Film Review: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Release Date: August 11th, 2015 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Written by: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus
Music by: Joseph Trapanese, N.W.A.
Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr.

Legendary Pictures, New Line Cinema, Cube Vision, Crucial Films, Broken Chair Flickz, Universal Pictures, 147 Minutes

Review:

“They want N.W.A, let’s give em N.W.A.” – Eazy-E

*Written in 2015.

I have been waiting for this film to come out since I first heard about its development a few years ago.

N.W.A. is a group that I listened to almost since their inception and they had a big influence over me as a kid. Sure, my parents didn’t like me listening to them when I was in middle school but I really didn’t care and record stores didn’t really police their sale of explicit products to minors in the early ’90s. Well, some stores did but I avoided those.

This film was pretty fantastic. In fact, I’m going to go on and say that this is my favorite film of the year thus far. It was, by far, F. Gary Gray’s finest work as a director. Being that he has been a long time collaborator with the men who were the subject of this film, made it feel real personal and he had legitimate insight into the relationships of these guys. Additionally, with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube consulting heavily on this film, we got one of the most accurate music biopics ever made. Granted, I’m sure they filtered in their own bias.

This, above all else, was a film about friendship – even more so than the history of N.W.A., Ruthless Records and Death Row. It showed five close friends coming up together and challenging a corrupt and oppressive system. It showed how they fought for freedom of speech and how they became the voice of a generation that was fed up – transcending their neighborhood and their race: effecting millions of people all over the world. Even when friendship dissolved, in the end, the love was still there and through all the bullshit and really bad blood, they were still brothers.

The acting was on point. Ice Cube was played by his real life son and he looked and sounded exactly like his father. In fact, most of the time, you only see him as Ice Cube and get lost in the performance. Pretty damn impressive for a kid who has never acted. Jason Mitchell was perfect as Eazy-E, Paul Giamatti was a great choice for Jerry Heller and Neil Brown Jr. truly felt like DJ Yella. Corey Hawkins was good as Dr. Dre but was the weakest of the main actors. Aldis Hodge was okay as MC Ren but I felt like Ren really got the shaft in this film, as he was just in it. He wasn’t shown as a character of significance and someone of Ren’s presence, which he has a hell of a presence, should have been featured more. This film makes MC Ren just seem like the odd man out of the group and maybe that is because he never found the individual success of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E.

Arabian Prince was completely shafted. He wasn’t even mentioned in the film. But if you remember the cover of the “Straight Outta Compton” album from 1988, there were six men in the photo. He was the sixth man, lost to history and forgotten. And I guess his role was so minimal, they really didn’t need to include him in the movie.

I did like how they featured the D.O.C., Warren G, Snoop Dogg, 2pac and mentioned Bone Thugs. I like how they tied in the Rodney King beating and the L.A. Riots, showing how N.W.A.’s music was almost prophetic without the film beating you over the head with it. The scene featuring the unity between the Bloods and Crips against the police was beautifully shot and executed.

Moving on, there are a few things I have to nitpick about with the film. For one, in 1986, Eazy-E is wearing a black White Sox cap. Well, the White Sox didn’t wear the black uniforms until 1991 or so. In another scene, which takes place in 1993, Eazy-E is using a cordless phone model that didn’t come out until around 2000. I know, because I owned that same phone. Also, 2pac was recording “All Eyez On Me” in the studio with Dr. Dre while Eazy-E was still alive in the film. Eazy died in early 1995 while “All Eyez On Me” was recorded late in 1995 and released in early 1996. There were a few other weird discrepancies but I’ll stop being an asshole.

Besides, the film’s narrative was strong. The movie told a great story and that is the most important thing.

While I do feel that the film shows both the good and bad of Eazy-E and Jerry Heller, I feel like this is through the eyes of Dre and Cube, which it is. I wish Eazy would’ve lived and would’ve been able to consult and flesh out his side of the story in the same way that Dre and Cube were able to do with the director. But to be fair, despite Eazy’s faults, he is still shown as a loveable yet tragic character and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube honored him for who he was.

The only big plot point that I felt was missing, was showcasing how heated the beef got between Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. For those that experienced it, it was a big deal at the time and from a fan’s perspective, the beef felt irreconcilable. Dre and Eazy both expressed regret about it in the film but it wasn’t shown or discussed in any sort of detail.

Also, the film jumps over the whole NWA & The Posse era.

I feel that it is also important to point out how funny this film is. It isn’t a comedy but there are so many great comedic moments throughout the picture. Yes, it is a serious film that has very dark moments for each character but their is a light-hardheartedness about this film that really showcases the soul of these men.

In closing, Straight Outta Compton is a spectacular film whether or not you even care about hip-hop. For those that do care about this group, it gives you an intimate look into their lives and shows how everything went down, as accurately as can be portrayed on film. And being that I am a person that lived through all of this and remember it from the perspective of a fan, it is impossible to not fall victim to nostalgia. But in that nostalgia, one walks away feeling more intimately connected to something that has been a part of your life for a long time. This was a film just as much about those of us who rode along with N.W.A. from 1988-1992, as it was about the band itself.

F. Gary Gray, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube truly have a piece of work to be proud of. Don’t take your family though, unless you want Little Jimmy yelling “Fuck the Police” as he walks out of the theater. Then again, I was once Little Jimmy and I turned out just fine.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Any top tier music biopic, really. This is just as good as the best of them.

Film Review: Terminator Genisys (2015)

Also known as: Terminator 5 (informal title)
Release Date: June 21st, 2015 (Berlin premiere)
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier
Based on: characters by James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd
Music by: Lorne Balfe
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matt Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Lee Byung-hun

Skydance Productions, Paramount Pictures, 126 Minutes

Review:

“God damn time traveling robots! Covering up their god damn tracks! I knew it.” – Detective O’Brien

*Written in 2015.

What a shitty movie. But it was, at certain moments, a fun movie.

To start, Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are classics and close to perfect blockbuster films. They are a measuring stick. However, just like every other film in the Terminator franchise after T2, this one doesn’t measure up.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was horrendous, Terminator Salvation was dog shit and this one fits right alongside those two films. I would say that Terminator Genisys is the better of the bad films in the series and it at least attempts to be more inventive and original than the other bad sequels.

The saving grace of this film is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is great as always in this role, he seems comfortable as this character and his wit and humor are perfect. Granted, the one liners and quips aren’t as great as they were in T2 but maybe that is because T2 is the first time anyone experienced a humorous T-800 and it has been a staple in pop culture now for 24 years. I loved every time that the T-800 was on screen in this film but he was underutilized and overshadowed by the other iconic characters, who were generally portrayed poorly.

Another positive is Jai Courtney, who I enjoyed in something for the first time. Playing Kyle Reese isn’t an easy task and he did fall short of living up to the iconic status Michael Biehn gave to that role. That’s not Courtney’s fault, however, and no one else that has taken on that role has succeeded. I didn’t hate him in this, so I guess that’s a plus.

Jason Clarke was okay as John Connor but I don’t even know who John Connor is anymore and I have watched all the films and portions of the television show featuring the character. The problem is that John Connor isn’t a character people can relate to, as every time you see him, he is played by a different actor – seven, in fact, and that isn’t even counting video games or infant actors. And every actor plays him completely different. Clarke plays it safe and gives us a generic sort of future hero turned suped-up robo-villain. Yes, John Connor is the villain. That plot point was ruined in the trailer and would have been a much bigger and better reveal had the studio not spoiled their own film with desperate marketing.

Emilia Clarke, who I don’t think is related to the aforementioned Jason Clarke, plays Sarah Connor. Clarke, who is most famous for sad eyes, great boobs and playing with dragons, walked into a role that set her up to fail. I wouldn’t say that she is a great actress by any means, at least she hasn’t wowed me yet, and her portrayal of Sarah Connor didn’t help her case. I can’t blame her though, as she had immense shoes to fill with what Linda Hamilton did with the role. Clarke just couldn’t pull off that badass bitch shtick anywhere near as close as Hamilton did.

Now J.K. Simmons, let’s talk about him. The guy is great in everything he does, whether as J. Jonah Jameson in the original Spider-Man films or as the guy in the Farmers Insurance commercials. He was awesome in this film but like Schwarzenegger, was a bright spot that was underutilized.

I was glad to see Matt Smith find work in a big film now that his Doctor Who run has ended. He was barely in the film but he was in a pretty pivotal role, even if that role evolved into being the face and shape of Skynet’s evil yet lame A.I. – now renamed Genisys, which was just some Trojan horse in the guise of a smartphone app everyone in the film was obsessing over.

And that brings me to the plot. While the film took a different route, it was pretty weak. There were multiple timelines, shifting timelines, lots of time traveling and the T-800 giving clunky explanations of the science in the film. It is just one of those movies where you need to embrace suspension of disbelief and just not think too hard about it. Just roll with it or you’ll go mad. Although, I wouldn’t mind seeing Schwarzenegger giving physics talks or having a science show where he explains complex concepts poorly.

Also in the realm of bad science was the physics of the film. Just watch the big helicopter battle, which is the major action sequence before the big climax. Actually, just watch the whole film, there are several times you’ll see things happen that are physically impossible. And why did they have to flip the school bus? And it would never flip like that. Ever since the infamous semi-flipping scene in 2008’s The Dark Knight, blockbusters have been trying to recreate that magic moment.

The special effects in this film are a combination of spectacular and atrocious. The scene with the MRI machine ripping apart John Connor was beautiful and just looked amazing. Then there was the helicopter chase scene that looked like a bad cartoon, completely ignoring physics, plausibility and came off as rushed and unrefined.

I thought the score was pretty good but the iconic Terminator theme never blasted through the theater speakers in its full glory. Well, not until the credits rolled. Talk about a wasted opportunity.

The problem with this film and all the films and television shows in this franchise after Terminator 2: Judgment Day, is that there isn’t a real continuity from film to film. The plots completely shift things around, the actors are never the same and you just don’t care about these characters or events because everything that happens in these movies is easily wiped away and rewritten with each new installment. It makes all the previous work sort of moot. It also disrespects what the previous filmmakers have done before it.

At face value, this is mediocre film with some good effects that is a fun ride. But it is a “one and done” fun ride. I’ll never have the urge to watch this again, as I have never watched any film in this franchise more than once since T2. For the record, I watch T2 almost annually, if not more so.

I had higher hopes for Terminator Genisys, especially since James Cameron, the director of the first two films and the creator of the franchise, gave this one the thumbs up. But maybe, like John Connor, he’s no longer the hero.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: The other Terminator movies but is better paired to the films after Terminator 2 a.k.a. the shitty ones.

Film Review: Creed (2015)

Release Date: November 19th, 2015 (Regency Village Theater)
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Based on: characters by Sylvester Stallone
Music by: Ludwig Göransson
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Bellew

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New Line Cinema, Warner Bros., 133 Minutes

Review:

“Time takes everybody out; time’s undefeated.” – Rocky Balboa

*written in 2015.

I was highly skeptical about Creed when I first heard about it. It is a spinoff/sequel to the fantastic Rocky franchise, picking up a few years after its sixth installment, Rocky Balboa. This film follows the son of former Rocky Balboa rival and best friend, Apollo Creed. The young Creed searches out Balboa in an effort to convince him to be his boxing trainer.

My skepticism subsided when I saw this film’s score on Rotten Tomatoes and read a lot of the reviews on the web, most of which were very positive. It also reunites its star Michael B. Jordan with his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler.

I really enjoyed this movie. Out of the Rocky sequels, it is certainly in the upper echelon. It captures the energy and spirit of what worked in the original film and works as sort of a remake, even though it is a sequel. This time, Adonis Johnson, the young Creed, is in the role of Rocky Balboa and Rocky is in the role of his trainer, Mickey Goldmill.

Adonis faces adversity and has the need to prove himself, similar to Rocky in the original. Except Adonis’ story is much different. Those differences aside, it is a familiar tale that treads familiar territory. But Adonis’ journey is unique and its hard not to get caught up in the emotion of it all, especially if you’ve been watching Rocky movies your entire life.

The film also adds more to the Rocky legend, as it shows where Balboa is after the events of the last film in his series.

Creed also pulls at the heartstrings for those who have had a forty year or so investment in the character of Balboa. He has his own fight for his own survival in the movie and he also finds a sense of belonging and family after he has lost his wife, his two best friends, his mentor and his son, who moved to Vancouver – far away from his dad and the issues of being the son of a local legend.

The relationship between Adonis and Rocky is heartwarming, heartbreaking and a beautiful thing to witness. Rocky films have always been full of emotion and self discovery and Creed lives up to those earlier movies.

I don’t want to give too much away but if you are a fan of the Rocky film series, this is a must-see. You won’t be disappointed and it reignites some serious nostalgia.

But again, this is Adonis’ film. That being said, I hope we get to see what happens after the credits role. Adonis Johnson becomes Adonis Creed and, as a character, he deserves to stand proudly next to the icons: Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Anything within the Rocky franchise. Also, Ryan Coogler’s other films with Michael B. Jordan.

Film Review: Tangerine (2015)

Release Date: January 23rd, 2015 (Sundance)
Directed by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Music by: Matthew Smith (supervisor)
Cast: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, Alla Tumanian, James Ransone, Clu Gulager

Duplass Brothers Productions, Through Films, Magnolia Pictures, 88 Minutes

Review:

“Bitch, you know I don’t do downers, bitch. You know I’m an upper ho.” – Sin-Dee

I didn’t know much about Sean Baker until after I had experienced his most recent film and my favorite of 2017, The Florida Project. I read about some of his previous work and Tangerine was a film that was pretty highly regarded. I checked out the trailer and read about how it was made and I had to check it out for myself. I’m glad that I did.

For a film shot on a cell phone, it looks fantastic. Baker used three iPhone 5S smartphones to capture everything. He filmed while using an app called FiLMIC Pro, which helps to control focus, aperture and color temperature while capturing video at higher bit-rates than the iPhone’s standard. Baker also used an anamorphic adapter to capture video in a widescreen format. The smoothness of the shots were achieved by using Tiffen’s Steadicam Smoothee. This prevented the film from having that standard shaky-cam effect made famous by found footage movies. In post-production, Baker used Final Cut Pro for editing and Da Vinci Resolve to correct the contrast and color saturation of what he filmed.

The movie had a budget of $100,000 but due to what they saved on cameras and equipment, most of the budget went to businesses who allowed them to use their locations for the film, as well as to extras who were needed in certain scenes.

Tangerine is nearly fully populated by actors with very little to no experience and is made to feel genuine and authentic, as if you just stepped into these characters’ lives for a day. The only known actor in this film is Clu Gulager, who is in one scene as a taxicab customer.

The plot all happens in one day and on Christmas Eve. For the most part, the film focuses on Sin-Dee Rella, a transgender sex worker in Hollywood. She has just gotten out of prison and while sharing a doughnut with her best friend, another transgender sex worker named Alexandra, she learns that her pimp boyfriend cheated on her with a cisgender woman. Sin-Dee immediately loses her cool and goes off in search of this woman with just the knowledge that her name starts with “D”.

The film also showcases a day in the life of Armenian cab driver Razmik. He seems like a decent guy but as the plot unfolds, we learn that he’s into transgender prostitutes and that he also has a wife and a very small child at home. Eventually, Razmik’s story crosses over with Alexandra and eventually Sin-Dee’s story.

The last act of the film is a big crescendo where all these characters’ issues collide in the doughnut shop where it all started. This isn’t a film that’s really shooting for a positive outcome for anyone but is instead a real character study and just a small sample of these people’s lives.

Between this and The Florida Project, Sean Baker has really cemented himself as one of the best contemporary filmmakers that makes character study films. The fact that both of Baker’s films have been pretty much snubbed, in my opinion, by the Academy, except for Dafoe’s performance in The Florida Project, is pretty upsetting. This film, along with The Florida Project, should have had several nominations and both movies are better than many of the films that received Best Picture of the Year nominations for 2015 and 2017.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Sean Baker’s more recent film, The Florida Project. Also goes good with Moonlight.

Film Review: Jurassic World (2015)

Release Date: May 29th, 2015 (France premiere)
Directed by: Colin Trevorrow
Written by: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Based on: characters by Michael Crichton
Music by: Michael Giacchino
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Irrfan Khan, Andy Buckley

Amblin Entertainment, Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures, 124 Minutes

Review:

“Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.” – Henry Wu

*written in 2015.

It took a really long time to get this fourth Jurassic Park film. For me, it felt as if I was waiting a bit longer than most, as I wasn’t a fan of Jurassic Park III and I thought The Lost World had promise but crossed over into absurdity towards the end. Truthfully, I was only a big fan of the original film.

Ultimately, this film is better than its two predecessors – making it the best film in the Jurassic Park franchise since the original.

I miss Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill and Laura Dern but Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard made a nice duo and did a good job. Vincent D’Onofrio did his part as the villain but was basically just Vincent D’Onofrio. The kids were okay but slightly annoying but then again, kids in film typically are. I liked the parts played by Omar Sy, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus and Irrfan Khan. Judy Greer and Andy Buckley also did good with their limited roles.

The film certainly churned up a lot of nostalgia and overall, it was a pretty pleasant experience. There were homages to all of the previous films: some subtle, some blatant. The vibe of the film was consistent, the musical score was better than decent (but not as good as John Williams’ original) and the horror aspect was pretty well executed.

What this film is missing though, is that Spielberg magic that the original had. While this film brings out emotions and gives a fan of the original movie some chills, it is all just because of how good the original film was. This movie relies on tapping into the well of the original Jurassic Park because it has to. It succeeds in that though, because it brought me back to how I felt watching the original the first time but it also made it clear that this wasn’t that film. I don’t really fault the filmmakers, as the original film was special. Even Spielberg couldn’t replicate his own magic with The Lost World. It is hard to capture lightning in a bottle once, let alone twice.

The plot of Jurassic World was pretty straightforward and slightly cookie cutter but there were a few twists and turns that I didn’t anticipate. The dino battles were great, the action was superb and the set and creature designs were pretty on point.

This is a fun and engaging summer film, deserving of the blockbuster status it was designed to achieve. While not a great picture, it will most likely be remembered fondly for years to come.

I also hope that this film gives the franchise some legs to keep moving forward. I’d be on board for other sequels if they are able to match the quality of this film and they present fresh ideas.

One plot question though, if they don’t want to remind people of the previous park and its disastrous failing, as made clear by Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, then why did they use the same iconic park gates, same typeface that the original logo had and make constant references to the original when talking to the new park’s guests? I guess if you change the font color to a calming blue instead of a violent red, it soothes people. I don’t know.

But anyway, couldn’t they have at least got Jeff Goldblum back for a cameo? Even at the end? Just have him walk on screen, look at the carnage and let out his patented Dr. Ian Malcolm laugh?

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Any of the Jurassic Park films.

And the trailer.

Documentary Review: Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015)

Release Date: May 16th, 2015 (Cannes)
Directed by: Gabriel Clarke, John McKenna
Written by: Gabriel Clarke
Music by: Jim Copperthwaite
Cast: Steve McQueen (archive footage), Chad McQueen, Neile Adams, Louise Edlind

Content Media, McQueen Racing, Pit Lane Productions, 102 Minutes

Review:

Le Mans is my favorite movie about auto racing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a classic with fantastic action and a true sense of realism unlike anything ever filmed on the subject before it. It feels like a documentary accented by the presence of Steve McQueen.

The story behind the film is more intriguing, however.

This was Steve McQueen’s dream project, as it focused on his biggest love: motorsports. More specifically, it focused on the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, which is the biggest annual motorsports event in the world, which pits all the top auto manufacturers against each other with the best drivers in the world, gunning for bragging rights and world supremacy, at least until the following year.

McQueen was at the point in his career where he could be attached to anything and any studio would just write a check. However, due to creative problems, production issues, falling behind and the immense undertaking that this film became, the project turned into a nightmare for all involved. McQueen’s vision was his vision, whether or not the people brought on to help him realize it, understood what they were doing or not.

This documentary also analyzes McQueen’s personal life, its ups and downs and how all that played into his attitude and his handling of creating this dream. Le Mans was an arduous task that had to be finished but McQueen’s personal demons didn’t make it any easier.

In the end, the film got made, it didn’t do so well upon release but has grown to cult status among car and racing aficionados. It’s an amazing film for a lot of reasons and this documentary shows you why.

Plus, it’s always a treat to watch McQueen’s Le Mans footage. This also has a lot of behind the scenes stuff mixed in.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: The film Le Mans, as well as other documentaries about the Le Mans race, most notably the Audi produced ones Truth In 24 I and II.

Documentary Review: Four Falls of Buffalo (2015)

Release Date: December 12th, 2015
Directed by: Ken Rodgers
Music by: Phil Hernandez, Chris Maxwell, David Robidoux
Narrated by: William Fichtner

ESPN Films, 100 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2016.

Four Falls of Buffalo is one of the more recent ESPN 30 For 30 films. I watched it on Netflix in preparation for Super Bowl 50, yesterday.

The documentary follows the journey of the Buffalo Bills of the early ’90s and their four consecutive Super Bowl losses.

It was a cool film, as it brought me right back to that era – the era where I first really fell in love with football. It certainly churned up a lot of nostalgia and a lot of those feelings I had as a middle school aged kid watching Buffalo get so far, only to fall short again and again.

It was nice, all these years later, seeing all the players and coaches accepting what fate dished out to them. They all came across as positive people that took their historic run in stride and understood that they were still one of the greatest teams of all-time, even if the big title eluded them.

Four Falls of Buffalo is one of the best NFL 30 For 30 films. It is exciting and it is pretty thorough in chronicling the bumpy four-year journey of the great Bills team of the early ’90s.

Plus, it is hard not to love and respect Jim Kelly and Marv Levy.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Other 30 For 30 NFL films.