Post Date Aug 28

We Are Your Friends

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity.
Running time: 96 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

Similar to “Paper Towns,” “We Are Your Friends” is a movie that I liked but I would have loved if I were 20 years younger. It’s about making mistakes in your 20s, about dancing all night and drinking too much and hooking up with random people, but also about yearning and striving to escape the trappings that have defined you throughout your life. It’s about the youthful, idealistic desire to be great. Like, right now.

Director and co-writer Max Joseph’s debut feature is also a straight-up blast to watch, with great energy, a joyous soundtrack, some clever visual tricks (as well as some that get annoying) and gorgeous actors running around a Los Angeles that’s both gritty and glamorous. Cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who also shot the intimate and insightful “Short Term 12,” really captures the hot sprawl of the San Fernando Valley: the soaring cypress trees, buzzing electrical lines and block after block of nondescript, mid-century tract houses.

That is where aspiring DJ Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is stuck alongside his childhood friends Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). He shares a bedroom in Mason’s house where he sits in front of his laptop all day, headphones clamped to his ears, pressing various buttons that make various blippy sounds. (Your enjoyment — or even your tolerance — of electronic dance music will greatly influence your reaction to “We Are Your Friends,” which takes its title from a song by Justice.) Sometimes he helps Mason fix the roof. Sometimes he smokes a joint. Mostly he dreams of riches and stardom but doesn’t seem to work terribly hard to achieve them.

That is, until he meets one of his idols one night at a club: a longtime DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley) who exemplifies the kind of jet-setting life he covets. In no time, James has taken Cole under his wing: bringing him to parties, welcoming him into his home and studio and helping him hone his sound. James is a wreck — a sellout and a functioning alcoholic — but he’s also charismatic as hell and the voice of reason. Bentley rides a tricky and fascinating line between charm and menace (although the facial hair alone suggests he’s not to be trusted) which makes “We Are Your Friends” more compelling and substantive than you might expect.

Efron, though, is easy to underestimate because he’s so damn pretty. He’s made eclectic choices in recent years (“Neighbors,” “The Paperboy”) which simultaneously showcase and subvert his looks. His character here isn’t so deeply drawn as others he’s played post-“High School Musical,” but Efron makes the arc believable. Both his cockiness and his comeuppance seem effortless.

Both characters are understandably drawn to Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), a Stanford dropout who’s as brainy as she is beautiful. She’s James’ personal assistant/live-in girlfriend, but she becomes Cole’s running buddy and, eventually, something more. At first, it seems as if Ratajkowski is merely playing a version of the role she played in the “Entourage” movie (which was a version of herself), but the script from Joseph and Meagan Oppenheimer eventually allows her to reveal some spine and some melancholy shadings, both of which are appealing.

Speaking of “Entourage,” the comparisons are inevitable. Cole and his pals come off initially as a douchey, “Muppet Babies” version of the dudes from that HBO series. There are even four of them, each of whom (sorta) jibes with those characters. But then it occurred to me afterward that perhaps that was the point — that they’re intentionally rendered as bro stereotypes as a commentary on the idiocy of their bravado, and to allow them to quote-unquote learn something throughout the course of the film, which they do through a couple of subplots that force them to grow up.

It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, this story of an aspiring artist/athlete/investment banker/fill in the blank who finds himself under the tutelage of a seductive but damaged mentor, whom he ultimately tries to usurp. But it’s done with great style: words popping up to accompany the narration, or an art-gallery drug trip rendered in rainbow-hued animation. And if you’ve ever wondered what the ideal tempo is to get the dance floor grindy and sweaty, it’s 128 bpm, which we learn through an amusing tutorial that fuses science and music.

The final performance scene before a packed crowd in downtown Los Angeles bursts off the screen, and Efron’s evident catharsis feels earned. It’s the perfect one-last-blast movie for the end of summer.

Post Date Aug 28 — Zipper

Zipper Movie ReviewThe unfortunately titled “Zipper” is the kind of tawdry sex drama you’d watch late at night on cable and hate yourself for in the morning. Patrick Wilson leads a strong cast as a political star on the rise whose obsession with high-priced escorts threatens to ruin his career ambitions. Sound familiar? My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 21

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton Movie ReviewUniversal Pictures
Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use.
Running time: 147 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

For a movie about a groundbreaking, risk-taking group like N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly conventional in its adherence to music biopic tropes. The rise-fall-rise-again structure, the groupies and the drugs, the beefs over money and acclaim and the general mayhem that gets magnified when egos get in the way — it’s all there. You’ve seen it all a million times before (which is why the parody “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which I love dearly, is so brilliantly spot-on).

But in its execution, “Straight Outta Compton” is so electrifying and so powerfully acted, you probably won’t mind.

Director F. Gary Gray starts strong by depicting the seminal rap group’s early days on the mean streets of L.A. with great intimacy and verve. (The great Matthew Libatique, Darren Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer, bathes these mid-’80s scenes in a warm haze of late afternoon sunlight, pot smoke and nostalgia.) Seeing young, scrappy Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) hustling to make a name for themselves is a visceral thrill, and all three of these key roles were expertly cast. It may sound like a gimmick to have Ice Cube’s son playing Ice Cube — and damned if he doesn’t look exactly like a younger, thinner version of his dad — but he’s also got the glare and the swagger down cold, and he more than rises to this formidable challenge in both the dramatic moments and the stage performances.

“Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly funny off the top, though, as these guys and their pals (including Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella and Aldis Hodge as MC Ren) tool on each other mercilessly both in and out of the studio while recording their first tracks. Paul Giamatti is also beautifully brash as their decidedly uncool, white manager, Jerry Heller, the first person who ever believed in N.W.A. (and, later, a surprisingly moving source of ambiguity and poignancy).

But even through the good times and wild parties (where women dismayingly are depicted as little more than objects and playthings) as the group’s fame and influence are on the rise, there’s a constant, simmering undercurrent of tension. Between poverty and drugs, gang battles and police brutality — the very fiber of the rap group’s lyrics, er go we have a little ditty called “Fuck Tha Police” — there’s the pervasive threat that something terrible could happen at any point. And it often does.

Sometimes the highs and lows coexist in the same moment, as in the recreation of the notorious night in 1989 when N.W.A. performed “Fuck Tha Police” at a packed Detroit concert — which they’d explicitly been told not to do — sparking rioting and chaos. In contrast with the first part of the film, this segment is glossy, crisp and vibrant; it’s such a massive blast and it’s so immersive, it makes you feel like you’re a part of the audience, or at least wish you had been.

The pace slows, though, as the three begin mistrusting not only each other but also their manager. It’s no less significant in the group’s development — after all, these rifts led to Ice Cube and Dre forging formidable solo careers. But the film’s final third turns quieter, less flashy and more introspective, especially as the once-dynamic Eazy-E finds his health failing him. (He died of AIDS in 1995 at just 31.)

Yes, there is some revisionist history going on, as is so often the case in bringing a famous person’s life to the screen. As my friend and fellow critic Andrew Barker points out, this is glaringly true in the scene where Dre “comes up with” the synth riff for “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”; also, Dre’s history of violence against women has been omitted entirely. (He, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow serve as producers on the film.) And if you’re a neophyte and don’t know the significance of Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) or Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) in this whole twisted, hip-hop saga, the script from Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff isn’t about to go out of its way to enlighten you.

At the same time, the film unfortunately couldn’t be more relevant; the same bloody racial struggles with police Ice Cube wrote about nearly 30 years ago are still going on today in cities across the nation, which gives it an added a layer of pointed commentary.

None of that stops “Straight Outta Compton” from being entertaining as hell, though, from start to finish. And based on the screening I attended, it’s very easy to imagine sing-along showings cropping up for years to come.

Post Date Aug 20 — American Ultra

American Ultra Movie ReviewThe tricky combination of sweet, slacker romance and slick, super-violent action flick proves especially jarring in “American Ultra.” Blending such disparate genres requires a more deft touch than the one that’s on display here. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 14 — Fort Tilden

Fort Tilden Movie ReviewHarper and Allie are terrible people: selfish, clueless Brooklyn 20somethings who are so inept, they can’t go for an afternoon bike ride to the beach without turning it into a debacle. But by the end of this vicious indie comedy, you’ll surprisingly find yourself caring about whether they make it to their destination — and what happens if they get there. My review.

Read the review here