Movie Reviews: canny ‘Compton,’ tone-deaf ‘Ultra,’ shabby ‘Sinister,’ provocative ‘Diary’

FS, Contributing Writer

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Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films

Straight Outta Compton (wide release)
The beginnings of gangsta rap—and more specifically the short but influential history of the group N.W.A.—is the subject of “Straight Outta Compton” (wide release), a fairly conventional but energetic musical biography, which will especially appeal to fans of hip-hop.

N.W.A. was the springboard for the solo careers of rappers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who are among the producers of the movie. It is not surprising that the script focuses on them, painting both as particularly sensitive and courageous artists (Ice Cube is even played by his own son, who has his father’s sneer down pat).

But the most interesting character by far is Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), the charismatic drug dealer who funded the group and became its lead singer. It is his relationship with promoter Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), whose favoritism and creative bookkeeping led to the group’s dissolution after only a few years. He is the linchpin of the plot, and Mitchell plays him to the hilt. Giamatti is strong as well, as is R. Marcos Taylor, who brings ferocious intensity to brutal entrepreneur “Suge” Knight.

“Straight Outta Compton” devolves into sentimentality in the last act, when Eazy-E falls ill with AIDS and is lionized by even his estranged ex-colleagues. But in the earlier stages it has a grittily edgy feel, and it’s certainly topical: as recent events have shown, the societal problems that fueled N.W.A.’s rage in the late eighties are still very much with us a quarter-century later.

American Ultra (wide release)
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart bring a measure of star power to “American Ultra” (wide release), a strange mixture of stoner comedy and brutal action film that never manages to find a consistent tone.

Eisenberg plays a slacker clerk at a twenty-four hour convenience store in rural West Virginia, who turns out to be a sleeper CIA agent, trained as a super soldier but put into mothballs when the program that shaped him is abandoned. When a smarmy CIA bureaucrat, who’s creating his own secret army of brainwashed assassins, decides to terminate the competition, the clerk’s latent abilities are re-engaged as a defensive measure to save himself and his girlfriend (Stewart).

What follows is a lot of mayhem as regular soldiers, those nasty assassins and even drones are marshaled to take the poor clerk out. Naturally, he proves surprisingly tough to kill and extremely adept at dispatching his attackers.

Eisenberg brings a nicely loose, befuddled mien to the unlikely hero, and though Stewart doesn’t have nearly as much opportunity to shine, she makes an attractive damsel in distress. But the humor gradually sours, and the violence grows so extreme that it becomes really unpleasant.

“American Ultra” wants to be a madcap genre mash-up, but winds up more of a mess.

Sinister 2 (wide release)
The original “Sinister” was not terribly good, but the tale of a true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) who moved his wife and children into a house where another family had been mysteriously massacred had some genuinely scary moments.

That is not the case with “Sinister 2” (wide release), a completely unnecessary sequel that’s more likely to cause death by boredom than by fright.

A mother moves her two sons into an abandoned farmhouse to escape her abusive husband, and the boys soon become the prey of a demon. The demon lures children into killing sprees that they film in order to perpetuate the process indefinitely. A former deputy from the first film shows up in order to short-circuit the monster’s scheme.

Apart from an occasional cheap “gotcha” gimmick—and some repulsive imagery in the home movies of the killings—the picture is totally lacking in chills or surprise. But if history is any guide, it will probably provoke a sequel of its own. That’s the scariest thing about it.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Angelika Film Center)
The source for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (Angelika Film Center) is a graphic novel about a fifteen-year old high school student in freewheeling seventies San Francisco, whose adolescent yearnings lead her into the arms of her wayward mother’s laid-back boyfriend.

Propelled by a powerhouse performance from newcomer Bel Powley and a subtle one by Alexander Skarsgard, “Diary” is a cautionary tale about a dysfunctional family that’s compelling without being sensationalistic or exploitative.

The edgy material, however, does make it hard to watch.

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