Archive | March, 2016

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

3 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When it came to musical biopics released in 2015, many people may have forgotten about the Beach Boys movie, “Love & Mercy,” one of my favorites of the year; but who could forget the N.W.A. flick, “Straight Outta Compton,” which was a monster hit. Ironically, while “Love & Mercy” was more grounded and low-key, “Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly conventional as well as energetic. It contains certain music biopic tropes—naysayers, uncertainty of something new and different, downfalls, tragedy, betrayals, etc. We’ve seen all that before. But the film’s electrifying energy is the key to its success—hell, if a film about N.W.A. wasn’t energetic, it’d probably be a major disappointment to nostalgic N.W.A. fans. The point I’m getting at early in this review is that it doesn’t matter how “conventional” a movie of this sort is, much like it doesn’t matter where certain ideas may come from for any movie—it’s what’s done with the material that really matter.

I enjoyed “Straight Outta Compton.” It’s an enthralling, powerful, powerfully acted film about a risk-taking, game-changing rap group, even if the film itself isn’t game-changing (for that matter, it may not be all that risk-taking either, since some original members of N.W.A. were consultants for the film and most likely didn’t want certain things from their life to be portrayed on screen). But I don’t mind so much.

The film takes place from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. It begins in Los Angeles in 1986, when Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was selling weed, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) moved out of his mother’s house, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) was writing rap lyrics based on everyday things he noticed around him. This is a time when young black men were stopped, frisked, and even beaten by police even when they were just standing on the streets. (Hell, what am I talking about? We still live in that time today!) The anger that came from these kids’ experiences crossed with their dreams of making it big with rap led to “reality rap,” for which they form the group N.W.A. (if you don’t know what that stands for, this isn’t the movie for you) and create angry music based on what they go through day after day. They tell it like it is and become very successful, which in turn makes other people worried that they endorse violence and anti-authority behavior. And of course, the irony becomes clearer when they’re warned not to perform their most angry piece, “F*ck the Police,” at a concert guarded by police; of course, they do and the police start shooting, ending the concert—tell me who’s being violent here?

The first half of “Straight Outta Compton” is by far the best part, showing the creative process of getting this craft done, feeling the intensity of the energetic live performances, and more importantly, letting us feel the anger that they feel, especially when they’re attacked by police. It keeps its riveting edge as the group’s manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), manipulates Eazy-E into making him think he’s bigger than everyone else, which then leads to Ice Cube leaving the group to go solo, which then leads to him becoming a hit, which then leads to a nasty war between labels, which then leads to Dre forming Death Row Records with the violent, hulking Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor, quietly chilling in the role), and other events that lead to the end of N.W.A. The film gets less energetic as it goes along and its tone grows suitably more grim (especially when it comes to a tragedy late in the film), and while that’s not necessarily “fun” to watch, it is still captivating, well-acted, and intriguing for those who don’t know how N.W.A. went through the downward spiral. I can’t complain that much about it, except for the argument that it suffers from a few pacing issues as a result; I feel like it stalls at certain parts, particularly at the melodramatic material.

The casting is pitch-perfect all around. In particular, Jason Mitchell is abrasive and charismatic as Eazy-E, Corey Hawkins is immensely appealing as Dr. Dre, Paul Giamatti is smooth as a slick album producer who manipulates Eazy-E to betray certain people in the group, and then there’s O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube—damn is he good! This is a truly remarkable performance, bringing Ice Cube’s look and feel to authentic levels. Oh, and did I mention he’s actually Ice Cube’s son? And it’s not just an imitation either, which is more than a plus. Also solid are Aldis Hodge as MC Ren and Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella, and I was also impressed by Keith Stanfield (who I remembered from “Short Term 12”) in a brief cameo appearance as Snoop Dogg; I wish he had more screen time.

I mentioned in an above paragraph that the film isn’t entirely “risk-taking.” For one thing, it doesn’t mention Dr. Dre’s violence toward women, which is well-known to quite a lot of people. I get that the writers, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, chose to keep some things out for the actual band members’ sake, but it’s not like the film portrays them as role models anyway (it does show them as misogynistic at times, even throwing in a “Bye Felicia” joke midway through), so it’s not like they have that much to lose.

“Straight Outta Compton” does work surprisingly well as commentary…unfortunately a little too well. Think about what Ice Cube was rapping about almost 30 years ago and what’s going on in the news even to this day. But “Straight Outta Compton” is still an entertaining film for the power of the material, the live performances which are entertaining, the acting which is spot-on, and the screenplay which is very well-written. I mentioned in my “Love & Mercy” review that I wouldn’t be able to listen to a Beach Boys song the same way again; I feel the same way about N.W.A. songs after seeing this film.

Love & Mercy (2015)

1 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember listening to Beach Boys songs when I was a little boy. My parents, as well as cheesy cover bands/children’s entertainers, introduced me to these catchy tunes and even gave me a cassette tape to listen to (and eventually wear out). Good Vibrations. Don’t Worry Baby. Surfin’ USA. Little Deuce Coupe. I Get Around. Help Me Rhonda. Wouldn’t It Be Nice. These were all among the many Beach Boys singles I enjoyed listening to then and still enjoy now. And as I got older, I got into their deeper pieces, especially “God Only Knows,” which is undoubtedly one of their best. And now, with “Love & Mercy,” Bill Pohlad’s biopic about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, I realize I may know their music but I knew practically nothing about what into making the music and what Wilson went through in his life.

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was a young, ambitious artist with numerous ideas (possibly too much for him to handle) that led to taking the Beach Boys from catchy surf-themed hits to more detailed, trippy, beautiful works, some of which were ahead of their time. He was also helplessly strung out on drugs, which led to paranoia, schizophrenia, and alienation. For many years since, he would live in a state of awkward arrested development until the woman who would become his second wife helped him out of it.

“Love & Mercy” tells two parallel stories back and forth; one of Brian Wilson at his creative heights, the other of Brian Wilson well after his successes. One story, set in the 1960s (roughly 1965-1968), begins as Brian (played as a young man by Paul Dano) starts to hear voices in his head. He tells his brothers, fellow Beach Boys Carl (Brett Davern) and Dennis (Kenny Wormald), it’s because he has so many ideas on his mind that he simply has to let out. While the band is on tour, Brian stays behind to work in the studio, making new music and intending to make “the greatest album ever made.” His new pieces, including the offbeat “Pet Sounds,” are unusual, innovative, and one might say “unusually innovative,” but neither of them are becoming hits, which angers Beach Boys co-founder/singer Mike Love (Jake Abel). Meanwhile, his grip on reality loosens when the voices in his head attempt to overtake him and his addiction to drugs becomes worse and worse…

The other story, set in the 1980s, shows a middle-aged, broken, confused Brian (played this time by John Cusack) under the pharmacological care of therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). He meets a Cadillac saleswoman, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), and starts to date her. She notices the grip Landy has on Brian and how he’s using it to his advantage, and so she tries to help him.

The film is really two movies in one, and they both work equally well. Granted, the story involving Brian in his Beach Boys involvement is arguably the most engaging, but the present-day story is very strong and intriguing in the way Brian behaves in his lost state, and we’re genuinely hoping he finds himself again. These two stories intersect effectively, showing two kinds of developments: creative and personal. We wonder how Brian got from who he was in the past to who he is now (or rather, the 1980s, when the “present-day” is set) and we hope he finds his way again.

That’s the ultimate power of “Love & Mercy,” which is without a doubt one of the best musical biopics I’ve ever seen. The film is not only a loving tribute to the Beach Boys, but it’s also a compelling portrait of a tortured artist whose career doesn’t always work out well for him, and it shows that in a non-condescending manner. In other words, it doesn’t take the easy way out, like most music biopics. Even when there’s a triumph, it’s quick and low-key.

But the film is also a lot of fun when it’s paying tribute to the Beach Boys. It opens with a glorious montage of the Boys in their heyday, recording, performing, and having fun (on the beach, of course). It takes us behind-the-scenes on the creation of pieces such as “God Only Knows,” “Pet Sounds,” “Good Vibrations,” among others. The actors portraying the other Boys are credible in their roles, especially Jake Abel who makes a very convincing Mike Love. And the attention to detail is simply marvelous—for example, I love how Brian’s practice piano is in a circle of sand in his living room.

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the cinematography and editing in many of these sequences. Among the scenes that stick out in my mind is a scene in which Brian, as a young man, is playing a rough piano version of “God Only Knows” and singing nervously, presumably to himself—the camera spins slowly around the piano as he’s performing until it stops to reveal his father (played by Bill Camp), sitting on a nearby sofa and listening. That leads into a hurtful scene in which Brian’s father criticizes Brian harshly and Brian pathetically tries to counter-argue. Suddenly, that tracking shot makes a lot more sense. As for editing, I admire the way the film shows passages of time through the band’s art, such as with the montage, the making of “Good Vibrations,” and Brian’s downward spiral, among others. The film is technically brilliant.

This is the best performance I’ve seen from Paul Dano, an actor I’ve admired many times due to his performances in films such as “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks.” Not only does he look right for the part, slightly resembling the real Brian Wilson—he feels right. He does such an incredible job of capturing the man’s increasingly peculiar convulsions and characteristics. John Cusack is just as good, capturing the right speech patterns and somewhat childish ways of exposing secrets from his past.

I’ve seen “Love & Mercy” four times now, and I don’t think I can forgive the Academy for passing up this truly superb film, to be honest. I would’ve put Paul Dano in either one of 3-4 slots in the Best Actor category—that’s not a slam against the nominees but a statement of how strongly I felt about this performance. Maybe an Editing nomination, a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, a Sound Editing nomination, or even a Beat Director nomination would have been warranted. Maybe Academy members should have seen the movie more than once. As for me, I will never listen to a Beach Boys song the same way again.