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

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

★★★

Director: Marc Webb

Release Date: April 16th, 2014 (UK); May 2nd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Jamie Foxx

As Spider-Man majestically manoeuvres around an invisible pathway above New York City, camera in tow as if magnetised to his every flip, swing and twirl, we hear him articulate one witty quip after another. An air of intertwined energy and humour instantly sweeps across the screen, exponentially infectious; we are watching a superhero flick after all. Fun is the order of the day, only it arrives at a cost and in 2014 a structured sense of direction can too be quite pricey. It should come as no surprise then that, as Spidey encounters one enemy after another, proceedings take a slightly messy turn. Almost two hours and 30 minutes pass fairly quickly, but as time ticks and Spidey’s checklist grows you get the sense that ongoing events would benefit from separation into two shorter films.

Buoyed by his latest victory over Dr. Connors, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has become an ever-present on the streets of NYC, fighting off crime with aplomb and tactile guile whilst wearing the red of blue of his arachnid alter-ego. Beneath the surface, Parker has an awful lot on his plate: graduation, a relationship, mysterious parentage and an increasingly widening plethora of bad guys to deal with. Haunted by visions of his girlfriend’s dead father, Parker is at a moral crossroads as to whether he should continue dating Gwen (Emma Stone) and there still exists a shroud of uncertainty surrounding the motives of his father and mother. That’s not even to mention the blue-skinned Electro (Jamie Foxx) running rampant around the city, and he’s not the only one. Phew.

It’s almost a given nowadays that the combination of a gargantuan cinema screen and the latest summer blockbuster will yield exhilarating action and visual spectacle. On current evidence said expectation is justified. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens vibrantly and brims with commotion thereafter. Bolstered by some impressive digital creation and Daniel Mindel’s cinematography, each lively sequence retains an outstanding quality that keeps us engaged regardless of any plot misgivings. Notably, splurges of slow motion webbing are enticing and a transformation sequence towards the conclusion shepherds connotations of the magnificent scene in An American Werewolf in London.

One of the saga’s best branches stems from a trunk of genuine chemistry shared between its leading duo, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. The pair are a couple in that thing we tend to call ‘real life’ every so often and their inherent connection flourishes on screen, even more so than in the first film. Garfield continues to cement himself as a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, who was hardly a damp squib in the role. The Englishman can hardly contain his wit at times, a trait wholly welcome in the superhero genre. Stone’s Gwen Stacy is ushered further into the limelight here and her performance alongside Garfield merits the busier workload. They jointly visit the entire emotional spectrum, a standout stop being an especially dramatic scene towards the end. It’s apparent that director Marc Webb and his cohorts are invested in these two characters and this is a positive sheen that rubs off on us viewers.

Beyond Stone and her beau, performances are generally excellent. Dane DeHaan is particularly impressive as Parker’s best friend and Oscorp inheritor Harry Osborn, his facial expressions often insinuating mischief. He resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio here more than ever — the voice, the hair, the mannerisms — and certainly has the talent to attain DiCaprio’s enviable portfolio. Jamie Foxx stars as the primary villain Electro, though is unrecognisable post-mutation. The character’s mindset drastically alters from one of blunder to one of forcefulness and Foxx handles the switch solidly despite the villain’s lack of conviction. Another unrecognisable face lost amongst the unnecessarily long list of antagonists is Paul Giamatti, who hams it up to the Nth degree as Aleksei Sytsevich.

Giamatti’s comedic purveyance is hit-and-miss, but by and large splashings of humour strike the correct spots. Comedy has become an essential element in the superhero formula, and getting it right undoubtedly provides a sturdy springboard for any subsequent action. Quality over quantity is key; brisk spells of funny are on the menu here and these bursts resultantly set the desired tone, ensuring wisecracking comedy doesn’t overpower the drama but simultaneously exists as more than simply a relief mechanism. Whether he’s arguing against the “laundry sheriff” or awkwardly atoning for making Gwen late (“I’m sorry to bother you my fair lady”) Andrew Garfield is often the source of amusement. Heck, he even generates a laugh out of the ill Spider-Man gag.

This is a far more entertaining watch than The Amazing Spider-Man, but it does adhere to the modern Marvel formula. The studio has been churning out at least two films annually over the past few years with more projects pencilled in until 2028, perhaps an indication that we are getting too much, too soon, too often. As time develops and these films come and go, it is become increasingly difficult to reinvent the superhero wheel and there are faint smatterings of this problem to be found in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The film is on a similar level to Thor: The Dark World in terms of pure enjoyment, but unlike the Norse tale (which channels simplicity for the most part) Spidey part two gorges excessively.

This overabundance is a problem. Far too many things are going on. By the end of the film, there are at least five villains (admittedly, of varying importance) and a few characters so far out on the periphery of proceedings that their presence is called into question. Felicity Jones is criminally underused as Harry’s assistant Felicia and one can only hope that she has a greater role in part three. A random doctor plucked straight from 1960s Soviet Russia shows up at one point and his exaggerated demeanour is one step too far. A hefty percentage of the dialogue also gets caught up in discussions over physics. Modern day blockbusters should carry an intelligent weight, absolutely, but that notion doesn’t extend to rehashing school science lessons.

Reciting implausibilities within the context of a superhero film may not be the wisest of moves, but there is a difference between principal abnormality — that is, our main heroes displaying unimaginable powers — and plain absurdity. An early fight scene that takes place on an aircraft embodies preposterousness, as both a human being and his laptop withstand a free-falling, ripped apart plane. How on earth does the device manage to retain an internet connection?

Though The Amazing Spider-Man 2 becomes entangled in a complicated web of narrative strands, a healthy dose of thrilling action and toxic humour funds endless amounts of enjoyment. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone seal their place among the best couples going in the genre, and as the latter’s Gwen Stacy recites her valedictorian speech (“Make your [life] count for something”) we are appreciatively reminded of those familiar superhero themes: empowerment, belief, and laundry jokes.

12 Years a Slave (2014)

★★★★★

Director: Steve McQueen

Release Date: November 8th, 2013 (US); January 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

“I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!”

Those purposeful words, you will have heard over the last few months in trailers, adverts and previews. They are strong-willed; in one sense uplifting, yet in another more visceral sense, haunted by humanity’s most evil endeavours. Despair and freedom, traits inversely diverging in the life, rather, the existence of Solomon Norfolk. Steve McQueen challenges us to consider and then reconsider as his depiction of the animalistic slave trade hammers with shock, but does not rely on it. For the most part, the moments of solitude and silence profoundly exhibit a monstrous reality lived by those such as the remorseless slave owner Edwin Epps. There are no punches pulled, no whippings recoiled; McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing watch without question. More than that though, it is a necessary watch. Not to reassure a cultural ridding that hasn’t fully been expunged. Rather, to condemn what should never have occurred, and to shed a flicker of true resilience on a truly despicable time.

A well-off and considerate skilled carpenter, Solomon Norfolk (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tends to the every need of his young family. It’s 1841 and the slave trade is rife with wealthy disregard. Approached by two not noticeably iffy gentlemen, Solomon — a fiddle player at heart — is offered an extended musical job, an offer greeted with appreciative acceptance. After a drunken night, he awakens in chains, stripped of his identity and mercilessly pawned. 12 Years a Slave tells Solomon’s harrowing story, as he is traded from a would-be sympathetic slave owner (that is, if such a juxtaposition exists) to the vile, despicable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who has abomination clenched in his fists and the abyss peering through his eyes.

This is an intense watch, no doubt. Not necessarily because it’s another retelling of a horrible time — though that alone warrants attention and denouncing. Rather, it comes down to how Steve McQueen unflinchingly tells the story. His directorial application is admirable in that no disservice is done to those who fell victim to slavery, this isn’t in any remote sense a Hollywood-esque drama bloated full of riveting set pieces or manipulative tones. Nor is it buoyed by a somewhat ironic, semi-exploitative raft akin to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a cinematic spectacle in every sense. 12 Years a Slave is real life, a reflection of events not so long gone. You may judge success on ticket sales, or audience reception, or even personal affirmation, but there’s also a genuine feeling abound that McQueen’s priorities are and would always have been aligned alongside authentic storytelling regardless. His straightforward devotion to re-imagining the unimaginable is admirable, and it’s this wholeheartedness that enables the viewer to watch with an only just an ounce of ease, but an ounce nonetheless.

From the point of his wrongful capture, Solomon wrestles with a tragic dignity-driven dilemma: does he succumb to hate to become bastion of support for his helpless compatriots already grappled by despair, or does he stoutly, fearlessly stare directly into the heartlessness of one of humanity’s worst episodes? Initially, Solomon is disbelieving, perhaps as much of slavery’s existence as of his own forced manoeuvre into it. “They were not kidnappers, they were artists… fellow performers,” he wrongly assures, detailing those absolutely iffy gentlemen. Maybe if he can convince someone, anyone, they’ll see sense. But there is no sense, not in the racist pits of Southern USA. Everywhere Solomon glances there is a monster in human skin. The slave-trader, auctioning off people like watches (“My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin”). The plantation owner, who treats his slaves fairly well — but to treat a slave well would be to treat a slave as a human, not an object, therefore not to treat a slave at all. His empathy is misguided. The hired carpenter, a white pre-Nazi figure teaming with abhorrent spew. Yet through these early trials, Solomon remains resilient and hopeful — freedom is still vaguely in sight.

Wholly, 12 Years a Slave is mighty, but a number of moments stand out in their contrasting potency. As a twenty-first century audience, we’ve sponged it all, and have resultantly become immune to most atrocities displayed in film or any other art-form. There’s something to be said, then, for an act of depicted violence that leaves you mouth gaping, eyes watering and mind searching. In a sickening whipping display not far removed from The Passion of the Christ, the film emphatically compounds its horrors. Yet it remains realistic, and that rankles the stomach. Conversely, a scene of isolation is striking. Surrounded by an audibly hissing nature, pupils dark and eclipsing, Solomon slowly stares right and left before catching the camera’s lens. Profound, absolutely. Painful, worryingly. You wonder whether Solomon has approached the point of no return, the despair, and assume thereafter that he has seen no end. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, perhaps the most poignant all both in delivery and meaning.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon is utterly remarkable. He is defiant in hope, upsetting in pain and compelling throughout, embodying this range in absolute earnest. The role is a difficult one; Ejiofor must reign in grief and disperse it invariably at the correct moments, or risk devaluing the man. At the same time, Solomon’s sympathetic nature cannot restrain, and instead Ejiofor has to symbolise at least partial hope where there is none. Ejiofor masterfully accomplishes all of this, and more — every strained note from his mouth rings with plea, and his eyes bulge with emotion. As diabolical slave-owner Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender demonstrably bewitches himself in a spell of pure evil. At one point Epps falls flat on his face, yet you cannot muster up the slightest node of joy because it’s obvious that his repulsive mindset enjoyed the discomfort.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is also incredible. She plays Patsey, a young female slave whom Epps fantasies over and hates himself for it. Nyong’o displays an air of vulnerability, whilst at the same time commanding the screen with her undeniably astute presence. Paul Giamatti has a minor role as the aforementioned slave-trader, excelling in cruelty, the same uncaring sensibility as Paul Dano, the aforementioned hired carpenter. Brad Pitt oddly appears as a different carpenter, Amish beard and all. His random arrival is slightly off-putting, though the co-producer of the film (ah, that’s why) is solid enough. Benedict Cumberbatch is William Ford, the empathetic plantation owner whose sentences begin with an English accent and end in a southern drawl. Having said that, Cumberbatch is an excellent choice to play the role, that much-loved real life personality giving the character some small semblance of decency.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is exquisite, offering a pristine vehicle for the film to vibrantly beam out of. A contagious scent of excellence must’ve attached itself to each component on set, and Hans Zimmer’s score is no different. Moving and soaring, Zimmer’s orchestral harmonies wrap around events on screen as if to comfort the forsaken humans. This contrasts with the weighty Roll Jordan Roll, a roar of solidarity that you don’t want Solomon to contribute to for fear of his own confirmation of plight.

If not the best film of the year, 12 Years a Slave is certainly the most important and probably the least comfortable to watch. Steve McQueen powerfully unravels a horrific period lived mercilessly by those far wickeder than any revised history suggests, and endured harrowingly by those whose suffering is unrelenting in its depiction. It’s stark and honest, so much so that you’ll exit the cinema, mind image-strewn, wishing the film never had to be made.

Sideways (2004)

★★★★★

Director: Alexander Payne

Release Date: January 21st, 2005 (US); January 25th, 2005 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; Romance

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Alexander Payne’s critically acclaimed Sideways is best described by the wonderful Roger Ebert as a “human comedy” because it is inherently funny in that you will laugh regardless of how you feel or where you are, and because it is about engrossing and affecting human beings. None of the four featured characters are perfect, some less so than others, yet on varying levels they all merit more than a degree or two of admiration; even though the two males in particular do the wrong thing too often. In Miles’ case, his inability to move on or tell the truth relentlessly hampers himself, whereas Jack’s carelessness and naivety frequently has a negative impact on those closest to him.

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) spends most of his time teaching wearily, writing unsuccessfully, or drinking wine because it is the only thing he knows for certain that he is consistently capable of doing. A wine-aficionado, Miles decides to take his soon-to-be-married best friend and former college room-mate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a week-long wine-tasting expedition as a final farewell to single life. Jack used to be a fairly successful actor but now plies his trade doing voice-over work for television adverts. Both men are opposites: Miles is quiet and very often lifeless in comparison to his overly energetic best friend. The one thing that both men have in common though is their shared struggle in accepting what they have (Jack) or what they no longer have (Miles).

One of the most endearing elements of Sideways is the relationship which Miles and Jack share. Externally, the duo appear to have very little in common, yet much like the wine they are drinking, there is a vintage dynamic between the pair. This strikes in the premature stage of their road trip as Jack’s first words to Miles are, “Where the fuck were you, man?” It is not before long, however, that both men are effortlessly trading life-stories and bonding over an expensive, rare bottle of wine. Jack is reassuring, but Miles is worried that the book he has written will not be accepted by the publishing company. From the outset, it is apparent that the film is in good hands as Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church generate a believable on-screen chemistry. For every quiver of uncertainty from Giamatti, Church responds just as you expect a best friend would — quickly and decisively.

It is not long before the men reach their destination in the Santa Ynez Valley, at a restaurant which Miles eats in regularly on his trips, called The Hitching Post. Miles is recently divorced from his wife, who has moved on and is getting married again. A waitress at the restaurant, Maya (Virginia Madsen), knows Miles from previous visits and it soon becomes apparent through his inability to hold a conversation with Maya that Miles’ likes her, but does not have the conviction to do anything about it. Perhaps this is because he shows no signs of getting over his wife. During another morning spent wine-tasting, the men run in to Stephanie (Susan Oh) and discover that she is a friend of Maya’s. Miles’ reluctance once again prevails as he is forced into a double-date with the quartet, whereas Jack’s over-exuberance is in full effect. With his marriage taking place in just a few days, he selfishly desires one last fling, highlighting his struggle to be happy with the cards he has been dealt.

Both men’s problems are derived partly from their lack of clarity with each other. The duo have been close friends for a lifetime and it is apparent that more often than not their focus has been solely on themselves rather than on trying to sort out the other’s problem. Miles is fully aware of Jack’s misdemeanours — he is having an affair with another woman days before his marriage — but Miles too busy struggling with his own relationship-less inadequacies to notice. On the flip side, Jack seemingly has been too tentative in the past when it comes to trying to get Miles to realise that he must let go of what he can no longer hold on to. The two woman that the men meet on the trip are key players in the goings-on: Stephanie, unaware of Jack’s impending marital status, acts as an appealing alternative, and Maya is the cure to many of Miles’ problems if only he would take the time to focus on her.

Even amongst the abundance of drama and difficulty, Sideways still finds a great deal of time to be funny and witty. This is in no small part down to the combination of a well-written script, the rapport between those involved and a jaunty, caper-like soundtrack. The two leading men find themselves in their fair share of comical situations, be that whilst playing a round of golf or when trying to retrieve a missing wallet. These absurd antics remain humour-filled despite the heavy emotional element which surrounds film, showcasing the versatility of not only the actors, but also of the director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor.

The performances in Sideways are second-to-none. Thomas Haden Church delivers the perfect foil to his partner-in-crime’s unenthusiastic disposition as he is suitably loud and obnoxious, yet maintains a level of subtle affection towards the other characters. Sandra Oh is headstrong and teasing opposite Haden Church, playing her significant part in the proceedings solidly. Much like you would not necessarily picture Paul Giamatti’s Miles and Thomas Haden Church’s Jack as best friends, it is even more unlikely that Giamatti and Virginia Madsen’s characters would share affection. However both actors make it utterly likely. One scene in particular stands out between the pair and involves Giamatti gingerly describing why he admires the pinot noir grape so much: “it is hard grape to grow”; “not a survivor”; “needs constant care and attention”; “only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential, can then coax it into its fullest expression.” He is describing himself, and Madsen’s gracefully delivered, touching reply makes for an extraordinary exchange.

It is no wonder Sideways was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning Best Adapted Screenplay. Alexander Payne creates compelling characters who increasingly flourish in their surroundings and as they come to understand each other. It is funny, moving, sad, and hopeful all at the same time, as it tells the story of people who are lost, but who just need each other in order to find themselves again.