Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Straight Outta Compton (2015) ***

It's often been said that the best way to get the difference between East Coast and West Coast rap is to listen to the groups Public Enemy and NWA. The lyrics of East Coast group Public Enemy are political and a bit cerebral. NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), on the other hand, are raw and vulgar, rapping about the thug/gansta ethos of Compton, CA. Their groundbreaking 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton” is the definitive West Coast, gangsta-rap album. The single “Fuck tha Police” was an important part of the zeitgeist of what became the Rodney King era, either a defiant anthem against police brutality or a symbol of all that was wrong with black, inner-city culture, depending on where you stood politically.

F. Gary Gray's “Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of the group, starting with their early days in Compton, their meteoric rise, and their dissolution over money and contract issues, then continues to follow Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube into their solo careers. It's an expansive musical biopic that runs a bit long, but is definitely worth seeing for those who are into rap music.

The casting is visually accurate, with actors that look a lot like Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), and Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr, who is actually Ice Cube's son). These guys' acting gets the job done, but it's nothing inspiring. The best performance belongs to Jason Mitchell, as Eazy E, and the movie winds up being more his story than anyone's.

O'Shea Jackson, Jr. is fairly good as Ice Cube, particularly in the scenes where he pushes back against the media regarding the First Amendment battles surrounding NWA's music. His claim to be a type of reporter, honestly portraying poor, black culture, rings a bit hollow, though. These guys have every right to make their music, and they were right to fight censorship, but there is no denying that this music glorifies violence, drugs, and misogyny.

As raw as it is, I like this music, and “Straight Outta Compton” gives music fans what they want, with tons of songs from NWA and the solo projects, including some of the hilarious musical dueling that went on between these guys after they split up. I especially enjoyed one scene where Eazy E and the remaining NWA members listen to a track in which Ice Cube disses them and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Jerry is incensed, but the other guys can't help laughing at Cube's lyrics.

One really striking thing about the film is the footage of the Rodney King beating, the riots over police brutality, and the many scenes of police harassing young, black men. I am struck by how little progress we have made 25 years later.

If you remember all the “Oscars So White” noise around this year's Academy Awards, this was one of the movies that protestors held up as an example of a black movie that should have gotten nominations. If you love the music, as I do, then “Straight Outta Compton” is well worth watching, but it isn't really Oscar-level. If you have an old album or CD of “Straight Outta Compton” (or better yet a cassette tape) in your collection, however, then you should definitely put this on your watchlist.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Big Short (2015) ***

I'm sure we all have our own stories from the economic crash of 2008, some of them incredibly sad. My own is relatively benign, but I'll never forget it. It was when my hair stylist told me he was getting out of the hair-cutting business to become a mortgage broker. This was before the crash, when housing prices were rising relentlessly, houses were turning over constantly, and anyone, no matter how little training or experience they had, could make money in real estate. Of course, I didn't recognize that for the warning sign it was, the sign of a bubble that was destined to burst. “The Big Short” is about the financial geniuses who did see the housing crash coming, and who figured out a way to profit from it.

In this film by Adam McKay, it starts with the one-eyed, socially-awkward Michael Burry, MD, a brainiac who left medicine to become a hedge-fund manager. He does something with mortgage-backed securities that no one else is doing: he actually looks at the mortgages behind those securities. He notices that many of them are behind on payments, many are to people with low credit scores, and that many more are adjustable-rate mortgages, with payments likely to rise in 2007. Despite these weaknesses, the banks have packaged these mortgages into bonds that are treated like low-risk investments. Burry sets up some insurance policies called Credit Default Swaps, policies that cost him money in the short term, but will pay off if those mortgage bonds fail. Everyone thinks he is daft, as the accepted wisdom says real estate is a rock-solid investment. Eventually some other financial wizzes notice what he is doing and take out similar policies, betting on the eventual demise of the housing market.

Where things get really messed up is when the banks themselves start buying some of these Credit Default Swaps. They are still selling the mortgage bonds to investors, but they are also betting that those bonds will fail. Eventually, as we know, the whole thing came crashing down, causing a worldwide recession.

“The Big Short” does a nice job dramatizing all of this for people who have at least a passing interest in things like economics and financial markets. It maintains a relatively high geek factor, which will drive away many mainstream moviegoers, but the movie sometimes winks at its own geekiness by having celebrities explain some of the concepts. Christian Bale is excellent as Dr. Burry, as are Steve Carrell as another investment manager and Ryan Gosling as a sleazy bond salesman. Really, the whole cast is excellent, and the film is paced pretty well. Inevitably, given its subject matter, “The Big Short” drags a bit at times, but overall it does an excellent job creating drama out of the ins and outs of bond trading. By the end, you will be mad at the big banks all over again.

3 stars out of 5