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Movie Breakdown: Straight Outta Compton (Noah)

August 13, 2015

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The Impression:

I’m horribly opposed to “entire career/life” biographical films, but, I love rap music. Thus, a film following the entire career of a rap band is a bit of moral quandary for me.

The Reality:

Biographical films, as a whole, don’t work for me. Too often, directors attempt to funnel the wild complexities of a human life into a story shaped mold, highlighting big, Hollywood-ready moments between an arbitrary start and stop point (usually a death). They turn the peaks and valleys of human emotion and experience into a flat, palatable film – more a chronicle of events, then an actual representation of the person on screen. F. Gary Gray falls into this trap in his two and half hour film about the rise, fall and general importance of Compton rap group, N.W.A. Though it starts strong, with a beautifully tense and violent scene featuring Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and a drug deal gone horribly wrong, with at times, graphic depictions of the struggles of growing up in Compton in the 1980s, the film quickly falls into the rote routines of films of this ilk. We watch Dre (Kevin Durant lookalike Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (Cube’s own son, and eerie likeness, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and MC Ren (the wide-eyed Aldis Hodges) slowly come together, slowly produce music we all know will be revolutionarily inspirational and then, with Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti in full phone-in “I’m the only person ever cast as a manager” mode) behind them, become, gasp, a rap group with the power to change the world. Parties are had, big houses and cars are purchased, and then, gasp again, success changes them, and we watch the group’s decline, and then, third gasp, their inevitable attempts at a reunion. It is, quite frankly, every music biography ever, but with a hip-hop soundtrack. It isn’t bad, F. Gary Gray manages to imbue it with a sort of raw energy that reflects the spirit of the group and the actors, though saddled with cliches and platitudes seemingly pulled from the biographical music film bible, ably bring, with some dalliances into imitation, their own takes on these rap legends. It hums along for a while, skating on the thin ice of nostalgic remembrance, but after a bit, once it becomes clear that this will be a film firmly playing in the sandbox of other films just like it, it sort of becomes a sodden trudge towards the inevitable, historical conclusion. It’s hard to say if this is the film’s fault or the film’s lackluster intention to chronicle instead of comment, but whatever it is, it relegates what could be great to merely fair.

The Lesson #1:

Aside from a bevy of boobs and sex (in a slice of scenes) this film is surprisingly un-gritty. I expected every scene to be filled with blunts and babes, but Gray seemed to check off a few boxes for “40s”, “blowjobs” and “weed” and then expected the rest of the film to maintain the texture of this notoriously hard-partying group. Let’s not stereotype our rap celebrities, but let’s at least show the reality of the situation.

The Lesson #2:

Gray balances a fine line here of chronicling the gratuitous spending, drug use and misogyny and glorifying it. Are we supposed to cringe when Ice Cube pushes a half-naked woman (just moments earlier giving head to Eazy-E) into a hallway and telling her to get the fuck out or cheer? My audience thought cheer. That’s a problem.

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Movie Breakdown: Straight Outta Compton

August 12, 2015

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The Impression:

The story behind the beloved/infamous hip hop group NWA is now a film directed by F. Gary Gray (his last quality effort was 2003′s Italian Job).  If anything, the music will be good.

The Reality:

Straight Outta Compton turned out to be a lot different than I was expecting it to be.  I figured it would detail the rise and fall of NWA, slap some “and here’s what happened later” bits of info on the screen and then call it a day.  Nope.  While it definitely chronicles the rise and fall of NWA, there’s also Ice Cube’s solo debut, the later dealings of Ruthless Records, the creation of Death Row Records, Dr. Dre’s solo debut and on and on until you get an update on what the former members of the group are doing right at this very moment (seriously, like, right now).  This, as you can imagine, makes for a long film (the runtime is just under two and a half hours) that features a whole lot for your brain to follow.  Thankfully, most of what you get to see is either entertaining or interesting, and if you’re a fan of NWA (or just hip hop in general) then I think you’ll appreciate all the extra details.  Where the film stumbles though – and what ultimately makes it feel long – is with its quieter moments, which just aren’t handled particularly well by director F. Gary Gray.  They’re all fairly cliche and too melodramatic, and when the film is constantly ping ponging around between that stuff and engaging, lively showcases of NWA’s cultural impact, Straight Outta Compton becomes a grind by the time you get to the final act.  So in other words, the movie is good and totally worth your time, but don’t be surprised if at some point you start shuffling in your seat and wondering when it’ll end.

The Lesson:

O’Shea Jackson Jr. looks so much like his dad that I’m just going to assume he’s actually a clone.

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