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 Wolverine (2013)

★★★

The Wolverine PosterDirector: James Mangold

Release Date: July 25th, 2013 (UK); July 26th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima

Wolverine is a tough customer, but even he struggled to chop his way through Gavin Hood’s frankly disappointing attempt at a Wolvie origin story (unsurprisingly, the only of its kind). Step forward James Mangold, of Walk the Line fame, a man who seemingly boasts a better grasp of X-Men lore. But the refreshing thing about his film, The Wolverine, isn’t necessarily anything to do with comic-book compatibility — having never read them I wouldn’t know. Rather, this outing flavours the antics of its familiar hero with a style and sleekness. The setting has changed and for the better. In a way, this is the past meeting the future before Days of Future Past and it’s good up until a point. Unfortunately, Mangold’s infusion of difference carries an expiry date and The Wolverine goes bad before the credits roll.

Now ticking by the hours amongst bears and sporting a wild-man look that sees a ragged beard and matching hair, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has more or less shelved the Wolverine persona. That is, until he is approached by the mysterious prophetic mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima), representative of a dying officer whom Logan saved during the Nagasaki bombings in 1945. Upon reaching Japan, Logan finds himself embroiled in a game of morality in which his powers of eternal being are the highly sought after prize.

Early on a checkout woman asks, “You’re not a hunter are you?” to which Logan replies solemnly, “Not anymore”. With every crack and crevice of the redemption story already explored, particularly when it comes to superhero-esque flicks, The Wolverine opts to go down a slightly different route. The basis is set in stone — Wolverine must reacclimatise to life without his deceased wife Jean Grey as he continues to battle demons of immortality — but the delivery is somewhat altered. What we are watching is a film-noir crime thriller that bubbles with tension and gleams stylishly. Decorative villas host men wearing fashioned suits armed with polished weaponry. Wolverine’s claws appear shinier than ever before. Its efficient visuality won’t come as a surprise to those who know of director James Mangold’s previous work. (Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma are wonderfully constructed optical specimens). The film is a moment in time, a spin-off concocted from James Bond DNA. Wolverine: The Japan Years. This glossy air infuses vitality, at least for a while.

Mark Bomback and Scott Frank’s screenplay succeeds in tandem and for just as long as Ross Emery’s cinematography. Surrounded by new characters, Wolverine, previously left beaten and worn-out by his last solo run, just about regains his panache (though there’s still a way to go in this aspect). Modern meets tradition as Jackman’s mutant, juggling recognisable morals, finds himself in a contemporary setting; imbued by technology and the bright lights of Tokyo. Weapons vary from the time-honoured bow and arrow to the upgraded Uzi. The violence-oriented syndicate Yakuza, well-versed in global cinema — they’ve even got their own genre in Japan — are given a current update, forced into rapid pursuits throughout the hyper mobile urban machine that is Japan. Mariko, granddaughter of Logan’s WWII ally Yashida, must contend with a conventional arranged marriage, but even these are given a modern makeover by way of corporate intentions. The film’s mixture of 21st century comic-bookishness and past histories is a compatible one; we feel comfortable and connected to a familiar face in Wolverine, but also rejuvenated by a new climate.

Unfortunately, it’s a climate that eventually succumbs to a torrential downpour of sameness. At around the half-way point a romance blazes, the same one that we’ve spent the past hour begging not to. It’s that usual love story that seems to be written into the contract of every blockbuster, and this time it simply ain’t believable. Nor does it aid the narrative’s progression. Instead, the romantic exploits are blasé and distracting, if nothing else. Not only does the pace simmer to an unsatisfying canter as it supports these non-necessities, the love aspect also dampens Wolverine’s domineering aura. Jackman isn’t to blame, quite the opposite, he’s the one who rekindles a degree or two of verve through his blunt humour and hard-working personality. The Aussie is a very watchable presence — it’s a character issue that arises, as opposed to a performance one.

The piece tonally scampers around too, though this favours rather than hinders goings-on. On one hand, we have a dark underbelly that sees Logan possess a semi-suicidal state of mind. He must endure the mental scars of previous actions, and his inherent prerogative to save lives — such as preventing Mariko from jumping off a cliff — doesn’t exactly rub off on himself. (“You are a soldier… [you seek] an honourable death.”) Yet the seriousness never really wields unfathomable weight. In one sense, this means the film can’t be taken as earnestly in dramatic terms, but it does usher forth a loosening up, combining entertainment with solid if not wholesome sentimental musings. One of the film’s best scenes is also its most bonkers: a brawl atop a moving train severely tows the line of realism, and it’s damn fun to watch.

As previously mentioned, Jackman does his best Wolverine impression, but it is just that. His quick-wittedness and excellent comedic timing coalesce with the film’s at times briskly humorous breeze. (“I feel violated,” states a clean Logan.) Rila Fukushima is energetic as recruiter Yukio and, along with Tao Okamoto, brings a much appreciated newness to the screen. Svetlana Khodchenkova plays Viper, one slice of a villainous pie, exuding intelligence and power in the role. She’s the quintessential Bond character transferred over to Marvel, classically camp and elegantly sexy.

The first half of this is something to admire: formalities are given life through hushed slickness and a collision of tradition versus modernity. It’s a shame that The Wolverine ultimately bears the brunt of genericism, but Mangold’s solid effort shouldn’t be discounted by any means.

The Wolverine - Hugh Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Ray (2004)

★★★

Director: Taylor Hackford

Release Date: October 29th, 2004; January 21st, 2005 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Music

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Sharon Warren

Ray Charles’ drive and charisma gave him a larger-than-life persona, so big that even a severely musically deficient 20-year-old knows who he is. Unfortunately, and indeed surprisingly, Taylor Hackford’s biographical drama about the electric man struggles to maintain the energy that Charles himself boasted in abundance. This is by no means down to Jamie Foxx’s sizzling turn as the title character, or the foot-stomping, arm-swinging music splashed throughout, but instead is a result of a pretty dreary and repetitive narrative presenting a story that deserves so much better.

We see music in his eyes. His effortless piano-playing hands are reflected in those iconic sunglasses. Ray Charles is at one with sound. This is the opening shot of Ray and if you didn’t know already, you do now — he is the music man. The film details the rise of Ray Charles Robinson, a young boy who became a pioneering musician after a childhood ravaged by tragedy and loss. Growing up in the 1930s on a Northern Florida plantation, young Ray and his brother are cared for by their head-strong mother as they bounce with liveliness amongst the dust. The duo share a close bond and get up to just about as much mischief as any other child does, but it is the tragic loss of his brother that kick-starts the chain of events which will eventually see Ray completely blind and hugely successful. His mother, played magnificently by Sharon Warren, teaches Ray that his deficiency is only such at the surface, that he needs to learn to live and strive on his own (“Remember you’re going blind, but you ain’t stupid”). Warren may just be the star-turn behind Foxx here, as she movingly portrays a woman who is a beacon of strength driven by frailty, and justifies the inclusion of countless conveniently placed flashbacks.

Ray’s childhood in Florida is depicted throughout the drama by way of a number of flashbacks, and these provoke part of the film’s main problem. Unlike the rhythm heard from Charles’ music, Hackford wrestles unsuccessfully in his attempts to generate and maintain a rhythm on-screen. From the get-go proceedings are frantically hurrying forward, making it difficult to catch a breath never mind work out where and when we are. One moment a young Ray Robinson is shown as he grows up, the next he is moving away to school and then before you know it Ray Charles is belting out soulful music to the needy masses. The film is long — overly long at two and a half hours — and by the time the first sixty minutes are up, the audience has seen just about everything there is to see… so we see it all again. Charles develops a drug habit, he plays a gig, he records a song, he takes some more drugs, he buys a house, another gig, recording studio, perhaps the odd forced flashback for narrative continuity, and so on. The film begins to drag, which is a shame considering its subject matter defined entirely the opposite: pizazz and meaning.

Another obstacle in the film’s way is its over-wrought lightheartedness. Besides the death of Ray’s brother (the resonance of which gets lost amongst the rapid progression of proceedings), there is too much feel-goodness going on. Of course, the underlying message that Ray’s blindness should not hamper him, nor should it make us feel sorry him, is a wholly positive one and should be placed on a pedestal for the viewer to see and hopefully learn from. His wife Bea (Kerry Washington) enforces this notion of positivity: “How can I pity someone I admire?”

That being said, the life lived by Charles was without doubt a tumultuous one, one which incorporated extensive drug use and adultery, and these issues are sidelined to an extent in favour of jovial music and exuberance. Often arguments end in laughter when they need not. Perhaps this genuinely was part of the man’s all-round demeanour — his music certainly alludes to joyfulness. However, creative license appears to be prevalent as intentions to make Charles look like a bad guy are non-existent. Again, considering its enormous run-time, delving into the depths of some of the more unattractive issues in Charles’ existence would’ve benefited the film — when a smidgen of Ray’s post-addictive exterior is displayed it is tough to watch and this is more of what the film needs in order to really tell his story. Charles does not need to look like a bad guy — by all accounts he wasn’t one — but rather a good guy who done a few pretty bad things.

On the plus side, Jamie Foxx knocks the proverbial ball out the park and then some in his performance as the soul singer. In a similar vein to Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Foxx truly brings Ray Charles to life on screen. The key to his successful embodiment is just that: an outstanding use of body movement and facial expressions. Unable to deliver the goods through his eyes, which often provide the backbone to showing emotion, Foxx incorporates all of Charles’ movements and intricacies by way of a rasping shriek or emblazoned smile. It is evident that Foxx has worked hard to achieve what he does, and his award-winning achievements are magnetic.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who was nominated for an Academy Award in recognition of his work on The Pianist, and maybe his offerings in Ray should have earned him a second nomination. Alongside Foxx’s charismatic performance and a collection of delightful music, Edelman’s expert, scene-setting shoots provide Ray with all of its energy and charm, in spite of the dreary screenplay. Regardless of how repetitive it might get, or any imagination-scarcity it might suffer, you cannot help but smile when Ray Charles learns how to play “Mess Around” on the piano.

Ray is not a bad film by any means; it provides the vehicle for an incredible embodiment of one of the most influential men in music history courtesy of Jamie Foxx, and also accommodates a number of grin-inducing moments alongside an exclusively feel-good message. The film is let down, however, by a lack of creativity in the narrative department, turning the story of an incredible man’s inspiring journey into a bouncy-castle of repetition before long.

By the end, or even the middle, it sort made me just want to go and watch Walk the Line again.