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.

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)

★★★★ / 👍

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)

★★★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.

Ant-Man (2015)

★★★½ / 👍

I genuinely enjoyed my time with Ant-Man more than I did my time with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yes, it’s product straight off the assembly line from Marvel Studios, but it’s better than it had to be, and much better than I expected it to be.

Rudd is charming. The humor is mostly engaging. The special effects are adequate if not spectacular. Evangeline Lilly shows just enough range here that I may finally be able to move on from how much I hated her (character) for six seasons on Lost.

The mix of caper comedy, science fiction, superhero action, and family drama is definitely awkward at times, a little too “Ocean’s Eleven meets Interstellar, but Marvel” for its own good. It feels like a film that needed a few more drafts to hide the seams of the jackalope stitched together by Adam McKay & Paul Rudd after Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish left the project.

The fairly deep references to the evolving lore of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are exciting to someone like me, who was preaching the “comic books are our Greek mythology” gospel long before I knew what words like “intertextuality” meant. It’s a pity that production circumstances have turned the Pym/Ant-Man legacy into a mere copy of the Stark/Iron Man story, right down to the Evil Bald Corporate Mad Scientist. Still, any suggestion that this universe’s history wasn’t entirely on hold while everyone waited for Cap to defrost and Tony Stark to “mature” is very welcome indeed.

Finally, I would watch the hell out of a reboot of The Streets of San Francisco starring Bobby Cannavale and Wood Harris. Your move, ABC/Disney.