KUSP Film Review

‘Straight Outta Compton’

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read it below.

Since its mid-August release the group biopic Straight Outta Compton, depicting the rise and demise of controversial and influential hard core rap unit NWA has been a box office bombshell. Taking its name from NWAs blistering debut album, like its subject Straight Outta Compton is as raw, gritty, violent and unforgiving as the South Central Los Angeles of legend and fact. It seeks triumph within a tapestry of tragedy.

Straight Outta Compton, directed by Felix Gary Gray, whose previous works include The Italian Job, Law Abiding Citizen and Friday seeks to recreate the social, economic and cultural conditions that gave rise to three of the granddaddies of gangsta rap. Andre Young, known as Dr. Dre, O’Shea Jackson, better recalled as Ice Cube and Eric Wright, Easy-E, came together in a joint venture blending beats with searing street sagas of brutal police beatings and black lives assaulted by rapid fire weapons, gang banging and hard knocks. In doing so they helped set a standard for West Coast rap.
In documenting this film version of the NWA story, director Gray and screen writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff use a familiar form to make a statement about intersections of ostensibly insurgent message music, mayhem and money-making.

Straight Outta Compton has already come under fire for what it omits or downplays concerning the deeply misogynistic masculinism of the hyper macho gangsta rapper archetype. The objectification of women, reduced to their bodies and body parts, is abundantly evident, particularly in the lavish pool parties reconstructed in the film.

Yet, Cube, i.e., Ice Cube (played by his son O’Shea Jr.) defiantly situates himself as a journalist of sorts, stating in an interview that his social commentary equals that of other reporters in its ability to chronicle what he sees in the street scenes he relates.

The villains of the piece, apart from the LAPD, are first, promoter Jerry Heller, who, seeing a payday in the unfiltered rage of this Compton crew, steered them to greater planes of visibility, but at great cost, catapulting Easy-E at the expense of his cohorts. Heller introduces NWA to what in sports is called a higher level of play. From their own independent Ruthless records label, Heller cuts deals with Priority, increasing distribution while simultaneously rerouting the profits, from artists to management. As each member of the group comes to understand this, the unit’s cohesion will fray.

The world of Straight Outta Compton, rooted in mid to late 1980s and early 1990s urban blight is now often romanticized as a golden age of hiphop and gangsta rap. It saw the schismatic successors of NWA, Ice Cube’s Lench Mob and Dr. Dre’s Death Row, the latter dominated by Suge Knight. Death Row records eventually signed Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and a host of rap luminaries. But not without cost.

As gangsta rap became a national and global phenomenon, it brought a mixed bag of attributes reflective of its origins. Thus South Africa, already riven by violence as part of the legacy of apartheid, had in its post 1990 “liberation” phase its first drive by shootings, emulating North American thug life. The brilliance of the acting and detailed recreation of Straight Outta Compton should not obscure the toxicity of the site that produced it, a brutal initiation for Boyz N The Hood. Everything has a cost.

Mero

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony above, and read transcript below.

African-American novelist Charles R. Johnson, author of Middle Passage, takes great pains to distinguish between “story” and “plot.” Story may be defined as a narrative housed in a temporal frame, bounded by time, i.e., what historians do. Plot differs.

Plot pivots around probing causality. The gripping film Meru succeeds in balancing story via chronology with plot, how things happen. Balance is apt to use in this context as Meru isabout climbers and climbing, gravity, the elements, mentorship, trust, life, love and death.

Meru begins with a blank screen broken by the sounds and sights of an eerily forbidding escarpment, honing in on a portaledge within which three climbers are ensconced. They are Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. With the music of composer J. Ralph helping set the scene, viewers quickly grasp the awesome force of a majestic, lethal peak.

First to speak is Jenny Lowe-Anker, recalling a wedding vow made by Conrad Anker, her spouse, the alpinist, or mountaineer, that he would not be making any more risky ascents. Remembering this, Jenny gazes into the camera incredulously, sensing the impossibility of that statement. Seconds later Conrad says, “As an alpinist, Meru is the culmination of all I’ve done and all I’ve wanted to do. All I’ve wanted is this peak and this climb.” This captures the essence of Elizabeth Vasarhelyi’s film Meru, chronicling the quest to scale

Meru Peak, a 21,000 foot mountain in the Gharwal Himalayas, in Uttarakhand, India. The entry way to this prize of prizes on Mount Meru is the central Shark’s Fin route, soaring above the river Ganges. Meru follows the efforts of three elite climbers, Anker, Chin and Ozturk to reach the summit of this central peak, reputedly the hardest.

Meru draws on unforgettable footage filmed by Chin and Ozturk, stitched together by Vasarhelyi, whose previous works included Touba and Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love, on Sufis and Sufism or Islamic mysticism in Senegal, West Africa and postwar Kosovars in A Normal Life. Since 2013 Vasarhelyi has been married to Jimmy Chin.

Meru takes us through how Chin, Anker and Ozturk became entranced by Meru, and how this rapture affected all those around them. It is about ambition, ego, courage, risk, family and something not easily stated in words, a clearly spiritual compulsion. It is no accident that their goal is located within a holy land, vividly described by writer Jon Krakauer as “This weird nexus, the sort of point where heaven and earth and hell all come together.” Meru is not merely a paean to thrill-seeking daredevils. It is more a meditation on the purpose of life. Whether or not one would ever climb, it has much to teach its audiences.

Tangerine

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton, above.

Mr. Holmes

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony, above.

Trainwreck

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton, and read transcript below.

 

I gave my television away over twenty years ago, so I’m a few decades behind  when it comes to knowing who today’s TV stars are. Which is why I’d never heard of Amy Schumer, until I saw Trainwreck. I’m so glad I did.

Schumer not only stars in Trainwreck – she also wrote the script. The first time I watched it, the theatre was packed and the laughter was so loud and so frequent that I missed many of the lines. So of course, I had to go back – again, and again.

According to the production notes for the film, much of Trainwreck is based on  Schumer’s actual experiences. She even names the lead character Amy. Amy, the character, has been leading a life of sexual abandon. She’s followed her impulses and scrupulously avoided lasting commitments. By day she’s a writer for a sleazy men’s magazine. By night, she’s a bed-hopping libertine.

She seems to be following the advice of her father, who, as the film opens, delivers a homily on the virtue of promiscuity to his two small daughters. It’s outrageously funny. The gist of it, theoretically a rationale for his impending divorce  from their mother is: monogamy isn’t realistic. It becomes gospel for Amy. But not so for Amy’s sister, who evolves into an angry apostate.

Immediately after their dad concludes his address, the film shoots 23 years into the future – which is present day New York City. Director Judd Apatow introduces us to a few samples of Amy’s legion of sexual partners. One of them is a muscle bound gym hound with thinly repressed homosexual urges. Amy seems not to notice. She abandons ship when Mr. Muscles tells her that his dream is to marry her and have five sons.

Some of the best moments in the film occur at the offices of the magazine. The editor is played by the great Tilda Swinton, so ‘made up’ she’s hardly recognizable. She has an ice cube for a heart and she’s all business. At one of the pitch sessions, where staff writers toss story ideas at the editor, Amy ends up with an assignment to interview a sports doctor, a fellow who’s developed a way to repair broken knees. Among his clients are more than a few big names in the sporting world. The biggest name is LeBron James, who portrays himself in the film.

We quickly realize that the doc and LeBron have become close friends. LeBron has taken an almost paternal interest in the doc’s social life, or more accurately, his absence of one. So, when something begins to sizzle between Amy and the doc, who is played wonderfully by Bill Hader, LeBron is not shy about encouraging the incipient I have the suspicion that it might be difficult to play yourself in a movie. How do you get out of your skin and back into it simultaneously? At any rate, LeBron James does a great job of it. He’s clearly very funny.

Trainwreck is not so much about a wreck as it is about retraining oneself. The ride can get rocky, but the journey is worth the risk. Trainwreck is often hilarious, sometimes sad, and always engaging.

Love and Mercy

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Listen above to the review by David H. Anthony. (Transcript posted below.)

 
Bill Pohlad’s Love and Mercy: The Life, Love and Genius of Brian Wilson probes links binding creative impulses and emotional trauma the Beach Boys’ gifted leader faced.

By now, many will have heard the film’s outlines. It innovatively uses actors Jeff Holman as Brian Wilson present and Paul Dano and John Cusack to depict Wilson at strikingly separate stages of adult life, past (60s) and future (80s), respectively. This may bring to mind far more complex multifold portrayals of Bob Dylan in He’s Not There.

Love and Mercy is distinct from other biopics seeking to reconstruct vivid scenarios illustrating poignant parts of the life of a tortured artist, first, because Wilson, still quite alive, called the film “very factual.” Thus it is his story in more than one way.

This may seem simple but it actually matters a great deal. Tragic tropes like neglect and abuse must be factored into the tale but so too should the protagonist’s survival.

That detail alone lends this work a rare degree of contemporaneity with its subject. However horrific the treatment meted out to the main character, he clearly endured.

Love and Mercy also addresses questions of what forms artistic inspiration might assume and the high cost of imaginative and innovative gifts. Wilson evinces agony in the act of composing. It might be as excruciating an ordeal to experience mentally while creating as can it be exhilarating in its outcome, that is, if success is achieved. Indeed often more emphasis is placed upon the price of the process than its result. Consequently, lovers of Wilson’s work may feel shortchanged in the amount heard.

At the same time, learning what it took out of him to construct it increases its value.

Also noteworthy are Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, Paul Giamatti as über manipulative Dr. Eugene Landy and Bill Camp as Murry Wilson, Brian’s callous dad.

Adding up the pain he felt within his brain and beyond, in the fetters with which he was shackled, it is remarkable Wilson was able to manifest anything he heard inside.

What are we to make of such an excursion into the darkest corners of consciousness and worse, the systematic denial of light by those who elected to deprive Brian of it?

There are no facile replies to those queries. To these eyes, Love and Mercy demonstrated the tenacity of a human spirit to not only withstand the evil excesses of uncaring and cruel captivity, literally and figuratively, but to prevail, passionately and persistently producing art in a manner dictated by the irrepressible imagination of the artist.

That would make Love and Mercy worth donating two hours of a viewer’s existence.

To Kill a Mockingbird

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Listen to Dennis Morton’s review above. Transcript of the review is posted below.

The odds are that most of you in the KUSP listening area have seen To Kill A Mockingbird, the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s famous and beloved novel. I must confess that until very recently I had not seen the film. Neither had I read the book. I’m now 50+ pages into the novel, and loving it. And, I borrowed a DVD from the library and have watched the film several times.

Were it not for the publication and imminent release of Harper Lee’s long lost first novel – Go Set A Watchman – it’s likely that I never would have read To Kill A Mockingbird, or gotten around to watching the film. Thank goodness for the belated discovery of Go Set A Watchman.

And thank goodness that Bookshop Santa Cruz and The Del Mar Theatre have teamed up to celebrate the release of Lee’s long lost novel by showing To Kill A Mockingbird on the big screen. The library’s DVD copy is OK, but there’s nothing quite like watching a good movie as it was intended to be seen.

The opening of the film is very faithful to the opening of the novel. In fact, in setting the scene, the narrative voice of the film, a young woman named Scout, quotes verbatim from the earliest pages of the novel.

The year is 1932, the tortured heart of the Great Depression, and Scout reflects: a day was 24 hours long, but seemed longer. There was no hurry for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with, but…. Maycomb County had recently been told that it had ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’.

Notwithstanding that FDR’s famous quote wasn’t delivered until his inaugural address in 1933, and hence, a minor anachronism in the film, most folks in the deep south, where the book and the film is set, understood that there was plenty to fear, in addition to ‘fear itself’. Poverty was endemic and racism was virulent, and institutionalized.

What moves me most about the film are the performances, especially those of the children. It’s true that Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his role as Atticus Finch, a widower, an attorney, and the father of Scout and her brother Jem. Peck no doubt deserved the award. But the youngsters who played Scout and Jem, and the child who played their summertime friend, Dill, are amazing. So utterly natural are their performances that it’s hard to believe they’re acting. Also – the actors who play the accused and the accuser in the famous trial scenes are also extraordinary.

Speaking of that trial, I particularly loved the portrait of the dilemma Atticus faced. Ultimately, the case he made to the jurors was as strategically inappropriate as it was logically brilliant. Though he knew it was a long shot, he’d hoped to lead the jurors to an “aha moment”. To have openly suggested that a young white woman might attempt miscegenation, and that that was at the heart of the charges against his client might well have placed Atticus and his children at considerable risk.

On Tuesday evening, July 14, you can revisit the film, on the big screen, at The Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz. And you can also celebrate the official release of Harper Lee’s long lost first novel. Check the Bookshop Santa Cruz website for details.

A Little Chaos

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Listen to the review by David H. Anthony, above.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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Listen above to the review by Dennis Morton (Transcript posted below).

 

It wasn’t clear to me from the previews what I was in for, and the title suggested the possibility of a few hours of maudlin melodrama, but, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is not maudlin, and it’s like no melodrama I’ve seen before. I loved this film. I’ve watched it three times and I intend to see it again.

The Me in the title is an insecure high school senior named Greg. Earl is his best friend, and The Dying Girl is Rachel.

The film is structured like a book. Most of the major scenes are titled, as if they were chapters. And the book is a work in progress, penned by Greg. As the film opens, Greg tells us that this is the story of his senior year in high school and that he doesn’t know how to begin or where to start. And then it occurs to him that he’s already begun. And so – off we go.

In the first chapter/scene, Greg, the narrative voice, and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the film’s director, illustrate Greg’s strategy for negotiating his way through the myriad cliques that inhabit the halls, classrooms, and cafeteria of his high school. Greg superficially befriends each group in hopes of avoiding the enmity of any.

We soon learn that Greg and Earl, friends since grade school, spend most of their free time making short parodies of classic films. For instance – Mean Streets becomes Grumpy Cul-de-Sacs; Midnight Cowboy becomes 2:48 PM Cowboy; and Apocalypse Now becomes A Box O’ Lips.

But their routine changes when Greg is pressured by his parents into spending much of his free time with Rachel, a classmate who has been diagnosed with leukemia. Greg resists but his parents, especially his mother, insist.

And thus begins a relationship that neither Rachel nor Greg had anticipated. Greg’s wacky sense of humor quickly offsets the awkwardness that each initially feels. And what ensues, thankfully, is not your typical love story.

The script is intelligent, often very funny, sometimes sad, and always magnetic. The performances, especially by the actors who play Greg, Earl, and Rachel, are mesmerizing.

As the school year progresses, word of Rachel’s illness spreads. A classmate suggests that Earl and Greg take a break from spoofing the classics and concentrate on making a film especially for Rachel. They feel compelled to try, though neither of them has any inkling about how to proceed. The effort generates an unaccustomed discord between Earl and Greg.

Greg has grown so used to employing absurdity and humor to defuse challenging situations that he becomes frustrated and angry at his inability to create a ‘real’ film for Rachel. And when he finds out that Earl has informed Rachel of their mission, he becomes furious.

The movie script is true to its progenitor, the eponymous novel, because Jesse Andrews wrote each of them. The entire film is a fabulous balancing act and we are the beneficiaries. Don’t miss Me And Earl And The Dying Girl.

ArtMattan

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Listen above, to the review by David H. Anthony.