Straight Outta Compton (Full Review)

Back in January, in my review of Selma, I talked about my love/hate relationship with biopics. These films, no matter how relevant, have to rely on strong performances and good direction to avoid being tedious. A great performance by David Oyelowo and strong direction by Ava DuVerney helped Selma overcome its preachy tone. Straight Outta Compton could’ve felt like just another gangster film with the same old lessons and tropes, but luckily director F.Gary Gray (Friday, Set it Off, The Italian Job) provides a stylish, seamless narrative that makes this film stand out.

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterThe film follows the meteoric rise and subsequent breakup of Compton, California based rap group N.W.A. between 1986 and 1993, focusing on the core members: Charismatic former drug dealer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), writer and chief lyricist Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), ambitious top producer Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), fellow producer DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and rapper MC Ren (Aldis Hodge). They are brought together by manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who helps them transcend from local success to national phenomenon, but not without a world of conflict brought on by the group’s brash, controversial music.

If you’re only vaguely familiar with N.W.A., then this movie does a masterful job of explaining why they were so important. Their lyrics, though violent and belligerent, were the voice of an unheard generation and their style helped pioneer the future of rap and hip-hop. But that’s just the history lesson element that this film brings. As a whole, Straight Outta Compton paints a grim, but very real picture that illustrates why the genre exists and why they were true artists. Strong performances also help make the dramatic elements of the film incredibly gripping even if you already know the details. Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of Eazy-E and O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s performance as his father are the most notable, but virtually everyone brings something to the table.

If there’s fault to be had, it’s probably in the films lengthy run time of over 150 minutes. There are certain scenes the movie could do without, but everything flows well. And just like Selma, with so many stories of police brutality flooding the news, this story is as topical and relevant as any film to come out this year. Straight Outta Compton is a vulgar, angry, beautiful ode to an overlooked and misunderstood culture and it deserves to be appreciated and respected as much as the influential group it depicts.

FINAL GRADE: A

Straight Outta Compton (Full Review)

End of Summer Quick Reviews

While you eagerly anticipate my Straight Outta Compton Review, here are a couple of Summer films that might’ve fallen under the radar that you might want to check out (or avoid).

Vacation_posterVACATION A reboot/sequel of National Lampoon’s popular 1980’s ‘R’ rated comedies about family vacations gone wrong. Ed Helms takes over the lead role as Rusty Griswold, a pushover air pilot in a floundering marriage to his former sorority girl wife (Christina Applegate) and the father to a sensitive nerd (Skyler Gisondo) who is bullied by his foul mouthed younger brother. To bring the family closer, Rusty decides to take all of them on the same cross-country road trip his father (Chevy Chase) once took his family on.

Beware of comparing this movie to Chevy Chase’s classics. Tonally this film is a bit raunchier and the family members themselves aren’t remotely as likable. The story is also uneven and lacks any real surprises. But as a stand alone comedy, this movie has plenty of laughs to outweigh the few moments when the slapstick falls flat. Cameos from Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day add some hysterical moments that overall make this Vacation film feel like time well spent, even if it isn’t too memorable. FINAL GRADE: B-

Temple_Hill_Entertainment_-_Paper_TownsPAPER TOWNS Based on a novel written by the same author of The Fault in Our Stars, this story follows a high school senior named ‘Q’ (Nat Wolff) who pines after his wild child next door neighbor, Margo (Cara Delevingne). After a night of elaborate pranks on her cheating ex-boyfriend, Margo disappears. With the help of his two quirky best friends (Austin Abrams and Justice Smith) and Margo’s best friend (Halston Sage), Q connects clues to try and find Margo so that he can profess his love for her.

The film doubles as a mystery and a coming of age teen dramedy. It’s only interesting when it focuses on the latter. The mystery aspect is long and drawn out and hardly believable and things only get intriguing when Q finds her supposed whereabouts and goes on a road trip with his friends to find her. That’s when we get to discover some great chemistry between the cast. The story isn’t nearly as grounded as The Fault in Our Stars, but like it, the film does provide some solid insight on its subject matter that’ll at least leave the audience with some knowledge if they haven’t been confused or bored to death by the plot and execution. FINAL GRADE: C

Shaun_the_Sheep_MoviePosterSHAUN THE SHEEP The makers of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run bring another stop motion story to life in the form of their TV show about a rambunctious sheep. In this film, after getting fed up with his farmer owner’s routine, Shaun and his sheep brethren hatch a plan to escape from the farmer and his dog and explore the big city. But they soon find out that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

An important disclaimer should come with this film: THERE IS NO DIALOGUE. ZERO. NONE. WHATSOEVER. With that, it takes a strong attention span to keep from dozing off once or twice even if you feel interested going in. Children used to the manic pacing of Spongebob and Minions will probably not enjoy this, but young children who don’t understand words anyway, should love it. The lessons should also hit home and adults, who can stomach a film void of dialogue will also find several moments in the film to chuckle at, making Shaun the Sheep a solid niche family film. FINAL GRADE: B

The_Man_from_U.N.C.L.E._posterTHE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. A British actor plays an American spy and an American actor plays a Russian spy? If they can pull it off… sure, why not? Based on an old 1960’s television series, this film unites the two Cold War rival countries on a mission to stop a socialite/megalomaniac (Elizabeth Debicki) from selling a nuclear bomb. The Americans have suave former thief, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the Russians have tough, temperamental KGB agent Illya Kuryikan (Armie Hammer). Together, they must put aside their obvious disdain for one another to protect a former Nazi scientist’s daughter (Alicia Vikander) and use her to find their nemesis.

Part classic James Bond, but more historical buddy cop movie, Man from U.N.C.L.E. manages to deliver with action, style, a smooth soundtrack and some charismatic comedy. The camaraderie of its lead actors is overwhelmingly enjoyable from start to finish. The plot is a bit feeble, but who cares when you’ve got magnetic characters who have great chemistry. You probably ended up watching Straight Outta Compton this weekend, but if you feel like one last dose of summer fun before the season ends, Man from U.N.C.L.E. is definitely worth a look. FINAL GRADE: A-

End of Summer Quick Reviews

Fantastic Four Review

Let me paint the picture for you: You’re taking a written test. You don’t study, because you think you know the subject pretty well. Then you fail miserably and you feel like an idiot for being so overconfident. So then, you buckle down and study hard. You go into the next exam feeling both confident and prepared, because you think you have a good idea of what the professor is looking for. But, what happens if you fail again? Do you find a tutor? Drop the class altogether? This folks… is 20th Century Fox’s journey with rebooting Fantastic Four.

2005’s Fantastic Four and its sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer are two of the worst superhero movies ever created. This latest, much more grounded and serious iteration follows a younger, more talented, cast. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a prodigy who develops inter-dimensional travel in the 5th grade with his not so brainy, but loyal best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell). Sue Storm (Kate Mare) is a genius whose adoptive father (Reg E. Cathey) runs a school for geniuses. Her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) is a mechanic who spends his time rebelling against his father due to an inferiority complex with his sister. And Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) is yet another genius who eventually becomes the villain because he hates government control. Together they travel to another dimension and are given superpowers when things go haywire.

Fantastic_Four_2015_posterYou first need to understand that this movie is not even remotely the disaster that the media will have you to believe it is. It’s actually a movie dead on arrival thanks to pre-production chaos and sabotage by its own parent company (Marvel cancelled Fantastic Four comics since 20th Century Fox wouldn’t sell back the film rights). Then there are the morons who rose hell when an African American was casted as Johnny Storm. But no film deserves to be judged on the merits of how it was made or even preconceived notion. A movie deserves to be judged on its story, actors, and execution.

And what this new Fantastic Four truly is… is unfortunately one of the most dull superhero films since Superman Returns. It appears that the writers and Director Josh Trank were trying so hard to avoid the campy tone of the original films, that they created something completely opposite, but still not enjoyable. The story, which is 80% set up and 20% action, is almost void of humor or even heart. There’s a ton of build up, and yet too many of the characters, mainly Jaime Bell’s Ben Grimm, aren’t fleshed out.

And it’s a shame, because the visuals are solid and most of the cast is actually fantastic. Miles Teller is a good, humble leading man and believable as a young Mr. Fantastic. Michael B. Jordan is a perfect Johnny Storm, albeit he doesn’t get enough to do other than have childish spats with his father. And even though the design of Dr. Doom looks dumb, Kebbel’s take on the character is an intellectual one. It is ten times better than that garbage Julian McMahon but on screen back in ’05 and ’07. The weakest link is clearly Kate Mara, whose stoic performance provides zero chemistry with her co-stars and virtually sucks the joy out of every scene she is in.

The movie, though boring for a superhero/science fiction film, maintains its dignity and that alone makes it way better than its predecessors. At barely over an hour and a half, it’s strange that more wasn’t added. It almost feels like another action sequence and some scenes with character interaction were cut. There’s clearly potential here and it’ll be a shame if bad direction and a meager script keeps us from experiencing a good Fantastic Four movie. Who knows, a box office bomb might force Fox to go the Sony/Spider-Man route and give Marvel’s first family back to Marvel. If that happens, at least Fox still has X-Men on the right track.

FINAL GRADE: C-

Fantastic Four Review

Pixels Review

I haven’t really enjoyed an Adam Sandler movie since The Water Boy. And judging from his box office returns, most of the rest of the world feels the same way. It just seems that with each movie Sandler does, he seems to be phoning it in more and more. I admittedly have gotten so fed up with Sandler’s films, that I haven’t even given his most recent ones (Grown Ups 2, Blended) the time of day. But against my better judgment, I decided to give Sandler another shot.

PixelsOfficialPosterPixels stars Sandler as a former 80’s arcade gamer who is going through a midlife crisis while working for a computer repair and installation company. He is called upon by his best friend and current U.S. President (Kevin James) to defeat an alien race that invades in the form of 80’s video games like Pacman, Donkey Kong, and Centipede. To defeat them he’ll need the help of a nerdy conspiracy theorist (Josh Gad) and his old arch rival (Peter Dinklage).

Aliens attacking in the form of 80’s video games isn’t as unbelievable as Paul Blart being the President of the United States. So it goes without saying that you’ll need to check your brain at the door to get any type of enjoyment out of this movie. Once again, Sandler looks like he’s just going through the motions. He makes a funny joke here and there, but for the most part he and the rest of the cast is just a bore. Dinklage and Gad do their best to inject some life into this comedy, but even their antics come off as trying too hard after a while.

The script feels like it’s written by a 9 year old. The President is a buffoon, the military is a bunch of moronic meatheads, and the less said about Michelle Monaghan’s disgracefully written character, the better. She’s a military general who’s basically only in the movie to be Sandler’s love interest, because she does more crying and ranting than anything productive.

If you’re familiar with the classic games, you’ll surely take pleasure in the actual gaming action. The Pacman battle through New York City is a nice touch. But whenever any actual character interaction is going on, you’ll either be annoyed or feel like mentally checking out. And sadly, that’s become a sentiment in too many Adam Sandler movies of late.

FINAL GRADE: D+

Pixels Review

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (Full Review)

Mission_Impossible_Rogue_Nation_posterThere’s nothing like a good spy movie. Fist fights, car chases, gadgets, and a cool, charismatic lead to bring it all together. Since it was first adapted from a 1960’s television series in 1996, the Mission: Impossible film franchise has been one of the best in the genre thanks to great stories, greater action sequences, and a strong lead in veteran action star Tom Cruise. As one of my personal favorites genres, I was more than excited to see if the newest installment could continue the franchise’s upward momentum created by 2011’s stellar Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.

Mission: Impossible has become a de facto American James Bond franchise with every film offering up a different female lead and sinister villain. But Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is always the glue that holds the films together. Hunt is no James Bond and his recklessness and unpolished nature are always what add tension to these films. This time around his chaotic methods have caught up to him and he and the rest of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force). While CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) seeks to find him and shut him down, Ethan goes rogue and searches for a secret terrorist organization that seems to know his every move.

From a narrative standpoint, Director Christopher McQuarrie’s film doesn’t quite flow as well as Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol or reach the tension of J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. But in McQuarrie’s defense, the plot of Rogue Nation isn’t as interesting as Ghost Protocol’s nor are the stakes as high as they are in M:I 3. Where this film tops its predecessors however, is in its characters. As always, Simon Pegg is witty, comedic gold as tech expert, Benji. Other returning characters, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are at their suave, snarky best throughout. Sean Harris also provides a worthy adversary as Solomon Lane, although that is probably attributed to the script rather than Harris’ actual performance.

But the character who undoubtedly steals the show is Rebecca Ferguoson as double agent, Ilsa Foust. There are femme fatales, and then there’s Ilsa. Ferguson caries out each scene with a calm, collected swagger that is both sexy and menacing. She not only holds her own around Cruise, but after the credits role you may find yourself wishing for her character to get her own set of on-screen adventures. Ilsa is not only the best female role in a Mission: Impossible movie, she may very well be the most exhilarating female lead in any spy movie to date.

The fights, chases, and gadgets are all incredible although the action sequences in the film never top the Burj Khalifa scene in Ghost Protocol. Several scenes, including a motorcycle chase and an underwater heist, certainly come close. It’s amazing that almost 20 years after the film franchise began, the films are getting more and more interesting. Sure, the spy genre can certainly be a bit monotonous and their stories convoluted, but Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation is proof that as long as you’ve got good action and interesting characters, we don’t mind sequel after sequel. You’re move 007.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (Full Review)