Skip to main content

Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.

Straight Outta Compton
(2015)

Don’t believe the hype. For Straight Outta Compton to be as good as its acclaim from some quarters suggests, it would have to be some kind of fundamental reinvention of the biopic, that most moribund of genres. Instead, it’s a fairly standard-issue telling of NWA’s rise and disintegration, made with journeyman lack of flair by F Gary Gray. It lucks-in with a series of standout performances, however, so much so that the veteran of the cast, Paul Giamatti, looks vaguely like the one who’s going through the motions.


And for getting on for 90 minutes (I saw the director’s cut), Straight Outta Compton is at least in the top tier of scaling-the-ladder-of-fame stories, carried along by natural narrative energy; not unlike a sports biopic (I’m no great sports fan and I’m not great rap fan, Tone Loc aside), you don’t have to relate to the subject matter if the storytelling is there.


Gray isn’t the kind of director who can work marvels with material, but he can service it effectively enough. Which is why, when it comes to the second half of the picture, as the main players go their separate ways and the focus divides and falters (rather than, when they were together, offering complementary ensemble), he’s unable to bolster the proceedings. One wonders at the decision to procure him for Fast 8, since a heightened quality is just what that series demands; Vin Diesel’s executive decision to go for realism may not reap the dividends he hoped.


As always with a biopic, you can’t get too shirty over what it plays fast and loose with; that’s what documentaries are for (and even then…) When the subject matter is recent and the (most of) the subjects are living, and one of them produced the thing, it becomes even more likely that the treatment will skirt controversial depictions of its heroes. So the group are rambunctious rather than actively misogynistic (or homophobic), with Dr Dre only ever inflicting violence on men. Indeed, he comes across instead as the man with his mind on higher, artier things, which given his creative legacy is perhaps understandable.


Corey Hawkins’ sensitive performance is perfectly pitched in that regard, comparing and contrasting to Shea Jackson Jr (a remarkable study of his father; or, he’s simply very much a chip off the old block) as Ice Cube and Jason Mitchell as the ill-fated Eazy-E. Everyone else, Giamatti’s nefarious manager aside, is more or less window dressing and background texture. Which again, makes sense. The bane of biopics can be how painfully linear they feel, and with three main characters, Straight Outta Compton at least avoids coming across quite so overtly so.


The screenplay (credited to four different writers, all of them white, as per this year’s Oscar diversity controversy highlighting its lack of recognition outside the Best Original Screenplay category; although, I’d argue such standard biopic fare as this was lucky to receive even that nod) gets the “positive” legacy controversy down, particularly in respect of Fuck Tha Police and being on the receiving end of police harassment and violence, as they spearhead the explosion of “this whole reality rap shit” that the most of the music industry was keen to dismiss. Bring in the FBI, attempting to hoover up their lyrical pronouncements with threats (“Maybe we should be happy. This is free publicity for NWA”) and the manipulations of manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti), and you have a potent brew, making for engrossing cinema.


But, following Ice Cube’s split, and then Dre’s alliance with Suge Knight (R Marcos Taylor), the picture has problems maintaining its verve. The in-fighting (Cube responds to NWA’s sleights lyrically) never feels truly combustible, and when Suge beats a man over a parking place, to Dre’s aghast response, it’s positioned as coming out of nowhere rather than something that must have been brewing all along. 


It’s fun to see cameos from soon-to-be rap legends (Snoop Dogg, Tupac), and the picture does sign off at a (rather perfunctory) point where it would be interesting to witness the furtherance of their careers (well, Cube’s spiral into a very variable roster of acting roles, not so much, although xXx: State of the Union would no doubt be a high point), but it becomes clear post the fact it has been listing alarmingly, its through-line (the death of Easy E, the potential reformation of NWA) simply insufficient emotionally or narratively to support it. As biopics go, Straight Outta Compton is above average, but it’s still very much a biopic, with all the dilution, preformatting and playing it safe that entails.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Must the duck be here?

The Favourite (2018)
(SPOILERS) In my review of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I suggested The Favourite might be a Yorgos Lanthimos movie for those who don’t like Yorgos Lanthimos movies. At least, that’s what I’d heard. And certainly, it’s more accessible than either of his previous pictures, the first two thirds resembling a kind of Carry On Up the Greenaway, but despite these broader, more slapstick elements and abundant caustic humour, there’s a prevailing detachment on the part of the director, a distancing oversight that rather suggests he doesn’t feel very much for his subjects, no matter how much they emote, suffer or connive. Or pratfall.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
(SPOILERS) I think I knew I wasn’t going to like The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first five minutes. And that was without the unedifying sight of open-heart surgery that takes up the first four. Yorgos Lanthimos is something of a Marmite director, and my responses to this and his previous The Lobster (which I merely thought was “okay” after exhausting its thin premise) haven’t induced me to check out his earlier work. Of course, he has now come out with a film that, reputedly, even his naysayers will like, awards-darling The Favourite

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.