Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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I was at first a little overwhelmed by the idea of a N.W.A biopic stretching out for a 147min runtime, but as I was watching Straight Outta Compton in the theater its length gradually began to make total sense. It’s an incredibly thorough biopic, digging not only into the cultural & political climate surrounding the group’s origins, but also the aftermath of their falling out & disbanding. Even at 2.5 hours, not everything was covered & large swaths of historical accuracy were tossed aside in favor of a tight narrative & an indulgence in a killer 90’s aural & temporal vibe. Straight Outta Compton is not a particularly great example of a historical document, but damn if it didn’t achieve an incredible Cinematic Aesthetic in every scene, somehow managing to squeeze out a great biopic with exactly zero deviations from the format (unlike more experimental films like Love & Mercy). The cinematography, provided by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, confidently supported the film’s surface pleasures (including an onslaught of still-great songs & pandering nostalgia) to the point where any & all faults were essentially irrelevant. When a sample wraps up the music video portion of the end credits by proclaiming “Damn, that shit was dope!” (the very same sample that concludes the song the film’s named after) it was difficult to disagree.

Because stories ultimately belong to those still around to tell them, the film’s narrative is undoubtedly bent towards the stories of Ice Cube & Dr. Dre, who are both credited as producers here. In a lot of ways they use the film as a sort of redemption piece, reshaping their personal history to include a reconciliation with departed group member Eazy-E, who lost his life to HIV-related health complications at a young age. The real-life tale as long as I’ve known it has been that the group never truly resolved their very public feuds (a deeply ugly mess of shoddy contracts, legal disputes, and diss tracks) while Eazy was still alive. The movie version cleans that mess up in an unbelievably tidy way perhaps more fit for the likes of a made-for-TV TLC biopic, but that tendency towards a clear A-B narrative feels entirely intentional. There’s a scene late in the film where Cube confronts Eazy for calling out his acting debut Boyz n the Hood for being “an afterschool special” & Eazy responds “I like afterschool specials.” The simple, clean redemption story Straight Outta Compton tells doesn’t feel at all far from that sentiment.

So according to this romanticized, cleaned-up folklore, Dre was the group’s seminal producer, Cube was responsible for its best writing, and Eazy held down the majority of the raw talent, street cred, and business acumen. Folks like MC Ren, DJ Yella, and The D.O.C. are not only sidelined, but sometimes they’re even downplayed as lesser talents to make the film’s holy gangsta rap trinity shine all the brighter. Yella, for instance, shoulders most of the blame for Dre’s involvement in the Prince-influenced, sexually ambiguous funk days of the Worldclass Wreckin’ Cru & other club gigs that required him to wear sequins & play mindless party records. Ren gets the real short end of the stick here, though, verbally thrown under the bus as an inferior lyricist that couldn’t hold down the crew after Ice Cube’s departure. As a fan of the group’s entire output (and Ren’s solo records for that matter), these claims sting a little, but just as the fudging of the Eazy redemption story makes for a clearer narrative, dissing Ren in the script does actually make sense story-wise (even if it’s a shame that he only raps a total of three verses in the entire film to make more room for Cube, Dre, and Eazy).

If the film didn’t capture the entirety of the group members individual nuances, it at least got the imagery down. Actors Corey Hawkins & O’Shea Jackson, Jr. look & sound incredibly similar to the roles they’re playing (Dre & Cube, respectively), with Jackson having the distinct advantage (and possible awkwardness) of portraying his own father. New Orleans native Jason Mitchell pulls the hat trick of not only looking & sounding like Eazy-E, but also outshining his fellow cast members as a damn good actor, bringing to life what turns out to be one of the group’s more interesting & complicated characters. R. Marcos Taylor & speaking of Love & Mercy, Paul Giamatti (playing infamous record industry tyrants Suge Knight & Jerry Heller) aren’t nearly as visually accurate in their roles as the film’s villains, but they do provide an all-too-believable menace to their scenes that allow them to get by more as archetypes than carbon copies. The only actor who looks jarringly out of place here is a brief appearance by an absurdly inaccurate Snoop Dogg, but that’s more than made up by the likeness of the rest of the cast, an appearance from a Tupac lookalike so accurate he could’ve been a hologram, and clips of the “Straight Outta Compton” music video shown at the end credits to remind you just how detailed the film’s attention to visual preciseness was.

Visual & historical accuracy aside, director F. Gary Gray should get a lot of credit here for creating a wildly entertaining biopic with exactly zero deviations from the genre’s format. This is a movie that somehow makes room to capture our current cultural 90s fetishization, ludicrously timely reflections on race-based police brutality that are sadly just as potent now as they were in the days of Rodney King, and an extended gag that calls back to the infamous “Bye, Felicia” line in Gray’s debut film (and original collaboration with Ice Cube) Friday. Instead of calling into question N.W.A’s more unsavory attributes, namely their misogyny & homophobia, Gray just lets them play themselves out. Misogyny is on display in hedonistic, music video style pool & hotel parties where women are treated like party favors (sometimes literally tossed around like objects) & homophobic rants are allowed to be voiced in Ice Cube’s infamous diss tracks & Eazy’s reaction to his HIV diagnosis. Straight Outta Compton makes no moral judgements about its subjects, but rather just more or less portrays them as they were.

There’s some glorification inherent to the biopic format here & a lot of ground was breezily glossed over (including contributions from names like Vanilla Ice, Bone Thugs, Above the Law, and J.J. Fad), but it’s unwise to nitpick too many of Gray’s decisions here, since the final product is so enjoyable & packed-to-the-gills as is. It’s not only successful as an aurally & visually beautiful slice of N.W.A fan service, but it’s also a great primer for younger folks who mostly know Ice Cube as an actor & Dre as Eminem’s buddy who peddles expensive headphones. Even as a longtime fan, I learned a thing or two along the way (most excitingly that Eazy-E once dined with President George H. W. Bush). Gray competently captures the social & political climates that gave birth to his infamous subject as well as the context of their dissolution’s aftermath (even if he intentionally fuzzes up the details in-between), but the story he tells in Straight Outta Compton is mostly remarkable in how fun & rewatchable it is without at all straying from its biopic format. He used an already well-established narrative structure as a bottle to capture the lighting that was what the made the group so special & their songs so endlessly listenable to this day. That’s no small feat & the final product ended up being one of my favorite trips to the theater all year.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

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In 1965 Italian horror mastermind Mario Bava released the eerie, way-ahead-of-its-time Planet of the Vampires. In 1979 directorial enigma Ridley Scott drew major influence from the atmospheric elements of Planet of the Vampires and reworked them into Alien, one of the scariest, most striking creature features of all time. In 2001 former-genius-turned-shlock-peddler John Carpenter borrowed Planet of the Vampires’ most superficial plot points and turned them into a nu-metal shootout in space that nobody asked for.

Told through the unnecessary framing device of a criminal hearing in a Martian mining colony of a future matriarchal society (we know this detail because of a title card that helpfully reads “Society: Matriarchal”), the bare bones story of Ghosts of Mars is awfully similar to that of Planet of the Vampires. While digging under Mars’ surface, miners mistakenly release disembodied Martian spirits (or “ghosts” if you will) who are none too pleased with the planet’s new human inhabitants. As one character puts it, “As far as they’re concerned, we are the invaders.” Yep. The ghosts of Mars exact their revenge on the Earth invaders by inhabiting their bodies, then causing them to self-mutilate & murder each other indiscriminately. The ghosts are essentially impossible to kill, because when one of their bodily vehicles dies they simply move on to the next.

Instead of properly utilizing the horrific potential of this premise, Carpenter mistakenly aims for a late-90s cool, the same effect he attempted in his 1998 misfire Vampires. Characters saunter around in black leather trench coats, getting high on space drugs, piloting steampunk hot air balloons, and trading we’re-so-cool quips like “Maybe I’d sleep with you if you were the last man on Earth. But we’re not on Earth.” If it weren’t for the ghosts, the Martian community could be mistaken for an especially dour year at Burning Man. Despite that, the ghosts themselves are menacing enough. Even though the cheapness of their costumes suggests Mad Max cosplay or a GWAR cover band, they have a distinct affinity for decapiation that makes them viable as a real threat. The problem is that any threat they pose is severely undercut by the nu-metal riffage that obnoxiously drones on in the background, trying (but failing) to portray them as super cool instead of super creepy.

Ghosts of Mars isn’t a total loss, but it is a disappointment. The cast is surprisingly decent, considering the quality of the film: Clea DuVall, Jason Statham, Natasha Henstridge, and Pam Grier are always welcome faces (although, how there are two Pam-Grier-In-Space movies and they both suck is beyond me). Ice Cube steals the show, firmly operating in angry NWA mode and not his more recent milquetoast-family-man mode. Although it’s a disappointment that the film’s genuinely cool ghosts-in-space concept devolves into a generic nu-metal shootout film, watching Ice Cube (and Clea DuVall for that matter) run around like a shoot-em-up action star is a draw in itself. Carpenter failed to utilize the body possession aspects of the premise to its full Planet of the Vampires potential & lazily used storytelling devices like flashbacks within the central flashback to get its point across and he paid the price for it. Ghosts of Mars was a huge flop, earning only half of its $28 million back at the box office. The most frustrating thing about the film is that you can see elements in play that could swing it either in the direction of an actually decent horror flick or at least a ridiculous camp fest if exploited properly. It instead mires itself in self-mutilating, nu-metal-soaked mediocrity.

-Brandon Ledet