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: Iron Man 3 (2013)

Also known as: Iron Man Three (original title), Caged Heat (fake working title)
Release Date: April 12th, 2013 (Munich premiere)
Directed by: Shane Black
Written by: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Based on: Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby
Music by: Brian Tyler
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, Paul Bettany (voice), Ty Simpkins, William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Dale Dickey, Corey Hawkins, Mark Ruffalo (cameo), Bill Maher (cameo), Joan Rivers (cameo)

Marvel Studios, Walt Disney, 130 Minutes

Review:

“A true story about fortune cookies. They look Chinese. They sound… Chinese. But they’re actually an American invention. Which is why they’re hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth.” – The Mandarin

Iron Man 3 is the third and final Iron Man movie. Granted, one could make the argument that Captain America: Civil War is also Iron Man 4. And he does continue to appear in other films that are a part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. But this is the last true solo Iron Man picture.

This is also the first film in the Iron Man pocket of the MCU to not be directed by Jon Favreau. Although, he does still appear on screen as his character Happy Hogan. He would also appear after this film too.

This chapter mostly deals with Tony Stark having to deal with his past demons and facing the consequences of certain decisions he made long before he was Iron Man. Also, it deals with anxiety and PTSD, brought on by Tony’s involvement in the big battle at the end of The Avengers. It takes these things pretty seriously and doesn’t pussyfoot around them. Tony Stark is very troubled and even though he’s matured and grown as a person, the past is still there to haunt him and stand in his way where he needs to move forward.

Sure, Tony’s personality and snarky sense of humor is still very present but you now start to see it as more of a defense mechanism against his own fears and insecurities. You also get to see him come out of his shell and embrace those he truly cares for: Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan and the young kid that becomes his sidekick in this film. Tony’s personal defense is let down and he stops trying to be the coolest guy in the room and shows the world that he’s a human being and not just some super powerful godlike figure.

This is the most personal Iron Man story and it succeeds because it doesn’t show Tony bullshitting his way through every situation. For one, he can’t bullshit his way out of this. Two, he’s exhausted and emotional like he never has been before. Three, the stakes have never been higher and he’s never been challenged to the core like he is here.

The film is pretty well written in regards to Tony Stark the character.

Some of the other writing is a bit shaky, especially in regards to the handling of the villain, The Mandarin. However, even though I was originally annoyed by how this part of the movie played out, it really doesn’t matter to the bigger scheme of the picture’s narrative.

A real threat existed, regardless. That threat had to be neutralized. But being a big fan of the comic and awaiting the eventual arrival of the Mandarin on the big screen, it was a real disappointment when the character’s true identity was revealed.

Granted, I still loved Ben Kingsley’s performance on both sides of the Mandarin’s coin. His comedic charm makes up for the shocking twist to some degree. And in retrospect, I enjoy it much more, five years removed from my first time seeing this movie.

I generally like Guy Pearce and was excited to see him in this but as the villain, he was pretty vanilla. He had a cool backstory and they tried to humanize him but it ultimately didn’t work out and he wasn’t as tragic of a figure as he could have been.

Another positive though, is that we get to see Tony Stark duke it out with bad guys without the advantages of having his full armor suit. I liked this approach, it showed Tony as truly heroic and not a guy hiding behind his gadgets. It showed his intelligence, his creativity and his ability to persevere when the deck is stacked against him.

Iron Man 3 is a better movie than what a lot of its detractors would have you think and when this came out, the naysayers took to the Internet in droves. I think it also plays better know within the context of the larger MCU.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Iron ManIron Man 2The AvengersCaptain America: Civil War.

Film Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Release Date: February 28th, 2017 (Odeon Leicester Square premiere)
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly, John Gatnis
Based on: King Kong by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace
Music by: Henry Jackman
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly, Robert Taylor

Legendary Pictures, Tencent Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, 118 Minutes

Review:

I guess I will forever have a personal connection to this film, as the cigar box that Samuel L. Jackson’s Col. Packard keeps his medals in, is one that I designed in 2004. Strange that a product I had a hand in creating a decade ago ended up in a film that takes place just after the Vietnam War.

Personal connection aside, it should be no surprise to anyone who regularly reads Cinespiria, that I am a massive fan of kaiju movies. So anything with giant monsters is always a treat, especially when it comes with a cast of actors as strong as those in Kong: Skull Island.

While I liked Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla from 2014, it lacked a certain spirit that the giant scaly kaiju always seemed to have in his Japanese films. Kong: Skull Island is also missing that spirit. While it feels like there is some heart put into the film, it was sacrificed for action and the current trend of making films as big and as loud as possible. It is also a CGI fest that doesn’t always work, as it sometimes looks spectacular and other times looks shoddy.

Kong is still a great conflicted character that you feel for, and I guess, to me, that is always the most important part of any Kong story. In this film, you learn that his family was killed by the giant reptiles that live under the island. You even have a scene where our heroes come across a graveyard where the bones of Kong’s parents are on display. You certainly care for the big hulking CGI ape, which is good at building the foundation for what the studio plans to do after this film. Ultimately, we will get to a Godzilla and King Kong showdown after the next solo Godzilla movie.

I thought it was great that this film is just shy of two hours. The Peter Jackson King Kong from 2005 was a tremendous bore at well over three hours and Hollywood has had this trend of making big blockbusters a lot longer than they need to be.

In regards to the story, the setup and the purpose for going to the island is well orchestrated. Once we get to the island however, things move too fast and are very disjointed. I feel like the reveal of Kong came too early. Maybe Legendary Pictures were trying to makeup for the lack of Godzilla in Godzilla but it was too much, too soon in this picture. Seeing Kong destroy a fleet of helicopters minutes after they arrive was surprising. While this Kong doesn’t follow the traditional storylines of its predecessors, Kong typically doesn’t really arrive until the halfway point of his films. Even in the first Toho Kong film from Japan, it was a good third of the way through the movie before the giant ape showed up to crush a giant octopus.

The cast, as great as the ensemble is, wasn’t that exciting to watch. It almost feels like a Marvel movie though, as it features four actors from the Avengers film franchise: Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), John C. Reilly (a small part in Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brie Larson (who has been cast to play Captain Marvel). None of the characters were written that well and they all seemed a bit lifeless. It was cool seeing Hiddleston get to be a macho bad ass but there was no real depth to who he was.

Kong: Skull Island was a bit of a disappointment. The first trailer looked really good and I had hoped that Legendary would have corrected some of the mistakes they made with Godzilla. In attempting to do so, they may have gone too far in the other direction, they need to find the balance. Frankly, for movies about giant monsters fighting, neither are as exciting as they should be.