Tag Archives: Ice Cube

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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You know you’re not the target market for this movie when your idea of rap is Vanilla Ice. I knew nothing about the Californian hip hop group NWA or their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, from which the film borrows its title. I knew vaguely about Dr Dre (primarily through Eminem) and I thought Ice Cube was mostly known for being the porky fella in crap movies like XXX: State of the Union and Ride Along.

And so it surprises me to say that I absolutely loved Straight Outta Compton.  I think it’s one of the most fascinating and gripping dramas I’ve seen all year.

For those as ignorant as me, the film tells the remarkable true story of a bunch of poor black kids from Compton, California who rise to become one of the first and certainly most influential gangsta rap groups of the late-80s to the mid-90s. Since it’s produced by Ice Cube and Dr Dre, the film largely focuses on the two of them (played by Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr and The Walking Dead‘s Corey Hawkins) along with the popular Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), while other members such as DJ Yella and MC Ren are largely left in the background and Arabian Prince is controversially ignored nearly altogether.

Other key characters include their Jewish manager, Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), and Dr Dre’s Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight (R Marcos Taylor), who has incidentally been charged with murder and attempted murder following an altercation with two men on the set of the film earlier this year. You’ll also see young versions of Snoop Dogg  (Keith Stanfield), Tupac (Marcc Rose), Warren G  (Sheldon A Smith), and so forth, which for some fans will be pretty cool.

As expected, race plays a central theme in the film, and it’s mostly controlled with a strong but delicate hand that neither understates nor overstates its importance. Those who know NWA will be familiar with their controversial songs and lyrics and the way they reflected black attitudes and shaped black culture at the time. Real-life events such as the Rodney King beating are also prominently featured to give a gritty sense of time and place.

However, the heart of the film — and what makes it so compelling — is ultimately the relationships between the members of the group (and to a lesser extent their relationship with Heller). It’s depicted as a genuine brotherhood, albeit one that grows full of conflict as they each deal with their ascensions to stardom in different ways. Kudos to director F Gary Gray (The Negotiator, The Italian Job remake) and actors for making the characters really stand out, having their own unique personalities but also that common thread of the sobering reality of being a young black man in the United States.

I must admit — with the risk of coming off as a complete racist — that at the beginning of the movie I was having trouble telling characters apart because they were all wearing the same black caps and speaking the same way, though it didn’t take long for their individual traits to shine through. That’s the sign of good filmmaking.

With no prior knowledge of their history or story, I was captivated by their journey, as well as the underlying political strife and the murky dynamics of record companies. Many of the issues tackled in the film — such as police profiling and brutality, freedom of speech vs inciting unrest, and the dark side of the music industry — remain pertinent today.

Now, I took their story, as depicted in the film, with a grain of salt. Any time you have a biographical film, especially with stars producing a film about their younger selves — you’re probably getting a highly glamourised version of the tale with the uglier truths glossed over. I knew that was probably the case here, even before I read about the complaints on how certain characters’ roles with diminished, how some people were unhappy with the way they were portrayed (Heller is suing), and the inevitable accusations of misogyny.

While I have no doubt that most of these criticisms have elements of truth, I think the filmmakers still did a great job given the circumstances. There is only so much you can cram into a 147-minute movie with so many characters over so many years. Taking into account that two of the producers are actually in the film, and that liberties have to be taken to make the story more exciting and cinematic, Straight Outta Compton turned out to be much more even-handed than I was expecting. Dr Dre’s Image was probably cleaned up a little bit more, though it’s good to see Ice Cube not having a problem with seeing himself doing some things that perhaps don’t reflect on him too well (and getting his son to reenact them!).

In all, Straight Outta Compton is a fabulously fascinating biopic, full of energy and drama but without the cheesiness and the cliched atmosphere this type of film would have been plagued with in lesser hands. Apart from a cast of actors who resemble their real-life counterparts, it’s powered by strong, memorable performances that never feels short of chemistry between them. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I am now a fan of NWA or their music, but I definitely have no problem saying that I am a big fan of the movie. It’s perhaps not as powerful as some, though it certainly is one of the most watchable and entertaining biopics I’ve seen in years.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 22 Jump Street (2014)

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21 Jump Street, the big screen adaptation of the late-80s TV series that made Johnny Depp famous, is somewhat of a minor miracle. Everybody expected it to suck, and suck badly,  and yet it somehow became one of the surprise hits of 2012, featuring irreverent and self referential humor fueled by the seamless chemistry between the two leads, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The film’s unexpected fortune is a fact that the inevitable and obligatory sequel, 22 Jump Street, makes fun of very early on, and it goes even further than that by dishing out pessimistic predictions for what will happen the second time around.

It’s the type of humor and wit that made the first film so enjoyable, but at the same time, it also serves as a self fulfilling prophecy — because admittedly, 22 Jump Street genuinely isn’t as good as its predecessor. That’s not to say that the film is not still significantly better than most comedies that get turned out these days. In fact, there’s a good chance it will end up as one of the better comedies of the year. 

Hill and Tatum return has the ultimate odd couple — one physically challenged and the other mentally — who are thrust back into the undercover business because it’s the only thing they haven’t yet screwed up. And so their superior, Ice Cube, sends them to college to figure out who has been selling a dangerous new drug to students.

The central premise is almost exactly the same except it is set in college, and the writers know only too well the pitfalls of such a by-the-numbers sequel. But instead of trying something drastically different, the film embraces its destiny.

In 21 Jump Street, the film made fun of how high schoolers these days are different to what they were back in the 80s, and it also flipped what we had expected to happen to the characters, making Hill popular and Tatum miserable. Of course, in 22 Jump Street, the roles are predictably reversed once again, with Tatum becoming a football star and Hill failing to catch up because of his physical shortcomings. It’s the old “we know that you know that we know what should happen” joke, if that makes any sense.

Apart from this one big in-joke, the strengths of the sequel are almost identical to that of its predecessor. Hill and Tatum have a legitimate bromance; their chemistry and the weight they feed off each other come across as effortless and genuine. I’m guessing that some of the biggest laughs in the film were probably improvised. There’s also some solid slapstick, farcical action, and of course a lot of trippy craziness. Those who understand Hill’s brand of awkward, outrageous and random humour will likely get the most out of it.

The supporting cast is also very solid, with Ice Cube seemingly (I say seemingly because I can’t remember) given a bigger role this time around, and newcomers such as Peter Stromare, Amber Stevens and Nick Offerman, with cameos from Queen Latifah, Dave Franco and Rob Riggle. The standout, though, has to be Jillian Bell, basically a psychotic anti-version of Jonah Hill. Former pro hockey player Wyatt Russell, who has been in This is 40 and Arrested Development, also does a great job channeling his inner Owen Wilson as Tatum’s new BFF.

There are no major problems with 22 Jump Street except that some of the jokes don’t work or come across as a little repetitive, and the unfortunate thing with having such a great introduction (which this film did) is that there is inevitable disappointment when the rest of the movie fails to live up to it. 22 Jump Street opened with a bang, but there was a lengthy portion in the middle — primarily college life — that sagged, though luckily shifting the scene to Spring Break in Mexico towards the end breathed some much-needed fresh life back into its system.

The verdict? It may not be as witty as it thinks it is and the edges may be somewhat rough and coarse, but 22 Jump Street is definitely still funny and enjoyable enough to warrant a viewing. Considering how badly it could have gone, the end result also passes as a minor miracle.

3.75 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part I

Man the movies are piling up, so it’s time to my first movie blitz of 2014. Surely it won’t be the last.

13 Sins (2014)

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This one’s quite an interesting, clever little horror film. If you look at it as a small, self-contained indie flick rather than a US remake of a Thai film (13 Beloved), you might end up having some fun with it.

The story revolves around Elliot (played by Mark Weber, who is married to Aussie Teresa Palmer in real life), a salesman who is engaged to be married but falls into debt and becomes desperate. He receives a phone call from a mysterious game show host who convinces him to perform certain acts for money.  If he can perform all 13, he wins a million dollars.

It starts off innocuously enough, with silly stuff like eating a fly, but of course the tasks soon escalate and become more sinister before everything spirals out of control. It’s a well executed idea that builds up the tension as it moves along, and Mark Weber’s performance delivers that paranoia and WTF feeling this kind of film needs.

It gets bloody at times, but the true horror comes from that claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in a situation you can’t get out of, and there’s no way out no matter which way you turn. There are plenty of improbable and virtually impossible things that happen in the film, but I liked how it only offers bare bones explanation of the game at the end without going into specifics, which allows the suspension of disbelief to continue instead of destroying the entire premise.

I wasn’t a fan of the look of the film, with that gloomy 80s feel, colours and tones, though considering what a low-budget film this is I think it qualifies as a solid DVD rental.

3.5 stars out of 5

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTNtyJIKTXk

Reasonable Doubt (2014)

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It’s never a good sign when I have to Google a film to jog my memory before doing a review. I love Samuel L Jackson, but he’s pretty much become the black Nicolas Cage — ie, the actor who would do any role some cash.

I tried to give Reasonable Doubt some reasonable doubt despite seeing how horribly it rated on Rotten Tomatoes (13%!), but despite going in with an open mind I ended up being bored and uninspired by this dull mess of a film.

Dominic Cooper plays an up-and-coming district attorney who gets himself into trouble after a hit-and-run after a few drinks one night. Samuel L Jackson is arrested for the crime and Cooper, who is assigned the case, feels obligated by conscience to let Jackson walk. But, you see, there’s a twist, and Cooper ends up wondering if he’s actually done the wrong thing.

It’s a fairly typical thriller that was interesting until about halfway through, then it just fell apart and offered nothing new in terms of action or excitement. Neither guy seemed interested in what they were doing on screen and were simply going through the motions as the plot plodded along until a predictable conclusion that was surprisingly tame — and lame.

To be honest I can’t remember much more about this film other than Samuel L doing a lot of yelling and Cooper acting terrified. An accurate comparison for Reasonable Doubt is one of those TV movies you come across one night and end up watching to the very end, and then immediately regret wasting your time on it.

1.75 stars out of 5

Ride Along (2014)

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I haven’t had much of a chance to experience Kevin Hart’s humour other than the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, of which he is a three-time MVP (fan voted, of course). I thought he was loud and seemed like he would never shut up, but he was generally funny enough to not come across as unbearably obnoxious.

His new star vehicle, Ride Along, was a huge hit in America, which seems to have a market for black buddy movies. Hart is a cop wannabe who is dating the sister of a hard-edged cop played by Ice Cube. To dissuade Hart from joining the police force, Ice Cube takes him on a “ride along” one day and lines up all the worse cases he can find. You can guess the rest.

Hart is like a likable itch you can get rid of, and he tries to channel that persona to the big screen, while Ice Cube plays the straight man who sets up the comedic punchlines for him. The two form a high-energy duo who carry the film – at least comedically — most of the way until it decides to raise the stakes so there can be an action-packed climax of sorts.

If we’re being honest here, Ride Along is not a good film. There’s no shortage of Hart talking and yelling like he always does, and after 100 minutes you’re praying that Ice Cube kills him. I wouldn’t have minded the standard buddy cop movie plot where two guys who can’t each other eventually learn mutual respect and going through some near-death experiences — but only if the film was genuinely funny. However, Ride Along’s jokes are painfully obvious almost all the time (you know, like Hart height jokes) and the slapstick that pokes fun at Hart’s lack of physical prowess gets old in a hurry.

I didn’t have any true “laugh out loud” moments in the film and only had a handful (less than 5) giggle moments. That’s just not enough to sustain a comedy. And yet, I hear there’s going to be a sequel set for release in 2016.

2 stars out of 5

Veronica Mars (2014)

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I never watched a single episode of the TV series, which is why it made little sense for me to catch the movie version of Veronica Mars, set nearly a decade after the conclusion of the show. Still, I think there’s enough juice here for people like me, as the characters and plot are introduced and developed well enough for me to get a general feel of what the fuss was all about all those years ago. And it doesn’t have a bad mystery to solve either. Considering it had a budget of only US$6 million and relied on crowdfunding, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Kristen Bell reprises her role as the titular character, who returns back to her hometown after starting a job as a lawyer in NYC. The reason for her return is because an ex-boyfriend has been accused of murdering his girlfriend, and he knows Veronica is the one person who can help him prove his innocence. I’m assuming a lot of the characters in the film are also from the series, such as her father, played by Just Shoot Me‘s Enrico Colantoni, as well as a bunch of her high school friends. Either way, while I didn’t have the background I was never confused by all the pre-existing relationships.

In essence, Veronica Mars is a neo-noir detective film, but it’s also strongly character-driven and sharply written. Despite some adult themes, the film has that nostalgic high-school drama feel to it, which I presume is handed down from the TV show, but there’s also an added maturity because the characters are no longer kids. The dialogue, which is crisp and humorous at times, reflects that.

I was impressed with how the writers moulded the plot and character development so that the film never felt like a 2-hour version of a TV show. There was a genuine mystery to be solved and it wasn’t a tacky mystery either, though at the same time they didn’t go for anything too ambitious that would have taken the characters out of their comfort zone.

In many ways, Veronica Mars is the perfect 10-years-later film version of a TV show. It brought back the characters, showed us how their lives had moved on since the show ended, and brought freshness with a new mystery that was big but not too big for their self-contained world. Obviously, being a newbie to this world I didn’t get as much out of it as I would have had I been a fan of the TV show, but I nevertheless found it quite enjoyable as a standalone mystery flick.

3.25 stars out of 5