Straight Outta Compton (2015) image

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

Straight Outta Compton (2015) poster

Ninety minutes of amazing filmmaking, followed by an hour of self-aggrandizing “and then I wrote” corporate propaganda from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

As someone who spent part of his teen years as a semi-libertarian freeze peach advocate with very thin skin, I winced in identification during the scene in Straight Outta Compton when Paul Giamatti’s character loses his shit the second he finds himself on the wrong end of a barbed lyric. I’m an East Coast white-boy tourist whose lived experience was that of The Tompkins Square Park Riot, not the Los Angeles riots. I never got much deeper into hip-hop than some old-school beats and half of the Def Jam catalog before The Chronic scared me away, and not even Illmatic could bring me back. The closest I’ve ever been to a rap controversy was that one time I got into an argument with a Tower Records clerk about how dumb it was that you couldn’t buy an uncensored version of the Romeo Must Die soundtrack.

With all that said, I loved this movie, until I didn’t. I walked out of the theater wanting to see it again immediately, but I really don’t know if it’ll hold up. The hagiography of Dr. Dre in particular rings very false, although it probably isn’t that much worse than the omissions and whitewashing in other musical biopics like Ray or Walk The Line.

The performances are uniformly strong. Jason Mitchell is the standout as Eazy-E, providing layers to what could have been a caricature as the self-destructive frontman who loses sight of what’s really important. Corey Hawkins shows chops while shouldering the burden of the worst of the script’s cheap sentiment. O’Shea Jackson Jr. shows talent and charisma that goes beyond his resemblance to his father. Aldis Hodge gets a well-deserved straight dramatic role as MC Ren, albeit a thankless one; he’s Johnny Exposition, feeding setup lines for the flashier characters to drive home. Paul Giamatti sells the manipulative manager stereotype, conveying his own particular brand of hunger—that of a man who had relevance and lost it—while making it ambiguous as to how much of his self-justifying spiel he’s actually come to believe.

Which, come to think of it, is basically my one problem with this movie overall. Are Dre and Cube, as producers, simply giving the audience what it wants to see, or do they genuinely think this is a fully accurate depiction of their lives? There’s a telling scene where Ice Cube deflects criticism of his lyrics by claiming the “brutal honesty” of a journalist. The power of N.W.A.’s music was rooted in “the strength of street knowledge,” but a whole lot of this movie feels like Hollywood bullshit.

Ricki And The Flash (2015) image

Ricki and the Flash (2015)

★★½ / 👎

Diablo Cody, Meryl Streep, and Jonathan Demme collaborate to bring out their respective worst tendencies, in what feels like three separate vanity projects stitched into a single feature film. The result is a mawkish melodrama with an unconvincing layer of irony, about a deeply talented performer apparently driven entirely by ego, and directed with the precise craft of a concert film designed to be aired during every annual PBS fund-raising drive until the end of time.

The first two-thirds of the movie do a fairly decent job of establishing the characters, setting up the conflicts, and getting in a few patented Diablo Cody barbs. The third act is an ineffective and sentimental rehash of the second, complete with sitcom-level social awkwardness, a pair of awards-show—friendly monologues and an insultingly pat ending.

Streep’s vastly more convincing as a third-rate musician who’s achieved all the success she ever will than Pacino was in Danny Collins as a genius who wasted his talent on bubblegum pop. It’s a “brave” performance in that Ricki is a genuinely unlikeable character (until she isn’t) with problems that can’t be easily waved away (until they are).

There are highlights. Demme still knows how to shoot concerts, even fictional ones. Audra McDonald kills in a straight dramatic role, despite barely being in the movie. (One of the script’s best touches is how well it establishes that character long before she shows up on screen.) Kevin Kline displays just enough humor to suggest how the hell he and Streep’s character stayed together long enough to have three kids. Rick Springfield is actually pretty good as Streep’s bandmate (and potential soul-mate); the pair have chemistry, and he helps carry Streep musically. There are even some interesting feints at making Ricki more three-dimensional, such as the strong suggestion that she is more of a reactionary than her square ex-husband in his Midwest McMansion. Unfortunately, nuance is completely at odds with the plot, and the claptrap wins.

Fantastic Four (2015) image

Fantastic Four (2015)

★★ / 👎

The most fun I had with Fantastic Four was when a sepia-toned, mass-murdering Thing skulking in the shadows made me realize that this film could accurately be called a Grimmdark reboot.

It’s difficult to tell which parts are bad because of the obvious reshoots—Kate Mara’s fluctuating hairstyle is the true fifth member of the team—and which parts are bad due to a fundamentally flawed approach to the material. Even if we assume the abrupt and disastrous third act is solely due to executive meddling, that only made a bad film worse.

I wonder if those canon-obsessed reactionaries who were so angry at the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm will be just as pissed by a script that gives him nothing to do, sidelines Sue Storm in a way I wouldn’t have dreamed possible, and turns Ben Grimm’s powers into a mere externalization of a cycle of abuse.

Maybe Fox really was like the military-industrial complex in this film, trying to stifle and channel impulses it couldn’t really understand to retain control and power. And maybe Josh Trank really is boy genius Reed Richards, who just needs to be given the space and resources to do his work in peace, with no obligations to his backers. But then, as comic book fans know (and this film acknowledges) Reed Richards is also kind of a dick.

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Mr. Holmes (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

Mr. Holmes is a rare and precious specimen in Sherlockiana: a Holmes pastiche which engages with the concept of nostalgia, without succumbing to it.

McKellen is excellent playing effectively two different versions of the character, separated from each other by more than just the passage of decades. From a fanboy point of view, McKellen’s work here is to Holmes what Craig’s was to Bond in Casino Royale. Not enough to knock Brett or Connery off their respective perches, but good enough to shift everyone else down in the rankings.

Laura Linney is less showy but equally as moving as Holmes’s efficient housekeeper (and reluctant caregiver) Mrs. Munro. The script allows her character the interior life that Doyle never provided for Mrs. Hudson, and Linney makes the most of it.

(Oh, and just for the record: Connery, Craig, Dalton, Lazenby, Brosnan, Niven, Moore; Brett, McKellen, Rathbone, Cumberbatch, Plummer, Wilder, Downey Jr.)

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015)

★★★★ / 👍

A gorgeous display of minimalist style, and minimal substance, in a film as limited as the week-long Turing test that is the basis for its plot.

I’m an antisocial nerd over-reliant on an inflated measure of my own intellect, who dabbles in non-specific contempt for the human race. The cold and distant aspects of Kubrick or Nolan films are frequently the only things I find tolerable about them. I loved this movie, and I find that disturbing, because it has very little to say.

One difficulty in stories about AI—particularly ones based around the notion of a Turing test—is the difficulty of constructing fictional people who seem like real, baseline human beings. Garland doesn’t do this (or try to). All of the characters in Ex Machina, be they human or android, are simulacra whose moving parts and emotional subroutines are conspicuous in their operation.

The most consistent theme in Ex Machina is not the wonder of intelligence in an artificial being, but rather the limits of sapience in Homo sapiens. If the subject of Ex Machina is a Turing test, the form of Ex Machina is a reverse Turing test, in which very talented actors spend two hours trying to confuse the audience as to whether their characters are actually as stupid as they seem, or merely pretending to be so. (That the film tends to the latter more than the former doesn’t necessarily make it less tedious to watch.)

This is a remarkably well-crafted film, and I sincerely respect that. But I don’t particularly want more films like it.

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation (2015) image

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

The best James Bond film since the Casino Royale reboot.

Each of the three films Christopher McQuarrie has directed has been bigger and, for better and for worse, less quirky than the last. I personally love the “slow car chase” from The Way of the Gun, but the muscle-car pursuit in Jack Reacher topped it in every way. The much more expansive (and expensive) mayhem in Rogue Nation is probably as readable and exciting as you can get without going too deeply down the latter-day Fast & Furious franchise CGI rabbit hole.

As is so often the case in this phase of his career, Cruise is most convincing here when showcasing his prowess, and least convincing when feigning vulnerability. This is actually a somewhat disappointing regression from his previous collaboration with McQuarrie as director. One of the reasons I let Jack Reacher off so lightly despite the utter miscasting was the relative novelty of seeing Cruise actually show fear during some of the more death-defying stunt work. Ethan Hunt, however, is made of sterner stuff. Like James Bond, he may falter occasionally, but in the end, he always wins. (At several points in Rogue Nation, the paeans to Cruise’s [alter] ego become so effusive that they almost feel like a sly joke, but ultimately that’s just a bit of clever misdirection.)

The film loses a bit of momentum near the end, if only because it starts out so strongly. Happily, this shift to a smaller-scale espionage thriller allows Sean Harris to retain more of his menace—and dignity—than Philip Seymour Hoffman or Michael Nyqvist were allowed to in previous installments.

Southpaw (2015) image

Southpaw (2015)

★★½ / 👎

A boxing picture, subtype riches-to-rags-to-redemption, in which Jake Gyllenhaal overcomes enormous odds to out-mumble Forest Whitaker.

The script for Southpaw is exactly what I’d expect from Kurt Sutter: melodramatic nonsense about a testosterone-driven dude with a temper who is ultimately less interesting than every other character in the story. (Despite every other character being an underwritten cipher who exists only to serve as a foil for The Great White Dope.)

I know I’m not the first person to snicker at the idea of Gyllenhaal and McAdams as foster kids from Hell’s Kitchen, but this film’s vision of Noo Yawk owes a lot more to Leo Gorcey in Dead End than it does to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. I grew up as a poor white kid in city-owned housing in the 1980s East Village, and found these characters—my alleged contemporaries—not only ludicrous, but alien to my own experience.

Forest Whitaker uses all of his trademark twitchiness to (almost) convince you the character he’s playing is a real person instead of a particularly effective Yoda puppet. Oona Laurence gives possibly the best performance in the film as Gyllenhaal’s young daughter; she shows a fair bit of emotional range, and only falters when the script fails her. McAdams and Naomie Harris are both wasted in thankless roles, but do what they can. (So does Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, but what he can do is very, very little.)

If you want faux-erudite earnestness about overcoming impossible odds that feels like the sincere output (however misguided) of an auteur, watch Rocky Balboa or Redbelt instead. If you want to watch a movie in which a pale male underdog triumphs in a field long since overtaken by people of color, preferably while an Eminem track plays, watch 8 Mile. If you want melodrama that actually feels like it has something to say about the men who step into the ring, watch Gavin O’Connor’s vastly superior Warrior. If you need to kill two hours in a dark, air-conditioned room this summer, then okay, watch Southpaw.