Straight Outta Compton (2015)

★★★★

Straight Outta Compton PosterDirector: F. Gary Gray

Release Date: August 14th, 2015 (US); August 28th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell

Full disclosure: I’m not a big late-80s/early-90s hip hop fan. Before F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, I likely would have associated the letters “N.W.A.” with a professional wrestling promotion as opposed to anything of the rap variety. But cinema is a great enlightenment tool and here I am, enlightened, and all the better for it. The film takes us all the way back to 1986, to Compton, California and to the inception of one of the most influential groups in music history. Not that I know anything, but to me Straight Outta Compton plays like a film worthy of the N.W.A.’s hefty legacy.

It is primarily centred around the three most pivotal members: Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (Jackson O’Shea Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). We meet the former surrounded by guns and drugs, and the latter hopes and dreams. Despite its obvious pitfalls — impending violence and police sirens — the Compton hip hop culture proudly wears an aspirational quality that bellows from the screen; this is especially true during musical interludes, though these aren’t interludes as much as natural story progressions. And it is this underbelly of aspiration that resonates universally, beyond hip hop. What we have is a piece that serves its real life protagonists honourably by dismissing glorification and highlighting the relatable traits they foster.

This feels like the rise of the N.W.A., not an imitation. Every performance is authentic, from Jackson O’Shea Jr. who is more than just his father’s uncanny lookalike, authoritative and assured, to Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the rebel of rebels turned sympathetic figure. Mitchell sieves through the aggravating side of his character in order to trap something really genuine. It helps that the focus is not always on Eazy-E; we spend significant time with Dr. Dre, played with a terrific sense of roundedness by Corey Hawkins, and with Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller, a businessman with dollar signs in his eyes. This is a cast rich in talent, both raw and honed, backed up by strong supporting players (R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight; Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr. as MC Renn and DJ Yella, respectively).

As is always the case when a biopic hits the stands, much has been said about historical fudgings. Most notably, the non-reference to Dr. Dre’s violent outbursts against women. That’s a fair quarrel, though I can only judge what I see. The guys on-screen are absolutely not angels, nor do they hold themselves to such a moral standard. They partake in overblown confrontations — the camera makes a point to zoom in on a tightly-grasped glass bottle during one conflict. Women are not treated well, often as little more than instruments to use (this does change upon the arrival of maturity). And bouts of in-fighting gain frequency as the group gains success. You believe in the bond between the members, but you also recognise the potential for bloated egos to overrule harmony. So when bloated egos overrule harmony, it’s not a shock.

The most charged relationship Gray’s outing explores, though, is not one between individual artists, but a collective one between all artists and the police. Our real world news media has been awash with the pitiful treatment, and worse, of black men in particular by US police officers, and this exceptionally tense relationship is reflected from the word go. For instance, we see Dr. Dre on the receiving end of a brutish arrest for no apparent reason: “I was literally just standing there… that’s it.” Police brutality is obviously an issue with complex ties to the rise of the N.W.A., therefore the extent to which it is featured here does seem justified and in many ways inevitable, but that inevitability does not diminish its impact at all.

Cop cars stalk the group constantly; they appear from nowhere almost to the point of parody, their lights flashing and alarms blaring. Conversations between officer and victim cement the shoddy use of power structures — one side inflicting orders with no real basis, the other side angrily demanding an explanation. This amounts to a handful of on-the-nose interactions (“You can’t come down here and harass my clients because they’re black”) but then these interactions are probably wrapped up in absolute truth, which makes the whole saga all the more infuriating for us folks on the side of those being unlawfully discriminated against.

On a lighter note, at two and a half hours long the film advances with unrivalled exuberance. This is all Gray’s direction; you can feel it. Be it in establishing compelling dialogues or encouraging us to head-bop along, the director never lets up: we zip through recording sessions and into electric live performances, and the spotlight evolves from a lone studio glow into an array of kinetic beams. The best example of this vitality is in an unrelenting diss sequence during which the picture cuts between the disser dissing and the dissees listening. It is a track that stems from a dispute based on artistic and financial integrity, another industry strand the piece explores in some detail.

It’s not as earnest as something like Crazy Heart or as indebted to soul-searching as a Walk the Line, but Straight Outta Compton thrives on the strength of its key figures and the scintillating, abrasive music they make. For someone like me, a representative of those uninitiated in the musical culture on display, this character-centric approach affords the film a grounding from which to flourish. Good characterisation, good storytelling — these are two of the tenets of good cinema, and Straight Outta Compton revels in both. That makes it good cinema.

Straight Outta Compton - Corey Hawkins

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Begin Again (2014)

★★★★

Begin Again PosterDirector: John Carney

Release Date: July 11th, 2014 (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo

Why do they get nine out of ten of her dollars? Those are the words that spring from the mouth of Keira Knightley’s Gretta, a talented musician with a newfound shrewdness for business economics and life in general. Her question is aimed at record label producer Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) who likely knows more about the dials on an Auto-Tune system than he does real musical verve.

But this isn’t a straightforward examination of the successes and failures of the contemporary music landscape. That is an underlying — and at times on the nose — theme, but not the film’s primary prerogative. Begin Again is more tuned into people, and how the relationships between those people unfold within a high intensity city, surrounded by an even higher intensity business.

We begin with an impressive James Corden as best friend Steve, encouraging a reluctant Gretta to get up and play one of her songs in a dingy New York City bar. She’s good, but through the murmurs and glass-smashing nobody takes much notice. Apart from Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who looks a little worse for wear. Dan, as it transpires, is a struggling record producer and former partner of the aforementioned Saul. Differing business models caused the split, a common occurrence in Dan’s life — he is also separated from his wife and bears the brunt of a friction-fuelled relationship with his daughter. Alcohol is his solution, which leads him to a dingy New York City bar.

And then we begin again, only this time our two central characters arrive imbued with backstory. The non-linear storytelling technique used early in the film is one of a few nuances implemented by director John Carney that help to maintain the freshness of what otherwise might be an occasionally dour narrative. When we first meet Gretta and Dan their individual baggage is evident, and because both Knightley and Ruffalo instantly come across empathetically, our affection greatly increases as their bad experiences are unveiled.

Dan is at odds both personally and professionally. He lives alone in a dank apartment that has probably seen more hangovers than clean bed sheets. Much to his ineffectual chagrin, his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) wears attire unsuitable for school. “Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver,” is Dan’s unsavoury description. It’s a good thing Gretta is around to interject as wardrobe advisor in between bouts of album recording.

Gretta used to be outgoing and inspired until she and ex-boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) unceremoniously severed ties. She becomes those things again when in Dan’s company, but their partnership thankfully doesn’t venture down generic romantic channels when you get the feeling it might. Carney, who directed and wrote the screenplay, has form in the genre — he helmed the much lauded indie music-drama Once, and puts the positive expertise gained from that to use here.

Ruffalo and Knightley excel individually and collectively. Ruffalo is particularly full of off-kilter charm as the scruffy music lover trying to maintain originality in an increasingly banal industry. When the actor is in his element — quirky, unfiltered and eccentric — he is really great, and he’s in his element for the duration. In a tough role to get right, Knightley manages to be genuinely likeable. It is a characterisation that can have thankless, mopey elements, however Knightley carries Gretta with realistic ambition — her talent is never really in question, just her own personal desire to work on an album — therefore we don’t have to sit through endless hurdles of self-doubt.

That being said, from a broad perspective the film does exist in a picture perfect world. Even though Dan is no longer with his wife, terrifically portrayed by Catherine Keener, the duo still have a budding relationship (in other words, they get along more than they argue). Gretta, on the day before she is set return to England, somehow finds herself playing her own song in front of the only guy willing to take a punt on her. Despite a quip about possible rainfall, the sun also always seems to be shining. However, any potential misgivings regarding circumstance play second fiddle to engaging performances and otherwise unsentimental storytelling.

Bubbling underneath all the character drama (you could say it is the film’s bassist) is a plot about the commercialisation of the music industry. Dan is the victim of this shift away from ingenuity, a notion captured in a funny yet somewhat overtly glaring scene that sees the song scout try unsuccessfully to remove wall “art” from his record label premises. “We need vision, not gimmicks,” he bemoans having just endured an endless stream of overproduced pop demos.

As an A&R man, there is also a compelling dynamic between Dan and Gretta. In an electric conversation over drinks, we can literally see Dan squirm around on his stool as he talks about compromising in order to, “Get people in [the door] before the music can do its work.” In a way Gretta is more of a purist than he, though that might be expected given she is the artist.

The proverbial ‘bad’ side of modern music is embodied by a bizarre record exec who flaunts that cocky Bradley Cooper vibe from American Hustle. Carney does afford some leeway to the idea that music and money are worst enemies by including the horrendously named Troublegum (CeeLo Green), one of Dan’s prized discoveries who still has his back. This allows for a hilarious impromptu rap scene that probably accurately reflects how CeeLo converses in real life.

The New York setting serenades the film with helping of authenticity — while doing press for the movie, Knightley spoke of how the crew adopted a guerrilla filmmaking style when shooting in back alleys and on rooftops. The songs themselves are woody and energetic, and certainly mirror Dan’s desperation to save the spirit of music. The soundtrack isn’t as earthy as something like Inside Llewyn Davis, or even Crazy Heart, but like in those films, the songs do play a part in ensuring proceedings don’t begin to flounder.

Begin Again balances carefully developed characters and musical intermissions with a somewhat stinging appraisal of how music is produced today. Gretta simply wants to write songs and release them for anyone’s consumption. She would charge as little as a dollar for her album. By the way, you can purchase Begin Again’s year-old soundtrack for £5.99 on iTunes. Huh. At least the film itself sticks to its admirable laurels.

Begin Again - Knightley & Levine

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Out of the Furnace (2014)

Out of the Furnace PosterDirector: Scott Cooper

Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (US); January 29th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson

Scott Cooper’s film tells the story of two brothers left short-handed by the frankness of life, but more specifically it’s a look into the psyche of one sibling, Christian Bale’s Russell, emotionally shot and physically trapped. Out of the Furnace itself received a rough ride upon release. The cast, wasted, supersede the inefficiently constructed narrative, seemed to be the most common argument. It’s too slow, too poorly paced. Quite the opposite. The film is marvellously paced and the narrative is steeped in authentic poignancy. Sure the screenplay would benefit from a dose of balance, but Out of the Furnace is not a missed opportunity. It’s a really, really good piece of cinema.

A heart-on-sleeve type of guy, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works three jobs. Aside from earning a meagre living at the nearby mill — the same one that has rendered his father incapacitated — Russell cares for his ailing dad whilst also attempting to keep his younger brother’s mind straight. Rodney is a solider whose deployments to Iraq are as scattered as the head on his shoulders. The brothers just about get by, but their lives are quickly shattered when a horrific accident suddenly opens demon-infested floodgates.

Realism seeps into every frame, every projected wooden crevice. We’re slap-bang in the centre of a hereditary coal and steel town, North Braddock, Pennsylvania and the camera rams this home. A huge factory is often shown looming in the background, the greyish smoke pillowing skyward a constant reminder of toxicity and waste. It hosts the eponymous furnace and endeavours to promote the air of struggle of its nearby citizens, but also their honest willingness to work. Already we’re drawn to Russell who embodies this mentality, a grafter by trade. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is musky — you’d be forgiven for any eye-rubbing to remove dust — and perfectly captures the mood of the town; filled with hard labourers and harder folk. It screams ‘get me out of here’.

Russell is a hearty soul, a trait that beams as he interacts with those close to him. Lena is his girlfriend at the beginning and their playfulness is infectious. Uncle Gerald, or ‘Red’, is another whom we watch engage positively with Russell. But it’s the latter’s relationship with his wayward brother Rodney that’s most genuine. They share an at times awkward yet always nurturing bond, one that is believable partly due to how Bale and Casey Affleck play it, but we’re also convinced by the harshness of reality and their subsequent eternal earnestness as a duo. Not much is going according to plan but these two remain decent guys with admirable qualities who are not impervious to the odd mistake. (Some mistakes very serious — Scott Cooper doesn’t shirk away from complexity).

Existing subserviently in manner but not meaning to this sibling relationships is Russell’s own personal battle with day-to-day existence. He’s mentally more mature than his brother; at one point it’s suggested that Rodney “might be safer over in Iraq” than wandering the chalky streets of North Braddock. The screenplay simmers patiently, as does Cooper’s precise direction, allowing us to connect with Russell and his unluckiness. But even as pillar after pillar collapses in the manual worker’s life, we’re afforded the chance to acknowledge the sincerity of each problem because they’re all completely applicable within the prevailing context.

In Russell, Cooper revives the teetering tragedy of Crazy Heart’s Otis Blake. In some ways the two mirror each other: in their jobs, slaving away without much financial reward; in their protectiveness, one for a son he never had and one for a brother he fears losing; in their mentality, both close to defeat yet deeply defiant and inspired by externalities. Out of the Furnace is the director’s second character study of two and is equally as effective as the first. The camera likes to linger on glances and facial expressions — not Russell’s exclusively — and so we’re able to feed off of each characters’ strained thoughts and the cast’s wholesome portrayals.

Christian Bale does for Casey Affleck here what Mark Wahlberg done for Bale in The Fighter. He underplays the performance, clearing room for Affleck’s hysterics. These range from anxiously proud to uncomfortably harrowing, but are consistently sterling. Bale’s is certainly the toughest role because restraint is absolutely key. He nails it. However, as Rodney, Affleck is stand out performer. Which is some feat considering the truly excellent efforts relayed by the remaining cast members. Woody Harrelson appears as Harlan DeGroat, an invasive and psychotic drug dealer whom Rodney owns money to. Harrelson’s recruitment is a great choice, his character a real baddie. A grizzled, rugged no good son of a bitch. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe complete the star-studded selection and the trio each donate valid performances.

If there is a fault to be picked and presented, it’s the unfortunate imbalance in narrative. The runtime is fine at almost two hours, but over half of that is enlisted as set up leaving only around 50 minutes for retaliation. The problem is not catastrophic — it likely would be in lesser hands — but it does dent an otherwise foolproof outing, incurring unevenness as opposed to equity. In an attempt to disguise the issue, we’re subject to interplayed cuts between scenes that actually do end up harmonising well together.

Out of the Furnace is another winning film from Scott Cooper. It’s worth pointing out the effective soundtrack that shifts between a Western twang and a mellow ambience, and one that is capped off by Pearl Jam’s Release. For that’s what the piece is all about, release. A very sombre picture with sporadic healing tendencies — though not enough — it is the recognisable mundaneness that really hits home.

Rating: 4 (White)

Out of the Furnace - Bale

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Relativity Media

Crazy Heart (2009)

★★★★

Director: Scott Cooper

Release Date: February 5th, 2010 (US); March 5th, 2010 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Music; Romance

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Folkish melodies and acoustic guitar strums are the backbone of Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, a charming tale about a worn out country musician who finds hope and inspiration in a new, unexpected romance as he tries to get his career — and life — back on track.

Jeff Bridges is Otis “Bad” Blake, an ageing country singer/songwriter devoid of much enthusiasm unless alcohol is present. Maybe he lived a more frivolous and extravagant lifestyle in his younger years, but nowadays his tours consist primarily of small town bars and bowling alleys. If he makes it through a set list without choking on a beverage or vomiting in a bin, he’s probably having a pretty good day. Bridges is excellent as Blake and delivers equally well in conversation as he does in song. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s youthful journalist Jean Craddock is a recent divorcee who catches the eye of Blake and emblazons him with a new lease of life. The two actors strike up a a very equitable dynamic and make a seemingly unrealistic relationship, a believable one.

Just as Blake and Craddock’s romance progresses and the country man’s life and career both begin to reattach themselves to the rails, Blake encounters a number of alcohol induced demons, including a number of unsavoury incidents involving a car accident and Craddock’s four-year-old son, whom Blake has come to care dearly for. These issues increasingly drive a wedge between the pair and as their relationships begins to unravel, the film starts to lurch over the edge, peering cautiously into the depths of despair and darkness. Teetering on the edge of the abyss is as far as the drama gets however, as the film does not quite have the courage of its convictions.

And that is the main problem with Crazy Heart (perhaps the only problem). Too often characters are faced with a level of pain and anguish which, if prompted a little more, would generate additional degrees of empathy and frustration for them — and Blake in particular — from the audience. For a man who is surviving mainly on scraps and minuscule effort, who finds a beacon of light through love and family and who then goes on to throw all of that joy and security away by making stupid decisions, Blake seems to be dealing with life relatively well. Yes, he has a drinking problem, but he has the same drinking problem at the beginning of the film as he does after the collapse of his relationship. Scott Cooper is very close to writing and directing a perfect fable of loss and redemption, but the tone of Crazy Heart lingers a touch too high when it should be free-falling a great deal lower – Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is an example of a film that shares many similar narrative elements with Crazy Heart, but which hits depths lower than Cooper’s film and is all the better for it, albeit more heart-wrenching.

However, what Crazy Heart does not have in depth-plummeting ordeals, it makes up for in wonderful characters, tremendous performances and an incredible plethora of music. Produced in part by Coen favourite T-Bone Burnett, the soundtrack to the film has bounce and soul and meaning; it is no surprise that the film’s headline song “The Weary Kind” went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Often the songs develop the characters, be it through Colin Farrell’s rendition of “Gone, Gone, Gone” establishing his young, successful Tommy Sweet, or Jeff Bridges’ interpretation of “Fallin’ & Flyin'”, which perfectly describes both the singer’s previous ambitions and current realisations (“Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ for a little while”). Burnett’s musical involvement in filmmaking rarely signals disappointment, and his work here is another shining example of getting it right.

Jeff Bridges is the stand out performer in a film where much of the focus is on him, delivering a performance which returned the second of the film’s two Academy Awards in 2010. He is a part of just about every scene, yet his presence is always welcome and never wearisome. Bridges emits near-defeat and hopeful optimism in equal measure when required, his emotions often dictated by the outcome of interactions with the protégé-turned-star Sweet or the smitten Craddock. Robert Duvall even makes an appearance as Blake’s lifelong friend Wayne, contributing melodically to match.

When the foot stomping ends and the guitar strings go silent, Crazy Heart simmers down to a very enjoyable film that boasts an exceptional lead performance and is littered with great songs, each of which do their job in encapsulating the moment. It doesn’t quite hit the perfect note all of the time, but it is not a long way off.