Exactly 1/2 of F. Gary Gray’s STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is thrilling, top-tier musical/biopic entertainment. It crackles with near-literal electricity from the first scenes of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) dodging likely-impending death in a drug deal gone bad only “thanks” to the arrival of an even more fearsome LAPD right up through the formation, creation and pop-explosion of N.W.A and climaxes with a blowout setpiece where a live performance of “Fuck tha Police” in Detroit (which local cops had warned them not to perform) erupts into a riot that ends with N.W.A arrested yet symbolically victorious.
It’s some of the coolest, most assured “mythic history” filmmaking of the year, alive with righteous anger, the thrill of creative inspiration and authentic-feeling early-90s Los Angeles milieu… and then that rapturous Detroit sequence concludes and the whole production slips back down to just “decent” territory – clearly unable to find a natural ending other than speeding through an at once over-sanitized and over-cranked highlight reel – focused mainly on contract disputes and paperwork, no less – to reach Eazy’s AIDS death in 1995.
Ironically, what consigns the film to an almost-classic is an unwillingness to admit that the specific moment in hip-hop history N.W.A loomed so large in only really existed “authentically” for just that: Only a moment. Without the (explicit) truth of that shift up on screen, the film’s second half just can’t bring itself to be as raw about the end of the myth as the first is about the creation: Even if you don’t know the story beforehand, it’s easy to feel the missing spaces where Dr. Dre’s (Corey Hawkins) history of abusing women, Ice Cube’s (O’Shea Jackson, the real-life Cube’s own son) immediate and savvy transition to Hollywood player and any other 90s rappers who weren’t part of N.W.A’s immediate orbit are supposed to fit – to say nothing of the increasingly-inconsistent characterizations.
Dre somehow “doesn’t realize” that his Death Row Records partner Suge Knight is a monster until it’s almost too late? Cube is sharp enough to know he’s being taken advantage of by N.W.A’s resident svengali Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) but not precisely how or well-enough to let it happen twice? Those are just the most incongruous and “sticking out” of the film: It’s also odd to watch the infamous back-and-forth “diss track” feud that followed Cube’s departure be played entirely sans-irony, as though N.W.A’s played-for-the-press beefs of the 90s really were a real extension of the “gangsta” lifestyle none of them but Eazy had actually lived rather than the genesis of the pro-wrestling-style play-acting of inter-label “beefs” as actual gangland feuds that quickly became a staple of the genre.
Were the film (or, rather, it’s producer/subjects) willing to “own up” to that narrative, there’d be room for a grand rise/fall/ressurection story worthy of Gray’s filmmaking and the (mostly) newcomer cast’s performances: N.W.A ignites a revolution in the hip-hop genre by bringing in an inner-city authenticity, but (perhaps as a darkly-ironic side-effect of them largely being pretenders to the scene) it quickly metastasizes into a creeping artifice that each member has varying difficulties ultimately escaping. That’s not to say that the narrative it has, i.e. a crew of outsider-artists negotiating fame and fortune without the survival-skills artists on more traditional career-trajectories are afforded, is “bad” – just that the one closer to the truth (and peeking through at the margins) would’ve been even better. Again, that scene after scene of rappers leafing through stacks of paper is as compelling as it is is a credit to the film.
For all the (by now) well-worn talk of what the film omits (Dre’s numerous abuses of women, Cube’s tracks inciting violence against Korean grocers in Black neighborhoods, the generalized homophobia rampant in 90s hip-hop); it’s mainly Dre’s character who stands out as an issue: Cube’s seemingly natural-born yet uneven business savvy works overall for an arc (towards the end he’s pounding out the screenplay to FRIDAY at roughly the same point that Dre is nurturing newcomers Tupac and Snoop Dog) and since Eazy isn’t around to object he gets to be a “full” character; but Dre remains an awkwardly inscrutable presence: His character is the most (blatantly) sanitized, but it was impossible for me not to imagine the real present-day Dr. Dre seeing it as an act of extreme transparency: “Okay, it took a long time but I’m finally okay admitting openly that I was a music geek pretending to be a gangsta.” …while meanwhile the audience is going “Dre, we knew that. Now, how ’bout all those women you beat up? And also, nobody believes you didn’t know Suge was The Devil.”
So, it’s a flawed film; but enough of it is great that it’s also a pretty damn good one. Having all that lightning-in-a-bottle 90s West Coast hip-hop on the soundtrack certainly helps, but Gray makes even the least authentic moments (Eazy finding his rap-voice and donning his signature shades in the same moment is framed like a superhero origin sequence) feel alive and vibrant; though it’s perhaps telling that the most arresting shot in the film – a pair of formerly-rival L.A. gang members advancing on cops during the Rodney King riots holding up conjoined blue and red bandanas – doesn’t feature the main cast.
Perhaps, even, it says something profound that a group of young black men once declared (literal) enemies of the state over their music can get the kind of self-mythologizing biopic usually afforded only to aging white musicians: We’ve seen the “Wait, I can express myself creatively!?” moment of inspiration in hundreds of films, but seldom from characters who look like this or come from here – the realization that Dre telling Eazy “That shit was dope!” when he half-stumbles into a real rythym during a recording might be the first time he’s received praise for something like that in his life an instantly iconic exchange.
Either way, STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is viscerally satisfying entertainment, and without question one of the few 2015 films we’ll absolutely still be talking about years from now.
The first episode of our now-official full-series pickup through 2016 with ScrewAttack!
So. Today is exactly six months to the day that I was abruptly, without forewarning (rudely and rather unprofessionally, actually, now that I reflect on it) informed that my near-decade (8 years!) of tenure at The Escapist was at an end – just like that.
I have no interest in elaborating any further than the original posts on the matter in terms of “what went down” or “the REAL story,” except to say that I have in fact become a bit more “enlightened” as to opinions held and things said about me and my work by… “persons” (or, perhaps, just “person”) that I had naively considered friends or, at least, good-faith business partners that leave me deeply suspicious about the circumstances of my departure and profoundly disappointed in the behavior of… “persons,” I’ll leave it at that.
The six months since have been difficult. Film Criticism is a difficult career to make money in, and it requires an erratic schedule that makes secondary employment equally difficult to maintain. In addition, my personal life was rocked by a extremely painful and drawn-out family issue that nearly-drained what resolve I had been left with. And while yes, I can credit the decency and heartfelt support of my fans with my surviving all of this… the truth of the matter is that I don’t think I would have yet made it without the support of my colleagues, my friends, my family and one special person (’nuff said) in particular who was a light in dark times when I needed one most.
I won’t say that it’s been easy: As “newly free” to work on other projects and give free time to my loved ones as I feel, I miss the reliable routine (and yes, the reliable paycheck) of Escape to The Movies. I miss The Big Picture achingly, and it breaks my heart every time a fan tells me how much those shows meant to them and how much they miss them, too. I had a wonderful space where I had an extraordinary amount of freedom (for awhile, anyway…) to say pretty-much whatever I wanted and have it published/broadcast on a major (or, rather, it used to be…) website – a privilege I worked hard to not abuse – and I am under no illusions that I’ll easily find a space that good again. I am still pained, however fleetingly, to be without it and, yes, I have nothing but hatred in my heart for every force and circumstance that led to it’s loss. That’s probably a little immature, but it is what it is. I work hard to expel “pain” from my psyche, but the memories of people and things who have wronged me and mine I keep for a long, long time.
BUT! Fortunately, my propensity to not forgive does not keep me from moving on. And as I survey the last six months and the place I’ve come to, I feel a sense of overwhelming pride (and gratitude, to those who have helped) at where I have “arrived;” even though I have no intention of resting on my laurels or declaring that this is “good enough” – as some in my life have no doubt tired of hearing me say, “It’s NEVER enough!” – this doesn’t look too shabby:
THE MOVIEBOB PATREON is holding steady and allowing me to produce and deliver content to fans and Patrons while also maintaining a livable-life.
Escape to The Movies is gone, but MOVIEBOB REVIEWS are alive, well and popular on YouTube.
REALLY THAT GOOD, a longform film-appreciation series that was an unrealized dream-project for years, is slowly becoming what I wanted it to be.
THE GAME OVERTHINKER, my original passion-project, wrapped up after 100 episodes on MY terms, the way I wanted it to.
I have re-affirmed my longstanding relationship with ScrewAttack – the web outlet that was the first to give me a shot as a viable content-creator back in the day and has been by far the most fair, honest and open business partners I have dealt with in my professional career. THE ALL-NEW GAME OVERTHINKER lives on as part of this relationship, and after a strong-showing in a six-episode “pilot” order, I am happy to announce that the series has been given a full bi-weekly order through 2016!
Speaking of ScrewAttack, they are also responsible for helping the legacy of The Big Picture live on through IN BOB WE TRUST – ALSO newly-blessed with a full bi-weekly order through 2016!
More recently, you may have heard that my review of PIXELS became a viral sensation, amassing nearly 2 million views and counting and even being featured on national stages like THE HOWARD STERN SHOW.
Locally, the PIXELS review landed me a guest-spot on one of Boston’s #1 radio shows, TOUCHER & RICH…
…And, perhaps my favorite “WTF am I doing HERE!?” moment of this most-recent roller-coaster: I was profiled in THE NEW YORKER.
And it goes beyond all that as well. The success of MOVIEBOB REVIEWS and the other projects has put me into contact with sources and opportunities that could well mean the next logical BIG steps of my career – including developments and avenues that I had never even considered open to me.
Make no mistake: I do not consider myself “back” or even close to “comfortable” – whatever that means. I have always had my eyes on bigger things, bigger opportunities and the capacity to dream bigger than I can even concieve of now… and then achieve those dreams so that I might conceive of even more. Frankly, I don’t want to stop until I’m living whatever the film/gaming/geek-media version of Alexander weeping at the realization that there are no worlds left to conquer is (though, for now, regular access to a heated pool would be just swell.)
But I am happier than I expected to be six months ago. I am more stable than I expected to be six months ago. And despite how much I truly miss what was, warts and all, a job I really loved… I am on-balance better off than I was six months ago.
If you were among the folks who stepped up to dance on my “grave” when things looked bleakest… I can only say that I hope your life has gotten better from whatever pathetic state you must have been in for that to be a viable entertainment option for you – though if it hasn’t, chances are you and misery deserve each other and I hope that seeing me not only survive but thrive causes you inexplicable suffering.
If you are among the “persons” whose decision-making contributed to me being (however briefly) “professionally-unmoored,” shall we say… I hope the knowledge that the success I’m having and the career-growth I’m experiencing could also have benefited you and your outlets, but now won’t. To be perfectly blunt, in fact: I hope the traffic, publicity and mainstream press attention for that independently-produced PIXELS review makes you GAG.
If you are among the people who supported me through this time personally… well, you already know how I feel, but thank you and I love you, anyway.
If you are among the fans, followers, viewers and Patreon supporters who’ve stuck with me and helped this ship through choppy waters: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. My I be ever worthy of you.
And… that’s really all I’ve got to say at this time, save to note that in a few months I’m going to be an uncle for the first time in my life; and maybe it’s old-fashioned but that sort of thing throws what matters into sharp relief. Six months later, I am undefeated. I am okay. I love and am loved. I am moving onward and upward. And I am alive.
Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.
One has to imagine that Roland Emmerich is genuinely surprised to be catching “friendly fire” over his gay rights historical drama STONEWALL. Sure, controversy was probably something he considered innevitable – even welcome, given the film’s clear “Hey, awards season: Look at me!!!” Fall release and low-key hype machine – but surely the long-time “out” gay filmmaker and activist didn’t expect to find himself under fire from elements within the LGBTQ community itself. To the degree that Emmerich self-identifies with the heroes of films, it’s not hard to imagine that he feels a bit like an alternate-universe version of Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore from INDEPENDENCE DAY: One who, upon delivering The Greatest Battle Speech Ever, found himself facing not applause but a chorus of indifference and even outrage: “Stuff your battle-plan, man!” “Who says we WANT to fight the aliens!?” “Since when are YOU in charge!?”
What’s this? Oh, nothing – just a write-up about/interview-with yours truly in THE NEW YORKER – only one of the most respected publications… pretty much ever, really.
Do I feel good about this? You bet your ass I do. But I feel even better about THIS passage making it into print:
“Donald Trump, for instance, gives ranters a bad name. “Fuck that guy,” Chipman said.”
My work here is done.
This review made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.
Despite the knowing self-mockery already displayed in the trailers, I feel like a certain amount of the new VACATION’s success is going to depend on how audiences (in the U.S. at least) feel about its relationship to the VACATION franchise – not in terms of “continuity,” but in terms of a vague sense of tonal-rightness: Of the now five “canonical” films in the series, on the first and third are in regular rotation, but they cast a long shadow over 80s and 90s comedy. People who’ve never even seen a VACATION movie feel they “know” what one is and/or should be, and I wonder if the “danger” for this continuation is that it’s aiming squarely for the darker, more mean-spirited original… which I’ve long suspected has been deposed as the defining entry in the series by the more sentimentally-michevious CHRISTMAS VACATION.
The original VACATION is a bizarre animal of a movie, stuck partway between the winding-down 70s vibe of coked-out, sexually-charged anarchy comedy and the revving-up of the glossy, high-concept vibe that would define the 80s. It’s inspiration was a famously pitch-black short-story from John Hughes, “Vacation ’58,” that became a sensation in the pages of The National Lampoon. But where Hughes’ story was a backwards-looking dressing-down of the mythology of post-WWII American Nuclear Family (related in dryly unself-conscious manner by the family’s young son, it ends with the father being arrested after attempting to murder Walt Disney and the family not really caring all that much) the eventual film is about the Boomers who did that very dressing-down now trying to remake the myth and failing spectacularly.
Unfortunately, the lack of theme keeps coming back, meaning that there’s no overall meaning to connect what now feel more than ever like a lot of “and then…” beats stacked in a row. One potentially fun sequence finds Rusty deciding to take a detour to Applegate’s old college, where it’s revealed that her old sorority is/was a party-house and she was a legendarily uninhibited wild-child – great potential for fun with family dynamics, but instead it’s just setup for an extended slapstick bit wherein Applegate attempts a drunken obstacle-course and ends up vomiting everywhere. Funny, sure, but it feels out of place in a way that becomes a repeating problem: The film is trying desperately to get back to the darkness of the original, but can’t quite find the way there in a saleable way and instead settles for “gross.”
Still, gross can be funny – and it’s mostly funny here, especially a repeating bit where the film allows the audience to “get” what’s happening to The Griswolds before they do, the standout being when they find themselves white-water rafting with a guide (Charlie Day) who has a suicidal episode mid-trip. I also imagine the “Griswold Springs” scene would’ve been a winner had they not spoiled it in every single trailer. On the lesser side, a series of gags about awful things happening to cows (obviously attempting to one-up the dog death from the first film) fall weirdly flat.
What’s not a great idea is trying to divide the focus between the individual family members. It likely felt like a good update to give Applegate and the kids more agency whereas the original never really leaves Clark’s perspective, but again: No theme. Their individual issues (Applegate is bored with marriage, the older brother is a sensitive kid bullied by his psychotic younger brother) don’t sync up in any meaningful way, which is unfortunate since if they had a climactic beat involving a brawl with another family at Wally World might’ve had some real energy behind it. Instead, like the rest of the piece, it’s conceptually amusing but lands much too lightly.
That pervasive “not enough” execution is unfortunately encapsulated by an Act 3 cameo by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, which appears to arrive years late having not been informed of its own expiration. I won’t lie – I got a little bit choked up when Clark (sort-of) saves the day by revealing that he’s held onto a specific keepsake from their own Wally World journey (the reveal, complete with mandatory needle-drop, is really something) – but it’s too little, too late.
VACATION is funny – exceptionally so at times, but my memory of it is already fading and I doubt we’ll be thinking about it even two months from now. Whether or not that means the studio has their franchise back will be another story, but for now as comedies go you’re better off seeing SPY or ANT-MAN again.
This review made possible in part by The MovieBob Patreon.