Tag Archives: Tupac

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight_Outta_Compton_poster

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

Start of Year DVD Blitz: Part II

As Frank Costanza once said: ‘You want it?  You got it!’  Four more movie reviews to continue my Start of Year DVD Blitz.  I predict there will probably be one more after this.  Maybe two.  Or three.

Beautiful Kate (2009)

If Animal Kingdom was 2010’s best Aussie film, then Beautiful Kate was most probably the cream of the 2009 crop of Australian cinema.

In many ways, this was a typical Aussie film — low budget, set in the outback, sad and depressing.  But for some reason I was really affected by the emotions of this splendid movie directed by Rachel Ward.

It’s based on an American story by Newton Thornburg but adapted to Australian conditions, and tells the story of Ned (Ben Mendelsohn), a writer to returns home with his young girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) to his dying father (Bryan Brown) and younger sister (Rachel Griffiths).  Ned’s past his replayed through various flashbacks, most of which revolve around his twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe) and their tragic youth.

This was the type of film that, perhaps as recent as two or three years ago, I might have scoffed at as another boring old Aussie flick.  But I was never bored with Beautiful Kate.  Because it deals with taboo subjects and has a lot of powerful scenes, I found myself engrossed.  A few sequences towards the end may have overstepped the mark, but this was still a small triumph.

4.25 stars out of 5

Creation (2009)

Paul Bettany is fast becoming one of my favourite actors, and Creation, in which he plays Charles Darwin, may be his best performance to date.

I’ve always been fascinated with the struggle between science and religion, and Creation is at the very heart of this battle, telling the story of how Darwin came about to write On the Origin of Species, one of the most important works ever written (for those who don’t know, it is considered the foundation of the theory of evolution).

I thought a film about writing a book would be rather dull, but boy was I wrong.

Little did I know, Darwin (a fellow Cambridge student — I remember walking past the house where he once lived) was once quite religious, and his wife and first cousin, Emma (played by Bettany’s real life wife Jennifer Connelly) was a deeply devout Christian.  And so it was actually a gargantuan struggle for Darwin to write what he did.

Bettany’s marvellous performance drives this film from start to finish, and I was amazed how moved I was by his story and his relationship with his eldest daughter Annie.  The narrative jumps around back and forth in time quite a bit, which was distracting at first (because I could only gauge the time through how much Bettany’s hairline had receded), but once I ot used to it I was completely captivated by this fascinating film.  The final scene was perhaps a little contrived but it didn’t dampen the experience for me.

I know a lot of people were underwhelmed by this film, but not me.  I loved it.

4.5 stars out of 5

Despicable Me (2010)

Universal’s first foray into CGI animated features was a success.  I can’t believe I had almost zero interest in this film before, which utilises the vocal talents of Steve Carrell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand and Will Arnett.  Perhaps it was the lack of promotion, but Despicable Me was every bit as good as, if not better than, Megamind, that other animated feature about a villain with a heart.

Despicable Me has a pretty familiar core — a bad guy who wants to be worse, but through a bunch of little orphans, becomes good.  However, I loved the humour, which uses a combination of clever references to real life, slap stick and outrageous jokes.  The kids are also very cute.  Not much to dislike here, though I grant you that this will unlikely go down as one of the more memorable animated features.

Nonetheless, I had a great time with it.  Not sure if it can challenge the other nominees in the best animated film category this year at the Golden Globes (Tangled, Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist) but it will sure give them a run for their money.  Or at least it should, anyway.

4 stars out of 5

Notorious (2009)

I was desperate to see this one (even though I’m not a huge fan of hard core rap) because I had always been fascinated by the Notorious BIG and that whole East Coast-West Coast feud thing with Tupac, which probably led to both their deaths.  I finally got a chance to watch Notorious the other day and it was just okay — a biopic where the subject and story were absolutely fascinating but the film’s execution was somewhat lacking.

The life of Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious BIG, aka Biggie Smalls, is one of rags to riches that was ultimately cut short at the age of 24.  The man was built like a barrel, but he was a rapping genius and had a way with the ladies.  I got to see all of that, but I still didn’t really feel like I got the essence of the man.  I’m not sure if it was the script or the performance of Jamal Woolard, but BIG never shone through, even though he narrated the freaking film.  Perhaps it’s because he was portrayed as not a particularly likeable guy — a bit of a sleeze, a serial cheater and prone to outbursts of violence, especially towards women.

Interestingly, I thought the two most sympathetic characters in the whole film were Puff Daddy (played by Derek Luke) and BIG’s mother Voletta Wallace (Angela Bassett) — and as it turned out, they were both producers of the film.

For a biopic, 123 minutes is not especially long, but Notorious felt long.  I did enjoy it because I was interested in the subject and his life, but this was a film that could have been so much better.

3.25 stars out of 5