STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (2015)

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Five young men from Compton in downtown Los Angeles came together in the 1980s to form one of the most influential musical groups of the last 30 years and created N.W.A. This film deals with the forming of the group, the release of their controversial album Straight Outta Compton and the drama that followed the band during and after their short time together.

How is it that most biopics feel like a Hallmark movie of the week?
When it comes to this film I can’t help but feel that the gloss that has been painted onto the script, direction and acting at times does what 3d tends to do, it emotionally distances you from the experience. The over egging of moments to ‘move the crowd’ so to speak, usually does the opposite. We’ll call this the Hollywood effect.

In 1988, when N.W.A. released their album Straight Outta Compton they lit a fuse that would change hip hop forever introducing the world to Gangsta rap, a kind of real life documentation of the streets that hit mainstream the way that Pimp by Iceberg Slim never did, it also being a documentation of L.A. street life. N.W.A. represented the streets who didn’t, at that time, have a platform. Ice Cube, Dr Dre, Eazy E, Mc Ren and DJ Yella kicked in the door waving their AK47s and demanded to be heard. At the time, what seemed to be a fad, gangster rap, would become one of the biggest money earners the music industry has seen in the 20th century and beyond. Switch on MTV and you will easily see the lineage all the way back to N.W.A..

 

Guns, drugs, women and lawlessness were rife in their lyrics and videos, after all they were writing and expressing themselves about their experiences of living in the ghetto. Parts of Compton in the 1980s were suffering with massive gang and drug problems. It had received little attention from the media; all that all changed with N.W.A..

Prior to the release of Straight Outta Compton, the Gangsta rap genre was alive but only available to the underground and those who kept their ears to the street. Schooly D and Ice T were pioneers of the sound but they weren’t as well known to the mainstream until the explosion that was N.W.A. happened. They reported the news from the streets as they lived it and gave voice to a previously maligned section of America, the ghetto. Through their music the group exposed police brutality to the mainstream public so when the Rodney King beating happened a few years later, many weren’t surprised.

“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge”

This film is one that demanded to be made, the story is important; bringing to the fore freedom of expression within music and for the uninitiated it may fill some blanks, albeit told with broad strokes, but for those who require more from film and its immense storytelling possibilities this is one to avoid.

There is so much to fit into the two and a half hours that director F Gary Gray just can’t quite get the balance right in this composition. Too much time is wasted along the way and he fails to make this a tight piece of film that has all the right beats and notes. I would suggest you watch a documentary about the group to gain a more honest look at the world. It feels like certain scenes and events are smoothly rounded off and made more palatable for the audience. The five main actors do a good enough job but are not guided well enough to really create something with raw grit. Not their fault.

Special mentions should go to Jason Mitchell who plays Eric ‘Eazy E’ Wright, his emotional journey is touched upon but within the confines of the Hallmark movie he has to work hard to make it work. Also, Aldis Hodge was great in the little he had to do playing MC Ren. R Marcos Taylor came close to capturing the psychotic Suge Knight and looks like an actor to watch out for. Paul Giamatti gives good Heller, playing their manager, seemingly out to exploit this incredible opportunity and screwing them over financially. But it’s nothing we haven’t seen before from him. He can play these parts in his sleep.

It was always going to be the way that the characters of Cube, E and Dre would be featured much more heavily than Ren and Yella as their stories are more popular and recognizable to the public. After all, Ice Cube, Dre and Eazy’s wife, Tomica Woods-Wright were among the producers of this film.

Like watching the shadow or reflection of the events it was depicting, a pale imitation, not once did I feel emotionally connected with the characters, a little bit like watching a bunch of actors trying desperately to recreate these events led by a director who didn’t have the chops to make it happen.

The biggest joy was the music, hearing it loud in a packed cinema was a buzz but it made me think of how much more I would be enjoying a straight up documentary about N.W.A. as opposed to a dramatisation.

This film will make a lot of money, plenty of the multiplex crowd will be willing and happy to pay to see this story and that’s great, better that a film like this makes shitloads rather than a mindless blockbuster. At least it’s shedding a light on a time in our not too distant history even though the lamp is broken.

2.5/5

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12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

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“The most important film you’ll see this year” usually means you have to drag yourself to see something worthy and as great as it may be you will probably suffer it.

This is NOT one of those films. It is far from a chore, it is a joy. A beautifully made piece of film, filled with all the right ingredients prepared in the right order.

Cinematography-Check. Sean Bobbitt frames it stunningly, a delight to behold.

Writing-Check. John Ridley delivers a screenplay devoid of sentimentality.

Acting-Check check check. We shall return to my favourite subject soon.

Direction-Check mate. Steve McQueen walks the line betwixt true story honesty and great storytelling.

I have yet to see Hunger but as much as I thought Shame was as well made film, I had some issues with it as a whole. I felt it was too loose and Fassbender’s character had no big transformation. Beautifully shot (Sean Bobbit again as D.O.P.), but ultimately, for me, unsatisfying.

With 12 Years a Slave, however, McQueen has hit all the right marks and knocks it out of the park.

The balance is near enough perfect.

And now, the acting.

Everyone brings their ‘A’ game to this incredibly sensitive true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who is duped, separated from his family and sold into slavery. The film takes place in 1841 and shows Northup enduring all manner of horrific injustices over the subsequent 12 years.

This is not a Passion of the Christ/Schindler’s List type of experience though. As brutal as it is the story unfolds with space and subtlety and takes the viewer on a cinematic journey that delivers its message maturely and clearly.

All are excellent, mired in truth and devoid of the over-acting and over-emoting that we come to expect from stories with heavy subject matter.

Michael Kenneth Williams turns up as another man duped and sold, always nice to see him whatever he does, he brings a weight to his performances that I enjoy tremendously.
Dwight Henry is wonderful as the other side to Michael K’s coin.
Taran Killam, an SNL alumni and Scoot McNairy play the dupers with the right balance of conniving and conviction.
Benedict Cumberbatch is securing his place in Hollywood as the conflicted slave owner Solomon is initially sold to.
Paul Dano injects his role with a raw animal energy that is both unhinged and scary.
Michael Fassbender comes in like a man possessed with wanton lust and his commitment to going to the dark side had been deservedly acknowledged by the awards posse.
Lupita Nyong’o delivers and performance of such sadness and beauty it’s enough to break your heart and is also being recognized by the awards mafia.
Paul Giamatti turns up as the procurer and seller of the stolen people.

If I’ve forgotten anyone, I apologise, everyone is stellar.

And, of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Words cannot begin to do justice to the depth and subtlety of his performance. He is extraordinary. My friend was talking about how receptive he is in this and his playing off the other actors is a masterclass in how to do actings. He is telling the story and not getting in the way.

No histrionics here, just plain and simple truths.

It is a testament to an actor who has never really put a foot wrong in his career making his first big splash in 1997 with Spielberg’s Amistad.

He deserves every accolade and firmly cements his place as an actor of extreme talent.

Now, I know this has been a long one but it would be remiss of me to not mention my theory that it had to take an Englishman to bring this film to the table. Maybe it’s too close to the bone emotionally for a current native American to tell this story clearly, without being clouded by their emotions.

Not necessarily an Englishman but someone other than an American. There is a greater level of perspective with someone who has distance allowing the space to tell the story honestly and with clarity.

Maybe it’s controversial but look at the track record of American made slave films (Wikipedia counts 29), from Birth of a Nation to Django Unchained never has a film dealt with the issues at hand with such sensitivity.

So, hats off to Mr McQueen and all who came to the table, you have made a powerful film that should be part of the school curriculum. A dark time in recent history that needs to be looked at and acknowledged.

4.6/5

BUY THE BLU-RAY DVD HERE

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