REVIEW: Straight Outta Compton

13 08 2015

Straight Outta Compton” arrives a year (almost to the day) after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, and protesters screaming “black lives matter” are disrupting both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on the stump.  In terms of timing, the movie got lucky as America fortunately received repeated exposure to just what kind of unfortunate force the boys and blue could mete out with relative impunity.  Yes, people clapped at the first beat of their controversial anthem “F-ck The Police.”

The film charts the rise of rap group N.W.A. (that’s N-s With Attitude, for those unaware of the acronym) from the streets of Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood to music superstardom.  The main distinction of their origin story from the run-of-the-mill music biopic is their repeated clashes with the neighborhood police force, which refuses to acknowledge any difference between them and deadbeat dads or drug dealers.  The mere sight of black skin seems to trigger fear and a sense of entitlement to exert oppressive control.

The first half of “Straight Outta Compton” features as many brutal run-ins with the police as it does rousing rap numbers.  Perhaps most strikingly, the groups’ worst harasser is black himself.  Writers Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman recognize that the problem breaks down beyond mere racial fault lines; there are discriminatory attitudes and unchecked powers among the police that need to be reigned in to a sensible level.

Towards the end of where the narrative stops, the ’90s most notorious flare-up with police, the Rodney King beating, comes into frame.  But the savage attack, unexplainable acquittal, and subsequent riots never quite tie in with the same zeitgeist expressed by N.W.A. in their truth-telling rhymes.  The event plays out like little more than a marker in time, something in the background to ensure the audience remains aware that the years are 1991 and 1992.  Rather than building to a glorious conclusion about the need for change then and now, “Straight Outta Compton” just cruises by and observes the rubble after the rumble.

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REVIEW: Ride Along

21 03 2015

If anyone ever wanted to know what a mash-up of “Training Day” and “Monster-in-Law” would look like, “Ride Along” exists for their viewing pleasure.  Ice Cube stars as Office James Payton, an elder statesman trying to scare away a potential spouse for a loved, protected younger sister.  In order to vet his potential brother-in-law, Kevin Hart’s pint-sized Ben Barber, James gives him a taste of a day defending the law.

Their antics are nothing particularly noteworthy or hilarious.  “Ride Along”is a film of mild ambitions that results in only the most modest of payoffs.  The irony of featuring Ice Cube, the rapper who famously sang expletives at the police, playing a law enforcement officer has already been mined by “21 Jump Street.”

The film is only worth watching for Hart, who does his best to elevate all of his scenes.  The now seemingly ubiquitous star is a fun-sized Chris Rock with the falsetto of Chris Tucker, and the burst of energy he brings to “Ride Along” makes him rather endearing. Perhaps I sympathize with him innately, since I reside at the lower end of the height spectrum myself.

Personal feelings aside, Hart gets a nice showcase out of an otherwise forgettable film.  I might rewatch “Ride Along” if it happens to be on cable while I get my oil changed, but I doubt the scenario ever occurs where I’ll voluntarily rewatch this mediocre comedy. C+2stars

REVIEW: 22 Jump Street

11 06 2014

The archetypal model for the comedy sequel can be summed up in one line from “The Hangover Part II,” perhaps one of the most disparaged to date: “It happened again.”  Comedies, for whatever reason, seem to recycle their material with a particularly accelerated velocity.

22 Jump Street” essentially takes the model of the sequels to “The Hangover” but makes it not just tolerable but also enjoyable by injecting a level of self-awareness akin to only “This is The End.”  The framework of Michael Bacall’s script, co-written with Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman (with story by Jonah Hill), merely inverts “21 Jump Street” and swaps out college for high school.

This time, Channing Tatum’s Jenko gets to ride atop the social order of Metro City State, immediately accepted by the jocks and gaining an inroad for the all-important fraternity bid.  Jonah Hill’s Schmidt, on the other hand, gets caught up in tricky collegiate sexual politics and experiences the isolation that often comes with being transplanted into a sprawling campus. And more or less, the events play out just like they did in high school.

In some ways, the similarity is frustrating, but it also rings true to life itself.  I’m approaching my senior year in college, and I’ve learned that the same narratives that I thought people had outgrown in high school have tended to repeat themselves.  We all rush so quickly to the next stage of our lives that the reflection necessary to gain maturity seems lost sometimes.

That’s probably not what the filmmakers of “22 Jump Street” had in mind, especially given all their winks and nods to the very nature of the events taking place in a movie – in particular a sequel.  This meta humor is quite clever, and the tongue-in-cheek sensibility pervading the film makes the shameless repetition worth another spin.

Yet while this newfangled irony gives the film some justification for existing, it ultimately does not power the movie.  That job is still carried out by the strengths of the 2012 reboot: the spot-on portrayals of social orders, the nuanced dialogue, and the relationship between the leads.  Rather than going bigger or broader like “The Hangover” series, “22 Jump Street” dives deeper into its own world and pulls out rich observations.

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REVIEW: Rampart

2 05 2013

The slogan for “Rampart,” though not on the poster I’ve embedded in this review, is “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.”  To that, I merely laugh.

So I guess they assume we haven’t seen “Training Day.”  Or “Crash.”  Or “The Departed.”  Heck, I’d even say “Pineapple Express” and “Date Night” had more crooked cops than “Rampart.”

Sure, Woody Harrelson’s Dave Brown is working outside the law.  He’s a foul racist who uses excessive force on the regular.  By no means am I saying that I didn’t deplore his actions and conduct.  But for whatever reason, I just didn’t feel hatred welling up inside me for him.

Harrelson brought nothing new to the character that he hasn’t shown us in everything from “The People vs. Larry Flynt” to “The Messenger” to Haymitch in “The Hunger Games.”  He’s great at playing total jerks, and Brown is in a league of his own.  But there’s nothing special about this character, nothing that stands out in his repertoire.

Add that to direction from Oren Moverman that lacks any compelling action or camerawork and you’ve got one heck of a bore.  As much as I wanted to feel repulsion or loathing, all I could feel was apathy.  C2stars

REVIEW: 21 Jump Street

16 12 2012

Recently, I watched “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the 1982 comedy still considered to be one of the best high school movies ever made, for the first time.  It has obviously become incredibly dated (but is still absolutely hilarious), yet it took me seeing the film to realize that virtually every high school movie for the past 30 years owes it a humongous debt.  Its fingerprints are all over the genre today, so much so that it has become almost inconspicuous.

The “Fast Times” social order still reigns supreme today.  Nice guys finish last, slackers come out on top.  If you’re smart, you’re a nerd.  If you’re a jock, you’re cool.  If you don’t hang around them, you probably aren’t.  And of course, just don’t try at anything because the naturally cool will just have people attracted to them like bugs to a light.  Whether the movies that came out of this mentality actually reflect high school is questionable, but they have all served to reinforce the “Fast Times” ideal.

21 Jump Street,” on the other hand, is a bird of a different feather.  It actually dares to question the preconceived notions of high school movies and imagine an entirely different set of tropes, ones that feel modern and appropriate.  The film’s protagonists, undercover cops Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) graduated high school in 2005 in a very “Fast Times” environment and expect little to have changed when they go on a covert operation to their alma mater in 2012.  Boy, are they wrong.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 10, 2010)

10 12 2010

With the release of David O. Russell and Mark Wahlberg’s collaboration “The Fighter” today (albeit in only four theaters), I thought today would be as good a time as ever to feature the duo’s first movie together, “Three Kings,” in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column.  The poster and topic may make it seem like your average war movie, but Russell’s knack for style and substance both in his script and direction elevate it to one of the most unconventional and exciting entries in the genre.

Iraq, 1991.  Operation Desert Storm is over, but four soldiers who see little action feel a little unfulfilled.  They wonder what they actually accomplished during the mission since they were so uninvolved.  Boredom, curiosity, and intrigue combine to bring together a group of four unlikely people together on a strange mission.

The burnt out Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) leads family man Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), dumb redneck Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze), and hard-as-nails Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) on a search for Kuwaiti bullion they think is hidden in Saddam’s bunkers.  Following a map they found in a prisoner’s butt and their unbounded desires to strike it rich, they traverse through dangerous territories in Iraq waving the banner of freedom as a Kevlar vest for their journey.  However, what they find amounts to a whole lot more than gold.

“Three Kings” is not just about an expedition for gold; it’s about what happens when humanity gets in the way of things.  Along the way, the four soldiers encounter a number of situations with two choices: helping themselves or helping innocent Iraqi citizens.  Gates and company find it harder and harder to choose in self-interest despite getting closer and closer to the gold.  Russell’s movie is a powerful testament to the kindness of the human soul and how it can remain intact even during war.

Clooney, Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and the hysterical Jonze are all fantastic in helping the movie to shine, but “Three Kings” is David O. Russell’s movie, and he knocks it out of the park.  His script is a strange mix of comedy, drama, and action, but it never fails to satisfy, often on multiple levels at once.  Behind the camera, he toys with several experimental techniques to produce one of the most eccentric-looking war movies I’ve ever seen.  He provides a very different sort of artistry for the genre, and it’s a fantastic retrospective statement on our time in Iraq (before our second entry) that packs one heck of a punch.