Straight Outta Compton


By R. David

Viewed August 18, 2015

I want to clarify right at the top that I truly enjoyed and enthusiastically recommend “Straight Outta Compton”, director F. Gary Gray’s energetic and often poignant N.W.A biopic.  The film has terrific performances across the board, an inherently intriguing and exciting story, and Gray has a deft handle on the material; capturing the live-wire energy of the band’s concert performances, the outsized, cinematic drama of their more exaggerated exploits, as well as quieter moments of inspiration and heartbreak.  “Straight Outta Compton” is an exceedingly well made film and I hope fans of the group and rap music in general, as well as – maybe even more so – those who are not fans of N.W.A/rap music go see it.

I want that all on record because I’m going to spend the majority of this review talking about perhaps the one and only thing (besides a few hammy line readings here and there and over the top or on the nose dialog) that is wrong with “Straight Outta Compton”:  There is simply not enough here.  Even at two-and-a-half hours, “Straight Outta Compton” feels like a rush job; jumping so quickly from one event to the next that the group’s Wikipedia page is likely more comprehensive.

I’ll get into specifics in a minute.

Another disclaimer:  Yes, I know all biopics are guilty of this, all filmmakers tell the story they want to tell, and, again; what is here is all very good.  But “Straight Outta Compton” so quickly settles into a feature-length “Behind the Music” episode groove that it never really tries – in this cut, anyway (Gray says the film was initially an hour longer)  – to subvert.  And, frankly, “Behind the Music” would have been more exploratory, or at least mention certain major details “Straight Outta Compton” blatantly ignores.

Initially though, Gray sets a tone suggesting “Compton” will be a detailed, immersive period piece.  Beginning in Compton (which, if you’re unfamiliar, is a low-income suburb of South Central Los Angeles, CA that became synonymous with gang culture in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s) in the mid-‘80s, we are first introduced to drug dealer Eric Wright, aka Eazy E (Jason Mitchell).  He escapes a drug bust by the hair on his chinny-chin-chin and realizes he needs to find a better way to make a living.  Cut to Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), lying on the floor of his cramped Compton house, headphones on, surrounded by record jackets and R&B posters.  His mom tells him being a DJ is not a real job, especially for a man with a newborn baby.  O’shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube (Cube’s real-life son O’shea Jackson Jr.), buses to a suburban, predominantly white school, but is harassed at every turn in Compton, whether it be by local gangs or local cops.

Of course, Ice Cube made his film debut in John Singleton’s 1991 drama, “Boyz In The Hood”, which covers much of this same territory of gang culture – culture in general – in South Central and the abusive nature of the L.A.P.D.  Gray and his team of four screenwriters try to incorporate some of this too, but here’s the first instance where their film feels hamstrung by this monolithic tale.  They simply can’t – or don’t, for whatever reason – find a way to give these scenes the emotional weight they demand.  Some people accuse “Boyz In the Hood” of being corny (“an after school special”, as Eazy E once tagged it), but its depictions of neighborhood fear, violence and poverty; and the extent of the L.A.P.D’s righteous indignation and abuse of people and power; were searing and unforgettable.  Whatever your opinion of the movie’s overall execution, there’s no denying, it made an impact.  Granted, “Straight Outta Compton” is not intended to be THAT film, but I assume any movie that wants you to understand where its subjects are coming from and what pushes and influences them, wants to get those moments right, make them count, and land on the audience with some impact.  But there’s a bare-minimum approach to the way Gray presents these incidents that doesn’t really dig into the fear and disgust these characters feel in their surroundings.

There are ways you could argue this, of course.  Maybe the point is these young men are so used to all this it has simply become just another day in the hood.  Maybe the movie would rather the music do the talking (but then why make a biopic in the first place?).  Maybe it’s because the film has three or four different scenes involving various forms of police harassment, it figures it covers the bases.  But that’s only one aspect of the issues in Compton; what about the poverty, gang violence, overall culture of the neighborhood?  These things are only hinted at.  I don’t know if Gray figures most of the audience either lived through this era or is at least familiar enough with glut of “Hood” movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s that he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the neighborhood and cultural dynamic of the time, but I think shortchanging those issues robs the film of a lot of potential power.

And I say that as someone who was a kid in those days and who grew up with those news reports, films and this music.  Over the last couple decades we haven’t heard much about South Central L.A., drive-bys, and the life and gang culture in places like Compton like we used to from every hardcore rapper in the early 90s.  If you’re, say, 20-years-old and not a huge movie or music buff, chances are you haven’t been exposed to much of the art that chronicled this lifestyle.  Sure a lot of teens today might know “The Chronic” and other seminal ‘80s and ‘90s rap albums, but I have a hard time believing 90% of them would have any idea how dire the situation was in South Central in the late ‘80s.  Middle-aged people may need a reminder too.  When the film gets to the Rodney King beating and the subsequent L.A. riots (another major turning point for the group, hip hop culture and the nation as a whole, Gary makes sure to reference it and tries his best to convey its importance to the audience, but he simply can’t make its profound cultural impact stick in the little time he spends on it) I heard an adult in the theater admit she had forgotten that all of those L.A.P.D. officers were acquitted.  No doubt she, and others, may also have forgotten that’s what triggered the riots.  Or that, as Ice Cube noted at the time, it was decades of police injustice in South Central that led to the rioting.  The Rodney King verdict was just the final straw.  People were already primed to explode; the verdict was the match that lit the fuse.  The movie though, for those too young to understand or those who don’t remember, fails to explore any of that. I guess it gives you all the pieces and you can fit them together yourself, but again, it’s a powerful opportunity they squander.

These weightier issues themes and moments of history can’t be explained away with just a line or two or an additional shot here and there.  However, a lot of the other balls the movie drops certainly could be.  Dre is disenchanted with his role as a DJ at Alanzo Williams’ (Corey Reynolds) local club where Williams won’t allow him to play “that reality rap shit”.  But when Williams’s back is turned, Dre and his on-stage partner DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) often sneak Cube on stage and the three of them work the crowd into a frenzy with “that reality rap shit”.  What the film barely touches on is the fact that Dre and Yella were not just Williams’s club DJs; the three men also comprised a DJ-based eclecro-R&B group called World Class Wreckin Cru.  They had synchronized dance moves, wore shimmering jump suits – Dre had a stethoscope around his neck, because DR. Dre (the closest the film comes to acknowledging any of this is Dre and Yella bemoaning having to wear matching silver satin jackets per Williams when spinning at his club). It’s understandable that Dre wouldn’t want a lot of time spent on this brief – and perhaps embarrassing – period of his career (he was only an official member of the group from 1984 – 1985) – but in omitting it, the film is refusing to acknowledge a fairly well-known chapter of Dre’s career and also making it seem like Dre went from spinning records in a local club to convincing Eazy to help him start a label.


Indeed, one night, Eazy catches Cube doing “that reality rap shit” with Dre and Yella at Williams’ place.  Afterwards, Dre approaches him about investing some of his money into forming a record label.  But Dre, in World Class Wreckin Cru, was already signed to a label, something also never discussed.  I’m just saying; the guy had more going for him (including something of a following and a few hit songs already under his belt) and potential distribution outlets and industry connections than the film leads on.

But start a label Eazy does (it).  Cube writes some rhymes, Dre makes the beats, and Eazy, in a great scene, becomes a rapper under trial by fire circumstances in the studio.  Overnight they cut the Cube-penned, Dre-produced, Eazy-on-vocals track “Boyz-n-the-Hood” and release it locally to enthusiastic response.  Cube brings his collaborator MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) into the fold and N.W.A is born.  The single catches the ear of a music industry manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who convinces Eazy that he has the experience and connections to get that group major label distribution.  N.W.A eagerly signs on with Heller and that’s when the real drama begins.  The film then walks us step-by-step through the making of the group’s landmark “Straight Outta Compton” album, to their quick dissolution over contact disputes and accusations that Eazy and Heller are stealing profits from the group, to the individual members’ solo careers and trials and tribulations.

It’s a lot for any two-and-a-half hour film to cover, and Gray’s film mostly tackles the challenge by breezing through every highlight as quickly as possible.  Sometimes he lingers on a moment long enough for it to make an impact (like the battle-rap rivalry between N.W.A and Cube after he leaves the group, reminding us that Cube’s “No Vaseline” might be history’s greatest “diss track”), but overall he’s moving at too breakneck a pace for events to register as compellingly as they might in a longer or differently structured film.  Calling for a two-part saga ala “Kill Bill” might seem like a bit of a stretch for a hip hop biopic, but if that’s what the material calls for to do it justice, why not?  Similarly, it certainly wouldn’t be the first three-plus hour-long movie in history if they chose to release Gray’s first cut, but I guess studio bean-counters must have felt differently.

Even the way the film documents the rise of rap music – specifically “reality” and gangster rap – at the time is a bit lazy and self-serving to the film’s subjects.  The film doesn’t outright claim this, but I’d wager most viewers (especially those unfamiliar with gangster rap’s origins) will exit this film under the impression that N.W.A invented the subgenre of gangster rap and had few influences.  Simply mentioning, say, Ice-T’s “6 ‘N the Mornin’”, would have been nice and is one of those moments that would only require a simple line or two of dialog yet go a long way towards making the film feel more genuine and complete.  “Straight Outta Compton” is filled with minor dropped balls like that, and after a while, they start to add up.

There has been a good amount of talk about the film sidestepping some of N.W.A.’s members’ more documented warts – like Dr. Dre’s abusive nature and charges that Ice Cube’s lyrics are often misogynistic, racist and homophobic – but “Straight Outta Compton” is even skimpy on a lot of details and clearly Hollywood-izes some of the members’ watershed moments, which often makes the film feel disingenuous.  Again, every biopic does this, but when these moments are so obvious, it pulls the viewer out of the film.  Like when Dre finally becomes fed up with Suge Knight’s (a spot-on R. Marcus Taylor) criminal shenanigans; in one scene he’s a one-man ARMY going toe-to-toe with Suge’s brickwall gangster posse; in another he tells Suge he’s leaving Death Row in a moment that plays like Arnold Schwarzenegger dropping a one-liner before blowing away the bad guy.  Of course, I have no inside information on how those moments played out in real life, but I think it’s a safe bet that they didn’t go down anywhere near as cinematically as portrayed here. Again, I understand this is what you sign up for going into a dramatized Hollywood biopic, but sometimes that doesn’t mean a film is absolved from criticism for being too damn obvious about it.

Well, thanks for hanging in there with me this far.  Like I said, I realize this is all nit-picky and it’s also probably a pointless waste of a four-page rant because, like I said, despite all this, “Straight Outta Compton” is a hugely entertaining film that I recommend everyone see –  rap and non-rap fans alike.  One thing I can’t forget to mention is that the performances – all by veritable unknowns – are extraordinary; especially from the three principal players of Eazy, Dre, and Cube (by his own real-life son no less; how’s that for pressure – especially when your subject is not only your dad, but still alive to judge your work and a producer on film, so he’s also ostensibly your boss?).  I could realistically see an Oscar nomination argument for any one of them.  They don’t just look their parts, but realistically and sympathetically inhabit them.  And Paul Giammati’s portrayal of Heller is just as good.  I just wish the film were longer and paid more attention to certain important details.


So, by all means, rush out and see “Straight Outta Compton”.  Just maybe watch “Boyz In the Hood” first and read N.W.A’s Wikipedia page when you get home to fill in the blanks.

3 Stars (Out of 4)



(Images Courtesy of Universal Pictures)


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By R. David

These are capsule reviews of films viewed after their initial theatrical release.  Theatrical release dates are noted in parenthesis next to each film’s title.  All star ratings are out of four stars.

RAZE (January 10th, 2014) – A bloody hybrid of “Saw” and “The Hunger Games”, “Raze” stars New Zealand-born stuntwoman and frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator Zoe Bell as one of a group of women kidnapped, held captive in a secluded location, and forced to fight to the death for a bunch of rich weirdoes’ amusement or their loved ones on the outside will be murdered.  The movie is basically one long grudge match, with “So-and-So VS So-and-so” popping up on the screen, those two characters running into a room and brutally fighting to the death, then the next title card pops up, repeat.  Almost perfunctorily, a few plot points are dropped between the mayhem to advance the story (as it were) which really just boils down to the ‘who, how and why’ question hanging over the proceedings.  The answer is hardly worth any audience investment; of course, it isn’t likely that most who sign up for this flick care much about an engrossing narrative.  It’s about the fights, right? How exciting, well-choreographed, and – depending on your penchant for such things – violent are they?  The answer to all three of those criteria is ‘very’.  The throwdowns are fitfully exciting and fairly innovatively staged, and gorehounds will get a few squirm-inducing fatalities.   That said, the film really wears itself down with its repetitive structure, and the finale leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Though, to be fair, for a modern if low budget spin on the “Girls In Cages” genre (no sex here though), “Raze” will keep its target audience invested enough for the duration; and Bell is, as always, an impressive specimen to see in action.  2½ Stars (Out of 4)

BIG BAD WOLVES (January 17th, 2014) – Quentin Tarantino famously called this nasty little Israeli import the best film of last year.  I don’t agree with him, but it’s easy to see why he’s such an admirer.  The film is fearless and challenging, dealing with the ramifications of sexual predators, vengeance and torture.  It’s also unflinchingly violent in all the ways Tarantino seems to relish.  Obviously it’s not for all tastes, and the film is frankly flawed even if you take its heavy themes out of the mix, but there is much here to admire, starting with the coldly determined lead performance from Tzahi Grad as a man convinced he has found his daughter’s rapist/murder (Rotem Keinan) and enlists the help of a police detective (Lior Ashkenazi), whose own daughter has been kidnapped, in exacting his brutal revenge.  The film is an uncomfortable simmer of rage.  Grad is well past the point of the obvious emotions over his daughter’s death and calmly goes about his revenge with the precision of a man tasked with a job to do, which makes the “how far will he go” question hanging over the film all the more gut wrenching.  You know he’s not going to have a sudden change of heart or be convinced to show mercy.  But the film isn’t telling whether Keinan is indeed guilty which makes Grad’s revenge and attitude towards his captive all the more disturbing.  This is all fairly fascinating, but the movie begins to spin its wheels – hammering the same points about justifiable vengeance home again and again – and even with the stakes as high as they are for the suspected murder/pedophile, his plight becomes tedious, something that even the filmmakers must have recognized because they introduce another character late in the film just to keep things interesting and moving along.  The movie is not for the squeamish (hands are hammered, toenails are removed, you’ll have a hard time looking at a blowtorch for a while), but what’s not so clear is if the film is holding a mirror up to its characters’ ugly extremes as commentary, or reveling in them as entertainment.  3 Stars

THAT AWKWARD MOMENT (January 31st, 2014) – Some movies you just don’t want to write about because they are so generic and forgettable it’s hard to muster any passion to sit down and discuss them, never mind come up with an interesting way to describe their tired premise.  So please forgive me if I sound less than engaged here.  Three mid-twenty-something’s are afraid of commitment so they all pledge to stay single (only sex).  Except they all fall in love, but then realize they can’t tell each other.  Lies and their wacky ramifications ensue, rather than the 10 minute conversation that would solve all the problems in real life, naturally.  The movie stars Zach Effron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller, all whom have garnered a fair amount of “that kid could really be big” acclaim, but none of whom display any of that potential here.  This movie is a soulless slug through romcom (and bromcom) clichés, which many might expect given the genre or thanks to the trailer (not that expecting the filmmakers to at least try to do something different should automatically be laughed off when it comes to these kinds of comedies), but it is also insultingly stupid to boot.  The characters constantly make the stupidest possible decisions in every conflict, just to score a cheap laugh – or awkward moment, if you will – never mind that it completely insults the audience’s intelligence and renders whatever stakes the movie would have you invest in completely moot.  Everyone has seen this movie at least 20 times already.  1 Star

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (February 4th, 2014) – “Welcome to the Jungle” is an amusing absurdist hybrid of “Lord of the Flies” and “The Office”, most notable for its (surprisingly good) comedic turn by Jean-Claude Van Damme as an overzealous ex-marine type who runs a motivational survivalist camp on a remote island.  A cast of familiar comic faces (lead by Adam Brody) star as a group of advertising executives who find themselves stranded on the island after their boss (Dennis Haysbert) sends them there for a teamwork and morale-boosting exercise.  And boy does this group need it.  Rob Huebel is the narcissistic, cocky, insecure office hot shot who immediately wants to take charge of the situation, despite his lack of any survival knowledge or experience.  He is so threatened by the more-capable Brody upstaging him with his Boy Scout experience that he eventually divides the group into rival gangs ala “Lord of the Flies”.  The laughs in “Welcome to the Jungle” come not from its sitcomy scenario, but from the game and talented cast and their considerable (and obvious) improve skills.  You may not know actors like Huebel and Kristin Schaal by name, but you’ll likely recognize their faces and their agreeable brand of comedic riffing immediately from their numerous TV show credits and supporting film roles.   “Welcome to the Jungle” wisely lets them run with the scenarios set up in the script, resulting in some hilariously ribald dialog and insult humor.  For his part, Van Damme may not have the natural comedic ease of his costars, but he seems to be enjoying himself as he mocks his badass personality.  He’s so game for the challenge, it’s easy to forgive any stiffness in his performance.  This is one of those comedies where the story and plot are beside the point.  It was clearly made by a group of like-minded comedians as a vehicle for them to slip into the broad character personas they excel at and throw humor at the wall to see what sticks.  “Welcome to the Jungle” is admittedly slight and fairly forgettable, but it’s surprisingly plenty of fun while it lasts.  3 Stars

NEED FOR SPEED (March 14th, 2014) – Another year, another video game-based feature film; this one notable for staring Aaron Paul in first major big screen role after the phenomenon that was “Breaking Bad” wrapped production.  But if Paul wants to be a movie star – and the jury is still out as to if he has those chops (he was terrific on “Bad”, but he has yet to prove he has munch in the way of range) – he might want to consider choosing roles that don’t require him to spend the entire movie glowering like a poor man’s James Dean (I’m guessing the script called for leathery, tough-guy cool, but Paul just looks sleepy and disinterested) and scripts that aren’t riddled with clichéd dialog and situations.  “Need for Speed” would have felt tired even in the 1980s.  Paul is a small-time garage owner by day and drag racer by night who does a prison bit after he is deemed responsible for the racing death of his friend.  The real culprit is Paul’s longtime nemesis, now a professional racer (an also slumming Dominic Cooper). Both men find themselves in a notorious, underground cross-country race overseen by a billionaire puppet master gearhead (Michael Keaton, who after this and that “RoboCop” remake earlier this year can stop taking roles in movies just to prove he is the best thing in them – we get it; you’re awesome; put it to better use).  Paul vows revenge by winning the race, naturally.  He is also saddled with a pretty, pain-in-the-ass passenger (Imogen Poots), a car broker babysitting her investment.  Might they bond or even find themselves attracted to one another?  Guess you’ll just have to watch to find out…  I’m not generally one to get too down on the conventions of the action genre.  Storytelling clichés can be forgiven in service of an absorbing plot, interesting characters, well written dialog and genuinely thrilling action sequences (see “Speed”, for instance).  But “Need for Speed” has almost none of those things.  The plot is predictable, pedestrian and beside the point.  The dialog has no zip or snap to it.  The characters are uninteresting and all nothing more than stock ‘types’.  There is no suspense generated by them or the story, so there is no real reason to care about any of this.  The movie is also wildly overlong.  At 130-plus minutes, they could have cut out at least a half hour of this nonsense.  Worst of all, this movie is completely insulting to the audiences’ intelligence.  I don’t expect a realistic documentary from a movie like “Need for Speed”, but the contempt for real world logic and consequences here really leaves a bad taste.   On the plus side, the car chase stuff is fitfully entertaining; nicely staged and filmed.  If that’s all you care about, you might find some value in “Need for Speed”.  2 Stars

THE RAID 2 (March 28th, 2014) – “The Raid 2” was a big disappointment for me.  I loved, loved, LOVED 2012’s “The Raid:  Redemption”.  It was and still is the best action movie I’d seen in years.  Breathless and invigorating, it was like nothing I’d ever seen.  Literal non-stop action.  The sequel, however, takes a different tactic: more plot than action.  The result not only robs the film of the main thing that made the first film so special and spectacular (that literal non-stop action), but does so in the service of standard-issue police potboiler about rival gangs and the cop obsessed with bringing them down.  Like so many generic action movies, the particulars don’t matter.  The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, yet the film insists on spending a lot of time on longwinded exposition that really only serves to run down the clock in between action scenes, which are admittedly still spectacular here, but too short and too few.  At two and a half hours long, it’s just not worth it.  “Raid 2” (or more accurately this first film) is yet another reminder that sometimes less is so much more.  2 Stars

OCULUS (April 11th, 2014) – Haunted mirror, y’all!   Yeah, meh.  This silly movie does have some interesting mystery-solving aspects early on, but like nearly every horror movie with potential and restraint at the start these days, “Oculus” quickly devolves into clichés and chaos simply to get the requisite amount of money-shot horror-action in for the ADD crowd.  There are some good ideas buried in this movie, mostly about children coping with unhinged parents.  But IF there is any intended real-world commentary about families, it’s lost in the supernatural muddle and “Oculus” ends up feeling like yet another horror film that utilizes the cheap (and questionable) tactic of placing children in danger simply because it generates sympathetic scares (we all remember what it was like to be young and afraid of the dark; adults with the ability to reason and defend placed in these scenarios never seems to be an easy thing for directors to make terrifying).  This is another one you’ll confuse with the ever-growing multitude of possession and haunted house flicks with no-name casts a few months down the road; if you remember anything about it at all. (Not for nothing, but there was already a killer/possessed mirror movie just a few years ago, remember?  Of course you don’t.)  1 ½ Stars

Locke (April 25th, 2014) – The phrase “it’s more about the journey than the destination”
 gets thrown around a lot in film criticism.  I use it semi-regularly myself to warn audiences against, if you’ll forgive another expression, missing the forest for the trees.  Not every movie is about its outcome; rather, the pleasures are to be found in the nuances along the way:  the dialog, character vignettes, directorial flourishes; the list is endless.  But some movies are literally about the journey and do not concern themselves at all with a traditional narrative conclusion.  “Locke” is such a film.  It stars Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a hard-working contactor on the verge of erecting the skyscraper he has tirelessly fought to see to fruition.  On the eve of his company breaking ground, however, he gets into his BMW SUV and begins driving out of town.  ‘Why?’ is the question that consumes the rest of the film, so to say more would be spoilery, but the film is a one-man show with Hardy behind the wheel of his car and on his phone in series of conversations that change the course of his family, his life and his soul.  When he gets to his destination, the movie is over.  No epilogue or postscript; we are just with him for the ride.  What happens after that is anybody’s guess.  This style of filmmaking might prove frustrating for certain audiences.  I won’t soapbox about people needing plot details spoon-fed to them or pat conclusions in order to comprehend or enjoy a movie.  But if you can allow yourself to accept a nontraditionally structured film, there is much to appreciate in “Locke”.  First and foremost is Tom Hardy’s magnetic performance, which is etched in the considerable details of his vocal inclinations and facial expressions.  Arguably, the film is something of stunt, with its construct that might seem better suited to the stage than a feature film.  But writer-director Steven Knight finds plenty of arresting visuals and intimate angles to keep the viewer engaged throughout.  His taunt, complex script is equally compelling.  As much as Hardy is the force that elevates the proceedings from a mere experiment to a transfixing character study, Knight’s script and direction create a fully realized character study rather than a mere gimmick.  “Locke” is not a thrill ride, if that’s what you’re hoping for.  At least not in the traditional sense.  It’s a high wire act for Hardy though, and an important cautionary tale for men, both of which make a “Locke” a riveting journey. 3 Stars