Monday, August 31, 2015

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

I don't want to sound like a fragile, Baby Boom-era mother, but this country's going to hell in a handbag. News anchors are biting the dust on air due to former anchors, ISIS is still on the prowl, police officers seem to be almost remorselessly resuming to savage African-American lives (hell, lives of any race), riots have become almost basic and banal, pop music has decided to hibernate this year, we have added another theater shooting to our repertoire, as well as adding church on the list of Places You Can't Go Without Being Killed, and Donald Trump is a presidential candidate. Excuse me while I go search for applications for Canadian citizenship. So throughout all of this, it is fitting, yet still odd, to think that we can still find pertinence in N.W.A. Hell, they themselves have gone through drastic metamorphoses (So long solo Dr. Dre records. We'll miss you). I think this is why this film has been not merely been fiercely hyped by the press, but has received as much intensely devoted, satisfied word of mouth. It's a throwback to a time where things were simultaneously worse, better, and just as bad. It's also a damn good film.

The film is, as expected and widely known, a chronicle of one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time and pioneers of gangster rap music. Fetty Wap, I believe a thank you is in order. It follows them from their humble beginnings in Compton, through their deal with producer Jerry Heller with Ruthless Records, and throughout the group's eventual breakup and individual pursuits, all the while living through police brutality, shit-talk, financial shortcomings, and a death or two.

Going into the film, I was comparing it, in a way in which I wanted this movie to rise above, to, unfavorably, Get On Up, that disappointing James Brown biopic from last year (review plug). And sure enough, both films begin in a rather unorthodox, opposite form. Where last year's film began on a cocky, mildly arrogant James Brown chastising a woman for having *in a British voice* the gall to extract her droppings on his porcelain pedestal (Huh-bluh-bluh! Most unorthodox!), this film begins with Eazy-E hanging out with some people in a house infested with drugs and filth when the boys in blue show up and raid the house. In a surprisingly thrilling moment, Eazy-E makes a run for it and escapes, as the house is being invaded with a battering ram. On paper, it sounds like run-of-the-mill, predictably dramatic, calculated exposition and motivation for "bigger things". However, on film, it sets the tone of the entire film: raw, ugly, and uncompromising.
Like the streets in which the group repeatedly preaches to be representing in their music, this film has a tough tone to it. Director F. Gary Gray, who coincidentally worked with Ice Cube on a non-dramatic film, Friday, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique opt for tight close-up shots, particularly in the performance scenes, but it is existent in other scenes, as well. However, while some might see this as unnecessary and distracting, it actually describes the film: tight. It is evident that the filmmakers don't want you to enjoy the music. They want you to experience it, feel it, comprehend it. These shots are taut, in-your-face, and unapologetic, just like the visceral, abrasive music that N.W.A. brought to life.

On that note, the actors do a wonderful job in bringing these rappers to life on film. I initially wasn't entirely sure of Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, as I felt he didn't entirely look like Eazy-E, though I can revise this stance as I was reminded near the end that Eazy-E had a fuller face than I thought, but his performance allowed me to see beneath his exterior and submit to the actor, acknowledging that he got right one key thing: the essence of Eazy-E. He almost impeccably portrayed the soul of Eazy-E: the impassioned, conflicted, charismatic, and sensitive soul. BTW, to all my Eazy-E fans, yeah, I acknowledge that the film butchered the true origin of how N.W.A. formed, but let's just move on.

Additionally, O'Shea Jackson, Jr. does a tremendous job playing Ice Cube. He maintains the right balance of aggressive command, unapologetic vitriol, and restrained assurance. Plus, he does a great job of rapping like his dad, especially on an exhilarating re-creation of No Vaseline. His natural deadpan style actually strengthens his emotional moments and renders them more sincere. Sure, some might complain about his lack of complete emotion, but hey, like father, like son. Corey Hawkins matches both the appearance and intensity of Dr. Dre and Aldis Hodge as MC Ren (despite not looking remotely like him, but sounding everything like him) and Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella are both serviceable. 

There are many other appearances by a multitude of actors who have the dutiful task of portraying rappers, like Snoop Dogg and 2Pac and they all hit bullseye. But as of the entire supporting cast, the two standouts are Paul Giamatti and R. Marcus Taylor. Giamatti as Jerry Hiller, the record executive who appears to do more harm than good, has an obsessive, vulnerable strength to the role, which, instead of making him a hollow, warmed-over caricature seen repeatedly to no end, strengthens his character and we end his arc, feeling sympathy for him, seeing him as deceptive, but invested and connected with his client. Taylor's performance as Suge Knight couldn't come at a better time. In the midst of the culmination of his legal troubles, Taylor is seething with menace, portraying Suge as a lumbering, selfish, unbridled, physically intimidating Hulk of a human being with little to no emotional core or consideration. It's chilling, but utterly captivating work.

However, two areas that impressed me were the execution of the action and the emotional impact. Title sequence aside, there is a concert sequence involving police that is completely a chaotic, white-knuckle moment, coming at the apex of a scene that already graduates into more tense territory minute by minute. However, I reiterate, what is more impressive is the emotional impact the film creates. This film has been criticized by deploying into treacly sensitivity and copping-out. I personally feel that this section, as well as other emotional moments in the film, are played incredibly sincere, with the wistful feel of tragedy actually working alongside the tangible, confrontational, dour realism the film had been maintaining. Hell, the decline of the group, a common occurrence in biopics, is actually more meaningful because it signifies that they can never escape their ghetto, shoddy lives. Even though they left the ghetto, the attitude never does and it catches up to them.

Above all, in all of its grimy, gut-punching verisimilitude, the film more importantly actually steeps itself in the element of nostalgia. With all of the violence that still carries over to present time, the film looks back on this time period in a way that's both matter-of-fact and, in its own perverse way, somewhat joyful. Not in the exploitation of their negative surroundings and the reaping benefits, mind you, but of the liberation and the rush of confronting them. Whatever you want to say about N.W.A.'s material, it didn't sugarcoat anything and it didn't hesitate. While Get On Up was a vanity project, this film is a passion project. It presents an obvious, but still relevant ideal that in order for us to be relieved of any problem, we have to first confront it. Some people do it by laughing, some do it by crying, but N.W.A. showed us that we can do it by merely speaking out, holding nothing back, and not cowering to any outside influences. It has a purpose. This is the ultimate arc and core of N.W.A, as clips and videos of N.W.A. near the end clearly demonstrate. And some of them keep it hard to this day, whether it is by playing second banana to a 5'4'' comedian or by letting Apple bring you to an orgasm in exchange for headphones. THUG LIIIIFE!

Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of four