Monday, August 31, 2015

Violence & People

Sorry - due to the start of the semester at my college, I fell a bit behind, so this is a double post. It works out, though, since there's a theme to the three movies I want to discuss. While all three take different paths, Straight Outta Compton, '71, and No Escape all have one thing in common - all three focus on how normal, everyday people react to living in a violent environment.

 Straight Outta Compton is the biopic of the influential hip-hop group N.W.A. The film is doing (pardon the pun) gangbusters at the box office and rests squarely at the intersection of reconstructed history and marketing. Compton is an uncomfortable movie to watch as it doesn't shy away from showing the casual racism toward and everyday degradation of people who happen to live in a high-crime zip code. N.W.A. raised some interesting questions about the limits of free speech in performance and how much of a performer's stage persona could be counted on as being real. Plus, the album was the one of the first to sport the "Parental Advisory" sticker that is the basis of the movie poster.

The cast is amazingly strong, including both Ice Cube's son (who had to repeatedly audition for the role) and seasoned Broadway actors. The movie has come under fire for both the seemingly nit-picky and the "Really? You left that out?" I get conflicted on these points - biopics are not documentaries, but carefully constructed narratives (the director has said the the Dee Barnes "incident" [which most of us would call "felonious battery"] was left out because it "didn't serve the narrative"), but some of this smacks of dishonesty. The members of N.W.A. saw money as power and freedom and they got an awful lot of it terribly young and lacked wise guidance. Maybe Jerry Heller wasn't as bad as he's portrayed in this film and maybe he was. Maybe Dr. Dre's 25-years-too-late apology for abusing women is sincere or maybe the timing has a lot to do with the multi-billion dollar sale of Beats (ironic name for a product hawked by an abuser of women, right?) to Apple, who wants very much to have a clean image while using Dre's street cred. None of this changes the fact that Compton is a movie well worth seeing. The #BlackLivesMatter movement didn't spring up out of Ferguson without roots and some of those roots were formed in the late 1980s in Compton.

'71 deals with a city under another kind of siege. In 1971, the Northern Ireland city of Belfast was sharply divided not by skin color, but by religion. The "Troubles" have tangled roots that are far more complex than a disagreement over belief in transubstantiation and young British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) is thrust into the middle of it without so much as a map. Separated from his overwhelmed unit, Hook has to survive in a strange city where friend and foe can both be disguised. This film didn't come near me, but the reviews were so strong (plus, I have an interest in Irish history) that Ensley and I sought it out on Netflix. You won't necessarily understand the Troubles any better at the end of the movie - but neither does Hook. You will, however, have an additional sympathy for anyone - man, woman, or child - who had to find a way to live in such a tumultuous world with any semblance of normalcy.

Last, the Owen Wilson adventure movie No Escape opened this weekend. The film focuses on a picture-perfect American family (husband, wife, two adorable little girls) who are seeking a fresh start in an unknown East Asian country. (It's made clear that the country borders Vietnam, but no specific identification is made.) Just before they arrive, the country undergoes a violent coup and the Americans are distinctly unsafe. The film is a taut thriller that has received a number of complaints for xenophobia, a claim I don't think is warranted. From a storytelling point of view, the coup had to happen somewhere (and I'm not sure I can name the last film I saw in which the Vietnamese were the good guys!) and it adds to the tension that the American family can't understand the language. (I'm also glad the filmmakers resisted the impulse to add subtitles so the audience members are also unsure of what's being said.) No Escape is a by-the-numbers thriller, but for me, the thrills worked, as did the father's desperate attempts at humor to distract his scared-out-of-their-minds daughters. And don't discount the wife (Lake Bell), who may be frightened out of her wits, but by God, no one's hurting her little girls. It's a rental, but a good popcorn movie - and yes, it turns out there is an escape.

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