Short takes: Straight Outta Compton, The Gift, Mission: Impossible 5 & more

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton – F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic is an occasionally thrilling chronicle of the rise of the West Coast hip hop group that sadly devolves into brand management.  That’s to be expected when the film’s producers, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, are also two of its subjects.  Straight Outta Compton is a wonderful showcase for its three core actors (Corey Hawkins as Dre, O’Shea Jackson Jr. as his father Ice Cube and especially Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E), but it could have been so much more.

Compton’s focus on police brutality is incredibly relevant, and the early scenes where the artists are subjected to violent, unwarranted stops by law enforcement are among its most powerful.  N.W.A.’s concert in Detroit, where they perform “Fuck tha Police” after being intimidated by officers before taking the stage, is filmed with undeniable urgency and energy, as is the follow-up where undercover officers charge the stage and arrest the group.

Like the other concert performance scenes, the energy of the crowd is contagious, and the movie’s biggest shortcoming is in its failure to address the female half of those excited crowds. N.W.A.’s misogyny is largely unconfronted, as is Dr. Dre’s abusive history with women.  This  has already been written about at length by people with more authority on the subject than me, but the watered down history of the movie’s second half is noticeable and hurts it.  Gray’s direction is beautiful and powerful in equal measure, and the sweeping images of ’80s and ’90s Compton — dirt bikes cruising down the street in the sunset, decked-out old cars bumping to music in the neon-colored streets, gangs uniting against police violence.  I can’t help but think there was more to tell here, though; that an unrestrained history, or even a 5-hour miniseries, would have done the story more justice.  Grade: C+

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REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney (screenplay), Arthur Conan Doyle (novels)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace and Jared Harris

Almost nothing goes right in the second installment of Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes, but it’s at least consistent.  His insistence on style over substance is so heavy-handed that it’s hard to see how exactly Robert Downey Jr. can overact, and yet they both find a way to coexist.

As we hop around Europe at the end of the 19th century, Ritchie throws slow motion action sequences at us as Holmes (Downey Jr.) plans them out in his head, and then repeats roughly the same thing when he actually does them.  This kind of overly-stylized repetition shows just how little creativity was brought to the table for this sequel.  Holmes is allegedly facing his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), yet much of their battle of the wits contains as many explosions as a Michael Bay movie.

In between the frantically edited action sequences is a conspiracy plot to start a war so that Moriarty can sell both sides weapons.  Harris brings some welcome menace to the role, but the script, written by Michele and Kieran Mulroney, has this feeble-looking academic fist-fighting with Robert Downey Jr. by the movie’s end.

The grey-tinted European streets are chock-full of atmosphere for the characters to fight in, at least.  As with the first Holmes, the scenery, costumes and music belong in a much better movie.  Downey Jr. manages to deliver his rapid-fire take on the world’s greatest detective and still look bored, and Jude Law as his assistant/bromantic relationship Watson did far more with his one scene in Hugo.

Hopping around Europe with the happy couple is the gypsy Serza Heron (Noomi Rapace), who is there to find out what Moriarty has done with her brother.  Rapace injected what little life there was in the Swedish film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Here, like in the first Holmes, many of Ritchie’s other films and Hollywood studio releases in general, she is the female character that mostly sits and listens.  She gets a couple of good punches in, which is more than can be said of Watson’s new bride (Kelly Reilly), who does little more than bat her eyelashes and be offended at nudity.

That bare bottom she winces at belongs to Stephen Fry, who plays Holmes’ brother Mycroft.  Fry is the most authentic British presence in the movie, and adds a few welcome sardonic digs.  Had the movie included him for reasons other than to offend the lady, it would have at least been more bearable.

Game of Shadows is Downey Jr.’s show, though, no matter how little he or anyone else wants to actually be here.  He moves from disguise to disguise, building little on the character from the first movie and wearily avoiding the homoerotic tension that Rapace was called in to detract from.

Some of the scenes do connect in spite of the lackluster whole, though.  There’s a slow motion escape from a German prison that would’ve been dead-on had Ritchie stopped frantically toying around with the speed.  In addition to that, a sequence in Paris where Holmes is tricked by Moriarty into thinking a bomb has been planted on a stage production of Don Giovanni when it is actually in a hotel across town also stands out.  As Holmes hides under a stage prop, he finds a King piece from a chess board, and sees Moriarty’s sinister glare looking at him from a private box.

Moriarty is a villain that is described by Holmes as doing evil simply because he is capable of it.  The Dark Knight was a movie with a villain like that, and in 2008 it reached heights in quality that few imagined a big studio could still reach.  In the end, Game of Shadows‘ greatest asset is a new trailer for the next movie in that Batman series.

Grade: D