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

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May 2015 Quick Reviews

Summer movie season is in full swing. Here are some quick thoughts on some of the films that capped the month of May…

San_Andreas_posterSAN ANDREAS Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as rescue pilot Chief Ray Gaines in this earth quake disaster film about the San Andreas fault (mainly encompassing California) ripping apart. The film is pretty much everything you’d expect a disaster movie with The Rock to be. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

San Andreas is stuffed full of nearly every disaster movie cliché imaginable: A scientist that no one listens to until it’s too late (Paul Giamatti), a significant other that the main character must reconcile with (Carla Gugino), an offspring that needs saving (Alexandra Daddario), and a character who turns full a-hole when everything starts to go south (Ioan Gruffudd). But it’s still fairly entertaining. The action sequences are no less (or more) interesting than the events in films like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow, but the 3D is a nice added touch. And as far as leads go, Dwayne Johnson is right in his element here, when he isn’t trying to show too much emotional depth. All in all, the film is decent time spent, but don’t expect anything earth shatteringly original. Pun intended. FINAL GRADE: C+

Tomorrowland_posterTOMORROWLAND In this day and age when spoilers are released via on-set cell phone footage and each movie gets four trailers to show you all of the interesting parts, Tomorrowland is an absolute breath of fresh air. Kept relatively under wraps, the story revolves around an intelligent, young girl (Britt Robertson) who is recruited to save a futuristic world kept secret by history’s best and brightest. George Clooney co-stars as the former child genius turned cynical recluse who reluctantly aids her on her journey.

The cast, especially Clooney, deserves credit for strong, emotionally grounded performances. The only problem is that this adventurous build-up comes to a highly underwhelming climax that manages to weigh down the entire film. And, although highly relevant, the movie beats you over the head with its overarching message. Still, kudos to Disney and director Brad Bird for withholding all of their secrets to make this film feel wildly original. FINAL GRADE: B-

Aloha_posterALOHA Where do I start with this one? I guess I’ll begin with the overly convoluted plot. Yes, a romantic comedy has a complicated story. Anywho, Bradley Cooper stars as a contractor for the military who returns to his hometown in Hawaii to help a billionaire (Bill Murray) with a satellite launch. Yes, that’s actually the plot. Emma Stone co-stars as his Air Force watchdog who falls in love with him and Rachel McAdams as his now married ex-girlfriend.

If the military and NASA dribble involving secret missiles and land negotiations with Hawaiian natives doesn’t make this film feel droll enough, the lack of chemistry between the characters will. The film is filled with awkward moments, and not the entertaining kind of awkward that makes you laugh, but rather those moments where you just want the scene to end. The most enjoyable moments in the movie come from Rachel McAdams’ husband, played by John Krasinksi who communicates non-verbally for nearly the entire movie. He provides some snickers in spurts, but other than that, this film is neither endearing or humorous. FINAL GRADE: D+

Not Quite So-Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

Yep. Another superhero movie is here to kickoff the summer movie season… as if there weren’t enough of them. First up, is another Spider-Man movie… as if there weren’t enough of them.

ImageMarc Webb (no pun intended… I think) returns to direct the sequel to the 2012 Spider-Man reboot. His last outing, almost a complete retread of Sam Raimi’s original film, was saved by its two leads. I don’t think anyone will argue that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone aren’t a step up from Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Still… it’s hard to shake the fact that Tobey and Kirsten did it first. Thus, yet again, it’s hard to watch this film and not rummage through it for reasons to care about its existence.

So let’s go ahead and get the negatives out of the way first, so we can end on a good note going forward into the Summer Movie Season. First off; the tone. With the creation of Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the Avengers’ Universe, and the X-Men franchise, I’d have sworn we’d left the campiness and corniness back in the 90’s with Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. And yet, the bad puns and goofiness seem to pop up in this film far too often. In fact, the movie seems to go from silly to serious to heartfelt as if someone is flipping a switch in the projection booth.

“It’s my birthday… now it’s time to light my candles”… *proceeds to electrocute everything*… I mean, c’mon Electro, you can do better than that.

And then there’s the cast. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge Jamie Foxx and Paul Giamatti fan. But casting them in the clichéd, cookie cutter roles of Electro and Rhino is like hiring an architect to draw a stick figure. In fact, there were literally times where I felt like Foxx was going to turn into this guy.

But… Spider-man is here to save the day. Andrew Garfield is once again marvelous as Peter Parker. Comparing him to Tobey Maguire’s dinky turn as the titular hero is like comparing Christian Bale’s Batman to Adam West’s. Garfield is the embodiment of the character and makes you root for him and believe in him every time he’s on screen. Then there’s Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey who’s just so darn adorable. Franchise newcomer, Dane DeHaan (Chronicle), is also not too shabby as Harry Osborne.

So what it all comes down to is: Is a good Spidey and a culpable love story enough to save a clunky script? Well, yes and no. For a superhero movie, the film is lacking on the action… which is weird, considering the movie is packed with three villains. And when it does hit, you’ll either love or hate the constant shifting in and out of super slow motion. But, considering it has a strong lead actor and a dramatic climax (perhaps shocking to non-comic aficionados who can’t guess the inevitable end), the movie isn’t a terrible way to spend a few hours and a couple of bucks. Unless of course, you haven’t seen Captain America 2 yet.

FINAL GRADE: C