Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hotel Transylvania 2 ★★

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    Sony Pictures Animation certainly deserves to be commended, not for their multitude of viable products, but for their common sense. I mean, this is the second instance in four years where they have ultimately cashed in on the accompanying popularity and excitement, which stems from one of the nation's most beloved holidays: Halloween. "Hotel Transylvania 2" offers nothing relatively new to the genre of children's animated pictures (even if it abstains from its inclusion of lowbrow humor this time around), and it merely comes off as just another unexciting rendition of the original; and yet, audiences worldwide are chomping at the bit to see these peculiar personas take the stage once more. (In fact, a third installment has already been slated for a September 2018 release, as well as a television series which is set to premiere in early 2017.) If only this level of enthusiasm reared its head for films that actually mattered.

    "Hotel Transylvania 2" begins with the marriage ceremony of Mavis, Dracula's sole offspring, and Johnny, an endlessly goofy fellow who is quite fortunate, I think, to even be able to dress daily. Their love eventually produces young Dennis, a curly red-headed infant who will essentially be our focal point here for the rest of this discussion. For, Dennis is half human and half vampire, and there is some issue in determining as to which social grouping he belongs. Does he fit in with the tedious and rather humdrum life of the humans, or does he belong with the eventful, yet hazardous existence of the monsters? Naturally, this complication (which comes to symbolize the difficulty in deciding whether to follow change or tradition) leads to the involvement of our autocratic and overprotective protagonist, Dracula, who insists that Dennis stay in Transylvania.

    Of course, there is always an ulterior motive in such dealings, and this can surely be seen here as we simply have a father who is desperate to keep his little girl around. From this point forward, the film transitions into a neverending display of situational irony, as Dracula and his cronies strive to conjure up Dennis' monster temperament with humorous results. (Many of the film's attempts to produce laughter strike out during this sequence, as Wolfman, Frankenstein, and other beloved characters aim to show off their wickedness to no avail. For, in the words of the Wolfman, they no longer need to kill; they have Pop-Tarts now.) This all leads to a rather unimaginative climactic scene, which pretty much characterizes the picture as a whole: that is, as uninspired and trite.

    Much like the first installment in what is soon to be a trilogy of films, there is somewhat of a constructive theme present, as well as several underlying satirical jabs at our contemporary society, which has surely become dominated by technology and social media democratization. (As far as the theme is concerned, we are basically told that it is okay to be who you are, and that it is important not to pretend to be something you are not; a similar theme can be found in this year's animated debacle entitled "Home.") Yet, to counter these admirable qualities once again are numerous examples of poor execution, and, quite frankly, examples of a lack of creativity. (Contrived beings are now being used specifically to cater to the script's jests.) What really needs to be examined here, however, is the mindset of the darling Mavis, whose deep affection for the imbecile named Johnny can only be designated as sheer hogwash. If these are the types of young men that teenage girls are looking for today, then I truly feel sorry for the future of humanity.    
                 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Hotel Transylvania ★★1/2

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    About three minutes into the running time of "Hotel Transylvania," a children's animated film that features several classic monster personas as the title characters, one can undeniably see where the picture is headed: into a realm of cuteness and absurdity. Genndy Tartakovsky's  directorial debut relies heavily on a sense of stereotypical irony, as characters such as Dracula (Adam Sandler), Wolfman (Steve Buscemi), and Frankenstein (Kevin James) all exhibit good-natured qualities instead of their typical attributes infused with iniquity. I'm sure younger audiences will find them to be quite lovable, and I guess that is of the utmost concern here.

    The plot: In present-day Transylvania, Count Dracula runs a very successful hotel specifically catered to monsters. He also has a daughter named Mavis, who desperately pines to see the outside world. (Her one hundred and twenty-first birthday nears, and this would certainly warrant some time away from home.) Mavis' interest in leaving the nest sets off an amusing chain of events, as the overprotective Dracula attempts to keep his sheltered daughter away from the external world, which we are told is inhabited by the ruthless and vile humans. Additionally, once a goofy and eccentric young man named Johnny finds and infiltrates the secluded hotel, Dracula must do everything in his power to hide him from Mavis and the rest of the unexpecting guests. (For, being "human free" is one of the most respected selling points of the establishment.)  

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    At its core, "Hotel Transylvania" is a good-humored picture that comments on the relations between a father and daughter, and it can inevitably be viewed as a moral implication film. (You know, instructing parents to be a little more compassionate and understanding when it comes to their teenagers and their adolescent's desires.) There are several motifs that allude to the fruitlessness of a life void of fun, as well as a handful of shots at humanity, which ultimately creates a satirical atmosphere with twenty-first-century society being the center of the rather sardonic ribbing. Unfortunately, however, it would seem as if these admirable traits were drowned out by the number of moments fueled by lowbrow humor. (I actually had to keep a tab in order to keep up with the numerous fart and feces jokes that littered the dialogue of the script.) This is not to mention the fact that we are eventually told of humanity's current harmonious disposition, which is clearly a fallacious notion; I guess these peculiar residents of Transylvania lack a legitimate news outlet.          

    When placing a picture such as "Hotel Transylvania" under a microscope, it brings up an applicable discussion involving the grading system of film critics. How tough is too tough? Likewise, what if the narrative did its job? Does it deserve the highest score for its efforts? "Hotel Transylvania" surely stimulates laughter time and again, and it will undoubtedly keep the young children entertained, but does this mean that it is a timeless classic and a product that will be cherished in the halls of cinematic history for years to come? (Although these may seem like rhetorical questions, the answers should come across plainly.) Let's face it, we knew going into this experience that profundity was a longshot, which certainly curtails my enthusiasm for writing this review, yet one also has to look at the contribution this film makes to its accompanying genre. Children's animated pictures aren't known for their intellectual delving, but they at least have to present an engaging tale with an appealing set of characters and a strong dialogue to boot. Regrettably, "Hotel Transylvania" was unable to hit all the marks.          

Friday, September 25, 2015

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace ★★★1/2

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    Much criticism has been aimed at George Lucas and his prequel trilogy of films, the latter being an attempt of the acclaimed director to bring the story of his unique universe into full scope, and, honestly, much of this denunciation is nothing more than a simple case of fault-finding. Sure, both individually and collectively, these installments pale in comparison to the original three pictures, and while the focus undeniably shifts from character to political happenings, there does seem to be an indefinable void present. Yet, as far as Lucas' first indulgence into Anakin Skywalker's tale is concerned, there is little fuss to be made, unless, of course, one just has the hankering to yield to what can be characterized as misguided lambasting.

    One of the most heavily scrutinized aspects of "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" is its irregular dramatic structure (seeing as there is hardly an exposition), and there has also been some highlighting of the fact that there is no discernible plot. Now, although our storyline here centers on Galactic Republic Senates, trade route taxations, seemingly insignificant yet riveting things called pod races, and on several uneventful meetings of congress, a distinguishable narrative certainly exists. In fact, every event that takes place (including the Trade Federation's invasion of Naboo, the fateful meeting of a young boy on the desert realm that is Tatooine, as well as the voting of Senator Palpatine to the position of Supreme Chancellor) sets things up perfectly for the following two chapters.

    And what about the lack of an exposition? Well, that observation is undoubtedly true; however, it is quite obvious that anyone making that particular assertion has not heard of the latin phrase "in medias res," which, in terms of a picture's structure, alludes to times where the major complication of the story has already taken place when things pick up. Thus, not providing audiences with a detailed sketch of character. The utilization of this strategyalong with the fact that there are no flashbacks to fill in this absence of informationdoes create another issue, which, predictably, has been attacked by fans of the franchise: that issue being the creation of weak characterizations.


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    "The Phantom Menace" clearly suffers from a deficient display of characterization. (I mean, we never even hear of the name of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), the senior lightsaber wielding swordsmen, until thirty minutes into the picture. Moreover, our prominent antagonist, Darth Maul, only has about three lines of dialogue; I would say that this bestows him with an air of mysteriousness, but that is beside the point.) When examining this particular film, one has to come to the conclusion that character is surely not the most salient aspect of Lucas' aim. The goal here is to, in a sense, fill in the blanks, and it would be somewhat unprofessional to degrade a film just because its theme rests on plot instead of something infused with a little more profundity. (Although there are a number of lines that advert to ideas such as fate and humanity's amicableness, the events that take place have the most significance moving forward.) Qui-Gon Jinn's dialogue and external actions adequately give us a portrait of a wise and peaceful individual, and, as far as Darth Maul is concerned, obscurity rarely hurts a villain. Did we need a thorough backstory on Jaws before he proceeded to dine on the inhabitants of Amity Island? I think not.

    Also under the microscope are what seem to be a handful of performances defined by this sense of distance and indifference, which, unfortunately, becomes merely another ramification of committing to things such as plotlines. But to say that our actors here are striving for inauthenticity would be downright doltish. Neeson gives us as much as he can, and he does well with this rather reserved disposition and with dialogue that, at times, can seem a bit silly. Likewise, Natalie Portman, who steps into the role of Queen Amidala and leader of the Naboo, provides us with an applaudable performance, as she is somehow able to live up to this prestigious rank of character and as she dons outfits that recall the term excessive more often than not. (Imagine trying to execute lines of dialogue with any seriousness wearing garb that calls for such an over attentionit mustn't have been easy, and Portman delivers in the direst of instances.)


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    Which brings us to George Lucas, the man behind what I deem to be one of the greatest franchises ever developed. There is a lot of scrutiny surrounding Lucas' directorial execution when it comes to this specific installment, and I find this to be quite concerning, especially considering that much of this pedantic perusal comes from individuals who have little to no knowledge of film technique or theory. Granted, Lucas works from the simplistic fixed frame position for the majority of the picture, and he surely seems to be off on several marks, which ultimately leads to a handful of scenes that suffer from awkward positioning. However, as an author of this work, Lucas should be commended for a multitude of reasonsmost notablyfor his ability to blend real photography with computer-generated imaging in order to construct a universe brimming with visual impact. In fact, his excellence in this area even led renown film critic Roger Ebert to comment that, "We are standing at the threshold of a new age of epic cinema," a statement that I most likely would have reserved for Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy of films; nevertheless, hinting at the movie's ability to capture sublimity. It is to be viewed as pixelated glory.

    From scenes that take place in the inner palaces of Naboo (which were filmed on location in Italy) to the computerized city planet that is Coruscant, Lucas seems to present us with eye-candy time after time, and it never fails in its attempts to enthrall. If anything, Lucas should be berated for his overzealous behavior behind the camera as he toys with a number of techniques which hurt the continuity of the picture. (The use of the fish-eye lens during the climactic lightsaber battle is rather perplexing and, in some measure, unflattering.)

    Inevitably, any discussion of "Phantom" will lead to the topic of Jar Jar Binks, an individual who can be seen as a pure caricature of clumsiness. This is one facet that I cannot defend. Nonetheless, is it politically correct to discredit this work entirely for the inclusion of a single minor character? No, it is not, yet I will admit that I have indulged in such condemnations before, and it is distinctly possible that I will succumb to such temptations at a future point in time, but this is not one of those moments. Binks' presence, albeit distracting, is plainly a ploy to satisfy younger audiences' needs, and, sadly, it cannot be helped.

    In spite of its flaws, "Episode 1" does find success in its design, objectively speaking. It lays the foundation for the following two chapters, and it revels in its capacity to transfix audiences. Unfortunately, I think, "The Phantom Menace" suffers from what I designate to be disapproval via word of mouth. Many fans were displeased with the picture during its initial run, possibly because it was not what they had hoped it would be, and now the reputation has stuck. Luckily, for many critics, we can see beyond the condemnatory ribbing.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Black Mass

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    Review coming soon.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials ★★1/2




    "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials" is this year's sequel to the latest young adult dystopian series to slip into Hollywood. Is it as favored or as star-studded as the well-known "Hunger Games" trilogy of films? Not exactly. Is it as feeble or as banal as the two "Divergent" installments? Well, at least not for the entire duration. So, what is it precisely that makes this picture worth attending? Here are five observations from my viewing of "The Scorch Trials."

1. The original "Maze Runner" was a plot-oriented picture that centered on its youthful ensemble cast and an atmosphere infused with mystery and suspense. Although these things do carry over in an admirable fashion, (with new settings, fresh faces, and several tense-filled moments that stem from the action of a closing door or the squeezing through a tight space) there is one aspect that is direly absent: the maze. That remarkable backdrop was arguably the most exciting and, quite frankly, it was the most integral character in the previous film; it simply gave the film a particular structure, shape and focus. Without it, "Scorch Trials" transitions into a clumsy and rather inept free-roam story line that does very little to construct a sense of coherence.

2. As a matter of fact, the incompetent plot here is so distracting that it ultimately hampers any opportunity for success. (If you have never seen the previous installment, then "Scorch Trials" will not only become impossible to follow, but it will bombard you with inconsequential drivel until a headache becomes imminent.) Let's face it, if a film pauses the action in an effort to use the dialogue as a channel to recap the current state of affairs, then that is surely not a sign of good filmmaking. The fast-paced action sequences; the key terms that essentially spur the plot; the chase scenes through the city ruins of post-apocalyptic America; the repetitive flashbacks that strive to shed light on what has been a reckless exposition thus far; the presence of "WCKD"; the emergence of the computer-generated undead that attempt to feast on our protagonists; all of these things unquestionably have a unified commonality: They are merely unimaginative means to an end.

3. So, what exactly is this end? What is the message here? What are author James Dashner, and, to a lesser extent, director Wes Ball trying to convey? (The identity of the initiator of discussion here depends entirely on how faithful the adaptation was to the novel; nevertheless, it becomes quite clear, via the picture's closing remarks, that the idea of utilitarianism and a class statement are the foremost topics for discourse.) As might be expected, the material events that conclude the film set-up for (what else?) a conflict between the rebellion and an institution, yet one cannot overlook the plethora of lines that plainly allude to the above-mentioned concerns. Characters speak of the "greater good" and WCKD ultimately defends their underhanded scheme by highlighting its benefit to society, yet this is combated with a notion that believes this utilitarian decision may have been fueled by subjectivity and that maybe its aim was not for the greater good of all of humanity, but for a select few. Thus, bringing the "tyranny of the majority" argument into plain view. (The majority in post-apocalyptic, allegorical America being the individuals left in charge.) Now, if this is Dashner's true intention to comment on this subject matter, and if it wasn't a concoction of Ball and fellow screenwriter T.S. Nowlin, then we have a problem. Why not directly engage this material instead of disguising it in the confines of a young adult series of novels? No offense to youngsters, but it is highly unlikely that any teenager, with all of the distractions of a technological age, would be capable of reading between the lines here to unveil this theme. Why not become a respected constituent to the realm of intellectual thought instead of settling for a Kid's Choice Awards nomination for Best Book? I guess the former doesn't pay as well.

4. If there is one aspect of the "Maze Runner" franchise that separates it from its contemporaries, then it is undoubtedly its lack of romance. Much like the first installment, any moment favorable to this development is given to an ineffective explanation of the ambiguous exposition and, even though a new love interest is appointed by the film's end, there is no reason to believe this pattern will not continue in the concluding chapter. How does this affect the material? Well, let's just say that it does have an impact on our title protagonist, Thomas, which I will comment on below.

5. When viewing a film of this stature, one must take into account the youth and inexperience that surrounds the director, cast and crew. For, most of their resumes would include this series and nothing more. Ball does an exceptional job capturing the frantic nature of the action sequences by way of the mobile, hand-held camera, and he adequately increases the involvement of the audience with his utilization of the indirect/subjective cinematic point of view. With regard to the cast, no one outshines the charm of Rosa Salazar, a young actress who becomes a spirited embodiment of the strong female disposition. (There is something quite indefinable that contributes to Salazar's appeal; maybe it's those large puffy eyes that won me over.) Dylan O' Brien, the star and resident hero, does not bring the same emotion to the table this time around, and his performance suffers mightily in conviction, especially in a closing scene where his monumental speech is supposed to rally the troops, so to speak. Could this be a ramification of the fact that Thomas has no damsel in distress to save, thereby denying him an air of masculinity? Perhaps, but it is more likely to be the result of an unmotivated script.

    In the conclusion to my review for the original "Maze Runner," I discussed the distinct possibility of that film being the only good to come out of this young adult endeavor. In fact, I couldn't help but ponder as to how useful a maze runner would actually become with no maze to run. Unfortunately, I was correct in that earlier supposition.                                          

Thursday, September 10, 2015

No Escape ★★




    My biggest issue with "No Escape," a film that attempts to captivate audiences with its suspenseful mood and with the inclusion of several brutal and rather shocking execution scenes, is undoubtedly with its structure. Of course, this statement should not take you by surprise, especially if you are a faithful reader. (Remember, it is not what the picture is about that makes it notable or worthless, but how it is about it.)

    Now, here is a film that obviously works well within the thriller genre. It relies heavily on scenes brimming with intensity, and on moments that are infused with emotional involvement, and, for the most part, they work. (In fact, the success of many of the above-mentioned scenes is surely contingent on the execution of these so-called "intense moments." I wouldn't exactly call hiding from a bad guy behind a locked door the quintessential conveyance for suspense, but it works.)

    "No Escape" somehow even reminds us of the classic picture by the name of "Die Hard," as its plot centers on the dramatic overtaking of a hotel--albeit under different circumstances--and on the journey of a single man trying to protect his loved ones. Yet, despite all of its strong points there is one minor miscalculation that unravels the entire continuity of the film. I'm afraid director John Dowdle ("Quarantine," "Devil," "As Above, So Below"), who also contributed to the script, is still learning the ropes.    

    Here's the rundown: Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), your average American businessman, is beginning a new life (and a prominent new role at his new employer) in an unknown region of Southeast Asia with his wife and two daughters. However, unbeknownst to Dwyer, there have been numerous political uprisings (culminating in the assassination of the ambiguous country's prime minister), which just so happen to carry over to the streets and to the hotel in which Dwyer is staying. Enter Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), an undercover mystery man who keeps Dwyer's family out of harm's reach on more than one occasion. And here rests the previously mentioned error of judgment.

    There is a scene in which Hammond (after rescuing the Dwyer family a second time) admits to Jack that he is really the antagonist in the whole situation. Apparently, he works for a company whose main ambition is to infiltrate these smaller countries and to essentially land grab for financial benefit. This not only compromises the viewer's antipathy toward the rebels--but after Hammond explains that they are simply trying to protect their families and homes--it becomes evident that maybe we shouldn't be blaming the insurgents at all. (Sure, there is no justification for lining up a group of individuals only to run them down in an automobile; however, the record has shown that some of the most successful revolutions and resistances to occur in human history have been fueled by aggression and bloodshed.) Overall, however, it would have been best to leave this tidbit of knowledge out considering its ill-effect on the viewer's animosity toward who the film wants us to dislike: the rebels.

    Additionally, Brosnan's role, which was clearly thrown in to give the picture small spurts of action, hurts the integrity and allure of Jack Dwyer; the latter does a considerable job being resourceful and protecting his family during the overtaking of this hotel by these freedom fighters, and in the streets of this chaotic area, only to be outdone by this peculiar showman time and again. We become involved with this character simply because he is very much like the average Joe and because we can imagine ourselves in his position during this time of crisis. (Dwyer's actions unquestionably align with what most individuals would do under the same circumstances.) Yet, once this Hammond character swoops in, Dwyer becomes nothing more than a helpless shell of himself, and he surrenders his hero status to a role that should never have been put down on paper. (The film would have been much better off showcasing Wilson as the sole lionheart.) This is not to mention a reference to Brosnan's famed role as James Bond, which arguably becomes the most poignant scene in the entire film. Poignant in the sense that we remember James Bond films to be products of refined taste, which "No Escape" distinctly is not.                            

    Also not helping the cause are a number of sequences characterized by poor direction and by an even worse display of editing competence. (This is in reference to our action "spurts"--which ultimately suffer from the erratic and unflattering nature of the hand-held camera--and to the many editorial cuts that simply serve no purpose.) Any attempt to coax the viewer into believing this suspenseful atmosphere comes off as silly and forced. How many times are we to be bombarded by slow-motion in an effort to make the scene more dramatic? Nevertheless, Owen Wilson, traditionally an actor of comedy, deserves some of the blame here as well. (There are a handful of scenes that require Wilson to convince his on-screen wife that trouble is near and that they have to get moving, so to speak. However, it is these moments where Wilson is really trying to convince us that he is fit for a role in this type of film. I was not only unimpressed, but I found Wilson to be rather unconvincing in scenes where sincerity was warranted the most.)      

    Upon my exiting of the theater, I decided to take another glance at the current docket of pictures that were playing and couldn't help but notice titles such as "The Transporter Refueled" and "Hitman: Agent 47." Titles that allude to the current state of the film industry; it is all spectacle and no brains. Art season cannot come soon enough.

 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Straight Outta Compton ★★★

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    As a film critic, it is rarely my responsibility to comment on contemporary social issues or political happenings, unless, of course, the picture in question touches on such matters and warrants such discussions. (My primary job is to, in the words of The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, file a sensory report, which can subsequently be used by you, the reader, in an effort to make an educated decision as to whether or not you should spend your hard earned cash on a particular experience.) "Straight Outta Compton," a film that chronicles the rise of the 1980's rap group aptly named N.W.A., is a picture that justifies some sort of response to the social complications in which it ultimately expresses. For, when brought into today's context, it becomes a pure depiction of a major social issue in this country; that being, a portrayal of police brutality, racial profiling and injustice.

    In fact, director F. Gary Gray ("Friday," "The Negotiator," and "The Italian Job") blatantly utilizes novelty effects to remind us all of the injustice suffered by Rodney King. (The original video associated with the beating and clips of the trial and verdict are littered throughout.) Yet, there is another issue here if one is to delve deep into the realm of social failings. Many could comment on the fact that the majority of material produced by N.W.A. does nothing more than glorify and glamorize what has been designated as a "gangster" lifestyle. (Naturally, this group birthed the genre of "gangster rap" with their emphasis on violence, unruly behavior, and substance abuse.) After all, it is a precarious way of living and not very beneficial to society.

  
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  However, "Straight Outta Compton" seems to anticipate this potential analysis and answers to it in the most sophisticated fashion: "Art is the reflection of reality" is a line spoken by O'Shea Jackson Jr., the son of the group's most talented and vigorous member (Ice Cube) and the actual conveyance for the man himself in this instance, that not only answers this likely criticism, but it sheds light on just how crafty this picture can be, even if its subject matter is a tad over-the-top for my liking; it is only one of several moments where the film transcends the structure of its dialogue to comment on the grand scheme of things. As far as my convictions on the topic are concerned, I believe social injustices, however nefarious, should be fought politically and passively, and the N.W.A. certainly changed the music industry for the better in terms of their approach and execution of freedom of speech--a constitutional right that deserves to be protected as long as this country remains operational.

    Nevertheless, what the film does best here is capture the upstart of this faction, and the previously mentioned culture, while never taking itself too seriously. Many of the dramatized, re-created events begin to come off as forced and somewhat strained, yet lines of dialogue that allude to the cinematic atmosphere of the circumstance, and the feeling of a glaring reproduction, bring the picture back into coherence. (For example, there is a moment in which Ice Cube, while having a sit-down with controversial manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), describes the setting as "Godfather" like, which undoubtedly lightens the mood and makes things more conducive for the aim at hand.) It is only during the second half of the film, when director Gray seems to be more focused on the major events of the rap industry than the actual relationships of the group, where things become a bit unraveled. (Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and volatile Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight all make an appearance in what becomes a mesmerizing depiction of events for anyone interested heavily in the genre.)

    "Straight Outta Compton" is far more entertaining and engaging than Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys," (the first film in a long time to place me in a state of complete boredom) and it is hardly as profound or heartfelt as last year's "Get on Up." I'm sure that any fan of the group would enjoy this picture slightly more than I, but that is beside the point. I feel that the main problem with these types of films that attempt to re-create certain events is simply just that: it re-creates and dramatizes, which can be quite problematic at times. The complication is that these specific events and moments were surely more exciting and momentous when they actually took place, and to view them now in this fashion just seems out of touch and in some measure downright bland. As one can discern, however, "Straight Outta Compton" does well to detract from such constraints more often than not.