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: The Town

The Town
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Ben Affleck, Peter Craig, Aaron Stockard (screenplay) Chuck Hogan (novel)
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Chris Cooper

The Town might just be another cops and robbers tale honing Boston accents and boys with their big toy guns and cars; but then again, it might be something different, something with a little less Irish blood and brawn and a little more Ben Affleck brains.

Before Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck would have seemed like the most unlikely director. As an actor with little few roles worth remembering and as a celebrity who could have romanced a whole lot better than Jenifer Lopez, Affleck had relatively little for anyone to talk about. But as soon as his directorial debut was released in 2007, the film gained attention and respect as one of the best movies of the year, making Affleck the talk of tinsel town. Continue reading

ARCHIVE REVIEW: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz

Woody Allen, in the earlier portion of his career, was always synonymous with the city of New York.  Like an ever-changing artist, lately he has been working to unravel that image, at least partway.  Allen’s European renaissance has given his work room to breath, and be more expressive.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona along with Match Point are two of his finest films, and the two best to come out of this overseas excursion.

While it may not be as revelatory as his iconic Annie Hall or as suspenseful and unique as Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has its own wily charm, and contains more swooning eroticism than either of the other two.  The film begins with two friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, both excellent) traveling to Spain for the summer.  The plot synopsis reads that they are both to fall in love with the same painter (Javier Bardem), which is true, but misleading.  It is worded in the most cliche of ways, but is anything but.  The love affair that Johansson’s Cristina shares with Bardem’s Juan Antonio is the defining element of the film, while Vicky’s is more of an afterthought.  The two differing personalities of the characters do not allow them to engage on love’s battlefield.  Vicky lusts in silence, and Cristina goes on a gender-bending sexual escapade.

Like many Allen films, a narrator offers biting commentary on the events.  Sometimes that voice is that of the main protagonist talking directly to the camera, here he simply does a Morgan Freeman interpretation.  Although it fills in many of the unspoken emotions of the characters, the film may have been more interesting without it.  This is only because the cast is so superb.

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