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Rampart – Review

17 Dec

Throughout my movie watching career, there have been collaborations between certain actors and film makers that work so well it should be illegal. For the sake of this review, the collaboration is between writer/director Oren Moverman and his go to actor Woody Harrelson. In 2010, Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Moverman’s heart wrenching drama, The Messenger. The two were then reunited 2012, along with co-writer James Ellroy (best known for L.A. Confidential), with Rampart. The performances and overall story in this film are really something to behold, but the overcrowding of subplots and an over the top artsy fartsy style almost ruined the movie for me.

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The year is 1999 and Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a police officer in the Rampart Division of the LAPD. Unfortunately for the people of Los Angeles, Brown is a racist, homophobic, and generally intolerant bigot who will resort to violence whenever he wants to to get the information he wants. After he is caught almost beating a suspect to death on tape, Officer Dave Brown’s life soon starts spiraling out of control. His ex-wives who are also sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) want nothing more to do with him while Assistant District Attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) starts pushing him towards an early retirement. As if that wasn’t enough, Brown becomes embroiled in an affair with an attorney working against him named Linda (Robin Wright) but also gets into more trouble after getting bad advice from his mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), which ends in a brutal murder.

I think the main reason to see Rampart is to see all of the amazing talent at work. Harrelson gives what may be the best performance of the year. It probably even beats his work on True Detective, especially since there is so much more corruption and hostility flowing through his character’s veins. A lot of the other actors I feel get under utilized though. For example, Steve Buscemi is only in one scene and I wanted to see him a lot more. Ice Cube also only shows up towards the end even though his character had a lot of great potential. After Harrelson, I think the next performance you really have to pay attention to is Ben Foster’s. Foster is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors and his small role in Rampart and his leading role in The Messenger proves he’s capable of a lot more than he is given.

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James Ellroy is a master at writing in the crime genre. He has written plenty of murder mysteries and dramas while also penning screenplays and having involvement in documentaries. That being said, both Ellroy and Moverman went a little overboard in Rampart. The story of a corrupt cop finally facing his demons and getting what he has coming to him is great, and they show his breakdown wonderfully. The problem is that there is way too much crammed into this movie. It’s like they tried to take everything from a long novel and stuff it into a movie that’s less than two hours. Characters are underused, plot lines are unresolved, and some of the development feels either forced or nonexistent. Luckily, the crux of the story is there and really good. This is more of a character study of Dave Brown and Ellroy and Moverman hit the nail on the head when it came to that area of the screenplay.

Another major complain that I have with Rampart is that Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski went a little overboard with the art design. There’s a motif throughout the film that Dave Brown slowly begins disappearing. The start of the movie has him at the forefront of the action going on onscreen and while the movie goes on, he becomes framed behind objects and obscured. That’s an example of great artistic design. On the flip side, there’s a scene where the camera keeps cutting and spinning during a meeting and it’s not only unnecessary, but looks stupid. I get what they were trying to do, but it just didn’t work and only succeeded at annoying me. If Moverman and Bukowsky just toned it down a little bit, the film would have been all the better for it.

I almost loved Rampart and at the same time I almost hated it. I really don’t know how else to explain how I feel about this movie. On one hand it tells a really complex story about a man who refuses to change who he is and has to suffer for it, and on the other hand it’s an overstuffed movie that seemed to be going nowhere at parts. I feel equal on these two sentiments, so Rampart really just left me baffled. I wanna say give it a watch, but I can’t see anyone really coming out of it without a lot of questions that need answering.

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Straight Outta Compton – Review

18 Aug

Between 1986 and 1991, N.W.A took what was considered decent in the music industry and practically turned it on its head, but not without good reason. Their raps reflected the truth of their everyday life, and that just didn’t resonate well with some people. Straight Outta Compton, the new film by F. Gary Gray, finally tells the story of the rise and fall of N.W.A, but also how Ice Cube and Dr. Dre became household names. While this film is a biopic, what makes it really exceptional is its indictments of the police, the music industry, and greed.

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After growing up and living in Compton, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.). Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) form the rap group N.W.A. Together they write and produce songs about Compton and the only lifestyle they’ve ever known, which is plagued by violence and police brutality and harassment. After being found by their manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and picked up by Priority Records, the group takes the world by storm and causes an uproar fighting censorship of their music. As greed and ego finds its way into the group, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre break off to form their own careers, but their past efforts as N.W.A can’t be so easily shaken off.

The Academy Awards seems so far away, but like… Straight Outta Compton has to be considered. I mean, it just has to. This movie isn’t just a great biopic, it’s also a great examination of race relations, the music industry, and personal friendships. What only makes it more powerful is that it’s a true story filled with characters who are still alive to tell the tale. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube actually worked as producers on this film, which is comforting since you know they gave some input on what actually happened. It’s a really incredible story but that’s just where things begin. There’s so much more to this movie that it was almost hard to wrap my head around everything.

Film Review-Straight Outta Compton

 

Stepping away from what the movie is about, I’d like to look at everything that aesthetically makes Straight Outta Compton so pleasing. Having worked on music videos before (some for both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre), F. Gary Gray brings a real visual flair to this film. There are scenes where the camera swoops, turns, and glides with effortless ease. Add the skills of cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has worked with Darren Aronofsky on films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and you have a visually beautiful movie. The soundtrack to this movie is exactly what you’d expect it to be, and I loved every minute of it. They played songs by N.W.A that I heard before, but now I have some welcome additions that I didn’t know before this movie. Thank you, Straight Outta Compton.

There couldn’t be a better group of actors portraying these larger than life people. O’Shea Jackson, Jr., the son of Ice Cube, plays his father in this and it’s sometimes eerie how similar they look. Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell as Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, respectively, also give exceptional performances, and Mitchell’s work is part of the reason this movie needs to be remembered during the awards season. When the actors all come together, their chemistry is fantastic and they work great with an already great screenplay. I just wish that DJ Yella and MC Ren had a bit more to do.

Straight Outta Compton is, unsurprisingly, a very powerful movie. While showing the rise and fall of one of rap, and arguably music’s, most influential groups, the film also treads over deeper themes that could have easily not been included. Fortunately, everything in this movie clicks together and works perfectly making the two and a half hour runtime not something to be intimidated by. Even if you don’t care for rap music, this is a powerful story that will now surely stand the test of time.

Three Kings – Review

18 Sep

War movies about World War II, the Vietnam War, and most recently the War in Iraq and the entire crisis of the Middle East get pumped out year after year with excellent box office returns. Let’s face it, war is a topic that interests a great many people. Think about this though, how often do you see a war film about the Gulf War? It was a quick conflict that doesn’t get all that much attention. Three Kings examines the tactical and human side of this conflict that is both comedic and difficult.

 

The Gulf War is coming to a close and the soldiers couldn’t be more thrilled. Parties are thrown on bases with alcohol, sex, and music. Determined not to go home empty handed a group of soldiers decide to go on a quest to recover for themselves a portion of the stolen gold bullion of Kuwait. This team is made up of Maj. Archie Gates (George Clooney), Sgt. 1 Class Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), SSgt. Chief Elgin (Ice Cube), and Pfc. Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze). The personal mission for the golden fortune soon turns into a violent crusade against the Iraq military in an attempt to escort a group of Iraqi citizens over the Iran border, all of this against strict military protocol.

The opening of the film plays out wonderfully as a madcap/screwball kind of comedy. The entire cast has thickly layered characters who have their own personalities that are intentionally or unintentionally funny. All of the actors play very well off each other making the bond that they all have feel strong and the growth of said bond over the film play out truthfully.

 

At a certain point in the movie, however, this shit hits the fan with a harrowing sequence that knocks the viewer back to the real world. I can’t say this happens to me a lot, but I actually began to tear up. I’ve seen lots of violence before in film, but something about this scene and the rest to come made me think of how this isn’t really fictional. Sure, the story may be, but the rest of it is clearly based off of the people’s lives in the Middle East. We only get one life to live, as far as I know, and to spend it in the desert being murdered by your own leader is not a way to spend it.

Along with the exceptional story structure and characters there is a phenomenal display of artistic talent at work. David O. Russell isn’t your average director, he’s well above it. A few of his other films are I Heart Huckabees and the wonderful movie The FighterThree Kings is on a totally different artistic playing field. There was actually a message in the beginning of the film explaining that this movie is loaded with symbols and otherwise unconventional  film making. This shouldn’t have to be there. I understand symbolism and artistic freedom. There is one beautiful low shot of George Clooney with the clouds speeding by above him. It was remarkable.

 

I’ve seen plenty of war movies in my day, and Three Kings is one of my new favorites. It blends drama, action, and comedy just as well as Stanley Kubrick did with his Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket. It’s a side of humanity that I feel people try to ignore in order to get along with their lives just a little more comfortably. If anything, this movie will certainly entertain, but it should hopefully enlighten as well.