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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Thin White Dude's (Capsule) Reviews - Straight Outta Compton

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Produced by: Ice Cube
Tomica Woods-Wright
Matt Alvarez
F. Gary Gray
Scott Bernstein
Dr. Dre

Screenplay by: Jonathan Herman
Andrea Berloff

Story by: S. Leigh Savidge
Alan Wenkus
Andrea Berloff

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

Music by: Joseph Trapanese

Cinematography by: Matthew Libatique

Editing by: Billy Cox

Studio(s): Legendary Pictures
New Line Cinema
Cube Vision
Crucial Films
Broken Chair Flickz

Distributed by: Universal Pictures

Release date(s): August 11, 2015 (Los Angeles premiere)
August 14, 2015 (United States)
August 28, 2015 (United Kingdom

Running time: 147 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $28 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $201, 634, 991

Today's film up for review is Straight Outta Compton, the long-awaited N.W.A. biopic, which when released opened to both critical acclaim and box-office success. The interesting thing to note in the wake of the recent controversy surrounding the upcoming Academy Awards lack of diversity in it's representation of not only race and ethnicity but also gender and sexual orientation that Straight Outta Compton was perhaps the most notable film representing African-Americans in film that came out in 2015. I for one don't think the problem is itself the Academy voting makeup but rather that Hollywood as a whole needs to step up it's game as far as diversity is concerned in mainstream cinema. You can't vote for people that aren't there. The fact is is that most of the parts in Hollywood are written for white men between the ages of thirty and fifty. It's also racially insensitive to vote for someone on the basis of race as opposed to their talent. Anywho, back to Straight Outta Compton, I went a bit off track there. To give a small preface alongside that mini-opinion piece, while I'm known more for more my punk, metal and electronic music listening tastes, I'm also a big fan of hip-hop (the Straight Outta Compton album being one of the very best), particularly from the period in which this film is set, which saw a surging wave of young black men entering the arts, using them to tell their stories and take the world by storm in the process. Beginning in 1986, Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise and fall of rap group N.W.A. and the decade-long story of it's members, Eric 'Easy-E' Wright (Jason Mitchell), O'Shea Jackson aka 'Ice Cube' (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), Andre 'Dr. Dre' Young (Corey Hawkins), Lorenzo 'MC Ren' Patterson (Aldis Hodge) and Antoine Carraby aka 'DJ Yella' (Neil Brown, Jr.). Got it? Good!

Starting off with the good, I have to praise the general direction and intent with which the writers, director F. Gary Gray and the producers have taken with the biopic. While criticism has been levelled at the film as regards historical accuracy, spiritually I feel that it captures the vibe and atmosphere surrounding the band. Furthermore, I feel that it doesn't shy away from some of the more controversial aspects in N.W.A.'s history, particularly as regards to the morality behind some of the more violent content of their work, and whether or not they may be not only a reflection of violence against young black men but also the catalyst for equally questionable retaliatory violence. The research behind the film was obviously extensive, and there is a great attention to detail paid to the development of the characters and their arcs. The dialogue feels both familiar and fresh, balancing right between edgy wit and actually having them sound like something real people would say. Speaking of real people, I have to praise those involved for casting largely unknown actors in both the primary and supporting roles. Not only does it mean we have prior associations of back-catalogue baggage to attach to them, aesthetically it reflects how these guys were essentially nobodies coming out of nowhere showing the world that they could do some incredible things. Among the cast, the film boasts four great performances. Of the five primary cast members, Jason Mitchell, O'Shea Jackson, Jr. and Corey Hawkins are all believable and feel authentic in the respective roles of E, Cube and Dre. Each of their parts are three-dimensional and individually distinctive, but also share a chemistry which makes it feel legitimate that these people, through thick and thin, shared a common bond that brought them together. Mitchell is at the right times humorous, charming and indeed vulnerable as Easy-E, Jackson, Jr. (portraying his father) is full of wit and just has this look that says Cube is a pot-boiler of rage under his cool surface, and Hawkins depicts Dre with subtle insight and wisdom. Did I say four great performances? Yes, I did, and that's because Paul Giamatti brings heavyweight-acting chops to the part of Jerry Heller. I like Giamatti anyway, but he just has such a way with words and delivering his lines that his Heller would probably make you believe could literally wield the power of fire if you tried to reach out and grab a flame. He's not exactly what you'd call physically chameleonic, but he's one of those actors with the unique ability to be able to make the way he breathes an important part of saying something about the character and what they're feeling. As such, even when the music stops, as it were, you still want to believe his Heller, even though you know he's a liar. Another thing I liked about the film was the co-operative interaction between the cinematography and editing. Doubtless, Matthew Libatique (a fine DP) must have had some job shooting all of this material and continuing to make it visually interesting, but once again he succeeds in that regard. Also, shot in 2.35:1 format in a crisp, clean style, the location photography is of a consistently high standard. Not only that, but editor Billy Fox had the task and going through all of this material and sifting it down to a manageable length for theatrical release. Finally, it's impossible to talk about a music biopic without talking about the music, and I'm going to talk about it in a positive light. You've got as far as licensed tracks goes not only the catalogue of music by and associated with N.W.A. and their contemporaries, but also that of some of the groups early influences, such as those of the P-Funk period, which would go on to be sampled on countless hip-hop records. Also, as far as film composition, Joseph Trapanese, mostly known as an arranger, conductor and occasional performer, does a great job in the saddle as the man behind the score of Straight Outta Compton. Not only does it fit in well with what is a movie absolutely brimming with music, but it also serves to help tell the story of the characters. 

Now, there's a lot I liked about Straight Outta Compton, and that adds for a vibrant, exciting, entertaining and at times harrowing film. However, I think that while it is a great film, it is not a masterpiece, and I'll outline why I think that to be the case. With the running time being one-hundred and forty-seven minutes, it is a bit bulky, which I don't mind necessarily, but like The Death And Resurrection Show, aiming for the two-and-a-half hour mark seems to be a design for theatrical distribution, as opposed to what suits the film. I said about that other film that I think on DVD an extended cut could be released, which will end up being considered the more definitive document. I think the appropriate length for Straight Outta Compton would either fall between one hundred and twenty/one hundred and thirty mins or between one hundred and sixty-five/one hundred and seventy-five mins. It would mean that certain subplots (of which there are many), some of which feel tacked on, glossed over and/or underdeveloped, could either be excised fully or fleshed out in greater detail. I suppose this was a decision that was laid down to editor Billy Fox's feet by the producers, because the recently released Blu-Ray of the film features both the theatrical cut and an "Unrated Director's Cut," which features an additional twenty minutes of scenes that didn't make the theatrically released film, bringing the running time to one hundred and sixty-seven minutes. I haven't seen it yet, but I have a feeling that this is probably the definitive cut of the film, for while this problem isn't a gaping hole in this cut of Straight Outta Compton, it does create enough issues and inconsistencies to deny it masterpiece status.

Straight Outta Compton has a degree issues coming from the decision to have it's running time kept at bang on two and a half hours, consequently ended up with both too much and not enough were plot is concerned. That said, I thought it was a hell of a blast, and one of the more vibrant and exciting biopics of recent memory. Lacking the turgid mawkishness of most awards-season biopics/prestige pictures, Straight Outta Compton general direction and intent is one of honest intent to reflect the atmosphere and content close to the heart of N.W.A., whilst telling an engaging story. Boasting a terrifically balanced script, four great performances, good cinematography, editing and an amazing aural soundscape, Straight Outta Compton running time may appear daunting, but don't let it put you off because this is a highly entertaining film.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.6/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Burp (says my flatulent self!)

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