Straight Outta Compton

Cast: O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr., Paul Giamatti

Director: F. Gary Gray

Writers: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff

It is often the case that when musical biopics are made they will seek to depict the lives and works of their subjects without attempting any deeper insight into their psyches or using their stories to depict a greater, overarching narrative. What results is effectively a ‘greatest hits’ story that, while often pleasant and even entertaining, does not leave much of a resounding impact on the viewer, nor does it challenge or inspire them in any profound way. I think this is why I enjoyed watching Straight Outta Compton so much; because it isn’t merely a story about five famous musicians who started a famous band with some famous songs, it is an exposé about a band of rebels who found a unique and belligerent voice and overcame the odds and adversities that they faced to deliver a radical message about challenging authority and being true to one’s self and one’s roots. Whether or not you’re a fan of rap music isn’t the point. This isn’t a film about Dr. Dre or Ice Cube or even about N.W.A, this film is about the statement that they made together, the antagonistic forces that stood in their way, and why that statement matters.

Straight Outta Compton depicts the lives of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), the five Compton boys who together created the band N.W.A., one of the most significant and revolutionary groups in hip-hop and rap history. Growing up in a dangerous neighbourhood in which poverty, drugs, gang violence and police discrimination are ever present, these young men find themselves in a state of disgruntlement and frustration and seek to vent and express their anger and aggravation through music. Following their successful debut the group catches the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a big time music manager who undertakes to take them to the top. The band wins much popularity and notoriety for their hardcore beats, aggressive lyrics and provocative subjects as they seek to deliver a confrontational message and kick off a social revolution that will reverberate throughout the country and forever change the face of rap music.

One thing this film gets absolutely spot on is its main characters. The five members of N.W.A. are perfectly cast and share a dynamic chemistry that is both substantial and believable. Given that I wasn’t very familiar with this group or its music prior to watching this film I cannot account for its authenticity. However I do think that what the film presented worked very well in its own context and I found these characters to be fully relatable and interesting. At the centre of it all is Dre, the aspiring musician who shows a strong talent for the craft and a keen aptitude for the business and who remains the level-headed voice of reason in the erupting feud that threatens to break up the band. Eazy-E is the cocky, charismatic hustler who, upon discovering almost by accident what a gift he has for rapping, embarks on a wild journey that sadly ends in tragedy. Ice Cube (played by his staggeringly identical-looking son) is the hard-as-nails rapper with a strong presence and a fiery temper to match the band’s scorching songs. The downside is that these three characters stand firmly in the film’s spotlight while DJ Yella and MC Ren are unceremoniously brushed to the side. As much as I enjoyed watching the exploits of the three main characters, it would’ve been nice if the other two had been given more prominent roles and were allowed to leave a more lasting impact.

To me what really set this film apart is the way it addresses the social issues that the members of N.W.A. faced and how they set to combat those issues by speaking out through their music. Early on the film presents the audience with examples of the hardships these young men and many others like them have had to endure their entire lives; violence in their neighbourhoods, low-income jobs, hostility from the police and a hundred other obstacles that threaten to suppress and engulf them. These five are frustrated, enraged and pissed off and they have decided not to take it any more. Through their music they are able to express their hardships through brutally honest lyrics about violence and aggression that reflect the harsh world they have to live in. Songs like Express Yourself and Fuck the Police are loud, explicit and confrontational because that is what it takes for their voices to be heard. There is something intensely raw and authentic about this film’s mood that makes it an astonishing viewing experience.

Although this film is produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, it doesn’t feel like a vanity project. While the film may not necessarily be the complete and utter truth and parts of the story were likely tweaked to deliver a more positive spin on the main characters, I still feel like the film’s spirit is nevertheless true to the message it is trying to deliver. While the film does make a deliberate attempt to portray the members of N.W.A. in as positive (possibly even heroic) a light as it can, the light is nevertheless imperfect. These men understand that they are not saints and make no claims to be such. They only claim to be telling the truth, nothing more and nothing less. Their flaws and vices are important parts of who they are and reflect where it is where they are from and what sort of lives they have had. They are not trying to tell anyone what they should think or how they should live their lives; they are simply five men from Compton who have a statement to make and they are damn well going to say it whatever the consequences. The result is a provocative film with a powerful message that remains relevant today.


Fantastic Four

Cast: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson

Director: Josh Trank

Writers: Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg, Josh Trank

People really don’t want to like this film. In the few days since it came out I was struck by how badly everyone was panning it. Most of the comments that I’ve seen have denounced this film as a travesty that ranks amongst the worst comic book films of recent memory. It’s one thing for a film to receive widespread negative criticism, but what really struck me was the aggressiveness of that criticism. People really hate this film. I’ll confess that I’ve never really been a fan of the Fantastic Four and that I’d be lying if I said I was optimistic about this film, but I was determined to give it a fair chance. A part of me did keep thinking that if a film receives this amount of backlash there probably is a reason, but at the very least I felt that it deserved the benefit of the doubt. Having now seen this film I must admit that I thought it was pretty weak. However, looking back at it now, I’m not convinced that Fantastic Four deserves all the hate it has thus far received.

The story follows Reed Richards (Miles Teller) whose greatest ambition is to uncover the secrets to teleportation. His brilliant mind and groundbreaking discoveries catch the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), the director of the Baxter Foundation, a research institute for young and brilliant minds. With the aid of Franklin’s smart and capable children Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and the furtive but equally intelligent Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), Reed uses the considerable resources now at his disposal to complete the Quantum Gate. Upon its completion the group, along with Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) venture into a mysterious, parallel dimension where they get caught in a freak accident. In the aftermath Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben all discover that they have acquired special powers and must use them to deal with the consequences of their mishap.

Although I’m still kind of struggling to understand why people might be angered by this film, I can certainly understand why they’d be disappointed by it. Anyone who goes to see a superhero film does so for one very simple reason: to see awesome superheroes doing awesome superhero things. Yet by the time the titular superheroes actually acquire their powers, over half of the film’s runtime has already gone by. Thus the phase in which they learn to control their powers is almost completely glossed over and the climax is unceremoniously rushed. I think this film is more of a shame than anything because the first hour is actually quite promising and even kind of decent (with a few problems here and there). It’s only after the heroes gain their powers that the film falls apart completely. Based on what I’ve heard about the film’s turbulent production this can be probably be explained by the studio interference and the reshoots that led the film’s own director Josh Trank to denounce the film upon its release.

It really is a shame that Fantastic Four turned out the way it did because it did have the makings of a pretty decent flick. The first hour does an adequate job of establishing the main characters complete with personalities and motivations and was even able to include some clever ideas in the story. I liked how they worked in The Thing’s obligatory yet painfully childish catchphrase, I liked the idea that Reed and Victor essentially came up with the same ideas and theories independent of each other and I liked the little touches during the accident that determined each character’s individual superpower. I thought that the actors did well with what they were given and that the film did a reasonably good job of modernising the overall concept of the Fantastic Four. It was only the last 40 minutes after the characters gained their powers that the film lost me.

There were some problems prior to the film’s breaking point. The idea of Reed being discovered at a science fair was pretty weak, the motivation that drove the characters to venture into the parallel dimension was one of profound stupidity and Sue Storm, despite being quite a well-established character, is given little to nothing to do throughout the film. However as soon as the film reaches its bewildering time jump, it completely loses the plot. What follows is a messy sequence of flimsy and apathetic scenes that lead into an incredibly poor third act. The conflict between the heroes and the main villain doesn’t make any sense, the action is underwhelming and tedious and the film practically gallops through the climax without taking the time to build any tension or excitement. If the reshoots were the cause of this haphazard change in quality, it might explain why the actors are suddenly so lacking in life and energy. It’s as if the entire cast and crew gave up on this film halfway through.

All in all Fantastic Four is a poor film with conflicting visions and wasted potential, but I’m still not sure I understand why people are so unforgivingly contemptuous towards it. Maybe it’s because this film took itself more seriously than the previous ones and people were therefore expecting more from it, maybe it’s because the Marvel fatigue is starting to set in with the audience, or maybe there really is something truly terrible about this film that I’m just not seeing. Since I wasn’t a fan of the Fantastic Four in the first place it is possible that I’m simply more forgiving of this film’s missteps than the fans of the comic books are. For what it’s worth I think that Fantastic Four is better than the Tim Story films but I realise that’s not saying much. I don’t think it deserves the backlash it has received but at the end of the day it doesn’t have a lot going for it. It isn’t a film I would urge anyone to see; I’d only urge them not to dismiss it outright.


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie

What really surprises me about the Mission: Impossible franchise is how fresh and innovative it has remained in its 20-year history. Against all the odds, Mission: Impossible has managed to get bigger and better with each instalment (excluding John Woo’s ridiculously over-the-top contribution), Tom Cruise has remained a fun and entertaining action star with no sign of ageing or slowing down, and different directors with varying styles have allowed the franchise to evolve by adding their own unique spins. From Brian de Palma’s psychological thriller to J. J. Abrams’ hectic action to Brad Bird’s visual creativity, Mission: Impossible has proved itself to be an adaptable series and thus each entry is able to be new and original in its own way. This time around Christopher McQuarrie has taken the helm, a director whose style I was not very familiar with until I saw this film. Under his direction Rogue Nation offers its own unique approach for the exciting, over-the-top action that has become a staple of Mission: Impossible and is more than worthy as an addition to the franchise.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is back and has caught the attention of The Syndicate, a secretive criminal organisation described as “an anti-IMF”, led by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Upon being captured by them, Hunt crosses paths with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a Syndicate operative who might actually be on his side and who helps him escape. While this is happening CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has set out to disband the IMF, forcing Hunt to go on the run as he sets out to take The Syndicate down. Along the way he enlists the help of his old teammates Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) as they set out to do what they do best, the impossible.

Although I was not familiar with McQuarrie’s abilities as a director before watching this film, I was blown away by what he offered in Rogue Nation. He utilises a style that has been described as classicist as he employs an old-school method of anamorphic cinematography and of allowing the action to simply play out rather than resorting to shaky-cam or rapid editing. This method allows the grand size and epic stakes of the action to really sink in, made all the more impressive by the frequent use of practical effects and real stunts. Watching Ethan Hunt holding onto the side of a flying plane or holding his breath as he navigates his way through an underwater computer are all the more intensive to watch thanks to the focus and emphasis McQuarrie’s direction provides. One particular fight scene set in an opera house demonstrates his proficient ability to take advantage of his locations and use them to heighten the action. This is a director who knows how to take his time with the action without ever slowing it down, a talent that really pays off in this film.

The story itself does struggle at points, but it is all in all a more interesting and compelling story than is usually offered by this franchise. As Hunt goes head-to-head with The Syndicate he finds that they always seem to be one step ahead of him and that things may not be as they appear to be. Unlike some of the other female characters in the previous instalments whose roles amounted to little more than eye candy, Ilsa Faust stands as a fully-rounded character who adds an interesting dynamic to the story. During his encounters with her Hunt is never sure where Ilsa stands, whose side she is on or what her motivations are. Learning more about her character and waiting to see what she will do next is one of the most enjoyable parts of the film. There were a couple of weaknesses that bothered me; the villain was probably its weakest point with Solomon Lane leaving not much of an impression beyond an intimidating stare, plus I would also have really liked it if the film actually gave Alec Baldwin something to do. However the positives outweigh the negatives in this case and provide an overall entertaining and thrilling experience.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is very good at being exactly what it has set out to be, a series of fun and exciting summer blockbusters with mind-blowing action. Rogue Nation is an excellent addition to the series and does an admirable job of putting a new spin on its traditional staples. The action is just as exhilarating and over-the-top as ever, Tom Cruise is as awesome and fun as ever and the spy stuff complete with masks and gadgets is just as cool and creative as ever. The inclusion of a gripping story with one particularly interesting character was a welcome addition and made Rogue Nation without question one of the strongest entries in the franchise. It may not be completely perfect but it was still the film I wanted to see when I entered the cinema. Anyone else who expects to see a fun summer blockbuster will not be disappointed.