days- in his universe, college students still get their news from the morning paper. Meanwhile, the third act just plain gets silly.

Both leads are quite good, though. Allen, apparently having tired of Scarlett Johansson, appears to have chosen Stone as his latest muse of choice, and she’s a good fit for Allen’s style. Phoenix continues his streak of outstanding roles, though even he can’t make some of the screenplay’s gibberish make sense. Posey is quite good too, although I confess that for most of the running time I thought she was Rosemarie DeWitt.

A version of this movie, called “The Rewrite,” was made earlier this year with Hugh Grant, also played an aging, down-on-his-luck college professor who simultaneously romances both a young student and a woman his own age. The difference is, the Allen film doesn’t even bother to make it an issue that a professor/student relationship might be a problem.

Woody Allen turns 80 later this year. Does he have one more great film in him? It wouldn’t surprise me. “Irrational Man” is more middle-of-the-pack Woody.

Movie Review: “Trainwreck”

For good and ill, “Trainwreck” has most of the hallmarks of director Judd Apatow’s previous work. There’s the scatological banter, the healthy clip of hilarious jokes, the distant imperfect father character, the awkward sex scenes, the protagonist who slowly but inevitably matures, the sprawling cast of rising comedians, and the tendency for both scenes and the movie itself to drag unnecessarily long. Trainwreck

The big difference, of course, is that playing the Steve Carell/Seth Rogen part is… Amy Schumer, Apatow’s first female protagonist, who’s also credited with the screenplay. And it’s a triumph all around- Apatow’s best film in years.

In the time since the film was shot- and its ad campaign has been ubiquitous for a good six months- Schumer has emerged as American comedy’s voice of the moment, the subject of daily thinkpieces about everything from feminism to body image to race. Now she’s something else- a movie star.

While different enough from Schumer’s standup and sketch work that it doesn’t feel been-there, done-that, Schumer’s character here is a version of her established persona: She plays a Manhattan magazine journalist given to overindulgence in sex, drinking and various other vices. Taught early on by her father (Colin Quinn) that “monogamy isn’t realistic,” Schumer resents her married sister (Brie Larson) and angles for a promotion at work (working for “Devil Wears Prada”-like editrix Tilda Swinton, totally unrecognizable in a wig and spray tan.)

She soon meets Aaron (Bill Hader), a nice-guy sports physician who represents security and stability, thus scaring Schumer out of her mind. And probably the best idea in the whole movie is that Hader’s best friend, rather than Rob Corddry or Ken Marino is… LeBron James, playing himself with absolutely impeccable comic timing.

The laughs here are plentiful, largely from Schumer, although she spreads the wealth quite a bit, to a cast that goes 30 or 40 deep. There are non-actors, like James and WWE star John Cena, who steals multiple scenes as a steakhead boyfriend. There are comedians, like Quinn, Dave Attell, and Mike Birbiglia, sitcom vets like Jon Glaser and Randall Park, and current-gen SNLers like Vanessa Bayer, Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson. Ezra Miller, so mesmerizing in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” has a weird sex scene that had me cackling. Hader, oddly enough, is maybe the funniest person in the whole cast, but is largely relegated to straight-man duty.

I was especially impressed with Quinn, always much more a comedian than actor, who’s playing the latest in a string of imperfect fathers in Apatow movies (in the tradition of George Coe in “Funny People” and Albert Brooks and John Lithgow in “This is 40.”) Apatow, meanwhile, keeps things moving well. While long at exactly two hours, this one’s still leaner than “Funny People” or “This is 40.”

No, the movie’s not perfect by any stretch. Schemer’s big eureka moment feels somewhat like a copout, and the film, like every Apatow or Farelly Brothers comedy to date, reaches the safe conclusion that traditional monogamy is the way to go. There’s a pretty huge plot hole, in that nobody seems to mind that Schumer is openly dating Hader while writing a magazine profile of him, which is especially weird when a completely different ethical breach becomes a problem.

There’s one scene, featuring cameos by Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert and Marv Albert, that isn’t funny and makes no sense whatsoever; it’s as if they all showed up on set one day, improvised unsuccessfully, and Apatow threw the failed first take into the finished film anyway. It’s never explained why LeBron James, who plays for Cleveland, is in New York virtually all the time. And the movie’s biggest stretch of the truth, by far, is that Amare Stoudamire comes back successfully from a knee injury to once again play for the New York Knicks.

Nevertheless, “Trainwreck” is consistently hilarious, and cements Amy Schumer as big-screen star. Another past Apatow star, Katherine Heigl, followed up “Knocked Up” with a string of starring romcom roles; I’ve got a feeling Schumer’s next several films will be much better.

Movie Review: “Ant-Man”

Ant-manFor the second straight year, Marvel’s late-summer entry is a film, based on a little-known comic book property, that’s a whole lot of fun. “Ant-Man” isn’t quite the joy that “Guardians of the Galaxy” was, but it’s still an inventive, very enjoyable action film. Casting Paul Rudd as a superhero, Michael Douglas as his mentor and Corey Stoll as the villain- were all masterstrokes, whichever director was responsible.

(The usual disclaimer- I’ve never read any comic books and therefore know nothing about the book histories of these characters besides what my friends and my kids tell me- and my kids have never heard of Ant-Man.)

“Ant-Man,” of course, is exactly what it sounds like: A superhero who turns into an ant. Or rather, an ant-sized creature with the ability to control actual ants- when Rudd puts on the Ant-Man suit, he shrinks to the size of an ant, and can go back to human size at will.  This creates a lot of opportunities for creative setpieces, whether it’s a fight on top of a child’s Thomas the Tank Engine train set or Rudd’s attempts to jump through a keyhole.

Rudd stars in the film as Scott Lang, an ex-con thief looking to reconnect with his young daughter. During a heist, he stumbles into the Ant-Man suit, which was created by Hank Pym (Douglas), another in the Marvel universe’s seemingly endless series of rich, brilliant scientists. He’s got a daughter of his own (Evangeline Lilly), who currently works for his evil rival (Stoll.)

Rather than the most recent “Avengers” film, which had to service seemingly dozens of characters and make connections with Marvel pictures of the past and future, Ant-Man is much leaner- it’s a relatively straightforward story that leads up to a pretty thrilling third-act heist. Not that there’s no connection to the Avengers universe- both facilities and people from the earlier films do show up.

Edgar Wright was famously supposed to direct “Ant-Man,” before he dropped out and replaced by the less-highly-regarded Peyton Reed. Reed, who made “Bring it On” but has had a more checkered career since, including a seven-year layoff since his last film, the Jim Carrey comedy “Yes Man.” I don’t know the film Wright would have made or how different it would have been, but Reed didn’t do a bad job.

If you like the Marvel universe, you’ll probably enjoy “Ant-Man.” But in a way that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” didn’t, this one stands on its own as a quality action film.

Movie Review: “Minions”

MinionsHow do you make an entertaining childrens’ movie about a group of characters who speak in gibberish language and, indeed, are barely characters at all? That’s the challenge of “Minions,” the origin story of the Twinkie-resembling henchman characters from the two previous “Despicable Me” movies, which plays at times like a Muppets sketch in which every character is Beaker.

Yet somehow, it (sort of) works.

The film gives the Minions a somewhat entertaining backstory. They’re presented as an ancient, nomadic people in the tradition of the biblical Israelites, who date back to the time of the dinosaurs, although they also crossed paths with the likes of the ancient Egyptians and Napoleon. The bulk of the action is set in the late ‘60s, with the little guys in London attempting to foil a plot by supervillainous Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock) to steal the English crown.

On top of late-‘60s references that at this point are most likely to land with the grandparents of tykes watching this than their moms and dads, the plot is various glosses on “King Ralph” (a minion becomes King!), “Ghostbusters” (one of them does a Marshmallow Man impression) and the James Bond legend (handled much better than “Cars 2”’s attempt at the same thing. Then there are Beatles references, and even (?) a moon landing truther joke.

It’s also remarkably similar to last year’s “Madagascar” spinoff, “Penguins of Madagascar,” in that it’s a spinoff movie about largely mute supporting characters from a previously popular franchise, which makes up for the lack of speaking by sending the characters all over the world.

Sure “Minions,” like its predecessor, is a cut below the standards set by the stuff Pixar and Disney Animation Studios are putting out. But it’s tolerable.