Remembering rap royalty

With energy, sweep, humor and that all-important attitude, producer/director F. Gary Gray dramatizes the rise and brief reign of the legendary hip-hop group N.W.A. in Straight Outta Compton, named for the group’s most popular album, which took them – as implied – out of South Central Los Angeles straight into controversy, and super-stardom.

Time at the top was fairly short-lived for N.W.A. (an acronym for “Niggaz With Attitude”) – lasting only about five years – but the group’s impact, both immediate and lasting, his been conveyed in this long (two and a half hours) but never boring dramatization.

Corey Hawkins plays Dr. Dre, O’Shea Jackson Jr. makes his screen debut as Ice Cube (his real-life father), Neil Brown Jr. plays DJ Yella and Aldis Hodge plays MC Ren, but if there’s a (lost) soul to Straight Outta Compton, it belongs to Jason Mitchell for his empathetic portrayal of Eazy-E, whose tragic death from AIDS-related causes in 1995 dominates the film’s final act. Although Brown’s Yella and Hodge’s Ren are occasionally relegated to the background, behind Cube and Dre, the lead ensemble does fine work all around.

Paul Giamatti, sporting a delightful white hairpiece and not a little attitude of his own, plays Jerry Heller, the manager who took N.W.A. to its heights, only to helplessly watch by as it crashed around him. Whatever Heller’s financial dealings or misdeeds – never addressed specifically – the character does not come across as a villain.

That role is reserved for R. Marcos Taylor’s terrifying turn as record promoter Suge Knight, who does his Machiavellian best (and worst) to entice Dr. Dre away from N.W.A.

The police are portrayed collectively and scarcely in a favorable light, which inevitably leads to what may be the group’s signature song, “F—k tha Police.” Suffice to say that their treatment at the hands – and in the eyes – of law-enforcement officials offered considerable encouragement, as portrayed here.

There’s a lot of ground to cover, and although some additional details regarding the group’s eventual break-up – over money, of course – would have been welcome, this is a fitting, sometimes fiery, tribute to N.W.A.’s legacy. It’s also refreshing, and appropriate, that the story has not been homogenized or watered-down in its “Hollywood” treatment. Then again, a film about N.W.A. that wasn’t at least R rated, would have been a joke. N.W.A. was not a PG or PG-13 group by any stretch of the imagination. !

Dueling intellectuals

During the summer of 1968, third-place ABC News decided to try something a little different during the Republican and Democratic National Conventions by bringing together William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal to offer live on-air debate.

The end result, moderated – “refereed” might be a better word – by newscaster Howard K. Smith, was certainly something different. With Buckley representing the right and Vidal the left, these two brilliant intellectuals and men of letters engaged in what was jokingly (but accurately) compared to a prizefight, with insults and putdowns wielded like rapiers.

In an era when political pundits dominate the media landscape, Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s award-winning documentary Best of Enemies details the Buckley/Vidal debates in entertaining, illuminating fashion. The film breezes through the biographical basics – with John Lithgow reading Vidal’s reminiscences and Kelsey Grammer Buckley’s – and focuses on the debates (there were 10) while also providing a fascinating insight into television news back in ‘68.

Looking at the debate footage, Buckley and Vidal remain witty, erudite and well-spoken, even though diametrically opposed in their political and social beliefs. Both had run for public office (both losing), and both could methodically dominate a discussion with aplomb and surgical precision. Regardless which way you lean, Best of Enemies is a first-rate artifact of two titans in battle, and an absolute must for media mavens and political junkies.

Best of Enemies opens Friday at a/ perture cinema, Winston-Salem !

Back from the dead

Loosely based on the novel Le Retour des cendres, which was formerly the basis for the J. Lee Thompson potboiler Return from the Ashes 50 years ago, Phoenix is directed by Christian Petzold, who also penned the screenplay with the late Harun Farocki (who died in 2014).

The story, set in the early days after World War II, uses the horrors of the Holocaust as its backdrop — but never in an insulting or offensive fashion. Nelly (a first-rate Nina Hoss) was thought dead but has managed to survive a gunshot wound to the face.

Although Nelly’s physical scars begin to heal, her psychological ones continue to fester. She is obsessed with reuniting with her husband, not out of love but gnawing suspicion that he betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly’s companion, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), pleads with her to leave the past behind, but Nelly simply cannot.

The film’s title can just as easily refer to Nelly’s “resurrection” as to the seamy nightclub where she tracks down Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Incredibly, Nelly resembles his “late” wife to such an extent despite the facial reconstruction that he coerces her into helping him by posing as her and then reuniting with her surviving family, thereby earning her inheritance.

This is quite a conundrum, both in its melodramatic and existential implications, and it’s never entirely clear what Nelly’s motivations are. Nor is it clear whether Lene’s severe attentiveness to her is emotional or romantic. (The character, alas, departs the story before it’s determined.)

With unmistakable flourishes of film noir in Hans Fromm’s cinematography and the mournful strains of Stefan Will’s score (heavy on the strings), Phoenix quietly builds in intensity until it reaches its inevitable (?) denouement, leading to one of the most devastating scenes of realization of any film this year. (In German with English subtitles)

Phoenix opens Friday at a/perture cinema, Winston-Salem !

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