Film reviews: Straight Outta Compton | 45 Years

Straight Outta Compton is a timely biopic of rap pioneers NWA but it fails to address the band's misogyny. Picture: Contributed
Straight Outta Compton is a timely biopic of rap pioneers NWA but it fails to address the band's misogyny. Picture: Contributed
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This timely biopic of rap pioneers NWA is entertaining enough, but it fails to address the band’s misogyny

Straight Outta Compton (15)

Directed by: F Gary Gray

Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell

Rating: * * *

You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” Like the title track of NWA’s incendiary 1988 debut album Straight Outta Compton, this biopic charting how Easy-E, Dr Dre and Ice Cube collectively changed the face of rap music starts with these words. It’s a statement of intent, one that signals the depressing timeliness of a movie about a hip-hop act whose most notorious track, F*** Tha Police, seems as relevant to America today (a year on from Ferguson) as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s when NWA penned it as a comment on the way young black men like them were routinely assaulted by racist cops. Tracking the rapid rise, implosion and immediate legacy of the group, the film offers a visceral history of their run-ins with cops and is frequently at its most powerful when depicting their defiance of law enforcement officials who have little interest in enforcing the law in a just way.

Like NWA’s lyrics, the film is not particularly subtle about a lot of this, but it does have moments of real nuance. When we’re introduced to the teenaged Ice Cube (brilliantly played by Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr), we get an insight into the complex socioeconomic conditions that helped shape him as an artist. As he scribbles lyrics in a notepad on the school bus home, some gangbangers pull a gun on a classmate and in this one brief scene the film codifies how his view of the world has been informed by the well-meaning policy of busing studious black kids through gang territory to attend predominantly white schools instead of improving their own neighbourhoods.

Cube is presented here as the group’s wordsmith, Dre (Corey Hawkins) its musical genius and the late Easy-E (who died of Aids-related complications in 1995 and is played by another newcomer, Jason Mitchell) the real street thug. It was Easy-E who brought credibility to the outfit, as well as the money needed to set up their record label (which in a rather prophetic moment, he names Ruthless). As with many music biopics, the film revels in these flash-point moments and wastes little time getting to intra-band disharmony. The seeds of enmity are sown early as Easy-E enlists the services of a white manager, Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), whose condescending promise to give them legitimacy helps launch them onto a national stage, but also helps split the group as Jerry’s closeness with Easy-E rankles with Cube in particular.

Unusually for a film like this, the group’s dissolution occurs relatively early given the film’s 147-minute running time. But then, this is not just a film about NWA. It’s a history of rap’s mutability as an art form; a history of Los Angeles in the run-up to – and aftermath of – the Rodney King beating and the riots it sparked; it’s a history of the origins of the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop wars. It’s also a celebration of the entrepreneurialism that enabled the likes Cube and Dre to wrest control of their music away from the shysters and psychos that have always tried to insert themselves between artists and the money their work generates.

There’s a lot going on, in other words. As such, Straight Outta Compton sometimes feels as baggy as Cube’s LA Raiders gear, particularly as it skips through Dre’s involvement with rap mogul Suge Knight, their creation of Death Row Records, his discovery of Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg, and the recording of his groundbreaking debut solo album The Chronic. But it’s all pretty entertaining and a testament to how much they accomplished in such a short space of time (in the seven years or so covered by the film, for instance, Cube wrote the majority of the Straight Outta Compton album, recorded three huge-selling solo albums, starred in Boyz in the Hood and wrote and starred in the hit comedy Friday).

The sour notes are left by the film’s failure to acknowledge the band’s misogyny. Which isn’t to say their misogynistic attitude is not inadvertently represented in the film. The way it depicts women as disposable sexual objects and fails to give any female characters (even wives and significant girlfriends) interior lives of their own is as regressive as the lyrical content of the Cube-penned A Bitch Iz a Bitch. A more egregious omission, though, is the film’s refusal to mention Dre’s violence against women, particularly his assault of Dee Barnes, the female journalist he beat up following a TV segment about NWA he didn’t like (a segment filmed, incidentally, by Straight Outta Compton director F Gary Gray). It’s not a surprising omission given the way the film generally valorises its protagonists, just a disappointing one, suggesting as it does that witnessing the whole truth will somehow diminish the strength of street knowledge the movie holds dear.

45 years (15)

Directed by: Andrew Haigh

Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells

Rating: * * * *

British writer/director Andrew Haigh’s breakout film Weekend explored how a one-night stand between two young guys could quickly deepen into something more meaningful. If its 48-hour time frame made it obliquely about the curious impact time can have on a relationship, his new film, 45 Years, explores this theme more explicitly, particularly the way the past can haunt and destabilise the present. Charting the rapid disintegration of a long-term marriage over the course of a single week leading up to the titular wedding anniversary, it stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as Kate and Geoff Mercer, a seemingly contented couple living lives of semi-independent companionship together in rural Norfolk. This is disrupted when Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of a woman from his past has been discovered, decades on from her disappearance on a hiking trip with Geoff in Switzerland.

Though there was nothing sinister about her initial disappearance (a tragic accident left her body unrecoverable), she was the love of Geoff’s life at the time, and the news of her body’s discovery – frozen in a glacier, youth forever preserved – serves as a cruel taunt from Geoff’s past of a potential love never fulfilled. This tragic love affair has never been a secret between Geoff and Kate, whom we learn he met after the accident, but the unexpected news of her discovery reawakens feelings about what might have been and raises doubts in both about the legitimacy of the love they have for one another.

Did Geoff ever really get over the similarly named Katya? Would Kate have been any happier had she met and married someone else? These questions are suddenly preying on their minds more forcefully thanks to the letter’s arrival at a stage in their lives when their anniversary is forcing them to confront what their marriage has meant to them.

Though the symbolism of the body from the past might, on paper, seem a little too neat, the film’s good on the way couples interact with one another – particularly the way the perceived shorthand of marriage – silences, unfinished sentences – can mask the reality that people in long-term relationships sometimes don’t really know each other.

Courtenay and Rampling give exemplary performances, with the former beautifully conveying the complicated and selfish-seeming emotional catatonia of man suddenly hit by his grief for a lost love, and the latter digging deep to sympathetically portray a woman suddenly forced to reassess the sacrifices she’s made to be with the man she thought she loved.

We Are Your Friends (15)

Directed by: Max Joseph

Starring: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski, Shiloh Fernandez

Rating: * *

“Get your head out of your laptop start listening to what the real world’s trying to tell you,” advises Wes Bentley’s DJ guru in this laughable Magic Mike wannabe for the clubbing set. The recipient of this advice is 20-something hotshot Cole (played by Zac Efron, below), who desperately wants to make it as a superstar DJ so that he and his posse of LA dreamers and schemers can start living the glamorous party lifestyle they’ve imagined for themselves. That’s not a terrible idea for a movie, but the execution is so laden with dated stylistic quirks – drug trips rendered with animation; hyperactive jump-cuts and freeze-frames to convey the stop-start energy of the dance floor – that it feels like a relic from the late 1990s. The plot is pretty cookie-cutter too, as Cole inevitable falls for his mentor’s pouty girlfriend/assistant (Emily Ratajkowski) and starts worrying about getting trapped by his day job scamming desperate families out of their homes for a real estate company clearly modeled – right down to its Alec Baldwin-impersonating boss – on Glengarry Glen Ross. Fans of dance music are advised to seek out Mia Hansen-Løve’s recent Eden for a more authentic spin on the club scene.

Hitman: Agent 47 (15)

Directed by: Aleksander Bach

Starring: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciarán Hinds

Rating: *

Some franchises refuse to die even when audience indifference suggests they’ll never take root. The success of the Hitman videogames might have convinced the rights holders to the movie version that there’s a vast audience out there for a film that replicates the game-play without the interactivity, but even with a film starring Timothy Olyphant in 2007 conclusively proving no-one cared, here it is again, rebooted with Rupert Friend playing the barcoded, shaven-haired, assassin-for-hire. The product of secret government experiments to create highly trained secret agents, Friend’s Agent 47 is basically an amalgam of the Terminator and Jason Bourne, with better tailoring and less charisma. Assigned to protect the daughter (Hannah Ware) of his creator, the film sees him trading boring, CGI-augmented blows with Zachary Quinto, cast here as a rival asset who may or may not be his target’s accomplice. The plot is generic in the extreme and the dialogue and acting barely disguises the fact that it’s really just a series of not very exciting set-pieces strung together so audiences gullible enough to shell out for this tedium can pass some time in suitably meaningless fashion.

Sinister 2 (15)

Directed by: Ciarán Foy

Starring: Shannyn Sossamon, James Ransone, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan

Rating: *

In the first Sinister, Ethan Hawke found himself playing a true crime writer stalked by a supernatural serial killer after uncovering a box of super-8 snuff films. It was rubbish, but at least Hawke – who’s carved out a profitable side career in Jason Blum-produced horror movies of late – made for a compelling lead. No such luck with this lower-rent sequel, which casts Shannyn Sossamon as an abused single mother who finds herself similarly haunted by the spectral villain Bughuul after moving her kids to the same rural abode Hawke’s character unwisely leased for his family last time around. James Ransone provides further continuity from the original as the kindly sheriff who’s been investigating these strange goings-on – and new director Ciarán Foy provides a further link to the first film by resolutely failing to generate any decent scares.