Morgan 3

With his directorial debut, MorganLuke Scott — son of Ridley Scott — can’t seem to see past his own ego to acknowledge inherit flaws in the script by screenwriter Seth W. Owen. In fact, Scott’s direction only enhances fundamental issues in this sci-fi/thriller’s logic. Scott’s seemingly giddy self-satisfaction at trying to present a twisting story is so much in the way of his storytelling that most people will see the film’s “surprise” ending coming within the first few seconds of the movie. All you have to do is not blink when you first see Kate Mara on screen to notice a tick that was supposed to be a quirk become a giveaway.

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3047304-inline-i-1-poster-captures-the-strength-of-street-knowledge-in-black-and-whiteThe late ‘80s was a watershed era for music. There was a revolution against pop music driven by synthesizers and lyrics that were either superficial or overly conceptualized. New genres emerged, motivated by earthy, raw and real experiences. Some of these movements included grunge, hardcore and lo-fi music. Specific to the Los Angeles ghetto was gangsta rap, pioneered by the likes Ice-T and N.W.A. Depending on who you asked, it was a dangerous, brash style of rap that glamorized sex, drugs and the gang lifestyle or it was an angry revolt against oppression by the police and a frustrated howl against the disenfranchisement of those living in the inner cities.

With Straight Outta Compton, his biopic on N.W.A. (i.e. Niggaz Wit Attitudes) director F. Gary Gray, whose debut as a filmmaker was a music video for Ice Cube, does not gloss over both of these sides of N.W.A.’s story. It opens with a scary dope deal involving Eazy E (Jason Mitchell in an impressive debut starring role) and ends with the consequences of his hard-partying lifestyle. Best known for action films like The Italian Job (2003) and most recently Law Abiding Citizen (2009), Gray made his feature film debut with the cult favorite Friday (1995), starring Ice Cube, who co-wrote that film’s screenplay. In Straight Outta Compton, though he is working off a script and story by five writers, Gray blends the story’s gravitas with a kinetic style of filmmaking that still has moments of great humor (the scene where Eazy E finds his voice in the studio while recording “Boyz-N-the Hood” is a high point) and a nimble pace.


Gray never lets up the tempo, despite a near two and a half hour run time. His flair for the music video comes across in moments as obvious as when the group takes the stage or in the smaller moments, like the intro to Dr. Dre (an exceptional Corey Hawkins). The slowly spinning camera compliments the fact that Dre is reclining on a bunch of records with his headphones, on listening to “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” by Roy Ayres, a song he would later sample in 2001’s “My Life.” The film is rich in these small details (including some sly references to Friday).

In the wider scheme, Gray never misses an opportunity to make encounters with the police confrontational. At the same time, he never lets the group off on their self-destructive hedonism. There are parties in hotel rooms and Dr. Dre’s house over-flowing with naked and willing groupies. But even deeper, are the egos that made the group so unstable (they only released two albums). You get the sense that though the music united them, it also divided them. They were strong and passionate as they railed against police oppression in “F**k Tha Police,” but they also turned that energy on themselves. There were the diss tracks to one another like N.W.A.’s “Message to B.A.” after Ice Cube left the group (B.A. stands for Benedict Arnold) and then Ice Cube’s take-no-prisoners response “No Vaseline,” which even included a jab at Jerry Heller, the band’s manager.


Speaking of Heller, Paul Giamatti takes the role, bringing a humanity to the music mogul accused of taking advantage of the group. White people do not come off well in this movie, however. Heller and Priority Records exec Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington), have a couple of hokey high-pitched scenes in the face of threatening acts by Eazy E and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Most of the stop-and-frisk obsessed officers are white, save for the black officer who leads a search on the group in front of the recording studio, an event that winds up inspiring Ice Cube to write “Fuck the Police.” But everyone does great work as actors in the film. The film’s standouts are Mitchell and Jackson Jr., who happens to be Ice Cube’s son. Both have important emotional opportunities on this roller coaster of a drama, and the performances are consistent and easy to empathize with throughout the film. The only time Gray ratchets up the cinematic sentimentality too far is after Eazy E’s AIDS diagnosis. It’s really a disservice to Mitchell’s ability to carry the drama.

Finally, there is a timeliness to this film. N.W.A. arrived during a tense time in Los Angeles history. The tension between police and young black males was at fever pitch. The rap group’s rise to fame grew with the tensions that included the caught-on-video beating of Rodney King and the subsequent riots after the officers’ were acquitted of their actions on the unarmed black man. Now, once again, there is tension among police and African-Americans. The cameras are more ubiquitous this time and some of the crimes have grown increasingly violent, involving guns and fatalities. There have been riots, as well. Yet, no one in the popular music scene has taken the spotlight quite like N.W.A. did — the fuming personification of angst through artistry.

Hans Morgenstern

Straight Outta Compton runs 147 minutes and is rated R (the parties, the drugs, the language and violence that N.W.A. rapped about is all here). It opens in wide release this Friday, Aug. 14. Click here for tickets. Universal Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Universal.

Update: The Miami independent theater O Cinema is bringing Straight Out of Compton to its Wynwood location beginning Friday, Aug. 21. Details here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

With CosmopolisDavid Cronenberg, that one-of-a-kind director who delights in exploring the darkest twists and turns of cinematic language in order to illuminate our shadowiest corners, points his lens at a man so full of money he seems to have paid for it with his humanity. For those who think being so rich that you have trouble spending all your money is something to aspire to, consider Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). He’s a man so out of touch with his feelings, he needs death to find life. It’s a subject befitting Cronenberg’s seeming obsession with intellect, behavior and the material world, and the director certainly takes off running with it.

No matter what subject Cronenberg probes in his films, he has refined them over the years to exude a hyper-real, creepy atmosphere. This includes his most recent, seemingly straight-forward film, A Dangerous Method, an examination between Freud, Jung and their mutual patient Sabina Spielrein (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 20-10]). That film seemed fixated on bringing the writings and theories of psychology by this trio to life via ponderous dialogue. Despite some primal physical encounters, the real battles between these intellectuals were fought in dialogue, and those words were often quite sharp.

Cosmopolis, a film that takes place in a prescient future of civil unrest where people like Packer cannot throw away their money fast enough, fits in snug with the Canadian director’s style, especially in his obsession with bringing to life the written word, similar to A Dangerous Method. Though it is a cinematic adaptation of Don Delillo’s 2003 book, this remains one of the most offbeat Cronenberg films since the surreal video game vortex that was eXistenZ, which shamed The Matrix that same year of both films’ release (While The Matrix was all literal exposition, eXistenZ actually created the feeling that “the matrix” was real, and we were living it). The dialogue of Delillo, too meandering and breathless to seem realistically possible, remains intact and only heightens the strange quality of the film.

The Cronenberg touch is there from the brief abstract, digitized opening title sequence, which features droplets of black, gray and brown paint a lá Jackson Pollack as they dribble onto an earthy, glowing orange canvas. Cronenberg has said opening titles offer an important gateway to a film, so it matters metaphorically. My only regret about the opening is that he does not allow it to continue longer, like the old days of film. A throbbing electronic pulse and the jangle of a swelling electric, reverbing guitar, recalling Edge’s playing for U2, provides the soundtrack that crescendos and then diminuendos in one sweep. As the end credits will reveal, Cronenberg regular Howard Shore is still his go-to for film scores, though this score, a collaboration with Canada’s synth-obsessed indie band Metric, feels different from any other in their history together. It still works well throughout the film as it pulses and rumbles to life on occasion in the film. The score often swells up out of silence, ticking and humming to highlight certain moments of heightened exchanges between characters before diminishing and fading away, almost phantasmagoric in its shifting quality, heightening a sense of foreboding that permeates the film.

In the film’s first scene, a camera positioned low to the ground tracks across a fleet of white stretch limousines. One after another, the hulking metal tubes loom, awaiting launch into what seems to be New York City. Some of these might very well be decoys, as the film will imply Eric is a powerful, infamous executive many want to see dead. For all the criticism and expectation weighing on Pattinson as the kid in the Twilight films, his portrayal of Eric fits snug in the Cronenberg world. His sleepy eyelids and stiff jaw suit the character well, and even if the British actor’s version of an American accent might seem odd to some, it only adds to the distant alien quality of the character. Clearly exuding his Master of the Universe status, Eric exchanges terse sentences with his head of security, Torval (Kevin Durand). “I want a haircut.” “The president’s in town.” “We don’t care. We need a haircut.”

From these first lines, anyone who is a fan of Cronenberg knows they are in for something existing beyond an experience in life or in the movies, for that matter. The interior of the limo is sound proof to the point that all you hear are the voices of the people inside. It’s so disquieting that it reveals just how much one takes ambient noise for granted. The saturation of color, even between light and shadow seems so unreal that Jay Baruchel appears almost unrecognizable as he contorts his face stressing over Eric’s nagging, if monotone, questions of the security of their computer network. It marks the first of many meetings inside the limo, as the film features a parade of characters that typify the excesses of capitalism from hip computer geeks to lusty cougars to hollow rap stars, among the most obvious. Every once in a while, Torval appears, offering his boss impromptu risk assessments that grow more and more sinister as the film progresses: “We have report of imminent activity in the area … nature as yet unknown.”

In the limo, Eric sits in what appears to be a throne with armrests that glow and flicker with data on money exchanges. The interior is all gorgeous lighting and symmetrical framing. Outside the vehicle’s windows, the cityscape glides past so smooth it appears like a cheap green screen effect. But it’s also by design, as this guy may just be rich enough to afford limos that have the best shock absorbers money can buy. The bubble the limo provides also emphasizes Eric’s distance from the rest of the real world. With Cosmopolis, Cronenberg presents a snapshot of a creature of money, and he explores the expanse of imagination to show just how extremely rich Packer is. The man makes money by the “septillionths” of a second, hording it and spending it with no regard. Eric is prepared to buy whatever he wants, as everything has a price for him. During a meeting in the limo with an art dealer and casual sex partner Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche) he tries to negotiate the purchase of the Rothko Chapel. It is also one of the few times he looks frustrated, as she tells him it’s not even for sale. “It belongs to the world,” she says. “It’s mine if I buy it,” he responds.

Other instances in the film where Eric seems frustrated occur in the company of his colder half, his new bride, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), revealed as a rich heiress who fancies herself a poet. She holds out sex, as he asks for it with little reserve, much less romance. He cannot find the soul required for the effort, it seems. He has already had sex on his throne inside the limo with Didi, who thrashes about in reverse cowgirl like a giddy girl. It may seem depraved, but it serves to illuminate how out of touch this man is. When Elise sees him after the deed, she says, “you smell of sex.” He shrugs and blames his prostate check-up in the car by a doctor who finds his gland “asymmetrical.”

The heightened stylization of acting and staging never rings hollow, though some have argued the film has little “story.” Instead, it meshes brilliantly with the subject matter on an almost surreal level. This is a film about something more than crossing town for a haircut. This is a man on a quest to feel something again. Not that he is supposed to be sympathetic, but how many can know what life is like for a man as rich as this man? Eric becomes an enigma, enhancing his extreme, violent behavior during the film’s final scenes. Most everyone in the world of Cosmopolis indeed seems to want to see the man dead, as riots blow up in the street and a final confrontation with a whispering unhinged character (Paul Giamatti) looms to cap off the film.

Cosmopolis ends on what seems an open-ended note. But what happens after the film cuts to black matters little compared to a slight glimpse of humanity revealed by what leads to whatever that end may be. Like the best Cronenberg films, the moment is a mix of the banal and the extreme, highlighting the journey more than celebrating a pat conclusion. Cronenberg’s best films, Videodrome, A History of Violence and eXistenZ, present the audience with a mirror, and it can prove unpleasant for some, so knee-jerk responses by viewers might not all be flattering, but that speaks to the film’s potency.

Cosmopolis may be over-the-top and unreal, but its satirical sensibility is not far off the mark. One need not look further than a certain presidential candidate who drops $10,000 bets like they’re $5. Or pop culture mega millionaires with their own reality shows who have sacrificed their souls for portraying femme bots on television to sell high interest/short-term credit cards and “fashion” to their followers. Cosmopolis is a brilliant indictment on capitalism and the class divide it has spawned, something all too real in today’s zeitgeist.

Hans Morgenstern


Cosmopolis is Rated R and runs 108 minutes. It is distributed by Entertainment One who provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens today, Aug. 24 in my area of South Florida at the following theaters:

Regal South Beach 18 — Miami Beach, FL
AMC Sunset Place 24 — South Miami, FL
Gateway 4 — Fort Lauderdale, FL
Regal Delray Beach 18 — Delray Beach, FL
Regal Shadowood 16 — Boca Raton, FL

Edit: Cosmopolis returns to theaters in South Florida for an exclusive run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque beginning Friday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)