He SAID: Straight Outta Compton

Scott F. Evans

Hi.

My name is Scott F. Evans and I HATE ‘Gangsta Rap.’

Let’s be clear: I love hip Hop… or at least I used to love H.E.R. And it’s no secret that I blame a lot of the genre’s downward spiral on groups like NWA. Not that they purposely or even personally helped drive the genre into the ground. They didn’t. They were artists with a very particular -and in some cases- valid point of view. Whether I liked it or not is irrelevant.   But it was what came after, what NWA helped pave the way for: the nihilistic irresponsibility, the misogyny, and the celebration of drugs and gang culture that spread across my beloved music like a California wildfire. The problem comes when that specific perspective becomes the prevailing one for the entire genre, and by extension, the people who created it. NWA was hugely popular, and unarguably influential. For better and worse, they helped change the face of Hip Hop.

compton9But this review isn’t about NWA. It’s about F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton.

As biopics go, the film is pretty close to exceptional. It hits all the right notes at all the right times. Gray keeps the paccompton4ing fairly brisk. Even though we sometimes get lost among the faces and events, he knows how to stop down and pull us back in with great character moments. The smartest choice Gray makes is never turning NWA into icons, and allowing them to be humans. There’s definitely some revisionist hero worship here, but he grounds the entire piece with an overall empathy for these characters.  A lot of that credit must go to his solid cast. He wisely cast this with new faces, so we’re never distracted by celebrity. And despite their freshness, the actors all perform admirably. There’s not a phony performance in the bunch.

Straight Outta Compton, produced by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright, is about NWA but the story is mainly focused on E, Dre, and Cube. The other founding compton6members, MC Ren and DJ Yella get shunted off, perhaps unfairly, to supporting status.

Corey Hawkins is solid as Dre. A lot of his work is low-key and internal. Plus he’s often hidden behind a cap pulled low over his eyes so he doesn’t always register. O’Shea Jackson Jr. does a spot on impression of his real-life father Ice Cube. Socompton7unding and looking just like his father helps the neophyte actor over some iffy moments, but director Gray wisely limits the character’s emotional spectrum. Jackson is getting a lot of attention for playing his father, but this film belongs to Jason Mitchell, who turns in an exemplary performance as Eazy-E. Mitchell should at least get a Best Actor nod at next year’s Oscar’s. He’s that good. He takes a character that could’ve easily been misplayed by a lesser talent and infuses him with humanity and dimension. He’s affable and energetic, but never once over the top. Again, compton5Mitchell is that good.

If Straight Outta Compton has a fourth lead, that would be the group’s manager Jerry Heller, expertly played by Paul Giamatti. If you’re unfamiliar with Heller’s role in the group, and how things turn out, Giamatti’s performance keeps you guessing.

Yella, played by Neil Brown Jr. gets in some scene stealing moments, serving primarily as the film’s comic relief. Unfortunately Ren, well played by Aldis Hodge, almost fades completely into the background. He’s in almost every scene featuring the group, but he never gets to shine.

Credit has to be given to Straight Outta Compton’s screenplay. Written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, the script crackles with tight, snappy dialogue that flows from the actors mouths with ease. There’s a refreshing wryness on display here that’s usually missing from Black cinema.

compton3Cinematographer Matthew Libatique does OK work on the film. He shows some beautiful movement with cranes and steadi-cams for certain scenes that really serve to increase Straight Outta Compton’s production value. Unfortunately other scenes feature really jarring handheld work that makes the moment feel rushed as if the camera operator was still trying to frame the shot. Many of the scenes feel under-lit as well, losing detail in muddy imagery.

Straight Outta Compton’s music is, of course, amazing. Regardless of what you might think of the lyrical content (even with it being more than two decades old), the craftsmanship is remarkable. And that includes the incidental tracks from all of the different artists who influenced Dr. Dre’s productions.

I went in expecting this film to be a tough sit. A two and a half hour biopic about Hip Hop’s preeminent ‘gangsta’ rappers was going to have to work hard to win me over. And there are some problems. After Cube departs from the group the film starts to feel patchy, rapidly bouncing from episode to episode. There’s still a lot of story left to tell, and the film doesn’t seem to know how to fit it all in. So it rushes to an ending that’s a little too self-congratulatory. But I challenge you to name a biopic that doesn’t have the same issues.

All said, Straight Outta Compton is a terrific film and a welcome break from typical summer fare.

RATING: Theater

Advertisements

He SAID: Focus

Scott F. Evans

Focus is… ok. It’s not exceptionally good or bad. Even with an R-rating (Smith’s first since 2003), this is another ‘safe’ Will Smith picture.

Focus is a con game film that can’t figure out what it wants to be. The mainfocus story is of veteran con-man Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) mentoring rookie con-artist Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie). But because this film also wants to be a romantic comedy, they start a complicated love affair. I’m not suggesting that con game films can’t have romantic comedy elements or vice versa, but Focus stumbles because it wants to be cute and breezy. That would also be fine, if Focus was a typical four quadrant PG-13 movie. With an R-rating, one expects a film with a certain amount of adult material. An R-rated film about con-artists increases that expectation exponentially. But Focus plays it safe, riding on Smith’s undiminished charisma and laying bets on audiences falling in love with Robbie as well. They got half of it right.

focus4Smith, unsurprisingly, puts in solid work. He’s a strong actor, and could arguably be one of the best of his generation if he chose edgier, less innocuous material. He underplays here, only occasionally falling back into a couple moments of his typical shtick. Thankfully it’s kept to a bare minimum and doesn’t distract.

Robbie’s the weak link. She’s not bad, but Smith practically buries her every time they’re on screen together. She’s a pleasant, but lightweight performer in a role that needs a more substantial presence. She’s utterly unconvincing as even a fledgling con artist. If Focus was just a lighthearted rom-com, Robbie’s cutesy performance would be perfect. But in this world of thieves and their criminal activity, she feels horribly out of place.

Gerald McRaney and Adrian Martinez round out the supporting cast. Like Robbie, these two feel like they’re in different films. McRaney plays Owens, head of security for a billionaire race car owner. McRaney plays the character just right: gruff, suspicious, and highly competent. It’s the kind of role the actor was born to play. Martinez, for some strange reason, plays a Middle Eastern con artist named Farhad. The character’s obviously supposed to be the film’s comic relief, and Martinez goes all out, playing him in the most disruptively broad fashion possible. Just like Robbie, Martinez’ performance would have worked better in another film.

The writer/director team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are fairly solid ??????????????visualists. Focus looks great, and even though some of the performances seem out of place… the acting is sound. Ironically, the problem with Focus, is that it lacks focus. The script is schizophrenic, and can’t decide if it wants to be a romantic comedy or a crime drama. There’s some interesting scenes of the con team pulling off their smaller crimes. But the two main bits — the bigger scams — require such massive suspensions of disbelief that the film almost crumbles.

Beyond technical issues and performances, Focus treads dangerously on a social narrative that puts it firmly on the wrong side of history. Because even though Spurgeon and his crew of lowlife con-artists spend much of the time ripping off (mostly) innocent people, the film still wants them to be likeable. That’s especially troubling in this modern era of identity theft, with hackers victimizing working class people every single day.

RATING: Matinee (for Smith fans)

He SAID: Lights… Camera… Kingsman!

Scott F Evans

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a welcome respite to the weaker, post-Oscar cinematic offerings we normally get in February. Directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn (and loosely based on the comic book miniseries Secret Service by Mark Millar), Kingsman is a fun, R-rated action comedy. On the surface it seems like the film is a parody of the long running James Bond franchise, but Vaughn’s film has a lot more on its mind than just poking fun at the venerable series.

Kingsman is sold as a spoof of the 007 series. But it has more in common with the mid 1960’s Bond knockoffs like the Flint and Matt Helm series, or The Avengers, and The Man from UNCLE television shows. There are similarities in tone to the Roger Moore Bond films, but Kingsman is much broader. It’s a farce, and there’s an absurdity that is fully embraced. It doesn’t run from or downplay some of the more ridiculous elements on display. But unlike (and much better than) the Austin Powers series, Kingsman is also a surprisingly effective action film.

The film is centered on a team of elite British gentlemen spies, all code-named after King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. When one of them is killed on a mission, the remaining Kingsmen must nominate a replacement to fill the empty slot. Here’s where this film separates itself from other spy movies. It asks the question, “What makes a gentleman, genetics or environment?” It’s also not afraid to take a kingsmandefinitive stand on the matter. Modern action heroes all fit an identical type: the boorish rebel, unshaven in designer leather and shades. Kingsman goes the opposite way and presents us with elegant, dapper protagonists. They’re all decked out in bespoke double breasted suits and eyeglasses that nod back to the 60’s era spy Harry Palmer.

Colin Firth is clearly having a ball as Harry Hart, codenamed “Galahad”. Playing completely against type, Firth is urbane, refined and lethal… deftly handling many ofkingsman3 his own fight scenes. Also turning in an excellent performance, Samuel L Jackson as billionaire Richmond Valentine. Jackson is clearly channeling Russell Simmons in style and speech with his trademark baseball caps and slight lisp. Valentine is genocidal, but he’s sort of got a point. Michael Caine (the original Harry Palmer) shows up as Arthur, the leader of the Kingsmen.

Mark Strong is also good in the relatively thankless role of Merlin, the “Q” of the Kingsmen. Relative newcomer Sofia Boutella plays Gazelle, Valentine’s assassin henchwoman. She’s good in this mostly physical role. With her legs digitally kingsman6replaced with CG blades, she gets many of the fun action sequences.

The standout of the film is Taron Egerton as our main protagonist: Kingsman trainee Eggsy Unwin. He’s a low class street punk whose father was an agent. Egerton wisely plays him with just enough crassness, that he doesn’t lose your sympathy. You cheer his arc from street kid to refined gentleman.

The script, co-written by Jane Goldman, is witty and filled with spy movie references. Still, the film never really feels derivative. Even if it does occasionally travel down well-worn paths, the film is so charismatic and lively that you immediately forgive it.  Kingsman is neither empty-headed action nor pretentious musings on class. It’s able to expertly balance the two and deliver on both fronts.

kingsman7Vaughn nails the pacing of the film. He keeps the story moving without shortchanging character and plot to rush to the next action scene. He lets us actually connect with his leads (a rarity in modern action cinema). This movie has also introduced a new perspective on shooting and editing action… that might just become the new ‘bullet time‘ (See: tech used in the original Matrix movie that became so overused that it eventually became a joke and was abandoned altogether).

kingsman8The scene is a lengthy hyper-violent melee in a church. The final version is edited to look like one long take. It manages to look kinetic, but not confusing. Vaughn impresses in Kingsman… and makes me thankful that he turned down the trite X-Men: Days of Future Past to direct this fresh take on the spy genre.

RATING: Theater

He SAID: Street Justice… Fuqua Style

Scott F. Evans

I’m going to heap almost nothing but praise on Antoine Fuqua’s big screen interpretation of The Equalizer, so prepare yourself.

Got it?

Good.

equalizer7I love this movie. Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk made the smart choice to not do a faithful adaptation or a parody of the mid-80’s CBS television series. Instead this is something of an origin story, on how “retired” spy Robert McCall decides to dedicate his life helping those in need. They’ve altered the ‘James Bond in retirement’ hook a bit, adding a nice element to explain why the character seems to lead such a simple life and why he struggles with it. Even calling this iteration of McCall a spy seems inaccurate, because he’s much more than that. The filmmakers also resisted the urge to make it TV friendly by softening the violence. Make no mistake, the film has a hard R rating for language and graphic violence. This is not your father’s The Equalizer.

equalizer4Antoine Fuqua needs to work more. It’s true that his films may be hit or miss, but that’s usually a result of shoddy screenplays. Visually, he stands with the best of the modern action directors. The Equalizer is filled with perfectly framed hero shots that showcase exactly what this film is selling. This is everything The Expendables franchise wishes it was. Fuqua’s classic shooting style never overwhelms the narrative with distracting cinematography. Camera movement is coherent and justified. Some of the fight scenes on this one are slightly over edited but they’re never confusing. Viewers are always 100 percent clear on what’s happening onscreen, even if the scene itself is chaotic. He’s also good with actors, consistently getting solid work from his cast. There’s not one phony performance in this entire piece.

As Robert McCall, Denzel Washington delivers another excellent performance. He brings nuance to the character that’s vastly different from the original.equalizer5 Instead of the archetypal suave former government operative, this performance is maybe a more realistic one. He’s done some things in his past and as a result has got a seriously damaged psyche. This McCall is haunted and strains to maintain control of his dark side. But Washington never falls back on clichéd acting choices. He doesn’t show much surface emotion in this film, instead opting for subtle, easily missed changes in facial expression or even smaller shifts in his eyes. It looks so effortless, untrained viewers may think he’s phoning it in, repeating bits from recent bad-ass roles. They’d be wrong. He’s doing something much different from what he did in 2004’s Man on Fire (which The Equalizer most closely resembles).

equalizer3The supporting cast shines as well. Chloe Grace Moretz turns in a nicely restrained performance as Teri, a prostitute employed by vicious Russian mobsters. She’s essential to the plot, as what happens to her sets McCall in motion, but the trailers oversell her actual screentime. Marton Csokas as the aforementioned vicious Russian mobster Teddy is equalizer8the other standout star in The Equalizer. He’s able to elevate what was probably, on paper, the standard overly sophisticated Eastern European bad guy role. You’ve seen this part before, and in the wrong hands, it’s every villain in every direct-to-video action movie since Die Hard. But Csokas brings such an efficient ruthlessness to it, the character seems fresh. Teddy and McCall are in many ways mirror images. Two highly skilled men with violent pasts who take great pleasure in their work. But where McCall fights to control that part of himself, becoming a near recluse because of it, Teddy relishes in it and works in an industry that allows him to thrive.

The Equalizer leaves the door open for franchise opportunities, but it works fine as a one and done. Anything after this first outing runs the risk of becoming formulaic and stagnant pretty quickly. That being said, this is the kind of film that Hollywood should make more of. Good, mid budgeted, thoughtful genre films. Not dopey, insanely expensive spectacles that can’t turn a profit until they approach that billion dollar mark or smarter but micro-budgeted indies that can’t compete in the crowded theatrical market. Action romps do not have to be stupid. They don’t have to cost a hundred million plus.

equalizer2

RATING: See this film in theaters. Support quality adult genre film-making.

 

 

He SAID: Good Writing is (apparently) Expendable

Scott F. Evans

This latest vanity project from Sylvester Stallone masquerades as a 1980’s nostalgia fest. But it’s so much… less. The Expendables 3 pretends to be a “men-on-a-mission” high octane action flick. But here’s the thing: The Expendables 1 and 2 didn’t work… and this one doesn’t either. I honestly can’t think of a modern franchise that fails to deliver on its core premise as many times as The Expendables does. Still, the first two were bafflingly successful… so this weekend, Expendables 3 got a wide theatrical release.
The crimes The Expendables 3 commits against action cinema are long and unforgivable. The first problem is right there on the poster. With a script that’s not particularly interested in anything other than empty posing and explosions, there are far too many characters in this film. And that’s the fault of the prior two entry’s reluctance to kill off any of them. This franchise can’t even live up to its own title. expendables7 The point of this series is to bring all these older actors together, but of course they’re not always available for whatever reason. So the filmmakers have a perfect excuse to rotate Expendables out for each film. But no, they continue to shoehorn these already terribly underdeveloped characters into every movie. And with every movie, each role not played by an actor named Stallone gets less and less screen time.
One of the main attractions of Expendables 3 is the big screen return of Wesley Snipes as team member Doctor Death, one of the founding members of the crew. Unfortunately, Snipes isn’t very good here. To say his character is thinly sketched is being generous. He gets a couple barely passable action moments but they’re hamstrung by the film’s PG-13 rating. The entire opening sequence is built around the original team rescuing Snipes from a train headed to a black ops military prison. It seems they need his medic skills to replace some Expendable we’ve never seen before who apparently died after 2 but before 3…or something. From there they go right to the mission where Snipes gets to shine somewhat, but again, hampered by the neutered rating, his bits are awkwardly edited. And then he and the rest of the originals (AKA the franchise’s actual draws) are sidelined until the end of the movie.
Also making a theatrical reappearance is Mel Gibson as the main villain Conrad Stonebanks. One of the teams founders, heexpendables3 betrayed them for profit. And to add more cliché to the story… yes, they all thought he was dead. Gibson’s not very good either. His acting choice seems to be playing the role like an older, slower Martin Riggs from the Lethal Weapon series. It’s interesting that his betrayal is made out to be such a big deal as Dolph Lundgren’s character, Gunnar Jensen, betrayed the team in the first film. But that offense was basically shrugged off for some reason.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jet Li return for extended cameos. Schwarzenegger is basically reduced to a nagging mother figure to Stallone’s Barney Ross character. He hobbles around, smokes cigars, shoots a machine gun and yells out one of his catch phrases. Good times. Jet Li could’ve done his “scenes” in under two hours in front of a green screen in his backyard. No character in this franchise has been treated worse than Jet Li’s Yin Yang.
Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, and Kelsey Grammer round out the old man new additions to The Expendables 3. Ford seems bored and clearly there for the paycheck. Playing a babbling parkour expert (?), Banderas puts forth way more effort than this film deserves. To his credit though, his is the only memorable performance in this overstuffed movie. Acting with his beard, Grammer does a slightly earthier version of his Frasier Crane character. He’s decent, but his only function is to help Stallone recruit fresh talent to the Expendables. These scenes waste a good fifteen minutes of screen time and bring the film to a dead stop.
BRAY_20131001_EXP3_19218.dngThis brings us to the film’s second problem which, to be fair, is an extension of the first. We’ve already got returning cast members and newly available old school actors. Now the filmmakers are also introducing four new characters, younger additions to the crowded Expendables roster. There’s two actors, Kellan Lutz and Glenn Powell and two athletes MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, and boxer Victor Ortiz. And they’re all completely forgettable. Stallone fires the old team and hires this bunch of loose cannons to help him take down Gibson. They, of course fail, and are easily captured. Stallone escapes, and in a not too terrible climax, has to rescue them with assistance from the old heads. Lutz gets what could have been a showstopper moment but he’s such a non-presence, that the gag is suffocated. Rousey has a couple good fights but they’re exactly like every other overused MMA style fight in action films nowadays. Powell, literally hangs around and does nothing while Ortiz gets lost in all the other chaos. There’s almost a meta commentary going on here where the film seems to be saying these rookie action stars can’t hold a candle to their older uncles from the last century.

Finally, the action of The Expendables 3 just isn’t very good. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not particularly interesting. Director Patrick Hughes frames his action well. He’s not missing the best bits by needlessly swinging the camera around. However, the choppy editing and lack of strong geography kill any sense of rhythm and pacing. What we’re left with is a series of disconnected moments where characters too often confusingly pop in and out of frame. Hughes is supposed to be directing the English language remake of The Raid and after watching this, I’m even less enthusiastic about that project. To his credit though, I won’t criticize him for the poor performances in The Expendables 3. He’s a neophyte director and the majority of these actors are practically un-directable at this point in their careers.

The general idea of The Expendables (aging mercenaries fighting for relevance and survival in a younger, technologically advancing world) is a solid one. But three pictures later it has yet to be anything more than a one trick gimmick. What could have been a modern day Unforgiven meets The Dirty Dozen, with a bit of The Wild Bunch added for flavoring. Instead, it’s really just a platform for producer/writer Stallone to prove to the world that he’s still “got it”. It doesn’t have anything to say. It doesn’t raise the bar of modern action cinema nor does it re-invent ideas and techniques from the past. It Baits & Switches the audience by advertising one team but showcasing another. And by also adopting Hollywood’s unofficial “Only One Black Character At A Time” doctrine, The Expendables 3 is firmly status quo and subtly racist.

RATING: TV (with commercials)